April 11, 2012

A short piece entitled "Escargot"


I worked once in a French restaurant. The family that owned the establishment came from Cannes, but not wanting to be definingly southern in their endeavor instead focused on mainline, classical French cuisine and eschewed the provencial dishes. So I spent many afternoons and evenings serving confit de canard, truite amandine, and escargots à la Bourguignonne, which is to say, snails in the Burgundy style.

Harvested snails are black in color and noticeably vaginal in shape and contour. Our snails arrived in large 28 ounce cans labeled "RUBY BRAND" and "6 DOZEN - 72 COUNT, EXTRA LARGE SNAILS (ESCARGOTS)" and "PRODUCT OF INDONESIA." After washing and sorting the uncanned snails, the chefs placed them into specially purposed escargot bakers - thick white ceramic dishes each appointed with six deep holes - where they were layered over a finely diced duxelle of mushrooms, celery root, and ham. Ultimately this was baked in a highly aromatic butter sauce seasoned with plenty of garlic and parsley, a hint of white pepper and - the finishing touch - a dash of anise-flavored pastis liqueur. Once the bakers and their contents came to a perilously hot temperature, we served them with tiny forks and plenty of crusty bread.

Pastis was the one ingredient no one would think to guess if attempting to discern the recipe by taste alone. But it was one of those things one might mention upon inquiry and in so doing garner the reply, usually from Francophiles on their second martini, of "Of course! Now I taste it so clearly!". Though perhaps the person tasting it most clearly was the brooding Jean-Marc, husband of the proprietary couple, who generally started his working day with a petit déjeuner of a tall glass of pastis.

Well, escargots à la Bourguignonne is very rich and sometimes an order returns from the table unfinished. In these instances - because waiters are always hungry - if no one was looking I'd stealthily dip a piece of the crusty bread into one of the ceramic baker's untouched holes and scoop up the sauce. So exquisite; I'd lose myself for one buttery, garlicky, breath-annihilating moment and, because hungry waiters always have good breath, spend the next thrity minutes chewing peppermints.

I never ate the actual snail. I don't generally eat things that look vaginal and took the opportunity to compose a list, called Things That Look Like Pussy That I Won't Eat.   Here it is:

1. escargot
2. pussy

(There is a tentative third item I have since added to the list: Georgia O'Keeffe paintings.)

Working as a waiter is often taxing. Working for the French often even more so. To be overeducated and underemployed in the recessive, early 21st century American economy, that's not fun either. Some days, though, you just have to tell yourself : Well, somewhere in the world someone is working in an Indonesian snail cannery and at least it's not me...

Well, the truth is, probably somewhere in the world someone is working on an Indonesian snail ranch, dreaming of getting a job in a snail cannery in the city. Cannery vs. farm, which is worse? I've tried to weigh the pros and cons, but in both scenarios I end up Muslim and working with snails, and I'm just not that kind of boy. But still I have to think about these things, because I am Thoughtsy McGee.
- a.t.s.

March 6, 2012

Two curious instances of the separation of Moor and limb, conjoined now in ornamental testament to a cluttered, associative memory...

One of the pleasures I think of progressing in life's journey is that as one does, one's head becomes increasingly well-furnished with ideas, images, and experiences that - hopefully - are a pleasure to revisit.  At least if one is progressing well in this journey; that is my opinion.  I have (or should say, my family has) chucked quite a bit of money towards many years of college to achieve this end, even if said end was never the originally-intended one meant to justify its rather expensive and coincidental means.  I guess this is to say that my would-be career has yet to really pan out, but I've learned to enjoy the ride just the same. And I'll add - and I think soon illustrate - that there are all kinds of rides...

I recently had an old painting brought up from the depths of memory. It's one of the freakier works we studied in a class on Italian Renaissance art I took for an Art History minor during my quest for a second degree.  The painting, by Fra Angelico, is called Miracle of the Deacon Justinian.  It's actually one of many that decorate the the predella (or altarpiece) of San Marco in Florence and are dated around 1438-40.  In the composition, two twin brothers - the Saints Cosmas and Damian, both physicians who were martyred in 287 - appear hovering around the sleeping Roman deacon Justinian.  The textbook briefly describes the painting as "show(ing) the two saints, who float in trailing soft clouds, exchanging the deacon's gangrenous leg for a healthy one amputated from a Moor," before matter-of-factly segueing into a comparatively lengthy celebration of Fra Angelico's mastery of light and shadow in the interior setting.

Fra Angelico's Miracle of the Deacon Justinian, 1438-40

If you're like me, your initial response to the painting runs somewhere along the lines of: Hmmm. Now that's awfully bizarre.  And the textbook's authors' more or less glossing over of the subject matter only enhances its strange sense of mystery - and I don't mean the spiritual, saintly sort, I mean the WTF? sort of mystery...

The scene really does prompt a question or two.  I mean, I suppose it's very swell to be less one rotten old leg; and so much the better to have a transplant rather than I stump, I am inclined to believe.  But how strange to - you know - not exactly have a "matcher".  Really, what's it like to wake up to that -   The miracle and the mix-n-match?  I'm willing to wager there's a broad expanse of reactions to be had.  And then there's also the question of this new leg's origins: what happened to this donating Moor? Is he hopping around, less one leg?  

Initially I was left to wonder if the painting didn't reflect some sort of de facto reduction of the African as commodity: as not only the European's source of (later) slave labor but even body parts as well.  I've since googled the painting and its subjects several times for more information.  The Fra Angelico work itself shows up frequently enough in search results - many art print companies sell copies of it - but a detailed telling of the actual story it portrays is harder to come across.  A couple sites modify the brief telling to include that the leg came from a "recently deceased Ethiopian".  Another site goes as far as to report that the Ethiopian donor had been a slain gladiator.  Well, maybe so, but I am not entirely convinced: the relative silence seems somewhat deafening for such a curious composition - one that frankly begs for explanation upon first viewing - which leads me to wonder if the whole "recently deceased" thing isn't a little ex post facto, if you know what I mean.  Well - either way - another of the pleasures of progressing through life is a diminished tendency to give the European the benefit of the doubt...

Speaking of Europeans behaving badly, my read of the moment is Charles C. Mann's delightful and fascinating 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  It's the sequel to his perhaps even more compelling 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.  I like both books very much because Mann's research and reportage really challenge the old, misguided assumptions that we as Americans - which is to say as both citizens of the United States and also as peoples of the greater continental Americas - carry about in our patchy grasp of our own history.  Mann's narratives are pretty much guaranteed to elicit an ongoing series of Hmmm's, Huhhh's, and How About That's...

