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Peter Jackson’s latest installment of The Hobbit trilogy has elicited some mixed reviews. Chris Orr at the Atlantic calls it “bad fan fiction,” proving that “more is less,” while Michael O’Sullivan at The Washington Post hails it as “a fun redemption of the film franchise” whose action-packed scenes help right the wrongs of the first movie’s “bloated boring and slow” plot.
Die-hard J.R.R. Tolkien fans, however, likely side with that first review, as shown in some blog posts, Reddit threads and Tolkien forums. Jackson strayed from The Hobbit book in his first movie but those additions largely borrowed from Tolkien’s broader lore. In this film, however, the director has taken more liberties, beefing up the action and introducing invented characters such as Tauriel, the “she-elf,” but sacrificing some development of beloved characters in the process.
To stretch The Hobbit—originally a light-hearted 300-page children’s story—into what, in the end, will likely be a nearly nine-hour epic trilogy, Jackson again relied on three main sources: original material from The Hobbit book, including expanding on minor elements that were mentioned only in passing in that text; details that Tolkien revealed in The Lord of the Rings books and their Appendices; and things he just made up himself. The sly allusions to Tolkien’s broader world are still there, but they are even more obscure than before. In some ways, however, this makes picking out those hidden gems and Easter eggs all the more appealing for fans.
Last year, we consulted with two Tolkien experts, John Rateliff, an independent scholar, and Michael Drout, an English professor at Wheaton College, to help us sort through the cinematic noise and identify true Tolkien threads. We’ve returned to them this year to get their take on the new movie and help us navigate the sliding scale from unadulterated Tolkien to Jackson invention.
True to the text
Some favorite moments from The Hobbit book clearly made the cut, such as when Bilbo, so proud of himself for smuggling his friends out of the Wood-elf kingdom, suddenly realizes he’s missed out on jumping in a barrel himself, or when Bilbo quakes at the size of Smaug, who stretches from one end of the room to the other. Much of Smaug’s dialogue—what Drout describes as the “aggressive politeness” of the British upper class—was taken straight from the book.
In other instances, some might argue that Jackson actually improved upon the original text, as Tolkien has a habit of introducing important material very abruptly in his stories. In the book, Bard only appears in time to save the day, for example, and the dwarves are more or less indistinguishable from one another. Jackson smoothes the story out by introducing characters early and giving them back-stories. Only Bard’s son, Bain, was ever mentioned by Tolkien, and that was only in a genealogy reference in The Fellowship of the Ring. Jackson gives Bard a family and a personality, presenting him as a rogue with an altruistic streak. Likewise, Jackson fleshes out each of the dwarves’ characters. Save for Thorin and Balin, none of Tolkien’s dwarves possessed distinguishing characteristics, but in Jackson’s world Bofur is a charmer, Bombur is a bit of a clown and Kili is a romantic. “The Hobbit dwarves are mildly ridiculous,” Drout says. “But at this point in the movies, the dwarves have achieved dignity and heroic stature.”
In some cases, the experts think Jackson took the plot expansion liberties too far. The Arkenstone does appear in The Hobbit book, but it plays much smaller a role—it’s just a very fancy heirloom also known as the “heart of the mountain.” Jackson turned the Arkenstone into something that resembles a Silmaril—irreplaceable, magical jewels—from The Silmarillion. In Jackson’s world, the Arkenstone holds global significance for all of the dwarves—not just Durin’s Folk. Whoever possesses the Arkenstone automatically becomes their ruler. “The Arkenstone is not supposed to be a mechanism,” Drout complains. “They’ve taken it and turned it into the Ring.”
In a few precious cases, however, extreme nerdiness does prevail. In an early The Hobbit manuscript Tolkien wrote but scrapped, he originally toyed with the idea of either Fili or Kili suffering an injury or being captured mid-tale. In the movie, Aidan Turner’s Kili does indeed fall victim to such an injury. Likewise, the scene in which Thorin surfs through a molten river of gold (though Drout declares this flourish completely unnecessary) may have borrowed inspiration from an original outline in which Tolkien had Bilbo floating through a stream of dragon’s blood. “Maybe they came up with that independently, but again, it sounds like they came across that little detail,” Rateliff says.
Drawing upon old manuscripts is impressive, but Jackson and his crew might have taken an even deeper dive into Tolkien’s world than that. In Rateliff’s two-volume study, The History of the Hobbit, he mentions that it strikes him as odd that in the novel, as the dwarves walk past their fallen kin, they do not react at all. In the movie, however, the dwarf company is deeply moved by the sight of the mummified dwarf wives and children. “They could have arrived at the logic of that reaction themselves, or they could have come across that comment,” Rateliff says. “If it was the latter, that means they’re not only reading Tolkien, but they’re reading Tolkien commentary, too.”
The wider lore
The Desolation of Smaug prominently features the languages of Middle-earth, which are detailed throughout Tolkien’s works, especially in The Lord of the Rings and the History of Middle-earth volumes. Neither Rateliff nor Drout are skilled enough Middle-earth linguists to catch the non-subtitled dwarf slurs Thorin throws at the elf king, or the instructions that the orcs shout from the rooftops in Lake-town. They did, however, notice a couple fun quirks that lend the languages extra credence.
When Legolas (who, by the way, has no business appearing in The Hobbit) confiscates the dwarves’ swords, for example, he distinctly says the word “Gondolin.” We know from the first movie that the swords originate from Gondolin, but the subtitles—like real-life translations that are not always perfect—do not include this subtlety. The orcs continuously refer to Gandalf as sharku, meaning “old man” in Black Speech, but this is not translated. Likewise, Tauriel and Legolas refer to one another as mellon, or “friend,” in Elvish. The astute fan will recognize this Easter egg, recalling the password into the mines of Moria, from The Fellowship of the Ring movie. “Talk about having faith in the geeks,” Rateliff says.
The most obvious borrowing from The Lord of the Rings books is the subplot at Dol Guldur, where the Necromancer has now been unveiled as Sauron. At the end of The Hobbit book, Gandalf briefly mentions his issues with the Necromancer, but it’s not until The Lord of the Rings Appendices that Tolkien expands upon this and reveals that the Necromancer was in fact Sauron. In order to tie his films together, Jackson explicitly makes this connection. “The literal Lord of the Rings comes on stage for a cameo in The Hobbit,” Rateliff says.
From here, things get even more obscure. The Tolkien estate is a particularly libelous bunch, so Jackson must be extra cautious to only borrow from texts he has the rights to, which are the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and its Appendices) and The Hobbit. The Desolation of Smaug opens with a flashback to the town of Bree, where Gandalf meets with Thorin over a pint to discuss plans for taking back the Lonely Mountain, which clearly comes form the Appendices. This scene, however, also flirts with details potentially taken from “The Quest of Erebor,” a short story published in The Unfinished Tales in which Gandalf explains his reasoning for choosing Bilbo, for helping Thorin and for encouraging the dwarves take back the Lonely Moutain. But Jackson does not own the rights to that story, so the allusion, while tantalizing, is vague at best.
Rateliff’s wife caught one other potential allusion to the deeper Tolkien lore. In the book The Hobbit, Mirkwood forest is less of a bad psychedelic trip, and more of just a grueling trek. Jackson’s idea for giving the forest hallucinogenic-like effects may have come from The Silmarillion, which describes a being namedMelian placing a protective enchantment called the Girdle of Melian around the forest. Her spell causes those who try to enter it to become lost and confused—much as the dwarves and Bilbo became in The Desolation of Smaug.
People often categorize Tolkien as a fairly loose writer because of his tendency to meander through a story (think 23 pages devoted solely to describing Bilbo’s birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring). Many do not realize, however, the extent to which he labored over every painstaking detail, Rateliff says. What results is a very tightly interlinked body of work, meaning making even seemingly small changes—an albino orc there, an elven warrior here—will reverberate throughout the entire story. As these changes build up, the movies depart further and further from the books. “When Legolas showed up, I thought that would be a fun cameo, but he almost takes over about half an hour’s worth of the movie,” Rateliff says. “It’s like, ok, we’re spending a lot of time away from our main characters here in what’s essentially a fun action subplot.”
The ongoing being-chased-by-orcs theme also had the experts shaking their heads. Orcs show up sparsely inThe Hobbit book, during the tree-climbing scene depicted in An Unexpected Journey and again at the end of the story. The movie trilogy, however, latches on to this new twist and turns up the tension with the constant threat of orc attack. This adds some thrills, but also significantly changes the stories’ tone. “The chase scenes are well done but it means there’s other scenes we don’t have time for in order to keep the pressure up,” Rateliff says. “There’s simply not as much time for Bilbo and Gandalf to interact when they’re running.”
Along the same lines, the dragon chase scene—another Jackson invention—is visually spectacular, but doesn’t accomplish much plot-wise. Smaug pursues the dwarves up and down the Lonely Mountain, blasting fire and smashing pillars along the way, and yet he doesn’t manage to harm a single one of them. This may be because killing off the dwarves would diverge from Tolkien’s plot. “It’s not like I want dwarves to die, but if there’s going to be a 20 minute battle, I want there to be consequences,” Rateliff says.
Instead of trusting Tolkien, Jackson replaces original material with “sequences that look like theme park rides,” Drout says. “It must drive [the movie industry] crazy that Christopher Tolkien absolutely refuses to let them build a theme park.”
Some characters are new, too. Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel, a 600-year old warrior whose Elvish name translates as “wood-maiden,” is not a Tolkien character. If fans thought the Lord of the Rings was a bit short on women characters, the The Hobbit only amps up the dude fest: Tolkien did not feature a single female character in the book. It’s easy to understand the logic behind Jackson’s decision to invent a character to fill that void, but the purists still balk because in Tolkien’s version of reality there are no female warrior elves.
That said, both Rateliff and Drout approved of Tauriel’s treatment in the film. “She’s certainly better than whiney old Legolas,” Drout says. And thankfully, her charter does not succumb to the fantasy female stereotype; she wears sensible armor, wields a workable weapon and has a personality. “This isn’t the mandatory Matrix-like fighting female that seems to be in every sci-fi movie,” he continues. Evangeline Lily “does a good job making you care about that character, and she also captures some of the weirdness that elves have about them.”
The adventure continues
Whereas last year our experts made predictions for the upcoming film, this year they are a bit stymied. The invented plot twists make the task of forecasting what comes next more challenging. Nevertheless, here are a few musings about the final film (spoiler alert!):
Creating characters outside of Tolkien’s original work may mean they’re destined to be “sacrificial lambs,” Rateliff guesses. In other words, Tauriel’s graceful role may be short-lived once the Battle of Five Armies descends. Speaking of which, at some point, Thorin needs to come up with an army of dwarves for fighting in that battle. Most likely, the Arkenstone will play a role—no doubt an overly dramatic one—in his summoning of those troops. On the other hand, where the human army will come from remains an open question since the people of Lake-town look like a pretty poorly prepared bunch.
In other potential battle news, in the first movie, Galadriel promised to come if Gandalf calls, so she and the White Council may very well show up at Dol Goldur for a Necromancer take-down. But then again, Radagast could just turn up and free Gandalf from his wizard-sized birdcage. “I’m voting for Radagast,” Drout says.
Finally, when and how Bilbo will reveal to his friends that he possesses a magic ring remains a mystery (or will he even tell them at all?). In The Hobbit book, Bilbo told the dwarves—but not Gandalf—about the ring back in Mirkwood forest in order to save them from the spiders, but Bilbo seems much more guarded about it in the movie.
As the movies wear on, critics speculate that perhaps only the most devoted Tolkien fans are coming back for more. Last weekend’s opening drew in an impressive $74 million, but that’s $10 million less than last year and also less than pundits predicted this film’s opening would gross. If Tolkien fans largely account for the viewers who are still turning out, Jackson would probably do well to trim a bit of the action fat next time, while adding more of those Easter eggs for the nerds. “He really had a balance in the first movie, but in this one I think he decided to just listen to the critics and make Indiana Jones,” Rateliff says. “I liked it in its own terms, but it wasn’t the movie I wanted to see.”
Still, he adds, “I can’t wait to find out what’s coming next.”
I’ve said it before and I will say it again: the colonization of Pacific Islands is the greatest human adventure story of all time.
People using Stone Age technology built voyaging canoes capable of traveling thousands of miles, then set forth against the winds and currents to find tiny dots of land in the midst of the largest ocean on Earth. And having found them, they traveled back and forth, again and again, to settle them—all this, 500 to 1,000 years ago.
Ever since Captain Cook landed in the Hawaiian Islands and realized that the inhabitants spoke a cognate language to those of the South Pacific islands, scholars and others have researched and theorized about the origins and migrations of the Polynesians.
The Hōkūleʻa voyaging canoe has proved the efficacy of traditional Oceanic navigation since 1976, when it embarked on its historic maiden voyage to recover the lost heritage of this ocean-sailing tradition. The general scholarship on migrations seems well established, and most current researches now seek to understand the timing of the various colonizations.
But one huge mystery, sometimes called “The Long Pause” leaves a gaping hole in the voyaging timeline.
Western Polynesia—the islands closest to Australia and New Guinea—were colonized around 3,500 years ago. But the islands of Central and Eastern Polynesia were not settled until 1,500 to 500 years ago. This means that after arriving in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, Polynesians took a break—for almost 2,000 years—before voyaging forth again.Hokule'a arrival in Honolulu from Tahiti in 1976 (Phil Uhl/Wikimedia Commons)
Then when they did start again, they did so with a vengeance: archaeological evidence suggests that within a century or so after venturing forth, Polynesians discovered and settled nearly every inhabitable island in the central and eastern Pacific.
Nobody knows the reason for The Long Pause, or why the Polynesians started voyaging again.
Several theories have been proposed—from a favorable wind caused by a sustained period of El Niño, to visible supernovas luring the stargazing islanders to travel, to ciguatera poisoning caused by algae blooms.
Enter Moana, the latest Disney movie, set in what appears to be Samoa, even though most American audiences will see it as Hawaii.Landscape, `Upolu, Samoa (Doug Herman)
Moana—pronounced “moh-AH-nah,” not “MWAH-nah” means “ocean”—and the character is chosen by the sea itself to return the stolen heart of Te Fiti, who turns out to be an island deity (Tahiti, in its various linguistic forms, including Tafiti, is a pan-Polynesian word for any faraway place).
The heart of Te Fiti is a greenstone (New Zealand Maori) amulet stolen by the demigod Maui. An environmental catastrophe spreading across the island makes the mission urgent. And despite admonitions from her father against anyone going beyond the protective reef, Moana steals a canoe and embarks on her quest.
But as should be expected whenever Disney ventures into cross-cultural milieus, the film is characterized by the good, the bad and the ugly.
Moana’s struggle to learn to sail and get past the reef of her home island sets the stage for her learning of true wayfinding. It also shows traces of Armstrong Sperry’s stirring, classic book Call It Courage, and Tom Hanks's Castaway.A Samoan outrigger canoe at the Kitano Hotel, Apia, Samoa (Doug Herman)
But the film's story also has a different angle with a powerful revelation: Moana’s people had stopped voyaging long ago, and had placed a taboo—another Polynesian world—on going beyond the reef.
With the success of Moana’s mission and her having learned the art of wayfinding, her people start voyaging again.
And so the Long Pause comes to an end, Disney style, with a great fleet of canoes setting forth across the ocean to accomplish the greatest human adventure of all time. I admit to being moved by this scene.
As someone who lectures on traditional oceanic navigation and migration, I can say resoundingly that it is high time the rest of the world learned this amazing story.A fisherman checks a fish wier off Tanu Beach, Samoa (Doug Herman)
But then there is much to criticize.
The depiction of Maui the demigod, who helps Moana on her journey, is a heroic figure found throughout much of Polynesia credited with performing a range of feats for the good of humankind.
Traditionally, Maui has been depicted as a lithe teenager on the verge of manhood. But the Maui character of this film, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—recently touted as People magazine’s “sexiest man alive,” is illustrated as a huge buffoon and comes off as sort of stupid. Critics have noted that this depiction of Maui "perpetuates offensive images of Polynesians as overweight."
As my Native Hawaiian friend Trisha Kehaulani Watson-Sproat says, “Our men are better, more beautiful, stronger and more confident. As much as I felt great pride in the Moana character; as the mom of a Hawaiian boy, the Maui character left me feeling very hurt and sad. This is not a movie I would want him to see. This Maui character is not one I would want him to watch and think is culturally appropriate or a character he should want to be like.”The huge fale at the National University of Samoa. (Doug Herman)
Tongan cultural anthropologist Tēvita O. Kaʻili writes in detail about how Hina, the companion goddess to Maui, is completely omitted from the story.
“In Polynesian lores, the association of a powerful goddess with a mighty god creates symmetry which gives rise to harmony, and above all, beauty in the stories,” he says. It was Hina who enabled Maui to do many of the feats he uncharacteristically brags about in the film’s song “You’re Welcome!”
The power and glory of this goddess is beautifully presented in the poem “I am Hine, I am Moana” by Tina Ngata, a New Zealand Māori educator.
Another depiction that is tiresome and cliché is the happy natives with coconuts trope. Coconuts as the essential component of Pacific Island culture became a comedy staple on the 1960s television series "Gilligan’s Island," if not before. They are part of the shtick of caricatures about Pacific peoples.A small Samona fale (house) at Manese, Samoa (Doug Herman)
Not only do we see the villagers happily singing and gathering coconuts, but a whole race of peoples, the Kakamora, is depicted as, well, coconuts. This is a band of pirates that Moana and Maui encounter. Disney describes them as “a diminutive race donning armor made of coconuts. They live on a trash-and-flotsam-covered vessel that floats freely around the ocean.”
In the film, their vessels resemble “Mad Max meets the Tiki Barge,” complete with coconut palms growing on them. Disney’s Kakamora are mean, relentless at getting what they want, and full of sophisticated technology. And utterly silly at the same time.
But in fact, the Kakamora have actual cultural roots: they are a legendary, short-statured people of the Solomon Islands. Somewhat like the menehune of Hawai‘i, and bear no resemblance to the Disney knock-off.
“Coconut” is also used as a racial slur against Pacific Islanders as well as other brown-skinned peoples. So depicting these imaginary beings as “coconut people” is not only cultural appropriation for the sake of mainstream humor, but just plain bad taste.A female dancer at a fiafia (party) in Samoa (Doug Herman)
Disney folks say they did their homework for this film, creating an allegedly Pacific Islander advisory board named the Oceanic Story Trust.
But as Pacific Island scholar Vicente Diaz from Guam writes in his damning critique of Disney’s exploitation of Native cultures: “Who gets to authenticate so diverse a set of cultures and so vast a region as Polynesia and the even more diverse and larger Pacific Island region that is also represented in this film? And what, exactly does it mean that henceforth it is Disney that now administrates how the rest of the world will get to see and understand Pacific realness, including substantive cultural material that approaches the spiritual and the sacred.”
Diaz also criticizes, quite rightly, the romanticization of the primitive that characterizes Disney movies like Moana, thereby whitewashing how those same peoples were colonized and their cultures dismembered by the West.
This glorification of native peoples striving to save their island from environmental catastrophe stands in stark contrast to the actions currently underway at Standing Rock, where Native Americans and their allies are being attacked, arrested, and sprayed with water cannons (in the freezing cold) for trying to defend their water sources and sacred lands.
In short, Moana is not an Indigenous story, as New Zealand educator Tina Ngata points out. “Having brown advisers doesn’t make it a brown story. It’s still very much a white person’s story.”A male dancer showing his pe`a (body tattoo) (Doug Herman)
In fact, many Pacific Islands remain in some neocolonial relationship with the powers that conquered them. And even the great feat of navigation and the peopling of the Pacific was discounted by scholars up until 1976, on the grounds that Pacific Islanders weren’t smart enough to have done it.
It took Hōkūleʻa to prove them wrong.
That said, and for all the bad and the ugly in this film—enough to provoke a Facebook page with thousands of followers—there is still inspiration and entertainment to be found here. Setting the cultural cringe factor aside, the film is entertaining and even inspiring. The Moana character is strong and her voice (portrayed by Auli‘i Cravalho) is clear and powerful. Most exciting of all, for this viewer, is the engagement with navigation and wayfinding.
As Sabra Kauka, a Native Hawaiian cultural practioner, said to me, “We sailed the great ocean in wa‘a [canoes] using the stars, the wind, the currents, as our guides. Hey, this is some kind of accomplishment to proud of!”
“I particularly like that the heroine had no romantic link to a man,” Kauka notes. “I like that she was strong and committed to the cause of saving her community.” She points out the kapa (Samoan siapo—traditional bark cloth) costumes and how the credits scroll over a piece of kapa.The umbrella-like design of the Samoan fale (Doug Herman)
There are other details that greatly enrich the story. The traditional round fale (Samoan houses), the father’s pe‘a (traditional body tattoo) and a scene showing the art of traditional tattooing (tattoo, incidentally, is a Polynesian word). And of course the canoes themselves in painstaking detail. The music provided by the Samoan-born artist Opetaia Foa'i, whose parents came from Tokelau and Tuvalu, adds a distinctly island flavor to an otherwise culturally-indistinct soundtrack.
And with Hōkūleʻa traveling around the world using traditional oceanic navigation to spread its message of mālama honua (taking care of the Earth), the timing of this film is just right, even if other aspects of the movie are just wrong.A banner carried by Pacific Islander communities marching in solidarity with Indigenous peoples from Turtle Island in the March for Real Climate Leadership in Oakland, CA in 2015 (Fuifuilupe Niumeitolu. )
The air was as crisp as a hundred dollar bill, on April 27, 1936. A southwesterly breeze filled the bright white sails of the pleasure boats sailing across the San Francisco Bay. Through the cabin window of a ferryboat, a man studied the horizon. His tired eyes were hooded, his dark hair swept backwards, his hands and feet locked in iron chains. Behind a curtain of grey mist, he caught his first dreadful glimpse of Alcatraz Island.
“Count” Victor Lustig, 46 years old at the time, was America’s most dangerous con man. In a lengthy criminal career, his sleight-of-hand tricks and get-rich-quick schemes had rocked Jazz-Era America and the rest of the world. In Paris, he had sold the Eiffel Tower in an audacious confidence game—not once, but twice. Finally, in 1935, Lustig was captured after masterminding a counterfeit banknote operation so vast that it threatened to shake confidence in the American economy. A judge in New York sentenced him to 20 years on Alcatraz.
Lustig was unlike any other inmate to arrive on the Rock. He dressed like a matinee idol, possessed a hypnotic charm, spoke five languages fluently and evaded the law like a figure from fiction. In fact, the Milwaukee Journal described him as ‘a story book character’. One Secret Service agent wrote that Lustig was “as elusive as a puff of cigarette smoke and as charming as a young girl’s dream,” while the New York Times editorialized: “He was not the hand-kissing type of bogus Count—too keen for that. Instead of theatrical, he was always the reserved, dignified noble man.”
The fake title was just the tip of Lustig’s deceptions. He used 47 aliases and carried dozens of fake passports. He created a web of lies so thick that even today his true identity remains shrouded in mystery. On his Alcatraz paperwork, prison officials called him “Robert V. Miller,” which was just another of his pseudonyms. The con man had always claimed to hail from a long line of aristocrats who owned European castles, yet newly discovered documents reveal more humble beginnings.
In prison interviews, he told investigators that he was born in the Austria-Hungarian town of Hostinné on January 4, 1890. The village is arranged around a Baroque clock tower in the shadow of the Krkonoše mountains (it is now a part of the Czech Republic). During his crime spree, Lustig had boasted that his father, Ludwig, was the burgomaster, or mayor, of the town. But in recently uncovered prison papers, he describes his father and mother as the “poorest peasant people” who raised him in a grim house made from stone. Lustig claimed he stole to survive, but only from the greedy and dishonest.
More textured accounts of Lustig’s childhood can be found in various true crime magazines of the time, informed by his criminal associates and investigators. In the early 1900s, as a teenager, Lustig scampered up the criminal ladder, progressing from panhandler to pickpocket, to burglar, to street hustler. According to True Detective Mysteries magazine he perfected every card trick known: “palming, slipping cards from the deck, dealing from the bottom,” and by the time he reached adulthood, Lustig could make a deck of cards “do everything but talk.”The FBI fingerprint file for Lustig (Courtesy of Jeff Maysh)
First-class passengers aboard transatlantic ships became his first victims. The newly rich were easy pickings. When Lustig arrived in the United States at the end of World War I, the “Roaring Twenties” were in full swing and money was changing hands at a fevered pace. Lustig quickly became known to detectives in 40 American cities as ‘the Scarred,’ thanks to a livid, two-and-a-half inch gash along his left cheekbone, a souvenir from a love rival in Paris. Yet Lustig was a considered a “smoothie” who had never held a gun, and enjoyed mounting butterflies. Records show that he was just five-foot-seven-inches tall and weighed 140 pounds.
