A Personal History of the United States (the Person Being ME)

Posted in AMERICANA, ME, My Family History with tags , , on August 29, 2016 by travsd
"H'm...nice work! Do you have it in a size 10?"

“H’m…nice work! Do you have it in a size 10?”

A thoughtful agent friend noticed the growing snowball of posts on Travalanche about American history and my family’s role therein. As she intuited, I have been posting this raw material as a preliminary step towards the generation of products: books, plays, screenplays, and the like. A conversation with her has pushed “book” to the top of the to-do list, and so I’ve come up with this sequential arrangement of some of my notable posts, arranged by rough chronology. Some are more focused on my ancestors, some involve me personally, and some are more like op-eds that have grown out of my meditation on my people’s role in our history. As you begin to see, they almost begin to stack up to something like a history of the nation, with an emphasis on race and class, and a greater than normal emphasis on pop culture, and I do believe that’s where I’m bound. The posts themselves are just raw material — they’re not necessarily what would find their way into the book, they just lay the groundwork.

Here are links to those posts:

On the Magna Carta (included because of its relevance to our Founding Documents)

The Founding of Virginia and Maryland 

The Founding of Plymouth

The Founding of Massachusetts Bay

The Founding of Rhode Island

The Founding of Connecticut

King Phillip’s War

The First Thanksgiving and Other Founding Myths

The Salem Witch Trials

The Stewart Story (beginning in New Netherland)

The First Italian American (New Netherland) 

An Indian Attack in New Netherland (Brooklyn to be Exact) 

Netherlands Connections

On the French Huguenots

Quakers

American Revolution

Lafayette

The Battle of Brooklyn 

Signers of the Declaration

John Trumbull 

The U.S. Presidents

The Founding of Tennessee and Kentucky, Western New York and Ohio

Davy Crockett

The Second Great Awakening

The Star Spangled Banner 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton 

15 Famous Females

American Utopianism from 19th Century to Now

The Real Grizzly Adams

William Holland Thomas and the Eastern Band of Cherokee

Southern Slavery 

A Post Touching on Indentured Servitude, Slavery & Labor

Harriet Beecher Stowe 

The Civil War

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” 

Juneteenth Message (on the Stars and Bars) 

Slavery and Racism in the North 

The Civil War Never Ended 

The West

The Importance of Mexico

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Immigration

Latin America, the Banana Wars and a Scheme

Tales of Moonshining, et al

A Very Small, Painful Event from 1896

A Tale of the Titanic

The Labor Movement (and Protestant Ambivalence Thereto) 

The Dark Side of the Jazz Age

The Birth of a Nation I

The Birth of a Nation II

A Tale of Sharecroppers and the Depression

A Tale of The Great (Post WWII) Migration

A Post Inspired by Mad Men

Fess Parker and the Coonskin Cap Craze

George Lincoln Rockwell (and his vaudeville father) 

On the Optimism of JFK

Inside Llewyn Davis and the Search for Authenticity

On Pete LaFarge and His Illustrious Family

The Black Panthers 

On the Vanishing Swamp Yankee

Hollywood in the Reagan Era

Kurt Cobain and the End of History 

The Culture Wars (“The Clarence Thomas of the Arts”)

On White Male Privilege

In addition, these travel posts mention references to places and people in my background: Newport, Salem, Providence, South Street Seaport, and New Orleans. Many more of these are planned. Also (probably) to come are posts on the French and Indian war, Indian removal, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American war, the World Wars, the Cold War, and enhanced posts on Irish and German ancestors (I have preliminary posts up on those topics, not worth linking to today).

 

 

Battle of Brooklyn 2016

Posted in AMERICANA, BROOKLYN, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES with tags , , , , , on August 28, 2016 by travsd

I headed out to nearby Green-wood Cemetery for the annual Battle of Brooklyn Commemoration. Some snaps I took while I was there:

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Dream Up Festival Opens Today!

