JFK condolence letters published

Two pages from "Letters to Jackie: Condolences From A Grieving Nation" Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation by historian Ellen Fitzpatrick is a collection of condolence letters Mrs. Kennedy received in the wake of her husband’s assassination.

The outpouring of grief was so enormous — the White House got 800,000 condolences in the first seven weeks alone — that most of the letters were destroyed. Two hundred thousand pages made it to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston where Fitzpatrick found them.

Fitzpatrick was at the Kennedy library researching a different book when she asked to see some of the condolence letters in hopes of getting a sense of how Kennedy was perceived by Americans in his own time. As soon as she started reading, she was hooked.

“It was like the roof came off the building, the walls dropped away, the floor came out from under me. I was absolutely floored by what I’d begun to read,” she said Friday. “I have been teaching American history for 30 years, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a collection as powerful and that represented so many ordinary people speaking from the heart about their views about American society, and politics, and the president.”

And she had to get permission from every one of the letter writers to include them in the book. This is probably why nobody’s ever done it before and the letters have remain unpublished all these years. After narrowing her list of thousands of favorites down to 240, she was able to track down 220 of the writers. Out them, only 5 declined to be included.

The excerpts in the article are so moving I wept like babby, but the part that struck me the most was Fitzgerald pointing out that we’ve seen so many piles of books about JFK, the assassination, the administration, from movers and shakers, from conspiracy theorists, from historians and from journalists, but this is the first work to collate perspectives from everyday Americans, and they’re just wrenching.

Writing two days [after the assassination], eighth-grader Mary South described learning that the president had been shot just as she sat down to play the church organ at her Catholic school in Santa Clara, Calif.

“I tried to tell myself he would be all right but somehow I knew he wouldn’t. … the tears wouldn’t stop. The slightly damp keys were hard to play but I offered it up that the President might live,” she wrote.

In return for her letter, she received a small card printed with the words “Mrs. Kennedy is deeply appreciative of your sympathy and grateful for your thoughtfulness.”

“Getting that back felt like: She saw this. Jackie saw this,” South, whose married name is Mary Certa, said in an interview Thursday. “I felt good that I had done something. I just wanted her to know how upset we were and how helpless we felt.”

When one of Fitzpatrick’s researchers called and read her letter, “I started to cry all over again,” said Certa, 60, of Campbell, Calif. “It was like I was right back there in 1963.”

I think this approach brings the sheer emotion of the tragedy to the fore like nothing has after all these decades of Camelot and grassy knolls.

GA Museum publishes all medieval Italian art in North America

Corpus of Early Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections: The SouthThe Georgia Museum of Art has published the first part of a massive compendium of all the Italian paintings made between 1250 and 1500 on canvas and wood found in North American collections.

Part one is titled Corpus of Early Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections: The South. Author Perri Lee Williams of Miami University covers 400 paintings from public collections in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Puerto Rico. It’s a whopping 801 pages long and divided into 3 volumes.

From the press release (pdf file):

The “Corpus” compiles paintings by such illustrious artists as Giovanni Bellini, Duccio di Buoninsegna, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna and Giotto as well as works by lesser-known names. Up-to-date scholarship, including provenance, iconography and bibliography, appears opposite each illustration in an easily accessible format. This resource is particularly valuable to scholars, educators and curators of early Italian art who are unable to travel between institutions.

Professor Bruce Cole of Indiana University and the late Professor Andrew Ladis of the University of Georgia initiated this project in 1993. At that time, only two publications might have rivaled a project as ambitious as this new fully illustrated “Corpus”: Richard Offner’s multi-volume “A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting” (College of Fine Arts, New York University, 1930) and Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri’s single-volume “Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Collections” (Harvard University Press, 1972). However, both of these publications are now out of date and limited in scope. The new publication covers works by artists from all regions in Italy and is likely to become a seminal compendium of early Italian art.

It costs $200 which sounds like a lot, I know, but if I had it to spend I totally would because this is an enormous, even unprecedented, work of scholarship and worth every penny. Museums and libraries are eligible for a discount, so if you represent such an institution call (706) 542-0450.

Medieval penitential sex flowchart

Canons of Theodore, Corpus 190, pg. 404Penitentials were handbooks listing many sins a confessor could be expected to encounter during private confession and the appropriate penances he should assign for each act (or the appropriate moneys the penitent should pay to commute a penance).

They were first compiled by Irish monks in the 6th century when the practice of private confession began to supersede the public confessions of sins and imposition of penances of early Christianity and spread to the continent, continuing to be published through the 12th century even though they were officially condemned by the Catholic Church during the Council of Paris in 829.

The penances tended to be things like fasts, repetitions of psalms on your knees or standing, giving alms, and the sins were everything from fornication to murder. But it’s the fornication that took up the lion’s share of these handbooks, and every conceivable act was detailed along with the (heavy) price it exacted in penance.

Here’s an example from Corpus Christi College’s Corpus 190 of the Canons of Theodore:

Whoever fornicates with an effeminate male or with another man or with an animal must fast for 10 years.
Elsewhere it says that whoever fornicates with an animal must fast 15 years and sodomites must fast for 7 years.
If the effeminate male (bædling) fornicates with another effeminate male (bædling), (he is to) do penance for 10 years.
Whoever does this unintentionally (unwærlice) once must fast for 4 years; if it is habitual, as Basil says, for 15 years if he is not in orders and also one year (less?) so as a woman does. If it is a boy, for the first time, 2 years; if he does it again, 4 years.
If he is a boy, for the first time, 2 years; if he does it again, 4 years.
If he fornicates interfemorally (between the limbs), he must fast for 1 year or the 3 40-day periods.
If he defiles himself (masturbates), he is to abstain from meat for four days.
He who desires to fornicate (with) himself (i.e., to masturbate) and is not able to do so, he must fast for 40 days or 20 days.
If he is a boy and does it often, either he is to fast 20 days or one is to whip him.
If a woman fornicates [with another woman?] she must do penance for 3 years.
If she touches herself in the same way, i.e., in emulation of fornication, she must repent for 1 year.
One penance applies to a widow and a virgin; more (penance) is earned by her who has a husband if she fornicates.
Whoever ejaculates seed into the mouth, that is the worst evil. From someone it was judged that they repent this up to the end of their lives.

And it goes on and on like that. Marriage is no cure either, because there are endless strictures against marital sex as well. If it’s not procreative, it’s fornication. If it’s done on a holy day, it’s fornication. You see above what happens if it’s oral: you get a life sentence of penance.

The penitential writers saw marital sex as a concession, not as a right or even a gift from God. The pleasure it brought was inherently sinful, a gateway to lust, so sex within marriage should be carefully contained and scheduled to ensure the most possible procreation and the least possible pleasure. Married couples had to abstain regularly or the very state of their marriage would degenerate into an illegitimate and sinful union. Even the children born of sex during a period where the couple should have abstained — mainly based on the Church’s liturgical calendar and on the wife’s reproductive cycle — were to be considered bastards.

Which brings us to the inspiration of today’s little historical sermon. Many years ago in college I read a fascinating book called Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe by University of Kansas history professor emeritus James A. Brundage. It’s a remarkable analysis of Medieval authorities’ legal proscriptions about sex, starting with ancient Roman and Greek law codes, then moving on to Medieval strictures as seen in the penitentials, canon law, Germanic legal statutes, and ever so much more.

I regularly think of the chapter on the penitentials in particular, mainly because of one truly awesome flowchart. Unfortunately my copy of the book is squirreled away in my parents’ attic along with many of its college tome brethren, so yesterday when it popped into my head that I really need to blog about this greatest of historical graphs, I thought “Hey! There’s an interweb now! I bet I can find it online.” And so by Thor’s hammer I did.

It seems the chart has made a strong impression on many other people as well, and since Brundage’s book is standard in Medieval history and in history of sexuality studies, I am far from alone in wishing to pay it homage.

What it is is a flowchart Brundage compiled from many penitentials which helps the pious man figure out if he can have lawful intercourse. (Click for the large version.)

Penitential sex flowchart

Genius, is it not? I bet you’ll find yourself thinking “STOP! SIN!” at random/randy times now too. :giggle:

That’s not to say that Medieval folks actually lived according to the flowchart rules, of course. There’s always a huge gap between proscription and reality. People did it then like we do it now: whenever they could. But it is a fascinating glimpse into the both prurient and ascetic world of Medieval confessor literature, and what kind of standards Medieval people might have measured themselves against.

Louisa May Alcott smoked hash

There’s a documentary premiering on PBS tonight at 9:00 about Louisa May Alcott. In conjunction with a new biography about the author, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women reveals just how varied and rich a life she led.

Her father was involved in the utopian and transcendalist movements and was an experimental educator, so little Louisa got quite the diverse education. Henry David Thoreau taught her botany. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne taught her literature.

It was no paradise, though. Her father found her strong-willed nature and dark hair (seriously) a vexing sign of demonic tendencies, and he was no bread-winner, so Louisa had to work hard virtually her whole life to support her family.

Louisa Alcott’s life was no children’s book: she worked as a servant, a seamstress, and a Civil War nurse before becoming a millionaire celebrity writing “moral pap for the young,” as she called it. Under pen names and anonymously, she also wrote stories with enough drugs, sex and crime to prove the author was no “little” woman. When she died, Alcott took her secret identity as a pulp fiction writer with her, and kept it for nearly a half-century.

That secret identity was A. M. Barnard. Two of her Barnard works are available for free from the Gutenberg Project: Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power, and The Abbot’s Ghost or, Maurice Treherne’s Temptation, A Christmas Story.

The third, A Long Fatal Love Chase, was rejected by her publisher for being too scandalous (the central plot element is a woman who finds herself in a bigamist marriage with an abuser). In dire need of money to support her family, Alcott ruthlessly edited it in hopes of getting it in publishable condition, but the key bigamy plot point was too large to be overcome.

It remained unpublished until 1995, when a fervent Alcott collector bought the manuscript and edited it back to its original juicy condition. Stephen King reviewed it for the New York Times and he loved it.

Here’s a nifty preview of the documentary airing tonight on PBS. It takes a novel, playful approach to its subject and looks like a lot of fun.


1,000 letters and postcards by Joan Miró to be published

Joan Miró, "Le Coq"The Joan Miró Foundation is publishing the for the first time over 1,000 letters and postcards written by artist Joan Miró to a wide variety of correspondents over the course of his life.

Joan Miró was a Surrealist painter and sculptor who garned huge fame in his lifetime. He rejected the Surrealist label which he saw as another imprint of bourgeois hierarchy. His correspondence is bound to be packed with great insights and pithy phrasing. He once famously declared himself dedicated to the “assassination of painting” and said about Picasso and Cubists that he wanted to “break their guitar.”

These letters enable us to follow the course of Miró’s life from his early years as an artist, his departure for Paris, the strategies of the 1920s, the splendour of the 1930s, the cultural wilderness of the Franco years, and the desire to start again with renewed energy after the end of the Second World War. They show the private side of the artist, a man dedicated body and soul to his art, with deeply rooted ethical, aesthetic and political convictions. They are essential reading for any study of his life and work.

We have Miró himself to thank for this. He was careful to preserve his sketches, drawings, notes, studies, anything at all pertaining to his art. He also kept every letter he received, and at some point realized he should keep copies of what he sent as well.

He donated his remarkable archives to the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona, and a team of researchers has now edited the correspondence collection for publication.

Joan Miro's correspondence