Anthony Comstock’s Permanent Harm to Women’s Rights — It Goes Back to the 1800’s

Some of my best thinking happens while I’m enjoying my morning coffee and reading something from Smithsonian magazine. This morning’s read included an archeological piece on the workers who constructed Stonehenge 4500 years ago; in particular, it was about their poop (and their dogs’ poop, too). But, as fascinating as the short article was (one that I just had to share with my daughter in Portland, whose scientific curiosity is as distinctive as mine or — alternatively — whose filial sense of responsibility demands that she indulge me), it was the second article that I read that struck a more emotional chord. And, frankly, the current topic is nothing if not fraught (with its political overtones), and one likely to provoke an emotional maelstrom. . . if one reflects too intensely on the “historical moment” in which we currently find ourselves.

I invite you to imagine this scene: a husband and wife are in a passionate embrace in their bedroom when they hear rustling outside their second story window. Peering at them as they’re involved in “the act” is a furious-looking man whose enormous bald pate catches the reflection of the full moon filtering through the trees. He has held his tongue until he is sure that the couple have committed an illegal act. The illegal act? The husband has slipped on an industrial-grade condom (not the micro-thin, lubricated and scented “rubber” that wouldn’t become available for a looong time after). The man outside the window — as a “special agent” for the United States Post Office Department — leaps from his perch on one of the tree’s limbs through the open window and shouts, “You’re both under arrest for violating Connecticut’s obscenity laws.”

Sound ridiculous? Anthony Comstock was a pretty ridiculous man of the 19th century who was nevertheless instrumental in the passage of one of our country’s most restrictive federal laws concerning civil liberties and the right to personal privacy. Moreover, he was granted an insane degree of power to police it. So, the image presented in the paragraph above is indeed far-fetched, but Connecticut’s 1879 version — one of the many “little Comstock laws” that were implemented by states subsequent to the 1873 federal anti-obscenity law — illustrates what could happen. You could be a married couple who utilizes any manner of contraceptive, and — if found guilty — be subject to a fine, imprisonment, or both. Even coitus interruptus — always an option treated with natural skepticism by the woman — and the rhythm method (the Catholic Church’s favorite recommendation that compliant mothers of large broods likewise — long after the fact — viewed with mistrust) were outlawed. Nearly one hundred years would pass before the Comstock Law would be successfully challenged.

Whether you see yourself as someone who will be affected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision yesterday to overturn Roe v. Wade, there’s a gnawing sense that our society — already dangerously frayed — will be re-shaped by the Court’s unwillingness to preserve the most private of privacy rights of our citizens. Excuse me, . . . our female citizens. And whether you stand on the side of the majority of our citizens who wish to preserve the rights guaranteed in Roe v. Wade, or you’re instead guided by a belief system that sanctifies the rights of a fetus (or maybe even an embryo), you’ll no doubt appreciate the magnitude of this issue. It’s quite illuminating to note at this juncture that the first half of the 19th century — and even through much of the 18th century, as well — women enjoyed much more freedom (at least legally) to exercise control over their own bodies. How, then, did it all get upended? Who determined that a woman — any woman — was incapable of making her own decisions where it concerns her own body, her own health, her own needs?

To form an idea as to how our society veered onto a more noxious path, you can take a look at the disproportionate number of patent medicine ads in newspapers of the late 19th century targeting women, who were seen as constitutionally weak and nervous, whose very womanhood was viewed as pathological. It truly must have been a bewildering time for women. At the same time that they were beginning to flex their muscles in the work arena (outside the home) and to insist on being included in political discourse, they were being assaulted with messages of their inadequacy, their inferiority. Clearly, gaslighting is not a new phenomenon!

It is interesting to note that running parallel to the rise in feminist activism and advocacy was a contemporaneous (and insidious) trend that over time proved ruinous in terms of women’s constitutional protections. What began as a shift in perception evolved into a potent mechanism to wield control. You see, women had little agency until some time around the Civil War — in other words, they posed no threat to the establishment while they performed their wifely duties in the home.

As our country became more urbanized and people adapted to industrialized life, the social and business interactions that they engaged in became less intimate and less defined. . . and a whole lot less principled. The foods that people ate and the medicines they took were no longer ones that they grew or concocted. By the turn of the century, abuses were happening throughout the food and drug supply network and everyone seemed to recognize that some type of oversight was needed. When you set up a regulatory program (such as, for example, the Food and Drug Administration), you rely on experts. The mandates inherent in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 were just one instance in which the opinions of the male-dominated medical establishment were deemed unassailable.

So, while women made visible gains during this time in some ways — the vote in 1920, for example — they lost immeasurably in other, more subtle but distressing ways. Their greatest surrender, in my mind, was conceding control over their own bodies to men of medicine and men who cited men of medicine. . . and even men who purported to be men of medicine. As if the matter were one of choice. It was a time of great opportunism, and a great time to be a man, especially a self-righteous, moralistic white man whose puritan (and puritanical) lineage dated back several generations

I’ve always been intrigued by 19th century American history. Admittedly, it’s probably because the invention of photography has made it easy to study intently the figures of the era. Bustled, corseted women standing stiffly next to an even more stiffly arranged Victorian settee are an invitation to reach for my magnifying glass. Even if I have no idea who the subject might be, I’m still very curious about what her life may have been like. Did she hate turnip as much as I do? What kinds of arguments did she have with her parents? Did she like to dance? And if I knew who she was, my questions could be endless.

When I study the portrait of Anthony Comstock, I’m curious about his life, too. He was part of that era when important men tugged on their mutton chops, puffed up their chests with self-importance and passed sweeping and important legislation that would leave future generations wondering what perception-altering drugs they favored when they were looking for professional inspiration and (of course) further opportunities for self-importance, further reason to puff up their chests.

It’s important to examine the broad historical context for clues — it allows for a more meaningful understanding of how we’ve arrived at this moment, one that keenly feels like a worrisome return to an earlier time characterized by huge social inequalities. Only by doing so can we fully acknowledge what’s on the line.

