This week The Extraordinary Times caught up with Dr. Jay Cost, Gerald R. Ford senior nonresidential fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a visiting scholar at Grove City College's Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of several books, most recently Democracy or Republic? The People and the Constitution. He lives in western Pennsylvania with his wife, two children, and one very spoiled cat. This Friday, November 10, from 2-3 p.m. Dr. Cost will deliver the 2023 William V. Coombs American History Lecture, drawing on his book The Price of Greatness: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.
The Coombs Lecture is free and open to the public at the Harry T. Wilks Conference Center, 1601 University Blvd., Hamilton, OH45011. Co-sponsored by Miami University Regionals and Hamilton High School. RSVP strongly encouraged: https://miamioh.edu/regionals/rsvp/
* What drew you to write about Alexander Hamilton and James Madison rather than, say, the more familiar pairing of Hamilton vs. Jefferson?
I was drawn to Hamilton and Madison because they had previously been allies and intellectual partners. They had, in many respects, a shared vision of constitutional republicanism. But they were driven apart in 1790 because those visions were not entirely the same. I thought that looking at them with care would help better understand some of the finer aspects of American political thought.
* How, when, and why did America become an "oligarchy"?
It has never been, strictly speaking, an "oligarchy" because the people still wield power through elections. However, the government's commitment to national economic development entangled it with private enterprise, which in turn gave the latter a kind of "soft power" that it would not otherwise wield through the democratic process. That did not happen overnight. It grew slowly by accretion in the 19th century, was checked for a time by the Progressive Era and the New Deal, but has expanded dramatically since World War II.
* What are the fruits of oligarchy in today's America?
Power and money are fungible. The rich exercise a power that the rest of us cannot ever hope to. The result of this is that public policy in this country has an inevitable bias toward those wealthy interests with business before the government.
* Can Americans reasonably look to our founding era to resolve the political crises of the 21st century?
On a philosophical level, yes I think so. One of the great lasting legacies of the American founding was the way in which the founders took the big ideas of republican political thought and applied them to a young, democratic nation. While our economic, technological, social, and cultural circumstances have changed, these ideas are timeless. The more we understand those ideas, the more we can apply the lessons of the founding to the 21st century.
* What is your next project?
TBD but my hope is to write an intellectual history of the Jeffersonian Republicans.
This month, The Extraordinary Times caught up with Brad Spurlock, Manager of the Smith Library of Regional History and Cummins Local History Room for the Lane Libraries. This fall, Brad will present a three-part series on Hamilton's Industrial History at Miami University Downtown, 221 High Street, Hamilton, OH 45011. This series includes Hamilton Hydropower (10/4), Safe Capital of the World (10/24), and From Champion to Champions (11/2). All three programs start at 7:00 p.m.; registration not required. When not giving historical talks, Brad’s work includes maintaining physical and digital archives, coordinating and conducting historical research, and carrying out history and genealogy programming. He graduated from Xavier University with a BA in History in 2014 and went on to earn a Master of Library and Information Science, with concentrations in Archiving/ Special Collections and Management, from Kent State University in 2016. Brad is a Certified Archivist through the Academy of Certified Archivists.
* For those who may be unfamiliar with the Smith Library, what services do you offer the public?
The Lane Libraries has two history repositories, the Smith Library of Regional History, located in Oxford, and the Cummins Local History Room, located in Hamilton. The Lane Libraries History Team, composed of Smith Library staff and reference staff at the Hamilton Lane Library, works cooperatively to complete patron requests, undertake digitization and community history projects, and provide public programming. The services we offer include accepting requests for information related to local history, genealogy, property histories, and military service. We will also search for newspaper articles/ obituaries and photographs for patrons in addition to helping patrons gain access to specific books/ materials, offering advisory on archiving/ preservation, and presenting talks to local groups and organizations.
* Historically, what factors made Hamilton, Ohio such an economic hub in its industrial heyday?
I once had a professor who said that all history is dependent upon geography, and I have never been able to refute that theory. Hamilton became an industrial juggernaut because of a flood that occurred in 1805 on the high ground north of the town. That flood rerouted the Great Miami River north of Hamilton and allowed for an extensive hydraulic canal system to be constructed from the remnants of the original path of the river which was called the "Old River." The Hamilton Hydraulic turned its first water wheel in 1845, bringing industrial power to Hamilton for the first time. Some of the early factories that utilized the hydraulic were the ancestors of Beckett Paper Company, Shuler & Benninghofen, and Hooven-Owens-Rentschler. Another boon to Hamilton's industry came in the 1890s when civic leaders created the East Hamilton Improvement Syndicate which developed Hamilton's 5th Ward and brought major manufacturers to the city, including Mosler Safe, Estate Stove, and Herring-Hall-Marvin Safe. Possibly from seeing the success of this, Peter G. Thomson brought Champion Paper Company to Hamilton around the same time.
