Romanticizing the Past

Pleased to note that my student Addy Huneke, who loves to study history, is resistant to romanticizing it. From her blog, The Music of a Story:

It’s Time to Stop Romanticizing the Past

I hear it all the time from many people I know. “It wasn’t like this back in [insert era].” “Kids these days are so weak. They aren’t raised like they used to. Kids used to be tough.” “Back in the Colonial era [or the days of the Ancient Israelites, or what have you], there weren’t any teenagers. Kids grew up a lot faster. None of this nonsense we have now.” Or “America used to be such a God-fearing nation, and look at us now! If only America was the same as it was in the day of the Founders.” “In World War Two, we had real men, and now, young men get PTSD from social media posts!” I’ve even heard someone say that this is the only era where kids really disobey their parents, that before modern times, children obeyed without question.

Look. I won’t deny that the past had its bright spots. We wouldn’t have civilization without the bright spots of the past. But, much like human nature itself, the history of the world is a long, varied history of misery and destruction and sin. We tend to focus only on the brightness of the past as contrasted with our present mistakes, but that gives us a rose-colored view of history. This age isn’t any better or worse than any previous time. The eras of the past did not have it more together than we do. The miseries we focus on that we claim are all our own are often reflected in the past by similar miseries.

Read the whole thing

Paradise Garden

A followup to my post about Pasaquan: Paradise Garden, located between Summerville and Trion in Chattooga County, Georgia, is another visionary art compound, constructed by Howard Finster (1916-2001). Finster was a Baptist preacher and ran a bicycle repair business; in 1976 he saw a human face in a smear of white paint on his finger and heard a voice commanding him to “paint sacred art.” This he did enthusiastically until his death, producing some 47,000 pieces, many of which adorned the buildings he had built on his four-acre plot of land, soon dubbed Paradise Garden. He developed a distinctive colorful, flat style for his images, which were often accompanied by extensive text, often Biblical. Here is a representative example from Wikipedia:

Howard Finster, Portrait of Don Schwatzentruber (c. 2001). Wikipedia.

Other examples can be found on Wikiart, the website of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Howard Finster’s official website. The High Museum in Atlanta also has a good collection of his work

My understanding is that when Finster died in 2001 his heirs sold off a lot of the moveable art at Paradise Garden, and Wikipedia claims that the site “began to decay in the heat and humidity of rural Georgia.” When I first saw it in 2006 (with the help of my friend Brad Adams, an art professor at Berry College), it was clear that the place wasn’t quite as glorious as it once was – but it was still pretty interesting! Here are some photos from that visit, so many years ago now:

Since then the site has been acquired by Chattooga County, and is now maintained by the Paradise Garden Foundation. One can visit it easily enough. 

It’s clear that Finster was a committed Christian and saw his art as essential to his ministry. The vast majority of it is religious in theme. Yet his notoriety was not the result of any sort of religious revival in late-twentieth-century America. Instead, Finster became famous as a self-taught “outsider” artist, a Southern eccentric true to his own vision. Michael Stipe of the rock band REM did not get Finster to design the cover of Reckoning, nor have the video to “Radio Free Europe” filmed at Paradise Garden, because he was in sympathy with Finster’s religious message. And it seems that Finster was well aware of this, and enjoyed the celebrity: witness his exuberant appearance on The Tonight Show in 1983. Tom Wolfe talked about this act in The Painted Word (1975) – successful artists may like to cultivate an image of otherworldliness, but they always have an eye to producing what sells, or what will impress the critics. Yet Finster never completely sold out. For instance, of the Talking Heads’ album Little Creatures (1985), he stated:

I think there’s twenty-six religious verses on that first cover I done for them. They sold a million records in the first two and a half months after it come out, so that’s twenty-six million verses I got out into the world in two and a half months!

Well done, thou good and faithful servant!

