Saturday, June 29, 2019

[Saturday] 29 January [1887]: San Martino

Whatever the morning was like, Frederick "Spent the fore noon in writing." Clearly, he was not writing diary entries but more likely letters. He would make note of the recipient of letters, but usually when writing to family. Other sources indicate that he corresponded with more people than he noted in his journal.

Later, he and Helen met with "Mrs Davis of Ind." Mark Emerson, intrepid editor of the Douglasses' travel diaries in the days before digitization, tracked down Mrs. Davis, discovering that she was Hannah Ellen Brown Davis of Spiceland, Indiana, where she and her now-departed husband Clarkson (who had died in 1883), had run an academy.

This "amiable lady," a teacher, raised in the Society of Friends but, according to her memorial, possessing "that catholicity in religion which belongs to real culture wherever it is found," and a lover of literature probably got along quite well with the Douglasses. He certainly impressed her. In the single letter from her to him in the Library of Congress, a Christmas 1889 wish to him while he served in Haiti, she addressed him as "Reverend dear friend," and wrote, "with your weight of cares and perplexities, my thought has often gone in sympathy to you. To how few has it been given to serve their race and nation so long and so worthily. May God's grace return you to your country, your family and friends in safety." But, before that, after the Douglasses departed from Naples headed to Egypt, she composed a poem, "To Frederick Douglass, On His Seventieth Birthday, While in Egypt.":

by Hannah E. Davis

Hannah Ellen Brown Davis

Spiceland lies just outside of Indianapolis, eastward and not far south off of I-70. I lived not far from it for a few weeks, in an extended-stay hotel, when I first moved there back in 2001 to begin work at the Douglass Papers project; but, that is a whole other story -- a few other stories, as a matter of fact. Spiceland also lies not too very far from Pendleton, as well. In his younger days, Douglass had suffered a beating there that had resulted in a broken hand that ached him for the rest of his life.

But, I digress.

Davis joined Frederick and Helen a they went up to another of the highest points in Naples to see "San Martino, a convent of the Capuchin Monks, the largest convent of the kind in the world." He goes on to explain to his diary that, " It is however no longer a living convent. It has been taken possession of by the Government, and its fine halls are now a musium full of paintings and many other interesting works of Art. The church in this old convent is one of the most costly in Europe."

We ourselves saved this for the last day, or last half-day, since we would return to Rome that afternoon and nothing about it in the guide books promised anything that we were dying to see. After all, we were using Naples more as a base to see things around Naples. We had walked up toward Capodimonte on our first day -- not to see Capodimonte but to see the San Gennaro catacombs, which Douglass did not see, or did not write about seeing, but were quite worth a look and which tourist could go visit in those days. We chose to take a cab up to the museum on the day that we visited it, which was a last minute thing and involved changing train tickets and all sorts of boring logistical stuff that has nothing to do with Douglass. I'll just sum up that the cab ride was more fun than a roller coaster.

Anyway, the point here is that, the hill up to Capodimonte rose at less of a grade than the hill up to San Martino, and our fifty-to-sixty year old twenty-first century selves only wanted to make it once.. San Martino looked more like you needed a grappling hook to ascend. To give you an idea in medieval and Renaissance military terms, which Douglass does not mention, but just above the former monastery rises Castle Sant' Elmo.  This is from inside its walls:

This is what it looks like from Capodimonte. (The weather in this picture, by the way, was a bit more typical of what we experienced in Italy this time around -- about half the time we were there. To think a heat wave hit the next month.):

Short on time and unwilling to climb the what-must-have-been-five-gazillion steps to get to the top of the hill, we just took one of the several funiculars. I thought it would be more exciting than it was and have views. No, it was just a train, going up a hill, but keeping your seat level, and with the usual views of graffitied walls and overgrown weeds.

How did Douglass and his party get up? Well, according to the Baedeker guide, they could walk up a zigzag road or hire a donkey to an omnibus station. Then, they could ride the bus up an old military road that wound around the mountain. At various points, it seems, they could hop off and take smaller roads or steps the rest of the way up, or they could just take a carriage the whole way.

Frederick, Helen, and Davis went in to see the museum. My companion and I just sat outside, deciding that the price of admission was probably not worth our time. Although the Baedeker insisted that San Martio "is not less remarkable for the beauty of its situation and its views, than for the great value of tis contents," in our different centuries, arriving in our different ways, Douglass, me, and my companion all came to the same conclusion: "I have seen so much of these religious paintings, that I was less interested in what I found here than in the fine view of the city and harbor."

We probably could have seen more had we gone in, but we enjoyed this well enough, and had to be on our way in any case (especially after I took up some time in a cameo shop where the proprietor, charming at first, ended up demonstrating that #MeToo has not reached this corner of Naples).

Whatever Douglass did the next day was either so much fun or far too boring to record. All he wrote was "Heard a strange sermon at the U.P. Church on the greatness of man." That alone leaves so many questions that he never did answer.


Friday, June 28, 2019

Summer Touring Schedule (such as it is)

The book tour, such as it is, continues. Now is the season of summer schools and institutes, which are always fantastic no matter how you participate in them.

Last week, the lovely and brilliant Douglas Egerton and I drove down to Lawrenceville Academy in Princeton, New Jersey, to speak to historian Erik Chaput's summer school class on Frederick Douglass. The class is on Frederick Douglass, that is. Doug spoke about black abolition and I used Anna Murray to guide them through methods of research and ways to alert themselves to questions that they should be asking when they confront different types of information in documents. I had a great time, and I hope that they did, too. I forgot that they were high school seniors because they acted and thought like college seniors.

Only the book in the center is mine. 
The rest are only a fraction of Doug's output.
Erik took the picture.

Next up will be Graham Hodges' NEH Seminar for teachers on Abolition and the Underground Railroad at Colgate University, followed by Carol Berkin's on American Women at War in New York City, then on to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to chair a panel on abolition at the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic's annual meeting, followed by the Chittenango Boat Landing at the beginning of August. That last one is open to the public.

Fall will take this show overseas again, this time to Newcastle-upon-Tyne for Newcastle University's INSIGHTS series of lectures (this is last year's program). Newcastle was the home of the Richardsons, who began the campaign to purchase Douglass's freedom and provide the seed money for the North Star. Guess what my talk will be about?

Meanwhile, (among other things like two book proposals, one submitted) I'm writing an essay for an anthology, Frederick Douglass in Context, edited by Michael Roy, who was part of that conference in Paris last year. My essay is about Douglass and family, and I don't want to retread what I have already said nor do I want to tread on what I know of Ezra Greenspan's upcoming work (as if I could ever be as good!). Looking back on something that you've gone over a million times to see something new can be a challenge because you have to step away from your own patterns and ruts of thinking when you sometimes aren't even aware that you have them. I also have a problem figuring out when I'm saying something original because I'm too aware of where I picked up so many ideas and then I've lived with my own configuration of them for so long. Knowing what you have can sometimes be a different thing from stepping back and re-asking, "what do I have?"

Monday, June 17, 2019

[Friday,] 28 January [1887]: To the Bourbon Palace

On their first full day in Naples, the Douglasses joined a group that included Adelia Gates, a well-travelled botanical artist, which was a common field for women artists in those days, her niece Eleanor Lewis, who subsequently donated Gates's collection to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and a Mr. and Mrs. Hipwell, whom Mark Emerson could not identify when he annotated Douglass's travel diary. Helen and Eleanor Lewis had hit it off in Rome, and I confess that I misidentified her as Edmonia Lewis, the African-Chippewa-American artists living in Rome who met both of the Douglasses while they were there. Edmonia Lewis did loan Helen some books, but they did not go to the museums together.

The Capodimonti is today, as then, a large park containing the former Bourbon Palace that serves as both a museum of the palace and of part of the Farnese collection housed in several places. At the top of one of the several hills that surround the Bay of Naples and make up the city, Douglass described Capodimonti as "a splendid place giving us a splendid view of the Bay, Vesuvius, Serento, Capri, and the surrounding country." From images that I could find online, that was probably true in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but less so today given the trees that have now grown along the perimeter. The best I could do (also given the weather on the day we visited -- we seemed to have brought the lingering drear of Syracuse, New York, to the Mediterranean with us) was from the second floor of the Palace. Yes, that is the ubiquitous Vesuvius there in the background. The ubiquitous Capri and Sorento were not visible on this day.:

