Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!

Walt Whitman, age 35, from Leaves of Grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., engraving by Samuel Hollyer from daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison, public domain via Wikimedia Commons‘Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding, No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest.’ Thus Walt Whitman introduces himself to us for the first time in his first self-published 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Not on the cover or on the title page, mind you, but deep within the body of the untitled poem later called Song of Myself. If this is a dialing-back attempt to inject a little respectable humility or yet another self-aggrandizing affectation on the part of this unapologetic egoist, it’s hard to say definitely, though I strongly suspect it’s the latter. It certainly is so-very-American.

He was confident, earthy, crude, and vibrant, a self-styled natural man whose personas were nonetheless carefully crafted. He did his own thing and ‘lived the free life of a rover’ (an Eric Bogle phrase from his great anti-war ballad And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda), working odd jobs as a printer, journalist, teacher, and clerk, among other things. Moved by horror and compassion at the magnitude of death and suffering he observed, he worked some years as a nurse to the Civil War wounded, and spent much of his somewhat meager earnings on supplies for their comfort and care. He remained single but had many lovers, probably mostly homosexual, though he praises the physical beauty and power of women as lavishly in his poems as he does those of men. All the while, starting at just over age 30, he began to write his highly idiosyncratic, free verse poetry celebrating the authentic and the crafted self, the human body, democracy, equality, work, nature, and companionship. He spent the rest of his somewhat long life revising and republishing several editions of Leaves of Grass, up to several months before his death at age 72 in 1892.

To read more work by, about, and inspired by the great Walt Whitman, here are some links and articles:

Walt Whitman“. in Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Walt Whitman, 1819–1892‘. The Poetry Foundation (website)

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass (1855). Source: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

Whitman, Walt. Assorted poems at Poets.org

The Walt Whitman Archive, Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, Ed., published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

and just because I love it:

The Body Electric, song and music video by Hooray for the Riff Raff. The song title is inspired by one of Whitman’s most enduring and controversial poems, and is a critique of the tradition of the murder ballad

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Let Us Perish Resisting, by L.D. Burnett

Jefferson's Book Collection at the Library of Congress (cropped), photo 2016 by Amy CoolsA few years after I graduated from college, when I was short on cash, short on space, and short on hope that some significant portion of my days might ever again be spent in reading and writing and thinking about something beyond my immediate material circumstances and familial duties, I made a decision that I have wished many times to take back: I sold almost all of my textbooks. Not just the overpriced and (for me, anyhow) under-studied behemoth from Intro to Econ, nor my well-used but no longer useful grammar and exercise book from French I and II – those weren’t the only texts I culled from my little library.

I gathered up Robert Lowell and Alice Walker, Edmund Spenser and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretius and Virginia Woolf, Lorraine Hansberry and Aristotle, Montaigne and Nietzsche, Flaubert, Boethius and Baudelaire, and many others besides – most of them authors I had never so much as heard of before I set foot on the Stanford campus. Norton critical editions, and anthologies of fiction and poetry, Penguin Classics, and mass market paperbacks I had acquired for classes — when I had been compelled to choose between buying my books and, say, eating more than one meal a day for a few weeks, I chose the books. I don’t regret those purchases.

Still, I wish I hadn’t sold them. Because what I let go of when I let go of those books was not just a visible reminder of lean years and tough choices. I also let go of my own history as a reader, as a learner – all the notes and exclamations and questions I had scrawled in the margins, the asterisks, the dog-ears, the passages underlined two or three times because they rang true to my young heart or my old soul.

But I didn’t sell all my books. Among the texts I kept were Augustine and Shakespeare, Dickens and Faulkner, Spoon River, Thomas Wyatt, Jane Austen and George Eliot and Thackeray so deft and droll, Dante and Cervantes and a few other stragglers besides, including Miguel de Unamuno.

Before I was an English major, I was a Spanish major, and I had been introduced to Unamuno in the second half of the Spanish lit survey at the end of my freshman year. Alas, the two volume anthology we used in the survey, with its excerpt from Unamuno’s beautiful Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho, was among the books I sold. But the standalone volume of Del sentimentio trágico de la vida – that I kept.

Unamuno’s existential anguish and his quest to find or fashion some hope in the face of the miserable fact of our mortality struck a chord with me. I might not have understood everything he was arguing — or arguing against– on my first read through, but I understood that.

In the face of certain disaster, what do we do?

That question, that problem, has been much on my mind lately, particularly as it relates to the state of higher education, the fate and future of the university as an institution or even as an idea.

What do we do?

Does it even matter?

Thinking of those questions, I was reminded this morning of a passage in Unamuno where he quotes Sénancour – somewhat disapprovingly, as it turns out, a fact lost on me the first time I read the chapter. Here is the quote, and my best attempt at a translation of it:

L’homme est périssable. Il se peut; mais, périssons en resistant, et, si le neant nous est réservé, ne faisons pas que ce soit une justice.

Man is perishable. That may be. But let us perish resisting, and, if Nonexistence is what awaits us, let us not act in a way that would make our fate seem just.

