In 1968, while reading Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Barbara Tuchman's "The Proud Tower," an account of the world in the decades immediately preceding World War I, Joseph T. Wilkins was struck by the story of Thomas B. Reed, a Republican congressman from Maine who fought tirelessly against the violent obstructionism of Southern Democrats.
For more than four decades, Wilkins, who wrote as a hobby during the little free time he had as an Atlantic City lawyer, researched Reed with the goal of writing an account of the progressive congressman's battle. In April 2011, his work culminated in the historical novel "The Speaker Who Locked up the House."
On Sept. 14, Wilkins visited the Greate Egg Harbour Township Historical Society to discuss Reed's tenure in the House in the first talk of the society's new speakers series. Dan Lawless, the Historical Society member who arranged Wilkins' talk, said he was fascinated by Wilkins' dissection of the late-19th century Congress.
"This time period, I'm not very well-versed on at all," Lawless said. "It was all pretty much new, and it was very interesting to see how they wheeled and dealed."
When Reed made his way into the House of Representatives in 1877, he was shocked by the bitter racial feud that still defined post-reconstruction Washington, D.C. Seeing the often-violent tactics many Southern Democrats and their supporters used in order to hold onto their rapidly waning power, Reed, according to Wilkins' account, made it his mission to end their stranglehold on progress.
Wilkins' novel is told from the perspective of a New Orleans Picayune reporter who covered Congress during Reed's stint as Speaker of the House from December 1889 to March 1991. It follows Reed as he stymies the obstructionist Southern Democrats with a series of increasingly bold measures to ensure their cooperation, which culminates in his barring them from leaving the floor during a vote, the scene from which the book derives its title.
Reed's combination of spirit, guile and idealism, Wilkins said, has made him an enduring figure in the halls of Capitol Hill.
"He's an insider, he's a character," Wilkins said. "The people in Washington know him and really appreciate him, the people on the Hill in Washington. He's a well-known character."
While the book is fictional, Wilkins - who painstakingly researched the novel through firsthand sources on weekend trips to the Library of Congress and even retraced Reed's steps to his collegiate days at Bowdoin College in Maine - said it is mostly fact.
Where the book deviates from the truth, Wilkins said, is in some of its characters, who, because their names and roles are lost to history, he had to make up.
"It's fiction, because it's really a story of blacks and whites, and in those days, there were no black congressmen," Wilkins said. "There were some (black men) in the galleries, but there were very few black reporters that could get their pieces run, so if you really wanted to tell the story of how this was playing out, I had to invent some black characters."
Wilkins is also the author of the book "Skin Game," a fictionalized look at the seedy underbelly of Atlantic City during the early years of his law practice.
Wilkins' books are available online at josephtwilkins.com.
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