Greenfield’s Al Norman writes embellished history through new book ‘Ravings’

  • NORMAN

  • President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley pose for a photo in December 1970. In his new book “Ravings,” Al Norman recounts how the two met at the Oval Office, where Presley was presented with the gold-plated federal narcotics bureau badge. Courtesy photo/National Achives

Staff Writer
Published: 8/8/2018 1:21:01 PM

The hand-scrawled letter begins: “Dear Mr. President, First, I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley … I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position. I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large …”

In the end, Presley — using the pseudonym “Jon Burrows,” dressed in a purple velvet suit and cloak, and wearing amber sunglasses — was greeted by President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office and presented with the gold-plated federal narcotics bureau badge, as he had requested.

“The King” also told the president that The Beatles had been a real force for anti-Americanism, and that the drug culture was part of a communist brainwashing conspiracy, with The Beatles as just “talented drug pushers,” Greenfield resident Al Norman writes in his new book, “Ravings: American Wild Talk.”

Learning from history

Like the 18 other vignettes in “Ravings” — including those about Robert F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Lyndon B. Johnson, Roy Cohn and Nikita Khrushchev — the “Agent Elvis” story is embellished.

Norman, who stepped down in December as head of the advocacy group Mass Home Care after 31 years and who headed Franklin County Home Care Corp. from 1980 to 1986, may be best known in Greenfield for his national campaign in opposition to Walmart. He’s author of three other books, all about the economic impact of Walmart and what communities can do to fight the giant retailer.

He will read from his new 178-page, self-published book at Greenfield Public Library on Aug. 20 at 6 p.m.

In “Ravings,” Norman tries historical fiction, giving the reader an imagined look behind the scenes with participants in the Senate’s McCarthy hearings in the early 1950s, Khruschev’s 1959 tour of Iowa corn fields and more.

“I was hoping to write something that would have relevance to today,” the Grinnell Street resident said. “A lot of these stories resonate, I think, and have lessons for today.”

But Norman, who moved to Greenfield in the 1970s after a brief stint writing for Newsweek, where his father was the magazine’s Pentagon correspondent, fictionalizes the context of each of these historical accounts “for dramatic purposes.”

“History is basically a story,” the 71-year-old author said. “Like any other story, it depends who’s telling it. ... I was looking for stories from history that would mean something to me that need be told more clearly.”

Elevated to art

Each of the central characters are smart, Norman said, but also “a little crazy. … These characters are all somewhat raving personalities. In these pages, there is more than a little hatred: against Japanese, blacks, Jews, gays, peaceniks and communists.”

In his “Sunburnt Yankees” vignette, Norman tells the story of a talk by John Elliott Rankin, a Mississippi congressman, at a Masonic lodge in Tupelo, Miss. Rankin opposed anti-lynching legislation that he said “ought to be called ‘a bill to encourage rape.’”

Rankin, whose speech was actually made on the floor of Congress, is approached in this account by an admirer sticking a $500 bill in his pocket and instructing the congressman to keep the bill from passing. Norman said that element conveys the kind of speeches that Rankin probably gave and the kind of encouragement he most likely received from wealthy constituents.

“I wanted to do what Andy Warhol did: take a can of Campbell’s soup, an objective piece of retail merchandise, which he elevated it to a form of art, by changing context and putting it in a frame.”

“Ravings” also presents the story of Annie Lee Moss, a black Pentagon communications clerk who was called before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1954 and was grilled on her alleged connections to the Communist Party, as the committee’s counsel, Robert F. Kennedy, looked on.

Norman invents a later visit by Kennedy to Moss’ home, apologizing for the rough treatment she received, as “a little human touch” to show Kennedy’s humanity.

Who do you believe?

Each of the vignettes, woven around a historical truth, are presented with a fictitious element by Norman, and are followed by a postscript that provides additional information but doesn’t distinguish between factual and fictional elements.

Even at a time when “fake news” and “alternative facts” have entered the lexicon to sow confusion, Norman said, “You really can’t ultimately know what’s real and what’s quasi-real in what you’re being told. If the government is telling you it happened this way, and some newscaster is telling you it happened that way, and there’s a debate between MSNBC and Fox News, who are you supposed to believe?”

As someone who from 1992 to 1993 wrote Newsweek’s “Where Are They Now?” column, based on reports from stringers, like those in Vietnam, Norman said the magazine’s “Separating Fact from Fiction” slogan was a strange one, since it had been presenting the Pentagon’s distorted picture of the Vietnam War.

“I thought Newsweek was basically lying to people,” Norman said. “Here I am working for a national newsmagazine that’s telling people, ‘You can come here for the facts,’ and I felt they’d really lied to people, because it came out later ... the Pentagon was lying about how bad the war really was.”

Now, he added, “I am trying to raise doubts in people’s minds about how they perceive history. There’s a lot of nuance in what’s happening today, what history will say about what’s happening today. Some of that’s understandable, because if you and I are witness to the same event, we saw the same thing happening. You say, ‘He threw first punch,’ and I say, ‘No, it was someone else.’ It happens in courtrooms all the time. And then the history gets written.”

Norman, who built a “Sprawl-Busters” consulting business to help “Home Town America Fight Back,” turned nonetheless to Amazon to independently publish his book. He calls that “absolutely a compromise between my dislike of the Madison Avenue publishing world and my love of independent bookstores.”

After struggling to find a publisher or an agent that appreciated what he was trying to do, Norman said, “I don’t want to deal with agents or with off-the-wall publishers who are looking for the next blockbusters. … It’s so constipated, I didn’t want to deal with it at all.”

“At my age,” he added, “I’m comfortable with having to make compromises.”

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at the Greenfield Recorder for more than 35 years. He can be reached at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.


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