Unamuno, as it turns out, rejected Sénancour’s willingness to allow that “le neant” was our collective end. He would not surrender to nihilism. Still, Unamuno’s ensuing development of his own argument for faith – faith not instead of doubt but rooted in doubt and flowing from doubt — was a means of doing precisely what Sénancour urged, without conceding the rationale for it. Instead, Unamuno inverted that rationale, saying in effect, Let us resist despair together, and so perish not.

I sold my old books in a time of great financial distress and profound personal despair (the two were connected, as they often are). The paltry sum I received for them just exacerbated my sense of sorrow and loss. But at the time I didn’t know what else to do. I did know, however, that no matter how much of my little library I felt that I had to give up, there remained a portion that under no circumstance would I willingly surrender.

Somehow I knew that if I had let those last few books go, I would have gone right with them.

Let us resist perishing. But if we must perish, let us perish resisting. That’s not an ethos they teach in Intro to Econ, not even at Stanford – perhaps especially not there, fons et origo of Silicon Valley. Economic arguments for the value of a humanistic education will not save the humanities, and we should stop making them. The value of what we study, of what we teach and what we learn, is that such learning can help keep the human spirit alive. That may be the surest ground upon which we can stand. If that ground at the very heart of the university is lost, whatever still remains will hardly be worth keeping, whether or not we ourselves are by some miracle still standing.

L.D. Burnett received her PhD in Humanities/History of Ideas from the University of Texas at Dallas in Fall 2015. She has a B.A. in English from Stanford University. Her book, Canon Wars: The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education, is under contract with University of North Carolina Press.

This entry was originally posted in .USIH Blog, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Bio credit .USIH Blog

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Aristotle’s Tomb Found?

27f5e-69729_aristotle_lgSo there’s been all this buzz the last couple of days about the possible discovery of Aristotle’s tomb. Here’s the New York Times on the story:

‘A Greek archaeologist who has been leading a 20-year excavation in northern Greece said on Thursday that he believed he had unearthed the tomb of Aristotle.

In an address at a conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, commemorating the 2,400th anniversary of Aristotle’s birth, the archaeologist, Konstantinos Sismanidis, said he had “no proof but strong indications, as certain as one can be,” to support his claim.

The tomb was in a structure unearthed in the ancient village of Stagira, where Aristotle was born, about 40 miles east of Thessaloniki. According to Mr. Sismanidis, the structure was a monument erected in Aristotle’s honor after his death in 322 B.C….’

I really hope it’s true!

In case you haven’t encountered Aristotle much, here’s a good introduction to his life and thought at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘Aristotle is a towering figure in ancient Greek philosophy, making contributions to logic, metaphysics, mathematics, physics, biology, botany, ethics, politics, agriculture, medicine, dance and theatre. He was a student of Plato who in turn studied under Socrates. He was more empirically-minded than Plato or Socrates and is famous for rejecting Plato’s theory of forms.

As a prolific writer and polymath, Aristotle radically transformed most, if not all, areas of knowledge he touched. It is no wonder that Aquinas referred to him simply as “The Philosopher.”…’

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Aristotle‘, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Kitsantonismay, Niki. ‘Greek Archaeologist Says He Has Found Aristotle’s Tomb‘. The New York Times (online), May 26, 2016

Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

People in a Public Square, cropped, Image Creative Commons CCO Public Domain via PixabayI’ve been listening to this excellent series from a favorite podcast of mine, the Philosopher’s Zone on Australia’s RN (Radio National), hosted by Joe Gelonesi. There’s this recent series called Political Philosophy in the World, hosted by guest host Scott Stephens, which considers and critiques seven important topics in political philosophy. I just listened to the last one, Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.

In it, interviewee Patrick Deneen offers a series of critiques of liberalism, his own and others’ over its roughly five century history. (We’re speaking here not of liberalism as commonly understood in the U.S., as political positions on the left of the spectrum, but of classical liberalism, a political philosophy which focuses on liberty and the primacy of the individual.) From the beginning, liberal philosophers and their critics have identified and described possible contradictions in the system itself, and ways in which it may end up being self-defeating in the real world. For example, John Locke, a founding father of liberalism, recognizes that it would require a strong state to protect the autonomy of the individual from competitors and from the ‘querulous and contentious’, and that individual autonomy in a marketplace, unfettered by other constraints, will lead to conditions that foster inequality, discontent, and revolution (at about 4:40 and 14:40, then 10:30). Alexis de Tocqueville observes that though individuals enjoy this autonomy at the beginning, they are left weakened and alone by the erosion of those institutions that create bonds of loyalty and affection in a society, such as family, tradition, and belief (at about 15:00). Deneen, in sum, describes these and various other ways in which liberalism can fail to achieve its end of liberating the individual to achieve their potential to the fullest possible extent.

