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Book Reviews 159 Oleander Odyssey: The Kempners of Galveston, Texas, 1954-1980s, by Harold M. Hyman. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1990. 486 pp. $39.95. Oleander Odyssey is an epic tale of success and failure in America. It tells the story of one family, Harris Kempner and his descendants, and the impact its members had on one city, Galveston, Texas. As such, it traces the rise of a far-reaching family conglomerate-with interests in cotton, sugar, oil, real estate, banking, and insurance-and reads like an Horatio Alger tale. Yet while success is the leitmotif of the Kempner opera, failure lurks behind the surface progress, 'or, perhaps, failure is inherent in the very nature of progress and success for a Jewish family in the United States. The Kempners' economic success was accompanied by acculturation . Old World traditions and beliefs were sacrificed to the customs of the New. Many of the descendants of the first American Kempner-proud, strong Harris Kempner-married outside of his faith into Catholic, Baptist, and Episcopalian families. None of his grandsons had a bar mitzvah. like other children of successful Jewish immigrants, they bought into a more secular vision of America, one that led them away from their roots. The Kempner saga began with Harris, who arrived in New York City from the Polish section of Russia in 1854 With, according to one legend, $1.75 in his pockets. Maybe he had more capital, perhaps as much as $100, but no matter: he came poor and died rich. When he died in 1894 of Bright'S disease, he ICft an estate of a million and a half dollars. He made his fortune, not in New York City or the more socially fluid north, but in the south. One of the many contributions of Hyman's study is that he demonstrates that the South-Old and New-was not a closed society. The Kempner family blended into Galveston society, supportingJewish and WASP institutions. Their story is one of social as well as economic influence. When Harris died, Isaac Herbert "Ike" Kempner guided the family empire. Harris' oldest son, Ike had worked in his family's cotton business from the time he was a teenager, and he was acquainted with worlds outsideJewish Galveston. He attended Saint Mary's, a Catholic preparatory school; Bellevue High School, the Virginia pipeline to the better eastern colleges; and Washington and Lee University, where he befriended future Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, future presidential candidate John W. Davis, and future United States Senator Miles Poindexter. As the head of the Kempner businesses, he moved the organization into the twentieth century. He took more risks than his father and made greater profits. Not content with cotton factoring, he became a cotton merchant. He developed 160 SHOFAR Spring 1994 Vol. 12, No.3 closer ties with American bankers. And he expanded into other businesses. Along the way, he became a social leader in Galveston, helped that city recover from the Great Storm of 1900, and supported a wide range of humanitarian and charitable endeavors. In writing this family history, Hyman had the full cooperation of the Kempner family. He had access to the family's archives and interviewed a number of its members. The Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund even proVided economic support for his research. Hyman, however, controlled the final product; the family made no editorial demands. This said, Hyman generally views the family's activities in a favorable light. The family's participation in the convict lease system is placed in the context of the times, as is the family's treatment of the minorities who worked for its company. And in truth, the family's racial politics were probably more advanced than those of the rest of the South. "I came to America to be an American," Harris Kempner wrote close to the end of his life. Ultimately, that is the story that Hyman tells. As Franklin Roosevelt once suggested, the immigrant saga is part of every American story. Hyman tells his story well, and he ranges comfortably through economic history, social history, religious history, business history, immigrant history, legal history, and biography. Oleander Odyssey is intellectually satisfying and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 159-160
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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