Bookshelf provides descriptions and notices of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects.

Pivotal Pennsylvania: Presidential Politics from FDR to the Twenty-First Century

by G. Terry Madonna
published by the Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2008; 126 pages, paper, $14.95

Pivotal Pennsylvania: Presidential Politics from FDR to the Twenty-First Century by G. Terry Madonna, one of Pennsylvania’s foremost political analysts, opens with an explanation of how the Democratic Party emerged in the throes of the Great Depression and how, following the 1932 election, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt inaugurated his New Deal. The New Deal, according to the author, produced the most profound change in the nation’s politics since the 1896 election of Republican William McKinley, who defeated Democratic challenger William Jennings Bryan. McKinley’s election is considered one of the most dramatic in American political history. Considered a “realigning election,” McKinley forged a coalition of businessmen, professionals, skilled factory workers, and prosperous farmers. The popularity of FDR and his ambitious economic recovery measures prompted another realignment of millions of voters, this time to the Democratic Party. The new Democrats included African Americans, especially in the urban areas of the North, who had been Republicans since Reconstruction. The Great Depression and the New Deal profoundly affected politics in Pennsylvania.

The author explores in great depth the presidential elections from 1932 to 2004, a period during which eight Republican candidates and eleven Democratic contenders won the votes of Pennsylvanians. He organizes the book by decades, each of which is given a chapter — ”The Republicans Revitalize: the 1940s,” “The Competitive State: the 1960s,” and “The Democrats Take Control: the 1990s” — in which he probes the ways in which the Keystone State’s political leaders and its voters affected the elections. He follows the campaign trails in Pennsylvania from primaries through conventions to elections. He analyzes results by parties, by rural and urban areas, and by voter turnout.

Pivotal Pennsylvania is much more than an insightful interpretation of election results and the factors that played a significant role. It’s also the story about the individuals who helped shape political history in Pennsylvania throughout much of the twentieth and the opening years of the twenty- first centuries. The book sheds light on key “behind-the-scenes” negotiations among politicians and the associations they formed to send their candidate to the White House.

“Pennsylvania has shown a tendency to pick winners,” Madonna contends, citing that Pennsylvanians cast votes nine out of twelve times for winning presidential candidates following the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. The Commonwealth’s voters supported losing candidates only with Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968, Al Gore in 2000, and John Kerry in 2004.

Publication of Pivital Pennsylvania was supported by a grant from PHMC.


Helen Clay Frick, Bittersweet Heiress

by Martha Frick Symington Sanger
published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008; 392 pages, cloth, $40.00

Who better to tell the story of Pittsburgh native Helen Clay Frick (1888–1984) — at one time the country’s wealthiest single woman who had inherited thirty-eight million dollars at the age of thirty-one in 1938 — than a great-niece? In Helen Clay Frick, Bittersweet Heiress, Martha Frick Symington Sanger examines the life of the only surviving daughter of Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919), famous as an industrialist and infamous as a strikebreaker, whose luminous legacy during her long lifetime included incalculable contributions to social welfare, the environment, women’s issues, historic preservation, and the visual arts.

Overshadowed by her domineering father, who spent nearly the last three decades of his life grieving for Martha, a daughter who died in 1891, Helen Clay Frick bore both the burden of his inconsolable sadness and extraordinary wealth. She, too, assumed the role of being his closest confidant. “Helen became the epitome of a father’s daughter,” Sanger writes, “she so worshipped her father that her self-confidence, sense of self, and competence in the world came solely from his approval. Yet her father never saw Helen as the person she was, only as what he needed her to be, his reflector.”

Born at a time of few occupations or expectations for women, the author’s subject proved to be an individual quite different from the eccentric, vulnerable, and unpredictable “Grauntie” she thought she knew. Sanger conducted extensive interviews and studied archival materials at fifty-six repositories held by art museums, presidential libraries, archives, universities, and private collections to determine the cultural and familial forces that shaped her great-aunt. Combining this information with her own insights and observations, unique to a family intimate, she “came to see Helen Frick as one of America’s heroines, a hidden woman of our century. Feisty, with a sureness of purpose, and the guts to make her own rules, she struggled valiantly — and painfully — to achieve a philanthropy that will endure and be prized forever.” Sanger describes her as an intelligent, industrious, and indefatigable participant in the life of twentieth-century women, “a vividly independent figure in her insistent and successful fight to secure a place for herself, to have her voice heard, in the corporate, professional, museum, and business worlds of money and power.” But this biography is no hagiography.