Speaking of Moors under the knife, it was Mann's latest book that brought Miracle of the Deacon Justinian to mind: specifically the story of Esteban de Dorantes, a Moor under Spanish slavery, whose life is I think one of the more fascinating, adventurous, and frankly rather surreal narratives that I've read about lately.  I won't chatter on too much about it, but rather let you enjoy the lengthy passage I have transcribed from Mann's 1493 [with a little commentary of my own added in brown] :

The paradigmatic example of the African disapora may be the man known variously as Esteban, Estevan, Estevancio, or Estebanico de Dorantes, an Arabic-speaking Muslim/Christian raised in Azemmour, Morocco.  Plagued by drought and civil war in the sixteenth century, Moroccans fled by the desperate tens of thousands to the Iberian peninsula, glumly accepting slavery and Christianity as the price of survival.  Many came from Azemmour, which Portugal, taking advantage of the region's instability, occupied during Esteban's childhood.  He was bought, probably in Lisbon, by a minor Spanish noble named Andrés Dorantes de Carranza.  Dreaming of repeating Cortés's feats of conquest, Dorantes, with Esteban in tow, joined an overseas expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez , a fiercely ambitious Castilian duke with every good quality required of a leader except good judgment and good luck.
More than four hundred men, an unknown number of them African, landed under Narváez's command in southern Florida on April 14, 1528.  One catastrophe followed another as they moved up Florida's Gulf coast in search of gold.  Narváez vanished at sea; Indians, disease, and starvation picked off most of the rest.  After about a year, the survivors built ragtag boats and tried to escape to Hispaniola.  They ran aground off the coast of Texas, losing most of their remaining supplies.  Of the original four hundred men, just fourteen were still alive.  Soon the tally was down to four, one of whom was Esteban.  Another was Esteban's owner, Dorantes. [ This is where I cannot help but put myself into the shoes of Esteban and ask of the universe, Seriously? 396 men die and none of them is the turd that owns me? Talk about really not catching a break...]
The four men trekked west, toward Mexico, in a passage of stunning hardship.  They ate spiders, ant eggs, and prickly pear.  They lost all their possessions and walked naked.  They were enslaved and tortured and humiliated.  As they passed from one Indian realm to the next, they began to be taken for spirit healers - as if native people believed their horrific journey of itself must have brought these strange, naked, bearded people close to the numinous.  Perhaps the Indians were right, for Esteban and the Spaniards began curing diseases by chant and the sign of the cross.  One of the Spaniards brought back a man from the dead, or said he did.  They wore shells on their arms and feathers on their legs and carried flint scalpels.  As wandering healers they acquired an entourage of followers, hundreds strong.  Grateful patients handed them gifts: bountiful meals, precious stones, six hundred dried deer hearts.
Esteban was the scout and ambassador, the front man who contacted each new culture in turn as they walked thousands of miles across the Southwest, along the Gulf of California and into the mountains of central Mexico.  By some measures, Esteban was the leader of the group.  He certainly held the Spaniard's lived in his hands every time he encountered a new group and, rattling his shaman's gourd, explained who they were.
Eight years after their departure, the four Narváez survivors entered Mexico City. The three Spaniards were feted and honored.  Esteban was re-enslaved and sold.  His new owner was named Antonio de Mendoza, viceroy of New Spain. Mendoza soon assigned him as the guide to a reconnaissance party going north - Esteban was back on the road.  The party was searching for the Seven Cities of Gold.  Supposedly these had been established in the eighth century by Portugeuse clerics escaping from Muslim invasions.  For decades, people from Spain and Portugal had been hunting them - the Seven Cities were an Iberian version of the Sasquatch or Yeti.  Why anyone should imagine these cities were in the U.S. Southwest is unexplained and perhaps unexplainable.  Somehow the tales of the Narváez survivors reignited this passion, and Mendoza had succumbed. 
Leading the expedition was Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan missionary who has never been charged with insufficient zeal.  Mendoza's instructions took pains to command Esteban to obey him.  But Esteban had no interest in following orders.  As they moved north he encountered Indians who recalled him from his previous journey.  He shed his Spanish garb, wore bells, feathers, and chunks of turquoise, and shook a rattle in a spiritual fashion.  He again acquired several hundred followers.  He ignored Niza's demand that he stop performing ritual cures and refuse his patients' gifts of alcohol and women. 
In a decision that the missionary claimed was his own, Esteban and his followers went ahead of the rest of the party after crossing the Rio Grande.  Quickly they gained a lead of many miles.  Once again, Esteban was moving into an area never before seen by someone from across the ocean.  Days after the separation, Niza encountered some of Esteban's entourage, wounded and bleeding.  In the mountains at the Arizona-New Mexico border, they told him, the group had come across the Zuni town of Hawikuh, a collection of two- and three-story sandstone homes that climbed like white steps up a hill.  It's ruler angrily refused entrance.  They barricaded Esteban and his cohort into a big hut outside town without food or water.  Esteban was slain when he tried to escape Hawikuh the next day, along with most of the people accompanying him. 
The Zuni themselves have a different story - stories, I should say, because many have been recounted. In one version told to me, Esteban is not refused entry, but welcomed into Hawikuh.  The people have heard of this man and his extraordinary journey.  They want to keep him there - want this very badly, at least in the story.  He is a man like no other they have encountered, and incredible physical specimen with his skin and hair, a man whose spirit holds a great wealth of knowledge and perhaps more, a valuable possession they have no desire to lose.
To prevent his departure, they cut off his lower legs, lay him gently on his back, and bathe themselves in his supernatural presence.  Esteban lives in this way for many years, the story goes, always treated with the respect due to such uncommon figures, always on his back, legs stretched out, with the wrappings on his stumps carefully tended.
All versions of his end are based on stories that people have told to themselves.  His actual fate may never be known with certainty.  What seems clear is that in the end this man who crossed so many bridges fell into the same delusion that possessed so many Spaniards.  He thought that he understood the shook-up world he was creating and that he was in control.  He forgot that under bridges is only air.

Well, quite a life's journey, don't you think?  I confess that I'm going with the Zuni version of Dorantes' denouement naturally, because it adds a certain element to an already rather bizarre narrative. And Mann's telling of Esteban de Dorantes' life frankly makes me yearn for Federico Fellini to return from the dead to direct the film adaptation, preferably in the style of his Satyricon of 1969.

- a.t.s.

Charles Mann's 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created is available through Alfred A. Knopf publishers, wherever better printed books are still sold...

Quotation in second paragraph taken from History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture by Frederick Hartt and David G. Wilkins, fifth edition, published by Harry N. Abrams.

February 8, 2012

On how to turn a black man white, a white man black, and other curious scientific hypotheses of the Age of Enlightenment...

A plate from Buffon's Histoire naturelle: sometimes science smells bad.

