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On a late spring afternoon, as the sun nears its highest point, fifty men and women form a large circle in the middle of a field, deep in the woodlands and marshes that border a great river. Each one stands quietly, focused on a small, smoky bonfire that smells of sage and tobacco. The chief speaks. He reminds everyone that the ceremony is sacred. Among those present is the chief's 85-year-old mother, "Strong Medicine," who is the matriarch of the tribe.
They are all members of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indian Tribe of New Jersey. More than 3,000 strong, they are the largest and most vibrant tribe of Lenni-Lenape Indians living within the "Land of the Ancestors." That they are still here, unlike the thousands who were forced onto reservations, is a little-known tale of survival and ingenuity.
Their history in the area dates back more than 10,000 years, when Lenni-Lenape territory stretched from Manhattan Island to the Delaware Bay. Their lands—arguably among the most magnificent in the world—included southeastern New York state (including Manhattan), all of New Jersey, portions of eastern Pennsylvania (including what is now Philadelphia) and parts of Maryland and Delaware. Their first confirmed encounter with white people occurred on a spring day in 1524, when the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian sailing a French vessel, sailed into the waters between what is now called Brooklyn and Staten Island, New York. In his journal, Verrazzano wrote that the Lenape paddled out to greet him, making "great shouts of admiration."
Like the other "Nations of First Contact," as East Coast tribes are sometimes called, Lenni-Lenape leaders were thrust into a world they did not understand. It was the Lenni-Lenape who famously "sold" Manhattan Island for the equivalent of twenty-four dollars to the Dutchman Peter Minuit in 1626. Less well known is that they were the first Indian tribe in America to sign a treaty with the United States government. Their chiefs met with every major American figure from William Penn to George Washington.
Many Lenni-Lenape Indians—also sometimes called Delaware Indians—died of diseases to which they had no immunity, or were killed outright by white colonists. Thousands were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and sent, over a period of decades, to reservations in the West and in Canada. Strong Medicine's tribe, located in rural Cumberland County in New Jersey, found a way to avoid that fate.
"When my husband and I were coming up, and for a long time before that, our tribe was in hiding," Strong Medicine explains. "We were a hidden people. If the government knew you were Indian, they would take your property and send you to a reservation. There is a story in our tribe that this happened as recently as 1924, two years before I was born. So we were in the habit of staying to ourselves and not saying who we really were."
Census workers, in fact, were intentionally misled. "We would say we were 'Colored,' which is a term they used in the old days for people who are not white," Strong Medicine recalls. "Well, the government workers were white and they didn't know what the heck we were. They thought we meant we were 'Black' when we said 'Colored,' and we just went on letting them think that."
Adding to the confusion is that some members of the tribe do indeed have a small amount of white or African ancestry. This is not uncommon among Indians on the East Coast.
Strong Medicine—whose full name is Marion Strong Medicine Gould—is true to her name, which was given to her in a religious ceremony more than thirty years ago by her son, Chief Mark Quiet Hawk Gould. He gave her the name because of her extensive knowledge of plants and herbs—and also because of her personality. Strong Medicine is unusually outspoken for a Native American Elder, many of whom refrain from speaking to the outside world. And she is known within the tribe for telling the unvarnished truth to anyone who is brave enough to seek her advice. "Half the tribe is afraid of Mom," jokes the Chief, who will turn 66 this month.
Born in 1922 in Bridgeton, New Jersey, near the Delaware Bay, Strong Medicine recalls being raised in a loving environment where families lived in clans, or clusters, near each other. (They still do.) "We did better than most people during the Great Depression," she recalls. "We already knew how to eat weeds and things like that—we just ate more of it.
"Some Indians are ashamed to admit they eat weeds," she adds. "But I'm not. Why should I be? It's part of our culture."
Married at 18 to her high school sweetheart, Wilbur "Wise Fox" Gould, the couple already had two small sons by the time he joined the Army during World War II. Trained as a forward scout, he was captured and listed as missing in action during the Battle of the Bulge.
The tribe continued to live in secret until the 1970s, when Mark Gould, along with a core group of others in his age group, decided that the time had come for the tribe to stop hiding its identity. The tribe's modern-day revival, in fact, coincided with a national movement, the Indian Civil Rights Movement, and the cultural rebirth known as Native Pride.
Part of the plan was to re-organize the ancient tribe as a modern-day entity. Most of the elders, however, would not sign incorporation papers, or put their names on the ballot for a spot on the newly-structured Tribal Council. Strong Medicine, however, did both.
"It really made a huge difference to have Mom behind us," the Chief recalls. "All of the other elders were afraid of change." The tribe's incorporation took place in 1978, the same year that Congress passed a law protecting the right of Indians to freely practice their religions.
