Labor Day Weekend

It is hard to believe the summer is winding down. I had a lot of fun and accomplished many of the things I set out to do in summer 2012. In these months I focused especially on my volunteering at Governors Island and learning more about the Reconstruction and Gilded Ages. Too often we study the Civil War without focusing on what came after. The same impulse is there in the study of the Second World War, where the interest is on say the Battle of the Bulge but not the chaos and cleanup of Europe in the late 1940s and 1950s. War is precise and offers a clear narrative; its aftermath is messy and full of shabby compromise. Who wants to study that? It is an impulse one must fight against. How much detail does one need to know about the fighting on Little Round Top or the plight of the 101st Airborne at Bastogne?

I came away with a new appreciation for the postwar presidents, especially Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur. I’ve written before about how we too often dismiss these presidents. The tendency is to skip from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt and his Bully Pulpit. One cannot understand the Civil War, however, without understanding how that generation lived and the decisions they made after the Appomattox. It was very complicated time and one that deserves better. I still have much to learn but I feel many of these figures are no longer the stick figures they always were to me before say Memorial Day.

Enjoy your weekend.

Governors Island, then and now

We headed down to the tip of Manhattan to catch the ferry at the Battery Maritime Building, slip #7 adjacent to the Staten Island ferry terminal. So far it all seemed very familiar, except for the absence of the Shore Patrol.

Jan Kelsey lived on Governors Island in the 1970s with her Coast Guard officer husband. Recently the two returned to see what had changed and what still remained. I never tire of hearing the stories of those who lived and worked on the island, just as I never tired of meeting people who had passed through Ellis during my time there. The best bits are in the details. As Hemingway said, tell them about the people and the places and how the weather was. Ms. Kelsey has certainly done that. This is the most lucid 1,500 word take on Governors Island I think I have read.

As she recommends, come check it out for yourself. There is another month to go in the season.And remember, the island is open Labor Day Monday.

(image/Chris Ruvolo)




The crossroads of the Mississippi Delta

Late this past week we were doing the New Student Orientations on my campus, meeting the incoming freshmen and giving them an overview of how and what our library can do for them. It is one of the signals that a new semester is about to begin. The fall is especially busy because the incoming body is always larger in August than January. The groups came in waves over an hour long period and in the five minutes or so between incoming sections we were about what we had done over our summer. I mentioned how if my father were still alive the Hayfoot and I almost certainly would have gone to Memphis for a few days during our visit. The River City is special not just for its own cultural importance–which is significant–but for its proximity to so much else. The first time I ever “visited” was in 1997 when I was passing through during my drive from Texas to New York during my move to Brooklyn. Needless to say,with all of my worldly possessions crammed into one automobile, a 1,500 mile drive, and a deadline to make to start a new job there was not much time or inclination to do any sightseeing. I vowed to make it back when time and circumstances allowed. Thankfully I did.

One thing I never realized until visiting Graceland was how close it is to the Mississippi line it is. These are the things you discover when you’re out there seeing it for yourself. In a piece written in recognition of Elvis Week Patrick Teegarden explains how Memphis is “an ideal ‘base camp’ for learning the ambiguities that are America.”

Enjoy your Sunday.


Friday morning coffee

The sesquicentennial events of the Maryland Campaign are quickly approaching. This should be something special, especially at Antietam where the interpretive staff have been preparing for several years. I have been fortunate in that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War came at precisely the moment when I was ready for it. Intellectually, five or ten years ago would have been too soon, and a decade down the line might have been too late in some ways personally. Meeting the Hayfoot when I did was the biggest catalyst. These are the times of one’s life.

Cyclorama Building on the move?, cont’d

Update: The Park Service has released its environmental assessment of the cyclorama building. There will be a meeting at Gettysburg National Military Park on September 6, 2012 for discussion and public comment.  I hope they can resolve this once and for all. The building has turned into an eyesore. Here is the url:

Original posting (below) August 23, 2011

Authorities at Gettysburg National Military Park announced that they are exploring the feasibility of relocating Richard Neutra’s Cyclorama Building to a less conspicuous location.   This may be the least bad option given the possibility that the Park Service may never be granted the authority to demolish the site.

Gettysburg Cyclorama Building; photo/Don Wiles

I am always sympathetic to the arguments of architectural historians and preservationists that we are losing too much of our cultural heritage.  Every time I walk through the travesty that is the current Penn Station I rue the loss of the magisterial original.  It is fair to argue, too, that Neutra’s Gettysburg building is now itself part of the history of the evolution of the park, part of the Mission 66 project and designed to reflect the stature of the United States during the Cold War and Space Age.  Still, despite the nostalgia that many feel for the building they visited during their youth, the fact remains that the building never worked.  For one thing the Modernist structure sits incongruously atop Ziegler’s Grove on Cemetery Ridge, the site of some of the hardest fighting on Day 3 of the battle.  It was also structurally unsound, leaking frequently, and responsible for a great deal of the damage the Cyclorama incurred in the decades it was housed in the building.  Besides, there are plenty of representative Neutra buildings still standing.

Neutra’s Miller House, Palm Springs; photo/Ilpo’s Sojourn

Whatever happens, a permanent solution to the Cyclorama Building issue will hopefully be forthcoming in the intermediate future.  Stay tuned.

Reenacting: A short meditation

Those who know me know that reenacting is not my thing. Still, I have met living historians who have thought deeply about the Civil War’s causes and consequences, not just the ins and outs of blanket rolling and tent folding. The folks have Thrash Lab have made this film based on a trip to a reenactment in California.

Old Brooklyn

I have lived and worked in Brooklyn for fifteen years now and still very much consider myself a new Brooklynite. Pete Hamill. He’s and old school Brooklynite. Then there is a Brooklyn that goes back even farther than spaldeens, egg creams, and the Dodgers. This Saturday in Fort Greene the Society of Old Brooklynites will be having its 104th annual memorial tribute to the patriots of the Revolutionary War. I will be at Governors Island this day and unfortunately will miss the ceremonies. I do intend to work it in to my activities throughout the day, nonetheless. It will not be difficult, being that the island harbors (sorry, couldn’t resist) so much colonial history. The Battle of Brooklyn is just one slice of the story. One could be forgiven for not knowing any of this, being as New York did a poor job marketing this aspect of its history in the early twentieth century when Virginia and Massachusetts were doing just the opposite. When we think Revolutionary War we think Boston and Yorktown, not New York City. There are some 11,500 Revolutionary War dead buried in Fort Green Park, many of whom had perished on the infamous prison ships in Wallabout Bay. The 104th annual tribute to these individuals should make for an memorable day.

Mississippi’s sesquicentennial

The issues won’t be new to anyone who has been following the sesquicentennial the past few years, but this article captures the mood of the 150th Civil War commemoration in Mississippi. I am always struck when visiting battlefields by both how recent some of the monuments are and by the ethos expressed in some of them. Gettysburg is filled with monuments laid in the early 1960s, during the Centennial, which express the sentimental notions of the war felt by previous generations. This isn’t so surprising. In the early 1960s the war was still recent history; many at the time had grandparents–or even parents–who had fought from 1861-65 and they wanted to remember their ancestors in a certain light. It was also the moment, just prior to and during the Civil Rights Movement, before African-Americans became part of the narrative. Some monuments though are from later, even much later. The 26th North Carolina shown here is one of two placed in 1985. The Mississippi state monument below it is from 1973.

(images/Stone Sentinels)

Elvis Presley, 1935-1977

That was Elvis’ mark–he conveyed his spirituality without being able, or needing, to express it. And all these adults with their more complicated lives and dreams and passions and hopes looked for themselves in his simplicity.

–Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

Today is the 35th anniversary of Elvis’s death. I remember the day vividly. My parents had divorced two years earlier and my dad visited us every Tuesday and Saturday. August 16, 1977 was a Tuesday, and as you might imagine that was a large chunk of the conversation that evening. Neither my mom or dad were that into the King, or even rock ‘n roll for that matter. People reached adulthood much younger during their time and they missed the phenomenom by a few years.

I am a third of the way through Last Train to Memphis. What I love is the way Guralnick stays out of the way and lets the story tell itself. He is not writing about a myth or cultural artifact, but about a person. This is something too often forgotten when we discuss the life of Elvis Presley. I attached “Polk Salad Annie” because my favorite Elvis songs have always been the ones with which we are less familiar. Enjoy.

Johnny Pesky, 1919-2012

Johnny Pesky, rear holding cane

In sad but not unexpected news, Johnny Pesky has died. I am glad he lived long enough to see the Red Sox end their drought and win two World Series. Watching him raise the World Series flag with Carl Yastrzemski in April 2005 was something special. What I loved the most about Pesky was his innate kindness, the way he always had something positive to say. Pesky spent 73 years in professional baseball.

(image/Andrew Malone)