It may be beyond the capacity of younger people to imagine, but there was a time within living memory when New England’s smaller cities (towns like Worcester, Providence, Hartford, Waterbury and Bridgeport) were nationally renowned and sources of regional pride. Founded in the early colonial period, they boomed with the coming of the industrial revolution in the 19th century and flourished until the mid-2oth. Waterbury, for example was the “Brass Capital of America” and for a time the products of the Waterbury Watch Company were considered the finest in the world.
We mention Waterbury in particular because it’s the setting of Charles Monagan’s novel Carrie Welton. The title intrigued me, with its echoes of Sister Carrie and Daisy Miller and the like, as did the cover image, which turns out to be based on an actual portrait of the real-life Caroline Welton by Abraham Archibald Anderson at the Mattatuck Museum. Welton (1842-1884) was one of Waterbury’s most prominent citizens during the city’s heyday. Intriguing monuments to her still exist there, such as the family mansion Rose Hill, and a fountain in the town green featuring a statue of Welton’s prized black stallion “Knight”, paid for with funds from her will which stipulated they be used for just that purpose. The lore about the statue in Waterbury must be prodigious, for it is impossible to look at the statue without wondering, “Why would someone erect a statue to a horse that had kicked their father to death?”. For Knight had done just that. Carrie must have hated her father very much — but why? It’s the sort of thing that might inspire speculative fiction.
And that is what Monagan gives us, an imaginative filling-in of those mysterious gaps that nag and vex (but give us so much pleasure). It is known that Welton was a painter and moved in artistic circles (she studied with the Hudson River school painters William and James MacDouglas Hart, and knew their sister Julie Hart Beers (Kempson). It is known that she was a major early supporter of the ASPCA, giving them around $250,000 over the course of her life, which would amount to roughly $7 million in today’s money. And it is known that she died in a blizzard while climbing Long’s Peak in the Rocky Mountains — a highly unusual death for a woman in 1884, it must be noted. Particularly a society woman. Hers was also the first recorded death on that mountain; she was one of its earliest climbers.
But it is the private life that intrigues us and the meat of Monagan’s novel gives us well-researched and vividly-rendered guesses as to its nature. The story is told from the perspective of Welton’s neighbor, the real-life Frederick Kingsbury (1823-1910). Living across the street from the Weltons, the Kingsburys have a front row seat at the drama; it is sort of like Bewitched told from the point of view of the Kravitzes. It’s just close enough to give us a better idea than anyone else what is going on behind the walls of that house…but just far away enough not to have the whole story, which keeps us on the hook for the duration. The book is organized in three sections; the first (and best, I think) tells of the tumultuous teenage years. The second imagines her time in New York and Boston, where to my great delight she hangs out at Pfaff’s and encounters the likes of Whitman and Ada Clare (this gave me great delight because these people and places also played a role in my play Horse Play; there must be something in the zeitgeist). Carrie witnesses the Civil War draft riots and has adventures in Five Points and even gets poisoned in an opium den! And the third part concerns her return to Waterbury, the death of her father, and her mysterious behavior afterwards.
I found it an enormously pleasurable read. Stylistically it is evocative of American realists like Howells, Crane, Wharton, James, Tarkington, and Dreiser. I thought of them all at one point or another while reading this book. Interestingly, though, most of the tale is laid in the 1850s and 60s, when the predominating literary style was Romanticism. The transference is welcome though; the heavier, more ponderous metaphysical style of the ’50s would be a very different, far less welcome book. Necessarily, Monagan’s style is more modern than even the period realists I mentioned, accomplishing in 300 pages what might have taken James twice as long to do. The strategy has its bonuses. While greater restraint, and more cultural reticence toward “sharing” and “getting things out in the open” in the manner of James might feel more period appropriate, the contemporary reader is grateful for the faster ride. And yet, while the writing is lean, there’s a lot there. I confess I tried to skim it, as one often does when reviewing books, but I found I couldn’t, and for two reasons. The first is that his writing is so spare and economical that you simply miss vital points if you try to plow through, and you become quickly disoriented. The second is that I was enjoying it too much.
Above all, the book strikes me as a loving valentine to to the author’s native city. And nostalgia for that time we never got to know, that era of seemingly unbounded growth, when essentially the whole country was getting in on the ground floor of Something Big. Frederick Kingsbury founded Waterbury’s first bank! As in, before him, there was NO bank! If you could scrape together the capital and had some ideas, it was possible to FOUND something, to make an empire of brass. As opposed to the American years of our lifetimes, which have been characterized by decay and decline and the boarding of storefront windows. I often think: sometimes the past can be as pleasant a fantasy as science fiction. But at the same time, Monagan reminds us, beneath the gilt and finery, there was also unhappiness. Therein lies the difference between a Realist and a Romantic.
The book is available here.