When one considers the fate of most tribes in America, the fact that 3000 Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians can practice their religion on their ancestral homeland, seems nothing short of miraculous. During Strong Medicine's life, her tribe has come full-circle, from hiding their identity to embracing it. "I never thought I would live to see the day my grandchildren and great-grandchildren celebrate our heritage," Strong Medicine says with a smile.
Copyright © 2008 by Amy Hill Hearth. Printed by permission. Adapted from the forthcoming book "Strong Medicine" Speaks by Amy Hill Hearth to be published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. (Available March 18, 2008 at your local bookstore and at www.simonsays.com. ISBN: 0-7432-9779-2, $23.00).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930, but his most famous work—stories about the English detective Sherlock Holmes—has lived on. Thanks to copyright law, those stories have also continued to benefit Doyle's heirs for the past 84 years. Every time someone wanted to write a story or film a movie about Sharlock Holmes, the Doyle estate would collect a fee. A legal ruling announced this week, however, has set Holmes free: the character and all his companions (as penned by Doyle) are now in the public domain.
The legal case of Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate that settled the claim actually rested on an interesting issue, whether a copyright claim can persist on a character even if the works depicting that character have fallen out of copyright. The defense of the Doyle estate went something like this: sure, Arthur Conan Doyle's stories are now at least 90 years old, but other stories about Sherlock Holmes are still under copyright, therefore Sherlock Holmes is still under copyright.
Judge Richard Posner didn't buy the argument, and he ruled that Sherlock Holmes, the character, is now in the public domain.
Part of the motivation for the Judge's decision, says Molly Van Houweling for the Authors Alliance, was a consideration of what the larger ramifications of extending the copyright on Holmes would have on art in general. Holmes' lasting popularity is a rarity among fictional characters—most fall out of favor within years, not decades. Creating a longer term on copyright for characters would reduce the number of works flowing into the public domain. This, in turn, would make it more difficult or more expensive for future artists to work, since a great deal of art draws on earlier works.
There's another interesting facet to the case, too. The Doyle estate's argument hinged on the idea that Sherlock Holmes was a complex and defined character, one whose characteristics were set down by Doyle. But that argument, say Parker Higgins and Sarah Jeong in their 5 Useful Articles newsletter, really just isn't the case:
Posner's opinion has much to commend, but one area it does not delve into is how the character of Sherlock Holmes—as we know him—is the construct of many authors, artists, and even film-makers. As Authors Alliance co-founder Molly Van Houweling points out, the phrase "elementary, my dear Watson," never appears in any of Doyle's works. And Doyle himself never described Holmes wearing his signature funny hat, this pop culture impression of the detective came about through a series of others' interpretations—first, in a few original illustrations by Sidney Paget, which probably influenced the stage actor William Gilette's depiction of Holmes, whose photo inspired American illustrator Frederic Dorr Steele to consistently draw the character in a deerstalker cap, an artistic choice that made its way into a number of cinematic versions.
So what adventures should Sherlock and Watson get up to next? It's time to get your fan fiction juices flowing.
Gawking at the love lives of public figures–from Brangelina to Eliot Spitzer–is something of a national pastime these days, and things weren't much different during the lifetime of celebrated American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910).
While prolific in depicting the outside world, Homer adamantly refused to reveal his inner landscape to an increasingly curious public throughout his career. Perhaps that is why, nearly a century after his death, we're still interested: Secrecy often suggests something worth concealing.
Homer himself hinted at this sentiment in a 1908 note to a would-be biographer: "I think that it would probably kill me to have such a thing appear–and as the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public I must decline to give you any particulars in regard to it."
Although Homer remained a bachelor for all of his 74 years, after his death, one of his close friends told biographer Lloyd Goodrich that the artist "had the usual number of love affairs." No conclusive evidence is available about any of these, but a thin trail of emotional clues exists amid Homer's correspondence with friends and family, as well as in his work.
The first such clue comes in a March 1862 letter to his father, Charles Savage Homer. The young Homer is planning to travel to Washington to illustrate Civil War action for Harper's Weekly, and mentions a comment made by his editor: "He thinks (I am) smart and will do well if (I) meet no pretty girls down there, which he thinks I have a weakness for."
Homer spent ten months in France in 1866-7, and had an active social life there, if his vivacious engravings of Parisian dance halls are any indication (see above sketch). For the next five or six years, back in America, he continued to paint generally cheerful, lively scenes, often featuring pretty young women.
"The numerous portrayals of fetching women suggest a longing for feminine company…these scenes may have been this shy man's way of safely bringing women closer," Randall Griffin wrote in his 2006 book Winslow Homer: An American Vision.
Specifically, it seems the painter yearned to be closer to Helena De Kay, an art student and the sister of Homer's friend Charles De Kay. She was the apparent model for several of Homer's works in the early 1870s, until she married the poet and editor Richard Watson Gilder in 1874.
