Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Remembering Mike Green

I met Michael Green (1941-2013) for the first time in August 1994, when I enrolled as a student in his graduate seminar in Native American history.  I had just started school at the University of Kentucky, and Mike initially struck me as kind of a forbidding person, but his pleasant, gravelly voice and stock of amusing anecdotes and homey locutions (e.g. "rich as Croesus," "if the good lord is willin' and the creeks don't rise," "you pays your money and you takes your choice") soon set me at my ease. Indeed, when I began teaching a few years later I tried to adopt Mike's demeanor and mannerisms in class, which proved impossible for a beaky easterner like myself.  Professor Green's seminar also helped set me on the path that led to my dissertation and first book: at the end of the term I wrote a review essay on Iroquois historiography, which nicely dovetailed with a discovery I had just made in Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick's Age of Federalism (1993), namely that the paranoid and vindictive Federalist Timothy Pickering had in his early career been a respected commissioner to the Six Nations.  This led me to a seminar paper on Pickering's relationship with the Iroquois, and ultimately to a dissertation on the cultural background of Federalist Indian policy.

A couple of years later Mike agreed to join my graduate committee, and when in January 1997 we met to discuss my qualifying exams he decided the time had come to turn this somewhat limited early-republic scholar into an ethnohistorian.   "Which of the books on my seminar's reading list have you read?" Mike asked.  I admitted I had read about a dozen of them. "Okay, read the rest," he replied, "and write a one or two-page summary of each one of them for me."  That meant reading and summarizing about 50 books in ten weeks.  If I neglected to protest, it was probably due to the overconfidence of youth.  Mike, I suspect, thought I would find the next ten weeks intellectually exhilarating rather than exhausting, and so they were.  I have since taught several independent graduate readings courses in this manner, and a least a few of the students I've put through the ordeal, such as Craig Hammond and C.J. Lepley, thrived on it.

Mike had already provided me with the germ of my second book, an analytical history of the U.S. government's Indian factory system, which I learned about while writing a research essay for Prof. Green on Thomas McKenney and the 1819 Civilization Act.  The paper did not itself lead to an independent publication, but it did make me realize that the factory system had generated a large quantity of records and very little scholarship. When I completed the first draft of my first book in 2004, Mike encouraged me to undertake a book-length study of the factories, and when we subsequently met at conferences he asked me for updates and helped me through a difficult impasse I reached in one chapter.  When I finally finished the manuscript of the factories book in September 2011 Mike was generous enough to read the whole thing - all 450 pages or so - and write a couple of pages of comments and advice.  All of this ensured I would not only finish the book but make it presentable for publication.  "The Engines of Diplomacy," which is currently under contract with a university press, is in many ways Mike's book.

It was a long-standing joke among Mike's students that when someone asked him what subject they should research, he always replied "the Chickasaws."  I must have heard this joke at some point during graduate school, for when I was finishing "Engines of Diplomacy" and considering topics for my next monograph, I felt drawn to the economic and cultural history of the Chickasaws, on whom I wished to write a book similar to James Carson's Searching for the Bright Path (1999). Again, Mike played a big role in shaping this book project because he was one of the informal leaders of an NEH Summer Seminar I was privileged to attend in 2011.  Directed by Theda Perdue and Malinda Maynor Lowery, the seminar was one of the high points of my intellectual life: a month of readings, seminar meetings, lunchtime discussions, field trips to Native American communities in the Carolinas, and research in UNC / Chapel Hill's outstanding libraries.  Mike and Theda both provided direction to our discussions, offered advice on seminar participants' research, and hosted weekly pool parties that helped us get through a hot summer.  I had the pleasure, too, of accompanying Mike on a day-long book-buying expedition to several used bookstores in Chapel Hill and Raleigh; we got a chance to chat about our days at Kentucky and about reading recommendations.  (One of these days I'll need to sit down and read the Master and Commander series by Patrick O'Brien.)

Mike attended the first paper I presented on my Chickasaw research, at the 2011 Ethnohistory conference in Pasadena, and encouraged me to follow up my investigation of the Chickasaws' so-called "military economy," which became the subject of a paper I presented in Helsinki and of a chapter I wrote for a festschrift in Mike and Theda's honor.  By then Mike's health was failing, but we corresponded as late as last summer, exchanging our impressions of Finland.  I had a chance to tell Mike that I had recently traveled to Spain with my petite amie Susan, and that I had found his and Theda's North American Indians book very useful in class.

I suppose it is natural for graduate students to look for intellectual parents among their professors, and I was fortunate enough to find two intellectual father figures in my formative years, namely Lance Banning (my dissertation director) and Mike Green.  Now both of them are gone, and it remains for me and other survivors to figure out how to deal with the loss.  Probably the best thing to do is to follow a modified version of the Marques de Pombal's famous advice: "Honor the dead and feed the living."

