We Underestimate How Entrepreneurial the Americans Were in the 1800s

(p. C6) Jim DeFelice’s “West Like Lightning,” a history of the Pony Express, begins with an anxious young rider waiting to take the news to California that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president. The delivery service lasted only about 18 months, but its revolutionary speed left an indelible mark on the country. Many, including Mark Twain, marveled at riders’ courage and the spectacle of their switching horses every 10 miles or so for a fresh burst of speed.
. . .
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
Historians, God bless them, they do a lot of debunking of legends. They can sometimes come off as schoolmarms. The reality is, those legends are fun. They’re the exciting part. I separate fact and fiction, but I love those stories — and underneath them, there’s a much deeper truth. There’s a reason we value these 19- and 20-year-old kids pushing themselves against the elements.
I knew there would be some debunking involved. What I didn’t know was how true a lot of those stories turned out to be. If I were a Pony Express rider, I’d be bragging about how fast I made it. These guys didn’t brag about that — they bragged about how far they went. They were bragging about endurance and dealing with the elements. That impressed me, the resilience.
I also think sometimes we underestimate — and I’m guilty of this — just how entrepreneurial and into technology people were in the past. We think we’re cool because we can fly somewhere and be there tomorrow. But for these guys, 10 days was huge. If you gave them something in downtown New York, it would be in San Francisco two weeks later. At the time, that would be like going from dial-up to the fastest speeds we have today.

For the full interview, see:
John Williams, interviewer, ” Making Good Time and Even Better Tales.” The New York Times (Monday, May 21, 2018): C6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the interview has the date May 20, 2018, and has the title “Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: Making Good Time With the Pony Express.” The first paragraph and the bold question are John Williams. The paragraphs following the bold question, are Jim DeFelice’s answer.)

The book discussed in the interview quoted above, is:
DeFelice, Jim. West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express. New York: William Morrow, 2018.

“Wilson’s Betrayal of Black Americans”

(p. C6) Instead of “The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made,” Patricia O’Toole could have titled her new book “The Hypocrite.”
After all, as she herself points out, to lay claim to the moral high ground as often and as fervently as President Wilson did during his eight years in the White House was to court charges that he failed to live up to his own principles. He called for an end to secret treaties while negotiating secretly with the Allies in World War I. He declared himself unwilling to compromise with belligerents abroad while showing himself very willing to compromise with segregationists at home. He pursued a progressive economic agenda while approving a regressive racial one. He spoke of national self-determination in the loftiest terms while initiating the American occupation of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
. . .
“The Moralist” suggests that Wilson’s betrayal of black Americans was born from simple expedience — that he allowed the segregation of the Civil Service because he desperately needed the votes of Southern congressmen in order to pass his progressive economic agenda, including the introduction of a federal income tax.
“He knew the segregation was morally indefensible, but ending it would have cost him the votes of every Southerner in Congress,” O’Toole writes.
The second part of her sentence is largely correct, but how can she be so sure about the first? As evidence she cites Wilson’s own pleas to his critics. “I am in a cruel position,” he told the chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., insisting he was “at heart working for these people.” The testy exchange apparently left Wilson so rattled he took to his bed for a week.
But as O’Toole herself shows, his cries of political constraints were later followed by his claims that politics were irrelevant to racism anyway. In 1914, Wilson told the African-American editor William Monroe Trotter that eliminating segregation wouldn’t do anything for racial animus, which he called “a human problem, not a political problem.” (Wilson took to his bed after that “bruising quarrel” with Trotter, too.).

For the full review, see:
Jennifer Szalai. “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Woodrow Wilson’s Flawed Idealism.” The New York Times (Wednesday, May 2, 2018): C6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 1, 2018, and has the title “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; In ‘The Moralist,’ Woodrow Wilson and the Hazards of Idealism.”)

The book under review, is:
O’Toole, Patricia. The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

“Puttin’ On the Ritz”

(p. C9) The Savoy, which opened in 1889, was glamorous and cosmopolitan, an antidote to Victorian stuffiness. Its owner, Richard D’Oyly Carte, the backer of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, had a theater next door, and his ambition was to create a modern luxury hotel the likes of which had never been seen. To fulfill his vision, in 1890 he turned to Escoffier and the Swiss hotelier Ritz, a man known for his impeccable taste, and in short order the two men, who’d had a previous success at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, made the Savoy into the most famous and profitable hotel and restaurant in the world.
“Ritz & Escoffier,” Luke Barr’s entertaining narrative history, reads like a novel (complete with cliff hangers and descriptions of the characters’ private thoughts). Both of its subjects had grown up poor, but were opposites temperamentally.
. . .
Neither man had to use the stairs at the Savoy, since the hotel had six elevators, the largest ever seen in Europe, which D’Oyly Carte called “ascending rooms.” There were 400 guestrooms and an unheard-of number of bathrooms–67 all told, many en suite and at no extra charge. (The recently opened Hotel Victoria provided just four for 500 guests.) The Savoy also had electric light that you could switch on or off in your room without getting out of bed, also at no extra charge.
. . .
. . ., D’Oyly Carte gave Escoffier and Ritz free rein from the start. The restaurant became enormously popular, a gathering place open to all who could afford it: aristocrats, the nouveau riche, royalty, Jewish bankers and fur traders (Jews weren’t freely accepted in society at the time), and stars of the theater and opera. Formal evening dress was de rigueur in the dining room and women were admitted–except those of “doubtful reputation and uncertain revenue,” who arrived unaccompanied, wearing makeup and large hats. Mr. Barr writes, “An extravagant hat worn in the evening, Ritz had discovered, was a sign of trouble.” But Ritz not only gave ladies’ banquets, he also successfully campaigned to change the laws against eating out on Sundays. Soon those formerly grim at-home evenings of “cold joint and gloom” became the most fashionable times of the week to dine at the Savoy.
. . .
Ritz had opened the hotel’s doors to anyone with money wearing the right clothes. The old social rules were broken. Mr. Barr comments, “Indeed, there was an element of decadence in the Savoy’s brand of luxury–it was this decadence that made it modern, the sense that pleasure was to be celebrated.”

For the full review, see:
Moira Hodgson. “‘Modern Hospitality.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 31, 2018): C9.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 30, 2018, and has the title “‘Ritz & Escoffier’ Review: Modern Hospitality.”)

The book under review, is:
Barr, Luke. Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef, and the Rise of the Leisure Class. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2018.

“Science Didn’t Lie”

(p. 22) In the words of The Saturday Evening Post: “If America doesn’t keep out the queer, alien, mongrelized people of Southern and Eastern Europe, her crop of citizens will eventually be dwarfed and mongrelized in turn.”
According to Thomas C. Leonard, who teaches at Princeton, the driving force behind this and other such laws came from progressives in the halls of academia — people who combined “extravagant faith in science and the state with an outsized confidence in their own expertise.” “Illiberal Reformers” is the perfect title for this slim but vital account of the perils of intellectual arrogance in dealing with explosive social issues. Put simply, Leonard says, elite progressives gave respectable cover to the worst prejudices of the era — not to rabble-rouse, but because they believed them to be true. Science didn’t lie.
But barring undesirables was only half the battle; the herd also had to be culled from within. In 1907, Indiana became the first state to legalize forced sterilization, starting a landslide endorsed by progressive icons like Theodore Roosevelt and the birth control champion Margaret Sanger.

For the full review, see:
DAVID OSHINSKY. “No Justice for the Weak.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, March 20, 2018): 1 & 22-23.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 14, 2018, and has the title “‘Imbeciles’ and ‘Illiberal Reformers’.”)

The book under review, is:
Leonard, Thomas C. Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

The Role of Progressives in the Forced Sterilization of Thousands

(p. 22) Progressivism was always more than a single cause, however. Attracting reformers of all stripes, it aimed to fix the ills of society through increased government action — the “administrative state.” Progressives pushed measures ranging from immigration restriction to eugenics in a grotesque attempt to protect the nation’s gene pool by keeping the “lesser classes” from reproducing. If one part of progressivism emphasized fairness and compassion, the other reeked of bigotry and coercion.
“Imbeciles,” by Adam Cohen, the author of “Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America,” examines one of the darkest chapters of progressive reform: the case of Buck v. Bell. It’s the story of an assault upon thousands of defenseless people seen through the lens of a young woman, Carrie Buck, locked away in a Virginia state asylum. In meticulously tracing her ordeal, Cohen provides a superb history of eugenics in America, from its beginnings as an offshoot of social Darwinism — ­human survival of the fittest — to its rise as a popular movement, advocating the state-sponsored sterilization of “feeble­minded, insane, epileptic, inebriate, criminalistic and other degenerate persons.”

For the full review, see:
DAVID OSHINSKY. “No Justice for the Weak.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, March 20, 2018): 1 & 22-23.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 14, 2018, and has the title “‘Imbeciles’ and ‘Illiberal Reformers’.”)

The book under review, is:
Cohen, Adam. Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. New York: Penguin Press, 2016.

Mackenzie Was Wrong in Thinking He Was a Failure, but Was Right About the Northwest Passage

(p. 10) In the summer of 1789, a young fur trader named Alexander Mackenzie led an expedition in search of a Northwest Passage. He and his voyageurs and Chipewyan guides were attempting, 14 years before Lewis and Clark, to cross North America, paddling birch bark canoes down a river they hoped would pierce the Rocky Mountains. Mackenzie was a businessman who wanted to speed the pace of trade by connecting New York and China via an interior passage through the continent. He did find such a route, without knowing it. Mackenzie died thinking he was a failure, when he was really just 200 years early.
Some ideas are fantastically ahead of their time. In 1636, René Descartes created contact lenses, using glass tubes filled with water; unfortunately, the wearer was unable to blink. Charles Babbage invented digital “difference engines” — essentially modern programmable computers but powered by steam — in the 1820s. And Kodak developed digital cameras in 1974 but discarded the product idea because it thought no one wanted to look at photos on televisions.
In a particularly ill-timed episode, Giovanni Caselli invented the fax machine in 1856. Letter writers could scribble a message onto electrically charged foil, and the portions covered by ink would block the flow of current. The stylus of Caselli’s device then scanned each line of text, transmitting the signal via telegraph lines to a second machine, which would scrawl out a “fac simile” of the letter.
To be practical, the system required a coordinated investment throughout a region, and Napoleon III had plans to modernize all of France with Caselli’s pantelegraph, more than a decade before Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. But before it could be installed, Napoleon III lost the Franco-Prussian War, his government fell, and Paris descended into the brutal anarchy of the Commune. Caselli faded into obscurity, and his technology was forgotten for a century.
Like the fax machine and computer, Alexander Mackenzie’s Northwest Passage was too forward-looking to be practical or useful. Today the melting Northwest Passage — along the North Slope of Alaska, through the maze of Canadian Arctic islands, then back down along Greenland’s west coast, to the Atlantic — is regularly in the news. A holy grail for generations of explorers is now finally open, because of climate change. Giant cargo and oil tankers regularly ply those seas, and even the Crystal Serenity cruise ship, with 1,700 people onboard (many in black tie), has made the journey the past two summers.
. . .
Ideas do not exist only on their own merits. Timing matters.

For the full commentary, see:
Brian Castner. “The Northwest Passage That Might Have Been.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sunday, March 11, 2018): 10.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 10, 2018.)

Castner’s commentary is related to his book:
Castner, Brian. Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage. New York: Doubleday, 2018.

Victorian Britain Was “the Most Innovative, Advanced, Sophisticated and Prosperous Economy on the Planet”

(p. A19) Britain rose to global power over a long 18th century that began in 1688 with the Glorious Revolution and closed at Waterloo in 1815. Decline marked the 20th century, especially with the loss of both empire and commercial dynamism under the strain of two world wars. David Cannadine’s “Victorious Century” charts the period between–one in which Britain could be seen as the most innovative, advanced, sophisticated and prosperous economy on the planet.
. . .
Mr. Cannadine presents the liberal spirit of progress as the hero of his tale. It guided Britain through conflicts, social disparities and political transitions while pointing toward a better society.

For the full review, see:
William Anthony Hay. “BOOKSHELF; The Spirit of Progress; Britain managed to balance change and continuity as turmoil and revolution overtook the Continent. Still, the change proved decisive.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018): A19.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 19, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Review: The U.K.’s ‘Victorious Century’; Britain managed to balance change and continuity as turmoil and revolution overtook the Continent. Still, the change proved decisive.”)

The book under review, is:
Cannadine, David. Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906, The Penguin History of Britain. New York: Viking, 2017.