As fine arts scholar Sarah Burns explained in a 2002 article for The Magazine ANTIQUES, Helena De Kay's correspondence shows how Homer may have tried to court her. Homer often asked her to visit his studio, an invitation he rarely extended to anyone, and she is the only painter he ever offered to instruct (though there is no evidence she accepted). In one note, he even compared a photo of her to a Beethoven symphony, "as any remembrance of you will always be."
Perhaps Homer's circa 1872 oil "Portrait of Helena De Kay" reflects his realization that he would likely lose his beloved to Gilder, who began courting her that year. It was an unusual work for Homer's style up to then – a somber, formal portrait, and an uncommissioned one at that.
In the painting, DeKay is seated on a couch in profile, dressed in black and looking down at a closed book in her hands. The indoor setting, presumably Homer's studio, is dark and empty but for a small spot of color on the floor–a discarded and dying rose; a few of its petals scattered nearby.
It is "a very suggestive picture, and unlike any other he painted," says Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., a Homer biographer and retired National Gallery of Art curator. "I'd say she is the most nameable candidate (for a love interest), certainly."
A letter from Homer to De Kay in December 1872 indicates that something had come between them. He asks her to pick up a sketch he had made of her, adding a few cryptic words of reassurance: "I am very jolly, no more long faces. It is not all wrong."
The next year, another of Homer's notes alludes to his feelings by what it omits: "My dear Miss Helena, I have just found your picture. I think it very fine. As a picture I mean, not because, etc."
It is unclear whether Homer ever actually proposed to De Kay, but he painted a picture of a proposal scene in 1872, with the telling title, "Waiting For an Answer," and in 1874 he painted an almost identical scene minus the young suitor ("Girl in an Orchard"), suggesting that the girl's answer had been to send the boy away. Around the same time, he painted several other pictures of "thwarted love," as Burns describes it.
Some scholars think he fell in love again a few years later, when he was around 40 years old. He visited friends in rural Orange County, New York, and painted several pictures of women there. One of them, titled "Shall I Tell Your Fortune?" shows a saucy-looking lass seated barefoot on the grass, holding playing cards in one hand. Her other hand rests palm-up on her hip, and her direct gaze seems to be asking the painter much more than the title suggests.
A similar woman appears in other Homer paintings from the mid to late 1870s, and this may have been the schoolteacher referred to by Homer's grandniece, Lois Homer Graham, in a piece she wrote for the book Prout's Neck Observed decades later: "The year 1874 found all of the Homer sons well established in their careers…Winslow had courted a pretty school teacher, but lost her to his career."
It does seem clear that Homer wanted a major change of scenery and lifestyle rather suddenly at the end of the 1870s. As Cikovsky puts it, "something was stirring in Homer's life, and I think some sort of intimacy gone wrong was part of that."
The artist withdrew from society, moving first to an island off Gloucester, Mass., then the remote fishing village of Cullercoats, England, and finally in 1883 to Prout's Neck, Maine, where he stayed the rest of his life. He developed a reputation as a grumpy recluse, discouraging visitors and turning down most social invitations, although he remained close to his family. His personal life may have suffered, but his professional life flourished in these years, as the seacoast inspired some of his best works.
Interestingly, Homer never attempted to sell the painting of the fortune-telling girl. It was still on an easel in his Prout's Neck studio when he died in 1910.
But before you get too wrapped up in the romance of that idea, keep in mind that alternate theories abound. Homer scholar Philip Beam thinks the mystery woman was no woman at all, but rather a boy modeling as a woman for the "girl-shy" painter.
At least one reviewer has argued that Homer was homosexual, though most art historians now reject the theory. Others, including Beam, think he was simply married to his work.
"To an artist of Homer's caliber much is given, but if he is to put his great gift to its fullest use, much is also demanded. So much that there is little time left to share with a wife," Beam wrote in Winslow Homer at Prout's Neck (1966).
The truth, it seems, remains as stubbornly elusive as the artist himself.
For African-American travelers in the Jim Crow-era South—often journeying from the north to visit relatives who had not joined the Great Migration—an unprepossessing paper-bound travel guide often amounted to a survival kit. The Green Book often functioned as a lifesaver.
Visionary publisher-entrepreneur Victor Green, a Harlem postal carrier, introduced the travel guide in 1937. For blacks denied access to restaurants, hotels and restrooms—and who often risked even greater danger if they were driving after dark—it was an essential resource, listing hundreds of establishments, across the South and the nation, that welcomed African-Americans.
Before the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation, the Green Book sold in the millions and was passed from family member to family member. For those who relied on it, it amounted to an essential safety precaution. Today, it is a potent artifact of discrimination.
The Green Book is also the subject of filmmaker Ric Burns’s forthcoming documentary. Burns is exploring the Green Book as a window into history, and into the present, where the experience of driving while black is again at the center of our national conversation. I spoke with Burns about what he’s learned so far in making this film.
