Book Review

Henry Adams in Washington

by Kitty Kelley

If an academic book is one that can be taught in college, then Henry Adams in Washington: Linking the Personal and Public Lives of America’s Man of Letters succeeds. In fact, this book by Ormond Seavey, an English professor at George Washington University, reads like a semester’s course on why Henry Adams ought to be elevated to the pantheon of 19th-century writers alongside Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.

Seavey maintains that Adams (1838-1918) has been deprived of his rightful place in the literary stratosphere and proposes restoration. He starts by stating that the writer’s nine volumes entitled History of the United States of America (1801-1817) “belong alongside the greatest works of American creative writers.”

Further, he asserts the books comprise “the greatest work of history composed by an American…yet…unacknowledged in its own country,” and he intends to bring Adams the recognition he feels he deserves in the U.S. The professor concedes some literary critics might disagree with him, but he presents his case with pedagogical fervor and a few too many convoluted sentences:

“[Adams’] Washington turns out to be an essentially imaginative construct whose dimensions and appearances correspond to what others experience except that he has converted those details into a complex notion somehow independent of the seemingly solid realities experienced, for example, by James Madison, John Randolph, Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Cabot Lodge, or Theodore Roosevelt.”

Seavey scores high on presenting Adams as a man of letters but falls short on illuminating the personal side of the man. Publicly, Adams was known as a Boston Brahmin with a prestigious lineage: President John Adams (1735-1826) was his great-grandfather, and President John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), his grandfather. He made his own mark as a noted historian and novelist.

Yet even 100 years after his death, the personal man remains elusive because, for reasons Seavey doesn’t explain or explore, Adams resisted transparency. Other than his multi-volume history, he refused to publish under his own name and sometimes went to great lengths to camouflage his authorship. Why remains unknown.

When Adams worked for his father, Charles Francis Adams Sr., in the House of Representatives, he wrote anonymously as the Washington correspondent for Charles Hale’s Boston Daily Advertiser. Later, when his father became Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to the Court of St. James, Adams worked as his father’s private secretary and wrote anonymously as the London correspondent for the New York Times.

Was he anonymous because of conflicts of interest between working in politics while working as a journalist? Seavey doesn’t say; he simply describes Adams as “that master of conspiracies and disguises.”

After Adams married and moved to Washington, he wrote two novels, each one blanketed in secrecy: Democracy, which Seavey describes as “a novel disguised as autobiography,” was published anonymously, and Esther, which was published under the female pseudonym Frances Snow Compton.

Why the camouflage? Seavey suggests that Adams hid behind a skirt because he was unwilling to have his DC neighbors know he was the one exposing the city’s deficiencies. If his novels, based on real people, were published under his name, he may have jeopardized his social status in Washington, where he and his wife, Clover, John Hay and his wife, Clara, and Clarence King, a pioneering geologist and entrepreneur, formed an elite little club they called “The Five of Hearts,” the title of Patricia O’Toole’s spectacular 1990 biography, which was subtitled “An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918.”

That loving quintet splintered on December 6, 1885, when Clover Adams, 42, committed suicide by swallowing potassium cyanide. The evening newspaper reported she had dropped dead from paralysis of the heart, which may have been strangely accurate, because the writings of others indicate she knew her husband had fallen in love with another woman, Elizabeth Sherman Cameron.

That Christmas, days after his wife’s death, Adams sent Cameron a piece of Clover’s favorite jewelry, requesting she “sometimes wear it, to remind you of her.” He had been writing Cameron passionate letters since 1883, two years before his wife took her life, and continued for the next 35 years of his life, although, according to Eugenia Kaledin’s The Education of Mrs. Henry Adams, their relationship was never consummated.

These personal details are ignored by Seavey, although available in the biography of Adams written by Ernest Samuels (1903-1996), who received the Parkman Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for his three-volume study. Yet Samuels is not listed in Seavey’s bibliography and is only cited once in passing, a strange omission in a book purporting to link “the personal and public lives of America’s man of letters.”

The most intriguing monument to the mystery of Adams is the bronze sculpture he commissioned in memory of his wife, frequently called “Grief.” “Henry Adams left it to August St. Gaudens to preserve forever the experience of [his] loss. Visitors to Rock Creek Cemetery [in Washington, DC] can see it for themselves. And that is all I am going to say about that,” Seavey writes.

The professor ends his book a few pages later, having shown in full the public life of Henry Adams but leaving his personal side in shadows, still detached and disparate.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

An Interview with Deborah Tannen

by Kitty Kelley

Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, has just published her 13th book, and first memoir, Finding My Father: His Century-long Journey from World War I Warsaw and My Quest to Follow. We recently discussed the new work.

You’ve written many books (including You Just Don’t Understand, You’re Wearing THAT?, You Were Always Mom’s Favorite!, and You’re the Only One I Can Tell) about how people express/hide themselves through language. How did the commercial success of those books enhance or detract from your position in academia?

My colleagues at Georgetown and in my discipline have been uniformly supportive of me and my academic, as well as my general-audience, writing. I feel I should add “kunnahurra,” which is how my mother pronounced the Yiddish expression one says to avoid jinxing good fortune.

How did writing this book about the father you adored affect you?

My father was the parent I felt an affinity for, the one I thought understood me. But when I was a child, he was rarely home. The strongest presence I felt in the house was his absence. The hours upon hours I spent talking to him about his life after he retired — I have 200 cassette tapes! — began to make up for that deep sense of longing. He also gave me mountains of written words: journals he kept before he married; letters he saved and copies of letters he wrote; and memories he wrote down for me, especially about his childhood in Warsaw (where he was born into a Hasidic family in 1908), but also about his life after he came to the U.S. in 1920. These all helped me see how his life was affected by and reflected the cataclysmic events of the 20th century: how WWI affected Warsaw’s Jews, immigration, the Depression, and anti-Semitism in both Poland and the U.S. between the wars.

My father’s father died of tuberculosis when he was very young — he never knew his father — so [my father] quit high school at 14 to support his mother and sister. Yet he became a lawyer, established the largest workers’ compensation firm in New York City, and ran for congress. Until I was in junior high, my father worked as a cutter in a coat factory. After that, my father was a partner in his own law firm. I always knew these outlines but had no idea how or why it happened that way, what it all meant, day to day, how he felt about it, or why it took him 30 years from passing the bar until he could support his family through law. Figuring it out gave me a clearer sense of how I was shaped by history, too.

Why do you think your father chose you to write his memoir rather than one of your two sisters? And has publication of this book affected your relationships within your family?

