Liars, Outlaws, and Mandatory Fun

We’re in our second week of a heat wave here in the St. Louis area, the kind that pushes the heat index well over 1oo degree Fahrenheit and keeps us all stuck inside and miserable. We’re fortunate to have air conditioning and lots of fun places to escape the heat, but one day last week, it wasn’t enough.

It was one of those rare days when neither of my children had plans with friends and both were bored and cranky. We needed to get out of the house, to someplace else cool, obviously, but the struggle of agreeing on a destination proved too much. Finally I’d had enough. I decreed that we would have a “Mom’s Choice Mandatory Fun Adventure Day,” marched them to the car, and refused to tell them where we were going.

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For some reason once we hit I-44 it didn’t take the kids long to figure out where we were going. photo credit: el-toro Meramec Caverns Barn Ad via photopin (license)

Then I drove them an hour through winding back roads over to Interstate 44, to Meramec Caverns, the most widely toured cave in Missouri and where it’s always a crisp 60 degrees. If you’ve ever driven along I-44, you’ve seen the billboards. A lot of them. And a few painted barn roofs, too. Many of them identify Meramec Caverns as the one-time hideout for Missouri’s most infamous train and bank robber Jesse James and his gang. Sounds to me like a great place to get away and hide out from the heat for a while.

The story, as shared in complete earnest by our highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide goes something like this: Because the cave was a good source of saltpeter (or potassium nitrate), which was necessary for producing gunpowder, The Union Army used the cave as a munitions factory during the American Civil War until a group of Confederate guerrillas blew it up and put it out of business. Among those guerillas were the James brothers, Jesse and Frank.

Then in the mid to late 1860s, when the brothers began their crime spree, they remembered the cave and returned to use it as their hideout. It was a good one, too, because on at least one occasion a pursuing sheriff figured out their hiding spot, stood guard at the entrance, and waited to starve the criminals out. The man waited for three days before creeping further into the cave to discover a second exit through chilly 40 degree water that feeds into the Meramec River.

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Jesse and Frank James welcoming visitors to their alleged super secret cave hideout. photo credit: Jinx! Meramec Caverns via photopin (license)

It’s just the right kind of story to capture the attention a couple of squirrely boys who have been forced into an afternoon of cave adventure fun. The story continues to capture the imaginations of around 150,000 cave visitors per year, and countless others who drive along I-44, wondering whether they should stop.

So I suppose it’s probably not a huge surprise that it isn’t likely true. I mean, yes, the cave, which explorers originally named Saltpeter Cave, did serve as a mine and munitions factory for the Union Army, and it was attacked by Confederate Guerillas. There’s even a chance Jesse and Frank James were among the soldiers responsible. But there’s really no reliable evidence that the brothers ever returned to the cave. In fact, it seems unlikely that they did.

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You’d think it might be obvious that’s where Jesse was hiding out, what with the neon sign and all. photo credit: Jinx! Jesse James Hideout in Neon! via photopin (license)

The “proof” of the story comes from Lester Benton Dill, the man responsible for developing the renamed Meramec Caverns into a tourist destination. Soon after purchasing the cave, Dill began to expand its accessible parts, which led in 1941 to the discovery of a room beyond a crevice normally underwater, but slightly exposed during times of extreme drought. Dill claimed that the room beyond the crevice contained a strong box connected to a well known train robbery committed by Jesse James and his gang. He opened up the cave to create more access and the room now contains mannequins of Frank and Jesse and is a part of the tour.

But no one is totally clear on when Dill, a master marketer who was known to occasionally push the limits of truthfulness, made this fascinating discovery and the only witness who could testify to the truth of the cave hideout theory was a man by the name J. Frank Dalton, who at the age of 102 claimed to be Jesse James. An imposter, he said, had been shot and killed 67 years earlier. He also said that yes, of course the James brothers had used Meramec Caverns as a hideout and handy escape route.