Posted in Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, PLUGS with tags , , , on August 28, 2016 by travsd

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Today is opening day of Theater for the New City’s annual Dream Up Festival. It’s great to see this festival still going strong after several years now. Many of the shows look interesting to me, but I especially have my eye on one called Spinoza’s Ethics, for not only does it feature my Iron Heel comrade Yvonne Roen, but the titular book is one that changed my life (a subject I wrote about just a couple of days ago, and also in this earlier post). I bet there’ll be more than one show amongst their offerings that will appeal to you too!

For full information on the Dream Up festival go here.

On the Consolations of Philosophy

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, ME with tags , , , , , , , on August 26, 2016 by travsd

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Yet another post triggered by working on The Iron Heel, this one less political than autobiographical and (quite literally) philosophical.

One of my characters in the ensemble of the current production is a pettifogging sociology professor. Early in the play, the hero (played by the excellent Charles Ouda) lambasts my character and his colleagues at some length for being “metaphysicians” rather than “scientists”. We were well into the process, probably already into performances, when the personal resonance of those speeches hit me with a big clang. I had read widely in philosophy, widely enough to know just what the character was talking about, even the peculiar way in which he was framing it.

Most mainstream contemporary thought (I don’t think I’m too bold in asserting this) has empirical science as its primary point of reference, not just in academia, but in most of the other major professional realms: journalism, politics, the arts, and even business. Absolute exceptions are rare. Modern adults are empirically oriented by default. They base their decisions upon data or the news. They may suffer from bad information from bad sources, but their method is to seek out the facts and weigh them. This is true to a large degree of people you may assume mightn’t, such as the deeply religious, who partake of such things as economics (modern business methods) and the media the same way everybody else does.

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This was not yet true at the time when Jack London was writing The Iron Heel. A revolution was taking place in London’s time, one that was not just social, political and economic but absolute. It was influenced by thinkers as diverse as Spencer, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and (William) James. What these and others eventually achieved was a revolution in thinking that puts the collection and evaluation of data front and center in nearly every field of endeavor. That change in our thinking is now so complete it is unquestioned. But that transformation has also been quite recent, at any rate more recent than you might think. It was clearly still contentious in London’s time, well into the 20th century.

What existed prior to that revolution? London refers to it as “metaphysics”, but in doing so he is being provocatively facetious and dismissive. Essentially, he is referring to pure philosophy, which used to occupy a much greater portion of the academic sphere than it does now, and an altogether more exalted one, so much so that it was still crowding out this “upstart” empirical science from encroaching on its prerogatives as late as 1908! Unthinkable but true. Indeed, it lasted longer than that, if pop culture is any bellwether — college professors were still being portrayed as possessing this weltanschauung in movies and plays and books as late as the 1930s.

The modern university system had been founded in the Middle Ages. The assumptions of western philosophy (as established by the ancient Greeks) were a large part of what defined it. Metaphysics were at the center, but perhaps only because existential inquiry is the most vexatious of all questions. But its salient difference from the modern outlook is one of intellectual method. Rather than automatically going to the material world for answers, it looks inward, building self-contained chains of logic and reason.  To the modern observer, it can look like the very definition of sophistry — a form of intellectual masturbation. In its day, it was what defined academic rigor. And indeed we rely on this mode of thought a great deal to this day, any time we make an argument, lay out a case, grope towards a conclusion. We draw from facts, but then we organize them into ordered portraits of reality. The old way, I think, was to perhaps place less emphasis on the constant gathering of updated facts. Certain premises were taken as “givens”, and that was enough. In our day and age, metaphysics, which is purely speculative, is about the only realm left where you could still get away with that. London’s Iron Heel character Everhard rails against Aristotle, but probably the most crystal example of the Aristotlean system gone wrong is Ptolemy. To solve what the stars are, you need to look at the stars, directly at the stars, not build upon ancient edifices created out of people’s heads.

