Baum on Books

The king of escape Harry Houdini still fascinates us even though he died 94 years ago on Halloween this year. A new biography, “Houdini: The Elusive American,” takes a fresh look at his life and ambition to be remembered. 

Yet another go at the Founding Fathers? Well, to judge from historian and documentary filmmaker Tom Shachtman’s new book, “The Founding Fortunes,” Yes and No. Subtitled “How the Wealthy Paid for and Profited from America’s Revolution,” Shachtman’s analysis of the years 1763-1813 merits a yes because he does revisit some of the big names and battles of the day. But the answer is also no because “The Founding Fortunes” is not just another look at Colonial and post-Colonial politics and economics.

He didn’t at first appreciate the scare and chose to stay in the crowded city. And he hadn’t at the start stockpiled food or self-isolated or realized the extent of the contagion. But he did come to acknowledge the horror and the “brutal courage” of those who tried to help. “He” was Daniel Defoe. The time was 1722. The occasion, the publication of “A Journal of the Plague Year,” three years after Robinson Crusoe. In the “Journal” Defoe is looking back 57 years to when The Great Plague hit London, one year before The Great Fire would destroy just about anything that was left.

It’s a matter of fact that between 1840 and 1882 there were eight assassination attempts on the life of Queen Victoria, but in his suspenseful novel “The Darwin Affair,” Tim Mason adds a ninth, in 1860, and makes the target Prince Albert. The date is important: it’s just months after the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and concomitant with the Oxford University Museum debate on evolution featuring those famous antagonists – biologist and anthropologist Thomas Huxley and Anglican Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. Prince Albert wants to give Darwin a knighthood.

Before there was the Algonquin Round Table in New York in the ‘20s, a lunch group of literary bon vivants whose often quotable put downs would become famous, there was – and STILL IS – The Club, a unique London tavern assembly of intellectuals, started in 1764, that included some of the most dazzling verbal sharpshooters of the day.