". . . 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

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Gilded Age: Reads That Go With the Watching

     . . . . Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers and Age of Innocence are cited frequently by British Anne De Courcey in her The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married Into the British Aristocracy (2017). 

It is De Courcey's careful conversion of the obscene amounts spent by the women of this class to further their social rivalries and social climbing that is most revealing of the age. Though she doesn't dwell on this at all, this money was extracted by pillage and rapacious oppression of the laboring classes, who much of the time, due to the boom and bust US economic system, frequently were so poor they starved and froze to death on the streets outside these women's blunderbuss palaces, aimed at least as much toward the poor as at her rivals. The author's discovery that it was often the Gilded Age mothers who drove their daughters to marry into Europe's aristocracy is merely an appendage of the mothers' rivalry and climbing. Often these marriages were against what the daughters themselves may have wanted --  if, that is, they'd even been allowed in their rearing to consider themselves as a separate person at all, rather than yet another means of her mother's will.

The social world of this era was a pure matriarchy. Thus De Courcey also cites US economist Thorsten Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, (1899) as to why this was so.  There wasn't much in this book that I or any historian of 19th century US, or its literature, particularly after the War of the Rebellion, wouldn't be familiar with, but it is an entertaining read, and the photos De Courcey chose are excellent.

     . . . . However, this book, along with the films mentioned in the previous entry,  further widens and deepens the history of New York City's Gilded Age eras, along with the books discussed  earlier this week by their authors at the CUNY Graduate Center:

Suspect Freedoms: The Racial and Sexual Politics of Cubanidad 
in New York 1823 – 1957 by Nancy Raquel Mirabal, 

and, Sugar, Cigars & Revolution: The Making of Cuban New York by Lisandro Pérez – both from NYU press. 

Both authors are Cubans though they've been in the US since childhood. Lisander's an academic sociologist and Nancy's an academic historian. Lisander's and Nancy's book cover the same years, much of the same issues of Cuban independence, revolution and abolition of slavery, but they do it with different focuses.

Lisander's research is primarily on the wealthy, for whom independence at times mattered, but, like the wealthy English colonists of North America,  true revolution, i.e. real change in the structures and system, and certainly abolition, were not their agenda. Nancy focuses on the poor and the Afro Cubans, and other essential parts of the Cuban revolutionary and independence clubs and movements, such as the labor movement. This contributed no little to the exciting evening of their co-presentation as they discussed and amplified each other's contributions to the subject of Cubans in New York City.

Their research into NYC and US history is massive and meticulous. But somehow they both missed the NY investment in the ship building and cargoes of the Africans brought to Cuba after the abolition of the African slave trade. Thus those very wealthy slave owning Cubans who were in New York also made connection between themselves and the wealthy Southern slave owners such as the governor of Mississippi, who wished to annex Cuba as a state, to which then, the African slave trade not allowed to the US, as protection for their slave breeding industry, they in turn could turn into a market for their overpopulation of slaves.

During the q&a an attendee asked them from where the Cuban slaves came from. In their responses about the 19th century, which only then did agricultural slavery become important in Cuba, neither mentioned the US false flag sales to many slave ships of many nationalities. As part of the Treaty of Ghent (War of 1812), one of the provisions was that the Brits, who were the ones to abolish the African slave trade, were not allowed to stop and inspect US shipping. So, naturally, the US wealthy classes from all along the coast, and New York and Boston particularly, invested heavily in building those slave ships and their cargoes. 

The wealthy Cuban power elite met these US investors fairly often in New York before the Waa, surely. They did plot with Southerners who planned to filibuster Cuba -- as we describe in Slave Coast, -- and surely they invested in the slave ships too (According to the royalty checks, Slave Coast continues to sell, and by the reviews posted on amazilla, is continues to be read!). 

But the authors weren't looking for this kind of information. Though they obviously know a great deal about Cuban slavery's history, that's not one of the subjects of their books, which they both worked on for years. Lisandro worked on this book for 13, and Nancy has worked on hers for over 20 years. 

Also they both cite the accounts of the obscenely wealthy Cuban daughters at Saratoga (quoting, of course, Edith Wharton) as evidence of how much this class of Cubans penetrated the highest social levels of NY. But that's not exactly right. The highest class, the truly old social class of Knickerbockers, the truly exclusive society, went to Newport. They'd not be seen dead in Saratoga, NY, or Long Branch, New Jersey, where the excluded coarse 'new' plutocrats and their families, like Jay Gould -- and that coarse little man, President Grant -- vacationed in summer. -- bringing their own stock tickers, telegraph machines, and later their own telephone lines, to keep track of the markets.

One of the purposes of Newport indeed, almost created by Mrs. Astor's social arbiter, Samuel Ward McCallister, was to keep those dark Cubans and others beyond the pale of marriage away from their sons and daughters, and themselves. Both Edith Wharton and Anne De Courcey speak to this in their writing. The only acceptable marrying out of their elite of the elite sets for Astors, Schermerhorns, Schuylers, Van Rensselaers was European aristocracy, preferably British aristocracy. A title always trumped wealth and background, opened every door of inclusion.  (It was permitted for the lesser families of their set to intermarry with the most powerful and elite of the Southern slaveocracy, however.)

As we too know personally these locations and these landscapes and histories of Cuba, of NYC, of the South, this event was particularly charged with pleasure in the work of these two splendid works of history.

This fall I've enjoyed the way P.F. Chisholm has put so many historical figures in her Sir Robert Carey novels, he himself also having lived and written books about his adventures. I could see doing that too with the Gilded Age. The heroic President Grant could be included -- countering the meanness with which he's been treated in fiction by Henry Adams, for instance.  That would be fun.

It was a lovely night of thought and hanging out -- after I took  a half THC20:1.  I’d forgotten not only to put on my jewelry, but had forgotten to take vitamins and pain meds, before leaving the apartment after lunch. By 7 PM I really needed that tablet, one of which el V happened to have with him. We ended up having dinner in the grad center area, at a classic Irish pub, with classic Irish pub food and classic undocumented young, pretty Irish wait girls. I suddenly peaked from the tab about the time our plates arrived. For about ten minutes there was absolutely no pain of any kind. physical or emotional, just this enormous sense of release and well being. I'd never taken one of those tabs -- and here I had taken a whole one! 

OK. Now I know how this works. Definitely taking some these with me on the January bus trip in Eastern Cuba.

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