The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Civil War’

The Ants of God

January 21, 2015 | by

The budding South Sudanese community in Omaha, Nebraska.

nuer still

A still from The Nuer, a 1971 documentary.

More than a hundred years ago, my relatives emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Nebraska, thus escaping the privilege of becoming fodder for the aristocracy’s canons. Why Nebraska? The railroad advertising pictured illustrations of the thick loam of the prairie, calculated to resemble their homeland’s. The land was theirs for free if they worked extremely hard on it for five years, and many did, and prospered.

This century, the Nuer from South Sudan have immigrated to the same region, but they aren’t so fortunate. Having escaped one of the world’s worst war zones, endured extremely harsh conditions in refugee camps, and traveled eight thousand miles to resettle, the Nuer face poor Nebraska neighborhoods policed by gangs like the Bloods and the Crips.

The Nuer fled fighting in a very remote area in South Sudan, much of it accessible only by boat or on foot. I know. I walked into the region thirty-five years ago, lugging in heavy sound equipment to make a sequel to The Nuer, the highest grossing ethnographic film of the time. The original, from 1971, was extremely beautiful, shot by Hilary Harris, Robert Gardner, and George Breidenbach. It documented the traditional Nuer lifestyle as depicted by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the British academic who founded the discipline of social anthropology on a study of their culture. The sequel to it was never finished, but I translated and published Cleaned the Crocodile’s Teeth, a selection of their songs, their most complex art form.

Never would I have imagined that people from so far away would move within a hundred miles of my birthplace in Ogallala, Nebraska. So many resettled in the state that it now has the world’s largest population of Nuer outside South Sudan. Had I impressed them with talk of a landscape similar to their own, the way the broadsides had lured my relatives? It couldn’t be—all I’d had to do was mention snow to the Africans and their enthusiasm waned. Originally, resettlement agencies sent the Nuer to rural Minnesota, Virginia, Arizona, California, and upstate New York. They had to establish themselves quickly: all our government gave them was a loan for the plane ticket from Africa, less than three hundred dollars cash, and food stamps. They had to start paying back the loans within six months—a tall order when you’re traumatized by war, not yet fluent in English, and largely unaware of American customs. Through informal cell phone networking, the Nuer converged on Nebraska. Cheap housing attracted them—and openings in the meatpacking industry, that mainstay of immigrant labor. In many Nuer families, both spouses work two shifts. The slaughterhouse was a psychologically difficult workplace, as they had just fled a war that had more civilian casualties than World War II. The slaughterhouse worker I spoke to was bothered by the screams of the half-dead cattle while their hides were ripped off with hooks. You are supposed to wait until the eyes tell you what to do, he said. Read More »

3 COMMENTS

Gobble-uns

October 7, 2014 | by

Orphant

A photograph published alongside “Little Orphant Annie” in an edition of poems ca. 1900.

There’s a new iteration of Annie opening this year, starring Quvenzhané Wallis as the plucky eponymous orphan. You’ve probably seen the 1982 movie; maybe you’ve caught one of the musical’s many revivals. And most everybody knows that the musical itself was adapted from a popular and long-running comic strip. But did you know that all those were based, in turn, on the 1885 poem “Little Orphant Annie?” Or that James Whitcomb Riley wrote the poem about a real-life orphan, Allie? And that it’s creepy and scary? Well, now you do!

Mary Alice “Allie” Smith was an Indiana neighbor of the Riley family. When her father was killed in the Civil War, twelve-year-old Allie—the name change was a typographical error—came to live with the Rileys; the future poet was a child himself. Allie apparently entertained the other children of an evening with scary stories that made a huge impression on young James. The poem, which is made up of Allie’s cautionary stories, was one of his most popular, and a major part of his well-attended speaking tours. Well, it was the Victorian era. Read More »

On Homesickness

November 2, 2011 | by

'The Soldier's Dream of Home,' a Currier & Ives lithograph produced during the Civil War, was one sign of the great attention that soldiers' homesickness received. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

A few weeks ago I found myself accidentally enacting the drama of a book I was reading. The book was Homesickness: An American History, and I was reading it on the subway, somewhat embarrassed by the title, which, held up right in front of my face, was like a sign saying: Here in New York, I can’t cut it. I comforted myself with the idea that I was only a few stops from home, where I could read safe from potential pity. But when I got to my door, I discovered that I’d locked myself out.

I looked up at my windows. I wished I could use the bathroom, foreign bathrooms costing at least a coffee. But it struck me that I didn’t long to be in my apartment. My place, with its card table in the kitchen and mattress on the floor, is unsettled—I would feel as dislocated inside of it as out. I can’t imagine what feeling settled here would look like; the only settled place I’m familiar with is the home where I grew up.

How long does it take to cultivate the feeling of home? I’ve been in New York for three years, on the East Coast for eight, and I’ve never suffered from acute homesickness. But still, when I’m called to define “home,” I think of El Granada, a town of 5,436 that staked itself twenty-six miles south of San Francisco down the coast. I mean staked quite literally: between 1906 and 1909, Ocean Shore Railway, which was building tracks from Santa Cruz to San Francisco along what is now Highway 1, planted thousands of fast-growing, blue gum eucalyptuses with the hopes of flipping El Granada into a seaside resort for train-traveling San Franciscans. The railroad company also commissioned the eminent architect and city planner Daniel Burnham (famous for the Flatiron building) to plan the streets. They go in two directions, up the hills and around them, so that it looks from above as if a four-square-mile spider web has been draped over the thousands of trees. But the dream of El Granada was not to be. Two years later the railway company collapsed. The tracks were abandoned. Some speculators bought land, but the place never really caught on until computers did in the late eighties and nineties, and intrepid commuters from Silicon Valley bought BMWs and began building houses. Read More »

19 COMMENTS

Here with the Windies

June 21, 2011 | by

Margaret Mitchell was on her way to see a movie when she was struck by an off-duty cabbie driving too fast down Peachtree Street one night in Atlanta in 1949. Her death five days later cemented certain facts of her life, most notably that her first novel would also be her last. But she had made the most of her debut: in its nearly 1,500 pages, Gone with the Wind captured the romance and demise of America’s Old South like none other before or since, sold one million copies within six months of its publication, secured a Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1937, and inspired one of the most beloved motion pictures of all time.

Little was said about Mitchell’s death one recent evening in Atlanta, when several dozen of her fans—Windies, as they like to be called—gathered for a tour and graveside toast at the historic Oakland Cemetery, where Mitchell is buried and where her plot is among the most visited. The soiree was one of many held in and around the city this month in honor of Gone with the Wind’s seventy-fifth anniversary. The crowd was almost entirely female; Gone with the Wind handbags abounded, and at least one wristwatch bore the iconic image of Rhett and Scarlett’s smoldering onscreen embrace. Though most wore street clothes, some ladies had arrived in 1860s-ish period dress, their dedication eclipsing both the melting late-afternoon heat and the outfits’ flagrant anachronisms—clip-on chignons, hemlines revealing reputation-shattering amounts of ankle, synthetic fabrics not invented in Mitchell’s lifetime.

Until recently, I was only vaguely acquainted with Scarlett O’Hara. I was raised in Tennessee by multigenerational Southerners and grew up visiting Civil War battlefields on field trips and family vacations. I went to college in Atlanta—Mitchell’s hometown and the setting for most of her opus—and have lived here ever since. But my knowledge of Gone with the Wind was only sufficient enough to know that Rhett Butler’s most famous line from the movie perfectly summed up my sentiments regarding the whole franchise: frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn.

Read More »

7 COMMENTS