* What kinds of sources did you draw from in researching your forthcoming talks?
All of the information presented in my programs is based on source materials, mostly from the resources held in the Smith Library and Cummins Room. We have several local history books and ephemera (including manufacturing company publications), maps, directories, yearbooks, photographs, etc. to draw information from. We also use web resources to an extent, mostly digitized books available online. One of the best and most specific sources for information on manufacturing, and local history in general, are newspapers. Lane Library patrons have access to historical Hamilton and Cincinnati newspapers through databases we subscribe to, and these newspaper sources are heavily utilized in finding information for our programs.
* Without any spoilers, what are some fascinating facts about industrial Hamilton?
The most fascinating thing about Hamilton's manufacturing history is just how much influence the city had on vital industries of that time. Hamilton was once known as the Safe Capital of the World as half of the safes and vaults made in the entire world were produced across the street from each other in East Hamilton. Champion Paper Company would also become the world's largest paper manufacturer. General Machinery Corporation, a successor of Niles Tool Works and Hooven-Owens-Rentschler, would also grow to become the world's largest machine shop (I will be holding a program on this at the Hamilton Lane Library on 11/16 at 6pm).
This week The Extraordinary Times caught up with Anne Delano Steinert, founding Board Chair and Vice President for Fundraising at the Over-the-Rhine Museum. The Over-the-Rhine Museum is a new immersive urban history museum soon to open to the public on Cincinnati’s West McMicken Avenue. Steinert was recently featured on WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition, where she and fellow guests discussed the mission of this exciting new museum housed in a historic tenement space. Steinert is a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Cincinnati. She holds degrees in historic preservation from Goucher College and Columbia University, as well as an M.A. and PhD in Urban History and Public History from the University of Cincinnati.
* Describe how the Over-the-Rhine Museum got started
Up until the most recent wave of newcomers, history had been well preserved in Over-the-Rhine. Very little change had taken place since the Great Depression, so the buildings were these little time capsules going all the way back in the 19th century. Things like heating and plumbing and furniture in the buildings were preserved because so little had been updated. As Over-the-Rhine evolved, a more affluent population wanted bigger kitchens, more spacious bathrooms, and larger apartments. As all that change took place, the buildings were being drastically altered. The long-term residents of Over-the-Rhine, meanwhile, saw their rents increase and their taxes go up, so a lot of those people also were being lost.
The Over-the-Rhine museum is an attempt to preserve and protect and celebrate all those stories that Over-the-Rhine has to tell, embedded in the physical fabric of the neighborhood, the buildings, and the streetscape, but also the stories of to residents who may or may not have been able to stay in the neighborhood.
* What makes the museum unique in Greater Cincinnati?
One thing that stands out is that it tells the story of everyday ordinary people. It's not—for example—the home of William Howard Taft, who was wealthy and prominent and powerful. It’s the story of folks who are living their everyday lives: people who immigrated, who worked hard every day for a living, people suffering with poverty or health care, issues people who suffered discrimination of one sort or the other. The other thing is that it's immersive. It's not the kind of place where you read things on a wall. You will instead feel like you’ve traveled back in time, like you're immersed in someone's life. We’ll be creating six different spaces for six different moments in time, where you'll experience what life was like for different families. You'll see what their furnishings look like, you'll see how big or small their apartment was. You might hear the kinds of music that they were listening to. It will be experience rather than something mediated by a curator or where there's something between you and the experience—you will be in the experience.
* What is the role of oral history in expanding the impact of the museum?
In our research we identified over 150 families and businesses that have occupied the building, which was built in the early 1860s and was occupied until around 2008. As we've been doing that research, there are better archival or documentary sources for the deep history of 1860s through the 1950s, but the closer we get the present, the harder it is to find written sources that have been archived.
So oral history allows us to capture the memories and stories of folks who lived and worked and played in Over-the-Rhine. We have some oral history stories going back to the 1940s and 1950s, so we can capture this world in a way that we could not really do from what's otherwise available. The United States Census is a great source, for example, but the full records are only publicly available to researchers up to 1950.
Oral history also adds significant richness to the story. Even when we look at, say, the Fettweis family who built the two buildings where the museum is housed in the 1860s and in the 1870s, we have lots of archival information but it's still very flat. lt isn't rich in the in the same way you get from an oral history of someone’s story, which pulls you in and gives you a kind of a sensory connection—I feel like that way of learning about the past is just so much richer.
* Is there anything you would like to share finally with the readers of this blog about how they can find out more or get involved?
