Way, way back in 1994, one of my literary heroes, Barry Hannah, wrote a terrific profile of Johnny Cash for SPIN magazine. I recently assigned it for a nonfiction writing class I was teaching at Columbia University. I hadn’t remembered the ending, but I was surprised to be reminded that Hannah was no fool when it came to understanding our popular culture. Although the term ‘selfie’ wouldn’t come along until 2002, when everyone went crazy for the art form, Hannah could feel the pulse. Here’s the final passage in which he rejoices over Cash: “And God, don’t we need him today, in the age of pretty faces and rhyming sound bites that the generic sump hole of Nashville has become. The age when Christie Brinkley, suffering from a wrist injury after a helicopter crash on a snow-covered mountainside, takes time to hold her own camera out and take a picture of herself, which she provides to People magazine, in case we missed the agony.
Johnny Cash is looking better than ever.”
by Janet Napolitano
Frederic Auguste Bartholdi is an all-but-forgotten figure in American history. He was, however, responsible for one of the most enduring symbols of the United States: the Statue of Liberty. A Frenchman from Alsace, he conceived, designed, sold and persisted until Liberty stood on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor. How this icon came to be is the fascinating subject of Elizabeth Mitchell’s new book, “Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty.”
An entire book about the creation of a statue runs the risk of being a terrible bore. Yet Mitchell uses Liberty to reveal a pantheon of historic figures, including novelist Victor Hugo, engineer Gustave Eiffel and newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. The drama — or “great adventure,” to borrow from the subtitle — runs from the Pyramids of Egypt to the backrooms of Congress. Events such as the 1871 Siege of Paris are prominent.
On June 25, Judy Hottensen and Peter Blackstock of Grove Atlantic took me out close to the Statue to film a book video. Let me just say, that an outing like that is the best way to spend the lunch hour.
I am very excited to be reading with Emma Straub for a PLG Arts event in Brooklyn. She has written a novel, The Vacationers, that has gotten all kinds of love, and we will be in our home borough. We also happened to be #6 and #4 on O magazine’s 15 books to read this summer.
Come out for a drink and get a start on the list:
Tuesday, June 24 at 7:30
Inkwell Jazz Comedy Cafe
408 Rogers Ave, Brooklyn, New York 11225
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the artist who gave us the Statue of Liberty, never had children of his own, but he certainly gave birth to a work that delivered great meaning to the world. He conceived the colossus, brought her to her feet, and schemed and labored to ensure her long life. Over more than a century, his “big daughter,” as he called her, inspires immigrants and activists, soldiers and satirists, thrill seekers and entertainers.
When his wife lamented their childishness, he comforted her with the words: “Children? But have we not already made a girl together, Liberty?”
Imagine you’ve never been to China. You don’t even know a single soul in China. And yet you set off to pitch the Chinese people on your idea for a colossal statue intended to be taller than their tallest skyscraper. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi did exactly this when he came to America in 1871 to pitch a nation on the Statue of Liberty. It’s hard to fathom such hubris.
Key background though is that Bartholdi was not setting sail during a period of French calm. The Franco-Prussian war had only just ended, his beloved home region of Alsace given away in the negotiations. Paris, where he had been living for more than two decades, still smoldered from fires set by the Communards in a gruesome battle with the French government known as The Bloody Week. Ten thousand French citizens had been slaughtered in the streets.
An exile from Alsace, Bartholdi arrived back to Paris two days after the last Communard holdouts faced a firing squad against the wall of the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Bartholdi found “houses in ruins, facades torn to pieces. Troops have occupied my house. Holes in the courtyard walls go through… not a pane of glass left.”
When he set sail, only 40 passengers wandered the ship intended to carry 300. Few people had the money or will or optimism to head off on a voyage. Yet Bartholdi carried the designs for a statue he had conceived for Egypt, hoping to find a new buyer.
Thanks to Darcey Steinke for asking me to take part in the MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR, a path linking writers’ blogs in a discussion about approaches to fiction and nonfiction. Darcey has a new novel, Sister Golden Hair, coming out in the fall, and you can find Darcey’s answers to the four questions here:
At the bottom, find the link to the blogs of the wonderful Elliott Holt and Julia Fierro for their responses next week. Here are my responses to the questions:
1) What are you working on?
I am working on a novella-length nonfiction piece about a turn-of-the-century New York woman. She managed to fight crime, save the innocent from death row, find the hidden corpses of murder victims, write treatises, travel Europe, Syria and Russia alone on a mule, dodge assassination attempts, and combat entrenched government corruption all while relatively young. She makes us so-called liberated women look entrapped and lazy. I am also finishing up a proposal for the next book I would like to write.
2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I try to give my historical pieces a strong narrative line because ultimately I enjoy story. Conveying fact in this way, it seems to me, gives a more accurate sense of history, the tension of not knowing whether the crime would be solved or the mammoth statue would be built, or girls would keep disappearing by the hundreds from New York streets.
Hopefully, if people read my new book Liberty’s Torch, they will have the same sense that the creators did of uncertainty: that the statue might never make it out of the French workshop for lack of
I was lucky enough to visit Colmar, the town where Bartholdi was born, twice during the time I researched Liberty’s Torch. His childhood home has been transformed into an impressive museum. On one floor, the historian, Régis Hueber, presided over Bartholdi’s archive of letters and diaries.
The town shows plenty of signs of both French and German influence, having been absorbed into one or the other nation over its history. The top two photos show the view from the small apartment I rented while researching. The warehouse structure on the canal is the covered food market, which served as an ad hoc ammunition storage facility during the Franco-Prussian war; at that time Bartholdi was called upon to organize the ragtag fighting force of townspeople as commander of the National Guard.
The Statue of Liberty is America’s most famous symbol, yet few people could name the man who imagined, created, championed, groveled for, lost sleep over, and unveiled the colossus. The accepted history goes that France gave Liberty to America as an act of friendship, but this was not a gift from government to government. Instead, one artist envisioned a colossus. He designed her to stand in the harbor of the Suez Canal, but the deal fell through. He needed to sell his work somewhere, so he headed to America:
“Each site presents some difficulty,” he wrote to his mother on his journey in 1871. “But the greatest difficulty, I believe, will be the American character which is hardly open to things of the imagination. . . . I believe that the realization of my project will be a matter of luck.”