President Harrison’s Sword, Soviet Cannibalism, and Dr. Dieu and His World
Let’s start today’s email with a couple of stories about artifacts, shall we? President William Henry Harrison’s sword was put up for auction recently, but the sale was stopped after it was revealed that a sword owned by Harrison was stolen 40 years ago in Cincinnati. Is the sword up for auction the same as the sword that was stolen? “President William Henry Harrison died in 1841 after just 31 days in the White House. But the sword he carried at the Battle of Tippecanoe is caught up in one last war. The sword and its scabbard were seized by the police in Connecticut last month just minutes before they were to go up for auction, where organizers said they were expected to fetch at least $50,000. A sword said to have belonged to the president was stolen from the Cincinnati Historical Society in 1979, officials said. There was no sign of it for 40 years until an eagle-eyed Harrison fan in Ohio last month stumbled upon an auction website advertising the sale — the next day — of a ‘silver-hilt smallsword’ once wielded by the president. He alerted other amateur historians, and together they got law enforcement officials in two states to swiftly intervene, seizing the sword on Oct. 19, the day it was to have been sold.”
A nearly 130-year-old recording of Maine’s Passamaquoddy tribe has been restored. Listen to it here.
In other news, Paul Griffiths reviews László Krasznahorkai’s latest novel, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming: “Krasznahorkai has said it’s his last. First published in Hungarian in 2016, it is the end of a cycle that began with Satantango and includes The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) and War and War (1999). These four, Krasznahorkai says, constitute his one book. He’s written many others, in many genres; but these four are the things to read first if you want to know him, feel him.”
Dr. Dieu and his world: “Do not google Samuel Jean Pozzi. If you want to enjoy Julian Barnes’s The Man in the Red Coat — and believe me, it’s teeming with delights — stay away from search engines and trust the author to tell the story in his own way.”
The rise and fall of Booth Tarkington: “How to explain this remarkable career—the meteoric ascent to fame, the impregnable reputation over several decades, and then the pronounced plunge into obscurity? If you read all his fiction (which I strongly advise not attempting), you find a steady if uninspired hand at the helm. Slowly, painstakingly, Tarkington had taught himself to write reliable prose and construct appealing fictions; he was unpretentious—always literate but never showy. You could count on him to catch your interest even if he failed to grip your imagination or your heart. And he was always a gentleman.” What do you think, Tarkington fans? Is he merely a reliable builder of appealing fictions or something more?
The best of Schubert: “Two recent concerts in New York provided a rare opportunity for a back-to-back savoring of some of the composer’s greatest works.
Essay of the Day:
In Airmail, Douglas Smith writes about the 1921 Soviet famine that drove some Russians to cannibalism and how these acts came to be documented by Americans:
“The stories began to appear in the Soviet press in the autumn of 1921, each one more gruesome than the last. There was the woman who refused to let go of her dead husband’s body. ‘We won’t give him up,’ she screamed when the authorities came to take it away. ‘We’ll eat him ourselves, he’s ours!’ There was the cemetery where a gang of 12 ravenous men and women dug up the corpse of a recently deceased man and devoured his cold flesh on the spot. There was the man captured by the police after murdering his friend, chopping off his head, and selling the body at a street market to a local restaurant owner to be made into meatballs, cutlets, and hash. And then there was the desperate mother of four starving children, saved only by the death of their sister, aged 13, whom the woman cut up and fed to the family.
“The stories seemed too horrific to believe. Few could imagine a hunger capable of driving people to such acts. One man went in search of the truth. Henry Wolfe, a high-school history teacher from Ohio, spent several weeks in the spring of 1922 traveling throughout Samara Province, in southeastern Russia, intent on finding physical evidence of cannibalism. In the district of Melekess, officials told him about a father who had killed and eaten his two little children. He confessed that their flesh had ‘tasted sweeter than pork.’ Wolfe kept on searching, and eventually found the proof he had been looking for.
“At first glance, it appears to be an unremarkable photograph of six individuals in winter dress: two women and four men, their expressions blank, betraying no particular emotion. But then our eyes catch sight of the grisly objects laid out across a wooden plank resting unevenly atop a pair of crates. There are two female heads, part of a rib cage, a hand, and what appears to be the skull of a small child. The adult heads have been cracked open, and the skulls pulled back. Along with human flesh, cannibals had feasted upon the brains of their victims.
“Wolfe stands second from the right, surrounded by Russian interpreters and Soviet officials. There’s a faint look of satisfaction on his face at having accomplished his goal. Here, at last, was the incontrovertible proof he had set out to find.
“Wolfe may have found the answer he had been seeking, but to us, a century later, the photograph raises a number of questions. What was Wolfe doing in Russia in the first place? What had led this young American to a remote corner of the globe, half a world away, in search of such horrors? And why would the Soviet government, the newly formed socialist state of Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik Party, dedicated to world revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist order, have helped Wolfe to uncover, much less document and publicize, its miserable failure at feeding its own people?
“If we look closely, a clue to answering these questions is to be found in the three letters stamped on the box in the center of the frame: ‘ARA.’ Facing one of the worst famines in history, the Soviet government invited the American Relief Administration, the brainchild of Herbert Hoover, future president of the United States, to save Russia from ruin. For two years, the A.R.A. fed over 10 million men, women, and children across a million square miles of territory in what was the largest humanitarian operation in history.”
Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.