Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book review: John Adams

Book review: John Adams
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001
751 pages

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you don’t think the biography is the best way to do history. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winner is a reason to change your mind a bit.

John Adams is simply a really good book. McCullough helps you to warm up to the man and to his personal experience in leading the Revolution and the first formative years of the American republic. Adams, our first vice president and second president, was among the few who were in the thick of it from the beginning, and he never shrank from doing what he expansively viewed as his duty to his new country.

McCullough’s prose is a delightful experience for the serious historian and the armchair dabbler who likes a good read. From cover to cover, this is a lush, genuine presentation of a man, his loved ones, his career, his commitment to do good works and his never-flagging appreciation that the object of government should be to do the people’s business and make possible a decent life for all.

John Adams was savaged by the earliest manifestations of partisan party politics, but he never stooped to play that game.

Too bad we don’t have someone like John Adams in a leadership role today.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Friday, December 26, 2014

Clem Moore, meet Ernie Hemingway

You know this one: “’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…”

Clement Moore wrote it in 1823, almost 200 years before Santa went digital, it’s an iconic feel-good poem, it’s written to early 19th century tastes….

What if Ernest Hemingway had been moved to memorialize the domestic Christmas Eve experience?

James Thurber, America’s high-profile early 20th century humorist, asked himself that question, and decided to answer it in the pages of The New Yorker magazine in 1927:

“It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No creatures were stirring in the house. There weren’t even any mice stirring. The stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint Nicholas would come and fill them…”

That’s how it starts, you can read the whole thing here.

If you’re a Hemingway fan, you should read the whole thing.

If you’re not a Hemingway fan, well, shoot, read it anyway for the hoot.

“…He whistled at his team and the team flew away. The team flew as lightly as thistledown. The driver called out, “Merry Christmas and good night.” I went back to bed…”

Monday, December 22, 2014

Book review: Clotel, or The President's Daughter

Book review: Clotel, or The President’s Daughter
Introduction by Dr. Joan E. Cashin
M. E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, New York, 1996
191 pages

This is a workmanlike treatment of a subject that is a hardly imaginable foundation of early America: slavery.

It’s more a documentary than any modern understanding of a novel. Brown does a good job of character development for a limited cast of characters, including Clotel, the “mulatto” daughter of a black slave mother and a white father. The story of many aspects of slavery—disruption of families, cruelty of masters, the abolition movement, the economic importance of slave-based agriculture and production, the moral, philosophical and political debates about the “peculiar institution”—is written in a style that is manifestly journalistic and prosaic, not literary.

Clotel is a high impact read. Brown was born a slave in Kentucky circa 1818. He escaped, became an abolitionist and a writer in England, and was purchased by friends and freed in the middle of the 19th century. He published Clotel in 1853 as the first “novel” written by a black American.

It isn’t good reading. It’s harsh reading. It’s a terribly candid condemnation of a despicable fact of American history. It’s a catalog of shame and endurance and human spirit.

By the way, the subtitle acknowledges Brown’s unabashed reference to the story, well known in the mid-19th century, that Thomas Jefferson dallied with his slave, Sally Hemings, and had children with her.

Here are a couple items:

Prof. Cashin notes: “Historians estimate that perhaps 10 percent of the four million slaves living in the South in 1860 had some white ancestry.”1 Too many white owners forced themselves on their female slaves. In some parts of the South, a person with white lineage except for a black great-great-great-great grandmother could legally be sold as a slave.

Brown underscores the hypocrisy of slave owners who professed political, philosophical or religious convictions that were nominally opposed to slavery. For example, Brown states that in the middle of the 19th century, more than 660,000 slaves  were owned “by members of the Christian church in this pious democratic republic.”2

Slavery died hard. Writers like Brown helped to make it happen.

1 -  p. xiii
2 -  p. 187

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The wisdom of Abigail Adams (part 2)

“…remember the ladies…”

Abigail (Smith) Adams (1744-1818)
Wife and counselor of President John Adams

If Abigail Adams had been named Absalom Adams, he surely would have been a conspicuously good candidate to be a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congresses.

Abigail was an indefatigable advisor to her husband, a deeply wise observer of public affairs, a patriotic supporter of the Revolutionary War and a staunch advocate of common sense and the public good.

In March 1776, when John was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Abigail took care to include the following in one of her letters to him:

“…in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more favorable to them than your ancestors…”

Abigail was a remarkable American in the 18th century.

David G. McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 104.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The wisdom of Abigail Adams

“I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature,
and that power whether vested in many or few is ever grasping…”

Abigail (Smith) Adams (1744-1818)
Wife and counselor of President John Adams

….and here’s more from the letter she wrote to John in 1775:

“The great fish swallow up the small and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.”

David G. McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 101.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Niddy-noddy, anyone?

In case you were wondering, this is a niddy-noddy:

Not sure if you need one, right?

Well, you might, if you’re a knitter, or if you spin your own yarn, that kind of thing….

Here's a demonstration by folks at The Woolery

The Natick Historical Society in Natick, MA, has one in its museum.

At least as early as the 15th century, the niddy-noddy was used to create and measure a skein of yarn: the spinner would rhythmically wrap the yarn around this eccentric device, and count off pre-determined lengths. The resulting loops of yarn could easily be slipped off the niddy-noddy, and knotted into a handy skein.

An historian of my acquaintance mentions that the niddy-noddy was a conveniently simple tool for grandmas and granddaughters to use in yarn-stuff teamwork in 19th century America; it seems that the young and old ladies paired up often enough to do this work that “Niddy-Noddy” became a grandmother-ish nickname in some regions….

….and btw, a niddy-noddy is featured in an early 16th painting by Leonardo da Vinci, the “Madonna of the Yarnwinder,” see it here.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"Maskers" circa 1910....

There was a time when Thanksgiving wasn’t just about turkey and football.

I know, I know, sounds impossible, but….

As a frame of reference, Macy’s kicked off its Thanksgiving Day parade spectacular in 1924.

Before that, around the turn of the 20th century, each year around the time of the traditional November holiday, not a few youngish New York denizens got into the habit of getting really duded up in any makeshift costume they could put together, and cadging pennies from passers-by on the streets.These kids—they called themselves “maskers”—posed around 1910.

Sure beats today’s store-bought Halloween costumes….

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014