Tag Archives: history

Sincerely and most ardently yours (Why don’t they write!?)

I am writing today to lament the tragic and rapid disappearance of a very classic and elegant form of expression: the love letter. The love letter (or note if someone was pressed for time) has been in existence since written forms of languages were developed. Love is one of the fundamental emotions felt by humans, and for thousands of years we have been trying with and without success to effectively put it into words. Love letter writing was once a very serious undertaking. Manuals on how to accomplish such a task date back as far as the sixteenth century. We take for granted today how easy it is to be physically near our partners and how much alone time unmarried couples are allowed now in the western world. Without the means of modern transportation and the often heavy supervision of chaperones often the love letter was the only way (provided the couple found a discrete and trusty means for delivery) that a pair of lovers could earnestly express their affections for one another. It was even considered acceptable as late as the Victorian period for gentlemen to propose marriage through letters. I think that’s a fact most people today might find a little off-putting when so much emphasis tends to be placed on the act of “popping the question” these days. This was not so in the past when a young man might be too bashful or overcome with intense emotion that he could not effectively express his intentions verbally. The Victorians, as they were wont to do, of course took love letter writing to a whole new level. They often used scented inks, gaudily decorated stationary, and flowery language. Penmanship was a skill cultivated by the more affluent classes. Judgements were passed on the quality of a person based on this fact alone. In other words a great deal of thought went into letter writing and it was governed by a score of precise rules that did not really loosen until the twentieth century.

One of the beauties of the love letter is that, provided it is looked after, there is forever a record of the very intimate exchanges of two people. So many love letters from famous individuals survive today and have provided great insight into their lives. I personally love reading these sort of exchanges between such individuals. I think a great deal can be gathered about a person by the way he or she expresses him or herself to his or her partner.

I love the eighteenth century example found in the letters of John and Abigail Adams. Not only were they very much in love which is clearly evident, but John also considered Abigail his intellectual equal and elicited his “Diana’s” advice and opinion on political matters. John was often taken far away by his involvement in forging a new nation so letter writing gave the couple their only means of keeping close and the couple took great advantage of this exchanging well over 1,000 letters that we know about today. You probably don’t really think cute when you think of John Adams, but this little letter he sent Abigail in 1762 might change your mind:

“By the same Token that the Bearer hereof satt up with you last night I hereby order you to give him, as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 O’Clock as he shall please to Demand and charge them to my Account: This Order, or Requisition call it which you will is in Consideration of a similar order Upon Aurelia for the like favour, and I presume I have good Right to draw upon you for the Kisses as I have given two or three Millions at least, when one has been received, and of Consequence the Account between us is immensely in favour of yours.”

There is a great book of their letters called My Dearest Friend, which is an excellent way to experience one of the greatest American love stories.

I am a known fan of Keats. Pretty much any guy who quoted his words to me could easily capture my affections. However, there was the one poor idiot who once tried to pass Shakespeare’s famous rose line from Romeo and Juliet off as Keats to me at a bar. Suffice it to say he was left quite embarrassed and without my phone number. Anyway, Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne in their tragically sad love affair are interesting and tenderly melancholy, which appeals to me. God love a poet, they’ll break your heart, but they can certainly woo:

“I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel, was; I did not believe in it; my Fancy was afraid of it, lest it should burn me up. But if you will fully love me, though there may be some fire, ’twill not be more than we can bear when moistened and bedewed with Pleasures.”

Often those of us today make the mistake of assuming those in the past were somehow all more prudish and straight-laced than we are today. While outwardly this might have been how things appeared, not everyone kept their love letters as prim as one would think. Take for example this rather juicy excerpt from a letter written by Gustave Flaubert to his lover Louise Colet in 1846:

“I will cover you with love when next I see you, with caresses, with ecstasy. I want to gorge yu [sic] with all the joys of the flesh, so that you faint and die. I want you to be amazed by me, and to confess to yourself that you had never even dreamed of such transports… When you are old, I want you to recall those few hours, I want your dry bones to quiver with joy when you think of them.”

It sounds like ol’ Gustave knew how to show Louise a good time. But if you really want to read some steamy (and quite frankly, graphic) examples of love letters look no further than the early twentieth century example of those written by James Joyce to Nora Barnacle. I’m afraid I do not even have the courage to excerpt them here. Trust me, though, if you aren’t faint of heart or easily offended, they are quite the interesting read. See, letter writing can be fun!

Letter writing lived on with only a slightly diminished vigor post-telephone it seems until the birth of the internet. I love the internet. It’s great in many ways. However, I really blame it and cellphones for the decline of letter writing and proper communication skills in general. Very few of my generation (the 20s set) seem to write any form of letters at all. We text, email, Facebook, etc. For some things, though, like love letters, these forms of communication simply aren’t a good substitute. There is something to be said about receiving a letter from a loved one in the mail. It means something for someone to take the time out of their day to pen thoughts specifically designed for another. I love the intimacy of that act. I try to write letters as much as I can. I was raised by parents who wrote and write letters still from time to time. I had pen pals as a child years before I learned to use the internet. I have written love letters as well. I find satisfaction in it. I wish more people my age would get back into the habit of posting their thoughts to one another. Yes, speed and efficiency are sacrificed, but sometimes speed and efficiency are overrated. I guarantee, from personal experience, it would be very hard to find a young lady (or man for that matter) who would not enjoy receiving the written expression of their significant other’s affections folded into a lovely handwritten letter. Speaking of which, all you guys out there should really consider taking a look at “The Art of Manliness'” post about letter writing. It’s actually good advice if you’re looking to woo a special lady especially one with a romantic soul. The same goes for ladies too looking for a special way to charm a young man. Stamps really aren’t that expensive. Why not give it a try?

I hope one day we’ll return to letter writing, but I’m afraid it would take some sort of post-apocalyptic situation the likes of which were seen in that bizarre Kevin Costner film The Postman. In the mean time, though, I’ll keep doing my part by writing letters as often as I can, and faithfully checking my letter box. Happy writing, everyone!

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Filed under History, Miscellany

(Good) changes abound

After more than a month of not posting, I’m back. If I may write frankly, the time period from about the time I last posted at the end of May to the present has been a transformative one. It has been filled with both endings and beginnings that have brought a lot of pain but a lot of positivity and peace of mind as well. I have always believed that there is no such thing as the black and white concept of good and bad/good and evil. I think all things have both a dark and a light side to them, I guess sort of like the Chinese philosophical principal of yin and yang. The universe, though we may not be able to believe it when we are knee deep in some situation, will always even itself out. Nothing really is ever purely wonderful or truly terrible. I think that is the biggest concept I’ve had reaffirmed for me this past month. When I was thinking that the past year was simply terrible, being in the wrong place, attaching myself or being forced onto the wrong people, and dealing with some pretty wicked inner demons, it wasn’t ever all bad. I’m also one of those people who, although I don’t choose to believe in a higher deity, chooses to believe that most things happen for a reason. In my own life, all the bad stuff over the past year has happened for reasons that, oddly enough, have only become clear over the past week or so. It’s an amazing feeling too when you realize you’ve been walking around in a pretty dense fog, and that fog suddenly lifts, putting you back on the main road.

One of the most enlightening experiences I’ve had thus far this summer is getting an opportunity to intern at the museum. I am very disappointed to say that I let the past several months or so beat the passion and love I once felt for the museum field out of me. I got fairly lost in the what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life department and gave up almost entirely, something I have never done willingly in my life. I let myself go from being a very driven, vibrant young person to someone who just didn’t care or, rather, didn’t know how to care anymore. This is the attitude I had coming into the museum this summer. However, in dealing with the turmoil extant in my subsurface, I neglected to realize there was something deeper, waiting patiently, keeping warm in the glow of the fire in the core of my being as the storm raged overhead. This was an old childhood friend, a true friend, the kind that never really abandons you even when you act like a complete idiot or you lose touch for a while. This friend was my love of history. I had seen it peek out every now and then over the last months when I would get a rare chance to discuss public history in my classes or if I had a moment to read a good history book in my spare time. Then something would inevitably go off to the contrary and it would scurry back down to its hiding place. One of the strongest moments like this, though, occurred this past spring and very nearly helped pull me back into the boat.

I took a cultural history class last semester. It was pretty good as far as history seminars go. Somehow by a very fortuitous coincidence one of my favorite historians of all time, Peter H. Wood, came to visit my school. As a freshman in undergrad I read his seminal work Black Majority, and it was one of the largest contributing factors that made me want to become a history major. I remember thinking his rice thesis was the most brilliant idea I had ever encountered. The book, pardon the cliche, changed my life. We read his recent work Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War in the seminar and discussed it the week before he came. It was a short but interesting read. Our professor wished us to go to the public lecture Dr. Wood was giving and also to the private informal talk reserved for those in the history department. Unfortunately a very inopportune shift at work kept me from the evening lecture, but I had the absolute pleasure of attending the talk earlier that day. As an outsider I sat towards the back wall while the more senior history grads controlled the conversation. Most of them were interested in the future of historians in the academia, of which he did not have the most positive words for the future. I gave up my idea of going into that arena long ago so my interest wasn’t really peaked until he began discussing the possibilities of public history and how promising that avenue was looking for young historians. He lamented the gap that exists between academia and the museum and historic site. He echoed the words I had had rattling in my mind without a forum for expression for months and months. My heart felt light and when the talk was over it was all I could do to keep from running up and hugging him. For the record, Dr. Wood is an incredibly effervescent and kind individual. Instead I resolutely marched up to the front of the room, pushing past the history grads who all looked at me like a foreigner and introduced myself to him. I told him my situation, how glad I was to hear what he had to say about public history, how I had been racking my brain over the problems that exist, and how passionate I was about trying to fix them. He was warm and encouraging and genuinely wished me luck on my path. I then asked him with a shy smile if he’d sign my book, and he did so gladly. I thanked him profusely and quickly scooted out giddy as could be. When I got back to my apartment I eagerly opened the book and found this inscription:

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It felt great reading that. Unfortunately, I was still scratching my head trying to figure out how I could do that. Well, like I said, being at the museum revived my desire to do this, and I believe it has helped put me back on the track on which I need to accomplish it.

There are many changes beginning personally and professionally/academically now. I’m not sure what the months ahead will bring, but I am sure about my newly minted plans and resolve. I care again. I’m going to make history museums stronger because I am the face of a change in tides and a representative of a new generation, that contrary to popular belief, does give a damn about our past. No one and nothing will ever take that away from me.

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At least someone paid attention in history class

Please permit me a small rant. I am a hardcore history student. I love it, I am passionate about its preservation, and I become intensely annoyed when people get it wrong, especially when the fault is intentional. Cicero wrote in his De Oratore, “The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true.” While this principle may be the first law for historians, I think, especially when dealing with our own country’s history, everyone should make this a goal. It is bad enough that many Americans are inexcusably ignorant of their nation’s history, but it is even worse when those in power want to get it wrong. I am referring to the decision in Texas last year to revise history curriculum in public schools. You know, the decision where they wanted to remove Thomas Jefferson from textbooks. Also there was the recent proposition in Tennessee by Tea Party lawmakers to revise the curriculum in order to make the Founding Fathers more appealing, glossing over their involvement in slavery, their displacement of native people, etc. I’m afraid the Tea Party version of the Founding Fathers does not really line up with the version that existed in reality. Every history in every nation is filled with the good, bad, and ugly all of which must be embraced if we want to come as close to that truth thing Cicero was talking about as possible. We cannot pick and choose our history, and it is extremely dangerous to do so for our future generations’ sake. The secular saints that built our nation did a great deal of good, this is true, but they also did a great deal of bad, or what we view as bad (as we well should) in a twenty-first century mindset. The study of history is not selective.

Okay, I feel better, and now to supplement my mini-rant I present to you a video for Wolfgang Gartner’s “Illmerica” directed and animated by Ryan McNamara. McNamara creatively recounts the last four hundred years of American history in five minutes and forty seconds through animation reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python’s Flying Circus but on extra sinister steroids. McNamara presents our history in a way that would definitely go unapproved by the Texas Board of Education. The song is pretty awesome too. Check it out on Video Static here. It is really something else. I also recommend watching it several times so you can pick out all of the details like the Tesla (aka “Electric Jesus”) cameo. Good stuff.

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Filed under History, Miscellany, Music