Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island by Mac Griswold

The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island by Mac Griswold is for me, local history. Shelter Island is a small island that straddles the twin forks of Long Island, New York. As I live on Long Island, Shelter Island is approximately 45 miles (that includes a short ferry ride) from my home. As it is a usually an easy drive and it is an area that I often frequent, it seems to be much closer. I recently visited the Sylvester Manor, which is the subject of this book, on one of the infrequent days that it is open to the public. The below photograph was taken during that visit.

Griswold has written a micro - history that expands out into macro history. In doing so she has written a book that takes the reader in all sorts of fascinating directions.

In 1651 Nathaniel and Grizzell Sylvester established a plantation on Shelter Island. The logistical and economic goal of this “provisioning plantation” was to produce food, timber, and other goods to supply the lucrative sugar plantations of the West Indies. The book covers the first Eighty Years of the plantation’s history in great detail. During this time the Sylvester’s and their descendants developed a thriving agricultural community. Along the way they interacted with fellow Europeans as well as local Native Americans. They also held, at any given time, approximately twenty-five slaves. These were mostly Africans or people of African descent but may have included a few people from other groups.

The remaining two hundred and fifty year history of the property, during which descents of the original Sylvesters retained ownership, are also summarized in some detail. Many notable religious leaders, artists, scientists and other historical figures associated themselves with the Sylvester’s descendants as well as the property over the ensuing centuries.

This is a fantastic history book. Griswold moves well beyond the establishment and operation of the planation.  The book delves deeply into the origins, history, culture, religion etc., of many groups. Nathanial and Grizzell were both British. Nathanial’s family were religious dissenters who fled to Holland where Nathanial was born and raised.  The British and Dutch roots of the couple are closely examined.  Next the customs and history of the Manhasset Indians, the local indigenous people of Shelter Island are explored. Finally, a large portion of the book is dedicated to the Africans who were enslaved by the Sylvesters. In this process the author digs deeply into British, Dutch, Native American, and West African history and culture.

Griswold covers an impressively diverse set of details including religion, ideology, clothing, food etc. as well as how all of these elements came together on Shelter Island. She describes in detail both the historical research that she conducted in Europe, Africa, Barbados and North America, as well as the extensive archeological evidence obtained on the manor property. Griswold manages to cover all these angles in a very satisfying and coherent way. At one point the author herself describes the challenges inherent in telling such a multifaceted story,

“I tell myself, “I must not exaggerate; I must not underestimate.” Is it too big a picture for me to comprehend? From the canals of Northern Europe and the slave castles of the African Gold Coast the line runs to this handsome, smallish house whose serene forehead also hides secrets, and to scientists and poets in nineteenth-century Cambridge, Massachusetts. “

These details are often fascinating. One example of these particulars occurs when Griswold describes the hygiene of the book’s central figures in context of their societal norms,

“A shift was the only article of clothing either Grizzell or Nathaniel would have changed and had laundered regularly. Outer clothing stiffly kept its owner’s shape and smell for decades. Between 1347, when the bubonic plague first struck Europe, and about 1750, physicians opined that the best defense against pestilence was an impermeable skin with pores safely sealed by an encrustation of dirt and sweat. Bathing left the body defenseless.  . . .  Nathaniel and Grizzell wouldn’t have considered themselves unkempt or unclean; their grooming simply didn’t involve much water. People washed their hands, especially before eating, their faces, and sometimes their feet. They dug particles of food out of their teeth with toothpicks or knives; the fastidious cleaned their teeth by rubbing them with a cloth. The slightest move of a well-dressed body must have  produced an acrid, revolting stench. Both men and women wore pomades and perfumes to mitigate the effect. “

This mansion, which now stands on the property, was not the original house built by Nathaniel and Grizzell Sylvester. This structure was built by their descendants in 1737. 

One of many of the insights elucidated by this book was how pervasive slavery was in Northern American Colonies and which persisted well into American independence. Many people today are completely unaware just how widespread slavery was in the North up through the early nineteenth century. There is a tendency to think of slavery as  an exclusively Southern institution. The existence slave planation in my geographical area of North America was even a surprise to me! Thus this book will be an eye opener for many.

Griswold writes,

“…wealthy colonial society in the North— epitomized perfectly by the Sylvesters’ lucrative Long Island plantation— was initially shaped by generations of captive people, until 1827, when slavery was finally abolished in New York State. “

The book does little to sugar coat the hash realities of slavery or the horrendous treatment meted out to the local Native Americans by Europeans. At the same time Griswold spends many pages are exploring how the various cultures and peoples interacted in a complex, and not always antagonistic or exploitative ways.

This extremely well written and researched work will appeal and to a diverse group of readers. In addition Griswold is great writer of history.  Having read a fair number of history books, I can say that this is a really good one.  Anyone who is interested in Long Island history, the history of North American Colonization, the early slave system, North Eastern Native Americans, or the 17th Century in General will find this book fascinating. For those with curiosity about such topics, this work is highly recommended.

More information on Sylvester Manor can be found at:

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

This is my second post for the RIP or Readers Imbibing Peril seasonal reading event.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is superb and immensely influential work of terror. Since the publication of this novella, its plot and theme has been repeated innumerable times, usually with much less effect, in both prose and on the screen. This book is rightfully recognized as a groundbreaking, chilling, and artistically robust exploration into the dark and light corners inherent within the human mind.

The tale, told in alternating first person points of view by both Dr. Jekyll and by his friends, details Jekyll’s experiments with mind and body altering drugs that create the fiendish alter ego, Mr. Hyde. As time goes by, Jekyll finds that he is becoming addicted to the transformations that also begin to occur spontaneously.

Though the early segments of the book, during which Jekyll’s friends puzzle over the mystery of both the doctor’s strange behavior as well as the reprehensible acts of the mysterious Mr. Hyde, are very entertaining, the work really comes into its own during the final account of Jekyll as he wrestles with, and is both enthralled and tormented by, his divided self. The writing in this part is at times exemplary.  At one point the doctor describes his first experience as Mr. Hyde,

and I determined, flushed as I was with hope and   triumph, to venture in my new shape as far as to my bedroom. I crossed the yard, wherein the constellations looked down upon me, I could have thought, with wonder, the first creature of that sort that their unsleeping vigilance had yet disclosed to them; “

I find that at its core, this book is more then just an exploration of human duality.  As the prose itself hints, the psychological aspect that Hyde represents is only one of many facets of the human mind. Jekyll himself observes how future researchers will likely find more of these facets,

“Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous, and independent denizens. I, for my part, from the nature of my life, advanced infallibly in one direction and in one direction only. “

Hyde is only a fraction, less than half, of the human psyche. I think that this fraction cannot even be classified as fully representative of evil or immorality. Instead, I would argue that this brilliantly portrayed character only represents one type of malevolence.

Hyde is all Id. He generally does not plan his crimes, nor are there any machinations behind his actions. In a passage that I find unnerving even after being exposed to a lot of twenty-first century fictional graphic violence, he viciously beats a man to death with a cane purely on impulse. In other episodes, he knocks down a child and later brutally strikes a woman just for the satisfaction. This is not the evil of genocidal mass murderers such as Hitler and Stalin. Nor are these the pernicious acts of a serial killer or rapist who carefully plans his crimes. Instead, these are impulsive and spontaneous acts of violence.

Interestingly, the legal systems of many nations, based upon certain moral philosophies, generally gives less weight to this type of unpremeditated crime. It would be difficult to pin a charge of first-degree murder on Mr. Hyde!

Jekyll, contrary to a lot of popular thought, is not a representation of pure good. As he himself explains, he is a whole person that is a mix of good and bad. The drug’s effects do not remove the evil from him. In fact, he often behaves very immorally. He continues to take the concoction knowing full well that Hyde is committing vile acts.

In a moment of ethical contortionism, Jekyll, slipping into the third person while referring to himself comments,

“Henry Jekyll stood at times aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde; but the situation was apart from ordinary laws, and insidiously relaxed the grasp of conscience. It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. “

I suspect that the third person point of view is an indication that the voice of Hyde is creeping in here.

The immorality that Jekyll is manifesting here is a bit more complex than that of Hyde’s unmediated outrages. Jekyll is not a simplistic character, however. When he does realize that Hyde has committed murder, he finally refrains from voluntary transforming into the fiend. Of course, it is too late by this time.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a marvelously crafted exploration of various forms of maliciousness and evil. As I tried to illustrate above, I also think that psychologically and philosophically there is more here than initially meets the eye. It is also an entertaining, extremely well written but occasionally disquieting story of human horror.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 3

When I delved into William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2 I speculated about poem’s assertion that having children was a remedy against the despair of getting old and dying. As I ponder Sonnet 3 it seems that Shakespeare is developing this concept further.

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest,
Now is the time that face should form another,
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

Here we have a look at the connection and opposition between sex and death or creation and destruction. This often talked and written about association runs through several of the world’s cultures in the form of religion, literature, art, etc.  Several centuries later, Freud, who did not originate, but developed this theory extensively, argued that this was a natural, built - in part of the human psyche. I am somewhat skeptical of Feud’s claim though I do not completely disregard the possibility. Either way it seems that Shakespeare has tapped into and has built an aesthetic castle based upon this ubiquities concept.

In the above, the tillage of thy husbandry” stands a defense against “the tomb Of his self-love.” The act of procreation is life’s compensation for the cold reality of human mortality. By having children, the object of the verse can triumph over the inevitable. Here Shakespeare seems to be illustrating that procreation is stronger then death.

Shakespeare conveys all this with language and imagery that is sublime. Of course one can put aside all the theorizing and speculation and just enjoy the words. I cannot wait to take a close look at more of these little aesthetic gems.

My commentary on the additional Sonnets: