West Virginia Book Festival

Meet the Author: Dean King

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Dean King
Photo © Rachel Cobb

Author and historian Dean King takes a new look at the Hatfield and McCoy feud in his latest book, “The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys.” King’s book breaks new ground with quotes from contemporary newspaper accounts and other information that was not available when Otis K. Rice wrote The Hatfields and the McCoys in 1982. King’s account traces the conflict back to the 1850s when the families intermarried and lived peacefully and shows multiple causes for the vendetta.

King is the award-winning author of 10 books. He will speak at Elk Valley Branch Library on Monday, June 3, at 6:30 p.m., and sign books after the presentation. Copies of the book will be available for purchase from West Virginia Book Company. Refreshments will be served.

This project is being presented with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any view, findings, conclusions or recommendations do not necessarily represent those of the West Virginia Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Happy birthday, Shakespeare

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As best as anyone knows, William Shakespeare was born on this date, 449 years ago, in Stratford-upon-Avon. There are historical records that show he died on this date, 397 years ago, in the same town.

I used the occasion two years ago to write about the man and his impact on what we read today. Last year, Dawn Miller wrote about reading Shakespeare to kids as a volunteer for Read Aloud West Virginia.

This year? I’m just going to remember the people who helped me learn to love Shakespeare. And I’m going to post this photo that I took at the Globe Theater replica in London a few years ago, because it makes me happy every time I see it.

And I’m going to honor his memory the best way I know how. I’m going to read him.

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Jon Meacham in 2010. AP photo

One final reminder about Jon Meacham, author, historian, editor, and speaker at the Gazette-WVU Festival of Ideas at the Clay Center in Charleston on Tuesday evening.

The early pages of “American Lion,” Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, find Old Hickory at home in Tennessee, preparing for the trip to Washington after a bruising presidential campaign. Meacham writes that Jackson “knew his election was inspiring both reverence and loathing.”

To illustrate the antipathy Jackson faced in some quarters, Meacham quotes a letter from a Jackson supporter in West Virginia — well, it would be West Virginia in a few decades. Meacham writes:

Some Americans thought of the president-elect as a second Father of His Country. Others wanted him dead. One Revolutionary War veteran, David Coons of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was hearing rumors of ambush and assassination plots against Jackson. To Coons, Jackson was coming to rule as a tribune of the people, but to others Jackson seemed dangerous — so dangerous, in fact, that he was worth killing. “There are a portion of malicious and unprincipled men who have made hard threats with regard to you, men whose baseness would (in my opinion) prompt them to do anything,” Coons wrote Jackson.

Show’s at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday. It’s free. Read the Gazette’s interview with Meacham from a couple of weeks ago if you don’t want to go in cold. See you there.

Jon Meacham event in Charleston previewed

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Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who’s written about Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in recent years, is coming to Charleston next week. He’s the speaker at the annual Charleston Gazette-West Virginia University Festival of Ideas event, and the Gazette’s Doug Imbrogno interviewed him for Sunday’s Gazette-Mail.

Among the subjects discussed by Meacham: which of the three American presidents he most admired after writing about them. While acknowledging that Roosevelt and Jefferson were great men who left the word better than they found it, Meacham said Jackson grew in his estimation as he learned more about him, because Old Hickory was a “genuinely self-made” man.

“He came from a part of white society in colonial America where his destiny was not in any way set to become the first president who was not a Virginia aristocrat or member of the Adams family. It required an effort of will on a human level that was deeply impressive.”

Meacham’s book on Jackson, “American Lion,” covers Jackson’s eight years in the presidency. That book won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2009. His latest, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” was on several end-of-year best book lists last year. No doubt both will come up during his talk, which starts at 7:30 p.m. on March 12 at the Clay Center, followed by a reception and book signing. Admission is free.

Richard III: The bones of the story

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There are few better examples of the maxim “history is written by the winners” than Richard III.

