Four Score and Seven Words to Go

On November 2, 1863, a man named David Wills, writing on behalf of the governor of Pennsylvania, asked then president of the United States Abraham Lincoln if he might consider making “a few appropriate remarks” at the November 19th consecration ceremony of a new cemetery for the many soldiers who had died at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg address
Lincoln’s in there somewhere making a few appropriate remarks. Just upper left of center, I think. Photographer attributions vary from unidentified (William Frassanito) to Mathew Brady (NARA) and David Bachrach (1845-1921) (Center for Civil War Photography). [Public domain]
The main speaker was to be Edward Everett, who allegedly spoke eloquently for nearly two hours, as everyone pretty much expected. History books rarely recount what he said. Then it was Lincoln’s turn. The president spoke relatively few words. Not even three hundred, in fact. And, diagnosed not long after with smallpox, he probably wasn’t feeling very well at the time. Still, most American school children could recite at least some of them.

Rumors have long circulated that the president dashed off the speech while on the train to the event, but that probably isn’t quite true. I don’t doubt that he fine-tuned and finalized a little of his phrasing on that train, but he’d known for a couple of weeks that he’d have to say something. Various observations place him scribbling notes between photo shoots and presidential responsibilities in the days leading up to the event. Most likely he thought a great deal about the words he would say.

I can’t speak for all writers and orators, but I know that for me much composition occurs in my head, swirling in the background of whatever essential tasks I’m completing. Sometimes I dash off a note or two to help me remember later, and then when I finally get a few dedicated moments, I have someplace to start and a great deal to pull together.

I think this is probably how it worked for Lincoln when he delivered what has become his most remembered address.

I was hoping something similar would happen with my blog post this week. You see, it’s been busy around here. I’m getting ready to launch a new book in a little less than a week, which means I have been spending a lot of time preparing. I’ve been upping my game on social media, sending off press releases, scheduling events, cranking out posts for an upcoming blog tour, and designing graphics. I even made a book trailer.

And then there’s my family, still busy doing all the many things they do while also expecting to occasionally eat and/or spend time together.

So, I was definitely hoping for some inspiration for this week’s practical history blog post. Unfortunately, if ideas were swirling somewhere in the background while I was busy elsewhere, I didn’t get them scribbled down.

But Abraham Lincoln is pretty inspiring as historical figures go. And though I think I can be fairly certain that “the world will little note, nor long remember” what I’ve written here, I can at least say I got it done.

5 more days until publication! Follow this link to check out more information about the book, or follow this one to sign up to receive occasional email updates.

What’s in a Name

On January 15, 1929 a baby boy who was destined to do great things came screaming into the world. His name was Michael, after his father, a Baptist minister who served as the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

A few years later in 1934, Michael’s father traveled to Germany to attend a Baptist World Alliance meeting. This was about a year after Adolph Hitler had come to power as chancellor, and Germany was becoming an uncomfortable place to be, losing itself to hatred and discrimination with the rise of the Nazi party.

Martin_Luther,_1529
Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain]
The state of affairs in that nation and in the world weighed heavily on the reverend’s mind as he toured sites important in the story of Martin Luther, another man of God who found himself in an environment in which those in power were guilty of oppressing the less powerful for personal gain. According to legend, in 1517 Luther declared the need for change, and his willingness to defend his argument, in the form of a list of ninety-five theses nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.

In response to the swell of hatred in 1934, the Baptist World Alliance issued a statement of its own. It wasn’t a list of ninety-five theological arguments and questions nailed to a church door that would touch off a reformation movement. It was a strongly worded condemnation of “racial animosity, and every form of unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward colored people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.”

Both the conference and the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a 16th century German priest who prompted significant change in a world that was desperate for it, the Reverend Michael King, Sr. returned to the United States profoundly affected by all he’d seen.

mlk
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Archives at College Park [Public domain]
So affected, in fact, that as he pondered the experience he came to a fairly unusual decision. He chose to legally change his name to Martin Luther King. His young son and namesake became Martin Luther, too, and on July 23 of 1957, the young man, then twenty-eight years old, made the official change to his birth certificate.