I've just had an old Facebook meme brought to mind this week.  It was called, more or less, 25 Things About Me, and perhaps you remember it, too.  Users were invited to author a note that listed twenty-five lesser-known facts about themselves; and these ranged from the very light and trivial to the astonishingly intimate, each based of course on the disposition of its confessor.  Once posted, one tagged to the note twenty-five other friends deemed worthy of sharing, and in so doing obliged them to generate in turn lists of their own.  And so it went as the meme spread throughout the site's usership.  Actually, it was pretty good as far as Facebook things go - definitely more interesting than playing Farmville - and it came at a time when I think users were less leery than today and definitely more interested in exploring the potential of online social networking platforms.  It was even referenced by Jimmy Fallon in the "Weekend Update" segment on Saturday Night Live.

I mention the 25 Things today in part because I participated, too; and really, since I am considered wordy, I was pretty happy to do so.  An observation (or maybe a warning), though: it garnered a far more varied range of responses than originally speculated - but that's another story altogether.  It's mentioned today mostly to resurrect a particular entry on the list:
19. I find that if one looks at the history of human culture, of human thought and belief and social attitudes and mores, the vast and contradictory and now often disproved mass of it all tends most often in my eyes to point to an enduring arbitrariness as a quality of the human condition. I believe that at least half of what we believe today is false or a construct of convenience or at best a charming naiveté, but I could not tell you which half. 
Well, so I felt in January of 2009, and I still do today.  I'm pretty sure that half of what's rolling around in your head and mine is pointless, that only time will sort it out, and that frankly by that time we'll probably be dead.

I'm guessing one could call this a kind of epistemological skepticism.  It's the product of education and my experience of the everyday, too.  When I started college, I knew I wanted a liberal arts sort of underpinning to my education and ended up with a B.A. in Religious Studies, with a minor in English.  This was after a lot of major-dabbling, and here I think my family would gleefully interject that one might read major as either a noun or an adjective, if not both.  Originally the program culminated in a degree in Philosophy, with a concentration in Religious Studies; and when a separate and distinct Religious Studies major emerged, I jumped ship.  But whatever the title, what the substance of either really breaks down to is a bunch of different people entertaining a bunch of different and often wildly contradictory ideas - of both truth and Truth - over the great expanse of human history.  And so at some point one is compelled to ask: Well, so much certainty in the thinkers and believers, but how can it all be true? 

The answer of course is that it can't; that a lot of it is actually bullshit. Or blindness. Or wishful thinking.  Yet people lived and died making of these sorts of things the compasses of their lives, pretty much none the wiser we can see today.  And speaking of today, I don't know that a look at our world exactly encourages optimism that humanity has improved its interior lot: any cursory glance through the average Facebook news feed will illustrate that.  To be clear, though, I definitely do not mean to say that we should abandon the endeavor of human thought as futile.  Nor am I really positioning myself here a conscious proponent of agnosticism.  Rather, I do favor a healthy sort of self-skepticism: the self-consciousness to know that what you hold to be true, you may do so not for its content and correspondence to reality, but often for what the holding does for you.  And finally I am saying this: enjoy the history of human thought, because it is fucking hilarious.

So what actually prompted this remembrance of Facebook past is a bit of hilarity found in my latest read, another of the terrific books I picked up along my tour through Virginia last fall.  The book is titled Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America, and it's written by Lee Alan Dugatkin, a professor of biology at the University of Louisville.  I won't
 attempt to abstract the entirety of its contents, but the better part of the book examines
 the origins and effects of one of the less-enlightened ideas coming out of the so-called Enlightenment: the Theory of American Degeneracy.  And (news to me in 2012 and maybe you, too) basically this was a very widely embraced belief of the 18th and 19th century that every living thing - man included - either born of or once integrated into the landscape of the Americas basically went to shit

Say whaaat?

The idea was birthed from the pen of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, (1707-1788) - a preeminent natural scientist, mathematician, and later director of the Royal Gardens in France.  So sweeping was Buffon's influence that he's often credited as "the father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century."  His popularity is due in large part to his persuasive and eloquent writing style, which prompted the widespread readership of his 36 tome Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, as it appeared in successive volumes from
 1749 to 1788.  And not only among his scientific peers but also the literate lay-public,
 especially participants in the idea-fueled salon culture of 18th century France. 

Thomas Jefferson to the rescue...

Dugatkin spells out Buffon's stance pretty well in the preface of his book:

In his massive encyclopedia of natural history, Histoire Naturelle, Buffon laid out what came to be called the theory of degeneracy.  He argues that, as a result of living in a cold and wet climate, all species found in America were weak and feeble.  What's more, any species imported into America for economic reasons would soon succumb to its new environment and produce lines of puny, feeble offspring.  America, Buffon told his readers, is a land of swamps, where life putrefies and rots.  And all of this from the pen of the preeminent natural historian of his century.
There was no escaping the pernicious effects of the American environment - not even for Native Americans.  They too were degenerate.  For Buffon, Indians were stupid, lazy savages.  In a particularly emasculating swipe, he suggested that the genitalia of Indian males were small and withered - degenerate - for the very same reason that the people were stupid and lazy. 
The environment and natural history had never before been used to make such sweeping claims, essentially damning and entire continent in the name of science.  Buffon's American degeneracy hypothesis was quickly adopted and expanded by men such as the Abbé Raynal and the Abbé de Pauw, who believed that Buffon's theory did not go far enough.  They went on to claim that the theory of degeneracy applied equally well to transplanted Europeans and their descendants in America.  These ideas became mainstream enough that Raynal felt comfortable sponsoring a contest in France on whether the discovery of America had been beneficial of harmful to the human race.
Books on American degeneracy were popular, reproduced in multiple editions, and translated from French into a score of languages including German, Dutch, and English; they were the talk of the salons of Europe and the manor houses of America. And it wasn't just the intelligentsia of the age who were paying attention - this topic was discussed in newspapers, journals, poems, and schoolbooks.
Wow. Can you imagine such crap being proposed - as scientific truth no less - about these big, beautiful Americas of ours?  This level of ridiculousness, it's a challenge to fully wrap one's head around it.  Yet that this was a commonly held and enduring prejudice is equally dumbfounding: these ideas were readily picked up by intellectual leaders like Voltaire, Kant, and Hegel.  Even Charles Darwin came to the Americas with degeneracy on his mind - in 1831, forty-three years after Buffon's death.

Well, I doubt anyone would question the eternal spring of Eurocentrism.  But it's not often one has cause to envision the American "Founding Fathers" on the short end of the social stick, themselves obliged to buck against a strange sort of pseudo-scientific, multi-tentacled racism.  Against taxation and the lack of representation, yes; but a real second-class human gradation on grounds other than the economics and geographic far-flungedness, no. 

