Tag Archives: culture

Phillip English & the Identity Politics of Material Culture

The home of Phillip and Mary English was built in 1685 on Essex Street in Salem, Massachusetts.
(Image from University of Missouri)

Material culture is fascinating. It can be as simple as a flint arrowpoint or as elaborate as hand gilded furniture, as beautifully functional as a Wedgwood teacup or as ridiculously simple as a copper kettle — the pieces available for interpretation are varied and many. Understanding how it shapes identity, how it alters and creates cultural identity, is more challenging.

The story of Phillip English (or Philippe L’Anglois), a Jersey merchant who immigrated to Salem in the seventeenth century, is an excellent example. A merchant who brought foreign goods to New England, he also forced the insular Puritan community to cope with those unlike themselves — and in the process created a new cultural identity. He prospered in his given profession as an Anglicized Frenchman in a British colony, forcing his contemporaries to acknowledge not only the necessity of his presence, but his intrinsic worth as well. In the interim, however, by creating and maintaining an identity separate from the other Salem merchants, he occupied a psychological and cultural borderland. This created tensions with his Puritan neighbors, true, but the psychological space in which they met and conducted their business gave rise of the “polite consumer culture” of the eighteenth century.

That Phillip English was partially responsible for the rise of a polite consumer culture that eventually modeled itself on Georgian gentility is not surprising. Much of what he imported were goods popular among the gentility. His actions, coupled his very existence in that time and place, contributed to the transition away from Puritan homogeneity to commercial homogeneity. The interplay between commerce and culture transformed the social universe, because “polite culture” was concerned more with outward symbols of success than it was eternal salvation. Once gentility became a sign of economic and social prosperity, your appearance became everything. To be part of this imagined community required purchasing its trappings.

This meant people were not only purchasing an identity, they were altering culture through the acquisition and display of new and exotic goods. A New England origin for the idea of “keeping up with the Jones,'” perhaps?

Of course, the meaning given to material goods can change and, subsequently, change culture. Those who believed that the luxurious possessions they owned reflected their worth identified as Georgian gentility. At the same time, others who were resistant to capitalism and the new culture unfolding, and those of the lower classes, saw those objects quite differently. This difference of interpretation became more evident as the eighteenth century wore on. The culmination of this reinterpretation was the result of the Patriots, who created new meanings for material goods and the connection between them and a person’s character.

By altering those meanings, the Patriots (and earlier, those opposed to the polite consumer culture) distinguished themselves and their politics from everyone else. This began to alter culture. With their emphasis on purchasing domestic goods as opposed to foreign imports, the Patriots created an “American” identity that endures to this day.

Isn’t it interesting how what we choose to buy, or not buy, reflects our culture and cultural perceptions? Material goods can alter or even create culture and culture alters and creates material goods.

For more on this topic, and to learn about Phillip English’s brush with the Salem Witchcraft Trials, read Purchasing Identity in the Atlantic World by Phyllis Hunter.

60 Second Review: Dust

The genre of fiction broadly title Young Adult has changed tremendously since I was one of its target readers. It’s edgier, more realistic even when fantastic, and a lot bleaker. Dystopian novels existed, but few were geared specifically at the 10-16 age range.

The change is, despite some arguments to the contrary (here and here), for the better.

Arthur Slade’s award-winning Dust is one of those great new YA stories. At first I hesitated to call it a novel; surely, I thought, this is a novella. Then I realised that I was comparing its length to novels written for adults and adjusted my paradigm accordingly.

In the end, though, what it’s called doesn’t matter. It’s a good story. Even the synopsis pulls you in:

Imagine a depression-era town where it hasn’t rained for years. A pale rainmaker with other-worldly eyes brings rain to the countryside and mesmerizes the townspeople, but the children begin to disappear one by one. Only young Robert Steelgate is able to resist the rainmaker’s spell and begin the struggle to discover what has happened to his missing brother and the other children.

