books

Governing the American Colonies (1620)

I recently posted about an astronomy book from 1777 that I discovered while helping a friend clean out his dad’s house. That same day I found another old book. Like the astronomy book, it was in bad shape so I had it rebound.

The title is Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons, In 1620 and 1621, Vol. I. It was published in 1766 in England. One of its previous owners, Samuel Hunter, signed his name on the title page in 1827. Like the Bode astronomy book, the paper has tanned with age, but at least it’s not printed in German with Fraktur Gothic script. It’s in English, and the hardest (!) part about reading it is mentally replacing an “s” for an “f,” as in this line on the title page: “In which fome Paffages are illuftrated from other Manufcripts.”

For reference, 1620 was the year the Puritans landed in New England. Jamestown, in Virginia, had been founded in 1607, and in 1619, the first Africans were brought to America on a captured Portuguese slave ship.

The British Parliament includes the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Proceedings and Debates is an interesting transcript of matters, both mundane and monumental, taken up by the House of Commons. Flipping through the book, one particular item caught my eye. On April 25, 1621, the House of Commons took up the regulation of fishing in Virginia. At first blush, this would seem about as interesting as a dead mackerel. But the Secretary of the House of Commons had this to say on the subject:

“… Virginia, New England, Newfoundland, and those other foreign Parts of America, are not yet annexed to the Crown of England, but are the King’s as gotten by Conquest; and therefore he [the Secretary] thinketh it worth the Consideration of the House, whether we shall here make Laws for the Government of those Parts; for he taketh it, that in such new Plantations the King [James I] is to govern it only [by] his Prerogative, and as his Majesty shall think fit …”

This may be the earliest mention of British law as it pertained to governing the American colonies. Governance of the colonies would progress through many stages and permutations over the next 150 years before the colonists would revolt and achieve their independence in the American Revolutionary War.

Astronomy, 1777

A number of years ago I was helping a friend clean out his father’s house when I came across, among stacks and stacks of old books, a book that was falling apart, with pages tan with age. It was obviously old, but it was hard to tell how old it was. It was missing the title page, and the book was written in German. To make matters worse, it was printed using the difficult-to-decipher Gothic characters known as “Fraktur.” Here was a puzzle!

But was it a puzzle worth spending time against? In the back of the book are a number of star charts. They are "tipped in,” meaning, they are fold-out charts that are bound with the regular pages. Twelve of the charts show the constellations in the sky for each month of the year. The illustration of each constellation is a fanciful pen-and-ink drawing of how that constellation is represented. A larger chart shows the solar system (as it was known at the time) with the position of the planets at various times of the year. A final chart shows the surface of the moon.

So, it is an astronomy book. But how old is it? The answer comes at the end of the foreword to the book: “Berlin, den 25ten Marz, 1777.” The book was published in Berlin in 1777!

After the table of contents, the first page is titled “Anleitung zur Kenntniss des gestirnten Himmels.” (Translated: “Instruction for the Knowledge of the Starry Heavens.”) This was written by the eminent German astronomer Johann Elert Bode. The 1777 printing was the third edition of this work, a work of sufficient importance to be released in several more editions into the early 1800s.

Bode was known for his reformulation and popularization of a mathematical model, originally proposed by Johann Daniel Titius, that purported to predict the distance of then-unknown planets from the sun. This law, known as the Titius-Bode Law, originally met with success but as further knowledge of the outer planets was gained, the predictions of the law broke down. Nevertheless, Bode played a part in the discovery and naming of the planet Uranus.

Scientific genealogies relate scientists to their graduate school advisors, and their advisors’ advisors, as well as their students, and their students’ students. Bode is not as well known as his “grand-student,” the eminent mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, or his “great-grand-student,” the famous mathematician Bernhard Riemann.

