Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
And with a natural sigh,
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
“Who fell in the great victory …
“I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men,” said he,
“Were slain in that great victory.”
“Now tell us what ’twas all about,”
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.”
“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory.
— from After Blenheim , Robert Southey, 1798
Dear friends and readers,
A year ago the Admiral and I were awaiting June 3rd when he was going to have this devastating operation that might save his life (and instead ended it much more quickly and in continual nausea and pain); we did not last year then go see Rolling Thunder which we used to do by going into Old Town on the Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend when we’d see crowds of middle-aged men dressed in jeans, chains, scarfs and whatever was their typical apparel in Vietnam, increasingly accompanied by their middle aged wives — all on large-size motorcycles. I used to think of flies, they were like flies and no one from an official position (but Ross Perot) or who was a fringe person and trying to show those with someone “in the loop” power they had a following (Sarah Palin) has until this year ever deigned to recognize them — if giving over part of the Pentagon parking lot for these people to put their bikes in is recognizing them. It’s recognizing the cost of their trips, their convenience, their real needs. You can walk to the Vietnam wall from the Pentagon.
I know because one semester when I was given an Advanced Composition in Social Sciences to teach (a rarity for me) I had my students go to the Vietnam Wall, do research on Rolling Thunder and write a paper on their experience and what they found out by reading recent newspapers about this event. We also read and saw the film adaptation of Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country.
I remembered Rolling Thunder on this past Friday evening when I was in a cab with a friend coming home from DC to Alexandria after having been at the Corcoran Museum of Art and Design to hear to Ellen Gruber Garvey deliver a talk based on her remarkable book, Writing with Scissors: American scrapbooks from the civil war to the Harlem Renaissance.
Among the scraps pasted into books Prof Garvey showed us on her power-point presentation was a cut-out of the plangent song, “Somebody’s Darling.” I knew that song well, for one Sunday night as the Admiral and I were listening to about an hour and one half of music offered by Fred Kalland who used to share his extraordinary record collection for an hour on NPR. Jim was prepared and had taped the hour on a small audio-cassette. When the time was done we had a moving and fun recording of much civil war music done with taste and sensitivity. I listened to it over and over again in my car. I remembered “The Vacant Chair” when my father died, and then again when Jim would sit in his chair looking so sick last September. Today I have no clipping but can find on the Net “Somebody’s Darling,” lyrics by Marie Ravenel de la cost, music by John Hill Hewitt:
Into the ward of the clean white-washed halls,
Where the dead slept and the dying lay;
Wounded by bayonets, sabres and balls,
Somebody’s darling was borne one day.
Somebody’s darling, so young and so brave,
Wearing still on his sweet yet pale face,
Soon to be hid in the dust of the grave,
The lingering light of his boyhood’s grace.
CHORUS: Somebody’s darling, somebody’s pride,
Who’ll tell his mother where her boy died?
Matted and damp are his tresses of gold,
Kissing the snow of that fair young brow;
Pale are the lips of most delicate mould,
Somebody’s darling is dying now.
Back from his beautiful purple-veined brow,
Brush off the wandering waves of gold;
Cross his white hands on his broad bosom now,
Somebody’s darling is still and cold.–CHORUS
Give him a kiss, but for somebody’s sake,
Murmur a prayer for him, soft and low,
One little curl from his golden mates take,
Somebody’s they were once, you know;
Somebody’s warm hand has oft rested there,
Was it a Mother’s so soft and white?
Or have the lips of a sister, so fair,
Ever been bathed in their waves of light? –CHORUS
Somebody’s watching and waiting for him,
Yearning to hold him again to her breast;
Yet there he lies with his blue eyes so dim,
And purple, child-like lips half apart.
Tenderly bury the fair, unknown dead,
Pausing to drop on his grave a tear;
Carve on the wooden slab over his head,
“Somebody’s darling is slumbering here.”–CHORUS
We might this weekend remember the tens of thousands of people (women, children, old people too) murdered, tortured, slaughtered, maimed, houses destroyed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and when the US Veteran comes home after several tours sometimes with post-traumatic stress disorder and much worse (crippling him or her utterly in all sorts of ways), they are dismissed with addictive drugs that destroy whatever is left. The suicide rate is high. All to shore up the 1% — their use of the world’s oil resources, to sell arms (Hillary Clinton’s big donors include arms companies), destroy all social movements whatsoever (that goes back to the 1950s when several important secular good leaders were killed, and later decades too, e.g., Allende in Chile in 1970). The religious fanatics allowed to flourish are a reaction from the right.
We had spent a couple of hours at an “Indian Heritage” restaurant with about half the people who had come to the lecture and the book’s scholarly writer — an haunter of archives across the US.
Nineteenth century people in the US (and probably elsewhere the same culture and technological situation obtained) kept scrapbooks in large numbers once the printing and circulation of newspapers and other periodicals grew widespread. Prof Garvey suggested that for many it was a way of keeping track of the ephemeral, and expressing through what they cut out from newspapers and periodicals and how they juxtaposed these scraps an individual point of view on issues in the world. These people were speaking back — nowadays people blog. They were also expressing intimate private feelings through their choices, and many commemorated their family history. I know that and have looked at commonplace books from the long 18th century and manuscript books from the long 18th century through the later 17th: these were done by hand — copied out and you can find out about circles of people from these eras through studying these compilations.
