". . . 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

Friday, November 29, 2013

Ebony and Ivy: The Secret History of How Slavery Helped Build America’s Elite Colleges

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now interviews Craig Stevens Wilder, the author of Ebony and Ivy: The Secret History of How Slavery Helped Build America’s Elite Colleges (2013).

Craig Steven Wilder, professor, MIT, author of Ebony and Ivy
It's a brilliant work of scholarship, delving into deep historical detail the close relationship between the most highly ranked of the institutions of higher learning in the U.S., slavery and the African-Atlantic slave trade.  It also shows how institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton deliberately formed a 'science' of eugenics to help forge closer bonds between southern and West Indian planters, who had money to endow chairs and legacies, but who by-and-large had no universities of their own.  This is pretty rough stuff.

There is no aspect of the U.S. before the Civil War that wasn't infected with slavery and the slave trade, starting in the colonial era.  New England's Indian wars tended to conclude with the captives being shipped to West Indian slave markets and sold.  There is no institution after the Civil War that wasn't tainted with white supremacy and Jim Crow.  That's depressing.

However, Wilder makes clear there were always members of these institutions too, who throughout this sad history, pushed back against slavery, against white supremacy, eugenics, colonization and the slave trade.  Often they suffered for it, but the antagonists persevered.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about America’s most elite universities. What relation do they have to slavery?
CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think there are multiple relationships. The first and probably most poignant, most provocative, is the relationship to the slave trade itself. In the middle of the 18th century, from 1746 to 1769—fewer than 25 years, less than a quarter century—the number of colleges in the British colonies triples from three to nine. The original three were Harvard, Yale and William & Mary, and all of a sudden there were nine by 1769. And it triples in that 25-year period. That 25-year period actually coincides with the height of the slave trade. It’s precisely the rise and the elaboration of the Atlantic economy, based on the African slave trade, that allows for this sort of fantastic articulation of new growth of the institutional infrastructure of the colonies.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Eating Holiday! Plus - Authors!

Has anyone else played this game?

I played Authors constantly, right up until leaving home, taking a deck with me much in the way others brought their tarot decks to college.  But I never encountered anyone who had even heard of the game, much less played it, and have not since. Even before leaving home, Authors seems to have become somewhat of an esoteric game.  None of my cousins ever played it, and had no interest in learning to, when I'd suggest it on holidays held at our house.  So I never played Authors with anyone except my brother and sister, a few people at school -- and in high school my best friend, who was as much a book-and-reading fool as I was.

Today it's deep freeze here, perfect context for me still being sick -- since November 7, fer pete's sake!  Every time I feel better and then go out, the next day I feel as miserable as I ever did.  That happened yesterday after getting to see clips of Treme's new season on Wednesday night. Nevertheless we are having Thanksgiving and we both have enormous amounts for which to be thankful, thank goodness!  :)

As I leisurely begin preparations for dinner I have been thinking of Thanksgivings past.

The first copy of Little Men I read was my mom's, one of the many volumes she purchased for the kids in the country school she taught before marriage.  Imagine my shock when reading this one to discover entire chapters had been cut out -- as irrelevant to the story, I suppose.  That was my first encounter with a bowdlerized book.  Then, as now, I hate it!
I loved how Louisa May Alcott always included holiday gatherings in her novels. There's a colorful account of a Thanksgiving held at Plumfield in Little Men that I enjoy reading as much every time as I did the first time, when I was nine.  It felt so -- familiar, so homey.   One thinks of marking the tale of a life through his / her Thanksgivings.  For many years I was able to account for every Thanksgiving I'd experienced since leaving home.  Not so much any longer. Woo.  :)

Some still particularly stand out in memory, several of them in New Mexico.

One of the very best was with a collection of amigos / amigas at a cabin without plumbing or electricity in the Organ Mountains.*  The turkeys were wild turkeys, and cooked in an outdoor adobe oven, while everything else was done on a wood burning stove.  We were grateful for that stove, particularly after the sun went down.  The sky at night!  It looked like those over saturated color Sunday School lesson front page of the sky above Palestine at the Nativity.  More stars brilliantly sparkling up there than in a jewelry store's diamond case.  Knocking back tequila, reciting poetry, dancing to the portable radio, stumbling to the outhouse.

Fine memories.


* Had not yet encountered the mighty and gracious el V -- but I have a splendid New Mexico Thanksgiving memory with him included too!  Then it was on to creating NYC Thanksgiving memories, as after we met, I didn't stay much longer in NM -- though I did return for a year at one point, which was a tremendous error in judgment on my part.  Or -- maybe not.  It turned out to get me what I wanted. But there was no way for me to know that would happen, or even to expect it would.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reading Wednesday: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P; The Pursuit of Love; Longbourn

I read two whole novels!

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P is a new novel (2013), while The Pursuit of Love (1945) is older than I am. I've also read Pursuit more than once before.  I'll say it right here at the top that I enjoyed very much reading the older novel again, while feeling rather bored by the new one, despite how self-consciously Adelle Waldman is heiress to narrative techniques refined by that contemporary of Nancy Mitford, Virginia Woolf.

I'll begin with the new one.

Natty P is the narrator of this description of a group of  New Yorkers maybe three of four years ahead of Lena Denham's cohort.  Natty P's people rotate in various degrees of intimacy within the larger constellation of the intersecting publishing vectors: reviewers for online zines like Gawker, editorial assistants for magazine like Vogue, novelists with first contracts. All of them intend to be published authors.

