Tuesday, November 17, 2015

An Old Picture About Race in Amherst

A year ago today, I put up a little post about a picture involving attitudes toward race in Amherst.

With renewed discussion of problems of race and race relations on our college campuses among other places (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4), it still seems relevant.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Amherst NOT "only the 'h' is silent" caption contest

As almost all readers of this site will know, the unofficial motto of the town, popularized at the time of our 250th anniversary in 2009, and since disseminated throughout the world (well, New England, anyway) on t-shirts and bumper stickers, is:
Amherst, where only the 'h' is silent
a reference to our irrepressible civic spirit and love of democratic debate (some might characterize it slightly differently).

Well, in any case, when I wandered past one of our local establishments this week, this sign caught my eye, and it occurred to me that it, too, might in some small way be representative of our community character (as well as lack of proof-reading ability).

My first reaction was:
Amherst: where not only the 'h' is silent, but also the placement of the possessive apostrophe is completely up to the conscience of the individual believer.
Or how about:
Amherst: Forget chickens. We're so damned liberal that even the apostrophes are free-range.
I'm sure there's more potential out there. Your suggestions?

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Best Columbus Bio You Never Read (and it's German)

Every year, as Columbus Day rolls around, it seems that the critique of the explorer and reluctance to celebrate his holiday grow. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, though if carried to an extreme, it can lead to a rather impoverished understanding of what is in fact a very complex history. It's a complex historiography, too: appraisals of Columbus's actions and importance have fluctuated. His elevation to true heroic status is a relatively recent development. What is more, even in that phase, not all biographies were hagiographies.

A mid-century modern German Columbus bio

It therefore seems a good moment to recall one of the more intriguing books on Columbus, today largely forgotten. In 1929, German novelist and journalist Jakob Wassermann (1873-1934) published his Christopher Columbus: the Don Quixote of the Seas [thus, the English translation; the German original uses: Ocean], the result of more than two decades of attempting to penetrate the mind and character of the explorer.

In developing his portrait, Wassermann assiduously studied all the contemporaneous published sources. The opening of the book is a subtle meditation on the challenge of taking the historical past on its own terms. As he explains, our natural instinct is to impute to the character all the traits and accomplishments that become visible only in retrospect, when he has achieved fame--whereas he can in fact only be understood through the constraints of his own time and existence. Fame, Wassermann said, is "a process of crystallization," in which much "dross" is necessarily removed. He also likened judgments on historical persons and epochs to badly worn old coins, whose value we only rarely pause to investigate.

The age is revealed to the reader in all its splendor and horror

In a review of multiple authors, under the heading, "Imaginative Biography from Germany," the New York Times wrote:
Jakob Wassermann frequently stresses the fact that we of today are quite unable to conceive how great the Genoan's imagination must have been, how enormous the courage which enabled this man and his companions to venture out into dreadfully mysterious wastes of the sea with a few ships and inadequate instruments. Whether his character study of that extraordinary man, a study based on modern psychological methods, is even approximately accurate, Wassermann modestly points out, it is impossible to determine. But from the description given by this expert prober of souls the reader gains a clear picture of Columbus. He must have borne a close relation to Don Quixote -- a magnificently imaginative dreamer and yet narrow-minded, stubborn and quarrelsome, absolutely unshakeable in his pursuit of his life's aim, but often losing in a moment because of the disagreeable traits of his character, everything he had gained. Thus Jakob Wassermann describes him, not as an unsullied hero and a martyr to his great idea, but as a human being with all the failings of humankind, with all the narrowness and lack of understanding of his age; and this, coupled with his immortal deeds, brings him closer to us. The age is revealed to the reader in all its splendor and horror, in its mad desire for gold, in its childlike piety and the terrible but also childish cruelty which enabled its people to massacre a nation as a boy pulls off the legs of a frog.
Not so dumb, then, after all.

The book does not seem to be in print or available online in the 1930 English translation, so you'll have to inquire at a good library. If you read German, it's not only in print, but also available online via Spiegel. Check it out.


Past posts on Columbus Day:

Removing Columbus from the Calendar (2014)
My Two Cents' Worth for Columbus Day. A Postage Stamp as Metaphor (2012)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Placeholder for an Absence: Amherst Town Manager John Musante, 1961-2015

the large flag on the Town Common at half-staff following the funeral for
Amherst Town Manager John Musante, 26 September 2015

Friday, September 11, 2015

9-11 flags fly in Amherst. Now, annually.

It shouldn't be news, but it is. Controversy over the special additional commemorative flags --for we always commemorate the anniversary of the September 11 attacks--ends as we now fly them annually from utility poles in downtown Amherst.

