Ford, Edison, and the Quest for the World’s Largest

I love that my children are back in school and that our sense of routine has returned. Still, a couple weeks in, I also have to admit that I miss the open road. This was a summer of lots of travel for us.

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Unfortunately, due to time constraints and general lack of family interest, I once again missed the Spam Museum in Austin, MN. photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson Monty Python’s Spamalot at Akasaka ACT Theater via photopin (license)

We didn’t go the huge distances we have in some years, but we made it to New Orleans so my kids could cross Louisiana off the list of states they’ve visited. We spent family time in Minnesota fishing and exploring. We took off to Madison, Wisconsin to participate in an Insane Inflatable 5K, and later the boys and I spent a week in Chicago. Rarely did a week pass us by when we didn’t set out in the old family truckster for an adventure at least a couple hours away.

I really couldn’t imagine passing the summer any other way, and I’m not alone. According to a 2019 AAA poll, 100 million Americans planned to vacation this year. Sixty-eight percent of those had plans to travel during the summer months and more than half of all travelers intended to pack up their cars and hit the road.

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Henry Ford and the original family truckster. New York, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It makes sense. A road trip is almost certainly cheaper for a family than air travel, there’s plenty to see across this great big country, and a good car trip means hours of forced family togetherness searching for state license plates. Plus there’re plenty of convenient amenities along the way like gas stations and restaurants and hotels. And how else are you going to see all those quirky tourist attractions like the world’s largest turkey?

A hundred years ago or so when the American road trip was just getting its start, life on the road wasn’t quite as convenient, nor were there as many roads to choose from. Prior to the invention of the automobile, the average American never traveled more than 12 miles from his or her home. I’d probably travel that far to buy a bag of my favorite potato chips.

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Minnesota is the home to many of the world’s largest road trip attractions, including the biggest ball of twine in Darwin, the world’s largest turkey in Frazee, and this enormous boot in Redwing.

It’s likely not surprising that the American road trip developed in large part because of Henry Ford. When in 1908, Ford began producing the Model T (I think the “T” stood for truckster), suddenly families with modest incomes could afford a motor vehicle and they started to get an itch to see the world’s largest ball of twine.

But it was more than just Ford’s cars that inspired a new freedom to the American public. Along with his famous buddies Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burrows, Henry Ford embarked on a series of more or less annual road trips across various parts of the country between the years 1914 to 1924.

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Guinn’s book peeks behind the scenes of these early road trips to explore the motives and strong personalities behind them. It’s a great read!

Because I never take a road trip without a few good books to read, I picked up The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn this summer. The book is fascinating and it made me grateful for the amenities I enjoyed along the way. When the “Vagabonds” first started road tripping, it was pretty rough going, even with an entourage of personal servants to set up camp and cook gourmet meals.

In the pre-Kardashian era of the early twentieth century Ford and his gang were what passed for celebrities. As such their highly publicized trips gained a lot of attention. Soon the American public caught on to the idea and as the traffic increased, so did the infrastructure to support it, including the world’s largest light bulb in Edison, New Jersey. Maybe I’ll hit the road and go see that one next summer.

Oh—I See What He Did There

Last fall, I had the opportunity to attend a writers’ conference for which the keynote speaker was bestselling author Tess Gerritsen. You might know her as the author behind the television series Rizzoli & Isles and several fairly brilliant medical thrillers that, if you are a fan of medical thrillers, you should probably read.

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The very gracious Tess Gerritsen with Sock Monkey Steve.

She is a wonderful speaker and had many insightful things to share, including this one bit I am holding onto particularly hard at the moment. Bestseller Tess Gerritsen confessed that during the course of reworking nearly every project she writes, there comes a time when she no longer believes the story is any good at all. Of course, her point in sharing this was that sometimes you just have to put your head down and keep forging ahead.

I find myself at this point with my current work-in-progress. I suppose I might call it writer’s block except I don’t think that’s really what it is. I’m not having trouble coming up with ideas or even getting words on a page. I mean, I am mostly working on short story and essay submissions and not my novel, but I am writing. I’m even writing some things I’m pretty proud of.

But when it comes to this historical novel, of which I have plowed my way through a terrible first draft and have completed a good portion of a hopefully somewhat less terrible second draft, I’m kind of just having a hard time finding traction.

Writer’s block of all forms has plagued mankind probably since the first cave dwellers agonized over whether a bow and arrow or an antelope would better communicate the inner transformative journey of the central stick figure. Fortunately, the condition has been widely studied.

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The bull is a bold and clever choice here. image via Pixabay

And no one’s research has yielded more fruitful answers than that of Dennis Upper of Veterans Administration Hospital in Brockton, Massachusetts, whose findings were published in the Fall 1974 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. Dr. Upper titled his insightful paper “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block.’”

Other than the title, one footnote, and a single peer review response, the article is entirely blank. The footnote explains that findings in the paper had not been presented at a convention of the American Psychological Association. The review heaps praise on the concise nature of the article and recommends no changes, stating that the journal should find room for Dr. Upper’s fine work “perhaps on the edge of a blank page.”

The point of the “study,” of course, is that psychologists, if not always super helpful, are at least pretty funny. light bulb

But there is probably a lesson to be learned from the not-an-article, that really did appear in a respectable peer-reviewed journal, even taking up a full page, and not just the edge of one. The point, I suspect, is that leaving the page blank will clearly not solve the problem and, as Gerritsen suggests, there comes a time when you have to just put your head down and keep forging ahead.

Oh—I see what he did there. It turns out, psychologists, if not always super funny, are at least pretty helpful.

A Cough Drop for Edgar Allan Poe

In January of 1845, Columbian Magazine listed among its upcoming publications, a new story by Edgar Allan Poe called “Some Words with a Mummy.” The story finally appeared, however, in April of that year in American Review. People who care to know such things assume Poe pulled the story from the original magazine because he received a better offer. And, well, what writer wouldn’t do that?

Despite having a mummy at its center and being written by an author most widely known for his dark tales, the story is actually an example of Poe’s lighter work. If you haven’t spent much time with him since reading “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” in high school, then you may be surprised to know that he was also pretty good at being funny.

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Can you even imagine? By jalvear – originally posted to Flickr as Mummy at Louvre, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7141759

“Some Words with a Mummy” is straight up satire, poking fun at the 19th century Egyptomania that had people decorating their sitting rooms with mummies and hosting unrolling parties with their closest non-scientist friends, just for kicks. And he doesn’t let the scientific community off easy, either.

In case you haven’t read it (which you can do here if you want), the premise is that a tired narrator blows off his early bedtime for a chance to attend a mummy unrolling at his buddy’s house. The gathered friends decide after poking and prodding for a little bit that they might as well feed some electricity into various slits they make into the desiccated body.

The mummy, named Allamistakeo, wakes up and informs them they’re all pretty rude. Then the story really gets going. After sewing up their new friend and giving him some ridiculous clothes to wear, the 19th-century gentlemen feel compelled to prove to their ancient counterpart that mankind sure has come a long way in 5,000 years.

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EAP may not have been terribly photogenic, but he could be kind of funny when he had a mind to.

Allamistakeo remains unconvinced. He offers a reasonable counter for every ill-informed suggestion his hosts make, demonstrating their narrow grasp on not only science, but also history. The only thing that impresses the reawakened Egyptian at all is the throat lozenge.

That’s right folks, the best advancement humankind made in nearly five thousand years was the cough drop.

Of course, Poe’s fairly dopey narrator didn’t yet know anything about space travel or smart phones, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Allamistakeo, who had been as successfully placed into perpetual stasis as any sci fi character ever was, wouldn’t have been too impressed with those either.

This is actually one of my favorite stories of Poe’s. It’s absurd and clever and it makes me giggle, which is why I was particularly excited to discover I could pay homage to it in my own work about mummies.

My first (to be published) historical thriller Gentleman of Misfortune follows the story of an elegant swindler who steals a shipment of eleven mummies. My thief is invented, but the mummies are ripped from the pages of history and there was a point when they were located in the same city at the same time as Edgar Allan Poe. Talk about a fun cameo to write!

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So many choices! What a time we live in.

My fictional gentleman got the opportunity to have a fictional conversation with the ripped-from-history Poe himself. As you might imagine, they talked about mummies. And lozenges.

It’s one of the lighter, more playful moments in a story that has a definite dark edge. I’d like to think that if Poe found himself suddenly resurrected, he’d enjoy it. But I doubt that. He was generally a pretty harsh literary critic. And like his Allamistakeo, Poe didn’t seem much pleased with his own age. I think it’s unlikely he’d be all that impressed by ours.

Still, I bet he would appreciate our wide variety of cough drops.

Revision, Blogging, and Imaginary Fame

I confess I wasn’t going to post anything today. I love writing in this space and interacting with those readers who are kind enough to leave a comment, thereby publicly admitting that they have read my foolishness. Thursdays are blog days. Still, posting weekly sometimes gets a little overwhelming. Currently I am knee-deep in a novel revision of the type that never goes as smoothly as I think it will.

Part of the problem is that I get bogged down with little research questions. What, for example, besides the Bible, might a family have been reading aloud by the fire in 1836 in rural Pennsylvania? I am genuinely asking by the way, as this is a problem I’ve not yet managed to solve adequately. If you point me in the right direction, I promise to name you in the acknowledgments.

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Steve the Traveling Sock Monkey is ready to go!

I’m also in the middle of preparing to go on book tour.

That little sentence gets its own paragraph because it makes me giddy. The “tour” as I call it really is just a couple of bookstore signings tacked onto a trip to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival in (you guessed it) Augusta, Georgia, at the beginning of March.

I’m pretty excited about this because I do not live in Georgia. In fact, I have never lived in Georgia. I have never even lived in a state that borders Georgia. As thrilled as I am, I might as well be going on an international speaking tour.augustaliteraryfestival

Mark Twain did that. In the summer of 1895, the then fifty-nine-year-old great American humorist hit the road, delivering recitations of portions of his own impressive and hilarious works. He did this in front of large crowds all over the world from Australia to South Africa to Great Britain, where the report of his death was greatly exaggerated.Mark_Twain_circa_1890 It should probably be noted that he was not invited to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival, though admittedly, had it existed at the time, I’m sure he would have been welcome.

Twain embarked on his successful tour as a scheme to get himself out of debt. I’m hitting the road because I have a pretty great librarian sister-in-law who does live in Georgia and is the best cheerleader ever.

I’m pretty sure I won’t draw quite the crowds Mark Twain managed, but I do hope that if you, dear reader, happen to reside in the neighborhood of Augusta or Savannah, Georgia, maybe you’ll swing by to say hello. I’m probably not as funny and charming as Mark Twain, but I promise I’ll do my best.

I won’t be traveling as long as Mark Twain did, either. His great comedy tour lasted more than a year. Mine will be a long weekend. But because I imagine I’m famous (and sometimes coincidence works in my favor) I have a speaking engagement when I get back to the great state of Missouri, too. That one is sure to draw a crowd because I will be talking to an auditorium full of high school students who can choose to either attend my presentation or go to class. If I lose out to a physics lecture, I will be particularly disheartened.

Then finally, it will be back to work, answering tedious questions about life in the 1830s and writing, rewriting, revising, and yes most weeks, posting to this blog. Because Thursdays are blog days.

Clubbin’ with the Bookworms

In 1634, troublemaking Puritan Anne Hutchinson and her husband William boarded a ship bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Along the way, Anne began a group gathering she continued once she landed that September in the New World. The group consisted of women (and eventually some men, too) engaging in intellectual discussions about the weekly sermons delivered to them. As you can probably imagine, such activity made a little trouble for our heroine.

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Anne Hutchinson on Trial for having the audacity to think. Book clubs are dangerous. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Though not exactly a book club, scholars often point to Hutchinson’s gathering as an early example of such. It was at least a precursor to similar groups that grew up at times under the likes of 18th century essayist and women’s rights advocate Hannah Crocker, 19th century African American freedom fighter Sarah Mapps Douglass, and 20th century media queen Oprah Winfrey.

Some of these clubs focused primarily on the discussion of writings presented by the group members themselves, while others turned their attention to upscale fiction with questions in the back and memoir of a somewhat dubious nature. But they all had the same goal: to stimulate intellectual growth. And they haven’t always been just for women, either.

Plenty of prominent men, including Benjamin Franklin, Ernest Hemingway, and at least one of my uncles have been known to participate in formal book discussion gatherings. It’s true (or at least it says so on the Internet) that somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of American book clubs have an entirely female membership, and about 93% of all book club participants are women.

Still, according to the New York Times, more than 5 million Americans belong to a book club. Even if the menfolk only make up 7%, that’s still a fair number of men gathering to discuss books. At least in the US. And that estimate doesn’t include the clubs that exist online, which is an ever-growing number of both guys and gals.

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Clearly cartoon men participate at a higher rate than their live action counterparts. Image courtesy of Pixabay

So why do all of these readers get together to talk about what they’ve read? Some of the earliest women’s groups did it because it was a way to become better informed, better educated people when for them to do so wasn’t exactly encouraged by society. And I suspect that’s not so different than the reason any book club has decided to meet.

Sure, for the clubs of today, part of the motivation might be more social—to share a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with friends. Or we might dive into Oprah’s latest pick because we know everyone else will have read it and we don’t want to be left out of cocktail party conversations. We might even join in simply because there are more than a million books published every year in the United States alone and it’s nice if someone will please tell us which ones we should read.

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If you’re having trouble, might I make a suggestion? It even comes with questions for discussion, suitable for book club gatherings.

But I also think people who read a lot tend to understand that there is value in forming and articulating deeper thoughts about the words we pour into our brains. I’ve had the great honor of attending a few clubs that chose to read my books and invite me into their conversations, and I am also an active member of a monthly book club. I don’t always like the books we read. In fact, most of them are in a genre I never sought out before joining and probably wouldn’t were I to quit attending.

I don’t go because I love every book, though I happily admit I have fallen in love with quite a few of the selections. I participate because to do so forces me to read outside my comfort zone, which expands my knowledge base, challenges my assumptions, and stimulates my curiosity.

It’s also good for me as a writer (the lone representative in my club of that peculiar breed of human) because I can tend to fall into the trap of reading in a particular way. I pick apart books to see what makes them tick. I incessantly analyze (and sometimes harshly judge) the use of adverbs, the pacing of scenes, the development of themes and subplots. Sometimes I get so concerned with craft that I forget to just let myself get swept up in the story.

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It’s fun to read with friends. photo credit: State Library of Queensland, Australia Group of children sitting on the grass reading books, 1900-1910 via photopin (license)

Then I go to book club and I am reminded that readers don’t read just for deep intellectual stimulation or for controversial learning or for engaging in theological debates that could one day get them excommunicated from their Puritan communities. They also read because they like to gather with friends and enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and talk about what they liked or didn’t like about a book—how it made them feel, or think, or grow in surprising ways. And I think that’s a pretty good reason.

Are you part of a book club?

Long Overdue

In 1939, a very dedicated librarian at the New York Society Library, while rifling through a pile of forgotten trash in the basement, discovered a leather-bound ledger from the years 1789-1792. The ledger came from an era when the library was the only one in New York City and it shared a building with the office of the POTUS, who evidently had borrowing rights.

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You gotta watch out for this guy. He chops down cherry trees. He doesn’t return library books. What a jerk. By Gilbert Stuart – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Up until May 20, 2010, if you’d walked into the New York Society Library looking for a copy of The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel (which if you did, I’d have to assume you are a well-read and interesting person), you wouldn’t have found it. Of course that happens sometimes. Libraries are wonderful places with enormous resources that we all share for the betterment of society, but sometimes things go missing. And, more commonly, the book you need is already checked out to someone else, which can be kind of irritating.

That’s especially true if it’s checked out and overdue, because that means some selfish person is standing in the way of your reading pleasure, or your research project, or your self-betterment. That self-absorbed, inconsiderate jerk couldn’t even finish with the book you need, though he’s had it for nearly a month, or in the case of The Law of Nations, for more than two hundred years. But, you know, if he’s George Washington, it’s probably cool.

According to the ledger, Washington checked out two books on October 5, 1789. The other was Volume 12 of the Common Debates, a collection of transcripts from the House of Commons, from which presumably the president hoped to learn the proper usage of the phrases, “Right Honorable Git” and “cheeky fellow.” Also I assume he was a well-read and interesting person.

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Two weeks you say? Maybe I’ll just grab one more…

I love libraries. I spend a lot of time in them. When I can manage it, I enjoy getting lost in a big, kind of creepy academic library, the type that smells a little bit like musty, old paper and includes dark, dusty corners where grad students pore over primary sources.

I also love the smaller, local libraries where readers from all walks of life come to browse the shelves, check their email, learn a new skill, or catch an author presentation. Over the past few weeks I’ve even had the pleasure of presenting at a couple such libraries, which has been a lot of fun. Of course if I’m in the library, I’m going to look at books. If I have borrowing privileges, I’m going to take a few with me.

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Now that is an exciting find. Did you know many libraries will consider purchasing requests from patrons? Requesting that your local library purchase a book is a great way to help an author out.

And there’s a pretty good chance I will check out more than I can possibly read during the two week lending period. I do, however, promise that if when I go to renew, I discover that you have placed a request on one of the books in my stack I’ll immediately bring it back so you can have your turn. Well, unless I’m at the good part. Then I’ll probably take a day or two extra to finish it and just pay the fine. But I won’t wait two hundred years.

George Washington’s fine has been estimated to be around $300,000. The staff at Mt. Vernon couldn’t find the books, but did replace The Law of Nations with a copy purchased for $12,000 and the library graciously waved the rest of the fine. So the book is there now in the New York Society Library collection, where come to think of it, I’m pretty sure you still can’t check it out. At least now that’s no longer George Washington’s fault.

Blurb’s the Word

In July of 1855, American essayist, poet, and all-around deep thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson picked up a book that some young upstart found the courage to send him unsolicited. The book, a somewhat pretentious collection of poetry self-published by an unidentified author, was called Leaves of Grass. Miraculously, the presumably quite busy Emerson opened the book.

He loved it. He searched the publication information and discovered the name of the copyright holder. Then he sat down to write to Walt Whitman. The letter is encouraging and poetic and Whitman had to be pretty psyched to receive it because up until then the reviews of his book hadn’t been especially kind.

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Emerson’s response to Leaves of Grass. I’m a little surprised Whitman could even read it. By Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the Library of Congress, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Next Whitman did what any author would probably do. He sent the letter to a contact at the New York Tribune. When he later printed a second edition of Leaves of Grass, he included the letter as an appendix. Just to make sure no one could miss it, Whitman also placed the tiny excerpt, “‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career’—R. W. Emerson” right on the spine.

This was probably the first example of the now ubiquitous book blurb. Just about every book you pick up off the shelf at your friendly neighborhood bookstore has at least one on the cover. There’s often even a page or two of them in the front of the books of established or well-connected authors.

They also grace the top of every description on Amazon, where you’ll find them listed along with the label: “#1 Amazon Bestseller in Lesbian Clown Self-help Literature.”

And that’s how you know the author is much better at playing the Amazon marketing game than I am. I’m hopeless. Also probably not writing in the correct category to achieve such a claim to fame.

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Now that’s a book blurb. Damn it.

But I do have a blurb on my cover and atop my book description. A few years ago I attended a writers conference in Arkansas and was lucky enough to get to talk with keynote speak and New York Times bestselling history writer Jeff Guinn. If you haven’t read his books, you should check them out. They’re well-researched, accessible, and fascinating—everything a great history book should be.

It was with trepidation that this upstart approached Mr. Guinn to ask for his opinion on her book. Fortunately, like Emerson, he was incredibly gracious and despite a busy schedule (filming for an upcoming documentary on Jonestown for Sundance TV), he agreed to take a look. About a week after I sent him the manuscript, the Jeff Guinn sent me this:

“Quality fiction and real history make a great match, and Sarah Angleton’s Gentleman of Misfortune offers the best of both. This is an engaging story with surprises on every page.”

—Jeff Guinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Gunfight and Manson

And that’s when I fainted.

freakgifOkay, I didn’t really faint, but my response was definitely a little undignified. Next I did what any author probably would. I sent the blurb off to my cover artist. And if I’d had any connections to major news outlets, I’d have probably sent it to them, too.

I know not everyone loves blurbs. Some in the publishing industry complain they’ve become so common they’re basically meaningless. Some readers ignore them. I don’t think a blurb alone would ever make me decide to read a book, but personally I like them. Knowing that someone whose work I have enjoyed or respected thought enough of a book to allow their name to be associated with it is something I find compelling.

I’m so grateful to Mr. Guinn and to the handful of other authors who offered lovely words about Gentleman of Misfortune. Each of them also has produced great works that I hope readers of my book will look up if they’re unfamiliar with them. I’m grateful to be even a small part of a generous industry full of Emersons willing to help out their emerging fellows.

So, what about you? Do book blurbs make any difference to you?