One and all they have graduated from programs at no lesser institution than George Washington University (though Harvard is by far the top of the list to name-drop as alma mater, and is name dropped on every page; Natty P graduated Harvard). Often they were recipients of prestigious literary prizes awarded by a program at that institution like this one.  Yet even the poet of the novel, winner of a Stanford undergrad poetry prize, cannot find a job in NYC's publishing world worthy of her. The job market into which they graduated is unfair. Whether there were ample entry level jobs out there or not, these individuals do not think they should have to be in them. Those positions are for those who didn't go to Harvard.

One and all name check Italo Svevo (James Joyce who?) as their benchmark when assessing the brilliance of new acquaintance, or deciding someone might be worthy to have sex with. As well as quantifying the endless varieties of their brilliance, they minutely categorize everything else about themselves and each other -- including the toilet paper, and, toothpaste they buy and why.  (Fascinated by them yet?) They hold in solidarity the conviction of personal exceptionalism, yet  they are consumer driven lemmings, dashing in waves here and there according to what the media market orders them. They don't seem to have any fun other than on occasion feeling they've out-mot juste-ed a friend.

Described in detail as it may be, they aren't interested much in sex either, other than as score-keeping. This is the saddest part. No matter how well suited a woman might be for Natty P, he will soon see her physical flaws, and that's it. No one is physically perfect enough in their eyes for sex and love, including themselves. They are dreary, predictable and dull, hypnotized by the surperficial markers corporations have told them are identities. 

Note: not a single character of color or anyone of any other class (such as those who don't go to Harvard) inhabit this world or enters their consciousness. Occasionally they see a poor person or a hardworking immigrant in the cold and they examine their vague feeling of guilt, and that takes care of that by providing them a sense of themselves as sensitive and compassionate. All of them have families well-heeled enough they can always go back home. Nevertheless they carry with them a sense of being victimized by society.  For example one of them carries a chip that he doesn't like to examine much, but does like the tongue going to an infected tooth -- that he wasn't born a WASP.  Yet he feels he is infinitely superior because WASPS are shallow and boring.

It's a beautifully written novel.  However I cannot tell whether the author's intended take-away of these people is what I did take away: useless creatures, who are neither provocative or entertaining, with whom I'd never want to have a beer or a flute of champagne. I may be out-of-step generationlly though. Perhaps like Lena Dunham's writer character Hannah in Girls, who thinks she might be "the voice her generation, or a voice of a generation," Adelle Waldman is the voice of her generation. Waldman's generation thinks so, having declared this the greatest novel so far of the 21st century, and the shoe in for the  fiction Pulitzer and National Book Awards. 

After that meticulous assault in granular detail by the most minutely trivial of the terminally predictable it was a joy to sail upon the astringent waters of  the old book's characters forthright self-regard. They came up in a hard, hard school.  

One of the primary differences is that while the characters of Natty P are mediocrities who strive mightily to believe in their genius and  uniqueness, the incestuous communities of Mitford's Pursuit are fascinating and entertaining (at least, at a safe distance). Monsters some of them are in the habituation of their generationally inherited comfortable complacency about their class privilege. But their steely determination to do what they mean to do, damn the torpedoes, the public opinion of their peers, or the Nazis, are figures who lead lives larger than the average. Compared to the Natty P pipsqueak generation, there were giants walking the earth in the days of the Mitfords.

Making up an untitled trilogy, The Pursuit of Love was followed by Love in a Cold Climate (1949) and Don't tell Alfred (1960). All three novels are narrated by Fanny, a cousin of the semi-fictional Alconleigh Radlett family. The first two are set after WWI, and run into WWII. Don't Tell Alfred is set mostly in France, after the war. Mitford's splendid at committing in print what some of her contemporary writers called the "posh aesthetic" -- a cold cruelty of which the era's Bright Young Things were enamored.  It's the sort of thing the Natty P literary lights so aspire to toss off, but they fall so short as to not be on the playing field.

Current novel reading-in-progress is yet another Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice spin-off, Longbourn (2013).*

This one is a cut above of the usual attempts that bite Jane Austen's superlative works.  It focuses the working class, particularly the female servants who empty the Bennets' chamber pots, launder their menstrual napkins, scrub their mud-caked petticoats and skirts. They do this in winter, with chilblained hands, in thee summer in sweat soaked bodices. They cook, clean, listen to the whines, cater to the tantrums, and serve, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They cannot expect better either, not in this world of too many women (due to the wars), few jobs and less opportunity for upward mobility.

There is a melodramatic secret in the center of the book, which the reader sees coming from very early on. Since I've identified the looming secret, know its solution too, there isn't much incentive to keep reading. I already know what it would be like living below stairs in the Bennet household, having read many histories of the condition. Indeed, I thought of it even before reading such works, a farm girl imagining that house filled with women having their periods at the same time, and what this would mean for laundry ....   Language usages and ways of seeing and thinking from our own era creep into the text more often than the author seems to have noticed too.

* Earlier this month I tried to read Joanna Trollope's Sense and Sensibility (2013), the first in the series by famous authors to write contemporary versions of Jane Austen's works.

It was a ridiculous effort -- yet I have read many of this author's own novels with pleasure.  It's just not possible to recreate in contemporary terms the dilemmas facing women of the English class-based early 19th century.  I wish They wouldn't do this.  But Jane Austen makes money, so let us come up with every permutation to wring dollars / lbs out of her, since few contemporary novels sell as well as Austen's do.

