After a month of turmoil, unemployment, sick animals, writing dead-ends and slugs on the potato plants, I’m itching to spend a glorious day out of the heat at the public library to peruse files of long forgotten people, steal their spirits and bring them home with that satisfied feeling that I’ve learned something. Even as […]
I could go on about this book FOREVER!!! If you love intrigue and corruption, avarice and stupidity all assembled in a breathtakingly well-researched and witty BIG read, then here’s the book for you. If you like flawed though strangely lovable characters, then again, here they are presented to you on a silver platter. There’s the intellectual railroad man, Charles Adams and the blustering, risk-taking old grump Collis Huntington to begin with, but it’s Richard White’s depth of knowledge and insight into humanity (about the fairest book I’ve read about anything in a long time) that steal the show.
As you know, I hate easy answers, simple villains and preachy one-sided visions of humanity and Richard keeps everyone in perspective. This is no Howard Zinn good worker vs. evil corporate manager fantasy. Everyone’s corrupt from top to bottom. Everyone’s blind to their own flaws. America’s youth and all of the waste and foolishness that came with it bursts from the pages! Yes, I adore this book.
It even explains what a short stock is in a way I understand!! Now that’s something. You might wonder if it is a depressing story (I felt like giving up on life after reading Zinn’s junk), but this book is too full of wit–as if the author has the sense of humor of someone who doesn’t expect people to be anything near perfect–just interesting.
A NEW WOMAN come to life! Clara Driscoll was the sort of gal who bicycled around Manhattan in a short skirt (above the ankles), actively followed politics and happened to design some of the most beautiful pieces of American decorative art for her boss Louis Tiffany like the lamp above. Her letters seem to suggest that she may have come up with the nature themed lamps altogether. Louis Tiffany is quoted as saying, “A lamp may be as much an object of art as a painting or a piece of statuary. In fact, it should be,” but as Susan Vreeland notes, never mentions who first designed them.
This doesn’t mean he didn’t appreciate Clara. Although at first he was adamantly opposed to hiring women, he had a small group of them who handled the intricate glass cutting of some of his projects. After Clara’s husband died she went back to work for him.
Once it became clear what a talent she was “he rewarded Clara by giving her ever greater responsibility, an expansive budget, considerable artistic freedom, invitations to his home studio, and in the summer of 1907, a deluxe three-month trip abroad to photograph and sketch in Brittany with Tiffany himself and several other artists from the firm. For as long as he was able, he defended her imaginative but costly designs against the more pragmatic assessments of his managerial staff and eventually a strike of the men’s department.” Breaking Tiffany’s Glass Ceiling
“. . . this is rather difficult work, but when one has a fondness for a certain brand of industry, she does not pause when a difficulty must be overcome.… The work is a new departure for women, and I believe that they like it. For myself, I am exceedingly fond of it, much more so than of mere designing.”
Even honey bees are an invasive species. Plants, insects and people tend to move–and take over. Populations explode and people jostle for position. Mrs. Astor of the late 19th century had a big house in NYC with a ballroom. People naturally wanted to attend her soirees. If you were “in” you were one of “The Four Hundred” which only meant that you were one of the 400 people who could fit in her ballroom. Do any of us have dinner parties without considering how many chairs we have?
Lower Manhattan was littered with old, once regal mansions chopped up for new immigrants. And at first everyone was sort of okay with it. The island could handle the influx and since many of the new people spoke English they didn’t seem so alien.
This did not mean that a Mrs. Astor wanted to live right next door to some working class shlub. But lets not do the easy thing–the setting of the rich against the poor. The middle class and the already established working class started feeling a bit uneasy as the century wore on. As one of my uncles once said when people were discussing how disgusting the beaches were on Coney Island, “Who cares, we can just move to nicer beaches.” Some of us didn’t have the funds to move at that particular moment and I suspect that many New Yorkers who watched the surge in immigration through the 19th century felt some alarm.
NYC Immigration rates went something like this:
1840: 60,609 (or a 20% addition to the city’s population in one year)
“Taxpayers were asked to welcome a very different kind of immigrant; usually untrained, largely illiterate, demanding free public services, practicing a different religion . . . the native poor and the taxpayers resented that immigrants could apply for relief.”
Does it all sound familiar yet? I grew up in a town where a bunch of kids who didn’t do well at school could depend on decent (not great) paying jobs landscaping other people’s yards. Suddenly those jobs were given to non-English speaking illegals and there was some resentment directed mainly at the landscaping company owners who’d started as the less than successful high school kids, built a company and now profited off the cheap labor of the immigrants.
I can personally understand why desperate people would want to flock to a country advertizing free everything but I can also understand the graph below:
Here’s a happy story for a change: During the Civil War Emily went to visit her brother then commanding the 5th Army Corps at his headquarters and fell madly in love with Washington Roebling, the son of John A. Roebling who designed the as yet to be built Brooklyn Bridge. Washington obviously felt the same way when writing to his sister about Emily he said, “Some people’s beauty lies not in the features, but in the varied expression that the countenance will assume under the various emotions. She is…a most entertaining talker, which is a mighty good thing you know, I myself being so stupid.” (ASCE)
They got married after a whirlwind romance, traveled to Europe to study bridges, had a baby and came home only to find that John A. had died of tetanus leaving Washington to complete the construction of the bridge!
Luckily Emily had studied right along side of her husband because soon enough he developed a horrible case of the bends (caisson disease) and became bedridden. Now Washington didn’t want to lose his position so the task of carrying out Washington’s duties as chief engineer fell upon Emily. She saw to it that the bridge got done, gaining a first-rate, hands-on education in the process and some even wondered if she’d been secretly responsible for the bridge’s design (all of this being rather scandalous).
“At the opening ceremony, Emily was honored in a speech by Abram Stevens Hewitt who said that the bridge was
…an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.” (Wiki)
“The next morning as they were breaking camp they were attacked by a war party of Cheyennes led by Chief Medicine Water. John and Lydia German, their son Stephen, and daughters Rebecca Jane and Joanna were killed and scalped. The Indians then took any goods they deemed usable and set the wagon afire. Captured and eventually taken into the Texas Panhandle were Catherine, age seventeen; Sophia, twelve; Julia, seven; and Addie, five. The Germans were victims of the Cheyennes’ retaliation for their losses at the second battle of Adobe Walls on June 27.
After a scouting party from Fort Wallace came upon the scene of the massacre a few days later, the military campaigns against hostile Indians in the Panhandle were intensified. In the meantime, the German girls were subjected to exposure, malnutrition, and occasional maltreatment as their captors traveled southward. Catherine, in particular, recalled instances of gang rape by young “dog soldiers” and indignities at the hands of Cheyenne women, particularly Medicine Water’s obnoxious wife, Mochi (Buffalo Calf Woman). Eventually Julia and Addie were traded to Grey Beard‘s band, who for the most part neglected them. Grey Beard steered his following down the east side of the Llano Estacado, while Medicine Water joined with other groups and moved down the west side, probably crossing at several points into eastern New Mexico.
By November 1874 Grey Beard had set up camp north of McClellan Creek, about ten miles south of the site of present-day Pampa. On the morning of November 8, Lt. Frank D. Baldwin‘s column charged the Indian encampment. So complete was the surprise that the Cheyennes abandoned the village and left most of their property intact. Riding through the deserted camp, William (Billy) Dixon and other army scouts noticed movement in a pile of buffalo hides; they were astonished to find Julia and Addie German, both emaciated and near starvation. Dixon later recalled how hardened scouts and soldiers turned aside to hide their emotions as the little girls sobbed out their story.”
Rock Springs, Wyoming 1885. A massacre that killed 28-50 Chinese miners seems a pretty solid case of racism–but no. Life and the hearts of men are never that simple.
The ideal of masculinity in the late 19th century was on a collision course with a new corporate manhood. One claimed a man to be an independent contractor with decision-making rights. The other believed the people who paid the wages had the say.
Then came the Chinese, willing to work for next to nothing and willing to undercut the wages of everybody else (incidentally the white miners were also immigrants from all over Europe).
For some years they worked side by side in uneasy and unaddressed tension. They slept on different sides of this coal town built solely to fuel the railroad while the railroad fueled the hostility. The Knights of Labor fighting for the working men loathed the Chinese. Everyone’s wages were cut or kept low. A living wage was defined differently by the Europeans who planned to stay in the US and set about having families and the Chinese who were willing to live six men to a room in hopes of having enough money to go home one day back to wives and children in China. As long as the Chinese took lower pay more Chinese would be hired and white jobs lost.
At the time it was illegal to hire illegal new Chinese workers, but no one knew who was legal or illegal. In the workers’ minds the Union Pacific robbed them of their manhood every time they hired a “coolie” (a low skilled indentured worker).
And then it happened. An argument over room assignments (in mines there are rooms) turned violent. Different accounts blame one side or the other for the first shovel or pick to the face but soon all hell broke loose. Miners gathered and spontaneously went mad on the streets of the little Chinatown of Rock Springs, shooting, maiming and butchering men they’d worked with for years. Setting fires to the houses and to the small savings within the wooden structures, men released a crazy rage.
Men who worked for family, now set upon humans for blood. What good could come of it? Imagine killing someone and then going home to your family. But were they racist? Or were they union men against a population who didn’t respect the value of manhood and undermined it by their very presence?
Is there freedom in settling for just above nothing if at home in China you have nothing? What does freedom mean when it comes to wages? Are the owners free? Are the workers? Do unions or even communist dictatorships work? Corruption, corruption. The railroads were corrupt and broke. They cut wages and hired desperate foreign people while some insiders skimmed money all along the ride.
The whites who made a ghost town of Chinatown were never charged. People all over the West felt the same uneasy way about the Chinese. They took but didn’t give back, some said though the lawmakers made it impossible for them to really call the US home. Miners in a quickly moving train of corporate, unknowable power turned on the ones settling for scraps.
The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Sigh. Yes, I’m the sort of American who wishes I had the guts and courage of say Lewis, Clark or Sacajawea “Janey” (and boy do I hate Night at the Museum for its weird romance between Sacajawea and Theodore Roosevelt! Sacrilege on both counts!) Movie fans used to Transformers-style action will be bored out of their minds on this one. I loved every detail. I think it’s the brand new world thing that gets me–yeah, I know, it wasn’t new to the Indians (except when they first began trifling with the precious ecosystems of the America upon their own arrival).
So I have some “native” blood. There I’ve said it. It’s way back in time and the girl married a white member of my family. I guess she thought he was cute or maybe she liked his weaponry. I see no conflict in loving Janey and not being in awe of every Indian. I can also really love Clark without loving the fact he had a slave. There are certain people–individuals– whom I like and others I don’t. I just hate the whole grouping thing with a passion. Too much race pride leads to, well, all the bad things that go with ego. I hate stating what group I belong to on job applications–especially when I’m not a joiner and often times feel alienated from every group I’m supposed to belong to, but back to the journals.
Here’s what you should do for fun. Read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage first because Stephen Ambrose was super cool. He seemed to believe we Americans were complex and faulty, but at times quite spectacular. We think of road trips cross country in a kind of Jack Kerouac cliche way. Hipsters drinking– that bores me.
But a small bunch of guys, one girl and a mini-arsenal venturing on foot and by boat with hostile Indians lurking and grizzly bears sharpening their teeth in wait and BIG rivers with rushing currents and bugs and no GPS. No cell phone to call the rescuers and no reality TV crew eating donuts a few feet off–now that’s my kind of living–okay, more like my kind of reading.
These guys got malaria and venereal diseases in the old-school way–by sleeping with Indian chicks the hospitable chiefs sent to them as gifts. There were no cars and diners.
In high school I used to daydream about Walden Pond–I think I could walk a little ways out to a cabin in New England after the embittered Indians were long since pushed off and write about civil disobedience for a few summers.
Okay, so here’s a tidbit from the journals which you can read in their entirety online for free:
“Arrived at Bruno’s Island 3 miles below halted a few minutes. went on shore and being invited on by some of the gentlemen present to try my airgun which I had purchased brought it on shore charged it and fired myself seven times fifty five yards with pretty good success; after which a Mr. Blaze Cenas being unacquainted with the management of the gun suffered her to discharge herself accedentaly the ball passed through the hat of a woman about 40 yards distanc cuting her temple about the fourth of the diameter of the ball; shee fell instantly and the blood gusing from her temple we were all in the greatest consternation supposed she was dead by [but] in a minute she revived to our enespressable satisfaction, and by examination we found the wound by no means mortal or even dangerous; called the hands aboard and proceeded to a ripple of McKee’s rock*
Under the Lilacs book illustration. I’d never heard the term domestic genre stories but I LOVE it. These are the great stories of the late 19th century that spoke to the trials and travails of ordinary life and often with beautiful illustrations. I assume they’re the works that some people deem “of no literary merit” […]