Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Story of Henry Littlefield


During the 1960s when my brother and I were growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., our parents and their friends occasionally mentioned Henry Littlefield, who taught American history to the city’s high school students.

It was wonderful that such an imaginative young man counted among a faculty still inhabited by Victorian women who were creeping into the modern era.

In 1964, Henry Littlefield published “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism” in the American Quarterly.1 This article was the first to interpret L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book as a tale of politics and society in late nineteenth-century America. Nearly 30 years later, Littlefield recalled the summer of 1963:


Toward the end of July, I was reading the opening chapters of The Wizard to my two daughters, then ages five and two. At the same time, in the [summer school] history course I taught, we were going through the Populist period and the 1890s. I lived just a few blocks from the school and remember running to class the next day, to my classroom on that hot, airless third floor.2  

Excitedly, Littlefield told the students: “Guess what? In The Wizard of Oz . . . Dorothy walks on a yellow brick road . . .” He suggested that the Scarecrow was a farmer who felt stupid and the Tin Woodman a laborer dehumanized by industrialization. Dorothy and her little band, marching toward the Emerald City, represented Coxey’s Army, and the Wizard could be any president, really, but likely William McKinley.

A. B. Davis High School, around 1915

The students were enthused but the article languished until 1977, when Gore Vidal wrote about it in the New York Review of Books. By that time, Littlefield had earned his PhD at Columbia University and moved on to Amherst College and then California where he taught at Golden Gate University and the Naval Postgraduate School.

By the mid-1980s, Littlefield’s thesis about Oz and populism had developed its own academic niche. Some of its proponents scrutinized Oz as an allegory in which each word, each moment, was loaded with symbolism. 

And they were self-righteous to boot, in the opinion of Michael Gessel, then editor of the Baum Bugle. Like Littlefield, he regarded the book as a parable on populism that happened to serve as an excellent teaching tool. Both men dismissed “outlandish” interpretations.3

Born in Manhattan in 1933, Littlefield grew up without a father, he once confided to a student.4 But he does not seem to have discussed his family, which was full of intrigue and achievement.

Around 1935, Henry’s mother, Elizabeth Miller Littlefield, divorced his father, Henry Mario Littlefield, in Reno. As was often the case in these sticky situations, Elizabeth’s parents invited their daughter and grandson to move into their brownstone on West 148th Street. 

Jesse Preston Miller, known as Dr. J. Preston Miller, ruled the household. The son of a Greenville, S.C. grocer, Miller had made his way north around 1900, married, and established a successful medical practice.   

J. Preston Miller, M.D.

Henry's father may have disappeared, but the boy's paternal grandparents lived on West Twelfth Street in Greenwich Village. It cannot be known whether he ever trekked downtown to visit them. What a time that would have been!

In 1940, Walter Littlefield was at the peak of his influence as foreign editor of the New York Times although his wife Luigina’s fabulous Manhattan salon had wound down in the late twenties . . .


Walter Littlefield

To be continued.


1 Henry M. Littlefield, “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,” American Quarterly, Spring 1964, 47-58.

2 Henry M. Littlefield, “The Wizard of Allegory,” The Baum Bugle, Spring 1992, 24-25.

3 Michael Gessel, “Tale of a Parable,” The Baum Bugle, Spring 1992, 19-23.

4 Richard J. Garfunkel, 

*The Baum Bugle, founded in 1957, is the official journal of the International Wizard of Oz Club:

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Understanding Herma


Herma Wager around 1919

Herma was the fourteenth of fifteen children born to Robert and Harriet Wager of Ohio.

Just after the American Civil War ended, Rob, as he was called, left his childhood home in Parham, Canada. He traveled 500 miles along lakes Ontario and Erie to reach Toledo, Ohio. Then he pushed forty miles farther west to Stryker, a railroad town incorporated in 1855.  

Within a few years he met Harriet Justus of Defiance, Ohio, and they wed in 1869 when she was sixteen and he twenty-three. His older sister, Jen, who stayed in Canada, seems to have never recovered from Rob’s departure nor those of anyone she knew—whether to the blur of America or to heaven. 