One thing I would add is that we have a wonderful walking tour program, “Walking the Stories.” I really encourage people to sign up! The other thing is that this project is a labor of love pulled together by history enthusiasts. We really are a grassroots effort and rely on funding from the public. If this project sounds exciting or interesting, we encourage people to donate or to get involved. They can reach out to me or get in touch by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blockbusters are like buses: you wait forever for one to show up, then two come along at once. However transparent this summer’s “Barbenheimer” hype, Hollywood is finally figuring out how to fill theater seats in an age of post-pandemic fatigue and streaming overload. At the time of writing, Barbie has raked in an eye-popping $780 million in global box office. Its unlikely rival Oppenheimer has earned $400 million, putting it on track to become one of the highest earning biopics of all time. While bubblegum-pink comedies in alternate plastic universes might not be this reviewer’s cup of tea, it is refreshing to see moviegoers coming together in search of a shared experience, whatever that experience might be. But this review is about something entirely different. Yesterday, I caught a matinee screening of the other movie, surrounded by a few old geezers. While Barbie likely pulled in more business at this particular theater, I was eager for the latest offering by the magnificent Christopher Nolan.
Oppenheimer does not disappoint, even as it defies expectations. Drawing on Kai Bird’s and Martin Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus, Nolan’s three-hour study of the tortured genius behind the Manhattan Project is simply a masterpiece—not flawless, by any means, but so engrossing that its run time never drags. Whether the experience would carry to an I-Pad screen or a laptop seems doubtful. For a film about the atom bomb, the explosions are spare, sometimes hinted obliquely in the surreal special effects that illustrate the title character’s stream of consciousness, but only once revealed in full force, midway through the movie. Although Nolan’s filmography includes superhero and action movies (The Dark Knight, Tenet) which climax in pyrotechnics, the decision here is made to depict the Trinity test in the deserts of New Mexico rather than the more notorious bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This choice is laudable and compelling: audiences share in the anxiety of Oppenheimer and his colleagues as the detonator implodes (one theory—a “near zero” probability--hypothesized the atom bomb would ignite an unstoppable chain-reaction, incinerating Earth’s atmosphere. Oppenheimer went ahead anyway.) The ensuing blast is one of the most strangely beautiful scenes ever depicted in film.
Nolan’s film works best, however, as a human drama, which just happens to be about the atom bomb. Critics might complain that the brutal incineration of Japanese civilians is underplayed, but much of the conflict at the heart of this movie revolves around the dark and problematic realization of a monstrous but arguably inevitable technology. Though troubled by the bomb’s implications, Oppenheimer rationalizes its use. Whether or not America can be trusted with such a weapon, the Nazis certainly can’t. One of the chilling themes of Oppenheimer is how close Hitler came to the atomic bomb, though hampered ironically by racist policies (Oppenheimer and many of the Manhattan Project’s diverse team, including numerous refugees, were Jewish). Like the Greek Prometheus who stole fire from the gods, Oppenheimer’s reward for his labors was to be chained (metaphorically) to a rock for eternity. Though celebrated on the cover of Time magazine, Oppenheimer sadly fell foul of the prevailing McCarthyism of 1950s, tarnished by innuendo (though Oppenheimer moved in left-leaning intellectual circles, he was never a card-carrying communist, much less a Soviet agent). Most pitiful was the vendetta waged against Oppenheimer by Lewis Strauss, Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, around which much of the film is organized. Strauss, whose vindictiveness eventually sank his own political ambition, is played with Machiavellian glee by Robert Downey, Jr. A star-studded cast also includes Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt, and Gary Oldman in a memorable cameo as Harry S. Truman. Tom Conte as Albert Einstein is a particular treat. But special mention belongs to Irish actor Cillian Murphy, a stalwart in Nolan’s films, cast here in his first leading role for the director. Murphy nails down the nervous energy and haunted dignity of the brilliant but troubled Oppenheimer, conveying more emotion in a single gaze or gesture than most actors could evoke in a thousand lines. He surely deserves Best Actor at next year’s Academy Awards, but there’s no accounting for taste in this summer of Barbenheimer.
This week, The Extraordinary Times caught up with renowned historian H. W. Brands author of The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom. Holder of the Jack S. Blanton, Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas, Austin, Dr. Brands has written some 30 acclaimed books on American history and politics, including two bestselling titles which were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. On Thursday, September 7 at 7pm, Brands will speak at Miami University Hamilton’s Parrish Auditorium on the epic struggle embodied by Brown and Lincoln—two men moved to radically different acts to confront our nation’s gravest sin. This free public event is sponsored by the Michael J. Colligan History Project, with generous support from Hamilton Community Foundation.
