Posts Tagged ‘History’

Book Review: A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg

AuthorAmy S. Greenberg
TitleA Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico
Publication Info: Knopf (2012)
ISBN: 9780307592699
Summary/Review:

Like many Americans, I know very little about the Mexican War, which is a shame since what I learned from this one-volume history, we Americans keep repeating the same mistakes our nation made in this war.  Greenberg writes a page-turning narrative starting with the drumbeat for war – ostensibly caused by the United States annexation of the Republic of Texas, but with many American leaders hoping to annex California and other Mexican lands as well.  The United States first war with another republic was one guided by a greed for land and featured many atrocities – pillaging, rape, massacres – by American soldiers against the Mexican populace.  The American troops were able to occupy Mexico City and hardliners desired to annex all the land of Mexico.  But if the Mexican War is overlooked in American history, even more so is the first American anti-war movement prompted by reports from returning soldiers and embedded reporters of the real horror of the war.  In the conclusion of this book, Greenburg documents how the Daughters of the American Revolution grew out of this war, an attempt to reclaim the virtue and glory of the founding war and overshadow the avarice and criminality of the war with Mexico.

A Wicked War is by no means a comprehensive history of the war with Mexico.  Greenburg focuses her narrative on five historical figures.  The first is President James Polk who Greenburg describes as an apprentice of Andrew Jackson, a hard worker determined to meet his goals, and unusual for his time considered his wife Sarah an equal partner in his political career.  While a hard worker, his aims seem less admirable as Polk is depicted as wanting to seize the Southwest by any means and with this expand the slaveholding territory of the United States.   Opposing Polk is anti-slavery and anti-war candidate Henry Clay in his third and last failed campaign for President.  Clay’s son Henry, Jr. would go on to fight and die in the war adding to the elder Clay’s agony at this time.  But he would rally for one more great speech that would inspire the nation’s response to the end and aftermath of the war.

Another featured figure is John J. Hardin, a popular Illinois congressman who went against his fellow Whigs to support the invasion of Mexico and volunteered to fight.  His death at the Battle of Buena Vista became an image of glory for the war supporters even at a time when support for the war was flagging.  Hardin’s death also opened the door for his friend-turned-political rival Abraham Lincoln who was elected to represent their district’s seat in Congress in 1846.  Inspired by Clay, Lincoln would speak out against President Polk and the War in Congress despite the unpopularity of his views among his constituents, who saw to it that he would serve only one term.  The final figure in this book is Nicholas Trist, a diplomat sent by Polk to negotiate the Mexican surrender.  Upon growing familiar with the reality of the war and the conditions of the Mexican people, Trist refused to follow Polk’s instructions and negotiated a fairer deal with Mexico that ceded a smaller amount of territory to the United States.  After negotiation the Treaty of Guadalupe, Trist wrote “My feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than the Mexicans’ could be.”

I found this historical work very compelling and a good introduction to a bad war.

Rating: ****

Worst Night of the Year Won’t Go Away

Believe it or not it’s been three years since I posted how much I hate Daylight Saving Time, and particularly the night in which we must “spring forward” the clock 1 hour.  I’m not looking forward to waking up tomorrow and dragging myself through the day.

I’ve nothing new to write, but here are my previous four posts on the topic:

EDIT ON MONDAY:  Here’s something that might make me wonder.  How about instead of having the time change occur on a weekend in the middle of the night, why not have the time change on a Monday afternoon.  That’s right, at 1 pm on Monday afternoon everyone sets their clocks ahead to 2 pm.  A shorter workday for everyone once a year!  And yes, employers, you still pay your hourly workers for an 8-hour day.

 

 

Book Review: Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston by Michael Rawson

Author: Michael Rawson
Title: Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston
Publication Info: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, c2010.
ISBN: 9780674048416
Summary/Review:

This wonderfully researched and well-written history, explores the making of Boston by focusing on the social and environmental factors that shaped the city, its human ecology.  There are five sections of the book:

1. Enclosing the Common – the effort of prosperous Bostonians to enclose Boston Common, changing it from a place of work (pasturing cows and digging up turf) to a place of recreation.

2. Constructing water – the contentious development of a public waterworks, a means by which reformers hoped to improve both the health and morality of the populace, but a process that also forever changed the role of municipal government.

3. Inventing the suburbs – people move from the city, seeking pastoral cities and escape taxation, but they also miss the public works that the city provides.  Some suburbs are annexed by Boston (willingly or otherwise) while some become cities in their own right.

4. Making the harbor – the modern Boston Harbor is human-made not natural, and the processes of landmaking, dredging, damming, et al that modified it so much were a contentious issue in the 19th century when many mariners thought the harbor would be lost with natural water movement.

5. Recreating the wilderness – suburban green spaces such as the Middlesex Fells and the Blue Hills are created as a connection to the colonial forbears and the lost wilderness.

This book is a terrific means of grasping the process of urbanism for modern cities and a unique approach to the history of Boston. It pairs well with Walter Muir Whitehill’s classic Boston: A Topographical History.
Favorite Passages:

“What made that agenda so contentious was that reformers wanted to expand the role of government to achieve it.  Since government had never played a serious role in structuring how Bostonians interacted with their water supply, transferring responsibility for finding adequate water from the individual to the city seemed to some like a radical and potentially dangerous move.  Instead, early experiments in municipal water like Boston’s would prove to be the leading edge of a wave of change in municipal government.  As the century progressed, cities would expand their power to fund larger public works, often through borrowing, and they would pay the cost through general taxes rather than special assessments.  Event the cost of smaller projects that did not require bond issues would increasingly be spread out among all residents of a city.  Public water would encourage urban residents, in Boston and elsewhere, to expand their vision of the public good.” – p. 104

“The Fells and Blue Hills were designed to store information about colonial people and events and prompt visitors to recall the collected stories.  The existence of such places implies a relationship of permanence, lest the memories disappear with the monument…” – p. 269

Recommended books: Boston: A Topographical History by Walter Muir Whitehill, A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 by Stephen Puleo, Boston’s Back Bay by William Newman & Wilferd E. Holton and Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston by Nancy S. Seasholes
Rating: ****

Book Review: Fighting Traffic by Peter D. Norton

Author: Peter D. Norton
TitleFighting traffic : the dawn of the motor age in the American city
Publication Info: Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c2008.
ISBN: 9780262141000
Summary/Review:

Everyone knows that city streets are for cars and that anyone else seeking to access the street needs to follow the rules so as not to cause traffic congestion.  Except that it hasn’t always been this way.  Fighting Traffic documents a time when the automobile was an intruder on the shared public space of the city street, and one depicted as a menace due to speeding, reckless driving, and the killer of innocents.  During the 1920s, motorist clubs, automakers, safety councils, and the newly created field of traffic engineers changed the paradigm to make the street the through-way for motor vehicles with the emphasis on as few interruptions as possible.  The  book is academic in tone, and a bit repetitive in accumulating evidence for its thesis, but it is an interesting look at a moment in time when basic assumptions shifted as well as a means of questioning the basic assumptions we have about cities and cars today.

Favorite Passages:

“Beneath the grief and anger of many safety reformers lay an old assumption: city streets, like city parks, were public spaces.  Anyone could use them provided they did not unduly annoy or endanger others.  Under this construction of the city street, even children at play could be legitimate street users, and even careful motorists were under suspicion.  In the 1920s, however, the pressure of traffic casualties divided old allies.  Some renewed their resolve to compel motorists to conform to the customs of the street as it had been, especially by limiting their speed.  Others, more pragmatic, wanted to save lives by giving pedestrians more responsibility for their own safety.  Finally, some newcomers proposed a more radical social reconstruction of the street as a motor thoroughfare, confining pedestrians to crossings and sidewalks.”  – p. 64

“The dawn of the motor age has something to tell us about power.  Like money, power is a medium of exchange between social groups. Because it comes in many currencies, it is hard to measure by any one standard. Motordom had substantial and growing financial wealth.  By the mid 1920s it was organized enough to dispense this wealth to promote a social reconstruction of the street, through a well-funded rhetorical campaign and through gasoline taxes linked to road construction.  By then it was also exercising direct political power, especially through its influence in the Commerce Department.  But drivers themselves exercised power every time they traveled at speed in the streets, resorting to the horn instead of the brake to proceed.  This exercise of power drove pedestrians from the streets and sometimes barred them from access to streets, even at designated crossings.  Horsepower gave motorists a literal, physical form of momentum that collided with the social momentum of old constructions of the street, changing their trajectories.” – p. 259

Recommended books: Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back by Jane Holtz Kay, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt and Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Hit By Pitch by Molly Lawless

Author: Molly Lawless
Title: Hit By Pitch
Publication Info:  Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland & Co., 2012.
ISBN: 9780786446094

Summary/Review: 

I was fortunate enough to receive a free copy of this work through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

This graphic novel tells the true life story of the only baseball player to die from an injury on the field, Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians, who was beaned in the head by a pitch from the New York Yankees’ Carl Mays in a 1920 ballgame in New York’s Polo Ground.  Lawless finds some common history among the two men both born in Kentucky in the same year building up their parallel stories leading to the fateful fastball in a similar fashion to Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain.”  Chapman is charismatic and popular with his teammates and fans while Mays is an outsider who is not well-liked setting up the perfect hero and villain scenario.  Yet, Lawless makes sure to give Mays his fair due.  Lawless details the incident and its aftermath with grim and fascinating details.  For example, did you know that Mays and Yankees’ first baseman Wally Pipp fielded the ball that bounced off Chapman’s head thinking that it was a bunt?  This is a great work of baseball history as well as the graphic arts.

Rating: ****

Recommended BooksThe Glory of Their Times : The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It by Lawrence S. Ritter, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover, and Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudson by Mark Siegel.

Open Streets on the Avenue of the Arts: Circle the City

Bostonians enjoyed easy access for walking, biking, skating, playing and more on the outbound lanes of Huntington Avenue on Sunday, July 14th thanks to the Circle the City Open Streets program.  Thanks to Walk Boston, I was able to participate in the event reviving my Boston By Foot Avenue of the Arts walking tour.  A small but curious group joined me on the 90 minute walk from the Christian Science Center to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

After the tour, I met up with my wife and kids to take in more of the activities.  My son Peter was drawn to the Super Soccer Stars activities at Northeastern University and happily played soccer with the coaches and rotating cast of children for about three hours.  I had little trouble convincing my daughter Kay to be my copilot on a bike ride up and down the Avenue of the Arts.  We enjoyed the Boston Cyclist Union’s demonstration cycle tracks, listened to a drum circle, watched dancers, heard a loud synthpop duo, rode alongside marching bands, and got high fives from passersby.

Despite scorching hot weather, it was a fun day out for all the family and something I’d love to see more often.  Before I get to the photos, I have two quick, mild criticisms.  First, the map and program didn’t seem to have enough helpful detail about the types of activities going on or even a good sense of where to find some things (for example, I think my tour may have had more people if they had a better sense of what it was and where to meet, but I also had this feeling looking for other activities).  Second, the stretch of Huntington from Ruggles to Brigham Circle felt like the activity tents were spaced far apart.  It’s also a less shady part of the road, unfortunately.  It didn’t seem too welcoming to pedestrian activity and I didn’t see many people walking here.  Maybe the activities should be grouped together more closely to lend it a better street festival vibe?

 

Cross-posted at my Boston Bike Commuter blog.

July 14th: Open Streets on the Avenue of the Arts

This Sunday, July 14, 2013, Circle the City and The Fenway Alliance present Open Streets on the Avenue of the Arts.  From 11am – 4pm, Huntington Avenue will be closed to motor vehicles and open for fitness, yoga, bikes, dance, arts, kids activities, and walking tours AND MUCH MORE.

postal

 

I’m particularly excited about this event because thanks to Walk Boston I’ve been invited to reprise my Boston By Foot walking tour of the Avenue of the Arts.  Imagine a walking tour where we can step safely out into the street to take in new perspectives on the architecture and history of the institutions that line the avenue!  And the best part is that the tour is free.  If you are interested in learning more about the cultural institutions on Huntington Avenue, this is the day to do it.

As we walk along this cultural corridor we’ll explore the history of Huntington Avenue and learn about:

  • landmarks created by two of the most remarkable women in Boston’s history: Mary Baker Eddy and Isabella Stewart Gardner
  • not one but two acoustically perfect concert halls
  • not one but two historical figures named Eben
  • the oldest artificial ice sporting arena in the world
  • Boston’s lost opera house
  • the many innovations and contributions of the YMCA
  • the site of the first World Series game
  • expansion and development at Northeastern University, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
  • and much, much more

Meet at the Christian Science Center plaza on Massachusetts Avenue at 11 am for the 90 minute tour.  And leave time to make a day of it because there will be plenty more activities to enjoy on our Open Streets!

 

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