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Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper

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Sam PatchSam Patch, the Famous Jumper
by Paul Johnson

Sam Patch is one of those local legends that’s just there, part of our early childhood storytelling world, like Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed. Whether he was real or not wasn’t really important. In the case of Sam Patch, we were assured that he was indeed real, since he was buried in the little cemetery in our neighborhood. Okay, so there was a real Sam Patch. But were all the stories about him true? Did that matter? He was a bit of local “color” — something that made our local lore unique.

A couple of months ago, we heard a talk about Sam at the neighborhood library branch, setting the stories in historical reality.  The circus-like character with the swashbuckling costume and the pet bear and the showy leaps, the character he presented on posters to advertise his famous jumps over waterfalls, was only the performance persona. Behind the costume and props and performances was a former mule spinner from the tough working class world of the early industrial mills of New England and New Jersey. The librarian recommended this book for those who wanted to know more.

The world of that early industrial revolution fills the background of this book. The mills pulled in the wives and children of down-on-their-luck farmers from the stony soil of little New England farms. The Patch family had seen its fortunes rise and fall over the course of recent generations, from comfortable Yankee respectability, through bankruptcy, through numerous relocations, to the abandonment of the family by Sam’s father. The mills offered a job with wearily long hours and restrictive setting, but the advantage of a steady income. Sam was at work in a mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, at the age of eight.

By the time he was twenty, Sam was a boss spinner, the first American to hold a position usually filled by English spinners. In the 1820’s, the industrial looms used in these early mills weren’t as fully automated as they were later to become. In addition to the many unskilled jobs, the factory also needed skilled men to regulate the machines, to make sure the threads didn’t snap or tangle due to too tight or too loose a tension. The boss spinners knew their business, and they knew their value to the owners of the mills. Among the workers, they had high social standing. At the same time, to the owners and the others in the owners’ social world, the boss spinners still ranked as workers. There was a tension at work in this new industrial society, and Sam Patch would have been in the middle of it all.

He began jumping over waterfalls as part of a community of daredevil workers, young men showing off and letting off steam. They jumped as a sort of braggadocio, as a way of asserting themselves and winning applause, as an act of adventure and danger in a restricted life. But there was another element, too, which Sam soon tapped into. The public access to common land was being set against the increasing enclosures and privatization of land by the mill owners and the wealthy. Sam jumped waterfalls as a way of thumbing his nose, drawing attention to this “unauthorized” use of the public space. Sam’s jumps, first in Pawtucket and then in Paterson, New Jersey, became public entertainment that drew the attention and the applause away from the officially-approved social doings arranged by the community leaders.

Sam’s transition to public celebrity was a strange one for that period. Today, we are so accustomed to people who are famous simply for being famous that such celebrity is taken for granted. Sam Patch was one of America’s first celebrity daredevils, the 1820’s equivalent of Harry Houdini or Evel Knievel. His stardom shot unexpectedly across the media world of his day with his jumps at Niagara Falls. By this time, he had developed the flair of public performance that we associate with him, the colorful advertising posters, the iconic costume with the red sash, the curiosity of his pet black bear cub, everything that made the announcement of a Sam Patch Jump into a carnival event.

His fatal jump here in Rochester, at the High Falls of the Genesee River,  was the sudden end of this brief flash of celebrity. It was a sadly meaningless death, a daredevil act that served no real purpose. People didn’t know what to make of it in terms of meaning. Those who saw their complicity as onlookers felt guilty for their part in encouraging the rashness to continue. Those who had always preached against encouraging this madness saw Sam’s death as the evidence that they had been right.

But to Sam himself, a millworker who had briefly shot across public awareness and then disappeared like a falling star, what had it all been about? Was it the act of the mill boy looking for applause from his working comrades? Was it an act of social protest, a thumbing of the nose to the powers that were changing the world? Was it the act of a circus performer relishing the attraction of an audience all around him as he gave them a show?

Well, whatever he meant, he’s buried in a little cemetery in a corner of one city that has adopted him in death as one of us, making him a permanent legendary character, a story in children’s lore, sandwiched between Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed.

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Pepper and Salt

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pepper_and_salt_1405_largePepper and Salt
by Howard Pyle

This latest LibriVox audiobook release is one I’m particularly excited about, because it was a duet between me and my dad. Listening to my dad read aloud has been part of my life for over 50 years. I hope to go on hearing him read aloud for at least a couple of decades yet. It wouldn’t be Christmas in this house without his annual reading of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

These days, his voice can’t keep going the way it did when he was younger, through chapter after chapter. Poems, though, are still short enough for him to handle without going hoarse. When this project came along, it was simply perfect for us to share. It was an old childhood favorite, bringing back memories of long-ago read-alouds, It had both stories and poems, something for each of us to read. “Made for us, Daddy!” — And off we went!

The old-fashioned poems, with their slightly tongue-in-cheek morals, called out all my dad’s histrionic gusto, his old theatricality. He was certainly channelling the spirit of Vincent Crummles as he read these. Especially the somewhat shocking Tale of An Innocent Little Lamb and Four Wicked Wolves. He crunched that one with a grin.

