West Virginia Book Festival

Reading about Paris on Bastille Day

Republican Guards ride past the Arc de Triomphe during the traditional Bastille Day parade in Paris on Thursday. France celebrated its annual Bastille Day celebrations on Thursday with a traditional military parade along the Champs-Elysees. AP photo

Today is Bastille Day, the French national holiday, which celebrates the 1789 storming of the notorious prison in Paris. If you want to celebrate Bastille Day (and who doesn’t want that?), you could do worse than pick up “Parisians,” Graham Robb’s somewhat unorthodox history of the City of Light.

Robb presents the last couple of centuries in Paris as a series of vignettes, starting with Napoleon’s first night in Paris and coming through the present day. Rather than a straight telling, Robb presents slices of life and history, each from a separate point of view. As he says in his introduction:

A single viewpoint would have turned these representative adventures into a scripted tour. Narrative devices and perspectives were naturally suggested by a place, a historic moment or a personality. Each tale was written with the flavour of the time in mind; it demanded its own explanation and imposed its own forms of courtesy to the past.

Robb uses this technique to approach some well-known eras from a new perspective. The chapter on famed author Emile Zola focuses on his wife, Alexandrine. After Paris fell to the Nazis in World War II, Hitler’s first visit is seen not through his eyes, but those of his hand-picked sculptor, Arno Breker.

Later in the book, I found a couple of his storytelling devices a little labored. The chapter on Sartre and the existentialists, featuring actress and singer Juliette Greco, is written as a movie script. And the chapter on the student riots of the late 1960s is presented as an academic outline, with study questions at the end, which I couldn’t get into at all.

But overall, “Parisians” is an interesting new way to look at the city — and when a city’s been looked at as much as Paris, new isn’t easy to find.

The other side of the American Revolution

Early in the American Revolution, there were as many as 440,000 people in the colonies who were loyal to England and King George III, out of a population numbering at least 2.2 million. Of course, an accurate number is impossible to know. There was no census in those days. The papers, letters, diaries and other records of people who failed to side with the rebels are scattered and destroyed.

Two recent books explore what happened to these — what do you call them?

In “Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War,” author Thomas B. Allen summarizes the whole conflict by explaining the names used to describe people in various parts of the dispute.

Tory and Whig were political labels. Whig eventually disappeared, but Tory morphed into an epithet for people who sided with Great Britain.

“Patriot” is clear, right? No, many loyalists considered themselves patriots, but to Britain. Allen objects to describing people in the American colonies as “colonials” after they start calling themselves Americans. And some people called themselves Americans, but still supported King George.

“Tories,” and another recent book, “Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World” by Maya Jasanoff, remind us that a revolution isn’t a revolution until the upstarts win. In the eyes of British loyalists in the colonies and the British government in London, American colonists were in rebellion. Another term for that is civil war.

Allen describes acts of cruelty and torture that rebel patriots inflicted on people they knew or suspected to be loyalist sympathizers. A standard practice was covering people in hot, blistering tar, then rolling them in feathers. Rebels seized property and killed their former neighbors. They chanted and taunted with phrases such as:

“Tories with their brats and wives should fly to save their wretched lives.”

Many did flee. Those with means went to England or India. But most had no safe place to fly to. Or they believed they were in the majority and that defeating the British empire was not possible. They stayed to protect the only homes they had known for generations and their farms and shops that they had worked hard to build. They  fought outright in about 200 military units. They spied, sabotaged and supplied British troops. Many just tried to mind their own business and their own crops and not get involved.

But as the rebellion wore on, life became more difficult for loyalists. After the British captured New York, thousands of loyalists fled there for safety. Others went to East Florida and gathered in port cities on the southern coast. After the British lost the war, thousands of people had to flee. Clergy and others returned to England, only to find they were not particularly wanted. There were no places for them. The church wanted them posted in colonies. Bakers, innkeepers and other merchant-class refugees went to other parts of the British empire.

In the treaty that ended the war, East Florida went to Spain, so people who had started over there had to pick up and move again. They went to Bermuda and Jamaica. More loyalists fled to Canada and Nova Scotia. Some were dropped off on pristine shores with military rations, some lumber and supplies and left to start over. More evacuees left from Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.

Jasanoff, an associate professor of history at Harvard University, tells much of  the story through various families. Her book includes reproductions of rare drawings of loyalist settlements in Johnstown and Shelburne in Canada.

Even sophisticated students of history can lose sight of the complexities of the American colonies at the beginning of our nation. When we look at contemporary civil wars, it’s obvious that there are more than two sides. People hold a range of opinions and feelings. Factions fight with each other. These two books are good reminders of those same nuances in a civil war more than 200 years ago — one that we often forget was a civil war.

Video of the Week: David McCullough

I’ve said before on the blog that David McCullough’s speech in Charleston nearly a decade ago was one of the better ones I’ve heard. So for a Video of the Week on this Independence Day weekend, why not have the author of “John Adams,” “Truman” and “1776” talking about his love of history?

Smithsonian founder, shrouded in mystery

James Smithson. Portrait from the Smithsonian Institution archives.

According to the blog at Smithsonian magazine, James Smithson, the eventual founder of the Smithsonian Institution, died on this date in 1829.

The story of the Smithsonian is a bizarre one. Smithson was a British gentleman-scientist who never visited the United States. He left his wealth — and there was a lot to leave — to his nephew, but said that if his nephew died with no heirs, the money was to be used by the U.S. to create something to promote knowledge, and to be called the Smithsonian Institution.

Many of Smithson’s papers were destroyed in an 1865 fire, leaving him shrouded in mystery. A few years ago, a biography, “The Lost World of James Smithson,” by Heather Ewing, came out. Blog contributor Dawn Miller reviewed it for the Gazette at the time, and that review is below:

The oldest building of the Smithsonian Institution is known as the Castle, for its 12th-century-looking turrets and crenellated rooftop. In the early days of the Smithsonian, that red sandstone building contained the whole collection. Today, it is part visitors center, part table of contents for the sprawling network of museums and galleries, and part shrine.

In the castle’s foyer lie the remains of James Smithson, an English gentleman who never visited the United States, but who bequeathed his fortune to the new nation for the establishment of an institute to bear his name “for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”

Every year, thousands of self-respecting schoolchildren visiting Washington, D.C., hurry past his ornate, Victorian crypt, looking for the mummies, the dinosaur skeleton, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Hope Diamond. But who is that guy in the sarcophagus — illegitimate child of Hugh Smithson, first Duke of Northumberland, mineralogist and contemporary of Ben Franklin and Joseph Priestley?

Continue reading…

Dispatches from the Civil War

I know Ken Hechler is … well, he’s been around a long time. But it was still stunning this weekend to read that his grandfather — not his great-grandfather, but his father’s father — enlisted to fight in the Civil War, when he was 20 years old.

Wow. I mean, my grandfather was in World War II, and that was a long time ago. And that was more than 80 years after Hechler’s grandfather signed up for his war.

That struck me when I was reading Rick Steelhammer’s story about Ken Hechler (former congressman and secretary of state, and 2010 West Virginia Book Festival presenter); his grandfather, George Hechler; and the letters George Hechler wrote to his sister while he was serving in the Union Army. Those letters have been published in a new book, “Soldier of the Union.”

From Rick’s story:

In September of 1861, 20-year-old George Hechler left his family’s farm, crossed the Ohio River and enlisted in the 36th Ohio Volunteer Infantry at its encampment in Parkersburg.

For the next four years, the German-born enlistee took part in some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. His vivid descriptions of a soldier’s life, captured in letters to his favorite sister, Kate, form the backbone of “Soldier of the Union,” a new book published by Pictorial Histories Publishing Co. of Charleston.

“My grandfather willed the letters to my dad, and he willed them to me,” said former congressman and secretary of state Ken Hechler, George Hechler’s grandson. …

“This book contains a very complete set of everything my grandfather wrote about his experiences in the military, from the time he enlisted in Parkersburg to when he was discharged in Wheeling.”


Video of the Week: Pearl S. Buck

This weekend is the birthday of West Virginia’s only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

If you don’t know that I’m talking about Pearl S. Buck … well, you didn’t go to grade school in this state. Everybody here learns about Pearl Buck –born in 1892 in Hillsboro, Pocahontas County; moved to China with her missionary parents and spent much of her first few decades there; won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Good Earth,” a novel about life in a Chinese village; followed that a few years later with the 1938 Nobel Prize.

So for a Video of the Week, I found Peter Conn talking about his 1997 work, “Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography,” at the Philadelphia Art Alliance.The book got great reviews; it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle biography award, and the Los Angeles Times said, “Conn examines almost every piece of work Buck ever wrote and explains why it’s important today … [he] has gone far beyond merely touting Buck’s literary merits to portray a consistent, believable and immensely fascinating woman. This is biography at its best: informative and entertaining …”

The Conn video is an old C-SPAN video, before they branded their weekend book programming as Book TV, and you’ll have to go to their website to see it.

If you want to learn more about Pearl Buck, besides Conn’s biography, you can also check out “Between Two Worlds: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck” by (West Virginia author) Edwina Pendarvis and Christina St. Clair, or you can visit the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace in Hillsboro. They’re having a celebration there at 4 p.m. on Saturday, and a “special tour” on Sunday, Pearl Buck’s 119th birthday.

“A Nickel and A Prayer” by Jane Edna Hunter. Edited by Rhondda Robinson Thomas. Part of the series “Regenerations: African American Literature and Culture.” West Virginia University Press.

If you are interested in the history of our nation and the resourcefulness and positive actions of African Americans, I recommend the new and annotated version of “A Nickel and a Prayer” the autobiography of social activist Jane Edna Hunter (1882-1971). First published in 1940, the book’s current edition was edited by Rhondda Robinson Thomas, an assistant English professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. The reissue by WVU Press provides an opportunity for Hunter’s remarkable vision and accomplishments to be appreciated by a larger audience.

Born on a plantation, the daughter of a former South Carolina slave, Hunter’s childhood was spent doing sharecropper field work. Despite poverty, discrimination, and lack of access to employment or an education, she became a “trained nurse” in 1905 and followed the job market to Cleveland.

During the Great Northern Migration, as the time is called, African Americans were recruited for jobs in northern industrial areas. In many cities, housing for African Americans was often in slum-like neighborhoods and highly undesirable. Naïve rural women were at the mercy of landlord and pimps.

As Hunter searched for a place to live, she saw job-hunting young women recruited as prostitutes. Sickened by her surroundings, she enlisted friends and church members to join together in prayer and discuss the work and housing issues.  She suggested they begin donating, a nickel at a time, to establish a safe haven and educational supervision for the newcomers.

Jane Edna Hunter

What began as a rescue effort for a few women evolved into a very large house accommodating 22 women. The structure grew to a nine-story YWCA-like structure with 135 rooms overseen by Hunter and an interracial coalition. The effort grew to include job training and recreation, guided by the nickels and the prayers, along with Hunter’s firm management, vision and skills at raising money.

By 1925, this daughter of a share-cropping former slave held a degree from Baldwin-Wallace Law School and was a member of the Ohio Bar. Her activist work led to collaboration with noted educators Booker T. Washington and Mary McCloud Bethune, as well as key figures from many walks of life. She received honors and honorary degrees, including a master of science from Tuskegee (1938).  Perhaps more importantly, she saw her model for housing, training, and recreation replicated in nine other locations.

During a crisis in her organization — and there were many — Hunter wrote her friend Bethune asking for a copy of a poem she had seen framed in Bethune’s home, “Keep-A-Goin’!” This poem by Frank L. Stanton has the same name and may be the poem the two women so admired. Here are some lines from the last stanza. They seem pertinent:

When it looks like all is up,


It concludes:

See the wild birds on the wing,

Hear the bells that sweetly ring,

When you feel like sighin’, sing,


Hunter obviously took the words to heart. Her life was one of struggle. She was not born into material wealth, she was not a member of the upper class, and no one financed her way through a prestigious university. She educated herself and initiated her humanitarian project with no outside financing and no important connections. In an era of civil unrest and rampant racial discrimination, she took the high road and kept a goin’.

“The Western Waters: Early Settlers of Eastern Barbour County, West Virginia,” by Violet Gadd Coonts, assisted by Gilbert Gray Coonts and Harold Cart Gadd. Published by Stephen P. Coonts, Denver, Colorado, 1991.  314 pages.

West Virginia celebrates its official birthday (its 148th) on Monday. This significant historical time of year results in an influx of visitors, many of whom come in search of their roots.

Researching our nation’s or our own family’s history can be a complicated and fascinating project, especially if your search deals with ancestors who settled in the mountains of Virginia during the 1700s.  This section of (then) Augusta County, Virginia, was the West; difficult to reach and dangerous to inhabit, it had near mythical names: “the western waters” is a beautiful example.

In 1863, approximately one-third of the state of Virginia chose not to secede from the United States and the new state of West Virginia became a reality.  As a result, Virginia’s and West Virginia’s churches, villages, towns, cemeteries, Census records, addresses, and county histories hold positions of extreme importance in West Virginia state or family research.

To navigate this maze, it helps to rely on the work of competent historians such as native West Virginian Violet Gadd Coonts (1913-2007).  Her work, “The Western Waters: Early Settlers of Eastern Barbour County,” published by her son, author Stephen P. Coonts, and now in reprint, shed light on an interesting section of this interesting state.

The paperback edition’s (2008) cover art, the work of Ms. Coonts, an extremely talented and self-taught artist, is a peaceful rendition of a mountain valley stream. The text’s 442 pages include well documented facts, maps and illustrations and describe the origins of the state.

Coonts shows the composition and frequent division of areas such as Barbour and Randolph County.  She explains the issuing of land patents as payment to Revolutionary War Veterans, discusses the frequent misspelling of and/or changing of surnames, and lists settlers by name, many of whom still have descendants living on the land. The text also includes information, regarding the stages of the area’s settlement and the Census record of the numbers of slaves owned by area residents.

