Every souvenir tells a story worth hearing. Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By EDWARD ACHORN
A few years ago, I found the scorecard my grandfather had kept of a September 16, 1904, doubleheader he attended at Boston’s Huntington Grounds. He saw Cy Young pitch in the opener for the Boston Americans (now Red Sox) and Jack Chesbro pitch in the second game for the New York Highlanders (now Yankees). A newspaper clipping noted that George Wright, a member of the first openly professional baseball team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, had watched the action that day from the front row. Through my grandfather, I felt connected from the dawn of professional baseball to the latest pitch. The beginning wasn’t all that long ago.
I thought of that while reading this book, which tells the stories of members of Meredith Mason Brown’s much more illustrious family, filled with generals, diplomats, and political leaders. “As a nation,” he writes, “we’re not that old.” Through the stuff we have saved, and the stories our ancestors have passed down, we can still reach out and almost touch each other.
Touching America’s History is structured ingeniously around 20 objects that Brown, esteemed biographer of Daniel Boone, has in his possession: historically evocative artifacts ranging from a Pequot stone ax to a compass carried by a pioneering ancestor to a letter written by George Washington and so on, up to the escapist Western novel that was read by General Eisenhower in a supremely high-stress situation as he waited for the weather to break before the D-Day invasion . . . and a piece of Adolf Hitler’s shattered toilet bowl. Many were passed down by family members. Taken together, they tell a remarkably rich story of America.
“I do better in history when it becomes concrete and personal to me,” writes Brown. “History is not abstract ideas or theories. . . . History is the sum of actions of individual human beings. . . . If we can be in touch with those human beings—if they become concrete to us—history comes alive.”
Many of these family-centric stories throw a vivid light on some odd corners of familiar events. Some may be of more gripping interest to family members than to the general public, though Brown bravely weaves them into the bigger picture. A beauty of this book is that he strives to avoid sugarcoating both his family and America itself. Greed and cruelty emerge here, alongside bravery and determination, as all are essential ingredients in the nation’s story.
One of Brown’s many telling anecdotes focuses on the role that surveying played in preparing the Western states for white settlement. The ever-pragmatic George Washington makes an appearance here in surveying for promising land tracts to claim so that he could reap fabulous wealth at a later date. As he wrote in 1771, “What Inducements have Men to explore uninhabited Wilds but the prospect of getting good Lands?” He virtually ignores a 1763 colonial bar on claiming lands west of the Alleghenies, intended to placate Indians. As he writes to another land speculator in 1767:
I can never look upon that Proclamation in any other light (but this I say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the Minds of the Indians [that] must fall of course in a few years. . . . Any person therefore who neglects the present opportunity of hunting out good Lands & in some Measure Marking and distinguishing them for their own (in order to keep others from settling them) will never regain it.
In this setting of feverish land speculation amidst murderous Indian attacks, Brown’s ancestor Colonel William Preston helps survey and settle Kentucky. Brown’s bristling great-uncle, the decorated World War I general Preston Brown, turns up, shooting a Filipino man in the back and facing the loss of his military career, or much worse. The incident vividly captures the ugliness of “pacifying” the Philippines at the turn of the last century, the terribly dangerous environment our young soldiers faced there, and the immense worth of superb family and political connections in such a crisis. The author remembers his uncle, in retirement, as a “kindly old bald man. In Martha’s Vineyard, he wore immaculate white shirts, white trousers, and white bucks, and he would let me crawl up in his lap while he read me the newspaper.”
An unspoken lesson of this entertaining volume is to save things that speak silently of the past. And listen to your older relatives about the world they have witnessed.
Edward Achorn, editorial page editor for the Providence Journal, is the author of The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game.
A famous spy’s first steps toward betrayal. Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By DAVID AIKMAN
It will probably never be known how many people died because they were betrayed by Kim Philby to the NKVD, or its successor, the KGB. Konstantin Volkov, a KGB agent working under diplomatic cover as a consular officer in Istanbul in 1945, is just one standout example. For the sum of £5,000, Volkov offered to defect to the British with a treasure trove of intelligence information: the names of 314 KGB agents in Turkey and 250 in Britain.
Before Audubon, there was Alexander Wilson. Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By CHRISTOPH IRMSCHER
For years now, I have been showing the gorgeous four volumes of Audubon’s Birds of America to visitors and students at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. Each time, I take pleasure in the sumptuous colors of Audubon’s plates, still luminous after almost two centuries, and the dramatic stories of avian life the plates tell, with their fancy botanical backgrounds.
7:02 AM, Jul 16, 2013 • By JERYL BIER
Despite an admission by the Department of Transportation (DOT) that the Federal-aid Highway Programs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) are "susceptible to significant improper payments," the DOT Inspector General (IG) has terminated an audit initiated in April "due to other higher priority work demands."
The Chelsea Flower Show celebrates its centennial. Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By SARA LODGE
In his short story “The Occasional Garden,” Saki pinpoints a subject dear to the British heart, but also key to its social anxieties. Elinor Rapsley is about to receive a lunch visit from a woman whom she detests, Gwenda Pottingdon. Gwenda’s garden is the envy of the neighborhood; Elinor’s is a barren wasteland. Gwenda is coming on purpose to crow over Elinor’s pathetic pansies while describing her own rare and sumptuous roses.
The Ballets Russes and the dawn of modernity.Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By EVE TUSHNET
“There was a definite puppet-like quality about [Vaslav] Nijinsky’s Petrouchka. He seemed to have limbs of wood and a face made of plaster, in which his eyes resembled nothing so much as two boot buttons.
The collected versatility of a ‘really good’ critic. May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By JOHN SIMON
Drama critics come in all kinds, besides, of course, good and bad. There are those who regurgitate the plot and those who gallop off on hobby-horses. There are those with sound ideas but no style; those with impressive styles but no taste. Some tergiversate, even without a Janus face; others ride one point into the ground. Then there are the really good ones, like Britain’s Benedict Nightingale, whose song should be heard far beyond Berkeley Square.
The rebirth of the national pastime after World War II.May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By COLIN FLEMING
In an American sports world where football is king, the notion of baseball as our country’s national pastime is a quaint one, a sort of nostalgic throwback to a bygone era, like westerns in the 1940s or heroic literature in the century after the Crusades.
Familiar premise (art heist) meets tired device (amnesia).Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Trance has to be judged one of the great disappointments in recent cinema, given that it is only the second movie Danny Boyle has made since Slumdog Millionaire. That Oscar-winning worldwide smash may have been the best film of the past decade.
They’re people, too, and often based in Paris. Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By JUDY BACHRACH
I’m burning with envy. Here I’ve been plugging away of late in places like Oklahoma City and Scottsdale. Meanwhile, both Susan Mary Alsop and Kati Marton, heroines of two ostensibly different books, had a much better idea.
7:48 PM, Dec 10, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
The Republican National Committee announced the formation of a committee set to examine what the party did wrong in the last election.
"Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus today launched an initiative to grow the Republican Party and improve future Republican campaigns," the RNC announced today.
10:08 AM, Nov 23, 2012 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
I happened to read Michael Connelly's first mystery, The Black Echo, when it was published twenty years ago. I've been a fan every since. His books are now bestsellers, but it's always a nice feeling to have discovered someone (or something) before everyone else did—even if one deserves no particular credit for it.
‘Because I wanted to be pretty again.’Aug 29, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 46 • By JUDY BACHRACH
The main reason I wanted to read Prime Time, which is Jane Fonda’s latest book—there have been others—about Jane Fonda, is because of its cover. On the right-hand side, next to a large color photograph of the actress, her lips painted the precise color of her sweater (tangerine) and her hair abundantly streaked, ’70s-style, are the following words, punched out, perhaps, in order of their importance to her:
Montaigne’s persistent search for meaning.Aug 15, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 45 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
Reading an essay by Montaigne is like strolling through a labyrinthine flea market. You are likely to find all sorts of things there, except maybe logic, and you are likely to get, like the author, a bit lost. His essays, ruled only by curiosity, wander, wonder, sidestep, and circle, accumulate anecdotes, quotations, and conjectures as they go, but never arrive at a definite conclusion or offer an argument that might drop you off at one.