Railroads, writing, warfare, painting

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The apogee of railroading in this country occurred just after World War II (which had provided the rail system its heaviest-ever traffic), and just before airplanes, pipelines and highway vehicles assumed most of that system's chores. Accordingly, Richard C. Carpenter went back to 1946 when, after prodigious research, he set out to map all 254,037 route miles of the U.S. rail grid - to show stations and junctions, tunnels and track plans, with county lines, sometimes four miles to the inch.

The project will require a series of volumes, the first of which is now out: A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946: The Mid-Atlantic States (Johns Hopkins, 328 pages, $65). The confraternity of rail hobbyists will go wild over this atlas - the more so on recognizing that every one of these 200-some maps has been hand-lettered.

Ah, Maryland, with its Glenartney, its Gorbush, its Golt. Home to the Baltimore & Eastern R.R.; to a single nonterminal coaling station (Union Bridge, on the Western Maryland R.R.), and to 13 rail tunnels (nine on the Baltimore & Ohio R.R.) within Baltimore. For the true believer, a book to climb aboard.

Science writing - there, for the talented, is surely a fine career, as scientists attain ever greater progress, ever tougher problems. How do you become a professional science writer? Elise Hancock gives thoughtful answers in her book Ideas Into Words (Johns Hopkins, 176 pages, $18.95 softbound).

After three decades of covering stories, or improving articles by other writers - particularly while editor of that repetitive prizewinner, the Johns Hopkins Magazine - Hancock has much to say.

Now she takes on the broad aspects (finding story ideas, preparing for an interview, drafting and redrafting the story); now she lights up with encouragement (be a writer at all times), or a warning (beware, in the life sciences, of someone announcing the cause or the remedy). Remember, your reader is likely to be smart.

Her top writer, in magazine days, was Rob Kanigel. So she tapes interviews; so he still doesn't. Watch out for "research institutes" with no academic affiliation - often they're "nests of lobbyists." Later on, you as journalist may be invited into public relations; it's an easy move. It is almost impossible to go the other way. Closing words? Above all, says Elise Hancock, write.

Then there's creative nonfiction, which Lee Gutkind says should be thought of as "on the same general level as fiction and poetry." He has been teaching college courses in it since 1973, in summer mainly at Goucher College. The coinage, he says, is his; he also founded and edits the journal Creative Nonfiction. And he turns out book after book: just now, an essay collection entitled Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather (University of Nebraska, 204 pages, $26.95).

This activity puts Gutkind - a polished and engagingly frank writer and a Type-A personality - at the center of a continuing uproar. Why, he asks, shouldn't nonfiction use "scene, dialogue, description while allowing the personal point of view and voice (reflection) rather than maintaining the sham of objectivity?"

He then dumps on journalists, who have been "locked into the inverted pyramid 5W format (who-what-when-where-why) over the past half-century and beyond." Gutkind's full schedule may leave him little time for keeping up with today's major dailies; he does quote a hostile magazine comment that the prose of one or another creative-nonfiction writer amounts to "a big, earnest blob of me-first sensibility."

Unfortunately, Forever Fat doesn't settle the issue. Gutkind (an overeater in his Pittsburgh childhood, but later a body-builder) in these essays assembles incidents, observations and judgments that could have highlighted an autobiography. They include virtually no partisan positions on public policy, many bursts of apparently total recall, and a lot of Lee Gutkind.

World War II happened two generations ago; scores of books tell about it; how is it that so good a book as The Last Ridge appears only now? It's about the campaign up through northern Italy in 1945's final weeks of fighting, as the U.S. 10th Mountain Division pushes German units back into the Alps.

One answer may be that McKay Jenkins, author of The Last Ridge (Random House, 320 pages, $25.95) was born since then, and has the detachment lacking in a participant. Jenkins (who lives in Towson and teaches English and journalism at the University of Delaware) also knows about skiing, rock climbing and mountain weather. And a Colorado repository holds extensive military records.

Ridge crackles with soldier language - and combat horrors. Was the campaign necessary? Elsewhere, the Wehrmacht was crumbling. Torger Tokle, the famous Norwegian skier, was there; and from Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, William O. Darby, who founded the Rangers. They, and many an ordinary GI, died in agony. Yet throughout, 10th Mtn Div (which still exists) had fine esprit.

A long, far cry from 120-degree Baghdad, to be sure. Most of Jenkins' readers are going to be, for some hours, thousands of feet up and shivering all over.

Richard Caton Woodville appears on few name lists of admirable Baltimoreans. His life was too short and long ago (1825-1855); his surviving paintings were too few (a dozen or so). And only now has a general-reader study of him finally appeared: Richard Caton Woodville: American Painter, Artful Dodger, by Justin Wolff (Princeton, 208 pages, $39.95).

Also left behind, on Woodville's death in London from "an accidental overdose of morphine," were some conundrums. A Carroll-Caton blueblood, he married at 19, dropped out of medical school and took off for Germany to study art. Evidently a remittance man, Woodville had talent and diligence - but no inclination to put his thoughts into written words.

His major paintings, from memory, were of the "interior dramas and social rituals" of the American middle and lower classes: playing cards, talking politics, drinking, waiting for a stage coach, reacting to the latest Mexican War news.

The style is realistic - descriptive and anecdotal - but Wolff, on the faculty at Harvard, senses deeper meanings. In Woodville - a shifty dissembler - he finds similarities to that novelist of many layers, Herman Melville. Wolff takes us as far inside this interesting mind as we are likely ever to go.

James H. Bready writes a monthly column on regional books. Previously he worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor for The Evening Sun.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
63°