It was a no-brainer. I was already a published writer, having gotten a love of language and of writing from him. And my adoration was obvious. My sister Mimi once said, “I love Daddy, too, but I don’t think he’s God!” She and my sister Naomi have always been part of this project. I checked memories with them, and whenever I found something surprising, I’d share it with them. Our memories differ, of course. Naomi is six years older than Mimi and eight years older than me, so she had our father to herself when she was small. Naomi, like me, tended to idealize him and be critical of our mother. Mimi has been an invaluable reality check. She’ll point out when I’m judging our mother too harshly and letting our father off the hook.

As an immigrant from WWI Warsaw, your father did not have an easy life. His father died young; his mother sounds like a harridan; and he worked at over 60 jobs to support her and himself and his family. Yet he lived to be 98. To what besides good genes do you attribute his longevity?

Good luck. His and mine.

You discovered a secret relationship of your father’s and entitled one chapter “The Hidden Letters” after finding correspondence that he had secreted away for decades. Please describe.

Ah, yes, the woman I call Helen. She wasn’t a secret, but the fact that he’d saved her letters was. Both my parents spoke openly and casually about my mother’s “rival.” My father once said, “Your mother wasn’t my girlfriend. Helen was my girlfriend.” So why did he marry my mother and not his girlfriend? When he told me he’d saved Helen’s letters but didn’t know where they were, I longed to find them, to figure that out. I eventually did find them — along with copies of many letters he wrote to her! Reading their correspondence, I fell in love with Helen myself. I saw that my father’s relationship with her was romantic in a way his relationship with my mother wasn’t. And I was able to piece together the dramatic events that led to his marrying my mother. I felt I’d solved a mystery and learned a lot about relationships between women and men at the time, especially the fraught role played by virginity!

Your father was a communist, an atheist, and a Zionist. Can you say a bit about each and explain how each weaves into the other?

My father already identified as all three when he came to the U.S. at 12. He was influenced by the Bolshevik revolution through his mother’s youngest sister. Only six years older than my father, Magda was like a big sister he looked up to. Like many young people in every generation, she and her friends saw poverty and injustice and wanted to build a better world. Communism promised that would come when workers of the world unite and saw religion as a barrier to that solidarity. So atheism and communism went together. My father became disillusioned with communism but became an ever-more passionate supporter of Israel as he saw what happened to the members of his family who were still in Poland at the start of WWII. He remained a devout atheist with a deep and proud Jewish identity. When he was old, I asked, “Do you feel more Polish or American?” He replied, “I feel like a Jew.”

What advice would you give to your students about writing a memoir, particularly those who, unlike you, don’t have the advantage of hours and hours of taped interviews?

Talk to anyone you can find who knew your family or lived through similar times. Follow every trail wherever it takes you — to other people you can talk to, any documents you can find, and the infinite pathways now available on the internet. And write your own memories down for the next generation!

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


by Kitty Kelley

Eric Burns writes books with long titles. His first, Broadcast Blues: Dispatches from the Twenty-Year War between a Television Reporter and His Medium, written in 1993, was a memoir of sorts. As an Emmy-winning correspondent for NBC News who later spent 10 years at Fox News before being fired, Burns knows the highs and lows of broadcasting. He’s since indicated that Fox is not a crucible of credibility, but rather “a cult.”

In 2006, he wrote his fourth book, Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, and his eighth, Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television’s Conquest of America in the Fifties, in 2010. Now, he’s publishing his 15th book, having tempered his tendency for unwieldly titles: 1957: The Year that Launched the American Future. Its bright red cover features the front of the Edsel, the Ford Motor Company’s catastrophe that Burns describes as “the car with the vagina in the grille.”

No question that 1957 was a big year. Russia won the space race with Sputnik, and President Eisenhower expanded the U.S. with the Interstate Highway Act, an idea he adopted from Germany after experiencing the ease and efficiency of the Autobahn. Highways give rise to suburbs, big cars, and a new way of life.

In 1957, Americans were introduced to the Mafia by watching the McClellan Rackets Committee hearings on television. TV also introduced Elvis the Pelvis, Little Richard, and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, as well as Joe McCarthy, Fidel Castro, Jimmy Hoffa, Floyd Patterson, Billy Graham, and Ayn Rand. The hero of the 50s — hands down — was Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine and refused to file a patent to profit from his discovery.

Burns divides his book into five parts, the most important being on race, the cutting issue of our times then and now. In 1957, the country was rocked by the Supreme Court decision known as Brown v. Board of Education, which stated that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment. “What happened next resulted in some of the most bitterly poignant tales to emerge…from the tenth circle of hell known as Southern racism.”

Burns recounts the trauma of nine African American students trying to enroll at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. Even decades later, it’s painful to read about white adults spitting race-laden epithets in the faces of the young Black students. Within a week of their enrollment, Congress voted on the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first such piece of legislation to be approved since 1875, during the Southern revolts against Reconstruction.

But before the vote could be taken, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond began filibustering on the floor of the U.S. Senate, raging against the legislation. He held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes, earning himself an ignoble place in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest filibuster in American history. Burns reports the incident in detail but fails to mention that the feral racist had a Black daughter, having impregnated his family’s 16-year-old maid when he was 22.

For those who have not discovered The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972 by William Manchester and just want a cursory gulp of 1957, Burns’ book will suffice; it offers more narrative than an almanac. But be prepared for sentences in need of a stop sign. In a chapter excoriating Ayn Rand, Burns writes:

“The kind of philosopher who so despises Rand, on the other hand, is usually an esoteric sort, like the fellow about whom I recently read who was watching a football game on television when it struck him that, in order to score, Team A has to cross Football Team B’s half of the field, thus sanctifying ‘the property-seizing principle’ of imperialism.”

And, when extolling the 1957 horror film “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” he writes:

“Fowler goes on to say that the critics who condescended to review the film, invariably snickering at its simple-minded dialogue and plot devices, not to mention its almost comical special effects, had no idea what the movie was really about and rejected the concept of teenage angst as being just a laughable rite of passage, totally ignorant that the sort of angst that was swelling around them would birth a generation of intensely political angry and aware kids whose minds and hearts would affect the world.”

Burns goes on to say that the film became “the Edsel of motion pictures.” The same might be said of his book, minus the vagina.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Pride of Family

by Kitty Kelley

Carole Ione grew up in a world of beautiful Black women of various shades, where marriages crumbled, fathers fell by the wayside, and mothers forged ahead with careers and the “occasional” man. As a 10-year-old sitting at the piano listening to her mother sing Calypso songs, Ione, as she now calls herself, “learned early on from those lyrics that soldiers and sailors could be trouble — you might never see them again.”

