Tag Archives: history

Better, Less Offensive History

At present I am in a library, staring out a bank of windows at a grassy field. Huge pieces of public art are scattered across the space: a driftwood horse, a strange lemon-fish-bowl assembly, and others, all shaded by giant leafy trees. Yes, I am at a small private liberal arts college. It is my ten-year reunion weekend. And someone just rode by on a unicycle, because of course they did.

For the next three days, I will be meeting old friends, walking familiar and forgotten sidewalks, and staring my past self right in the face. It’s the emotional equivalent of crossing one’s eyes: uncomfortable, perspective-changing, and unsustainable for long periods. I don’t have many large regrets, but like anyone I have a collection of small mistakes accumulated over many years, often misunderstood at the time when I made them. Most of these can be boiled down to things like People can be terrible at fearlessly articulating what they need and Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes. I liked who I was in college, and I like who I am now, but my current self is much wiser in many important ways. My past self is also much less afraid in other ways; I am trying to get some of that boldness back without ditching everything I’ve gained in the intervening years.

This college, where I spent four of the most vivid years of my life, also happens to be on/near the site of a famous missionary massacre during America’s western expansionist/genocidal phase. These rolling hills and river valleys were taken from various NDN peoples (Walla Walla, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Colville, and others) by stealth and slaughter. The college itself — increasingly rich and white — did and quite probably still does an imperfect job of confronting this history in the course of student life. During my years, I spent much more time reading Ovid and Euripides than reading about the mass death of the Cayuse children from smallpox. Like the college, I am responsible in some part for not adequately confronting the past.

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

When we arrived, my husband came back from a visit to the hotel’s business center and told me I must visit the second floor. I joined him and to my astonishment discovered a series of paintings depicting scenes from the life and death of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. Most are blandly illustrative, but the others — well, others are rather more appalling in their choice of subject. Artist David Manuel’s website celebrates his tendency to value “historical accuracy over political correctness,” and even telling you that in advance cannot prepare you for the effect of seeing these paintings. Since they are slightly bloody and almost certainly triggering, I have put them below the jump.

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Today in Unlikely but Useful Research Topics

Via the always-delightful Improbable Research blog comes this incredibly handy piece by Oxford scholar Michael Burden: “Pots, Privies and WCs: Crapping at the Opera in London Before 1830.”

We here at Olivia Waite love a good opera scene in a historical romance, and this article offers plenty of rich details, just the sort of gritty, astonishing information that historical authors are always looking for:

In general, the documented behaviour of London audiences suggests that it had little or nothing in common with anything that might be experienced by opera-goers today. These audiences pushed, shoved, argued and, as the vomiting character in the centre of Figure 1 suggests, the crush could be tight. Recorded incidents in the nineteenth century include a terrific squeeze at the Opera House in 1830, where there were ‘torn clothes and a few fainting fits’;8 a Mr Jones who was knocked over and crushed, and emerged gushing blood from his ears, eyes and mouth;9 the positioning of fire engines at the stage doors in an effort to persuade the audience to remain under control;10 and a crowd ‘violent beyond precedent’ for Jenny Lind’s long-expected debut that gave currency to the expression ‘a Jenny Lind crush’.11

It’s available to read online as a PDF; I highly encourage you to read the whole thing.

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