The discussion in its entirety is absolutely fascinating, but my attention is caught particularly by Deneen’s observation of a problem with the great liberal political philosopher John Rawls’ famed ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment (starting at about 19:00). Rawls’ veil of ignorance is a beautifully elegant method of envisioning and crafting a just society. Imagine you’re looking at a society from the outside knowing you’ll be placed in it with no idea what you’ll be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed or not and at what kind of job; and so on. Given this hypothetical situation, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Behind that veil of ignorance, you’d be motivated to to design a society that’s just and fair, that benefits everyone to the greatest degree possible, since of course, you could be the one who suffers the ill effects of any injustice built into the system.

8694d-justice2bet2binc3a9galitc3a92b-2bles2bplateaux2bde2bla2bbalance2bby2bfrachet2c2bjan2b20102c2bpublic2bdomain2bvia2bwikimedia2bcommonsAs Deneen points out, Rawls, like other liberal political philosophers, recognizes that people in a liberal society may, over time, act not out of true freedom, but as slaves of their individual desires and passions. Since liberalism promotes the idea that society is and should be made of up autonomous individuals freely pursuing their own ends, the values of individuals in that society may become self-serving to the point of destructiveness. This destruction can be of social institutions that provide support and meaning, such as family, tradition, and belief, of liberalism’s own key institutions such as the free markets of goods and ideas, and as we now recognize, of the very environment from which all of this is derived. Rawls posits the veil of ignorance as a way to free ourselves from this trap, by transforming ourselves, in thought, into benevolent, self-effacing avatars of justice. But, Deneen points out, Rawls never really provides an explanation of why we we’d all want to go behind the veil of ignorance in the first place. After all, Rawls’ entire theory of justice-as-fairness as described in his magnum opus A Theory of Justice, which the view from behind the veil reveals to us, depends on the participation of everyone. If even one person remains aloof, that person’s interests and motivations aren’t considered or checked by those of others, which, in turn, is not fair.

From within the thought experiment, the motivation to go behind the veil makes sense: since liberalism is meant to promote the liberty and well-being of all individuals, it makes sense to envision and design a society where some individuals are not allowed to enjoy advantages that limit or even destroy the liberty and well-being of others. But this still doesn’t account for why we’d all want to go behind the veil in the first place. In a liberal society in the real world, only those suffering its ill effects will be motivated to do so, since those who have found relative success within its parameters will be ever more motivated to keep the pursuit of their own interests free from the demands and constraints of others until it serves them otherwise.

With the disconnection from other people which liberalism can tend to foster in mind, as described by de Toqueville and Rawls, I picture a whole society of people behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Then something in this picture strikes me: behind this veil, all the people are looking in the same direction, encircled around the society they must share. They are united, not separated by competing interests nor from the bonds of family, tradition, and belief. They are cooperating as equals, with a shared goal and a shared ethic: the liberty to achieve the fullest degree of perfection that an individual is capable of, with others’ interests as much in mind as their own so far as possible. These interests can and invariably do include family, tradition, and belief. Those with a narrow view of liberalism often speak only of individual interests as involving the individual pursuit for food and shelter, money, comfort, wealth, and prestige, and dismiss family, tradition, and belief as impediments to human liberty. But of course, this is not necessarily so, as we observe their lasting power and meaningfulness in the real world throughout history and to this day, even where liberalism as an institution is most robust. Material comfort and prestige are not and have never been the only and or even, for many, the primary motivators of thought and action in any society.

Behind the veil, then, is that deep need for human connection fulfilled in the context of an idealized liberalism, that the institution of liberalism in the real world can undermine if uncorrected by the state or by an ethic such as Rawls’ justice-as-fairness. Does Rawls have this picture of a united humanity in mind as he devises his thought experiment, though he doesn’t describe it per se? Perhaps Rawls does recognize this motivation for going behind the veil: our realization that while the pursuit of our own individual interests can be fulfilling, it can also undermine our potential of fulfilling our deepest humanity, not only tied to the destinies of others but with a deep emotional need for deep and lasting connections with one another. Behind the veil of ignorance, we are thus united, connected, bonded, sharing a vision, in a state of equal humanity, of a good and just world for all of us.

*Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

~ Also published at Darrow, a forum for culture and ideas

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Alexis de Tocqueville‘, in Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Gaus, Gerald, Courtland, Shane D. and Schmidtz, David, ‘Liberalism‘, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.’ from The Philosopher’s Zone Podcast, Sun May 15 2016, Radio National, Australia. Host: Joe Gelonesi

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Uzgalis, William, “John Locke“, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Breaking the Wall: Why Facing Depression is a Personal Choice, by James Spencer

Black doberman in the mist (cropped), photo credit patstatic, Creative Commons CC0 Public DomainDepression remains the last serious taboo in the West.

Some think it’s an illness, some think it’s less than it actually is and others deny its existence. Society is so keen to show that it is understanding of a medical condition, so keen to throw pills at it and to provide sufferers with legislative protection that it’s forgotten that depression is a very personal battle.

There remains a social undercurrent that refuses to see depression as more or less than a series of personal shortcomings or artistic affectations. Depression is a private question about how to handle the darkness when it pays you a visit. No amount of public discourse or sympathy will ever change that basic fact. It makes no difference what other people think, which is a simultaneously lonely and reassuring fact.

