Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Going Back to Mount Vernon, N.Y.

This is the house where I grew up;
sketch from a 1920s architectural journal

During the 1970s, A Separate Peace by John Knowles became a mainstay of the U.S. high school English curriculum. It is a tale of male adolescence, namely the complicated relationship between two boys who attend a New England college preparatory school. All of the action occurs on campus between the summers of 1942 and 1943.

A Separate Peace is sad and introspective. The death of one of the boys creates moral uncertainty against the backdrop of World War II. That probably explains the book’s continuing presence in the syllabus, although whether it merits that place is debatable. 

Regardless, its first sentence always had, for me, a singular resonance.

I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.

With this opening John Knowles performs the work of any good writer, which is to say he puts his arm around the reader and invites her in.

Of course the book isn’t about the school looking newer than the grown man recalled. It’s about the experience of revisiting the past. 

It reminds me of the late 1980s, returning to the area where I grew up, now with a husband and children.

The boys were a toddler and a baby. They would spend their childhood, and a bit more, in a place infinitely recognizable to me. They went to nursery school at the Mt. Vernon Y and children’s hour at the Mt. Vernon Public Library. Their favorite cookies came from a Mt. Vernon bakeshop. They ate their first pizza in Mt. Vernon.

Mt. Vernon Public Library, 1920s

Many times I showed them the house where I grew up and the houses where my friends had lived and the streets along which we walked everywhere.

They came to watch out for the gazebo in Hartley Park, which looks like an illustration in a children’s book, and the turret of the Victorian house where E.B. White kept a mouse when he was growing up in Mt. Vernon. They saw the sights!

Childhood home of author E. B. White,
Mt. Vernon, N.Y.

When the children were young, every tale I told would elicit enthusiasm. One of their favorites involved driving home from a friend’s house during the 1977 blackout.  

              When the lights went out, my friend and I were sitting on a flat part of the roof of his house, having crawled out a window into the hot night. It’s actually more of a shock to be outside than inside at the moment when the lights go out. We made our way back into the house and down the stairs and I got in the car to drive home.

I followed the familiar streets, now pitch-black like country roads. Within ten minutes, I pulled up in front of our house where my father stood on the front lawn, waiting.

It’s a simple story that the boys found exciting and comforting at the same time. They were transported to a place where their mother was young and faced something slightly daunting that worked out happily in the end.  

Nearly 40 years later, I remember a feeling of absolute calm riding through the dark streets.

Sometimes, not always, that’s what you get for going back.

Gazebo in Hartley Park,
Mt. Vernon, N.Y.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Cruel Roanoke & Edward Dwight Walker

Edward Dwight Walker, 1880s

He may, in fact, have tipped out of the canoe and become entangled in the fishing line. After two men found his body floating in the Roanoke River, a coroner examined it right there on the shore and ruled the death accidental. 

But a few people who saw him after he arrived at Weldon, N.C., told a reporter that Mr. Walker “acted rather strangely and as if partly insane.”

A 30-year old magazine writer and editor, Edward Dwight Walker had left Brooklyn, where he lived with his mother, and headed South in March 189o. His colleagues at The Cosmopolitan said that he sought rest from a grueling schedule. He also may have been collecting material for a story about fishing.

If so, he came to the right place. The town of Weldon is known as the “Rockfish Capital of the World” during early spring when striped bass swarm the Roanoke River to spawn. As the stripers run the river, anglers flock to the beautiful mid-Atlantic wilderness and its blue waters.

In those days, the opening of the season didn’t cause traffic jams on I-95. Besides, Mr. Walker would have arrived by train, possibly with fishing paraphernalia. He stopped overnight at the Coast Line Hotel. The next morning, he brushed off the offer of a guide and walked away with his stuff.

He set off on the river in a log canoe.

Roanoke River, around 1900

Born in New Haven in 1859, Walker graduated from Williams College in 1880 and went to work at Harper’s Weekly, an influential political magazine whose editors subtitled it A Journal of Civilization. After the Civil War, Harper’s became widely known for publishing cartoons of Tammany Hall boss William Tweed by Thomas Nast.

Although it is hard to believe, by the 1880s the U.S. had a self-reported literacy rate of 90%. Therefore it makes sense that the country experienced a magazine boom during this decade. Among the many periodicals that came into being, The Cosmopolitan started publishing in 1886 as a “family magazine.”

Edward Walker joined the staff soon after, working as a writer and editor. The magazine survived bankruptcy and reinvented itself twice before the dynamo entrepreneur and inventor John Brisben Walker became editor in 1889. (The two men were not related.)

The arrival of John Brisben Walker may have caused some stress for Edward, who had served as editor in 1888 and clearly was passed over.  

You have to hand it to Brisben Walker. He increased The Cosmopolitan’s circulation to 400,000 from 16,000 between 1890 and 1905, when he sold the magazine to William Randolph Hearst for $1 million.

First issue of The Cosmopolitan, March 1886

To build circulation, the magazine sought more attention-grabbing stories. That left less room for the type of stories that Edward wrote; for example, a feature about the New England Conservatory of Music which The Cosmopolitan published posthumously.

Several days before he drowned, Edward Walker sent an inquiry to Jefferson Davis.

Cosmopolitan planned a series of articles “to form a complete history of the contest about slavery which preceded the war,” Edward wrote to the former president of the Confederacy. He offered $150 for Davis’s “pro-slavery side of the struggle.”

Along with the letter to Davis, Edward wrote rapturously about the Roanoke River to several friends while traveling in North Carolina during the last month of his life.

And as a Theosophist, Edward probably spent a lot of time reflecting on life and death. Theosophy (derived from “wisdom-religion”) is a kind of spiritualism. Its believers reach for divinity by learning the hidden truths that lie in the past and in the world of nature. Theosophy became very popular during the Victorian Era, and Brooklyn had a large, active community of Theosophists.   

In 1888, Edward had published Reincarnation, a study of forgotten truth, a 325-page study with an exhaustive bibliography. The book started as a lecture to a group of Theosophists.

“Reincarnation illuminates the darkest passages in the murky road of life,” Edward wrote. He argued that materialism is the cause of all the evils in modern society: “Reincarnation combats that foe by a subtle and deadly warfare.”      


In Mrs. Walker’s crowded parlor, the Reverend John Malcolm of the Park Congregational Church conducted a brief service and led an Episcopal prayer. Then everyone went to Green-Wood Cemetery, which is famous as the resting place of Samuel Morse, Horace Greeley, the aforementioned Boss Tweed, and many others.

There, a friend read a sentimental poem.

Lone youth: to lay thy weary thought upon the river’s tide,
Thou camest in a southern clime
A stranger to its side;
The pine tree put its finger forth
And beckoned to thee there. . .
What last imploring words went out
When the rude billow broke, -
Though wilt not tell, save to the
Sea, O heartless Roanoke,
O cruel Roanoke.

This is one of those impossibly opaque stories.


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Kansas: a 9/11 story

Sky over Kansas, 9/11

A clear blue sky arched over Kansas on the morning of September 11, 2001. I know that, can still see it, because driving home from an early trip to the grocery I glanced up at the white paths of exhaust left by planes curving back toward the airport.

We were expatriate New Yorkers living with our two sons in suburban Johnson County, where fields of hay bales and meandering horses lay incongruously across the road from supermarkets, high schools, and corporate headquarters with their vast parking lots.    

Leaving New York had made us unhappy. But in my memory Kansas is always becoming a fonder place. I am trying to say that I am glad we lived there, especially on 9/11.

At first we were shocked by the streetscape, juxtaposed with the quiet village of tall green trees and winding streets from which we had arrived about a year earlier. Here, busy streets bound by sprawling church complexes and condominium developments headed south in four lanes, dwindled to two and then one skinny road ending finally in a little town with dust kicking up around the edges.

And circling perpetually overhead, the hawks and turkey vultures in the astonishing sky where wind and light shifted constantly, patterned intricately with clouds; sunrise or sunset always visible at the end of the flat land beyond the next shopping center.

By September 11, 2001, these things had become very familiar yet I did not feel an affinity with this place. Uneasily, I compared my life to that of a young bride in mid-nineteenth century Kansas Territory, waiting for the minister to pay a visit. Certainly I was still waiting that morning at 8:15 Central Time, pulling into the garage to find the television uncharacteristically on and the telephone ringing.  

For many New Yorkers who had boarded early morning flights to the West Coast, Kansas City would be where the planes set down. There were so many that the airport became entirely compacted.

Among the passengers on these planes was a good friend whose twin brother had called, panicking, to say that Chris had been able to reach him and thought they would be landing in a few minutes. My husband immediately left for the airport to get him. Then another friend got through – her husband and two associates had also landed in Kansas City and here was his information. I called my husband and he connected with Tom.

The car filled with passengers, Jeffrey drove everyone to our home in Kansas. Tumbling out, bewildered and frightened, we hugged and shivered in the noon sun.

One of the passengers had no personal or professional connection to the others in the group. An executive in the construction business, the mother of two little girls, Denise lacked even a carry-on because she would have returned on the red-eye.

Sitting beside Chris on the descending plane, she couldn’t place a call on her cell phone and had anxiously borrowed his to call her husband. As they disembarked, Chris asked where she would stay in Kansas City and persuaded her to come with him.

