Oh Idiot! What should I want more Children for?

One of the less well-lit areas of human history is the history of children. Today, there are television channels, endless videos and photographs, schools of every description, as well as the occasional well-publicized story of a child who built a business or a charity. Our contemporary view of childhood is very different from the views held in the past, but I’ve always been insecure about the details.

Looking for a good book about childhood’s past, I waited for the new Second Edition of A History of Childhood, written by a Professor Emeritus from the University of Nottingham named Colin Heywood. Although written with scholarly correctness, it’s accessible, and it turns out to be a pretty good story, too.

He gets started in the Middle Ages, “a society which perceived long people to be small scale adults. There was no idea of education… and no sign of our contemporary obsessions with the physical, moral and sexual problems of childhood. The ‘discovery’ of childhood would have to await the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only then would it be recognized that children needed special treatment, ‘a sort of quarantine’, before they could join the world of adults.” These early years are complicated because religious belief dominated; Puritans, for example, “did not necessarily have a high opinion of infants, the more zealous brethren assessing they were born as ‘filthy bundles of original sin’…

The Age of Innocence by painter Joshua Reynolds, circa 1788

By 1788, there are lovely paintings of innocent children, representative of romantic view, if not of all children, then certainly the fortunate upscale among them. She seems to be the perfect child, but parents remained conflicted about just what they were raising. There were constant ideological conflicts between innocence and depravity, superb and dreadful behavior, honorable and horrifying treatment, nature and nurture, independence and dependence.

To begin his fourth chapter, Professor Heywood begins with a provocative question, “To begin at the beginning, were children wanted?” Happily, the answer through the ages seems to be yes… but not too many! There were critics opposed to the whole idea, including the fourteenth century poet Eustache Dechamps, who write “Happy is he who has no children, for babies mean nothing but crying and stench; they give only trouble and anxiety.” In the throes of motherhood, Hester Thrale (1741-1821) wrote in her diary, “this is a horrible Business indeed: five little Girls, too. & breeding again, & Fool enough to be proud of it! Oh Idiot!’ What should I want more Children for?”

After leading us through history of delivery, naming, godparents, and other ceremonies, we’re faced with the unfortunates, the unwanted children and their unhappy parents, and deepening the despair, the common death of infants and young children, no less a tragedy then.

Still, children survive and thrive. There are more and more of them, especially after we determine that they are better educated than put to work as small versions of farm hands and factory workers. In fact, they thrive, leading first to the astonishing 3 billion people on earth by 1900 (just as public education is beginning to take shape), then (beyond the scope of the book), taking us to 8 billion by about 2025.

As we begin toward the modern age, fathers have more time at home, so childcare, and the love of children, shifts from primarily a mother’s role, to an increasingly common model of shared parenting.

Heywood provides much more than a historical overview. He takes us into the room with the child as he or she grows up. Example: learning to walk, children were discouraged from crawling. Why? Indoors, floors were often shared with animals, and there was a certain discomfort in seeing one’s offspring propelling himself or herself in the same manner as a pig. There was also the cold of those floors, and the filth. Better to walk up on two legs–but not too soon, lest the child become crippled or otherwise deformed, as so many others seemed to be.

There have always been toys, and games, and nursery rhymes, too. And questions about gender stereotypes. “In antebellum America, for example, many girls preferred outdoor activities such as skating and sledding to playing with dolls. Toward the end of the century…three quarter of boys studied [were] playing with dolls, while girls sometimes acted more aggressively than their parents might have hoped.”

For those with mobility, some money and parents who would take them, there was “an impressive array of entertainments designed to instruct as well as amuse in eighteenth century England in the form of ‘exhibitions of curiosities; museums; zoos; puppet shows; circuses; automata; horseless carriages; even human and animal monstrosities.” Working class families made do with “cheap and cheerful entertainments such as dancing on the streets to a barrel organ or enjoying the hustle and bustle of a street market.”

There is evidence of children’s books in England as early as the 1470s–before Columbus visited the Caribbean. By the 1770s, there were plenty of children’s books, along with enough literate children to make good use of them.

Along the way–and beyond the frame of this article–we determine that children are worthy of their own education on a large scale, and that health care specific to childhood is a good idea, too.

Of course, I want to time travel, to talk to children and teenagers at the time they lived, in the places they lived. Even the best book on this subject–and this one is quite a good one–provides only snapshots and excerpts from earlier descriptions or diaries. Considering the great progress we have made on their behalf, I can only hope that someday, through some miracle of human genius, we’re able to travel back and understand the story more completely.

 

 

 

 

This is me.

Amidst yesterday’s holiday junk mail, I spotted a holiday catalog from Pier 1 Imports.

On the cover, there was a striking marketing slogan: “Pier 1 – This is me.”

I wondered whether, in fact, that might be true, so I meandered through 16 color pages of Christmas stuff for the home. There were a lot of pillows (I spend a third of my life sleeping), a bunch of decorative old-style lanterns (already own one), a LED outline of a cactus and another of a pink unicorn (probably not me), cups and glasses (I drink liquids, many times each day in fact), plastic Christmas tree ornaments with pictures of Mary, Santa, a teddy bear, an angel and a dove (not really me, but the angel was pretty), five different dining room chairs, and several plush reindeers on the same page as a small tower of nutcracker figurines.