As good as the hook is, the catch is even better. Dust grabs you from the beginning and keeps your attention all the way through. That said, this is not a story filled with action and adventure in the traditional sense. Rather it’s the building suspense, the anticipation, the not knowing what’s going to happen on the next page, that keeps you reading — and the climactic scene, when it comes, is all the more visceral and heartbreaking for it.

The physical landscape also has its role. Slade’s evocative use of the Canadian prairie, a place he knows very well, makes the scenes come alive in a way that’s missing in a lot of fiction today. He believes in “show, not tell”; when Robert observes that the tumbleweeds aren’t tumbling, even people who have never seen the prairie understand what’s going on.

The characterisations in Dust are first-rate, too. Robert’s evolution from not-quite-child to budding young adult is very well done indeed. Given that the tale is told from his point of view, it’s inevitable that there are things we do not know, question that remain unanswered, about the other characters. But that’s okay, because through Robert we learn all we really need to know; Slade could have given us more insight into the other characters, but this story would’ve been the less for it.

This novel is magical realism at its best, turning the humdrum, everyday world around us on its ear — and sometimes into something else. Stephen King and Ray Bradbury can be proud.

[Bookish Note: 60 Second Reviews are not written in 60 seconds; they’re not really designed to be read in 60 seconds either, although they probably could be. They are called so because they short and to the point. It’s all about getting down to brass tacks, really.]

Amendment One

I don’t usually blog about politics, at least not current politics. (If it happened a century ago or more, however, it’s fair game.) That said, my home state of North Carolina has a constitutional amendment on the May 8 primary ballot. Called Amendment One, it states that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

This issue is fraught with passionate feelings on both sides, but while I finish redesigning the site I don’t have time to write about it. Instead, let me direct attention to a very well written, well thought out piece from a conservative blogger Brent Woodcox.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

“From the days of our Founding Fathers to the present day, the steady drumbeat of progress in our great country has been that of a march towards freedom. That used to mean something in so-called “conservative” circles. I am a conservative in every sense in which that word can be traced through history. I believe in capitalism, our republican form of government, in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and for treating others as we wish to be treated … That’s why I oppose this amendment. Not as a liberal but as a conservative. Freedom comes with a great price. If you are to be free, it means you must allow others who have entered into the same social contract with you that same freedom.”

I’ll be voting against it, for my own reasons, but even those planning to vote for Amendment One should give this a read — it may not change your mind, but it will make you think.

Money, Culture and Burney’s ‘Evelina’

Frances Burney d’Arblay
(Portrait by Edward Francis Burney)

Prompted in large part by @GeorgiannaGossip‘s fabulous group read of Frances Burney’s epistolary novel Evelina, the Bookish Miss is revisiting one of her favorite novels and looking at it in a new way.

Evelina is an often overlooked landmark work. It was one of the first recognizably modern novels, written by a woman, immensely popular in its own time and precedes Jane Austen’s novels by decades.

It’s also a very good read. Even the eighteenth century grammar and rhetoric are easy to adjust to, and its epistolary format makes it good for reading in small bites.

One thing I find fascinating is that, throughout the story, money and culture are constantly in conflict. History reminds us that for a member of the upper class (often called the “ton”) to concern her or himself with money was a serious social faux pas; so was the allocation of a “use value” to any object or idea considered cultured. Burney knew this, she understood this. However, a great deal of her novel deals with incidents where her characters, willingly or not, have to deal with money or the idea that something can have a quantifiable value. This violation of unspoken rules and etiquette, the “social determinants of taste,” often contributes to social confusion for Evelina.

What’s most fascinating is that while Burney exposes the utter hypocrisy of the ton, they gobbled up her book. Of course, there are just as many characters for the ton to ridicule as there are upper class fools for the middling classes to revile. Taken in its entirety, Evelina demonstrates the ambiguous and ambivalent relationship that eighteenth century Britons had with actual money.

