Abraham LincolnSome wise guy on Quora asked the other day, if Abraham Lincoln was the Emancipator and the Rail-Splitter, and Theodore Roosevelt was the Trust-Buster, what title should we give President Donald Trump.

I wasn’t about to get drawn into that kind of conversation, but I did point out to the wag that Abraham Lincoln did not want to be referred to as a rail-splitter or a grocery clerk or a riverboat pilot. The title he wanted was “lawyer,” and with good reason.

As Dan Abrams points out in this book, written with David Fisher, Lincoln tried about 2,000 civil and criminal cases. He was one of the most prominent attorneys in what was then The West, and he played an important role in the development of legal precedent in this country.

The present volume concerns the last case Lincoln tried before he was elected president. The matter before the court sitting in Springfield, Illinois in 1859, was the stabbing death, in the village of Pleasant Plains, of Greek Crafton, a young man who had studied law in Lincoln’s office. Lincoln and a former law partner, Stephen T. Logan, defended the fellow who fatally stabbed Crafton—”Peachy” Quinn Harrison, a questionable character at best.

Abraham Lincoln 2This account, while it is documentary, is presented in an engaging story-telling style that Lincoln, the old tale-spinner, would have appreciated. In a compact volume, the reader learns about the application and evolution of law in those prairie days, about the phenomenon of the circuit—judges and lawyers, more or less as a body, making the rounds among the far-flung communities of the western states, and about the focus and skill with which Lincoln studied and argued a case. Abrams and Fisher also present a study of Lincoln’s courtroom style in which he maintained an inscrutable visage and avoided histrionics.

The killing that led to this trial was the result of Greek’s perception of honor. Peachy had said something offensive about a member of the Crafton family, and Greek made it clear that he intended to have satisfaction—which, in his mind, meant pummeling Peachy. When Greek cornered Peachy in a Pleasant Plains drugstore, Greek got the worst of it. The defense built by Lincoln and Logan involved the question of whether Peachy was reasonably acting in self defense when he stabbed Greek. Another issue was whether Greek himself, on his deathbed, had exonerated Peachy of any blame for the incident.

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Robert Roberts Hitt

The authors tell much of this story through the eyes of Robert Roberts Hitt, who was a friend and admirer of Lincoln and an expert at shorthand. The year before this trial, Hitt had recorded the debates between Lincoln and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas in the campaign for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois and it was his account that readers found in newspapers around the country. An Illinois newspaper engaged him to report the proceedings in the trial of Peachy Harrison.

Hitt, by the way, had a distinguished career when he was done with the painstaking task of taking down millions of words by hand. He served in the American embassy in Paris; he was an assistant secretary of state and a member of Congress, and he was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution.

Hitt was serving in Congress in 1892 when the Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted ten years before, came up for renewal. This act prohibited immigration by any Chinese laborers, and it was the first law in the United States that shut out a specific ethnic group. Hitt unsuccessfully opposed the law (which was repealed in 1943) and his reaction has a troubling resonance in 2018:

“Never before in a free country,” Hitt said, “was there such a system of tagging a man, like a dog to be caught by the police and examined, and if his tag or collar is not all right, taken to the pound or drowned and shot. Never before was it applied by a free people to a human being, with the exception (which we can never refer to with pride) of the sad days of slavery. …”

 

 

 

 

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BOB DYLAN/billboard.com

In an episode of the television series Taxi, Latka Gravas, an immigrant from an unnamed Eastern European country, is repairing a cab while his radio plays what sounds like polka music from his homeland. Cab driver Jim Ignatowski, who hasn’t gotten over the ‘sixties, stops momentarily to listen, cupping his ear and gently rocking to the beat. As he walks away, Iggy says, “You never know what Dylan is going to do next.” Ignatowski, though usually in a daze, knew a thing or two, including, it seems, the wide range of musical genres Dylan has explored—invariably making his own mark. That Taxi episode was recorded in 1979; Dylan has covered a lot of ground since then.

I have only a casual knowledge of Bob Dylan, but it was knowledge enough to draw my attention to the title of this book written by Richard F. Thomas, a professor of classics at Harvard. It struck me that Dylan’s influence has been such that, on the one hand, no one needs to explain why he matters and, on the other hand, no one can. Or perhaps I mean no one should, because I know Dylan has bristled at times at efforts to explain him and his work—and especially at efforts to fit him and his work into categories.

So because I was curious about that title—curiosity is one of my downfalls—I read the book. It was immediately apparent to me that I did not belong in Richard Thomas’s company, at least where Dylan is concerned. Thomas has vast and deep knowledge of Dylan’s career with its many phases—tableaux might be a better word; with his songs and how they have slipped in and out of the repertoire; with the shifting devotion of his fans; with his odyssey through musical genres and his spawning of new ones; with his live performances; with his other artistic expressions; with the fuzzy distinction between truth and fantasy in his recollections, and with his personal life. Dylan fans—real fans—might revel in Thomas’s exposition of Dylan and his songs, done in accessible language and in a relatively compact space.

What absorbed me most in this book was what Thomas presented as Dylan’s early and continuing interest in the culture of ancient Rome and his incorporation of classical Greek and Roman poetry into his lyrics. In his Nobel lecture, Dylan spoke of the influence that Homer’s Odyssey has had on him and on many other writers.

Thomas sees the connection between Dylan and the ancients as a great deal more than plagiarism or “creative use of existing texts.” With respect to Ovid, Virgil, Homer, and that whole crowd, Thomas writes, “For the past forty years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan’s songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets. He is part of that classical stream whose spring starts out in Greece and Rome and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today and incapable of being contained by time and space.”

And Dylan’s take? He recalls reading Cicero, Plutarch, Tacitus, and Marcus Aurelius: “If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a school teacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The electric chair at the Holman Correctional Facility

When I was in high school, Mike Rinaldo, a history teacher and a hell of a nice guy, gave us some experience in debate. Not only did he assign the topics, but he also told us which side of the topics we were to argue. He assigned me to argue in favor of capital punishment. I was not in favor of capital punishment, but I made the best argument I could, and the faculty panel that judged the debates declared me the winner of that one. Since Mr. Rinaldo had compelled me to construct an argument against my own beliefs, I was amused when he told me privately, and with a twinkle in his eye, that he thought my argument was all wet and that it was shameless of me to include Torah references such as “an eye for an eye,” knowing that the rabbis had interpreted such references in much more nuanced ways than I had used them.

I understand support for the death penalty—I really do. I have read about murder cases that made me, for the moment, so angry that I would have pulled the switch or started the IV myself. But when I reflect calmly on it, I abhor capital punishment. To me, it represents the height of pessimism. Nathan Leopold would have been executed had it not been for Clarence Darrow; Leopold served his time and spent the rest of his life being peaceful and useful. Queen Victoria thought Edward Oxford should be hanged, but Oxford was shipped off to Australia where he became a prominent citizen of his community. Would death have served better purposes? I don’t think so. And my antipathy for the penalty wasn’t assuaged at all by The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton with a literary hand from Lara Love Hardin of Idea Architects.

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ANTHONY RAY HINTON/slate.com

Hinton, who is from Birmingham, spent nearly 30 years on death row in an Alabama state prison for a crime he had nothing to do with. In 1985, a witness identified him as the man who shot a restaurant owner in an incident that had occurred while Hinton was 15 miles away, working on a cleaning crew in a warehouse. The warehouse was surrounded by razor-wire fence, and anyone coming or going had to check in with a guard at the gate. In addition, the workers were supervised by a foreman who assigned them task by task. Hinton was not charged with that crime but with two murders that had followed the same pattern. He was convicted on the basis of what turned out to be inaccurate ballistics test results that connected the crimes to a revolver owned by Hinton’s mother. He was convicted also because, being black, he fit Alabama’s glib profile of a criminal, and being poor, he did not receive competent defense.