Ottoman Printing

Here is an interesting essay by Anton Howes on his Age of Invention blog, proposing a reason why printing by moveable type never really took off in the Ottoman Empire. It’s quite long, so I skip to the conclusion:

The principal evidence of Ottoman suppression of printing is overwhelmingly related to its use by non-Muslims. We have, of course, only some of the vaguest hints to go off. But I think a rough, albeit speculative picture is starting to come together. It appears that in the mid-sixteenth century Ottoman authorities might have been worried about the profanation of Islamic religious works by non-Muslims printing in Arabic script, so they prohibited the Jewish printers from doing so. Following the 1590s attempt of the Medici Press to sell them works in Arabic script that were secular, however, they became suspicious about the foreign Christians’ ultimate aims, blocking such books during wartime, and then during peacetime on the grounds that foreign, heathen printers would be benefiting at the expense of local Muslim scribes. This wariness then extended to the non-Arabic script presses of the empire, too, especially when foreign powers seemed to be behind the unrest. Thus, it was in response to the missionary or commercial agendas of Europeans, that Europeans learned of the justifications for not allowing the printing of Arabic script.

So it would appear that moveable type in the Ottoman Empire was like the fax machine in the Soviet Union! A followup post points out another drawback of printing in Arabic script, which has:

a similar number of letters to the various alphabets that were used in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But Arabic is a cursive script, with its letters connected into words using ligatures, and with very different characters for letters at the beginning, in the middle, and at the ends of words, as well as for letters that stand alone. This meant having to design, cast, and re-cast many more types. From the get-go, it meant that an Arabic-script printing press had a much higher capital cost. And it meant that the process of typesetting each page was significantly more time-consuming, resulting in higher running costs too (or, put another way, much higher capital costs for each book). The typical case of type used in Europe was only about 3 feet wide, with about 150 or so compartments. A typesetter could pick out the letters while more or less standing in place. One of the earliest Arabic-script printing presses in the Ottoman Empire, however, reportedly had a case of 18 feet, with some 900 compartments — six times larger, and probably even more cumbersome, requiring the poor typesetters to walk up and down, rummaging around for the types they needed for each page.

As I tell my students, the Chinese may have invented moveable type, but it’s much more useful with an alphabetic than an ideographic script, for which you need to know some 3000 characters before you’re barely literate, so the printer’s tray would have taken up an entire room. Looks like there was a slightly similar problem with Arabic.

Another One

This historical marker stands in Athens, Tennessee. I took the photo in 2006 when we stopped there on our way north for a wedding (I discovered it just now in my photo library). I post it here as a followup to a recent post about romantic Indian legends. 

More detail:

It all started at a place called Fort Loudoun in the days when the French claimed the majority of the land that was to become Tennessee.

In 1754 war broke out between the French and English in a battle over the ownership of the Ohio Valley. Each side attempted to win aid from the various Indian tribes.

The Cherokee Nation, because of an agreement made with George II in 1730, first sided with the English. Actually it didn’t mean a thing to them whom they fought for or against. War, to the Cherokee, was a kind of vocation – an intrinsic part of their lifestyle that they enjoyed. They loved fighting and would go off on the warpath at the drop of a feather.

In the meantime, other tribes sided with the French. Some of these tribes were the very ones the Cherokee had fought throughout the years, and they harbored bitter feelings of revenge. Cherokee villages were raided by rival tribes loyal to the French while Cherokee warriors were out fighting for the English.

The raids caused the Overhill Cherokees to demand that the English build a fort to protect their women and children while the braves were out fighting. In 1757 the English from the South Carolina colony built Fort Loudoun, located at the mouth of the Tellico River, on the south bank of the Little Tennessee.

In the meantime the war was going badly for the French, and in desperation they began telling the Cherokee that the English, if they were the victors, planned to settle Indian land, build forts and cabins, and drive out all the game. The French, on the other hand, reassured the Indians that they only wanted to trade and were not interested in settlement.

In 1759 the panicky Cherokee raided English settlements, killing and scalping settlers. Then the Indians laid siege to Fort Loudoun and starved the English garrisoned there into surrender.

When the English soldiers attempted to leave the fort, they were ambushed by the Indians.

One wounded officer staggered into an Indian village. The chief took pity on him, and the old man’s daughter, Nocatula, nursed him back to health. Why the officer, given the belligerent mood of the Indians at the time toward the English, was given sanctuary is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, the officer was given the Indian name of “Connestoga” and accepted into the tribe.

Patients often fall in love with their nurses, and Connestoga was no exception. With the old chief’s blessings, the white convert married Nocatula.

But the marriage was star-crossed from the beginning. Much ill feeling still existed among certain Indians toward the white man. War chiefs like Dragging Canoe were whipping up frenzied hatred among the tribes, and the new bridegroom was regarded with more than passing suspicion.

