Tuesday, November 30, 2010

30 November Minaret Redux: a year after the ban, it faces new challenges

Update:  Exactly a year ago, as noted here, the Swiss public endorsed a shameful and bigoted referendum banning the construction of minarets. The blow is not forgotten.  This week, Le Monde reports, the Central Islamic Council of Switzerland vowed to undo the measure by the same means that had created it: a referendum.

The National Post explains:
When asked why voters would decide differently should the question of minarets come up again for referendum, Oscar Bergamin, an advisor to the group, answered:

“People today are much better able to differentiate. They’re better informed and have time to become still better informed in coming years,” he said.
It would be nice to think so.

In the meantime, the Council has problems of its own:
In May the Federal Migration Bureau excluded it from an inter-cultural dialogue, saying it first needed to condemn the notion of stoning of women as a punishment.
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Monday, November 29, 2010

Nominations for Amherst's Conch Shell Award Now Open

Just as the first and only official flag contest winds down, nominations for the annual Conch Shell Award continue: some two weeks rather than two days left there.

From the official website:
Amherst Historical Society and Museum Seeks Conch Shell Award Nominations

The Society established the award in an effort to bring recognition to those who have made valuable contributions to the preservation and awareness of Amherst’s rich cultural history. The “Conch Shell Award” takes its name from the conch shell or “ye auld kunk” that was used to call Amherst residents in the 1700s to Town Meeting and Worship. The actual “auld kunk” is exhibited in the Amherst History Museum’s Visitor Center.

Anyone can nominate an individual, organization, or business for the award. A committee, appointed by the Amherst Historical Society, will review the submissions. The committee will be looking for nominees who have demonstrated a commitment to the education, preservation, and interpretation of Amherst History. They also will consider those who have used innovative and creative methods in showcasing Amherst and its historic resources.

Past honorees include, Polly Longsworth, Douglas Wilson, James Avery Smith and the 250th Celebration Committee. This year’s recipient will be honored at the Amherst Historical Society’s Annual Founders Celebration on Saturday, February 12 at the Jones Library. The public is invited.

The Deadline for Nominations is December 15, 2010. Nominations should be sent to: Patricia Lutz, Director, Amherst Historical Society and Museum, 67 Amity Street, Amherst, MA 01002 or email to: amhersthistory@yahoo.com
Here is my post on the 2009 ceremonies, from our 250th anniversary year, in which James Avery Smith was the recipient of the award, and Amherst College historian Kevin Sweeney gave the keynote address, on the military career of Jeffery Amherst.

Curious as to what a conch trumpet of the indigenous American peoples might have sounded like?  See Marissa Cevalos, "Ancient Trumpets Played Eerie Notes," which fortuitously appeared in Science News of November 10.
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Amherst Flag Contest About to End: Voting Ends November 30

As recently noted, the Amherst flag contest is underway. In fact, it's now about to end.  See the designs and cast your vote here.

As of mid-month, 330 people had participated.

I'll post an update after the deadline passes.

* * *
Update on the update: that follow-up never materialized because things took a somewhat different turn this year. The committees took a different route and solicited further designs, which received a provisional review only at the end 2011. A final decision is expected in early 2012.

Jan Wiener, 1920-2010

Just a brief note on the sad news of the passing of historian Jan Wiener.

Here's the AP story, via Haaretz:
Jewish Czech who fought Nazis with British army dies

Jan Wiener, who fought in the British air force during World War II after fleeing Nazis in Germany and Czechoslovakia, died at age 90. (read the rest)
A more detailed appreciation will follow here soon.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Miscellany

A little post-prandial link dump, for inclusion of Thanksgiving-related stories that I did not manage to fit into my longer piece.

For your dining and relaxing entertainment, the Library of Congress offered two old songs, George W. Morgan's "National Thanksgiving Hymn," dedicated to President Rutherford B. Hayes, and James Blyler's "The Turkey Gobbler's Ball," from the Ziegeld Follies of 1911 (not a Thanksgiving piece, but obviously, thematically appropriate).  As a visual treat, LC provides a poster for the 1895 Thanksgiving issue of The Chapbook.

And because, as we have seen, gratitude toward soldiers, past and present, is emerging as a strong theme of Thanksgiving, the LC also offers a sample of the testimony collected in conjunction with the Veterans History Project (VHP), a continuation of the many efforts it promoted in association with Veterans' Day.   Video here.

Meanwhile, the folks over at NPR's new classical music blog, "Deceptive Cadence," noting (in the e-mail teaser) that "Opera is often about romance and revenge, but even lovers and scoundrels have to eat," offers up a "A Bel Canto Banquet: The Thanksgiving Culinary Classical Quiz." Visitors to the site listen to an audio clip and then drag its emblem onto the visual representation of the appropriate food group.

You can enjoy all of these pursuits from your own home, or your computer, wherever you may be.  But if you're in our area, namely the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, you may wish to visit Historic Deerfield on Saturday the 27th for the "Season of Thanks" program. All day, the re-enactors of the "Society of the 17th Century" will demonstrate English crafts and folkways from the Pilgrim era in the historic Hall Tavern (included in price of general admission).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Annual Thanksgiving History Buffet

"Embarcation of the Pilgrims": depicting the myth (see below)
It's time for the annual Thanksgiving piece again.

It's always intriguing and instructive to watch the evolving coverage in the press and blogosphere:  above and beyond the predictable pious thoughts (gratitude for friends, family, and prosperity; throw in a word for the troops these days, too) and generally gentle historical debunking.

Eels: They're What's for Dinner

Foodways of course still loom large in the Thanksgiving press in any given year (often intersecting with debunkery).  In my first Thanksgiving post, two years ago, I quite naturally began with the historical record of the "first Thanksgiving" and the historical menu.   Among my favorite points there:
  1. Seafood was probably a major portion of the menu; the meats certainly included duck, goose, and venison, though some historians make a strong case for the wild turkey, as well.
  2. The celebration included gunfire and, probably, heavy drinking.
  3. The (presumed equivalent of) cranberries that the colonists knew from Europe were in fact not fruits, but pregnant insects.
In today's New York Times, James Prosek reminds us of the historical and current importance of one of those foods:  the eel. He begins by saying, in effect: forget for the moment the story about Squanto teaching the Pilgrims to farm by planting seeds along with a fish, to serve as fertilizer. They wouldn't have survived long enough to plant in the spring had they not had food in the winter, and one of the crucial sources—as they likewise learned from Squanto—was the eel.  Author of a new book on the fascinating fish, Prosek closes with an explanation of the threat to the species through unsustainable fishing practices and concludes:
What can we do to restore this creature that once made up 25 percent of the fish biomass of Eastern rivers? For starters, we can rehabilitate the local wetlands that nurture eels at all life stages, because eels historically fed not only humans, but nearly everything in the system, from striped bass to cormorants.

