Monday, September 13, 2010

Continuing My Nonfiction Roll...

Book Reviewed: Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edward P. Kohn

Lately, I can't get enough of the TV show, The West Wing. Back in middle school, this was my favorite show. I was in love with half the characters, and I wanted to be friends with the other half. In my youth, I was a politics junkie, so this show fit right into my lifestyle. As I've gotten older and busier, I find myself spending less time thinking and reading about politics (I still follow the news; I just don't follow politics much, even though I'm still pretty damn opinionated about my own views). Becoming reacquainted with The West Wing has also turned me towards politics once again. The best part of the show is seeing how people who want to do good deal within a world that doesn't always allow them to do so. Sometimes, compromises have to be made and others have to suffer for them. It's a very realistic look at the way government functions.

About the same time I started rewatching this awesome show about a fake president and his fake White House staff, I saw an interview with history professor Edward P. Kohn about his new book, Hot Time in the Old Town. Right away, I knew I needed to go out and find a copy. The book combines some of my favorite history topics - Teddy Roosevelt, labor issues at the turn of the century, the shifting values of the old Democratic and Republican parties - and some of my favorite political topics - urban vs. rural attitudes, issues of poverty and class warfare, etc. The book centers on a ten-day heat wave in New York City in August 1896. During that time, the heat index was as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and poor people living in dirty, unventilated tenements suffered the worst of the spell. Overall, around 1,300 people died as a result of the heat. Babies and overworked laborers collapsed and expired in waves around the Lower East Side. Meanwhile, Teddy Roosevelt, who was at that point fairly unlucky in politics and serving as Police Commissioner, helped to combat the worst of the heat by overseeing free handouts of ice to the poorest citizens. Roosevelt was one of the only city leaders to take any kind of action during the heat wave, a fact that Kohn made a lot out of in his interviews.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure it was the strongest argument in the book. I've been a Teddy Roosevelt fan for a few years now, probably due to some of Sarah Vowell's essays about the complicated man he was. I don't agree with a good chunk of his political views, but I think he's a fascinating figure who really did try to change his country for the better and who helped the lower classes as well as he could. Plus, you know, teddy bears! And while Kohn certainly lets us see the complex figure that was Roosevelt, I didn't quite see him as the star of this book.

Rather, the main man of interest here seems to be William Jennings Bryan, a whiz-kid Democratic presidential nominee (you might know him better as the prosecutor from the Scopes "monkey" trial) who had the extreme misfortune of giving an important political speech right in the middle of the heat wave. Due to a series of blunders and an inability to see beyond his rural morality, Bryan failed spectacularly in New York City and eventually lost the election to McKinley (whose eventual assassination, I should add, is one of my favorite history topics. I'm weird like that). Kohn spends a lot of time on Bryan, and I found this story fascinating. I'm just not sure why the book wasn't subtitled "The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Fall of William Jennings Bryan" instead. To make matters worse, Roosevelt was enjoying a breezier beach climate during the worst days of the heat. Which I would have done, too. But it wasn't what I expected from the interviews.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It felt a little repetetive at times, but Kohn's obviously a talented historian. His argument at the end of the book that heat waves are a tragically overlooked natural devastation to people and places made a lot of sense to me after reading his examination of this particular case. It's a nice little piece of history that I certainly had never heard of before, and I enjoyed learning about it.

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