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

African Americans in Pennsylvania­ – Above Ground and Under­ground: An Illustrated Guide

By Charles L. Blockson
RB Books, 2001 (320 pages, cloth, $29.95)

For thirty years, Charles L. Blockson, noted bibliophile and author, traveled throughout Pennsylvania’s sixty-seven counties “with an unquenchable desire to research and record the neglected history of the African-Americans of our state.” During his research, the author uncovered two significant facts: first, there was a great diversity in the people and the roles they played in history; and second, the exploitation of African Americans by the dominant society was so sustained that a major theme of African American life has been the struggle for equality and freedom of expression. The lives of African Americans in Pennsylvania, he contends, took on a dual character. Forced exclusion from the mainstream brought about the creation of separate institutions and ways of life, but African American citizens never halted in their efforts to change the dominant white society. Pennsylvania’s African presence can be traced to the late 1630s, when enslaved Africans served the Swedes, Dutch, Finns, and English. Extant records indicate that the great majority of enslaved and free Africans during the period of slavery lived in the Commonwealth’s southeastern region, in Bucks, Chester, Mont­gomery, Lancaster, and York Counties. Although a number of prominent early Pennsylvania merchants and political figures were slaveholders, abolitionist sentiment can be traced to the very beginnings of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” One of the strong elements of African Americans in Pennsylvania – Above Ground and Underground: An Illustrated Guide is the story of many state historical markers erected by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission that relate to the African American experience in the Keystone State. Another main theme of this book is the Underground Railroad, a subject that has excited curiosity and conjecture during the past century and a half. With its southern border separating the North from the South, Pennsylvania became an important refuge for runaway slaves from the southern states (see “Two Stationmasters on the Underground Railroad: A Tale of Black and White” by William C. Kashatus, Fall 2001). Many buildings and structures associated with the Underground Railroad have since been lost to development or deterioration. In fact, a number of important “stations” along the route were doomed by the secrecy that surrounded their existence during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This liberally illustrated guidebook “can help further interest in and appreciation for the rich multifaceted contributions of African-Americans in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” the author writes in his introduction. “Ultimately, this is the story of people who risked everything, including their lives, for the chance to live free.” African Americans in Pennsylvania guides the reader on a journey through time, among the familiar and unfamiliar, and between fact and fantasy. The tour begins with the first protest against slavery in 1688 in Philadelphia and includes stops at the sites of the 1856 Abolition Hall in Plymouth Meeting, Montgomery County; the State Convention of Colored Citizens in 1848 at Harrisburg, Dauphin County; John Brown’s Headquarters in Chambersburg, Franklin County; and the residence of Francis L. LeMoyne in Washington, Washington County, leader of a radical anti-slavery movement in the region. The book presents a number of individuals, both black and white, who shared a connection with the Commonwealth’s African American history: Under­ground Railroad “agent” Martin R. Delaney, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County; Nicholas Biddle, Pottsville, Schuylkill County, reputedly the first black Union soldier to spill blood for his flag at the opening of the Civil War; renowned black actress and motion picture star Ethel Waters, a native of Chester, Delaware County; and celebrated jazz pianist, arranger, and composer Mary Lou Williams, who spent her formative years in Pittsburgh. African Americans in Pennsylvania, which is divided into regions, features a history of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, selected bibliography, a state map showing the most significant communities for African Americans, a list of cities and towns with Underground Railroad stations between 1833 and 1860, an extensive index, and more than one hundred illustrations.

 

Gateway to the Majors: Williamsport and Minor League Baseball

By James P. Quigel Jr. and Louis E. Hunsinger Jr.
Penn State University Press, 2001 (190 pages, cloth, $35.00)

Although many people know Williamsport, Pennsylvania, primarily as the “birthplace of Little League Baseball,” the Lycoming County community also possesses a rich professional baseball tradition. Since the earliest days of the Pennsylvania State Association in the nineteenth century, professional minor league baseball has flourished in Williamsport, and over the years hundreds of players and managers have passed through historic Bowman Field on their way to the Major Leagues, including Jim Bunning, Ferguson Jenkins, and Nolan Ryan. Gateway to the Majors: Williamsport and Minor League Baseball is a comprehensive history of professional minor league baseball in Williamsport from the earliest days up until the present. The book breaks new ground by weaving in social history and collective biography to capture the essence of the minor league experience in one American city. Drawing upon local newspaper accounts, extensive oral histories of former players, baseball administrators, boosters, and fans, rare photograph collections, and primary source material from the Baseball Hall of Fame Library and Archives in Cooperstown, New York, Gateway to the Majors constructs the totality of the professional baseball experience. Besides chronicling the baseball seasons, this book sheds light on the contributions of Williamsport native Thomas “Tommy” H. Richardson (1895-1970) as a pioneering minor league administrator and promoter of the game. An accompanying appendix of former Williamsport players who participated in the Major Leagues is a valuable reference for both baseball historians and sports enthusiasts. Gateway to the Majors also illustrates how the city’s relationship with baseball forged a distinct civic identity and a national reputation as “Baseball Town, USA.”

