Monday, July 26, 2010

Book Selection of the Month: "Victorian Norwich" by Arthur Lester Lathrop Book Selection of the Month (July 2010): Victorian Norwich by Arthur Lester Lathrop

Until Helen gave me a copy, I had no idea anyone had written a book about the town I grew up in, Norwich, CT (there’s been more than one such book, apparently).

Thanks to Lathrop’s tome, which depicts the different-yet-very-familiar Norwich of the latter half of the nineteenth century, I now know about such things as Norwich’s schizoid relationship to the temperance movement (literally going back and forth between making booze illegal and legal on roughly an annual basis) and about Norwich being, yes, the croquet capital of the U.S. for a good forty years, though the town baseball players were virtually all Irish. (Similar revelations help explain why England seems almost as much like home to me as New England does.)

Another chapter details the close ties between my high school (Norwich Free Academy) and Yale. The town saw its commercial peak, though, in the trolley car (or, if you will, steampunk) era, and the book ends with Norwich’s grandest-ever self-celebration, 101 years ago, a parade/festival overseen by (familially Norwich-linked) President William Howard Taft himself, after which it was all downhill — but still in an English-Victorian progressive sort of way — straight to late-twentieth-century economic doldrums and me.

(And herewith a flashforward to my August, September, and October Book Selection entries, which will include, respectively, After the Victorians; the Taft-related Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism; and the Jonah Goldberg-edited anthology Proud to Be Right, featuring my vaguely steampunk-like essay defending, explicitly at long last, the tradical idea of “Conservatism for Punks.” Taft is a reminder, by the way, that America is capable of producing presidents who are both fat and in favor of minimizing business regulations, so there may be a bright future for Chris Christie.)

In New York City, one is conscious of history — and newness — at every turn, but I am pleased to learn that simply by growing up in Norwich, I have walked the same streets walked by such characters as John F. Cunneen, the “Irish-Machinist orator of Chicago,” who preached in Norwich against the evils of the saloon; the pro-saloon Norwich Bulletin editorialist who lamented that “prohibition has made this country an arid waste”; famed conjoined twins Chang and Eng; crackpot mesmerists and spiritualists — including one who became famous in England and admired there by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; the spiritualists’ skeptical critics; waves of nineteenth-century immigrants, particularly the Italians and Irish; an early Zionist organization; and Polish immigrants who reportedly came to blows due to one’s “arrival at [a] christening and his desire to furnish harmonica music that was not wanted.”

More loftily, Norwich had Chautauqua Circles and Grangers aimed at improving the masses with philosophical and political lectures, not to mention various Moose and Elks. From a mayor who attacked shop awnings with an axe because he saw them as the greatest aesthetic blight upon the city to a major pro-free-market advisor to Abraham Lincoln, I can see in my Norwich-dwelling predecessors the combination of puritanism and utilitarianism (with a dash of Northeastern reformism) that helped produce me. If I ever find my way into the history books, though, may I at least be more fondly recalled than the man who was perhaps Norwich’s most famous resident, Benedict Arnold — but his story precedes Lathrop’s narrative by a century, so that is a story for another time. Feel the hometown pride.

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