Category Archives: History

Refer Madness: A Name that Named Names

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

A patron who calls regularly — usually looking for the value of an old book or baseball card — had a pretty direct question for me today: “Was Lee J. Cobb blacklisted?”

Nope, but just barely.

Born Leo Jacoby (get it? Lee J. Cobb[y]?), Cobb most iconically featured in 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1957’s 12 Angry Men, two highly regarded and politically aware films that comment on the Red Scare paranoia of 1950s America. According to Victor Navasky’s 1980 book Naming Names, Cobb was accused of being a Communist in a 1951 HUAC testimony by actor and actual former Communist Larry Parks. Called to testify but refusing to do so for two years, Cobb finally relented in 1953 and named twenty former Community Party members.

Cobb’s reason for doing so, as told in Naming Names, is fascinating and blunt:

When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying. The blacklist is just the opening gambit—being deprived of work. Your passport is confiscated. That’s minor. But not being able to move without being tailed is something else. After a certain point it grows to implied as well as articulated threats, and people succumb. My wife did, and she was institutionalized. The HUAC did a deal with me. I was pretty much worn down. I had no money. I couldn’t borrow. I had the expenses of taking care of the children. Why am I subjecting my loved ones to this? If it’s worth dying for, and I am just as idealistic as the next fellow. But I decided it wasn’t worth dying for, and if this gesture was the way of getting out of the penitentiary I’d do it. I had to be employable again.

And he was, the next year, in On the Waterfront, written by Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, two other Hollywood figures who testified to HUAC.

Sources: 1

Herbert Hoover in the White House

By nature of their office presidents generally believe the press corps is working against them, but there is little question that in Washington in 1932 reporters and editors had a lively antipathy for Hoover, a disdain unmatched by any successor until the next Quaker to occupy the White House—Richard Nixon, some forty years later.

—From Charles Rappleye’s (excellent) forthcoming Herbert Hoover in the White House (which I’m reviewing for publication): a delicious irony that our nation’s only two ostensibly Quaker presidents were active players in a mutually antagonistic relationship with the press.

Guns Kill People

It is right and good that the New York Times chose, for the first time since 1920, to publish an editorial on Page 1. “End the Gun Epidemic in America” captures the zeitgeist well, at least that of reasonable human beings without a vested, monied interest in seeing the NRA-sponsored carnage continue.

“It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment,” the editorial reads. “No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.” Indeed, it seems the only right in the Constitution that has found itself immune from debate is that of the Second Amendment. The beneficiary of a modern-day gag rule, wherein even researching the causes and effects of gun violence is outlawed, our supposed right as American citizens to own unlimited military-grade weaponry is considered as self-evident and God-blessed as our country itself.

We need a John Quincy Adams. An incorrigible ramrod of righteousness with nothing to lose. Smart enough to use the system to the cause’s favor and intractably annoying to its enemies. We also need the truth to be spoken through the research—research!—that we’ve consistently denied because denial is bliss. When enough people finally open their eyes to this culture of death we’ve protected, the delusional, cowardly mania for guns will compare in the future’s unfavorable eyes to the same delusional, cowardly mania for slavery that gripped this country for far too long.

Little Big City

Imagine my surprise when fellow high-school classmate and garage band musician Aaron Shekey was mentioned in John McPhee’s latest essay for The New Yorker. McPhee quoted Shekey’s own essay from a few years ago called “It’s What You Leave Out”, about the curious case of the Madison skyline. “One of the more interesting things about the layout of my hometown,” Shekey wrote, “is a simple rule the city planners made around 1915: No building can be taller than the base of the pillars surrounding the capital building’s dome—that’s only 190 feet.”

This mandate, now 100 years old, is still in place, leaving us with a skyline a Madisonian who was around at the time of the edict’s passing would still recognize.

It’s a view I’ve grown used to, even bored of, having lived there until I left for college. But when I compare it to other lakeside skylines I’ve come to know, like Chicago’s, where even with the Sears Tower there is no clear focal point or guiding architectural principle except how high the buildings can reach and how many condos they can cram into the air space, I see the value of the Madison experiment—the “century’s worth of restraint” as Shekey called it. You could almost call it a civic humility, thought that’s not quite right. Not when the capitol building, the literal civic center, is the legally mandated center of attention.

madison-map

A bird’s-eye view tells the same story: the Capitol sits in the middle of the downtown square, in the middle of the isthmus that splits the lakes Monona and Mendota. You could loop around the Capitol all day on the one-way streets that revolve around it. And that’s OK, because it’s a beauty. Shekey again: “If you let your eye wander along the horizon, you’d see it—The capital. A tiny white light shining above everything else. You can see it for miles. Even from there it was breathtaking—a skyline defined by what it isn’t.”

I suppose it makes sense the center of government should be the nucleus of the city, the standard by which everything else is judged and modeled. But one person’s civic restraint is another’s stunted growth. Chicago is a storied architectural wonder (I’d highly recommend taking an architectural boat tour if you can), but that wouldn’t have been so if after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the city planners had imposed a vertical quota on the Loop.

When I tell people I’m from Madison, they often ask what it’s like and how I liked it. If they’re familiar with the area I tell them I’m actually, like Shekey, from the western suburb of Middleton, though I was born and raised in Madison through elementary school. But if they’re unfamiliar, I say it’s a typical college town: liberal (in Madison’s case very much so), lots of bars and bikes, and has lots to see around it if you know where to look.

I also like to call it a “little big city.” Like any big city it has a bustling downtown with distinct neighborhoods and adjacent suburbs, but it’s no Chicago or even Milwaukee. Driving on University Avenue through the Isthmus you can get from the westside of town to the east in 15 minutes if the stoplights and traffic are friendly. Besides the capitol building itself, the biggest things about Madison are the lakes it’s squeezed between—and the world renowned farmer’s market during the summer.

I’m sure Madison has “little big” friends in Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg, Missouri’s Jefferson City, Washington’s Olympia, and other cities: state capitals that aren’t their state’s biggest city. They don’t have the skyscrapers of Philadelphia, Kansas City, or Seattle, but they have beautiful capitol buildings visitors like me would love to see. This is even true in Washington D.C., where the U.S. Capitol, larger but almost identical to Madison’s pillared dome, sits atop a hill overlooking the National Mall and the much smaller yet more iconic White House.

It takes high regard for the built beauty of one’s own place to preserve the arrangement Madison has over a century of constant change. Perhaps one day Madison’s glass (or ice) ceiling will shatter and the capitol dome will shrink into a much taller skyline than it’s accustomed to. But until then it will remain a little big city with a little big horizon that ain’t bad to come home to.

(Photo by Steve Wetzel)

Wherein I Missed Third-Grade Field Day and Encountered Cosmic Futility

bart-chalkboard

In third grade I was on a three-strike system at school. Three infractions and I’d miss a fun class event. I was an absent-minded kid, prone to forget things at home like homework or a slip needing a signature or an extra pair of shoes to wear at school during winter. (I remember at least one day of walking around in winter boots all day.) This was also the first year I wasn’t in the same class as my twin sister, who, everyone involved quickly realized, was the one who reminded me about things like homework and signatures and winter boots.

My two co-teachers apparently thought this punitive system would make me a better student, more disciplined and less forgetful. There was no limit to the number of infractions I could receive and therefore no limit to the number of events I could miss. Theoretically this should motivate a kid, even one as young and flighty as me at the time, to become more disciplined so as not to miss fun activities.

Theoretically.

First, I missed Cave Day, the culmination of the unit on caves. The classroom was decorated like a dark cave, paper stalagmites and stalactites protruding from the ceiling and walls and a cool tunnel leading to the door you had to crawl through to get in and out of the room. I was not allowed to participate in the fun cave-related activities at all that day. Instead I was sent to the principal’s office to complete what was essentially busywork. (Insult, meet injury: at one point I needed to go into the classroom to get something—probably more busywork—but I had to crawl through the awesome tunnel and see the activities going on, yet not participate in them. I felt like a leper. A bitter leper.)

Second, I missed Jungle Day, which was a huge day in my elementary school. Huge. They’d bring (what felt like then) enormous jungle gyms into the gymnasium and turn the byzantine structures into a colorful, interlocking jungle, crawling with paper vines and canopies and animals that healed you if you got “bit” by a snake while climbing through the maze. Jungle Day was off-the-chain fun in my previous years, but I was yet again on-the-chain in my classroom not participating in it.

Finally, I missed Field Day. Everyone remembers Field Day because it was the last big event of the school year. It was the pinnacle, the prize for making it through the year. We played the entire day: relay races, water games, snacks galore… that’s what we lived for. Yet there I was in—you guessed it—my classroom doing—you guessed it—busywork. There was no point in me being there. The school year was over. I didn’t flunk the grade. Yet there I slouched beneath the flickering florescent lights, toiling through Lord knows what kind of fill-in-the-blank pabulum, and encountering for the first time in my young life the concept of cosmic futility. My sister, pitying her woeful twin, snuck away from Field Day and visited me as if I were in prison. She brought me a popsicle from the festivities, though I’m not sure how she smuggled it past the guards.

