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Thursday, January 30, 2014

“African Lives” on!

I’m delighted to report that my anthology African Lives has been reviewed at by Todd Steven Burroughs, who also blogs about popular culture at

Burroughs writes,

The anthology is heavy with writers recalling their empowerment through writing. “I had always told stories,” declared Laila Lalami, a Moroccan journalist and novelist, “but now I wanted to be heard.” Wisner ensures that the continent’s multi-hyphenated rainbow of nonfiction writing, old and new, at all edges of the continental compass, gets that chance.

Posted by geoff on 01/30 at 03:45 PM
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A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Saturday, January 04, 2014

Strong’s New Year

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with the four-volume diary of George Templeton Strong (1820-1875), and tweeting selections at @StrongsCivilWar and @StrongsNewYork.

So how did Strong, the quintessential New Yorker, spend the early days of each year? Let’s see.

Went up to college to see the Sophomores inhale nitrous oxide.... I should have liked dearly to have tried to myself, but I didn’t care to make a fool of myself before half the Freshmen and all the Sophomores. 1.3.1838

Started for our yearly campaign at eleven and paid some forty visits, including card visits. It was savagely cold, and the only consolation we got in our progress was from Mrs. [Alexander] Hamilton, who said it was a mere trifle, nothing at all to the winter of 1780. 1.1.1840

Went out as usual with the paternal and made our usual tour.... Old Mrs. Hamilton was in uncommonly high feather. 1.1.1842

Cold, overcast, and occasionally snowing, to which comforts may be added that the streets are as slippery for pedestrians, and as hubby and dirty and perilous to those who prefer sleighs, as they well can be. Heard of six tumbles among the former class, and saw one grand jettison befall a party of the latter. It was very fine—cloaks and buffalo robes and three or four well-dressed bipeds all rolled out of the sleigh in a confused conglomeration, their hats rolled into the gutter, and horse and sleigh vanished up the street. 1.2.1843

Read Prescott’s Mexico this afternoon. Very clever book it is, and it can’t help being among the most interesting of histories. There’s a little striving after fine writing now and then visible that’s rather a nuisance, but on the whole I like the book much. 1.1.1844

Started with my father and got pleasantly through with our legitimate list of calls ... Paid a glacial sort of visit to Mrs. George Griswold. 1.1.1846

Turned out with Charley in a carriage and made about eighty calls ... To quote Mr. Hood, “it used to be the females first, but now it’s furniter,” and I busied myself much more with the rosewood and the red satin and with the estimated price of the carpets and the mirrors and the gas fixtures and the Dresden china than with the fascinations of any of the angelic beings with whom I exchanged views on the weather. 1.2.1849

The Stevenses of Bleecker Street were lively and cordial, but there’s a painful sense of arduous exertion that I feel whenever I meet them. They are always in a state of effort, like the statue of an athlete with every muscle in its anatomy straining and turgid, gasping to maintain or to establish the exalted social and intellectual position of the family and all its members… 1.3.1852

I hereby wish myself a happy New Year. The First of January was rainy and filthy; walked a little way and made a dozen calls or less round the square, and as far as Mr. Ruggles’s. 1.4.1853

New Year’s Day inaugurated 1857 pleasantly and with diligent work. I achieved forty or fifty visits ... Principal novelties, a nice Miss Palfrey of Boston and a very rough-hewn and truculent General Leslie Coombs of Kentucky with a many-colored poncho of Mexican wool. 1.5.1857

At John Sherwood’s I had a pleasant talk with his handsome and buxom sister-in-law, Miss Charlotte Wilson, and at Mrs. William B. Astor’s with her very intelligent granddaughter ... Of course, a very large percentage of this aggregate of radiance and hospitality is social sham. But there is still left a certain very valuable residuum or balance of sincere good feeling which is brought by this much reviled institution of New Year’s Day. 1.3.1859

Reports from Washington indicate that our wretched old Chief Magistrate [President Buchanan] begins to exhibit symptoms of a backbone at last. 1.2.1861

It was a pleasant day, but in these times one cannot get rid of the presence of national peril. 1.2.1862

The President has signed the bill admitting “West Virginia” as a state. And be it remembered, with gratitude to the Author of all Good, that on January 1st the Emancipation Proclamation was duly issued. 1.3.1863

By these presents, I wish a Happy New Year to all mankind except Jefferson Davis and his group. To them, I wish virtue enough to withstand urgent daily temptations to hang themselves. 1.1.1864

Mrs. Lucretia Heckscher (née Stevens) has been living out of town ... I established an intimacy with two boys of hers, the elder of whom confided to me, in a fearful whisper, his doubt whether there was any Santa Claus at all. 1.2.1865

The New Year opened with cold rain that froze and covered all out of doors with a slippery veneering of ice.... I won’t walk in overshoes into a lady’s drawing room (though I saw some swells who thought it right to do so), and taking off one’s overshoes in entries is a piece of work; and then I nearly broke my neck in ascending and descending door steps on more than one occasion. 1.2.1869

The great Fisk died this morning. No loss to the community—quite the reverse—but it’s a pity he should have escaped the state prison in this way. 1.7.1872

Nothing very new, except that the Spanish Republic is dead, and Alfonso XII sits on the uneasy throne of Spain—poor young gentleman. 1.2.1875

Posted by geoff on 01/04 at 09:34 AM
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Saturday, December 07, 2013

Mandela’s memoir

Among the memoirs I wish I could have excerpted in African Lives is Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. (The publisher’s permission fee was beyond my means.)

Fortunately, the book is easy to find, and will be read for many years to come. Here’s a section from the chapter I planned to reprint. In it, Mandela describes the first days of what became twenty-seven years of imprisonment, most of it on Robben Island.

At midnight, I was awake and staring at the ceiling — images from the trial were still rattling around in my head — when I heard steps coming down the hallway. I was locked in my own cell, away from the others. There was a knock at my door and I could see Colonel Aucamp’s face at the bars. “Mandela,” he said in a husky whisper, “are you awake?”

I told him I was. “You are a lucky man,” he said. “We are taking you to a place where you will have your freedom. You will be able to move around; you’ll see the ocean and the sky, not just gray walls.”

He intended no sarcasm, but I well knew that the place he was referring to would not afford me the freedom I longed for. He then remarked rather cryptically, “As long as you don’t make trouble, you’ll get everything you want.”

Aucamp then woke the others, all of whom were in a single cell, ordering them to pack their things. Fifteen minutes later we were making our way through the iron labyrinth of Pretoria Local, with its endless series of clanging metal doors echoing in our ears.

Once outside, the seven of us — Walter, Raymond, Govan, Kathy, Andrew, Elias, and myself — were handcuffed and piled into the back of a police van. It was well after midnight, but none of us was tired, and the atmosphere was not at all somber. We sat on the dusty floor, singing and chanting, reliving the final moments of the trial. The warders provided us with sandwiches and cold drinks and Lieutenant Van Wyck was perched in the with us. He was a pleasant fellow, and during a lull in the singing, he offered his unsolicited opinion on our future. “Well,” he said, “you chaps won’t be in prison long. The demand for your release is too strong. In a year or two, you will get out and you will return as national heroes. Crowds will cheer you, everyone will want to be your friend, women will want you. Ag, you fellows have it made.” We listened without comment, but I confess his speech cheered me considerably. Unfortunately, his prediction turned out to be off by nearly three decades.

Posted by geoff on 12/07 at 04:38 PM
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A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Saturday, September 28, 2013

Brooklyn Public Library, 9:55 am

Kind of heartwarming to see the crowd waiting for the library to open on a Saturday morning.

Posted by geoff on 09/28 at 10:35 AM
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A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Saturday, September 21, 2013

That galvanized pumpkin

George Templeton Strong first mentioned William Ellsworth Dunscomb in his diary on October 5, 1860, noting that they would both be serving on a Trinity Church welcoming committee for the Prince of Wales. On October 13, he had already decided that the man was none too bright. “Hyslop and Dunscomb,” he pronounced, “are timid and imbecile.”

As the years passed, Dunscombe was subjected to more abuse of his intelligence than any other character in Strong’s diary.

“Dunscomb and Hyslop received the visitors. I think Dunscomb had prepared a speech. He bowed and hummed and choked, more solito, and Lord Lyons observed sotto voce, ‘I suppose we may as well move on.’” 10.14.1860

“Walked uptown with Gouverneur Ogden and that wooden-headed Dunscomb....I sacrificed sixpence and read the news to Ogden and that galvanized pumpkin Mr. Dunscomb by the light of a corner gas lamp.” 4.12.1861

“Dunscomb, that chief of noodles, objects [to helping the Ladies’ Association of the parish] because relieving the wounded is ‘humanity’ and the Church holds its property in trust for Christianity! Also because ‘Secessionists’ may set the church and chapels on fire in revenge. In fact, since the flag was hoisted on Trinity steeple, he has ordered Meurer the sexton to admit no more visitors there, lest they should surreptitiously set said steeple (which is built of red sandstone) on fire. I think Dunscomb is the most perfect specimen of an absolute dolt I ever knew.” 5.9.1861

“The question about the new organ for Trinity Church was discussed and laid over. Dunscomb and Tillou brayed adversely. They are two most irritating and obstructive nuisancers and waste much time at every vestry meeting. Their respective types of mischievous imbecility are beautifully contrasted; quite an elaborate and instructive essay could be written about them, a parallel, after the manner of Plutarch....Dunscomb cannot see that two and two are four, and confesses his inability with a frankness that would be touching but for its prolixity of expression.” 1.11.1864

“Old Dunscomb ventilated his old speech about corporate debt and corporate expenses, to which I have listened two hundred and fifty times during the last sixteen years, and we were unable to agree on any recommendation to the vestry.” 1.28.1864

“We sat till near eleven, and did much business. We should have done more but for Dunscomb’s weary, viscid, irrelevant prosings.... Dunscomb ventilated sundry profound legal doubts about ‘incorporeal rights.’ He suffered severe pain and oppression in doing anything about ‘incorporeal rights,’ and tried to express the precise seat and nature of his malaise at great length, but without success.” 2.4.1864

“General Dix, Nash, and I spoke in favor of receiving it [money voted by legislature to churches maintaining free schools]; Ogden contra, and Dunscomb made a muddled speed on the same side.” 6.13.1870

Strong’s first generous comment about his colleague Dunscomb did not come until after the senior vestryman had died.

“Died, at two-thirty in the afternoon on Sunday, Dunscomb, aged eighty-six. He was taken ill on Friday and retained consciousness, though without speech, till Sunday morning. He had belonged to Trinity Church vestry as vestryman, warden, clerk, and comptroller for forty-four years but had been unable to attend a meeting since December, 1872. He was, I think, the most impenetrably dense, wooden, and stolid old gentleman I ever knew, but he was painstaking and thoroughly honest and served Trinity Church faithfully and did his duty doggedly, according to the very best of his perception and judgment. More can be said of no man. I wish one-tenth as much could be said of me.” 2.17.1874

Strong was one of eight pallbearers who carried Dunscomb’s silver-handled coffin, which was covered with a black cloth. Reverend Dix read from the 15th chapter of Corinthians. The following year, Strong himself died at the age of 55.

Posted by geoff on 09/21 at 11:49 AM
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