". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

It's Chaucer, It's Ballet, It's Kate Chase Sprague. It's Huey Long - It's All History

I don't always have time to participate in the Reading Wednesday meme, as I haven't got the time for recreational reading, since I spend so much of every week in focused reading for research and fact-checking.  However, here are four books I'm currently reading purely out of my need for escape from the matters of slavery and the slave trade.

Each one deals significantly with a particular era in history.  I list them here in that chronological order.

Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road To Canterbury (2014) by Paul Strohm. This is a small book of history that, happily for me, deals with the wool trade's administrative structures, and the political cut-throatery of who controlled it in these peak centuries when it was all England had to finance a nation and the crown.

As interested as I am in England's wool industry of the 14th and 15th centuries, and that its central figure is the author of The Canterbury Tales, this small history is remarkably dull reading.  Which it shouldn't be since the story is interesting: how this man whose only claim to notice is that he was married to  Philippa de Roet,  whowas a lady to Blanche, Duchess of the powerful Duke of Lancaster, and Philippa's  sister, Katherine, became this same Duke's long- time mistress and finally his third wife.  But his sister-in-law had some years  yet before marriage with Lancaster, when Chaucer was one of London's wool custom controllers, and a member of Parliament -- and what happened to Chaucer when his faction fell out of power.

Nevertheless a great deal of political and economic information necessary to fully understand the Wars of the Roses is within the purviews of this book. Fortunately I know enough about this era -- though not even approaching a specialist's knowledge -- that the dull narrative didn't get in the way of reading the whole story

Apollo's Angels: A History of the Ballet (2010) by Jennifer Homans.  I'm particularly thrilled to be reading this as it's been on my reading list since it was published.  Since it was among my Christmas gifts this year, it's as though I finally received permission to do so. The history begins in 1533, with the wedding of Catherine Marie de Medici to the French king, Henry II. Anyone interested in the development of manners, etiquette, courtesy and their relationship to the King's Body Royal, courts and the body language that goes with them, and the further significance to realm political is going to find the first sections essential reading -- and absolutely fascinating.  I've read much of this information in other books, but never in one continual chronological narrative that includes the political and social history of the early Renaissance in Europe.

Homans, who has a Ph.D. in Modern European History (all this means within the acadamy is its not Ancient or Prehistory -- it doesn't mean the 20th century specifically), is the Distinguished Scholar in Residence in History and European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU.  That she brings this deep historical knowledge to her experiences with ballet makes this study very special.

For a ballet lover like herself, Homans's conclusion about ballet's future history is a melancholy one.  She thinks the art form's not likely to survive, as all ballet's the elements are anchored by the body and how it communicates in motion and space, is progressively less interesting to generations more anchored in digital kinetics and communication.  They are -- and employing this word deliberately -- in dynamic opposition.

American Queen: Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War "Belle of the North" and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal (2014) by John Oller.  This one might be a contender for the longest title for a single subject biography, but then this title was surely the publisher's idea, attempting to cram as many search tags into it as possible.

Kate was the most beautiful woman not only in Washington D.C., but in the country, and the nation's foremost social hostess, none of which small, manic-depressive Mary Todd, with family fighting for the CSA, could be. Gads, Mary Todd Lincoln hated Kate Chase! She had her reasons, starting with Kate's father, Salmon P. Chase, who believed he should be POTUS and while Lincoln's Secretary of Treasury, campaigned from that position to take Lincoln's place. Kate devotedly did her best to help her father fulfill his ambition. If Chase succeeded, Kate would serve as First Lady.

As Kate's beauty blossomed when photography was becoming common we can see her reputation as a great beauty is not exaggerated.  Considering how photographs of the time fade, how immobile the subjects had to be, and the acres of fabric in which the female body was swathed in those days -- that her beauty still shines from these photos like a brilliant star among dull clouds, is the proof.

Her wedding to the wealthy Rhode Island financier, Richard Sprague, was hailed as the social event of many seasons, the union of a prince and a princess.  We know that often those fairy tales turn out badly, and Kate didn't escape that fate.

Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long (2006) by Richard D. White. This is an easy-reading book that covers what many other books about Louisiana's famous son, Huey Long, have described. But for later generations whose great-grandparents were barely born in the 1920's and the 1930's, this book will inform them why Long's still particularly relevant to our particular political time and climate.  It gives a good account too as why populism so often becomes demagoguery, which will lead to no good, as we saw in the same decades with Mussolini and Hitler. They weren't the only ones by any means, and Huey Long wasn't the only one in the U.S. by any means either.

While Long himself did not use black race baiting among his tactics, he didn't do anything for African Americans, and he did include as much anti-semitism in his electioneering and power plays as any other demagogue like Vardaman (Mississippi) did, and a lot more than the average politician, who used plenty.

Anyone wanting to believe the silly adage that an armed society is a polite society should become familiar with how public life played in this period. Armed conflict between individuals anywhere was the rule, whether in a hotel, on the street or in the halls of justice and legislation. Conflicting corrupt political machines brought their own armed gangs to law-making and battled each other up and down and around the state.

For me, personally, perhaps the most important thing I gained from this biography is a deeper understanding of the importance of patronage in politics. Long went to war against FDR because he wasn't allowed to have control of federal money and jobs creation FDR's policies were putting in place.  The party who controls the patronage controls a state, and who controls the patronage also controls the party.

This finally satisfactorily explains to me:

1) Why the South's always been against federal taxes for federal funding of public works, often, like Long, blocking it in Congress, as with any infrastructure public works that we so desperately need, and even refusing it such as increase in Medicaid funding as several southern states have done; they don't control it.

2) Why the first federal agency Nixon and the anti-government repubs targeted for destruction, way back in the 1970's was the Post Office.

Controlling the Post even in colonial times was a license, literally to print money -- it also was a printer so it printed the colonies' financial paper.  The basis for Benjamin Franklin's influence and fortune, was winning the Crown's appointment as Philadelphia's postmaster in 1737.  He also owned a printing press to print the Post's commissions for official documents and so on.  He rose to become the Colonies' Postmaster General. The office only become more important once there was independence and a nation. The patronage out of the Post Office may have been the greatest of any agency, and reached down to the the bottom of the most isolated corner of the U.S. -- i.e. the job of mail carrier in remote rural areas often made all the difference to the mail carrier's family's finances, keeping them fed and clothed, particularly in hard economic times.

That had to be done away with in order to undermine the power of big government, allow more power to the private corporate sector and undermine the Dems as a corollary -- because in many places with majority black voters, post office jobs were very good ones to have, and the Dems locally tended to reward their base with those jobs. So removing the Post Office as a federal agency, destroyed both a voting base's power and a powerful union.  Nevermind that the Post Office been an admirably functioning agency for two centuries. He started the project in 1970, with the removal from the cabinet of the office of Post Master General and the Post Office as a cabinet-level department. The destruction of the U.S. Post Office has been ongoing every since.  He also began the destruction of U.S. health care by de-regulation of the health insurance corporations.

Ah yes, even recreational reading teaches . . . .

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