My Life in Books (2017)

 

 

Adam, at RoofBeamReader.com, just posted a fun end of the year round-up. Called, ‘My Life in Books,’ you answer a set of questions using one of the titles you’ve read this year.

I hope you’ll join in. I’d love to see what you come up with! Here’s mine:

 

1. In high school I was: (one of the) Radio Girls, Sarah-Jane Stratford

2. People might be surprised: (that) Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles

3. I will never be: Dracula, Bram Stoker

4. My fantasy job is: Being a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz

5. At the end of a long day I need: A Walk with Jane Austen, Lori Smith

6. I hate it when: (there is) Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson

7. Wish I had: The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare

8. My family reunions are: The Wonder, Emma Donoghue

9. At a party you’d find me with: Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War, Pamela D. Toler

10. I’ve never been to: Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

11. A happy day includes: The Nature Principal, Richard Louv

12. Motto I live by: Where Angels Fear to Tread, E. M. Forster

13. On my bucket list is: The Moonstone Castle Mystery, Carolyn Keene

14. In my next life, I want to have: Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine L’Engle

 

 

 

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Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson (2000)

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I didn’t run from the redcoats, and I won’t run from a dockside miasma. What is wrong with people…We suffered all kinds of disease in our youth, but folks were sensible. They didn’t squall like children and hide in the woods. Captain William Farnsworth Cook, Pennsylvania Fifth Regiment.

Fever 1793, is a compelling historical novel based on the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia during the stifling hot summer of 1793. The story centers on 13-year old Mattie Cook, who watches helplessly as her beloved city grapples with the fear and devastation the epidemic wreaks.

Mattie’s parents own Cook’s Coffeehouse, a hub for politicians and merchants located two blocks from President Washington’s house. Philadelphia is the nation’s first capital city and Mattie is proud to live here. Since her father died, she helps her mother run the business along with Polly, the serving girl and her childhood friend, and Eliza, a free black who has been cooking up the special fare Cook’s is known for since it opened. As the city has prospered, so has Cook’s.

But August has brought fever—just a few cases to start, but enough to worry Mattie’s mother, Lucille, who forbids her daughter from doing any errands or getting provisions down at the docks. Some people are certain the refugees from Barbados have brought the illness and want them quarantined. Though others remind them there is always a sickness during the height of summer heat. Still, there are more cases as August progresses and there have been deaths. Lucille puts more restrictions on Mattie, who is frustrated at being so confined. When Polly does not come to work one day and it is learned she died of the fever, Lucille is adamant that Mattie be sent out of the city to friends out of town.

When it is declared the illness is in fact yellow fever, Philadelphia quickly empties as the wealthy leave for their homes in the country and others write to friends and family outside the city hoping they will take them in. Ships stop docking making food and other supplies scarce forcing businesses to close. Many who can’t get out hoard as much food as they can and close up their homes hunkering down inside for the duration. Amidst protest, Mattie is sent away with her grandfather.

And so begins Mattie’s harrowing journey to the family she never gets to, to the fever that almost kills her and the hospital stay where she recovers. Though weak and with Philadelphia still in the grip of the fever, her age precludes her being released with no place to go. There is no word of her mother’s fate and her aged grandfather cannot take full responsibility for her. Her only option is an orphan house for children who lost their parents and who have no other family to care for them.

But Mattie refuses. She wants to find her mother and go back home. Her determination cannot be matched, so she and her grandfather return to the coffeehouse only to find it has been plundered. After a few days of cleaning up, the coffeehouse is again broken into and her grandfather is killed. Mattie is now afraid to stay by herself.

Wives were deserted by husbands, and children by parents. The chambers of diseases were deserted, and the sick left to die of negligence. None could be found to remove the lifeless bodies. Their remains, suffered to decay by piecemeal, filled the air with deadly exhalations, and added tenfold to the devastation. Charles Brockden Brown (Memoirs of the Year 1793)

One of the very engaging aspects of the book are the historical quotes that begin each chapter adding to the reality of this frightening time. The real epidemic killed an astonishingly 5,000 people during the summer and early fall of 1793 until the first frost in October brought it to an end.

