Who Killed Jane Stanford? by Richard White

July 4, 2022 at 2:34 pm (California, History, True crime)

Who even knew this was an issue? The main reason so few people knew is that from the moment of her demise in Hawaii in 1905, those who were associated with Jane Stanford fought desperately and cunningly to have her death ruled as natural. This included her family, her friends, her servants, and others who were part of her circle at the fledgling university founded by her late husband and herself.

They each had their reasons.

The Stanfords had one child, Leland Stanford Junior, born in 1868 when Jane was 39 years old. While they were vacationing in Florence, Italy, Leland Junior died of typhoid fever. He was fifteen years old.

His parents were devastated. Their grief gave rise to a desire to memorialize their deceased son in a way that would be meaningful and enduring. Leland Stanford Junior University opened on October 1, 1891.

Leland Stanford’s enormous wealth derived from his initial investment in the Central Pacific Railroad, followed by his acquisition of the Southern Pacific Railroad. There’s more – Stanford’s rise to power and fortune is a complex story. When he died in 1893 at the age of 69, he left an extremely well-off widow. This book is her story.

Actually, it’s the story of the last years of her life, those that culminated in the act that caused her death. Jane Stanford was poisoned. The attempt was made twice. The first time, in California, it failed. The second time, in Hawaii, it succeeded. Both times the agent used was strychnine.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this book was the story it told of the early days of Stanford University. It was a surprisingly rocky beginning. Jane Stanford’s domineering presence on the scene was not helpful. Somehow, from the turmoil of a constant power struggle, Stanford ultimately emerged as a world class institution of higher learning.

Not long after Jane’s death, William James arrived at the university. His brief while there was to teach a course in philosophy to a group of relatively clueless undergraduates. “James was attracted to Stanford University by an easterner’s fascination with California, but mostly he came for the money.” He had some things in common with Jane Stanford: he too had lost a child, and he was also drawn to the practice of spiritualism. But James was possessed of a towering intellect which Jane, for all her affluence, could not even approach.

As for Jane Stanford herself, she is not an especially sympathetic person. Her obsession with the memory of her husband and even more powerfully with that of her son should have made her more so, and yet, for this reader at least, by and large they did not. She adhered to a confused mixture of fervent Christianity and spiritualism in a desperate attempt to obtain solace for her profound losses. And her interference with the running of the university was frequent and unhelpful.

At times, White’s narrative drags. The reporting on the wrangling among Jane Stanford’s servants and among various luminaries in the university’s administration at times seemed positively granular. Admittedly, true crime maven that I am, I was chomping at the bit as I awaited the climactic story of the murder of Jane Stanford. But somehow, when it finally came,it seemed a bit of an anticlimax. But…the description of death by strychnine poisoning is harrowing. In her last moments, Jane cried out that “This a horrible death to die.” Events bear out her final cry of agony.

No one deserves to die in so terrible a manner. And yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Jane Stanford’s demise was judged to be by natural causes. The title of this book tells you right away that the author Richard White does not accept this ruling. In fact, in the epilogue – entitled “Who Killed Her?” – he offers a solution to the mystery. I won’t reveal the name here, but I will say that, given all that went on before the event, it was not at all surprising.

Jane Stanford 1828-1905

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The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America, by Matthew Pearl

December 25, 2021 at 3:31 pm (Book review, books, History)

  The title pretty much sums it up. It was summer, 1776. The kidnap victim was thirteen-year-old Jemima Boone. She was taken, along with two other girls, by a Cherokee-Shawnee raiding party. The girls had gone off for a canoe trip on the Kentucky River. Understandably given their age, they were tired of being hemmed in by the walls of Boonesboro, the settlement in which they lived. As often happens in these instances, they got more than they bargained for.

Boonesboro was founded by Jemima’s father Daniel. He was determined to create a settlement in Kentucky, despite advice to the contrary from just about everyone. In particular, the Native American tribes of the region depended on Kentucky to furnish them with game, crops, and other necessities. It was fertile, bountiful, and beautiful country.

Daniel Boone and other men of the settlement rescued Jemima and her fellow captives in fairly short order. But that was just the  beginning….

Concerning this book, the descriptor that keeps recurring to me is rip-roaring. Yes – nonstop, rip-roaring adventure! Colonials versus Natives, Colonials battling each other, Natives doing much the same. Never a dull moment. And no one has a monopoly on goodness – at least, not when slavery is involved. And in this mass of confused and shifting loyalties and almost relentless fighting – it is, after all, the year 1776 – slavery is most definitely involved.