We also need to deal with dams that prevent the free exchange of life from the sea to inland waterways. If dams cannot be removed, then they should be equipped with eel ladders to help juvenile eels travel upstream. And hydrodam operators should consider turning off the turbines, which wound or kill eels, for a few hours on autumn nights during the peak of vast unseen migrations of the adult fish to the sea.

Let’s be thankful, then, for the beautiful but forgotten Thanksgiving eel. And let’s accept responsibility for preserving the fish that did so much to sustain the newcomers to these shores so many years ago.
As for the place of the sweet potato on the Thanksgiving table: as I pointed out in 2008, it was evidently not available to the Massachusetts colonists in 1621. The Library of Congress has a nice post on the food, in particular, the "candied" form familiar to us from the modern holiday menu. The plant is documented in the 8th century BCE in South America and, during the Age of Exploration, came to Europe, where it was for long the potato. (In fact, the piece explains, "It wasn’t until after the 1740’s that the term sweet potato began to be used by American colonists to distinguish it from the white (Irish) potato.") Although recipes for a prepared dish date from the first American cookbook of 1789 and appear elsewhere in the next half-century, it seems that the candied and casserole dishes really established their popularity in the final third of the nineteenth century. As chance would have it, two pieces in the Times address the fate of "the noble root" in the 21st century.

Kim Severson details the meteoric rise of a food that the Wall Street Journal  three years ago characterized as an obligatory once-a-year staple and 364-day loser (not the first time that publication has been wrong about something, of course).  The efforts to promote the crop that the paper chronicled and dismissed have in the meantime yielded an annual US harvest of two billion pounds. There are multiple reasons for the food's new allure, ranging from nutritional advantage to the consumer to economic advantage to southern farmers shifting away from tobacco.  Ultimately, though, Severson tells us, "sweet potato fries are at the center of the revolution." (Among our local establishments noted for serving this delicacy, one might mention Judie's, The Pub, and the Amherst Brewing Company. For eels, you'd have to venture a bit farther afield. A decade ago, Steve Kemper had a nice piece about that delicacy in Yankee Magazine.)

And like the eel, the sweet potato has a claim on our moral as well as gustatory and historical faculties.  Nicholas Kristof points to its growing role in staving off disease.  As he explains, malnutrition, particularly in third-world countries, is often the result of "lack of micronutrients" rather than of calories.  The American sweet potato is packed with beta carotene, but it does not grow well in Africa, where the prevalent variety, a staple, lacks this nutrient.  Distributing Vitamin A capsules is difficult and expensive, so scientists instead cross-bred the potatoes to develop a variety that combined the nutritional value of the one with the environmental appropriateness of the other.  This process of "biofortification," Kristof explains, is "one of the hot words in the global poverty lexicon." In this case, it's a matter of conventional hybridization.  An even hotter word, however, is "genetically modified."  As Kristof observes, "golden rice," which uses genes from daffodils and corn to produce Vitamin A, is another potential game-changer, but resistance (as I have noted elsewhere) is high and often irrational. In his words:
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. No battle against poverty goes smoothly, or as planned. And the European left’s sad hostility to scientific tinkering with crops may slow acceptance of biofortification. If that hostility gains ground, it will be harder to save children from blindness and death.

The Pilgrims:  Socialists, Capitalists, or Just Regular Seventeenth-Century Calvinist Guys?

Since we're on the topic of moralizing, what really struck me this year was that so much of the commentary was political, or about the politicization of the holiday and the Pilgrims.  The use of the past as a mirror or foil for our own values is of course nothing new, and the Pilgrim myth is but one of the most familiar to us. As James and Patricia Scott Deetz say, such "origin myths" are universal:
And in a nation that is so religiously diverse, it seems most appropriate that a secular event, no matter how transformed over time, serve such a purpose. But the Thanksgiving myth is only a part of a larger national myth for Americans; that of the Pilgrims and their supposed role in the making of modern America.
[The Times of Their Lives:  Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (NY: Anchor Books, 2000), 9]
I happened to pull out one random such example from my personal library, Mrs. Abby B. Whelpley's "The Embarcation of the Pilgrims," from The Christian Family Annual, edited by the Revered David Newell, volume 3 (NY, 1845).  The accompanying steel engraving (above), depicting the English port from which they sailed, is so riddled with anachronisms that one is tempted to believe they were deliberate rather than naïve, as if to underscore the presentist interpretation of that usable past. (A more likely, book-historical explanation—not least because it is more common to depict the departure from the Netherlands—is that someone recycled an existing plate and just added the caption.)

The piece begins by citing the peregrinations of the Pilgrims, as they went from Lincolnshire to first Amsterdam and then Leyden before deciding "the great question whether they should seek a home in the new world." "They were alarmed," Mrs. Whelpley tells us, "lest religion should become extinct with their posterity, for it was daily suffering from the licentiousness of the continent; and to use their own words 'they felt an inward zeal and great hope of laying some foundation for propagating the religion of Christ to the remote ends of the earth.'" (369)

Along the way, the essay also calls attention to the role of women:
   While we speak of the men whose lofty purposes were thus formed amidst numerous discouragements, a tribute of praise and respect is due to those females who, with not less magnanimity of spirit, forsook all the enjoyments, and in many instances, the luxuries of home, in an enlightened country, to join in the enterprise of planting the gospel seed in the wilderness, which they fondly hoped might yet 'rejoice and blossom as the rose;' they refused not the cross, but, with smiles of encouragement, cheered the hearts of their husbands, brothers and friends, in the glorious cause. (371-72)
Not third-wave feminism or anything like that, and rather, the traditional role of the helpmeet, perhaps retroactively infused with the ideology of republican motherhood, but interesting to note.

And it condemns those among their number for "faults of both opinion and feeling," when "their ranks were disgraced by a Henry Vane, a Hugh Peters, and others who evinced the same spirit as their persecutors."

