Category Archives: Books

A History of Family Poverty and Homelessness in NYC


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ThePoorAmongUs_frontcoverWith nearly 49,000 people living in city shelters, including almost 21,000 children—a modern-day record that may well be broken—there has never been more of a need to step back and understand how New Yorkers have confronted poverty and homelessness over time.

The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Poverty and Homelessness in New York City (2013, White Tiger Press), puts current policies in perspective through the lens of nearly 300 years of public and philanthropic efforts to alleviate poverty in New York City. Continue reading

Book: Dutch Law and Jurisprudence in Colonial America


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Rosenblatt_Opening_9781438446578.inddNo society can function without laws, that set of established practices and expectations that guide the way people get along with one another and relate to ruling authorities. Although much has been written about the English roots of American law and jurisprudence, little attention has been paid until recently to the legacy left by the Dutch.

The influence of the New Netherland settlement has created enduring characteristics of New York. In Albert and Julia Rosenblatt’s Opening Statements: Law, Jurisprudence, and the Legacy of Dutch New York (2013, SUNY Press), a broad spectrum of eminent scholars examine the legal heritage that the Dutch bequeathed to New York in the seventeenth century. Continue reading

Authenticity and Authorship:
Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave


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Solomon Northup in a Sketch from Twelve Years a SlaveQuestions about the authenticity and authorship of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave have been raised in the past, and have resurfaced following the release of the recent film version of his book.

Though an expert on Solomon Northup, his book, the contemporary reactions to his book in the 1850s, and his later life (which included several years spent traveling to talk about his experiences), I am not a scholar of slave narratives. I have consulted some of them in connection with my work on Northup, as necessary. I leave it for others to draw detailed comparisons between Northup’s narrative and the others. Continue reading

Women in Long Island’s Past: A History


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Long Island Women HistoryWomen have been part of Long Island’s past for thousands of years but are nearly invisible in the records and history books. From pioneering doctors to dazzling aviatrixes, author Natalie A. Naylor brings these larger-than-life but little-known heroines out of the lost pages of island history in Women in Long Island’s Past: A History of Eminent Ladies and Everyday Lives (History Press, 2012).

Anna Symmes Harrison, Julia Gardiner Tyler, Edith Kermit Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt all served as first lady of the United States, and all had Long Island roots. Beloved children’s author Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote The Secret Garden here, and hundreds of local suffragists fought for their right to vote in the early twentieth century. Continue reading

FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern NYC


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City of AmbitionCity of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013) by urban politics historian Mason B. Williams is a loving exploration of the history of the New Deal and its role in the making of modern New York City.

The story of a remarkable collaboration between Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia, this is a case study in creative political leadership in the midst of a devastating depression. Roosevelt and La Guardia were an odd couple: patrician president and immigrant mayor, fireside chat and tabloid cartoon, pragmatic Democrat and reform Republican. But together, as leaders of America’s two largest governments in the depths of the Great Depression, they fashioned a route to recovery for the nation and the master plan for a great city. Continue reading

Drifting: A Hudson River History Memoir


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Drifting Hudson RiverDrifting: Two Weeks on the Hudson (SUNY Press, 2011) is a candid account of the author Mike Freeman’s two-week canoe trip down the Hudson River which offers an introspective and humorous look at both the river and recession-era America.

New to fatherhood and fresh from ten years in an Alaskan village, Freeman sets out to relearn his country, and realizes it’s in a far greater midlife crisis than he could ever be. With an eye on the Hudson’s past, he addresses America’s present anxieties—from race, gender, and marriage to energy, labor, and warfare—with empathy and honesty, acknowledging the difficulties surrounding each issue without succumbing to pessimism or ideology. Continue reading

An Environmental History of Fire Island


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Fire Island Past, Present, and FutureRobert Sayre, a retired English professor at the University of Iowa, has spent nearly every summer on Fire Island since 1934. Drawing on his deep interest in Fire Island environmental history Sayre has written Fire Island, Past, Present, and Future: The Environmental History of a Barrier Beach (Oystercatcher Books, 2013).

Syre’s book, which began as an exhibit at the Point O’ Woods Historical Society in 2007 is a concise and readable environmental history of Fire Island from its post-glacial origins to its human uses and its prospects in the age of global warming. Continue reading

No Country for Peter Stuyvesant: Loss Across Time


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15114The nation or country, what entity is of more importance to modern society? What about capitalistic economy, secularization, democracy, and progress as normative American values. All hold sway, for better or worse, on our perceptions of the world and our place within it. And it is from this vantage point in modernity that we look towards the actions of those who lived before us, reaching back through time to filter the past through the eyes of the present. This is history, and this is why the practice of history is an art and not a science. It is imperfect, an extension of the historian and the times in which they live.

But how then, asks Donna Merwick in Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across Time (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), can we better understand Peter Stuyvesant from our vantage point in the modern world, back to one that was premodern and existed between the post-Reformation and pre-Enlightenment periods. A world in which the United States of America cannot be predicted or imagined, though the history written about Colonial America often chooses a narrative that fits into a story of nationalistic genesis. Continue reading

A Journey into Mohawk and Oneida Country, 1634-1635


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Journey into Mohawk and oneida CountryIn 1634, the Dutch West India Company was anxious to know why the fur trade from New Netherland had been declining, so the company sent three employees far into Iroquois country to investigate.

Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert led the expedition from Fort Orange (present-day Albany). His journal includes the earliest known description of the interior of what is today New York State and its seventeenth-century native inhabitants and it is now issued in a revised edition as A Journey into Mohawk and Oneida Country, 1634-1635: The Journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2013; Translated and Edited by Charles T. Gehring and William A. Starna). Continue reading

The Rise and Fall of Southampton College, 1963–2005


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Southampton CollegeSouthampton College, the easternmost campus of Long Island University, opened with great promise in 1963 and closed in 2005 amidst great acrimony. Located in an idyllic environmental setting on the Atlantic shore of Long Island, it had a nationally recognized marine science program that produced an unprecedented number of Fulbright awards and an impressive number of alumni who went on to careers in prestigious universities and research centers.

David Steinberg, the president of Long Island University since 1985, referred to Southampton as “the jewel in the university crown.” However, an accumulating yearly deficit led Steinberg and the Long Island Board of Trustees to view the campus as an “albatross around the university neck.” Continue reading

Towers of Babel: New York’s Historical Enterprise


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home_revolutionHistory’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880-1940, by Robert B. Townsend was just reviewed on H-Net. While I will not be purchasing the book (I have enough to read already!), the review struck home. .

The author was the deputy director of the American Historical Association (AHA) and much of the book is through the prism of that organization. As one might expect from the title, Townsend’s concern is the fragmentation of the historical enterprise into bunch of organizations that do not speak to each other. Does that sound at all like the New York historical enterprise today? Continue reading

Allegany to Appomattox:
Life and Letters of Private William Whitlock


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Allegany to AppomattoxOn September 7, 1864, William Whitlock, aged thirty-five, left his wife and four children in Allegany, New York, to join the Union army in battle. More than 100 years later, his unpublished letters to his wife were found in the attic of a family home.

These letters serve as the foundation for Allegany to Appomattox: The Life and Letters of Private William Whitlock of the 188th New York Volunteers, by Valgene Dunham (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2013), which gives readers a vivid glimpse into the environment and political atmosphere that surrounded the Civil War from the perspective of a northern farmer and lumberman. Continue reading

No Votes For Women: The NY Anti-Suffrage Movement


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No Votes For WomenNo Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2013) explores the complicated history of the suffrage movement in New York State by delving into the stories of women who opposed the expansion of voting rights to women.

Author Susan Goodier makes the case that, contrary to popular thought, women who opposed suffrage were not against women’s rights. Instead, conservative women who fought against suffrage encouraged women to retain their distinctive feminine identities as protectors of their homes and families, a role they felt was threatened by the imposition of masculine political responsibilities. Continue reading

New Book: Thomas Edison and the Rise of Innovation


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EdisonCoverThomas Alva Edison, one of the leading innovators of all time comes alive like never before in Edison and the Rise of Innovation (Sterling, 2013) by Leonard DeGraaf.  Perhaps America’s first business celebrity, Edison was more than history’s most prolific inventor.

Edison pursued more than a thousand patents by combining scientific knowledge, well-equipped laboratories, talented collaborators, investment capital and a bit of showmanship, according to DeGraaf, who argues that in the process Edison changed the way we innovate new technologies. Continue reading

New Book: New Netherland in a Nutshell


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books-fabendAlthough the role of the Dutch in Early American history has been largely ignored, the facts are that New Netherland antedates New England, and religious toleration and ethnic diversity in the United States began with the Dutch.

Why isn’t this better known and taught in our schools? Because, until now an easy to read, short introduction to the history of New Netherland has been lacking. Firth Haring Fabend of Montclair, NJ, a recognized historian of the field, was commissioned by the New Netherland Institute to write New Netherland in a Nutshell (New Netherland Institute, 2012) to fill the gap.  Continue reading

Remarkable Women in New York State History


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image001(5)The significant events in New York State history are well known to educators, students and New Yorkers alike. But often, the role that women played in these events has been overlooked.

In Remarkable Women in New York State History (History Press, 2013), Edited by Helen Engel and Marilynn Smiley, members of the American Association of University Women in New York State have meticulously researched the lives and actions of more than 300 of New York’s finest women. Continue reading

Jeanie Johnston: The Legendary Irish Famine Ship


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Iimage002(3)n All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, The Legendary Irish Famine Ship (Free Press, 2013), Kathryn Miles recounts the dramatic tale of a legendary ship, the Jeanie Johnston, that ran between Ireland and North America during the height of the Irish famine. During this time, the people of Ireland emigrated to North America in search of job opportunities and a better life, crowding onto aptly named “coffin ships,” whose gruesome conditions rivaled those of slave transports.

But unlike every other coffin ship, the Jeanie Johnston never lost a passenger. While over 100,000 people died aboard other coffin ships, the combined efforts of the Jeanine Johnston’s crew allowed thousands of individuals to find safety and fortune throughout the United States and Canada. Continue reading

New Book Explores Life On A Putnam County Farm


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Life on a rocky farmLife on a Rocky Farm (SUNY Press, 2013) is a folksy look at farm life in rugged Putnam Valley (Putnam County) just as it was being transformed by industrialization and mechanization. The book couples Lucas C. Barger’s (1866–1939) eye for detail with a folksy, anecdotal style to provide an interesting depiction of both the traditional ways of farm life, and the challenges farmers faced as times changed.

Previously unpublished, Barger’s first-hand account of farm life near New York City begins in the late nineteenth century. Little had changed for well over a century in the hilly and rugged terrain of Putnam Valley, where Lucas grew up as a member of the sixth generation of Barger farmers. But as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, industrialization and mechanization decreased the demand for farm labor and farmers had to come up with alternate ways to make money. Continue reading

Montgomery Co. Hosting ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ Discussion


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Solomon Northup in a Sketch from Twelve Years a SlaveThe Montgomery County Department of History & Archives will host a book discussion on Solomon Northrup‘s Twelve Years a Slave.

Northup was born a free man in what is now Minerva, Essex County, NY, in 1808. While working as a cabbie and violinist in Saratoga Springs in 1841, he was abducted, held in a slave pen in Washington, DC, and sold into slavery in Louisiana for 12 years before regaining his freedom. Continue reading