His most successful scam was the “Rumanian money box.” It was a small box fashioned from cedar wood, with complicated rollers and brass dials. Lustig claimed the contraption could copy banknotes using “Radium.” The big show he gave to victims was sometimes aided by a sidekick named “Dapper” Dan Collins, described by the New York Times as a former ‘circus lion tamer and death-defying bicycle rider.’ Lustig’s repertoire also included fake horse race schemes, feigned seizures during business meetings, and bogus real estate investments. These capers made him a public enemy and a millionaire.A counterfeit $5 banknote that it is believed to be created by Lustig and Watts. (Courtesy of Jeff Maysh)
America in the 1920s was infested with such confidence rackets, operated by smooth-talking immigrants like Charles Ponzi, namesake of the “Ponzi scheme.” These European con artists were professionals who called their victims ‘marks’ instead of suckers, and who acted not like thugs, but gentlemen. According to the crime magazine True Detective, Lustig was a man who “society took by one hand, the underworld by the other…a flesh-and-blood Jekyll-Hyde.” Yet he treated all women with respect. On November 3, 1919, he married a pretty Kansan named Roberta Noret. A memoir by Lustig’s late daughter recalls how Lustig raised a secret family on whom he lavished his ill-gotten gains. The rest he spent on gambling, and on his lover, Billie Mae Scheible, the buxom owner of a million-dollar prostitution racket.
Then, in 1925, he embarked upon what swindling experts call “the big store.”
Lustig arrived in Paris in May of that year, according to the memoir of U.S. Secret Service agent James Johnson. There, Lustig commissioned stationary carrying the official French government seal. Next, he presented himself at the front desk of the Hôtel de Crillon, a stone palace on the Place de la Concorde. From there, pretending to be a French government official, Lustig wrote to the top people in the French scrap metal industry, inviting them to the hotel for a meeting.
“Because of engineering faults, costly repairs, and political problems I cannot discuss, the tearing down of the Eiffel Tower has become mandatory,” he reportedly told them in a quiet hotel room. The tower would be sold to the highest bidder, he announced. His audience was captivated, and their bids flowed in. It was a scam Lustig pulled off more than once, sources said. Amazingly, the con man liked to boast of his criminal achievements, and even penned a list of rules for would-be swindlers. They’re still circulated today:
LUSTIG’S TEN COMMANDMENTS OF THE CON
1. Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con-man his coups).
2. Never look bored.
3. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
4. Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
5. Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other fellow shows a strong interest.
6. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
7. Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
8. Never boast. Just let your importance be quietly obvious.
9. Never be untidy.
10. Never get drunk.
Like many career criminals, it was greed that led to Lustig’s demise. On December 11, 1928, businessman Thomas Kearns invited Lustig to his Massachusetts home to discuss an investment. Lustig crept upstairs and stole $16,000 from a drawer. Such a barefaced theft was out of character for the con man, and Kearns screamed to the police. Next, Lustig had the audacity to trick a Texas sheriff with his moneybox, and later gave him counterfeit cash, which attracted the attention of the Secret Service. “Victor Lustig was [a] top man in the modern world of crime” wrote another agent called Frank Seckler, “He was the only one I ever heard of who swindled the law.”
Yet it was Secret Service agent Peter A. Rubano who vowed to put Lustig behind bars. Rubano was a heavy-set Italian-American with a double chin, sad eyes, and endless ambition. Born and raised in the Bronx, Rubano had made his name by trapping the notorious gangster Ignazio “The Wolf” Lupo. Rubano delighted in seeing his name in the newspapers, and he would dedicate many years to catching Lustig. When the Austrian entered the counterfeit banknote business in 1930, Lustig fell under Rubano’s crosshairs.
Teaming up with gangland forger William Watts, Lustig created banknotes so flawless they fooled even bank tellers. “Lustig-Watts notes were the supernotes of the era,” says Joseph Boling, chief judge of the American Numismatic Association, a specialist in authenticating notes. Lustig daringly chose to copy $100 bills, those scrutinized most by bank tellers, and became “like some other government, issuing money in rivalry with the United States Treasury,” a judge later commented. It was feared that a run of fake bills this large could wobble international confidence in the dollar.
Catching the count became a cat-and-mouse game for Rubano and the Secret Service. Lustig traveled with a trunk of disguises and could transform easily into a rabbi, a priest, a bellhop or a porter. Dressed like a baggage man, he could escape any hotel in a pinch—and even take his luggage with him. But the net was closing in.The "Count" (at right) leaves for Alcatraz (Courtesy of Jeff Maysh)
Lustig finally felt a tug on the velvet-collar of his Chesterfield coat on a New York street corner on May 10, 1935. A voice ordered: “Hands in the air”. Lustig studied the circle of men surrounding him, and noticed Agent Rubano, who led him away in handcuffs. It was a victory for the Secret Service. But not for long.
On the Sunday before Labor Day, September 1, 1935, Lustig escaped from the ‘inescapable’ Federal Detention Center in Manhattan. He fashioned a rope from bed sheets, cut through his bars, and swung from the window like an urban Tarzan. When a group of onlookers stopped and pointed, the prisoner took a rag from his pocket and pretended to be a window cleaner. Landing on his feet, Lustig gave his audience a polite bow, and then sprinted away ‘like a deer.’ Police dashed to his cell. They discovered a handwritten note on his pillow, an extract from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables:
He allowed himself to be led in a promise; Jean Valjean had his promise. Even to a convict, especially to a convict. It may give the convict confidence and guide him on the right path. Law was not made by God and Man can be wrong.
Lustig evaded the law until the Saturday night of September 28, 1935. In Pittsburgh, the dashing crook ducked into a waiting car on the city’s north side. Watching from a hiding position, FBI agent G. K. Firestone gave the signal to Pittsburgh Secret Service agent Fred Gruber. The two federal officers leapt into their car and gave chase.
For nine blocks their vehicles rode neck-and-neck, engines roaring. When Lustig’s driver refused to stop, the agents rammed their car into his, locking their wheels together. Sparks flew. The cars crashed to a halt. The agents pulled their service weapons and threw open the doors. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Lustig told his captors:
“Well, boys, here I am.”
Count Victor Lustig was hauled before the judge in New York in November 1935. “His pale, lean face was a study and his tapering white hands rested on the bar before the bench,” observed a reporter from the New York Herald-Tribune. Just before sentencing, another journalist overheard a Secret Service agent tell Lustig:
“Count, you’re the smoothest con man that ever lived.”Lustig's death certificate (Courtesy of Jeff Maysh)
As soon as he stepped onto Alcatraz Island, prison guards searched Lustig’s body for concealed watch springs and razor blades and hosed him down with freezing seawater. They marched him along the main corridor between the cells—known as ‘Broadway’—in his birthday suit. There was a chorus of howls, whistles, and the clanging of metal cups against bars. “He is somewhat superficially humiliated,” Lustig’s prison record said, referring to him as ‘Miller’, “he asserts that he was accused of everything in the category of crime, including the burning of Chicago.”
Whatever his true identity, the cold weather took its toll on prisoner #300. By December 7, 1946, Lustig had made a staggering 1,192 medical requests and filled 507 prescriptions. The prison guards believed he was faking, that his illness was part of an escape plan. They even found torn bed sheets in his cell, signs of his expert rope making. According to medical reports, Lustig was “inclined to magnify physical complaints... [and] constantly complaining of real and imaginary ills.” He was transferred to a secure medical facility in Springfield, Missouri, where doctors soon realized he was not faking. There, he died from complications arising from pneumonia.
Somehow, Lustig’s family kept his death a secret for two years, until August 31, 1949. But Lustig’s Houdini-like departure from earth was not even his greatest deception. In March of 2015, a historian named Tomáš Anděl, from Lustig’s home town of Hostinné, began a tireless search for biographical information about the town’s most famous citizen. He searched through records rescued from Nazi bonfires, pored over electoral rolls and historical documents. “He must have attended school in Hostinné,” Anděl reasoned in the Hostinné Bulletin, “yet he is not even mentioned in the list of pupils attending the local primary school.” After much searching, Anděl concluded, there is not a scrap of evidence that Lustig was ever born.
We may never know the true identity of Count Victor Lustig. But we do know for certain that the world’s most flamboyant con man died at 8:30pm on March 11, 1947. On his death certificate a clerk wrote this for his occupation:
If you were to ask an average person to differentiate between a tiger shark, Great White, whale shark, bull shark or mako, most could probably do so, or would at least be aware that such varieties existed. This wasn't always the case. A mere six hundred years ago, sharks were known only by the bizarre personas recounted by animated sailors. And even when more accurate depictions and accounts began to circulate, the world was completely ignorant of the vast diversity of these creatures. A shark, generally, was a shark. It took an army of people, and several hundred years, to even begin to comprehend these magnificent fish, and we've still only scraped the surface.
The Shark in Myth
Eleven hundred years ago, man was just starting to venture boldly into the open oceans. At that time, and throughout the Middle Ages, the sea was a place of mysticism and superstition, with countless tales of leviathans, monsters, and spirits plaguing the waters. Researchers believe many of these tales were actually based on real creatures, however exaggerated. Some of the beasts may have been at least partially informed by shark sightings.The Ziphius. Conrad Gessner. 1560. Icones Animalium. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
Conrad Gessner depicted the Ziphius in his 1560 work Icones Animalium. Many researchers believe the beast with the back fin may be a Great White, due in part to the unfortunate seal in its jaws. The porcupine-fish taking a bite out of the Ziphius' side? The jury's still out on that one...A shark? Caspar Schott. 1662. Physica Curiosa. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
Caspar Schott's 1662 beast is equally fanciful, but the teeth and jaws suggest that it may be inspired in part by a shark.Olaus Magnus. 1539. Carta Marina. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
Despite limited contact with sharks, or perhaps because of it, artists generally portrayed the fish as ravenous man-eaters. Olaus Magnus' 1539 Carta Marina shows a hapless man besieged by a gang of sharks. Fortunately for him, a kind-hearted ray-like creature has come to the rescue.
Also in the Middle Ages, fossilized shark teeth were identified as petrified dragon tongues, called glossopetrae. If ground into a powder and consumed, these were said to be an antidote for a variety of poisons.
The Shark as a Sea Dog
By the time of the Renaissance, the existence of sharks was more generally known, though their diversity was woefully underestimated. Only those species that were clearly distinct based on color, size, and shape—such as hammerheads, blue sharks, and smaller sharks such as dogfish—were distinguished. As for the Lamnidae—Great Whites, makos, and porbeagles—these were identified as a single species.
In the 1550s, we see the Great White debut to an audience that would remain captivated by it for hundreds of years, though under a rather strange moniker.Canis carcharias. Pierre Belon. 1553. De aquatilibus duo. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
In 1553, Pierre Belon, a French naturalist, published De aquatilibus duo, cum eiconibus ad vivam ipsorum effigiem quoad ejus fieri potuit, ad amplissimum cardinalem Castilioneum. Belon attempted the first comparative analysis of sharks, and presented 110 species of fish in a much more realistic light than previously provided. In addition to a hammerhead, Belon included a woodcut of a shark he named Canis carcharias.
Some readers may recognize that "Canis" is the genus currently assigned to dogs. Belon was not attempting to classify sharks with dogs by asserting this name. Indeed, systematic classification based on ranked hierarchies would not come onto the scene for over two hundred years. The common practice at this time was to choose descriptive names based on physical characteristics. Colloquial speech referred to sharks as "sea dogs," and carcharias comes from the Greek "Carcharos" (ragged), which Belon associated with the appearance of the shark's teeth.De Lamia. Guillaume Rondelet. 1554. Libri de Piscibus Marinis. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
In 1554, French physician Guillaume Rondelet gave us another illustration of a Great White, under the name De Lamia (a child-eating demon in Greek mythology). Publishing Libri de Piscibus Marinis, Rondelet described more than 440 species of aquatic animals. Along with his illustration, Rondelet conveyed a tale of one specimen found with a full suit of armor in its belly. He also proposed that it was this fish, and not a whale, that was the culprit behind Jonah's Biblical plight. A whale, he postulated, did not have a throat wide enough to swallow a man whole and regurgitate him later.Hammerhead and catsharks. Ippolito Salviani. 1554. Aquatilium Animalium Historiae. (Biodiversity Heritage Library) (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
Though Conrad Gessner may have published accounts of many mythical beasts (such as the Ziphius in 1560), his 1558 work Historia Animalium (2nd edition) was an attempt to give a factual representation of the known world of natural history. Within it, he included a much more recognizable illustration of the Great White (under both names Lamia and Canis carcharias). The study was based on a dried specimen, thus accounting for the rather desiccated appearance.
Finally, in 1569, the word "Sharke" finally finds its place in the English language, popularized by Sir John Hawkins' sailors, who brought home a shark specimen that was exhibited in London that year.
Influenced by the violent, and commonly exaggerated, stories circulated by sailors and explorers, general perception pegged sharks as ravenous beasts intent on devouring everything in sight.
Sharks and the "Modern" Era
By the 1600s, a more widespread attempt to classify fish according to form and habitat, and a fresh curiosity in shark research and diversity, found a footing in scientific research.
In 1616, Italian botanist Fabio Colonna published an article, De glossopetris dissertatio, in which he postulated that the mystical glossopetrae were actually fossilized shark teeth. The article had little impact, but in 1667, following the dissection of a Great White shark head, Danish naturalist Niels Stensen (aka Steno) published a comparative study of shark teeth, theorizing for the first time that fossils are the remains of living animals and again suggesting that glossopetrae were indeed fossilized shark teeth.
In the mid-1700s, a famous figure emerged. In 1735, Swedish botanist and physician Carl Linnaeus published his first version of Systema Naturae, at a mere 11 pages. Within this first edition, he classified sharks in the group Condropterygii, along with lampreys and sturgeon.Squalus carcharias. Carl Linnaeus. 1758. Systema Naturae (10th ed.). (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
Linnaeus continued expanding his classification system, and in 1758 he published the tenth edition of Systema Naturae—the work we consider the beginning of zoological nomenclature. Within this edition, Linnaeus introduced binomial nomenclature, a naming scheme which identifies organisms by genus and species, with an attempt to reflect ranked hierarchies. This system provides the foundation of modern biological nomenclature, which groups organisms by inferred evolutionary relatedness.
Within Systema Naturae (10th ed.), Linnaeus identified 14 shark species, all of which he placed in the genus Squalus, which today is reserved only for typical spurdogs. He also presents his binomial for the Great White: Squalus carcharias. And he, like Rondelet before him, suggests that it was indeed a Great White that swallowed Jonah whole in ancient times.Squalus carcharias. Marcus Bloch. 1796. Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
By the late 1700s, we see a greater attempt to distinguish between the varieties of white sharks. From 1783-1795, Marcus Elieser Bloch published twelve volumes on fish under the title Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische, with 216 illustrations. His Great White, perhaps the first in color, bears Linnaeus' name. And in 1788, French naturalist Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre gave the porbeagle shark its first scientific name, Squalus nasus, distinguishing another "white shark" as a distinct species.Squalus. Bernard Germain de La Cepede. 1798. Histoire Naturelle des Poissons. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
French zoologist Bernard Germain de La Cepede grouped sharks, rays, and chimaeras as "cartilaginous fish," identifying 32 types, in his 1798 work Histoire Naturelle des Poissons. He describes the "white shark" as the largest shark (a distinction truly held by the whale shark).Selachians. Georges Cuvier. The Animal Kingdom (1837 ed.). (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
In his 1817 work The Animal Kingdom, French anatomist Georges Cuvier listed sharks as "selachians," a term still in use today as the clade including sharks: Selachimorpha.
In 1838 we see the first use of the modern Great White genus name. Scottish physician and zoologist Andrew Smith proposed the generic name Carcharodon in a work by Johannes Müller and Fredrich Henle (here in Smith's later 1840s publication), pulling together the Greek "carcharos" (meaning ragged and used in the association by Belon nearly 300 years earlier) and "odon" (Greek for "tooth"). Thus, Smith was proposing a name meaning "ragged tooth."
Finally, in 1878, Smith's genus name "Carcharodon," and Linnaeus' species name "carcharias" were pulled together to form the scientific name we know the Great White by today: Carcharodon carcharias.
Thanks to the dedication and curiosity of past naturalists and contemporary taxonomists, we're now aware of the incredible diversity of sharks. There are over 470 species known today; that's quite a leap from the mere 14 species identified by Linnaeus over 250 years ago!
Want more shark content? See more than 350 shark illustrations in the BHL Flickr collection.
A few years ago, as journalist Clive Thompson started working on his new book about the world of coding and coders, he went to see the musical Hamilton. His take-away? The founding fathers were basically modern-day programmers.
“Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson entered “‘The Room Where it Happens’ and Hamilton [came] out having written 20 lines of code that basically said, ‘Washington is going to be this center of power, and there’s going to be the national bank,’” Thompson told me. “They pushed their software update, and completely changed the country.’”
Throughout history, Thompson said, “A professional class that has had an enormous amount of power. What the people in that class could do was suddenly incredibly important and incredibly political and pivotal. Society needed their skills badly, and just a few people could make decisions that had an enormous impact.”
In 1789, those people were the lawyers or legalists; in 2019, it’s the coders. “They set down the rules to determine how we're going to do things. If they make it easier to do something, we do tons more of it,” he explained. “If we want to understand how today’s world works, we ought to understand something about coders.”
So Thompson has hacked the mindframe of these all-(too?)-powerful, very human beings. In his new book Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, he lays out the history of programming, highlighting the pioneering role women played. He traces the industry’s evolution to its current, very white and very male state and uncovers what challenges that homogeneity presents. Thompson weaves together interviews with all types of programmers, from ones at Facebook and Instagram whose code impacts hundreds of millions of people each day, to the coders obsessed with protecting data from those very same Big Tech companies. Drawing on his decades of reporting for Smithsonian, WIRED and The New York Times Magazine, he introduces us to the minds behind the lines of code, the people who are shaping and redefining our everyday world.
What personality traits are most common among programmers? What makes a good programmer?
There are the obvious ones, the traits that you might expect—people who are good at coding are usually good at thinking logically and systematically and breaking big problems down into small, solvable steps.
But there are other things that might surprise you. Coding is incredibly, grindingly frustrating. Even the tiniest error—a misplaced bracket—can break things, and the computer often doesn't give you any easy clues as to what's wrong. The people who succeed at coding are the ones who can handle that epic, nonstop, daily frustration. The upside is that when they finally do get things working, the blast of pleasure and joy is unlike anything else they experience in life. They get hooked on it, and it helps them grind through the next hours and days of frustration.
Coding is, in a way, a very artistic enterprise. You're making things, machines, out of words, so it's got craft—anyone who likes building things, or doing crafts, would find the same pleasures in coding. And coders also often seek deep, deep isolation while they work; they have to focus so hard, for so many hours, that they crave tons of “alone time.” Don't dare bother them while they're in the trance or you'll wreck hours of mental palace-building! In that sense, they remind me a lot of poets or novelists, who also prefer to work in long periods of immersive solitude.
But the truth is, coding is also just lots and lots and lots of practice. If you’re willing to put in your 10,000 hours, almost anyone can learn to do it reasonably well. It’s not magic, and they’re not magicians. They just work hard!
Women originally dominated the profession but are now just a sliver of tech companies’ programmers. Why and how did they get pushed out?
For a bunch of reasons. [Early on,] you saw tons of women in coding because [hiring] was based purely on aptitude and merit, being good at logic, and good at reasoning. But, beginning of late 1960s and early ’70s, coding began developing the idea [a coder] ought to be something that is more like a grumpy introverted man. Some of that was just a lot of introverted grumpy men starting flocking to coding.
[At the time,] Corporations [realized] software wasn’t just this little side-thing that may be on their payroll, but it was a huge thing that became central to their organization, e.g. how they made decisions and how they gathered data. The companies went, ‘Well, we’re going to have coders, they need to be potentially able rise up into manager.’ Back then, no one hired women for management.
So, you see a woman who’s potentially really good at coding, but you’re like, ‘I’m sorry, we're not going to make her manager 15 years later,’ so they don't even bother hiring her for coding. Even when you had female coders on staff, when you're crashing on a big project, and everyone's working full time, the women have to go home. There were literally company rules saying that women can’t be on premises after eight o'clock at night, and laws in some states saying if they’re pregnant they had to leave their job.
At the same time at the universities, for the first 20 years of computer science degrees, you've seen men and women’s interest going up and up and up. Then in the mid-1980s, something happened. All those kids like me [mostly male] who grew up programming those first computers started arriving on campus. That created a dichotomy in the classroom. In that first year of class, it felt like a bunch of cocky boys who knew how to code already and a bunch of neophytes of men and primarily women who hadn’t done it before. The professors start teaching for the hacker kids. And so, all the women and the men who hadn’t coded before start dropping out. And the classes start becoming all male and also essentially going, ‘Y’know we shouldn't let anyone into this program if they haven't been hacking for four years already.’
There are knock-on effects. The industry becomes very, very male, it starts expecting that it's normal for women not to be there. It isn’t seen as a problem that needs to be fixed and is never challenged at universities and companies. So women would just leave and go do something else with their talents. Really, it's only been in the last decade that academia and companies started to reckon with the fact that culture exists, and is calcified, and needs to dealt with.Young boys programming on a computer in 1982. (Denver Post / Contributor)
It turns out the blanket term “hackers” is a bit of a misnomer.
When the public hears the word “hacker” they usually think of someone who's breaking into computer systems to steal information. If you're hanging out with actual coders, though, they call that a “cracker.”
To coders, the word “hacker” means something much different, and much more complimentary and fun. To them, a “hacker” is anyone who's curious about how a technical system works, and who wants to poke around in it, figure it out, and maybe get it to do something weird and new. They're driven by curiosity. When they say “hacking” they're usually just talking about having done some fun and useful coding—making a little tool to solve a problem, figuring out how to take an existing piece of code and getting it to do something new and useful. When they say something is a good "hack", they mean any solution that solves a problem, even it’s done quickly and messily: The point is, hey, a problem was solved!
Most people outside the tech world know about coders and Silicon Valley from pop culture depictions. What do these representations miss? What do they get right?
Traditionally, most characterizations of coders in movies and TV were terrible. Usually they showed them doing stuff that’s essentially impossible—like hacking into the Pentagon or the air-traffic controls system with a few keystrokes. And they almost alwaysfocused on the dark-side idea of “hacking,” i.e. breaking into remote systems. I understand why; it made for good drama!
But what real programmers do all day long isn't anywhere near so dramatic. Indeed, a lot of time they're not writing code at all: They're staring at the screen, trying to figure out what's wrong in their code. Coders on TV and the big screen are constantly typing, their fingers in a blur, the code pouring out of them. In the real world, they're just sitting there thinkingmost of the time. Hollywood has never been good at capturing the actual work of coding, which is enduring constant frustration as you try to make a busted piece of code finally work.
That said, there have recently been some better depictions of coders! “Silicon Valley” is a comedy that parodied the smug excesses of tech, so they did a fun job of skewering all the gauzy rhetoric from tech founders and venture capitalists about how their tech was going to “make the world a better place.” But they often captured coder psychology really well. The coders would often get weirdly obsessed with optimizing seemingly silly things, and that's exactlyhow real-life coders think. And they'd do their best work in long, epic, isolated, into-the-night jags—also very realistic.
Meanwhile, “Mr. Robot” does a great job of showing what real hacking looks like—if there was a piece of code on-screen, it often actually worked! “Halt and Catch Fire” was another good one, showing how a super-talented coder could simultaneously be amazing at writing code but terrible at imaging a useful product that regular people would want to use. That’s very realistic.
Why do you think coders didn’t foresee how platforms like Twitter and Facebook could be manipulated by bad actors?
They were naive, for a bunch of reasons. One is that they were mostly younger white guys who'd had little personal experience of the sorts of harassment that women or people of color routinely face online. So for them, creating a tool that makes it easier for people to post things online, to talk to each other online—what could go wrong with that? And to be fair, they were indeed correct: Society has benefited enormouslyfrom the communication tools that they created, at Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Reddit or anywhere else. But because they hadn’t war-gamed the ways that miscreants and trolls could use their systems to harass people, they didn’t—early on—put in many useful safeguards to prevent it, or even to spot it going on.
