Friday, January 28, 2011

The Vagaries of Character Development

One of the delightful things about reenacting is the opportunity to invent one's own character.  Lately I've been researching the War's effect on Winchester, VA (where my character, Margaret-Ellen Hamilton Copeland, grew up), hand-spinning techniques, letter-writing, and agricultural practices of the 1860s Shenandoah Valley - and trying not to get overwhelmed with all the stuff it's possible to know but that I don't have time to learn!

Not everyone creates a first-person impression (it seems less common in Civil War reenacting than in earlier periods of living history practice), but I find that it gives me incentive to delve into the place and times of the actual people who experienced the War, as well as gain a deeper understanding of their motivations and thinking.  In addition to the personal benefits, I think having a convincing first-person impression offers the public a truly immersive historical experience (I don't do reenactments purely for the fun I have - one of my main goals is to make myself available for the education and edification of the public).  My memories of going to reenactments as a child are filled with the living historians who actually took the time to take your hand and pull you into their times with them - they wouldn't break, no matter how much you tried to get them to talk about TV and the Lakers, and they weren't afraid to portray the underside of their historical eras either.

This is the issue I've been mulling over lately.  I reenact with a Confederate unit, for various reasons which I hope to ponder in a future post, but, perhaps unfortunately, this means that my interaction with the public will always work it's way back to the question "what do you think about slavery?"

Sigh.  I don't want to avoid the question, or give a pat, P.C. answer that will satisfy the school-children and their teachers.  I also don't want to give an answer that gives a false, 21st century sheen to an issue that was a very ugly and unavoidable issue of living in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1860s.  If there's one thing I despise, it's when moderns appoint themselves "Official Envoy of 21st Century Ideals to the Dark and Ignorant Past."  But I also don't agree with the kind of wooly-eyed, paleo-conservative idealism that sometimes prevails in Confederate reenacting circles - wherein slavery was just a grand misunderstanding and slaves were basically fat-and-happy farmers who didn't get paid.  I wan't to be able to portray a character convincingly - and the reality is that my character, with 2 brothers in the Confederate army and 2 slaves at home, probably wasn't a closet abolitionist.

I recently ran across this very thoughtful and satisfying article on the ISI website, which discusses the aristocratic culture of the South as observed by deToqueville in the 1830s.  Believe me, it's very easy for a Berry-ite agrarian like me to get starry eyed over "defending the Southern way of life."  But this meant far more than beating Yankees away from one's hard-plowed, hand-sown cornfields, this also meant keeping an entire people-group enslaved in order to keep the agricultural wheels turning.  I don't think this gives us free-reign to lord it over our "ignorant forebears," especially since much of our modern way of life also depends on other people or animals (farther away this time - at least Southerners had to confront slavery every time they walked out their front door) being exploited in order to provide our modern comforts (chocolate-harvesting slaves in Africa, oppresive coffee monopolies in South America, plus a carelessly anti-life culture and disgustingly cruel animal farming in the U.S. spring to mind), but it is an aspect of southern life which is hard to explain in a "sound bite."

As a farmer's daughter in Northwestern Loudon County, I imagine that Miss Copeland, with her Quaker relatives and agricultural surroundings mostly-free of the large-scale slave-holding operations which flourished just a little farther south, thought slavery was an unfortunate, but necessary, piece of the southern landscape.  Like most around her (from both North and South - even abolitionists often wrote in terms which to us would seem unabashedly racist), she probably accepted the idea that the black culture was suited for and desired little better than slavery.  She was probably something of a Unionist before Lincoln won the election, and her father was probably part of one of the abolitionist societies which dotted the South before the Nat Turner rebellion and which thought the best solution to the "negro problem" was resettlement in Africa.  Perhaps I'm lucky I picked a character from a part of the South where it would be possible to be both anti-slavery and pro-Confederate - if I were interpreting a woman from Mississippi or Georgia it might be even harder to address this issue.  Margaret was a virtuous, hard-working young lady who worked just as hard as and respected the slaves in her household, though she did not question the idea that she was right-and-properly their mistress and they were right-and-properly her property.  I can recognize the slow-acting poison which this attitude was to the South, while also remembering and honoring the Margaret Copelands of the time as regular humans who faced the challenges in their lives and times the best way they knew how, without the benefit our our 20/20 historical viewpoint.

Now if only I can get the public to sit around long enough to listen to that explanation . . . ;-)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Close by the window, Young Maggie is spinning . . ."

Blame my Aunt.  She listened for two seconds about my Laundress Impression last Thanksgiving and decided she needed to impart some inter-generational wisdom:  take up the spindle ( have thy mothers before thee...).  It would give me another period skill to share at reenactments, she said, plus it was hipper than washing long-johns.  And it's a more portable than a washtub.

Since then I've come to appreciate the hypnotic, meditative "groove" one can find while spinning.  Once you get going, the thread seems to almost make itself - you get into the rythmn of swiftly-drafting wool, winding on to the spindle, humming little old tunes to go along with your 10,000 year old hobby.  It's a great conversation starter, and demands less concentration than hand-sewing or knitting.  I admit, I'm a total geek reject for bringing it to parties, but somehow I find it's easier to talk to people when I'm doing something with my hands.  Don't ask me why.

If any of you are interested in giving it a try, leave a comment and I'll point out some resources you might use to get started!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fightin' fer my rat . . .

Oh, the dangers of trying historical experiments without communicating with one's house-mates/family.

I got the idea from these lovely ladies to gather some of my own hair from my brush everyday in order to make a "rat" - a net-wrapped clump of your own hair which can be used "Bump-it" style to create the symmetrical-and-wide-on-the-sides hairstyle which was so popular in the 1860s (now if only it looked good with my facial structure - sigh.  I can see the suffragette slogan now: "Style Rights for the Round-Faced!").  Of course, unless your hair falls out in reliable clumps every time you brush, it can take a while to gather the right amount of hair needed to make 2 rats.  But I was willing to give it a quasi-patient try.  I got a plastic bag and began to diligently deposit strands of stray hair from my brush each day.  I also forgot to label it.

So, one day, Mama-Bear comes along and, reaching into the bathroom drawer (did I mention she likes to do things without turning the lights on?), pulls out a plastic bag in which to store her toothbrush for a weekend trip . . .

My baby "rat" was thrown away in horror and disgust in a hotel somewhere in Orange County.  Why is it people are so freaked out by hair simply because it is no longer attached to someone's scalp?  It's made of the same stuff and keeps the same properties off your head as on it . . . but everybody shivers when they find hair anywhere but growing from their own bodies.

So, yes, starting over on the whole "rat" project.  And mom knows it's there now, so, hopefully there will be no more defiling of toothbrushes.

Until, I, oh, I don't know, try making toothpaste out of chalk and Strontium . . . ;-)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Living Histor(ies)

I've been thinking of ways to better focus this blog.  It's harder to think of things to write when you've got your whole life waiting to be picked-through and written over.  But one aspect of life is easy enough to make a little public art of.

So, I'm selecting to emphasise the little hobby which has slowly-but-surely been taking hold of my life lately.  It combines two loves of mine - histoy & theater - without the tedium of the first nor the "drama" of the second (well, depending on your unit, I suppose).  It allows my storytelling side to craft a persona, my crafty side to learn new skills, and my geeky side to delve into reams of quasi-useless historical facts.  Did you know, per exemplum, that Loudon County, VA, grew almost no cotton or tobacco in 1860? 

Since plunging in to this strange world of canvas, gunpowder, and multiple-layers-of-clothing-on-hot-summer-days, I've learned the basics of sewing, spinning, Spencerian handwriting, soap-making, period-laundering, and giving impromptu historical lectures to curious high-schoolers, notebooks-in-hand.  I've danced, sung, and pitched my tent on ant-hills.  But there's definitely alot about the hobby I'm still learning and experimenting with, and I plan to use this blog to map the journey a little.

My first batch of hand-spun yarn.
Welcome aboard - the Laundress is In!

Ink can be a pain in the bustle.