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Yet metaphysics has a place. This post was occasioned because it dawned on me recently how central to my worldview is the old system of pure philosophy. It is central to my thinking, it drives and informs my assumptions, and it orients me in the world quite a bit differently from people around me, most of whom tend to be either religious or scientific but not the third way, which is to be philosophical. It’s not that I am not religious or respectful of science. It’s that my default place is philosophical doubt and (attempted) Socratic humility, and I see both religion and science through those lenses. I believe in God, but I think it hubris to rashly define him (or her). I believe in observable facts, but I think they have their place and their purpose, and those are not coterminous with the sum of Everything.

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I have been sitting here trying to figure out why I was driven to classicism. Now that I think of it, a major influence in my life (other than the English and drama teachers I often write about) was my high school Latin teacher. I took Latin throughout high school, and had a semester of it in college. My high school Latin instructor was one of my favorite teachers. Among other things, he was extremely funny. He’d originally studied to be a priest, I think, and he didn’t teach Latin in a vacuum. He taught the culture of it. So I spent a good deal of time with my head in Rome and the Middle Ages, and the stuff we translated was usually drawn from the literature of those periods. This has to have been the foundation.

As I said in this earlier post, when I left high school I was cast out on my own and spent three years reading classics, the core of which was philosophy. During those years I can recall reading Plato, Euclid (crucial to the study of logic), Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, Plotinus, Plutarch,  St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, (among others, and not including poets, novelists, and playwrights, of course). After I finished the conservatory a couple of years later, I worked at a bookstore, and in this second phase I tackled many more including: Epicurus, Lucretius, more Cicero, Seneca, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Montesquieu, Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Bentham, Hegel, Emerson, Nietzsche, Bergson, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus and many others (including the above-mentioned Spencer, Darwin, Freud and James. I tried Das Kapital a few times without much progress).

Haha, hoo boy, does this bring back memories

Haha, hoo boy, does this bring back memories

I hasten to point out the course outlined above was all through solitary reading. It happened without a teacher to guide me, no discussions with fellow students, and (while I did do quite a bit of scribbling inspired and informed by this reading) no disciplined, academic writing. My understanding of these thinkers could be incomplete, it could be incorrect. But it is also my own. And it is also at least a partial understanding of them, which is more than what most people have.  (For the record, I did take a Philosophy 101 course at my local university but it was worse than useless. And later at NYU I did read lit-crit related philosophers like Foucault, Baudrillard, Barthes, Bataille, and others with the guidance of professors).

What good is it? people ask. I’m sure even asked it when I first encountered the ideas of some of these thinkers. But that very question reflects a bias — bias rooted in the very orientation of our times I described above. Must everything in life produce a tangible, material, measurable good?  Science cures diseases, and makes miracles affordable, and supplies us with Better Mousetraps. That’s terrific, but to my mind, as a thing to strive for, it is also superficial and even somewhat boorish. It is not only not inspirational it is not aspirational. What is the point of being alive, if you aren’t questioning, if you aren’t trying to figure it out? The general tendency is to say, “You’ll never solve the problems of existence, so what’s the point? What’s the point of doing something pointless?”

But that’s backwards. The act of questioning itself is what gives life meaning. It’s not some finish line you get to. To know the answer is to be dead! To ask the useless question “Why are we here?” is part of the same category of human activity as dancing, savoring food, making love, swimming in the ocean, appreciating art, making art. There is no reason for it. It feels good to do. It feels good to make something, to build an edifice, to chase something.

What myth?! It's real, I tell you!

What myth?! It’s real, I tell you!

Some (many I listed above, and others) come away from the grappling with despair or something close to it. Their conclusion is that “nothingness” is the answer and that reality is depressing. But they still keep flinging themselves against the question like a moth against a window. They like to do it. Sisyphus likes rolling that rock. It’s painful. It hurts. It’s actually unending misery. That’s what it is to be self-aware. But self-awareness is also GREAT! It’s who I am! It’s the stream of consciousness that begins when you’re born and ends when you die. It’s the life bursting inside you. How can you not be attached to that?

And it is a small step from here to the theatre I love best. The Greeks of course and Shakespeare and that profound farceur Moliere and in modern times the Absurdists. One of my favorite critical books (perhaps THE key book for me) is Robert Brustein’s The Theatre of Revolt, which casts key 20th century playwrights in this very light, restless, frustrated askers of the metaphysical question.

The title of this post is intended ironically. There’s a subway ad I’ve seen from time to time promoting classes at some “School of Philosophy” which promises “happiness”.  And I always laugh at it, which I guess reflects a cultural bias on my part. I could see perhaps an esoteric philosophy, an Eastern philosophy promising and even delivering something like happiness. But Western philosophy offers nothing of the kind. The branches of Western philosophy concerned with human happiness split off a long time ago. We call them Political Science and Economics. What remains is the delicious agony of metaphysics.

Here’s an irony for you. To return to where we started: despite London’s holding up of Marx as the model of “science” (and similar behavior by all his apologists to the present day) his thought is actually mired in the same metaphysics as those earlier Aristotleans he criticized. Marx based his ideas on the Hegelian dialectic, a preconceived notion about the way history works, a system into which he and his followers attempted to fit all subsequent developments whether they fit the picture or not. Ironically, the “science” happened in the West, where freedom of inquiry allowed the unimpeded flow of data which permitted greater material well being for millions. And the way of Marx proved Ptolemaic.

 

 

 

Another Kind of Lilac to Sniff

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, Travel, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2016 by travsd

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My new feature about the Lightship Lilac and her current exhibition just hit this week’s Downtown Express. Read all about it here. As a bonus, here are are extra stray photos I took while on board. If there are beads of sweat on the lens, it’s because it was 105 degrees! I felt like I was on the African Queen!

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Want to find out where all this is? Read the damn article!

On Some Heroic Huguenots

Posted in AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS, Frenchy, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , , on August 23, 2016 by travsd
A painting of the Massacre by the Huguenot Francois Dubois

A painting of the Massacre by the Huguenot Francois Dubois

Today is St. Bartholomew’s Eve.

Funny — despite having worked on this post for several days, I was thinking to myself only yesterday that August doesn’t really have a holiday and that the calendar is a sort of desert between Independence Day and Labor Day. Yet, here we are. From the time of the Middle Ages, the Feast of the Apostle St. Bartholomew was celebrated on August 24, and it was a day with many happy associations. Traditionally, a late summer fair was celebrated in London on the day, from 1133 to 1855 — it was even the title and the setting of a play by Ben JonsonBartholomew Fair.

In modern times, the positive side of St. Bartholomew’s Day has been largely forgotten due to the Massacre that happened on this day in France in 1572. There were many wars of religion during the period of the Protestant Reformation, but for some reason the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre particularly captures the modern imagination. It may be that, unlike many or most such events in Western Europe, this persecution resembles recent atrocities that strike close to home, such as the Holocaust. You have a large majority (Catholic France) persecuting a small minority (the Huguenots, or French Protestants, who made up 10% of the country) strictly on the basis of religion. And you have the official sanction of wiping them out. The word genocidal is wrong in this case, since they were the same people ethnically, but it’s a similar concept. The people of France were whipped up into a frenzy of hatred, and the Huguenots who did not convert and betray their faith were either killed or otherwise mistreated or harassed. Many chose to leave. Historians differ widely in their estimates of the number killed in the actual Massacre, ranging from 5,000 to ten times that. In its wake, the number of Huguenots in France was drastically reduced. Future events (below) would reduce it still further, eventually finishing them as a cultural force in France. The carnage actually began on St. Bartholomew’s Eve (Aug. 23) which is why we post this today rather than tomorrow.

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Ironically, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre happened at a time of official tolerance for the minority, and a wedding between both forces (the Protestant Henry III of Navarre and the Catholic Princess Margot, sister of King Charles IX) was still being celebrated. You can read a romanticized version of the court intrigues that led to the violence in Dumas’ novel Queen Margot, though as usual with him it is better entertainment than it is history. Likewise, the event is one of the story threads in D.W. Griffth’s Intolerance (1916), which I think is where I first became interested. This is one reason I so vehemently insist that I am not a historian (though no one listens). My main interest is stories.

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Still from Griffith’s “Intolerance”

At any rate: what’s it to me? My recent casual research has uncovered many Huguenots in my ancestry, one of the most surprising revelations of my exploration. They are a tiny but real part of my background, and also an illuminating new way to look at the familiar American story. For, like Puritans, Quakers, Jews and (ironically) Catholics, Huguenots came to America to flee religious persecution. Wonderfully the stories of these ancestors are quite well known, and have been ferreted out by others over the years. There is no single profile that fits all of them. They came at different times, under different circumstances, and settled in different parts of America.

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Nathaniel Basse (circa 1589-1654) was of a Huguenot family which had moved to England a generation or two before his birth. His father Humphrey was a stockholder in the Virginia Company. Nathaniel made his first voyage to the colony in 1619 and moved the rest of his family there in 1621 on a 400 acre spread on the James River he called Basse’s Choyce Plantation. Basse served in Virginia’s General Assembly, the Governor’s Council, and as a justice in the courts. My (9th) great grandmother Genevieve Knight is said by many sources to be one of his ten children, but accounts differ and it is admittedly somewhat murky. Other sources say all of Basse’s children but one, named John, were killed in an Indian massacre, and other sources say he “died without issue” (although the latter source is a contested will). John’s tale, if true, is a ripping yarn, for he is said to have been raised among the Nansemond Indians as one of their own.

All of the folks described in this post are ancestors on my dad’s side of the family, except for one. John Paddoc (1550-1603) left Nord-Pas-de-Calais in 1580 and moved to Tullygovan, Ireland. Ireland was to be a refuge to many Huguenots. My (9th) great grandfather Robert Paddock born there in 1584. He emigrated to the Plymouth colony with his wife and family somewhere between 1631 and 1634. A line runs all the way from him to my mom, and then to me.

My (10th) great grandfather Robert Brasseur (ca 1597-1665) emigrated from Avignon to England around 1630. He shows up in Maryland land records in 1635, having arrived with his wife and seven children.  As is well known, Maryland was a Catholic colony; Brasseur (sometimes Anglicized to “Brashear” and a dozen other spellings) moved to Virginia, where my (9th) great grandmother Margaret was born.  She was to marry into an English family, the Jordans, and convert to Quakerism.

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One of the most important guys on this page: my (11th) great grandfather Robert Vanquellin (1607-1698), from the Normandy region. After spending time on the Isle of Jersey, in January, 1665 he went to England. In April he departed for America in Philip Carteret’s ship, ”Philip,” with about thirty passengers. Robert then settled in northeastern New Jersey, under British rule (since Sept. 1664) of this part of New Netherland as it was in dispute for the next decade until full Dutch capitulation. (Contemporary New Yorkers may be aware of New Netherland’s openness to the Huguenots from certain nearby place names still in use. e.g., New Rochelle, NY and Huguenot, State Island).  Carteret was to become Governor of New Jersey. Vanquellin was to be its Surveyor General. His daughter Anne married James Bollin, Secretary of the Province of New Jersey, also my (11th) great grandfather.

Jesus Wept

Jesus Wept

Now we come to another phase. In 1685, Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, a decree which revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which had declared a policy of relative tolerance for the Huguenots. Thus a new period of persecution began, resulting in a new wave of Huguenot immigration to the American colonies.

Virginia was to be an early focal point during this phase. In 1698, a settlement with the hilarious name of Manikintown (which would be an excellent title for a Twilight Zone episode) was founded on the James River west of what is now Richmond. Several of my ancestors moved here.

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My (7th) great grandfather Pierre LeGrand arrived there from Normandy with his wife and five children in September 1700 on the second shipload of emigrants aboard the galley ‘Peter and Anthony’ of London. LeGrand was a land surveyor. 

My (8th) great grandfather Francois Benin (1679-1710) is stated by some sources to have been born in Tartigne. Purportedly a Huguenot, he is said to have fled to the Dutch-Belgium border, and from there to Bristol, England where he married Ann Elizabeth Debonette, another French Huguenot exile in 1704.  The Benin (Benning) family migrated to Virginia with the Guerrant family. Francois is believed to have died around 1710; his son, Antoin (Anthony) was born around 1705 and is believed to have been orphaned while a small child.  He is described in some documents as an “unlearned and tyrannical man”.

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Another (7th) great-grandfather Abraham Michaux (1672-1717) came from the Ardennes region. His wife Suzanne Rochet Micheaux was the youngest of the three daughters of Jean Rochet to be smuggled out of France and into Amsterdam, Holland following the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. According to one story, “she, her two sisters, a cousin and her baby were trying to escape when the baby began to cry and the guards were alerted and found the young women. The three Rochet sisters were returned to their father, but the Church took a very hard stance on the daughter’s education and Jean Rochet feared they would be removed from his home and sent to live with the nuns. Before too long the two older daughters made successful escapes to Amsterdam, but fearing the climate was still too dangerous, they had left Suzanne behind. Before they left France, however, the sisters and their father had determined that they would send for Suzanne when they felt the time was right, but fearing the letter would fall in the wrong hands, they had worked out a code. They would tell their father that they thought ‘it would be perfectly fine to send the little nightcap which we had left behind.’ Finally, the letter arrived. After several unsuccessful attempts to get Suzanne out of France, her father had her hidden in a large cask, or hogshead, which was entrusted to friendly sea-captain, who had the cask placed on board the ship. When the ship had sailed and they were safety past the guards, the cask was opened and Suzanne was lifted out of her narrow, dark, chamber and was brought to safety in Amsterdam. She is still known in the annuals of French Huguenot history as ‘Little Nightcap.'”

Micheaux married Suzanne on 13 Jul 1692 in the French Church in Amsterdam. On 20 August 1702 Suzanne Rochet Michaux became a member of the Huguenot Church of Treadneedle Street, London, England. They pressed on to Manikintown a few years after that. 

The last of Huguenot ancestors (and I believe the last of my French ancestors) to arrive was my (7th)great grandfather John Noblett (1690-1748). Like most of these stories, his journey embraces several countries and more than one generation. His father Peter Noblett (1677-1719). moved first to England from France his with parents around 1684, joining distant relatives. Then they moved to Ireland, to a Huguenot community near Dublin. He married Marie Godfrey in 1698.  In 1721 John and his brothers left Ireland with a group of Quakers to settle in York, Pennsylvania. They arrived on the ship Querrier (or Gauffier,) at Grandy’s Point located on Cape May below Philadelphia. It was there they indentured to work for someone to pay for their passage. John, the oldest of the brothers, upon disbarking was informed that William Plumstead of Sugartown had paid his passage. He was obligated to work for three years before he could claim any land of his own. His term of indenture to Plumstead ended in 1725. Noblett first appeared on the tax rolls as a resident citizen of Newton Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, during the tax year of 1729. He married Ann Brereton, another child of Huguenot exiles who’d come over from from Dublin. Their daughter Mary (1746-1811) is my last full French ancestor (that I know of). She married into a Quaker family, the Stouts, whom we wrote about here, and moved with a large group to North Carolina.

The only Huguenot Church left in America. Located in Charleston, South Carolina, it was built in 1844 for a congregation that had been founded two centuries earlier.

The only Huguenot Church left in America. Located in Charleston, South Carolina, it was built in 1844 for a congregation that had been founded two centuries earlier.

The Huguenots assimilated more completely than nearly every other America immigrant group to the us, including other French immigrant groups like the Acadians/Cajuns and the Quebecois. Even relatively assimilated immigrant groups like the Germans had retained their own church denominations and culture. By contrast, after about a century, the Huguenots ceased having a separate church (with the exception noted above). Most converted to other faiths. In some ways, their only footprint here became certain French surnames that continue to pop up, especially in the South. I’m a “Never Forget” kind of guy, so today I choose to remember them.

