LINES OF THE DAY

". . . 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, February 24, 2017

1453 -- The Holy War for Constantinople + The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History

     . . . . Constantinople has finally fallen. 





This month I've been listening to 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West (2005) by Roger Cowley. The book isn't finished yet, but the city that had survived every siege and attack for over a thousand years, with the shameful exception of those who one might have thought her allies, the Christians of the Crusades in 1204 has finally been taken. And that too happened due to an error, not an actual breaching of the walls by force. 

Which of these are Minas Tirith and which Constantinople?







More than ever I am convinced that Tolkien carefully read the first hand witness accounts, particularly the diary of the Venetian Nicolò Barbaro, of this battle that went on day and night for almost two months, and drew on those accounts heavily for the siege of Minas Tirith. 







However Gandalf's magic worked while the Christian magic that had so long kept the protective dome of God and the Virgin over the Great City failed. Rohan and the armies of the dead came to save the White City, whereas the living armies from the west never did, fighting as they were among themselves. Finally the massive numbers of the orcs overwhelmed the walls. The warriors within the walls that had never before been breached, though valiant beyond comprehension, were too few, too few. 

But in the end it was truly the conflicting Churches' theologies and commercial greed on the part of the West that took down the ancient Red Apple, The City of the World's Desire -- not Islam.


I'm beginning to wonder that Mehmet II's success in taking the ancient Christian capital of the east, when all others had failed (and he nearly did himself -- the continual turning tides of fortune for both sides makes so much of this story's drama and tension) had so much to do with his successor, Süleyman the Magnificent, obsession to take Vienna, within the heart of the not holy or imperial Roman empire. He must equal his forefathers' achievements, and taking Vienna would even outdo Mehmet's conquest of Constantine's city. And from there, Rome. The Ottomans been trying it from the south in previous decades, thereby terrifying Queen Isabella, and solidifying Spain's belief that Islam was coming for them very soon. After all, the Ottoman emperor had announced to the world that it was. (So as many moriscos as possible were expelled, to prevent them from becoming a third front in the Iberian peninsula.) In the meantime the Ottomans had occupied a significant extend of Italy's boot.




Cowley's book has made fine companion to the audio book that engaged me in January the outraged philosphical history of what did not happen (and could not then,, have happened), James O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (2008) -- which outrages most readers, particularly his presentation of Justinian as the effective villain.

In-between the falls of Rome and Constantinople, I remain occupied with the Merovingians. El V got himself a book to read on the plane to Miami and back and in the Hampton Inn room, a history of the Middle Ages. It begins with Charlemagne, as these things all do; it has not a single Henri Pirenne cite, which I allowed boded well for the book's value.* It's fairly elementary, meaning that I pretty much know this outline quite well, but he knows nothing, but has gotten interested via my interest in the Merovingians and the Carolingians. 

He's promised though to get me some more up-to-date histories of the Merovingians because I'm frustrated by what we've got. None of the contributions to this history by archeology are included, thus we get nothing of the people: only the power elites. Nothing about the buildings, or agriculture. And hardly anything about trade and commerce.  Additionally, as a Belgian, Pirenne was more than willing to always rank the Carolingians as the most important development in the transition.\

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*    The Pirenne Thesis concerning the change from the Roman world to what some call Late Antiquity, others, the Dark Ages. was promulgated to its fullest in 1935, in his Mohammed and Charlemagne. That was nearly a century ago, based in scholarship older than that.  Research and scholarship has moved on significantly since then.  Full text of "The Pirenne Thesis Analysis and Criticism" here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Wednesday With Books -- American Slave Coast & Sanctuary Cities







     . . . . Much, much took place this last week; but the most significant is that boxes of the trade / paper edition of The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry arrived. The official publication date is the first week of April.  Some events have been lined up for that.




However, this being Black History Month, things are going on this month too.  This evening for instance, we'll again be guests for the third time on "What's the 411" with Sharon Kay's syndicated program. part of the African American Public Radio Consortium (AAPRC) satellite programming options available to public, community & HBCU stations.  "What's the 411" home station is JAZZY 88 WFISK (Fisk University).  It can be tuned in online here.


We're so looking forward to this evening -- Sharon Kay, her staff and her station are are the best at providing the best radio experience for all involved from their guests to their audience.

     . . . .A couple of nights ago, a musician friend, having finally finished reading Slave Coast, met up with us so he could discuss his thoughts about all that text with which he'd spent so much time.  He's on the road constantly, so he downloaded the book to his -- phone!  It took him eight months to read, he said.  Not because he didn't keep at it.  It was that he was constantly leaving the book and following up figures and events that came up in the text to learn about them, having realized he knew nothing about anything that was in the boo -- despite always reading history and thinking he knew the history of the U.S.  He also told us something that we didn't know.  I think he downloaded it from Kindle . . . which has a feature that shows each reader how many other readers have highlighted the same passage that our friend highlighted.  So when he highlighted the passage in which we describe that many of the impulses that led to the declaration of independence from Britain was about protecting slavery -- he learned 70 some other readers had highlighted that passage as well.  Then he went hunting, looking up the various sources that we cited to learn more.



We never were satisfied with how TASC concluded.  But now, since the election of doom, we know how things are playing out, all pulled right out of the past that is so thoroughly covered in the book. Presently, with the anti-immigration ban, it's impossible for me not to recall vividly the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which did more to turn more people, more rapidly anti-slavery and actively antagonistic to that law and the people who rammed down everyone else's throats than anything that happened prior to that.  We are seeing much the same thing playing out now in many of our cities that have been designated with sneers as "Sanctuary Cities."  I am far from the only historian to recall this -- I'm seeing the Fugitive Slave Act cited everywhere in all media these days.  So, may I remind us all what the conclusion was for those who shoved it down the throats of all those who didn't agree slavery in the first place?

Full text of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act here.

Recall that by this time there had been so many generations of systemic rape of female slaves by white men that there was a significant percent of the enslaved population that was effectively white. Their price in the fancy slave market were extravagantly higher than even prime field hands who could reproduce. Nobody could tell they were one-drop, though court proceedings often went on for months attempting to prove that someone who lived white was black. As the provisions of the Act denied anyone claimed as a runaway slave from speaking on her / her behalf or a court hearing, at any time someone could claim your daughter, your son could be grabbed if convenient -- and some were.  So anyone can see how easily these new bans can be turned against anyone the regime finds inconvenient to have going about in the body politic who speaks in disagreement about anything.

What most strikes me right now is how the white supremacist nationalists' apologists are trying to flip the script, and per usual steal what progressives historically have done and pretend their cause is the same thing.*  Sheesh, that is so trashy.  But what would one expect from the likes of their ilks but this?
Anti-sanctuary agitators regularly claim that sanctuary jurisdictions defy federal law, and some (most recently Karl Rove) go so far as to suggest that cities and counties that seek to disentangle themselves from federal immigration enforcement are morally and legally equivalent to the slaveholding South.
Always the repressers, oppressors, abusers demanding they be recognized as victims!

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*  As per usual, whenever the white supremacist nationalist wants something good they steal it from black people.  Maybe they're doing this in honor of Black History Month?



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What Is Lost Is Found: A Novel By Walt Whitman

     . . . . Zachary Turpin. a graduate student at the University of Houston found this long lost novel through digital archives.

The New York Times (behind pay wall) opens its story on the discovery like this:
Readers who picked up The New York Times on March 13, 1852, might have seen a small advertisement on Page 3 for a serial tale set to begin the next day in a rival newspaper.
“A RICH REVELATION,” the ad began, teasing a rollicking story touching on “the Manners and Morals of Boarding Houses, some Scenes from Church History, Operations in Wall-st.,” and “graphic Sketches of Men and Women” (presented, fear not, with “explanations necessary to properly understand what it is all about”).
From the NY Times story:
The The 36,000-word “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle,” which was discovered last summer by a graduate student, is being republished online on Monday by The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and in book form by the University of Iowa Press. A quasi-Dickensian tale of an orphan’s adventures, it features a villainous lawyer, virtuous Quakers, glad-handing politicians, a sultry Spanish dancer and more than a few unlikely plot twists and jarring narrative shifts.
“This is Whitman’s take on the city mystery novel, a popular genre of the day that pitted the ‘upper 10 thousand’ — what we would call the 1 percent — against the lower million,” said David S. Reynolds, a Whitman expert at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.





Everything about this news is pleasing!

First of all though, as much as we studied Leaves of Grass when I was still at university it was never revealed somehow, whether in class or in critical studies, that this great American poet had ever written fiction at all.  I have learned for the first time that not only did he write fiction, he wrote quite a bit of it.  However, as he turned himself in the poet who would spend his life creating ever more types of Leaves of Grass, he tended to bury or obscure that he had done so. Second, whereas I tended to mine the poet's life and his poetry for historical information on culture and mores of the Civil War era generally and New York City's past, scholars will be mining Jack Engle for years for clues to how he turned himself from prose writer to poet -- and an experimental one at that.

Zachary Turpin

Second,  Turpin discovered this lost work through expert searching of several vast online digital archives that include the Walt Whitman Archive and the Library of Congress.  Any of us can do this now!  It's so exciting for research and scholarship!

I particularly like the Guardian's story about the discovery includes this:
 " . . . "rollicking” anti-lawyer revenge fantasy . . . "

The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle has just been published free online by the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Look Homeward Angel, You Can't Go Home Again

    . . . . During his lifetime, Thomas Wolfe (1900 - 1938) was one of the most celebrated American novelists, in an era when this nation was graced by many great novelists.  



After the publication of Look Homeward Angel, it wasn't unusual to see critics speak in all sincerity of Wolfe as the Great American Novelist.

I still have this book, one of the first I bought for myself when I began to earn money.
 It didn't hurt that he was a publisher's promotional dream either. Wolfe was stamped with many of the Romantic signatures of the Great Artist that this nation's intelligentsia and critical establishment still values and reveres.

The five room house located 92 Woodfin Street in Asheville, NC where all eight children lived.  About two blocks away is the larger establishment that his mother purchased and operated as a boarding house. She took Thomas, her youngest, to live in the boarding house, away from his father and the rest of the family.  There were issues between his mother and father.
Wolfe was an outsider, the youngest in a family of eight children, born in Asheville, North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. He flamed onto the New York City literary stage, scored Maxwell Perkins, the greatest editor in our national literary history, to pull together his huge reams of text, succeeds in all his endeavours, including writing for the theater. Surely if Henry James had been alive he would have died of envy, and not only because he always failed writing for the theater. A tall and rangy, masculine man, if not conventionally handsome, beautiful, rich influential women helped him, loved him, wept for him. Best of all he then had the good sense to die young and tragically of a pneumonia provoked by a miliary tuberculosis surely acquired while growing up. Behind him he left a body of work the control of which others wrangled, and about which the critics could argue ad infinitum.

But it didn't quite turn out that way.  His contemporaries, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner may have have had their moments of disfavor, but they've ever come near falling out of the pantheon of great American novelists.  But for Wolfe, both popular and academic interest evaporated. There was never a course that included Wolfe while I was in under or grad school. His contemporaries, as famous as he was when alive, remain in the American literary canon, and where there are still liberal arts and English departments, they are on the syllabus, with courses devoted to their work. Wolfe isn't even in the anthologies.

Yet he's at least as classically in the American vein as these this trinity of 20th century great literary novelists.

The title and subjects of Thomas Wolfe's first published novel, Look Homeward Angel (published 1929, only days before the stock market crashed, yet sold very well) is in perfect contrasting literary parallelism with his final and posthumous publication (1940), You Can't Go Home Again. This last work takes an overtly historical view of the United States and Europe, that, among many other subjects includes a jaundiced view of capitalism.

This sense of looking back on the nation may be why Wolfe fell out of the American literary canon's favor so quickly in the years of WWII and after.  First, he wrote very large, never using a single word when he could come up with a dozen, and that over-abundant rhetorical exuberance was falling thoroughly out of favor even before 1940 as undisciplined and sentimental. And it was no longer the Great Depression, it was WWII, and there was no room to look backwards, or for criticisms of America's wartime economic juggernaut bringing back the good times in terms of employment and wages -- even after Stalin became a wartime ally.  Yet here was a novelist overtly thinking through American history, which included the national conundrum of race. This didn't hurt Faulkner's reputation. However, Wolfe's historical expression was as baggy as his prose  -- though, in my opinion, neither his historical thinking nor his text, were necessarily, if ever, saggy, and don't contain the petty, small-minded sneering at Jews or other others, or the constant anxiety about manhood, that both Hemingway and Fitzgerald's fiction exhibit.

When I look at Wolfe's novels today, they provide more than any of our other great writers do, even Faulkner, the sense that I am looking backward at a world that is so long ago that it hardly exists now, except in his prose.



It feels that way despite for so long I have lived and walked in streets of the city where he spent most of his short adult life.  The excitement with which wrote about life in New York City penetrated my imagination that summer of my adolescence when I discovered his novels in the public library and never went away. That he wasn't a part of the American literary canon by then shows because he wasn't on the shelves of my high school library, where all the other writers were.  I found them in the public library by poking about, which I did often, drawn particularly to volumes that obviously hadn't been checked out for years. O, he lived New York very, very large, a literary legend's life, worthy of the literary center of the nation, in an age when literature had pride of place in the realms of art, entertainment and politics.

O Lost!

I have come to think of him again, after a long period of forgetting, especially when in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  A sensitive reader can see there, how these mountains and these people would have made a Thomas Wolfe. They should be proud of their native son as much now as in his days of fame, nearly seventy years ago.

These are some of the things that roll through my mind on nights I wake and cannot get back to sleep.






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Not many have read Thomas Wolfe in these last decades. From the comfort of their homes, with their devices, readers can get a sense of Look Homeward Angel on these sites:

Look Homeward Angel can be downloaded in various formats here for no fee.

It can also be accessed here.  And here too, if your library participates.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Been A While - Occupied!

So much distraction!



The first is the constant tilt-whirling of the weather: up, down, hot, cold, freezing, unseasonably warm, snow, rain, sunny, dark tumults of clouds as the Hudson Hawk winds claw through one's muffled layers.

Politika!  Much, much, much of that.




Merovingians!  How splendid, that our reading into these peoples once called the barbarian invasions who made the Dark Ages has finally revealed some answers to some nagging questions, if not even the questions I was asking.  Marriage, for instance.  The Merovingian family's power elite males weren't interested in either monogamy or marriage (the first Merovingian king, Clovis I, didn't become Christian until 496.  His Christian wife, Clotilde, had been baptized into both the Catholic and eastern Church, so she was doubly interested in converting her husband, presumably.  But generally the Merovingian kings didn't marry at all, or married serially.  There was no line of inheritance of the lands they conquered to an heir.  Brothers of a single mother might and often did united again their half brothers from other women their father had sired.  This tended to keep the warlord state-of-mind very much alive among other warriors -- and there was always booty of land and possessions as reward for more war.

So I am dimly beginning to see why the Church might have drum beated for so long the necessity of marriage to one woman and one woman only, and that only her children were legitimate considerations for heirs. Kingship, marriage and heirs created political stability in a very unstable era. This Gallo-Roman world is also the one to which Charlemagne was the heir (though he wasn't at all careful about official, state marriage either).  It is also then the world out of which the feudal French hierarchical political, legal, religious and administrative system based on land emerged.  So we can see why primogeniture emerges too -- one heir only to the whole shebang, no parceling out land, which re-created instability.  And primogeniture is a feature by intention then, of the feudal system.  OK. that's as far as we've gotten with this so far.

Social life, lots of social life, some of it around actions, activities etc., some of it purely social, such as my birthday.

The Grants!  I am reading Julia Dent Grant's Personal Memoirs, dictated by her to various people including her oldest son, and a series of secretaries, over quite some years.  It's at least as fascinating for what she leaves out or glosses over as the occasional, pointed, barbed comments directed to certain figures she feels slighted, lied about, or injured her husband in some way.  But the overall climate of her easy conversational transcribed text is sunny, filled with many observations that anyone interested in women of the middle to late 19th century USA would find useful.

Beginning preparations for the Cuba trip which is now only three weeks away!


And now I rush off for the evening!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Civil War Posy

     . . . . A compelling pre- Civil War, Civil War and post-Civil War posy of characters: Julia Dent Grant, Varina Davis, Mary Todd Lincoln, Mary Boykin Chesnut and Harriet Lane Johnston. 


A young 19th woman makes up posies.





Young woman braids a posy in her friend's hair.

These women have more in common with each other than what they do not in terms of the events they lived through, not just as citizens but personally. All of them were more highly educated than the average woman of the era.  They all read widely. All of them were widowed. All of them lost dearly beloved children.  All of them were married to primary figures of the war. From their birth, all five of these women had intimate experience of the center of the casus belli for the War of the Rebellion, of slaves and slavery. All them knew what it was to own slaves, if, that is, if her uncle, James Buchanan did free the two slaves he brought back from a southern relative's estate to his own Wheatland estate in Pennsylvania (some think this is white washing by the Lancaster Historical Society -- I do not know).

Varina Davis and Mary Chesnut became close initially in Washington D.C., when their husbands were in the government there and lived, I think, in the same boarding house.  They were neighbors in Richmond and very close friends during the war -- did they ever meet in the New York years?

Julia Grant and Varina Davis become excellent friends in New York. Julia Grant and Harriet Lane certainly met Mary Lincoln -- many sources say that Julia did not like the company of the First Lady, though it's difficult to determine whether this was true.  It has been repeated as truth by many historians that it was and that because Julia so disliked Mary Lincoln, she persuaded General Grant  to leave the capital that fateful night rather than join the Lincoln's at Ford's Theater as they were invited to.  It is also said that she'd had a terrible premonition that something awful was afoot for that night. On these subjects the information is contradictory and fragmentary, so one cannot say definitively.

I have been thinking that during Chesnut's New York years of revising and pulling together her tremendous Diary From Dixie that she'd become well acquainted with Eliot's Middlemarch (1872), to the great benefit of herself as a developing, self-taught writer, and to the Diary as the great work it is, though it wasn't quite finished when she died. By all assessments, she did achieve her long-strived for goal, however, of becoming not only a very good writer, but an important one -- though of course, since it was The War of Rebellion, and she a woman, it took over 100 years for that to be recognized and admitted to, though (male) scholars always made good use of her work.

I don't know about Mary Lincoln, but the other women in that Civil War posy liked to write, even before the war. After being widowed, Varina Davis was regularly and frequently published in her New York City years by Joseph Pulitzer's New York World -- her daughter Winnie (for Varina), with whom she lived in New York until Winnie died from pneumonia, published several novels, that received middling success. Both Varina and Julia wrote their own memoirs of their lives with their famous husbands.

Named for Washington's very popular hostess, Harriet Lane, the Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane forces the merchant steamer Nashville to show its colors during the attack on Fort Sumter, April 13, 1861. "The Cutter Harriet Lane Fires Across the Bow of Nashville" by Coast Guard artist Howard Koslow.  During her days as Buchana's First Lady the presidential yacht was named for her—the first of several ships to be named for her, one of which is still in service today.

Harriet Lane made the low-neck lace bertha and posies her distinct fashion trademark


Harriet Lane Johnston was the richest of them, and began that way, thanks to her prosperous uncle, James Buchanan, for whom she served as First Lady in the years he was in the White House. I wonder if she and Julia, at least, ever met in New York after the war.  Though Harriet based herself in D.C. she traveled frequently and widely.  As the disgraced Buchanan's niece, she wasn't much, if at all, in D.C. during the course of the war itself.   She didn't marry the Baltimore banker, Johnston, until the war was effectively over in 1865, though they had known each other for years prior. She left a lasting, significant mark on art for the public in public spaces and institutions, as well as other works for the public good, particularly caring for orphaned and severely ill children,

It bewilders me rather, that Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of the martyred president, did the most poorly of these five women after the war, even though she had a prosperous, adult son, Robert (he seemed to hate her -- she died at the home of her sister, not in his home). Mary Lincoln had to lobby Garfield over and over to receive a very small widow's pension as the survivor of the greatest President of the US, as he was called even then. After Lincoln's death though, she did nothing but scrounge for money and / or be put away in an institution. She had serious health problems, that seems obvious, but what's odd is how no one even now seems to have any sympathy for her emotional / chemical distresses. Documentation of the period that would tell us whether or not Mary Lincoln was indeed widely disliked in Washington appears to be difficult to track down.  There is speculation that much of this is rumors, spread deliberately by Kate Chase (Sprague), whose  father, Salmon Chase schemed relentlessly to become president himself, and who was entirely supported in this by his daughter.

It's particularly interesting that the happiest of these women were Varina and Julia, both widows of primary actors of the war and the peace after.

The difference between them is that Varina was often unhappy with Davis, both early and late -- who by all primary evidence was unfaithful to her after leaving incarceration, but she could not, of course, divorce him. After his death, she heartily enjoyed her life in New York.

The young Julia Dent





All the primary documentary evidence points to Julia always having been a happy, contented woman and never once regretful of her choice of a life mate, nor he of his.

Their romantic courtship could have been written in many a sentimental romance novel of the era. They both loved riding and were superb riders.  They took long jaunts together in the early mornings and the evening twilight, in between reading together novels of Walter Scott and others. They both loved reading as much as riding.

 I think of Julia, as she was falling in love with her 'Ulys, or Lys," as she called him, taking early notice that he always treated women, children, the enslaved and animals with respect and kindness, not least the horses they both loved so much. This is notable in an era in which white men treated all these classes with casual brutality either as a matter of course or a way of relieving frustration. She must also have taken notice of how interested and curious he was about everything, which made him more interesting than most other men. Their whole life together seems to have fulfilled their early romantic promise

This is not something that could not be said of many a marriage of the time -- as with Kate Chase Sprague, who was so unfortunate to marry a drunken abusive man, and left her in penury, peddling vegetables and eggs from her own garden and chickens to former peers in D.C. in order to survive.

Friday, February 3, 2017