US history

The Pricing of Progress: Podcast interview with Eli Cook

By Contributing Editor Simon Brown

In this podcast, I’m speaking with Eli Cook, assistant professor of history at the University of Haifa, about his new book, The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Harvard University Press, 2017). The book has been honored with the Morris D. Forkosch Book Prize from the Journal of the History of Ideas for the best first book in intellectual history, and with the Annual Book Prize of the Society for US Intellectual History for the best book in that field.

pricing of progress

In The Pricing of Progress, Cook tells the story of how American businessmen, social reformers, politicians, and labor unions came to measure progress and advocate policy in the language of projected monetary gains at the expense of other competing standards. He begins this account with the market for land in seventeenth-century England, and moves across the Atlantic to explain how plantation slavery, westward expansion, and the Civil War helped lead Americans to conceive of their country and its people as potential investments with measurable prices even before the advent of GDP in the twentieth century. He traces an intellectual history that leads the reader through the economic theories of thinkers like William Petty, Alexander Hamilton, and Irving Fisher on the one hand, and quotidian texts like household account books, business periodicals and price indices on the other. Throughout, he shows how the rise of capitalism brought with it the monetary valuation of not only land, labor and technology, but of everyday life itself.   

Listen to the full conversation here.

Norse fantasies and American foundings

By Editor Derek Kane O’Leary

Leif photo

The monumental, bronze face of Leif Erikson gazes westward from Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue toward the nearby Charles River, which wends by Cambridge toward its modest source in Hopkinton. Since 1887, Leif has towered there as a pioneer in contrapposto, powerful, jaunty, and lightly arrayed in a nineteenth-century rendition of Medieval chic. Leif’s red sandstone pedestal rests on the prow of a diminutive knorr, the infamous Norse vessel of commerce and warmaking. In Old Norse runes, “Leif the Lucky, son of Erik” is engraved on the block’s front. On its back, in English, “Leif the Discoverer, Son of Erik, who sailed from Iceland and landed on this continent, AD 1000.” On one side of the block, Leif in miniature holds the same pose atop the craggy shore of the New World, as his crew clambers behind him. We peer out with him upon the continent. As the late nineteenth century contemplated the eleventh, we contemplate both from the twenty-first.

Leif stands along the central axis of the entrancing neighborhood of Back Bay. Lined with manicured Victorian brownstone houses, shaded by its nineteenth-century elms, Back Bay is the version of Boston that travel guides feature and visitors seek out. A mile away, a row of monuments begins at the Boston Commons. An imposing equestrian statue of George Washington heads a series of significant Bostonians–Phillis Wheatley, William Lloyd Garrison, Samuel Eliot Morrison, among others. The monumental path ends with Argentinian President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and the Norseman, Leif.

The statue owes much to Eben Norton Horsford, an outstanding nineteenth-century American chemist and Harvard professor, who in his last decades immersed himself in the history and archaeology of the area. With the considerable wealth generated from his chemical patents (including a reformulation of baking soda and lucrative Civil War contracts with the government), he commissioned, donated, and dedicated the statue of Leif with great fanfare in the nearly-completed Back Bay. At the dedication, elite Bostonians, Scandinavian societies, and eager lookers-on heard celebratory speeches at  Fanueil Hall before proceeding across the city to the statue’s unveiling. With this, Horsford realized what a coterie of like-minded Bostonians had dreamed of over the preceding decade (a fine discussion of the creation, form, and reception of the statue, here).

But why should late nineteenth-century Brahmins be so compelled by an eleventh-century Norseman? Horsford was convinced that Leif had once alighted on Boston’s shores. In nearby Watertown (a short walk from Horsford’s own home), Leif would have planted the obscure settlement of Norumbega, whose location had been a mystery to scholars for centuries. Horsford wrote several books on local archaeology, which superimposed this story of Medieval European settlement onto Boston’s backyard. (As Patricia Jane Roylance insightfully explains, he reinterpreted a local landscape through the prism of Norse settlement, placing the mundane within this compelling past.) Leif became the metonymy for this settlement and the alternative hemispheric history that it furnished.

In the late nineteenth century, it was not a uniquely Boston or Brahmin phenomenon to announce the Norse as the first European settlers of North America, at some beachhead or another on the jagged coast between Newfoundland and New England. The American fascination with the antecolumbian Norse settlement emerged earlier, cultivated by the Dane Carl Christian Rafn, the guiding force of Denmark’s Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries. From the society’s founding in 1825, Rafn built a network of American readers in key literary and scientific institutions along the East Coast. He also undertook an extended publicity campaign about his research into the Norse settlement of North America.

John farmer certificate

Carefully preserved, the large 1838 recognition of leading American genealogist John Farmer’s membership in Denmark’s Royal Nordic Society of Northern Antiquaries, led by Carl Christian Rafn. It represents the paper rituals that connected historians and antiquarians around the Atlantic, as well as the cachet that Rafn’s institution and its version of antecolumbian Norse settlement attained in the antebellum U.S. Over the years, Rafn was also inducted as corresponding member in many, including the American Antiquarian Society and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

One of his many correspondents, New Hampshire historian-genealogist John Farmer received word from Rafn in 1828 via the Danish minister resident in the U.S. Farmer was the seminal American genealogist of the nineteenth century. His years of soliciting masses of dispersed biographical data from a network of eager, meticulous New Englanders coalesced into his 1829 Genealogical Register of the First Settlers of New England. Farmer was obsessed with situating his contemporaries vis-à-vis their puritan progenitors, “those who first landed on the bleak and inhospitable shores of New England” (iii). However, Rafn’s claim about a far older and non-English historical narrative resonated with him. “From a very early period of our history,” he responded to Rafn, “it has been the opinion of some of our learned men that America was known to Europeans long before it was discovered by Columbus…but materials for such a work being few at that time in our country, and there being but little intercourse between our learned men and the learned bodies in Europe, the work was necessarily small and imperfect.”

Rafn's Mass Bay

Carl Christian Rafn’s 1841 Supplement to his Antiquitates Americanae, which depicts Massachusetts and Rhode Island within the sweep of the Norse’s Vinland colony.

For Farmer and others, this moving Norse past could displace the narrative of American founding anchored in Columbus’ voyages and the depredations of Spanish colonialism. Through his correspondence and eventual publication of Antiquitates Americana in 1837, the Dane introduced Farmer and a range American history writers and readers to this counter-narrative of the hemisphere.

Longfellow's skeleton

Walter Crane, “The Skeleton in Armour” (1883). “Four sketches, ink and graphite on board, for a six-panel mural frieze designed for Catherine Lorillard Wolfe as a room decoration for Vinland, her Scandinavian-style house at Newport, Rhode Island.” (Beinecke Rare Book and Manscript Library). Rafn projected the lost Norse colony of Vinland over the familiar landscape of New England, inspiring New Englanders to imagine a new history for themselves. In his 1841 poem “The Skeleton in Armor”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow recast Newport Tower, a colonial windmill in Rhode Island, as a Medieval Norse edifice (center-left). Before it, an armor-clad skeleton previously unearthed in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts is reanimated as a medieval Norse settler. (For most contemporaries, the skeleton was clearly an indigenous American.)

