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October 1, 2010
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Common-place celebrates Phillis Wheatley

Worcester, MA—The current issue of Common-place celebrates a rediscovery of former slave and poet Phillis Wheatley with an article that gives new historical and literary context to her work along with Wheatley-inspired poems and commentary by contemporary poet, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers.

Tara Bynum's article, "Phillis Wheatley's Pleasures," notes that Wheatley, whose own book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), is often touted as the first to jump-start the African-American literacy tradition.

Bynum explains that Wheatley's poems which mime the poetic forms of Alexander Pope and John Milton, were disdained by her undergraduate students who "wanted texts which reinforced the misinformed idea, criticized by Ellison long ago, that 'unrelieved suffering is the only 'real' Negro experience.'"

Bynum points out that Wheatley's poetry actually confronts the limits of this idea because it lacks an interest in a racialized subjectivity. Wheatley's poems and letters, Bynum writes, document "the journey of the inward self, united to God by a sincere faith…Her real and poetic descriptions of this relationship offer her readers a sense of her interior life-a life that supersedes a concern for her race."

What a reconsideration of Wheatley reveals, Bynum concludes, is the extent to which she offers us (as her readers) a way to read her writing and imagine her legacy.

Jeffers writes in the introduction to Poetic Research that Wheatley's poems, show her "daring, her addressing white males and telling them about her slavery, her trauma. This claiming of voice is an act of incredible on the part of an eighteenth-century black woman who was still a slave at the time, and who had no literary forbears in her racially gendered context."

Jeffers continues: "'You white men did this to me,' Wheatley essentially says (in the poems, "On Being Brought from Africa to America" and "To the University of Cambridge,"). 'You made me a slave when I was free. You took me away from the only home I ever knew, from my parents and my childhood. It hurt me and it still hurts. And not only am I going to raise my voice and talk about how it hurts, you're going to listen to me talk about how it hurts.'"

Wheatley inspired Jeffers to write a short series of poems which became a book-length project-in-progress entitled The Age of Phillis, It not only imagines Wheatley's life and times, but also the era of the American Revolution in Massachusetts.

"By finishing this project imagining the life and times of this brilliant and complex woman, I hope to make it impossible for anyone approaching the work of Phillis Wheatley to ever again dismiss her courageous artistry." writes Jeffers.

Common-place's other articles examine eighteenth-century sagas, both true and fictional.

Hsuan L. Hsu's article, "A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of Wu Chih Tien," compares Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court with Wu Chih Tien, a serialized novel purportedly "translated from the original" by the early Chinese American author Wong Chin Foo. It is the first novel published by a "Chinese American." The two novels shared the same illustrator as well as many of the same themes and story lines.

"Both novels project modern ideas and technologies into the past to counteract conventional opinions about the progressive nature of history and the socially backward status of non-Western civilizations," Hsu writes. By doing so, Twain and Wong countered the nativist visions of white masculinity characteristic of popular romance novels featuring historical or foreign settings."

Reading the novels together helps better understand how contending visions of empire, "progress," and racial inequality were presented and debated in works of literary fiction, according to Hsu.

"It also makes visible affinities between the two writers and their audiences that-in spite of Twain's career-long interest in the Chinese-neither author noted in print," Hsu notes. "As platform lecturers, humorists, newspaper editors, and occasional political activists, both Twain and Wong understood the power that entertaining works of adventure fiction could exert over public sentiment and political opinions," Hsu writes.

Roger Ekirch's article, "Kidnapped!" tells of the true story that inspired the classic boy's adventure, Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

The true story was of the orphaned James Annesley, presumptive heir to five aristocratic titles and sprawling estates in Ireland, England, and Wales, kidnapped from Dublin in 1728 at the age of 12 and shipped by his uncle to America. Only after 12 more years, as an indentured servant in the backwoods of northern Delaware, did he successfully escape, ultimately returning to Dublin to bring his blood rival, now the earl of Anglesea, to justice in one of the epic legal struggles of the eighteenth century, according to Ekirch.

Although Annesley's saga captivated eighteenth-century England, the larger story of has invariably failed to draw scholarly attention, Ekirch notes. "Not only are the antagonists lacking in intrinsic importance, but James's life, however extraordinary, left little lasting imprint on the historical landscape."

One of his aims in resurrecting the saga , Ekirch writes, "was to illuminate eighteenth-century Irish society, thanks largely to the vast trove of legal documents that members of the Annesley family left in their wake. The sheer density of the depositions, many containing richly detailed recollections of rural Ireland, is stunning. They speak not only of the minutiae of everyday existence-the clothing, furnishings, and customs of lords and peasants-but also of the cadences of Irish life."

"Ultimately, then, besides whatever light it sheds on eighteenth-century Ireland, the ordeal of James Anneslsey is a tale of betrayal and loss-but also, I like to think, of endurance, survival, and redemption," Ekirch writes.

Common Reading features Molly McCarthy's article, "Redeeming the Almanac," which offers a striking comparison of the historic publication to the iPhone of today. First some context; McCarthy writes that "an almanac was actually the second publication to come off the first American printing press. In 1639! Every year after that up through the American Revolution, the almanac enjoyed a readership unmatched but for the Bible."

Like an iPhone, the almanac was small, portable and had many applications, McCarthy explains: "Although it could hardly match the number of offerings in an iPhone app store, (the 1792 edition) of the Universal Calendar and North American Almanac was pretty versatile."

The almanac contained tables "that helped calculate interest on an outstanding loan." Other tables "predicted the weather and, by extension, told farmers the best time to plant their crops." With lists such as the annual meetings of Quakers in New England, McCarthy notes that the almanac "told users when, and in the case of the Quakers where, to go to church. A virtual map, it directed travelers to and from Boston via the best roads and taverns. It performed a civic duty, for defendants and spectators alike, by publishing the days county courts met in all of New England. It indicated the best time for captains to set sail from the port of Boston. It even cured toe cramps. And, last but not least, it told the time."

Just as an iPhone connects users to an outside world and provides a feast of tools designed to make our lives easier, the almanac held the same promise, McCarthy writes. "More than that, it was central to early American life and culture because it had so little competition. There was nothing at the local bookshop that could do all the things the almanac did."

The demise of these handy little publications can be attributed to the printing and communication revolution of the early nineteenth century, according to McCarthy

McCarthy concludes: "But what may have doomed the almanac to the dungheap of American culture more than such competition was its exploitation by the patent medicine man. Advertisers found the almanac by the mid-nineteenth century the perfect vehicle for peddling their cures to the American public. Full of such marketing pitches that homed in on the elimination of "Humiliating Eruptions" or foul breath, almanacs never recovered their previous status in American culture."

In Tales from the Vault, Amy Werbel's article, "Searching for Smut," recounts her archival excavation of materials that survived the attacks of legendary censor Anthony Comstock.

Comstock "was anti-lust, anti-immigration, anti-gambling, anti-drinking, anti-birth control, and he believed that Government should regulate morality by any means necessary," Werbel writes.

Comstock helped create the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) in 1873, and then served as its Secretary and as an Inspector for the U.S. Postal Service until his death in 1915. During his career, Comstock held broad prosecutorial authority. Following passage of the federal Comstock Act in 1873, his puritanical aesthetics served as the legal definition of obscenity in many American courtrooms.

Werbel notes that no figure in American history has brought the significance and survival of the first amendment as much into question as Anthony Comstock. His aesthetics served for 40 years as the national line between virtue and vice.

"Recovery and analysis of where that line was drawn in historical periods provides an indispensable context for understanding the bright lines of our own day," Werbel writes, "particularly as they are drawn differently within micro-communities defined by diverse ideologies, demographic characteristics, and regional variations."

Common Objects features an examination of the The Strike by Robert Koehler, the 1886 painting most college texts use to illustrate the Industrial Revolution. Edward T. O'Donnell's article, "Striking Scenes" notes that Koehler's largely positive depiction of workers is quite rare for the Gilded Age.

"The Strike captures a moment of confrontation as workers pour out of a factory to gather outside the office of their employer," writes O'Donnell in a description of the painting. "Their many conversations and quizzical looks, not to mention their hurried movements, indicate that the strike has been called only moments before. This stop-action, photographic quality lends the scene an air of palpable tension, suggesting to the viewer that something dramatic is about to happen."

"Koehler painted during an era when Americans celebrated one astonishing achievement after another, from the completion of the transcontinental railroad (1869) to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge (1883), from the laying of the Atlantic Cable connecting London and New York by telegraph (1866) to the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty (1886)," O'Donnell writes.

Yet, "massive railroad strikes (the Great Uprising in 1877 and Pullman in 1894) offered vivid evidence that there was more to this upbeat vision of national development than initially met the eye," he continues.

O'Donnell notes that "…apart from its artistic merit, the work reflects better than perhaps any other image produced in the Gilded Age the conflicting visions and resulting debate over the proper role of government in regulating the economy, the rights of workers to form unions and strike for better wages and working conditions, and the impact of growing disparities of wealth on America's republican traditions."

In Common School, Kevin M. Levin writes of his increasingly successful effort to open new fronts in the historical profession through his blog, "Civil War Memory." Levin, a high school history teacher, notes that his primary goal for the blog is "to introduce and discuss questions that typically find more of a home within academic circles to as wide an audience as possible. This involves introducing a wide range of studies, mainly published by university presses, to an audience whose primary interests rarely extend beyond the battlefield," he writes.

The most controversial subject on the blog has been the myth of the black Confederate soldier. "My approach has been not so much to dismiss these stories, but to bring to bear a sharper analytical focus for those readers who are willing to step back and proceed with care." Levin writes.

"I am continually identified as a liberal-socialist-northern revisionist, who is both anti-religion and anti-South. This constant refrain, while worth a few laughs, ought to concern all of us, because it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the historical profession as well as the research process and the dissemination of that research through various types of publications," Levin writes. "Many Civil War enthusiasts simply do not understand what is involved in the writing and research of critical or analytical history."

He and fellow Civil War bloggers, Levin writes, are "not only raising the level of public discourse and introducing the general public to subjects each of us can claim some expertise in, but that we are redefining the idea of what it means to be historians and teachers."

The current issue of Common-place also contains the following book reviews: Stephen Aron's review of The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders, and American Expansion, by Jay Gitlin; Carol Faulkner's review of Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820 by Susan Klepp; Matthew Mason's review of Common Bondage: Slavery as Metaphor in Revolutionary America, by Peter A. Dorsey; Stephen Bauer's review of Prospero's America:

John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy and the Creation of New England Culture,

1606-1676,by Walter W. Woodward and Margot Minardi's review of Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America, by Douglas R. Egerton.

About Common-place

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal's features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Oklahoma Department of History.

About the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world. The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.

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