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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Hopping around history

Did you know that the brother of the man who killed Abraham Lincoln saved the president's son's life at a train station in NJ? That is one of the interesting points of history that you can pick up in the very readable  book, Here Is Where: Discovering America's Great Forgotten History 
Really, you don't have to be a history buff to enjoy reading about Andrew Carroll's travels to the sites of historical significance.

A good part of Carroll's focus is on the historical figures who are largely forgotten. They include Irene Morgan and Claudette Colvin,  African-American women who refused to give up their seats on the bus before Rosa Parks did.

However, not all historical people featured in the books would be considered forgotten, for he spends some time on names that are preserved in history books. For example, nearly everyone has heard of Alexander Fleming, though Carroll devotes quite a bit of time to describing how penicillin came to be  mass-produced in the USA (secret ingredient, cantaloupe mold). An interesting note, though, is that the author's mother recollects meeting Fleming when he came to Long Island, and gives her own impressions of the man and his wife.

One of the things we learn from this is if you are quiet and unassuming, you likely will be largely forgotten by history -- even if you develop the vaccines that save millions of lives every year. That's the story of Maurice Hilleman. Other doctors' contributions and sometimes questionable methods are also featured in the book, which hops around the country to cover the spots associated with particular people, events, or artifacts.

After reading Carroll's account of boating around Hart Island and relaying what his guide told him about it, it's interesting to see that there is now Hart Island Project with the goal of making "the largest cemetery in the United State visible and accessible so that no on is omitted from history."

Speaking of historical projects, Caroll's book is meant to be part of a larger project, which shares the title:
Launched in 2008, HERE IS WHERE is an all-volunteer initiative created by the Legacy Project to find and spotlight unmarked historic sites throughout the United States. Many of these forgotten places are where significant events occurred, and others are connected in some way to remarkable individuals—from the Native Americans, explorers, and pioneers who first set foot on this land to the pioneers, patriots, inventors, artists, and activists who transformed it.
The only thing missing in the book -- and the associated site, as well -- are pictures.Though I do like taking my information in through text, I kept expecting to see some photos because Carroll constantly refers to taking pictures along the way. So where are they? I figured perhaps it wasn't economical to work them into the book, but he, surely, could have posted some to the site. No, none in sight. If you don't intend to put in the pictures, don't keep talking about taking them.  Still, the book is worth reading, much more to my taste than most books on history.

Related interest:

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The book on the exhibit

A few weeks ago, I visited the New York Historical Society's Armory Show exhibit. Though it opened in 2013 for the 100 year anniversary, you can still catch it until February 23, 2014 (and if you're a Bank of America credit card holder you can get in free, January 5 and February 2 courtesy of the Museums on Us program)

 There is an audio guide for the exhibit, but it is really difficult to take in all the details of the politics behind the show from that information. It became much clearer when I read Elizabeth Lunday's The Modern Art Invasion: Picasso, Duchamp, and the 1913 Armory Show That Scandalized America.The books clarifies the differences in various types of modern art and the reactions they aroused.

 One of the things I found striking was how responses spread in 1913, through poetry, of all things. Lunday explains (p.80) that it would have been the "Twitter" of the day. "Where today's individual tweet and caption photographs in response to popular events, in the 1910s they wrote poetry -- vast reams of it, on every subject from the weather to fashion, foreign wars to the suffrage movement." The number of rhymes devoted to the Armory Show made it the equivalent of the subject an internet "'meme'" today. The book includes a few examples of such rhymes.

While the subject is the Armory Show, the book follows up on development in the modern art world throughout most of the 20th century and touches on major figures in American art whose fame came laer. One figure who currently looms large in the art world and did sell a painting through the show is Edward Hooper. But it wasn't the show that made him a success. He didn't sell another painting until another decade had passed. Lunday follows up on him briefly, as well as other artists whose names have became associated with modern art -- or the reactions against it.

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