Ione’s only paladins were women: her great-aunt, Sistonie, a physician and member of Washington’s Black aristocracy; her grandmother, Be-Be, a former Broadway chorus dancer who ran the best restaurant in Saratoga Springs, drawing celebrities like Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, and Ethel Waters; and her mother, Leighla, who carved a career writing mysteries. Ironically, the biggest mystery hid behind the stone wall of secrets that kept the women estranged and incapable of bonding as a family.

At the age of 19, against fierce objections, Ione married a white Frenchman. In 1956, they moved to his home in Alsace, where everyone in the textile-manufacturing town was white and spoke a German dialect called Elsässerditsch. That part of France, the Haut-Rhin, was scorned by Parisians as the exterieur, so its denizens tried to be “more French than the French,” Ione writes. As a Black American woman, she became a freakish curiosity, stared at in the streets:

“I realize now that it was exactly that depressing feeling of being thought inferior to the society I lived in that I had hoped to escape by marrying…[I longed] to assuage the painful and confusing aspects of blackness.”

Soon, she and her husband moved back to New York, where they occupied separate bedrooms and led separate lives as he encouraged a philosophy of free love. Ione began an affair with a married alcoholic man many years her junior, followed by an even more unconventional relationship with a woman painter who lived in a loft on Canal Street:

“I had begun to understand that I was — like most people, I thought — not simply heterosexual but sexual, and from then on I would resist any labels on my sexuality.”

After her divorce, she married “a gay man living as a heterosexual” with whom she had three children. But after 13 years “of no love for me,” she again divorced. Ione received no succor from her mother or grandmother, only a “frosty politeness.” Both blamed her for leaving her husband and becoming like them: a single mother.

Feeling betrayed and desperate for a sense of belonging, Ione sought to explore the lives of her family, a word she italicizes as if it’s exotic and foreign. The result, published in 1991 when she was 54, was Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color, a rich reverie of superb writing — half memoir, half biography — nine years in the making that probes the tortured bonds of mothers and daughters and the journey of one girl through a gnarled thicket of secrets.

With bracing honesty and eloquence, Ione documents in Pride of Family the alienation she felt within her own community, where a pernicious line of color had segregated her since childhood:

If you’re white, you’re all right.
If you’re brown, stick around.
If you’re black, get back.

When she found her maternal grandfather late in life, she asked him about his mother, and he said that she, Ione’s great-grandmother, was good-looking. “She was fair. Very light skin — and she had good hair.” That one word — hair — is freighted for Black women, and Ione was particularly sensitive about it as her mother and grandmother were light-skinned beauties with straight, silky hair:

“Mine was fuzzy, woolly, nappy…everything I didn’t want it to be…my hair was bad…not in the worst degrees of ‘bad’ — for there are degrees — but ‘bad’ nonetheless. Did this make my mother and grandmother love me less, did it create a subtle distance between us?”

That distance narrowed when Ione discovered the diary of her great-grandmother, Frances “Frank” Anne Rollin (1845-1902), and unearthed many family secrets. Rollin also gave Ione, a writer, a feeling of pride for her foremother, a 19th-century activist who was the first known African American biographer. In 1868, Rollin wrote The Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany under the name Frank A. Rollin.

That biography is little known today, but the biographer lives on, having been recently embraced by Biographers International Organization (BIO), which established the Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship for African American Biography, providing a $2,000 fellowship for a writer working on a life story of an African American figure or someone whose story provides a significant contribution to the Black experience.

Ione, now 83 and living in Kingston, New York, is thrilled by the fellowship. “It’s a dream coming true through the centuries,” she told BIO. “There was a line in [Frank’s] diary in which she said she wanted to ‘make her mark in literature,’ and now [I feel] it’s finally happened.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

How to Lead

by Kitty Kelley

The Irish were the first to master the art of television conversation with The Late, Late Show, moderated by Gabe Byrne in Dublin from 1962-1990, and still running today with various hosts. Then came the British with David Frost, who hosted several U.K. “chat shows” before coming to America with The David Frost Show, and rising to international prominence in 1977 with his five 90-minute interviews with Richard Nixon, which forced the former president to acknowledge and apologize for Watergate. One of Frost’s many successors in London is Clive James, who currently hosts Talking in the Library.

In the U.S., Larry King held sway on CNN every weeknight with Larry King Live! where he reigned for 25 years in colorful suspenders. He was followed by Charlie Rose, who invited guests to join him at his table on PBS from 1991 to 2017. When Rose was summarily fired for sexual harassment, he and his table were banished and replaced by two sturdy chairs for David M. Rubenstein to interview the great and the good on The David Rubenstein Show.

A co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a DC-based, multinational, private-equity investment firm, Rubenstein is a spectacular businessman worth $3.4 billion, and he’s capitalizing on his television show by publishing some of his interviews. His first book, The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians, published in 2019, was very good. His second, How to Lead: Wisdom from the World’s Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers, published last month, is okay.

The book’s cover features sketches of Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Gates, Christine Lagarde, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Indra Nooyi, Richard Branson, and Yo-Yo Ma. The contents present 30 individuals — 15 men and 15 women — Rubenstein deems as exemplifying leadership, whom he divides into different categories: visionaries, builders, transformers, commanders, decision-makers, and masters.

Half of Rubenstein’s leaders, mostly white males, hold degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, with a couple from Stanford. Not so the women, few of whom possess those prized credentials, with the exception of the late Justice Ginsburg.

In his introduction, Rubenstein presents his formula for becoming a world-class leader. Moses had 10 Commandments; Rubenstein has 12:

I. Luck.
II. Desire to succeed.
III. Pursue something new and unique.
IV. Hard work and long hours. (“Workaholism is a plus.”)
V. Focus everything on mastering one skill.
VI. Fail. (“My having been part of a failed White House certainly fueled my ambition to succeed,” he writes as former deputy domestic-policy assistant to President Carter.)
VII. Persistence.
VIII. Persuasion.
IX. Humble demeanor.
X. Credit-sharing. (Here, he quotes his hero, John F. Kennedy: “Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.” So, spread the glory.)
XI. Ability to keep learning. (Rubenstein writes that he reads six newspapers a day, at least a dozen weekly periodicals, and a minimum of one book a week, although, he adds, he often juggles three to four books simultaneously. You wonder how the man finds time to tie his shoes.)
XII. Integrity, which he defines as not cutting ethical corners.

