Sunday, February 7, 2016

My Bondage and My Freedom, by Frederick Douglass

Old as the everlasting hills; immovable as the throne of God; and certain as the purposes of eternal power, against all hindrances, and against all delays, and despite all the mutation of human instrumentalities, it is the faith of my soul, that this anti-slavery cause will triumph. -- Frederick Douglass, "The Anti-Slavery Movement" (1855)
It is impossible to understand the United States in the 19th century, particularly the Civil War era, without Frederick Douglass. He was the most prominent African American of his time, an abolitionist, an advocate for the rights of black Americans, a newspaper publisher and public speaker. I learned something of his life years ago from reading his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. He was born into slavery in rural Maryland, probably in 1818. From a young age he struggled with the reality of slavery, which made him a piece of property, with no rights, held to work for others his whole life. His first attempt at running away was betrayed, probably by a fellow slave, but his second, when he was around twenty, succeeded. His Narrative, published seven years later, is considered a classic of American literature, and is also the best-known of the accounts written by escaped or emancipated slaves. These accounts were a key weapon in the struggle to abolish slavery in the United States, by making the people of the northern states aware of the horrors of life under slavery, to awaken their consciences and rally them to action.

From Henry Mayer's book All on Fire, about William Lloyd Garrison and the abolitionist movement, I learned that Frederick Douglass broke with Garrison and his wing of the movement in the 1850s. They came to disagree over tactics, and over the question of whether the U.S Constitution was a pro-slavery document, which in turn tainted the whole political structure of the country. (Garrisonians held that it did, so they refused to participate in the government, even by voting.) But Douglass also came to feel that he had a larger role to play. The Garrison people just wanted him to tell his story, his narrative. He didn't want to keep repeating himself, or to keep talking about himself at all. He wanted to challenge the whole system of slavery, and racism in American society as well. His decision to start his own paper, which would complete with Garrison's The Liberator, was seen as an overt challenge to the leadership. Some of the group also doubted that Douglass, with no formal education or training, could handle editing a newspaper.

All of this history is new to me, and I'm interested to learn more. I knew that Frederick Douglass had later published two revised editions of his autobiography. When I discovered that this one, published in 1855, covered the controversy with Garrison, I put it on my reading list. The edition I read is a Penguin Classics edition from 2003, with a very informative introduction and a bibliography.

My Bondage and My Freedom is divided into two sections. The first, "Life as a Slave," is by far the longer, 21 of 24 chapters. This part is an expanded version of the original Narrative, with editor's notes to explain the differences. It is an account of Douglass's life, not just the events but the emotional and psychological toll that slavery took on him; of his awakening to the horrors of slavery, and his own experiences of violence and mistreatment. I have read accounts of slavery in the United States, and histories of it, but I don't think I have ever read anything that delved so deeply into the mind and heart of an enslaved person. But this isn't just his story. It is also a searing indictment of the slave system, an unsparing account of its brutal realities. Douglass wrote about his fellow slaves, giving their names, stressing their humanity, recording them for history - just as he did their owners, recording their crimes. I am haunted by the night a young Frederick watched the brutal beating of his aunt, who had dared to choose a husband for herself. The sexual abuse of enslaved women is a constant theme in this section, and a poignant one given that Douglass's own father was a white man, and may have been his owner.

The second section, "Life as a Freeman," briefly recounts his escape. Douglass refused to give any details about how he escaped, because he did not want to implicate those who had helped him. But he also argued that publicizing the means by which slaves escaped made it that much harder for others, by putting slave-owners on alert - a point I hadn't considered before. This section deals only briefly with the abolitionist movement, and Douglass's later conflict with it. The longest chapter covers the 21 months that he spent in Great Britain, working with anti-slavery activists. During this time British friends purchased his freedom, to spare him from the threat of capture and re-enslavement, and also raised funds to allow him to start his newspaper. Douglass noted more than once the warm welcome and the equal treatment that he received among the British, in contrast to the racism that he and other African Americans faced in the northern United States.