Watch this video in the original article
How did you encounter the Green Book originally?
A colleague of mine named Gretchen Sorin, who runs a Cooperstown Museum institute, is an extraordinary historian who did her dissertation on the Green Book decades ago. And she approached me some time ago and said, “Let’s do a film about this.” And there’s nobody who knows more about the Green Book than her. And she just really sort of made it her own, did oral histories, went to many of the places, has collected over a couple of decades an amazing archive of material.
And what drew you to the Green Book project?
I was born in 1955, so anybody who’s got roots through their own life or their parents or their grandparents, during the era when America became a car culture.
You know, all those things like the old Esso sign, motels, Howard Johnson’s. It’s part of the inner imaginary of America. And what non-African-American Americans don’t know is that that story has a completely different cast to it. It just unfolded in a completely different way, so as you’re driving into Greenville, Texas, across whose main street the banner reads, “Greenville, Texas. The black is soil, the white is people.” You’re having a different experience in the family car.
We’re making a film called “Driving While Black,” which is covering this period when suddenly the automobile dawns for black Americans as it does for all Americans. It’s like mobility. You have agency. You’re not dependent on somebody else’s timetable or schedule. You go where you want, when you want.
But for black Americans, suddenly, the whole question of mobility and race in America is a huge powder keg. Now you as a black person are crossing white space. What happens when your car breaks down? What happens when you need to get gas? What happens when your four-year-old needs to go to the bathroom? Where are you going to eat? Where are you going to sleep? God forbid something should happen like a car accident, a medical emergency. How are you going to get to the hospital? What hospital will take you? I mean, this whole inventory of experience. All of which we are so deeply intimately in the homeliest way, associated with the American experience. I mean, it’s all this simple stuff. As soon as there was a car, there was that agency, but there was also those challenges.
[This film] is an opportunity to fill in a blank spot on the inner map of America. Where you kind of go, “Well, there’s the Civil War and then there’s something called Reconstruction, maybe Jim Crow means something to people, but really what’s something that organizes credibly and resonantly, the experience of race in America in the 1920s down through the Civil Rights Movement?”
What were some of the unexpected discoveries that you’ve made with sources? What were some of your surprises during the time that you’ve been excavating this?
We’re right in kind of the first phases of it, just beginning filming it. So those surprises are still to come. But I’ll say, the incredible thing about this topic, this whole area, is a surprise for non-African-American Americans.
Because what dawns on you is that there’s a reality that you never really understood existed. And once it’s there, that surprising revelation is completely transformative. One of the things that made the automobile so enfranchising for black Americans was that it was a little hard to see who was driving a car. As [Nobel laureate and economist] Gunnar Myrdal put it, equality begins at around 25 miles per hour. All these elaborate codes (e.g. black Americans must stop and give way to white Americans) begin to go by the wayside. You’re kind of in your own self-enclosed world as you move through the highway world of America. And you have what contact you wish to have. And you can also not have contact if you wish not to have contact.
That made this experience one which was both all too familiar in ways that were happy for black Americans and also very, very frustrating, and sometimes lethal. And for white Americans, completely unknown. The Negro Motorist’s Green Book. And it was just one of many. The Go Guide, the Travel Guide. The Travel Guide has this wonderful slogan on the cover: “Vacation and Recreation Without Humiliation.”
Oh, that’s great.
I loved the fact that Victor Green truncated the great Mark Twain quote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice” and put it on the cover of every issue of the thing. But the whole quote is, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
What else have you learned?
If you were a musician or an athlete, you were doing a lot of traveling around America, and cars made it much easier to get to where you wanted to go, and Green Books made it easier to find the places to stay; nevertheless, driving while black was always really difficult. There’s kind of a painful existential bottom line here.
It’s integrated into the reality of American experience. Thurgood Marshall has an incredible story about the “sundown town.” He’s in Shreveport and basically the police are saying, “Nigger boy, what are you doing here? You better be out of town before sundown.” Who but African-Americans happen to have in their heads “sundown town” as a reality? It’s not for nothing that the last Green guide is published in 1966. And it’s not for nothing that Victor Green said in his editor’s note in the beginning, the time will come and I hope it comes soon, that this guide will no longer be necessary. But until it is, happy motoring, folks.
And there’s all sorts of stuff. Esso, the kind of way in which commerce and consumerism and capitalism saw ways of marketing to new demographics, so God bless Esso, now Exxon. They saw the opportunity and went, you know what? We’re reaching out. And the reason why we’re having this conversation is because of the relationship that Victor Green established with Standard Oil.
And that put the Green Book on the map in a particularly special way. My family, when we drove our American Rambler into an Esso station in 1958 in Delaware. Even though I could ask my mother and father, and I did in Rehoboth, Delaware. There may not quite be sundown towns in Pennsylvania or Michigan, maybe in name only they’re not sundown towns.
