research, This Day in History, Writing

Ellis Island closes its doors, November 12, 1954

Arrival at Ellis Island, courtesy of Scholastic.com
On this day in 1954, Ellis Island closed its doors, although it had not been the federal immigration center for 30 years.  From 1892 to 1924, immigrants to the United States through New York harbour had filed through its corridors, been checked for infectious diseases and mental problems; and then, if lucky, were released into the streets of New York.
When I thought of Ellis Island in the past, I always assumed that several of the Mitchells, Russells, Kanes, and other members of my father’s family came through this facility.  When I read that the facility was only open from 1892-1924, I realized that only one of my relatives would have come through its doors. Reading through This Day in History, I realized how little I knew about this icon of immigrant life. I was further surprised that Ellis Island only processed the third-class passengers; first- and second-class passengers disembarked at piers in New York or New Jersey to go through customs after a brief on-board inspection. Those at Ellis Island really were “the huddled masses.”
The Grand Hall, courtesy of Scholastic.com
I have not visited the Ellis Island museum, although I suspect walking through it would give rise to hundreds of stories. I cannot imagine waiting in the grand hall for hours, much less the days or weeks it would take before a family member was released from quarantine.  These photographs are taken from the tour on Scholastic’s teachers site; although the text is for 4th- or 5th- graders, and rightly so, the pictures are powerful in themselves.
It is very strange to think that only my paternal grandmother went through Ellis Island; to be honest, I am not even sure of that, although it seems likely.  The early life of my grandmother is largely unknown, which seems odd in modern times. Last week, the social worker who is helping my parents with assisted living asked my three siblings and myself for the history of my grandparents.  I was appalled at how little we knew about my paternal grandmother. The historical record is all too brief, and honestly, seems to have a bit of the Irish blarney attached to it.

One day in the 1890’s, a ship docked at Ellis Island from Cobh, Ireland. As the families filed out, there was a little girl who seemed to be alone.  She was about 3 or 4 years old, and had no family with her.  She only knew her first name, but left Ellis Island with a brand-new, patently made-up last name, O’Smith (oh, that’s very Irish).  The story goes that she had a piece of paper with the name and New York address of a first cousin pinned to her dress, and that he raised her as his own.

I have several problems with this story. First, how does a 3-year-old get on a ship in Cobh?  If her parent or parents died on board, wouldn’t the ship’s captain or purser know about it?  Would the officials on Ellis Island really just send a little girl off to the address given on a paper pinned to her dress?  And if this address is that of a first cousin, why didn’t he give her either his own name or restore her original one?

According to what we know, she did grow up in New York with her first cousin’s daughters, and she kept the made-up name of O’Smith until she married my grandfather. No one knows how old she was when she died in 1947, having taken to her bed several years before when she gave birth to a Downs syndrome child. It was whispered that the root cause was alcoholism, but no one knows much of anything about her life.  How can someone living less than 100 years ago, who married and had six children, be such a mystery?

Her story draws the writer in me; I want to know what she felt, dreamt, loved, lived.  I have always been fascinated with history, of a place, of a family, of a person.  My grandmother’s story would have to be fiction, but it is a story I am itching to write.

Do any of you have mysteries in, or mysterious members of, your family? What are your stories?

literary post of the week, medieval, research

Christine de Pizan’s Letter of Othéa

As most of you probably know, I have a background in medieval studies, and more particularly, Western European medieval literature. This past week, I found myself wondering why so much medieval literature is unknown, or worse, denigrated. I wrote a post a few weeks ago on Christine de Pizan (1364-ca. 1431), who was a prolific writer of social criticism, political treatises, didactic works, histories, and .biographies. Perhaps due to the diversity and volume of her work, she has been described as a scribbler with nothing better to do, in Gustave Lanson’s view, than to portray her “universal mediocrity,” (Lanson, Histoire de la littérature française, 1896, p. 163; my translation). I am finishing a dissertation on one of Christine de Pizan’s works, which was described by Rose Rigaud as an “allegorical poem of the worst fifteenth century, in which the author makes herself known through her most unbearable defects” (Rigaud, Les idées féministes de Christine de Pisan, p. 21; my translation).