Far away in distant parts of the country, where we have never seen them, are my dad’s great-grandchildren. Now there’s a way for them to hear his voice, to listen to him read aloud to them, as he used to read to their mother and grandmother, their aunt and great-aunts. There’s a satisfaction in getting this little project out into the world which is deeper than the slightness of the material itself. It’s a little Victorian children’s book, that’s all. But it’s also a link to a long family memory.

Knickerbocker’s History of New York

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Knickerbocker's New YorkKnickerbocker’s History of New York
by Washington Irving

“A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty — by Diedrich Knickerbocker”

My sister Meg led me into this one. A few months ago, we had got onto the subject of Washington Irving, mentioning things we’d read and enjoyed — mostly the short stories from the Sketch-Book and Traveler’s Tales —  “Rip Van Winkle” and “Sleepy Hollow” and the rest. What else was there? Something we hadn’t already read a dozen times?

We had both heard of Knickerbocker, but neither of us had ever actually read it. Okay, then — let’s read it! Even better idea — let’s read it aloud. Meg posted the request on LibriVox, a book coordinator rapidly picked up the project, and I signed on to read about half the chapters. With another reader claiming the bulk of the other half, it turned out to be a surprisingly quick project, already finished and catalogued.

[If you’d like to sit back and listen at ease, here’s the link to the Librivox audiobook of Knickerbocker’s History of New York by Washington Irving.]

Or you can listen from right here by clicking on these audio links —

Volume 1

Volume 2

I’m not sure what I’d expected when I began reading, but I think I’d been presuming it would be an ordinary history book, full of interesting information, maybe with some literary zing in the telling, given the book’s reputation. I wasn’t expecting to laugh out loud through much of the book. I wasn’t expecting the refreshingly quirky tone, a mixture of fond affection for bygone local folklore combined with irreverent satire of manners, attitudes, and politics.  Nostalgia and black comedy seem like strange bedfellows, but here they meshed in a surprising way.

“A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty” — The book’s subtitle sets the tone right on the opening page. The early chapters do indeed deal with the origins of the universe, but only as a prologue to the arrival of the Dutch in the New World. And when Dutch New Amsterdam becomes English New York, the book is over, because what else is worthy of more words? The tongue-in-cheek glorification of the heroic exploits of the Dutch founding fathers, from the ancestral visions of “Oloffe the Dreamer” to the sagacious decisions of Wouter Van Twiller (“Walter the Doubter”)  to the  military misadventures of “William the Testy” to the tumultuous tantrums of Peter Stuyvesant (“Hardkoppig — or hardheaded — Pete”), is an extravaganza of comic delights that would be right at home in a Monty Python movie. There are slapstick moments involving the voluminous trousers of Mynheer Ten Breeches and the notable nose of Antony Van Corlear. There’s the hilariously mismanaged expedition against the upstart patroon of Rensellaerwick. But there’s also quite a bit of more subtly pointed humor, satire disguised as instructive commentary, which comes forth so innocently in the pedantic tones of our learned narrator, old Diedrich Knickerbocker.

Very early in the book, an entire chapter is devoted to a series of arguments intended to ease the overly-tender consciences of those scrupulous readers who were not entirely convinced that the European invaders had a just right to dispossess the native Americans of their land. The arguments trotted out by ol’ Diedrich to reassure these readers grow increasingly outrageous, and the analogies more of a stretch, until by chapter’s end any reader with the least bit of conscience would only be more convinced than ever that the European claims smelled fishy.

The book’s tone isn’t always slapstick or satire, though. There’s also another  note, one of warm affectionate fondness for quirky local customs and favorite local “characters”. Alongside the exasperation of the author for his characters’ foibles, there’s also a wistful admiration for their better traits, for their domestic harmony and their habits of simplicity and contentment. We laugh at Antony Van Corlear’s excitible zeal, his pride as the governor’s trumpeter and right-hand man, his exploits with the ladies, yet we also enjoy his zest for life and his loyalty to hard-headed Pete. Antony’s end, though bizzarre enough to make us laugh, also invites us to mourn the loss of such a friend.

Diedrich Knickerbocker’s voice, as the supposed author and narrator, is the glue that holds together all these various tones and moods. Scholarly and didactic, innocent of any intention to upset conventional wisdom, yet unable to resist puncturing bubbles of pomposity, Diedrich becomes the central character of the book, though always in the background. When the book sighs with nostalgia for old-fashioned customs, it’s weary old man Diedrich’s sigh. When the book enthuses with effusive delight over the glories of Dutch victory, it’s the partisan voice of this blood descendent of the original Knickerbockers. When the book drily lampoons political imbecility and military cluelessness, it’s Professor Knickerbocker as I imagine him, looking waspishly over the tops of lowered spectacles at the idiots before him. When the book subtly undermines the comfortable assurance of his white European audience, it’s honest innocent Diedrich simply following an argument to its logical end, astonished that his remarks might be construed as subversive. One way or another, it’s our Knickerbocker narrator who makes this book.

How I’ve gone 50+ years without actually reading a book that’s been in the background of my awareness all this time, I don’t know. But I’m thankful that someone finally nudged me and said, “So read it already!”

The Wonder Clock

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Wonder ClockThe Wonder Clock
by Howard Pyle

When I was a girl, the Howard Pyle folktale books were all favorites of mine.  Pyle’s peasant Robin Hood gave me a sturdy whiff of dusty feet walking dirt roads with street-corner ballads for common people like me, rather than the swashy knightly romances of other versions. I read that book so often that I could instantly flip the book open to my favorite parts. Then there were Pyle’s other books, Otto of the Silver Hand, The Book of Pirates, and of course the two folk-tale books, Pepper and Salt and The Wonder Clock. These last two had a particular nostalgia for me, because Grandma had read these stories to me when I was little, and I in turn read them to her years later. My taste in fairy tales had always been strongly influenced by the Polish and Russian stories that ran in our family. Perrault’s elegant bewigged palace nobles and Disney’s American teenager princesses just couldn’t get under my skin as well as the bears and goosegirls and soldiers and woodcutters and Baba Yaga witches. I liked Pyle’s fairytale story choices because they came from that same earthy background.

So, when I saw that LibriVox was arranging a group recording of The Wonder Clock, I had to jump right on board. By the time we were finished, I had recorded eight of the twenty-four stories in this book, and had myself a fine old time doing it. Usually when I’m recording for LV, I try to choose a time when I’m by myself, so I don’t have to keep stopping for noises like coughs and rustles of movement by other people moving around the room. But for The Wonder Clock, I did most of my recording when my dad was nearby, because there’s not half as much fun in these stories unless they’re shared aloud with someone.

If you’d like to sit back and enjoy being read aloud to, you may simply click on this audio link and enjoy —

[archiveorg wonderclock_1309_librivox&playlist=1 width=500 height=400 frameborder=0 webkitallowfullscreen=true mozallowfullscreen=true allowfullscreen]

If you want to download the audiobook and save it for later, here’s the link to the LibriVox audiobook version —  The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle. And because a Pyle book is only half as enjoyable without the pictures, here’s a link to a free online text of the original book, complete with all the delicious Pyle line drawings — Text of The Wonder Clock with Howard Pyle’s illustrations .

What sort of stories will you find here? Well, “How the Good Gifts Were Used By Two” is a classic story of misused wishes. Saint Nicholas and Saint Christopher are two very down-to-earth saints, walking through the world on foot, staying at whatever house makes them welcome. To those who play host to these visitors, a magical blessing is given in return. But how you use this gift is up to you, and as usual in these stories, the greedy and the quarrelsome make the poorest use of the golden moment. It’s the poor man and his humble wife who, by simply going about their ordinary morning’s business, received their windfall in a simplicity of gratitude without grasping.

Maybe there’s a theme here. After all, bags of gold play their part in a number of these stories. In “Master Jacob”, three self-important rogues set out to swindle the title character. At first, they succeed in making a patsy of him. But it turns out that Master Jacob is no lamb to go quietly to the slaughter. With his equally sly wife, he cleverly turns the tables on the rogues, taking them for a great deal more than they had got from him. But Master Jacob differs from the trio who started this dance. They were after gain because of their greed, while he only swindled those who had already swindled him. The swindlers are taught a lesson, shamed and humiliated by their erstwhile victim. The money is just a byproduct of all the shenanigans, the evidence of Master Jacob’s gleeful victory.

Probably the most satisfying story in the collection is “Which Is Best?” We begin with the classic set-up — two brothers, one rich and one poor.  The rich brother is grasping and harsh in his dealings with the world. Yet despite this, the poor brother is a happy man — “…it was a merry life that the poor brother led of it, for each morning when he took a drink he said, “Thank Heaven for clear water;” and when the day was bright he said, “Thank Heaven for the warm sun that shines on us all;” and when it was wet it was, “Thank Heaven for the gentle rain that makes the green grass grow.”

The rich brother is severely critical of his brother’s gentle generosity and mercy, blaming him for being a fool. To prove that he is right, the rich brother calls on a straw poll of random men-in-the-street, all of whom agree that the rich brother is right, that success is the only thing that matters. Then the rich man put out the poor man’s eyes, “… ‘for,’ says he, ‘a body deserves to be blind who cannot see the truth when it is as plain as a pikestaff.’ But still the poor man stuck to it that mercy was the best. So the rich man rode away and left him in his blindness.”

Of course, we know that all will end well for the poor man. He recovers his sight and  meets with good fortune, while the rich man comes to a bad end. But what gives this story its particular pleasure is the nature of the poor man’s success. He is given a choice between the allure of flashy jewels, the crass power of minted money, or the useful gifts of wisdom-revealing spectacles, a book of knowledge, and a medicinal apple. He chooses down-to-earth practicality — “Hi! But these are worth the having, sure and certain!” And he goes on to achieve success while remaining true to himself. The same man who gave his last farthing to a beggar at the start of the story is the man who goes about generously healing and curing at the story’s end.