The financial models for all these services were “make it free, grow quickly, get millions of users, and then sell ads.” That's a great way to grow quickly, but it also means they put in place algorithms to sift through the posts and find the “hot” ones to promote. That, in turn, meant they wound up mostly boosting the posts that triggered hot-button emotions—things that triggered partisan outrage, or anger, or hilarity. Any system that's sifting through billions of posts a day looking for the fast-rising ones is, no surprise, going to ignore dull-and-measured posts and settle on extreme ones.
And of course, that makes those systems easy to game. When Russian-affiliated agents wanted to interfere with the 2016 election, they realized all they had to do was post things on Facebook that pretended to be Americans taking extreme and polarizing positions on political issues—and those things would get shared and promoted and upvoted in the algorithms. It worked.
Americans are still coming to terms with the role these Big Tech companies play in our politics. How is that reckoning playing out among their employees?
You’re seeing more ethical reflections amongst more employees. I’ve heard tales of Facebook employees who are now a bit embarrassed to admit where they work when they’re at parties. That’s new; it wasn't so long ago that people would boast about it. And you're also seeing some fascinating labor uprisings. Google and Microsoft have recently had everything from staff petitions to staff walkouts when tech employees decided they didn't like their companies’ work for the military or [immigration enforcement]. That’s also very new and likely to grow. The tech firms are desperate to hire and retain tech staff—if their employees grow restive, it’s an Achilles heel.
Your book is chock-full of great anecdotes and stories. Is there one in particular you think is the most illuminating about the tech industry and coders?
One of my favorites is about the “Like” button on Facebook. The coders and designers who invented it originally hoped it would unlock positivity on the platform—by making it one-button-click easy to show you liked something. It was a classic efficiency ploy, the sort of way coders look at the world. And it worked! It really did unlock a ton of positivity.
But it quickly created weird, unexpected, and sometimes bad side effects. People started obsessingover their Likes: Why isn’t my photo getting more likes? Should I post a different one? Should I say something more extreme or more angry to get attention? A half-decade later, the folks who invented “Like” had much more complex thoughts about what they’d created. Some of them have stepped away from using social media much at all.
It’s a great story, because it shows how powerful even a small piece of code can be—and also how it can have side-effects that even its creators can’t foresee.
My love affair began dubiously one night at a restaurant in Venice 19 years ago when, as Americans are wont to do, I reflexively ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigio. The waiter returned with a bottle of his choosing and poured me a glass. Drinking it was like taking the first bite into a ripe golden apple, piercingly tart. I grabbed the bottle and studied the label as if it might contain the nuclear codes.
VENICA—that was the name of the producer. Below it: COLLIO. The word meant nothing to me; the word now meant everything to me. Later I did my due diligence. “Collio”—a derivation of the Italian word for “hill”—was the preeminent winegrowing district in the region just east of Venice, Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Never heard of the place. Truthfully, it had not occurred to me that there was any more east to go in Italy after Venice.
I caught a train to the immaculate small town of Cormons one morning in September. The trip took two hours and deposited me a mile from the city center. I closed the distance on foot and arrived at the tourist information center, which in fact was a wine bar, the Enoteca di Cormons. Several men with big red hands and redder faces were toasting and guffawing and flirting with the two women behind the bar, who in turn were pouring and fending off catcalls with practiced calm. Though I didn’t know it yet, the men were some of the region’s most illustrious winemakers, and the harvest was now behind them, though the revelry occurred year-round. I was in search of a bicycle to go visit the Venica winery. One of the bartenders, a hawkeyed woman named Lucia, spoke English and pointed me to a nearby hotel. Then she pulled out a map of the Collio wine district and traced the route to Venica in the village of Dolegna.
I mounted the only bicycle the hotel had to offer, a lowly specimen with half-deflated tires, and followed the signs to Dolegna. The air was crisp, the country road narrow and largely vacant. Just outside Cormons, the landscape exploded into cascades of terraced vines. I was immersed in a wine country I had not known existed. Twice I passed signs that read CONFINE DEL STATO. The Italian border. Slovenia lay a hundred yards yonder— indistinguishable from this sliver of Italy—and Slavic surnames were on the signs of many Friulian wineries I passed. I peddled onward. A castle loomed overhead to my right. The Judrio River to my left. Vines all around. Seven miles from where I had begun, Dolegna materialized, then disappeared, in 30 seconds’ time. Just past that finger-snap of civilization, a yellow sign pointed to the Venica winery.
The slender woman who greeted me inside the gates of the neatly manicured property was Ornella Venica, the winery’s domestic sales manager and wife of Gianni Venica, one of the two brothers who made the wine. I was at the time a writer for a Texas magazine, covered in sweat, with maybe 15 words to my Italian vocabulary and a boundless ignorance of the country’s territory to show for myself. Ornella sat me down beside a long wooden table. She poured me perhaps ten of Venica’s wines, most of them white, many with obscure grape names: Tocai Friulano, Malvasia Istriana, Ribolla Gialla, Refosco. I loved so many of them but had only one backpack. I bought four bottles, thanked her and returned to Cormons. Back at the enoteca, Lucia quickly snagged me a dinner reservation. She circled a spot on my map, just outside Cormons, and wrote down the name: La Subida.
The restaurant was illuminated and teeming with Austrians and Slovenians, many of them dressed regally, as if for the opera. The proprietress, Loredana Sirk, welcomed me with a face that radiated saintly patience. She strode past her elderly mother-in-law, tending to a child I took to be Loredana’s little boy, and showed me to a table beside a crackling fireplace where her husband, Josko, was grilling polenta. Their 16-year-old daughter, Tanja, came to take my order. There was no menu. We had no language in common. With some abashment, Tanja pantomimed various offerings. I nodded to several. Josko Sirk sidled up with a ham hock on a cart and carved slices onto my plate. He poured white wine from a bottle with a large, rough-hewn letter K written on the label. The surging wine by Edi Keber and the buttery prosciutto by Gigi D’Osvaldo were a Friulian shotgun wedding in my throat. Then came venison carpaccio, Slovenian stuffed pasta, roasted veal shank, an armada of local cheeses. The last train out of Cormons would leave in 20 minutes. Josko called me a cab. We reached the station with three minutes to spare. I sat on the train with my backpack at my feet, gaping half asleep as we chugged through darkness westward toward the Venice I had always loved. It now seemed less exotic, too familiar, farther from my heart.
That was 1996. I have been back to Friuli maybe 30 times since—sometimes for as long as a month, other times only for a day when I’m elsewhere in Italy and cannot bear the thought of missing at least a fleeting glimpse of the paradise I now see it as. I have come in springtime, when a gorgeous rash of wild cherry blossoms haloes the territory; in the warm growing months, when the Collio hills achieve a lascivious verdancy; in the harvest months of September and October, when the leaves are gold and maroon and the producers raucously celebrate their bounty; and in winter, when all is wood smoke and porcini mushrooms. I now frequent the austere seaside provincial capital of Trieste, make occasional pilgrimages to the craggy Dolomites off to the northwest and cross over into the somnolent hill villages of western Slovenia during nearly every visit. But mostly I stay in Cormons, essentially reenacting that first lover’s leap nearly two decades ago.
A few notable things have changed in that time span. I now speak passable Italian. Lucia has left the enoteca to work for a winery; her replacement, Elena, is equally savvy and sympathetic. The enoteca’s habitués—among them Edi Keber, Dario Raccaro, Franco Toros, Paolo Rizzi, Roberto Picech, Andrea Magnas and Igor Erzetic, superbly skilled winemakers who in fact own the place as a cooperative—now greet me with fond insults and lavishly fill my glass. Giampaolo Venica, Gianni’s 35-year-old son, is a close friend who made me best man at his wedding five years ago. La Subida is now a Michelin-star restaurant. Josko and Loredana Sirk remain its overseers, but daughter Tanja—now 34 and the wife of La Subida’s brilliant chef, Alessandro Gavagna—runs the floor, along with the little boy I once knew, her brother Mitja, today the restaurant’s 22-year-old sommelier.
Image by Fabrizio Giraldi. At the Enoteca di Cormons, under sun-yellow umbrellas, tourists sample regional wine. (original image)
Image by Fabrizio Giraldi. Wine bites include traditional cicchetti, tiny sandwiches often filled with local sweet ham. (original image)
Image by Fabrizio Giraldi. Giampaolo Venica (at left) offers a tasting to an American tourist visiting the cantina at his Venica & Venica vineyard in the medieval town of Gorizia. (original image)
Image by Fabrizio Giraldi. Accordion-accompanied traditional dancers in Cormons wear clothing that reflects both Venetian and Slavic influences. (original image)
One other important change: The world is now discovering Friuli’s wines. It’s now widely understood that Italy’s finest white wines are produced here—that the region’s equidistance from the Austrian Alps to the north and the Adriatic Sea to the south has created a sunny and breezy micro-climate that conspires with the marlstone soil to yield grapes of astonishing fragrance and minerality. Like my first glass of Venica Pinot Grigio, the wines tremble on the tongue but are finally focused and persistent—a silver bullet to the palate, the very opposite of the buttery California Chardonnays Americans tend to associate with white wine. It happens that excellent red wines are also made here—particularly Merlots of surprising power and elegance—along with daring “orange wines” fermented in ceramic amphorae. But one properly goes elsewhere for noble reds (Piedmont and Burgundy) or for age-worthy whites (Chablis and again Burgundy) and seeks out Friuli for wines that evoke a place that remains as fresh and untrammeled as when I first laid eyes on it.
The world still does not come to Friuli. No tourist buses, no guides with hoisted flags, no selfie sticks contaminate the region. I find this as baffling as it is refreshing. Some of Tiepolo’s finest paintings reside in the dignified city of Udine, the artist’s second home. The beaches just beyond Grado are pale and seldom visited. The history of this oft-conquered gateway to the sea lies all around. Evidence of Julius Caesar’s reach pervades the ruins of Aquileia and the charming walled city of Cividale that the emperor founded in 50 b.c. The Austro-Hungarian occupation is still manifest in the monuments and architecture throughout Cormons. World War I’s devastation—felt in Friuli as nowhere else in Italy—is memorialized throughout the region, though most strikingly at the towering mausoleum in Redipuglia, built on orders of Mussolini, as well as in the war museum at the neighboring Slovenian town of Caporetto depicting the battle of the same name, immortalized in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. One also finds traces of Hitler’s malevolence in the old rice factory converted into a concentration camp on the outskirts of Trieste, and of Soviet militancy in the ubiquitous border checkpoints, abandoned for good just a decade ago. A visitor can lodge in castles or in wineries, taste prosciutto and aged Montasio cheese that rival their counterparts in Parma, climb mountains or cycle through the hills, or accumulate calories through the heavenly Austro-Slavic-Mediterranean amalgam that is Friulian cuisine.
But until they do, it’s my place.
I returned this summer and made a beeline to the Enoteca di Cormons, as always. Elena wanted me to try a glass from a new producer in his 20s, Andrea Drius of Terre del Faet. His savory, silken Malvasia flickered in my mouth like a ballerina. I took my place at a corner table to get some writing done. Elena brought over prosciutto and cheese. The gregarious Igor Erzetic ambled over, delivered a glass of his transcendent white blend Capo Branko and said with a grin, “buon lavoro” (good work), before returning to his spot at the bar.
I stayed on this visit at the exquisite bed-and-breakfast of the Cormons winemaker Roberto Picech and his wife, Alessia, in a room overlooking the martial formation of their vines. Early in the evening Elena walked over from her nearby house, where she and her husband also grow grapes that they sell to some of the local winemakers. Roberto poured us a sumptuous glass of Tocai Friulano named after his daughter, Athena. Then I dined at La Subida. Tanja, now a mother of two, bustled from table to table, while Mitja sported a scruffy beard as he expertly guided me to a wine that would stand up to the grilled venison topped with trout eggs served up by Alessandro. It was a cool summer night, and among the locals there was much anxious talk about the plump grapes evident throughout the Collio. A great harvest seemed imminent.
The following afternoon I was driving through Cormons when the skies suddenly went black. I retreated into the enoteca to wait out the rain. Fifteen minutes later the sunlight had reappeared, and I returned to my car. On the way uphill to Picech’s winery, I saw Elena standing outside, sweeping her sidewalk with a grimace on her face. I got out to see what was wrong.
“Grandine,” she said, pointing to a rocky carpet of hailstones at her feet. In a ten-minute fusillade, nearly half the immediate area’s grapes had been destroyed. For the Cormonesi, the once promising 2015 vintage was an economic disaster.
There was only one recourse. “Una cena di disperazione,” Elena decided aloud as she began dialing neighboring winemakers. A dinner of despair. I told her that I was in.
That night eight of us sat around her table, with at least that number of wine bottles uncorked. Laughter came often and without effort. The vines, one could say, were half full. “Dio da, Dio prende,” Alessia Picech said to me at one point—God gives, God takes—and her smile betrayed just a hint of melancholy as she slid the bottle my way.
— The author's favorite Friuli wines —
Venica, Ronco delle Mele Sauvignon Blanc: Italy’s most acclaimed Sauvignon Blanc, with a galloping Sambuca aroma and a racy effervescence.
Raccaro Malvasia Istriana: The very best rendition of this saline, somewhat introverted varietal that marries perfectly with most seafood.
Toros Friulano: When Franco Toros first poured me his version of the Friulano (formerly known as Tocai) grape, he described its intensity and almond aftertaste to me as “supersonico.” I’ll go with that.
Branko Pinot Grigio: For those who consider this ubiquitous grape to be hopelessly banal, this apple-crisp and soaring white wine offers a powerful rebuttal.
Picech Jelka Collio Bianco: A deeply personal (“Jelka” is the first name of Roberto Picech’s mother) expression of the territory, blending three indigenous varietals—Friulano, Malvasia Istriana, and Ribolla Gialla—to memorably elegant effect.
(All available in the United States)
Read more from the Venice Issue of the Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly.
It wasn't the first North Pole, but it was supposed to be the biggest. The fact that it was 1,600 miles from the geographic North Pole, smack in the heart of interior Alaska, was a minor detail.
When Bob and Bernice Davis came to Fairbanks in early April 1944, they weren't looking for the North Pole. As they drove their rental car out of town, they had something else on their mind: finding 160 acres on which to make their homestead, something Alaska law allowed if they used the area for trading or manufacturing purposes. The stretch of land they chose along Richardson Highway, Alaska's first major road, was generally unremarkable, dotted with craggy scrub trees and brush, and home to little more than the typical Alaskan residents of foxes, rabbits, squirrels and wolves. In the summer, nearby streams might attract graylings and waterfowl, but in the snow-covered month of April, it was hard to see that potential. The area did boast one unique quality: consistently cooler temperatures, about seven to ten degrees colder than anywhere else in interior Alaska. When the couple was tossing around potential names for their homestead, ideas like Icy Junction and Icicle Crossing came up, but none stuck.
With its proximity to both the highway and Fairbanks, the Davis' homestead soon attracted neighbors, who bought parcels from the couple for a small fee. By the mid-1950s, the homestead had also attracted the attention of the Dahl and Gaske Development Company, who purchased the land—nearly in its entirety—in February 1952. Dahl and Gaske sold some of the homestead as lots and turned others into a used car shop and grocery store. But their vision for commercial development was much grander. If they could change the homestead's name to North Pole, they reasoned, toy manufacturers would flock from far and wide for the sake of being able to print the moniker on their merchandise.
Thing didn't go according to plan—even with its location right on Richardson Highway, the Alaskan North Pole was too remote to sustain manufacturing and shipping. However, part of Dahl and Gaske's vision eventually did take shape at a local trading post, which became one of several places that claimed to be Santa Claus' home during the 20th century.
The real Santa Claus—the historical figure upon which the legend is based—never lived anywhere near the North Pole. Saint Nicholas of Myra was a fourth-century bishop who lived and died far from the Arctic Circle, in what is now Turkey. Born into a wealthy family, Nicholas is said to have loved giving gifts, once throwing three sacks of gold coins into the house of a poor family, thereby saving the home's three daughters from a life of prostitution. Nicholas was also a favorite among sailors, who prayed to him during rough seas. The sailors spread Nicholas' story around the world, turning him into one of the most popular saints in Christendom.
When he died, Nicholas' bones remained in Myra (now Demre), the coastal city where he had served as bishop. Pilgrims flocked to Myra by the thousands to visit his remains, which became the town's main attraction. At a time when the relics of saints could bring major power and prestige, the bones became so popular that they inspired jealousy. In the 11th century, thieves stole Nicholas' bones from Myra, taking them to the Italian port city of Bari. Throughout the Middle Ages, Bari drew thousands of pilgrims, and the city became a must-visit destination for those wanting to pay homage. However, Venice also claims parts of Nicholas, swearing that they stole some of the bones from Myra way back during the First Crusade. Today, both towns attract the saint's devotees.
Santa's red robes and gift-giving habits were based on Saint Nicholas, but his chilly home base is the invention of Victorian cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose famous depiction of Santa Claus in a December 1866 issue of Harper's Weekly set the precedent for our modern image of the jolly old elf. Before Nast, Santa had no specific home, though by the 1820s he was already associated with reindeer and, by extension, the frigid climes in which those reindeer live. And though Nast located Santa in the North Pole, the spot itself might as well have been legend: it would be nearly half a century before the first explorers would claim to have reached the geographic North Pole.Santa's Workshop at North Pole, New York (Wikipedia)
For decades, Santa's home at the North Pole lived solely in Nast's cartoons and the fantasies of children. But in 1949, it took physical form for the first time, 13 miles from Lake Placid. While trying to keep his daughter occupied during a long drive, Julian Reiss, a New York businessman, reportedly told her a story about a baby bear who went on a great adventure to find Santa's workshop at the North Pole. Reiss' daughter demanded he make good on his story and take her to the workshop. Driving through the woods around Lake Placid en route to his family's summer home, Reiss saw an opportunity.
He teamed up with the artist Arto Monaco—who would eventually help design Disneyland in California—to create a physical version of Santa's workshop on 25 wooded acres around Lake Placid. Santa's Workshop in North Pole, New York, became one of America's first theme parks, and its novel depiction of Santa's magical workshop brought visitors by the thousands. People also loved the park's perpetual winter; even on a summer day in upstate New York, the "North Pole"—an actual pole made of two steel cylinders and a refrigerant coil—stayed frozen. Business grew rapidly. On its busiest day, in September 1951, the New York town drew more than 14,000 visitors, which for a remote theme park in the Adirondacks wasn't a bad haul.
Other businessmen found success drawing tourists with the Santa Claus legend without borrowing the Arctic landmark. America's first theme park, now Holiday World & Splashin' Safari in Santa Claus, Indiana, actually operated as "Santa Land" until 1984. It was built by retired industrialist Louis J. Koch, who wanted to create something for children who traveled to the town only to be disappointed by the lack of anything resembling its namesake. Santa Land opened in 1946 and featured toy shops, toy displays and amusement rides. Like the New York destination, Santa Land attracted tourists by the thousands. By 1984, the theme park expanded to include other holidays, changing its name from Santa Land to Holiday World.
Holiday World still attracts over one million visitors annually. The North Pole outside Lake Placid, however, has seen its popularity wane, its tiny alpine cottages no longer able to draw in the crowds of half a century ago. Roadside theme parks of the 1950s, it seems, no longer fascinate the way they once did. But Santa Claus has always been compelling—and while his workshop on the outskirts of Lake Placid was beginning to fade into nostalgia, two different towns—one in Alaska, the other in Finland—laid their claim to the Santa legend.A mural alongside the Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska. (The Santa Claus House)
Like the Davises, Con and Nellie Miller weren't seeking Santa when they moved to Fairbanks. Con was a former military man looking for opportunity in post-World War II Alaska, whose spacious interior promised the potential for growth and development. He became a merchant, traveling to Alaska's interior villages to buy and trade furs and other goods. A shrewd businessman, he bought much of his product from stores going out of business, which is how he came to own a full Santa suit. Can would wear the suit on his trips to interior Alaska as something of a gimmick, and became the first Santa Claus many of the village children had ever seen.
Around 1952, the Millers decided to put down permanent roots and set up a trading post outside Fairbanks, near the Davis homestead in what would later be called the North Pole. One day, a group of children who had seen him dressed as Santa drove by and called out, "Hello Santa Claus, are you building a house?" An idea was born.
Santa Claus House opened in 1952, but it wasn't immediately Christmas-themed. It was a general store typical of post-World War II Alaska, selling mostly dry goods and servicing people driving on the Richardson Highway or at nearby military bases. The store also had a soda fountain, which became a de facto watering hole for the growing local community. For 20 years, Santa Claus House was even the town's official post office.
In 1972, Alaska rerouted the Richardson Highway, moving it away from the front door of Santa Clause House. By that time the store's purpose had also shifted, from dry goods to Santa-themed tourism. The Millers built a new storefront on the new highway, slowly but surely phasing out their inventory of canned goods in favor of Christmas trinkets.
"It rapidly shifted from being a general store and focused really quickly on the tourism market," explains Paul Brown, who today runs the Santa Claus House along with his wife Carissa, the Millers' granddaughter. "A lot of the military people that would come up here would want to buy something from North Pole and send it back, signed by Santa, to their families."
The house, which still operates and has a staff of about 50 employees, is far and away North Pole's primary attraction and a huge boon to the local economy. "North Pole is a very, very small community. Santa Claus House is a very, very large entity. It tends to dominate what people think of when they think of North Pole," Brown explains.
The house itself is a simple experience—a gift shop, Brown emphasizes, rather than an amusement park. But it does have what Brown calls "attraction elements"—a group of live reindeer outside of the shop, for instance, and the world's tallest Santa, which towers nearly 50 feet over the entrance. The house is also, as far as Brown sees it, the original home of Santa's letter, which the house has been producing since it opened its doors in 1952. They receive missives from nearly every country in the world—even North Korea and Iran, says Brown—and hundreds of thousands of requests each year for letters from Santa. The summer months are Santa Clause House's busiest for visitors, a consequence of Alaska's tourism seasons. Annually, the house draws in more than 100,000 visitors.
"We're Santa's house in the North Pole," Brown says. "If you want to meet the real guy, you come here." But Brown admits there are other places that claim equal ownership to Santa’s legend. "From a competitive standpoint, if you want to call it that, Rovaniemi, Finland, would be our biggest competition."Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland. (Rovaniemi)
Rovaniemi—the administrative and commercial capital of Lapland, Finland's northernmost province—wasn't much of a tourist destination before Santa Claus came to town. Lapland had served as a sort of nebulous home base for Santa Claus in the European tradition ever since 1927, when a Finnish radio host proclaimed to know the secret of Santa’s hometown. He said it was in Korvatunturi, a mountainous region in Lapland shaped like the ears of a rabbit. Santa used the ear-like mountains, the radio host explained, to eavesdrop on the children of the world and decide if they were being naughty or nice. Like the North Pole of Nast’s creation, however, Korvatunturi was real in theory but not necessarily to be visited.
Santa's home later moved 225 miles south to Rovaniemi, thanks to an American visitor. During World War II, Germans burned Rovaniemi to the ground, leaving Lapland's capital city in ruins. From those ashes, Rovaniemi rebuilt itself according to design plans that dictated its streets spread like reindeer antlers through the city. In 1950, on a tour of post-war reconstruction, Eleanor Roosevelt paid Rovaniemi a visit, allegedly saying she wanted to see Santa Claus while in the Arctic Circle. The town hastily constructed a cabin, and Santa’s Village in Rovaniemi was born. But tourism to Rovaniemi really took off in 1984, when companies began packaging pre-Christmas trips to the Lapland capital. The Santa Claus Village now attracts some 500,000 visitors each year.
What of the other places that claim Santa lives within their borders? "Rovaniemi recognizes that there are many other places that make the claim," Henri Anund, a communications officer for Rovaniemi tourism, wrote in an e-mail, "but Rovaniemi is the only Official Hometown of Santa Claus, and Santa Claus Office in Santa Claus Village is the only place in the world where you can meet Santa Claus 365 days a year." Rovaniemi also doles out letters from Santa to children all around the world (for a small fee).
