Category Archives: Fiction

A Bit of Mad Libs, A little practicality and a little fun

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Every semester it is one of my favorite assignments.  In asking students to start to recognize the vocabulary that can help them place a Vita (translation: Life–as in an early form of biography that often focused less on accuracy and more on example or political commentary) in the appropriate era, I have them select an era and then draw up a list of words, Mad Libs style, that would be appropriate for a Vita from that era.

Below, are examples from this semester with my commentary:

Roman

The virile man was cunning.  He conquered other nations. 

He always ­delegated to Jupiter in the morning earning

the admiration of Alexander.  When combat happened

in the noon he was the first to struck his Caesar.

This group included key figures/deities that would indicate a Roman text, as well as focusing on the admirable traits of a Roman leader: virile, cunning, conquering, striking–in other words, strong, clever, and militant.

Carolingian

The literate man was educated.  He copied other nations. 

He always ­converting to Charles in the morning earning

the admiration of Missi.  When the crowned emperor happened

in the death of Charlemagne he was the first to defend his Carolingians.

This group selected the Carolingian era, for which they read an excerpt of Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne.  This is rather different from the Late Antique-era Vitae which focused more on holy men and women with a special emphasis on martyrdom, conversions and miracles, or withdrawal from the world.  The Carolingian Vita–and especially Einhard’s–is deliberately copying the Roman tradition of Vitae.  This group, however, chose to focus on the particular marks of Charlmagne’s reign: education and literacy, copying of texts (though in the Mad Libs, this meaning was changed considerably), conversion and defense of the Church and empire.  It also included important Carolingian features and events, such as the Missi who were the messengers of the king, distributing his capitularies (laws) and charters, and the crowning of Charlemagne as the new emperor by the pope.

Roman

The hearty of service man was master of good will.  He overpowered other nations. 

He always ­surpassed to Caesar in the morning earning

the admiration of soldiers.  When assault happened

in the nighttime he was the first to die his orator.

Here, again, is a Roman example.  This one also focuses on virtues of a leader including a permissible goodness, strong military career–including the admiration of soldiers–and a touch of the Hellenistic or possibly a nod to the typical career-building of the Roman elite (or both) in identifying him also as an orator.

Late Antique

The blessed man was arrogant.  He granted other nations. 

He always ­relinquished to Jesus in the morning earning

the admiration of martyrs.  When persecution happened

in the Easter he was the first to overthrow his bishop.

This one is a little confused merging historical interests of the Late Antique writers, such as Gregory of Tours, and the holy-man/martyr-Vita.  If one discounts the use of “arrogant” and “overthrow” in this sample, one can see the clear use of Late Antique preoccupations in their Vitae: blessed men (and occasionally women), relinquishing worldly possessions and goals, devotion to Jesus, willing martyrs in the face of persecution, the importance of Easter, and the significance of stable church offices, such as the bishops, in the face of great change and threat of violence in a post-Roman Empire world.  Historians of the era, on the other hand, often discussed the violence of the newly arrived peoples–particularly that of fratricide among Frankish princes in order to secure a larger cut of the kingdoms they inherited.  This may explain the incongruous additions of “arrogant” and “overthrow”–unless their Vita was a conversion story, of course.

Carolingians

The strong man was controlling.  He reinstated other nations.

He always ­sent to the Merovingians in the morning earning

the admiration of missis.  When the Battle of Tours happened

in the Treaty of Verdun he was the first to convert his Carolingians.

And, finally, another Carolingian mock Vita.  This group focused less on Charlemagne’s renovatio (the word the Carolingians used to describe their own program–what many scholars today call the Carolingian Renaissance) and more on the type of leader Charlemagne was: strong and controlling, trying to convert the Saxons.  They still include the renovatio in the verb “reinstated” as many Roman and Church traditions, in addition to the education programs, were attempted.  This group references the Carolingians fellow-Frankish dynastic predecessors: the Merovingians, including (I think) their glorious campaign by Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles “the Hammer” Martel, the Battle of Tours (they mean Poitiers, though, unless this is just a convenient place name to describe a battle which could have taken place) which drove the Muslim advance out of Gaul (modern day France) and back into Spain.  They leap forward then to the later Treaty of Verdun signed to attempt an amicable division of territory between Charlemagne’s grandchildren–it would not last.

