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Linking Rings: William W. Durbin and the Magic and Mystery of America by James D. Robenalt

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2004)


Who was William W. Durbin? His great-grandson, Ohio attorney James Robenalt, set out to find out when, in 1990, Mr. Robenalt's mother—Durbin's grand-daughter—passed away. "I did not start off to write a book," he explains at the start of his preface. "I was ... trying to find out more about my family."

As it turns out, there was much to discover and, eventually, a story to be told. Bill Durbin was a businessman, politician, and magician whose life "flew below the historical radar screen," as the author aptly puts it, but in whose lifetime was a firsthand player in important events of his times, in the worlds of both politics and magic. A commit-ted and lifelong activist for the Democratic party, Durbin's life intertwined with the likes of William Jennings Bryan, Warren G. Harding, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although he spent most of his life in his native Ohio, he would eventually go to Washington for a time when, as reward for his longstanding efforts on behalf of the party and its candidates, he was appointed to high position in the Treasury Department in FDR's administration.

He was also present for the founding of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, served as its fourth president, helped to host several of its early conventions, edited and wrote for the Linking Ring, and created in his backyard his very own Egyptian Theater, which eventually became part of the David Price collection. And yet you probably didn't know any of that—and neither did his great-grandson, until he set out to find out more about his own personal history and, in due course, something of the history of American magic, and politics. The result is a sometimes fascinating, sometimes poignant, often unexpected adventure story into the past. '

In his preface, the author comments that "A simple biography was out of the question." Why this is so he does not try to explain, and in fact remains somewhat unclear to me. No one ever said that a biography has to be "simple," and one has the option of writing a biography that is anything but. This unanswered issue aside, what the author chose to do is tell a story in the form of modern literature known as magical fiction: a carefully researched, fact-filled narrative that from time to time takes off from the firmament of history and biography and sails into the eerie mists of fantasy and beyond. Thus the author takes an imaginary trip with his forebear, W.W. Durbin, on a lengthy car ride that Durbin did in fact take on the last night of his life. During this ride, the author visits with his great-grandfather and is taken on a fantastical voyage into the past of his family and his country. He is told many stories and shown many sights, finding himself mysteriously transported to deadly Civil War battlefields, chaotic political conventions, and legendary (and sometimes imaginary) magic shows. Yet, just as Ebenezer Scrooge discovered to his amazement and delight, "The Spirits have done it all in one night."

The choice of this magical construct is a risky one, and some readers will doubtless find themselves disconnecting from the tale as a result. I found it to be an acquired taste: I remained skeptical for more than half the book, but eventually was mostly won over by its appeal. While the author has done extremely thorough research (providing 32 pages of footnotes), he does not wish us to mistake him for a dispassionate academic. Rather, he has a personal stake in this tale the tale of his own family origins—and he manages, through the device of the magical journey, to engage the reader in a personal way as well. For this is a story that tries earnestly to bring history alive to get us to take notice of our past and to show how history does matter whether or not we choose to notice in our own lives.

The author has organized his potentially confusing for-mat in a manageable style that before too long one learns to take in stride. Actual remarks attributable to W.W. Durbin (via his writings) are placed in quotation marks; the imaginary events of the ride appear in italics; and "(e)very-thing in a normal typeface is real history."

In the early pages the author finds a newspaper tribute to one Tim Kelly, a relation who died on the battlefield of the Civil War. The Marion Daily Star edited and published by the future president, Warren G. Harding notes the passing by offering that "Such men do not shine in the fading glamour of ostentatious activity, but endear them-selves in the hearts of their fellow citizens so that they live in memory. Tim Kelly will not be soon forgotten. He will be remembered long after the sorrow of his untimely death has faded away."

But the author is castigated in his imagination that is, he castigates himself and cautions the rest of us as he wonders at the thought that this man, a war hero, could have been lost to the history of his own family so quickly. Later, in the imagined voice of his great-grandfather, he is reminded that when yet another ancestral war hero "stood in the line of fire, (he knew] that his actions would have consequences down through the generations. And you and all my descendants have forgotten what he did, as if he meant nothing to you, as if he never existed. But ...it's really as if you never existed, He made you possible. ... Don't forget this." And this is the heart of the case that the author (and attorney) presents to us: that history is about memory, both personal, and collective, and that history deserves remembrance. The experience of life is the experience of loss, and the author wants as to feel that, too—but also to feel the richness of the past in the story that can be recaptured, with the kind of care and effort he has invested for his own benefit, and for ours.

His great-grandfather is a perfect example on which to make such a case, since his life serves as an effective touchstone, a link to so meaningful a past. As the author notes, "In time, when my mother was born ..., she would touch the hand of her grandfather, who touched the hand of Alexander Herrmann, who touched the hand of Carl Herrmann, who in his time touched the hand of Lincoln." And so on until this magic and grandeur of history reaches out through these degrees of separation to touch the reader himself.

The book's subject matter is admittedly an odd mix, and while marketers will see the lack of a ready label as a minus, I hope that readers will see past this lack of ready categorization and seek out this marvelous, multi-faceted story. Political junkies like myself will find it thrilling to be transported as firsthand witnesses to a rousing speech by William Jennings Bryan at the 1896 Democratic party national convention. Magicians will be tickled by their recognition of the timeless experience of a national magic convention albeit in 1926 with only a hundred magicians in attendance in Kenton, Ohio at which "magic was discussed and cussed until three and four-o'clock every A.M. by mutual consent, for no other reason at all other than, 'Didja ever see this one?' or 'I remember when ...." It sounds so familiar I could swear I was there in '26 myself!

But the author keeps the story alive and readers of every stripe should find the unfamiliar as interesting as the familiar. The battles over the gold standard, the death of Chung Ling Soo, the rise of Roosevelt's New Deal, the birth of the 1.8.M.—all these stories and many more weave their way through the colorful quilt of history At times the author faces his own disquiet as he confronts the ugliness of racism in Democratic party politics, and in the ideas of his own progenitor. Compelling snapshots abound, in the image evoked of FDR struggling to create the illusion of mobility; or in an actual photo of the 1928 I.B.M. convention, with Durbin sitting side-by-side with Blackstone, Sr. and T. Nelson Downs.

The author's command of political history is admittedly superior to that of magic; since he relies far more on primary sources for the former and secondary sources for the latter, the differences occasionally reveal themselves, be it in a rare misspelling (Servais LeRoy becomes Sarvias), the lack of mention of Maskelyne in a discussion of the Kellar levitation, or the perceived significance of the claim that "[Harry] Kellar had once asked (Durbin] to become his successor," when it now appears likely that Kellar's idea of a worthy successor had more to do with whether one had the price in hand than any particular conjuring qualifications. And the use of imaginary events does, I fear, step too far beyond the unlikely and into the impossible when the author describes a joint performance shared by Mssrs. Durbin and his certain acquaintance, Kellar. But these com-plaints are paltry compared to the compelling strengths of this book. You will find much that is beautiful, often admirable, deeply human, and occasionally even brave in the pages of this unique and memorable work.

Linking Rings: William W Durbin and the Magic and Mystery of America • James D. Robenalt • 6-1/2" x 9-1/2" paperbound; 315 pages; illustrated; 2004