We Are All Franklin County Now

We haven’t seen rain for several months now in south central Tennessee. There’s been day after day during week after week of pretty weather, and while the turning leaves have been lovely, the dryness is increasingly a cause for concern. Some mornings you wake up to the faint smell of smoke, a thing you do not want to be smelling when you live in the woods as we do.

There’s a metaphor in that, I think. In the air we sense trouble because we know how big a tinderbox we’re on sitting on. On Tuesday evening, we turned on our TV’s in the full confidence that we would see at long last the smash-up of the Republican party. The polls and pundits assured us that the conservative movement was in its death throes, that the boor at the top of the ticket would lose badly and all those down-ballot would suffer along with him. By midnight we saw that it was the Democrats who had been completely and utterly routed, with the GOP in control of both House and Senate, Donald Trump unbelievably the President-elect, and the Supreme Court soon to be packed with Scalia-like ideologues. It was as if the screenplay for election night had been written by George R.R. Martin.

On Facebook, the mood among my friends swung wildly but predictably from giddiness to grief. “I don’t like this,” one wrote, as Florida was called for Trump, and then a little later, Pennsylvania. The West Coast could be counted on for 70+ Electoral votes, somebody else pointed out, but Hillary would need more than 190 before she got there, and all she had was 131. The horrible truth started to crash in on my friends and me: ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US, for make no mistake, the voters this week have made a decision that will resonate for a generation. That burning smell? That was everything progressives had thought to achieve on climate change, on women’s and minority rights, on healthcare, on support for the middle class, all of it gone up in smoke.

On campus the next morning, the shell shock was palpable. A colleague noted that it was 11/9, but the mood was like 9/11. Students of color seemed overwhelmed. Did America really just elect an unapologetic bigot?  I would later hear of professor of color being told by a student, “It’s a great day for white people,” and another being accosted by a Trump supporter. The students in my small Latin class Wednesday morning–all young white men–wanted to talk about the election, and so we did for a few minutes. They were as shocked as I was. What good were the polls if they failed to predict this? We all felt that our faith in the mainstream media had been misplaced, our sense of what was true was very badly shaken.

Not everyone on campus was unhappy. I talked to my friend of mine who’s a manager in the cafeteria, standing in his usual lunchtime perch where he keeps an eye out on things. “A lot of students are walking around in a daze,” he said. “There are others, a bigger component than you might think, who are pretty happy, giving each other high fives.” He and I looked out at the students milling beneath us, still largely a white population. I asked about his staff, the folks who cook and serve the food and clean up after these students. “Well, most of them got the outcome they were hoping for.”

Almost all of the cafeteria workers are Franklin County locals, I should point out, where Trump won 70% of the vote. I was in Estill Springs yesterday, taking the dog to have some blood drawn, and there seemed to be a spring in everyone’s step I met.Last summer, the Rebel flags flew defiantly down the main street from pick-ups in agitated protest. By the side of the road this week, I saw a pick-up parked with the Confederate flag, an American flag, a Don’t Tread On Me flag, and a black American flag with a blue stripe on it that I have come to learn is the “Thin Blue Line” emblem. In the vet’s office, there’s a sign noting that the high price of medicine for dogs was a result of Obamacare and if we didn’t like it, we should let our Congressman know. Not that our Congressman would need any further convincing on this topic–he’s a member of the Freedom Caucus, and his policy positions are tailor-made to please deplorables by the basketful.

For four years, I myself was on the School Board in this county. My fellow board-members and I got along fairly well, but at times an issue might flare up that showed what a cultural divide we lived on either side of. When I tried to have our corporal punishment policy struck down, on the grounds that I think a principal paddling a student is barbaric, I lost the vote 7 to 1. “It’s like you’re trying to be Big Brother,” I was told by one of them, though how my desire to prevent government employees from striking children is a Socialist nightmare is beyond me. More bruising was the time we had a large public meeting over prayer before PTO meetings, a practice that an ACLU-like group had demanded the county put a stop to. Again, I lost 7-1 on that, but not before hearing 400-person crowd loudly intone the Lord’s Prayer and later boo and tell me to go back to Sewanee.

One thing my fellow board-members and I were of one mind on was the need for a slight property tax increase to fund the schools. That went nowhere, year in and year out, as the County Commissioners steadfastly refused to believe there weren’t cuts to be made in operating expenses. “You can’t tell me,” one of them said in a meeting as he held up a copy of our 30-page budget, “that there isn’t fat that can be cut out of this.” He had no suggestions, nor did he want to “get into the weeds” on specifics, but he just knew. For most of the commission, taxes are the work of the devil, and the connection between them and public services is not fully understood. Again, I recall talking with some agiatated parents one time about a school bus line that was being cut–they were outraged about this, and rightly so as it was going to introduce a major inconvenience into their lives, as they would now have to drive their kids to school each morning. On the back of those cars, I could see Sarah Palin bumperstickers. I refrained from pointing out the irony to them.

At the end of the day, my sense of my fellow public servants in Franklin County was mixed. These were almost all hard-working, church-going people who went out of their way to be nice to me–their good opinion was something I truly relished, but while I know most of them were on Facebook, we never became friends on social media. I understand that, I guess. On social issues, we nearly never agreed, and their suspicion of progressive issues like marriage equality or climate change was near total.

It bothers me to think that a large part of the reason I was surprised by Trump’s election is because I don’t hear the opinions of anybody I really disagree with online. I’m still not sure we might have talked about had I friended some of my School Board collagues on Facebook. Hunting? Alabama football? I had no desire to hear about those things, nor they in any of my interests. I suppose there’s always the weather, but even there, who knows? Some might say that the lovely days we’ve enjoyed are part of God’s grace, while others see in the long drought not divine favor but human folly and worry that it all might end in a conflagration soon.

Posted in Education, Emblems, Race, Sewanee, Trees & Flowers, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Sewanee: Two Bird’s-eye Views

 

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My friend Jerry Smith recently posted the second photo on Facebook–I’m not entirely sure who took it, but perhaps he will let me know.

The sepia print of Sewanee’s campus from 1910 was made by Arthur J. Elder–this is a photo I took of the framed copy in the University Archives, the only known colored print. Elder is a curious character.  Born in 1874 in London, he moved to the US in 1905 and  was hired by the New York publisher, W.T. Littig & Co., to create portraits of American university campuses from the air (a good one of the University of Missouri, with further information, can be seen here; another of the University of Kentucky is here).

How did Elder, or any of the other artists employed by W.T. Littig, get their panoramic views?  This is hard to say. According to the University Icons website, “Lacking good records, today there is debate whether Rummell [another Littig illustrator] would take to the sky in a hot air balloon or, more remarkably, would accurately render the scene as he imagined it … without ever leaving the ground.”  Other sources I’ve looked at indicate the same uncertainty.

In any event, you can see some of the same buildings in Elder’s print as are in Smith’s aerial photo.  St. Luke’s and Breslin Tower both look more or less the same, as does Walsh-Ellet, although the walkway joining it to Breslin has not yet been built.  All Saints’ had been built in 1905, although it was nowhere near as grand as it’s shown here; Elder has filled in the top storey by looking at architectural plans.  Shapard Tower has yet to be constructed as well.  It is interesting to see Thompson Union across from the Chapel; this building would burn in the 1940s. St. Augustine’s Ave can be made out behind what is now the bookstore. Off far to the far right would be the home that Ely Green writes about as that of his father’s family.

 

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To Hear About a Martyr and a Hero

I had been prepared yesterday to talk about kings and prophets, but instead got to hear about a martyr and a hero.

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Friday was the day before Fall Break here in Sewanee, and my last class of the week was the introductory Humanities class. We had been reading 1 & 2 Samuel, a fascinating set of texts about rulers at any time but especially during the tumultous month before the Trump-Clinton presidential election. The class had had lively discussions about Saul and David, and how we should be reading the sources about controversial leaders; we thought about the difficulties in the story of Bathsheba and Nathan’s upbraiding of David; we thought about Psalm 51, listened to Gregorio Allegri’s haunting Miserere, as well as Bill Clinton’s reworking of the psalm in his remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast in 1998; for some of us, Donald Trump’s apology was in the background of the conversation, too. In addition, we had also forced ourselves to look at the unresolved issues of justice and vengeance in the story of Tamar’s rape, and read a contemporary essay on it. On Wednesday, my colleague Eric Thurman had given a brilliant lecture on Amos and the prophetic tradition. “Prophets speak, but they also act in symbolic ways, deliberately to make us uncomfortable,” he noted, pointing to Jeremiah carrying an ox-yoke. He then asked us to think about Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the National Anthem. “Is Colin Kaepernick among the prophets?” he asked, to much squirming.

It might make sense , I thought, to go over to All Saints’ Chapel to look at the stained glass windows in which David’s story is told and the prophets are portrayed. I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about the Bible in the church, and see how different that might be from discussions around a seminar table. Two older gentleman and a young man came though the chapel just as I was beginning to point out the program of the windows to the students, how Old Testament stories are found in the Southern clerestory, and illustrations of Church history are in the North. I had not gotten very far when Tom Macfie, the University chaplain and and old friend appeared with the three guys who’d come in earlier. “Chris, can you come here?” he asked. “Bring your students.” Uh oh, I thought, I’m in trouble for not letting him know we were going to be in here.

We were under one of the Northern windows which depicts significant scenes in the history of the Episcopal church. In one medallion, a bishop from the Confederate states is holding a Rebel flag and shaking hands with a bishop under an American flag; it’s labelled Reconciliation. Corresponding to it is an image of Civil Rights marchers, Tom pointed out to us. You see three people with linked arms on what I take to be the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The young woman on the right, an African-American teenager, is Ruby Sales. Beside her, Tom continued, is a young white man. Underneath you see the words We Shall Overcome, and the man’s name, Jonathan Daniels, 1965. 

Jonathan Myrick Daniels (March 20, 1939 – August 20, 1965) was an Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist. In 1965 he was assassinated by a shotgun-wielding construction worker, Tom Coleman, who was a special county deputy, in Hayneville, Alabama while in the act of shielding 17-year-old Ruby Sales. He saved the life of the young black civil rights activist. They both were working in the Civil Rights Movement in Lowndes County to integrate public places and register black voters after passage of the Voting Rights Act that summer. Daniels’ death generated further support for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1991 Daniels was designated as a martyr in the Episcopal church, and is recognized annually in its calendar

“This man is Richard Morrisroe,” Tom told us, putting his hand on one of the older men’s shoulders. “He was there as well.” In a calm voice, Richard began to tell us his story. That day in 1965, Jonathan and Richard (at that time a Roman Catholic priest) had been in the Lowndes County jail with several African-American civil rights protesters. Unexpectedly released in the middle of the hot day, four of them–Jonathan, Richard, Ruby, and another young back woman named  went across the street to get a Coke, and were greeted by a man with shotgun in the doorway whose name was Tom Coleman, a county deputy. What happened next is quite awful, and rather then recount poorly Richards story, let me quote Ruby Sales herself from an interview in 2005:

And it is a face that we have never seen before. And we have gone to that little store over and over. And of course, we’ve just gotten out of jail, and even if we hadn’t been in jail we had no weapons. And he said something like, “Bitch, I’ll blow your brains out,” and this man moved with rapid fire.

Next thing I knew I was being pulled back and tripped and fell. I didn’t know that Jonathan was shot. I just knew the shotgun blast had happened. It happened so fast I can’t describe to you, — I didn’t associate the body flying up in the air to Jonathan. I mean, my mind, it was happening so fast that I couldn’t even process it.

When I began to process it and come back to some consciousness, — I’m on the ground and I’m saying “This is dead. This is what it feels like to be dead.” I think in my head that I’m dead. But I realize that I’m not dead because the other shotgun blast happens. I hear Father Morrisroe moaning for water, “Water, water, water.”

Morrisroe was running with Joyce Bailey in his hands, — he’s holding her hand and he’s not letting it go for nothing. And he’s running with her, and he did not let go of her hands until he was shot in the back, and she kept running and he fell.

She runs around, — you know how in the south, — always there were these cars and so she ran behind one of these cars. This is the jail, she runs over, she runs out and then she circles around and goes around on the side of the jail very close to where I had fallen. And to her credit she did not leave until she could determine who was alive and who was dead. So she started calling my name, “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby.”

And I don’t know how, but I managed to crawl on my knees. Because you have to understand that this man’s rage was not depleted. Tom Coleman literally walks over to [Morrisroe], he is over Morrisroe’s body, standing guard over this body, because [Morrisroe] is calling for water and he’ll be damned if he’s gonna let anybody give him water. Jimmy Rogers comes over and tries to give Father Morrisroe water, and the man threatens to blow his brains out. So he is not finished. He is on a rampage.

Joyce and I get up, I crawl over to her and we run across the street to the other group. And by now you can imagine there is bedlam. I mean people are frightened, because we don’t know if this is a klan conspiracy and people are all in the bushes. We just don’t know what is going to happen.

But what we do know is that Father Morrisroe is still calling for water. So, I go back over, and the crazy thing about it is that this man didn’t even realize that I was a person that he tried to kill. I sometimes wonder, — [I was] really crazy to go back over there, but I did that.

[Coleman] was threatening to kill everybody.

Daniels was killed instantly, and Morrisroe seemed very close to death. Indeed, a hearse came to pick up Daniels’ body, and Morrisroe was put on top of him and transported to the hospital, where he was in fact given his last rites. After much pleading, a doctor agreed to operate on Richard and saved his life after an 11-hour operation. After two years of physical therapy, Richard recounted, he learned to walk again, and to deal with what he came to realize was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Probably you can guess that Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury, and died peacefully at home in 1997.

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The other older man, as I come to learn, is an Episcopal priest named Francis X. Walter, himself a figure from the Civil Rights movement, and he has opinions about some of the Confederate fetishism that Sewanee has at times engaged in. The conversation strays to stories of the Mace, of Leonidas Polk, and other things.All this while, the younger man who had come in with Richard sits in quiet attention. He is Richard’s grandson, a student at the University of Buffalo, the same age as my Humanities students, who have been listening intently to this story of martyrdom and heroism–they are aware what a remarkable moment this is.

The hour is almost up, and as we gather our things to leave, Francis encourages us to look at a book  by Charles Eagles called Outside Agitator (University of North Carolina, 1993), about Jon Daniels as well as Tom Coleman. I look it up later, and in fact find Francis’ own review of the book, itself well worth reading. As he writes,

One of the knots that Eagles entices the reader to untangle is: what should be the role of prudence when one steps out in faith to realize one’s self and the best in one’s culture? Was Jon heedless, did he not know his behavior could get him killed? Eagles has many examples of Jon acting and speaking with blacks and whites as if racism did not exist, as if a reign of peace and justice actually existed in Selma and Lowndes County in 1965. If he knew the danger (and he did) what was his obligation to himself, God, and his Church to exercise caution? Just how much Kingdom should a person in extreme circumstances live in order to offer his due to God and humanity? The reader is urged to decide this in the case of Jon Daniels. It is to be earnestly hoped the reader will consider his or her own case. It is good to be prepared should such a time of decision come to us.

Jon led an examined life. Tom led an unexamined life. Jon wanted to explore agape. Tom wanted to keep everything the same, to protect the little he had. Tom protected a bunch of lies to keep an easy life. Jon explored the truth and was racked with sorrow that it hurt people for him to do so. Jon had vision. Tom could not visualize Lowndes County without an order such as his father provided. He got up from his courthouse domino game and killed to keep the only order he could imagine. Tom had a sense of place, local, un-nuanced. He loved the land of Lowndes County. Jon lived a lot of his life in the Spirit, and tried to love the oikoumene—the whole inhabited earth.