Book collectors would describe my copy of Bode’s Anleitung as having bumped corners, chipped boards, worn ribs on the spine, and a deteriorating binding (not to mention the missing title page). Judging by prices asked for this book by dealers of antiquarian books in Germany, a complete restoration of the book would not be worth the expense. I opted to have the book professionally rebound. It now sits on my shelf, smug in its old age, taunting me, challenging me to renew my limited understanding of German from college language classes and translate it. Alas, I suspect that disassembling the book and removing the charts so they can be framed and displayed would make the book more valuable, but I don’t think I can bring myself to do surgery on the old man.

Four Ministers and a Confederate Colonel (repost, revised)

I recently posted the news that my latest book, MISSING IN ACTION, 1863: Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Lacy and Tennessee’s Confederate Cavalry, is now in print. A significant resource I tapped in writing this book was the collection of letters between Lieutenant Lacy and his family. In a letter he wrote a month after joining the cavalry, Lacy spoke of going to church and hearing "Dr. Pendergrass" preach. While the chaplain of the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry was Charles Wylie Witt, 39, a minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian church, "Parson" Witt's nephew, Travis Witt Pendergrass, 35, accompanied the regiment for several months, attending to the needs of both body (surgery) and soul (exhortation). Like his Uncle Charles, Travis Pendergrass was a minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. His three younger brothers were all in the same company as Lieutenant Lacy.

A few months after Lacy heard Pendergrass preach, his regiment was sent to Florence, Alabama. There, Pendergrass was surprised to run into a fellow Cumberland Presbyterian minister, Thomas Fletcher Bates. Then, to his further surprise, Pendergrass encountered Rev. Robert A. Young, a prominent preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South who was currently serving as president of the Wesleyan University in Florence (now the University of North Alabama). Pendergrass had met Young in Lebanon, Tennessee in 1853, shortly before Young was reassigned to a pastorate in St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1846, Rev. Young had met the "plain, quiet" son of a friend, Anthony Dibrell. That son, George Gibbs Dibrell, was now a colonel commanding Lacy’s regiment, the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry. Of Colonel Dibrell's religious convictions, Young said "When [Dibrell’s] chaplain preached to his command, standing between two tallow candles, one of his most devout listeners was the commander in chief." The chaplain he refers to is most likely Charles Witt.

Before Lacy's regiment left Florence and returned to Tennessee, Charles Witt resigned as chaplain, complaining that the varicose veins in his legs made riding very uncomfortable. Pendergrass signed off on a medical discharge for his uncle. When Witt left Florence for Jackson County, Tennessee, he delivered to Lacy's family an accounting that Lieutenant Lacy had kept of all the operations of the Eighth Cavalry up to that point. The family owns that document today.

(1) http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pendergrass/pics/travis/pics_travis.html

(2) Young, R. A. Reminiscences. Nashville, Tennessee: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1900. https://readux.library.emory.edu/books/emory%3A7sv2p/pdf/

MISSING IN ACTION, 1863 - New Title Published by Mark Lacy!

My book on Andrew Jackson Lacy in the Civil War is finally finished and published!
MISSING IN ACTION, 1863: Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Lacy and Tennessee's Confederate Cavalry.

In the summer of 1863, my great-great-grandfather, a young lieutenant in the Eighth (Dibrell’s) Tennessee Cavalry (CSA), disappeared and was never seen again. He left behind a grieving family, including a young wife and infant son (my great-grandfather). Once the war ended, and the remnants of the Confederate army headed home, including prisoners released from Union prisons, Lieutenant Lacy’s family waited anxiously to see if he might return. He did not.

This was a 150-year-old missing-persons cold case. I had to investigate. Did I find him?

(Spoiler alert!)

