Microreview: Hayden White: The Historical Imagination by Herman Paul

Herman Paul’s book provides an overview of Hayden White’s thinking about historiography over the years. The book begins with White’s trip to Italy to write his thesis on the papal schism of 1130 and follows his publications and lectures chronologically, including plenty of details about who White was working with and likely inspired by.

Paul’s thesis seems to be that White was a liberation historiographer motivated by humanist and existential ideals more than the postmodern and structuralist movements he is often associated with. The author suggests that White’s central, enduring question is “how to live a morally responsible life in a thoroughly historical world?”

It’s a very interesting thing to read a history about someone who spent his life exploring how the ways an author shares historical information shapes the information. Paul does a good job proving his point but White has made me hypersensitive. There is no substitute for reading White’s work and this book helped me identify the things I want to read first.

Microreview: I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

Jennette McCurdy’s mother pressured her daughter into acting in order to fulfill her own ambitions. This honest, well-told memoir gives insight into the life of a child actor who came from a chaotic, unhappy home. I look forward to reading whatever else Jennette decides to write.

Microreview: The Hospital: Life, Death, and Dollars in A Small American Town by Brian Alexander

As an independent hospital in the small town of Bryan, Ohio fights to survive, so do the people who live there. A lack of adequate insurance and the time and money needed to stay on top of chronic conditions costs lives. The author’s focus is broader than the title suggests and the book provides a history of hospitals in the United States while it shows the dire effects of manufacturing jobs leaving Ohio.

Microreview: We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans in Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff

Like the best comedians, the author’s timing is impeccable, with seamless transitions between stories from Native American comedians trying to make a name for themselves today to stars like Will Rogers and Charlie Hill who came before. He knows just when to add a bit of historical context and leaves readers with a long list of new performers to add to our watch lists.

Microreview: White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada by Daniel Coleman

This book explores four different tropes found in Canadian literature:

1. The Loyalist fratricide,
2. The Scottish orphan who makes good,
3. The muscular Christian,
4. The maturing colonial son.

Coleman discusses how these characters both illustrate and shape Canadian’s beliefs about their nation’s (white British) origin. Prior knowledge of Canadian history and literature is not required and a new student of the country will come out of this book with many additions to their reading list.

World of Trouble: A Philadelphia Quaker Family’s Journey through the American Revolution by Richard Godbeer

Like the title says, Richard Godbeer’s World of Trouble explores the problems faced by Quakers living in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War. He focuses on one specific family to illustrate the problems faced by many.  During the Revolutionary War, many Quakers refused to take sides, not only due to their non-violent religious beliefs, but because Quakers formed a merchant class which did not welcome the disruption to trade or the drastic changes in class structure the Revolutionary War brought.

Before the War, Henry Drinker was a successful merchant engaged in international trade.  He and his wife Elizabeth enjoyed a pleasant, prosperous life, one that becomes more difficult after Henry decides to sell British tea during the tea boycott. In September 1777 Henry Drinker and 20 other Quakers were arrested on suspicion of supporting the British enemy and sent to a prison in Virginia.  During this time, Elizabeth has to contend with both Americans and British trying to seize her property and commandeer her home as the city changes hands from one side to another.

We know so much about this time in the Drinker’s lives thanks in large part to the diary Elizabeth kept throughout her life.  She recorded many details about day to day matters, like her family’s health issues and the struggles of dealing with domestic servants.  It’s a wonderful source to learn more not only about the Drinkers, but also about the paternalistic way Quakers treated their servants and their attitudes towards illegitimate children and interracial relationships.

World of Trouble is not a flat chronological read.  The author takes key moments in the lives of the Drinkers, like Henry and Elizabeth’s engagement, and shapes a narrative that includes information about general customs while telling a story specific to Elizabeth and Henry. The couple are interesting enough to keep the story going and the historical facts flow easily around them.  The footnotes are exceptional and will help anyone with a research interest in Philadelphia Quakers or the city of Philadelphia during the Revolution.

