Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Kids on Strike!

Kids on Strike! by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1999) provides a fascinating, photographic trip into 19th and early 20th century America, with a focus on child labor in the streets, mills, and mines.

I found myself thumbing through all the images first and then going back to read the text. The images are poignant and captivating. When I first picked this book up a few weeks ago, I was immediately reminded of Shorpy, a site I've linked to here for a few years. I almost expected to find Shorpy in the archival photos in the book that documented children working in the coal mines. The mines, and the children laboring in them, featured in this book were in Pennsylvania. Shorpy worked in Alabama. But the photographer, Lewis Hine, was the same for both Shorpy and for the photos in the Kids on Strike! book.

In addition to the photographs, a well-researched text also deals with child labor and the attempts to organize, strike, and change the laws to protect the children. Text and images comprise an interesting historical document about American labor history and the children who helped build American industry.

I'll let some of the photos speak for the subject matter of this book:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Autobiography of David Crockett

Yesterday, April 21st, was San Jacinto Day in Texas, an observance of the anniversary of the Texians' defeat of Santa Anna and the Mexican Army, the final battle in Texas' fight for independence. That battle took place on April 21, 1836 amid cries of "Remember Goliad!" and "Remember the Alamo!"

While the massacre at Goliad does not resonate outside of Texas the way the Alamo's legacy does, the Battle of the Alamo enjoys enduring historical recognition beyond state lines thanks to larger than life heroes fighting against overwhelming odds, as well as the numerous books on the subject and, in the last century, cinematic portrayals. The epic battle spawned its shares of heroes, legends, and myths, all of which apply to the heroic fallen defender, David Crockett. And it's his autobiography that inspired this post today.

Yesterday, I was cataloging books from a recent purchase (Friends of the Houston Public Library Sale) and got to The Autobiography of David Crockett (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923), with an Introduction by Hamlin Garland. This is actually a reprinting of three autobiographical Crockett narratives. I was oblivious, until later, of the significance of the day and its connection to what I was reading. At least I recovered in time to take the cosmic cue and get a few thoughts down on paper, or the hard drive as it were.

Garland's Bibliographical Note, which follows his Introduction, outlines the books that comprise this volume. A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee (1834) is presented here "precisely as it originally appeared, with a few misprints corrected" (so "precisely" isn't really accurate). Next up is An Account of Col. Crockett's Tour to the North and Down East (1835), reprinted here with the omission of all "verbose and repetitious political speeches" except one. Scattered arguments and reflections at the end have also been omitted. The third and last “autobiography” in this volume is Col. Crockett's Exploits and Adventures in Texas (1836) and is not seriously accepted as having been written by Crockett (it ends with him writing about his last hours at the Alamo). It is included here, minus the Preface by Alex J. Dumas and the final chapter recounting the last hours.

The last volume ends with Crockett’s supposed thoughts as conditions deteriorated rapidly around him.
March 4. We have given over all hopes of receiving assistance from Goliad or Refugio. Colonel Travis harangued the garrison, and concluded by exhorting them, in case the enemy should carry the fort, to fight to the last gasp, and render their victory even more serious to them than to us. This was followed by three cheers.

March 5. “Pop, pop, pop! Bom, bom, bom! Throughout the day.—No time for memorandums now.—Go ahead!—Liberty and independence forever!”
The next day, March 6th, the Alamo fell into the hands of the Mexican Army as they routed the greatly outnumbered Texians.

In the days leading up to March 6th, can you see Crockett writing this and more as the final hours--his final hours-- counted down? That Crockett would spend any precious time with a journal, dipping his pen into an ink well to scratch out a paragraph or two, between Mexican cannon volleys into the crumbling Alamo walls seems ludicrous. That the manuscript found its way to a publisher after the bloody battle ended with Crockett dying is even more preposterous. And how he died is a subject for much debate (another forum, another time).

Here is one version about how the last Crockett narrative in this 1923 volume came to pass. In Studies in American Humor: Col. Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas: Death and Transfiguration, William Bedford Clark writes:
Under various imprints, the Exploits sold steadily and well on both sides of the Atlantic in the decade or so following its appearance and so pervasively was its authenticity accepted at face-value (despite abundant internal and external evidence to the contrary) that as late as 1956 Crockett’s definitive biographer, James Atkins Shackford, felt compelled to devote an appendix to what he hoped would be "its final refutation." Shackford cited a reminiscence of the Philadelphia publisher A. Hart as to the work’s genesis:

The late Richard Penn Smith was in Carey & Hart’s one day, when Edward L. Carey told him that they had a large number of copies of Crockett’s "Tour Down East" which didn’t sell. Crockett had just then been executed by the Mexican authorities at the Alamo, and Mr. Carey suggested to Mr. Smith, that if they could get up a book of Crockett’s adventures in Texas, it would not only sell itself, but get them clear of the other books. They secured all the works on Texas they could lay their hands on, and Smith undertook the work. Mr. Carey said he wanted it done in great haste, and asked him when it would be ready for the printer; his reply was, "Tomorrow morning." Smith came up to the contract, and never kept the printer waiting. The result was that a great many thousands of copies of the book were sold and all the balance of the edition of the "Tour Down East." (Shackford, p. 274)
So a publisher with less than admirable motives knowingly published a fabricated "autobiography" and helped elevate an already popular Crockett into a hyper-mythologized American hero. Many future writings about Crockett and the Alamo would refer to this journal as a source of factual information.

