Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

Biography: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

 

In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain to find western route to China and the Indies. As everyone knows, what he found instead was what became known as the “New World,” lands full of new people, new plants, new animals, and new opportunities for the Europeans who came. For the inhabitants of those lands the arrival of the Europeans was a disaster, bringing slavery, conquest, disease, rape, and catastrophe. For everyone involved, the world changed in 1492.

 

One thing Columbus left behind in Europe during this voyage was his young son, Hernando Colon. Colon (the Spanish version of the name Columbus) was the son of Columbus’s Spanish mistress, and although the explorer never married his mother, he always acknowledged Hernando to be his son and treated him like a son. In his book, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee tells the story of this younger son of Christopher Columbus, a man who tried for his entire life to live up to his father’s legacy. In some ways, Hernando was a man far ahead of his time. However, when you are the younger child (and not a child from a marriage) of the man who “discovered the New World,” you’re never going to quite live up to your legacy.

 

Wilson-Lee is an excellent writer, and he does a very nice job capturing Hernando from the available source material. Much of what we know about Hernando comes from what he wrote about his father. Hernando idolized his father, eventually writing a biography of him that was part legal defense of his family’s claims for land and power and part historical defense of his father’s role in discovering Hispaniola and other places. Hernando accompanied his father on one trip to the Americas, surviving a mutiny and shipwreck during the trip and watching his father become quite ill during the adventure.

 

Often forgotten in the very mixed legacy of Christopher Columbus is that his legacy was not universally accepted or respected even during his own lifetime or that of his sons. Other members of his own crew tried to diminish his accomplishments, one even racing back to Spain to claim credit for the discoveries they had made before Columbus could arrive. Columbus never received everything promised to him by the Spanish crown, both because of his own mistakes (and those of his family members) and because of European politics interfering with financial rewards and decisions. On one occasion Columbus was returned to Spain in chains–and symbolically he requested that he be buried in those chains upon his death.

 

The more questionable parts of Columbus are well known to us today. Although he himself was not as personally genocidal as he is made out to be by some, he certainly was not kind or benevolent to the natives he found. He did bring slaves back to Spain and imported African slaves to Hispaniola and other islands. He never acknowledged that he had found a “new” continent but insisted until his death that he had found the route to Asia. He greatly underestimated the circumference of the earth. Some of these issues plagued his legacy even within Hernando’s lifetime. As Hernando fought in the courts (both legal and royal) to preserve some of the promises and gifts made to his father by the crown, he glossed over some of these issues in his biography of his father in order to improve Columbus’s reputation. For this biography, he had one thing going for him that no one else did: the largest library in the world.

 

Hernando was a book collector. By the time of his death, he had over 5000 books. One of those books was his “Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books,” a list of over 1000 books of his that were lost at sea. Hernando created ways of cataloging, organizing, and indexing books that were unlike any that had been tried before. In some ways, he was trying to create things that simply could not exist until the digital age. Hernando also worked on ways to map the world, including ways to measure longitude that were not fully discovered and employed until more than a century later. It is hard to say what his legacy truly was: his library fell into disuse and disrepair after his death, his cataloging and indexing methods simply could not be fully realized until computers came along 500 years later, his tools for measuring longitude were never adopted and had to be independently created much later. What we can say is that just like DaVinci’s helicopter, Hernando had ideas that were beyond his time but which we can now appreciate as being ingenious.

 

Hernando Colon may not have been the most famous person in his family or of his time. But he was a fascinating person, not only because of his father. The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books is an interesting story of an interesting man, one who largely shaped what we know about Christopher Columbus.

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

Book Review: The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, Edward Wilson-Lee

Book Review: Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

Book Review: Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

Nonfiction Biography: Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

When America entered World War II, it did so with an aviation industry that was only the seventeenth largest industry in the US. Before the end of the war, US aviation was the largest industry in the world. Some of the credit for this increase in industrial capacity, particularly for the improvements in technology that changed the way aircraft was built and that made American planes faster and safer, belongs to the engineers, mathematicians, and “computers” (a job title which was then held largely by women) who worked at Langley, VA during that time. And among those brilliant people in segregated Virginia were a number of African American women whose stories are celebrated in the book Hidden Figures.

 

Margot Lee Shetterly has compiled their stories with detail and affection. She tells of women who grew up in the heart of a racist and sexist society and defied all the odds to get jobs as “computers” after racial discrimination was formally ended in federal government hiring in 1941 (obviously the formal end did not change everything overnight, but it did create new opportunities). Women like Dorothy Vaughan, who became the manager for the “West Computers” and shepherded the careers of many other women, perhaps at the expense of her own career. Women like Katherine Johnson, whose work was finally acknowledged by a Presidential Medal of Honor in 2012. Katherine Johnson’s work was instrumental in both the Mercury and Apollo space missions.

 

Their very presence and the high standards of their work gave the lie to the segregationists and those who asserted that blacks and women were somehow less capable than white men. More than just their presence, though, these women fought discrimination on a personal level. Miriam Mann used to take the signs from the cafeteria that labeled a specific table for “colored girls.” For awhile the signs would be replaced, but eventually they were gone for good. Through their collective insistence on excellence and accuracy and their tireless advocacy for each other, these women created new opportunities for themselves and for others. They refused to allow others to define them. In a world where blacks could not stay in hotels, could not eat in diners, could not attend school with whites, could not even be in some towns after sundown, these women pried open doors that had been closed to all but white men and proved that they belonged.

 

Shetterly’s writing is warm and brimming with love for her subject. She grew up in the Langley area and knew some of these women when she was a child. That affection gives a tenderness to her prose, but does not detract from the detail and research that informs it. I love the way she presents these women as full people. She gives details about their families, their interests, their churches, their sororities, and all the things that made them complete as humans. Spouses and children may not have plotted trajectories or measured air resistance, but they mattered to the “hidden figures” and so they matter to their story.

 

Hidden Figures is a book of hope and triumph. The challenges faced by the African American women who worked in Langley during the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s were such that people of lesser character might have folded. The fact that they not only persevered but forced their way into the history books is a credit to their determination, their talent, and their will. Shetterly has given us their stories as a road map to the destinies that character and hard work can win.

Also see the Hidden Figures:  2017 movie, young readers edition, and picture book edition.

Book Review: Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

Book Review: Invisible,  Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Invisible, Stephen L. Carter

Nonfiction History/Biography: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Stephen L. Carter is a novelist and a law professor at Yale. That is quite impressive all by itself. But he comes from a family with multiple luminaries, perhaps none that shone brighter than his grandmother, Eunice Hunton Carter. In his biography of his grandmother, Invisible, Carter tells the story of a woman who should never be forgotten.

 

Eunice Hunton was born to remarkable parents. Her father was revered for his work with the YMCA, loved so deeply that upon his passing young men across the country lit candles and met together to mourn his loss. Her mother traveled through Klan areas in the south to organize black women. It is little wonder that Eunice grew up with a strong sense of purpose and confidence.

 

She grew up in a time, though, when opportunities for African Americans were scarce and for women were even scarcer. Still, she earned her law degree and began working for Thomas Dewey in the NYC District Attorney’s office during the 1930s. Dewey had 20 assistants working with him to take down infamous mob leader “Lucky Luciano.” Nineteen of them were white males. The other was Eunice Hunton Carter.

 

Luciano was the chief mob boss in NYC after the murder of Dutch Schultz, a murder that quite probably was ordered by Luciano himself. Almost any organized crime in the city tied back to him one way or another. Eunice Carter realized that this included prostitution. Years before, prostitution was not organized. Then, some people began “booking” the prostitutes. This helped keep the “girls” out of jail by moving them around from place to place, and because these “bookers” were responsible for more women they could spend more to buy lawyers and pay bribes to police and judges. Eunice had become aware of this growing trend during her work with the Women’s Court prior to joining the DA’s office, and she requested permission from Dewey to look further into it to determine whether the Combination (as the prostitution conspiracy ring was known) reached all the way to Luciano. Dewey was skeptical and reluctant at first, but Carter was persistent. He finally agreed, and Carter began to make the case. At first she was alone in her work. She soon found enough evidence that a second attorney joined her. Eventually, almost the entire team was working the Combination angle, and eventually Luciano was brought up on prostitution related charges. He was found guilty.

 

The most powerful mobster in America was brought to trial and convicted because of the persistence and acute legal mind of one person. An African-American woman. In the 1930s.

 

Carter continued working in the DA’s office for many more years, and also became active in Republican politics. She campaigned vigorously for her mentor, Dewey, in his rise within New York and the US political scene. She held multiple leadership positions in both US and international groups advocating for expanded rights for women and for people of color. She was friends with leaders in politics, entertainment, sports, and advocacy, especially those in the “darker” America (Stephen Carter’s term). She was also a leader of Harlem’s “sassiety,” wealthy (and according to the author, snobbish) African American women who were among the elite of New York’s black cultural and business life.

