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CRVNET  November 2001

CRVNET November 2001

Subject:

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich & The Age of Homespun

From:

Paul Carnahan <[log in to unmask]>

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[log in to unmask]

Date:

Thu, 15 Nov 2001 17:07:11 -0500

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text/plain

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text/plain (217 lines)

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for her book A
Widwive's Tale, will be speaking at the Vermont Historical Society this
Saturday, November 17, at 2 p.m.  Dr. Ulrich's latest book, THE AGE OF
HOMESPUN, has been receiving glowing reviews (see below).  Her presentation
in Montpelier promises to be a worthwhile event; she is planning to speak
with slides for about 45 minutes.  This is a great opportunity to hear one
of the leading historians of our time.  The lecture will be in the Pavilion
Building Auditorium at 109 State Street; please enter through the Gov. Davis
Ave. (side) entrance since the front door to the historical society will be
locked.

===================================================
Paul A. Carnahan, Librarian
Vermont Historical Society
109 State Street
Montpelier, Vermont  05609-0901
Voice: 802-828-2291; Fax: 802-828-3638; [log in to unmask]
Our web site: http://www.state.vt.us/vhs
Vermont manuscripts: http://arccat.uvm.edu
For New England history try:  http://nebib.uvm.edu

PLEASE NOTE:
The VHS Library will be CLOSED for relocation to Barre, Vt.,
from November 1, 2001 until June 1, 2002.
===================================================


Subject: NYTimes.com Article: 'The Age of Homespun': Learning About the
Past From Objects


'The Age of Homespun': Learning About the Past From Objects

November 11, 2001

By JOHN DEMOS


Americans, like all people, have their sustaining cultural
myths. Few of these are more powerful than the one
symbolized by ''homespun,'' the everyday textiles formerly
made by ordinary women in households across the land. The
myth declares, correctly, that both product and activity
were ubiquitous in premodern times. Moreover, the myth
makes homespun stand for an entire way of life based on
''household production'': farmers in their fields,
craftsmen in their little shops and forges, housewives
beside the hearth, children at play in village lanes or
learning at local schools. These images, taken together,
compose an American pastoral.

No one would claim that the myth corresponds to much actual
experience nowadays, but its emotional hold remains
undiminished. Debates about ''family values'' and home
schooling; a national quilting bee to memorialize people
who have died from AIDS; a president's wife who proclaims
that ''it takes a village to raise a child'': all, in their
different ways, betoken a yearning toward the pastoral.
Indeed, these feelings have been painfully exposed by the
recent terrorist attacks on our home soil. Every great
public tragedy tends to evoke particular national songs;
this time it is ''America the Beautiful'' and ''God Bless
America.'' The element of physical and cultural desecration
seems excruciating: hence we sing our pastoral of
''spacious skies'' and ''amber waves of grain,'' of
''purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.''

The American pastoral, with its central signifier of
clothmaking, is the subject of a remarkable new book by the
Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Ulrich is a
supremely gifted scholar and writer. And with ''The Age of
Homespun'' she has truly outdone herself. Venturing off in
a new and highly original direction, she has put physical
objects -- mainly but not entirely textiles -- at the
center of her inquiry. The result is, among other things,
an exemplary response to a longstanding historians'
challenge -- to treat objects, no less than writings, as
documents that speak to us from and about the past.

''The Age of Homespun'' is loosely but effectively
organized around 14 specific objects, including two
baskets, two spinning wheels, a yarn winder, a rug, a
tablecloth and ''an unfinished stocking.'' If this list
seems unprepossessing on its face, the point is all that
Ulrich makes of it through a deeply creative process of
analysis and contextualizing. In fact, her objects become
meaningful only when they are joined to the experience of
the people who produced, owned, used and preserved them. It
is, finally, the connections that make her investigation so
unusual and rewarding.

Take, for example, a boldly constructed, colorfully
decorated cupboard with the name Hannah Barnard (its
original owner) emblazoned across the front. This piece,
made in 1715 in Hadley, Mass., becomes in Ulrich's hands a
way to explore profound questions of cultural history. It
was ''a little castle'' for the display and preservation of
personal wealth, especially textiles, and also ''an
assertion of life and order'' in ''a world where Indians,
witches and illness lurked.'' Its overall ''flamboyance''
reflected the ''upstart'' Barnards' family history. Its
decorative patterning, full of hearts, pinwheels and lavish
floral imagery, tapped an ancient vocabulary of fertility
and ''fruitfulness.'' Its inscribed name declared ''both
ownership and literacy,'' and ''assured some sort of
immortality.'' Its status as ''movable'' property -- the
usual inheritance of women, in contrast to the lands and
housing reserved for men -- enabled future generations to
mark a ''female line.'' None of these meanings are easily
gained. Each rests on a thick tableau of historical detail.
Brought together, they reconstitute the world of Hannah
Barnard and her peers -- and it all starts from a cupboard.


Or consider a little pocketbook, exquisitely twined from
moosehair by an Algonquian woman named Molly Ocket, which
Ulrich uses to open the history of native people during and
after the American Revolution. ''The weave structure,'' she
notes, ''is Algonquian, the form European.'' In fact, this
hybrid quality matched the personal situation of many
Indians. The pocketbook was donated long ago to a state
historical society, whose curators described Molly Ocket,
in an unfortunate bit of rhyming, as ''last on the
docket,'' thus invoking the shibboleth of Indians as a
dying race. But her life tells a very different story -- of
individual resourcefulness, and cultural persistence,
against enormous odds.

Ulrich's interpretive work is grounded, as it must be, on a
total mastery of innumerable physical details, up to and
including the procedures used in making each object. An
account of spinning begins as follows: ''It helps to
experiment with a bit of fiber. The wad of cotton from the
top of a medicine bottle will do. Flatten it out, then tear
a strip about an eighth of an inch wide.'' Then come
several paragraphs describing the workings of wheels,
spindles, treadles and other such accouterments. Similar
discussions treat the fine points of silk embroidery, yarn
winding and basket weaving. In short, the book is full of
helpful teaching, for those with a will to learn. It seems,
moreover, that Ulrich has herself learned from direct and
painstaking experience. At one point, she notes: ''Some
writers refer to spinning as unskilled work. They have
obviously never tried it.''

Her archival work is no less important. Local and family
history, genealogy, folklore: all have their parts to play.
And the joining, the stitching together -- the metaphor
seems irresistible here -- is a matter of consummate skill.
Furthermore, Ulrich is a hugely accomplished prose stylist;
she fills ''The Age of Homespun'' with wit and playfulness,
lightening what might otherwise become dense and difficult
reading.

Each of the book's chapters can be read as a set piece. And
at first they impress more as parts than for the whole. Yet
there is a definite cumulative effect, like a gentle
undertow, as they move along. The introduction presents the
myth of homespun in its fully developed form, through the
eyes and words of a Connecticut preacher addressing a
commemorative gathering in 1851; the rest, in effect, is
flashback. The objects (and chapters) are arranged in
chronological order: the first dated 1676, the last 1837.
Viewed this way, the pastoral theme is a gradual, piecemeal
emergence -- drawing on, but also diverging from,
''aristocratic'' European precedents, assuming step by step
a distinctively ''republican'' stamp. In truth, this is not
an entirely unfamiliar story; other historians have noted
at least some of its leading parts. But it is grounded here
as never before -- in the physicality of objects and the
activity of object makers.

American, then, the pastoral became -- and American it
remains. American, too, the work it did -- and still does
-- for the culture at large. But ''The Age of Homespun'' is
no paean of patriotic celebration. Ulrich feels the warmth,
the loveliness, even, that inheres in the myth -- not to
mention the loveliness of homespun itself. Yet she points
repeatedly to a ''dark underside'' of her subject. This,
she declares at the outset, will be a history of ''blood
and greed as well as beauty,'' and every part shows
elements of all three.

For one thing, pastoral imagery ''covered the wolf of
commercialization in sheep's clothing.'' For another, it
masked both urban poverty and the frequently grinding
harshness of rural life. It made ''simplicity and harmony''
a culturally dominant theme, when in fact American history
has always been characterized by high levels of conflict
and violence. Homespun in particular bolstered the
expansion of slavery, with its insistent demands for
plantation-grown cotton. But most of all, by this telling,
clothmaking underlay the seizure of lands and the
subjugation of Indians. The fields taken for growing flax
and raising sheep, the destruction of beaver and other
forest fur-bearers to supply European textile and hat
markets, the determination to bring ''civilized'' clothing
as well as Christianity to native peoples: all these
elements, in their different ways, supported the edifice of
empire. As Ulrich puts it, ''the English conquered North
America with spinning wheels as well as with guns.''

''The Age of Homespun'' is not, finally, a work of
debunking. But it does invite us to reflect deeply, and
reconsider fully. And, in a time of cultural -- no less
than political and military -- reckoning, that may be
exactly what we need to do.



John Demos teaches history at Yale University. His most
recent book is ''The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story
>From Early America.''

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/11/books/review/11DEMOST.html?ex=1006580450&e
i=1&en=077cd022d7d9ff08

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