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Lecture Review – “The Music of World War II” by Dr. Sheldon Winkler

At first I thought it unusual for a dentist to present a lecture on the music of the 1940s. Then I discovered that dentist was Sheldon Winkler. Appropriately enough, Dr. Winkler cut his teeth back in the early 1950s as the band leader for Sheldon Winkler and His Orchestra. While he didn’t share any of his chops with this audience he presented some great stories behind the great music of the Second World War. The Moorestown Library hosted his lecture on August 20th.

Dr. Winkler possesses tremendous range; well beyond that of most musicians. He previously served as the Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Prosthodontics and Dean of Research, Advanced Education, and Continuing Education at the Temple University School of Dentistry. Now he is Professor Emeritus at Temple University. Currently, he’s an Adjunct Professor at the School of Dental Medicine, Midwestern University located in Glendale, Arizona. The man doesn’t rest. I’d note that when he has time he delivers a lecture on music history that can’t be beat.

Dr. Winkler discussed the stories behind a number of war time classics. Some songwriters used their craft to convey a political point. He explained that Nat Burton wrote the lyrics for “The White Cliffs of Dover” to encourage American participation in the war. The speaker noted that the lyricist took some poetic license with the words. No bluebirds inhabit the United Kingdom.

Of interest to local historians, the professor talked about the local connection to some of the era’s most well-known tunes. A South Jersey clergyman inspired one of the war’s most popular songs. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Haddonfield resident Chaplain Howell Forgy issued the famous declaration, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” to his shipmates aboard the USS New Orleans. The expression inspired Frank Loesser to write the war time anthem of the same name.

Dr. Winkler endeavors to have an historic plaque placed on Chaplain Forgy’s Haddonfield home. His efforts are ongoing.

Any Philadelphia Flyers fan knows Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America.” Dr. Winkler shared the song’s origins. In 1938 Ms. Smith and her manager Ted Collins approached Irving Berlin. They asked him to write something she could use on her radio program. Mr. Berlin resurrected a tune he’d written during World War One, but never used. He modified it a bit and presented it to Ms. Smith. It became her signature song. Decades later it became a staple at the Broad Street Bullies’ home games.

During the Second World War a movement began to replace the “Star Spangled Banner” with “God Bless America” as the National Anthem. Dr. Winkler explained that it seemed Ms. Smith, Mr. Collins and Mr. Berlin the only people who opposed the change. With the global conflict raging, they didn’t believe it enough of a “war song.”

To borrow a quote from Rod McKuen, Dr. Winkler showed that, “1939 -1945 was a terrible time for the world, but it was a glorious time for songs.” His lecture also served as the most enjoyable hour I’ve spent in the presence of a dentist. The speaker based the talk on his book The Music of World War II: War Songs and Their Stories.

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An Evening with Joe DiBlasio at the Moorestown Library

What better way to commemorate one’s birthday than by reliving one’s life to a rapt audience? Moorestown resident Joe DiBlasio did just that. The Moorestown Library presented an evening with him on August 29th.

Reference Librarian Maria Esche served as the event moderator. She opened her remarks by observing that “Joe has a big fan club.” Mr. DiBlasio added a comical quip that, “Half of you in the audience know me. The half that knows me doesn’t want to know me.” Over the next two hours Mr. DiBlasio showed why everyone in the audience would be honored to know him.

Mr. DiBlasio described the process that led to his taking up residence in Moorestown. His father came to the United States from Italy at the age of 17. He brought his family over six years later. Shortly afterwards Joe was born in Camden. The family moved to Moorestown while Joe attended third grade.

The DiBlasio family had already established roots in town. His grandparents lived in the community. His grandfather worked as a stone mason who commuted to Moorestown from Camden. In the early twentieth century this journey took 2-1/2 hours each way. Some of the Quakers in town helped his grandfather find a home to spare him the traveling.

Mr. DiBlasio shared his observations on his 80 plus years living in Moorestown. He experienced the most momentous events of the twentieth century in the community. Regarding life during the Great Depression, “I never went to bed hungry,” he said. His family still struggled.

His mother baked bread three times a week. He traveled about town selling loaves for $0.10 each. “That’s the only reason I had a bicycle,” he explained.

His father worked for RCA as a cabinet maker. During the Depression, he lost his job and became unable to pay his mortgage. Mr. DiBlasio described two gentlemen from the Burlington County Trust Company approaching his father at home. The men had come to foreclose. The elder Mr. DiBlasio wouldn’t allow them. “I don’t have the money now,” he said, “but I’m going to pay you.” The men left the premises. His father did eventually pay the bank the money he owed.

The speaker described life in town during the Second World War. When hostilities began in Europe, people didn’t worry. The conflict took place too far away to cause concern. When the United States began supplying the Allies, then people became anxious.

Upon America’s entry into the war rationing began immediately. The draft began in 1940, but the government still allowed high school students to graduate before becoming eligible. Young men could drop out of school and enlist, however. Moorestown also enforced blackouts. Regarding the latter, Mr. DiBlasio noted, “We never worried about being bombed.”

The war didn’t alter some aspects of life in town. Mr. DiBlasio described himself as a “big star” on both the high school baseball diamond and the gridiron during the early 1940s. He added a comical observation to his own assessment of his abilities. “Who can object to that now?”

Mr. DiBlasio discussed some of the other local events he experienced. He recalled watching as they tore up the old trolley tracks from the center of Main Street. Gravel covered the roads prior to asphalt. Once or twice a year they would oil the streets in order to keep the dust low. He even remembered the original paving of Route 38. Mr. DiBlasio described learning how to swim in the artesian wells that border what is now Strawbridge Lake. He even picked apples at the orchard where the Moorestown Mall now stands.

The guest concluded his reminiscence by discussing the various service clubs started in Moorestown following the war. He belonged to the Lions Club that incorporated in 1948. He even brought a visual aid from the era to show the audience: a wreath the organization crafted in 1952. It was the first Christmas ornament ever displayed in town.

Mr. DiBlasio served in the Marine Corps for three years, worked for the family business (Perla Block) and married in 1950. He turned 95 this August 12th. One suspects that after this evening, he’s going to have an even bigger fan club.

Lecture Review – “Jungle of Weeds to War” by Melissa Ziobro

Who would have thought a luxury hotel and a racetrack could eventually become a military base? Sure enough, it happened. Well, it occurred on land once occupied by those paragons of pleasure. I heard the full story this August 7th.

The Historical Society of Moorestown presented the second outdoor installment of its History Speaks lecture series. Historian Melissa Ziobro delivered her “Jungle of Weeds to War” address in the garden at Smith-Cadbury Mansion. The speech focused on the history of Fort Monmouth.

The facility opened in order to train soldiers to fight in the First World War. The professor began her remarks with a brief overview of why the United States entered the conflict. She explained that Americans felt a stronger kinships with the people of the United Kingdom and France. Both those countries practiced democratic forms of government. Authoritarians led nations such as the German Empire, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire which comprised the Central Powers.

The United States viewed the war as an encroachment on its trading rights. Belligerents employed different means of deterring them.  British and French vessels turned US ships back towards North America. German vessels preferred to sink them. The German sinking of the Lusitania, in which some New Jersey natives died, played key role in the nation’s path to war. Germany’s ill-advised offer to help Mexico regain the Southwest cemented it.

The professor then expatiated upon a topic she knew well: the history of Fort Monmouth. “From Jungle of Weeds to War” proved an interesting subtitle. The base may have had the most interesting origins of any military facility anywhere. From the 1870s and into the 1890s a luxury hotel and a racetrack occupied the land.  A moralistic crusade against gambling at the close of the nineteenth century proved a boon for the army a little over a decade later. For a $75,000 lease agreement, the military obtained a facility accessible by good stone roads; a rarity at the time. The area allowed for ease of access to both water and a railway station. The port city of Hoboken was also nearby.

The base located at the old Monmouth Park Racetrack began its new purpose as Camp Little Silver. The base became a training ground for communications specialists. Perhaps that’s what inspired the army to rename it Camp Alfred Vail. The namesake hailed from New Jersey and worked with Samuel Morse.

During the war, the camp gave to the community and the community gave back. The facility paid higher wages than private businesses. Soldiers spent their earnings in the local towns. The troops even put on vaudeville shows for civilians. In return, some of the most talented people in the region worked at the base. As an interesting expression of gratitude, the Long Branch Elks club donated a barrel of tobacco to it.

Thanks to the base’s success, the US Government decided to make its use of the facility more enduring. In 1919 it purchased the land for $115,000.

In 1925, the military renamed the base once more this time calling it Fort Monmouth. Due to the facility’s continued focus on communications technology, it earned the unofficial title “Home of the Signal Corps” through the Vietnam War.

The facility that played such a significant role in the twentieth century wouldn’t endure long into the twenty first. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission opted to close it. The army reassigned Fort Monmouth’s personnel to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in 2011.

Fortunately for local history buffs, Professor Ziobro opted to remain in New Jersey. While working as the Professor of Public History at Monmouth University, Professor Ziobro also edits New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She served as a Command Historian at the US Army Communications-Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, NJ from 2004 until 2011.

Thanks to the professor’s work, Fort Monmouth’s legacy will long outlive the actual base. I can take the luxury of writing: in homage to the land’s original use, that’s not an optional claimer.