Anderson incorporates into the novel several contentious issues the epidemic sparked, including the controversial use of bloodletting to “release the poisons” from the blood; the argument between doctors who believed the fever spread through a “miasma” in the air, therefore confining patients to rooms with no access to fresh air versus those doctors who believed fresh air was healthy and part of the cure; the overwhelming number of children orphaned by the epidemic who needed to be housed; how the fever transformed some relationships between blacks and whites who worked together to help the city; and how this catastrophe brought out the best and worst in people as they fought for their lives.

There is great distress in the city for want of cash. Friendship is nearly entirely banished from our city. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1793)

Not for the The Free African Society, however. Founded in 1787 to aid widows, the infirm and out of work Africans, during the epidemic it offered to help all citizens of Philadelphia. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones co-founders of the Society put advertisements in the papers: “We set out to see where we could be useful—the black people were looked to. We then offered our services in the public papers, by advertising that we would remove the dead and procure nurses.”

And in fact, this is how Mattie found Eliza. After her grandfather was killed, Mattie knew she couldn’t stay in the coffeehouse and set out looking for news of her mother. She stumbled upon Eliza in the streets and found she was caring for and feeding the sick wherever she was needed. Eliza was able to fill Mattie in on all that had transpired since she was sent away. Mattie learned that her mother had gone to the family she was sent to, so what could she think when she found that Mattie had never arrived? But for the moment it was decided that without her grandfather and with the business too dangerous to stay in alone, Mattie would stay with Eliza’s family and would go out with her and nurse the sick.

Blessed be God for the change in the weather. The disease visibly and universally declines. Dr. Benjamin Rush (1793)

For weeks the city was caught in the grip of fever, death carts piled high as they rumbled down the streets. Finally, one blessed night a frost sets in and in a little more than a day or two the epidemic is over. Almost immediately the ships begin to dock bringing food and supplies to the beleaguered city and those who went to the country come back. George Washington makes his way back to Philadelphia and the whole city comes alive.

But Mattie has an uncertain future ahead of her. It is suggested she go into an orphan house until she reaches maturity. If she sells the coffeehouse, she can use the money for a dowry. Maturity? Hasn’t she seen and done enough in the last few months as any adult? No, she thinks. The coffeehouse is hers and it is a good respectful business. She will reopen it. But she knows she can’t do it alone and there is only one person she can trust who also has the experience to make the coffeehouse successful again. Though it is unconventional, she asks Eliza to go into partnership. She does not have to be asked twice.

A very satisfying book in which I learned about an event in American history I did not know before.

__________

My Edition
Title: Fever 1793
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2000
Pages: 252
Full plot summary

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures, The Library of Congress (2017)

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Opening a drawer and flipping through the well-worn cards, many handwritten and filled with marginalia containing valuable information not to be found in an Internet search, leaves one with a sense of awe at how catalogers distilled so much information onto simple 3-by-5 index cards that still sit neatly filed, waiting to reveal the treasures hidden in the hundreds of miles of Library stacks on Capitol Hill.

 

 

 

The library card catalog. I spent my college career rifling through those long drawers, sticking pencils between cards to save my place when class notes or a professor’s recommendation drew me to another drawer. I remember having to wait when another student was in a drawer I wanted, impatient while they jotted down the title of the material and its location. I took my book-hoard to ‘my’ study carrel on the second floor next to the vine covered east windows where the sun dappled the desk. I did a history degree with the card catalog, volumes of the ‘subject index’ and an electric typewriter!

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures traces the history of the card catalog and the various methods of organizing library materials, while celebrating the creation and the vast holdings in The Library of Congress.

History

It is fascinating to think that even though we are highly digitized at this point, we still use the same, but expanded foundation Zenodotus, the first librarian at the library of Alexandria developed when the proliferation of scrolls needed some kind of organization. After inventorying the scrolls and arranging them alphabetically he attached a tag at the end of each scroll to indicate the author, title and subject.

Once people started writing on velum and bound the pieces together at one end and put a cover on them creating a codex or book, it made better use of space. One could write on both sides of the material, number the pages and put information on the spine making for quicker reference.

