Nature and Revelation by Jeanne Halgren Kilde: a review

Nature and Revelation is a delightful book. Jeanne Halgren Kilde wrote the book for two perhaps-incompatible audiences: Folks with Macalester College connections, and readers interested in the development of private college/liberal arts education in North America. For the Macalester audience she addresses nearly all of the expected issues a member of the Mac community would expect (I list most of those here) and adds many things we members may or may not have asked. For the academic audience she offers a case study, with enough context and enough detail to make the case useful for further examination and discussion. For both audiences she’s produced an excellent work.

The book concentrates on collegiate governance, with occasional looks at the school’s often-troubled relationship with the Presbyterian church. The result is that the author provides fairly detailed accounts of the views and activities of most of the college’s presidents and a handful of other officers, with similar portraits of some key trustees. There’s considerable discussion of Macalester’s relationship with the church (and the local churches), which is often presented in terms of the school’s changing interpretation of the word nonsectarian. Naturally the school’s relationship with Dewitt Wallace is explored at some length, as that also changed over time. All of this is presented well, and is surprisingly interesting. There’s more here than I perhaps expected about what college fundraising entails, and on the impact those efforts have on the shape of the college as an institution. All in all, I found these discussions enlightening and worthwhile.

The author’s treatment of Macalester’s 1970 budget crisis is revealing. She attributes many of the difficulties to inadequate accounting, to structural issues resulting from restricted funds (ie, donations to support buildings and programs), and to the administration’s inability to raise funding to support daily operations. The clearly-important role of college trustee and Wallace advisor Paul Davis is both confusing and frustrating; that Kilde is unable to fully explain the apparent contradictions in his behavior is likely due to her inability to gain access to key Wallace family documentation. That Davis’ analysis of the school’s financial situation is similar to Kilde’s is clear. Why he lost faith in the school’s ability to find solutions is unclear, as is his motivation for his subsequent undermining those efforts.

The author’s emphasis on the school’s presidents and fundraising has an opportunity cost. This book pays little attention to campus life. Few professors are mentioned, and those mentions are usually more about their impact on the school’s mission than on their classroom demeanor. Curriculum issues are mentioned mostly in terms of their relationship to giving–it’s easier, as the book shows, to raise money for programs than for everyday funding, and that fundraising emphasis impacts the curriculum. There’s little in this text about residential life, about arts and sports, or about the daily grind faced by students. Indeed, very few students are mentioned, either by name or by implication. An exception is a fairly superficial recognition of the impact of the ’60s counterculture, and a discussion of the somewhat-related Mac Free College experiment. An interesting omission, considering the author’s established reputation as a student of church architecture, is the total lack of analysis–and nearly complete lack of mention–of the college buildings. I’d really like to see what she could do with that topic.

All that to say that there’s room for another book about Macalester, with perhaps more emphasis on the changing structure of the curriculum, the faculty’s ever-evolving membership, and changes to student life (and the student body’s makeup) which occurred over time. Nonetheless, Kilde’s book is valuable as written, and quite a gratifying read.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Portrait and biographical album of Barry and Eaton counties, Mich. by Chapman Bros: a review

This book–like all Chapman Brothers books with similar titles–is pretty much what the title says: a collection of biographies of folks and families who lived in Eaton and Barry Counties in 1891. The local biographies are preceded by a couple hundred pages of biographical sketches of the presidents of the United States and governors of Michigan.

The Chapman Brothers mass produced similar books for many Midwestern counties by selling subscriptions and sending out questionnaires. If you paid the subscription fee and returned the survey your biography would be printed in a book, which would arrive for you to place on your bookshelf. Chapman’s staff members in Chicago turned the questionnaires into very formulaic biographies, which were gathered into the book in no evident order. The resulting bios are as reliable as their sources–which varies, of course–and as interesting as the information the sources provided. Any impression one might get of local history or local geography is incidental and unintentional. That does not much meet my research interest.

For my purposes, the book is pretty frustrating. With no historical overview in the book, no deliberate organization, and neither maps nor other geographical clues, trying to glean any understanding of local history is difficult. Moreover, the template used to compose the biographies becomes pretty aggravating after the third or fourth example–you get a brief overview of the subject’s life, then reviews of his parents’ life stories, then back to the original person’s bio with more detail and perhaps a story or two. Unless you’re otherwise familiar with the person whose life’s being summarized, by the time you get to the meat of the composition you’ve often forgotten the subject’s name.

Another issue is the subscription model. Lacking either a geographical or alphabetical organization, I made searches for people and places I was aware of in both counties. These searches often came up empty, even for families I know to have been resident in the area around 1890. This, of course, indicates that the Dow and McCargar families, to pick two prominent Roxand Township clans, were uninterested in subscribing–which is OK, to be sure, but it leaves important gaps in the story. Side issue: This book consistently calls this township Roxana, and never calls it Roxand. I’m quite tempted to do so myself.

I do not mean to imply that this book has no value. I found a (somewhat) useful biography of Sylvanus Peabody, for instance, and now know a bit about him; this is information I’d not found elsewhere and knew I wanted. Which is a clue about the book’s usefulness: If one of the biographies is someone who’s interesting to you, it’s probably useful. That’s reason enough to locate a copy, and keep it around. But if you’re looking for an overview of local history, the Chapman books likely won’t meet your need.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Pioneer History of Eaton County by Daniel Strange: a review

This book’s subtitle begins “OR the story of the last to lead the simple life…” and goes on for several lines demonstrating that pioneer life was, well, different, if not simple. The subtitle ends: “…Who gave us, their coming sons, their lives, their loves, their labors.” (I rather like that.)

Everyone should read a county history sometime. This one’s structured around identifying the first settlers in each Eaton County (Michigan) township, and how they arrived in the county; he also discusses early township leaders, school beginnings, and suchlike. There are also stories, digressions, and the occasional poem. A few of the stories are repeated, but in each case the perspective’s changed and the tale with it. All in all, an interesting diversion, especially if you’ve Eaton County connections. The potentially dry material is relieved by the author’s wry humor–he’s particularly amused by conflicting claims about the meaning of “first settler.”

The book’s impeccably researched; Strange clearly consulted land office records, county and township archives, memoirs authored by the early settlers, and news accounts. He spent his life teaching in local institutions, and seems to have known most of the county’s early residents.

This ebook, retrieved from the Internet Archive, is based on a Google Scan and has the usual spelling and formatting errors. I’ve seen worse.

A certainly-unimportant note: I notice Strange calls Mulliken’s founder T. Edgar Potter, which supports my impression that folks called Mr. Potter “Ed.”

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.