History News: Two New Portraits of Shakespeare

Discovery News writer Rosella Lorenzi has posted an exciting article about the two portraits shown above. According to Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, a professor of English at Mainz University, Germany, the one on the left shows Shakespeare as he was experiencing his first successes on the London stage, around 1594. The one on the right depicts him around the age of 50,  relaxing at home in Stratford. These two newly authenticated discoveries increase the number of known likenesses of the Bard to six. For more information, see the original article here, where you can also find images of the other known portraits.


Thriller: Cabal of the Westford Knight, by David S. Brody

Cabal of The Westford Knight: Templars at the Newport Tower
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The daVinci Code crosses the pond to Westford, Massachusetts, following clues about the secret Jesus/Magdalene bloodline hidden in Scotland’s and the Sinclair family’s Roslyn Chapel. Cabal of the Westford Knight is based upon legends concerning the infamous Templar Knights, a band of which is supposed by some to have arrived in what is now New England, more than a hundred years before Columbus. Cameron Thorne is a small town lawyer who grew up in the region, and in the course of ordinary business, he stumbles into a diabolical conspiracy by parties unknown. The Knights are rumored to have left a priceless treasure, and Thorne quickly learns that there are those more than willing to kill for it. He determines to reach that treasure, whatever it may be, before the conspirators can.

Author Brody weaves existing artifacts and places into a historical fiction thriller that expands from local legend to archaeological fact to world wide religious conspiracy. Westford Knight is a labyrinthine tale, dependent upon countless twists, turns and incredibly lucky breaks. Amply supplemented with photos, it invites the reader to consider the physical evidence and draw his/her own conclusions. Character development is sacrificed to the necessities of a complex, galloping plot, though there is a budding romance between Thorne and a beautiful, brainy historian. Together, the couple track down artifacts and draw some pretty spectacular inferences, all while dodging bullets and jumping off bridges. Brody’s writing is competent but extremely literal, and appears to have been thoroughly researched. For readers interested in further exploration on this topic, he maintains a couple of interactive websites, referenced in acknowledgments.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death, by Gary R. Varner

Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death: Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strangely Wrought Creatures is subtitled Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture. The first half of this slim volume (157 pages) discussing those two iconic figures, the gargoyle and the green man, which have been a feature in ecclesiastical architecture for more than a millennium. Quoting from his own research and that of others, Gary Varner speculates about the reasons for the inclusion of these “pagan” figures in most of Europe’s great churches and cathedrals, and about what they might symbolize (there are five times more green men in one English cathedral than images of Jesus!) He does the same in the book’s second half, where he covers such enigmatic creatures as dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and griffins, and others. The upshot of his study is that there is much disagreement about what these image “mean”, and why prelates would allow such carvings in a place of Christian worship.

The book is liberally illustrated with photos of strange creatures located on buildings old and new, primarily in England, France, and America. Why do twenty and twenty-first century folks find these images so compelling? Perhaps, Varner believes, because we long for connections to our distant past, and are influence by our embedded archetypal memories. This is a good overview for readers new to the topic, but for those with broader knowledge about it, there’s little new to be found in its pages.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s a mistake to think of history, any history, as static, and now Nathaniel Philbrick offers the general reader a new take on the earliest days of America’s War for Independence, most of which played out in and around Boston. Starting in the aftermath of the infamous Tea Party, he describes the passions, tensions, fears, squabbles, and the incipient battles in well documented and lively detail. Of particular interest are the character sketches Philbrick included in his larger narrative. about Washington, local hero Joseph Warren, and a heretofore little-known rabble rouser who called himself Joyce Jr. As a museum docent who talks about Washington and the Revolution on a daily basis, it was amusing to read of his appalled reaction, when this self-styled, Southern officer and gentleman arrived in Boston and attempted to take command of an army composed of poorly supplied, rough hewn, strong willed Yankees, who insisted upon electing their own officers and following orders only when they thought they were sensible. Joseph Warren has long been a local hero in Massachusetts, and Philbrick tells of how the New England soldiers revered him; Warren was brought down a few notches in my opinion, however. Until reading Bunker Hill, I had no knowledge of a vigilante calling himself Joyce, Jr., who patrolled the streets in flamboyant disguise looking to tar and feather any Tories whom he happened to encounter (tar and feathering is a brutal affair, not a joke.)

But as the author himself states in his closing, the real hero of this story is the city of Boston, and he has done it a great service in relating its history from the point of view of the courageous citizenry who gave birth to a revolution.