American children watched the Norse sail into their schoolbooks in the 1840s as the first European settlers of the continent, among other firsts (see figure 2). Into the 1850s, audiences pondered prolific lecturer Asahel Davis’s query: “it is not a laudable curiosity that leads one to ascertain what white men first trod regions in which the modest wild flower waster its sweetness on the desert air?” Emanuel Leutze, famed German-American artist “Washington’s Crossing” (1851), “Departure of Columbus from Palos (1855), and “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” (1860), preceded those dramatic passages of American history with another: “The Landing of the Northmen” in 1845 (since disappeared, it seems). After the Civil War, historians along New England’s coast disputed the location of Norumbega. Yet in all such expressions of national history, Leif’s endeavors along the early eleventh-century New England coast could predate Columbus on the first page of national history: the first European born on the continent, the first Christian mission to the natives, the first commercial exchange and productive use of the land–all pivotal moments in the narrative of seventeenth-century puritan settlement, too.

Norse landing

In his 1844 Pictorial History of the United States, secondary school educator John Front positioned Norsemen in tableaux paradigmatic of the seventeenth-century Puritan colonies on those very shores.

All agreed that the Norse settlement of America was fleeting, leaving no human lineage on the continent. The New England settlers documented by Farmer remained the genealogical touchstones that many Americans turned to. Nonetheless, American historians, authors, artists, and audiences could conscript the Norse into their national story. Through the second half of the century, the early Christianity and seemingly free government of the Norse were increasingly cast as historical antecedents to the founding of the Anglo-Saxon nation, which for nineteenth-century readers seemed destined to steward world history forward.

At the 1887 celebration of Leif’s statue, Harper’s Weekly mused that in his gaze gleamed the

prophetic of the future, of the later republic founded by kinsmen of the Icelanders, who for love of liberty dared the harshness of the bleak New England, as the Norsemen before them had braved the rigors of that uninhabited Iceland, with its geysers and jokuls, in the ninth century, to establish their republic of law and letters. The knit brow and noble bearing of Leif tell not only of the firm resolve and daring of the explorer, but also that he was a worthy forerunner of the Pilgrims.

Here, the Norse are placed in the Pilgrim mold, and the Pilgrims are themselves depicted as intrepid, freedom-seeking individuals (as opposed to long-standing critiques of their religious extremism). Horsford argued as much himself, lauding that Leif’s “ancestry were of the early pilgrims or Puritans who, to escape oppression, emigrated 50,000 of them in sixty years from Norway to Iceland, just as the early Pilgrims came to Plymouth” (quoted in this fascinating discussion of the broader appeal of Medieval history and aesthetics in the second half of the century, by Robin Fleming). If this late nineteenth-century depiction of New England’s settler generation could be used to rarefy the image of rapacious Norsemen, the revision of Norse identity could also affirm the values and identity espoused by Americans claiming descent from it. More specifically, as Fleming argues, it linked a socially, culturally, and racially-select cohort of the living to an imagined Teutonic past, conceived as the Old World origin of the exceptional institutions and ideals brought to fruition in the U.S.

Back bay in 1857

View of Back Bay, to the upper left, from the dome of the Massachusetts State House in 1857.

Alongside this longer transatlantic intellectual tradition and historical revisionism, three decades of colossal land reclamation had made Leif’s 1887 placement in Back Bay possible. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Boston’s population strained both the capacity of its scant landmass and, with the influx of impoverished Irish immigrants, the sensibilities of the native-born Protestants population. In Back Bay, city planners and proponents envisioned an orderly suburb that would staunch the migration of affluent Protestant Bostonians beyond the Charles River and craft a physically and morally pristine space within Boston. In its special planning committee’s words, the neighborhood would “secure upon the premises a healthy and thrifty population and business, and by inherent and permanent causes, forever to prevent this territory from becoming the abode of filth and disease” (In Stephen Puleo, City So Grand : The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston, 1850-1900, Beacon Press, 2010, 87-88). Stately, rectilinear streets were laid over six hundred acres of formerly fetid, briny tidal basin to house the city’s Anglo-Protestant elite. Much of the labor was performed by the very immigrants Back Bay was supposed to be purified of. As Back Bay neared completion and Leif’s statue appeared in 1887, a new influx of diverse European immigrants to the region stoked old racial and class anxieties. Many of these were Italians, who could claim some lineage with Columbus as the quadricentennial of his landing in Hispaniola approached. In contrast to them, Scandinavian immigrants appeared the “fairest among the so-called white races”, having “been trained to industry, frugality and manly self-reliance by the free institutions and the scant resources of their native lands” (Professor H.H. Boyeson, “The Scandinavian in the United States,” North American Review, Nov., 1892).

When Horsford convened the Bostonian elite to sanctify Leif’s statue and the historical arc it embodied, he aligned this rendition of the nation’s past with the geographic reimagination of ethnicity and class within the city.  In Leif, a version of the nation’s past coincided with the meaning embedded in that contemporary urban geography.

Back Bay disentangled the local Anglo-American and Protestant elite from a city transformed by the influx of struggling Irish and, by late century, Italian and Eastern European immigrants. And the statue consecrated a historical arc from Leif the New England settler, through the seventeenth-century colonists, and toward the individuals embedded in that very neighborhood.

Many thanks to Brendan Mackie for his thoughtful editing of this.

2017 Morris D. Forkosch Prize: Eli Cook’s The Pricing of Progress

Every year, the Journal of the History of Ideas awards the Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history. The winner of the 2017 Forkosch Prize has been is Eli Cook, for The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Harvard University Press, 2017). The judging committee writes:

The 2017 Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history goes to Eli Cook’s The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life. As beautifully written as it is thought-provoking, this study illuminates the emergence of the idea that society is something to be invested in, to be capitalized, something, therefore, whose health can be evaluated statistically whether through measures of the cost of alcoholism or of worker productivity. Displaying impressive historical breadth, Cook moves from William Petty’s formative essay “Verbum sapienti and the Value of People” of 1665 to the adoption of the GDP as the standard measure of national health during the Great Depression, bringing to bear a vast range of thinkers—church ministers, business people, economists, politicians, bureaucrats, and social reformers—along the way. Meticulously and innovatively merging the history of economics and economic thought with intellectual and cultural history, The Pricing of Progress is essential reading for anyone interested in the ubiquity of the notions of capitalization and monetization in contemporary American society and politics.

pKNWb728_400x400

Prof. Eli Cook (University of Haifa)

Eli Cook is assistant professor of history at the University of Haifa in Israel. The Pricing of Progress, lauded by reviewers as “groundbreaking” and “boldly original and compelling,” also received the 2018 S-USIH Book Award from the Society for US Intellectual History.

 

The entire JHIBlog team extends its heartiest congratulations to Prof. Cook and looks forward to learning more about his research.

Graduate Forum: The Radical African American Twentieth Century

This is the third in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which is running this summer. The first piece was by Andrew Klumpp, the second by Cynthia Houng.

This third piece is by guest contributor Robert Greene II.

“Remember the ladies.” This is a line from Abigail Adams’ famous letter to her husband, John Adams, defending the idea of rights and equality for women. “Remember the ladies,” however, could easily also serve as the defining idea of modern African American intellectual history. Many historians of the African American intellectual tradition have taken great pains to emphasize the importance—indeed, the centrality—of African American women to that intellectual milieu. At the same time, other fundamental questions have been raised of not just who to privilege in this new turn in African American intellectual history, but what sources are appropriate for intellectual history. Finally, the ways in which the public remembers the past animates newer trends in African American intellectual history. In short, African American intellectual history’s recent historiographic turns offer much food for thought for all intellectual historians.

 

The field of African American intellectual history has come a long way since the heyday of historians August Meier and Earlie E. Thorpe, both prominent in the then-nascent field of African American intellectual history in the 1960s. Meier’s Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915 and Thorpe’s The Mind of the Negro: An Intellectual History of Afro-Americans were both written in the 1960s and set the standard for African American intellectual history for decades to come. Both books were focused heavily on male intellectuals, however. As such they both set the standard for the field and, along with so much of African American history up until the late 1980s, left out the important voices of many African American women.

