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On History

Passional Affinities

July 2, 2014 | by

The free-love couple who pissed off nineteenth-century America.

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A lithograph against polygamy from an 1850 book.

In the summer of 1853, the Tribune of New York published a pointed letter directed at the proprietors of the American Hydropathic Institute, a “health institute” in Port Chester, denouncing the establishment for spreading “free and easy notions respecting Love and Marriage.” Its reputation locally was as a bawdy place, a breeding ground for anarchy, free love, and other dubious socialist practices. Shortly after this public cudgeling, enrollment dropped, the institute closed, and its proprietors disbanded, taking their unsavory ideas with them to Long Island. On one hundred acres of wooded land, they rebuilt the institute with the modest aim of rectifying society’s ills.

The institute was, at least nominally, a school for hydrotherapy, or water-cure, a popular nineteenth-century health movement that rejected drugs in favor of precise bathing regimens and an ascetic lifestyle aimed at keeping the body, mind, and spirit in careful order. The school was the vision and creation of Dr. Thomas Low Nichols and his wife, Mrs. Mary Gove Nichols. She was a freethinking novelist, an early feminist, and a health reformer; he was a physician, a progressive journalist, and a social agitator. Together they amassed fervent followers and passionate detractors, synonymizing the name “Nichols” with licentiousness and radicalism.

In the years before the Civil War, America was inundated with reformist ideologies—a response to societal shifts brought on by rapid social and economic changes. The Nicholses embodied this anxiety: they embraced a smorgasbord of nineteenth-century reform movements, sampling generously from socialism, free love, spiritualism, mesmerism, phrenology, hydrotherapy, and other progressive health and social ideologies. Few radical figures were as devoted to the twin causes of individualism and love. Their ideal union was one in which plurality of love was openly embraced and each individually sovereign man and woman was “drawn together solely by the charm of a mutual attraction,” as they jointly wrote in Marriage: Its History, Character, and Results in 1854. “Such a union seems to us to constitute the true marriage of mutual love in perfect freedom.” Read More »

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No Memories

June 4, 2014 | by

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Tiananmen Square in 2007. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. In 2009, The Paris Review published Liao Yiwu’s “Nineteen Days,” an essay in which he chronicles his imprisonment after the atrocity. He wasn’t there, but in his outrage he recorded a poem, which was enough to get him arrested for years. His piece is a haunting testament of a nation still struggling to reckon with the import of the event:

Three years after the massacre, I was in jail. Five years later, police were stationed in front of my house. Seven years later, there were sporadic memorial activities organized by individuals or small groups—petition letters, candlelight vigils, the burning of paper money to appease the dead, poetry readings, and hunger strikes. On the tenth anniversary, I repeated my poem “Massacre” for an overseas radio station by chanting and yelling into my telephone receiver … I remembered the story of Sun Jinxuan, a poet who died of lung cancer in late 2002. On June 4 that year, he woke up with pain. He called a dozen of his friends, most of whom were poets, writers, and celebrities. The first thing he asked on the phone was: “Do you know what day it is?” … Believe it or not, I was the only one who correctly pointed out the anniversary. Sun felt embarrassed and outraged by the answers of his friends. He yelled loudly on the phone, announcing that he intended to stage a one-person demonstration on the street. His slogan would be: “Killings, killings. No memories, no memories.”

In China, June 4 is also known as “Internet Maintenance Day”; authorities censor Weibo, a Chinese social network like Twitter, making it next to impossible for anyone to recognize or remark upon the political weight of the occasion. As a post on Language Log attests, the list of redacted words is remarkably thorough: even the usage of a simple word like today is enough to merit suppression. Subversive workarounds like “May 35,” a coded reference to June 4, are blocked, too, as are many others: Read More »

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A Boiling Soup of Opium

June 3, 2014 | by

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Unknown Chinese artist, Commissioner Lin and the Destruction of the Opium in 1839

Happy Opium Suppression Movement Day! This is, according to such reputable resources as Wikipedia and career.osa.ncku.edu.tw, a Taiwanese holiday dedicated to stamping out cigarette smoking—but it all began on June 3, 1839, when more than one thousand tons of illegal opium were systemically destroyed at Humen, in China’s Guangdong province.

By that time, an estimated four to twelve million Chinese citizens were opium addicts; though the opium trade had been banned in China since 1800, smugglers continued to import massive quantities, largely to the gain of the British and the East India Company. The Daoguang Emperor, understandably fed up with these circumstances, adopted a kind of zero-tolerance policy, enforced by a Special Imperial Commissioner named Lin Zexu.

In March of 1839, tensions between the British and the Chinese came to a head, and Commissioner Lin aimed to seize the Brits’ entire supply of opium; when said Brits offered only a small bit of their contraband, Lin threatened to behead one of them. Long story short, his force paid off, and he came into tons and tons of opium. On June 3, he began to destroy it all, a task that absorbed the better part of three weeks. An 1888 account explained his process, which was ingenious, if labor-intensive: Read More »

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Wizards of the Coast

May 29, 2014 | by

John Dee and the occult in California.

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Antonio de Pareda, The Knight’s Dream, 1655, Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid.

Working summers at a Northern California health food co-op brings you into a constellation of eccentrics. The one that stands out in my memory, at a remove of more than a decade, is the old man who dressed as a wizard. His was not some flimsy Halloween affectation—it was a lifestyle, with accessories to match: thick robes of purple velvet stitched with golden stars, a silvery beard, and a hefty wand topped with a crescent moon. In our sole interaction that summer, he entered the co-op around closing and cornered me as I struggled to replace a roll of receipt paper. Peering out from under his pointed hat, he hit me with an intense stare and asked, “You ever done DMT, kid?”

Dimethyltryptamine, you might recall, is a highly potent, short-acting psychedelic alkaloid. It’s the stuff in the bitter Amazonian brew known as ayahuasca, and it’s the reason people lick the backs of Mexican toads to get high. The question surprised me at the time, but it shouldn’t have. Wizards have been asking questions like this for about four hundred years now.

Merlin has long occupied point position in pop culture as our archetypal sorcerer. But John Dee of England, born in 1527, the astrologer to Queen Elizabeth and advisor to Sir Walter Raleigh, was the true founder of the wizardly iconography and mythos. A skilled mathematician, geographer, and inventor, Dee also delved into grimoires, kabbalah, alchemy, and Biblical prophecy. He believed he’d been chosen by God to receive a new divine revelation—angels were sending him a new set of Biblical texts from heaven. And he had a sidekick: Dee believed the ultimate conduit was not himself but his servant, a mysterious ex-con named Edward Kelley, who spoke with the angels through a glass orb that the two called a “shew-stone,” or crystal ball. Read More »

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Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress

May 7, 2014 | by

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Archibald MacLeish in 1944. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Today brought welcome news that the New York Public Library has abandoned its plan to “renovate” (i.e., reduce and/or ruin) its research flagship at Bryant Park, on Forty-Second Street. The renovation would have meant removing the stacks beneath the main reading room, thus displacing an untold number of books and research materials; the plan met with derision among scholars and authors, and a piece in the Times last year by Michael Kimmelman made an elegant case against it.

And wouldn’t you know it—today is also Archibald MacLeish’s birthday. His 1974 Art of Poetry interview is great reading, but given the news of the day, and given his role as the Librarian of Congress—a position he held from 1939 to 1944—it seems fitting to peruse his 1940 essay, “The Librarian and the Democratic Process,” which addresses … well, not many of the same issues at stake in the NYPL’s renovation controversy. It was 1940; the world was on the brink of war, and digitization was not a going concern for librarians. But the piece does find MacLeish asking, in a sweeping, stentorian tone: What is a librarian supposed to do, anyway? Read More »

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Anthony Trollope, Postman Detective

April 29, 2014 | by

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This man could ride like the wind. A cartoon portrait of Anthony Trollope by Frederick Waddy, 1872.

Anthony Trollope’s novels made him a household name in Victorian England. But reliable sources have told the Daily that Trollope was more than a top-rate writer: he was also an extraordinary postal worker.

Anthony’s older brother, Thomas Adolphus Trollope, has the inside poop. The elder Trollope, born today in 1810, wrote a memoir called What I Remember. (It ran to three volumes, suggesting he was not an amnesiac.) The first volume finds him recounting the daring exploits of his younger brother, who, in his days as a courier, once took justice into his own hands:

He had visited the office of a certain postmaster in the southwest of Ireland … and had observed him in the course of his interview carefully lock a large desk in the office. Two days afterwards there came from headquarters an urgent inquiry about a lost letter, the contents of which were of considerable value … There was no conveyance to the place where my brother determined his first investigations should be made till the following morning. But it did not suit him to wait for that, so he hired a horse, and, riding hard, knocked up the postmaster whom he had interviewed, as related, a couple of days before, in the small hours. Possibly the demeanour of the man in some degree influenced his further proceedings. Be this as it may, he walked straight into the office, and said, “Open that desk!” The key, he was told, had been lost for some time past. Without another word he smashed the desk with one kick, and—there found the stolen letter!

Yes, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed that courier from the swift delivery of honesty and virtue. Even abroad, Trollope was such a fastidious, reliable postman that not even a sore bottom could keep him down, his brother writes:

I have heard from him so many good stories of his official experiences, that I feel myself tolerably competent to write a volume of “Memoirs of a Post Office Surveyor.” But for the present I must content myself with one other of his adventures. He had been sent to South America to arrange some difficulties about postal communication in those parts which our authorities wished to be accomplished in a shorter time than had been previously the practice. There was a certain journey that had to be done by a mounted courier, for which it was insisted that three days were necessary, while my brother was persuaded it could be done in two. He was told that he knew nothing of their roads and their horses, &c. “Well,” said he, “I will ask you to do nothing that I, who know nothing of the country, and can only have such a horse as your post can furnish me, cannot do myself. I will ride with your courier, and then I shall be able to judge." And at daybreak the next morning they started. The brute they gave him to ride was of course selected with a view of making good their case, and the saddle was simply an instrument of torture. He rode through that hot day and kept the courier to his work in a style that rather astonished that official. But at night, when they were to rest for a few hours, Anthony confessed that he was in such a state that he began to think that he should have to throw up the sponge, which would have been dreadful to him. So he ordered two bottles of brandy, poured them into a wash-hand basin, and sat in it. His description of the agonising result was graphic! But the next day, he said, he was able to sit in his saddle without pain, did the journey in the two days, and carried his point.

 

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