Like Saint Nicholas' relics proved centuries ago, you don't need a flesh-and-blood Santa Claus to turn a small town into a tourist destination. For North Pole, Alaska, and Rovaniemi, Finland, Santa Claus creates an economy where there are few natural attractions. But the hometowns seem to embody more than just a kitschy grab for dollars. Brown, for his part, sees himself as safeguarding the legend of Santa Claus—the house refuses to have a Twitter account, for example, in case it might dilute Santa's magic. "We are very protective of the magic of Christmas and allowing kids to have that for as long as they can have it," Brown says. "Just like Santa is the embodiment of joy and goodwill, we think of ourselves as one of the embodiments of the spirit of Santa."
When I arrived in Catalonia in 2012, the two things that struck me most were Catalan nationalism and human towers called castells. People were often talking about the global economic crisis threatening the European dream of the welfare state, that there’s “no future” in Catalonia.
Yet, on Sunday mornings, thousands of people wake up very early, get in their cars, and drive to one of over twenty locations to construct something collectively. In other words, we can think of this as an expression of raw national optimism.
Castells were first documented as a cultural form in 1801. They appeared in Tarragona, a rural and religious province of Catalonia. With nineteenth century industrialization, they became a traditional practice, central to popular nationalist celebrations. At the end of the nineteenth century, the “Golden Era of Castells,” groups were even able to build human towers of up to nine levels of people standing on each other’s shoulders.
However, fewer people practiced the tradition with the advent of the economic crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the lowest point, there were only two castells groups in the whole country. During Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from 1939 to 1975, the regime forced the two main colles (teams) to merge, and there was no significant development of the practice until 1981.
The transition to democracy generated significant changes in Catalan social life, including the resurgence of popular street festivals and celebrations and the formation of twenty-three castellsgroups. It became a modern practice, in urban settings instead of just rural ones. Team members gained social prestige, and they went through a process of internal democratization, allowing women in the groups for the first time. They were also professionalized, with regular team practices and a study of technique. A growing number of groups also began to receive economic support from their towns.
These changes meant that castells are now thriving. Previously seen only in southern Catalonia, the tradition is now practiced in the entirety of the country and has become one of most representative Catalan cultural practices, even designated by UNESCO as Representative Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Now 15,000 people in more than 100 groups practice across Catalonia. Its transformations demonstrate the power of the Catalan culture to evolve and adapt to new social circumstances, bringing together tradition and modernity.
Pablo Giori is a specialist in the dialogue between popular culture and nationalism in Catalonia and Quebec. He also works as a researcher and photography exhibition curator. He is a research associate at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and an advisor for the Catalonia program at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
This July I had the privilege to serve as an interpreter and presenter at the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program Colombia: La Naturaleza de la Cultura
This July I had the privilege to serve as an interpreter and presenter at the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program Colombia: La Naturaleza de la Cultura. It was an incredible experience for me as a Colombian living abroad. What an absolute gift it was to inundate myself with the beautiful energy and the richness of my culture and to have had the opportunity to translate and transmit the knowledge and traditions of my home country to an English-speaking audience in Washington, D.C.
I was born and raised in Colombia, but I left the country twelve years ago. I currently reside in D.C. During the Festival, it was as if a miniature version of my country had traveled and installed itself on the National Mall; I couldn't believe it! All of a sudden, I was in the city where I live, but I was also in Colombia. What’s more, the exhibitions not only transported me to my native city Bogotá, but to all of Colombia: I was in the highlands; I was in the wet forest of the Pacific; I was in the Amazon; I was in the Llanos… I was suddenly immersed in the geographical and cultural diversity of my country and absorbing it in a very intense way from the true bearers of the traditions and culture who had travelled to the Festival to share their knowledge.
The 'ecosystem' that I worked in as an interpreter was the Pacific rainforest, the Chocó region. Before and during the Festival, I went through the process of absorbing and learning about the cultural practices of this region through my own research and by reading the material that the Smithsonian and the Fundación Erigaie in Colombia had produced as preparation for the Festival; but more importantly through active conversations with the participants who came to Washington to teach us about la cultura chocoana (the cultural practices from Chocó). I spent most of my time with the cantadoras de alabaos (singers of alabaos, which are songs sang a cappella during funerals). I served as interpreter during the demonstrations of the balasadas, which are river processions that honor the patron saints of the Chocó, San Francisco and San Antonio. I also helped with other presentations showcasing Pacific ecosystem artists, including those of woodworkers, artisans who create products from palm fiber, and cooks who demonstrated such regional specialities as the “arroz claváo.”
As an interpreter, I was constantly learning, absorbing, observing, listening, and simultaneously translating, transmitting this information to the public. It was intense, it was challenging, but it was incredibly rewarding. One of my most important realizations during the Festival was how the "off-stage" moments could become key experiences of rich cultural connection and dialogue. Some of the strongest and truly engaging moments happened in the “in-betweens” before and after formal performances.
Here's a descriptions of one of these off-stage moments:
Toward the last days of the Festival, I was resting with Cruz Neyla, one of the funeral singers, after a performance. She had come from Andagoya, Chocó, to perform what she frequently practices in her village during the funerals of family and community members. We were sitting by the empty coffin that was part of the performative demonstrations of the alabaos and the gualíes, which took place twice a day. She began to tell me about how she sang an alabao to her mother the night of her passing. Her expression tightened, and I could tell that this had occurred recently and that she still held a lot of pain and was grieving. I realized at that moment that we were talking about a specific practice in her local culture—the singing of the alabao— but also about something entirely universal, the grief of losing a loved one.
A minute later, a Festival visitor approached us with her young son. She was drawn by the presence of the coffin and of this unusual setting, and she asked us what this space was all about. After we described the regional funeral traditions for her, she asked Cruz Neyla if she could sing a little to her and Cruz Neyla gladly agreed.
Cruz Neyla began to sing in a way that I hadn't seen during previous alabao presentations for the public. I knew she was singing to her mother. She was singing with her eyes closed and in the middle of the song she stopped; she couldn't continue. She began to cry. The visitor’s eyes began to water as well, and she told me that her father had just passed away. Cruz Neyla looked at her and told her that she had also recently lost her mother and that she was singing to her. They looked at each other, and I knew that they were connecting without speaking. I translated to each of them what the other was saying but at that moment I knew that translation wasn’t necessary. These two women were communicating in such a genuine and profound way, they were completely connected at that instant by the grief and the beauty of that song that Cruz Neyla sang to her deceased mother. I feel that this moment was a perfect example of how cultural expression and traditions can truly be external and localized manifestations of universal realities of the human condition.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival achieves, in my opinion, an ideal form of showcasing traditional cultures. The participation of cultural bearers opens up the space for spontaneous and pure expressions of culture. The participants understand that their customs are considered valuable, and so during the Festival they feel proud, and they take this pedagogical exchange extremely seriously. During the ten days of the Festival, I witnessed many meaningful and genuine cultural exchanges. These encounters inspired new questions. And for a brief span of time, new means of connecting arose among all those who interacted. For me, the experience of participating in these exchanges was absolutely unforgettable.
Click on the image below to enlarge and view the gallery.
Catalina Gómez was born in Bogotá, Colombia. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she works as a program assistant in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. She earned her bachelor’s degree in visual arts and Latin American literature from the University of California, San Diego; and she holds a master's degree in visual culture from the University of Barcelona (Barcelona, Spain). She has a strong passion for literature, cultural studies, and the arts --she also works independently as an illustrator.
Venim del nord,
venim del sud,
de terra endins,
de mar enllà
We come from the north,
we come from the south,
from beyond the sea
—Lluis Llach, artist-activist
It is said that the Basque are born wherever they want. Although the saying does not exist for Catalans, it is true for us as well.
Unlike other national identities which are inherited, immigrants can become Catalan through speaking the language, living in the territory, sharing its values, and participating in life in the plaza. Ting and Souley, as two examples, have always been Catalan, even though their origins are outside of Catalonia.
“I feel Catalan. It’s clear,” Souley, age twenty-five, told me. “I was born here, and my life is here. I’ve been to Gambia only a couple of times. I don’t identify with Spanish symbols. I would say that I am Catalan, with Gambian origins.”
Immigration in Catalonia can be divided into two big chapters: one that took place within Spain between 1920 and 1970, and one international that extends from 1990 to today. Toward the end of the first period, 50 percent of Catalans had at least one parent who was not born in Catalonia; today, 28 percent have a parent born outside of Spain. Demographers believe that without immigration, the population of Catalonia would be half of what it is now. This level of diversity, similar to statistics in the United States and Argentina, show that the current Catalan society is a direct result of immigration. Many immigrants have decided to stay, because it feels like home.
There are many reasons to migrate: work, school, love, etc. Souley’s parents met in Gambia. His father arrived in Catalonia first to study, and his mother followed. They settled in a small coastal town where they were the first immigrants of color. Ting’s parents came from China, and they decided to relocate to Barcelona for work and because of China’s one-child policy.
Although there are differences between their families, Ting and Souley both grew up in the Catalan school system, which is based on language immersion. From the time they were children, they have taken in this surrounding culture—everything from popular to traditional—as their own.
“I have never felt like an immigrant or anything else, but because of my skin color I have thought to myself, this person perceives me as other,” Souley explained. Those perceptions are challenged when people hear an other speaking fluent Catalan. Souley speaks Catalan with his brothers. Ting speaks Catalan too.
Discrimination exists everywhere, but its magnitude and the ways in which a society handles its negative effects can sway people deciding to stay or not stay. Ting is often discriminated against because of his Asian features, but from his point of view, he sees that this happens all over the world. Humans reject those they do not know until they have the opportunity to be in direct contact with that diversity. It is there that the conflicts ends.
“When they hear you speaking Catalan, no one doubts it anymore,” Ting, age twenty, said. “But looks can be deceiving. There’s never been a better saying.” For many, “Catalan-ness” comes from speaking the language or by being born in the region, but there are other ways of becoming Catalan, of becoming part of this cultural community.
Besides going to school and speaking Catalan, Ting and Souley are members of colles castellers, human tower building clubs. Souley has been involved since he was a child, and Ting was attracted to it as a way to spend time with friends. This experience within an accessible cultural and popular practice has changed their lives.
“I don’t think that anyone who has built castells (towers) and spent lots of time in a colla (club) can ever lose the passion that we feel,” Souley said.
For Ting, the club is like a big family, the good and the bad, and a space for socialization while reaching a common objective. The castells—like choirs or sports teams—are much more than just human towers. Members stay because they find a family that they choose, that supports them, a support network that makes them feel like they belong to something.
By participating in activities like human tower building, immigrants have the option of choosing their identity. It’s a highly personal choice that may differ even among siblings who were born in the same place. While Ting identifies as Catalan, his sister gravitated more toward Spanish culture. There is a nine-year age gap and a world between them: he votes leftist, and she votes for the Spanish right-wing party. He is catalanista (Catalan nationalist), and she is españolista (Spanish nationalist). They may choose to leave their country, and they can decide to stay and form their own identity given the choices society offers. In this sense, each society manages the tension between internal diversity and assimilation, both in regards to immigrants and in the cultural and national differences within states or countries.
What is evident is that Catalan society has made it easy for immigrants to become Catalan, because of the way they manage this tension. In my opinion, some societies are more accustomed to handling diversity because they are better at adapting. To become part of a place, we need to accept one another, and we need others to connect with us as equals.
We can say that a “welcoming society” is one that is comprised of people who connect with others who come from abroad. With the resulting mixture of people from here and people from there, everyone can become Catalan. Those who are born here would not be Catalan without those who come from other places. A Catalan is not born, but made—and that is a true gift.
Originally from Argentina, Pablo Giori is a specialist in the dialogue between popular culture and civil society in Catalonia and Quebec. He also works as a researcher and photography exhibition curator in the National Archive of Catalonia. He is a research associate at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and an advisor for the Catalonia program at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Convertirse en catalán
Venim del nord,
venim del sud,
de terra endins,
de mar enllà.
Dicen que los vascos nacen donde quieren, de los catalanes no se dice, pero es verdad. Ting y Souley son catalanes de toda la vida, pero sus orígenes son diversos: parecen inmigrantes porque se ven diferentes, pero no lo son. A diferencia de otros territorios, los inmigrantes de segunda generación en Cataluña no se autoconsideran inmigrantes: haber nacido aquí otorga la condición de catalán. Como me dijo Souley:
“Yo me siento catalán, es evidente. Nací aquí y aquí hice mi vida, a Gambia he ido únicamente un par de veces. Dicho esto, mi identidad es claramente catalana, no me siento identificado con los símbolos españoles. Yo diría que soy catalán, con orígenes gambianos”.
Los padres de Ting vinieron de la China y, por cuestiones laborales y por la política del hijo único, decidieron quedarse en Barcelona. Los padres de Souley se conocieron en Gambia, su padre vino a estudiar en España y luego vino su madre, instalándose en un pequeño pueblo costero donde fueron los primeros inmigrantes de color. Si bien en sus familias hay grandes diferencias, ambos se han socializado en la escuela catalana basada en la inmersión lingüística y han consumido desde pequeños esta cultura, la de los medios de comunicación pero también la cultura popular y tradicional.
Las razones para venir son múltiples (trabajo, estudios, amor, etc.) y cada uno se queda como puede porque aquí se siente como en casa. A los inmigrantes y a sus hijos se los ven como si fuesen diferentes, tienen rasgos que denuncian sus orígenes, pero estos no importan, cuando hablan catalán se diluyen las dudas: “Yo nunca me he sentido inmigrante ni mucho menos, pero por el tema del color de piel sí que alguna vez me he pensado: esta persona me ve como a un diferente” (Souley). La catalanidad se hace a partir de la lengua o de haber nacido aquí, pero también hay otras formas de devenir catalán, de formar parte de esta comunidad cultural.
Souley y sus hermanos hablan en catalán entre ellos, a diferencia de Ting y su hermana que rechaza lo catalán. Entre ambos hay nueve años de diferencia y un mundo que les separada: él vota izquierda y ella al partido hegemónico de la derecha en España y él es catalanista y ella españolista. A partir de este ejemplo podemos ver como los inmigrantes pueden elegir lo que quieren ser, incluso siendo hermanos y habiendo nacido en el mismo lugar y en la misma familia. Ellos pueden relativamente elegir irse de su país con un ideal de a dónde van y pueden decidir quedarse y cómo hacerlo, según lo que cada sociedad les ofrezca. En este sentido, cada sociedad gestiona la tensión entre la diversidad interna y su voluntad homogeneizadora, tanto en relación con las personas inmigrantes como con las diferencias culturales y nacionales dentro de los propios Estados. Para hacernos de un lugar tenemos que querer, hay algo que nos hace quedarnos, pero también los otros tienen que querer compartir con nosotros como sus iguales. La discriminación existe en todos lados, pero su profundidad y la gestión que se hace de sus efectos negativos marca la diferencia de todos estos jóvenes que la viven en carne propia y que según eso, querrán, o no, quedarse a aquí para siempre.
A Ting suelen discriminarle por sus rasgos asiáticos, pero ha entendido que en todo el mundo es igual, que los humanos rechazamos lo que no conocemos, hasta que tenemos la oportunidad de entrar en contacto con la diversidad y es ahí donde los conflictos se acaban: “Cuando te escuchan hablar en catalán ya nadie duda, las apariencias engañan, nunca mejor dicho” (Ting). Efectivamente, las apariencias engañan porque los envoltorios sirven para envolver regalos, no personas.
Cuando hablamos de inmigración tenemos que hablar de acogida, pero ¿de qué hablamos cuando hablamos de acoger? Hacemos referencia, en concreto, a un grupo de personas capaz de asumir el riesgo de relacionarse con otros que son diferentes (amigos\as, novios\as, compañeros\as de trabajo, etc.). La endogamia nace de la necesidad de reproducir lo que ya conocemos, de no asumir riesgos ni de poner en duda nuestro prestigio, queremos que nuestros hijos asciendan social, económica y culturalmente. La defensa de unos privilegios o el miedo a asumir riesgos, invertir para ganar o perder, limitan la capacidad integradora. Hay sociedades más acostumbradas a gestionar la diversidad porque también asumen mejor los cambios y tienden a arriesgar más. El otro es diferente y eso puede ser una gran oportunidad, un regalo, pero hay que saber abrir el envoltorio, hacer un esfuerzo y asumir los riesgos de que un desconocido, (alguien que no viene avalado como prestigioso por la sociedad, un inmigrante) nos guste y nos cambie la vida.
La inmigración en Cataluña puede dividirse en dos gran capítulos: una primera interna española entre 1920 y 1970, y una segunda de inmigración externa entre 1990 y la actualidad. Hacia el final del primer periodo, el 50% de los catalanes tenían por lo menos un padre no nacido en Cataluña; al final del segundo, un 28% tenía, además, un padre nacido fuera de España. Las proyecciones de los demógrafos indican que sin inmigración, la población catalana sería de menos de la mitad de lo que es actualmente. Estas cantidades, cercanas a aquellas de Estados Unidos y de Argentina, nos muestran un panorama donde se evidencia que la sociedad catalana actual es producto directo de la inmigración. Esto quiere decir que son muchas las personas que han decidido venir y, además, quedarse, porque, de alguna manera, se les ha hecho sentir que estaban como en casa, o mejor aún.
A diferencia de otras identidades nacionales que son hereditarias, uno puede convertirse en catalán, puede devenir catalán hablando su lengua, viviendo el territorio, compartiendo sus valores y sus momentos de socialización. Esto es posible porque la identidad catalana ha sabido modernizarse, a partir de 1960, y hacerse abierta, que la gente pueda convertirse en catalana, naciendo donde haya nacido. Para 1982, todos los actores sociales, de izquierda a derecha y de pobres a ricos, consideraban que aquel que nacía en Cataluña o hablaba catalán o simplemente trabajaba aquí y quería serlo, podía serlo. Esta capacidad de devenir catalán es básica para entender porque los inmigrantes quieren y pueden devenir catalanes. Finalmente, tenemos también el tema del prestigio de ser catalán, en oposición a ser de su país de origen o español, y aquí vemos que de alguna manera la sociedad catalana ha facilitado a los inmigrantes a devenir catalanes frente al resto de las identidades disponibles. El prestigio de lo catalán es básico para entender porque los inmigrantes quieren ser catalanes.
Además de ir a la escuela y de hablar catalán, Ting y Soley han formado parte de colles castelleres: Souley desde pequeño y Ting porque sus amigos comenzaron a ir y era una forma de estar con ellos. Esta experiencia dentro de una práctica cultural y popular permeable les cambió la vida, como me dijo Souley: “Creo que nadie que haya hecho castells y haya vivido mucho tiempo en una colla se le borre la pasión por los castells, no me lo creo ni quiero creérmelo”. Por otro lado, para Ting los castells son como una gran familia, para las cosas buenas y malas, un espacio de socialización donde encontrarnos con otros a partir de un objetivo compartido. Los castells (como los coros, las agrupaciones excursionistas, los equipos deportivos) son mucho más que torres humanas y uno se queda porque encuentra allí una familia electiva, que les sostiene, como una red de apoyo que les hace sentir y vivir la pertenencia a algo.
Como conclusión podríamos decir que una sociedad acogedora es aquella que se compone de muchas personas que se arriesgan, individualmente pero a partir de una concepción social, a relacionarse con alguien que viene de afuera y que tiene menor prestigio. A partir de las mezclas entre personas de aquí y de allá es que todo el mundo puede hacerse catalán, los nacidos aquí tampoco lo serían sin los que vienen de fuera. No suelen decirlo pero los catalanes nacen donde les da la gana, porque catalán no se nace, se hace, y eso es un regalo que hay que saber aprovechar.
Pablo Giori es una especialista en el diálogo entre cultura popular y nacionalismo en Cataluña y Quebec. También trabaja como un investigador y comisario de exposiciones de fotografía. Es un investigador asociado en el Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage y fue asesor del programa de Cataluña en el Folklife Festival de 2018.
Born in Tehran as the daughter of the mayor, educated in Switzerland, with a PhD from the University of Oklahoma and a fellowship at Oxford, Azar Nafisi returned to Iran to teach literature in the late 1980s just as the Islamic revolution was clamping down.
Fired for refusing to wear a headscarf, she conducted study groups at her home with a handful of students looking at some of her favorite writing. A book about that experience, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003), became an international sensation, with two years on U.S. bestseller lists and translated into 32 languages.
It also earned Nafisi a number of awards and honors, the latest of which comes this week with the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate in the Humanities and Public Service from the Smithsonian Associates and Creativity Foundation.
The medal, which has previously gone to such varied recipients as Yo-Yo Ma, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Meryl Streep, Jules Feiffer and Mark Morris, will be presented this weekend. A public interview with the author is set for 7 p.m. Friday, April 10, at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Nafisi, who transplanted to the United States in 1997, becoming a citizen in 2008, is a fellow at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Her latest book, The Republic of Imagination, extends her previous theme, combining deep reading of some of literature’s classic texts with impassioned personal narrative. She spoke with Smithsonian.com about her work and the honor this week.
Was Benjamin Franklin, namesake of this award, a particular hero of yours?
Benjamin Franklin I love. I love that his rather ‘ordinary’ appearance belies all the different aspects of him. Franklin for me was one of the best examples of curiosity and empathy. He did not differentiate between the curiosity and creativity that goes into science and wanting to know about the world, with the desire to know about the arts and humanities. He knew it was not separate, as many of our leaders seem to think today; that both go into the human spirit. I love that he looks so mischievous, doesn’t he? Like he has something in his pocket that he wants to spring on us.
This is a theme in some of your works: The focus on science and technology to the exclusion of literature and the arts.
Yes, it seems that so many leaders have the wrong view of humanities and science. You look at the Smithsonian Institution and you see it is the jewel in America’s eye for the fact it doesn’t segregate the kind of passion and precision that goes into science with that that goes into the arts; that they have these museums of natural history and American history right next to the art gallery and the Freer gallery. The Smithsonian celebrates the best achievements under one rubric.
What some of the leaders today do not understand is the crucial importance of humanities to our lives as a pragmatic matter. They don’t see the relationship between the scientific and the artistic; that engineering and technology would be shorn of any new ideas without the humanities. I think they should take another look at the Einstein statue in front of the National Academy of Sciences. He said: "Knowledge is limited, but imagination encircles the world."
Yet, you point out in The Republic of Imagination that so many curriculums have reduced arts and humanities teaching in favor of science or technology only.
This is so heartbreaking to me. It’s a matter I feel touches me not only in what I do as writer and reader, but also as an immigrant. In other parts of the world, including the one I am from, people are daily jailed and harassed for writing or reading a book, for drawing a painting that is not according to the government standards. You see people all over the world who are dying to go to museums for free, to enjoy music, and poetry, and literature, and now we’re depriving our schools of that.
One of the things the founders were fascinated with—Washington talks about the fact that they were the ones who were going to make Enlightenment ideas concrete. How can our children survive this world without imaginative knowledge? I mean, can you imagine anyone being a responsible citizen without knowing about the history and culture of this country, never mind the world?
You learned about the literature of America at an early age?
For me it began at home. At our home, the thing that we respected, my parents and my family as a whole, what they always focused on was education and especially for us, it was literature. So I was used to my father telling me stories since I was conscious of being a human being. I was 3-and-a-half or so. He would tell me bedtime stories and he would tell me stories from all over the world, not just from Iran. The point about Iran, both at that time and right now as we speak, is that it was a very cosmopolitan country. At least the parts of it where I grew up, and now because people have been deprived of that culture, they are striving for it much more. The films I saw along with millions of other kids, came from all over the world.
Why did you focus so intently on American literature?
One reason was my studies, my area of concentration was American lit. But also in those days, America, if you remember, in Iran was the Great Satan. And people always pay attention to the Great Satan.
There was this way of looking at America that was all very political, and all very ideological. And the way I show my students what this America was was through books. These books represented the best that America had to offer, but also offered a genuine and sincere critique of America, not like the rabid kind of criticism that the Islamic regime was feeding them, but a serious one.
I wanted my students to understand the world and understand America through the best that it had to offer and connect to that, and not just through politics. I didn’t want them to know America just through the people who were ruling over America at that time or what the Iranian television told them.
Were you surprised Reading Lolita in Tehran was such a bestseller?
It shocked me to tell you the truth. Most of my friends and some of my colleagues kept telling me that this book is really going to do poorly, because they said, ‘Everyone is focused on Iraq, and no one is going to be reading about Iran.’ And: ‘You are writing about writers that nobody cares about anymore.’ But I couldn’t help it. This is what I wanted to write about.
So, apart from my editors, who always believed in the book, in terms of it always selling well, I never for one moment believed—even when it went on the bestseller list—I still refused to acknowledge it.
