“The acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of southern slavery that ever existed”

Originally posted on Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained--Writing Historical Fiction at Middlemay Farm:


John Quincy Adams. Shall we bow our heads for an early nap before discussing a white dead president? It’s kind of superficial to judge a person because they’re white and dead, don’t you think?John Quincy was pretty cute (okay that’s superficial) as a young guy, but he was much more than that.

You know how we always love to trash kids who have famous parents?We say they got where they got because their father knew, say, George Washington, but a meeting with a president doesn’t always assure you a brilliant career. John Quincy started his brilliant career at the age of 14. Yes, fourteen. He accompanied Francis Dana as a secretary on a mission to Saint Petersburg. (WIKI)

Do you know any fourteen-year-olds? How many impress foreign diplomats and presidents? Well, maybe Justin Beiber did in his prime, but if you check out John Quincy’s love poems to…

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“Courage mattered. Loyalty mattered. Honor mattered. Personal Pride mattered. Soldiers, and their culture, defined these as masculine values. The Gilded Age substituted gain for cause and friends for comrades.” Richard White

Adrienne Morris:

The Adams family are endlessly interesting.

Originally posted on Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained--Writing Historical Fiction at Middlemay Farm:

Charles being masculine. Charles being masculine.

Charles Francis Adams, despite being considered an authority on the management of railroads couldn’t keep the Union Pacific stable as its president. One of the reasons, according to Richard White in Railroaded,  was the boys–the young men too young to have fought in the war seemed “weak, unruly, willful and hard to control.”

On July 9, 1866, President Andrew Johnson nominated Colonel Adams for the award of the rank of brevet (honorary) brigadier general, United States Volunteers, “for distinguished gallantry and efficiency at the battles of Secessionville, South Carolina and South Mountain and Antietam, Maryland and for meritorious services during the war” to rank from March 13, 1865 and the U. S. Senate confirmed the award on July 23, 1866. [wiki]

When the mother of one of his young subordinates (at the railroad) wrote about the hardships of his life…

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Tasha Tudor Field Trip

ImageTasha Tudor August 28, 1915-June 18, 2008

For those of you who like quiet risk-takers and women who don’t follow the herd, here’s your lady! Tasha Tudor is my favorite inspiration because while her artwork and stories are adorably innocent and whimsical, she took her public (mostly children) and her professional life very seriously. While she obviously loved her subjects (people and animals populating a 1830’s world) she boldly stated that there was nothing sentimental about the need to make money at it.

ImageTasha’s mother taught her to paint.

The New York Times in 1941 said her pictures “have the same fragile beauty of early spring evenings.” And while some of us backward leaning people might envy the real-life fantasy world she seemed to live in, I get the sense she worked damned hard to get there. Tasha once said that in life you could have anything if you had the patience. Image

Tasha had two failed marriages and children who didn’t always appreciate dressing in homespun clothes, but in her sweetly feminine way she held to her principles and dressed like the 1830’s sea captain’s wife she liked to imagine she was. She wrote and illustrated nearly 100 witty and beautiful books that have a timeless elegance and rare appreciation for animals and children without the preachy condescension of much modern children’s literature, but the real inspiration comes from the unwavering devotion she had to living out an unusual and hard life on her terms.

While raising 4 children, spinning her own fabric from materials grown on her  land and raising farm animals, she wrote and illustrated books at her kitchen table–did I mention she made her own bread? Even her name was a creation of her own. Some of us wish we could magically go back in time. She did it (obviously with a few bows to the present) and she did it with  an individualistic streak of brilliance.

The home she had meticulously built to 19th century specifications–even down to the nails. She gardened, too.


Tasha once opined that women lost something essential when they started wearing trousers (I hear some women grumbling) but she never played the frail old-fashioned girl. She was a woman of substance and power and one of my heroes.


A Modest Proposal

Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.

I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

I have reckoned upon a medium, that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, encreaseth to 28 pounds.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Infant’s flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet, there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.” from A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift


Music and Love

American composer Edward MacDowell fell in love and married Marion his piano student while both were living in Germany. Finances caused them to return to the States and eventually buy a farm in New Hampshire where Edward would write some of his most romantic and beloved pieces of music. Critics and the public adored him.

MacDowell composed a piano piece titled
MacDowell composed a piano piece titled “Cradle Song”, Marian suffered an illness that resulted in her being unable to bear children.

In 1904 a Hansom Cab ran over Edward which seemed to contribute to growing dementia and failing health possibly due to tertiary syphilis. Lawrence Gilman, a contemporary, described him: “His mind became as that of a little child. He sat quietly, day after day, in a chair by a window, smiling patiently from time to time at those about him, turning the pages of a book of fairy tales that seemed to give him a definite pleasure, and greeting with a fugitive gleam of recognition certain of his more intimate friends.” Wikipedia

The composer at rest.
The composer at rest.

His dying wish was for a colony of musicians to delight in the magic of the little farm Marion had bought. Marion sought and found help in the form of The MENDELSSOHN GLEE CLUB which raised money to help the MacDowells. Friends launched a public appeal to raise funds for his care; among the signers were Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and Grover Cleveland.

Marion cared for her husband until his death and founded THE MACDOWELL COLONY. She resumed her piano career and  spent the rest of her life traveling and lecturing to support her husband’s dream.

Who Owns Time? The Writer Does.

One moment then gone.
One moment then gone.

Writers own time–temporarily. People own time temporarily and if you don’t believe in an after life then it makes perfect sense to speed on the highway and flip out after getting behind an old lady at the grocery store who only fishes for her checkbook at the very last minute.

My parents made lists to segment their time. My mother wrote in her perfect, artful script fantastically long and detailed lists. My father sat at the kitchen table talking his lists out, “First I have to finish breakfast, then I’ll read the paper, and then I have to go do the lawn and then a nap and maybe I’ll go to Dunkin’ Donuts to bring Kenny some coffee later (his brother who worked nights cleaning the school).

Song of the Lark as fleeting as the clouds.
Song of the Lark as fleeting as the clouds.

We were ALWAYS given new watches for Christmas–I even got a silver finger watch with a blue face one year but it got in the way of my quest for my mother’s perfect penmanship while making my own lists. No matter how many clocks went off each hour in our house–the Birds of North America clock, the cuckoo clock from my father’s stay in Germany during the Cold War, the mantle clock with the sad chime that reminded my mother of her grandfather and the annoying clock radio set between stations  all going off at about but not exactly the same moment– time slipped by anyway –the very time we were accounting for.

The thousands of old photographs framed on the dining room wall were mourning triggers. The clocks and watches were constant reminders that these happy times at the table vying for who might get the last piece of fried chicken would be over one day and even today would be gone in only a few hours. My father watched the clock for the last ten years of his life waiting for the game to be over–the game of knowing the hours, but not  knowing the time when there would be no more time.

Just alone--with time.
Just alone–with time.

And so it is with my writing. Graham Crenshaw gives watches to his children–in place of spending time with them. He gives Buck the special watch that belonged to his brother who died of dysentery during the war–the saintly brother who nursed the other men until there was no one left to nurse him in a crappy field hospital run by a disreputable doctor. Graham stays busy with projects and studies and doctoring–hoping to stop time. Stop the onslaught of death. To be a doctor and to hate death, to give timepieces that always come back to haunt him–this is Graham’s quiet torture. To take part in his children’s life means he’d have to mourn their passing from childhood into messy adulthood and maybe death, certainly death at some point.

As a writer I control death. I control time, that is, until my time comes.

A moment savored, but will it be remembered?
A moment savored, but will it be remembered?


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Every Character Has an Idol

Every character has an idol–morphine, romance, money. My books are about idolatry. My life is about it too.  Idols are interesting and different and not usually little sculptures made of wood. They’re insidious and lurk in the shadows of our consciousness.

Dear Mr. Frith was cheating on his wife when he painted this.
Dear Mr. Frith was cheating on his wife when he painted this.

Here’s the list of idols I’ve worshiped over the years: Perfection, thinness, my children’s success, my husband’s perfection, teaching success, 100% non-toxic food and at the moment a “successful” writing career.

Maybe you worship youth and beauty?
Maybe you worship youth and beauty?

How do I know these are idols and not just good old fun passions? It’s easy because at some point they fail. They don’t do that thing I expect of them. They actually have no power to bring lasting satisfaction or joy. Have you ever noticed how short the time is between a good review and worrying about the next good review? Have you noticed that after a long day of shelling organic almonds to make the perfect almond milk for the tofu dinner your family will hate robs you of the joy of even having a family? Has it bothered you to find out that after all those years eating soy that it’s the most pesticide ridden crop in the US?

Are you a slave to your art?
Are you a slave to your art?

Here’s some of my characters’ idols: morphine, family, approval, money and beauty. Nothing wrong with that list of things. I love money, but it’s one of the few idols I don’t have. I’ve learned to live with it and without it. But take away my writing! Watch me turn ugly. Writing is great. The excitement, the passion and even the fear in it brings me real happiness–until I let it become my idol.

Instead of having fun writing about people stumbling towards something higher I fret over not getting enough time with my idol. I feel extremely pissed when someone I haven’t seen in ages wants to have a chat. I stay up all night designing covers for a book, but have no time for anyone else. I snap at people, I annoy them with my despair, I impatiently wait for them to get done talking so I can relate their words to my writing. I turn inward (it’s very dark in there, by the way).

Do your passions eat you alive?
Do your passions eat you alive?

As David Foster Wallace once said (and boy, did people get pissed) everyone worships something. What do you worship? Does it give you what you need? Just curious.

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” David Foster Wallace