In a series of small, black-edged letters, which arrived in black-edged envelopes addressed in her spidery script, Jen grieved for twenty years. The worst was Ma, in 1881:


I miss her every place I look, I can see something to remind me of her something that she has made or fixed and it seems almost more than I can bear, I am alone so much, too, Pa and Hiram are in at mealtimes and evenings and the rest of the time I am alone. I think if I had someone to talk to and keep me from thinking it would not be so hard. 

One year later Pa, his eyes streaming with tears, took to his bed and never got out. Next to go were the pretty, young schoolmarm and the neighbors’ children. 

Thus there was always bad news from Jen except when she went overnight to Kingston and bought new trimmings to fix up an old dress.

It’s not that death didn’t follow Rob to Ohio.

Herma came along in 1896, more than a decade after her sisters Estella, Florence, and Luella, her brother Charles, and a baby boy who didn’t live long enough to be named, had passed.

By now the family had moved to Wauseon, where Rob no longer worked as a farm laborer but as a section foreman for a manufacturer of plumbing equipment.

In Wauseon the houses marched up and down the street, close together with picket fences between them and front porches where friends gathered. The turn of the century approached and the family felt happy. In 1900, when Harriet was forty-seven years old, she gave birth to her last child, George.

The Wager family in Wauseon, early twentieth century.
Herma sits to her mother's right and Bob stands, far left.

But the happiness fled. Rob died in 1901 and George died in 1902. He caught typhoid fever from his brother Clyde but Clyde recovered and George—dear baby, he was just starting to talk.

“Oh we miss him so much,” Harriet wrote to Jen, still brooding in Canada. She put on her own black costume and wore it for the rest of her life.   

Herma had never been a smiling kind of person but now, when the camera captured her out in the yard in a white voile dress, she looked distant and sad. Only the sight of her brother Robert, whom she adored, could cheer her.

Bob Wager dressed as a cowboy

Bob, as they called him, was Herma’s favorite among the Wager brothers: Warren, Sheldon, Foster, Clyde, Elwood, and Floyd. Three years older than Herma, Bob was her protector and comforter, her imp who became a handsome, responsible young man.

He left home in his late teens, moved to Cleveland and worked for the Willard Storage Battery Company, an early manufacturer of automobile ignition batteries. Around 1912, amid skyrocketing demand from car companies, Willard opened plants in Atlanta and Huntsville. Bob was assigned to the latter.

The U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, and three months later Bob enlisted in the Naval Aero Service. He trained at Pensacola, the nation’s sole naval air station, as a flier and mechanic.

R-6 Seaplane, Pensacola, 1917
(National Museum of the American Navy)

Aviation was still primitive. In the U.S., military officers planned to use planes for observational purposes rather than in combat. Of course, this view changed quickly when the generals got to Europe. Still, the U.S. never kept up with the allies’ aviation capabilities.

Bob arrived at the newly established U.S. Naval Air Station in Moutchic, France in December, and within six weeks he died of cerebrospinal meningitis. Many enlisted men were struck down by tuberculosis, pneumonia, and meningitis even before the influenza became a pandemic. Bob’s story is not unusual, perhaps only to the extent that he was the first Wauseon boy to die in the Great War. He is buried in France. 

In 1920 Herma married William Carroll Keenan, a veteran who went by “Cal” during that particular heyday of nicknames. They had two sons, Bill and Bob, both of whom recalled an impersonal, detached mother. They couldn’t get away from her fast enough.

When Bill and Bob grew up and married, their wives disliked Herma, too. The grandchildren found her visits uncomfortable. 

So what of Herma? No one has spoken of her for a half-century or more. There is little reason to tell her story to each new generation, to make sure her name and face are imprinted in the minds of her descendants.

Still she demands some understanding, my husband’s disagreeable grandmother. 

I think that Herma may have suffered from untreated post-partum depression. And she never recovered, even partway, from her brother Bob’s death nor that of little George who toddled around the farmhouse and probably was her charge.

Perhaps she saw Bob and George in the faces of her own sons but could not summon for them the same depth of feeling. It may be that everything that lived and laughed for Herma was back, way back before the twentieth century inflicted its blows.


Harriet Justus Wager died in 1918.
As Herma grew older, she came to resemble her mother.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

The New One


My well-worn copy of Mary Poppins and
Mary Poppins Comes Back

I’d better hurry up and write about my granddaughter before she forgets her story!

Since she was a few weeks old, C. has been whispering to the world as if she were confiding great wisdom. Speaking sotto voce in a just-between-us manner, C. seems to be sharing the secrets of the universe with anyone who will listen. She reminds me of Annabel.

Annabel was the youngest of the Banks children in the “Mary Poppins” books. Readers will have known her only as a baby. She has been mentioned in a few scholarly essays. Some critics have noted that her character is profound while others consider her trite. I don’t care either way.

From the first time I read about Annabel, I was hooked.   

Inside cover of Mary Poppins

The 1964 Disney film is familiar to millions who may not realize that it is based on a book by an English writer named P. L. Travers. Onscreen, the main characters are Jane and Michael Banks, their parents, and Mary Poppins.

If you’ve watched the film but never read the book, you would not know about the twins, John and Barbara. The truth is that they are rather colorless and it is understandable that Disney did not include them.

Annabel is different. She came along in Travers’ sequel, Mary Poppins Comes Back, published in 1935. This book opens with the unsupervised Banks children flying a kite in the park. The kite becomes lost in a cloud and won’t let itself be reeled in until bystanders gather to pull as hard as they can on the string. 

Suddenly, an object bursts from the cloud and slowly descends to earth as the children make out a familiar shape. 

“Ah!” Jane gave a shout of triumph. “It is she!”

And so it is. Mary Poppins has returned and will stay till the chain on her necklace breaks, she says.

Halfway through her second stay, Mary Poppins is handed an infant, Annabel, immediately after she is born to Mrs. Banks.

Presiding over Annabel in the children’s nursery, Mary Poppins is joined periodically by an impertinent starling who lives on top of the chimney and joyfully regards the infant as one of his own fledglings. One day the starling brings along a young bird, who asks where Annabel came from.


First pages of "The New One," chapter about Annabel

In response, Annabel gestures with her hands—just like my granddaughter—and explains to the starlings: 

"I came from the Dark where all things have their beginning . . . I come from     the sea and its tides . . . I come from the sun and its brightness . . . Slowly I moved at first . . . always sleeping and dreaming. I remembered all I had been and I thought of all I shall be."

Later, when Jane and Michael and the twins crowd around Annabel, they ask where she came from. Happily, Annabel embarks on her story: “I came from the Dark—” But Jane interrupts.

“Such funny little sounds! I wish she could talk and tell us.” Annabel kicks her legs and starts to cry. After all, she is telling them where she came from. 

My granddaughter manages to captivate every person who leans over and smiles at her. We listen raptly although we—grown, fumbling humans—do not understand what she is telling us. Whatever it may be, she expresses a certain urgency in sharing her thoughts. 

Perhaps, like Annabel, she is saying: “I heard the stars singing as I came and felt warm wings about me.” But she will not recall her journey forever, as the starling realizes one day. With a tear in his eye, he exclaims to Mary Poppins:

“She’s forgotten it all. I knew she would. But, ah, my dear, what a pity!”

P. L. Travers' 1996 obituary, New York Times

            During the 1980s, as she entered her own 80s, the famously private Travers sat down to discuss the origin of Mary Poppins. The nanny was not a character she invented, Travers insisted; Mary Poppins grew out of the author’s longstanding interest in myths, fables, and rites of passage. 

“I think if she comes from anywhere that has a name, it is out of myth,” she told the Paris Review in 1982.

And myth has been my study and joy ever since—oh, the age, I would think, of three. I’ve studied it all my life. No culture can satisfactorily move along its forward course without its myths, which are its teachings, its fundamental dealing with the truth of things, and the one reality that underlies everything.   

In a 1988 essay, Travers described Annabel’s story perfectly: “There are worlds beyond worlds and times beyond times, all of them true, all of them real, and all of them (as children know) penetrating each other.”     

Indeed, the “Mary Poppins” books delve deep into symbols, mysticism, and transcendence. We just don’t realize it because Travers was such a good storyteller. I hope my granddaughter will be one, too.

Many dissertations and books offer
analyses of the Mary Poppins books.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Chasing Charles Hemstreet


Charles Hemstreet, 1900s

Up in Buffalo, N.Y., Lake Erie narrows like a funnel into the Niagara River. Even before the Erie Canal opened in 1825 and through the nineteenth century, a shipbuilding industry flourished on the American side of the river.

Charles Hemstreet’s father, William, was a Buffalo ship carpenter who helped build some of the steamers that plied Lake Erie carrying freight and passengers. William’s oldest son, Felix, became a ship carpenter’s apprentice at the age of fourteen.

But Charles, born in 1866, had greater aspirations. Although he advanced no farther in school than sixth grade, Charles loved to read newspapers and books about history. Around 1885, he went south to New York City to look for a job that would suit his interests. 

During these years, the city was home to at least fifteen daily English language newspapers. Charles worked as a police reporter at a time when the department was at its most corrupt. The job required much hanging around headquarters on Mulberry Street. Charles stayed a few years, then became night manager of the Associated Press, a position he held for a decade.

New York City Police Headquarters, 1890s
when Theodore Roosevelt was Commissioner

Everything seemed to come his way, this foppish young man with a poet’s hair, dark and wavy, who liked to assume dramatic poses.

An officer of the New York Press Club, Charles often visited a shaky old building on Spruce Street, off Newspaper Row near City Hall Park, to carouse with fellow members of the notorious Blue Pencil Club.

Blue Pencil Club members at play

He’d bound up and down the stairs with a bunch of mischievous, irreverent reporters, editors, writers, cartoonists, and illustrators. They published a bawdy short-lived magazine and ran all over town drinking and declaiming.     

Charles’s wife, Marie Meinell, daughter of a grumpy Civil War veteran from Oyster Bay, also joined the Blue Pencil Club. Not only did Marie qualify as a published author (of insipid poetry), but she was mischievous, too.

In 1893, quarantined in a hospital with scarlet fever, Marie decided to escape by sliding down a rope to the street. Traveling under the name “Edith Fish” because she thought she might be sent to prison for running away, Marie raced off to Jersey City and Philadelphia. Finally she made her way to the Adirondacks where Charles came to comfort her and presumably did not catch scarlet fever.  

Charles was just 34 when he announced his retirement from journalism. According to a widely published notice, he would now devote himself to writing books. His first one, Nooks & Corners of Old New York, was published by Scribner’s in 1899, followed by The Story of Manhattan (1901), When Old New York was Young (1902), and Literary New York (1903).


But Charles couldn’t just sit around and write books. One day he was called to the scene of an excavation for the subway in lower Manhattan. Italian immigrant laborers had unearthed a stone from a Revolutionary War fort. He told a Times reporter:


I understand that the contractor is preparing to present the slab to the New-York Historical Society. I will do all I can to prevent this. Once in the possession of the society it would be as inaccessible to the general public as though it had been left in its underground resting place.

He was correct. And how delightful to be regarded as an expert on old New York, long the domain of patricians with trailing pedigrees.  

In 1906, Charles and Marie sailed to Europe to collaborate with Jeannette Pomeroy on a scientific study of the appearance of American women. Mrs. Pomeroy, an English woman descended from Indian occultists—she said—was widely admired for her beauty advice and business acumen. The New-York Tribune reported:


If Mrs. Pomeroy is right in her conclusions that the women of America are growing less beautiful year by year, she will invoke national, state and municipal governments to aid her in forcing women to become beautiful whether they will or not.


The remedy for the dearth of beautiful women, Charles said in a statement, “is to simply surround women with delectable odors, dulcet sounds, palatable foods, beautiful sights, and correct ideas.”


Mrs. Jeannette Pomeroy

I was sorry to learn that Charles dealt in such sexist foolishness because he’s so likable otherwise.  

Enmeshed in a lawsuit that would result in the loss of her cosmetics empire, Mrs. Pomeroy faded from the scene while Charles and Marie stuck around to research a book, Nooks and Corners of Old London. Once back in the U.S., Charles accepted the position of manager of Burrelle’s Press Clipping Bureau. He had found a new career.

An Ohioan named Frank Burrelle established the bureau in New York City in 1888. It is said that he came up with the idea after overhearing two businessmen discuss the need to collect news stories about their own companies. Frank’s second wife, Nelle, expanded the business and became its president in 1910 after Frank died on a cruise ship in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

Nelle Burrelle deserves her own novel. It suffices to say she was an adventuress. When Louis Chevrolet invited her to race with him, they circled the 1-1/2 mile Morris Park Racetrack in 53 seconds. Shortly before her own mysterious death, she flew around in a Curtiss airplane above Mineola Field on Long Island.

Nelle Burrelle, 1910

In 1911 Nelle fell ill at her apartment in the Carlton Hotel on 44th Street and was attended for several days by three physicians, including Dr. Jesse W. Amey whose romantic advances she had spurned after her husband’s death. The physicians listed acute nephritis as the cause of death but the coroner received an anonymous tip that Nelle had been murdered. He performed an autopsy and ruled her death to be of undetermined cause.

 Nelle’s will disappeared, of course. Then it reappeared, a torn, stained piece of paper that had been slipped under the door of Dr. Amey’s apartment, he said. Charles Hemstreet got wind of its existence and asked the surrogate to demand it from the doctor.


Burrelle's advertisement, about 1915

The date and Nelle’s signature were missing, rendering the will invalid. Unsurprisingly, given the shady story, someone leaked its contents: 16 shares of Burrelle Clipping Bureau stock to Charles Hemstreet, $2,000 to Marie Hemstreet, a few shares to various employees and relatives, and the balance to Dr. Jesse W. Amey.

One year later, the same surrogate approved a different will for probate. It split the estate between Nelle’s two sisters. And that was that.

If Charles Hemstreet was left out in the cold, he carried on at Burrelle’s and drew income from his books, which continued to be popular with the exception of a novel, The Don Quixote of America, the Story of an Idea, published in 1921.

The book stars John Eagle of upstate New York, who dreams of building a new city in the western wilderness and travels by train to Los Angeles. There, nothing goes his way. He is beaten up and the butt of jokes. Upon his return home, however, he is greeted with fanfare and hailed by his friends and family.  

One critic wrote:


The jacket hints of an “underlying idea.” I have spent weary nights over the home brew trying to excavate it. I leave it for future literary archeologists to unearth.

Charles Hemstreet of America, an idea for a story.




*Charles Hemstreet died in 1941 and Marie in 1943.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Tale of Frank Sargent Hoffman


Frank Sargent Hoffman
Professor of Moral and Mental Philosophy,
Union College, N.Y.

Consider the situation of Frank Sargent Hoffman, casting about for work after a railroad job fell through. Born on a ranch in Wisconsin in 1852, Frank came from a long line of farmers, a profession he did not want.

He was about 17 years old, with his heart set on becoming a brakeman and rising to the position of conductor. But the distant relative who promised to use his influence changed his mind.

Now here was Frank in the summer of 1870, traveling along the west bank of the Mississippi River, Dubuque to St. Louis and back again, hoping to make some money. Frank wasn’t selling cloth, coffee, tea, boots or dried figs.

Mississippi River where it passes Iowa and Missouri

No, he peddled just one item: a map that depicted the Franco-Prussian War, created by a friend in Chicago. Frank had dozens of copies in his knapsack, each available for 25 cents to the people of Davenport, Muscatine, Burlington, Keokuk, and so forth.  

The maps were popular and Frank often telegraphed his friend in Chicago asking for more to be sent to the express office closest to wherever he happened to be along the river.  