I don't know how early or how often the Carey publication might have been debunked, but Hamlin Garland did just that for the 1923 Scribner's collection. More than 30 years later, James Shackford, referenced above, published the most factual and historically accurate biography of Crockett to date in 1956. Unfortunately, "historically accurate" ran into a buzzsaw of "mythical" and media marketing with the Disney Davy, starring Fess Parker as Davy Crockett. For the youth of the 1950s and 60s, myself included, Crockett was all about coonskin caps and swinging his rifle, "Ol' Betsy" at the Alamo. And so the legend grew, from Carey to Disney, some 120 years of an enduring popularity.

Back to the 1923 Scribner's collection, which may or may not have contributed to perpetuating a myth with the Crockett's Texas narrative, Hamlin Garland wrote in the Bibliographical Note that it was worthwhile to reprint "not only because it is itself interesting, but because the existence of such a book shows that there was current at the time a popular legend and literature of the frontier which made it possible for catchpenny hacks to manufacture a reasonably characteristic, reasonably convincing "autobiography" of a dead hero while his death was still in the news."

Some things never change. Biographers, regardless of the medium, would serve history better by adopting Crockett's motto (which I think learned as a kid from Walt Disney):

"Be always sure you're right--then go ahead!"

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Boy's Vacation Abroad
or Serendipity in an Antique Mall

This book was a nice find years ago when I was doing a lot of genealogical research on my family history: A Boy's Vacation Abroad: An American Boy's Diary of His First Trip to Europe, by C.F. King, Jr. The book was published by the C.M. Clark Publishing Co. in Boston, 1906.

I thought about the book recently while reading a passage from Nicholas Basbanes' Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture; HarperCollins, 2001. The passage is found in the book's chapter titled, A Splendid Anachronism, page 199. Basbanes writes:
The first known usage of the word serendipity--its provenance in antiquarian terms--can be dated precisely to January 28, 1754. On that day, Horace Walpole, a prolific eighteenth-century author remembered mostly for the letters he posted to a wide range of interesting people, characterized an unexpectedly pleasant occurrence to one of his correspondents as typical "of that kind which I call Serendipity." Walpole cited his source for the coinage as The Three Princes of Serendip, an old Persian fairy tale in which the central characters are "always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of."
A few years before the young King published his trip diary, my great-great-grandparents had also taken a trip to Europe, the letters and photos from which were recorded in booklet form by their four daughters, who presented it to their parents as a gift. The book centered on the trip, but also segued into family history and provided historical photos for illustration. It's truly a treasure in my family history archives.

One day, browsing around a bookcase of old books in an antique mall, King's book caught my eye. Why I picked it up, I can't say. The shelves were full of old books with similar spines and covers. But this one had something--maybe the envelopes depicted on the cover--that made me select it to look through. What I discovered right away were photos from the same ship my great-great-grandparents had sailed on--the S.S. Arabic, out of Charlestown, Massachusetts.

I had been immersed in family history research when I found the book, but I had not been looking for, or even remotely thinking about, finding books that had direct references to some aspect of my family's history. That I should stumble upon this book was pure serendipity. And now I had photographic images to apply to the written descriptions of the ship from my great-great-grandmother's letters. I could almost see her and my great-great-grandfather walking around on one of the ship's decks.

Aside from the family history connections, I found the book interesting because of the young man who wrote it and because of a letter laid in the book by, presumably another young man, across the country, who had read the book and been inspired enough to write the young author. King wrote back--the letter I found in the book--and was humbled by how far his little memoir had traveled.

If this book had no reference to an episode in my family history, I would have still purchased this book. I'm a sucker for old letters found in old books--tucked away and preserved for some future book hunter to extract from among the leaves. I also like first-hand accounts of travel or adventure from other times, long-ago enough that I can't relate to them in my world. That creates a new adventure for me.

King wrote from his school, Saint John's in Manilus, New York, as evidenced by the school's letterhead. He writes to a Mr. Pendexter in Austin about his astonishment over someone as far south as Texas reading his book. He then proudly reports that the first printing is sold out, most of the second printing is gone and a third is underway. And he must have really been beaming about the money he earned from it--a bit of financial serendipity for the young traveler/author. He provides the following sales figures in his letter: "I get $750 on the first edition or fifteen cents a copy and $1250 on the other editions." The next sentence belies what I presumed was a privileged status in life because of travel to Europe with his brother and father on vacation: "Every little bit helps and I need the money."

I found this old photo of the School King attended in Manlius, NY on a rootsweb site for Manlius. Looks like a place for the wealthier kids, but maybe he was barely able to get in and needed to earn money to stay.

I suspect Mr. King grew up in a well-to-do home with a certain amount of privilege, but you couldn't tell by the way he wrote. He seemed truly appreciative, if not humbled, by his opportunity to travel abroad, conveyed in his words at the beginning of the book:
"This is my first book. I have worked awfully hard to write it. It is the first time I ever tried to write a book and, of course, I do not know how well I have succeeded. It may be a terrible "frost" and then again it may "catch on." I hope it will "catch on." I lost a lot of fun writing it.

I am proud of the pictures because they are good. That much of my book I feel sure will not be criticised very severely, because I had a good camera and everybody who has seen the pictures says that they are all right.

This book is the result of a promise I made to my father. He told me that if I would be good at school and catch up in my studies, and also if my brother Cabaniss was good and caught up in his studies, and I would agree to write a complete diary about my trip and write it every night, he would take me with him on his vacation to Europe. And so this book is the result."
King writes further that while he was recording the days' events in his diary, he never dreamed it would be published as a book. he wrote only to keep a promise to his father and because he thought it would be a good keepsake to look back on in later years.

And at least one other reader in Texas has enjoyed reading it, albeit more than a century later.