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HOLSOM STATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY

Because of this best-selling book and the media attention that has been afforded Hinton, it is well known by now that he was released from prison in 2015 after the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction and the State of Alabama declined to retry the case—not because the state finally acknowledged its mistakes but because, with the ballistics test debunked, it had no evidence against Hinton. The criminal justice system in Alabama had doggedly refused to acknowledge what was clear; its behavior leads only to the conclusion that its priority was not to establish the truth but to execute this man who, conveniently, was convicted and incarcerated.

This story is also about the unnecessary cruelty with which the State of Alabama treated the inmates on death row in the Holman Correctional Facility. Condemned men live every hour in putrid conditions with a combination of humiliation, fear, and hopelessness—there were eleven suicides on the unit while Hinton was there, and he writes that he considered that solution for himself.

And this story is about the strength of character that sustained Hinton during those decades in which 54 condemned prisoners were walked past his cell on their way to the electric chair or, in latter years, the gurney and lethal injection. In fact, the quality of the human being who emerges from this account makes the fact that he languished in prison for no reason all the greater tragedy: He was robbed of his life, and his community and friends and family, and the world at large, were denied the blessing of his presence.

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ANTHONY RAY HINTON and LESTER BAILEY/gridironnow.com

He was a blessing to his colleagues on death row, though, because while he wrestled with  the frustrations and horrors of his own situation—ingeniously creating a detailed fantasy life in which he could find relief from a suffocating reality—he related to the other condemned inmates, even the former Klansman who had lynched black men, as first of all fellow human beings. He went to the length of convincing the warden to let him form a book club with a group of prisoners, opening to some of them a part of their own intellects that they had never before experienced.

Hinton is a man of such integrity that when, after many unsuccessful attempts to get the state to confront the injustice done to him, he was offered the opportunity of life without parole, he turned it down. He would rather have died than imply that he had committed those crimes.

Anthony Ray Hinton is 62 years old; to a large extent, he has missed out on life. But with this book—a tough one to put down once you start reading it—he has made a powerful statement about injustice. And if Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative had not taken up the case, the State of Alabama would have gone on its giddy way to killing—murdering, really—this insightful and gentle man.

 

A hero in Hinton’s life is Lester Bailey, who has been his friend since they were young children. Bailey never missed a visiting day at Holman for the entire time Hinton was incarcerated, often bringing Hinton’s devoted mother until she passed away. You can see Hinton talking about Hinton’s friendship by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

Rogers 1

I must have been out of town, figuratively, when angry protesters were denouncing Fred Rogers for “tolerating” gay people. That’s what one of the protest signs—in a scene from the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—accused Rogers of doing, “tolerating.”

I dislike that word and its derivatives when they are used to describe race relations or gender relations, if that’s the right term. To tolerate a class of people is to put up with them when we’d rather not. And this documentary reinforces the fact that tolerating people because they were black or gay or disabled or distinguished in some other way was precisely what Fred Rogers did not do. He accepted people as they were and, what’s more important, he taught children to do that by explicitly extending that courtesy to them.

Mr. Rogers, we learn in this presentation, was an overweight child who took some abuse from his peers. Having been belittled in that way, he made a career of promoting in the minds of children that, regardless of their individual circumstances, each one of them was of value—not in spite of but because of the fact that each one was unique.

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François Clemmons/PBS

I’m not sure it was made clear in the movie, but the demonstration scene seems to depict the followers of the crazed Kansas minister Fred Phelps making a nuisance of themselves during a memorial service in Mr. Rogers’ honor. Phelps hated everything about Rogers.

We learn in the documentary that Fred Rogers’ attitude toward gay people evolved in a way that was dramatized by his relationship with a prominent member of the cast of his television series. This was François Clemmons, who played a policeman in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for 25 years. This casting was groundbreaking in itself; Clemmons was one of the first black performers to have a recurring role on a children’s television show. And he was presented as an authority figure who was beloved in the neighborhood and a close friend of Mr. Rogers. The documentary includes a scene in which Mr. Rogers was cooling his feet in a plastic pool of water and invited Officer Clemmons to join him. When the camera zoomed in on the black feet and the white feet next to each other in that pool—at a time in our history when black swimmers were unwelcome in many pools—no words were necessary to convey the message.