Just as Douglass saw in his time, "The Palace is a plain stately building without,..." :

"….but very richly furnished and abounds with numerous works of Art, paintings and statuary." It looks a bit like Versailles in the parts meant to showcase the building as a palace, but not quite so glitzy. They also have an impressive display of armory. The paintings and statuary provided me with much material for a profane running commentary because, as Douglass said the next day when they went to visit a museum at San Martino, "I have seen so much of these religious paintings, that I was less interested in what I found here than in the fine view of the city and the harbor." Soooo many Virgins, and annunciations, and Jesus meeting John the Baptist, and nativities!

Two paintings did capture Douglass's attention. "A picture of the assassination of Julius Ceaser was very striking," he commented. Alas, I looked and looked but failed to see it. Although the arrangement of the art followed nineteenth century conventions, covering every inch of very tall walls to the point that you could hardly tell what some of them depicted, this one is supposed to be massive and difficult to miss.

The other, "one of Michel Angelo, kissing the hand of his dead friend, Vitoria Colonna, fixed attention," certainly did. Hanging directly across from the entrance to the room, with the light of the woman's dress emerging from the dark canvas, the image pulls your attention toward it from several rooms away.

Michelangelo kissing Colonna's hand, clutching his male friend's hand feels so quiet and sad. More than that, this secular image of  loss would affect a man who had so recently lost his own friend of two decades, his wife of forty-four years, and yearly learned of the death of yet another friend or family member. The painting itself was only seven years old itself at the time that Douglass saw it, so would have been fresh and bright, and not mentioned in his Baedeker, as the painting of Ceasar's death was.

Adelia Gates was an interesting companion in this excursion. In her sixties, she was a couple of years younger than Frederick and had spent the Bleeding Kansas years in the state on the anti-slavery side. I wonder if she had some influence on the topic of his speech to the Presbyterian Church, given that Brown first rose to infamy at Potawatomi.

Later, when the Douglasses returned to Rome after their sojourn through Egypt, Helen described her visit to the Capitolini Museum and Vatican in the company of Eleanor Lewis (when I misidentified Eleanor as Edmonia). Adelia Gates was there, as well. After Rome and Naples, Gates turned southward toward Algiers. She wanted to see Carthage, to see the Sahara, and to paint the flora of the oasis. Then, she, too, voyaged up the Nile and through the Holy Land. Gates's biography does not mention if Eleanor was in tow, although she seems to be up to this point. If Gates had already planned to cross the Mediterranean, I wonder if she influenced the Douglasses' decision to go south instead of turn back north as they travelled along the Amalfi coast. While in Rome, I wonder if the Douglasses gave them any travel advisories for Egypt. Either way, imagine what they may have spoken of in their discussions about Africa and what each thought of the origins and meanings of what they, in the nineteenth century, considered "civilization:" she the nice, white lady artist and he through a double veil.


Saturday, June 15, 2019

8 Capella Vecchio

Once the Douglasses had arrived in Naples, where did they go for lodging? The Baedeker mentions several first and second class hotels, many in locations still considered choice along the waterfront, and pensiones for "a stay of from 3-4 days upward." Frederick, however, had directed his son Lewis to write to him care of Rev. J.C. Fletcher in Naples. Fletcher was a minister at one of the few "English" and therefore Protestant churches in the city, Presbyterian in this case, located at 8 Cappella Vecchia 2, an address quite difficult to find today both on the tourist map and on my phone.

But I did it. Here is what Google Maps shows from my computer at home. I assure you this is not quite what it looked like on my phone. On my phone, only a street shaped a bit like a reverse L appeared. As on this picture, the scale is usually difficult to determine. The pin also did not show on my phone.

As it turned out, we spent a lot of time in that general area, since that is in the "historic" part of the town where most of the tourists go and has most of the restaurants. Some of the surrounding streets, especially those around that triangle shaped monument and angling toward the water have names you might recognize if you follow high fashion. 

This, by the way, is the monument, The Monument to the Neapolitan Martyrs of the Risorgimento, which was there when the Douglasses were.:

The Cappella Vecchio would be on the other side of the buildings to the left. 

