- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (July 27, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0465013368
- ISBN-13: 978-0465013364
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 28 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,378,866 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt Hardcover – July 27, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
For 10 hellishly hot days in August 1896, the poorly ventilated tenement blocks of immigrant New York were transformed into massive ovens: horses dropped dead in the streets and nearly 1,300 people perished. That same week, William Jennings Bryan, a promising prairie populist from Nebraska and the Democratic Party's choice for president, launched his opposition to William McKinley and set out on a cross-country campaign tour, and a police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt hosed down the streets, desperately trying to bring down the temperatures. Kohn (The Kindred People), professor of American studies and literature at Bilkent University in Turkey, splices these stories together, but the union feels forced, and any correlation of Bryan's downfall (a clumsy, momentum-killing speech at Madison Square Garden) with the heat wave is tenuous. "It is in the nature of heat waves to kill slowly," writes Kohn, "with no physical manifestation, no property damage, and no single catastrophic event that markets them as a disaster." He succeeds in bringing this little-known tragedy to light, but it is weakened rather than strengthened by the addition of an election narrative.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Writing about a torrid August 1896 in New York City, historian Kohn recounts the political backdrop to a disaster that eventually took about 1,300 lives. Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan arrives to deliver a speech he hopes will unify a party split on the issue of minting silver, while Theodore Roosevelt, then a city police commissioner, ingratiates himself with Republican Party power brokers. The populace of the metropolis, meanwhile, goes about its business. As temperatures rise into triple digits for an eventual 10-day heat wave, Kohn narrates its effects on pavement and buildings, especially Manhattan’s squalid tenements, with supplementary information about the strain excessive heat places on the human body. Depicting the spike in mortality and a toll of horses and dogs dead in the streets, Kohn switches from Bryan’s rally on a suffocating night to Roosevelt’s multitude of activities in the election campaign and the unfolding civic crisis. Arguing that the patrician Roosevelt’s interactions with the other half reinforced his reformist bent, Kohn provides an able historical illustration of contingency’s unexpected influence on political events. --Gilbert Taylor
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The full title of the book is "Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt." I would suggest a different title: "Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the unmaking of William Jennings Bryan." Bryan receives much more attention than TR. Much space is used to describe his campaign against McKinley; much more than is spent on why TR got the nomination as Vice President. In fact, the argument that this heat wave was a major factor in TR's rise is not made very strongly. Quite the opposite case could be made from the author's treatment of the dissatisfaction of the NY electorate with TR's enforcement of blue laws as police commissioner of NYC. He was a progressive and had humanitarian instincts, but that is nothing new.
In summary I enjoyed the book despite its repetitious nature and its wandering away from its subtitle. I found the peculiarities of the various way weather records were kept and made available to the press interesting. I gained valuable information about heatstroke, but was wearied by the repetition of symptoms and the catalog of victims. I learned a lot about Bryan, but not very much about TR, which was my purpose in reading this book.
On the other hand, perhaps the title was some sort of editorial compromise, because the majority of the text covers a slice of 1896 presidential campaign politics. The heat wave figures in to the campaign, we are told, because of its effect on Bryan and those around him, but the political effects of the heat are not as prominent in the book as the personal tragedies of random New Yorkers that get tossed into the book every few pages or so. The repetition is numbing and boring, but it is the sense of padding that really distracts the reader. The book seems little more than story after story about the campaign, punctuated with tales of heat wave victims, none of it tied into a cohesive whole. Even at the end, the author makes assertions about TR and Bryan that are unsupported by the text.
In fact, nothing is supported in the text. There is a bibliography, but it is more like a list of suggested works for further reading. The book has no footnotes, and there is no way to verify the author's work. He doesn't say where he got this or that fact, or why he comes to the various conclusions he does throughout the book. We can take him at his word that he reviewed the dozens of death certificates that he says he did, but we shouldn't have to trust him for his political observations unless we know exactly what their bases are.
The book is superficial and repetitive, and it jumps here and there among several topics that the author fails to unite coherently. I recommend this book for people who don't read a lot, and therefore will not be put off by the simplistic writing; for readers who get bored easily, and want a narrative that jumps among its disparate topics without threading them together; and for the easily distracted, who need to have the same point repeated ad nauseam.