Tired of this controversy, glad it is over. Maybe I'll write about it, maybe not.

* * *

Previous posts on this subject.

The Other 9-11 (s)

Since we have so many flag controversies here in Amherst, let me make clear that Hampshire College, like other major institutions in town, lowers the flag to half-staff on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

That said, the main commemorative event in recent years actually memorializes something totally different: what the organizers call "the other September 11," namely the coup that toppled the socialist regime of Salvador Allende in Chile on that date in 1971.

The organizers generally issue a disclaimer explaining that the purpose is not to minimize the tragedy of the September 11 attacks of 2001, although the juxtaposition certainly serves to contradict the simplistic notion of an "exceptionalist" United States as unalloyed force for good--and, on 9-11, innocent victim. In any case, on a practical level, the programs serve as a way of getting students interested in Latin American studies as the fall semester begins.

I mention all this because it underscores the fact that a given date is often the occasion for many anniversaries, which one momentous event tends to eclipse.

A few years ago, I posted a list of these other 9-11's, and they include some events that were arguably of equal or greater world-historical significance: from the victory of William Wallace at Stirling Bridge (1297), and the opening of the battle in which the Turks were stopped at the gates of Vienna (1683), to the British victory at Brandywine in the American Revolution (1777) and the American victory at Plattsburgh (Lake Champlain) over the British in the War of 1812 (1814).

How many do you recognize?

Pentagon 9-11 flag

Not the least of the many strengths of the National Museum of American History in Washington is that its scale allows it to house and display some immense objects from its collection of some three million items--from the Star Spangled Banner (originally 30 x 42 feet; now 30 x 34) to an entire Ipswich, Massachusetts house.

Another of the largest was just a temporary guest: the great garrison flag that hung from the façade of the Pentagon from September 12 to October 11, 2001. Fittingly, the installation was in Flag Hall, where the Star Spangled Banner was formerly displayed.

I was lucky enough to see it when it was on display from 2002 to 2006.

It was a striking sight whose power the photo can barely convey, though the visitor's head and top of the Christmas tree at lower right give you some sense of the scale.

It is now back home in storage at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair.

* * *

National Museum of American History online exhibit, September 11: Bearing Witness to History.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Town Meeting Follies. The New Hampshire View (2): Quaint Characters

As noted in the previous post, a chance historic preservation and genealogy conversation on Twitter some years ago about antiquated New England town offices led me to a humorous piece on the character of town meeting in New Hampshire Magazine. As I also mentioned, the URL for that piece has vanished, a victim of link rot. But, as they say, when God shuts a door, he opens a window: and so, my recent, unsuccessful search for that piece brought me not only further information on weird and vanished town offices, but also more commentary on the institution of town meeting.

The article is entitled, "Town Meeting and Other Relevant NH Government Relics" and moreover has the descriptive and charming subtitle, "Like programs on the History Channel, some civic traditions are profound while others are ridiculous, and just like the folks who preserve them, they all have stories to tell."

As I said last time: to share this material is not to voice an opinion on the move for a "Charter vote" that would conceivably abolish Amherst Town Meeting (and my own prestigious and lucrative position on the Select Board: as former Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe used to say on bad days: "82 cents a day."). The purpose is only to share more comparative material on our civic and political institutions. On the whole, I think Amherst comes off looking pretty good. As I like to say: "it could always be worse."

Still, you may see some things that you recognize here. Take a look at this "Town Meeting Cast and Crew" and see what you think. Any familiar types?

Town Meeting Follies. The New Hampshire View (1): "I Hate Town Meeting"

Given that we have launched into the great debate over the proper form of local government, I am hauling pertinent past posts (or parts of them) out of the vaults.

Several years ago, in the course of a Twitter conversation with a fellow historic preservationist about obscure or obsolete New England town offices (the one in question was that of "hog reeve"), I came across this humorous portrayal of a mildly undemocratic, corrupt, and dysfunctional town meeting. It was originally published in New Hampshire Magazine back in 2008, and the URL appears to be a victim of proverbial "link rot," so I am glad I grabbed a portion of the text at the time and can share it here again.

Lest anyone leap to any invidious conclusions: I am doing so simply to illustrate the range of character of and opinion about New England town meetings. As one of the labels for the post should suggest, we in Amherst are fortunate to have a Town Meeting that--whatever one thinks of the views expressed at any given time--is serious, ethical, and managed by skilled Moderators. We should be grateful for that, because: "it could always be worse."

Still, you may see a few traits that you recognize.


I hate town meeting.