One warrior decided that he would solve the problem of the white man himself. Not only did he hate the whites, but he, too, was in love with Nocatula. By ridding himself of his rival, he would kill two birds with one stone.

The jealous man saw his chance one day and plunged a knife deep into Connestoga’s chest. Then he fled.

As Connestoga lay dying, Nocatula declared her undying love for her husband. Then she took her own knife and plunged it into her own breast.

The old chief was deeply saddened at the loss of his daughter and son-in-law. Luckily, the murderer had not escaped the village, and when he was returned – and according to the Cherokee right of blood revenge – the old chief killed the man himself.

Then the chief buried his daughter and her husband. In Connestoga’s hand he placed an acorn. In his daughter’s, he placed a hackberry.

Fed by the bodies beneath the ground, these two seeds grew into healthy trees and thrived for over 150 years. But as all living things do, they eventually died.

Two more trees were planted over the graves to replace them. But then something odd happened. The two substitutes died a short time later for no reason. The legend is told that the spirits of Connestoga and Nocatula rejected the surrogates as unworthy, and killed them both.

Today only stumps of the original oak and hackberry remain, planted over two centuries ago by a sad old Indian chief who wanted to symbolize the everlasting love between his daughter and the white man she loved enough to die for.

I confess that I find this story increasingly difficult to believe as I read through it….

Dr. Richard Summers

Dr. Theresa Ast and Dr. Richard Summers in 2007. Photo: JG.

With sadness we acknowledge the death today of Dr. Richard Summers, professor emeritus of mathematics at Reinhardt University, of liver cancer. Dick received a Ph.D. from Georgia Tech and was a professor at Reinhardt from 1996 until his retirement in 2015. He was a dedicated teacher, a voracious reader, and a kind soul, and continued to teach as an adjunct at Reinhardt until last year. He will be missed! He is survived by his wife Pat and numerous children, stepchildren, and grandchildren. Please keep them in your prayers. 

UPDATE: A colleague writes:

I am not sure if this message went out already,  Kristy DeBord would like me to pass on that she is collecting donations for Dick’s funeral and medical expenses. He supported many people, and this will be a great help to his family at this difficult time. Please don’t feel obliged but if you would like to donate, Kristy is collecting this week and will give it to Pat on Friday.

For those of you who did not know Dick Summers, I will tell you that he is one of the nicest people I have ever met. He had a heart of gold and was such a blessing to countless Reinhardt students and colleagues. He was without a doubt a genius but so incredibly patient working with our weakest math students over and over again in the Center for Student Success and in his classes.

He and Pat were love birds through and through. They loved to read out loud to each other and always had a ton of books going – even in the hospital she was reading to him. He was peacefully groggy these last days.  I was saying a bunch of sappy but true stuff about what a great mentor he was etc. but he only really perked up twice – once when I said something about geometry that got a big smile, but the best was when he heard Pat’s voice as she came closer, he started beaming. It was precious and amazing and a blessing to witness.

Reinhardt, Waleska UMC, and the world will not be the same without him.

UPDATE: Another colleague writes:

As a former student and first mathematics graduate of Reinhardt, I can attest to Dick’s supernatural intelligence and infinite patience. I was an undecided major student who took geometry to try out mathematics at a college level. His knowledge and passion for this field inspired me, and he is the reason I am a math teacher.

When I had the chance last year to join Reinhardt as an adjunct professor, he was the first person I wanted to see. It saddens me to know his health was keeping him from teaching.

Today, my heart and soul are hurting as he was my mentor and a father figure to me. I remember so much of him and Pat like our trip to Mercer University for a mathematics Conference and our mission trip to Miami.

Although I am sad that I won’t see his bright wide open eyes on this Earth again, my heart rejoices knowing that heaven is celebrating the entrance of a great and faithful servant of God. To me he is and will always be the smartest man on Earth (this is what I always respectfully called him since I met him).

Pasaquan

Near Buena Vista, in Marion County, Georgia, exists Pasaquan, a compound built by visionary artist Eddie Owens Martin (1908-1986). It’s somewhat like Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Pennville, Ga., although not exactly Christian – in the late 1930s, during an extended illness, Martin experienced a delirious vision of a trio of extremely tall personages who grew their hair upward. They identified themselves as special envoys from Pasaquan, a place where the past, the present, the future, and everything else all come together. They announced that they had chosen Martin as their prophet and dubbed him “St. EOM” (pronounced “ohm”). In subsequent visions they gave him extensive instructions about the proper conduct of his daily existence, and revealed to him how he could communicate with the energies of the universe. St. EOM accordingly began to meld his life toward a basic philosophy of truth, nature, and earth. While studying ancient cultures in the museums and libraries of New York, Martin became fixated on hair and its symbolic role in past cultures. He began to grow out his own hair and beard, which became a distinctive look for him.

