Historically Speaking: The Business and Pleasure of Dining Out

The food service industry will eventually overcome the pandemic, just as it bounced back from ancient Roman bans and Prohibition.

The Wall Street Journal

September 24, 2020

It remains anyone’s guess what America’s once-vibrant restaurant scene will look like in 2021. At the beginning of this year, there were 209 Michelin-starred restaurants in the U.S. This month, the editors of the Michelin Guide announced that just 29 had managed to reopen after the pandemic lockdown.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The food-service industry has always had to struggle. In the Roman Empire, the typical eatery was the thermopolium, a commercial kitchen that sold mulled wine and a prepared meal—either to-go or, in larger establishments, to eat at the counter. They were extremely popular among the working poor—archaeologists have found over 150 in Pompeii alone—and therefore regarded with suspicion by the authorities. In 41 A.D., Emperor Claudius ordered a ban on thermopolia, but the setback was temporary at best.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, the “cook shop” served a similar function for the poor. For the wealthier sort, however, it was surprisingly difficult to find places to eat out. Only a few monasteries and taverns provided hospitality. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century comic travelogue “The Canterbury Tales,” the pilgrims have to bring their own cook, Roger of Ware, who is said to be an expert at roasting, boiling, broiling and frying.

To experience restaurant-style dining with separate tables, waiters and a menu, one had to follow in the footsteps of the Venetian merchant Marco Polo to the Far East. The earliest prototype of the modern restaurant developed in Kaifeng, the last capital of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), to accommodate its vast transient population of merchants and officials. The accumulation of so many rich and homesick men led to a boom in sophisticated eateries offering meals cooked to order.

Europe had nothing similar until the French began to experiment with different forms of public catering in the 1760s. These new places advertised themselves as a healthy alternative to the tavern, offering restorative soups and broths—hence their name, the restaurant.

In 1782, this rather humble start inspired Antoine Beauvilliers to open the first modern restaurant, La Grande Taverne de Londres, which unashamedly replicated the luxury of royal dining. By the 1800s, the term “restaurant” in any language meant a superior establishment serving refined French cuisine.

In 1830, two Swiss brothers, John and Peter Delmonico, opened the first restaurant in the U.S., Delmonico’s in New York. It was a temple of haute cuisine, with uniformed waiters, imported linens and produce grown on a dedicated farm. What’s more, diners could make reservations ahead of time and order either a la carte or prix fixe—all novel concepts in 19th century America.

Delmonico’s reign lasted until Prohibition, which forced thousands of U.S. restaurants out of business, unable to survive without alcohol sales. During that time, the only growth in the restaurant trade was in illegal speakeasies and family-friendly diners. Yet in 1934, just one year after Prohibition’s repeal, the art deco-themed Rainbow Room opened its doors at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Out of the ashes of the old, a new age of elegance had begun.

Historically Speaking: Women Who Made the American West

From authors to outlaws, female pioneers helped to shape frontier society.

The Wall Street Journal

September 9, 2020

On Sept. 14, 1920, Connecticut became the 37th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. The exercise was largely symbolic, since ratification had already been achieved thanks to Tennessee on August 18. Still, the fact that Connecticut and the rest of the laggard states were located in the eastern part of the U.S. wasn’t a coincidence. Though women are often portrayed in Westerns as either vixens or victims, they played a vital role in the life of the American frontier.

The outlaw Belle Starr, born Myra Belle Shirley, in 1886.
PHOTO: ROEDER BROTHERS/BUYENLARGE/GETTY IMAGES

Louisa Ann Swain of Laramie, Wyo., was the first woman in the U.S. to vote legally in a general election, in September 1870. The state was also ahead of the pack in granting women the right to sit on a jury, act as a justice of the peace and serve as a bailiff. Admittedly, it wasn’t so much enlightened thinking that opened up these traditionally male roles as it was the desperate shortage of women. No white woman crossed the continent until 17-year-old Nancy Kelsey traveled with her husband from Missouri to California in 1841. Once there, as countless pioneer women subsequently discovered, the family’s survival depended on her ability to manage without his help.

