In the fall I shared a primary source packet I created for the community reading group I host at the Omohundro Institute throughout the year. Finding new ways to explore early American history with non-specialists, especially historical scholarship that has made or is making a contribution to the field, is intensively researched and offers fresh perspectives, is rewarding. You can see some of the books we’ve read listed on the OI’s website. The selections are heavy on Virginia, for now. And they reflect the interests of the group, which asked to read Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Omohundro Institute and UNC Press, 1996).
Among the books we read for the fall was Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught: The Washingtons Relentless Pursuit of the Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (Atria, 2017). I had wanted to intensify the experience of the group, to emphasize the significance of the relationship of historical evidence to argument, and to explore the ways that particular types of archival abundance and scarcity shapes our historical narratives. And, for me, the historical process is the same process of discernment every citizen of a democracy society must regularly exercise. So for last election day, I created a packet of some of the most important archival materials that Dunbar analyzes and explores in her National Book Award finalist book, including newspaper advertisements, and George Washingtons correspondence in the key period just before and following Ona Judge’s escape. I think it was very helpful for the discussion, and I’m looking forward to seeing the group again this week to know if having those materials, in addition to the text, spurred further, later conversations. Honestly I’m sure it would have been even better if I had been able to make the packet available significantly ahead of our meeting, but I’m still working on timely delivery! You can find my post and packet here.
This week we’re discussing another book I have read in many formats and multiple times, and have gifted to friends and family, Jane Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley (W.W. Norton, 2016). One of the most powerful themes of the book is the often cruel vagaries of the eighteenth century, the ways that circumstance rather than innate qualities shaped lives then as it does now. Copley is known to us as a quintessentially American artist, and yet was as skeptical of American identity as he was loathe to assume it. How could he? He was a British subject, through and through. Copley’s astonishing ability to see foreground and background, what Kamensky calls his period-specific, bifocal “bivious gaze,” is plain from cover to cover. He watched England from Boston, and then America from London. He also offers a view that is at once passion and cool assessment. The lavish colors he employed, from Mercy Otis Warren’s unforgettable blue dress, to the arresting reds (Kamensky calls them “bricky”) of redcoats and robes, and drapery, tempt us to see a world either in intense motion or calm repose. There is Paul Revere (1768), with that steady gaze, and there is the water pulling Watson and the Shark tautly together.
On Copley’s canvases and Kamensky’s rendering, the Revolution is less the object of this book than a messy, violent, complex background. One is tempted to compare the war to Kamensky’s professed favorite among Copley’s paintings, The Death of Major Peirson (1783), but one knows the limits of one’s art history background. Leaving that temptation aside, and indeed the temptation to luxuriate in the luxury that Copley was increasing called to portray, Copley’s life as the model of American ambition tells a story about what he was prepared to sacrifice (family), what he wasn’t prepared to sacrifice (often, pride), and the power of an imperial, British identity.
The source packet for this book is very different than for Never Caught, for multiple reasons. Some of Kamensky’s most powerful evidence is from Copley’s brush, so I included links to some of the most indicative paintings (of his, but also Thomas Gainsborough’s Ignatius Sancho of 1768). Some of Copley’s correspondence is easily captured (via Founders Online) and in what Kamensky reports is a quite good edition from the Massachusetts Historical Society of the early correspondence. Much of the later material is in problematic edited collections or still in manuscript. The correspondence I chose to include highlights, I think, that bivious allegiance of Copley’s, as he wrote to John Adams in the 1790s to offer prints of his work to the President and Vice-President.
I’m still working my way through the process of creating these packets. The next reading is yet to be determined, and will be a group decision. I’m looking forward to their choice, and to the challenge of finding ways to connect the material to the arguments and narrative in ways that further enrich the readings for us all. Meanwhile, I’ve posted the one for Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color below.