On this day 81 years ago Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the law that created the Works Progress Administration, an unprecedented effort by the federal government to provide employment during an economic crisis. At its peak the WPA employed over 8 million people on public projects ranging from building roads and making parks to creating public works of art and interviewing former slaves about life before Emancipation.
Incidentally, one of the ways the WPA employed writers was by sending them all over the country to document the varying foods and culinary traditions of different parts of the country. You can read about their discoveries in Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land.
If you’re interested in the art work created by WPA employees, do a Google image search for “WPA art.” You’ll be astounded.
I leave you with a short clip from a contemporary government film about the WPA:
On this day in 44 BC the Roman dictator Julius Caesar was assassinated. His murder and the ensuing warfare and chaos has been written about by historians, poets, playwrights and novelists. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, is a highly regarded and compulsively readable work in which she discusses the significance of Caesar’s life and death, as well as other important figures in Roman history such as Cicero, Hannibal and Augustus.
If you’re interested in learning more about the culture that produced Julius Caesar, I highly recommend Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Florence Dupont. Originally written in French, the English translation is lively and readable and topics covered in a manner suitable for a general audience. Dupont engages with questions such as how did the Romans think about the self, or about their gods? What did they eat? What relationships defined a person in Roman society? What social messages did various articles of Roman clothing convey?
The most famous dramatic treatment of Caesar’s life and death is, of course, William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March (1948) is a thoroughly enjoyable novel about the months leading up to Caesar’s assassination, as told from the points of view of various members of Roman society. Bennet Cerf, one of the founders of Random House, remarked in 1948 that “only three novels published since the first of the year that were worth reading … Cry, The Beloved Country, The Ides of March, and The Naked and the Dead.”
Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln. The sixteenth president was born on this day in 1809. If you enjoy historical photography you might be interested in checking out a recent SPL acquisition, The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln, a collection of every known photograph of Lincoln, from his days as a young lawyer to the end of the Civil War. It’s a beautifully printed book and a fascinating window into life in 19th-century America.
Another title I recommend is Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a masterful account of how this relatively unknown frontier lawyer, who was scorned as a bumpkin by the political establishment, succeeded in getting his disgruntled former rivals to work together and save the country during an unprecedented crisis.
Some might find my final reading suggestion a little dense, but I love the Library of America volume The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It. Other books about the Civil War are written in hindsight, but this collection of letters, diary excerpts, and speeches shows you how people of the day viewed events as they were happening and contemplated the uncertain future: the hysteria that swept the South, the furious debates in the border states, the dismay of Northern observers of secession, and finally, the grim resolve to go to war. In these pages are the voices of the important men of the day, such as Lincoln, Davis, and Frederick Douglass, as well the voices of those viewing events from the sidelines, such as the diarists Mary Chesnut of South Carolina and George Templeton Strong of New York.
You can get other Lincoln-related reading recommendations by going here.
1863: The Battle of Gettysburg begins, three bloody days that ended Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North, which Lee had hoped would force the North to sue for peace. Union General George Meade’s army of 90,000 took on Lee’s invading force of 75,000 resulting in three days of grueling fighting that resulted in roughly 51,00o casualties and forced Lee to return to Virginia. The battle has inspired a number of award-winning books, including the eminently readable Gettysburg: The Last Invasion and Twilight at Little Round Top. For a fictional treatment of Gettysburg, try Michael Shaara’s critically acclaimed novel The Killer Angels.
Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the murder of Abraham Lincoln. He was shot in the head in Ford’s Theater, where he was watching the play Our American Cousin. A century and a half and three presidential assassinations later, it’s impossible for us to comprehend what a national trauma it was. It was the first time an American president had been murdered.
Ford’s Theater has put together an online exhibit on national reactions to the assassination. It’s a fantastic example of how the Internet can be used to teach history. I’ve been a history geek my entire life. I wish the Web (and sites like this) had been around when I was a kid. Among the most instructive aspects of the exhibit are the indications that many people welcomed Lincoln’s death–and not just in the former Confederacy. The site has an interactive map where you can see reactions to the assassination in different parts of the country. In San Francisco some people were apparently quite happy about it: Major General MacDowell ordered that anyone celebrating Lincoln’s death be arrested. To characterize the war as “North against South” is clearly an oversimplification.
The site has an additional collection of written reactions to Lincoln’s assassination, including Walt Whitman’s poem, “O Captain, My Captain!” and diary entries by Emilie Davis a free African-American Philadelphian who wrote in her diary, “everything assumes a solemn aspect the streets look mournful the people more so.”
For those fascinated by presidential assassinations, I cannot recommend highly enough the book Destiny of the Republic, an account of the shooting of President Garfield and the attempts to save him. It’s a gripping read: not only does the author vividly recount the life of an almost completely forgotten president, she also tells a fascinating story of nineteenth-century medicine. Alexander Graham Bell was summoned to Washington and asked to invent a device that could find the location of the bullet in Garfield’s body (no pressure). But the effort to create an X-ray machine was the only part of the president’s treatment that resembled modern medicine. In fact Garfield probably would have survived if he had been kept away from his doctors, who poked and prodded in his wound with unwashed hands and unsterilized instruments.