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John Beale/Focus Features

Clemmons, who is a distinguished singer and university lecturer, is gay. He explains, without rancor, in the documentary that Fred Rogers—aware of the conservative mindset of corporate supporters and of the parents of many children who watched the show—advised him to stop visiting a gay nightclub and in general to keep his gender identity under wraps. Rogers went so far as to recommend that Clemmons marry—a step that Clemmons actually took with predictable results. But that was in the 1960s, and Clemmons, who says he regarded Rogers as his “surrogate father,” understood or, at least, rationalized the logic of the time—if Clemmons came out as gay, there would have been powerful pushback that Rogers was not prepared to resist.

Clemmons’ decision to continue on the show had to do with both his personal relationship with Rogers, which was deeply sympathetic and spiritual, and with Clemmons’ assessment of what was the best course for a gay performer at that moment in history. It’s easy to pass judgment on a person in that situation—as long as the person isn’t you. There is more to Clemmons’ story than this documentary could explore, but he talks about it in more detail in an article in Vanity Fair currently available at THIS LINK.

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Joanne Rogers/Getty Images – Frederick M. Brown

Fred Rogers’ wife, Joanne, says in the documentary that her husband eventually “came around” with respect to homosexuality; Clemmons, who is a prominent figure in the movie, certainly seems to be satisfied on that score.

I wasn’t aware that Phelps had aimed his vitriol at Mr. Rogers. Nor was I aware that other reactionary types had misconstrued Rogers’ message to children as suggesting that they need not struggle or even work in order to succeed—a bizarre interpretation of his assurance to children that “You are special” and “I love you as you are.”

This documentary has received nearly universal praise, but not only because it is a portrait of a beloved public figure and an important influence on two generations of children. The film is also praiseworthy because it presents Fred Rogers with no filter on the lens, as a man who had his doubts and disappointments—a radical whose radicalism knew its boundaries. Make no mistake: he was an extraordinary human being, but he wasn’t perfect, and we have no right to expect that of him. In fact, it was from Fred Rogers that we learned to love him just as he was.

 

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My friend from high school, Michael Peter Smith, wrote a song called “There’s a Panther in Michigan,” inspired by an actual incident, but it turns out the panther isn’t half the problem. The Detroit Free Press reports today that there have been several accounts in the metropolitan Detroit area of dogs being killed and coyotes fingered as the suspects.

Detroit. Coyotes. I grew up associating coyotes with Tex Ritter, the prairie, and tumbleweed, but it turns out the wolf relatives are an adaptable lot, easily moving into new habitats. They are now known from Panama to Alaska and most of Canada. That’s why they are not an endangered species—good on them—but it’s also why they are now a problem in my New Jersey neighborhood. A woman who lives about a mile from our condo reported last week that coyote were systematically exterminating her sheep.

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© Warner Brothers

We’re accustomed to deer and squirrels and foxes and rabbits. There is even a herd of bison about four miles down the road—though, I’m glad to say, they are penned in. But the coyote is a relatively new  blush on life in these parts.

The article in the Free Press cited a research report in ZooKeys magazine that reported that since 1900 coyotes have been expanding their territory across North America (by around 40 percent since the 1950s) while other species have been in decline. And they’re not afraid of traffic. The Free Press writes that the largest urban study of coyote is going on in the Chicago area where more than 1,000 of the buggers have been tagged,

Although there has never been a report in Michigan of a coyote attacking a human being, it has happened elsewhere, sometimes with fatal consequences. Despite the aggressive personality of the Warner Brothers character, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Wildlife Resources said coyotes are “docile” and “retiring” by nature, a notion that you might not want to test. Keep your dog on leash, and don’t carry no hamburger in your pocket neither.

You can hear Michael sing “There’s a Panther in Michigan” by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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whiffenpoofs.com

A friend told me during a party the other day that when he moved to Garden City, New York, many years ago, he inquired about joining the choir in the local Catholic Church and discovered that it was an all-male ensemble.

