Tag Archives: History

!Viva Cristo Rey! Some historical background for the movie “For Greater Glory”

15 May

I haven’t seen much publicity for it, but the movie titled Cristiada in Mexico and For Greater Glory in the United States is coming to theaters June 1st.  I imagine a sizable number of moviegoers will fill the seats so they can watch Eva Longoria (or, for ladies who prefer older gentlemen, Peter O’Toole).  I don’t imagine that many U.S. viewers, however, will know much about the historical event the film revolves around: the Cristero War of the 1920s in Mexico.

I did an undergraduate research project on press surrounding the Cristero rebellion, two years ago, and with this movie coming out so soon I’m hoping that some of that research proves useful.  If you can read Spanish, I commend you to the Spanish-language Wikipedia entry (it’s much more complete than the English article, unfortunately).

The full text of my research paper with sources: Los Fieles: Faith, Anxiety, and Prejudice in the Press during Mexico’s “Religious Crisis,” February-July 1926

Another previous post — Mexico’s Holy War: Faith, Prejudice, and the Press in 1926

This is David Uribe Velasco, a native of Buenavista de Cuellar, a small town in southern Mexico.

A month ago marked the 85rd anniversary of his death, and next month, it will have been 12 years since his elevation to sainthood by Pope John Paul II.  On April 12, 1927, Father Velasco—a Catholic priest—after putting his affairs in order (he repaid the 50 pesos owed to a fellow cleric; he bequeathed his typewriter and vestments to a friend)—and after blessing his captors in the sign of cross and the name of the Virgin of Guadalupe, he was taken outside, forced to his knees by Federal soldiers, and shot in the back of the head.

In May 2000, he was canonized as San David, a martyr, and one of 250,000 Mexicans killed in the conflict known today as la Cristiada, or the Mexican Cristero War—a rebellion unique in modern history as a popular uprising that took the international community completely by surprise.

Lasting from summer 1926 to spring 1929, the Cristero rebellion represented a popular reaction to the contemporary Mexican administration’s increasing restrictions on religious speech and practice in the country—a country with a Catholic population upwards of 90%.

The very name of the war bears witness to the deep-set piety of the rebel soldiers, christened Cristeros by opponents ridiculing their battle cry:  “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” or “Long Live Christ the King!”

However, in the months leading up to the initial outbreak of violence the depth of Catholic devotional sentiment in the Mexican population was completely underestimated by the American press, which saw the seething controversy to the south as a strictly institutional conflict—not the rebellion of individual cristeros, but a “Church War.”

The flashpoint for mobilization was July 31, 1926—when the Catholic Episcopal hierarchy of Mexico ordered, as protest against clerical persecution, the indefinite suspension of worship services throughout the country—and the federal government obliged by attempting to take possession of church buildings.

Lay Catholics resisted.

Crowds of hundreds, most of them women, spontaneously mobilized to defend the churches—even as police brigades brought fire hoses and mounted federal soldiers to disperse the congregations.  One Mexico City newspaper summed the day up in a single headline—“Los Fieles [the faithful] Will Not Abandon Their Churches.”

Even so, the fight was initially expected to be a rout.

For perspective—At the time, the Mexican government under President Plutarco Elías Calles had a federal army of nearly 80,000 professional soldiers.  The rebel movement, on the other hand, was unorganized until 1927—and comprised mostly untrained, and practically unarmed, rural Catholic peasants of the Bajío region, Central and Southern Mexico, which remains even today the bastion of Catholic conservatism in the country.  To the contrary—by the end of the war the Cristeros numbered 50,000.  And an auxiliary brigade of  women, engaged in smuggling weapons and provisions into combat zones for the soldiers, totaled 25,000.

Popular sentiment was enraged—and the uprising reflected the crystallization and shattering of widespread anxiety that had been growing throughout 1926.

A memoirist from San Julián, a small town in Jalisco, one of the centers of the rebellion, recalled the pervading climate of fear and apprehension that entered her community with the New Year:

“The enemies of the Holy Church began to spread their poison everywhere… black stormclouds began to rise in the blue sky—Everyone was afraid.”

But this anxiety of the faithful was ignored.  Commentators abroad, particularly in the United States, viewed and reported the conflict through the lens of domestic problems and paradigms: an ideological clash of Church and State.

On one side, the child of the 1910 Mexican Revolution: he Liberal, secular administration of President Calles—determined to suppress religious speech, end religious education, restrict the influence and very number of Catholic clerics in Mexico, and nationalize Church property—in the name of secularization.

On the other the child of the Spanish Conquest: the centuries-old Mexican Catholic Episcopacy under Archbishop José Mora y del Río, equally determined to preserve the Church’s economic privileges and institutional autonomy.

