Groundskeeping: On America’s eclectic ways of mourning the dead

Stefany Anne Golberg in The Smart Set:

ScreenHunter_04 Oct. 01 18.55

Etiquette in America has always been slippery. And so it’s been with regard to mourning. The Pilgrims kept mourning on the DL. A fussy public burial was seen an affront to God’s will, as was mourning dress or other conspicuous displays of grief. Even praying for the dead was seen as a rebellion against predestination. There was no fanfare, no beating of the breast. A quiet, restrained Pilgrim death was most befitting a quiet, restrained Pilgrim life.

All that changed with the queen of artifice herself, Victoria. Of all the protocol of Victorian-era America, mourning etiquette was perhaps the most complicated, especially for women. Handbooks and catalogues rigorously detailed mourning manners, from how one should dress according to degrees of mourning (deep mourning, first mourning, second mourning, half mourning…), to how one’s house ought to be prepared (uncovered mirrors were a big no-no), to the infinite accoutrements like post-mortem photos and the ever-popular hairpiece jewelry made of the deceased’s, yes, hair. You always immediately knew when someone had a death in the family and how much the loss meant to them, not by any display of emotion, but rather by how well that emotion translated into etiquette. All this had the effect of bringing death out into the open, making it a matter of the utmost social importance. By the time the Civil War rolled around, rules of mourning served as a comfort and social cohesion that allowed people to somehow deal with the seemingly unending deluge of dead.

The most dramatic change in the ritual of American mourning was how the dead themselves were buried.

More here.

All we really wanted was a smoke


The revolutionaries of Fidel’s Twenty-sixth of July Movement rolled into history sporting beards and smoking cigars. Occupying the lobby of the Havana Hilton in January 1959, the barbudos, as they came to be known, puffed on Western culture’s most compact emblem of personal wealth[2] while planning to nationalize the marble beneath their feet. It would have been one thing if they’d smoked cheap Creole stogies, but Che’s Montecristos were top-shelf, and Fidel’s taste, even before he created Cuba’s premium brand, Cohiba, ran to pricey Partagas and Bauza. Was this anachronism, ironic appropriation, nationalism—or all of these at once? Tobacco is an essential part of Cuba’s identity. That the island’s soil and climate are ideally suited to the perfection of the tobacco leaf is national dogma. The plant’s origins on the island are prehistorical; we know that it arrived between the third and second millennia BCE from South America, where it was cultivated by the ancient Mayans. The Tainos, Cuba’s native people, showed Christopher Columbus how to roll and smoke what they called cohibas. The Spanish first spurned tobacco, then changed their minds. They monopolized the trade for almost a century, funneling all Cuban tobacco back to the Crown. By the mid-nineteenth century, when great Cuban brands like Partagas and Upmann were established, the habanero was known all over Europe, and Cuban cigars had become the iconic smoke. In reclaiming the cigar from the imperialists, the revolution reclaimed a part of Cuba’s national myth.

more from Ginger Strand and James Wallenstein at The Believer here.

an intellect defecated and pure


Dr Johnson once lamented that ‘no man leaves his eloquence behind him’. And yet, thanks to his friends, hundreds of the Great Cham’s forceful one-liners survive. We know what he said about cucumbers (good for nothing), Scotland (not worth invading), France (worse than Scotland, apart from the weather), happiness (most likely to be found in a pub), and patriotism (last refuge of a scoundrel). But early memoirists were just as keen to preserve the oddities of Johnson in private: his greed, benevolence, and terror of death; his laziness and hardened tea-drinking; his burnt wig, his three-legged chair – and his flatulence. This last ailment makes several irruptions into David Nokes’s readable and imaginative new biography. ‘My nights are flatulent, and unquiet’, writes Johnson in 1772; three years later, he is frankly complaining to the same correspondent that ‘I cannot get free of this vexatious flatulence’ – indeed, ‘I am almost convulsed’. Nokes adopts as the epigraph to his book Johnson’s advice in Rambler no 60 that ‘the business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness … and display the minute details of daily life’. As Johnson well knew, the minute details of daily life could shape an author’s character in print. What of the connection, for instance, between his tortured bowels and his sketch in Idler no 74 of ‘an intellect defecated and pure’?

more from Freya Johnston at Literary Review here.

Infinities within infinities within infinities


“Infinities within infinities within infinities”, as one character observes. Iain Banks’s new novel can be a confusing place to be. No reality here is more than an aspect of an endlessly complex system of completely separate though ultimately related existences between which the leading actors “transition” (a verb here) more or less at will. SF-sophisticated fans of Iain M. Banks may feel instantly at home in this mesmerizing “multiverse”, while long-term readers of Iain Banks will be prepared for what awaits them; but newcomers may struggle to find their way. Yet however many worlds we traverse in however many time schemes, we are always recognizably here on earth: Transition is not about space travel, as traditionally conceived. Instead, a fast-moving action flits back and forth between a Venetian palazzo; a Limehouse loft; a Paris cabaret; a casino; a derelict industrial unit outside Chernobyl. It might be any airport thriller, except for the less familiar locations, from the mundane (a British bus stop) to the fantastical (the Himalayan seat of a world emperor of the future). All these places are provisional, the articles indefinite: “I live in a Switzerland”, says Transitioner Temudjin Oh.

more from Michael Kerrigan at the TLS here.

The tragic twilight of Leon Trotsky

From Salon:


No matter what your political orientation, if you believe — or ever did believe — in the potential betterment of humanity, then you've got something to learn from the strange and tragic story of Leon Trotsky. It's a tale of pride and power and political failure, of genius turned to the service of dogged, dogmatic conviction, of a supremely intelligent man who destroyed others in the name of a cause that then destroyed him. It was a story that finally reached its end in 1940, in a legendary encounter with an assassin armed with a mountaineer's pickax, as Stanford professor Bertrand Patenaude illustrates in “Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary,” his gripping, cinematic new book about the last years of the Ukrainian Jew who was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein. (Whatever your feelings about Trotsky, the story of his murder by Ramón Mercader, the suave Stalinist agent who had wormed his way into the heavily guarded Trotsky compound outside Mexico City, may give you sleepless nights.)

More here.

Deeply held beliefs make it easy to accept the absurd

From Scientific American:


Once, while visiting Brooklyn, I got a call from a fellow Bronxite, back on the mainland. When I revealed my location, he said, “Brooklyn?! What time is it there?” Despite the interborough bafflement, Brooklyn has been a genuine part of the land of the free since day one, that is, July 4, 1776. So when Lena Horne was born there in 1917, she automatically became a U.S. citizen. About 25 years later Horne was asked to give two concerts at Camp Robinson in Alabama, one to white servicemen, the second to black GIs. But she refused to do the second one when she saw that black Americans were sent to the back of the theater. Who got the good seats up front? German prisoners of war. Journalist Nat Brandt’s book Harlem at War: The Black Experience during World War II quotes Horne as summing up the situation thusly: “Screw this.”

Today, of course, the commander in chief of the U.S. military is black, and President Barack Obama gets the best seats in the house. A black president, however, causes great cognitive dissonance in some. But members of the “birther” movement have found a clever solution: Obama isn’t really president! Because he wasn’t really born in the USA!

More here.