Archive for November 12th, 2009

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), The Banjo Lesson (1893)

Dear Friends,

This is my last conference report of the East Central Meeting of ASECS in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I’ve treated of women writers, novelists (and marriage and family), the gothic (motherhood, Catholicism, and lesser known), not to omit Fanny Burney as an older woman. What I have left are a group of summaries of papers which swirl around the issue of how far the Enlightenment was enlightened. How far could radical people disseminate their ideas? Did such ideas influence many people’s behavior? I include the conference’s eloquent key note address on slavery; a brief account of the presidential address on gambling in religious group; a paper on the Zurich enlightenment and Samuel Gessner; and an original 20th century play focusing on William Blake’s relationship with his publisher, Joseph Johnson.

The subject of “Spiritual Middle Passages: Women and Religion in the African Atlantic Diaspora” is so terrible and horrible when I think of what was done to black people crossing the Atlantic and women slaves in the Carribean and western hemisphere, I really don’t have the heart to put a truly appropriate picture of it on my blog. The few prints I can bear to look at are all just too hideous: the prints which capture it best are those which show it to be much worse but very like what went on in extermination and slave labor camps in Germany in World War Two (not unique since this sort of thing begins to be documented during the founding of Australia on the backs of convicts and still goes on in camps around the earth). So I’ve prefaced the blog with a beautiful painting from the 1890s by the American realistic African-American painter, Henry Ossawa Turner where he depicts an aging poor black man lovingly teaching his grandson how to play a banjo. This would be many years after (30) after slavery had been ended by a ferocious war (so unwilling were slave-owners to “give up their property”) and during the era of ruthless discrimination, institutionalized injustice and ceaseless lethal poverty for most black people in the US.

Prof. Sensbaugh is an expert on the subject of African slavery; for this moving address (given Friday, Oct 9, 4:30 to 6:00), he researched in the archives of Lehigh University (apparently this is a good private college with a fine research library). He began by asking us to imagine what it was like to have been born on the sea from Guinea in a horrifying place deep down in the bowels of a slave ship; all around you are chained, beaten, raped, regularly humiliated for amusement (forced to dance on the deck of the ship, whipped), your culture stripped from you as you lost name, family, all connection with your memories, place of birth. Women were driven even worse than men because forced to breed children by their captors.

The Slave Trade

Until recently male slave experience was what was researched. Colonial planters preferred men as work horses. The documentation on the domestic private lives of slaves is fragmentary. Almost without exception the narratives written by people who were or had been slaves before the 19th century are by men: those who somehow escaped during the revolutionary war, who learned to write or read and were able to assert themselves (not as degraded as women who were turned into sex slaves). Women’s narratives date from the early 19th century (e.g., Sojourner Truth).

Mid-19th century photograph of a slave family

How to overcome this methodological challenge was part of Prof Sensbaugh’s speech: you have to trawl through archives of sales, colonial reports, tiny fragments found serendipitiously by wide reading in documentary records.
It helps to read several languages. A brief account in German in the archives of Copenhagen tell us of a woman named Rebecca Finder Prodder, a former slave in the Danish island of St Thomas, who in the 1730s married a white missionary who was jailed for sedition; she went to Germany and there widowed she married Christian Prodder, and then in her last 20 years lived on the African gold coast. He named and briefly described what we know of three to four more slave women. He said that from fragments you can build a story, e.g., one “old Elizabeth” told a child she would “look to God” and “in every lonely place I found an altar.”

He suggested that the Christian religion enabled women to join communities, extract some order from a hideously shattering experience, begin to regain some balance in their minds. They formed religious communities of women under the cover of Christianity and created lateral families. They became healers, diviners, prophets. He told of a petition a group of women were able to write (with the aid of an aristocrat on St Thomas) and send to the Queen of Denmark, of which we still have copies. They complained they were not allowed to worship; such moments formed a sanctuary for them. We can see that they did try to find some recourse beyond their cruel masters and that there were laws such masters were forced to obey. People who were masters could be deported and even executed by the authorities.

How effective was this petition? Apparently it’s very hard to say; they appear not to have been punished for sending the petition and it is still in the records in a creole language. From it we get a tiny sense of their lives and a personality dictating. Most of the talk afterwards was about this petition, the circumstances, who were the king and queen of Denmark at the time, the man who brought the petition, the languages used in Africa and the western hemisphere.

Geoffrey Sills’s presidential address, “Odds and Evens: Sacred and Secular Gambling in the Transatlantic 18th Century” was given after lunch on Saturday around 1:00 pm. He began by telling us the 18th century constitutes one of the great leaps forward in human history despite its manifest misogyny, use of slavery, oligarchic and monarchic governments, and neoclassic ideals. His subject was the early settlement of the Moravian community in Bethlehem under the aegis of Count Zinzendorf.

Zinzendorf organized the first Moravian community by setting up lotteries as a way of organizing the community in Bethlehem: not only were offices given out this way, and important decisions of various kinds made, but people who wanted to marry were forced (if they wanted to say in the community) to get the permission of the community first. This would force them to “marry in” and control the behavior of those who wanted to be approved of. It does seem that somehow while Zinzendorf was in charge most of the time these lotteries ended up doing what he wanted despite any chance outcomes.

Prof Sills then moved to how such lotteries spread in the 18th century and today too. He spoke at length of how Benjamin Franklin proposed a lottery to pay for military means of self-protection as well as support an Academy in Philadelphia: that academy eventual become the University of Pennsylvania. The lotteries did very well: people were willing to “invest” in them. It was seen as a benign activity God favored. Today many states have sanctioned legal gambling and use lotteries themselves to raise money.

Benjamin Franklin by Michael Deas (2003, a modern image for Time Magazine)

There were no questions afterwards which was a shame. It was a speech given just after luncheon but I have seen talk after such speeches. I didn’t have the nerve to ask about the enforced conformity of having to get permission to marry from a community. Modern lotteries seem to me a form of extremely regressive taxation and I have read the “founding fathers” deliberately eschewed lotteries which had been popular in various ancien regime states in Europe.

Another area people could have brought up is how now that the steel companies have long left Bethlehem, one way this town has sought to make a little money is to allow the old steel mills to be turned into a casino.

The old rotting steel mills

Bethlehem Slots
Today part of it a casino

Much of the town of Bethlehem is depressed; there are large swatches of extremely poor neighborhoods. Jim and I took a walk around and the most prosperous places where were the colleges (one a Moravian one) were. One can see that vast areas of the town were once prosperous working class neighborhoods where people owned their own small homes. No more. All one can see now are a few streets of picturesque shops, and a very few restaurants which remain open in the evening and have long lines of people waiting to get in. Most of these people look middle to upper middle class and drive in from the surrounding further away small opulent suburbs. Other than these colleges and shops the place is dead. No public world anywhere to be seen.

Such is American life and the American landscape today.

The question of how enlightened was the Enlightenment was part of the subject of John P. Heins’s talk on Solomon Gessner, a poet and painter and book illustrator in Zurich (on the panel “Research in Progress” on Saturday afternoon, 2:00-3:3:30). Gessner’s years were 1730 to 1788, he wrote Biblical and pastoral dramas, idylls, short prose works, Arcadian literature and seen as another Goethe in his interests and visions. His works were championed by Diderot. He did visionary landscape etchings where he celebrated Enlightenment figures and thought; many are mildly picturesque scenes, e.g., escapism with shepherds and shepherdesses: He was a prominent citizen with good connections; yet he was dependent on his family business to survive and his illustrations sold.

Prof Heins then went on to outline the nature of Zurich society. He said it was a repressed society, ruled by a small socially reactionary class and to protest against it you had to present your work and message quietly and indirectly. In the histories of the time this community and Gessner are usually celebrated, with Gessner living an idyllic life in a benignly-ruled Zurich. These stories feed fantasies of Alpine myths of an unspoiled landscape which gave rise to pastoral novels of the later 18th century [and much later children’s books like Joanna Spyri’s Heidi]. Only now are we beginning to explore the realities of 18th century Zurich. It was governed as an aristocratic repubilc, 10,000 people ruled by 2000 or 750 families, an oligarchy. There was strong enforcement of sumptuary laws, censorship, punishment by exile. Henry Fuseli was an exile from Zurich. Honest exposure of corrupt officials was punished. In 1750 Klopstock visited Zurich and composed a poem on the beauty of the natural world there; it was attacked for everything one can think of and he for being with unchaperoned women.

So when we look at Gessner’s career we see how remarkable what he did manage to publish and paint was.

The grave of Albrecht von Haller by Samuel Gessner

In the question period afterwards I cited the tragic life of Emily Kempin-Spyri who I’ve written about on this blog. A fictionalized memoir by Eveline Hasler reveals how impossible it was for Kempin-Spyri to live a fulfilled life, to work as a lawyer, and how she was eventually ground down and put into an asylum by her family. Hasler also wrote the life of Anna Goldin, burnt as a witch in 18th century Zurich (there’s been a film adaptation).

(There were two other papers and discussions of these but I was too tired to take proper notes.)

On Sunday morning (8:30 to 9:00), one session was offering an unusual treat. Ted Braun was chairing a panel where two original playlets were to be read, both by members of ASECS. Alas, the people who wrote and were to read them got sick the night before. However, with bravery and gallant spirits Ted and Brijraj Singh read the manuscript by Joseph Bryne aloud. It was titled “Mr Blake, how can I publish this ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell?’ (Being a dialog between William Blake and his publisher, Joseph Johnson).

It was very lively and consisted of back-and-forth talk between Johnson and Blake where Johnson protested that very few would understand Blake’s poems and the few who did would be horrified. What I found fascinating about it was that the interpretation given Blake’s works harked right back to an old scholarly classic, Martin Price’s To the Palace of Wisdom: studies in order and energy from Dryden to Blake.

Price’s book is not a book about how most of the people alive in the 18th century were anything but enlightened, but rather how the writers themselves understood the limits of (and themselves undermined) possible human adherence to ethics, tolerance, reason, common sense, the sympathetic imagination: ruins and visions, the picturesque, the deeper passions of the psyche are among the topics Price treated. I have an old copy in my house where I find I underlined many passages; it’s falling apart I read it so diligently once upon a time. Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is visionary satire, here is his first plate:


I’ll end this series of reports with two of my favorite passages of Pope’s poetry.

From Moral Essays 3, “Of the uses of riches:”

Once, we confess, beneath the Patriot’s cloak,
Fro the crack’d bag the dropping Guinea spoke,
And jingling down the back-staris, told the crew,
‘Old Cato is as great a Rogue as you.’
Blest paper-credit! last and best supply!
That lends Corruption ighter wings to lfy!
Gold imp’d by thee, can compass hardest things,
Can pocket States, can fetch or carry Kings;
A single leaf shall waft an Army o’er,
Or ship off Senates to a distant shore;
A leaf, like Sibyl’s, scatter to and fro
Our fates and fortunes, as the winds shall blow
Pregnant with thousands flits the Scrap unseen,
And silent sells a King, or buys a Queen.
Oh! that such bulky Bribes as all might see,
Still, as of old, incumber’d Villany!…

[What better describes how banks, powerful bi corporations, and military contractors now run the world?]

And from Moral Essay 1, “Of the character of mankind:”

Our depths who fathoms, or our shallows finds,
Quick whirls, and shifting eddies, of our minds?
On human Actions reason though you can,
It may be Reason, but it is not Man;
His Principle of action once explore,
That instant ’tis his Principle no more.
Like following life through creatures you dissect,
Ye lose it in the moment you detect . . .
Nor will Life’s stream for Observation stay,
It hurries all too fast to mark the way:
In vain sedate reflections we would make
When half our knoweldge we must snatch, not take.
Oft in the Passions’ wild rotation tost,
Our spring of action to ourselves is lost:
Tir’d, not determin’d to the last we yeild,
And what comes then is master of the field,
As the last image of that troubled heap,
When Sense subsides, and Fancy sports in sleep
(Tho’ past the recollection of the thought)
Becomes the stuff of which our dream is wrought:
Something as dim to our internal view,
Is thus, perhaps the cause of most we do …

Salomon Gessneridylls
From Samuel Gessner’s Idylls From online: “In his idylls, Gessner, who is indebted to Theocritus and Virgil, creates an idealized, orderly, almost horticultural state of nature, from which everything rough and craggy has been eliminated; his shepherds are similarly untouched by the ruder aspects of country life . . .


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