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A festive lesson plan (via Mental Floss)

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9 Holiday Characters From Around the World – Mental Floss is a quick review of the various other Christmas characters in the western world.  I teach Western Civilization and am well aware of the connectedness of European and American culture.  Given that fact, the variety of the theme is remarkable.

Sadly, Mental Floss is not in the habit of citing their sources on these lists.  Still, universities in this country teach about these cultures in their foreign language departments and may well provide some additional information.  I think it is worth it–this is a nifty cultural lesson.  It relates back to an old theme shared by Sam Weinburg and this blog, among many others, about the challenges of grappling with the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Below, I describe a lesson plan emphasizing these things.  It is written for a classroom, but easily adapted into a homeschooling lesson plan.

Suggested lesson plan (outline):

Introduction:  Have each student describe their family’s Christmas traditions (note, these do not need to be religious traditions, obviously, if you feel more comfortable you can phrase it based on what students’ families do on their winter breaks)–do this by having each free write for five minutes or break the class into small groups and have each share with his or her group, then have someone from each group describe someone else’s family tradition. (It is worth keeping in mind that a student may not have a family tradition for the Christmas holidays because of religion, personal tragedy, or different cultural background.  This does not mean you shouldn’t do the exercise!  This is as important and valuable a learning experience as the others!!!  The greater diversity in your classroom the greater the opportunity students will have to learn from each other!  Also, remember that Santa Claus is almost entirely secular in the U.S.)

Activity 1:  Assign the reading from Mental Floss, provided in the link above.  Ask students to each read the whole article, or break it down so that each student reads one of the descriptions, or make small groups in which they each group reads three of the character descriptions.

Activity 2:  If you haven’t already, break the students into small groups.  These can be the same as the previous activity or entirely new groups.  Unless they all read the same thing, have each student describe what they read.  Then have each group answer these questions (adjust as needed for age or experience):

  1. Which continents do these traditions come from?
  2. What religions celebrate Christmas?
  3. Is there a connection between the answer of question 1 and the answer of question 2?
  4. What do these characters have in common (how they look, how they act, time of year in which they appear)?
  5. How are these characters different  (how they look, how they act, time of year in which they appear)?

Reflection:  For either a brief reflective essay or a brief reflective discussion ask students to answer the following: Why do you think we have so many different traditions for the same holiday?

Santa on the sleigh

From here a homework assignment could be made for further research into the different cultures and the character featured–and other cultural Christmas characters could be added, perhaps even as the result of the student discussion of Christmas (or winter break) traditions.  Ideally, this results in a feast with information about the cultures represented and their winter holiday traditions, such as games, music and songs, etc.  One might also just as easily make the next assignment about the class’s research of itself by having each student share more about their own family traditions and history.

American culture came out of European culture and for all of their similarities this reading helps illustrate the limits of the cultural similitude while nonetheless emphasizing the cohesion in comparison with the rest of the world.  This is an important point to learn from the exercise though it will probably resonate more with older students who have had more history exposure or to a particularly diverse class that is roundly international.  The follow-up exercise options described immediately above will be more appropriate depending on the class age and level of exposure, so adjust accordingly.

This lesson plan is designed to work on the following skills:

  • reading
  • writing
  • oral and aural communication: speaking and listening
  • historical thinking: making connections based on history knowledge
  • cognitive thinking: drawing conclusions based on provided information, cause and effect

If you try this or variant of it, or if you have your own already existent lesson plan, please, share your experiences, below.

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Decoder Ring Theatre – Your Home for Adventure, Golden Age of Radio-style

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Decoder Ring Theatre is a new obsession of mine.  I found it by accident–one of those websites a friend liked and thus caught my attention, but it took me a while to actually explore it.  I was thrilled with it when I finally did so.