The piece moves toward its conclusion:
After a protracted and tedious voyage, the pilgrims arrived in America in December, O.S. [=Old Style, i.e before the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar; JW], and soon the vice of praise and thanksgiving resounded along the snow-clad shore.  But the hand of the Lord was upon them to sanctify them yet further, by severe trials; scarcity of food, cold, hardship and fatigue, swept half their number into the grave, so that of the one hundred and one who landed on Plymouth rock, only fifty remained in the following spring, and truly it may be said that the good which afterwards sprang up in New England, was sown in tears and sorrow, over the graves of their loved ones. (372)
Mrs. Whelpley then offers the lesson of the story: the Pilgrims endured these trials of fate with Christian fortitude, and became the symbolic and practical founders of the American system, both devout and democratic.
The pilgrim fathers elicited the spark which illuminated this continent. They brought the Bible with them, which they made the rule and guide of their designs, and which was the instrument of laying broad the foundations of our institutions, civil, religious and literary. One of the first steps was to build a church, and by the side of it a school-house, and in both was deposited and taught the word of God. The Sabbath was truly sanctified among them, and where in this land is it so sacredly regarded to this day as in New England?  They laid the basis of their exertions in the extended establishment of common schools, considering it a point of conscience to furnish their posterity with the means of intellectual advancement; and they early laid the foundations of those higher seminaries of learning which are the brightest ornaments of this country.  They brought over with them the missionary spirit; their efforts were early turned to the conversion of the Aborigines, and in a short time many of them were brought under the saving influence of the gospel.  They implanted deep in the very soil, a love of liberty, struggling against, and resisting every thing that interfered with the exercise of their religion; and doubtless they had a principal share in laying the foundation of our national independence; indeed their principles were formed on a love of liberty, civil and religious. (372-73)
It's easy to make fun of this sort of stuff as pious posturing and propaganda, yet, when taken within the appropriate limits—the Puritans and Pilgrims were not devotees of abstract or secular civil libertarianism in the modern sense—it is arguably more accurate than the negative stereotypes.

As I try to explain to students, Puritanism is a funny thing. Like the Pharisees, the Puritans have become a caricature and a smear word bearing little resemblance to the historical reality.  The average person has some vague idea of Puritanism and repressive personal morality, witch-burning, and the like. In fact, a number of my progressive and even radical as well as evangelical friends are big admirers of the Puritans.  Every so often I think we should start a secret fan club.  Sure, the English Puritans were at times a stern lot.  I myself like the theater, but hell, they overthrew the monarchy and cut off the head of the king, paving the way for future revolutions (remember that Patrick Henry speech?).  Isn't that worth something?  As for our proverbial Pilgrim forefathers, they wore colorful clothing and habitually consumed alcohol in quantities that would nowadays get them sent to rehab clinics in a flash (one reason they needed to make landfall in Massachusetts was because their beer stocks were running low, and they needed a new supply of fresh water). And if they took a dim view of adultery, it was in part because they adhered to a single sexual norm rather than allowing men the luxury of the traditional double standard. The Pilgrims took sex seriously because they viewed it as a strong and normal human urge. Court records show that, in mid-seventeenth-century Plymouth, at least 11 percent of marriages involved premarital sex (and those were just the people who got caught).

As Harvard's David Hall, one of the great historians of early New England, points out in the pages of the New York Times ("Peace, Love, and Puritanism"), it behooves us for several reasons, practical as well as intellectual, to ask who the Puritans were and what they sought to achieve rather than just what they ate.  He blames Nathaniel Hawthorne for establishing the stereotype of Puritans as "self-righteous and authoritarian, bent on making everyone conform to a rigid set of rules and ostracizing everyone who disagreed with them."
Contrary to Hawthorne’s assertions of self-righteousness, the colonists hungered to recreate the ethics of love and mutual obligation spelled out in the New Testament. Church members pledged to respect the common good and to care for one another. Celebrating the liberty they had gained by coming to the New World, they echoed St. Paul’s assertion that true liberty was inseparable from the obligation to serve others.
For this reason, no Puritan would have agreed with the ethic of “self-reliance” advanced by Hawthorne’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Instead, people should agree on what was right, and make it happen. Wanting social peace, the colonists experienced plenty of conflict among themselves. It was upsetting when this happened, but among the liberties they carefully guarded was the right to petition any government and to plead any grievance, a liberty that women as well as men acted on.
This is where our own famously contentious Amherst Town Meeting (1, 2,) came from.  Hall highlights the political:
The most far-reaching of these Puritan reforms concerned the civil law and the workings of justice. In 1648, Massachusetts became the first place in the Anglo-American world to publish a code of laws — and make it accessible to everyone. Believing that the rule of law protected against arbitrary or unjust authority, the civil courts practiced speedy justice, empowered local juries and encouraged reconciliation and restitution. Overnight, most of the cruelties of the English justice system vanished. Marriage became secularized, divorce a possibility, meetinghouses (churches) town property.

And although it’s tempting to envision the ministers as manipulating a “theocracy,” the opposite is true: they played no role in the distribution of land and were not allowed to hold political office. Nor could local congregations impose civil penalties on anyone who violated secular law. In these rules and values lay one root of the separation of church and state that eventually emerged in our society.
Why does it matter whether we get the Puritans right or not? The simple answer is that it matters because our civil society depends, as theirs did, on linking an ethics of the common good with the uses of power. In our society, liberty has become deeply problematic: more a matter of entitlement than of obligation to the whole. Everywhere, we see power abused, the common good scanted. Getting the Puritans right won’t change what we eat on Thanksgiving, but it might change what we can be thankful for and how we imagine a better America. 
Meanwhile, arch-conservatives have been attempting to claim the Pilgrims as the ancestors of their own brand of liberty. Over on the Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin regurgitates an older piece by fringe economist Benjamin Powell.  The Pilgrims' early problems, Powell insists, were the results of "Bad economic incentives":
Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years.
(Suffice it to say that the situation was a good deal more complicated, involving, for example, various groups of settlers arriving under differing legal and economic agreements. Read any real history of Plymouth for the full explanation.) But why stop there?   On the floor of the US House, Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri) explained:
It might be helpful to think back and say, there’s more to Thanksgiving than the Pilgrims. They were a group of people who were willing to change the system, to think of different ideas. They came here and separated civil and church governments. They came here and created the model of a written constitution, the idea that the government should be the servant of the people. […] They came here with the idea that after trying socialism that it wasn’t going to work. They realized that it was unbiblical, that it was a form of theft, so they pitched socialism out. They learned that in the early 1620’s. [video here]
So which was it:  were the Pilgrims resolute anti-socialists from the start (Akin), or were they in fact, more akin (no pun intended) to neo-conservatives—socialists who got mugged by reality (Powell)?  Either way, these authorities insist, you can be damned sure they were against socialism in the end. You betcha.  Believe it or not, this sort of inanely anachronistic discussion is taken quite seriously in some circles.  As for me, I'll take my early New England history straight up from those who actually understand it. David Hall's major new book on the Puritans and "the transformation of public life" will be out in the spring.

Even overseas commentators are keeping an eye on our wackiness over the holiday weekend. The Spiegel noted, with a mixture of amusement and alarm, the rise of these crackpot tea party version of early American history:  "How the Pilgrim Fathers Abolished Socialism."  Over in the UK, Harry's Place called attention to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Thanksgiving proclamation of 1933 (cited in a Washington Post editorial), his first year as President, when the nation faced far greater and more numerous crises than it does today:
“May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors. May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; . . . for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind.”
and commented:
“[S]triving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good”? “May we be grateful for… the new spirit of dependence one on another”?

And some people call Obama a socialist.

Happy Thanksgiving to our American readers.
Even as European bloggers are watching our historical celebrations and appropriations with interest, the folks at History channel can't be bothered to take or teach American history seriously on this most popular of American holidays:  they're too busy pumping out pap about aliens from outer space. It took up hours of programming.  But more on that a bit later.


• The 2008 Thanksgiving post (origins of the holiday; foodways)
• The 2009 Thanksgiving post (some comments on teaching the history of Thanksgiving; some links)
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So Much for Thanksgiving. The Perpetrator of the Amherst Pizza Scam is an Ungrateful Bastard

Thanksgiving invariabaly brings stories of heartwarming reunions—and transportation problems.  The script also calls for an occasional story of tragedy or loss.

Amherst experienced one of the latter last weekend, shortly before the holiday. The great pizza scam was almost tailor-made for national media distrubution: a sad event, in which, however, no one was killed, physically hurt, or made homeless, thus providing an opportunity to moralize while indulging in some subdued humor and the inevitable feeble food puns. AP, UPI, and CNN all picked up the story.

As Suzanne McLaughlin's account in the Republican put it, the business was "too trusting." [Manager Sean] "McElligott said he would help drive the pizza to the Mullins Center, but the man never came back, he said."  "Normally, we would take a deposit for such a large order, but we went 'on faith,' McElligott said."

In a later report by Matt Pilon in the Amherst Bulletin [see below], owner Walter Pacheco agreed, "It was a boo-boo on the manager's part to start the order before we had some sort of deposit."
Pacheco said that he tried to give away as many pizzas later in the day as he could, but said that well over half of the pies had to be thrown away.

"It was a total loss," he said.
According to Pilon, police believe they can identify the culprit from the security video, though as the MassLive tv report explained, police first have to determine whether an actual crime was committed. The voluble commentators on the Republican's talkback page had a lot to say about that question as well as the incident as such. Reactions ranged from empathy to a rather less charitable: how stupid can you be? with a few others pointing out that $ 3,900 was a small price to pay for this sort of national publicity.

Suggestions I have heard (from friends, on Twitter, etc.):
• residents could take up a collection to pay for the loss (nice idea, though I assume that, in these difficult times, people will prefer to give even those small amounts to charities that help the truly needy)
• Dylan should pay the company for its loss. He was in no way responsible—on the contrary; there's not any evidence that the culprit actually worked for him—but it would be a grand gesture. (clever)
In the meantime, here's something to be thankful for:  that you are not a complete ass like the guy who thought this stunt would be funny.


Larry Kelley's account in "Only in the Republic of Amherst" (26 Nov.)
• Matt Pilon,"Antonio's stuck for $ 3,900 pizza bill," Amherst Bulletin, 26 Nov.
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Friday, November 19, 2010

19 November 1863: "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here"

That is but one of the famous lines from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered on this date in 1863.  Well, he was half-right.  That brief speech became one of the most famous texts in American history, and a model of rhetorical style.

Many of us also know a further irony:  Lincoln was preceded by famed orator Edward Everett, whose two-hour speech is now known only for being so completely forgotten.  Because Everett was a Massachusetts resident, and a former Governor and Senator of the Commonwealth, MassMoments dedicates today's post to him and that event in Pennsylvania:
On this day . . . in 1863, Edward Everett spoke at the dedication of Gettysburg's National Cemetery, giving what is remembered today as the other Gettysburg Address. The Boston orator was the obvious choice for the occasion. During his 40-year career as professor, diplomat, and statesman, he had consistently dazzled audiences with his brilliant oratory. At Gettysburg, Everett held the crowd spellbound for two hours. But his words are not the ones that are remembered from that day. When Abraham Lincoln followed Everett to the podium, the president spoke for only three minutes, but what he said entered the national memory and has remained there ever since. Everett's Gettysburg address lives on, in the words of one historian, "as a foil to that better thing that followed." (read the rest)
Thanks to the internet, it is today easy for everyone to read Everett's remarks in their entirety. They are still worth studying, though they are very much in the rhetorical and aesthetic spirit of their time.  One can see which features of Lincoln's speech, brevity aside, caused it to be better remembered.  Admittedly, Lincoln's task, according to the invitation, was just to make "a few appropriate remarks" for the dedication of the cemetery.  Everett, by contrast, tried to do everything at once: to hallow the occasion and the space, but also to tell the history of the battle (in some detail), to justify the Union cause, the sacrifice of the July combat, and the continuing war effort, with historical reference to Athenian democracy, the English Civil War, and the American Revolution.

A few highlights:

The opening:
    STANDING beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghanies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.
      It was appointed by law in Athens, that the obsequies of the citizens who fell in battle should be performed at the public expense, and in the most honorable manner. Their bones were carefully gathered up from the funeral pyre where their bodies were consumed, and brought home to the city. There, for three days before the interment, they lay in state, beneath tents of honor, to receive the votive offerings of friends and relatives, flowers, weapons, precious ornaments, painted vases (wonders of art, which after two thousand years adorn the museums of modern Europe), the last tributes of surviving affection. Ten coffins of funereal cypress received the honorable deposit, one for each of the tribes of the city, and an eleventh in memory of the unrecognized, but not therefore unhonored, dead, and of those whose remains could not be recovered. On the fourth day the mournful procession was formed: mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, led the way, and to them it was permitted by the simplicity of ancient manners to utter aloud their lamentations for the beloved and the lost; the male relatives and friends of the deceased followed; citizens and strangers closed the train. Thus marshalled, they moved to the place of interment in that famous Ceramicus, the most beautiful suburb of Athens, which had been adorned by Cimon, the son of Miltiades, with walks and fountains and columns, — whose groves were filled with altars, shrines, and temples, whose gardens were kept forever green by the streams from the neighboring hills, and shaded with the trees sacred to Minerva and coëval with the foundation of the city, whose circuit enclosed
"the olive grove of Academe,
Plato's retirement, where the Attic bird
Trilled his thick-warbled note the summer long,"
whose pathways gleamed with the monuments of the illustrious dead, the work of the most consummate masters that ever gave life to marble. There, beneath the overarching plane-trees, upon a lofty stage erected for the purpose, it was ordained that a funeral oration should be pronounced by some citizen of Athens, in the presence of the assembled multitude.
* * *
    For consider, my friends, what would have been the consequences to the country, to yourselves, and to all you hold dear, if those who sleep beneath our feet, and their gallant comrades who survive to serve their country on other fields of danger, had failed in their duty on those memorable days. Consider what, at this moment, would be the condition of the United States, if that noble Army of the Potomac, instead of gallantly and for the second time beating back the tide of invasion from Maryland and Pennsylvania, had been itself driven from these well-contested heights, thrown back in confusion on Baltimore, or trampled down, discomfited, scattered to the four winds. What, in that sad event, would not have been the fate of the Monumental City, of Harrisburg, of Philadelphia, of Washington, the Capital of the Union, each and every one of which would have lain at the mercy of the enemy, accordingly as it might have pleased him, spurred by passion, flushed with victory, and confident of continued success, to direct his course?
* * *
    And now, friends, fellow-citizens, as we stand among these honored graves, the momentous question presents itself, Which of the two parties to the war is responsible for all this suffering, for this dreadful sacrifice of life, — the lawful and constituted government of the United States, or the ambitious men who have rebelled against it? [. . .  ] What would have been thought by an impartial posterity of the American rebellion against George III., if the colonists had at all times been more than equally represented in Parliament, and James Otis and Patrick Henry and Washington and Franklin and the Adamses and Hancock and Jefferson, and men of their stamp, had for two generations enjoyed the confidence of the sovereign and administered the government of the empire? [ . . . ]
      I call the war which the Confederates are waging against the Union a "rebellion," because it is one, and in grave matters it is best to call things by their right names. I speak of it as a crime, because the Constitution of the United States so regards it, and puts "rebellion" on a par with "invasion." The constitution and law, not only of England, but of every civilized country, regard them in the same light; or rather they consider the rebel in arms as far worse than the alien enemy. To levy war against the United States is the constitutional definition of treason, and that crime is by every civilized government regarded as the highest which citizen or subject can commit. [ . . . ] And reason good; for while a rebellion against tyranny — a rebellion designed, after prostrating arbitrary power, to establish free government on the basis of justice and truth — is an enterprise on which good men and angels may fool; with complacency, an unprovoked rebellion of ambitious men against a beneficent government, for the purpose — the avowed purpose - of establishing, extending, and perpetuating any form of injustice and wrong, is an imitation on earth of that first foul revolt of "the Infernal Serpent," against which the Supreme Majesty of heaven sent forth the armed myriads of his angels, and clothed the right arm of his Son with the three-bolted thunders of omnipotence.
* * *
    No man can deplore more than I do the miseries of every kind unavoidably incident to war. Who could stand on this spot and call to mind the scenes of the first days of July with any other feeling? A sad foreboding of what would ensue, if war should break out between North and South, has haunted me through life, and led me, perhaps too long, to tread in the path of hopeless compromise, in the fond endeavor to conciliate those who were predetermined not to be conciliated. But it is not true, as is pretended by the Rebels and their sympathizers, that the war has been carried on by the United States without entire regard to those temperaments which are enjoined by the law of nations, by our modern civilization, and by the spirit of Christianity. It would be quite easy to point out, in the recent military history of the leading European powers, acts of violence and cruelty, in the prosecution of their wars, to which no parallel can be found among us. In fact, when we consider the peculiar bitterness with which civil wars are almost invariably waged, we may justly boast of the manner in which the United States have carried on the contest. It is of course impossible to prevent the lawless acts of stragglers and deserters, or the occasional unwarrantable proceedings of subordinates on distant stations; but I do not believe there is, in all history, the record of a civil war of such gigantic dimensions where so little has been done in the spirit of vindictiveness as in this war, by the Government and commanders of the United States; and this notwithstanding the provocation given by the Rebel Government by assuming the responsibility of wretches like Quantrell, refusing quarter to colored troops, and scourging and selling into slavery free colored men from the North who fall into their hands, by covering the sea with pirates, refusing a just exchange of prisoners, while they crowd their armies with paroled prisoners not exchanged, and starving prisoners of war to death.

      In the next place, if there are any present who believe, that, in addition to the effect of the military operations of the war, the confiscation acts and emancipation proclamations have embittered the Rebels beyond the possibility of reconciliation, I would request them to reflect that the tone of the Rebel leaders and Rebel press was just as bitter in the first months of the war, nay, before a gun was fired, as it is now. There were speeches made in Congress in the very last session before the outbreak of the Rebellion, so ferocious as to show that their authors were under the influence of a real frenzy. At the present day, if there is any discrimination made by the Confederate press in the affected scorn, hatred, and contumely with which every shade of opinion and sentiment in the loyal States is treated, the bitterest contempt is bestowed upon those at the North who still speak the language of compromise, and who condemn those measures of the administration which are alleged to have rendered the return of peace hopeless.
* * *
The ending:
And now, friends, fellow-citizens of Gettysburg and Pennsylvania, and you from remoter States, let me again, as we part, invoke your benediction on these honored graves. You feel, though the occasion is mournful, that it is good to be here. You feel that it was greatly auspicious for the cause of the country, that the men of the East and the men of the West, the men of nineteen sister States, stood side by side, on the perilous ridges of the battle. You now feel it a new bond of union, that they shall lie side by side, till a clarion, louder than that which marshalled them to the combat, shall awake their slumbers. God bless the Union; — it is dearer to us for the blood of brave men which has been shed in its defence. The spots on which they stood and fell; these pleasant heights; the fertile plain beneath them; the thriving village whose streets so lately rang with the strange din of war; the fields beyond the ridge, where the noble Reynolds held the advancing foe at bay, and, while he gave up his own life, assured by his forethought and self-sacrifice the triumph of the two succeeding days; the little streams which wind through the hills, on whose banks in after-times the wondering ploughman will turn up, with the rude weapons of savage warfare, the fearful missiles of modern artillery; Seminary Ridge, the Peach-Orchard, Cemetery, Culp, and Wolf Hill, Round Top, Little Round Top, humble names, henceforward dear and famous, — no lapse of time, no distance of space, shall cause you to be forgotten. "The whole earth," said Pericles, as he stood over the remains of his fellow-citizens, who had fallen in the first year of the Peloponnesian War, — "the whole earth is the sepulchre of illustrious men." All time, he might have added, is the millennium of their glory. Surely I would do no injustice to the other noble achievements of the war, which have reflected such honor on both arms of the service, and have entitled the armies and the navy of the United States, their officers and men, to the warmest thanks and the richest rewards which a grateful people can pay. But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates THE BATTLES OF GETTYSBURG.
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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Volkstrauertag (National Day of Mourning) in Germany Pays Special Tribute to Jewish Fallen of Great War

German 1920 poster/leaflet. A Roll of Honor Co...Image via Wikipedia
The United States and Great Britain honor their war dead on November 11, the anniversary of the World War I Armistice. In Germany, the corresponding day is the Volkstrauertag, or National Day of Mourning. It likewise originated during the interwar years but did not fully establish itself as official holiday. At that time, fell during the Lenten season, underscoring the strong Christian symbolism that infused national identity and celebration of the fallen.  Under the Nazi regime, it was replaced by the February Heldengedenktag (Heroes' Memorial Day), whose title adequately conveys the shift in ideological orientation. Volkstrauertag was formally instituted in West Germany in 1948, and relocated to November (two Sundays before Advent) in 1952. Although again tied to the liturgical calendar and Christian symbolism, the new holiday, like many postwar commemorations in Germany, stresses solemn reflection on the costs of war—including civilian victims of oppression—rather than glorification of the dead or military combat.

This year, as the Associated Press reports, the German government and military made a point of honoring the Jewish soldiers killed in World War I.  The  ceremonies are another sign of the efforts on the part of the Bundeswehr to address the controversial moments or "blank" spots in its history, following on the 2008 decision to link induction of new troops with the anniversary of the July 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime.  In the words of the Jerusalem Post, the deaths of some 12,000 Jews in German service was "a sacrifice that was little-heeded by the public and later denied by the Nazis."  Some press reports garbled the figures.  Thus, the Seattle Times, though likewise citing the Associated Press, spoke of only 395 dead, evidently mistaking the number buried in a particular Berlin cemetery for the total.  It was an ironic mistake, to say the least.

The question of Jewish war service became an antisemitic trope even as the conflict raged. In November 1916, the German High Command carried out the now-notorious "Jew Count" (Judenzählung), allegedly in response to charges that Jews were shirking their patriotic duty.  As my old teacher George Mosse wrote:
While the army refused to let known anti-Semites see the statistics, Jewish organizations themselves welcomed this head count, which would disprove unfounded accusations against their members. The Jews were made highly visible in the midst of the war, singled out from the rest of the population. Their patriotism alone was questioned and, whatever the motive, this fitted in nicely with the prevailing stereotype.  Nothing like the 'Jew Count' occurred in other warring nations.  Already Germany was moving to the fore in questioning Jewish emancipation and assimilation.
[Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (NY: Howard Fertig, 1978), 172]
As it turned out, Jewish participation in the war effort, including combat service, was roughly the same as that of the adult male population as a whole.

The situation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was slightly more complex.  There, Jews arguably enjoyed a better status and greater representation in the pre-war military culture and institutions, but their overall participation in the war effort was somewhat lower than that of the population as a whole, though for contingent reasons (relation of social class to branch of service; origin in regions in which population became refugees).  Some 300,000 Jews, including 25,000 officers, served under the colors.

In both Germany and Austria-Hungary, the war, initially greeted as the chance to offer the ultimate proof of loyalty and confirmation of belonging, instead turned out to represent the first step toward disenfranchisement.

As István Deák writes,
World War I marked the apogee of Jewish participation in the life of Central Europeans. In the delirious enthusiasm of August 1914, Jews were among the greatest enthusiasts.  They endorsed the war, in part because the enemy was the anti-Semitic Russian Empire, in part because the outcome of the conflict promised to bring their final and complete acceptance.  Jewish writers and journalists did signal service as war propagandists, and thousands of Jewish reserve officers willingly assumed command of their troops.  Never again would Jews be allowed to play such a dignified role in the history of the German-Austrians, Magyars, and Slavs.  Therafter, their role would increasingly be that of victims.  The cruelest irony in the history of Central European Jewry centers on the decorations and frontline photographs Jewish World War I veterans left behind on the walls of their looted apartments while forced to make their way,during World War II, to the gas chambers.
[Beyond Nationalism:  A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps 1848-1918 (NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 195]
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Thursday, November 11, 2010

11 November: Veterans' Day (Armistice Day)

"Honor to the Brave": detail from French World War I bookmark
Just a few brief mentions of events and sources connected with Veterans' Day, the historic Armistice Day of World War I, the "war to end all wars."  Unfortunately, wars have continued unabated. The Nobel foundation site lists over 200 wars from 1899 to 2001, when the Peace Prize marked its centenary.

We seem to have undergone a series of pendulum swings in our attitudes toward veterans just in my lifetime. When I was very young, veterans were adulated until, all of a sudden, Vietnam vets were denounced as babykillers. A little over a decade ago, with the looming disappearance of World War II vets and the appearance of Tom Brokaw's book on The Greatest Generation, we began to take a new look at other veterans, as well. To be sure, the trend began earlier.

Even the anti-war movement has gotten on board, though it was a shaky ride at first.  Back at the time of Operations Defensive Shield and Desert Storm two decades ago, the protesters, realizing that the "babykiller" theme didn't play too well (even as they were denouncing both sanctions and military action for, well, killing Iraqi children), adopted the new slogan, "Support Our Troops—Bring Them Home." It was of course farcical and disingenuous, and no one bought it.  The troops didn't want to be brought home, and the protesters didn't really give a shit about the troops (after all, it wasn't as if they actually knew anyone in the military). Still, somehow, a change began to take place.  The protesters revived the slogan at the time of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in the present decade, and although it still rang hollow, something qualitatively different eventually emerged (there's a great research topic in here somewhere): perhaps because these wars were long and had been bungled, perhaps because greater numbers of troops were therefore involved, perhaps because the length of the engagement and irrationality of many policies allowed the troops to raise questions, perhaps because the protesters had actually learned something. In any case, we have thankfully arrived at the point at which genuine concern for soldiers and veterans is widespread and is beginning to transcend political differences.

What we all agree on is that wars are nasty: veterans paid the price and have important stories to tell.  My colleague Bob Meagher here at Hampshire College has long been an activist on behalf of veterans' issues. He's also a distinguished classicist, so he takes the long view.  Although he would probably have little in common politically with the classicist and political commentator Victor Davis Hanson, both men have an understanding of the deep-rooted place of war in human society and the rawness of the combat experience, physical and psychic.  Hanson is the author of, among other works, A War Like No Other:  How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War and The Father of Us All:  War and History, Ancient and Modern.  Bob has written mainly about culture, from Classical Greek literature to Saint Augustine, but several years ago, when the Iraq War was still raging, he created a provocative series of events, combining the intellectual and the activist, built around the theme of the return from war, from the Odyssey to the present.  He is the author, most recently, of Herakles Gone Mad:  Rethinking Heroism in an Age of Endless War. You can read Bob's description of the work of the National Truth Commission on Conscience in War on the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities' Public Humanist (where I also blog).