Women can and must fend for themselves was the essential message in the ‘”Little House on the Prairie” series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was brought up on a series of homesteads in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 1870s. Independence was so natural to her that she refused to say “I obey” in her marriage vows, explaining, “even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgment.”

Although the American frontier represented incredible hardship and danger, for many women it also offered a unique kind of freedom. They could forge themselves anew, seizing opportunities that would have been impossible for women in the more settled and urbanized parts of the country.

This was especially true for women of color. Colorado’s first Black settler was a former slave named Clara Brown, who won her freedom in 1856 and subsequently worked her way west to the gold-mining town of Central City. Recognizing a need in the market, she founded a successful laundry business catering to miners and their families. Some of her profits went to buy land and shares in mines; the rest she spent on philanthropy, earning her the nickname “Angel of the Rockies.” After the Civil War, Brown made it her mission to locate her lost family, ultimately finding a grown-up daughter, Eliza.

However, the flip of side of being able to “act like men” was that women had to be prepared to die like men, too. Myra Belle Shirley, aka Belle Starr, was a prolific Texas outlaw whose known associates included the notorious James brothers. Despite a long criminal career that mainly involved bootlegging and fencing stolen horses, Starr was convicted only once, resulting in a nine-month prison sentence in the Detroit House of Correction. Her luck finally ran out in 1889, two days before her 41st birthday. By now a widow for the third time, Belle was riding alone in Oklahoma when she was shot and killed in an ambush. The list of suspects included her own children, although the murder was never solved.

HistoricallySpeaking: How Fear of Sharks Became an American Obsession

Since colonial times, we’ve dreaded what one explorer called ‘the most ravenous fish known in the sea’

The Wall Street Journal

August 27, 2020

There had never been a fatal shark incident in Maine until last month’s shocking attack on a woman swimmer by a great white near Bailey Island in Casco Bay. Scientists suspect that the recent rise in seal numbers, rather than the presence of humans, was responsible for luring the shark inland.

A great white shark on the attack.
PHOTO: CHRIS PERKINS / MEDIADRUMWORLD / ZUMA PRESS

It’s often said that sharks aren’t the bloodthirsty killing machines portrayed in the media. In 2019 there were only 64 shark attacks world-wide, with just two fatalities. Still, they are feared for good reason.

The ancient Greeks knew well the horror that could await anyone unfortunate enough to fall into the wine-dark sea. Herodotus recorded how, in 492 B.C., a Persian invasion fleet of 300 ships was heading toward Greece when a sudden storm blew up around Mt. Athos. The ships broke apart, tossing some 20,000 men into the water. Those who didn’t drown immediately were “devoured” by sharks.

The Age of Discovery introduced European explorers not just to new landmasses but also to new shark species far more dangerous than the ones they knew at home. In a narrative of his 1593 journey to the South Seas, the explorer and pirate Richard Hawkins described the shark as “the most ravenous fishe knowne in the sea.”

It’s believed that the first deadly shark attack in the U.S. took place in 1642 at Spuyten Duyvil, an inlet on the Hudson River north of Manhattan. Antony Van Corlaer was attempting to swim across to the Bronx when a giant fish was seen to drag him under the water.

But the first confirmed American survivor of a shark attack was Brook Watson, a 14-year-old sailor from Boston. In 1749, Watson was serving on board a merchant ship when he was attacked while swimming in Cuba’s Havana Harbor. Fortunately, his crewmates were able to launch a rowboat and pull him from the water, leaving Watson’s right foot in the shark’s mouth.

Despite having a wooden leg, Watson enjoyed a successful career at sea before returning to his British roots to enter politics. He ended up serving as Lord Mayor of London and becoming Sir Brook Watson. His miraculous escape was immortalized by his friend the American painter John Singleton Copley. “Watson and the Shark” was completely fanciful, however, since Copley had never seen a shark.

The American relationship with sharks was changed irrevocably during the summer of 1916. The East Coast was gripped by both a heat wave and a polio epidemic, leaving the beach as one of the few safe places for Americans to relax. On July 1, a man was killed by a shark on Long Beach Island off the New Jersey coast. Over the next 10 days, sharks in the area killed three more people and left one severely injured. In the ensuing national uproar, President Woodrow Wilson offered federal funds to help get rid of the sharks, an understandable but impossible wish.