 

A Library for a Nation

The Card Catalog details the evolution of the Library of Congress, the trials and tribulations of deciding what books to purchase (James Madison had an idea), how to collect and purchase them (British firm of Cadell and Davies), how the War of 1812 damaged most of the nascent collection and what the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s private library did to expand the future of the collection.

While still an undergraduate at Amherst, Dewey was obsessed with bringing order to the school’s library, and he recounted that while day dreaming during a long lecture one day, “without hearing a word, my mind absorbed in the vital problem, the solution flasht over me so that I jumpt in my seat and came very near shouting ‘Eureka!'”

Into the early years of the 19th century, there still remained the problem of standardization, but that changed when Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey developed his classification system which was adopted at the first meeting of the American Library Association in 1876. To make it easier for public and university libraries, the ALA Supplies Department became the shopping source for all materials related to the card catalog. So, with Dewey’s system in place and a one-stop shop for cabinets, cards, stamps and so on libraries and a patron’s experience were standardized.

By the 1950s, the main card catalog at the Library of Congress had more than 9 million cards. As computers came on the scene and began to digitize this data December 31, 1980 was declared the end of the printed card.

The text of this book is written by Peter Devereaux of the the Library of Congress Publishing Office. The narrative is fast paced, colorful and full of photographs that help the reader visualize the history of the card catalog from the discovery of the of the first card catalog made from clay tablets (a listing of 62 literary works, including The Epic of Gilgamesh) up to the present with online catalogs available in every public, private and university library.

Highlighting materials from its collection, each item has its cover photographed on one side with its catalog card on the opposite page. Many of the cards are handwritten with information not found on the Internet when the cards were digitized. It was fun, instructive and a bit nostalgic to read through this book.

For me the card catalogue has been a companion all my working life. To leave it is like leaving the house one was brought up in. Barbara Tuchman, 1985, The New Yorker.

 

Some examples below.

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English Bible. Selections, 1788. The card reads in part, “Select passages in the Old and New Testaments, represented with emblematical figures, for the amusement of youth; designed chiefly to familiarize tender age, in a pleasing and diverting manner….” In other words, keeping kids interested in the Bible is an age-old problem!

 

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This is the title page of the 2nd edition that includes the words, A Romance. My edition, a Signet Classic published in 1980, doesn’t have that either on the cover or anywhere in the front matter. I wonder when that changed?

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The card reads, The library of the late Harry Houdini on magic, spiritualism, occultism and psychical research, bequeathed to the Library of Congress in 1926, may be consulted upon application to the Custodian of the Rare Book Room.
Houdini said his library of psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology and evil spirits contained material going back to 1489. With this bequest, the Library added 3,988 volumes to its collection.

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Some editions are simply gorgeous, like this title-page font for Robert Frost’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection, New Hampshire. The card reads, “Of this edition, three hundred and fifty copies only have been printed. This copy is number 187.” Signed by author.

 

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Another gorgeous cover, but there is no “The Legend of….” on the cover, although the card catalog gives it. Did editions in Irving’s time add that or is it modern? This must be a beautiful edition, because the catalog card also mentions the “ornamental borders” on the title page and within the text.

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The cards can indicate a name change.

 

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The cards can also indicate how subject designations change.
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I enjoyed reading this book. And I think the original cover art is the best I have seen on any other edition.

__________

My Edition
Title: The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures
Author: Library of Congress
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Device: Hard cover
Year: 2017
Pages: 224
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

There is More to Me than the Classics: A Conundrum

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I am wrestling with the focus of my blog. I fear I have limited myself to writing almost solely about 19th and early 20th century classic literature (which does make up the bulk of fiction that I read) and wonder if there is room for the history, pop culture and religion I also read?

The phrase relevant obscurity has always been directed at me personally, because the emphasis on the above nonfiction for most of my life made me so suspicious of fiction (I would like to write a post on that) that I am discovering classic literature for the first time. The relevance of these books and how they help me see the past and a period of history I love has added so much to my life.