Of course the James family and DNA evidence both denied the new Jesse’s identity claims, but he’d already breathed life into the tale Dill had been trying to spin on billboards all across Missouri.

me and my book
If you happen to like history that has been commandeered and cleverly woven into other stories and is occasionally a little made up, you should check out my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense.

So basically, this guy just commandeered the tale of an interesting historical figure, and wove it together with his own story, sort of making up history a little in order to promote himself. Frankly I don’t know what kind of person might do such a thing. But personally I don’t really mind so much, because Meramec Caverns does make a great hideout on a hot day with bored kids, and a little tall tale doesn’t change that.

The cave features all kinds of wonders, including an amazing formation that looks like a genuine stage curtain on which the tour guides project lights and patriotic images while a recorded Celine Dion belts out a rendition of “America the Beautiful.” It’s easily the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced on a cave tour, and that’s including the James mannequins.

But it’s a literally cool tour in a figuratively cool place, well worth the stop if you find yourself driving down I-44, or in the middle of a heat wave with bored, cranky brothers who need to have some mandatory fun.

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Let’s Just Call Those the X-Days

What I really need is a do-over. At the start of the summer, all those sunny weeks and lazy days ago, I had visions of happy kids and chore charts and nutritious picnics, followed by well-sunscreened adventures to swimmin’ holes, bike trails, or the ballpark. During the long, relaxed evenings, we were going to harvest the latest offerings from our garden and work together to prepare a nice meal followed up by a pie we made with the abundant fruit we picked at the local orchards.  Of course, even in my fantasy my children wouldn’t eat said pie because fruit is NOT dessert. Sigh.

But you get the idea. This was supposed to be a highly organized, smooth running summer to remember. And it was all to start with that Day 1, when the biggest thing on our agenda, before all the fun could officially begin, was the organizing of all the random junk they brought home from school at the end of the year.

office floor
An actual picture of my actual office floor. Well, or what you can almost see of it.

Scheduled to take place in what is, throughout the school year when I have more time, my writing office, Day 1 never quite happened the way I hoped it would. The boys did follow my instructions and dump their well-worn backpacks, scribbled-on notebooks, and eraserless pencil nubs in the middle of the floor so we could sort the reusable supplies from the detritus. Somehow that’s as far as we got.

Each had his own idea of how he wanted to spend his first day of summer, and this was definitely not it. And so the pile of school year castoffs remained.

From there it was all downhill. We had a packed June with a fabulous family vacation and then camps and VBS and a mission trip for my oldest, and somehow that summer chore chart never got posted or enforced. I still can’t see the floor of my office. We haven’t been to the orchard or baked a pie my children won’t eat. And the math workbooks I bought so my children’s brains wouldn’t turn to mush over the summer break? Filled with nothing but unsolved problems and the best of intentions.

I feel like I just let the whole thing run away from me to become a disorganized mess, like the pile of crap in my office, or even like the US Patents office prior to 1836. That’s when Maine Senator John Ruggles formed a bill designed to revolutionize the US patent system, which until then had been kind of a hot mess and was in definite need of a do-over.

Prior to the 1836 act, patents required signatures from the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the POTUS, in the age long before a simple fax between these extremely busy people might have done the trick. Patents weren’t issued for months after they were filed, weren’t tracked effectively enough to protect an inventor from having his idea stolen, patented by someone else, and marketed falsely, and were limited to US citizens.  These patents weren’t widely available to the public, held in duplicate, or even issued an identification number.

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The 1877 fire in the new and improved fireproof US Patent Building. By Timothy H. O’Sullivan original photographer – Library Of Congress Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The new act set up a Patent Office, run by a designated Commissioner of Patents. It required newly filed patents to be a matter of public record throughout libraries in the nation, allowed anyone to apply for a patent in the US, and demanded that applications be submitted in duplicate. The new patents were to be assigned identification numbers, with Patent Number 1 awarded to Senator Ruggles for his unique take on train wheel design. The previous patents were then retroactively numbered with “X” placed at the beginning, earning them the name “X-Patents,” and a new fireproof building was commissioned to house the records, which turned out to be timely since a few months after the act passed, the temporary patent office burned to the ground.  

There was a lot of great history lost in that 1836 fire that swallowed nearly 10,000 records, including the original patent for the fire hydrant. The majority of the X-Patent records weren’t recovered. The new building, not entirely completed until 1867, didn’t catch fire until 1877. Models and records (including that of an improved fire hydrant system) went up in that blaze as well. But by then the Patent Office had gotten its act together and no records were entirely lost to history.

school supplies
As many of my friends are lamenting the presence of school supplies in stores, I’m considering just torching all the X-supplies and starting fresh.

Now when I say I want a do-over, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that our summer has been a complete bust so far. We had a great family vacation and we’ve done a lot of fun things. We have ridden our bikes and done lots of swimming and made some delicious meals with the harvest from our garden. We’ve caught lightning bugs and completed summer library reading logs and been to the ballpark and gotten together with friends. I don’t want to burn the memory of those things.

But with about a month until school starts up again, I am feeling the need to start fresh. So today, on the 181st anniversary of the issuance of US Patent Number 1, I’m going to declare this Summer Day Number 1, the beginning of a refocused, more organized summer break. Everything that came before, I’m just going to call those the X-Days.

A Clever Person Does NOT Stick His Head Inside a Lion’s Mouth

In 1820, nineteen-year-old Isaac Van Amburgh accepted a position with the Zoological Institute of New York, as the cage boy whose job it was to clean out the cages of the exotic animals kept by the traveling menagerie. To say it was his dream job would probably be a bit of a stretch, but like most of us, Isaac had to do some grunt work before he got his big break.

That break came just a year later when one of the owners of the menagerie saw that young Isaac had a way with the lions. It turned out he had a knack for training them. He would eventually go on become the person most often credited with beginning the art of lion taming for show, an act that would become as linked with the circus as clowns, elephants, and P.T. Barnum.

lion
Aw. He looks so cuddly. But he’s not. He will eat you. photo credit: kennethkonica IMG_1874 via photopin (license)

For this reason, when my oldest son realized a camp he attends would have a circus theme this year and for one of their special events, he would need a circus-themed costume, he chose to be a lion tamer. And because he’s an extremely clever kid with a quirky sense of humor, he decided to be a lion tamer who is allergic to cats.

I love the way he thinks, but he may be overconfident in my skill as a costumer. I like to believe I’m fairly clever, too, and I can be crafty when called upon. Like my own mother always did, I keep a few pieces of poster board stuffed behind my dresser just in case one of my kids suddenly remembers the science fair is tomorrow. And I barely batted an eye when he came home from school earlier this year needing an Egyptian pharaoh costume for a social studies speech the next day. Thank goodness bathrobes are so versatile.

Lion Tamer Costume
He may make you sneeze, but that lion doesn’t look so dangerous.

But then after weeks of asking him if he had a handle on his lion tamer costume, he finally told me a few days before camp, all he needed was a lion and a red tuxedo jacket, preferably with sequins.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to find a red tuxedo jacket for a twelve-year-old on a poster board budget and with two days notice, but it’s not exactly an easy task. What we came up with was a red raincoat that with a great deal of red duct tape and some shiny gold craft tape looked kind of okay from a distance.

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He did what? Evidently Van Amburgh was not allergic to cats. Or very large teeth. photo credit: valentinastorti Lion – yawning via photopin (license)

And really, keeping a lion tamer at a distance probably isn’t such a bad idea anyway. Because lions are wild animals, and unless you are Isaac Van Amburgh, they may bite off your head. Actually it’s surprising they didn’t do just that to Van Amburgh, who earned himself a great deal of fame and wealth by becoming the first man to stick his head inside the open jaws of a lion.

We’re talking the kind of fame that won him the attention of Queen Victoria, who even became a groupie of his for a time, taking the time to catch his act about half a dozen times in a matter of weeks. And this was even in the days before YouTube.

The queen was so taken with the performance that she commissioned a painting of her favorite daring (and incredibly stupid) animal trainer. In it, Van Amburgh is pictured wearing a Roman gladiator ensemble, his preferred costume since shiny red tuxedo jackets can be challenging to find.

A man who stuck his head inside the mouth of a lion and lived to tell the tale.
Isaac Van Amburgh and His Animals, By Edwin Henry Landseer – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6185738

Van Amburgh’s show did receive a fair share of criticism, too. He was, according to his publicity agent, terribly abusive to the large cats, basically beating and strategically starving them into submission. Had he gotten his head chomped by one of them, he’d probably have gotten what he deserved.

Instead, Van Amburgh had a heart attack and died in his bed in 1865. He was only 54 at the time, but for a guy who made his living putting his head into the open mouths of angry, hungry lions, I’d say he lived a pretty long life.

Ancient Toilets and A Little Inconvenience

In 1827, Englishman Charles Masson was a soldier for the East India Company, though not a particularly dedicated one. In that year, he deserted and began what became a several year journey of exploration through parts of India, and what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he collected coins and artifacts, and became the first European to stumble onto the ruins of the city of Harappa.

Officially excavated for the first time in 1920, Harappa is one city within a very large prehistoric civilization known as the Indus Valley Civilization that stretched across the northern portion of South Asia and may have at one time supported a population of 5 million people.

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Ancient well at Harappa. By Hassan Nasir (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
This civilization had well-planned cities, a system of measurement, established trade, a thriving art scene, and a possible form of writing. It also had a system of wells, public and private baths, and the earliest known household flush toilets. All somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 to 4000 BC.

Here is perhaps where it should be noted that the men who excavated the site at Harappa came from a civilization that had at this point been enjoying the widespread (though still not mandatory) use of in-home flush toilets for about seventy years.

I realize that sanitation and water supply isn’t a matter to be taken lightly. There’s no greater advancement in all of human history that has more profoundly influenced health and safety, and there are still many parts of the world in which safe drinking water and the safe disposal of waste is still sadly lacking.

It’s a huge privilege to live someplace where I can pretty much take the clean water flowing from my faucet for granted. And this week, my town has been experiencing a reminder of just how amazing that privilege is.

outhouse
Anytime I start to think it might have been fun to live in the 19th century, I picture this. photo credit: Midnight Believer Outhouse via photopin (license)

Early this week we received a call from our water district explaining that the city had issued a mandatory water conservation order. It seems a large 36-inch water main supplying our town took some damage. While repairs were underway, our little town was expected to receive about a third to a half of our normal water supply. In order to avoid depleting reserves and losing pressure in the system,  the city asked its citizens to aim for a reduction of water usage by 50%.

What that meant was no grass watering, car washing, or clothes laundering. I couldn’t hose down my thirsty garden and my neighbors couldn’t top off their swimming pool. The kids couldn’t run through the sprinkler on a hot day or whoosh down the slip ’n’ slide. With later updates the city attempted to lighten the harsh tone of the conservation order by expressing that if citizens really, really needed to do a load of laundry, they should forego taking a shower and washing their dishes.

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So you’re saying I CAN’T do the dishes? Darn. photo credit: Curtis Gregory Perry Hot and Cold via photopin (license)

I don’t know if you’re very familiar with my neck of the woods, but here along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, where occasional and sometimes catastrophic flooding is a legitimate worry, we don’t often have to deal with having too little water. So this was a bit of a shock to the system.

But I’m happy to report that late last night we got the okay to resume our normal water usage. We might have been a little smellier and our lawns are maybe a little less green and lush than they were a few days ago, but for the most part, we came through the ordeal unscathed. And despite a few snarky comments on the city’s Facebook page that were all in good fun, the people of our city didn’t really complain.

