Uncategorized

Gold tried 500 times in the fire

by guest contributor Timothy Alborn, this post is a companion piece to his article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” now out in the the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Historians inevitably face the challenge of selecting a subset of primary sources to stand for a much larger body of research. This challenge is magnified in the case of the history of ideas, where the need to provide closer readings tends to diminish that already small sample size. My article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” distilled hundreds of sources from numerous genres down to a few dozen to explore the connection between Biblical metaphors that employed gold, British economic ideas, and what Linda Colley has termed “the forging of a nation” between 1750 and 1850. A section on the various uses of the metaphor of gold tried in the fire, for instance, quotes twenty-eight sources that employ that metaphor, or roughly five percent of the sources I consulted.

 
To find all these sources, I pursued two parallel tracks.  The first was part of a larger project on the cultural and economic history of gold in Britain from 1780 to 1850, which will soon be published by Oxford University Press. For this project, I spent the last eight years looking for references to gold wherever they showed up: in treatises, novels, sermons, speeches, and newspaper articles, among many other sources.  The bulk of my research utilized such online databases as Eighteenth Century Collections Online (210 hits for gold tried in the fire), British Periodicals (48), British Library Newspapers (72), and Google Books. After realizing, a few years into this research, that gold appeared frequently and with interesting variations in numerous religious contexts, I did more targeted searches in these databases (see my full list of search terms below for “gold tried in the fire”).

 
In a blog post accompanying a different article I published two years ago in the Journal of Victorian Culture, I made a first foray into providing access to the larger cultural world that historians must curtail in order to “see the forest for the trees.” Here, I follow the model I used in that post, through the creation of a web page that breaks down my research notes for the “crucible” section of my article into several different topics (including references to affliction, illness or death, persecution, temptation, and secular uses). In the majority of cases where Google Books enabled this, I have linked these entries to the passages in the books and periodicals where I found them, to enable readers to explore their “natural habitat” (I tried to find the same version where there were multiple editions, but didn’t always succeed); and I’ve identified each author by religious denomination where I was able to discover that information.  I’ve also included a link to two Excel files I used: one tabulates my notes in order to locate patterns across these denominations (this includes some sources I didn’t transcribe in my notes), and the other (which I constructed by going through the Bible chapter by chapter using the service BibleGateway.com) identifies all 440 Biblical passages that refer to gold.

Readers should feel free to use this collection however they see fit: as a resource for their own research; as an introduction to my own idiosyncratic research methodology (and in my experience every historian’s research methodology errs on the side of idiosyncrasy); or as an entertaining anthology, with plenty of amazing book titles such as Hymns, Cries, and Groans, lately extracted from a Mourner’s Memorandums.

Search terms:

forth as gold

come forth purified

forth like gold

gold in the fire

gold from the fire

out of the furnace

furnace of affliction

out of the fire

tried in the fire

purified in the fire

purified by fire

as refined gold
like pure gold

seven times purified

purified seven times

seven times in the fire

gold shines brightest

purer and brighter

passed through the fire

fiery trial

With a few exceptions, these sources were all published in the United Kingdom (or, rarely, one of its colonies) between 1750 and 1850–including sources that originally appeared in print prior to 1750 but were published at least once between 1750 and 1850.  I have reproduced the notes I took from each source, which are organized by topic and, within each topic, chronologically by original year of publication; where available, religious denomination is noted at the end of each entry.  In most cases you can click the title to get to the book or article via Google Books; the link should land you at the section quoted, and you can fan out from there to discover its context.

Timothy Alborn is Professor of History at Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914 (Toronto, 2009), and Conceiving Companies: Joint- Stock Politics in Victorian England (Routledge, 1998). He has published widely on the cultural history of business in Victorian Britain in such journals as Victorian Studies, Business History Review, Journal of Victorian Culture, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, and Journal of Modern History. His Journal of the History of Ideas article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” draws from research that will appear in a book on the cultural and economic history of gold in Britain that is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Mystery Attracts Mystery: The Forgotten Partnership of H. P. Lovecraft and Harry Houdini

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Pulp is one of the great unheralded archives of American cultural history. Ephemeral by its very nature, the pulp magazine or paperback brought millions of readers the derring-do of detectives and superheroes, the misadventures of doomed lovers, and the horrors of gruesome monsters. They were the birthplaces of Tarzan and Zorro, and published the work of such luminaries as Agatha Christie, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, and Tennessee Williams.

Under_the_Pyramids

The cover of the May-June-July 1924 issue of Weird Tales

In 1924, readers of the fantasy and horror pulp Weird Tales found a more familiar figure alongside the usual crowd of ghouls, corpses, and scantily clad women. The cover story of the May–June–July issue was “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” by none other than Harry Houdini. The magician tells of his voyage to Egypt, where he is captured by nefarious locals and imprisoned beneath a pyramid, to be sacrificed to horrid monsters of untold age. With his trademark skills, Houdini frees himself and reaches the surface, insisting—despite his injuries—that it was nothing more than a dream.
Fans of horror fiction know this bizarre story under a different name and authorship: H. P. Lovecraft’s “Under the Pyramids.” Each in their own way icons of early twentieth-century America, Lovecraft and Houdini led strikingly different lives. The magician was an international celebrity, drawing rapturous crowds wherever he went. He performed for the Russian royal family. He amassed a personal fortune sufficient to purchase, among other things, a dress once worn by Queen Victoria (a gift for his mother) and a 1907 Voisin biplane (complete with mechanic). His funeral was attended by two thousand members of the public. By contrast, Lovecraft’s biographer S. T. Joshi holds that the writer “as he lay dying […] was envisioning the ultimate oblivion that would overtake his work.” All but one of his stories were unpublished or moldering away in back issues of pulp magazines. It was only posthumously that his writings found their audience, eventually attaining the cult status they enjoy today.

 

H._P._Lovecraft,_June_1934

H. P. Lovecraft in 1934 (photograph by Lucius B. Truesdell)

The original idea for “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” came from Houdini, whom the proprietor of Weird Tales, J. C. Henneberger, had retained as a columnist to boost flagging sales. Henneberger and Edwin Baird, the magazine’s editor, tapped Lovecraft to ghostwrite what Houdini was claiming to be a true story. “Lovecraft quickly discovered that the account was entirely fictitious, so he persuaded Henneberger to let him have as much imaginative leeway as he could in writing up the story” (Joshi, A Dreamer and a Visionary, 191).

“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” was by no means Houdini’s only fictional exploit. As early as 1906, he had been making films of his tricks, and between 1918 and 1923 starred in and/or produced several silent movies. Though these films do not present themselves as Houdini’s own experiences, there was little attempt to hide the fact that the magician was their raison d’être and main selling-point. Their protagonists—given telling names like Harvey Hanford or Harry Harper—spend most of their time onscreen being straitjacketed, chained, thrown into rivers, suspended from airplanes or cliffs, or otherwise discomfited so as to give audience the greatest possible opportunity to see Houdini do what he did best.

 

Houdini Showing How To Escape Handcuffs

Harry Houdini in 1918

Lovecraft understood that readers wanted Houdini the escape artist, and he obliged. During a nocturnal visit to the Pyramids, “Houdini” is attacked, bound, and into the deep recesses of an underground temple. Our hero is undaunted.

The first step was to get free of my bonds, gag, and blindfold; and this I knew would be no great task, since subtler experts than these Arabs had tried every known species of fetter upon me during my long and varied career as an exponent of escape, yet had never succeeded in defeating my methods.

At the same time, the story bears all the hallmarks of Lovecraftian “cosmic horror”: ghastly and ancient things lurking beneath ordinary life, grotesque monsters compounded from all manner of anatomies and mythologies, the inability of the human mind to comprehend the awful truth, and his unique—to put it kindly—prose style.

It was the ecstasy of nightmare and the summation of the fiendish. The suddenness of it was apocalyptic and daemoniac—one moment I was plunging agonisingly down that narrow well of million-toothed torture, yet the next moment I was soaring on bat-wings in the gulfs of hell; swinging free and swoopingly through illimitable miles of boundless, musty space; rising dizzily to measureless pinnacles of chilling ether, then diving gaspingly to sucking nadirs of ravenous, nauseous lower vacua. . . . Thank God for the mercy that shut out in oblivion those clawing Furies of consciousness which half unhinged my faculties, and tore Harpy-like at my spirit! That one respite, short as it was, gave me the strength and sanity to endure those still greater sublimations of cosmic panic that lurked and gibbered on the road ahead.

Lovecraft’s reputation is rightly tarnished by his racism. Though “Under the Pyramids” is by no means the worst offender within his corpus, Egypt offered ample scope for his prejudices: “the crowding, yelling, and offensive Bedouins,” “squalid Arab settlement,” “filthy Bedouins.” The orientalist mode is out in force, as “Houdini” and his wife arrive in Cairo only to be disappointed that “amidst the perfect service of its restaurant, elevators, and generally Anglo-American luxuries the mysterious East and immemorial past seemed very far away.” Once they journey deeper into the city, they find what they are looking for—“in the winding ways and exotic skyline of Cairo, the Bagdad of Haroun-al-Raschid seemed to live again.” Lovecraft summons every trope of the orientalized Middle East: bazaars and camels, secret tombs and perfidious natives, the call of the muezzin and the scent of spice and incense. Egypt, “Houdini” is told by one of his captors, “is very old; and full of inner mysteries and antique powers.”

Khafra

Statue of Khafra, Egyptian Museum, Cairo (photograph by Juan R. Lazaro)

Within these fantasies, however, are a few kernels of genuine Egyptiana. The figureheads of “Houdini’s” Egypt, for instance, are the undead “King Khephren and his ghoul-queen Nitokris,” who reign over a legion of unnatural things. Denuded of Lovecraft’s nightmarish trappings, both are historical personages with unsavory reputations. “Khephren,” usually known as Khafra, was the builder of the second-largest pyramid at Giza and (probably) the Great Sphinx, but Herodotus and other ancient historians remember him as a cruel and heretical ruler who closed Egypt’s temples and plunged the land into misery (II.127–28). Nitocris is the subject of Egyptological debate: some scholars accept ancient accounts naming her as a pharaoh of the late Sixth Dynasty (2345–2181 B.C.E.), others deny her very existence. Describing his unease near even the smallest pyramid, “Houdini” explains, “was it not in this that they had buried Queen Nitokris alive in the Sixth Dynasty; subtle Queen Nitokris, who once invited all her enemies to a feast in a temple below the Nile, and drowned them by opening the water-gates?” An anecdote worthy of the horror writer, to be sure, but not his invention. Herodotus relates how Nitocris avenged herself on her brother’s killers:

She built a spacious underground chamber; then […] she gave a great feast, inviting to it those Egyptians whom she knew to have been most concerned in her brother’s murder; and while they feasted she let the river in upon them by a great and secret channel. This was all that the priests told of her, save that also when she had done this she cast herself into a chamber full of hot ashes, thereby to escape vengeance. (II.100, trans. A. D. Godley)

The association of Nitocris with the Pyramid of Menkaure, third and smallest of the Pyramids of Giza, comes from the priest-historian Manetho (early third century B.C.E.). He calls Nitocris “the noblest and loveliest of the women of her time, of fair complexion, the builder of the third pyramid” (The History of Egypt, 55).

Though Houdini is (justifiably) remembered more fondly than Lovecraft, his career was by no means free from discomfiting racial politics. John F. Kasson links Houdini to Tarzan, early bodybuilders like Eugen Sandow, and others, as focal points of anxiety about the white body. In this and in many other respects, the superstar magician and the obscure writer had more in common than might be suspected. Both cultivated a supernatural mystique—in which neither believed—personas that took on lives of their own. Both sought to satisfy an early twentieth-century hunger for excitement. Certainly, the two men got on well: Houdini asked Lovecraft to write a now-lost article about astrology and tried (unsuccessfully) to help the young writer secure employment with a newspaper. They were planning to collaborate, with Lovecraft’s friend and fellow pulp author C. M. Eddy, on an anti-spiritualist book, The Cancer of Superstition, when Houdini died on October 31, 1926. Only Lovecraft’s outline and thirty-odd pages of Eddy’s manuscript survive—together with “Under the Pyramids” the only witness to the strange partnership of the magician and the horror writer.

What We’re Reading: Week of 17th July

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.

