Academic Stick in the Mud

Middlemay Farm:

Reenactors rock! They’re smart, down-to-earth, funny and oh-so-generous in sharing their love and knowledge of history. If the rest of us were half as devoted to learning our history we’d be able to have excellent grey area discussions about race, patriotism, culture and war. Think of reenactors as a living memorial to the flawed humans before us and have fun!

Originally posted on Practically Historical:

Glenn W. Lafantasie is a historian at Western Kentucky University… who made a name for himself in Civil War circles with the respectable study Twilight at Little Roundtop.    Professor Lafantasie now feels qualified to instruct all Americans in how to honor the  sesquicentennial of the Civil War.  From his lofty perch in academia, the good Professor cannot not bring himself to understand the historical value of living historians (reenactors is the term he prefers.)  On the pages of the snooty Salon magazine   reenactors are called “foolish” and openly mocked with half-truths and innuendo.  The Professor speaks out of both sides of his mouth in his misguided critique, on one hand he chastises reenactors and their inability to accurately portray combat and for being, “overweight baby boomers who are trying, despite their huge girths and hardened arteries, to portray fit, young soldiers”; yet he warns readers that no one except experts (like him) can accurately convey the…

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Writing About Stuff You Don’t Want to Write About . . .

West Point, Library of Congress

West Point, Library of Congress

Characters are like children. They do stuff you don’t want them to do. Sometimes you choose to ignore the traits and behaviors that remind you that you don’t have all the answers . . . or much control, but sometimes you have to deal with flaws, hypocrisy or even a goody-goodness that annoys.

When Buck Crenshaw got in at West Point I expected to enjoy his stay. I didn’t feel like dealing with race relations at the academy in the 1880’s, but almost immediately while Buck and I were getting used to folding bed sheets just so and preparing for recitations a newly-minted black cadet appeared on the scene. Ugh. I blame US Grant. In real life his son went to the academy and gave one of the first black cadets a rough time. That damned idea stuck in the back of my head until my soon-to-be released Buck Crenshaw novel WEARY of RUNNING came along.

Quite the handsome cadet: Henry Flipper

Quite the handsome cadet: Henry Flipper

And here’s the thing: Cadet Milford Streeter isn’t the perfect black victim. Just like Buck and his chums at the academy, he’s an immature jerk in a lot of ways. Unlike the black characters in Glory and 12 Years a Slave, Cadet Streeter does not get whipped for heroically stealing shoes or soap. He gets shunned . . . by everyone except Buck (here I was inspired by the true story of Henry Flipper who was shunned not brutalized). Buck plays the gentlemanly future officer (because he has ambitions, not because he particularly moral), takes pride in his behavior and becomes blind to the race politics swirling around him. Buck’s brutal brother Fred tries to warn him to get in line, but to no avail.

Buck is who Buck is: morally ambivalent and prideful.   (and I love him)

Milford Streeter is who he is: just as arrogant as Buck, but more worldly and selfish. (and I love him)

Some things never change: reminiscent of a Lewis Hines photograph.

Some things never change: reminiscent of a Lewis Hines photograph.

Black and white are always more grey. Holding fast to strict rules doesn’t always prevent children from muddying themselves. Holding fast to stories about perfect victims and evil racists prevents humanity for both. I hate non-human humans. We all rationalize and compartmentalize when we buy cheap clothing and toys knowing the slave labor involved in their manufacture even today.

It breaks my heart when I see the black and white coverage of brutality in the US (it exists worldwide, of course). These are the evil people. These are the good people. NO. THESE ARE PEOPLE. The good, the bad, the ugly and the confused all rolled up in each of us.

I think of the man in Baltimore. He’s black. He’s watching the black and white story play out, but he’s in the grey area. No exciting fire throwing or shooting from where he views the world. His voice is one likely to be lost in the super hero/super villain simplicity of crap journalism. The man says quietly, “I’m not proud of the shit y’all doing, for real. It ain’t got nothing to do with no Freddie Gray or black power. You n****a’s all acting stupid.”

Most black and white people live in the grey areas. In our fear and moral ambivalence we stay quiet. We let the same old story mask the truth. I think of my favorite Bible verse: There is no Jew or Greek, servant or free, male or female: because you are all one in Jesus Christ.

We are in this shit together.

An American At Kenwood – Transatlantic Marriages in the Gilded Age

Middlemay Farm:

I’ve got the money, you’ve got the title, oh, we’re in love!

Originally posted on Enough of this Tomfoolery!:

Apart from the famous Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House is also home to another superb collection of portraits, mostly of courtiers from the seventeenth century, Stuart monarchs and ladies the their court and members of the Howard family who have borne the titles Earl and Countess of Suffolk since 1603.

This group of paintings known as the Suffolk Collection was given to the nation by Margaret “Daisy” Leiter Howard, widow of the 19th Earl of Suffolk under the terms of her will in 1974 and were moved to Kenwood in 2001. Today they provide a fascinating glimpse into what clothes people wore especially during the early 17th century; as very few real examples survive, these portraits serve as a visual record of the fashions of the time and what they looked like when worn.

Among the other portraits is one of the 19th Countess herself, painted by the celebrated portrait painter…

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Bring Back the Serialized Novel

Middlemay Farm:

Hurray for Serialized Novels!

Originally posted on pundit from another planet:


Hillary Kelly writesIn 1847, an English cleaning woman was extremely excited to learn that the boy lodging in her employer’s house was “the son of the man that put together Dombey” — that is, the son of Charles Dickens. The woman could neither read nor write, but she lived above a snuff shop where, on the first Monday of every month, a community of friends would gather to read aloud the latest installment of “Dombey and Son, which had begun serialization on Oct. 1, 1846. By that time, the monthly installments of Dickens’s novels — which started with The Pickwick Papers in 1836 — were such a staple of British culture that an illiterate woman with no access to the actual book knew the author’s work intimately.

“…the publishing industry is in the doldrums, yet the novel shows few signs of digging into its past…

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The Armenian Genocide and my grandmother’s secret

Middlemay Farm:

My great grandparents escaped the Christian Armenian genocide because they had gold and bought their way to America. This article seeks to explain how seemingly normal people can turn homicidal.

Originally posted on First Night History:

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” – Ephesians 6:12

Decades ago when I was very young, my grandmother, Mary Kupelian, told me a haunting story I’ve wondered about ever since.

As I sat in the kitchen of her cozy little home in Bethesda, Maryland, eating her delicious homemade bread and talking about a frequent topic – the Armenian Genocide, which she and my dad (as a little boy) had barely survived – she shared with me the following enigma.

“The Turkish people are very hospitable people,” she said with surprising warmth, seeing as they had murdered her husband and dozens of other members of her extended family, just a few of the 1.5 million Christian Armenians killed by the Turks during the first genocide of the 20th century…

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Everything is a miracle. It is a miracle that one does not dissolve in one’s bath like a lump of sugar. – Pablo Picasso

Cowboys and their girls bathing together. (Courtesy Time Life Books)

Cowboys and their girls bathing together.
(Courtesy Time Life Books)






No Taxation without Representation!

Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

“Lady Godiva, was an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who, according to a legend dating back at least to the 13th century, rode naked – only covered in her long hair – through the streets of Coventry in order to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation imposed by her husband on his tenants. The name “Peeping Tom” for a voyeur originates from later versions of this legend in which a man named Tom had watched her ride and was struck blind or dead.” Wikipedia

Thank you Janice Wald at Refections for reminding me of this painting.

The Sorrow of Grey Areas

Beautiful Innocent

Beautiful Innocent

In the absence of God we all want perfect heroes, don’t we? We build them up and hate them as we drag them down to earth. I can’t write about characters who don’t get dragged into pits and stomped on. It doesn’t seem real to me. I can’t relate and feel the whole hero thing is a sham.

On the other hand when people struggle with an evil reality, get caught on their feelings of inadequacy and do nothing to address the evil I feel sympathetic. Some people are militant enough to watch PETA videos and give up meat (but we all know you can’t escape the grey areas even as a vegan).

And so it was with American slavery. There were no perfect heroes, but it’s wrong to say that there weren’t plenty of people who hated slavery. Here’s how a lot of Northerners handled it in their heads:

1. We are a loose confederacy of states. I’m not my brother’s keeper.

2. I know slavery is evil and we just had this Great Awakening religious revival thing and as a Christian I feel guilty.

3. Yet, the Constitution is a masterpiece, almost sacred, even. Hmm.

4. I don’t own slaves and no one in my state does. It’s not my problem and I can’t fix it.

5. Then why do I still feel guilty?

6. And why do I hate the Abolitionists?

7. I hate them because without them I can pretend that I’m innocent (since I don’t keep slaves). I just want to live my life in peace–and I have relatives down south. They don’t have slaves either.

8. I don’t hate abolitionists because I hate black people and want them enslaved. I hate them because they pick at that sore, they addle my conscience and I know they’re right . . .

9. But what’s to be done? I don’t want my son fighting a war . . . he’s so young and innocent.

10. I won’t read the papers, I won’t listen to the sermons–oh, slaves and slavery and grey areas! Damn them all to hell!

In the spring when the kings go off to war . . .

July 1913. "Gettysburg reunion: Veterans of the G.A.R. and of the Confederacy, at the Encampment." Harris & Ewing glass negative.

July 1913. “Gettysburg reunion: Veterans of the G.A.R. and of the Confederacy, at the Encampment.” Harris & Ewing glass negative.

“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. This is the motive of every action of man, even those who hang themselves.” Blaise Pascal, Pensees