Friday, October 7, 2022

Family History: An Brief Ethnography


Tracking family history can be tricky. Most of it is oral and the familiar parts get told so often that they become more than familiar, they become rote. That sense of over-familiarity can cause those stories to seem less important, less remarkable. At the same time, the character of these stories are connected to their story-tellers. The moments around the dinner table or standing around the kitchen after cleaning up from a birthday party or Christmas dinner when some moment triggers a story. These are rarely recorded but these stories are, for better or worse, fundamental to the way we consider and remember our family histories.

For example, when my kids ask “what am I”, meaning what nationality I tell them we’re Scottish but with an Irish last name. No one is quite sure how that happened. There are vague stories of horse traders or maybe even horse thieves but nothing for certain. The one thing I do know for certain is that I’ve seen my last name is carved into the wall at Ellis Island, the result of my paternal great-grandfather passing through on his way to New Jersey.  My paternal grandmother, Jemima, was born in the US but traveled back and forth to Ireland in the 1940s, not the best time for transatlantic boat voyages. According to family lore, she was on the Lusitania’s penultimate voyage on one of these trips. My grandfather, Frank, would meet my grandmother some time in their late teens as they were both living in Cliffwood Beach, NJ. They would get married, raise three boys, and my grandfather would work for UPS until retirement. Nominally Catholic they would take my father’s conversion to evangelical Christianity quite hard.

On the other hand, my wife’s paternal grandmother, Gladys, was raised on a farm in Alberta, Canada. She rode a horse to school, shipped gophers on hand-made boats down the creek, and smoked a corncob pipe. One of our favorite family photos of Gram is a black and white shot of her leaning against a rail fence, smartly dressed, with a rifle in her right hand and the corn cob pipe in the other. She made it through eighth grade before leaving school to help with the family farm. Gram left Canada at 17 as the tour nanny to the children of a country and western singer named Wilf Carter, who is best known as the “father of Canadian country music.” It was on one of Carter’s tours of the states that Gram met Bob, a 18 year New Jersey boy with a 10th grade education. Bob would work for years in the telecom industry starting as a linemen for New York Telephone, staying with the company as it was acquired by Bell Telephone and later again by AT&T. However Grandad, in family history, was best known for his love of farming. For many years he maintained 30 acres of corn, regularly sowing, planting, and reaping well into his 70s. To the distinct chagrin of my father-in-law who went gray very early on, Grandad retained a full head of black hair for years. This caused people to ask, when they were out together, if the two men were brothers.

I possess significantly more stories about my wife’s paternal grandparents, Gladys and Bob, known as Grammie and Grandad, for several reasons. First, they both invested time in their kids and grandkids. For many years, they hosted birthday parties, Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween. They were generous with their time, food, attention and even money. They were both people of deep Christian faith who passed that on to my father-in-law. I had privilege of knowing Glady and Bob for about eighteen years and spent, frankly, more time with them than my own grandparents because of their investment in their family. My kids got to spend quality time with their great grandparents. We also walked together through Grandad’s brain cancer in 2017. The week before Gram died in 2020 we spent an hour together, talking, telling stories, and telling her we loved her. Her favorite thing was to have grandkids on her lap so of course the last pictures of us together was with our youngest on her lap.

These are not historical moments. However they are deeply impactful to the lives and practices of how we understand and practice family. The example of my paternal grandparents in their investment into the lives of their children, their grand kids and great-grand kids, is an important historical touchstone to the way the family sees itself and holds itself together.

After Gram died in 2020, one of the deepest senses of loss was selling their house because that was the site of family gatherings. However my sister-in-law, Kelly, and her husband Chris, moved into a manse, close by to my in-laws that featured a wide grassy expanse with plenty of room for everyone. While we live in multiple states, we still regularly gather together to write the next chapters of our family’s history.


Friday, September 9, 2022

Calvin Colton

 America, as an experiment in democracy and religious liberty has grappled from its inception as to the degree that liberty, religious liberty, and slavery were connected. This discussion was particularly heightened around the topics of slavery and abolition in the early to mid-1800s. While abolitionists would argue that there was certainly connection between these three in favor of abolition, a contrasting body of argument was also constructed during this time. These were arguments against abolition, that slavery was natural, was protected by liberty, and as such, was expected and normal in the regular everyday state of affairs.[1] Not a few of the arguments came from those who claimed Protestantism as their religious practice.  