Lecture Review – “In Flew Enza: The 1918 Flu Epidemic in Philadelphia and New Jersey” by Mikey DiCamillo

2018 marks the hundredth anniversary of one of history’s most horrific years. With the bloodbath of the First World War, it’s easy to forget that 2018 also commemorates the centenary of another catastrophe. This one also caused massive loss of life. Unlike the war, this one affected people well beyond the battlefields. It even made a tremendous impact in our region. This disaster caused eight to 12 thousand deaths in Philadelphia and another 2,600 in Camden County. This malady made no noise, had no smell and couldn’t be detected by the naked eye. Today we know that killer as the influenza virus.

Historian Mickey DiCamillo enhanced my understanding. He presented a lecture on the 1918 flu pandemic this July 11th. It took place in the May Barton Memorial Garden located at the Historical Society of Moorestown.

While a somber topic for a summer lecture, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about it. I have a personal connection to this subject. My great-grand aunt and Philadelphia resident Edith Bishop Clark succumbed during the 1918 flu pandemic on October 13, 1918. Mrs. Cark was only 27 years old. Since her sister, my great-grandmother Violet Bishop Connelly, lived to be 80, I wondered how someone so young could be struck down by something as common as the flu.

Mr. DiCamillo didn’t disappoint. He provided a thorough overview of the outbreak. The historian performed copious research on the topic. It gave him a solid understanding of the subject matter.

The lecture focused on several key areas: the epidemic’s origin, why it spread so quickly and how society responded to it.

I’d often heard the pandemic referred to as the “Spanish Flu.” Mr. DiCamillo explained that this is a misnomer. He explored the historiography of how scholars analyzed the outbreak’s roots.

During the First World War a myth spread that the pandemic originated with German POWs. Interestingly, during the 1940s and 1950s, historians then theorized that it began among Russian POWs. Mr. DiCamillo noted that in both cases, the historians of the day attributed it to America’s main adversary.

Contemporary historians theorize that the virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas around February of 1918. A physician named Loring Miner observed young, strong people becoming ill and dying. They experienced regular flu like symptoms that quickly developed into pneumonia. Dr. Miner published his findings. He ominously warned: “the public should be alarmed.”

In March of the same year this flu strain affected Camp Fungsten, a military base in the Haskell County area. Within three weeks medics reported 1,100 cases there. Many soldiers from this facility landed in Brest, France. Mr. DiCamillo described that city as “ground zero” for the European’s flu’s outbreak.

The Haskell County origin is a hypothesis, Mr. DiCamillo noted. Modern researchers can document the Kansas outbreak because Dr. Miner published his findings in a Federal Government journal. The epidemic struck all over the world. That makes it very difficult to identify its precise beginning.

The scourge spread to the Northeast beginning in late summer. Soldiers at military bases became its first victims. The close quarters common to barracks allowed for the illness’ easy transmission.

Mr. DiCamillo then focused his remarks on the Camden County and Philadelphia areas. He cited a “voice from the era”, to describe events. A local newspaper, the Camden Daily Courier, reported that the flu had passed the region on 9/20/1918. Then between 9/20 and 9/24, Camp Dix experienced 1,000 cases of it.

The speaker referenced another voice from the era in the person of Alton W. Miller. While stationed at Kentucky’s Camp Taylor, he wrote letters to his sister stating he felt “sick.” He didn’t report his illness at the base because, “Everybody who goes into the hospital doesn’t come out.” His concern proved prescient. When he could no longer hide his symptoms, he was sent there. He passed away shortly afterwards.

Mr. DiCamillo presented his own theory as to how the epidemic spread through the area. On September 28, 1918 a Liberty Loan Rally was scheduled to take place at Willow Grove Park. With flu raging through the Northeast, the organizers debated whether or not to hold the event. Philadelphia’s public health officials adhered to the specious belief that they had a vaccine to combat the illness. They gave permission for the gathering to take place. On that date 200,000 people gathered in Willow Grove Park.

Three days later the number of flu cases in Philadelphia leapt from 100 to 635. Around this time news of the flu appeared on the front page of the Camden Daily Courier for the first time.

So why was this flu so contagious? Mr. DiCamillo provided two explanations. He estimated that 75% of the area’s trained medical personnel went overseas to support the war effort. He added that the conflict “sped everything up.” Factories operated 24 hours a day.

People of the day used some modern methods to treat the malady. The patient would be isolated. The sick person’s body temperature would be carefully monitored. Cathartics would be used to “rid the patient off poisons.” The patient would be encouraged to breathe fresh air, keep their windows screened and to drink plenty of fluids.

Mr. DiCamillo shared some amusing stories as to how people responded to the crisis.

By the first week of October, officials in Camden and Philadelphia took measures to control the illness’ spread. They ordered schools, churches and social clubs closed. Philadelphia even took the added step of shutting down saloons. Camden did not. This led to an influx of people from the City of Brotherly Love into the South Jersey area. Residents described their behavior as failing to give credence to the city’s nickname.

At the time doctors prescribed whiskey to treat the epidemic. Historians doubt that’s what led so many Philadelphians to swarm into South Jersey’s taverns, though.

During the crisis the Philadelphia Inquirer made an editorial decision not to print articles about the flu on the front page. Unlike modern media that thrives on sensationalism the newspaper didn’t want to start a panic.

Remember that “vaccine” Philadelphia public health officials figured would defeat the illness? It was designed to fight a bacterial malady: not a viral one. Even if it had been, it wouldn’t have had much impact. The epidemic passed around the third week of October.

Mr. DiCamillo opened his remarks by saying that talking about the subject, “Makes me nervous to be around people.” After listening to his lecture, I could understand why. If Mr. DiCamillo ever becomes interested in making a career change, he’d make a great salesman for flu shots.

 

Lecture Review – “The Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues” by Dr. Jonathan Mercantini

Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Everyone knows that. What most people these days don’t know is just how remarkable a feat he achieved in doing so. Fortunately, historian Jonathan Mercantini is working to rectify this shortcoming.

According to Kean University’s website, Dr. Mercantini’s primary fields of expertise include Colonial and Revolutionary America, the American South and the state of New Jersey. He currently serves as the Chair of Kean University’s Department of History. When not occupied in that capacity, he’s a busy man. He is editing an on-line edition of the papers of John and Susan Kean. Tangential to that endeavor, he’s also involved with museum exhibits regarding the same family. In addition, he’s preparing an original piece for the New Jersey Historical Commission while co-authoring scripts for the documentary series It Happened Here – New Jersey.

But what has Dr. Mecantini done lately? Well, on May 8th, he delivered a lecture at the Moorestown Library titled “The Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues.” The event concluded this season’s History Speaks Series sponsored by the Historical Society of Moorestown.

Dr. Mercantini opened his remarks by clearing up a popular misconception. Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first African-American to play professional baseball. Moses Fleetwood Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884. A few other African-American players followed him. Frank Grant played second base for the Buffalo Bisons of the International League from 1887 until 1888. Rube Foster pitched for the Chicago American Giants. That team played independently until 1920. At that time it joined the Negro National League: an organization Mr. Foster founded.

Segregation, Jim Crow laws and an unwritten agreement among baseball owners forced African-American baseball players out of the major leagues. Many did, however, play in places such as the Caribbean, Mexico and Cuba. From 1898 until 1946 they maintained their own baseball association in the United States.

Mr. Mercantini described the latter as a “precarious business model.” “The Negro Leagues” is a generic expression. It encompasses various organizations that formed and sometimes collapsed during the same season. This may be one reason why historians encounter difficulty when seeking primary sources on the topic.

The Negro Leagues included a number of characteristics that differentiated them from Major League Baseball. They developed their own version of the “Sunday Doubleheader.” Instead of the same teams playing two different games, these events featured two different ball clubs competing in each match up.

Teams engaged in “barnstorming.” This featured ball clubs travelling to different places to play the game. It allowed the fans to see players and teams they normally wouldn’t have had the opportunity to watch.

Dr. Mercantini compared the method of play to jazz. It featured an “aggressive, improvisational style of baseball.” Players such as Satchel Paige viewed the sport as a form of entertainment. On one occasion he instructed his outfielders not to take the field. “I’m going to strike ‘em out, anyway,” he told his team mates.

Jackie Robinson brought an aspect of this type of play to the majors. When he received the Rookie of the Year honor in 1947, he stole 26 bases. The player with the next highest total stole 14. Mr. Robinson also had a penchant for straight steals of home plate.

The East-West All-Star game served as the “showcase event” from 1933 through 1948. They drew better crowds than the ones Major League Baseball sponsored.

The peak era occurred from 1920 until 1950. During that period, baseball dominated American sports. From 1900 until 1947 they comprised the most successful African-American run business in the United States.

A revolutionary baseball innovation occurred in the Negro Leagues. In 1930 the Kansas City Monarchs became the first professional baseball team to play at night. The ball club owned its lighting system and transported it to other venues when they barnstormed.

New Jersey included a number of places where teams played. They were located in Newark, Patterson, Trenton and Atlantic City.

The Garden State also hosted the first integrated professional baseball game in the twentieth century. Prior to joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson played for their minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals. In 1946, he made his debut on April 18, 1946 against the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Stadium.

Dr. Mercantini shared an interesting bit of trivia with the audience. To date, only one woman has been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Effa Manley received that honor for her work as the owner of New Jersey’s Newark Eagles from 1936 through 1948.

Perhaps inspired by the sports themed lecture, the Historical Society’s librarian decided to play the old “try and stump the historian” game. Stephanie Herz showed the speaker two photos of an African-American baseball club called the Moorestown Crescents. Both pictures dated from the nineteen teens.

Dr. Mercantini, himself a Moorestown resident, said that he’d never encountered any information regarding that organization. “I have homework!” He enthusiastically said. Let’s hope he uncovers some information and shares at a future History Speaks lecture.

Dr. Mercantini explained that due to baseball’s prominence in American culture, “Jackie Robinson could challenge white supremacy in a way no one else could.” Since its retirement by the league in 1997, his number 42 is now a fixture around Major League Baseball parks. Because of that it’s easy to forget about the struggle Jackie Robinson endured. Historians such as Dr. Mercantini and the enthusiastic history minded fans who listen to him are a promising sign that won’t occur.

 

Book Review – A World in Disarray by Richard Haass

Dr. Haass hit on a serendipitous trifecta with A World in Disarray. Talk about putting out the right book, at the right time with the right title. This tome delivered a brief yet trenchant analysis of international relations from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia through the present day. The author explored how the world progressed from the development of nation states to an era of globalization then reverted to a period of isolationism.

Unlike many works on foreign relations, I found this book rather lucid. The author expressed his ideas in plain language. Here’s his analysis of the modern era.

Populism and nationalism are on the rise. What we are witnessing is a widespread rejection of globalization and international involvement and, as a result, a questioning of long-standing postures and policies, from openness to trade to immigrants to a willingness to maintain alliances and overseas commitments. (Location 107)

It impressed me that the President of the Council on Foreign Relations could describe world affairs without resorting to jargon. It allowed me to focus on his ideas instead of struggling through a challenging vocabulary.

A World in Disarray contained many definitions. That allowed me to understand precisely what the author meant. I liked that Dr. Haass provided them even for common words.

Order is…a measure of the world’s condition. (Location 259)

’Legitimacy,’ defined by Kissinger to mean ‘international agreement about the workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy. (Location 307)

Terrorism often proves a challenging concept to define. There’s an adage that, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The author provided an understandable description of terrorism. He used the one that emerged following the 9/11 attacks: “the intentional killing of innocent men, women and children by actors other than states for political purposes.” (Location 1355)

Many modern phenomena do not respect borders. Countries can affect each other in manners that previous generations never encountered. Technological advancements such as the internet and scourges such as ebola and climate change expand the scope of foreign policy. Dr. Haass used the book to advance a new approach towards it in the shadow of these threats. He called it “sovereign obligation.” He termed it as:

It is about a government’s obligations to other governments and through them to the citizens of other countries. (Loc 2498)

The author also provided examples of a poor approach to foreign policy. As Dr. Haass worked as the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department at the beginning of George W. Bush’s Presidency, I’ll use his thoughts regarding the goal of the Iraq War.

The motive that most captured the imaginations of the upper reaches of the George W. Bush administration, though, was a belief that a post-Saddam Iraq would become democratic, setting an example and a precedent that the other Arab states and Iran would have great difficulty resisting. (Location 1724)

I thought it interesting that at an earlier point in the book, he wrote:

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Germany and Japan stand out as among the few successful examples of what today would be called regime change followed by nation or state building. (Location 441)

A World in Disarray provided a comprehensible and concise analysis of the globe’s current state and the events that led to it. George Santayana once wrote that those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it. Let’s hope modern leaders study Dr. Haass’ work so they don’t repeat the present.

Lecture Review – “19th Century New Jersey Photographers” by Gary D. Saretzky

The Historical Society of Moorestown’s members kept Gary D. Saretzky in “continuous focus” this April 4th. He delivered a “RAW” lecture on the Garden State’s first photographers. Mr. Saretzky opted to “focus” his comments on those who lived in Burlington County in the nineteenth century. The audience listened with rapt attention, making no “noise.” The New Jersey Council for the Humanities sponsored this event. The Moorestown Library hosted.

According to his website, Mr. Saretzsky describes himself as an: “Achivist * Photographer * Educator.” He first took an interest in photography in 1972. Five years later, he accepted a position teaching photography at Mercer County College. Mr. Saretzky also exhibits his own photographic work. In recent years, he’s concentrated his work on blues musicians.

Mr. Saretzky currently serves as the Chief Archivist of Monmouth County. He’s also a professional photographer. He melded these two interests and became a historian of photography; a topic upon which he frequently lectures. I attended one titled “19th Century New Jersey Photographers: Burlington County.”