But when you don’t have to write out the text and can cut out many other people’s, you can (as it were) enter the wider world as it is felt and bring it home to your own shelves. We might today (she did not say this) regard this as a stepping stone to the Net. A far distance it will be said, but the books exist and are in libraries and historical societies.
In the US the civil war itself was a watershed: people saved records of big events and their feelings. So many had died, so many lives transformed. Prof Garvey showed us a clipping of the moving civil war song “Somebody’s Darling,” it is a grief-filled piece about the death of so many men.
Tellingly Mark Twain made more money from selling a form of glue for making scrap books put into empty books which you could buy. People often did not spend money on an empty book, but took old books and pasted over each page what they wanted to save as a scrap. You re-used books you had in the house and made albums that way.
She then particularized two groups: African-Americans and women. Newspapers were hostile and wrote about black people denigratingly or wholly without understanding or sympathy or awareness of their plight.
Garvey went over four large scrapbooks by African-American 19th century men, one famous, Frederick Douglas. She showed how they’d save and juxtapose clippings. The meaning intended comes out of the juxtaposition. Charles Hunter saved accusations in a paper of a black man accused of raping a white woman; the newspaper days later said the black man was abducted from his prison cell and lynched. He then put into the book the description of a white man accused of raping a white woman, how he was tried and acquitted. The newspaper never registered that the black man was given no trial; it never registered that in both cases it was a white woman. (Was it okay to rape black women?) But Charles Hunter was aware of this.
Wm Henry Dorsey saved “colored centenarians” — pictures and lives of elderly black people in the US. In the 20th century Alexander Gumby saved stories of gay black men in scrap books.
Women’s scrapbooks show women saving the rare story about women’s rights and getting together hints at strategies to counter a lack of rights, or they just registered this lack. Garvey’s book studies scrapbooks by Susan B. Anthony, Caroline Healey Dall and Elizabeth Boynton Harbert, a mid-western woman who achieved local respect. (Land grants were available to women and women in the US have a history of an independent, public life — see Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiler’s Liberty, a Better Husband [quotation from Louisa May Alcott], Single Women in America, The Generations of 780-1840.) In Harbert’s scrapbook Garvery found a newspaper text which described a talk Harbert gave as “by a female;” Harbert typed a letter to the editor and put it in the scrapbook (no use sending it as it’d never be published) saying how funny it would be were speech by a man be described as “by a male.” (A male what? rhineroceros?)
The talk, questions and discussions afterwards was interesting as the people there included people who delve into archives, librarians, scholars of manuscript and print history, a knowledgeable group. Someone said that Upton Sinclair’s scrapbooks are held in a library in California. They are a rare and slowly dissolving history of socialism in California and the US which has hardly been written. No one would sell such a book as a publisher. The library is not putting the money into preserving Sinclair’s scrapbook.
Of course we all know people who make scrapbooks of their families’ lives and genealogies; these have been common since the 19th century. Nowadays we have blogs on the Net and public media for some of these impulses. Garvey said her book does not go into the way people interlard books with clippings. I still do this as way of preserving interesting stories in periodicals. I used to do it regularly before the Net, but nowadays I think to myself I’ll find it again, or I copy and paste the interesting essays and put it in a computer file on my computer. When it’s a case of a paer printed copy (I still read the LRB, NYRB, Women’s Review of Books, New Yorker and TLS this way), I usually put the clipping into a book on the person or by the person or on the same topic (say art history).
I contributed a little to the afterwards discussion. I’ve just had published in The Burney Letter a review-essay I wrote about the fifth volume of Lars Troide and Stewart Cooke’s editions (one has been done by Betty Rizzo, 4:2) of Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, 1782-83 (I’ll put my review on my site and link it in here soon).
Frances Burney D’Arblay’s many many volumes of life-writing probably resembles these scrapbooks as she pasted over things and inserted them. I suggested we could think about why people pasted over pages as opposed to burning or scissoring out something — they were ambivalent about destroying the text underneath. For Anne Finch I was able to retrieve parts of poems she just crossed out; but when she makes circles and crosses I couldn’t retrieve them, and of course missing pages (just cut out and you can tell if you have the specific book) from the Folger Shakespeare manuscript of her books were gone forever. I was told to remember how much paper cost and so pasting over a page was a way of taking advantage of a pre-existing page. We also have to remember that people before the mid-20th century could never conceive a pasted over page could be lifted and the text underneath retrieved. Still, note Cassandra scissored things out, did not paste over. Austen saving the few meagre (pathetic in a way) critical remarks she got was a form of scrapbook by hand.
The key here is the growth of periodicals and newspapers and their cheapness. It is now superceded by the Net’s availability. Let us hope the passing of Net neutrality does not destroy this medium for us all.
What happens to much of the stuff we save. Jim also recorded an hour and a half of English music hall songs, some of them done recently by Stanley Holloway. That audiocassette is also gone from me. I have four albums of photos set out in chronological order of my childhood, Jim’s, our early married life, and taking up up to around 2004 when the Net intervened. Now all photos are taken on a cell phone, put onto my computer. I have a DVD done by the funeral company I hired of Jim’s “life”, a montage, as seen in the photos I could find, but somehow it’s not as satisfying as the old albums because I can’t hold it in my hands and surmise that someday it will vanish as he has. But by then surely I will be gone too.