Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Q&A with Jane E. Hughes

Jane E. Hughes is the co-author, with Scott B. MacDonald, of Separating Fools from Their Money: A History of American Financial Scandals, now available in an updated second edition. Their other work includes New Tigers and Old Elephants. Hughes is a director at Social Finance US, and she teaches at Boston College.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about financial scandals?

A: Scott and I have worked together on a number of books in the past, and this book was floating around in our minds. With our book about the 1990s financial crises, we would talk about how there’s nothing new under the sun, there’s so much that echoed past crises.

I was on the faculty of Brandeis, and now I’m an adjunct professor at Boston College. I teach students about the Latin American debt crisis, the Asian financial crisis—it’s remarkable how consistent the themes are, how consistent the actors are, how consistent the mistakes made are.

Scott’s academic background is as a historian, and he said, It’s not just that the ‘80s and ‘90s are consistent, it goes all the way back in time; it reminds me of Teapot Dome. We said, We should write a book about it!

Q: How did you pick the scandals to focus on?

A: They’re somewhat arbitrary…There are a number of scandals we didn’t include. We included scandals that really affected the financial world beyond the people who lost money. The original Ponzi scheme was over pretty quickly, and it didn’t spread, whereas Bernie Madoff did.

The other lens we applied was that we thought about the size. Is this big enough? Does it have a transformational effect? Michael Milken did, for better or worse.

Q: You focus in particular on three periods: the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, and the past several decades. What about those periods lent themselves to financial scandal?

A: The easy answer would be that [the earlier periods were] before the Depression, before the SEC regulations were put in place. That wouldn’t be my answer; I don’t believe regulation is the answer to all problems. The SEC comes out worse than Bernie Madoff. I don’t think new regulations are [always] a fix.

What [these periods] have in common is too much money chasing too few good deals. That tends to be the time when things go bad in the financial markets. People were investing in things they shouldn’t be…The fact that there’s a lot of money sloshing around in search of an investment is more a factor in that era than a lack of regulation.

Q: How did you research this book, and how do the two of you collaborate on your work?

A: Scott and I are like an old married couple. We’ve been working together for more than 20 years; we work very well together. He’s more a historian and I’m more a financial market person.

We have different academic backgrounds, which was good for this book. He worked for government, and I did not; he worked for hedge funds, and I did not. We both worked for major investment and commercial banks. I have been in academia, and now I’m with Social Finance, an investment firm.

Both of us love to write, and we’re both good writers, which doesn’t always happen! I was a French literature major, undergrad. We both like to write in a way that’s not academic, for a reader who’s in an airport, and looks at the rack of books, and thinks, this might be interesting to read on the plane—rather than a very heavy tome.

We generally divide up the chapters by who has the most expertise. He was the first writer on some of the earlier chapters, and I was on the later. It’s a very iterative process; we go back and forth a number of times.

One of the reasons why we’re like an old married couple is that neither of us has any ego involved at this point. We don’t take offense. We’re very honest with each other.

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: The first thing that surprised me with the first edition, and I shouldn’t have been surprised—I was astonished by the consistency over centuries of the contributing factors to financial scandals. I didn’t know a lot about William Duer, or about Teapot Dome. As I started reading through Scott’s research, I thought you could put this in 1999 and have Enron and Tyco. It was astonishing to me.

Another thing, in writing the second edition—my favorite chapter was the Madoff chapter. I put a lot of time and energy into it. What astonished me there was the weakness of the SEC and the other regulatory organizations.

When I came to the end of the work on Madoff, I thought he was a sociopath with no conscience, but the real villain was the SEC. They were given a path to [state] that this guy was a crook….I saw the same thing with Enron and WorldCom, but nowhere did it strike me so much as with Bernie Madoff.

The third thing is that it’s surprising what is legal. My students will look at me with round eyes, and say, But that’s legal?...

Q: What do you predict looking ahead when it comes to financial scandals? Will this pattern of scandals continue?

A: I absolutely predict that this pattern will continue for the foreseeable future—my lifetime, and maybe my grandchildren’s. I see nothing in the system that will change this.

Since 2000, we’ve had three massive crises in the United States: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the banking and financial crisis. If you look at the systems that deal with these things, especially with banking and finance, what has changed?

The crises are [happening] more often and more closely spaced together. We are in an era of more and more scandals. The Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank [legislation]—I have no confidence that either one will be a game-changer. I do believe the pattern will continue forever and ever.

In the first edition, we had a chapter on Eliot Spitzer, which we’ve taken out. I hoped he could be a game-changer, but he crashed and burned. Preet Bharara [the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York] has indicted more insider traders that at any other point I can recall, but I have a sense he’s just hitting the tip of the iceberg.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: We are in discussion about a second edition of our international banking textbook, which is now 12 years old. It’s still fairly widely used around the world, but it’s outdated. It’s a big project, but we’d love to do it. There’s no chapter on microfinance, on socially responsible banking. There are whole sectors missing.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: [The book is] a little depressing. It’s interesting to read through and see how much things have not changed, but it’s depressing. But I have a strong belief that as we understand the history, we can change the future. It’s important for us to understand the scandals [of the past].

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 31

Dec. 31, 1830: Alexander Smith born.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Q&A with Andrew Levy

Andrew Levy is the author of the new book Huck Finn's America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece. He is Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University, and his other work includes The First Emancipator and A Brain Wider Than the Sky.

Q: What intrigues you about Huck Finn, and how do you think people may have misinterpreted the book? 

A: I've really loved Huck Finn since I was a teenager. I loved the voice, the language--I loved the way Twain showed respect, even love, for the kinds of people and the kinds of culture that all too often get denigrated or ignored. But for about 20 years, I've been certain that we've got the book turned inside-out. 

In essence, the mistake is this: since World War II, we have treated the book like a “serious,” if deeply controversial, book about race. And we have treated it like a lark about children. We made it the most often book read in American schools for the first reason, and the subject of countless movies, comic books, and marketing icons for the second.

But if you go back to the mid-1880s, and follow Twain around as he finished and publicized the book, you see that what mattered most to reviewers and readers was the conversation about children, which was a major national controversy at the time. But few were talking about race in Huck, and those that did thought it was humorous. African-American newspapers, of which there were many, ignored the book completely. As did most Southern newspapers. 

Q: What do you think Twain was trying to say in the book about race and about childhood, and how did his own views change on those issues? 

A: Twain, truthfully, loved unstable meanings, masks. He did want people to laugh--but his posters for speaking engagements often read "The Trouble Begins at Eight," a sign that the laughter was meant to be accompanied by disruption. So Twain wasn't trying to say any one thing, which is why treating the book as an "official" American icon is part of the problem. 

On children, however, Twain was clearly rebelling against the standardization of education and child-rearing that was taking place in Victorian America at the time, and which is now part of the routine of American life. 

On race, Twain was trying to say two or three things, all woven together, again, unstably: but he was clearly pointing at the way progress on racial matters might be a myth of America, not a fact, that symbolic moments of progress often take us back more than they take us forward. He thought race was a joke, a put-on, but he was also entranced by African-American culture. He saw through race like few did, or do--but he took black culture as his own when he wanted.

What's interesting, even amazing, is what got him to even that point. Until he was in his mid-20s or so, he was unquestionably what we would call racist--and he regarded children as a kind of "trash."

But the transformation that took place in his thinking was extraordinary. He went from someone who used racial slurs without irony to someone who spoke of reparations for slavery (still a marginalized topic), and he went from being someone who hated children to someone who wanted to be an ambassador for them. 

Q: You discuss how Huck Finn started as performance art. How did that come about? 

A: Mark Twain became as famous as he did, in part, because he was such a great platform performer. And for a decade, he conceived a grand staging of one of his books. And Huck Finn turned out to be the book. He planned a massive book tour to go with it--he might have invented the "book tour" as we know it, in fact, and the pop music tour--timed it to fall right after a presidential election.

He picked a partner, a young writer from Louisiana named George Washington Cable, who was creating a lot of headlines on his own. The publicity was huge--major newspapers gave the "Twins of Genius," as Twain called the tour, front page headline space. 

And on stage--Twain read from his books, and Cable from his. But Cable sang songs--often of Creole or slave origin--and Twain told ghost stories he heard as a child from slaves tasked with caring for him. And they used voices, dialects. 

In other words, Huck Finn debuted as a multimedia event--The Washington Post in 1884 called it a "new kind of entertainment." And parts of Huck Finn as we know it were written with that in mind, to be performed. 

We've lost the performance, the song and the voices and the comic timing, so we miss the point, at least part of it, and may never get it back. But the general point was to mix up different cultural forms into one stewpot, and see what came out. And what came out looks much more like post-World War II American culture than it did Victorian. 

Q: What impact did Twain’s own children have on the writing of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn? 

A: Twain wrote all his great books about children--Huck, Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, etc.--while he and his wife, Olivia, were raising their own daughters. 

And his own journals from the time are often completely focused on his children-- almost like research. He loved their unconventional spelling and grammar, and that clearly shows up in the happily nonstandard English Huck uses. 

He loved their unconventional relationships to God, and to prayer, and that shows up in Huck, too. He loved that they were auto-didacts--he and Olivia actually banned them from reading books in English, and so they taught themselves English by stealing a book of poetry and reading it on the sly. And Huck is one of the great auto-didacts in literary history. 

Huck Finn really doesn't exist without Twain's daughters, in my opinion--the whole book radiates with the love of children, with respect, but also that bit of conflict and ambivalence characteristic of many American parents. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: At the end of Huck Finn, Huck tells the reader that if he had known how much trouble it was to write a book, he would never have done it. And the last manuscript words Twain wrote, buried in the middle of the book we know, were "So I quit." 

I feel like that--Huck Finn is so dedicated to the notion that true progress is hard to achieve, that to truly engage it is to bump up against something and get pushed back. It doesn't make me rush to write another book, any more than it made Huck happy he had written the one he did. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Only that Huck Finn is worth the re-read. It's the rare kind of old book that still change how you view the modern world. So many issues about race and children, contemporary ones--Huck Finn is like a roadmap, showing our patterns, as Ishmael Reed has said.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 30

Dec. 30, 1910: Paul Bowles born.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Q&A with Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron

Charles Affron
the authors of the new book Grand Opera: The Story of the Met. Their other work includes cowriting Best Years: Going to the Movies, 1945-1946 and Sets in Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative. Charles Affron is Professor Emeritus of French Literature at New York University. Mirella Jona Affron is Professor Emerita of Cinema Studies at The College of Staten Island/CUNY. They are based in New York.
Mirella Jona Affron

Q: Why did you decide to write a history of the Met?

MJA: Charles and I had written two other books together about film, one about the relation between set design and narrative, and one about what it was like to go to the movies in the U.S. during what were arguably the best years, 1945-46.

We were looking for a new topic that would also focus on performance, but would be a new platform, and would be a shared passion. There hadn’t been a comprehensive history [of the Met] in 30 years, a large chunk of its 130-year history. In a rash moment-- we were on a hotel balcony in Slovenia--we had a moment of ambition, which we looked back on with horror in the years that followed!

Q: How long did it take you to write the book?

MJA: We were writing another book too—so about five or six years.

Q: In the book, you describe the “class distinctions” when the Met first opened. Did the performances appeal to a wide variety of New Yorkers, and how has that changed over the years?

CA: There was an immigrant audience that was very familiar with opera—in the beginning, German—and they occupied the upper reaches of the opera house. The opera house was built by very rich patrons, who wanted a venue for their display of wealth. The immigrant audience changed with the Italian wave at the end of the 19th century.

Q: What about today?

CA: It’s very hard for us to know. There have been surveys in the last few years, but we have not been given access to them.

MJA: It is aging, not aged—the average age is something like 65, and [regarding] the demographics of the audience, that is the most significant number.

CA: When [the Met’s general manager] Peter Gelb came in, he was aiming at a younger audience; that was one of the reasons for the new repertoire he’s integrated.

MJA: If he succeeds in attracting a younger audience, I don’t think that’s likely.

Q: Why not?

MJA: One of the thoughts was to treat the core repertoire in a radical way, with staging that was more like European staging. That alone, in most cases, is not key to attracting a younger audience.

CA: You do see a younger audience when they do contemporary opera.

Q: Yes, I was going to ask you what Peter Gelb’s impact has been.

CA: The impact has been enormous. He creates a number of new performances, he imported stage directors from different venues…he upped the number of contemporary operas. Alas, he alienated some of the longtime patrons of the Met, because they didn’t like [the changes].

Live in HD is very significant. 

MJA: When you sit in a movie house in New York City, and you think that people in Seattle and Milan are watching the same production at the same time, it’s quite thrilling.

Q: You write about how world events affected the history of the Met. Can you describe the impact of the World Wars on the use of German language, and on the performers at the Met?

MJA: In World War I, in contrast with World War II, when America entered the war, the German language was banned, which meant a very large wing of the repertoire was no longer performed on the stage of the Met.

CA: Wagner was a great favorite, and this lopped off Wagner for about two years. That meant the singers were no longer under contract. It came back in English translation, and by 1921 it was back in full force, but it took a long time to reconstitute the core of singers.

MJA: In World War II, had they banned the languages of the Axis powers, they would have had to ban Italian too. They did not do that. The board of trustees was more evolved. How can you put on an opera without Italian or German?...

CA: In World War II, there was a loss of European singers. There were no important debuts from about 1940-41 to 1946. That was a tremendous thing; [the change] gave us the opportunity to build a cohort of American singers…

Q: One of the shifts at the Met over the years involved the integration of the performers. Was the Met slow to employ performers of color, or more in line with other cultural organizations of that time?

MJA: I would say the Met was on the slow side, especially in comparison with the New York City Opera. [Then-general manager] Rudolf Bing, who finally did [change the situation], even when he contemplated using African-American singers, it was only in roles which he felt they were suited, not Brunnhilde, the blonde Wagnerian.

The first to break the color line was a dancer. One chorister strayed on the stage—if not by accident, the Met wasn’t aware. It wasn’t until Marian Anderson was well into her 40s [that she appeared].

CA: Once it was broken, it was wonderfully broken [with] an amazing cohort of singers. The women had an easier time than the men; there were very few African-American men in leading roles.

Q: Why do you think that was?

CA: I don’t know, but I can conjecture that audiences had a harder time seeing an African-American [man] as a romantic lead opposite a white woman than vice versa.

MJA: I think that’s generally true of live performances; it was easier to imagine, alas, a white man with an African-American woman [than the opposite]…

CA: Now, the opera is color-blind.

Q: How was it to work together on this book?

MJA: We kept changing our minds about how to do this. We tried one way, and it didn’t work, from the point of view of peace in the family! I thought I would have a greater role in the history of the institution, and Charles would have a greater role in the history of performance. But then you had to mesh it, not only structurally but rhetorically. It’s generally true that my voice is more present on the institution and his on the performance….

Q: Will you write another book together?

CA: I don’t think so. We have an opera blog, Opera Post, which we update every 10 days or so. We talk about things that are current, but in their historical context. We’ve written lots of books.

MJA: It’s a moment in our lives where shorter [projects] are more in season than a very long project. And then there are other things we want to do. But one never knows!

Q: Is there anything else about the book you’d like people to know?

MJA: It could have been much longer! It could have been twice as long.

CA: It was conceived as being twice as long.

MJA: You know what the strictures of publishing are. Had it been twice as long, we wouldn’t have had to make so many difficult choices!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 29

Dec. 29, 1922: William Gaddis born.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Q&A with Maria Laurino

Maria Laurino is the author of the new book The Italian Americans: A History, a companion to the PBS series that will air in February. She also has written Were You Always an Italian?: Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America and Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom. She teaches creative nonfiction at New York University, and she lives in New York City.
Q: How did you end up writing The Italian Americans, and will the upcoming PBS show present much of the same information?

A: The two-part, four hour PBS documentary, which will air February 17 and 24, was in the works for many years. I was tangentially involved with the project, occasionally having coffee with several of the producers to discuss topics they planned to include. 

I was also interviewed for the documentary and its writer, producer, and director John Maggio came to that interview. John had read my memoir about Italian-American identity, Were You Always an Italian?, and asked me at the end of the interview if I would be interested in writing the companion book to the series.  

John provided me with the scaffolding for this book – the chapters (except for one that I added on the Italian-American counterculture) correspond to segments in the documentary. I explored the documentary’s material more deeply. Even PBS’s generous four-hour time frame was not enough for the extensive exploration of a subject matter that a book can provide.

Q: You write, “Myths about Italian-American culture run deep into the fabric of American life, obscuring the complicated, nuanced, centuries-long story of the Italian-American experience that demands to be told.” What are the most prevalent myths, and what do you hope readers learn from the book?

A: I believe there are several prevalent myths.  First and foremost is the association of Italian Americans with the mafia, which films like The Godfather cemented into the American imagination. 

Accompanying this Hollywood depiction of the mafia don is the Italian-American dimwit, the not-too-bright but sympathetic character, such as Tony Manero, played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Shows like Mob Wives and Jersey Shore have more recently reinforced both of these depictions. 

There is also an inclination among some hyphenated Americans to romanticize the immigrant journey, creating a kind of hazy nostalgia that fails to honestly explore the immigrant experience in America. 

I hope that my book will help to dispel some of these myths while giving readers insight into an immigrant history that is not well known. I had written two books on Italian-American culture before writing this one and still I learned many things about my ethnic group’s history researching this book.

Q: How much of the experience of Italian immigrants to the United States is particular to them, and how much do you think is more universal and applicable to other immigrant groups?

A: I think many aspects of the Italian-American experience are universal. Historically, America’s predominant groups have accepted its newest immigrants warily.

In the late 19th century, when a police chief in New Orleans was killed, Italian Americans were accused of the murder. Although a jury exonerated them, citizens were so furious with the jury’s decision that thousands marched through town, broke into the jail, and lynched 11 Italian Americans.

The Italians of New Orleans were cast together under a net of criminality. They were among the first victims of a troubling and persistent American tendency to target entire immigrant communities for the crimes of the few.  

The hatred against southern Italians by the academic establishment and Anglo Saxon elite at the beginning of the 20th century was also truly shocking, and I think that many other immigrants can relate to this kind of prejudice aimed at a single group. 

Mid-century, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared 600,000 unnaturalized Italian Americans enemy aliens the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was linking grandmothers who didn’t speak English, and therefore couldn’t take the citizenship test, with disloyal Americans.

I recently gave a lecture about my book and I was extremely gratified when a man from Taiwan who emigrated to America and Sephardic Jews living in Britain came up to me afterwards to say how much they saw of themselves in the material I presented.

Q: The book includes interviews and profiles of various Italian Americans. How did you pick the people to include?

A: All of the contemporary people included in the book – figures such as John Turturro, David Chase, Dion DiMucci (of Dion and the Belmonts), Nancy Pelosi – were interviewed for the documentary. There were so many interesting stories in the transcripts that didn’t make it into the documentary. I decided to use some of this material for the book.

I additionally chose historical figures to profile. Most of them came up in my research and I wanted to learn more about them. For example, when I wrote about Fascism, I became intrigued with Arturo Toscanini and his brave anti-Fascist stance.

When I wrote about the mafia in the 1960s, I wanted to find community leaders who took these guys on and came across Chicago community activist Florence Scala, who also challenged Mayor Richard J. Daley’s plan to demolish the city’s Little Italy section to build a campus of the University of Illinois.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I haven’t started a new book yet.  I’m going back to some writing I was working on before beginning this book to see if I will develop it further.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just one more thought about the importance of Americans knowing their ancestral history. Child of the Seventies that I am, I like to think of this book and documentary project as, “Our Histories, Ourselves.”

I believe that to better understand who we are and why we act in certain ways, we need to know the history of our ancestors, what they faced in America, and how, generations later, their experiences may have impacted our own.        

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 28

Dec. 28, 1932: Manuel Puig born.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Q&A with James H. Johnston

James H. Johnston is the author of From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family. An attorney and journalist, he also has edited an edition of The Recollections of Margaret Cabell Brown Loughborough. He is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come across the story of Yarrow Mamout, and how did you conduct the research for the book? 

A: Let me begin with a summary of the story.  Yarrow Mamout came to Maryland on a slave ship in 1752. He was 16 years old. He eventually was freed and settled in Georgetown where he owned a house.  

In 1819, the eminent portrait painter, Charles Willson Peale, heard of Yarrow (his last name) and painted a gorgeous portrait that is now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Yarrow was the most prominent African American in Georgetown then.   

The book proceeds to follow his family down through the generations, including his daughter-in-law Polly Turner Yarrow, for whom Yarrowsburg, Maryland is named, Simon Turner, who fought for the Union in the Civil War, and Robert Turner Ford, who graduated from Harvard University in 1927.

The book was the result of a series of serendipitous encounters. The first was when I noticed a portrait of Yarrow by James Alexander Simpson at the Georgetown public library. It intrigued me. It wasn’t until I did an Internet search for “Yarrow Mamout” that I turned up Peale’s more impressive portrait, which is on the cover of the book.

Surprisingly, only one person, a local researcher, had bothered to go beyond the portraits and look into who Yarrow Mamout was. An art history book I read had referred to Yarrow dismissively as “the chuckling Negro.”

That was the beginning. From then on, astounding discoveries just kept coming and swept me along like a log in a river. I learned Yarrow was brought to America on a slave ship. He was Muslim. He could read and write.  

Freed when he was 60 years old, he earned enough money to buy a house and lot in Georgetown, own stock in a bank, and loan money to white merchants. Almost everyone in Georgetown in the early 1800s, black and white, knew him or knew of him. You wouldn’t think that such an extraordinary man could be lost to history, but he was.

There was no plan or method to my research though. Fortunately, Charles Willson Peale was a curious man who investigated Yarrow’s background when he painted the portrait and recorded the results in his diary. He only wrote a page or two, but the diary was a Rosetta stone that I used to decode the rest of the story. 

The name “Yarrow” is, of course, unusual and that made it easy to look for him in land records, the census, and old newspapers. I also found him in the probate records of his owners. After all, the sad truth is that if a human being was a slave, he was, legally, just another piece of property like a bedstead or horse to be passed on or sold when his owner died. 

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research? 

A: Just about everything surprised me. I was surprised not just to find his signature on a deed at the National Archives but also to see he signed in English followed by the Arabic word “Bismallah,” which translates as “In the Name of Allah.”  

Yarrow bought his son’s freedom. I was amused to read the manumission or freedom document that his son’s owner wrote, saying the boy was free provided he did not leave the county with anyone other than his father and not even with him if he didn’t get his own freedom. Yarrow took the hint and got his own manumission.

Once, I was looking at a Maryland map when my eyes fell on the words “Yarrowsburg Road.” This led to the discovery that Yarrow’s son had moved to Washington County, Maryland, near Harpers Ferry, and married Mary Turner. She became known as Polly Yarrow.  Yarrowsburg is named for her because she was the midwife and delivered all the babies, black and white, for miles around.

I was pleased to be able to prove that Mary Turner’s great great grandnephew went to Harvard in 1923, but by then, surprises in my research had become commonplace. 

Q: You write, "Among the many ways in which Yarrow Mamout was unusual was that he kept his African name, or at least an Anglicization of that name." How did that happen, and can you describe more about the other ways in which he was unusual? 