There's a reason for that.  Austen wrote novels out of her own mind, creation and experience.  Most writers now are biting what came before or what someone else is currently doing.  Imitation of a novel does not a novel make.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tonight - Tuning Into Treme With Special Guest Eric Overmyer

The final, truncated season of Treme opens (HBO) this comming Sunday, December 1.

I hope the frightful weather advisory doesn't keep us or anyone else away.

Here are the details of the event, held at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Robert McCrum's 100 Best English and American Novels: #10

This week is number 10, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (1838).  Last week, number 9, was Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey (1818). McCrum is progressing chronologically in his list, starting from the earliest to the latest.  His first title then was Pilgrim's Progress (1678).

This is the first American novel on his list and it is Poe's only novel. That seems to be the only reason McCrum picked this one for the honor of being the first Yank title. One thinks this because the below-pulled quote from McCrum's column cites almost entirely poets, who admire Poe's poetry -- and lordessa help us, supposedly Poe's dipsomaniacal, tubercular, impoverished peregrinating (short) life.

James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans was published in 1826. One can argue that Last of the Mohicans and its sibling work featuring Natty Bumpo the white forest runner - scout, sharpshooting friend of Indians, had at least as great influence on contemporary and subsequent writers both in the U.S. and Europe. This continued through the 19th century, into the 20th, and today, at least continues in Europe. Unlike Poe's short fiction and poetry, outside of other writers, literary historians and critics,

Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is little known, and less read. I read it as part of my self-directed education program in the history of the novel, but I've had no urge to re-read it since.  I never even bother to think about it unless involved again with some aspect of literary history, such as defending the greatness of Moby Dick, whereas I refer in my thinking to Cooper constantly for so many reasons, from the history of the nation regionally, politically and culturally, to the history of the movies and television.

He begins his argument with this:
But it was Edgar Allan Poe, born 1809, who signals the beginning of what would become a great Anglo-American literary dialogue. Poe was original in ways that Irving and Fenimore Cooper never were. As well as being the first American writer to attempt living exclusively by his pen, he is also the archetype of the romantic literary artist. Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, and even Hunter S Thompson all owe something to Edgar Allan Poe. His nomadic, boho style and tortured, exigent career continue to exercise a powerful allure on any young American writers who see themselves as outsiders. In Britain, among later Victorian writers, Wilde, Stevenson, Swinburne and Yeats all responded to his unique imagination.
However, Cooper and Irving were making a living entirely by writing before Poe failed spectacularly to do, thus I'm not swayed by his arguments. Even so, I find them, like the weekly column thought provoking about the novel.  And I really enjoy having this opportunity to explore contrasting viewpoints about the history and influence of the novel in the U.S. and England.

Friday, November 22, 2013

David Simon Blogs 12 Years A Slave

David Simon blogs his thoughts about 12 Years a Slave, after his first screening, and, after his second screening, of this film that deals honestly with the condition of the enslaved in the U.S. south for 350 years. It's after the second screening that he addresses the political aspects of this nation that allowed slavery as an institution, and then the accompanying financial engine of the domestic slave trade, to exist at all.

He articulates this way, what is one of the themes of The American Slave Coast:
Anyone who acquires the narrative of 12 Years A Slave and finds it within his shrunken heart to continue any argument for the sanctity and perfection of our Founding Fathers, for the moral wisdom of their compromised document of national ideal that begins the American experience, or for their anachronistic or historically understandable tolerance of slavery — they are arguing from a desolate, amoral corner.
If original intent included the sadism and degradation of human slavery, then original intent is a legal and moral standard that can be consigned to the ash heap of human history.   Hardcore conservatives and libertarians who continue to parse the origins of the Constitution under the guise of returning to a more perfect American union are on a fool’s journey to decay and dishonor.
Simon speaks of the good things in our Constitution, particularly as it is amended, but, he says:
.... But for anyone to stand in sight of this film and pretend to the infallibility or perfect intellectual or moral grandeur of a Washington, a Jefferson, or a Madison is to invite ignominy from anyone else sensate.  Slavery was abomination, and we, in our birth of liberty, codified it and nurtured it. 

Moreover, the secessionists insisted they'd corrected the flawed Constitution, the one that allowed the international slave trade until January 1, 1808, that spoke to democracy and consent by voting -- a whole lot of issues.  In the Constitution of the Confederacy slavery as the way of life, the economic institution forever and everywhere, the contraction of who has the right to vote and to hold office, are clearly stated all the way through.  None of this business of majority voting for them.  They also use the words slave and slavery, which our Constitution coyly avoids by speaking of "certain persons," -- the only legal document probably that uses persons for slaves, but it didn't mean it that way, that was clear.

Look at 12 Years a Slave and recall that the horrors and misery up on that screen were deemed by the fire eaters (the term Barnwell Rhett and his cohorts were known by, in south and the north, as they advocated 24/7 hanging, shooting, enslaving abolitionists, secession and going to war) who made secession and the Civil War, to be all most Americans, of any heritage, any tone of skin, were worthy of: America and all her future conquests was to be ruled by a very small, wealthy elite -- to whom the rest of us were to be subservient in one way or another, whether as out-and-out slaves or a feudal underclass. That was the dream dreamed by that elite, and the convinced through a variety of lies and circumlocutions to get the whole south to dive off the suicide cliff with them.