* With such a prolific career, how do you balance research, writing, public appearances, and regular life?
Because I enjoy what I do, it doesn't seem like work, and I don't begrudge the time I spend on it. My writing and teaching complement and inform each other: I write about the same things I teach about. Public speaking is teaching to a larger classroom.
* What inspired you to write The Zealot and the Emancipator?
I want to know what makes people do what they do. In this book I ask how people respond to evil. Brown and Lincoln provided opposite answers to the question of how to confront the evil of slavery. Brown embraced violence, Lincoln chose politics. Why? And what were the consequences?
* Did studying Brown and Lincoln in tandem change your understanding of either or both men?
I came to appreciate the unsatisfactory nature of each of their approaches to slavery. Which was why the problem proved so vexing.
* Of all the quotations about Brown after his death, which is your favorite and why?
On his way to the gallows, Brown left a note. "The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood," he said. This was both a rationalization of his own actions and a chillingly true forecast for America.
* What is your next project?
Since The Zealot and the Emancipator, I've published Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution and The Last Campaign: Sherman Geronimo and the War for America. Next is Founding Partisans: Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, and the Brawling Birth of American Politics, out this fall.
This week, The Extraordinary Times catches up with the multi-talented Dale Farmer. A Fairfield native now living in Preble County, Ohio, Dale Farmer stays busy honoring his Appalachian heritage with film, writing, and music. He can be found performing traditional Appalachian music with the Jericho Old-time Band and The Farmer and the Crow.
Miami University Appalachian Studies will be screening Dale’s acclaimed movie, The Mountain Minor, on November 16, 2023, at Wilks Conference Center, Miami Hamilton. This free public program begins at 6 p.m. with a light dinner, followed by film screening at 6.30 p.m. The program features live musical accompaniment from the Jericho Old Time Band and an audience Q&A to follow.
* How and when did you first get into filmmaking?
For as long as I can remember I’ve had stories playing out in my head: characters, situations, places, various time periods. I never had the drive to write novels, so the stories just remained in my head where I’d revisit them all from time to time. Then I discovered the screenwriting format and some user-friendly software that really suited my storytelling style. So I began putting the stories in black and white. One of the duties of my previous career was making training and promotional videos. My employer furnished video production classes at a local college where I learned a lot of the basics of filmmaking. As I neared retirement, I began thinking about putting my storytelling, video knowledge and music background together to make of my screenplays into a 20-minute short-film idea I had called The Mountain Minor. As more people became involved and greater possibilities were realized, the short film eventually evolved into a feature length film.
* How closely does The Mountain Minor reflect the story of your own family?
Almost everything in The Mountain Minor actually did happen in one way or another. The film was mostly a collection of stories my grandfather told me over my lifetime until his passing in 1985. I had to take some liberties with reality to make my family story into a more compelling and affordable production. I could list out all the details and differences the film has from the actual story, but what matters most is what The Mountain Minor has in common with many thousands of family stories of having to leave Appalachia to come north and find work and sustenance. I was especially compelled to tell the story of how my family, and nearly every Appalachian family I’ve known, are more than stereotypes portrayed in Hollywood and the media in general. They’re resourceful, hardworking people of moral character. I wanted The Mountain Minor to help us to embrace our family stories of our ancestors’ sacrifices that we and society are benefitting from today.
* What were some key source materials you drew on for inspiration and historical context?
My primary source was The Harpers of Pongo Ridge, Christine Harper McKinney’s biography of growing up in the mountains of Kentucky and eventually moving to Reading, Ohio to make a living, There are a few pages in the book about my paternal grandparents who briefly lived next to her childhood home. During my research I met Mrs. McKinney and spent a lot of time with her over the past few years until she passed earlier this year at the age of 96. I also somehow inherited my great grandmother’s old suitcase full of family photos from Kentucky. I spent a lot of time with those photos of my ancestors; a lot of “speak to me” moments looking into their eyes. The old suitcase makes an appearance in the film when the family is leaving the farm for Ohio. I also went back through all my old Foxfire books that I’ve had since my teenage years. I referred a lot to Gerry Milne’s book Play of a Fiddle. I listened to old Appalachian field recordings collected on front porches and living rooms, just like in our film. I took trips to the mountains of Kentucky and met descendants of relatives Grandpa and I visited during my childhood and teenage years. My newfound cousins and I explored old family farm ruins back in the hollers. There’s so much inspiration out there when we go looking for it.
* Your movie enjoys a remarkable cast, including many local musicians (Dan Gellert, Ma Crow, Judy and Warren Waldron, to name a few). Did you know going into this project how these folks would shine as actors?