The inclusion of slavery statistics, or mention of the existence of slaves, is not common in county accounts. These, and the book’s appendices, notes, and explanatory comments, are an added plus in this interesting well-written work. “The Western Waters” is a valuable tool for both personal and public libraries and is available at internet sites including the well known Parsons, W.Va. firm of McClain Printing.  (An informative article on West Virginia’s statehood is available here.)


Autographed first editions of "The Good Earth" by Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck, and Newbery Medal winner "Carry On, Mr. Bowditch" by Jean Lee Latham, highlight the literary collection donated by Phyllis and Jim Moore to the Gabor Folklife Center this week. Photo courtesy Fairmont State University

We told you earlier this week that (blog contributor) Phyllis Wilson Moore and her husband, Jim, were making a substantial literary donation to the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center and Fairmont State University. On Thursday, the Moores were feted for their donation.

Some highlights, via a news release from Fairmont State:

Jim and Phyllis Moore

Phyllis: “With all of the effort we put into this collection over the years, Jim and I really wanted to find it a suitable home. We just clicked with [Folklife Center Director] Dr. Judy Byers. Establishing that relationship made us realize the stewardship that Fairmont State University could provide, and we decided that FSU would be the ideal place for our collection.”

Maria Rose, Fairmont State’s interim president: “Fairmont State is honored to accept and maintain this important collection of West Virginia literature, research and archives. We appreciate the Moores for their diligence and dedication to preserve and promote this part of West Virginia’s culture and heritage, and we are glad to have them as part of the Fairmont State family.”

Judy P. Byers, Folklife Center director: “The Moore West Virginia Literary Collection is a valuable gift that will aid future literary scholarship. We thank them for being the caretakers of West Virginia literature for so many years and to now share their collection with a wider audience.”

Phyllis and Jim Moore, book philanthropists

The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center. Photo from the center's website.

One of the best things about working on this blog over the past 15 months or so is getting to work with people in West Virginia who love books and reading, but whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise.

Phyllis Wilson Moore, one of our regular contributors, is certainly at the top of that list. Her knowledge of West Virginia literature dwarfs mine; not surprising, since she’s studied it for decades — and now, students of state literature will benefit from that research.

Phyllis and her husband, Jim, are giving the “Moore West Virginia Literary Collection” to the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center. The center, at Fairmont State University and Pierpont Community & Technical College, “is dedicated to the identification, preservation and perpetuation of our region’s rich cultural heritage, through academic studies, educational programs, festivals and performances and publications.

A ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at the Folklife Center. From a news release from Fairmont State:

Jim and Phyllis Moore have many ties to Fairmont State. Jim Moore’s father, grandfather and mother are graduates of Fairmont Normal School. Jim and Phyllis Moore met while they were both students at Fairmont State College.

What began as a hobby mushroomed into a major research project. In 1985, Phyllis Moore began to study the multicultural literary history of West Virginia. Fairmont State faculty members supported her in this endeavor, and an informal collaboration developed with Dr. Judy P. Byers. Jim and Phyllis Moore worked together on the decades-long project. Phyllis Moore identified and reviewed the literature, surveyed and interviewed authors, obtained materials and memorabilia, visited sites and developed programs. Jim Moore served as computer specialist and creator of PowerPoint presentations, created posters and bookmarks, was a photographer and a chauffeur.

Phyllis Moore also served as project director for the West Virginia Literary Map, which was released in 2005 and illustrates West Virginia’s literary mile markers and related sites.

The personal literary collection of James and Phyllis Wilson Moore that will be donated to the Folklife Center focuses on the literature included on the literary map, but it also includes a broad range of nonfiction related to the history of the state, the Civil War, minor poets and African-American authors. The collection features books, archives, photographs, personal interviews with authors, correspondence and other related research and scholarship.

Following are just a few of the items included in the collection:

| An autographed copy of “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck, who was born in Pocahontas County.

| “Jamie Lemme See” (1975) by Juliette Ann Holley of Bramwell, which is considered the state’s first published children’s book with an African-American protagonist in a coal mining family.

| An undated copy of Morgantown High School’s Journalism Department’s “Peacepipe Passages,” including an essay by (then) student Lawrence “Larry” Kasdan, who graduated in 1966. His career led him to Hollywood fame related to writing and directing some of the “Star Wars” series and much more.

| “A Vein of Riches” by Fairmont’s John Knowles, which is set in Fairmont and Marion County and is a first edition.

In recognition of its importance to the preservation and perpetuation of West Virginia literature, history and culture, the collection will be protected, catalogued and eventually made accessible for use by the general public.