The speaker knew his subject matter. He began his remarks with the very advent of photography. He talked about how a French photographer, Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, developed the first photographs in 1839. The resulting product, the “daguerreotype”, bore his name. Seth Boyden, Sr. made the first such photos in New Jersey during the same year.

The following decades saw many innovations in the photographic process. The man who invented the Dixon Pencil contributed to advancements in the photographic field as well. Joseph Dixon helped develop the Collodion Process. It led to glass plate negatives, ambrotypes and tintypes.

The cartes-de-visite photograph became popular in the 1850s. These photos were printed on paper as opposed to the copper plates of the daguerreotypes. They were also more common. During the 1860s, the abundance of carte-de-viste photo albums led to the standardization of photo sizes.

Photographers who took cartes-de-visite photos placed their names on the backs of them. During the daguerreotype era, most didn’t identify themselves on their work. For that reason, many early picture takers remain unknown.

Photography was not a popular profession through the late 19th century. Mr. Saretzky reported that in 1870 only 149 photographers lived in New Jersey. In 1900 approximately 700 people worked in the field. 22 per cent of these were German immigrants.

A photographer needed 7,000 customers in order to earn a living. To supplement their incomes, many found employment in a range of other fields. Many worked as jewelers or performed watch repairs. Mount Holly’s Benjamin F. Lee served as Sheriff of Burlington County for a time. New Egypt resident Edward Blake pursued a career path on the other side of the law. As a result of that endeavor, he received a ten year sentence for counterfeiting. The speaker didn’t say whether or not authorities allowed Mr. Blake to take his own mugshot.

Between 1842 and 1900 about 100 active photographers resided in Burlington County. Riverton’s Bertha M. Lothrup was one of the earliest users of flash photography. Mount Holly’s Peter Walker added coloring to a photo the speaker displayed. He did so in order to match the print on the back. Another Mount Holly denizen, James R. Applegate claimed to be the biggest producer of tintypes in the United States. He also developed photo improvements, patented a new type of merry-go-round featuring mirrors and built a pier in Atlantic City.

At the conclusion of his prepared remarks, the speaker took questions from the audience. Someone asked the one most people inquire about: “Why did so few people smile in old photographs?” While nobody has ever provided a definitive answer, the speaker shared a few theories.

In most portrait paintings, the subject didn’t smile. People adopted the same posture during the early days of photography. They did so in order to appear serious and dignified.

The standards of 19th century dentistry weren’t the same as those of the modern era. Most people either had bad teeth or no teeth.

The final potential explanation came from the photographic process. Exposures could take several minutes. It was difficult to hold a smile for that period of time.

When the lecture reached its “resolution” the “time lapse” during this event made me “shutter.” During my “post processing” of his speech, the “depth of field” Mr. Saretzky covered amazed me. While I reflected on the speech’s “afterimage” I couldn’t think of any “blown highlights”, either. What a “positive” event.

 

Book Review – The Bow and the Lyre by Octavio Paz

Poetry is knowledge, salvation, power, abandonment. An operation capable of changing the world, poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation. Poetry reveals this world, it creates another. (Location 70)

As one can discern from the quote above, Octavio Paz held poetry in pretty high regard. In his explication on the nature of the poetic, the author presented a high-minded analysis of the reasons why:

…the struggle between prose and poetry, consecration and analysis, song and criticism, latent since the birth of modern society is resolved by the triumph of poetry. (Location 3404)

A heady analysis bracketed these citations.

It is somewhat unusual for a literary figure to write an intellectual tome on his/her field. As Mr. Paz was a poet of great renown, I wanted to explore his take on the topic. Since this April 19th marks the twentieth anniversary of his passing, this month seemed a good time to do so.

The author derived the title from a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He wrote, “The universe is in tension, like the bowstrings or the strings of the lyre. The world ‘changing, rests.’” (Location 2932) That seemed a solid choice. It referenced the bow and the lyre that poets used to accompany their work during ancient times. It also gave an indication of the book’s heavy philosophical leanings.

Some of author’s more thought provoking observations included:

By means of the word, man is a metaphor of himself. (Location 361)

…–the poem is something that is beyond language. But that thing that is beyond language can only be reached through language. A painting will be a poem if it is something more than pictorial language. (Location 229)

The myth is a past that is a future ready to be realized in the present. (Location 804)

Are you still with me, reader? Okay. I’ll continue.

As indicated in the opening, Mr. Paz had a very high opinion of poetry.  He reasoned:

The spoken language is closer to poetry than to prose; it is less reflective and more natural, and that’s why is easier to be a poet without knowing it than a prose writer. (Location 207) … The poet sets his matter free. The prose writer imprisons his. (Location 212)

He added, “When a poet acquires a style, a manner, he stops being a poet and becomes a constructor of literary artifacts.” (Location 140)

Mr. Paz didn’t just like poetry; he used this book as its apotheosis. He believed poetry played a vital role in any community. This is where I found the author drifting from adoration into pretention. He wrote:

Without an epic no society is possible, because there is no society without heroes in whom it can recognize itself. (Location 3302)

At one point, he even suggested the poem on a superior plane to the person who created it.

The poem is not a literary form, but a meeting place between poetry and man. A poem is a verbal organism that contains, stimulates or emits poetry. The form and the substance are the same. (Location 97)

He later wrote:

Poetry is not the sum of all poems, Each poetic creation is a self-sufficient unit. The part is the whole. (Location 114)

I also thought one of Mr. Paz’s observations odd. He noted: “Poetry is the hunger for reality.” (Location 859) That seemed a strange statement as the author wrote surrealist poetry himself.

Mr. Paz displayed both practical and intellectual proficiency in the topic he presented. I still found The Bow and the Lyre a very difficult read. The complexity of thought and amount of information would benefit academics. I wouldn’t suggest this book to people with a general interest in poetry, however. For those readers, I’d advise them to check out a volume of the author’s own poetry. Mr. Paz just may have agreed with that. As he explained:

The poem is a work that is always unfinished, always ready to be completed and lived by a new reader. (Location 2964)…A poem is fully realized only in participation: without a reader, it is only half a work. (Location 437)

Book Review – Protecting New Jersey’s Environment by Thomas Belton

Environmental policy makes for a very clinical topic. History can read like a very dry subject even to those harboring a profound interest in the subject. One wouldn’t expect a combination of the two to make for an entertaining read. Enter Thomas Belton. He drew on his background in classical languages to craft an engaging book accessible to lay people. Utilizing his training as scientist for the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, he crafted a technical analysis of various environmental issues that impacted the state. Applying his skill as a story teller, he crafted a work of history that made for a pleasurable read. He joined these elements together in the form of Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State.

I met Thomas Belton a few weeks ago. I attended an address he delivered based on this book at the Moorestown Library. (See my review of the lecture.) The talk impressed me so much that I purchased a copy of the book that the author signed for me. I informed him that I enjoyed his lecture and looked forward to reading his book. It didn’t disappoint.

Protecting New Jersey’s Environment encompassed a wide array of environmental topics; many of which Mr. Belton had personal involvement with during the course of his career. He reviewed topics ranging from the debate over “cancer clusters”, to the environmental justice movement, to New Jersey’s wildlife and a variety of other subjects.

I found the scope unexpectedly broad for a 230 page book. It also surprised me that the topic of environmental history in just one state could be so wide-ranging. After all, the modern environmental movement didn’t really begin until 1970. At any rate, I do credit the author for bringing together such disparate facets of New Jersey environmental history together in one tome.

As a lifelong South Jersey resident, I enjoyed reading about locations I’m personally familiar with. The author described how “brownfields initiative” provided funds to clean up moderately polluted sites. It allowed for the renovation of the old Victor Records building in Camden, NJ. It also provided the impetus for building of the Salvation Army Ray and Kroc Corps Community Center at Harrison Avenue in the same city.

The best sections of the book contained the author’s personal recollections. Mr. Belton took part in a study that discovered unhealthy quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in several species of fish. In 1982, the New Jersey Department of Health along with the NJDEP issued an advisory regarding their consumption. The author wasn’t lauded for his efforts. He recalled getting “personally” pilloried by the media as “an unprofessional Chicken Little screaming, ‘The sky is falling.’” (Page 47)

I cannot convey how gut wrenching it is to see your professional reputation slandered in the press, to see your competence called into question in the midst of a swirling national debate. However, I did not have the time to worry about it. I had to forget about personal reputation for the moment because the critical issue was that the accuracy of our study was being questioned. And more important from my perspective, the consumption advice we had given the public might be ignored. The advisories were in danger of being drowned out by media sound bites, resulting in a pregnant woman or a nursing mother making an ill-informed choice to eat contaminated fish. (Page 43)

This book contained some extraordinary writing. Mr. Belton expressed many of his ideas poetically. Here’s my favorite passage.

Looking up, I noticed the sunset was a strange reddish-green color, the dim coastline a brown smudge on the horizon. And a weird feeling came over me in my lethargy; a sense that I was hovering high above and looking down at the water’s surface, which had turned to a scrim of crystal glass and the fathoms beneath turned transparent with all the billions of creatures moving about unaware and unconcerned with our passage. And as I dreamed, our boat was flying over this translucent sea, I envisioned the shark and tuna chasing millions of tiny prey fish, which fled in huddled schools, maneuvering to avoid the serrated teeth, and current-borne jellyfish ballooning out in bulging pockets of water to eat phytoplankton, the tiny algae sunning themselves and growing larger with each packet of sunshine that fell into the nurturing water. And all along the bottom, worms slithered and crabs scuttled about, cuttlefish rocketing across the vast sandy spaces, tiny wavelet dunes on the bottom mimicking those ashore, the silent sucking of the planetary currents pulling finless cells into the mouths of filter-feeding sponges and coelenterate anemones who needed them most. (Page 212)

Mr. Belton presented a readable take on the issues effecting New Jersey’s environment. While it covered an array of topics, many of them would be of interest to any resident of the Garden State.

As beautifully as the author expressed his reflections on the sea’s inhabitants in the passage above, the paragraph that followed shifted the mood. Without explicitly doing so, he still summarized the need for books such as Protecting New Jersey’s Environment.  

But I was pulled from this reverie as we entered Barnegat Inlet and drove into the bay beyond, noticing the green and red shroud moving off the land to swallow the sunset was actually photochemical smog—a pea-green soup of particulates, ozone, nitric and sulfuric acid—all the air pollutants refracting the setting sun into its extraordinary color. And this frightened me. Knowing that smog was an airborne killer, a soup of chemicals soon to be deposited on the bay and ocean, absorbed by all the creatures swimming beneath our feet, I was frightened for them, frightened for the people ashore who would eat these poisoned fish, and frightened for the future of the seas as waves of pollutants washed off the continent, mimicking in reverse the ocean waves protecting us ashore. (Page 212)

 

Drama Review – The Bonds of Interest by Jacinto Benavente

In The Bonds of Interest Jacinto Benavente presented a farcical tale of a pair of unconventional seventeenth century conmen. This disadvantaged duo duped everyone they met into believing the quiet member of the team a prestigious nobleman. Because of this, everyone granted them luxuries on credit. When part of the scheme entailed marrying the one off to a nobleman’s daughter, the two would discover whether or not the “bonds of interest” could overcome the desire for retribution.

Even though the comedy described an improbable story, the playwright still adhered to sold writing principles. Whenever a narrative focuses upon the exploits of two main characters, one is always portrayed as the dominant of the two. Benavente employed this method to brilliant effect while applying a twist to it.

The tale presented a scheme concocted by Crispin. While the dominant character, he masqueraded as Leander’s servant. When they encountered people, Crispin delivered most, and sometimes all of , the dialog. He touted the praises of his “master”, while serving as the outfit’s mastermind. The playwright balanced this character’s roles through his words very well.

I don’t like to give away spoilers, but the playwright crafted a brilliant plot twist regarding Leander. He did so by making him a well-developed character. While a fugitive from justice, he still behaved nobly in regard to his love interest, Silvia. Even though he participated in a large scale scam, he allowed his feelings for Silvia to allow him to express himself honestly.

The playwright used a clever technique to express this inner decency. He did so in the form of an insult. Crispin told Silvia’s father:

And after all, the only trouble with my master was that he had no money; no one could out do him in nobility of character; your grandchildren will be gentlemen even if that quality does not extend up to the grandfather. (Location 1683)

Leander’s transition illustrated exceptional writing ability on Benavente’s part. I applaud him even more for working it into a farcical story.

The Bonds of Interest included several memorable lines. My favorites included:

Men are like merchandise; they are worth more or less according to the salesman who markets them. (Location 1779)

It is as foolish to trust a man while he lives as a woman while she loves. (Location 661)

Love is all subtleties and the greatest subtlety of them all is not that lovers deceive others—it is that they so easily can deceive themselves. (Location 1240)

I had rather deal with a thousand knaves than one fool. (Location 1550)

With the understanding that the play was a farce regarding an unbelievable series of events, I only had one criticism of it. I admit it’s not a fair one, either. The drama premiered in 1907 and the writing style reflected that of the early twentieth century. At times I read some excessive exposition.

In the following example, Crispin explained his and Leander’s back story.

…But more than this, have you forgotten that they are searching for us in other parts and following on our heels? Can it be that all those glorious exploits of Mantua and Florence have been forgotten? Do you recall that famous lawsuit in Bologna? Three thousand two hundred pages of testimony already admitted against us before we withdrew in alarm at the sight of such prodigious expansive ability! (Location 1261)

To paraphrase Stephen King: everyone has a backstory. Most of it isn’t very interesting. It becomes even less exciting when a character keeps making the same point through consecutive sentences.

While first performed in 1907, The Bonds of Interest contains humor that still resonates. Combine that with the story of two people struggling to advance their station in life through a preposterous “get rich quick scheme.” That makes it just as entertaining today. To borrow a lesson from the play: don’t believe everything I wrote just because I wrote it. Read Benavente’s drama and decide if it bonds to your interest.