 

Sarah:

Kate Evans, “Day in the Working Life of a Historian: Kate Evans,” (Vida)

John Rapley, “How Economics Became a Religion,” (Guardian Long Reads)

James Robertson, “The Life and Death of Yugoslav Socialism,” (Jacobin)

Andy Seal, “The Controversy Over Democracy in Chains,” (USIH Blog)

Robyn Spencer, “Writing an Organizational History of the Black Panthers: An Author’s Response,” (Black Perspectives)

 

Spencer

Rebecca Rideal, “Forget the big historical names, it’s historic fear of disease that Game of Thrones nails” (New Statesman)

John Toohey, “The Long, Forgotten Walk of David Ingram” (Public Domain Review)

Rhodri Lewis, “Pre-Modern Post-Truth” (LARB)

 

Disha:

Hua Hsu, “Stuart Hall and the Rise of Cultural Studies” (The New Yorker)

Christina Heatherton, “Not Just Being Right, But Getting Free: Reflections on Class, Race, and Marxism” (Verso Blog)

Brenna M. Munro, “Atlantic Got Your Tongue: On The Poetry of Safia Elhillo” (Public Books)

 

Cynthia:

If you can, get yourself over to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum to see “Raphael: The Drawings.” If you can’t, well, here are some reviews that you can read:

>Andrew Butterfield, “Raphael Up Close” (NYRB)

>Charles Hope, “At the Ashmolean” (LRB)

>Catherine Whistler, the curator of the Ashmolean exhibition, on her approach to curating an exhibition of Raphael’s drawings, “A New Way to Look at Raphael” (Apollo)

 

On time and its monuments:

Anthony Grafton, “Invented Antiquities” (LRB)

Heidi Julavits, “The Art at the End of the World” (NY Times)
Yitzchak:

Yo-Yo Ma, “Save Louis Kahn’s Concert Boat” (NYRB)

Julian Bell, “The Perennial Student: The Art of Camille Pissaro” (NYRB)

Hua Hsu, “Jay-Z, Dr. Dre and the Music of Success” (New Yorker)

Hua Hsu, “Stuart Hall and the Rise of Cultural Studies” (New Yorker)
Derek:

Christine Philips, “Why these professors are warning against promoting the work of straight, white men” (Washington Post)

Ottoman History Podcast, “Genetics and Nation-Building in the Middle East

Lydia Kiesling, “Letter of Recommendation: The Life of Marshall Hodgson”(New York Times)

Fathers Strike Back: The Revenge of Zoharic Trinitology

by guest contributor Mark Marion Gondelman

In 1713, a rebellious Kabbalist named Nechemiah Chayun published a book called ‘Oz le-Elohim. The tract immediately incited a scandal: In it, Chayun argued, in good Rabbinic Hebrew and on the basis of established Kabbalistic sources, that the main secret of the Zoharic conception of the Godhead was a trinity. Chayun was working within the conception of the Divinity of the Zohar, which sees God as comprising various emanations or sefirot that interact with the creation in different ways. According to Chayun, the emanations of Atiqa Qadisha, Malqa Qadisha, and Shekhinah animate the other sefirotic entities and comprise “three that are one” (‘Oz le-Elohim, p. 60). The compatibility of this idea with the Orthodox Christian notion of the trinity was not lost on Chayun’s contemporaries. What contemporaries and scholars have not noted, however, is that Chayun’s interpretation of the Zohar was rooted in a teaching by a more well-known kabbalist, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, who has been the focus of many scholarly studies over the last decade. Interestingly, while this teaching functions in Cardozo’s work as part of his polemic against Christianity, it somehow came back around in Chayun’s teaching as a means of making Christian and kabbalistic conceptions of God compatible.

Chayun was a member of the Sabbatian movement, a movement of Jews in the seventeenth-to-eighteenth century that  held the Turkish-Jewish mystic Shabtai Tzvi to be the messiah. Tzvi was a tortured soul who, in 1665, had sought out the mystic Nathan of Gaza to seek a remedy for his inner turmoil. Contrary to Tzvi’s expectations, Nathan claimed that his insight into the root of Tzvi’s soul revealed that Tzvi was the messiah and was destined to travel to the court the Sultan Mehmed IV the Hunter and turn him into his slave by the power of his songs and words. Tzvi amassed a tremendous following and Jews as far as Eastern Europe sold their properties to finance their imminent return to Israel. However, when Tzvi was taken before  Mehmed IV the Hunter in the summer of 1666 and was offered a choice between the death and Islam he chose the latter. Despite Tzvi’s Tzvi’s conversion, a large minority of Jews, led by Nathan of Gaza and others continued to see him as the messiah.

Chayun’s mentor was another renegade Kabbalist who devoted himself to Shabtai Tzvi,  Abraham Miguel Cardozo. Cardozo was born a Marrano Catholic family in Spain and converted to Judaism as an adult once he left the Iberian Peninsula. However, both Cardozo’s critics in his lifetime (including his own brother) and scholars today assert that Cardozo was never able to fully leave behind his Christian theological background.

Unlike the Dönmeh Sabbatians, who converted with Tzvi to Islam, Cardozo never left Judaism. Immediately after Tzvi’s conversion he warned both his friends and enemies that they must stay within the Jewish fold and to cease following Tzvi (though they still considered his teachings authoritative). His subsequent writings continue to use a conceptual framework based on Tzvi’s teachings and often criticize Christianity. I believe that Chayun’s theology is grounded in a previously untranslated and unnoticed passage by Cardozo that shows the latter’s dependency on– and betrays his efforts to grapple with– Christian Trinitology.

In his massive work Raza de-Razin, “Secret of the Secrets,” which I will quote here as it appears in manuscript JTS 2102 (from the Dropsie collection, Ms. Deinard 315), the old lone wolf Cardozo, just several years before his death, continues longstanding feuds with two sworn enemies: Shmuel Primo, the former secretary of Shabtai Tzvi, and his student Haim Angel. He accuses these two of having developed strange doctrines that are incompatible with Raza de-Mehemanuta, Shabtai Tzvi’s theological compendium. He therefore chrages them with heresy. (In fact, Cardozo, composed the work himself — Jewish mysticism scholar Yehuda Liebes demonstrates that Raza de-Mehemanuta is a forgery). Cardozo acknowledges, however that his own theology differs from Tzvi’s on a crucial point: He writes that he believes that the First Cause did not create the God of Israel and the Shehinah together, but that they both follow from another entity. The reason Cardozo gives for this conclusion is the dictum, “from the simple follows the simple.” Therefore, he argues, a twofold essence that comprises the God of Israel together with the Shehinah could not possibly follow from The First Cause:

And before all [other] things, I will write down accepted principles: The first is that from simple follows simple and there is no sage of the sages of the truth who will not agree with that and so you will find in the Pardes [Rimonim] of R. Moshe Cordovero and the Ar”i (blessed be his memory!) and Avraham ben David of Posquieres in his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah gave us a [principle] that form the Infinity (Ein Sof) necessarily follows an infinitely simple Intellect that bears no difference to the First Cause (Sibah Rishonah), except this is cause and this is effect [ze ‘ilah we-ze ‘alul].