Today this son is remembered for his great leadership in bringing about change to a world in desperate need of it, for casting a vision in which all people condemn unfair discrimination and oppression. It was a challenging mantle to carry, one that cost him his life, but painted an enduring and powerful legacy.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably better remembered in many circles today than is the priest whose name his father once decided to take as his own. But in learning and revisiting the activist’s story as we take time this weekend to honor the anniversary of his birth, I’m struck by the power of a name and the greatness it may inspire.

What to Do in the Meantime

In 1912, rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich added to his collection of his London shop the strangest book he never read. It’s not entirely clear how the manuscript came into Voynich’s possession, but it most likely came from the Jesuit Order, which around that time, sold some of its holdings from the library of the Roman College (by then Pontifical Gregorian University) to the Vatican and apparently to a few others as well.

Voynich2
Ohhhh… so that’s what it says. Excerpt from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The Jesuits didn’t read it either, not even the scholar Athanasius Kircher, who was likely responsible for the inclusion of the manuscript in the collection.

Before him, the two hundred-plus-page manuscript probably belonged to a physician by the name of Johannes Marcus Marci, who likely received it from alchemist and antique collector George Baresch, who may have gotten it from Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, who served as the personal physician to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany. Emperor Rudolf assumed the manuscript was the work of 13th century philosopher Roger Bacon and purchased it for a fairly large sum.

But none of these men ever read the book.

Because they couldn’t. What came to be known in the 20th century as the Voynich Manuscript is an enduring puzzle. Its vellum pages have been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century, which means Bacon didn’t write it. They are filled with an unknown language or code, written by a single, careful hand, and accompanied by lots of strange pictures of unidentifiable plants, weird symbols, and plenty of naked ladies.

Voynich1
I chose not to highlight one of the pages with naked ladies, as this is a family-friendly blog. Illustration from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Housed today in Yale’s Beinecke Library, and available to view online if you want to take a stab at it, the Voynich Manuscript has been defying translators for pretty much as long as it has existed. Recent attempts at translation by television writer Nicholas Gibbs and University of Bristol research assistant Gerard Cheshire have been pretty quickly shot down by Voynich scholars and enthusiasts. And in 2016, even AI failed to convince those in the know that it could crack the code.

It’s been suggested that the book is a medical guide of some sort, that it’s written in Hebrew anagrams, that it’s nothing more than an elaborate hoax, or that it’s of otherworldly origin. All we know for certain is that it’s weird, oddly fascinating, and unreadable. Perhaps it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe.

But as frustrating as it is that there’s this one book that has remained unread by everyone except, presumably, its author, I can’t help but think there are probably a lot of books no one has ever been able to read. Most languish on hard drives or exist only as scribbles in tattered notebooks. Others have been locked up in contracts with defunct presses, trapped away from the public by copyright law.

Hopefully that last possibility doesn’t apply to too many books. Very soon it will apply to one fewer, as the copyright of my first historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, will be returning to me in the coming weeks. What this means is that very soon (February 4th to be exact), I will be releasing it finally into the world for anyone to read.

SmokeFrontCover
Coming soon!

I can’t promise that it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe, but it’ll be fairly easy to read because it’s written in English without anagrams, strange symbols, or unidentifiable plants. For better or worse, it doesn’t have any pictures of naked ladies, either.

I’ll have a lot more to share about this most elusive of my books in the coming weeks. You can’t read it just yet,* but maybe while you’re waiting, you can decipher the Voynich Manuscript.

 

 

*Okay, you can actually get a sneak peek if you would like to commit to giving Smoke Rose to Heaven an honest review. If that’s something that interests you, drop me a line at s_angleton@charter.net before the publication date and I’ll happily send you a complimentary e-book. You can check out the back cover blurb and read a sample here.

Bravely Throwing Out a Piece of the Soul

In 1936, celebrated American author F. Scott Fitzgerald made a list. He’d hit a big rough patch in a life full of rough patches, drinking too much and living in a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina to be close to his institutionalized, schizophrenic wife. After an alleged suicide attempt and a nasty shoulder injury, Fitzgerald hired a nurse named Dorothy Richardson to care for him.

attachments
A romance I quite enjoyed in 2019.

As they got to know one another, Fitzgerald made her a list of books he thought she ought to read. The list includes some William Faulkner, Theodore Drieser, Leo Tolstoy, John Keats, and such—twenty-two works in all. Some I’ve read. Most, I admit, I haven’t.

But that’s okay, because F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t make the list for me, and suggesting a book for people can seem like kind of an intimate thing. You’re asking them to pour hours of their time into an experience, one they will engage with during their personal downtime, maybe while they’re drowsy and wearing their pajamas, or lounging on the beach in a swimsuit they feel just a little bit too chubby to wear, or nervously waiting for their loved one’s surgical procedure to end and hoping no waiting room strangers will strike up a conversation.

mymothershouse
A memoir I read this year and liked a lot.

You hope they’ll like it. You hope they won’t think you have no taste, or that you think they have no taste, or that they think you chose this book because it says something to you about them or that you think it says something about yourself and you’re hoping they’ll notice. It’s a little like offering up a piece of your soul.

But just once in a while it works out. You read a book and it makes you think of one of your friends, who then absolutely loves the book you recommended and is touched that you just seem to get her, at which point she asks you for another recommendation and the stakes become higher.

And that’s why I am especially grateful to have so many wonderful friends who are willing to put themselves out there. Earlier this week, I was thinking about what books I wanted to pick up to finish out my year in reading. Looking over my To-Be-Read list on Goodreads, I realized I had fallen behind a little on my pace if I was going to meet my year-end goal. Most of the list in front of me included books that were either going to be hard to get hold of quickly or were probably not going to be quick reads.

boneshaker
The best steampunk I read in 2019.

I asked Facebook for suggestions of light, fast reads. And boy did my friends come through! As of right now, about four days later, my plea has received eighty responses. And that doesn’t count my librarian friend who texted me directly with several titles.

I do find it pretty gratifying that a lot of the suggestions are books I’ve read or that were already titles I’d come across and wanted to read, an indication that my friends and I probably know each other fairly well. But I’m even more impressed that so many people took the risk and put their opinions out there.

I read broadly, and with few exceptions, I’ll give anything a try. Maybe then, I’m not a terribly intimidating person to offer book suggestions. I also definitely recognize that the reading experience is largely an individual one and that I myself might view a book differently were I to read it today or a month from now, so I’m never going to judge a person based on the recommendations he makes.

equation
Best mathematical mystery I read this year. That’s a thing, right?

And I’m not assuming that the list of books offered to me are the essential books that should be read by everyone, which Fitzgerald may have implied to his nurse, mainly by virtue, I think, of who he happened to be and also because he was probably a little drunk. It should be noted that there are some fairly universally accepted greats missing from his list, including Shakespeare. Any high school English teacher would probably be pretty quick to point out that particular oversight.

So, dear blogosphere, it’s your turn. What should I read? I can’t guarantee I’ll follow every suggestion, and I’m sure I won’t get to them all by the end of the year, but I promise I won’t think less of you for throwing it out there.

By the way, if you are on Goodreads, let’s connect!

November is a Month for Silly Affectations

It’s finally November, which just means many of us are rethinking our grooming options. That’s right, we’ve reached that one month out of the year when for some inexplicable reason, otherwise clean-cut men (and sometime women, too) decide not to shave.

beardless lincoln
Lincoln in 1858, in need of a beard. By T.P. Pearson, Public Domain

And really, do we need a reason not to shave? Sure, smooth skin might be nice, but shaving takes a lot of time—time manly men all over the world could spend washing and combing and stroking thoughtfully the facial hair that is their genetic legacy. They don’t need an excuse.

But at least one famous man did. On October 15, 1860, a little girl from Westfield, New York gave him one when she wrote to then presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln that he would “look a great deal better” if he let his whiskers grow. Lincoln responded to eleven-year-old Grace Bedell within a few days inquiring whether she thought “people would call it a silly affectation” if he were to begin a beard at this point.

There’s no record of whether she wrote to him again of this matter, but like so many men of the last few years, Lincoln stopped shaving that November. By the time he took his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington D.C. the new president’s face was sporting some stylish hair. And with it, he’d picked up a pretty adorable story.

bearddrawlincoln
An artist’s best guess. Original portrait by T.P. Pearson, Public Domain. Beard added by my 14-year-old son, used with permission.

Not particularly pleased about the development were the portrait artists working to make a buck off the famous visage of the newly elected leader. Before the days of presidential Twitter feeds and helpful Instagram filters, the rumor of recently sprouted whiskers were all many artists had to go on, and so they had to guess.

But Abraham Lincoln certainly has gone down in history as a bewhiskered gentleman, his signature close-trimmed beard possibly the most recognizable in US history. Still, historians don’t all agree on his motivation for taking Bedell’s advice.

realbeardlincon
Bewhiskered Lincoln in 1863. It takes a wise president to embrace criticism about his hair. By Alexander Gardner, Public Domain

He did make a stop along his inaugural journey to show little Miss Bedell his whiskers, which surely won him some favorable press. It’s always possible he could have just reflected on the advice of a concerned citizen and realized that she might have had a point.

It’s also true that in Lincoln’s day, close-trimmed facial hair was common among the highly sophisticated gentlemen of US cities and Honest Abe probably wanted to shed his rep as kind of a country bumpkin from the middle of nowhere in Illinois.

Or it could be that Abraham Lincoln was a man ahead of his time and he just decided November is not for shaving.

WU (What’s Up) With this ARE (Acronym-Rich Environment)?

It started out like any morning, with me rushing to get the kids out the door in time for school. That’s been a little harder lately as the days have gotten shorter and the mornings darker. But we were on track. Lunches were sorted, backpacks were loaded, and we were just stepping out into the garage when my 14-year-old son said, “OMG, BRB.”

I don’t know what he’d forgotten (besides the English language), but he ran quickly into his bedroom and back again. We were on our way, still with enough spare time that I could stop and ask, “What?”

Spelling
It’s shocking, really, how much time we waste in classroom teaching kids basic spelling and speaking skills. Like they’ll ever use them IRL. photo credit: PlusLexia.com Spelling via photopin (license)

He rolled his eyes. Probably—it was still kind of dark. “It means ‘be right back.’”

I rolled my eyes. Definitely—because he deserved it. “I KNOW what it means. I just think it makes more sense to speak actual words.”

Yes, I will freely admit that in that moment I sounded like an old person. I might as well have told him his favorite music was nothing but a bunch of loud noise or that he needed a haircut because he looks like a felon. BTW, one of those statements is true.

He shoved his stuff into the car next to his little brother and said, “Everyone uses text speak. It’s a thing you’re probably just going to have to get used to.”

Here I should clarify that my son is not generally disrespectful and this was said with a charming LOL.

And the thing is that the more I thought about it, the more I realized he might actually be right. Language does evolve, usually in ways we don’t really anticipate and, no matter how hard we try, not always for the simpler.

text
I wonder if whatever he’s typing with his thumbs has the recipient responding with a ROTFLUTS. Though personally I’ve never seen anyone rolling on the floor laughing unable to speak because of a text message, I’m sure it happens.

In March of 1906, American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie certainly tried. That’s when he recruited twenty-six influential men of letters to form the Simplified Spelling Board. Included among the membership were Melvil Dewey, who organized all the library books, and Mark Twain, who wrote quite a few of them.

The board combed through some of the most oddly spelled words in the English language to determine when and why they came to be spelled as they did. Then, so as not to confuse a change-resistant American populace, they recommended a list of just three hundred words that could be immediately simplified by influential organizations.

At least one additional powerful man agreed whole-heartedly. In August of 1906, then President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the implementation of the changes throughout all documents coming from the Executive Branch of the US government.

TRoosevelt
President “Rucevelt,” who IMHO may have overreached a little in this instance. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The press wasn’t having it and launched into sarcastic attacks on “Mr. Rucevelt” and the “notis” he’d taken of this truly important movement. The public largely agreed, and by December of that year, the House of Representatives, controlled by the president’s own Republican Party, issued a resolution supporting their strong preference for established dictionary spellings. They also said Teddy’s hair was too long and his music was too loud.

The president eventually gave up the fight and by 1920, the Simplified Spelling Board had dissolved, leaving behind a Handbook of Simplified Spelling and a nation that wasn’t particularly sorry to see them go.

But, some of those original three hundred new recommended spellings actually did get adopted into American English, including gram instead of gramme, maneuver instead of manoeuvre, and hiccup instead of hiccough. Because language evolves, and I guess I better get used to it.

For now, TYSM for reading and not marking this post TL;DR. I’m going AFK. TTYL.

See? I can evolve.

JK. I don’t textspeak.

Research, Cannons, and Great Big Nerds

On March 10, 1842 president of the short-lived Republic of Texas Sam Houston overstepped the limits of his office when he ordered the national archives to be removed from the capital city of Austin and taken to Houston.

Samuel_houston
Sam Houston, a man who is no match for a determined archivist with a cannon. By National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. Philadelphia: D. Rice & A. N. Hart, 1854., Public Domain

A few days earlier Austin had been the site of a camp of nearly a thousand invading Mexican troops under the command of General Rafael Vásquez, but the army had been run out of the city by the time Houston issued his order. And when the wagons arrived to finally carry it out in December of that year, the danger had certainly passed. Since Houston’s goal was most likely to move the capital to his namesake city, that didn’t much matter to him.

It did, however, matter very much to the people of Austin who took their responsibility to house and protect the archive material seriously—so seriously that vigilante Angelina Eberly (not an archivist by trade but certainly one in her heart) led the charge by firing on the government thieves with a cannon.

Few shots were fired overall in what came to be known as the Archive War and no significant blood was shed, but the documents remained in Austin as did the distinction of being the capital city, even after the Republic of Texas became the State of Texas.

Archives are serious business, as those who care for them will not hesitate to tell you. Personally, I am grateful for their vigilance. Because I’m going to confess something to you, dear reader, that you probably won’t find too hard to believe.

I’m a great big nerd.

star-wars-1724901__340
Darth Vader. Also probably no match for a determined archivist with a cannon.

I don’t mean that I spend all my time playing video games on YouTube or that I collect replica medieval weaponry or that I know every detail there is to know about the Star Wars Galaxy. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with those pursuits. Except maybe the YouTube thing.

My brand of nerdiness mostly shines through in my obsessive research. I know, if you’ve read this blog much then you are probably giggling about now. It’s true that most of the posts in this space are only sort of researched, and frankly, kind of shoddily. But I make a distinction between what I do in this space and what I do when pursuing the details that inform my historical fiction projects.

I can’t promise I never make a mistake, because I’m sure I do. I probably even overlook the occasional silly anachronism. Some reader somewhere will call me out on it one day and say I should write in a different genre if I can’t even manage to take thirty seconds to Google the etymology of the phrase plays it close to the vest to discover that my character wouldn’t have said that in 1834. As a reader of the historical fiction genre myself I can go ahead and admit we’re a little nerdy and occasionally a little mean.

cannon
I probably won’t face cannon fire to gain access to the archive material I need, but if I make a historical mistake in my novel all bets are off.

So, I do my best to pursue the research as far as I can. For my current work-in-progress, I especially wanted to put my eyeballs on a diary written by one of my historical persons of interest. He’s not a widely known figure and I only discovered the existence of the unpublished diary because of a reference in the bibliography of another book. When I contacted the university library where the source was said to be housed, they couldn’t find it.

I assumed I’d have to give up. Then, not long back, while searching around on the Internet for something else, I found a blog post (some blogs can be a valuable sources of information, just usually not this one) that briefly mentioned the existence of the diary. That’s when I kind of nerded out.

I contacted the library again to find out that the archivist who had written the blog post is now at a different university. I reached out to him there, sent him the link to his post, and a few days later, I had the complete record in my inbox. All I had to do next was send it back to the original library and hope.

And wait, which is what I’m doing now. Because the archivist currently in charge of the diary in question is consulting with an expert to determine whether the physical integrity of the document will allow for safe scanning. If it doesn’t, I may have to travel to the library, which will require a possibly unreasonable amount of effort on my part.

But I get it. I do believe that archives are important enough to protect and maybe even defend with cannon fire if necessary. Because I’m a great big nerd.