We know we’re the lucky ones. It’s thought that one of the major contributing factors to the eventual failure of the once thriving Indus Valley Civilization was drought and shifts in river flow.  

We continue to thrive here in our well-planned city where we have tape measures, a Walmart, a thriving art scene, and bloggers who practice a possible form of writing. And we have clean running water and flush toilets in our homes. Yes, life is pretty good here, even when it’s a little inconvenient.

Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Lately my youngest son, who tends to like to play the pessimist anyway, has become obsessed with things that don’t work.  It’s something of a family joke that stems from our recent vacation to Disney World in Florida, and it started with the Big Thunder Mountain rollercoaster in the Magic Kingdom.

My son had picked out our first Fastpassed ride of the day and it was a good choice. Neither of my kids love roller coasters, but this one was just the right kind: not too fast and not too jerky, not too upside down or backwards, and not too dark.

We had a great time on the ride. Then, as soon as we exited, they shut it down temporarily because of technical difficulties. We counted ourselves pretty lucky at that point and felt it was a great start to our adventure. And it was.

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We really did have a great trip, and I don’t think we actually broke Disney World.

But it turned out that this was the beginning of a trend, because it began to seem to us that every ride we either went on or were just about to ride had to be shut down. We thought it must somehow be us.

It happened when we were in line for Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Test Track, and Splash Mountain. The Kali River Rapids, Haunted Mansion, Seven Dwarf’s Minetrain, and even the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover and the oddly fascinating Carousel of Progress, all shut down for a while not long after we exited them. And either all or part of our group was actually caught in a mid-ride shutdown on Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, the Great Movie Ride, and Spaceship Earth.

It really got to be pretty funny. But our greatest shut-down adventure occurred on the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride on which we remained stuck, three boat lengths from the exit, for about half an hour.

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The live version of Captain Jack was a little less creepy.

Opened at California’s Disneyland in March of 1967 and at Florida’s Disney World in 1973, Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the older rides in the Disney collection, spawning the billion dollar movie franchise and wowing Disney guests with animatronic creepiness and complete historical accuracy.

Well, that might be a stretch (the historical accuracy, not the creepiness), but the ride does make great use of its theme song, “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me),” written by George Bruns and Xavier Atencio, paying loose homage to that old timey sea shanty “Dead Man’s Chest.” That song, featured in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island published in 1883, has allegedly been around so long the origin of it is unknown.

Except that it’s not. Stevenson’s book itself was probably the most influential work of fiction defining the image of the Golden Age pirate until 2003 when Johnny Depp hit the big screen as Captain Jack Sparrow. It turns out Stevenson’s pirate song was pretty influential, too. When versions of it began to show up on the stage and the small screen decades later, the origin of the words had become muddled, lending credence to the rumor that this was a song that had been in the air for centuries.

And that’s how folklore is born. Because “Dead Man’s Chest” is a Stevenson original, and “Yo Ho” is a sort of Disneyfied version of it, written for use in the creeptastically wonderful Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Of course it also appears in the movies and is a favorite of Jack Sparrow’s. If you ride the attraction at Disney World, you can hear animatronic Jack sing it to a parrot while resting comfortably on a chair in a room full of treasure, about three boat lengths from the exit.disneyworldstopped

If you’re lucky enough to get stuck on the ride at that point, you might even have time to learn some of the lyrics, if you can hear them over the complaints of the nine-year-old sitting beside you insisting that he needs to use the restroom.

I have to give Disney World some credit, though.  After about fifteen or twenty minutes, they did raise the lights and turn off the sound, leaving only a kind-of-creepy Jack and his parrot moving silently to the tune. And for our trouble, we received Fastpasses that fortunately did not have to apply to the same ride.

Actually, I think it was a highlight of the trip. We got a great story out of it, a few laughs, and when anyone asks my son about his vacation, he smiles and happily responds, “We broke Disney World.”  In a strange way, the experience has even continued to help him work through his impatience since we’ve been home, too. When something doesn’t work out the way we’d planned, he shrugs and says, “We’re just experiencing technical difficulties. It figures.”