Beside the fact that this expression of machismo denied women a role in this particular ministry of the Church, the policy was diminishing the force as older members who moved, retired, or partook in eternal Glory, were not being replaced by new voices.

For a while, anyone who raised the prospect of inviting a wife or sister or daughter was shouted down, and my friend, as a newcomer, remained aloof from this controversy. Eventually however, after he got his sea legs, he spoke up for equity, to say nothing of survival, and the choir finally welcomed the women.

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The Whiffenpoofs of 1912, in ballet costume, with Louis Linder.

The process may have been different—although I have read that there was an ugly and abortive attempt in the 1980s—but a well-known singing aggregation has more recently taken a similar leap into the modern world. Well, yes, they will serenade their Louie, at least in spirit, but their song will have a new dimension—a female voice.

I refer to the Whiffenpoofs, the a cappella group composed of Yale University seniors that, for the first time in its 109-year-history, has admitted a female singer to its ranks. She is Sofia Campóamor, who sings soprano in another Yale ensemble but has a vocal range that equips her to sing tenor with the Whiffenpoofs, beginning in the next academic year. You can hear her singing “Say So,” one of her own compositions—and buy it if you like it—by clicking HERE.

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Louis Linder

In a parallel development, Whim ‘n Rhythm, an all-female a cappella group at the university, has decided to admit singers regardless of gender, based on their vocal range. So Whim ‘n Rhythmn will run out the sopranos and altos, and the Whiffenpoofs will present tenors, baritones, and basses.

The Whiffenpoofs, the oldest and best-known of Yale’s several a cappella groups, close their concerts with their namesake song, the one that begins, “To the tables down at Mory’s, / to the place where Louie dwells, / to the dear old Temple Bar we love so well,” and later promises, “We will serenade our Louie / while voice and song shall last, / then we’ll pass and be forgotten with the rest.” It’s a pessimistic sentiment, so it’s just as well that the Whiffenpoofs don’t take it seriously. You can get an idea of their treatment of the song by clicking HERE.

Whiffenpoofs 3 Rudy Vallee

Rudy Vallèe

The song was published as sheet music in 1909. The chorus was taken almost verbatim from Runyard Kipling’s poem “Gentlemen Rankers.” The poem was set to music by Guy H. Scull and adapted for Whiffenpoof purposes by with lyrics by Meade Minnigerode and George Pomeroy. Rudy Vallèe—with whom the song was widely associated—made a hit recording in 1937 and Bing Crosby did the same in 1947. It has been recorded by a host of others, a widely diverse group that includes Elvis Presley, Count Basie, Perry Como, and the Statler Brothers.

“Louie” refers to Louis Linder, a German immigrant who, in the late 19th century, bought what was then already a hallowed old restaurant that catered to Yale undergraduates. Eventually, the place was acquired by a non-profit organization founded by Yale alumni, and its furniture and other appointments were moved to a new location. The institution, Mory’s Temple Bar, which has experienced and recovered from hard times, is now a membership club where the Whiffenpoofs regularly hold forth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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David Lindquist, writing in the Indianapolis Star, recently took note of the end of the television series The Middle by recalling 20 fictional characters that, as Lindquist wrote, “put Indiana on the map.”

I’m pretty sure that Indiana, which I understand has been populated since around 8,000 years before the birth of Jesus, has been “on the map” at least since 1800 when Congress defined the Indiana Territory, which included what is now the sovereign state, so to speak.

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Johnny Gruelle

Anyway, the characters that Lindquist cites for reminding us of Indiana in more recent times included James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” who was from Greenfield; M*A*S*H surgeon Frank Burns, who was from Fort Wayne; and Woody Boyd of Cheers, who was from Hanover.

And Linquist’s Hall of Indiana Fame included Raggedy Ann and Andy, who were created by former Indianapolis Star cartoonist Johnny Gruelle who featured them in a series of children’s books that he wrote and illustrated. Gruelle made the first Raggedy Ann doll in 1915 and published the first book, Raggedy Ann Stories, in 1918, and the second, Raggedy Andy Stories, in 1920. Ann and Andy were siblings. I suppose they still are. For a time, the dolls and the books were sold together.

