A Poem for Graduates and Soon-to-be-students

The last few days were a series of graduations on campus, and today were the 148th Commencement Exercises at my alma mater, Vassar College. This time of year always brings to mind a poem by Nancy Willard, from A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for innocent and Experienced Travelers. It’s a book I particularly associate with Vassar.

Willard is a lecturer in the English department at Vassar, and I had the great good fortune to take a class with her during my senior year. More importantly, my copy of A Visit to William Blake’s Inn was bought for me by my father at the Three Arts, a bookstore across from campus, in 1986, when he was at Vassar for a conference. The inscription on the flyleaf, in (now faded) blue ink, reads “For Megan, Aug 86 Vassar College.”

It it therefore unsurprising that the Inn and the College (or college in general) have blended together in my mind: a “holy hill,” in the words of the poem, where lucky souls sojourn for a little while.

Epilogue

My adventures now are ended.
I and all whom I befriended
from this holy hill must go
home to lives we left below.

Farewell cow and farewell cat,
rabbit, tiger, sullen rat.
To our children we shall say
how we walked the Milky Way.

You whose journeys now begin,
if you reach a lovely inn,
if a rabbit makes your bed,
if two dragons bake your bread,
rest a little for my sake,
and give my love to William Blake.

Nancy Willard, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers. Illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1981.

(Coda: trying to find a link for the book led me to this blog post from a class at Duke. There is one typo, “fathered” for “gathered”, but it is a good overview of the poems.

How do we shuffle our cards?

Over the past few months I’ve had a quote, more of an idea really, rattling around in my head. The artist James C. Christensen wrote about how he thinks about creativity and new ideas using the metaphor of a library’s card catalog.

I never knew card catalogs, so in time the cards in the metaphor have gone from being library catalogs to the index cards I was taught to use to organize quotes and ideas when writing research papers. What follows is the first and last parts of the section where Christensen uses the metaphor (the whole discussion spreads out over two pages).

Card catalog drawer pulled out displaying card stack in profile
“Library of Congress Reading Room Open House 14” by Ted Eytan

“The way I see creativity and imagination is something like a library’s card catalog, except that the cards are made up of concepts, ideas, visions, pictures, all the faces of one’s personal life experiences …. The exercise comes about when one practices combining the cards and putting them together in new ways. All the Edisons, Einsteins, and da Vincis of the world were building upon stored information (cards they already had in their files), but they combined the cards in new ways. Their astonishing inspirations came about because they took what was known and saw it in a new light.” – James C. Christensen. A Journey of the Imagination: the art of James C. Christensen. With Renwick St. James. (Shelton, Connecticut: The Greenwich Workshop, 1994), 40-41.

Christensen means his metaphor to apply across fields, using the names of an inventor, a physicist, and an inventor-artist to describe the sorts of people who combine and rearrange their cards.

When I think about this metaphor in terms of the study and practice of history, the cards are facts or sources. Some of us rearrange the cards in new ways, to look at history from a previously unexplored perspective. Sometimes people try introducing new cards (race, gender, furniture, clothing, editorial cartoons) to change the way history is seen.

And sometimes we use the cards in completely new and different ways. We lay them out in a grid instead of in a stack, or build castles and houses, or make a long snake of cards overlapping. Digital history isn’t necessarily something completely new and different. We still have the old cards, but we’ve added new ones to the stack and we’re shuffling them in ways no one thought possible thirty, forty years ago. With so many people rearranging their cards, who knows what “astounding inspirations” will be brought to light.

Something Profound

A quote from this week’s readings that I particularly liked:

Something profound happens when you work transparently—when you have to summon up your courage to listen to people and shape complex ideas out in public every day. Your work becomes more about humility than about your own authority and expertise. And somehow, magically, the work product gets better and better.

Michael Edson, Director
Web and New Media Strategy
Smithsonian Institution

From the article: Tim Grove, “Grappling With Radical Trust”, History News (July 2010).

A quote, a book, a whole discipline!

One of the books I received this year for Christmas* was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, a book of essays on women in history. The title is her most-quoted soundbite, taken from an essay on gravestones which forms part of her first book, Good Wives.

The quote, with “rarely” used in place of “seldom”, shows up on t-shirts, bumperstickers, signature lines, and who knows where else. It is generally meant to convey that women shouldn’t be “well-behaved”, a rallying cry to speak up and be heard. Which, in a way, is missing the point.

Disclaimer: I’ve only read about 3 pages of Ulrich’s book of essays so far, so I don’t quite know how she feels about the wide-spread use of the quote. I also feel I should point out that I do consider myself a feminist, and believe that women and men should have an equal voice in their communities.

However, the thrust of the quote isn’t about the present, at least in my mind. Perhaps it’s because I read Good Wives as an undergraduate, and so have a vague memory of the context of the quote. I hear the quote as a reminder that the ordinary, lawful people of the past have very often been left out of History. National narratives tend towards the warriors and activists, the rulers and rebels. It is only recently (broadly speaking) that the well-behaved people became the subject of historical interest.

Thus, where many might read “make history” to mean “make historical change”, I read “make history” as “make it into the historical record”.  What many people might not understand is that historical events often would not happen without those well-behaved, ordinary people. Individually they might not have made an impact, but collectively they can. Millions of ordinary, well-behaved citizens made history by performing their civic duty: they voted, and in voting helped elect the first African-American President of the United States.  It’s not that I object to people thinking of the quote in one light, but I would love to help people see the social history interpretation.

That’s all for now. I will try to remember to post again when I’ve finished reading the introduction (and the rest of the book).

* I also received Georgette Heyer’s Pistols for Two – hooray for historical fiction!

A Bit of Dickens’ Christmas

I do have more coming about the history of the celebration of Christmas, but this weekend my time was taken up with the actual activities of the season (decorating, a party, attending church, writing Christmas cards). So, in lieu of a proper post, here’s a quote from one of the stories I read every year at this time: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in Prose

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” said the Spirit. “Look upon me I”

Scrooge reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple deep green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.1

I love this because it is so very British. This pre-dates Nast’s image of Santa Claus, and is much more in the vein of Father Christmas, the Bishop Saint Nicholas, and idealized concepts of British paganism.  Growing up in the Episcopal Church, I was aware of Saint Nicholas the bishop and historical figure in addition to the American Santa Claus; on top of that, my father lived in England when a boy and so we also had images of Father Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Present encompasses all these things for me: the bishop, the gift-bringer, and the joy and generosity of spirit which warms us at Christmastime and, in the words of the Muppet Ghost of Christmas Present, hopefully lasts all year.

A Christmas Quote

(possibly the first of a few)

One of the fun aspects of working with historic documents is seeing annual events through other people’s eyes.  I initially found this quote from an 1834 Christmastime letter to be entertaining in a macabre way (I first read it shortly after Halloween). On reflection, it seems to parallel a little our situation with the various flus. Perhaps it is also a reminder that even in the midst of despair, there can still be joy. Or, more cynically, it is a lesson in the relationship between social/economic standing and health. At any rate, I give you Christmas in Richmond, 1834.

“the Cholera has been threatening us, and given some very severe intimations of what it can do, it has not, however, yet invaded the higher ranks of society, and we go on feasting—dancing & making merry as tho’ the Enemy were not at the Gate” – Sarah (Sally) Coles Stevenson to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, 24 December 1834,

Original at the Library of Virginia. Transcription from The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2004.

What makes a citizen?

Working as I do with a focus on the period between 1780 and 1830, the War of 1812 frequently drifts into focus. It is not a war with which I was very familiar when I started at this job, and I still think there’s a lot more I could know about it (although I have very little interest in all the movements of all the troops).  Still, I am aware that one of the issues which led to the war was continued impressment by the British Navy of people who considered themselves to be citizens of the United States.

I do not know, and admittedly have not taken the time to discover, how exactly one became a citizen of any nation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Now, of course, we have citizenship applications and tests and ceremonies where you swear an oath, and afterwards you get a new passport. What was it like then?

Yesterday, while in the archives, I came across a letter which mentioned this question of what makes a person a citizen. It is written by a man living in Liverpool, England, to an acquaintance back in the U.S. The man in Liverpool worked for the U.S. Government, and must therefore have considered himself an American, despite having been born before the Revolution. It doesn’t answer my question completely, but it’s an excellent insight into the attitudes which led to a war between the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

“I observe what in America constitutes a citizen of the U. S. differs from what is here considered the Qualification; pro. Ex. a subject of this Country settled since the peace, in the Territories of the U.S. altho’ admitted there a Citizen is nonetheless still held here a subject of this Country.”

Source: James Maury to Thomas Jefferson, [10] November 1791. Papers of James Maury, 1769-1917, Accession #3888 and #3888-a, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

Quote from Miss Ann Maury, March 9, 1832

Miss Ann Maury was born and raised in England to an English mother and an American father. James Maury, her father, was consul at Liverpool from 1790 to 1829.  She kept a diary, and part of it has been published, from the 1830s after her family moved (back) to the United States.

She writes that her American friends asked her to tell them what she thought of the United States, and among her comments is this observation:

Education is distributed here more equally as money & every other comfort is the result so that such persons as Mechanics, Tradesmen, Farmers &c. are better educated than the same class in England & certainly they claim & are entitled to a higher station in society here, but there are very few indeed who receive that high education which is given to so many at the English universities.  Some attribute to that cause the appearance of so little American literature, but I think there is another reason for that, namely the cheapness with which books written in England can be published here. The publisher has only to purchase a copy to print from & all he wants is a moderate profit upon the paper & printing. He has nothing to pay the Author – but when an American Author applies to the Book-seller, he expects to receive some remuneration for his labours in addition to the publishers profit spoken of above

Ann Maury, diary, as quoted in Intimate Virginiana: A Century of Maury Travels by Land and Sea, Anne Fontaine Maury, ed (Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, 1941) 199-200.

Quote on History

“Human nature is the same in every age if we make allowance for the difference of customs & Education, so that we learn to know ourselves by studying the opinions and passions of others”
-William Bradford (paraphrasing Hume) in a letter to James Madison, October [1772], original in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Transcription from William T. Hutchinson & William M. E. Rachal, eds. Papers of James Madison, vol 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press , 1962), 73.