The Jersey Shore attacks served as an inspiration for Peter Benchley’s bestselling 1974 novel “Jaws,” which was turned into a blockbuster film the next year by Steven Spielberg. Since then the shark population in U.S. waters has dropped by 60%, in part due to an increase in shark-fishing inspired by the movie. Appalled by what he had unleashed, Benchley spent the last decades of his life campaigning for shark conservation.

Historically Speaking: The Sharp Riposte as a Battle Tactic

Caustic comebacks have been exchanged between military leaders for millennia, from the Spartans to World War II

The Wall Street Journal

August 6, 2020

In the center of Bastogne, Belgium (pop. 16,000), there is a statue of U.S. Army General Anthony C. McAuliffe, who died 45 years ago this week. It’s a small town with a big history. Bastogne came under attack during the final German offensive of World War II, known as the Battle of the Bulge. The town was the gateway to Antwerp, a vital port for the Allies, and all that stood between the Germans and their objective was Gen. McAuliffe and his 101st Airborne Division. Despite being outnumbered by a factor of four to one, he refused to surrender, fighting on until Gen. George Patton’s reinforcements could break the siege.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

While staving off the German attack, Gen. McAuliffe uttered the greatest comeback of the war. A typewritten ultimatum from Commander Heinrich von Lüttwitz of the 47th German Panzer Corps gave him two hours to surrender the town or face “annihilation.” With ammunition running low and casualties mounting, the general made his choice. He sent back the following typed reply:

December 22, 1944

To the German Commander,

N U T S !

The American Commander

The true laconic riposte is extremely rare. The Spartans, whose ancient homeland of Lakonia inspired the term “laconic,” were masters of the art. When Philip II of Macedon ordered them to open their borders, he warned them, “For if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people and raze your city.” According to the later account of the Greek philosopher Plutarch, they sent back a one-word message: ‘If’.

Once the age of the Spartans passed, it took more than a millennium for the laconic comeback to return in earnest. The man most responsible was a colorful Teutonic knight called Götz von Berlichingen, who participated in countless German conflicts, uprisings and skirmishes, including the Swabian War between the Hapsburgs and the Swiss. He lost a hand to a cannonball and wore an iron prosthesis (hence his nickname, Götz of the Iron Hand). In 1515, sick of trading insults with an opponent who wouldn’t come out to fight, Götz abruptly ended the conversation with: “soldt mich hinden leckhenn,” which literally meant “kiss my ass.”

He recorded the encounter in his memoirs, but it remained little known until Johann Wolfgang von Goethe adapted Götz’s autobiography into a successful play in 1773. From then on, the insult was popularly known in Germany as a “Swabian salute.”

In his novel “Les Misérables,” Victor Hugo—possibly inspired by Goethe—immortalized the French defeat in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo with a scene of spectacular, if laconic, defiance that incorporated France’s most common expletive. According to Hugo, Gen. Pierre Cambronne, commander of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Imperial Guard, fought to the last syllable in the face of overwhelming force. Encircled by the British army, “They could hear the sound of the guns being reloaded and see the lighted slow matches gleaming like the eyes of tigers in the dusk. An English general called out to them, ‘Brave Frenchmen, will you not surrender?’ Cambronne answered, ‘Merde’” (that is, “shit”).

The scene’s veracity is still hotly debated, the fog of war making memories hazy. But Cambronne—who survived—later disavowed it, especially after “le mot de Cambronne’’ (Cambronne’s word) became a common euphemism for the profanity.

Historically Speaking: The American Invention of Summer Camp

Since 1876, children have looked forward to their long vacation as a time to build friendships and character.

July  23, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

Hello Muddah, hello Faddah,/Here I am at Camp Granada…

With more than half of the country’s 14,000 summer camps temporarily closed because of Covid-19, millions of children are missing out on experiences that have helped to shape young Americans for nearly 150 years.

I went hiking with Joe Spivey/He developed poison ivy…

Hayley Mills plays twins who meet at summer camp in ‘The Parent Trap’ (1961).
PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

The idea that a spell in the great outdoors builds character has ancient roots. The Spartans practiced a particularly rigorous form: When a warrior-in-training reached the age of 12, he was sent into the wilderness for a year. Those who gave up were barred from attaining full citizenship.

