Monthly Archives: April 2017

genealogical notes: Hart family of Southeastern Massachusetts


Hart family notes


Posted here (downloadable Word file above) are extensive notes I compiled over the course of several years on my New England Hart family ancestors. It was a very interesting family to research.

My maternal grandmother Annie C. Handy — nee Annie Congdon Hart — belonged to this family.

A key, but by no means my only, source was an indispensable, exhaustively researched, authoritative Hart family genealogy by James M. Hart that was published in 1903 and which carried the family genealogy right down to the family of my maternal grandmother. Interested family historians will see that I have mined just about every conceivable scrap of documentary evidence I could find in various archives and sources.

This report was compiled for the benefit of a Hart descendant who recently contacted me about a post on this site.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   April 2017

some thoughts about the criminal justice system


Posted on the New York Times website yesterday in response to an article in the Times about the decision to deny parole to Judith Clark, who was convicted of felony murder for her involvement in the 1981 Brink’s robbery and was sentenced to 75 years to life imprisonment.

— Roger W. Smith

   April 23, 2017




4.4% of the world’s population live in the United States, which we claim is the land of the free.

But, in the land of the free, we have 22% of the world’s prison population.

So, why do we say the US is the land of the free?

Our prison system is not designed to rehabilitate anyone. Nor is our criminal justice system, which has nothing to do with justice.

Our courts, prisons and parole system are all about punishment and revenge.



Paula in Michigan

What of the forgiveness that the Bible teaches us, especially in the New Testament? Are we not a Christian society? And if we are, are we only to pick and choose the verses of revenge to follow, and throw away the verse of forgiveness?

If that is what you believe, then you are no better than the radicals that preach hate such as ISIS, Boko Haram, or Al-Qaeda that incites the violence we are seeing daily around the world. The conservatives are always talking about how our country is built on Christian beliefs, but the conservatives are not very Christian.



F.H. in Munich, Germany

The principle of retaliation and the mirror principle are ideas of how criminal justice should work that go back to ancient times, retaliation also being a biblical concept. Willingly, albeit sometimes reluctant to admit that, many Americans seem to bask in such ancient concepts of punishment and justice.

I have the impression that a lot of people prefer interminable and capital punishment to quench their very personal thirst for what they call justice to a modern and much more sensible approach to lowering overall crime rates, thus making societies safer and “cities upon hills” whose positive examples want to be copied by other nations, which are no democracies yet.

If all these interminable imprisonments did anything to make the streets and homes safer, then why is it that almost all European countries, where punishments are mostly much milder and the overall incarceration rates are much lower than in the US, are much safer places than the US and have a tremendously lower murder rate than the US?

Vengeance has never been a good guideline to set a criminal justice system right. Open mindedness and real rehabilitation have already stood the test of being a much better approach to address crime. Last but not least, they are a direct consequence of ‘inalienable’ human rights.


Roger W. Smith

Excellent points. The disparity in length of sentences between the US and, say, the UK and Western Europe are egregious. Few commentators take note of this.



Kenneth Miller in New York City

The parole board wants to keep a symbol in jail: “You are still a symbol of a terroristic crime.” But for this they are condemning a human being, not a symbol, one who has by all accounts undergone a remarkable growth and transformation in her years in prison and become someone of great service and commitment to others.

Nothing justifies her crime but if we have the slightest belief in the idea of rehabilitation or redemption, the human being she is now deserves freedom, even though the young and undeveloped woman she once was is a symbol of something that deserves punishment.

Roger W. Smith

Yes. As William Blake pointed out, the particular matters — PEOPLE do. This is also true of those sentenced to death. “General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer” [Blake]. Judith Clark is (as were the victims of the crime she participated in) a person. Excellent points, well made.



William Meyers in Point Arena, CA

Murder is hard to forgive. It is odd that those assigned by society to engage in it on a regular basis — the police and military — are the least willing to forgive. The rebels of the Confederacy were forgiven. The war criminals of the Philippines War and Vietnam War were mostly never prosecuted. Harry Truman nuked two cities of civilians and was treated as a hero.