It's particularly difficult to not see contemporary developments in the light of this national past.  Our constant surveillance of everyone state; stop and frisk -- what are these other than the same old militias pre-Independence to keep slaves on the plantation, the paddy rollers doing the same in the antebellum south, the KKK and associated orgs in Reconstruction and Jim Crow to keep everyone in their rightful place.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gone With The Wind - Or - The Scorned Novel

Attempting to understand her pre-adolescent obsession with Mitchell's novel, the writer of this NY Times Op-Ed piece writes:

... in the world of “Gone With the Wind,” romantic thinking trumps everything, including war, civility, morality, starvation and childbirth. The book amazed me with the grandeur of its delusion.
It also made me guilty, perhaps above all because reading “Gone With the Wind” made me feel that a part of myself might be like Scarlett, that I, too, might be capable of caring about the wrong things in life, so long as I was loved by a man.
Then as a divorcing mom she has this insight about her middle-school Gone With the Wind obsession:
And so I forgot about “Gone With the Wind.” Until recently, when I was talking with a friend about our daughters (now in middle school themselves), and their fascination with impossibly lengthy, endlessly repetitive supernatural romances. I casually mentioned my romantic epic of choice, and it occurred to me that “Gone With the Wind” was in fact the ultimate young adult novel. The choice between two starkly different lovers (one gentlemanly, one roguish) appears, for the very young, to be a choice between two utterly distinct potential identities, two possible roads through life.
Still, what is the most insightful, interesting bit she writes is in that first sentence above, "that romantic thinking trumps everything, including war, civility, morality, starvation and childbirth. The book amazed me with the grandeur of its delusion."  She also in another part of the essay includes that this romantic thinking trumps slavery too, about which as a child reader she felt, vaguely, guilty.

Bulloch Hall, Roswell, GA, (1924 View) Family Plantation Home of Theodore Roosevelt's Mother,; Thought to be Margaret Mitchell's Inspiration for Tara

One of TR's Uncles Shot and Killed His "Little Shadow" the Slave Given to Each Bulloch Child at Birth, in a Fit of Bad Temper; This Same Uncle Played a Principal Role in the Confederacy's Attacks on Union Merchant Ships, and Financing Iron Clads for their Navy

Whereas I never liked romance fiction, for a host of non-romance reasons I did like Gone With the Wind very much. Like so many women, I encountered the novel for the first time when very young.  To this day I still believe Mitchell's portrait of Scarlett is brilliant. Scarlett's a character that stands without being put in the shade by Thackeray's Becky Sharpe, and -- dare I say? even Jane Eyre. She's the antithesis of a romance heroine, and I'd never before encountered such a woman as the center of fiction: selfish, mean, vital, hard, non-spiritual.  Shoot, this girl who grew up on reading-and-writing Jo March of Alcott's Little Women had never encountered a heroine who hated to read!  I was fascinated.

The essay's writer and the many commentators to what she wrote point out that the Gone With the Wind novel and the Gone With the Wind movie are quite different in their focus.  The movie is about nothing but the romance.  The novel is about much more. Much of that much more is wrong-headed and forged directly out of the Georgia versions of the Glorious Lost Cause.  But her portrait of post Civil War Georgia and Atlanta is broadly vivid in scope, created out of the personal reminiscences of her relatives and other members of the community.  Scarlett herself, because of the kind of woman she is -- hard-headed, good with figures and good at making money, not particularly maternal -- she fits among the antebellum women of her world no more than she does in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow south.  But the very destruction of the world into which she was born allowed her to exercise all those functions, which, because regarded as non-feminine, were prohibited before the war for women (yes, by law as much as by society), her incredible energy to do, to make, that was in her.

But the film leaves out all this.  I've watched it perhaps three times, once upon a restoration print on a huge urban film theater's screen -- and didn't care for it, for this very reason.  As well, the casual racism and white supremacy, whether it is period or not, is even more unacceptable to today's viewer, one would hope anyway, since there's not a hint anywhere in novel or film of how the formerly enslaved and the emancipated members of their community feel -- other than tremendous love and loyalty to "their white folks."  Yes, some still did, but there were far more who saw all of it very differently.  It struck me hard, even upon first reading of Gone With the Wind, that Scarlett's judgment on the wives of the Yankee officers stationed in Atlanta who showed some interest in the dynamics of how there were so many light-skinned former slaves all around them.  How dare they be so vulgar!  Scarlett, sitting in judgment on vulgarity is a joke by itself, but that the curiosity is worse than the practice that resulted in so many white or light-skinned negroes is -- well not funny at all.

That non-inclusion is the great failure of Gone With the Wind, which, if it were present, might have made it a great novel instead of a great romance novel. Neither Margaret Mitchell nor Scarlett can recognize that slavery was an institution of rape; that slavery was a cruel, unjust, and evil legal economic system. No matter whether some slaveowners were kind of kind, no matter how many of them there might have been through 350 years of slavery, those owners cannot make up for the brutal evil of the system, which has brutality as coercion and as practice built into it.

Which makes one wonder further, why a another re-release of Gone With the Wind is taking place during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the war that was fought about whether slavery would be extended throughout the United States, North America, the Caribbean and South America, or ending slavery once and for all.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A History of Slavery and Genocide Is Hidden in Modern DNA

Genetic testing of people with Caribbean ancestry reveals evidence of indigenous population collapse and specific waves of slave trade

Modeling their DNA data with these assumptions built in, the researchers created a portrait of Caribbean migration and population change that stretches back to before the arrival of Columbus. One of their most interesting findings was just how few Native Americans survived the arrival of Europeans, based on the DNA data. “There was an initial Native American genetic component on the islands,” Martin says, “but after colonization by the Europeans, they were almost decimated.”
This decimation was the result of European attacks and enslavement, as well as the disease and starvation that came in their wake. The DNA analysis showed that the native population collapse of Caribbean islands happened almost immediately after the arrival of Columbus, within one generation of his first visits and the appearance of other Europeans. The gene pool on the mainland, by contrast, shows a more significant Native American influence, indicating that they didn’t die off at the same rates.
What replaced the missing Native American genes in island populations? The answer reflects the conquering Europeans’ solution to diminishing populations available for labor: slaves kidnapped and imported from Africa. The DNA analysis showed a heavy influence from characteristically African SNPs, but notably, it revealed two separate phases in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. “There were two distinct pulses of African immigration,” Martin says. “The first pulse came from one part of West Africa—the Senegal region—and the second, larger pulse came from another part of it, near the Congo.”
This corresponds to written records and other historical sources, which show an initial phase of slave trade starting around 1550, in which slaves were mostly kidnapped from the Senegambia area of the Mali Empire, covering modern-day Senegal, Gambia and Mali (the orange area in the map at right). This first push accounted for somewhere between 3 and 16 percent of the total Atlantic slave trade. It was followed by a second, much heavier period that made up more than half of the trade and peaked during the late 1700s, in which slaves were largely taken from what is now Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon and the Congo (the red and green areas). [colors reference map at the above-linked site]

Anyone who has read my blog regularly has been seeing me beat this African diaspora patterns forever, of course, so this may not be news.  But again, we now have statistical forensic evidence as well as oral, linguistic, and business and other text documents for these assertions.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

From Robert Remini's Preface to Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time

I identified with what he wrote in the Preface to his massive Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time (1997).  Before this work Remini had published three large volumes of the life and times of Andrew Jackson,

a biography of John Quincy Adams, a biography of Henry Clay, and many other works.  There are so many that any bibliography is merely a "selected" bibliography.  Even from these works an outsider can surmise that Remini as historian owned the Jacksonian era.

Professor Remini also served as the Historian of the House of  Representatives (2005), held several distinguished university positions, and received many awards and honors.  He deserved all of them. The amount of work he did, the value of his work to the historical record of this nation cannot be overstated.

During the years I spent researching and writing my biography of Henry Clay I was constantly amazed to discover how few Americans knew who Clay was.
"The greatest Speaker in the history of he United States House of Representatives," I ventured in an effort to help.
"Really," came the reply.
"The Great Compromiser," I continued, hoping it would stir a memory of something learned years ago.
"Is that so."
"The Missouri Compromise," I offered in desperation.
After I completed my Clay biography and decided to attempt the life of Daniel Webster, I was delighted to get a better response from friends and acquaintances when they asked about my next project.

"Daniel Webster! Oh yes I know him."
"You do.  That's great."
Yes, he wrote the dictionary!"
Alas. Noah Webster is someone vastly different from Daniel Webster, although they were contemporaries [but 24 years older than Daniel, to whom he was not related].
So few Americans really know the history of this nation and the men and women who figured prominently in its development -- except for Presidents [a few of them] notorious criminals, and other exotics [and most of what most Americans think they know about those figures is wrong -- see Jesse James as one example].  Such important individuals of the early nineteeth century as Clay, Webster, John C. Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton (not the artist), and others are slowly disappearing from the country's collective memory, and it's a great pity.
However intensely I identify with these words, I also recognize how difficult it is to be familiar with these giants who dominated the national stage during their whole lives.  Ten years ago I didn't know any of them the way I know them know, not even Andrew Jackson about whom I knew the most.  It took more than ten years of constant, systematic study to feel as comfortable with them and their circles as I do now.  We aren't taught about these fellows in grade school, high school or college, even as history majors.  There is so much to know. When I was a child, even Eisenhower was unimaginably distant from me in time.  So I cannot blame people for not knowing who these fellows were, what they did -- and they did so much.  I can only feel unspeakably humble and grateful that I got the opportunity for this extended, extensive, vast in scope study into the history of this nation.

These are some of the best stories you will ever find, in fact or fiction. Calhoun, Clay and Webster were known as the Great Triumvirate. When comes to enduring fascination and national effect they are not in the backseat to the First Triumvirate of Ceasar, Pompey and Crassus.  What men this nation produced.  Moreover, Calhoun, Clay and Webster were born in the same year -- along with many other wildly talented, wildly ambitious, wildly brilliant men, who, mostly, rose from far more modest circumstances than Ceasar, Pompey (even though Pompey was despised as being low caste -- i.e. his family was not Roman) or Crassus. The difference is that in the U.S. Webster -- who could lord it over others like nobody's business -- was never looked down upon by his peers from coming out of genuinely modest background.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Eight Massive Online Troves of Great Reading Material

The following list of online resources to out-of-print texts and other literary materials is nicked from a New York Magazine article by Kathryn Schultz, "11 Lost Literary Classics You Can Download for Free."  Because she included The Education of Henry Adams (1907) and Louisa May Alcott's sensational novel, Behind a Mask Or A Woman's Power (1866) as part of her strong list she wins the Award for Today.