The honest answer is no. I have pursued this mystery for decades, searching for needles in all kinds of haystacks. I started with the many letters that Andrew Lacy wrote to his family during the war, and the letters they wrote to him. (How the family happens to have letters written to him is another mystery surrounding his disapperance.) I spent many hours (even days!) in front of microfilm readers at the Tennessee State Library & Archives, went cross-eyed following the tiniest bread crumbs across the internet, and searched through dozens of books on the Civil War. I researched the men he served with on the remote chance that one of them might lead me to him, and accumulated notes on over 2000 men in the process. I studied the movement of troops and the rise of guerrilla warfare in Middle Tennessee. My conclusion, as explained in the last chapter of the book, is that he probably died sometime in the last half of August 1863, within 25 miles of home, likely at the hands of guerrillas.

I must be an optimist because, while the book is finished, I can't help continuing to look for him. Someday maybe I'll stumble across what we need to know.

If you’re interested in the Civil War, historical detective work, or genealogy, you’ll be interested in reading MISSING IN ACTION, 1863: Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Lacy and Tennessee's Confederate Cavalry.

Layers of Secrets: Joseph Kanon's "Los Alamos"

New Mexico. Ancient ruins of vanished Native Americans. Desolate spaces and tumbleweeds crossing the highway. Snow-capped mountains. Little bars with menus listing hundreds of different brands of tequila. And two of our country’s national laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia. Los Alamos was established as a secret center of research for atomic weapons during World War II. In the years following the end of the war, Sandia was established for further weapons testing, but its mission is now focused on developing and testing non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. The mission of Los Alamos is now one of supporting a broad range of interdisciplinary research covering national security, nuclear fusion, supercomputing, and other areas.

Secrets permeate these facilities as easily as unshielded radioactivity, and are just as invisible to the naked eye. And they can be just as dangerous. In Joseph Kanon’s literary thriller Los Alamos, set in the final months of World War II, the secrets are not all military. There are clandestine meetings with Communist sympathizers, lover’s trysts in the desert, and personal histories that many would like to keep from the watchful eyes of government security. I was drawn to the book, and willing to give it a go, because I’ve visited New Mexico’s national labs. I’m familiar with the countryside, from the urban sprawl of Albuquerque to the views from Sandia Peak, from the historic Plaza of Santa Fe to the Anasazi ruins at Bandelier National Monument (the location of an unpublished story of mine). Sure, it’s fun for a fantasy reader to be plopped down in the middle of an invented landscape, but sometimes reading a story where you know the locale well can be even more fun.

Kanon gives us a murder mystery based largely in Los Alamos during the final stages of the development of the bombs that would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki and bring World War II to an end. Needless to say, neither the scientists nor the military involved in developing the atomic bomb were pleased to know that one of their own could be murdered. The story of how this mystery is solved spans many pages but kept me glued to the page - not a requirement for me to give a book my blessing, but certainly an indication of how much I enjoyed reading it.

Highly recommended.

"Treehouse Living" and Experimental Fiction

Once in a while I decide to be daring and pick up a work of experimental fiction. You’ll know experimental fiction when you see it—it may use multiple fonts, eschew ordinary chapter structure, or perhaps take the form of something unusual for fiction, such as a dictionary. I’ve enjoyed experimental fiction by Italo Calvino, particularly If on a winter’s night a traveler and Invisible Cities. I’ve considered reading but have not yet summoned the courage to read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but only because of its structure and length, not because it’s a work of horror.

Many years ago I read the “male” version of Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic. The fact that there are both “male” and “female” versions of this book is a dead giveaway that it is a work of experimental fiction—along with the fact that it is structured like a dictionary. The two versions of the book differ in only sixteen or seventeen different lines. I can no longer remember whether those lines are highlighted or the reader is expected to buy both versions of the book and compare them line-by-line to find what’s different. I see on Amazon there is also an “androgynous” edition of this book, but it’s not clear how it differs from the “gendered” versions.

Like Pavic’s Khazars, Elliot Reed’s A Key to Treehouse Living is arranged as a dictionary. The entries are written by the narrator, an orphaned boy who struggles to make sense of the world. This boy’s tidbits of “wisdom” give us insight into his life. The question with any book like this, of course, is, what is the plot? How do pieces that are not chronologically arranged function when structured in an interconnected alphabetical arrangement? The Kindle version makes it easy to follow hyperlinked cross-references, but the text is not nearly as hyperlinked as it could be.