The principle min ha-pashut yotzeh pashut is not a very commonly applied principle but it is invoked by several other Jewish scholars in their writings, among them Shabtai Sheftel Horowitz, the author of the book called Shefa‘ Tal and Maimonides. Cardozo’s wording shows that he relied on Horowitz’s work and his omission of Maimonides’ example shows that he was probably unaware of the similar dictum in the latter’s Guide to the Perplexed. Indeed, Maimonides uses a different wording to express the idea and voices doubt about this principle. Both Maimonides and Horowitz use this idea to explain how God is connected to the intermediaries of the creation — sefirot in Horowitz’s vision and intellects in Maimonides’. Cardozo, on the other hand, uses this principle to elucidate the problem of internal theogony, i.e. how the twofold bipolar and bigender. God of Israel is created the nature of his inner workings. Cardozo is far from the only Jewish thinker to ruminate on the workings of God but no other conventional Jewish thinkers propose that He is created.

Cardozo then goes farther, arguing that God must emanate from two distinct essences based on another idea, namely that “from two simple things follows a complex thing:”

And there is another principle that from two simple things, (i.e. from the first simple and from the second [thing] that exists from the first) if they produce an existing [thing], it will not be a simple, but  complex (Hebrew: meshutaf) and this way from the Primordial light that is from the second simplex sparkle together two lights and they are Bright Light and The Brightest Light (or tzah we-or metzuhtzah) like geonim and R. Shimon Bar Yohai told: that the Cause of Causes that extends from the simple Cause Above All Causes and it is not a simple intellect, but a complex one. Despite that “from the simple follows simple” and the Cause Above All Causes is simple like Upper Infinity (Ein Sof ha-`Elyon) that is the root of all roots, because it does not exist only from the Cause Above All Causes, but from the unity with the Infinity.

To Cardozo then, the First Cause, the God of Philosophers who has no interest in our world, creates the second cause. The twofold entity of God of Israel/ Shechinah emanates from this second cause.

Cardozo’s analysis here reflects a similar analysis in Augustine’s De Civitas Dei, which is the only text I’ve found that deals with this problem. In describing the creation of the Trinity, Augustine writes:

“Created,” I say, — that is, made not begotten. For that which is begotten of the simple Good is simple as itself and the same as itself. These two we call the Father and the Son; and both together with the Holy Spirit are one God; and to this Sprit the epithet Holy is in Scripture as it were, appropriated.

Augustine and Cardozo’s theologies in these two texts are quite different: Cardozo would not accept the idea that God is actually the simple Good itself (in other words that the God of Philosophers is trifold). Indeed, as historian David Halperin notes in his biography of Cardozo, Cardozo charged in his works that Christianity misunderstood the true trinity that exists in Judaism. There is, however, an important point of proximity in these two texts in that both treat the problem of the emergence of God’s personae and both employ the same philosophical principle to explain technical aspects of this emergence.

Cardozo’s opposition to Christianity was part of his own painful process of overcoming the trauma of his Marranism and his teachings were an attempt to create a Jewish theology. Chayun’s own theological research makes them visible. Later, Chayun’s ideas evolved into something which was much more grim: they were used by Yakov Frank during the famous dispute of 1759 in Kamieniec where he and his adherents demonstrated that Zohar’s true Judaism, as opposed to “false Talmudic” is about Trinity, and therefore, Jews must embrace Christianity.

Mark Gondelman was born in Riga and has lived in Moscow and Jerusalem. He is now based in New York where he is a doctoral fellow at NYU in Hebraic and Judaic Studies focusing on early modern Jewish mysticism. Mark is currently working to understand Abraham Miguel Cardozo’s legacy within the broader context of early modern thought, philosophy and Jewish and Christian mystical traditions.

 

 

 

What We’re Reading: Week of 10th July

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.

 

Spencer:

Caroline Alexander, “The Dread Gorgon” (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Anosh Chakelian, “One man and his whale” (New Statesman)

Bryan Stevenson, “A Presumption of Guilt” (NYRB)

James Fenton, “God, A Poem” (TLS)
Derek:

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, “Realism’s Illiberal Roots” (Foreign Affairs)

John Waldman, “Thoreau’s Distressing Canoe Trip” (New York Times)

(Podcast) Brittney C. Cooper, “Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women” (New Books Network)

 

Eric:

Andrew Mitchell Davenport, “The Weather of the Place” (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Annette Joseph-Gabriel, “The Legacy of Martinican Women in French Politics” (Black Perspectives).

Jedediah Purdy, “A Billionaires’ Republic” (The Nation)

Federico Tarragoni, “Populaire ou populiste? À propos de: Éric Fassin, Populisme” (Vie des idées)

 

Cynthia:

In memory of Liu Xiaobo:

Ian Johnson, “The Songs of Birds” (NYRB)

Liu Xiaobo, translated by Jeffrey Yang “Fifteen Years of Darkness” (Poetry.org)

 

Companions to Megan Baumhammer’s review of the Drawing Center’s exhibition, “Exploratory Works”:

Eugenia Zuroski, “Nautilus Cups and Unstill Life” (Journal18)

Paul Binskin, “Medieval Invention and its Potencies” (British Art Studies)
Disha:

Perry Link, “The Passion of Liu Xiaobo” (NYRB)

Katherina Grace Thomas, “Nina Simone in Liberia” (Guernica)

Andrew Kay, “Writing After Academe” (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Jaquira Díaz, “Who Is The Real Kali Uchis?” (The Fader)

 

Sarah:

Lyn Abrams, “Oral history and liberating women’s voices,” (Vida)

Keisha Blain, “Ida B. Wells offered the solution to police violence more than 100 years ago,” (Washington Post)

Joanna di Mattia, “In The Handmaid’s Tale, the future is now,” (overland)

Nikil Saval, “Globalisation: the rise and fall of an idea that swept the world,” (Guardian Long Reads)

Graham Vyse, “Liberals Can’t Ignore the Right’s Hatred for Academia,” (New Republic)

 

What We’re Reading: Week of 3rd July

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.