Stylized map of the Franco-Prussian War, 1870
(not the one Frank sold)

Better to be navigating those towns in the summer heat than be caught in the Siege of Metz, which would begin that same August and end in October with Alsace-Lorraine in the grip of the German Empire.

At the close of summer, Frank retreated to Galesburg, Illinois, where he lived with his father and mother and two sisters. After leaving Wisconsin, the family had eventually landed in Galesburg, where they continued to farm.

Galesburg has a few claims to fame. The poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg was born and grew up there. It is also the home of Knox College, founded in 1837 by a group of Protestants and Congregationalists. In the fall of 1870 Frank entered Knox, where he studied for two years before transferring to Amherst College.

Subsequently, Frank graduated from Amherst, earned a Master of Divinity and a PhD at Yale, studied in Germany with the philosophers Zeller and Fischer, and became a Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy at Union College in Schenectady, New York.

Union College entrance, early twentieth century

In 1885, when Frank arrived at Union College, the school was at its nadir. The student body and faculty had shrunk, and those who remained lacked morale. An interim president, Judson S. Landon, was surely more preoccupied with his position as a justice of the New York Supreme Court.

The Union College website refers to “17 years of unrest and stagnation,” which would constitute a devastating setback for any institution. The story is buried in the college's archives.     

Frank Hoffman didn’t save the day but a new president, Harrison Edwin Webster, is said to have improved the mood and tripled enrollment. However, Webster and the presidents who followed him did not like “Hoffy.” Frank’s popularity with students—especially Phi Gamma Delta—may have worked against him. Efforts to ease him out started in 1889 but he managed to hang in until 1917. During those years he published four very dry books: The Sphere of the State (1894), The Sphere of Science (1898), Psychology and Common Life (1903), and The Sphere of Religion (1908).

In 1918 Frank and his second wife moved to New York City where his eldest daughter, Grace, had become an acclaimed singer of popular songs and operetta. Grace, a Smith College graduate, can be heard on early “talking machine records.” During World War I, she gave concerts to raise money for the troops and toured with the John Philip Sousa Band. Frank was devoted to Grace. Alas, she died of cancer in 1924, a very young woman.    

Two years later Frank published a memoir, Tales of Hoffman. The book is a collection of stories. In its most engaging chapter, “Remarkable Animals I Have Known,” Frank returns to his summer on the Mississippi, 1870 . . .   

After selling maps all day in Fort Madison, Iowa, Frank went out to supper and then started toward his hotel. He saw a big tent at the far end of a large green in the center of town. Approaching, he read a sign:


The tent was packed but Frank bought a ticket and squeezed in to see the show. Soon a retired schoolteacher named James Kelley limped out from behind a curtain, followed by a little white pig with a super-curly tail. His name was Pedro.

Kelley explained that the crowd could ask the pig any question as long as the answer involved numbers. The pig would demonstrate the correct answer using numbered blocks from a pile on the stage.

Educated or learned pigs were popular
attractions in the U.S. and Europe by the
late eighteenth century. 

People began calling out questions; the answers included 1492, 1776, and 1870. A boy asked, “How old is my grandfather?” and the pig answered correctly: 81. And so it went until Frank, plotting to stump the pig—and presumably expose a fraud—stood up to ask three questions.   

-When did the Turks capture Constantinople?

-How old was Methuselah when he died?

-Extract the cube root of 1728, multiply that by 72, divide by 36 and multiply the quotient by 13. What is the answer?

The pig answered each question correctly. Embarrassed, Frank returned to his hotel where he reflected darkly on how he would pay for four years of college and three years of graduate school. Then he contemplated Pedro the educated pig, who drew a crowd and earned money wherever he went.

Awakening at midnight Frank asked himself, “Oh, what’s the use? Oh, what’s the use?” That question may have been his most profound contribution to the discipline of philosophy.

* Hoffman died in 1928.

Story of Henry Littlefield

  During the 1960s when my brother and I were growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., our parents and their friends occasionally mentioned Henry L...