I found A Key to Treehouse Living mildly interesting but frustrating to follow. One can’t help but finish reading a book like this and wonder what you have missed. Did the author explain everything needing explanation? Why did he cover this topic before this one? Which entries are important and which are whimsical digressions by the narrator? While the narrator’s nuggets of wisdom are arranged alphabetically by their defining concepts, early on the narrator explains to the reader that he couldn’t always adhere to strict alphabetical order.

Experimental fiction can be very hard to understand. We are used to following the course of a story in a linear, time-based fashion. But if the story is nonlinear, jumping between past and future and present, is it still a story? What was the author intending to do by making the reader encounter a story in this way? How does one follow a “character arc” when there is no chronological order? I would suggest experimental fiction to anyone wanting to experience something unique in their reading, but it is not likely to appeal to everyone.

Worldbuilding and Stephen King's "The Dark Tower"

Recently I checked my database on Goodreads.com to see my “most-read authors” list. I was surprised to find that Stephen King was at the top of the list, with 31 books. This was surprising, because I wouldn’t call myself a fan. Sure, I like reading his stories, but there are aspects of his writing that I don’t care for. Many years ago I decided to try his Dark Tower series. I was making progress until he mentioned a body part of one of the Challenger shuttle astronauts washing up on a beach. I thought that was in poor taste, so, in protest, I stopped reading his books. Or, I thought I had.

When I learned they were making a movie of “The Dark Tower” I decided to go back and try the books again. This time I persevered, and read all eight of them. All 5,329 pages. And enjoyed them all.

One thing I decided to do, early on, was to pick up a copy of the “revised and updated” Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance, by Robin Furth. Why? Because sai King went a bit beyond worldbuilding in telling the story of the Dark Tower. He did worldbuilding on steroids. And I don’t know how he did it without Robin Furth’s book on hand to keep him honest. In the Dark Tower series there are locations in this world, and places in worlds like ours that have “moved on.” There are characters that appear under one name at one time, and another name at another time. There is time travel, and stories within stories. There is the author writing himself into the story. There are creatures humanoid and otherwise. There are connections to many other works in Stephen King’s canon.

Robin Furth’s Concordance includes information on (from the back cover)

  • Characters and Genealogies

  • Magical Objects and Forces

  • Mid-World and Our World Places

  • Portals and Magical Places

  • Mid-, End-, and Our World Maps

  • Timeline for the Dark Tower Series

  • Mid-World Dialects

  • Mid-World Rhymes, Songs, and Prayers

  • Political and Cultural References

  • References to Stephen King's Own Work

Of course, this only covers what’s been published. How much else regarding the Dark Tower lies sleeping in the author’s files? Will someone come along someday, like Christopher Tolkien did with his father’s writing and notes, and build on what’s already been built?

Zarathustra and Mystery

When it comes to choosing names for fantasy characters, there are examples from history and literature that can be inspirational, or even repurposed. “Zarathustra,” or “Zoroaster” is one of those. Zoroaster was an ancient Persian prophet.

My first exposure to “Zarathustra” was via the score for a famous scifi movie.

I have blogged in the past about the sense of mystery, or mysticism, in fantasy and science fiction. I was introduced to this as a young teenager. When 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, my father took me and some of my friends to see it. The story generates all kinds of questions, including who placed a monolith on Earth to influence the evolution of Homo sapiens, and another monolith on the Moon to signal when humans first achieved space travel? What is the meaning of the "star child" at the end of the movie? I’m sure my father left the theater scratching his head and wondering why he had brought us to see this movie. I’m also sure I had some of the same questions, but the difference was I could accept that there are some questions for which there are no good answers. I was comfortable with, even relished, the mystery.

But beyond the mysteries presented in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I remember being profoundly moved by the movie’s score, and in particular, the opening theme by the composer Richard Strauss, which is the introduction to his tone poem, “Also sprach Zarathustra.” When I learned that Strauss was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous work of the same name (in English, Thus Spoke Zarathustra), I had to read it. This was in the early 1970s, shortly before I started college. It was a time of mysticism and psychedelics and Hermann Hesse and Tolkien and black-light posters of wizards and mountains. In translation, Thus Spake Zarathustra was rendered into “Biblical” English (“thee,” “thou,” etc.), which only added to its mystery.

As it turned out, I don’t think I understood a word of it! But it impressed me, and I went on to read many other mystery-flavored works as I transitioned into college, including those of Hesse and Kahlil Gibran. Feeling nostalgic, and imagining I may decide to reread Nietzsche, I recently added a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra to my library.

Poul Anderson's "The Broken Sword"

Readers of my blog are aware of my respect for fantasy author Michael Moorcock and his tales of the albino anti-hero Elric. In his book Wizardry and Wild Romance, Moorcock points out a book that he holds in high regard: The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson. Anderson is a well-known scifi/fantasy author, but The Broken Sword, published in 1954, is not so well known.

The Broken Sword, set in a supernatural and mythological Scandinavian past, tells the story of a man, living among elves, and the troll-born changeling with which he was exchanged at birth. Each man struggles to fit into the world in which he lives. Once their paths inevitably cross, these struggles only grow more fierce. The story overflows with sorcery, Vikings, epic battles, Norse gods, and sadness. The eponymous Sword, Moorcock admits, influenced his own creation of Elric’s sentient sword, Stormbringer.

As Moorcock points out, The Broken Sword is a true tragedy, something not often seen in modern fantasy. It echoes of Shakespeare, with its somewhat (intentional) archaic style. This style works well, even if it does make for slower reading. It is also reminiscent of Greek tragedy - particularly when a pair of lovers discover they are actually brother and sister.

Moorcock calls The Broken Sword “Anderson’s finest dramatic achievement.” After reading this high praise, I had to read the book. It was a great read; I highly recommend it.

Creatures and Illustrations Thereof

Illustrations of creatures, both real and imaginary, have been part of human culture since the dawn of time. From the wall paintings of aurochs, deer, and horses on the walls of the Lascaux caves in France, to the whimsical creatures dreamed up by early explorers and depicted on old maps, capturing the essence of animals has been a fascinating part of human history.

I still have — though it is now tattered and without a cover — a copy of Francis Wardle’s Zoo Book, a gift to me over sixty years ago, before I could even read. I loved browsing through this book as a child, and I probably appreciated it more once my mother started taking us to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. From there, I graduated to the “How and Why Wonder Book” series. Like most kids, I was thrilled by dinosaurs. Even today I have an illustrated book about dinosaurs (Dinosaurs: A Visual Encyclopedia) waiting patiently on my shelf to be read.

Imaginary creatures have been our close companions since childhood. If not the Monster Under the Bed, it was Jess, the imaginary dog my parents let me have (because it made no noise, didn’t have to be fed, and didn’t have to be walked by someone). Authors and illustrators like Dougal Dixon have extrapolated from real creatures of the present to their possible evolutionary descendants of the future (see After Man: A Zoology of the Future, and other books). Illustrator Wayne Douglas Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials and Guide to Fantasy provide great visuals of creatures we will never meet except between the covers of a book.

But the creepiest book on imaginary creatures I’ve seen in a long time is E. B. Hudspeth’s The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black, a reference book by a fictional scientist with “comprehensive illustrations and explanatory texts regarding the musculature and skeletal systems [and] viscera” of “the lesser known species of the animal kingdom.” The anatomical diagrams in this book are presented as one would expect to see in a human or veterinarian anatomy book, showing the skeletal and muscular structure for almost a dozen mythological creatures, including a sphinx, a minotaur, a dragon, and a harpy.