In honor of the upcoming July 4th holiday, this week's column is all about American history—the strange and potentially overlooked aspects of American history!
Read about Ben Franklin, the history of privacy, and the 1906 earthquake that destroyed most of San Francisco, or listen to a podcast about the little-known history of Huguette Clark, the heiress who hid from the world.
On Your Kindle
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson
While Washington and Jefferson are widely admired, I confess that Benjamin Franklin is the early American thinker I find the most interesting. An inventor, writer, scientist, and diplomat, his complex life reflects many of the social issues and changes in 18th-century America. Franklin, of course, is as famous for his witticisms as he is for his wisdom. As Isaacson says, "Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us."
On Your Smartphone
"The Prism," by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker
I love the work of American historian Jill Lepore in The New Yorker; she often examines the historical roots of contemporary life. In this response to the recent NSA spying controversy involving the federal government and defected computer analyst Edward Snowden, Lepore looks at privacy and government. Describing previous privacy scandals, she notes, "the case for privacy always comes too late. The horse is out of the barn," by the time government efforts at espionage and tracking are discovered by the public.
On a Podcast
"The Copper Kings and the Recluse Heiress," from Stuff You Missed in History Class
When Huguette Clark, the wealthy heiress and owner of Park Avenue's largest apartment, died at 104 in 2011, the media was captivated by her strange story. Clark was a recluse; the last known photograph of the wealthy woman had been taken in the 1930s. But as the "Stuff You Missed in History Class" podcast reveals, Clark's inherited wealth came from American copper mines—a natural resource that links the world's wealthiest hermit to a famous mining rivalry. Listen to the unusual story of Montana's copper mines here.
One of my favorite subjects is early California history, so I've put this title on my list of books to pick up. If you grew up on the East Coast as I did, you might have missed learning about the 1906 earthquake that is often called one of America's greatest disasters. The earthquake resulted in fires that devastated the city of San Francisco and killed thousands, and Winchester discusses the geological impact of 1906 here.