When you sort of think about the overall narrative arc, do you see a sort of overall beginning, middle, end narrative arc that’s going to be imposed on this film yet?
We have a strong idea of it. The main narrative picks up when the automobile goes national. And when people who not just wealthy people can afford it. It’s roughly contemporaneous with the Green Book. First edition, ’36; last edition, ’66. Really, you know, the issue of mobility and the African-American experience in North America is connected from the start. There’s no way to understand that story without understanding what mobility and race meant from the time slaves were involuntary moved here. Or involuntary kept in place. So it’s going to be very important to not just to go, “Well, this just appeared just like a genie from a bottle,” you know, in 1925 when cars become more readily available to black as to white Americans too.
You need to be able to understand that sure, we had Civil Rights in this country as a movement. Post-second World War, the ’50s, Brown v. Board of Education, the great steps forward in the 1960s, ’64, ’65. But there’s no African-American, male or female, who does not know what it means to have a special worry and special instructions… Gretchen Sorin’s son Greg works in my office. He got the talk from his dad. “Here’s what happens if and when you get stopped, and Greg, you’re going to get stopped. Keep your hands where they can see them. Don’t make any sudden movements, Greg.” Greg is 23; he was born in the 1990s. His father’s white, his mother’s black. I mean, this is an experience that is so current that that’s why we’ve chosen not to name the film “The Green Book,” but “Driving While Black.”
In the 1941 edition and apparently in other editions, occasionally, people were contributing first-person essays. And in the 1941 edition, the essay is by a guy who took a trip to New England and into Canada to Quebec. And there is astonishment at the kind, hopeful, and civil encounter that they have in their first-person account with the police and a corner of the street in Quebec. So there’s that in there too.
Race is the crucible of American history and we’re at another one of the crossroads. And we’re getting to know, “we” meaning non-black America, are getting to know in a more intimate way, what race and racism means. So the constitutional legal battles have been fought and at least in name, won. Now we’re moving to the areas of the economy, culture, the thoughts and feelings; the hearts and minds of human beings. That’s where there’s -- surprise, surprise—an enormous amount of work. And the confrontations are so painful. They just… We got a long way to go. And you know, the Green Book is kind of…enjoying a moment of public awareness.
I’m looking at the pages, it’s quite visceral.
It’s really visceral because …it’s where we all live. And so suddenly you realize what’s going on in plain sight. So it’s not some foreign vocabulary; it’s not happening somewhere else. It’s happening, you know… And it’s not a diner in a black-and-white 1960s civil rights kind of context.
You know it’s our experience and our parents’ experience and our grandparents’ experience. And doing this thing which is as American as apple pie: Getting in your car and going someplace. Whether it’s the afternoon or for the summer, or for a job, or to get away. And that right there in the middle of the open American road, we find these shadows and conflicts and really excruciating human circumstances.
“Call me Ishmael.” So begins Arena Stage’s current presentation of the play Moby Dick. But after that familiar line, this highly engaging production shrugs off tradition with strobe lights flashing, giant waves crashing and the audience swept up in a relentless sense of movement. The play has become an "experience" of life aboard the Nantucket whaler Pequod with Capt Ahab in pursuit of the white whale Moby-Dick.
Arriving at Arena from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and with an upcoming stop at South Coast Repertory in Cosa Mesa, California in January, Moby Dick is the product of a multidisciplinary group that received the 2011 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.
Founded in 1988, the company is dedicated to creating original, story-centered theater through physical and improvisational techniques. For this production, playwright-director and founding member David Catlin was inspired by the challenge of transforming Herman Melville’s lengthy 1851 novel into a compact 21st-century production that reflects the pace and interaction demanded by today’s audiences.
As a faculty member of Northwestern University, Catlin calls himself a “theater-maker who acts, writes, directs and teaches.” Since Lookingglass was created, he has been part of more than 50 world premieres, and currently serves as the company’s director of artistic development.
Traditional “static theater” is dead-in-the-water to today’s theatergoers who are “used to interacting with multiple screens” and multitasking, says Catlin. So the idea for Moby Dick was to dramatically reimagine Melville’s classic seafaring tale, strip it of convention, and make it pulsate with bold acrobatics.
“We refer to the stage as the deck,” Catlin says, and “the people working back stage are the crew.”
He appreciates that theater has long been a primarily auditory experience. “In Shakespearean England, you wouldn’t go to see a play, you’d go to hear a play,” he says, referring to the rich language and iambic rhythms of Elizabethan theater.
While he respects that tradition, Catlin wants to experiment with a type of theater that people “can experience in other ways, too.”
Lookingglass continually innovates with a performance style that shapes an immersive audience environment. Their method incorporates music, circus, movement, puppetry and object animation, symbol and metaphor, and visual storytelling to create work that is visceral, kinesthetic, cinematic, aural and psychological.
