Sunday morning coffee

I was doing a class this past Thursday in which the students were high schoolers taking one or two college classes to get a leg up on future course credits. They would have been born in the mid-2000s. Their regular instructor had sent me a list of topics selected by the students for their upcoming assignment. One of the students had selected artistic futurism. With that in mind I took two record albums from our library collection to show the students, one by Duke Ellington and the other by Miles Davis. My main purpose was to show the evolving nature of media itself, but I also wanted to make the point that what we think of as “traditional” was “modern” in its own time. What is more, we often regard some things as remaining modern even after they have long entered the canon; whereas other things come to be seen as staid and conservative. A century later the Cubism of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso is still considered avant-garde, but the music created by Ellington and Louis Armstrong at more or less the same time is perceived by many as nostalgia.

Above is the actual record set I showed the students, sides 1-2 of “This is Duke Ellington” released on RCA Victor in the early 1970s. Many had never seen an actual album, and so I took the record out of its sleeve and passed it around like the Rosetta Stone.

Antietam 160th

1864 engraving via NYPL Digital

Today is the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. I was talking to someone yesterday, a retired National Park Service ranger who worked for decades at sites here in New York City and who over his career has visited scores of NPS and other sites across the country. He and I agreed that between Sharpsburg and Gettysburg the former is the better historic site. Of course that does not mean Gettysburg is not a special place; anyone who has been to that small Pennsylvania town feels its power when there. Still, the grandeur and expanse of Antietam—at least for some—resonates more. And of course it was essentially the same men and officers who fought in both places less than a year apart. So many of them are buried here in Brooklyn not far from where I’m writing this. One sees their gravestones in Green-Wood Cemetery. Some of them were killed that September day, and others survived the battle and war and would live into the twentieth century.

It is hard to believe the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Antietam was a decade ago. It seems longer than that given all that has happened in so many areas. Intellectually I have moved on to different time periods but when all is said and done I will always be a Civil War historian. I checked the weather in Sharpsburg, Maryland this morning and it is a beautiful late summer day, with temps in the early 80s and clear skies. Alas like many I cannot be there today, but let’s pause and remember the bloodiest day in American history.

Queen Elizabeth II, 1926-2022

Embed from Getty Images

I don’t have anything particularly new or original to say about the death of Queen Elizabeth II but I couldn’t let the moment pass without comment. The foibles and banalities of the British royals—or any royals—are not something I have ever concerned myself with. It can be rather tawdry, and caring too much about the daily lives of such people seems diminishing. As an institution itself however the Royal Crown is a thread and continuity across time that when it is working well serves an important function.

I have always been put off by the public displays of over-the-top pathos and emotionality we have sometimes seen in the past 20-30 years at the passing of certain royal and other public figures. It has always struck me as inappropriate and unseemly in a way I cannot quite articulate. Thankfully, I have a feeling we are not going to see that this time. I was talking to a friend yesterday, a person of full middle-age who grew up in a Commonwealth nation and whose relatives saw the Queen when she came through their remote community many decades ago dedicating public works projects, who called Elizabeth II “the last of the stoic rulers.” Living in London through the Blitz as a teenager will do that to a person.

I suppose once could say this of any time and moment, but the passing of Queen Elizabeth II truly is the end of an era.

Sunday morning coffee

Mystic Seaport Museum, 3 September 2022

A friend and I took the 9:02 Metro North from Grand Central to New Haven yesterday to meet up with someone for lunch and a trip to the Mystic Seaport Museum. The morning train was packed with people heading out for their three-day weekend; the evening train was less crowded, but had its share of young folks on their way into the city for their Saturday night. To say that the party had already begun would be an understatement. More power to them.

Whale oil lamps from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I had never been to the Mystic Seaport Museum before and it was way more than what I expected. It was not until a few years ago as I began to delve deeper into the colonial and Early American periods that I understood how connected the world already was even ~300 years ago. Shipping lanes around the globe were tied together by merchants and the captains who worked for them, all of it underwritten by investors and insurance companies in a manner more sophisticated than many today might imagine. We don’t give the people of the past the credit that they deserve. I have given and taken hundreds of tours by this time in my life and know what to look for as the interpreter is giving his or her presentation. Invariably I ask a number of questions, but never in a manner that takes over the conversation or plays gotcha with the guide. I can tell you that the people there at the seaport museum were uniformly excellent. The Mystic Seaport Museum would be a tricky place to do interpretation because the visitors seemed made up largely of families with young children. Tailoring one’s talk for different age levels and levels of interest is a tricky balance. This would be especially true in Mystic because one of the museum’s central topics is whaling. Whale oil and whale by-products were once huge parts of the world’s economy. Whale oil lit the world’s homes and streets, and lubricated the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. Jewelers used it watches, clockmakers in the gears of grandfather clocks, and women in the maintenance of their sewing machines. Explaining how that economy worked, especially in the presence of small children, would be difficult. I must say that the people at the Mystic Seaport Museum did so in am intelligent and sophisticated manner.

LeRoy Neiman, 1921-2012

A friend and I visited Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx a week ago today. We had a map with us but decided instead to meander without purpose and take in what we saw along the way. Woodlawn was found in 1863, twenty-five years after Brooklyn’s Green-Wood though very much part of the same Garden Cemetery Movement of the mid-eighteenth century. The thing that strikes me the most about Woodlawn vs. Green-Wood is that, generally speaking, the residents of the former were clearly wealthier than the residents of the latter. You can see the Gilded Age wealth in the mausoleums of Frank W. Woolworth, J.C. Penney, and numerous others. On the whole Woodlawn’s resting place are much bigger and on a grander scale than the ones in Green-Wood. Another contrast is that Woodlawn contains many more twentieth and twenty-first century artists. Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Illinois Jacquet are there with others in Jazz Corner, a silent testimony to the fact that while most of these men came from elsewhere they saw New York as their home. In our meandering last week we happened upon LeRoy Neiman. I took the pictures you see below and told my friend I would post today, the tenth anniversary of Neiman’s passing.

Rufus King, 1755-1827

Rufus King headstone, Grace Episcopal Churchyard, Jamaica Queens

I emailed a few people this morning noting that Rufus King died at his Jamaica (Queens) home on this date in 1827, 195 years ago today. One of them emailed back noting that King was born one years prior to Mozart and thus came of age not just during the American and French Revolutions but in an era when he got to hear the work of some of the greatest composers of all time. Beethoven himself died in March 1827, one month prior to King. Last June a friend and I ventured out to the King Manor, where among other things we visited the Grace Episcopal Church cemetery around the corner from the house. Most of the Kings are interred here. For more, here is the first of two article about Rufus King I wrote for the Journal of the American Revolution published two years ago almost to the day.

Olmsted bicentennial

It has been a long day and I don’t have the time or mental energy to say much beyond a quick mention that today is Frederick Law Olmsted’s 200th birthday. I mentioned the Olmsted bicentennial to a colleague early this morning who had been unaware. Oddly enough, ten minutes later he forwarded me something from his significant other who had been reading about it at essentially the exact moment. She sent it to him to read and asked also that he pass it along to yours truly. Later in class we spoke for a time about the journalist, social reformer, and landscape architect’s life and achievements. We have examined big chunks of Olmsted’s life and times over the past several months, including a visit to Prospect Park to see for ourselves. Actually we jumped the class off in early February with Olmsted’s November 1865 return from California just after the Civil War. I noticed earlier that there is a lot going today and this week to mark the Olmsted 200. It is hardly a mere local story. If you want to know his legacy, just look around you.

(image/”A Description of the New York Central Park, with Illustrations” by Albert Finch Bellows via British Library)

Remembering Mingus

Charles Mingus was born one hundred years ago today on April 22, 1922. He is one of the most captivating figures in this most American of art forms. Mingus’s three biggest influences were Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and the Black Church. He also had a firm grasp of classical music which served him well when composing in longer form. Charles Mingus was working on another level. In terms of his personality two figures with whom I have always equated him were John Lennon and Frank Sinatra. Like those two, he was supremely talented and intelligent; all three could, and would, cut through the b.s. in any situation. Also like them, his personality was a combination of generosity and sensitivity interspersed with sexism, occasional violence, and gratuitous verbal cruelty. The hardest part in knowing Mingus would have been the unpredictability.

He died in 1979 of ALS, a cruel fate for any person let alone such an outsized figure as he was. Mingus Big Band was–and is–an ensemble put together by his widow Sue Mingus to keep the bassist and composer’s work in the public sphere.

John C. Hamilton

John Church Hamilton, Greenwood Cemetery

I was in Greenwood Cemetery with someone today on what was a glorious spring day. Often in the cemetery we wander with no set objective but today set out to see John Church Hamilton, one of the children of Alexander Hamilton. This mausoleum is a tad off the beaten path, but not so much so that one can’t find it without undue difficulty. John had quite a career in his own right as a soldier in the War of 1812 (thus the flag), lawyer, and prolific historian. He lived until 1882, six years after the centennial. That the offspring of the Founding Generation continued on well into the Gilded Age is a reminder that one is not talking all that long ago.