Thomas Jefferson and fellow 18th & early 19th century leaders knew from experience the idea of degeneration to be complete garbage, and they were also acutely aware of the damaging effect such a belief would have on the future progress of the fledgling America.  Jefferson, whose passion and pleasure was natural science, made it is his mission to combat the sentiment and particularly to have the influential Count Buffon recant.  His strategy was to present the Count with proof contradictory to his claims of degeneracy and diminution, in part with a taxidermied specimen of the towering American moose - as Dugatkin recounts in his aptly-named Jefferson and the Giant Moose.  It was his work in collecting data to rebuff the Count that Notes on the State of Virginia - Jefferson's only published true book - was compiled and penned, an almost accidental bi-product of the endeavor.

Apparently the Comte de Buffon was of a school of natural scientists who generally did not often venture out into nature.  Instead they formulated theory based on both observations made from specimens in the great cabinets being amassed at the time, as well as taking data from the flow of often fanciful published reports of travelers and explorers.  And it should be noted that the authors of these accounts were, in the interest of boosting readership, seldom above the occasional outrageous claim.  Buffon actually did have access to some live animals in the royal collection, and apparently he also experimented in making observations of animals in captivity - as the following passage amusingly illustrates:

Buffon was also able to gather data directly on some species, albeit in very unnatural settings.  One such setting was his family estate, where he cordoned off one area and attempted to create a "semi-wild" environment that he stocked with foxes, hedgehogs, cats, chickens, dogs, badgers, and a monkey named Joko.  Though Buffon was able to gather some data at Montbard, most of the time his collection of animals went about chasing each other, burning themselves near fires, and begging their keepers for food.  Buffon gathered  a bit more reliable data at the Royal Menagerie, where he verified what he had heard about zebras and elephants by observing them person. 
Now that's what I call science. I mean, really, need one be so heavy-handed with the natural bit?

From Buffon's volumn on Ornithology. I don't know what the hell is going on here, but it's starting to look like a Walton Ford painting...

The human detail of Buffon's American degeneracy theory reflects a larger overarching racial interest.  I suppose one might give him credit for subscribing to monogenism (according to Wikipedia, "the concept that all races have a single origin"), which really might have seemed like a progressive idea at the time. The fact that it has its own definitive name is, I think, evidence that it has not always been regarded as a given.  But, and here Eurocentrism springs again eternal, Buffon and colleagues believed Adam & Eve - that is to say, the mint, in-the-box collector's edition of man - were Caucasian, and "that other races came about by degeneration from environmental factors, such as the sun and poor dieting."  Buffon's ideas of environment-based influence in an organism's outward physical expression of course predate Darwin's theories on evolution and natural selection - and they also offer a sort of naiveté that is actually rather amusing to read.  Writes Dugatkin:

The second pattern Buffon discerned centered on climate and skin color. Because humans were all part of a single race, Buffon believed that skin color was, in part, a direct result of climate.  Africans, for example, were dark-skinned, but they would become light skinned if they were moved to northern climates for a few hundred years.  Buffon went so far as proposing a direct test of this hypothesis: "To put the change of colour in the human species to the test of experiment, some Negroes should be transported from Senegal to Denmark, where the inhabitants have generally white skins, golden locks, and blue eyes, and where the difference of blood and opposition of colour are greatest."  Then, in order to remove the effects of racial mixing on skin color, Buffon suggested that "these Negroes must be confined to their own females, and all crossing of the breed scrupulously prevented.  This is the only method of discovering the time necessary to change a Negro into a White, or a White into a Black, by the mere opposition of climate."  From there it would become the anthropologist of the future's job to see what sorts of changes would take place in these African Danes...

Well, I have to say I would also be interested in the progress of those Danish Africans unwittingly transplanted to an isolated existence in Senegal:  "Hello, are you black yet?... No, not yet? OK, will check back in another hundred years..."

So why then did a nonsensical idea like the theory of degeneracy gain such traction in Europe?  Apparently, part of it was anxiety over emigration and the economic potential of the New World.  Monarchs, aristocrats, and the established order were concerned over the fact that people were increasingly less bound to the status quo.   They could now buy a tract of land and simply leave - both Europe and eventually Monarchical governance, too.  Abbé de Pauw, author of Philosophical Researches on the Americans and by far the most cunty of the pro-degenerists, is credited with writing to incur the favor of his patron, Frederick the Great, who had in fact instituted an agency in Hamburg "whose sole function was to prevent emigration to the New World, and instead to attract potential newcomers to Prussia."

Well, it's interesting to me that Buffon's theory - which was in large part constructed from observations of natural curiosities of the cabinet  - is today itself the curiosity.  And as anti-American as it was, in an interesting twist the very theory of American degeneracy and subsequent battle to disprove it is, according to Dugatkin, what gave rise to our national self-image of  "America as a beautiful, vast, resource-rich region, and its inhabitants as healthy, hardworking people in tune with nature."  And so that's an idea that - even if it might fall into that 50%-chanced realm of the bullshit we cling to - is certainly worth hanging on to all the same.

- a.t.s

January 24, 2012

In praise of socialites on peyote; or, the days & nights of the very rich and very curious Millicent Rogers...


So like a lot of gay men, I too have my Lady style icons.  And here I capitalize Lady to differ-entiate that sort of rarefied and celebrated creature that exists, sadly, on a plane far above you and me.  But I've never been one of those so-into-Judy or Liza or Marilyn types of guys; I'm just not that into tragedy.   Elizabeth Taylor is my idea of Hollywood glamour - and resilience, too.  But you know, it isn't the luminaries of stage and screen so much as a handful of bright and astoundingly stylish 20th century gals that I'm keen on: Diana Vreeland, the former editor of Vogue, penned one of the most electric autobiographies around (a quote from which I currently use above in the masthead of Amicus Curiositatis).  Pauline Potter de Rothschild went, mostly by means of intelligence and style, from a broken home and rocky childhood to create a startlingly exquisite world as chatelaine of the Mouton Rothschild estate.  And then there is Millicent Rogers...

Maybe it's because I'm partial to both New Mexico and stylish, independent-minded people, but I've always rather admired Millicent Rogers, the Standard Oil heiress and (yes, somewhat dilettante) artisan, who ended up - after a glamorous and highly episodic life - settling in Taos.  There she is memorialized in the eponymously named museum that houses the considerable collection of Native American and Spanish Colonial art, pottery, and jewelry amassed during her final years there.  I think today she's best known to fashion designers and editors - as a posthumous muse of sorts - and really what we know of her is mostly just a name attached to her often pioneeringly stylish image.  That's actually not necessarily such a bad place to be, since it leaves admirers either wanting more or free to fill in the blanks (or project) for themselves.  Of course being of the former camp myself, when I saw that a new biography about Rogers had come out I immediately bought it, completely disregarding the size and intended sequence of my growing to-read stack and otherwise superseding a book on Thomas Jefferson and Natural History.  I wanted to know more about the stark-looking lady behind the terrific clothes - and I'll also say that after a long literary romp with Lewis and Clark, I was ready to return to civilization...

