January 7, 2010

My comments are mostly about books and reading. I don’t do comprehensive reviews. Instead I write about some aspect that gets my attention.

For information about American silver and for slide shows related to my courses, see the Pages listed on the right.

Uncle Cicero and Me

July 15, 2014

Fitz Randolph Gate at Princeton University

In 1752 Nathaniel Fitz Randolph donated some money for the founding of Princeton College, as well as the land for the original campus. I am related to that Nathaniel Fitz Randolph and the beautiful gate erected in his honor. I owe this knowledge to my mother’s Uncle Cicero who researched and wrote two books on the family history.

It works out like this.

Cicero Pangburn McClure, 1847-1926

Cicero Pangburn McClure, 1847-1926

The daughter of Nathaniel Fitz Randolph was Hannah Fitz Randolph.
Hannah Fitz Randolph married Stephen Pangburn, thus joining the Pangburn family line.
The son of Stephen Pangburn was Isaac Pangburn.
The daughter of Isaac Pangburn was Nancy Pangburn.
Nancy Pangburn married James McClure, thus joining the McClure family line.
The sons of James McClure were my great uncle, Cicero McClure, and Frank McClure, my grandfather.

This establishes that Nathaniel Fitz Randolph was my g-g-g-g grandfather. Now when you go that many generations back you have a lot of great grandparents, 32 in fact. With the number of ancestors doubling with each generation, before you get even 20 generations back you have over a million ancestors. At some point your calculation exceeds the population of the earth at that time. There must have been some duplication.

Genealogy as an accumulation of ancestors does not interest me much. Family stories, on the other hand, I find very compelling. My brother Bill and I are trying to link the stories we remember with the family documents that have come to hand. In Randolph-Pangburn – William Pangburn and His Wife Hannah Fitz Randolph (1909) and  The Pioneer McClure Families of the Monongahela Valley (1924) Uncle Cicero sets out what he could discover about his roots in colonial America and the settlement of western Pennsylvania.

Uncle Cicero must have spent hours checking census records, visiting cemeteries and talking with old timers. I am sure he would have loved the Internet. For example, I find this 1876 Butler Coal Company map which shows the location of the farms of Uncle Cicero and my grandfather.


1875 Map of Forward Township, Pennsylvania. The area marked “Jas. McClure” was Cicero’s farm and the area marked “F. Ketchum” was my grandfather’s.

My brother and I visited our grandparents on the farm in the 1930s and ’40s. We heard the family stories, but did not record what we heard. Now we are trying to reconstruct those stories and post them at our family blog.  It will be a small repayment for what Cicero has left for us. Click here for a full account of My Uncle Cicero.

FrankMcClure_c1902 - Copy

Harvest Time on the Frank McClure farm, c. 1902

Arnold Bennett reads L’Oeuvre

July 11, 2014
Arnold Bennett

Arnold Bennett

I have been reading The Journals of Arnold Bennett. Made up of excerpts selected and edited by Frank Swinnerton, the journals represent over 30 years of Bennett’s opinions on a range of literary subjects. Bennett respected Zola as a fellow realist.  In 1905, he commented:

I have just finished reading L’Oeuvre. It has taken me a long time, because I left in the middle to read Wells’s Kipps. What a colossal affair it seems by the side of Kipps, so serious, tremendous, and imposing. The middle parts seem rather carelessly done; the detail piled up without sufficient attention to the form. But the final scene between Calude and Christine — the fight between love and art — is simply magnificent; it moved me; it is one of the finest things in Zola. It is overdone, it goes farther than the truth; but purposely; Zola has stepped into the heroic in this scene, as he does now and then. All the close of the book is most affecting.

Kipps, by Wells, is a worthy book, also realist in tone but devoted to the life and problems of a rather shallow young man who unexpectedly inherits some money. In depicting the struggles of an artist, Zola was developing a much more significant theme. Some people would say that Bennett was closer to Wells than to Zola in his own writing, so it is striking that he can appreciate what Zola was doing in L’Oeuvre.

For more about Zola, visit our Reading Zola blog.

The Flat in Tel Aviv

July 5, 2014



The books in the flat were the German classics.

The books in the flat were the German classics.

“My grandmother lived here for 70 years as if she had never left Germany.”

So Arnon Goldfinger says as he surveys her flat in Tel Aviv. His Tuchler grandparents left Germany in the 1933; after the war they made repeated trips back to Europe, including to Germany. Their children and grandchildren are Israelis, who now understand how little they really knew this distinguished couple.

One of the unexpected pleasures of seeing movies streamed on our new TV is finding films we would not otherwise have known about, much less seen. First, we saw Hannah Arendt, and that sent me off to read Eichmann in Jerusalem. Then perhaps because I liked the Arendt film, Netflix recommended The Flat, a documentary about Goldfinger’s investigation of his grandparents’ past.

The family secrets, although never discussed, were not concealed. Goldfinger finds newspaper articles and letters tying his grandparents to Leopold von Mildenstein. The Tuchlers accompanied him when he made a trip to Palestine in the 1930s and wrote about the desirability of Zionism for the Nazi press. Von Mildenstein urged a Zionist approach to making Germany Judenrein – free of Jews. He hired Adolph Eichmann to help him implement this policy. Eichmann, who considered himself a Jewish “expert,” embraced the goal of emigration. If the Jews emigrated, where better place to go than Palestine! All of this is reported in Arendt’s account of the evolution of Eichmann’s role in the final solution.

Goldfinger’s movie is outstanding in its exploration of knowledge and its consequences. The first generation, those who experienced the war, is gone. The second generation – Goldfinger’s mother and von Mildenstein’s daughter Edda – learned not to ask questions. By not pressing for information they could believe the past was not important. It is the third generation, comfortable in their identities, who can ask. I was touched by the ambiguity of the scenes in Germany, the interviews with distant relatives (only partly Jewish) and the Mildenstein family. I saw the pain of those who have chosen not to know and now must hear answers to the questions they never asked.

Goldfinger tries to understand his grandparents, why they went back . One explanation was that when they left Germany their identity was German. To be rejected by their people, their culture, was so painful that they looked for evidence that the rejection was not universal, that “good Germans” still accepted them. In his journals I Will Bear Witness, Victor Klemperer reports something similar. Barely tolerated in Dresden, walking the streets wearing the yellow star, he treasures each friendly remark as a sign that some Germans sympathized with his plights.

Finally, the saddest scene occurs near the end of the film. It shows us the present created by the past. Goldfinger and his mother walk in a Jewish cemetery in the rain looking for the grave of her grandfather, who died a natural death in Germany. They cannot find it. The cemetery is spooky, with trees that have grown up among the headstones, many of which have sunk into the foliage. There are no Jews alive now in the town to maintain this place of memory.

Gerda Tuchler's gloves, symbols her reluctance to abandon older ways of living.

Gerda Tuchler’s gloves, symbols of her reluctance to abandon older ways of living.

To make a garden….

July 2, 2014

DeckGarden1Emily Dickinson wrote,

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

When we sold our house three years ago and moved to our comfortable apartment, I thought I was through with gardening. The last years of the 30-some we spent in the house were disappointing. The beautiful trees grew taller and fuller, reducing vegetable production and making the annuals reluctant to bloom. A woodchuck took up residence in the neighborhood to feast on our green beans and take bites from our tomatoes. After the move, I satisfied myself with a couple of tomato plants on the deck and an occasional geranium in a pot.

DeckGarden2Then a conservation group sent us a packet of mixed wildflower seed. I sprinkled them in a planter and watched to see what would come up. Lots of action, as it turned out, but so far I have only identified the clover (thank you, Emily) and the cornflowers. That’s because after the sowing I threw the seed packet — with its list of contents — away. Never mind. I have learned what it takes to make a garden, as I sit each morning by my plants, in revery.

The blue flower is a cornflower, sometimes called a bachelor’s button. DeckGarden4Can anyone tell me the name of the little white flowers? Each has five petals and is separately borne on its own little stem. The leaves are minimal.

What I Read in June 2014

June 30, 2014

zweigStefan Zweig, The Post Office Girl. In this brief and bitter novel, two young people, angry at how their prospects have been blighted by World War I, resolve to do better for themselves in an unjust system.

FountHenry James, The Sacred Fount. The “fount” in this brief novel dribbles out its sacred waters drop by drop until the reader is like to die of thirst. This is James at his most prodigiously and verbosely self indulgent.

LastFriendsJane Gardam, Last Friends. They are the last friends any of us have — the ones who survive with us, leaving behind all the other friends who have died. This third novel in Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy is about old age and how Dulcie, Veneering and Fiscal-Smith become all who remain.

dinesenIsak Dinesen, Letters from Africa, 1914-1931. “I had a farm in Africa….” begins the magical memoir Out of Africa. The author did have a farm there and lived in what is now Kenya for 17 years. These are the letters she wrote her family, the story of her life as it was happening to her.

sandGeorge Sand, The Devil’s Pool. This is a mid-19th century rural tale of the honest ploughman and his courtship of little Marie. The final chapters are almost anthropological in their description of country marriage customs. This cannot be the George Sand who shocked her contemporaries.

arendtHannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem. This book deserves the controversy it aroused with Arendt’s careful dissection of the case against Adolph Eichmann and his trial in Jerusalem. Banality of evil? It’s a little more complicated than the phrase suggests and much more challenging to come to terms with.

echoparkMichael Connelly, Echo Park. With this month’s Harry Bosch detective thriller, I am up to 2006, as I read through  Connelly’s oeuvre in chronological order. Harry has gotten together with Rachel Walling again, and they are a good team, even though she is FBI and he is LAPD, with all the possibility of conflicts from these connections.

TheseTwainArnold Bennett, These Twain. Edwin Clayhanger and Hilda Lessways, each the subject of an earlier novel in this trilogy, are married now. The course of life together does not always run smooth.

ColwinLaurie Colwin, A Big Storm Knocked It Over. I’m not sure what chicklit is, but this may be a specimen. Two couples in New York love, laugh, explore the meaning of marriage, detest their families and begin families of their own. Entertaining dialog.



Arnold Bennett, These Twain

June 24, 2014
Edwin Clayhanger and Hilda Lessways, equal participants in These Twain

Edwin Clayhanger and Hilda Lessways, equal participants in These Twain

If you admire Arnold Bennett, as I do, you will like this book, but don’t start here. These Twain is the third novel of the Clayhanger trilogy. The first, Clayhanger, tells Edwin’s story, as he sees it, up until the time of his marriage to Hilda. Hilda Lessways, the second book is Hilda’s story, her point of view. In These Twain – and the title is well chosen – we hear from both of them, alternately, as they adapt to requirements of marriage and life together.

Edwin and Hilda have each had separate lives before marrying in their thirties. Edwin dealt with an overbearing father and successfully took over and expanded his printing business. Edwin never aspired to be a printer, but now he is one, and he is exacting in his standards. Hilda had trained herself in shorthand writing when there were few such female writers in England, made an unwise marriage and ran a boarding house, mostly unsuccessfully, before marrying Edwin. Do they accept each other with their faults and blemishes? Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no.

Their story is compelling and their mutual aggravations believable, but the reader knows that eventually they will settle down to the business of serious compromise. Much of the charm of the book is in the minor characters, who are well drawn. They live in a time of change, and not always for the better. Auntie Hamps encounters new furniture:

 It quite ignored the old Victorian ideals of furniture; and in ignoring the past, if also ignored the future. Victorian furniture had always sought after immorality; in Bursley there were thousands of Victorian chairs and tables that defied time and that nothing but an axe or a conflagration could destroy. But this new suite thought not of the morrow; it did not even pretend to think of the morrow. Nobody believed that it would last….

Edwin is a man of settled habit, his imagination is limited; Hilda provides spice, but she also offends him.

 It was not that the woman had a different code, — she had no code except the code of the utter opportunist. To live with her was like living with a marvelous wild animal, full of grace, of cunning, of magnificent passionate gestures, of terrific affection, and of cruelty. She as at once indispensable and intolerable.

Hilda, on her part, recognizes her role as a wife of a successful man.

 She was the complement of his existence, but he was not the complement of hers. She was just a parasite, though an essential parasite. Why? … The reason, she judged was economic, and solely economic….

Her lot was unalterable. She had of course, not the slightest desire to leave him; she was devoted to him; what irked her was that, even had she had the desire, she could not have fulfilled it, for she was too old now, and too enamoured of comfort and security, to risk such an enterprise.

And so we have it. Are they doomed to a life of depressing small quarrels? Bennett’s skill and a novelist is to show us the reality of their conflicts, as well as their probable future course.

Arnold Bennett, successful and underrated, just like Edwin Clayhanger

Arnold Bennett, successful and underrated, just like Edwin Clayhanger

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

June 21, 2014

arendtHannah Arendt irritated a lot of people and now that I have read her Eichmann in Jerusalem – over 50 years after the Eichmann trial and the publication of her book – I understand why. She does not soften her opinions:

 Eichmann was not a master criminal. He made few important decisions on his own, although he experienced no guilt about carrying out those of others. He did not personally murder, but he facilitated murder. He was not a unique actor, but the crimes to which he contributed were unique. The Israelis had the right to try him, but many of the charges were irrelevant. The prosecution did not understand the case (at least not the way Arendt did!). The Jewish councils were complicit in the deportation of the Jews to their certain death. Most political systems/governments did not protect the Jews, but a few did. The systematic elimination of a population –genocide – is not a crime against the Jews but against humanity.