Overall, not so much me, and probably not so much anybody I know very well. I do have a friend whose house is filled with all sorts of art and furniture and smaller items from China. I used to have a friend (he passed) whose living room walls were covered with interesting optical illusions and other magical art from the past two centuries. My wife’s mother liked owls and giraffes, and there were several of them in her home, made of metal, wood, canvas and other materials (some from Pier 1, in fact).

As I look around my own home, I wonder. Does my home environment somehow define me? And how would purchases from a particular brand or store help me to understand who I am and who I might someday be?

There’s a flippant answer to this question, but there may be a deeper one, too. My house is filled with books. My wife and I both enjoy reading. Do books define who we are, or perhaps build the belief and knowledge structure that help us to understand our place in the world? (Stories are powerful, moreso  when the stories are epic or historically/socially/emotionally eye-opening). Would the complete lack of physical books in the home provide a different definition? What if those books were digital, reduced to a chip on a Kindle or a droplet in the cloud? Same definition or a different one? What if our only book was a Bible?–this is true in many homes.

If I lived in a minimalist / modernist home with no clutter at all, would I be living a simple and uncluttered life? Does a cluttered office suggest a broad and deep spectrum of interests, a tendency toward hoarding, or profound plans for a well-researched future project?

If I shop at Old Navy, or Brooks Brothers, or a vintage clothing shop where nothing is new, would that define me in some way? If I don’t shop at all, does my anti-consumerism stance define me in any particular way? If I refuse to eat animals, or wear animal parts on my body, tend my own organic pesticide free garden, and budget my carbon footprint as an exemplar, am I socially responsible or an increasingly common type of millenial? If I drive a Jaguar or the priciest Tesla, as a reward for over-the-top sales performance, am I  communicating some significant message about myself to the world, or over-compensating for self-doubt?

Maybe stuff is a ridiculous way to construct identity. And maybe it reveals some essential truth about modern life.

And maybe it’s time to check for the today’s mail. Nope. No Sears catalog. Nevermore. The book that once defined the American dream is gone, leaving only pretenders and ghosts of a former world.

A Perfectly Curious Book

Professor Susan Engel remembers growing up. She recalls small details. Not only did she eat bugs, she remembers when and where, and which bugs she ate (potato bugs). As a pre-schooler, she remembers watching TV while sitting under the ironing board, comfortably asking all sorts of questions of Nonna, who was ironing the family’s clothes above her. In a one-room school house, Mrs. Grubb’s imbalanced approach to curiosity and education began a lifetime of inquiry. One of Professor Engel’s works-in-progress is a evaluative measure for curiosity, which seems consistent with the way most people think about school in the 21st century, and, to me, wildly  counterintuitive.

The right book tends to find me at precisely the right time. That’s what happened yesterday when I started The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. It’s fair to say that I devoured it in a single weekend.

In my studies and writing about creativity, curiosity has always been an underground river. I can hear it and sense it,  but it’s difficult to see. Curiosity differs with each person and their current motivation, and with every situation. It also tends to vary in duration and intensity depending upon personal interest at the moment, and available information.

Curiosity behaviors are familiar, easy to recognize: “We pick up objects to look at them more closely, peel things open and take them apart, ask other people questions, read books, do experiments, and wander into unfamiliar situations.”

Some people are more likely to do this than others.

“The quality of a child’s attachment has a powerful influence on the vigor and depth of her exploration of the world around her.” When a child is insecure or uncertain about their bond with mom, he or she is less likely to “make physical and psychological expeditions to gather information.” As the book unfolds, this becomes one of its most important ideas. In lower-income, and/or lower-education households, parents tend to provide specific operating instructions for life (“put that down,” “come to the table,” “not now,” “leave the dog alone”), but parents in households less troubled with economic issues often encourage and entertain open questions, theoretical ideas, and forms of play. Reading and storytelling may have little to do with the practical. Open-minded freedom builds self-confidence, resilience, and curiosity. (Not so sure? This is a 200 page book extensive references to past work by serious scholars).

Unfortunately, curiosity is very difficult to define and even harder to measure. (Not that learning is easy to measure, unless it’s wrapped in the short-term evaluative tools that structure contemporary education.)

This 2015 book pays less attention to mobile devices and the internet and social media than I do. A Second Edition would be wonderful, especially if Professor Engel expands the book to connect these innovations to curiosity and personalized learning.

Returning to economic advantage and curiosity, “children growing up in poverty hear far fewer total number of words, have a harder time learning to read, and ultimately are less likely to do well in school by the time they are in third grade…” Professor Engel goes on, “if a child lives with parents who only use words to manage practical tasks, he may struggle to use language for less practical, more contemplative purposes.” In turn, this affects the ability of children to formulate and ask good questions, which is a very important way to express curiosity and learn about the world and one’s place in it.

Focus not on the school experience, because that’s only part of child’s experience. Instead, focus on what children hear adults say and see adults do. Early on, children overtly mimic. Grown adults mimic too… following a parent or aunt or uncle’s path as a result of a gift or what seemed to be an inconsequential conversation at the time. I just found a book about world cultures that my aunt and uncle gave me when I was nine years old. I remember reading the book dozens of times. Many decades later, it’s clear that the book shaped my current professional activities in global education. I did not learn much of this in school, or in any formal setting. It was my own curiosity that shaped these ideas, and continues to shape them today.

School simply isn’t the place to nurture curiosity. There’s just too much other stuff to do. There is constant pressure to prepare the students for the upcoming test, to complete the project on schedule, to score the grades necessary for advancement. Distractions–which are essential to curiosity and exploration–are deeply discouraged. Inquisitive students must be not derail the classroom conversation, however interesting and significant their questions may be.

Is curiosity the opposite of education?

The good Professor doesn’t take the argument this far, but she sometimes comes close. Borrowing some of her own thinking and adding it to my own… Curiosity is intuitive, fluid, wide, deep, driven by interest, exceedingly difficult to measure, and essentially unrestricted by time and space. Education is defined by curriculum experts and highly structured. It is highly structured to make efficient use of time and space, and adheres to a strict timetable measured by 45 minute intervals, weeks of achievement, school years and grade levels. Education cannot run too deep or too wide because there are so many items that must be taught to so many people. Education is driven by rules, not student interest (for some, this changes in higher education). Measurement of short-term impact can be done, but the longer the period of measurement, the more variables complicate the results.

Traditional coursework on The Civil War takes students through causes (difficult to understand without lots of broader context), Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation, John Wilkes Booth, funeral cortege, and the dull political history of Andrew Johnson and reconstruction. Lots of education happening here, but the sheer volume of information smothers any attempt at global context or personal investigation of related stories. The story is just too complicated for education. It’s better suited to the uneven and long-term learning that curiosity can provide.

A student guided by curiosity might begin with the failure of tobacco as the South’s cash crop, its replacement with cotton and big cotton’s reliance upon the slave trade. Follow that line and you’ll bump into the enormous economic leap made possible by the cotton gin. Then, it’s off to England where Manchester’s mills make a fortune with cheap cotton from American slaves. When that supply is threatened by events leading up to the Civil War, the British look to India for an alternative cotton source, amplifying the growth and power of the British Empire. India becomes a glorious distraction–stunning history, spectacular music, art, dance, religion, food. Later, a fight for independence with Gandhi and nonviolent protest as a new way of thinking that informs US student protests to help end the Vietnam War, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to challenge authority in very productive ways. Back to Manchester for its rivalry with nearby Liverpool; follow  that line to the economic and social conditions that breed The Beatles and change popular music and culture (including George Harrison’s encounters with Indian music, and so on).

I know we don’t teach that way, but I know I learn that way.

As I understand more about how we teach, and how we learn, there may be more to eating bugs than there is to textbooks.

The Success of Smaller Cities

Traveling the world, I find myself drawn not the megapolis, but to the smaller cities where life seems so much more reasonable. The year 2018 included travel to Bulgaria, where I enjoyed Stara Zagora, an old place in the less-traveled center of the county, and in Slovenia, the charms of wandering around Ljubljana made me want to spend more time in sidewalk cafes along the old river bed. I really enjoyed my time in both Sheffield and Manchester, England, too.. And in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Certainly, the charms of London and Paris, and New York City (we’re exploring Brooklyn like tourists) are abundant, but there is something hopeful and forward-thinking about smaller cities that have found their way in the faster-paced, deeply complicated, economically confounding 21st century.

Given endless time and money, I would explore every small city I could, and maybe that’s what I’m doing. Along the way, I’ve become quite jealous of James and Deborah Fallows, who managed not only to do the trip by traveling in their own small plane, but also visiting about two dozen small cities and writing a popular new book about their adventures. It’s called Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

What have I learned from my travels? What did they learn from their travels? Did we learn any of the same things?

