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Whither the house museum?

Concord's Old Manse

Concord’s Old Manse

Here is a confession for you: I never pay the full suggested admission price when I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The reason is because I figure that, like many huge and successful insitutions, the Met is doing pretty well for itself, even in these difficult times. Usually when I visit I give them $5, not the $25 they suggest. Let me hasten to add that I believe it is crucial to support all cultural institutions, large and small. I never freeload and I always give even the wealthier places something. When visiting smaller museums–and I visit several dozen a year–I always make certain to support very generously. At a small site I always give the full suggested amount. If the place is gratis, I still make sure to put a little something in the donation box. Every little bit helps, especially at smaller venues. An interesting article came through my in box the other day about the perilous state of house museums in Massachusetts. By extension the problems faced by such museums in the Bay State are applicable across the country.

For me at least the term “house museum” can mean two different things: a building that was once the actual domicile of a famous individual, or someone’s current place of residence partially turned into an exhibit space through an act of passion for something. My favorite was this one. It is shocking to see that Paul MacLeod has died.

The topic was already fresh in my mind because a few of us at Governors Island were talking about the sins and virtues of a few particular house museums in Gettysburg. Without naming names, let’s just say the quality of interp varies along Steinwehr Avenue and the Baltimore Pike. Also, just a few days after that conversation I was in Boston and visited a few of the historic sites in Lexington and Concord. The museums were a mish mash of Park Service and private sites working next to each other along the route the Redcoats covered in April 1775. One of the most interesting was The Old Manse, the Concord house that Emerson and Hawthorne called home at different points in time. The museum staff was quite informed and knowledgeable, everything one can ask for.

Thank god for the Met, the Louvre, Musee D’Orsay and others, but I hate to think of a world in which our precious house museums disappear.

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Sunday morning coffee

I was at a social gathering a few weeks ago when I mentioned that linguist Steven Pinker has a new style guide coming out in September. My story of Pinker and his thoughts on grammar fell flat, though that was my fault. Broaching the ins and outs of split infinitives on a Saturday night was probably not the way to go.

In a nutshell, Pinker tries to split the difference between prescriptivists and descripivists. Grammarians and editors who fall into the prescriptivist camp believe that there are rigid rules to follow in writing and that deviation should be avoided at all costs. Yes, language evolves, they allow, but change should be slow and cautious. Descriptivists take a more relaxed approach and believe that language is more flexible and fluid. Language, they argue, is whatever people say it is. It is more complicated than that, but that is the gist of it. You can read more about it yourself; the London Guardian published an excerpt on Friday.

Ironically people generally–and lazily–call Pinker a descriptivist, which I think misses the point. His whole argument is that good communication is the goal and that style is an important part of the process. Otherwise why would he waste his time writing a book on usage? The point is to communicate effectively without being a prig.

I am looking forward to Pinker’s book, which will be released in September. Writing well and clearly is important. I wrote about this a few years back. Like Pinker, I too fall in the middle area between presriptivist and descriptivist. Standards matter. There is nothing more frustrating than reading something–an email, text message, newspaper article, whatever–in which the meaning is vague or unclear. It cannot be a total free-for-all. At the same time, we should not become totally captive to the rules, as if they exist just for themselves. The idea is to understand the rules of style and grammar well enough to be able to break them occasionally when necessary.

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Anna Bulloch (Gracie)

These now faded markers are the headstones of Anna Bulloch, James Gracie, and Martha (Grandmamma) Bulloch. Martha died in 1864 when the Civil War was still going on.

These now faded markers are the headstones of Anna Bulloch, James Gracie, and Martha (Grandmamma) Bulloch. Martha died in 1864 when the Civil War was still going on.

I was in Green-Wood Cemetery yesterday afternoon and came across the headstones of Anna Bulloch and James Gracie. I have seen these many times before. Anna was Theodore Roosevelt’s aunt, his mother’s sister; James was his uncle. James was part of the Gracie family that owned what we now call Gracie Mansion, the New York City mayor’s official residence.

Theodore Roosevelt’s mother Martha was from Roswell, Georgia and married Theodore Senior at a young age. Anna and Grandmamma moved to New York and lived at East 20th Street soon thereafter. Anna home schooled Theodore and many other neighborhood children, including Edith Carow. I have always suspected that they moved to help Martha as much with the in laws as with the kids.

a close-up of Anna and James

a close-up of Anna and James

In addition to her four children Martha had to contend with her in-laws living just a few blocks away on Union Square. What’s more, she had four brothers-in-law also in the neighborhood, including one next door. It did not help either that the Civil War was coming and the Bulloch were staunch Confederates living and/or married into a family of Lincoln supporters. She didn’t have the buffer as Seinfeld would say.

What has always intrigued me about these headstones is that Anna’s has her maiden name. I have never understood why hers says Bulloch and not Gracie. We know from the literature that theirs was a good and close marriage. James became very much a part of the Roosevelt extended clan and participated in the family’s charitable and other endeavors. It seems strange to me that she kept the Bulloch name.

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Pic of the day

Rough road ahead

I came across this sign up the street from our house and naturally had to stop and photograph. It is for the street work they have been doing, but feel free to interpret any way you wish.

 

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Charles C. Mills

IMG_0869I was in Green-Wood Cemetery this afternoon for a quick walk when I came across this headstone for one of the men from Joseph Hawley’s regiment. Hawley notes in the 7th’s regimental history that Mills had returned from recruitment duties just in time for the fighting at Pocotaligo in October 1862. Mills is mentioned again during the fighting in the Bermuda Hundred outside Richmond. There, 150 years ago this month, Mills was mortally wounded when shot in the chest.

His death must have been traumatic for all involved. According to Hawley, his and Mills’s wives, with a few other officers’ spouses, “made a social circle which formed an oasis in military life which was remembered with great pleasure in the continuous battles from July, 1863 to the close of the war.” In early January 1864 when the fighting was again about to heat up ” All the ladies, except Mrs. Hawley and Mrs. Mills returned north.” It must have been a difficult death if he held on for another six months before expiring in January 1865. I would love to know the circumstances of how he came to be buried here in Brooklyn.

Mills, Charles C

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Quote of the day

Bill Russell at the March on Washington, 1963

Bill Russell at the March on Washington, 1963

When Auerback was named coach sixteen years earlier, The Boston Globe had carried the story on the inside pages, surrounded by racing results and local high school sports scores. But the editors of the New York Times considered Russell’s hiring [in 1966] so momentous that they ran their article on the front pages, next to stories on bombing strikes in Hanoi, proposed peace talks between the United States and Vietnam, and the Ford Motor Company’s recall of thirty thousand vehicles for safety defects.

–John Taylor

The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball

(image/U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service.)

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Memorial Day at Cypress Hills

A few weeks ago I got to talking with a park ranger at one of the Manhattan sites about Cypress Hills National Cemetery. This person is a seasonal who does not live in New York City but is stationed here for the summer and will return to grad school in late August. He wants to make the most of his time here and is taking regular busman’s holidays to see this and that. One place on his list is the national cemetery. I hope he goes. Who knows? Maybe he already has given the level of interest he expressed.

Spread out over parts of Brooklyn and Queens, CHNC is one of the original national cemeteries Lincoln created during the Civil War. A few years back I took the Hayfoot and a friend there on a brutal summer’s day. I am glad we went but in retrospect I saw that, well, maybe it would have been better put of until autumn.

The Daily News sent a crew there over Memorial Day weekend. For me one of the striking things at the cemetery was the rostrum mentioned in the small clip. One sees this at Gettysburg, Antietam, and elsewhere and seeing one here in New York is a strange experience.

 

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