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One of Our Funniest Presidents

Yankee Magazine has been posting articles from 30 years ago on their website, many of them still very interesting. Today I read about, of all people, Calvin Coolidge, known in his day as “Silent Cal”. Turns out, if you read transcripts from his presidency, this guy had a dry wit about him. In a few sections of the following article, my husband and I had some good laughs. Check it out. Who knew?

Article from the September 1977 issue.

Historical Fiction: The Caves of Perigord, by Martin Walker

The Caves of Perigord

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Major Phillip Manners has just buried his father, and his inheritance included a small piece of paleolithic wall art depicting a bull. He takes the painting to Lydia Dean, expert in the preclassical department of a London auction house, for valuation. Astounded by what she sees, she identifies the work as characteristic of the wall paintings found in the caves of the Dordogne, and warns Manners that it probably qualifies as a stolen artifact. Manners informs her that his father brought it home from France after WWII, when he was stationed there to assist the Resistance forces. Lydia, taking that as her jumping off point, stores the stone securely and agrees to research its provenance. The very next day, it’s stolen yet again. A reward is posted, and Manners convinces Lydia to travel to the Perigord region with him, in hopes of locating the cave in which the painting was originally made.

The Caves of Perigord has a three-fold plot. Author Walker, an NPR commentator, relates Lydia’s quest in the present time, and intersperses into her tale two back stories from this region, one from the Ice Age and the other from the second world war. In doing so, Walker show off his research, descriptive, and creative skills to good advantage, recreating the Ice Age and bringing to life humankind’s earliest visual artists and their milieu. The animals, customs, societal hierarchy, and painting techniques are all vividly portrayed, mainly through the experiences of Deer, a young artist in training. Taylor does an equally impressive job writing about the role of the Brits and Americans who trained and supplied the French Resistors in 1944, centering upon Manners’ father, the Capitaine. These chapters are truly harrowing; the region is a minefield, literally and figuratively, militarily and politically, and Walker evokes the brutality of the struggle much as Leon Uris did in his war novels. He knows how to tell a gripping story and make his readers care about his characters, empathizing with their joys and struggles.

If the book has flaws, they are minor, and lie in the absence of a map, and some extraneous detail that interrupted the action. Some photos or diagrams of the cave art wouldn’t have gone amiss either.

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Great Nonfiction: The Sacred Remains, by Gary Laderman

The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Each October, I’m asked to give tours at several historic cemeteries here in CT. The Sacred Remains is the book I use most for fact checking and for answers to questions that visitors sometimes ask that I can’t answer. Meticulously researched and documented, the book opens with an account of the many funerals of George Washington (GW’s “invisible corpse”), with emphasis on how the extravagant, nationwide expressions of mourning affected Protestant American burial traditions and attitudes toward death itself, especially with respect to the physical remains. Adopting a cultural, sociological perspective, Dr. Laderman examines the spiritual, emotional, and psychological factors that influenced how families dealt with the preparation of the body of the deceased in the decades preceding the Civil War, when the vast majority of Americans died at home and were “laid out” by relatives and friends, and buried, necessarily, within a day or two. When the war began to produce an avalanche of disfigured corpses that died far from home, it became necessary to develop procedures for embalming those that would be transported from battlefield to their northern homes, introducing professional undertakers into what had been an intensely private process. Ending with the ” birth of the “business of death” that occurred toward the end of the nineteenth century, with “corpse as commodity”, the author illustrates how the mortuary industry ensured that the body would be “ushered out in a comforting manner for the living.”

“The dead do not simply vanish when life is extinguished….The dead must also be accounted for in the imagination.” The Sacred Remains is a compelling study of the ways in which Americans have accomplished this task.

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It’s a Mystery: The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny

The Beautiful Mystery: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Chief Inspector Gamache is intrigued by his new case, the death of a monk in a remote monastery in the far reaches of Quebec. No outsiders are ever admitted, but the murder forces the abbot to make an exception. As Gamache approaches the solid door, he wonders whether the walls are there to keep evil out or to hide it within, a question he will ponder frequently over the next couple of days. For, as in any human group, the dynamics of the tiny community are profoundly shaken when a stranger enters among them. In return, Gamache and his assistant, Beauvoir, must struggle to cope with the monks’ strict schedule of work and prayer, particularly as all of their daily services are sung in Gregorian chant. “It’s like walking into joy,” Gamache muses.

The Beautiful Mystery is a fine police procedural, but what made it especially interesting is its setting. This is a silent religious order, and as Gamache comes to realize that a deep rift separates the monks into two camps, the alien atmosphere creates a sort of meditative state in the inspector. Forbidden the use of words, the monks are expert in the art of subtle, nonverbal communication, which complicates the investigation. And just as Gamache is keenly observant, so are they. The equilibrium is even more disrupted when his despicable superior makes a surprise visit, but refuses to explain his presence. Gamache needs to keep his mind clear, but his boss knows how to rattle his cage. Violently. By the time the murderer is identified, all peace and joy have been shattered for monks and police alike.

At 400 pages, this book is rich and engrossing but a bit too long. But now I know the history of the Chanticler breed of poultry!

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Civil War News: 16th Maine Gettysburg Flag

by Paul Carrier, Morning Sentinel, 12/12/07

AUGUSTA — A small but invaluable piece of the state’s history came home Monday when the Maine State Museum acquired a remnant of a Civil War flag that the 16th Maine Regiment carried into battle at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. The ragged bit of dark blue silk, emblazoned with a lone golden star, is less than 5 inches long. It was once part of a flag that, at 6 feet, may well have been taller than many of the soldiers who fought under it. But the size of the seemingly unimposing scrap of cloth does not detract from its value. Quite the opposite: The fragment is valuable precisely because it is just that.With their capture imminent on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the men of the 16th Maine tore up their “colors,” as Civil War flags were known. They hid the pieces of two flags in their clothing to prevent advancing Confederates from capturing the banners. The state museum had three of those remnants in its collection until Monday, when a piece that the museum bought at auction last month finally arrived.

Carefully preserved in a glass-covered wooden frame, the remnant has a handwritten note attached to it that says John Palmer of Winslow, a soldier in the 16th Maine, gave it to his father. John Palmer is believed to have been captured at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, and imprisoned in Richmond, Va. He apparently was released from prison, and either sent or delivered the fragment to his father before being killed in battle in February 1865. The note that accompanied the fragment, written in a flowing script on paper that is now faded and torn, reads: “A piece of the flag of the Sixteen Maine Regiment. Tore up on the field of Gettysburg to keep it from the hands of the rebels. Presented to Ambrose H. Palmer by his son John Palmer after his liberation from Richmond.”

What happened to the fragment in the years that followed is unclear, but the state museum bought it and three related Civil War artifacts for $3,680 an auction firm in Cincinnati. The collection includes a black felt hat and an off-white cotton belt, both bearing the insignia of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans group. It also includes a photograph of an elderly man in a three-piece suit wearing what appears to be the hat from the auction lot. The man in the photo is believed to be Ambrose Palmer Jr., John Palmer’s older brother and a fellow member of Company B in the 16th Maine Regiment. Unlike John Palmer, Ambrose Palmer Jr. survived the war and, judging by his photograph, lived a long life.

The 16th Maine fell to the Confederates on the battlefield when it was attacked from two sides. Historians say the 16th Maine fought valiantly but its soldiers turned their attention to saving their beloved flags when they realized that defeat was inevitable. Like other Union regiments, the 16th Maine carried an American flag and a regimental flag, known collectively as “the colors.””For a few last moments our little regiment defended angrily its hopeless challenge, but it was useless to fight longer,” Abner Small of the 16th Maine wrote after the battle. “We looked at our colors, and our faces burned. We must not surrender those symbols of our pride and our faith.” The regiment’s color bearers “appealed to the colonel,” Small wrote, “and with his consent they tore the flags from the staves and ripped the silk into shreds; and our officers and men that were near took each a shred.” No one knows how many pieces of either flag remain, and museum officials aren’t sure which flag included the remnant they received on Monday.

That was the 16th Maine’s “greatest day,” wrote Earl Hess, a history professor at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, in an introduction to a collection of Small’s Civil War letters published in 2000. Hess said Tuesday that the 16th Maine’s actions show that battle flags carried “very, very deep symbolism for Civil War soldiers,” representing the “esprit de corps” of a regiment and “a larger entity – the country, the cause.””It was such an important battle and this is a very compelling story within that battle,” LaBar said. “Having two Maine regiments involved in very different ways at Gettysburg sort of bookends the whole war for me.” The 20th Maine Regiment “turned the tide” at Gettysburg, LaBar said, but the 16th Maine’s determination to keep its cherished banners out of enemy hands “is every bit as important as Little Round Top in helping us understand the Civil War.

Revised and reposted 7/23/13

Edward Hopper: Provincetown Then and Now

We’ve just returned from a vacation on Cape Cod, and our annual visit to P-town. A few years ago, this feature was presented in the New York Times. It’s about a series of views painted by celebrated artist Edward Hopper. The iconic American artist spent nearly half the summers of his life painting isolated buildings in broad vistas. See how some of these landscapes have changed and hear what they mean to the people who live there. Here’s the link to this article, narrated by members of the families associated with each of the buildings depicted. Very evocative.