What can I say? We never did get to talk about Amos on Friday, but I suppose we will long remember this accidental meeting that illustrated more than any class discussion could the prophet’s most famous lines, But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

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Richard Morrisroe, Francis Walter, Richard’ grandson, and Tom Macfie

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Prayer on the Feast Day (August 14th) of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Martyr.

O God of justice and compassion, who dost put down the proud And the mighty from their place, and dost lift up the poor and afflicted: We give thee thanks for thy faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.

Image to the right, from AL.com. The Rev. Francis Walter, a retired Episcopal priest in Alabama, carries the icon of Jonathan Daniels during the 2010 pilgrimage. Walter, who helped raise their bond money, had visited Daniels and the others jailed in Hayneville in the week before Daniels’ murder. After Daniels’s death, Father Walter was sent by the Selma Interreligious Project to continue a ministry of presence in Selma and the surrounding counties. (Courtesy of Dave Drachlis)

Postscript. It would be remiss me of me not to link to Annie Blanks’ very fine story on Her Campus about Ruby Sales’ visit to Sewanee in 2014. As her piece concludes, “Behold how good it was when Jonathan Daniels made the ultimate sacrifice so that Ruby Sales could live, fighting for a cause hoping that one day brothers and sisters of all colors could truly dwell together in unity.”

Posted in Bible, Education, Music, Poetry, Race, Saints, Sewanee, Statues & Monuments, The South | Leave a comment

Letter to the UDC

A letter to Mrs. Ginger Delius, President of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Tullahoma, TN, printed in the Sewanee Purple.

Dear Mrs. Delius,

Many thanks for your letter of September 14th, sent to me personally through the SPO and printed last week in the Sewanee Purple, about some remarks of mine from March 22nd concerning the Kirby-Smith monument in Sewanee. I am grateful to you for the opportunity to explain myself more fully on this matter.

What the Purple recorded me as saying in March is as follows: “I think the University ought to hire an artist to make an installation that would sit in front of it [the monument], and draw attention to it [to answer] the question of what does it memorialize and what does it remember,” he said. “And that doesn’t have to be a rejection—it can be a sort of open question about, ‘What is it that we remember about the Civil War? What does it mean to us?’”

In your letter, you state that the Kirby-Smith monument “neither glorifies the Confederacy nor the War Between the States.” Perhaps that is so, but the words on the plaque on the front of the monument read “General Edmund Kirby-Smith, C.S.A.” The reason that the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the memorial in 1940 is the same reason the United Daughters of the Confederacy are in touch with me in 2016, and that is because Kirby-Smith was a General in the Confederate Army. Let’s be honest with one another about that fact.

“What is offensive about the memorial?” you ask. I appreciate the question. The asking of difficult questions is the reason that universities exist, after all. I believe that Edmund Kirby-Smith led “a loyal and noble life,” as you say. But as a Confederate general, he also played a prominent role in the war to preserve the institution of slavery. Is there anything offensive about that? To my mind, there certainly is. All of that is history, you might reply. But the question is one we should never cease asking our students to confront. Will the private lives they lead ultimately be at odds with their public actions? How do they imagine history will judge them?

You also ask, “Why should the monument be hidden from public view?” Here I’m afraid you have misunderstood me, as I never called for the monument to be hidden. Instead I think it should be open to view and to question. The installation I envision would not conceal the original memorial, but rather sit on the large lawn in front and draw attention to it. To tell the truth, 99% of the people who live in Sewanee probably could not tell you where this monument is or who is on it. The sad fact of the matter is that the Kirby-Smith monument is already hidden, though it sits in plain sight.

There seems to be a metaphor in that, doesn’t there? There are things we do not see that really deserve a hard look. As I write these words, there are riots in Charlotte. Police are setting off canisters of tear-gas and protesters are chanting, “Black Lives Matter!” Not long ago, similar scenes unfolded in Milwaukee, in Baltimore, and in Ferguson. We can probably expect similar scenes to unfold in the future until we come to terms with the legacy of slavery and racism in our past. We have a lot of soul-searching to do as a nation. The Civil War is clearly a part of the past that we need to look at again.