One such example can be found in the writing of Calvin Colton. It’s very likely you have never heard of Calvin Colton whom one author summarizes as “…an anglophobic, ex-evangelical Whig; an Episcopalian, millenarian conservative; a gradualist utopian deeply troubled by the market where he made his living…”[2] Colton managed to live in remarkable and historical times in ways that were markedly unremarkable. Colton came of age in a fraught period of time in American history, graduating Yale College in 1812 and from Andover Theological Seminary in 1814. Following his ordination in 1816, Colton would pastor for the next decade in western New York’s Burned-Over District, a region profoundly affected by Second Great Awakening. Following his wife’s Abbey Raymond’s unexpected death in 1826 as well as being troubled by a persistent throat infection, Colton left the pulpit and traveled for several years in frontier regions of the Midwest. He would then live in England  from 1831-1835 where he worked as a freelance writer and a part-time newspaper correspondent. He would return to the US in 1836 writing and teaching until the end of his life in 1850. Colton was also Henry Clay’s biographer and published his papers, though Colton’s biography of Clay was panned as “uncritical and unreliable.”[3]

In his 1839 book, Abolition, a Sedition Colton argues that “slavery…is a corporate part of the American political fabric, established by Constitution law, and interwoven with the frame of the Federal Government.” [4] Colton reprises the old argument that “it is better to be a slave in America than a free man in Africa…that the best conditions of African barbarism could never be envied by the worst of American slavery.” He further argues that slavery offers the opportunity to “…learn, that God, in his high and inscrutable provide, can bring good out of evil… by the lights of American civilization, and the blessing of American Christianity….”[5] These bear out two points. First that Colton is not terribly original in his thinking. The argument for slavery as beneficial dated at least from the 1700s as did the argument that removing slavery would disrupt society. Secondly, while Colton is correct that God can bring good out of evil, one should not blame God for evils perpetuated by mankind. However it is in the “lights of American civilization” that Colton also saw God’s role in American society.  In what would prove to be his last address in 1850 to Congress calling for a transcontinental railroad, Colton argues “God, in his providence, by the operation of the stupendous machinery of man’s collective power…has precipitated these great and startling events…”[6] “These great and startling events” referring to addition of states to the Union as well as the technological improvements that would allow for a transcontinental railroad to be built. Colton marks an argument throughout this

A prolific writer, Colton was neither an original thinker nor much of a stylist, but he was influential in his day.”[7] Colton’s writings stand in as prime examples of someone who embraced technological advancement and progress as signs of God’s favor on America. At the same Colton held, as many others did, that slavery was an essential piece of American life and could not be removed without doing significant damage to the fabric of America. Thus, Colton’s writings can be read as standing in for many other Americans at this time who argued for a “American Christianity” that promised technological advancement, commercial success and inevitable progress but was not meant to be extended to enslaved people.


[1] America’s robust religious print culture not only supported these discussions through a wide variety of printing presses and fairly high literacy rates but also provides a rich archive of primary source materials for historians to engage. On this see Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America edited by Charles L. Cohen and Paul S. Boyer.

[3] Cave, Alfred A. "Colton, Calvin (1789-1857), clergyman and author." American National Biography. 1 Feb. 2000

[4] Colton, Calvin. Abolition a sedition. G.W. Donohue, 1839. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926, 13.

[5] Colton, Calvin. Abolition. 97

[6] Colton, Calvin, United States. Congress, and Smithsonian Institution. A lecture on the railroad to the Pacific : delivered August 12, 1850, at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, at the request of numerous members of both Houses of Congress. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1850. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926, 5.

[7] Cave, Alfred A. "Colton, Calvin (1789-1857), clergyman and author." In his article, Bratt references Cave's entry on Colton as being one of the prime sources of biography on Colton. The most recent book-length treatment of Colton's life was published in 1969. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

#critlib Homework

I've been thinking about this post since Kevin Seeber posted his homework task in preparation for tomorrow's #critlib feelings chat. *Warning: there are feelings below.*

Why are you a critical librarian? 
For me, #critlib serves as means for ongoing exploration, discovery and curiosity. The crit(ical) of critlib while benefiting from theoretical underpinnings or input does not require those underpinnings. The critical view is looking at library services, place (physical/digital) and philosophy and asking who is excluded by these practices, what unnecessary barriers are in place and what can I, in my role, do to change that. For me the theoretical, philosophical stuff is awesome. Not that I am seeking to get lost in esoteric philosophic discussions. The investigation and interrogation of theoretical frameworks is really interesting to me and to have opportunity to discuss and share info about these ideas is awesome, particularly as I don't have the opportunity to do this in my job.

Why do you identify with these ideas?  
Everything connects. The library is a interdisciplinary space, a juxtaposition of opposites and #critlib is the opportunity to engage interdisciplinary thinking to juxtapose seemingly opposite ideas and see what emerges.
#critlib has proven to be an incredible opportunity to connect, both physically and digitally, with librarians who are thinking about and doing library stuff in really fascinating and awesome ways. The drive in #critlib to push towards praxis based on historical, theoretical and philosophical underpinnings, is I think, essential to ground and understand the current environment in which we operate, how to potentially change that environment and resist as necessary. #critlib is an encouragement that being intellectually curious and a librarian are not separate entities but instead a challenge to how that curiosity and passion can feedback into being a more compassion, generous and caring librarian and individual.