Piles and Piles of Laundry: What a Pain in the Bustle

On November 16, 1874, an Indiana man by the name of William Blackstone gave his wife what might at first sound like the worst birthday gift ever. A manufacturer of farm equipment, Blackstone was definitely one of those handy fellas to have around, and what he made for the missus was perhaps the first in-home washing machine.

It consisted of a wooden tub that held water and contained pegs designed to agitate the clothing when Mrs. Blackstone turned a hand crank. And though it would be another thirty-four years until the first electric washer came along, and then another forty years or so before the electric washer started to become a common home appliance, I think it’s safe to say that the gift made the woman’s life a little easier.

electric washer
Yep, that’s when women really had it made, just whiling away the day rocking and sewing in their high heels, not having to deal with any of those pesky servants demanding raises. By Seattle Electric Washer Co. – The Argus (Seattle), April 24, 1920, p. 6. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7183460

Because according to Catharine Beecher, sister to writer Harriet Beecher Stowe and promoter of education of and by women (as long as they didn’t go so far as to think they ought to get to vote), laundry was (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here), “The biggest pain in the housewife’s bustle.”

I don’t doubt that it was. Before the washing machine, women could be found on laundry day soaking their family’s clothes and then scrubbing them with caustic lye soap against washboards or pounding them around with a stick in a barrel, then boiling (while stirring to prevent scorching), rinsing, rinsing again, drying, and ironing (without the benefit of a handy steam iron that plugs into the wall, and yet still sees little use in my house).

Obviously, these women didn’t get much else done on laundry day. I can relate. Sort of. If you are an especially wonderful person who reads this blog regularly, you may have noticed I failed to post last week. And if you also follow me on any other forms of social media (like Twitter or Facebook, and if you do, then you are an absolutely amazingly wonderful person), then you might have noticed I’ve been pretty silent on those as well.

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A few generations after the first Blackstone, but good to know that it has a “smooth-running, dependable motor, built [just] for the woman to operate.” photo credit: JoeInSouthernCA 1933 Maytag Washing Machine Newspaper Advert via photopin (license)
Initially that’s because I was on a vacation trip with my family, though lately, my absence has been more directly related to the piles and piles of laundry produced by such a trip. Honestly, I don’t know how four people, at least two of whom most of the time couldn’t care less whether or not they wear clean clothes, can produce so much laundry. I’ve tried to do that math. It doesn’t work out.

Of course I haven’t just been doing laundry. I’ve also been trying to organize and unpack everything else, while working to get back to some semblance of a summer routine, in which I arrange my children’s social lives, constantly fighting them on their use of electronics. I’ve also been exercising to try to lose the extra five vacation pounds I just put on. And I’ve been working on putting together a syllabus for a class I’ll be teaching in the fall, when I haven’t taught the course in more than ten years. And I’ve been catching up on e-mails, and volunteer stuff, and my reading/reviewing backlog, and short stories with looming deadlines, and, and, and…

socks
Finally, all that remains of the vacation laundry is one mostly empty basket of clean, unmatched socks. Surely someone has invented a machine that would take care of this for me. Now, that’s something I’d want for my birthday!

So as the person who does most of the laundry in my house, I am definitely grateful for the ability to toss the clothes in the washer and forget about them until they smell mildewy and I have to run the cycle again. Actually, I’m not sure the convenience saves me that much time, though. Because if I had to spend a full day soaking and scrubbing and rinsing and ironing, maybe I wouldn’t try so hard to overextend myself in other ways.

I hope that’s not what Mrs. Blackstone found when her husband gave her a washing machine for her birthday, when all she probably really wanted was jewelry a chance to read a book without having to listen to a child drone on and on and on about Minecraft/Star Wars/Lord of the Rings.

I may be projecting a little bit there.