Rubenstein comes to all his interviews well prepared, if a bit short on charm. He’s developed a style much like Jack Webb on Dragnet: “Just the facts, Ma’am.” He’s respectful to his guests, even as his questions probe.

Interviewing Melinda Gates, he asks if it was difficult for her as a committed Catholic to promote birth control in third-world countries as part of her work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She admits she’d wrestled with her faith on the issue but finally resolved her conscience in favor of contraception.

How to Lead begins with the best interview in the book: Jeff Bezos, who happens to be the richest man in the world ($173.5 billion), founder and CEO of Amazon, and owner of the Washington Post. A high school valedictorian who graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton, Bezos changed his major from theoretical physics to electrical engineering and computer science when he realized he was not going to be one of the top 50 theoretical physicists in the world — an indication, perhaps, of why he prizes failure as a pathway to success.

(Here, Rubenstein admits his own financial failure, the biggest business mistake he made, selling his firm’s equity in Amazon for $80 million in 1996, which, today, would be worth “about $4 billion.”)

In his interview, Bezos reveals a man devoted to his parents. “One of the great gifts I got is my mom and dad,” he says. “I was always loved. My parents loved me unconditionally.” He adds that he’s committed to eight hours of sleep every night, and reserves “high IQ meetings” for mid-morning, when he has his best energy. He says the most important work he’s doing at present is investing in the future by putting $1 billion a year of his own money into Blue Origin, his aspirational program to make expanded human space travel a reality.

The only one of Rubenstein’s leaders without a college degree, let alone the advanced degrees that most of the others hold, is Richard Branson, a dyslexic who dropped out of school at 15. “Do you think you could have been more successful in life if you had a university degree?” Rubenstein asks. “No,” says Branson, who founded Virgin Group, an umbrella for hundreds of Virgin enterprises, including Virgin Airlines, Virgin Megastores, and Virgin Galactic. Branson is worth $4.2 billion.

Many of Rubenstein’s leaders are billionaires like himself, and with or without Ivy League credentials, all are accomplished and deserve their position at the top of the heap. For this book, Rubenstein includes his double interview with two former two-term presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

But he has not interviewed his former boss, Jimmy Carter, a one-term president who many consider a leader in humanitarian outreach. Rubenstein characterizes Carter’s term in office as a “failed White House.” Yet Carter established the Department of Energy in 1977 and the Department of Education in 1979.

He cut the deficit, ended rampant inflation, and managed to get more of his legislation passed than any president since WWII, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson. And Carter, a Nobel laureate, is the only president since Thomas Jefferson under whom the U.S. military never fired a shot.

With all due respect to the billionaire Rubenstein, Carter’s presidency, while only four years, can hardly be dismissed as a failure.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


by Kitty Kelley

Even in the digital age, there are some hardbacks that demand prominence on the bookshelf. Among them are the Bible; Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (second edition, unabridged); Winston Churchill’s six-volume The Second World War; The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972 by William Manchester; and Winnie-the-Pooh.

Now, add Rick Perlstein’s four volumes documenting the rise of Conservatism in America. First, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus; second, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America; and third, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. Now comes the fourth and final installment, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn: 1976-1980, which covers the presidency of Jimmy Carter and his defeat by Ronald Reagan, and the New Right.

Perlstein has received critical acclaim for each volume, and rightly so. His latest tome, at more than 1,000 pages, deserves special praise because it capstones the political changes in 20th-century America that led to Ronald Reagan’s eight-year reign in the White House, plus the four years of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, which many Republicans refer to as “Reagan’s third term.”

Reaganland begins in July 1976, when the presidential landscape was Jimmy Carter vs. Jerry Ford, with Ronald Reagan, the sore loser, sitting on his hands, refusing to support Ford but claiming he did. The Gipper seemed too old to run again in 1980 at the age of 69, but Perlstein shows how he managed to become the Cinderella at the Conservative ball, aided by a beleaguered Carter, who never took him seriously, even when it was too late.

Not a news-making investigative foray into the Conservative movement, Reaganland is, instead, a phenomenal collection of data and detail masterfully woven into a compelling narrative about how the country turned right, steered brilliantly and cynically by think-tank founder Paul Weyrich and direct-mail mastermind Richard Viguerie.

Perlstein poured extraordinary research into this book, and those who lived through the era may be stunned to learn all they missed at the time — or wished they had. Some will remember such colorful characters as Marabel Morgan, the blonde with the bubble hairdo and pink lipstick, who wrote The Total Woman and, in concert with Phyllis Schlafly, helped to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, along with the singer Anita Bryant, who campaigned ferociously against gays and gay rights. Others may recall “Battling Bella” Abzug and Betty Friedan, the latter of whom wrote The Feminine Mystique and spoke publicly about her aversion to lesbians, whom she called the “lavender menace.”

The year 1976 was called “the Year of the Evangelical” when Americans were introduced to the Christian Broadcasting Network; heard Debby Boone praise Jesus by singing “You Light Up My Life”; and met Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Howard Phillips (known to evangelicals as a “completed Jew”), and Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

The crucial issues of the era included the Panama Canal treaties and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and SALT II; the Laffer Curve and “supply-side” economics; the fall of the shah, rise of the ayatollah, and taking of 52 American hostages in Iran (along with the eight lives lost trying to rescue them); Three Mile Island; the Camp David Accords; kidvid; and abortion, which Bill Moyers presented on television in 1978 as “the Issue that Will Not Go Away,” which, Perlstein writes, “was a pretty good bet.”

Pages later, the author describes a GOP fundraiser featuring “speakers from across the fruited plain” supping on “filet mignon and Jimmy Carter.” And quite a feast it was.

With editorial asides that are informed, trenchant, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, Perlstein pillories Democrats as much as he punches Republicans, and in the process becomes a trustworthy narrator. He makes a provocative case that the 1976 U.S. Senate election of Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) changed the legislative terrain and crushed labor-law reform, prompting one columnist to write: “Now is the time to put Big Labor up there with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.”

Writing with a light touch, Perlstein describes the dog whistles in Sen. Strom Thurmond’s newsletter to his constituents. The ardent segregationist from South Carolina praised “independent non-governmental schools” that support “prayers to God in school” and “regional ideals and values.” As Perlstein observes: “[H]e needn’t specify that the regional values he had in mind weren’t the consumption of fried green tomatoes.”

It’s stunning to read this book and realize the millions of dollars that have been spent trying to preserve white supremacy in the United States. Reagan’s racist strategy, after all, was to target “voters who felt victimized by government actions that cost them the privileges their whiteness once afforded them.”

Equally surprising is Perlstein’s declaration that Arthur Laffer, Robert A. Mundell, Robert Bartley, and Jude Wanniski were “arguably…the most influential economic thinkers in the history of the United States, even though their theories turned out to be substantially wrong.”

Unquestionably, Jimmy Carter’s presidency was hit with “crisis after crisis after crisis,” from Billygate to Bert Lance to a bitter challenge by Senator Ted Kennedy. But Carter seemed to create his own black cloud by preaching an austere gospel of gloom and doom, whereas Ronald Reagan blew bubbles about the economic boom he’d bring. “We live in the future in America, always have,” Reagan said. “And the better days are yet to come.”

Carter told hard truths; Reagan told soft lies. And, on November 4, 1980, the country voted for bubbles and better days.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


Begin Again

By Kitty Kelley

Gird yourselves, white America: Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is putting you on notice, and he brought the receipts. The James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton prefaces his eighth book with praise quotes from several platinum authors who laud his brilliance and the genius of his subject on display in Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.

To begin again on the subject of racism, Glaude proposes passing H.R. 40, a bill that would establish the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans. It’s a suggestion that comes at the end of what the author himself describes in his introduction as “a strange book. It isn’t biography…it is not literary criticism…it is not straightforward history. Instead, Begin Again is some combination of all three in an effort to say something meaningful about our current times.”

Glaude starts gently but then lowers the boom. His book is a damning indictment of Donald Trump and white America, particularly white male America — or at least that part of it which believes in its superiority simply because it’s white.

Additionally, this book, provocative and lyrical in so many places, is Glaude’s personal journey through a tunnel of rage first explored by James Baldwin (1925-1987), whose writing — “close to seven thousand pages of work” — the professor has absorbed and studied and taught.

In Begin Again, Glaude challenges “the lie” that America is fundamentally good, that all men are created equal, and that the country is a beacon of light and a moral force in the world. “The stories we often tell ourselves of the civil rights movement and racial progress…[are] all too often lies,” he writes.

Instead, says the author, America is a racist nation that continues to tell the lie that it is a democracy while refusing to face the enduring legacy of slavery and ongoing systemic discrimination against African Americans.

With Baldwin as his guide, Glaude moves from the nonviolence practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. to the militancy of Huey P. Newton, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther Party, the latter a “justifiable, even inevitable, response to white America’s betrayal of the civil rights movement.” Along the way, he lashes Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” Reagan Democrats, and Trump voters for propagating “the lie.” Finally, Glaude concludes “that America is an identity that white people will protect at any cost.”

By 2016, he had become so disgusted by the Democratic Party for refusing to remedy Black suffering that he urged Black voters, many whose ancestors had paid with their lives for the right to vote, to abstain from voting for Hillary Clinton for president. His reasons seemed petty in the extreme:

“Much more was required than the Clinton name, or the endorsement of her bid for the presidency by President Obama, or by some celebrity, or the brandishing of hot sauce in [her] handbag.”

Choked by rage, he used his considerable influence to urge Black voters to leave the presidential ballot blank. Then the Republicans nominated Donald Trump. Still, Glaude refused to believe white America would elect “the carnival barker” to the highest office in the land.

Trimming his sails a bit, he co-authored an anemic essay in Time magazine with Fredrick Harris, a political scientist at Columbia, saying that if you were a Democrat in a battleground state like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, you should vote for Hillary. But if you lived in a decidedly red state or an overwhelmingly blue one, you could blank out or vote your conscience.

Startlingly, the professor, who has studied Baldwin for 30 years, seems not to have learned from his mentor, especially on the value of presidential voting. In “Notes on the House of Bondage,” Baldwin ponders the 1980 presidential race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan:

“My vote will probably not get me a job or a home or help me through school or prevent another Vietnam or a third world war, but it may keep me here long enough for me to see, and use, the turning of the tide — for the tide has got to turn. And…if Carter is reelected, it will be by means of the black vote, and it will not be a vote for Carter. It will be a coldly calculated risk, a means of buying time.”

Surely, President Hillary Clinton would’ve bought Glaude more time than President Trump.

To his credit, Glaude admits his error. “I was wrong,” he writes, “and given my lifelong reading of Baldwin, it was an egregious mistake.”

Far less egregious, but still a mistake, was to publish this book without providing any photographs, especially since Glaude frequently refers to instances that demand illustration. For example, he writes about Sedat Pakay, a Turkish photographer who “offers a beautiful black-and-white portrait of Baldwin in the most intimate of settings.” No picture.

In another instance, Glaude refers to the opening of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a documentary of Baldwin’s time in the South during the Civil Rights movement, in which he sits “at a desk in his brother David’s apartment at 209 West Ninety-seventh Street, looking pensively at a book of photographs.” No picture. (Glaude writes pages about his own tour of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, yet provides no pictures.)

He ends his book, appropriately, with a visit to Baldwin’s gravesite at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Was it a simple marble stone, a granite slab, a large headstone marked with a quote? Or a family mausoleum to enfold Baldwin and his seven siblings? Sadly, there is again no picture. Glaude writes only that he knelt down, touched the earth, and quietly said, “Thank you.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

An Interview with Pam Fessler

by Kitty Kelley

Pam Fessler, an award-winning journalist with National Public Radio, covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues. Prior to her 27 years at NPR, Fessler was a senior writer at Congressional Quarterly. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. Carville’s Cure: Leprosy, Stigma, and the Fight for Justice is her first book.

We’re experiencing a national pandemic with covid-19. Do you see any similarities between this and what occurred with leprosy 100 years ago?

Definitely. I wrote the book before the pandemic, but I’ve been struck by all of the parallels. As with the current coronavirus outbreak, the threat of leprosy was used to demonize certain groups of people, especially Asian immigrants. Now, we have talk of the “China virus” and “Kung flu.” Then, there was “Oriental leprosy” and “leprous hordes of Asia” threatening the nation’s health, even though most patients at the turn of the century were native born. Disease has often been used as a weapon against those we consider “others,” and that doesn’t seem to have changed.

The other thing that hasn’t changed is how ignorance about a disease can open the way for misinformation, allowing people to respond to their fears rather than the science. People didn’t know at the turn of the century how leprosy — also called Hansen’s disease — was spread and that it was only mildly contagious.

