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The Ministers’ War: John W. Mears, the Oneida Community, and the Crusade for Public Morality. By Michael Doyle. Syracuse University Press. 2018.
Antebellum activism is often refracted through an abolitionist lens, though few Northern evangelicals compartmentalized reform. Protestant ministers spearheading change could be found among any of a number of reform groups. In this regard, the subject of Michael Doyle’s fascinating study, the Rev. John W. Mears (1825-1881), was typical of men from the rising Northern middle class whose passions were inflamed by the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening, which reached their height in the 1830s. There wasn’t much that Mears didn’t see as a sin in need of extirpation: prostitution, birth control literature, Mormonism, water pollution, Roman Catholicism, Valentine’s Day cards, obscenity…. The last of these, obscenity, really distressed Mears who was, as Doyle, a Washington, DC-based reporter, puts it, a “virtuous man (44).”
Battles over obscenity often stumble over its definition and parameters. As Doyle suggests, this was Mears’ problem. In the crucial decades before the Civil War, virtue was generally synonymous with the values of the middle class, but it took Mears some time to direct his prodigious energies at the targets that consumed him: John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) and the Oneida Community. On the surface, the Oneida Community was what we’d today call a “soft target.” It was, after all, rooted in ideals located far from the banks of the mainstream, the least controversial of which was shared property and living arrangements rooted in spiritual communism. Members also practiced a system of “complex marriage” in which all men and women could (in theory) have carnal relations with each other. Moreover, Noyes equated unwanted pregnancy as enslavement of women, hence the keystone practice of “male continence.” More shocking still, young men learned this discipline through intercourse with postmenopausal women. Noyes himself was a bail jumper who escaped Putney, Vermont, and a possible jail term for adultery back in 1847. So why did it take Mears and the other ministers he recruited until 1881 to force the dissolution of the Oneida Community?
One of the many merits of Doyle’s book is that he captures aspects of the nineteenth-century Zeitgeist in just 172 briskly written pages. Mears shared commonality with others emboldened by the Second Great Awakening, but as Paul Johnson and others have demonstrated, conversion in Western New York State’s “burned-over district” was weighted heavily toward the middle class. Most locals were farmers and artisans. Although they disapproved of Oneida Community practices, most were also intrigued (possibly titillated) by them, found the group to be good neighbors, and were willing to live and let live. This adds an under-examined class dimension to the crusade against Oneida.
It is important to note that neither Mears nor Noyes should be viewed through modern eyes. The Presbyterian Mears was meddlesome, but he was not akin to contemporary moralists. Northern evangelists were not fundamentalists—the concept barely existed then. Mears studied theology at Yale, revered Immanuel Kant, and was an exacting professor of moral philosophy at Hamilton College. Nor was Noyes a proto-hippie free lover; the Dartmouth/Andover Seminary-educated Noyes based community sexual practices in conceptions of primitive Christianity and a belief in moral perfectionism, the latter a key element of Second Great Awakening thought. In one of the books many concise summaries, Doyle details ways in which Mears and Noyes were quite similar in many respects. The sexual practices gap, though, was simply too wide for the stern Mears to bridge.
Mears prevailed—sort of; Oneida disbanded in 1881, but Mears expired that same year. One is tempted to draw parallels between the minister’s campaign against Oneida and today’s culture wars but, again, Doyle’s objective is to shed light on the nineteenth century, not our own time. Oneida was an endlessly intoxicating experiment about which much has been written. The dissolution narrative generally ends with the incorporation of the community’s chief source of income, its flatware manufactory. Doyle deftly illumines the lesser-known details of the organized opposition that forced the community’s hand. Metaphorically, Noyes represents the utopian impulse and Mears what Robert Wiebe famously dubbed “the search for order.” Doyle’s small gem of a book should prove invaluable in facilitating discussions of ante- and postbellum America. Undergraduates will appreciate its clarity and brevity; general readers will find it fascinating.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts
Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York. By Elizabeth L. Bradley. Rutgers University Press, 2009, 151+ pp.
