Archive for category Brown Signs

The Poetry in Emily’s and Austin’s Homes

Time for another field trip.  This time to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst Massachusetts.  It turns out the Herman Melville is not the only American author who achieved public and literary acclaim only long after his death.  So did Emily Dickinson with her poetry, but with a twist: she never sought that acclaim in her lifetime.

The only known photo of Emily Dickinson, the original owned now by Amherst College

The only known photo of Emily Dickinson, the original owned now by Amherst College

Emily’s house, now a museum, is actually two houses.  One, next door, belonged to her brother Austin; both help to tell the story of her writing.  What draws people to the home is this story of a private woman, creating, in bursts of prolific energy, a poetry ahead of its time and for the ages, but not publishing any of it.  It is through Austin that the world eventually gets to see and appreciate the poetry.  It is hard to know if mid-18th century American readers were ready for her poetry, which expanded the boundaries of the form.

Still, the renovations and additions, the wallpaper and paintings, the path and hedge of both houses are historic traces, primary sources themselves, revealing the complicated relationships between Austin, his wife, his daughter, his paramour and his sister.  Through the objects, the museum guide is able to craft the story of how Emily’s writing became known to the outside world.  It is a story which speaks to us today, of women’s roles in society, of the unknown loss of similar treasure due to an inability to contribute fully.   There is a strong possibility that her poetry may never have emerged.

The two side-by-side historic houses tell a different story as well, a story of authenticity in their contrasting models of preservation.  They tell a story of authenticity, juxtaposing ways to create an honest portrayal of how we now can appreciate the lives of the siblings, how we now understand the story of her writing.  Emily’s house, The Homestead, is restored, with fresh, clean paint and new wallpaper, sanded floors, with new work underway to “take away the 20th century in Emily’s bedroom,” as Jane Wald, the director of the museum, characterized the project.  Austin’s house, The Evergreens, on the other hand, stands as it was found and transferred to the museum, with nothing changed or restored.  The walls are moldy and crumbling, the wallpaper is peeling, the rugs threadbare and the furniture unfinished.  Dark and smelly.  It is a ruin, akin to one of those old stone walls scattered in the New England woods.

The contrast has much to do with what transpired between the Dickinson occupation/ownership of the houses and their acquisition by Amherst College, and then the museum.  Simply, Austin’s home was kept intact, first by his by his daughter Martha and then by her heir, the young man who helped Martha edit Emily’s poetry for publication.  Next door, no Dickinson lived in Emily’s home after her unmarried sister Lavinia’s death in 1899, 14 years after Emily died.  First tenants, then new owners moved in to The Homestead, and they renovated and changed features of the structure.  Once the house was bought by Amherst College, then work began to restore to as faithful a version as possible the house Emily lived in.

Which is authentic?  Both, but it depends.  It depends on how we approach them.  Authenticity implies honesty.  Austin’s home in its ruinous state, does not honestly reflect how he and his family lived.  The threadbare carpets gave it away; they alone do not allow anyone to say “this is how the house looked when Austin lived here.”  It may have been Austin’s carpet, but it is not how it looked in his tenure.  Emily’s home, preserved, does try to reflect the “present-ness” of how Emily lived.  But, it is only a reflection, and as a re-creation, is a present version, unable to say without caveats, “this is precisely how the house looked when Emily lived here.”  Her plush carpet may look like the one she had, but it is not the same carpet.

From a preservation perspective, it is useful to have the two different approaches side-by-side.  From the insights which the two houses tell us about gender and art, the juxtaposition also offers meaning, by showing both the actual, deteriorating objects in Austin’s home, but re-imagining them to a prior era in Emily’s home.  Side-by-side, these traces complement each other, the real and the imagined, to tell the story of women’s lives and routines and the central role of their homes.


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In my mind I’ve gone to Ft. Ticonderoga

If people experience history best through personalizing it, then it is likely what we get out of a museum is something that connects directly to our personal experience.

That was the case during a visit this fall to Fort Ticonderoga on the New York side of Lake Champlain.  The fort which occupies a strategic position on the southern tip of the lake played a role in both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War in the 1700s. The strategic part was made clear in a map at one of the displays showing the water route taken down the lake from Canada, and then across a brief stretch of land over to the Hudson River, which leads all the way to New York City.

So, how did my wife and I experience this personally?

For one, we skipped the musket demonstration which drew off the small crowd early on Sunday morning, leaving the rebuilt fort and room displays to ourselves (we hate crowds and are not too keen on guns either.)

Second, we lucked into the only tour available during our time frame, of the King’s Gardens on the property.  The fort has succeeded in planning gardens and pasture which period soldiers may have used (albeit surrounded by electric fence at night.)  The gardens we focused on, though, pertained to the private property owned by the Pell family, ancestors of Senator Claiborne Pell from Rhode Island.  At the time, we had been busy re-landscaping our newly renovated house (on a much smaller scale, admittedly), so these beautifully cared for gardens and trees captured our attention.

Third, we were instinctively drawn to any connection to our home town of Pittsfield in the display.  We skipped right past the names of Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold and focused on a name neither of us had heard previously, a Pittsfield native, Colonel John Brown.  We saw a plaque honoring him as we entered, and we spent more time in front of the displays explaining his leadership of a three-day assault on the fort in September 1777, which helped lead to the abandonment and subsequent destruction by British forces of the fort two months later.  We learned John Brown was killed later in the war at the age of 36.

Soldiers at Ft. Ticonderoga. Credit: M. Dickson

Finally, we zoomed in on the motivations behind the tour guide/reenactors who, both paid and volunteer, filled the environs, even with their children.  We assumed they probably had spent the night there, at least some of them.  Our tour guide, in period uniform, explained he bought his uniform from a store in the U.K., with special wool and buttons and sewing techniques, all at a fairly expensive cost.  We later overheard several of the uniformed guides discussing amongst themselves where they had procured various pieces of their outfit.  Here again, we personalized, admitting this was not anything we would ever find ourselves doing, but frankly pleased the fort was able to attract people who put such time, energy and expense into this hobby.

As we were heading out, we noticed that others were studying in detail the musket displays, which we had zoomed right by, but stopped for an equally intent examination of the maps which showed prominently western Massachusetts, Pittsfield and even our neighboring lake.

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Did Anyone Die in the War of 1812?

Proof through the night

A week after the tall ships descended on Baltimore for the bicentennial of the beginning of the War of 1812, and the city’s historic landmarks related to that event had returned perhaps to our national forgetfulness of that war.  A few visitors to Fort McHenry made our tour relaxed and free of mobs.  The Inner Harbor was back to paddle-boat dragons, summer-time outdoor live music and smoothies.

Two things struck me about the exhibits at Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key’s view of the flag still waving after a night of British bombardment is memorialized, quite informatively and attractively.  1500 shells.  Four people died.  In fact, little mention was made of any casualties in the entire war. 

It is hard to go to a battlefield or memorial of the Civil War, or any American military engagement since, and not be confronted with a narrative of death and casualty.  But in the War of 1812, and to a lesser extent, our Revolutionary War, the notion of soldiers dying in action is not central to the historic narrative.  Certainly, today, following the mass casualties in the Vietnam War, news coverage from both Iraq and Afghanistan has been dominated by our losses.  Did these soldiers die in vain without their remembrance?    

The second missing item was the burning of York (present-day Toronto) by Americans.  Much emphasis was placed on the burning of the White House and the Capitol, but with no mention of the previous sacking of Toronto.  In Canada, the battle in Toronto and subsequent defense of territory captures the story line and aligns with their national identity as non-Americans. 

The question we have to ask, with our emphasis on our loss in Washington, and Canadian’s emphasis on their loss in York, do we choose to hold to the painful remembrance of loss inflicted on us, on our tragedies, rather than on the tragedies we inflict on others?

Walking around Ft. McHenry, I imagined 5th graders on class trips running around the premises, looking in on rooms where soldiers slept four to a bed, or climbing on the huge cannons, or trying to imagine a harbor full of tall warships firing relentlessly at the fort.  Would they make the connection between the smoothies in the Inner Harbor and the sacrifices 200 years earlier at that fort?

In fact, many died in this war.  An estimated 15,000 U.S. soldiers.

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Christmas in 1776

Order: "Hop on with cannons and horses...."

“The worst army in the world confronting the best.”  That’s how the docent at the Johnson Ferry house at Washington Crossing State Park described the state of George Washington’s 2400 soldiers once they had landed and regrouped on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. 

The crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day — really at night — has been labeled one of the “pivotal moments in American history.”  You can see why.  Had Washington failed, had his troops rather than the Hessian mercenaries in Trenton, been defeated, the revolutionary cause would have suffered a fatal blow.   

In his book, Washington’s Crossing, David Hackett Fischer lines up all the disasters and problems which risked and forced changes into the plans for this bold three-pronged attack on Trenton.    Starting with a driving sleet and snow storm and dangerous ice flows in the river, two of the three landing parties were unable to reach the other side of the river.  Washington’s own crossing at Johnson’s ferry started late, took all night long, and lost him the element of surprise which a night-time 9-mile march to Trenton would have given him.

It was early December when I visited the site.  The river was overflowing the banks with a current strong from a wet fall and previous days’ rains.  Even with 45 degrees of daytime sun, no wind and REI clothing, I was cold.  Replicas of the Durham boats (large canoes with high walls) and the ferry barges looked to be no match for the strength of that river. 

Where I stood in the Johnson ferry house, next to the half-a-wall-length fireplace, was where the docent said Washington met with his aides to decide whether or not to continue on to Trenton.  I thought they were the lucky ones, inside.  It was easy for them to decide to keep going, especially when I learned some of the soldiers didn’t even have shoes. 

I thought of taking mine off and walking around the grounds, but I was already cold.  I walked down to the river in my Rockports, and tried to imagine the boatsmen – the Marblehead Massschusetts militia-sailors and the ferry operators – working all night long.  They dragged their boats up the NJ side of the river; let the current take them down and over to the Pennsylvania side; and then after loading up with men, horses, cannons, they maneuvered their shaky vessels further down and back over to the NJ side.  Then they did it again, and again over a ten hour stretch.

Ten minutes later I was back in my car.  I figured out how Washington and his army, after so many things had gone wrong, was able to surprise the Hessians and then defeat them the next day at Trenton.  No one, not the Hessians, nor I, 235 years later, could have imagined anyone undertaking a crossing march in such adverse elements. 

Give Washington credit, even if he was warm.  He could convince these soldiers, miserable and cold, after such a crossing to continue on, in the snow, for a nine-mile march and then attack and defeat the most formidable army the world knew at that time. 

"and cross this, at night, in driving sleet. Then march 9 miles to Trenton and fight the best army in the world."

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Brown Signs – Marine Corps Museum

Iwo Jima Memorial. Photo: JDickson

How many times have I driven by the brown sign on US 95 going south out of Washington DC?  The sign that says Marine Corps Museum. 

There are other brown signs I drive by all the time as well.  The FDR Library in Hyde Park is the one brown sign I drive by the most, but there are others, like Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and Washington’s Winter Headquarters in New Jersey.

So, my goal is to come back to those brown signs and report on what I saw.

The Marine Corps Museum has a story to tell.  Many, in fact, but the one I left with was the flag-raising at Iwo Jimo.  You know the one of the six soldiers raising the U.S. flag, later made into a statue near Arlington Cemetery.  Six anonymous faces bravely raising the flag, seemingly after winning the battle.

Yet, the battle was far from won.  Captured was Mt. Suribachi,the volcano on one end of the island, but there was more than a month and thousands of Marines dead left before the island could be claimed as safe.

Newspapers across the country carried the photo by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal as soon as it cleared military censors and distribution time.  Shortly thereafter, so did a story that the event was staged.   

That story still persists, even though the accusation was settled almost immediately.  Those present do acknowledge that there were actually two different flags raised.  The commander of the Fifth Marine Division, Lt. Gen. Keller Rockey ordered a larger flag to be found and raised since the first one was not visible. 

Part of the controversy stems from professional rivalry as those present for the initial flag raising were annoyed that their effort at the tail end of actual combat to secure Suribachi went unnoticed.  Another was a seemingly innocuous comment by the photographer himself who answered in the affirmative when asked shortly after the photo was taken if it had been staged.  He, of course, had taken many pictures of that moment and didn’t know which one was on the front pages across the U.S. and now in doubt.  In, fact, he had taken a staged photo, called a “gung-ho” shot, of all the Marines facing the camera at the foot of the flag, but that did not have the drama as the one we all know.

He had not positioned the six soldiers for the memorialized photo, and another cameraman with movie film footage proved what Rosenthal referred to as the luck of a photographer – timing and positioning.   When asked about the photo later, he said, “I took the picture; the Marines took the hill.”

Kudos to the Marine from the Vietnam War who was volunteering and relayed the story in front of the Iwo Jima flag on display at the museum in Quantico, Virginia.  He was the only docent in front of any display we saw in the museum the day we visited, which told us of the prominence of this in Marine history.

A couple of other tidbits on the museum.

— If the trend in museums is to engage the public interactively, war museums may have a harder time than others.  One exhibit on Vietnam included walking through a helicopter into a gun position replete with battle noise and tropical heat.  Uncomfortable. 

The exhibit which was most crowded during our visit portrayed boot camp, from the arrival bus to uniform protocol and even a firing range.   More fun and engaging, but not at all connected to the battlefield.

— I skeptically expected a museum extolling all our wars, but was surprised to see comments in the displays questioning decisions to go to war against Mexico in 1848 or calling the end of the Vietnam War “ugly.”

— Finally, it was reassuring to see uniformed Marines taking in their own museum, seeking a little background on their choice of service to country.

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