American Made Arts & Ideas Part 2

1. Wright brothers, wrong story: how Wilbur Wright solved the problem of manned flight
Hazelgrove, William Elliott. Prometheus Books, 2018

Coming 115 years after the inaugural powered flight at Kitty Hawk, Hazelgrove’s book offers the first major deconstruction of the myth that the Wright brothers played coequal roles in inventing the “flying machine.” Concentrating on their personal lives, particularly the pre-December 1903 period of thought, trial, and error, the author examines the way in which these misanthropes—who were high-school dropouts, never strayed from home, and lived by their skill as bicycle mechanics—uncovered the secrets of powered flight. In the process, Hazelgrove reveals that Wilbur actually fully envisioned and designed the first Flyer. Orville’s role, Hazelgrove contends, was less important—he largely assisted with mechanical details, emulating his brother’s lead and making the epic initial takeoff. Thereafter, by outliving his sibling by 37 years, he was able to mold their biography, convincing the world that they were jointly responsible for the achievement.
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2. The American steam locomotive in the twentieth century
Morrison, Tom. McFarland, 2018

Generously illustrated with black-and-white photographs from the Denver Public Library, California State Railroad Museum, and Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, this volume investigates the American steam locomotive between 1895 and its demise in the 1950s. The longstanding trade journal published under various names—the Railroad Gazette (1856–1908), Railroad Age Gazette (1908–18), and Railway Age (1919–present)—provides a detailed framework for organizing the plethora of archival material available for these decades of the railroad industry. Compiled by a mining engineer, this volume combines technical detail with readability for a general audience. An initial section on the technical, political, and economic factors of the American railroad industry is followed by four chronological sections on locomotives (1895–1905, 1905–20, 1920–30, 1930–50). Each section examines locomotive engineering and construction, concluding with a brief mention of the alternative modes of traction that eventually superseded steam. Operating the gigantic, powerful, idiosyncratic steam locomotives required skill and elicited prideful attachment from those who did it.
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3. The correspondence of Henry D. Thoreau 
Thoreau, Henry David. ed. by Robert N. Hudspeth with Elizabeth Hall Witherell and Lihong Xie Princeton, 2018

This is the second volume (of a projected three) of The Correspondence of Henry D. Thoreau, released in Princeton’s extraordinary, multivolume scholarly edition “The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau.” When completed, the Correspondence will be the first complete scholarly edition of Thoreau’s letters since 1958. Volume 1 of the correspondence (CH, Feb’14, 51-3120) covered the years from 1834 to 1848; volume 2 includes letters written and received from 1849 to 1856, a period when Thoreau published and revised major works, including Walden (1854), A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), and “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849). The correspondence includes 246 letters, more than half of which were written by Thoreau, and 43 letters published for the first time. The letters are accompanied by general, historical, and textual introductions, and every letter is illuminated by meticulous yet unimposing annotations that identify relevant persons, explain current issues, and note even literary allusions. The scholarship is superb.
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4. A hundred acres of America: the geography of Jewish American literary history 
Hoberman, Michael. Rutgers, 2019

This aptly titled book breaks new ground. In the conclusion, Hoberman (Fitchburg State Univ.) writes, he “addresses a history not so much of physical encounters as of the broader cultural implications of those encounters.” Specifically, he devotes a chapter each to “the frontier, the city, the small town, and the suburb” and to these landscapes adds two more: the shtetls of Eastern Europe left behind and the “contemporary experience in the Land of Israel.” Combined, these six locales, Hoberman argues in the introduction, enable Jewish American writers “to test assumptions, challenge hegemonies, and assert agency.” As an example, the frontier chapter rewards readers by recovering both little-known writers, such as Solomon Nunes Carvalho and I. J. Benjamin, and understudied genres of travel narrative and chronicle. Hoberman argues that these writers “wrote against the grain of popular conceptions of the Far West as a savage no man’s land that awaited the violence-bearing and taming dominance of lone heroes.” Unfortunately, the chapter does not engage the millennia-old issue of Galut (exile) in Judaism and Jewish culture, nor does Hoberman offer a theoretical probing of the sublime as it relates to Judaism and Jewish culture.
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5. Literature, American style: the originality of imitation in the early Republic era 
Tawil, Ezra F. Pennsylvania, 2018

Tawil (Univ. of Rochester) argues that aspects of literary style that have been cited as characteristic of American literature derive from and actively engage with European literary traditions that consider similar issues. Tawil addresses a range of iconic early authors, including Noah Webster, Michel-Guillaume-Saint-Jean de Crèvecoeur, Charles Brockden Brown, Hannah Webster Foster, and Royall Tyler. From Webster’s linguistic reform of the English language to American authors’ versions of sentimental fiction, Tawil demonstrates that the very texts that posit original American stylistic qualities also derive from, imitate, or respond to European sources. This book deeply enriches and gives nuance to understanding of those texts, expanding the cultural influences to which they respond.
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