Happiness is contingent on being brave. It’s about conscientiously choosing to see the darkness as an illness and a series of landmines which can be contoured and identified. It’s about seeing patterns, and triggers and removing those things from your life that trigger episodes. It’s a brutal choice, a night of the long knives that has self-preservation at its heart.

Debates about whether or not depression is environmental or genetic hold no water for those who have and endure depression. The key to understanding the illness is to first recognise you have it. Treatment first begins with understanding what you have because like any illness, it can be triggered or the likelihood of getting it increases with certain decisions and behaviours.

Pills and antidepressants are not the first stop. Winston Churchill and Lord Byron are widely noted for their industrious creativity and are also the most oft-cited  men who dealt with what Churchill dubbed his ‘black dog’. Both offer insight into how someone with depression views the world.

Churchill’s melancholia is often remembered as a side effect of his greatness, but whether or not his greatness would have existed without his ‘black dog’ is another matter. Such is his legendary association with the illness that the book Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt, imagined it as a literal walking, talking black dog that whispered convincing lies and downers that only Churchill could see and hear. For the  poetic licence of the book, it was an apt analogy for how Churchill explained his condition:

“I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”

If there is any positive in this whatsoever, Churchill’s misery allowed him to accomplish wonders because he was driven by an impossible drive to never fall into his own thoughts for worse he fell onto the train tracks.

Byron likewise suffered from depression, but with all the charm of a dead poet. His life was much the model and source for his creation of the romantic hero, sullen and brooding. The Byronic hero made an appearance in much of Byron’s work, but he best articulated the traits in his description of Conrad, the pirate hero of his The Corsair (1814):

That man of loneliness and mystery,
Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh— (I, VIII)

He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt: (I, XI)

For all Churchill’s creatively, ego and verboseness he never embellished his illness with more than a moniker. Byron’s darkness was less so because his principal disposition was toward a spiritual melancholy that translated itself into a pantheon of literature. Churchill’s creative outlet was driving himself onward with activity and never, ever giving up.

What unites both men is that they made themselves more than the sum of the parts that encouraged their darkness. They utilised it as a goading reminder that prodigiousness was the only way to get over the part of themselves that whispered the worst and encouraged them to stop.

And this is the key: people with depression seldom know they have it. The voices in their head whispering negative things have the same normal voice of yourself but it’s been hijacked by a critical downer trying to guide the ship onto the rocks. The only way beyond this is to carry on, no matter the cost or the time involved because the darkness does eventually give way. Going on, and on, and on and never being cruel or cowardly is the only way to ensure that when you feel better destruction isn’t what remains.

Depression is like a violent blackout, you can wreck relationships or yourself during it but eventually you sober up to see what has been left behind. It’s a narrative of how you see your own story. When it becomes clouded then you have a problem because you lose an innate ability for self-assessment. It’s precisely why alcohol is both a depressive and an extremely dangerous consumption for someone who is in the throes of an episode.

Like Byron or Churchill, if there’s a heroic quality it comes from within. If a voice guided you in, you need to hold onto something to remind you to keep going through it. No one can help you except yourself. You have to hold on. Dizzying highs and devastating lows can make for a creative output of genius for some, but for most holding on means getting through a storm in such a way that when the lights do go back on, you see the world anew.

There’s a wonderful episode of Doctor Who where the eponymous hero is stuck in a maze of a castle that keeps resetting over, and over and over again. Each time he dies, he comes back; he runs the rat race again with no memory of the last time before being confronted with the truth that all the millions of skulls around him are versions of himself who lived and died.

All each version can do, before he dies and resets, is to hit an implacable wall a hundred metres thick of pure diamond. Every version makes a tiny dent before the cycle repeats.

Over and over and over again, for four billion years, each version makes a chink that eventually breaks the wall.

Depression is much the same. Whatever is being said, whatever is happening around you, stop for nothing, put the mind on autopilot and keep going because depression takes control of the head first, but it can never conquer the heart.

As someone once said ‘if you’re going through Hell, keep going’.

James Spencer attended the University of Edinburgh and graduated with a 2.1 in Politics. His interests include human rights, constitutional politics and cultural commentary. (Bio credit: Darrow)

~ This article was originally published on Darrow. Read the original article.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass Rochester NY Sites, Day 1

Douglass home at 4 Alexander St in later incarnation as a shop, image Rochester Public Library Local History

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

Ninth day, Monday Mar 28th

On a cold, gray, and blustery spring morning, I drive from Syracuse to Rochester NY, and head straight for a certain house very near Susan B. Anthony Square. As I suspect might be the case, the house is closed to the public today so I’ll return tomorrow; I head here first anyway to scope things out in person because it turns out,  I have more free time to explore Rochester this morning than I thought I would. Hooray! …Susan B. Anthony Square, at 39 King St, is a little park crisscrossed with meandering paths and dotted with benches and neatly trimmed shrubbery, in the center of pretty blocks of well-maintained early 19th century houses. The square is dominated by a life-size sculpture of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony by Pepsy Kettavong, called ‘Let’s Have Tea’, installed in 2001…. Read the written account here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Frederick Douglass Rochester NY Sites, Day 1

Susan B. Anthony Square, Rochester NY, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

At Susan B. Anthony Square

Ninth day, Monday Mar 28th

On a cold, gray, and blustery spring morning, I drive from Syracuse to Rochester NY, and head straight for a certain house very near Susan B. Anthony Square. As I suspect might be the case, the house is closed to the public today so I’ll return tomorrow; I head here first anyway to scope things out in person because, as it turns out, I have more free time to explore Rochester this morning than I thought I would. Hooray!

