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Bits of History and Historical Fiction

King James I

King James I, oil on canvas, painted around 1605, shows a rather stern-faced monarch (courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid, via Wikimedia Commons)

According to Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples, James I came to England from Scotland "with a closed mind, and a weakness for lecturing," his pet subjects including the evils of witchcraft and tobacco, and abstract political theory. Having been raised under strict, Spartan discipline, with no frills or luxuries, his accession to the throne gave him the idea that he was rich.

 

Sort of; he had Parliament to deal with, because they had a different opinion, having taken it into their collective heads that His Majesty did not rule as an absolute monarch, chosen by God. How dare they--but they controlled the pursestrings.

 

The king's behavior appalled them. "James was much addicted to favourites," Churchill writes, "and his attention to handsome young men resulted in a noticeable loss of respect for the monarchy." One of them, Robert Carr, received an earldom in Somerset and "was implicated in a murder by poison. . . ."

 

Indeed. If you want an account of that rather astonishing sequence of events, I suggest you look no further than The Poison Bed, which I review on my other blog, Novelhistorian.

 

Source: Winston S. Churchill, The History of the English Speaking Peoples, ed. Henry Steele Commager (1965), pp. 160-61.

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"The man who dies rich, dies disgraced"

Carnegie's philanthropic reach extended very far, as this plaque in my local library entryway suggests, thousands of miles from his mines and mills. Whether that largesse cancels out his sins as industrialist and employer is another matter. (Author photo)

Andrew Carnegie's business genius centered mostly around a mania for correct accounting. How startling it is to read today that when he began to dominate the steel industry in the 1880s, nobody else had ever thought of calculating the expense of production. Company books were examined at year end, and only then would a manufacturer know what profits and losses amounted to, or where expenditures had gone. By contrast, Carnegie became famous — or infamous — by fighting to save pennies on the ton, constantly requiring detailed audits, figuring that the profits would take care of themselves. He was right.

 

Carnegie was careful to cultivate his image as a philanthropist, but it has to be said, he followed through. "The man who dies rich, dies disgraced," he was known to remark. As such, he endowed libraries, schools, hospitals, and, later, the famous concert hall and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other worthy causes.

Nevertheless, he also earned that money by cutting his employees' wages —25 percent, in the case of the workers at his Homestead Steel plant in 1892, sparking one of the bloodiest strikes in American history. Around that time, four-fifths of the country's families earned $500 a year or less, and more than one hundred Americans had incomes of $1 million or more, prompting William Dean Howells to decide that our nation was becoming a plutocracy. The question is worth asking again today.

 

Recently, I reviewed a novel with a fascinating premise, that Carnegie became a philanthropist partly because of a thwarted love. Interesting, no?

 

Source: H. W. Brands, The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s (1995), pp. 60, 64-65, 96.

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An Unlikely Hero

To look at him, you might not think that this literary scholar and journalist could get around the French police, the Gestapo, or even the American consul in Marseille. But you'd be wrong — just as they were. (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As I said in discussing Julie Orringer's biographical novel about Varian Fry, that unusual historical figure has long been a hero of mine. There's an exhibit about him at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., because he saved several thousand Jewish refugees from southern France in 1940 and 1941. They weren't just any refugees, however, for they included such artists and intellectuals as Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Hannah Arendt, Franz Werfel ,and André Breton, as well as a sprinkling of Nobelists whose names have faded into history. Fry originally thought that when he landed in Marseille with $3,000 strapped to his legs, he could save two hundred people during the month's vacation due him. But the dapper, Harvard-educated literary scholar and journalist quickly realized that he needed much more time and more money.

 

How he managed while learning on the job, faced with hostility from the Vichy government to paid informers working for them to Gestapo agents to the American consulate to the U.S. State Department, is the stuff of legend. One colleague attributed his success in part to wit, a formal sort of playfulness, a poker face, and elegant dress — striped dark suit with bow tie.

 

Source: Alan Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris (2010), pp. 72-77.

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Lincoln's Wit

"If I had a different face…" But this image, probably prepared by one of Alexander Gardner's assistants in early November 1863, is widely considered the best portrait ever taken of Lincoln and shows several of the qualities that made him the great leader he was. (Courtesy Mead Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Recently I reviewed a very fine novel about the courtship of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd, which set me to thinking about his famous witticisms. My favorite is the one in which, responding to a politician who called him two-faced, Lincoln supposedly replied, "If I had a face different from this one, don't you think I'd use it?"

 

But, according to one of his many biographers, the late David Herbert Donald, his humor often misfired. For instance, in 1856, he spent so much time traveling the Illinois judicial circuit as an itinerant judge, by the time he returned to Springfield, the cottage that Mary and he occupied had become "a handsome two-story Greek revival house, tastefully painted chocolate brown, with dark green shutters." Feigning shock, he asked a neighbor whether he knew where Lincoln lived, because his house used to be right there. Consequently, the story went around that Mary had renovated the house without his consent, absolutely untrue; but privately, he had complained about the cost. As a result, she learned to conceal from her husband how much money she spent. Honest Abe sometimes made his spouse and himself suffer for his habit of being indirect.

 

Source: David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (1995), p. 197.

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A Telling Photograph

Abraham Lincoln's funeral process, New York City, April 1865 (courtesy New-York Historical Society and the New York Times via Wikimedia Commons)

In looking for a photo to accompany my review of Jerome Charyn's biographical novel about Theodore Roosevelt, I ran across a fascinating one, dated April 1865. Abraham Lincoln's funeral procession heads down Broadway in New York City, and in the background, you can see two small figures leaning from a second-story window. You can't possibly tell who they are, but it's known that the young onlookers are six-year-old Theodore and his brother Elliott.

 

How? Since the photo comes via the New York Times and the New-York Historical Society, you have to guess that the mansion portrayed in the photo, which belongs to the Roosevelt family, was easily identifiable, and perhaps family archives or reminiscences or plain logic reveal which Roosevelts are leaning out.

 

I like this photograph not only for its dramatic irony — the late, martyred president viewed by a young boy who'll eventually occupy the same office — but because even as a boy, TR read widely and had many interests. I have to think that with his sense of history, he thought back on that moment often, especially once he reached the White House.

 

By the way, TR later had another, more tangible connection to Lincoln, for his first secretary of state, inherited from McKinley, was John Hay, Lincoln's private secretary.

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Hatfield vs. McCoy

I've always wondered about the infamous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, celebrated in song and story, and by chance, I happened on an explanation the other day. To research a possible novel set in eastern Kentucky about the WPA during the 1930s, what better place to start than the relevant state guide published by the WPA? (The WPA sponsored guides for every state, and they're gold mines of information.) Following the index entry for "Feuds," I learned that sometime during the early nineteenth century, on a certain Election Day, a young man from the Hatfield clan in what would now be West Virginia eloped with the daughter of a McCoy from Kentucky. Sometime later, he returned her, unwed, with a child.

 

War broke out between the clans. "The feud," reports the WPA guide, "outlived all of those who saw its beginning, and though there were peaceful interludes, a trivial argument over such a matter as the number of notches on a hog's ear would start another series of killings." Because the participants came from different states and fled from one to another, the authorities were either impotent to stop the violence or didn't try hard enough. However, when one Hatfield was hanged for a particularly gruesome series of crimes, legend says that 6,000 spectators attended.

 

Source: Kentucky: A Guide to the Bluegrass State, 1939, p. 434.

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