I’m sure Mr. Blackstone’s wife loved her gift. It wasn’t long until the neighbors got wind of it and soon he was out of the farm equipment business and into the manufacturing of washing machines instead. The invention was a success, and I hope it helped Mrs. Blackstone get what she really wanted for her next birthday, just a little extra time to post to her blog, or to at least read a few chapters of a good book in peace.

A Most Inestimable Piece of Balderdash

In 1834, not long after submitting to the Southern Literary Messenger the disturbing story “Berenice,” in which a man yanks the teeth from his wife’s corpse only to discover that she wasn’t quite dead after all, Edgar Allan Poe sent something equally disturbing to the magazine. What he offered was a harsh critical review of the book Confessions of a Poet by Laughton Osborn, who may have been somewhat less cheerful than his name suggests.

In the beginning of his book, Osborn (publishing anonymously) claimed he would commit suicide upon completion of the work and that as he began the book, he placed a loaded pistol on the table beside him for that purpose. Poe astutely pointed out that even were he to work quickly, the poet would not likely complete a book in less than thirty days. By then the powder in the load would no longer be usable and the world might be unfortunately subjected to a sequel of Confessions.

poe
I have pretty thick skin, but this is not a man I’d want to have leaving a review for my book. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even for a man known for writing dark words, that’s pretty heartless. A few months later, Poe was charged with writing a review for a novel by well connected New York journalist Theodore S. Fay titled Norman Leslie. Poe called the book a “most inestimable ­piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or villainously insulted.”

It wasn’t long before Poe earned something of a reputation as a literary critic, that reputation being mostly that he was an insufferable jerk. Of course, today Poe is far more well-known than either Osborn or Fay, and there were a few authors whose work he actually appreciated.

One of those was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who Poe wrote about in a review of Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an old Manse for Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1847. There Poe claimed Hawthorne was unoriginal, peculiar, and “infinitely too fond of allegory,” but possessed “the purest style, the finest taste…the most delicate humor…the most consummate ingenuity.” That’s about as high praise as anyone might be able to expect, I think, from the author of a story about getting a man drunk and burying him alive behind a brick wall.

But in the same review, Poe also states that it’s not for him to say whether Hawthorne, or any other author, has impressed his readers. And he’s right. Because ultimately the people who read a work, the majority of whom probably don’t write harsh critical reviews for a living, get to decide whether or not they enjoyed it.

I have to assume that Poe would find the state of book reviews today pretty irritating, full of flattery and lacking (hopefully) in the suggestion that the author’s suicide would be preferable to a sequel. But I think it’s kind of great that in this era of Amazon and social media, the book reviews that matter most are the simple ones in which readers tell other readers the gist of what they thought.

And reviews really do matter, not only because word of mouth and recommendations are the way most people figure out what to add to their pile of books to read, but also because the fairies that live inside our computers give the numbers of reviews a great deal of weight when determining what to present to the next reader to come along in search of a book.

bookcouch
Sample review: “Five Stars…This book has absolutely given new life to my furniture!”

I’ve been very fortunate so far. My book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense has been out for about three weeks and in that time it has received ten reviews on Amazon and several on Goodreads. As a bonus, not one has called it a “most inestimable ­piece of balderdash.” Yet.

I am so grateful for all those who have added Launching Sheep to their pile of books to be read (both real and virtual), for those who have already flipped through it, and to the folks who have actually even read it and are already using it to prop up the wobbly ends of their sofas. And I am overwhelmingly grateful to the people who have taken the time to offer their thoughts, especially on Amazon where the computer fairies are particularly nosy.

If you have read the book, and think it might be worth someone else’s time, would you please consider leaving a review? It really doesn’t have to be long and pretentious, or cleverly harsh. Just a simple sentence or two about what you liked or didn’t like is all it takes. If you genuinely don’t have the time or inclination, though it might briefly occur to me that you’re unoriginal, peculiar, and infinitely too fond of allegory, I promise I will still think you’re a lovely person, and I really am delighted you were interested enough to read it at all.