They reacted instead to common myths about leprosy as depicted in the Bible and elsewhere. The disease was seen as a sign of sin and moral inferiority, so victims became social outcasts rather than people to be treated and cured. Without good information and leadership, people let their biases guide their response — even if it’s ultimately harmful — as many are doing today with covid-19.

Until 1999, the U.S. ran a leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, where people with leprosy were confined against their will and deprived of such basic rights as voting, marrying, and keeping custody of their children. They were even strongly encouraged to change their names. Please explain why people with a bacterial disease that affected only five percent of the population were so shunned.

I think it was for the reasons mentioned above, that the misperception of leprosy as a moral disease was so ingrained. People with serious cases of the disease could also be repulsive to look at, so others preferred that they be hidden away. Added to that was a general fear that immigrants were bringing exotic diseases into the country, and the public wanted the government to do something about it. No one knew at the time that 95 percent of humans were naturally immune to leprosy. Some doctors suspected that was the case, but their voices were drowned out by public (and media) hysteria.

The solution was to send the patients far away and isolate them from the rest of society, in the hope that the disease would disappear with them. But the strategy backfired. The possibility of being confined for life scared anyone who thought they might have the disease from seeking treatment. Instead, they hid their ailment and continued to live in their communities until the disease got so bad, they suffered permanent damage to their limbs and organs. If they were going to infect anyone else, they had probably done so long before they were diagnosed and sent away.

Why do you think leprosy carried a greater stigma than syphilis, tuberculosis, and other far more contagious and dangerous diseases? And still does to this day?

It wasn’t only the Bible that shaped attitudes toward leprosy (and, ironically, scholars now believe that what’s called “leprosy” in the Bible was actually some other skin ailment). One of the most popular books in the late 1800s was Ben-Hur, which described in great detail the horrible fate of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister, who both had leprosy. Also, around this time, the famous Catholic priest Father Damien died of leprosy after working with patients at a colony in Hawaii, feeding widespread fear that the disease was highly contagious. In fact, he was one of the few healthcare workers to ever die of the disease. In its 100-year history, not one worker at Carville contracted leprosy.

Even though syphilis, tuberculosis, and other diseases were far more contagious and dangerous, the families of those sent to Carville often told friends that they had gone away because they had TB or mental breakdowns, or even had died — because anything was preferable to admitting someone had leprosy! Even today, about half the patients admitted to the National Hansen’s Disease Program say they contemplated suicide when they learned they had leprosy, even though it’s easily cured. Patients still suffer more from the stigma than from the germ.

Why did the federal government assume the expense of maintaining a national leprosarium? The 350-acre facility in Carville has since been turned over to the state of Louisiana, but has there ever been another such facility in America?

There was growing pressure on the federal government to open a leprosarium in the early 1900s so patients would have somewhere to go — and could also be locked away. States at the time didn’t know what to do with people who had leprosy, which led to bizarre and tragic results. A young Syrian immigrant in West Virginia, who was diagnosed with the disease in 1906, headed to New York so he could return home. He was apprehended by authorities on the way and locked in a boxcar of a train, but no state would allow him to either get off or cross their borders. He ended up being shuttled from one state to another and finally dumped off in West Virginia, where he soon died.

Not long after, a man named John Early was diagnosed with leprosy in Washington, DC, and confined in a tent on the banks of the Potomac because authorities didn’t know what to do with him. Hundreds of people came to catch sight of the man who would become known as the nation’s “most famous leper.” Early ended up imprisoned on and off for years.

He finally forced the government to act by escaping and emerging at a fancy Washington hotel to announce that a “leper” had been mingling with important people, including the vice president of the United States, who lived at the hotel. That very same day, members of Congress introduced legislation to create a national leprosarium. Early’s story — covered by newspapers across the country — is one of my favorites in the book.

You write that, at the age of 78, your father-in-law called your husband to reveal a “family secret.” Please elaborate on that secret and how the phone call affected you.

My father-in-law called one night to tell us something he’d kept a secret for more than 60 years. When he was a teenager in New York, he came home from school one day to find that public-health officials had come and taken his father away because he had leprosy. My father-in-law never saw or talked to his father again and wasn’t sure where he had been taken, other than to “some hospital” down South. His mother had also told him never to tell anyone that his father had leprosy because the stigma was so great it could ruin the family.

As an elderly man, my father-in-law decided he needed to unburden himself of this secret. His revelation led us to discover that the federal government ran a leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, where his father and other Americans had been confined — often against their wills and until they died — simply because they were ill.

When we took my father-in-law down to visit Carville, I realized his story was one of many. Thousands of families had been torn apart and lives destroyed because of this much-misunderstood disease. I also realized that what happened at Carville was not only tragic, but amazing because of the way the patients ultimately fought to regain their freedom and rights. That’s when I decided to write this book.

Why were Catholics, more than any other religious denomination, so involved in caring for those with leprosy?

In the case of Carville, it was because the government couldn’t find anyone else willing to do the job. When it was initially the Louisiana Leper Home, the state brought patients to this remote site and basically left them to fend for themselves. Eventually, the Daughters of Charity sisters were recruited to go there and provide nursing care. When the federal government took over in 1921, the U.S. Public Health Service decided to keep the sisters on to care for the patients, noting that it would be difficult to get public-health nurses to work with leprosy patients because it might destroy their chances of getting jobs elsewhere. That’s how pervasive the stigma and ignorance about the disease were at the time.

I think there is a religious aspect, too. Some of the sisters saw it as their mission to care for both the patients’ bodies and their souls. There were complaints from some of the Protestant patients — especially John Early — that the sisters (who he called “nun-nurses”) were trying to convert everyone to Catholicism. An investigation uncovered some proselytizing, but the federal government decided to keep the sisters on because, again, they had little choice. The Daughters of Charity turned out to be incredible caregivers, as well as strong patient allies.

In the book, you reprint a photo of “Patient No. 746,” Stanley Stein, kissing the actress Tallulah Bankhead. Please explain the importance of Stein, born Sidney Levyson, and his relationship to the actress.

To me, Stanley Stein is the key character, and heart, of Carville’s Cure. He arrived at the hospital in 1931 as a young, ambitious man whose life was unexpectedly derailed by this disease. He was appalled by what he found at Carville: listless and apathetic patients resigned to their fate. Stein was determined to change that.