 I have probably left something out, but the listing will do for now.

ArendtMovieI did not intend to read Arendt’s book. I came across the movie Hannah Arendt (2012) on Netflix and was drawn in to the situation of Arendt, a German Jew who left Europe for a successful career in the United States, covered the trial for The New Yorker, and was criticized for her opinions. The movie does a better job of portraying the prickly Arendt than it does of explaining the judgments she expressed in Eichmann in Jerusalem. The film mostly concerned itself with the reaction to her description of the complicity of the Jewish councils in organizing their people for extinction. Fifty years later their role is generally acknowledged, but still painful to consider.

I finished the book with a feeling of great respect for Arendt, whatever her personal and professional arrogance. She was not satisfied with generalities, but pursued the trail of Eichmann’s responsibility through all the layers of totalitarian bureaucracy with its rules and orders.

 According to Dr. Rudolph Mildner… orders for deportations were given by Himmler in writing to Kaltenbrunner, head of the R.S.H.A., who notified Muller, head of the Gestapo, or Section IV of R.S.H.A., who in turn transmitted the orders orally to his referent in IV-B-4 – that is, to Eichmann. …. Himmler also issued orders to the local Higher S.S. and Police Leaders and informed Kaltenbrunner accordingly. Questions of what should be done with the Jewish deportees… were also decided by Himmler, and his orders concerning these matters went to Pohl’s W.V.H.A., which communicated them to Richards Glucks, inspector of the concentration and extermination camps, who in turn passed them along to the commanders of the camps.

There is more, but this gives a fair sample of the complexity of the order sequence. Did this absolve Eichmann of responsibility for following the orders? Arendt says, after remarking that the facts of what Eichmann had done were not in dispute,

 But since he had been employed in transportation and not in killing, the question remained, legally, formally, at least, of whether he had known what he was doing; and there was the additional question of whether he had been in a position to judge the enormity of his deeds – whether he was legally responsible, apart from the fact that he was medically sane.

It is the human question which haunts. Why was Eichmann, who was not a sadist and had little personal animus against the Jews, willingly complicit in their deportation to certain death? His view was that, although he was following orders, he was doing more than that: he was carrying out the law, and the law was whatever Hitler ordered.

 …Hitler, he said, “may have been wrong all down the line, but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up from lance corporal in the German Army to Fuhrer of a people of almost eighty million…. His success alone proved to me that I should subordinate myself to this man.” His conscience was indeed set at rest when he saw the zeal and eagerness with which “good society” everywhere reacted as he did.

Within the need to carry out the law – and promote his own interest in recognition and promotion – Eichmann conceived of himself as helpful. In Vienna, in charge of emigration,

 The Jews “desired” to emigrate, and he, Eichmann, was there to help them, because it so happened that at the same time the Nazi authorities had expressed a desired to see their Rich judenrein. The two desires coincided, and he, Eichmann, could “do justice to both parties.”

The desire to emigrate was not a casual wish on the part of those fleeing for their lives, but Eichmann lacked the imagination to see the connection between the desire and the origin of the desire. He was aided in his delusions by the very words he and the others used.

 Furthermore, all correspondence referring to the matter was subject to rigid “language rules,” and, except in the reports from the Einsatzgruppen, it is rare to find documents in which such bald words as “extermination,” “liquidation,” or “killing” occur. The prescribed code names for killing were “final solution,” “evacuation” and “special treatment”; deportation… received the names of “resettlement” and “labor in the East”…. [Some German terms omitted.]

(This sounds uncomfortably like the language rules at General Motors which were also intended to relieve the organization of responsibility, as well as to dilute the individual user’s emotional response.)

 For whatever other reasons the language rules may have been devised, they proved of enormous help in the maintenance of order and sanity in the various widely diversified services whose cooperation was essential in this matter.

The term banality of evil disconcerts me because it is an image of evil as a black cloud prepared to descend on us. The abstraction of evil  doesn’t work for me, but evil deeds I can understand. Eichmann was not personally a monster but he did monstrous deeds. He was something more frightening than an evil monster. He was an average, rather limited, man who made his way in the world by executing as best he could laws from a higher authority. Not everyone did the same, but many did, and we could have been one of them.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 240 other followers