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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

What Do You Know About Men?

I always liked Dick Cavett; or I find him an interesting version of the public intellectual, is more like it. He didn’t exude a dullard vibe like Mike Douglas or Joey Bishop or Merv Griffin or any of the panoply of guys back then with a camera and someone standing by with everyone’s agent in their rolodexes. But he’s a boneless fish, and when the real barracudas show up, he’s as powerless as the rest of them.

He should have stuck to talking to his fellow swirlie victims, endlessly exchanging pointed pointless barbs with Gore Vidal or Truman Capote or some other invertebrate, or phony tough guys like Norman Mailer or the Garp fellow (his name escapes me now). Maybe a sportswriter now and then. You could flip the channel back then and seen his polar opposite twin William F. Buckley worrying the dictionary and a functionary at the same time, and acting like owning a yawl and knowing how to fix dinner on a gimballing alcohol stove meant you were Francis fucking Drake. It was much the same. No one in that milieu knows what to do when confronted with a real, live man.

Look at Burton. Every pint is written in his face, every cigarette in his voice. His eyes are living in the ruins of his head like fires in a cave. His mouth is perfectly fixed in the shape of Shakespeare and the pony glass. He is a mountain, and Cavett is an ant trying to climb all over him that can’t even get off the ground. Burton does not listen to the questions, he just waits. There’s a moment in there, towards the end, where Burton dismisses even Cavett’s intellect, which is all he’s got; and he does it in such a way that only a man with a foot on a rail and a glass in his hand and dust in his lungs would understand.

THE GREAT MAN’S house. The daughters of the men who cracked his anthracite cracked oysters for him in there. The girls would come home and say they had a place in the great man’s house and would rub shoulders with quality, pa. The fathers knew him, though. A werewolf. A vampire. They would sit silent with their black faces and their watery eyes at the kitchen table and know what it meant to turn your children over to such men. They’d say nothing because there was nothing to say.

    They turned their sons over to the collieries. There was honor there — and shame. A man hopes for better for his children than he got. Nothing ever gets better in a mine. You come out every day like the womb. Born again. Or not. The great man would read of the little men like insects that worked in his seams, dead of the gas or the great hand of gravity. It was a story from far away, as their very daughters cracked his oysters.

    The men would see their sons fight back the plain fear that showed in their eyes as the sky passed away and the rank earth swallowed them for their labors, and feel pride, too. No man is ashamed of his son at his elbow in a mine. He is ashamed of himself, maybe.

    What is a man to do? A Welshman might as well be a black ant. He’s got the instinct to go down and up in that little hole and he can’t help himself. He knows no other thing until he knows nothing forevermore. He does what he does. And the great man did what he did. He saw the man’s weakness, and his strength, and used one to get the other.

    The great man had the other great men in his pocket. He could call out the guard on a whim. He could kill a man legal. He could kill him any which way. He could do as he pleased. He could live in the shadow of a boneyard in a palace and there were none dared to squeak. The men said we’ll vote and stick together, and the great man just put one more man in charge of them, the new black prince of the county with the thing with the letters behind him. It was organized, but not like you’d think. Things would go on behind a velvet curtain. If they drew it back you’d see the smirk of the hyena in there.

    Then there was no work. The union and the boss alike said no coal. The big machines and the kept men kept even the culm from us. The great man couldn’t mine the coal by himself, so he mined the banks and the government and the union and got his gelt just the same.

    The great man thought he knew men. But he did not know your father and his father. They knew the coal like he knew his oysters. They went into the woods where the seams lay close to the sky, and they began again. The very earth gave them what they always sought. The men sent to find them and stop them joined them instead. The trucks ran at night to the great glittering city where the coins slept in great vaults.

    The housemaids knew from where it came, for they had come from there themselves. They pressed the coins into the dingy hands at the alley gate and burned it in their own great man’s house. Their little hods filled with bootleg coal made a pyre for our great man.

    The great man’s house. Look on it.

(“Coal Breaker,” from The Devil’s In The Cows. Look on it.)

11 Responses

  1. There are times, aren't there, when one stumbles upon a piece of something that speaks the right language, looks just so, or smells like mom's fresh laundry. And when that happens, the moment you understand, is when you've stepped across a boundary and don't want to go back.
    Nice work by all involved.

    Dan Patterson

  2. You've posted this photograph several times now of the collapsing old house that was once probably THE palace of the district. Where was this picture taken? It reminds me a bit of what Walker Evans would have focussed upon.