Derek:

David Greenberg, “America’s 100 other Declarations of Independence”  (Politico)

Fred Dews, “A Primer on Gerrymandering and Political Polarization” (Brookings)

Matt Dellinger, “Michael Crawford’s Mixed-Up USA” (New Yorker)

WNYC (Podcast) “America’s Fourth: Beyond Pie and BBQs” (The United States of Anxiety)

Eric:

Zoë Beery, “A Weekend of Nazi Dress-Up Fun” (Fusion)

L.D. Burnett, “Fugitive Materials” (USIH)

Moira Donegan, “Some Sort of Grace” (Paris Review)

Daniel Trilling, “Should we build a wall around North Wales?” (LRB)

Spencer:

Lavanya Ramanathan, “In a divided America, James Baldwin’s fiery critiques reverberate anew” (Washington Post)

David Mimics, “What Makes a Jew a Jew” (LARB)

Yo Zushi, “The Tale of a Stuffed Echidna” (New Statesman)

Cynthia:

Jose Arnaud-Bello, “Think of the Lemur” (Triple Canopy)

Kate Wagner, “The Rise of the McMansion” (Curbed)

Kibum Kim, Natasha Degen, “The Kitsch Gazes Back: Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst Return” (LARB)

Hilton Als, “Irving Penn” (4 Columns)

Darren Campion, “The Morals of Vision: Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ Revisited, Part 1” and “Part 2”

Disha:

Amy Goodman and Arundhati Roy, Interview with Arundhati Roy (Democracy Now!)

Nadine El-Enany, “The Colonial Logic of Grenfell” (Verso Blog)

Wai Chee Dimock, “5000 Years of Climate Fiction” (Public Books)

Emily Wilson, “Found in translation: how women are making the classics their own” (The Guardian)

Sarah:

Adam Branch, “The ICC, Dominic Ongwen, and the Politics of Truth,” (Humanity)

Annette Joseph-Gabriel, “The Legacy of Martinican Women in French Politics,” (Black Perspectives)

Olivier Jutel, “The alt-right and the death of counterculture,” (overland)

Daniel Knorr, “A Conference on Chinese Cities in World History,” (Global Urban History)

Richard Marshall interviews William Lewis, “The Fall and Rise of Louis Althusser,” (3amMagazine)

Hugh Swinton Legare and the transatlantic letters of US diplomacy

 by Derek O’Leary

Image 1 Hugh Swinton LegareHugo Swinton Legare engraved by  T. Doney, c.1830-1850.

From the Brussels diary of Hugh Swinton Legare (1797-1843), while US chargé d’affaires there:

24th May [1832]: Nothing remarkable; stretched off on a sofa today in the salle-à-manger, while my valet-de-chambre reads to me the preface to Erminier’s Philosophy of Law; and a soothing air breathing all the sweets of my little garden, and whispering in my ear where he stole them. I determined to let my friends in America know how well I am learning to do without them, and to paint in the most glowing colors the charms of the elegant epicurean existence I am leading here. (Mary Legare, ed., Writings of Hugh Swinton Legare (Charleston, S.C.: Burges and James, 1846)

Legare regularly griped that his diplomat’s salary couldn’t sustain life in Brussels, capital of Europe’s newest state when he arrived in 1832. He had left a somewhat comfortable existence as South Carolina’s attorney general and editor of his Southern Review (1828-32), a short-lived but unabashedly literary journal based in his native Charleston, which showcased his expertise in the Classics. Later that year, he fumed privately about his $500 yearly discretionary fund, “the niggardly, and, what is worse, (I suppose,) narrow-minded and foolish policy of thus attempting to circumscribe contingency, and reduce their diplomatic representative to the condition of a broker’s out-door clerk!” (Diary, 22 August 1832). Legare kept this diary during the first of his three-year stint in Brussels, before returning to political life in the US, where before his early death he would assume a crucial role as US Attorney General in President Tyler’s unsettled administration. (Then, not as now, diplomatic postings were a reliable stepping stone to higher office; as Legare arrived in Brussels, future president Martin Van Buren was departing his ministership in London, and James Buchanan beginning his in Saint Petersburg.) He catalogs mornings of bookish leisure and evenings of opulent ennui among the titled, lettered, and moneyed elite of the capital.

 

Image 2 Anti-NullificationAnti-Nullification Lithograph by Endicott and Swett (1833) in New York Public Library Digital Collections. Before he departed for Brussels, Legare had ardently opposed the movement in South Carolina to “nullify” federal tariff legislation deemed disadvantageous for the state. His vocal opposition gained him favor with the Jackson administration, helped secure the posting in Brussels, and granted him a respite from that rancorous political crisis.

Legare’s grumble about paltry State Department support is a refrain that echoes from US consular and diplomatic posts throughout the Atlantic in the country’s first half-century. Consuls— unsalaried and numbering nearly 150 during Legare’s tenure—had long been expected to get by through their own, sometimes suspect, commercial endeavors (this would change only in 1856). As consulates burgeoned from the 1830s, they became outposts of the federal spoils system, eagerly sought by many, bestowing a scintilla of authority, but granting only a tenuous lifestyle. Diplomatic posts remained relatively underpaid, legacy of the early republic’s suspicion of the value of “diplomatists” and their relevance for US geopolitical interests.

EngravingEngraving from Lieutenant Colonel Batty’s Select Views of the Principal Cities of Europe (1832), overlooking the avenues across from the Royal Palace, a social corridor for Legare.

Yet given Legare’s salary of $4500, the light duties imposed by his office, and his well-heeled company, we might be unimpressed by his complaint. As he mines the city’s cultural resources, learns German, and flirts with European aristocrats, his diary is indeed a catalog of disaffection: he finds constant fault with his domestic servants, whom he accuses of dereliction and theft; he grows tired of the physical and social climate; he complains about import duties on his wine and hosts’ poor choices of Chinaware and weak Belgian oratory, and he positively bristles at the slightest imputation against the United States and ongoing Nullification crisis in South Carolina. He skirts Frances Trollope—“the Trollope”— like a blight during her visit to Brussels, following the publication of her excoriating Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). Perusing his diary and personal correspondence, one does suspect a pervasive depression–recurrent “blue devils,” he names them. In a broader sense, though, this is all a recognizable performance of expatriation. At a moment of teeming national confidence, European travel became available to far more Americans, and with it a fairly narrow traveler’s script. Along these lines, Legare consumes the language, literature, and prestige of Europe at the same time that he asserts his distinctiveness from it; he suffers his solitude abroad while vaunting the experience to his American correspondents. As a highly learned South Carolinian doubly diminished vis-à-vis New England literary culture and Europe, the new, fragile Belgian state provided an especially welcome foil for his lifelong exercise in literary regionalism and nationalism.