Mike was not a religious man and I doubt he believed in a future state of rewards and punishments, but it is incontrovertibly true that everyone gets at least one real afterlife, living on in the memories and dreams of those who knew them in life. Mike was a scholar and a university professor, which means that he will live on in the memories and minds and research of his hundreds of students, and in the narrative voice of the seven books he authored.  If my own case is any indication, Mike supplied the living, in his own lifetime, with an intellectual and personal feast.  Those of us who knew him will surely honor his memory and carry on his legacy.

**

(A formal obituary for Michael Green may be found here.)

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Bird Is Dead but the Plumage Remains


Your humble narrator must confess that on his recent trip to Europe, he found Paris rather unimpressive* – muggy, full of surly tourists, and comprised mainly of “drearily monotonous” Haussman tenements and overpriced shops. (Quote by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, from David McCullough, The Greater Journey [Simon and Schuster, 2011], p. 209.) To the traveler visiting central France, however, he can without hesitation recommend a visit to the Palace of Versailles, home to three successive French monarchs and symbol of absolute royal authority in the early modern era. The courtly ritual which framed the king's authority ended in 1789, when the Paris crowds invaded the palace and drove the royal family to Paris, but the baroque furnishings of the royal apartments remain. The curlicued woodwork, richly canopied beds, extravagant crystal chandeliers, and ceilings lavishly painted with rococo scenes still retain their ability to impress. Our guide explained that it was common for Louis XIV to receive high-ranking visitors in his outer bedchamber while he reposed in bed, and I wondered if this was a common practice in 17th-century Europe. If so, it might explain why the Virginia Company presented Powhatan with a bed when they crowned him “king” of his people (and vassal of James I) in 1608.

The most famous room in the palace, the Hall of Mirrors, extends for 240 feet between the king's and queen's suites, and its immense Venetian mirrors represented, for their time, an extraordinary (and expensive) demonstration of the glazier's art. Today they look a bit dark and faded, but considering their great age they have held up quite well. The chandeliered hall must have glowed quite brightly at night during its heyday, and I am not surprised that the Bourbon monarchs used it for public celebrations and social events, most famously the 1745 ball where Louis XV met Madame de Pompadour.  When the Prussian army occupied Versailles during its siege of Paris, Bismarck chose the Hall as the site for the declaration of the German Empire (1871), and in symbolic retaliation, the victorious Allies met there half a century later to impose their punitive peace treaty on the successors to that Empire.

The gardens of Versailles, a huge expanse of meticulously pruned hedges, white statues, flower beds, and fountains, are even more impressive than the Hall of Mirrors, but they cover nearly three square miles and my petite amie and I only saw a tiny sliver of them. I understand one can rent a golf cart to tour the gardens today, which is probably the best way to see them if one lacks a horse. Incidentally, the pumps driving the Versailles fountains originally drew their power from twelve large waterwheels that could collectively generate up to 124 horsepower, or about 25 times as much power of one of the aforementioned golf carts (Alfred Crosby, Children of the Sun [Norton, 2006], 72.)


* Your narrator will of course make an exception for the Louvre, perhaps the only place in the world where one can, while looking for the stele containing Hammurabi's Code, stumble upon an entire gallery full of Peter Rubens paintings.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Dutch Fungus Gun

Friends and relatives told me before I visited it last month that I would surely find Amsterdam and the Netherlands very agreeable, and I must report that I agree with them.  The Dutch are (generally)
friendly to tourists, speak passable to good English, and have a sensible attitude toward matters such as gay marriage and soft drugs.  Amsterdam, or the parts of it I visited, was a jewel: clean and charming, with beautiful houses and churches, ample flowers and public parks, and so many canals (a relic of 17th century town planning) that it is easier to move around the city by boat than by car.  Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. allegedly said that Paris was the city where good Americans went when they died, but I am persuaded that, in the 21st century at least, Amsterdam has taken Paris's place in that sentiment.

Of the city's cultural sites, the most popular with foreign tourists, judging from the length of the lines, are the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House.  My petite amie and I, however, found ourselves more enthralled with the Rijksmuseum, which contains several galleries of 17th and 18th century Dutch art - including masterpieces such as Rembrandt's Night Watch and Vermeer's Milkmaid - and displays of historical artifacts from other eras. Fond as I am of 17th century Dutch art, which focuses more on secular themes (children at play, tavern carousers, landscapes*) than the religious themes typical of contemporary Italian art, the one room in the Rijksmuseum that really caught my eye was a massive display of firearms from the 17th century.  The collection included a large number of wheellock pistols and muskets - wheellocks being a fussy and expensive, but useful, form of handgun which one could use from a prone position, unlike the more common matchlock gun ** - and an example of something I'd never heard of, a tinderlock gun, which used smoldering dried fungus as the firing element.  An appropriate weapon, I suppose, for people who once used peat moss as a primary source of heat.