In his 1963 breakthrough novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. coined the term granfalloon to describe hollow collectives to which one accidentally belongs. For instance, if you live in California you are a “Californian” until the day you move to Vermont and become a “Vermonter.” Such identities are intrinsically meaningless—unless they mutate. Elizabeth Bradley’s fascinating study of the Knickerbocker identity suggests that more is afoot when we look at how such terms are created, recreated, and appropriated over time. Her book was originally published in 2009, but is back Rutgers University Press is promoting it anew at a time in which the larger “American” identity is weakening and Balkanization is ascendant.
Most regional identity terms follow simple grammar rules as they move from noun to adjective. It doesn’t require much mental effort to associate an Iowan with Iowa or a Mainer with Maine. It’s trickier when the adjectives are endonyms, terms used almost entirely by those within a region. Perhaps you can work it out that a “Toner” resides in Washington State, but you probably need to live in South Carolina to identify with Sandlapper, or follow sports to think of Cornhuskers, Tar Heels, and Hawkeyes in the same breath as Nebraska, North Carolina, and Iowa, as none of those terms are officially recognized collective pronouns. Sometimes insider terms become official—Buckeye (Ohio), Hoosier (Indiana), Nutmegger (Connecticut), or Yankee (New England)—but all such unusual adjectives are called demonyms and, as often as not, their Ur usage is obscure and spawn theories ranging from logical to fanciful.
Knickerbocker is rare in that we know its precise origins. It was the pseudonym used by Washington Irving (1783-1859) to perpetuate a great literary hoax. Irving appropriated the surname of a Rensselaer County Dutch family to invent Diedrich Knickerbocker, a deadbeat historian whose manuscript Irving “discovered” in a New York City hotel room from which Knickerbocker fled before settling his accounts. Irving fashioned a brilliant publicity campaign to go with h
is literary invention; he took out ads stating his intention to publish Knickerbocker’s manuscript unless he came forth to claim it. Not surprisingly, Kickerbocker was a no-show and, in 1809, the struggling Irving made his early reputation with A History of New York from the Beginnings of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.
You could learn a lot of this by wasting a few hours on the Internet. What you’d not learn, though, is the social history and contemporary sociology associated with Irving’s ruse. Also in Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut introduced the karass, an intentional network of people connected in significant ways. Though she does not reference Vonnegut, Bradley shows how the Knickerbocker has been appropriated in identity-forming ways. Direct Dutch control over its New Amster
dam colony officially ended in 1665, but the transfer to English control did not change the fact that the colony’s white population was predominately Dutch. Nor did the American Revolution and the passage of 144 years alter the fact that those of Dutch surnames and ancestry were disproportionately distributed among New York’s wealthy families, politicians, and taste arbiters. Many New Yorkers were amused by Irving’s trickery, but not all got the joke; some saw the Knickerbocker icon as confirmation of their assumed social and cultural superiority. Irving’s purpose, of course, was the opposite; he lampooned Dutch calcification specifically and social airs in general, but Diedrich Knickerbocker unleashed proved an infinitely malleable demonym.
Bradley titles her chapters “The Picture of Knickerbocker,” “Inheriting Knickerbocker,” “Fashioning a Knickerboracy,” and “Knickerbocker in a New Century.” Bradley breezily transforms the Knickerbocker into a synecdoche for two hundred years of New York history, politics, culture, commerce, and identity. In effect, one can draw a straight line from the boastful Diedrick Knickerbocker to the insouciant swagger of today’s New York City dwellers. That is, the Knickerbocker became New York City’s brand. No wonder those in the 19th century associated it with everything from bread and buses to “nostalgia and nativism” (59). And let’s not forget Santa Claus. Through time, the Knickerbocker lost some of its Dutch ethnicity in the American melting pot, but there were always Roosevelts, Van Rensselaers, and Vanderbilts to drop hints; German and Dutch brewers to lubricate myths; and basketball heroes, place names, and the mystique of the Big Apple to suggest that Gotham speaks a Dutch dialect. Moreover, as Bradley reminds us, no city comes close to New York in capturing imaginings of the essence of the United States. Never mind that little of this looks like the frontispiece from Irving’s 1809 satire; myths have enormous power even when their veracity is in doubt—just as an intentional karass is generally more empowering than an accidental granfalloon.
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World. ByChristopher De Hamel. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.