Image 3 Wappers_belgian_revolutionÉpisode des journées de septembre 1830, Gustave Wappers (1834). Legare was the first US diplomat to Belgium, once the dust settled from its rupture with the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Legare ushered forward the first commercial treaty between the US and Belgium.

But rather than just another elite wanderer or beneficiary of the ballooning federal spoils system, Legare allows us an insight into a different type of diplomatic and consular history, which can both add more depth to that field of study and suggest a broader, more complex context for understanding American literature during this period.

Legare’s account of an evening’s exchange with Lieut. Col. Jeffreys, a West Indian planter, is suggestive of the multiple roles performed by diplomats and consuls. It was months before Britain’s 1833 abolition of slavery in the islands, and dreading a post-emancipation future in the Caribbean, Jeffreys planned to immigrate to the US rather than Europe. Seeking “renseignemens,” he came to Legare, who records:

…he has no hope of Europe, and, as a West-Indian, very little feeling of amor patriae for England…besides his West-India cidevant property, he can scrape together £23 or £24,000, of which a good deal is in American stocks now. I lend him a number of the Southern Review, containing an article on Flint’s Valley of Mississippi…Advise him, by all means to go; that it is the only country which has an avenir, and the world might well be divided thus,—Europe for bachelors and their suite; America for family men and theirs. (Writings, 17-18)

Here we encounter the intersection of the geopolitical and literary, a recurrent phenomenon in many small moments of diplomatic and consular life. Two large themes deserve attention. The first is Legare’s promotion of American expansionism and stark dichotomy between the fates of the Old and New World, whatever his anxieties about the ongoing nullification crisis. Matthew Karp has recently depicted a new, compelling context to read this spare comment in This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard UP, 2016): despite popular narratives of southern opposition to federal power, in the antebellum decades Southerners wielded its foreign policy apparatus to bolster slave-based economies in the Western Hemisphere. Legare’s tenure preceded the focus of that story, and though a former slaveholder, he was hardly a missionary for its expansion. But in this rhetoric and his anxious efforts to make slow-churning Belgian administration ratify an advantageous bi-lateral trade deal, he certainly promoted an ambitious version of his country’s future dependent on slave labor.

More to my point, however, Legare furnishes a copy of his literary journal the Southern Review, which included an article on the Mississippi, where Jeffries could presumably reinvest his capital and continue his slave-based agriculture. It is a small gesture that links the US’ geopolitical aspirations, as it cleared the Southeast of its indigenous populations, with Legare’s literary labor, as he presented his Southern intellectual production to European critique. Legare’s time in Europe is interesting in itself because the exchange between Europe and Southern writers in this period has received far less attention than transatlantic relations with New Englanders. But Legare also represents the broader constellation of US diplomats and consuls who acted as cultural intermediaries with Europe, well before public diplomacy became an institutionalized practice. Like Legare, they frequently distributed US periodicals and literature to Europeans, circulated European writings among themselves, and forwarded them back to US audiences. Meanwhile, they acted as literary agents, expediting books and archival documents to writers in the US. For instance, as minister and consul to Madrid, respectively, Alexander Hill Everett and Obadiah Rich dispatched materials to Boston historian William Hickling Prescott, which would inform his colossal works on Spanish empire (including The History of the Reign Ferdinand and Isabella in 1837 and History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843). Meanwhile, consuls and diplomats helped to publish US books for European audiences, such as long-serving consul to London Thomas Aspinwall, who facilitated the publication of such works as Washington Irving’s biography of Christopher Columbus in 1828. Their reflections on life abroad were diffused in the US press and were crucial in elaborating US perceptions of an increasingly interconnected world, including James Fenimore Cooper’s series of European sketches, published in the 1830s following his (mostly absentee) consulship in Lyon.

Legare played his small part in this story, in which the inchoate foreign policy infrastructure of the state also served the literary projects of an expanding nation shaking off an ingrained sense of cultural inferiority vis-à-vis Europe.

What We’re Reading: Week of 26th July

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.

Yitzchak

Malise Ruthven, “The Islamic Road to the Modern World” (NYRB)

Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband, “Putting Profits Ahead of Patients” (NYRB)

Espen Hammer, “A Utopia for a Dystopian Age” (New Yorker)

Charles Bethea, “A Doctor’s View of Obamacare and Trumpcare from Rural Georgia” (New Yorker)

 

Derek

Jessica Bennett, “On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus” (New York Times)

Joseph O’Neille, “The Mustache in 2010” (Harpers)

Rebecca Entel, “A tourist in my own book” (LitHub)

Grant Shreve, “The Book of Mormon Gets the Literary Treatment” (Religion and Politics, Washington University)

 

Sarah

David Sessions, “The Rise of the Thought Leaders,” (New Republic)

Natasha Lennard, “Know Your Rights,” (The New Inquiry)

Marian Lorrison, “From puritanical wowser to passionate reformer: The re-making of Australia’s first-wave feminists,” (Vida)

Malini Ranganathan, “The Environment as Freedom: A Decolonial Imagining,” (Black Perspectives)

Tim Robertson, ‘Can the Centre Hold?” (overland)

Musan Younis. “Against independence,” (LRB)

 

Cynthia

Christina Pugh, “‘Velvety Velour’ and other Sonnet Textures” (Poetry)

Hilary Mantel, “Why I Became a Historical Novelist” (Guardian)

Alissa Valles, “One Poem” (Bomb)

Amit Chaudhuri, “First Sentence” (Granta)

Paul McCann, Palladian Facade Generator

 

Spencer

Anya Jaremko-Greenwold, “It’s okay that Anne Shirley never became a writer” (LARB)

James Wood, “Cramming for Success” (LRB)

Ana Prieto, “Carlo Ginzburg and the trails of microhistory” (Verso Books)

 

Towards a History of Hebrew Book Collecting: A Review of this Year’s Manfred R. Lehmann Workshop in the History of the Hebrew Book

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

Last month I once again attended the Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop in the History of the Hebrew Book at the University of Pennsylvania. This is my fifth year attending the workshop and my second writing about it for the blog. As I wrote about last year, the workshop’s goal is to bring together scholars and professionals working in fields related to the Hebrew book to learn from senior scholars about their methodology and research. This year’s presenter was Joseph Hacker, Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Hacker’s research centers on the history of Jews in the Ottoman Empire and the intellectual history of Sephardic and Eastern Jews.  At the Workshop, he discussed a newer project, on which he has published several articles, on the history of Hebrew book collecting. While there have been several important studies written on specific collections in the modern and early modern periods there is no history of the subject. Dr. Hacker’s project ties up many loose ends, synthesizes the extant scholarship and paves the way for scholars to begin drawing much broader conclusions about Hebrew book collecting and its evolution over time.

Dr Hacker’s workshop traced the history of Hebrew book collecting from the early middle ages to the two decades after World War II using an extremely diverse array of source material. He argued that while the Talmud speaks of batei midrash, houses of study, there is no explicit record of these having been places where books were kept for public use. The first recorded public collections of Hebrew books are in the medieval Islamic world, contemporary with the emergence of the madrassa as a center or textual learning among Muslim elites. For example, in his twelfth century historical work Sefer HaQabbalah Abraham ibn Daoud states that the powerful Jewish vizier of Granada Samuel Hanagid (993-1056) maintained a room of books where others could come to read and copy.  Paralleling the term madrassa, such collections are referred to in medieval and some early modern texts by the term midrash, meaning a place of learning. References to midrash are scattered throughout the medieval period in historical works, rabbinic texts and various other kinds of sources that Professor Hacker has collected material from in the course for this and other projects. He argues that the existence of such centers for study and copying calls into question a popular argument, popularized by the codicologist and book historian Malachi Beit-Arie’ that Jews never had a parallel institution to the Christian scriptoria. Dr. Hacker argues that for all intents and purposes these centers were effectively the same thing even as there are fewer examples, especially during the early medieval period.

Collections of Hebrew books began to take on larger proportions during the early modern period, when they began to include printed books. Dr. Hacker demonstrated the existence of communal collections in many major Spanish and Italian Jewish communities based largely on censorial and inquisitorial records. They consisted of volumes of Jewish sacred texts (liturgy, Talmud, Bible and commentaries on all three) as well as works on philosophy, medicine, grammar and more esoteric subjects. At the same time, Christian hebraists began assembling much larger collections of Hebrew manuscripts. The earliest hebraists, many of whom had ties to royal courts that were already collecting Eastern texts forged relationships with Eastern Jews and bought manuscripts from them at a time when they had already begun to replace their manuscripts with printed books. Eastern Jewish communities remained very protective, however, of specific manuscripts held special communal or spiritual value. By the mid-eighteenth century, many Jewish collections of manuscripts had been purchased by hebraists and by the early nineteenth most of the great hebraist collections had been absorbed into state collections such as the bibliothèque nationale and the British and Bodleian libraries. Dr. Hacker ended the workshop by discussing Jewish attempts to form comparably large and encyclopedic institutional collections in the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth century by institutions such as YIVO in Vilna, the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. They all succeeded to various degrees but, when it comes to manuscripts, Dr. Hacker argues, the Hebraists had two centuries earlier succeeded in developing very accurate criteria for determining importance and authenticity and had bought out the best stock. As a result the most important manuscript collections remain those of European national rather than Jewish institutions.

NLI building2.jpg

By אסף פינצ’וק – The National Library of Israel, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14181732

The relatively recently formed collections of institutions such as the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem are an exception to the rule, Dr. Hacker argues, in that they were formed without the legacies of Christian Hebraists and amassed encyclopedic collections despite the destruction of Jewish communal libraries during WWII

Another important and as-yet only partially-told  story that Dr. Hacker’s presentation touched upon was the effect of WWII and the Holocaust on European collections of Hebrew Books. It is well-known that the German efforts to destroy the Jewish intellectual legacy harmed many of Europe’s most important Hebrew book collections. I was unaware, however, of the extent to which those collections that survive only do piecemeal. For example, Dr. Hacker cited scholars who have written about the YIVO and Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums collections who conclude that much of these collections were lost. Many Hebrew books were also destroyed in fires to state libraries in Eastern Europe caused by combat and bombing such as one that gutted the Warsaw Library, which had previously held a collection that included many unique manuscripts. Importantly for intellectual historians of Judaism, Hasidic mystical texts seem to have been some of the greatest casualties of this destruction. Dr. Hacker presented original research on the fate of several important dynastic collections of Hasidic courts, most of which were completely destroyed during the war and that all contained original, unpublished texts.

One consequence of Dr. Hacker’s research that I found particularly intriguing was that it suggests just how hard it is to be certain as to the complete contents of any collections or even of all the genres a given collection might have contained. Dr. Hacker’s work is based on a twofold approach of working back from contemporary collections and mining the entire corpus of related texts to piece together historical collections. When discussing early modern Jewish collections, for example, he made particular use of censorial records but  also cited various contemporary texts in many languages. Dr. Hacker pointed out that in several Italian communities, censorial records showed complete absence of prayer books while in others complete absence of Talmudic manuscripts. He suggests that these communities may have simply decided not to turn in those genres to censors, perhaps because they used them on a day-to-day basis and concluded that their temporary absence would be too great an obstacle to the community’s functioning. Similarly, the inventories of personal collections that Hebraists and some Jewish collectors made up were often survive in only one version and may or may not reflect the final state of collections or even their entire scope. So while Dr. Hacker’s research compellingly outlines the evolution of Hebrew book collecting, the source material it uses for the early modern period at least would not give researchers a conclusive picture of the kinds of books in these libraries. Dr. hacker’s research thus seems to me to present a methodological red flag against researchers making arguments from absence in censorial or inquisitorial records.

Dr. Hacker’s work on the history of Hebrew book collecting is still in progress and the workshop left me with several important questions: One question I found myself coming back to again and again was about Dr. Hacker’s chronology: He sees the absence of records or explicit discussion of midrash-type spaces prior to the middle ages as evidence for the lack of their existence. However, parsing the evidence he cited for the development of the midrash in the medieval period I began to wonder: Dr. Hacker has found references to various important medieval figures such Samuel Hanagid and Isaac Abarbanel having maintained libraries. These references are generally made in the context of biographical (in Abarbanel’s case autobiographical) accounts of those figures. We have no similar historical texts from earlier periods that would tell us one way or another about libraries. Moreover, many scholars believe the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls  originally comprised a library for the sectarian residents of the Qumran settlement. Midrashic texts refer to a library as having existed in the Temple, demonstrating that the notion of a semi-public library was at the very least not alien to the rabbis of the Talmudic period. As a result I wondered whether the distinction between the midrash of the middle ages the beit midrash of the talmudic period really held weight.