The rise of historians like Evelyn Higginbotham in the early 1990s ushered in new ways of understanding the intersection of race and gender through American history. Her book Righteous Discontent (1992) and essay “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race” (1992) both provided templates for how to easily meld women’s history and African American history into texts that became essential works of understanding the past through viewpoints and sources normally ignored by most male historians.

Today, the field of African American intellectual history has been influenced by the evolution of several related fields: African American women’s history and Black Power studies. Both fields have attempted to both overturn older assumptions about African American history and do so by focusing on previously marginalized sources and historical figures. Much of the recent historiographic trends in African American history—namely, a deeper understanding of Black Nationalism and its relationship to broader ideological trends in both Black America and the African Diaspora—would not have been possible without both a deeper understanding of the importance of gender to African American history, and a willingness to expand the definition of who are “important” intellectuals “worthy” of study.

In just the last year alone, numerous books about the intersection of Black Nationalism and gender have challenged earlier assumptions about the histories of both fields in relationship to African American history. Both Keisha Blain’s Set the World On Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) and Ashley D. Farmer’s Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (UNC Press, 2017) stretch the time period in which historians should understand the origins of Black Power—getting further away from just understanding the 1960s-era context and situating Black Power and larger Black Nationalist trends in a long era of resistance and struggle led and strategized by African American women.

Set the World on Fire follows up on other works about the Black Nationalism of the 1920s, arguing that it did not end with Marcus Garvey’s deportation from the United States in 1927. Instead, argues Blain, it was women such as his spouse Amy Jacques Garvey who kept Black Nationalist fervor alive across the United States. Meanwhile, Farmer’s book shows how the ideas of women associated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s owe a great deal to the longer arc of radical black women’s history in the twentieth century—from the agitation of black women within the Communist left of the 1930s and stretching well into the 1970s and 1980s. For Farmer, the history of a radical black nationalism does not end with the collapse of the Black Panther Party in the late 1970s.

Marcus_Garvey_with_Amy_Jacques_Garvey,_1922

Amy Jacques Garber, with her husband, Marcus Garvey.

 

WHITE008_500x500

Derrick White’s The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011)

Meanwhile, other trends within African American intellectual history point to the utilization of previously ignored or forgotten sources to provide a deeper understanding of the past. Derrick White’s The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (University Press of Florida, 2011) argues for diving deeper into relatively recent African American intellectual history to provide a fuller picture of the post-Civil Rights Movement era. For White, the African American think tank was an important ideological clearing house for not just African Americans, but the broader Left in the 1970s.

 

A third movement within the field is the study of African American history itself. Pero Dagbovie has led the way in this, writing several key works detailing the rise of African American history over a broad timespan. Works such as African American History Reconsidered (University of Illinois Press, 2010) and The Early Black History Movement (University of Illinois Press, 2007) detail not only historiographic trends in the field, but the ways in which the institutions necessary for the growth of African American history were born and nurtured against the backdrop of Jim Crow segregation.

Finally, the importance of understanding memory to African American intellectual history has changed the way African American intellectual historians think about the intersection of ideas with public discourse. In reality, much of the understanding of “memory” by African American intellectual historians concerns forgetting by the vast public. Books such as Jeanne Theoharis’s A More Beautiful and Terrible History (Beacon Press, 2018) emphasizes how much of the American mainstream media—along with most politicians—have been complicit in hiding the deeper, more complicated histories of the Black freedom struggle in the United States.

African American intellectual history offers plenty of new opportunity for scholars interested in linking intellectual history to other sub-fields. African American activists and intellectuals never existed in a vacuum, whether geographic or ideological. They made alliances with a variety of groups and forces, all for the sake of freedom across the African diaspora. The new turns in African American intellectual history reflect this aspect of black history.

Robert Greene II is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Claflin University. He studies American intellectual and political history since 1945 and is the book review editor for the Society of US Intellectual Historians.

“Every Man is a Quotation from all his Ancestors:” Ralph Waldo Emerson as a Philosopher of Virtue Ethics

By guest contributor Christopher Porzenheim

Even the smallest display of virtuous conduct immediately inspires us. Simultaneously we: admire the deed, desire to imitate it, and seek to emulate the character of the doer. […] Excellence is a practical stimulus. As soon as it is seen it inspires impulses to reform our character. -Plutarch. [Life of Pericles. 2.2. Trans. Christopher Porzenheim.]

Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857_retouched

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson has been characterized as a transcendentalist, a protopragmatist, a process philosopher, a philosopher of power, and a even moral perfectionist.” While Emerson was all of these, I argue he is best understood as a philosopher of social reform and virtue ethics, who combined Ancient Greco-Roman, Indian, and Classical Chinese traditions of social reform and virtue ethics into a form he saw as appropriate for nineteenth-century America.

Reform, of self and society, was the central concern of Emerson’s philosophy. Emerson saw that we as humans are by nature reformers, who should strive to mimic the natural and spontaneous processes of nature in our reform efforts. As he put in one of his earliest published essays, Man the Reformer (1841):

What is a man born for but to be a Reformer, a Remaker of what man has made; a renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good, imitating that great Nature which embosoms us all[?]

Reforming oneself, with models of moral and religious heroes from the past, and through one’s own example, others, and eventually society itself, was the idea at the center of Emerson’s philosophy. He would often echo the virtue ethicist Confucius’s (551–479 BCE) advice that “When you see someone who is worthy, concentrate on becoming their equal; when you see someone who is unworthy, use this as an opportunity to look within yourself [for similar vices].” [A.4.17.]

For example, in the essay History (1844), Emerson wrote that “there is properly no history; only biography” and argued that this “biography” exists to reveal the virtues and vices of exceptional individuals character:

So all that is said of the wise man by Stoic, or oriental or modern essayist, describes to each reader his own idea, describes his unattained but attainable self. All literature writes the character of the wise man. […]  A true aspirant, therefore, never needs look for allusions personal and laudatory in discourse. He hears the commendation, not of himself, but more sweet, of that character he seeks, in every word that is said concerning character[.]

For Emerson, the task, of all literature and history, was offering people enjoyable and memorable examples of virtue and vice for them to pattern their own character, relationships, and life by. “The student is to read history, actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary.” History is a biography of our own potential character.

The logical result of these beliefs, was Emerson’s later work, Representative Men (1850) a collection of essays which provided biographies of “wise men,” “geniuses” and “reformers” each illustrating certain virtues and vices for his readers to learn from.

Plato for example, represented to Emerson the virtues and vices of a character shaped by philosophy, Swedenborg a mystic, Montaigne a skeptic, Shakespeare a poet, Napoleon a man of the world, and finally Goethe, a writer.

Representative Men was in part a direct response to the work of Emerson’s friend Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero Worship & The Heroic in History (1841). But both men’s works shared a common ancestor well known to their contemporaries, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.

plutarch_of_chaeronea-03.jpg

A bust of Plutarch in his hometown of Chaeronea, Greece

Plutarch (46-120 CE), a Greco-Roman biographer, essayist and virtue ethicist, who was deeply influenced by Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, wrote a collection of biographies (now usually called The Lives) and a collection of essays (The Morals) which would both serve as a models for Emerson’s work.

Plutarch’s Lives come down to us as a collection of 50 surviving biographies. Typically in each, the fate and character of one exceptional Greek individual, is compared with those of one exceptional Roman individual. In doing so, as Hugh Liebert argues, Plutarch was showing Greek and Roman citizens how they could play a role in shaping first themselves, and, through their own example, the Roman world. In an era that perceived itself as modern, chaotic, and adrift from the past; Plutarch showed his readers how they could become like the heroes of the past by imitating their virtuous patterns of conduct.