This particular work is The Letter of Othéa, Goddess of Prudence, to Hector of Troy at the Age of Fifteen Years. Never let it be said that Christine didn’t make sure her audience knew what her books were about. The Othéa, as I will call it henceforth, is a collection of 100 stories drawn from Greek or Roman mythology, mostly from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Each story begins with four lines of verse summarizing the classical story. Next is the gloss, which gives the lesson to be drawn from the story for the good knight. The gloss ends with a quotation from a Greek philosopher. Finally, Christine delineates the allegory, which teaches the good soul the lesson from the story, ending with a quotation from the church fathers and another from Scripture.

The Othéa was Christine’s most popular work, surviving in more than forty manuscripts from the fifteenth century. Philippe Pigouchet first printed the Othéa around 1499, under the title Les Cent Histoires de Troye. It was reprinted three times in the next thirty-five years. The Othéa also fascinated audiences in England, where it was translated three times within one hundred years: first in 1440; again in the late fifteenth century; and last, in the 1530’s. After a while, medieval texts dropped from favor, and Christine’s work disappeared for several centuries. When it was discovered again, critics were not kind, as shown above.

Why the vehement dislike of this work and others like it? They do not appeal to our tastes. The critics who acknowledge Othéa‘s popularity often admit the unattractiveness of the work to our eyes. One problem with the Othéa is its blatant didacticism. Twenty-first century readers willingly read openly didactic works; witness the interest in self-improvement texts. However, fiction and non-fiction are kept pristinely separate in bookstores and on bestseller lists. While imaginative works often have a strong didactic element, the reader is left to cull that lesson for himself. In the self-help books, case studies of real people are acceptable; parables about fictional people are often seen as juvenile or demeaning. Twenty-first century plays seldom have a human Epilogue to give us the moral at the end, as did those of Shakespeare’s time. The Othéa, with its allegorical meanings, is seen not as a literary work, but a quaint reference work for classical mythology and the Christian interpretations attached to these myths in the Middle Ages. The popular distaste for allegory and didacticism combine to make the Othéa unknown to the twenty-first century general reading public.

Finally, the Othéa suffers from the longstanding critical stance that originality is good, and derivation is bad. At base is an eighteenth-century concept of originality, one that would be completely foreign to Christine de Pizan. The Oxford English Dictionary enumerates many denotations of the word “original.” The one perhaps closest to the common use today is: “Having the quality of that which proceeds from oneself, or from the direct exercise of one’s own faculties, without imitation of or dependence on others; such as has not been done or produced before; novel or fresh in character or style.” The earliest use in this sense given by the OED is from 1756-82 in Warton’s Essays on Pope. Ironically, the quotation from Warton is: “Dante wrote his sublime and original poem, which is a kind of satirical Epic.” It would be interesting to know whether Dante thought he was doing something “without imitation of or dependence on others” in writing the Commedia. Contemporaneous use of the word “original” is shown by Chaucer’s use of the term exclusively in the sense of “origin” or “author.” While Christine may well have felt that she was indeed “exercising her own faculties,” it is unlikely she would see the merit in departing from common expectations of character or style. In contrast, medieval authors saw their way of narrating as a major part of their contribution to the text. Christine also saw the choice and organization of her texts as part of her contribution. She had many choices to make as she began to write the Othéa: which stories from Greek and Roman mythology to include; which quotations from the Greek philosophers, the Vulgate, and her other sources would best fit her theme in each story. In her arrangement of the stories, Christine counted on the generic expectations of her audience to identify her work; through the glosses, the expectations common with other manuals of instruction; and through the allegories, with those of other moral treatises.

So, my question: Have I convinced myself that these didactic works aren’t all bad, just to justify the years I have spent on medieval studies? No, don’t answer that one!

How do you react to a mixture of moralizing or teaching in a story? Does it only fit in children’s literature, to your mind? What do you see as the originality in a story, even one that is “retold’?

 

literary post of the week, medieval, research, Writing

Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan (1364-ca. 1431) was a peripheral member of the French king Charles VI’s court who wrote prolifically, producing 39 works from 1390 to 1431. Not confining herself to the traditionally feminine topics of health remedies, midwifery, and home management, Christine wrote about whatever piqued her wide-ranging interests:  the art of warfare, the evils of civil war, and a biography of Charles V, commissioned by his brother, Jean, Duke of Burgundy. Several of her works found favor with many of the royal house and were dedicated to Louis d’Orleans, Philippe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy and Isabeau de Baviere, among others. Nobles and merchants alike read Christine’s works avidly until the early seventeenth century.

After a period of obscurity, which lasted until the mid-eighteenth century, scholars rediscovered Christine for her part in the “Querelle de la rose,” a debate in which she criticized Jean de Meun’s continuation of Le Roman de la Rose for the character Genius’ use of “coillions,” a vulgarism for male genitalia as well as de Meun’s graphic depiction of the hero’s sexual attainment and impregnation of the heroine in the closing lines of the Roman. Jean de Montreuil, with Gontier and Pierre Col, prominent French scholars and defenders of Jean de Meun, harshly criticized Christine for her effrontery in maligning the masterpiece. Joined by Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, Christine renewed the debate in another series of letters, to which the defenders responded. They attacked Christine saying that she could not possibly understand the depth of the work with her small female mind, that she should remain quiet, and leave interpreting literature to the men.

Who was this woman who dared to argue with some of most influential intellectuals of her time? Christine was born in Venice to Tomasso de Pizzano, a graduate of the university in Bologna. Charles V of France hired Tomasso as his astrologer; in 1369, Tomasso brought his wife and young daughter, Christine to Paris. Although Tomasso taught Christine much about science, philosophy, and Latin, which is more than most women of her time learned, she laments that she did not learn more from her father, such as Greek, and that custom decreed that she learn more about spinning than about science (L’avision 161-162;  Cité II:36:4; Mutacion 1:413-419).

In 1379, at age fifteen, Christine married Estienne du Castel, a court secretary. Their marriage seems to have been unusual, not only because they had a real affection for one another, but because Christine shared Estienne’s work, also working as a copyist at the court. However, Christine’s happy married life was short-lived. Her father died about 1387, shifting the support of her mother and two younger brothers to Christine. In the fall of 1390, Estienne died of a fever while traveling with the court. At age twenty-five, Christine became the sole support for her three young children, as well as her mother; some accounts include a niece as well. Both Tomasso’s and Estienne’s legacies were in dispute; Christine spent fourteen years fighting in the law courts over their debts and past wages. During this period, Christine began to study, while writing love poems and confessional poetry, for which she received patronage from various members of the royal family.  After several years of study, Christine began to write her longer prose works of social criticism, political treatises, didactic works, and histories.

Drawing on her background as a copyist, Christine started a publishing house or copyist shop, employing several copyists and illuminators. Two of her illuminators became known by the titles of her works they embellished: one is the Othéa Master; the other is the Cité des dames Master (Meiss 9, 12)  As Christine weathered the lawsuits and became more proficient at running her shop, she came to feel that in some ways she was becoming a man. She describes this transformation in Mutacion de Fortune in an autobiographical digression. Lines 1332-1397. Proud of her Italian heritage, Christine often describes herself as “une Italienne,” footnote?  She maintained her fluency and interest in Italian language and literature, and was instrumental in bringing knowledge of Dante’s works to France[1].


[1] “Di santo sdegno similmente accendevasi quella valentissima donna a cui appartiene il vanto d’aver rivelato Dante alla Francia, Christine de Pisan.”Farinelli, Arturo. Dante e la Francia: dall’età media al secolo di Voltaire.” Genève : Slatkine, 1971, reimpression de l’edition de Milan, 1908., v. 1, pp.150-151.

book of days, book review, literary post of the week, research, Writing

Gone with the WInd

On August 16, 1949, Margaret Mitchell died from injuries sustained when she was struck by a taxicab in Atlanta, Georgia. Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize for her only novel published during her lifetime, Gone with the Wind (GWTW). Released in the summer of 1936, GWTW had sold a million copies by December. A 2008 Harris Poll rated GWTW the second favorite book of Americans, selling more than 30 million copies at that time. It has been translated into over 40 languages and published in 50 countries. It was smuggled into Nazi-occupied France, where someone caught with it could be shot (1). Nebiy Mekonnen was arrested during Megistu’s Red Terror in Ethiopia. While in prison, he wrote his translation on the only paper available to him, the inner lining paper from cigarette packs. The completed pages were smuggled out in cigarette packs. When he was finally released, He compiled over 3000 lining papers to print his translation. (2)

Despite the popularity of the novel (some would say due to it), academicians dismiss it as conventional and unevenly written. Educators avoid the political morass of its glamorization of slavery and a classist society that deservedly met its end 150 years ago.

While I was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., my family moved to Atlanta when I was 8 weeks old, so I am nearly a native. I read GWTW ensconced in an overstuffed chair in a corner of the living room the summer I was 9 years old. I left that chair for nothing beyond basic necessities for several days. There were many things about it that held me entranced. Scarlett O’Hara had a brash Irish father and a genteel Southern mother, like me; unlike me, she lived in a sprawling house with an upstairs, and had her own room. When Margaret Mitchell wrote about Atlanta, she named streets that I knew, on the way to my father’s office, or down where the Capitol building was. I knew the town she wrote of; I’d walked those streets.

I had heard family stories from the Civil War; how my great-great grandmother had hidden the family silver from Sherman’s men by throwing it in the well; stories of genteel poverty after the War filled my youth. In my innocence, not fully understanding the complexities of Scarlett’s character, I made Katie Scarlett my role model. It didn’t matter that I was a girl; I could still go out and conquer the world, just like she did. I began to voice my opinions, to my genteel mother’s distress, who warned me that boys didn’t like smart girls. I wonder if the popularity of GWTW in war-torn, occupied countries wasn’t due in part to the way Scarlett found a way to survive in such harsh conditions.

It is true that GWTW glamorizes a way of life based on a fundamentally evil concept. I have to agree with Pat Conroy that Mitchell’s portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan “appears to be a benign combination of the Elks Club and a men’s equestrian society” (3). Perhaps I am naïve, but I certainly understood that the KKK was not a good group, no matter its description in the novel, and I cannot imagine any other reaction despite Mitchell’s depiction. Even at nine years old, I knew that Atlanta was a different place, and a better place than antebellum Georgia had been.

I would like to say in closing, that if all you know of GWTW is the movie, it is a pale shadow on the novel. At 1,037 pages, it is not a small investment in time or energy. It is not a perfect novel, but the characters have a vibrancy and life that leaps off the page. Despite all the academic training I have undergone in the meantime, I still recapture the glow of possible futures when I open the novel again.

(1) Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Critic at Large: A Study in Scarlett.” The New Yorker. August 31, 1992, pages 87—103 (see page 101).
(2) Huang, Carol. “Tomorrow Is Another Day: An Ethiopian student survives a brutal imprisonment by translating Gone with the Wind into his native Amharic.” The American Scholar. 2006, Volume 75 (Autumn, Issue 4), pages 79—88.
(3) Pat Conroy, Preface to Gone with the Wind, Pocket Books edition.

medieval, research

Lapidary prose, or, what is a lapidary anyway?

The title of this blog comes from the common usage of lapidary, which is a person who polishes gemstones. There is another usage, which is a medieval symbolic compendium about gemstones; my choice of title betrays my bad habit of editing things to death, as well as reflecting my academic background. Although I wrote a master’s thesis on the symbolism of gemstones in two medieval works, not wanting to bore my readers, I looked at Wikipedia to see what it said about lapidaries. I was surprised not to see the meaning of medieval compendium, because there is a pretty good description of bestiaries, which are a medieval symbolic compendium of animals.

Medieval authors and readers loved encyclopedias, catalogs, lists and symbolism; the physical world was a veil over the true meaning of objects and events. Treatises were written to explicate the true meanings of objects in nature. Lapidaries are lists of precious and semi-precious gemstones, giving the physical, medical, and symbolic meanings of each stone. Bestiaries do the same for animals. For some reason, the symbolism of the bestiary has survived the centuries better than its counterpart, the lapidary. The lion as the king of beasts? That concept comes from the 13th century bestiaries. However, who today thinks that amethyst chases away idle thoughts and causes greater understanding? If lapidary symbolism had survived to the present day, every college student in the world would wear amethyst, because it is supposed to keep away drunkenness. In the 21st century, we no longer have the common symbolic system that was taught in the schools and shared by all educated people in the Middle Ages. We do have some common symbols; depending on the context, most readers will understand dawn as new beginnings and hope, and sunset as a decline or death.

Beyond the few symbols that remain from the bestiary and other traditions, the closest symbolic system in our literary past is the language of flowers, popular in the Victorian period, but which still holds sway today. Why do we buy a dozen red roses for Valentine’s Day? Because the language of flowers held that the red rose is the symbol of passionate love. There are more examples of the common symbols that all readers understand, but they don’t seem to fit into a standardized system anymore.

I like the idea of a world with more symbolic meaning than what meets the five senses; that sense of there being more to everything is part of what attracted me to medieval literature. Do you think that there are systems that I am just flat out missing? How do we as writers imbue meaning into objects and events?