Another question that Dr. Hacker’s work raised for me and several of my co-participants at the workshop was that since it looks only to collections of Hebrew books it awaits further research to explore the presence of non-Hebrew books in Jewish collections. What kinds of non-Hebrew books did early modern and modern Jewish collectors and institutions own? And what kinds of communities, based on the Hebrew books they had, tended to collect what kind of non-Hebrew books? How did these relations differ from location to location, between Turkey and Northern Italy for example? These are questions that could shed a great deal of light on the intellectual worlds of these Jewish communities. All of these questions make clear, to my mind, that Dr. Hacker’s work is laying the groundwork for many new and promising avenues of inquiry in Jewish intellectual history.

The Idea of the Souvenir: Mauchline Ware

by guest contributor Tess Goodman

The souvenir is a relatively recent concept. The word only began to refer to an “object, rather than a notion” in the late eighteenth century (Kwint, Material Memories 10). Of course, the practice of carrying a small token away from an important location is ancient. In Europe, souvenirs evolved from religious relics. Pilgrims in the late Roman and Byzantine eras removed stones, dirt, water, and other organic materials from pilgrimage sites, believing that “the sanctity of holy people, holy objects and holy places was, in some manner, transferable through physical contact” (Evans, Souvenirs 1). We might call this logic synecdochic: the sacred power of the holy site is thought to remain immanent in pieces of it, chips from a temple or vials of water from a well.

As leisure travel became more common, souvenir commodities evolved from relics. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tourist-consumers had access to a large market of souvenir merchandise. Thad Logan describes china mugs, novelty needle cases, “sand pictures, seaweed albums,” tartan ware, and a wide range of other souvenir trinkets commonly found in Victorian sitting rooms (The Victorian Parlour, 186). Modern souvenirs are not very different. T-shirts from Hawaii and needle cases from Brighton both rely on the logic of metonymic association, as Logan (186) and Susan Stewart (On Longing, 136) point out. In order to memorialize a tourist’s experiences, the shapes and decorations of these souvenir trinkets evoke the site where those experiences took place.

How did synecdoche become metonymy? What changed? To begin to answer these questions, we can consider a test case: wooden souvenir trinkets from Victorian Scotland. These artifacts draw on both synecdochic and metonymic logic. Therefore, they provide evidence about a transitional phase in the history of the souvenir, and in the history of the way we derive meaning from objects. They do not represent a single moment of transition—this evolution was gradual and piecemeal, taking place over decades if not centuries. Instead, these souvenirs provide a useful case study, a point from which to consider a broader history.

Goodman image 1

Thomas A. Kempis. Golden Thoughts from the Imitation of Christ. N.p, n.d. Bdg.s.922. National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

These souvenirs were known as Mauchline ware—named for Mauchline, a town in Ayrshire (Trachtenberg, Mauchline Ware 22-23). Mauchline ware objects were made of wood, decorated in distinctive styles, and heavily varnished for durability. The earliest Mauchline ware pieces were snuffboxes. By mid-century, tourists could buy Mauchline ware pen knives, sewing kits, eyeglass cases, and many other miscellaneous objects. (The examples discussed in this blogpost all happen to be book bindings.) Some of Mauchline ware objects were decorated with a tartan pattern, immediately recognizable as emblems of Scotland. Equally popular were Mauchline ware objects decorated with transfer images of tourist sites. These trinkets functioned with metonymic logic, as modern souvenirs. For example, the binding below bears an iconic representation of Fingall’s Cave.

But sometimes, manufacturers of Mauchline ware took lumber from tourist sites to construct these souvenirs. Captions on the items would indicate the source of the material. Examples abound: a copy of The Dunkeld Souvenir was bound in wood “From the Athole Plantations Dunkeld” (Burns). The photograph below shows a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion bound in Mauchline ware, using wood “From [the] Banks of Tweed, Abbotsford.” More gruesomely, the boards on a copy of a Guide to Doune Castle were “made from the wood of Old Gallows Tree at Doune Castle” (Dunbar). These captions present the souvenirs as synecdochic artifacts—not religious, but geographical relics. Their purchasers could, quite literally, take home a piece of Scotland.

Goodman image 2

Walter Scott. Marmion. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1873. Bdg.s.939. National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

These objects were part relic, part commodity. There was a commercial rationale for this combination: the publishers of these books leveraged the appeal of the wood as a relic, but they also transformed the raw material into a distinctively modern, distinctively Scottish consumer product. Contemporary accounts in a souvenir of Queen Victoria’s visit to the Scottish Borders expose some of the commercial logic behind the production process. Publisher’s advertisements in this 1867 book list the “fancy wood work” items its publishers sold in addition to books, and the original source of the wood used in the souvenirs (The Scottish Border 1-2). The binding on this copy states that the wood was “grown within the precincts of Melrose Abbey.” The advertisement provides more detail:  

‘Several years ago, when the town drain was being taken through the ‘Dowcot’ Park, […] a fine beam of black oak was discovered about six feet below the surface of the ground. It is now being taken up […] by Mr. Rutherfurd, stationer, Kelso, for the purpose of being turned into souvenirs. […].’ –Scotsman. Messrs. R may state that most of the “fine beam of black oak” […] split into fibres when exposed to the air and dried. Of the portions remaining good they have had the honour of preparing a box for Her Majesty in which to hold the Photographs of the district specially taken at the time of her visit. (2)

The wood was found on ground between Melrose Abbey and the Tweed, exhumed, and transformed into souvenirs. The publisher’s ad actually refers to these souvenirs as “Melrose Abbey Relics” (2). But they do not adhere to the logic of the early relic: these publishers describe the original wood as quasi-waste material that disintegrated into useless “fibres” when exposed to air. By using the wood for Mauchline ware, the publishers not only preserved the wood against further disintegration: they transformed organic waste into a valuable luxury product, rare and fine enough to present to the Queen. The organic source material lends some authenticity, but it was the process of commodification that added value and intellectual interest.

In short, the relic was not wholly abandoned: the relic and the souvenir co-existed, and some souvenir commodities borrowed ancient synecdochic logic. The gradual, piecemeal evolution from relic to commodity was part of the development of modern consumer culture. The publishers behind these Mauchline ware book bindings were scrambling to reach a new market. Their commercial innovations drew on both ancient and contemporary ideas about the relationships between object, place, and memory. Their publications allow us to consider the changing ideas that allow us to derive meaning from these souvenirs, and from objects like them. Of course, the ultimate meanings of these souvenirs were the personal memories they preserved for their owners. Those meanings remain mysterious, and always will.

Tess Goodman is a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh. Her research explores book history and literary tourism, focusing on books sold as souvenirs in Victorian Scotland. Previously, she was Assistant Curator of Collections at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.