The company collaborated with The Actors Gymnasium, in Evanston, Illinois, one of the nation’s premier circus and performing arts training centers. Actors tell their stories acrobatically, propelling themselves across a set designed as a ship’s deck. Filled with interlocking cables and rope riggings, the entire stage, or deck, is framed by arching steel-tubed pipes suggesting the curved ribs of a whale. The set, says Catlin, conveys the long connection between theater and ships—many of the mechanical elements used to move theatrical scenery are common to sailing, such as the block and tackle used to raise and lower curtains, and the use of rope lines.
This production of Moby Dick with its daring use of circus techniques plays to a shared history with the book’s origins.Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg, Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Emma Cadd as Fate in Moby Dick at Arena Stage. (Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company)
Herman Melville published Moby Dick in a decade that’s been called “the golden age of the circus.” The circus was considered America’s most popular form of entertainment in the mid-19th century, and master showman P.T. Barnum even established his American Museum as a proto-circus on Broadway, winning great notoriety by displaying such wildly diverse entertainments as “industrious fleas, automatons, jugglers, ventriloquists….”
While Melville never met Barnum, he was certainly aware of the circus and wrote about it evocatively in his short story “The Fiddler,” published anonymously in Harper’s in 1854. The story depicts a sad poet being cheered up by a friend who takes him to a circus: he is swept up by “the broad amphitheater of eagerly interested and all-applauding human faces. Hark! claps, thumps, deafening huzzas; one vast assembly seemed frantic with acclamation. . . .”
The stage audience experiences circus and movement, says Catlin, “in a visceral and kinesthetic and muscular way.” Some of the performers are circus-trained, adding authenticity to the aerial acrobatics displayed.
“The dangers of sailing and whaling are made that much more immediate,” he says, “when the performers are engaged in the danger inherent in circus.”Herman Melville's sixth and most famous novel, Moby-Dick was published in 1851. (Moby Dick, illustration by Rockwell Kent, Random House, 1930, NMAH)
Using movement to propel the art of storytelling is an increasingly popular theatrical approach. Earlier, modern dance pioneers occasionally incorporated a mix of artistic and theatrical ingredients; Martha Graham notably had a brilliant 40-year collaboration with sculptor Isamu Noguchi that resulted in 19 productions. A photograph of Noguchi’s “Spider Dress” for Graham is currently on display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new exhibition, "Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern."
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is contemporary ballet’s leading proponent of storytelling through movement, and has applied his flowing narrative approach both to classical ballet and to Broadway, where his production of An American in Paris won a 2015 Tony Award.
Perhaps the singular, most dramatic example of a company that tells stories through movement is the Synetic Theater in Arlington, Virigina, which is renowned for its fluid synthesis of innovative techniques for silent storytelling using only mime and movement.
Moby Dick has inspired countless adaptations: Orson Welles broadcast a 1946 radio version, Gregory Peck starred in a 1956 film, Cameron Mackintosh produced a 1992 musical that became a West End hit, and there was a 2010 Dallas Opera production that was a box office triumph.
The Lookingglass production of Moby Dick taps into the public’s continuing fascination for the classic novel with a grand and obsessive vengeance, but Lookingglass employs a more intimate approach.
The company creates a small-scale immersive theatrical experience that largely succeeds, although coherent storytelling in Act II sometimes loses out to vivid theatricality. The costume designs are highly imaginative—actors opening-and-closing black umbrellas seem perfectly credible as whales spouting alongside the Pequod, and the humongous skirt of one actor magically flows across the stage/deck in giant wave-like ocean swells.
Ahab’s doom is never in doubt, and we are there for every vengeful step. For David Catlin, the set’s rope riggings convey the play’s essential metaphor: the web they weave provides the “aerial story-telling” that connects Ahab to his fate, and the rest of us “to each other.”
Moby Dick is a co-production with The Alliance Theatre and South Coast Repertory. It will be in residence at Arena Stage through December 24, before heading to the South Coast Repertory in Cosa Mesa, California, January 20 through February 19, 2017.
‘The North Star’ Amplified Black Voices. How a 2019 Reboot of Frederick Douglass’ Paper Hopes to Do the Same
Four pages, two dollars, one vision: This is what hope looked like to many Americans in December 1847 when Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star, first appeared in print. The seasoned journalist, now a global crusader for the cause of abolition, poured profits from his British speaking tour into the start-up enterprise. Working with editor Martin R. Delany and others, Douglass inaugurated the press in Rochester, New York. The newspaper’s title referred to the Underground Railroad’s skyward guide, and the masthead proclaimed: “Right is of no sex–Truth is of no color–God is the father of us all, and all we are brethren.”
