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Frank Conroy, Nantucket, and Travel Writing

Just this morning while feeling the need to procrastinate, and to further avoid grading some student essays, I picked up Frank Conroy’s 2004 entry in the Crown Journeys series on his summers and brief year long residency on Nantucket.  This slim meditation on his life on the island and the changes he observed from the 1950s to the 1990s would not likely have caught my attention when I found it in the $1 bins a few weeks ago if I had not just been reminded of Conroy’s centrality to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the n+1 essay collection, MFA vs NYC.  I assume that MFA programs continue to study Conroy- he published a memoir, an essay collection, and a novel between 1977 and 1993 which rate as among the finest books from any writer’s writer, but aside from many literary essays and those three volumes (including only a single novel) it seems his major career was training young writers in Iowa and teaching along with other literary giants such as Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut.

     B…

14th Amendment

Today is the anniversary of the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 which guarantees birthright citizenship in the United States.


Passed in both houses of Congress by June 1866 it took more than two years to be ratified by the states.  Every former Confederate state opposed its ratification until Congress made it a condition for readmission to the Union and the seating of southern Congressmen.  Citizenship for freedmen and women in the South opened the possibility of African American men voting and holding office, something anticipated eagerly by the Republican party, depicted here on the cover of Harper's Weekly as the amendment gained support throughout 1867.

Not everyone, of course, welcomed African American votes, particularly California Democrats who would soon push for the closure of Asian immigration to the state out of fear that the 14th Amendment would make citizens of the children of immigrants.  Below is a typical anti-Republican cartoon trading on anxieties about the 1…

Roger Williams, Religious Liberty, and the Founding of Rhode Island

If I am being completely honest, I don't know enough about 17th century New England.  In fact, whenever teaching anything outside of the 19th century I often feel like something of an impostor.  Nonetheless, I am comfortable with the basics of early English planting in New England but also realize I have a life's long reading list on Puritanism, Native American encounters, imperial wars, slavery, and witchcraft.  This week, however, I picked a book up which had not yet come to my attention, likely because the author John M. Barry is not a professional historian- we can be quite insular as we talk only to each other- but is instead a prize winning popular writer who has published on the flu pandemic of the WWI era, the 1927 Mississippi Flood, and detailed journalistic account of the political demise of House Speaker Jim Wright.  In 2012 he released this volume on Roger Williams, and it is a remarkable narrative biography which, for at least its first 100 pages, has greatly ill…

The Countess, Clara Bow, and Women Boxers of the 1920s

I've long admired the Depression era reporting of Joseph Mitchell, as well as his later essays for the New Yorker.  The book to read, I suppose, is his Up in the Old Hotel.  I have been working my way through a late 1930s collection of pieces entitled My Ears Are Bent which collects his various- probably many unprinted- reports on Prohibition era NYC's underworld.

In a section on sports, Mitchell's clear admiration and affection for the plucky 1920s women boxers is matched only perhaps by his discussion of the performance pushed into burlesque as vaudeville audiences declined during the depression.

In an endearing profile he describes the 1930s career of The Countess, Jeanne Vina La Marr, the first woman in America licensed to fight in New Jersey in the mid1920s.  Unable to fight contests without a license in NYC, she instead did exhibition in the city, often fighting other women and men, usually in some vaguely legal connection with the burlesque shows and speakeasies.




Frederick Douglass and The Fugitive's Song

I was thinking about Frederick Douglass today.  I regularly teach his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) in my introductory US history, as do undoubtedly hundreds of other instructors, and as this summer school session passes the halfway point we will be reading it again next week.  Recently, I have been asked to review a new book about Douglass's trip to Ireland in 1845 when he met Irish independence leader Daniel O'Connell and began a two year long lecture series..  There was a great piece in the NYTimes several years back about the encounter, perhaps it was part of the Disunion series on the anniversary of the Civil War, here

There are a number of familiar images of Douglass in our nation's archives, many of which appear in textbooks, on book jackets to illustrate his writings or recent biographies and studies, but this image was quite new to me as I scrolled through the LOC's PPOC.  From the description:

"A sheet music cover …

Mary Armstrong of Houston, 91 Year old WPA Ex-Slave Interviewee, 1937.

From 1936 to 1938, in the midst of the Depression, the Works Progress Administration interviewed more than 2,000 ex-slaves.  Mary Armstrong is photographed here at 91 at the time of her interview in Houston.  In the interview she describes her teenage journey down the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans, then onto Galveston and Houston after acquiring her freedom in the middle of the Civil War in 1863.  Separated from her mother, Armstrong located her mother in a "slave refugee camp" in Wharton County, Texas southwest of Houston where she remained until she married and returned to Houston.
Historian George Rawick edited a 41 volume edition of the interviews, but the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis has made available typed versions of his papers in their collection here, including the interview with Mary Armstrong. HERE
Project Gutenberg is digitizing the series as well, with the Texas volumes. HERE
The interview: 

MARY ARMSTRONG, 91, lives at 3326…