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My personal Ann and Andy, circa 1968

Although there are alternative versions of the origin of Raggedy Ann, it appears that was planted in Gruelle’s mind when he found a homemade rag doll in the attack of his parents’ home in Indianapolis and mused that the doll could be the subject of a story. After his daughter, Marcella, was born, and Gruelle observed her playing with dolls, he was inspired to write what became the Raggedy Ann stories.

It is not true, as is often reported, that his daughter found the doll in the attic; nor is it true that Gruelle created Raggedy Ann as a tribute to Marcella after she died, at the age of 13, as a result of a contaminated injection. Anti-vaccination interests have adopted Raggedy Ann as a symbol, based on the latter myth, but Marcella’s death was attributable to the contamination, not to the vaccination itself.

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Mug purchased by my parents circa 1941

As for the name of the doll, it is notable that Gruelle’s father, Richard, an artist, was a friend of James Whitcomb Riley, whose poems included “The Raggedy Man” and “Little Orphant Annie”—though why “orphant” rather than “orphan” I am not aware.

Gruelle’s inspiration after finding the forgotten doll has lived on in many forms besides the books, including animated films, a television series, a comic book, a stage play, and a Broadway musical.

Johnny Gruelle was an exceptional talent whose work appeared in theRaggedy 5 Twee Deedle Star as well as the Toledo News-Bee, the Pittsburgh Press, the Tacoma times, and the Spokane Press. In 1911, he and about 1500 other aspirants entered a cartooning contest sponsored by the New York Herald, and Gruelle won with a creation he called Mr. Twee Deedle. The strip ran in the Herald  for several years. Not too raggedy at that.

You can read a lot about the history of Raggedy Ann and Andy by clicking HERE.

Grant 1At my age, even opening the cover of a book of more than 900 pages is a sign of optimism. Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant is such a book, but far from wishing it were over, once I started reading I dreaded the day it would end. Grant, like the rest of us, was a complicated human being, and Chernow explores all the strengths and weaknesses of the man while simultaneously demonstrating why Grant was one of the most consequential and admirable public figures in American history.

Grant, whose ambition as a young man was to teach arithmetic, was a hard-luck guy in private life. He repeatedly failed at business and he was gullible and easily snookered. And he had a drinking problem that nearly wrecked his military career.

Grant 2On the other hand, he was a devoted father and husband, a military genius, and a fair and scrupulously honest man. He tried, as general and as president, to make Reconstruction work in the South—and for him that meant guaranteeing the rights of citizenship to black Americans. Although his policies regarding Native Americans weren’t perfect or particularly successful, he was more enlightened in that regard than most of his countrymen. He settled a seemingly intractable dispute with England over damages inflicted on federal properties by the Confederate cruiser Alabama—which had been purchased in England. He blazed a trail by being the first ex-president to exercise diplomacy overseas. And by the time he could see death approaching, he had become such an accomplished writer and chronicler that—in order to assure that his wife would have an income—he braved excruciating pain to write a massive two-volume memoir that is considered one of the best of its genre ever produced in this country.

One of the most ill-advised aspects of Grant’s presidency was his persistent attempts to get legislative approval of a treaty through which the United States would have annexed the Dominican Republic. 

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Julia Dent Grant

An aspect of Grant’s world view that Chernow develops thoroughly is particularly interesting at the present moment in our national life when controversies over memorials to Confederate leaders have exposed the bitterness between North and South that still exists in some quarters. The Grant that Chernow presents was devoted to the idea of reconciliation after the war. He demonstrated that early, at Appomattox, when he allowed Robert E. Lee’s troops, and Lee himself, some dignity in surrender. Grant traveled through the post-war South, and he warmly greeted former enemies when they called on him. Grant’s wife, Julia Dent, saw to it that there were Confederate veterans among Grant’s pallbearers.

