With the days warming, the world reopening incrementally, and a semi-normal summer potentially ahead I have been thinking a lot recently of hopefully returning to Federal Hall sometime in the near future. This has never been truer than today: the anniversary of George Washington’s first inaugural. We will see what happens. I have so missed that interaction with the public.
Above was the scene on Wall Street in 1789 and below an incredible image of President Benjamin Harrison’s entourage 100 years later.
Some may or may not know that I am working on a book manuscript about Civil War Era New York City in which Theodore Roosevelt Sr., Frederick Law Olmsted, Louisa Lee Schuyler and a few others are the leading figures. Today is the 160th anniversary of one of the monumental moments in the American Civil War: it was on April 29, 1861 that approximately 3000 people turned out at the Cooper Institute to found the Women’s Central Association of Relief. Louisa Lee Schuyler was selected to run the day-to-day operations of the Women’s Central and did so with great efficiency during her tenure during the war.
Changing the subject a bit: I have noted over the past several weeks the anniversary dates of many Civil War moments, not least Sumter, Appomattox, and the Lincoln assassination. It’s difficult to imagine that the sesquicentennial began ten years ago this month. So much has happened over the past decade in terms of scholarship and current events that have changed our perceptions and memory of the war. It seems the war’s consequences and legacy are the main issues in the current narrative. This will continue as we recognize the anniversaries of events related to Reconstruction in the coming years, not to mention that 2022 will be the 200th anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant’s birth.
(image/Library of Congress)
This past week I twice watched the full six hours of the new Lynn Novick / Ken Burns documentary about Ernest Hemingway. Several years ago an English instructor at my college explained to me and a class how the criticism and historiography about Hemingway has evolved in the twenty-first century. Out are the paeans to Hemingway the hyper masculine hunter, fisherman, boxer, and adventurer; in are explorations of the great writer’s alcoholism, PTSD, concussion-induced mental health issues, and other vulnerabilities. “Hemingway” fits neatly into these academic trends. Watching the story unfold over the course of several evenings was unsettling and emotionally exhausting. There were a few people with whom I was texting and emailing after having watched each installment. One friend was so distraught as to question the necessity of the entire project. I must say I really had no good answer or reply. Part of the reason for my unsatisfactory responses was that I too was trying to process the life and disintegration of Ernest Hemingway myself.
In addition to the documentary, I have been listening to serval podcasts and virtual events with Novick and Burns over these past several days. Burns in particular has turned several times to the evolving nature of celebrity itself in the now six decades since Hemingway’s suicide. We know more about public figures today than was possible decades ago in the time before the internet and other communication advancements. It was easier then for a figure like Hemingway to craft a persona. I would argue that personas are not lies and that public figures have a right to create a public-facing identity. How could they not do so? That the myth and reality inevitably fail to align neatly and perfectly is not something to unduly concern us. There is room for both. Ultimately it is the work that matters.
Of course none of that makes it any easier to watch the physical and mental breakdown of a man, let alone a great artist like Hemingway, so unblinkingly. I totally understood what my friend was getting at. The truth though has a value all its own. One thing I noticed in the interviews with Novick and Burns is that they repeatedly mentioned the importance of self-care and told listeners that if they felt they too might be suffering from chemical dependency or mental health issues to seek help.
(image/Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
I learned today with great sadness of the passing of Sally Grossman. The name may be unfamiliar but she stares out, cigarette held aloft, on the cover of one of best albums of Bob Dylan’s career, Bringing It All Back Home. I’m listening to it right now as I type these words. More than just a beautiful woman who could strike a mesmerizing pose, Ms. Grossman was instrumental in helping her husband Albert Grossman manage many of the most important individuals and groups of the folk/blues revival. In his memoir This Wheel’s on Fire Levon Helm of The Band talks about how Sally Grossman championed what was then still Dylan’s backup musicians. She carried on with the work after her husband’s untimely passing in 1986. Here is a brief video of the creation of the album cover. I have always loved that the room still exists today preserved in the condition it was in 1965. Click here for some lovely outtakes and more. Even better, do so while listening to the record.
I spent much of last night and now this morning searching for potential images that I might use in “Incorporating New York,” my manuscript about Civil War Era New York City. The other day prepping for this I drafted a list of persons, events, and institutions that I would most like to see in the book should it get published, which I’m working hard to make happen. I am trying to find things that are a little different and less familiar to readers. So often we see that same images over and over, which is unfortunate given the rich visual history of the American Civil War. Here is an image that I will not use in my book because it’s a little beyond the scope of my narrative, but that I thought I would share here because it is so powerful. It is a woodcut drawn by Frank Vizetelly. I was having a conversation several years ago now with one of the rangers at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace in which we got onto the topic of refugeeism during the War of the Rebellion. I made the point that many Americans don’t or can’t comprehend that during our own civil war we had displaced persons just like any country experiencing internal strife. This image is from July 1862, which means the people we see here are fleeing the fighting out west under the direction of Ulysses S. Grant and others.
They have my article up and running over at Roads to the Great War about husband and wife team John Jacob and Edith Nourse Rogers. This was a fun piece to write.
Today is the 75th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s “Sinews of Peace” speech. It was on March 5, 1946 at Fulton, Missouri’s Westminster College that the former prime minister gave what is more commonly know as his “Iron Curtain” address. Yes, former prime minister. It is important to remember that Churchill left Downing Street after being defeated by Labour’s Clement Attlee in 1945. Standing there with Truman seated beside him, Churchill was speaking in his capacity as Leader of the Opposition. Whatever his other failings Churchill always saw the dangers posed by Stalin and the Soviet Union, despite the alliance during the war. The Iron Curtain speech met with mixed reviews, some regarding Churchill’s remarks about a threat from Eastern Europe as prescient and others casting his words as those of a warmonger. I can’t say I know that much about Churchill but I would wager that it was this address that led him to return to working on his eventual four-volume “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples,” which he had begun in the 1930s between the World Wars and put down for obvious reason some time around the Blitz. Again though, that’s just a hunch.
That time immediately after the Second World War is fascinating because it is seemingly so close and yet far removed all at once. It is still living memory for some, fewer and fewer every year however. Here is a five-minute excerpt for a late winter’s day of that event from 75 years ago today.
I worked much of the morning and early afternoon on the draft of a project that hopefully will get published sometime in late spring. I intend to submit said draft, about 2,200 words, tomorrow after one final edit and fact check. I took a break around 1:30 for a walk and some fresh air in Green-Wood Cemetery, whose fields are still covered with snow. I saw these tracks and stopped to take a picture. I texted a friend to ask what he thought they might be, and he guessed wild turkeys.