Plutarch’s Lives provoke moral questioning about character without moralizing. They give us a shared set of stories, some might say myths, by which we can measure ourselves and each other other. They show in memorable stories and anecdotes what is (and is not) worth admiring; virtues and vices.

We might, for example, admire Alexander the Great’s superhuman courage. But, what of the time he “resolved” a conflict between his best friends by swearing to kill the one that started their next disagreement? Or, even worse, what of when he executed Parmenion, one of his oldest friends? The Lives are not hagiographies.

Instead, they are mirrors for moral self-cultivation. For Plutarch, the “mirror” of history delights and instructs. It reflects the good and bad parts of ourselves in the heroes and villains of the past. The Lives are designed as tools to help reform our character. They help us see who we are and could become because they portray the faces of virtue and vice, as Plutarch put it at the start of his biography of Alexander the Great:

I do not aim to write narratives of events, but biographies. For rarely do a person’s most famous exploits reveal clear examples of their virtue and vice. Character is less visible in: the fights with countless corpses, the greatest military tactics, and the consequential sieges of cities. More often a person’s character shows itself in the small things: the way they casually speak to others, play games, and amuse themselves.

I leave to other historians the grand exploits and struggles of each of my subjects – just as a painter of portraits leaves out the details on every part of his subject’s body. Their work focuses upon the face. In particular, the expression of the eyes. Since this is where character is most visible. In the same way my biographies, like portraits, aim to illuminate the signs of the soul. (Life of Alexander. 1.2-1.3. Trans. Christopher Porzenheim)

Confucius_Humblot

Eighteenth-century European depiction of Confucius

Emerson was in firm agreement with Plutarch about the relationship between our everyday conduct, virtue and character. In Self Reliance (1841), he wrote that “Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.” This idea is axiomatic for Emerson. Hence why, in his essay Spiritual Laws (1841), he quotes Confucius’ claim: “Look at the means a man employs, observe the basis from which he acts, and discover where it is that he feels at ease. Where can he [his character] hide? Where can he [his character] hide?” [A.2.10] For Plutarch and Emerson, our character is revealed in the embodied way we act every moment; in the way we relate to others – in our spontaneous manners, etiquette, or lack thereof.

As Emersons approval of Confucius suggests, Plutarch’s Lives, and Greco-Roman philosophy in general was merely one great influence on Emerson ideals of self and societal reform.  It is to these other influences, from Confucian philosophy in particular, that we will turn in a subsequent post, in order to clarify Emerson’s philosophy of virtue ethics and social reform.

Christopher Porzenheim is a writer. He is currently interested in the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular the figures of Socrates and Confucius as models for personal emulation. He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Gilgamesh & Aristotle: Friendship in the Epic and Philosophical Traditions.” When in doubt he usually opens up a copy of the Analects or the Meditations for guidance. See more of his work here.

Dutch Pasts and the American Archive

By Editor Derek Kane O’Leary

Edmund_Bailey_O'Callaghan

Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan

Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan (1797-1880) was an unlikely candidate for the mammoth translation and historical project that he undertook at mid-life. A paradigmatic Atlantic creole, he had for decades crossed borders, learned new languages and skills, enmeshed himself in diverse networks, and, always, adapted to his sundry beachheads around the Atlantic.  He migrated from County Cork in Ireland to medical school in 1820s Paris; to Lower Canada where he practiced medicine and turned journalist and politician in the 1830s, and then on to the Democratic political machine of New York and his major intellectual labor: translating and writing about the reams of Dutch documents from the colonial history of New Netherland, the short-lived Dutch colony along the Hudson River and current-day New York, which fell to the English in 1664. He has, mostly, been forgotten.

It is a seemingly cacophonous life. But a motif holds together each movement. O’Callaghan passed a childhood amid “The Liberator” Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic emancipation movement against British rule; observed university opposition to the policies of the Bourbon Restoration (under which his medical school was shuttered); and provided medical care to the impoverished community of newly arrived Irish immigrants in Quebec. Then and there, as the editor of The Irish Vindicator and partner with Canadian Patriote leader Louis-Joseph Papineau, he shifted to political activism in support of local autonomy within the British empire, an opposition that tenuously united Irish and Francophone Canadian interests. And, when the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837 misfired, he fled across the border to New York. There, he encountered the Dutch colonial archive, in the faded margins of a national narrative based on the Anglo-American founding. It enthralled him, and he devoted years to re-centering it in the national epic. Throughout, he bore with him an anti-hegemonic disposition–especially to British power in the Atlantic–which sprouted in Ireland, matured in Paris, peaked as strident political opposition in Montreal, and transmuted to state-sponsored archival revisionism in New York.

In 1846 O’Callaghan released his first historical account, the History of New Netherland; or, New York under the Dutch.  It drew on Dutch-language records in Albany and would be followed by his sprawling New York state-sponsored translation and publication project of Dutch-language documents held in the state archive and gathered abroad. He lauded the virtues of these Dutch founders, and hoped to present them as the ideological forebears of the U.S.

To the North in New England, it met a chilly reception. In 1846, the North American Review—redoubt of elite New England letters—deflated O’Callaghan’s endeavor to elevate the Dutch record alongside New England’s founding story. The Review placed the work in contrast to another, wildly popular depiction of the Dutch colonial period: Washington Irving’s (1783-1859) History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, published in 1809 under one of his pseudonyms, Diedrich Knickerbocker. It found that in O’Callaghan’s effort to counteract Irving’s “mock-heroic style,” he “errs, if possible, in going to the opposite extreme” –that is, he had gone overboard in praise of the Dutch (The North American Review, Vol. 62, No. 131 (April, 1846), 448). To the Review and many other readers, Irving’s work, if beyond belief at times, appeared eminently entertaining, informative enough, and in proportion to the Dutch presence in the continent’s past.

Diedrich Knickerbocker

Rendering of Diedrich Knickerbocker (1849)

In casting Dutch North America in this new light and receiving this riposte, O’Callaghan was writing into a decades-old debate about the place of New Netherland in the national narrative. Irving had fashioned the genre with his History, in which his fictive narrator performed as an affable, hapless, Dutch-descended chronicler of his city and state. For years, in New York, elsewhere in the U.S, and across the Atlantic, the book delighted audiences. Reprints ensued through the century. Though the early editions were burlesques in text rather than imagery, by the mid-1830s they were accompanied by a new sub-genre of Dutch-themed art, which was spurred by the book’s success.

In passing, here is one such image, the frontispiece to the 1836 edition, which will echo in a moment:

Dutch and natives

The point of humor here, including the physical and sartorial features ascribed to the Dutch, is clear enough. It is easy to imagine how those proud of their Dutch descent grimaced at the caricature. The analogy struck between the two Dutch and two Indian figures is more suggestive, though. The downward diagonal composition from Dutch to Indian (likely Mohawk fur traders from the west of New Netherland, on whom the Dutch depended) signals their perceived power dynamic. But all four figures are held tightly together, their placement and pipe-smoking mirror images, and their dependence on commercial transaction the fulcrum of the scene.

GCVerplanck portrait, 1855-1865

Gulian Crommelin Verplanck

Amid the widespread praise of young Irving’s work, one contrary assessment reverberated strongest. Gulian Crommelin Verplanck’s name implies the genealogy that connected him to New Netherland’s founding generation. He was a long-time New York politician and generally busy civic figure. In December 1818, he addressed the New York Historical Society, then still a stumbling, underfunded institution, where he was an active member. After a sweeping comparative survey of European states and their respective colonial projects in the Americas, he paused toward the end to note the special accomplishments—and then, more importantly, the troubled historical legacy—of the United Provinces and their North American colony, New Netherland. “These remarks,” he began, “ought to have been wholly unnecessary in this place; but I know not whence it is, that we in this country have imbibed much of the English habit of arrogance and injustice towards the Dutch character.” If ambivalent about the root cause of the anti-Dutch sentiment he perceived in the U.S., he did have a more proximate culprit in mind.