Even when I was a kid, I had a fondness for old timey radio programs.  Maybe it was because I wasn’t allowed to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings and so watched old school westerns.  Maybe it was because I used to watch the old Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.  Maybe it was my interest in the Green Hornet, which I followed in comic books.  Hard to say, really.  Hard to know what led to the other, too.

The programming available on Decoder Ring Theatre is the style of the old noir detective shows and superhero programs from the Golden Age of Radio.  I heart Black Jack Justice and his fellow-P.I. Trixie Dixon, girl detective.  I most enjoy those shows, but the real superhero is the Red Panda and his sidekick Flying Squirrel who keep the streets of Toronto safe from mad villains in the 1930s.  Each pair has their own show that can be downloaded as a podcast or played on your computer and smart devices.

The style of the shows are in the classic style of radio dramas, before TVs largely replaced the medium.  (And yet, coming full circle, perhaps, so many of us seek out the book-on-tape option to sneak texts into our busy lives.)  Certain aspects, common in this early style of story-types, whether in comic book, pulp fiction, dime novels, or radio programs, have been modernized.  The women are not uniformly helpless–in fact, Trixie Dixon, while still a knockout worthy of centerfold, is a pretty darn tough gun-toting sleuth, and the Flying Squirrel can rumble with any back-alley thug–and have key roles to play in the crime fighting and detecting.

This factor makes them rather more palatable than some of the classics they otherwise emulate.   While the programming is genuinely entertaining, the era is also recreated in an accessible manner.  For this reason, I think they have real potential in education.  Not only do they reproduce the era in their sordid tales of crime and justice, they also reproduce one of the major cultural experiences of the era: radio programming entertainment and news.  So, you could create a playlist that the students can access using one of Franklin Roosevelt’s Fire Side Chats and one of the shows from Decoder Ring Theatre.

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I wholeheartedly approve of teaching about other eras through experiences.  Reproducing the later years of the Depression through role-playing in built-in class scenarios is an excellent way to bring home the difficulties of the age.  For example, you could easily set aside a couple of classes and recreate the 1930s life within a scenario such as a town hall meeting or recreate a social gathering.  You could also recreate a fictional town and assign each student a character with a particular goal, for example:

  1. a few characters with different backgrounds can each search for a job from other classmates who own businesses
  2. several standard business-owners: bank, grocery, newspaper, etc.
  3. pick a blue-collar industry that supports the town and have the various roles filled: owner, foreman, workers
  4. standard town services: police, postman, doctor, etc.
  5. CCC/WPA project workers

In this way, the Decoder Ring Theatre could actually be assigned as homework along with a handful of other leisure activities that fit the bill–marbles and other games, baseball or football games on the radio, newspapers and comics, etc.  Other activities could be done in the class, such as canning–yes, I’m serious, just find a parent with a hot plate and a pressure-canner–sewing old clothes into new sizes (like letting a pair of pants out for someone who is growing or shortening them for a younger sibling), watch a news reel and movie from the era, hold a pot luck and have everyone bring in Depression-era recipes, etc.

Experiences are a great way to bring things home to students.  When a student takes on the role of a character, the real-life troubles of the character become much more real to him or her.  Assign primary sources to help the characters come alive.  And, leverage student interests–one of the real values of this approach to teaching.  If Suzy plays the trumpet she can take a look at the music of the era and be a musician as with other types of artists, many of who were specifically sought out by various federal programs.  If Carl is into cars, then make him a Packard dealer or a mechanic and let him study the historic forerunners of today’s automobiles.  Etcetera, etcetera.  Help them learn and get excited about it.  It’s ok if they have fun!  *wink*

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Last minute costume ideas from the vaults of history, ’12 edition

Last year’s last minute costume ideas went over pretty well, so I thought I’d revisit it: soooo, whatcha gonna wear for Halloween, tonight?  Here is my top 5 list of last minute history-inspired costumes for 2012:

1. Templar knight

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What you need: An old white top sheet; grey sweats (top–with hood!–and bottoms); belt; boots; sword or lance; additional white sheet (optional).

