Highlighting Authors Mellon, Sanger and Perez

Thomas Mellon and His Times, by Thomas Mellon;
University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA; 1994.

The Henry Clay Frick Houses: Architecture, Interiors, Landscapes in the Golden Era,
by Martha Frick Symington Sanger, Wendell Garrett; The Monacelli Press, 2001.
Breaker, by N. A. Perez;
University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA; 2002.

Thomas Mellon and His Times, by Thomas Mellon;
University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA; 1994.

This is a book I would love to see made into a movie! You know the kind -- one of those richly researched and panoramic historical films filled with colorful and interesting major characters with a canny supporting cast and numerous ambitious cameo rolls that beg for Academy Award nominations all around -- and all narrated by the main character (a Pierce Brosnan-type), Thomas Mellon, himself! The fact that the city of Pittsburgh is a major presence in the story makes the project even more appealing, now that film makers can utilize computer generated formats and recreate the city in its youth, showing how it changed over the lifetime of Thomas Mellon. Wow, what a movie that would be! I would love to see it happen! And I would love to see the Pittsburgh film industry get all the contracts!

You can tell, can't you, that I liked this book? What could be more American than a story of the hard-working immigrant son of a hard-working immigrant father, who makes good, especially if it is a true story? By no means is it a "perfect read" (and here I am speaking as a woman), for the man, himself, was not a perfect individual. But if you are drawn to well-researched historical novels, and if you are curious about the inner workings of a man's intellect -- how he measures himself against his peers and against the fabric of his time -- then you will enjoy this book. Additionally, if you are a young man contemplating a career as a lawyer, a judge, a banker, a husband, a father . . . anything along these lines, then perhaps you will find some value in Thomas' lectures about all these human endeavors. As I was reading, I found myself yellow-highlighting all the sections that might well be called moral lessons. These lessons usually follow an interesting cautionary tale. As an example of this style of writing, sample this portion, which the author wrote as part of the original Preface to the privately printed and limited 1885 edition, keeping in mind that he is speaking straight from the heart. [If you are reading this aloud to someone, take a really big breath, because it is a mouthful!]

I cherish the hope that, should an old copy of the book happen to fall into the hands of some poor little boy among my descendants in the distant future, who, inheriting a share of my spirit and energy, may be desirous of bettering his condition, it may tend to encourage and sustain his commendable ambition. It may show him that industry and perseverance will overcome what without them would be insuperable; and that the more insurmountable the obstacles in his way, the greater will be his satisfaction in overcoming them. It may serve to impress on him the truth of that important rule of life which demands labor, conflict, perseverance and self-denial to produce a character and accomplish purposes worth striving for. And it may tend to assure him that such a course carries with it more real satisfaction and pleasure than a life of ease and self-indulgence.

Women, please note, Mr. Mellon wrote for -- and expected his autobiography to be read by -- little boys and ambitious young men (i.e., his male descendents). I will let you discover for yourselves what he believed was the best lot for daughters and other young women. Thomas Mellon was a man who saw things plainly and, to his own mind, maintained a correct attitude towards all he surveyed. [Actually, I'm reminded of Star Trek's Spock, whose cool and intellectual Vulcan perfectionism camoflaged a passionate human heart. Or was it really that Spock's cool, intellectual human idealism camoflaged a primative, passionate Vulcan heart?] Certainly, much of Mellon's personal belief system (on many subjects, not only women) would be considered politically incorrect by today's standards. However, this man's narrative delivers much enjoyment, and does that on many levels, with tales of the Mellon family's roots in Ireland, their decision to immigrate to America, their early hardship and dogged determination that eventually leads to impressive personal achievement -- the father as a successful farmer, and the son as a successful student, lawyer, judge and banker (and husband and father, for that matter). And then, Mellon lives long enough to see his own sons achieve their own measure of greatness, too.

I will end this report by highlighting the chapter entitled, Our Neighbors, wherein Thomas Mellon describes the families he knew as a youngster -- those who lived round about his father's Westmoreland county farm. These neighbors included three or four families of Scotch-Irish stock like ourselves, but with the exception of one old lady they had all been born in this country. All the rest were of German descent, known as Pennsylvania Dutch. These Dutch were our nearest neighbors, and by far the most numerous throughout that district. As a general rule they were good farmers in comfortable circumstances, but without the ambition or energy to better their condition which inspired my parents. The English element of the neighborhood, as it was known, when not spurred by necessity for the most part possessed as little push or ambition as the Dutch. No kinder, cleverer or more obliging neighbors than these Dutch people could be desired. Their old women rivaled each other in medical skill in the virtues of all manner of roots, herbs, barks and gums. Their garrets were laboratories well provided with bunches of these remedies; and every ailment which flesh is heir to found a simple cure and attentive doctress free of charge . . . . all our neighbors were kind hearted and obliging. If any one fell short of getting his farm work done in season, as putting in the seed or harvesting the crop at the proper time, they were always ready to collect together and help him out of the difficulty, even if the party was himself to blame . . . .

