Archive for the ‘Book Beat’ Category

Brrr….Happy New Year!

On January 11, Russell Shorto will be at the John Jay Homestead State Historic Site in Katonah, New York, to talk about his new book Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018). Shorto is the author of several books, perhaps the best known being The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America (New York: Vintage Books, 2005).

In his new book Shorto has taken a different approach to writing about the founding of our nation. This “change of focus” involves “weaving six different lives into one story” creating what he calls “a narrative song.” The characters are a Seneca warrior named Cornplanter; England’s Secretary of State for the American Department, Lord George Germain; George Washington; Venture Smith, an American slave who bought his freedom; Margaret Moncrieffe Coghlan, the daughter of a British military officer, with connections on both sides of the Atlantic; and Abraham Yates, Jr. of Albany, New York, a self-made man whose views and writings reflected the tradesman’s perspective and a distrust of elites on both sides, British and American. Shorto’s research is prodigious; he has drawn on primary source material for all of his characters—letters, diaries, account books, scribbled orders—managing to orchestrate the lot into a cohesive narrative.

Of course, I am particularly interested in the woman he has chosen as one of the six characters: MARGARET MONCRIEFFE COGHLAN. Women’s lives at that time were circumscribed, largely limited to duties as wives and mothers, and subject to the control of men: fathers, husbands, brothers, and even sons. Moncreiffe’s rebellion was against forced marriage, her situation made more horrible by an abusive husband. Shorto follows Moncrieffe as she tries to make a life on her own. I plan to ask the author why he chose this particular woman. (More on Coghlan, with extracts from her Memoir in future posts.)

The lecture on January 11th will take place in the Iselin Wing at John Jay Homestead. Registration and refreshments begin at 6:30 pm; the lecture begins at 7 pm. $25; $20 for members. Limited free seating is available for students.

posted January 6th, 2018 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Book Beat,Coghlan, Margaret Moncrieffe

“a gifted storyteller”

“A gifted storyteller” David McCullough called THOMAS FLEMING who died on July 23 at the age of 90. McCullough added: “He was a man of natural ease with people and with stories.” A prolific novelist and historian, Fleming’s favorite subject was the American Revolution, the struggle he considered essential to understanding the history that followed. I couldn’t agree more.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog is The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers (2009) in which he focuses on the women in the lives of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, John Adams and Madison. The book provides a wonderful and eminently readable introduction to the often neglected influence of mothers, wives, and lovers of our nation’s founders. To quote Fleming: “Knowing and understanding the women in their lives adds pathos and depth to the public dimensions of the founding fathers’ political journeys. We do them no dishonor when we explore how often public greatness emerged in spite of personal pain and secret disappointment. Far from diminishing these men and women, an examination of their intimate lives will enlarge them for our time. In their loves and losses, their hopes and fears, they are more like us than we have dared to imagine.”

posted August 3rd, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Book Beat

I, Eliza Hamilton

Two Nerdy History Girls is a blog I subscribe to. The bloggers are two women, Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott; the former writes historical romances and the latter historical novels and, under the pen name Isabella Bradford, historical romances. They both pride themselves on doing extensive background research for their books. Their blog posts often feature information they have come by as a result and are always fun to read. A bonus: every Sunday they present a roundup of other blog posts they find interesting.

Susan has a new book coming out in September, a historical novel called I, Eliza Hamilton. I suspect she got her inspiration from the highly successful Broadway play Hamilton. Eliza Schuyler was the wife of Alexander Hamilton. I look forward to seeing what Susan does with her story.

For my posts on Eliza, her sister-in-law-Angelica Schuyler Church, and Hamilton’s mistress Maria Reynolds see here, here, here, and here.

posted February 23rd, 2017 by Janet, comments (2), CATEGORIES: Book Beat,Church, Angelica Schuyler,Hamilton, Alexander,Hamilton, Elizabeth Schuyler,Reynolds, Maria

“All the Single Ladies”

Women’s HIstory Month may be past but the subject of women’s history is always relevant. I recommend to your attention a new book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister (New York City: Simon & Schuster, 2016). The author traces the history of “the unmarried state,” changes in attitude toward it over time, and what those changes have meant for women as well as for the nation. As she points out, the “vast increase in the number of single women is to be celebrated not because singleness is in and of itself a better or more desirable state than coupledom. The revolution is in the expansion of options.”

For women in the New World the road to independence began with the Revolutionary War and the birth of the nation as evidenced by In the Words of Women and many posts in this blog. Many began to push back against the constraints of marriage and the concept of couverture under which a woman’s identity—legal, economic, and social—was subsumed or “covered” by her husband. Women proved to themselves and to others that they could raise children, manage farms, and conduct business affairs while the menfolk went off to war. Traister’s book takes the movement forward. Well worth a read.

posted April 4th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Book Beat,Women's Rights

Hercules and the Birthday Cake for Washington

In the news recently is the recall by Scholastic Publishers of A Birthday Cake for George Washington by author Ramin Ganeshram and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton which was released on January 5. The story is about Washington’s cook, a slave named Hercules, and his daughter Delia who bake the cake of the title. The book for young readers has been criticized because it depicts slavery in the Washington household as rather benign.
Hercules was an accomplished chef who served the president in Philadelphia and was accorded privileges denied other enslaved workers. A bit of a dandy, he ran a tight ship lording it over his underlings in the kitchen and was able to accrue a considerable amount of money by selling leftovers from the presidential table.
Washington regularly rotated his slaves back to Mount Vernon from Philadelphia because of a Pennsylvania law that allowed them their freedom after six months residence. When Hercules was returned to Mount Vernon early in 1797 and was assigned duties as a laborer, which he must have considered beneath him, he ran away.
George Washington was angered and mystified by his action just as he and Martha never could understand why Oney Judge, a slave who was one of Martha’s personal maids, also ran away in 1796 when she was in Philadelphia. In both cases Washington attempted to recover the slaves, but his efforts failed. See recent posts about Oney here, here, and here.
Although notes in the Birthday Cake book do say that Hercules ran away, that fact and his desire to escape are not dealt with in the story itself, nor are the evils of slavery. These are unfortunate errors in judgment on the part of the author and illustrator who are both African Americans. The Washingtons did not comprehend that being “well treated” is not the same as being free. And readers of the book need to understand that too. Oney said “she did not want to be a slave always.” And when asked whether she regretted her decision to run away replied “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”

See the article on Hercules in George Washington’s Mount Vernon, also J.L. Bell’s blog post on the subject.

posted January 21st, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Book Beat,Hercules,Pennsylvania,Philadelphia,Staines, Ona "Oney" Judge,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

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