George Magoon and the Downeast Game War by Edward Ives

This book, both well-researched and fun, gives readers a well-rounded picture of George Magoon and other poachers who lived in Downeast Maine when game laws were first introduced.

Edward Ives’ book begins with a brief history of Wesley and Crawford, two settlements in the remote part of Maine where the George Magoon stories take place. This was a land of tough living, deep woods, and a life scratched out of nothing.

The author then examines the evolution of game laws. After the Civil War, the idea of the ‘Gentleman Hunter’ became popular in the United States. Game laws were introduced in part because those in charge believed that rich city folk were better stewards of natural resources than their poor country brethren whom they accused of slaughter for profit, a far less worthy pursuit than hunting for sport. Prior to their introduction in the state of Maine, large amounts of game were mowed down and put up for sale in the Boston Market – where they were presumably purchased by the rich city folk, but that’s a different topic.

With a solid backstory behind us, Ives then moves on to a factual account of George Magoon’s life. George Magoon was born and raised in Downeast Maine and lived along the Airline Road. He had the largest family in town and an ailing wife. He was a subsistence farmer who always owed money to someone and poaching was a way to supplement his income and feed his family. Despite his slight criminality, his neighbors seemed to respect him, electing him to road commission and other similar positions.

From newspaper articles and court records, we know that George Magoon was sentenced to four months in prison for moose poaching because he couldn’t afford to pay the fine. A month into his sentence, he walked out of the prison yard and went home. A month after this straightforward escape, two wardens came to his home to arrest him and make him serve the rest of his sentence. Magoon took off running and one of the wardens shot him in the shoulder.

Despite his injury, he kept running and made it into the woods. No attempt was made to capture him after this, the remaining part of his prison sentence unserved and forgotten.

A year later, Magoon sued the two wardens for $5,000 each, a huge sum of money in the 1880s. While he did not win that amount of money, he did collect damages from each of the wardens.

Once we know what ‘really’ happened, we move on to the many folktales Ives collected from Magoon’s family members and other locals in the 1960s. Now we can really appreciate the factual groundwork Ives has laid out for us ahead of time as we compare and contrast the different versions of stories about George Magoon. Out of 20+ iterations of the tale, that fantastic ending to the prison escape story, the lawsuit, was only in two. Was that because it happened a year after the main event or because it is too outrageous a coda to be believed?

In addition to George Magoon, the author includes stories about two other folk heroes who battled against the wardens, Wilbur Day and Calvin Graves. Like in the George Magoon section, the author first establishes a factual account of the men’s lives and actions before moving on to the stories about them, comparing what is true with what has been added and showing how opinions have changed over the years.

The stories about George Magoon are about a good man who stood up to the Law telling him to stop doing something he’d always done. They are comedic compared to the more menacing and downright criminal stories about Wilbur Day or the cold-blooded murderer Calvin Graves. By presenting facts alongside each set of folktales, Ives helps us to see how much truth is in a legend and how much legend is in a man.

Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson

One of the first things you notice about Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s biography of Robert Johnson is that there’s a photo on every other page – and that’s not a bad thing at all. The maps, vital records, and pictures of people and buildings illustrate the man and his time. The authors use many tools to recreate Johnson’s short life, from census records and marriage licenses to interviews with Johnson’s contemporaries.

Johnson had a chaotic childhood. He was abandoned by his mother as a toddler, left with his step-father and his new wife in Memphis. Later on, Johnson’s mother reclaimed him and brought him back to a rural area where he was expected to farm for her new, much younger husband. Johnson’s life in Memphis with a loving family and solid school system sounds idyllic in comparison to working in the fields with a strict stepfather. He knew early on that he did not want to be a farmer and turned quickly to music.

This book is an easy, enjoyable read. I found the beginning with information about Johnson’s life more interesting than the (brief) dissection of individual songs later on. Learning just a little about the history of itinerant musicians and juke joints from Johnson’s story makes me want to read more about the musicians from this era who traveled and played music.