If you love U.S. history — and could easily imagine yourself whiling away an afternoon in the archives, delving deeper and deeper into the stories of America’s past — you’ll want to add a new title to your collection: Waking Dreamers: Unexpected American Lives, 1880-1980.

Researched and written by BookTrib’s contributor Claudia Keenan, Waking Dreamers tells the nearly-forgotten tales of dozens of historical figures, many from New York City and its environs, whose names may not be recognized today but whose lives were truly fascinating. Keenan is an independent scholar and historian of education with a seemingly insatiable interest in American culture and history. Her longtime friend Mark Olmsted penned the book’s forward, noting that Keenan specializes in “uncovering the type of individual who came of age in the early twentieth century and shaped American history without ever making it into the history books.”


The book compiles more than 120 stories, collected and curated by Keenan between November 2015 and February 2020, chronicling the lives, loves, failures and successes of a wide range of figures.

There is Florence E. Cory, an ambitious divorcée who rose to unlikely prominence as a designer of carpet patterns and became the eventual founder of The Institute of Industrial Arts and Technical Design for Women in 1881. There is Parker Sercombe, whose exploits ranged from manufacturing bicycles in Milwaukee to banking in Mexico to founding a free-love colony in Chicago. There is the trio of Mrs. Ridders — the three ex-wives of newspaper tycoon Bernard H. Ridder — who lived within blocks of each other on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There is J. Howard Moore, a pioneering animal rights’ activist and vegetarian in the early 1900s who took his own life because he was “unable to stand the suffering of poor animals anymore.” And that’s just to name a few.

Keenan’s writing combines in-depth research with her own musings about her discoveries. The readers can feel her enthusiasm for each quirky character, and her sense of curiosity is contagious. The author even mines her own childhood, family lore and hometown of Mt. Vernon, NY, as sources of interesting stories, such as the mysterious circumstances surrounding the exit of the city’s superintendent back in 1945, or the tale of the Kansas farmer turned elementary-school principal who dreamt of the “glory of a perfectly ordered school” but failed to address the pressing needs of integration in the 1960s. 


Indeed, the complexities of systemic racism appear in multiple stories recounted by Keenan and feel particularly timely in the summer of 2020. There’s an investigation into the manufacturing of Ku Klux Klan robes in the 1920s, when African American factory workers toiled to produce 600 robes per day — a brutal reminder that “a job may demand the creation of objects that sear one’s body and soul.” And there’s the story of Wanamaker’s department store, which employed 250 of the 300,000 African Americans living in New York City in 1928 and refused to bow to the pressure to replace Black elevator operators with white workers, but still failed to treat its Black employees equally.

Waking Dreamers is filled with historical insights and hidden gems from the past that not only entertain but also provide powerful commentary on the ways that our country has changed — and failed to change — over the past century.

For more on Claudia Keenan, visit her author profile page.

Claudia Keenan is a historian of American Education (PhD, New York University). She has taught at Emory & Henry College and the University of Virginia extension, and has published on such varied topics as the image of the First Lady, the history of the suburban P.T.A., and the philosopher George S. Counts. Her scholarly interests include the history of New York City, progressive education and obscure Americans of historical and cultural interest whom she writes about in her blog, Through the Hourglass.

Claudia grew up in Mt. Vernon, NY, where her first job was being a page in the public library. She has also worked for WNYC Public Radio. Since 2000, Claudia has lived in Kansas, rural Virginia, Atlanta and New York City. She currently resides in Connecticut with her husband.