Although Grant was uncompromising in battle, he never lost his compassion for other human beings. Witness this passage describing the aftermath of a successful Union campaign directed by Grant:

As was his wont, Grant proved generous in victory. When he and his officers trotted past a downtrodden contingent of enemy prisoners, he reacted with simple decency. “When General Grant reached the line of ragged, filthy, bloody, despairing prisoners … he lifted his hat and held it over his head until he passed the last man of that living funeral cortege,” recalled a prisoner. “He was the only officer in that whole train who recognized us as being on the face of the earth.”

Grant, as Chernow describes him, was fearless—almost reckless—in battle and thoughtful in repose. Almost no shock was great enough to break down his self control. He appeared to many of his contemporaries to be a man of silence, but in conversation he was an absorbing storyteller. And from the close of the Civil War until his death, he was wildly popular all over the country and abroad, as he and Julia discovered during the world tour that followed his second term as president. It is a melancholy thing to consider that the United States at that time did not provide a pension for former presidents, and Grant spent his retirement worrying about how he and his family were going to live.

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Julia Grant with her father, Colonel Frederick Dent, and two of her children, Nellie and Jessie

Grant isn’t the only fascinating character Chernow brings to life in this book. A host of men and women who played a part in Grant’s life, for better or for worse, provide the context for this story. They include Julia Dent Grant, the sweetheart of Grant’s life, a slaveholder’s daughter who gamely stood by her husband during the war and during his financial travails and who grew so attached to the gracious life of the White House that she was far more reluctant than Grant was to leave—and encouraged him in his unsuccessful attempt to win a third term. Also included are two gentlemen that Dickens would have loved—Grant’s father, Jesse, who was a constant embarrassment as he tried to capitalize on his son’s position, and Julia’s father, Colonel Frederick Dent, an unrepentant slaver whom Grant suffered to live in the White House even as the old man railed against the Union.

That’s a smattering of what Chernow has compiled in this biography. No matter how much time you have left, you won’t waste any of it if it’s spent reading this study of one of the finest Americans.

 

 

She Was Nice to Mice coverIn 1977, I reviewed a book about Queen Elizabeth I, who was the British monarch from 1558 to 1603. It wasn’t the dense tome the topic might suggest, nor was it written by an historian.

This was a little book called She Was Nice to Mice, written two years earlier by Ally Sheedy, later a very successful actress, when she was 12 years old, and illustrated by her friend Jessica Ann Levy, who was 13.

The book, published first by McGraw-Hill and then in paperback by the Dell Publishing Company, was a fanciful look at the public and private life of the queen, told in the form of a memoir written by a mouse that lived in the palace. The discussion of Elizabeth’s relationship with the Earl of Essex, including a peek into the boudoir, has prompted a lot of lively discussion among readers.

J.L. Willow

J. L. Willow

This book came to mind recently as I was reading The Scavenger, a novel published last year by a high school junior who writes under the pen name J. L. Willow.

Willow, by her own account, has been a writer since she was six years old. I identify with that; I was the same way. I filled many notebooks with fiction, essays, and poetry while my mother good-naturedly encouraged me to “go outside.” I eventually went outside and took the notebook and pen with me. When I was 11, one of my elementary school teachers told me, “When it’s time for you to think about a career, you should seriously consider being a writer.” I’ve been a professional writer and editor for 53 years.

Because of my own experience, I am drawn to books written by young writers. When Willow told me in a chance meeting that she had written The Scavenger, I was eager to read it. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Scavenger 3The novel is the story of four people whose lives intersect amid a crisis in a New York City community that has experience the drug-overdose deaths of several young people—a circumstance that has prompted an active police investigation focused on the school. The four principal characters in the book play various roles in this drama, which involves a drug dealer and a troubled boy whom he inveigles into drawing teenagers into addiction.

Willow uses a engaging device to tell this story, devoting each chapter to a first-person narrative by one of these characters. Her storytelling is enhanced by the fact that she has a keen ear for everyday speech and the ability to convey it in the written word.

I’d like to be in my teens again and finding my way as a writer. I’ll content myself with following the literary career of this young artist.

