Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Homage to the Humble Pencil

Today is National Pencil Day.

Personally I think it’s an observance that should be international, maybe even a worldwide holiday.

Next to the gift of speech and the advent of reading what has been more important to the spread of ideas then the means to transcribe them? Though writers today are less apt to use a pencil, the humble instrument is still valued by artists, carpenters and craftsmen, not to mention children.

The original pencil was probably the stylus, a stick of metal used to scratch symbols on papyrus. Sometime in the early 16th century, a deposit of graphite was discovered in Cumbria, England, revolutionizing the instrument. Erroneously mistaken for a variety of lead, it was referred to as plumbago (Latin for lead ore). We still refer to the core of the pencil as lead.

Graphite was deemed so valuable ownership of the mines was taken over by the Crown and England held a monopoly on pencil making for a lengthy period. Nicholas Jacque Conte, a Frenchman, perfected the instrument in the form we know it today in 1795.

Americans imported pencils from Europe until after the Revolution. William Munroe, a cabinetmaker in Concord, Mass., is credited with the first American-made pencils in 1812. Henry David Thoreau, a more famous resident of Concord, later developed an improved pencil-making process, binding inferior graphite with clay. Joseph Dixon, another Massachusetts inventor, was the first to mass produce pencils in this country and Dixon pencils are still among the most popular.

Artists from Leonardo to Durer, from Rembrandt to masters in modern times, such as Eakins and Wyeth, have cherished the pencil. Just look at this selection by Rembrandt, http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&q=rembrandt+drawings&revid=2084579844&resnum=0&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ei=y4qvS_LfA4P98Aa7-eCiDw&sa=X&oi=image_result_group&ct=title&resnum=1&ved=0CBgQsAQwAA
Or these from Constable’s sketchbooks, http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/paintings/galleries/display/constable/index.html as examples of what beauty can be created with a mere pencil.

As noted, the pencil isn’t the chief instrument of the writer today. But John Steinbeck is said to have used up 300 pencils in the writing of East of Eden. Hemingway also relied on the pencil for his first drafts and Nabokov was another advocate. There are still writers who start a story in longhand, feeling it’s more intimate; not so many as in the past, though; machines have spoiled most of us.

Still, I think it important we all recognize our debt to the pencil and pay homage at least once a year.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

We're All Guilty

Today is the International Day of Remembrance of Slavery Victims and the Transatlantic Slave Trade and I have seen not a single reference to it in the media this morning.

The United Nations proclaimed March 25 as a day to annually honor the lives of those who died as a result of slavery or experienced the horrors of the slave trade. It is also an occasion to raise awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice.

What’s that? Your ancestors didn’t have any slaves, you say. Doesn’t matter. You’re still guilty.

Slavery and the prejudice which feeds such abominable practices isn’t restricted to one race, ethnicity, culture or religion. There’s enough guilt to go around and we need once and for all to rid ourselves of the stupid opinion one human being is worth less than another on the basis of race, appearance, belief or whatever excuse we can find for separating us.

An estimated 17 million people were transported against their will and held in bondage between the 16th and 19th centuries. This violation of human rights was conducted and/or condoned by whites, blacks, Christians, Jews and Muslims (as well as agnostics and atheists).

Even the U.S. Constitution—seen as a model for documents ensuring tolerance and freedom for all—is tainted by provisions which comprised on the issue of slavery and the slave trade. Luther Martin, a delegate from Baltimore, labeled as absurd that the United States should permit states to continue “…the only branch of commerce which is unjustifiable in its nature and contrary to the rights of mankind.”

It’s economic and personal ramifications are still being felt today in countries which have abolished slavery. And, unfortunately, the practice has not been eradicated worldwide.

In his message for this year’s observance, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, in part, “Slavery and slavery-like practices continue in many parts of the world. Slavery is mutating and re-emerging in modern forms, including debt bondage, the sale of children and the trafficking of women and girls for sex. Its roots lie in ignorance, intolerance and greed.”