Because Schultz further provided dates of publication for them all, she wins the Award for Tomorrow too.

Then she wins the Award for the Week because, at the end, Schultz appended this list: Eight Massive Online Troves of Great Reading Material.
Thanks to digitization, readers can access literary material we could never have gotten our hands on in the past—because it was expensive, rare, remote, uncollected, impossible to find, or because of a literal prohibition against putting one’s hands on them. Herewith, a tiny sample of this literary abundance, from illuminated manuscripts to Darwin's 15,000 letters.
1. The Digital Scriptorium 
 An online collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts from all over the world. Short of breaking into a museum, there’s no better way to view those manuscripts than digitally, since you can zoom in to appreciate the details.

2. The World Digital Library
 My favorite “Surprise me”–style book resource. Sure, you can search it, but you can also click the timeline (8000 B.C. to today), click the globe, and kiss your workday good-bye. Where else will you stumble on a gorgeous illustrated edition of a turn-of-the-last-century Guide to the Great Siberian Railway?

3. Project Gutenberg’s Pirates, Buccaneers, Corsairs, Etc. Bookshelf
 Many people have a passing familiarity with Project Gutenberg and its 42,000+ free books; fewer know that you can search it by “bookshelf.” This pirate-y one is my personal favorite, but there are scores of others for browsing everything from detective fiction to erotica.

4. The Emily Dickinson Electronic Archives
 The Internet is chockablock with thoroughgoing websites for dead authors, from Beatrix Potter to Franz Kafka. This addition includes vast amounts of Dickinsoniana, including scans of all her extant manuscripts.

5. The Public Domain Review
 The old problem with old books was how to find them. The new problem with old books is Whoa, where to start? The Public Domain Review organizes and highlights interesting out-of-copyright works—of all kinds, but its literary collection is excellent.

6. The Darwin Correspondence Project
 Writers gonna write, and their letters to, from, and about each other abound on the web. My favorite batch comes from Darwin, who corresponded with everyone from fellow naturalists to his kids. This site contains the full text of 7,500 of his letters and information on 7,500 more.

7. The Digital Public Library of America
 Among the newest and most ambitious open-access projects, this one aims to make every offering in our nation’s public libraries, archives, and museums freely available online. Its bookshelf contains 1.5 million volumes and counting.

8. The Poetry Archive Historic Recordings
“Into the valley of death rrrrrooooooooode the 600”: To truly appreciate “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” you must hear Tennyson himself bellow it—as he did, into a wax cylinder, in 1890. That recording and those of 49 other poets are free on this site.

*This article originally appeared in the November 18, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Went With Da Wind! Cue the Sound Track

Things we watch when we are too sick to do anything at all.*

In honor of Margaret Mitchell's 113th birthday on November 8th, 1900, we bring you ... Da Dah Da DAH! Carol Burnett as Miz Scarlett and Da Dah Da DAH EVEN BETTER IF THAT IS POSSIBLE! Dinah Shore as Miz Melody.**

Part One:

Second part picks up here -- be sure to catch the dress:


*  My ribs hurt from coughing so much. It feels as though I have broken a couple -- which, I have not, of course.  The rest of me is just as much a misery.  Watching these Carol Burnett satires of Gone With the Wind still made me laugh, which then made me hurt and cough more, which made me hurt more.  Laughing, however, was worth it.

**  The names have been changed slightly.  I can't hear well enough with this cold muffling over my audio receptors, so I can't tell if it's really Miz Tartlett or just my own wishes.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The 11 Nations of North America

In Tufts Magazine, "Up in Arms" by Colin Woodward:
author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. An earlier book, The Republic of Pirates,

is the basis of the forthcoming NBC drama Crossbones.

I don't entirely agree with where he makes the contrast between Chesapeake and Deep South, but he's still right.

This is demographic history, now a foundation tool for researching any history, it seems (it even matters when assessing armies -- from where do the rank-and-file come? who are they?  who are the officers?).  It certainly is for the study of slavery.  El V was at many panels about these matters the last three days at the Demographic Conference at Michigan State University.

In Woodward's article he's employing demographics to explore the historical frequency of gun violence in various sections of the U.S.

In any case, this article is an excellent illustration of the truth which is chronology and geography are the twin pillars on which history is built.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

History To Warm the Bones In the Cold and Gloom

The Weather They Sayers tell us though we're cold and dark now, very soon it shall be colder and darker, and maybe snowflakes. And I'm sick, which is not helping. That I spent 3 hours walking around with a friend in the wind and the cold yesterday probably did this to me. But I was enjoying being with her so much and walking around, I didn't even notice.  Last night I couldn't sleep for chills and sneezing and coughing, and my skin feeling too small. Thus it is great that el V's away because he wouldn't be able to sleep either, with all my tossing, turning, coughing, sneezing etc. Hopefully by tomorrow night when he gets back the worst of the symptoms will have abated.

In the meantime I've been reading in William Henry Seward's life and papers. There's an additional benefit to digging into Seward, which is learning more about the intricacies of New York state politics.  Seward was a politician from his very early 20's so this covers a lot of decades, including those decades of one odd political party after another sprouting to then disappear: Anti-Masons, Know Nothings -- o there were so many, and for every one of them,  New York state threw up voters who liked them.  Then, as now, New York state was a crazy quilt of competing regions with their own interests and objectives.  So yes, Seward, with the never-to-be-underestimated tutelage and sponsorship of Thurlow Weed, who, unlike Seward, was born impoverished and really did rise by his own efforts to dominate the New York political system.

Seward's other fascination is how he grows politically and socially throughout his career.  This is what strikes me about so many of the figures from what we can loosely call the North, who began taking our national center stage in the later 1840's and in 1850. They evolve.

Francis Adeline Miller Seward
Her father, Judge Elijah Miller, gave Seward permission to marry his daughter on the condition they live with him and his wife in their Auburn, New York mansion, amply staffed with servants
They are generally very close to their wives. They constantly talk to their wives and, when separated, write to their wives. The content of their conversations and letters go far beyond domestic matters.  They discuss deeply with their wives politics, issues, ways and means.  Often it is their wives' influence that convince these men who are very effective at creating political careers for themselves* that slavery is even more a moral issue than a political one of representation in the House and Senate and control of the White House. Many of them, like Seward, are not only anti-slavery, but they are early supporters of women's rights and particularly the right of women to vote.

You do not see any of this among southern politicians, even those whose wives are politically ambitious on behalf of their husbands, and very loyal, like Varina Davis.  Jefferson Davis, though he wrote to her, their matters of discussion were almost entirely domestic.  In other matters, there was no discussion at all. Jefferson Davis would would announce he was going to be away for a year in service of his career, and she was to take care of the plantation -- under the supervision of his brother.  Then they would fight about it all year because Varina hated him being away and she and her brother-in-law were rivals for Jefferson's attention.** Sometimes Jefferson would just stop writing to her, or she to him, or both to each other. The early years of their marriage were rocky, followed by more brief rocky periods -- and became so again for a while, late in life when Sarah Ellis Dorsey, a wealthy, and beautiful widow became his patron, willing him outright her Biloxi plantation, Beauvoir -- much to the disquiet of her relatives.

I've also been reading William Dalrymple's latest book, Return Of A King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839 - 42 (2013).  It's a cognitive exercise to wrench one's mind from the 1840's of the United States to the 1840's of the British Empire in India, Afghanistan and surrounding region. -- when the Great Game gets going, at least according to Peter Hopkirk.  Others have come around to thinking in terms of "the Great Game" is more useful to fiction than it is to historians.  Dalrymple isn't much interested in the concept as a concept.  He's interested in the failure of the East India Company and how it pulled British military and political failures in the region along with its own financial and administrative failures. This one does not have the snap and sizzle, the page-turning impetus, as his previous books,

particularly his splendid The White Mughals (2002).

When I finish with Seward I'm going to move on to a biography of Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time (1997) who is a less likable figure than Seward.  However, the biography's author is the great Robert Remini, who owns the Jacksonian era.  As the scope of what he knows is so vast by the time he got around to writing separate works on John Q Adams, Webster and Clay, he is relaxed and sometime is very funny  -- on purpose, so I'm looking forward to that.

These are what help me forget how very very very very rotten I feel.


*   Seward served variously as Senator in the New York legislature, Governor of New York, United States Senator from New York, and United States Secretary of State.

** The Polks (Tennessee and Mississippi) are an exception. They were a very close couple, who equally loved slavery and despised slaves, and were united in their ambition to get rich via slavery.  But they had no children, and maybe never even had sex due to an operation for urinary stones Polk suffered when very young, that seems to have left him both sterile and impotent -- or so his biographers seem to mostly agree.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Weather, Friends, Nashville, The Good Wife

Such weather whiplash we have, snapping from below freezing at night to suddenly 70 degrees two days later, than back down into the low 50's as daytime high, back up to mid-60's.  Consequently I seem to have acquired another small cold.  Bah.

To make up for it two dear friends are here -- well, one was here, and she's left again; the other is coming in this afternoon.  But it's kinda rainy, windy and cool, not what she was hoping it would be here.  It would be good if we got real rain. We're about to fall into official drought condition.  There's been no rain all autumn.  But whatever water falls out of the sky today -- if any at all -- it's not expected to be much.

There was no Nashville last night!   No Nashville until the 13th!  Woe is I. Nashville and
The Good Wife are my primary escape viewing, escape from the constant politiking that isn't really about doing anything no matter who They are.

That we are so likely to be compelled into years of Clinton & Christie blather is too grim to contemplate.

Trust me.  Anyone who thinks Christie is a moderate hasn't lived in this neck of the woods for decades. Christie is a frackin' bully. Anyone who thinks he's a moderate doesn't live here, and watched him for years. He's another flavor of Giuilani, who also thought he could ride a phoney rep for effectiveness on 9/11 to the oval office.* Christie's the sort who takes a helicopter to his son's soccer game and charges it to the taxpayers, then lies about it, who hates gay marriage and women's rights, and who intensely dislikes unions, fair wages and the poor. He's entirely out of that ancient Southern slaveholding outpost of New Jersey that is bigoted, racist and white supremacist.

Clinton?  She long ago sold her soul to the Bloated Corporate Global Oligarchy.


* Stupid Giuiliani was the one who refused to listen to any expert advice in the matter and forced the City's Emergency War Room be put in a sub basement of the Towers, where, then, it wasn't available when the emergency happened.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Another Election Day

First, getting el V off to the airport was running late, due his inability to tear himself away from computer screen and e-mails.  

I made and have eaten the breakfast I'd intended to make for him.

I'll have my usual breakfast of yogurt and fruit for dinner, I guess.

It's warmer and less humid today, so I don't hurt as much as I did the last two decidedly cold days. Sunny too, and without wind.

I voted.  The polling place, for my district only, was quite busy.  The other districts had hardly anyone coming in.  So I had to wait in a longish line, while the other districts' election workers had nothing whatsoever to do.  As well, this time around we had to use the scanner machines.  For the primary the scanners had been jettisoned due to so much trouble in the last election and they'd resurrected the old mechanical machines. Things moved a lot faster with those old machines than with these digital scanners. Also the paper part of the process, the ballot itself, has such very small fonts, they are hard to read.  I hope all the voters realized the back of the ballot had issues to vote upon.  I'm not sure I would have realized it myself if I hadn't listened to a discussion about these matters yesterday on one of our public radio talk shows.

It's currently being reported that the digital scanners are having a lot of problems in various districts -- mostly in Brooklyn.  Even in my place, some of the machines didn't have working lights, which means you would not be able to see the ballot to fill in those little ovals.

In the meantime Rand Paul wishes to kill Rachel Maddow in a duel because she outed his plagerism.

I was wondering when out-and-out dueling would be back in totally armed all the time in all the places America filled with crazies who hate-hate-hate and will never ever allow that anyone anywhere anytime is allowed to disagree with ME! Or be allowed to provide the proof to the public that I am an ignorant lying piece of shyte.  Because I'm a right-wing crazy you cannot call me on my lying right wing craziness but I am utterly entitled to voice my desire to kill anyone, anywhere, anytime I so choose, particularly women.

As to be expected RP's telling the country to get ready for Nullification, which was the first big plank in secession, which John C. Calhoun, tried to pull off in 1832 -- except Andy Jackson kicked his ass and said, "No you don't."*
From Politico:
So much are we resembling the run-up to the Civil War.

How many of us are aware the first time that equating a desire for civil rights with being a communist happened already in 1850's by the slaveholders?  It was common to hear the fire-eaters in the Congress and Senate, like Robert Barnwell Rhett,**  to howl on the floor that abolitionists were communists and traitors and should be imprisoned, or better yet, shot.

He bought the Charleston Mercury for his son. The Charleston Mercury functioned for the slaveholding power elite secessionists for years and years like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News have been doing for years and years, drumbeating the horrors of government and negroes and northerners (even though they kept sending their sons up north for education) and glories glorious glories of slavery for slaves.

*    I have not yet been able to determine whether or not it is apocryphal that on his death bed, Andrew Jackson expressed as one of his last wishes, "I wish I'd hung that son-of-a-bitch Calhoun when I had the chance."

*Think of this family name of Rhett the next time a glowing defense of Gone With the Wind comes up. Think also of this family: 

Butler's drunken, gambling ways caused the largest single slave sale ever.  It was so huge it got its own name within the African American community, The Weeping Time.  It's still remembered today. His wife, the great Shakespearian interpretor, Frances Kemble, divorced him because of slavery, which reasons included his personal contribution to the natural increase of his property.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

What's Up? Michigan, William Seward and Free Soil

El V arrived home safely.

Get ready, Michigan,  here he comes!

At Western Michigan University:

Tuesday, November 5  U.S. Election Day
Literary reading  - excerpts from ""The American Slave Coast, Ned Sublette, 2028 Brown Hall, 7 to 9 p.m. Free.

Among other activities el V will be playing the Old Dog in Kalamazoo November 9th as part of the WMU Music Therapy Showcase and Fundraiser Applying their talents and raising money for class trip to New York / Chicago. Rock / pop. Cover charge: $5

After that is East Lansing for the Atlantic World Slave Database conference, where there are going to be world-class demographers, including Gwendolyn Midlo Hall.

There is also a tour of Detroit during this visit to Michigan.

I am studying William Seward.

Perhaps all the figures who took over the national stage at the period of the Great Compromise of 1850, aren't as entirely fascinating as so many of those who dominated it between the War of 1812 and 1850. For one thing, among them there aren't Great Monsters such as Calhoun and Jackson. Nor is 5' 4''  Stephen A. Douglas any match for the towering stature of Henry Clay.

Nevertheless I am fascinated with them.  It's in their personal and political lives we see the vast political change overtake the nation, that ends the decades of Jacksonian proslavery, anti-bank, anti-government dominance.

The poor white southerner -- poor, thus excluded from running for political office in most slavery states even at a local level -- these southern Jacksonian Democrats see the Democrats with their intractable demands that slavery be expanded into all the public, government lands, as personal obstacles to their ever getting ahead.

These Are Martin Van Buren and Charles Adams - Yes! the grandson of John Adams - on the Free Soil Ticket
Thus they become a bridge between North and South Free Soil movement and the short-lived Free Soil party, which morphed into the Republican party, that rang the death knell for the Democrats in the country outside the slaveholding states. In this case they mean literally free soil, available from the government lands for nominal prices. By this point all the lands suitable for agriculture in the South are in the hands of the ever shrinking numbers of the huge slaveowning power elite, as they alone have the credit to take over failed plantations, make loans and buy ever more negroes at ever higher prices.

Just because we've finished writing The American Slave Coast, doesn't mean we've finished studying.  Or writing, for that matter.  :)  What a wonderful privilege this has been, to live so immersed in our history.  I'm so glad I get to continue doing it until publication. Then there will be the year of promoting it.