IMG_4775And yet, I have been reading books on religion and spirituality since I was 12 when I was given a book on Hanukkah; that brought God into my heretofore agnostic worldview and set me on a seeker’s path of which I still walk. And the Medieval history I majored in and the American studies courses I took later still figure strongly in what I read now, though I don’t share any of that here.

 

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So, I am going to try some new kinds of posts throughout the next few months to see how comfortable I am about sharing more of my life through the various books I read, the thoughts they provoke and even some non-book-related musings, because while I have thought hard about starting another blog in addition to this one, oh man, that seems like a lot of work! But also, like many other bloggers and readers, I am multifaceted offline, so why pretend otherwise online?

 

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I would love to know if anyone else feels their blog, either by its title or focus, is too restrictive to the broader range of what they want to share?

What did you decide to do about it or are you still wrestling with it?

Amy’s Pickled Limes-Little Women

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Why, you see, the girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it, too. It’s nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else….If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime; if she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck. They treat by turns, and I’ve had ever so many but haven’t returned them, and I ought, for they are debts of honor, you know.”

I have always wanted to go back and revisit this episode, because it is intriguing to think of limes as a social metaphor for status and acceptance: Not only are you one of us, but one of my favored, because I bestow this pickled lime upon you. I assumed it was historically accurate, but wondered where and how limes came to New England in the middle of the 19th century? And most especially, how they ended up as a schoolyard status symbol.

For Amy and her classmates, it wasn’t just the giving of limes, but the importance of giving back to the girls who gave the pickled limes first. This point cannot, to these school girls, be overstated.

The next day Amy was rather late at school; but could not resist the temptation of displaying, with pardonable pride, a moist brown-paper parcel…During the next few minutes the rumor that Amy March had got twenty-four delicious limes…and was going to treat circulated through her “set”…Katy Brown invited her to her next party on the spot; Mary Kingsley insisted on lending her her watch till recess….

Unfortunately, her stash is discovered by the teacher, who has forbidden them in the classroom and Amy is forced to throw them out the window.

Linda Zeidrich in her book, The Joy of Pickling, tackles Amy’s limes in a brief history. She describes their availability and low cost at a typical neighborhood store where they were sold on the counter for a penny each. “Kids chewed, sucked, and traded amylines2pickled limes at school (and not just at recess) for decades, making the limes the perennial bane of New England schoolteachers.” Doctors thought this was an unnatural habit, but parents didn’t seem to be bothered and were content to let their children indulge. Interesting that at some point science recognized the benefits of citrus for health.

While it was true that some limes were grown in the United States, most came from the West Indies where they were packed in sea water or brine and shipped in barrels to ports in the Northeast, especially to Boston where they were the most popular. Zeidrich makes the ironic point that the limes of Louisa May Alcott’s schoolgirls were tied to the same slave labor in the Caribbean that sent Mr. March to fight against slavery in the United States. It always helps to know the origin of things when possible….

The cost per lime was so low because they were not classified as fresh fruit, which had a much higher tariff. Occasionally Congress tried to classify them with fresh fruit which brought protests. When Boston importer, William Brexnax, argued for separate classifications before the Ways and Means Committee of the Congress of the United States in 1909, he did so on the basis that the consumers of pickled limes were women and children from a small area of the country, the small consumption of which posed no commercial threat to fresh limes. You can read the full argument below.

GodeysDo-it-yourself pickled limes seem easy enough and while I found some period recipes this one from a 1854 issue of Godey’s Ladies Book, might have been close to what Amy and her friends ate.

“The dry and fresh-gathered fruits are put into strong, wide-mouthed glass bottles, carefully corked, and luted with a cement of lime and soft cheese, and bound down with wire. The bottles are then inclosed (sp) separately in canvas bags, and put into a kettle of water, which is gradually heated until it boils; the bottles are kept in this condition until the fruits are boiled in their own juice. The whole is then left to cool; after which the bottles are examined separately, and put away for store.”

Some recipes added salt and none I found were sweet, so it seems children ate them tart or sour.

I still don’t know why these pickled limes were traded by children whose later counterparts traded baseball cards or little key chains as we did at my school or whatever children are trading for status now. I suppose their ease of acquisition and cheap cost had something to do with it.

