My review of the new-ish National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., has been published by Apollo. Read it here and let me know what you think!
I’m thrilled to have an essay in the newly published collection Literary Cultures of the Civil War, edited by Timothy Sweet and published by the University of Georgia Press. My contribution, titled “Near Andersonville: Race and Place in Early American Regionalism,” offers a new reading of the role played by Civil War plots to parse racial boundaries in stories by Rebecca Harding Davis and Constance Fenimore Woolson. For more on the other contributions, check out the book’s site from UGA Press or read a snippet on Amazon.
On a blustery Sunday afternoon, we stopped inside DC’s National Portrait Gallery to take in a new exhibit of Alexander Gardner’s photographs. The Gardner exhibit is the latest in a series of truly stellar presentations of Civil War materials occasioned by the war’s sesquicentennial at the Portrait Gallery; as if informed by the historic building’s own Civil War past life (it served as a hospital and the site of Lincoln’s second inaugural ball–plus both Clara Barton and Walt Whitman worked in the building at various times), curators have pulled together a tremendous series of exhibits that explore the war’s ongoing impact on the American people. The Gardner exhibit continues this record of excellence.
Taking up a large portion of a wing on the museum’s second floor, the exhibit gives the viewer a thorough introduction to the enigmatic and still underappreciated work of Gardner, who began his career as an assistant of Mathew Brady and whose work is still trapped in Brady’s long shadow. “Dark Fields of the Republic” makes a strong case for why Gardner deserves to emerge from this shadow: his battlefield photos, portraits of Civil War luminaries (particularly Lincoln), and later work documenting Native Americans in the West is both visually arresting and fascinating from the perspective of narrative. For instance, Gardner took a series of photos immediately after the war’s conclusion that staged the men who found John Wilkes Booth planning their raid, or victorious Union generals huddled around a map, recreating a moment when the war’s outcome was not ordained. These images speak to the narrative quality of photographs in the nineteenth century–photographs were not expected to necessarily represent the reality of whatever they capture in the frame, but were manipulable images that imparted stories.
We can see, therefore, how Gardner and his assistants believed that moving around dead bodies on a battlefield and arranging them artistically to tell a story was an acceptable action, as Gardner is believed to have done when photographing the aftermath of Gettysburg. The interpretive captions accompanying the Gettysburg photos convey the nuances of this controversy. But perhaps even more explanation is generated by seeing so much of Gardner’s work placed in chronological order: it’s fairly easy to see how a man who began by taking stagey photographs of families and self-portraits in full frontiersman garb would find a photograph’s story more compelling than its adherence to realism.
Though his battlefield photos are undeniably (if problematically) moving, Gardner’s bread and butter was his portraiture. His most famous portrait is part of the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection: the cracked plate portrait of the President, taken a few days before he was assassinated. The portrait is almost too laden with symbolism, with the weight of history, to derive much about Lincoln himself from it, but in Gardner’s other sittings with the president, there is wryness in the mouth, a familiarity in the way the eyeglasses are held, that bring Lincoln back to life. It’s wonderful to have all the Lincoln portraits together, and even more wonderful that the museum has put on display Gardner’s original glass-plate negative of an 1863 Lincoln portrait. Gardner, as the caption describes, was a master of evenly distributing collodion over the plate, resulting in the beautiful clarity of his images.
After the war, Gardner moved West, documenting Native American ways of life that were all to quickly disappearing. As the exhibit is presented, this westward movement is all part of the same gesture of U.S. empire preservation and extension, at all costs. Eventually, Gardner moved back East and gave up photography. Yet his images endure, as in his moving Photographic Sketch Book of the War (1865-66). The Sketch Book tells a story not unlike the one of Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces, a chronological rendering of the Civil War that attempts to find meaning in the country’s moment of precarity. Committed to narrativizing history, Gardner’s photographs remain enduring glimpses of a period that is always under revision, like the country they attempt to represent.
“Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs 1859-1872” is open at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, until March 16, 2016.
As summer waned, my mother and my toddler son and I drove up from Washington, DC, to Amherst, Massachusetts. We were there to attend the annual meeting of the Emily Dickinson International Society, a meeting that I admit I mostly wanted to attend so that I would have an excuse to visit Emilyland. And Emilyland, for the most part, lived up to expectations. As the warm days gave way to a brightness tinged with cool, we got to know Amherst; took in its rolling hills; appreciated the contrast of blue skies and green woods; ate ice cream with the cows that had so generously provided their milk lowing right beside us, staring us down.
The epicenter of Emilyland is two homes just off the edge of the Amherst College campus (which Emily’s grandfather helped to found), as you near the railroad tracks (which Emily’s father brought to town). They are the Evergreens (built for and lived in by Emily’s older brother Austin) and the Homestead, Dickinson’s home for much of her life, and the place where she died. I am far from the first to note the stark differences between the homes in both outward appearance and interior décor: the Evergreens is an Italianate extravaganza that remains, to this day, stuffed to the gills with Austin and his family’s personal effects. The Homestead, meanwhile, is a stoic and unassuming (though still quite large) New England house with very little of the Dickinsons left inside. What you learn about the Dickinsons there must be assumed from the architecture, the placement of the walls and windows: Emily’s face the street, where she would have had a grand view back into town and toward all the visitors coming and going from the railroad station. So much for the recluse of Amherst.
Like so many historic sites, the Evergreens and the Homestead are under constant reappraisal in terms of what they present to world about one of its most elusive poets, and how they can most authentically represent her life. At the meeting, we got a taste of these reappraisals in a presentation by the director of the site. She described the decision-making behind trees being removed from the Evergreens yard and colors of paint on the houses, among other minute but vital details that many visitors may never notice but that nonetheless inflect their experiences.
My own visit to the museum took place on a sunny Saturday afternoon after the bulk of the meeting had taken place. My mom kindly offered to look after my son for a few hours while I went on the deluxe tour of both houses. As the sprightly and knowledgeable docent led a group of five or six of us through the rooms sparse (in the Homestead) and cluttered (in the Evergreens), I tried to catch glimpses of the poet. I saw her, fleetingly, in the diminutive white dress on display outside her room, a replica of a decaying original—though I prefer picturing her wearing with it the “blue net worsted shawl” with which she greeted Thomas Wentworth Higginson. (My Emily is nothing if not colorful.) Her bedroom was being renovated when I visited, but I saw her at the window, admiring the trees, admonishing the wind, writing a missive to a friend.
She was nearly impossible to find at the Evergreens, that ornate Victorian pile, though there was plenty on display of Sue and Austin and their children and even Mabel Loomis Todd. (And when our tour guide failed to mention the affair between Todd and Austin Dickinson, I was one of several tour participants who urged her to share the lurid details. We knew our Dickinson family lore.)
The place I really found Emily Dickinson, though, was in her celebrated garden. It’s little wonder, of course. Her skills as a botanist have been lauded; her herbarium strikes us now as having the same sparse crystallized beauty and attention to detail as her poems; she sent flowers like plucked ambassadors to friends. Emily’s garden today is not as extensive as it was in her day, but it’s still beautiful, and sloping, and wild in the right places.
My son loved it, too. He played and played among the colors of late summer. He even insisted on bringing a pinecone from Dickinson’s garden with us when we left, which he promptly started gnawing on in his stroller. I have a feeling Emily, who sent baskets of her famous baked goods out her window and down to the neighborhood children, wouldn’t have minded.
Before we left town, we walked from downtown Amherst a short way to Emily Dickinson’s grave. The poet left famously particular instructions for her own funeral. She wanted to be carried out of the back of the Homestead through the garden and the barn and the meadows to her resting place in West Cemetery. Those meadows are now unassuming neighborhoods, but the pilgrimage is moving nonetheless.
I’ve known Dickinson’s poetry for as long as I can remember. How does visiting her lifelong home inflect that knowledge? Finding Dickinson in Amherst grounds her in an actual geographical space, a house and a town and a region, that defy scholars’ and biographers’ longtime emphasis on her immateriality, her presence as a “fugitive in time and space,” as Jane Donohue Eberwein puts it. More recent scholarship has returned Emily to her world, showing that she was informed by and a participant in the culture that she was so long thought to be apart from. My own scholarship, on Dickinson’s Civil War poetry, participates in this movement to read Dickinson’s poetry (and, as always seems to be the case with her, Dickinson herself) as grounded in the circumstances of her time, even as she found utterly new ways of attaching certain words and syntaxes to those circumstances.
Dickinson’s geographical imagination is vast, and her poetry’s ability to traverse scales of distance is unparalleled. At the same time, Amherst is her Milliarium Aureum, the point from which all her distances were measured. (“If I could bribe them by a Rose / I’d bring them every flower that grows / From Amherst to Cashmere!” she wrote (Fr176)). And elsewhere, this:
What is – “Paradise” –
Who live there –
Are they “Farmers” –
Do they “hoe” –
Do they know that this is “Amherst” –
And that I – am coming – too – (Fr241)
But a word that appears far more often in her poems than “Amherst” is “home.” Dickinson, of course, was always uneasy about the idea of home. She asked Thomas Wentworth Higginson, when he visited her at the Homestead, “Could you tell me what home is?” At the Homestead today, you find Emily and lose her; you see her white dress and confront the impossibility that a small, chestnut-haired woman named Emily Dickinson ever wore it. In the garden, among the flowers and the trees, there is more of her: something in the wind, gentle and menacing, something we know to be true and cannot grasp.
Further Reading: The website of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst; Emily Dickinson and Gardening; Eberwein, Jane Donahue. “Dickinson’s Local, Global, and Cosmic Perspectives.” The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: UMass Press, 1998.
This article by literary historian Kim Roberts, who documents the oftentimes obscured and vanishing places where writers lived in DC, reminded me of my own search for a now-forgotten writer in one of DC’s most famous neighborhoods. It’s not often that I get to do a bit of literary sleuthing, but searching for what’s left of E.D.E.N. Southworth in Georgetown feels that way, because her presence has been so neatly eviscerated. Southworth (that’s Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte, for those not in the know) was one of the most popular authors of romance in the nineteenth century. She wrote more than 60 novels with some pretty phenomenal names that would not at all sound out of place as Lifetime movies (Cruel as the Grave; Tried for her Life; Retribution). The plots of these novels are equally fantastic: characters cross dress and rise from the grave; they encounter Confederate pirates off the coast of Africa; they start their lives as penniless orphans and inevitably become adopted by fabulously wealthy men. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Southworth was a literary star, so much so that her home in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., became a tourist site.
Southworth died in 1899, just on the cusp of the twentieth century, and with that new century Southworth’s literary legacy was steadily forgotten. Her Georgetown home, a quaint cottage with gingerbread house-like gabling, was torn down. Like Richards, I often walk or drive past the site where the home stood (on the bluffs near Georgetown University overlooking what’s now Key Bridge and the Potomac—basically at the top of the infamous Exorcist Stairs) and think about Southworth. What remarkable knowledge she would have had of the river, of the bridge (it was the Aqueduct Bridge then), of all the goings on of her neighborhood.
One day a few years ago I decided to track down the little bit of Southworth that’s left in Georgetown: her gravesite. When Southworth died in 1899 she was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, a lovely spot on the edge of Georgetown leading down into Rock Creek Park. Several famous people are buried there, including Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Washington Post editor Katherine Graham, and several miscellaneous Civil War generals. Also buried there, for a few years, was Lincoln’s son Willie, who died in February 1862. (Lincoln often visited the quiet spot where Willie was buried, on a hill at the edge of the cemetery overlooking Rock Creek, and even though Willie was exhumed in 1865 to travel back to Illinois with his father, visitors still leave pennies on the site of his first burial.)
Southworth’s grave is marked on a map of the cemetery, so I figured she’d be fairly easy to track down, but the size of the cemetery and the fact that the section she’s buried in is overgrown made it quite difficult. Eventually I found a gravestone in about the right spot, but couldn’t make out the words on it; using my finger, I traced the letters engraved on it: E.D.E.N. This was it.
A few months later, I took my friends Jon and Brigitte to see Southworth’s grave (and thank God for grad school friends who are also obsessive over nineteenth-century minutiae). Jon thinks and writes about paper and printing, which came in handy as we again tried to make out the letters on Southworth’s grave. We didn’t bring rubbing papers, but Jon rubbed some dirt into the stone which instantly made the sunken letters appear.
Southworth’s novels are brilliant, swashbuckling, fun reads, and they’re also incredibly subversive of nineteenth-century gender roles. Thankfully, literary critics have finally begun to acknowledge Southworth’s influence, and her work has gained new attention in scholarly circles. I often stumble upon copies of her novels in antique malls, languishing unread among the other forgotten books of long ago. Southworth may be difficult to find in Georgetown, her beloved home, but her words remain—if you know where to look.
Further Reading: For critical takes on Southworth’s novels, see Melissa Homestead and Pamela Washington, eds., E.D.E.N. Southworth: Recovering a Nineteenth-Century Popular Novelist. For more on the Southworth cottage in Georgetown, see Ghosts of DC. For more general information on Southworth, see Paul Jones’s blog Southworthiana.
I’ve been following the developments around PBS’s new dramatic miniseries Mercy Street since the project was announced, for two reasons: (1) I study and write about the Civil War. (2) I live in the town where the series is set, Alexandria, Virginia. I’d like the series to succeed, to be good, or perhaps just to be entertaining like the series whose viewers it’s meant to appeal to: Downton Abbey. There’s certainly plenty of dramatic fodder in Civil War-era Alexandria: a Southern port city occupied by Northern forces for the entirety of the war, Alexandria was close enough to both DC and the front lines of the war’s fighting to see its share of death and injury and ruin. Moreover, as Mercy Street‘s co-creator states in this Washington Post interview, the city became a haven for runaway slaves–“contraband of war”–who sought refuge behind Union lines, only to find the government largely unwilling to care for them.
To my mind, it’s the confluence of these factors of geography and influence and power and need that make Alexandria such a fascinating, hopeful, terrible place during the Civil War. Nowhere else was quite like it. In the WaPo interview, Lisa Wolfinger seems to have a pretty good grasp of Alexandria’s unique position during the war, but the accompanying preview runs through a series of what amount to hospital drama cliches viewed through a sepia-tinted Civil War filter: the inexperienced female nurse, the headstrong surgeon, the guy with More Medical Knowledge Than He Lets On, the total jerk surgeon. (Paging E.R.’s Dr. Romano! And watch out for that helicopter!)
Plenty of other places near the front lines of battle (and there were battles LOTS OF PLACES) had hospitals, and if it’s just trying to be E.R. with Hoop Skirts, Mercy Street could take place in any of them. What I’m hoping is that the writers and producers do justice to the reality of Alexandria during the war, which means doing justice to the African American experience of Alexandria during the war. There’s only one African American actor (McKinley Belcher III) who describes his role in the preview video–that of a laborer from Philadelphia who grew up in the house of a physician and therefore has medical knowledge that it seems will be gradually revealed to the doctors and nurses. Ok, cool. The official press release on the series mentions one other black character by name, “Aurelia Johnson, a beautiful, stoical ‘contraband’ working as a laundress at the hospital, and trying to bury her past.” It will be really interesting to see, once the series airs, if these characters can surmount these cliched descriptions. (Does every African American character really need to have a Deep Dark Secret?) The simple fact is that most of the contraband people in Alexandria weren’t beautiful and stoical: they were forced to live in overcrowded camps in appalling conditions, face the constant threats of disease and starvation, and deal with systemic racism, all while living in an active war zone.
I very much hope Mercy Street does justice to that reality, so that its setting in Alexandria isn’t just so much pretty scene dressing. (I’m encouraged that one of their consultants was Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum.) I hope that the series confront Alexandria’s African American history, that it represents the remarkable aid work of women like Harriet Jacobs and Julia Wilbur, and the creation of the Toussaint L’Ouverture Hospital, built specifically for the treatment of injured African American troops as well as contraband civilians. I hope in particular that the series deals with the petition signed by patients at L’Ouverture Hospital to insist that black troops who had given their lives to the Union cause should be buried alongside white troops in Alexandria’s National Cemetery. (I intend to write more about this petition in another blog entry, because it’s a vital and all-but-forgotten moment in the history of black protest.) I hope it’s not just trading in tired cliches, but actually digging into the complicated, thorny, painful reality of Alexandria’s past. Come January 2016, we’ll see.
Further Reading: For first-hand accounts of Alexandria and its contraband population during the Civil War, read Harriet Jacobs’s reporting in The Freedmen’s Journal or her friend Julia Wilbur’s astonishingly detailed diary (a PDF of the whole thing can be found here). For more on the L’Ouverture Hospital petition, check out the Friends of the Freedmen’s Cemetery site. A new memorial was dedicated at Alexandria’s Freedmen’s Cemetery just last year; read about the historical work that identified the site of the cemetery here.