What to do:  Take your white sheet and cut a hole in the middle large enough to fit over your head, and again on either side to create a narrow scapular–shoulder-width, touching your boots in the front and back, and belt this over top your grey sweat suit (make sure the hood is out).  You should paint a red cross on the chest and back of the white sheet.  If you have the additional sheet, it is your cloak.  Wear it around you and paint additional red crosses on it where it meets in the chest.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  “Beau Seant!”  It is hypothesized by one scholar that this may have been the Templar battle cry, meaning in the medieval French something akin to “Be noble!” or “Be Glorious!” (The author in question, John J. Robinson, is loosely a scholar, and should be regarded warily, but this is for Halloween not your dissertation, so we’ll go along with it for now.)

Historical accuracies: 1) While a knight would have worn chain mail and not sweats, the basic design of the “uniform” is the same. 2) Medieval French–it’s what many Templars would have spoken, and their banner was certainly called a Beauseant.

2. American soldier, War of 1812

What you need:  Blue shirt or jacket; white or khaki pants; black boots; with gaiters (can be made with black duct tape or construction paper); gold construction paper for trim (optional); musket (could be improvised with a broom stick spray-painted silver and a wooden or cardboard stock); leather shoulder bag for cartridges.

What to do:  If you want to be an authentic soldier at the outset of the war, your going to need the gold frippery, but it wasn’t long before the U.S. government couldn’t afford to provide all the extras on the uniforms and began issuing them without the extras.  So, you could basically pull it off with navy blue shirt and blue or grey pants, if you can’t scare up a pair of khaki cargo pants (after all, it isn’t the ’90s anymore).  If you like the frippery–which is nifty, certainly–then cut up some gold construction paper in the pattern you see above.  If you smudge some “dirt” on your face you can claim you lost your hat in battle and forgo that step–though, the government will take the cost of the hat out of your already-months-late pay.  Sling the cartridge bag over your shoulder and keep your musket close at hand!

What to say when someone asks who you are:  “Remember the Raisin!

Historical accuracies:  1) I already explained the historic changes in the uniform.  2)  Yep, that’s right, the Raisin:  A river in Michigan, and the sight of the bloody defeat of American forces.  If you live in the Chesapeake Bay area, you may just want to holler, “Remember the capital!”  I just don’t know if that is as fun as remembering the Raisin. 3) While we had a rifle contingent at this time, the bulk of the army went to war with muskets.

3. Phillis Wheatley

What you need:  A dress–long-sleeved and floor length, a bonnet, a shawl (optional), an apron, a Bible or book of classical Greek or Roman literature–i.e. Homer, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or Horace (optional).

What to do:  Get dressed, apron goes on the outside.  Carry the book with you wherever you go.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,/May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” (“On Being brought from Africa to America,” by Phillis Wheatley)

Historical accuracies:  1) Phillis Wheatley was a colonial era slave and poet, extensively educated by the family who owned her and wrote complicated poetry about America’s slavery institution, full of literary allusions from the Bible and  classical  Rome and Greece.  2) She was well-read particularly of the Bible and Greek and Roman classics.  3) She was a successful poet, though many doubted a slave capable of her poetic production.

4. Viking

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What you need:  A grey sweat suit; a long, large grey t-shirt–hanging to mid-thigh or knees; a belt; a grey ball cap or skull cap; axe, sword, or spear; large round disc–either card board spray-painted grey/silver, or similar; a large sack full of books, gold, jewels, or any other stuffing to make it look full of loot (optional)

What to do:  Put on the sweat suit, then the over-sized t-shirt, after you’ve removed the sleeves, and belt it.  If you have a grey ball-cap cut the bill off of it or simply wear the skull cap.  Make your shield and carry it along with your weapon.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  “Valhalla!

Historical accuracies:  1) Vikings wore chain-mail–if you have a kilt or animal skin that you can wear like a kilt, this would probably be more accurate, but maybe it’s cold outside, tonight.  2) Vikings would not have worn horns on their helms.  So, unless you are going as an opera viking or a Minnesotan viking, forgo the horns.  3) Vikings carried a simple round wooden shield–if they carried one at all.  You may forgo the shield to carry the sack–remember, the vikings were robbers and marauders from the sea (or, from Scandinavia  by way of the most convenient waterway).  4)  Valhalla was the sacred mead hall of heaven reserved for warriors who died gloriously.

5. Rosie the Riveter

From the Rosie the Riveter Trust; http://www.rosietheriveter.org

What you need:  Blue button-down, collared, long-sleeve shirt; blue work pants; red hankerchief.

What to do:  Put your clothes on.  Roll your sleeves up and tie the red bandanna on your head, with the bow on the top.

What to say when someone asks who you are:  “We can do it!”  (And, show your guns off while you say it!)

Historical accuracies:  1) This is obviously the image from the famous WWII propaganda poster highlighting the blue-collar work of women on the homefront during the war.  2) Blue collar variations could include tools or welding helmets, etc. as women worked in various “manly” positions so “our boys could go off and fight the war.”

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Batwoman: Or, the times they are a-changing

My evolution in “Bat-tastes” and society’s evolution on being gay

Growing up, I did not watch the Saturday morning cartoons many of my friends watched.  When I came home from school, however, I did often catch reruns of the classic episodes of Batman.  The 1960s show featuring Adam West and Burt Ward, as Batman and Robin was goofy and brilliant all at the same time.  (Even if it was at times awful, I still have a fondness for it and a nostalgia for one of my elementary school-aged favorites.  Around the same time, I was also watching The RiflemanGunsmoke, and Ponderosa reruns on Saturday mornings.)

It was much later before I got into comic books and, even then, I was never a seriously devoted fan–too expensive for me, and too difficult too maintain, though I have kept my small, humble collection still to this day.  While, I was always interested in the Detective Comics I was daunted by the vast size of the collection and skeptical about being able to keep up or follow along.  As a result, I was more of a Marvel-made X-Men fan.  (Comic book fans will recognize that this doesn’t actually make sense, as Professor X’s X-Men had a long story-line, as well, and it would be little different as far as “jumping in media res” was concerned, but somehow it made sense to my junior high brain.)

I find myself finally swinging back to Batman and DC Comics–the comic book company that publishes the Batman storylines, including the longstanding series Detective Comics–thanks to the newly recreated Batwoman.  Ruminating on her original introduction and comparing it with her reintroduction is an interesting demonstration of cultural evolution.

The Bat-woman’s debut, Detective Comics Issue #233, July 1956

Batwoman was the first new “Bat” in the Batman family.  She was introduced in response to allegations that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson had a romantic relationship.  In the 1950s, this could cause a great deal of trouble.  Comics had to be approved for content as they were believed to be children’s lit and suspiciously regarded as [potentially] dangerously subversive.

U.S. Congress got involved, investigating juvenile delinquency in a Senate subcommittee and any potential role comics may have played in the phenomena.  (Check out some of the texts/artifacts from this investigation held in the National Archives.)  Self-regulation was instituted by the comic book industry to protect itself from outside censorship, effectively creating self-censorship.  This is more or less how we get the Bat-woman in Detective Comics issue #233 in July of 1956 (the success of Superwoman didn’t hurt, either):  In 1954’s Seduction of the Innocent (published in the same year as the self-imposed Comic Code Authority), Frederic Wertham let fly the allegation that Bruce and Dick were a homosexual item.

The Bat-woman was, thus, not only a female heroine, she was a love interest for Batman.  So, clearly, Batman was not gay.  Here, was a romantic foil for him: the large-breasted, buttoned-to-the-collar, utility-purse-wielding, motor-cycle-riding love interest.  Here was a crime-fighting woman, an effeminate and shapely “champion of the law” to be his “great rival … the mysterious and glamorous girl.”  (Detective Comics, #233, July 1956)

Is it not interesting that in her re-introduction to the comic world in 2006 she is a lesbian; indeed, a would-be Army soldier ousted from West Point under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy (introduced in 1993).  In her new incarnation, she is depicted as a model West Point cadet at the top of her class, ousted by the accusation of “homosexual conduct.”  While she is given an out by her supervisor, she chooses to be guided by the West Point code, instead: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”  This effectively ends her career as a U.S. Army soldier, setting her on the path towards Batwoman.  She is driven by personal loss and a desire to serve–a career she was deprived of in the military.  Hooah.

Army issue comic for administering “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, 2001
(Comics with Problems)

In this context, it seems ironic to me that the Army released a comic book in 2001 on its policies regarding DADT.  (Comics with Problems)  The medium seems destined to portray our national debate or sensibilities on the subject.  It has certainly always been an art-form that has  idolized and aggrandized the human body.  To the extent that comic art can be sexually appealing to anyone, it certainly stands to reason that on this level, at least, a gay following would be as likely to develop as any other.  But, comic book heroes are also often struggling with their otherness, their separation from everyone else who does not have to hide their identity–a theme that is especially relevant and poignant to gay adolescents and adults.

Plus, comic books are relatively safe to read.  A teenage boy reading comic books will not call any attention to his alter-ego if he is in the closet.  Similarly, a girl reading Wonderwoman comics is likely to be safely empowered, but not obviously outed.  This may get trickier for the boy who prefers Wonderwoman to Superman, but even this can be done in safety, without threatening to unmask the fan’s identity.

It is the DC Universe’s constant question of identity, and the question of resulting isolation that resonates with many gay readers of comic book series.  (Marvel’s mutant X-Men treat this subject slightly differently, focusing on the biological “otherness” and persecution of mutant superheroes.)  But, it is the relatively recent decision to provide a greater pantheon of superheroes and seeks to give every reader challenged with isolation through “otherness” a hero in their like-identity that makes the new Batwoman storyline a sort of redemption of the original Bat-woman.  Where  there was originally fear of Batman representing an “other,” there is now the deliberate embrace of that exact “otherness.”  Instead of the Bat-woman saving Batman from accusations of lust for Robin, the new Batwoman is about saving Gotham City (she just happens to be falling in love with women, too).

Batwoman in the 21st century

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The telling works of Phillis Wheatley

image

Phillis Wheatley statue in the Old South Meeting House (Boston)

While in Boston earlier this August, I had occasion to pick up an Applewood Books publication of Phillis Wheatley’s poems, Poems of Phillis Wheatley, A native African and slave.  The significance of this particular publication over other collections of Wheatley’s poetry is that Applewood Books specializes in reprinting historical American works, so not only do I have the poems themselves, but also the editor’s note emphasizing that the poems are indeed the work of an African-born American slave–complete with the names of notable Bostonians who will vouch for her and the promise that a copy of their Attestation with their original signatures may be found by applying to “Archibald Bell, Bookseller, No. 8, Aldgate Street.”

I enjoy these features.  It gives context and color to the poems included in this collection.  Beyond this, I am impressed with the range of themes and intertextual allusions in the poetry itself.  It is clear, that while she was a slave, the relationship between slave and master is very different from the one we often hear or think about.  It is also clear that the same relationship and Wheatley’s success could be used to justify slavery as a liberation from savagery [in Africa].  Indeed, some of her own poetry might be used as ammunition for just that.

I want to set this particular aspect of the discussion aside, for now, as it is illuminated much better by the more capable hands of other scholars.  I want to look at her poetry from the long perspective of a Western Civilization professor.  In this long view slavery has played a consistent role, but there other features revealed in Wheatley’s poetry that speak to the strength of other long-enduring legacies, clearly prioritized in her education.

Phillis Wheatley

To Mæcenas

     MÆCENAS, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o’er what poets sung, and shepherds play’d.
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Does not your soul possess the sacred flame?
Their noble strains your equal genius shares
In softer language, and diviner airs.

     While Homer paints, lo! circumfused in air,
Celestial Gods in mortal forms appear;
Swift as they move hear each recess rebound,
Heaven quakes, earth trembles, and the shores resound.
Great Sire of verse, before my mortal eyes,
The lightnings blaze across the vaulted skies,
And, as the thunder shakes the heavenly plains,
A deep-felt horror thrills through all my veins.
When gentler strains demand thy graceful song,
The lengthening line moves languishing along.
When great Patroclus courts Achilles‘ aid,
The grateful tribute of my tears is paid;
Prone on the shore he feels the pangs of love,
And stern Pelides‘ tenderest passions move.

     Great Maro‘s strain in heavenly numbers flows,
The Nine inspire, and all the bosom glows.
O could I rival thine and Virgil‘s page,
Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage;
Soon the same beauties should my mind adorn,
And the same ardors in my soul should burn:
Then should my song in bolder notes arise,
And all my numbers pleasingly surprise:
But here I sit, and mourn a groveling mind,
That fain would mount and ride upon the wind.

     Not you, my friend, these plaintive strains become,
Not you, whose bosom is the Muses’ home;
When they from tow’ring Helicon retire,
They fan in you the bright immortal fire;
But I less happy, cannot raise the song,
The fault’ring music dies upon my tongue.

     The happier Terence* all the choir inspired,
His soul replenish’d, and his bosom fired:
But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace,
To one alone of Afric’s sable race;
From age to age transmitting thus his name
With the finest glory in the rolls of fame?

*He was an African by birth.

     Thy virtues, great Maecenas! shall be sung
In praise of him, from whom those virtues sprung:
While blooming wreaths around thy temples spread,
I’ll snatch a laurel from thine honour’d head,
While you, indulgent, smile upon the deed.

     As long as Thames in streams majestic flows,
Or Naiads in the oozy beds repose
While Phœbus reigns above the starry train
While bright Aurora purples o’er the main,
So long, great Sir, the muse thy praise shall sing,
So long thy praise shal’ make Parnassus ring:
Then grant, Maecenas, thy paternal rays,
Hear me propitious, and defend my lays.

This is a complex poem.  Lacking a knowledge of classic literature, however, would make it far more complicated, still.  In the opening pages of the book, her slave master John Wheatley, acknowledges that he bought her when she was brought to America in 1761 at age 7 or 8.  In sixteen months time, she had a knowledge of English, “to such a degree as to read any, the most difficult parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great astonishment of all who heard her.”  (John Wheatley, a letter to the publisher included in the first publication of Wheatley’s poems, dated in Boston, Nov. 14, 1772)  He further acknowledged that she acquired no schooling outside what the family provided her, led by her own curiosity.

John Wheatley also explains that Phillis was interested and had an inclination for Latin.  In “To Mæcenas,” she shares a great knowledge of Greek and Roman classical literature.  These references are made in Wheatley’s own request to be so gifted a poet as those she mentions and to receive the patronage of Mæcenas.  There would be a great deal to unpack in this poem to do it justice, so it is perhaps unfair (or unwise) for me to reference it, but I do so for these reasons:

  1. It is loaded with references to the origins of our literary tradition in ancient Greece and Rome–a tradition she gained in the household of John Wheatley;
  2. Thus, it speaks to the continued reverence for such works evident in colonial Boston (and, therefore, also England), while also attesting to the continued influence of these ancient authors on these Early Modern students, readers, and authors;
  3. It reveals a complex request from Wheately for patronage–a term loaded with meanings–from Mæcenas to receive the Muses, but perhaps also to receive liberty.

To the University of Cambridge, in New England

     WHILE an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
The muses promise to assist my pen;
‘T was not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom:
Father of mercy! ‘t was thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.

Students, to you ‘t is given to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the etherial space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
Still more, ye sons of science, ye receive
The blissful news by messengers from heaven,
How Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows.
See him with hands outstretched upon the cross!
Immense compassion in his bosom glows;
He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn.
What matchless mercy in the Son of God!
He deign’d to die that they might rise again,
And share with him in the sublimest skies,
Life without death, and glory without end.

Improve your privileges while they stay,
Ye pupils; and each hour redeem, that bears
Or good or bad report of you to heaven.
Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
By you be shunned; nor once remit your guard:
Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.
Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
An Ethiop tells you, ‘t is your greatest foe;
Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
And in immense perdition sinks the soul.

This is a challenging poem.  On the one hand, Wheatley appears to be castigating her homeland and the life she would have lived as an African among her people if  she had not been enslaved.  I think we must acknowledge that Wheatley was genuinely grateful for her education and her Christian faith, two things she would not have gained had she remained free in her African home.  The question must be asked, did she believe her knowledge justified her enslavement?

I am incapable of answering this question directly, but in my historical interest of the poem and its time, perhaps some indirect suggestions might be gleaned (and possibly dismissed, as I do not claim proficiency in the literary arts).

Wheatley’s poem to Harvard University, the University of Cambridge, New England (Massachusetts), makes reference to one of the intellectual pursuits of the time: astronomy.  That she chose this is assuredly not random, as “traver[sing] etherial space/And mark[ing] the systems of revolving worlds” is connected to the spiritual heavens, “And share with [Son of God] in the sublimest skies/ Life without death, and glory without end.”  That this poem reads in part like a sermon or a warning to the students that they cannot neglect to shun sin, “that baneful evil to the soul,” from an African–“the land of errors … those dark abodes”–is rather interesting.

Indeed, it is still more interesting that she links “the land of errors” specifically with “Egyptian gloom.”  The heavily Puritan population would no doubt be fully prepared to acknowledge that Egypt, known from the Old Testament, was a land of errors.  Would they have credited Wheatley for suggesting that its errors were those of slavery–namely enslaving God’s people, the Hebrews?  This would become powerful imagery and iconography among slaves in a later America, but is Wheatley calling attention to it, here?  Egypt, throughout most of the preceding centuries, is precisely referenced because of its direct association with the pride of Pharoah in refusing God in the signs of Moses when he demands in the name of God that the Hebrew slaves be freed.  The errors of Egypt are the sins of Pharoah.  The sins of Pharoah are the enslavement of the Hebrews and his pride in doing so despite God’s demands.

Why she includes this at all, and in her opening stanza no less, is certainly interesting since she intends to warn the students and scholars away from sin.  She admires the institutions of learning, she is grateful for what she has learned, and for Christian conversion, but does she imply that there is something more these learned scholars have yet to learn, specifically about her own social station in Boston?

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What if Twitter had existed in other historical eras? Tweeting historiography.



I recently was tickled to find this piece on (where else?) Twitter: British r Coming. Pls RT! | Foreign Policy.  It’s really funny.  It gets one thinking, too.  Others have pointed out the value of challenging students to make observations in a succinct 140-character medium.  This forces students to use precision about the subject they are evaluating and to prioritize the material succinctly.  This is also a moment of frivolity to share with your class.

Aside from being fun, you could actually delve into some real historiographical issues.   Each set of tweets could be altered based on the different interpretations from the historiography.  For example, assign small groups a different scholar and encourage them to create tweets from the primary documents based on the assigned scholars interpretations.  Then you could compare the results.

It adds an extra layer of education, but it’s still fun!  Done well, this should be a slightly addictive exercise in levity and history.  Students should get addicted because its funny and entertaining.  You may find they actually have a better grasp of the scholarly concepts at the end, as well.  Maybe you throw it in right before or after exams or a big paper due date to get productivity despite the intensity of their coursework.

This is similar to the concept behind making fake Facebook walls.  You are asking students to use the technology with which many of them are well-acquainted as the medium in which to present their findings.  This does not suggest that you abandon papers or other means for testing their knowledge and developing skills, it is an alternative that can give students a bit of break without simply putting in a movie and having them unplug.  These exercises introduce a little levity and they should be fun.  At the end, they’ll be #Twitterstorians!

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