The multigenerational chronicle of an upper-crust family brought down by divorce, insanity and murder.
Poet and Library of America editor in chief O’Brien (poems: A Book of Maps, 2007, etc.) was working on a book at the Yaddo writers’ retreat when he visited the Walworth Memorial Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. There he learned about the Walworths, a prominent family who had been unable to retain ownership of the family mansion after 19th-century mayhem broke apart the clan. Although the saga encompasses the entire 19th century and a portion of the 20th, the story focuses primarily on the events of June 3, 1873, and its courtroom aftermath. On that date, 19-year-old Frank Walworth calmly shot his father, Mansfield Walworth, in a New York City hotel room. Mansfield, the son of a prominent and powerful judge, had divorced his wife, Ellen, and abandoned Frank. Furthermore, Frank believed Mansfield intended to physically harm Ellen, based on letters mailed to her. A jury convicted Frank, who served prison time but managed to walk out a free man after serving his sentence. In addition to examining the family pathology that may have contributed to Frank’s murderous mentality, O’Brien shares scenes from the Gilded Age in New York City and Saratoga Springs. Although a fine prose stylist, the author imbues the narrative with sometimes impersonal, even stilted language that makes it difficult to sympathize with the Walworth family members. Side voyages into the work and social lives of the various family members provide interesting material—especially involving the rather tasteless novels published by Mansfield for a sizable reading public—but these diversions are not always well-integrated into the primary narrative.
A mostly compelling account of both a family and a way of life long gone.