  3. Oh how I look at Burton and tears comes to my eyes. I was very young when I first saw him in a movie but I was madly in love at first "word" not look. The voice of a man has always been a thrill to me and his knows no match never was and so far never yet been. Maybe it is unfortunate that men do not come to manhood the same way as he did. A man needs to smoke and drink whisky to be a real man and rage against the machine while the woman watches in wonder and learns to start duck when the fists or plates start flying. Not politically correct but thrilling none the less. I of course prefer to watch this all on a screen rather than be the one ducking – but still a thrill to watch. There may come a handsomer man but that voice will stand as the last lost sound of a real man. Thanks for posting the clip and your comments (as always) a sweetly and mightily crafted. I wish I could match it. The story from your most excellent book is a perfect addition to deepen the understanding of the life a Welsh ruling class of the underworld would live. Unfortunately I have never heard of it spoken thus from this side of the Atlantic – although we are mining the same coal. By blowing tops off the mountains and dumping them in the streams in the valleys. Lazy bastards – all of them. I'm glad Burton's father didn't have to live to see it. Thank you again. lorraine

  4. I received my three copies of your book a couple weeks ago.
    Read it all immediately.
    Loved it all immediately, as I knew I would.
    I have yet to decide who I know who deserves my other two copies.
    I simply hate to waste good words.

  5. Uhhhhh…. Burton never did work much in the mines – nor did he see very much of his alcoholic father.

    So how much of this is a very gifted actor expressing an idealized father figure?

    We can simply say that actors back then were real, grown-up people – almost all the famous leading men of Hollywood's golden age fought a war and/or came up through grueling vaudeville circuits before they became famous.

    But let's not confuse an actor with the men he's describing.

  6. Actually, William F. Buckley Jr. knew what to do around real men: lead them wherever he wanted them to go.

    And so it was.

    Perhaps you should read The Reagan I Knew and see how he acted around President Reagan, an actor himself of course.

    Years before Reagan was in office, Buckley wrote in Playboy "I've discovered a new sensuous act" which was watching the President write notes as he spoke.

    I don't know if it was Nixon or Ford.

    Are Reagan, Nixon, or Ford real men I wonder?

  7. Hi Dan- Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment, written better than the source material.

    Hi Tom- I can't find the original. I remember that the original is in color, though, and I think the house was a rooming house.

    Lorraine- Love your memory of him in his prime. Masculinity sometimes has sharp elbows I guess.

    I thought of posting Burton's St. Crispian's Day speech, too, because it's so fine in its own right.

    When I first wrote the mining story a fellow from a Pennsylvania mining family wrote to say how much it reminded him of his multi-generational mining family, and I took that as a great compliment, because I have no background in it.

    Hi Phil- Thanks for reading and commenting. I guess there was a reason I didn't bother to Google him. Meh about says it.

    Jean- Thanks so very much for your support and enthusiasm for the book.

    Sixty Grit- A roundhouse outta nowhere. It was brutal and funny.

    Hi Ben David- Thanks as always for reading and your comments.

    Neither Burton nor I said he was a miner. Burton was very specific that his father was reputed to be a well-respected miner, not that he worked at his elbow to find out.

    He didn't have to be a miner to know what a miner was like. He was talking about what it meant to be the cynosure of all eyes. Swagger. He knew all about that. His interviewer might try to get a seat at a table at some lame benefit next to Liz Taylor when she was a barrage balloon and hanging around with Michael Jackson and a handyman. Burton admired her view from the top of the mast when it meant something.

    An interview is a performance, first, last and always.

    Hi Notun- I'm familiar with the history of Buckley and Reagan. Many persons forget that most Republicans thought Reagan was a dullard, right until they wanted to put him on Rushmore. I watched the Panama Canal debate when it happened.

    Reagan did things. Buckley talked about things. There's a fundamental difference. It doesn't mean that talking about things is a worthless occupation. But tails don't wag dogs.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Hi Paul- Thanks for reading and commenting and buying stuff. I love the Pythons.

  8. Egg?


    From what I hear, Reagan up and hopped right out the window, balanced swiftly along the structure, then slipped into the room with the AV equipment.

    Upon op;ening the door to the previously locked AV room, Reagan gave Buckley the chance to speak that night, with volume.

    SO, Reagan's actions allowed Buckley to motivate and inspire and lead that generation, literally.

    Then decades later Reagan was elected POTUS, due in large part to William F. Buckley Jr, and his actions in:

    Ferchrissakes I ain't got the time to even begin, much less give the respect this topic deserves.

    Perhaps my new website will, or even my other new website will.

    Time will tell.

    God bless.

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