 

The Genius of George Herriman

Posted in African American Interest, AMERICANA, VISUAL ART with tags , , on August 22, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great George Herriman (1880-1944). I almost just called Krazy Kat the greatest comic strip of all time — surely no strip has ever been greater — but in a world that has also included Little Nemo and Thimble Theatre/ early Popeye, I hesitate to be so rash.

If I were African American, I would claim Herriman’s place in that pantheon of their greatest geniuses, like Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Bert Williams, Zora Neal Hurston, August Wilson, etc etc. Few seem to, perhaps because it is not well known that he was of Creole/ mixed-race ancestry (he was originally from New Orleans), and he kept his ethnic identity a secret during his lifetime (it wasn’t widely known until 1970). But clearly the complex cultural mash-up (white, black, Cuban, possibly Native American) that went into the forming the individual known as George Herriman enriched his art a great deal.

My first exposure to his work (I think) came through his illustrations for Don Marquis’s jazzy free-verse thingy archy & mehitabel. That he managed to make the latter character quite distinct from his most famous cartoon cat was a triumph by itself. Krazy Kat ran from 1913 through Herriman’s death in 1944, although he had been a professional cartoonist since the turn of the century. Prior to that, he had worked as a sideshow talker on Coney Island!

Krazy Kat is full of wonderful contradictions: steeped in Americana yet the most sophisticated strip ever, a work of modern art; simple in structure yet dense in detail. It is set in Coconino County in Arizona’s Monument Valley, where Herriman loved to spend his time. Already an otherworldly landscape, Herriman stylized it even further so that it literally seemed like another planet. Cactus plants, mesas and rock formations, adobe buildings, and above all uncluttered wide open spaces extending beyond the horizon turn it into a dreamscape, not unlike the sort one finds in the surreal visions of Salvador Dali. 

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And while this world is populated with all manner of kooky creatures, we are primarily concerned with just three: the titular feline, a slinky, sassy, funky and gender-ambiguous jazz age creation; Ignatz Mouse, the object of his/her affections whose only reciprocation is to bean bricks off of Krazy Kat’s head (the strip’s central ritual); and Offissa Pupp, who locks Ignatz in jail for the brick-beanings (the strip’s secondary ritual). The repetition of this cycle (against the stark landscape) reminds me a lot of Beckett and Godot…only it was created decades earlier. It is effortlessly existential. It is the dance of life.

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On top of that simple framework, like so much colorful papier macher, goes Herriman’s dialogue, which is absolutely unique, and to my mind makes him as much of a literary genius as he is a visual one. The characters speak some weird, hybrid patois, constructed out of various American and foreign regionalisms, slang, and whimsical spellings. Surely, Herriman’s own New Orleans origins can be heard in that voice, but some of it is just out his own gonzo head. His writing is both poetic and folkish, a highly wrought tapestry of language that to my mind makes some scholastic-minded aspirant like, say, Anthony Burgess seem like a piker.

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The dialogue (and the cycle of events described above) make it tempting to want to “do” something with Krazy Kat. Ya know, like ya do. Most of the major comic strips have been turned into plays and movies and animated shorts. The attempt was made more than once with Krazy Kat, and one simply has to come to the conclusion that — NO. Just no. I realized with some resignation the other day that even if these attempts had been good (they are not) they would still be bad, because they would always be wrong. Krazy Kat is so good because it is the ultimate expression of the comic strip medium. It is made FOR this medium. It is built out of the shape of its panels. The humor often refers directly to the shape of the layout itself. It occurred to me yesterday…of COURSE I don’t WANT to see what’s in the blackness beyond that horizon and therefore we CANNOT move through that space. It is imperative that we don’t! An animated version of Krazy Kat is kind of like a record album of somebody narrating an illuminated manuscript. It doesn’t CONVEY.

And this makes me a little sad because it means Krazy Kat will always be a bit obscure, known only to the people who do things like read books and go to museums. The numbers of people who once knew Krazy Kat from the newspaper’s funny pages will soon dwindle to nothing. Yet the strip was never popular with the masses, even in its heyday. It may well be just as popular today as it ever was. And that’s just Krazy.

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