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(Here is William F. Brexnax’s argument before the House Ways and Means Committee defending pickled limes against a fresh fruit tariff. Formatted by me for readability).


Hearings, Volume 20

By United States. 60th Congress. 2d session., 1908-1909. House.

188 PICKLED LIMES Paragraph 559
WM F BREXNAX IMPORTER BOSTON MASS WISHES A SEPARATE CLASSIFICATION MADE FOR PICKLED LIMES 1 13 CENTRAL STREET

Boston January 26 1909 COMMITTEE ON WAYS AND MEANS Washington DC

GENTLEMEN In the revision of the tariff let me urge that the classification of pickled limes remain unchanged as this commodity has but a very limited sale and confined almost exclusively to a few New England states.

After limes are immersed in sea water for twenty four hours it causes such a physical change that they are of no commercial value whatever other than as a pickled lime because they can not be freshened out or used only for eating in their changed condition and in this form they are consumed mostly by women and children of this section of the country who have acquired the taste for them.

Under the Wilson bill they were charged as pickles at 30 per cent ad volorem and continued so under the present bill until the Board of General Appraisers decided to class them as limes at 1 cent per pound together with the water which surrounded the same which ruling was amended by the decision of the United States circuit court of appeals in my suit against the Government for refund of duties since which time they have come in under paragraph 559 and admitted free as fruits in brine not specially provided Tor

The business done in them is quite small and positively no protection is needed for the few limes grown in the United States as they never pickle them and if pickled limes should again be classified under the head of green fruit it would be putting a prohibition value upon them for they are usually sold for a cent each and when the retailers can not do this the business small as it is will be curtailed very materially.

It has been proven by the courts that there has under all tariffs been a distinction made between limes and pickled limes and I would ask that this decision remain unchanged. This merchandise is not commercially known as limes and therefore should have a distinct classification if it is to be designated in any way in the new list. No tariff that the Government ever issued has classified pickled limes so it can be seen that they have never been considered of sufficient importance to give them a place. But now that revision is under way the opportunity should be embraced to make provision for them and thereby avoid a mix up again with the general appraisers in determining the proper interpretation of the tariff and I present the subject at this time with that end in view I trust that our New Englanders may continue to eat the fruit as of old which will be the case unless the United States needs to increase the cost by a tariff for revenue only.

Yours truly WM F BRENNAN Importer TABIFIT HEARINGS 7755

 


Presidents’ Day and Religious Freedom in the United States

“…a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship: – deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue or language equal parts of the great Governmental Machine…” Moses Seixas to President George Washington

In 1790, George Washington responded to a letter written to him by a Jewish resident of Newport Rhode Island that has become, for many, the foundational statement on religious freedom in the United States. I believe it is particularly important at this time in our history to remember our heritage, which President Washington stated so well.

You can read the exchange between Moses Seixas and George Washington here.  And the full letter from Washington here.

If you are unfamiliar with this episode and perhaps somewhat rattled by recent events from the new administration, becoming familiar with Washington’s words may give you some optimism, because religious freedom has always been a hallmark of this country, even when we have struggled over it. And on a personal note, both sides of my family sought refuge here during terrible times in their home countries and Washington’s words have always given me trust in the process. Some excerpts:

“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”



“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War (2016)

 

My Edition:mercyst
Title: Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War
Author: Pamela D. Toler
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2016
Pages: 287
Summary

I immediately wrote to all the people of influence I knew, begging them to procure me some place in the war as nurse, or whatever I could do, Mary Phinney von Olnhausen[1]

I shall not come home, unless I get sick, while this hospital lasts,  Cornelia Hancock[ii]

 

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The Union took over Confederate private homes and hotels for use as hospitals

The second season of Mercy Street on PBS starts this Sunday. I was hooked from the first episode last year. The program tells another part of the American Civil War from the perspective of the doctors and nurses and the wounded of both sides. The script is based on the biographies, diaries and other writings of real women who volunteered to serve their country as hospital nurse, a profession that was ill-defined for women up to this point and whose presence in war-time hospitals often met with condescension at best and suspicion at worst. Their presence in military hospitals challenged the medical establishment’s concept of female sensibility to the horrors of war, until the women proved not only their worth in the hospital setting, but that their work was vital to the overall war effort.

