‘Sunnyside’ a South Carolina tribute to Washington Irving

Not long ago this blog featured the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Charleston, an antebellum structure whose designers were inspired by illustrations from Washington Irving’s work Tales of the Alhambra.

Apparently Irving’s influence was of considerable significance in 19th century America. In Greenwood, SC, 180 miles northwest of Charleston, sits Sunnyside, an 1851 house employing an unusual blend of Gothic Revival and Greek Revival styles of architecture. Tradition holds that both name and style were borrowed from Irving’s Hudson River Valley home.

Sunnyside is a one-and-a-half story structure with flush board siding covering the front façade and weatherboard siding covering the remainder of the house.

Sunnyside is essentially Gothic Revival in style, featuring a gabled roof and dormers with scalloped bargeboard. However, there are Greek Revival elements, including the portico covering the front façade and the heavy proportions of the interior details.  There are two compound interior chimneys located on each front gable end of the house and one large interior chimney located in the central rear section of the house.

The house has been associated with several locally prominent individuals over the years. It was built by Robert Gillam, a prosperous farmer, roads commissioner and postmaster. Gillam lost the home during Reconstruction, but it was purchased by his son-in-law, Augustus Aiken. Aiken kept the home until his wife died in 1877.

In 1906, Harry L. Watson, a newspaper editor and publisher in Greenwood, purchased Sunnyside. Watson also was chairman of Greenwood’s public school system, a trustee of Furman University, president of the South Carolina Press Association and the president of Greenwood’s National Loan and Exchange Bank.

Watson, who was also a noted historian, compiling and publishing a significant amount of information about the South Carolina Piedmont region, served as the publisher of Greenwood’s daily paper, the Index-Journal, from 1919 until his death in 1956.

Following Watson’s death, Sunnyside passed to his daughters Louise Montague Watson and Margaret Josephine Watson. Margaret Josephine Watson was a prominent journalist and historian in her right, having authored Greenwood County Sketches-Old Roads and Early Families.

Although Margaret Watson would live until 1979 and Louise Watson until 1986, the Watson family sold the house in 1974. William James Dean and his wife, who purchased it from the Watsons, restored the structure.

(Top: Sunnyside, in Greenwood, SC.)

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Savannah’s Carnegie Library a testament to perseverance

savannah-27-2016-051

It’s been slightly more than a century since the Carnegie Library in Savannah, Ga., opened, offering increased access to books, learning and knowledge for blacks at the height of the Jim Crow era.

Among those who called the library home were James Allen McPherson, the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie provided funding for the construction of nearly 1,700 public libraries across the United States between 1886 and 1923. Carnegie, a self-made man, believed in giving to those who were interested in helping themselves.

After he became one of the richest men in America, Carnegie began providing funding for libraries, initially in his native Scotland, later in his adopted state of Pennsylvania, then across the nation and other parts of the world.

savannah-27-2016-041In areas where segregation was in effect, particularly the Deep South, Carnegie often had separate libraries built for minorities.

All Carnegie libraries were built according to a formula that required financial commitments from the towns which received donations.

The black residents of Savannah raised $3,000 to show their commitment, and the Carnegie Corp. contributed $12,000, according to a history of the library written on its 100th anniversary.

The Colored Library Association of Savannah had been formed in 1906 by 11 men who established the Library for Colored Citizens. Originally operating from a doctor’s office, the founders stocked the library from personal libraries and public donations of books and periodicals.

In 1913, the group successfully petitioned the Carnegie Corp. for funds to build a permanent structure, which was completed in 1915 on East Henry Street in Savannah.

The structure is one of the few examples in Georgia of what is colloquially known as Prairie School architecture, a late 19th- and early 20th-century style that included flat or hipped roofs with broad overhanging eaves and windows grouped in horizontal bands.

The structure features granite steps framed by large piers with sandstone orbs on small pedestals. The staircase is flanked by four tiered brick walls, and the corners of the piers, the band over the second-story windows and brick cornice which divides the two floors feature dark glazed bricks.

The Savannah Carnegie Library is one of just two Carnegie library projects that were built for blacks in Georgia. The other was in Atlanta and was demolished in 1960.

The Savannah City Library system was integrated in 1963 and the Savannah Carnegie library itself fell into some disrepair. In the late 1990s, its roof fell in.

In 2004, after more than $1.3 million was raised in private and public funds, the structure was reopened after being remodeled and renovated.

Among those on hand for the reopening was Thomas, a Savannah native who joined the US Supreme Court in 1991.

Thomas told the Savannah Morning News at the time of the reopening that as a youngster he was often told, “’The man’ ain’t going to let you do nothing.”

But he recalled that Carnegie librarians had a more positive message: “If you get (knowledge) here, no one can take it away.”

“The librarians made it all possible,” he added.

The man who recalls, and records, the glory of old-time baseball

1929 athletics

There are few alive today who remember baseball’s first golden era, that of the 1920s and ‘30s, when greats such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Charlie Gehringer, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Jim Bottomley, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Lyons, Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, to name but a few, plied their trade on diamonds in a handful of major league cities.

Obviously, the length of time that has elapsed is a major reason – Babe Ruth, for one, retired more than 80 years ago – but there’s also the fact that one would had to have been not only a baseball fan, but located in fewer than a dozen cities to have regularly witnessed the slugging prowess of a Foxx or Ruth or the pitching wizardry of a Grove or Hubbell.

In an era before television, sports highlight shows and big-time commercial endorsements, the only way most Americans ever got to see professional athletes in action was through a trip to the park.

Given that there were only 16 major league teams spread among just 10 cities, ranging from Boston and New York in the east to Chicago and St. Louis in the west, many fans were lucky to see more than a game or two in person, if that.

Given the mastery with which Roger Angell has written about baseball over the decades, it’s hardly surprising that he is among the few still around who saw some of baseball’s first real superstars in person.

Roger Angell

Roger Angell

Born in 1920, he began going to games in New York in the late 1920s, and regularly attended both New York Yankees and New York Giants games. The Yankees featured not only Ruth and Gehrig, but also Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, Earle Combs, Red Ruffing, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock and Lefty Gomez, while the Giants had, in addition to Ott and Hubbell, Bill Terry, Travis Jackson, Bob O’Farrell, Freddie Lindstrom and Freddie Fitzsimmons.

The two teams regularly won or contended for their respective pennants, which meant, in the days before baseball watered its product down with seemingly endless rounds of playoffs, that they would often go on the World Series.

Angell, who today is 95, wrote about his early-baseball memories in his 2006 work Let Me Finish:

My father began taking me and my four-years-older sister to games at some point in the latter twenties, but no first-ever view of Babe Ruth or of the grass barn of the Polo Grounds remains in mind. We must have attended with some regularity, because I’m sure I saw the Babe and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back home runs on more than one occasion. Mel Ott’s stumpy, cow-tail swing is still before me, and so are Gehrig’s thick calves and Ruth’s debutante ankles. Baseball caps were different back then: smaller and flatter than today’s constructions – more like the workmen’s caps that one saw on every street. Some of the visiting players – the Cardinals, for instance – wore their caps cheerfully askew or tipped back on their heads, but never the Yankees. Gloves were much smaller, too, and outfielders left theirs on the grass, in the shallow parts of the field, when their side came in to bat; I wondered why a batted ball wouldn’t strike them on the fly or on the bounce someday, but it never happened.

Angell has written a number of highly regarded baseball books over the years, including Late Innings, Game Time, Season Ticket and The Summer Game, but for all the magnificence of those, it’s tough to beat the above for capturing the beauty of baseball’s early years.

“… Ott’s stumpy cow-tailed swing …” “ … Ruth’s debutante ankles …”  And anyone who recalls the history of the game and the 1930s Gashouse Gang has little trouble imagining the rollicking Cardinals of Hornsby, Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch, Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Joe Medwick and Leo Durocher wearing their caps askew or pushed back, or of the Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig, et al declining to do so.

His ability to recall old-time players with names seemingly gleaned from the best of Dickens is a treat in and of itself: Eppa Rixey, Goose Goslin, Firpo Marberry, Jack Rothrock, Eldon Auker, Luke Appling, Mule Haas, Adolfo Luque, Paul Derringer, Heinie Manush , Van Lingo Mungo – all of whom played six, seven or eight decades ago.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America recognized Angell in 2014 when they honored him with the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest award given by the entity.

Angell became the first, and so far only, non-BBWAA member to be so honored since the award’s inception in 1962.

Angell has written on a variety of topics besides baseball with equal aplomb, but there’s something about his ability to cull out the quaint and curious, his understanding of the game and his imminently gifted writing style that makes his baseball prose sparkle.

(Top: Team photo of world champion 1929 Philadelphia Athletics.)

Easily offended Ivy Leaguers look to dumb down curriculum

books

One does so tire of college elites bleating about being “oppressed” by administrators’ failure to be “inclusive” when crafting courses.

Among recent squawking is that from special snowflakes at Yale, who have launched a petition calling on the Ivy League school’s English department to abolish a core course requirement to study canonical writers, including Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, stating “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors,” according to The Guardian.

It would appear that Yale English students, despite being an undoubtedly bright bunch, aren’t capable of picking up the works of, say, Zora Neale Hurston, Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, Edith Wharton or Richard Wright on their own.

Yale requires English majors to spend two semesters studying a selection of authors it labels “major English poets”: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne in the fall; John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and TS Eliot “or another modern poet” in the spring. (Presumably the other modern poet could be a non-white, non-male writer, but that wouldn’t fit the agenda of the easily aggrieved.)

Its intention, the university says, “is to provide all students with a generous introduction to the abiding formal and thematic concerns of the English literary tradition.” The poems the students read, it adds, “take up questions and problems that resonate throughout the whole of English literature: the status of vernacular language, the moral promise and perils of fiction, the relationships between men and women, the nature of heroism, the riches of tradition and the yearning to make something new.”

To combat this pernicious patriarchal authoritarianism Yale students have launched a petition calling on the institution to “decolonize” the course.

“They want the university to abolish the major English poets requirement, and to refocus the course’s pre-1800/1900 requirements “to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity,” according to The Guardian.

The petition says that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity,” and that the course “creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.”

Actually, Yale has a wide variety of English courses that focus specifically on women and people of color, along with some that touch on queer issues.

These include English 10: Jane Austen; English 239: Women Writers from the Restoration to Romanticism; English 291: The American Novel Since 1945, which includes works by Wright, Flannery O’Connor, Patricia Highsmith, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and Alison Bechdel; English 292: Imagining Sexual Politics, 1960s to the Present, which involves a historical survey of “fiction, poetry drama and creative nonfiction that have shaped and responded to feminist, queer and transgender thought since the start of second-wave feminism”; English 293: Race and Gender in America; English 306: American Artists and the African American Book; English 313: Poetry and Political Sensibility; English 326: The Spectacle of Disability, which examines how people with disabilities are treated in US literature and culture; English 334: Postcolonial World Literature, 1945-present; English 352: Asian American Literature; English 445: Ralph Ellison in Context; English 446: Virginia Woolf; and English 945: Black Literature and US Liberalism.

But, of course, students would have to enroll in additional courses beyond the basic two currently required to partake in the above. It would appear the “persecuted” are trying to change the school’s approach to teaching English rather than simply signing up for an additional class or two.

One student went so far as to write in the Yale Daily News that the school’s English department “actively contributes to the erasure of history” by having two of its foundational courses in English focus on “canonical works that actively oppress and marginalize non-white, non-male, trans and queer people.”

I’ve read some of the above major English poets and fail to see how their works create “a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.” But, being a middle class white male, I suppose I couldn’t possibly understand what’s offensive to a group of late teens and young twenty-somethings at one of the most select, politically correct universities in the world.

What’s more likely going on is that a collection of vocal Yale undergraduates have tired of being forced to read Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, et al. To be fair, these writers can be difficult to slog through, what with their penchant for archaic language and use of such tricky literary devices as allegories and soliloquies.

But instead of buckling down and becoming better readers and writers by understanding what the great English poets of the past had to say when they put pen to paper, they’d rather accuse the school of “harming students.”

I’ll say this for Yale English students: They may not be too resilient when it comes to holding up under the yoke of great literature, but they’ve got a bright future in the area of creative thinking.

Behold all creatures, even the gross and foul

buzzards

Spend enough time outdoors and you can’t help but catch glimpses of an array of picturesque birds, almost no matter where you live.

In my neck of the woods, bright cardinals, vibrant bluebirds, squawking blue jays, tittering mockingbirds, dancing thrashers and soaring hawks are regular visitors, along with a variety of smaller birds such as wrens, sparrows and warblers.

Canada geese, mallards and wood ducks are evident in waterways, as are heron, egrets and white ibises.

Cliff swallows can be found nesting on the underside of bridges, and swarm the skies at dusk, eating insects in sizeable quantities; while a variety of woodpeckers make themselves heard – and occasionally seen – including red-headed woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers.

There are also species seen only rarely, such as buntings, kingfishers, eagles, tanagers, orioles and crossbills.

Along the coast there is a vast assortment of sea birds which, given my infrequent trips to the beach, I choose to classify as gulls, terns or sandpipers. In my book, the latter two are interchangeable, encompassing everything that isn’t a gull.

One can hope that the Bird Watchers Society of the South Carolina Midlands doesn’t take offense at my ignorance and show up at my house with pitchforks and torches; they’re sensitive sorts when it comes to avifauna, I’ve been told.

This weekend I was able to see firsthand the significant diversity evident in the local avian population. Just as last year, I’ve managed to grow a nice large sunflower in my front yard. This one came up all on its own, from seeds that came off last year’s plant. Saturday I spotted a bright yellow goldfinch perched atop it, pecking at the seeds. Within a few moments a second goldfinch joined it, and the two dined away, plucking at seeds and scattering chaff.

The Eastern goldfinch is well suited for such a diet, possessing a conical beak that helps it remove seeds, along with agile feet to grip the stems of plants while feeding.

The vibrant yellow coloring of the goldfinches were brighter than that of the face of the sunflower, which had begun to darken as its seeds ripened.

A face even a mother would be hard pressed to love.

A face even a mother would be hard pressed to love.

Contrast that with the view of a day later, when, while driving through a more rural part of the state, my daughters and I came upon a roost of approximately 100 turkey buzzards perched in a dead oak tree. The tree was  situated in a low-lying swamp, approximately 15 feet below that of the rural highway, so many of the birds were eye level with us.

If you haven’t seen a turkey buzzard, you haven’t seen ugly. A large bird with a wingspan of up to six feet, the turkey buzzard has feathers that are brownish-black. Its head seems too small for its body and is often red like the comb of a rooster, with no feathers.

It has a short, hooked beak and its feet are pale. Adding to the bird’s strange appearance are its eyes, which feature “a single incomplete row of eyelashes on the upper lid and two rows on the lower lid,” according to Wikipedia.

The turkey buzzard is pure scavenger and loves carrion. It finds its food using its eyes and sense of smell, flying low enough to detect the gases produced by the beginnings decaying process in dead animals. Many a time I’ve come across a “wake” of buzzards hopping and flapping around a deer carcass, fighting each other for the right to rip off a strip of dead flesh.

Because turkey buzzards lack a syrinx – the vocal organ of birds – its sounds are limited to grunts or low hisses.

Other facts that always win folks over to turkey buzzards: They feed their young through regurgitation; to cool down they spread their wings and urinate on their legs; and, best of all, the turkey buzzard’s method of self-defense is to vomit its food. Yes, when one is disturbed or harassed, it will throw up on the creature bothering it and can send said upchuck sailing as far as 10 feet.

That recalls a memorable scene in John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony when youthful protagonist Jody finds his young pony dead just as a buzzard has sunk its beak into one of the deceased creature’s eyes. Jody, enraged, attacks the buzzard, which responds by vomiting on him. (Steinbeck wasn’t exactly noted for treacly prose.)

For us, stopped on quiet backroad, though, the view was quite remarkable. It was almost medieval to see scores of buzzards hunched on the bare branches of an old oak as twilight approached. Some took flight, and the “swoop, swoop, swoop” of their wings made an indelible impression.

Most of the birds didn’t travel far, just to another tree a bit further away, where they perched, silhouetted against a slowly darkening sky.

One supposes every creature has its role in the ecosystem, but given my druthers I’d rather pull seeds from a healthy sunflower or snatch mosquitos out of midair than fight half a dozen other vomit-happy birds in order to tear apart roadkill on a back country highway.

Jesus: Apostles needed; Goliath need not apply

the last supper

I’ve occasionally pondered a blog dedicated solely to the religious adventures of Daughter No. 3. For one, there’s definitely no lack of material. She’s the one who most recently expressed interest in looking into the church role of “crucifier” (rather than “crucifer,” the individual who carries the processional cross into and out of church at the beginning and end of mass).

But as much as I chortle at some of her misguided answers to basic Christian history, I often find even better her attempts to explain her lack of knowledge.

Last week, for some reason (perhaps simply because I decided it was time for a little levity), I asked Daughter No. 3 what term was used to refer to the men closest to Jesus.

“UH, UH, UH, I KNOW THIS! I KNOW THIS! – The Twelve Disciples!” she shouted, proud as a peacock.

“No, not quite,” I replied. “You got the number right, but you missed on the title.”

“What?!? 12 Disciples! It’s disciples, I know it’s disciples!”

“No, I’m sorry, it’s not,” I stated. Then, looking at her siblings, I asked, “Anyone else?”

In unison I heard, “The Twelve Apostles!”

Daughter No. 3 was less than impressed. “Disciples, apostles, what’s the difference?”

After explaining that any follower can be considered a disciple, but the 12 specific individuals who were Jesus’ closest followers were his apostles, she seemed less than convinced.

So I followed up with, “All right, how many of the Twelve Apostles can you name?”

This, of course, is where the fun began; Daughter No. 3 began racking her brain for biblical names.

“David … Jonah … Adam … Abraham; how about those?” she asks.

“Well, you seem to be on a decidedly Old Testament bent, sweetheart,” I told her. “Think New Testament.”

She paused, then blurted out, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John!”

“I’ll give you credit for two,” I replied, figuring that then was not the time for a discourse on who the actual authors of the books of Matthew or John might have been, or that the authors of Mark and Luke are not known. “That means you’ve got four more to go to get to 12.”

She paused, then reverted back to the Old Testament: Daniel? … Noah? … Moses? …. Did I already say David?”

“Yes. You need one more.”

“Uh, Joseph,” she said.

“Which Joseph,” I asked. “There are several in the bible.

Goliath, who didn't make Daughter No. 3's list as one of the Twelve Apostles.

Goliath, center left, who didn’t make Daughter No. 3’s list as one of the Twelve Apostles.

She stared blankly back at me in the rearview mirror. I tossed out a name: “How about Joseph, Jesus’ father?”

“Yeah, that’s a good one.”

I looked at her incredulously. “If your brother was, heaven help us, a religious figure of some stature, do you think he would want me as one of his apostles?”

That brought a round of laughs.

Still, she wasn’t budging from Joseph, the father of Jesus.

“Congratulations,” I said in my best game show host’s voice. “You just named two out of 12 of the apostles. And to think you completed a two-year confirmation course just two weeks ago.”

“They didn’t teach us anything,” she blurted out in semi-disgust.

“Oh, I have a feeling they taught you plenty, you just weren’t learning,” I told her.

With that, I got a wave of the hand and a laugh. She knows that since I teach in the same faith formation program, I have at least a slight idea what was going on in her class.

I did give her credit, though. For once she didn’t go to her safety answer for all bible questions. Typically, the first name blurted out, no matter what the question, is “Goliath.”

Progress is coming in very, very small baby steps, but it is progress nonetheless.

(Top: Leonardo’s Last Supper, showing Jesus and the Twelve Apostles.)

Gerard of Cremona’s role in reinvigorating medieval Europe

Toledo-Spain

Polyglots are a fascinating breed. As one who has worked all his life, and is still working, to gain mastery of a single language, I have mucho admiration for those who easily and fluently pick up additional tongues.

My maternal grandfather, a native of Italy who immigrated to the U.S. more than a century ago, could speak multiple languages, including Italian, French and English, along with a variety of others, due to the fact he grew up in the far northeastern part of the country, near a variety of shifting borders.

I am living proof that being a polyglot is not an inherited trait. I failed English in 6th and 7th grade, and came close again in 10th grade. In addition, I barely made it through two years of college French (mandatory for graduation).

Of course, upon reflection I have recognized that study habits – or lack thereof – were largely responsible for my early inability to learn the intricacies of English, as well as the basics of French. At least, I’d like to think so.

Yet, there is no question that for a special few individuals, the ability to learn languages is indeed a gift.

Take Gerard of Cremona, an Italian who found himself drawn to the intellectual riches of the Spanish city of Toledo in the 12th century. Toledo during this period was a true multi-religious melting pot, with Christians, Jews and Muslims living, working and learning side by side.

Gerard, who was born around 1114, is believed to have traveled to Spain in his late 20s due to the lack of written scholarship available in his native area.

Toledo, the former provincial capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba, had been conquered by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085 but had remained a seat of learning, with protected Jewish and Muslim areas.

The city was full of libraries and possessed an abundance of manuscripts. It represented one of the few places in medieval Europe where a Christian such as Gerard could be exposed to Arabic language and culture, along with extensive written scholarship dating back to the Greeks.

What Gerard saw upon his arrival in Toledo staggered him; myriad books in Arabic on every subject, all nearly unknown in Latin.

Like any true polyglot, Gerard first taught himself Arabic, then proceeded to work his way through Toledo’s libraries, “churning out translations of at least seventy major works previously unavailable in the Latin-speaking west,” according to Chris Lowney in A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment.

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