The renewed desire to hear and preserve the stories of veterans is arguably the twin product of the passing or aging of the older generations and the rise of a massive new cohort, the first since the Vietnam War (because the US conflicts of the last quarter of the twentieth century were so limited in scope).  The Library of Congress has been pursuing an ambitious and admirable series of initiatives to record the experiences of the troops in the form of the Veterans History Project (VHP):
The latest installment of the Veterans History Project's (VHP) Experiencing War website feature, titled "VHP: The First Ten Years," has launched in time for nationwide Veterans Day observances. The website feature, one of 32 created thus far, highlights the wartime stories of 20 veterans who represent a cross-section of the more than 70,000 collections donated to the project during its first decade of existence.  
Watch the videos here.
“War experience just hypnotizes young men.” So said Victor Lundy, a World War II veteran who recorded many of his war memories through his sketchbooks, now donated to the Library of Congress.

LC volunteer Sarah Rouse describes her interview with Lundy here. In "World War II 'Scientific Manpower,'" the LC offers further insights into the technology and experience of modern total war.

Although I was privileged to take part, as a representative of the Town of Amherst, in the Memorial Day ceremonies this spring, my work schedule unfortunately prevented me from participating in the flag-raising and other commemorations this Veteran's Day.  Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, who was present, reported that it was a very moving ceremony.

The annual ceremonies in the US passed without major incident, but those in the UK were marred by scattered radical Muslim demonstrations. Islamists burned a symbolic poppy (for those too young to know or without benefit of a modern history class: the original twentieth-century Allied veterans' symbol, dating back to the famous World War I poem), and otherwise sought to disturb the ceremonies.  Notably, they disrupted the traditional two-minute moment of silence, chanting such slogans as "British soldiers burn in hell," "Islam will dominate," and "Our dead are in paradise, your dead are in hell." (1, 2, 3).  Private reports that I have seen relate similar acts of disrespect in British schools.

Dare one still hope for the original vision? A photo posted by the Library of Congress concretizes those now seemingly naïve desires after the "war to end all wars":

"The heralding of peace": celebration of the first Veterans' Day, Washington, D.C., 1921
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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Commentary on the Massachusetts Ballot Questions

Massachusetts alcohol sales tax cut seen as rebuke
Published: Sunday, November 07, 2010, 8:00 PM Updated: Sunday, November 07, 2010, 8:15 PM
Dan Ring, The Republican

BOSTON – The sales tax on alcohol will disappear on Jan. 1 after voters decided the state could afford that tax cut, but not a much more dramatic tax reduction that was also proposed on the statewide ballot, observers said.

While multi-million dollar advertising played a big part in determining the fate of the two different ballot questions, Question 1 – which eliminated the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax on alcohol only – gave people a way to take their frustration and anger out on Beacon Hill without slashing essential state and municipal services. Voters passed Question 1 by 52 to 48 percent.

Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said voters understood the difference between Question 1 and Question 3 on the ballot. Voters overwhelmingly defeated Question 3, which sought to lower the general 6.25 percent sales tax to 3 percent.

“Voters are a lot more intelligent than they get credit for,” said Brewer, a Barre Democrat.

(read the rest)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Turnout was good.  Today, for a change, I voted at the end of the work day rather than in the morning. I was, around 6:00 p.m., voter number 400 in the parish hall of the historic North Amherst Church.

On the local scene, it was above all the three Massachusetts ballot questions that we were watching closely.  It was tense for awhile: in the earliest returns, Question 3, which would have reduced the sales tax from 6.25 to 3 percent (note: the previous rate had been 5) held a slim 4-point lead.  As I noted in a recent post, the Select Board, like the leadership of many other locales—and indeed, all the gubernatorial candidates—opposed the measure because it would wreak fiscal havoc on local governments.  Question 1 would have repealed the recent extension of the sales tax to alcoholic beverages.  Most political figures opposed on the same grounds as Question 3, though perhaps less vociferously or with less passion, because the tax was quite new and had a much smaller fiscal impact (revenues of  97 million, used mainly for treatment of substance abuse, vs. $ 2.5 billion for general revenue).  At the end of the evening, Question 1 passed by a relatively narrow margin.  By the time the around 10 percent of the returns had come in, the vote tallies for Questions 2 (repeal of affordable housing legislation) and 3 settled into the pattern that would hold throughout the evening:  a roughly 60-40 vote against. 

All in all, these were results we can live with.  Now at least the Select Board won't have to scrap or radically revise the guiding budgetary principles on which we have been working so hard these past few weeks.  The town can continue to operate within difficult but essentially sustainable conditions, allowing us to focus on what is truly important, such as the new Development Modification Bylaw (more detail another time), which enables us to control growth, support affordable and moderate-income housing and smart growth, and protect natural and historical resources and agriculture.

Elsewhere in the state, there were few surprises for most of us.

To be sure, one of my conservative friends did remark, with dismay and surprise, that success eluded Sean Bielat over on the coast, despite his having invested more energy and money in the campaign than any of his counterparts in recent memory:  the irrepressibly liberal and feisty Rep. Barney Frank easily won re-election. Liberal Democrats triumphed across the Bay State. Governor Deval Patrick was among them.  Turned out my Green Party friends were right about two things, one a fact, the other, a prediction:  (1) The Democratic Party dominates the state government and the state legislature.  (2) They had assured me that Jill Stein would not be a "spoiler" in the gubernatorial race. Indeed: she garnered a whopping 1 percent of the vote.

Here in the western part of the state, our State Representative Ellen Story handily won her race.  It was ironic: On this day in 1915, Massachusetts voters rejected a referendum that would have extended suffrage to women. 

Nationally, of course the Republicans won big.  Something for everyone, then.  I'll drink to that (even though that action will henceforth yield less direct revenue for the state's coffers; just another altruistic act on our part).

Now that this grueling election is over, it's time to get ready for the next one. By common but unofficial agreement, the 2012 presidential race starts tomorrow.