Most people, if they know anything about the last Plantagenet king of England, know that he was a devious hunchback who, after long years of eyeing it from afar, usurped the English throne. He killed the son of the reigning king, Henry VI; then killed the king himself; then Richard’s own brother; and finally — and most notoriously — Richard had his young nephews killed in the Tower of London to prevent them from contesting his royal claim.

A portrait of Richard III in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

How do people know all this? Because William Shakespeare told them so, of course. And before him, Sir Thomas More told them much the same thing.

With the announcement Monday that bones found in a Leicester parking lot were found by researchers to be “beyond reasonable doubt” the remains of Richard III, comes an opportunity to re-examine the legacy of a man who may be the most villainous character in all of Shakespeare — quite a feat in a crowd that includes Macbeth, Iago, Shylock and many other malefactors.

The basic facts of Richard’s life and death are not obscure. He was born in 1452, the youngest of three sons of Richard, duke of York. The York branch of the Plantagenet tree believed they had been wrongly denied the English crown after the death of Henry V, and fought several battles (known as the Wars of the Roses) with the Lancaster branch of the tree.

When the future Richard III was 9 years old, the Yorkists were finally victorious and Richard’s brother was crowned King Edward IV. When the king died in 1483, Richard was named protector of his brother’s two young sons, the elder of whom was to be named king. Instead, the young princes were taken to the Tower of London and never seen again, while their uncle had himself proclaimed King Richard III. He ruled for a tumultuous two years, until he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 — becoming the last English king to die in battle. Shakespeare’s famous scene at the end of Richard III has the king yelling, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” before he’s killed.

His death ended both the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet dynasty; the new king, Henry VII, was a Tudor, a distant Welsh relation of the Plantagenets.

An undated photo made available by the University of Leicester of the remains found underneath a car park last September at the Grey Friars excavation in Leicester, which have been declared Monday “beyond reasonable doubt” to be the long lost remains of England’s King Richard III, missing for 500 years. AP Photo

In his book Shakespeare’s English Kings, Peter Saccio writes of the enduring image of Richard III:

“This lurid king, hunchbacked, clad in blood-spattered black velvet, forever gnawing his nether lip or grasping for his dagger, has an enduring place in English mythology. He owes something to the facts about the historical Richard III. He owes far more to rumor and to the political bias, credulity, and especially the literary talent of Tudor writers.”

Those writers include Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England best known as the author of Utopia. In the early 1500s, More began work (he never finished it) on a history of Richard III. Even had he wanted to, More was hardly in a position to write anything fair about Richard, whose death had allowed the current Tudor dynasty to ascend to the throne. The new king, Henry VIII, was already showing a distinct fondness for chopping off the heads of people who displeased him. And More’s patron — John Morton, bishop of Ely — had participated in a few plots to remove Richard III from the throne.

So More’s version of Richard III is, in Saccio’s words, “a gem of ironic narration that established the popular image of the king (the crooked shoulders, the withered arm, the gnawed lip),” as well as the story that he killed his nephews. Saccio does note that More reported many of these details as rumors or possibilities, but his readers “tended to accept them as fact.” The image of the evil, sniveling, usurping weasel as king had taken root.

Decades later, here comes William Shakespeare. Like all actors and playwrights, he’s reliant on the permission of the monarch to perform anywhere in England — and the reigning monarch is still a Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare has every reason not to challenge the popular conception of Richard III.

Besides that, Shakespeare loved to tell a story. Bad guys make great stories — and Richard III was made to order. So, starting in Henry VI Part 3 and continuing through Richard III, Shakespeare has Richard:

| Murder the son of Henry VI (even though the prince died in battle).

| Go to the Tower and kill Henry VI himself (even though most historians believe that the new king, Edward IV, ordered the old king killed).

| Woo his wife over the corpse of her father-in-law, then immediately plot to get rid of her at a later date (never happened, Saccio says).

| Have his brother Clarence killed, famously by drowning in a bottle of wine (Clarence had plotted against his brother, Edward IV, numerous times, and Edward probably just got tired of it).

| Had his two young nephews killed in the Tower of London after their father died.

