Thursday, December 25, 2008
Some years ago when I wrote regularly for this paper on art, I devoted two successive columns to Edmonia Lewis, a sculptress, as they called her back in the day, of mixed Negro and American Indian breed ... again as they used to say. She was a fantastic character with a propensity for self-invention, so not all the strange stories about her could be corroborated as fact, but what did it matter if her art was fine? Born near
Her supporters sent her to
The same could be said, almost eerily, of another
Prowling on Project Wombat, an online discussion list for difficult reference questions, I came across scholar Donna Halper’s discovery of a 1901 census listing in London for an Ethel Reed residing at 106 Grosvenor Road in Pimlico with four-month-old son Anthony and servant Mary Gay, but no husband. Her occupation was recorded as “Artist (Painter)” with “Sculpt.” overwritten.
Prowling on Project Wombat, an online discussion list for difficult reference questions, I came across scholar Donna Halper’s discovery of a 1901 census listing in London for an Ethel Reed residing at 106 Grosvenor Road in Pimlico with four-month-old son Anthony and servant Mary Gay, but no husband. Her occupation was recorded as “Artist (Painter)” with “Sculpt.” overwritten.
Could these two
Ethel Reed was born in
At this time Reed, age 19, was engaged in an unsuccessful pursuit of employ in
It was during this period that her flamboyant personality was evidenced in costume balls, dance parties, pageants, and nonconformist life styles. Three months earlier, the Boston Journal (March 25, 1893) reported: “As the time for the artists’ festival approaches, society gets more and more excited over it. Young people who are born with the love of dressing up do not by any means have it all to themselves. Mr. Goodhue, the architect, is to head the King Rene group, as the regal ruler himself, with Miss Alexander of
Several of the above-named revelers would be at the core of Bohemian Boston in the years to come. Reed would be involved in a menage a trois with the architects Goodhue and Cram; would pose nude for the photographer Fred (
She had ridden the new wave: a fad of Orientalism, experiments in free love and hashish, and, crucially for the history of art in
Reed, meanwhile, was sending sentimental hackwork to magazines without much success. A syrupy vignette titled “Butterfly Thoughts” became her first published work when St. Nicholas magazine ran it in the June 1894 issue. In the winter of 1894-95 an unnamed friend came to Reed’s studio, saw a portrait she had painted, and suggested that she copy it to become a poster promoting the Boston Sunday Herald, with which he was associated. “You can see,” she told an interviewer in 1895 as she pointed to her painting, “that the reproduction flattened and quite spoiled the effect of the original.”
She missed the point, seemingly. It was precisely the flatness, the simplicity, the atonality, the graphic quality that made “Ladies Want It,” issued on
Ethel Reed was a striking woman, not exactly beautiful by the standards of today, and with a wide-eyed gaze that hints at madness. But in her day she was universally regarded as a dish. A writer in the Chap-Book offered: “Lamson and Wolffe’s first book was published on Washington’s birthday, ‘so timed to call attention to what we intended to make the keynote of the firm, healthy Americanism, as opposed to the general tendencies of the younger publishers toward imported realism.’ It naturally followed that the new firm should ‘discover’ Miss Ethel Reed: no healthy American would lose any time in discovering Miss Reed, if she were anywhere in sight.”
The Boston Daily Advertiser described her well in 1896:
Large, dark eyes, looking out under a wide, white brow; a rather broad, firm face, the skin clear, with what the French call a ‘fine pallor,’ set in a mass of dull black hair above a strong neck; expressive features, the mouth begins sad; a supple figure, though sturdy withal, and of just medium height, neither tall nor short—that is Ethel Reed, the Boston girl of 21 [actually 22], whom critics have hailed as the greatest woman designer of that latest creation of modern art, the poster.
“I am governed by moods in my work,” she says, “and I cannot work when the mood is not on. It does not come at my bidding, and sometimes for a fortnight I can accomplish nothing. Then in a few hours I can dash off all that I wished to do in that fortnight.”
And then she was done. A drawing of a girl with a cat appeared in the Studio Magazine of March 1898, a sad pierrot in The Sketch. Le Gallienne wrote a poem for her in 1910.
TO ONE WHO IS BLIND
I said I had forgotten her,
That I had put away
Our memories of Paradise
Until the Judgment Day;
That never more the laughing earth
Should see us hand in hand,
That I long since had shut the door
Of the old fairyland.
Then on a sudden came strange news
Upon the gossip wind
My love of those sweet years ago
Great God — my love was blind!
I said — the news must be a lie,
Cruel as are the years,
They could not be so merciless
To such great eyes as hers.
Little child of long ago,
God grant the news untrue!
Except for one strong selfish thought —
That I may come to you
And sit beside you in the dark,
And, as in Paradise
I gave you all my breaking heart,
Now bring to you — my eyes.
The special poignancy of Reed’s story deserved a better poem and less egotistical a poet. A. E. Housman will do:
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
Friday, November 02, 2007
Of Croswell and Cocktails
There are few things in life I enjoy as much as a smart cocktail.
So imagine my chagrin when I realized I had missed its bicentennial. My oversight was compounded when I realized the first official mention of the cocktail (actually, “cock-tail”) was made in the Hudson Valley on May 6, 1806, by Harry Croswell in the City of Hudson newspaper Balance and Columbian Repository.
If ever there was a man who needed a stiff drink, it was Croswell. Two years earlier he had been convicted of sedition by going after Thomas Jefferson. Undeterred, he continued to publish – and undoubtedly to drink.
I can say, as someone who has in the past been given the task of producing newspapers on a regular basis, that the lure of alcohol can be strong.
It was strongest when running a daily newspaper, which I did in the same block where Croswell toiled. A restaurant a mere block away from that auspicious location serves grapefruit margaritas that blend the perfect bite of hesperidium with the tang of tequila. So enamored of this delightful concoction, I set myself the task of learning how to mix one perfectly. After several failed attempts, I finally managed to get the perfect blend of tequila, lime juice, and Cointreau with the merest hint of grapefruit.
I don’t know what Croswell was sipping when he decided, apparently unchastened by his earlier legal fracas, to publish “Rum! Rum! Rum!,” a detailed account of how Jefferson’s minions were liquoring up voters before they hit the polls. He highlighted the 32 Gin-Slings, 411 Glasses Bitters, and 25 glasses “cock-tail” doled out by Jeffersonians. Asked by a correspondent to explain this nefarious “species of refreshment,” Croswell wrote in the issue of May 13, 1806: “Cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters; it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.”
Perhaps. Whether Jefferson’s willingness to pay the bar tab of voters managed to determine an election or not, it’s certainly a more palatable approach to stealing an election than having the Supreme Court anoint a president. And a whole lot more fun than counting hanging chads.
I don’t drink to go to the polls. Nor do I imbibe with the intent of doing foolhardy things; I am capable of astounding idiocy when perfectly sober.
I have a cocktail because I enjoy it. A perfectly mixed drink brings me great pleasure, something Barbara Holland, in her book Endangered Pleasures, convincingly argues is becoming increasingly un-American. We are a nation that lives in fear of overindulgence, which is often equated with disease. Our pursuit of happiness has been thoroughly infused with Puritan overtones: hard work and steady denial will bring us our just reward. At some point we forgot – or became too guilty – to stop and smell the roses, or in this case, to sip a cocktail.