One might think that a display of firearms, or of model ships (which one could find in the next gallery over), had little place in a museum of art and culture, but of course both things had much to do with the efflorescence of Dutch art in the 17th century.  Between their war for independence against the Spanish in the 1500s and their decline in the 18th century (when the English knocked them down and took their lunch money), the merchant-adventurers of the Netherlands enjoyed a century of global economic predominance.  This rested on their maritime skills, their well-armed merchant fleet, and their merchants' investment in the sort of disreputable commodities mentioned by David Graeber in DEBT: THE FIRST 5,000 YEARS: slaves, soft drugs like coffee and sugar and tobacco (the Dutch didn't grow much themselves but shipped a lot from the English colonies), and firearms.  According to David Silverman, the Netherlands were the center of the European arms export industry in the 17th century, and Dutch wheellocks and flintlocks were in demand throughout the Atlantic world.  The guns displayed in the Rijksmuseum were thus a sample of the sort of wares that enriched the Dutch merchant class, and they in turn financed the paintings and objets d'art that beautified the Netherlands' "Golden Age."

(The photos above, taken by the author, show a) the placard for the aforementioned tinderlock gun, b) a sample wheellock musket, and c) a very heavy musket, approximately 1.5 meters in length, that the Dutch probably used to shoot through schools.***)

* This is actually the English spelling of a Dutch word; the Dutch largely invented the landscape painting and were the first to create a market for them.
** Matchlocks used a smoldering length of cord, or "match," to light their powder charges.  One can see an example of one in the 1991 film Black Robe.
*** H/t Johnny Dangerously.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Worse than the Wars of the Roses

While my petite amie Susan and I were in London last month, the top three news stories were 1) the heat wave gripping England (anything over 30C qualifies as extreme heat), 2) the imminent birth of the Dutchess of Cornwall's baby, and 3) the Globe Theater's staging of Henry VI, Shakespeare's three-part play about the Wars of the Roses, at the sites of four of those wars' principal battles.

The Wars of the Roses proved more important, I think, as a romantic literary reference point than an actual historical event. Though the civil war lasted, off and on, for nearly thirty years, it chiefly took the form of a series of grudge matches between various nobles and their armed retainers; the combatants generally avoided ravaging the countryside, whose resources they hoped to win in the war. The most enduring political result of the wars was the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, whose founder, Henry Tudor (subsequently Henry VII), was the last man standing after all the Plantagenet claimants to the throne were killed. It was to curry favor with Henry's grand-daughter, Elizabeth I, that William Shakespeare memorialized the Wars of the Roses in two plays. One of these, Henry VI, was the Bard's first and, arguably, worst play, a point memorably made by Christopher Marlowe in Neil Gaiman's story "Men of Good Fortune" (Sandman, No. 13):

Marlowe: At least it scans. But "bad, revolting stars"?
Shakespeare: It's my first play.
Marlowe: And it should be your last.

Bearing this in mind, I do not regret missing the chance to sit through an outdoor performance of the play, even if it is on Tewkesbury battlefield. The other Shakespeare play on the Wars of the Roses, Richard III, was far better; it helped establish Richard's reputation (perhaps undeserved) as a Machiavellian villain, and became the basis for an excellent 1995 film version starring Ian McKellan in the title role – a version populated with 1930s technology, in which Richard emerged from the civil war as a fascist dictator.

Shakespeare probably helped English schoolteachers decide that the wars were, as a whole, a worthy subject of study, and thereby to plague several generations of students with their vagaries. George Orwell recounted in "Such, Such Were the Joys" that he had to memorize the principal battles in school, and did so with the aid of the mnemonic "A black Negress was my aunt; there's her house behind the barn." C.S. Lewis apparently had to learn about the wars in the same way, and his character Lucy would later characterize part of Telmarine history (in Prince Caspian) as “worse than the Wars of the Roses.” Favorable modern references to the conflict come mostly from those who approach the war as an abstraction, like designers of Kingmaker, a 1974 boardgame in which the players assemble armies of nobles, tromp around England collecting heirs to the throne, and then crown or behead the heirs as strategy dictates. More recently, George R.R. Martin allegedly modeled his Song of Ice and Fire series on the Wars of the Roses, but it was apparently rather a loose adaptation, involving mass killings of peasants, quasi-Viking raiders, weird religious cults, and the occasional zombie. None of which found their way into the historical chronicles or Shakespeare's plays, and more's the pity.