The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision has always been seen as a watershed moment in our country’s long journey to wrest from the federal government control over women’s bodies. For nearly one hundred years, petitioners had been agitating to de-fang a federal law that was forcefully promoted by Anthony Comstock, a tyrannical, mutton-chopped Connecticut yankee whose puritanical upbringing caused in him some pretty inflexible ideas about acceptable behavior among his brethren. . . especially if we include women in that cohort.

(photographer unknown)

Anthony Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1844, either the fourth child of eight or the fourth child of thirteen if you include his five youngest half-siblings. The son of a successful farmer, he was able to directly trace his American ancestry back six generations to the founding of Wethersfield, Connecticut. By Anthony’s time, the family had established a legacy based comfortably on agriculture and civic-mindedness. In William Comstock’s case — William was Anthony’s 4x great-grandfather — such civic responsibilities involved protecting family and community by hefting a musket at critical moments, such as during the Pequot Wars (1636-1637) when he joined his fellow puritan comrades and Mohegan allies in a massacre of 500 Pequot men, women, and children. Such was the sense of duty among Comstock men in their readiness to answer the call that each successive generation either signed up in eagerness to defend their turf (and God-given rights) and/or apply for proud membership in the Sons of the American Revolution.

In trying to make sense of Anthony’s extreme views about decorum that fueled his later crusade, an examination of his formative years goes a long way in explaining his skewed outlook on humankind. He had just turned ten (in 1854) when his mother died in childbirth. Simply put, his orderly and predictable world pitchpoled. With eight children and two servants, Anthony’s father Thomas (for a while) continued to toil and till — rather listlessly — on his farm in New Canaan; soon, however, Anthony’s two oldest brothers began to assume more responsibility for the farm’s management.

And then the Civil War happened.

And then Thomas laid down his pitchfork for good and removed to London. . . where he married a girl (younger than half of his children). Thomas would begin a new family with his second wife off in England, eventually running into financial difficulties. After crossing the Atlantic a few times, he transferred his new brood to Brooklyn, New York, where he would take up residence a mile away from his by then high-profile and very outspoken son Anthony.

Meanwhile, and before striking out for New York City himself, Anthony continued to struggle as he tried to restore order and sense in his world, but heartbreak pursued him. His older brother Samuel died (at age 21) in a Gettysburg hospital after wounds suffered in that battle. (His name appears in a long list of soldiers who succumbed in the months following the Battle of Gettysburg; interestingly, a high percentage of them were casualties of chronic diarrhea — typhoid fever, consumption, and dysentery also being frequently cited as cause of death. ) No doubt devastated by the loss of his brother, Anthony was moved to likewise answer the call, thus joining the Union cause three months later. He was nineteen. His experience as a private in the infantry exposed him for the first time to the rude realities of locker-room behavior among men. He was shocked and appalled. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that his resultant crusade against obscenity and all forms of immorality — one that lasted throughout the rest of his life — had its origins in that episode and was informed by the strict moral code that had been instilled in him by his late mother.

After mustering out and with his eyes now wide open, Anthony descended on the roiling hotbed of indecent behavior — New York City. For a while he held an academic position, but his growing indignation over what he saw as positive proof that American society (being systematically diluted and debased by the rising immigrant population) was slithering its way toward a vile and vulgar morass of immorality led him to advocate with every fiber of his being for the passage (in 1873) of the federal Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.

The implications of this 1873 law, soon dubbed The Comstock Act (or Law), were far-reaching, opening the door for states to draft their own stringent laws that, in many cases, underscored the differences between the haves and the have-nots. People of the upper and middle classes continued — largely unhindered — to avail themselves of outlawed products, but the working class encountered all manner of difficulty in their attempts to access the same. Once Anthony was installed as “special agent” for the United States Postal Service, he was uniquely positioned to observe how New Yorkers exchanged information; some of that information made him quake with disgust and anger. With his new unfettered powers — he could open mail, arrest suspected perpetrators, even entrap people — Anthony Comstock was delirious with his own sense of importance and authority. And he was unstoppable.

And he was easy to spot a mile away. He was a short block of a man with a shiny bald head and ginger-colored sideburns that sprang audaciously from the sides of his face. Purposeful in his stride, his forward motion was, nevertheless, hindered and made comical by his habit of walking on the balls of his (tiny) feet. Often caricatured because of his physique and behaviors, as well as his idiosyncratic opinions, whenever he turned his glowering attentions on potential victims, the intensity of his gaze alone could make them tremble in fear.

It’s worthwhile to take pause at this juncture in order to contemplate the very real — as well as the emotional — fallout from this one man’s crusade. The law made birth control illegal. Let’s just start there. And abortion was seen by Anthony as the most egregious violation of the law; recalling how his saintly mother died giving birth to her eighth child, it must have been abhorrent to him that women (even those who were married) would entertain the thought of rejecting a pregnancy. They should be willing to die in service to their primary (procreative) purpose, must have been his thinking.

Moreover, it may have been one thing to arrest people who were peddling “obscene” literature — notwithstanding the subjective (and highly variable) nature of the word’s definition, but Anthony always seemed to veer into the extreme. He once was offended by an undressed mannequin in a San Francisco store display window and brought charges, (which of course were later dismissed in court.) Equally absurd was the controversy over an oil painting. Google “September Morn” — not Neil Diamond’s song, but the oil painting by Paul Chabas. Even if you don’t look it up, let me sum for you: it’s a naked young woman standing in the shallows and striking a modest pose. Her nakedness was displayed in a NYC shop window, causing our crusader to storm angrily into the shop and demand that it be removed at once. Anthony was often impulsive and quite the hothead, not averse to getting physical or threatening . As the painting had already withstood legal scrutiny earlier in Chicago, our friend Anthony knew that the painting — and the reproductions — had standing, and the most that he could do was cast his opinion publicly, declaring it “demoralizing in the extreme and especially calculated to excite immodesty in the young.”) (Wikipedia)

If there was any “exciting” going on, it was the controversy that clung to Anthony Comstock in every encounter that resulted in him zealously exercising his powers of arrest or through his efforts to otherwise publicly condemn the shameful behaviors of his contemporaries. Occasionally, there were campaigns to overturn the Comstock Law, but at least while Anthony was alive, he enjoyed the backing of some very influential businessmen‚ most notably J.P. Morgan and Samuel Colgate. As always, Congress aimed to keep the captains of industry happy. And it must be said that many U.S. citizens, too, were pleased that they could rely on the indefatigable work of this uncompromising crusader against smut. Nothing would change until 1965.

