Archive for category Public History

Melville Helps Us Understand Trump

Perhaps it is time to reconsider Herman Melville, not for the whale, but for his social commentary that speaks to us across generations in this Presidential campaign season.  Melville will return to the news in the next few weeks following the release of the much promoted Ron Howard movie “In the Heart of the Sea,” the account of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex that inspired Moby Dick.   As Americans, we grow up knowing the broad parameters of Melville’s tale (not tail), even if we never made it past the first chapter. Ahab’s chasing the white whale is part of our cultural DNA, shorthand for an obsessive, disastrous pursuit.

Embedded into this novel, written in Pittsfield shortly after Melville moved here in 1850, though, is the story of Ishmael, the sailor-narrator, and Queequeg, the tattooed, heathen Polynesian harpooner who was peddling shrunken heads when Ishmael first met him.  The novel begins with the two sharing a room (and, as was routine in the early 1800s for men of little means, a bed.)   Initially terrified of Queequeg, Ishmael concludes that “The man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.”  Melville’s summation reaches across 175 years with a pointed rebuke of politics following the San Bernadino shooting after Thanksgiving: “Ignorance is the parent of fear.”

As Melville was writing these lines, he was surrounded by an outburst of nativism, of anti-foreign and anti-Catholic sentiment in Massachusetts, where a new, secret society was gaining adherents: the Know-Nothings.   That anti-party political order bequeathed the nation one of the most colorful but also confounding names, opening up the obvious line of inquiry – who would want to be associated with a movement that embraces ignorance in its title?

Citizen_Know_Nothing

Citizen Know Nothing

The Know Nothing name emerged not from a desire to be equated with stupidity, but from the secretive nature of its early days when adherents were instructed to answer questions about the order by saying they “know nothing.”   Following their success in several state political elections in 1854, they gave themselves the respectable official title, the American Party, but the Know Nothing name given to them by outsiders had already stuck.

In 2015, the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates seems to drawing for their playbooks a page from the 1850s and the Know Nothings.  They are drawing on several themes and tactics from the 19th century movement, most notably anti-immigration and the rejection of traditional politics.  The third pillar of the Know Nothings, anti-Catholicism, could easily be updated using the “replace all” function on a computer, substituting in the word Muslim for the earlier threat to Protestant values.

One Know Nothing member, Henry Wilson, who was elected as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, relayed the 1850s playbook, describing the secret order whose “professed purpose was to check foreign influence, purify the ballot box and rebuke the effort to exclude the Bible from the public schools.”  The societies that fed into the political movement bore their anti-immigrant leanings in their names: Sons of America, the American Protestant Association, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, and the Order of United Americans.  Members took oaths, according to a national convention in November 1854, to “not vote for any man for any office…unless he be an American-born citizen.”  If elected or appointed to any office, the member would “remove all foreigners, aliens of Roman Catholics from office or place.”

The nativism of the Know Nothings crept over into an overarching contempt for politicians, in reaction to a perceived increase of immigrants and Catholics in politics.  The movement then saw its greatest growth spurt in a period of generalized dissatisfaction with the inability of both parties to deal with the major issues of the time.  Failure of the Whigs in the Presidential elections of 1854 and  the only temporary resolution of the slavery issue in 1850 left a vacuum in the two-party system, leading quickly to the disappearance of the Whig party .  New issues such as temperance and the length of the working day emerged but were left untended.

Tactically, the Know Nothings focused their attention at the state and municipal levels of electoral politics drawing on their secret organizations to mobilize voters to head to the polls and reject traditional politicians.  They were most successful here in Massachusetts, when voters in 1854 swept into office Henry J. Gardiner as Governor and nearly all 400 races for the senate and house of representatives.  Races from Maine to Louisiana and California saw gains from Know Nothing candidates, moving Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts to state “There has been no revolution so complete since the organization of government.”  Adherents replaced professional politicians, most evidenced in Massachusetts by the influx of clergymen replacing lawyers in elected positions.

The parallels to 2015 resound – anti-immigration in the rhetoric of “deny entry to all Muslims” and “build a wall;”  anti-political parties in the rhetoric of “I am not Washington’s candidate;” secret political organizations in the fund-raising behind super-PACs; the tactics of state and local mobilizing paying off in gerrymandered and now permanently safe electoral districts in the House of Representatives; the “purity of the ballot box” in the attempted legislated election restrictions making it harder for minorities to cast their ballot.

