A New Rainbow of Red, White and Blue

GWAndrea here, tomorrow is America’s birthday, and like all birthdays, it’s a time for festive celebration—red, white and blue cakes, fireworks, parades and general merriment as the milestone serves as a traditional high point in summer across the country. But as we gear up for a day of fun and backyard grilling, I also have a few more serious thoughts about the occasion.

Despite our flaws and foibles—and as a collection of “we, the people,” the country has many—there is much to Flag cakecelebrate. Our forefathers founded this brash experiment with some very radical ideas about equality and the notion of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And throughout our history, those ideals have served as a guiding light, even when at times, the beacon has seemed dimmed by dark clouds.

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Why American History Matters


Pat here: I promised in my last blog to continue my nattering about American history because it’s relevant and it’s interesting (which is why I wrote those six ROGUES AND DESPERADOES books early in my career!).

I don’t want to make any political points, but I’ve heard the arguments about whether the writers of the US Constitution were God-fearing Christians or Deists, which is to say they didn’t adhere to a particular religion. Both categories are an over-simplification. The 18th century is not the 21st. There are huge cultural differences. One must know American history to understand the background of our founding fathers.

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Who Reads American History?

Rice_LordRogue_200x300Pat here!

Since Mary Jo is writing about the War of 1812, and my early Americans are being re-released this month, I thought it might be fun to take a little jog back to our elementary school history classes.

Before you turn up your noses, consider this: The American Revolution took place during the Georgian era we so fondly write about in our historical romances, and the War of 1812 was smack dab in the midst of our favorite Regency era. The Americans participating in these confrontations were on the whole, Europeans and mostly English, or descendants thereof. We are essentially talking about the same characters we’re reading about in English Regencies, except they’re on a different continent. My westerns go further and deeper than those early years, delving into the Victorian era—at that point, the cultural dividing line between the US and England is a little more marked, but quite often, the attitudes are the same.

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The Story of a Fork

Wench fork circa 1600 mother of pearl and beads VandAIf you figger folks in ye olden days had it tougher than we do now, you don’t have to look further than the matter of forks. Oversimplifying like mad, one may say that Europe went from a state of no forks whatsoever, to the slightly more satisfying condition of two-pronged forks, to the multiply pronged jobbies we enjoy today.

Let us go back to the very beginning of fine dining in Europe. Here’s a Medieval feast. White cloth, pretty

Wench bosch wedding at cana crop

click for closeup

dishes, probably wonderful food  and wine or mead or whatever. But the guests were expected to manage the food with their knives and spoons, which they brought with them, and their fingers which they also brought with them and washed from time to time with fingerbowls and clean linen.

See how that table has knives set about here and there. There’s no soup or stew in evidence so folks

Wench 1656 maes crop

I don't know why the knife is pointed at her

haven’t taken their spoons out.


Here's another picture. Her dinner is soup and fish and maybe a veggie. She has a spoon, I think, in her bowl and a knife, but she has no fork. It's 1656. 

We are pre-fork.

Of course, there had been forks in the kitchen forever, poking roasts and holding meat down to be carved and fetching beets out of boiling water. Now the fork emerged into the culinary daylight and took a place at the table. It served two purposes there. It secured food so your knife could cut it. And the fork could be used to convey food to the mouth, a job that had heretofore been performed by the sharp point of a knife or the bowl of a spoon. Or, you know, fingers.

I have no doubt folks were nimble at this eating food off a razor-sharp knife tip. However, I’m glad I didn't have to teach a three-year-old the knack. Knives doubtless made food-fights in the nursery an altogether more deadly affair.

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A Spark of Genius

“I cannot live without books.”

LC ArchCara/Andrea
here, musing today about Thomas Jefferson, a fascinating “Renaissance Man” of the Regency era, whose love of books left America with one of its great treasures—The Library of Congress. (Honestly, how can you not feel kindred spirits with a man who uttered the above words! Definitely a man after my own heart.)