 

Carter’s biography is powerful, affectionate, but also open-eyed. He does not shy away from his grandmother’s faults. She apparently was an indifferent mother, she could be insensitive to others, her marriage suffered, she held grudges, and she was extremely driven. These very human failings, though, do not obscure the fact that she did extraordinary things during a time when blacks, and especially black women, were dismissed, demeaned, ignored, and forgotten.

 

Carter is also clear about why she was forgotten by history. There are obvious answers: she was a black woman whose heyday came in the 1930s and 1940s. Black women today still struggle to get appropriate recognition for their accomplishments, especially when those accomplishments come in areas considered the purview of white men, such as law. But there were less obvious reasons as well, which Carter gives appropriate consideration to. Eunice Hunton Carter’s brother, Alphaeus, was a known communist. It is highly possible that his communist sympathies derailed his sister’s ambitions for political advancement or a judgeship. (He was arrested and served some time in jail, and eventually fled the US and lived the rest of his life in Africa.) Eunice’s personality also led to her falling out with some other leaders, whether because of competing ambitions or simply arrogance, and those interpersonal conflicts kept her from achieving some leadership positions she had sought.

 

None of that changes what she did accomplish. She set herself against the most powerful mobster in America. And she won. Eunice Hunton Carter deserves to be remembered, and hopefully this biography by her grandson, novelist and law professor Stephen L. Carter, means that she will no longer be Invisible.

Invisible, Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College, Roger L. Williams

Book Review: Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College, Roger L. Williams

Evan Pugh's Penn State

Nonfiction:Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College, Roger L. Williams

 

Evan Pugh never went to college as an undergraduate, but earned a doctorate in chemistry. He never served in political office, but was a force behind the passing of the land-grant bill creating national public funding for universities across America. And although he died prematurely at the age of 36, he is remembered as one of the leading scientists of his generation. Roger L. Williams’s biography of him, Evan Pugh’s Penn State, tells the story of a remarkable life and his dedication to creating a remarkable university.

 

Pugh grew up in Pennsylvania and remained a loyal son of the state his entire life. As a young adult he founded a boys’ school in his home. Feeling the need to advance his own education, he went to Germany (although he did not know German when he left!) and studied at several institutions there, eventually earning his Ph.D. He continued on to France and then to England, where experiments he did resulted in a paper that largely created the chemical fertilizer industry and transformed agriculture worldwide.

 

While in Europe he was invited to become the first president of the Farmers’ High School in then rural Centre County, PA. He returned in 1859 to take up this post. He also taught several subjects (including chemistry) and even assisted in the construction of the main campus building and the president’s house. Along the way, he developed a plan for agriculturally focused universities that became the blueprint for land-grant institutions around the country. His scientific work was so well regarded that he was twice asked to take a position with the department of agriculture as their lead chemist. He rejected the offer to stay with Farmers’ High School–soon renamed Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, and later becoming Penn State University.

 

In 1863, Pugh was injured severely in a buggy accident. His fiancee was also injured. They recovered well enough to be married, but the effects of his injury never fully left. Weakened by his injury and stressed by fights over funding with the Pennsylvania legislature, Pugh died from typhoid in 1864. The college he led so boldly for its first years struggled in his absence until George Atherton became president 18 years later. Atherton is often called Penn State’s second founder.

 

Although I am not a Penn State graduate, I have lived in State College for 15 years. My wife and one of my sons both attended the university. It is a special place, and I have enjoyed living in the university’s neighborhood. Despite my long familiarity with the university, I never knew the story of her founder and first president.

 

Roger Williams has written an engaging and illuminating portrait of Evan Pugh. Special emphasis is given to his scientific work in Europe and to his visionary writings about the role of agricultural education in the United States. Williams is clearly a fan of his subject, and his affection shows through the book. Occasionally the professor slips through in the writing. I doubt I’ve ever seen the word “peregrination” used twice in a single book before this one! But overall the book is interesting, easy to read, and tells the story of a long-forgotten American scientific and educational leader.

 

It’s easy to play the “what if” game when someone dies at a young age. Evan Pugh was only 36 years old when he died. But imagining what he might have been can detract from what he actually did accomplish. In his brief life, Pugh transformed agriculture and founded a university that has become one of the top 100 universities in the world! I commend Roger Williams for writing a worthy book on such an interesting figure. Anyone interested in agriculture, higher education, science history or American history will appreciate adding this book to her collection.

 

Evan Pugh's Penn State

Book Review: Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural CollegeRoger L. Williams