The book is called  Searching for Beauty: The Life of Millicent Rogers.  It's written by Cherie Burns, who is a Taoseño (or Taoseña) herself.  I don't know if there are other biographies on Rogers on the market - Burns never cites another - and anyway it seems she did an exhaustive job with the research and interviews.   But biography is a tricky, elusive thing.  Often what one is reading, I think, is a record not just of its subject but also its writer's engagement with that subject (or, more likely, about the writers engagement with primary and secondary source material on the subject), and really one is never getting the full, curiosity-quenching story - and definitely not one unadulterated with the subjectivity of the biographer, to whatever degree that may be. So perhaps this is a long way to go about saying that I had mixed reviews for the biography - or possibly my now expanded perspective on the subject - but either way, if you want to be really known after your death then please, please, please take the time to pen your own autobiography before you die.  Admirers and detractors alike will certainly respect you all the more for it. And also, like Vreeland, at the end you can casually add that you just dropped a bunch of lies into your narrative and leave posterity guessing...

After reading Searching for Beauty, I can say that - like most people - Millicent Rogers didn't become truly interesting until her late thirties and beyond.  Or maybe this hints to a more deft or reverential treatment of Rogers' New Mexico years at Burns' hand.  In fact, in the first hundred pages, I found myself wondering if I'd made a mistake in giving my admiration to someone who was actually coming off somewhat inane.  Reading that Millicent, when informed her account was running low, expressed disbelief on the basis of still having plenty of checks left in her checkbook - well, it didn't exactly do much for her image.  But the girl was, for most of her life, unfathomably rich and I suppose cluelessness about money management often comes with the territory.

Much of Rogers' character - the interesting parts, anyway - was shaped by a childhood episode of rheumatic fever, her prolonged convalescence, and the consequent heart problems that would follow her for the rest of her life.  She was originally not expected to live past ten. She was often bedridden  and  unable to fully join in the society (and physicality) of other children,  and so she found her world in art and books - and in the process fostered a curiosity that would continue throughout her life.  And because her health prevented her from pursuing the outdoorsy, horsy outlets typical to most society girls of her generation, Millicent also took early to dressing as a means of self-expression and visibility -  again cultivating something that would stay with her throughout her life: an acute sense of style that (plus an awful lot of money) put her in magazines and on best-dressed lists.

Rogers was a collector: art, clothes, and also men.  She married or took as lovers a series of generally tall, dark, and handsome men, most all of whom offered an intelligence that could engage and entertain her.  The roster included the penniless but titled Austrian Count Ludwig Salm von Hoogstraten, the Argentine playboy Arturo Peralta-Ramos, the writers (before they wrote, actually) Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl, and the film star Clark Gable.  She lived the expatriate life overseas until Hitler came to power, and then she set up house in a colonial estate in the Virginia Tidewater.  Fleming introduced her to Jamaica, and Hollywood friends in Jamaica turned her on to Los Angeles.  Finally it was after the break up with Gable that friends brought her on a getaway to New Mexico.

Either Rogers' life becomes the most interesting, or Burns' telling of it becomes the most compelling, once she gets to New Mexico.  There she is introduced to the rugged, stunning landscapes of the state by the Hollywood couturier Gilbert Adrian and his wife, the actress Janet Gaynor.  And if you've ever been to Taos you'll know it is not difficult to see how she became enchanted: the little adobe town sits in a gorgeous valley ringed by mountains and is really a bit like finding the Shangri-La of Lost Horizon.  The sun somehow seems closer and it gently caresses your face; that and the thinned oxygen of the heightened altitude conspire to lull visitors into a sublime feeling of relaxed wellbeing.  And the culture to be found is a tripartite cross of the indigenous Pueblo Indian, the Spanish colonial, and the later Anglo - a fascinating and highly picturesque mix that is the pretty much the norm throughout the northern part of the state. 

Rogers very abruptly fell in love with the place and bought an old adobe there which she proceeded to expand and fill, over the years, with her growing collection of Indian and Spanish Colonial arts and crafts.  She took to Indian style dressing but, in heiress fashion, would purchase items like squaw skirts and send them off for a deluxe remake by her main couturier Charles James.  The velvet blouses traditionally favored by the Navajo women were recreated for her in fine French velvet.  Rogers collected the bold silver and turquoise jewelry, and her own designs took on inspiration from the cross-cultural and bohemian milieu in which she'd enveloped herself.  She is credited with introducing "Southwestern" dressing to the mainstream consciousness, and the mix of the couture with the indigenous that she forged was soon picked-up upon by Diana Vreeland and other midcentury tastemakers.

Rogers became enthralled with Indian culture, and her natural openness, curiosity and very gracious manners eventually gained her acceptance and entree onto the Taos Indian - or Tiwa - pueblo, where she regularly attended dances.  Indians in her employ also secured her access to dances held in neighboring reservations, which she avidly attended.  Millicent was hungry to experience it all; as Burns writes of the recollections of Millicent's son Arturo (one of two she had with Peralta-Ramos) on one expedition:
Arturo was along on some of his mother's camping trips into Indian country and he remembers one outing with her, Brett, Tony Reyna, Trinidad Archuleta, Tony Luhan, and Benny Sauzo into the Apache lands around the Jicarilla Apache lakes. On that trip, he recalls, Millicent wanted to try peyote, the Indian hallucinogen. She vomited it up on the first go and tried it again. She threw up again, but she was determined to experience its effect. The third time she managed to ingest it. In her Navajo costume she was invited to dance with the Apache Indian women and continued to dance until she sank to the ground with exhaustion and had to go to bed. The next morning her fellow travelers waited for her to revive, a bit later than usual, and get started on the day.
Once I had the pleasure of driving through the Jicarilla Apache reservation en route to visit the Ansazi - or as is increasingly correct to say, Ancestral Puebloan - ruins around Farmington: it's gorgeous, exhilarating country, where nature is large.  I loved it then and I think I would have loved it even more knowing that somewhere on my route I was passing the historic site of an internationally known heiress and style icon tripping on peyote and dancing herself into a spent heap of who-knows-what kind of feathered couture costume.  Well, New Mexico is called The Land of Enchantment, and it really is one of the few states around that really lives up to its motto...

