Henry Clay: The Essential American :: Larger Than Life In His Day, Nearly Forgotten Now

Henry Clay: The Essential American
David S. Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler (2010)

Having just finished a 400-plus book on the venerable statesman Henry Clay, I feel as if I’ve taken a survey course on American politics, complete with a field trip to Clay’s Ashland estate in Lexington, Kentucky in December. During a career that spanned four decades and ten presidencies, Clay (1777-1852) served as a Congressman, Senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State, beginning his term on the eve of the War of 1812. At the time of his death, he was serving as a Senator, and though wracked by the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, he passionately worked on his final, great compromise, legislation he hoped would repair the cracks in a crumbling Union. Though he succeeded in his task, less than a decade passed before the United States dissolved into Civil War.

As a career politician, much of the book revolves around the intense (and sometimes venomous) politicking that went on during Clay’s four decades of public service, including three unsuccessful, and often contentious, bids for the presidency. Once again, reading history proves that dirty politics is by no means a modern game.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the period of Clay’s life, a fascinating pivot point in U.S. history. Henry Clay is often regarded as the finest orator of his day and the greatest senator in U.S. history; this extensive yet readable biography does much to illuminate why, as well as fill in the important moments in an oft forgotten period of American history.

(Note: This book is part of my Presidential Reading Project.)

Wedding of the Waters :: An Important Footnote in US History

Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation
Peter L. Bernstein (2006)

When on vacation, I like to read books set in the places I’m visiting, so this past summer while on a road trip through New York state, I eagerly took the opportunity to read about the Erie Canal. I’m intrigued by canals, their role in history, as marvels of engineering, and visually, as manmade rivers cutting through countryside and industrial landscapes.

Wedding of the Waters fulfilled on all counts, educating me on this fascinating and crucial piece of U.S. history. Author Peter Bernstein extols the important role the Erie Canal played in the the political, social, and economic development of New York state and the westward expanding empire of the United States, as well as bourgeoning cities like Buffalo, fortunate to be included on the route, while other towns, like Black Rock were bypassed and consigned to fade into history.

Construction of the Erie Canal, a monumental (and thought by some a monumentally foolhardy) undertaking, was begun in 1817 and would eventually cover a distance of 363 miles and 565 feet of elevation difference. The canal was officially opened in 1825, celebrated with a grand procession of flatboats traveling from Buffalo to Albany, and then down the Hudson River, where water from Lake Erie was ceremonially poured into New York Harbor. New York City and the Empire State were never the same.

Bernstein gives a thorough and convincing account of the importance of the canal, a vital link between the Great Lakes (and westward expansion) and New York harbor (gateway to the world), so vital to the success of the growing U.S. nation. The story of the Erie Canal is as much a tale of New York politics, an argument over state vs. national interests, the importance of infrastructure to a thriving nation, and the age-old conflict between politicians, doling out patronage and championing pet projects.

Last summer, while traveling the length of western New York, I was thrilled to see portions of the Erie Canal intact and still in use, even if just recreationally. As grand an achievement as the canal was in its day (thousands of 19th-century tourists travelled from far and wide to witness for themselves this modern marvel), it’s humbling to see how narrow the canal appears to us today (even after an expansion of the canal, a massive undertaking that began less than ten years after its official opening.) Busy industrial hubs rose and then faded, following the tide of the canal, which peaked in 1855 and fell off when canal traffic was supplanted by the railroad.

Finally, on a side note, Wedding of the Waters dovetails nicely with my Presidential Reading Project, as Martin Van Buren, a fixture of New York politics prior to his Presidency, was instrumental in getting the necessary legislation passed which allowed for the creation of the canal.


H is For Hawk :: A Transcendent Memoir

H is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald (2014)

Meditative. Outstanding. Transporting. Informative and life affirming. An honest revelation of love and loss, the power of grief and the natural and unexpected path out of profound pain delivered with rich, moving prose.

DNF :: Girl Waits With Gun

Girl Waits With Gun
Amy Stewart (2015)

I quit midway through when I realized I just wasn’t having any fun reading this lackluster bit of historical fiction. It was neither “hilarious” nor a “romp” as promised on the  cover–the artwork of which is the best thing I can recommend about this book.

The prose is serviceable but lackluster with creaky dialog and a story on par with a sub-par episode of PBS’s Mystery. After 120 pages, it was time to move on to something more interesting and worth my time.

Book Review :: West of Sunset

West of Sunset
Stewart O’Nan (2015)

Stewart O’Nan has done it again.

I very much enjoyed immersing myself in the world of 1930s Hollywood, with F. Scott Fitzgerald as my guide and O’Nan as my story teller. A transporting imagination of the final years of Fitzgerald’s troubled life, as he struggles unsuccessfully to redeem himself as a husband, father, and author while working as a Hollywood script doctor.

Time has not been kind to the Fitzgeralds, who are long past their hey-day as poster children for the Roaring Twenties. While Zelda fades away in an asylum back East, F. Scott wrestles with his own demons in the California sunshine, struggling over a novel he hopes will revive his literary career and pay off his debts. An affair with an industry gossip columnist isn’t enough to stem Fitzgerald’s drug and alcohol-fueled descent as the story leads to its inevitable conclusion. Along the way, cameos by the likes of Bogart and Dorothy Parker give color and context to the setting in Hollywood’s golden age.

Beautifully written, vivid in place, and personality, this book reaffirmed for me why O’Nan remains one of my favorite authors.

Snapshot Review :: Wieland, America’s Earliest Gothic Tale

Wieland; or the Transformation: An American Tale
Charles Brockden Brown (1798)

In my quest to read a work of popular fiction published during each U.S. presidential term (as part of my Presidential Reading Project), Wieland fit the bill, published in 1798 when John Adams was in office. It’s also noteworthy as the first significant novel written by an American-born writer.

Unfortunately, despite some genuinely terrifying moments and a gripping (if somewhat gruesome) premise–a religious fanatic hears voices that compel him to murder his wife and children–this early work of American Gothic fiction is more interesting as a novelty than as a must-read piece of literature.