I have been a ‘female nurse’ since a year ago last October…I went with many misgivings—but now I know what women are worth in the hospitals. It is no light thing to hear a man say he owes you his life and then to know that mother, wife, sister or child bless you in their prayers, Ella Wolcott[iii]

The Heroines of Mercy Street, by Pamela D. Toler, a companion to the PBS series, tells the stories of many of these women and about what it meant for nursing to grow from something done by women at home for family members as the knowledge was passed from mother to daughter, to a skilled profession in hospital and other outside-the-home settings. Toler explains that during the early days of the Civil War it was recovering soldiers who aided the doctors in caring for newly injured and sick, as female nurses were not well-accepted or were considered unable to perform the physical and medical duties as required. It was also thought the sights of the wounded and their care was not a respectable job for the mothers, daughters, wives and sisters of middle and upper class families.

…and in the late war we saw the most delicate women, who could not at home endure the sight of blood, become so used to scenes of carnage, that they walked the hospitals and the margins of battlefield, amid the poor remnants of torn humanity, with as perfect self-possession as if they were strolling in a flower garden,  Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner [iv]

Florence Nightingale changed this perception with her work in the Crimean War after which she published Notes on Nursing to high acclaim. Her school in London drew women from all classes of society, including American women, giving skills to  thousands of women willing to nurse the wounded and ill on the front and in hospitals.

Toler profiles many well-known women, including Dorothea Dix, Louisa May Alcott and her experiences at Union Hospital and the work of Clara Barton. Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, a major character in the series, features prominently in the book as well.  The comprehensive endnote section includes many others through their letters and journals, their conversations and documents that describe their back-breaking and emotionally-wrenching work.

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Scenes like this are portrayed in the series

All these women, the famous and the unknown, were pioneers, who felt called to a profession in its infancy. They stood up for themselves and their vulnerable soldiers for whom they fought to get the best medical treatment, food and the cleanest environment possible. Their dedication proved their necessity to the war effort. As a result of the War, these skills also paved the way for women to work after the war ended, which according to Dorothea Dix advanced women “at least fifty years beyond the position they would have held had the country remained at peace.”[v]

I wonder what I shall do with myself when the war is over. I never can sit down and do nothing…I never expect to live at home again, I shall always be working somewhere or other, I hope. Work is my life. I cannot be happy doing nothing, Emily Parsons[vi]

_________________
[i] 51.
[ii] 175.
[iii] 143.
[iv] 121.
[v] 221.
[vi] Ibid.

Library Love Challenge

Hawthorne, Henry James (1879)

My Edition:hawthorne
Title: Hawthorne
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Device: Paperback
Year: Originally published, 1879. Published by Cornell U Press, 1997.
Pages: 145
For a plot summary

This is such an odd little book.

Like many people I enjoy reading comments and critiques from one writer about another. I relish the mention of a title or recitations of a sentence or two; when one well-known writer cites another and gives a passage some meaning in the context of a story. So when I saw this critique of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work by Henry James I was excited and intrigued.

James (1843-1916) wrote this as a contribution to the English Men of Letters series. He was the only American contributor and Hawthorne (1804-1864) was the only American subject. James wrote this in his mid thirties and had yet to publish much of his own great novels.

I have read several of Hawthorne’s novels—The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance and some short stories, but I have not read any Henry James. I have become particularly interested in Hawthorne and hope to read more of his work as well as those about him. So, while I came to this book a bit biased, I was not prepared for a James who was so patronizing, cutting, passive aggressive and snobby, and who seemed to be writing more about the provincialism of American culture and its inferiority to that of Europe using Hawthorne as an example, than of critiquing Hawthorne himself.