That sweeping directive shaped The North Star’s coverage of injustice, which often stretched across the Atlantic to cover the European revolutions of 1848. Foreign or familiar, the cause of freedom filled The North Star’s pages and inspired a transatlantic community of activist readers. “A revolution now cannot be confined to the place or the people where it may commence, but flashes with lightning speed from heart to heart, from land to land, till it has traversed the globe, compelling all the members of our common brotherhood at once, to pass judgment upon its merits,” Douglass wrote in one editorial. Describing events in Paris, his words hit home for Americans. From the beginning, Douglass’s North Star supplied news and nurtured revolution.
Building on that legacy, a modern version of The North Star launches today as a multiplatform media outlet, led by progressive journalists Shaun King and Benjamin P. Dixon, with historian Keisha N. Blain at the helm as editor in chief. Through written content, podcasts, video broadcasts, and an app, the new North Star editorial team plans to explore issues of civil rights, human rights, and social justice in America and around the world. Inspired by Douglass’ focus on “liberty, humanity, progress,” this North Star reboots the idea of grassroots journalism. “In thinking about reviving The North Star, we wanted to meet the needs of someone living in 2019,” Blain says. The North Star platform will provide a new online ecosystem for interpreting news, encouraging dialogue, and providing concrete solutions. “We are unapologetic in our stance, and I think people appreciate that,” Blain says. “If you need the tools to make your work even more effective, come here.”
In the original North Star, Douglass’s call for abolition swelled with each issue. Subscriptions grew to more than 4,000; in 1851 it merged with another abolitionist newspaper, Gerrit Smith’s Liberty Party Paper. Amid the fractious politics of the 1840s and 1850s, which saw the rise of third parties like the Know Nothings and violent clashes in Kansas and Virginia, Douglass’s North Star was a voice of moral authority. Living up to the masthead’s pledge, Douglass swung the paper’s spotlight onto the women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, held in July 1848. “There can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in the making and administering of the laws of the land,” he wrote in a North Star editorial.
The newspaper’s vast mission, which had brought him into contact with diverse activists, worked a deep change in Douglass’ outlook. Shortly before his death, the great orator rose to address the 1888 International Council of Women, the lessons of his long years at The North Star still fresh in his mind. “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated for emancipation, it was for my people,” Douglass told the crowd. “But when I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.”
He gave reform-minded readers an outlet that both rivaled William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, which Douglass left to start The North Star, and amplified the blossoming political power of the African-American press. Once enslaved himself —in 1838 he fled the Maryland home of his owner and settled in New England—Douglass used his publication to redefine American liberty.
“Frederick Douglass was able to teach himself to read and write over the objections of his overseer and master,” says Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., a descendant of Douglass and Booker T. Washington who serves as director of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. “When he escaped from slavery and began to speak out, he started to build his own strategy for the abolition of slavery. The North Star was a mouthpiece for the enslaved and the oppressed. It was an opportunity for him to speak for the voiceless. The importance of that newspaper in that time cannot be overstated.”
When Frederick Douglass began the newspaper in 1847, he changed the national conversation on race and rights. Douglass, Delany, and publisher William C. Nell carefully curated each issue, with help from transatlantic contributors and relatives who worked in the Rochester newsroom. “We’re proud of that legacy,” Morris says of The North Star’s origins. “It was a family enterprise for sure.”
According to historian Heather Cox Richardson, who studies the political thought and culture of the 19th century, The North Star gave African-Americans a public channel that hadn’t existed before. “Voices that are not heard cannot be included in American debate; they can only be reflected by those others who care about them,” she says. When Douglass chose to leave The Liberator, he turned away from the paternalism of Garrisonian abolitionism, and opened up a new path for the movement. His founding of The North Star signaled a new chapter for both the man and his mission. Frederick Douglass’ leadership of the North Star, along with his shrewd use of new forms of mass media like photography, sent a bold message about the visibility of African-American citizenship. “Only a presence in national debate can change the national narrative,” Richardson says.
Why relaunch The North Star now? “We’re in an incredibly complicated and consequential time politically,” King says. “There are lots of changes that are happening, that people are fighting for on the grassroots level, globally and politically, not just justice reform.” Critically, The North Star also aims to fill what Dixon calls “a big gaping hole” in the current media landscape, by welcoming “black voices and people of color to not only speak on our issues and community, but to speak on all issues.” As The North Star community takes shape, a blend of hope and history bolsters the project’s launch. “We’re telling the narrative from our perspective,” Dixon says. “The time has always been there.”
The debut cover of LIFE magazine is dominated by the monumental spillway of Montana’s Fort Peck Dam, then under construction and poised to become the world’s largest earth-filled dam. But the eye is drawn to two humans, dwarfed by their surroundings, standing at the bottom of the shot.
The cover image is typical of its creator’s work. Dedicated to revealing both the human side of stories and the settings in which they took place—including such far-flung locales as the Soviet Union, Korea, India and North Africa—Margaret Bourke-White quickly emerged as one of LIFE’s most talented photographers after editor Henry Luce’s photography-centric weekly launched in November 1936. But today, she and the other pioneering female photojournalists who worked for LIFE during the 1930s and onto the 1970s remain little known, their iconic snapshots rendered more recognizable than their own names and histories.
LIFE: Six Women Photographers, a new exhibition on view at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, aims to correct this imbalance, presenting more than 70 images taken by six early photojournalists: Marie Hansen, Martha Holmes, Lisa Larsen, Nina Leen, Hansel Mieth and Bourke-White.Marie Hansen's photograph of Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps recruits at their Des Moines training center (© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation)
“Many of these women are not known, they’re not even in photography history books,” co-curator Marilyn Kushner tells the Guardian’s Nadja Sayej. “These women have not gotten their due, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
According to Kushner, fewer than 10 women served on LIFE’s photography staff during the time period covered by the show. (As a 2015 study found, this gender imbalance persists today, with 85 percent of 1,556 photojournalists surveyed identifying as men.) Despite their small numbers, they covered a vast array of subjects, from Hollywood’s elite to the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) formed at the height of World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, and rampant homelessness in San Francisco and Sacramento.
As Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, explains in a press release, “These pioneering women photographers captured events international and domestic, wide-ranging and intimate, serious and playful. At the forefront of history, [they] enabled the public ‘to see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events,’ as LIFE founder and editor-in-chief, Henry Luce, described it.”
In addition to photographing the cover of LIFE’s first issue, Bourke-White became the first Western photographer accredited to enter the Soviet Union and the first female photographer to cover active World War II combat zones. Hansen, a Missouri native who joined LIFE in 1942, meanwhile, publicized women’s contributions to the war effort by producing a photo essay on WAAC recruits training for deployment. One image in particular, depicting a room full of gas mask-wearing trainees, is among those most widely associated with the initiative.
Image by © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation. Lisa Larsen, photograph from “Tito As Soviet Hero, How Times Have Changed!” (original image)
Image by © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation. Nina Leen, unpublished photograph from “American Woman’s Dilemma" (original image)
Image by © LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation. Margaret Bourke-White, photograph from “Franklin Roosevelt’s Wild West" (original image)
Three of the women featured in the exhibition—Larsen, Leen and Mieth—were born in Europe but moved to the U.S. at some point during the 1930s. Larsen, a German Jew who fled her home country after Kristallnacht, documented Yugoslavian President Josip Broz’s 1956 visit to the Soviet Union, capturing crowd shots of the hordes who flocked to the Kremlin while also managing to snap intimate portraits of the men and women who were likely in attendance under duress.
Mieth, another German-born photographer, arrived in America in the midst of the Great Depression; her “socially engaged” photo essays, in the words of the New-York Historical Society, generated sympathy for organized labor and exposed the harsh conditions prevalent across the nation. During the war, she photographed Japanese Americans incarcerated at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, and in the aftermath of the conflict, she returned to Germany to document the “psychological effects and physical damage” inflicted on her home country.
Leen, a Russian native who emigrated to New York in 1939, focused mainly on American domesticity. Her “American Woman’s Dilemma” series envisioned women as “empowered protagonists,” Timeline’s Rian Dundon writes, “emphasizing the distinct traits and desires of American teens, mothers, and busy professionals navigating the optimism and possibilities of a booming economy.” But domestic life wasn’t Leen’s only interest: Google Arts & Culture details that she was also a prolific animal photographer, often taking snapshots of her dog Lucky, and was additionally a talented group portraitist. Her photo of the so-called “Irascibles,” a group of Abstract Expressionists including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, aptly captured the tension existing between these avant-garde artists’ desire for career success and their disdain for the establishment.Martha Holmes' photograph of a white woman embracing mixed-race singer Billy Eckstine (© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation)
Holmes, the final journalist spotlighted in the exhibition, photographed celebrities including Pollock, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Eleanor Roosevelt, Salvador Dali and Joan Fontaine. But she is perhaps best known for her 1950 snapshot of a white woman embracing mixed-race singer Billy Eckstine.
“When that photo was taken, they weren’t sure if they should put it into the issue—a white woman embracing a black man,” Kushner tells the Guardian’s Sayej. “But Luce put it in there because he said: ‘This is what the future is going to be. Run it.’”
At the time, the photograph attracted widespread condemnation, and Eckstine’s career was permanently damaged by the fallout. Still, Bobbi Burrows, a longtime LIFE editor who spoke to The New York Times’ Dennis Hevesi upon Holmes’ death in 2006, said that the image remained the photographer’s favorite among the thousands she had taken throughout her career.
LIFE: Six Women Photographers is on view at the New-York Historical Society through October 6, 2019.