150 years ago today Robert E Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, bringing an end to four years of war that caused 600,000 deaths. The generosity and forbearance of the victors in the American Civil War has no historical precedent: there were no executions; Confederate soldiers were allowed to keep their property; Confederate prisoners were released as soon as they swore an oath to never again fight against the U. S. government. When Union soldiers began to fire and cheer in celebration, Grant ordered them to stop: “The Rebels are now our countrymen again, and the best sight of rejoicing after victory will be to refrain from all celebrations.”
The war inspired a vast body of written work, including novels, history, memoirs and poetry. My favorite novel set during the Civil War is Cold Mountain by James Frazier, the story of Inman, a Confederate soldier making his way back home to North Carolina and to Ada, the woman he loves. While Inman does his best to stay alive in a war-ravaged land where all order has broken down, the once-wealthy Ada has to re-learn how to live, how to grow her own vegetables, raise livestock and make her own clothes. This winner of the 1997 National Book Award is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read in that I could actually believe the characters were from the nineteenth century, that I was experiencing a world I knew about, but that was at the same time profoundly alien.
One of my favorite works of Civil War history is Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America. Winik’s focus on so short a time period enables him to give his readers a sense of what it was like to live, work and fight in 1865. We follow Lincoln’s secretary John Hay as he walks to the telegraph office in the evening to wait for the latest reports from the front. We sit in on the deliberations of the Confederate government as they realize time is running out. And agonizingly, we walk with John Wilkes Booth into Ford’s Theater up to the President’s box where he commits one of the greatest crimes of all time. But this book is more than an epic retelling of events in the lives of famous men. Winik never lets you forget what the war was really about, and the greatest good that came out of it. He recounts the ex-slave Houston Holloway’s memory of becoming free in 1865: “I felt like a bird out of a cage. Amen. Amen. Amen.”
For an overview of the cultural and political world of America in the 1850s and 60s, you probably can’t do better than Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore: Literature of the American Civil War. Wilson discusses, analyzes and dissects the writing of the period: travel accounts by Northerners in the South, diaries of Confederate ladies, memoirs by Union generals. He also reflects on the work of post-war writers who were shaped by the conflict, such as Kate Chopin and Ambrose Bierce.
If you’re interested in learning about the Civil War but none of these titles sound appealing, come to the library and ask me or one of my co-workers for help finding something. That’s why we’re here.
Happy Birthday, Sinclair Lewis. This author of devastating critiques of American life was born in Sauk Center, Minnesota in 1885. Recommended related readings from SPL: Babbitt, one of my favorite novels of 1920s America and Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s.
This year a number of books on the First World War have been published in recognition of its upcoming 100th anniversary: on July 28, 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, sparking a chain reaction of hostilities. Serbia’s ally, Russia, declared war on Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary’s ally, Germany, then declared war on Russia and Russia’s ally France. Then German troops swept through neutral Belgium to invade France. In response to the violation of Belgium’s neutrality and sovereignty, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. The United States remained steadfastly neutral until 1917, when it declared war in response to German attacks on US ships.
Perhaps this all seems remote to people in Massachusetts in 2014. But the war didn’t seem at all remote to the people of Orleans, Mass. on July 21, 1918, when a U-boat surfaced off the Cape and began firing on the tugboat Perth Amboy and the four barges it was towing. Chatham Coast Guard sailors rowed lifeboats directly into the lines of fire and rescued all 32 people on board the tugboat and barges. The U-boat fired several shells directly at the town. One landed in a pond, the others sank into the sand. Eventually the U-boat left. It was the first attack on American soil since the War of 1812.
No one has ever learned why the Germans attacked the Perth Amboy and Orleans. One theory is that the U-boat was chasing a larger American ship, lost track of it, and happened to stumble upon the Perth Amboy. Another suggestion is that the U-boat was on a general mission to damage American morale by attacking the mainland.
However, given that it took an armed U-boat an hour and a half to disable five completely unarmed civilian vessels, the Germans were probably not as threatening as they had hoped. “Germans Prove Poor Shots,” read one Globe headline.
JFK, Jr and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy on their wedding day
Today was a tragic day in US History when John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and her older sister Lauren died when the airplane JFK, Jr. was piloting when down in the Atlantic near Martha’s Vineyard. A massive search/rescue/recovery mission was undertaken to find the plane and bring home their bodies. This sad story captivated the world over for many days.
July 4 is coming up, a day for fireworks, cookouts and spending time with friends. Here’s a brief guide to local fun on Independence Day.
Somerville’s July 4th festivities will be Thursday evening at Trum Field. Live music starts at 6:15, fireworks at 9:15. Everything you need to know, including rain date information, is here.
If you want to go to the banks of Charles, hear the Boston Pops and see fireworks you need to read this guide by cbslocal.
You could also listen to the Pops and see the fireworks on a big screen at Robbins Farm Park in Arlington. The details are here.
And tomorrow is the start of Boston Harborfest, an annual festival of activities and tours in and around Boston that begins July 2 and ends July 6. You can take architectural tours, play eighteenth century games, attend a chocolate-making demonstration, listen to Cape Verdean jazz, and more. Check out their calendar of events.