  • Most of these cities have a bona-fide downtown district where people shop, visit and hang out during the day, on weekends, and even at night. There are cafes, restaurants, retail open into the evening and sometimes later. I love finding the bookstore/cafe/bar that used to be a bank, the place where Tuesdays are open mic night, and people just sit around on comfy couches. One such place, the Book and Bar in Portsmouth, used to be a customs house and post office. It’s now open until midnight on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and until 1AM on Friday and Saturday nights. And it’s a great place to buy books. Food and drink are good, too.
  • They are very open to people from other places, and welcome these people as neighbors. Yes, this runs counter to the nationalist thinking that dominates the national conversation. Fallows: “Cities as different as Sioux Falls, Burlington (VT), and Fresno have gone to extraordinary lengths to assimilate refugees from recent wars. Greenville (SC)’s mayor asked us to listen for how many languages we heard spoken on the streets from residents or from visitors.
  • There is a research university nearby. Often, but not always. Why does this matter? The international students and faculty, which leads to international restaurants, and smart families demanding more from the community and local schools, too. This is usually tied to an appreciation of the importance of public libraries, children’s programs, and similarly positive activities and enterprises. In Manchester, there is a substantial university community. Ditto for Rochester, NY, which struggles with a proper downtown (it faded away in the 1970s, and never returned), but benefits from several neighborhoods that may qualify because of the restaurant, music, club and other activities nearly every night of the week. In this category, I would probably add a good independent film theater that sometimes shows foreign films, and, a good vinyl record store (or, several good vintage clothing shops, I guess).
  • And a good community college, too. In the words of the Fallows: “Not every city can have a research university. Any ambitious one can have a community college…Just about every other world-historical trend is pushing the United States (and other countries) toward a less equal, more polarized existence: labor replacing technology, globalized trade, self-segregated residential housing patterns, and the American practice of unequal district-based funding for public schools. Community colleges are the main exception, potentially offering a a connection to higher-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage. East Mississippi Community College has taken people from welfare and prepared them for jobs in nearby factories that pay twice as much as local median household income. Fresno City College works with tech firms and California State University, to train the children of farmworker families (among others) for higher-tech agribusiness jobs…we saw a number of such schools that were clearly forces in the right direction. The more often and the more specifically people talk about their community college, the better we ended up feeling about the direction of that town.”
  • They support several innovative schools. The specific approach or content associated with innovation seems to matter less than the imagination and bold decisions that make the school possible and allow it to thrive. It may be a specialty in technology, or mental health, or a maker culture, or it may celebrate the richness of local traditions, or global competence. The important idea here is the willingness of the community to take the time and the initiative to understand its responsibilities to the next generations, and to play an active role in their education. The Fallows celebrate “the intensity of experimentation.” As I spend time in schools throughout the world, the ones that stand out are the ones that want to stand out. For them, there is no crisis in education. There is opportunity and often success–accompanied by tremendous community involvement and authentic civic pride. You can see it on the children’s faces, you can easily observe it by watching behavior in the hallways and listening to the chatter, and, almost always, you can measure it (even with the over-the-top evaluation tools that many schools must use, regardless of their relevance to the ultimate goal of raising empowered kids).
  • People share a common mythology, and most people tell the same story about their town. I first noticed this in Bulgaria–every school child knew all seven of their city’s previous names (Bulgaria has been ruled by the Turkish and other peoples for a very long time). They know the history. They use the same words and phrases to describe what is meaningful and beautiful. It’s a delightful sort of local propaganda, but it certainly builds unity and identity in a way that feels authentic. I saw this in Ljubljana, in Manchester, and in so many other places. Big city folks may treat these stories with skepticism as they point out inconsistencies and ironies, but these local belief systems are very important, and often guide small cities to do the right thing.
  • National politics is over-rated, overwrought, and less interesting on a local level than national news would have us believe. In this country, coverage of ordinary people is lackluster and spotty. When you spend time in a cafe, or another public setting, you find good and decent people who care about one another and about their communities. They are concerned about what’s happening in the nation’s capital (I visited Whitesburg, Kentucky on the day of the Kavanaugh hearings, and that was a concern, but hardly the overriding concern of the day).
  • A small number of people “make this town go.” They may or may not be politically ambitious. They may be educators, or religious leaders, or people in the community who care. So they build fire department buildings, make sure the hospitals are well-funded, and help people in need. They also make sure the community is engaged, and see one another at events that are both fun and meaningful. I met some of these people. The Fallows met a lot of them. We both saw the same thing–and this is probably a small city phenomenon, more difficult to achieve and sustain in a larger city. Often, the strength of partnerships between private companies and public service providers is just plain normal–not special, so it doesn’t get much attention. But it works.
  •  They drink local craft beer. Increasingly, according to James Fallows, the local craft brewery and its popularity is a useful indicator of city pride and city progress. Not sure I agree because we’re now seeing remote ownership of these enterprises–maybe ten or fifteen years ago, he was right. And in the places where local beer in a local brewpub is owned by, managed by, and lovingly nurtured by local dreamers, he’s spot on. Me, I look for a local maker culture, a local music culture, a local food culture (farm to table, etc.), and anything resembling a new independent bookstore. I want to see the old city bar transformed into an extremely popular and fairly priced breakfast place where college students, day workers, and politicians all order muffins, pancakes, fresh juice and fresher coffee from the same blackboard menu. That’s the place I ate breakfast in Cumberland, Maryland, a city whose history was so captivating, I spend over $20 on a picture book about its history, even though my time as a visitor was under four hours.

Muffin and Friend, Cafe Mark, Cumberland, Maryland, USA

Behold the Bookstore

“The store was often empty for a couple of hours at a time, and then, when somebody did come in, it would be to ask about a book remembered from the Sunday-school library, or a grandmother’s bookcase, or left behind twenty years ago in a foreign hotel. The title was usually forgotten, but the person would tell me the story….Then, they would leave without a glance at the riches around them….A few people did explain in gratitude, said what a glorious addition to the town. They would browse for a half an hour, an hour, before spending seventy-five cents.”

The words were written by Alice Munro and published in a novella called The Albanian Virgin” by the New Yorker magazine in 1994. They came to mind because Penelope Fitzgerald’s brief 1978 novel about an unwanted bookshop, The Bookshop, was recently released in as a film starring Emily Mortimer (familiar to US audiences from her role in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom series).

Roaming around Manhattan yesterday, and wandering into a wonderful neighborhood shop called The Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side. It was a pleasant place to spend an hour, and spend money on two books (one about architecture for me, one about birds as a gift). Perhaps pleasant is the wrong word. It was an irresistible place to spend an hour because the books were fetchingly arranged to capture my imagination.

The role of the contemporary bookstore isn’t very different from its role a century ago. It’s a fine place to explore ideas and stories, to examine the cover art and the typography, to physically handle the books and enjoy their new-ness. Certainly, Amazon has changed the plumbing, but the relationship between book and consumer, and book and reader, would be familiar to Dickens, or for that matter, Mao (who once was a bookseller).

I know that because of Jorge Carrión, who published a book last year called Bookshops: A Reader’s History, a product best enjoyed when and if purchased from a local bookseller. It’s fun to travel the world with Carrión, and to travel through history, too. There is no true beginning to the journey, but the author contemplates the importance of the great library at Alexandria as a kind of starting place for available collections of printed works. He’s unsure whether Librarie Kauffmann in Athens is still in business, but he tells the story anyway: it grew from a book stall selling second-hand goods, then became the center of thought, literacy and enlightenment for French speaking families, scholars, and intellectuals in Athens in the 20th century. He describes it as “one of those bookshops to get a stamp on your imaginary bookshop passport.”

William Thackery probably shopped at 1 Trinity Street in Cambridge, a site that has sold books for about 600 years, but necessarily to the public. In Krakow, there’s Matras, which used to be called Gebether and Wolf, and it dates back to the 1610, though not with an entirely continuous history. P&G Wells is probably the oldest bookstore in England–this Winchester shop can show you receipts dating back to 1729. Click on the picture to visit their modern website.

History is well-captured in this September 26, 1786 bit from Goethe, written in his journal published as Italian Journey:

“I had entered a bookshop which, in Italy, is a peculiar place. The books are all in stitched covers, and at any time of the day, you can find good company int he shop. Everyone who is in any way connected with literature–secular clergy, nobility, artists–drop in. You ask for a book, browse in it, or take part in a conversation as the occasional arises. There were about a half dozen people there when I entered, and when I asked for the work of Palladio, they all focused their attention on me. While the proprietor was looking for the book, they spoke highly of it and gave me all kinds of information about the original edition and the reprint. They were all acquainted with the work, and with the merits of the author.”

What fun–it’s easy to imagine finding myself in the very same situation.

There is now an assortment of books about bookstores on my home shelves. One illustrates favorite bookstore facades in pen-and-ink and watercolor. Another describes favorite booksellers with stories about the stores and the people who inhabit them. I haven’t started to list or photograph bookstores that happen along the way as I travel, but Aqua Alta in Venice would certainly deserve a mention because you can climb a pile of books for a look at the adjacent canal. Scrivener’s in Derbyshire is probably worth a trip to England just to browse a few tens of thousands of volumes, but that should probably be scheduled to coincide with a day or a week in Hay-en-Wye, in Wales, which is an entire town devoted to bookshops and things literary. It’s now one of several book towns around the world. And yes, there is a book about these book towns–I very nearly bought it yesterday at The Corner Bookstore–and for course it’s called Book Towns. Someday, because I am now reading far too many books and articles about books and the places where you can bu them–I will visit Argentina. That’s because Jorge Carrión, and others, have told me about a spectacular old movie theater that is now a bookstore called Ateneo. Between now and my visit, I will need to learn to read Spanish, but that won’t stop me from browsing.

A Founding Father, Less Famous

If his name is mentioned in a history book, he’s often overshadowed by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and perhaps even John Jay. Certainly, his image would be much more clear if he was the subject of a Broadway musical, and indeed, an enterprising composer and storytelling would find a great deal of strong raw material in Without Precedent, an extraordinarily compelling biography of Chief Justice Joh Marshall written with clarity and impact by a University of California law professor, John Richard Paul.

9780525533276He wasn’t a rich man, and he wasn’t a well-educated man. “Marshall grew up in a two-room log cabin shared with fourteen siblings on the hardscrabble frontier of Virginia. His only formal education consisted of one year of grammar school and six weeks of law school.” And yet–this is the part that would make a terrific Broadway musical, or perhaps even an opera–Marshall becomes a military officer, influential attorney of local and then national renown, a diplomat to France, a congressman, U.S. Secretary of State, the biographer of George Washington, and eventually, the first really effective chief justice of the new United States of America (John Jay was the first, but the high court was just beginning to take shape; he was followed by one short-termer whose nomination went unapproved, and another, who was also operating in the early days of our judicial system).

As Chief Justice, Marshall kept his justices close (they all lived together), and ran a most agreeable, remarkably non-contentious court through friendship and a model of positive social interaction.  This congenial group firmly established the Supreme Court as the arbiter of laws in the young nation, a way of working that continues today.”From 1801 to 1835, the Court issued more than one thousand decisions–nearly all unanimous–and about half that number were written by Marshall. No other chief justice comes close to that record, and no Supreme Court before or since has issued even a majority of its decisions unanimously. Marshall was not President John Adams’ first choice for the job.

The tale begins in the dark days of the American Revolution, when our forces were hopelessly untrained, unfed and unable to perform as the fighting force necessary to gain independence. Marshall was twenty one years old, and remarkably upbeat given the pathetic circumstances. That’s what caught the eye of the new military leader from Prussia, Baron von Steuben, and soon after, Lafayette, Washington and Hamilton, too. He already knew Jefferson, a family relation (from the wealthy side of the family), who makes his first appearance in the Marshall story while ineffectively running Virginia as its governor (Jefferson does not do well in this book; the author is critical of his distracted approach to public service).

Marshall becomes a small town lawyer–at the time, Richmond Town (now Richmond) had recently become the state capital, but it was an exceedingly small place. He marries well, and becomes a member of the House of Delegates, a Virginia legislative body. He is the model social networker, joining every significant organization, building his reputation by inviting people to his home (which doubled as his law office) for relaxed dinners. He lived in that house for a long time–decades, in fact–in part because his beloved wife Polly struggled with health issues for much of her adult life.

There is so much story to tell, and this essay can do little more than introduce the man, the book and the author with the strongest possible encouragement to read up on John Marshall. I’ve read a lot of books about American history, founding fathers, and the early nation to identify when a new volume is unique and valuable. This one wins on both counts because the material is so central to the development of the nation and our approach to governance, and because the stories told are not the same stories that appear in dozens of other books about the founders. Instead, this seems to be fresh, or, at least, generally unfamiliar or, at least, new to me. It’s helpful that the biographer’s keen interest in providing a clear picture of Justice Marshall is equal to my own curiosity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Painting Outdoors

Technically, the correct term is “en plein air,” which means, more or less, “in the open air” when translated into English from the original French. For the experienced artist, plein air painting means spending the day outside, regardless of the weather, bugs, access to bathrooms, lugging heavy or messy gear, trying to concentrate while passers-by stop to tell you all about how their great niece used to be able to draw but met this guy and things didn’t work out but she’s still a really good artist even though she doesn’t draw as often as she used to and then wonders whether the girl drew, painted, or did something else entirely.

I love to paint outdoors. In fact, I strongly prefer painting outside to painting indoors, even though my easel and other gear is heavy (I paint with pastels, which weigh a lot when you carry too many of them, as I do), but I’ve never been quite sure whether I’m doing things properly. I don’t want to bother other artists who are, clearly, more experienced and more talented than I will ever be. So I muddle along.

Fortunately, the former editor of Plein Air magazine, who was, for many years, the editor of American Artist magazine, has written a very helpful (and inspirational) book entitled The Art of Plein Air Painting: An Essential Guide to the Materials, Concepts and Techniques for Painting Outdoors. His name is M. Stephen Doherty, and he is doing a wonderful job as the print version of a trusted teacher.

Willingness to paint outdoors requires more than straightforward skills. It requires a real desire to be part of the place that you’re painting. It’s a mindset, an attitude, a combination of willingness to be flexible and a desire to capture the light and sensibility that you cannot quite find by referring to a photograph. That’s why the book begins not with a discussion of portable easels (that comes later), but with an insightful illustrated essay posing as Chapter 1: “Why Paint Outdoors?” He focuses on the mental game and also shows himself in the game, on the street, easel set up just beside a construction site so he can get just the right view, messy paint-covered sweatshirt and slight scowl and all. He ponders how much of the work needs to be done outdoors–if you finish up indoors, which is often tempting if the weather or other conditions aren’t ideal–does a plein air painting retain its plein air status if it’s only 20 or 30 percent painted outdoors? How about 70 or 80 percent? No matter. If you do any of the work outdoors, Doherty says it counts.

The book’s emphasis is on oil painting–and that makes sense because most people who paint outside tend to work in oils. But he does take the time to address the needs of those who work in watercolor (which is difficult inside and even more difficult in the field), pastels, acrylics, and so on.

As with most books of this sort, there are profiles of artists that the author admires, and lessons to be learned from each of them. There are also good large photographs of many types of plein air paintings, useful both for inspiration and also for studying technique. I like to see a good history chapter, too, in part because it’s fun to consider myself part of a longer tradition that once included John Constable, and Jean-Baptiste Corot, and best of all, painters who were part of the majestic Hudson River School.

There are bits about drawing outdoors–I wish there was a lot more of that. There is plenty of good guidance about choosing locations, finding the best spot, knowing your physical limits, simplifying what you see so you don’t get lost in details. I wish there was more about patience–after a few hours of painting outdoors, the fatigue is always a factor, and I never know quite when to give it up for the day.

Most of all, though, there are pictures. Lots of pictures that were painted outside. Remember: Doherty was a long-time editor of one of the world’s finest magazines about art. He knows how to choose images, and that’s probably the book’s greatest strength. It is a joy to meander through the pages, browse, stop for deeper study, then move on to well-written commentary about most topics that plein air artists rarely see in book form.

Nice job!