A part of the reason I think the book became a success was that until then people had heard very little, if anything, about ordinary Iranian people, and the view of Iran since hostage taking was such a negative one. It was all about the regime. I think people all around the world, including in this country, they connected to these girls, they connected to these students, I think. They saw they had much more in common, than the way Iran was presented.
The second reason was literature. I really did not believe how much imagination connects you to people; that someone who loved Henry James or Jane Austin would want to share it, now that this book was out.
How did that success change your life or your direction?
I think it’s very difficult to take success of yourself too seriously and I really mean it. Sometimes I lose perspective because I really don’t believe I have achieved much, or that this book’s success should change me in an essential way. I always felt passionate about these things. I don’t remember a time where I was not passionate about reading and writing and, later on when I finished college, teaching. What it did for me, for which I’m very grateful, was two things. One, it gave me space to be able to write. When I was in Iran, my first book came out under severe censorship, and then it was never allowed to be published again. So here I very much appreciated the fact that I could tell any thing I wanted, and now because of this book’s success, people would want me to write more.
The most valuable thing, is that through my books, I have been connected to so many people.
That’s a theme of your books as well: How literature makes you feel less lonely, a way to connect to the world even when you’re by yourself.
Yes, you know there is a great quote from James Baldwin where he talks about the fact that you feel really lonely and miserable until you read about someone who lived 100 years before you did called Dostoyevsky. Then he says that all your misery and loneliness is alleviated when you realize that someone else has felt the same way you have. That quotation from Baldwin is very essential to my book, because he continues on to say: "Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important."
So he connects art and life to one another, which is what I always want to tell our policymakers who are constantly cutting budgets for arts and humanities. Arts and humanities endured before you and I, and they will endure after you and I. And the reason they endure is because they matter to life.
You’ve been a U. S. citizen for a while. Do you feel like an American citizen now or do you feel like you are between two countries?
One of the great things about becoming an American citizen is that you can bring your past with you. Like, for example, I don’t feel that I leave behind those aspects of Iran that have come so close and become part of my DNA, because now I’m not just an American. I’m an Iranian-American.
I think this is what keeps America so vibrant and alive. People constantly coming to this country, and bringing with them their alternative ways of looking at America and thereby changing it. And this constant change is what keeps America healthy. Unfortunately, right now we are in a period of crisis, which is not just political or economic, it’s a crisis of vision. If one day we decided to have an America that is homogeneously one way or another, then I think I would feel homeless again.
There is a cash prize with this award, will that afford you to do anything special that you’ve wanted to do?
Right now, there’s this project in my mind which I hope will come to fruition which is about trying to create a forum where young people, and especially young people in community colleges and in public high schools, whose access to ideas and information has been cut by underfunding and other reasons, to reach out to them. I hope that maybe I can use my award money toward something that will be fruitful like that.
Azar Nifisi is the recipient of the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Award.
Baltimore uprooted General Lee under the cover of night. New Orleans removed its four Confederate statues to mixed reactions—some voicing relief, others, disapproval. And with the violence that followed the events in Charlottesville, when white nationalists killed one counter-protestor and injured 19 more, the question of how America deals with its history of racism has continued to grow in urgency.
But what’s a state to do when the monument in question is carved 42 feet deep and 400 feet above ground into a granite mountain, with figures of General Lee, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis larger than the presidential visages of Mount Rushmore?
“We must never celebrate those who defended slavery and tried to destroy the Union… the visible image of Stone Mountain’s edifice remains a blight on our state and should be removed,” said Stacy Abrams, a Democratic candidate for Georgia governor, on Twitter in the days after the Charlottesville violence. And while Abrams is far from the only voice to call for the memorial’s removal, her call has been met by many Georgians who want the memorial to remain untouched.
With arguments raging across the country about the validity of Confederate monuments and whether they offer valuable history lessons or simply perpetuate the inaccurate “Lost Cause” mythology, Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial offers an example of the dark past of some monuments—and shows how hard their removal may be.
A Brief History of a 15-Million-Year-Old MountainThe Stone Mountain quarries were excavated for their granite in the late 1800s. Granite from the mountain was used in cities across the country. (Wikimedia Commons)
At 1,683 feet tall, with a base circumference of 3.8 miles, Stone Mountain is an imposing feature in the otherwise even terrain. The granite block is a monadnock, or isolated mountain, created by a pocket of magma trapped underground 300 million years ago and only coming to the surface, through uplift and erosion, 15 million years ago.
As early as 4000 B.C., Paleo-Indians were drawn to the imposing mountain. Soapstone bowls and other artifacts recovered by archaeologists testify to the mountain’s earliest visitors. Researchers later found stone walls erected atop the mountain, likely constructed sometime between 100 B.C. and 500 A.D..
But it wasn’t until the 19th century that humans began exploiting the unique geologic structure on a more massive scale. In 1869, Stone Mountain Granite and Railway Co. began a systematic effort to mine the mountain for stone. That work was taken over by the Venable Brothers in 1882, whose workers harvested 200,000 paving blocks daily, in addition to other sizes of blocks.
With its uniform color, the granite became a coveted building material. Blocks from the Stone Mountain quarry were shipped across the country and around the world. They form the steps on the east wing of the U.S. Capitol; they’re in the locks of the Panama Canal, the structure of Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., and the Imperial Hotel building in Tokyo; and the blocks were used in dozens of courthouses and post offices across America.
But for all its architectural impact, Stone Mountain had yet to achieve its greatest claim to fame and notoriety. That would come in 1916, with a Civil War widow and a sculptor who later carved Mount Rushmore.
The Birth of a MemorialMembers of the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross on top of Stone Mountain while initiating 700 new members in July 1948. The mountain was also the site of the group's second resurgence. (AP Photo)
“Just now, while the loyal devotion of this great people of the South is considering a general and enduring monument to the great cause ‘fought without shame and lost without dishonor,’ it seems to me that nature and Providence have set the immortal shrine right at our doors,” wrote newspaper editor John Temple Graves for the Atlanta Georgian on June 14, 1914.
His argument was simple, and less provocative than a statement he’d made on lynching a decade earlier (in which he argued lynching was the most useful tool in preventing rape, since “the negro is a thing of the senses… [and] must be restrained by the terror of the senses”). Graves believed the South deserved a monument to its Confederate heroes. Stone Mountain was a literal blank slate, just waiting for a suitable memorial to be carved into it.
Among those Southern citizens who read Graves’s editorial and others like it was C. Helen Plane, a member of the Atlanta United Daughters of the Confederacy (founded in 1895) and honorary “Life President” of the group. At 85, Plane fought as passionately for the memory of her husband and other Confederate soldiers killed in the Civil War as she had done decades earlier. She brought the issue of a memorial before both the city and state chapters of the UDC, quickly gaining the group’s support. While the UDC briefly considered such notable artists as Auguste Rodin to carve the features of General Lee into Stone Mountain, they ultimately settled on Gutzon Borglum.
But after visiting Stone Mountain, Borglum was convinced the UDC hadn’t been ambitious enough in their idea for a bust of Lee. He proposed what would be a 1,200-foot-long carving featuring 700 to 1,000 figures, with Lee, Jackson and Davis in the foreground and hundreds of soldiers behind them. The monumental work would require eight years and $2 million to complete, though Borglum estimated the main figures could be finished for just $250,000 (almost $6 million today).
“The Confederacy furnished the story, God furnished the mountain. If I can furnish the craftsmanship and you will furnish the financial support, then we will put there something before which the world will stand amazed,” Borglum announced before an audience of potential sponsors in 1915.
While the amount Borglum required seemed impossibly high, Plane pushed forward with her fundraising efforts, writes David Freeman in Carved in Stone: The History of Stone Mountain. Plane also secured a land deed from the Venable family, with patriarch Sam Venable even inviting Borglum to his home at the foot of the mountain.
But the sculptor wasn’t the only person Venable welcomed to his property in the fall of 1915. He also befriended William Simmons, who ushered in the modern era of the Ku Klux Klan, founding the Second KKK at the top of Stone Mountain on November 25, 1915. That night, more than a dozen men gathered to become part of a resurgent white supremacy group that had mostly died out in the late 1800s. Inspired by the film Birth of a Nation, they burned a cross and swore their loyalty to the Klan, ushering in a new era of white nationalist terrorism.
Venable himself, who was part of the ceremony, quickly rose through the ranks of the KKK, allowing the group regular use of his grounds. As Paul Stephen Hudson and Lora Pond Mirza write in Atlanta’s Stone Mountain: A Multicultural History, “Their meeting place for decades was known as the ‘Klan Shack’ in Stone Mountain Village.”
But the overlap between the memorial and the Klan didn’t end with their geographical origins. At one point, Borglum considered including the KKK in his monument at the prompting of Plane, who wrote:
“The Birth of a Nation will give us a percentage of next Monday’s matinee. Since seeing this wonderful and beautiful picture of Reconstruction in the South, I feel that it is due to the Ku Klux Klan which saved us from Negro domination and carpet-bag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain. Why not represent a small group of them in their nightly uniform approaching in the distance?”
Although Borglum ultimately declined to include the figures in his carving, he agreed the KKK should have some recognition in the memorial, perhaps in a room carved out of the mountain. But none of his plans were destined to be achieved. By 1924 he had only completed Lee’s head, having been delayed by World War I, and a disagreement between Borglum and the managing association resulted in him leaving the project in 1925. But he wasn’t between jobs for long; Borglum went on to work on Mount Rushmore, a project that lasted him from 1927 till 1941.
Meanwhile, the Klan’s membership exploded to more than 4 million members, and in 1925 they marched on Washington, D.C. Wherever the group popped up, acts of terror committed against innocent African-Americans, Catholics and immigrants were sure to follow.
Reclaiming the South from the Civil Rights MovementWorkers prepare for an expected 100,000 people for the dedication of the world's largest memorial to leaders of the Confederacy, May 1970. (AP Photo/Joe Holloway Jr.)
With only three years to go before the land deed from the Venables was set to expire (they had granted 12 years to finish the memorial), a second sculptor was brought in. But Augustus Lukeman barely had time to remove the work Borglum had done and start work on a carving of three figures on horseback when he was forced to abandon the project in 1928.
The deed expired, the Venable family took back their property, and the mountain remained untouched for 36 years. Although the Georgia state government attempted to gain recognition for Stone Mountain from the National Park Service, they were informed that scarring from the earlier granite quarries and the incomplete carvings destroyed the mountain’s natural value.
But with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and the growing influence of the Civil Rights Movement, the time had come for renewed action. “So long as Marvin Griffin is your governor, there will be no mixing of the races in the classrooms of our schools and colleges of Georgia,” Griffin informed his constituents in 1955 during his inaugural address. With help from the Georgia General Assembly, Griffin went on to purchase the mountain, using $1 million in public funds. He then made the Stone Mountain Memorial Association a state authority, meaning the governor would appoint the board of directors but the association would receive no tax dollars. To historian Grace Elizabeth Hale, the motivation for doing so couldn’t be clearer.
“State politicians formed Stone Mountain Park as part of an effort to ground the white southern present in images of the southern past, a sort of neo-Confederatism, and halt nationally mandated change in the region,” Hale writes. “For the governor and other supporters of the new plans, the completion of the carving would demonstrate to the rest of the nation that ‘progress’ meant not black rights, but the maintenance of white supremacy.”
After Walter Kirkland Hancock was chosen to lead the sculpting efforts, work resumed in 1964 after a nearly-40-year hiatus. The dedication ceremony was held May 9, 1970, and the memorial was finally completed in 1972, with fine enough detail that the eyebrows and belt buckles were visible, the sculpture large enough that a grown man could stand inside one of the three horse’s mouths. The memorial became the largest high relief sculpture in the world, depicting Davis, Lee and Jackson on horseback, their figures stretched across three acres.
An early version of the park beneath the sculpture included a replica plantation, where slave quarters were described as “neat” and “well furnished” in promotional materials. The slaves were called “hands” or “workers,” Hale writes, and black actor Butterfly McQueen was hired to provide visitors with information about the park.
Sandblasting the ConfederacyToday Stone Mountain Park welcomes millions of people each year, who can hike the mountain or visit the park's attractions. (Wikimedia Commons)
Today, with 4 million visitors coming to the park each year, the mountain has changed little but the message has shifted. While nature and the memorial are still featured, its theme-park attractions include a 4-D movie theater, a farmyard, miniature golf, a dinosaur-themed playground and more. As far as educational experiences are concerned, a museum includes exhibits on the monument’s history and geology, and an adapted version of the plantation, called “Historic Square” features original and replica buildings and relays information about the antebellum period.
While the violence at Charlottesville spurred new debates over Confederate monuments, controversy surrounding the Stone Mountain Memorial is nothing new. As part of a 2001 political compromise to change the segregation-era state flag so it no longer included symbols of the Confederacy, lawmakers in Georgia’s General Assembly agreed to a statute that protects plaques, monuments and memorials dedicated to military personnel of the U.S. and the Confederate States of America. This, of course, includes Stone Mountain.
“Many members of the [Georgia Legislative Black Caucus] weren’t completely comfortable with it, but we thought that was a compromise to make,” says Lester Jackson, a Georgia state senator from Savannah. “Fast forward 15 years and we need to go back and revisit that.”
In 2018, Jackson and others plan on introducing a resolution in the Georgia state government that would establish a study of all the Confederate monuments in the state. The study will provide evaluations of the monuments based on when they were erected and with what intentions, and recommendations for how to move forward in removing or replacing them.
“When we start removing the symbols of hate and separatism and racism, that’s an important start to becoming one nation of one people,” Jackson says.
But the political process would be lengthy and likely controversial, considering 62 percent of people surveyed in a recent poll believe Confederate statues should remain standing, reports Clare Malone at FiveThirtyEight. And that’s not even taking the practicality of the project into consideration.
“The removal of the carving is not a trivial matter,” said Ben Bentkowski, president of the Atlanta Geological Society, by email. “You just can’t come in the night and remove it.”
Because the carving is 42 feet deep into the mountain, and hundreds of feet wide and tall, even controlled blasting could be dangerous for workers and bystanders. That said, the granite itself is solid, so sandblasting the sculpture wouldn’t affect the structural integrity of the mountain. And although he couldn’t provide a definite estimate for the cost of such an undertaking, Bentkowski believed it would “take millions of dollars to do it safely and not leave just a blast-scarred face of the mountain.”
Another solution goes in the opposite direction of destruction: why not add more to the sculpture? Figures proposed to balance history out have included Martin Luther King, Jr. and, more facetiously, Atlanta-based hip-hop duo Outkast. But this, too, would be a costly endeavor and is currently outlawed under the 2001 statute.
While Abrams and others have called for the sculpture’s removal, politicians on the opposite side of the issue have come to its defense. “Instead of dividing Georgians with inflammatory rhetoric for political gain, we should work together to add to our history, not take from it,” said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of Abrams’ position, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
There’s no easy answer when the monument in question is carved into a mountain, when Confederate generals continue to provoke strong emotions. What the debate boils down to is whose version of history will endure. And even when you have a 1,000-foot-granite wall at your disposal, it will never be enough space to capture the complexity of the nation’s centuries-long struggle with the legacy of slavery.
It’s not Halloween until you’ve carved a pumpkin.
But as the clock ticks down to All Hallows Eve—and you scramble to outdo that smug Heisenberg grin your neighbor carefully carved last weekend—you might have stepped back from the kitchen table, cursing the slimy, stringy gourd innards tangled around your hands, and wondered why you were doing this to yourself.
(Or, perhaps, if the money you dropped on that electric pumpkin carving knife was really worth it).
All arrows seem to point to an old Irish legend about a man named Stingy Jack, who convinced the devil not to send him to hell for his sins when he died. The trick was on Jack, though, when he did die later—heaven shut him out, too, for bargaining with the man downstairs, and he was left to wander and haunt the Earth. Irish families began to carve crude, wild faces into turnips or potatoes come Halloween, illuminating them with candles to scare Jack and other wandering spirits away.
When immigrants brought the tradition to America in the 19th century, pumpkins became the vehicle for ghoulish faces. In 2012, Farmers harvested 47,800 acres of pumpkins in 2012, crops worth $149 million, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. This year, the National Retail Federation estimates consumers will spend $6.9 billion on Halloween products, including those handy carving tools and kits.
The genius behind those tools is a group smaller than you might think. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office says there have been fewer than 50 (probably closer to 30) patents issued for pumpkin or vegetable carving tools or kits, most of them issued in the past 40 years.
And while today we’ve become obsessed with clever ways to carve a pumpkin (yes, extremepumpkins.com does exist) most inventions stick to the classic Jack-o-Lantern face.
One of the earliest patents relied on simple tools — cords, plates and screws— to allow even the youngest and clumsiest among us to create a scary-looking gourd.
Harry Edwin Graves, from Toledo, Ohio—a state that yields the third highest number pumpkins in the United States each year—earned a patent in 1976 for his invention, which he called simply an “apparatus for forming a jack-o-lantern.”
Graves knew, according to his application, that “It has been a very difficult, if not impossible, task for small children to make their own jack-o-lantern from a pumpkin” because the thick wall of the vegetable can be tough to puncture using kid-sized hands and arms.
His solution: a metal or plastic contraption that surrounded the pumpkin, with small plates in the shapes of a mouth, nose and eyes. By slipping the invention over the pumpkin, children can turn a screw on the front of each facial feature, engaging a blade that cuts through the shell and then retracts.
But threading plates together—or wielding a steak knife—was still for many a cumbersome task.
And so with the 1980s—along with cringe-worthy neon clothing choices, MTV, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince—came a decade bursting with new patents for carving pumpkins.
In 1981, Christopher A. Nauman, of Frederick, Maryland, earned a patent for a method of carving Jack-o-Lanterns that was safer, he said, because it relied on cookie-cutter facial features and not carving objects.
While using cookie cutter shapes wasn’t a new idea, Nauman distinguished his design by contouring the cookie cutters to better fit against the curved surface of the pumpkin. And, when users hit the top edge of each shape, the cookie cutter presses directly through the pumpkin, which means users don’t have to go searching for pins or knives to pry the cookie cutters out of the pumpkin’s face.
Cookie cutter-shapes were also the inspiration for Thomas C. Albanese’s design, but his 1987 patent—which he claimed could “overcome the shortcomings of the prior art”—included a detachable handle. The handle gives enough leverage to push the beveled edge of the shapes, from eyebrows to crooked teeth, through the pumpkin wall; the hollow shapes also hold on to the cut piece of pumpkin as it’s removed from the gourd, so stray hunks of the shell aren’t trapped inside the lantern, though admittedly that last step seems to work better in theory than in practice.
But the real advent of what we know today as pumpkin carving kits came in the late 1980s, thanks to a man named Paul John Bardeen.
Bardeen, according to patent documents, is considered among the first to develop tools that allowed Halloween lovers to carve intricate designs on their pumpkins, instead of crude, block-shaped faces.
He developed new saws and small knives, but more importantly, pattern sheets, which allowed pumpkin carvers to take a lot of the guesswork out of the process.
Bardeen died in 1983, but his children, wanting to continue his legacy, formed a company now known as Pumpkin Masters to sell the kits and continue to dream up ways to simplify or improve the carving process.
Bardeen apparently never filed a patent of his own, but his son, John P. Bardeen, used his father’s design to earn his own patent on a pumpkin carving kit in 1989, taking the kit to the mass market for the first time. The kit packaged slightly more sophisticated saws and drills with a number of pattern sheets, decorated with a series of holes in the shapes of facial features and other designs. Carvers used a corsage pin to poke holes through the surface of the pumpkin, and after removing the sheets, connected the dots with cutting tools to form faces or drawings of cats and bats. A bonus: the kit also included an instruction book that detailed which tools to use when carving some of the kit’s designs.
Bardeen’s kit got traction in the late 1980s when he appeared on “Monday Night Football” with a pumpkin carved to show the likeness of the show’s hosts; he reportedly (did he or didn’t he? We can’t confirm?) went on a “pumpkin tour” in the years that followed, carving pumpkins for “Seinfeld” and the “Today Show,” among other stars, and perhaps sparking new imagination behind the lanterns people put out on their porches.
But even after etching words, animals and celebrity faces into pumpkins became all the rage, the market for new pumpkin tools kept chugging to the tune of “Pumpkin Carving for Dummies”- or, more recently, avoiding the actual act of carving all together.
In 2000, John P. Bardeen’s former wife, Kea Bardeen, developed a kit that included transfer sheets so consumers could literally “slap and go.” Some sheets are pre-made, already stamped with bright colors, while others are drawn without color or blank, so they can be decorated and embellished with markers and paints. The designs are pressed and transferred onto the surface of the pumpkin with a transfer sheet and paste, water solvent or glue.
The beauty of this design, for those who despise the thought of spending days picking stray pumpkin seeds off the floor, is choosing how much work to put into your pumpkin. It would be especially useful for young children, as the kit is essentially a giant coloring book (that makes, compared to paper and crayons, just a bit more of a mess). But going this route—which more or less makes your creation irrelevant after dark—is technically just pumpkin painting, an activity most of us preferred to put behind us come kindergarten.
Enter the lazy man (or woman)’s way to carve.
In 2001, Michael A. Lani developed carving plates that poke holes into a pumpkin’s surface, but unlike Bardeen’s design, this invention does the hard work for you. The design involves a flexible plastic plate with pins arranged in the shape of a Jack-O-Lantern face, which lets you poke the design into a pumpkin with just a simple push of the plate — much faster than working through dozens of holes with a single corsage pin.
And for those of us for whom pins are too much work — or really need to let out some of that anger from the office— the Halloween pumpkin punch out kit might be the best option. The 2008 design by Laraine and Randy Reffert of Ohio includes metal facial features that you quite literally punch through the surface of the pumpkin, usually with a hammer.
But even pumpkin carving has had to eventually join the electronics age.
In 2009, a group of inventors from Ohio patented an electric knife with a blade adapted to cut through the shell and pulp of a pumpkin—but, thankfully, “not readily cut the skin and flesh of humans.”
The knife, though plastic, allows for “faster, more precise carving of pumpkins with less physical force being required.” The knife, powered by batteries, is turned on or off with a push button on the front of the handle so you can stop and go as needed.
Now, everyone from Martha Stewart to the Boston Red Sox have printable templates on their site — and there are even ways you can carve any picture into the front of a pumpkin, too.
It seems the bar for Jack-O-Lanterns is climbing each year, and if you want to keep up it could be time to call in the big guns. A Google search for electric pumpkin carving knives didn’t yield any products from Emerald Innovations, LCC, to whom the patent is licensed, but similar products are available for anywhere from $4 to $34 — which could just be the price of having the best pumpkin on the block.
Just before sunrise on a cloudy May morning in northern Cambodia, I joined hundreds of tourists crossing the wide moat to the outer wall of Angkor Wat, often said to be the largest religious structure in the world. Inside the rectangular courtyard, which covers more ground than 200 football fields, I waited near a small lake in front of the temple. Within minutes the sun appeared behind its five iconic towers, each shaped as a closed lotus bud, representing the five peaks of Mount Meru, home of the gods and the mythical Hindu center of the universe.
The temple's precise, symmetrical beauty was unmistakable. The other tourists all faced the sun, watching in stillness and whispering in foreign tongues, as hundreds more arrived behind them. Angkor Wat at sunrise is a wondrous spectacle, one that I would return to several times during my stay in Cambodia.
I had come to the temples of Angkor prepared, having read about their archaeology and history and learned of their immense size and intricate detail. The mystery of why an early Khmer civilization chose to abandon the temples in the mid-15th century, after building them during a period of more than 500 years, intrigued me. So too did the tales of travelers who "discovered" Angkor in the centuries that followed, some of whom thought they had stumbled across a lost city founded by Alexander the Great or the Roman Empire—until finally, in the 1860s, the French explorer Henri Mouhot reintroduced the temples to the world with his ink drawings and the postmortem publication of his journal, Travels in Siam, Cambodia, and Laos.
But on that first morning I realized that such knowledge was unnecessary to appreciate this remarkable achievement of architecture and human ambition. "There are few places in the world where one feels proud to be a member of the human race, and one of these is certainly Angkor," wrote the late Italian author Tiziano Terzani. "There is no need to know that for the builders every detail had a particular meaning. One does not need to be a Buddhist or a Hindu to understand. You need only let yourself go..."
Although Angkor Wat is the largest and best known of these temples, it is but one of hundreds built by the kingdom of Angkor. Huge stone monuments scattered across hundreds of square miles of forest in northern Cambodia, the temples are the remains of a vast complex of deserted cities—which included manmade lakes, canals and bridges—that were astonishing in their size and artistic merit.
