Friday, May 4, 2012

History in the News

Some stories about American history from around the internet:
  • The New York Times covers book conservator Marie Malchodi's discovery of a rare Paul Revere engraving tucked into a book in the Hay Library at Brown University. In college, I worked (briefly) in this book conservation lab, but I never found anything cool there. I did, however, find a copy of the regimental history of the 116th Pennsylvania signed by St. Clair Mulholland and inscribed with a message donating it to the George G. Meade chapter of the G.A.R. in Philadelphia. That was in the regular stacks, though, not the rare books library.
  • Also from the NYT, an old map reveals a new clue to "one of early America's oldest secrets": the fate of the Roanoke colony. The story is actually pretty cool — someone found a patched map and under the patch are some markings indicating a possible location for a previously unidentified fort or settlement. The whole tone of the story made me laugh a bit, though. Perhaps I'm just not convinced that there's anything all that "mysterious" about the "disappearance" of the Roanoke colonists. Yes, it's true that we don't know exactly which of two or three possible fates befell them. But surely the fact that 100 underprepared civilians left on the American coast for three years without resupply "vanished" does not require some sort of extraordinary explanation. My favorite part of this article is the last line, where historian Karen Kupperman is quoted as saying, "To my mind, the most interesting question at this point is why were the patches put on, and who put them on, and when."
  • From the Washington Post, a collector and historian of 20th-century radio history catches a thief at the National Archives. And it turned out to be one of the archivists. Yikes.
  • Not strictly history related, but Harvard just announced the winners of the 2012 Hoopes Prize (awarded for excellent undergraduate theses). Two of the winners were my students in History 97 (the intro course required of all sophomore history concentrators). Congrats!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Preservation and Respect

Today, I am reading Norman J.G. Pounds' The History of the English Parish: The Culture of Religion from Augustine to Victoria (2000) and enjoying it very much. If you ever wanted to know anything about medieval/early modern English parish churches — from how the sextons were paid to where the stones were quarried — this is a good place to start. I'm finding Pounds' systematic explanation very helpful for reconstructing the church that New England's emigrant generation would have known.

Like any good British historian of a certain generation, Pounds sometimes interrupts his history with a bit of armchair pontification. While I appreciate the detail work he has done in recovering the history of the English parish, I disagree with many of his pronouncements, some of which seem reactionary and shallow. For example, Pounds says of the erosion of inscriptions on church floors:
The parish church is the community's mausoleum. The floor of its nave might have been covered with slabs and monuments to its departed members, but the tramp of feet has over the centuries dislodged the brasses and worn inscriptions smooth. Effigies, sculpture and heraldry have been mutilated or removed. This is a tragedy and a violation of the rights of the dead. It is also an act of vandalism, destroying historical evidence which deserves to be protected for its own sake. For every church there should be a careful record of its monuments and of the persons commemorated, both within it and in the enclosing cemetery.
I've discussed this attitude before — particularly in regard to the preservation of grave offerings at Arlington National Cemetery. As an historian with a particular interest in material culture, I love old things, but the idea of preserving objects by removing them from their contexts bothers me. I'm all for documenting objects — photograph them, record the names on the old gravestones, etc. But should we "protect" them by alienating them from their original purposes? That strikes me as selfish.

In the case of the Arlington offerings, I argued that preserving artifacts is not inherently more respectful than destroying them. Should a letter left on a loved one's grave be preserved for the eyes of future historians? As an historian, I say yes, please say everything! As a person, I say no — that object isn't meant for me and I do a sort of violence by claiming it. I feel the same about putting gravestones in museums.

In the case of the worn inscriptions in the English churches, I don't agree with Pounds' accusation that erosion is "an act of vandalism." In fact, I think it's lovely that the congregation has shuffled over those inscriptions for so many years that the words have worn off under their feet. It's not that someone stole the plates for personal gain or destroyed them out of malice. Things decay. It's part of their existence. And trying to forestall that decay by "protecting" them seems to miss the point. You could install a plexiglass floor over the memorials in these churches so no one could actually touch them or remove them from their places and put them in a museum, but why is that better than preserving their place in the life of its community?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Meditations on the Dead: Mather vs. Story

Today, I've been mulling over Cotton Mather's A Christian Funeral (1713), specifically as it contrasts with the use of cemeteries envisioned by Joseph Story in his dedication address at Mount Auburn (1831).

Mather and Story agree on one thing: the living should learn from the dead.

Let the Dead Person in the Coffin, become a Lively Teacher unto us: their Death, a Lively Sermon unto us. When we see the Sleep of Death upon one of our Acquaintance, let it Awaken in us, many Pertinent Meditation.
Our Cemeteries rightly selected, and properly arranged, may be made subservient to some of the highest purposes of religion and human duty. They may preach lessons, to which none may refuse to listen, and which all, that live, must hear. Truths may there be felt and taught in the silence of our own meditations, more persuasive, and more enduring, than ever flowed from human lips. The grave hath a voice of eloquence, nay, of superhuman eloquence . . .
Yet, despite some superficial similarities, Mather and Story actually have very different views on how the living should relate to the dead. Mather places the living in close proximity to "the Dead Body" and emphasizes feelings of abject humility. He deems four meditations most appropriate for funerals:
  • "The Frailty of Dying Man; and Frail Mans Tendency to Death"
  • "The Certainty, the Speediness, and for ought we can foretell, the Suddenness of our own Death"
  • "The Compassion of God, in Sparing of us, when Death has had a Commission to fall upon others"
  • "The Insignificancy of all Worldly Satisfactions, unto a man that must Leave the World"
Mather may hear "a loud Voice from the Hearse," but it says, "Friend, Thou must quickly come to this!"

Story hears a voice, but it's saying something very different:
As we sit down by their graves, we seem to hear the tones of their affection, whispering in our ears. We listen to the voice of their wisdom, speaking in the depths of our souls. We shed our tears, but they are no longer the burning tears of agony. They relieve our drooping spirits and come no longer over us with a deathly faintness. We return to the world, and we feel ourselves purer, and better, and wiser, from this communion with the dead.
Someone coming from one of Mather's funerals might feel many things, but not comfort. Mather's funeral lesson is that man is vulnerable and wretched. Story leaves the grave feeling strong and uplifted.

Mather's "voice" is purely metaphorical, but I'm not sure Story's actually is. Or even if his is — he "seems to hear" — the seeds of spiritualism are present in the rural cemetery movement's embrace of an immediate, mystical connection with the dead.

Mather does allow that mourners may learn a "Lesson of Goodness or Wisdom" by remembering the life of an exemplary Christian and "send[ing] up our secret wishes to Heaven, Lord, Help me to do so too!" But this is very different from Story's immediate connection with the dead. In Mather's thinking, the dead body is an object of meditation, an aid to remembrance, and an inspiration for prayer. For Story, the body is not particularly important, but the setting of the grave is crucial for establishing an immediate connection with the dead. In the former case, the dead person humbles the living and brings him crawling to God. In the latter, the dead person's spirit strengthens the living, and I can't quite see where God fits in at all.