Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Nostalgia and Continuity

"Nostalgia is a selective sentiment.  It is Williamsburg in the 1750s without the mud, the outhouses, and the flies.  It is Laramie in the 1880s without the heat, the cold, the vomit, and the bedbugs.  It is the New England colonial town without the censoriousness and the intolerance.

And yet the gentle glow of nostalgia does shed light on institutions and values that are worth preserving or adapting if we can.  It reminds us that continuity is a satisfaction if not a duty.  The very selectivity, moreover, which nostalgia brings to the past encourages rejection of the shoddy and meretricious in the present.  And if it is true that we cannot have it both ways, we can at least make more intelligent compromises between the compulsions of change and the attractions of continuity if the tug of the latter is strong."

-- Elliot Richardson, The Creative Balance (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), p. 271

Saturday, March 29, 2014


The other day I finished a novel called Longbourn, by Jo Baker, that follows the lives of the servants in the Bennet household -- the central characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  I didn't receive a complimentary copy or anything, but I did want to give a shout out to the author for addressing one of those glaring inaccuracies that characterizes so much historical fiction, whether in books or on film.  Longbourn opens on a washday, and the central theme of this opening scene is upon hands -- working hands, scalded hands, chilblain-afflicted hands, and the goose grease the maids of Longbourn rubbed into their cracked, bleeding hands at the end of the day to restore range of movement, if not comfort.  This theme continues throughout the book, whether contrasted with the soft, pale, even flaccid hands of the gentlefolk for whom the servants work or in passing comments that remind us these same cracked, blistered digits also touched (and tried to avoid bleeding upon) dainty gowns and fine veils.

Physical comfort on such a prosaic level is one of those things we tend to elide from our perusal of the past.  We might attend to the vital themes of hunger, oppression, violence, or lack of shelter, but seldom do we consider such basic and ubiquitous privations.  Take a look at the hands of the servants on Downton Abbey.  Historical accuracy might extend as far as Daisy's worn dresses, but I suspect cracked and blistered hands would take accuracy a bit too far for contemporary viewers.  Seldom have I found a written story that addresses this reality, either.

For lotion and mild soap, modern household appliances and cleaning products, give thanks.  And remember, those refinements of the upper classes came not just at the expense of servants' labor, but of their very skins.  What of modern labor?  An interesting question to ponder.  Working conditions mattered then -- a lot.  They still do.  Chemicals and practices, rules and regulations, matter.  The environment includes humans, and industry continues to involve skin, whether directly through the workplace or indirectly through the ways in which the products of industry are diffused.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Great articles on civil rights... and beards

Penn State University doctoral candidate Sean Trainor published a fascinating piece January 20 in The Atlantic titled "The Racially Fraught History of the American Beard."  Take a look here.

Historian Michael Kazin reflected January 20 upon the potential drawbacks to Hollywood's recent focus on interpreting the history of slavery.  Read it here.  I'm inclined to agree with Kazin's reasoning.  Telling the history of slavery is tremendously important, but we do run the risk of eliding the struggles African Americans have faced since emancipation if we cut off our history at 1865.  This is part of a larger struggle I face when viewing popular interpretations of civil rights history.  My 7-year-old brought home a "Weekly Reader" folio the other day about Martin Luther King, Jr.  While I realize historical interpretation for second grade readers is necessarily going to require some elimination of nuance, I was troubled by the main article's statement that because of King's work, people of all races now get along and live/work together.  Then = bad; King = the hinge upon which societal transformation swung; now = good.

Hmm.  Much as I wish this were the case, the story just isn't that simple.  The frustrating, difficult truth is that King was assassinated as a result of his work -- a work made even more dangerous when he started to challenge deeply ingrained "de facto" discrimination throughout the United States and not just the "de jure" segregation of the American South.  The frustrating, difficult truth is that the myriad problems of race continue to bedevil our society, despite the unarguable progress the brave activists of the 1950s and 1960s -- and before and after those decades -- have made.  We need to remember these truths.  We need to educate the next generation to realize how far we have come.  If we fail, however, to acknowledge the distance left to travel (and the many struggles and reverses along the way) we run a serious risk of encouraging a smug complacency that dismisses the real structural problems of American society as somebody else's personal problem -- or, in the case of those caught up in the midst of structural inequities, the enervating despair of hopelessness.

I want my child to celebrate the justice of emancipation.  I want her to value the brave, difficult work undertaken by King and others.  I want her to recognize the important distance American society has traveled.  Too, though, I want her to recognize that she needs to take up the baton; the race is far from over.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

All (Hu)m(a)n(s) Are Created Equal?

I find it strangely fitting that this 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's delivery of the Gettysburg Address is also World Toilet Day.  (Stay with me here.)  Lincoln spoke eloquently of a nation founded upon the premise that all men are created equal.  I love, love, love that he did this, because Lincoln's words stack a new layer upon our nation's founding documents, multiplying the effect of what I often tell my students when they reach that point of the term when they're totally depressed by all the bad things that have happened in American history: the most exciting thing about these United States is that men enlightened by the standards of their times issued universal declarations in language far, far more sweeping in its application than anything they could have envisioned in their time and place... and Americans have been able to use those promises to drag society (kicking and screaming, sometimes) toward a world of greater opportunity for all.  That--THAT--is awesome.  As in "awe-some," not as in surfer talk.

Lincoln was a great man; he was also a man of his times.  As many will point out today, his thinking on slavery and his conception of what the Civil War was about evolved over the years of his life and of the conflict.  That doesn't taint the deeper, broader truth of his words.  Perhaps he was prophetic, in the sense of speaking truths even he did not fully comprehend.  

We in the United States still fail to put into practice this truth that all (humans) are created equal.  Others will spend the day pointing out a litany of ills that continue to plague society, and they're right--but the promise endures, and that gives me hope.

On World Toilet Day, however, I'd suggest we take this promise one step farther.  Lincoln states that the United States was founded upon the premise that all people are created equal.  That statement is necessarily universal.  He didn't say all men in the United States are created equal.  Rather, all men--everywhere--are created equal.  There are 2.5 billion people in this world who do not have access to basic sanitation.  That's billion with a "b."  Lincoln's words apply to these folks, too.  Let's take this premise global.  We have an awesome inheritance--if we use it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Herschels

It's funny how interest and/or personal connection heightens awareness.  Our pastor owns a light blue Prius... despite the fact that there are roughly 2.3 million light blue Priuses (Priusi?) in the Portland metro area, I still look every time to see if it's him.  Same goes for red Focus wagons, charcoal Corollas and a zillion other cars.  Shoot, I still notice 13-year-old blue Honda Accords, and it's been two years since the other half drove one of those.

As with cars, so it goes with historical research subjects.  I'm sure you wondered how I planned to segue after that introduction.

I've been noodling around several potential profile subjects for a children's magazine at which I do a lot of freelancing.  One of them is a woman named Caroline Herschel, who was sister to William Herschel, a groundbreaking, self-taught astronomer who discovered Uranus, among other things.  Caroline overcame numerous childhood challenges to become a tremendously skilled astronomer in her own right, with a talent for discovering comets.  I've been sitting here checking my email and tending to my slightly under-the-weather offspring, and having finished other tasks I decided (as one does, if one's a history nerd) to Google this date in history.

Guess whose birthday it is?

Meet William Herschel!

Here's his sister, too, for the sake of equality.  Turns out that despite his amazing innovations in crafting new telescopes, his dogged commitment to research excellence and his aptitude for discerning the deeper truths underlying his discoveries (the notion of "deep space," for example, was something he made great strides in understanding), our man William couldn't have accomplished all this without his sister's assistance.  Caroline and William formed a team; she spent years' worth of nights carefully recording his observations, assisting with his groundbreaking telescope manufacturing, and conducting research in her own right.

The story of William and Caroline Herschel is a useful reminder of the limitations of the "great man" theory of history.  Some people are, indeed, uniquely endowed with talents and gifted with the capacity to use them.  William was one of these people.  Even these folks, though, rely on the support, the ingenuity, and the gifts of other people.  I hope my profile of Caroline Herschel will contribute in some small way to correcting such misapprehensions.

Wonder where else the Herschels will turn up?