So whose fault was this? If we’re getting legalistic here, it was mine. Within the parameters set for my circumstances, I failed to meet the agreed upon standards of behavior. But did these punishments fit the crimes? Or were my teachers overzealous? I’d like some perspective on this, especially from teachers, because, clearly, I’m still bitter twenty years later about this series of unfortunate events. I wonder if my teachers were under some kind of pressure, even before No Child Left Behind and Common Core, to get me up to snuff. Or maybe it was their own idea.

Regardless, the thing about Edna Krabapple having Bart Simpson write a sentence on the chalkboard over and over is that it doesn’t work. It’s not going to reform Bart, and it’s going to make him resent school, teachers, and exercises in cosmic futility. Luckily, that didn’t happen to me (except for resenting exercises in cosmic futility). I mostly enjoyed my K-12 education and benefitted from it, and after getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree I’m currently employed in a profession I like. So why does this continue to stick in my craw?

I got a measure of clarity a few years ago when I visited that school for the first time since I left it in 1998. It was the end of summer, so the school was open for orientation and teachers meetings. My dad and I stopped by the administration offices first so I could ask permission to walk around and thus not become the pair of unknown men wandering an elementary school. The clutch of teachers chatting around the front desk asked who I was; I told them my name and those of my sisters, and one teacher said she remembered us. I rattled off the names of the teachers I had there over the years, and when I mentioned my third-grade teachers, specifically the one I disliked the most, one of the teachers present gave a look to another, as if to say: “Oh, that one…”

And suddenly I realized I, perhaps, wasn’t alone. Maybe Mrs. Three-Strikes had rubbed other teachers the wrong way too, made their lives unpleasant all those years ago. I greatly desired to share my tale of woe with those present, to commiserate and swap stories from the trenches, but decided against it. Instead, I wandered the empty halls, reminiscing about the many better times I’d had at the school that had hardly changed at all since I left it.

The library at the center of the school, now with newer books and no catalog, was still where my classmates and I had coveted Goosebumps books almost as much as Warheads candy. The gym, now seeming a lot smaller after I’d grown a foot or two, was still where once a year the wilderness of Jungle Day had reigned. The cafeteria, now with some upgraded kitchen appliances, was still where in fourth grade I lost in the sudden-death overtime finals of the all-school Geography Bee (congrats, Valerie). The computer lab, now replete with sleek, slim computers, was still where I learned how to use MS Paint on Windows 95.

It’s easy to look back through a telescope with the rose-colored lenses of memory and recall the good times, as I did while taking a literal walk through memory lane. But looking at specific moments through the wrong end of the telescope, as perhaps I’ve done with my misadventures in third grade, can  produce a distorted view disproportionate to everything around it. My tenure at that school was one collective memory of many that came before and after. It was a single ring in a tree that’s still adding layers of experience—triumphs and disappointments and everything in between—from other kids who have walked the same hallways I did.

Still, I’ll bet they got to go to Field Day.

No Quarter

coin-map

The bedroom was barren save some power tools, drywall sheets, and a step stool waiting for the work to begin again. I was home for Easter and my parents were renovating the basement and the basement room I’d called mine when I lived at home. The Cave I called it: in the basement and away from windows it was pitch-black and quiet and cool at night, and I could sleep there much longer than usual if I didn’t set an alarm. That cool and cozy silence induced a sopor my circadian rhythm couldn’t resist.

I was last here over Christmas and everything then was as it had been since high school, it seemed. But now everything was gone. Like the bookshelves. Their books sat in boxes waiting to be sorted, but the shelves had moved on. This disconcerted me most. When perusing my books I rarely considered their keeper, yet where would we be without them? Shelves in any place are prosthetic architecture. Vigilant, sturdy, selfless. Necessary, at times comforting if we regard them at all, but essentially invisible. Now they really were.

Last year I had a dream about this. I dreamt I entered my room to pack things to bring with me on a journey. The floor then turned into dirt and my belongings emerged from the soil as if they were vegetables for the harvest. A week after that dream, I had another one wherein I returned to the room and it was completely empty, along with the rest of the basement and the crawl space where my parents stored the accumulation of our years.