TJeffPolitical philosopher—he was the main author of our Declaration of Independence—Enlightenment intellectual, a leading Founding Father and third President of the United States, as well as an architect, inventor, and founder of the University of Virginia, Jefferson was a man of extraordinary talents and achievements, one of which was being one of the guiding forces behind the establishment of a national library, and the ideals it stands for. The Library of Congress website says it succinctly: “The Jeffersonian concept of universality is the rationale for the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress. Jefferson's belief in the power of knowledge and the direct link between knowledge and democracy shaped the Library's philosophy of sharing its collections and services as widely as possible.”
LC 2The Library of Congress, which is the oldest federal cultural institution in the country, was officially established in 1800 by President John Adams, who approved a bill authorizing a budget of $5,000 to purchase "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." An order was sent across the pond to London for 740 books and three maps, which were first housed n the U.S. Capitol. After Jefferson took office as the third President of the United States in 1801, he took an active involvement in the development of the Library, personally recommending books for the collection. His intellectual curiosity and belief that a library should have a wide range of subjects, languages, and ideas in order to provoke thought and challenge one’s own preconceptions shaped the Library’s early mission and continues to do so today. As the website says, “The Jeffersonian concept of universality is the rationale for the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress. Jefferson's belief in the power of knowledge and the direct link between knowledge and democracy shaped the Library's philosophy of sharing its collections and services as widely as possible.” (Huzzah for Mr. Jefferson!)

LC 1

T Jefferson His influence didn’t end when he left office. In fact, perhaps his greatest gift to the Library came in 1815, in the aftermath of the 1814 British invasion of Washington DC, during which their troops burned the Capitol building and all of the 3,000 books of the Library of Congress. (We forgive you, Jo and Nicola!) On hearing of the loss, Jefferson offered his own personal library to the Congress for whatever price they wished to set. The offer was accepted, and the Library of Congress more than doubled its original holding in one transaction, not to speak of acquiring one of the finest collections of books in America.

TJ BooksAn avid bibliophile from an early age, Jefferson had spent over 50 putting together his private library. The range of its holdings was impressive, and included works of philosophy, science, literature, architecture—even cookbooks!—as well as many in foreign languages. In the end, Congress paid him $23,950. for 6487 books. (The price was based on the measurements of the actual book sizes!)
Jefferson set to work cataloguing and packing the collection for the journey from Monticello to Washington DC. While many book collections of the time were arranged alphabetically, he chose to order them by subject. (I love the Headings, which include The Hierarchy of Memory for History, and Imagination for Fine Arts.)

TJ Books 2Alas, another fire in 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of the Library of Congress’s books, including a number of Jefferson’s original volumes. Today, however, the Library is slowly replacing the lost ones with editions from the same era. The Jefferson Library is on permanent display in a special space, and green ribbons sticking up from the spine mark originals, while white ribbons mark the replacements. As for its size, today the Library of Congress and the British Library are the two biggest libraries in the world.

For those who haven’t visited the main Jefferson Building in Washington DC, it’s a fabulous experience that shouldn’t be missed. The building itself is breathtakingly beautiful (as befits Jefferson’s architectural skills) featuring majestic classical columns, stained glass skylights and magnificent murals celebrating art, authors and books. The changing exhibits showcase material from the extensive holdings (up now is a fascinating exhibit on the Civil War.)

Columns 2

LC 3To give a feeling of the breath and scope of the Library’s treasures, I’ll let its own description speak for itself: “The diversity of the Library of Congress is startling. Simultaneously it serves as: a legislative library and the major research arm of the U.S. Congress; the copyright agency of the United States; a center for scholarship that collects research materials in many media and in most subjects from throughout the world in more that 450 languages; a public institution that is open to everyone over high school age and serves readers in twenty-two reading rooms; a government library that is heavily used by the executive
branch and the judiciary; a national library for the blind and physically handicapped; an outstanding law library; one of the world's largest providers of bibliographic data and products; a center for the commissioning and performance of chamber music; the home of the nation's poet laureate; the sponsor of exhibitions and of musical, literary, and cultural programs that reach across the nation and the world; a research center for the preservation and conservation of library materials; and the world's largest repository of maps, atlases, printed and recorded music, motion pictures and television programs.” I hope that you, like me, are now smiling.

Reading room
The original fire got me to thinking about building a library from scratch. So, let’s have some fun! What books would you pick as essential for its collection? A few that immediately come to my mind are the complete works of Shakespeare, Pride and Prejudice, The Old and New Testament and Newton’s Principia. What about you? What “greats” would you include? Please share!