Griswold v. Connecticut, a case being closely parsed of late, has been considered — from the outset — to be one of the most influential precedent-setting decisions where it concerns right to privacy. Pursued all the way to the Supreme Court, the plaintiff Estelle Griswold, who was executive director of Planned Parenthood, (through her lawyer, Yale lawyer Thomas Emerson) successfully argued in 1965 that Connecticut’s law banning the use of and/or dispensation of contraceptives violated a fundamental implied constitutional right. Eight years later, the success of Roe v Wade would depend on a broadening of the marital privacy rights that were articulated in Griswold v. Connecticut. A woman’s (and her doctor’s) right to privacy and freedom from governmental intrusion was re-interpreted to include abortions. In Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion yesterday, he alludes to future reconsideration of — among other cases — the due process protections that were decided in Griswold v. Connecticut.

As I’ve noted, it’s important to recognize what’s on the line. It feels terribly wrong that a body of nine — not a single one of whom has the biological capacity to become pregnant, either because of gender or age — exercised their power to nullify the constitutional right to an abortion, which, let’s just acknowledge it right now, disproportionately affects black and brown women. It should also be very unsettling that Justice Thomas is essentially welcoming other cases that will further subvert the rights of under-represented cohorts — same sex couples, for example. We’re wholely unaccustomed to court decisions that so ravage constitutional protections, but it does have familiar historical echoes. Our society can’t seem to escape its tradition of suppressing rights that should be enjoyed by all constituencies (while simultaneously broadening rights that imperil our most vulnerable, as also happened this week by means of the Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. vs. Bruen.) Over and over we find ways to preserve the status quo, by which I mean the perceived threat to the rights of privileged white men. Anthony Comstock — whose extreme beliefs were cultivated from the cradle and indulged for nearly his entire adult life — caused irreparable harm to our less fortunate, disenfranchised citizens. Our shameful past — we can never seem to shed it, and yesterday’s ruling simply magnifies the recurring hurt.

Works Consulted:

Gun Owners are Pretty Happy with the U.S. Supreme Court This Week

I had a dream last night that I killed someone with a handgun. I’ve never owned a gun, never even held one. Well, that’s not entirely true. When I was a young girl I was allowed to hold my mother’s .22 rifle for about 5 seconds. Other than being surprised at the weight of it, I had very little interest in it. I don’t see myself as a violent person. When I feel myself at the extreme limits of exasperation, the best image I can summon is of me kicking the source of my vexation in the shins.

Why, then, did I have this dream? It likely had to do with the announcement yesterday that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called “New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. vs. Bruen,” struck down a restrictive gun law in New York. No longer will there be (reasonable) limits on who can carry a firearm in public. On hearing this I felt a sense of dread. Here in Massachusetts we can fully expect our own restrictive laws to be similarly challenged in the near future. Some of you may recall that our Governor, Charlie Baker, bragged about our “controlled” numbers relative to crimes committed with guns. Well, that just jinxed it for us!

The specifics of yesterday’s Court decision are summarized thusly: “An individual who wants to carry a firearm outside his home may obtain an unrestricted license to ‘have and carry’ a concealed ‘pistol or revolver’ if he can prove that ‘proper cause exists’ for doing so. . . An applicant satisfies the ‘proper cause’ requirement only if he can ‘demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community.'”

Now, that seems terribly easy to do — I mean, how hard is it to demonstrate (in this country) that one has a “special need for self-protection” when all of us are already viewing the “general community” with great distrust, skepticism, and (at times) fear. I’m left with a dispiriting sense that while we have taken one important step forward with the bipartisan federal bill that was just recently hammered out, any gains will be stripped away by the New York case ruling. And let us not deceive ourselves that it will end at New York State’s borders. As a society, have we lost all sense of reason, all sense of proportion?

It is generally agreed upon by historians that the context in which the 2nd Amendment was written relied upon a common understanding of our new nation’s greatest existential threat. All sides of the debate back in 1791 were in agreement about the dangers of a standing army. Noah Shusterman (Washington Post, 22-February 2018) distilled the prevailing thought this way: “any society with a professional army could never be truly free.” It was never about an individual’s right to bear arms; it was ever about their participation in a militia. In that fragile moment, no one could foresee the broader implications.

The debate now cannot presuppose a common way of looking at our nation’s greatest security needs. For sure, there are coalitions among the American citizenry who still fear either a foreign take-over of our country or a coup staged by army generals, but can we really say that that is a greater threat than the threat we pose to each other? And, last I saw, we have a “Regular Army”, so do citizens still feel the need to bear arms? Against whom? Has our mutual distrust reached capacity, such that we will find it impossible to disentangle ourselves from our consuming resentments and grievances, our stubbornly-held differences?

Having a dream in which I killed someone with a handgun really shook me up. Even though I convince myself that my dream took that direction because of all the recent episodes of gun violence — especially the mass shootings — the 6-3 ruling (big surprise) by the U.S. Supreme Court expanding gun-toters’ rights seems morally wrong. If it isn’t starkly obvious by now, yes, I do believe there should be limits on gun ownership and carry laws.

Grandparents

Some might call it morbid, but I’ve always been fascinated by dead people. . . and nearly dead people, which is how I viewed my dad’s parents when I was growing up. In truth, they weren’t (much) older than my mom’s parents, but where there was liveliness and humor and tenderness on the one side — all obvious signs that Papa Joe and Nana May (my mom’s parents) were of this world, Nana Morrissey and her perpetually scowling partner Gama were stern, dull, and disapproving. I grew up believing that Nana May and Papa Joe were the kinds of grandparents that one could more easily love and want to be around, to nestle (maybe) in their laps, and that Nana M and Gama were unhappy people who were born old and whose only concern was that we children not touch any of the fragile furnishings (and they were ALL fragile) in their tiny, old-fashioned home that perched — cramped and awkward — on a rocky ledge uphill from the Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford. As a child, how freely one could run around and get dirty, maybe even break things (and each other) were immensely important activities, and our degree of freedom to do so defined how we adjudged the character of our four grandparents. It was unfair and shortsighted, but that’s how children are.