Christopher de Hamel’s love letter to medieval manuscripts celebrates every component of the medieval book: the beauty and craftsmanship of each hand-written page, the passion and tireless dedication of the scribes, the romantic interiors of modern archives and the meticulous care of the archivists who have preserved these manuscripts. In his brief introduction, which reads like a giddy confession by a starstruck fan, de Hamel introduces his select body of manuscripts by explaining that he will treat them as celebrities. He explains that each one has its own personality, history, purpose and mystery, and that he intends to reveal each book’s intimate story through his own “interviews” with these superstars. His text flows effortlessly and draws readers in as we begin to understand the thrill de Hamel experiences each time he picks up a priceless centuries-old illuminated book and gets to know it personally. De Hamel, poignantly aware that most people will never gain access to the reading rooms of the St. Petersburg National Library or hold a Carmina Burana in their hands, hopes to recreate that experience with his own enthusiastic description of the texts and to transmit the electric jolt he feels each time he opens their covers for the first time.
The author has selected his celebrities carefully and offers extensive chapters on twelve manuscripts that represent as broad a collection as possible. These twelve books span the sixth through fifteenth centuries, demonstrate illumination techniques from a myriad of European countries and most importantly, managed to survive centuries of tumultuous historical events that destroyed so many other medieval artifacts. Each chapter includes a detailed description of the book’s text and images, the history of its provenance and movement, theories as to its purpose, biographical information about its authors, illuminators and owners, and finally, his personal connection to each book. De Hamel travelled the world and spent years studying and cataloging these books, running his hands lovingly over their pages until he absorbed their essences and captured their unique personalities. Then, he sat down to write.
In his writing, de Hamel does make each chapter feel like an interview conducted with fascinating individuals in exotic locations. He beckons his readers to follow him into the Royal Library at Copenhagen. He details the strangers he chitchats with as he crosses Trinity College campus on a crisp autumn morning to see the Book of Kells. He lets his readers feel the warmth of the sun on a beautiful day in Los Angeles as we accompany him into the Getty Museum to chat with the Spinola Hours. De Hamel captures and conveys the romantic and rarified atmosphere of these marbled reading rooms with cathedral ceilings and endless rows of ancient books reaching far out of view. We sit with him at a long desk as he narrates the heft and fragrance and sheen of each book. He introduces each paragraph before him and offers to turn the page whenever we are ready.
De Hamel fills his book with tasty little anecdotes that appeal to history buffs of all centuries and build connections between readers and these beautiful books. We learn that Winston Churchill formatted his speeches the same way that sixth century scribes did. He typed his words in two columns, in a “by clauses and pauses” style that allowed for dramatic caesuras and punctuated phrases (22). De Hamel discloses in a hushed whisper that the great bibliophile Guglielmo Libri, who lived in France as an exile from 1831 on, always carried a stiletto with him for fear of assassination, a fear – hopefully- shared by few modern librarians today (197). He explains that as the Bastille fell, eager book collectors such as the Russian diplomat Piotr Dubrowsky, swooped in to loot its large repository of medieval manuscripts and scattered them throughout Europe. His stories weave in and out of the past and the present and are often interrupted by his own itinerary; he has to leave the library to meet his wife for lunch or perhaps he slips into a cherished memory of being denied access to the Parker Library as a graduate student. (He later became full time curator and Fellow of that library in 2000.) He fills his book with honest and personable glimpses into his world of precious books, quirky archivists and gorgeous art.
This is a beautiful book. Nearly half its pages contain reproductions: full-page color reprints of the initial pages of the Book of Kells, zodiac illustrations from the Leiden Aratea, torn, faded pages of text from the Hengwrt Chaucer, sumptuous portraits of saints from the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre. There are also dozens and dozens of photographs of university libraries, portraits of archivists and paleographers bent over their desks smoking intently, and pictures of Nazi trains smuggling precious books out of their native lands. Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is a genuine pleasure to read, so bright and beautiful, and exemplifies a generosity of the archives and the publisher that pays great tribute to its subject.
