Friday, April 29, 2011

Gather the Bones, 8: Congratulations to the Royal Couple

Benjamin West (1738--1820) was the tenth child of a frontier innkeeper. Not the origins that you'd expect of a man exhibiting under Royal patronage in London 34 years later. On the other hand, his mother was 41 when he was born. Mrs. West came from a Pennsylvania Quaker family, but married the Anglican, John West, in 1719, for which she was read out of Meeting as a "fornicator." In spite of its being an Anglican wedding, Benjamin West's baptismal certificate was never afterwards produced. Admittedly, he never actually had to do so. He married an Anglican communicant in good standing, and under Hardwicke's Law and ecclesiastical law as now aligned with statute, he was not asked to produce it; nor did he have to do so at the baptism of his own children.)

Make of that what you will  --obviously, in the fashion of a Nineteenth Century novelist writing for a pastor who wants something to read to the congregation after service, I'm trying to imply something that I can't just straight out say-- , let's move on to just what, exactly, he was exhibiting in 1772: not a royal commission, but rather one from Thomas Penn, Proprietor of Pennsylvania: Penn's Treaty With the Indians

Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Via
This famous image graced many late Colonial American homes. Of course, most couldn't afford full-scale colour reproductions and settled for woodprints. Originals are found for sale on auction sites, and reproductions are widely available online:

Via Moby's Newt, Ltd.
As is standard with woodprints, the directions are reversed. I don't think that that is always some accidental consequence of the technology, either.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Gather the Bones, 7: Rethinking Natty Bumppo, Because Mitt Romney is in the News.

I mean, why not? He's only the archetypical American hero:

You can put his epigones in the ultimate unspoiled wilderness of the Earth's core

(I inserted an image here, borrowed from, which legitimately objected to my borrowing it without attribution. I'm embarrassed, and I apologise. Check the bog out, and I'll fix this later.)

or rip him out of context like this, but the permanently tanned, self-reliant noble savage is a permanent fixture of American literature. Oh, there are ways and ways to unpack this. What's this about natives? Why is he White? Is he, in fact, White?  What about the girls, with this uneasy conjunction of proximity and distance?  A reflection of the nerdboy's agonised sense that life has left him unready for a steady? Or is it --rejection? Is something more homoerotic going on here?

This last thought got me to picking up the Leatherstocking novels in the first place. Blah blah "miscegenation" blah authorising taboo relationships blah blah homoerotic fantasy.  I wouldn't discard the notion. Something as blatant as "Cooper and Howard were teh gay!" might even work. It's just that when I started struggling with Deerslayer, what I was struck by was the way that the novel clearly, cleverly, blatantly, takes the story of Earth Diver as its plot. What the heck? Cooper was underreviewed, especially in America, in his lifetime, but the main takeaway from what the North American Review had to say about him was that he knew nothing about Indians that he didn't read in Schoolcraft. Well, Schoolcraft did not collect the Earth Diver legends, and those legends are far too systematically deployed in Deerslayer for it to be a coincidence. I mean, c'mon! One of the main characters is called "Muskrat," lives in a lodge (castle) on an artificial island, and, when he dies, is described as "taking his last dive" by one of his Mohawk killers. Although I will admit that I was first clued into the Earth Diver metaplot not by slogging through Deerslayer but by Twain's blatantly uncomprehending account of another use of the diving metaplot:

If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper's proudest creations in the way of "situations" suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer's protecting gift. Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a "situation." In the "Deerslayer" tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook's outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become "the narrowest part of the stream." This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were often nine hundred feet long than short of it.
Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a "sapling" to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are "laying" for a settler's scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions "it was little more than a modern canal boat." Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of "greater breadth than common." Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies "two-thirds of the ark's length" -- a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say -- a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms -- each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa's bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream's exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians -- say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper's Indian's never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.
The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judge, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.
There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did -- you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat -- for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper's inadequacy as observer.

(It is perhaps telling that Cooper's reviewers, and Twain himself, came from a hostile political tradition.)

The stream in question is, of course, the head of the Susquehanna, and it would have been wide enough to take Hutter's/Muskrat's Ark (hey, it's another clue-by-four!) during the spring floods, when the outlet to Otsego was frequently blocked temporarily by flotsam dams, producing particularly heavy flooding and a wave that could carry bateaux far downstream and up various tributaries when they broke. Groff even turns this into a variation of the "bateau volant" myth, with General Clinton's forces riding the crest of the wave across a flash-frozen, drowned countryside. It's a gruesome scene that leaves me wondering why Groff is so reluctant to believe that Otsego County would be willing to vote for Clinton later on. Oh, yes. All of the Indians were miraculously replaced with "settlers" between 1779 and 1794.

 (Spoiler alert: once again, I am going to freely spoil several Cooper novels, and, more seriously, Groff's Monsters of Templeton after the break, as appropriate to make my point. And yes, skeptics, I do have one.)

Running Away to the Air, 3: I Never Thought of That!

I wasn't kidding when I said that I loved John Terraine's Smoke and the Fire,  a book about the "myths and anti-myths" of the First World War. He asked us to understand the historical actor within his context and understand his difficulties. The fact that he was defending Lord Haig only made it more poignant. It's always easy to criticise, but there's something about a uniform....

And then there's the bomber barons. I'm only vaguely arguing against straw men when I suggest that our picture is of H. G. Wells published War in the Air in 1907, and producing advance lineups at the CND next day. The government, as usual sensing the public will and steering a (secret) opposite course, immediately appointed a few generals to be in charge of bombing foreigners into extinction (including Germans, provided they could be forcefed melatonin pills). Said generals promptly ran out and began publishing articles on the inevitability of strategic bombing campaigns that would level all civilisation with a single "knockout blow." Twenty-two years later, the Prime Minister scheduled a meeting with the barons:

Prime Minister: "Good Morning!"
Some Honourable Generals Air Marshals: "Welcome to Ad Astral House!"
Prime Minister: "Ah, thank you, my good men."
Air Marshals: "What can we do for you, sir?"
Prime Minister: "Well, I was giving a speech in the Commons just now, declaring war on Germany, and I suddenly came all over bloodthirsty."
Air Marshals: "Bloodthirsty?"
Visiting Admiral: "Desirous of some effusion of human life."
Prime Minister: "In a nutshell! And I thought to myself, "a little knockout blow will hit the spot," so, I curtailed my activities, sallied forth, and infiltrated your establishment, seeking some block busting!"

Air Marshals: "Come again?"
Prime Minister: "I want to order some bombing."
Air Marshals: (lustily): "Certainly, sir. What would you like?"
Prime Minister: "Well, eh, how about a little precision day bombing."
Air Marshals: "I'm a-fraid we don't do precision, sir. Waiting on calculating bomb sights."
Prime Minister: "Oh, never mind, how are you on daylight area bombing?"
Air Marshals: "Just as soon as we get fighter escorts. We never have that at the end of the week, sir, we get them fresh on Monday."
Prime Minister: "No matter. Well, stout yeomen, some targetted night bombing, if you please."
Air Marshals: "Ah! It's been on order, sir, for twenty years. Was expecting it this morning."
Prime Minister:  "'T's Not my lucky day, is it? Aah, night area bombing?"
Air Marshals: "Sorry, sir."
Prime Minister: "Bombs lobbed in their general direction?"
Air Marshals: "Normally, sir, yes. Today the planes broke down."
Prime Minister: "Leaflet dropping?"
Air Marshals: "Ah! We have leaflet dropping planes, yes."
Prime Minister: "You do! Excellent."
Air Ministers: "Yessir. It's..ah,.....they're a bit lost....
 Prime Minister: "Oh, I like my leaflets a bit misplaced."
Air Marshals: "Well,.. they'd be very misplaced, actually, sir."
Prime Minister: "No matter. Fetch hither the bewildered bombers! Mmmwah!"
Air Marshals:  I...think they're a bit more bewildered than you'll like, sir."
 Prime Minister: "I don't care how bewildered they are.  Hand them over with all speed."
 Air Marshals: "Oooooooooohhh........!"
Prime Minister: "What now?"
Air Marshals: "The Colonial and India Offices have taken them all."
Prime Minister: "Demonstration flights?"
 Air Marshals: "No."
 Prime Minister: "You do some operational flying, don't you?"
 Air Marshals (brightly): "Of course, sir. It's an air force, sir. We have....
 Prime Minister: "No, let me guess. Night flying training?"
Air Marshals: "No, sir."  
 Prime Minister: "Figures. Predictable, really I suppose. It was an act of purest optimism to have posed the question in the first place. Tell me."
Air Marshals: "Yessir?"
Prime Minister: "Have you in fact got any flying here at all?"
Air Marshals: "Yes,sir."
Prime Minister: "Really?"
 (pause) Air Marshals: "No. Not really, sir."
Prime Minister: "You haven't."
Air Marshals: "Nosir. Not a plane. We were deliberately wasting your time, sir."
Prime Minister: "Well I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to fire you."
Air Ministers; "Right-o, sir."
     The Prime Minister hires a staff of editorial assistants and publishes a history of the Second World War in which it is all the air marshals' fault.
Visiting Admiral: "What a *senseless* waste of human life."

In less Pythonesque terms, the argument is usually put that what with all the dreaming of a bright future, the Air Staff failed to make any actual provision for the future. For Max Hastings, it's an air force that spends all of its money on buildings, neglecting research and development. In John Terraine's Right of the Line, it's a rather careless comment from Sir Maurice Dean to the effect that the RAF had moved backward from 1919 to 1929. That Dean was a 23 year-old new hire in 1929 might have been more explicitly shared.

But here's something that has already exercised me on this blog: we know what a ten year gap in research and development looks like, because we can compare the RAF of 1949 to that of 1939. When we do so, we appreciate that the planes have changed remarkably. When we drill down for an explanation for that, we find ourselves compiling lists of technological changes with profound implications in every aspect of human life. To say that the RAF should have been as ready for war in 1939 as it was in 1949 is to say that vinyl couches, hi fis, colour televisions and computers "should" have been on sale in 1939. It's a picture of the world in which technological progress is exogenous to historical development, in which a single tinkerer could have brought steam engines to the Roman Empire. So the stakes are rather higher for historical praxis than the narrow argument suggests.

And then there's this, which may or may not be accessible right now (I'm having trouble): in the 1938 Air Exercises, a pervasive fog set in on Sunday night, closing airfields widely in the south of England. As a result, a Harrow of 37 Squadron crashed into a tree when it came below the clouds to fix its location. A Battle was lost after spending 5 hours wandering. It crashed while landing in a field, and the air gunner was killed. 3 Demons sent up for night interception work were abandoned by their crews who parachuted to safety. The Exercises were cancelled the next day in driving rain on London. Terraine quotes Air Marshal Ludlow-Hewit's Inspector-General's report, notes 478 RAF forced landings in 1937--8, and goes on to observe that no civil airline would tolerate such statistics, because apparently he'd never heard of the 1938 Christmas Air Mail fiasco. (By the way, a book I found doing a Google search for a good source on the last.) The Air Marshals had apparently not seriously considered this whole "navigation" thing.

But, following Terraine's advice all those many years ago, one might ask whether it was actually all that easy.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Gather the Bones, 6: "Ethnogenesis," James Fenimore Cooper, and Inequality

So we're in a Canadian federal election campaign right now, the forty-first consecutive one in which national identity has become an issue. Now, that's a hilarious Canadian political joke right there, but I forgive you if you don't get it. Or don't care.  The point here is that, just maybe, Canadians have a step on the rest of the world in taking essentialist claims about identity as opportunity rather than pseudoscience. That is, like everyone else around the world, Canadians are prone to flattering themselves about their endearing essential characteristics. (We're polite! We're not Americans!) And, really, if you're not a narcissist, if you've allowed yourself to hear criticism and entertain self-doubt, you can take occasional comfort in this kind of thing without risking your mental health. (If you do, someone will be mean to you on the Interwebs.)

The Canadian connection here is that we have an absolute smorgasbord of identities to claim. We can be Quebecois! And Canadian! And multicultural! And possibly Albertan, too. That's a lot of identities. What's to stop us? It's easy to say that identity-switching stops at the hard boundary of race, but it's also nonsense.

I am not, of course, unaware that the idea of "racial passing" makes people deeply uneasy. It may seem like an inescapable argument from the "boy's side," in that we can't make the logistics of early colonisation work without it. It's the human side that's a problem. Once you allow people to choose their identities according to need, it seems deeply troubling to go back and open the can of worms again. If it happens, it can't be analysed. Lauren Groff's protagonist turns up one family secret after another as she climbs her family tree back to old Marmaduke Temple, but they are secrets for knowing, not for sharing. There are troubling issues hiding here that simply do not belong in public discourse.

Is there a way around this? I keep wanting to present the context of discovery; but it's hard.

As a twelve-year-old listening to this music* I was listening for lyrics. And it doesn't get stranger, at least to a twelve-year-old, than "Younger than the mountains/older than the trees." Trees last a long time. Probably, actually, not as long as "Whites" have been in "America," but to twelve-year-old-me, the timing seemed suspicious. Not because I was thinking the kind of thoughts I think today, but because as a twelve-year-old, I had access to an alternative historical narrative. The advantage of being twelve is that you don't throw out a piece of historiography just because it mentions Kull and Conan. To the contrary! Granted that the Picts were both the ancestors of American Indians and a Scottish ethnicity, the distance had to be bridged somehow.

So that's a twelve year-old romantic's view. The 46 year-old cynic suspects that he's being sold a line. He's not as rich as some people, and he's not happy about the notion that the roots of that sate of affairs are hidden away, and not to be shared.
So why did we start with the Picts? The takeaway is that it's from Bede, and specifically his claim that the Picts had a matrilineal inheritance law. We know who else had matrilineal property rights! More to the point, we know that when it comes to obscuring the working of inherited privilege, hiding it in the maternal  line is close to the oldest trick in the book. We're talking about real estate. There will be scammers.

 (Spoilers, particularly for Pioneers, The Deerslayer, Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, Home As Found, and Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton possible after the break.)  

*Okay, not the German club scene electronica remix, but the John Denver version doesn't come with hilariously self-conscious line dancing.
**There was a sale on scare quotes down at Postmodernism (Sein/Dasein) Us.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Running Away to the Air, II: Magic Planes

The magic plane thesis is simply this: American builders achieved what the Air Staff couldn't even imagine: building a Very Long Range bomber (the B-24), and a Long Range fighter (the P-51), and thus won the war. The Air Staff is stupid! Depending on taste, so is the entire British aviation industry. John Terraine laid this argument out for the P-51 in a separate appendix to Right of the Line. This being a naked example of an appeal to the authority of the history of technology, you would expect to see some history of technology following --at the very least, of the tendentious kind that Correlli Barnett usually supplies. But nada.

Don't worry, though, John. I loved The Smoke and the Fire when I was 19, so I'll save you!

Or not.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Who the Hell Cares About George Croghan?

Vineyards on the Naramata bench, facing Highway 97 across Okanagan Lake. 
It looks like the profession is pretty much agreed that General Abner Doubleday didn't invent baseball in Cooperstown one day in 1839. The scene in Cooper's Home As Found where  boys play ball in the street isn't proof of anything. It is, in fact, much like using Elizabeth Temple's homecoming as evidence that Americans didn't make much of Christmas in the 1790s. It's a bad reading, and one that misses multiple levels of subtext. Cooper is not happy about the ballgame, which intrudes on the protagonist's family seat. At one level, he is unhappy because he is making political commentary, and he is feeling a bit desperate about Van Buren's re-election prospects by this point. (Hence the tone, so easily mistaken for a temper tantrum.) At another... well, let's say that the game could as easily be lacrosse as baseball.

So why is there a baseball museum in Cooperstown? In the end it comes down to Cooperstown being  Norman Rockwell's America. It is a place to be from, packaged and stored in the past along with first loves and school days and perfect summers. And it would bring tears to George Croghan's eyes to see it so reduced. James Fenimore Cooper, who perhaps did more than anyone else to create this idea of the American, had a more nuanced view of things. Sure, he set his third, and most heartfelt novel, in a fictionalised version of Cooperstown called Templeton, preparing the way for everyone from Faulkner to Donald Sobol, but he called that novel The Pioneers, A Descriptive Tale: Or, The Sources of the Susquehanna. Pioneers does, indeed, describe; but what it describes is left up to the deductions of the careful reader. The part after the semi-colon is, almost in the style of a modern academic title, the truly descriptive title. It's a union of genealogy and hydrography. I should probably start with the latter.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Running Away to the Air: I: The Broad Atlantic

(Yes, I'm a wimp. But you can find the unbowdlerised version easily enough.)

The Battle of the Atlantic was one of the great campaigns of the Second World War. It's traditional at this point to say that it was decisive; I'd be inclined to be all blah blah about ships and ports and submarine tactics before I gave up the point. What I worry about is that it was fought by many participants and has a rich historiography. Far too much of which sucks in a way that goes to my own curiosities.
Again, the cynic in me reduces it to the worst in humanity. The Royal Air Force participated in the entire battle in all its facets, and another participant, the Admiralty, wishes that it hadn't. Oh, not that the Navy boys didn't want planes. Just that, you know, it wanted planes. This is the way of the bureaucracy; never happy unless it owns the assets its using. So if it has an intellectual hit-man used to subordinating his craft to the needs of the institution --a description that fits Stephen Roskill, official historian of the Royal Navy in World War II-- it can commission a version of history that turns the Admiralty's hopes and dreams of the 1950s into the history of the 1940s. Specifically, it can invent itself an Atlantic Air Gap. And a plane that can "patrol for three hours, 1100 miles from base," the Consolidated Liberator. A miracle of American technology that struck Britain out of the blue in 1941 and saved the day.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gather the Bones, 6: Who was George Croghan?

That was easy. And I'm in a hurry today. Win!

 Okay, maybe I'll natter on some more. But after the jump, so I don't spoil any of James Fenimore Cooper's novels. The Great Spirit knows that they're hard enough to get through as it is.