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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.

 

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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.

 

Book Review – Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 masterpiece, Babbitt, told the story of a closet liberal living in a world of conservatives. This group of right wingers pursued conformity for conformity’s sake. And here I thought that Lewis’ 1935 work It Can’t Happen Here was a prescient harbinger of twenty first century America.

The story progression read like a bildungsroman. Many times such tales feature a young protagonist. George F. Babbitt aged into his mid-40s during this one. On the surface, the character appeared to experience what we now call a mid-life crisis. Lewis’ prose dug much deeper into the character’s psyche for such a glib description. The novel explored his personal awakening. It progressed into a classic of American tragedy.

The author selected the perfect setting for Babbitt’s conflict. Aside from his inner struggle, Lewis “institutionalized” him, if you will, in the homogenous community of Zenith.  It contained a very conservative social atmosphere.

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance. If it was not Babbitt who was delivering any given verdict, at least he was beaming on the chancellor who did deliver it. (Location 2246)

The residents of Zenith adhered to a circumscribed belief system.

All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary. (Location 6163)

The book contained the best examples of Lewis’ satirical wit that I’ve read. The best included:

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor -speeding. (Location 729)

He stopped smoking at least once a month. He went through with it like the solid citizen he was: admitted all the evils of tobacco, courageously made resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off his allowance of cigars, and expounded the pleasures of virtuousness to every one he met. He did everything, in fact, except stop smoking. (Location 632)

The Zenith Athletic Club is not athletic and it isn’t exactly a club, but it is Zenith in perfection. (Location 850)

My personal favorite read as follows.

“Just the same, you don’t want to forget prohibition is a mighty good thing for the working-classes. Keeps ‘em from wasting their money and lowering their productiveness,” said Virgil Gunch.

“Yes, that’s so. But the trouble is the manner of enforcement,” insisted Howard Littlefield. “Congress didn’t understand the right system. Now, if I’d been running the thing, I’d have arranged it so that the drinker himself was licensed, and then we could have taken care of the shiftless workman—kept him from drinking—and yet not’ve interfered with the rights—with the personal liberty—of fellows like ourselves.” (Location 1827)

In spite of Babbitt’s moral shortcomings and self-delusion, I still wanted him to succeed. His struggle between individuality and conformity contains relevance almost a century following the book’s publication. That shows the timeless nature of Sinclair Lewis’ work.

 

Lecture Review – “The Garden State or Cancer Alley?” by Thomas Belton

Thomas Belton took a pretty eclectic career path on his way to becoming an environmental historian. After receiving a degree in classical languages he ended up working on telephone poles. Following that endeavor, he returned to school with the intent of becoming a doctor. At the time he took an elective class in ornithology. The choice proved rather adventitious as it inspired his interest in the ecology. Once he received his degree in marine biology he made environmental studies his full time pursuit. He landed a job with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection working in their Science and Research division. 2010 marked the time when he could add the task of environmental historian to his resume. At that time Rivergate Books published his tome Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the Garden State. Mr. Belton added lecturer to his list of careers when he addressed the Historical Society of Moorestown this March 14th. At the Moorestown Library he delivered an address called “The Garden State of Cancer Alley?” based on his book.

Mr. Belton shared a number of vignettes from his career as an environmental scientist. He discussed his participation in a veritable “detective story” that entailed “using science in a Sherlock Holmes sort of way.” He participated in a study to answer why large quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were entering Camden’s water supply. Using tools such as Graphic Information Studies he and his team managed to identify them coming from one location in the city.

The speaker explained the significance of PCBs in non-scientific jargon. These chemicals are a known carcinogen. Even the US government recognized their danger. He noted in his book they became the first chemical ever banned by Congress. (Page 38) Mr. Belton spent a good part of his lecture describing his efforts to identify their presence in bluefish off the New Jersey coast then tracing their source. Following that he participated in issuing Fish Public Health Advisories. From this experience, he learned how to explain scientific concepts to lay people through his work with the department’s public relations office.

Because of the study, within five years a ban was placed on offshore dumping. Prior to that, this sort of “dilution is the solution” mentality justified the common practice of dumping sewage and sludge in the ocean.

The provenance of the book’s subtitle comprised part of his remarks. A study showed a large number of people with cancer along the Route One corridor; a stretch of highway extending roughly from Philadelphia to New York City. The finding gave rise to the term “cancer cluster.” The search for an explanation to this phenomenon led to the speaker’s analysis of PCBs in bluefish.