When I had those dreams I’d recently gotten engaged and started a new job. The future, nebulous as always, loomed large. But I’d now arrived in that future, and it looked like a half-dozen boxes of books and bric-a-brac, the props of my distant past, waiting for their sentence.

The sorting began in earnest. “Participant” trophies from youth soccer: toss. A ‘90s-era Brewers pennant: keep. Leftover CDs from my garage band: crawl space. My set of commemorative U.S. state quarters: consider. My grandma, twelve years gone now, got one of these green rigid cardboard display folios for each of my sisters and me. It opened to a vibrant map of the United States, color-coded according to which year each state’s quarter would enter circulation between 1999 and 2008. You’d pop out a quarter-shaped disk and replace it with that state’s shiny new coin as it was released. The United States Mint dropped one every ten weeks, five each year, in the same order the states ratified the Constitution. In 1999 when we first wedged in Delaware’s Caesar Rodney on horseback, Hawaii seemed so far away, and it was. But steadily we accumulated quarters and made our way through history.

The zeal of collecting faded over the years, but the joy of discovery did not. I’d weed through every quarter I could find, eager to see the newest design and see if I could beg, borrow, or steal a new state for the board. They generally fell into two categories. The scenic designs, which featured a key event, figure, or place from the state’s history, were usually better. Like Oregon’s Crater Lake and New Jersey’s Crossing of the Delaware: simple, iconic, and striking. The other kinds I call “greatest hits”; they cobbled together the disparate things you associate with the state into a confused, “floating heads”-style mashup. The pelican-trumpet-Louisiana-Purchase mishmash of Louisiana and cow-cheese-corn combo of my dear alma mater Wisconsin indicate obvious state pride, but they’re too on the nose to be extraordinary.

Whatever the states put forward, the series as a whole hit the jackpot. Bolstered by its “spokesfrog” Kermit the Frog, who did commercials promoting the series, the quarters generated $4.1 billion in revenue and nearly $3 billion in seigniorage (the profit from the difference between the face value of coins and their production costs) to help finance the national debt. Add to that another $136 million in earnings and seigniorage from “numismatic products” like, say, green rigid cardboard display folios. All that to say, they made a lot of these mass-produced tchotchkes, and made a lot from them, so mine wasn’t worth much on the market. But it meant something to me personally.

I pillaged it for laundry fare.

“Grandma would be laughing right now,” Dad said as I plucked the shimmering specie from their snug states. She would be. Do this nice thing for your grandson, a forward-thinking gift that will require of him patience, diligence, and an appreciation of history, then watch from beyond the grave as he pops them out one by one so he can feed them four at a time into a dingy basement washer and dryer. In my defense, she’d seen worse. As the single mother of two unruly sons, she had lots of experience dealing with her boys doing stupid, impulsive shit.

Should I have kept them? They will get me six full loads of laundry with fifty cents to spare, and then I’ll be back to zero. I could have tucked the folio away and forgotten about it for years, unearthing it occasionally to admire the completeness of the enterprise and ponder its market value. But I remembered: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Sometimes it’s hard to decide how literal we’re meant to take Jesus’s aphorisms, but this one made sense on many levels. I like shiny things. And money’s nice to have if you can get it. But I’m not about an altar to mammon, however well-intentioned.

So I continued sorting. My dreams of room excavation felt more like prophecies as I weeded through the musty relics, plucking out the valuables like I did the quarters and packing them for another migration. A few things I didn’t have space for but didn’t want to throw away I sent to the crawl space, but everything else I either tossed, donated, or brought to my new place, which I’ll share with my soon-to-be wife. We’ve got stuff scattered around our apartment needing a shelf, drawer, or closet to call home.

One artifact that has made the journey is the glass Carlo Rossi wine jug I’ve been sporadically filling with spare change since Grandpa Cy, LaVonne’s husband, cut a slot in the cap, fastened a personalized leather tag to it, and gave it to me who knows how long ago. (My sisters got their own too: such always seemed the way of things.) It’s about half-full right now: the accumulation of the dozens of times over the years when I’ve both had spare change on me and remembered to deposit it. LaVonne and Cy’s humble Madison duplex apartment hosted an unfathomable number of wine jugs and liquor bottles through the years; the ones we got were probably whatever were handy when Cy got decidedly visionary and repurposed some for his grandkids.

