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49-Nov-Dec-2010
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A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America

A-The Fall of the House of WalworthGeoffrey O'Brien, a poet and cultural historian, is the editor in chief of the Library of America and the author of several books.

The Topic: When the mansion in Saratoga, New York, that once belonged to the Walworth family was finally demolished, local papers compared the event to the "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe. That's not surprising given that the Walworth family history sounds like something only Poe could create: a clan of scions of American Old Money ends up producing megalomaniacs and murderers. Of particular note to this gothic horror story was an 1873 parricide trial. O'Brien not only constructs his story around the spectacular killing that brought the family national notoriety in the Gilded Age; he also explores every nook and cranny of this odd American family.
Henry Holt. 352 pages. $30. ISBN: 9780805081152

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"In The Fall of the House of Walworth, Geoffrey O'Brien ... tells the story of the implosion of a once-prominent family. Exquisitely written, by turns sad, surprising, and suspenseful, the book illuminates the rapidly changing world of 19th-century America, with its visions of virtue, codes of honor, class conflicts, and culture of aspiration." Glenn C. Altschuler

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"His saga of this prominent 1800s family of Saratogians has enough moments of melodramatic excess--religious fanaticism! inherited insanity! parricide!––to rival the most extravagant Gothic novels of the day. ... Red Smith wrote that to get to Saratoga Springs from New York City, ‘you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years.' In his felicitous cultural history, O'Brien neatly pulls off the time-travel trick with no need to gas up the tank." Eric Banks

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"O'Brien is the ideal author for this project: knowledgeable about 19th-century history, a subtle critic of the family's legal and literary texts, and so entranced by the seamy details, he occasionally and joyfully eats the ormolu scenery. ... The Fall of the House of Walworth is a gripping, Poe-inspired story that is a pleasing mix of highbrow literary taste and lowbrow sensationalism." Emily Barton

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Like the edifice of Poe's imagination, the Walworth mansion had become, over the years, an emblem of decay and fallen glory, leaving behind echoes of insanity and patricide. Geoffrey O'Brien's eloquent The Fall of the House of Walworth vividly resurrects the idiosyncratic and ultimately tragic malcontents who for four generations lived [there]." Edward J. Renehan Jr.

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"O'Brien ... portrays the Walworths as a family that manifests--in microcosm--all kinds of American troubles. ... The subject of this book is not so simple as good fighting evil; it's more like respectability duking it out with discord." Carolyn See

Critical Summary

Reviewers unanimously agreed that The Fall of the House of Walworth, billed as a true-crime story, is an enthralling book and that O'Brien is uniquely qualified to write it. Critics were universally impressed with the way O'Brien takes a 19th-century family that most people have probably never heard of and not only builds a gripping, multilayered, and thoroughly researched narrative about them but also uses them to illuminate much of their rapidly changing period in American history. O'Brien's background as a cultural historian, literary critic, and poet are all brought to bear in this impressive achievement.