Recently I acquired (from that same tiny house on the rocky ledge) a cache of archival collections and loose photos that belonged to my ancient Aunt Ginny, my dad’s only sibling. She lived to 103 years old and displayed an enduring reverence for “the family record”, maybe a by-product of her long career as an attorney. Taken together, the photos tell a story that I never knew, one that upends (in a most meaningful way) my conclusions about my Medford grandparents.

“Circus Day” (May 3, 1959)

“Circus Day” in May 1959 was one of those occasions for which there are several photos of Kevin, Tom, Chris, and me. We’re all spit-polish, scrubby-clean top to bottom, ready for Aunt Ginny to widen our country-dwelling horizons by treating us to The Greatest Show on Earth, an annual extravaganza held at Boston Garden. Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus was 88 years old in 1959. I was a little over three years old, the baby of the family. (For nearly five years I was able to enjoy that vaunted status until the second half of the family began to arrive.)  In at least three of the snapshots, I’m leaning cozily into my Nana M and she’s got a protective (one might say “loving”) arm around me. To me, the gesture looks natural. As an adult with a lifetime of opportunity to reshape the narrative, could I really have had it all wrong? Were Nana M. and Gama just a typical couple of a certain age and time period, grandparents whose lives ran parallel to but distant from our other set? 

And so I begin to remember things. 

My favorite birthday cake is — and always has been — “Hershey’s Chocolate Town Special Cake” with “7-Minute (Boiled) Frosting”. Although I can’t remember how established it was as a tradition, Nana M. began making it for me for my birthday when I was very young. Each year when she presented it, I was dazzled by its exquisite, snow-white beauty and, of course, would be nearly insensible with joy as I shoveled it into my mouth. Whenever I make the same cake, I use Nana M’s magnificent creation as my benchmark, striving to achieve a rich, moist cake texture and swirly snowdrift frosting perfection that I recall her cakes having. And I can’t help but conclude that she made that cake. . . for me. . .  with love and pride. 

It seems that I never knew my Medford grandparents at all. 

Family Research — The Stories That Really Matter

It’s a simple truth that anyone doing serious family research will — at some point — hit a brick wall. The more obdurate that wall, the more determined we are to surmount it. Given the ease with which we can obtain contemporary information about people, it vexes us that with a little earnest effort we can’t find out all we’d like to know about our ancestors. Since we Morrisseys descend nearly entirely from Irish forbears who left the Isle in the period extending from the Famine (latter half of the 1840’s) up through the 1880’s, with few exceptions our ability to confirm lineage beyond the ancestors who immigrated is hampered by several factors, such as:

  • Vague references by those who settled here as to their home of origin. In most cases, we have the county name only (if that).
  • Inconsistency in the self-reporting as to year of birth, especially on census records and death records, but also marriage records. Rather than assume that the variance was born of suspicion and distrust, the inconsistencies are most likely attributable to their own uncertainty about their birth — bear in mind that in the 19th century and earlier, knowing precise dates was unimportant (unless you were Irish and neglected to register a birth within a required time period, in which case you would simply alter the authentic date to comply with the law.) Family bibles have been perhaps the most reliable records of births (or more importantly, baptisms). . . if the researcher has access to them.
  • Early census records (19th century) for Ireland were destroyed in the fire of 1922 at the Public Records Office. As a “census substitute”, Griffith’s Valuations is the go-to, but despite its voluminous listings of tenancies, teased out by townland, barony, parish, and county; it has severe limitations. (A more thorough examination would be better suited in a separate essay.)
  • Civil registration for births, marriages, and deaths in Ireland did not begin until 1864. Wouldn’t you know that most of the ancestors for whom the trail runs cold is right before that year — it inevitably seems that the 1850’s is the period of time that we most need to examine? For Roman Catholics (as nearly all our ancestors seem to have been), having the name of the diocese (as well as a fair idea of year) is crucial if we want to do a work-around and establish dates and confirm family connections. (Even here, the records are incomplete, especially regarding burial information — fewer than half the parishes kept burial information prior to 1900.)

When we pause to consider the driving force behind our research, it seems we are most motivated by our curiosity about our own part in the ongoing narrative — why am I dreamer, for example? Do I get that from my dad? And, in turn, where did he get it from? Is Margaret’s (or Michaela’s) widow’s peak a genetic trait inherited from Gama’s family? Is Tom’s intensity something passed down from the Morrissey side of the family? (They were, it seemed, a very competitive and intense lot.) Surrounded as we are by blue or green-eyed siblings, Bobby and I have brown eyes — are they a Murphy characteristic? And, let us not overlook shortness — is that from the Gildeas or the Morrisseys? (The Murphys — at least the women — were on the tall side, but Annie Mulhern — Papa Joe’s mother — was purportedly a “very tiny lady”.) Following are some of the questions to which we are always seeking answers in our researching of ancestors:

  • What did they look like?
  • What types of personalities did they have?
  • Did they get along with each other? And with others?
  • Did they have any health issues?
  • What types of livelihood did they have? (And how much of that was by choice or through coercion?)
  • What was their academic life like? (Achievers? Underachievers? Smart? Lazy? The educator part of me would want, furthermore, to tease out multiple intelligences.)
  • What did they do in their spare time? What were they passionate about? (Sports, social or political causes, travel, The Church, etc.)
  • What should each one be remembered for? (I always am most moved by the ones who would otherwise be forgotten over time — the ones who strayed or disappeared. . . or were institutionalized, and the ones who never had their own children. Who can assure their legacies? Who will perpetuate their memory?)