An unintended consequence resulted from one of one of his research projects. Out of curiosity, he investigated whether air pollution in Philadelphia affected the pinelands. Working with an expert in fungi, he determined that it did result in acid rain that fell in the region. These results led to his being called as an expert witness in a lawsuit against businesses in the Ohio River Valley.

The Historical Society really should have scheduled this speaker closer to Halloween. I found many of his remarks absolutely horrifying. He described chromium waste sites in Jersey City while discussing the Brownfield Regulations. For those unfamiliar with the chemical, an oozing green slime indicates its presence. In his discussion of Superfund sites, he explained that many received “temporary” clean-ups over a decade ago. They still require permanent detoxification. The funds are not forthcoming. The “Arsenic and Old Lakes” conclusion of his lecture centered on a topic not covered in his book. It described the environmental repercussions from a pesticide factory that began operation in South Jersey back in 1949. As of 2015, $100 million had been spent to clean up the site. The work still needs to be completed.

I did take some solace in Mr. Belton’s explanation of New Jersey’s environmental reputation. When Superfund became law, states such as New Jersey, Vermont and California took advantage of the opportunity it presented. They cataloged their hazardous sites. In essence, the Garden State earned an unfair reputation for pollution because it made a serious effort to rectify this problem.

Mr. Belton certainly pursued many careers during his time. In fact, he recently added that of award winning author when the New Jersey Council of Humanities named Protecting New Jersey’s Environment an Honor Book in 2010.While I haven’t observed him in his other capacities, I compliment him for his stellar work as an environmental historian and lecturer. Because of his performance, he can add another job to his repertoire. His remarks piqued my curiosity about our environment so much, that I purchased his book. Mr. Belton makes a pretty good salesman, too.

 

 

Book Review – White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

White Chrysanthemum presented a fictitious account of the most heinous war crime ever committed. The book detailed one character’s ordeal with the use of rape as a weapon during the largest scale use of it in history. The story also explored the effect of this inhumane practice on those not personally victimized by it. An engrossing read that sears into one’s consciousness resulted.

The book’s title derived from the white chrysanthemum representing a symbol of mourning. It established the tone prior to reading the story.

Mary Lynn Bracht crafted a heartrending tale involving two sisters affected by Japan’s occupation of Korea during the Second World War. The scenes set in the 1940s described Hana’s ordeal after the Japanese military abducted her. In order to protect her younger sister, she gave herself up to a group of soldiers who wandered onto her home island. They transported her into distant Manchuria to serve as a “comfort woman”; the Empire’s choice euphemism for “forced prostitution.”

The scenes that transpired during the modern era (2011) described how Hana’s sister Emi struggled to achieve peace with her past. The historical events plaguing the nascent state of South Korea impacted her on a personal level. A larger part of her emotional battle emanated from her guilt over her sister’s selfless sacrifice.

I liked the author’s choice of structure. The chapters alternated between one that depicted Hana’s suffering in the 1940s with one that told Emi’s journey in the 2010s. Ms. Bracht deftly crafted endings to each story line that kept me interested in learning more. Her suspenseful writing style made it very difficult for me to stop reading.

I also applaud the way the author returned to each character’s tale after just one chapter. Ms. Bracht built tension and engaged the reader without dragging out the story. She executed this balance exceptionally.

The author made a great decision to write in the present tense. It gave me a sense that the events occurred while I read. The story possessed a sense of immediacy that enhanced the tension. Hana’s torment took on much more impact; as did Emi’s suffering.

I found sections of this book extraordinarily well written. Here’s an excerpt from one of the best:

The doorknob squeaks as it turns, and Hana feigns sleep. The door swings open and a stream of light shines on her shut eyelids. She relaxes the muscles in her face and mimics the deep breaths of slumber, forcing her chest to rise and fall in a slow, steady rhythm. The flashlight flicks off. The room falls back into darkness. Footsteps pad inside. The door clicks shut. Hana stops breathing.

A ghostly wind howls through the rafters above their heads. The brothel seems to gasp, and the wind rushes through the window. Hana opens her eyes and stares into the darkness. A black shape stands by the door. For a long time, it doesn’t move. The crickets have stopped chirping, and the mice seem to have frozen midstep. The intruder’s shallow breaths fill the void left by their silence.

He takes a step toward her, and she clutches the blanket tighter. He takes another step and before she can stop herself, she sits up and backs away from him, cowering in the corner.

“Do not be afraid,” he whispers. “It’s me.” (Location 1885)

I could stop writing this review at this point. After reading that passage I’m sure some have clicked off of this blog and are buying the book.

For those still reading, the author included some other exceptional usage of language.

