Saturday, April 4, 2020

Aloof, Unfriendly Bert Hoover left few Traces or Strong Memories for 1920 Salemites

The Hoover mania in 1920 was a little amazing. Hardly a day goes by without some editorial on "Hoover for President" or a nostalgic reminiscence about "our boy."

"Hoover's boyhood days in Salem," April 3rd, 1920
The tales are scrubbed, though, and seem too anodyne. They're not very interesting. Sometimes they may not even be very truthful. They are shaped more for what the audience expects and desires in 1920 than for any real attempt at objectivity.

Soliciting memories, February 24th, 1920
Some people are borrowing glory or embellishing from supposed proximity to him as a teen, and others might just be outright fabricating. To greater and lesser degrees, they are often retconning themselves into a selfie with him! The stories are essentially about how Hoover was understood a generation later and about how the story-tellers wanted themselves to be remembered, and are not a record of "what really happened."

Young Bert Hoover in Salem! - via Whyte's Hoover
Cover of Hoover
As a 19th century Salemite Hoover is of great interest. As a 20th century administrator and president, he is of less interest. Here is an amusing take on Hoover's Salem activity as understood in a summary-slash-book review of Kenneth Whyte's Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times. It suggests reasons Salemites might not have the most detailed recollection of him and additional reasons for why any recollections might seem scrubbed.
In 1885, he is more permanently adopted by his Uncle John, a doctor and businessman helping found a Quaker colony in Oregon. Hoover’s various guardians are dutiful but distant; they never abuse or neglect him, but treat him more as an extra pair of hands around the house than as someone to be loved and cherished. Hoover reciprocates in kind, doing what is expected of him but excelling neither in school nor anywhere else.

In his early teens, Hoover gets his first job, as an office boy at a local real estate company. He loves it! He has spent his whole life doing chores for no pay, and working for pay is so much better! He has spent his whole life sullenly following orders, and now he’s expected to be proactive and figure things out for himself! Hoover the mediocre student and all-around unexceptional kid does a complete 180 and accepts Capitalism as the father he never had.

His first task is to write some newspaper ads for Oregon real estate. He writes brilliant ads, ads that draw people to Oregon from every corner of the country. But he learns some out-of-towners read his ads, come to town, stay at hotels, and are intercepted by competitors before they negotiate with his company. Of his own initiative, he rents several houses around town and turns them into boarding houses for out-of-towners coming to buy real estate, then doesn’t tell his competitors where they are. Then he marks up rent on the boarding houses and makes a tidy profit on the side. Everything he does is like this. When an especially acrimonious board meeting threatens to split the company, a quick-thinking Hoover sneaks out and turns off the gas to the building, plunging the meeting into darkness. Everyone else has to adjourn, the extra time gives cooler heads a change to prevail, and the company is saved. Everything he does is like this.
The "china egg" quote in Whyte
(Not in the book: Source Burt Brown Barker in 1932,
when he gave to UO, where he was a VP,
 the "Pioneer Mother" statue)
(on the other hand, he has zero friends and only one acquaintance his own age, who later describes him to biographers as “about as much excitement as a china egg”.)

Hoover meets all sorts of people passing through the Oregon frontier. One is a mining engineer. He regales young Herbert with his stories of traveling through the mountains, opening up new sources of minerals to feed the voracious appetite of Progress. This is the age of steamships, skyscrapers, and railroads, and to the young idealistic Hoover, engineering has an irresistible romance. He wants to leave home and go to college. But he worries a poor frontier boy like him would never fit in at Harvard or Yale. He gets a tip – a new, tuition-free university might be opening in Palo Alto, California. If he heads down right away, he might make it in time for the entrance exam. Hoover fails the entrance exam, but the new university is short on students and decides to take him anyway.
Mrs. Bickford herself
Again, what I'm quoting here is what somebody says in a jocular tone, that may or may not be accurate, about a book I can see only in excerpt and have not read. With libraries closed it is difficult to read in books one doesn't already own.

But since we're looking for entertainment here more than scholarship at the moment, that's ok!

After the libraries reopen, we'll come back and chase down some of these details and references to Salem in the 1880s. The endnotes are inaccessible, but here's one partial citation, for example. Since Whyte is not interested in Salem, he passes over detail about "a Mrs. Bickford" we might find more interesting.

Whyte relies on "a Mrs. Bickford" in early description
A blurry scan of Mrs. Bickford as quoted
here in that paper of April 3rd, 1920
on "boyhood days in Salem"

And the quote itself about "funny looking"
and "short neck" - but adds "it is difficult now
to think of anything particularly striking about him"
Back to the summary/review, about the election of 1920, they write:
Hoover wants to be president. It fits his self-image as a benevolent engineer-king destined to save the populace from the vagaries of politics. The people want Hoover to be president; he’s a super-double-war-hero during a time when most other leaders have embarrassed themselves. Even politicians are up for Hoover being president; Woodrow Wilson is incapacitated by stroke, leaving both Democrats and Republicans leaderless. The situation seems perfect.

Hoover bungles it. He plays hard-to-get by pretending he doesn’t want the Presidency, but potential supporters interpret this as him just literally not wanting the Presidency. He refuses to identify as either a Democrat or Republican, intending to make a gesture of above-the-fray non-partisanship, but this prevents either party from rallying around him. Also, he might be the worst public speaker in the history of politics.
The bungle: Playing hard-to-get! March 10th, 1920
And sum him up as a kind of accidental success:
Hoover was a man who did everything wrong. He was the quintessential High Modernist. He was arrogant, he was authoritarian, he didn’t listen to anyone, he put no effort into pleasing people or making his ideas more palatable. He never solicited stakeholders’ opinions. He lied like a rug, constantly and egregiously. He lived his life like a caricature of exactly the sort of person who should fail at philanthropy and become a horror story to warn future generations.
If Hoover "lied like a rug, constantly and egregiously" and was exciting like a "china egg," then it would not be surprising that in 1920 Salemites either straight-up did not have vivid memories of him or they had memories and they were not willing to share them in print.

Previously here:

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