Archive for category Public History

The Poetry in Emily’s and Austin’s Homes

Time for another field trip.  This time to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst Massachusetts.  It turns out the Herman Melville is not the only American author who achieved public and literary acclaim only long after his death.  So did Emily Dickinson with her poetry, but with a twist: she never sought that acclaim in her lifetime.

The only known photo of Emily Dickinson, the original owned now by Amherst College

The only known photo of Emily Dickinson, the original owned now by Amherst College

Emily’s house, now a museum, is actually two houses.  One, next door, belonged to her brother Austin; both help to tell the story of her writing.  What draws people to the home is this story of a private woman, creating, in bursts of prolific energy, a poetry ahead of its time and for the ages, but not publishing any of it.  It is through Austin that the world eventually gets to see and appreciate the poetry.  It is hard to know if mid-18th century American readers were ready for her poetry, which expanded the boundaries of the form.

Still, the renovations and additions, the wallpaper and paintings, the path and hedge of both houses are historic traces, primary sources themselves, revealing the complicated relationships between Austin, his wife, his daughter, his paramour and his sister.  Through the objects, the museum guide is able to craft the story of how Emily’s writing became known to the outside world.  It is a story which speaks to us today, of women’s roles in society, of the unknown loss of similar treasure due to an inability to contribute fully.   There is a strong possibility that her poetry may never have emerged.

The two side-by-side historic houses tell a different story as well, a story of authenticity in their contrasting models of preservation.  They tell a story of authenticity, juxtaposing ways to create an honest portrayal of how we now can appreciate the lives of the siblings, how we now understand the story of her writing.  Emily’s house, The Homestead, is restored, with fresh, clean paint and new wallpaper, sanded floors, with new work underway to “take away the 20th century in Emily’s bedroom,” as Jane Wald, the director of the museum, characterized the project.  Austin’s house, The Evergreens, on the other hand, stands as it was found and transferred to the museum, with nothing changed or restored.  The walls are moldy and crumbling, the wallpaper is peeling, the rugs threadbare and the furniture unfinished.  Dark and smelly.  It is a ruin, akin to one of those old stone walls scattered in the New England woods.

The contrast has much to do with what transpired between the Dickinson occupation/ownership of the houses and their acquisition by Amherst College, and then the museum.  Simply, Austin’s home was kept intact, first by his by his daughter Martha and then by her heir, the young man who helped Martha edit Emily’s poetry for publication.  Next door, no Dickinson lived in Emily’s home after her unmarried sister Lavinia’s death in 1899, 14 years after Emily died.  First tenants, then new owners moved in to The Homestead, and they renovated and changed features of the structure.  Once the house was bought by Amherst College, then work began to restore to as faithful a version as possible the house Emily lived in.

Which is authentic?  Both, but it depends.  It depends on how we approach them.  Authenticity implies honesty.  Austin’s home in its ruinous state, does not honestly reflect how he and his family lived.  The threadbare carpets gave it away; they alone do not allow anyone to say “this is how the house looked when Austin lived here.”  It may have been Austin’s carpet, but it is not how it looked in his tenure.  Emily’s home, preserved, does try to reflect the “present-ness” of how Emily lived.  But, it is only a reflection, and as a re-creation, is a present version, unable to say without caveats, “this is precisely how the house looked when Emily lived here.”  Her plush carpet may look like the one she had, but it is not the same carpet.

From a preservation perspective, it is useful to have the two different approaches side-by-side.  From the insights which the two houses tell us about gender and art, the juxtaposition also offers meaning, by showing both the actual, deteriorating objects in Austin’s home, but re-imagining them to a prior era in Emily’s home.  Side-by-side, these traces complement each other, the real and the imagined, to tell the story of women’s lives and routines and the central role of their homes.



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Is it August 1914 or March 1999?

Where are we now?  Europe, August 1914?  Iraq, March 2003? Afghanistan, August 1998?  Rwanda, April 1994 or Yugoslavia, March 1999?

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.  Photo: Department of State

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Department of State

As we lurch hesitatingly towards some form of military action in Syria, pundits and politicians search for the right historic precedent, trying to  bolster their political case for a response to the accusations that Syria used saran gas against its own citizens.