Friday, March 12, 2010

Observing Genealogy Day

National Genealogy Day will be observed on Saturday. As one who has spent considerable time on genealogy I thought it appropriate to expend a few words on the subject here.

Since retiring from the newspaper business in 2000 I have been librarian of our county historical society where I assist people with genealogy and historical research. I was doing it on a personal basis long before that and took on this responsibility partly to share what I had learned, but also because I enjoy it.

Call it a hobby if you will, but it is one pursued by increasing numbers of people around the world. I like the solving of puzzles, the detective work necessary to tracking down that elusive ancestor and discovering why he did this instead of that. It can become an absorbing addiction.

Genealogy is best defined as the study of family history. There was a time when it was chiefly the pursuit of maiden women and doddering eccentrics who sought some glory for themselves in the achievements of their ancestors.

As Plutarch wisely put it many centuries ago, “It is indeed a desirable thing to be well descended, but the glory belongs to our ancestors.”

People now pursue genealogy for a variety of reasons. For some, like the Mormons, it is a necessary adjunct to their religion. Others are simply curious about the lives of their ancestors or need to confirm facts in order to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, Mayflower Society and similar groups. More recently, there has been an emphasis on inherited diseases and genetic influence.

In truth, we are the sum of what we inherit from our ancestors, though we make our own additions to the mix. I like to recall Edmund Burke’s comment, “People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.”

Friday, March 5, 2010

Irish-American Heritage Month

March is Irish-American Heritage Month. In honor of the observance, I offer these notes:

Fleeing famine and brutal oppression, more than a million Irish refugees flocked to the U.S. between 1846-1855 in search of opportunity for a better life. It’s been estimated an amazing 44 percent of immigrants in that period were Irish.

They worked whatever jobs they could find and were routinely exploited. That exploitation was partially based on their poverty and willingness to accept whatever wages they could get. A more shocking element was religious bigotry. The majority of the immigrants were Roman Catholic and anti-Papist sentiments boiled up in tandem with economic concerns in this same period. Newspapers of the period are full of examples of anti-Catholic/Irish sentiment, including cartoons depicting them as savages and animals.

Many of the Irish found their way to Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region where they encountered some of the worst exploitation and hatred. Wayne Broehl in his excellent The Molly Maguires says “All the past hatreds and slights came welling up again, and the mining patches were quickly divided, physically and socially, along ethnic lines. Soon the Irish turned to protective societies.”

Among these societies were the Molly Maguires, still controversial today with many refusing to believe the organization existed or was guilty of the alleged crimes. It's probable more atrocities were attributed to them than did exist. But the organization’s existence is documented and people do have a tendency to strike back at oppression.

In the 1870s, an expanding economic depression pitted mine owners and their laborers, particularly the Irish, in conflict over wages and working conditions. This situation spawned a wave of violence that was not limited to the Irish. The Molly Maguires became a scapegoat for those in authority.

It’s against this backdrop I’ve set my novel Watch The Hour in a fictional patch called Masonville. Why fictional and not an actual patch? Simply because the fictional setting did not limit me to a known set of circumstances. I was able to depict my characters and their actions in a historically-accurate setting but controlled by my imagination.

Benjamin Franklin Yeager is a coal company police officer. He does his best to follow orders while trying to be fair to the workers whose lot he sees as little different from his own. Despite his efforts at fairness, Yeager’s job makes him the enemy of the Irish. And that’s the crux of his troubles. For Ben is in love with an Irish girl.

The love interest is central to the story (I prefer to call it the Romeo and Juliet element). But, as one recent reviewer noted, “There are numerous other interesting characters and entertaining subplots that not only make Ben’s life and decisions more difficult, but create tragedy and sorrow for those already suffering under the oppression of an American feudal system meant to take advantage of the masses by the rich and powerful.”

That clearly spells out the early Irish experience and not just in the coal region.