“…the flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep, that it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature, that it needs a complex social machinery to set a writer in motion. American civilization has hitherto had other things to do than to produce flowers and before giving birth to writers it has wisely occupied itself with providing something for them to write about.”(p. 2)

According to James it was a shame that Hawthorne wasn’t English, as his saunters and walks through a European wood and meeting men of a higher civilization would have “been a very different affair” in terms of his talent. America was missing all the points of reference that make for culture. In a famous list, James states the deficiencies of America that make it impossible to create culture. It has

…no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot! (p. 34)

And on and on like this for most of the first half of the book. Realism, the technique James is known for is absent from Hawthorne’s work he states and chides him for, yet also admitting Hawthorne probably did not know what it was. I found myself thinking this book is more about James, who is critical of a life that is missing something, the deficiencies, rather than what is.

The Blithedale Romance is James’s first critique of a novel, which is Hawthorne’s account of his months spent at the experiment in community living, Brook Farm. James describes the book as admirable and picturesque. Most of what James writes about,  however, are the Transcendentalists, calling Henry Thoreau, “a delightful writer” and Emerson, the only “writer in whom the world at large has interested itself.” (p.66)

He does call The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne’s masterpiece, “and will continue to be, for other generations than ours….” (p. 87) Which sounds positive until he states, “Something might at last be sent to Europe as exquisite in quality as anything that had been received…” From anywhere else, meaning all those other countries with sovereigns and courts and castles…Talk about a left-handed compliment. (p. 88)

It is often hard to follow James in this book. As soon as he compliments Hawthorne, there is always a caveat. “It cannot be too often repeated that Hawthorne was not a realist.” (p. 98) Yet, “He had a high sense of reality—his NoteBooks superabundantly testify to it…he never attempted to render exactly or closely the actual facts of the society that surrounded him.” (p. 98) The House of the Seven Gables for James was an ‘imaginative’ work. And that is up for debate, as this book must be one of the most detailed novels of period, setting and character of all time!

I confess I have not done research on James, which might bring some of his style and reason for writing this to light, as well as how this book was received when published and what is thought of it now. One of the unintended consequences is that it gave me a very negative view of James and will probably affect my future reading of his work. The word ‘jerk’ comes to mind, yet admittedly, the reason for his jerkiness is intriguing, which means I probably will at some point read more about him, as well as his novels…

This book qualifies for the Reading New England Challenge

Banned Books Week: The Witch of Blackbird Pond

My Edition:witchblackbird
Title: The Witch of Blackbird Pond
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Publisher: Dell Yearling
Device: Trade paper
Year: 1958
Pages: 249
For a plot summary

I have chosen three young adult classics to read for Banned Books Week and one to review: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, A Wrinkle in Time and The Bridge to Terabithia. Each have been continually challenged or banned by parents and educational organizations since their dates of publication.

I have to say right off the mark this kind of behavior fascinates me. I grew up in a reading household where I freely took books off shelves at home and at my grandparents’ houses and I do not remember my parents ever telling me I couldn’t read something. My relationship with my parents was very open and no question, either personal or educational, was ever off limits. So I suppose if I read something that bothered me, I’d ask them. But I remember discussions, not banning. This is all to say my comments below question the reasons why The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a challenged book.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is set in the late 1600s and tells the story of Kit, who grew up a carefree young girl on a wealthy plantation in Barbados. When she is suddenly orphaned, she sails to Wethersfield, Connecticut to live with her mother’s sister, her husband and their two daughters in their strict Puritan home. She is not used to doing chores and the work of a homestead, nor is she used to the stifled way of thinking which makes her feel like an outsider. She befriends the widow Hannah Tupper, an old Quaker woman shunned by the locals, who lives alone at the edge of the Great Meadow and who understands Kit’s feeling of estrangement. Her home becomes Kit’s refuge. But when the town’s children begin to fall ill, Hannah is accused of casting a spell on them and the townspeople come to take her away. Kit overhears their plans and runs to save Hannah, only to be accused of witchcraft herself.

The trial is harrowing because, once suspicion has been cast, enough townspeople are riled up sufficiently to press the officials “to deal with the witches” and as history has shown, the outcome is never good for the accused. In Hannah’s case, she was already under a great deal of suspicion just for being a Quaker, who didn’t go to (the Puritan) Meeting each week and who kept to herself. But in actuality, it was the townspeople who kept away from her, who never made an effort to know her, which allowed their imagination to fester. If they had visited, they would have seen her like Kit did, a kindhearted old lady who liked company, could spin a neat flax thread and made delicious corn and blueberry muffins.

Kit’s accusations were a little more complicated besides being “guilty” of associating with the Widow Tupper. There was the incident in the river, witnessed by several people of the town, when she jumped into the water to rescue a little girl’s doll. Though swimming was perfectly acceptable in Barbados, in the Colonies one of the tests for women accused of witchcraft was to see if they could float. Only if they sank did that prove their innocence. But the biggest charge against Kit was discovered in a child’s hornbook, where her name was written multiple times and was believed to be the spell or incantation that made the children sick. Fortunately, this was resolved when the little girl came forward to describe how Kit taught her how to write her name by writing it out so she could copy it. She proved right there in front of the officials she was a masterful copier, because her hand looked just like Kit’s. This emboldened some of the townspeople to come to the women’s defense and the charges against them were dropped.

This book has been challenged for promoting witchcraft and violence. But the real threat should be that it promotes ignorance, prejudice and gossip mongering. Ironically, there is no actual witchcraft in the book. It is only in the perceived notion that an old woman alone, living on the edge of town with a cat (that is not even black, btw) must be up to no good. And that when disease breaks out among the town’s children, suspicion turns on this outsider; a condition the town made itself by shunning her in the first place. The dangers of gossip, estrangement, ignorance, and beliefs about a person where there is no proof, not witchcraft, are the real lessons of the book.

And violence? The townspeople came after Hannah and burned down her home and tried to kill her cat. Instead of wanting to ban this book for violence, isn’t this another lesson of how ignorance and prejudice can get out of hand? Once you shun a neighbor and cast her as an outsider who is “not like us,” you can make her responsible for anything.

This book was published in 1958, and it is remarkable or maybe somewhat sad that it still has a message for us today. We live in a world that still practices hate mongering, racism, the shunning of people because of their “lifestyle” or culture, of people who would rather take a video than stop the crime, and there are people and institutions who have turned gossip into an art form. Is any of this productive? Does it moves us forward as a people? Far from being a book that should be banned, The Witch of Blackbird Pond needs to be read and studied for its timely lessons for young people and adults alike.

(Elizabeth George Speare was an award-winning writer of historical fiction for young people. She won the Newberry Medal for both The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Bronze Bow, which takes place during the time of Jesus. Her attention to the details of daily life draw you into the world of her characters and the history they are living.

She is famously quoted after receiving an award,  “I believe that all of us who are concerned with children are committed to the salvaging of Love and Honor and Duty.”)

 

 

The Case of the Silent ‘W’

viking sword

Specifically the ‘w’ in sword. I like to pronounce it when I am talking to myself or reading aloud an old poem. Speaking the ‘w’ sounds more noble and knightly and easier to see in my mind’s eye two brave knights fighting for the honor of their queen wielding their s’w’ords, rather than their ‘sords.’knight1

Why and how did we make this change, losing the ‘w’ in sword, if we still say swindle and swan, sweater, swoop and swivel? Was it a pronunciation issue or a linguistic change? Because if we can move our mouths to form toward and forward, we can easily say s’w’ord.

Our philological history is evident in the many words and letter combinations retained in modern English we no longer pronounce; remains from our Anglo Saxon and Germanic linguistic forebears. Light, enough, brought come to mind, though there are many others; hard to grasp for English speakers let alone explaining to those learning the language.

Imagine hearing Benjamin Franklin who, according to H. L. Mencken in his remarkable book, The American Language, pronounced the ‘l’ in the words would and should?!!

Mencken, in fact, mentions the issue of the silent ‘w’ in sword, explaining that American colonists pronounced it s’w’ord long after the English abandoned it. That is just over a couple of hundred years ago and in linguistic history, a blink of an eye. I think this bolsters my cause as ammunition enough to reclaim the lost letter. If history is on my side and surely if we can say swore, we can say s’w’ord. En garde!

 

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