Let’s leave aside from the start the political maneuvering by certain politicians who all of a sudden are concerned about the unknown and unpredictable consequences of military action, whenever it happens.  These same individuals who so blindly supported the Iraq invasion just ten years ago without credible evidence (despite the volume and confidence of the assertions) are preaching caution now that they have fairly firm evidence of poison gas use by Syria’s President Assad.   They might use Iraq in 2003 as their precedent, but then that might also expose their previous support for invasion.

Others preaching caution point to Europe on the verge of the Great War, when a political assassination of a member of the Austrian royal family in Serbia triggered a chain of events that saw nations line up in treaty-bound coalitions to protect and defend each other.  They rushed with folly into a war they would surely have sought to avoid had they known the death toll, devastation and brutal violence which ensued.   Would such a strike unleash a larger war, in a region so fraught with its own complex web of rivalries and abundance of arms?

You would think in a scenario like either Iraq 2003 or Europe 1914, there would be support for the kind of limited action President Obama is gambling on.  Yet, by showing his hand holding only a limited air strike (not only to domestic political opponents, but also to the Syrians who can now prepare,) Obama opens himself up to the comparison with the Clinton airstrikes following the African Embassy bombings in 1998.  They were loud and may have felt good in seeking a dose of punishment, but they ended up having not just no practical effect, but may have further aggravated the anger directed at the U.S.

So, we hear those whose guiding principal for use of the largest military force in the history of the world is conditioned on the direct attack on U.S. interests.   We don’t want to become the “world’s policeman,” a phrase stemming from Vietnam or Somalia, when in both large and small scale-scale military interventions, questions about our own national interests led to weak withdrawals short of our stated goals.

With unclear U.S. interests, then we may end up watching from the sidelines, as the world allowed an unspeakable genocide to take place in Rwanda.  In such a case, should the discussion of U.S. interests extend beyond U.S. physical or economic security to include a moral responsibility?  Do our long-term interests include demonstrating to peoples, who in this particular region are still struggling to define the outcome of their Arab Spring, that the U.S. will stand on the side of ordinary citizens?  And, if that connection is too fuzzy or moral, can we define our long-term interests in something more practical like long-term security in a region which has held a great share of the global economic and political well-being in its grasp for decades?

The global crises immediately following the world’s paralysis in Rwanda were situated in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Determined not to watch from the sidelines another humanitarian disaster brought on by an earlier incarnation of Assad attacking his own citizens, the U.S. and Europe took months to act, but eventually they did.  Unable to secure UN Security Council approvals because of the same vetoes by Russia and China who refuse to vote now, NATO forces were brought to bear in a punishing air assault to force the soon-to-be convicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic to stop the assault on his own non-Serb citizens.

Direct U.S. interests were hard to define in that action.  What makes this precedent the most compelling may be the almost exclusive use of air power to bring about the intended result.  Fighting from the air meant limited casualties on the NATO side, but tragic unintended civilian loss of life.

Precedents, we know, are never exact.  Yugoslavia was not the Middle East; Libya stood farther away from the Lebanon-Israel-Palestine than  Syria.   Unlike 1914, the world has institutions of varying effectiveness to prevent a global escalation of conflict.  And, unlike Iraq, we have greater trust that we are not being lied to.

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I and My Lawnmower

Reliable friend. Photo: JDickson

Reliable friend.
Photo: JDickson

One of the highlights of walking through Herman Melville’s home at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is the central fireplace in the dining area.  Its grand size and fine stone work dominate the room and evoke a time when all the heating and cooking came from that one source.  What is most unusual here though is the writing above and across the fireplace.  It quotes from Melville’s whimsical story “I and My Chimney” which first appeared in Putnam’s Monthly in 1856, six years after Melville moved to Arrowhead from New York City.

The story is of a husband’s determination to save the destruction of the chimney in his home from his equally determined wife to have a central hallway, instead of a space-wasting chimney.  Melville speaks of this chimney as a person, even a friend, and a close one at that:  “I and my chimney, two grey-headed old smokers reside in the country.”  The two of them are “old settlers,” putting the chimney on the same human level as the narrator.  Melville explains the unusual construction placing the “I” before “my chimney” in the title as the only time that he actually takes precedence over the chimney.

In grand humor and 19th century majestic style, Melville describes the female head of household’s attempts to rid herself of the chimney, hiring architects and enlisting her daughters to convince her male counterpart of the multiple reasons to rid herself of this domineering structure.  “I will never surrender,” says the protagonist, reassuring his pipe and his chimney that he will prevail.

I have my own chimney problem, and it is my 22-year old push lawnmower.  Purchased for barely more than $100, my walking companion has served me well in three different residences, suffering through ten years of neglect while in storage.  Upon his release, though, he started right up and, as long as he can avoid rain in the fuel tank, he has never let me down.

This faded red gas push mower has outlasted a brief flirtation with an electric/battery model with its commitment to a green environment as an enticement.  Barely five years into this newer arrangement, the battery model could not keep up with either high grass or more lawn.  With barely an apology, the old push mower took me back and has remained faithful since.

We are alone in our weekly endeavors.  My wife and pretty much any outside observer think me mad, for walking around these almost 2 acres with such an outdated, hard to operate companion.   The hot sun, the uneven terrain, the long grass, the obstacles of rocks and roots and trees conspire to leave me exhausted each time.  My wife claims it will be the end of me.  I call it exercise which will make me stronger and live longer.

Melville was on to something, that genius of human nature and descriptive detail.  From even before his time, he knew that every marriage needs a chimney or a lawnmower, to test its foundation and durability.

I only wonder what his quill pen would do to my lawnmower.

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This Old Barn, Really Old

I don’t know which was more impressive, the two timber-frame barns being preserved and re-assembled or the massive airplane hangar of a workshop enclosing them.  Of course, the two barns take precedence, since one of them may be the nation’s oldest barn, dating as far back as the 1690s.  Still, I couldn’t stop looking at the features of the workshop: the two sides of window/doors which could slide open to remove structures as big as a barn or the rack of mechanical pulleys and cranes on guides running the length of the workshop.

That structure was owned by a contractor who specializes in restoration, a middle-aged man wearing a polo shirt and khakis named David Lanoue.  He recently opened up his workshop in Great Barrington Massachusetts to the public, who came to see the work in progress on the old barns and hear from those involved in the work.

At that moment, the contracting crew of 15 interspersed in the crowd, but recognizable in their matching polo shirts, had assembled the roof of the newer barn.  By newer I mean late 1700s.  The end side of the older barn stood next to the roof.  Laid out horizontally on workhorses were other large, tapered beams belonging to the older barn, so people could see the extent of the restoration process.

An architect who specializes in timber frames spoke to the philosophy guiding the restoration.  Looking like a farmer, wearing a Quaker-like hat, Jack Sobon emerged from the audience with little of the pretensions that he could claim from his having authored several books on timber frame construction and spent most of his life immersed in the subject.  His manner was professorial, but he was teaching not only to the many carpenters and contractors in the workshop, but to those of us less familiar.

Sobon, a consultant to Lanoue’s project, indicated that cost and time dictate the philosophy.  Pointing to the various pieces of lumber stacked in rows around the room, he indicated that, under normal circumstances, restorers would have discarded much of the old wood.  Instead, since Lanoue knew he was working on what could be the oldest barn in the country, he has adopted an approach to save as much of the old wood as possible, regardless of cost.  So, rotted wood has been caringly replaced with white oak pieces, carefully cut to match the sections taken from the old beams.

Can you see two barns?  Photo: JDickson

Can you see two barns?
Photo: JDickson

There was another philosophy that Sobon kept referring to, as he discussed the detective work undertaken on the original builders.  Time and again, decisions made by New England builders in the 17th and 18th century were based on what was easy and what cost the least.  Some old barns were built with no foundation, with corner beams dug right into the ground.  Why?  It was quicker and easier than digging and laying a stone foundation.  He explained the assembling of the sides and the corner joints, creatively designed so the original measuring and laying out of the pieces could be done, lying flat on the ground.

What became clear as both Lanoue and Sobon talked was their fluency in a different language.  Terms like bends, bays, sills and joists fell easily from their lips but landed hard on the novice’s ears.  Not only was the vocabulary new, but so was the ability to see words in all three of their dimensions, particularly evident when Sobon was talking about the corner joints, even with the model he brought to explain it.   Here I learned I had wasted my life doing history and international relations.

What will Lanoue do with these barns?  He spoke of interest from private collectors, but I sure hope the Smithsonian is interested.  They have the room in either the Building Museum or the American History Museum in Washington to house such a treasure.  What a treat it was, in this quiet corner of western Massachusetts to see work of such importance to the whole nation.

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When did we burn Toronto?

Here’s a history quiz:  When did U.S. soldiers raze the city of Toronto?

a) Never

b) I don’t know, or I don’t care

c) April 27, 1813

If you chose the first, you would be right, since without even pointing out that it wasn’t really a city, U.S. soldiers burned a settlement, then known as York.  But we did burn it to the ground, nonetheless, and it was re-built and then renamed Toronto 20 years later.

If you chose the second, you might be right as well, possibly shrugging your shoulders out of indifference, but more likely in disbelief that the United States ever burned the capital of what was then Upper Canada (as distinct from, you guessed it, Lower Canada, both named for the geographic location on the St. Lawrence.)

The last answer, though, is the correct one:  200 years ago, on April 27, 1813.   I probably would have given either of the first two answers, and I used to teach U.S. history, and specifically the War of 1812, during which this attack occurred.

Sure, I taught the fact that the British burned down the White House and other parts of Washington DC, in 1814.  Many remember enough history to know of Dolly Madison saving the portrait of George Washington with the White House in flames.   More well-known is the attack weeks later on Ft. McHenry in Baltimore when a young Frances Scott Key saw the flag following a night of bombardment, so moved that he penned what would become our national anthem.  Part of the lore from that war was Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans, weeks after a peace treaty had been signed in Paris.

But, the fact that the U.S. burned and looted York never came up.  It didn’t come up even in the context that the British attack on Washington came a year later was in retaliation for York.   We don’t remember, but you know who does.

Canada.  In fact, Canada is remembering that war in a national way, with a fair amount of controversy (with the accent over the second syllable up north: con-TRA-ve-see.)   Canada wasn’t even a country then, but still part of British Colonial America.  It wouldn’t become independent until 1867, and even then it maintained its ties to the British Monarchy, to this day still the head of government in Canada.

The conscious choice to commemorate that war stems not from the fact that it repelled U.S. war aims of extending the northern border (OK maybe a little.)  Rather, Canadians see this war more as a critical step in the establishment of their nation.  Since there was no rebellion against the British, no Declaration of Independence, Canadians have little in the founding of their nation in 1867 to unify them.  So, they have decided that their country might see the bicentennial of this war, as a commemoration to instill national pride, rather than their language, or their province and region, or even their affiliation with the part of the “states” which lay across the border. If you think that doesn’t exist, did you know that the Premier of Nova Scotia had, within hours of the attack on the Boston Marathon, pledged $50,000 to Boston Children’s Hospital?

Four Canadian Heroes of War of 1812.  Photo: Government of Canada

Four Canadian Heroes of War of 1812. Photo: Government of Canada

The controversy with the commemoration lies in the Federal Government setting aside $28 million for public commemorations, a sum deemed too large and even frivolous in a recession.  The money has been set aside for commemorative events, for museum exhibitions, for media publicity.  The official emblem of the bicentennial speaks to the desire to unify the country.  It is a seal with four heroes from the war: a British General, a French-Canadian officer, a woman who warned the British troops of an attack, and a Shawnee chief.  (Guess the names; they are listed below.)

What’s striking is the contrast with the commemoration in the U.S. of the War of 1812.  What commemoration?  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo  vetoed any appropriation for marking the bicentennial, but a few states did approve spending, and as is normally done on this side of the border, there is more private than public funding.  Still, it would not be surprising if most have seen nothing related the War of 1812 these past two years.

The Canadians are choosing to remember, and we have chosen to forget.  The U.S. Consul General in Toronto can’t forget.  He will attend the official ceremony marking the bicentennial of the attack on York.  Care to join him, facing the Canadians who remember that attack?

(From upper right corner, clockwise: Major General Sir Isaac Brock, French officer Charles de Salaberry, Laura Secord, and Tecumseh)

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