 

Conrad Richter: A Writer’s Life

By David R. Johnson
Penn State University Press, 2001 (407 pages, cloth, $39.50)

Possibly the most overused description by reviewers of biographies is “intimate portrait.” However, Conrad Richter: A Writer’s Life is just that. It is a book that delves far behind the public persona of the Pennsylvania native and Pulitzer Prize winning author who was an exceptionally private individual. A Writer’s Life opens with a telephone call from Richter’s publisher Alfred Knopf on March 9, 1961, who, with discernible hesitation, informed the author that his latest novel, The Waters of Kronos, had won the 1961 National Book Award for fiction. Knopf knew the publicity accompanying the awards ceremony – a photography session, a news conference, and a televised interview would terrify Richter, an intensely shy man whose fear of public events bordered on phobia. His distaste for celebrity and public occasion was strident. Born in 1890 into a Pennsylvania German family in Pine Grove, Schuylkill County, Conrad Richter is best known for his books The Sea of Grass (1937), The Trees (1940), The Town (1950), The Light in the Forest (1953), and The Aristocrat (1958). For The Town he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1951. A Writer’s Life first introduces readers to the public self, a facade that Richter carefully cultivated for the world, whether strolling through Pine Grove or negotiating the lofty realms of New York publishers or Hollywood film studios. The book then reveals the private Conrad Richter, an insecure and self-punishing individual, who rarely showed his inner self even to those closest to him. The interior view of the man and the writer is available because of the journal Richter kept for more than forty years, from 1925 until his death in 1968. His journal contains a record of all that was important to him; in it appears his accounts of his daily writing, vividly described, and his worries about his agent, his publisher, his wife, and his daughter – upon whom he projected his anxieties about himself. Richter records his agony as his wife Harvena Achenbach Richter slips toward death just as the stock market crash of 1929 takes all his money. In his journal, Richter also describes his elaborate superstitions and his own theories (“psycho-energies,” he called them) about the meaning of life and about an afterlife in the “astral,” about reincarnation, and about spirit guides who interpose occasionally, sending signs if one could only decipher them. The biographer follows his subject, “a nomad,” from birth and youth in Pine Grove, during which he was described as “an excitable and nervous child”; to Pittsburgh, in 1906, where his father found him work as a clerk for the Westinghouse Manufacturing Company; to Cleve­land, Ohio, in 1912, where he served miserably as a houseman­-cum-chaperone-cum private secretary for a wealthy divorcee and her two sons; to Reading, Berks County, to reunite with his family in 1914; to Pine Grove that year, where he met Harvena Achenbach; to New Mexico in the late twenties where he fled with his wife who suffered with tuberculosis; to Hollywood in the late 1930s to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the premier motion picture company; to Dauphin, north of Harrisburg, in 1937, where he worked on his pioneer stories; to the West Coast and back again; and, eventually, in 1940, to Pine Grove, where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life. A Writer’s Life is peppered with portrayals of Richter’s accomplishments and disappointments, all played out against the backdrop of insecurity and fear suffered by the writer. The biography tells of Richter’s constant struggle to remain balanced and productive, of his devotion to his fragile wife, who had been plagued by illness her entire life, of his contentious relationships with his literary agent Paul Reynolds and his publisher, of his superstitious nature that affected even his daily routine actions, and of his own poor health in later years. When he died at a hospital in Pottsville in 1968, Richter left behind his two closest allies, his wife and their daughter Harvena, (or “Vene”), also a writer, and a wealth of stories that, although prize-winning, have been far too little appreciated. The author began work on Conrad Richter in the 1980s, and the result is this glorious “intimate portrait” of one of the masters of twentieth-century arts and letters (see “Marking Time,” Winter 2002).