Friday, February 3, 2017

Weekend Reading? Trump as Jackson Think Pieces Galore



     Last night over dinner with fellow historian and pal John McKee Barr (who’s book on Lincoln you should have already read, what are you waiting for?) we spent a few minutes expressing our amusement at the fairly glib media analogies between Trump and Andrew Jackson that have become so pervasive since the inauguration that our students have been soliciting our thoughts this past week or two as well.

     If, like I, you’re looking to keep the string of think pieces straight or find them all in one place to read this weekend, then here’s what I think of as the most interesting, thoughtful, and useful.  Lots to think about, argue about, reflect on…..

     Back in November I suppose Steve Inskeep’s piece kicked a lot of this conversation off in The Atlantic.  Inskeep, for those who have not included him in their media diet, is the NPR Morning Edition host who’s popular non-fiction book Jacksonland came out early in 2015 and revisits for a broad audience the relationship of Jackson to the Cherokee and the politics and consequences of Cherokee removal.  I’ll say this—Inskeep is intelligent and the book is fine, but it is certainly more likely to be a piece of conversation with American readers than better books on the same topic by professional historians. Take that for what it’s worth—read it, it’s worth it, but don’t let it be the only thing you read on Cherokee removal.  Here’s his November piece on Trump/Jackson “Donald Trump and the Legacy of Andrew Jackson”

     Inaugurated on January 20, 2017, it was widely reported that one of Trump’s earliest redecorating moves was to install a portrait of Jackson in the White House.  Apparently, Trump finds Jackson’s populism (and perhaps total disregard for the Constitution?) inspirational.  One wonders to what degree pieces like Inskeep’s might have provided Trump with the inspiration.  Surely Trump has glazed lovingly at Jackson’s portrait on the $20 bill at some point in his life, but I doubt he could explain in any intelligent way anything about the lives or careers or passions of any of the men on our currency.  So, anyway, Jackson is now Trump’s wall and I would be surprised if the Obama era Treasury plans to update our currency to more reflect an inclusive past might be as dead as environmental stewardship, refugee admissions, or the protection of voting rights.  “A Homebody Finds the Ultimate Home Office”

     In response to the Inauguration, the New York Times ran a truly broad and wonderful set of reflections by a number of literary and academic intellectuals approaching Trump from every angle.  Recommended generally, but pieces by Jennifer Wiener, Curtis Sittenfeld, Timothy Egan, and Sarah Jaffe are very good.  Princeton’s Sean Wilentz—author of a brief Jackson bio, a massive but important history of 19th century politics, as well as the truly remarkable study of Jackson era working class political movements—has long defended Jackson on similar ground to Brands as an agent of the progressive expansion of democracy, while acknowledging the blemishes.  Wilentz has also made a lengthy public career advocating in places like the American Propsect for the modern Democratic party against its detractors left and right, as well as providing what he surely hopes is a firm intellectual narrative that supports the history of the party of Jackson, FDR, JFK, and Hillary as the central force for progress in our nation’s history.  This assertion is easily satirized, but I confess I admire his scholarship and tenacity if not necessarily all of his partisan boosterism.  I will go to my grave with his Chants Democratic among my top twenty American history books of all time, and I still think his work is generally worth our time to read and consider, especially since it, too, will always be a part of the conversation.  Here’s his quick take on Trump as a successor to the legacy of Calhoun rather than Wilentz’s cherished Jackson.  “More John Calhoun Than Old Hickory”  

     Inauguration day, Foreign Affairs ran Walter Russell Mead’s “The Jacksonian Revolt: American Populism and the Liberal Order.”  Mead is a centrist foreign policy opinion machine, and frankly someone I find fairly glib, unoriginal, and yet still omnipresent as a centrist critic of the right nonetheless so frequently criticized by the left.  His support for the Iraq War will likely devalue all of his contributions to serious discussions of foreign affairs for the rest of his life, yet one can’t fault him for not trying to make up for.  While operating a think tank and issuing scores of think pieces, Mead has also undertaken a multi-volume continuing examination of foreign policy, including a close look at the Jackson era in Special Providence  Here in the Foreign Affairs piece Mead makes an early contribution to this hopefully ephemeral Trump/Jackson genre, but notes that Trump is so intellectually vapid and inconsistent that it is impossible to place him in any particular school of realism or idealism with regard to the analysis of foreign policy and yet the vibrant base of enthusiastic support for him, nonetheless, among certain voters (nearly entirely white middle class people who think they are economically suffering despite all evidence to the contrary) at least gives Trump some patina of Jackson’s mantle.

     By January 29, historian and biographer H.W. Brands weighed in with his thoughts on Trump as Jackson in Politico.  For Brands, Jackson was an avatar of democracy, even if that democracy in the 1820s was limited to white male egalitarianism rather than human equality, Brands upholds a generally traditional view—largely the reason Jackson is venerated enough to get a coveted spot on our currency—for breaking open elite governance and letting in “the people.”  For Brands, Trump’s rise to power on voter repression, without a majority win in the popular contest, and with chicanery from outside the election makes his entrance into the White House just the opposite of Jackson’s.  “Trump as the New Andrew Jackson? Not on Old Hickory’s Life”  (h/t to John Barr, I missed this one in the barrage until he mentioned it last night)

     On January 30, History News Network (subscribe already, why haven’t you?) ran Tarleton State’s Michael Landis’s blog post which you can almost always count on to express a contrarian position from the position of a passionate but also responsibly informed, academic reflection.  Later to the conversation than the pieces that charted Trump’s populism, reliance on white male egalitarianism at the expense of everyone else, or his reckless foreign policy, Landis notes the latest Jacksonian precedent for Trump: Despite social media chatter immediately comparing Trump’s decision to fire acting Attorney General Sally Yates Monday to the more recent Nixon era “Saturday Night Massacre,” Landis reminds us all that Jackson relied on propagandistic disinformation as he also serially dismissed Treasury secretaries concerned about the illegality of Jackson’s determination to remove federal deposits from the National Bank despite Congress’s legislative directives.  Neither incident in the Jackson or Trump administrations will sustain your faith in our Constitutional checks and balances as it is so clear that a strong willed executive combined with an abdicating legislature and utterly disparage press could do anything in response to unconstitutional executive action.  I hear constantly that norms and policies and bureaucracy and Congress and the Courts will check Trump’s impulses, but that remains to be seen.  I am not optimistic.  For what it’s worth, I strongly urge you to read Landis’s Northern Men with Southern Loyalties, an examination of the northern wing of the Democratic Party before the American Civil War but until then, start here with his “Another Way in Which Trump is Proving to Be Like Andrew Jackson”

     I am sure that once this relationship between Trump and Jackson becomes familiar and shorthand that we will see many more of these pieces, and if there are any interesting ones that I have missed I’d love to hear about it.  Tweet them my way @npcox

Friday, January 6, 2017

Blogging AHA17: Session #7, On Family/Business,

The first conference panel I attended today may have had more attendees than the panelists expected considering the snow and the focus on the social history of the private worlds of women, merchants, and antebellum America but there should have been many, many more people in the room to hear these four papers.
First, Lindsay Keiter, a public historian conducting research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation provided a close reading of prescriptive literature and perhaps even satire—with Ben Franklin it’s always a fine line—about the practicality of marrying well versus for sentiment.  Historians of courtship and child raising have long noted that from the colonial era through the Revolution into the antebellum period Americans graduated from a fairly austere and severe familial mode toward companionate marriages and kindly parenting.  Generally affectionate relationships displaced authoritarian relationships.  For courtship economics, the value of a brides dowry or her match’s future potential earnings would have been far more important than their feelings toward one another until the unfolding antebellum era supplanted pragmatic partnerships with sentimental attachments.  Keiter argues that in reality, the antebellum correspondence that she has mined demonstrates otherwise: economics mattered far more and far longer into the 19th century than assumed and was joined by sentiment, not displaced.
Mandy Cooper of Duke University similarly scrutinized the private correspondence of antebellum Southern business, merchant, and financial middle and upper class men.  Here she notes that relationships often understood to be within the impersonal and public world of finance depended heavily on networks and connections of credit derived from family relations.  Additionally, men, even without familial intimacy, relied heavily on familial language of love, affection, service, and the like to make impersonal relationships carry the same sense of duty and obligation on one another in the fulfillment of business obligations or favors.  For Cooper, this blending of the public and private obliterates the simplistic notion of separate masculine and feminine spheres—something that historians of working and/or politically engaged women have argued for some time.  However, Cook’s examination of similar boundary blurring by male business climbers and leaders is refreshing, original, and brings to light some very illuminating antebellum correspondence often overlooked by Southern historians of politics, or race and slavery.
     Alexandra Finley of delivered a fabulous paper on the slave trade at the Southern Historical Association meeting in fall 2014, but today continued to offer excerpts from the dissertation she has completed at the College of William and Mary.  Historians of the slave trade all to often assume or rely on secondary assessments of slave traders as immoral, aloof, often socially ostracized men who’s greed, acquisitiveness or descent into the depths of slave hunting, jailing, and transporting left them beyond the social pale.  From fictional and literal portrayals in antislvary literature, propaganda and slave narratives traders are so rarely contextualized as family men.  Finley finds otherwise, however, and discovers the many ways in which traders’ wives either actively participated in and profited on trading, or at least, failed to morally temper their husbands toward less deplorable commerce.  Placing slave traders in the routine context of family men, husbands, fathers, and sons does a lot to remind historians that slave trading was perhaps more socially tolerated than abolitionists or Southerners themselves would have reported in the antebellum world, and that perhaps family was no restraint on conduct.
     Finally, Rikki Bettinger of the University of Houston (Go Cougs!) examined the travel diaries of Mary Lowell and Susan Magoffin.  Both women from the north Atlantic—Lowell married into the textile family of Massachusetts and Magoffin married to a merchant trader in the Southwest—traveled extensively in antebellum Cuba and Mexico, respectively.  In Cuba in 1831-32, Lowell and her family extended their commercial reach to a land of cotton production and often part of the South’s aspirations to attach to the US.  In wartime Mexico, from 1846-1848 Magoffin circulated in the commercial outposts of the Santa Fe trail with her husband.  Both women worked on frontiers or in foreign lands to diplomatically advance their hsubands’ enterprises, and, as Magoffin notes, often took the lead as a “traderess” herself in the absence of her husband from time to time.  Like Cooper, these women’s lives demonstrate the permeability of the line between public and private spaces, but Bettinger also notes the way in which American merchant class women advanced American commercial and perhaps even imperial ambitions.
    The panel was adeptly chaired by Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor who offered thoughtful introductions and conclusions which tied the papers together--- I am likely in debt to her for some of my thoughts above, tho I confess, I wish she had been a little tougher on one charming and amiable attendee who turned the q&a into her own personal story time.  But, to be honest, the chair and panelists handled that with kindness and patience, and I have seen far worse conduct by professional historians who choose to use that time to give speeches about their own perspectives.
    In the afternoon I attended a panel on the Cold War and a plenary on Trump, but perhaps I will have more to say about those tomorrow.  Until then,
     Yr obdt srvnt,
NPCox

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Canales Hearings, the Loyal Rangers in the Era of the Mexican Revolution


                During World War I, but more relevantly, the era of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) the state of Texas authorized the expansion of the Texas Rangers by establishing special commissions for what became known as the Loyalty Rangers.  These Rangers were not within the established Rangers chain of command and often were locally hired and paid by agricultural planters, railroad corporations and mining interests to provide security on the US-Mexico border.  Despite state authorization of these Rangers, they were more or less deputized vigilantes engaged in policing Mexican American communities during times of political turbulence.  Generally, despite the increasingly frequent episodes of violence on the frontier, these Loyalty Rangers also offered effective and often violent support in the maintenance of labor relations between the Mexican American laboring class and Anglo American managerial and employing class.  Not unsurprisingly, the laboring class found themselves frequent targets of indiscriminate and extralegal violence by these Rangers.
Ranger Henry Ransom (seated, far left) and Company D


                In 1919 after more than a dozen episodes of ethnic and racially motivated violence by Rangers killed hundreds of Mexican American community members (who often had no ties to any cross border revolutionary activity) the state’s only Mexican American legislator Jose Tomas Canales sponsored a reform bill that would eliminate the practice of governor’s authorizing the use of special Rangers.  Canales proposed reducing and reforming the regular Ranger units, demanded that those hired have law enforcement experience, that the noxious veterans of the Loyal Ranger be barred from serving, and that the governors be restrained from appointing people to Ranger commissions in the form of political patronage in reward for campaign or electoral help (as Governors Ferguson and Hobby both had done).  Canales also proposed that Rangers be capable of posting $1000 bonds for their service, a fairly common expectation for elected county office holders such as sheriffs and JPs.  The intention was to ensure that gentlemen held these positions, or at least that men of modest means would need the financial backing of local elites in their quest for office.  What Canales hoped, of course, was that the governors would stop expanding the Ranger force with special dispensations to reward their friends, and that those politically connected friends would no longer fill the force with prejudiced and often vicious or violent men of small means who were accustomed to using violence against Mexican and Mexican American farm and mine workers.
Canales, 1937


                The Canales bill sparked an enormous outcry by the Rangers in their own defense as well as growing anxiety that the issues which motivated Canales would stain the history of the Rangers and the state.  A series of Canales Hearings on the bill occurred in the later 1910s until ultimately the bill failed to pass the state legislature.  The hearings make some fascinating, if frustrating reading and can be found here but the growing efforts of Refusing to Forget have recently brought attention to issue as historians seeks to illuminate Texas’s experience of both World War I and the Mexican Revolution one hundred years afterward.  As this piece in Slate notes, both the Bullock Museum and local historical commission authorized markers are beginning to talk plainly about the extraordinary use of extralegal violence by vigilantes and militias backed by private extractive companies.


                At the invitation of the Fort Bend County library system I will be talking about the broader history of the Texas Rangers from the colonial founding of the Brazos colonies through the American Civil War and into the modern 20th century.  This story of the Loyal Rangers in the 1910s is just one of many stories—some heroic, others decidedly not heroic—and I’d love to see you there.  If you aren’t nearby, take time to browse the Refusing to Forget blog, or if you had a chance to visit the Bullock Museum this past Spring and saw the exhibit, tell me what you thought about it.  If you really want some homework, ask your library to call those Canales hearing transcripts in to your local branch and sit down with the microfilm reader…..

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Kara Walker, Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)




Kara Walker has had over three dozen solo shows since 1995 and, so far as I can tell, the last of them to exhibit in Texas was over nine years ago when “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” visited the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.  It seems quite rare that her work is exhibited in the South, much less Texas.




In the spring of 2014 her Marvelous Sugar Baby sculpture in the vacant Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn became the most talked about art installation of the year, and frankly, I have heard nothing about another work of art discussed as much.  An enormous sphinx made with large sugar cube blocks, it exhibited familiar critiques of the black Mammy iconography that Walker observers should recognize from her earlier conceptual work with silhouettes, prints and Jim Crow era found objects.



So far as I know, there has yet to be a major Kara Walker show in Houston.  The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, however, possesses the fifteen print series of lithographs and screenprints produced by Sikkema Jenkins & Co from Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) 2005-2006.  These prints are absolutely shocking and remarkable to view and, at least for a short period, a small number are on exhibit during this last phase of Statements: African American Art from the Museum’s Collection.  I can only hope that one day the Museum takes the time to display the entire range of their collected lithographs.


In 1866, Harper’s editor Alfred Guernsay released the Pictorial History of the Civil War.  Originally released in two volumes and over 800 pages, this publication featured more than 1000 illustrations culled from the files of Harper’s throughout the war years.  For the last fifty years, inexpensive coffee table versions on cheaper, thinner paper have been a standard on the bargain gift tables of many American bookstores and the volume is about as inescapable as anything which seeks to document the Civil War.  Kara Walker is not the first to point out the ways in which the book and its many reprints have sheared away any references to slavery and emancipation as well as the role of African Americans in the war.  But academics and artists, frequently with lamentable small audiences, continue to knock against the interpretation of a Civil War over slavery that curatorially excises the black experience of the war from the history and visual record. 


With those issues aside, however, I must confess that I- and presumably Kara Walker- found these 19th century newsprint illustrations of major events and turning points of the War, as well as the banality of routine, boring soldiering, utterly captivating.  The original illustrations are an absolute high point in mid19th century visual arts and illustrations.  Kara Walker’s “annotations” however force us to reconsider these familiar, often iconographic illustrations.



The use of sexualized and stereotyped images of African Americans from Jim Crow era minstrelsy and popular culture is central to Walker’s art as early as her first use of these images in her Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart (1994).  Now that Gone is installed at MOMA, Walker teaches at Columbia, and the City’s memory of Marvelous Sugar Baby continues to linger she remains the most prominent African American artist of the contemporary moment.

These large scale panoramas, screenprints, and installations are always arresting when viewed for the first time, surprising in their size and vividness.  The reminder of how often African Americans were removed from the central places in our national memory stands in stark juxtaposition with how often they were also portrayed as either fools or objects for sexual gratification in our nation's vulgar entertainments.  Kara Walker's art forces us to acknowledge this reality lest we forget how routinely early 20th century mass culture and popular media established long entrenched racial stereotypes and assumptions. 

If one sees these five Kara Walker prints at the MFAH's Statements exhibit, I would also encourage you to stop for a moment and view the photographs by Gordon Parks from the 1940s for further reminders of the impact of this history on the lives of African Americans in the late Jim Crow era.

Gordon Parks, Children with Doll, Washington DC, 1942


Further links and writing about these prints:


Kara Walker, Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)




Kara Walker has had over three dozen solo shows since 1995 and, so far as I can tell, the last of them to exhibit in Texas was over nine years ago when “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” visited the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.  It seems quite rare that her work is exhibited in the South, much less Texas.




In the spring of 2014 her Marvelous Sugar Baby sculpture in the vacant Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn became the most talked about art installation of the year, and frankly, I have heard nothing about another work of art discussed as much.  An enormous sphinx made with large sugar cube blocks, it exhibited familiar critiques of the black Mammy iconography that Walker observers should recognize from her earlier conceptual work with silhouettes, prints and Jim Crow era found objects.



So far as I know, there has yet to be a major Kara Walker show in Houston.  The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, however, possesses the fifteen print series of lithographs and screenprints produced by Sikkema Jenkins & Co from Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) 2005-2006.  These prints are absolutely shocking and remarkable to view and, at least for a short period, a small number are on exhibit during this last phase of Statements: African American Art from the Museum’s Collection.  I can only hope that one day the Museum takes the time to display the entire range of their collected lithographs.


In 1866, Harper’s editor Alfred Guernsay released the Pictorial History of the Civil War.  Originally released in two volumes and over 800 pages, this publication featured more than 1000 illustrations culled from the files of Harper’s throughout the war years.  For the last fifty years, inexpensive coffee table versions on cheaper, thinner paper have been a standard on the bargain gift tables of many American bookstores and the volume is about as inescapable as anything which seeks to document the Civil War.  Kara Walker is not the first to point out the ways in which the book and its many reprints have sheared away any references to slavery and emancipation as well as the role of African Americans in the war.  But academics and artists, frequently with lamentable small audiences, continue to knock against the interpretation of a Civil War over slavery that curatorially excises the black experience of the war from the history and visual record. 


With those issues aside, however, I must confess that I- and presumably Kara Walker- found these 19th century newsprint illustrations of major events and turning points of the War, as well as the banality of routine, boring soldiering, utterly captivating.  The original illustrations are an absolute high point in mid19th century visual arts and illustrations.  Kara Walker’s “annotations” however force us to reconsider these familiar, often iconographic illustrations.



The use of sexualized and stereotyped images of African Americans from Jim Crow era minstrelsy and popular culture is central to Walker’s art as early as her first use of these images in her Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart (1994).  Now that Gone is installed at MOMA, Walker teaches at Columbia, and the City’s memory of Marvelous Sugar Baby continues to linger she remains the most prominent African American artist of the contemporary moment.

These large scale panoramas, screenprints, and installations are always arresting when viewed for the first time, surprising in their size and vividness.  The reminder of how often African Americans were removed from the central places in our national memory stands in stark juxtaposition with how often they were also portrayed as either fools or objects for sexual gratification in our nation's vulgar entertainments.  Kara Walker's art forces us to acknowledge this reality lest we forget how routinely early 20th century mass culture and popular media established long entrenched racial stereotypes and assumptions. 

If one sees these five Kara Walker prints at the MFAH's Statements exhibit, I would also encourage you to stop for a moment and view the photographs by Gordon Parks from the 1940s for further reminders of the impact of this history on the lives of African Americans in the late Jim Crow era.

Gordon Parks, Children with Doll, Washington DC, 1942


Further links and writing about these prints:


Friday, May 20, 2016

Franz Winterhalter



Leonilla, 1843.  On loan to MFAH from the J. Paul Getty Museum.  No reproduction can convey the beauty of this painting.  Inspired by Ingres, this portrait of a Russian princess married into a German aristocratic family is easily the most breathtaking painting in the exhibit.
              

     After the death of her uncle, King William IV, the London born Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837 at the youthful age of 18.  Born of a German mother and eventually married to her German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, Queen Victoria’s life was deeply intertwined with continental royalty even before her coronation.  Victoria and Albert had nine children, each married to another continental aristocrat, and-- as best as I could ascertain from some of the sumptuous Winterhalter exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston—her nine children had more than forty of their own, and a dozen of them became kings, queens, emperors and empresses of Greece, Norway, Russia, Romania, Wales, Spain, Prussia and other various German kingdoms.  Until August 14, about 45 of his paintings will be on exhibit at the MFAH.



A pair of portraits of Albert and Victoria, 1842.  On loan to the MFAH.



In the 1820s and 1830s, the German born Franz Xaver Winterhalter emerged from the Munich Academy of Arts as a favored court painter for the aristocracy in Baden.  Winterhalter relocated to France by the end of the 1830s and became the favored painter of King Louis-Phiippe, who lost political power during the Revolution of 1848.  In exile in Britain, the deposed French monarch ingratiated himself with his distant cousins, Victoria and Albert while is painter pivoted toward the painting of biblical and classical scenes rather than aristocratic portraits.  With his patron in exile, Winterhalter traveled to Switzerland, Belgium, and eventually England.


Florinda, 1853.  This was given by Victoria to Albert, now on loan to the MFAH from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.



                He picked up where he left off, with an unmatched reputation for portraiture Winterhalter quickly became the primary painter of Victoria’s growing family in the 1850s.  The revolutionary French government did not last, and the restoration of Bourbon monarchy in 1852 quickly followed.  Winterhalter returned to France and served Napoleon III, painting the re-emergence of ostentatious monarchal fashions of the Second Empire. The rule of Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie ended in war with Prussia in 1870; Winterhalter was abroad, and during the war returned not to France but to Germany, dying three years later. 

Young Woman in Profile, 1862.

                For forty years in Germany, France, and England Winterhalter produced some of the most recognizable portraits of the European aristocrats, particularly favored for his ability to capture qualities of light and texture on clothing, hair, and skin which presented aristocrats in an exalted form which they aspired toward, even if they failed to surpass their own indulgent and insular lives, even if their extraordinary wealth gave them the privilege to cultivate artists like Winterhalter who did not hesitate to portray them as unblemished ideals. 


Lydia Schabelsky, 1857.


                I am quite fond of the 1960s era republican demand in England to “liquidate the lot” and jettison all romanticization of the aristocracy, but I confess like many Americans there is still something unshakeably appealing about the concentration of vast surplus wealth directed at the creation of works of beauty.  And many of these portraits are simply beautiful.

                One last beauty,

Susanna, 1866. Frye Art Museum, on loan to MFAH.


If you are in Houston then you are in luck, this is the only US location of the exhibition.  Go see the exhibit before it moves on High Society: Portraits of Franz X. Winterhalter

Reviews:
Molly Glentzer, Houston Chronicle
Randy Tibbits, Houston Press
Catherine Anspon, PaperCity Mag




Saturday, March 21, 2015

Old South's Old Testament

I just picked up an old copy of Roark Bradford's Ol' Man Adam an' All His Chillun (1928) and found the chapter illustrations to be delightful.  Bradford grew up in Tennessee and served in World War I, and although his major stories and novels came out in the 1920s and 1930s he is most certainly overshadowed by other Lost Generation writers, especially William Faulkner.  He later served in WWII and taught literature at Tulane.



Bradford's collection makes use of southern black dialect and Jim Crow minstrelsy stereotypes to retell Old Testament fables reset in the Old South; I suppose the black child narrator serves a sort of Scheherazade like conceit, introducing each of the Biblical tales together for his audience.  The collection became the basis of a prize winning, popular drama about the South, Green Pastures (1929) and many of the nostalgic themes would of course appear in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1936).  Green Pastures on stage and television provided a not uncontroversial vehicle for many African-American actors in the 1930s to the 1960s.



The greatest part of the book, however, remain the whimsical illustrations which recast the familar Old Testament into the world of the Plantation South replete with steamboats, top hats, whiskers, and belles.  Enjoy.