By the way, those tents in the background there cover a lovely little bar. About the time most Americans or English think of eating dinner, most Italians settle in for a nice cappuccino or glass of wine and a little snack. They don't eat dinner until much much later, nine or ten o'clock. We noticed that in Spain and in Normandy, too, but that's another story.

Anyway, I mention the bar because we had already had a glass there on a couple of occasions when I went in search of Cappella Vecchia, expecting a big church or even a modest church or anything that might have once passed for a church, rectory, and school that had once served a modest-sized English-language community into the twentieth century. Turns out, we had passed Cappella Vecchia not only every time we went to that bar, but several other times as well.  It just looked more like what we in America consider an alley. You have to adjust your eyes in medieval towns. 

This was the entrance to the street. 

Looking down the street. The garbage and graffiti is normal.

This is number 8, but who knows if it were number 8 when Douglass was there.

At the end of the street we came to this, a sort of courtyard to what looked like private homes and businesses.:

Inside of the courtyard, to the right as you enter, I found this. Not necessarily a church.:

Alas, this was just a bit of the graffiti in the archway to the courtyard and along the street. A faction seems to celebrate fascism with glorification of Mussolini and his ilk, including Trump in that set. I wondered if they were too young to have remembered what happened last time. Our guide in the Colosseum certainly had no love for the old guy, but that was Rome.

This was the view from the arch backdown the street, including the ubiquitous and deadly scooters and satellite dishes, neither of which were a site of Douglass's time, and laundry, which was..:

Back on the main street, looking down toward where the Douglasses would have stayed. That building in the foreground is clearly much more recent, so I wondered if the church stood there and was torn down since or perhaps became the victim of an Allied bomb. There is a parking garage just behind it, but the number 8 building, we could see thorough the grimy main floor door windows, seemed to have some construction going on inside. The floor and other architectural features were marble and the whole building seemed to have been adapted to multi-person housing. 

Here is a bird's eye view courtesy of Google Maps:

Alas, the one close-to-contemporary map that I have found in my limited search in not sharp enough to tell much more, and it dates to 1912.

Staying with the Fletchers. whom he mentions several time in his diary, and among winter tourist and expatriates from England and the United States, shaped the Douglasses' visit and certainly led to Frederick being called upon to speak. The head of the Presbyterian Church and Fletcher's co-worker if not boss, the Rev. Johnson Irvine, called upon Douglass to speak about John Brown on 1 February 1887, which not one of the regular meetings of the church.  The following Sunday, he attended the Methodist church in the city, which was not an English church but for Italian Methodists, and "was called upon for a few words at the close, which were interpreted by Mr. Jones." Jones was the Rev.  Thomas W. Jones, who headed the southern Methodist missionary district in Italy. Douglass had begun his spiritual life as a Methodist, so you can imagine he drew upon that in these "few words." 

Douglass's speech, according to himself, went something like: "I congratulated the congregation that they had now the Liberty to worship outside the Romish Church, and said a few words of human Brotherhood." He wasn't so much being explicitly anti-Catholic (which he, let's face it, was) as referring to the events of the previous two decades in Italy that had allowed for more religious freedom in Italy by breaking some of the Vatican's control over the newly unified nation. Jones interpreted what he said for the congregation. 

Where this was, however, was difficult to determine, especially since I am well-versed in neither Methodist nor Naples history. The Baedker had no reference to a Methodist Church, but it did mention "Italian Service of the Waldensian Church"  which was held on Sunday evenings in the Scotch church. I don't know exactly what all of that means, but some searching turned up that the Methodists worked with the Waldensians in Italy and Presbyterians are of Scottish origin. 

So, a wild-assed and semi-educated guess might have the Presbyterians, who had Sunday services at 11 am and 3pm, loaning their church building out to the Methodists and Waldensians for an evening service. The Waldensians also had another, presumably morning service, in their church in Montecalvario, which is a neighborhood north of the Presbyterian Church and partly on a hillside.

 Mark Emerson, who annotated Douglass's travel diary for his master's thesis, found it on a street called San Anna di Palazzo. I could not find that easily on my phone but have found it on my computer. I'm pretty sure we passed it once or twice.:

Note its proximity to the Presbyterian church. In any case, at this point, not finding it on my phone, however, I had to make the determination if I was on a Douglass's trip or my own. I chose the latter. Sometimes you just have to live your own life.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Picture of "Mrs. Frederick Douglass, Jr."