* * *


Ben Storrow, "Olver, Story notch landslide victories, look ahead," Amherst Bulletin, 5 Nov.
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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Run what up the flagpole and see who salutes? Amherst flag contest enters next phase

Here's the latest news:  The deadline for entries in the contest to design an official Amherst flag came and went on September 30.  We received not a single submission. Maybe all the intemperate outside critics of our town are therefore wrong: it's not that we harbor any collective hostility to the American flag. Maybe, instead, it's just that we're not terribly interested in any form of pomp and symbolism, local or national.  Be that as it may, a flag we must have, so we extended the contest till the end of October. That month has now elapsed, and these are the designs in our hands:

* see correction at end of article

The original plan had been for the Select Board to narrow the field to the top six designs for further consideration. However, because we received only eight in toto, Select Board member Diana Stein, the driving force behind the contest, tonight suggested that we submit all to public scrutiny.  We unanimously approved that proposal.  Here's the plan:  The public will be able to choose its top six choices (a new interface will appear soon on the Town website), which will then go, as previously planned, to the

• Historical Commission and Design Review Board by 1 December.
• These two groups, in consultation with each other, will make their recommendations by 30 December.
• By around 17 January—but certainly in advance of our 252nd anniversary on 13 February—the Select Board will choose the winning design and then submit it to a professional artist capable of translating the model into a workable design for display and fabrication.

I hope to add more shortly on the rationale and background of the project.

* * *

[*Correction: the first design should also have included a plow: it turned out that this emblem, which had merely been taped or pasted onto the paper flag, fell off between the time the item was received and scanned in Town Hall.]

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Monday, November 1, 2010

28 October-1 November 1928: First Flight of the "Graf Zeppelin" from America to Germany

These days, as we take the ready availability of trans-Atlantic air travel for granted but agonize over extra charges for luggage, it's worth recalling the distant origins of that commerce.   In October 1928, the “Graf Zeppelin” (LZ 127) made the first intercontinental passenger airship flight. This postcard is one of the historical artifacts of that event.

It was the seventh voyage for the largest airship in the world:  776 feet long, with a volume of 3.7 million cubic feet.  The maiden flight took place on 18 September.  Transatlantic trips between the home base at Friedrichshafen, Germany, and the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ lasted about four and a half days.

Both legs of this voyage were marked by some drama.  On the way to America, from 11 to 15 October, the ship was nearly lost in a storm and suffered damage.  The return trip, which lasted from 28 October until the morning of 1 November, was noteworthy not only because it broke the record for fastest long-distance flight, but also because it included a nineteen-year-old stowaway from New Jersey who became something of an instant celebrity.

By contrast, the fame of Commander of the "Graf Zeppelin" was enduring. It was none other than Hugo Eckener (1868-1954), the Manager of the Zeppelin enterprise, who had taken over following the death of the ship’s namesake, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in 1917 (“Graf” just means Count, as in the name of the pocket battleship, "Graf Spee").  Eckener also piloted the LZ 127 on the first (and only) round-the-world flight by an airship in 1929 (sponsored by William Randolph Hearst), and the pioneering polar research flight two years later.  Fêted as a national hero under the Weimar Republic, Eckener was an opponent of the Nazis and even planned to run against Hitler for President in 1932.  After coming to power in 1933, they steadily reduced his role in the firm and public life.  After the war, he worked as a journalist and politician for the cause of international reconciliation. (Briefly condemned by the French for alleged collaboration with the Nazis, he was soon rehabilitated.)

Eckener's birthplace (today, a restaurant) in Flensburg, Germany
What few Americans (aside from devotees of aviation history) know is that it was in our country, while serving as an observer with the Union forces during the Civil War, that the Count began his aeronautical career. That much seems reasonably certain, attested to in an interview that the inventor gave toward the end of his life, in 1915.  The details, however, have always been fuzzy or in dispute.

I grew up learning that he had made his first balloon ascension in 1863 from the distinctive round tower at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, a site that I passed by every week, in my parents’ car, when I was a child.  Much later, I learned that the story was more complicated: perhaps less dramatic than we had been led to believe, but more intriguing as a case of historical myth-making. Rhoda R. Gilman did the painstaking and masterful detective work in an article for Minnesota History 45 years ago. Here’s the connection to today’s post: It was a Saint Paul newspaper article prompted by the maiden voyage of the “Graf Zeppelin” to the United States in October 1928 that apparently gave birth to the Fort Snelling story. Depending on the version at issue, either the ascent took place there or in Saint Paul. Either the balloon was free or tethered. Either the Count borrowed a balloon or had one made. The accounts even disagree on the nature of his mission in the area. As best we can tell, however, he simply joined the civilian residents of Saint Paul in taking advantage of the presence of a traveling balloonist (another German count, to be sure) for a brief joyride.

As Gilman puts it:
The vision of him as a paying passenger in a tethered balloon a few hundred feet over Seventh and Jackson Streets is a tame one. It lacks the drama of a daring young military attaché soaring off the Round Tower beneath an experimental gas bag. Nor does it have the dramatic overtones suggested by a German count ‘barnstorming’ under an assumed name. Yet for all that, the incident may have had large consequences for the history of aeronautics. As to whether or not it did, Zeppelin himself is the only possible witness. His own words [in the 1915 interview; JW] were: ‘While I was above Saint Paul I had my first idea of aerial navigation strongly impressed upon me and it was there that the first idea of my Zeppelins came to me.’


Fort Snelling would remain a site of great historic interest regardless of the Count's precise affiliation with it.   It was a key outpost on the northwestern frontier:   in the words of the Minnesota Historical Society, for several decades,  "the hub of the Upper Mississippi and the meeting place of diverse cultures." At times, that interaction was peaceful, but the fort was a site of vicious repression in the ignoble Dakota War in 1862.  Dred Scott married and raised a family while living at Fort Snelling as the slave of a military surgeon, and it was his residence there and in other free territories that moved him to sue for his liberty in the infamous court case.  All the while, the Fort trained soldiers for America's wars, from the conflict on the frontier through World War II.  Threatened by highway development in the 1950s, the once-isolated early nineteenth-century Fort became a National Landmark, and part of a National Historic Register District.  However, the modern Upper Post still in active use through World War II was allowed to deteriorate until, in 2006, it earned a spot on the National Trust's "11 Most Endangered Places."  But all that is part of another story


As for the cost of sending that postcard by Zeppelin: 53 cents was a great deal of money at that time: one cent, as one can see, was the cost of mailing a standard domestic postcard.  Adjusted for inflation, the mailing expense was the equivalent of $ 6.64 in today's dollars (measured by the Consumer Price Index), or $ 21.60, measured by the earning power of an unskilled worker).

Update July 2011:
The 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War—and of the Union Army Balloon Corps—has prompted renewed interest in the Zeppelin story.  Here, speaking, to USA Today, National Air and Space Museum Curator Tom Crouch tells the story matter-of-factly and correctly.
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