I’ll just say that I took a big chance using musicians to act rather than actors to play authentic music. But having authentic music was so important to this story. These musicians took this project very seriously and worked very hard to portray their roles. Nobody won an Oscar for their acting but so many people have told me that it was so refreshing to see actors just being genuine, relatable people on screen. I’m very proud of all of them.
* What's next on the horizon, project-wise?
We started work on a short-film project in 2019 that was shut down by Covid. It was one of a few short sequel stories to The Mountain Minor I’m hoping to resume later this summer. But I’m primarily focused on my next feature film with the working title Girls Can’t Fiddle. I’m trying to take this project to the next level, so I’ve been meeting with potential established producers and hope to find the right fit and begin pre-production soon. Girls Can’t Fiddle is a narrative film about a teenage fiddler in 1939 rural West Virginia who is prohibited from playing the fiddle because that was something ladies just didn’t do. So she sneaks off and learns from her secret mentor, an aging African American fiddler. My hope is that the film will both pay homage to early African American and women traditional musicians and also help promote racial healing during this difficult time in our history.
This week, The Extraordinary Times catches up with author and historian Rich Piland. Piland grew up in Independence, where his family moved in 1950. He attended Van Horn High, graduated in 1962 and then went on to Central Missouri State College, Warrensburg (now the University of Central Missouri). He earned BA, BSE (both 1966), and MA (1968) degrees in theatre, and took a position at the University of Connecticut (1968-74) before going to University of Southern California for his Ph.D. in Communication (1977). He later taught at Drake University (1977-78) and Miami University (1978-1983). He left teaching to start a community survey research firm (Personalized Research) that he owned and operated from 1983 to 2013.
Piland has written several books about Hamilton, Ohio including Images of America: Hamilton's Industrial Heritage and Legendary Locals of Hamilton. In addition has written three books about the Kansas City area, including two for Arcadia Publishing: Images of America: Independence, and Images of America: Sugar Creek. The third title is The Illustrated History of the Resident Theatre, Kansas City, Missouri, 1932 to 1983.
* How did you become stricken with the history bug?
When you grow up in Independence you are constantly taught about local history. As early as I can recall, I learned so many details about the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California Trails. Nearly all of the western migration of the 1830s through 1860s started out in Independence. The arrival of the Mormons in the 1830s also was a prominent part of the education as was the Civil War era, including Quantrill's Raiders, and the outlaws Jesse and Frank James. And, of course, the life of Harry S. Truman. During my undergraduate years at Central Missouri State College, I was blessed with having two fantastic theatre historians. They gave me a love of theatre history, in particular American theatre history. Even though I did well in high school history classes, I trace my deep love for history to Dr. Highlander and Dr. Pierce, the theatre historians (Pierce wrote the forward to my Resident Theatre book).
* Apart from Harry S. Truman, what other famous (or infamous) folks came from your hometown of Independence?
There were a lot of regionally important people, but none so prominent at Harry Truman. For example, Logan Swope's family donated the land for Kansas City's Swope Park in the 1890s. George Caleb Bingham, the artist, painted a significant work "Order Number 11" (real name was Martial Law or the War of Desolation), depicting the expulsion of all Independence residents favoring the south during the Civil War. William Quantrill and his raiders worked out of Independence when they raided across the Kansas border to kill and burn the countryside. I already mention the James brothers. They were actually from a bit north of Independence, but Frank married an Independence girl named Ann Ralston. Frank's remains are buried in a family cemetery in a small place called Hill Park. Joseph Smith, Mormon church leader, arrived in Independence in 1831 and declared the town to be the site of Zion and the New Jerusalem (for a fun time, listen closely to the lyrics to "I am a Mormon" from the musical "Book of Mormon"). He and his followers were driven out of town (and the state) but returned in 1873 as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints--RLDS). One final person I should mention is Forest (Phog) Allen. He and his six brothers had a local basketball team of renown and Phog coached at the high school before going to the University of Kansas where he coached for 42 years. The university's basketball field house is named in his honor.
* In writing your book Legendary Locals of Hamilton, how did you identify which notable Hamiltonians would make the final cut?
There have been a lot of people certainly worthy of being included in the Legendary Locals book. Early on, I determined the structure of the book which provided for seven chapters, each devoted to a particular aspect of the community's life. I then searched for stories about people for each category (teachers, educators, police/ fire officials, etc.). Many of those included were easy to select but a couple were at least controversial. I still get an occasional "Why did you include James Ruppert?" comments. He is legendary because of his murders of his family. But nearly all of them were easy to select. Basically, the structure of the book led me to make most of the selections I did.
* What historical factors helped produce such a wealth of talented and interesting characters in a relatively small city like Hamilton, Ohio?
