Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Miles Harvey on the Life of James Jesse Strang


by Frank Boles

Miles Harvey, author of The King of Confidence, a recently published biography of James Jesse Strang, spoke online on the evening of November 5.

James Jesse Strang was a nineteenth-century figure who, as a teenager, would write in his diary he wished to become “a Priest, a Lawyer, a Conqueror, and a Legislator.” His early life did little to suggest he would succeed in any of his ambitions. Charismatic and incredibly persuasive, he nevertheless failed as a lawyer, a newspaper owner, and as a real estate speculator. 

In 1844, however, his life changed when he traveled to Nauvoo, Illinois, talked into a trip by a friend who said he should hear the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, Joseph Smith, preach. Strang, in his own words, arrived “an inveterate unbeliever and opposer of the Mormon faith.” He left a professed Mormon.

As Harvey documents, Strang’s career from that point forward became one of increased complexity, great success that in many ways matched his teenage dreams, and great failure. Between 1844 and 1856, he lived an extraordinary life – among other accomplishments he led a break-away Mormon colony on Beaver Island where he was proclaimed an earthly king, he became a member of the Michigan legislature where he was an ardent proponent of abolition, and he persuaded a jury to find him innocent when tried in federal court. On June 16, 1856, James was shot and mortally wounded.

What to make of such a career? Harvey places Strang in the context of two nineteenth-century traits: a fluid sense of reality and the confidence man. America was rapidly changing in the 1830s and Americans were not always sure what to make of it. In this ambivalent situation, reality seemed to bend, and new ideas and ways of looking at the world were quickly, and often fervently, embraced. Individuals who could reshape reality, who had confidence in a vision of the future, could begin with seemingly nothing, yet swiftly rise to the highest levels of wealth and social standing.

Although this fluidity could lead to the best of results, it could also lead to disaster.

Con men radiate confidence and use any device they can to convince someone to see the world as they do and to persuade someone to give them what they want. Americans understood this, but nevertheless accepted the con man as embracing a positive aspect of American culture, a person who in the vocabulary of the day was “smart.”

Charles Dickens, who toured America, found himself both appalled and fascinated by Americans’ reaction to these individuals. Dickens would approach an American about a con man with the following words:

“Is it not a very disgraceful circumstance that such a man as So-and-so should be acquiring a large property by the most infamous and odious means, and not withstanding all the crimes of which he has been guilty should be tolerated and abetted by your Citizens? He is a public nuisance, is he not?” “Yes, sir.”

 “A convicted liar?” “Yes, sir.”

“He has been kicked, and cuffed, and caned?”  “Yes Sir.”

“And he is utterly dishonourable, debased and profligate?” “Yes, sir.”

“In the name of wonder then, what is his merit? “Well, sir, he is a smart man.”

Dickens claimed to have had a discussion like this a hundred times, and every time the American, admitting all of the confidence man’s sins, nevertheless admired his ability to shape reality and  succeed—to be a “smart man.” Harvey, in the end concluded that Strang lived in an era of fluid reality and that James Jesse Strang was one of those smart men who created a reality. To hear Harvey’s presentation, click here .

Friday, November 20, 2020

Thanksgiving Day

 by John Fierst

We all know the poem, at least the first few lines, if not the five stanzas that follow:

                                      “Over the river and through the wood,
                                      To grandmother’s house we go
                                      The horse knows the way
                                      To carry the sleigh . . .
                                      etc., etc. etc.”

But did you know that in the original poem they were actually headed to grandfather’s house?  It surprised me too.  Sorry, Grandma.  I came across this disconcerting fact last week while helping a patron.  He was looking for an early primer that he hoped to find in our children’s collection.  While searching, I came across the poem “Thanksgiving Day,” which caught my attention because of the forthcoming holiday.  It was in an anthology published in 1900, and the first lines read:

                                      Over the river and through the wood,
                                      To grandfather’s house we go

Could that be right, grandfather’s house?  The name of the author of the poem surprised me even more: Lydia Maria Child.  Really!  She was the author of “Over the river and through the wood?” I knew who she was but knew little about her. Wikipedia describes her as “an American abolitionist, women’s rights activist, Native American rights activist, novelist, journalist, and opponent of American expansionism.”  She was born in 1802 and died in 1880.  She was a fellow-abolitionist and friend of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier.  The Clarke Historical Library, in its John Greenleaf Whittier collection, holds several letters Child wrote to Whittier (June 19, 1864, June 18, 1878, and October 25, 1879).  

In the poem, did she originally intend it to be grandmother’s house to which we were sleighing?  Or was it grandfather’s?  (Yes, I know, they lived together.  But a point as important as this should not be left to guesswork.  Future generations of children, millions, will be singing this poem.)  A reading of the poem as originally published would answer the question. The poem was first published in 1845 in the second volume of a set of three volumes entitled Flowers for Children.  The Clarke cataloger gave our copy of the set the call number PS1293.F55 1844xa.  Thinking this would be easy, I went confidently to the stacks and pulled Flowers for Children off the shelf, opened the clamshell box, and found inside two copies of volume one and one copy of volume three.  The poem is in volume two.   Nor is volume two easily to be found. doesn’t even list it.  But I did finally track down a transcription of the original poem.  The Pilgrim Hall Museum has placed a transcription of it online. The original title? “The New England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day.”  The first two lines?

                                Over the river and through the wood,
                                To grandfather’s house we go

[Don’t believe me?  See for yourself:

The search led to another unexpected discovery—an answer to why the poem has come down to us in only six verses, when apparently there were many more.  John Greenleaf Whittier is to be blamed (or thanked) for that.  The poem only became well-known after Whittier included it in a volume on poetry for children, which he edited in 1871, Child Life: A Collection of Poems.  Whittier, as editor, would have scaled the poem back to six verses.  Printed below, is the poem, edited by Whittier, known to us today.  Happy Thanksgiving.   


                            Over the river and through the wood,
                            To grandfather’s house we go;* 
                            The horse knows the way
                            To carry the sleigh
                            Through the white and drifted snow.

                            Over the river and through the wood—
                            Oh, how the wind does blow!
                            It stings the toes
                            And bites the nose
                            As over the ground we go.

                            Over the river and through the wood,
                            To have a first-rate play.
                            Hear the bells ring,
                            Hurrah for Thanksgiving-Day!

                            Over the river and through the wood
                            Trot fast, my dapple-gray!
                            Spring over the ground,
                            Like a hunting hound!
                            For this is Thanksgiving-Day.

                            Over the river and through the wood, 
                            And straight through the barn-yard gate.
                            We seem to go
                            Extremely slow,—
                            It is so hard to wait!

                            Over the river and through the wood—
                            Now grandmother’s cap I spy!
                            Hurrah for the fun!
                            Is the pudding done?
                            Hurrah for the pumpkin-pie!

                                     L. Maria Child.

*Or “grandmother’s house.”  They lived together. They were married.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Curating an Exhibit with Anne Alton and Gretchen Papazian

 Frank Boles

On October 15, CMU professors Anne Hiebert Alton and Gretchen Papazian spoke on a webcast about their roles as co-curators of the Clarke’s exhibit, “The Surprise and Wonder of Pop-up Books.” To begin the presentation, they shared a brief history of pop-up books and offered a virtual tour of the exhibit itself. But most of their time was spent sharing how they curated the almost 1,000 pop-up books available to them and selected the ninety books in the exhibit.

The answer: it was a deeply collaborative process that involved selecting books that best illustrated fundamental themes they wished to explore, balanced by the Library staff expertise in planning and implementing exhibitions. A few books they had high hopes for underwhelmed them. A few authors became favorites as the depth and breadth of their work became obvious. For everyone there was a substantial commitment of time, spent first looking at books and then thoughtfully discussing which books would make the best examples to illustrate a particular point or genre of pop-up books.

There was also a need to represent the work of paper engineers, both through time and in the audiences to which they appeal. How many old books versus how many new books? How many examples of the Jolly Jump-Up Family, who seems to have spent most of the 1950s popping up in their comfortable middle class life, or Disney-inspired Mickey and Minnie Mouse books, which should be balanced against examples of contemporary and almost abstract art books created by people such as David Carter and Philippe UG? Similarly, what to do with Courtney Watson McCarthy’s brilliant reinterpretation of Japanese artist Hokusai’s (1760-1849) nineteenth-century masterpiece, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”? Pop-up books are not just for children, but how best to work these varying themes into a single exhibit was a constant question.

Perhaps what was the most illuminating point made during the presentation was that, there was never a “final plan” to be executed. Rather the exhibit evolved each day up until opening day through ongoing discussion of what was available to display, what was possible to exhibit (a six-inch-tall pop-up does not, sadly, fit into a four-inch-tall exhibit case), how problems could be solved (a six-inch-tall pop-up does fit into a vitrine modified with a custom built seven-inch-tall plexiglass cover), and how one element of the exhibit interacted with another element. A harmonious balance of individual pop-up books artists’ sometimes conflicting styles and purposes was the outcome of this iterative process.

It was a fascinating evening that displayed both the intellectual and the practical aspects of exhibit creation. For those of you who missed it, the presentation can be viewed at 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Jim Gillingham and the History of CMU on Beaver Island

 Frank Boles

On October 8, CMU Professor Emeritus James Gillingham discussed the history of CMU’s Beaver Island Biological Station. As director of the station from 1985 until 2009, Professor Gillingham could draw on a wealth of personal knowledge, as well as the research into the station’s history he recorded in his publication, The Buck Stopped Here: A History of the Central Michigan University Biological Station on Beaver Island (2019).

The presentation was not hurt by the fact that Professor Gillingham is a gifted storyteller. As he opened his presentation, he noted that no good idea goes without critics, particularly critics in the state legislature who believe they can see a financial boondoggle (in someone else’s district) a mile away. In 1959, the Michigan State Board of Education, then Central’s governing body, authorized construction of the first building on the island for the station, a spartan 8,100-square-foot cinder-block structure.  Not spartan enough, however, for the chair of the state legislature’s Senate Finance Committee, who knew just what those academics in Mt. Pleasant were up to. Senator Elmer R. Porter thundered, “I don’t care what they call it – it’s just a social affair – 99 percent social. I’m surprised the State Board of Education would approve a thing like this in times of austerity.”

But the thing was approved despite the senator’s conviction that Central was building an island retreat for the enjoyment of its staff (we should be so lucky!). The first building was quickly constructed. And with it, the history of the station began.

Gillingham’s presentation skillfully weaved through the physical and academic history of the station, as well as the many people closely associated with it over the seven decades since its opening. It is a long and fascinating history full of academic accomplishment, a broad range of curricular activities, and, with due respect for Senator Elmer’s correct observation about what would likely happen if you put a hundred college students together on an island, more than a little fun. 

For anyone interested in learning about the broad scope and many accomplishments of the Biological Station, as well as some of the fun that took place over the years, Jim’s presentation, like his book on the subject, is a rich source of information.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Documenting a Presidential Campaign Through Contemporary Publications

Frank Boles

Within the Clarke Historical Library is a group of books particularly relevant every four years, on Election Day. The Presidential Campaign Biography Collection was begun in 1964 to document how presidential candidates portrayed themselves and how they were portrayed in print. The object was to document the continuities and the changes in the origin stories and values candidates believed would resonate with the American public (or persuade voters to vote against someone). The collection is in a very real sense a mirror, reflecting how politicians perceived what personal characteristics and values the public wanted, or did not want, in a president.

During the current presidential campaign, additions to the collection began in the last days of 2019 and the spring of 2020. Many of the Democratic Party presidential hopefuls issued, or re-issued books they authored, such as:

  • Joe Biden. Promise Me Dad: A year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose.
  • Corey Booker. United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.
  • Pete Buttigieg. Shortest Way Home: One Mayor's Challenge and a Model for America's Future.
  • Kamala Harris. The Truths We Hold; An American Journey.
  • Amy Klobuchar. The Senator Next Door: A Memoir for the Heartland.
  • Bernie Sanders. Where We Go from Here: Two Years in the Resistance.
  • Elizabeth Warren. This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class.

The point of each book was to give primary voters a way to differentiate one candidate from another. These books reflect the best in American politics – the fundamental democratic belief that candidates should articulate values and objectives, and that voters care about the life and ideas of a candidate  and will take the time to educate themselves on these matters before they cast their ballot. The heart of a democracy is found in these sometimes slender, and often well illustrated, volumes.

As is frequently the case when a party has an incumbent president in the White House, the Republican Party primary season generated very few publications. Everyone knew who the Republican presidential nominee was going to be. However, once the two major parties had selected their respective nominees, the Republican silence ended. As the campaign season began, so too did the war of words about the candidates.

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden quickly found themselves praised and panned in print. Praise came from authors like Conrad Black, A President Like No Other: Donald J. Trump and the Restoring of America, which was matched by David Hagan, No Ordinary Joe: The Life and Career of Joe Biden. Pans of Biden came from books such as Branko Marcetic, Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. But anti-Biden titles paled against several critical tell-all books about Trump, such as John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened: a White House Memoir, Michael Cohen, Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump, or Mary L. Trump, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

These books also say interesting things about democracy in America. If a candidate’s own publication is often high-minded and issue-oriented, these books often are neither. In some, a candidate can walk on water. In others, the same person is vilified and abused.

Tell-all books published just before an election are a particularly important sub-genre of presidential biography. Their objectivity is often subject to question. They can, for example, be an unsubtle way to settle an old score. Tell-alls also sell very well just before an election, and more than one author has cashed in on that fact, even if the tell-all they penned didn’t tell very much at all. For all their potential shortcomings, the authors are usually people who were at the right place at the right time to make important observations about the candidate.

Around the edges of these often interesting but also sometimes suspect books are volumes making much more extreme claims. Perris Jackson’s Joe Biden and Kamala Harris: Two People within the USA Government Who Are Laboring to Destroy the USA Constitution and Replace it with an NWO Government Which “They” Already Created Within China lays out a deeply conspiratorial view of Biden and Harris, but it is kinder to them than Lawrence R. Moelhauser is to the president in The Fourth Beast: Is Donald Trump the Anti-Christ?

Some would dismiss the fringe biographical literature as unimportant. There are not a significant number of voters who believe Joe Biden is scheming to create a New World Government based on a Chinese model or that Donald Trump is the anti-Christ. But voters can be placed on a spectrum of ideas and opinions, which moves over time one way or another. Fringe literature describing a candidate, although it often has little immediate impact, can exercise a subtle pull in one direction, or, conversely can create a revulsion that moves the electorate in the opposite way. If the fringe biographical literature often plays to America’s deepest fears, it also can arouse an opposition based on the nation’s noblest instincts. It is important, even if it is, on the face of it, very unbelievable.

Campaign biographies date back to the 1820s, when the genre as we understand it today was invented by the campaign of Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a polarizing figure with a serous image problem. His campaign tried to quiet criticism with titles such as, An Impartial and True History of the Life and Services of Major General Andrew Jackson. The book was neither impartial nor necessarily true, but it was favorable. When criticism continued to come, Jackson’s campaign addressed their opponent’s literature with titles such as Henry Lee’s A Vindication of the Character and Public Services of Andrew Jackson: In Reply to the Richmond Address Signed by Chapman Johnson and other Electioneering Calumnies. 

In the days since Andrew Jackson’s presidency, candidates have continued to be praised and panned in print. The Presidential Campaign Biography collections defines what the American people believed about the candidates for president. Those beliefs may be based in fact, spin, or fiction, but they are the beliefs that selected the president of the United States.

Begun by a gift from the CMU Class of 1964, today it is supported by a small endowment. If you would like to help the collection grow, we welcome gifts of 2020 presidential campaign literature or political literature from earlier presidential contests. In addition to literature from the two major parties, we also collect biographical material about third-party candidates, although we use a threshold of a candidate obtaining one percent of the total national presidential vote to distinguish a “serous” third-party effort that we try to document from truly fringe candidates.

We also welcome financial gifts to support the endowment for our quadrennial presidential “buying spree” as well as the purchase of important relevant items that appear in between presidential elections.

Friday, October 23, 2020

The Task of Exhibits — A Student’s Perspective

by Janet Danek and Leah Ryal

Leah installing pieces from the Olga Denison Collection

Click on this image or any image to open a slide show
of all the full-size photographs in this post

Janet Danek:

Many of the artworks exhibited throughout the Park Library were gifts from generous donors. The late Olga Denison, a Mt. Pleasant resident, gifted to CMU her collection of contemporary Anishinaabe art, which she had passionately assembled over a 40-year period. The Clarke Historical Library is fortunate to be steward to this diverse resource.

To share these works with library patrons, an exhibition space on the fourth floor of the library is dedicated to featuring a glimpse of this vast body of material. The display is rotated regularly to provide exposure to the hundreds of artifacts in the collection.

The process of rotating the exhibit is complex, as each object is cataloged, archivally packed and securely stored. Precise records must be created to track all objects going on and off exhibit. Interpretive labeling and photographic records must be created. On installation day, a team is assembled to provide access to the cases, and re-secure after each is cleaned, and new objects and interpretation are set on exhibition. The task is extensive.

The complexity, necessity of archival handling and the need for project management makes it a valuable hands-on opportunity for a student interested in art, history, and/or exhibits. Fortunately, student worker Leah Ryal, who has worked on exhibits in the library since 2018, fits that criteria and was up to the challenge.

Leah working with the Olga Denison Collection

Leah Ryal:

With a full year of work behind me in preparing the Denison Collection art exhibition, I can now say that the development of an exhibit is no simple task. Throughout the process, I was able to try on many different hats from researcher, writer, designer, and more while also learning from the guidance and expertise of Janet Danek, Park Library Coordinator of Exhibits, and Marian Matyn, Clarke Historical Library archivist and associate professor.

One of the first steps of this process was research, which started at the Clarke Historical Library. I delved into the Denison Collection and learned about the art objects I could work with. During this process, I came across a wide variety of objects such as black ash flowers, alabaster stone sculptures, and sweetgrass baskets. As an art history student, I am particularly interested in sculpture and three-dimensional objects. One of my favorite sculptures on display is an orange alabaster turtle by Gary Quigno. Handling this object surprised me because the sculpture is quite heavy. While the sculpture is visually beautiful and elegant, I also appreciate the solidity and grounding weight that the sculpture has. Being able to handle the art, I could feel the weight and texture of each object, giving me a better understanding of the objects themselves.

I also conducted research about the Anishinaabe and other Native American tribes in Michigan so I could write the interpretation. For this exhibition, we introduced interpretative text that described the thematic content of each case. The goal for these texts was to provide a broader context to understand these objects. While the objects tell a visual story simply through their color, texture, and shape, the interpretation was used to further tell the story of the art that you couldn’t glean from looking at the object. Perhaps the most challenging part of this task was learning how to write for a new audience. During my studies at CMU, the majority of my writing is for professors or other students. In the case of the Denison Collection, it became an exercise in learning how I write, in order to communicate a message to a wider audience.

The final step of the exhibition process was the de-installation and installation of the objects. This was my favorite part of the process because it is the culmination of all our work. The de-installation and installation occurred on a single day and were the most physically laborious part of the development process. However, I particularly enjoyed it because I enjoy working with my hands and designing the look of each case. One of the more unexpected aspects of this process was the need for extreme organization. With so many works leaving and entering the cases, I had to keep close track of the items. To streamline this process, I kept detailed records with a spreadsheet I created. The spreadsheet helped me note when objects left the cases, how they were packed, and when they were returned. The document also had a description of each item and its accession number which helped me correctly place the labels in the cases. On this final day, with the help of many library employees, we completed the installation of the new Olga Denison Collection of Anishinaabe Art exhibition.

The completion of this exhibit has felt satisfying but also rewarding. While this is my job, I also treat it as a continuous learning experience. Through projects like these, I can learn about the unique processes and skills necessary for exhibits. Hands-on experiences give me more confidence in my skills and opportunities to strengthen my weaknesses. After graduation, I am interested in working in the art or museum field so experiences like this are truly invaluable to me. Post-graduation, I hope to continue working to make art accessible and engaging for the public. Developing the Denison Collection art exhibition has not only given me an in-depth experience with exhibits, but it has also made me excited for the possibilities to come.

A bit more about Leah Ryal:

I’m a senior, graduating in May 2021. I will graduate with a BA in Art History and Psychology. I am a part of the Honors Program. I started working for the library in Fall 2018. My academic interests focus on the intersections of art, psychology, and well-being. Outside of school, my interests include cooking, traveling, making art, and environmental activism.

Click on this image or any image to open a slide show
of all the full-size photographs in this post

Monday, October 19, 2020

Homecoming Traditions Turned Upside Down

by Bryan Whitledge and Casey Gamble

Marching Chips, Homecoming 2002

The 2020 Homecoming at Central is not your usual event. With a public health emergency changing many aspects of our lives, Homecoming is changing, too. This year, Homecoming doesn’t involve a football game or a parade or a pep rally. Instead, the Office of Student Activities and Involvement has created the “Fired Up Challenge” with events like virtual trivia, a virtual concert, and a campus photo challenge. Some traditions will continue though, like the Homecoming Ambassadors. Others are being tweaked to fit our physically distant existence, like the virtual Medallion Hunt and the Special Olympics Homecoming Virtual 5K walk/run that participants can complete on their own.

But, 2020 isn’t the first time that the Homecoming traditions changed. With nearly 100 years of Homecomings at Central, there have been many changes to the tradition over the years.

For example, this isn’t the first Homecoming when football wasn’t the centerpiece event. In 1943, 1944, and 1945, World War II put many campus happenings on hold, among them a Homecoming football game. In 1946, however, Homecoming came back bigger and better than ever at Central with the addition of a new tradition—the Homecoming Queen.

Twenty-five years later, in 1971, it wasn’t a global war that shook up Homecoming traditions—it was the spirit of the times. The Student Alumni Association decided to get rid of the parades, dances, residence hall decorations, and even the Homecoming court. It was reported that students didn’t particularly care about the court and that there were simply not enough parade participants to make that tradition worthwhile. The Student Alumni Association wanted to try something new that all students and alumni could enjoy, so they organized a carnival, a bazaar, and a "style show" instead. The only Homecoming events they held onto from previous years were the pep rally and the football game.

CMU President Boyd and Students at the Homecoming Carnival, 1971
This experiment proved both controversial and short-lived. An editorial in CM Life following Homecoming weekend reported that returning alumni were unimpressed with “coming home” to a Ferris wheel ride, and many people felt there was a lack of school spirit. The editorial writer suggested that the next time big changes were to be made for an event such as Homecoming, those changes should be voted on by the student body to see just how many people cared what weekend festivities might be enjoyed.

Homecoming Carnival, 1971
In a rebuttal published two days later, the co-chairs of the Homecoming Steering Committee offered several answers and explanations for their decisions. For example, the co-chairs felt that the Homecoming Queen did not really represent the CMU student body, but rather she represented the group that sponsored her. They said that Miss CMU, a student chosen from among all CMU students in a pageant the previous spring, would be a better representative of the CMU student body than the Queen and her court. And the students in 1971 might have been a onto something in terms of changes to the Queen and her court—in 1997, CMU did away with Homecoming royalty altogether in favor of Homecoming Ambassadors.

As for the parade, the co-chairs declared the bazaar a more than satisfactory replacement. They said that “at least 50 groups requested to build a booth for the bazaar,” which they said meant there was more interest in the bazaar than there was for previous parades. The Homecoming Steering Committee also noted that they did not intend for students to refrain from decorating their residence halls, only that students should decorate lightly and donate to charity the rest of the money that they normally would have spent on decorations. This was another example of the 1971 experiment being more in line with the twenty-first century. The idea of students giving back and supporting a good cause is why the contemporary Homecoming 5K benefiting Special Olympics is such a popular event.

Over the years, Homecoming traditions have faced hurdles, but those hurdles never stopped the events. The cancellation of the football games during WWII didn’t mean and end of Homecoming—in fact, after the War, the tradition expanded. The experiment of the alternative Homecoming of 1971 might not have been popular with everyone at the time, but the spirit of updating Homecoming traditions has lived on—the dances that were popular in 1950s have faded away, while the Medallion Hunt, started in 2003, and the cardboard boat race, started in 1998, have become campus favorites.

Cardboard Boat Race, ca. 2014

In 2024, when Central celebrates the 100th anniversary of the first Homecoming, who knows what new traditions created during the remarkable 2020 Homecoming will live on to be new CMU traditions.

This blog has been adapted from one that appeared in a slightly different form on October 9, 2017.

Monday, September 28, 2020

CMU Professor’s Opera Now Showing Online


Nearly 20 years ago, From the Diary of Sally Hemings premiered at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The solo opera was composed by William Bolcom of the University of Michigan with libretto (text) by now-retired Central Michigan University professor of English, Sandra Seaton. The opera is a fictional account of the thoughts and feelings of Sally Hemings, the enslaved women owned by Thomas Jefferson and mother to six children fathered by Jefferson. As Seaton said at the time of the premiere, in the spring of 2001, “I wanted to give Hemings a voice and bring her to life. I wanted her to be more than a slave or a sexual role.” In 2001, Professor Seaton joined an audience that included descendants of Hemings and Jefferson at the Library of Congress for the premiere, which was covered in both the Centralight magazine and the CM Life student newspaper.

Mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar (left), Sandra Seaton (center), and William Bolcom (right) at the Library of Congress Premiere of From the Diary of Sally Hemings

Sandra Seaton (back, center) with descendants of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson

Sandra Seaton (front row, fourth from the right) with descendants of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson 

Now, the opera is again in the spotlight. The piece was scheduled to be part of the line-up of the 2020 Glimmerglass Festival, an opera festival held in upstate New York. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, live performances of the selected operas were cancelled. But that didn’t mean that show wouldn’t go on—the General Director of the festival, Francesca Zambello, decided to create videos of all of the operas to be performed. Professor Seaton’s work was performed and recorded at Merkin Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. And now, that recording can be seen by anyone with a connection to the internet. Enjoy the 47-minute video on the Glimmerglass Festival YouTube page.

Scene from Glimmerglass Festival performance of From the Diary of Sally Hemings

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Welcome Back into the Building

by Frank Boles

On August 3 the Park Library Building will welcome users into the building for the first time since the building closed in accordance with the governor's executive orders. Re-opening however, does not mean access will be the same as it was before the pandemic struck. In accordance with both the governor's executive orders and CMU's own decisions, new rules will be in place. The two most important rules will be:
  • All visitors must wear face masks at all times.   
  • Social distancing of a minimum of six feet must be observed. To accomplish this rule:   
    • One researcher (or one, related group) will be allowed at each table in the reading room. 
    • Generally four people at a time will be allowed in the exhibit area at the same time to view the exhibit (exemptions will be made for a related group who wish to see the exhibit together, such as a multi-generational family). 
In order to enforce the social distance policy, beginning August 3 and throughout the fall academic semester, an appointment will be required to enter the Clarke Historical Library, either to view the exhibit or the use of the library resources in the reading room. 

To make an appointment either 
  • Email us at Please let us know if you wish to see the exhibit or conduct research, and the tentative date and time you plan to visit. If you wish to do research, we would also appreciate an estimate of how long you believe you'll be visiting.
    • We will contact you by email to confirm the date and appointment, or if necessary, request you adjust your schedule.  
  • Telephone 989.774.3352 and ask to make an appointment.
The library will be open 9:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (excluding academic and national holidays), and Saturday, September 19 and Saturday, October 17 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. 
  • Please contact us a minimum of 24 hours before your proposed visit, during normal working hours. 
  • Reservation dates and times will be made in the order in which they are received. Calling early is recommended. 
Although electronic resources have proved a lifeline for many library users, sometimes there is no substitute for coming in the door. We look forward to seeing you soon. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Flowers Of Summer

by Frank Boles

As an occasional gardener, I was delighted when the library recently received a complimentary copy of Passion for Peonies: Celebrating the Culture and Conservation of Nichols Arboretum’s Beloved Flower, edited by David Michener and Robert Grese (Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press, 2020).

As the authors point out, peonies were once America’s favorite flower, and because they are so easy to divide they remain a cherished, flowering heirloom in many families, where a part of “grandma’s peony” still blooms every summer in the garden.

Noting the flowers' long history in gardens, the book includes a section on “Peonies in Classic Garden Writing.” There I found a piece of writing by an old acquaintance of the Clarke Historical Library, Louisa Yeomans King. In the early years of the twentieth century, Mrs. King, who lived in Alma, Michigan, was one of the nation’s leading gardeners and an important author about gardens. Her home and garden in Alma, Orchard House, was something of a shrine. But when Mrs. King’s husband died in 1927, he left his wife without the means to maintain her extensive garden. Mrs. King sold Orchard House and its garden. After an extended tour of Europe, she settled in New York state where she continued her career as an author and planted a new, far less extensive, garden.

Mrs. King chose to destroy her personal papers, and for many years there were no good pictures of her Alma garden. But in Alma, the family of Mrs. King’s long-time gardener, Frank Ankney, had preserved a treasure: an album of photos taken of the garden that had been given to Frank. That album is now preserved in the Clarke Historical Library. Pictures from the album of Mrs. King’s peonies illustrate her reprinted article in Passion of Peonies.

Mr. Ankney’s album is a small piece of mid-Michigan summer beauty the Clarke Historical Library is happy to hold, preserve, and make available for use. As for the garden itself, without Mrs. King’s inspiration it slowly declined. Eventually this small piece of paradise did actually become a parking lot. But we remember it in its glory, through pictures, some taken more than a century ago.

If you would like to know move about Mrs. King and her Alma garden, visit the Clarke library's website

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Covid and DigMichNews

By Ed Bradley

During this pandemic, time spent finding social media items in CMU’s Digital Michigan Newspapers portal has taken an interesting turn.

In searching the Clarke Historical Library-administered portal – and Michigan newspapers digitized by the Clarke for the Library of Congress “Chronicling America” site -- for potential entries for the DigMichNewspapers Twitter site, I came to wonder about the similarities in coverage of Covid-19 and the last great world health crisis: the “Spanish flu” outbreak of 1918-19.

Big-city papers of that time gave substantial coverage (albeit much less on the front page in comparison with 2020) to the pandemic, but much less attention was paid by the kinds of small-town dailies and weeklies found in the DigMich collection. Their focus was on local, not national, news, and the flu hit cities harder. But the town papers did not ignore the crisis. As with Covid-19, their concern was expressed in multiple attitudes: warning, suspicion, exploitation.

For example, an October 11, 1918, story in the OxfordLeader was meant to provide help on how not to become infected, with language not unlike that of 2020. The syndicated “Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu” article quoted U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue with a strong sense of concern – and a call for social distancing without using the term that would be ubiquitous a century hence.

“It is now believed that influenza is always spread from person to person, the germs being carried with the air along with the very small droplets … expelled by coughing or sneezing, forceful talking, and the like by one who already has the germs of the disease,” Blue said. “… [E]very person who becomes sick … should go home at once and go to bed. … It is highly desirable that no one be allowed to sleep in the same room as the patient.

“When [outdoor] crowding is unavoidable … care should be taken to keep the face so turned as not to exhale directly the air breathed out by another person.”

Indeed, some folks did wear masks in 1918, but the Great War was still foremost in the public mind. A public-service message that accompanied the above Leader article read “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases … As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells,” a reference to the deadly chemical weapons used overseas.

As there have been conspiracy theories regarding the coronavirus, so were there regarding the 1918 flu. The October 2 issue of the BeldingBanner-News blared that the flu “May Be Spread by German Spies.” This was a local story of sorts, for the source of the story was a Banner-News editor, Hubert Engemann, a sailor who had returned to Michigan after a stay in the U.S. Naval Hospital in Annapolis, Maryland, which had been overrun by the flu.

 “There was some talk,” read the story, “that the disease was spread by German agents or spies, but [Engemann] was rather inclined to discredit this himself, although he said that there was nothing that the enemy would not stoop to do.”

As the pandemic lingered into 1919, opportunities came for commercial entities to take advantage. A page of the January 16 Leelanau Enterprise included competing ads for anti-flu medicine: the stomach acid remedy Eatonic promised to clean “Toxic Poisons Out of the Digestive Tract,” and the touting of Hill’s Bromide Cascara Quinine was even more direct: “Don’t wait until your cold develops Spanish Influenza or pneumonia. Kill it quick.”

By the way, the 1918-19 sickness was generally referred to in print as “the Spanish ‘flu,’” not “the ‘Spanish’ flu” or “the ‘Spanish flu.’” The small difference in punctuation signaled doubt on whether the malady was influenza while affirming it was Spanish in origin. Actually, there is no clear evidence of the latter, but Spain was likely saddled with the blame because it was hit hard early by the flu – and, as a World War I-neutral nation without imposed censorship, did not curtail reporting of its troubles.

Regarding some of the phrases we’ve been hearing as we battle Covid-19, a search of the Clarke collection reminds us of the fluidity of linguistics. A 1994 Oxford Leader advertisement advised us to “Be Safe at Home!” – only this safety came in the purchase of a home security system. And a 1964 ad in the same weekly informed us we would save money by staying home to shop -- but this “Shop at Home” strategy was in buying from local merchants and not from those out of town.

Clarke Staffer Pens Film History Volume

By Ed Bradley
The photograph on the cover of my newly published movie history book is from It’s Great to Be Alive, a 1933 mix of music, comedy, romance, science fiction, and gender-role reversal – all set amid a global pandemic.
Ripped from the headlines? No, the image on the front of Hollywood Musicals You Missed: 70 Noteworthy Films from the 1930s (McFarland & Co.) was selected well before Covid-19. Much stranger than the real-life menace is the malady in It’s Great to Be Alive, which leads to the demise of the Earth’s entire male populace … save for one conveniently golden-voiced swain portrayed by Brazilian heartthrob Raul Roulien.
Even if It’s Great to Be Alive doesn’t seem quite as frivolous now as when I viewed it during my research, I love it, and its ilk, no less. This is my fourth book about Depression era American musical films. There have been decades of movie musicals with more patriotism, bigger bands, splashier color, pricier budgets, and rock ’n’ roll. But it is easy to dive into ’30s tune fests – and the talents of Fred Astaire, Busby Berkeley, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and others, with Tin Pan Alley and the advent of swing music – and not want to come up for air.
The more obscure, the better. Stellar figures such as Astaire, Berkeley, and Judy Garland deserve appreciation, but historians have discussed them and their pictures to death. That is why the new book includes entries on The Way to Love (1933), in which star Maurice Chevalier gets upstaged by a dog, and The Girl Said No (1937), a wonderful tribute to Gilbert and Sullivan that was a jukebox musical before there were jukeboxes.
Then there are the little-seen pictures starring Herbert Jeffries, the Detroit-born actor billed as the first African American singing cowboy; Dorothy Page, the first female Western singing actor; and Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankees star whose emoting in Rawhide (1938) makes you wish he would have spent some time away from playing first base to take acting lessons.
Screen musicals aren’t very popular in 2020. The thought of actors bursting into song unprompted is somehow too fanciful for the audiences who thrill at Star Wars or the Marvel Universe, although the success of La La Land and recent Queen and Elton John biopics provide some hope for the genre. As time passes, the sounds of the early films seem to grow fainter, more remote.
For my first book, The First Hollywood Musicals (1996), Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Maureen O’Sullivan, George Burns, Dorothy Lee, and other stars were alive for me to interview about their forays into song. They are gone now, but their vintage tune films should not be allowed to disappear. They won’t, as long as there are caretakers to make sure they are seen, heard, and preserved.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Piecing Together History

Archives, museums, and libraries are sometime seen as stodgy, but most are actually highly creative organizations that engage the public with all sorts of fun and interesting programming. During the COVID-19 public health emergency, institutions large and small across the world have gotten even more creative to connect with people. During a meeting with CMU Libraries staff, Marian Matyn, the Archivist at the Clarke, mentioned that some institutions are using images from their holdings to create virtual jigsaw puzzles.

That suggestion sparked an idea for Janet Danek, the CMU Libraries’ Coordinator of Art, Exhibits, and Projects: are there any images from past exhibitions that we might be able to give the “jigsaw” treatment? Janet worked with Bryan Whitledge, the Archivist for University Digital Records, to transform images from the Shaping Memories through Three Lenses exhibit into virtual puzzles. This exhibit, from the fall of 2019, featured the photography of three of CMU’s photographers: Robert Barclay, Peggy Brisbane, and Steve Jessmore. Over the course of nearly forty years, these three documented the history of the Central Michigan University, from big events with nationally known guests to quiet moments of studying, and everything in between.

By transforming their work into puzzles, people have a new way to interact with the Clarke’s holdings and the history of CMU. If you loved seeing the photos before, focusing on detail while piecing the images together will give you a new appreciation for the art of Barclay, Brisbane, and Jessmore. Iconic pictures, like the toilet paper toss, CMU’s Baja car flying over a dune, or Jeff Daniels’ performance in downtown Mt. Pleasant (pictured above) are available to anyone at the click of a mouse. The puzzles have been created to offer up a range of difficulty levels: from breezy, forty-piece breaks that might take five minutes to 200-piece stumpers that could occupy a couple hours.

Each week, the Clarke will upload a new puzzle. So, check back regularly to piece together the history of CMU, one iconic image at a time.