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Posts Tagged ‘America’

Illinois Jesus

August 18, 2014 | by

A forgotten Midwestern religious sect and the strange novel it inspired.

An illustration from Six Years in Heaven.

The most confusing thing about the rural Midwest is the importance placed on being normal. Perhaps this comes from demographic homogeneity: there’s a comforting stability in being able to drive a hundred miles in almost any direction and find a landscape almost identical to the one from which you set out.

The Midwest is construed as a place where nothing happens—that being, it should be emphasized, a good thing. Native Americans once lived here, of course; but there’s no longer any sign of them aside from some low mounds and their continuing near-universal use as school mascots. When I grew up here, no one wondered why they’d left. Probably it was more exciting somewhere else. Who could blame them? It’s a fine place to leave.

But on returning, as I did recently, the effect is disorienting: this is a place where everyone is cheerfully convinced of the rationality of their insanity. I was never immune to this. In school, everyone was perplexed by race problems. We weren’t racist. How could we be when there weren’t any black people? We ignored that in Rockford, Illinois, ten miles away, desegregation lawsuits were impossibly still grinding through the court system. Likewise, we firmly believed that gay people weren’t something we had; we learned we’d had a Jewish family in our town only after they’d safely escaped. This seems ludicrous to me now, and things have undoubtedly changed since the turn of the century. With the arrival of the Internet and cable TV, the boast that newscasters were carefully trained to speak like us—because we, among all Americans, had no accents—isn’t quite as impressive.

In 1988, when I was ten, my parents moved to a five-acre farm between the rust-belt city of Rockford and the village of Winnebago. Not being from the area, they were naturally curious about the history, and one of them found a Works Progress Administration history of Illinois in the library. In that book, we discovered that the country road we lived on had once not been so somnolent. A block north of us, a large complex of buildings painted red bore the name Weldon Farm, but once it had been called Heaven. In the 1880s it had been the center of an obscure religious sect—still lacking a Wikipedia entry of their own—called the Beekmanites. A woman named Dorinda Beekman had declared herself to be Jesus, as one did in those days; she died after promising to rise from the dead in three days. Her considerable followers were disappointed until one of them, a red-headed man named George Jacob Schweinfurth, neatly solved the problem by explaining that her spirit had moved into his body. Many agreed; he and his followers, the Church Triumphant, moved into Heaven and lived communally, where he’d attracted attention as far away as the New York Times.

A block south of my parents’ place, the road dead-ended in front of a run-down house. A “bad” family lived there, and their children occasionally went to school with me. We would have called them poor white trash had we not been afraid of being beaten up. Their house, ramshackle as it appeared to be, had a history as well: it had once been Hell. Schweinfurth had lived in luxury in Heaven, arrayed with young women called Angels. Their husbands, had they any, and members of the group who’d fallen out of favor, were sent to Hell, where the work needed to keep the sect fed was done. Read More »

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Speaking American

July 7, 2014 | by

The varying temperaments of British and American storytelling.

Ready_to_portage_around_Lower_Basswood_Falls,_07_1961_(5188003652)

Lower Basswood Falls, Superior National Forest, July 1961.

In 1890, a thirty-seven-year-old Scot named James F. Muirhead arrived in America with the intention of carrying out an extensive survey of the republic for the “Baedeker’s Handbook to the United States.” Muirhead spent the next three years traveling to almost every state and territory in the Union, approaching his vast subject matter with none of the condescension often expressed by Victorian Englishmen of the era. In 1898 he published The Land of Contrasts—A Briton’s View of His American Kin, which he considered to be a “tribute of admiration and gratitude.” His colorful chapter headings show the range of his interests: “An Appreciation of the American Woman,” “Sports and Amusements,” “American Journalism—A Mixed Blessing,” and “Some Literary Straws.”

In that last chapter, Muirhead attempts to throw some light upon the “respective literary tastes of the Englishman and the American.” While he notes the grammatical wrongness of the American idiom—at least to his ear—in phrases such as “a long ways off” or “In a voice neither could scare hear,” he is most interested in “the tone, the temper, the method, the ideals” of an American writer. He singles out William Dean Howells—who challenged American authors to choose American subjects—as “purely and exclusively American, in his style as in his subject, in his main themes as in his incidental illustrations, in his spirit, his temperament, his point of view.”

But what does it mean to have an American point of view? Muirhead keeps trying to put his finger on this elusive quality: “Mr. Howells … possesses a bonhomie, a geniality, a good-nature veiled by a slight mask of cynicism, that may be personal, but which strikes one as also a characteristic American trait.” And then: “To me Mr. Howells, even when in his most realistic and sordid vein, always suggests the ideal and the noble.” Read More »

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Happy Fourth of July from The Paris Review

July 4, 2014 | by

plimpton fireworks

I always thought it was the best day of the year. It was in the middle of the summer, to begin with, and when you got up in the morning someone would almost surely say, as they did in those times, that it was going to be a “true Fourth of July scorcher.” School had been out long enough so that one was conditioned for the great day. One’s feet were already leather-hard, so that striding barefoot across a gravel driveway could be done without wincing, and yet not so insensitive as to be unable to feel against one’s soles the luxurious wet wash of a dew-soaked lawn in the early morning. Of course, the best thing about the day was the anticipation of the fireworks—both from the paper bag of one’s own assortment, carefully picked from the catalogs, and then, after a day’s worth of the excitement of setting them off, there was always the tradition of getting in the car with the family and going off to the municipal show, or perhaps a Beach Club’s display … the barge out in the harbor, a dark hulk as evening fell, and the heart-pounding excitement of seeing the first glow of a flare out there across the water and knowing that the first shell was about to soar up into the sky.