But piecing together information about the ancient Khmers who built them has not been easy for archaeologists and historians. The only written records that still exist are the inscriptions on the temple walls and the diary of a Chinese diplomat who visited Angkor in 1296. All administrative buildings and the homes of kings and commoners alike were made of wood; none have survived, leaving only the religious creations of brick and stone.
Direct ancestors of modern-day Cambodians, the Khmers are thought to have descended from the Funan peoples of the Mekong delta. Funan was a decentralized state of rival kings that thrived as a trading link connecting China and the West for the first few centuries A.D. In the late sixth century, Funan was superseded by the state of Chenla, based farther north into Cambodia's interior. Chenla lasted for about 250 years until the start of the Angkor period.
Meanwhile, Hindu and Buddhist influences, which originated in centuries-old contact with Indian traders, appeared in the region. (Neither ever fully displaced the local animist religion, but rather assimilated into it.) Elite Khmer rulers commissioned the building of temples and gave themselves Sanskrit names to demonstrate their wealth and power. Their subjects made donations to the temples to curry favor—both with the gods and with the local ruler. Temples, as such, were not only religious but also commercial centers. In the time of Angkor many temples operated as small cities, and some of them as very large cities.
Around A.D. 800 a powerful regional king named Jayavarman II consolidated the rival chiefdoms in Cambodia and founded the kingdom of Angkor. It was Jayavarman II who instituted the cult of the Devaraja (literally "god-king" or "king of the gods"), symbolically linking Khmer royalty to the divine realm.
For the next six centuries, Angkor's heartland was the area between the northern banks of the Tonle Sap lake and the Kulen hills to the north. Here the temples are most concentrated, though Angkorian constructions exist all throughout Southeast Asia.
Life in Angkor was busy, ritualistic, unstable. Wars against neighboring armies from Thailand and Champa (modern-day central Vietnam) were constant. A vaguely defined process for royal succession left the throne frequently exposed to ambitious usurpers. For the common rice-grower and peasant, the feverish pace of temple-building required labor, money in the form of taxes and the prospect of being drafted into war by the king.
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. A partially restored corner of Preah Ko, also part of the Roulos Group of temples. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. Saffron-robed monks enter the Bayon, which stands in the precise center of the King Jayavarman VII's temple city of Angkor Thom. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. Kbal Spean is sometimes called the "River of a Thousand Lingas" because of the many phallus symbols carved directly into the riverbed. This scene depicts the gods Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. It is located northeast of the Angkor Archaeological park near a tributary of the Siem Reap River. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. A pink sandstone tower of Bante Srei, which means "Shrine of the Women." (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. Thousands of stones lie scattered outside the Baphuon temple. The temple had been dismantled by the French School of the Far East as part of a restoration plan. But the records needed to reassemble the stones were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years, and experts had the difficult task of figuring out the precise location of hundreds of thousands of stones. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. Ta Prohm has been mostly overrun by jungle, though enough has been restored to make it accessible to tourists. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. This wall stands outside the Terrace of the Leper King, thought to be the royal crematorium. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. The temple of Preah Khan was built by Jayavarman VII at the site of his victory over the occupying army of Champa in 1177. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. A column of angels guards the south gate of Angkor Thom. They are part of the mythical story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, where a tug of war between angels and demons results in an immortal elixir. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. Built around the same time and with a similar shape as Angkor Wat, Beng Mealea is located about 25 miles from the Angkor Archaeological Park. Almost no restoration has been done to the temple; it has been swallowed by jungle, creating a quiet, gloomy atmosphere. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. Angkor Wat is the largest and most magnificent of all the Angkor temples. Its five iconic towers, each in the shape of a closed lotus bud, represent the five peaks of the mythical Mount Meru, the center of the universe. Designed to be a shrine to the god Vishnu, its construction began under King Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1112 to 1152. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. These precipitous steps lead to the third level of Angkor Wat. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. An enormous man-made reservoir that measures 5 miles long and more than a mile wide, the Western Baray, whose construction began in the 11th century, was once thought by scholars to have been part of a complicated irrigation system. But little evidence has been found supporting this theory, and it's possible the baray was built for symbolic reasons. It could have represented the oceans surrounding the mythical Mount Meru. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. According to legend, the king of Angkor ascended the steps of the Phimeanakas every night to sleep with a powerful serpent that took the form of a woman. If he failed to copulate with her, it meant doom both for him and for the kingdom. Built in the 10th century but redecorated many times after, it is the only building still standing in what was once the royal enclosure, where the king lived. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. An outer wall of the Elephant Terrace, which was probably used for ceremonial processions and the performance of public rituals. (original image)
Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. The summit of the Bakong temple, built in the ninth century by King Indravarman I as a shrine to the god Shiva. Bakong is the largest of the Roulos Group of temples at Hariharalaya, Indravarman's capital located about 9 miles east of Siem Reap. (original image)
Three hundred years after the beginnings of the kingdom, King Suryavarman II ordered the construction of Angkor Wat as a shrine to the god Vishnu. Fittingly for the king who erected this most sublime of the Angkor temples, Suryavarman II ruled at the height of Angkor's dominion over Southeast Asia. During his reign from 1113 to 1150, Angkor's control extended beyond Cambodia to parts of modern-day Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.
The other great king of Angkor was Jayavarman VII, who in 1181 assumed the throne after driving out an occupying army from Champa. He initiated an intensive building program of temples, roads and hospitals that, according to some estimates, created twice as many monuments as Angkor already had.
Jayavarman VII's greatest project was the temple city of Angkor Thom, enclosed by a square wall more than seven miles long and about 26 feet high. In its precise center is the Bayon, a mysterious, oddly shaped temple with 54 towers. Carved into each of the towers' four sides is a serene, enigmatic face, possibly a composite of a bodhisattva and Jayavarman VII himself. After his death in 1219 the kingdom began a slow decline.
The Khmers moved south to Phnom Penh sometime after 1431, the last year that Thai armies invaded Angkor and made off with much of its treasure and women. Scholars and archaeologists still ponder why they left. Some say the Khmers sought a more secure capital from which to defend against the Thais. Others believe the Khmers wished to engage in further trade with China, which could be more easily conducted from Phnom Penh, an intersection of four rivers, including the Mekong. No single reason is certain.
Although Angkor was mostly abandoned, it was never completely forgotten. Some ascetic monks stayed behind, and for a brief time in the 16th century the Khmer kings returned the capital to Angkor, only to leave once again. Missionaries and pilgrims occasionally came upon the neglected temples, which through the centuries were swallowed by the jungle.
After Mouhot's "rediscovery" and the French colonization of Cambodia in the 1860s, extensive restoration work on the temples was begun by the École Française d'Extrême-Orient (the French School of the Far East). Today more work continues to be done by Unesco and organizations from Cambodia and many other countries. Over the years, the restoration process has faced many difficulties. Statues, artwork and even sections of the temples themselves have been vandalized or stolen. The murderous Khmer Rouge government under Pol Pot halted the restoration work completely when it occupied the temples as a military stronghold in the late 1970s.
Perhaps the most serious threat to the temples in recent years is one brought on by their own appeal: tourism. After a half-century of political instability, war and famine, Cambodia became safe for tourism about a decade ago. Angkor is the engine now driving this thriving industry, which last year brought 1.7 million visitors to the country, 20 percent more than the previous year, according to the Cambodian Tourism Ministry. Other estimates put the number even higher, and it is projected to continue growing.
This attraction presents a dilemma. The government remains plagued by corruption, and the average Cambodian income is the equivalent of one American dollar per day. The tourism generated by Angkor is therefore a vital source of income. But it also poses a serious threat to the structural integrity of the temples. In addition to the erosion caused by constant contact with tourists, the expansion of new hotels and resorts in the nearby town of Siem Reap is reportedly sucking dry the groundwater beneath the temples, weakening their foundations and threatening to sink some of them into the earth.
During my visit I walked the temples' dark corridors, climbed their precipitous steps and studied up close the finely carved bas-reliefs, where pictorial legends of Hindu and Buddhist mythology and the exaggerated exploits of Khmer kings are engraved on their walls. Usually around noon, when most tourists seemed to escape the sweltering heat to have lunch, I was able to find an empty, contemplative space once inhabited by the gods.
As I took in the vast temples, I had to remind myself that the daily life of the early Khmers was violent and exacting. In their careful adherence to routines and rituals, could they have imagined how their efforts would one day be so revered? How different their experience must have been from the feelings of wonderment and awe now inspired by their temples, or by watching a sunrise at Angkor Wat.
“You’re always learning, always refining your skills. You never stop accumulating a more intimate understanding of your craft.” —Dieter Goldkuhle, stained glass artisan (1937-2011)
They use trowels and tongs, buckets and brushes, vices and pliers. They set blocks of limestone and carve rows of Roman letters and solder strips of lead and hammer pieces of hot metal. They are masons and metalworkers, plasterers and painters, carvers and adobe workers, and the filmmakers’ cameras followed them—all vital links between the past and the future, keepers of the building arts, masters of their craft.
They build. They adorn. They preserve. They restore.
And they do good work.
Image by Paul Wagner. Hispanic adobe craftsman Albert Parra from Albuquerque, New Mexico. (original image)
Image by Paul Wagner. Albert Parra works to re-plaster the adobe walls of the 300-year-old morada, a chapter house of the Penitente community, in Abiquiu, New Mexico. (original image)
Image by Paul Wagner. Los Hermanos and Good Work film crew in front of the morada in Abiquiu. (original image)
These artisans and their crafts are the subject of Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts, an hour-long documentary produced and directed by Marjorie Hunt, folklorist with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and Paul Wagner, an independent filmmaker.
Hunt and Wagner’s previous collaboration, the 1984 documentary The Stone Carvers, won both an Academy and an Emmy award for its account of the Italian-American stone carvers whose decades-long work adorns the National Washington Cathedral. This month Good Work makes its national debut, airing on local PBS stations and streaming on the PBS website. The film, Hunt says, is an “inspirational call to craft. This is dignified and important and satisfying work, and I hope the film can help people see that.”
Seventeen years in the making, Good Work has its roots in the 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where Hunt and her colleagues gathered artisans, including those featured in her film, for a ten-day program, “Masters of the Building Arts.” Over the course of the festival, Hunt observed the audience: “I saw this increase in understanding, this appreciation for the artisans’ skill and knowledge, this realization that these people weren’t just practicing their trade as a default or a Plan B because they had been unable to go to college. These craftspeople—their quest for mastery, their desire to excel, their intimate knowledge of the material, their deep connection with fellow craftspeople—were passionate about their work, about using their minds and their hands to make something that is lasting.”
Image by John Canning & Company. John Canning and his daughter Jacqueline Canning-Riccio paint stencil patterns for Trinity Church in Boston. (original image)
Image by John Canning & Company. Decorative painter Jacqueline Canning-Riccio gilding horses for the San Francisco Opera House. Photo courtesy John Canning & Co. (original image)
Image by John Canning & Company. John Canning worked on the restoration of Grand Central Terminal in New York City. (original image)
Image by John Canning & Company. Decorative painter John Canning and his team of artisans at John Canning & Company worked on the restoration of the renowned John La Farge murals at historic Trinity Church in Copley Square, Boston. Photo courtesy John Canning & Company (original image)
The film’s series of six-minute profiles documents the artisans as they go about their work and as they pause to reflect on the passions and processes and traditions of their trades: John Canning and daughter Jacqueline Canning-Riccio are preserving the John La Farge murals on the ceiling of Trinity Church in Boston; Patrick Cardine is hammering and bending a bar of hot metal in his Virginia studio; Albert Parra and his fellow workers are participating in an annual rite—the refurbishing of the adobe exterior on a 300-year-old morado in New Mexico.
In a bittersweet turn, the film memorializes two of the craftsmen—Earl Barthé and Dieter Goldkuhle—who passed away before the film was completed. In New Orleans, Earl Barthé, a fifth-generation Creole of color plasterer, is restoring the decorative plasterwork of an historic home in New Orleans.
On a jaunt to the French Quarter, Barthé and his grandson Jamie visit St. Louis Cathedral, where Barthé and his brother, like their father and grandfather before them, can claim as their own a portion of the building’s history. Seated in a pew, Barthé waves his arm and draws Jamie’s attention upward, musing about visitors who might have gazed at the glorious vaulted ceilings: “They look so beautiful! I wonder did they ever stop to think, ‘Who done that work?’ Somebody—some plasterer—done that work.” Up there lingers the legacy of Barthé and his ancestors.
Image by Nick Spitzer. Fifth generation Earl Barthé shows off an ornamental plaster medallion. (original image)
Image by Paul Wagner. Master plasterer Earl Barthé gestures to his grandson Jamie at some of the plastering restoration work that their family has done in New Orleans over the generations. (original image)
Image by Tom Pich. Earl Barthé, a fifth-generation plasterer, poses in front of one of the many buildings he restored in New Orleans. (original image)
That legacy of excellence, often unseen, unnoticed, unrecognized, has something to do with the soul of a building. By way of example, preservation architect Jean Carroon, who supervised the restoration of Trinity Church, cites a series of 12 intricate paintings by La Farge—a portion of the Cannings’ restoration work for the church. The paintings, 120 feet above floor level, are virtually lost to view. At the National Building Museum recently for a screening of Good Work and a panel discussion, Carroon observed, “Nobody can see the paintings, but somehow, the fact that they are there is part of what makes the space resonate so much. You feel how many hands have touched that space, how much love and care have gone into it.”
Surely, the late Dieter Goldkuhle, a stained-glass artisan who created more than 100 windows for the Washington National Cathedral, understood that setting aside ego, even in the impossible pursuit of perfection, is part of the ethos of craft. Good Work captures Goldkuhle at the Cathedral, where he is removing an early and now buckling stained-glass window, and in his studio, where he places a large sheet of white paper over the window, rubbing a pencil across the lead ridges, to create a record—a key for later reassembly of the glass pieces, when Goldkuhle secures the piece of glass on the panel with channels of bendable lead.
Image by Donovan Marks, courtesy Washington National Cathedral. Stained glass artisan Dieter Goldkuhle installs a window at Washington National Cathedral. (original image)
Image by Colin Winterbottom, courtesy Washington National Cathedral. The magnificent west rose window at Washington National Cathedral was fabricated and installed by Dieter Goldkuhle. Over his long career, Goldkuhle crafted more than 100 windows for the Cathedral. (original image)
“I do not design my own work,” he says in the film. “I have been quite content with working with a number of artists in a collaborative effort to be, somehow, the midwife to the window, comparable to what a builder is to an architect, a musician to a composer. I feel, also, that I am married to the material, which I just adore and have the greatest respect for.”
The film also highlights the work of Nick Benson, stone carver, calligrapher, designer and 2010 MacArthur Fellow. Viewers meet Benson both in his Newport, Rhode Island, studio, the John Stevens Shop, and in Washington, DC, on the then-construction site of the National World War II Memorial. At the busy site, Benson—wearing a hard hat, open-fingered gloves and protective goggles—guides his power chisel through the granite, forming the shallow trenches and sharp edges of a single letter. Later, he fills the pristine cuts with black ink, taking care to stop shy of each edge, lest the ink bleed beyond the confines of the letter. But in the end, it is the content of the inscription that the letters serve, however fine the hand-wrought aesthetic and humanity of his work may be. “That’s the funny thing about good lettering—they don’t even see it,” Benson says of visitors to this or any monument. “They don’t understand it. They take it all for granted. So, my job is to make something that people take for granted because it works so beautifully they don’t even think twice about it.”
Image by Richard Latoff, courtesy World War II Memorial. Nick Benson (right) designed and carved the inscriptions for the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. (original image)
Image by Paul Wagner. Nick Benson staining letters at the National World War II Memorial. (original image)
Image by Nick Benson. An alphabet stone designed and carved by Nick Benson. (original image)
Benson, the son and grandson of renowned stone carvers whose work adorns the U.S. Marine Corps’ Iwo Jima Memorial, the National Gallery of Art and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, grew up steeped in the craft, carving letters on gravestones when he was a teenager.
“You spend years learning just how far to push the material before you get into serious trouble,” he said in a recent interview. “That skill that is established before you are ever allowed to carve on anything of any value.” But the time came when Benson, aged 18, found himself at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where his father was working on a project in the West Building’s Rotunda. Ushered onto a hydraulic lift, Benson found himself aloft, facing a wall, his father instructing him to carve one of the headings for the growing list of museum trustees.
“That’s 120-year-old Indiana buff limestone that doesn’t exist anymore. There I am, about to sink a chisel into this wall. I was petrified.” But once he started carving, the fear subsided. Benson’s father—“he had a preserve joy in throwing me into the deep end of the pool”—knew that his son was ready. And now, more than 30 years later, Benson regularly returns to the National Gallery to add inscriptions to that trustees wall. Does he check on that early work? “Sometimes, I’ll go all the way to the top and see how it looks.”
Image by Colin Winterbottom, courtesy Washington National Cathedral. Joe Alonso and stone carvers Sean Callahan (left) and Andy Uhl continue repairs at the National Cathedral following the 2011 earthquake in Washington, D.C. (original image)
Image by Colin Winterbottom, courtesy Washington National Cathedral. Joe Alonso repairs earthquake damaged sections of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (original image)
The filmmakers’ cameras followed Joe Alonso, master mason, to the Cathedral, where he has worked since 1985. Alonso is setting a block of limestone, which dangles from a nearby chain hoist. With a few swift strokes of his bucket trowel, Alonso spreads a bed of mortar atop an already-set block, “fluffing” the paste to create low ridges and troughs that will hold a light sprinkling of water. He buries little lead “buttons” in the mortar, a trick of the trade that will preserve a quarter-inch joint between the layers of blocks. Lowering the block onto the mortar bed and checking its alignment with a level, Alonso delivers a few quick strikes with his rawhide-tipped mallet. Done. “On a hot day,” he says, “you’ve probably got about two minutes to get that stone where you want it.”
Image by Paul Wagner. Blacksmith Patrick Cardine of Bealeton, Virginia, with a hand-forged decorative grille (original image)
Image by Patrick Cardine. Patrick Cardine hammers a scroll on his anvil. (original image)
Like Benson, himself a third-generation stone carver, Alonso, the son of a Spanish-born mason, straddles the workaday present and the still-living past, keenly aware of the men, the teachers, now gone, who cut and carved and set so many of the blocks—by today’s count, some 150,000 tons of stone—one by one, forming the Gothic structure—its nave, its apse, its transepts, its towers, its buttresses. In his early years at the Cathedral, working on the construction of the west towers, Alonso would look eastward, along the roofline of the completed nave, and sense the presence of his predecessors: “I was always aware that all those guys who had come before me were right there, in spirit, watching me,” he said, in a recent interview. “I thought that—I really did.”
That intimate connection with the past helps define “good work.” “When you work on a cathedral or a monumental building, you know there were generations before you working on that same structure, so ‘good work’ means being as good as those who came before you—trying to do as well as they did, because they passed their knowledge on to you.”
The masters featured in Good Work form an elite group. Few can do what they do. But, as Paul Wagner, Hunt’s partner in the project, suggests, their work ethic can be our work ethic. “If only all of us could bring their level of care, attention, respect, integrity, honesty and beauty to what we do,” Wagner says. “The film is a lesson in how we can approach work in our own lives.”
In the first few decades of the 20th century, child prodigies became national celebrities. Much like the movie stars, industrial titans and heavyweight champs of the day, their exploits were glorified and their opinions quoted in newspapers across the United States.
While every generation produces its share of precocious children, no era, before or since, seems to have been so obsessed with them. The recent advent of intelligence testing, which allowed psychologists to gauge mental ability with seemingly scientific precision, is one likely reason. An early intelligence test had been demonstrated at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893—the same exhibition that introduced Americans to such wonders as the Ferris wheel, Cracker Jacks and hula dancing. Then, in 1916, Stanford University psychologist Louis Terman published the Stanford-Binet test, which made the term intelligence quotient, or I.Q., part of the popular vocabulary.
A child’s I.Q. was based on comparing his or her mental age, determined by a standardized series of tests, to his or her chronological age. So, for example, a 6-year-old whose test performance matched that of a typical 6-year-old was said to have an average I.Q., of 100, while a 6-year-old who performed like a 9-year-old was awarded a score of 150. Ironically, Alfred Binet, the Frenchman whose name the test immortalized, had not set out to measure the wattage of the brightest children but to help identify the least intelligent, so they might receive an education that better suited them.
Also contributing to the prodigy craze was a change in the nature of news itself. The early 20th century marked the rise of tabloid newspapers, which put greater emphasis on human interest stories. Few subjects were of more human interest than children.
It was the highest I.Q. children and other spectacularly precocious youth who made the best stories, of course. Generally the press covered them with reverence, if not awe. “Infant Prodigies Presage A World Made Richer by A Generation of Marvels,” gushed one New York newspaper in 1922. Others treated them simply as amusing curiosities, suitable for a Ripley’s “Believe It or Not!” cartoon, where, indeed, some of them eventually appeared. Meanwhile, for parents wondering whether they might have one under their own roof, the papers ran helpful stories like “How to Tell If Your Child Is a Genius.”
At roughly the height of the prodigy craze, in 1926, Winifred Sackville Stoner, an author, lecturer, and gifted self-publicist, had the ingenious idea of bringing some of the little geniuses together. The founder of an organization called the League for Fostering Genius and herself the mother of a famous prodigy named Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr., Stoner wanted to introduce the celebrated children to one another and to connect them with rich patrons who might bankroll their future feats. “Surely there is no better way in which to spend one’s millions,” the New York Times quoted her as saying.
Though the full guest list may be lost in time, the party’s attendees included William James Sidis, a young man in his twenties who had been a freshman at Harvard at age 11, and Elizabeth Benson, a 12-year-old who was about to enter college. Benson would later remember Nathalia Crane, a precocious poet of 12, as being there as well, although if she was, contemporary news accounts seem to have missed her. So what became of these dazzlingly bright prospects of yesteryear? Here, in brief, are the very different tales of Sidis, Benson and Crane, as well as Stoner, Jr.
William James Sidis, Boy Wonder
Perhaps the most celebrated prodigy of the early 20th century, William James Sidis would grow up to become the poster child for the perils of early fame.
Born in New York City in 1898, Sidis was the child of Russian immigrant parents, both high achievers themselves. His father was a noted psychologist and protégé of the philosopher-psychologist William James, after whom the boy was named. His mother had earned an M.D. but seems never to have practiced medicine, devoting her time instead to her husband and son.
Spurred on by his parents, in particular his father, who believed that education should begin in the crib, Sidis showed a gift for languages and math at an age when most children are content just to gurgle. According to The Prodigy, a 1986 biography by Amy Wallace, older kids would stop his baby carriage as he was being wheeled through the park to hear him count to 100. At 18 months he was reportedly reading The New York Times, and as a 3-year-old he taught himself Latin.
Sidis made headlines when he started high school at eight and Harvard at 11. His lecture to the Harvard math club on one of his favorite subjects, the fourth dimension , an obscure area of geometry, was widely covered, even if few people seemed to know what he was talking about.
By the time Sidis graduated from college, he’d had his fill of fame and was known to run at the sight of newspaper reporters. He taught briefly, spent some time in law school and flirted with Communism, but his greatest passion seemed to be his collection of streetcar transfers, a subject he wrote a book about using a pseudonym. He would later write other books under other pseudonyms, including a history of Native Americans.
To support himself, Sidis worked at a string of low-level office jobs. When the New Yorker tracked him down for a “Where Are They Now?” article in 1937, it described him as living in a small room in a shabby section of Boston and quoted him as saying that, “The very sight of a mathematical formula makes me physically ill.” Sidis, then 39, sued the magazine for invading his privacy and lost in a landmark case.
Sidis died in 1944 at age 46, apparently of a cerebral hemorrhage. He left behind a pile of manuscripts and at least one big mystery: Was he simply a pathetic recluse who never fulfilled his early promise or a man who succeeded in living life on his own terms, free from the demands of being a prodigy?
Image by Courtesy of the author. The early 20th-century obsession with child prodigies was well documenting in tabloid newspapers, turning the kids into national celebrities. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the author. Elizabeth Benson became a national celebrity when she was eight, boasting an I.Q. of 214 plus. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the author. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s mother read her baby classic poetry and decked out her nursery with paintings and sculptures. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the author. Winifred supposedly translated Mother Goose into Esperanto at five, passed the entrance exam for Stanford at nine, and spoke eight languages by 12. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the author. William James Sidis, known as the Boy Wonder, was perhaps the most celebrated child prodigy of the early 20th century. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the author. Newspapers reported that child prodigies continued to remain successful well into their teens and adulthood, but most did not follow this trajectory. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the author. For parents wondering whether they might have a child prodigy under their own roof, newspapers ran helpful stories like “How to Tell If Your Child Is a Genius.” (original image)
Image by Courtesy of the author. While the press generally covered 20th-century child prodigies with reverence, some argued that intense early education aged children too quickly. (original image)
Elizabeth Benson, Test-buster
With an I.Q. of 214 plus, then the highest ever recorded, Elizabeth Benson was a celebrity at the age of eight, though her mother wouldn’t let her read her clippings for fear she’d become conceited. The “plus” meant she had broken the scale, successfully answering every question until her testers ran out of them. There was no telling how high she might have scored.
Benson, born in Waco, Texas in 1913, was raised by her mother, Anne Austin, a journalist who later wrote popular mystery novels with titles like Murder at Bridge and The Avenging Parrot. As her mother’s career progressed, the two moved around, with stops in Iowa, California and Missouri, as well as several Texas cities. By the time young Elizabeth graduated from high school, at age 12, she had attended a dozen different schools.
Though she seems to have excelled at just about everything, Benson’s interests were mainly literary. She taught herself to spell by age 3 and was soon consuming a dozen library books a week. At 13, during her sophomore year at Barnard College in New York City, she published one of her own, The Younger Generation, offering her wry take on the antics of Roaring Twenties youth. In his introduction to the book, Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield marveled not only at the young teenager’s writing skill but also her athletic ability. “A learned physician has hinted to me that the hair-trigger balance between her physical and intellectual natures is probably due to the perfect functioning of her endocrine glands,” he explained, or at least attempted to.
After graduating from college in 1930 Benson dropped from public view. She reemerged four years later, when a reporter found her living in a small apartment in New York, married, and working as a cashier. Time magazine then picked up the story, treating her to further national acclaim, not for being a genius but for turning out so normal.
In the late ’30s, however, Benson’s life appeared to take a radical turn, literally: She returned to her native Texas as Communist organizer. When her group tried to hold a rally at San Antonio’s municipal auditorium, the result was a riot by a reported 5,000 anti-Communist Texans.
Benson next headed to Los Angeles, where she continued her organizing work in the movie industry. But by the late 1950s, she’d grown disenchanted with Communism, finally breaking with the party in 1968, according to her son, Morgan Spector. She then earned a law degree, taught real property courses and practiced as a labor lawyer. She died in 1994, at age 80, an event that seems to have gone unnoticed by the media that once followed her every move.
Nathalia Crane, Precocious Poet
Nicknamed the “Baby Browning of Brooklyn,” Nathalia Crane, born in 1913, was a nationally known poet by age 10, acclaimed for such works as “Romance,” later retitled “The Janitor’s Boy,” a girlish fantasy about escaping to a desert isle with the red-haired title character from her apartment house. Crane, her poems, and even the ordinary, real-life boy who inspired her poetic effusions were celebrated in newspapers from coast to coast.
Nunnally Johnson, later to make his name as a screenwriter and director, observed the spectacle as a young reporter. “Camera men and moving picture photographers shuffled through the apartment-house court to Nathalia’s door,” he wrote. “She was asked imbecile questions: her opinions on love, on bobbed hair, on what she wanted to be when she grew up.”
It wasn’t long, however, before Crane’s unusual way with words had raised suspicions that she might be a fraud. Conspiracy theorists tried to attribute her poems to everyone from Edna St. Vincent Millay to Crane’s own father, a newspaperman who had demonstrated no particular gift for poetry. Eventually the doubts subsided, and by the end of her teens, Crane’s credits included at least six books of poetry and two novels.
Crane would publish little from the 1930s until her death in 1998. Instead, she went to college and took a series of teaching jobs, ending her career at San Diego State University.
Aside from a brief brush with controversy as a supporter of the Irish Republican Army, Crane rarely stood out in her later years, according to Kathie Pitman, who is working on her biography. “She seems to have been a very quiet, very diffident person, certainly not larger than life,” Pitman says. “It may be that she just tired of all the emphasis that was put on her as a prodigy.”
Though Crane’s work is largely forgotten, it enjoyed a recent revival when Natalie Merchant set “The Janitor’s Boy” to music for her 2010 album, Leave Your Sleep.
Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr., the Wonder Girl
The curiously named Winfred Sackville Stoner, Jr., born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1902, was the daughter of Winifred Sackville Stoner, a self-styled education expert who read her baby classic poetry and decorated her nursery with copies of great paintings and sculptures. Her father was a surgeon with the U.S. Public Health Service, whose frequent reassignments kept the family on the move. By the age of 10, his daughter had lived in
Evansville, Indiana, Palo Alto, California, and Pittsburgh—and become a local legend in each of them.
Young Winifred supposedly translated Mother Goose into Esperanto at five, passed the entrance exam for Stanford at nine, and spoke eight languages by 12, when she wasn’t playing the violin, piano, guitar or mandolin. Remember the famous line “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”? She wrote it. No wonder the newspapers gave her nicknames like the Wonder Girl.
As Winifred, Jr., gained a reputation as a prodigy, her mother became equally well-known as the brains behind one. Mother Stoner, as she was often referred to, published several books explaining how she had reared her amazing daughter and lectured widely on her theories, which she called “natural education.” Like William Sidis’s father, Boris, whom she quoted admiringly, she believed that a child’s education couldn’t begin too early. Indeed, she did Sidis one better and didn’t even wait for her baby to be born to start classes. “Through prenatal influence,” she wrote somewhat cryptically, “I did all in my power to make my little girl love great literature in many languages.”
By the late 1920s, however, the younger Stoner was getting more attention for her chaotic personal life than her artistic achievements. Still a teenager, she had married a phony French count who turned out to be a con man. After he faked his own death, she remarried, only to discover that she now had two husbands. She won an annulment from the “count,” but divorced her second husband anyway, saying he had insulted her coffee. Further husbands and other embarrassments would follow.
Stoner died in 1983, having long since renounced any claim to being a role model. In a 1930 article she described her youth as being “puffed to the skies and then pitch-forked.” Her closing words: “Take my advice, dear mothers; spare your children from so-called fame, which easily turns to shame, and be happy if you have a healthy, happy, contented boy or girl.”
On a brilliant, spring morning in Normandy, the beach at Colleville-sur-Mer is peaceful. Tall grasses sway in the breeze, sunlight dapples the water, and in the distance, a boat glides lazily along the English Channel.
Only a sign on the hill overlooking the shore suggests that this is anything but a bucolic, seaside resort area: Omaha Beach.
Seventy years ago, this place was a hellish inferno of noise, smoke and slaughter. Here along an approximately five mile stretch of shoreline, what commanding General Dwight Eisenhower called "the great crusade" to liberate Western Europe from Nazi domination, foundered. Had the men of the American 1st and 29th Divisions, supported by engineers and Rangers, not rallied and battled their way through the fierce German defenses along this beach, the outcome of the entire invasion might have been in doubt.
From films such as The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan, from books by Cornelius Ryan to Stephen Ambrose, the story of the horror and heroism of Omaha Beach has been told and retold. I am here on the eve of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, to follow in the footsteps of one of the battles earliest chroniclers: Ernie Pyle, a correspondent for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain who at the time of the invasion was already a celebrity. In fact, when he landed here on June 7, Hollywood was already planning a movie based on his stories, which would be released in 1945 as The Story of G.I. Joe, with Burgess Meredith playing the role of Pyle.
The real Pyle was 43 years old in June 1944 and already a veteran. The Indiana native’s coverage of the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily and Italy had earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 and a vast audience. “He was at the zenith of his popularity,” says Owen V. Johnson, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Journalism (the offices of which are in Ernie Pyle Hall). According to Johnson, an estimated one out of six Americans read Pyle's columns, which appeared four or five times a week during the war.
Perhaps most importantly, at least to the columnist himself, he had earned the respect of the front line American soldiers whose dreary, dirty and sometimes terrifying lives he captured accurately and affectionately.
Watch this video in the original article
There were fewer more terrifying hours than those endured by the first waves at Omaha Beach on June 6. Only a handful of correspondents were with the assault troops on D-Day. One of them was Pyle's colleague and friend, photographer Robert Capa, whose few surviving photos of the fighting on Omaha have become iconic. When Pyle landed the next morning, the fighting had pretty much stopped but the wreckage was still smoldering. What he decided to do in order to communicate to his readers back home what had happened at this place, not yet even recognized by its invasion code name of Omaha Beach, resulted in some of the most powerful reporting he would produce.
Image by U.S. Army photograph, Library of Congress. General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order of the day, "Full victory--nothing else" to paratroopers somewhere in England, just before they board their airplanes to participate in the first assault in the invasion of the continent of Europe. (original image)
Image by CORBIS. Troops are crowded onto a landing craft on D-Day. (original image)
Image by Sygma/Corbis. A Ninth Air Force B-26 flies over one of the beaches during the invasion of Normandy. (original image)
Image by Sygma/Corbis. American soldiers prepare to invade the beaches of Normandy. (original image)
Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. Helmeted US soldiers crouch, tightly packed, behind the bulwarks of a Coast Guard landing barge in the historic sweep across the English Channel to the shores of Normandy. (original image)
Image by CORBIS. The first wave of allied landing craft heads toward the Normandy beaches on D-Day. (original image)
Image by CORBIS. Omaha Beach on D-Day. (original image)
Image by CORBIS. General Gerhardt (l) and Commodore Edgar (r) watch the Normandy Invasion. (original image)
Image by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS. American troops in landing craft go ashore on one of four beaches in Normandy, France. (original image)
Image by CORBIS. Allied soldiers crawl on their stomachs past log fortifications on Omaha Beach. (original image)
Image by Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma/Corbis. Military mobilization along a Normandy beach following the D-Day invasion. (original image)
Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. American troops wade onto one of four beaches in Normandy, France. (original image)
Image by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS. A view of Omaha beach during the Normandy invasion. Barrage balloons hover over assembled warships as the Allies pour in an unending flow of supplies for the armies ashore. (original image)
Image by CORBIS. Scores of soldiers get into a landing craft from the deck of a ship in preparation for the invasion of the beaches in Normandy, France. (original image)
Image by CORBIS. Landing troops at Omaha Beach. (original image)
Image by dpa/Corbis. Allied troops advance on a beach during the invasion of the Allies in Normandy, France. (original image)
Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. An American flag marks a US command post near Omaha Beach where captured German soldiers are brought before being evacuated on waiting ships. (original image)
Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. American soldiers wait in foxholes at Utah Beach for the order to move inland against German fortifications. (original image)
Image by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS. Tanks, vehicles and stores unloading. (original image)
Image by CORBIS. General Omar Bradley and Admiral Kirk sit and talk as they go ashore on D-day, after the Normandy invasion. (original image)
Image by Wounded US and Nazi soldiers are transported to England from the French coast aboard an LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel). (original image)
Image by CORBIS. American assault troops of the 16th Infantry Regiment, injured while storming Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy, wait by the Chalk Cliffs for evacuation to a field hospital for further medical treatment. (original image)
Image by The Mariners' Museum/CORBIS. After being defeated during the allied invasion of Normandy, Nazi prisoners lie in beach trenches awaiting transportation across the English Channel. (original image)
Image by CORBIS. A U.S. Navy communications command post, set up at Normandy shortly after the initial landing on D-Day. (original image)
Image by Bettmann/CORBIS. American dead after D-Day landings. (original image)
He simply took a walk and wrote what he saw. “It was if he had a video camera in his head,” Johnson said. “He uses words so efficiently...he allows you to gaze and think, just as he did as he walked along.”
I am accompanied for my walk by Claire Lesourd, a licensed, English-speaking tour guide and D-Day expert, who has been giving tours here since 1995. We are heading from east to west, about 1.5 miles, the same length Pyle guessed he had walked along the same beach in 1944.
What he saw that day was a shoreline covered in the litter of battle and the personal effects of men already dead: “A long line of personal anguish,” as he memorably called it.
What I see is emptiness. Aside from a few hikers, we walk alone on a seemingly unending stripe of sand, riven by rivulets of water and sandbars to the water’s edge, which is at this time of day about 600 yards from the low, sandy embankments where the G.I.s—or at least those who made it that far—found some shelter.
My original thought had been to follow Pyle’s lead and wander alone, allowing me to observe and reflect.
But Paul Reed, the British author of Walking D-Day, warned that I could waste a lot of time on areas where there was no fighting. He recommended getting a rental car, which would allow me to visit as many of the significant invasion sites as possible: In addition to Omaha, these would include Utah Beach to the west, where American forces staged a far less bloody and more efficient operation; and Pointe du Hoc, the promontory between the two American beaches that U.S. Army Rangers scaled to knock out German artillery and observation posts.
Reed was right. My reluctance about tooling around in a car in a foreign country proved unfounded. Besides driving on the same side of the road as we do, the French have exceptionally well maintained and marked roads. And in Normandy at least, English is spoken everywhere. So I was indeed able to successfully navigate the entire D-Day area on my own (often relying on nothing more than road signs). I visited the village of St. Mere Eglise—which was liberated by U.S. paratroopers on D-Day—as well as some of the approximately 27 area museums that help deepen one’s understanding of the titanic events that took place here. (I only wish I had had an extra day or two to visit the British invasion beaches, Gold and Sword—which is where the official 70th anniversary observations will be held—and Juno, the Canadian beach.)
At Omaha, I thought all I would need is my notebook and my imagination. A quick re-reading of Pyle’s stories before the walk and some help from Reed’s field guide would suffice. A friend of mine from New York had done just that a few years ago, with less planning than I, and pronounced the experience capital.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the detail and context a well-informed guide could bring would be helpful, if only for my ability to tell this story. Claire proved to be an excellent choice, although she is by no means the only one. There are dozens of competent guides: while they’re not cheap (Ms. LeSourd charges 200€ for a half-day and 300€ for a full-day tour), the time she and I spent walking Omaha proved invaluable—and unforgettable.
On Omaha Beach, monuments to the battle and subsequent carnage are spread out discretely, near the location of the “draws” (paths) that lead up from the beach.
What we know today as Omaha Beach was once called La Plage de Sables D'or; the Beach of the Golden Sands. A century ago, holiday cottages and villas dotted the shore, as well as a railroad line that connected to Cherbourg, then the main junction from Paris. The area attracted artists, including one of the founders of the pointillist school of painters, George Seurat. One of his more famous paintings, Port-en-Bessin, Outer Harbor at High Tide, depicts the nearby seaside village where I stayed the previous night (at the Omaha Beach Hotel).
Much of that was gone by 1944. The Germans, bracing for the attack they were sure would come somewhere along the French coast, demolished the summer homes of Colleville and nearby Vierville sur Mer, minus one Gothic-looking structure whose turret still peaks out from beyond the bike path that runs along the beach road. The Nazis didn't have time to blow that one up (the current owner, Claire tells me, uses the bunker that the Germans built underneath the house as a wine cellar.)
Despite the tranquility of the beach today, it is sobering to look up at the high bluffs overhead and realize that 70 years ago, these wooded hills bristled with weapons—aimed at you. According to Reed, the Germans had at least 85 heavy weapons and machine guns positioned on the high ground, enabling them to rain down about 100,000 rounds a minute. Claire tells me that a few years ago she was escorting a veteran returning to Omaha Beach for the first time since June 6, 1944. Seeing it clearly, without the smoke, noise or adrenaline of battle, he suddenly dropped to his knees and began weeping. "He looked at me,” she recalls, “and said, `I don't know how any of us survived.’"
Pyle said pretty much the same thing. “It seemed to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all,” he wrote.
Most of the approximately 2,000 men killed that morning were buried in temporary cemeteries. Many would have their final resting place in the American Cemetery, located on 172 acres on one of the high points overlooking this sacred space (from the shore, you can see the Stars and Stripes peeking out high above, over the tree-line). Here, 9,387 Americans are buried, the vast majority of them casualties not only from Omaha Beach but throughout the Battle of Normandy which began on June 6 and went on until late August, when German forces retreated across the Seine. And not all D-Day casualties are buried there. After the war, families of deceased soldiers had the option to either have the bodies repatriated to the U.S. or buried in Europe. More than 60 percent chose to have the bodies shipped home. Still, the sight of nearly 10,000 graves is sobering, to say the least. As Reed writes, “The sheer scale of the American sacrifice is understood here, with crosses seemingly going on into infinity.”
Pyle moved along with the army. He joined forward units fighting in the hedgerows and ancient Norman towns, but also spent time with an antiaircraft battery protecting the newly secured invasion beaches and an ordinance repair unit. He would go on to witness the liberation of Paris. And in April, 1945, when Germany surrendered, the exhausted correspondent would agree to go cover the war in the Pacific, where American servicemen were eager to have him tell their stories, as well. On an island near Okinawa, in April, 1945, Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper.
He is buried in Honolulu, but it could be argued that his spirit rests here with so many of the soldiers he wrote about on D Day.
As he finished his grim walk of Omaha Beach, Pyle noticed something in the sand. It inspired the poignant, almost poetic ending to his dispatch:
“The strong swirling tides of the Normandy coast line shifted the contours of the sandy beach as they moved in and out. They carried soldier’s bodies out to sea, and later they returned them. They covered the corpses of heroes with sand, and then in their whims they uncovered them.
As I plowed out over the wet sand, I walked around what seemed to be a couple of pieces of driftwood sticking out of the sand. But they weren’t driftwood. They were a soldier’s two feet. He was completely covered except for his feet; the toes of his GI shoes pointed towards the land he had come so far to see, and which he saw so briefly.”
I, too, have come far to see this place, albeit with the privileges and comforts of 21st century travel. As we head back to the car, I feel the warmth of the spring sun and a sense of unlimited space and possibility. Despite the gravity of what happened here 70 years ago, I feel like I could walk all day along this beach—and I have the freedom to do so. The men here gave their lives for that. Ernie Pyle told their stories, and died with them. It’s hard not to be humbled in their presence.
Editor's Note, June 6, 2013: This piece has been edited to correct the date of Ernie Pyle's death. He died in April, 1945, not August of that year. Thank you to commenter Kate for alerting us to the error.
The Amazing (If True) Story of the Submarine Mechanic Who Blew Himself Up Then Surfaced as a Secret Agent for Queen Victoria
At 8:45 on the evening of February 17, 1864, Officer of the Deck John Crosby glanced over the side of the Federal sloop-of-war Housatonic and across the glassy waters of a calm Atlantic. His ship was blockading the rebel port of Charleston from an anchorage five miles off the coast, and there was always the risk of a surprise attack by some Confederate small craft. But what Crosby saw that night, by the dim light of a wintry moon, was so strange that he couldn’t be certain what it was. “Something on the water," he recalled to a court of inquiry a week later, "which at first looked to me like a porpoise, coming to the surface to blow.”
Crosby alerted the Housatonic’s quartermaster, but the object had already disappeared—and when he saw it again, a moment later, it was too close to the sloop for any hope of escape. As the Housatonic’s crew scrambled to their battle stations, there was a huge explosion on the starboard side. Their ship sank in minutes, taking five crewmen with her.A sketch by artist William Waud entitled, "Destruction of Housatonic by a rebel torpedo," dated February 17, 1864, Charleston (William Waud/Library of Congress)
It was not clear until some time later that the Housatonic had been the first victim of a new weapon of war. The ship—all 1,240 tons of her—had been sunk by the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley: 40 feet of hammered iron, hand-cranked by a suicidally brave crew of eight men, and armed with a 90-pound gunpowder charge mounted on a spar that jutted, as things turned out, not nearly far enough from her knife-slim bow.
The story of the Housatonic and the Hunley, and of the Hunley’s own sinking soon after her brief moment of glory, of her rediscovery in 1995 and her eventual salvage in 2000, has been told many times. We know a good deal now about Horace Hunley, the Louisiana planter who assembled the syndicate that paid for the submarine. We know about the design defects and the human errors that drowned two earlier Hunley crews, 13 men in all. We even know a little of James McClintock and Baxter Watson, the two mechanics who built the Hunley—not least that McClintock was the man who actually designed her, and so is probably the most important person in the story.
What has not been known, at least until now, is exactly what became of James McClintock. The Hunley’s hundreds of historians sketch his story in a sentence or two. They take their information from McClintock’s grandson, Henry Loughmiller, who—writing to the researcher Eustace Williams—explained that his ancestor was “killed [in 1879] at the age of 50 in Boston Harbor when he was experimenting with his newly invented submarine mine.”
It seems to be a fitting ending, but the Loughmiller account has been repeated endlessly for more than half a century without being checked. Yet fresh research suggests that each part of the story is dubious. Those who met James McClintock in 1879 thought him much closer to 60 years old than 50; the explosion that supposedly claimed his life took place outside Boston Harbor, and the evidence that it killed him is remarkably flimsy. Many people heard the explosion, but not a single person witnessed it. There was no body. There was no inquest. Not so much as a shred of mangled flesh was ever recovered from the water. And 16 months later, in November 1880, a man who said his name was James McClintock walked into the British consulate in Philadelphia to tell a most outlandish tale—and offer his services to Queen Victoria as a secret agent.
James McClintock spent his boyhood navigating not eastern harbors, but the great rivers of the American interior. Census records confirm that the inventor was born in Ohio, and family tradition suggests that he grew up in Cincinnati and left home at an early age to join the crew of a Mississippi riverboat, acquiring sufficient skill to become “the youngest steamboat captain on the river” in the years before the Civil War. At some point, McClintock also began to show talent as an engineer and inventor. Caught in New Orleans by the war, he and Baxter Watson drew up plans for a new machine for making Minié balls, the rifled-musket bullets used by both sides throughout the conflict.James R. McClintock, the inventor of the H.L. Hunley, shortly before journeying to Boston in February 1879. (Image: Naval Historical Center)
According to the New Orleans Bee, the two men boasted that their invention would cost only $2,000 or $3,000 to make, and “with it two men can turn out a thousand balls per hour, or with steam power it makes eight or ten thousand per hour. This one machine, worked night and day, could turn out 1,200,000 balls every week, more than enough to supply the Confederate armies in the most desperate and extended war possible.”
The Minié ball machine was never made, most likely because its usefulness had been thoroughly exaggerated. But it served as a calling card, and must have helped to persuade Horace Hunley to assemble a consortium that invested somewhere north of $30,000 in McClintock’s submarines. Reading between the lines of Civil War accounts, it seems likely that it was the desire to recover this investment, as much as patriotic fervor, that persuaded the boats’ owners to persevere in the face of repeated disaster: at least three sinkings, reported stiflings and near-stiflings, and even the death of Hunley himself, who, having fatally dived to the bottom during trials at Charleston in October 1863, was recovered with his crew when the submarine was salvaged three weeks later—“a spectacle,” one contemporary report related, “indescribably ghastly; the unfortunate men were contorted into all kinds of horrible attitudes, some clutching candles, evidently attempting to force open the manholes; others lying in the bottom, tightly grappled together, and the blackened faces of all presented the expression of their despair and agony.”
Of all the men known to have boarded the Hunley, indeed, only about half a dozen escaped death in her belly. But McClintock himself survived the war, and when, in the fall of 1872, he traveled to Canada in an attempt to sell his submarine designs to the Royal Navy, the officers who interviewed him proclaimed themselves “strongly impressed with the intelligence of Mr. McClintock, and with his knowledge on all points, chemical and mechanical, connected with torpedoes and submarine vessels.”
What led McClintock to Boston is only hazily known. By 1879 he was living in New Albany, on the Ohio River at the southern tip of Indiana, where his occupation was recorded as “salesman.” This suggests that his fortunes had reversed since 1872, when he had been the moderately prosperous owner-operator of a dredge boat on Mobile Bay. He was also married and the father of three daughters, and the evidence suggests that he had plenty of motivation to leverage his expertise in building secret weapons in the hope of snagging a fortune in the shady private armaments market.A view of New Albany, Indiana, as painted by George Morrison in 1849. The township stood on the north bank of the Ohio river, which during the Civil War marked the border between Union and Confederate territory. (George Morrison/New Albany-Floyd County Public Library)
By 1877, certainly, McClintock had established contact with two other men who shared these views—George Holgate, a Philadelphian just setting out on what would become an infamous career as a free-lance bomb-maker, and a mysterious New Orleans river pilot by the name of J.C. Wingard, who had been with him in Mobile during the war. Both of these men were extraordinary characters.