Feeling parched? Try out the original cock-tail recipe, or receipt, as they would have spelled it back in 1806:
Bittered Gin Sling
1.5 oz gin
0.75 oz sweet vermouth or sherry
0.5 oz lemon juice
0.75 oz simple syrup
dash or two of Angostura bitters
Shake all but the soda water with ice, strain into a tumbler or highball over ice, top with soda, and garnish with a lemon peel.
Monday, July 31, 2006
Let Freedom Sting: Addendum
NEWS-BOY’S NEW YEAR’s
[Written by the Editor.]
CHANG’D be the News-Boy’s wonted jocund song,
For strains more serious to this verse belong:
In times like these, but little cause of joy
Inspires the poet, or awakes the boy—
In times like these, when great malignant foes
Condemn the press—the voice of truth oppose—
When upstart pow’r lifts high its ruthless hand,
Dejection deep pervades an injur’d land.
When our lov’d Washington, the great and good,
First in the councils of his country stood—
When his successor Adams, firm and just,
Discharg’d with faith, a nation’s dearest trust,
The Press was free—truth sanction’d by the law—
Falshood and malice kept in proper awe;
Then did a sland’rous, base, and factious band,
The scourge, the curse, the ruin of our land,
With ceaseless clamour pour their loud complaints
Of fetters, gags, infringements and restraints—
Restraints, the good were never doom’d to feel—
Restraints like those which say “Thou shalt not steal”—
Infringements, of those rights which bad men claim,
The just and wise to slander and defame—
Gags, which the mouth of falshood only knew—
Fetters, impos’d not on the just or true.
Then, to dam up the torrent of abuse,
Which flow’d from hireling pens, in streams profuse;
To blunt the arrows aim’d at virtue’s head—
O’er Truth’s fair form a coat of mail to spread,
Was deem’d a wrong, too great for those to bear,
Who breed in filth, and breathe infectious air;
A reptile race, in Envy’s bosom nurs’d
With other snakes—of all those snakes the worst.
But that refulgent Sun, whose golden ray
Appris’d our nation of the break of day,
Whose op’ning morning beam, whose noontide light,
Cheer’d our forefathers with a prospect bright;
Whose mild, whose steady, whose unerring course,
Of all our blessings was the certain source,
Alas, is set, and nothing guides our way,
Save a dim planet’s poor and cheerless ray—
A feeble, changing, wav’ring, waning moon,
Which scarcely glimmers at its highest noon.
Such dark and gloomy times, all things invite,
That shun the day, and basely shrink from light;
Knaves quit their lurking-holes, and range at will,
Usurp all pow’r, and all the places fill.
And should, perchance, a faithful watchman deign
To sound th’ alarm, and midnight wrongs restrain,
Quick is he mark’d, and ev’ry upstart’s arm
Is rais’d in might to do the victim harm.
And must we always grope our darksome way?
Must gloom forever shroud the beams of day?
Must discord, anarchy, confusion reign,
And virtuous freedom ne’er her pow’r regain?
Forbid it, Heav’n! fair freedom’s Sun must rise,
Illume the world, and gild Columbia’s skies;
Justice and truth shall meet a better fate,
Nor longer fear derision from the great.
Then let the storm of party-spirit rage;
Let foes a war of persecution wage;
Let the strong arm of power be rais’d in might,
To crush, and triumph o’er defenceless right;
Let a gigantic faction proudly vaunt;
Let human tigers after victims pant;
Let upright freedom, fetter’d, gagg’d and bound,
Be scoff’d, and spurn’d, and trampled to the ground;—
Truth unappall’d, will meet the deadly blow,
And hurl defiance at the vengeful foe;
E’en from the dust will raise its potent word—
E’en from the dungeon’s depths it shall be heard.
Tyrants themselves, shall tremble at its voice—
Th’ oppress’d shall hear, and hearing, shall rejoice.
Nor let the tyrant think himself more blest,
When, on the couch of down, he seeks for rest:
Let him not think that e’en the shades of night
Can yield him comfort, or repose invite;
For here shall conscience, with her sharpest sting,
Affright and terror to his bosom bring—
Plant in his pillow such a deadly thorn,
That e’en his solitude shall be forlorn—
Whisper such awful warnings in his ear,
His black and haggard soul shall start with fear.
Such, such are my hopes—such my wishes are,
And this my fervent and my constant prayer—
God grant, the virtuous may live to see
THE PRESS TRIUMPHANT, AND OUR NATION FREE!
Hudson, January 1, 1804.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
George Clinton: A Bridge to the Future?
When public works in our region have been named for private figures the result has seldom been a happy one. Who thinks of Joe DiMaggio when they are driving along New York City’s West Side Highway? Did you know that the Holland Tunnel does not reference the nation that founded New Amsterdam but instead Clifford Milburn Holland, the tunnel’s chief engineer? Does anyone speeding down the New Jersey Turnpike experience a frisson of dread at how close the Alexander Hamilton Rest Area is to where he met his earthly rest in a duel with Aaron Burr?
Our neighborhood, however, is blessed, as the bridge connecting Kingston and Rhinecliff is actually an apt memorial for its honoree, George Clinton. Not exactly a Founding Father — he didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence, as he was occupied in battle to achieve what it propounded; nor did he sign the Constitution, as he and Patrick Henry, among others, withheld their assent until they were assured that a Bill of Rights would be added — Clinton was nonetheless a great figure of his day, a patriot and, well, a bridge to the Republic that improbably survived its fledgling period. With his July 26 birthday celebration upon us this week, let’s pause at his burial monument in the graveyard of Kingston’s Old Dutch Church and reflect upon who he was, what he did, and why he still matters.
It is a measure of the man’s humility and unassuming way, not any paucity of accomplishment, that his personality was little known to the public, then as now. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, and many more may be cited without credentialing — even without first names — in confidence that they are recalled at least through grade-school lessons. But George Clinton was a Gary Cooper type of hero —disinclined to trumpet himself and putting himself forward for public service reluctantly. Extraordinary times can make heroes of ordinary men, and that may well explain Clinton’s enduring place at the center of power. Though he left behind public papers that were published in ten volumes, he was neither an incisive writer like Hamilton nor a silver-tongued orator like Henry. It is left largely to others to testify to his stature ... and there is the undeniable record of dedication.
The bare bones are these: born in Little Britain, New York in 1739 (then in Ulster County, now in Orange), Clinton was a British soldier in the French and Indian and War, and later a Brigadier General against the British with the onerous and, as it proved, futile duty of defending Kingston against the incendiaries of General Vaughan on October 16, 1777. Undermanned and, it has been alleged, unprepared, the patriot forces mustered no meaningful opposition. No one claims for General Clinton martial genius, only a solid, reliable ability to get things done.
As a politician he served in the Continental Congress, voted for the Declaration of Independence and, in 1777, while still on active duty in the military, became first Governor of the State of New York. This post he held for 21 years (six consecutive terms from 1777 to 1795 and a seventh from 1801-1804), which is still the longest tenure of any U.S. Governor. Aging and tired, he nonetheless accepted his party’s nomination for Vice President in 1805. Following the acrimonious Aaron Burr as Jefferson’s sidekick, like Burr he balanced the ticket geographically and was chosen again in 1809 as running mate to Madison, another Virginian.
For a while as Jefferson’s second term neared an end, Clinton had thoughts of becoming president, though at his age and coming off an uninspired performance as vice president that left Senators shaking their heads and reminiscing about the brilliance of Burr, he had no realistic chance of nomination; even his old ally Jefferson turned against his effort. All the same, he remained the best choice to run alongside Madison, whose victory he assured by assuaging the worry of the Northern states that agrarian interests were beginning to monopolize the Presidency.
Clinton died in 1812, the third year of his second term, and was buried with honors in Washington. In 1908, largely at the instigation of historian Benjamin Myer Brink and Chaplain Roswell Randall Hoes, Clinton’s remains and funerary monument were transported to Kingston amid pomp and circumstance all along the way, particularly in New York City. On May 30 Kingston, amid celebration of the 250th year since its founding, welcomed the return of New York’s first governor to New York’s first capital.
George Clinton was especially admired, even revered, for his efforts to keep New Yorkers’ taxes low: he confiscated Tory lands and he used New York City port fees to buttress real-property collections. During the war, he was concerned that New York taxes would have to make up for a shortfall in funds from other states, laggardly in their obligated deliveries, and accordingly he backed Hamilton’s move for a strong Federal government that had the power to raise revenues. But when the Federal government moved to expropriate New York City’s port revenues for itself via a national tariff, Clinton reversed course, becoming vigorously anti-Federalist. In truth he was neither doctrinaire in his political beliefs nor idealistic in his political machinations; he was simply a pragmatist, and above all a New Yorker.
Concerned that a Federal government that could strip his state of its revenues might also trample individual liberties, Clinton became a prime backer of what became the Bill of Rights. He may have placed himself on the wrong side of national renown by preferring the loose Articles of Confederation to the centralizing force of the Constitution, and by casting the tie-breaking vote in the Senate that in 1811 abolished the National Bank. However, he is inextricably lodged in the hearts of his countrymen and in the pantheon of those dedicated to the rights of man.
In 2006, George Clinton may offer a further bridge, this time to New York’s future. At the turn of the last century, New York opened the golden door to millions of European immigrants, who swelled the population and increased the demand for support services and state revenues. After World War II, as Southern states held welfare payments beneath subsistence level, the indigent and unemployed migrated to the North, where more humane benefits were available. Today New York and other “blue” states seem to represent not only an old manufacturing economy and a discredited welfare state, but also an antiquated attitude toward the common weal. Conservative and liberal New Yorkers alike are, or ought to feel, as alienated from the national course as the South felt in the 1850s. We have seen a drift of talent and treasure to the rest of the country, as frightening to us as the draining of the Port of New York coffers was to George Clinton. Maybe New York, and no longer Alabama or Georgia, is the future home of state’s rights.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
Let Freedom Sting: The Wasp, The Bee, and the Valley; Part II
Since we commenced this tale of how our nation’s freedom of the press came to be created in the Hudson Valley more than 200 years ago, Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) has repeated his call to prosecute the New York Times for treason. Joining the chorus have been Vice President Dick Cheney, Senator Jim Bunning (R-Ky), and the editors of the Wall Street Journal (the last-named to the horror of its reporters). And the National Review, in a deliciously servile bit, has called on the White House to revoke press credentials for the Times. To all these folks we extend our heartfelt thanks for blowing the dust off our story and making it seem, alas and alack, fresh. Let’s get back to it.
We concluded last week’s installment with the Federalists, led by Hamilton, Madison, and Adams, about to reap the whirlwind they had created with their Sedition Act of 1798, which had permitted the Administration to mark key opposition editors for prosecution. Among these had been Charles Holt of The Bee, which he had launched in New London, Connecticut, to provide an impartial lens through which the public might view society and politics. His attempts at neutrality, however, were ill-received: Federalist views were greeted with mild interest, but whenever he published an article of Democratic sentiment, New London’s preponderantly Federalist population would voice its displeasure via boycott. Holt was even sentenced under the Sedition Act to three months in prison and a $200 fine for publishing an article that reflected poorly on President Adams. Angered by his treatment and discouraged by his impecunious state, he accepted a proposition from a group of Democrats residing in Hudson, New York, in 1802 to relocate The Bee there, but this time as a plainly partisan paper. With Jefferson in the White House, it was a good time to be an anti-Federalist.
Holt’s transformation was not an isolated phenomenon. The political climate was so superheated that journalistic attempts at objectivity appealed to no one; to attain a readership, a printer had overtly to endorse one party or the other. And while Holt managed to find subscribers for his Hudson Bee, he found also a local rival in Harry Croswell, who would seek to destroy him and the ideology for which he stood. In response to The Bee Croswell, who had entered journalism with The Catskill Packet, created a personal newspaper, The Wasp. This he published in the garret of Hudson’s Balance and Columbian Repository, a Federalist paper in which he was a one-third partner. The Wasp, under Croswell’s pen name of Robert Rusticoat, undertook “To lash the Rascals naked through the world.” It addressed Holt thus:
It is well known that you was bro’t here by virtue of $500 raised for that purpose by the leading Democrats in this city. That the public may know, therefore, with how much purity and independence you will conduct in your editorial labors, would you be kind enough to answer the following questions:
Did the contributors to the $500 purchase you, as they purchase Negroes in Virginia, or hire you as they hire servants in New England?
Are you not a mere automaton in the hands of your masters: pledged to publish whatever slanders or falsehoods they shall dictate? And by your contract with them if you refuse to pollute your sheets have they not a right to ship you back again to your 350 subscribers in New London?
Holt chose not to reply in kind, maintaining his dignity and assuring his continued utility to the Jeffersonians, who dominated Hudson in any event. However, it was the fiery Croswell and not the decorous Holt who would leave an indelible impression upon American journalism. Croswell did not limit his attacks to Holt or his Hudson crowd but went after Jefferson himself. As reported here last week, the President regarded Croswell’s claims as all the more outrageous because they were true. Most outrageous of these was a remark that Croswell actually quoted from James Callender, the disaffected Federalist whom Jefferson had bribed to slander Adams and Washington in the run-up to the election of 1800: “Mr. Jefferson has for years past while his wife was living and does now since she is dead, keep a woolly headed concubine by the name of Sally—that by her he had had several children, and that one by the name of Tom has since his father’s election taken upon himself many airs of importance, and boasted his extraction from a President.”
Jefferson, although he had disapproved of the Sedition Act because it empowered the Federal government to prosecute those who printed or uttered allegedly treasonous statements, nonetheless believed that state governments had the right to try matters of libel, and that they ought to do so on a selected basis: “a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect,” he wrote. Croswell was not the only printer to incense Jefferson. William Coleman, the editor of the New York Evening Post—created after their defeat in 1800 by well-heeled Federalists including Alexander Hamilton—published similar criticisms of the President. Coleman was not prosecuted, however, because Jefferson’s minions were reluctant to square off against the brilliant Hamilton in court. As we shall see, however, their attempt at evading Hamilton by prosecuting Croswell proved ineffectual.
Croswell was brought to trial in Columbia County in July, 1803, before Chief Justice Lewis. The indictment read, in part:
... it is represented that Harry Croswell, late of the city of Hudson, in the county of Columbia aforesaid, printer, being a malicious and seditious man, of a depraved mind and wicked and diabolical disposition, and also deceitfully, wickedly, and maliciously devising, contriving and intending, Thomas Jefferson, Esq., President of the United States of America, to detract from, scandalize, traduce, vilify, and to represent him, the said Thomas Jefferson, as unworthy the confidence, respect, and attachment of the people of the said United States, and to alienate and withdraw from the said Thomas Jefferson, Esq., President as aforesaid, the obedience, fidelity, and allegiance of the citizens of the state of New York, and also of the said United States; and wickedly and seditiously to disturb the peace and tranquility, as well of the people of the state of New York, as of the United States; and also to bring the said Thomas Jefferson, Esq., (as much as in him the said Harry Croswell lay) into great hatred, contempt, and disgrace, not only with the people of the state of New York, and the said people of the United States, but also with the citizens and subjects of other nations....
Peter King’s blast against the Times seems rather mild after that.
Croswell’s lawyer, Elisha Williams, argued convincingly that the veracity of the “slander” was of paramount importance; how, he wondered, could American citizens “pluck down the vicious demagogue and raise and support the virtuous patriot unless their variant conduct could he faithfully represented? And what printer would dare to represent such conduct if the truth of the fact so represented could not shield him from destruction?” Nevertheless, once Judge Lewis, a staunch Jeffersonian, made it clear that neither the truth of the allegations nor the motives of the accused were defenses under New York law, the jury had no choice but to convict Croswell, unless they were to echo the jury nullification that had marked the Zenger trial of 1735.
Croswell was convicted. But the Federalists were not disposed to let a small-town printer take the fall for their crusade. His attorneys requested that his case be heard at the New York Supreme Court. The appeal was granted, and Croswell would be represented gratis by none other than Alexander Hamilton.
In 1804 the State Supreme Court was comprised of four justices: Chief Justice Lewis, who had presided over the previous trial; Brockholst Livingston, another Jeffersonian advocate; Smith Thompson, also an enemy of Federalism; and James Kent, a solitary Federalist. On Croswell’s behalf on February 13 and 14, Hamilton presented rich examples from common law, both English and Roman, which stressed the importance of truth in cases of libel. He argued that freedom of the press consisted in the right to print the truth, if with good motives and for justifiable ends, even if this truth reflected on “the government, magistracy or individuals.”
Hamilton easily persuaded Kent, the loyal Federalist. He even convinced Livingston and Thompson, two men accustomed to opposing Federalist sentiments. Chief Justice Lewis, however, entrenched in Jeffersonian doctrine, remained adamant and even convinced Livingston to switch his vote. Thus the court was split two to two. The prosecution could have moved immediately for a judgment against Croswell but, fearing further dueling with Hamilton, no such motion was made, and the case was dropped. Croswell’s case proved an implicit victory for Hamilton and for the press, as it stimulated the formulation of truth-in-libel bills across several states, thereby securing by the following year what we today consider to be America’s historic freedom of the press.
Unfortunately for Hamilton, his celebration of his legal victory would meet an abrupt end. At a dinner party held in Albany during the trial, he delivered several criticisms of Vice President Aaron Burr, labeling him “a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reigns of government.” When Burr—and many who read newspapers, for the remark was widely reprinted—discovered this insult months later, he challenged Hamilton to a duel. And although Hamilton openly disapproved of dueling, for two years earlier it had been the means of his son’s demise, he agreed to participate, perhaps fearing the injury to his reputation that might follow his declining the challenge. On the morning of July 11, 1804, Burr shot and killed Hamilton, thereby eliminating his personal rival and the primary Federalist intellect.
What of the other players in this high drama? Charles Holt went on to New York City, where in 1810 he commenced a new paper, The Columbian, for which he sought Jefferson’s support in a sycophantic reference to their former alliance on behalf of The Bee. Jefferson replied, “I remember too well the principles and intrepidity of the Bee in the gloomy days of terrorism, to entertain any doubt on the principles of your present paper; but I wish to indulge myself in more favorite reading, in Tacitus & Horace, and the writers of that philosophy which is the old man’s consolation and preparation for what is to come.”
After his trial, Croswell resumed his role with the Balance and Columbian Repository, though The Wasp was no more. After relocating to Albany, he recommenced his frank denunciation of public figures and was promptly tried for libel again, this time successfully, at the behest of Ambrose Spencer, who as New York’s Attorney General had prosecuted him in the great trial of 1804. Embittered, Croswell renounced politics altogether and entered the pulpit. He served temporarily as the rector at Christ Church in Hudson, and then at Trinity Church in New Haven, where he would remain for forty-three years. But Croswell had already left his imprint on American journalism. Editor of a fourth-rate paper in a third-tier city, he had emerged from Jefferson’s assault scarred yet victorious. For the freedom of the press we now consider our natural and inalienable right, we hail Harry Croswell, local and national hero.
Sunday, July 02, 2006
Let Freedom Sting: The Wasp, The Bee, and the Valley
Recently Administration defender William Bennett suggested that prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act, rather than the Pulitzer Prizes they garnered, was a more fitting reward for reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post who had revealed the existence of, respectively, warrantless spying on Americans by the National Security Agency and the CIA’s secret prisons in Eastern Europe. This past Sunday, Peter King (R-NY), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for criminal prosecution of the Times for yet another revelation of classified activity: government surveillance of confidential banking records.
“By disclosing this in time of war, they have compromised America’s anti-terrorist policies,” King fumed on a TV talk show. “Nobody elected the New York Times to do anything. And the New York Times is putting its own arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda before the interests of the American people.”
Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) were concerned, but less inclined to throw reporters and editors in jail. Both, in fact, cited the same Thomas Jefferson quote that is so often dragged out for such occasions: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” For those who know something of the history of the Fourth Estate, this elevation of Jefferson to press defender is particularly droll, as we shall see.
Blaming the press is nothing new. Government officials have always wished newspapers to be pliant servants of transitory majorities and policies, and printers have always understood that speaking truth before power placed them at peril. Freedom of the press in our fair land has not so much evolved as it has lurched forward, only to be yanked back, then inching ahead again. In elementary school we learned of John Peter Zenger, who was headed to the hoosegow for libeling colonial Governor William Cosby until a brave jury acquitted him in 1735. What we did not learn was that this famous acquittal was mere jury nullification, as in the O.J. Simpson trial. The judge advised the jurors that the truth of Zenger’s allegations was not an issue for them to consider at trial, that their sole concern ought to be whether or not the defendant had printed a disparaging comment about a person of high station. The jurors instead disregarded the judge’s instruction and set Zenger free, which was fine for Zenger, but the case formed no precedent in the law. Future journalists brought to trail on charges of libel or even treason could not claim the truth of their allegations as a defense ... until a series of events in the Hudson Valley changed all that.
We start our tale with four printers in New York and their responses to the British capture of the city. James Rivington, who had commenced his New York newspaper in 1773, was clear in his devotion to the crown. The lengthy title of his loyalist paper was Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer, or the Connecticut, New Jersey, Hudson’s River, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser. On November 25, 1775, Sons of Liberty broke up his press and ran off on horseback with the types, which were subsequently melted and cast into bullets. Rivington had to suspend publication, but when the British took over the city in September of the following year he proudly resumed his newspaper as Rivington’s New-York Loyal Gazette. As the tide turned and the patriots neared victory, Rivington changed heart and gave good service as a spy for General Washington. This enabled him to resume business after the British evacuated the city on November 25, 1783, but he never regained the stature he had enjoyed as printer to the crown and he died in poverty.