Millicent became increasingly involved with Indian dancing, and her engagement with Indian spirituality deepened during the course of her years in Taos.  It is in these final years, and the final chapters of Burns' biography that Rogers really seems to come alive.  In this paragraph - yes, inordinately long but so compelling - Burns quotes Dorothy Brett, the English painter, writer, and aristocrat who'd originally emigrated to Taos in the company of D.H. Lawrence and wife and later became Millicent's friend:
After the Horse Lake trip, winter began to close in on mountainous Taos with its quick storms, early snows, and sudden drops in temperature, yet Millicent continued to give open-air Indian dances on the mesa behind her house.  They seemed to transport her, almost like a drug.  She couldn't get enough.  If a thunderstorm came up, the party would be transferred to Brett's studio on the north end of town.  Millicent would bring the food in tubs, along with whiskey, and wine, beer, and colas and fruit juices for the Indians.  Arranged around Brett's studio on cushions and chairs the guests watched the Indians dance, hypnotized by their own singing.  Brett, eloquent in her own right, described the scene: "All the guests have arranged themselves around my messy gay studio.  The brightly colored Indian paintings hand high up on  the walls.  Saws and hammers and all the paraphernalia of a work bench are pushed aside and people perch on the narrow table.  In the bedroom the drum is beating softly.  There is an occasional jingle of bells, as one of the Indians, ready dressed, begins to dance.  We all sit and wait patiently.  Millicent moves around, disappears into my box of a kitchen, and returns, with glasses of cocktails.  The guests who have already eaten her picnic on the mesa before the rain nibble cookies and sip their drinks.  At last, impatient, Millicent taps on the bedroom door.  It opens a crack. 'We are ready now,' and in a few minutes the door opens and the blanketed singers come out and arrange themselves under the archway from the studio to the sun room and begin to beat the drums.  The bedroom door re-opens.  Out of it comes the line of feathered dancers.  Slowly, gently, they dance into the room and become a circle of waving feathers, jangling bells.  Some of the dancers have brought their little sons and the little boys dance earnestly.  One of them, a very gay little four year old called Hermann, dances with such fervour and joy that his sunny gay character pervades everyone.  As the evening goes on, the wine and beer provided for the Indians stimulates their dancing.  They begin, as usual, to get caught up in the mesmerism of the drum and voices of the singers.  Millicent sits on a low stool, quiet, absorbed as usual, her whole heart and soul hypnotized by the tremendous power of the song and the endless powerful beating of the drums.    During the rests, she gets up to minister food and drink to all the guests, to the Indian guests, the singers, and to her own household, who have also come to the dance.  She is untiring in her hospitality.  Then at about midnight the dancers are tired.  They bring the drum into the center of the room and the circle dance begins.  This is a dance of friendship, and we can all take part in it.  One of the dancers goes up to Millicent, takes her by the arm, and she dances slowly around with the rest of us.  Between two feathered Indians she dances the curious half walk, half dance step round and round.  Fatigue overtakes most of us.  The circle dwindles and dwindles.  The dancers return to the bedroom, take off their dancing clothes.  To return to the circle, and round it goes.  At last we all tire, the guests have been gradually slipping away, finally the Indians look at their tired sleepy children and decide to go, too.  Everybody goes...I fall into bed with the drum still beating in my head.'  When she wakes the next morning, the drum is still thudding in her head.

Millicent Rogers died early, at the age of fifty in 1953.  The damage from the rheumatic fever she'd suffered in childhood finally caught up with her.  She was buried in Taos, her funeral well attended by both international society and Indians from the local Pueblo. 

Burns biography Searching for Beauty: The Life of Millicent Rogers is available from St. Martin's Press.  As I have said - perhaps too much, and I suppose it indicates a not entirely ringing endorsement - the most captivating parts of the book are those centering around Rogers' life in Taos.  Again, though, I am unsure if this lopsidedness is that of a life or its reportage or perhaps my own adoration of New Mexico.  Plenty of bloggers seem to be all thumbs-up, so perhaps you should read it yourself and see.  My final word on the book, though: a narrative about someone so legendarily stylish and, well, visual - someone with so many aesthetically distinctive episodes throughout life - I think both necessitates and deserves many, many more photographs than are published in the book.

- a.t.s.


January 20, 2012

A short piece of biography, wherein the writer reminisces on the very downtown courtship of his grandparents many years ago...

(The following is a short piece about my grandparents' courtship. I was spurred to write it in a nostalgic moment not long ago, after reading the Together in Tulsa column in This Land Press, an independent multi-media presence that focuses on life and culture in Oklahoma, and especially my hometown. I hope you enjoy...)

My grandfather, Harold Black, came to Tulsa in 1929.  He'd been born in September of 1900, and that being the ninth month of the new century I've always figured he was the product of his parents' own centennial fireworks.   They must have had a lot to celebrate, though, since he was one of eight brothers and sisters that lived on the Iowa farmstead where he spent his childhood.

My great-grandmother, it was continuously impressed upon us, continually impressed upon my grandfather that "a young man without an education is nothing."   Such was the wisdom a hundred years ago, and I think the same still holds true today.   My grandfather became a self-made man, successfully putting himself through medical college and completing residencies in Boston and Louisville before coming to Tulsa.   The original plan had been to wander a bit, but he liked the town so much he decided to hang his shingle for good, determined to make a go of being something in a city that was, in fact, succeeding in doing much the same.
When Harold arrived, Tulsa was a boomtown and big fortunes were in the making, though the entrée to his trade was significantly humbler.   He always said his first patients consisted of winos and prostitutes, and that he preferred the latter as they always paid their bills on time.   Though he never specified by what currency the account was settled.   Later, it being the time of segregation, he would volunteer weekly at the "colored" hospital on the north side.   And eventually he took up residence in the Hotel Tulsa, which stood then at 3rd and Cincinnati - where the Performing Arts Center stands today - his room and board in exchange for services rendered as the hotel doctor.
I am pretty sure Harold must have been one of the more eligible bachelors of 1930s Tulsa: he was tall, funny, handsome enough, and heterosexual.  He was also living in a hotel that happened to be the epicenter of the city's petroleum deal making.  Apparently one of the lesser publicized bi-products of the booming Tulsa oil economy was a surplus of well-heeled divorcées, several of whom had set their sites on the young doctor.  This was occasionally evidenced to us at the house, in the odd run in with, say, an old but very good watch.  Or a much-coveted paperweight from Louis Comfort Tiffany.  Or an attic boxfull of dapper silk smoking jackets I pretty much destroyed wearing to the clubs when it was the retro fashion in the Eighties.  "Oh, that?" My grandmother would reply to questions of provenance - and often accompanied with the most subtle of eye-rolls - "it's from one of your grandfather's old girlfriends..."

My grandmother Jebbie rolled herself into town in 1946.   She was an only child and she happened to be a young woman with an education as well, having been finished at a private Southern girl's college - something that I wondered would have been possible at the tail end of the Great Depression if there'd also been brothers educate.   And she was also a young war widow, having - like many young women of her generation - wed her longtime sweetheart for a few weeks of marriage before he shipped off to Europe to be a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress.
During the war she lived in Washington, D.C., working in the Pentagon and for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a draftsman, where she helped to lay out military camps.  And she did it all in a hat and gloves, too.   After the war, she took a position as an illustrator with the U.S. Geological Survey and was soon given a temporary assignment in Wyoming.   But because it was scheduled for February all she could think about was how much she did not want to be that cold, in Wyoming; so she swapped assignments with a co-worker and packed her bags for Tulsa, Oklahoma, in October.
On the ride in from D.C. Jebbie started feeling ill, and by the time the train pulled into the Union Depot downtown, she was very sick with the flu.  Her assignment was to work at the Federal Building on South Boulder, which then housed the local branch of the Geological Survey, and lodging for the duration of her stay had been arranged at the nearby Hotel Tulsa.  When she checked in sick, the front desk shortly arranged for the hotel doctor to pay her a call, and that is in fact how Harold met Jebbie.
But Harold was not the only one with admirers, and soon Jebbie found herself not lacking for them either.  She was, after all, a bit of a Southern belle, with the lilting accent and, it was sometimes noted, a coincidental resemblance to Vivien Leigh.  Harold's main contender for Jebbie's attention was a man we always knew simply as Swan, an upper-level civil servant here in the city.  Harold and Swan became active competitors for Jebbie's hand, and their competition did not escape the attention of the hotel staff, where after all, my grandmother would spend the next few months and my grandfather had by now resided for some years.  They watched and waited, too - including, my grandmother liked to note in later years, a restaurant hostess in the habit of changing her hair rinse to match her dress.
Everyday Swan ordered room service to deliver an apple to Jebbie's room - expressly to keep the doctor away.  And daily Harold would pay a call on Jebbie and eat the apple in the process.  But there's an advantage in proximity - and I don't doubt in an M.D. as well, since as we know, a young man without an education is nothing - and Dr. Black was the eventual winner of my grandmother's hand.  And just like that one of Tulsa's most eligible bachelors was taken off the market, by some little missy that just breezed into town out of nowhere - or so those divorcées fumed.
Together they joked that she'd elected to marry him in lieu of paying her bill, and they lived at the Hotel Tulsa in the adjoining rooms of 706 and 708, until Jebbie came to be expecting the baby that was to be my mother.  They bought a little bungalow in Riverview, and when that, like the hotel suite, no longer filled the bill, they built a rambling ranch house further south, in what then must have been the boonies but today is considered midtown.  Here they both lived long and, I think, mostly happy lives.  And my grandfather would hold court at the dinner table, alternately with a glass of bourbon or buttermilk, and revisit the episodes of his country-to-town life.
By the time I came along, years of telling had shaped the stories into well-honed anecdotes, but we cried to hear them anyway, like piano bar standards, already quite conscious of every lyric before the first word was uttered: Tell us about the first time you had a Coke!  (At the county fair, and the fizz shot out his nose).  Tell us about the time you put up two stockings at Christmas!  (You can probably guess how that one went.)   And alas, Tell us how you met mother!  (Well, you just heard that one...)
I have always loved this story, and I share it today for a couple of reasons: mostly it invites me to trust in the unfolding narrative of life - one that can abruptly dissolve and yet recreate itself just as swiftly.  It invites me to believe that, though the path of life is shifting and often clouded with unknowing, it is not without its illuminating moments and maybe even a shining denouement at that.  I have also always liked this story because it hearkens back to the old Tulsa that was new; to a Tulsa that was exciting, bustling, on the move - a city where one gladly came to seek one's destiny, and found it, and maybe even nabbed a hottie in the process.  I share this story because Harold and Jebbie were for many years together in Tulsa.

January 7, 2012

I am blogged.

A very pleasant cap to my (momentary?) tangent into all things Lewis & Clark occured recently when Atlanta writer, therapist, and food critic Cliff Bostock indeed blogged my blog.  How meta!  He picked up my post Omnivore's Delight; Or, A short history of dog eating in North America and linked it - with his own related content - on the blog he does for local indie paper Creative Loafing's online presence.  His blog also happens to be called Omnivore, and I'll say that if titular coincidence is what it takes to get noticed, then my next posts might very well incorporate in their titles words like The New Yorker, Utne Reader, NPR.  Otherwise, I am ecstatic to have a little attention:  his post was in turn re-tweeted six times.  Apparently the reading public is not as widely fascinated in funky dietary habits of the early 19th century as I'd have thought.  Go figure.

You can check out the column in its full breadth, and I highly recommend it, on the Creative Loafing website, here at When men were men and dogs were tastyLikewise, you can peruse the orignal Amicus post here: Omnivore's delight...

- a.t.s.

December 31, 2011

On the painter & showman George Catlin, documentarist of the now quite lost 19th century Native America, & appended with a small gallery of the artist's work...

So, if you've followed along thus far then you know too well that I've been reading an abridged edition of The Journals of Lewis and Clark; and it has proved very satisfactory to present here many of the interesting details recorded within its pages.  Of course this is often accompanied by much of my sometimes lighthearted, sometimes very earnest commentary, and so I mean this very much in the latter sense when I add that I hope you enjoy it all as much as I do...

One thing I find especially compelling about the journals is that they open an incredible window into a world that no longer exists, but once truly did; a world then as now quite alien.  In penning and posting these essays, I find myself turning again and again to the paintings of George Catlin for their illustration.  He's a natural (and I think equally fascinating) choice for the task:  like Lewis and Clark, his work is also primarily documentary in nature and it, too, offers a glimpse into a world that has long since disappeared.  And furthermore it was Catlin's prescient sense of its impermanence that spurred the artist to document Native America in what has become one of our most exceptional, expansive bodies of American painting.

Catlin's work is particularly apropos to the endeavors of Lewis and Clark since so much of it was painted not too long after the expedition's original journey, the documentation produced by the two parties often overlaps the same tribal cultures, and Catlin himself even accompanied the later-career William Clark in a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi river in 1830.  I think he's apropos to Amicus Curiositatis, too - specifically because he was not just a painter but also played the roles of collector, curator, and showman; Coupling his paintings with an equally impressive array of indigenous artifacts (and even live indigenous peoples themselves), he created a sort of traveling cabinet of curiosities that toured the United States and continued to even greater reception in Europe.   George Catlin was, in fact, himself an amicus curiositatis, and an amicus rerum mirabilium to boot...

Portrait of No-ho-mun-ya, or "One Who Gives No Attention" -  Iowa tribe, 1844
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
No-ho-mun-ya accompanied Catlin to Europe and died in Liverpool before the exhibition departed for Paris.

So then you see, I think he's a good match all around - as both illustrator and subject as well.  And as I wind down the meditations on Lewis and Clark,  I want to share more of his terrific paintings and think, too, that a short biography of the painter is in order:

George Catlin was born in Pennsylvania in 1796, where his interest in Native Americana was piqued in childhood from, among other things, listening to his mother's tales of her own frontier childhood and capture by Indians.   Later Catlin studied law and apparently never actually received much formal art training; but at some point in his early adulthood he was struck with a sense of the impermanence of the Native American - as they looked and lived and were then, which is to say their existence as an unaffected, autonomous culture - and in a stunningly life-changing move, he left law and headed to the western frontier.  

