Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Seems the GOP conventioneers have been having a go at the current president and veep for their golfing enthusiasm (and, in Vice President Biden's case, alleged lack of veracity regarding his scores).  There is a certain historical irony in this, insofar as (Republican) President Dwight Eisenhower was routinely lampooned by liberals for his enjoyment of a jaunt around the greens.  Also, anyone supporting Mitt Romney for president really shouldn't be calling extra attention to the pastimes of the well-off in America -- just as anyone who voted for John Kerry might do well to step off the Mitt-has-a-wooden-personality bandwagon.  These people are people, and if they don't do something in addition to their political work they will keel over before a four-year term is up.  They tend to be well-off people, because it's ridiculously expensive to run for office.  This means, in turn, they do well-off-people things like golf.  If they weren't raised well-off, they've probably become so through some combination of intellect, talent and gift for gab.  This might not be ideal, but at present it is the way our political system works.

The preoccupation with golf, however, leads me to a fun little story about the Mittster's dad, Michigan Governor George Romney.  Seems he was quite a golf enthusiast himself -- and he was hardcore in his devotion to the sport as a sport.  No "19th hole" devotee was George.  He made a regular morning habit of rising early and heading for the course, where he would run from shot to shot, pausing only long enough to slap a club in the general direction of the ball before he was off and running again.  Biographer T. George Harris reports he was invariably dripping by the end of his "game."

(T. George Harris, Romney's Way: A Man and an Idea [Prentice-Hall, 1967])

Friday, August 17, 2012

Reflections on Virginia #4

One last thought on our time in Virginia.  I know and teach about the incremental development of slavery in North America over the course of the 1600s.  I realize that early in the century, African slaves and white indentured servants sometimes formed alliances and viewed their plight in class rather than racial terms.  I understand that the institution of hereditary, racially defined chattel slavery did not land fully realized on the North American coast.  In short, I've read my Edmund Morgan* (and I recommend him).

That said: it's highly disturbing how often tours, museums and other institutions refer to those who worked on southern plantations, or doing menial labor in southern towns and cities, as "servants."  They weren't "servants," by and large -- and certainly not after the late 1600s.  They were slaves.  It existed.  It was profoundly wrong.  Yes, it wasn't just a southern phenomenon (in the pre-Revolutionary period, especially) and northerners would do very well to recognize this more openly.  To refer to "servants," however, is to gloss over the past in a way that does damage to our understanding of American history.  We need to know these things.  Ignoring them runs that familiar risk of succumbing to the damaging myopia of the "Lost Cause."

(It's worth noting that some places were far more forthright about slavery than others.  The Shirley Plantation in Charles City, VA, for example, dealt with its legacy well in a permanent exhibit -- all the more honorable given that the property is still in the hands of the antebellum [indeed, pre-Revolutionary] family owners.  Credit where credit is due!  If you're in the area, give it a visit.)

* Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Read Me a Story: Tuttle's Red Barn

How many times have we passed an old home, barn or other structure and wondered about the people who once lived or worked there?  Tuttle's Old Farm tells a story of American settlement and farming traditions through the history of one family's Dover, New Hampshire farmstead.  By a near-miracle of procreation and dedication, the Tuttle Farm has remained in the same family since John Tuttle arrived in North America in 1632.  Author Richard Michelson proceeds generation by generation through the many Tuttles between John and the most recent heir, who was born in 1997.  Caldecott winner Mary Azarian's beautiful illustrations well complement the pastoral yet sweeping story, which touches upon family life, farming practices, the material culture of the home and changes in the broader economic landscape from early settlement through the end of the twentieth century.  Pinning all of these changes to a single family helps children identify with what might otherwise be impersonal facts and trends.  Today, the Tuttle family operates a large farm stand and adjacent nursery.  I don't need much of a reason to visit New Hampshire -- I love the place -- but if I needed one, paying the Tuttles a visit would suffice.  Meanwhile, I very much enjoyed Michelson's book.

Richard Michelson, Tuttle's Red Barn: The Story of America's Oldest Family Farm, illus. Mary Azarian (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2007).

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Read Me a Story: The One and Only Declaration of Independence

The 6-year-old has fallen in love with the plenitudinous volumes of the American Girls series, which means frequent trips to the library and much time standing around waiting while she crawls around on hands and knees (under-window shelf) making her latest selections.  Imagine my glee, then, when I figured out that the shelf directly opposite the American Girls section houses the children's American history collection! :-D

Fortunately, the kid has been indoctrinated from a very young age and enjoys learning about "old-fashioned things" and the "olden days."  This means Mom here has had the opportunity to begin perusing some rather nifty children's history.  Some of these books make me want to share, so I figured I would begin doing so.  Note I am not receiving any prompting or remuneration for anything I post to the site, and if anyone ever sends me anything to review (not likely) I'll state this specifically.

My find of the moment is Judith St. George's The Journey of the One and Only Declaration of Independence (Philomel Books, 2005; illustrated by Will Hillenbrand).  St. George cleverly traces the history of the Declaration of Independence as a physical object from 1776 to the present, revealing the many fascinating twists and turns (and shockingly poor 'archival' practice) it has lived through along the way.  The question of what to do with and/or how to protect the Declaration has figured into a remarkable amount of American history, from the years of the War for Independence through the War of 1812, the American Centennial and on through World War II.  St. George smoothly juxtaposes the events of the day with the Declaration's personal journey, making good use of recurring catchphrases to keep children engaged while they learn quite a bit about the nation's history.  The book is fairly text-heavy and best for children old enough not to mind that the pages won't be turning super-frequently.  That said, I heartily recommend it -- my daughter loves it and I'm always amazed by how bits and pieces of what she learns pop out in other times and places.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reflections on Virginia #3

We think we are awfully smart most of the time here in the contemporary United States, and despite my deep and abiding love for Oregon I'd venture to suggest that my home state (and its urban environs, in particular) can be a bit inclined toward smugness.  We boldly proclaim our green and sustainable, bike-pedaling, locovore, organic aesthetic to the point of parody and beyond (see "television, 'Portlandia'"), and while I wouldn't for a moment suggest that Oregonians and our ilk aren't quite justified in our advocacy of environmentally sustainable practices, we didn't exactly invent the concept.  

Exhibit A:

George Washington's "dung repository," upon which was tossed animal excrement and refuse from Mount Vernon's kitchens.  

In other words, our first president had a very nice compost pile.

The more we go "green," the more we will realize that what we are actually doing is adopting the everyday experiences of those who came before us.  Many of us understand this already, but more awareness might be useful lest we become too subsumed in the progress-as-panacea principle of assuming all that is good will be found in the future.  Much of it will; other things -- like compost -- we figured out a loooong time ago.  The best information about environmental practices is often going to come from the oldest person you know!