Back in 2011, when I was researching in the Walter O. Evans Collection in Savannah (no, all you reviewers and interviewers, David Blight was not the first nor only biographer to use that collection, as he himself would point out), I found this piece of an extended Douglass family puzzle via Frederick Douglass, Jr.'s wife, Virginia L. Molyneaux Hewlett.

I have a bit of a file on Virginia Hewlett Douglass, but not much of her ended up in the book because her circle of action did not overlap enough with the ones that drove the narrative in my story. She may end up figuring into Ezra Greenspan's study of the wider Douglass family -- at least I hope she does.

In this file, however, I don't have a picture of her and, in fact, don't think I had seen a picture of her, although I found one of her father and her brother as well as those of her husband. Then, this weekend, a friend shared a story on about a photo album donated to the Boston Atheneum that had once belonged to Harriet Bell Hayden, wife of Lewis Hayden.

The Haydens, by the way, were some of the most interesting people of the nineteenth century. They should be up there with Harriet Tubman and Douglass himself. Their house on Beacon Hill has a landmark on it today, and is part of the National Parks walking tour. Here it is from a visit that I took with a Gilder Lehrman Teacher's Seminar, run by David Blight in 2017 (Yes, THAT David Blight -- he has been really cool, inviting me to speak to this seminar two years in a row and to go on this field trip. Alas, last summer the weather did not cooperate and I had a broken toe.):

"Home of Lewis Hayden, 1811-1889
Fugitive Slave -- Leading Abolitionist
Prince Hall Mason -- Rescuer of Shadrach
Member of the General Court
Messenger to the Secretary of State
A Meeting Place of Abolitionists
and a Station on 
the Underground Railroad
The Heritage Guild, Inc."

Lewis Hayden House, Beacon Hill, Boston, 2017
Harriet Bell Hayden's album is supposed to contain many photos of the Boston black community, and Virginia Hewlett's is just one of many. The label on the image says "Mrs. Frederick Douglass," but the handwriting matches that on other pages, which suggest that it is not an autograph and was likely added later. The style of clothing suggests that this was Miss Hewlett rather than Mrs. Douglass, Jr., or, if Mrs. Douglass, Jr., very newly so. 

Here she is:

Virginia L. Molyneaux Hewlett Douglass

Note the detailing on her dress, the quality of the cloth, the boning in the bodice and gathering at the waist. So pretty! Then, her direct gaze at the camera. 

Frederick Douglass, Jr., remembered seeing her first in 1864 when she, at the age of fifteen, read a poem of her own composition to the Massachusetts 5th Cavalry of which his brother, Charles Douglass, was a part.  Frederick, Jr., seven years her senior, was himself a recruiter at the time. Years later, he transcribed her poem in a scrapbook now in the Walter O. Evans Collection (from which most of this information comes):

To the fifth Mass. Cavalry. Presented to the non commissioned officers at a Ball given by them March 29th 1864 at Dedham Mass. Miss Virginie L. Molyneaux Hewlett. 

Soldiers we have met together, 
But soon we’ll part perhaps forever. 
Though there may be sorrow in our hearts, 
Though tears may fall from our eyes, 
Still we feel, our loyal brothers 
You are struggling for your right, 
And you soon will win and keep it 
By your bravery and might. 
Brothers do ye feel afraid? 
Would ye now give up the glory?
 On, on, ye forever on, for God and victory 
He has heard his people’s cry, 
Has promised succor from on high. 
There have many gone before you, 
Many more are here to follow, 
Forward, then, and let this be your cry, 
‘Living we will be victorious, Or dying our deaths shall be glorious.'

[I confess that it continues from there, but I only transcribed enough to get the jist.]

Here he is about the time that he might have met Virginia.:

Frederick Douglass, Jr.
Handsome, no? I think this may have been taken at the same place where his brothers had their pictures taken in their uniforms; but that is a post for another time. For some reason, I love that all of the children have their mother's eyes, but you can see him setting his brow and expression like his father. 

Anyway, to get on with the story.

Frederick, Jr.,  must have kept in touch because he escorted Virginia to a dance in 1868 upon her graduation from Cambridge high school. If only letters survived! The two married on 4 August 1869 at the home of he father in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One newspaper mistakenly reported that she was white. 

By that time, with the war over, Frederick, Jr., had moved on from recruiting. After receiving a note threatening his life in D.C., he and his brother Lewis had journeyed out to Colorado and worked in silver mining, helped open a black school in Denver, and then Frederick, Jr., worked as Superintendent of Construction for the Union Pacific Railroad.  Anyone who has seen the t.v. series Hell on Wheels, set at that very same time, in that very same place, about the construction of that very same railroad, might think Frederick, Jr., would have been an interesting addition to the show. Alas, that wouldn't be the first filmic omission of the Douglass sons from historic events. But, I digress. When Frederick, Jr., brought Virginia from Cambridge to his home in Hillsdale, D.C., he had been running a grocery store but also begun printing the New National Era and serving as a representative to several different black organizations. He went on to hold a whole host of other positions, but that's a topic for another time.

Virginia taught and then became principal of schools in D.C., commended for her work. He also credited her with the authorship of the Frederick Douglass chapter in William J. Simmons's Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising, an encyclopedia of great black men in American history, published in 1887. That would put her among the earliest of Douglass biographers, but more importantly (at least to me), she placed Anna Douglass at his side as a partner, making her the earliest of Anna's biographers and an early player in the public effort to ensure that Anna was not forgotten after Frederick had remarried.

Much of Virginia's professional work in education seems to have taken place before 1874, from her husband's reminiscences in the Evans Collection (that requires more research required than for this blog post -- which seems to have grown with my cup of coffee since I only intended to say "hey, look at this picture!"). He also suggests that she was, like many African American women, involved in charitable or mutual associations. During all of her work, seven children arrived. 

The first two, Frederick Aaron and Virginia Anna, came in June 1870 and September 1871. Then a pause for three years until Lewis Emanuel arrived in December 1874. Then another pause until 1877 when Maud Ardelle arrived, followed the next year by Charles Paul. Another break until  Gertrude Pearl's birth in 1883 and then Robert Smalls' birth in 1886.  This Douglass family seems to have been attempting some type of birth control, erratic and semi-successful as it may seem. Still, they had a larger family than any of the other Douglasses, and it could have been larger. Consider Rosetta's pattern of having a child every two years between 1864 and 1877, or Charles and Mary Elizabeth's between 1867 and 1874, with a later child arriving in 1877.  Perhaps Virginia had miscarriages during the breaks.  

Or perhaps the illnesses and deaths that surrounded their household affected their family, too. Virginia Anna died before her first birthday in 1872. Lewis Emanuel followed in 1875, then Maud in 1877, at three months. Their eldest, Frederick Aaron, died in 1886. Gertrude Pearl went in the same wave of illness that took her two cousins with her within a week in November 1887. Her mother died at their home in 1878 and her brother, Emanuel, in 1888. He suffered from the typhoid that seemed to plague Hillsdale and which may have infected Virginia, as well (and raises questions about environmental racism in the area). The children were all buried in either Graceland or Harmonial (possibly the Columbian Harmony or the National Harmony -- that would require more research than this blog post) cemeteries in D.C.

Along the way, Virginia contracted that most Victorian of diseases, tuberculosis. In the early hours of 14 December 1889, she suffered a severe hemorrhage and died at home, only forty years old. Her husband noted in his scrapbook that "she was married 4 months and 10 days longer than she remained single." In what must have been words that he spoke at her funeral, he wrote "She was loving and loveable; she did her duty well. No man ever had a better wife and few have ever been honored by having one as good." He seemed never to have recovered from her loss, and their surviving children went to live with Rosetta. Then he followed his wife to his own death in July 1892. The couple were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

But, I think I wandered far away from my point -- or wandered into it. Whatever. In any case, what we have here is a woman, Harriet Bell Hayden, who saved a picture of another woman, Virginia Douglass, who wrote a biographical piece (for which she did not receive credit) in which she memorialized the role of another woman, Anna Douglass; and that first woman, Hayden, also saved visual documentation of a whole community and the people whom they considered important. Women -- black women -- do the work of history here.

  1. Donna Lorch, "These Photo Albums Offer a Rare Glimpse of Boston's 19th Century Black Community,", 29 May 2019. [Accessed 11 June 2019.]
  2. Scrapbooks in the Walter O. Evans Collection, Savannah, Georgia. (See also.)
  3. Correspondence, Addition I, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress..
  4. General Correspondence, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Thursday, 27 January [1887], part 2: "Startled by a Wounderous Spectacle"

The Douglasses, apparently, had been warned that "there was little to see in Naples," but then, does anyone go to Naples to see Naples initially? (Don't answer that.) Instead, they encountered one of the main draws their train approached the city when, Frederick wrote in his diary, "We were startled by a wonderous spectacle, one which almost paid us for our voyage across the Sea."

Even today, Mount Vesuvius remains, in Douglass's words, "a scene of startling sublimity," dominating every view of the bay.

To post a picture will not do the experience justice, a fact that I have learned even as I watch people walk into a scene such as the Sistine Chapel, or a stunning view of the Colosseum or Niagara Falls or the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles or whatever else. The picture will never capture that three and four dimensional sense of awe of being there. The act of snapping the photo is simply a futile attempt to do so. Yet, here I am, posting a photo to illustrate. I confess that none of these are of the train's approach because, much like Douglass, I found the mountain (which I have wanted to see since I was of an age to be counted in single digits) to have overwhelmed me, beyond the desire to photograph.

When the Douglasses saw Vesuvius in January of 1887, they witnesses a mountain only relatively recently erupted. It had blown its top only fifteen years earlier in 1872. It would again, seventeen years on, in 1905. They witnessed the volcano midway between eruptions. This accounts for his descriptions, in his speech later that year,. of  "a vast volume of vapear and smoke converted by brilliant sunbeams into snowy whiteness and grandly floating off over the blue Mediteranian [sic]" in his diary and, in his speech and autobiography, the added details that "the lurid light of red hot lava, have been rising thus from the open mount of [Mt. Vesuvius] this mountain, and its fires are still burning and its spoke and vapor are still ascending and no man can tell when they will cease, or when they will burst forth in [fires] burning floods [of lava]…."

Given his own interest in photography, he may have been interested to know that the 1872 eruption was photographed.

The last big blast took place in 1944, just after World War II. (My intrepid companion commented, "let that be a lesson to those who would follow fascists.") I myself also had to agree with Douglass, "It is a grand [sight to see] spectacle [of], this smoke and harmless vapor silently and peacefully rolling up the sky and moving off to sea, but [one must] we shudder at the thought of what may befall the populous towns and villages that still hover so daringly about [the base of the firey mountain] its base." It is still a sleeping dragon, and the population around it much larger than in his day. Even a small explosion could wreak such devastation.

Sources (in addition to links):

  1. Frederick Douglass, 27 January [1887], Travel Diary, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.
  2. Frederick Douglass, "My Foreign Travels, part 2" 15 Dec 1887, in Speeches, ed. Blassingame, et al, (New Haven: Yale University Press, XXX), 5: 306-38.
  3. Frederick Douglass, "Chapter 9: Continuation of European Tour," Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, ed. McKivigan, et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, XXX), 412-35.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Thursday, 27 January [1887]: "We Started for Naples"

Back to Douglass on his Grand Tour, which I left off two years ago after my vacation to Italy. Let's jump ahead to Naples, mostly because I just returned from a visit there last week.

 After an autumn and early winter in Paris, through France, and in Rome, Frederick and Helen journeyed further southward. In his travel diary, Frederick characterized the trip by train as "a pleasant ride of six hours," which came in under Baedeker's estimation of "7-10 hours." Today, the journey last just over an hour; and, unlike the Douglasses', which he described as "delightful" in a speech later that year and "beginning with rain and ending with sunshine" in his travel diary, ours traversed through varying shades of gray. (We seemed to have brought the Syracuse weather of May with us.)

Today, the tracks run through cuts and tunnels, both underground and of trees, to baffle the sound. You no longer see the "splendid view of miles of Roman arches over which water was formerly brought to the city" that Douglass recalled of the trip in Life and Times. The Baedeker that he probably used points out that passengers should look to the right where "rise the arches of the Acqua Felice and the Acqua Marcia, and beyond them are the tombs of the Via Appia." Walls of graffiti, post-World War II and later twentieth century high rises now stand in the way of much of this sight.

Then, again, given Rome's ages-old history of graffiti and the working nature of railroads, the view may not have differed that much beyond the details. Douglass could have just thrown in the contemplation as a prefix to saying, "Few works better illustrate the spirit and power of the Roman people than do these miles of masonry." On this trip, he had begun to make an argument that Roman civilization was a product of the amalgamation of people, and of course some of those people came from Africa. So, when he followed that observation by noting, "Humanly speaking, there was nothing requiring thought, skill, energy, and determination which these people could not and did not do," he offered more than the history lessons that today's tour guides do when they say "nothing is new" as they point out some ancient Roman ingenuity that we still use today.

If you are interested, Robert Levine has a fantastic article on this topic, "Road to Africa: Frederick Douglass's Rome," in African American Review, 34, 2, Summer 2000: 217-231. Sadly, it is only available through subscription. Levine is a literary scholar who also understands and respects the craft of history. He just did not include the piece that Frederick travelled with Helen, his white wife.

(Again, if my students or Erik Chaput's, whom I am visiting in a few weeks, are reading this, here is what I hope you to do in your research projects: find that piece that you see missing in the books and articles that you read about your topic. Then, make your paper about that piece. You will have so much more fun and find your own voice so much more quickly.)

Although Douglass wrote about the marvels of Roman engineering in the latest iteration of his travels, during the journey he instead pondered "the snow clad Apennines, delighting our eyes as we rode along with their changing forms, and lofty heights."  We saw no snow because, after all, Douglass travelled in January and we in June. Still, when offered a view, passengers today can still see something like his view of "well-tilled fields, spotted here and there with heads of sheep." (The train moved too fast to capture a good picture of the sheep, but I assure you that they were there. City folk like us always get excited to see cows and sheep and such.)

He also wrote that he saw "occasional groups of women, in picturesque head gear, hard at work with spud and hoe, among the vines and garden." We did not see anyone working in the fields when we passed, but they are most likely automated these days. When we were at an exhibit at the Royal Palace, I came across a painting from the 1850s, thirty years before Douglass's visit, describing just such a scene.

Detail:  Attilio Pratella, Biancheria al sole

Attilio Pratella, Biancheria al sole
I also noticed similar headscarves on images of women in surrounding paintings.:

Detail: "I forgot to get the artist and title"

Detail: Antonio Ferrigno, 
Ambiente di pescatori o una famiglia di pescatori

Detail: Antonio Ferrigno, 
Ambiente di pescatori o una famiglia di pescatori

This passage also echoes an earlier one in his diary from only a week earlier on the train between Pisa and Rome. More importantly, however, in his speech of later that year and again in his autobiography, he makes the connection between the folkways of the people in the southern French and Italian countryside and what social scientists today call cultural diffusion. Almost word-for-word in both, he observes that the closer to the Mediterranean he travelled, he could "observe an increase of black hair, black eyes, full lips and dark complexions. He will observe a Southern and Eastern style of dress." The painting at the top of my set here shows a dark skinned woman and the head wraps similar to those of African and African descended women who covered their hair during the work week.

He continued to find more "evidences of a common identity with the African," such as women carrying bundles on their heads (actually a much easier way to carry a rather heavy and large load. Try it with your laundry or a box of books, if you haven't), working fields in common while living in villages rather than on individual farms. How can this work be degrading, how can it be a sign of inferiority, he seems to be asking, if Europeans there in the cradle of western civilization engage in the very same behaviors?

Moreover, the cradle of western civilization bordered on the continent of Africa, so how could that continent and its people be excluded from the concept? But, then, that became a driving question for him as he thought about this journey and what it all meant.

  1. Frederick Douglass, 27 January [1887], Travel Diary, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.
  2. Frederick Douglass, "My Foreign Travels, part 2" 15 Dec 1887, in Speeches, ed. Blassingame, et al, (New Haven: Yale University Press, XXX), 5: 306-38.
  3. Frederick Douglass, "Chapter 9: Continuation of European Tour," Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, ed. McKivigan, et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, XXX), 412-35.