Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, by Rachel Hope Cleves
A version of this post originally appeared on March 4, 2023.
For Women's History Month, meet Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake. Charity hailed from an erudite family--she was aunt to William Cullen Bryant, known for "Thanatopsis" and other poems--but Sylvia was no slouch herself, and they wrote reams of letters over the decades. From this correspondence, historian Rachel Hope Cleves reconstructs how two lesbians lived as a married couple in 19th century Vermont.
I will confess I zoned out occasionally--many of the letters took the form of poems, and there is only so much early American poetry I can take--but I was glad to discover the Bryants' story. There is a lot of drama here. Before meeting Sylvia, Charity was popular with the ladies, and I can't forgive how she done Lydia wrong.
There's also a lot about the social life, religion, and lifestyle of people in the decades following the Revolution. For one thing, people generally were more accepting of a same-sex marriage than I would have guessed. Of course there was some prejudice, and the two women themselves struggled to reconcile their lesbianism with their religion, but they were not pariahs. Far from it: they were esteemed members of the community. Remember this the next time someone claims that gay marriage is a recent invention.
A version of this post originally appeared on February 25, 2023.
With The Cooking Gene, Michael W. Twitty writes a book that's not quite like anything I've read. He blends culinary history, memoir, genealogy, family history, Black history, social justice, spirituality and religion, and travel, delivered with prose that often verges on the poetic.
It's hard to summarize. This is the story of how African food became African-American, but it's also the story of how one man learned more about his place in the world: by cooking traditional foods with traditional methods, by studying census records and historical newspapers, by exploring the limits of DNA ancestral discovery.
Though Twitty celebrates soul food, do not mistake this for a joyful book. He mines four hundred years of trauma and violence to write this story. I was emotionally taxed as I read it, and it's not my ancestors who were enslaved.
I recommend the audio. Twitty narrates with a mid-Atlantic Black accent that adds to the experience.
A version of this post originally appeared on February 11, 2023.
In 1822, a free Black man named Denmark Vesey planned a revolt that, if successful, would have liberated enslaved people in Charleston, SC. The book Denmark Vesey's Garden is not about that.
Instead, scholars Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts study the memory of slavery in Charleston and the United States. The book is about history, but more importantly, it's about how we shape and select the stories that we call history.
Normally it's the victors who get to craft the narrative of war and its aftermath, but with the American Civil War*, the losing side got to write that history. And are still getting to: we're seeing right now how the political machine in Florida colluded with the AP Board to defang African American history in high school classrooms.
*aka the War Between the States or, even better, the War of Northern Aggression. The battle to control the narrative of history goes back a long, long way.
For instance: After the war, there was a group called the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, composed of history buffs who performed the slave songs. This group consisted entirely of white ladies, who believed themselves better able to preserve and interpret negro spirituals than formerly enslaved people or their descendants.
It is not cultural appropriation every time a white person sings a Black song, but this? The ladies of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals acted like they invented cultural appropriation.
Then there was Miriam B. Wilson, born in 1879 in Ohio and raised to understand that chattel slavery was, you know, morally wrong. Then she moved to Charleston and went native. With the paternalism that characterizes so many white people to the present day, she opened the Old Slave Mart Museum and used it to soften the image of slavery. On viewing an image of an overseer with a whip, she concluded that whips weren't necessarily used on people. And while it is true that some slaves had whip marks on their backs, she reasoned that these might have been tribal tattoos, or perhaps they'd injured themselves to garner sympathy with abolitionists.
We all know someone--frankly we're all RELATED to someone--who has unfortunate interpretations of political and social reality, but this someone is not running the only museum about slavery in a city that was a major port in the Atlantic slave trade, now are they.
A final example: you may be aware of the Federal Writers Project, part of the Works Progress Administration in the Great Depression. As one part of the FWP, historians interviewed formerly enslaved people to collect their oral histories. The interviewees often spoke highly of their former masters--but of course they did. The interviewers were white. They knew the consequences of telling the truth. But those times when they did feel bold enough to discuss the ugly truth of slavery, the historians assumed they were lying (because Black people are prone to fibbing. It's common knowledge).
I enjoyed the audiobook, narrated by Tom Perkins, and I would like to take pains to observe that the authors and I overlapped at the University of North Carolina, which means we're practically friends.
A version of this post originally appeared on February 4, 2023.
You know how some guys are reallllly into the Civil War or realllly into World War II? That's me with Russian history, though I want to stress that I do not dress up in period costume to reenact Pugachev's Rebellion.
With Russian literature as my gateway drug, I went on to major in Russian history as an undergrad. I daydreamed about continuing my studies, though that would have been impractical since my knowledge of the language is limited to a few nouns (glasnost, perestroika, and vodka).
Twenty* years after graduating college, I'm doing a self-directed study in Russian history, emphasizing cultural and social themes, though if you insist on discussing military history, this is the one area where I'm competent. Bring it.
Partly this is so I can better understand Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. Partly it's so I can add verisimilitude to my in-progress historical fantasy novel. Partly it's because none of you are willing to play Pugachev's Rebellion with me.
This study led me to Understanding Russia: A Cultural History, by Lynne Ann Hartnett. I picked up some good lessons from it, but the audiobook production values were disappointing, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend this unless you really dig Russian history.
However! This is part of the Great Courses series of audiobooks and documentaries, and here I can make an enthusiastic recommendation. They've got something for everyone. Scholars present lectures on a wide range of topics at the undergraduate level, so it's like auditing a class. Your local public library may have Great Courses audiobooks or documentaries to check out or download for free, or you can purchase them from the publisher website or wherever else you acquire your media.
*what the HELL
I'm writing a manuscript set in 18th century Russia. I've got two failed novels already, but the setting of this third pre-fail novel is more ambitious than anything I've tried yet. I'll be reading a whole lot of books and articles about Russian history, literature, and culture, and while I promise not to subject you all to the whole lot of it, I'm going to write about the books that are good for a general, non-Russia-obsessed audience, starting with The Story of Russia, by Orlando Figes.
Though I love history as a subject, history books tend to lose my interest, due to dry prose and lack of interpretation. Telling me facts is not as important as building a narrative around the facts. Figes is good at this historical storytelling. He doesn't just tell us that rumors about Catherine the Great's death are untrue--there was no horse involved, well endowed or otherwise--he tells us why these rumors sprang up. The writing is more engaging than most of the history out there, particularly history of this caliber.
Though a book about Russia over the centuries will not be to everyone's taste, it has unfortunate relevance. The book went to press in April 2022, two months after Putin invaded Ukraine. I can't image what kind of last-minute edits Figes made, but he does a fantastic job of explaining the historical and contemporary relationship between Ukraine and Russia, and he helps readers understand Putin's megalomania.
I particularly recommend this as an audiobook. Stefan Rudnicki, one of my favorite narrators, was born in Poland and does authentic east European and Russian accents.
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.