Month: October 2017

Book Review – The Republic for Which It Stands by Richard White

It seemed as though Richard White wrote The Republic for Which It Stands for an unorthodox reason. From my perception, he utilized it to raise awareness regarding the vilest villain in American History. As the book covered the period from the beginning of Reconstruction through the Gilded Age’s conclusion, the choice surprised me. I’d expected a monopolist, a Klansman or even John Wilkes Booth to claim that title. The impact of the malign monster in question impeded our nation’s progress towards a more perfect union and set it back for generations; destroying the “free labor” dream of the post-Civil War generation in the process. And what is the identity of this individual who belongs among the ranks of Judas, Crassus and Brutus in the Ninth Circle of Hell? Stephen J. Field. Now who reading this can honestly say they guessed that?

The volumes comprising the Oxford History of the United States tend to be rather compendious. In this one, Dr. White pushed the envelope. He chose to present an overview of the period from the end of the Civil War through the election of 1896. Many historians have approached Reconstruction and the Gilded Age as two distinct periods in American history. In this sense, Dr. White isn’t the typical historian. He explained it appropriate to group the two together. The latter era served as a logical resolution of the first.

Reconstruction witnessed the beginnings of the “free labor” system in the United States. During the years that bridged the time period, the nation transitioned from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Small producers gave way to monopolies. Labor’s role in this transition became unsettled. Strikes and violence ensued. And here enters the Snidley Whiplash of American history.

Stephen J. Field served as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court. Ironically, the most revered figure of the era, Abraham Lincoln, appointed him. The legal concept of substantive due process served as his major contribution to the annals of American juris prudence. His views inspired other judges to adopt his original application of the due process clause enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment. While not well defined in the book, in essence, substantive due process allows judges to prohibit the government from infringing on rights not mentioned in the Constitution. Gilded Age judges did so in detrimental ways. As the author summarized:

The judicial imposition of liberal free labor and contract freedom in regard to workers and their unions had a large and surprising caveat. The courts continued to appeal to common law doctrines of “masters” and “servants,” which flew in the face of freedom of contract. The contradictions gave judges even greater leeway to pick and choose among doctrines so that workers and their unions often faced “tails I win, heads you lose” situations. On the one hand, the courts granted workers property in their labor, but on the other, they also granted employers a property interest in their employees’ labor. Actions by workers that deprived employers of this labor illegally stripped them of property. The courts assumed that companies were entitled to their “servants” loyalty and obedience; actions by workers that threatened this entitlement could be ruled illegal. The courts sanctioned the employers’ right to petition the courts and unleash state violence against workers’ organizing efforts. (Page 819)

Dr. White added:

The Sherman Antitrust Act became virtually a dead letter against corporations for much of the 1890s, but unions, which were not the original concern of the legislation, became its targets. The courts would empty laws of content and fill them with new meaning. Of the thirteen decisions invoking antitrust law between 1890 and 1897, twelve involved labor unions. (Page 819)

That’s a disturbing ending to an historical epoch that began with the eradication of slavery and the advent of a “free labor” system. While troubling, the professor proved his thesis very well.

The Republic contained A LOT of detail regarding this thirty year period. It covered political events, social history and the increasing conflict between industrialists and labor. That’s a broad array of topics for a single book. At times the abundance of information became overwhelming. Still, it made for a good general overview of the era.

In 1879, reformer Lyman Abbott observed,

“Politically America is a democracy; industrially, America is an aristocracy.” The worker might make political laws, but “he is under industrial laws. At the ballot box he is a king; in the factory he is a servant, sometimes a slave.” (Page 674)

Substantive due process ignited the process through which this enigma occurred.

White, Richard. The Republic for Which It Stands. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Print.

 

Advertisements

Book Review – The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Without doubt Mr. Ishiguro crafted the most creative work of literature I’ve ever read. The latest Nobel Laureate in Literature fused a fantastic story, superb plot twists along with elements of the Arthurian legend into a memorable tale regarding the power of memory. Ironically, it focused on the lack of ability to remember.

The Buried Giant contained an outstanding setting. The story took place in a medieval society just after the reign of King Arthur. A mysterious mist spread over the land causing denizens to lose their memories. With this backdrop, the author chose to make his novel a quest story. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, two married Britons, Axl and Beatrice, endured a strong marriage. The former, in fact, always addressed his wife as ‘princess.’ While they ostensibly left their village to visit their son, their journey turned into a voyage of discovery. That unearthing included not only the mist’s source, but attributes about themselves. It also made for an entertaining read as the plot developed.

While Axl and Beatrice endeavored on a metaphorical quest, Sir Gawain (of Arthurian legend renown) and Saxon warrior Wistan embarked on a more concrete quest. Both undertook to slay the evil dragon, Quereg. They along with the married couple joined together for a good portion of the journey. I mentioned the author showed extraordinary imagination while writing this, didn’t I?

The novel became philosophical regarding the concept of memory without becoming pedantic. Prior to discovering the mist’s source, Beatrice opined:

Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, or something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget. And as the stranger told Ivor, when God won’t remember, it’s no wonder we’re unable to do so. (Page 83)

The monk Father Jonus revealed the source of the mist to Beatrice. (So as not to reveal spoilers, I shall neglect to mention it.) The following dialog ensued.

“Mistress, you seem happy to know the truth about this thing you call the mist.”

“Happy indeed, father, for now there’s a way forward for us.”

“Take care, for it’s a secret jealously guarded by some, though maybe it’s best it remains so no longer.”

“It’s not for me to care if it’s a secret or not, father, but I’m glad Axl and I know it and can act on it.”

“Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?” (Page 171)

Mr. Ishiguro used voice very well in this story. All the characters spoke in ways consistent with their personalities. Sir Gawain addressed others as a noble knight of the Round Table would talk. Even the Saxon, Wistan, also expressed his thoughts like a distinguished warrior. I liked his statement, “You’ve more to fear from your silence than my anger. Speak.” (Page 262)

At times, The Buried Giant read like a work of poetry. The author’s liberal inclusion of alliteration added to this effect. Some examples included:

“pleasant place to pass” (Page 15)

“pollute this precious place” (Page 40)

“soon see his head as smooth” (Page 42)

“tall fence of tethered timber” (Page 51)

“Ivor took a step back and smiled self-consciously.” (Page 77)

“warrior’s way of walking” (Page 104)

“beating back brambles and bushes” (Page 121)

“witness the ways of warriors” (Page 132)

“heads of hideous hags” (Page 190)

“slaughter a sea of Saxons” (Page 233)

“startling them as they sat silently in their semi-circle” (Page 238)

While not alliterative, I thought the expression “pressing in oppressively right” (page 36) exhibited a clever method of expression.

The author melded all these disparate aspects into the narrative brilliantly. While doing so, he thrilled with some well contemplated plot twists. Through all this he kept the story progressing forward. That showed exceptional skill at fiction writing.

At times I did find the dialog a bit repetitive. It made the reading drag at times. All of the exceptional aspects of this book more than compensated for this slight flaw.

I’m jealous of those with the opportunity to read The Buried Giant for the first time. Maybe that mysterious mist will meander into my home and I’ll have the chance to do so again.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Buried Giant. New York: Vintage International, 2015. EBook.

 

Book Review – New Jersey and the Great War by Richard J. Connors

Connors, Richard J. New Jersey and the Great War: 1914-1919. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Co., 2017, Print.

No one questions The Great War’s monumental impact on the world at large. How it affected areas outside the battle zones sometimes gets lost in analyses of the conflict.  Historian Richard J. Connors made a great stride towards rectifying this gap. In New Jersey and the Great War, he showed how the First World War both shaped and became shaped by the Garden State’s contributions. Both an enlightening and engaging read resulted.

The author explained how the expression above the state capital’s railroad bridge, “Trenton makes, the world takes”, applied to the entire state beginning in 1914. (Page 6) New Jersey served as a source of munitions, shipbuilding and aircraft. “Just as the Du Ponts had come to dominate explosives, John D. Rockefeller dominated oil.” (Page 23)

To my surprise, the city of Hoboken played a much unheralded role in the war. (Pages 37 -39) During America’s neutrality it served as a major location for many of the industries that contributed to the Allied war effort. Following the nation’s entry into the conflict its availability as a major port made it a primary center of embarkation for Europe by American “doughboys.”

While all readers know the dangers of combat, Dr. Connors described how civilians faced comparable risks working in war related industries.

In all its phases, munitions was a dangerous business. Manufacturing powder, loading shells, transporting these to the waterfront, placing munitions onto barges for transfer to ocean going vessels: every step was at high risk…Fires, explosions and related disasters became part of the New Jersey story during the Great War. It was not in a corporation’s interest to publicize these, but news of major tragedies did reach the press. Examples from 1914-17 include and explosion at Du Pont’s Carney’s Point plant in January 1916; disaster at Jersey City’s Black Tom complex in July 1916; the destruction of the Canadian Car and Foundry plant in Lyndhurst in January 1917; a major explosion at Du Pont’s Haskell works that same month. (Page 28)

The Du Pont Haskell facility was a particularly treacherous place to work. The plant experienced twenty-five explosions in 1916. (Page 30) Another tragedy occurred when the T. A. Gillespie facility located in the Morgan section of Sayerville exploded in 1918. Historians estimate that it cost one hundred workers their lives. (Page 35)

Dr. Connors balanced his depictions of weaponry and war materiel with the state’s contributions to preserving life.

During the war years, New Jersey did make significant contributions to the survival of military casualties. One was in the field of quality surgical instruments, a Newark specialty. Another was anesthetic ether, where E. R. Squibb of New Brunswick had been active since the late nineteenth century. Arguably the most important was the work of the Johnson brothers, who headed another New Brunswick firm. Johnson and Johnson (J & J) was a nineteenth century pioneer in sterile surgical dressings, absorbent cotton, and bandages. During the Great War the Allies obtained the bulk of these necessities from the firm. (Page 26)

Of interest to both military and local history buffs, the book contained brief but informative histories of both the 29th and 78th infantry divisions. These units included soldiers from New Jersey. As a South Jersey native, I enjoyed reading about the origins of the latter’s home: a facility built during 1917. At the time known as Camp Dix, the facility still operates today.

Dr. Connors concluded his history by discussing Garden Staters who distinguished themselves in combat far above the call of duty. The first appendix detailed service members who received the Medal of Honor for their valor. The next included biographical paragraphs regarding airmen who received the “ace” designation. (James Pearson, the man believed to have been the last surviving American ace of the war, passed away at the age of 97 in Upper Montclair on January 6, 1993.) New Jersey native and World War I casualty Joyce Kilmer’s “Rouge Boquet” rounded out the final one.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture Dr. Connors presented concerning this subject. His colorful wit and erudition inspired me. At the conclusion of his remarks, I wanted to learn more about New Jersey and the Great War. I found his book of the same title an extraordinary resource to do so.

 

Lecture Review – Richard J. Connors, Ph.D.: New Jersey and the Great War

Richard J. Connors opened his remarks with perhaps the most unusual preface to a talk regarding warfare: he spoke about love. The man whose death ignited the Great War, Archduke Ferdinand, married for love. The professor then informed his audience that he “falls in love easily” when he addressed the Historical Society of Moorestown. The erudite gentleman explained that he’d fallen in love with the host town upon visiting. Those interested in history certainly loved his talk this October 5th at the Community House.

Dr. Connors holds the title of Professor Emeritus as Seton Hall University. A catalog of his notable works includes: A Cycle of Power: The Local Political Career of Mayor Frank Hague, The New Jersey Constitution of 1776 and New Jersey and the Great War; the latter serving as the basis for his lecture. In addition to writing about military affairs, the professor possesses personal knowledge of the subject. He served as an officer in the Army Corp of Engineers with the Army of Occupation in Okinawa in 1947. From 1951 – 1952 he served in the Korean War.

The professor commenced his talk by describing the European conception of warfare at the advent of the Great War. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, “royal affairs” between rival kingdoms comprised armed conflicts. The Napoleonic Era spawned a transition to “quick and dirty affairs” between nation states. This led planners to anticipate a brief First World War. This miscalculation gave rise to “total warfare.” Conscription allowed for an “army of millions” to take the field against an opponent of equal size. In the end, the conflict led to 30 million soldier and civilian casualties.

Many technological innovations occurred during the 99 years following Napoleon’s defeat until the first shots of the Great War. Tanks, aircraft, flamethrowers, barbed wire, heavy artillery, poison gas and machine guns entered the battlefield for the first time. Many historians cite these developments as reason for the massive loss of life during the war. Dr. Connors added an incisive corollary to that analysis: these weapons “gave a lot of emphasis to the defense.” This would explain why the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Dr. Connors enlightened the audience regarding the role the Garden State played in the war. He used the old real estate aphorism “location, location, location” to explain its significance. New Jersey housed several munitions plants; an industry which experienced a boom (no pun intended) once the war commenced. The state’s refineries also provided a source of fuel for the Allies. Cites, such as Camden, became centers of ship building.

To local history buffs’ delight, Dr. Connors also discussed the 78th and 29th Infantry Divisions. Both units included soldiers from New Jersey. Camp Dix served as the training ground of the former and Camp McClellan for the latter. The professor noted the interesting fact that although located in Alabama, a former Garden State governor and Union general provided that base’s name.

When contemplating wartime casualties, one traditionally thinks of injuries sustained in combat. Dr. Connors reported that flu and pneumonia proved more deadly than the battlefield. According to a study conducted in the early 1930s: Americans suffered 52,000 casualties in battle. The twin scourges of Flu and pneumonia combined for 63,000.

America’s declaration of war on April 2, 1917 led to an eruption of patriotism “overnight.” That seemed an odd, as when asked why the US entered the conflict the professor replied, “Damned if I know.” He went on to hypothesize that the nation did so for the following reasons: 1) while initially ‘neutral’, American financiers such as JP Morgan bankrolled the Allies from 1914 – 1917. These economic ties ensured entering the conflict against the Central Powers. 2) Unrestricted German submarine warfare negatively impacted American business interests. 3) The Zimmerman Note, in which Germany offered to assist Mexico in retaking the American Southwest, became widely reported. Dr. Connors added that both the British and Germans propaganda machines operated stateside during the war. The British possessed more skill in this field due the shared language.

Josef Stalin observed: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the deaths of millions is a statistic.” Many historians neglect the human cost of the tragedies they explicate. Dr. Connors avoided this error. He humanized the Great War’s cost by quoting a poem written by New Jersey native Joyce Kilmer: himself a casualty of the conflict.

A discussion that began with the subject of love concluded with its antithesis. At the cessation of hostilities “a demand for peace turned to a demand for revenge.” It became the catalyst for an “age of bigger government.” As Dr. Connors wrote in New Jersey and the Great War: “Subtly and sadly, then, the Great War trained us for World War II.”

Kiss Me Kate at Haddonfield Plays and Players

On the surface, the opening number “Another Opn’in, Another Show” would work as an appropriate introduction to a musical. At the opening night performance of Haddonfield Plays and Players’ Kiss Me Kate, it didn’t fit. As the show progressed, I couldn’t describe it as just “another” opening night at “another” show. I found this October 6th performance absolutely spectacular.

This Chris McGinnis directed and choreographed musical featured a “play within a play” format. That seemed a fitting approach for a piece that referenced Shakespeare. This Cole Porter classic told the story of a theatre company’s travails in staging the Bard’s The Taming of The Shrew. The events on the stage bore an uncanny resemblance to the lives of the 1940s actors in the play. Comedic hijinks coupled with superb singing and dancing resulted.

Arielle Egan took on the dual roles of Katherine and the actress who played her, Lilli Vanessi. I enjoyed the clever approach this thespian utilized to transform the latter into the former. One also has to acknowledge her skill in bringing out the humorous aspects of a bad temper. She animated the concept that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” with great wit. While she treated the audience to extraordinary acting, Ms. Egan impressed even more with her vocal capabilities.

This performer manages her voice as though it’s a distinct musical instrument. Ms. Egan executed outstanding trills and vibrato while singing the comedic “I Hate Men.” Her character very well may have, but this reviewer sure loved her singing. It proved a challenging song to perform. The track contained rests and accents in unusual places. She impressed by performing the song flawlessly while emphasizing the funnier aspects of the words.

Anthony Vitalo’s stellar vocal prowess also captivated the audience. In addition to a voice that broadcasts well, his style reminds one of Greg Lake’s; only with an American accent. I felt like a “lucky man” given the opportunity to hear his renditions of “Where Thine Thy Special Face” and the witty ode to ribaldry “Where is the Life that Late I Led.” It’s an achievement to speak those titles without tripping over the alliteration. Mr. Vitalo sang with confidence and achieved terrific interpretations.

Mr. Vitalo also exhibited proficiency for facial expressions. Whether his character connived, wooed or angered, he displayed the best mannerisms to express the emotions. From my seat at stage right, I had a clear view of him during Ms. Egan’s superb solo performance on “So in Love.” His somber pining for his lost love gave the song much more impact. That’s a remarkable achievement for a performer sitting silently on stage during the number.

The cast gave Musical Director Justin Adams a lot of talent with which to work. One of the evening’s highlights took place when Mr. Vitalo and Ms. Egan joined together for the “Wunderbar” tune. The song’s title proved an adept description of its delivery from both performers.

Colleen Murphy (as Lois Lane/Bianca) added her remarkable vocals to the show. Many of the lyrics she sang contained dual meanings and she varied her tone to express these changes. Ms. Murphy delivered a striking rendition of the archly titled “Always True to You in My Own Way.” I also enjoyed her duet with Dennis Summerville (Bill Calhoun/Lucentio) on “Why Can’t You Behave?”

Perhaps, serving as an inspiration to Sister Act, Kiss Me Kate utilized gangsters as a source of comedy. Curt Shoyer and Steve Ciapanna provided that comedy through their accents, dialog and costumes. They added singing and dancing to their repertoire with the hilarious “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” number.

Act II opened with the show’s most memorable moment. Kahil A. Wyatt (as Paul) led the company through an intricate song and dance number entitled “It’s Too Darn Hot.” One has to credit Chris McGinnis for coordinating the elaborate choreography. The cast deserve recognition for the flawless performance of such a multifarious routine.

Kiss Me Kate featured a rotating set to accommodate the musical’s 16 different scenes. It transported the audience from Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore to Elizabethan England. Rennee McCleery’s costuming enhanced this effect.

Jordan Gulick, Faith McCleery, Tony Yates, Charles L. Bandler, Alex Chupik, Brian Gensel, Felicia Capece, Nicole Lukaitis, Jennie Pines, Gia Lukatis and Krista Reinhardt added their talents to an outstanding cast.

To borrow from Shakespeare, “all’s well that ends well.” Sadly, the show will end on October 21. Following that, audiences can kiss Kiss Me Kate goodbye at Haddonfield Plays and Players.