Fortune Favors the Bold

I recently went shopping with a friend at a nearby antique market, and while we meandered through the vast indoor space — a converted mill building alongside the North Canal in Lawrence (off-shoot of the Merrimack River), we kept up a running conversation. At one point, we both agreed that we were ideal companions in that particular endeavor. Both of us have a casual approach, not in the least like how her husband undertakes the task, nor how my husband used to — each can (or could) spend up to an hour in one nook, closely examining every piece. When my husband George was alive we enjoyed our antique shop adventures immensely, but it always was the case that as soon as we entered the door, we’d part ways. Inevitably, he would emerge with something amazing, and I would be spending my money on something that before too long would end up in a Goodwill bin. I just don’t have the eye for spotting treasures; either that, or I’m too impulsive. . . or impatient. . . or lazy. Maybe I’m all those.

Every once in a while, however, I’m inspired to be different. I want to be that person who can while away an hour or two in an antique shop (or an entire morning at a fair), inspecting countless pieces of recycled merchandise, moving some aside to reach for the hidden gems. Just as gratifying would be the casual conversations that can be struck up with knowledgeable (and quirky) vendors, especially the ones who get excited when you’re curious about an item’s history or backstory. (Having lived more or less in the shadow of my much more social and outspoken partner, let me just say it’s a slow process learning to position myself center-front on that same stage where for decades I occupied a position slightly behind George. . . right where I was comfortable.)

Bembe and Yoselín rocking a Cuban son

In most rooms of my house there is at least one of George’s antique finds. I find I’m less able to part with the unique, one-of-a-kind vintage and antique curiosities that reside politely — in some cases joyously entertaining — on shelves. One of my favorites is a pair of folksy-looking Cuban musicians, hand-carved and depicted in a stylized manner. They’re an exuberant couple with posable bodies. The man is playing the güiro, the woman — bongos, and both are singing. Every so often, in order to fully appreciate their vitality, I reposition their arms or their heads or their feet. I’m not likely to ever part with my Cuban pair because their most recent story — the only chapter I’ll ever know — fills me with my own version of joy. On one of our antique adventures, George and I found ourselves somewhere downeast in Maine. As we typically did, we entered an antique shop together and immediately parted company. My interests tend to lean toward old textiles, sewing machines, 60’s lunchboxes, books, and 19th century photos. George’s particular interests were tools, toys, bottles, and anything he thought I would like. After about 30 minutes George appeared at my side and silently handed me the pair of figurines. He knew I would love them, and maybe imagined that I would add them to the decor in my Spanish classroom. Not for a moment would I entertain such a thought — I wanted them just for myself. It didn’t surprise me at all, either, that he had found them in a part of the shop that I had already breezed by.

Over the years, I feel I’ve come to know Yoselin and Bembe quite well. (Yes, I’ve named my high-spirited, posable Cuban musicians.) Like most people, I’ve formed an attachment to a possession that obviously has only the slightest of monetary value. It must be said, though, that whenever we enter an antique shop or attend a fair or (especially) a flea market, we entertain a hope that we’ll find a hidden gem. Yoselín and Bembe are enough of a treasure for me, but this morning I read in Smithsonian about a woman who really hit the jackpot. . . in a Goodwill store, of all places. For the price of $35 (if you shop at Goodwill, you understand that to be top dollar), Laura Young emerged with a very heavy but cool marble bust that she knew would look perfect in her hall entryway. Young isn’t a complete novice — she trades in antiques, so she knew she was on the better end of the transaction.

Audentes Fortuna Iuvat

The 2,000 year-old story began with some famous Roman commander or emperor’s son or son of a disgruntled statesman (good guy, bad guy — it’s hard to know with certainty). In death, all these guys are elevated anyway, whether in status or as blocks of marble shaped into beautiful, proud heads and placed on a pedestal. . . literally (or, at least their likenesses are. . . literally).

Whoever was being represented by the sculpture, its beauty and value were appreciated (many centuries later) by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made it a part of his permanent collection, housed in the newly constructed Pompeiianum Museum in Aschaffenburg, Germany. One hundred years would pass uneventfully until very eventfully World War II happened, and the Allies bombed the Pompeiianum. The shame is made greater by the fact that looting then took place by the Allies. One way or another, the stolen head made its way to the United States where it remained a secret for nearly eighty years. And now, the real story is as much about our curiosity about the moron in Texas who dropped it off at a Goodwill recycling center as it is about where it has been for eighty years.

There’s a lesson here, and I don’t think it’s caveat emptor. Perhaps caveat donator (“donor beware”) better captures the moral. Also, bona quarentibus (which, if I’m not totally making up my own form of Latin, means “Good things come to those who seek.”)

Read Smithsonian’s article : “Ancient Roman Sculpture Likely Looted During WWII Turns Up at Texas Goodwill”

A Post-Modern Era – Sure, Whatever

I told my older daughter yesterday that I had a real desire to want to drop the word “postmodernist” into a conversation — seamlessly, or as if I use it all the time. The result, of course, was that I had to go down the google rabbit hole to find out what it even means. I landed on a literary website that — no surprise — assumed a certain degree of prior knowledge. I don’t have that.

If I stated that in order to understand postmodernism — as an era or sensibility or cultural style — one needs to first consider modernism; then all of you (or, rather, I should say, all of us) would instantly lose our way. I made a valiant effort to make sense of it all, but after tripping over words such as metanarrative and philistinism, I became hopelessly lost in even the most general statements. Consider this premise: modernism, which flourished during our grandparents’ and parents’ time, was shaped by a suspicion of all things popular*. I just couldn’t get past the idea that what became popular was a rejection of that which was popular. (So, who was making it popular? A different set of people than the ones who were eschewing it?) I arrived at the end of one article being less clear than when I began.

Modernism, at its most negative, was characterized as puritanical and uptight, cleaving rigidly to historical truth and objective reality. That movement gave way to postmodernism right around the time that the civil rights movement was taking firm hold of the collective conscience. By the time I was graduating from high school, it was in full flower. To compare the two “movements”, all one really needs to do is examine how our parents’ lives (if they came of age just prior to WW2) were different from our own, and make generalizations. Looking at just one aspect — livelihood — tells us a lot. Manufacturing and constructing things with one’s hands no longer made sense (or cents, for that matter.) The Information Age was already under way, re-shaping not only work-related skills, but attitudes, as well.

Without getting all high-brow, I think I can safely say that postmodernism in some way claims that reality is relative, and nothing should be taken seriously. Your reality is different from mine. So, if I claim that gluten is a baker’s best friend, that reality may hold true for select bakers, but not others. (I like gluten.) It gets worse. There is no objective reality, so say the postmodernists. In this way, science and “historical truth” — according to britannica.com — are invalid measures. As such, they are merely dartboards for muzzy-headed Fox News pundits and guest personalities, the Fauci deniers, if you will. Even death loses its objective nature. If you have watched (and liked. . . as millions of viewers do) “Shaun of the Dead”, you will have a great appreciation for postmodernism.

I come away from my examination of cultural eras with these thoughts, questions, and conclusions:

  • A term like “postmodern” makes me reflexively think that it applies to a period that we’ve yet to enter or experience (because I can’t help but think that “modern” applies to now.)
  • Who gets to name the eras/movements?
  • Have they got our era wrong? I tend to think that it’s the loud minority — as always — that is paid attention to.
  • If we buy the notion that “reality is subjective” (and that maybe we all place too much emphasis on historical truth,) then the behavior of certain members of Congress and a certain past president vis-a-vis January 6 makes a lot of sense to me.
  • In a post-modern setting, irony rules.
  • We’ve exited the post-modern era and are now in what someone has decided to call “meta-modern”. If you’re willing to accept the defining features of this new movement, they are a reaction to all the chaos and cynicism of post-modernism. . . naturally.

(I promise you I will not return to this discussion. Honestly, learning about postmodernism was painful, and it is highly unlikely that I will ever slip the word “postmodernist” (or any of its related parts of speech) into a conversation. It was not a carefully considered idea, even if I wanted to sound smarter by using it.)

*from “Literary Theory and Criticism” (literariness.org)

My Version of U.S. Route 1

My introduction to Route 1 was arranged by my new boyfriend in the spring of 1976. With a meticulously detailed, hand-drawn map, complete with images of cows in front of Hilltop Steak House (Saugus) and the impressively tall and long stone wall bordering Parkland Avenue (and Pine Grove Cemetery) in Lynn , I nervously set out one Saturday morning. It’s doubtful that I had ever driven further north than Randolph, Massachusetts, and the soundness of my 1963 Rambler was always a concern. Granted, it was a solid piece of machinery and would likely have plowed over most other vehicles on the road — that is, unless the engine seized or I blew a tire, my greatest worries of the day. I pretty much stuck fast to that same course whenever I visited George or his dad from parts both south and north of there. In all the intervening years — 1976 to now — whenever I travel that path I think about that map, especially the cows and that imposing wall. It might have been one of the earliest signs that this guy was really into me.

Until I later moved with this boyfriend-cum-husband-cum-father-of-my-children to Salisbury in 1985, my feelings about Route 1 were clear and, frankly, immutable — I hated it. Drivers were the worst! None of the three lanes was safer or saner than the others. It wasn’t until I had a few travel experiences on Route 128 that I would cease to announce (to anyone who cared), “Route 1 is the worst road ever!” It’s even worse today, hardly shocking news.

U.S. Route 1 in Byfield, MA

But there’s another stretch of Route 1 that I came to know after we moved to Salisbury, and it’s a much friendlier, more soothing segment for the motorist. In fact, the section between Danvers and Salisbury — where it’s a single lane in either direction — in no way resembles the nightmarish part between Boston and Danvers. For those who reach that part alive, you’re graced with bucolic roadside scenery. The traffic lights in that stretch, given as gentle reminders to keep your speed moderate, have the added advantage of coaxing a pleasant examination of the surroundings. You can, as well, more easily contemplate the road’s origins.

If you’ve ever wondered about the naming of our roadways, your curiosity should begin with, why U.S. Route 1? Of all the numbered roads, being #1 is bound to be important. It may not be necessary to begin at the very beginning, when it was a mere trail system for travelers on foot, then horse-drawn cart, then stage coach. My own curiosity forms a halo around the persistence of the “Newburyport Turnpike” name. The turnpike era began in the final years of the 18th century, coinciding with a blossoming national sentience. With our struggles for independence a settled matter (by and large), our confidence as a new nation permitted us to turn our efforts toward long-term projects. With products being zipped all over and between the states, a tipping point had been reached; municipalities were finding it difficult to make improvements and regular repairs to public roadways. It does seem hard to fathom that once upon a time, road maintenance was 100% a local responsibility. (Think about that every time you pay a toll going over the Tobin Bridge or use the Mass. Turnpike.) Public charters, arrangements made between municipalities and private companies, acquired a decided appeal. And, even though their margin of profit ebbed and flowed in season with the rise and fall of other modes of popular transport, they can be credited with our roads’ finest hour in terms of maintenance. (Again, think about that each time your car hits a pothole.)

Returning to the naming of our roadways, before a consistent numbering convention was drafted in 1925, all the major roads bore names that reflected their uniqueness, as it were. But the states were suffocating beneath the ever-growing confusion of road names, not to mention the increasing traffic as Americans indulged their new passion. At that time, road names were much more evocative: the Dixie Highway, The Yellowstone Trail, and — of course — our own East Coast Highway, to which everyone along The Atlantic seaboard wanted to belong.

The really interesting piece in all of this is how the U.S. Department of Agriculture — in particular, its Bureau of Public Roads division — formalized the exact trajectory of the course that came to be called U.S. Route 1. I’d always assumed that the pathway that bears the name Route 1 was an obvious delineation, easily traced in red on an early 20th century Rand McNally road atlas, but with the clamoring interest up and down the Atlantic coast to be included, a definitive means of codifying needed to be established. There was instant approval of the idea advanced by E.W. James, chief of design for the BPR, that they use the historic “Falls Line” roadway network as a template. In the early days of our nation when cargo was moved by boat, communities were established as far upriver from The Atlantic as boats could safely reach, usually at the point where they encountered falls or rapids. To meet overland cargo transportation needs, a network of inter-city roads was established. Anomalies, inconsistencies and political outmaneuvering notwithstanding, that’s exactly the pathway that U.S. Route 1 followed, beginning in 1926.