There it is — that last one is the deed that has clung to Richard III throughout the centuries, more than any other treasonous thing he may or may not have done. And it’s one that Richard’s defenders have never convincingly knocked down. (Josephine Tey’s classic detective novel The Daughter of Time, published in 1951, postulated that Richard III was completely innocent of killing his nephews. That book is a great read, but its historical findings have been challenged in several quarters.)

The facts remain that Richard’s brother died in April 1483, his sons were taken to the Tower of London weeks later and never seen in public again, and Richard had been crowned king by June. Any medieval king, especially one who usurped the crown, would be a fool to leave the rightful heirs to the throne alive in such a situation.

So maybe, despite all the historical distortions required by the politics of the time, and the centuries that have passed, there’s a kernel of truth at the center of the story of Richard III.

Or maybe more than one. For years, some of Richard’s defenders have rejected the hunchback description; Saccio calls it “quite unlikely.” But among the bones unveiled by the University of Leicester on Monday is a spine that shows signs of scoliosis, which would have twisted his back and caused him to stoop several inches, researchers said.

The remains of Richard III, in a photo made available by the University of Leicester. AP Photo

Jon Meacham coming to Charleston

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Hope that after recent months, you’re not getting tired of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers coming to Charleston, because there’s another one on the way.

Jon Meacham — author of last year’s “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” as well as “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” which won the Pulitzer for biography in 2009 — will speak at this year’s Charleston installment of the West Virginia University Festival of Ideas, co-sponsored by The Charleston Gazette. Meacham will be here on March 12 at the Clay Center; the time is still to be announced. The event will be free.

Meacham has also written books about the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the civil rights movement and the role of religion in the lives of America’s founding fathers. He’s the executive editor at Random House and used to be editor-in-chief of Newsweek magazine.

From ‘Bleak House’ to ‘Great Expectations’

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The front of the Charles Dickens Museum, in a house on Doughty Street in London, where Dickens lived from 1837 to 1839. AP Photos.

In a few days, the Charles Dickens Museum in London will reopen after an extensive renovation, which cost about 3.1 million pounds (just less than $5 million) and took the better part of this year to complete. From The Associated Press (where I borrowed the post’s title as well):

For years, the four-story brick row house where the author lived with his young family was a dusty and slightly neglected museum, a mecca for Dickens scholars but overlooked by most visitors to London.

I resemble that remark. When we visited London in 2009, we made sure to find and stop at the Dickens Museum, located in the novelist’s former home on Doughty Street. Dickens only lived there for two years, from 1837 to 1839, but it’s the only place he did live in London that’s still standing.

Charles Dickens’ study, inside the Dickens Museum.

The experience was — how to put this — let’s just say I wasn’t surprised when the Dickens Museum announced a big renovation. It’s not that it wasn’t a worthwhile trip; there was a lot of interesting stuff in the house, both about Dickens’ life and career and about the era when he lived. But it was dark, and a little dingy, and the exhibits weren’t organized that well.

I just came away with the feeling that there was so much more than could be done with the largest memorial to one of England’s most beloved and well-remembered writers. Apparently, other people felt the same way. Rose Roberts, the 90-year-old president of the Dickens Fellowship branch in New York City, said of the museum:

“When I was there five years ago I said this could be really stepped up quite a bit,” she says. “It did look dowdy, it wasn’t comfortable–seating arrangements and so on–so they had all these years to do it. Why now?

That’s the big question most Dickens scholars and readers had about the renovation: not whether it should be done, but why it should be done in the middle of 2012 — the 100th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, and the year that brought thousands upon thousands of tourists to London for the Olympics, not to mention the 60-year jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

The historical marker on the outside of the Dickens Museum.

But museum officials say that it was precisely because of Dickens’ centenary that they chose to renovate the museum this year. They say there were enough Dickens events and commemorations through London, and England, and the world, that this was the one time that the museum wouldn’t be sorely missed.

Hope it was worth it. The Dickens Museum reopens on Monday.