Helen Clay Frick, Bittersweet Heiress, presents an honest appraisal of a woman who, at the age of eight, began helping her father build the world-class collections of New York’s Frick Collection. It’s also a candid assessment of an individual who barred German scholars from the Frick Collection, feuded with fellow trustees, and harshly berated subordinates. She sued Sylvester K. Stevens (1904–1974), PHMC executive director from 1956 to 1972 and author of Pennsylvania: Birthplace of a Nation (1964), because he described Henry Clay Frick as “autocratic” and charged him with “low pay” the “longest hours,” and “no modern safety appliances.”

Despite her personal foibles and, at times, erratic behavior, Helen Clay Frick was a visionary who embraced a good cause with unbridled enthusiasm and unchecked generosity. Many institutions benefited from her largesse, including the University of Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh’s Frick Art and Historical Center (which includes her historic home, Clayton, now open to the public as a house-museum), and the Frick Art Reference Library in Manhattan.


Tragedy at Avondale: The Causes, Consequences, and Legacy of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Coal Industry’s Most Deadly Mining Disaster, September 6, 1869

by Robert P. Wolensky and Joseph M. Keating
published by the Canal History and Technology Press, 2008; 191 pages, paper, $19.95

Although the history of northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite industry is heavily riddled with legend and lore, especially concerning disasters such as mine fires and cave-ins, the catastrophe at the Avondale Colliery in Plymouth Township, Luzerne County, in 1869 needs no superlatives or hyperbole. On Monday, September 6, at 10:30 a.m., an intense fire erupted in the colliery’s wood-lined Steuben Shaft, reaching 237 feet below the earth’s surface, and read to a new breaker located directly overhead and then to adjacent buildings. The blaze even threatened to destroy miners’ modest houses in the patch town surrounding the operation, but they were spared by a shift in the direction of the wind. As word of the tragedy spread throughout the region, a throng of spectators — many of them families of miners trapped in the underground inferno — gathered at the site. Fire companies from nearby Kingston, Wilkes-Barre, and Scranton battled the fierce flames until the fire died out at 5:00 p.m.

Tragedy at Avondale: The Causes, Consequences, and Legacy of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Coal Industry’s Most Deadly Mining Disaster, September 6, 1869, explores in exhaustive detail the recovery attempts made by volunteers during the first critical days, but it goes far beyond describing the immediate aftermath of the grisly catastrophe that ultimately claimed 110 lives. Authors Robert P. Wolensky and Joseph M. Keating devote ample study to its cause, exploring a question that’s been heatedly discussed, without resolution, for nearly 140 years: Was the disaster at Avondale an accident or an act of arson?

The authors offer perspective on three contextual factors they consider “essential to any incendiary analysis of the Avondale disaster”: labor-management conflicts, regional disputes, and ethnic acrimonies pitting the Welsh against the Irish in the anthracite region. To do so, they examined the various narratives resulting from the incident and how they affected workers, company owners, and ethnic groups in the area. Of Avondale’s legacies, they cite the reforms promulgated by Pennsylvania’s Mine Safety Law of 1870 and challenges to it. The final chapter, “Remembering, Memorializing, and Reinterpreting the Avondale Disaster” is a fascinating account of how public recognition waned over the years, until the mid-1990s. Wolensky and Keating contend “the disaster grew significantly in meaning and importance” prompted by its 125th anniversary, in 1994, which included the installation of a state historical marker near the site by PHMC.


These Just In . . .

A number of new and recent books about Pennsylvania history have been received by Pennsylvania Heritage’s editorial staff, which has not yet had the opportunity to review them, but wishes to share news of their availability with readers.

Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate, by Arlen Specter, with Frank J. Scaturro, published by Thomas Dunne Books, 2008; 270 pages, cloth, $24.95.

Jim Thorpe Never Slept Here and Other Stories from a Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, Boyhood, by Richard Benyo, published by the University of Scranton Press, 2008; 203 pages, paper, $20.00.

Pennsylvania’s Forbes Trail: Gateways and Getaways Along the Legendary Route from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, edited by Laura S. Fisher, published by Taylor Trade Publishing, 2008; 204 pages, paper, $18.95.