This past summer, Vice-Chancellor McCardell enjoined all of us in Sewanee to read Between the World and Me by the prominent African-American author, Ta-nehisi Coates. I have taken the liberty of enclosing a copy in my reply to you, as it deals with some of the issues raised in your letter. At one point, Coates is visiting the site of Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg. As he writes, “Standing there, a century and a half later, I thought of one of Faulkner’s characters famously recalling how this failure tantalized the minds of all ‘Southern’ boys—‘It’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun….’ All of Faulkner’s Southern boys were white. But I, standing on the farm of a black man who fled with his family to stay free of the South, saw Pickett’s soldiers charging through history, in wild pursuit of their strange birthright—the right to beat, rape, rob, and pillage the black body. That is all of what was ‘in the balance,’ the nostalgic moment’s corrupt and unspeakable core” (p. 102).

This is hard reading, to be sure, and I can well understand why the Vice-Chancellor asked us to do it. At this time of such great public unrest, though, not to engage in hard questions about race would be a signal failure of our institutional purpose. Sewanee is the University of the South, and wrestling with hard matters is what a University must do. Ironic as it may seem, I believe that Edmund Kirby-Smith the educator would agree with me about this.

Let me end by noting that my suggestion about an installation in front of the monument is only that—a suggestion, and not one I have made in any official way to the administration, which is already engaged in very substantial work to ensure that Sewanee becomes a more diverse and inclusive place.

Yours sincerely,
Christopher M. McDonough
Professor, Department of Classics
University of the South
735 University Avenue
Sewanee, TN 37383

Postscript, October 12, 2016:

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Shadowboxing at the DNC, or Bill’s Apology

I was really struck this summer, when listening to Bill Clinton’s speech on behalf of Hillary at the DNC, with a parallel to Plato’s Apology about Socrates’ trial in 399 BC. After listing his wife’s many accomplishments, Bill says the following:

CLINTON: Now, how does this square? How did this square with the things that you heard at the Republican convention? What’s the difference in what I told you and what they said? How do you square it? You can’t. One is real, the other is made up.
You just have to decide. You just have to decide which is which, my fellow Americans.
The real one had done more positive change-making before she was 30 than many public officials do in a lifetime in office.
(APPLAUSE)
The real one, if you saw her friend Betsy Ebeling vote for Illinois today…
(APPLAUSE)
…has friends from childhood through Arkansas, where she has not lived in more than 20 years, who have gone all across America at their own expense to fight for the person they know.
(APPLAUSE)
The real one has earned the loyalty, the respect and the fervent support of people who have worked with her in every stage of her life, including leaders around the world who know her to be able, straightforward and completely trustworthy.
The real one calls you when you’re sick, when your kid’s in trouble or when there’s a death in the family.
The real one repeatedly drew praise from prominent Republicans when she was a senator and secretary of state.
(APPLAUSE)
So what’s up with it? Well, if you win elections on the theory that government is always bad and will mess up a two-car parade…
(LAUGHTER)
…a real change-maker represents a real threat.
(APPLAUSE)
So your only option is to create a cartoon, a cartoon alternative, then run against the cartoon. Cartoons are two- dimensional, they’re easy to absorb. Life in the real world is complicated and real change is hard. And a lot of people even think it’s boring.
(APPLAUSE)
Good for you, because earlier today you nominated the real one.
What reminded me of Plato’s Apology  here was the passage below, where Socrates speaks about the “trial by media” to which he had already been subjected (he speaks particularly of the “Socrates” who is the subject of Aristophanes’ comedy, The Clouds). 
For I have had many accusers who accused me of old, and their false charges have continued during many years; and I am more afraid of them than of Anytus and his associates, who are dangerous, too, in their own way. But far more dangerous are these, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause. These are the accusers whom I dread; for they are the circulators of this rumor, and their hearers are too apt to fancy that speculators of this sort do not believe in the gods. And they are many, and their charges against me are of ancient date, and they made them in days when you were impressible – in childhood, or perhaps in youth – and the cause when heard went by default, for there was none to answer. And, hardest of all, their names I do not know and cannot tell; unless in the chance of a comic poet. But the main body of these slanderers who from envy and malice have wrought upon you – and there are some of them who are convinced themselves, and impart their convictions to others – all these, I say, are most difficult to deal with; for I cannot have them up here, and examine them, and therefore I must simply fight with shadows in my own defence, and examine when there is no one who answers.
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475 miles west of Nashville