Included at the end of My Bondage and My Freedom is a brief selection of Douglass's speeches and other writings, such as the ""Letter To His Old Master," written during his stay in Britain. I'd like to think that someone sent Thomas Auld a copy, though I doubt that Douglass's writings circulated in the southern states.  I have since learned that his third autobiography, first published in 1881, covers his support of John Brown's raid, his relationship with Abraham Lincoln, his on-going challenge to racism in America, and his strong support for women's rights, among other topics. (Douglass attended the first women's rights convention, at Seneca Falls in 1848.) Life and Times of Frederick Douglass has already gone on my reading list. I have also learned that Penguin will publish a "Portable Frederick Douglass" of his essential writings later this year (coincidentally, just before my birthday).

Monday, February 1, 2016

January: a book-buying binge

January was bad for my bookish resolutions. It started off slowly, and then between Margery Sharp and Willa Cather, I just gave into temptation. Because of the Triple Dog Dare, I won't be reading any of these straight off. So I thought I'd write about a few - not all of them, so I don't have to confess the "demn'd total," as John Brooke and Mr. Mantalini say - just the highlights.

Patricia Wentworth has become one of my favorite comfort reads, and I've nearly worked my way through that section of the TBR shelves. Fortunately it is pretty easy to find decent used copies on-line, at reasonable prices. I'm still looking for some of the earlier books, to fill in the gaps. From the title and the back-cover blurb, this one is at the top of my reading list.

Wentworth does however lose points for a heroine named Thomasina. That is a cat's name! (Isn't there a cat in the Anne of Green Gables series with that name? I thought it was in Anne of Island, but those cats are Rusty, the Sarah-cat and Joseph.)

Jane's Margery Sharp celebration introduced me to several new books of hers, and reminded me of others that I've been wanting to read. This has been at the top of the list:


The only copies I could find on-line were out of my price range. But ABE led me to a different search engine, which led me to Ebay - and there was a copy available. A first American edition, lacking a dust-jacket, and just outside my price range. I splurged. It arrived today, a little faded and battered, but a good clean copy, as the booksellers say. It is a Little, Brown edition, which clearly says "First Edition." But the U.S. edition must have come out after 1948, because the list of Margery Sharp's books includes The Foolish Gentlewoman. A nice little puzzle to investigate when I have time. And meanwhile I have others of her books already on the TBR stacks and eligible for the Dare.

Having cleared Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop off the TBR shelves after who knows how many years, naturally my next step was to go out and acquire more of Willa Cather's books. I made a list of those people recommended, but these two that weren't on the list also caught my eye:


As you can guess from the cover, One of Ours is about a young American in the Great War. I'm interested to compare Cather's writing on this with Dorothy Canfield's. Shadows on the Rock is another work of historical fiction, about Quebec in the 1690s. (I didn't neglect "the Prairie trilogy," which was unanimously recommended.)

Moving into the 21st century, I've been meaning to read more of N.K. Jemisin's books, and this one looks most exciting:


Finally, two books that I came across just browsing and immediately grabbed:



I left a copy of Mrs. Miniver on the shelves at Half Price Books years ago, and I've regretted it ever since. I didn't actually find the edition above, with Greer Garson on the cover. But I can't complain about a first U.S. edition for $5, even if the dust jacket is missing. The second book I really waffled over. I found it at Half Price Books, but I thought the $35 price was a little high, even for a hardback with a good dust jacket. Realistically, though, I was probably sold from the time I took it off the shelf, telling myself I'd just carry it around while I thought about it. ("I can put it back anytime" - famous last words.) When the clerk was ringing my books up, he told me this was originally priced at $150, so now I can feel I got a bargain. I've seen it in the lists of Margery Allingham's books, but I've never come across a copy. It includes "Seven important episodes from the case book of ALBERT CAMPION," with a note that they "have been set down by his private secretary, Miss Margery Allingham." The first is "The Case of the Late Pig," but I have that as a separate book.

Maybe I will give up buying books for Lent. (Which doesn't start for another week, now that I think about it.)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

I just love this book. It is such a beautiful story, of friendship and faith and good works. I knew that it was a fictionalized account of a missionary bishop in the mid-1800s, in the southwestern United States. I think I expected a story of suffering and despair - and not just from the title. While there is suffering, and occasionally even despair, including some dark nights of the soul for the bishop, there is also beauty and grace, joy and peace.