For the moment, I leave my car in the Madison St parking lot adjacent to the house and head to the square just around the corner, going east through Yack Alley, not the only or even necessarily the shortest way but I choose it because the name makes me smile. Susan B. Anthony Square, at 39 King St, is a little park crisscrossed with meandering paths and dotted with benches and neatly trimmed shrubbery, in the center of pretty blocks of well-maintained early 19th century houses. The square is dominated by a life-size sculpture of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony by Pepsy Kettavong, called ‘Let’s Have Tea’, installed in 2001.

Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony statue by Pepsy Kettvong, Rochester NY, 2016 by Amy Cools

Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony sculpture by Pepsy Kettvong in Susan B. Anthony Square, Rochester NY

The sculpture presents an idealized picture of Douglass’ and Anthony’s friendship, a view I had long held myself and never really questioned, I suppose because I admire them both and wish it were true! As my research for this series reveals, however, the real relationship between Douglass and Anthony was a long, complicated, often troubled one over the years. (I should have known something was up given that Douglass doesn’t write about her in his autobiographies except for a brief mention of her as one of the authors of History of Woman Suffrage.) Sometimes they were real friends, such as when they first met; at other times, they were estranged co-activists in a shared cause, presenting a united front solely for practical, political reasons. For all her admirable work in promoting women’s and black rights over her long career as a social reformer, Anthony, as you may remember from my Albany account, resorted to using racist language in her campaign against the 15th Amendment’s granting voting rights only to men, regardless of race, and also sadly, she was among those spreading rumors that Douglass’ friendship with North Star colleague Julia Griffiths might be …ahem, less than respectable. (For more about the troubles in Anthony’s and Douglass’ relationship, listen to the second part of my interview with Douglass scholar Leigh Fought, starting at about 9:30).

Historical Marker and plaque for site of Amy and Isaac Post's house, Rochester NY, 2016 by Amy Cools

Historical Marker and plaque at 50 Plymouth St, marking the site of Amy and Isaac Post’s house

Douglass began the move to Rochester near the end of 1847, and brought the rest of his family here in February of 1848. Douglass said the move was ‘for motives of peace’. He wanted to start his own newspaper independently of the Garrisonians, who were centered in Boston (Lynn, where Douglass was living, is very close to Boston) and who disapproved strongly of his new pro-Union, pro-Constitution political views and newfound independence of thought and decision-making. Besides the fact that his good friends Amy and Isaac Post lived here, that it was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and that it was a center for the feminist movement where the Post’s and his (then) friend Susan B. Anthony lived, Douglass listed all manner of other reasons for his move to Rochester in his autobiography Life and Times. ‘[Rochester] …is the center of a virtuous, intelligent, enterprising, liberal, and growing population… It is on the line of the New York Central railroad – a line that, with its connections, spans the whole country. Its people were (were? I wonder why he wrote this, in 1881, in the past tense)  industrious and in comfortable circumstances – not so rich as to be indifferent to the claims of humanity, and not so poor as to be unable to help any good cause which commanded the approval of their judgment’.

Post house site and old Central Prebyterian, now Hochstein Music School, 2016 by Amy Cools

Site of Douglass friends Amy and Isaac Post’s house (plainer front building to the left, with the blue Post house sign in front) and of the Central Presbyterian Church (center) where Douglass’ second funeral service was held in 1895. It’s now the Hochstein Music School.

I drive east on Main St and turn north on Plymouth Ave N, where there’s a historical marker for the site of Amy and Isaac Post’s home, just under a mile from Susan B. Anthony Square. It’s in front of the handsome brick buildings which now house the Hochstein Music School.

A gray sky and freezing gusty wind follows the milder temperature, scattered clouds, little rainbursts, and blue sky of the morning. The fine raindrops pepper my face like icy Lilliputian buckshot as I take photos of the front of the historical marker and the school. I can hardly hold my camera still between the wind and the shivering of my hands, fingers stiffened with cold. Ah, early spring in northern New York!

Amy and Isaac Post Historical Plaque at 50 Plymouth St, Rochester NY, 2016 Amy Cools

Amy and Isaac Post Historical Plaque at 50 Plymouth St, Rochester NY

Amy and Isaac Post were long-time friends of Douglass. He met them while passing through Rochester in 1842 or 1843 (depending on the source) on a marathon antislavery speaking tour early in his career. He described them in his Life and Times as ‘two people of all-abounding benevolence, the truest and best’. They were members of the Hicksite Quaker sect, the more progressive branch of the Society of Friends which emphasized the importance of the ‘inner light‘, which God places in all individuals for spiritual guidance. This, in turn, led to an emphasis on the moral, and hence to some, the social and political equality of all human beings. The Posts were emblematic of the brand of Quakerism that inspired so many activists in the abolitionist, women’s rights, temperance, and other human rights and social reform movements of the time. Yet even this brand of Quakerism was ultimately too conservative for the socially conscious Posts, who eventually became Spiritualists.

