Posts Tagged ‘History’

Roxbury Highlands Tour – August 30 at 2 PM

Join me and several other talented Boston By Foot walking tour guides as we lead a special Tour of the Month of Roxbury Highlands.  The tour begins at 2 pm on Sunday, August 30 at Roxbury Crossing station on the MBTA Orange Line.

Practical vinyl siding side-by-side with full-on restoration to Victorian era.

We start in the Stony Brook valley and work our way uphill and through history to the top of Fort Hill, passing through Roxbury’s colonial town center at Eliot Square along the way.  Learn how Roxbury went from early colonial settlement to strategic military location to bucolic suburb to immigration destination to one of Boston’s densest neighborhoods.  See Roxbury Highlands continue to transform with ongoing restoration and new construction.

Photo of Alvah Kittredge house from 2007, you won’t believe what it looks like now!

The full description of the tour is on the Boston By Foot website where you can also pre-order tickets!

The Roxbury Highlands tour explores a remarkable neighborhood. Our tour travels through the center of colonial Roxbury:  Eliot Square, where the First Church proudly stands as the oldest wooden church in Boston. The Highlands flourished in the mid-19th century as a garden suburb with many pear and apple orchards.  There was even an apple named after the area – the Roxbury Russet.  We will see wonderful Greek Revival and Victorian houses along our route and discuss some of the amazing individuals who called this area home including Edward Everett Hale – author of The Man Without a Country, and Louis Prang – who printed the first Christmas cards in America.   Finally, we finish on top of the hill at the Roxbury Standpipe, in a lovely park which occupies the location of the Roxbury High Fort. Come explore with us!

More photos from the 2007 tour to whet your whistle for Sunday.

Book Review: First Family by Joseph Ellis

Author: Joseph J. Ellis
Title:  First Family
Narrator: Kimberly Farr
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2010), Edition: Unabridged
Previously Read by Same Author: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Summary/Review:

Historian Joseph Ellis explores the relationship of Abigail and John Adams, and how it was effected by the Revolutionary Era, not to mention the effect they had on fomenting revolution.  The main source for this history is their voluminous correspondence which shows that they saw one another as intellectual equals discussing the issues of the day, but also demonstrated a romantic attachment.  While Abigail is the more grounded of the two balancing John’s fiery personality, there are instances where Abigail seems more extreme, such as her support of going to war with France during John’s presidency or her approval of the Alien & Sedition Acts.  Since the book relies so heavily on correspondence, there is more material for the times that they were apart than when they were together and obviously not writing one another.  For the later years after John’s presidency, Ellis relies on the pair’s correspondence with other individuals (including the famed letters to and from Thomas Jefferson), but it loses the intimacy of the earlier parts of the book.  Ellis may have done better to pare the book down just to the years where correspondence between Abigail and John exists rather than attempt the story of their entire lives, but that’s a minor quibble.  This book paints a human portrait of the “venerable” couple from the time of the nation’s birth.
Recommended books: John Adams by David McCullough and Revolutionaries by Jack Rakove.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Author: Erik Larson
TitleIn the Garden of the Beast
Narrator: Stephen Hoye
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio : Books on Tape, p2011.
Books Read by Same AuthorThe Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm

Summary/Review:

This history and biography book explores the rise of the Third Reich from the perspective of one American family.  Specifically that is the family of William E. Dodd, appointed to be ambassador to Germany by Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Dodd and his adult daughter Martha are the main characters of the book.  Dodd initially is supportive of Hitler and shares in some antisemitic beliefs.  Martha, recently separated from her husband, enjoys the social life of Berlin and liaisons with several men including Soviet intelligence operative Boris Vinogradov.  Over time the Dodd’s became more aware of the violence and oppression of the Nazi state, and the ambassador begins to become more vocal in calling on the United States to oppose Hitler’s regime (which in isolationist America proves to be an unpopular stance).  This is an uncomfortable book to read.  The Dodd’s are not very likable people, but then they’re contrasted with Nazis.  No one comes off looking good.  Still this is an interesting glimpse into a troubling time in history.
Rating: ***

Retropost: Let it Snow x 3

With another foot of snow falling on Boston today, I thought I’d dig up this old post from 2008 about winter songs.  Sometimes you need to sing to keep from crying.


 

You may not believe it, but I spend inordinate amounts of time surfing the web. One day idly paging through Wikipedia’s list of Number-one hits, I discovered that the song “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow” performed by Vaughn Monroe was the number one song in the USA for five weeks in 1946. This surprised me for two reasons. One, I never thought of this little ditty we sing at Christmas time as hit record material. Two, the song charted in the weeks from January 26 to February 23, well after the Christmas season was over.

Listen to Vaugh Monroe perform “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”

Of course, if you look at the lyrics for “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” as written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne you’ll realize that the song has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. It is merely a love song set in wintertime. I’ve long wondered why so many songs we sing at Christmas time have nothing to do with Christmas at all. “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Marshmallow World,” and perhaps the most ubiquitous “Christmas” carol of all “Jingle Bells.” It’s become a cliche to add the notes of the “Jingle Bells” chorus to the end of a recording of any Christmas song, but there’s nary a mention of Christmas in the lyrics. Couldn’t one enjoy a vigorous sleigh ride through the country in January, February, or even March?

That many popular Christmas songs of the 20th century were written by Jewish songwriters may play a part in the emphasis of winter imagery over baby Jesus and Santa Claus. But I think that at one time people liked to sing songs about the winter. If you think about it, the way these winter songs have been typecast as Christmas carols would be kind of like only playing Gershwin’s “Summertime” on the 4th of July with patriotic songs like “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.”

So I’ve come up with an idea. Now that we are a week past Groundhog’s Day*, why don’t we have a national celebration of wintertime by singing and playing these old classics. It could be an annual tradition every year from February 9-15 to acknowledge that whether the groundhog saw his shadow or not that we can make the best of what remains of winter in a joyous carnival of singing.

Who’s with me?

Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we’ve no place to go
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

* Note: I also have a great carol for Groundhog’s Day.

Book Review: Bunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Author:  Nathaniel Philbrick
TitleBunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution
Publication Info:  Penguin Books; Reprint edition (April 30, 2013)
Other Books by Same Author: Mayflower
Summary/Review:

Another brilliant work of Massachusetts and American history by Philbrick.  Like Mayflower, which was about the first three generations of the Plymouth colony through King Phillip’s War, Bunker Hill is more than it’s title implies.  It covers the period of a little over two years from the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor to the evacuation of Boston by British troops.  While covering historical ground that I’m familiar with, Philbrick has a way of shedding light on people and events in ways I never thought of them before.  One key element of this book is how the Revolution grew not just from political and ideological differences of the Massachusetts’ colonists with the mother country, but with very personal relationships and slights.  The Battle at Breeds Hill is the centerpiece of this book, but it also provides good accounts of Lexington and Concord, the fortification of Dorchester Heights, and the political and military maneuvering before and after this events.  Not to mention the infighting among the Patriots and the Redcoats, as well.  I highly recommend this accessible account of the events and decisions that lead to the American Revolution.
Favorite Passages:

“For Gage, the patriots’ complaints about British tyranny seemed utterly absurd since British law was what allowed them to work so assiduously at preparing themselves for a revolution. Never before (and perhaps since) had the inhabitants of a city under military occupation enjoyed as much freedom as the patriots of Boston.”

“For most Americans, England was an abstraction: a mythical homeland that despite its geographic distance from America remained an almost obsessive part of their daily lives.”

“The irony is that by the time Gage received Dartmouth’s letter, the anger of the ministry, along with that of many Massachusetts patriots, had cooled. If Gage had done nothing that spring, the patriot leaders, already beset by growing discord within their own ranks, would have had even more trouble maintaining a united front. The ministry had played perfectly into the radicals’ hands when Gage finally chose to act on a letter based on information and instructions that were several months old.”

“For many months now, the regulars had endured the taunts and outright maliciousness of not just the Bostonians but also country people just like these. It was the country people who had refused to allow the barracks to be built that might have saved the lives of the soldiers’ comrades and loved ones who were now buried at the edge of Boston Common. For the regulars this was personal, not political. If any of these farmers dared to fire their muskets, a British volley was sure to follow.”

“It’s estimated that approximately half the total deaths that occurred that day (forty-nine for the provincials, sixty-eight for the British) happened in and around Menotomy.”

“Benjamin Russell was the thirteen-year-old student at Boston’s Queen Street School who had followed Percy’s brigade out of Boston. Once in Cambridge he and his classmates had decided to spend the afternoon playing games on the town’s common, only to discover on the evening of April 19 that they were now trapped outside Boston with no way to communicate with their parents. Instead of despairing, they volunteered to serve as errand boys for the officers of the emerging army. Russell would not hear from his parents for another three months.”
“Stark, Prescott, and Putnam were part of the same army, but as far as all three of them were concerned, they were each going to fight this particular battle on their own. With Prescott confined to the redoubt, Putnam preoccupied with building a fortification atop Bunker Hill, and Stark supervising at least the eastern portion of the rail fence, there was no one to synchronize the three of them into a single cohesive unit. Adding to the difficulty of getting these three commanders to work together were preexisting personal animosities. Stark didn’t like Putnam—a feeling that was probably mutual—and as had already been made clear by the interchange about the entrenching tools, Prescott and Putnam didn’t exactly see eye to eye. It also didn’t help that the three of them were from different colonies. At this point a continental army did not yet exist, and in the absence of a unifying “generalissimo,” a quite considerable intercolonial rivalry had developed. General Ward might be the head of the provincial army, but only the soldiers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire were officially a part of that army; Connecticut had not yet formally placed its soldiers under Ward’s control. What had been true in Cambridge a few hours before was true now on the hills overlooking Charlestown: no one seemed to be in charge. But that wasn’t necessarily all bad. There might be, in essence, three different commanders on the American lines, but as far as General Howe was concerned they amounted to a single, very difficult-to-read enemy. In just the last hour he had watched as the provincial fortifications organically evolved in ways of which not even he was entirely aware. Howe wasn’t up against a leader with a plan to implement; he was watching three different leaders try to correct the mistakes of the other two. The workings of this strange amalgam of desperation and internal one-upmanship were baffling and a bit bizarre, but as Howe was about to discover, the end result was surprisingly formidable.”
“As Washington perhaps sensed, the Battle of Bunker Hill had been a watershed. What he didn’t realize was that the battle had convinced the British that they must abandon Boston as soon as possible. Now that the rebellion had turned into a war, the British knew they must mount a full-scale invasion if they had any hope of making the colonists see the error of their ways. Unfortunately, from the British perspective, Boston—hemmed in by highlands and geographically isolated from the colonies to the south—was not the place to launch a knockout punch against the enemy. Rather than become mired in an unproductive stalemate in Boston, the British army had to resume the fighting in a more strategically feasible location—either in New York or even farther to the south in the Carolinas. That was what Gage suggested in his correspondence that summer, and that was what the British ministry decided to do within days of learning of the battle on July 25. But, of course, Washington had no way of knowing what Gage and the ministers in London intended.”
“As had been proven on April 19, the militia, which could be assembled in the proverbial blink of an eye, was the perfect vehicle with which to begin a revolution. But as Joseph Warren had come to realize, an army of militiamen was not built for the long haul. Each company was loyal to its specific town; given time, an army made up of dozens of competing loyalties would tear itself apart—either that, or turn on the civil government that had created it and form a military dictatorship. An army that was to remain loyal to the Continental Congress could not be based on local affiliation.”

Recommended booksAs If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution by Richard Archer, 1776 by David McCullough, A Few Bloody Noses by Robert Harvey, Ye Cohorn Caravan by Wm. L. Bowne, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by Alfred F. Young, and Paul Revere and the World He Lived In by Esther Forbes.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Selma (2014)

TitleSelma
Release Date: 2014
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Co: Cloud Eight Films, Celador Films, Harpo Films, Pathé, Plan B Entertainment
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Biography | Drama | History
Rating: ****

The story of the march from Selma to Montgomery to fight for voting rights for black Americans is dramatized in this excellent biographical film.  The film focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr. after he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) are invited to Selma, AL to help with their campaign to register black voters.  In addition to the conflict with violent police and racist whites, the film captures the tensions between the SCLC and leaders of other groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), tensions within the SCLC leadership, tensions between King and President Lyndon Johnson, and tensions within King’s family.  The brilliant acting in this film draws out how all these competing tensions affected the historic people and their motivations and desires.  I was also impressed with the directing of the film, particularly in the unusual way the camera conversations among individuals.  There has been criticism of this film for not being historically accurate, but while not being the documentary truth of the period of time it depicts, I think it compresses real historical truths for dramatic effect.  For example, while Johnson may not have been has nakedly antagonistic to King’s plans in 1965, it is true that the President had conflicting goals and did not wish to move forward as swiftly as the Movement.  I hope people will go and see this film which is both a work of art and an introduction to an important event in American history.  And once you’ve seen Selma, check out the documentary Eyes on the Prize and the many excellent books about the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Book Review: Dirigible Dreams: The Age of the Airship by C. Michael Hiam

Author: C. Michael Hiam
TitleDirigible Dreams: The Age of the Airship
Publication Info: Lebanon, NH : ForeEdge, 2014.
Summary/Review:

I received this book free through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  Hiam details the history of rigid airships – or dirigibles – from their earliest innovation in that turn of the 20th century through World War II.  Great Britain, France, Italy, the United States, and most of all Germany put a lot of effort into programs to build airships.  Stories of airships used for Arctic exploration, warfare, and commercial travel are related.  Mostly though, dirigibles seemed to be prone to crashing and/or blowing up.  After 40 years of disaster, it’s not a surprise that the airship era came to an end.  They still seem pretty cool though. Hiam’s writing is a bit dry, but the text is lit up by some engaging stories of dirigible dreams and nightmares.

Rating: **

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