I've been doing picture research and returned the other day to the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Office of War Information (OWI) digital archives, the wonderful treasure trove for the Great Depression and home front during World War II. (An earlier post about the collection's color slides can be found here.) This is one of those shots, the color muted but deep, and striking.
Photographer John Vachon took it in 1942, of a worker in a carbon black plant on the Texas panhandle. These factories "make carbon," Vachon explained, "which is powdery black stuff in big bags worth 3 cents a pound, used in making tires, paints, & numerous other places." He described to his wife what it was like to approach:
Natural gas was the raw material for carbon black and these factories were quite extensive. The one Vachon visited had about 300 smaller buildings, called "hot houses," where each house contained several hundred jets burning natural gas. The gas was deliberately burned without sufficient oxygen, which produced the black powdery residue, then collected into bags. Even visiting the plant, Vachon got "dirtier, that is blacker, than I have ever been in my life. Really black all over. Right through the clothes it goes. I washed carefully my face and hands, but I'm leaving the rest for a while, it's really kind of beautiful. It gets very shiny when you rub it."
Obviously, the work went on decades before clean air and workplace safety regs were in place!
In the summer of 1981, John Rugge and I canoed down the George River in northern Quebec, retracing the routes taken across the Labrador-Ungava peninsula by Mina Hubbard and Dillon Wallace in 1903. We were writing a book about the subject, Great Heart: the History of a Labrador Adventure, which was published in 1988. (For more about that, look here.) Our good friend, filmmaker Sam Kauffmann, was along with us. The river flows north into Ungava Bay, whose extreme tides of forty feet make for a muddy landing, when the tides are out.
In 1905, the mouth of the river was the site of a post maintained by the Hudson Bay Company, the spot where Mina Hubbard and Dillon Wallace ended their expeditions. The settlement, George River, was still there in 1981 when we pulled our canoes up over the mud flats, though it had moved its location slightly. There we spent a pleasant day or two waiting for weather to permit a short flight to nearby Fort Chimo (now Kuujjuaq), where we caught a plane back south to Montreal. Our photographer Sam snapped a couple shots of the children around the settlement, including this energetic crowd:
I liked the photo so much, I used it as my Christmas card that year. And then we went on with our lives, wrote Great Heart, and thought fondly of George River Post—but never had occasion to return.
This year, Rugge and I and our spouses signed up for a cruise mounted by Adventure Canada, which begins in Greenland, traverses Davis Strait, and proceeds down the Labrador coast, ending in St. John's, Newfoundland. (Highly recommended: more information here.) And the first Canadian settlement we stopped in, crossing over from Greenland, was George River, now renamed Kangiqsualujjuak. The community, which numbered roughly a thousand souls, generously welcomed the ship's visitors with tents set up to sell crafts and walking tours of the village. Anticipating our return after 36 years, I had brought a copy of the photo of these youngsters and, once ashore, asked one of the residents if they recognized anyone. She immediately named each and then turned to the shelter nearby and called, "May! May, come over here!" It turned out that May was the girl on the right, and now in her forties, surprised and delighted to find this photograph from her past turn up, like a note in a bottle that had long been floating in the ocean.
I had one other photograph that Sam had taken in 1981, of a toddler in the lap of a man on a motorcycle.
The villagers recognized them too: a father with his daughter. And the daughter was now leading one of the walking tours of the village. She was over at the school and so we went there, a bright new building where students were getting out at the end of the school day. Found her, presented the other photo, and smiles all around.
What a wonderful day! It was marvelous to see Kanigiqsualajjuakk prospering and it felt as if a circle had been closed, in the same way that the life of a river is circular, starting as a panoply of rivulets in the highlands, gathering its tributaries and making its way to the sea, where the water eventually evaporates into the clouds to begin the cycle all over again. As we returned to our landing this year, I took a photo of two young girls I spied perched on a boulder. I hope a return to the village will be sooner than another 36 years, and if so, I'll have with me a photo and someone else to look for.
John Brown on the way to his execution (Library of Congress)
Almost any geographic site can prove to be a crossroads, historically speaking, where major protagonists meet in ways that are long remembered. It's more unusual to find a spot in which paths cross before the significant events have taken place. But the sleepy countryside around Harper's Ferry proved to be that place in the autumn of 1859.
John Brown's raid on the federal armory brought them there. The raid was the beginning of a clumsy attempt to free slaves in a region of western Virginia where few slaves lived, and it raised tensions to a fever pitch in the months before civil war divided the United States. The Currier & Ives lithograph above, created during the war, romanticized a somber scene. It was based on an erroneous newspaper report that, on the way to the gallows after being convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, Brown encountered an enslaved African American mother and her child, and that Brown tenderly kissed the youngster. That never happened. Nor was it likely that behind Brown inside the jail, Virginia's state flag waved with its motto prominently emblazoned: Sic semper tyrannis--thus always to tyrants.
But six weeks earlier, as local militia surrounded Brown and his men where they were holed up in the arsenal firehouse, an army colonel was called to command the marines sent to capture Brown. The colonel normally served in the army in Texas, but he had returned home to Virginia on a brief leave and was placed on the special mission by President James Buchanan. This was Robert E. Lee, the officer who would soon take command of the Northern Army of Virginia during the Civil War. With him was a friend, cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart, known as Jeb to his friends. Stuart too would soon become famous, his cavalry serving as Lee's eyes and ears during much of the war. When Brown refused to surrender that morning in 1859, Stuart gave the order for the marines to attack.
Lee was in town six weeks later when Brown was led from the jail to a horse-drawn wagon, which would convey him to the place of execution. The wagon contained Brown's mahogany coffin in a crate, upon which Brown sat as he rode to the gallows. Several companies of Virginia militia escorted the procession.
In a cornfield outside of town 82 cadets from Virginia Military Institute stood before the scaffold, dressed in tall, plumed hats, gray trousers and red shirts, with white cross-straps across their chests. Next to them stood VMI's howitzer detachment, commanded by an instructor from the academy who taught the subjects of natural and experimental philosophy. Also, of course, artillery. Although Thomas Jackson was unpopular enough to have received the nickname "Tom Fool" from his pupils, once the war broke out, his refusal to retreat at the first Battle of Bull Run earned him a new moniker, "Stonewall." Jackson too would become a Lee stalwart.
Lee watched the execution from a distance, up on Bolivar Heights about a mile away. Afterward, he accompanied the coffin to the rail station, where he turned the body over to Brown's widow. At her request, the undertaker pried the coffin open with a crowbar and she removed a gold ring from her husband's fourth finger before Lee rode off.
To add to this interesting mix, consider a photo long believed to show a group of Confederate soldiers during the war. I first encountered it when it was used in an edition of my middle grades American history text, but it has been widely published and is still available at the Library of Congress.
Recent research, however, by Angela Smythe, has convincingly argued that the photo does not show Confederate soldiers, but was taken in 1859 at Brown's execution, of a group of "Richmond Grays," one of the Virginia militias. And Smythe identifies the man at left toward the rear (just behind the soldier at center) as the actor John Wilkes Booth, who had joined the Richmond Grays.
For Booth too was at the execution, drawn to it by John Brown's outsized character. He had come to Harper's Ferry the day before and asked the sheriff if he could visit the prisoner personally, a request the sheriff granted. (Brown had been allowed—or perhaps we should say, saddled with—more than a few visitors, eager to see him or shake his hand.) "Poor old Brown," Booth recalled later. "He was a brave old man." At the execution Booth stood only about thirty feet from the gallows, and watched as the abolitionist mounted the scaffold and then scanned the crowd and the hills beyond, perhaps pondering whether any surprise party might attempt to free him. Though Booth was firmly proslavery, he felt "a throb of anguish as he beheld the old eyes straining their anxious sight for the multitude he vainly had thought would rise to rescue him," recalled the soldier next to him. Then the feet of the condemned man were tied together and a linen hood placed over his head. "Be quick," Brown urged, though some minutes passed before the sheriff took a hatchet and severed the rope holding the trap door. Watching the kicking legs and shuddering arms, Booth "got very pale in the face," recalled his companion; said "he felt very faint" and "would give anything for a good drink of whiskey."
Robert E. Lee...J.E.B. Stuart...Stonewall Jackson...and John Wilkes Booth, the man who would shoot Lincoln. All gathered at this strange crossroads. They were joined by one additional spectral presence. In 1860 poet Walt Whitman wrote "Year of Meteors (1859-60)," in which he described Brown's execution:
Was Walt Whitman really there? His biographer, David Reynolds, says no. "Whitman, as usual, was taking poetic liberty: he was not 'at hand' at the hanging of Brown." But he looked upon this crossroads as he did the unsettling meteor shower that appeared a year later over Manhattan, "dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads." Of these blazing stars, he said, "I sing—with gleams of them would I gleam and patch these chants / Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good! year of forebodings!"
With violence, John Brown set the spark for war. With violence, John Booth ended it, crying out Sic semper tyrannis as he fled. Lee, Stuart and Jackson carried forward the rebellion in the years between. And all crossed paths in the year before—the year of forebodings—at Harper's Ferry.
Astonishing country. The Torngats lie north of Labrador's northernmost permanent settlement, Nain. The country is carved out of rock billions of years old, among the oldest in the world. Parks Canada has set aside the area as Torngat Mountains National Park.
Yet although the spectacular vistas rival those of the Grand Canyon, only about 600 people visit the park each year, mainly because it's almost impossible to reach except by ship or plane. Polar bears are common.
The following just came up as a review on Amazon for one of my college texts:
So I guess the philosophical question is, do I prefer that he loves the book he didn't read or would I rather he hated the book he did read? Maybe it's a perfect fit. But I'm thinking either he's a jock at a Big-Ten school where his real job is on the football field; or years from now he's going to wish he had challenged himself with a school or a set of courses that actually encouraged the exercise of his cranial appendage.
I should add a brief note, apologizing for my online absence. A book deadline, on the one hand; but on the other, a terrific trip to Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland, about which I hope to post more soon.
I’m pleased to report that a new edition of A Little History of the United States is available in the People’s Republic of China. The book is published by CITIC Press Corporation of Beijing. It sells for RMB 49, approximately $7.50 in today's US dollars. The edition is handsomely produced:
Beneath the dust jacket the hardbound cover is elegant too
And the endpapers take two more of Gordon Allen’s excellent drawings to make a distinctive, contrasting pattern:
English editions of the book, like other volumes in Yale’s Little History series, do not include footnotes, so I was surprised to discover that this edition does! I don’t read Chinese so I can only guess, but the notes appear to be helpful annotations of people and places likely to be less familiar to Chinese readers. A very nice touch.
Many thanks to all who made this possible!
Artist Rockwell Kent was an inveterate wanderer, spending time in Maine, Alaska, Labrador, Greenland and Tierra del Fuego, among other remote spots. But when he settled down, it was on a farm in the Adirondacks which he named Asgaard, located in Au Sable Forks, New York. I visited this month, for the farm is still prospering in a wonderfully modest way (Kent was never the agribusiness type), specializing in goat cheese and—to the present owners' surprise, given the unexpected demand—salted caramels.
Kent is a favorite artist in our family, partly for his love of the wilderness, partly because of his stylistically vibrant prints and drawings. He had a wonderful sense of book design, manifested in N by E and Salamina, two volumes about his experiences in Labrador and Greenland. The Modern Library edition of Moby Dick also uses Kent's superb drawings. My wife and daughter are both artists and my first book editor, Angus Cameron, was a friend of Kent and his wife. When I got to know Angus in the 1970s, he was still visiting Sally Kent at Asgaard.
Off in a quiet grove near the open fields, stands the artist's studio which Kent designed for himself. These days, the farm offers internships to young artists who use the studio.
Kent's name for his farm, Asgaard, refers in Norse mythology to one of the nine worlds of the gods. The thirteenth-century Icelander Snorri Sturleson described Asgaard as a land more fertile than any other, blessed by an abundance of gold and jewels. Kent had cows instead, but he loved the land and its views. "And there, westward and heavenward, to the high ridge of Whiteface northward to the northern limit of the mountains, southward to their highest peaks, was spread the full half-circle panorama of the Adirondacks. It was as if we had never seen the mountains before." He wrote of his time there in This Is My Own and appended that title to his gravestone, where he is buried, not far from his studio. The mosses and lichens are steadily encroaching, and perhaps Kent might have found pleasing the idea of becoming one with the nature he so loved. Then again, he was headstrong and proud enough that he probably wouldn't have protested if the gravestone were cleaned off and spiffed up a wee mite now and then!
So it’s done—done to a turn—for the time being, at least. The last-gasp attempt of Republicans to repeal and replace Obamacare.
When historians try to rough out explanations for a sequence of events, they experience a constant tug of war between two modes of thinking: the shaping of history through larger social patterns actuated by the actions of thousands or even millions of people; and the consequential acts of individuals who change the course of history. Neither way of thinking is determinative, and good historical explanations depend on both.
But in this final turn of the health care debate, events have fallen out in a way that emphasizes the role an individual can play. Senator John McCain has acted in ways that often seemed contradictory over the past few days. Diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer, he was lionized by the press, cable news and his colleagues as he returned triumphantly to the Senate to make a stirring speech imploring his colleagues to reinstate “regular order,” the traditional Senate procedures that would allow Democrats and Republicans alike to take part in creating a health care compromise. Then he voted in favor of the motion to open debate over the latest Republican bills. Many thought that vote undermined his own high sentiments, because the short amount of debate time and no committee hearings was exactly what Sen. Mitch McConnell wanted, as a means to push through some sort of stealth repeal.
McCain further undercut his own rhetoric when he appeared willing to vote for a “skinny repeal” measure, so long as Rep. Paul Ryan could assure him unconditionally that Republican members of the House conference committee would not actually pass the bill the Senate was about to report out, a bill McCain condemned as slapdash, haphazard and harmful to the public health. If Ryan had acquiesced, McCain seemed ready to give his assent, despite the fact that the members of Congress who conferenced to work out a deal would be only Republicans, trying to cob together something even more slapdash and based also on the House bill, which even Trump had earlier condemned as too “mean” in its provisions. How would that have been a return to comity and compromise?
As it happened, Ryan danced around the demands of McCain, Lindsey Graham and others, issuing reassuring words but guaranteeing nothing. Those honeyed generalities were enough for all the Senate Republicans to walk the plank and vote for their skinny measure, save for Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowsky. Those who went along included Portman, Heller, Capito and others who had for weeks nobly shed crocodile tears about wanting only the best for their constituents.
McCain refused to walk, joining Collins and Murkowski and providing the critical final vote that made the trip to conference a bridge too far. Talk about the effect of a single vote!...though it must be remembered that the strong stands of Collins and Murkowski were equally crucial. In such situations, individuals can by their deeds truly shape history in significant ways. I can’t help suspecting that McCain was able to take that step partly because the news of his cancer freed him from the partisan pressures that McConnell used to corral the rest of his Republican cohort.
All to the good. But neither should historians forget the crucial role that was played by the masses of individuals over the longer arc of health-care reform. As was eloquently noted by Josh Marshall, a guy with training as a historian who now runs Talking Points Memo,
Even now, the fight is not over. And how America’s political parties and Constitutional system emerge from the stresses of the Trump whirlwind—to say nothing of how the health-care system may fare being run by its mortal enemies—these are topics for another day. For now, on at least this one occasion, a few key individuals and the masses conspired to do good.
There are so many ways now to jump into the deep digital flow and experience the multifarious moods of the crowd. Twitter stands prime among them, but there is also Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and others. I frequent the comments sections of various newspapers and blogs, but not too often or for too long. Such surfing can prove numbing after only a short time, not to mention a real time-waster. Now and again, however, I dip in, especially when I want to gauge the range of reactions to a particular article. Sometimes, a snippet floats by that is startling enough to command attention.
In a New York Times OpEd piece on health care reform by David Brooks, the following pungent story from the Crusades was offered up, beginning with a snippet of Brooks’s assessment of current Republican thinking:
For a fuller version of the excerpt, look here. I’m not competent to say whether it's reliable, though others have noted that Usama’s stories “are sometimes obvious jokes, exaggerating their otherness to entertain his Muslim audience." Historian Carole Hillenbrand comments that it would be "dangerously misleading to take the evidence of his book at its face value."
Still, it’s definitely fun to imagine Senator Mitch McConnell calling for a strong knight and a sharp ax …
The Library of Congress
The New York Times has an OpEd piece on Jefferson's view of religion, "Thomas Jefferson's Bible-Teaching." It's by two historians, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf, and certainly worth reading. Both are careful scholars and here cautiously present their discussion of Jefferson's views without strongly waving their editorial flag. Even so, one could perceive the flag twitching behind their backs, for clearly they are exhibiting Jefferson's views as a much-needed corrective to the religious fanaticism and partisan wars that still bedevil us today. I agree with much of what they say, so it may seem churlish to object to a surprising blind spot at the center of their argument.
The article reminds us that for much of his career Jefferson was viewed by opponents as a dangerous atheist. "Rumors spread that Jefferson planned to outlaw the Bible. On his watch, [Federalists] said, incest and adultery would run rampant." But Gordon-Reed and Onuf make haste to point out—make haste to reassure us, it could be said—that Jefferson was no atheist, but an admirer of Jesus who only wished to strip away the superstitions that the Bible and its later followers had added. They note that one of Jefferson's intellectual projects led him to go through the New Testament and carefully cut away anything that obscured the actual words and thoughts of Jesus himself. Jefferson didn't publish this unusual editing, a kind of Readers Digest Condensed version of the New Testament, nor did he even share it with his family. But he did view these core beliefs as a model for the way Americans might one day evolve in a republic guaranteeing the freedom of religion.
Clearly Gordon-Reed and Onuf share this broadminded view—and exhibit it as worth emulating. "Far from being an atheist," they say—God forbid one should be an atheist!—"Jefferson was a precocious advocate of what was later called 'civil religion,' the moral foundation of a truly free and united people." They point out that in 1904, Congress was so enamored of this vision of shared religious values that it actually printed 9,000 copies of this "Jefferson Bible," to be distributed to senators and representatives in Congress.
Most devout Christians today “would be appalled by Congress’s action,” say Gordon-Reed and Onuf. But they're not appalled too? In a nation which, thanks in good measure to Jefferson, prides itself on a separation of church and state, what business does Congress have printing any Bible—Jefferson's version, the King James, the Old Testament, or the Koran?
But Gordon-Reed and Onuf seem quite comfortable with the idea that all Americans can join in a version of Christianity that has been Enlightened-up (or is it watered-down?) by the Sage of Monticello. Americans who are non-believers, atheists, secular humanists, are left out of the equation. Yes, the Constitution prevents religious "tests for office," they say, but they find it hard to imagine "how a candidate who professed to have no religious beliefs could find favor." This doesn't seem to bother them. Their essay ends with a paean to "Jefferson’s idealistic vision of American civil religion, the shared faith of a free people," which in a world full of religious bigotry, seems "all the more attractive."
In the nineteenth or twentieth century, the view of all Americans united under a religious standard might still pass for a spacious ecumenism. But in the twenty-first century, when increasing numbers of citizens matter-of-factly and even proudly embrace a secular moral standard, the notion seems more specious than spacious. The solution is to let believers and nonbelievers alike affirm their theologies and philosophies as they choose, separate from the embrace of the government, not to try to unite everyone under the umbrella of a vague "civil religion."
On this matter, I prefer the Eisenhower Doctrine of church and state to Jefferson’s, even if Ike didn't recognize the unintentional humor in his words: "Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is."
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors