Friday, December 2, 2016

One Man's Quest for Spiritual Fulfillment and the Rise of Islam in America

Editors Note: I first wrote about Alexander Russell Webb and his work to bring Islam to the United States back in 2009 for the Register Star and later expanded on the subject in 2012 for Columbia County History and Heritage magazine. The following is adapted from the latter. I felt in the current climate of Islamophobia it was worth highlighting the nation's historical view of that religion and of the man who helped spread its message at the turn of the century. 

Alexander Russell Webb felt the sun on his face and listened to the birds chirping, glad to be out of Sunday school. Even then, just a young boy, he felt closer to God out of doors than in the stuffy confines of the church.

This restlessness of both body and spirit would lead Webb from Hudson, New York, where he was born in 1846, to Chicago, the frontier towns of Missouri, and later to more exotic locales. It would also take him on a spiritual journey from his staid Presbyterian upbringing to a total embrace of Islam, which he would help spread across America. And although he may not have known it, the city of his birth, by dint of time and place, may have planted the seeds that led him to his faith.

As a youth he was not inclined toward religion and by his twenties had completely given up on the church and was a self-proclaimed “materialist” whose only compass was the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Hudson, N.Y. about the time Webb was born there. 

His break with the church apparently came after the loss of his first wife and destruction of his jewelry business in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Webb had moved to the city after graduating from Claverack College. Webb, like so many other young men of his generation, had left the East and headed to the wild and bustling cities of the Midwest to seek his fortune. 

After the fire he moved to New York City before again returning to Chicago where he eventually made enough money to buy a small newspaper, the Unionville Republican, located in Unionville, Mo. Webb’s journalistic interests were likely due to his father’s influence. Alexander Nelson Webb had been the editor of the Hudson Daily Star for years. 

The younger Webb would eventually find himself drawn to a spiritual life and sought this out by reading such writers and philosophers as John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Aldous Huxley. Webb found their theories, explanations and conclusions on spirituality wanting. His studies of Buddhism, Theosophy and Christianity likewise left him feeling unfulfilled.

While working as the editor of the Missouri Republican in St. Louis, Webb began corresponding with Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of a Muslim community in India. There is some dispute on when exactly Webb converted, but by the late 1880s when Webb was consul general to Manilla, in the Philippines, he was publicly calling himself a Muslim and corresponding with a number of Islamic scholars in India.

President Grover Cleveland appointed Webb to the position as consul in 1887 during Cleveland’s first administration. Webb left the job five years later to travel in India in order to further study Islam. His second wife, Ella, and their three children went with him. 

Webb would later say of his conversion that it “was not the result of misguided sentiment, blind credulity, or sudden emotional impulse, but it was born of earnest, honest, persistent, unprejudiced study and investigation and an intense desire to know the truth.” He believed that Islam was “the best and only system adapted to the spiritual needs of the humanity.”

Webb never publicly addressed, what, if any, influence his hometown played in his quest for spiritual fulfillment, but the fact remains that Columbia County and its environs, especially Western New York, was a hotbed of religious fervor when he was growing up. Umar F. Abd-Allah in his 2006 book, “A Muslim in Victorian America,” believes that this era which saw an upswing of Christian off-shoots come to the fore may have played a part in Webb’s later embracing of the Muslim faith. 

“There is no question that the religious ambiance of the times helped form the attitudes and expectations that guided Webb through life,” he wrote.

In Columbia County, besides Roman Catholics and a number of protestant denominations, there were also the Shakers and Quakers, while in Western New York, during this period known as “the Second Great Awakening” there were a slew of new religious movements that sprang up. Known as the “Burned-Over District” so often had it been swept by religious fervor, the area was home to the Mormons, tent revivals, the Oneida Community — which practiced a form of free love — the Millerites, who believed the end of the world was nigh (the original 1843 date was incorrect and the end was pushed back a few times), and the followers of Jemima Wilkinson who believed she was the reincarnation of Christ in female form, to name a few of the spiritual and religious groups that came from this well-spring.

Webb’s spiritual rebirth was completed in India and he soon longed to return to America to proselytize. With the backing of a group of influential Muslim leaders in India, Webb set off from Bombay in December 1892 and was soon back in New York. 

In Manhattan he established a weekly journal “to be dedicated to an exposition of Islam,” according to The New York Times. He also had plans for founding a publishing company.

Back in the U.S., Webb was shocked by the lack of knowledge Americans had of Islam. 

“Since my return…I have been greatly surprised, not only at the general ignorance prevalent among so-called learned people regarding the life, character and teachings of the  [Muhammad],” he wrote, “but also at the self-confident readiness and facility with which some of these same people express their opinions of Mohammed and the Islamic system.”

Three months after he arrived in New York City the first copy of his “Moslem World” came out and although the journal would later fold, Webb would continue to promote Islam in America by writing, publishing and lecturing on his faith until his death in Rutherford, N.J. on Oct. 1, 1916.

Webb’s long quest for spiritual fulfillment spanned many years and took him to distant lands. But it was likely his early life in Hudson during a flowering of religious expression that provided him with the openness of spirit that helped lead him to what he had so fervently desired. 

Sources and Notes

Abd-Allah, Umar F. A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). Pgs. 27-28.
Islam - Our Choice (Karachi:Begum Aisha Bawani Wakf, 1970).
Webb, Alexander R. Islam in America (New York, 1893).
Some information was taken from the transcript of a speech given by Nadirah Florence Ives Osman at a meeting of Muslims held in Steinway Hall, New York, in November 1943
There seems to be some disagreement on when exactly Webb became a Muslim. A letter from 1886 seems to indicate he was already following the tenants of the religion, but other sources have Webb self-declaring his faith publicly around 1889.
For more on Western New York's religious past see John H. Martin’s wonderful “Saints, Sinners and Reformers: The Burned-Over District Re-Visited” from the Fall 2005 edition of The Crooked Lake Review.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

"Hitler and Trump: A Scary Comparison" by Dan Udell

I've decided to do something I've never done before on Look, Read, Listen and venture into the political arena by publishing an op-ed from my friend Dan Udell. 

I met Dan and his lovely wife, Mary, about a decade ago when I was a reporter in Columbia County, NY, and soon realized that if there was a social/political/environmental issue being publicly discussed, it was guaranteed Dan and Mary would be there fighting the good fight. I love that he and Mary not only espouse progressive views  but live their beliefs. Unfortunately, my former newspaper decided against running this piece on their opinion page so I'm doing my small part by publishing it here. 

Now in his 80s, Dan provides a long view on both life and politics. As he says, he's lived through everything from the Great Depression to the election of our first African American president, so he can speak with an authority on our current election unlike most pundits who can't bring the same breadth of experience to bear in their views. 

Hitler and Trump: A Scary Comparison

Being in the Octogenarian’s Club, we have had the privilege of witnessing some of the most momentous events in our country’s history: the Great Depression, WWII, the Atomic Bomb, Moon Landing, the creation of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Watergate, the Voting Right Act, School Desegregation and the election of the first African American, Barack Obama, as President of the United States.

But that is nothing compared to World War II in our nation’s ability to come together -- to defeat Nazi and Japanese militaristic aggression. The threat was very real, and the outcome uncertain. In the early 1940s, our ships carrying needed supplies to England — the only surviving European nation — were being sunk right outside our harbors by U-Boats. All discretionary U.S. manufacturing was stopped and diverted to building thousands of tanks, planes and ships every week — assembled in large measure by our able-bodied female population. General Eisenhower went on to command the largest amphibious invasion in the history of the world at Normandy. That was the beginning of the end for Nazism.

The lesson of that war, which we need to reflect upon today, is how Hitler was able to take a highly advanced and cultured nation like Germany and turn it into a hideous war machine. Populism and nationalism were on the rise, and Germany was suffering under crushing inflation, which was wiping out savings and tearing at the economy. Hitler’s evil genius was to invent an enemy, the Jews of Europe, which he could blame for all the country’s ills. And to literally wipe out anyone who did not fit the ideal Ayran (read German) mold: Gypsies, Jews, “inferior races,” and most anyone mentally or physically challenged. It was basically a “Make Germany Great Again,” philosophy. And its success depended on three major factors: An anxious, low information population looking for easy answers; a Hitler-directed campaign of hate directed at the above elements in the population; and as Edmund Burke once said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Fast forward 80 years. The stage is eerily similar. Populism and nationalism are again on the rise. People are looking for easy and quick answers. It’s each country for itself, consequences be damned. Look at how the U.K. has shot itself in the foot by leaving the European Union with BREXIT.

Donald Trump is, frankly, following many of Hitler’s crowd-rousing techniques. First is “Make America Great Again,” which is taken right out of Hitler’s appeal to anxious Germans in the 1930s. Then, there is antagonism and hatred against Mexicans, Syrian refugees, people of color, the physically and mentally challenged. Even disparaging remarks about women who don’t measure up to an Aryan ideal. And he is offering quick solutions for all the country’s ills. It’s basically the argument of Hitler in the 1930s: Let me take over and I, and I alone, will solve all the country’s problems. Those are the pronouncements of a dictator.

So the issue for everyone entering a voting booth next Tuesday is not to examine the latest string of accusations between candidates, but to look realistically at what’s going on in the world and the country and who can lead us through it. Not just to cover it over with bluster, but to lead.

Hillary’s motto is “Stronger Together,” which is an inclusive philosophy, and it’s just what we did, nationally and internationally, in the 1940s to win World War II. Right now, there is a movement in the world toward xenophobia, and the world is looking at us to lead the way back to sanity. The answer is to work with our international partners. We need them, and they need to trust us.
And nationally, we think Hillary has developed a broader view of what needs to be done to solve our country’s internal challenges because of her contest with Bernie Sanders. Finally, as Bernie has said, “Enough of your XXXX emails.” Yes, she admitted that setting up a personal email server was a mistake and she apologized. So, Hillary has shown that she can change. And we think that is the most important characteristic for a President of the United States. Take a measured view of the challenges ahead and work with our partners in the House and Senate to achieve solutions, not to cling naively to an exclusionary ideology.

But we know one thing will be constant, and that is her untiring efforts over the years to give all of our children a better, brighter future. And we are sure that she and her good friend, Michelle Obama will continue these efforts over the next four years.

We are voting for Hillary next Tuesday!

Dan and Mary Udell

Friday, October 30, 2015

My book "Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires" is now available from Arcadia Publishing/The History Press. Fourteen heart-pounding true crime stories from between 1870 and 1911 await! Check it out here.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

I'm happy to announce I'll be having my book about murder and mayhem in the Gilded Age Berkshires (1870-early 1900s) published by the History Press. Look for it in the fall of 2015. I'll update readers on my progress as it moves along.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Wind, Some Rain, the Hot Sun: An Interview with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats

Editor's Note: This is the unedited email interview with John Darnielle, the man behind the band The Mountain Goats, and sometimes the only member of the band. This interview was used for a story that originally appeared in The Berkshire Eagle on April 17, 2014.

 Amelinckx: When you finish writing a song do you have an idea of how you plan to approach the recording process -- just you and your guitar or lusher arrangements, (drums, backing vocal, cello, piano, etc.).

Darnielle: I'm usually not thinking of arrangements when I write - if I am, it's only if I'm thinking "this one should remain somewhat skeletal." These days, though, I'll sometimes sketch out some 
other instrumental ideas in the demo - a second guitar line, or a small keyboard idea. Once I've got the songs together then I start thinking about what other textures might complement the songs - woodwinds, strings, and so on. We flesh out the basics, the drums/bass/me stuff, when we get together to rehearse, usually - though Peter sometimes overdubs bass ideas onto the original demo I send him & then sends it back to me for feedback.

Amelinckx: In a related vein, are there certain songs you prefer to play/ don’t like playing when you go on the road solo or with the rest of the band.

Darnielle: The songs take on such different...not "moods," but "aspects," I guess, when I play them solo - I can get looser with tempo, and be more improvisatory with dynamics (which sounds very high-minded but what I mean is "I can get real quiet if it feels like the right move and I won't be acting unilaterally in a group context"). It's really fun and interesting to see how a song feels when I take away everything but the chords and the words and the vocal melody, especially if it's already spent a lot of time getting played in the trio format. Some songs it becomes a real challenge, when there's an especially strong drum part, say - "Sax Rohmer #1," for example. But meeting that challenge solo is really fun and rewarding.

Amelinckx: When you perform do you feel forced to play certain songs because you know fans really want to hear them?   

Darnielle: Well, there's a few songs that I know everybody wants to hear - not a huge number, maybe three or four - but that's an honor, really. I saw Lou Reed in 1986 and he gave a spiel about how he never got sick of playing "Walk on the Wild Side" because he loved knowing that there was a song everybody in the room wanted to hear, and that stuck with me - I can legitimately say that I enjoy "This Year" every time we play it. Although I don't feel like it works as well solo and of the three or four Mountain Goats "standards," it's the one I usually bench in solo sets...Peter's bass line is a huge huge part of that song.

Amelinckx: I once saw a Dylan show in the early 90s where you could tell he was just burning through his hits without any heart, but then completely shifted gears when he played his newer stuff. Do you still enjoy playing your older material?

Darnielle: I do - I'll say that it does take some work, sometimes, some diligence, to make sure I'm connecting with the song - but when that happens, we all know it, and we talk about it, and then we give the song a rest for a tour or two. But I don't tour nearly as hard as Dylan. Dylan is a tour monster who goes out for months at a time, huge worldwide tours, and I'm sure that when that old stuff was new, he played it literally hundreds of times. He's in a bind, really, anybody that big is, because he's pretty much obligated to play the big big old songs or people will be mad since they paid a lot to get in, but how can you connect with a song you've been playing 200 times a year for thirty years? The Dead benched "Dark Star" for a number of years, I consider them the model of how to keep the set fresh even if it means nobody gets to hear "St Stephen" for a while.

Amelinckx: Certain images and themes float through your work -- animal, ghosts, cold water -- what draws you to them? 

Darnielle: It's really hard to say - weather, too, I'm always having some wind or some rain, or hot sun - I try not to interrogate my inspirations too hard but just let them work it out for themselves.

Amelinckx: With We Shall All Be Healed and The Sunset Tree you moved into autobiographical material. Was it a surprise to you how listeners responded to more personal material?

Darnielle: It was a huge surprise. I was really nervous, especially on The Sunset Tree - it was pretty raw. But that opened up whole new avenues of writing for me, really - it made the story songs I make up more personal, put me in touch with something in myself. It was like a system reboot for me as a songwriter, really - I think of the stuff before that as stuff from a different age.

Amelinckx: Do you prefer making up stories with your lyrics or going to that well of your own life?

Darnielle: I mean, at this point, there's a sort of synthesis for me - when I'm telling a story, I feel like it's also necessarily somehow about me, somewhere - if not directly, then in spirit, you know? It's not really either/or.

Amelinckx: Born in the Midwest, growing up in California, and now living in the South, in North Carolina, have the places you lived at all influenced your approach to music? I grew up in Louisiana and when I go back home there is a brief period of adjustment and then I find myself slowing down, the way I talk, even move. Has the South changed you at all?

Darnielle: Sure, I assume so. But I am not super reflective about what I'm like, how I'm changing - that's really for others to say. I think my work's gotten a lot better since I moved down here ten years ago, that I'm just a more diligent, more honest writer. I feel like you have to put some of that down to the people around me, and the cycle of the seasons being something I connect to (I happen to love the miserable summers, can't get enough), and the terrain.

Amelinckx: Has fatherhood changed your outlook on life, specifically the life of a touring musician?

Darnielle: It is harder to leave for tour. I fly home a few times during longer tours. That's the main thing. I try not to make any broad philosophical observations on fatherhood - I've only been a dad for two years, I don't figure that short amount of time is enough to really say what's changed about how I look at life generally. It's made me more aware that I'll die, though - this I think is Goth Dad's destiny, to think about how, when you become a parent, that means that somebody you will no longer be around to be a parent any more. It makes me want to fill my days with good work, I have become more aware of time.

Amelinckx: It seems in much of your early work the songs have an instantaneous or conversational feel about them, without a ton of revision and that your newer work is in a sense a completed thought, fully formed, a paragraph rather than a single sentence. Has age, time, affected your approach to making music in the sense that as we get older there is a tendency to not just blurt things out, but rather approach things in a more measured way?

Darnielle: Well, I think my aesthetic priorities changed a lot - the very early stuff, spontaneous expression was a huge value for me - although it was more revised than it sounded, some of those lyrics took a lot of work to sound tossed-off. I'm a better musician now than I used to be, and with that comes a feeling of awe for how melody and lyric sort of elevate one another into this one-of-a-kind style of expression - but I still write pretty quickly, I've just gotten better at it.

Amelinckx: Was it a challenge going from writing songs to writing a novel? (Darnielle's novel "Wolf in White Van" is soon to be released). Was it difficult to sustain the writing process over weeks/months? Has writing the novel influenced your songwriting?

Darnielle: Too early to say on that last question. I was writing prose before I wrote songs - when I was a teenager, I wrote short stories all the time, it was my heart's desire to become a science fiction short story writer. I think the energy feeds from the songs to the prose - that sense of play, like when I'm writing a song how I'm not thinking "this has to be good" but just following ideas that seem cool to me - that's something I tried to remember always while working on the book.

Photo credit: Steven Keys and

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Righting a Wrong: The Civil War, Stolen Documents, and a History Sleuth

Editor's note: A version of this story originally ran in The Berkshire Eagle

The court document ordered tobacco farmer Robert Ashby Jr. to pay the local mercantile 3 pounds he owed, plus a fine of 79 pounds of tobacco.
It was dated 1753. And it was issued in Stafford, Virginia.
So how that document and another one dated some 20 years later ended up in an attic in South Worthington in 2005 was puzzling.
Dr. George Bresnick was digging through ``the proverbial old trunk in the attic’’ at a neighbor’s South Worthington home when he stumbled across the documents.
``They had absolutely nothing to do with the other papers,’’ said Bresnick, an ophthalmologist who now resides in St. Paul, Minn. ``I was confused for a while.’’
After some research, Bresnick came up with the only reasonable explanation: They were stolen by Union forces from Western Massachusetts during the Civil War.
And now he plans to return them to where they belong.
It was November 1862 and Union forces, including the 37th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which had been mustered in Pittsfield earlier that year, were occupying the town of Stafford, Va., as part of the Fredericksburg campaign.
The area around Stafford was overrun by 130,000 Union troops and the once pristine woods were decimated by the force for housing, defensive fortifications and heating. Farmland was torn up, homes were looted, and fences ripped out.
The county courthouse in Stafford received similar maltreatment as the locals’ homes, two thirds of the county’s records, which likely dated back to the 1660s, were ``burned, stolen or scattered,’’ Bresnick said.
He believes the documents were taken as souvenirs by Pvt. John D. Smith, a West Chesterfield resident who had enlisted with the 37th and would later be killed during the Battle of The Wilderness in 1864. Bresnick surmises that Smith sent the papers home and they ended up in the trunk in the attic of an old Methodist Episcopal parsonage that had once belonged to a Smith descendant.
Back in 2005, Bresnick and his wife were living in the village of South Worthington, across the road from the old parsonage where an elderly woman resided. He helped go through the neighbor’s home after her death and that’s when he discovered the legal documents. They, along with everything else in the house, ended up with an antiques dealer. Bresnick later bought the documents, along with many others related to Chesterfield and Worthington, for $100.
One of the documents, dated 1776
Eventually, he came up with a plan to return the documents from whence they came, in order, he said, to ``right a wrong.’’
According to Bresnick, there are both ``practical effects’’ of the loss of Stafford’s courthouse records, the inability to verify a deed on a property before 1862, for instance , and the psychological effect that comes with the loss of written records that help tell the story of Stafford’s history.
Bresnick’s plan was two-fold. He traveled to Washington, D.C., in November to hand over the papers to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, who in a symbolic gesture gave the documents to Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va.
``For documents that were clearly removed from their place of origin to be returning after more than a hundred years, it’s certainly symbolic,’’ Neal said. ``History has an interest in seeing these artifacts, and I think it speaks well (of Bresnick), who wants to really respect these documents by returning them to the people of Stafford, Va.’’
Neal, besides being a congressman, is a professor who lectures in history and journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He told The Eagle he was interested in seeing these documents returned ``in the context of their importance to history.’’
The congressman said that people contact his office on a regular basis ``looking to reconnect with things from the past. Sometimes it’s about a memorial, an event or a place. This is something different.’’
A day after Bresnick’s meeting with the two congressman, he presented the documents to Barbara Decatur, the Stafford County clerk of court, at a ceremony at the courthouse in Stafford. The documents now permanently grace the courthouse walls.
``I’m happy (the documents) are going back to their home,’’ Bresnick said.
The two legal documents that were found in an old trunk in South Worthington were believed stolen from the courthouse in Stafford, Va., by Union troops during the Fredricksburg campaign of the Civil War.
The first document, dated 1753, is a court order informing the sheriff of Stafford County to bring a tobacco farmer named Robert Ashby Jr. (c.1720-c.1780) to the courthouse for a hearing that May. Ashby owed the mercantile firm of Patrick and William Bogle a little more than 3 pounds, likely from a past due store account. The court ordered Ashby to cough up the 3 pounds along with a hefty court fine of 79 pounds of tobacco. If he didn’t pay, the court could then order Ashby’s personal property sold to pay the debt.
The second document was a promissory note dated Feb. 24, 1776, obligating Joel Reddish (c. 1748-1826), to pay 11 pounds, four shillings, six pence, half-penny on a loan from James Ritchie & Co. of Glasgow, Scotland. According to Bresnick, Ritchie was one of the ``Tobacco Lords’’ of Glasgow who imported tobacco from the colonies and sold it in Europe. The company was also in the business of loaning money to farmers in order to get their tobacco crop into the ground. Reddish was a Virginia tobacco farmer who had taken a loan out with the company.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

History is a Funny Thing: A book review of "The Men Who United the States."

Editor's note: This review first appeared in the Dec. 8, 2013 edition of the Berkshire Eagle.

History is a funny thing. What may start as fact often becomes clouded by fancy and the personages whose names still trip off the tongue today may overshadow the true heroes whose names have been wiped clean, if they were ever there at all, from the popular imagination.

In Simon Winchester 's newest book, "The Men Who United the States," the author tells the story of America through its "connective tissue" and introduces, or reintroduces, the many obscure and half- forgotten men who helped unite the country via exploration, road, canal, and railroad building, electric generation, the radio, television and the Internet.

While the more famous folks, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Edison, for example, do get their due, the book's focus remains on the lesser known men whose work helped unite the country.

The narrative structure of this unique retelling of America's history by the British- born best selling author, and recently naturalized U. S. citizen, is held together via the five Chinese elements - wood, earth, water, fire and metal - corresponding to early exploration, geology, canal building, locomotives and other mechanized transportation and the telegraph, telephone and other electronic communication.

He did something similar in his last book, "Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories," in which he uses the "Seven Ages of Man" monologue from William Shakespeare's "As You Like It" as a framework.

In Winchester 's able hands, the stories of these pioneers - many considered cranks and misfits - and their contributions provide a lesser traveled journey through the country's past without losing sight of the bigger picture.

It should be noted the title does not lie and that the book almost exclusively looks at men's achievements. Sacagawea, who helped guide the Lewis and Clark expedition across the West in the early 1800s is the only woman who gets much of a mention in the book, something Winchester said he knew he would get some grief for, but that "It has to be accepted, like it or not, that most of those [connections] were created by men."

Winchester 's personal reminiscences that dot the book's pages provide nice counterpoints to the main stories, by connecting historical moments to the present, uniting themes, giving resonance to particular ideas.

One of the most touching of these is a story he relates about being in a remote area of Northern Australian in the mid-1990s and demonstrating the Internet to a 7-year-old boy whose mind was blown by its potential after seeing a video of a B1 bomber and a close up photograph of Mars, which the boy had previously only seen by looking at the night sky with his father's binoculars. Winchester left the computer for the boy and was soon receiving emails from him.

Another personal story comes in the book's epilogue, in which Winchester describes life in Sandisfield, where he has a small farm, and of the uniting of the village through a new community newspaper.

The author says in the book's final pages that the work of the nation's agencies and individuals "helped bind ever more tightly the peoples of the country together." The same could be said of Winchester 's book, which gives us a prismatic and unusual take on the nation's past and the strange, enigmatic and down right cantankerous men who helped make it what it is and will become, and provides - during this seemingly divided time in our history - insight into what has kept us whole.