And the head coach wants no sissies/ so he reads to us from something called Ulysses…

But the modern summer camp can be traced to the Transcendentalist movement of the 1830s and ‘40s. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were ardent proselytizers for learning to live at one with nature. Their message resonated with the environmentalist Joseph T. Rothrock, who founded the country’s first sleep-away camp, the North Mountain School of Physical Culture, in 1876 near Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Rothrock believed he could take “weakly boys” from the city and rehabilitate them into healthy young men.

Ernest Balch was moved by ‘the miserable condition of boys from well-to-do families” who spent their summers living in hotels, rather than out in nature. He was still a Dartmouth College student when he founded Camp Chocorura in New Hampshire in 1881. Its emphasis on self-reliance and character-building became the blueprint for other summer camps.

You remember Jeffrey Hardy /They’re about to organize a searching party…

By 1918 there were over 1,000 in the U.S. Charles W. Eliot, a former president of Harvard, went so far as to declare in 1922 that summer camp was “the most important step in education that America has given the world.”

This would have been news to Britain, where Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement, had been running his own summer camp since 1907. But American camps were unique in their diversity, with options for every faith and political creed. The oldest camp for Black children, Camp Atwater, was founded in North Brookfleld, Mass., in 1921, at a time when summer camping was segregated; it is still going strong today.

Take me home, oh Muddah, Faddah…

Summer camp retained a wholesome image for decades. Films such as “The Parent Trap” (1961), starring Hayley Mills as separated twin sisters who are unexpectedly reunited at a summer camp, focused on innocent fun. But darker themes were coming. The “Friday the 13th” franchise, launched in 1980, has a higher body count than many war films, with much of the carnage taking place at the fictional Camp Crystal Lake.

Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing /Guys are swimming, guys are sailing…

But summer camps continued to grow. By the mid-2010s, according to the American Camp Association, they were an $18 billion industry serving 14 million campers every year. The disappointment of missing camp this summer will hopefully make it even more joyful to return next year. As Allan Sherman’s beloved satire concludes: Muddah, Faddah, kindly disregard this letter.

Historically Speaking: The Delicious Evolution of Mayonnaise

Ancient Romans ate a pungent version, but the modern egg-based spread was created by an 18th-century French chef.

July 9, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

I can’t imagine a summer picnic without mayonnaise—in the potato salad, the veggie dips, the coleslaw, and yes, even on the french fries. It feels like a great dollop of pure Americana in a creamy, satisfying sort of way. But like a lot of what makes our country so successful, mayonnaise originally came from somewhere else.

Where, exactly, is one of those food disputes that will never be resolved, along with the true origins of baklava pastry, hummus and the pisco sour cocktail. In all likelihood, the earliest version of mayonnaise was an ancient Roman concoction of garlic and olive oil, much praised for its medicinal properties by Pliny the Elder in his first-century encyclopedia “Naturalis Historia.” This strong-tasting, aioli-like proto-mayonnaise remained a southern Mediterranean specialty for millennia.

But most historians believe that modern mayonnaise was born in 1756 in the port city of Mahon, in the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain. At the start of the Seven Years’ War between France and Britain, the French navy, led by the Duc de Richelieu, smashed Admiral Byng’s poorly armed fleet at the Battle of Minorca. (Byng was subsequently executed for not trying hard enough.) While preparing the fish course for Richelieu’s victory dinner, his chef coped with the lack of cream on the island by ingeniously substituting a goo of eggs mixed with oil and garlic.

The anonymous cook took the recipe for “mahonnaise” back to France, where it was vastly improved by Marie-Antoine Careme, the founder of haute cuisine. Careme realized that whisking rather than simply stirring the mixture created a soft emulsion that could be used in any number of dishes, from the savory to the sweet.

It wasn’t just the French who fell for Careme’s version. Mayonnaise blended easily with local cuisines, evolving into tartar sauce in Eastern Europe, remoulades in the Baltic countries and salad dressing in Britain. By 1838, the menu at the iconic New York restaurant Delmonico’s featured lobster mayonnaise as a signature dish.

