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.