It is more ‘in sorrow than in anger’ that I feel myself compelled to add to these gross instances of national injustice, a recent work of a writer of our own, who is justly considered one of the brightest ornaments of American literature. I allude to the burlesque history of New-York, in which it is painful to see a mind, as admirable for its exquisite perception of the beautiful, as it is for its quick sense of the ridiculous, wasting the riches of its fancy on an ungrateful theme, and its exuberant humour in a coarse caricature. This writer has not yet fulfilled all the promise he has given to his country [Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1821, volume III (New York, 1821), 41-124, emphasis added].

Verplanck’s speech was published in 1821 in the Collections of the New York History Society, which was then sent to members and peer institutions throughout the U.S., parts of Europe, as well as Latin America. In this passage, then, we observe an important civic institution calling out Irving, a roving New Yorker, then living his long expatriation in London. His famous Sketch-Book had just been published to considerable acclaim, and more than any U.S. writer in these years, he embodied American identity before European audiences. From Verplanck’s vantage point, Irving had triply sinned, remaining subservient to British anti-Dutch prejudices, squandering his talent on this fanciful topic, and failing to live up to what his country expected. A pivotal chapter in the state’s history had been shunted outside the bounds of national history and would need to be properly inscribed within it.

Over the ensuing decades, the State of New York and the New York Historical Society worked in tandem to refurbish the colonial archive of New York, in part to outdistance the long shadow cast by Irving. In addition to proper translations of the records held in the state house at Albany, they believed that the grand narrative of its state depended on a mission to collect documents relating to the colonial history of New York, led by the young New York lawyer John Romeyn Brodhead between 1841 and 1844 in Holland, London, and Paris. The goal, as announced at the New York Historical Society, was to bring this past into

the limits of well-attested history, [which] at once dissipates the enchantments of fiction; and we are not permitted, like the nations of ancient Europe, to deduce our lineage from super-human beings…It is a sufficient honour to be able to appeal to the simple and sever records of truth (Chancellor Kent’s Discourse, Proceedings of the New York Historical Society (New York, 1844), 12).

What would amount to a $12,000-project was animated at its core by a sense of archival deficiency—that the colonial history of the state could not be properly told, that certain records belonged there, and that a comprehensive documentary past could be reassembled. The Dutch record was especially deficient, with just fragments moldering in Albany, and the rest across the ocean in Dutch archives. Brodhead returned in 1844 with 80 volumes of records, most culled from London, and the remainder drawn from Holland and France.

O’Callaghan both wrote into this longer tension about the Dutch colonial period and publicized this newly accessible archive for a national audience. The tension around writing the history of New Netherland for two centuries–from Verplanck to more recent studies of Dutch America–has been presented in terms of proportionality: has the Dutch role in the American narrative been adequately represented or not? Is our depiction of it in proportion to its historical reality? But O’Callaghan encountered a deeper impediment: not only were the Dutch illegible or underrepresented in the national narrative, but that they had been relegated to prefatory remarks as a people fated to fade. (In Firsting and Lasting, Jean O’Brien analyzes the practice of reducing American Indians to a preface to the nation’s history during this period.)

To return to the North American Review’s take on O’Callaghan’s History, while he documented the Dutch colonists’ industry and sobriety, the review fingered instead their fatal sin of “rapacity.” This, it countered, led to New Netherland’s demise at the hands of the English. For, unlike New Englanders, the review showed, the Dutch tore resources (the furs, above) from the land, but did not improve it. Within an early U.S. worldview, this placed them closer to the indolent Indian than to the productive English colonizer of New England. It almost included them in the trope of the vanishing American Indian. Just as the Indian was fated by its very nature, it seemed, to disappear from the American landscape, so too could this depiction of the Dutch help to normalize their fading from national story. Meanwhile, this trope could stress the preeminence of a national story that traced the emergence of Anglo-American communities to the north in New England. Judith Richardson has written compellingly about the “ghosting” of the Hudson River Valley, notably in Irving’s tales of “Rip van Winkle” and “Sleepy Hollow”, in that both American Indians and Dutch-descended inhabitants take on a spectral, otherworldly quality. In this review, we see a similar elision between indigenous and Dutch, not in terms of their aesthetic or ontological qualities. Instead, they are kindred in a type of antiquated, extractive labor that could not persist in the westward arc of American empire.

Not to stress this analogy too much, or to detect a clear genealogy between these two images (John Otto Lewis‘s 1835 Indian portrait, left, and John Quidor’s rendering of Rip van Winkle‘s degenerated son, 1849, right), but these visualizations of Indian and Dutch figures rhyme, each cast at the inactive margins of history and the nation.

The author emphasizes this link between pasts and present by closing with a comment on the Oregon boundary dispute with Great Britain, which would soon settle competing land ownership claims in the Pacific Northwest. This ongoing geopolitical question is a seeming non sequitur; but it in effect leverages the historical rationale for New Netherland’s decline and New England’s success to tell a larger story about the continent:

Should the negotiation upon this subject long continue open, the same result can scarcely fail to happen in that territory which took place two centuries since in New England. The tiller of the soil will drive out the hunter.

The tiller of the soil will drive out the hunter: By this, he meant the inevitable triumph of Anglo-American settlers over the continent, as well as over those lesser peoples who only extracted wealth from but could not improve upon it.  O’Callaghan, Irish expatriate and resistant leader, worked for years to inscribe the Dutch on the first page of the nation’s history. The effort mobilized considerable resources from his state and an array of its elite political and literary figures to build a Dutch archive that could help to elevate the state’s place within the national historical narrative. But this encounter with the New England literary establishment reveals the terms on which access could be granted and refused.

 

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, New England, and hemispheric visions

By Editor Derek Kane O’Leary

Pratt model

Bela Pratt, model of proposed monument of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1916), Boston Archives and Records Management, Collection 0245.001.

American sculptor Bela Pratt imagined the above statue in 1916, but it was never built. In 1913, the Argentine congress had allotted $50,000 for a monument to their former President, renowned educator and man of letters Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888; presidency, 1868-1874) to be placed in Boston, Massachusetts. It was intended to celebrate his long-held affinity with the city and some of its famed residents. World war intervened, Pratt passed away, and sixty years elapsed before this tribute to Sarmiento arose on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, bearing a quite different aesthetic and story.  Dedicating that statue in 1973 before a crowd of locals and the Argentine diplomatic community, Mayor Kevin White reflected, “Sarmiento’s long journey back to the states has symbolic meaning; it helps to underscore both the historical importance of his pioneering role in education…and the yet unfulfilled challenge of achieving global peace and understanding through cultural exchange.” The statue now stands as the penultimate figure in the monuments marking the axis of Commonwealth Avenue. Sternly stepping forward into distinction from the rough bronze, he seems to brace himself against the world. He recalls a cloaked, much aged, and more somber kouros.

SarmientoBoston

Statue of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, erected in 1973, Boston, Massachusetts.

White’s oration muffled much of Sarmiento’s life and his relationship with the United States, and the monument chiseled away the far more pointed symbolism of the 1916 model. The dedication reduced Sarmiento to an agent of modern education cast in the American mold, and implied that his subordinate and aspiring stance toward the U.S. should be a model for the world to follow. Depicting Sarmiento as a synecdoche for Argentina, and Boston as one for the U.S, the local rhetoric certainly refracted through the global prism of the Cold War. It does illustrate the extent to which monuments can become disembodied from their historical subject and context. But this is not to say that either dedication or statue was wrong about Sarmiento. Indeed, White’s depiction preserves in essential ways how a lot Bostonians would have understood the Argentine during his presidency a century ago, and the forward motion of the solitary bronze captures some of the meaning that many nineteenth-century New Englanders would have perceived in Sarmiento’s life.  However, if we keep the 1916 model in mind instead, it can in fact bring us somewhat closer to Sarmiento’s historic role within the Western Hemisphere.

Vida de lincoln

Sarmiento quickly assembled and published in 1866 a commemoration of Lincoln, which he distributed to U.S. acquaintances.

In the post-Civil War U.S., Sarmiento fastened in the minds of elite New Englanders as an avatar of their values on the Argentine frontier. In exile during the military dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosa (1835-1852), Sarmiento first encountered Horace and Mary Mann in West Newton, Massachusetts in 1848, a crucial coda to a larger Atlantic tour of educational systems Europe. Enamored of their pedagogy, Sarmiento upon his return south would expand vastly on his earlier efforts to reform and extend education in South America. As ambassador to the U.S. from 1866 until his election, he increasingly appeared to his U.S. interlocutors as a South American Horace Mann. From the vantage point of the Charles River, it was surely validating to envision Sarmiento dispensing copies of his favorite book, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, to students in the myriad new schoolhouses of the Argentine frontier. Mary (able in both Spanish and French, which enabled her to translate and communicate with Sarmiento) curated his image before the American public. She translated his classic work Facundo (1845) in 1868, which she scaffolded with a sweeping history of Argentina and glowing biography of its author. This served to amplify his prestige among the New England intelligentsia—which he thought beneficial to his political aspirations in Argentina; meanwhile, for her it promised to perpetuate the educational mission of her departed husband. (Their correspondence sprawled into the 1880s, comprising hundreds of letters.)

But Sarmiento called for a far more robust version of hemispheric integration than this, and therein we can detect a more complex and troubling historical kinship between North and South. Seldom at his station in the dreary capital, Sarmiento as ambassador roved the Northeast, forging connections with leading industrialists, military specialists, educators, and scholars. In 1866, in a notable example, he addressed the local intellectual, industrial, and business elite assembled at the Rhode Island Historical Society. With their expertise and capital flowing southward, he proposed merging the cloven paths of the northern and southern continents into one progressive historical trajectory. U.S. military officers to build forts against indigenous attacks; railroad and canal builders to incorporate their lands; schoolteachers to civilize them and the hoped for mass infusion of Northern European immigrants, and historians to craft the story. The intellectual disparity he perceived between North and South especially troubled him. Indeed, he flatteringly lamented to his audience, to tell the tale of Argentina’s ongoing war with Paraguay, the historian would need to peruse the archives and libraries of Providence.

To argue for this inter-American future, he looked to the past, and this drew him deeper into the Rhode Island archive and U.S. historical narrative. Long after the independence of the lands that would become Argentina, he yearned still to expunge what he perceived as the debilitating legacy of Spanish colonial misrule. In the U.S. he perceived a society and government guided by undiluted Anglo-Saxon reason and republican virtue; at home he bemoaned the legacy of a Hispanic population-which he portrayed as Medieval- mixed with a native population-which he saw as oriental.  In short, he articulated a broader version of the historical narrative of U.S. exceptionalism, generated in spaces like the Rhode Island Historical Society and its peer institutions.

Sarmiento spoke in the spirit of the American jeremiad, imagining the regeneration of South American civilization against barbarism—to use the lexicon of his famous Facundo. To an audience well-acquainted with the mammoth historical works of William Hickling Prescott on the Spanish conquest of America and John Lothrop Motley on the Dutch Republic, he performed a historiographical flourish. Snidely, he queried which century and civilization Prescott hailed from, given the renowned historian’s light-handed treatment of Hernán Cortés’s depredations. But enthusiastically turning to Motley’s account of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, Sarmiento depicted the subsequent history of the new world as two great oceanic arcs emerging from that Low Countries battleground: the one by Pilgrims exiled to North America via Holland, bearing liberal principles of government; the second southward, borne by Spanish captains, who in the Spanish-Dutch conflict had “learned to harden themselves to crime and to the violation of divine laws.” Disregarding the far more complex ethnic landscape of New England and echoing a familiar version of the Black Legend, this vision of a bifurcated, almost Manichean hemispheric history would have resonated with the crowd. For both Sarmiento and his northern audience, the call for a North American model for the southern continent would have rung as a pleasing analogy to post-Civil War federal reconstruction of the South.

In promoting a collaborative future and renouncing a riven past, however, he then appealed to a deeper, pre-historic, and ostensibly non-European layer binding together the hemisphere, and which he imagined as inspiration for a shared historic purpose.

“Beyond th­e frontiers and the present, are the monuments of a civilization which has had its dark age but not its renaissance. America has her petrified cities, the abode of a great people who flourished in them, pyramids which rival those of Egypt, temples and palaces which now fertilized the trunks of trees centuries old…when these monuments, which begin with the mound and end with enormous masses of hewn stone, sculptured with a thousand hieroglyphics, have been studied, classified and compared, the history of both Americas will begin upon the same page…”

Here, Sarmiento has pealed back the layers of the archive, moving from contemporary geopolitics in South America, to trans-Atlantic colonization, to indigenous American civilization. Argentina’s preeminent nineteenth-century man of letters had early and untiringly leveraged writing to enhance personal and national power. By asserting cultural continuity among a markedly diverse range of pre-contact earthen and stone structures, Sarmiento was not positing a new take on hemispheric history, but petitioning that Argentina be inscribed on equal terms within it.

In claiming this shared path, lamenting a later historical divergence, and proposing a common future, Sarmiento sought to conjoin the histories of North and South America. Toward this end, what he modeled on the U.S.—and New England in particular—was much more than the pedagogy for which he was and has been known. It was a program for the coercive acquisition and industrialized integration of vast expanses of territory, and the ideal of perpetuating the Anglo-Saxon legacy of Europe in the Americas against lesser elements. Within the creeping logic of scientific racism, he would by the 1880s see these divergent American paths as the outcome of racial segregation and Anglo-Saxon purity in the North, and the mingling of Spanish and indigenous bloodlines in the South. (This is clearest in his 1883 Conflictos y Armonias de las Razas en America, dedicated to Mary Mann.)

In the 1916 model, Sarmiento, wreathed in laurels and Roman garb, sits atop the quarterdeck of his ship of state. Along the vessel’s side is etched “Education Courage Progress.” Charismatic rowers urge the vessel forward. Upon its prow, a martial and masculine version of Columbia holds Argentina in his arm, reaching out to that future with the other. For good measure, the brig is equipped with a spiked battering ram. The rhetorical construction of Sarmiento in the postwar U.S. press, among the contemporary New England republic of letters, and on Commonwealth Avenue today have disentangled the extraordinary educational impact of Sarmiento’s civilization project from the violence, coercion, and racial theory with which it was bound up. What we read in the inscription and form of Sarmiento’s statue today is a ripple of a much more complex reality.

One Thousand Gophers: Information and Emigration in the Early U.S.