For the social virtues, and all the qualities which go to make up the good citizen and kind neighbor, the Dutch were all that could be desired. There were two points in their character, however, wherein they did not altogether come up to the Scotch-Irish standard of morality -- sexual intercourse and religious observances, and on account of this my parents did not approve of close social intimacy with them. Although not as a general rule immoral or licentious, the sentiments of many of them regarding sexual intercourse were rather loose, and organized religious worship could hardly be said to exist . . . .

The history of religion in the county, as between the Dutch and English at that time showed a marked difference. Indifference as to creeds and dogmas and formal exercises characterized the Dutch. This is shown by their long continued satisfation with their pastors, the weakness of age never being regarded as a disqualification for the pulpit, and in one instance the office remaining in the same family for two generations. Whilst with the English or Scotch-Irish element, a constant critical inspection into the ability and performances and sentiments and opinions of their pastors was always in progress, resulting in church disputes and frequent changes. In the Dutch mind there was more repose and contentment; in the English more earnestness and activity. As a consequence, it may be inferred the English possessed more general intelligence. The old and wise men among our Dutch neighbors possessed abiding confidence in the folk-lore of their ancestors. They would admit that the active practice of witchcraft had generally ceased, but most of them claimed having had, at one time or another, personal experience of its effects.

I heartily hope more people get a chance to enjoy the earnest ramblings of Thomas Mellon (1813-1908). If, while reading his words, you read between the lines, there is much to learn about the people of his generation and the mores of various social strata of his day and age. In between the lectures and admonishments, the trials (both personal trials and actual courtroom trials) and tribulations and tales of honor -- all intellectualizations aside, there is still poetry when he describes the tender moments that define his personal life. I am glad I got to buy my own copy of this book, and I plan to give it to my son to read when he is in high school for a great book report. For further information, you may wish to visit the following URLs.

Review of Thomas Mellon and His Times,

Barnes & Noble.com


The Henry Clay Frick Houses: Architecture, Interiors, Landscapes in the Golden Era,
by Martha Frick Symington Sanger, Wendell Garrett; The Monacelli Press, 2001.

When this book made its debut, I was totally out of the loop of information -- probably being kept busy with too many Thanksgiving and Christmas chores, plus a really bad cold that lasted through the New Year celebrations. Somehow, I completely missed the December 2001, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article (see URLs below). I found the article four months later, while making a routine search of the newspaper's website. I immediately went to Amazon.com (and then later to Barnes & Noble.com) for more information and editorial reviews. Considering the heafty price of the book, I made plans to borrow one (along with the two Kenneth Warren books) from our neighborhood branch of The Carnegie Library.

In November 2002, I happened upon two more articles (including some nice photos) about Martha Sanger's book during a search I often make of another handy web site, PittsburghLive.com, which features newspapers from the surrounding region -- and that was a year after the articles had been published. By then, however, I had perused the book, realized I felt totally detached every time I picked it up, and tried and failed several times to work up a review to publish on my GeoCities web site. While I had mostly liked Sanger's previous publication (mainly because I value the richness of the history), this book about the houses and landscapes left me cold. Other than the information on pages 3 through 16 (which is an interesting rendition of the Overholt/Frick saga), I could not identify with the subject matter. After a lot of soul-searching, I finally decided to pull data from the expert reviewers quoted by Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com.

One of the reviewers writing about this book called it "a paean to ostentatious capitalism," employed the words "opulent" and "elaborate luxury" to describe the Frick houses, and dubbed it "a gorgeous coffee-table book." Another writer described it as "a 300-page addendum" to the author's previous publication, Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait, but questioned the author's "peculiar critical methodology," which maintained that a vaguely defined "Golden Era" of the arts was the result of "deep-seated psychological processes," and ended by suggesting readers bypass the "pop psychology" and "superficial aesthetic analysis" to uncover "an interesting portrayal of one of America's wealthiest industrialists, his heirs, and their extravagant homes." It was interesting that he recommended the book to comprehensive architecture and design collections, rather than to our coffee tables. The book's publisher called it a "uniquely designed volume" that will appeal to "lovers of fine art, American history, interior design, and architecture."

