Tag Archives: history

5 Questions for … Ray E. Boomhower

CBR_Logo2Today at Chicago Book Review, we continue our “5 Questions for …” series with our echat with Ray Boomhower, whose work has included biographies of such figures as Gus Grissom, Ernie Pyle, Lew Wallace, Juliet Strauss, and May Wright Sewall. The Indiana historian recently accepted the top prize in the biography/memoir category from Society of Midland Authors for his book John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog. We asked Ray what he’s working on, what he’s been reading lately, and what might be next for him.

boomhowerCBR: What new writing projects are you working on right now?
I am currently deep into writing a book for Indiana University Press on the World War II writing of Robert L. Sherrod, a war correspondent for Time and Life magazine. What Ernie Pyle did for his reporting for the average GI during the war, Sherrod did for the those who served with the U.S. Marine Corps, who suffered and persevered in the horrific engagements at Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. In his writing, Sherrod strove not to present complete stories, leaving that task to historians, but to write what he saw, heard, and felt during a battle, thereby reflecting the “mood of the men in battle” and how they appeared, talked, and fought. Washington Post reporter Richard Harwood observed upon Sherrod’s death in 1994 that as a war correspondent the man from Georgia produced “some of the most vivid accounts of men at war ever produced by an American journalist.”

Sherrod also produced two classic books on his wartime experiences—Tarawa: The Story of a Battle (1944) and On to Westward: War in the Central Pacific (1945). As Sherrod, a former Washington, DC, correspondent for Time, noted, “I can think of nothing less interesting than sitting out the war in Washington. There is too much history being written where men are dying.”

CBR: Who are some of your favorite writers?
My taste in authors and genres has changed over the years. Like many ex-reporters, I grew up reading the stories and novels of Ernest Hemingway, admiring his spare prose. Because I now write mainly biography and nonfiction, my preferred writers are those who also work or have worked in narrative, including John McPhee, Robert Caro, Barbara Tuchman, and William Manchester.

CBR: What are you reading right now?
Immersed as I am with my Sherrod book, I have little time at the moment to read about anything but what might help with that project, including several books on the history of the war in the Pacific, especially Peter Schrijvers’s incredible The GI War against Japan: American Soldiers in Asia and the Pacific During World War II—a must for any historian of the war. For inspiration when I find myself lagging, I have turned recently to Scott Donaldson’s The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography, comforting myself that at least I don’t have to contend with the problems he encountered in writing a biography of John Cheever.

CBR: Which books are on your to-read list?
Books coming my way as part of my Sherrod research include James L. Baughman’s Henry Luce and the Rise of the American News Media and the autobiography of writer and Fortune magazine editor Eric Hodgins. I also look forward to reading Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader: A Life, especially his relationships as the editor of a host of famous authors.

CBR: If you could write one book about any topic—fiction or nonfiction—what would that book be?
I have taken to heart David McCullough’s tip that biographers should select as their subjects people they are going to enjoy spending time with, as these projects can sometimes take years, or even decades, to complete. With that advice in mind, I gravitate toward people I have a shared experience with, either through an interest I have on a particular subject (World War II, for example) or a profession we might share (journalism). I would love to have the time to do a biography of Richard Rovere, the American political journalist and the writer for so many years of the “Letter from Washington” column for The New Yorker.

underdog boomhowerRay E. Boomhower is senior editor of the Indiana Historical Society’s quarterly popular history magazine, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. Along with numerous articles for Traces, The Indiana Magazine of History, Outdoor Indiana, and other history periodicals, Boomhower is the author of several books, including John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog (Indiana University Press, 2015), Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary (Indiana University Press, 2008), and Fighting for Equality: A Life of May Wright Sewall (IHS Press, 2007. In 2010, he was named as the winner of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award in the regional category.

Learn more about author and historian Ray E. Boomhower at http://rayboomhower.blogspot.com/

—Kelli Christiansen


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Escapades in High Society

CBR_Logo2The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel:
A Story of Marriage and Money and the Early Republic
by Margaret A. Oppenheimer

Prostitute, murderer, and gold-digger? Or businesswoman, art connoisseur, and society maven?

9781613733806_eliza jumelEliza Jumel, née Betsy Bowen, it seems, was all of these things and more, depending on who was doing the telling. Margaret Oppenheimer brings Eliza Jumel and her many facets to life in her historical biography of a woman whose story riveted nineteenth-century New York—if not the entire nation.

Born into poverty in 1775, the woman who became Eliza Jumel spent her early years living in a brothel housed in an old jail that had been converted into a residence. She spent several spells in a work house, became an indentured servant, and eventually made her way to New York. It was there that her transition from penniless wretch to wealthy socialite would begin.

Eliza would eventually marry Stephen Jumel, a wealthy merchant who hailed from France. Years later, after Jumel died as the result of an accident, she would become the second wife of former Vice President Aaron Burr, who, at the time of their marriage in 1833, was practicing law in Manhattan. Eliza would make the most of both marriages, becoming one of America’s wealthiest women by the time she died in 1865.

But her rise from poverty to affluence would be neither a straight path nor one without complications. Eliza Jumel’s life was an intricately woven patchwork of relatives in America and France, a sticky web of colorful characters who would vie for a slice of the sizable estate she had amassed by the time she died: $1 million (about $15 million today) in various assets, including a mansion, a summer home, and several hundred acres of prime real estate. That estate and those characters would lead to numerous legal battles—one of which even reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Margaret Oppenheimer

Author Margaret Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer has done an admirable job here of untangling the crazy web of people in Eliza Jumel’s life: former husbands, nieces and nephews, siblings and step-siblings, various in-laws at home and abroad—the people in Eliza’s story are almost too numerous to count. And, as it would turn out, all of those people had their own notions of who Eliza Jumel really was.

Rumor and innuendo seem to have followed Eliza throughout much of her life. Gossip surrounded the story of her marriage to Stephen Jumel, which was considered by many to be an unequal bond that greatly elevated Eliza’s status while doing little for Jumel. Gossip and speculation were part and parcel of Eliza’s life, much of it her own doing as she embellished stories in order to augment her status.

Indeed, status was one thing that Eliza continually sought. Oppenheimer details countless examples by which Eliza would weave colorful tales in order to associate herself, no matter how tenuously, with luminaries of the day such as Napoleon I and Charles X. Contemporary news articles, correspondence, and other materials point to Eliza’s unstoppable penchant for self-aggrandizement. For example, shortly before her death, Eliza invited the Prince de Joinville to visit at her mansion, writing to him that she had known his father, the late King Louis-Philippe of France.

Such letters were not uncommon, as Oppenheimer shares many stories about Eliza’s various escapades in high society. Most of these stories were exaggerated by Eliza herself to show her in the best light possible, and many such tales were planted in newspapers by Eliza, who was very much a shameless self-promoter in her never-ending quest for fame and fortune.

As such, Eliza Jumel is not entirely a sympathetic subject. Although it is easy to admire the rags-to-riches story of a driven, savvy woman who, in many ways, was a woman before her time, Eliza also comes off as cunning, conniving, greedy, and vain. Her determination is enviable while her dishonesty is not. Her ambition is admirable while her duplicitousness is not. Her strategizing is commendable while her scheming is not. (Of course, one wonders if the greed, vanity, duplicity, and scheming would be either overlooked or easily forgiven had Eliza Jumel been a man rather than a woman.)

Regardless of whether readers will find Eliza a character who deserves compassion, The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel does a good job of shining a light on an overlooked bit of history. Although a woman of notoriety at the time, Eliza Jumel’s story is not one that many readers likely will have learned about in history courses. Oppenheimer has woven together a well-researched biography of a woman who, although ahead of her time, has in many ways been lost to history. That said, gaps in the history have left a considerable number of holes, which Oppenheimer often fills with informed speculation, leaving numerous passages hedged with phrasing borne out of educated guesses marked by “it’s possible that” or “it may have been” or “it probably would have” or “it must have been.”

Even so, The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel is an interesting historical biography of a compelling figure, part rags-to-riches story, part history of early America, part court-room drama, colored by gossip and scandal that makes for a good read.

Two-Star Review

November 2015, Chicago Review Press
$29.95, hardcover, 347 pages
ISBN: 978-1061373-380-6

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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When Understanding and Tolerance Trump Assumptions and Stereotypes

CBR_Logo2Living Black:
Social Life in an African American Neighborhood
by Mark S. Fleisher

Mark Fleisher, a balding, middle-aged, white Jewish man, spent six years conducting research in “Little Chicago,” an African-American neighborhood on the north end of Champaign, Illinois, not far from the campus of the University of Illinois. An ethnographer by trade, his assignment was to be a local evaluator for a project designed to study gangs and violence as well as intervention and prevention. Fleisher was tasked with interviewing hundreds of adolescent gang members in the North End.

Fleisher spent six years hanging out in the North End, usually the lone white person in the neighborhood. During those six years, he came to know many of the area’s residents, several of whom feature prominently in his reportage of the area and its people, Living Black.living black

Published by the University of Wisconsin Press within days of the release in Chicago of the Laquan McDonald video, the timing for this book and its topic couldn’t be more relevant.

Living Black takes readers inside a neighborhood most of us likely would never willingly venture into, a neighborhood marked by gangs and violence and poverty and unemployment and drugs. It’s the kind of neighborhood that many people would avoid at all costs, the kind of neighborhood that, if they had to drive through for whatever reason, they would lock the doors, roll up the windows, and floor it through stop signs and red lights. The kind of neighborhood most of us would assume to be dangerous.

That was not, however, the neighborhood that Fleisher found.

Rather, he writes, “the North End was a quiet, low-income residential neighborhood … No homeless folks panhandled by day and slept by night on sidewalks or under bushes. No bag ladies pushed swiped grocery carts packed with heaps of plastic bags. Street corners didn’t harbor drug sellers, and local gang youth didn’t hold court there or in parks.”

What Fleisher found was a community of friends and family with deep connections and a rich social life. What he found were children playing in parks, mothers gossiping with friends, and families holding birthday parties for their children. He found a community where people didn’t chastise, scold, belittle, or judge their peers.

Did he find this community among convicts and felons? Yes. Among unwed teenage mothers whose baby daddies were nowhere to be found? Yes. Among young gang members who sold weed? Yes. But he also found this community among mothers and grandmothers and cousins who stuck together, generations bound by blood and history.

In many ways, Living Black is a book about dichotomies. Fleisher writes, for instance, that “the North End had two faces, one soft and welcoming, the other hardened, portending the area as a dangerous place. The North End I saw in the 1990s was a peaceful, sleepy enclave of black and white neighbors. The North End I heard about was an angry, gang-ridden, segregated community.”

One community, the latter, based on hearsay and assumptions; another community based on experience and reality. Fleisher took the time to get to know the residents of the North End, to move beyond assumptions, to listen to them, and to withhold judgment.

Coming on the heels of a year of protests and violence in Chicago, Baltimore, Ferguson, and so many other cities and neighborhoods across the country, Living Black opens a window on a world that so many of us make assumptions about, succumbing to stereotyping without actually having any real experiences or relationships on which to base those assumptions and stereotypes.

Where so many of us assume poor, African-American neighborhoods to be ghettos rife with cold, hard violence, Fleisher reveals a community full of residents who care about and take care of each other. Where so many people assume the residents of these neighborhoods to be drug-dealing laze-abouts who cash out on welfare, Fleisher reveals resilient, self-sufficient members of a community doing whatever it takes to earn a living, put food on the table, and keep a roof over their heads.

And he does so with little editorializing or commentary. Although it’s not perfect, at times redundant and occasionally too academic, Living Black is thoughtfully observed. It is written with compassion, more objective than not, although not completely impartial: Fleisher himself admits to sticking his nose where it didn’t necessarily belong, having become close with many of his interview subjects. Weighing in on the love lives of his friends/subjects and trying to get jobs for them might be outside the purview of an ethnographer. But it isn’t outside the purview of a human being.

And, above all, Living Black is a human story, not necessarily an account of white vs black or haves vs havenots. This timely study offers a glimpse into a part of society that many of us choose to ignore. At a time when tolerance and understanding seem in short supply, Living Black should be required reading for anyone who could benefit from a look outside their own world into the world of others. Which is most of us.

Three-Star Review

November 2015, University of Wisconsin Press
Sociology/Current Events
$29.95, paperback, 160 pages
ISBN: 978-0-299-30534-5

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen


“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war
that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood
can never become a reality…
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love
will have the final word.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.


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