BOOK REVIEW: Here is Where

Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History
Andrew Carroll
Crown Archetype
2013

It’s a fairly non-descript row house on Brooklyn’s Ryerson St. It only stands out because it’s a three-story building surrounded by two-story homes. But underneath the bland siding is a house that goes back to the 1850s. And in 1855, it’s where Walt Whitman lived while he was between newspaper jobs, and where he wrote and self-published Leaves of Grass [1].

There’s no plaque on the door; presumably the current residents – if they even know about their former tenant – don’t want to be besieged by Whitman groupies or harassed by historical tours. But in a city where all the other Whitman-related buildings and locations have been torn down or built over or otherwise lost over the many decades, shouldn’t it at least be worthy of a sign on the sidewalk?

Carroll doesn’t include this building in his book, but he does mention many other locations of significant historical relevance that have been neglected with the passage of time. It’s a fun book, with a lot to offer the history buff. Many of the locations have much to offer beyond the trivial, such as the courthouse in Saluda, VA, where Irene Morgan was convicted and jailed for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. That case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where, in Morgan v. Virginia, they ruled in her favor – ten years before Rosa Parks’ refused to give up her seat [2].

For some locations, a plaque wouldn’t do much to inform the general public. The “Niihau Incident” happened on what is still private property [3]. The Mississippi Department of Corrections restricts access to the site of the Rankin Prison Farm, where Dr. Jospeh Goldberger proved that pellagra is a deficiency disease [4]. And people aren’t likely to schlep to the tiny town in Alaska where the last victims of the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic are buried [5].

Carroll organizes the book thematically: inventions, medicine, crime, etc. It’s an easy read, with a lot of personal accounts of his travel to the locations and involvement with local historians. If there’s any flaw, and it’s probably a serious one, it’s that there are no photographs. Come on, you mentioned taking pictures of the places, can you not share them with us? One thing that does come across is the love for history that all the local historians and archivists he meets have.

The publication of the book launched a project by Carroll (and others) to get proper plaques and signs marking these places. I’m not sure how many he’s managed to accomplish; the website for the book and project seems to be inactive. But if it inspires you to pay a little more attention to local history and points of interest, then I’d say he’s done his job.

 

Notes:

  1. http://www.brownstoner.com/architecture/building-of-the-day-99-ryerson-street/
  2. http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Morgan_v_Virginia
  3. http://www.damninteresting.com/incident-on-niihau-island/
  4. http://history.nih.gov/exhibits/Goldberger/docs/pellegra_5.htm
  5. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/pandemics/2012/12/spanish_flu_mystery_why_don_t_scientists_understand_the_1918_flu_even_after.html
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