The Scavenger is available from Amazon and as a Kindle download.

 

 

Elizabeth Jennings Graham

Elizabeth Jennings Graham

If the face of Elizabeth Jennings Graham ever appears on a U.S. dollar coin, part of the credit will go to Chester A. Arthur, the reluctant 21st president.

Arthur, as I recounted in a recent post, was a product of the New York Republican machine of the late 19th century. He was a successful candidate for vice president in 1880 only because the party needed an easterner to balance the ticket led by James A. Garfield of Ohio.

When Garfield was murdered and Arthur was vaulted into the presidency, no one was more shocked than Arthur himself. Although he was a decent man despite his connection  to the GOP machine, he wasn’t Mr. Ambition, and he did not have his sites set on the presidency.

Chester A. Arthur 2

Chester A. Arthur

He surprised many people, and at times dismayed his own party, by being not only a serious chief executive but something of a reformer—the most notable example being his successful call for a civil service system in which merit and not political connection determined who got public jobs.

Although he finishes low in the perennial polls that rank the presidents, he had some admirable qualities, and none more admirable than his unswerving opposition to slavery before and during the Civil War and his belief that black citizens should be afforded the same rights as white citizens—and that’s where Elizabeth Jennings Graham comes in.

Elizabeth Jennings was born in New York City in March 1830. Her father, Thomas, was a free black American, and her mother, Elizabeth, had been born in slavery and was an indentured servant during the period in which the State of New York gradually abolished human bondage. Thomas—a tailor and the first known black American to hold a patent in the United States (for a dry-cleaning process) was prosperous enough to buy his wife’s freedom.

Thomas Jennings

Thomas Jennings

Both parents were prominent members of the black community. The elder Elizabeth Jennings was a member of the Ladies Literary Society of New York, an organization established by black women who wanted to encourage self-improvement for black females. In 1834, she delivered an address, “On the Cultivation of Black Women’s Minds,” in which she stressed that black Americans must cultivate their minds if they did not want to remain subordinate to white people.

The younger Elizabeth Jennings was her mother’s daughter. She was well educated, and she became a teacher at the private African Free School, and then in the public schools, and a church organist. She was also a forerunner of Rosa Parks.

On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Jennings was rushing to play the organ at the First Colored Congregational Church. At the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets, in her haste, she boarded a segregated horse-drawn streetcar operated by the Third Avenue Railroad Company. The New York Tribune reported what happened next:

NYC streetcar

A New York City streetcar in the 19th century

The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was shown to be false, he pretended the other passengers were displeased at her presence; but (when) she insisted on her rights, he took hold of her by force to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person. Quite a crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, after the car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman they succeeded in removing her.

Elizabeth Jennings sued the driver, the conductor, and the railroad company. She was represented by the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur, and the case was handled by the junior partner, Chester A. Arthur, who was 24 years old.

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Arthur was successful. The three-day trial ended in Jennings’ favor: Judge William Rockwell of the Brooklyn Circuit Court said, in his charge to the jury, that “colored persons” who were sober, orderly, and free of disease, had the same rights as anyone else and, therefore, the company could not bar black people from its conveyances.

The jury also awarded Jennings damages in the amount of $250, which was a substantial amount of money in 1855. The day after the trial concluded, the Third Avenue Railroad Company ordered its streetcars desegregated. In 1895, after the death of her husband, Charles Graham, Jennings, who had lived for a time in New Jersey, returned to Manhattan and established at her West 42nd Street home a kindergarten for black children; she operated it until her death in 1901.

Rev Pennington

Rev. James Pennington

Only a month after the Jennings trial, the Rev. James W.C. Pennington who, with Thomas Jennings, was active in a campaign to end discrimination on transit facilities—was prevented from boarding a whites-only car operated by the Eighth Avenue Railroad Company. Pennington also took legal action and won a judgment on appeal to the State Supreme Court. In 1865, New York’s public transportation system was finally fully desegregated—the culmination of a movement in which Chester A. Arthur had played a critical role.