Among other things, he got permission to start a patient newspaper, the Star, which grew over time from a few mimeographed pages of patient gossip to an internationally known publication that led the fight for the rights of leprosy patients around the world. Articles written by patients questioned government policy and chronicled the latest scientific and medical developments. It pushed to eliminate use of the words “leper” and “leprosy” — in favor of Hansen’s disease — to counter the stigma of the disease.

Stein was not only hardworking and smart, but extremely astute at using people to advance the patients’ cause. He recruited celebrities, including Broadway star Tallulah Bankhead, to broadcast the patients’ message to the world. Stein even had Bankhead getting all of her show-business friends to subscribe to the Starwhich grew to have more than 80,000 subscribers in 150 countries.

Stein had other allies, too, including one of the Daughters of Charity, Sister Catherine Sullivan, who encouraged his advocacy and was frequently heard to say, “Mercy is no substitute for justice.” If for no other reason, people should read this book to learn about Stanley Stein.

How is Carville, Louisiana, connected to James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager? Why was that particular place selected for a national leprosarium?

Carville is a tiny hamlet in a remote area of southern Louisiana along the Mississippi River, 20 miles southeast of Baton Rouge. The town was named after James Carville’s grandfather, who was the postmaster and ran the general store. Over time, the hospital — which had many names, including U.S. Public Hospital No. 66 — became known simply as Carville.

The federal facility dominated the small community, and James Carville says it provided employment for many residents and a source of pride. He thinks its presence helped shape the person he is today by exposing him to doctors and researchers who came there from around the world. James Carville says residents used to brag that the town had more doctors per capita than Rochester, Minnesota, home of the famous Mayo Clinic.

The site was selected for the national leprosarium because the federal government couldn’t find any other community willing to accept it. The remote, mosquito-infested property was not well suited for caring for sick people, but it was removed from populated areas — which is what a fearful public demanded. Still, Louisiana officials told neighbors at first that the old plantation was going to be turned into an ostrich farm so they wouldn’t resist creation of the state’s new “leper home.” James Carville’s grandfather was a 10-year-old boy who watched the first patients arrive by river barge in 1894 and realized that no ostriches were coming.

How does your book differ from others on the subject, such as The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molakai by John Tayman, and Stanley Stein’s Alone No Longer: The Story of a Man Who Refused to Be One of the Living Dead?

Tayman’s book tells the story of a leprosy colony established in Hawaii in the mid-1800s. There are many similarities in how the patients were treated there and at Carville and the injustices they faced. The difference is that the Carville leprosarium was run by the federal government, and patients came from around the country throughout the 20th century. Carville’s Cure tells the story of the tragedy of how people with leprosy were treated in the United States, but also how they fought back to regain their rights, freedom, and respect.

Carville became a major medical-research facility where the cure for leprosy was discovered, another integral part of the story. Stanley Stein’s memoir provides many wonderful details about the patient crusade he helped to launch, but Carville’s Cure tells much more about what led up to that campaign and what happened after. My family’s personal story is also woven throughout the book.

What’s your next book?

Ha! I told anyone who asked that the one thing I learned writing this book is that you have to be extremely passionate about the topic or you’re not going to finish the job. I promised my father-in-law before he died that I would write this book because I felt so strongly about the need to tell this story. I saw how the Carville experience had shaped and destroyed so many lives. I’m not sure I’ll ever find another topic quite so compelling, but who knows?

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


The Answer Is…

by Kitty Kelley

The category is: Farewell Books.

The answer is: “This memoir lists a philosophy of life, rather than the usual puff quotes from impressive names, on its back cover.”

The question is: “What is Alex Trebek’s The Answer Is…?

The tone of Trebek’s new book is conversational and follows the “Jeopardy!” format. But while the front cover shows a photo of the silver-haired host, the back takes your breath away. Superimposed on sunny yellow are four simple sentences:

I believe in the will to live.
believe in the power of positivity.
I believe in optimism.
I believe in hope.

These declarations, powerful and poignant, command attention because the quiz-show host is battling stage-four pancreatic cancer, although he objects to the word “battling”: “It suggests there are only two outcomes: winning or losing,” he writes. “If you don’t get well, you are a ‘loser.’ If you have decided to stop treatment, you have ‘given up.’ That’s nonsense.”

Here, Trebek, who has hosted “Jeopardy!” for 36 years, discloses his decision to discontinue chemotherapy beyond his current regimen. No surprise, then, to learn his strategy for wagering in Final Jeopardy mirrors one of General George Patton’s favorite quotes: “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace.”

Audacity, audacity, always audacity.

Trebek doesn’t shy away from the cost his cancer has exacted on his mind and body since he was diagnosed in 2019.

“[Y]ou get hit with shock waves — whether pain or unpredicted surges of depression or just debilitating moments of agony, weakness. I don’t have much stamina anymore…Just pain and fatigue and, well, different kinds of agony. Each day brings a new set of challenges.

“The chemo has caused sores inside my mouth that make it difficult for me to enunciate. One treatment turned my skin dark brown, and caused my hair to fall out.” He admits to wearing a hairpiece since 2017 and says he likes the look.

A consummate showman, Trebek manages to continue hosting with brio, despite chemotherapy, and that fact amazes even him:

“It’s the strangest thing…there are days when I’m just a basket case before we tape. I can barely walk to the production meeting. But when…I get on stage, it all changes suddenly. I’m myself again. I feel good.”

His book is an aperçu of short takes on his life, which he acknowledges has been “all good stuff.” No adolescent traumas. No adult catastrophes. Even his divorce was amicable. Born in Sudbury, Ontario, he emigrated from Canada to California in 1973 to begin his climb in American television, which included hosting a variety of game shows that rarely lasted more than 13 weeks.

Then came “Jeopardy!,” followed by syndication, national recognition, and an annual salary of $10 million. During this career rise, Trebek met his second wife, Jean, “my soul mate.” They have two children together.

Readers also learn that Trebek loves luxury cars. He bought his first Bentley (a 1956 Mulliner Park Ward Convertible) for $34,000 — and sold it for $54,000 to finance his divorce. He claims to have since shaken his car addiction: “I am past the age where I need a car to impress people.”

Still, he includes a jazzy photo of himself in his first Jaguar (a 1956 XK140 roadster) and with a red 1971 Italia Spyder, which he sold — and which was later auctioned by Sotheby’s for $179,200. He now drives a Dodge Ram 1500.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he writes of the truck. “I’m no redneck. I don’t have a gun rack in it. I have a wine rack.”

