Tuesday, October 27, 2020


Dirty Words and Captain Clock 

French Priests Among First Americans

Portrait of Jesuit missionary, Fr. Jacques Marquette, by Wilhelm Lamprecht (1838-1906).
This romanticized vision contrasts with more realistic depictions, such as portrayed in "Black Robe," the Brian Moore novel, and the movie which it inspired.  

Once again, I have been perusing “TheJesuit Relations” online. It’s a collection of letters that French missionary priests in North America, particularly in Canada, sent their superiors back home in the 1600 and 1700s. The letters are fascinating sources of ethnographic detail on indigenous peoples, especially on Iroquoian and Algonquin tribes. The letters also provide insights into the attitudes of these priests, which could range from earnest concern for the souls of “les sauvages” to the self-righteous condescension of proselytization. The letters can be fascinating, horrible, and sometimes hilarious.

I recently came across a funny scene in which a young priest ruefully recounts how an Indian host embarrassed him. This host, an old man, was intrigued by the Jesuit’s ability to write and read. He decided to test the priest by dictating Huron sentences to him, insisting that every word be transcribed exactly.  This is no small task for the priest. He is still struggling to learn the Huron language. He doesn't understand what he's hearing. He simply writes phonetically what the old man says. After he has managed to take down a few words, his host asks him to read them aloud to the assembled company.

Here, it deserves mention that one of the things that could drive the more contemplative priests nuts was that there always seemed to be company. Being alone was something the Indians rarely did!

Anyway, the audience reaction to the priest’s recitation is overwhelming. As the young man slowly enunciates each word, his listeners start to laugh. Before he can say more than a few words, the lodge is filled with fits of gasping, howling laughter. This earnest young Jesuit, who has hoped to enlighten the benighted, has brought down the house!

But the young priest is no dummy. It doesn't take him long to realize that he's been set up. The old man has dictated to him obscenities. And the young man is bound to be struggling with their pronunciation, perhaps repeating them syllable by syllable, which makes them even more hilarious.  The priest wants to stop, but his host tells him it’s out of the question. He’s got to continue! And a grand old time is had by all (save one), especially when the Indians see that the young priest is truly embarrassed.

If we are to believe the Jesuit accounts, the Indians routinely used language that the French considered obscene. Men and women, boys and girls, young and old, cheerfully bantered, using terms for sexual acts and bodily functions. And yet, from what the priests say, the Indians were not “libidinous” in behavior.  

Canadian writer Brian Moore seems to have depended heavily on the “Jesuit Relations” for his fine novel, “BlackRobe” (1985), the English rendering of the name the Indians used for the Jesuits. In turn, Moore’s book inspired the film of the same name (1991) directed by Bruce Beresford.  The movie includes a scene where the Indians gather together around a clock the Jesuits have brought into the forest. The Indians call the timepiece, “Captain Clock.” The priests seem to have told them when to expect the tolling, and there’s a sense of anticipation among them as the hands move into position. The priests have also encouraged them to think that the captain is under priestly command, and they order it to stop just in time.

If memory serves, I encountered a description of this scene years ago from another reading of the “Jesuit Relations.” It makes the Indians seem childlike and naïve. What I most like about the account of the young priest taking dictation is that it shows how the tables could be turned. For a time, in the forests of North America, it was the Europeans who were like naive children.


Monday, September 28, 2020

Erasmus's World of Kisses and Ruskin's Chastity

This is about culture change, specifically about how attitudes in a single country may change over time, sometimes remarkably. Many of us associate Victorian England with prudery. Women were supposed to dress and behave modestly. They were to defer to their husbands in their opinions. They were largely restricted to the domestic sphere as wives and mothers. Men were supposed to maintain an outgoing, chivalrous deportment. They were the breadwinners and protectors. 



