Monday, May 01, 2006

History and House Museums, Science and the Sense of Eating/Reading

American Chronicles, What Happened at Alder Creek, Excavating the Donner Party. By Dana Goodyear. Speaking of things Ma and Pa Ingalls would not do.

There are two things I'd like to say about this article; it raises some interesting points and then it buries those points in the ground. Suggestive working hypothesis:

"In a phenomenally unreliable historical record, cloudy with misinterpretations, contradictions, self-deceit, and macabre exaggeration, Dixon and Schablitsky saw an opportunity. As historical archeologists, Schablitsky says, their job is to "confirm, contribute to, or contradict the written record," and always keep in mind by whom and form what purpose history is written. (She also says that historical archeologists are the 'red-haired stepchildren of archeology,' looked down upon by archeologists of the prehistoric period, [to say nothing of by the book historians] who don't realize how much their discipline can add to already documented sites.) [...] Using a modern hybrid of anthropology and forensic science, and drawing on the expertise of a large research team, the archeologists hope to reframe one of the most enduring and confusing myths of the American West, turning it from a horror story about goulish appetites or a melodrama of pioneer travail and triumph, into a case study of starvation, adaptation, and survival. The goal, Dixon says, is to "affect the way history is told - to affect the way collective memory exists as we know it." (142)

This paragraph seems to pit a literary historical record - one left in newspapers and biographies and previous histories - against a presumably more physical historical record. Sure newspapers and bodies and shards of glass and midden are all, nowadays, texts subject to interpretation, but in the bold plan to "affect the way collective memory exists" there seems to be a suggestion of some specific difference in the kinds of texts history has available and the possibly different ways in which these various texts contribute to historical narrative. That's promising, exciting. Non-literary history.

Here's the cast of characters Goodyear cites:

Donald Grayson, another archeologist who has studied the site and claims it was " 'a case study of mediated natural selection in action.'" (143) Hmmmm . . .

Kristin Johnson, "a librarian in Salt Lake City, who is a self-taught historian and the research team's expert on the Donner Party." (146) OK, a self-taught historian and librarian probably has a lot of great information, but shouldn't she be consulted alongside a more disciplined historian?

Kelly Dixon, "a thirty-five-year-old professor at the University of Montana in Missoula" and Julie Schablitsky, an archeologist (what, freelance?) whose qualifications are that she is "excitable, dark-eyed, quick." (140)

And Guy Tasa, "an expert in skeletal remains" at the University of Oregon, Eugene, who "had in his office a recent copy of the tabloid Star, in which he had been quoted analyzing the facial structure of a Brad Pitt look-alike." (147) No explanation of why . . .

Either these are people who are, you know, thinking outside the box, or Goodyear is at some pains to present them that way.

Add to this an emphasis on the Donner family (specifically, as opposed to the whole party), their descendents and their "big, jolly reunions" in Alder Creek meadow. (143)

And this, from Schablitsky, "'We have pieces of slate and teacups - did Tamsen Donner sit here, huddled around the fire hearth with her children, practicing spelling and math?' she said. 'Is this where they had their tea?'" (143)

And from Dixon, "'We wish we could read what someone was writing at the Donner Family Camp,' she said. We always said, 'If only we could find Tamsen's journal.' [Then what? We would know the truth?] Then we realized-there's a slate there! Oh, my gosh, people wrote on it! Tamsen was a teacher. Was she actually attempting to normalize and have her children do lessons? We don't know.'" (144)

And Schlabitsky chimes in, "'That's the thing, is there a message from the past scrawled on the slate?'" (144)

And the whole project begins to sound like some less legitmate family history-reenactment-house museum type of project. Which seems to me the kind of dark side to thinking about history outside of its more traditional discplinary boundaries and the methodologies . . . And Dixon and Schablitsky just want literary textual evidence after all, anyway. From a slate.

Actually, this reminds me of the time I brougth the condolence cards to the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society and the woman had been all, like, well, if you had brought us a diary or something, now that would be interesting. Is it just me, or is that not really how history is known and studied? Even when I worked at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (which was, after all, a historical society, with all the provenance and family and genealogy baggage that goes with that) no one, academic or amateur, was waiting around for diaries or tell-all slates to fall into their laps.

What's so great though, is that despite the findings of the archeologists, revealed, tada! at the end of the article and all the attention to bones and pots and clothes and tents and so on, what really affects this reader, anyway, is the collection of literary accounts of the Donner Party, mostly on pages 145-146. Nauseating for real. The reading experience is so physically difficult, I had to stop like someone watching a horror film and look away. Awesome. Just ask anyone, including newyorkette, who had this reaction.

On an unrelated note, she also writes very cute Tables for One, check in her sidebar. Except that it's not unrelated; it is all part of a developing collection of eating/reading thoughts. Yet another sensory experience to catalog . . .

And on the question of material culture and historical narrative, I just saw a production of "I am My Own Wife" and would, if I had to, consider that - a contemporary play, with period furniture, a house museum and a few transvestite bodies - alongside Benjamin's Arcades Project. Same furniture, same historical events and periods, very different uses of and meanings assigned to the germanic decorative arts of the dreamy 19th century.

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Blogger the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said...

You know,

I was wondering the whole time what Ma and Pa Ingalls would have done if they had been in the Donner Party. At first I thought they would either have known not to join, or would have figured out some brilliant way to survive (They are sooooo cool and smart fighting that prairie fire). But I recall that they did lead the kids into mortal peril more than once, always cutting off any discussion with the sentence "All's well that ends well."

1:28 AM  
Blogger zoe p. said...

I imagine that there must have been many, many now anonymous, parties who just quietly froze or starved to death without eating each other, or even being accused of it.

And I really love all the violence and tragedy that never quite happens when all's well that ends well with the Ingalls.

When Cap and Almanzo found that wheat in The Long Winter and Pa came up with that plan to distribute it, "That's kind of like communism," my mom explained . . .

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just jumping in anywhere, here -- found your blog via a Google search for something else.

What's your take on Patricia Marx? She had a feature a while back about shopping at New York's discount stores: Filene's Basement, Loehmann's, and so on. She presented it as this exotic walk on the wild side, which left me feeling slightly sour-grapesy, since she, well, wrote a whole New Yorker feature by essentially just describing, in amusing detail, what is my whole regular clothes-shopping beat, in recession and in not-recession. (No wait. Now that the recession's on, I can't really remember the last time I went clothes shopping.)

Anyway, thanks for a good read. I'll be back.

12:05 PM  

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