By guest contributor JT Jamieson

I have been to Illinois

A braggadocio writing in The New-England Magazine in 1832 asked his Northern audience, “Is it possible that no one in these parts has seen a Gopher? I have seen a thousand; and some other animals, too, that are not to be found in New-England[.]” Having apparently spent time “somewhere between the Mississippi and the Missouri,” the author was eager to bring all the “rare beasts” he had encountered in the West to New Englanders. Unable to deliver the actual specimens, though, he resolved to rely instead on print and gave his readers a virtual tour among the beasts of the West: “I cannot bring them to you, reader, and, therefore, I must e’en carry you, in imagination, to them.” The author nonetheless asserted his credibility, reliability, and expertise along his virtual zoological tour – and once more, of gophers, reminded readers of the thousand he’d seen (“Rare Beasts,” New-England Magazine, March, 1832).

Camas_rat

“The Camas Rat”, from John James Audobon’s The Quadrupeds of North America (1851-4).

His emphasis on sight and first-hand experience was likely designed to allay the suspicions early nineteenth-century Americans harbored concerning the transmission of information about the West. Two months earlier, The New-England Magazine had taken up the topic of gophers in order to question the veracity of a Western guidebook author’s geographical information. Reviewers of J.M. Peck’s A Guide for Emigrants, Containing Sketches of Illinois, Missouri, and the Adjacent Parts nitpicked a passage on gophers because Peck, though he described the animal and its dirt mounds, failed to adequately verify his empiricism and expertise:

although one would suppose from this description that the author had inspected the animal, yet we shall venture to say that he knows it only by the works of which he speaks…he does not intimate that he has ever seen one, nor do we know that any of the many Western historians have been so fortunate as to discover the animal before describing it; and the nearest approach we have been able to make towards certainty, after wondering over many of their mounds, is the word of a friend in Illinois, who was told by a neighbor that his father had seen a hunter, who had the skeleton of a Gopher.

The precariousness of knowledge, in a guidebook, no less, coupled with Peck’s “enthusiasm” for Western geography would likely cause the New Englander to “read…with a smile of incredulity”(New-England Magazine, January, 1832).

I have been to Ohio

Believability was one important tool for early nineteenth-century Americans’ mental maps of the West. A sizeable portion of Easterners’ geographic imaginations came from the information for prospective Western emigrants inundating newspapers, periodicals, satires, advertisements, and of course guidebooks. In the press, boosters and anti-emigrationists argued about what emigrants might find in the West. The volume of deceptive, hard-to-believe, and incomplete information generated a dynamic conversation about credulity, distortion, and objectivity in geographic representation. Boosters extolled the West in a typically cartoonish fashion. Anti-emigrationists, who often fretted about their population draining to the West, promoted incredulity as a means to keep enterprising inhabitants east of the Appalachians. Guidebook authors published erroneous information but also found a market in objectivity. Despite the fact that print took on new dimensions of authority in the early nineteenth century, Americans were still living in a world where “books as well as men are fallible,” as an 1839 guidebook put it (Steele’s Western Guidebook and Emigrant’s Directory, 1839). Demonstrating the objectivity of one’s own guidebook made it stand out among the crowd of misleading or untruthful information.

Discerning a ‘truth’ was important to several genres of early nineteenth-century American writing, from gazetteers and censuses to histories to personal narratives. The preoccupation with authenticity, objectivity, or impartiality in these genres reflected the growth of numeracy, an influence of Scottish Common Sense Realism, the marketability of honest and true stories, and, for emigrants, the want of practical or useful information. Emigration commentators engaged in a war of words and Wests, convincing readers either of rosy western fantasies, or of the ruination inevitably awaiting emigrants who strayed from home. Was New England land really as stony and unproductive as boosters said? Did the West – or, could it – have schools? Churches? Locals with sufficient geographic knowledge? Food amenable to Eastern bellies? Ghosts? On that last point, at least, James Hall seemed to give a definitive answer to magazine readers in 1828: “No respectable and truly aristocratic ghost would put up with a log cabin,” no spirit would bother to endure the daily discordant music of Western settlements – the axe and rifle echoing incessantly and annoyingly. Nor would specters be so stupid as to room with the “backwoodsmen, who would as soon scalp a ghost, if a ghost could be scalped, as they would shoot a panther or an Indian” (Letters from the West, 1828).

Western Emigrant Society circular to Andrew Jackson

For the prospective emigrant, Western information was fragile – it was debatable and prone to errors, with a general air of uncertainty and incompleteness. Guidebooks might acknowledge – and apologize for – any errors readers detected. An Ohio gazetteer noted that Western states and territories were, after all, too large to describe with “perfect accuracy” – the best the reader could hope for was that the “work may generally be pronounced correct”(John Kilbourn, The Ohio Gazetteer, 1831). If reading newspapers, Easterners would have been aware that Western geographic information was always in a volatile state of becoming. Emigration societies’ advertisements demonstrated that their first task was to build a public archive of geographic knowledge. The Western Emigrant Society requested information by mailing questionnaires around the country, information that would then be reproduced in the press. Other emigration societies exhibited their dearth of geographic knowledge by naming their destinations with as much specificity as “the West.” In 1819, the New York Emigration Society stated that if it had to choose a more specific location based on “all the sources of information to which your committee have had access,” it would be Illinois. That opinion, however, “would be given with much hesitation and subject to be changed as their information should increase” (“Emigration Society,” National Advocate, August 4, 1819).

If information was uncertain, erroneous, or deceptive, then credulousness, according to anti-emigrationists, was the only rational explanation for emigration from the East. Maine’s American Advocate concluded that if Easterners indeed “hurried away from a comfortable home,” it was only because they’d “swallowed every strange report with a credulity unexampled.” Hoping to enlighten “the eyes of the credulous,” the Advocate asserted that upon an examination “into the real facts…opinions will change into a sober admiration of our own favored territories, and the desire to migrate will die away with the credulity and ignorance that produced it” (“Reflections on Emigration,”  American Advocate, October 18 and November 8, 1817). Often, as was the case with Peck’s Illinoisan gophers, the “real facts” could only be furnished from personal observation, not from the books and accounts of others. Too often Western information was derived in the forms of “fancy” or “whim” from the scheming and interested speculator. So, the author of A Caution to Emigrants clarified in 1819 that “fancy or whim…can neither produce or destroy a fact.” His ultimate caution to readers was this: “let no man, on any condition, or under any circumstances, whatever, be induced to remove his family to a distant country, until he has seen, examined and judged of it for himself” (John Stillman Wright, Letters from the West, or, A Caution to Emigrants, 1819).

Some guidebook authors took advantage of the fact that deceptive or insufficient material came into readers’ orbit. Authors justified writing guidebooks by stating that others writing about Western geography offered either unsatisfactory or untruthful information. In doing so they promised untainted accuracy in their own works. William Darby, a surveyor who penned a major early emigrant guide in 1819, was among the most ardent of guidebook authors to embrace objectivity. Even friendly reviewers of his Guide noted the “difficulty of acquiring satisfactory information” and the “suspicion with which we are obliged to view all accounts of the different parts of the United States,” and derided his failure to clearly point out what information wasn’t derived from personal observation (North American Review, July 1818). Nevertheless, Darby asserted his hatred of the erroneous and untruthful. He engaged in an angry debate in 1817, for example, with Hezekiah Niles, well-known editor of Baltimore’s Niles’ Weekly Register, over mistakes in their descriptions of Louisiana. As the two got in a spat over topographical errors and misrepresentations in each others’ work, Darby took the opportunity to proclaim his philosophy of geographic writing: “In every stage of my advance as a writer, however humble may be my attempts, I have constantly endeavored to present facts as they really are in nature. The mischief is incalculable that has been done by high wrought pictures of rapid gain held out to persons moving into the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. There seems to exist a kind of mania to swell every thing relating to those places beyond the measure of common sense” (“Darby’s Louisiana, &c.” Niles’ Weekly Register, November 22, 1817).

It’s true that in many cases words won the West in the nineteenth century. But early emigrant propaganda never reached readers without first being filtered through a series of public debates about the veracity and usefulness of information. As much as the creation of the Euro-American West depended on far-flung readers’ aspirations and dreams, it depended too on their suspicions, on trials and errors.

J.T. Jamieson is a PhD candidate in history at the University of California, Berkeley and studies nineteenth-century America.

Life and Likeness at the Portland Museum of Art

By Editor Derek O’Leary, in conversation with curator Diana Greenwold

It can be easy to imagine the early American republic as rushing headlong into the future during its first half-century—westward with the suppression of Indian society, seaborne to new markets with the products of southern plantations and western farms, upward in the growth of manufacturing hubs and cities, and in all cases away from the colonial past.  Newspaperman and staple of any US history survey, John O’Sullivan celebrated in this “Great Nation of Futurity” “our disconnected position as regards any other nation; that we have, in reality, but little connection with the past history of any of them, and still less with all antiquity, its glories, or its crimes.”

This forward orientation was a common enough sentiment during these decades, yet one bound up in a much broader and Janus-faced preoccupation with the nation’s place in time. Biography burgeoned as a literary form (finely explored in Scott Casper’s Constructing American Lives, 1999); leading authors leveraged historical fiction to fashion a mythic colonial and revolutionary past; historical, antiquarian, and genealogical societies flourished as civic institutions. And in innumerable households, individuals and families marked their passage through time during years of seemingly unprecedented change.

The Portland Museum of Art’s exhibit “Model Citizens: Art and Identity from 1770-1830” (on view through January 28) provides fascinating insight into that latter world. It assembles a diverse array of household and commercial practices of marking pivotal stages of life in the early United States. Drawing on rich collections in Maine and New England art, it places in conversation a range of self-representation, organized around the life cycle: birth and childhood, marriage, adulthood, death and mourning. The exhibition recognizes its bounds within the white household, but in this space explores a far greater variety of lives and likenesses than we would typically see from this period.

dearborn

Gilbert Stuart (United States, 1755-1828), Major General Henry Dearborn (1751-1829), 1812, oil on panel, Gift of Mary Gray Ray in memory of Mrs. Winthrop G. Ray, 1917.23

Diana Greenwold, PhD., who curated the exhibition, situated “stalwarts of the permanent collections”—such as the large and familiar oil portraits by Gilbert Stuart— alongside less elite likenesses produced in households and more accessible markets, such as samplers, shadow cutters, paintings by itinerant artists, and mourning embroidery (shown below).  “For a long time,” she explains, “that type of folk portraiture was understood as being less sophisticated and telling of the moment,” a bias which the exhibition helps to revise. “By using different media,” she continues, “you open up the opportunity to show how different social classes can get at a similar goal. Not everyone can engage Gilbert Stuart, but cut paper can serve in a similar way for families to represent themselves, to both themselves and those around them.”

In depicting the shared life cycle of individuals of such disparate means, the exhibition thoughtfully examines the uses of these varied self-representations. Sewn samplers produced by middle- and upper-class girls in finishing schools served as stages to perform discipline, literacy, numeracy, and piety. But alongside sewn renditions of the alphabet, numbers, and biblical verses, girls might also inscribe their own name and age, or indeed, as in this peculiar rendition of a genealogy, a truncated, textual family tree.

Mary Ann McLellan_Genealogy Sampler

Mary Ann McLellan (United States, 1803-1831), Stephen McLellan Genealogy Sampler, circa 1816, cotton on linen, museum purchase, 1981.1063

By the 1830s, genealogy would develop into a widespread household and academic practice, equipped with institutions, periodicals, and specialists who manipulated transatlantic connecting networks. (Francois Weil’s Family Trees (2013) is the recent major work on this phenomenon in the US.) Often, it sought to link the living in an unbroken chain backward, at least to the first Anglo-American settlements, and ideally eastward to their English origins.  Yet, in a decade when genealogy had yet to emerge as a widespread practice, Mary Ann McLellan’s genealogical sampler (above) is striking: it places her father atop a small familial hierarchy, above his first and second wife and their four children. Paternity is overt; maternity only deducible by examining dates of birth and death. In this riff on a genealogical tree, more important than connecting the present to the past is inscribing an inter-generational duty: overseen by an elder generation, undertaken through a younger, promised to a future. “Let us live so in youth that we blush not in age”, the poem insists. The admonishment is surely a basic feature of gendered household management, but one cannot help but hear echoes of the broader national anxiety about the character and prospect of the country during these years, when the trope of the cyclical rise, corruption, and fall of republics was most potent.

Expanding on this analogy, Greenwold explains that “these domestically-scaled ways of representing self or family could become proxies for larger questions of national identity.” Especially in the works of childhood (produced both of and by children), “for a person in the early US, memorializing their children as the first generation of native-born citizens could be an act of establishment, visualized in a permanent and lasting way around virtues that were stressed for a new republic: industry, piety, family, etc. This notion of a domestically-scaled object had bearing not just on how folks were understanding their own families, but within a larger-scale participation in a budding national family.”

Though many of these were household products intended for a domestic space, perusing the exhibition, one can also imagine the markets for likenesses springing up in these decades before the more mechanized means of the daguerreotype and its successors. The shadow-cutters are the cheapest, visually starkest, and perhaps most arresting of works on display. Greenwold notes that these profiles cut into beige paper and pasted on black background (and sometimes vice versa) were produced at once by itinerant artists, as a popular parlor game, or in such venues as Charles Willson Peale’s Museum by means of a physiognotrace. The exhibition explains the special appeal of the profile—which features the chin, nose, and forehead—in the field of physiognomy, which sought to discern character in the subject’s facial features. In these shadow cutters of the women of the Stone family, distinctive hair styles have been inked around the silhouettes. Historian Sarah Gold McBride, whose work examines the significance and uses of hair in the nineteenth century, argues that in addition to physiognomy, hair style, texture, style, and color conveyed clues to one’s character in this period. (See her dissertation “Whiskerology: Hair and the legible body in nineteenth-century America” (2017) for more on this.)

IMG_2898

Unidentified artist (United States, 19th century), Cut paper silhouettes of the Stone Family, 1917.11-.18

These were often products of fleeting popular or commercial transactions. However, in addition to revelations of character, as small and easily transferable objects these likenesses-and more specifically portrait miniatures painted in watercolor on ivory-could be more intimate than the finely painted portraits of Stuart or John Singleton Copley. Greenwold elaborates, that “they are meant to be very portable and physically held, near the heart or the body. That sort of physical embodiment of a loved one does something categorically different than something that hangs in a parlor, such as an oil on canvas portrait, that would be both for family and the larger group of visitors who would be in your home.”

If girls mainly executed the works of childhood in this collection, and mostly men those of adulthood, women undertook the tasks of mourning represented here. Though there are cases of men making some of the outlines of such mourning embroidery, Greenwold discusses that “in this nineteenth-century moment, women were becoming the vessels through which a family performs its mourning—the public face through which a family expresses grief, for instance.” Bedecked in Greco-Roman iconography, balanced around a central urn inscribed with the dates of the departed, these “classically-draped figures intertwine with a lexicon of Christianity, forming a hybrid language of pagan and Christian.” It is a common aesthetic aspired to by the middle to affluent classes in this period, but one which suggests again how the marking and performance of the life cycle in the early US was enmeshed with the larger concerns of the place of the American citizen and republic in history.

Memorial to Mrs. Lydia Emery

Susan Merrill (United States, 1791-1868), Memorial to Mrs. Lydia Emery, 1811, watercolor and needlework on silk, Gift of Helen Harrington Boyd in memory of Susan Merrill Adams Boyd, 1968.4