The Walters, the Shore, warfare

Books Of The Region

October 10, 1999|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

People come, of course, in two kinds: the collectors, the others. Years ago, William and Henry Walters, father and son, collected works of art; Baltimore is the richer and more famous for it. For some while, William R. Johnston has been collecting -- details, stories, insights regarding the founders of Walters Art Gallery.

The result is a book, "William and Henry Walters, The Reticent Collectors" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 310 pages, $39.95). And what a book! Johnston, by now the senior member of the gallery's professional staff, interviewed Walters family members, since deceased; he read memoirs, old auction catalogs, old newspapers; he coped with the exasperating habit, in both Walterses, of not preserving correspondence and receipted bills. He studied the collecting done by other moneyed Baltimoreans and by magnates on beyond.

Johnston thus offers shafts of biographical light: the clandestine wedding of William's daughter Jennie to Warren Delano of New York at the Church of the Redeemer; Henry's steam yacht, private railroad car and important role in building up New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Johnston is even-handed, knowledgeable, candid -- William T. Walters sometimes settled for copies, for replicas. Now and then, William and Henry alike were stung. Ultimately, neither excelled at paintings. We meet the father's Percheron horses and Barye bronzes; the son's so-called smalls, his antiquities, ivories and ceramics, illuminated manuscripts and incunabula. Often buying in quantity, they seldom competed head-on with J. P. Morgan. Here come the peach-bloom vase, the Rubens vase.

Which Walters was the more important? Henry. In youth, like H. L. Mencken, he was known as Harry; he left Baltimore at age 36 and, in New York, lived to be 83; despite his privileged upbringing, he worked long and hard (running two southern railway systems). The son "eventually overshadowed his father's accomplishments." Henry Walters was generous (our museum), sociable (27 clubs) and genuinely modest.

This is a basic Baltimore book.

Write it down, today's chant enjoins, while you still remember. Write your memoirs, even if no audience is apparent. Adele V. Holden needn't worry whether anyone will read hers -- "Down on the Shore" (Woodholme, 250 pages, $2l.95) is by an English teacher at Dunbar High who then became professor of English at the Community College of Baltimore. Her words have resonance.

Holden's childhood was in Pocomoke City (a town) in the 1920s and 1930s, amid black menials and white bigots. The high school for whites had no senior year; the one for blacks, no sophomore, junior or senior year. Stability, at least? Then came Depression poverty and, nearby, lynchings.

The old-time Eastern Shore, you may infer, is better put out of mind. Working in a tomato cannery was brutal; after college in Baltimore, Holden never moved back. Yet Holden (Ginny to her friends) grew up in a close and loving household. Boldly, she reconstructs the conversations of long ago, and they ring true. For all the bygone ill will, this memoir evocatively affirms human goodness.

Many a book relives that "bloodiest day in American history" -- September 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam, 23,000 casualties. But what of the days following, when Sharpsburg and its surrounding farm families had to deal with war's wreckage -- the stench of death (men and horses), the pitiful wounded, the smashed houses and stores, the want of daily necessities, the vengeful neighbors with opposed allegiance? And soon, the boggle-eyed sightseers, the grasping carpetbag businessmen.

So long afterward, the project undertaken by Kathleen A. Ernst of Wisconsin was formidable. Yet her diligence turned up a sufficiency of graphic individual stories, published and unpublished. The outcome is a book of unusual merit, "'Too Afraid to Cry', Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign" (Stackpole, 300 pages, $24.95).

Elsewhere, notably Missouri and Tennessee, the Civil War led to anarchy. But "Western Maryland," Ernst observes, "did not descend into violent mob rule."

Among H. L. Mencken's interests was money. When his diaries were opened recently to scholars (and portions of them published), he turned out to have taken time from his writing to record virtually everything -- his book royalties, newspaper and magazine salaries, laundry expenses, typewriter-ribbon purchases.

At the Morning Herald, this 18-year-old cub reporter made $7 a week. In 1928, the Sunpapers paid him $5,000 a year (Mencken was writing a weekly article for The Evening Sun's editorial page), plus dividends on his A. S. Abell Co. stock. During the Depression, staff members' pay was cut; Mencken's was raised, to $12,000.

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