Self-portrait of John Ruskin. The Victorian art critic was an excellent draftsman and skilled painter. Yet his greatest contribution to art may have been as an "influencer." His support for such painters as Turner and the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Millais, helped bring them fame.  



Of course, we know that men, especially affluent men, had secret lives. Many had liaisons with mistresses and prostitutes. Yet, sexual matters were not to be discussed in polite company, particularly between the sexes. Victorianism at its most extreme might best be illustrated by the marriage of the influential art critic, John Ruskin, to the much younger Effie Gray. Although the union lasted five years, the couple never had sex. The story goes that on the wedding night Ruskin was disgusted to find that Effie had pubic hair. He was familiar with the nudes of classical sculpture, but not with flesh and blood nakedness. After meeting and falling in love with the painter, John Everett Millais, whom Ruskin had commissioned to do his portrait, Effie sued to have the marriage was annulled. She succeeded largely because the union had never been consummated. Effie went on to wed Millais. By all accounts, they—and their children—lived happily ever after. I call on this anecdote as an illustration of a strait-laced, prudish element of late 19th-century England. 

Accounts of English society during the reign of Henry VIII provide a vivid contrast. One of these accounts comes from the letters of Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch philosopher-scholar who traveled among the courts of Europe. His collection of Apothegms consists of thousands of “old sayings” that he traces to classical times. These volumes might qualify as the original bedside readers if they were not so cumbersome! 


Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) 

At the age of thirty-three, Erasmus visited England for the first time. He was smitten by English culture, which his letters reveal to be far different than the culture of Ruskin’s England. Erasmus wrote enthusiastically to the poet Faustus Andrelinus, entreating his friend to join him in England.

Why are you so complacently burying your wit among French dunghills while you turn into an old man?... If you were fully aware of what England has to offer, you would rush hither, I tell you, on winged feet… There is one custom that can never be commended too highly. When you arrive anywhere, you are received with kisses on all sides, and when you take your leave they speed you on your way with kisses. The kisses are renewed when you come back. When guests come to your house, their arrival is pledged with kisses; and when they leave kisses are shared once again. If you should happen to meet, then kisses are given profusely. In a word, wherever you turn, the world is full of kisses…

This “world full of kisses” sounds nothing like the proper Victorian world. It extended into the reign of Elizabeth I, where kissing was particularly popular on the dance floor. Accounts of a dance, nicknamed “Kissum,” describe participants kissing every dancer of the other sex. These may sometimes have been mere pecks on the cheek, but full on the mouth kisses were not uncommon. After a particular round ended, couples would retire to the sideline where we are told, they would sit—the young man on his partner’s lap—to exchange endearments and to kiss some more!

Yet the seeds of Victorianism were already being planted. Kissing of all sorts was popular in the Catholic Church, from kissing the prelate’s ring to kissing the bones of dead saints. Elsewhere in his letters from England, Erasmus describes touring a religious site where he and his companion were expected to kiss relics, including the still-bloody arm of a reputed martyr. Then, too, there was the kissing going on in Rome among the clergy and their mistresses. It was opposition to such behavior that fed the Reformation and lent power to Puritanism, which flowered over the next century and no doubt helped shape Victorian England.

 

The Persistence of Dutch in America

 

The Persistence of the Dutch Language in America

To hear Americans complain that many Spanish-speaking immigrants are “refusing” to learn English just adds to the evidence that the “United States of Amnesia” is an apt nickname for this country. Rarely has any immigrant group given up its natal language in fewer than two generations. Historically, several of America’s most significant ethnic groups held onto their “mother tongue” for far longer. I grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, which touches the Hudson Valley region originally settled by immigrants from the Netherlands—the Dutch—so let me start with them.  

In 1624, the Dutch established New Amsterdam at the southern end of Manhattan Island. The English took the colony from the Netherlands in 1664. Nearly a hundred years later, the Dutch language was still being spoken in the Hudson Valley “fairly extensively,” according to historian John Higham. One history of New York, published in 1756, stated that "the sheriffs find it difficult to obtain persons sufficiently acquainted with the English tongue to serve as jurors in the Courts of law." 