Old Central Presbyterian Church Plaque, Funeral of Frederick Douglass, 2016 Amy Cools.JPG

Old Central Presbyterian Church historical plaque with a photo of Frederick Douglass’ funeral service

Old Central Presbysterian Church sanctuary as Hochstein Music School theater today, 2016 Amy Cools.JPG

Old Central Presbysterian Church sanctuary in today’s incarnation as the Hochstein Music School theater

Stained glass window in Old Central Presbyterian Church building, now Hochstein Music School Theater

Stained glass window in Old Central Presbyterian Church building, now Hochstein Music School Theater

Hochstein not only stands on (or near, according to the Freethought Trail website, though I don’t think they’ve necessarily got it right: the house was at number 36 Sophia St, which was what Plymouth used to be named north of Main, which in turn was originally named Buffalo St, and the numbering may have changed along with the street name) the site of the old Post house. It’s also partly composed of the former Central Presbyterian Church where Douglass’ 1895 (his second, the first was held in Washington DC) and Anthony’s 1906 funeral services were held.

I enter the front door and am assisted by a helpful lady in the front office to the right. In response to my inquiries, she gives me permission to go inside and photograph the sanctuary of the old church building, now the school’s main performance hall. The man at the front desk takes me inside, and finds himself interested in the history of the old church too. ‘I’ve worked here five months,’ he says, ‘and I’ve never looked at these before!’ He’s referring to the plaques on the walls, with their photos and history of the building and of the school’s founder.

After admiring and photographing the theater, and learning what I can from these plaques and photos, I head east on Main again, a third of a mile closer to the Genessee River, to the site of the old Corinthian Hall, which, according to a couple of sources, was near the end of Corinthian Street behind the Reynolds Arcade, where the parking garage is now. Originally called The Athenaeum, as were so many public halls of the time, it was renamed Corinthian Hall after the style of the classical columns on its stage, and the building was widely famed for its beauty. Corinthian Street was also renamed, and most internet sources I find say it was originally named Exchange Place.  However, I discover that these two pieces of received internet wisdom appear to be a bit off. Poring over old maps in Rochester Library’s online images database, I find one published in 1851, two years after the hall was built in 1849. For one, I find that while the street was named Exchange Place before it was named Corinthian, it was named Work Street at the time the hall was built. Secondly, I find that it was not actually under the parking garage at the end of the street. It was actually directly across from the back entrance of the Reynolds Arcade, where a parking lot and a glassy midcentury office building now stand. The 1851 map was a little behind the times: Corinthian Hall and Exchange Place had already received their new names in 1850, but the map retains their original designations.

Corinthian St, north of Main, around the site of old Corinthian Hall

The rear of the Reynolds Arcade facing onto Corinthian St, north of Main, across from the site of old Corinthian Hall

View from west end of Corinthian St, showing site of old Corinthian Hall at right where the glassy midcentury building now stands, photo 2016 by Paige Sloan

View from west end of Corinthian St, showing site of old Corinthian Hall at right where the glassy midcentury building now stands, photo 2016 courtesy of Paige Sloan. Note the Corinthian columns on the First National Bank of Rochester-Old Monroe County Savings Bank Building, built in 1924, in the rear of the photo.

Douglass spoke frequently at what he referred to as ‘the beautiful Corinthian Hall’ in the 1850’s. In fact, he  ‘lectured [there] every Sunday evening during an entire winter’ as he wrote in his Life and Times. He delivered a speech here on Aug 21, 1852 at the Fugitive Slave Convention, in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act. Then in July 1853, Douglass presided over the National Convention of Colored Men in Rochester, which became a center for the antislavery movement; his biographer Philip S. Foner called this convention ‘the most important’. This is where the pressing problem of lack of unification between various factions of the antislavery movement were identified and discussed, as well as the relative lack of black leadership. Though this Rochester convention still failed to bring about a unified black political movement, like the previous one in Troy discussed in an earlier account, it sent a powerful message that all black Americans had a powerful champion in Douglass.

Drawing of Corinthian Hall, image credit Rochester Public Library Local History Division (note it's also called The Atheaneum in the subtitle)

Drawing of Corinthian Hall, image credit Rochester Public Library Local History Division (note that it’s still titled The Athenaeum)

But the single most important Douglass moment in this hall happened on July 5, 1852, when he delivered his powerful ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?‘ speech for the first time. He delivered it on the 5th instead of the 4th, he said, because the latter was a day of mourning, for himself and his people. This speech was Douglass’ Gettysburg Address, his Second Inaugural, his ‘To Be or Not to Be?’, where his powers of oratory and his eloquence were in full force. The speech is long, opening with a reflection on the history of the United States’ founding and its promise of renewed freedom for all. Then he pours out his lament:

‘I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn….

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.’

If what he had to say that day didn’t make people ashamed to celebrate liberty for themselves while denying it to others, no words could.

Talman Building at 25 E Main St, Rochester NY, where Douglass published the North Star

Talman Building, across from the Reynolds Arcade at 25 E Main St (formerly 25 Buffalo St), Rochester NY, where Douglass published the North Star

Lobby of the Talman Building. Frederick Douglass' North Star offices were on the second floor

Lobby of the Talman Building. Frederick Douglass’ North Star offices were on the second floor

So the first issue of Douglass’ first very own newspaper the North Star came out on Dec 3rd, 1847. Rosa O’Keefe, on page 29 of her 2013 book Frederick and Anna Douglass in Rochester, New York, writes that the first edition was printed in the basement of the A.M.E. Zion church (a site we’ll return to in my next account); however, the first edition lists the Talman building address as its place of publication on the upper left-hand corner. Perhaps the Talman office was all lined up as the North Star‘s permanent home but still needed to have its press moved in. After all, it’s no joke hoisting a mid-nineteenth century printing press up to the second floor.

As described above, William Lloyd Garrison and the Boston abolitionists tried to dissuade Douglass from leaving the Boston area and starting his own paper. They wanted him to continue on in his role as one of their most famous lecturers, and warned that his lack of experience and formal education would likely lead to the paper’s ultimate failure, talented as they knew him to be. But he had reached a new level of confidence after his successful British Isles lecture tour and was determined to strike out on his own. He ascribed to himself ‘motives of peace’ in the wish to avoid competition with Boston’s The Liberator, but as the people who knew him longest observed, Douglass was always strong of personality, self-willed, and enjoyed taking charge. Many friends and supporters donated money to fund the paper, including $4,000 donated by British supporters of his cause (British friends had also purchased his freedom), and subscribed, encouraged others to do the same, and in many other ways supported his endeavor.

Talman Building's old Post Office, where Douglass published his North Star, image credit Rochester Public Library

Talman Building’s old Post Office, where Douglass published his North Star, image credit Rochester Public Library

And no other single person did more to make the North Star a personal and financial success than Julia Griffiths, an English abolitionist he had met in December 1846 in Newcastle upon Tyne. They hit it off right away, and stayed good friends for the rest of their lives. When she heard he had founded his newspaper only to have it run into financial and editorial difficulties, this energetic woman came to Douglass’ rescue in the spring of 1849. She quickly took over some of the editing and most of the bookkeeping and finances, and within a year, doubled the number of subscribers and lifted the paper, and Douglass with it, out of debt. At first, she lived with the Douglass family; later on, she moved to her own place, as the rumor mill never stopped grinding out malicious gossip, much to the ever-respectable, ever-private Anna Douglass’ dismay.

Site of old Seward Seminary, Alexander at Tracy St, Rochester NY

Near site of Seward Seminary, east side of Alexander a little south of Tracy St, Rochester NY. The historical marker used to be near the bench and the tree

I head further east, over the Genessee to Alexander St, a little north of Tracy St and on the same side, by the old Genessee Hospital. There’s a vacant lot here, with a distinctive tree and a bench, near where there used to be a New York historical marker for the site of the old Seward Seminary.

Seward Seminary, Alexander St Rochester NY, image credit Rochester Library Historical Images

Seward Seminary, Alexander St Rochester NY, image credit Rochester Library Historical Images

I know I’m at the right place by the map coordinates, and it’s easy to recognize the bench, tree, and buildings on the background in the photos of this location I found online posted just a few years ago. But the sign is now gone, stolen, or being repaired or repainted, who knows? I hope it will be reinstalled, because it marks the site of an important social movement in the United States that Douglass took part in way back before it was really a thing.

In 1848, Douglass enrolled his daughter Rosetta in Seward Seminary, the fashionable girls school which stood here. Likely having accepted Rosetta in the first place because her father was a well-known man, the school’s principal Lucilia Tracy, in deference to the school’s trustees, made Rosetta learn her lessons in a separate room from the other students. Rosetta, no surprise, was the only black student enrolled. When Rosetta tearfully told her father of this, Douglass was enraged. He confronted Tracy, who tried to evade responsibility by putting it to a student vote: who would object if Rosetta would sit next to them? One after the other, every student in the room said they were not only willing, but many requested that Rosetta be placed next to then. As is so often the case, these children proved themselves more fair-minded and far more progressive than even most of the adult citizens in Rochester, where racism was still rife. Yet in response to the notes that Tracy sent home with the students reporting the situation, every parent voted in tandem with their children, except one, the editor of the Rochester Courier. As he had with train car segregation in New England, Douglass took this battle to the public, castigating this H.G. Warner in the North Star and other papers, and all those like him in front of the the School Board of Education.

The site, now a parking lot, of the Douglass home at 4 Alexander St, Rochester NY, 2016 Amy Cools

The site, now a parking lot next to a restaurant, of the Douglass family home at 4 Alexander St, Rochester NY

In his vigorous expose of the injustice and harm in such undignified treatment of children, Douglass’ campaign to integrate the public schools in Rochester was ultimately successful: the public schools were integrated in 1857. This was a century before Brown vs. Board of Education! Though Douglass’ campaign here was successful, the principle that all children should receive fair and equal treatment in America’s schools was not to be enshrined in law in most of the United States for over a century. Hate can certainly be intransigent.

Douglass home at 4 Alexander St in later incarnation as a shop, image Rochester Public Library Local History

The Douglass family home at 4 Alexander St in a later incarnation as Vogue Furniture shop, image c. 1936, credit Rochester Public Library Local History Division. The building was torn down in 1954.

Just a little farther north at 297 Alexander St, close enough for little Rosetta to have walked to Seward Seminary without breaking a sweat, there’s now a parking lot next to a restaurant simply called ‘Mex’. There’s nothing indicating this as the site where the Douglass family moved into their first house here in Rochester in April 1848, at what was then 4 Alexander St. It took some time for the Douglasses to find a house to buy in Rochester; Douglass’ family had followed him here in February and boarded until a local abolitionist sold them the 9 room brick house that once stood on this spot. By 1850, Douglass had became the leader of Rochester’s Underground Railroad, which was among the work he was most proud of, and this house became one of the most important stops. Rochester was one of the last way stations on the way to Canada. Since the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, even the northern states had become too dangerous for escaped slaves to remain in, so many chose to press farther north in their quest for freedom.

Paganini's Violin at the Municipal Palace in Genoa, image public domain via Project Gutenberg

Paganini’s Violin at the Municipal Palace in Genoa, image public domain via Project Gutenberg

But it wasn’t all work and no play for Frederick Douglass, even with all his writing, speaking, campaigning for justice for his children, and aiding fugitives from slavery. This house was accumulating a large library for the literary Douglass, and as you may remember, he loved to play the violin. At least one occasion in 1850, he played an impromptu concert for the neighborhood children here in this house. Anna had encouraged him to take up the violin in the early days of their relationship in Fell’s Point, and he never stopped playing. In his Life and Times, he devotes a whole page to the moving experience of seeing Niccolò Paganini’s violin on display in a museum in Genoa, Italy in 1886. Music was very important to the Douglasses: Rosetta would accompany her father on the piano, and Douglass’ love of the violin would continue on in his progeny, which we’ll return to in a later account. 

Thus ends my first day in Rochester New York, but I’ll be here in this area following Douglass’ life and ideas for awhile longer and having many more exciting historical adventures. Stay tuned!

*Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

~ With special thanks to Paige Sloan, who heads and teaches a writing program for international students at the University of Rochester and, like me, is a big Fredrick Douglass fan! She provided me with an additional source for my Corinthian Hall research and a photo I neglected to take.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration

27. Frederick Douglass Newspaper Office‘, The Freethought Trail website

30. Post Home / Western New York Anti-Slavery Society‘, The Freethought Trail website

33. Corinthian Hall / Academy of Music‘, The Freethought Trail website

Colored National Convention (1853 : Rochester, NY), “Proceedings of the Colored National Convention, Held in Rochester, July 6th, 7th, and 8th, 1853.,” ColoredConventions.org.

Corinthian Hall (venue)‘, under ‘Charter Inductees’, Rochester Music Hall of Fame website

Cornell, Silas, ‘Map of the City of Rochester‘, 1863. From Rochester Library Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.

Death of Frederick Douglass‘. Feb. 21, 1895 obituary, reprinted in the New York Times: On This Day

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies (includes Narrative…, My Freedom and my Bondage, and Life and Times). With notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, July 5, 1852. Teaching American History (website)

The Era of Academies in Monroe County‘, From Rochester Library Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.

First National Bank of Rochester-Old Monroe County Savings Bank Building. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Fought, Lee. ‘The Musical Douglasses: Rosetta‘. Frederick Douglass’s Women: In Progress blog,

“Let’s Have Tea” by Pepsy M. Kettavong‘, Rochester Public Art Catalog (website)

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

McKelvey, Blake. ‘Historic Antecedents from the Crossroads Project‘. From the Rochester History Journal, Oct 1864, Vol. 26, No. 4.

Many Roads to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in Rochester and Vicinity‘. Article, Rochester Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.

Morry, Emily. ‘Frederick Douglass Home on Alexander Street’ and ‘Talman Building‘, Democrat & Chronicle: Retrofitting Rochester series

The North Star: Abolitionist Newspaper Founded By Frederick Douglass‘, Maryland State Archives (website)

O’Keefe, Rose. Frederick and Anna Douglass in Rochester, New York: Their Home Was Open to All
Charleston: The History Press, 2013.

Post House‘, New York Historic website

Quaker Influence‘, National Historical Park New York page of the National Park Service website

Seward Seminary‘ – New York Historical Markers on Waymarking.com

Smith, Marcus. ‘Plan of the City of Rochester, N.Y. [Southwest Quadrant]‘ and ‘Southeast Quadrant‘, 1851. From Rochester Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.

Southwest Quadrant – Susan B. Anthony‘, article from the City of Rochester website