Historical Friends

by Steve Hartshorne on April 11, 2014

dexter-marsh

Dexter Marsh

I guess anyone who reads makes literary and historical friends: people you like, whose stories are interesting to you and kind of reach out and grab you. Sometimes you get a sense of someone from reading what they wrote or what others wrote about them, so your mind can kind of conjecture what they might say or do in a certain situation.

A lot of people ask, “What would Jesus do?” and try to figure it out. I often ask, “What would Lincoln say?” and kind of leave the question open in the back of my mind and come back in a few days, and generally I find some pretty good answers.

But there’s a fine line here, and if you cross over it, you start thinking that they’re actually talking to you. Ever had that happen?

I liked Dexter Marsh the first time I met him. He was the thirteenth child of a poor family in Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts in the early 1800s, and he never went to school. But he discovered the first traces of dinosaurs in America and belonged to many learned socieities. He used to row up and down the Connecticut River collecting fossilized dinosaur footprints.

mary-phylinda-dole

Mary Phylinda Dole

I remember wondering if he knew John Putnam, the barber, fiddler and conductor on the Underground Railroad. Then one day I saw a letter in Irmarie Jones’ column in the Greenfield Recorder. It was written by Dexter Marsh’s daughter, who described going out into her yard as a little girl and finding a group of black children. Her mother told her it was only a dream. Of course. You don’t ask a little child to keep a secret; it’s too hard for them.

So that answers that question. Dexter Marsh’s house was a station. But the way I learned it really gave me the feeling that my old friend was actually communicating with me from beyond the grave. I got that tingling up and down my spine that I used to get when Charlie Sheerin preached in St. John’s Chapel to a group of awkward preppies. I think of it as a kind of truth tingle.

Mary Phylinda Dole was a physician in Greenfield in the 1890s who grew up on a farm in Ashfield. I found a copy of her autobiography, which was privately published, at a tag sale in Northfield. That got burned up in a house fire. I got another copy from her niece which I gave to my mom, but I couldn’t find it among her effects when she passed away.

Years later, there it was in the Whately Antiquarian Book Center: a beautiful copy in mint condition with –get this! — ephemera! (Papers tucked inside) There was a review of the book and an article from the Mt. Holyoke alumni bulletin. I got so tingly, I may have done a little dance.

 

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The Last House on Tough Street

by Steve Hartshorne on April 6, 2014

helen-hay-whitney

Helen Hay Whitney

All winter I’ve been caught up in The Five of Hearts by Patricia O’Toole, a chronicle of the life and friendship of Henry Adams, Marian “Clover” Adams, John Hay, Clara Hay, and the enigmatic “fifth heart” Clarence King.

Their lives are fascinating, their friendships are inspiring, and their circle of acquaintance is wide and included Mark Twain, W.D. Howells, Henry James, Edith Wharton, H.H. Richardson, Augustus St. Gaudens, Stanford White, John LaFarge, Cecil “Springy” Spring Rice, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and so many other notables of the time that the book really gives the reader an insider’s view of the Gilded Age.

One of the many fascinating characters is Helen Hay, daughter of John and Clara. She later married millionaire oarsman Payne Whitney and after his death donated the gym at Yale.

When she was a young woman, she visited her friend Constance Lodge at the family summer place in Nahant. Before she left, she had promised no fewer than a dozen boys that she would take a walk with them on the seaside cliffs.

When Constance’s parents Cabot and Nannie Lodge insisted she entertain the boys at the house, the young people gathered on the porch and began singing, which was actually a cover so that Helen could take all the walks she had promised.

“Amused to find himself outmaneuvered,” O’Toole writes, “Cabot contented himself with eavesdropping, and his worries about Helen’s ability to fend for herself must have melted when he heard her explain to an admirer, ‘I am a tough, and I come from a tough place, and I live on a tough street, and the farther you go the tougher it gets, and I live in the last house.’”

Now I find it hard to believe this young lady made this up herself, so I’ve googled it on many different occasions and found it all over the place. Billy Graham heard a young boy saying something like this, so you find that a lot, and lots of American folkloric characters have adapted it for their own use.

One night I found a reference to song that T.S. Eliot like to sing when he was being shaved that went “My name is Tough and I live on Tough Street, etc.” but I’ve tried and tried and have never been able to find  it again.

Since Helen’s father, John Hay, was ambassador to Great Britain, I think it must have been a music hall song she heard in London.

Our last view of Helen in The Five of Hearts is on the eve of her wedding to Payne Whitney, surrounded by magnificent wedding gifts — silver candelabras from the Astors, an enormous silver punch bowl from Andrew Carnegie, a diamond-studded warming pan from the father of the groom, and, according to Henry Adams, “pitchers, pots and plates enough to supply the Walkyrie and Valhalla.”

The occasion, as it turned out, was unutterably tragic as Helen’s brother Adelbert had died in a tragic accident a few months before when he fell out of a window in the New Haven House while attending a Yale reunion. He had been about to assume his duties as secretary to President Theodore Roosevelt, a position his father held under Abraham Lincoln.

Henry was grieved to see his beloved Helen, “simple, foolish, helpless, unstylish, unfashionable, unconventional, blind with headache, and stupendously out of place in all that New York menagerie.”

But Helen easily found her place in New York society. She was a widely-published poet and an author of children’s books, and she founded Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic at New York Presbyterian Hospital, among many other charitable organizations. She was also a very successful horse breeder. Her horses won the American Grand National, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

I would love some help tracking down the reference to the last house on Tough Street. Email me at atnash@gmail.com

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What Objection Could There Be To Such A Plan?

by Steve Hartshorne on March 15, 2014

edward-chair

My friend Edward


Here are some passages from a Chinese play that my friend Edward and I have been laughing about for many years. It’s called ‘Autumn in the Palace of Han’ by Ma Chih-yuan. We found it in an anthology of Chinese literature edited by Cyril Birch.

The funniest character is a guy named Mao Yen-shou, who is remarkably candid. He starts out with a song:

“I have a hawk’s claws and a vulture’s beak.
I deceive the great and oppress the weak.
Thanks to flattery and an avaricious bent,
I’ve built a fortune too huge to be spent.”

Then he tells us about his plans:

“I am no other person than Mao Yen-shou. I serve the Han court as middle counsellor. I have employed a hundred arts of deceit and steady flattery to dupe that old man, the emperor, and I keep him in sufficiently good spirits.

“My words are heeded; my plans are followed. Within and without the court, is there a man who does not respect me, does not fear me?

“I have been studying a new plan: if I can persuade the emperor to devote as little time as possible to his learned ministers, and to give himself instead to fleshly pleasures, my command over the imperial favor will truly be secure.”

Then the emperor comes in and Mao Yen-shou makes his proposal:

“Your majesty, even a country fellow, when he harvests ten more loads of wheat than he had expected, will want to get a new wife. Why should your majesty, whose rank is supreme, and whose riches encompass the nation, not enjoy as much. Would it not be wise to send an official throughout the empire to select maidens for the palace?

“These girls should be chosen without respect to their families’ position, the only condition being that they are between fifteen and twenty years of age, and of pleasing features.

“You should fill the women’s palace with the maidens selected. What objection could there be to such a plan?”

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The Proud Tower

by Steve Hartshorne on March 3, 2014

ituchma001p1I’m having a great time rereading The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman’s book about Europe and America at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. What we used to call the turn of the century.

Two world wars and an industrial revolution have changed the landscape so much that this world of kings and tsars and emperors seems like a faraway fairy-tale world, but it really wasn’t so long ago.

When my grandmother was 17, she visited Tsarist Russia on her grand tour of Europe. Believe it or not, she took a train from Moscow to Paris in July of 1914. Had she waited another month, she might never have returned and our family history would never have been written.

Like every single one of Tuchman’s books, The Proud Tower is brilliant.

The first time through, I thought it bogged down a bit in the first chapter about the English aristocracy, but the second time I relished the rich descriptive text that captures every aspect of that world so aptly — like the 85-year-old Marchioness of Salisbury who still rode in the hunt accompanied by a groom who, whenever she came to a fence, would shout, “Jump, dammit, my lady, jump!”

Or Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister who acted as his own Foreign Secretary, who viewed successful foreign policy as “a series of microscopic advantages; a judicious suggestion here, an opportune civility there, a wise concession at one moment and a farsighted persistence at another; of sleepless tact, immovable calmness and patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunder can shake.”

thomas-czar-reedThen there’s a chapter on the anarchists with a lot of stuff I didn’t know, and the third chapter is about the US, with a focus on Thomas Reed, the Speaker of the House who broke the deadlock caused by the so-called ‘silent quorum.’

The minority party, in this case the Democrats, would prevent the House from doing business by calling for a roll call and then not answering when their names were called.

The Republicans, led by Reed, were trying to pass the Force Bill, to compel the Southern states to allow African Americans to vote, but they didn’t have enough seats for a quorum.

Reed, who knew every member of the House by sight, began counting members present whether they answered or not, causing pandemonium in the House chamber.

As he calmly read through the names of the members, “‘Mr. Lawler, Mr. Lee, Mr. McAdoo, Mr. McCreary…’

“‘I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me as present!’ bellowed McCreary.

“For the first time the Speaker stopped, held the hall in silence for a pause as an actor holds an audience, then blandly spoke:

“‘The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present. Does he deny it?’”

Reed was a supporter of Theodore Roosevelt, but broke with him over the conquest and subjugation of the Philippines, which many at the time, and subsequently, considered a betrayal of the country’s democratic principles.

“The Great War of 1914-18 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours,” Tuchman writes in the Foreword. “This book is an attempt to discover the quality of the world from which the Great War came.”

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The Fires of Jubilee

by Steve Hartshorne on February 6, 2014

nat-turner

 

I’m nearly finished with a fascinating work about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion: The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion by Stephen B. Oates.

I’d like to leave aside the controversy over William Styron’s fictional account of the rebellion, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) which was very popular in the sixties and seventies.

I haven’t read it, nor have I read William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, which came out shortly afterward.

Styron’s book won the Pulitzer Prize, and was praised by eminent African-American authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, but it has been criticized for a lot of glaring inaccuracies, including Turner’s supposed obsession with white women.

Oates, a former professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, doesn’t make stuff up the way Styron did. He does what all good historians do: He sorts through an enormous body of original sources and presents the telling details that illuminate this fascinating story.

While he conveys the deadening, oppressive evils of slavery, he also presents the disgusting brutality of the rebels, who slaughtered more than 60 men, women and children with axes, knives and swords.

At one point they came to a school and decapitated all the children and left their bodies in a heap.

The brutality of the rebels sickened even their fellow slaves, who spread the alarm and even fought against them.

When I started the book, I was all set to regard Turner as a hero because his cause was just, but if you hack women and children to death, you’re not a hero.

Oates also does a great job conveying the deep-seated paranoia of the slave owners throughout the South.

I always thought the brutality of the slave-owners was prompted by greed and cruelty — and it was! — but as Oates observes, another important motivator was fear.

More than 200 slaves and free blacks were murdered and executed after the rebellion, of whom about 50 were actually involved.

There were many inquiries by Virginia authorities into the causes of Turner’s revolt, because the slave owners were anxious to prevent future outbreaks.

One lawyer even published a lengthy interview with Turner himself, who claimed he was commanded by God Almighty, who showed him signs in the heavens.

In fact there was a solar eclipse shortly before the uprising.

John Floyd, the governor of Virginia blamed the rebellion on the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and his Boston-based abolitionist publication The Liberator, although there is no evidence that any of the slaves had ever read it.

That didn’t stop Floyd from offering a $5,000 reward to anyone who would kidnap Garrison and bring him to Virginia. Georgia offered an additional $5,000.

But the real reason for the brutality of the rebels is simple. Nat Turner had been reading an ancient terror manual known as The Bible. Right there in the book of Ezekiel he found his instructions:

“Then the glory of the God of Israel rose up from between the cherubim, and moved to the entrance of the Temple. And the Lord called to the man who was carrying the writer’s case.

“He said to him, ‘Walk through the streets of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of all who weep and sigh because of the detestable sins being committed in their city.’

“Then I heard the Lord say to the other men, ‘Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked.

“Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all—old and young, girls and women and little children. But do not touch anyone with the mark. Begin right here at the Temple.”

Unfortunately the seat of Southampton County was then called Jerusalem, Virginia.

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Laughing at the Handicapped

by Steve Hartshorne on January 15, 2014

I called my friend Edward tonight, and we laughed and laughed. We laughed about his girlfriend Helene, who died of cancer, about her writing people into her will in her last days and then writing them out. Helene cheated Edward out of thousands of dollars and took possession of the house they had worked for years to buy.

We laughed about his old boss Betty, the CEO of a foundation called Betty’s Dream, who had a tiny shrunken body and was ‘basically a head’ and made life hell for her employees, principally Edward, who was the executive director.

I still crack up at the very mention of her hame.

And we laughed about the late Ray Burton, whom we all loved dearly, but who did make some inappropriate advances toward an intern for the North Country Historical Foundation that we had to get the other trustees, two elderly ladies, to overlook.

At that point, any one of us could have created a scandal, but, take my word for it, there was no harm done. It was just one of those incredibly funny situations.

We laughed and laughed about human foibles. God knows we all have them. But they’re so funnY!

Edward has metastatic cancer, which is bad, but whenever I call him, he is very much himself, which is good. We laugh and laugh. I told him I’m not ready to say goodbye, so he has to stick around.

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Those Who Make Wars

by Steve Hartshorne on January 15, 2014

George-W-Bush

George W. Bush

In his book ‘The Face of Battle,’ Howard Keegan quotes an account by Lieutenant W.P. Joynt, which was included in The
Official Australian History of the Great War (that would be World War I). Lieutenant Joynt, during the Battle of Ypre, came upon a circle of Australian soliders surrounding a two-story German pillbox.

“The Germans in the lower chamber soon surrendered,” Joynt writes. “The circle of Australians at once assumed easy attitudes, and the prisoners were coming out when shots were fired, killing an Australian.

Donald-Rumfeld

Donald Rumsfeld

“The shot came from the upper storey, whose inmates knew nothing of the surrender of the men below; but the surrounding troops were much too heated to realize this. To them the deed appeared to be the vilest treachery, and they forthwith bayoneted the prisoners.”

Keegan quotes the official historian’s response: “The Germans in this case were entirely innocent, but such incidents are inevitable in the heat of battle, and any blame for them lies with those who make wars, not with those who fight them.”

I think soldiers should be held accountable for deliberate atrocities, but cases of this kind are inevitable in war, and that’s why waging aggressive war is a crime. It was one of the charges against the Nazi defendants at Nuremberg.

dick-cheney

Dick Cheney

During the second Iraq War, an American soldier raped a young Iraqi woman after murdering her family before her eyes. Then he shot her and burned her body.

George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney have not been prosecuted for this crime, but they ought to be. They provided the murder weapon and drove the getaway car.

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President Kennedy in Ireland

by Steve Hartshorne on January 6, 2014

Kennedy-at-Arbour-Hill

President Kennedy reviews the Irish Cadets at Arbour Hill

I was deeply moved by the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination. The films and reminiscences of his administration transported me back to a world of childhood innocence, evoking all kinds of wonderful memories. And then we came to the shock and grief of his death and his funeral and the dark period of national mourning. Even after 50 years, these stirred up powerful memories and emotions.

I’ve just begun a wonderful book, JFK  in  Ireland, by Ryan Tubridy, a Christmas gift from my daughter, that shows John Kennedy at his finest, on his  trip to Ireland in the summer of 1963. JFK spoke in glowing terms about the trip, and showed his home movies to his family again and again.

As a Boston Boy who has traveled to Ireland here and here, I know something of this feeling. I remember thinking that if I had taken these trips as a student at Ames School in Dedham, Principal Frank Liddell would have held an all-school assembly, and all the students and  teachers would have listened with rapt attention to every detail.

“I think it’s important to remember,” I wrote, “that unlike many other peoples who came to America, the Irish didn’t emigrate because they wanted to. They had no choice. They were not received as well as they ought to have been, and times were hard for a good long while. Is it any wonder, then, that they would pass on to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren their fond, even passionate memories of this exquisitely beautiful country with its 45 shades of green?”

On my second trip I met the Lord Mayor of Dublin and the President of Ireland and rode at  the head of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “Back in Boston,” I wrote, “I’d have to be careful not to go on about it too long, for fear it would be said I was putting on airs.”

 

jackie-o

 

Tubridy’s book opens with a facsimile of the hand-written letter that Jacqueline Kennedy sent to the President of Ireland, describing how much President Kennedy’s trip had meant to him, and thanking him for sending the Irish Cadets to serve as an honor guard at his funeral.

The President had taken special notice of the cadets at a service in memory of those killed in the Easter Uprising of 1916, and Mrs. Kennedy had asked that they perform the same drill at Arlington National Cemetery.

I hope you’ll take a look at the letter, because it shows how gracious this lady was, even in that time of great sorrow.

“He was so conscious of his heritage — and so proud,” she wrote, “and Ireland can be proud that they gave the United States its greatest president. Now those words may sound the words of a bereaved wife — but in a generation that is what they will be teaching to school children.”

All this brought to mind another remiscence of JFK’s trip to Ireland that I read about in Walking to Canterbury by Jerry Ellis. Ellis meets an elderly woman named Maggie, who holds his hands and tells him she has held the hands of the pope himself and John F. Kennedy.

“The pope, bless him, was easy to get to because I was in the right line. But President Kennedy was a slippery catch. It was Dublin, darling, and the place was so packed that air itself was getting the life squeezed right out of it. There I was, tiny me, no taller than a weed, with everybody’s elbows banging my ears.

“But I had two American flags, and you know what I did? I did right the opposite of all those around me. They waved their flags up and down, but I waved mine sideways with the force of a gale. Darling, I was a woman on a mission, and I didn’t stop waving those Stars and Stripes till the president himself made his way through the sea of Irishmen to pick me from the crowd. When he did, I dropped the flags and grabbed both his handsome hands.

“He wasn’t just a man. He was a legend, and right then and there I became part of it in my own small way. Now that legend holds your hands. We’re links in a chain of history, tragic as it turned out to be for him and his poor family and the rest of us who cared.”

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The Course of Honor

by Steve Hartshorne on December 29, 2013

vespasian

Vespasian

I’ve been having great fun reading ‘The Course of Honor’ by Lindsey Davis about the Roman Emperor Vespasian and his girlfriend Antonia Caenis.

Davis is the author of the murder mystery series set in Rome that features Marcus Didius Falco. ‘The Course of Honor’ is not a mystery, but rather a novel about the relationship between two historic figures whom Davis brings to life by a skillful telling of their stories which intertwine, then separate, and then come together again.

