Thursday, May 30, 2013

Who reads Shakespeare?

Visit to Shakespeare's Birthplace
I cannot answer who reads Shakespeare today, but in the 1800s many people did, and  Isaac Werner was certainly among those readers.  On December 31, 1870, he wrote in his journal:  "The following works I long to the course of time to possess them all, and arranged in my library...Clark's Concordona to Shakespeare and some future time also one of the very best large editions of Shakespeare, and so we can cultivate deeper familiarity with authors the more we long to read their works and see the best we can the individuals themselves."  On January 4, 1871 he recorded in his journal having ordered that book, along with Wealth of Nations, Don Quixote, Wharton's History of English Poetry, and several others.   
Isaac was unusual among many boys of that era, for at the age of 17 he and his twin brother were still attending school in Wernersville, PA where they were raised.  Clearly, he had received more education than many of his peers.  However, as a young druggist in Rossville, IL he chose to spend much of his income acquiring a personal library and continuing his learning.  (See blog post "Isaac's Library, February 2, 2012)  For the rest of his life he enjoyed Shakespeare, describing in his journal during his years as a homesteader on the prairie many evenings spent reading Shakespeare.

On January 26, 1871, Isaac recorded the list of books he had ordered, including the prices he had paid for them.  Clark's Concordona to Shakespeare was the second most expensive of all the books, at $11.25.  (Don Quixote cost $12.)  To put this cost into context, I researched average earnings in 1870.  According to, the average yearly income for 1870 was $129.  According to a book no longer in print titled the National Bureau of Economic Research, hourly wages that year ranged between 17 and 41 cents per hour.  Can you imagine wanting a book so badly that you would spend 12% of your annual income to buy it?! 

Title Page to Shakespeare's 1st Folio
Isaac was not alone in his love of Shakespeare.  According to Abraham Lincoln's aide, John Hay, President Lincoln "read Shakespeare more than all other writers together."  We even know which of Shakespeare's plays was Lincoln's favorite, for in 1863 he wrote a letter to Shakespearean actor James Hackett saying, "I think nothing equals Macbeth.  It is wonderful."  Ironically, following Lincoln's assassination the murder of King Duncan in that play was often compared to Lincoln's own death.

For many children of that era--as families pushed westward and often lived on isolated farms or struggled beside their parents just to survive--formal education was not possible.  If these children learned to read and write, they had to learn at home, and often the only books from which to learn were the Bible and Shakespeare--if they were lucky.

One of my favorite quotes from a child of this historic period describing his discovery of the works of Shakespeare comes from the famous lecturer, Robert Ingersoll, who was not so lucky as Lincoln to have Shakespeare in his home.  Ingersoll was in his teens, already on his own in search of work when he heard an old man reading aloud in a small hotel.  He was "filled with wonder," and when everyone left the room for supper, Ingersoll lagged behind to read the title of what the man had been reading, too ashamed to have simply asked the man when he felt the book must be something "an intelligent boy ought to know."  The book was Samuel Johnson's edition of Shakespeare.  Poor and getting by through traveling to offer himself for work wherever it could be found, Ingersoll spent $4 of his meager earnings for his own copy of the book the next morning!  Years later, this is what he wrote about the experience.  "For days, for nights, for months, for years, I read those books, two volumes, and I commenced with the introduction.  I haven't read that introduction for nearly fifty years, certainly forty-five, but I remember it still.  Other writers are like a garden diligently planted and watered, but Shakespeare a forest where the oaks and elms toss their branches to the storm, where the pine towers, where the vine bursts into blossoms at its foot.  That book opened to me a new world, another nature..."

Tableaux recreating scene from Shakespeare's era
How many of us today have read Shakespeare since one or two of his plays were assigned to us in high school?  Perhaps that is because Shakespeare's plays were written to be performed, and as a result, they are better heard than read silently.  The plays are still performed, and many have been adapted for the screen.  Romeo and Juliet may have been adapted more than any other, including George Cukor's 1936 adaptation in which the main characters, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, had a combined age of 75!  The beautiful 1968 adaptation by Franco Zeffirelli, that attracted many young fans to Shakespeare, cast teenagers Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as the Juliet that I will forever picture in my mind.  For the younger MTV generation, Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version cast Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Dane as the young lovers.

Shakespeare Theater in Ashland, OR
Sometimes movie versions are inspired by Shakespeare's plays rather than being adaptations.  Two hugely popular movies based on Shakespeare's plays are West Side Story, based on Romeo and Juliet, and The Lion King, based on Hamlet

Sadly for Isaac, there is no indication that I have found that he ever saw Shakespeare performed, but he read it with friends and he read it alone.  He, like many other great men of that era and since, elevated their minds by reading Shakespeare.  If you have a dusty volume of Shakespeare on a bookcase somewhere, you might consider pulling it off the shelf to read something young men were once willing to spend money earned with days of sweat and toil to buy a challenging book. 

To read a wonderful analysis of Lincoln's interest in Shakespeare you may visit

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What is History? An Update on my Manuscript

Rossville, IL
My first blog at this site shared my love of history. (See "I Love History," reposted January 3, 2012, where it can now be read in the blog archives.)  My feeling that history has so many lessons for us, to make each generation wiser than their predecessors by learning from past experiences both good and bad, was a big part of why I wanted to share Isaac's story.  The late 1800s have much in common with the problems we face today, making Isaac's experiences not only interesting but also relevant.

Recently, an internet friend and I were exchanging face book posts about the challenges of teaching young people history.  I shared my opinion that for students who have celebrated no more than 18 birthdays, their frame of reference makes even 20 years seem like ancient times.  I liked his reply so much that I wrote it down.  He said he had learned to appreciate the importance of history from his parents.  He concluded:  "I loved history in high school and could not understand why the other kids...did not understand how important it was.  It [history] is where we came from and points in the direction we are likely to go.  It is a huge puzzle with many pieces which one cannot possibly learn in a lifetime."  For me, his description of viewing history as a giant puzzle, some of whose pieces can be fitted together over a lifetime, seemed a wonderful analogy.

Dressed for Victorian Tea 2010
I believe my appreciation resulted from a natural immersion in family history.  I was raised in the house built by my paternal grandfather and his mother.  We had my paternal great grandfather's Civil War journal, from which I remember my mother reading aloud.  On Memorial Day we put flowers on the graves of paternal and maternal grandparents of several generations, joined in doing the decorations by aunts and uncles whose shared memories made me feel as if I had known the people whose graves we visited.  History was something real for me, not just names and dates from textbooks.

My experience is not common in today's world.  I read somewhere that the average American family lives in a house only five years before moving elsewhere.  Doing genealogy research I discovered that many people do not know their grandmother's maiden name.  Follow the news on television and the internet and you will see how headline events are abandoned within days or hours to report the new headlines in the next news cycle.  Not only is history given little attention, but also current events are quickly treated as irrelevant and forgotten.  Today's children grow up in a very different environment. 

FDR's Museum & Library
Not many families make history an intriguing puzzle for their children like my friend's parents did for him, nor are many children today raised in a home and community where evidence of their ancestors' lives surround them.  How do we make history interesting enough that people want to read about the past?  How do we make the lessons of history more than dates and names, not only for school children but also for adult readers?  That has been the question I asked myself as I wrote Isaac's story.

David McCullough has said, "No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read."  I agree. I have had the benefit of Isaac's own words in his journal from which to tell his story, but my manuscript is not just Isaac's biography.  I researched his community, using, family documents, legal documents, old photographs, tomb stones, and personal interviews to get to know the people Isaac mentioned in his diary.  I also researched the history of that period, becoming familiar with the biographies of famous people in politics, religion, business, and the arts.  I learned about the events that shaped the times.  Only when I had spent incalculable hours of research to become familiar with all of this was I able to put Isaac's story in context.  The challenge was to make the history during Isaac's time "something someone would want to read," as David McCullough said.  I believed that writing the manuscript like a doctoral thesis or a text book was the wrong way to share history with the readers I wanted to reach.

Visit to Isaac's Hometown
My manuscript has an extensive bibliography with footnotes to document the research I have done.  However, I have chosen to bring Isaac and his friends and acquaintances to life, revealing this exciting time through them.  Occasionally, that means I imagined conversations to share important information that would be deadly dull to most readers if presented as text.  For example, the People's Party, which shaped not only the politics of Isaac's time but also laws and social programs years later when the People's Party itself had faded away, evolved from smaller political movements coming together to form a powerful movement.  I could have written a paragraph or a few pages describing each of these separate groups and how they united.  Instead, I imagined a conversation between Isaac and his friend, William Campbell, a member of the Kansas House of Representatives who was a delegate to the organizing convention at which the People's Party was formed.  I know from Isaac's journal the night Isaac went to visit Campbell to "talk politics."  I am confident that they discussed the convention, its leaders, and the mix of political groups that were represented there.  However, I do not have a transcript of their conversation.  Instead, I have my research from original documents, newspapers, and secondary books and articles, and I have my imagination to put that information in the form of a conversation between Isaac and William Campbell the night Isaac went for a visit.

In those few places in my manuscript where imagination joins research to make history more readable to those who are neither scholars nor researchers, I identify in a footnote the sources used to create the scene and indicate what has been imagined, making the content enjoyable to casual readers but also documenting sources for more serious historians.  These passages in the manuscript are limited, but they do raise objections by some who believe my decision takes my manuscript out of the strict definition of history and moves it to some realm between historical fiction and authentic history.

Victorian Tea 2011
I disagree.  History is defined as the study of past events; the branch of knowledge that records and analyzes past events.  Yet, Voltaire said:  "History is the lie commonly agreed upon."  Even the most thorough research about a person or event cannot establish each detail with certainty, and analysis unavoidably introduces the bias and experiences of the analyst.  If only two people are present in a conversation, they will take away from their meeting a different recollection of what was said.  We can try to capture history accurately, but an absolute record of events is nearly impossible.  I have researched the subjects of my manuscript thoroughly.  If I make that research more accessible to readers by occasionally using my imagination to present the facts, while warning them in a footnote what I have done, is it any less accurate than the scholar's text where gaps are filled with analysis and supposition?

History is so important that rulers, politicians, and historians have manipulated it for generations.  As George Orwell said, "Who controls the past controls the future:  who controls the present controls the past."  I believe in the manner in which I have documented the history of a period, most commonly known as the Gilded Age, but presented from the perspective of those farmers and other laborers who lived their lives covered in sweat, dirt, and tears rather than gilt. My efforts will serve no purpose if I fail to make history something someone would want to read.  One publisher did not feel that my method met their criteria for  presenting history.  I remain hopeful that I will find a publisher who shares my enthusiasm for telling Isaac's story and the exciting events of the late 1800s as I have done. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

I have deleted "Reactions"

Thank you to those of you who have shared your "reactions" in the past.  Unfortunately, the blog support has been unable to correct the problem of deleting the checks; therefore, rather than enduring this ongoing problem, I have removed that section from the blog page.  I really did enjoy your feedback and regret its loss.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Walking in Isaac's Steps

Pond from which I began my walk
Last spring one of the writers' websites I visit challenged readers to an Immersion Writing Contest, described as using a "participatory experience to write about yourself completing a reenactment."  I decided it would be fun to reenact Isaac's footsteps as he walked from his homestead to the home of Doc Dix, where the Emerson Post Office was maintained. 
Isaac's homestead was located in the southwest quarter of section 33, and as nearly as I can locate his house, it was near the center of the quarter.  Doc Dix owned the north half of section 31, his timber claim being in the east quarter and his homestead in the west quarter.  When I was a child, my father spoke of "the old Dix's place" as we drove past what appeared to be the remains of a home site located along the north side between the two Dix's claims.  The distance from the center of Isaac's homestead claim to the point on the north side between Doc Dix's two claims would have been about two miles.  I did not carry a camera during my reenactment, so the photographs accompaning this blog were taken in 2013; however, the description of my walk is my experience from 2012.
My husband dropped me off at the retention pond in the northeast corner of Isaac's homestead.  (Isaac makes no mention of any permanent pond on his claims, although he does mention ponds after rainfalls.)  My husband paused by the pond with me long enough to flip a turtle struggling on its back at the edge of the pond before leaving me to begin my reenactment of Isaac's walk to get his mail.  As I lingered to watch the wild ducks that Isaac had loved, a splash caught my attention too late to see its cause.  Soon, a bug-eyed frog surfaced to stare at me--the apparent cause of the splash.  A few of his buddies gradually emerged in the pond, reminding me of the "frog choruses" Isaac described in his journal.
Racoon tracks
As I turned to begin my walk, the smell of crushed rye along the path my husband had driven filled the air, alive with tiny yellow and white butterflies performing their aerial dance over growing wheat on one side and alfalfa on the other.  Bird songs from the trees near the pond were replaced by the buzz of insects, and  I wondered what birds serenaded Isaac on the treeless prairie before the cottonwoods, catalpa, and peach trees he planted began to grow.  Studying the raccoon tracks beside my own foot prints, I nearly missed the moment I had come to find, the feeling of Isaac tapping me on the shoulder to say, "Look around.  See why you are here."
I stood between Isaac's homestead and timber claims and slowly turned in a circle to see the land around me.  How proud Isaac must have felt to be master of the 360 acres he had claimed.  I saw the land through Isaac's eyes and understood his pride.
The 1/2 section line
But, I was on my way to Doc Dix's soddie after the mail, and I could not linger.  Soon I reached the black top road and left Isaac's land.  A farmer's daughter born and bred, I refused to cut across a neighboring field and trample knee-high wheat, although Isaac probably walked the diagonal route.  Instead, I walked the half-section line between two fields, straddling a wheat row to avoid bending the slender green stalks, perhaps not so different from walking across the tall prairie grass.  Midway across the field, the noise of a pickup on the backtop road behind me sounded alien, out of place, so immersed was I in Isaac's walk.  A large, deep badger hole beside my path made me hope my reenactment would not awaken the fierce nocturnal animal. 
Neglected tree row
I passed a mudhole, dried down to the mossy bottom and pocked-marked with deer tracks, while at my feet little red pyramids of anthills dotted the ground.  I paused to listen to the rustling sound of the wind as it ruffled the wheat that surrounded me. 
As I neared the center of the section, a tree belt planted in the 'Dirty Thirties,' decades after Isaac's death, obstructed my path.  The wind made a different sound--stronger and full of mystery, and dying branches bent to the ground, a tangled barricade.  The interruption broke the spell of my reenactment and chased Isaac from my imagination. 
My walk continued, but the destination changed toward my family home located in the south half of the section in which the Dix family had once resided to the north.  The changed world of abandoned claims, blacktop roads, irrigated fields, and neglected trees brought me back to the present, but for a while I had walked in Isaac's steps.
(Remember, you can enlarge the photographs by clicking on them.)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What is the Matter?

William Allen White
Since others have to tolerate my weaknesses, it is only fair that I should tolerate theirs.  --William Allen White
William Allen White came upon the political scene about the time Isaac exited, but it is certain that had someone posed the question, What is the matter with Kansas? to both of them, the two men would have answered quite differently.  In fact, White used that very question for the title of an editorial critical of the Populist Movement.  He blamed the populists for the lack of economic and population growth, writing sarcastically:  "Give the prosperous man the dickens!  Legislate the thriftlessman into ease.  Whack the stuffing out of the creditors...Whoop it up for the ragged trousers; put the lazy, greasy fizzle who can't pay his debts on the altar and bow down to worship him."  In short, White believed that populist politicians had scared businessman and investors away from Kansas with their policies and their rhetoric. 
At the time White wrote those words, he was not yet thirty, and he was the editor of a little-known small-town newspaper.  The editorial "What's the Matter with Kansas?" brought national prominence to White and his newspaper, The Emporia Gazette, gaining particular attention because it was written by a Kansan attacking the Populist Movement in the region of the country where the movement was strongest.  (To read the full text of the editorial, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" go to's_the_matter_with_kansas.html.)
I have never been bored an hour in my life.  I get up every morning wondering what new strange glamorous thing is going to happen and it happens at fairly regular intervals.  ---William Allen White
White's Emporia Home
William Allen White was born in Emporia, KS in 1868, but his family soon moved to El Dorado.  His newspaper credentials began when he was still a teenager, working as a press apprentice before attending the College of Emporia and the University of Kansas.  He worked as an editorial writer for the Kansas City Star and married before moving to Emporia and buying the Emporia Gazette, still operated by the fourth generation of his family.  Located at 517 Merchant Street, the family business maintains a small museum with old newspaper equipment, photographs of which you can see at
A little learning is not a dangerous thing to one who does not mistake it for a great deal.  --William Allen White
It is said that on his way to work the morning he wrote "What's the Matter with Kansas?" he suffered some unpleasantness with a loafer spouting populist rhetoric.  Still bristling from that encounter, White wrote the editorial without time for his emotions to cool.  Whether the incident actually happened, the editorial is more confrontational than his other writings often were, especially in later years.  He won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for his editorial in support of free speech titled "To an Anxious Friend."  He wrote:  " can have no wise laws nor free entertainment of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people...This state today is in more danger from suppression than from violence, because, in the end, suppression leads to violence.  Violence, indeed, is the child of suppression.  Whoever pleads for justice helps to keep the peace; and whoever tramples on the plea for justice temperately made in the name of peace only outrages peace and kills something fine in the heart of man which God put there when we got our manhood.  When that is killed, brute meets brute on each side of the line."  (Full text at
White's car with GAZETTE license plate
White died before I was born, and my first encounter with his writing was as a student reading the heartbreaking eulogy written to his daughter who died from injuries sustained in a riding accident.  Titled simply with his 16-year-old daughter's name, "Mary White," he described her with these words:  "She was mischievous without malice, as full of faults as an old shoe."  The eulogy is still widely read, and you can find the full text at
In 1924 White ran unsuccessfully for Kansas governor on an anti-Klan platform, and although he was not elected his effort probably contributed to Kansas becoming the first state to outlaw the Klan.  In 1940 he served as chairman of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, but what he was best known for was his gift of championing small-town values with humor and wisdom.  Late in his life he was sometimes referred to as an "old progressive," quite a change from the young author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?"
He died in 1944 in Emporia, where he was working on his autobiography.  His son, William Lindsay completed the unfinished manuscript, and it won another Pulitzer Prize for White.  The William Allen White House in Emporia is open limited hours to the public.
Reason has never failed men.  Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.  --William Allen White

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What if Isaac had met Alexandra Bergson?

Cabin at Homestead Park in Nebraska
I have already shared my love for Willa Cather's books and short stories in this blog.  (See "Writer of the Prairie" in the blog archives at October 4, 2012.)  It is difficult for me to narrow down a single favorite among her wonderful short stories, but I have a definite favorite novel.  It is probably because I identify with Alexandra Bergson's feelings for the land, among other reasons, that explains my love for the novel, O Pioneers!
This quote near the end of the book, as Alexandra expresses her feelings to her life-long friend Carl Linstrum, is explanation enough for my emotional connection to the book:  "The land belongs to the future, Carl; that's the way it seems to me.  How many of the names on the county clerk's plat will be there in fifty years?  ...  We come and go, but the land is always here.  And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it--for a little while." 
I was raised in the house my paternal grandfather and his mother built.  The timber claim house on the creek and the big Victorian house built later by my maternal great grandparents were both standing and owned by decendants back then.  My father told me, "Always hold onto the land," and I have.  With so many ancestral farms around me, and the advice of my father emphasizing the point, it was natural that I saw land as part of a family's heritage, to be passed from generation to generation.
Cover from early edition
Yet, doing the research for Isaac's story, I came to know the names of so many early pioneers whose family surnames have disappeared from the community.  My maternal grandparents' homes remain, but they are no longer owned by family.  While I may value the idea of families staying on the farm for generations, that is no longer the norm.  "We come and go...and the people who love it...own it--for a little while." 
O Pioneers! was published in 1913.  It tells the story of a Swedish family that settles on the Nebraska prairie and struggles to survive.  When the father is dying, he entrusts the management of the farm to his daughter, Alexandra, instructing her brothers to follow her advice and leaving specific instructions for how the land is to be divided when the boys are old enough to marry and have farms of their own. 
Alexandra succeeds, surviving the years when times are hard and many other settlers sell the land and leave the prairie.  Her brothers are not always supportive of her decisions, although they honor their father's wishes to follow Alexandra's advice.  The two older brothers marry and have families, but Alexandra gives her labor and love to the land, and it rewards her well.  Cather describes the results of Alexandra's efforts with these words:  "When you go out of the house into the flower garden, there you feel again the order and fine arrangement manifest all over the great farm; in the fencing and hedging, in the windbreaks and sheds, in the symmetrical pasture ponds, planted with scrub willows to give shade to the cattle in fly-time.  There is even a white row of beehives in the orchard, under the walnut trees.  You feel that properly, Alexandra's house is the big out-of-doors, and that it is in the soil that she expresses herself best."
Image from movie starring Jessica Lange
In 1992 O Pioneers! was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, with Jessica Lange cast as Alexandra, Heather Graham playing the young Alexandra, and David Strathaim cast as Carl.  The DVD is still available for purchase, although I would always suggest that you read the book first and watch the movie later.
The annual Spring Conference held at Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather's hometown, selects a particular piece of Cather's writings to study each year.  This year's choice is O Pioneers!.  I will enjoy hearing the Cather scholars deliver their lectures about this novel that I love, but I doubt that anything I learn will increase the way Cather's own words draw me into this book.  "She had never known before how much the country meant to her.  The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music.  She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun.  Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring."
If Isaac Werner could have met the fictional Alexandra Bergson, how they would have loved sharing farming advice!  I think they would have made great friends, but they were both too devoted to making a success of their farms to take the time for romance.  Besides, Carl and Alexandra were destined to be together, from the time they were children.

(Visit for more information about Willa Cather and her writing.)

Postscript:  As I am about to post this blog, I have discovered a link to an NPR review of the new book, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, including an interview with one of the editors, Andrew Jewell.  I recommend that you open this link to enjoy the review and Andy's comments.  Be sure to read the excerpt from the Introduction that is attached.  One of Ours, for which Cather won the Pulitzer, is another of my favorites, and I can hardly wait to read her letters about her cousin and her family connection to characters in that novel.  The new book will certainly be a treasure for fans and scholars!