—George Plimpton, Fireworks

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Grass Libraries, and Other News

December 21, 2012 | by

  • Cornell has installed an indoor grass library.
  • Reading habits across America.
  • Speaking of: writers who do not live in Brooklyn.
  • The OED apologizes for insensitivity.
  • More apocalyptic reading.
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    The Founding Farmers

    February 23, 2012 | by

    Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery is the transcription of a handwritten recipe collection that came to Martha Washington through her first husband, Daniel Custis. By the time she received it, in 1749, its value would have been mostly sentimental, not culinary; the old family recipes date from Jacobean and even Elizabethan England. This we learn from the book’s spirited annotator, Karen Hess, whose commentary, published with the transcription in 1981 by Columbia University Press, works like salt: without it, the old recipes, filled with antiquated spelling and vocabulary, would be hard to choke down. With it, the reader—this reader—can’t get enough. (“Lady comes from Old English words meaning kneader of loaves,” Hess writes. How was I muddling along in my floury apron without this fact?)

    Karen Hess, who was given access to the manuscript by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, was an instinctive cook, trained at her grandmother’s side between the two world wars in a Nebraska community where the competition to prepare the tastiest supper for the pastor was, by her own account, fierce. Her contempt for the use of flour—“demon flour”!—in sauces was the result of years of cooking and tasting. Her interest in food deepened in the sixties, when her husband, John, a reporter for The New York Times, took the family to Paris for a nine-year stint. France did its thing, and the housewife eventually transformed herself, despite her lack of formal training, into a pioneer of food scholarship. “No other aspect of human endeavor has been so neglected by historians as home cooking,” she wrote. “I cannot help but feel that this neglect is also related to the ageless depreciation of the work of women.” In her books she strove to re-create our domestic past accurately, without sentiment. After Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, Hess published annotated editions of several more important early American cookbooks, such as Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife and The Carolina Rice Kitchen, a social history of rice cultivation in South Carolina, with an emphasis on the role of knowledgeable slaves. In 1985, she became one of the founding members of the Culinary Historians of New York.

    The book that launched her career, however, came out in 1977, and was cowritten with John. The Taste of America was a scathing indictment of American food culture in the twentieth century. Conventional wisdom held that early Americans were too busy surviving and fearing God to bother with their appetites, but the Hesses convincingly described a “colonial Eden” in a generous new land where one couldn’t help but eat well. (Though the New Englanders had to work a little harder than the Virginians.) Back then, “local and seasonal” was not a cliché or a trend but a fact. “The Founding Fathers were as far superior to our present political leaders in the quality of their food as they were in the quality of their prose and of their intelligence,” they write, giving us as examples not only Thomas Jefferson’s Frenchified tastes and habits—a surprising proportion of his correspondence concerned the purchase of wine—but also Benjamin Franklin’s ardent defense of the tastiness of corn (“one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world … a delicacy beyond expression”). By contrast, they cite a New York Times account of Gerald Ford’s habitual lunch: “a ball of cottage cheese, over which he pours a small pitcherful of A.1. Sauce, a sliced onion or a quartered tomato, and a small helping of butter-pecan ice cream.” Eating was, Ford said, “a waste of time.” Read More »

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    Staff Picks: Food Rules, the American Dream

    October 28, 2011 | by

    I turned to a former history professor of mine, Niall Ferguson, for some interesting thoughts on Wall Street: “The American Dream is about social mobility, not enforced equality.” —Natalie Jacoby

    Michael Pollan’s wildly informative Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual gets an update, with new rules as well as illustrations by Maira Kalman. —Jessica Calderon

    What better way to get your Halloween thrills this weekend than with the Bernard Herrmann double features at Film Forum? His marvelously affecting scores were instrumental in making movies like Psycho, The Birds, and Vertigo so atmospheric and disturbing. —Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn

    I’ve been thinking about Galicia lately, what with Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla having just been released by Dalkey Archive, so it was a nice surprise to come across Timothy Snyder’s fascinating history of the region in the latest New York Review of Books. Nicole Rudick

    Ever since I began patronizing NYC’s Treats Truck, I have been curious about the secret of their scrumptious Butterscotch Pecan Bar. Imagine my delight, then, when I learned they are releasing a cookbook! I’ve preordered my copy, and the office will doubtless reap the rewards. —Sadie Stein

    This week I reread Allen Ginsberg’s 1966 interview in The Paris Review and found myself wandering back to the excellent recording of his poem “America” at the Poetry Archive. —Emma Gallwey

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