Another sunshine patriot, in Tom Paine’s immortal phrase, was Hugh Gaine. Unlike Rivington, he had supported the patriots when the British took control of the island and thus felt compelled to flee across the river to Newark with his press and types. But cut off from his New York subscribers and his Philadelphia paper supply, he switched horses and returned to New York under the crown’s patronage, leaving his types in New Jersey, where they were confiscated by the Provisional Government.
Two patriot printers who also fled New York were Samuel Loudon and John Holt, but they headed to Fishkill and Kingston, respectively. Loudon’s New-York Packet began publication in January 1776. Its sentiments were clearly patriotic, so its novice proprietor hightailed it for Fishkill, where he published an emigre Packet on October 1, 1776, making it the first newspaper in Dutchess County. As the provisional state printer, he published military and political documents as well as the first state constitution. But when the capital was located in Kingston in 1777, he found he had a rival for the state’s business. Holt was the superior printer, through long years in the trade, but where Holt seemed to careen from one disaster to another, Loudon was nimble. When he lost the state printing contract, he became a black marketer, speculating in wartime supplies and captured British equipment.
Holt was a Virginian who, after starting the Connecticut Gazette, that colony’s first newspaper, came to New York in 1759. In 1766 he founded his fourth paper, the weekly New-York Journal, or General Advertiser, whose banner was ornamented with the King’s arms. This device he discarded with the issue of June 23, 1774, replacing it with a snake cut into parts, with “Unite or Die” for a motto. Six months later the snake appeared in a new form, joined and coiled, with the tail in its mouth, forming a double ring; within the coil was a pillar standing on the Magna Carta and surmounted by the liberty cap. No printer wore his patriotic passion more openly than Holt, who on July 11, 1776 devoted a whole page to the Declaration of Independence, using a large typeface and embellishing it with a border of printers’ decorations. Holding on as long as he could, he published a last New York issue of his Journal on August 29, 1776, then fled to Kingston with his press.
It took nearly a year for Holt to establish his new print shop. His first issue of the emigre New-York Journal was not issued until July 7, 1777, making it the first newspaper in both Kingston and Ulster County. It carried this editorial message: “After remaining for ten months past, overwhelmed and sunk, in a sea of tyrannic violence and rapine, The New-York Journal, just emerging from the waves, faintly rears its languid head to hail its former friends and supporters-to assure them, that unchanged in its spirit and principles, the utmost exertions of its influence as heretofore, will ever be applied, with a sacred regard to the defense of American rights and freedom, and the advancement of true religion and virtue, and the happiness of mankind.”
When the troops of General John Vaughan burned Kingston on October 16, 1777, Holt removed to Poughkeepsie, under orders of George Clinton. Impoverished and without the rudiments of his trade, Holt was provided with charity and the confiscated type of Hugh Gaine. He published his Journal intermittently there from May 11, 1778 until the peace of 1783, when he returned to New York and resumed publication under the title of the Independent Gazette, or the New-York Journal Revived. Within a year the great patriot succumbed to yellow fever.
In the period after the War of Independence, many newspapers started. As of 1798, barely 10 percent were Federalist, by which was meant support for a strong Federal government, fear of the bloody excesses of the French Revolution, and fond regard for Mother England in matters of law and political conduct. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay were the leading advocates of this party. Anti-Federalists—whose party name confusingly evolved from Democratic-Republican to Republican to Democratic—distrusted centralized government and believed that power should be distributed primarily among the states. Led by Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, this group embraced the French experiment in making all things new, including the code of law.
As feelings on both sides intensified, newspapers became ever more vitriolic in their attacks—even upon such revered figures as Washington and Adams. The Alien Act of 1798, passed by a Federalist Congress with Washington’s public approval, gave President Adams the power to deport any foreigners (i.e., Frenchmen) he deemed dangerous. The Sedition Act, passed in that same session of Congress, empowered the Federal Judiciary to punish anyone convicted of uttering, writing, or printing any “false, scandalous and malicious” statement “against the Government of the United States; or either House of the Congress of the United States, with intent to defame ... or to bring them ... into contempt or disrepute.”
In its brief three-year life, the Sedition Act nearly eliminated the opposition press. The 1800 election turned, in large part, on these two laws. Jefferson reviled them. Adams supported them. Jefferson won and, even with the Sedition Act expired, still had ways of dealing with a dissenting press. The Federalists had been spreading stories about him that were all the more uncomfortable for being true: (1) that he had fathered children with a slave concubine; (2) that he had attempted to seduce the wife of a close friend, John Walker; and (3) that during the Presidential campaign he had paid $100 to James Callender to write the vitriolic pamphlet “The Prospect Before Us,” which attacked not only Adams but also Washington (“twice a traitor”).
The new President Jefferson wrote Thomas McKean, the governor of Pennsylvania, that the “press ought to be restored to its credibility if possible.... I have therefore long thought that a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect.... Not a general prosecution, for that would look like persecution: but a selected one.” In Hudson, New York, the selected victim was Harry Croswell, an obscure twenty-four-year-old printer whose garret-published quarter-sheet The Wasp stung not only that city’s Republican paper, The Bee, and its editor Charles Holt (no relation to John), but the President himself.
The trials that followed, which we will detail in our next installment, established the libel law without which freedom of the press would be timorous indeed, exposed the clay feet of President Thomas Jefferson, and brought Alexander Hamilton from a final triumph to his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
Inventing Edmonia Lewis, Part II
Last week’s column concluded with African American and Native American sculptor Edmonia Lewis, after an appalling brush with racism in Ohio and a skyrocket success in Boston, sailing for Europe in the autumn of 1865. Following a brief stay in Florence, where famous sculptors Thomas Ball and Hiram Powers furnished her with tools of the trade, she joined a vibrant expatriate community of American artists, especially independent women, living in Rome. Commencing a decade of growing skill, flurried productivity, and worldwide acclaim, Lewis came into her own as an artist and her studio in Rome became a guidebook destination for American and European travelers. “Prejudice against my color and race are not known in Rome,” she said. “I never hear of them there. I am invited everywhere, and am treated just as nicely as if the bluest of blue blood flowed through my veins.”
Although given a stone-cold shoulder in the Eternal City by William Wetmore Story, regarded at that time as the greatest American sculptor, Lewis was welcomed warmly by fellow woman artists Harriet Hosmer, Margaret Foley, Emma Stebbins, and Anne Whitney, as well as actress Charlotte Cushman. Story termed them “a set whom I do not like” and Henry James, his biographer, delivered a memorable putdown, calling them “that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’ who at one time settled upon the seven hills [of Rome] in a white, marmorean flock.” James further zinged Lewis: “One of the sisterhood was a negress, whose colour, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material, was the pleading agent of her fame....”
Lewis returned home frequently, going as far as San Francisco to exhibit and sell her sculptures. On her first return home, in 1867, she brought along a plaster of “New England’s poet,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had sat for his likeness at her studio in Rome. The Christian Register noted, “It has been proposed by some of Longfellow’s friends to have it put in marble, for Harvard. It would be a beautiful thought that the author of ‘Hiawatha’ [a Chippewa, as was Lewis’s mother] should be embalmed in stone by a descendant from Minnehaha.” Indeed, this marble is now at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, though an exquisite Longfellow of her s has recently turned up in Liverpool.
Another notable work of 1867 was The Freedwoman, also known as Forever Free. Said to have been inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation, its exhibit at Boston’s Tremont Temple prompted The Register to a rapture of high sentiment and low rhetoric: “The noble figure of the man, his very muscles seeming to swell with gratitude; the expression of the right now to protect, with which he throws his arm around his kneeling wife; the ‘Praise de Lord’ hovering on their lips; the broken chain, — all so instinct with life, telling in the very poetry of stone the story of the last ten years.”
Lewis further referenced her dual heritage in such sculptures as The Old Arrow-Maker and his Daughter, with its direct homage to Longfellow’s Hiawatha (the composition depicts Minnehaha “plaiting mats of flags and rushes” and her father “making arrowheads of jasper”); Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, cast out into the wilderness; and busts of abolitionist heroes Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, William H. Carney, also a hero of the 54th and the first black Congressional Medal of Honor winner, and Charles Sumner, whose bust was exhibited at Atlanta’s Cotton States Exposition of 1895, probably her last formal showing in this country. Lewis’s crowning achievement also honored her race: Cleopatra, exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.
William Wetmore Story’s most celebrated sculpture had also been a Cleopatra, described in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Marble Faun (first published in Great Britain in 1859 as Transformation):
Difficulties that might well have seemed insurmountable had been courageously encountered and made flexible to purposes of grace and dignity; so that Cleopatra sat attired in a garb proper to her historic and queenly state, as a daughter of the Ptolemies, and yet such as the beautiful woman would have put on as best adapted to heighten the magnificence of her charms, and kindle a tropic fire in the cold eyes of Octavius. A marvellous repose — that rare merit in statuary, except it be the lumpish repose native to the block of stone — was diffused throughout the figure. The spectator felt that Cleopatra had sunk down out of the fever and turmoil of her life, and for one instant — as it were, between two pulse throbs — had relinquished all activity, and was resting throughout every vein and muscle. It was the repose of despair, indeed; for Octavius had seen her, and remained insensible to her enchantments. But still there was a great smoldering furnace deep down in the woman’s heart. The repose, no doubt, was as complete as if she were never to stir hand or foot again; and yet, such was the creature’s latent energy and fierceness, she might spring upon you like a tigress, and stop the very breath that you were now drawing midway in your throat.
Lewis’s sculpture, on the other hand, “was not a beautiful work,’” wrote artist William J. Clark, Jr., two years after seeing it at the Centennial Exhibition, “but it was a very original and very striking one.... The effects of death are represented with such skill as to be absolutely repellant — and it is a question whether a statue of the ghastly characteristics of this one does not overstep the bounds of legitimate art.” Where other sculptors had depicted Cleopatra in life or, asp in hand, contemplating her end, Lewis showed her post mortem, her head thrown back. The dramatic gesture signaled a break with sculpting conventions in the same way that Jacques Louis David’s Death of Marat had marked a new direction for historical painting.
Cleopatra and its sculptor would move on to Chicago in 1878. When the exhibit there closed, Lewis returned home without her two-ton masterpiece, unable to sell it or pay for its transport. It went into storage and was not seen publicly again until 1892, when it graced a saloon on Chicago’s Clark Street. Next it was acquired by gambler and racing aficionado “Blind John” Condon, who placed it atop the remains of his favorite pony, named Cleopatra, within view of the grandstand of his Harlem Race Track in Forest Park.
And that Chicago suburb is where the statue remained, even after the race track became a golf course, and then a torpedo manufactory. When a U.S. Postal Service facility overtook the site in the 1970s, Lewis’s Cleopatra went to a storage yard in Cicero. There a fire inspector recognized a diamond in the rough and contacted the head of the Forest Park Historical Society, in the person of Frank J. Orland, a dentist who decided to pretty Cleo up with some paint and some “restoration” by a monument carver from a nearby cemetery.
Enter Marilyn Richardson, at that time a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and reigning expert on Edmonia Lewis. She convinced Orland, though not easily, that the sculpture’s optimal display might be at some location other than the shopping mall adjoining the bulk mail center in Forest Park. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art took over and in 1996 restored Cleopatra to public view in an irretrievably damaged but thoughtfully restored form in “Lost and Found: Edmonia Lewis’s Cleopatra.”
Oddly, the outsized success of Lewis’s Cleopatra at Philadelphia in 1876 not only marked the apex of her achievement, it also signaled the onset of her decline (just as for Augusta Savage a monumental sculpture for the New York World’s Fair of 1939 had marked the beginning of the end). For the rest of her life she would scramble to make ends meet, making inspid terracotta putti and busts of long-ago celebrities.
The last American traces I have found of her, in my necessarily limited research, are in Indianapolis in 1878-79 and in New York in October 1879, where she was exhibiting her Veiled Bride of Spring, a sculpture that may not survive. From abroad, we find mention of her in a census report of 1901 that locates her in London — St. Giles in the Field and St. George Bloomsbury, to be precise — with her age given as 59 (birth year of 1842), her profession as “artist and modeller,” and her race as Indian. Marilyn Richardson reported that Lewis signed a guest book in Rome in 1909.
Where and when Mary Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis died remains unknown, but in the week between publication of the first and second parts of this story, a fevered back-down-the-rabbit-hole search may have revealed her disputed birthdate.
Last week I wrote, “Like others, I failed in my attempts to find her or her family in 1850 census data in Rensselaer County or anywhere else, as Mary or Edmonia or Wildfire.” Now, spurred by a tip from Richardson, with whom I had begun to correspond in recent days, I can state with confidence that Edmonia’s brother who placed her at Oberlin in 1859 was named Samuel; that he had also placed her, previously and unsuccessfully, in the preparatory program at the experimental New York Central College in McGrawville, New York; and that he had made his California “gold-rush fortune” as a barber rather than as a prospector.
I was able to locate this Samuel Lewis in the 1860 census record for California, a mulatto barber born in New Jersey ca. 1830, and then again in Bozeman, Montana in 1870 and 1880. In 1883 he is identified in the Helena Independent as Edmonia’s brother. I was also able to backtrack to 1850 and find him in the first ward of Syracuse, New York, as part of a basketmaking family that was well situated to sell “bead baskets and pin-cushions [to the tourists at] Niagara Falls and Watkins-Glen,” as Edmonia had reported her family’s activity in 1878. Living with Samuel Lewis in 1850 were his widowed father Charles and several children also born in New Jersey, including a girl named Mary, age 17.
This is not the end of the trail. The search for Edmonia Lewis, who covered her own tracks so well, has simply opened onto another direction. The game is afoot.
Friday, April 14, 2006
Inventing Edmonia Lewis
Last week in this space we touched upon the dispiriting story of African American sculptor Augusta Savage, whose biography was shrouded in myth, whose renown exceeded her abilities, and whose career had been shaped at the outset, for better and worse, by racial discrimination. Born in Florida, her link to the Hudson River Valley began with her move to New York City in 1920 and to Saugerties in 1945.
This week we move on to an earlier and greater African American woman sculptor, Edmonia Lewis. By her own varying accounts, Lewis was born as “Wildfire” on July 4 or 14, in 1845, 1843, or 1842, in Greenbush, New York (just outside Cobleskill) to an African American father and a Native American mother. She was orphaned at age three or age nine and, as Mary Edmonia Lewis, enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1859 thanks to a gold-rush fortune mysteriously earned by a mysterious brother. It was at Oberlin, an underground-railroad destination and a beacon of racial tolerance, that she felt the sting of racism in a singularly brutal way that shaped her, her career, and, it may be argued, the future of African American art.