Just a note about the fact that Martha Sanger and I are related -- Abraham Overholt is our common ancestor. I cannot help feeling proud that she has put together and published two enormous tomes to the life and times of Henry Clay Frick. I'm rather pleased that her efforts are professed to have sprung largely from her devotion to Helen Clay Frick, her grand aunt, the only surviving daughter of her great grandfather. After several years of surfing the World Wide Web for information about all things Overholt, I feel equally proud and pleased by the many books, articles, scientific papers, music and inventions that other members of the Extended Overholt Family have written, published, produced, composed and copyrighted over the years. The Overholts are easily seen as an impressively educated, creative and erudite group -- and that goes without mentioning our collective history as educators, pastors, ministers, doctors, scientists, et cetera. In other words, and in my opinion, as a family with many generations of American experience, we have been healthy contributors and valued members of our society.

It is interesting to note that there is another name listed as author of this book -- Wendell Garrett. He is identified as a senior vice president of American art at Sotheby's New York, and editor at large of The Magazine Antiques. He is the author of several books on American social and cultural history, we are told. However, a quick search for his other works brings up about 22 other volumes, many of them put together by several different contributors, some showing he served as the editor, and others showing his name alone. In the future, I may try to find a few of those books listed, especially American Colonial: Puritan Simplicity to Georgian Grace, and Classic America: The Federal Style & Beyond, and American Home: From Colonial Simplicity to the Modern Adventure. I am more likely to identify with these subjects.

This book is a big book -- literally. It is big and it is heavy -- literally. And expensive. It is a big and heavy (expensive) book that devotes a great deal of prose and photography to all the grand extravagances some wealthy people may very well consider to be part of just everyday living. None of this stuff has ever been part of my everyday living. Thus, I reveal myself as someone having no earthly experience (at least in this lifetime) of interacting with wealth, wealthy people or wealthy surroundings. Also, I must admit to having no patience with the lengthly histories of the designing or building or furnishing or renovating or gardening of 20th century palaces. No doubt I would feel differently, if I had my own palace to design, build, furnish, etc. But between us, I wouldn't want a palace. I would rather be doing all that work for West Overton. For more information about Martha Sanger's book, you may wish to read the following articles.

Book assesses Frick family houses, both inside and out,
by Patricia Lowry, Post Gazette Architecture Critic, Tuesday, December 18, 2001

The Henry Clay Frick Houses: They're more than buildings - they're homes,
by Bernadette Myers for The Daily Courier, Friday, November 16, 2001

Book celebrates the four lavish homes of Henry Clay Frick,
by Bob Karlovits, Tribune-Review, Friday, November 9, 2001

Breaker, by N. A. Perez,
University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA; 2002.

While surfing the website of the University of Pittsburgh Press, I noticed this book by N. A. Perez, which is for young readers and appears to be something my son might like to read. It is described as an historic adventure dealing with striking miners at the anthracite coal mines in the year 1902.

Anthracite is the "hard coal," which is the highest grade of coal and is nearly pure carbon. The coal mined in the Pittsburgh-Connellsville area is bituminous ("soft coal"), which has a lower carbon content and is the best coal for processing into coke.

Breaker is set in northeastern Pennsylvania. The author tells a story about 14-year-old Pat McFarlane, his rebellious brother, his ambitious sister, and "Mam, whose fierce pride holds the family together." I am assuming "Mam" is the mother, since the rest of the paragraph mentions that the mine -- which "rules their days" and "attempts to rob their pride" -- takes the life of the father. In those days, "breaker boys" were the youngsters who broke up the clumps of coal that came down coal chutes. It was hazardous labor for sons too young to work in the mines, but it augmented the meager wages being earned by their fathers.

Among the historical photos I have in my computer files is this one of breaker boys taken in 1911. It shows some very young-looking children, their clothes, faces and hands grimy with coal dust. I have read accounts of these children suffering terrible accidents, including dismemberment, as an everyday occurence on the job. It was the wretched condition of working children during the Industrial Revolution that spurred citizens to enact child labor laws and mandatory school attendance.

The University of Pittsburgh web page featuring the Perez book mentions that the author was born in Haileybury, Ontario, and is credited with writing several books for young readers. As for the book Breaker, Voice of Youth Advocates is quoted as saying, "Adventure and history meet in a fine tale of the strength of the human spirit in the face of backbreaking labor, mine owners' greed, and ethnic tension." School Library Journal calls the book a "well-crafted novel that allows young adults to experience a neglected aspect of our history." Kirkus Reviews reports it is a "strong, well-realized fictionalization of events surrounding the strike in the anthracite mines in Pennsylvania in 1902."

Additionally, I found an interesting customer review online at Amazon.com, that mentioned using Breaker as part of an Industrial Revolution curriculum unit, and added that while the topic is grim, the book managed not to be "over-done." The writer appreciated the description of the actual work and working conditions of breaker boys, as well as the solid plot and well-developed characters. Check the following URLs for more information about this book and many others published by The University of Pittsburgh Press.

The University of Pittsburgh Press

Review of Breaker, by N. A. Perez

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