Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Understanding the Odor of Sanctity

There are two ways I could justify combining lunch and a lecture.

When eating to supplement a history lesson, be certain that the food is regionally appropriate. When someone else has made gumbo on a frigid day, enjoy the fruits of their labor. We'll ignore the obvious: it was late and I was famished.

The Library of Virginia's new exhibit, Union or Secession: Virginians Decide, occasioned today's lecture, "Reaping the Whirlwind: Virginians on the Eve of War" by Elizabeth Varon.

The talk, like the exhibition, focuses on the difficulty the Commonwealth had in deciding with whom they would align themselves as the country was fracturing apart.

Given Virginia's border location, its emphasis on state allegiance and its history as the birthplace of so many history-makers, it became clear what a difficult decision it must have been for its residents to make. But the arrogance of the South is difficult to grasp.

Since I'm not a Southerner by birth, my interest in the subject is purely academic. Not so with many in the audience. One woman asked, "Did Lee have a death wish? How did he ever think he could beat the North, given the population and economic advantage they had?"

Another woman questioned whether the South wouldn't have won if Stonewall Jackson had lived. As if one man could have made a difference given all the factors involved. As Richmond spy Elizabeth van Lew put it, "Southerners are drunk on the odor of our own sanctity." Well said.

I was pleased to hear that after the lecture, a tour of the exhibit would be offered. While the Library of VA is the repository of so many official documents, it also collects personal documents and this exhibit combined both for a look at the period from all sides.

Because Virginia was so active in the slave trade, printed bills of receipt for enslaved persons were actually made at the time. Just fill in the particulars and you've sold a person. Chilling to see. I also learned that height determined price, so at 5'5", I would have been cheap. Karen, the bargain, so to speak.

A large poster soliciting men to fight began with "To Arms! To Arms! To Arms!" and ended with "Your state is in danger. Rally to her standard!" Hard to imagine wo/men being stirred to action by such a plea today.

I was fascinated to learn that in the run-up to secession, Virginia was quite busy laying claim to the Founding Fathers...just in case they should need the connections.

In 1858, the equestrienne statue of George Washington was erected in Capital Square to provide a visual reminder of the home boy. Shortly thereafter, James Monroe's remains were re-interred at Hollywood Cemetery (how could we let a Virginia President's bones rot in New York?).

The whole exhibit, part of the upcoming Sesquicentennial Observance of the Civil War, is definitely worth a visit, as much for the personal correspondence as for the enlarged official documents that set events in motion.

I came away with a new appreciation for what a difficult decision Virginia had to make. We had little in common with the rest of the south, having an extensive railroad system, far more industry and an economy where cotton was not king (wheat was). And yet...

By the time the tour ended, it was nearly 3:00 and I was starving. Luckily, Positive Vibe Express was still open (but just barely; the girl was sweeping the floor when I came in looking pitiful and asking if I could still eat) and I was delighted to hear that today's soup was chicken and sausage gumbo.

My steaming bowl of gumbo was full of okra, rice, sausage and chicken and couldn't have been any more perfect for this weather. It also brought home the point that Virginia's culture differed from other parts of the south, like Louisiana, where the West African influence was strong.

After licking my gumbo bowl clean, I walked back out through the exhibit one last time, past pictures of slave auction houses and maps of slave holding counties in Virginia.

It's all a lesson and I'm all about learning. And eating.


  1. ... really amazing that Liz Van Lew was not imprisoned during the war.

    and yes another very fine evening at the LR tonight.

  2. You should have introduced yourself.

  3. YES...you are correct....it was rude not to..for this I offer an apology and an explanation. Original intent was merely to read your postings for content, style, interest etc...little did i imagine that i would actually bump into you..."oh by the way i'm anonymous." ... it is easier to read & comment if one is an unbiased observer, with no attachment other than electronic...nevertheless if the moment had presented itself i would have introduced myself...my only defense on this is that you for the most part appeared surrounded by friends & here's the killer...[men's ego]..i was not really sure if you were interested in introductions...see..other than our "clicking" i do not really know you & vice versa...the limits imposed by the computer age...you said i was welcome to comment..you asked for nothing more...of course i realize we're both live entities not "key boards" ...next LR i'll properly introduce myself...henceforth i will cease to be mr. anonymous.. at this stage seems rather silly. seems like i'm sounding like mr. spock here...actually i'm a pretty emotional person....

  4. I rarely have the option of deciding which readers I meet since they usually figure me out and introduce themselves, always a pleasant surprise.

    And was it the tights that identified me since you didn't know what I looked like? And did I look like what you expected from my writing?

  5. ...tights.. appears that's your signature tag.. "trademark"... do people need a trademark?.. yes i guess it was your tights...but i've been to most LR performances..after a while you notice the ones around you..the same familiar people. I'd seen you months before. generally i'm tuned to my surroundings fairly well, that includes people...briefly wondered what your story was a while back..[that's not a bad thing].. you know there's the blonde middle-age couple at every show.. and so on.

    never wonder what a writer looks like...not really. no.. you don't look like Hemingway nor Richard Ford or James Salter...or anyone else. really had little expectations from your written word... legs & tights is all i know..however now the "face" and the "word" are together...that seems inadequate though...you have a pretty smile, like your laugh.. that's enough...haven't read all your columns.. sometimes the food descriptions, etc. are overkill for me.. still admire your technical dexterity...sort of why i hesitated to introduce myself.. much easier to enjoy & appreciate solely thru your penmanship. Contrary to recent post, "men are simple creatures"?? not really at all..men and women are far from simple.. very complex actually..but each to his own believe. do not buy that you're a nerd either...however it appears you're comfortable within that definition... we've seen one another before... our eyes' have met...i'll probably be there again next month..wife at my side, as we always are..early in the evening.. going thru life together, enjoying the music, the experience...in the meantime.. you'll write of your interests, ideas, occurrences, maybe hopes & dreams, desserts consumed, etc. & i your reader will follow..will root for you, hope for you, feel for you, wish you well, & love for you... really?..is there anything dear writer that you would want from me? ....until then.

  6. Please do introduce yourself next month. It's always a pleasure to meet those who read me, especially the frequent commenters. I have met several such people and now consider them friends.

    I thank you for the compliments on my smile and laugh because they are such a big part of who I am.

    As for what I expect, what I appreciate most from my readers is commenting and you're already doing that. And I thank you sincerely for rooting for me.

  7. i buy that you're a nerd but in the best possible way.

  8. It's true. Look at some of the stuff I do...pure nerdiness.

  9. no (derivative) references or quotes here but "anonymous" here echoed my thoughts rather perfectly in his second comment and i
    felt obliged to chime in. were it not for your effusive imprimatur, the LR would not have crossed my radar.
    indeed, the tacit writer-anonymous commenter compact does impose its own limits.
    as i wrote many moons ago, one cant help but be swept up in your joie de vivre on occasion. so keep up on nerdy detours and ramblings.

    And yes...the tights are quite distinctive as an identifier amongst the patricians.

  10. Are you saying you've seen me too and not introduced yourself?

    I certainly can't expect people to want to meet me, but if it were up to me, I would love the opportunity to have a bit of conversation with readers I know only from their comments. Then, like Anonymous mentioned, I could put a face to the words.

    No doubt you've probably already figured out that I couldn't stop the nerdy detours and ramblings if I wanted to (and I don't).

    I hope I can continue to occasionally sweep you up in my joie de vivre. You're very kind.