His face hovers above her, cloaked in shadow, and she fills in the black void with the man in her memory. The one who raped her first and called it a kindness, before condemning her to this unimaginable life. Not life, but purgatory in the underworld. (Location 1903)

Sometimes old wounds need to be reopened to let them properly heal…(Location 1344)

People these days seem content to search for happiness in life. That is something her generation never fathomed, that happiness is a basic human right, but now it seems like a possibility. (Location 2817)

While an exceptional story and a difficult book to put down, I did disagree with the author’s approach from the denouement through the ending. While Ms. Bracht crafted a conclusion that fit with the narrative thread, I found it unbelievable. Part of that may stem from the other portions being so realistic by comparison. At any rate, I do acknowledge it as a legitimate artistic choice on the author’s part.

Ms. Bracht brought out the plight of the “comfort women” through White Chrysanthemum. Someone once observed that Japanese war criminals benefited from there being no Simon Wiesenthals in the country following the war. Let’s hope there are more Mary Lynn Brachts to continue illuminating this dark chapter of human history.

Book Review – Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Aside from the years of his birth and death, Sinclair Lewis’ grave marker reads: “Author of Main Street.” That shows the importance the author placed on this one particular work. In it, he presented a critical portrayal of the provincialism he found in small town American life. An unflattering masterpiece resulted.

Main Street introduced readers to Carol Kennicott. An ambitious woman who worked as a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, she married a small town doctor, Will Kennicott. She began her new life with him in his home town, a small community called Gopher Prarie; a location the author based on his own birthplace, Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

I liked how the author established the conflict at the very beginning of the story. Carol harbored the following ambition:

“That’s what I’ll do after college! I’ll get my hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I supposed I’d better become a teacher then, but—I won’t be that kind of teacher. I won’t drone. Why should they have all the garden suburbs on Long Island? Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns here in the Northwest except hold revivals and build libraries to contain the Elsie books. I’ll make ‘em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a quaint Main Street.” (Location 114)

When introduced to the residents of Carol’s new home, one would certainly have thought this would be a rather easy quest for the young protagonist. After all, the community featured some elite organizations such as the Jolly Seventeen and the Thantaposis club. Under her leadership, they even agreed to present a theatrical show. They would undoubtedly have shared the dream of making Gopher Prarie more sophisticated. Not with Sinclair Lewis writing about it they wouldn’t.

The author compared small town American life to a disease. That’s an interesting metaphor coming from somebody who grew up in one. Here’s an exchange between Carol and Mr. Pollock.

She asked impulsively, “You, why do you stay here?”

“I have the Village Virus.”

“It sounds dangerous.”

“It is. More dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me at fifty unless I stop this smoking. The Village Virus is the germ which—it’s extraordinarily like the hook worm—it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces. You’ll find it epidemic among lawyers and doctors and ministers and college-bred merchants—all these people who have a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs, but have returned to their swamp. I’m a perfect example. But I shan’t pester you with my dolors.” (Location 2400)

Main Street didn’t include as many examples of sardonic wit as some of Lewis’ other books. It did contain a few good ones, however.

Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be. (Location 2365)

It is a “parasitic Greek civilization”—minus the civilization. (Location 4134)

He pressed fifty dollars upon her, and after that he remembered to give her money regularly…sometimes. (Location 1136)

And the most memorable:

Cy was to be heard publishing it abroad that if he couldn’t get the Widow Bogart’s permission to enlist, he’d run away and enlist without it. He shouted that he “hated every dirty Hun; by gosh, if he could just poke a bayonet into one big fat Heinie and learn him some decency and democracy, he’d die happy.” Cy got much reputation by whipping a farmboy named Adolph Pouchbauer for being a ‘damn hyphenated German”…This was the younger Pouchbauer, who was killed in the Argonne, while he was trying to bring the body of his Yankee captain back to the lines. At this time Cy Bogart was still dwelling in Gopher Prairie and planning to go to war. (Location 4216)

I did concur with the usual criticism of Main Street. I found the book very long. At times the author provided excessive details when describing the setting. Had he not done so, the story would have progressed at a better pace.

I also thought Lewis restrained his vitriol in this book. Aside from referencing the “Village Virus” and detailing the variety of characters that moved out of the community, he didn’t deliver too negative an attack on his subject. In Elmer Gantry, he didn’t hold back. I expected a similar tone in Main Street.

It seems ironic that the author of Main Street’s final resting place is in the community he satirized in the book. That’s interesting since he passed away in one of the world’s most popular cities, Rome, Italy. Even death couldn’t prevent Mr. Lewis from succumbing to the Village Virus.