A bit ironic, right? I rather flippantly disabused the state quarters of their hallowed status, despite the possibility they could grow in value as a complete set—all the while adding at a slow drip to the unassuming wine jug’s interest-free account. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept it around. The jug doesn’t demand attention. It isn’t frozen in time or tender. It’s never complete; it contains multitudes. The jug abides. And boy, the years it has seen. While the quarters languished in the darkness of my former room’s closet, the jug sat in the corner between a bookshelf and the out-of-service brick fireplace and bore witness to my adolescence and early adulthood. Given the glacial rate of my deposits, it’ll witness still more.

My older sister, who had a longer and much deeper relationship with Cy, she said she’ll never spend the money she’s put into her jug because she put it in there while Cy was still around. Me? I’ll spend it. If it takes another twenty years to fill up the other half, I’ll be pushing fifty with a few kids and more stories to tell, God willing. Memories make us rich, not money. So I’ll fill the jug as high as I can, and on that day I’ll upend it into a bag, bring it to a bank, and watch the sum of my decades-long depositing transform into a slim stack of leathery bills. Then maybe I’ll get some ice cream, or put it towards a trip, or give it to the first person who asks for some spare change.

And then I’ll start it over. My wife, my kids, we’ll drop whatever remains in our pockets and purses into the clear glass chamber and hear the sharp ping of possibility every time we do. Those first few coins to hit the bottom will be there for the long haul. Imagine what they will see.

So Runs the Man Away or (The Unexpected Virtue of Synchronicity)

The theme that has defined my 2014, I only now realize, is synchronicity. That Jungian concept (“the occurrence of two or more events that appear to be meaningfully related but not causally related”) bubbled up several times this year, especially in what I was reading, watching, or listening to concurrently. For instance:

  • Seeing Interstellar as I worked my way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein;
  • Nicolas Carr’s The Glass Cage manifesting itself in my library work;
  • The fascinating freedivers in James Nestor’s Deep swimming in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu;
  • Marilyn Manson lending some insight into John McDonaugh’s wonderful 2014 film Calvary;
  • Disparate writings from N.D. Wilson, Francis Spufford, and Wendell Berry saying pretty similar things;
  • and seeing the Dorothy Day in Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own pop up in the bombastic yet beautifully rendered Noah

To name only the ones I blogged about. But I’d like to add one last synchronous moment to this list, which arrived courtesy of John Wilkes Booth and an avalanche.

John Wilkes Booth Runs After Assassinating Lincoln, 1865 - Illustration

In Force Majeure, the new film from Ruben Östlund, a Swedish family vacationing at a French ski resort eats lunch in an outdoor restaurant flanking the majestic, snow-laden mountains. The resort performs routine controlled avalanches to regulate the snow’s movement and safeguard against a truly deadly avalanche, and the lunchgoers witness one while they eat. Except this one careens right toward them. The father, initially wowed by the view, suddenly senses danger and ditches his wife and two children for cover (after making sure to take his phone). Turns out it was just the snow-dust that crashed into them, not the avalanche itself, so everyone returns to their tables, including Tomas, the father who just abandoned his post—literally and figuratively. The rest of the film documents the unraveling from this moment, which each character remembers differently yet causes shared emotional upheaval and provokes a deep and unsettling reconsideration of masculinity, human nature, and the incumbent expectations of gender.

I watched this movie while in the midst of James Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. It’s a gripping if a bit overheated retelling of the Lincoln assassination and aftermath, which indeed is stranger than any fiction. The moment of synchronicity here occurred during the assassination itself, when Booth shot Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre presidential box and leapt onto the stage. Harry Hawk was the lone actor on stage at that moment and got an up-close view of Booth’s famous cry “Sic semper tyrannis!” and “The South is avenged!” Then, the key moment, recounted by Hawk himself in a letter to his parents written soon after:

[Booth] ran toward me, and I, seeing the knife, thought I was the one he was after, ran off the stage and up a flight of stairs. He made his escape out of a door, directly in the rear of the theatre, mounted a horse and rode off. The above all occurred in the space of a quarter of a minute, and at the time I did not know that the President was shot; although, if I had tried to stop him, he would have stabbed me.

In Manhunt, Swanson subtly criticizes Hawk for turning and running, linking his supposed moment of cowardice to one at the end of the chase for Booth, when John Garrett, owner of the barn that housed an armed Booth in a standoff with the cavalry, fled from the barn after thinking Booth was going to shoot him.