Before the Revolution, newspapers regularly carried advertisements for the sale of indentured and enslaved people. Sometimes, bounties were offered for runaway captives. These notices often indicated the runaway’s proficiency in Dutch. In fact, the famous abolitionist Sojourner Truth, born around 1797 as Isabella Baumfree, spoke Dutch as her first language. Truth had grown up on a farm in the Hudson Valley only a few miles away from Kinderhook, the birthplace of Martin Van Buren. Born in 1782, Van Buren would become America’s eighth president.

Despite his family having lived in America for five generations, Van Buren grew up speaking Dutch. He was our first president to speak English as a second language, but his immediate predecessor, Andrew Jackson, was raised in a household where Gaelic may have been spoken. Jackson’s parents were immigrants from Ireland. In an early instance of “birtherism,” his critics slandered Jackson as having been brought to America as an infant and not actually born here. Had this been true, Jackson would not have been constitutionally eligible to become president.

More than a century after the English had taken control over the colony of New York, local communities operated schools offering instruction in Dutch, but English schools were displacing them, prompting geographer Jedidiah Morse to predict that the Dutch language would likely disappear “in a few generations.” Morse was not far wrong. While English had generally displaced Dutch by the beginning of the 1800s, visitors to the Hudson Valley were still commenting that Dutch had “corrupted” the English spoken there, and old people in a few northern New Jersey communities were said to speak a peculiar dialect called “Bergen Dutch.”

Of course, “Dutch” is also what many Americans called immigrants who spoke German, such as the “Pennsylvania Dutch” who came from Switzerland. Today, more Americans trace their ancestry to Germany than from any other country. How German-speakers actively sought to keep the mother tongue alive in America is perhaps the best example of immigrant language preservation and a story for another time.

Portraits of Sojourner Truth and Martin Van Buren from, respectively, the National Museum of Women's History and History.com

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Is America Really More Diverse?


 The Last Yankee. A mainstream rural American, no doubt descended from “colonial stock,” arrives in the big city and finds himself surrounded by a motley throng of “new immigrants.” He's become a curiosity in his own country. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 8, 1888. 

It is often said that America is more diverse than ever before. There is no doubt this is true in an objective sense. Certainly, the population of the United States today comes from a greater variety of nations, languages, religions, and cultures than ever before. And yet, an argument can be made that we are not so diverse as we were in the early twentieth century when the majority of Americans could trace their ancestries to Europe.

To appreciate this idea, we must recognize that some of the largest countries of immigrant origin were far more heterogeneous than they are now. Germany is one example. Today, more Americans can trace their ancestry to Germany than any other country, but for most of the 19th century, Germany did not exist as a unified nation-state. What we now call a country was, in fact, a hodgepodge of more than thirty principalities and states. Immigrants who came here considered themselves Prussians, Hessians, Bavarians, and others. They differed from each other culturally and religiously. The German language may have united them, but the newcomers often spoke regional dialects and very few knew any English. 

Today globalization has smoothed over many localized identities. Relatively few newcomers come from isolated peasant cultures. This was not the case during the great waves of European immigration when most arrivals came to America’s cities from rural backwaters. The Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and social media, in general, have brought about a cross-cultural awareness, call it a cosmopolitanism, that did not exist, say, in 1888, when Matt Morgan drew the accompanying illustration.

American immigration shifted remarkably starting in 1882 when the federal government took control of admissions. Whereas most immigrants had come from northern and western Europe, the mix suddenly changed. The “new immigrants,” as they were then called to distinguish them from the founding “colonial stock” or “old immigrants,” seemed utterly alien to many mainstream Americans.    

Opinion writers and university professors thought America was heading down a dangerous road. The nation was abandoning our Anglo-Saxon roots in favor of a dangerous diversity.  Morgan’s humorous illustration conveys a bit of this dread. Front and center is a Yankee, not unlike the familiar depiction of Uncle Sam. Our Yankee looks like a dressed-up farmer, who has come to the big city, perhaps for the first time.

In the city, the Last Yankee becomes an object of curiosity to a multicultural crowd. Most of the gawkers are European in origin. Morgan knew his ethnic types. We see Scots, Dutch, German, English, Irish and more. We even see Black, Chinese, Arab, and Jew. The signs on the surrounding businesses declare American identities, but they, too, are something new—Germans brought delicatessens and Chinese, laundries. After the crowd has ogled this strange creature, they will return to their own kind. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020


Crocetti Eats Spaghetti

Singer Dean Martin (Dino Crocetti) with a
potful of spaghetti once thought an alien dish. 
Dean Martin was a popular singer, actor and television personality from the 1950s into the 1980s.  Born as Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, OH, his parents came from Abruzzo, a province in the south of Italy.  Most Italian immigrants were from the southern part of the country, which was poorer than the north. American restrictionists often pointed this out when they criticized Italian immigration. They had to concede that Italy had a rich cultural heritage and had contributed so greatly to world art, music, and science, but they insisted that those Italians were entirely different from the immigrants who came in such numbers early in the 20th century. In 1916, Madison Grant even went so far as to say that such great Italians as Dante and Michelangelo were Nordics, a racial type he claimed originated in northern Europe (Grant also claimed that Jesus Christ was Nordic. On his mother’s side, of course).  

Italian immigrants were among the poorest who have ever come to this country. Dean is said to have started public school speaking only Italian and to have taken lumps from schoolmates for his poor English.  Always proud of his immigrant background, Martin belonged to the generation that overcame prejudice against Italian-Americans. Yet, like many performers from ethnic backgrounds who came to prominence in the post-WWII years, Martin believed he needed to “Americanize” his name in order to make it. This was true, too, of such megastars as Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch) and Doris Day (Doris Kappelhoff ).

The photo captures Dean eating spaghetti, probably in the 1970s. It was only a few decades earlier that a movie star would have refused to be caught by the camera eating such an un-American food. It’s hard to believe today, but Americans once thought Italian food was horrible stuff, and Italian immigrants—mostly their children in schools—were discouraged from eating the home cuisine. By the time this picture was taken, spaghetti and meatballs had become an American dish. One can even find photos online of Kirk Douglas and Doris Day gorging on platefuls of spaghetti. The country has changed. An actress like Renee Zellweger has kept her name and when she laments that pasta is her "food vice" the rest of us can empathize.      



Friday, April 3, 2020


Scott Wiedensaul's, First Frontier

I recently picked up a copy of The First Frontier, Scott Weidensaul’s lively account of America's eastern seaboard before and during early colonial times. I just finished a section on the captivity of one John Gyles, a ten-year-old boy who was taken from his home by the Abenaki in 1689. Although Gyles remained with the Abenaki for nine years, they never quite adopted him. This surprised me. I had mistakenly thought that, if captured by Indians, one's fate was either to be tortured and killed or adopted and treated kindly.

This engraving, based on a drawing by Benjamin West, 
shows Indians returning captive children to Colonel 
Bouquet after the French and Indian War. John Gyles
was older than these children when taken, and was less
warmly embraced by his captors.  
Gyles lived in a kind of purgatory between these two extremes. His captors would eventually ransom him, but for most of his captivity, he was worked hard, treated badly, and sometimes even tortured. I have accounts of long-time Indian captives who refused to be redeemed, but Gyles welcomed the opportunity. After being freed, he became a prominent military officer in New England, in part, because he had learned to speak French and a couple of Indian languages during his captivity.

Weidensaul says Gyles's account of his time with the Indians is among the very best of the genre. I just pulled it from the Internet Archive and look forward to perusing it before long. Among the best accounts of European interaction with the woodland Indians before the 19th century are the Jesuit Relations, letters, and journal entries written by Jesuit priests living among the indigenous peoples of North America.* Along with Gyles, the Jesuits remark upon Indian notions of revenge. Novelist Frank McCourt's definition of "Irish Alzheimer's"—"You forget everything except the grudge"—seems to apply.

The Jesuits asked the Iroquois why they insisted on eating the lice they took from each other's hair. The Indians responded (I paraphrase here), "Eating?, We're not eating, we're biting! The damned things bit us, how can we not bite them back!"

Weidensaul gives an account of Indians taking revenge on a trader who had cheated them through usurious credit and sharp practices like putting his finger on the scale to short-change them. Before killing the trader, each man in the raiding party insisted on "scratching out" his debt by cutting an X on the trader's chest, each declaring, "I cross out my account."  They then cut off the trader's fingers, asking him "how much his fist weighed now." 

Similar gruesome accounts are not uncommon in the literature. Many have a certain poetic justice. The modern American says, “That’s a primitive society for you!” And yet, in recent times we’ve seen similar behavior in places like Ireland, Yugoslavia, Myanmar and Rwanda, where past wrongs are remembered and old scores settled with new violence.  Yet, to build a nation, that is, to achieve a sense of "peoplehood," takes a lot of forgetting. Native Americans had a ritual to mark such forgetting. They called it "burying the hatchet." 

* The 73-volume collection of the Jesuit Relations  (1610-1791) can be found at the Internet Archives. Click here for a 1901 review of the collection.  

Monday, March 30, 2020


The Red Hot Mama & the Supreme

Sophie Tucker's career stretched from vaudeville to TV.

It’s a fascinating little mystery mentioned in a review of a biography of Sophie Tucker. Sophie Tucker was a popular singer for much of the 20th century.  Tucker (Sonya Kalish) was born in Ukraine in 1887 and came to the United States with her parents as a child. Like many Jews of that era, they escaped Czarist pogroms. She started singing professionally in 1907, often in blackface. Her career had remarkable longevity. She began in vaudeville and achieved national popularity on the radio in the 1920s, but baby boomers might remember her from appearances on television’s Ed Sullivan Show. Few people would recognize her name today.

None of the foregoing is a mystery. It’s Tucker’s connection to a black teenager that intrigues. That teenager, Florence Ballard, was born in 1943.  She’s best known as a founding member of the Supremes, the greatest girl group of all time. She was the least glamorous of the three Supremes. Diana Ross was the lead and diva. Mary Wilson was a less assertive beauty.  Florence was said to have had the best voice, but she lacked the charisma of the others. Motown Records mogul Berry Gordy is supposed to have pushed her out of the group around 1967.

Tucker’s biography reveals that in 1960 when Sophie was nearing the end of her career, she sent the 17-year-old Florence Ballard an inscribed copy of her autobiography. This was weeks before Ballard had signed a contract with Motown. Why was this old Jewish immigrant writing to the unknown black teen? Could it have been that Ballard was a Tucker admirer and had written Sophie a fan letter? 


Who knows? What we do know is that Tucker admired black music. Her performances regularly covered jazz and blues standards. As her popularity grew, she hired African-American songwriters to fill-out her repertoire. She even called herself “the last of the red hot mamas.

Florence Ballard before her departure from
The Supremes
Sophie Tucker died in 1966 at the height of Supremes fame. Florence Ballard died an alcoholic ten years later, never having recovered from getting the boot from Motown. We can only guess at the connection between these two singers, the long-lived immigrant whose Jewish family fled persecution and the Detroit-born teenager whose career would be cut short.   

Today, Jewish Americans can take special pride in that ancestral generation who arrived at New York Harbor as refugees in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It's amazing how quickly Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe adapted to this country. The immigrant generation worked hard and if they did not themselves prosper their children often did.