Category Archives: Philadelphia

A Speculative Discussion at the Rosenbach: Sir Walter Scott, Rebecca Gratz, and Washington Irving

Washington Irving

An event I’ve been waiting to announce has at last become officially Official—but before I post it, I need to give you a bit of context first.

In 1817, Washington Irving spent several days with his literary idol, Sir Walter Scott, at Abbotsford, Scott’s stately home near Melrose, Scotland. At the time, Scott was known more for his romantic poetry than his novels, though at the time of Irving’s visit, Scott was reviewing the proofs of his historical novel Rob Roy, part of his popular Waverley series.

Rebecca Gratz

Three years after Irving’s visit–right around the time Irving was enjoying international success with the publication of The Sketch Book—Scott published a blockbuster of his own, another installment of the Waverley series, the medieval adventure novel Ivanhoe.  Featured prominently in Scott’s story is the character Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of a Jewish moneylender, as well as a healer who saves Ivanhoe and is later tried–and, with the help of Ivanhoe as her champion, cleared–of charges of witchcraft.

Walter Scott

Rebecca doesn’t get Ivanhoe in the end—he marries the Lady Rowena instead–but to most, Rebecca is the heroine of the novel.   She was also a strong Jewish character in a novel written at a time when Jews were struggling for emancipation in England–and Scott’s sympathetic portrayal of Rebecca is credited by some as helping pave the way for reforms in English law that began to give  Jewish citizens—or, at least, the men—the same status as other “emancipated” Englishmen.

Why is that relevant here?  This is where it gets interesting.  Shortly after the publication of Ivanhoe, the Jewish Philadelphia philanthropist Rebecca Gratz—who was also a friend of Washington Irving–was constantly being collared by friends  who had read Scott’s novel and swore up and down that the character of Rebecca was based on her.  Gratz had never met Scott, and Scott had never met Gratz.  That left only a mutual acquaintance–the aforementioned Mr. Irving—who could possibly have told Scott about Gratz.

But did he?  Was Scott’s heroine indeed based on Gratz?  And if so, did Scott learn of Gratz through Irving?

On Thursday, March 3, Gratz scholar Susan Sklaroff and I are going to talk about it in a “speculative discussion” at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. More information can be found on the Rosenbach’s website by clicking here. The discussion starts at 6:00 p.m., and if you’re in the City of Brotherly Love at that time, come by and throw in your two cents. This one’ll be fun.

My thanks to Susan and the folks at the Rosenbach for inviting me.  Susan also writes a fine blog on Rebecca that you can see right here.  Check it out.

Back At It

Happy 2011! And good lord, is the first week of the year really almost over?

The winter break was a quick sprint through the Southwest for Barb and me — I’m a New Mexican, and she’s an Arizonan, so we spent a few days with family and friends in each state before setting up camp (read: staying in a hotel) out in the Gold Canyon region of Arizona for several days.  Barb took advantage of the spa services while I spent my time in front of a fire, sipping Land Shark, burning the eight-dollars-a-piece Duraflame logs provided by our hotel, and reading Robert Caro. All in all, not a bad way to pass the time.

It was unseasonably cold while we were out there — as it seems to have been across most of the continental US that week — and a snowstorm blew through northern Arizona late last Wednesday, blanketing Flagstaff under two feet of snow and closing roads in all directions.  The only problem was, our New Year’s Eve plans included driving to Flagstaff and ringing in 2011 from there. Fortunately, the roads cleared and we made it to Flagstaff with no problems, though we greeted the new year with temperatures hovering at 15 below. On New Year’s morning, I discovered that a case of sodas I had stupidly left in the back seat of the rental car had frozen and exploded — then instantly froze again, making the clean up easy: I simply picked up the frozen ice sculpture of cans, box, and foam and threw it away.

I left behind the laptop I had intended to carry along with me — we decided to forget work and stay off the grid during our vacation, though Barb couldn’t resist bringing along her iPad and checking e-mail every once in a while.  Since our return, however, we’ve been back at it.  In fact, this week, I’ll have a draft of several chapters completed that I can ship off and have some folks take a look at. Yeah, I’m pretty excited, too.

On a completely random aside, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve got two Washington Irving-related events in the coming months, both in Philadelphia.  One is a speaking engagement at the Rittenhouse Club, while the other is at a celebration of Rebecca Gratz at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. At the Rosenbach, I’ll be speaking in tandem with Susan Sklaroff, a Gratz scholar and docent at the Museum.  Susan writes a great blog about Gratz (which you can see here) and she and I will be discussing Irving and Gratz’s rather amusing relationship, as well as whether Sir Walter Scott based his heroine Rebecca in Ivanhoe on Irving’s description of the dynamic Rebecca Gratz. I’ll post more information as it becomes available.

Finally, I just registered for the Biographers International Organization’s 2011 Compleat Biographer conference, right here in Washington, DC.  And you should too.

Happy New Year!

Sailing to Philadelphia

On Wednesday, March 5, I had the great pleasure of making an appearance at the Central Library branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia — a really terrific venue, as you can see in the photo below. It’s one of those old library buildings (this one dates from the 1920s) that looks like the set of an old movie.

I took the train up to Philadelphia, only about an hour and some change away from the BWI station here in Maryland. The 30th Street station in Philly also looks like something off of an old movie set, with a departures/arrivals sign that still uses rolling numbers to indicate what time and at which gates trains are arriving, and the numbers flicker past with an audible whirr.

My reading wasn’t until 7:00 p.m., so my 10:24 a.m. arrival in Philadelphia left me plenty of time to do . . . well, something. I was considering heading straight for the library and spending the day just reading when I saw hanging above the south doors an enormous black banner advertising STAR WARS: THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE IMAGINATION over at the Franklin Institute. Decision made.

I found the Franklin Institute — which happened to be cattycorner to the Central Library — paid my sheckels, and headed straight for the exhibit. C-3P0 and R2-D2 (or, as it was always spelled in the Star Wars comics, Threepio and Artoo) stared down at me from another enormous banner, practically begging me to step inside. Who am I to ignore the icons of my childhood? In I went.

And I loved it. Much of the exhibit was geared towards hands-on exhibits for the younger set (“Build your own hovercraft using electromagnets!” one sign dared — this was, after all, a science exhibit) but to me, the real goods were the models and costumes. There was the actual landspeeder from the movie (on three wheels, ready for driving!), costumes for Threepio, Artoo, Darth Vader, and a Stormtrooper, even a display of their guns (though to my disappointment, Han Solo’s way cool pistol was not included).

Oh, and there was also this:

It doesn’t get much cooler than a four-foot model of the Millennium Falcon (or “Fulcun” as Harrison Ford — and even the model builders in the accompanying video — always pronounced it). My museum experience was complete.

As for the event I came for . . . well, I couldn’t have asked for a nicer, more responsive crowd. I spoke for about 30 minutes (hey, they came on a Wednesday evening, and I wanted to give them their money’s worth), mainly about Irving’s work on A History of New York and the hoax he pulled off to promote the book, then took questions for an hour. (The first question I got: “How come they don’t teach us this in school?” I couldn’t answer it.) All in all, a good time all around.

I walked back to the train station (passing on Market Street the first adult movie theater I can remember seeing in years) and was lucky enough to catch an earlier train back to Maryland than the one I had reserved. I made the 70 minute drive back home, finally crawling into bed around 1 a.m. And I still had to get up for work the next morning.

My thanks to everyone who came out to see me on their Wednesday night — and a special thanks to Lee Fishman at the Philadelphia Library for helping make the event possible.