Parker River at Rt. 1 (looking west), Newbury MA

For all the years that I traveled back and forth to my teaching job at Triton High School in Byfield, Massachusetts, I never took for granted my commute along Rt. 1. I always rhapsodized about how easy and relaxing it was. Even though it would have been faster to take Route 95, I nearly always opted to go the slower road. For those of you thinking, Gawd, who would choose willingly that nightmare of a road? I point out that Rt. 1 between Danvers and Salisbury is a delightful departure from parts both south and north of there. In Topsfield, the way is bordered by old stone walls, behind which can be seen rolling meadows and antique farmhouses. Postcard worthy images, for sure. Further north (and part of my daily path), the marshland through which the Parker River flows was a constant source of pleasure, especially early in the morning. Each day, by the time I crested the hill above the Parker, I opened my mind to the anticipated landscape. Often, the mist was just beginning to dissipate, exposing the salt marsh hay stacks above a fleecy blanket of white-gray. Other times the mist traced a serpentine path directly above the river. And there were plenty of mornings, too, when the long shadows cast by the rising sun distorted all the features before me, creating a surreal canvas of darks melting into lights. No matter the season, there was joy in the scenery. With only three traffic lights between my house and school, and few cars on the road so early, I was pretty much alone with my thoughts for the twelve minute ride to work. Given how easily I was distracted by the landscape, it’s remarkable that I never crashed into anything. I was probably most at risk when I knew the sun would just be edging above the horizon as I crossed the Merrimack — I could never resist craning my neck at precisely the mid-point of the bridge. And I always always remarked — to no one other than myself — about how beautiful it was.

early morning, crossing the Merrimack River, October 2015

Inasmuch as I might entertain a sentimental wish that we could return to a more intimate era when our major roadways sported names that reflected regional character, such an invocation to revisit the past can provoke unpleasant consequences. Who, really, would think it wise — or sensitive — to reintroduce and perpetuate, for example, a highway that contains the word “dixie”, given the word’s association with a romanticized antebellum era? My wistful thinking is modulated further when I consider that the earliest (successful) efforts to name our “trails” were outcomes of merely the noisiest promoters of road names. It wasn’t any governmental body that affixed the names to our major roads up through the early decades of the 20th century. It was trail associations (with very defined motivations) who often competed for naming rights, and who — in fits of pique — might change the course of their routes and completely snub offending cities, making it all be known by slapping up new signage on barns, rocks, trees, or other visible objects. Say what you will about governmental interference, but the national systematizing of our roadways was an inarguable giant step forward. The fact that anyone can reasonably navigate from one part of the country to another is largely due to the imposition of a systematic and simple strategy — north-south routes were given odd numbers, east-west even numbers (with the more substantial transcontinental routes being further categorized: east-west were two-digits ending in zero, and north-south ending in either one or five.) Think of any numbered route and apply this formula — it works!

It is my great hope that you — loyal readers — don’t get overly mired in the nomenclature, and instead aim your car for destinations that provide ample roadside distractions. Even before I was retired and traveled the same 12 miles to work each day, I never ceased to be surprised by the landscape along Route 1. I’d like to think that roads aren’t empty, colorless lanes between point A and point B, but rather conduits to experience nature’s ever-shifting kaleidoscope of images. It’s worth it to leave for work just a few minutes earlier in order to luxuriate in the details that we’re forced to overlook when it’s a frenzied commute down the interstate. I’d like to think that for over twenty years I took a Sunday drive — every work day — so that I wouldn’t miss out on the blanketing mist that hovered over the Parker River flood plain or the occasional Northern Harrier who glided above it or the sun rising over the Merrimack, all images that bolstered me, centered me, imbuing each day with meaning and purpose. Such memories I hope to always hold dear.

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth*

I had every intention of letting the rejection just roll off my shoulders. But I thought about it again today, and I think I’m even angrier. So this is primarily a rant (which I promised I wouldn’t do in this new blog space. Gee, that didn’t take long.)

A couple days ago I reached out to the Schlesinger Library, a special collections library within the Harvard Library with what I considered a generous offer. I’d long known about their status as a research organization; in particular, they champion efforts to highlight the accomplishments of women. In their words, they stand apart as “the leading center for scholarship on the history of women in the United States.” I assumed that a copy of my mother’s World War II album would be a welcome addition to their holdings, useful to those doing scholarly work about women’s contributions at critical moments in our nation’s history. I personally do not gain by donating the book; in fact, I would incur the printing and shipping costs, but as someone who gives my time freely to a local historical society, I understand the value of firsthand accounts by people who played a part or were witness to pivotal events in history, whether those events were at the community level or much grander in scale.

Nagasaki after atomic bomb, August 1945

It may be that we all imbue treasured family artifacts with inflated value, but there are elements in my mother’s story that — through photos and notations — dramatically capture important subtleties, as well as complexities, in a war that likely will always hold our gravest lessons about the depravity of humankind. For example, my mother, in her military role as dietitian, was deployed to Namur, Belgium in February of 1945 (in a mission referred to by its acronym RAMP) to serve as part of the team that would intake and treat liberated and recovered Allied POW’s.** Incorporated also into the album are a few photos that were captured by one of the first photojournalists to arrive on the scene after the Americans dropped “Fat Man” on the city of Nagasaki, Japan August 9, 1945. The photojournalist who gave the pictures to my mother’s family was able to memorialize one of the most controversial actions of the war. To see these pictures — in stark and minute detail — simply leaves one without words.

In boldly bragging about “its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism,” the Schlesinger Library nevertheless is spurning a great opportunity to preserve a relevant first-person portrayal by a self-styled feminist. The final insult in the Library’s rejection letter, after offering the now-customary excuses about pandemic constraints and hurdles, is that if it had been a chronicling by someone who fit within their “strategic priorities”, for example, by a woman of color or a conservative woman, they would gladly accept it. They apparently don’t see the hypocrisy with their stated commitment to deepen their holdings by “women of all political philosophies” and to promote “a more complete story of human accomplishment.” As if it weren’t already fairly remarkable to be a female commissioned officer serving in France, Belgium, the Philippines, and Japan during World War II.

Unlike New England School of Law, which was thrilled recently to receive my aunt’s overstuffed scrapbook from her years at Portia Law (Cl. of 1939), the Schlesinger suffers by its hasty rejection. The word arrogant comes to mind. Perhaps I should be more sensitive to the organization’s efforts to level the playing field, whereby it gives more space to underrepresented groups. I would argue, however, that any primary source material that succeeds in deepening our understanding of complicated and consequential events in history would be inherently desirable.

It’s their loss.

And I’m sorry I even thought they were worthy.

For an account of “Hospitalization and Evacuation of Recovered Allied Military Personnel” (RAMP), click here to visit the WW2 US Medical Research Center.

*See how I found a way to connect with my earlier Greek mythology posts?

**There was an interesting distinction made inside the hospitals that were set up to treat our recovered POW’s. When the Allies opened up the concentration camps (or they were abandoned by the retreating Germans), some PW’s followed orders to remain in place until transported to the hospitals, while others responded to a primal urge to put distance between themselves and their misery. The first group’s members were designated “liberated” and were given priority over the second group of “displaced” PW’s, those who often just wandered staggering into the army hospital grounds.

Smoking is Bad for Your Health

Each day I get an alert from History.com’s “THIS DAY IN HISTORY”* and (nearly) always find something about it that fascinates me. A couple days ago it was about Christopher Columbus’ mistaking manatees for mermaids, and that sent me down a rabbit hole. I learned about the Steller’s sea cow (and of course that recalled for me the recent sightings of the wayward Steller’s sea eagle who is having trouble finding his way home to Eastern Russia), their namesake (George Wilhelm Steller – quite an amazing fellow in his own right; I’ll have to study this 18th century botanist/explorer further), manatees, and ending with a perusal of mermaid-centered 15th century art. I hardly need to point out that all of this took place in the comfort of my home via the internet. How would we otherwise manage COVID restrictions?

This morning was no different; I happily descended the rabbit hole; in fact, I haven’t fully re-emerged. On this day in history in 1964, the U.S. surgeon general Luther Terry reported the findings of a two-year commission: succinctly put, smoking was hazardous to your health. Its obviousness is laughable now, but you can’t help but time travel back to 1964 and re-experience — in your imagination — how prevalent smoking was, and how accepted its practice was. My parents were both smokers, and I’m sure nearly half of my readers can say the same thing. We can commiserate about all the joyless car rides in which our greatest challenge was how not to breath in the secondhand smoke. Meals were typically followed by a ritual lighting up of either a Kent or a Winston, and no project by Dad went unaccompanied by a smoldering cigarette notched into the rim of an ash tray. With just the merest effort, I can re-imagine the distinctive aroma of a filled ash tray. I was forever emptying the abalone and clam shells that we used as improvised ashtrays and washing them out, but of course the cycle was perpetual, therefore making my gesture pointless.

Surgeon General Terry’s 1964 report was a watershed moment. As the percentage of adult smokers had surpassed 40% and there was no sign of the upward trend reversing, he had done something quite courageous. Knowing that the pushback by the enormously powerful tobacco industry would be fierce and prolonged, and mindful of Wall Street ramifications, he nevertheless put his (unsurprising) findings in front of the public. While it took decades for legislation to subsequently be enacted, Terry’s principled stand serves as a heartening example of one influential person’s choice to prioritize the public good. In a world where profit, expediency, and self-interest on the one hand compete with public health, humanitarianism, and charity on the other, today’s leaders could use such a reminder.

Check out “THIS DAY IN HISTORY”: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history

A Thousand Ships

For those paying close attention (and I’m not suggesting that you should be paying close attention), you might have noticed a thematic repetition in some of my choices of books lately. It began with Circe, and having loved that book, I eagerly read The Song of Achilles by the same author, Madeline Miller. I just finished A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, and walked away from it with that same feeling of satisfaction. So, now I’m left puzzling over why I am just now being turned on by stories inspired by Greek mythology. Why now? Why not before?

One would think that there might have been a smidgen of curiosity way back when I was in high school. After all, our school mascot was a Trojan. Perhaps the turn-off was that everyone always considered the name’s other connotation much more naturally than any association with Odysseus, Helen, or Achilles, or just generally the whole Heroic Age. It’s possible that I quailed at the prospect of mispronouncing all those Greek names with a preponderance of vowels (and off-putting diphthongs). It is equally likely that the ancientness of it all failed to inspire me. I think I’m closer to understanding why I now can embrace these stories. The gradual shift within me has to do with a new acceptance of ambiguity, uncertainty. What I mean is, in the past I wouldn’t have been caught dead reading a story centered on the Trojan War, mostly because of archaeologists’ inability to say definitively where Troy was. While the accepted wisdom is that the walled city held an unassailable position at the southern approach to the Dardanelles (along the Turkish straits), I couldn’t imagine investing all that time into reading about an event that may or may not have taken place where the experts were in reasonable agreement that it did take place. Moreover, hedging their claims about the real names behind Homer’s characters only left me even more frustrated. If I were to read a book about war, I wanted a war from the last couple of hundred years. Everything about them seemed more conclusive.

The reason A Thousand Ships appealed to me is because Haynes freely admits (big surprise) that there are enormous gaps in our understanding of the role of women during that ten-year war (and the ten years that followed). With her imagination thus unfettered, she wove a vibrant, highly entertaining tale, one that portrays the female characters in ways that allow us readers to nod vigorously and say, “Yes, I can see how it might have played out that way.” There’s nothing high-brow in Haynes’ writing style; in fact, she very artfully transforms the unapproachable and fabled characters into flawed, mortal, touchable beings.

If you can get beyond the challenge of accurately pronouncing Greek names*, you’ll love this book. (I’m trying to ready myself to read The Odyssey, and maybe I should do the audio version to avoid my own mishandling of names.)

*As I read, I used online pronunciation guides, but even they were not in agreement. Sometimes, the British pronunciation deviated from the U.S. pronunciation, and other “guides” were just rubbish, contradicting rules of Greek phonetics (as I am beginning to understand them).