Category Archives: history/memory

words of wisdom: Samuel Johnson

“A man will turn over half a library to make one book.”  Samuel Johnson, 1775.

johnsonHow sweet, Mr. Johnson, especially considering the size of the average library that you knew.  Now please consider multiple 20th/21st-century academic libraries, I-don’t-remember-how-many speciality archives and historical societies, and then the whole mass of GoogleBooks as that which has been “turned over.”  We need another metaphor.  More of a Bagger 288 than a garden spade, methinks.

I am at my footnotes and bibliography today, and it is making me swoon.  I don’t remember where I read all of these things, but several of them prompt really precise (or precise-ish) memories: reading building committee reports on an archivist’s desk in Philadelphia, riffling through a missionary’s diaries in the corner of a small university museum in Louisville. Or was it Richmond?  And just in terms of volume: how much more have I read about my architect’s time than did he read when he was in it?  Bagger 288 indeed.

portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, ca, 1775

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Presidents’ Day

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Feb. 16 is Presidents’ Day, when schoolchildren and federal employees get a day off.  Since I am dependent on the latter for my research, that means it’s a day off for me, too.  I will probably spend it doing some administrivia and maybe, if I’m lucky, a little writing.  I fancy a walk out to see my favorite presidential memorial, but at the same time I don’t fancy having my face frozen off and it is wicked cold out there.

Last week I hosted my own holiday on Lincoln’s birthday, which is well-nigh a sacred day if you grow up in Illinois.  It seemed important to take special note of this year, since I am here in Washington and spending my days studying people who knew Lincoln and worked for him.  So he already felt as close as a deceased president might; add to that my visiting of some significant relics.  During lunch I popped up to the third floor to see the hat he wore on the night of his assassination; after the end of the workday I went to the museum that has two life masks and a very rare and special potrait, and rounded out the night by attending The Widow Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. I’d never been there before, and it was an interesting play in part because, as the plot unfolds in the forty days following his death, he is absent from the stage, which makes the empty box more poignant, I think, than if I had just visited during normal touring hours.

Just forty-two days before his death, Lincoln had delivered his Second Inaugural Address, which I have recently encouraged my padawans at home to dig into in an effort to spend a little of Presidents’ day making themselves better citizens.  If you’d like to play along, read it here, or just review those fine closing words:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

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Spirits from the Past

BBFAlthough I find it hard to write about buildings without writing about the people who made them, buildings tend to be at the focus of my research and teaching.  As my new research project foregrounds the people, I have spent a lot of time in journals and other personal papers.  I anticipated learning more of the color of nineteenth-century life, but have run across a few unexpected delights of a different sort.  Twice I read messages apparently recorded from the spirit world through séances (one from the deceased German mother of a draughtsman on the Capitol project, the other from Andrew Jackson), which is not a typical kind of thing for an architectural historian to deal with.  Those are interesting for what they might reveal about the recipients of the messages, but more compelling (messages from dead presidents notwithstanding), I think, is the excerpt you see above, written in the diary of Benjamin Brown French (1800-70).  He’s writing to his son Frank, thinking that the little boy might someday want to read his dad’s diary; why else write, since “no one else, I am certain, will ever waste the time necessary for such an operation…”  If that spirit world is active in the way that French and many of his contemporaries thought it was, I hope he sees that he was wrong.  I am not the only one who has enjoyed wasting my time with his “journalizing” and am, indeed, so glad that he wasted his time writing it all down for me.

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