Mansfield, Howard 1957–
Mansfield, Howard 1957–
PERSONAL: Born June 14, 1957, in Huntington, NY; son of Pincus (an engineer) and Bernice (a homemaker) Mansfield; married Sy Montgomery (a writer), September 26, 1987. Education: Syracuse University, B.A. (with honors), 1979. Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Home and office—Hancock, NH. Agent—Christina Ward, P.O. Box 515, North Scituate, MA 02060.; Dwyer & O'Grady, Inc., P.O. Box 790, Cedar Key, FL 32625
CAREER: Writer and public speaker. Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place,& Culture, Franklin Pierce College, Rindge, NH, board member, 1996–; Hancock Town Library, NH, chairperson of board of trustees, 1994–2005; Southern New Hampshire University Creative Writing Program, visiting writer, 2006. Also served as a writer and consultant for the Claiming the Land exhibit at the New Hampshire Historical Society and as writer and project manager for one of the two projects representing New Hampshire in Local Legacies: A National Project to Document American Community Traditions, Library of Congress Bicentennial.
AWARDS, HONORS: Chancellor's Citation for Exceptional Academic Achievement, Syracuse University, c. 1979; Gold Medal for Commentary, City and Regional Magazine Competition, William Allen White School of Journalism, 1985.
Cosmopolis: Yesterday's Cities of the Future, Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ), 1990.
In the Memory House, Fulcrum Publishing (Golden, CO), 1993.
Skylark: The Life, Lies, and Inventions of Harry Atwood, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1999.
The Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throw-Away Age, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 2000.
The Bones of the Earth, Shoemaker Hoard (Washington, DC), 2004.
(Editor) Where the Mountain Stands Alone: Stories of Place in the Monadnock Region, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 2006.
Hogwood Steps Out, illustrated by Barry Moser, Roaring Brook Press, 2007.
Contributor of commentary and articles on history, architecture, and design to periodicals, including New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Christian Science Monitor, American Heritage, Yankee, and New England Monthly. Contributor to the anthology Writing on Air, edited by David Rothenberg and Wendy J. Pryor, MIT Press, 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: Howard Mansfield is the author of two books that examine the landscape of American culture. The first, Cosmopolis: Yesterday's Cities of the Future, looks at the utopias depicted in World's Fairs, the cities envisioned by Italian futurists, the "City Beautiful," and the city of tomorrow. In addition to writing the text, Mansfield designed and conducted the photographic research for Cosmopolis, which contains 143 illustrations.
Mansfield's next publication, In the Memory House, is a series of nonfiction essays that reflect on the voids left in the landscape as a result of America's progress and examines, according to the author, "how each generation reinvents history and chooses its own ancestors." In a world where highways and condominiums are commonplace, Mansfield writes, many people have forgotten, or never known, the joys of a simpler life and time. In his essay, "A Lost Spring," for example, Mansfield tells of an old man living in the two-hundred-year-old home of his childhood. Mansfield used to visit the man and listen to his stories of life in the house, which stands in the shadow of a maple tree. "The tree is what you look at first," Mansfield writes. "The house seems to be keeping the tree company."
Summers in the old house, the man told Mansfield, were very hot, but a plunge in the swimming hole, fed by a spring, brought cool relief. The author imagines the children "swimming there in summer twilight," as he passes the house and the tree, but laments that the spring was stopped up by engineers years ago, when the road was widened and a new bridge installed. Mansfield concludes: "And when I am away from this corner of New Hampshire, down among the landscape of haste—parking lot and highway, mall and condo—I look into the faces of my countrymen and I think of the plugged spring."
In the Memory House has garnered praise from many critics, among them Paul Gruchow, who wrote in Hungry Mind Review: "Now and then an idea suddenly bursts into flame, as if by spontaneous combustion. One instance is the recent explosion of American books about the idea of place." Gruchow went on to note: "But the best of them, the deepest, the widest-ranging, the most provocative and eloquent, is Howard Mansfield's In the Memory House." New York Times Book Review contributor Philip M. Isaacson also applauded Mansfield's essays, noting that "through the intensity of [Mansfield's] language, his pace and wit, the predisposed reader can take the leap into collective memory and even catch, with Mr. Mansfield, that damp sweet scent of the past."Isaccson added: "Although we have yet to learn to face the true past, banking what we can of it in memory houses such as this wise and beautiful book may preserve it until a time in which the smell of wet hay, a restorative sense of our shared past, will replace lamentation, elegy, or indifference."
In the Smithsonian magazine, Richard McDougall recommended this "clearheaded, warmhearted book … to all readers who want to cherish our past and embrace our future with wisdom." He appreciated Mansfield's role as "the ideal guide" to America's past: "He records the details yet never fails to convey a vivid sense of the lives layered behind heaps of jumbled objects."
Whether unraveling the facts from the myths twined around a nationally admired figure like Johnny Apple-seed or using a small vial of grain, grown in 1883 and donated to a small-town museum, to imagine a whole year in the life of a simple farm woman, Mansfield maintains "a certain humility in the face of … speculation," McDougall asserted. He draws his subjects from the distant past and from relatively recent, living memory. One of his stories is about the town of Lowell, Massachusetts, and the effort of some Lowell residents to enhance the town's historical significance through the fame (or notoriety) of its native son, writer Jack Kerouac.
McDougall also called attention to a long section of In the Memory House titled "Absences," in which Mansfield uses words to document some of the stunning artifacts of history that were lost before they could be preserved—in the Great Plains, the old-growth forests, and the crumbling neighborhoods of cities ripe for development. The book is a reminder, McDougall suggested, "that the greatest spiritual poverty would be to live in a world and time where memory had ceased to matter."
Mansfield told CA: "Visitors to New England usually arrive with a lot of baggage. They are weighed down by a lifetime of Norman Rockwell and Currier and Ives. They want nostalgia and quaintness. In the Memory House is an attempt to see New England plain. I was looking for the contours of historical memory itself.
"Memory is a defining characteristic of New England—this great desire to mark the landscape with historical monuments, to crowd little museums full of small acts of homage, and to tell certain stories.
"Each essay in the book is about a moment of commemoration—or the failure to commemorate. At such moments, our aspirations are on full view. When we seek to honor something, we are staking a claim: This is us. In history, unlike heredity, we choose our ancestors.
"We have journeyed a long way, once ever so optimistically, and find ourselves far removed from the one-room schoolhouse and the swimming hole, from the horse car and elm-lined Main Street. We try nostalgia, elegy, jeremiad. All our efforts at recollection, and somewhere the past itself, are in the memory house."
In his 1999 book, Skylark: The Life, Lies, and Inventions of Harry Atwood, Mansfield revives the forgotten memory of one of America's earliest and most colorful aviators. Harry Atwood was born in 1884. He learned to fly at the Wright brothers' school in Ohio and became a daredevil pilot, setting speed and distance records in the early days of the biplane. He performed exhibition flights and, on one occasion, had the audacity to land his plane on the lawn of the White House in Washington, DC. It is from this perspective that Mansfield presents the story of a man for whom flying was only one chapter in a spirited and colorful career.
Atwood was also an indefatigable inventor, most frequently of aeronautical designs and machinery. He held several patents, including one for an affordable, four-passenger "airmobile." Mansfield describes a man whose invention schemes were often tantalizing to investors, but rarely quite practical enough to succeed. His inevitable failures led to bankruptcy and litigation, earning Atwood the reputation of liar, con artist, and charlatan. His creditors chased him from one state to another.
In his personal life, Mansfield reveals, Atwood's attitudes and behavior tended to reinforce his public image. Based in part on information provided by Atwood's daughters, Mansfield describes a charismatic if vacillating character, who may have neglected his family in favor of his schemes and dreams—what Library Journal reviewer Stephen H. Peters summarized as alternately "doting parent" and "stern father," "strict moralist" and unrepentant "con man."
Speaking of Skylark, Choice reviewer R.E. Bilstein credited the author for "a good job in covering [Atwood's] life in a realistic way, avoiding sentimentality." Jay Freeman, writing in Booklist recommended this "finely written chronicle of an attractive, if not admirable, man." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Skylark "an engaging account" that "evokes the early part of the century when … progress … seemed possible and limitless."
In 2000, Mansfield published The Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throw-Away Age. Mansfield offers several examples in The Same Ax, Twice of people who have preserved various items, such as a farmer who has preserved land for later generations, a builder who has reconstructed homes of a historic nature, engineers who have tried to build a plane exactly like the Wright brothers' original plane, and, as the title suggests, a farmer who has twice replaced a blade and handle of an ax he owns. Mansfield also offers tips for the preservation of furniture and photographs. Dwight Nigel Tappin in Library Journal stated of the book: "Through richly layered essays, Mansfield argues that only through living with the past can we keep it alive." A reviewer writing in Publishers Weekly commented: "This volume delightfully investigates Americans' penchant for fixing up old stuff." Nigel Tappin recommended the book for people who collect works on subjects including restoration.
Mansfield continued his ruminations on life in New England's past in his book The Bones of the Earth. The essays gathered here cover a wide range of topics, from a look at the "Washington Elm" and its mythology to a reminiscence on the life of a late friend who went from hunting and trapping to working as a naturalist. "Carefully researched and exuding unassuming integrity, this collection will have special appeal for New Englanders who share the author's mournful approach to modernity," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Gilbert Taylor, writing in Booklist, commented that the book will appeal to "connoisseurs of seeing the world in an oyster, or even a small state." Bernard F. Dick noted in World Literature Today that the author's "sense of place is so unerringly accurate that walking sticks, stones, cemeteries, and bridges—familiar words—metamorphose into images."
Regarding his writing process, Mansfield once told CA: "A good day. I'm working on two pages, 500 words or so, of a chapter. I sit with my tea in the morning. Maybe 7:00 a.m., 7:30. Good cup of tea. Maybe some Baroque chamber music, maybe Bach. Sunlight streaming into my writing studio. The illusion of clarity. I look across the pasture and see the school bus leaving. I work at that 500 words, stop for a half-hour for lunch, and resume work. I look up and see the school bus bringing kids home. I've just been working on these few paragraphs all day, but it seems as if maybe an hour at most has gone by.
"A bad day. A half-hour seems like eight hours. There are days when you just don't have it. You learn to work around that, learn even when to walk away. An even worse day: Our pig breaks out. The neighbor's donkey escapes. The car breaks down. Ice dams on the north-facing roof. The checkbook doesn't balance. An editor calls wanting a story one month earlier. But to go back to that bad day. Here's one of the hardest things to learn—a lesson that's taken me about twenty years to learn. Even that bad day may turn out to be important. It may not be a bad day. Most mornings I'm working with ideas for my next book. Circling myself. Probing—why do I think this is important? interesting? etc. Trying out themes, sentences. Asking: Is this a book? Does this hang together? You only learn this by sitting with it.
"I look back in my notebooks on what was a bad day and there it is—three lines, ten lines that are the kernel, the heart of the entire book. A good day after all."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Mansfield, Howard, In the Memory House, Fulcrum Publishing, 1993.
Booklist, March 15, 1999, Jay Freeman, review of Skylark: The Life, Lies, and Inventions of Harry Atwood; October 1, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Bones of the Earth, p. 298.
Choice, November, 1999, R.E. Bilstein, review of Skylark, p. 562.
Hungry Mind Review, winter, 1993–94, Paul Gruchow, review of In the Memory House, p. 28.
Library Journal, April 1, 2000, Dwight Nigel, Tappin, review of The Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throw-Away Age.
New York Times Book Review, November 21, 1993, Philip M. Isaacson, review of In the Memory House, p. 21.
Publishers Weekly, February 15, 1999, review of Skylark, p. 92; April 17, 2000, review of The Same Ax, Twice, p. 66; October 11, 2004, review of The Bones of the Earth, p. 66
Smithsonian, October, 1994, Richard McDougall, review of In the Memory House, p. 148.
World Literature Today, March-April, 2006, Bernard F. Dick, review of The Bones of the Earth, p. 61.
Author Wire, http://www.authorwire.com/ (August 30, 2006), biographical information on author.
Paula Gordon Show Web site, http://www.paulagordon.com/ (August 30, 2006), "Howard Mansfield on The Paula Gordon Show."
South New Hampshire University Web site, http://www.snhu.edu/ (March 1, 2006), "SNHU Names Visiting Writer for Creative Writing Program."