Several years later Denise reflected, “Getting off a plane with a strange man in a strange city, climbing into a car driven by a strange man with other strange people to a strange house…”

Sky over Chicago, 1994

She needed some clothing. We tried a few stores before finding Wal-Mart open. Denise had never before shopped in a big-box store and initially thought that one of the salesladies was my friend because of her sweetness. Some of that was Kansas style, but also surely reflected the catastrophic events of the day.

Enabled by our hi-tech household – a phone system fitted for conference calls, plenty of computers, a fax machine – the group conducted business and tried to figure out how to get back to New York.

We watched the horror unfold, shared meals and talked about the world and ourselves, reflecting in a way that must be unique to people who are brought together randomly in the midst of fearsome events.

Nearly a week after Tuesday, the five of them drove east in what was surely the last available rental minivan for miles around. After they left, I went outside and looked up at the sky. Everything around me was my home.

Sky collage

Collage + photos by Claudia Keenan

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

James D. Corrothers, Happy at Last?

James D. Corrothers, around 1910

In 1898  . . .  “a sunburst fell upon my being.

James D. Corrothers later recalled the moment when he decided to enter the ministry of the AME Church. Upon learning his first assignment would be in New York, however, he and his wife agreed they would rather return to Michigan.

Turning back the clock, Corrothers found work unloading barrels of salt and flour from freight barges. The wet salt made the skin on his hands crack open and bleed. He switched to work on a fruit farm.

Eventually James came around to the idea of taking the offer in New York. He dropped his wife and sons with her family near Baltimore and hustled to the upstate town of Bath, where he received news that his wife and younger son had died.

Corrothers had no time to grieve. He brought his older son to Bath and worked for a pittance, supplementing his income by publishing Negro dialect verse in The Century, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Sunday Herald, and other papers.

Occasionally, Corrothers contributed to The Crisis, 
newspaper of the NAACP. His poem, "A Song of May and June,"
appeared in the June 1914 issue.

Moving on, he earned success and a good living as a pastor in the New Jersey towns of Red Bank and Hackensack, and prepared to answer the call of another congregation. But then:

The black tragedy of my life fell upon me; and I staggered and groaned, like a bludgeoned traveler in the dark. I was a stranger and nearly penniless. I had sacrificed all to do good, when, suddenly, I was accused of plotting to ruin my bishop’s good name – a thing of which I was as innocent as Heaven itself!  

The bishop brought a lawsuit against Corrothers, who was acquitted. It didn’t matter. He faced the wrath of the influential leaders of the AME church. James never recovered from their viciousness. He became an outcast immediately; no home, no congregation. He could not get another job and writing opportunities dried up. Thankfully, friends took in his son.  

Shall I tell of days of hunger, and wandering; of nights spent under the open, wintry sky? Shall I tell of rebuffs and buffetings; of “friends” who forgot or who “passed by on the other side”?

Many years later, Corrothers reflected on the Black church’s domination of African-American society and culture.

No other Negro institution is so powerful; so influential. All Negro life in American centres about the church. Coloured professional and business men, as a class, find it wise and profitable to remain in the good graces of the church. Even successful race leaders, like Dunbar, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, have not disdained a hearing through the Negro church.

Sabotaged at every turn, Corrothers gave up on being a minister ever again. He returned to New York where he found a job in Brooklyn as a janitor’s assistant, working from 5am until midnight. He loved the toil, he later wrote, and relished being able to send small gifts to his son.

Then one day it came to him that he should leave AME and join the Baptist Church, which welcomed him warmly.

Eventually, Corrothers remarried; with his second wife, Rosina, he had another son. He moved his family back to South Haven, Michigan, and built a brick church with his own hands. As the area developed as a resort for whites, however, Blacks felt unwelcome and left the area; so did he. 

View of the Black River, South Haven, Michigan; Corrothers
had a lifelong affinity with the area where he spent time as a child
and started a congregation around 1910.

Landing next in Lexington, Virginia, he renounced the Baptists for the Presbyterian Church over “a matter of conscience.”

In 1916, James Corrothers was ensconced as pastor of a church in Westchester, Pennsylvania. He died one year later.

While Corrothers figures in African-American history, his story does not resemble those of his peers who traveled a neat trajectory toward success. He moved often between triumph and despair, which may have reflected his own personality (at least in part). 

The hideous treatment of Corrothers by the elders of the AME Church is shocking, but so was Corrothers' candid denouncement of its abuse of power. While he never achieved the renown of Booker T. Washington, his clear-eyed perspective on race in America sets him apart even today. 

*This post is the last of three about James D. Corrothers; see August 17 + 24.


The Little Time Traveler

  Last fall, my adorable grandson, halfway between two and three years, was finally tall enough to look at the family pictures arranged on a...