Ira Loewy in Miami

There are many inmates presently serving life sentences for non-violent drug offenses, some under so-called three strike laws. Before getting bent out of shape about a woman partially responsible for three heinous murders (whether she pulled the trigger or not as a willing participant in the crime she is at least partially responsible), people should wonder why inmates who are far less culpable than her remain behind bars. We need a system wide revision of sentencing regimes which warehouse people who are capable of being rehabilitated and returning to society.



Jan de Leeuw in Portland, OR

Prison sentences protect society from further asocial acts, until the person involved is rehabilitated. To use them as retribution is barbaric. After the Old Testament came the New Testament.

thoughts about Chekhov


Elisabeth Vandermeer has a wonderful site about Russian literature that has been attracting devotees: “A Russian Affair”

Her posts so far have been included her commentary on Tolstoy; Turgenev; Dostoevsky; Pushkin; Ivan Goncharov’s novel “Oblomov”; and, most recently, Chekhov.

Below are comments of mine about her post on Chekhov. The post on Chekhov is online at

Typically Chekhov


— Roger W. Smith

   April 2017



Elisabeth —

As always, I admired this post greatly.

You say so much, eloquently, in very few words.

Among comments of yours about Chekhov that struck me forcibly are the ones about Chekhov’s “sincerity and moderation” and about the important themes in his work, which you have digested impressively (should I say, marvelously?): “inner conflict, feelings of nostalgia, a longing for the past or a better future, hopelessness, lack of willpower and powerlessness.”

Also, that his characters want to escape their current situation, but can’t do so. And, your phrase “risk happiness in the mysterious unknown.”

You note, accurately, that Chekhov “never made a choice between literature and medicine.” I read that he charged patients on a sliding scale, depending on what they could afford to pay, and that he often treated patients for free.

“His characters are real, not purely good or evil,” you note. So true. What could we not learn from this when it comes to judging other people?

I realize that your post is not intended to be exhaustive or comprehensive — it accomplishes so much and is informative and enlightening. But, some other things that occurred to me:

Chekhov’s «Остров Сахалин» (The Island of Sakhalin) is a great nonfiction work and piece of journalism. It sometimes reads like a dry report, but its harrowing details are compelling on many levels.

“Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary” (1973) — translated by Michael Henry Heim; edited and annotated by Simon Karlinsky — is a wonderful edition of the letters. The commentary is outstanding. It gives a whole new picture of Chekhov.

I loved the portrait that you have used, and the photos. There are a few wonderful photos of Chekhov young. One in particular I remember is in the book (now hard to find) “Anton Chekhov and the Lady with the Dog” by Virginia Llewellyn Smith. It shows him as an adolescent, looking cherubic.

The Russian film Дама с собачкой (The Lady with the Dog; 1960), which is on YouTube, is outstanding.

Thanks again for this great post.

let them frolic!


“Sunday: we make it the dullest day in the week when it might be made the cheeriest. Will the people ever come to base ball, plays, concerts, yacht races, on Sundays? That would seem like clear weather after a rain. Why do you suppose people are so narrow-minded in their interpretation of the Sunday? If we read about Luther we find that he was not gloomy, not sad-devout, not sickly-religious: but a man full of blood who didn’t hesitate to outrage ascetic customs or play games if he felt like it on Sunday. The Catholic regards Sunday with a more nearly sane eye. It does seem as though the Puritan was responsible for our Sunday: the Puritan had his virtues but I for one owe him a grudge or two which I don’t hesitate to talk about loud enough to be heard.”

— Walt Whitman quoted by Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 2 (Sunday, September 2, 1888)


photographs by Roger W. Smith, April 2017

Juniper Valley Park 2-50 p.m. 4-9-2017

Juniper Valley Park 6-16 p.m. 4-12-2017 (2).jpg

Juniper Valley Park 6-16 p.m. 4-12-2017.jpg

Juniper Valley Park 10-22 a.m. 4-17-2017

Roger W. Smith, “On Rereading Theodore Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy’ “


‘thoughts on An American Tragedy’

I don’t have a Ph.D. and lack the academic qualifications of many literary scholars, yet I have a broad and deep knowledge of literature from a lifetime of reading. I also happen to be a Dreiserian (a devotee of Theodore Dreiser and his works).

When people ask me who my favorite writers are, I will mention a few, usually them same ones: Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, Charles Dickens, George Gissing, Robert Louis Stevenson, Balzac, Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman … and, Theodore Dreiser.

Dreiser is one of the first I mention. I always experience some embarrassment when I do so. He doesn’t seem to belong in such company.

Dreiser’s massive novel An American Tragedy — it is over 900 pages long — was the book which got me deeply into Dreiser; it bowled me over. I have read it at least twice.

I have been rereading portions of the novel recently. I am surprised how well it holds up and that much of its impact seems undiminished.

Yet Dreiser couldn’t write! Here’s what some commentators have said in the past about this:

Dreiser writes bunglingly and poorly. His style is groping, clumsy and crude, and sometimes even outrageous. He has no sense of form, and he constantly piles up irritating and useless detail. (guest contributor, Oakland Tribune, 1934)

His novels are excruciatingly long, clumsily written, with endless stretches of tedium and scarcely a single redeeming touch of lightness or humor. (Charles A. Fecher, Chicago Tribune, 1990)

Smooth prose composition eluded [Dreiser] forever. His style was raw, his sentences often bewildering, and he organized poorly. Dreiser’s major novels are structurally chaotic, causing one to wonder if he outlined his material before commencing a project. (Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1994)

To read Dreiser is to become aware of a flat declamatory tone apparently unconcerned with niceties of style. He has been described as the kind of writer who triumphs over his own deficiencies of style, and as a writer who rummages through his characters’ thoughts with the impatient thoroughness of a child left alone to explore the contents of an attic. (Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum, 2003)

[His] tales of the rise and fall of ordinary people in the Gilded Age retained their power despite slovenly diction, bad grammar, and the author’s penchant for surges of bombastic prose-poetry. (Scott McLemee, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2004)

Theodore Dreiser couldn’t write.

Or could he?

An American Tragedy has stock characters — notably Sondra Finchley, a 1920’s flapper, the love interest of Clyde Griffiths — who are unbelievable. Clyde is infatuated with the vain and emotionally vapid Sondra because of her wealth and social status.

Dreiser’s prose is turgid and leaden.

Dreiser copied whole chunks of the book from press accounts of an actual murder case. (An American Tragedy, Dreiser’s first and only bestseller, was published in 1925.)

Admitted, thricely. The charges against Dreiser qua writer, that is.

And, yet.

The Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 (upon which An American Tragedy was based) fixated public attention and still fascinates people today. It remained for Dreiser to make literature out of it — the way, say, Herman Melville (a far greater writer than Dreiser) made literature out of the sinking of the whaleship Essex in Moby-Dick. In so doing, Dreiser created a classic which far outranks his first novel Sister Carrie (which is more widely read).

The power of An American Tragedy is undeniable. It retains that power upon being reread.

Dreiser’s crude, flat prose style is just right for the narrative. I just opened, totally at random, to a page in my 1948 World Publishing Company edition of An American Tragedy. Book Two, Chapter XLV contains the following paragraph about Clyde Griffiths, the central character (Clyde was based a real life model, Chester Gillette):

And Clyde, listening at first with horror and in terror, later with a detached and philosophic calm as one who, entirely apart from what he may think or do, is still entitled to consider even the wildest and most desperate proposals for his release, at last, because of his own mental and material weakness before pleasures and dreams which he could not bring himself to forgo, psychically intrigued to the point where he was beginning to think that it might be possible. Why not? Was it not even as the voice said — a possible and plausible way — all his desires and dreams to be made real by this one evil thing? Yet in his case, because of flaws and weaknesses in his own unstable and highly variable will, the problem was not to be solved by thinking thus — then — nor for the next ten days for that matter.

Is this the prose of a James Joyce? Decidedly not. It is heavy on exposition (granted, this is an expository passage), perhaps too much so. That can be said of the entire book. Yet, there is something about Dreiser’s prose that, in the case of this novel, is extremely effective.

There is a sort of Joycean technique (believe it or not) operating here. The narrator, the author’s, voice is “representing,” standing in for, the thoughts of the character. We thereby enter Clyde’s consciousness.

This is true of the entire book. We are like bystanders of Clyde’s psyche. We are always present, observing him close up without authorial intervention. In fact, Dreiser, by “getting out of the way” — by not distinguishing between what is exposition and what is narration — has merged the two and made the book thereby ten times more powerful in its impact. We almost become Clyde. This makes the book very powerful, very effective.

The narrative flows artlessly yet effortlessly. We are drawn right in. We can’t desist.

To read the book is to identify with Clyde and his predicament. And, we can’t stop reading. It is also very readable because the style — to the extent there is one — aids and abets the story, fits right in with it, doesn’t get in the story’s way; is not pretentious; is entirely unaffected. It’s like some old timer sitting on his front porch and telling you a story he heard about once.

Here, at least, Dreiser gains by being non-literary. He wrote a classic.

An American Tragedy stands by itself. It is not allied with and wasn’t written as a response to or commentary on any literary fashion or trend. It is sui generis, autochthonous.

As was the case with its author, the book has muscled its way into the corpus of great American novels. It belongs there, even if few would care to admit it.

Even though it’s hardly ever taught nowadays in English courses.


— Roger W. Smith

  April 2017


A comment by Professor Emeritus Thomas Kranidas:

Roger — a fine defense. The novel has outlasted many more elegant and “accomplished” books by better writers who can not match the power of the novels that Dreiser has left us. And, “Tragedy” is the best of the bunch. — Tom K

my Revolutionary War ancestor


The following is the text of an email of mine to a friend today.

— Roger W. Smith, April 18, 2017



Scott —

My mother’s ancestral link to the Revolutionary War did not go back far.

Her great-great grandfather William Handy was a Revolutionary War soldier.

The line of descent:

Elinor Handy Smith, my mother (1918-1973)

her father Ralph E. Handy (1893-1947)

her grandfather Henry T. Handy (whaler; 1845-1916)

her great-grandfather Joshua Handy (1813-1887)

her great-great grandfather William Handy (1762-1852); the Revolutionary War soldier

All of the above named Handy males, with the exception of my mother’s father, were mariners. They all lived on Cape Cod.

William Handy joined the Continental Army in June 1780, when he was just shy of age 18. He enlisted in Massachusetts. Records indicate that during his service he was in New York state and New Jersey.

Thoreau on walking


Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walking’ – The Atlantic Monthly, June 1862


I just returned from a morning “ramble” of around two and a half hours. I woke up feeling woolly-headed and like I needed more sleep. As usual, the walk took care of that; my symptoms abated and then went away.

For me, it was not a particularly long walk. Four or five miles is no big deal. I hope I don’t sound like I’m full of myself.

The summer before last (2015), I was averaging four or five hours of walking a day, usually done in two separate walks — morning and afternoon — but I have tapered off lately.

Henry David Thoreau published a famous essay, “Walking,” in The Atlantic Monthly of June 1862. He says:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least [italics added]–and it is commonly more than that–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. … When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them–as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon–I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

Thoreau’s essay is posted here (above) as a downloadable PDF file.


— Roger W. Smith

    April 2017



See also: my post on walking and exercise at

Walt Whitman on autobiography


“What a gain it would be, if we could forgo some of the heavy tomes, the fruit of an age of toil and scientific study, for the simple easy truthful narrative of the existence and experience of a man of genius,—how his mind unfolded in his earliest years—the impressions things made upon him—how and where and when the religious sentiment dawned in him—what he thought of God before he was inoculated with books’ ideas—the development of his soul—when he first loved—the way circumstance imbued his nature, and did him good, or worked him ill—with the long train of occurrences, adventures, mental processes, exercises within, and trials without, which go to make up the man—for character is the man, after all.”

— Walt Whitman, review of The Autobiography of Goethe, Truth and Poetry: From My Life, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 28, 1847

Samuel Johnson on NOT keeping secrets


Samuel Johnson on secrets (Rambler no. 13)

explication – Samuel Johnson on secrets


The following are excerpts from an essay by Samuel Johnson — one of the greatest essayists of all time — on the keeping (which, in practice, usually means not keeping) of secrets.