A: I came across a number of slaves with African names in the probate records of early Maryland planters. They were buying Africans directly from slave ships. One can imagine a newly arrived slave insisting to his owner that he already had a name and that he wasn’t going to answer to a new name of the owner’s choosing.

If the African was talented enough, as Yarrow was, and the owner was considerate enough, as Yarrow’s owners were, then the slave’s preference apparently would be honored. The fact Yarrow could read and write Arabic and was able to learn English was probably a factor as well.

Few Americans were literate then. Yarrow may not have been as educated as his owners, but he was better educated and quicker than most of the white men around him. Yarrow had a poetic way of speaking even though English was a third or fourth language for him.  

He so impressed a writer in 1816 that the writer quoted Yarrow. He explained that he got his freedom because his owner told him he had gotten all the work out of the “Yaro bone.” Yarrow saw the rhyme between his name and “marrow” and was using it in a joking way.  

He told Peale that owning bank stock was like owning a chicken, every spring and every fall it laid an egg, meaning it paid dividends. 

Q: Why did you decide to continue with the history of his family rather than focusing just on his life? 

A: Good question and one that I was asked by publishers when I was shopping the book. One publisher wanted me to end the book at Yarrow’s death in 1823. He felt it was a full story and would fit into a series of small books on Maryland history that he was publishing.  

But for me, the research had been a learning experience in Black History, and I wanted to share the learning with readers. One can’t understand what happened to the six generations of this family without understanding Black History.  

For example, when Yarrow stepped off the slave ship onto the dock at Annapolis on June 4, 1752, the legislature of colonial Maryland had just taken up a bill to make it more difficult for slaves to gain their freedom. I was surprised by how harsh the laws were and how they kept getting worse.  

Generations later, when Yarrow’s son and wife were listed in a schedule of free persons of color in Maryland, it was because Nat Turner had led a bloody rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Virginia, and the legislature of Maryland was trying to show voters that it was taking action to prevent such things in the future.  

And when in 1860, a family member named Arthur Sands bought freedom for his wife and children, he did so because John Brown had attempted another slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, and the Maryland legislature, wanting to please voters and also be vindictive, passed a law that unconditionally prohibited slaves from being freed. Maryland had been trying to do this ever since Yarrow arrived in 1752.  

In any event, Arthur Sands was too clever. He simply purchased his family’s freedom before the law took effect. Telling the story this way yields a book that is a history of race in America as viewed through the eyes of this one family. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I continue to write about history. The White House Magazine just published my article “Lincoln and the Washingtons.” You would think that we know everything there is to know about Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, but I found new things.

The manuscript for my next book is being reviewed by publishers. It is about the Kennedy administration policy toward Cuba. The working title speaks for itself:  American Hubris: Kennedy, Castro, Assassination. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Two things.  First, I think this is the first time an African American family has been traced from arrival on a slave ship through the generations up to today. Of course, Yarrow’s bloodline died off, and the narrative shifts to the family of his son’s wife. But it is extraordinary because the current generation knew their grandmother and she knew Polly Yarrow. In other words, only two people, their grandmother and Polly, separate the family today from Yarrow Mamout. It’s astonishing.

Second, as you would expect, I give book talks. The reactions of two audience members stand out. Once, in a talk to a largely black audience in Kansas City, Missouri, one man challenged me, saying most Black History deals with the horrors of slavery. He asked why I had glossed over that.  

I told him that the book delved into slavery more than my presentation did, but more importantly, I thought there was a need for role models in the study of Black History and, therefore, wanted the book to be about black achievement.  

Those who seem moved the most by my presentations are modern-day African immigrants. They identify with Yarrow because they’ve lived in Africa, and while they haven’t come here on slave ships and aren’t slaves, they face the lingering racism in America.  They can empathize with what Yarrow Mamout faced and was able to accomplish despite that. I find great reward in telling the story. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 27

Dec. 27, 1910: Charles Olson born.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Q&A with Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant, photo by Gretje Ferguson
Anita Diamant is the author of the new novel The Boston Girl. Her many other books include the novel The Red Tent and the essay collection Pitching My Tent. She lives in Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Addie Baum?

 A: Addie is not based upon any one character, though I was inspired by a girl named Sarah whose parents opposed her continuing education and whose life was enhanced and changed thanks to her experiences at a Boston settlement house, where reading and art became part of her life.

Q: Why did you decide to set the book mostly in the first three decades of the 20th century? 

A: The more I learned about the beginning of the 20th century, the more fascinated I became. There was so much change especially for women. They entered the workforce in new fields like retail sales, office work, library science, and social work.

College became a possibility not only for elites but for some poor and immigrant girls, too. Immigrants were changed by the opportunities they found America and they, in turn, added new energy and intelligence to what became the American century.

There was also the revolution in women’s clothing, from floor-length skirts and corsets, to the short skirts and flimsy underwear of the ‘20s and the rise of the popular culture (movies, magazine, fiction) – both of which changed how women thought about themselves.

Q: Why did you structure the narrative as a story Addie is telling her granddaughter in 1985? 

A: Eighty-five year old Addie’s relationship with her 22-year-old granddaughter, Ava, is one of the crowning achievements of Addie’s life. The contrast between the difficult relationship she had with her mother and the ease with which she communicates with Ada is testimony to how much can change  — for the better -- within the ecology of a family. 

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make changes along the way? 

A: I didn’t and this is the first time I wrote a novel without knowing the ending. I found it much more difficult. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am blissfully between big projects. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Anita Diamant, please click here.

Dec. 26

Dec. 26, 1891: Henry Miller born.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Q&A with Connie Lawn

Connie Lawn is the author of the memoir You Wake Me Each Morning: The Final Chapter. She has covered the White House since 1968, and she is based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: Your reporting career began in the 1960s. What would you say are the biggest changes for reporters since you first started, and what has remained more or less the same?

A: Everything has changed in the way news is collected and disseminated. I have advocated "citizen journalists" my entire career and now we are here! Anyone with an iPhone can send out stories for TV, radio, and print.

But it is hard to get paid unless you have a sponsor or solid employer. The business is far more insecure and dangerous than ever! Journalism schools have to struggle to stay relevant.

Q: You write about your experiences covering many presidents. Who did you find most compelling to write about, and why?

A: Every president is interesting and so are the First Ladies. Pat Nixon was the loneliest; Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan the bravest. President Ford was most human and he sacrificed his career with the Nixon pardon.

The Nixon and Clinton years had the best stories! Clinton and Reagan were the most charming, but we covered for Reagan's failing memory. Carter and the Bushes were hard to know. LBJ could be vulgar and shocking. Obama is underrated -- I think he will prove to be a great president!

Q: Of all the stories you covered, are there some that particularly stand out in your mind?

A: Major stories were Watergate; the Reagan shooting, and the Israel, Palestine, and general Mideast crises. My biggest stories outside the White House -- Bobby Kennedy final interview, brief kidnap in Lebanon, and my wonderful relationship with New Zealand.

Q: How was the book's title chosen?

A: Sam Lewis, the one-time U.S. ambassador to Israel, called on me in a press conference. He said, "Connie Lawn -- you wake me each morning!" This is the fourth update of the book. The first one was a best seller in New Zealand. This one is subtitled "The Final Chapter." At the age of 70, I have Parkinson’s. It is a killer and there is no cure. But I look back on a great life!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Now I am largely working on promoting the book and covering the White House, the world, and the horrors of terrorism. I can still play a small role in changing policy (see my Cuba and Alan Gross blog in Huffington).

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My mission is to encourage everyone to write a book! It is easy and inexpensive to self-publish.

My book is on most internet sites (, Amazon, B&N) but it is far cheaper to buy on Kindle or Nook. I can sell and sign discount copies at the [National] Press Club if you want and may soon do a book party there.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb