Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Cherronesus, Metropotamia, Pelisipia, and more!

In Bound for Canaan, his book on the underground railroad, Fergus Bordewich describes a plan worked on by Thomas Jefferson in 1784, while Jefferson was a member of the Continental Congress. The arrangement would have restricted the extent of slavery in the growing nation:

[N]ewly opened lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi … were destined to fill with settlers. [Jefferson’s plan] would have prohibited slavery in all the western territories … south as well as north. Had [the] plan been adopted slavery would never have been extended to the present states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, or presumably to those west of the Mississippi. Congress failed to approve the plan by a single vote.

That’s one of those points in history you can point to and say, but for one vote things would have been different. 

Besides the dispensation concerning slavery, Thomas Jefferson’s report on the Western Territory also included suggested borders for new states and names for those states. Some of the names are little different from what came to be. Some are rather different. Here they are:


source: Bound for Canaan: the underground railroad and the war for the soul of America by Fergus M. Bordewich

Monday, November 27, 2017

beggar woman, wandering pilgrim, insane literary colored man, and more!

Gerrit Smith was a wealthy white abolitionist in 19th century New York state. He had a “Grecian mansion” and “owned at least 750,000 acres.” Smith was generous, too. Besides handing out donations to individuals and organizations with a special interest in funding anti-slavery work, Smith explored ways to deed over thousands of acres to former slaves in the hope they might become self-sufficient farmers.

He sounds like a pretty great guy. Smith kept a diary and in it recorded a little bit about each of the many travelers he welcomed to his big house. I love the excerpts that appear in Fergus Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan, a book on the underground railroad. I have to share:

Mrs. Crampton, a beggar woman, spent last night with us. Charles Johnson, a fugitive slave from Hagerstown, took tea at our house last evening and breakfasted with us this morning.

Mr. William Corning, a wandering pilgrim, as he styles himself, dines with us. He is peddling his own printed productions.

Poor Graham, the insane literary colored man, has been with us a day or two.

Elder Cook and William Haines of Oneida depot arrive this evening. Mr. H. is a ‘medium,’ and speaks in unknown tongues.

Dr. Winmer of Washington City, with five deaf mutes and blind child take supper and spend the evening with us.

We find Brother Swift and his wife and daughter at our house, where they will remain until they get lodgings. There come this evening an old black man, a young one and his wife and infant. They say they are fugitives from North Carolina.

A man from ____ brings his mother, six children and her half sister, all fugitives from Virginian.

An Indian and a fugitive slave spent last night with us. The Indian has gone on, but Tommy McElligott (very drunk) has come to fill his place.

source: Bound for Canaan: the underground railroad and the war for the soul of America by Fergus M. Bordewich

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Notes toward an autobiography by others

In her book The Argonauts Maggie Nelson says:

My writing is riddled with … tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.

I was surprised once when someone told me after a poetry reading, “You speak with such authority.” Like Maggie Nelson I grew up including “tics of uncertainty” in my writing. It reflected my thinking, didn’t it? Who really knows. Knows! Being certain of something should make you suspicious. Be open to other possibilities and, at least occasionally, what seems impossible.

I remember as a kid there was a period I added the word “no” to anything sarcastic, i.e., “That’s the most beautiful dirt clod I’ve ever seen — no!” I don’t know how I picked it up, and I don’t remember anybody bringing my use of it to my attention, but at some point it hit my ear wrong. Why was I so frequently contradicting myself? It took conscious work to purge the “no”. 

When I noticed I was constantly using phrases like “I think” and “it seems to me” in my writing and that other writers weren’t I wondered where the difference was. Were the others writing what they thought? Yes. You are reading them to find out what they think, I said to myself. They don’t have to write “I think” because it is understood that what they are writing is what they think. This made sense to me. So whenever “I think” appeared redundant — “I think ice cream is too cold!” — I would cut it out. “Ice cream is too cold!” is not a universal opinion thus I must not be speaking for everyone. I must be speaking for myself!

Leaving out “tics of uncertainty” creates an illusion of certainty. Or, as Maggie Nelson says, evokes “a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to [the speaker].” You get used to figuring out whether the person speaking is speaking from a place of authority, a place of personal experience, a place of knowledge, by following their argument a bit. Does it hold together? Does it make sense? Does it match your experience? They may be more wrong than right but still be worth attending to. 

Nelson goes on to say she opens a lot of her letters or emails with “Sorry,” as in “Sorry for the delay. Sorry for the confusion. Sorry for whatever.” She adds, “I’ve had to train myself to wipe the sorry off.”

I’ve done that too. Who really cares that I’m sorry when I haven’t written a blog post in months? You’re writing one now, Glenn. What is it you’re putting fingers to keyboard to say? Other than that you are sorry, of course. Other than that you are terribly sorry and you feel bad about neglecting the blog and doing other things which are not important either.

source: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Monday, November 13, 2017

You can play

I was a fan of a number of bands on Lookout! Records. From Green Day to Pansy Division to The Mr. T Experience. I like the way Kevin Prested’s history of the label starts right out with an anecdote featuring one of those aspects of punk that I’ve always found really appealing, that is, you can play. You don’t think you can play? Pshaw. Here’s a guitar or a bass or a mic to sing into. The rest of us will help you out. We have a gig next week.

In 1984 Larry Livermore was publishing Lookout Magazine (print-runs of 50 copies) when he started a punk band. Why let go a good name? Livermore called his band The Lookouts. His girlfriend left the band not long after it was begun, it seems. But Livermore wasn’t ready to give up.  
[Larry] Livermore salvaged the drum kit left behind by his ex-girlfriend and now ex-drummer [of the Lookouts]. Sue Rhine met Larry at the gay club The Stud in San Francisco, and after sharing some dance floor moves, they reconvened outside to get better acquainted.
Sue Rhine: … When [Larry] suggested that I ought to consider being the drummer for his punk band, I laughed out loud. I had never thought about playing drums before. Was this a joke or maybe a very strange pickup line? He insisted he was indeed quite serious about this and explained that, based on my dancing, he could detect some sort of natural rhythm. He told me that he had a drum set, a rehearsal space, and that he could easily show me what to play.

Sue Rhine does try. But the one gig she plays doesn’t go well. At least, she decides her “wimpy drumming and lack of stamina” aren’t up to her own standards, and she decamps to Maui. 

There have been those who didn’t give up so easily. Some went far. Most didn’t. But they made music, or, I like to think, made a righteous noise.  

source: Punk USA: the rise and fall of Lookout! Records by Kevin Prested