Friday, August 02, 2013

Washington Then, Washington Now; Nothing Changes, a guest post by Richard Smolev

My final contributor in this 10-day series of essays from historical novelists is Richard Smolev, whose novel In Praise of Angels: A Novel of the Reconstruction Era was published on Tuesday.  Here he discusses some of his primary source research as well as his novel's key themes, which resonate in today's world of political scandals and partisanship.  I'm looking forward to reading it and tuning in to an episode from American history that's new to me.


Washington Then, Washington Now;
Nothing Changes
Richard Smolev

When I began writing my post-Civil War novel In Praise of Angels over 10 years ago, I thought I’d be watching my young protagonist draw strength and a sense of his career from his proximity to both the workings of our government and to the press that he so wanted to admire. But, like so many of us today who are disappointed with both our elected officials’ unwillingness to put aside their political gamesmanship and the rabid partisanship of the media, that does little but stand at each extreme and shout down its opposition, the closer he came to both government and the media the more disappointed he became.

Benjamin Wright lost his two older brothers in one of the first Civil War battles when they were under their father’s command. The trauma of losing his two older sons caused Benjamin’s father to abandon his wife and only remaining son for a job as a Congressional aide. Too young to join the army himself, Benjamin spent the next few years writing eulogies to his brothers and their fallen comrades. When we first meet Benjamin, he is interviewing for a job with a Philadelphia newspaper. Able to land the spot, he is asked to help cover the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, on charges brought by the Radical Republicans principally because they disagreed with how Johnson was trying to bring the Confederate states back into the Union. I drew much of the color of that part of the novel from contemporaneous articles in Harper’s Weekly.

The impeachment trial is Benjamin’s first exposure to Washington, but hardly the most significant. Through some digging into court records, he finds a lawsuit in which Henry McComb is suing Oakes Ames, a Massachusetts Congressman, to recover shares in an entity known as the Credit Mobilier.
Author Richard Smolev and grandchild
Benjamin is able to ferret out information suggesting first that the Credit Mobilier was being used as a vehicle to steal millions from the government by overcharging for the construction of the transcontinental railroad and second, that Ames was passing out shares to members of Congress to win their support. The scandal rose to the center of the 1872 Presidential election between Ulysses Grant and Horace Greeley, in which Benjamin played an important role, and led to a Congressional investigation.

I was able to download the House report on the scandal from February 1873, which became the foundation for much of the story. Interestingly, Thomas Nast published a political cartoon regarding the scandal in Harper’s Weekly in March 1873, and I was able to get the rights to use the cartoon in the book from the Princeton rare books library.

Of course Benjamin is more than a mere witness to history. As intoxicating as it was for him to be so close to these significant events in our nation’s history, the standing he developed as a newspaper reporter comes at an enormous personal cost that forces Benjamin to ask what direction he wants his life to take.


Richard Smolev, a retired attorney, lives and writes in Bucks County, PA. His first novel, Offerings, was published in 2012. In Praise of Angels was published by Academy Chicago on July 30th in hardcover ($35), trade paperback ($19.95) and e-book ($7.99).

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