Fifty years ago this summer, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Folks were still talking about it when I moved back to northern Ohio the following year. Oil slick from industrial Cleveland burned for twenty or thirty minutes, sending flames more than five stories high.
The 1969 blaze wasn’t the river’s first or worst. Of thirteen recorded times the Cuyahoga ignited from 1868 to 1969, the fire of 1912 was deadliest (five fatalities) and that of 1952 did the most property damage. What was different in 1969 was historical context. Concern was rising over the dangers of pollution from unchecked industrial growth. National shock over a river catching fire added momentum, leading in 1970 to the first Earth Day and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
How the river has changed! What I once knew as the epitome of pollution has transformed into a place of beauty. Habitat is restored, dams removed, wildlife protected. Bald eagles eat fish from the river. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is calling to me to come visit.
The photo is from the 1952 fire. The 1969 blaze was put out before anyone could take a photo.
In the 2011 film Midnight in Paris, a vacationing writer time-travels to the 1920s Paris of Hemingway et al. In that era, which he loves, he meets a young woman who longs for the golden age of the 1890s. Levels upon levels. How the past looks depends where you’re looking from.
A few years back, I undertook a retelling of Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 best-seller The Mysteries of Udolpho, set in southern France (Garonne, Languedoc) and northern Italy in the 1580s. Levels upon levels. Radcliffe’s novel abounds not only in anachronisms like coffee but in the tastes and values of her age. Antiquity, sensibility, and the sublime spoke distinctively to her generation and the next. Crumbling castles surely existed in the 1580s, but gothic, romantic fascination with them came later.
When I began trying to make Udolpho accessible to modern readers, I planned to replace twenty-page landscapes with paragraphs and let the protagonist have pensive moments without breaking out into lyric poetry. But the larger challenges turned out to involve attitudes and values, not just style. A character today needs more than virtue and piety. She needs agency to make decisions that affect what follows. She needs to wind up changed by her experience. These are the values of our time, not the 1790s or the 1580s. Levels upon levels.
Browsing at an independent bookstore, having the author sign your copy at a launch, tearing the gift wrap off a new book at the holidays, settling into your favorite chair with a fresh hardcover in your hands. It doesn’t get much better than this.
That’s assuming the book is available. If it’s out of stock, late to ship, or up in price, it may be because the publisher can’t get enough paper. Two reasons for the current paper shortage are side effects of environmental progress, Forbes reported in June.
First, recycling has gotten easier and more pervasive. We can throw all recyclables in one bin and include most any kind of paper. The resulting fibers are dirtier, harder to turn into book- or magazine-quality paper. Second, commercial packaging has shifted away from plastic in favor of paper and cardboard. Mills that retool to meet this demand no longer make as much paper suitable for books.
Next time I relish a physical book, I’ll try not to take its pages for granted.
“Catholic” and “Irish” are so linked in public imagination that the University of Notre Dame, founded by French Catholics, calls its teams “the fighting Irish.” Would it surprise you to learn Protestants outnumber Catholics among Americans with ancestors from Ireland?
Though I heard little about Dominion Day (now Canada Day) during childhood summers in Canada, my grandmother’s friend Mrs. Moise made sure I knew July 12 was Orangemen’s Day. It celebrates a long-ago Protestant battle victory over Catholics. For a few years in grade school I thought it fun to wear orange on Saint Patrick’s Day. Then I learned Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland were killing each other. Not funny.
North America received over a quarter million Irish immigrants in the 1700s, largely Presbyterian with Scottish ancestry. The merchants and tradesmen who formed the Irish Society of Boston organized world’s first recorded Saint Patrick’s Day parade in 1737. Instead of settling in cities, though, most moved to the frontier to farm. Their descendants multiplied to populate much of the South and the Appalachians.
History is written not only by the winners and the literate, but by those with an agenda. When potato famine in the 1840s drove well over a million destitute, starving Catholic Irish to an unwelcoming America, the previous arrivals rebranded themselves “Scots-Irish” to evade prejudice. Back in Ireland by the 1900s, the mostly Catholic independence movement laid claim to marks of traditional Irish culture: Saint Patrick, shamrocks, the color green.
Deciding “orange” Irish weren’t “true” Irish served agendas both green and orange. It’s a short step from there to assuming Americans’ ancestors from Ireland were all potato famine Catholics, even if it isn’t true.
Most books that strongly influenced my childhood were predictable classics: Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fictionalized memoirs, the exploits of Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, The Little Prince. Others turned out to be personal passions, like Mistress Masham’s Repose by T. H. White. Perhaps the most obscure, though I didn’t know it at the time, was George Herbert Locke’s When Canada Was New France (1920).
“Almost four hundred years ago, when bluff King Hal ruled over Merry England and Francis over Sunny France, there were strange stories told in the ports of the west of England and the north of France of lands away to the Westward,” it began. What child could resist? Especially a child with Canadian roots, who spent summers in Canada with Canadian aunts, uncles, and cousins. A child excited by tales of adventure, all the more when the tales were true.
Locke wrote in honor of then-recent Canadian soldiers who sailed to Old France to preserve their ancestral motherlands in the Great War. To an adult reader today, his account is a quaint period piece, justifiably long out of print. To one child reader long ago, the intrepid explorers he wrote about—Cartier, Champlain, Joliet, Marquette, LaSalle—opened the door to a lifelong fascination with true stories of long ago.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.