Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Passionate Pursuits Along the Hudson: Feeding Them, Researching Them and Hopefully Finding them at Work and in Your Classrooms

How many times do you hear the terms "passionate pursuits" and "in the classroom" together?  My bet is rarely, and so much the pity. While the post below did not take place in a classroom I hope to inspire writers and educators alike to put passion and projects into everyday practice and learning.

This past week, I went to an author talk / exhibit opening at the New York City Public Library. Walking into the main building alone is inspiring but even the majestic space paled to the passion, practice and hard work that went into the making of Mark Siegel's "Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson."

Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson. This is a graphic novel for young-adult teens and adults about a steamboat captain who finds a harpooned mermaid.  (I say teens because there is some nudity.)

Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson is about love, mermaids, metaphors, and intrigue.  But this post in not about the book as much as the project. In a few weeks, I'll blog a review of the book.

Can't wait for the review?  Here is my first link:  Table of Contents - Overview and Part I of the book with blog notes. This link has the first part of the book online along with the writer's blog about work and research that went into those pages. The blog itself is chock full of gems and well worth the time and read.

This book began as doodles during Siegel's daily commute. Over the course of nine years Siegel conducted research (at the New York Public Library and visiting townships, villages and industries along the Hudson River), built models (of steamships and steamship compartments used later for his drawing), developed his story and the resulting art panels for this book. He became such a fixture at the library and endeared so many there that the exhibit (in room 117) has incorporated his book into displays of maps and photos of the Hudson River and the library (then called the Astor Library) from the late 1880's. If you are in the New York City area, a visit to room 117 in the New York City Public Library (the Main Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street) is worth your time.  It's a small exhibit in a comfortable room where old New York comes to life.

For Sailor Twain, first there were the doodles: During his communites from his home in Tarrytown to work (midtown Manhattan) Siegel would simply sketch figures and ideas as he gazed through the train window at the Hudson River.  At the time he was in his mid-thirties and was facing challenging life decisions, and he realized that not only were his doodle related to the river and to his life, but they were actually beginning to tell a story. This story is not biographical, but Siegel noted that there were overlapping themes (in particular, one of his parents was French the other American and you see this mix in his main character selections).

Once he had the initial story grain, he began his research and model building.

In terms of research, Siegel read about:
  • mermaid myth - especially the allure of mermaid song and how sailors were 'lured' to their death as they became obsessed with the song.  [NOTE: Siegel uses this later in his book as a metaphor for addictions and obsessive pursuits.]
  • Hudson River steamships along the Hudson and the roles they played
  • fashion in lower Manhattan
  • trade in lower Manhattan and reactions to suffrage and racism
  • food served on the steamships [NOTE: the Hudson River was teaming with sturgeon and the steamships religiously served sturgeon caviar].
  • industry along the Hudson River [NOTE: aside from the emerging industrial revolution along the Hudson, there was a winery (the Millbrook Winery), which still produces wine and they have bottled two wines in honor of this book.  At the book/exhibit launch we had a sample...they're good!]
  • communities and townships along the River
  • publications from the late 1880's most were published in serial publications [which Siegel mirrored with the weekly blogs and presentation of his book]  
Once the research was done, Siegel built models of steamships and their interiors to help with the  art.

The art itself was done in charcoal to give it an industrial feel and while he decided to draw a few of the characters more 'cartoon-like', others were drawn in intricate detail.  The art is breathtaking and well worth (to his readers) the horrible mess charcoal presented for him. Here is the opening page of Chapter 1 - you can feel the soot and industrial pollution.

SailorTwain 013
Finally, some more links taken from sailortwain.com  Here are some highlights (go visit sailortwain.com for more):

New York & Hudson River :
The treasure trove! The New York Historical Society
Ephemeral New York—full of goodies
The Bowery Boys—essential!
A beauty on the river, a marvelous way to experience the Hudson, with a crew of some of its greatest champions, Pete Seeger’s beloved Clearwater
Millbrook Winery is a flagship Hudson Valley winery. Their Tocai Friulano is served up and down the river towns for good reason.
Whitecliffe Winery: another Hudson Valley award-winning vineyard

The Vanishing Art of Letter Writing?
Victorian Rituals an introduction
Letters, Letter-writing and Other Intimate Discourse, by Wendy Russ—lots of links to more
On Victorian letter-writing manuals, from Victorianweb.org
For map lovers
Matt Knutzen’s blog of the priceless New York Public Library Maps Division
Strange Maps! (thanks, Warren!)
Historical Charts: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) keeps a list of historical navigation charts, and here is clickable, zoomable example of what the pilot Utterson and Twain would have been using aboard the Lorelei (this one from 1865) (Thanks, Anne!)
The David Rumsey maps database: tons of searchable maps! (Thanks, David!)
From the University of Texas, a magnificently illustrated Glossary of Victorian Sartorial Terms!
Superb photo exhibits at Clio Visualizing History.
Dating in the Victorian Age: “The Unsuitable Suitor of 1879″—from Victoriana.com

 Remember... In a few weeks I'll have a review of the book along with some teaching/enrichment suggestions for mature young-adult/adult students. 
Aside from just reading this book to see how his story and work unfolds, here are some ways to integrate passion in your home and classrooms:
  •  Research other passion projects - talk about common threads and elements that allowed these people to realize their dreams.
  • Ask your kids what they might want to do if they had a 'passion project'- brainstorm, ruminate about what might be done.
  • Help them realize the more 'doable' passions. Have them work alone or in a group to create their own passion projects.
  • Pursue your own passion project and ask your kids (if interested)  to help you realize the project. Model and discuss what needs to be done.
In the meantime, thank you for your visit, please leave your notes, reactions and questions in the comments.


  1. I love the Hudson, having lived near it in New Paltz and Albany. Sorry that it's had some difficulty with pollution.
    Fascinating links about the river.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  2. A very interesting post all around.

  3. This started to sound interesting, until the part about the nudity. That is not something that I would let even my teenage children read.

  4. Seigel certainly did his homework and for that, it must be very credible and an entertaining read. The nudity doesn't bother me - :)

  5. So very interesting, and every day I learn something new.

    And thanks for stopping by and linking up via our HOp: http://www.craftyspices.com/hops/wwhop
    Happy Wednesday!

  6. Sounds interesting. Happy WW and happy Halloween!

    I played too. Mine are here and here.

  7. The research sounds exhausting.....obviously a labour of love. Thank you for this.

  8. Fascinating! You had me at "mermaid." ;D

    ♥ aquariann
    Featured Photo: Sexy Tinkerbell Costume

  9. The charcoal does give it the right feel, from what it sounds like. Thanks for the insightful write up!

  10. I love mermaids! Sounds like an interesting project.

  11. You are always so good with your posts. I am a mermaid...somehow:-)

  12. Calling by from ABC Wednesday, an interesting project thanks for sharing.

  13. clearly Sailor Twain was a successful combination of the author's passion and artistic sensibility. I wish you would have shared more of your thoughts on how the author's creativity took the book to trhe next level!

  14. Hi! Wanted to thank you for linking up for WW last week. I was out of power for a few days and I'm now catching up :)