I really think there were quite a few persons that had extraordinary influences on the development of Hamilton and the surrounding area. Early on, the development of Fort Hamilton cemented the location of the town here. The advent of the Miami-Erie Canal and, more importantly, the hydraulic lead to the creation of such a manufacturing center here. The names most people know—Rentschler, Mosler, Hooven, Beckett, Thomson, Kahn, Parrish, and Lane—shaped the community. They were the initial influencers, and their efforts still have impact on the town. Several contemporary leaders such as city manager Joshua Smith, Robert Harris, and others are working to redesign the town for the future.
* Do you have any current research projects on the go?
I'm embarrassed to say that I have ten to twelve folders on my desk with plans for books in varying degrees of completeness. I've taken to research and write short pieces for the Journal News. So far, they have published history pieces about Stella Weiler Taylor's family, the Millikin family of doctors, Soldier, Sailors and Pioneer Monument curator McDonald and his models and, most recently, the Hamilton Chautauqua from 1913 to 1930. I thoroughly enjoy doing these stories. I'm also working on creating presentations given for the Butler County Historical Society.
This week The Extraordinary Times caught up with David W. Blight, Sterling Professor of History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. In 2018, Simon and Schuster published his biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History, the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, the Bancroft Prize for History, and the Francis Parkman Prize. Blight will give the 2023 John E. Dolibois History Prize Lecture, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” at Miami University’s Hamilton Campus this Thursday, March 30 at 7 p.m. Free public event, Q&A and booksigning to follow.
* You describe Frederick Douglass as America's "Prophet of Freedom." How did his prophetic nature help him foresee the future?
Douglass did not foresee the future. But in the tradition of the Judeo-Christian Hebrew prophets, whom he greatly admired and modelled, he was one of those rare people who could find the language, the voice, with which to capture the meaning of events, however traumatic or triumphal. He was a prophet in his use of words, his ability to explain the predicaments of his era. And he saw deeply into the story, the experience, the horror, and the human transcendence of slavery.
* Why is Douglass such a resonant figure in American culture?
Douglass is so important today because he gave us, better than anyone in the nineteenth century, an analysis and a story about race, America's most enduring issue. If one looks carefully at the dilemmas, the problems, the great issues he faced and endlessly analyzed in such remarkable prose, it is clear that most of those questions are still very much with us in our lives every day.
* How might Douglass be remembered differently had he followed fellow abolitionist John Brown in the 1859 raid at Harper's Ferry?
If Douglass had really joined John Brown and the attack on Harpers Ferry, he would have been captured and hanged by the state of Virginia. We would remember him only as the abolitionist who died on the gallows after Brown.
* How do you characterize Douglass's changing relationship with Abraham Lincoln?
Douglass and Lincoln started in very different places ideologically about slavery and its future. But they grew toward one another between late 1862 and the spring of 1865. That process of growth and change from being a fierce critic of Lincoln to a supporter and admirer in 1864 is one of the great stories in Douglass's life.
* You taught High School in Flint, Michigan for several years before pursuing a career in academia. What lessons have you taken from the classrooms of Flint to the classrooms of Yale?
I love this question. I learned how to teach in Flint. I learned how to fail and succeed in the classroom. I learned to take my students seriously but also not suffer fools. I learned then, and still discover it every day, that teaching is one part personality and one part knowledge. You must have both, but students will quickly know if you do not have the knowledge. My Yale students take their learning very seriously most of the time. At the high school level in an industrial working class city, I had to find some way every day to inspire my students. That is the best training experience for teaching one can have.
This week The Extraordinary Times catches up with local writer and history enthusiast Cheri Brinkman. Cheri has lifelong connections to southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati and the University of California, she has previously taught at UC and Miami University. Since 2010, Cheri has written the Cincinnati and Soup book series, celebrating the food history of the Queen City. She has been a historical speaker in the region, a contributing presenter doing food presentations for Cincinnati and Dayton TV stations, and was involved with Ohio 4H for over twenty years, serving as a County Key Advisor and an Ohio State Fair Judge.
Cheri will be speaking this month, Tuesday, March 28 at 6pm at Miami University Middletown’s Verity Traditions series. Join Cheri as she explores “Hollywood on the Ohio,” showcasing the famous movie stars and showbusiness greats from our region. Free program, light dinner provided. More information and rsvp link at: www.miamioh.edu/regionals/rsvp
Cheri notes that profits from the books and talks go to help underwrite CET public television, pet rescues like PAWS and League for Animal Welfare ,and Cancer Free Kids (pediatric cancer research). Cheri be reached at: email@example.com
* Who, in your opinion, are the biggest stars from our region?
