War of the Worlds (Who Scared Who?)

My first experience with War of the Worlds was pretty frightening, to say the least. It was in second grade, and I was sick with pink eye on Halloween day. I was home with Dad, and for reasons I can’t remember why anymore, we decided to watch the 1953 classic War of the Worlds. Though I thought I was brave enough for an ‘old people’ movie, I never made it to the end. Too scary for me. And to this day, I haven’t ever gone back and finished the film. Maybe I never will, who knows?

war of the worlds ship.jpg

 

A lot of accounts of the famous 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds sound like my own experience with the terrifying tale of alien invasion. There are a lot of newspaper headlines from the next day that read “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama on as Fact,” or something similar, painting a picture of masses of listeners confused, scared, or some mix of emotions that resulted in general panic and outrage. As a result, fire was added to ongoing debates about radio and its influence on society, and Orson Welles earned a reputation as a dramatic actor that would help him have a long and storied career.

Orson Welles
Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Now, there seem to be two schools of thought about the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast and its reception: 1- it scared tons of people, or 2- it didn’t scare anyone at all. Its easy to search the internet for sensational headlines about the War of the Worlds panic, and there are still a lot of accounts of millions of Americans who believed that invasion was upon them. In 1940 Hadley Cantril, a big name at the time in radio research, co-authored a book with Herta Herzog and Hazel Gaudet called The Invasion from Mars. Using data from the American Institute of Public Opinion, the book claimed that over one million people believed that the broadcast was a report of a real-life invasion and was not made-up at all. Continue reading “War of the Worlds (Who Scared Who?)”

Are You a Cowboy or a Colonel?

“’Jim,’ said he, ‘here are two gentlemen going to Deadwood, Dakota. What is it that has occurred at Deadwood lately? Haven’t the Indians scalped the whole population?”
“’No,’ said Jim, throwing himself back in his chair and lifting his eyes to the ceiling with an air of deep meditation. ‘It is in Colorado where that took place, it was not in Dakota.’”
“’Then the cow-boys have taken possession of the city, and burnt the whole of some quarter.’’”
“’No; that was in Montana.’”
“’Ah yes, you are right. It is a flood: I remember now. The river overflowed and carried away all the city. It was last month.’”
“’Ah! After all, it is some weeks since that. The post-office must be restored and reopened.’” (2)

For such a cool book that was really popular in its day, you have to do some searching to find out more about Edmond Mandat-de Grancey and his book, Cow-boys and Colonels. Originally written as a series of newspaper articles about the French baron’s travels in the Dakota Territory, it was popular enough to have been published as a book in 1887, translated into English, and made de Grancey a successful travel writer for the rest of his life (he later wrote travel stories from trips to the Eastern U.S., Ireland, and a couple of other locations too). 75 years later, it was republished by Yale University as part of their Western Americana series but has since been out of print and isn’t easy to find.

I came across this book purely by chance, one of those happy accidents that you read about in book introductions or articles about discoveries in dark and dusty libraries. Well, McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland is a little dark and dusty, and it is where this story began for me. A few years ago, I was there on the sixth or seventh floor to get some books for a paper I was writing.

books
My adventure began in a row just like this. Photo Credit: UMD Libraries

If I remember right, I was walking down a row of books looking for the right call number, and I happened to notice the faded title on a book: Cow-boys and Colonels. That was enough to get me to take the book off the shelf.

It was a rebound copy, pretty worn and unremarkable looking, but for some reason I decided to open it up and read the first few pages. Well, that was enough to get me hooked. I sat down on the floor and  ended up reading the first chapter right there in the stacks before I decided to check the book out and be on my way. I wish I had more lucky library stories like this one! I think its always worth it to wander and browse around your library, there’s always something you’ll never, ever find on the internet or in a catalog, you just have to look at the shelf.

In the busy-ness of graduate school, Cow-boys and Colonels sat on my bookshelf for two years before I picked it up again. I kept on renewing it hoping that I’d have to time to read it but never did. But before I knew it, I had graduated and had to return all my books back to the library. As I packed the book into my backpack to take back to UMD, I remembered how cool it was and that I never had a chance to read it. So, I wrote down the title and added it to my list of books to read for fun now that I wasn’t in school anymore. Half a year after that, I finally got my own copy of the book, a Christmas present from my father-in-law. He has his own farm in Missouri and I don’t think he’d mind having a ranch in the Dakotas, so I think the book title stuck out to him too. I’m finally finished reading now, three and a half years after I discovered it. Well, it was definitely worth the wait! Continue reading “Are You a Cowboy or a Colonel?”