All that whisking, however, made mayonnaise too laborious for home cooks until the invention of the mechanical eggbeater, first patented by the Black inventor Willis Johnson, of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1884. “Try it once,” gushed Good Housekeeping magazine in 1889, “and you’ll never go back to the old way as long as you live.”

Making mayonnaise was one thing, preserving it quite another, since the raw egg made it spoil quickly. The conundrum was finally solved in 1912 by Richard Hellmann, a German-American deli owner in New York. By using his own trucks and factories, Hellmann was able to manufacture and transport mayonnaise faster. And in a revolutionary move, he designed the distinctive wide-necked Hellmann’s jar, encouraging liberal slatherings of mayo and thereby speeding up consumption.

Five years later, Eugenia Duke of North Carolina created Duke’s mayonnaise, which is eggier and has no sugar. The two brands are still dueling it out. But when it comes to eating, there are no winners and losers in the mayo department, just 14 grams of fat and 103 delicious calories per tablespoon.

Historically Speaking: Pioneers of America’s Black Press

Since the early 19th century, African-American publications have built community and challenged injustice.

June 18, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

It isn’t enough to have a voice, it must also be used and heard. “Too long have others spoken for us,” announced the first issue of Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned and operated newspaper in the U.S. Founded by Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm in 1827, the weekly New York City paper published news and opinions; almost equally important, it provided an advertising platform for black businesses, charities and organizations. During its two-year run, Freedom’s Journal reached 50,000 households in 11 states, helping to foster a sense of community and pride among the free but disenfranchised African-Americans of the North.

Journalist Ida B. Wells, ca. 1893.
PHOTO: ALAMY

Black-owned newspapers multiplied in the decades before the Civil War. Some were abolitionist, such as Frederick Douglass’s The North Star, founded in Rochester, N.Y., in 1847. Others were religious: The Christian Recorder, the official periodical of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded in 1848 and is still published today, making it the longest-running African-American periodical.

Black journalists were often targeted for violence by whites. In 1892, the lynching of three black men in Memphis, Tenn., prompted the young Ida B. Wells to begin an anti-lynching crusade in the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, the newspaper she co-owned and edited. Her courageous reporting brought international attention to the atrocities taking place with impunity in the South. But it also made her a marked woman: The newspaper’s staff was attacked and its office burned down. Wells left Memphis and urged her readers to do the same: “There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave.”

In the early 20th century, the Chicago Defender was one of the most influential papers in the U.S., black or white. Its aggressive championing of what would become known as “The Great Migration” helped persuade many African-Americans to move to Chicago and other Northern cities. Literature and the arts were nourished by The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the NAACP. Founded in 1910 by W.E.B. DuBois, it featured up-and-coming black writers such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.

The influence of black-owned newspapers sometimes incurred the wrath of the U.S. government. During World War II, the Pittsburgh Courier campaigned for equal rights for black soldiers, leading FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to try to charge its publishers with treason. The effort was thwarted by other members of the Roosevelt administration, and black newspapers continued to play a vital role in the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

But barriers remained. In 1968, Coretta Scott King had to demand that the press pool covering her husband’s funeral include a black photographer. Moneta Sleet of Ebony magazine was selected and his photograph of Mrs. King and her daughter went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, making him the first African-American man to receive the award.

The Pulitzer confirmed Ebony’s status as the leading black publication in the U.S. Founded by John H. Johnson in 1945, by the early 2000s it was read by almost 40% of all African-American adults, giving it a clout that corporate America couldn’t afford to ignore.

The black press is continually evolving and expanding, from the women’s magazine Essence, which celebrated its 50th birthday this year, to Blavity, a web magazine for millennials launched in 2014. The current Black Lives Matter protests show just how vital these voices continue to be.

Historically Speaking: Golfing With Emperors and Presidents

From medieval Scotland to the White House, the game has appealed to the powerful as well as the common man.

June 3, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

The history of golf is a tale of two sports: one played by the common man, the other by kings and presidents. The plebeian variety came first. Paganica, a game played with a bent stick and a hard ball stuffed with feathers, was invented by Roman soldiers as a way to relieve the monotony of camp life. It is believed that a version of Paganica was introduced to Scotland when the Roman emperor Septimius Severus invaded the country in 208 A.D.

Golf buddies Arnold Palmer (left) and Dwight Eisenhower.
PHOTO: AUGUSTA NATIONAL/GETTY IMAGES

Golf might also have been influenced by stick-and-ball games from other cultures, such as the medieval Chinese chuiwan (“hit-ball”) and Dutch colf, an indoor game using rubber balls and heavy clubs. But the game we know today originated in the 15th century on the Links—the long, grassy sand dunes that are such a distinctive feature of Scotland’s coastline. The terrain was perfect for all-weather play, as well as for keeping out of sight of the authorities: Scottish kings prohibited the game until 1502, anxious that it would interfere with archery practice.

Two years after lifting the ban, King James IV of Scotland played the first recorded golf match while staying at Falkland Palace near St. Andrews. In theory, anyone could play on the Links since it was common land. Starting in 1754, however, access was controlled by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, known today as the “Home of Golf.” The R & A did much to standardize the rules of the game, while cementing golf’s reputation as an aristocratic activity.

In the 19th century, innovations in lawn care and ball manufacturing lowered the cost of golf, but the perception of elitism persisted. When William Howard Taft ran for president in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt urged him to beware of projecting an upper-crust image: “photographs on horseback, yes; tennis, no. And golf is fatal.” Taft ignored Roosevelt’s advice, as did Woodrow Wilson, who played more rounds of golf—nearly 1,200 in all—than any other president. He even played in the snow, using a black-painted ball.

Wilson’s record was nearly matched by Dwight Eisenhower, who so loved the game that he had a putting green installed outside the Oval Office in 1954. At first the media criticized his fondness for a rich man’s game. But that changed after Arnold Palmer, one of the greatest and most charismatic golfers in history, became Eisenhower’s friend and regular golf partner. The frequent sight of the president and the sports hero playing together made golf appear attractive, aspirational and above all accessible, inspiring millions of ordinary Americans to try the game for the first time.

But that popularity has been dented in recent years. The number of golfers in the U.S. dropped from a high of 30 million in 2005 to 24.1 million in 2015. In addition to being pricey, golf is still criticized for being snobby. Earlier this year, Brooks Koepka, a professional golfer once ranked number one in the world, told GQ that he loved the game but not “the stuffy atmosphere that comes along with it.” “Golf has always had this persona of the triple-pleated khaki pants, the button-up shirt, very country club atmosphere,” he complained. Now that almost all of the country’s golf courses have reopened from pandemic-related shutdowns, golf has a new opportunity to make every player feel included.

Historically Speaking: Sleuthing Through the Ages

Illustration by Dominic Bugatto

From Oedipus to Sherlock Holmes, readers have flocked to stories about determined detectives.

May 21, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

I have to confess that I’ve spent the lockdown reading thrillers and whodunits. But judging by the domination of mystery titles on the bestseller lists, so has nearly everyone else. In uncertain times, crime fiction offers certainty, resolution and comfort.

The roots of the genre go back to the ancient Greeks. Sophocles’s “Oedipus the King,” written around 429 B.C., is in essence a murder mystery. The play begins with Oedipus swearing that he will not rest until he discovers who killed Laius, the previous king of Thebes. Like a modern detective, Oedipus questions witnesses and follows clues until the terrible truth is revealed: He is both the investigator and the criminal, having unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother.

The Chinese were the first to give crime fiction a name. Gong’an or “magistrate’s desk” literature developed during the Song dynasty (960-1279), featuring judges who recount the details of a difficult or dangerous case. Modern Western crime fiction adopted a more individualistic approach, making heroes out of amateurs. The 1819 novella “Mademoiselle de Scuderi,” by the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, is an early prototype: The heroine, an elderly writer, helps to solve a serial murder case involving stolen jewelry.

But it is Edgar Allan Poe who is generally regarded as the godfather of detective fiction. His short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” published in 1841, features an amateur sleuth, Auguste Dupin, who solves the mysterious, gruesome deaths of two women. (Spoiler: The culprit was an escaped orangutan.) Poe invented some of the genre’s most important devices, including the “locked room” puzzle, in which a murder takes place under seemingly impossible conditions.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series added three innovations that quickly became conventions: the loyal sidekick, the arch-villain and the use of forensic science. In the violin-playing, drug-abusing Holmes, Doyle also created a psychologically complex character who enthralled readers—too much for Doyle’s liking. Desperate to be considered a literary writer, he killed off Holmes in 1893, only to be forced by public demand to resurrect him 12 years later.

When Doyle published his last Holmes story in 1927, the “Golden Age” of British crime fiction was in full swing. Writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers created genteel detectives who solved “cozy crimes” in upper-middle-class settings, winning a huge readership and inspiring American imitators like S.S. Van Dine, the creator of detective Philo Vance, who published a list of “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.”

As violence and corruption increased under Prohibition, American mystery writing turned toward more “hard-boiled” social realism. In Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler’s noir fiction, dead bodies in libraries are replaced by bloody corpses in cars.

At the time, critics quarreled about which type of mystery was superior, though both can seem old-fashioned compared with today’s spy novels and psychological thrillers. The number of mystery subgenres seems to be infinite. Yet one thing will never change: our yearning for a hero who is, in Raymond Chandler’s words, “the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”

 

Historically Speaking: Pets and the Humans Who Loved Them

From prehistoric times to the age of Covid-19, people have looked to animals for companionship.

May 7, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

Americans have been adopting pets at a record pace since the pandemic began. It’s as if the crisis has intensified our need for animal companionship, which goes back a long way. Scientists agree that dogs were the first species to form a relationship with humans: Inside Chauvet Cave, a Paleolithic site in southern France, archaeologists recently found 26,000-year-old canine paw prints alongside those of a human child.

John Steinbeck with his dog Charley.
PHOTO: BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Humans kept animals as companions long before we domesticated livestock like sheep, goats and cattle, some 10,000 years ago. By contrast, horses were only tamed in Eurasia around 6,000 years ago. Though they weren’t household pets, they inspired passionate feelings in their owners, as the equine imagery of ancient art and poetry so beautifully attests.

One of the first pet dogs whose name is known to us is Abutiu, who belonged to an Egyptian pharaoh in the early third millennium B.C. After Abutiu’s death, his heartbroken owner gave him a royal burial. The inscription on the tomb explained, ‘His Majesty did this for him in order that he might be honored before the great god, Anubis.’

By around 1000 B.C., the Egyptians’ love affair with dogs had given way to an obsession with cats, which they revered as semi-divine creatures. It was illegal to kill a cat or take one out of Egypt. The ancient Greeks were baffled by Egyptian felinophilia; they were more taken by the loyalty of canines. In Homer’s Odyssey, the old dog Argos waits 20 years for Odysseus to return, then dies content once he has seen his master.

The Romans made pets of cats, dogs, snakes, insects and birds—indeed, almost anything that breathed, except for goldfish. Those didn’t become household companions until 1369, when China’s Hongwu Emperor ordered the creation of the first fishbowl.

Pet ownership was a status symbol in early modern Europe, like having a carriage. Cardinal Richelieu, an adviser to the French King Louis XIII, shared his rooms with 12 cats, while Madame du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV, kept an orangutan and a parrot. Almost no one bothered to house-train their pets, much to the chagrin of unwary visitors to Versailles.

During the French Revolution, pedigree pets suffered by association with their aristocratic owners. The future Empress Josephine was incarcerated in Paris along with her pet pug Fortuné. Always protective of its mistress, the dog reacted badly on her wedding night to Napoleon in 1796, sinking its teeth into his leg.

As the cult of Romanticism swept through Europe in the 19th century, a pet became more than just a companion. It was an alter ego and “loving friend,” as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in her poem “To Flush, My Dog.” Many authors felt the same way about their pets: Charles Dickens had his pet raven Grip, Ernest Hemingway had his six-toed cat Uncle Willie, and of course John Steinbeck had his poodle Charley, whom he immortalized in his 1962 book “Travels with Charley.”

They aren’t alone; a 2018 meta-review of mental health studies by researchers at Liverpool University confirmed the emotional benefits of pet ownership. Steinbeck once admitted to his publisher: “I need a dog pretty badly. I dreamed of dogs last night. They sat in a circle and looked at me and I wanted all of them.”