Quotes from Johnson are in bold, followed by my explication.

See also downloadable Word documents, above.


— Roger W. Smith

     April 2017


Note: The entire essay, Rambler No. 13. “The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets,” by Samuel Johnson, is available online at

No. 13. The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets.



“The vanity of being known to be trusted with a secret is generally one of the chief motives to disclose it; for, however absurd it may be thought to boast an honour by an act which shews that it was conferred without merit, yet most men seem rather inclined to confess the want of virtue than of importance, and more willingly shew their influence, though at the expense of their probity, than glide through life with no other pleasure than the private consciousness of fidelity; which, while it is preserved, must be without praise, except from the single person who tries and knows it.”

— excerpt from Samuel Johnson, “The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets,” The Rambler No. 13, May 1, 1750



EXPLICATION (Johnson’s words are in boldface)

“The vanity of being known to be trusted with a secret is generally one of the chief motives to disclose it”

The minute we are told a secret, it piques our vanity. We feel a sense of pride and importance that the person who told it to us chose us to entrust it to.


“however absurd it may be thought to boast an honour by an act which shews that it was conferred without merit

If we cannot be trusted to keep the secret, then we were not a good choice to confide in, were we? Since this is true, why are we nevertheless so proud of having been confided in?


“yet most men seem rather inclined to confess the want of virtue than of importance”

We feel so important in having been confided in — and so fortunate (because now we know something that others don’t and that they would like to) — that we brush off whatever compunction we might have about not keeping the secret confidential.


“and more willingly shew their influence, though at the expense of their probity, than glide through life with no other pleasure than the private consciousness of fidelity”

If we keep the secret and never tell it, we can say to ourselves, “I kept the secret as promised.” No one is going to give us credit for this, however, because no one knows about the secret (since we kept or lip buttoned). But “at the expense of … probity” (violating our pledge not to tell), we find it hard to resist the temptation to tell the secret to someone else, because that way we will be in the position of having shared something of value with them, which will give us credit in their eyes. We can bestow a “gift” om someone of our choosing at no cost to us.


“which, while it is preserved, must be without praise, except from the single person who tries and knows it.”

Johnson was famous for parallelism. He would repeat himself in eloquent parallel constructions. Here he says what he has already said: if we keep the secret, the only praise we will get is our own self-praise and (possibly, though unlikely) the praise of the person who told us it. We can gain much more praise and credit and tickle our vanity by telling the secret to others. They will value us as being the person who told them something they didn’t know, which, if disclosed, others would be eager to know.


“Secrets are very frequently told in the first ardour of kindness, or of love, for the sake of proving, by so important a sacrifice, sincerity or tenderness; but with this motive, though it be strong in itself, vanity concurs, since every man desires to be most esteemed by those whom he loves, or with whom he converses, with whom he passes his hours of pleasure, and to whom he retires from business and from care.” — excerpt (paragraph) from Samuel Johnson, “The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets,” The Rambler No. 13, May 1, 1750

We bestow secrets on another out of what we conceive, perhaps, to be good motives. We think to ourselves — and say to our confidant, “_______ told me not to tell, but I am going to tell YOU something he (or she) told me.” By doing this, we delude ourselves with the fatuous notion that we are being benevolent. Actually, what we are doing is stroking our vanity, as Johnson points, out, and attempting to curry favor. What really motivates us is not altruistic motives, but, instead, the desire of winning “brownie points” with the person we have confided the secret to. “Yes, I betrayed _______’s confidence, but just think, my stock has increased in value with my respect to _______ [my friend]: he or she will value me more highly.”

Roger W. Smith, review of Bill Clinton, “My Life”


Posted below — in alternative formats — is a book review by Roger W. Smith of Bill Clinton’s memoir, “My Life,” published in the Indianapolis Star, June 26, 2004.

Roger Smith review of Bill Clinton autobio


Roger Smith review of Bill Clinton autobio.jpg