One of the interesting things I noticed in my umpteeth reread of Evelina is that there seems to be a “buffer zone” between the ton and the rest of society. It appears to be an unspoken idea that there are areas money should not intrude on. This zone keeps people safe; no one but you and your accountant knows how much money you actually have. Anyone could spend lavishly during a season in London, but as to how they lived afterwards … well, that’s their business. Accordingly, when money matters do intrude it causes great embarrassment amongst the characters.

Take the opera scene. Branghton Sr. pays for the opera passes, but complains of the price and even goes as far as to haggle with the doorkeeper. When his daughters remark on his ignorance in the matter, the prices having been listed in the newspaper, he responds by telling them “the price of stocks is enough for me to see after; and I took it for granted it was the same thing here as at the playhouse.” As a businessman, he automatically looks for the usefulness of whatever he pays for. Indeed, he compares the opera to the plays he and his family regularly attend at Drury Lane and comes away from the experience upset, believing he has been “tricked out of his money with so little trouble.”

The reader comes away from this scene feeling sympathy for the embarrassed heroine, who has to put up with someone so “uncultured” he cannot grasp the concept of art for art’s sake. However, the scene not only shows how a member of the elite is mortified at the lack of appreciation for the opera, but how a middling class merchant is upset that the culture he helps finance does not give him his money’s worth.

The “buffer zone” is also crossed when the issue of debts and IOUs are broached. Because finances are not mentioned by polite society the very idea of commenting on one’s “arrangements” is considered vulgar and uncouth. Thus when Evelina first encounters Mr. Macartney she is somewhat shocked to hear her cousins, the Branghtons, openly discussing him and his finances. He is referred to by Miss Branghton as a “poor Scotch poet … [who will] never pay for his lodging.” Her comments are much less nationalistic prejudice as they are economic. A poet can be considered a writer and, as a writer, a producer. For the Branghtons, Mr. Macartney being a poet is not the problem, nor is it his nationality (although that surely plays into their stereotypes). The problem with Mr. Macartney, from the point of view of the Branghtons, is that he does not make money as a poet. Evelina and the ton see poetry for its aesthetic qualities and recognize that it as a product of social consciousness, but members of the middling classes realize that art, especially literature, is an industry. This is epitomized by Branghton Sr., who sees poetry and literature as something produced by writers and publishers and sold for profit.

Unfortunately for Macartney, he has no publisher and so makes no profit. Evelina, who pities his plight and is charmed by the aesthetics of his work, lends him money. Later, when he repays his debt (after using her as the subject of a poem without her prior knowledge), he causes something of a stir. That he chooses to conduct the transaction at an unsuitable time, in a public and inconvenient place, leaves Evelina open to public scrutiny.

However, even the unwritten rules of social expectation and conduct have exceptions. Bad news about monetary situations often got around, legitimately or not, but eighteenth century Britain’s greatest exception to their unwritten rules of monetary conduct was the marriage market. Commenting on the size (or lack thereof) of a young woman’s dowry was considered perfectly acceptable. What would appear to be an instance where the buffer zone is crossed turns out to be normal and a topic for conversation, even in polite circles. Indeed, when all of Evelina’s troubles are resolved and her marriage to Lord Orville is arranged, Mrs. Selwyn quite easily and unapologetically tells her that her father has given her a dowry in the amount of L30,000. This news is not so much shocking to the heroine as it perplexing; the causal mention of finances in everyday, if occasional, conversation goes unnoticed.

This double standard is very confusing and somewhat hypocritical, but can be understood. Evelina inhabits a world almost completely ruled by the elite of society — they create the rules and boundaries, including buffer zone between themselves and the middling and working classes whose work supports them. Burney’s genius is in satirizing her society by subtly (and not-so-subtly) pointing out its faults, vices and hypocrisies. The buffer zone, while a source of constant attack and embarrassment for the characters, allows the reader to see the fascinating dichotomies of eighteenth-century Britain.

All quotes taken from the 1992 Penguin Books edition of Evelina.

A Courthouse for All Ages

The Historic 1909 Randolph County Courthouse

The Historic Randolph County Courthouse at 145 Worth Street in Asheboro formally reopened for business on 19 July 2011 with a private reception and a public open house, 102 years to the day after the very first session was held within its walls.