He was also shown how he could render the world of Pasaquan artistically, and in 1957 he began to do exactly that – he returned to Georgia and began to transform his late mother’s small frame house and four-acre plot of land into the extended complex seen today. By the time of St. EOM’s death in 1986, it had grown to include six major structures, all connected by brightly painted masonry walls, colorful concrete sculptures, and other landscape elements and paintings.

St. EOM (or the tall personages) did not designate a successor prophet, and in his will he bequeathed Pasaquan to the Marion County Historic Society. Members formed the Pasaquan Preservation Society in 1991, but keeping it up was too great a task. In 2013, therefore, the site was purchased by the Kohler Foundation of Wisconsin, which sponsored an extensive renovation under the aegis of Columbus State University. Pasaquan was reopened to the public in 2016, and it is certainly a fascinating place to visit. Some photographs (which, as ever, can’t really do justice to the place):

It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re ever nearby. A good book on Pasaquan is Jonathan Williams, et al., St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan: The Life and Times and Art of Eddie Owens Martin (UGA Press, 2018). The information above is derived from the onsite museum. 

The Little White House

Warm Springs, Georgia, is home to the so-called Little White House, which served as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal retreat. FDR first started coming to Warm Springs in 1924, three years after he had been diagnosed with polio. The titular warm springs of the area allowed him a certain freedom of movement now denied to him by his illness. He liked the area so much that he purchased land and had a house built on it, which was finished just before he took office as president in 1933. Over the course of his twelve-year presidency FDR visited the Little White House sixteen times, and died there on April 12, 1945. Although FDR’s main presidential library and museum are at Springwood in Hyde Park, New York, the Little White House is well preserved by the Georgia DNR, and has a great museum, almost as good as a NARA-sponsored one. 

FDR was cagey about his limited mobility, and most Americans didn’t know about it or “chose to ignore it,” as a sign indicated at the museum. But he came to Warm Springs for a reason, and the museum is honest about why. 

Also on display: FDR’s 1938 Ford Convertible… 

…with specially designed hand controls. 

    

I was a youthful stamp collector, and this display brought a tear to my eye. Memories!

But the best part of these sorts of museums are all the homespun crafts. Here is a National Recovery Administration quilt. 

A hand-carved wooden chain spelling out FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT (!). 

A model ship. FDR was a great aficionado of sailing and the Little White House contains many such model ships. 

An extensive handmade cane collection. People would send these to FDR. 

You’ve got to love his first inaugural address written out and forming a portrait.

The museum’s prize possession is the “Unfinished Portrait,” which artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff was working on when FDR died at age 63 of a cerebral hemorrhage. 

An iconic photograph by Ed Clark of Life: Chief Petty Officer (USN) Graham Jackson playing “Goin’ Home” on the accordion, as FDR’s funeral train left Warm Springs. 

I was curious to note that FDR’s friend and confidante Daisy Suckley was present when he died. Suckley is the subject of the movie Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) which we saw recently. It is a dramatization of a period in 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited FDR at Springwood in the hopes of gaining American support for Britain while war loomed in Europe. It’s billed as a comedy-drama but succeeds at being neither. Bill Murray is pretty good as Roosevelt; Samuel West and Olivia Coleman are competent at playing the young (and accidental) king and queen, although they certainly can’t compete with Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, and their discomfort at the brash Americanisms they encounter isn’t particularly amusing or convincing. The film actually has an R rating for “brief sexuality,” but it shows no sexuality at all, not even kissing! Suckley is cast as one of FDR’s mistresses, and the most dramatic scene occurs when it is revealed to her that FDR has… other mistresses! But what did she expect? 

(And, as with all such movies, no real work actually being done. There is a scene when Suckley first arrives at Springwood, and must pass through a room full of functionaries poring over documents and busily telephoning other important people, before she gets to see FDR in his substitute Oval Office and examine his stamp collection. But that’s it. The functionaries never reappear, and for the rest of the movie the president of the United States has all the time in the world to drive around in his car, preside over dinners, wrangle with his mother and wife, etc.)

My wife actually hated Hyde Park on Hudson, especially how it has Suckley making peace with her place in FDR’s regular rotation, and how this was cast as a mature, grown-up attitude. She wondered whether the movie wasn’t funded by MoveOn.org. Thus, I was pleased to learn that most historians reject the idea that FDR’s relationship with Suckley was a sexual one. I reckon what we need is a movie entitled Warm Springs, which would deal with FDR’s time in Georgia and how he learned to sympathize with the common man through his interactions with the locals, with no titillating, invented details about an affair with one of his staffers. 

The Florida Panhandle

Enjoyed a weekend on the Florida Panhandle, with its fine white sand, Spanish moss, palm trees, marine wildlife… and fascinating history!

One interesting site is San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park in Wakulla County. The museum is great, although not much remains of the fort itself. San Marcos was built at the confluence of the Wakulla and St. Marks Rivers, about five miles inland from Apalachee Bay. The fort was held successively by four powers: Spain, Britain, the United States, and the Confederacy, thus the historic flags that greet you as you walk in (all of which were flying at half-pole for Memorial Day). But one flag not flying is that of the State of Muskogee, whose representatives briefly seized the fort in 1791. 

I had never heard of this effort but it is one of a number of short-lived, self-declared states in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America, such as the Republic of West Florida, the Trans-Oconee Republic, or the Republic of Fredonia. The State of Muskogee was the project of one William Augustus Bowles (1763-1805), a former Loyalist who, with British backing, set himself up as “Director General of the Muskogee Nation” and fought against the Spanish. But he was captured and starved himself to death in Havana in 1805. 

Who doesn’t love a good lighthouse? The one at the top is St. Marks Light, located within the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Apalachee Bay, and it still functions. The one at the bottom is the Cape St. George Light, and it exists more as a statement of civic pride than anything. Originally situated at the western end of St. George Island, it was decommissioned in 1994 and toppled by erosion 2005. The locals then salvaged as much of it as possible and reconstructed it in 2008 so that it welcomes you to St. George Island as you drive in on the causeway. 

We had seen the Florida State Capitol before, but I was happy to get this photograph as we were driving through Tallahassee, showing both the Old Capitol (1845) in the foreground and the New Capitol (1977) in the background. 

Newnan, Georgia

Three years ago about thirty members of the National Socialist Movement held a rally in Newnan, Georgia. About fifty counter-protestors showed up, and a force of hundreds of police officers was present to keep the peace. Ironically, the police ended up arresting about ten of the counter-protestors… for the crime of wearing masks! (This is from the before times, when public mask wearing was forbidden because it can provide cover for lawbreaking, and not required for the sake of preventing the spread of disease.)

A brief stop in Newnan yesterday gave us no impression that the place is a hotbed of extremism. It is, instead, a charming town with a glorious county courthouse on the main square.

Yes, it does have a Confederate monument, but it’s not particularly obtrusive.

Historical markers commemorate Governor William Yates Atkinson (1894-98) and Governor Ellis Arnell (1943-47). But the town seems most proud of country music star Alan Jackson.

Big Ben

Gail Heriot on Instapundit:

On this day in 1859, the four-faced clock in the tower over the Houses of Parliament—designed by Augustus Pugin—started keeping time. Since then, the clock has occasionally stopped—sometimes because of bad weather and at least once because too many starlings decided to roost on its minute hand. But it kept ticking when German bombers damaged two of its dials during the blitz, so came through when it really counted.

The name “Big Ben” is the nickname for the largest bell in the tower (though it is also commonly applied to the clock and to the tower). The bell is 7 feet, 6 inches tall and 9 feet in diameter, weighs 13.7 tons, and is struck every hour on the hour. Smaller bells are struck every 15 minutes.

The current great bell is actually the second such bell. The first cracked during testing before the bell tower was even completed. The second was thus delivered to the site with great fanfare in a carriage drawn by 16 white horses with crowds cheering its progress. It took 18 hours to hoist it up to the belfry.

Alas, it soon cracked too. Fortunately, George Airy, Astronomer Royal, came up with a simple solution: Give the bell a 90 degree turn and use a smaller hammer. The British can be good at “make do and mend” when circumstances require.