Why do you participate in these chats?
I don't always have the chance to participate in the chats but I often lurk and almost every single time there is the opportunity to at least consider a position, idea or source that I haven't previously. That is the joy and power of #critlib.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Trying to be artful-some thoughts on Ali Smith's Artful

Ali Smith~Artful
I've been trying to finish this post for a week or so now and much of the problem has been that problem of writing about something you like in a way that connects to other people.Especially a book and trying to avoid the rehashing of the entire plot and wanting to communicate what punches or what's worth about the book without giving the whole thing away while also trying to practice a bit of what was picked up in the reading process.

Even the title of the book can be read different ways. Declarative-Artful (by) Ali Smith. Adjectivally-Artful Ali Smith like Dicken's the Artful Dodger who appears and disappears throughout the work. To explore the questions of form, time, edge, reflection Smith creates a/the main character who dialogues with the artifacts and occasional presence of the ghost of a former lover or spouse (hard to tell from the text). Not that it really matters. Artful may also refer to the wanderings that Smith's character takes through the left-behind essay sketches that have been left behind. These sketches become the meat of the explorations of time, form, edge, reflection and edge with various interjections from Smith's character.
Almost exactly halfway through the book, in the "On Form" section Smith states that "Everything can be more than itself. Everything IS more than itself." This book could be read as either a series of narrative-lectures or narrative introductions to lectures or even more complicatedly as explorations of the various connections/interplays of language and text, hidden behind simplicity of text and language. In order to get to the point though of realizing that everything is more than itself requires time, the first essay. In this first essay Smith's character spends time talking about how books require more time than they are often given. And while the character doesn't rub it in, there's obviously been a huge amount of time spent with these texts as they are liberally quoted and occasionally mashed up, including salient points regarding the author's history, biography or the reasons for their (the texts) being written.
Everything IS more than itself. Simplicity can be harder to suss out and perhaps more difficult to dig into because of, at first blush, the limited numbers of ways in or places to grasp hold seem extremely limited. (Think Vonnegut, Saunders, Cummings or even Eggers.)The flip-side of everything is more than itself is that everything connects but only if you know. It helps to know everything but that's usually not possible and so it takes time to grasp the form, examining the edges reflecting on what the text has to offer. Reflecting on what the text 'says' or does. Since the reader is capable of knowing a lot the reader can then recognizing the layers of meanings and interplay that exist between texts. How the ghost of a lover/spouse, leaving behind essays could, possibly, be tied back to Barthes' death of the author. Where the author, imaginary but dead, haunts the reader's character who is also, periodically, the author, flipping the text back and forth for the benefit of the reader while diving off after the plays and subtleties of the whole reason the reader is there in the first place. Time. Reflection. Offer. Form. Edge.

I will say that at the very least, there is now a new e.e. cummings poems on my window, printed out on the plastic sheeting that used to be used for overhead projectors. In order to see out into the hills, and trees outside, in this particular pane, one must read the poem overlaid over the clouds or sky. So that a poem about a day and goodness of the God who created it is held up against that creation as reminder, emblem and reflection.

"I thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of a sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(I who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings;and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting  touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my heart awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
                                                      ~E.E. Cummings

Friday, February 1, 2013

Zeldin on Conversation

I picked up Theodore Zeldin's book Conversation when a patron returned it to the library front desk and started reading, as one is wont to do, the last chapter. I had tried, and failed to read this petite volume several months ago and it had fallen flat. Or at least I had fallen flat. There's some really nice ideas that Zeldin lays out in this last chapter. I offer them to you without commentary for your enjoyment.

“I see thinking as bringing ideas together, as ideas flirting with each other, learning to dance and embrace. I appreciate that as a sensuous pleasure. Ideas are constantly swimming around in the brain, searching like sperms for the egg they can unite with to produce a new idea….The lively brain picks and chooses and creates works of art out of ideas.  
The peculiarity of humans is that they can watch themselves as they go about their business, as they talk and think…They can be either slaves of their thoughts and memories, or decided which of them are useful, which cause only trouble, and which to put away in a bottom drawer. 
Conversation with yourself is full of risk, because you have to decide how much to enhance your ideas with imagination….Ideas need not just to meet, but to embrace.” (p. 85-88 Conversation Zeldin)

“You may wonder whether the art of conversation should be taught, or can be taught, like dancing. The Victorians thought so. They poured out a vast mass of books on the subject, showing that they felt a new style was needed for their new ambitions. But the conversation they wanted to learn had aims which would not entirely satisfy the present generation: to make time pass more agreeably, to get the good opinion of others and to improve oneself. 
The teachers of conversation neglected the idea of personal contact, of the intimate meeting of minds and sympathies and, above all, of the search for what life is about, and how we should behave. They assumed everybody knew what life was about. They regarded themselves as propagating a branch of knowledge between music and medicine; that is, they became elocutionists, correcting accents and presentation, instead of depending the subject matter of conversation. For most of history, people aspiring to be conversationalists have too often avoided subjects which went too deep or were too personal. 
 They cheated: instead of saying what they thought, they repeated fashionable formulae or found epigrammatic ways of saying things they did not believe. I should like some of us to start conversations to dispel that darkness, using them to create equality, to give ourselves courage, to open ourselves to strangers, and most practically, to remark our working world, so that we are no longer isolated by our jargon or our professional boredom. (p. 94-97 Conversation Zeldin)”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What does authenticity sound like?

This article from the Columbus Dispatch entitled "'Lincoln' full of  authentic sounds" was recently forwarded to me. In order for the rest of this post to make sense you should, dear reader, take 5-7 minutes for a read-through or two of the above link. Clicking the link should open up in a new tab so you won't have to worry about losing your spot here.
There's a couple of really interesting aspects of this article that seemed to be worth commenting on.
1) The title of this article is worth noting. If the title read 'inauthentic' instead of 'authentic' what would an inauthentic sound be? Would it be if, during the movie, the watch was displayed and it didn’t tick or if the sound of the watch was from Big Ben? Or if the sounds of John Wilkes Booth's watch was played when seeing the watch? Or perhaps an inauthentic sound is one that is not historically grounded. But the term “historical sound” doesn't quite fit. I'll come back to this.
2) Additionally I found this article is interesting because it seems to be dealing with a need or desire to explicitly point out the supposed authenticity of sounds in an entertaining/entertainment medium. I think this is due to dealing with an historical subject or biography, with what we refer to as 'historical fact(s)' and trying to use the sound of a legitimate historical object to lend credence to the authenticity of the storyline in a medium that is very much about intertwining truth and illusion.

     I would posit that the interest in 'authentic sounds' stems from the desire to make movies about historical figures or history as believable as possible. The concept of originality is rather highly prized in Western art and culture-making where the original is supposed to matter more than an unoriginal or a copy. Hence calling someone or their work/art "original" is truly a compliment while calling someone's work "derivative" indicates that the creative foundations or source(s) of an individual's art work are too easily linked to the influence of other artists and thus does not seem to arise ex nihilio and is therefore not original or not original enough.
     Truthfully I've not actually seen the movie Lincoln yet but the concept explored in this article has been bouncing around my head for the past couple of weeks. In referring back to item 1, if the article hadn't pointed out that particular sounds were from historical artifacts and places, the viewer wouldn't notice. Because the viewer doesn't know that the recorded watch sound is from a watch Lincoln owned, the sound is, of itself, without meaning or weight. Substituting a recorded sound for the watch's true, as it were, tick may actually be less authentic since it is not the seen watch which generates its own tick that is heard. The watch is, if you will, lip-syncing. And in the context of human performance lip-syncing is often seen as one of the deadly sins of live performance, fit for scandal and  wild speculations. (Note the very recent brouhaha of Beyonce's performance at the inauguration. There's whole other area to explore here of the belief in originality and live performance, but that's for another time.)
Adorno suggests that "mass media are not simply the sum total of the actions they portray or of the messages that radiate from these actions. Mass media also consist of various layers of meanings superimposed on one another, all of which contribute to the effect." (p. 164, The Schema of Mass Culture) The sound of the watch must be portrayed as 'authentic' in order to contribute to the overall layering-of-meaning process. The authenticity of the sound is supposed to bring authenticity to the movie, because of the factuality of the sound the rest of the movie now has greater meaning or weight. The contribution of a specific historic recorded sound to the movie watching process, which is filled w/ other, supposedly, historically accurate item, layers on the acting and visual elements to add layers of convincing meaning to the reception of the film. The viewer has no way of knowing this, until educated, but the sound of the watch is supposed to matter more than other sounds.
 "Everywhere the public's nose is being rubbed in the alluring aroma of authenticity so that everyone can experience the intoxication of watching as it happens and Being There...In cinemas every second set of opening or closing credits announces that the film is based on real events." (p. 45 Five Dials No. 26) In the end it doesn't really matter what sound gets used for the watch.  The source of the sound is supposed to give its authenticity to the moment of observing Lincoln's watch. The ticking indicates that what you are seeing is real even though the watcher does not hear the ticking of the watch that they are seeing. They are hearing a second watch, layered onto the visual of the first watch to make the first watch, and the movie by extension, an authentic experience. I would suggest that by engaging in this layering process the notions of original or authentic are actually undermined. To describe this sound as authentic is to engage in what Adorno refers to as the 'jargon of authenticity'. Those art/entertainment-works practicing or using this jargon are ultimately more concerned with the appearance and reception as authentic (realer than real) than actually being so.