According to a history of the courthouse written by local attorney and historian Lowell McKay “Mac” Whatley, the courthouse design mixes “nineteenth-century Victorianism with the motifs of American Beaux-Arts classicism. The brick facades of the building rise from a roughly-hewn granite base. Round arched windows on each side define the courtroom on the second floor level; the windows of the southern (Worth Street) façade feature elaborate molded terra lintels in a variety of shapes and sizes. The complex textures of materials such as tile, rough granite, sandstone, brick, wood and metal are combined with bold ornamental shapes to create the active, highly plastic surface of the building.”

Glenola Brick Works supplied around one million bricks for the project, most of which are not visible. The yellow hydraulic-pressed “Washington” exterior face bricks, all 700,000 of them, were shipped from Ohio at a cost of $70 per thousand.

The courthouse was originally completed in 1909 for only $34,000. It was the seventh county courthouse, but the first at that location. Three previous courthouses had been at the corner of Salisbury and Main streets, but that area ceased to be the focal point of Asheboro with the coming of the railroad in 1889.

The decision to build a new courthouse was made in 1907 by Commissioners J.W. Cox, H.G. Lassiter and Chairman Arch N. Bulla of Randleman. At the time, they were meeting in the 6th Randolph County Courthouse built in 1839 at the intersection of Salisbury and Main Streets in Asheboro. That brick structure had been built by construction superintendent and future N.C. Governor Jonathan Worth; it was expanded in 1876. Rather than hire an architect to design and build a completely new courthouse, the commissioners paid $300 to the Charlotte firm of Wheeler, Runge and Dickey for copies of the plans and specifications of their Iredell County Courthouse design. Oliver D. Wheeler and his various partners would ultimately go on to build another eight courthouses that were similar or identical to Randolph’s. Of those, six remain in existence today.

The first two courthouses were located somewhere in the vicinity of what is today New Market, north of Randleman. The third courthouse, and the first in Asheboro, was on two acres of land along Abram’s Creek. The eighth and current courthouse is located next door.

Over the past few years the 1909 courthouse undergone extensive renovation, restoration and rehabilitation. Most of the work was done by Randolph County building inspectors, many of whom are master craftsmen, which kept costs low and allowed the inspectors to continue working even after county construction levels fell to record lows during the Great Recession, said County Manager Richard Wells.

Historic courtrrom, restored

The focal point of the restoration was the second floor courtroom and gallery, now the location of County Commissioners’ meetings. An overhaul of the courtroom in the early 1960s resulted in a Scandinavian Modern style, complete with wood paneling and benches, that was not at all in keeping with the original design. Also at that time, the ceiling was dropped to allow for the installation of an air conditioning system. During the more recent restoration, workers unbricked windows, recreated paneled doors and restored as much as the original pressed tin ceiling as possible, including the ceiling over the gallery that overlooks the courtroom; what tin could not be restored was ordered from a company that specializes in tin tiles, and may actually be the company from which the original ceiling tiles were ordered. Even the desk for the County Commissioners was constructed, not ordered.

Because the room was once a courtroom, the state seal was placed at a spot on the wall above the raised platform where the presiding judge was seated. During the renovations, workers discovered it could not be easily removed from the wall above. Wanting to incorporate something of the county into the room, Asheboro-based artist Susan Harrell was commissioned to create a special county seal just for the historic courthouse. It was placed on the wall directly opposite the state seal and is visible when sitting at the commissioners desk on the platform.

The courthouse was the first historic landmark recommended by the Randolph County Historic Landmark Preservation Commission, formed in 2008, and its ground floor is currently home to the Randolph County Economic Development Corporation and Heart of N.C. Visitors Bureau.

The second floor historic courtroom can be used for public meetings.

Information based on histories of the courthouse written and compiled by Mac Whatley.

19th Century Working Women (as told by Rebecca Harding Davis)

In the young and industrializing United States, the effects of Republican Motherhood and what Jeanne Boydston termed the “pastoralization of housework” led to a new ideology among the emerging idle middle class. Broadly, this class saw itself as prosperous and virtuous; it saw the working classes, and working women in particular, as promiscuous at best and wicked at worst. Rebecca Harding Davis, herself a member of the middle class, used fiction to attempt to combat this stereotype and create empathy between the classes by introducing a working woman named Deborah in Life in the Iron-Mills. However, while Davis’ portrayal of Deborah was a short-term success, it ultimately failed because it reinforced the existing gender system.

Deborah is presented as the victimized working woman instead of the depraved and promiscuous slut. Both stereotypes are middle class creations, but Davis chose one over the other to criticize class inequalities and prejudice toward immigrants. Accordingly, Deborah is described as a new immigrant worn beyond her years, a hunchback and loyal and caring to a fault. Davis knew that in order for a middle class woman to empathize with her character, said character had to be the exact opposite of what the reader expected. Deborah is thus shown in a positive light — while the other women who work at the mills go off to party and drink, Deborah goes home to tend to her family, returning to the mills to deliver dinner to her brother. This similarity allowed middle class readers to view Deborah as human, creating a sense of empathy for those who are oppressed only by a capitalist system and not through any cause of nature.

Most Western ideological systems exist only by binary oppositions and the nineteenth-century gender system was no exception. In order to prove domestic bliss as a wife and mother was the ideal, the system needed something to define itself against. Under this ideology, women were, as Boydston wrote, “ill-equipped to venture into the world of nineteenth-century business”; if wives and mothers who kept to their houses were the ideal, then women who worked outside of the home were somehow abnormal. They were even considered not to be women because they displayed traits more commonly reserved for men, the “breadwinners” who dwelt in the duplicitous and cunning outside world. Women who sought employment outside the home were symbolic threats to this concept of manhood and male authority.

Reality however, as Davis knew, was very different; through Deborah, she presents a woman who had theoretical possibility to be any woman. Despite this, however, Deborah lives up to this idealized standard; she is the “victimized heroine” injected with a shot of harsh reality, a way for her to pacify her middle class readers while still managing to convey her message about class inequality. Davis exacerbates this implicit claim by redeeming Deborah in the end, showing her audience that all the working woman lacks to be live up to the middle class standard of womanhood is material goods. By humanizing Deborah, and by extension working women in general, she sets up the middle class standard as the norm.

Was this Davis’ intention? Possibly. Davis may have redeemed Deborah as form of polite and discreet mockery. It seems more likely, though, that Deborah’s redemption is another aspect added to create empathy — and in this Davis succeeded.

However, Davis was a middle class woman representing a working class woman; her representation was slightly off kilter from the ways in which working class women presented themselves. Fanny Fern was much more straightforward, her style blunt and succinct. She is angry, not philosophical. Nor does she merely want to invoke pity. Instead, Fern wanted to force the “rose colored glasses of ideology” from the faces of the middle class. These women, she argued, are laborers and they are still women.

Fern refused to draw a line between womanhood and labor. Instead, she and others posited that the “romance of labor” was a fiction and the girls of Lowell Mills, who received so much attention, were not so much laborers in hard industry but country girls of New England. Middle class society did not wish to see reality and so created a fiction that worked within their ideology. It was easier to see working women as women who could not or would not keep to their homes, instead of women working to support themselves or their families.

To give Davis her due, she did strip away the fiction to show the true horror and horrendous necessity of factory life. Unfortunately, she maintained the romance of labor via her ending. Any working woman would have known that intervention by a kindly Quaker was unlikely; within the realm of possibility, but highly improbable. Davis’ happy ending is not realistic, but it did appeal to her readers. Deborah’s constant and selfless suffering is rewarded with an elevation, via material goods, to the middle class through the intervention of a well-meaning middle class woman. It may have been a cry to the public to act, to alleviate the conditions of people working in the mills, but it ultimately reinforced middle class hegemony.