The manner in which Boonesboro settlers pushed against external controls reflected the new nation’s larger search for freedom. Independence was a complex political process, but freedom was visceral, a state of mind. Moral costs included consistent reliance on slave labor and trampling the tribes’ longstanding access to Kentucky’s natural resources.

Still, the repeated displays of raw courage on all sides are astonishing. In this remote corner of the land, a nation was struggling to be born. It is an exciting and illuminating, if, at times, depressing story.

And Matthew Pearl is the right one to tell it. The narrative is propulsive and the writing is meticulous. I would expect no less from this gifted young man. He is the nephew of one of my oldest and dearest friends. I’ve known his mother since childhood.

Matthew Pearl

Congratulations on a job well done!

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‘The Missionary doctor not only became a champion of Manifest Destiny but did so with his eyes open to the potentially catastrophic consequences–for the Cayuses and for himself.’ — Murder at the Mission by Blaine Harden

June 1, 2021 at 4:51 pm (History)

For a book that purports to belong in the True Crime genre, Murder at the Mission is unusual. To begin with, the murders happen very early on in the narrative; from the outset, there is no doubt as to the perpetrators. The remainder of the story concerns the use and abuse of an historical incident, providing a vivid illustration of the ease with which disinformation could be spread across a vast distance, way before the advent of social media.

The chief dramatic personae:

Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Dr. Marcus Whitman

 

Henry Spalding

All three were missionaries, come to Oregon in 1836 to convert the Native Americans, specifically those of two tribes:

Nez Perce

 

The Cayuse, astride their famous ponies

Before too much time went by, Marcus Whitman’s work devolved from Christianizing the Indians to facilitating the settlement of Oregon by Easterners and immigrants. As their rightful claim to the land was subverted over and over again, the Cayuse people became increasingly angry and resentful. Then a measles epidemic ravaged the area, often proving fatal to Native Americans and White settlers alike.

The Cayuse held the missionaries responsible for all of these evils. They had, finally, had enough.

This is not to say that their slaughter of the Whitmans was in any way justified. But they considered themselves to have been provoked beyond reason and thus impelled to act.

(It is worth remembering that Oregon was not even a Territory in the 1830s – it was a settlement, and one both jointly owned and disputed with the British, at that.  It became a U.S. Territory in 1848, and finally a State in 1859.)

As I stated at the outset, the tragic story of the killings is told very soon after the book commences, The mystery is not about who was responsible for the carnage. That was known almost immediately afterwards. Rather, the remainder of the narrative concerns a rather amazing journey undertaken by Marcus Whitman not long before his demise. The purpose of the journey…well, let’s say  that the purpose of the journey was vigorously disputed.

Meanwhile, Blaine Harden gives us a deep, hard look into the hearts and minds of the missionaries. It is a fascinating depiction. And at times an enraging one. And as I headed toward the fraught conclusion of this tale, I could not help pondering the central question…What on Earth were they thinking??

The American missionaries demanded more than just religious conversion. Assuming that their way of life was superior in every way to the centuries-old spiritual beliefs and cultural practices of Indians, they sought to transform the “copies of their white neighbors.”
To that end, the missionaries insisted that the Indians learn English, cut their hair, wear white people’s clothes, forsake collective ownership of land, accept private property, settle down as  farmers, embrace “hard work,” learn to plow, and raise row crops–all the while obeying the Ten Commandments, and renouncing polygamy, drinking, gambling, dancing, and horse racing.

Don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people who could live like that, whatever their ethnicity.

And what, pray tell, were they supposed to do for fun?

There is plenty of material in Murder at the Mission concerning the treatment of Native Americans that was meted out by their White counterparts. It is an appalling record of deliberate injustice – ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.’

Blaine Harden demystifies these matters with a sense of quiet outrage. He is a native of Washington State, so truth telling in this aspect obviously carries great weight with him.

This is an amazing, illuminating, and ultimately heartbreaking story.

 

 

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A Worse Place Than Hell: How The Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation, by John Matteson

March 26, 2021 at 1:17 am (Book review, books, History)

This handsome youth is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In the course of his military service in the Union Army, he was wounded on three separate occasions. Afterwards, having made it through this harrowing experience, he vowed to enter the practice of law. He was not only interested in becoming a lawyer, but was equally interested in exploring the philosophical underpinnings of the profession.

In this photo, Holmes appears composed and confident. He was not that way at all by the time his service ended. He was lucky to be alive and he knew it. But he had seen terrible things that could never be forgotten. They affected the entire remainder of his long life.

As far as can be known, Holmes regarded his survival as mere happenstance— confirming, not disrupting, his sense of the universe as a place of inscrutable, mindless forces. If it had any effect on his thinking at all, the wounding at Antietam more stoutly convinced Holmes, already a religious doubter, that the world had neither plan nor reason. The power that drove the world could be neither understood nor appeased. Randomness had become God.

Holmes went on to become one of the most distinguished Supreme Court Judges this country has known. He also served in that capacity for a very long time – just under thirty years. This record remains unbroken.

In A Worse Place Than Hell, John Matteson describes some of these terrible things in excruciating detail. I had to force myself to read some passages. But I felt that I had to. For one thing, this was such a compelling narrative and so beautifully written. For another, it was such a huge part of this country’s past, and therefore, of my past. I have heard it said that the Civil War was America’s Iliad. It seems to me an apt comparison.

The lives of four other individuals are delineated in this book.   Louis May Alcott came to Washington to work in the hospitals where wounded soldiers were treated.

She told herself, “There is work for me, and I’ll have it.” She went back to her room “resolved to take Fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.”

Walt Whitman did likewise, although he worked at a different location from Alcott. There is no evidence that they ever encountered one another.

Here is another picture of Whitman, taken when he was younger. I was struck by this image, having only seen him as an elderly, heavily bearded sage.

Whitman was a big-hearted man of very modest means, with not much in the way of tangible effects to give to these sick and wounded young men. So he did what he could:

The poet gave almost every form of sustenance: blackberries, peaches, lemons, preserves, pickles, milk, wine, brandy, tobacco, tea, underclothing, and handkerchiefs all passed into the hands of his grateful boys. He wrote countless letters and read aloud, both from his own poetry and from whatever material a soldier might fancy. It seemed to Whitman, however, that the most precious gift he gave lay in “the simple matter of physical presence, and emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism.”

Arthur Fuller was a native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Harvard Divinity school. A gentle soul who yearned to ‘do something for my country,’ Fuller became chaplain to to the Sixteenth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in 1861.

He came from a distinguished family. Margaret Fuller was his sister. His full name was Arthur Buckminster Fuller, and yes, R. Buckminster Fuller, he of geodesic dome fame, was his grandson.

Arthur Fuller’s brother Richard wrote his biography in 1864. It is available on the Internet Archive.

It opens thus:

HERE is a natural curiosity to trace a stream to its source — to follow it back to the hills from whose bosom it first springs to life-. The more noble the flow of its current, the more beneficent its waters, in opening paths to inland navigation or furnishing food for man, so much the keener is curiosity to trace it to the crystal fountain of its origin. The undiscovered source of the Nile was for centuries the theme of speculation. Inquirers, after the ancient method, propounded this practical question to the oracles of reason, and drew from them the enigmatical responses of theory ; never apparently thinking of the solution, which modern empiricism has reached, by actually threading back the stream, and thus working out the safe result of observation.

Human life, like the river, may attract little public notice in its playful early course, when prattling among the parent hills, or leaping in gay cascades on its downward way, to swell, eventually, into the graver, deeper current of manhood. But if, as its waters gather head, they furnish a spectacle of natural beauty in their flow or fall, or bestow public blessings in banks made green and fruitful, or bountiful fisheries, or bear upon their back the burdens of navigation, or attract attention by the glory of their exit into the sea, symbolizing the issue of life for time into the ocean of eternity, — then men turn their steps back to the early stream, and search out, in its source and surroundings, every presage of its destiny.

How I yearn to read more of such lovely, old-fashioned prose! And in the service of Arthur Buckminster Fuller, a courageous and immensely appealing man.

And finally, John Pelham, a young tearaway from Alabama who became a first rate artillery officer. Not only that, he astonished his fellow soldiers with acts of brazen, almost inhuman bravado on the battlefield.

John G. White of the Second Maryland Infantry outdid even [J.E.B.] Stuart in his appreciation. To him, Pelham was nothing less than “some god of battle.” But in an instant, a battle can turn a god to dust.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, Arthur Fuller, John Pelham. These five individuals are the linchpins of this narrative. There is plenty of description of battles also, especially of Antietam and Fredericksburg. Much of it was difficult to read.

Men killed with cold, unthinking hatred— hatred for the war, for the enemy, for the miserable fate that had led them here, hatred perhaps above all for themselves. Many of the participants who told of it later, even though they had seen the slaughter with their own eyes, could not believe the heartbreaking truths that they were telling.

Heartbreaking is exactly the right word. I experienced that sensation over and over as I read this book. Yet I think that, at least from my perspective, One owes it to these mean to learn of what they went through, to acknowledged both the heroism and the horror of this brutal war.

  This book is superb. I’ve been reading a great deal of history lately, yet the stories contained in  A Worse Place Than Hell – the words are Lincoln’s; the full quotation is “If There Is a Worse Place Than Hell, I Am In It” – will remain with me the longest.

They watched as “the sun set in the smoke of battle,” a sight that, for some of them, surpassed anything they had ever imagined. Now and then a shell would explode against the sky, ironically forming “the most beautiful wreaths” of color. As the sound of the artillery rolled on, the heavens darkened, and the blood-red sun went down, Chaplain Hartsock thought “the orb of day” wore “a fitting appearance” as it looked down “upon the crimson tide that flowed from American veins.”

 

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Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, by Nicholas A. Basbanes

July 3, 2020 at 9:11 pm (History, Poetry)

In my youth, when my parents were still very much alive and very ardent fans of the opera, especially the productions of the Metropolitan Opera, I recall how when they got home from a performance, they were filled with exultation – such art! such beauty!

This seems like as good a time and place as any to insert one of my favorite pictures of my parents. The place is Bayreuth, Germany, home of the world famous Bayreuth Festival. They are standing beside the Festspeilhaus, the hall purpose built for performance of the operas of Richard Wagner. Mother and Dad loved this music. At the time this was taken, mid-twentieth century, they were in their glamorous heyday, as this photo will attest:

So, as I said, they’d come from the opera, almost always exultant at the memory of what they’d seen and heard. And then they’d read the review in the New York Times. More often than not, the opera they’d just seen had received a review more or less in the ‘meh’ range. My father would thunder to anyone within range, “Did this idiot see to the same opera we did?!”

So, there are times when I read a review of a book I’ve just read and highly esteemed, when I am genuinely perplexed, not to say dismayed, by the reviewer’s take on that same work. For instance, Charles McGrath’s review of the new biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow appeared  last month in the New York Times. Here’s part of it:

Nicholas A. Basbanes thinks that the tumble in Longfellow’s reputation was not the natural, inevitable result of changing tastes. In his new biography, “Cross of Snow,” he argues, on not much evidence, that Longfellow was done in by a cabal of modernists and New Critics who conspired to expel him from their snobbish, rarefied canon. So his book, which has at times a defensive, anti-elitist chip on its shoulder, is a rehab mission of sorts, and seeks to restore Longfellow in our present eyes mostly just by reminding us how important he was back in his own day.

Wait just a second…”a defensive, anti-elitist chip on its shoulder…”? Yes, Basbanes writes about the issue of Longfellow’s reputation, but he does not, at least in my view, belabor the subject.

But wait – there’s more:

…by the time of Longfellow’s centennial, in 1907, he was already beginning to be dismissed as old-fashioned, and nowadays, if he’s remembered at all, it’s mostly as the author of lines almost laughable in their badness: “By the shores of Gitche Gumee, /By the shining Big-Sea-Water”; “I shot an arrow into the air, /It fell to earth, I knew not where”; “Thy fate is the common fate of all, /Into each life some rain must fall.”

“Laughable in their badness?” Okay, dated, quaint, I’ll grant you. But ludicrous? Just plain bad? Sorry, I don’t buy it.

It’s true that some of Longfellow’s poetry has not worn well. It can be sentimental, and his insistence on rhyme imbues some of the poems with a childish quality. But others have a timeless essence that I for one find appealing; plus the language can be quite beautiful.

One of my favorites is called “Resignation.” I did not know this poem before I encountered it in The Escher Twist, a mystery by Jane Langton:

There is no Death! What seems so is transition;
This life of mortal breath
Is but a suburb of the life elysian,
Whose portal we call Death.

Toward the conclusion of The Escher Twist, Eloise Winthrop, a widow who has daily visited her husband’s grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery, suddenly finds herself welcomed to a tea party given by none other than Isabella Stewart Gardner!

It was so exciting! There was the little stone bridge across Auburn Lake, and there was Mrs. Gardner herself on the other side, her long skirt trailing on the grass. She was holding out both hands.

“Welcome, my dear,” called Mrs. Gardner, laughing. “Welcome to the other side.”

Overjoyed, Eloise hurried across the bridge. The party was in her honor! Gently Mrs. Gardner took her arm and introduced her to the other guests. “Mrs. Winthrop, have you met Mr. Longfellow? Do you know Mrs. Farmer? Oh, Fanny, dear, your triangular sandwiches are so delicious.”

This is one of my favorite scenes in all of crime fiction – in all of fiction, for that matter.

(Fanny Farmer, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are all three buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Longfellow mentions the place very particularly in a letter:

Yesterday I was at Mount Auburn, and saw my own grave dug; that is, my own tomb. I assure you, I looked quietly down into it without one feeling of dread. It is a beautiful spot, this Mount Auburn. Were you ever there?)

Jane Langton (1922-2018) never made it into  the top tier of famous mystery authors, but I’ve long considered her to be one of the best. Her mixture of inventive storytelling, wit, mercurial characters, and perhaps a soupçon of the supernatural I find captivating.

Anyway, back to Longfellow:

Charles McGrath obviously is no fan of either Nicholas Basbanes or Longfellow, but he does offer this grudging admission:

…whatever you think of Longfellow the writer, Longfellow the person is hard to dislike.

What an understatement. Longfellow was kind, empathetic, generous to a fault, and endlessly patient.  For most of his adult life, he mixed readily with the great and the good of this country and Europe, but throughout, he retained the modesty and forthrightness that characterized his interactions with others.

More things I learned about Longfellow from this book:

The house in which he and his family lived had, some sixty years before they moved into it,  been inhabited by George Washington as he planned a strategy for dealing with the Siege of Boston.

The National Park Service now administers The Longfellow House –  Washington’s Headquarters National Site. They have made a lovely welcoming video:

Longfellow was a scholar of languages, able to read at least fifteen different ones, and to speak almost as many. In his position as a professor at Harvard, he taught literature in many languages. He did a great deal of translating, often aided in these endeavors by his brilliant wife Fanny; in some cases they were the first to introduce works in various foreign tongues to American readers.

Longfellow translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. The late, great critic Harold Bloom has high praise for it:

[Longfellow’s] “translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy seems to me undervalued, and compares favorably with the current versions.” In an interview for this book, Bloom went further, saying that he preferred the Longfellow translation to “all the current versions.” His reason: the “fidelity” it shows to Dante’s original Italian.

Although we associate Longfellow with the constellation of worthies who inhabited the Boston-Cambridge area in the early to mid nineteenth century, he was actually born and raised in Maine. Moreover, he attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, graduating in 1825, the same year as his classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Bowdoin has an impressive list of alumni.)  Longfellow taught for a time at Bowdoin before moving on to Harvard.

There’s much more in this lively biography.  Longfellow’s personal life receives welcome attention. He was married twice. His first wife Mary died at the age of 24, following a miscarriage. He later wed Frances “Fanny” Appleton, after an arduous courtship of several years. Once she finally accepted  him, though, theirs proved to be a marriage of true minds, if there ever was one. They shared a deep love of literature and the arts, and together they had six children, losing one, a daughter, not long past infancy.

Longfellow, Fanny, and their two eldest sons, Charley – a real handful, apparently – and Ernest

(Many years ago, I visited the Longfellow home on Brattle Street in Cambridge. I came away with a vivid memory of the story, told by a docent, of the terrible accident which cost Fanny her life. It took place in the house. She was 44 years old at  the time. I confess I read a large part of this book with mounting dread, as I was not sure at what point I would encounter this story.)

The book’s title refers to both a photo and a painting of a site in the Rocky Mountains where  a cross made of snow lingered on the mountain’s face the year round.

The Mountain of the Holy Cross, by Thomas Moran, 1890

 

Mountain of the Holy Cross, Colorado, photo by William Henry Jackson, circa 1873

Here is Longfellow’s poem, “The Cross of Snow:”

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
   A gentle face — the face of one long dead —
   Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
   The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
   Never through martyrdom of fire was led
   To its repose; nor can in books be read
   The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
   That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
   Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
   These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
   And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807-1882, photo by Julia Margaret Cameron

 

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‘Gilgamesh, who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land….’

April 10, 2020 at 8:43 pm (History, Poetry)

First, let me say:

I am deeply grateful to Osher Life Long Learning (affiliated with Johns Hopkins University) for making our classes available by means of Zoom technology.

The subject of one of my classes is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Numerous translations of this work are extant; for our class, our instructor, Dr. Lederman, uses this one:

Herewith are the opening lines from Tablet I:

He who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land,
Who knew the world’s ways, was wise in all things,
Gilgamesh, who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land,
Who knew the world’s ways, was wise in all things,
He it was who studied seats of power everywhere,
Full knowledge of it all he  gained,
He saw what was secret and revealed what was hidden,
He brought back tidings from before the Flood,
From a distant journey came home, weary, but at peace,
Set out all his hardships on a monument of stone,
He built the walls of ramparted Uruk,
The lustrous treasure of hallowed Eanna!

Gilgamesh, supposedly

This passage continues to limn the glories of Uruk; then we return to the subject of Gilgamesh the praiseworthy. Except that he actually isn’t very praiseworthy. He is, at least at the story’s  beginning not much more than an arrogant brute. He is cruel and rough with the young men of Uruk; worse, he exercises his “right of the first night” ( known also as jus prima noctis, or droit du seigneur) with every new bride, on her wedding night.

The people of Uruk cry out to the gods about Gilgamesh’s abuses, and they realize that a way must be found to inculcate civility into the wild ruler. The god Anu summons another god, Aruru, and more or less kicks the ball into her court. These are Aruru’s orders:

Let her create a match for Gilgamesh, mighty in strength,
Let them contend with each other, that Uruk may have peace.

So Aruru gets to work, and this is the result:

She created valiant Enkidu in the steppe,
Offspring of silence*, with the force of the valiant Ninurta.
He was made lush with head hair, like a woman,
The locks of his hair grew think as a grain field.
He knew neither people nor inhabited land,
He dressed as animals do.
He ate grass with gazelles,
With beasts he jostled at the water hole,
With wildlife he drank his fill of water.

*The footnote says of the phrase “Offspring of silence” that it may refer to the fact that Enkidu, having been formed of clay, did not enter into the world with “the tumult that normally accompanies childbirth.”

Is all of this starting to seem weird? Trust me, we’re just beginning.

Chief agent in charge of “civilizing” Enkidu is a harlot named Shamhat. She knows just how to proceed:

Shamhat loosened her garments,
She opened her loins, he took her charms.
She was not bashful, she took his vitality.
She tossed aside her clothing and he lay upon her,
She treated him, a  human, to woman’s work,
As in his ardor he caressed her.
Six days, seven nights was Enkidu aroused, flowing into Shamhat.

Well golly! You could have knocked me over with a proverbial feather when I first read that. Pornography in an ancient Mesopotamian epic??!! And depending on the translation, this episode is rendered in even more explicit language. Click here for an example. And no, I’m not going to place the actual text here. This is, after all, a family friendly blog!

Now, as a topic of study, this epic is hugely complex and many-faceted. I don’t mean to be flippant and/or dismissive. People give their entire professional lives to the explication, translation, and study of the epic of Gilgamesh and its place in Mesopotamian civilization. And our lecturer, Dr. Richard Lederman, is himself a marvel of scholarship. In a recent class, he came out with a throwaway line which I will cherish: “My Akkadian is a bit rusty.” Oh and he is fluent in Hebrew and a scholar of the Old Testament as well.

So I have to say that for myself, from a purely esthetic standpoint, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a bit lacking. Here’s why I’m of that opinion:

1. Repetition. There’s too much of it. The first four lines of the first passage quoted above are typical. This may be due to the fact that at times, the story may have been presented orally.

2. The plot disjointed, not especially compelling, and sometimes just too strange to summon forth any empathy.

3. The same is true for the characters. I had a lot of trouble caring about what happened to them.

4. The writing, for the most part, is flat and uninspired. Admittedly, the exact language is dependent on the translation you’re reading. Nevertheless, I was hoping to encounter some of the literary devices that occur in the Homeric epics – you know, epithets such as “rosy-fingered Dawn,” “wine-dark Sea,”” bright-eyed Athena,” and the amazingly vivid extended similes and metaphors. They simply were not there.

Dr. Lederman recommended this video to us. I found it both enlightening and engaging:

 

 

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The Lure of Ancient Egypt

March 28, 2020 at 4:50 pm (Art, Egypt, History)

I am most fortunate to own this book: The author, John Boardman, boasts a most impressive CV. From the publisher Thames & Hudson:

Sir John Boardman was born in 1927, and educated at Chigwell School and Magdalene College, Cambridge. He spent several years in Greece, three of them as Assistant Director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, and he has excavated in Smyrna, Crete, Chios and Libya. For four years he was an Assistant Keeper in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and he subsequently became Reader in Classical Archaeology and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford. He is now Lincoln Professor Emeritus of Classical Archaeology and Art in Oxford, and a Fellow of the British Academy, from whom he received the Kenyon Medal in 1995. He was awarded the Onassis Prize for Humanities in 2009. Professor Boardman has written widely on the art and archaeology of Ancient Greece.

You can see and hear Sir John Boardman talking about his life’s work here.

Professor Boardman’s graceful prose is redolent of times past:

The civilization and arts of Egypt have revealed themselves to the rest of the world in dramatic ways. In antiquity Greeks, then Romans, were attracted to Egypt’s obviously extreme antiquity and the exoticism of its arts….Biblical associations and the longevity of its styles of art and writing seemed to mark it out as something exceptional in the history of man….

Sporadically, the country divided politically into North and South. Overall, however, there was undisturbed unity of culture, language, and art which must have contributed to the fact that the highly distinctive idiom for the arts which had been developed in Egypt by the third millennium BC lasted with very little basic change in appearance, styles, subjects and techniques, for more than three thousand years….

Egyptian art is overwhelming in its stylistic idiosyncrasy, its at-first-sight unlikeness even to the various other arts of the urban world with which it made contact. In this must lie much of its unceasing appeal to modern eyes.

There is, of course, so much more in this section, where Sir John’s erudition shines forth in a way that is never pedantic but invariably engaging.
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Rahotep and Nofret

Rahotep ruled during ancient Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty.   These statues of Prince and his wife Nofret were discovered deep inside their mastaba in 1871, by Albert Daninos an assistant to the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette.

These statues are in such superb condition due to  the fact that they had not seen the light of day for several millennia. Particularly striking are the  eyes, which were crafted chiefly of rock crystal:

Indeed, so lifelike were they that when the workman shone their lights upon them, they thought they were in the presence of living beings. Terrified, they fled the premises.

 

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What I was supposed to be doing, what I actually did

March 12, 2020 at 12:35 am (Art, History)

Today I was scheduled to attend two sessions of my Lifelong Learning classes. First (AM):

The Epic of Gilgamesh!

Possible representation of Gilgamesh as Master of Animals [Wikipedia]

I’ve been enjoying the study of this ancient text. For three weeks now, I’ve been wandering around the house declaiming “Gilgamesh!!” ” Enkidu!!” “Utnapishtim!!” and my personal favorite, “Lugalbanda!!” (with Ron gamely trying to replicate my occasionally flawed pronunciation).

Our lecturer has a doctorate in languages of the ancient Near East. He is amazing! (And no, this is not him; I just  thought it was pretty cool):


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In the afternoon, Rembrandt/Velasquez – a delicious immersion in the greatest of the old masters.

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Thus far, our lecturer has introduced us to Annibale Carracci:

Annibale Carracci Boy Drinking, 1582-1583

Self-portrait, 1590-1600

and the Caravaggisti, so-called followers of Caravaggio, who were mostly active in the late 1500s to the early 1600s:

Mars Chastising Cupid, by Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622)

Christ Amongst the Doctors, by Orazio Borgianni (1574-1616)

Madonna and Child with Saint Anne and an Angel, by Carlo Saraceni, c.1608-1610

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Alas!! Classes were canceled today, due to  the corona virus outbreak. So instead of hearing about the fascinating history of Mesopotamia in which Gilgamesh is embedded, and seeing the gorgeous slides of the Old Masters, I found myself at the local CVS, beseeching the saleslady.

This excursion, at least, was a success. Behold: a 32 fl. oz. container of CVS brand hand sanitizer (photographed beside  a 16 fl. oz bottle of Snapple to establish scale):

I waited in line for about fifteen minutes. This was the only size available, and they were allowing only one container per customer. Still, I felt lucky to get it at all.

Hopefully, this will end soon, and I pray that the sick and vulnerable will be spared.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

To conclude on a more upbeat note, here are two flash mob videos for you to enjoy. The first one I just discovered today; the second is one of my all time favorites.


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This flash mob was staged in a shopping mall in The Netherlands; the occasion was the reopening of Amsterdam’s celebrated Rijksmuseum in 2013, after a renovation that went substantially over budget and took ten years to complete instead of the projected five.

‘Onze helden zijn terug’ translates into English as “Our heroes are back.’

 

 

 

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“The revelation that people actually studied ancient Egypt as their job seemed to me both astonishing and wonderful…”

February 23, 2020 at 3:54 pm (Art, Egypt, History)

Retold countless times down the centuries, there are as many versions of Egypt’s story as there are those to tell it. And so this is simply my version, featuring the people, places and events that have fascinated me my whole life.

And it is fair to say Egypt has pretty much been my life. Familiar and accessible through my family’s books, photographs and wartime recollections, the ancient Egyptians were, it seems, always around during my childhood, as the inspiration for my earliest drawings, the way I dressed my dolls, the things I read and collected.

The defining moment came in 1972, when the Tutankhamen exhibition arrived in Britain. His beautiful golden face appeared everywhere in the media frenzy for all things pharaonic, and Egyptologists of the day were regularly asked for quotes by the press. The revelation that people actually studied ancient Egypt as their job seemed to me both astonishing and wonderful – so at the age of six, I announced that I was going to do that too.

Introduction to The Story of Egypt: The Civilization that Shaped the World, by Joann Fletcher

Upon reading this, I identified powerfully with the author. I, too, was around six years old when I first became fascinated by ancient Egypt. But whereas Joann Fletcher went on to forge a distinguished career as an Egyptologist, I went on to live a more or less ordinary life, for which I am profoundly grateful. The   Egypt enchantment stays more or less underground, a stream flowing in the darkness. But every once in a while…

I recently signed up for a course in Egyptian art at a local lifelong learning institute. We had a our first meeting last Monday, and it was wonderful. I have obtained through interlibrary loan The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter. This particular edition, published in 1977, “…is the unabridged republication of Volume I of The Tomb of Tut*ankh*amen Discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter originally published…in 1923….”

The tomb was discovered in November of 1922.

Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Carnarvon’s daughter Lady Elizabeth Herbert, and Carter’s assistant Arthur Callender are gathered before the door to the chamber. Keep in mind that Carter and Carnarvon, his generous patron, had been searching for this burial site for years. This was to be their final effort.

Here is Howard Carter’s description of what happened next:

The decisive moment had arrived. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as  far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gasses, and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle, and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold–everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment–eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by–I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense and longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”

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When I was in London a few years ago, I visited Sir John Soane’s Museum. Sir John Soane was a distinguished architect and also a compulsive collector. His house is filled with strange and wondrous objects. Along the way, he managed to acquire several beautiful scenes off Venice by Canaletto.

Canaletto; View in Venice, on the Grand Canal (Riva degli Schiavoni); Sir John Soane’s Museum

But possibly the most astonishing object in this bewildering welter of astonishing objects is this:

Behold! It is the sarcophagus of Pharoah Seti I (1290-1279 BCE).

Here is what the sarcophagus currently looks like in situ:

This fantastical object was discovered in 1817 by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a  freewheeling adventurer and archaeologist sometimes referred to as the Indiana Jones of his day.  Having brought this cumbersome artifact to England, Belzoni offered it to the British Museum. That institution deemed the price – £2,000 – too high. But ut wasn’t too high for Sir John Soane, who snapped it up. Hence, it currently resides serenely on the bottom floor of the museum, being much too heavy to be safely placed elsewhere in the building. You can stand right beside it, walk around it, even touch it. I can attest to this personally.

The mummy of Seti I is exceptionally well preserved. It currently resides in the Cairo Museum.

For more information on the sarcophagus, click on this link to the museum’s website. And don’t miss this ‘digital fly-through’ of the museum.
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I want to return briefly to the subject of the discovery of the tomb of Pharoah Tutankhamen. The moment of triumph in November 1922 was followed by a sudden and unexpected tragedy the following April when Lord Carnarvon died unexpectedly. Here is Howard Carter’s supremely eloquent dedication:

…I dedicate this account of the discovery of the tomb of Tut*ankh* Amen to the memory of my beloved friend and colleague

LORD CARNARVON
who died in the hour of his triumph.

But for his untiring generosity and constant encouragement our labours could never have been crowned with success. His judgment in ancient art has rarely been equalled. His efforts, which have done so much to extend our knowledge of Egyptology, will ever been honoured in history, and by me his memory will always be cherished.

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon 1866-1923

 

Howard Carter 1874-1939

Giovanni Battista Belzoni 1778-1823

 

The Great Belzoni, 1824, by Jan Adam Kruseman

 

Sir John Soane 1753-1837

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Last year, I visited the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington DC to see their exhibit ‘Queens of Egypt.’ This occasioned another eruption of Egypt mania in the heart and brain of Yours Truly. I got rather carried away with the blog post I created to memorialize this splendid experience. Here is a snippet of video by which I, along with other visitors, was transfixed:

 

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Stop the presses! It’s the return of Susan B. Anthony

January 18, 2020 at 9:38 pm (Family, History)

Now in third grade, Etta was assigned  a biography project. Her subject was Susan B. Anthony.

According to her Mom, she really got into it. So much so that she seems to have channeled her subject. This was the result:

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