It was Davis’ first (and favorite) book, but it wasn’t published until the Falco series became popular. It is told from the point of view of Caenis, who begins life as a palace slave with an aptitude for secretarial work. She later becomes the slave of Antonia Minor, the daughter of Marc Antony and Augustus’ sister Octavia. When Antonia frees her, she becomes Anonia Caenis.

The title refers to the series of offices a respectable Roman of the senatorial class is expected to attain during the course of his career. Because of laws passed by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, Vespasian was prevented from marrying Caenis, a fact they both have to accept during their initial love affair.

He winds up marrying Flavia Domitilla and having two  sons, Titus (the good one) and Domitian (the bad one), both of whom ultimately succeed Vespasian as emperor — but that’s getting ahead of the story.

The story of Vespasian and Caenis is set against the backdrop of the murders and poisonings of the Julian emperors who succeeded Augustus: Tiberius the pedophile, Caligula the madman, Caludius the well-intentioned nitwit, and finally Nero who famously fiddled while Rome burned, and is also known for murdering his mother and kicking his pregnant wife to death.

In an era when none of the members of the imperial family could trust any of the others, the emperors turned the running of the empire over to their personal slaves and freedmen (and freedwomen). Antonia Caenis becomes one of the most influential people in Rome, and she helps Vespasian’s career along, even though they seldom see one another.

The rest, as they say, is history: Vespasian becomes a general and conquers Britain and Judaea. After Nero commits suicide we enter  the year of the four emperors. Galba, Otho, and Vitellius quickly come and go, and Vespasian — now a widower — assumes the purple and resumes his love affair with Antonia Caenis.

With the spoils from the sack of Jerusalem, he builds the famous Flavian amphitheatre, better known as the Colosseum, probably the best known symbol of ancient Rome.

It’s a great story, beautifully told, and it’s all true. We get a glimpse of Vespasian’s wit on his deathbed, but it needs a bit of explanation: Julius Caesar and Augustus were both deified after they died, so just as Vespasian is giving up the ghost, he exclaims, “I think I’m becoming a god.”

 

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Fifty Years Later

by Steve Hartshorne on November 23, 2013

john-john

I’ve been watching a lot of the programs about John F. Kennedy, and I really enjoyed the stories about his presidency, especially the PBS special. The hope and promise of this bright, articulate, principled man and his wonderful family brought back lots of happy childhood memories. I don’t care if he fooled around with lots of beautiful women. So what?

His careful judgment during the Cuban Missile Crisis — and, let’s face it, that of Nikita Krushchev —  prevented a nuclear war that would have destroyed human civilization. And I think it’s important to note that all the advice he got from all his learned advisors was terrible. Every one of them was in favor of destroying the world just to avoid appearing weak. JFK didn’t have to worry about that. He was a war hero.

In the matter of civil rights, it’s clear that JFK came late to the party, but I think he planned to join it all along. He just couldn’t do it too soon or he would no longer be president, just as Franklin Roosevelt could not pass a federal law against lynching. Then JFK saw George Wallace spewing his hateful, pompous vitriol and decided he could wait no longer.

But the assassination — the motorcade, the Zapruder film, the bugler who missed a note, the shock and sorrow on the faces of RFK and Jackie Kennedy, little John John saluting — a lot of it I just couldn’t watch because it was all too painful. Fifty  years later, I can’t stop weeping.

I’ve been wondering why it was we all loved JFK so much, and I think it was because he asked all of us to join  in and help him. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” I was just a little boy in Dedham, Massachusetts, and all I was asked to do was to do sit-ups and jumping jacks in the basement of Ames School, but I felt I was doing my part, I was a part of something very big and very important.

Much later I was doing research for some Memorial Day speeches for state senators in New Hampshire, and I came upon an address by Oliver Wendell Holmes senior, the novelist and father of the Civil War hero and chief justice. Holmes said something like: “In these times it is not appropriate for a man to ask what his country can do for him. He ought, rather, to ask what he can do for his country.”

I got a tingle up my spine. “Someone,” I thought, “has been here before me.”

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