There are a number of truly remarkable film stars and directors from southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky. There are the obvious ones like Doris Day, Tyrone Power, and Roy Rogers but there are numerous others. Most people don't know that there are four Oscar winners from this area [editor’s note: how many can you name?!] and numerous Golden Globe awardees.
* Who is an example of a lesser known local star deserving greater recognition, and why?
As the program covers the silent film era to the present day, I think one of my favorites is Marguerite Clark who was a famous silent actress of the time. She was second in box office numbers only to Mary Pickford as an ingenue actress. She was the first Snow White on film.
* Do you have a theory why this region is a hothouse for showbusiness talent?
Southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky are a center of the American Standard midwestern accent. This area also has the culture of the eastern states and the down to earth qualities of the true Midwest. I think that this provides a positive start to many of the local talents who have made it in show business.
* In addition to showbusiness, you have a passion for food history. What makes Cincinnati stand out in this regard?
The Cincinnati and Soup book series are a fun collection of four books—soon to be five books—of local recipes and stories. Some history some historical, all a positive reflection of who we are in Cincinnati. Cincinnati of course is unique with Cincinnati chili, goetta and mock turtle soup. The books also have a lot of "old school" recipes which are out of print or from local celebrities like Ruth Lyons, Bob Braun, Bonnie Lou, and department stores like Pogue's, Shillito's, etc.
* Tell readers a little about your latest book!
Currently Cincinnati and Soup: Modern Times is underway, and we are working towards publication this year. The recipes are ones we haven't had in previous books—excepting the Cincinnati chili, goetta, and mock turtle . People seem to like those in the books!
This week The Extraordinary Times Catches up with Appalachian poets Pauletta Hansel and Sara Moore Wagner. On Monday, February 27 at 1.30 pm, Miami University Hamilton campus welcomes Pauletta and Sara for a special reading of their work entitled “Girl (Hoods) and Hollers.” This free public reading is co-sponsored by Miami Appalachian Studies and the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Writing.
Pauletta is familiar to readers of this blog from her November 2020 Q&A, and from previous appearances at Miami. Pauletta was the 2022 Writer-in-Residence for the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library. She served as the first Poet Laureate of Cincinnati from April 2016 through March 2018. She has written nine poetry collections including Heartbreak Tree, a poetic exploration of the intersection of gender and place in Appalachia.
Sara has written two full length books of poetry, Swan Wife (winner of the 2021 Cider Press Review Editors Prize) and Hillbilly Madonna (2020 Driftwood Press Manuscript prize winner), a recipient of a 2022 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, a 2021 National Poetry Series Finalist, and the recipient of a 2019 Sustainable Arts Foundation award. Her poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies, and has been supported by a SAFTA residency, a merit scholarship from the Juniper Institute, and a scholarship to the Palm Beach Poetry Festival as a finalist for the Thomas Lux prize. She holds a BFA from Bowling Green State University and an MA in literature from Northern Kentucky University.
* Can you say a little about where you each grew up, and how your childhoods shape your poetry?
PH: I grew up in southeastern Kentucky, in small towns where my father taught college. He was a first-generation college student from the mountains who spent his career teaching college in the mountains. We moved pretty often in my grade school years, mostly within a 100-mile radius, but far enough away that I started over with every move. Books were the constant for me. I started writing poetry in the 6th grade, not too long after our final move as a family—to Breathitt County (having previously lived in Madison, Letcher, Knox, and Perry Counties).
My initial influences were 19th century literature (especially the Brontës) and 1970s singer-songwriters, especially Joni Mitchell and Janis Ian. So in both cases, the Romantics! And Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of the few women poets whose books I could access. As a young writer, I did not consider my own family or environment worthy of literature. I am sure my young self would be shocked that these things have become major sources of inspiration for my writing. It took some distance, both temporal and geographic to understand how the people and place shaped who I am. I can also add the southern and Appalachian storytelling traditions to my influences: for me a poem often starts with a story, the memory of a specific event which needs more exploration.
At a recent reading someone asked me if I was always as aware of my surroundings as I am now in my poems about my Appalachian girlhood. The answer is a resounding no! I was not an outdoors sort of girl, and felt no real sense of belonging to the land. But as I revisit in both body and mind, there is a sense of place that developed in a largely unconscious way. The landscape is more at home in my poems than I would have ever thought possible as a young poet.
Heartbreak Tree, which I will be reading from, is largely about that intersection of place and gender. It explores my own girlhood and that of my foremothers using the lens of geography—mountains, switchback roads, coal, dirt. It is also about aging, becoming the elder, and seeing the changes in my own body even as I see them in the place from which I come.
SMW: Pauletta and I have so much in common when it comes to our girlhoods, though we come from really different places. I was also more of an indoor kid. I was dragged out into the hills by my father, who loved them, so the landscape shaped me and my writing as much as he did.