Holgate, who seems to have been born in lowland Scotland, was the prolific inventor of an alarming collection of elaborate explosive devices that he hawked to all comers—Irish freedom fighters, Cuban patriots and Russian nihilists. “I no more ask a man,” he informed one newspaper reporter, “whether he proposes to blow up a Czar or set fire to a palace...than a gunsmith asks his customers whether they are about to commit a murder.” He claimed to be the former proprietor of a London paint shop that had been a front for a bomb-making business, though there is no trace of any such activities in a British press that became obsessed with bombers when the Irish Republican Brotherhood—a precursor to the IRA—began deploying them in London in 1867.
By the early 1870s, Holgate was living in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he purchased a gun shop and touted a highly dubious invention that, he boasted, used injections of ozone to keep fruit, vegetables and even beef fresh for weeks. He was, the local Northwestern newspaper would recall, a “blatherskite” and “blowhard...one of those wild erratic individuals who now-a-days are gaining such cheap notoriety by cheap means.” But he was also—potentially, at least—a very dangerous man. The wares that he touted, Ann Larabee records, included a good deal more than conventional explosives:
a cheap hand grenade, a bomb concealed in a satchel that had a fuse running through its keyhole, and a hat bomb comprised of dynamite pressed between two sheets of brass sewn into the crown with a fuse running around the rim. His “Little Exterminator” operated through a delicate watch mechanism that moved a tiny saw, releasing a chemical that smelled like cayenne pepper, killing anyone within one hundred feet.
Wingard was even more remarkable. When the Civil War disrupted an early sideline as a prominent medium, he too turned to invention, re-emerging in New Orleans in 1876 as the proprietor of a death ray that he claimed was powerful enough to annihilate enemy ships across several miles of open water. Although a self-styled river “captain,” Wingard was almost entirely uneducated—“a plain, simple, straightforward man,” Emma Hardinge wrote in 1870. But he exhibited extraordinary talents as a medium.
Amid the great spiritualism craze, which had burst on the United States late in the 1840s, Wingard became renowned as early as 1853 as a faith healer and for the “spirit drawings” he produced in darkened séance rooms “on paper which had previously been examined and found not to contain any marks.” His most remarkable performances, however, involved the production of automatic writing, messages that were supposedly produced by spirits that had taken control of a medium’s body. According to Thomas Low Nichols, the revivalist preacher Jesse Babcock Ferguson swore that he had seen Wingard “write with both hands at the same time, holding a pen in each hand, sentences in different languages, of which he was entirely ignorant. He saw him, as did many other persons of undoubted credibility, write sentences in French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic.”
The Civil War found Wingard in New Orleans. Just as the crisis had turned James McClintock’s interests toward bullets, it focused Wingard’s thoughts on an early sort of machine gun. This device was never built, but like the Minié ball machine it was extravagantly promoted. Wingard claimed that weapons made to his design would be capable of discharging 192 bullets a minute “at a range as great as any gun then in use.”
Wingard’s interest in mechanical death-dealers persisted after the war, and early in 1876 he reappeared in New Orleans, calling himself “Professor” Wingard and claiming to have invented an astonishing new weapon capable of annihilating enemy warships at distances up to five miles. The manner in which this destruction was to be effected was left vague, though Wingard mentioned electricity—which, in the 1870s, was a new, powerful and poorly understood form of energy—and a separate Nameless Force, which in some mysterious way transmitted electrical power across water and focused it upon its target. This Nameless Force, he promised, would become “a factor controlling the destinies of a nation.”Wingard’s “Nameless Force” makes the press. An advertisement placed by the inventor in the New Orleans Times-Picayune of May 7, 1876. (New Orleans Times-Picayune)
The tremendous public interest in Wingard’s invention survived two unsuccessful efforts to put the Nameless Force to work on Lake Pontchartrain. Chastened by his double failure, Wingard decided not to invite the New Orleans public to a third demonstration on June 1, 1876, but a “committee of gentlemen” was present when, at 2:35 p.m., the Professor—a small figure just visible across a mile or more of water—fired the weapon from a skiff. It was aimed at the Augusta, an old wooden schooner that had been anchored about two miles away, off a popular amusement park on the southern shore known as the Spanish Fort.
This time, it seemed, the Nameless Force took effect, and the Augusta “suddenly blew up” about 90 seconds after Wingard’s invention was discharged. When the witnesses reached what remained of the vessel, they found her “shattered in small fragments,” and it seemed all the more impressive that Wingard “could not receive the congratulations of his friends” as he had somehow sustained severe burns to one hand in the course of the operation.Pictured here circa 1880-1920, the Spanish Fort amusement park on Lake Pontchartrain was the spot chosen by “Professor” Wingard for a public demonstration of his Nameless Force. (Photo: George François Mugnier/Louisiana State Museum)
From our perspective, though, the most important aspect of the demonstration was not Wingard’s brief lionization in New Orleans, but a deflating coda reported by the Galveston Daily News a few days later. According to that paper, “a delegation of newsboys, who happened to be in the vicinity, with a spirit of scientific research...visited the schooner despite repeated warnings to keep away, and reported that they found a large gas pipe filled with powder, and a wire leading towards [the skiff] that was anchored some distance away.” The entire demonstration, thus, had been a fraud; the only force involved, the News concluded, was a quantity of gunpowder concealed beneath the Augusta’s decks, and a long wire, “tightened by means of a windlass on the skiff,” that triggered the explosive. This discovery dented Wingard’s reputation, and he seems not to have been heard from again until he appeared in Boston late in 1879.
What happened to McClintock, Holgate and Wingard in Massachusetts can be established from local newspaper reports. The men appeared in Boston in the first days of October and chartered first the steamboat Edith and then, on October 13, a sailboat, the Ianthe, with a rowboat as tender and a Nantucket man named Edward Swain as crew.
On the afternoon of the 13th, Swain sailed the Ianthe to a spot off Point Shirley, to the east of Boston Harbor. It is at this point that accounts become confused, but the most considered and most detailed state that Wingard had taken command of the Edith and was towing an old hulk that was to be used as a target. Holgate, who had been due to join Swain in the tender, complained of seasickness and retreated into the Ianthe’s deckhouse to lie down, so McClintock took his place, carrying with him a “torpedo”—mine—packed with 35 pounds of dynamite, which (the Boston Daily Advertiser reported) he had boasted was powerful enough to “blow up any fleet in the world.” He and Swain rowed off.
Shortly thereafter, with the tender about a mile from the Ianthe and two miles from the Edith, there was an ear-shattering explosion. Wingard told the Advertiser that he had been “looking the other way” at the fatal moment but turned in time to see a column of spray and debris rising high into the air. Holgate, who said he had been lying in his bunk, likewise missed the explosion, but when the Ianthe and the Edith converged on the spot there was no trace of McClintock or Swain; all they could see floating on the surface was a mass of splinters.
Neither Holgate nor Wingard seems to have been eager to make comments to the press, and both men quickly fled Boston—Holgate after securing McClintock’s possessions from his hotel room and without reporting the incident to the police. “He had a horror of recounting the event,” the Philadelphia Times explained after interviewing the old bomb-maker two decades later, “and so he said: ‘There can’t be an inquest unless there is a body to hold it upon, and there is not even a scrap left of my unfortunate companions.’ ” Indeed, the local authorities took remarkably little interest in what had happened. There seems to be no trace of any real investigation, nor even much curiosity as to why a trio of civilians were experimenting with unregulated explosives.
Thus far, the accounts in contemporary newspapers contain nothing to contradict Henry Loughmiller’s belief that his grandfather died that day in Boston. But they offer odd pieces of testimony that do not mesh with the tales that Holgate and Wingard told. The Daily Globe, for instance, reported that Holgate’s involvement in the catastrophe had been greater than he was willing to admit; the “torpedo” was electric, the Globe explained, and the explosion had occurred when Holgate somehow set the charge off remotely. Strangest of all was a note in the same paper stating that a reliable witness—a hunter out shooting at Ocean Spray—had seen McClintock’s rowboat still afloat after the explosion, “so that the men, he thinks, could not have been blown to pieces.”
Nothing came of any of this at the time. Holgate hastened to New York, and then home to Philadelphia, wiring McClintock’s family—so he said—to tell them of the awful accident. Wingard vanished. Boston’s harbor police dropped the halfhearted enquiries they had made, and nothing more was heard from any of the participants for more than a year.
A good deal happened in the interim, however. Perhaps the most significant of these developments took place in New York, where an ambitious splinter group from an Irish secret society known as the Clan na Gael began to plan a large-scale terrorist campaign on the British mainland. Led by Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, an Irish journalist who had been elected “Head Centre” of the Fenian movement in the United States, it began raising funds and looking for ways to manufacture bombs and smuggle them across the Atlantic.
O’Donovan Rossa and his associates were nothing if not ambitious—they raised $43,000 (just over $1 million today) with the aim of spreading “terror, conflagration and irretrievable destruction” the length and breadth of England, and established a “Dynamite School” in Brooklyn to teach recruits how to make, conceal and use their bombs. But Rossa was also enduringly indiscreet about their plans, and by the fall of 1880—a year after the explosion in Boston, but months before their terror campaign was due to begin—British diplomats in the United States were in a state of high alert, and desperately seeking information about how Rossa planned to spend his money.
It was against this background that Robert Clipperton, the British consul at Philadelphia, received an unexpected visitor in October 1880. This man introduced himself as James McClintock, explained that he had a background in submarine and mine warfare—and revealed that he had been hired by Rossa’s Skirmishing Fund to build 15 examples of a new sort of torpedo so powerful that a single weapon filled with 35 pounds of explosives “could sink an ironclad if exploded under her bottom, and could be carried in a great-coat pocket.”
This McClintock’s purpose in calling on Clipperton was to offer his services as a double agent. In exchange for payments of $200 ($4,650 today) each month, he was willing to betray his employers, slow down the work, hand over samples of the weapons and guarantee not to supply working models to Rossa’s terrorists.
Clipperton was impressed by his visitor, and so were the consul’s masters at the British embassy at Washington. The British naval attaché, Captain William Arthur, arrived posthaste in Philadelphia, where on November 5 he met with McClintock and recommended his recruitment as a spy. The weapons, Arthur wrote, seemed viable, and the informant’s plans were workable—the doubt was his loyalty, not his truthfulness. As a result of this report, the man calling himself McClintock was paid $1,000, and Clipperton and his assistant, George Crump, continued to meet with him well into 1881. That March, the consul was handed samples of three different sorts of bomb—one disguised as a lump of coal and intended to be slipped into the bunkers of a transatlantic steamship, to explode with catastrophic consequences when it was shoveled into a furnace while the ship was out at sea.
But who was the man whose appearance in Philadelphia caused Clipperton’s diplomats so much concern? Nothing in the official correspondence—lodged today in Britain’s National Archives—contains a physical description of the informant. But we can say he was just as traitorous as he appeared to be. By the time the official record petered out, in July 1881, he had extracted a four-figure sum from both Rossa’s Irish freedom fighters and Queen Victoria’s secret service fund. Moreover, he had betrayed both of his employers. Rossa never received his final consignment of torpedoes, and the samples that McClintock supplied to the British were fakes—“the contents of his cases are not dynamite,” a worried official reported from London when the test results came in, “but a powder made to resemble it of a very slightly explosive quality.”
This James McClintock slipped away before either the British or the Fenians could lay hands on him. It seems that he was never heard from again.
So who was the Philadelphia McClintock? There are certainly problems with the idea that he was the same man who was supposed to have died in Boston in 1879. That McClintock never returned to his family. He was listed as dead—killed in Boston—in the mortality schedule for 1880 that was compiled in his hometown in Indiana, and his grandson knew of nothing to suggest this was not true. And Holgate was vividly retelling the story of McClintock’s atomization as late as 1896.
One possibility is that Clipperton’s informant was Holgate, posing as his old partner. A few details suggest that this might be the case. One is that “McClintock” chose to reappear in Philadelphia—which was, by 1880, Holgate’s home. The other is that the man who turned up at the British consulate explained that his device contained 35 pounds of explosives. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was precisely the size of the device that Holgate told the Boston press had blown up James McClintock.
But would Holgate really have had much to gain by posing as his former partner? True, Holgate was no expert in underwater warfare, while McClintock was. But McClintock’s name would have carried no weight with any British diplomat in 1880. His role as the designer of the Hunley had never been disclosed. His visit to Canada had remained a state secret. And it would not be until well into the next century that his role in the destruction of the Housatonic would be celebrated.
The only other plausible alternative is that the Philadelphia man was exactly who he claimed to be. Of course, for McClintock to have survived the explosion in Boston, he would have had to fake his death—and probably to become a murderer as well, for the unfortunate Edward Swain was never seen again. He would surely have needed a good reason to take these drastic steps, and it is possible to speculate that he had one—by the time he got to Boston, he was definitely short of money, and a spectacular apparent death might have seemed a good way to escape his creditors, or perhaps an angry backer calling in a loan.
In the final analysis, however, we cannot be certain that McClintock was desperate, and there are really only two ways to determine whether Clipperton’s informant was the man he said he was. One is to ask whether the events of 1879 make any sense viewed as a fraud. The other is to search the British archives for scraps of information that could have been provided only by the real McClintock.
Certainly it strains credulity to suppose that McClintock rigged an explosion and then made a clean getaway without assistance from Wingard or Holgate. It would have been all but impossible for him to have escaped the scene without being noticed by one of them. And that the two men might have helped McClintock fake his death is not implausible; neither was a paragon of decency. But it is hard to imagine what their motive might have been, unless McClintock was their boss and paying them.
Holgate’s accounts do suggest that his partner was the man in charge. But a clue buried in the Boston Daily Advertiser suggests that this was not the case. According to the Advertiser’s files, Wingard lodged at the United States Hotel, McClintock and Holgate at the Adams House. Since the United States was Boston’s second-best hotel, while the Adams House was a theater district dive, the implication is that it was Wingard who had hired the other two. This certainly ties in with a note that appeared weeks later in the Chicago Daily Tribune, which reported that Wingard had traveled to Boston to stage another fraudulent trial of his Nameless Force for the benefit of fresh investors, and that he spent the first half of October assembling a joint stock company willing to plough $1,500 into his venture. The explosion put an end to that (the Tribune wrote), and a shaken Wingard confessed to his investors that the blast had taken place while two of his men were on their way to install hidden charges on the hulk selected for his demonstration.“Professor” Wingard put himself up in Boston’s sumptuous United States Hotel, pictured here, in 1883. McClintock and Holgate stayed at the less ostentatious Adams House. (Boston Public Library)
But if Wingate had no motive to assist McClintock, the same may not have been true of George Holgate. In this scenario, McClintock simply stayed on board the Ianthe with his partner and sent Swain off to die in the rowboat. The fact that the explosive charge was designed to be detonated remotely by wire, just as it had been in New Orleans, adds some weight to this theory, for if Swain rowed off trailing cable, as he must have done, the charge could have been detonated at any point—and, as the Boston Globe alleged, the explosion could have been triggered by Holgate. All McClintock needed to do at that point was to stay below while the Ianthe and the Edith converged upon the fatal spot. Wingard would have been none the wiser, McClintock would have escaped his creditors, and Holgate would have been owed favors by a man with extensive experience of explosives and underwater warfare.
Bearing all this in mind, perhaps the salient point is this: the Philadelphia McClintock was able to convince the British naval attaché, Captain Arthur, that he knew all about mines and submarines. This would not have been an easy trick to pull, for Arthur was also an expert; his last posting before coming to America was as Captain of HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy’s chief research establishment for underwater warfare. So maybe, just maybe, the triple agent who tricked British officials and Irish terrorists in Philadelphia, and got away with $2,000 and his life, was precisely who he said he was: James R. McClintock, inventor of the H.L. Hunley, betrayer of countries, causes, friends and his own family, and the faker of his own strange death.
British National Archives: Admiralty papers. “Submarine warfare,” 1872, Adm 1/6236 part 2; “Fenian schemes to employ torpedoes against HM ships,” 1881, Adm 1/6551; digest for August 9, 1872 and October 19, 1872 at cut 59-8 of Adm 12/897; digest for February 8, 1873 at cut 59-8 of Adm 12/920. Foreign Office Papers. New Orleans consulate. Cridland dispatch no.2 commercial of April 5, 1872 enclosing statement by James McClintock, March 30, 1872, and Cridland to Foreign Office July 17, 1872, both in FO5/1372; Fanshawe to Cridland, December 20,1872, Cridland dispatch no.7 commercial of January 3, 1873, McClintock to Cridland, January 7, 1873, Cridland to Foreign Office, May 25, 1873, all in FO5/1441. Philadelphia consulate. Political correspondence for 1881 in FO5/1746 fols.100-02, 146-7; FO5/1776, fols. 65-71, 80-5, 247, 249, 265, 291; FO5/1778 fols. 289, 403; United States censuses 1860 and 1870; Eustace Williams, "The Confederate submarine Hunley documents," np, Van Nuys, California, 1958, typescript in the New York Public Library; Anon. "Some scientific hoaxes." In Chambers's Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, June 12, 1880; Victor M. Bogle. “A view of New Albany society at mid-Nineteenth Century.” In Indiana Magazine of History 54 (1958); Boston Daily Advertiser, October 15, 16, and 20, 1879; Boston Evening Transcript, October 15, 1879; Boston Daily Globe, October 14, 15, 16 and 20, and November 17, 1879; Boston Weekly Globe, October 21, 1879; Carl Brasseaux & Keith P. Fortenot. Steamboats on Louisiana's Bayous: A History and Directory. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004; Chicago Daily Tribune, November 14, 1879; Mike Dash. British Submarine Policy 1853-1918. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of London 1990; Esther Dole. Municipal Improvements in the United States, 1840-1850. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Wisconsin 1926; Ruth Duncan. The Captain and Submarine H.L. Hunley. Memphis: privately published, 1965; Charles Dufour. The Night the War was Lost. Lincoln NE: Bison Books, 1964; Eaton Democrat (OH), June 20, 1876; Floyd County, Indiana, mortality schedule, 1880; Galveston Daily News, June 6, 1876; Emma Hardinge. Modern American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years' Record. New York: The Author, 1870; Chester Hearn. Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign: the Last Great Battles of the Civil War. Jefferson [NC]: McFarland & Co., 1993; Ann Larabee. The Dynamite Fiend: The Chilling Tale of a Confederate Spy, Con Artist, and Mass Murderer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005; New Orleans Daily Democrat, March 22, 1877; New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 12+May 30+June 4, 1876; New Orleans Daily Times, October 15, 1879; Thomas Low Nichols. Supramundane Facts in the Life of Rev. Jesse Babcock. London: F. Pitman, 1865; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, March 21, 1883; Ouachita Telegraph [LA], November 14, 1879; Philadelphia Times, February 26, 1896; Mark Ragan. Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare in the Civil War. Boston: Da Capo Press, 1999; Mark K. Ragan. The Hunley. Orangeburg [SC]: Sandlapper Publishing, 2006; KRM Short. The Dynamite War: Irish-American Bombers in Victorian Britain. Atlantic Highlands [NJ]: Humanities Press, 1979; Niall Whelehan. The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Horenstein is currently a professor at RISD. In addition to teaching classes, he is an active photographer always working on photographic and publishing projects. Horenstein is well-published, with over 25 books that either feature his photography or are widely used photography text books. He wrote the first darkroom textbooks, Basic Phtography and Beyond Basic Photgraphy. In Fall 2003, his book Honky-Tonk was published, containing an afterword written by NMAH curator Charlie McGovern. In 2006, NMAH featured the exhibition, Honky-Tonk: Country Music Photographs by Henry Horenstein, 1972-1981.
The collection consists of subjects such as fans and performers at outdoor music parks, in the parking lot, and performers on stage. Print sizes vary between 8 X 10 and 11X 14. The two 16 X 20 prints are a view of a crowd seen from backstage with JD Crowe & The South in sillouette, and “Bartender,” Wanda Lohnman leaning on the bar at Tootsies Orchid Lounge.
List of Performers and Venues Depicted in the Collection:
Fred’s Lounge in Mamou, LA
The Lonestar Ranch, Reed’s Ferry, NH
Hillbilly Ranch, Boston, MA
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville, TN;
The Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Theater, Nashville, TN.
Akeman, David “Stringbean”
Blue Sky Boys
Brown, Clarence "Gatemouth"
Butler, Carl and Pearl
Carter, Mother Maybelle and Helen Carter
Cline, Curly Ray
Cooper, Carol Lee
Cooper, Stoney and Wilma Lee
Dickens, Little Jimmy
Floyd, Hamonica Frank
Harkreader, Fiddlin' Sid
Harris, Emmy Lou
Holy Modal Rounders
Hughes Family Show
JD Crowe & the New South
Johnson Mountain Boys
Jones, Grandpa and Ramona
Kirby, Brother Oswald
Lewis, Jerry Lee
Monroe, Bill and Lester Flatt
Monroe, Bill and Roland White
Monroe, Bill and the Bluegrass Boys
Parton, Dolly and Porter Wagoner
Pearl, Minnie (Sarah Ophelia Colley) and Peewee King
Riley, Jeannie C.
Ritter, Woodward Maurice “Tex”
Snow, Rev. Jimmy Rodgers
Watson, Arthel Lane “Doc”
Wells, Muriel Deason “Kitty”
Williams, Hank Jr.
In the late 1800s, Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway sat at his desk, surrounded by watercolors, papers, pens, crayons, and dead birds, carefully preparing the illustrations that would make it into the seminal multivolume History of North American Birds: Land Birds and its companion The Water Birds of North America: Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College
Ridgway spent countless hours bent over his drawings, agonizing over how to most realistically portray the birds. It was no easy feat trying to illustrate a waterfowl in the plushest, deepest shade of blue so that it exactly resembled the specimen on his desk or perfectly capture the subtle hue of a crow’s glossy black sheen. But Ridgway succeeded! And over a century later, his bird drawings are still life like, with colors so bright, feathers glistening and eyes shining, that it is hard not to be mesmerized by their brilliance. In fact, he was so meticulous with his colors and color theory that he spent years experimenting with pigments to create a color dictionary, testing for colors that would not fade over time. Which is why it was so very peculiar to stumble upon a few strange Ridgway illustrations with almost haunting, mysterious shadows obscuring the painstakingly colored birds…
You see, recently, I had the privilege of conserving a set of these beautiful and richly drawn bird illustrations in preparation for a rapid capture digitization project. This meant carefully mending tears and flattening folded corners so that the illustrations could be safely handled and photographed. But about half way through the treatments, I came across something unusual: a mysterious shadow covering some of the birds. Whatever, I wondered, could have happened to these particular illustrations? And stranger still, while some shadows were composed of sharp and defined lines, other shadows were more relaxed and loose, creating soft, abstract shapes over top of the birds.
Thinking it might be discoloration from mercury, we set about testing the darkened shadowy areas with X-ray diffraction technology at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) “open lab day”, but alas, this revealed nothing. Aside from slightly elevated levels of Ca (calcium) and Fe (iron) on the image, there appeared to be no discernible elemental difference between the background and the dark area of interest. Confusing us further, the darkened areas did not come off with mechanical cleaning, nor have they rubbed off on the papers lying over top of them for decades.
Perhaps you can help us figure out what happened to them. To assist you, here are a few background details and a slideshow of some of the shadowy illustrations. Ridgway’s illustrations were often re-engraved, electroplated, and hand colored, as detailed in Daniel Lewis’s wonderful biography of Ridgway The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds. While Ridgway drew birds on various types and sizes of paper, the “shadows” only appear on birds illustrated on lined notecards, some of which have the shadows only on the back. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Ridgway was also experimenting with color fastness and dye stability, testing the fading of hundreds of different types of pigments in order to standardize the color nomenclature of birds and produce a color dictionary. Do these markings have anything to do with his experimenting with color stability?
Or perhaps it occurred during the printing process? Ridgway’s son was an amateur photographer and often assisted his father. Did he experiment on these illustrations? Maybe these particular illustrations were discarded copies that Ridgway used as scrap paper . . . but what are the shadows? Any ideas are welcome!
- Meet Robert Ridgway - Ornithologist and Artist, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Rapidly Capturing Ridgway, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7167 - Robert Ridgway Papers, circa 1850s-1919, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Diary containing brief daily entries. Kitson complains about his health, mentions sculptures in progress, and refers to many artists, his patrons and models. He refers to the activities of his wife Theo, also a sculptor, and writes about family matters, taking photographs, and of his trip to New York City, Montreal, and Vicksburg.