Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Hiram Powers, "The Greek Slave"

In 1844, American sculptor Hiram Powers completed a sculpture he called, “The Greek Slave”, which was to become one of the most popular art works of the 19th century.  The statue is of a naked young woman, bound in chains.  In one hand she holds a small cross.

Powers described the work:

The Slave has been taken from one of the Greek Islands by the Turks, in the time of the Greek revolution, the history of which is familiar to all. Her father and mother, and perhaps all her kindred, have been destroyed by her foes, and she alone preserved as a treasure too valuable to be thrown away. She is now among barbarian strangers, under the pressure of a full recollection of the calamitous events which have brought her to her present state; and she stands exposed to the gaze of the people she abhors, and awaits her fate with intense anxiety, tempered indeed by the support of her reliance upon the goodness of God. Gather all these afflictions together, and add to them the fortitude and resignation of a Christian, and no room will be left for shame.”

The statue became a rallying symbol for a number a groups.  In 1848, Lucy Stone saw the statue and broke into tears, seeing the statue as the symbol of man’s oppression of the female sex.  Stone took up the cause of women’s rights.  Abolitionists drew parallels between the plight of The Greek Slave and the plight of slaves in the American South.

Hiram Powers' studio produced six full-scale marble versions of The Greek Slave for private collectors.  The statue is now on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., among other places.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Washington's Prayer at Valley Forge

Arnold Friberg painted "The Prayer at ValleyForge" in 1975 in time for the Bicentennial of American Independence. The painting has become a modern icon.  Friberg visited Valley Forge during the winter to immerse himself in the conditions faced by Washington and the American patriots.
The original  story of Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge may be apocryphal, having originated with an account by Reverend Nathaniel Snowden which began to circulate in the early 1820s.  Reverend Snowden recounted that one of Washington’s soldiers, a man named Isaac Potts testified to him: 
“I tied my horse to a sapling and went quietly into the woods and to my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis, and the cause of the country, of humanity and of the world.

“Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying. I went home and told my wife. I saw a sight and heard today what I never saw or heard before, and just related to her what I had seen and heard and observed. We never thought a man could be a soldier and a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington. She also was astonished. We thought it was the cause of God, and America could prevail.”
Many historians question Reverend Snowden’s story, if not that Washington was a man who prayed.  Snowden is seen as another storytelling clergyman like Mason Locke Weems (1759 -1825), known to history as Parson Weems, who invented the famous story of George Washington and the cherry tree in 1800 (“I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet.”).  Weems wrote biography to amplify his subject. His subject was “... Washington, the hero, and the demigod.”  It has been said of his writing, “If the tales aren’t true, they should be. They are too pretty to be classified with the myths.” 
There are numerous examples of Washington invoking the blessings and protection of the Almighty, including at the time of his leaving the Army:
“I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.”

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fake News in 1931

Stanley Baldwin

Fake news has been around a very long time, and its’ methods haven’t changed much.

In 1931 British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin blasted the press with unusual harshness,

“They are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal vices, personal likes and dislikes of (hostile press barons Rothermere and Beaverbrook).  What are their methods?  Their methods are direct falsehoods, misrepresentations, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker’s meaning by publishing a sentence apart from the context….What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Book Review: Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music

In Romancing the Folk, Benjamin Filene traces the development of the folk music movement since 1900. His primary focus is the cultural “middlemen”, who discovered folk musicians and promoted them as exemplars of America’s musical roots. These individuals made judgments about what constituted America’s true musical traditions, helped shape what “mainstream” audiences recognized as authentic, and inevitably, transformed the music that the folk performers offered. (Filene, 5)

What is fascinating about these cultural brokers is how their endeavors reflect one of the ongoing themes in American history, the dichotomy between the vision of man in society versus the vision of the noble savage, the individual in a simpler more natural time. The earliest folklorists were bent on cataloging and preserving original songs. These early catalogers saw the propagation of folk culture as a means of knitting society back together and restoring it to a simpler era. John and Alan Lomax went farther, recording the sounds of authentic performers and introducing authentic performers to the public.

Industrial development in America increasingly diminished the autonomy of the individual in favor of the demands of industrial discipline. Technology forced the worker into what the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) called, “a common servitude of all workers to the machines which they tend”. Disillusioned with bourgeois culture’s corrupt materialism and constraining standards of propriety folklorists depicted roots musicians as the embodiments of an anti-modern ethos. The appeal of folk performers to the public was their non-middleclass “otherness”. In his public persona Huddie Ledbetter (aka “Lead Belly”), an ex-convict singer John and Alan Lomax brought to public attention, was cast as an archetypal ancestor, pre-modern, emotive, non-commercial. The “outsider” was the persona expected of the folk performer, even though many of the performers themselves, including “Lead Belly” and “Muddy Waters” ( McKinley Morganfield) were both willing and anxious to adapt their music to be more commercially viable.

During the great national crises of the Depression and the Second World War, the folk music movement was officially embraced by the government as a method of enhancing national pride and cohesion. Folk songs were identified with Americanism. The ruling elite used a cultural tool to energize crowds to identify with the prevailing ideology of the elite. After the war, the official embrace of folk music faded and folk music resumed its role as an activity of “otherness”.

One of the primary forces in the folk movement in the post-war years was Pete Seeger. Pete Seeger and his followers, constituted an early wave of the 1960s counterculture, pushing against the empty homogeneity of bourgeois life. Interestingly the two most influential figures in the folk movement, Seeger and Bob Dylan were not, in fact, of the working class. Seeger was the son of privilege, the product of elite eastern prep schools, and Harvard. Dylan (Robert Zimmerman)was the product of a conventional middle class family from Minnesota. Both donned working class clothes and developed an ersatz working class lifestyle, despite background and income, rejecting even bathing and hygiene in a quest for “authenticity”.

In many ways both Seeger, Dylan, and the folk movement can be seen as part of the tradition of the nineteenth century utopianism, hankering after a simpler and nobler American community.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Historic Blenheim: Civil War Graffiti

Historic Blenheim

As fighting surged across Northern Virginia during the four years of the American Civil War, many curious reminders were left behind for future generations to ponder. Near the City of Fairfax, for example, the historic mansion “Blenheim” boasts the largest collection of Civil War graffiti in the nation. Blenheim was a new and luxurious home at the beginning of the war, having just been completed in 1859. During the course of the war the Union army occupied the property on three separate occasions, with at least twenty two different regiments of the Union Army using the house at one point or another. For almost a year Blenheim was used as a convalescent hospital. The Union soldiers passing through Blenheim left a "diary on walls" providing insight into typical soldier life during the Civil War. One soldier from 4th New York Cavalry wrote along the walls of a staircase,

“First month’s hard bread, hard on stomach.”

“Second month, pay day. Patriotic-hic Ale. How we suffer for lager.”

“Fourth month: no money, no whiskey, no friends, no rations, no peas, no beans, no pants, no patriotism.”

General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Washington Crossing the Delaware

In 1851, German American painter Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze painted the iconic picture Washington Crossing the Delaware, which portrayed the events of the night of December 25-26, 1776.  The river was icy and the weather severe.  Two detachments of soldiers were unable to cross the river, leaving Washington with only 2,400 men under his command to launch a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. The Hessian garrison was caught off guard early on the morning of December 26.  After a short, sharp battle, most of the Hessian’s surrendered.  The victory at Trenton came at a critical moment.  Badly battered over the course of several months, the morale of Washington’s army was collapsing.  This much needed victory boosted the Continental Army's flagging morale, and inspired re-enlistments.
Leutze painted three versions of Washington’s crossing.  One version, hanging in Germany, was destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II.  The other two versions are now in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Minnesota Marine Art Museum.