A broad audience can enjoy this book. Although a 632-page book about medieval manuscripts may not seem like an obvious choice for a pop culture topic, its broad appeal is a testament to the author’s excellent writing and exuberance throughout. As current American culture grows increasingly virulent in its anti-intellectualism, this type of book that so innocently and sincerely revels in the simple pleasure of academic pursuit can remind our students of the value and delight of intellectual activities. Both our undergraduates and graduate students would benefit from his accessible descriptions of his research methods and undeniable enthusiasm about spending a Saturday afternoon at the library. Given the straightforward prose and conversational tone, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts could also be equally enjoyed as a recreational read for a general audience. It’s so easy to pick this book up, read a chapter, and then put it down again until you simply can’t resist diving back in and being introduced to the next remarkable manuscript.
Western Connecticut State University
The War of the Wheels: H. G. Wells and the Bicycle, by Jeremy Withers, Syracuse: New York: Syracuse University Press, 2017.
Jeremy Withers in The War of the Wheels: H. G. Wells and the Bicycle provides the “first in-depth analysis of bikes in Wells’ long and prolific writing career” (p. 3). This book joins other studies that have analyzed specific objects from Wells’ works. The War of the Wheels provides a window into an aspect of Wells’ work that is critical to understanding more completely the ways in which technology mesmerized Wells, yet repulsed him at the same time. Wither argues that the bicycle is an instrument exemplifying the conflicts Wells noted between the versatility, accessibility, and usefulness of technology versus the destructiveness to life and health when used carelessly, the extravagant financial expenditures which capitalist marketing encouraged, and the ways in which humans could become oppressed in their blind pursuit of technology.
Withers uses Wells’ writings, including The War of the Worlds, The Sleeper Awakes, Tono-Bungay, The War in the Air, The First Men in the Moon, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, A Modern Utopia, The Shape of Things to Come, Experiment in Autobiography, Kipps, War and the Future, “The Land Ironclads” and “The Argonauts of the Air” as primary source documents to ascertain Wells’ views of the bicycle. Withers expands his analyses to demonstrate how Wells’ portrayal of the bicycle reflects a broader interest in technology of all kinds and grounds his research in the history of the bicycle, pertinent technological advancements of Wells’ era, and historical events occurring during Wells’ lifetime. Endnotes and the bibliography provide adequate documentation and direct the reader to additional useful resources.
In six chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion Withers uses Well’s writings to take the reader through the different stages of his life. Overall Withers highlights a progression from distrust of the bicycle to acceptance followed by enthusiastic endorsement to a gradual disillusionment, and finally a loss of interest in the bicycle as automobiles took their place in Wells’ psyche. Withers notes that while other writers of the period also found bicycles fascinating and may also have had ambiguous relationships with them, the extreme endorsement and eventual disillusionment Wells experienced is an outlier in intensity and duration. Other writers moved on from bicycles to automobiles to aircraft, war machines, and trains quickly while Wells continued writing extensively about bicycles for an additional twenty-year period.
Withers shows how Wells’ personal experiences and his love of cycling impacted his writing about bicycles and technology. As Wells’ personal life became more complex and his financial status rose exponentially, Withers notes the gradual acceptance of the automobile by Wells as more useful and less physically demanding. Along with Wells’ personal acceptance of the automobile and Wells’ decreased use of the bicycle, Withers points out the decreased enthusiasm for bicycles by Wells in his writing and the increased emphasis on other modes of transportation and alternative ways Wells represented technology. During a period of physical impairment suffered by Wells during which he was unable to cycle, Wells’ work began to emphasize the era’s concern with health risks associated with bicycles.
Wells drew an analogy between the human power that propelled the bicycle and how mechanical sources of power were multiplied by technology. Initially, Wells seemed satisfied that the bicycle would become a utopian vehicle that all social classes would use to increase their mobility—a positive advance that allowed urbanites to experience the adjoining natural world. However, the bicycle’s inherent limitations discouraged urbanites from forsaking completely the company of their fellows or traveling over great distances. Over time Wells came to see the bicycle as a health hazard for both riders and bystanders. Additionally, Wells argued that the aggressive sales techniques bicycle companies and their representatives employed resulted in extravagant expenditures for accessories that did not make the bicycle any more useful, but encouraged frivolous spending and provided ways to set oneself apart from others. As his personal riding habits decreased, Wells’ written works grew more negative toward bicycles. Eventually Wells’ loyalties shifted to automobiles.