When I started reading this book, I opened it to the first chapter, where "One afternoon in the autumn of 1851 a solitary horseman, followed by a pack-mule, was pushing through an arid stretch of country somewhere in central New Mexico." I read on, learning that he was a young French priest. A few pages further on, we are told "The traveller was Jean Marie Latour, consecrated Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico and Bishop of Agathonica in partibus at Cincinnati a year ago - and ever since then he had been trying to reach his Vicariate." It was only later that I discovered I had accidentally skipped over a prologue ("At Rome") that explained how Bishop Latour was chosen to be the Vicar. (An Apostolic Vicariate may be created when the Catholic Church in a particular area is not developed or organized enough for a diocese.)

The story follows Bishop Latour as he reaches Santa Fé and begins the work of organizing the vicariate, recently separated from a diocese in Mexico, as was the territory itself. Joining him in this work is Fr. Jean Vaillant, his friend from seminary days in France, who came with him to serve as a missionary in Ohio. Together they make the long trips to visit the scattered Native American settlements and the Mexican ranches, as well as the few small towns. Over the years, the Bishop reluctantly allows his friend to follow his heart into missionary work in the isolated areas, though he needs his help in administration and misses his friendship. They carry on their work of evangelization, serving the people of their vast territory where they find them and as they find them, with love and compassion. They are both such wonderful characters, men of faith, sustained by their long years of friendship - but not plaster saints. There is a lovely section where Fr. Vaillant cooks Christmas dinner for the Bishop, trying to bring a touch of their French home to this new world; and another where he charms two lovely little mules out of a reluctant rancher.

In later years, Fr. Vaillant accepts a new mission field, in the wilds of the Colorado gold rush, becoming a bishop himself. Bishop Latour becomes an Archbishop, as Santa Fé is promoted first to a diocese and then an archdiocese. As he grows older, he resigns the title and the active work to a younger man. Given the title of the book, I hope it isn't a spoiler to say that, as he feels death coming on, he returns to the episcopal residence in Santa Fé. "The next morning Father Latour wakened with a grateful sense of the nearness of his Cathedral - which would also be his tomb." The weeks that he spends quietly in his room, waiting for death, reminded me so much of my beloved Mr. Harding, in Anthony Trollope's Barchester novels. Both men of faith, gentle and kind, they are loved and cherished by their people. And like Mr. Harding, the Bishop's mind sometimes wanders through the past. I love too how Willa Cather weaves other stories through this one, legends, histories, the Bishop's own past. And she writes so beautifully about the landscape, the scenery, and the plants and flowers of New Mexico. Bishop Latour is very much attuned to the natural world, drawing strength and consolation from it to the end.

This story took on an extra dimension for me from its setting and characters. In the day job that supports my book habit, I am the Director of Archives & Records for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. [All opinions expressed here are of course my own. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.]  From my reading for work, I knew that Bishop Latour's real-life counterpart was Father Jean Baptiste Lamy. Like the fictional Bishop, Father Lamy came through Galveston on his way to his new vicariate. There he had a brief meeting with the Bishop of Galveston, Bishop Jean Marie Odin - a fellow Frenchman. Odin later wrote Lamy a letter of advice, based on his own experiences. Like Latour/Lamy, Odin came to Texas as a missionary, when it was an Apostolic Prefecture (even less developed than a vicariate). Texas had recently won its independence from Mexico, and Catholics who once belonged to Mexican dioceses were left in limbo. Odin faced many of the challenges that Lamy/Latour did, though he also had a more settled population in the eastern part of Texas. His letters in our archives, and the accounts of other missionaries here, are full of the same kinds of experiences that Willa Cather wrote about. Her story just feels so right and true, the very best kind of historical fiction.

I also checked on the real-life counterpart of Father Vaillant. He was Joseph Projectus Machebouef - isn't that a great name?  Like the fictional bishops, he and Lamy were both from the diocese of Clermont in Puy-de-Dôme, Auvergne. I may be the only historical-geek reader who actually felt the need to track that down.

I have read a couple of Willa Cather's books, but so many years ago that I've forgotten even the titles. Now of course I am wondering what else I have been missing. Any recommendations of what to read next/first? Honestly, I can't imagine anything better than this book, and I can't believe how long I left it sitting on the TBR shelves. Knowing of the close friendship between Willa Cather and Dorothy Canfield, I will be shelving their books together - and this book has the same warmth and life of Canfield's best.

N.B. Published in 1927, it also fills another year in my Mid-Century of Books.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Less Than Angels, by Barbara Pym

The first person we meet in this story is Catherine Oliphant, "brooding over her pot of tea" and watching people around her settle down with trays of food. She is a writer, of "stories and articles for women's magazines and had to draw her inspiration from everyday life..."  We learn that "Tom, her present love," is in Africa, studying a native tribe. In the crowds passing outside, Catherine sees two of his colleagues, senior anthropologists. The story then shifts to follow them to a gathering at a new anthropological library and research centre. The funds for it have been coaxed out of the recently-widowed Minnie Foresight by the retired but still active Professor Felix Mainwaring. Students are already making use of the library, and rather than shooing them out, the manager Miss Clovis reluctantly invites them to join the meeting. Among them is Deirdre Swan, a first year student; and two older students, Digby and Mark, hoping to win grants to do field work.

Digby and Mark are friends of Catherine's through Tom Mallow, who lives with her when he isn't in Africa. The story moves between Catherine, in her comfortable little flat "on the shabby side of Regent's Park," the students and staff at the centre, and Deirdre's family. She lives with her mother and her unmarried Aunt Rhoda, and her brother Malcolm. Their house is next door to a church, where the older women have become devout members of the rather High congregation. Like Catherine, both are keen observers of their neighbors, particularly Alaric Lydgate, who has just moved in next door. He too is an anthropologist, retired from the field, with boxes of notes that he has never managed to write up into articles. His sister Gertrude, herself an anthropologist, shares a flat with Esther Clovis and is often at the centre.

The first chapters introduce us to this large cast of characters, establishing their connections and relations. Then one morning Tom Mallow walks into the centre. He has returned after two years in Africa. Finding no one he knows at the centre, he introduces himself to Deirdre, takes her out for a drink, and is soon meeting her regularly. He invites her to a party at Catherine's flat, where she is shocked to learn that he lives with Catherine. But it doesn't stop her from meeting him. Eventually Catherine sees them together - at a restaurant across the street from her flat, where she often eats with Tom herself - and things come to a head. Tom however escapes much of the reaction by returning to Africa, leaving both Catherine and Deirdre to deal with his absence.

At the moment of crisis, after seeing Tom with Deirdre, Catherine thinks "I'm not one of those excellent women, who can just go home and eat a boiled egg and make a cup of tea and be very splendid..."  But I thought she was a wonderful character, and I deeply wanted to smack Tom's face for treating her so badly. There is such life in her. I liked her determination to deal with the situation with Tom. She doesn't wallow, she just gets on with things. She is unconventional, not just in living with Tom outside marriage (which I found rather surprising in a novel from 1955). She asks questions, she is interested in people, and she often says whatever comes into her mind. She also seems to have a gift for friendship - and perhaps the need for it. To the astonishment of the Swans, she barges into Alaric Lydgate's life, and she even manages to work out a friendly relationship with Deirdre.

I also enjoyed the familiar Pymian elements to this story, particularly the squabbles among the anthropologists, competing for funds and recognition. Professor Mainwaring plumes himself on the grants that Minnie Foresight will provide to deserving students, but his pride is destined for a spectacular fall. He is a great trial to Esther Clovis, as she tries to manage the centre. Few people know why she left her previous position as secretary to a Learned Society.
...it had something to do with the making of tea. Not that the making of tea can ever really be regarded as a petty or trivial matter, and Miss Clovis did seem to have been seriously as fault. Hot water from the tap had been used, the kettle had not been quite boiling, the teapot had not been warmed . . . whatever the details, there had been words, during the course of which other things had come out, things of a darker nature. Voices had been raised and in the end Miss Clovis had felt bound to hand in her resignation.
I am still wondering about those "things of a darker nature..." Perhaps she was skimming off the tea funds.

The front cover of my Plume edition of this book has a quote from the Chicago Tribune: "One of Pym's sleekest and funniest novels." I thought the words of the Kirkus Reviews on the back a better fit: "Ironic, shrewd, a bit sad...especially diverting."  I did find this story rather sad, both in Catherine's situation, and in something that happens to another character - quite suddenly, and with no warning.

Since anthropologists play a major role in this book, I was not surprised to find references to Helena Napier and her husband (Rocky), and Everard Bone and his wife Mildred. Miss Clovis considers Mildred "a rather dull woman," which proves she isn't all that bright herself, but at least she admits that Mildred is "a great help to him in his work" out in the field. I will add this to my list of cross-over characters. I would quite like to meet Catherine in another story, or at least to find out where her story takes her.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Sun in Scorpio, by Margery Sharp

Having missed Jane's birthday party for Margery Sharp last year, I was determined to join in this year. I have been saving a couple of books for it, and then I added two more to the stacks, just to be safe. I chose this one to read first, knowing nothing about the story.

The edition I read is a Perennial Library, from Harper & Row. I've complained about their strange covers before (particularly Cluny Brown with an old-fashioned diving helmet). At first I thought this one was another odd one:


But thinking about it later I realized it is completely appropriate, because the main character is this story is very much a fish out of water. We meet Cathy Pennon at aged nine, living with her parents, brother and sister on an island in the Mediterranean. It was "by no means so important as Malta (hence its nick-name, The Next-Door Island)..." From reading Dorothy Dunnett, I immediately assumed this was Gozo, but the book never really says.

The Pennons are a bit of a fish-out-of-water family on the Island. They aren't part of the British administration, nor of the service families in residence there. They are living on the proceeds of Mr. Pennon's family business back in England. Mrs. Pennon explains to everyone that they've come to the Island because of her husband's health. The narrator tells us though that "it wasn't so much Henry Pennon's chest that was weak as his will." However, as war begins to threaten in 1914, he decides to take his family home.

Life in England comes as a tremendous shock to the family, after the warmth and ease of the Island. Cathy's sister Muriel and brother Alan find their feet in school, but she remains the odd one out. She is also the one most attached to the Island and their life there. She holds fast to something the Governor told her before they left: "Always hold the thread to the sun." I'm not sure exactly what that means, but for Cathy those become words to live by. What she wants most of all is to return to the sun, to the Island or at least the Mediterranean. When her sister is trying to decide which of two young men to marry, Cathy campaigns for the one who manages a tea plantation in Ceylon, so that she can come visit. And when she has left school, she accepts a job as nursery-governess to Lady Jean Lutterel at her home in Devon, mainly because Lady Jean is planning to take her daughter Elspet to Malta that summer. Cathy will even accept the ridiculously low wages, for the chance to get back to the sun.

Cathy is completely unqualified as a governess, but on the other hand it turns out that Lady Jean had no intention of taking her or Elspet to Malta (she has a handsome young man as a traveling companion instead). In between some desultory teaching sessions with Elspet, Cathy settles down to life at Wellscombe Manor. At first as a governess she is again a fish out of water, not part of the family but ranked above the other staff. But once she discovers a nightly poker game in the kitchen, and shows off the skills she learned playing on the Island, she is made welcome below-stairs. Even after Elspet goes off to boarding school, Cathy stays on at the Manor, right through the coming of the second world war. With the Lutterels in London, and most of the staff gone, she keeps the house together, with Cook and the butler Mr. Weaver. The end of the war finds them exhausted with the effort. The news that the Lutterels are shutting the Manor down comes as a great shock to Cathy, but it may open a way for her to return finally to the Island.

I found Cathy a very interesting and sympathetic character. (I've been a fish out of water more than once myself, in moving around the United States and living for several months in Great Britain.) In some ways, she reminded me of Cluny Brown. Both are the proverbial square pegs, full of life and energy, refusing to conform and constantly seeking their own way. But Cathy has a purpose in life, a mission, which Cluny lacks. No one else knows of it, nor would they understand if they did. She has a tougher struggle, and a longer one. She has to work hard (though not as a governess). But I think the ending of her story will be a happy one. The back-cover blurb says that the book "shows Cathy as an unwilling symbol of the 'average' Briton's endurance of years of radical historical change. It is a sensitive chronicle of those changes..." I don't agree with that. Yes, the story covers the years from 1914 to 1945, but the "radical historical change" mostly passes Cathy by, particularly once she settles in at Wellscombe Manor. The narrative occasionally shifts to follow her siblings Muriel and Alan, or one of the other characters, who do experience more of the changes, but to me at least those sections felt like distractions from Cathy's story.

I'm grateful to Jane for introducing me to Margery Sharp, and happy to join in celebrating her life and books. I just wish her books were easier to find! I'm particularly interested in The Flowering Thorn, but the few copies available are outside my price range. I'll keep my eyes open, because I found a copy of The Foolish Gentlewoman on the shelves of a bookstore here in Houston. Meanwhile, I think Britannia Mews will be next. And I'm sure the reviews from others joining the party will add to my reading list.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Naboth's Vineyard, by E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross

We were then [1889] at work on a short novel that we had been commissioned to write. This was "Naboth's Vineyard," which, after various adventures, was first published by Spencer Blackett, in October, 1891. The story had had a preliminary canter in the Lady's Pictorial Christmas number as a short story, which we called "Slide Number 42." It was sufficiently approved of to encourage us to fill it up and make a novel of it. . . It was a story of the Land League, and the actors in it were all of the peasant class. It was very well reviewed... (Irish Memories, E.O. Somerville)
I love that line, "the story had had a preliminary canter..." Trust E.O. Somerville to use an equine turn of phrase. And I wish I could find a copy of "Slide Number 42."

I knew the story of Naboth's vineyard from the Bible (I Kings) - how King Ahab coveted the vineyard of his neighbor in the city of Jezreel. When Naboth refused to sell his ancestral heritage, the wicked Queen Jezebel concocted a plot to have Naboth accused of blasphemy, and the people of Jezreel stoned him to death (without trial), leaving Ahab free to seize the vineyard.

I knew nothing of the Land League in Irish history, however, until I started reading this novel. From what I learned researching on-line, it was a movement that started in 1879, to reform the tenant system in Ireland. According to Britannica.com, "The league’s program was based upon the 'three F’s': fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale of the right of occupancy." One of the main tactics of the movement was a "moral coventry" against landlords and agents who resisted the reforms. This came to be known as a "boycott," after it was first used against an agent named Charles Boycott in 1880. I admit, I had no idea of the origins of that term!

Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (Martin Ross) belonged to the Anglo-Irish class of landowners. I had read in Somerville's memoirs that the Martin family lost much of their wealth and position in disputes with the tenants of their estate in Galway. I didn't expect this story would show the Land League in a positive light. And it doesn't, but it also isn't a strident or polemical novel.  It is set in the southwest of Ireland, "near the junction of the counties of Cork and Kerry," around a small fishing town called Rossbrin.

"On a certain fine October afternoon in the year 1883," John Donovan drives out from Rossbrin to the farm of the Widow Leonard. There, he orders her on behalf of the Land League to give up Drimnahoon, a second farm that she is renting for pasturage. The property is under boycott. Mrs. Leonard, a League member herself, absolutely refuses. "My answer to the Laygue is that when I give over payin' me subscription it'll be time for them to be givin' me their ordhers about me own uncle's land..." Donovan, who in addition to his position with the League also owns the hotel in the town, calls a boycott against the Leonards. They can't buy food in the stores, they can't sell their cattle, they are shunned in church. Mrs. Leonard's prize red heifer is found dead and mutilated up at Drimnahoon.

Only one person in Rossbrin defies the boycott: Rick O'Grady, who has come home from the United States to establish a commercial fishing business among the local mackerel fishermen. It may be Mrs. Leonard's beautiful daughter Ellen, as much as his sense of fairness, that draws him into supporting them. Gradually we learn more about the conflict over Drimnahoon, and the motives that drive the different characters, including Donovan's wife Harriet and the former tenant James Mahony.

This is one of Somerville and Ross's more serious books, in contrast to the light-hearted "Irish R.M." stories. Somerville said it was a "Land League" book, but it doesn't feel like a denunciation of the group or the movement itself (whose influence is much diminished by the end). It is a story about the people of Rossbrin, of conflict and control in a small rural community. Though it doesn't quite have the power of The Real Charlotte, or the warmth of The Irish R.M., I enjoyed reading it. It is a real shame that most of Somerville and Ross's books are out of print now. I was lucky enough to find via an internet bookseller a battered Tauchnitz edition from 1891. An e-book version is available through Google Books (not, I was surprised to discover, from Project Gutenberg).

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

FDR's Funeral Train, by Robert Klara

I had never heard of this book before it was chosen for one of my book groups this month.  It is an account of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's last trip (by rail) down to Warm Springs, Georgia, in late March, 1945. He had a private cabin there on the grounds of the institution he had founded, built around thermal springs, to treat polio victims like himself. Just weeks into his unprecedented fourth term, FDR was taking a brief break from war-time Washington. It was a trip he had made many times before. This would be the last. He suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage on the morning of April 12th, while sitting for a portrait. Within twenty-four hours, his body was back on the train. His massive copper casket was placed in the last compartment of the train, clearly visible through the car's windows with its honor guard of four servicemen. The train made its slow way back to Washington, as crowds gathered all along the route to watch it pass, many in tears. In Washington, there was a brief service in the White House on April 14th, before the family returned to the train with a carefully-compiled list of guests. This time they were headed north, to the Roosevelts' family estate in Hyde Park, New York. The next morning, April 15th, FDR was buried on the grounds in another brief service. In just three hours, everyone was back on the train and headed home.

Let me say first that there are a lot of trains in this book. The engines, the different cars, their various amenities, the tracks, the stations, the crews - all are described in meticulous detail, and in prose that sometimes verges on the purple. ("The locomotive's 4,075 horses had begun pulling . . . Moments later, the car would be nodding like a porpoise. . . the GG-1's traction motors took a quick sip of 11,000 volts from the wire overhead..." A car sputters along, "drinking its wartime cocktail of watered-down gasoline." And are a rising sun's rays really auburn? ) Several of the Pullman cars, such as the presidential Ferdinand Magellan, the train equivalent to Air Force One, are even included in the Epilogue that briefly outlines the lives and careers of the key players in the story. Though I like train stories and histories, I found the level of detail a little overwhelming.

The subtitle of the book is "A Betrayed Widow, A Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance." The "betrayed widow" was of course Eleanor Roosevelt. Present with FDR when he died was Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. She and FDR had had an affair during the First World War, when she was working as Mrs. Roosevelt's social secretary. The affair officially ended in 1918, but they continued to see each other in the years that followed. FDR's daughter Anna had even arranged visits in the White House during Mrs. Roosevelt's frequent absences. (It must have felt like a double betrayal when she was absent working on behalf of her husband, as well as for the causes dear to her.) In the midst of the shock over the president's death, his staff also had to cover up the fact that Rutherfurd had been there. It was all to no avail, as Mrs. Roosevelt either already knew or soon learned. The press however kept a discrete silence.

The "Soviet Spy" was Lauchlin Currie, one of FDR's economic advisers. He doesn't actually appear in the story until half-way through the book, as a passenger on the train to Hyde Park. From his prominence in the subtitle, I thought he was going to play an important part, but all he did was ride the train up and back. It's of course interesting that the Soviets had secured an agent who actually worked in the White House, in the West Wing. He gave them information about the administration's economic policies and relations with Stalin. But his story seems shoehorned into this account of FDR's death.

The third phrase, "a Presidency in the Balance," refers to Harry S. Truman's sudden succession to the presidency. It wasn't completely unexpected: FDR was clearly in poor health by 1945, though his primary physician continued to insist it was just fatigue, a cold, nothing serious. I had forgotten that Truman had played no major role in the administration during his weeks as vice-president. The author points out that the new president wasn't even aware of the most important war-time secret: the development of the atomic bomb. He had to be brought up to speed quickly. Truman also decided that at this time of crisis, he needed to make an address to Congress. All the way up to the funeral, and all the way back, he was meeting with advisers and speechwriters. Mr. Klara carefully plots out which of Roosevelt's cabinet and advisers transferred their allegiance to the new president, and which were on their way out of power. A final chapter covers the address, in which Truman pledged himself to carry out Roosevelt's goals, particularly victory in the war still going on, under no terms but the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

I found this book very readable, and it held my interest throughout, though I didn't try to remember all of the details. (The other members of the group agreed.) I knew of Roosevelt's death at Warm Springs, and I've been there with my family as a child, when we were living in Georgia. I knew little about his funeral, and it was interesting to compare it with other presidential funerals. (The off-beat and fascinating National Museum of Funeral History here in Houston has a permanent exhibit on presidential funerals.) I was surprised at the speed, and the lack of pomp and ceremony, even though FDR had left instructions for a simple funeral. Reading this made me want to read more about Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman. I have a book of his letters to his wife Bess, and I've also been thinking about re-reading David McCullough's great biography of him.