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John Thorn
John Thorn
John Thorn, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, thinks and writes about other subjects, too. Sometimes he writes about football, sometimes about New York history, and sometimes about arts and letters, especially of the nineteenth century. He resides in Catskill, New York.
 

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Feb. 20, 2012 4:23 pm
Several years back, I received an email from Tom Rinaldi, one of the proprietors of the wonderful website http://www.hudsonvalleyruins.org/ , to which I direct you as soon as you have finished reading this. He had read and enjoyed some of my architectural essays, such as those on Downing, Davis, and Vaux. “I have a quick question and you seemed like just the person to ask,” Tom wrote. “Where...  Read More
Feb. 11, 2012 4:50 pm
The Rondout Courier of May 24, 1850 contains a modest and to modern eyes refreshingly low-key advertisement for a general store—no double-cents-off, no two-for-one promotion, no seasonal special, no can-can fest. “NEW ARRIVAL,” it reads, “E. SUYDAM would inform his friends and the public generally that he has just received a fresh supply of Groceries and a good amount of Crockery, to which he...  Read More
Feb. 7, 2012 2:36 pm
Almost sixty years ago my parents, looking to move from our apartment in the Bronx, brought me along for a realtor’s tour of an attractively priced row house in Maspeth, Queens. Everything seemed neat and agreeable until, walking into the kitchen at the back of the house, my mother gasped at the view out the rear window: a massive cemetery. She rushed my brother and me out of the house as my...  Read More
Feb. 4, 2012 4:11 pm
Consider the plight of the regional musician, the coterie painter, the provincial intellectual … the local newspaper columnist. All may descend upon the coffee shop as demigods yet know in their hearts that, having never truly tested themselves in deeper waters, they are no more than small-pond fish. Some, untroubled by aspiration, are content in their modest celebrity; others burn with the...  Read More
Jan. 20, 2012 11:14 am
There is a campaign underway to “restore Christmas” to the national retailers who, sensitive to our nation’s diverse religious and cultural traditions, have frequently substituted “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” for narrowly Christian felicitations in this month of the equinox. The American Family Association at one point led a boycott of Target for not using “Merry Christmas” in its...  Read More
Jan. 20, 2012 11:13 am
In the last post we established that Christmas is a Mister Potato Head reconstruction of older holidays, traditions, and even birthday celebrants. The Puritans banned it and the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists closed their churches on December 25 to signal their disapproval of this clandestine celebration of ancient Rome’s Saturnalia. Even the ubiquitous tree and church decorations at...  Read More
Jan. 20, 2012 11:07 am
On Friday, August 19, 1853, Hiram Williams, an itinerant peddler of German-Jewish origins, was on the first leg of his journey home, to 113 Walker Street in New York City. He had completed a successful tour of the villages of Ulster and Greene counties in which he had sold $100 worth of jewelry and lace. Arriving in Greenville too late to make the Austin Line stage coach to Coxsackie, he was...  Read More
Jan. 20, 2012 11:05 am
In my last post I suggested that Henry Sherman Backus, “The Saugerties Bard,” had become equal parts folklorist and folklore. He composed sad songs about murderers and their victims, pandering to the public’s taste for sensationalism with a winking touch of piety. As John Wesley is said to have grumbled before setting down his five directions for singing hymns, “It’s a pity that Satan should have...  Read More
Jan. 20, 2012 11:04 am
We have been singing his songs for more than 150 years— “Camptown Races,” “Oh! Susanna,” and “Old Folks at Home,” the one we called “Swanee”— with not much thought about who created them, for they seem to have sprung into life spontaneously, like folk songs. The appeal of the songs has been so broad and so enduring that their composer has faded into the folk tradition, where the facts of one’s...  Read More
Jan. 16, 2012 6:31 pm
Herman Melville, author of the Great American Novel if ever there was one, died forgotten in 1891, some 40 years after the critics had greeted publication of Moby-Dick with a scorn that Queequeg would have termed savage. By his own admission highly sensitive to criticism, Melville had endured little in that line with his first five books— Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn ...  Read More
Jan. 15, 2012 2:55 pm
In our last post we unmasked Washington Irving as a plagiarist, Rip Van Winkle as a Teutonic shepherd named Peter Klaus, and the Catskills as a hornets’ nest of folkloric sleeper cells from Scandinavia, Japan, Ireland, Greece, and Turkey. In this last mentioned locale, during the persecutions of the Roman emperor Decius ca. 250 CE, seven Ephesian Christians were given a chance to recant their...  Read More
Jan. 15, 2012 12:31 pm
For the past few weeks I have written in this space about painters of the Hudson River School — from predecessors Vanderlyn and Morse up through key landscapists Cole and Durand—as well as architects Davis, Downing, and Vaux. With this post we commence a discussion of the region's writers, songsters, and folkloric figures. Our starting point must be the patron saint of the Catskills, Rip Van...  Read More
Jan. 12, 2012 4:17 pm
“There was a lofty striving in Cole,” George Inness (1825-94) wrote. “There was in Durand a more intimate feeling of nature. ‘If,’ thought I, ‘these two can be combined, I will try.’” That Inness succeeded in imbuing landscape with sentiment was evident in the fine exhibition of his paintings at Cedar Grove, The Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Opening in the spring of 2005. As with any...  Read More
Jan. 11, 2012 12:34 pm
Jervis McEntee is by no means the greatest of Hudson River School painters but he is, to me, the most fascinating. Like John Vanderlyn, a Kingston-born prodigy who took formal instruction only in adulthood, McEntee stood in a direct line of descent with Thomas Cole, whose only pupil had been Frederic Church, and from Church, whose second pupil and lifelong friend McEntee became. When the term...  Read More
Jan. 7, 2012 6:25 pm
Thomas Cole, father of the Nativist approach to landscape painting called the Hudson River School, never heard that term spoken in his lifetime. It came to be applied to the early nature painters in derision by the ascendant Düsseldorf School painters of the 1870s. A nativist but not a native, Cole was born in Lancashire, England, on February 1, 1801. He arrived on these shores with his parents...  Read More
Jan. 5, 2012 4:50 pm
In April 2005 a headline in the New York Times caught my eye: “New York Public Library to Sell Major Artworks to Raise Funds.” The Library’s president, Paul LeClerc, said that it had little choice but to divest itself of art that might bring $50 to $75 million at auction, given the soaring cost of books, the city and state cutbacks, and the shrinkage of the library’s endowment in a seesaw stock...  Read More
Dec. 31, 2011 1:37 pm
For Part One, see: http://www.bestthinking.com/thinkers/john-thorn?tab=blog&blogpostid=16048 “Th' invention all admir'd, and each, how hee To be th' inventer miss'd, so easie it seemd Once found, which yet unfound most would have thought Impossible...” JOHN MILTON, Paradise Lost, Book 6 After the death of his wife in February 1825, Samuel Finley Breese Morse returned...  Read More
Dec. 31, 2011 12:34 pm
Neither pony expresses, flying Childers * , carrier-doves, nor swiftest iron horse are longer valued for speed in bearing news. A still swifter steed has been captured from its elemental freedom, bitted, bridled, and reined up, as our message-bearer. As long as his wiry track vibrates to his silent tread, will the fame of Morse be proclaimed with the lightning’s tongue. [ Gleason’s Pictorial...  Read More
Dec. 31, 2011 9:48 am
Someone told me, ten years ago, that after decades of neglect the old Kingston Hotel at 20 Crown Street—in my then hometown of Kingston, New York—had finally been torn down. I knew its story, how in an upstairs room on Thursday evening, September 23, 1852, John Vanderlyn, the man who had once been the most famous painter in America, had died alone without a penny in his pocket. I rushed over to...  Read More
Dec. 16, 2011 5:57 pm
On Wednesday July 28, 1852, the red-hot boilers of the steamer Henry Clay exploded just short of Yonkers, flinging passengers and crew into the Hudson. Two days later the New York Times continued its coverage of the catastrophe, which to that point had yielded forty-seven bodies: The workmen who are engaged in grappling for the dead assert their belief, that there are yet many more bodies...  Read More
Dec. 11, 2011 6:07 pm
I collect buildings, the way some people collect baseball cards or lovers: the more seemingly unattainable the object of my desire, the more ardent is my longing. While buildings that escape the wrecker’s ball have tangible charms, those that have been lost, or survive in ruin and whose loss is imminent, are to me most romantic, most alluring. Reconstruction, however responsible (think...  Read More
Dec. 1, 2011 1:05 pm
“So long as men are forced to dwell in log huts and follow the hunter’s life,” wrote Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-52), “we must not be surprised at lynch law and the use of the bowie knife. But, when smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country, we know that order and culture are established.” But Downing was not merely an apostle of taste, an Emily Post arbiter for the...  Read More
 
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