Wells’ belief that bicycles would become ubiquitous and highly useful instruments of war dominated much of Wells’ writing during the period before World War I. When bicycles played a limited role in the conflict despite curtailments in other forms of transportation, Wells’ expectations required reevaluation. He eventually removed bicycles completely from his writings.
Positives of The War of the Wheels include its comprehensive use of a wide variety of Wells’ writings to document his attitudes toward bicycles and technology, the excellent grounding of The War of the Wheels in the historical events that Wells experienced, and Withers’ interactions with others who have written about Wells and technology. Several weaknesses exist. The most serious is the lack of acknowledgement of the discrepancy between Wells’ written endorsement for socialist political ideology and Wells’ personal life, which reflected an increasing striving for capitalistic accoutrements. Although Withers notes some of Wells’ inconsistency in this area regarding the types of automobiles Wells favored, Withers does not probe other inconsistencies in Wells’ political philosophy with his lived example. Moreover, Withers’ chapter on health hazards to bicycle operators lacks the same high level of historical and cultural development that the rest of the work displays.
Overall this is a well-written book that draws interesting and, for the most part, well-supported conclusions, about Wells’ views of technology as refracted through his views of the bicycle. Although this book is probably best geared toward undergraduate and graduate college level literature students, any reader capable of reading Wells will be able to read this book to advantage.
Joseph Baumstarck, Jr.
University of Louisville
Blood and Faith: Christianity in White American Nationalism. By Damon T. Berry. Syracuse University Press, 2017.
In the epilogue to Blood and Faith, St. Lawrence University religion professor Damon Berry evokes the 2016 presidential election: “If the economic policies of the new administration do indeed end up hurting the white working class that voted Trump into office, we should not expect the administration to automatically receive the blame. Rather, we should expect scapegoating….The same accusatory politics that brought Trump to electoral victory will be mobilized to keep him from accountability.” He further warns that “those who want an equal, open, and tolerant society” must face the stark truth that a “society based on those values is not guaranteed to us…. We are going to have to construct it” (206).
Would that this were the most unsettling conclusion of this chilling book. Berry takes us inside a dark world that most know more through popular stereotypes than careful analysis. The cavalier use of terms such as “deplorables,” “little Nazis,” and “Christian right” may ameliorate our fears, but we err badly if we think of them as merely weak-brained dupes and fools. Few of us have heard of people such as Revilo Oliver, William Pierce, Ben Klassen, William Pelley, James Madole, or Alain de Benoist, nor do we know much about Cosmotheism, Creativity, racialized atheism, Odinism, Wotansvolk, Occult Fascism, or the Left-Hand Path. And we haven’t considered the enormous impact of European New Right movements upon American Alt-Right figures such as Stephen Bannon.
If there is any good news, it is that the forces of the hard right are disputatious and divided. Berry delves into these often idiosyncratic fractures, but most nationalist groups agree upon essential values. The first is what Berry dubs “racial protectionism;” that is, white nationalists are either blatantly racist or supporters of racial separatism. Like older hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, they extend racial protectionism to voice opposition to egalitarianism, multiculturalism, feminism, immigration, and non-heterosexuality; unlike the KKK, most nationalists also oppose Christianity, a phenomenon often missed in discussions of groups such as Christianity Identity. White nationalists castigate Christianity for being effeminate, weak, and overly inclusive, but mostly it clashes with their second shared value: virulent anti-Semitism. They are the heirs to views propagated in the infamous 1903 The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which Henry Ford disseminated in the 1920s, and of Francis Parker Yockey (1916-60), whose Imperium is a seminal work. Christianity is often called “Jewish Christianity,” and is therefore both “alien” and corrupt. Those who adhere to it at all are careful to differentiate “historical Christianity” from that “profaned” (181) by modernism. Many are more likely to embrace neo-pagan views akin to the Nordic and Indo-European mysticism found in German Nazism. (Berry is careful to differentiate racialized paganism from positive spiritualism.) Still other nationalists are agnostics, Satanists, or atheists who reject—in the words of Creativity’s White Man’s Bible—“Jewish spooks in the sky.”
