Marc Mappen has loved history for so long that he likes to think it is part of his DNA. Even as a young kid, his interests leaned toward books about the past. “My friends knew the lineup of the New York Yankees,” he says, “but I knew more about the generals of the Union Army of the Potomac.”
When he worked as a supermarket cashier, the self-identified “history nerd” would treat his customers to historical observations based on the size of their bills. If, say, someone paid $18.12 for an order, he would say, “Ah, the War of 1812.” Or if it were $18.64, he would say, “Ahh, Abraham Lincoln was just re-elected.”
When Mappen and his family moved from Massachusetts to New Jersey for his father to take a job as a soda company salesman, 12-year-old Mappen was acutely aware that New Jerseyans were much less interested in their history than were his fellow Bay Staters. It was not until he was an adult that circumstances put him in the perfect position to bring New Jersey citizens up to speed on the history of their state. After majoring in history — with a concentration in American history — at Boston University, graduating in 1967, he returned to New Jersey, earning his doctorate in history at Rutgers University in 1976. While working on his dissertation — about religious dissent in 18th-century Connecticut — he got a job in the university’s administration as a speech writer for Ed Bloustein and ended up staying on the administrative track, becoming an assistant, then an associate dean. Although he did teach university history classes on the side, he could not travel much to explore far-flung historical sources. So he started doing research and writing about the history of New Jersey.
Between 1985 and 1992 he wrote a monthly column for the New York Times’ New Jersey section about New Jersey history. Mixing humor and a bit of seriousness, he says, he “had a hell of a good time” exploring Rutgers’ extensive archival material about the state. He hung out in the special collections branch reading old newspapers and letters and browsing through books. “I would find lots of obscure stuff that was funny, bizarre, or tragic,” he says.
Mappen loved coming across the tidbits that, with a little more research, developed into wonderful stories to share in his column. “I was tickled pink by the fact that Annie Oakley lived in Nutley,” he says. Although the sharpshooter and her husband traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, they built a house in New Jersey for winter layovers and retirement.
Mappen also wrote about notorious cases like the Lindbergh kidnapping and freaky events like the ocean liner that sailed from New York to Havana, caught on fire, and, while being towed home, drifted onto the shore in Asbury Park near the convention center as a “shipwreck.”
Another column covered an early account of witchcraft in New Jersey that turned out to have been a hoax created by Benjamin Franklin. “By writing that hoax,” observes Mappen, “the Benjamin Franklin who invented bifocals and the Franklin stove invented the Jersey Joke.”
Using material from these columns, Mappen put together his first book about New Jersey, “Jerseyana: The Underside of New Jersey History.” Mappen also edited a series of essays by historians trying to explain the witch trials of Salem, titled “Witches and Historians,” which attempt to explain what Mappen calls “a bizarre outbreak when so many were accused and executed.”
By now Mappen has become a New Jersey-o-phile and takes umbrage at the nerve of people who are happy to look down their noses at his state. So he decided to write a book expressing his pride in his adopted state. “The idea behind the book is that New Jersey gets a bad rap,” he says. “I thought that ‘The Sopranos’ was a case in point. Here is a show broadcast all the time that depicts New Jersey from the point of view of a Mafia family that does horrid and stupid things. It does not show New Jersey to its best advantage.”
In fact, reports abound from New Jersey travelers who get questions about “The Sopranos” thrown in their faces. Mappen’s friend, while on vacation in Gdansk, Poland, reported hearing one from the guy at the next table, and another woman E-mailed him about a taxi driver in Dublin who referred to the Sopranos.
Mappen says, “I started thinking, ‘There’s more to New Jersey than the Sopranos’” — which happens to be the name of his newest book. The book combines essays from the New York Times not published in his first book (he was still writing the column at the time it was published) with brand-new material.
The launch party and book signing for Mappen’s new book take place on Sunday, September 13, at 4 p.m., at Barnes & Noble, 869 Route 1 South in the North Village Shopping Center, North Brunswick.
The opening chapter, “How We Got to Where We Are,” expresses pride in New Jersey’s diversity and establishes strong links between New Jersey’s founding and the present. New Jersey, he tells his readers, varies in terms of landscape — offering mountains, wetlands, coastal plains, and pine barrens — and population, with its 28 percent immigrant stock remaining relatively constant over time, with only the country of origin changing.
Particularly interesting perhaps to Princetonians, who squabble at regular intervals over whether to unite township and borough, is Mappen’s explanation of the historical sources of our penchant for home rule. With the land owned by shareholders, called proprietors, settlers protested violently through the 17th and 18th centuries against them. “It is no surprise,” writes Mappen, “that in the centuries that followed, New Jersey laws gave towns protection from the intrusion of state government.”
And why don’t we have a statewide newspaper? That also harks back to British rule, when the British Crown forbade the establishment of a printing press in New Jersey.
Mappen’s profiles of New Jerseyans capture what makes the state much more than a vale of humility between New York and Philadelphia. Take the piece titled “Mommy Was a Commie,” about a divorce case where the wife lost custody of the children because she was a member of the Communist Party. But that was only until the New Jersey Supreme Court threw out the lower court’s ruling as being improper.
The details in this case, though, were not easy to come by. Mappen came across the case in a sentence in a 1930s guidebook titled “WPA Guide to New Jersey” and decided to dig in. To fill in the blanks, he explored contemporary newspaper accounts and also delved into the papers of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
Mappen also seems to admire women with pluck. He writes about Alice Ramsey, who in the 1920s became the first woman to drive a car from coast to coast. Another heroine in his pages is Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who in later life moved to Tenafly, and in the 1880 presidential election verbally accosted a poll worker holding tightly to the ballot box to prevent her from casting a vote. After she quotes chapter and verse from the New Jersey and United States constitutions, his response, which Mappen records, is: “I never read either, but I do know that in New Jersey, women have not voted in my day, and I cannot accept your ballot.”
Between his two essay books about New Jersey, Mappen served as co-editor of the “Encyclopedia of New Jersey,” a project that extended nine years. Published in 2004, the reference work has about 3,000 entries, which include, for instance, two entities of which New Jersey has the highest concentration in the nation: horseshoe crabs and the Kalmyks, descendants of the Mongolian people who once conquered much of Eurasia and came to the United States during the Cold War. Mappen says he loves flipping through the work at random and seeing the odd topics that follow one another alphabetically, for example, mushrooms, music, muskrats, Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company.
The audience for his newest book is not just historians, suggests Mappen, but people who like a good story. But the book also has a purpose, from which Mappen never wavers: “To show that there is a lot more about New Jersey than you would guess from watching ‘The Sopranos.’”
Author Event, Barnes & Noble, 869 Route 1 South, North Brunswick. Sunday, September 13, 4 p.m. Marc Mappen, author of “There’s More to New Jersey Than the Sopranos” has book launch and book-signing. 732-545-7860 or www.bn.com.