Town meeting is a laboratory sink for psychologists.

Every dreadful facet of human nature reveals itself at these gatherings. One must have the emotions of a sociopath to escape town meeting with one's soul intact.

I remember a town meeting in Temple years ago where the Police Chief, Russ Tyler, was attacked for using his cruiser too much. Poor Chief Tyler used his own car as the cruiser. He saved the town a lot of money using his own car.

But the mob at the meeting was sure he was getting away with something.

I remember thinking, "You people are crazy to be yelling at the Chief like this. He has a gun."

But Chief Tyler also had great heart. He was a straight shooter and a nice guy (although he did look like that sheriff in the old TV ad who says, "Boy, you're in a heap of trouble.")

In the end, the meeting vented itself and the Chief got his budget. But what heroic self-restraint that man showed.

Towns are made up of people who do not trust one another. It is and has always been "us and them."

The "new" people settle here with an idyllic view of living in a small town. They come from places where no one knows each other. Here they expected to find love.

What they find, of course, is resentment. The old Yankees don't trust the newcomers. Usually the newcomers are Democrats.

Some newcomer always stands up at the meeting and says something like, "My name is Ralph Lumpman and Loraine and I moved up here last fall from Darien. We bought the old Cosgrove place on Swamp Road. And I'd like to say that our moderator tonight is doing a bang-up job and I think we should give him a round of applause."

Then all the people, who recently moved to town, clap.

And there is always someone who informs the moderator that the flag is on the wrong side of the stage.

Town meeting gives people license. No one is expected to practice restraint.

Everyone is there to tell it like it is.

For 24 years of my life I was a small-town newspaper reporter and did news on the radio station in Peterborough.

I have attended over three hundred town meetings.

In my 50-plus years of going to town meetings I've seen a lot of changes. Years ago most towns were controlled by the families who owned the mills. In Milford it was Charlie Emerson; in Jaffrey it was D.D. Bean; in Wilton it was the Abbots; in Dublin, Robb Sagendorph.

If you didn't work for these men, someone in your family did. I used to watch D. D. Bean sit in the front of the hall at the Jaffrey Town Meeting.

Mr. Bean owned the match factory, in Jaffrey. When an article important to him came up he would turn and look back over his seat and note who voted "for" and who voted "against" the article.

Robb Sagendorph was the publisher of Yankee magazine and the Old Farmer's Almanac up in Dublin and he had double clout. Robb Sagendorph was also the moderator. If he didn't like an article he would close down discussion.

"We have had enough jawing about this matter," he'd say. "It's time to vote." 

Artifact of the Moment: "Souvenir de la Libération": France, 1944

As the anniversary of the start of World War II draws near, time to squeeze in one more piece on the endgame. Recently, it was Okinawa and Hiroshima in the spring and summer of 1945.

This time: the liberation of Paris, August 25, 1944.

Dia.: 40 mm. Rim dia: 61 mm. Length: 311mm
It is a British brass shell casing, decorated and inscribed, "Souvenir de la Liberation." I bought it from an English antique dealer couple who were visiting a colleague here in the US and had brought a few items to sell during their trip. I haven't researched is as thoroughly as I would like, but unless I am way wide of the mark, it is a shell from a 40 mm Bofors L60 gun (1 , 2) which was widely used by both sides.

As a piece crafted to celebrate and recall the "Liberation," it presumably dates from sometime between D-Day and August 27, when De Gaulle told the Resistance that their work was done, or soon thereafter.

Many would term it "trench art," which Paul Cornish's photo essay on the Imperial War Museum website defines as "objects made from the debris and by-products of modern warfare": originally applied to works by soldiers of the First World War, but now even beyond that period. He further notes,  "Many examples of trench art were also made by local civilians for sale to soldiers" and "after the war. . . for sale as souvenirs to the visitors to battlefields and cemeteries." Given that this one is French, and taking the inscription into account, I would assume that it falls into that latter category of works made by civilians for the general market. That said, the fact that the word, "Liberation" lacks the appropriate accent aigu on the "e" (é) could perhaps (though probably not?) suggest a foreign origin.

a flower

the dove and dawn of peace
Although it was sold as a topical item tied to the events of the day, it has somehow survived for over 70 years, thus indeed preserving the memory of a moment that seemed to herald the dawn of a new world.

Naive, we may think. Barbarism and intolerance have not disappeared. Europe was powerless in the face of the genocide committed against Bosnian Muslims and has also failed in the face of subsequent horrors. And yet, as this stamp issued for the 50th anniversary of the end of the war reminds us, something of that hopeful moment did become a reality.

[updated images]