Joseph McGurl is one of many superb artists included in The Art of Plein Air Painting. Click on the image to see more of McGurl’s work.

 

 

The Sage and Family Man

The place was a mess. It had “fallen into ruin: windows were broken, the roof leaked, the terraces had rotted through, graffiti defaced the front of the house, souvenir hunters had chipped away at [the] burial shaft…bats and rats gamboled and searched for food in the empty dwelling.”

Good thing the owner already did. Seeing his house this way would have broken his heart.

After he finished with the Presidency, and politics, Thomas Jefferson finally completed Monticello, and did precisely what he had hoped to do before he got talked into running for president in the first place–he gave himself time to think, roam and inspect his farms, read the classics, write to friends, and, as a “hobby,” built what became the University of Virginia not far from Monticello. Like George Washington, Jefferson was constantly short on funds, the result of a slave-based farming economy that required far more personal attention than a public figure could provide, and some lousy luck.

From the University of Virginia collection

I just finished reading about 500 pages about the life of Thomas Jefferson, my third presidential biography (I hope to read at least one book about every president, which may not be so easy to do because there are gaps in the literature and gaps in my patience for some of the people who served in the office). I began with Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life (Chernow wrote the Hamilton biography that inspired the musical), and continued with David McCullough’s magnificent John Adams (the basis for the HBO series starring Paul Giamatti). There are lots of Jefferson biographies, including the classic six-book series, Jefferson in His Time by Dumas Malone, and Jon Meacham’s more recent The Art of Power. I chose the new Jefferson book by Rice University Professor John B. Boles because it seemed to be fair-handed, and because it seemed to balance personal and professional life without overdoing it on the brilliance of Jefferson’s accomplishments and authorship. I am not a presidential scholar, so it’s difficult for me to evaluate the quality of the work, or to compare it with other lifetime biographies, but Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty seemed to fit the bill.

Begin at the beginning. Based upon available accounts (Boles consistently prefers available accounts to his own intuition), Thomas’s father Peter was an intelligent, well-read, ambitious man who married well, bringing the Randolph family and the Jefferson clan together in one of Virginia’s great extended families. Peter died young, and left a considerable amount of prime Albemarle County land to the family. So begins the saga of Monticello.

When he was 26, Thomas became a college student, attending William and Mary College in Williamsburg and greatly benefiting from one particular professor, Dr. William Small, a Scotsman, who focused Jefferson’s keen intellect on rational thought. Jefferson wrote that Small had been “to me as a father,” and “to his enlightened & affectionate guidance of my studies…I am endebted for every thing.” Small introduced Jefferson to two friends: a law professor named George Wythe, and the royal governor Frances Fauquier. So began Jefferson’s introduction to public life and politics–in the very small capital city of the colony of Virginia, early in the 1760s.

Through a growing circle of political connections, Jefferson made his way through the courts and eventually into the legislature. Boles presents Jefferson’s professional and personal growth by presenting the young legislator’s growth in good alignment with the colonial struggles against an increasingly aggressive England. Even in his earliest work as an attorney, Jefferson’s principles were explicit: “Under the law of nature…all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to be his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it as his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of his nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.” This was written in connection with an April 1770 case involving a complicated multi-generational question about miscegenation and slavery.

Like George Washington and other wealthy Virginians, Thomas Jefferson relied upon slaves to operate his plantations, operate small businesses, and maintain some degree of economic stability (not his strongest suit). Wisely, Boles does not allow the chronological storytelling to become bogged down in lengthy inquiries into Jefferson’s philosophies about slavery in general or his own slaves in particular. It’s well known that Jefferson has more than a personal stake: his decades-long relationship with Sally Hemmings–and the majority of slaves under Jefferson’s control were members of the large Hemmings family. That discussion is reserved for chapter 29, after Jefferson has reconciled differences and renewed friendship with John Adams, after Jefferson’s 90-plus year old body finally gave out. Boles allows Jefferson a fair amount of latitude here. Basically, the author presents Jefferson as man of his time, and at the time, his behavior was considered perfectly reasonable–despite the fact that Jefferson’s outlook on slavery in general was restrictive. In essence, Jefferson hoped that his decisions and his writings would begin a long movement in which slavery would be eliminated in due course, not as the result of any single action.

There is a great deal of story in these 500+ pages–life in Paris (which he adored), returning to the U.S. and reluctantly becoming the nation’s first Secretary of State, his complete and all-encompassing love for his daughter and so many family members (most of all, Jefferson was a family man), his philosophical differences and battles with John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, his love for and extreme distaste for politics, his raw ambition and relentless curiosity, his utter disappointment with Merriwether Lewis who utterly failed to document the science and much of the detail in his documentation of the famous expedition with William Clark, and his ability to manage an astonishing range of interests and activities that can be experienced, at least in a cursory way, by a largely rebuilt Monticello estate.

So it’s off to James Madison for me. I need to decide whether to pick things up with the Lynne Cheney biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, or the Kevin R. C. Gutman biography, James Madison and the Making of America (which seems to be very focused on the U.S. Constitution, and less on the man’s whole life)This decision is made more complicated because of a weak link in the chain: of the two James Monroe biographies that might follow, neither is likely to suit my purpose. Suggestions are welcome.

 

The Respect She Deserves

Perhaps it was just a whimsical idea that takes shape on vacation, when the mind is free, the ocean breeze is blowing, and a violin shop appears out of nowhere. Or maybe I really will learn to play the violin. Without any musical experience or proper knowledge, I wandered into the shop and asked a few silly questions about buying a proper violin and learning to play. The shopkeeper, who also fixes violins and other stringed instruments in a workshop above the store, was patient with me, and suggested that I read a book to learn more. He recommended a book. I bought it, read it, and found myself not much smarter than before. I put the thought of a violin aside, then focused on where we might eat dinner that night.

Exhausted from far too much driving, we completed the next day’s drive with a visit to a favorite bookstore. And there, nearly forgotten on a bottom shelf, was hardcover book with an illustration of a violin on the cover. It was not a how-to-play or how-to-buy book, but some sort of story that combined music, science, and biography. It was late, I was toting a basketful of books, and tossed American Luthier onto the pile. (And recalled that a luthier made guitars, but I was not so sure they also made violins. They do.) The subtitle was appealing: “The Art & Science of the Violin”–this was more the book I had in mind. The author is Quincy Whitney, formerly of the Boston Globe. The subject of the book: the extraordinary work of Carleen Hutchins, an extraordinary scientist and craftsperson who did nothing less than reinvent the violin (and, along the way, a family of eight violin-like instruments, including one of the coolest upright string basses the world has ever known).

From the start, it’s clear that Ms. Hutchins is an extraordinary human being. She begins as a most curious child, then a teen who can build all sorts of things, then finds her way first into science as the kind of teacher who keeps a menagerie and a small farm in her classroom, then meets the right person at the right time and begins to play the viola, then decides she’ll build one. (Her whole life is like that.)

Well, the violins we know, the ones that are played by nearly all classical violinists and nearly all contemporary fiddlers, are all based upon designs developed in the 1550s by Andrea Amati. Two generations later, grandson Niccolo Amati continued the family tradition, but lost his kin in the plague. He taught two apprentices whose work continues to define the contemporary design of violins. Both are revered: Guarneri and, of course, Stradivari. When the latter died in 1727, the art, science and craftsmanship associated with Cremona violin-making was nearly lost, but two hundred years later, a new violin-making school was begun, apparently initiated in a fit of nationalism by Benito Mussolini in 1937. Stradivari made over a thousand violins, and half of them survive.

For hundreds of years, the violin has been a standard instrument for classical musicians, and, of course, for chamber groups, chamber orchestras and symphony orchestras. The past is revered, the classic instruments are revered, and the tradition is revered. But Carleen Hutchins asked the obvious question: was it possible to improve upon a design that was five hundred years old? Working initially as a craftsperson–always in her kitchen (her home in Montclair, NJ was always her workshop)–she developed a deep understanding of the science of acoustics and surrounded herself with friends who played in chamber groups. She learned to solve problems by testing (her basement was elaborately soundproofed to allow for extremely careful measurement in the wee hours when traffic and other sounds in her suburban neighborhood were least obtrusive), then by tinkering, making the tiniest adjustments by reshaping the fine contours of the plates, sound post, and other component parts. What began with an improved viola became a family of eight violins, each one sensibly placed within a range that would be familiar as soprano, alto, tenor, contrabass, etc. What began as a personal curiosity found itself on the cover of Scientific American magazine (1962, 1981), and also, the cover of the New Yorker (1989).

A violin is not invented or perfected in a moment. It must be played, enjoyed, improved, adjusted, and sometimes, rebuilt, often over years, decades or centuries. In fact, many high quality violins are antiques that been rebuilt and rebuilt so often that little of their original material remains. Still, this is the way the culture has evolved. And that culture is not especially welcoming to an inventor with a better mousetrap. That’s why so many of Hutchins’ instruments ended up in musical instrument museums, and so few have been heard on stage in performance. Happily, there is the Hutchins Consort, and they perform on Dr. Hutchins’ instruments. You can also watch some video, however limited, including part of a documentary in progress called Second Fiddle.

For the moment, my interest in the art and science of violin is sated. Author Quincy Whitney did a terrific job in telling a complicated story about art, science, music, social trends–I devoured the book in less than 36 hours. Will my path lead to learning the violin? For the moment, I’m curious but undecided, but much smarter than I was on Saturday afternoon before the book found me.

 

Happy Jólabókaflód

I think I’ve got the accents about right, but there might be a cross on that final d. In any case, we’re talking about an Icelandic book flood that occurs this time of year. A friend reminded me with this graphic:

blogger-image-1814004541

There’s a sweet article about the tradition here, on Treehugger. I especially liked this quote: “The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary. They love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world… One in 10 Icelanders will publish [a book].”

If you’d like to know more, visit this NPR story from 2012.

With so many stories on the internet, I’m surprised this one has so few articles from news sources. I suppose that’s a very good reason to go to Iceland this time of year. To read books with the wholehearted encouragement of a nation of readers.

 

%d bloggers like this: