One City/One Book

For a long time, we have wanted to hold a One City/One Book event. These have been popular in many American cities over the past ten or fifteen years, and many library users have suggested that we have one. We are finally doing it this October, and the book will be The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain. There were several reasons we chose this book, but before discussing them, first, a little history.

We almost did the One City/One Book event last year. But I kept asking people what book we should do. Between book discussion group attendees, staff members, and others, I probably asked around forty people for book suggestions. I got about thirty-eight different suggestions. While there were many good suggestions, there was almost no consensus on what book to read. In the end, I just picked a book, so I guess that I should not say ‘we chose this book.’ Fact is, I chose this book.

Tom Sawyer is a perennial favorite. It has never been out of print since it was published in 1876. It is full of famous scenes, like painting the fence, the murder in the graveyard, Tom and Huck walking into their own funeral, and Tom and Becky getting lost in the cave. It has many colorful characters. And it also has quite a lot of Mark Twain’s brand of folksy humor throughout. I just read it for at least the third time, and was surprised at how fun it was. Of course, being a book written in mid-nineteenth century America, it has some language and ideas–particularly dealing with race–that challenge our modern sensibilities. But these can also lead to interesting and productive discussions.

During October we will hold two book discussions, have a lecture from a professor at Webster University, an art contest, a movie showing, a read-a-thon, and even a costume reception. A full calendar of events is at our Website, and is also posted in the library. We have plenty of copies of the book, so check one out soon and join in the October fun!

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Short Stories

A few months ago I happened to pick up a copy of a short story collection by Raymond Carver from a box of donated books. I hadn’t read Carver in years, and I know there are many stories by this master of the genre that I never read. After reading that, I moved onto another short story collection, this one by the Japanese author Junichiro Tanazaki. And with that, I have been hooked all summer long on short stories. I have since read four or five more collections, and am currently reading Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser.

It’s a question I have often asked: why are Americans, even Americans who are otherwise avid readers, not fonder of short stories? Even very popular authors can publish short story collections and they get way less attention that their novels. Why is this? It would seem that in modern society, where we are pretty addicted to short-form entertainment (the half-hour sitcom, the hour-long drama), short stories would fit right in. They are also convenient for busy people: I have a moment of leisure right now, I’ll fill it with reading a good short story.

I think some people consider short stories a lesser vehicle than the novel. But be advised, that’s not how most authors see it. Short stories take as much, if not more artistic ability and structural planning as novels. Ernest Hemingway once intimated that he had become a novelist because he failed at writing short stories. There are some authors, like the aforementioned Raymond Carver, and Canadian master Alice Munro, whose entire literary output consists of short stories. Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, based on short stories alone. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, was actually a series of short stories, with the character Olive Kitteridge at their center.

In history there have been quite a few classic works of short story writing: Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, Raymond Carver’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, and many others. Though they are all from earlier times, these stories, as with classic novels, all hold up because they are so well written and deal in universal human themes.

If it sounds like I am urging you to check out and read some short story collections, that’s exactly it–don’t wait! I am urging you, advising you, even exhorting you to look up one of the collections mentioned in these paragraphs and read it. Let me know how you enjoy it.

One City/One Book

For quite a while, we have wanted to hold a One City/One Book event for Webster Groves. This is where we encourage everyone to read the same book, and hold discussions, lectures, contests, and other events around that book. We are finally doing it this October.

The book we selected is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain. There are many reasons we chose this book. First, it is a very good book–full of humor, and adventure, and great characters. Second, it was written by a native Missourian. And finally, it has some crossover appeal between adults and young people, so we hope we get good family participation in our One City/One Book read.

The Friends of the Library have generously offered to purchase copies of the book for us, and to fund other events during the month. We are very excited about the upcoming activities. As we get nearer to October, we will publish a full calendar of events. We just wanted to offer some advance notice of what’s coming up.

Gordon Jenkins

When we renovated and expanded the library from 2010-2012, one of our goals was to make sure the books were no longer on shelves 7 and 8 feet tall. In doing that, we ended up with some of our shelving on the new Lower Level. Mostly what ended up down there were the biographies, a significant collection, and favorite reading matter for many people.

We have been concerned that even after several years in the new building, people are not aware that the biographies are downstairs. So we wanted to do some work to highlight them. One thing we have done is weed the collection, taking out old things that haven’t been read in more than five years, so people can more easily browse ‘the good stuff.’

While I was working on this, I came across a book I didn’t know we had. (Which is, by the way, one of the main reasons that libraries weed out old books–to make the real gems easier to get at!) It is a biography of Gordon Jenkins, a musician, composer, and arranger whose work was pretty well-known in the mid-20th century. A blurb on the front cover of the book says, ‘The man behind the music of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Nat King Cole.’ Gordon Jenkins made significant recordings with each of them, and many more of the best musicians of the 20th century.

He was also from Webster Groves. William Jenkins, his father, was the choir director and organist at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Chapter two of the book, called The Prodigy, describes Gordon Jenkins’s coming of age in Webster Groves, a ‘delightful little suburb.’ It is an interesting book about an interesting life, with a fascinating connection to our town.

Edna Ferber

Have you ever experienced a time when one person’s name seems to come up again and again, to the point that you ask how can this person have done so much? It has been that way lately for me with Edna Ferber.

Edna Ferber was born in 1885 and died in 1968. In between those years she wrote novels, plays, short stories, and essays. She won a Pulitzer Prize, and quite a few of her books were made into movies, one that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and one that is included in the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of the 100 best films of all time.

This all starts with So Big, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of 1925. That year, it was made into a silent film starring Colleen Moore. In 1932 it was remade as a talking picture starring Barbara Stanwyck. But it is the 1953 version, starring Jane Wyman, that people know best.

Her 1926 novel Show Boat was the basis for Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s ground-breaking 1927 musical. There were three film versions: 1929, 1936, and 1953. Ferber herself made her acting debut in 1939 when Orson Welles produced a radio version of Show Boat: Ferber was cast as Parthy Ann Hawkes.

She wrote Cimarron in 1929. It was made into a movie starring Richard Dix and Irene Dunne—a movie that won the Oscar for best picture in 1931. Cimarron was remade in 1960, starring Glenn Ford and Maria Schell.

In 1941 she wrote Saratoga Trunk, which became a movie in 1945, starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. In 1959, the musical Saratoga, based on the book, premiered on Broadway, featuring songs by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. It ran for 80 performances, and was not nearly the hit Show Boat had been.

Her 1952 book Giant became the 1956 movie starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and, in his final role before his death, James Dean. Dean actually died in a car accident before filming was complete, and Nick Adams—who would later play Johnny Yuma in the TV show The Rebel—filled in some scenes. Giant stands at number 82 on the AFI’s list of the best movies.

Finally, her 1958 book Ice Palace was filmed in 1960, starring Richard Burton and Robert Ryan. Ferber wrote several plays with George S. Kaufman, and of those, Stage Door and Dinner at Eight became movies.

Ferber was never married nor romantically linked to anyone. She was of Hungarian-Jewish descent, and had suffered painful anti-semitism growing up in Iowa and Wisconsin. Most of her books feature characters whose race, religion, or ethnicity cause them to experience prejudice. She was also a member of the Algonquin Round Table, known for her acerbic wit. As such, she was portrayed by Lili Taylor in the 1994 movie Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.

It seems a coincidence that I have encountered Edna Ferber’s name so many times in the past few months. Then again, it’s only fitting in March, Women’s History Month, to stop and think about a woman who had such a huge influence on the literature, movies, and musicals of the 20th century.

Constable Fieldson

One of the more remarkable characters in the early history of Webster Groves, one you’ve likely never heard of, is Constable John Fieldson. The story is common that our city was incorporated in response to a terrible crime, the murder of Bertram Atwater, visiting from Chicago. Influential citizens, fearing that the growing village of Webster Groves was inadequately patrolled by the constables sent by the County, determined that incorporation was the only way to ensure a strong local police presence. What we can learn of the career of Constable John Fieldson makes it sound like Webster Groves was pretty well patrolled already.

The first time we hear of Fieldson is in July 1895. One day that month a painter named Jack Wurtz grew angry that two of his employees had ‘done him up’ for $10. (PD, 07/17/1895) He got drunk on ‘a fighting brand of whisky,’ and announced that he was hunting for the two. He set his bottle of whiskey in the middle of Lockwood Avenue near Old Orchard, and sat there with his shotgun, inviting people to step up and take a drink, warning that he would fill the first man who did with buckshot. People naturally gathered to see the commotion, but nobody stepped forward.

Constable Fieldson, who normally covered Webster Groves, was called, and arrived shortly. He approached Wurtz with his revolver in hand, but Wurtz had his shotgun cocked and leveled at the Constable. After a few moments of this standoff, Fieldson retreated to swear out a warrant against Wurtz, hoping that would have some effect.

Meanwhile the local men determined to form a posse, and about twenty of them gathered with shotguns and pistols. This caused Wurtz to retreat to his home. When he went indoors, the posse secured the door so he could not escape. This only infuriated him and he began firing his shotgun through the roof and out the door. They let him out. He sat on his porch still threatening anyone who came near.

Constable Fieldson arrived with his warrant, but saw that it would make no difference in the situation. He snuck around the house, up under the porch, and seized Wurtz’s hands. The others jumped in and threw the gun away. Wurtz was arrested and sent to Clayton.

In January 1896, after the murder of Bertram Atwater, Constable Fieldson was assigned to deliver the suspects in the case to the Clayton jail. Three men had been involved in the crime, but one, John Schmidt, had been severely wounded by Atwater during the attempted robbery. The other two, ‘Cottonhead’ Schmidt and Sam Foster, were taken in a surrey with Fieldson and three deputies. But at Manchester Road they were accosted by a crowd of nearly 200 men who brandished guns, held up nooses, and swore to hang the men right there. The three deputies deserted Fieldson on the spot, one taking the Constable’s own gun with him, leaving Fieldson unarmed.

He managed to whip his horses into an escape, though Schmidt was wounded by a gunshot in his thigh, and Foster got a bullet through his coat. Fieldson made for Kirkwood, where he planned to take the train to Clayton. But word had preceded him, and there were mobs all about looking to lynch Schmidt and Foster. They spent the night sneaking along railroad tracks and through the woods until they reached the jail. All this time, both suspects were aware that they were in the custody of an unarmed man–but they felt safer as prisoners of law enforcement than being caught by the angry mobs.

A month later, in February 1896, there is another story involving Fieldson in the Post-Dispatch, this time called ‘Rescued from an Angry Mob.’ (PD, 02/15/1896) A young man named Fred Young had assaulted a seven-year-old girl in her home, though her screams frightened him off before he could do more than throw the girl on her bed. When her father returned home and heard what had happened, he roused his neighbors to help him find Fred Young. The crowd took the young man to the same bridge where Bertram Atwater had been murdered, planning to hang him, but soon Constable Fieldson arrived. He was far outnumbered, and at first the mob refused to hand over Fred Young. It was fortunate that there were cooler heads present, who pointed out that this was the same Constable Fieldson who had stood down the mob in the planned lynching of Atwater’s murderers, and they released the young man to be taken to jail in Clayton.

In lauding John Fieldson’s work, a reporter for the Post-Dispatch wrote, ‘Constable Fieldson belongs to that rare band of heroes whose heroism is displayed in the simple performance of the duty of preventing the violation of law by a mob and of giving persons accused of a brutal crime the protection of the law. His courage and ingenuity are in marked contrast with the mawkish cowardice and stupidity of many law officers under similar circumstances that he deserves to be held up as an exemplar.’ (PD, 01/25/1896) Perhaps rougher than necessary on other officers, but it sounds like Webster Groves was fortunate to have the services of Constable Fieldson.

 

‘Webster Groves’

We recently found an article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dated November 3, 1903. It was titled ‘Founder of Suburb Dies.’ It was an article about Benjamin F. Webster, the man for whom, as the article states, Webster Groves was named. Very interesting article, except it is wrong.

In 1845, Dr. Artemus Bullard was sent by First Presbyterian Church in St. Louis to organize a church in the area that was to become Webster Groves. At the time it was a settlement of farms and of large country homes for St. Louis businessmen. Bullard was taken with the lovely forested environs, and he built a school for boys there, naming it after the great statesman, Daniel Webster. His Webster College opened in 1850.

When the Pacific Railroad opened a line that passed through the developing village, its station was named for the school–Webster Station. Once it was learned that there was already a Webster Station in Missouri, the name was changed to Webster Groves. Dr. Bullard’s school did not outlive the strife of the Civil War, though its main building still stands on the grounds of the Great Circle campus on Gore Avenue.

Benjamin Franklin Webster was born in Boston in 1835, but was brought to St. Louis when he was two. He was educated at Amherst College and returned to St. Louis to practice law. He was also involved in real estate, and bought an existing home at 470 East Lockwood in the 1870s. The Sisters of Loretto purchased the Webster house in 1897 for a girl’s academy, naming it Loretto College. The Webster house burned down in 1905, to be replaced by the current Webster Hall. In time, they changed the school’s name to Webster College, which eventually became Webster University.

Coincidences abound in this history, so there is plenty of reason to be confused. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Benjamin F. Webster was involved in an early attempt to incorporate the village of Webster Groves into a city: the committee working on the incorporation even selected him as its mayor-designate, should their efforts become successful. They were not. Webster Groves would not be incorporated until years later, and Benjamin F. Webster never served as mayor.

But the fact is the name of Webster University has little to do with the fact that it is situated in Webster Groves–and Benjamin F. Webster, though important in local history, had nothing to do with the naming of the town.