Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Book review: The Severances

Diana Tittle's latest book, The Severances: An American Odyssey, from Puritan Massachusetts to Ohio's Western Reserve, and Beyond covers four hundred years of the history family that is integral to the cultural landscape of northeast Ohio.

The text, which is meant for a general audience, is introduced by a small segment in 1864, as Louis H. Severance packs to leave Cleveland to fight in the Civil War. From there, the work begins with the first members of the family and the conditions that caused them to move from England to Massachusetts in 1634 or 1635. The journey continues through New York and in Ohio in the early 19th century. We visit the oil fields of Pennsylvania, deal with some of the less gruesome parts of the Civil War, see California in the 1870s, and cruise around the Mediterranean with Samuel Clemens. Julia Severance's education at Wells College in the 1880s leads into her part in the story of Frances Folsom's marriage to president Grover Cleveland.

Employment with Standard Oil lead to wealth, and eventually, philanthropy. This included the endowment of the College of Wooster, the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance Hall, and St. Luke's Hospital.

Ms. Tittle has given us, in this volume, a commendable piece of research. I was at first concerned by the relative lack of footnotes - I kept asking how she knew this or that fact - until I stumbled upon the source notes, which consume 40 pages, in a font rather smaller than the rest of the text. For a work of original research such as this, such extensive documentation should be expected.

I believe that this book could be made better through the use of more images. While there are a few sections of photographs, they are on the same stock as the rest of the book, so they don't stand out, and there isn't any key between the corresponding pages and the images. Further, Ms. Tittle does such a good job of illustrating certain subjects that I'm sure she's seen them, yet the reader is left without any visual confirmation. She describes a chest that likely belonged to Mary Severance, circa 1700, in Deerfield, Massachusetts that recently sold at auction, or, in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, "the large, Federal-style home [that Martin Severance II built] for his family in 1784 that still stands near Bridge Street between Severance and Maple." I want to see these things. A piece of furniture, at at time when there was so little, that retained a family connection is rare, and makes for a stronger story. Likewise with the house, hewn by Martin Severance II's own hands. Alas, it is also currently omitted by Google Streetview. There are many similar examples - if it means making the book a bit longer, so be it - it's the cost of a stronger, more useful title.

There are a few smaller issues I feel the need to raise. The first is the occasional use of what can be best described as anachronistic language. Ms. Tittle's intent is clear, however - to convey a certain place and time. There are also times where I feel the desire for a greater idea as to the exact location. One example of this would be the Severance's home, Longwood - is described as being on Kinsman Road, near Woodland Cemetery. Noting a contemporary cross street would help illuminate the location. Another is the house that Joseph Severance built on lot 36, in Deerfield, Massachusetts and which the author believes is still standing, as part of Deerfield Village. Unfortunately, Deerfield Village (and the other obvious sources) refer to the houses by the names of their builders or select historic occupants, so there is no easy way for the casual reader to determine which of the houses pictured on the Deerfield Village website was built by Severance. Finally, Ms. Tittle relies heavily on the privately held Severance Family Records. I always feel a slight unease as any work that relies so heavily on a source that the random reader can't go check if she or he chooses, but at the same time, there's no way the book could have been done without that collection.

The Severances absolutely excels in painting a picture of middle to upper middle class life in Cleveland in the 19th century and the causes that might have brought them here. In this particular respect, it exceeds every other title I can think of. For that reason, it will be a strong addition my personal research collection - shelved with other aspects of 19th century Cleveland life, rather than with organizational and family histories.

The Severances: An American Odyssey, from Puritan Massachusetts to Ohio's Western Reserve, and Beyond is published by the Western Reserve Historical Society. 400 pages. Sewn hardcover. $37.50. ISBN: 978-0-911704-61-7. It may be ordered from, which also has information about upcoming lectures associated with the release of the book.

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