Sunday, March 22, 2015

Re-envisioning Japan

This merits a look: Re-envisioning Japan: Japan as Destination in 20th-Century Visual and Material Culture, a new "interactive archive and research project" created by Joanne Bernardi, associate professor at the University of Rochester, is now online. From a quick glance it looks like there's plenty of good stuff there, including a section devoted to the Japan Tourist Library, about which I've blogged previously. Lots of postcards too.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


"One day we walked out, a little party of three, to Albano, fourteen miles distant; possessed by a great desire to go there by the ancient Appian way, long since ruined and overgrown. We started at half-past seven in the morning, and within an hour or so were out upon the open Campagna. For twelve miles we went climbing on, over an unbroken succession of mounds, and heaps, and hills, of ruin. Tombs and temples, overthrown and prostrate; small fragments of columns, friezes, pediments; great blocks of granite and marble; mouldering arches, grass-grown and decayed; ruin enough to build a spacious city from; lay strewn about us. Sometimes, loose walls, built up from these fragments by the shepherds, came across our path; sometimes, a ditch between two mounds of broken stones, obstructed our progress; sometimes, the fragments themselves, rolling from beneath our feet, made it a toilsome matter to advance; but it was always ruin. Now, we tracked a piece of the old road, above the ground; now traced it, underneath a grassy covering, as if that were its grave; but all the way was ruin. In the distance, ruined aqueducts went stalking on their giant course along the plain; and every breath of wind that swept towards us, stirred early flowers and grasses, springing up, spontaneously, on miles of ruin. The unseen larks above us, who alone disturbed the awful silence, had their nests in ruin; and the fierce herdsmen, clad in sheepskins, who now and then scowled out upon us from their sleeping nooks, were housed in ruin. The aspect of the desolate Campagna in one direction, where it was most level, reminded me of an American prairie; but what is the solitude of a region where men have never dwelt, to that of a Desert, where a mighty race have left their footprints in the earth from which they have vanished; where the resting-places of their Dead, have fallen like their Dead; and the broken hour-glass of Time is but a heap of idle dust! Returning, by the road, at sunset! and looking, from the distance, on the course we had taken in the morning, I almost feel (as I had felt when I first saw it, at that hour) as if the sun would never rise again, but looked its last, that night, upon a ruined world."

Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy
Image above: Rodolfo Lanciani, Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Land of the Free

Ran away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.

When Charles Dickens made his first visit to the United States in 1842, he found much to admire as well as much to deplore. Foremost among the latter (in addition to the widespread practice of tobacco chewing and spitting, which disgusted him) was the institution of slavery, which he condemned vehemently and categorically, devoting an entire chapter of American Notes for General Circulation to the topic. Much of that chapter consists of a list of runaway slave advertisements like the one quoted above, notices that were made all the more harrowing by the fact that the ardent defenders of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness who placed them made careful note of the brandings, ear-clippings, and other mutilations that could serve to identify their escaped "property." Dickens invented nothing here; the advertisements were copied, almost verbatim (and without attribution), from a volume entitled American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, compiled by Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké, and Sarah Grimké, which scrupulously recorded the sources of the advertisements. Thanks to Weld and the Grimkés, and to The North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project, we know that the epitome of Southern chivalry responsible for this particular notice was one Micajah Ricks of Nash County, North Carolina, and that the advertisement appeared in the North Carolina Standard on July 18, 1838.

In recent weeks the legislatures of at least two states (Oklahoma and Georgia) have passed measures opposing the curriculum of the Advanced Placement course in U. S. History, on the grounds that it offers, in the words of one critic of the course, "a consistently negative view of American history that highlights oppressors and exploiters." Perhaps those lawmakers need to dust off their Dickens?

Monday, March 09, 2015

The Language of Dreams

"It is very remarkable, that as we dream in words, and carry on imaginary conversations, in which we speak both for ourselves and for the shadows who appear to us in those visions of the night, so she, having no words, uses her finger alphabet in her sleep. And it has been ascertained that when her slumber is broken, and is much disturbed by dreams, she expresses her thoughts in an irregular and confused manner on her fingers: just as we should murmur and matter them indistinctly, in the like circumstances."

Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation, writing of Laura Bridgman. Bridgman, left blind, deaf, and unable to speak after an early illness, learned to communicate by means of a manual alphabet while in residence at the Perkins Institution near Boston, Massachusetts.

The mind habituates itself to whatever tools it has at hand. If I converse in Spanish for a while and then return to English, it sometimes takes me a moment to realize that I no longer need to mentally translate before speaking. After reading Dickens's lengthy description of Bridgman, (much of which reproduces the written account of her teacher Samuel Gridley Howe), I found myself only slowly returning to a world in which the senses of sight and hearing could be taken for granted.

Laura Bridgman eventually learned to write with ink and paper. Among her writings are descriptions of her dreams.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill

This is really splendid: fiddler Martin Hayes and guitarist Dennis Cahill, from NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series. I love the relaxed intimacy of the performance; it's like having them in your living room.

Hayes and Cahill have played together for years, most recently as part of a superb five-man band called the Gloaming.

Monday, March 02, 2015

On the town

Two men with lit cigars and a third man, seated, whose own smoke is still tucked in his pocket. Though the postcard was never addressed or mailed and the location is unknown, we may be looking at the interior of a nickelodeon or amusement parlor; an advertising sign behind the men, difficult to make out, may read "Isis Moving Pictures" or "Isis Motion Pictures," and the stirrups of what could possibly be a coin-operated horse appear at left. There were establishments bearing the Isis name in various cities. Or maybe we're looking at something else entirely.

"Jack Begley" is probably too common a name to assign to any identifiable individual; "Bedsoe" is a bit more unusual. But like the man in the dark suit, they've had their time.

Velox Real Photo postcard, c.1907-1914.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Nannie Wilson

The young woman whose likeness was captured in this Real Photo postcard image was a schoolteacher in Red Wing (or Redwing), Kansas in 1907-08. The names of her pupils are neatly written on the back of the card:

Harry Hall
Willie Ruble
Amelia Proksch
August Proksch
James Ruble
Matilda Heoffner
Blanch Cliff
Carl Winkle
Joseph Heoffner
Ethel Bailey
  Alloys Heoffner
Dell Wylie
Richard Bailey
Stella Ruble
Regina Smith
Anna Proksch
Rosine Winkle
Isabell Bailey
Joe Proksch
James Bailey

Below the names is the following inscription: "In loving remembrance of days spent to-gether in district 31./ Nannie Wilson / Teacher".

There are twenty students listed but some of the surnames are repeated (there are four children named Bailey, four named Proksch), so Wilson undoubtedly taught a range of ages at the same time, presumably in one room. Amy Bickel, who writes the Dead Towns in Kansas blog and has photos of the area as it looks now, includes Redwing today among the state's more than 6,000 ghost towns.

There are identifiable traces of a number of Nannie Wilson's pupils in census records and other online sources, but I'm not inclined to pursue them. Perhaps in this case I just feel that the stories of these people don't belong to me, that I have no right to them.