Catlin took it upon himself to document the appearance, style, and presence of the Native American.  In 1830 he accompanied Clark up the Mississippi and soon after made then-frontiersy St. Louis his base for subsequent artistic expeditions along the rivers and into the lands of numerous indigenous tribes - including many that we encounter in the Lewis & Clark journals, such as the Mandan, the Hidatsa, the Blackfeet, and so forth.  The result of his artistic output during the 1830s was a stunning collection of six hundred plus paintings that read today like bright Polaroids of a past mostly gone to shadow.

George Catlin not only collected painted imagery but also the artifacts and handicrafts of the Native American tribal civilizations among whom he traveled and worked.  In the 1840s, he amassed together both paintings and artifacts and took his "Indian Gallery" back east.  The exhibition was supplemented with Catlin's own lectures and even the presence of actual Native Americans themselves.  It is often noted that the paintings were hung in salon style, which is to say the walls were fairly paved with canvases - hung closely next to one another, above one another, and so forth.  Definitely a far cry from the style of today, where museums bewilderingly seem to pride themselves on how little of their collection is actually on display.

"Ah-móu-a, The Whale, One of Kee-o-kúk's Principal Braves" Sac and Fox tribe, 1835
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Catlin's Indian Gallery never proved as profitable as he had hoped.  Eventually he packed up the collection - live Indians and all - and headed for a tour of Europe, where by default appetites for the curiosities of  Native America were significantly less-sated.  The poet Charles Baudelaire wrote upon seeing the exhibition in Paris: "M. Catlin has captured the proud, free character and noble expression of these splendid fellows in a masterly way......"   Though I think it should also be noted that at this time, in the interest of further enhancing the expensive-to-maintain production, Catlin took to dressing Caucasians in American Indian costume and presented them in various tableau vivant-style vignettes.  So really, I'm not sure that anyone today (or then) is exactly sure what they hell they were looking at, in Paris, in the 1840s.  But pretty exotic entertainment in a world before television and internet, one has to admit!

Financial troubles persisted, and though he had tried consistently but unsuccessfully to sell his collection en masse to the United States government, eventually Catlin was forced to sell his 607 paintings to private hands.  They were purchased in 1852 by the wealthy industrialist Joseph Harrison, who unfortunately kept them not on public display but stored away in a factory.  However, the collection remained more or less in tact.

Besides this initial body of work from the 1830's, Catlin produced other collections, such as an extensive series of engravings for the 1841 publication of his Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, as well as two other subsequent publications.  Additionally there is also what is known as his "cartoon collection": produced after relinquishing the initial bulk of paintings to Harrison, Catlin set out to recreate them - working not from life as with the originals but from preparatory sketches and outlines done for his work in the 1830s.  Today the nearly complete collection of original paintings is held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York also holds 700 of Catlin's sketches.  His work is in the collections of several other museums and enjoyed by many.  As the website for Gilrcrease Museum - home to an extensive American Indian and Western art collection in Tulsa, Oklahoma, notes:  "Indians loved him.  Catlin's authentic portraits and depictions of the natives' culture and lifestyle are enlightening and fun..."

"Comanche Village, Women Dressing Robes and Drying Meat" 1834–35
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

So really, I think there is something rather inspiring about this individual.  He left behind what would have undoubtedly have been a very comfortable, conventional career in law and struck out - talented but basically untrained - into what was otherwise an unknown, unprescribed life.  And much of it was lived beyond the borders of what was then considered civilized.  He had an idea and an urge - to see and to capture -and in following those inner impulses throughout his life, he had by his death in 1872 created what was to become a stellar and essentially priceless assemblage of historical and ethnographic knowledge, much beloved and relied upon by many generations since. (Wow!) And you know, through both prosperous times and difficult, he made the most of what he had to work with and, from what I can see, stayed on the path: stayed true to himself and his vision.  So there is probably something we all can learn from this George Catlin.

- a.t.s.

 So, all of that said, let's look at some paintings...

"Wash-ka-mon-ya, Fast Dancer, a Warrior"  Iowa tribe, 1843
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

"Náh-se-ús-kuk, Whirling Thunder, Eldest Son of Black Hawk"  Sac and Fox tribe, 1832
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


"Bird's-eye View of the Mandan Village, 1800 Miles above St. Louis" Mandan/Numakiki tribe,  1837–39
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
It is interesting to note that the Lewis & Clark expedition spent its first winter camped among the Mandans who lived (or at least wintered) on the Missouri river.  I imagine their architecture wouldn't have changed much in the following 30 or so years, so it's a fair assumption to say this is what the explorers themselves saw daily.

"Back View of Mandan Village, Showing the Cemetery"  Mandan/Numakiki tribe, 1832
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The Mandan did not bury their dead but left the bodies to decompose on raised scaffolding.  Once they are clean and sun-bleached, the skulls were arranged in large, geometric circles.

Eeh-nís-kim, Crystal Stone, Wife of the Chief,  Blackfoot/Kainai tribe 1832
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
When Lewis & Clark passed back through in 1806 other tribes had warned them that the Blackfeet were the terror of the neighborhood, and indeed their passage was not without incident.  Looks like they chilled out a little in the interim.  Although I have never been a big fan of the name Crystal, I can handle it on her.

 "Buffalo Bulls Fighting in Running Season, Upper Missouri" 1837–39
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Apparently during this season literally thousands of buffalo congregated together.  The buffalo are today an occasional, ornamental novelty and this land is probably an under-occupied subdivision thrown up during the housing bubble...


"The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas"  1844-45
 From the National Gallery of Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
This Catlin portrait was made into a postage stamp in 1998.

"Bull Dance, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony"  Mandan/Numakiki tribe,1832
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

"La-dóo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull, a Grand Pawnee Warrior"  Pawnee tribe, 1832
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

"Wi-jún-jon, Pigeon's Egg Head (The Light), Going to and Returning from Washington" 
Assiniboine/Nakoda tribe, 1837-39
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Going, going....  Wi-jún-jon went to meet then President Andrew Jackson and spent 18 months in the United States.  Upon his return home he was filled with, writes the Smithsonian and quoting Catlin, "astonishing accounts of the white man’s cities. They eventually rejected his stories as 'ingenious fabrication of novelty and wonder,' and his persistence in telling such 'lies' eventually led to his murder."   Poor Wi-jún-jon didn't fare too well either in this portrait.

"Cú-sick, Son of the Chief"  Tuscarora tribe, circa 1837–39
From the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
...and Gone.  Cú-sick has been educated in the U.S. and is now both a Baptist preacher and, according to Catlin, "a very eloquent speaker."

(I am indebted to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for the better part of these images.  To further explore their much more extensive collection, and I highly recommend it, check out  "Campfire Stories with George Catlin : Encounters of Two Cultures" .  Additionally, Wikipedia was consulted in the construction of this essay.)