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Posts Tagged ‘19th century American history’

You can not tell how large a trouble may be started by a small politician.

Emerson Hough’s 54-40 or Fight takes a great story and renders it dull as dishwater.

The story is told by Nicholas Trist, confidential aide to John C. Calhoun. It opens as Calhoun becomes Secretary of State in President Tyler’s cabinet.


54-40 or Fight by Emerson Hough

Arthur I. Keller, illus.  A. L. Burt Co. 1909 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #14355. My grade: C+.


Calhoun believes it is in America’s interests to annex Texas, which has declared its independence of Mexico. Calhoun would also like to get the entire Oregon Territory for the US, including land above the 49th parallel—if it can be done without fighting Britain.

Britain would like to get access to Texas’s cotton and silver if it can do so. And Britain wants to hold on to Oregon for its valuable fur trade.

Mexico wants to hang on to Texas.

Texas President Sam Houston would like to make Texas a nation to rival the US.

And Americans on each side of the Mason-Dixon line fear what could happen if a slave-holding Texas becomes a state.

The historical facts need no glamorous double-agent to make them exciting.

They do, however, need better context to be intelligible to today’s reader.

The real life Nicholas Trist studied law under Thomas Jefferson and married Jefferson’s granddaughter.

In defiance of orders from the President, Trist negotiated the treaty which ended the Mexican-American War and added Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of three other states to the U.S.

Trist reflects:

Now our flag floats on the Columbia and on the Rio Grande. I am older now, but when I think of that scene, I wish that flag might float yet freer; and though the price were war itself, that it might float over a cleaner and a nobler people, over cleaner and nobler rulers, more sensible of the splendor of that heritage of principle which should be ours.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Harbor is a fictional history of the major upheavals in American life between 1865 and 1915 as experienced by a family who lived and worked on New York City’s waterfront.

[The New York Public Library’s digital book New York City Harbor puts the novel in its historical and visual setting.]


The Harbor by Ernest Poole

Grossett & Dunlap, 1915. Project Gutenberg ebook #29932. 1915 bestseller #8. My grade: B+.


Part owner of a warehouse on the docks, Bill’s father dreams and works his entire life for a golden age of shipping dominated by America and delivered by honorable men in beautiful vessels.

Bill’s college-educated mother is repelled by the harbor’s scenes and people. The family is not rich enough for New York society.

Following his mother’s lead, Bill first sees the harbor as an unpleasant place.

As a youth, Bill comes under the sway of an engineer, soon to be his father-in-law, who serves the god of efficiency and the pocketbooks of Wall Street.

Later Bill falls under the spell of a revolutionary who shows him the human cost of efficiency, and Bill becomes enamored of the wisdom of the masses and organized labor.

Bill narrates with the detachment of hindsight. He is, however, sufficiently self-aware to realize he’s all too likely to jettison today’s struggle for the next big thing.

Into this framework, novelist Ernest Poole pours the personal stories of Bill and his extended family who are as real as the folks at your family reunion.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Jessie, the favorite daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, grows up working with her father, breathing politics, and believing it is America’s manifest destiny to rule from Atlantic to Pacific.


Immortal Wife: The Biographical Novel

of Jessie Benton Fremont by Irving Stone

Doubleday, 1944. 450 pages. 1945 bestseller # 10. My Grade: B-.


Jessie Benton Fremont wears hair in pompadour style with ringlets, has cameo on ribbon around her neck

Jessie Benton Fremont

At 16, Jessie falls in love with John Fremont, a military topographer ambitious to make a name for himself that would override the tinge of his illegitimate origins.

Jesse is determined to make her marriage stronger than either of them.

John leads four expeditions to map the unexplored frontier so settlers could move west to keep the Spanish and British from annexing the Pacific Coast. He wins the respect of people on the frontier – and the displeasure of politicians in Washington.

John’s career is a series of great exploits and monumental failures.

He makes and loses a fortune in gold mining.

He is defeated in the 1860 presidential race, even though he wins more votes than the winner.

Lincoln strips Fremont of his command in the early days of the Civil War.

After John dies, Jessie reflects that she never understood him.

Readers will feel that they don’t understand Jessie either.

Irving Stone makes the period history interesting, but he fails to make his heroine come alive.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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