Another surprise is Berry’s discussion of the word “nationalism.” Extreme patriotic rhetoric notwithstanding, white nationalism is refracted through bioracial and cultural lenses that are pan-Western European; they are (in my terms) the white equivalent of negritude. We should make no mistake; the nationalists are dangerous people, not dress-up delusionals. Violence is part of their modus operandi past—including the murder of Alan Berg and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing—and present-day attacks on African Americans, American Muslims, and LGBTI individuals. White nationalists feel they are engaged in RaHoWa, their shorthand for Racial Holy War. This also puts them at odds with mainstream conservatives, of whom they are as contemptuous as they are of liberals. To give you a sense of their fervor, many of its theorists quit the John Birch Society because it was too soft. Consider also the fact that Bannon’s freelance extremism was beyond even that which Donald Trump could forbear.
I have a few nits to pick with Berry’s book. First, he correctly rejects the notion that modern white nationalism emerged in the 1980s, but makes too much of his own assertion that it actually crystallized in the 1950s. He’s not wrong about those connections, but in his third chapter he takes us through a cogent litany of even deeper roots: Manifest Destiny, the wars on Native peoples, Social Darwinism, immigration restriction movements, eugenics, and a welter of other things. As Gunnar Myrdal famously expressed it in 1944, race has always been “an American dilemma.” For a book that pulls few punches, Berry held back on this one. White nationalism isn’t a single breed of poisonous snake; it’s a broad suborder of venomous vipers.
I also longed for a more thorough explanation of how white power theorists decoupled nationalism from the volk-specific associations of post Enlightenment romanticism (whose language they often appropriate) to move it beyond national borders while simultaneously opposing globalism. These may well be ideational contradictions within movements, but they warrant closer analysis.
Berry’s attention to subtle distinctions, theoretical structures, use of postmodernist terminology, and breadth probably make this a book best suited for graduate students and specialists. But even if all you do is sample, we should heed Berry’s evocation of Henri Bergson that these are people “prepared for war” (14). They must be held accountable.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst.
THE SEEKING. By Will Thomas. Edited by Mark Madigan. University of New England Press, 344 pages, 2013 edited reprint of 1953 original.
The Seeking slipped under the radar, but deserves new attention. My copy literally got buried under an avalanche of titles that came my way and I failed to notice that my longtime Northeast Popular Culture Association colleague Mark Madigan, edited this volume. It should be considered a companion to Jane Beck’s Daisy Turner’s Kin (2015), which mines the same turf: experiences of African Americans in Vermont.
The Seeking is, at turns, fascinating and frustrating. It was penned by African American journalist, novelist, and scriptwriter Will Thomas, the nom de plume of William “Bill” Smith (1900-70). He’s a nearly forgotten writer whose best-known work was his 1947 novel God is For White Folks. The Seeking focuses on the years 1946 to 1953, after Thomas sold his home in Los Angeles and moved his young to Westford, Vermont, a small village is a remote corner of Chittenden County. His reasons for doing so, by his own admission, were not entirely logical, and the fact that he first contemplated relocating to Haiti instead is testament to his conflicted mind. Thomas was a contemporary of Richard Wright and, like he, struggled to make sense of the vagaries of race in America.
The Seeking is another challenge to viewing race as a simplistic binary. Thomas’ father was white and he didn’t begin to think of himself as black until after his father’s death. His mother moved the family from Kansas City to a black Chicago neighborhood, where Will assumed the last name of his African-American stepfather. Thomas later married Elise Leseur, who was 1/8th black, and they parented three children. The Seeking often feels as if Thomas is working out an identity crisis. It was a challenging time to do so. World War Two brought triumph over the perverse racial theories of fascism, yet American racial progress had scarcely advanced since the collapse of Reconstruction in the 1870s. By the time Thomas landed in Westford, he had abandoned Christianity as an oppressor’s religion and was on the cusp of losing his national faith as well.
Thomas spoke with the fervor of a Frederick Douglass as filtered it through the accommodationism of a Booker T. Washington. This probably explains why his work fell into obscurity during the Black Power-influenced late 1960s. Thomas’ personal bifurcation comes across during his Vermont sojourn. Fiery words and complaints of racism stand side by side with vigorous pursuits of white patronage, burning desire to be viewed as a serious writer, and efforts to fit into rural Vermont village life. He was a casual friend of Wright and knew James Baldwin, but spent more time with black intelligentsia such as Ralph Bunche, Horace Clayton, Jr. and Chester Himes. By 1953, when Thomas published The Seeking and appeared on Edward R. Murrow’s “This I Believe” program, This’ tone was more that of the optimist than the activist.
Thomas admits he was ready to take offense at every glance, frown, and stray word, yet he found warmth among flinty New Englanders. He does not make Vermont into a Utopia and notes casual animus towards Jews, Catholics, and French-speaking residents—not to mention the stray racial slur, but he found acceptance among his neighbors and respect from Vermont’s arts community. He is especially praiseful of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, the Green Mountain State’s grand femme de lettres. His account is out of synch with recent critics who charge Ms. Fisher was a bigot.
Whom do we trust? Thomas’ prose is old-fashioned and lacks the timeless qualities of Wright or Baldwin. Little of book’s dialogue rings true. In fact, much of it has been deliberately crafted to enhance self-perceptions of literary brilliance, manliness, wisdom, and steely head-of-family decision-making. Elise Thomas emerges as a nay-saying foil for her husband’s musings rather than an independent mind or helpmeet. As NPR’s Dan Gediman reveals in the afterward, there is much about Thomas/Smith to tarnish his exalted claims—multiple marriages, a peripatetic lifestyle, shaky finances, and poor health. The Thomases divorced in 1955, with Will staying in Vermont until around 1960. It took sleuthing to unearth the final decade of his life.
We are left with a tantalizing account of a black family in isolation in one of the whitest states in the Union. It makes a nice companion piece to Beck’s work on Daisy Turner, but what do we make of either book? My take away is that folks judge their neighbors differently than they categorize people in the abstract, that New Englanders respect honest effort, and a race-blind society remains elusive.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst
The Banjo: America’s African Instrument. By Laurent Dubois, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016.
Laurent Dubois, professor of Romance Studies and History and director of the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University, asks a seemingly simple question early on in his book: “What sound will accompany the end of days?” (19). The question serves as the beginning of the story of the banjo that draws upon the history of instrument making in tenth-century Spain and the prominence of lutes. Dubois notes that the lute began to transition during this time period from an instrument with a wooden body and an opening under the strings to a new instrument made of a hollowed wooden body that was round or oval and covered with animal skin. The new instrument became known as the banjo. A prolific author with books on Haiti (2004, 2011) and the politics of soccer (2012), Dubois completed his research on the banjo with support from a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Humanities Fellowship, and a Mellon New Directions Fellowship.
In his book, Dubois seeks to provide the reader with a biography of the banjo through its emergence in Africa to the folk music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger from the 1940s and beyond (though post-1970s uses are more of a coda). The descriptions of the banjo in West African culture provide the reader with a detailed history of how the creation of certain instruments has a major impact on cultural conventions. Dubois explains that the banjo was used to “connect with both the past and the present, to build a bridge of memory and recall. It welcomed different styles, generating solidarity and community through its sound” (52). While this description is offered as a reflection of the early days of the banjo, Dubois shows how the ability of the banjo to link the past to the present and to cross cultural divides continued as the instrument grew in popularity among certain populations, including the newly invented genre of bluegrass after 1946, and the (mostly) white folk music revival that stretched from the 1940s through the 1960s.
While one may be able to find a book on the history of the banjo for a certain period of time, Dubois breaks new ground by offering a thorough biography of an instrument riddled with a diverse history. One of the strengths of Dubois’ book is his ability to move from time period to time period while keeping his reader engaged. Dubois does not shy away from politically complicated topics as he reflects on the role of the banjo as an integral part of minstrelsy. Further, Dubois details the role of the banjo in slave culture and how this was used as a means of protest as well as a means of escaping slavery.
Dubois’ book would be most appealing to those interested in music and popular culture. However, his writing and his ability to weave multiple areas of popular culture including art and literature into his explanations, makes this book suited to a wider population. The execution of the research and writing on the banjo as America’s African instrument is appealing to those who may question how history intersects with artifacts of which we pay little attention. For example, it remains underappreciated that the banjo’s centrality in “white” Appalachian music from the 19th century on was an appropriation of black culture. While most people have seen and heard a banjo, learning about how this instrument played a significant role throughout history may make the reader believe that a banjo very well be one of the sounds accompanying the end of days.
Andi M. McClanahan
East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania