The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 2023.
Also see the full index of books I've read.
If you search the web — no pun intended! — for "Robert Herrick", you'll have to sift through the numerous results for the 17th-century poet Robert Herrick (Wikipedia) to find the few or fewer references to the novelist Robert Herrick. You have been warned!
Set in mid-1890s Chicago during the Pullman Strike and immediately after the Chicago World's Fair, The Web of Life, within its story and through the eyes of Dr. Sommers, examines the contrast between the rich and powerful and the not-rich and not-powerful. The national Panic of 1893 had greatly depressed the economy of Chicago as well as the rest of the country. As orders for Pullman railway passenger cars dropped, Pullman "laid off workers and lowered wages", but did not lower the rents and other expenses charged to the workers in the company town, Pullman, Chicago; workers who attempted to move out of the company town for cheaper lodgings were fired. In the spring of 1894, the Pullman workers went on strike and this Pullman Strike quickly expanded into a nationwide strike by the American Railway Union. The strike ended in late July 1894, but the workers did not fare well.
Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition (or World's Fair) of 1892-1893. The Fair was a great success. As Wikipedia says, "The exposition was an influential social and cultural event and had a profound effect on American architecture, the arts, American industrial optimism, and Chicago's image."
Because many of its buildings were spray painted white (a relatively new technique for painting), the Court of Honor at the Chicago's World Fair became known as "The White City" (Wikipedia) and inspired the line, "Thine alabaster cities gleam ...", in the fourth verse of "America the Beautiful" (Wikipedia) by Katharine Lee Bates, originally published as a poem, "Pikes Peak", in 1895. A literature professor, Bates attended the fair on her way out to a temporary teaching position in Colorado, hence the title, "Pikes Peak" (the "purple mountain majesties" in the poem). The poem was revised in 1904 and again, to its final form, in 1911. The original "halcyon skies" became "spacious skies" and, oddly to me, the chorus (?) in the third verse:
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!
The poem/song had no influence on Herrick's 1900 novel and vice versa, but I was struck by how the evolution of this verse ran counter to Herrick's attempt to castigate the power and greed exhibited by Chicago's powerful and greedy. Again, this tenuous connection between the poem and book was formed solely in my mind because the two publications had the Chicago World's Fair in common. I should add that Katharine Lee Bates herself was an outspoken advocate for social reform throughout her life (Wikipedia).
Anyway, back to The Web of Life. In Chapter 19, Dr. Sommers and Mrs. Preston watch the alabaster city gleam again — this time with fire — on July 4, 1894. This was the third of three major fires in 1894 that burned almost all of the World's Fair site to the ground; the first and second fires were in January and February of that year, respectively. The imposing edifices were only temporary by design and effectively built of wood and plaster (see "Word of the book" staff below), so this end was perhaps not unforeseen.
With the detail in Chapter 19, I was able to follow some of Dr. Sommers' and Mrs. Preston's movements on a Bird's Eye View of Chicago World's Fair. For example, here's a clip from the picture showing the Court of Honor surrounding the green-lined Grand Basin. At the bottom end of the basin are the Peristyle columns and arch and, in the water, the Statue of the Republic. Dr. Sommers and Mrs. Preston observed the columns burning from the opposite end of the basin (upper left).
I enjoyed the story and the writing and exploring the history that played such a big part in the book. Dr. Sommers recognizes the absurdity of the differences between the social classes and between the economic classes and tries to follow the path of doing what's right. The Wikipedia entry for the author characterizes the tone of Herrick's writing as "melancholic fatalism", which seems an apt description of the fictional Dr. Sommers' thinking as well.
Words of the book:
monition - a caution or warning, usually more concrete than a premonition and without the supernatural connotation. But Herrick is talking about the wind or air here, so I'm not sure what his intention was.
The thin, tall building shivered slightly at the blows of the fresh April wind. The big windows of the reception-room admitted broad bands of sunlight. The lake dazzled beneath in gorgeous green and blue shades. Spring had bustled into town from the prairies, insinuating itself into the dirty, cavernous streets, sailing in boisterously over the gleaming lake, eddying in steam wreaths about the lofty buildings. The subtle monitions of the air permeated the atmosphere of antiseptics in the office, and whipped the turbulent spirits of Sommers until, at the lunch hour, he deserted the Athenian Building and telephoned for his horse.
access - an outburst of rage.
"It can't go on," [Dr. Sommers] proceeded. "No one can tell what he might do in his accesses — what violence he would do to you, to himself."
dot - French for dowry. With respect to an ambitious, not-so-young man (40ish) with little love in his heart winning a wealthy bride, mariage de convenance was pretty obvious, but I was stumped by dot. Dr. Sommers speaking to Miss Hitchcock:
"The system is worse than the dot and mariage de convenance. There is no pretension of sentiment in that, at least."
welter - "to twist or roll one's body about". (Merriam-Webster's Kids Definition!) Basically, to career about, which word, coincidentally, is used 4 paragraphs later.
Dr. Lindsay came up the slope, laboring toward the ninth hole with prodigious welter.
creche - a foundling hospital. I've never given this word much thought over the decades, using it to refer to a model of the nativity scene brought out at Christmas. Wiktionary's etymology for the word shows it was borrowed from the French crèche, a manger or crib containing feed for animals. Aside from the religious use I knew it for, creche can also mean (i) a day nursery or (ii) a "hospital for orphaned infants" and foundlings. I assume the second is the intended meaning:
... [a] meeting of the board of managers of the summer sanitarium for poor babies would be put off indefinitely ... [thus] no appropriation for carrying on the work ... The sanitarium and creche would have to close within a week, and Sommers was left to arrange matters.
staff - "a building material of plaster and fiber used as an exterior wall covering of temporary buildings, as at expositions." I wouldn't have even noticed this in Chapter 19 except that I'd just read about the use of "staff" for the buildings, temporary by design, in the Chicago World's Fair (see above). The common entries in different online dictionaries list the word origin as "1890-1895, American" — fitting! — "perhaps from the German stoff for stuff"; Google Translate shows material, fabric, pulp, and more as alternate and apt translations of stoff.
At their feet a white column of staff plunged into the water, hissed and was silent.
seminary - a school for young women. This definition, tagged as archaic and old-fashioned in various dictionaries, seems to have dropped out of use in the early 1900s. Mrs. Preston:
"That is what I felt as a child in the rich fields of Wisconsin, as a girl at the chapel of the seminary."
I was kind of proud of myself for knowing this, having recently followed the road past my cardiologist's office down into a ravine and up a hill to the magical National Park Seminary (Wikipedia) in Maryland. Its campus is an assortment of buildings including "various Victorian styles, ... a Dutch windmill, a Swiss chalet, a Japanese pagoda, an Italian villa, and an English castle". Initially a resort for Washington, D.C. residents to escape the summer heat, it was closed and reopened as a women's school in 1894.
And I was equally crestfallen to discover that I assumed the wrong definition. There was an even earlier use of "seminary" which explains her brother was studying there when she was a girl. And later, in Part 2, Chapter 1, the institution is given a name: the Perota Episcopal Seminary, where Mrs. Preston meets a former classmate of her brother. (Perota is a fictional town in Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois, of course, is a very real town.)
tenebra - darkness. Used figuratively in this case:
Thus for an hour or more [Dr. Sommers'] mind was let loose among the tenebra of life, while his feet pushed on mechanically over the dusty roads that skirted the lake.
purlieus - environs. A little more than halfway through the book and I'm being hit with all these words! Anyway, I'm not really clear on the distinction between the singular purlieu and the plural; one online dictionary preceded each definition with "[usually plural]".
That was large and vague and insubstantial, permeating like an odor the humdrum purlieus of the day.
maids-of-all-work - "Life Below Stairs: Life as a Maid-of-all Work in Victorian England" by Regina Jeffers. The residents of the Keystone Hotel include:
... several families that had given up the struggle with maids-of-all-work.
Also see this 1993 article by Garry Wills, "Chicago Underground", a review of some more recent histories of turn-of-the-century Chicago and which, in the process, references The Web of Life and other contemporary books.
Project Gutenberg eBook: The Web of Life
(Also published as Humble Pi: When Math Goes Wrong in the Real World. Perhaps that is the later U.S. edition since "maths" kind of grates on American language sensibilities!)
Also see "A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison" at Bobby Seal's Psychogeographic Review.
Project Gutenberg eBook: A Child of the Jago
Also see "What's With the Word Order in 'Believe You Me'?", by Arika Okrent at Mental Floss.
Project Gutenberg eBook: Believe You Me!