Sunday, June 22, 2008


I'm writing this at home, so why am I homesick? I'm longing for my home ground, the place that shaped me. Even though I'm happy in the summer breeze reaching through the large window at the end of my small and cluttered room looking out over a postage-stamp backyard in great need of a gardener's touch, the garage, and alley. Even though it's a blissfully quiet Sunday in my Northwest Chicago neighborhood, with only the pair of white running shoes dangling from the electric cable strung between houses to remind me of what goes on while I sleep, I yearn for the Hudson Valley. Not only for its curvaceous beauty and deep history, but for all that I was taught there about what it means to be human.

I grew up in Roosevelt Country, both literally in that Hyde Park was just up the Hudson from our Poughkeepsie home, and conceptually, because I grew up in a liberal household where our parents taught us that how one lived one's life in the here and now matters. And that we possess an imagination so that we can envision ourself in someone else's place. So that we can imagine what it feels like to live a life different from our own, and cultivate respect and compassion for others, and generosity of spirit.

I grew up learning about the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, a courageous and compassionate first lady who looked, listened, and advocated without fuss and preening. About an administration that put people to work, that valued the land and the arts. That recognized that the American dream was rooted in a society in which families or all configurations can thrive, a society in which people can work with dignity and afford food and a safe place to live; where people are educated, the air and water kept clean, bridges and roads maintained. A place of high ideals and practical solutions. A place where business, like religion, is kept separate from government.

In the ideal place I'm calling Roosevelt Country, government was a force for good. It was formed to protect and serve the people. The government, like other grassroot organizations, was created to ensure representation and justice. Among government's many functions was its role as counterbalance to the marketplace. The federal government would look beyond monetary profit. In this nurturing and democratic land, the government would serve as a corrective to greed and prejudice. It would understand that for business to flourish, the public has to be employed, cities have to work, the infrastructure must be maintained. For sellers to find buyers, people must be able to earn a living and foresee a better future. I'm homesick for a society that values people over profit, that believes in quality, learning, and the reality of the living world.

I know that this dreamy dreamland, this republic of the reasonable, has never existed, but at least it's a realm socially conscious and hopeful people used to talk about. Unlike the nightmare world we've allowed to coalesce behind our backs, the world of big business without restraint, of selfishness and looting, of corruption and lies and cynicism. This vampire empire has hollowed out our government, drained the life out of schools, sapped the strength out of the health care system and every agency designed to help people live free of exploitation, discrimination, and piracy. We are now imperiled, the cherished American way of life once admired the world over as endangered as many of the planet's precious animals and wilderness areas.

It does not have to be this way. The market is not holy; the market is not the matrix for a democracy. We do not want a country of the mega-rich and the oppressed poor, of poisonous produce, failed levees, gutted communities, disappearing jobs, lost homes, and corporate thuggery.

We look back to where we came from to try to understand where we find ourselves. I thought alot about my homegrown vision of a better world when I was invited to write a travel piece about Hyde Park, New York, for the Chicago Tribune. I was honored and thrilled by this opportunity, and an edited version ran in a spring issue of the Chicago Tribune Magazine as part of an intriguing series about presidential sites. Here's the original version:

Roosevelt Country
Hyde Park, New York
By Donna Seaman

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “All that is in me goes back to the Hudson.” A beautiful and bountiful river fed by the Atlantic Ocean and freshwater Adirondack streams, the wide, glinting, tidal Hudson River, technically a fjord, flows through a rolling landscape of secretive valleys, voluptuous hills, and dramatic cliffs and mountains. The site of critical battles in the Revolutionary War, the Hudson became the new nation’s most important waterway, while its mystic grandeur inspired the Hudson River School of exalted landscape painting.

The Hudson Valley’s prominent first families included the Livingstons, the Beekmans (established in 1766, the Beekman Arms is the country’s longest continuously operating inn), the Montgomerys, and the Roosevelts. In the nineteenth century, industrialists named Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Astor followed, building lavish river-view mansions along a lush length of the river that became known as Millionaires Row. But these grand country seats proved impractical and burdensome, and modern-day descendants generously turned their gracious, art-filled, magnificently landscaped family estates into historic sites open to the public, among them Boscobel, Vanderbilt, Mills, Wilderstein, and Montgomery Place. Thanks to the efforts of environmentally aware river gentry and not-for-profit groups, including Scenic Hudson and Clearwater, the Hudson Valley’s unique and majestic beauty is now protected under law as a Congressional National Heritage Area.

Head north from Manhattan, where the Statue of Liberty extends her regal welcome from the watery depths, and follow the broad and vital, glinting and mysterious Hudson River past Sleepy Hollow of writer Washington Irving fame, Sing Sing Prison (which gave new meaning to the phrase “going up the river”), the historic military academy West Point, Storm King Mountain, the alluring island ruin of Bannerman’s Castle, the small river town of Beacon, now home to the internationally renowned contemporary art museum, Dia: Beacon, and Poughkeepsie, one of the Hudson’s earliest colonial settlements and home to Vassar College. Keep on traveling north by train or on Route 9, past thriving Marist College, and the Culinary Institute of America (originally the John R. Stuyvesant estate), and at last you’ll find yourself in Hyde Park. Roosevelt Country.

As a sickly child, Theodore Roosevelt was sent upstate each summer to take the fresh-air cure, a Hudson River tradition that gave rise to many a resort, camp, and sanatorium. It worked for Teddy, who not only grew robust, but also became a nature lover, establishing more than 200 national parks, forests, and preserves as the United States’ 26th president. Franklin D. Roosevelt followed in the footsteps of his fifth cousin in both politics and conservation. He, too, spent much of his youth outdoors on the family estate, hiking, climbing trees, cutting firewood, and sailing ice boats. Franklin entered politics in 1910, and as a state senator promoted wildlife and forest protection laws. FDR also planted thousands of seedling trees each year on his vast family estate.

After contracting polio at age 39 in 1921, FDR found solace and spiritual renewal at Springwood, the Roosevelt estate. In spite of his disability, he became governor of New York in 1928, and president in 1932, ultimately serving four extraordinary terms as the 32nd president, guiding the nation through the Depression and World War II. Throughout this time of horror, courage, and compromise, FDR returned to Hyde Park, his cherished home ground, as often as he could, traveling on a specially outfitted train from Washington, D.C., nearly 200 times during his exhausting and heroic presidency.

Not only did FDR regain his strength and perspective in the peace and beauty of pastoral Hyde Park, he also took great pride in his ancestry and was fascinated by the region’s history. He counted among his forefathers one of the earliest Dutch colonists in the Hudson Valley, Claes Martenszen Van Rosenvelt, who arrived sometime around 1650, and Isaac Roosevelt, who participated in the Constitutional Convention of 1788 in Poughkeepsie, where New York ratified the U.S. Constitution.

Roosevelt was born in Springwood on January 30, 1882. Built around 1800 on high ground with a view of the river, the Big House is situated on Route 9 north of Locust Grove, home of the inventor of the telegraph Samuel F. B. Morse, and south of the 212-acre Vanderbilt estate. Enamored of Dutchess County’s Dutch colonial buildings, Franklin acquired a passion for architecture, adding two new wings to the Big House, and designing four area post offices and several schools. His simple, rustic aesthetic is evident in America’s most personal and intriguing presidential sites, Top Cottage and the cottages Franklin built for Eleanor at Val-Kill.

The cottages, built acres away from each other and the Big House, embody the dynamics of a complicated marriage. Franklin had an exceptionally close relationship with his formidable widowed mother, Sara, who lived in Springwood with her son, his wife and their five children (their sixth died in infancy). It was Sara who sat at the head of the table opposite her only child, Franklin, and it was wealthy and pragmatic Sara who financed and managed the Roosevelt household. She adored her son, was intensively proud of him, and meddled unabashedly in his life. As FDR readied himself for his second term as president, expecting it to be his last, he decided that he needed a quiet place of his own away from the formality and pressures of the Big House. So he built Top Cottage, designed to comfortably accommodate his wheelchair, on a hill on the eastern edge of the Roosevelt estate with a glorious view of the Hudson.

While Franklin was much indulged as a boy, Eleanor lost her mother, beloved father, and a brother. It wasn’t easy living with her exacting and accomplished mother-in-law, who had objected strenuously to her son’s decision to marry his distant cousin. Eleanor was bedeviled by insecurity and depression as a young wife and mother, and devastated by her discovery of Franklin’s affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918. Her own struggles and innate humility made Eleanor profoundly sensitive to the suffering of others who faced discrimination and other forms of injustice. As she came into her own as a world-traveling activist, tireless humanitarian, radio personality, and daily newspaper columnist (“My Day” was syndicated in 135 newspapers), Mrs. Roosevelt, as she was known, ardently supported civil rights, women’s suffrage, and humane labor laws. Recognizing that Eleanor was a keen and empathic observer and eloquent speaker, Franklin came to rely on her as an advisor and envoy. But Sara expressed dismay over Eleanor’s increasingly independent life and liberated women friends. Realizing that his wife needed, and deserved, a place of her own, in 1925 Franklin built Stone Cottage and Val-Kill Cottage for Eleanor and her friends.

The cottages at Val-Kill are set on a long cresting hill facing a pond that is home to swans and a notorious gaggle of geese, and ringed by broad lawns, gardens, and deep woods. Val-Kill was Eleanor’s first real home, a sanctuary where she walked with her beloved dogs, rode horses, and enjoyed gatherings of family and friends. With the intention of supporting the local economy and encouraging the creation of crafts by local artisans, Mrs. Roosevelt established Val-Kill Industries.

Hailed as the “first lady of the world,” and described by Winston Churchill as possessing “a spirit of steel and a heart of gold,” Mrs. Roosevelt continued her public life after her husband’s death in 1945. Appointed as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by President Truman, she helped found UNICEF (the United Nation’s Children’s Fund), and was the leader in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sought for advice by world leaders, Mrs. Roosevelt lived in her beloved Val-Kill Cottage until her death in 1962.

With an eye to prosperity, Franklin Roosevelt built the country’s first presidential library. Privately financed and gifted to the federal government, the FDR library opened its doors to the public in 1941. Today, the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site encompasses the state-of-the-art Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center, Springwood, the Rose Garden gravesite of Franklin and Eleanor, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum. As for Val-Kill, President Carter signed a bill creating the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historical Site, a national park open to visitors, and home to the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill, an organization that continues Mrs. Roosevelt’s work on behalf of racial equality, human rights, youth development, and women’s empowerment.*

Stroll these lovely grounds, tour historic Springwood, study the objects, photographs, and documents on display at the FDR library and museum, many testifying to the gratitude and reverence for the Roosevelts felt by people from all walks of life across America and abroad. Enter the serene environment where Eleanor and Franklin, homebodies and citizens of the world, reflected on their commitments to public service, family, and friends. You will find yourself surrounded by nature’s splendor and the aura of exemplary lives lived with great thought, effort, and conviction, sorrow and humor, valor and true generosity of spirit. Will we ever see their like again?

*My parents, Elayne and Hal Seaman, are recipients of the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Season of the Book Fest

What's my excuse for not blogging for several weeks? Another big double issue of Booklist, some actual writing other than book reviews, a book review for the besieged Los Angeles Times--look for it this Sunday: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, by Saša Stanišić, a Bosnian German writer, and translated by Anthea Bell. (See my reveiw of Honor Moore's The Bishop's Daughter in the new Bookforum.) And the Printers Row Book Fair in Chicago, where I was sorry not to speak with Richard Preston about his amazing book, Wild Trees, as planned, but where I had a fun time talking about nature, culture, and art with a superb watercolorist, Peggy Macnamara, who has a beautiful new book, Architecture by Birds and Insects: A Natural Art, and with Julia Bachrach, the historian for the Chicago Park District and author of a photo-rich book, Inspired by Nature: The Garfield Park Conservatory and Chicago's West Side.
I also watched Studs Terkel bring an audience to its feet as he riffed for 40 minutes without taking a breath. Studs is 96, and more vital than most folks half his age. And what a perspective.
Oh, right, there was also the Harold Washington Literary Award dinner, a benefit for Chicago's Authors in the Schools program. Columbia College's ardent fiction department chair and all around great guy Randy Albers spoke about Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, and about Barack Obama, no explanation needed, and about this year's award winner, writer and activist Scott Turow. Who talked about growing up in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood and his grandparents and finding his way to writing and the law. And who told a story about Harrison Ford. And it was all very moving and smart and caring and in such confounding contrast to the idiocy of what's going on in board rooms and back rooms and cells and bunkers elsewhere as to leave us all feeling bittersweet.
The new shows are stacking up. Soon we will expand the Open Books Radio web site with conversations with Sara Paretsky, Billy Lombardo, Gioia Diliberto, Hillary Carlip and lots more.
Read on.