Remebering Julia Peterkin, who brought Gullah to the masses

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My first brush with author Julia Peterkin didn’t come in a literature class, book club or library.

I happened across her wholly by chance a few years back while wandering the South Carolina back country. I was in rural Calhoun County, traveling along seemingly endless miles of blacktop country roads when I came across a picturesque antebellum church surrounded by fields of cotton.

I stopped at St. Matthews Parish Episcopal Church, a structure that dates to the 1850s and, as I later learned, still has a slave balcony, and ambled about. Across the road was a small family cemetery with no more than four dozen graves. As I glanced at each, I came across Peterkin’s marker.

I can’t remember now how I realized that there was something significant about Julia Peterkin, but perhaps that’s not surprising. She had largely slipped from literary consciousness less 75 years after becoming the first Southern writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In retrospect, Peterkin’s life likely had far more downs than ups, a sad testament given her short-lived but important literary efforts.

Born Julia Mood into a wealthy family in Laurens County, SC, south of Greenville, her mother died before she was two. When her father remarried, Julia was sent to live with her paternal grandparents while her two older sisters remained with her father and his new wife.

Her views on race were likely conflicted by the fact that her grandfather’s ancestors had opposed slavery on religious grounds and had illegally taught slaves to read, while her grandmother was descended from a long line of wealthy slave holders, according to Susan Millar Williams.

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Russian billboard pays homage to Nazi bomber crew

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Those who adhere to the axiom that there’s no such thing as bad publicity will find at least one Russian politician who likely believes differently.

Sergei Gridnev, mayor of Ivanteyevka, outside Moscow, has apologized after billboards celebrating the upcoming 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s World War II victory, set for May 9, appeared around town featuring a German air force crew.

Not surprising given that the Soviet Union bore the lion’s share of Hitler’s wrath between 1941-45, suffering at least 25 million dead, the image of a Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 bomber crew rather than that of Soviet soldiers didn’t sit particularly well with locals.

Area news portal Ivanteyevka Today has since owned up to the blunder, according to the BBC.

It commissioned 20 banners to mark the end of the conflict, but confessed to “negligence” in choosing the photo, which had the unfortunate tagline “They fought for the Motherland.”

Also not helping matters: The brutal Battle of Moscow, fought from October 1941 to January 1942 and an integral aspect of the Nazi assault on the Soviet Union, code named Operation Barbarossa, claimed 1.5 million lives.

Attempts to point out that the photo dated from 1940, the year before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, when the two nations were actually allies, did little to alleviate heartburn.

Gridnev says local people, war veterans and the whole of Russia can rest assured that “he’ll punish those responsible for the ‘appalling incident,” the state news agency Tass reported.

“The local branch of the pro-Putin All-Russia People’s Front says it spotted the billboard and demanded its removal, and 12 hours after it went up the offending image came right back down again,” according to the BBC.

On the bright side for Gridnev and everyone at Ivanteyevka Today, if this had happened when Stalin was in power, everyone involved with this gaffe would have already been tortured in Lubyanka Prison and then lined up and shot.

(Top: Billboard in Ivanteyevka, Russia, celebrating the upcoming 70th anniversary of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany with image of Nazi bomber crew and words “They fought for the Motherland.”

The decision that shaped van Gogh’s, and art’s, future

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Vincent van Gogh’s life was awash with misfortune, from mental illness to inability to hold a job to the fact that during his lifetime he sold but one of the more than 900 paintings he created. Even today, this artistic giant is known by many for but a single work – Starry Night – despite having produced a wide array of images during his relatively brief career.

While van Gogh’s difficulty with mental illness is relatively well documented, as is its impact on his work, his struggle to find a job and the bearing it had on his art career is perhaps less well known, according to Alastair Sooke, art critic of The Daily Telegraph.

By age 25, van Gogh had failed in stints at art dealerships in The Hague, London and Paris; teaching jobs in England; and a spell in bookshop in The Netherlands. He then attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the ministry, but this too proved a flop, and his family began to wonder if there was hope for the 25-year old, according to Sooke, writing for the BBC.

In was then that an event critical to van Gogh’s career as an artist occurred. In 1878, still bent on becoming an evangelist, he left for the depressed Belgian coal mining district of the Borinage, to the west of the city of Mons. His goal was to establish himself as a lay preacher to the working class.

Van Gogh efforts as an evangelist in Borinage were hampered by a number of factors. Not being gifted with a golden tongue, his talks were sparsely attended, at best. His ability to connect with locals was hindered by the fact that the latter spoke “Walloon French,” which van Gogh struggled to understand, while his own French sounded overly stilted to the blue-collar coal miners and their families.

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I came, I saw, but there was no Latin to be conquered

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Unlike my parents and grandparents, I never had the option of studying Latin while in high school.

Mind you, the decidedly uninspired worth ethic I demonstrated in my teens perhaps ensured that I wouldn’t have taken Latin had it been offered, but the fact that California’s public school system was well in the crapper by the time I was enrolled in high school in 1980 made it a non issue.

Indeed, the Language of the Caesars was considered passé by the lightweights who had taken control of the Golden State’s education system beginning in the 1960s.

Instead, I squeaked my way through a couple of years of French – which in no way prepared me for the two years of college French that was required for me to graduate.

Years later I regret not having studied at least a smattering of Latin at some point in my schooling.

To be able to read Cicero, Cato or Tacitus in the original would have given me the chance to view their world through a wholly different lens, rather than one distorted, even unintentionally, by translation.

Fortunately, after a decline of several decades the study of Latin is increasing in popularity once again. Perhaps, common sense is returning to a segment of the education community, and the greatness of literary giants of past millennia are again being recognized on a wider basis.

Latin may not be for everybody but as Cicero once stated, “Cultivation to the mind is as necessary as food to the body.”

(Above: Cartoon from The New Yorker and likely the only time the words “mani” or “pedi” will ever appear in this blog.)

Inquirer’s demise a sad reflection on state of print journalism

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Anyone who has followed the print journalism industry over the past decade has witnessed its unmistakable decline.

Metro papers in particular have been hard hit as technology has revolutionized not only information distribution, but advertising, as well. The collapse of classified advertising coupled with the dramatic increase in online readership has resulted in the newspaper industry deteriorating precipitously in recent years.

Consider the Philadelphia Inquirer: 25 years ago it had 700 employees, dispatched journalists around the globe regularly to file stories and boasted daily circulation of more than 500,000.

Today, the paper fields barely 200 employees, has pulled back its coverage dramatically and seen daily circulation shrunk to a little more than 160,000.

“The Inquirer used to send reporters and photographers to South America and Africa,” said photojournalist Will Steacy, whose father was an editor at the publication and who has closely followed the paper’s decline since 2009. “They once sent a guy off to study the fate of the black rhino for six months. Now no story gets done that involves much more than a half-hour drive from the city. Otherwise it is mostly wire stories.”

As the British newspaper The Guardian notes, the Inquirer once had a reputation for both holding local government to account as well as breaking big foreign stories.

“ … it was the Inquirer that uncovered, for example, the full truth behind the OPEC oil blockade of 1973 that was causing panic in Philadelphia and beyond, by dispatching its reporters to examine the shipping lists of Lloyd’s of London and to interrogate dock workers in Rotterdam and Genoa,” according to The Guardian.

Today, in what is perhaps a sad reflection on both the industry and those that it serves, the Inquirer, at least based on its website traffic, appears beholden to lowest-common-denominator stories.

“The stories that receive the most clicks on philly.com,” Steacy suggests “are weather stories, celebrity stories, sex stories. I guess best of all is a celebrity sex story with a good weather angle… ”

The last bit fits all too well with musician Paul Weller’s wonderfully crafted line: “The public wants what the public gets.”

Native American tribe strives to save language from extinction

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Imagine your native language has but a few fluent speakers. An even dozen, to be exact, and none under the age of 70.

That’s the situation sisters Glenna Slater and Octa Keen of Macy, Neb., find themselves in.

The pair is among the few certified to teach the language of the Omaha Indian tribe, called Umónhon. They keep a tally of people who still speak their language.

That list is now on a single leaf of notebook paper, complete with names that have been crossed out, representing speakers who have died, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

“The sisters fear a day may come when the last name is scratched out,” according to the publication.

“It just tears part of your heart out,” Keen said, “because you know it’s never coming back.”

Umónhon is among approximately 2,000 languages around the globe that are classified as “severely endangered,” according to the Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages.

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Philanthropist donates $300 million in works to Princeton

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A vast array of rare books, manuscripts and documents, including several exquisite 15th century bibles, first folios of Shakespeare’s works and an original copy of the US Declaration of Independence, have been bequeathed to Princeton University.

The collection, valued at around $300 million, was given to the university by William H. Scheide, who died last fall at age 100. Scheide had moved the collection to Princeton in the late 1950s from his home in Titusville, Penn., where it had been amassed over three generations, creating the Scheide Library at Princeton in the process.

The bibles include a Gutenberg Bible printed in 1455 and described as exceedingly rare and beautifully illuminated.

The collection also contains Shakespeare’s first, second, third and fourth folios, according to The Guardian.

“Shakespeare’s first folio, for example, was the first book of plays published in a format generally reserved for literature,” the publication reported. “The first folio is sometimes called ‘incomparably the most important work in the English language,’ according to Folger Shakespeare Library.”

Other items in the collection include a handwritten speech about slavery by Abraham Lincoln, a 1493 letter from Christopher Columbus to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain about his discovery of the New World, musical sketchbooks and manuscripts of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner, as well as all 47 volumes of music produced by Bach.

Scheide’s bibles – the first four printed editions of the Bible – are the jewels of the collection.

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