Church and State—no third party in existence.  But this was the perspective of an American press embroiled in its own ideological collision:

Just the year before, the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” over evolution in the education system had made headlines in the United States as a war of secularism or fundamentalism, science or faith, progress or regression, educated urbanites versus rural ignorance.  These were the antitheses occupying American minds in 1926—and reporter H.L. Mencken summed up the public attitude in two words: the rural-based, deeply religious segment of the American population comprised: “yokels and morons.”

This domestic situation provided American commentators with a template for the dissatisfied Mexican laity: rural, ignorant, superstitious, racially inferior—and thus incapable of exercising any significant political influence.

Essentially, the United States media projected its own anxieties onto Mexico, and ignored those of the Mexican Catholic.

One incident in particular encapsulates the American perspective:

When Mora y del Rio and the Episcopacy announced that worship would be suspended at the end of July, the Mexican faithful flocked in thousands to churches to receive what many believed might be the final sacraments of their lives.  The Archbishop himself was said to have baptized, confirmed, and married over 3,000 individuals in one day alone.

But while the Mexican press reported apocalyptic panic—in San Julián, the faithful prayed in the streets for God’s pity and mercy—TIME magazine treated the incident as entertainment:

“… barefoot, blanketed Indian runners; toothless Mexican gaffers, perhaps pagans all their lives, hobbled in frenzied haste to receive a precious sprinkling of holy water… in this baptismal race.”

Said correspondent was also thoughtful enough to add a footnote explaining to his readers that the people of Mexico were only nominally Catholic, their religion really a pantheon of primitive deities smeared with a veneer of saints and idols.

Even New York City’s premier Catholic periodical, the Commonweal, espoused strikingly similar racial and religious bigotry:

“the plain truth about Mexico… is that a native Indian population is not the same thing as a Caucasian civilization fostered by centuries of Christian discipline.”

The national academic journal Current History exhibited a comparable bias in its July 1926 issue—intended to be a symposium on opinion about the religious situation in Mexico.

The contributing parties—supporters the Mexican Government, American Catholics, and American Protestants (although, notably no representative of Mexican Catholicism went to print)—all, essentially, agreed on one central issue: the degeneracy of the masses in Mexico.  The only question that remained was which institution—Church or State—was responsible for developing a program for the “uplift” of the Indian and Indo-Latino population:

“Physical welfare is a fact; spiritual consolations are the resources of a theory.”

—a comment that typifies the 1920s, and even modern, elitist ‘progressive’ trivialization of Mexican Catholic piety.

The Mexican press, on the other hand, did not see the growing religious crisis as an issue of progress; rather, it was about freedom of conscience.  This is probably my favorite quote to come from a reel of microfilm.  From the Mexico City paper Excélsior:

“We imitate the United States in its defects, in its sports, in its diversions, in its food, in its clothing, in its affectionate ‘spooning’… but in its indisputable virtues, we don’t care much to imitate them.”

Still, the American press remained convinced that religion was not a primary driving force in human behavior—first came social and economic factors.  And thus, the religious crisis in Mexico could not be any sort of popular war, let alone a “holy war,” but rather had to represent a power struggle between institutions.  Thus when the Mexican Episcopacy called for an indefinite suspension of religious services beginning July 31st—a virtual interdict—American papers such as the Catholic Commonweal assumed the inert, helpless Mexican laity would bear their cross and pray.

But popular anxiety had been steadily growing since Mexico rang in the New Year 1926 and the faithful of San Julián saw “dark clouds” on the horizon.  As early as February, a columnist for the Mexico City paper El Universal predicted what the American press could not imagine: violence.

In an article titled “Spiritual peace is indispensable,” a columnist warned against the Calles administration attacking the “essence of the religion”—the sacraments.

Current History writers, such as the Methodist bishop James Cannon, undervalued this deeply-rooted devotion.  According to Cannon, Catholic ritual was superstitious ceremony alone—and only served to retard social and economic progress for the Mexican peasant:

“The mass in the morning, the rosary in the evening, confession, communion, extreme unction, the benediction of the grace within a Church cemetery, and responsories for the departed, kept the people well under the control of the church even after they were dead…”

But that is a viewpoint unique to the primarily Protestant United States.

Protestantism, unlike its Catholic rival, developed from a theology of faith and scripture alone.  The Catholic Church, contrarily, held tradition on par with these as a source of religious authority: the sacraments were thus not empty ritual to believers, but a conduit of God’s grace and the path to salvation—the essence of religion El Universal mentioned.

And when this was targeted on July 31, 1926—churches seized, worship suspended, and sacraments ended throughout the country—all the assurances of the American press that there would be no reaction meant nothing to the Mexican Catholics who felt their very identity at risk.  From El Universal, six months before the July 31st uprising:

“The truth is that the people never commit suicide.  They might change, transform, and even disappear; but they never change their essential nature—an integral part of native religion.  It is the Mexican people, instinctively, who understand the danger.  For them it is a question of to be or not to be… and it costs everything to want to be!”

Until an accord was reached in June of 1929 between the Mexican Episcopacy and the Calles administration, it did cost everything for faithful Mexican Catholics like Father Velasco.

And in the end, the Mexico City paper was right—the Mexican people knew early on what the international community, blinded by racial prejudice and a disastrous underestimation of the depth of religious devotion in Mexico, never saw coming: the tragedy and the violence of la Cristiada.

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Tudor Thriller “Bring Up the Bodies” Captivates, Again

12 May

I’m far from the only person giving Hilary Mantel a glowing review for Bring Up the Bodies, the second installment in her saga of Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII and his ill-starred wives.  The critical acclaim, international readership, and heaps of awards for Wolf Hall, published in 2009, may have surprised everyone (Mantel included), but there’s been nothing but hype for book number two.

We’ve heard the story a thousand times and, it would seem, in every possible iteration: histories and historical fiction, romance novels and bodice-ripping tv shows like The Tudors.  It isn’t as if the story’s going to change.  History has spoken.  The tale is a tragedy.  And so whatever book you read or film you see, Henry VIII is always going to divorce Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn will always find her head severed from her pretty little neck.

All of which makes Mantel’s trilogy-in-progress even more astonishing.  By showing us the mind of Thomas Cromwell–the man who usually features as the villain, if he features at all–in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel somehow makes the story new.

I reviewed Wolf Hall for the University of Alabama campus newspaper earlier this year–after reading it for the nth time since I first downloaded the historical novel onto my Kindle in 2009.  By that point I was getting very, very excited for the release of book number two.

Well, 3 years of waiting and I read Bring Up the Bodies in under 3 days.  I couldn’t help it!  As much as you want to savor every word of Thomas Cromwell’s sometimes-cryptic thoughts and Hilary Mantel’s always- and remarkably beautiful prose, Bring Up the Bodies is even more of a political thriller than Wolf Hall.

The pace ramps us as Henry VIII grows increasingly unhappy with the marriage for which he turned Europe upside down, as Queen Anne grows ever more imperious without getting any more pregnant, and as our do-everything Cromwell works to undo the royal marriage–whatever the cost.  (I think the title gives us a pretty good idea of the lengths to which Henry’s chief minister is forced to go.)

Of course, as we begin to see in this second book, being “the unknowable, the inconsolable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell” takes a toll.  By the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536, Cromwell had been at the king’s right hand for about a decade–and we, the readers, can see the changes the years have worked in him.  He’s a far cry from the young lawyer of the first book, joking with Cardinal Wolsey at his apogee and doting on his young daughters (all of these people dead by the end of Wolf Hall).  Mantel continues to give us a sympathetic protagonist, but as Cromwell tells himself, a lesson he’s learned in the past 10 years:

“You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.”

This is a harder, colder, more confident Cromwell than in Wolf Hall.  Even if he is still plain Master Cromwell (no lordship yet), he definitely has the authority to carry out his plans and the king’s orders (because he is nothing if not loyal to the capricious Henry).  But at the same time, the ground is shifting.

Enemies are rallying.  As Cromwell gains more power, and more money, and more prestige, he (and we) can feel the baleful glares of the old nobility burning holes into his back.  This is a book about beheadings, don’t forget, and there are plenty of instances of foreshadowing–if you happen to know the end of Cromwell’s story.

Knowing how close we’re getting to that inevitable bloody finale makes Bring Up the Bodies a gloomier  book for me to read than Wolf Hall, but no less engrossing.  My heart was pounding by the end, but, I think understandably, it was my neck that I was clutching.

* * *

How to Converse with Silly, Stupid Ladies (Victorian Life Advice 2.0)

8 May

Take note, gentlemen: this might help you on your next date.  Or not.  Probably not.

Our guide to proper 19th-century etiquette, the eminent Cecil B. Hartley, would have been remiss to omit from his 1875 Gentlemen’s  Book of Etiquette advice on the art of conversation.  And lucky for us, almost all of these guidelines have something to do with one’s behavior in “the society of ladies.”

You’d better be reading Godey’s Lady’s Book, Belle. Not that you could understand it any better than the sheep.

This was the era of the “Cult of True Womanhood,”  a pervasive (I suppose a lot of us would say pernicious) set of ideas about how women were supposed to act.  We can sum it up into four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.

Of course, in 1875, “ladies” wasn’t a blanket statement for all human females–more like white middle- and upper-class human females.  But even so, working-class women, African-American women, and others who wouldn’t be called “ladies” or be welcomed in polite society were often held to the same standards of the Cult of True Womanhood.

The point being that these were the cultural assumptions of Hartley’s time, and the things he says about women’s brains and mental faculties (below) would have been quite common.  Hey, women themselves were reading the same things in their own publications, like that money-making machine, the womanly advice manual and fashion handbook “Godey’s Lady’s Book.”

So let’s see what Mr. Hartley was teaching America’s young men about relationships between the sexes:

1. No Controversy Allowed

“One of the first rules for a guide in polite conversation is to avoid political and religious discussions in general society … [I]n the drawing room, at the dinner table, or in the society of ladies, these are topics best avoided.”

We still say today that it’s impolite to bring up politics, religion, or other contentious subjects at dinner or at any sort of gathering–even among friends and family.  Of course, Hartley mentions three situations in which it’s in particularly bad taste to start a debate: all of them the domestic spheres of a woman.  You get the feeling that Hartley wouldn’t take offense to a group of men drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and talking politics in the library after dinner.

2. Don’t Let a Woman Show You Up

I love this one.  Hartley has just been discoursing on the importance of being knowledgeable about a broad range of topics (art, science, literature, business, music, international affairs) when he throws in this gem about a woman who chimes in with something insightful to say when the man has lost the train of the conversation for wont of a proper education:

“You can speak, even though you’re so clearly my intellectual inferior! It’s remarkable!”

“This facility of comprehension often startles us in some women, whose education we know to have been poor, and whose reading is limited.  If they did not rapidly receive your ideas, they could not, therefore, be fit companions for intellectual men, and it is, perhaps, their consciousness of a deficiency which leads them to pay more attention to what you say.”

By jove, that must be it!  It’s not that she’s a intelligent woman who has by the custom of the country been denied equal education with men (how absurd); it must be that she wants to get married and so tries really hard to prove herself to men!  Well, that makes much more sense.

3. That’s What She Said

You know why I’m glad Steve Carell left The Office this season?  Because I’m pretty sure that Michael Scott did more to popularize “That’s what she said” jokes than anyone else on the planet.  And if puns are the lowest form of humor, than making a double entendre of an innocent person’s inadvertent sexual innuendo has to be the lowest form of pun.

“To use phrases which admit of a double meaning, is ungentlemanly, and, if addressed to a lady, they become positively insulting.”

Finally, something Cecil and I can agree on.  Lord knows there’s not much.

* * *

Victorian Life Advice, Part 1: “Keep Your Eye on the Main Chance”

7 May

Unless I’ve grown up completely out of the cultural loop (and that’s a distinct possibility), most young people don’t spend their free time reading etiquette handbooks anymore.  I graduated from college Saturday, and I didn’t get a single volume titled “The Ladies’ Guide to Politeness” (a major disappointment, needless to say).

“I get my post-graduation guidance from the cast of Mad Men!”

True, self-help books are everywhere.  When Kate the Lostie graduated from high school, she got a book called “What Should I Do With My Life?” from our grandparents, and apparently corporate culture is such that my very successful mother gets leadership handbooks and inspiration business stories from the higher-ups on what seems like a daily basis (books with titles like “Our Iceberg is Melting” or “Who Moved My Cheese?” or “Whale Done!”, books that seem to have taken Aesop’s Fables to a whole new level of strangeness, books that I take every opportunity to make fun of).

But the difference is that these are all books geared toward people who want to network, make money (and friends to influence), succeed in business (without really trying, I imagine), or find their life’s passion (best of luck to you with that).  They aren’t really books on how–as an 1875 etiquette manual promises–to learn “a new set of forms or ceremonies to be observed if you wish to glide down the current of polite life smoothly and pleasantly.”  Surely, we don’t make such a big deal of etiquette in this grand and glorious 21st century, do we?

Do we?

Since my last post on Victorian etiquette seemed fairly popular (and I am shamelessly angling for an audience), I decided to look again at the manner and morals of the late 19th century.  And as it turns out, they’re not very different from the rules we still follow today.

“You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.”

1. Choose Your Friends Wisely

The 1875 “Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette” by Cecil B. Hartley (obviously the name of a true gentleman) is the sort of thing a young man with a brand new Bachelor of Arts in XYZ might get for a graduation gift.  And it starts its gents-in-training with some basic advice:

“The young man who makes his first entrance into the world of society, should know how to choose his friends, and next how to conduct himself towards them.”

Why, doesn’t that sound like just the sort of thing snobby Victorian New Englanders would say!  The right kind of people indeed!  Next thing you know, we’ll be calling people “mudbloods” and looking down our noses at anyone without an Ivy League pedrigree.  The outrage!

Yeah, yeah.  Let’s get down off our high horses for a moment and recall that this is exactly the advice that most moms give their teenagers at some point or another (ever been told your friends were having a “bad influence”? or gotten the “You are who your friends are” lecture?  I haven’t, obviously, but I know some folks).  And it doesn’t always have to do with any sticky class or racial prejudices–getting ahead is the sort of thing that ‘Murricans worry about, like, all the time.

Royall Tyler: Making fun of the British and rocking Elvis Presley hair since 1787.

There’s this great 18th-century play called The Contrast, written by a man with the very un-American name of Royall Tyler, whose comedy of errors was a still-pretty-funny send-up of Americans trying to act like fashionable European dandies.  Maybe inadvertently, but probably not, Tyler pokes fun at that most American of virtues: making money.  Hey, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that–I’ve been tweeting disparaging things about OWS-ers for months.  But you have to admit, Royall Tyler has it exactly write when our heroine’s father spouts his favorite line half a dozen times throughout the first act:

“No! no! no! child; it is money makes the mare go; keep your eye upon the main chance, Mary.”

Yes, we have a deeply-entrenched national faith that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps with hard work and a never-day-die attitude, but hey–it doesn’t hurt to know the right people.

Today, we call that “networking.”

***

Join me next time for 19th century advice on how to engage in gentlemanly conversation.  I promise to let you know exactly when and where it’s appropriate to use the phrase “Hail, fellow, well met!” (because there are totally rules about that).

The Awkward Moment When You Insist on 19th-century Etiquette in Daily Life

3 May

Uncomfortable Scenario #1: 

You’re  walking across campus when you spot an acquaintance  a couple yards away, coming towards you down the sidewalk.  You know he/she/it must have seen you too, but you don’t know whether to say hey, just smile, or even make eye contact.  Ultimately one of you ends up pulling your cell phone out and pretending to text.  Don’t lie.  It’s happened to you too.

Worst of all, there seems to be no solution–or at least not one widely agreed upon by society.  Thus, I would like to humbly propose a rule of etiquette for greeting acquaintances, people whose names you don’t remember, and that guy who friended you on Facebook sophomore year after an American Studies club meeting that you never talk to but who keeps liking your status updates and somehow found you on Twitter: that for this matter, we revert to the etiquette of the late-19th century, when there was a rule for everything.  Everything.  Even this.

Scenario #1 Resolved: Do it like a Victorian.

These are the (abridged) guidelines set down by Victorian dancing master Lucien O. Carpenter in 1882 for “Etiquette for the Street.”  My annotations are in italics.

Her: “Your assistance, Mr. Forsyte, please. I’m finding it difficult to breath.”
Him: “Why yes, my rakish good looks and facial hair tend to have that effect on the fairer sex.”
Her: “Yeah? So do corsets.”

1. The lady should be first to recognize an acquaintance, whether intimate or not.  [This one’s on us, female humans.  If you’re friendly acquaintances, I think “hey” or “salutations and good day!” is suitable.  If it’s a rival or a frenemy, nod and raise an eyebrow contemptuously.]

2. The gentleman should raise his hat slightly, inclining and turning toward the lady in saluting. The hat should be raised by the hand farthest form the lady.  [If the male human is not wearing a hat, I suggest briefly raising the hand farthest from the female as a greeting.  Because everyone knows that using the hand closest to the lady is vulgar.  Obv.]

3. One salutation is all that civility requires when passing a person more than once on a public promenade or drive.  [Which is actually kind of useful to know, because how annoying is it when you’re passing someone who says “How are you?” or “What’s up?” when you really don’t have time to engage in a conversation?]

4. Never stare at any one, is a rule with no exceptions.

5. The gentleman should not smoke when driving or walking with ladies.  [Addendum: University of Alabama men, stop spitting on the sidewalk when someone is passing you.  You don’t need to be a Victorian to think that’s disgusting.]

6. If the lady with whom you are walking is saluted by another gentleman, acknowledge the same by removing your hat.  [Oooh, she must be popular.  Or my little sister.  In other words, nod to your rivals, gentlemen.]

7. Should you desire to converse with a lady you should happen to meet, do not detain her, but turn and walk in her direction.  [Perfect!  No more standing around uncomfortably in the middle of the sidewalk!]

Sarah and Angelina Grimké were abolitionists and suffragettes before it was cool to be an abolitionist or a suffragette.  And they could open their own doors JUST FINE.

8. While walking with a lady in a crowded thoroughfare and obliged to proceed singly, the gentleman should precede her to clear the way.  [Unless the lady is more physically imposing, or has a naturally unpleasant face/really intimidating glare that makes her look sour and unhappy in social situations but really comes in handy when staring down solicitors or Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I may or may not know this from personal experience.]

9. While walking with a lady, the gentleman should take the side next the street.  [Because if someone’s going to get run over by a car… I mean… horse and buggy, it’s going to be the man.  The funny thing is that when I was a kid and my little sister and I would go on walks, my mother told me I needed to stand on the street side.  Clearly, an asthmatic 10-year-old is so much more likely to survive a vehicular impact than an 8-year-old.  Makes perfect sense.]

10. Loud conversation should be avoided at all times.  [This one, I can get on board with.  Nobody wants to hear about how you totally don’t remember what happened at that party last night, irresponsible freshman girl.  Nobody.]

I’m Absolutely Serious About This

Okay, so I realize that, the further down the list you get, the more archaically chivalrous the guidelines get.  Personally, I’m in total agreement with the estimable Grimké sisters on chivalry being somewhat condescending and demeaning to women (the worst thing about Alabama has been the tendency of people to hold a door open for me when I’m still really far away, making me run to relieve them).  But for awkward public greeting situations, the first three rules are gold.

Follow this link for more sources on the sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-cringeworthy, and sometimes even a little useful rules of 19th century etiquette.

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Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage Goes Gaga

1 May

I know the Lady Gaga video parodies are legion, but Soomo Publishing’s “Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage” really knocks out all comers.  I don’t care if Lady Gaga is no longer relevant by the time I’m teaching history courses of my own, but I can promise you one thing: I will be showing this in class.  As an historically-accurate music video (can we have more of those please?), it stands on its own.

Not going to lie — I cried a little at the end.

 

Damn, is Alice Paul a badass or what?

Musical Advice from 1900: Don’t Be a Gold Digger

1 May

Now that I’m graduating from college, I’ve gotten some joking (I hope) comments from friends and family that I’m going to grad school far, far away on the East coast in order to find some rich WASP-y law student to marry.  Because that’s why people get PhDs.  Seven years hunched over books in a library carrel just screams “Marry me!”

Anyway, all this reminds me of my favorite Victorian-era sentimental ballad: “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”  Like virtually all 19th/early-20th century tear-jerkers, it features a beautiful woman dying of despair because she gets trapped in a bad relationship (in this case, she’s a gold digger who marries an old guy for his money).

I know we tend to think of “the olden days” as a time when women necessarily married for money and then pined away for love all the rest of their days, but in the 19th century ideas of romantic love and “companionate marriage” were superseding the old patriarchal model of arranged, economic marriages.  This was the golden age of all things sentimental.  I can’t listen to this song without laughing, but if I were a Victorian lady, I’d probably be bawling my eyes out.

So here it is:

Bonus Story!  The day I defended my thesis (a couple weeks ago) I called up my elder sister Kate the Lostie and sang this song into her voicemail. Later I sang it into a webcam for my bemused family (and they’re the only ones who will ever, ever see it).  Apparently after doing some Wikipedia-ing, her response was thus:

“According to Von Tilzer, he was approached in 1899 by Lamb with the lyrics for a song. Although Von Tilzer liked it, he asked Lamb to change some of the words to make it clear that the woman in the song was married and not a mistress. Later that evening, as he worked out a melody at a piano in a public house with some friends, he noticed that many of the girls nearby were crying, which convinced him the song could be a hit.”

haha maybe they were crying bc they could relate

Insightful and eloquent as always, my sister.

John Smith didn’t really look like that. Sorry, kids.

30 Apr

Disney, I’d like to commend you.  You own the animated children’s movie business.  You own it to the extent that I’m still not sure whether you did that 1997 Anastasia musical or not.  Nobody is.  And even if it wasn’t you, I mean, we all know that hardly matters.  You’re the best.  You were when I was a kid, you did when my mother was a kid, you may have when my grandmother was a girl, depending on how old she is.*

Your classic animations are a part of the cultural consciousness now.  But let’s be honest with each other for a moment–and I think we can be, because of our long and loving relationship.  You’ve taken some serious, serious liberties with history.

Now I’m not talking about the fact that Anastasia requires audiences to suspend their disbelief enough to accept that evil green spirits released by an undead Rasputin made the Russian people want Communism.  The undead Rasputin?  That I believe.  But come on, associating the Bolsheviks with evil green spirits?  At least make them evil red spirits.**

Not that you haven’t been great with attention to detail in the past–it’s uncanny they way you’re able to make animated characters look like the voice actors who play them.  Example: Jeremy Irons as Scar in The Lion King.  Iconic, right?  Now whenever I watch The Borgias I keep expecting the Pope to push someone off a cliff into a stampede of antelope.  Although, to be fair, it’s something Alexander VI would probably have done if he had half the chance.

But Disney, dear, dear, Disney, you really phoned it in with Pocahontas.  When I was little, my sisters and I used to re-enact scenes from the movie.  Having an unusually low and raspy voice–the product of chronic asthma and throat inflammation–I played John Smith.  Imagine my dismay when I learned, years later, that all the time I was strutting around like a strapping blonde adventurer I really looked like a squat ginger leprechaun.  Was it any consolation to learn that John Smith was knighted for bravery (0r most times escaping from enemy capture and publishing books about it, or something, whatever) by a Transylvanian prince?

A little.  It helped a little.

I understand that you weren’t working with much.  Even in the 17th century, this was not the face of a handsome man.  The whole John Rolfe thing makes way more sense now.  But still, you turned Jeremy Irons into a lion.  You could have at least given John Smith a beard.

-

* She has aged beautifully, my grandmother, and it’s not empty flattery because she’ll probably never see this.  Also, has anyone else noticed their mothers or aunts or grandmothers saying “when I was a girl” instead of “when I was little” or “when I was a kid.”  I’ve never said “when I was a girl.”  Gender neutral identifiers, people!  They’re all the rage.

** And this goes for whoever made Anastasia, Disney and pseudo-Disney alike.

My 3 Proudest Moments as a College Student (all of them exceptionally strange)

28 Apr

Like thousands of other twenty-somethings across the country, I’m graduating from college this spring.  In fact, I’m graduating this week.  It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet, though that might be due to the fact that I have 5+ years of grad school ahead of me.  Fun!

Team USA Quidditch at the University of Alabama, preparing to lose to Iceland.

I never went to a football game, stayed up no later than 10 pm on weeknights, and maintained my admittedly bizarre and anachronistic 19th-century teetotaling ethos the entire four years–but even so, I’m still going to miss being an undergraduate at the University of Alabama.  And maybe it is all that 19th century research, but I’m feeling a little sentimental.

In that vein, here is a list of my Top 3 Proudest Moments as a college student–all of them being very, very strange.

1. Reformation! The Musical

When I was in middle school, I was president of the Drama Club and performed in a number of musical productions.  I was so good that, in fifth grade, I was the understudy for the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist.  In eighth grade, I was the understudy for Wendy in Peter Pan.

I was an awesome understudy.

It’s only logical, then, that I got my breakout starring role this year as Martin Luther in “Reformation! The Musical,” a short film I wrote, filmed, edited, and bankrolled myself .  I was amazed that so many of my friends actually agreed to participate.  We were equally amazed at how horrible the movie turned out to be.

Our tagline?  “The worst film in all of … history.”

 

Hey, you can’t say we didn’t have fun.

2. Team USA Quidditch at the World Cup

Way, way back in high school, I spearheaded the creation of a quidditch league at my school.  That’s right, quidditch.  We even got in the county newspaper, which would have been super awesome except that the reporter included the fact that the league was organized by a group of my friends and me passing notes in AP Calculus.  Our teacher was quite gracious about the revelation–maybe because it was already pretty obvious that I was never going to pass that AP exam.  As she told me before the test: “Let’s get this over with so you can use words for the rest of your life.”

They gave me differential equations to solve.  I wrote them palindromes.

Team F*cking USA with an American flag I made out of cardboard and colored paper.

Imagine my delight when an organization at UA hosted a massive quidditch tournament two years ago.  I eagerly got a team together (mostly composed of my Reformation! cast mates).  We lost.  But this year, this year, I was determined that we would win. Well, win one game anyway.  After all, we were Team F*cking USA.

It was a dramatic final five minutes.  The Snitch ran onto the quidditch pitch in a sweat, both Seekers (one of them my precious younger sister) in hot pursuit.  I was playing Beater, but had thrown my last bludger at an enemy player.  The other team’s Seeker was getting closer and closer to the tennis ball dangling from the back of the Snitch’s pants.  My sister, exhausted but still determined, having stripped out of her sweatpants into pink running shorts right on the field, was only a few steps behind.  I shouted to my team’s other Beater: “Aim for the Seeker!”  She had a bludger in her hands and, in one last desperate act, pelted the enemy Seeker in the balls.  He doubled over in pain, and my sister caught the Snitch.

I had never loved her so much as I did that moment, and I doubt I ever shall again.

3. Senior History Honors Thesis

About three weeks ago I defended my senior history Honors thesis, a microhistory of youngest daughter of a white cotton planter and enslaved African American woman in Reconstruction-era Alabama.  I’d give more details, but I think this could turn into a dissertation and I’m terrified of my story getting scooped before I have a chance to publish.  There’s a reason they call academia the School of Hard Knocks.

Don’t they?

Top 5 Historical Americans Who Were Probably Vampires

24 Apr

Heroes and villains with secret identities are about as American as apple pie, teeth whitening, and fundamentalist Christianity–and these days (sadly enough) you can add sparkly vampires to that list too.  So with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter coming to the big screen in June (and oh, what fun we’ll have here then), it’s only natural to speculate about other historical figures who may have had their own supernatural secrets.  I’ve already written about fictional Lincoln and his flame gun, and zombie Henry David Thoreau, but as I sat in English this morning, dreaming about all the midday naps I’ll take after graduation, I began to compose a list of famous Americans who may not have burst into flames in the light but certainly had their vampiric qualities.

1. William Cullen Bryant

He was a 19th-century romantic poet.  He was a boy genius.  He wrote his masterpiece, “Thanatopsis” (Greek for “a view of death”) at age 17.  And look, just look at that face.  The collar, the cloak, the pallid skin and sinister smirk all point to one thing: he prowls the streets at night searching for blood.  In fact, I’m pretty sure he tells us that in his poem:

When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit, and sad images

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,

Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart;–

Go forth, under the open sky, and list

To Nature’s teachings

In other words, feast on the blood of the innocent in the moonlight, friends, for tomorrow Lincoln’s coming for you with the hatchet he keeps under his stovepipe hat.

2. Edgar Allan Poe

Do you think it’s a coincidence that poets top this list?  It’s not.  And if we know one thing about Poe: he never met a stiff he didn’t like.  There’s a movie coming out about him too, you know, in which some super creepy groupie goes on a killing spree in which he (or she) brings all the gruesome deaths in Poe’s writings, shall we say, to life.

More likely explanation: Poe committed them all himself.  After all, as your teachers will tell you, write what you know.

Just look at those eyes.  Those are the eyes of a haunted man who’s seen eternity, and shrinks from it.

3. President James K. Polk

One of my history professors put this image on a powerpoint the other day, and you have to admit, Polk does look quite a bit like Lucius Malfoy.  If any of our past presidents were Slytherins, Polk definitely would have made the cut.  This is the man who imagined up a war with Mexico and made it happen for kicks.  (Or territorial expansion, one or the other.)

And lest we forget, Polk did have some tense run-ins with Lincoln during his presidency.  When Polk, licking his lips, thundered that Mexicans had “spilled American blood on American soil” (which they hadn’t, and which wasn’t), Lincoln was one with the “Spot Resolutions”–calling for Polk to identify just where exactly the blood had been spilled.

I’ll tell you where.  Into his wine glass, that’s where.

4. Laura Ingalls Wilder

Bet you didn’t expect this one, did you, eh?  Her Little House books are staples of childhood bedside reading.  But did you ever ask yourself, as your parents tucked you in at night, why the Ingalls were always moving West?  I mean, from the way she writes you’d think they had it pretty good in the big woods.

I’ll tell you why: Pa was a vampire.

People of the 19th century were not as accepting as we are today.  They wouldn’t have swooned in desire to see a vampire.  They would have staked him, like, immediately.  But Pa was a good guy.  I’m guessing that, of all of these American bloodsuckers, he was closest to the “vegetarianism” of the Cullen family.  The West was indeed a land of bounty: wild and full of wild game, Pa could feed without being tempted by human blood.  Because out there, the only humans for miles around were Ma, Mary, Laura, and Carrie, and eating them wouldn’t have been acceptable.

I’ll let you speculate as to why Pa called Laura “Half Pint.”

She herself seemed to take after her father more than her sisters, and while Mary would have gasped and fainted away should she have ever found out about her father’s true nature, I’m guessing Laura probably just shrugged it off.  And later, when she was grown, she probably asked him to turn her.

Why do you think the Little House books are so rife with nostalgia for a lost childhood and passing way of life?  The times she wrote about weren’t only her youth, they were her last years as a human.

5. Benjamin Franklin

You know him as the face on the $100 bill, the man people still think was president at some point, the guy who flew a kite in a lightning storm and lived to make a fortune off of it, and the name that keeps popping up in your history textbook at points long after you would have expected him to be dead.  He was everywhere!  He did everything!  In his old age he was a lecherous old man with a coterie of buxom French hotties!  And he didn’t give a shit.

*

That’s all for today, folks, but join me next time for a gendered interpretation of the cover art for Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter series!  Sounds fun, right?

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