Monday, August 22, 2011

Hymowitz Award Nomination

If you are a history teacher, chances are, you have read at least one essay that starts out with,
Throughout history, societies have . . .
Hopefully, you have crossed these words out and drawn some sort of frowny face before commenting on the inherent weakness of such grandiose statements. In a better world, the student writer would take this advice to heart and learn the joys of being specific. In the actual world, he will go on to write an opinion piece for the New York Times.

In today's NYT, Professor Joel Bakan informs us that "there is reason to believe that childhood itself is now in crisis." Oh noes! What with the gadgets and the sugar and whatnot, the apocalypse is surely upon us.

Look, I'm sure that Professor Bakan actually has some interesting things to say about the purported subject of his essay — the conflict between corporate rights and children's rights at the end of a century of enormous changes in the laws that govern both American corporations and American children. Too bad that's not the essay that made it into the NYT.

Instead of an insightful consideration of who benefits from these specific legal developments, we get an awful lot of fuzzy, a-historical pearl clutching. I have no doubt that poor regulations expose children to harmful chemicals. But is it actually true that, "children today are being exposed to increasing quantities of toxic chemicals"? Like, more than when they worked in tanneries? Or when lead paint and plumbing were still big? Is the risk of toxic chemical exposure really increasing relative to the pre-Superfund era?

Prof. Bakan does raise some tepidly interesting points about over-medication, but the whole piece is just terribly framed. I swear, when I read, "Throughout history, societies have struggled with how to deal with children," my eyes rolled of their own accord. It doesn't help that the whole first paragraph is a standard-issue "it feels like something is wrong" when the kids these days get all mesmerized by their beep-beep-boop-de-boop. Bakan offers a brief nod to the idea that his own parents' generation was likely just as concerned about The Rock and Roll as he is about The Internetz, but he glosses over that quickly, assuring readers that, "the issues confronting parents today can’t be dismissed as mere generational prejudices."

Where have I seen this before?
The wise Man doth justly condemn the folly of those, that are always saying and complaining, what is the cause that the former dayes were better than these? . . . Such complaints often proceeding from Ignorance in History, or non-observation of the vices in those of former, and virtues in some of the present Generation . . . All this not withstanding, some Times are more corrupt, dark, and miserable than can be said of all . . . Yea, the dreggs of those times are now at hand.
That's Increase Mather, on the case in 1679, in his "Call from Heaven," a pamphlet on the raising of godly children.

The Hymowitz Award is awarded for misuses of history in jeremiads.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Name of the Day

Urania Rainsford Belcher

via Find a Grave

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dirty Jokes

Whenever I find myself wishing I could just time-machine myself back to 17th-century Massachusetts to get some answers to my more maddening research questions, I remind myself that if I did manage to time travel, I would find myself in prison within hours.


In 1653, Dr. William Snelling was fined 10 shillings plus court fees for "cursing" after telling this joke "in way of merry disourse":
I'll pledge my friends
And for my foes
A plague on their heels
And a pox on their toes.
This last line was considered too racy to be copied into the court records.

Friday, August 19, 2011

On Rearranging Gravestones:

The grounds have been laid out in regular alleys and gravel paths, and embellished with a great variety of native forest-trees, some of which are of stately growth. The gravestones of many generations have been raised up, and numerous seats located under shady branches, where the aged and weary may pause, and the mourner find a quiet resting-place. Yet it is to be lamented that the mounds and hillocks of the dead have been cut down to an unnatural level, and so many stones misplaces to form a geometrical row on the borders of the paths. This mode of restoring and adorning an ancient churchyard is singular; and to speak of it kindly, and not in anger, it certainly was not the act of good taste.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Name of the Day

That's Judith to all you picky spellers out there.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Obituary Opinions

Much of the time, early New England death records (at least in their printed form) are little more than names and dates. Sometimes, we get a bit more information about the circumstances of death, as in the case of the Pepperell Tragedies.

And sometimes, we get Obituary Opinions. Whoever was recording deaths in Roxbury in the 1640s added a whole lot more to his entries. Doubtless, these commentaries are meant to preserve evidence of the deceased person's situation re: salvation, but some of them come off a bit saucy:
1642: There were 2 infants dyed in the birth, it was conceived to be through the unskillfullnesse of the midwife, none of the parents were of our church

1643: Mary Onion the wife of Rob. Onion died of a cold and [sweat?] taken in childbed her child also dyed, because she was stubborne, and would not submitt to the paines, bit she was after filled with dredful horror of conscience and dyed under them, but I hope under some tokens of mercy

1643: Goodman Stone, an old Kentish man dyed, he was not of the Church, yet on his sick bed some had some hopes of him.

1646: Bro. Griggs who lay in a long affliction of sicknesse & shined like gold in it, greatly glorifying God and magnifying his grace in Christ.

1646: Ezbon, an Indian, hopefully godly, haveing lived 10 yeare among the English, could read, desired to serve God &c. dyed

Monday, August 15, 2011

John Bull, Chronology, and "Puritanism"

Charles Bardin stone, 1773, NCBG, Newport, carved by John Bull

This week, I've been reading the papers from the 1976 Dublin Seminar on Puritan Gravestone Art. In general, the essays are good and thought-provoking, especially David Hall's curmudgeonly contributions, in which he expresses doubt about pretty much all of the other contributors' conclusions.

One essay that had me nodding along until the last page was Dickran Tashjian's "Puritan Attitudes Toward Iconoclasm." His main argument is that gravestones were regarded as civil art and thus were not considered violations of the 2nd commandment. He cites plenty of relevant 17th-century sources to back up his argument that Puritan scholars in Massachusetts and England regularly argued that the prohibition against idolatry only applied to ecclesiastical settings, not civil images. Since graveyards and the stones in them were civil, rather than sacred, objects, images were not a problem, and there was no reason to smash up any gravestones.

This is all very useful to me, and I was pleased to have found this essay until I turned to the last page. Tashjian qualifies his argument a bit by noting that "imagery still had to conform to public taste," which would not have endured outrageously idolatrous images. In view of this assertion, he argues that the Charles Bardin stone in Newport (by John Bull, 1773) does not depict God, but, rather, Moses (contra Ludwig) because representing God the Father "would have been taken as idolatrous by the terms of the Puritans' interpretations of the Second Commandment."

Needle scratch.

Wait, wait, wait. I'm all on board for discussing Puritan interpretations of the Second Commandment in Massachusetts in the 17th century. But if those are the parameters of the discussion, you absolutely cannot extrapolate to make an argument about a stone carved in Newport in the late 18th century. John Bull may have been many things — a runaway apprentice, a mutineer, a thwarted genius, an ungrateful SOB — but he was not a Puritan. And he didn't live in a Puritan colony. And, lest the point be overlooked, he carved this stone in 1773.

I'm pretty uncomfortable using the term "Puritan" for Massachusetts in general after 1680 or so, though I'll make an exception for self-professed adherents like the Mathers. What does it even mean to characterize Rhode Island — which wasn't even "Puritan" in the 17th century — as "Puritan" 100 years later? The mind, it boggles.

This is my main gripe about the many gravestone studies I have read so far, both in the Dublin Seminar papers and in books by the Tashjians, Ludwig, etc., and even David Stannard's The Puritan Way of Death: they are incredibly sloppy when it comes to chronology. If you are making an argument about "Puritans" based on sources written 1590-1640, you cannot, cannot, cannot, marshal a stone from 1785 into your argument. It's like trying to make an argument about music during the American Civil War and citing The Black Eyed Peas as an example.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Name of the Day

Copp's Hill, Boston, MA

I could not make these things up if I tried.