When Lewis died in obscurity in Italy — where she had lived for the better part of half a century — sometime after 1910 (we don’t know when, exactly) her fame had long since flown and there was no one at hand to mourn her. “Mannish,” she had lived alone in her last years. In the past decade, however, her sculptures have emerged from museum basements, been cataloged and exhibited, and some that had been in private hands have recently sold for significant sums at auction. Her reputation as an artist stands higher today than at any time since 1876, when her massive Cleopatra was the sensation of the Centennial Exhibition. You’ll have to wait till next week for the details of Cleopatra’s passage from high-class exhibits in Philadelphia and Chicago to a saloon display to a graveyard marker for a racehorse to a golf course ornament to a salvage yard derelict and, in 1996, to an exhibit at the Smithsonian.
But let’s not race ahead of ourselves in telling the story of Edmonia Lewis, whose first act as an artist appears to have been her own invention. Like others, I failed in my attempts to find her or her family in 1850 census data in Rensselaer County or anywhere else, as Mary or Edmonia or Wildfire. Every later clue led back to an account by Edmonia herself. Below, as reported in The Liberator of February 19, 1864, is an illuminating account of a first meeting between Edmonia and the abolitionist author Lydia Maria Child, at an Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Boston. Child wrote:
“I told her I judged by her complexion that there might be some of what is called white blood in her veins. She replied; ‘No, I have not a single drop of what is called white blood in my veins. My father was a full-blooded Negro and my mother was a full-blooded Chippewa.’ ‘But it is a long way from the Chippewa to sculpture,’ said I. ‘How came you to get upon that road?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘My mother was always inventing new patterns for moccasons [sic], and other embroidery; and perhaps the same thing is coming out in me in a more civilized form.’ ‘And have you lived with the Chippewas?’ ‘Yes. When my mother was dying she wanted me to promise that I would live three years with her people, and I did.’ ‘And what did you do while you were there?’ ‘I did as my mother’s people did. I made baskets and embroidered moccasons, and I went into the cities, with my mother’s people to sell them.’ [In an 1878 interview she said of this period in her life, “I sold moccasins and bead baskets and pin-cushions at Niagara Falls and Watkins-Glen...”] ‘And did you like that kind of life?” ‘Oh, yes; I like it a great deal better than your civilized life. There is nothing so beautiful as the tree forest. To catch a fish when you are hungry, cut the boughs of a tree, make a fire to roast it, and eat it in the open air, is the greatest of all luxuries. I would not stay a week pent up in cities, if it were not for my passion for Art.’”
Tripe of this sort was not debuted in Madonna’s prattle about the Kaballah after all. Lewis was no one’s dummy. Child was using her as Exhibit A for the cause, and so were others in William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist set. But she was using them too. By the end of 1864 she had exhibited at the Colored Soldiers’ Fair in Boston a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the young white Boston Brahmin who died leading the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. Anna Quincy Waterston not only commissioned Lewis to create a sculpture of herself, she published a poem titled “Edmonia Lewis” in The Liberator of December 16, 1864, in which she wrote, “‘Tis fitting that a daughter of the race/ Whose chains are breaking should receive a gift/ So rare as genius....”
Only a year earlier she had been indigent, sitting on the steps of City Hall, according to the Christian Register, “to eat the dry crackers with which alone her empty purse allowed her to satisfy her hunger; but as she sat and thought of her dead brother, of her homeless state, something caught her eye, the hunger of the stomach ceased, but the hunger of the soul began. That quiet statue of the good old [Benjamin] Franklin had touched the electric spark.... For weeks she haunted that spot and the State House, where she could see Washington and Webster. She asked questions, and found that such things were first made in clay. She got a lump of hard mud, shaped her some sticks, and, her heart divided between art and the terrible struggle for freedom, which had just received the seal of Col. Shaw’s blood, she wrought out, from photographs and her own ideal, an admirable bust of him. This made the name of Edmonia Lewis known in Boston. The unknown waif on the steps of City Hall had, in a few short months, become an object of interest to a large circle of those most anxious about the great problem of the development of the colored race in their new position....”
Press agentry of this high hokum could scarcely be improved upon. But how had she come to have crackers and clay as her only companions? For this we go back to Oberlin, where as Mary E. Lewis she had completed two uneventful years when, in the recess between semesters of the 1861-62 academic year, all hell broke loose.
On January 27, 1862, two of Edmonia’s twelve white roommates at Reverend John Keep’s home set off on a sleigh ride with two gentleman friends, Oberlin students E.R. Pelton and Prentice Loomis. The young women, Maria Miles of Vermilion and Christina Ennes of Birmingham, had been teasing Edmonia earlier. Just before they set out, according to Oberlin professor Geoffrey Blodgett, Edmonia “invited her two friends to her room and offered them a drink of hot spiced wine she had prepared to fortify them against the cold.... Later medical testimony plainly indicated that one item in the mix was cantharides, the aphrodisiac popularly known as Spanish Fly.... A powder made from dried beetles native to Southern Europe, the drug was an effective irritant, whatever its power to promote sexual ambition. Applied externally, it reddened and blistered the skin; taken internally, it could prove highly toxic. Serious sickness, including inflammation of the kidneys, as well as stimulation of the genital organs could result from its use.”
In the course of their sleigh ride the girls became violently ill and their beaux sought medical attention. Examination and questioning prompted the doctors to declare the case one of poisoning, with a clear culprit, but the justice system of little, sleepy Oberlin was ill equipped to act. After a week without an arrest, locals took matters into their own hands: One evening Edmonia was seized, Blodgett wrote, “dragged to a nearby empty field, and brutally thrashed. It was hours before a search party, hunting the fields with lanterns in the night, found her lying in the cold, her clothing torn and her body badly beaten.”
Once Lewis had healed from her injuries, the case went before an inquest to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to go to trial. John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin graduate and the only practicing black attorney in Ohio in 1862, represented Lewis. Pointing out that the contents of the women’s stomachs had not been retained for analysis, he moved that the case be dismissed. The two judges agreed, and Lewis was freed.
Lewis is said not to have returned to Oberlin for the remainder of the 1862 academic year, but records indicate that she re-enrolled for the fall of 1863 but was not permitted to graduate. Although her studies had not concentrated especially in art, she found her way to Boston where the abolitionist Garrison introduced her to sculptor Edward Brackett, who became her first mentor. Following her whirlwind success in Boston in 1864, she taught briefly in post-Civil War Richmond, Virginia. By year end in 1865, with proceeds from plaster casts of the bust of Colonel Shaw, she was welcomed warmly into an American expatriate art colony in Rome.
Still, back in Ohio, not far from Oberlin College, the Lorain County News noted on April 4, 1866: “The papers are noting the advent in Rome of a young colored artist and sculptor—Miss Edmonia Lewis—who is creating something of a sensation in the Eternal City. Report hath it that she is none other than a Miss Mary E. Lewis, who had her brief notoriety here—and for other than artistical efforts—a few years since. If Mary E. is none other than Edmonia, she is indeed enjoying a checkered career.”
Next week we’ll look at that checkered career, across forty years, two continents, and a subsequent sea change of critical opinion.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Thursday, April 06, 2006
The Legendary Augusta Savage
Two summers back, this newspaper’s pages were riddled with vituperative letters concerning a road sign that had been erected four years earlier to honor a Harlem Renaissance sculptor who had resided obscurely in Saugerties from 1945 to 1962. State Comptroller H. Clark McCall had come to town on April 5, 2000, to dedicate Augusta Savage Road, a replacement for Niger Road, from whose name one “g” had been removed half a century earlier in a half-baked civic gesture.
“To heal old wounds is to rid ourselves of a symbol that harkens back to those racist days,” McCall said. “She was a fierce opponent of racism. Her life is an inspiration to us all ... [and] by replacing this hateful name, we send a hopeful signal to the children passing this way.” That few children would pass this dead-end road by the Winston Farm, one on which Savage, by the way, had never lived, troubled some. That Saugerties had not thought to honor her previously, and was now using her to whitewash a bothersome bit of its history, disturbed others.
Lost in the debate were Augusta Savage and her sculpture, but perhaps that should not have been surprising. By coming to Saugerties she had sought to disappear from the art scene she had helped to construct, and she may even have had a hand in the destruction of most of her documented work. Turning away from a career in ruin and a biography encased in myth, in her last years she managed to reconnect with her real past.
Born Augusta Christine Fells in Green Cove Springs, Florida, on February 29, 1892, she was the seventh of fourteen children of Cornelia and Edward Fells, both of whom had been born into slavery some thirty years earlier. Her mother was a washerwoman and her father was a housepainter and fundamentalist preacher who frowned upon graven images. “My father licked me four or five times a week,” Savage once recalled, “and almost whipped all the art out of me.”
In 1908 Gussie, as she was known then, gave birth to a daughter, Irene. She is said to have married a man named John T. Moore the year before, who is said to have died sometime before her marriage to James Savage in or around 1915, when the Fell family relocated to West Palm Beach. In the 1920 census Augusta resides at 916 Banyan Street and works as a laundress for a private family; James works as a chauffeur; and 12-year-old Irene Moore lives with them. Two houses down the street, at Number 912, live Augusta’s mother and five siblings.
One of the many fanciful stories attaching to Augusta Savage’s development as a sculptor has her ceasing to craft figurines from the time she left Green Cove Springs around 1915 because of the unavailability of clay in her new county. Yet in 1919 a local potter (!) is said to have given her 25 pounds of clay from which she created clay ducks and chickens that won a prize in the West Palm Beach County Fair. With a letter of recommendation from the fair superintendent to New York sculptor Solon Borglum (brother of Gutzon of Mt. Rushmore fame), in late 1920 or early 1921 she left her husband, deposited her daughter with her mother and, with $4.60 in her purse, headed to New York City.
Admitted to tuition-free Cooper Union at Borglum’s behest, Savage cleaned houses and took in laundry to support herself. All the same, she was nearly compelled to drop out of the program in 1923, until admirers arranged commissions for her to create busts of W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. Being in the presence of these charismatic champions of the race influenced her philosophy profoundly.
The event that had the greatest impact on Augusta Savage’s art also took place in that year. Receiving a scholarship to attend a summer art school in France, she successfully raised funds for the passage. However, as the New York Times reported on April 24, “Augusta Savage, a negress 23 years old, of 228 West 138th Street, who is studying sculpture at Cooper Institute, has been refused permission to attend the Fontainbleau School of Fine Arts in France by a committee of American painters, sculptors and architects.... Ernest Peiexotto, who had charge of the girl’s application as a member of the committee, admitted that refusal was based on the ground that she is a negress and that a number of Southern girls intended sailing on the same ship she had chosen, to begin art studies at the same academy.”
This blatant discrimination raised a furor that went all the way to President Harding. Although her rejection stood, Savage, 31 years old rather than the 23 to which she admitted, had won sympathy as struggling artist and even a measure of fame as a black nationalist. She married Robert T. Lincoln Poston, a newspaper editor and journalist who contributed to Negro World, the newspaper of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. He perished at sea in 1924 while returning from a UNIA mission to Liberia.
Continuing to struggle financially, with only occasional commissions, Savage hung on long enough to make her mark with a small jaunty statue of her nephew, Ellis Ford, which she called “Gamin.” This won her an $1800 fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund that enabled her, in 1929-32, to study in France and travel in Germany and Belgium.
Returning to New York, she established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts at 163 West 143rd Street. Some of the brightest aspiring young artists, such as Ernest Crichlow, Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence, Morgan and Marvin Jones, William Artis, and Norman Lewis, came under her tutelage or at least shelter. And in 1934 she became the first of her race to gain admittance into the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Her influence as a cultural icon was increasing in both black and white circles, but her relevance as an African American artist was already past its peak, if indeed it ever had one.
Augusta Savage had struggled to gain the respect of an art community dominated by white males, and despite her gift for black physiognomy, her sculptural precepts were Eurocentric. Her students, on the other hand, were largely in tune with the proposal by Howard University’s Alain Locke that African Americans should pay attention to the use by several European modernists — notably Picasso and Matisse — of African figural conventions in the development of 20th-century art forms.
What at the time appeared to be the crowning achievement of her life as an artist commenced in 1937, when she was appointed the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center and was commissioned by the New York World’s Fair of 1939 to create a sculpture symbolizing the musical contributions of African Americans. Inspired by the lyrics of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” she took a leave of absence from her newly won job and spent nearly two years on a 16-foot-tall plaster harp, lacquered to resemble black basalt, that was exhibited in the court of the Contemporary Arts Building. The kitschy sculpture amasses twelve black singers in graduated heights with crania in a disquieting diminuendo. The sounding board was formed by the hand and arm of God, and a kneeling man holding sheet music represented the foot pedal. Fairgoers bought pot-metal reproductions of the statue, cast from the original maquette, prized by collectors today.
In the spring of 1939 her career seemed at its zenith. She was given a one-woman show for 15 of her sculptures at the Argent Galleries in New York. But then doors began to close all around her. Upon returning to the Harlem Community Art Center, Savage learned that her “temporary” replacement, Gwendolyn Bennett, was not disposed to relinquish her post. Striking out on her own, she opened an entrepreneurial venture, the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art in Harlem. It closed weeks later for lack of funding. No funds were available to cast “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” nor were there any facilities to store it. After the fair closed it was demolished. In 1940 or ’41 many of the plaster works that had been displayed at the Argent Galleries were shipped to a Midwestern art show, and have not been seen since; Savage may, it is speculated, have destroyed them upon their return.
In 1941, in a turn previously unreported, she divorced James Savage, a technicality she had neglected to pursue before marrying her “third” husband, Robert T.L. Poston. By 1945 it was clear that the 53-year-old sculptor was a legend without a lifeline. She removed to a former chicken shack in West Saugerties, on Old Route 32, and resolved that all of her friends would now become strangers. Savage is said to have turned to writing, though none of her work was published, and occasionally took on young students for art instruction. She ceased to sculpt in a serious way.
But then a former stranger, her daughter, now Mrs. Irene Allen, returned into her life, befriending and financially supporting her until her death from cancer on March 26, 1962 at Abraham Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx.
What is Augusta Savage’s legacy? That she was strong for her race. That she was a champion of and inspiration to a generation of artists who have not forgotten their debt. And that she was born too soon, or possibly too late, to write her name with fire in the sky: she is a major figure but a minor talent. Next week we will examine an earlier and greater black female sculptor, Edmonia Lewis, with whom Augusta Savage is spiritually linked.