Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Travels of a Book

Last week's blog shared Isaac's connection with Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, but this week's blog shares a personal story involving  the book.   To gain a better sense of who Isaac Werner was through acquainting myself with what Isaac read, I ordered several books that were in his library, and one of those was The Innocents Abroad.   In selecting the books I ordered, I chose editions published as near the time Isaac would have bought them as possible.  Some of the books date back to the late 1800s, but books published that long ago were not always available.  I had to settle for a copy of The Innocents Abroad from the early 1900s.

Warren R. Austin
It is a beautiful book with a red linen cover and a lovely gold crest of ears of corn encircling the initials "MT."  Some of the books I bought show rough treatment and poor storage, but my copy of The Innocents Abroad is almost like new.  However, its condition was not the only surprise that the book had for me.  On the inside fly leaf was written in pencil:  "Bought in the Mark Twain Country.  Read on "The Alton" St. Louis to Chicago, 12:05 noon October 9, 1932.  On Campaign itinery for Hoover & Curtis, I spoke last night at Hannibal, MO, Mark Twain's town.  There is a memorial group erected there to Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn, the first ever erected to literary characters.  Warren R. Austin."

Cabinet:  President Hoover & Vice President Curtis in center
It will probably not surprise you to learn that my curiosity led me to research who Warren R. Austin was.  Born November 12, 1877, he was an American politician and statesman, a lawyer appointed State's attorney of Franklin County at the age of 25, followed by numerous political roles:  Chairman of the Vermont Republican State Convention in 1908, Mayor of St. Albans in 1909, a member of the United States Court for China in 1917, while also serving as a commissioner for the Second Circuit from 1907 to 1915.  After other prominent positions, he was elected to the United States Senate in 1931 following the death of the prior senator, but was re-elected twice more, in 1934 and 1940.  He resigned from the Senate in 1946 to accept appointment as America's 2nd U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a position he held until January of 1953.  He died December 25, 1962.

How Warren R. Austin's copy of The Innocents Abroad came to be available through an online book seller I suppose I will never know, but it is an interesting addition to my library.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

When Travel is Curtailed

Mark Twain in a Fort Worth, TX Park
One of the books in Isaac Werner's library was The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrims' Progress, Being Some Account of the Steamship Quaker City's Pleasure Excursion to Europe and the Holy Land  by Mark Twain.  It purports to be an ordinary travel book, but with Mark Twain as the author, it is certainly not.  In fact, one of the examples from the book is Twain's contrasting of what he experiences from what travelogue authors had mislead him to expect.  He also pointed out the profiteering and the inaccurate presentation of history at locations they visit.

While it might be expected from reading The Innocents Abroad that Twain had little regard for foreign travel, that is not the case.  In fact, in his Autobiography of Mark Twain he wrote:  "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindness."

At this historic moment when the Coronavirus has resulted in travel bans around the world, it is a good time to reflect on Twain's words.  Does travel open our eyes and minds to people and places different from ourselves and the places from which we come?

Certainly travel is greatly changed from1869 when Mark Twain's book was published.  Isaac Werner was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and he traveled west to Illinois shortly before or just after Twain's book was published.  There, Isaac was a druggist, and later a partner in a milling operation.  In the later 1870s,  he was attracted by the offer of free land in Kansas to travel further west to claim a homestead and a timber claim.  Yet, his longing to see more of the world was apparent from the travel books he bought and the stereoscope image cards he purchased.  His journal makes clear, however, that he never travelled more than a days journey from his claims once he settled in Kansas.

Yet, Isaac traveled through the books in his library, protecting his mind from "prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindness" through reading, with books to learn foreign languages, books about art and history, and books authored by foreign writers.

As we are warned against travel and encouraged to remain at home as much as possible to avoid exposure to the Coronavirus, perhaps it is a good time to read some of those books we have put off reading!  If your book shelves offer nothing tempting, today we have the option of reading books online.  What would Isaac have thought of that! 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Truth vs. Interpretation

Cicero: Credit, Liam Clarkson-Holborn
For a decade, I have been doing research for my manuscript about the Populist Movement of the late 1800s.  I was fascinated to learn that such a significant event that began with the Farmer's Alliance in Texas and reached its peak with the People's Party in Kansas, (spreading to other states primarily in the South and the Central states), was so quickly forgotten.  The People's Party is the most successful 3rd Party movement in our nation's history; yet, many...perhaps most Americans (except those of you who have followed this blog) are not aware of its importance. Nor, are many Americans aware that their ancestors were participants in this movement.

My focus on a political movement from our past has made me especially aware of how people can receive the same information and interpret it differently.  That makes reasonable political discord challenging.  As satirist  Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote in Gulliver's Travels, it might do a politician some good to "...have half his brain swapped with half the brain of a member of the opposing party."

The Populist Movement and the creation of the People's Party arose very quickly, and it fractured and faded just as quickly, less the result of opposition tactics of the Republicans and Democrats but more from divisions and disagreements within the People's Party itself.  The two old parties succeeded in a sense by implementing some of the Populist ideas, so that the need for a third party to get those things done disappeared.

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I collect quotes I find particularly thought provoking.  Too often, I jot these quotes down on scraps of paper or whatever writing surface is at hand when I discover the quotes.  Eventually, I copy them into a file on my laptop.  Sometimes, before I get them copied into that file, I end up with quotes from unrelated authors and eras that give particular reason for reflection.  When I found the three that I am sharing today in the back of my desk drawer, they challenged me in exactly that way.

Friedrich Nietzsche - 1861
Two of my great grandfathers were friends of Isaac Werner, whose journal has inspired my manuscript over the past decade.  (A third great grandfather was also an acquaintance but lived outside Isaac's immediate community.)  One of those neighboring great grandfathers was a Union Soldier in the Civil War, and like so many of those soldiers, he came to Kansas and staked his claim with the advantage of crediting his 3 years of military service to reduce the 5 years otherwise required to mature a homestead claim, resulting in only 2 years needed for him.  And, like most Union Soldiers, he voted Republican, the party of Lincoln.  My other great grandfather in Isaac's neighborhood emigrated from England, and at that time had only his wife and two young daughters, the youngest being my grandmother.  A son and another daughter were later added to the family.  He became active in the Populist Movement and supported the People's Party.  One a staunch Republican and the other an active Populist, these two men brought differing political perspectives to their voting during the Populist Movement.  Did those differing perspectives impact their political decisions, and how might they have aligned themselves with the two quotes that follow?  

"What is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage.  The mere fact of believing that some wrongful course of action constitutes an advantage is pernicious."  Marcus Tullius Cicero, (106-43 BCE)

"All things are subject to interpretation, whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth."  Friedrich Nietzsche.  

As the quotes of Swift, Cicero, and Nietzsche have shown,--men whose lives span several centuries,--the distinction between how we define "Truth" and "Morality" has been and always will be complex when mixed with politics.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

You owe how much!?

Reading from the County Captal newspapers
In explaining Kansas farming debt, their Senator wrote:  "crop prices had gone down while labor was costing the same and purchased items were costing more."  Continuing, he said, "if a farmer had given a mortgage for $1,000...he could have paid for it with 1,050 bushels of corn.  Ten to seventeen years later it would have taken, without interest, 2,702 bushels to have paid it."

That quote comes from a book by Walter T.K. Nugent, quoting populist Senator Peffer.  The senator was describing a theoretical mortgage given in 1870, with rising interest rates during the 1880s and 1890s. These rising interest rates, falling crop prices, and the costs of rail road shipping were front and center during the years of the Populist Movement of which Isaac Werner was a part.  Farmers had mortgaged their farms when crop prices were high and interest rates were low, but the mortgages were short term and were renewed at increasingly higher interest rates.  Kansas led the nation in the number of mortgaged acres.

Means of harvesting in Isaac's time
Does any of that sound familiar?  As I read a recent article in USA Today, I could not help thinking of Isaac.  He had double-dipped in mortgaging his farm, he had mortgages on his horses, and he owed notes to merchants.  Yet, he had avoided going into debt for about a decade, until he finally realized he needed a horse to break more sod for fields if he were ever to make his farm a success.

His debts to merchants were secured by notes.  More people today put their debts on credit cards.  

According to the USA Today article I read, the average American consumer has $6,194 in credit card debt, up from the previous year.  The average credit card interest is 14.87%, and that is actually a low figure because it does not account for interest-free loans.  If they are excluded, the assessed interest rate averages 16.88%.

When that rate is applied to Americans' average credit card debt, the average consumer is paying $1,045.55 annually.

Hand Planting
What has been so interesting to me in doing research for my manuscript about Isaac Werner and the Populist Movement, and in transcribing Isaac's 480-page journal, are the similarities of the issues in Isaac's time with the ongoing issues of today.  The anger aroused about the influence of wealthy and powerful persons on our government in Isaac's time is equally argued today.

I will close with a quote from the County Capital  in St. John to which Isaac subscribed.  In writing about the influence of wealthy railroad tycoons on politicians in Washington and state capitals, a subscriber's comment was published on March 25, 1892.  The subscriber declared:  "We would just as soon be robbed by a thief as a politician."