I grew up with divorced parents, split between them. I was born in Columbus, where my parents first met. My dad was from Ohio’s Appalachia (Jackson area), and my mom is from Parkersburg, West Virginia. They met, had me, and split very young. I spent my time between the both of them and my Mema, my dad’s mom, who cared for me a lot while my mom worked and was in college. My dad built a cabin in the woods near Hocking Hills, out of a strong desire to be back where he came from. I spent a lot of time there and in Tar Hollow State Park, one of his favorite places in the world. I never really thought of myself as Appalachian, but understand myself and my family identity now more, that we are urban Appalachians, thanks to Pauletta and her research and drive to educate.
Like Pauletta, I started writing poetry very young. This was a result of the silencing I felt being carried back and forth between homes. I wanted to have a voice and space of my own, I was lonely, and I found a home and self in poetry. My first influences were writers like HD, Yeats, Emily Dickinson, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, in whose poetry I loved the mythic grandeur, sound, and focus on image. I then moved, like Pauletta, to music, my main muse being Tori Amos, who I discovered and became obsessed with at twelve. Tori Amos, like me, came from a religious background. I loved how her songs felt like codes. She expanded my sense of what language can do, and made me delve even deeper into myth and literature, as much of her music contains allusions to both.
As an adult poet, I have turned to childhood often because it was such a confusing time for me. I am not someone who understood myself or my identity young, I needed to write into the questions and little wounds. Like Joan Didion said, I write to understand. I have returned to the spaces of my childhood to write many of the poems in both books. Channeling the girl I was in the spaces I inhabited sparks my imagination. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop mining the past this way.
* How did your paths cross?
PH: Now, for someone who relies on memory for my poems, my memory is not all that great! (I guess that’s where imagination comes in!) I am trying to remember where I first met Sara. Since she’s a few decades younger, maybe she can put a time and place. But over the last few years I have been encountering her poetry in online journals. I was so excited both by her poems and by the fact of her urban Appalachian story–then when she began writing and publishing more explicitly from that story, I knew we had to connect. I have been involved in Cincinnati’s urban Appalachian community for many years as part of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, including leading creative writing workshops with both kids and adults focused on speaking the lives of urban Appalachian people in the generations beyond migration. Sara brings that story to the page with craft and truth. It is my honor (in some ways, my responsibility) to help her make that story known.
SMW: As for how I met Pauletta, I remember distinctly being a baby writer and seeing her at a reading. I knew she was someone important, and her work drew me in. In her time as poet laureate of Cincinnati, I watched from afar the work she did for the city and poetry. So, when she reached out to see if I might be interested in reviewing Heartbreak Tree for Still, I jumped at the chance to connect more deeply. Through that, we discovered so many connections in our work–and the rest is history! [PH: Or Herstory!]
* What are some common themes in your poetry?
SMW: What connects our work is definitely the wild girls we used to be, and in many ways still are. When I am with Pauletta, I feel as if those girls see and speak to each other. We have a soul understanding and a connection to the places we sprang from that, despite whatever differences in our work and those places, binds us. We are also both searching for the truth about ourselves and our families, and using landscape and place to do that. We are very different in style, though. Pauletta, as she mentioned, is a storyteller to her core. She embodies that Appalachian storyteller she spoke of in her explanation of her childhood. I like to say I spit fire. I write from a sense of panic. I tell stories, too, but they are a bit more fractured. I think you can see that difference in our musical muses too, Tori Amos vs. Joni Mitchell, in a way.
I hope people get that sense of place from our readings, and of speaking truth into things that are often silenced about women, especially in Appalachia. Things are not black and white, there is gray everywhere. Our collaboration shows this, the line that stretches through generations of Appalachians who stayed in the region and who, like my family, left it for opportunities which never came. This collaboration highlights and explores both difference and commonality. We’re linked by girlhood, and it’s that girlhood, those girls, who speak and persevere.
PH: Adding to what Sara said, I also hope that folks will experience the value of co-mentorship across generations. I was brought into the fold by other Appalachian and women writers in my early years. George Ella Lyon was (and is) an important influence in helping me tell the truths of my life as an Appalachian woman. It is important to me to offer that same doorway to other women writers who wish to pass through, and to communicate something of that lineage. Equally important is to be able to learn from younger writers who have been making doors into places where I might have never entered. Sara is one of those women, for sure. Her writing teaches me about my life. And I hope people enjoy our work and maybe see a bit of themselves there, regardless of gender or place.
Matthew Smith, PhD (History). Public Programs at Miami University Regionals. Historian of Appalachia, the Ohio Valley, & the early American republic.