All of these moments might provoke some knee-jerk judgments but beg the same question: What are you prepared to do? Harry Hawk was not prepared to fight an armed assassin after the shock of that moment. But should he have anyway? Other times in Manhunt, men show courage in moments of terror and some pay the price for it in blood. Tomas in Force Majeure had time to take his family to shelter or at least shield them. But why didn’t he? He pays the price later on: not in blood like the people in Manhunt, but in self-esteem and dignity.

It’s easy as a viewer or future observer to question the decisions these men made or didn’t make. It’s not so easy to make them ourselves in real life, man or woman. What are you prepared to do? What cost are you willing to pay?

Happy New Year!

Jasper Adalmorn Maltby

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

“A friend of Grant’s is a friend of mine,” said Abraham Lincoln, probably. This quote (were it real) holds true today as we consider Jasper Maltby, an Ohio boy who like 99.9% of the Civil War upper echelon served in the Mexican War in the 1840s, and then moved to Galena, the stomping grounds of pre-glory Ulysses Grant. The Civil War erupted while working there as a gunsmith, leading him to join the 45th Illinois Volunteers, aka the “Washburn Lead Mine Regiment.” He was immediately bumped up from private to lieutenant colonel, which seems like a huge jump. Was Maltby really that awesome, or did they just throw out commissions like hardtack back then?

Regardless, Maltby fought with the 45th at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Vickburg, accumulating promotions and wounds concurrently. Also happening concurrently was the service of Jasper’s younger brother, William, who was a Confederate captain and prisoner of war. In one of those meta “civil war within the Civil War” situations, when Jasper found out his brother was imprisoned, he arranged for him to be brought to the newly conquered Vicksburg and placed under his charge. “Love you bro, so much so that I get to order you around again!”

Jasper served out the war in Vicksburg and remained there postbellum as the military mayor until he died in 1867 from yellow fever or cardiac arrest, or from having a too-massive beard. Seriously, look at that thing!

Up next on CCWN, the flip-flopping Amos T. Akerman.

(sources: 1, 2)

Destiny of the Republic

In Assassination Vacation, one of my all-time favorite books, Sarah Vowell calls the circumstances surrounding the Garfield assassination “an opera of arrogance, a spectacle of greed, a galling, appalling epic of egomania dramatizing the lust for pure power, shameless and raw.” After reading Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which details said circumstances, Vowell’s characterization now almost seems like an understatement.

The things I did while reading Destiny ranged from yelling at Dr. Bliss’s casual (and admittedly good-faith) malpractice in his care of the wounded president, cringing at the horrific realities of nineteenth-century medicine, admiring Garfield’s resilience and character in general (as well as his beard), and considering how naturally New York senator Roscoe Conkling could have excelled as a cable-news talking head today.

Many factors influenced the outcome of this high drama, all of which Millard captures and deftly welds together in service of this strange, tragic, and largely forgotten pocket of U.S. history. Each subplot—Garfield’s rise to prominence, the perky madness of the assassin Charles Guiteau, Conkling’s political machinations, the dunderheaded care of Dr. Bliss—deserve its own book, but this one (wisely) keeps its focus on the assassination itself. Even the detours showing the involvement of Alexander Graham Bell, fresh off inventing the telegraph with a contraption he thinks will help locate the bullet still lodged inside Garfield, help serve the larger narrative of how disparate elements (science, politics, medicine) can combine into an extraordinary mezcla.

I sometimes wonder how historical events would have been colored differently if Twitter and other social media had been around. But it turns out coverage of a major news story in 2014 isn’t all that different from one in 1880. With the telegraph and newspapers churning out daily, even hourly, updates on Garfield’s health and prognoses from his chief doctor, the coverage seemed just as anxious and overheated then as it does now.

It’s worth reading Destiny of the Republic not just to get a detailed picture of this “opera of arrogance,” but also for an illuminating look at an oft-forgotten pocket of U.S. history.

Today In Nerdery

In my continuing work at the Frances Willard House Museum and Archives, I’ve started working with the Willard correspondence, which begins in the mid-1860s and continues through the turn of the century. Because of this, and because of Frances’ high stature as a public figure during that time, there are a few letters I’ve happened upon from some well-known people that gave me that special feeling historians, archivists, and other history lovers feel when they encounter a gem from the past.

Today I came upon letters from another central women’s suffrage figure (Susan B. Anthony), three former First Ladies (Frances Cleveland, Lucy Hayes, and Sarah Polk), Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay, and a famous author (Louisa May Alcott). And I haven’t even entered the 1890s yet.

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