As you’d expect from someone in the entertainment industry, Trebek drops a few names — Rudolf Nureyev, Merv Griffin, Ed Sullivan, Queen Elizabeth, and Prince Philip — but no startling anecdotes. He writes that, whenever he is asked which famous people he’d most like to see on the show, he responds: “Ava Gardner, because she was so beautiful. Mark Twain, because he was so bright. And Ava Gardner again, just because she’s Ava Gardner.”

A bit of fanboy peeks through his polish, too, on the subject of Ava’s third husband, Frank Sinatra, who sent Trebek a typewritten thank-you note in 1987 when “Jeopardy!” created a category devoted entirely to the singer. Trebek framed the note and hung it in his office, saying it was one of “the highlights of my life.”

He pays tribute to several “Jeopardy!” contestants in his memoir, including the biggest all-time winner, who appeared for 16 weeks, won 74 straight games, and walked away with more than $2.52 million.

The answer is: “This player failed to respond ‘H&R Block’ when asked to name the firm whose 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year.”

The question is: “Who is Ken Jennings?” (He’d incorrectly responded, “What is FedEx?”)

Toward the end of Trebek’s book, the categories get more serious:

“What is…Toughness?”
“What is…The will to survive?”
“What is…Getting your affairs in order?”
“The answer is…Life.”

Trebek assures us that he wants to continue living but, when the time comes, he’ll depart with dignity. “I’m not afraid of dying…I’ve lived a good, full life and I’m nearing the end of it. I know that.”

Godspeed, Alex.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Kitty Kelley

Any roll call of saints must include the name of Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), who escaped from slavery in North Carolina and documented its pernicious evils in her extraordinary book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. First published in 1861, the memoir smashed the Southern euphemism of slavery as a “peculiar institution” and pulverized the myth of the so-called Free North, which, she writes, also “aped the customs of slavery.”

Like most abolitionists, Jacobs dedicated her freedom years to helping others flee bondage. She wrote her book “to arouse the women of the North” to realize “the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage.” She wanted to convince people in the Free States that slavery was a foul pit of abomination.

American slavery began in 1619 when a Dutch man-o-war docked in Jamestown, Virginia, and sold the 20 Black men onboard to white colonists. By 1860, one-sixth of the population of the United States consisted of slaves. To read Incidents in 2020, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, when the president of the U.S. cheers the Confederate flag, is to experience a time warp forcing reflection on the decades since Jacobs published her searing narrative.

Did she ever imagine that it would take four years of Civil War, three “slavery” amendments to the Constitution (the 13th, 14th, and 15th), plus the 24th Amendment in 1964 (outlawing poll taxes) and the Civil Rights legislation of 1960, 1964, and 1968, to give African Americans a path to equality?

Jacobs also established the Jacobs Free School, knowing that literacy led to liberty. The fact that an enslaved woman could read and write is in itself phenomenal because the Anti-Literacy Laws in most slave states made the educating of slaves a criminal offense punishable by fines, floggings, and imprisonment. These laws arose out of the fear that, once slaves became literate, they could forge the documents required to escape to freedom.

Jacobs writes with amazing style and grace, saying she was taught by “a kind mistress” with whom she lived until she was 12. Jacobs then went on to secretly teach others, including “an old black man” (age 53) named “Uncle Fred,” who begged her for “learnin.” Within six months, he had read through the New Testament, and she marveled at his progress. Here she adopts a dialect of the unlettered, which jars modern sensibility, but it was her way of differentiating between the literate and illiterate:

“Lord bress you, chile,” said Uncle Fred. “You nebber gibs me a lesson dat I don’t pray to God to help me to understan’ what I spells and what I reads. And he does help me. Bress his holy name.”

Jacobs tells readers there are thousands like Uncle Fred, who “are thirsting for the water of life, but the law forbids it, and the churches withhold it.” She beseeches missionaries who go abroad to instead stay home and preach to America’s slaveholders that “it’s wrong to traffic in men, to sell their own children, to violate their daughters…And to shut their brethren [from] the light of knowledge.”

She centers her story on the villainy of her master, a white doctor who tries to bed her as a young child while his wife, although jealous, looks the other way:

“Southern women often marry a man knowing that he is the father of many little slaves. They do not trouble themselves about it. They regard such children as property, as marketable as the pigs on the plantation.”

The physician’s wife was “totally deficient in energy [to work] but she had the strength to sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped ‘til the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash. She was a member of the church.”

Young and pretty, Jacobs frequently “passed” because “in complexion my parents were a light shade of brownish yellow, and were termed mulattoes.” But being attractive was a heavy burden for a slave:

“If God has bestowed beauty on a slave, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave…Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women…[T]hey have wrongs and suffering and mortifications peculiarly their own.”

Writing with 19th-century decorum, Jacobs shrouds the grisly rapes and violent sexual assaults endured by female slaves as “the guilty practices of the Master,” “his unspeakable acts,” and “wrongs which even the grave does not bury.”

She enraged her master by taking a white lawyer as her lover and having his two children. The lawyer, who became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, purchased the children from the doctor and let them live with Jacobs’ grandmother, a freed slave.

The lawyer did not free the children, however, because, as she writes, a white man “may have a shoal of colored children without any disgrace, but if he is known to purchase them with the view of setting them free, the example is thought to be dangerous to their ‘peculiar institution,’ and he becomes unpopular.”

At the age of 27, Jacobs engineered her escape, which so enraged her master that he hired bounty hunters to chase her down. She managed to evade capture, though, even when she secretly returned to North Carolina.

With sly cunning, Jacobs wrote a letter to the doctor indicating she was walking free on the streets of New York. She got it smuggled to a fleeing slave, who, in turn, had it posted in the North and delivered back to North Carolina, where Jacobs was hiding — splayed in the crawlspace of her grandmother’s attic — a few hundred yards from the doctor’s home. Her ruse insured her safety as she waited for the opportunity to free her children.

Jacobs hid in her grandmother’s attic for seven years — and could barely stand up straight when she finally emerged — before abolitionists purchased freedom for her and her children. But while she was grateful, she writes, “I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his.”

Her grandmother, who protected the family, lived to rejoice in Jacobs’ freedom, but soon Jacobs received a somber letter with a black seal. She writes that her beloved grandmother had gone “where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.” She concludes her narrative by cherishing what she had fought for in bondage:

“Readers, my story ends with freedom, not in the usual way, with marriage…or a hearth or home…which is still my dream…[but] I and my children are now free.”

(Note: A collection of slave narratives, part of the WPA Federal Writers’ Project of the Great Depression, is housed at the Library of Congress. Click here to view it.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books