A Twain-themed trip to Hannibal, Missouri

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Looking south from the banks of the Mississippi River at Hannibal, Mo., earlier this month.

“There their first crop of children was born, but as I was of a later vintage, I do not remember anything about it. I was postponed — postponed to Missouri. Missouri was an unknown new state and needed attractions.”

— “Chapters From My Autobiography,” Mark Twain

Hannibal, Missouri, has two things that set it apart from most small towns in America. One, it sits on the banks of the country’s great river, the Mississippi. Two, one of America’s foremost authors spent his formative years there.

Samuel L. Clemens, better known by his pen name of Mark Twain, moved with his family to Hannibal when he was 4 years old, and stayed until he was 18. He used the people he met there, and the town itself, in dozens of novels, stories and sketches — most famously in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

On a trip earlier this month, I had the chance to visit Hannibal, now a town of about 18,000 residents. They have not forgotten their famous son. Businesses downtown include the Mark Twain Family Restaurant and Becky’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor and Emporium. Attractions include the Mark Twain Riverboat (which you can see on the right in that top photo). And the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum comprises several buildings; the museum includes three floors worth of exhibits from Clemens’ life, the various editions of his books and the movies and other programs based on them.

A bust of Samuel Clemens inside the Mark Twain Museum.

That sounds like a lot, but it probably won’t take even the most dedicated Twain fan more than a couple of hours to make his or her way through the complex. Many of the outlying buildings — including Clemens’ boyhood home, his father’s justice of the peace office and the home of Huck Finn inspiration Tom Blankenship — don’t have a lot in the way of interactive exhibits. One of the buildings, the “Becky Thatcher House,” is closed until funds for renovations are raised.

As for the town of Hannibal itself — — it reminded me of some southern West Virginia towns whose businesses have been decimated by various economic forces. To be fair, it was out of season for (most) tourists, and several attractions had signs up saying they were closed for the season. With a bunch of people on the street, it might feel completely different.

But the one thing that remains from Clemens’ childhood, the one thing that you can imagine yourself seeing exactly the way he saw it, is the river. We listened to Twain’s “Chapters From My Autobiography” on the way out to Missouri, and one of the hundreds of anecdotes involved young Sam Clemens and a friend clandestinely ice-skating on the frozen Mississippi after dark. Clemens said they were “halfway to Illinois” when they heard the ominous sound of the ice cracking. He and his friend headed back to the Missouri shore, but they had to wait every time the moon went behind a cloud, because they couldn’t see where the ice was still good. Clemens made it back safe, but his friend did not; the boy plunged into the frigid water, fell ill as a result and eventually lost his hearing. It’s a good story on its own, but to hear it and then look out over the Mississippi — man, that is a big river. Halfway across is a long way from land.

Clemens has a familial connection to West Virginia as well. His grandparents, Samuel and Pamela Clements, lived on the banks of the Ohio River in what is now Mason County – although I seem to remember there’s some dispute over the particulars of that history. But there’s a highway historical marker, so it must be true, right?

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Former president Bill Clinton (left) is introduced by U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Pa., at a campaign rally for President Obama in Pittsburgh on Monday. AP Photo by Gene J. Puskar

Did you hear about the time a former president of the United States almost came to the West Virginia Book Festival?

If not, Election Day seems like a good time to tell the story. (I wasn’t there for this bit of Book Festival history, but I heard the story several times afterward, including from one of the direct participants, so I’ve got the gist right. If not, I’m sure someone will correct me.)

It was Saturday, Oct. 13, 2007, the first day of the festival. It was also the day of the state Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner and fundraiser. The two events often coincide, but don’t clash, because the JJ Dinner is in the evening at the Marriott.

That year, though, West Virginia Democrats hooked a big fish: former president Bill Clinton. They broke all kinds of records with their ticket sales (surpassing that first-term Illinois senator who was here the previous year; whatever happened to him?).

So expecting a crowd of several thousand, the Democrats moved their event to the Civic Center, home of the Book Festival. Things were a little crowded, and as I recall, the festival got some spillover crowd from early arrivals to the Clinton event. The backstage rooms and hallways were also set up differently to accommodate the 42nd president.

Late Saturday afternoon, Secret Service agents asked Book Festival workers and attendees in a few rooms to stay where they were as the former president made his way through the hallways of the arena. Everyone agreed, and the Secret Service set up curtains along the route that Clinton was to take.

After a while, a few Book Festival workers heard approaching footsteps. I don’t know if they heard that familiar Arkansas drawl, but they knew who it was, and it was too much for one of them.

As the footsteps were nearby, she yelled (or at least said audibly), “Yay, Bill!”

The footsteps stopped. The curtains flew open.

In his best Elvis style, Bill Clinton said, “Hello, ladies.”

I gather the reaction, although enthusiastic, was more restrained than, say, a Beatles show in 1964. Clinton walked around and shook everyone’s hand. One of the workers asked if he was coming, or wanted to come, to the Book Festival.

Clinton sighed, and said, “I wish I were going to the Book Festival.”

And then he was gone, whisked off to his fundraiser.

Bud Perry and “Reopening Glen Rogers”

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Bud Perry was one of the first people I met when I came to the Gazette more than 15 years ago. He was a copy editor by that time, but he’d been many other things during his decades-long newspaper career in Charleston, Huntington and Beckley. He covered Ohio State sports as a reporter for the Herald-Dispatch, was a television analyst for Marshall University sports and received the key to the city from the Huntington mayor.

He was also an author: Bud and his friend, longtime state Senate assistant clerk Karl Lilly, wrote “Reopening Glen Rogers,” a history of the Wyoming County coal town where they grew up, in 1997. Every little West Virginia town should be so lucky, as to have a book like this written about it. The book’s opening paragraph captures the informal tone that Bud and Karl carried throughout:

If you were to attempt the seemingly insurmountable task of building a massive and complex industrial facility in one of the most remote hollow in all of Appalachia, a good name for the place would be Glen Rogers.

Former Gazette reporter Bob Schwarz wrote about the book when it came out:

Their book traces the rise and fall of a Wyoming County coal town, starting with the development of the mine in a remote hollow beginning in 1919. The town of Glen Rogers grew up around that mine, and soon a high school, too. Nine years after a bigger high school opened in 1951, the mine closed, and then 32 years after that, in 1992, the high school closed as well.

The authors, sons of miners themselves – their fathers later became Baptist pastors – grew up in Glen Rogers and went to high school there. They gathered their material through interviews and archival research. Lilly says he sifted through tens of thousands of pieces of paper, some of it in cardboard cartons.

The book devotes one major chapter to the mine’s longtime superintendent Joseph Wesley Marland, and another to his son Bill, who became West Virginia’s governor at 34. The governor, married and the father of four children, later battled alcoholism, drove a taxi in Chicago, and died at 47 of pancreatic cancer.

“Reopening Glen Rogers” also chronicles the deaths – 160 in all – of the people who mined the coal. Twenty-seven men died in an explosion in 1923, but most of the men died in accidents which claimed one life at a time. Few years went by without a death, and the annual toll was often three, four or five.

Among many other subjects in the book, there’s also mention of a huge basketball rivalry in 1962-63 between Glen Rogers High School (Bud’s alma mater) and Conley High School, the traditionally black high school in Wyoming County. Despite the efforts of a senior named “Buddy Perry” in the book, Glen Rogers could only split two games with Conley during the regular season, then lost to Conley again in the playoffs.

I didn’t know, or had forgotten, some of this until I read it over the past couple of days. Bud died on Sunday; he’d been retired for nearly a decade, after heart bypass surgery. He was one of the old-time newspapermen, and I remember a conversation with him not long after I’d moved from the Gazette’s copy desk to the reporting side of the paper. In so many words, he told me he was sorry to see me go. “Not a lot of people get newspapers,” he said. “You get it.”

I have rarely valued a compliment more. Because Bud Perry absolutely got it.