One aspect of the current version, though, does not track with its earlier model.  While the 1850s movement did not embrace a lack of knowledge, the 2015 version can lay claim to the connotations of ignorance in Know-ing Nothing, especially when one of the candidates derides the field for its “fantasy” policy proposals.  Ohio Governor John Kasich seemed to be mimicking another one-time candidate, former Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindahl, who, in 2013, urged Republicans to “stop being the stupid party. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.”  Instead of answering they “know nothing” when asked a tough question, the candidates resort to an attack on the questioner, for his or her audacity, unfairness or meanness.  Knowing nothing or very little can extend to other statements: listing five cabinet departments for elimination that included naming the same department twice; the unwillingness to walk back claims of thousands of people from New Jersey cheering the collapse of the World Trade Towers on September 11; the claim that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen in this country since slavery.

By spouting ignorance, this year’s crop of politicians is making good on Melville’s dictum of delivering fear.  In considering all they advocate, though, that might just be the up side.  In fact, they could be driving the ship of state in pursuit of a white whale, with its disastrous ending.

This piece also appeared on History News Network and in the Berkshire Eagle.

 

 

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This Place Really Matters – The Movie

filmstillYou’ve read the thesis on preserving the old Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the articles below. Perhaps you even saw the review in the Berkshire Eagle.  Now the full-length movie.

OK, maybe you haven’t read them.  But the film project took up a big chunk of the past few months when otherwise I would have been writing blog posts, about Iran or the Pope, gun control or incarcerations, trails or demolitions in the Berkshires.

The movie is complete so the plan is to pick up on these short pieces.

How did this involvement in a full-length movie (84 minutes) come about?  Not that I knew anything about filming, certainly nothing more than home movies of children.

The e-mail requesting someone to document the preservation project of the 1876 Victorian Gothic public library building in central Pittsfield was copied to me.  Had I known the full extent of what was involved I might have shied away, but a casual “yes, I’d be interested” turned into a Master’s Degree thesis and a movie.

The architects leading the project were interested in a film documenting the project, but I was interested in getting graduate credit.  The breakthrough came from Pittsfield Community Television (PCTV) that offered equipment loans and training and a lot of storage space on their server.

The architects (Bill Gillen and John Krifka from Ford-Gillen in Amherst MA) and the contractor (Mike Mucci from Allegrone of Pittsfield MA) encouraged me to attend and even film their meetings, allowed me access to the worksite and repeatedly gave of their time and documents to understand as much as a layperson could the complexity of the work involved.

The movie, This Place Really Matters, has been broadcast on Access Pittsfield PCTV the past few weeks and is available through their on demand feature.  And now you can watch it on YouTube right here: https://youtu.be/y6er6nz605k

If you can only watch a little, proceed to about minute 50 for dramatic footage showing the reason why the state went to such time and expense to fix the structural problems of the building.

When we think of preserving historic buildings, the first ones that come to mind are usually the buildings that we failed to save, that were demolished and lost to only the archives.  Here, though, is a success story that deserves to be celebrated and remembered.

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Behind the Green Curtain

On the scaffold, behind the curtain, preparing to remove the stained glass panels.  Photo, the author.

On the scaffold, behind the curtain, preparing to remove the stained glass panels. Photo, the author.

There are stories behind the green curtain that people walk and drive by each day.  It’s not just the five stories of scaffolding that the curtain shields for the ongoing preservation work of the old Berkshire Athenaeum on Park Square in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  It also shields stories related to the complexity of preserving this building, stories about its benefactor and architect, and stories narrating the evolution of the city.

Above the front entrance to this Victorian Gothic monument is an inscription that reads “This tribute to science, art and literature is the gift of Thomas Allen to his native town.”  Thomas Allen, a railway baron before there were such men, moved out of Pittsfield and did go west, to Missouri, where he set himself up in the railroad business, and then ran for state office to help get the legislation needed for land acquisitions.  He predated Andrew Carnegie by decades in donating the money for a new library for the town in 1874.

Allen selected the design of William Appleton Potter, a young architect from New York who specialized in Victorian Gothic buildings: grand, ornamental Gilded Age structures, permanent grey and brown stone monuments, with pointed arches, skylights, gables and stained glass windows. Potter had designed the library at Princeton University, and the two men shared a Union College connection.  Perhaps, though, it was through Potter’s brother-in-law who was the sculptor of the Civil War soldiers’ memorial on Park Square that Thomas Allen became acquainted with Potter’s work.  Allen had been a donor for that statue as well.

At the dedication to the library, Thomas Allen revealed his hopes for the new building: help save the nation.  He could have been thinking of the Civil War, as the soldiers’ memorial erected just a few years earlier was in plain sight across the park.  He also had in mind the new immigrants in the town’s mills and factories and their children who would learn the ways of their adopted homeland through the library.  As impressive and unique as it was, the building suffered from both structural and space inadequacies almost from its beginnings.  Twenty years after its opening, the library’s leaders were complaining about water leaking and insufficient space for books.  A new addition and a new museum left more room for books, but many in the library and the city spent the next half century clamoring for a new library.

The building survived, serving a population growing with the success of its chief employer, General Electric, and outlasting calls for its demolition.  With urban renewal of the 1960s claiming whole blocks of buildings just one block away, the Athenaeum escaped unscathed.  By the time the funding became available for a new library, the country and the town had turned the corner in its appreciation for historic buildings.  A new library was built a block away, but this building was re-adapted for a courthouse and registry of deeds.

As one of 8 historic structures, the Park Square historic district received approval for placement on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1975.  As such, it has helped sustain a downtown that has suffered loss of business and consumers since then.  Pittsfield’s efforts to revitalize its downtown over the last two decades have relied on the presence of its historic buildings that offer an attractive and authentic vitality to the city.

Its structural problems remain, however.  One engineer assessed the situation in the 1970s simply: William Potter was trying to do too much, too many roofs, too many places for water to seep behind the stones and through the skylight. As the water would freeze and thaw, it would open up more space for water to seep, increasing the bulging.  Major structural repairs, including steel ties across the front and side elevations, were required for its stabilization in the 1970s.  Again in 2001, the rotting skylight was restored, the roof was replaced and new internal drains on the roofs were installed.

Still, by 2011, the bulging on the front had increased dramatically, as much as five to six inches in places.   In September 2013, the state embarked on a major stabilization effort, with plans to remove most of the masonry and stained glass on the front façade.  A complicated system of anchors will hold the re-laid stones in place to a reinforced back-up wall.  A simple enough sentence, but documenting and removing each stone, storing them off-site, installing new steel supports, repairing the brick back-up wall, re-laying the stones and inserting anchors and grout to hold them in place, is anything but simple.  The movement in the wall took its toll on the stain-glass windows, so a similar process of documentation, removals and repairs is underway as well.  All work is specialized to ensure the historical integrity of the building, matching colors and textures as closely as possible to the original design.

This effort will save the stories of the old Athenaeum for future generations, so they will be see in the building, stories of their immigrant, working class ancestors who made this one of the busiest libraries in the state, stories of a golden age of prosperity when wealthy elites felt a civic debt to their communities and stories of a misguided urban renewal scheme that demolished entire blocks of the city, but somehow managed to overlook this building, with the help of another generation of civic-minded individuals.

All that behind this green curtain.

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Turn, Turn Turn

I feel like I’ve known Pete Seeger since I was 18, even though I never met him.  So, when the news came that he passed away this week, memories of his music and social causes that inspired many returned easily.

A little about my connection with someone who was my idol.  It was his integrity that drew so many to him, even though it’s the same integrity that would likely make him wince at the word “idol”

When I graduated from high school, I received a guitar as a graduation present from my parents.  Odd, since I had shown no interest in playing the instrument.  A few months later at Christmas, my brother gave me “The Incompleat Folksinger,” a book doubling as a songbook and autobiography.  In it, Pete laid out his views on social and economic justice, his flirtation with popular music as a member of the Weavers in the early 1950s, and then his targeting as a Communist in the 1950s.  All that, he interspersed with lyrics and tablature of many songs.  His story, from his work with labor unions during the Depression through the McCarthy era and into the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s, became the subject of a history thesis my senior year of college.

My thesis argued that the political left showed continuity, from its heyday of support for the working class in the 1920s and 30s, moving through the anti-Nazi era, then weathering the lean, red-baiting 1950s, only to emerge in the 1960s with new issues of peace abroad and racial justice at home.  Through it all was music, the folk music of Pete Seeger and others that helped frame the issues, spread the word  and unite the activists and supporters.  Pete played with Woody Guthrie whose ballads touched a nerve for the mass of unemployed during the Depression; he played with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, whose folk music in the 1960s addressed the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement.

Moving into the 1970s and 1980s (and beyond my graduation and focus of thesis,) the fervor of those movements was passing, even though goals connected to those movements had not been attained.  Pete Seeger remained, while many in my generation moved on, to work and family, leaving behind those ideals for which we had once so passionately believed in.  Pete (as if he were my best friend) stayed true, true to his music and to his ideals, finding the right balance to match his humble lifestyle.  He was the thread to the next progressive movement, using his name and his music to advance environmental issues, specifically the cleaning up of the Hudson River.

I was not surprised to see Pete Seeger performing at President Obama’s inaugural in 2009.  He was on the stage set up in front of the Lincoln Memorial, along with Bruce Springsteen.  Springsteen had put out an album a few years earlier entitled The Seeger Sessions, where he adapted Seeger’s Americana songbook to his own band and style.  Seeger again became the continuity, for the music and the politics, sharing his concern for the common man and woman, the working class squeezed out by an economy that catered to the wealthy few.  Thus, it was not surprising to see Pete join the Occupy Movement.  He was 90 then.

Much has been written of Pete Seeger’s affiliation with the Communist Party and with the resulting blacklist for ten years which kept him off the airwaves for ten years.  Not his music, though, with its clear lyrics advancing causes which now seem mainstream.  The blacklist became his badge of honor, one he didn’t thrust forward as a victim but one that kept him steadfast in his own view of the world.  His life made it on to the front page of the New York Times, while those who tried to silence him have long been forgotten.   His season had come, again and again.

The first and only time I saw Pete Seeger in concert was in 1975 when he performed with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry at Carnegie Hall.  What was most memorable was Pete brought out a log and an axe for one song, and sang by himself, keeping beat with the swings of his axe hitting the wood.  We will likely never see that again.

My last post was another obituary of sorts.  Mandela and Seeger were the same age.  And exhibited the same persevering commitment and passion for social justice.

Pete singing with Eleanor Roosevelt listening (and singing along?)  Photo: Photograph by Joseph A. Horne. Via Library of Congress site

Pete singing with Eleanor Roosevelt listening (and singing along?) Photo: Photograph by Joseph A. Horne. Via Library of Congress site

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The Power of Film

No matter how many times I have read about slavery and all its accompanying violence, I was still unprepared for the impact of visualizing the beatings, the rapes, the breaking apart of families, the hangings and other assorted fears and horrors portrayed in 12 Years a Slave.   This new film by British director Steve McQueen tells the story of Solomon Northrup, a free Black man from Saratoga New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and then wrote a book about his ordeal upon his release after 12 years working on a string of southern plantations in the mid-18th century.

Solomon, from his autobiography published in 1855

Solomon, from his autobiography published in 1855

I had to cover my eyes on several occasions; my wife walked out during one scene, so disturbed.  Yet, while she said at the end of the film that she “hated the movie,” I walked away thinking this was a movie every American should see.  Both sentiments came from the same effect of the realities of the institution of slavery.  She hated to see the suffering so vividly captured.  She

was right in that it was certainly something to hate.  The film though succeeded in evincing her reaction, and therefore was effective in forcing people to see exactly what it means to read about a slave getting a whipping, the oozing welts crisscrossing the back, the keloid scars, and the immediate return to the fields to work.  It would be hard to walk out of that movie and think that those scars on individuals long since dead do not still, or should not still, weigh on the national consciousness.

It wasn’t just the graphic violence which was so horrifying. The film was also able to show the endemic fear and indifference on the plantation.  “I survive,” said Solomon at one point to a mother whose grief over her lost children was inconsolable, leading ultimately to her own death at the hands of her owner.  Living in fear of the whims and temperament of the person who controlled your existence was the norm.  So was the indifference, as McQueen showed owners’ wives watching casually from the balconies of their houses as punishments were meted out.  Even other slaves went about their daily chores as Solomon struggled to stand on his tiptoes to avoid choking to death from the noose around his neck.

This film reminded me of 42 or Brokeback Mountain, Schindler’s List, or even The Passion in their ability to evince a transformational reaction, through the visual portrayal of suffering, despite the abundance of the printed word on

topics portrayed in those movies.  People have heard of the abuse Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues, received when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, but seeing an opposing manager yell out the n-word repeatedly has the ability to shock that words on a page simply cannot convey.

I am unsure of the appropriate reaction, from a national, collective perspective.  It has to lie somewhere between the c

asual “national conversation” and the probably unrealistic reparations claims.  Steve McQueen, said in a New York Tim

es interview that he wanted people to see the connections of this historic past to the present, in Trayvon Martin, in our prisons crowded with African-American offenders, in still segregated neighborhoods.  Ridley Scott, the script writer, said on the PBS News Hour that he wanted Americans to confront this past.

 Two final points.  Going back to Roots or even further To Kill a Mockingbird, film has helped place race and slavery in the forefront of our national consciousness.  The frequency of films exploring these themes has increased in recent years, from 42 to The Help and even Django Unchained.   These films have achieved both commercial success and critical acclaim.  Do their frequency

and success have more to do with an increased public acceptance to confront this uncomfortable past, or more of a need for the country to face its legacies?

Finally, it is unfortunate that 12 Years a Slave is not in theaters in my hometown.  Movies like Ender’s Game and Thor, the Dark World dominate the local complexes, so we had to travel to an adjoining town to an arts theater to see the movie.  So much for my hope that every American view this film about the real dark world, that of slavery in our past, and its vestiges in our present.

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