Archive for September, 2012

Knopf Editor Ashbel Green remembered by author Robert J. Norrell

Monday, September 24th, 2012 by Brian Seidman

Ashbel Green (Photo by Martha Kaplan/Knopf)Robert J. Norrell, author of Eden Rise, sent this remembrance of former Alfred A. Knopf editor Ashbel Green:

Ashbel Green accepted my dissertation for publication at Knopf six weeks after four professors at the University of Virginia in 1983 said the manuscript was worthy of the doctor of philosophy and not far from being ready for publication. Paul Gaston, my mentor, had unbounded confidence in his judgment, and that of Ashbel Green at Knopf, and he thought the two of them would merge on agreement that my little dissertation about the civil rights movement in an Alabama town should be a book.

Paul was right, at least about the consanguinity of his and Ash’s viewpoint. I had no idea at the time of how unusual this was as the fate for a dissertation. Almost thirty years later, I can say for a certainty that no subsequent book found a home so readily. Ash’s critique of my manuscript was, shall we say, lean. “Needs a new ending.” No more direction than that, and I said, all right, yes sir, and a new ending I wrote.

Over the years Ash shepherded lots of books, most bigger and more important than mine, I suspect, partly  because he had good assistants (glorified secretaries, I thought at the time) who were smart and confident guys like he was. The assistant that prompted me about photos and releases and footnotes was a young man named Randall Kenan, who within a few years was a high-profile writer himself of fiction and nonfiction.

When my book won a book prize that required my attendance at the home of Ethel Kennedy one afternoon, I asked Ash if he might come along — mainly because I wanted to meet him in person, having only communicated with him through the mail. Sure enough he came (his elderly mother lived nearby, he confessed), and he quietly observed my fifteen minutes of fame.

I always wanted to publish another book with him, and we apparently were close once much later but it didn’t happen (my agent thought it was because Ash could not get the support from his paperback imprint that he needed to make a competitive offer on the advance — such were the changes in publishing in the intervening twenty-five years). I wish that we had taken less money and gone with Ash, if only because writers are sustained by such good book men as he was.

Read more about Ashbel Green from the New York Times.

Robert J. Norrell is the author of Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 1986. His first work of fiction, Eden Rise, is forthcoming from NewSouth Books.

Ellen Weiss’s biography of African American architect Robert Taylor gains national attention

Thursday, September 6th, 2012 by Brian Seidman

Interest in the ground-breaking African American architect Robert R. Taylor continues to grow after the publication of Professor Ellen Weiss’s detailed biography of Taylor, and articles including two in Architect magazine.

Weiss’s Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee recounts Taylor’s life, side by side with striking photographs of Taylor’s architectural accomplishments as the first classically trained African American architect. Taylor was MIT’s first African American graduate in 1892, and soon after Booker T. Washington recruited Taylor to teach and design the campus of Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.

“He had a classical French training at MIT,” Weiss told WWNO’s Fred Kasten on his The Sound of Books program, “and this shows in many overt ways like the correct use of columns, a very sensitive approach to proportion, to thickness of walls, to all the tactile and visual qualities of architecture and its material.” Washington wanted the architecture of Tuskegee Institute to reflect to both the outside world and to Tuskegee’s own students the capabilities of African Americans.

Writing in the “AIAVoices” column in Architect magazine, Weiss explains that “the campus (built by black carpenters and masons who could draw a little) was already 10 years old when Taylor arrived. One of Taylor’s predecessors was Booker T. Washington’s brother, who had some construction experience. But these buildings didn’t have the eloquence or character of buildings designed by a classically trained architect. Washington saw the difference. He had been trained at Hampton Institute in Virginia, for which Richard Morris Hunt designed several buildings. Washington would have seen Hunt’s work and he understood what architecture could mean for a sense of place.”

In a review of Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee, Ben Steelman of Star News notes that “most intriguing are the hints Weiss finds of a longstanding friendship between Taylor and a fellow MIT alumnus from Wilmington, Hugh MacRae. MacRae’s reputation has suffered in recent years. H. Leon Prather (in We Have Taken a City) and Philip Gerard (in his novel Cape Fear Rising) have painted him as one of the bloodthirstiest plotters of the 1898 coup, and he did leave the land for the park that bears his name to the white residents of New Hanover County. Yet as early as 1918, Taylor was requesting that MacRae be invited to a Tuskegee commencement, noting that his interest in farm colonies had turned from transplanting foreign workers to employing ‘Negro men.’ During the Depression, Taylor and MacRae would together propose a program of Southern rural homesteading as a remedy for widespread African-American unemployment and poverty.”

Steelman goes on to praise Weiss’s book, including that Weiss “adds an important footnote to Wilmington history and to our understanding of the Jim Crow era.”

In a Q&A that also appeared in Architect, Weiss suggests that Taylor’s most important or influential building was the Tuskegee Chapel. “At its dedication, a New Yorker said it was a ‘cathedral in the Black Belt,’ where blacks and whites could stand equal before God. The chapel burned down in 1957.

“The Carnegie Library exterior remains, even though its interior has been gutted. Its iconic portico asks us to consider the meaning of such Classicizing assertiveness, an emblem of authority for centuries, when it appears in a black school in the Deep South just as Jim Crow was locking in. In 1901, the year the library was built, the Alabama constitution denied the vote to most African-Americans. Meanwhile, Southern whites were threatening Washington’s life and the school’s existence for all sorts of effrontery, even as some Northern blacks thought the principal was knuckling under to the racists and selling out his people. Perhaps Taylor and Washington were asserting racial parity in the safer medium of design.”

Finally, in an Encyclopedia of Alabama entry about Robert Taylor written by Weiss, she includes an unusual fact of Taylor’s death: “In December 1942, while visiting family in Tuskegee, he collapsed in the chapel he had designed and built and died on December 13, in the hospital he had designed and built. He was buried in Wilmington’s Pine Forest Cemetery, which his father had helped found.” Taylor, Weiss writes, “had a prolific and wide-ranging career.”

Read more about Robert Taylor from Star News, Architect magazine, and the Encyclopedia of Alabama; Fred Kazen’s The Sound of Books is also available for listening online.

Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington is available direct from NewSouth Books, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.