Flying home from LA the other day, I snapped the photo over the napping woman beside me. So what am I looking at here? According to the destination tracker, we’re 475 miles west of Nashville, looking North. Perhaps it’s the Arkansas River near the Oklahoma border? 

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The Bard on Beach Street

I was walking down Beach Street in Boston’s Chinatown the last week, and came across a bust of Shakespeare carved in high relief on the wall of a building.


No sign, no plaque, nothing to explain why Shakespeare might be unexpectedly peering out at passersby on a busy side street amidst the Vietnamese restaurants and places to buy Bubble Tea.

When I got home–after seeing the marvelous new musical “Matilda” over the Boston Opera House–I started to poke around online about it. Others had come across the Bard on Beach, but there didn’t seem to be much more than that.

800px-Phillis_Wheatley_frontispieceCenturies ago, this whole area had been the South Cove, a body of water that separated the South Boston area from the city proper until it was filled in during the first part of the nineteenth century. Beach Street still retains the memory of the seaport that was here–indeed, we know that 18th century slave-trading ships arrived to the port at the corner of Beach and Tyler Streets, and that one African girl was sold there in 1761 whom the world would come to know as the poet Phillis Wheatley.

Later in time, the area came to be the theatre district, and even now the big theatres are not so far away (like the one where I saw “Matilda”). Around the corner from Beach on Washington Street was the old Globe Theatre, built in 1903 and still standing, although it has been a Dim Sum restaurant called “Empire Garden” now for quite some time (the dining room is still undisguisedly the old gilded lobby).  It seemed to me that this must be the answer–surely the Globe Theatre must be connected somehow with the bust of Shakespeare! Perhaps it was the side office, or something? But no, you can see in the screen-shot of the 3D satellite view below that the Globe/Empire Garden indicated by the green arrow is distinct from the Shakespeare bust building indicated by the blue one.

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A 1988 study by the Boston Landmarks Commission had more information–they listed 7-15 Beach Street as “The Shakesperian Inn.” Aha!  It makes perfect sense that theatre-goers making a night of it, or even travelling acting companies, would want to stay at an inn named for Shakespeare. There is even reason to believe that the inn was something of a bohemian hang-out.  According to a Boston Post report from 1901:

Landlord William Hennessy of the Shakespearean Inn in denying admission to teh [sic] Rev. Herbert S. Johnson and his party to the ladies’ café because they were not accompanied by ladies followed a rule that has been in vogue at his hotel ever since he opened. It is known to the frequenters of the Inn that no hotel in the city is conducted more carefully, and that, too, in a neighborhood where every effort is made to break down rules of propriety and decorum. Mr. Hennessy has established the reputation of meeting all difficulties and conforming to the laws and police regulations as well, if not better, than any other hotel proprietor in the city.

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(I have not seen this article myself, but quote it from the Lost Womyn’s Space blog, which has transcribed it.)  The Inn itself seems to have been built around 1885, and who knows how long it was a ladies’ only cafe. Alas, by 1902, it was a far rougher place, according to another newspaper account, where a dispute over an unclean glass could lead to suicide-murder in public.

Of the landlord, William Hennessy, I note from a 1901 ad in The Feather magazine that he seems also to have done a trade in fancy pigeons from the Inn’s lofts– “All Varieties of Booted Tumblers at reasonable prices; also a number of prize-winners. Whitesides my specialty.”

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So, who knew there was so much going on here for the Bard to witness?

 

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