Bag Girl Reviews: Marie Antoinette, Princess of Versailles by Kathryn Lasky

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Due to my interest in history and childhood obsession with princesses, one of my favorite series of books growing up was The Royal Diaries. I scoured my elementary school and middle school libraries for every book in the series I could get my hands on and checked them out over and over again. The one that I checked out the most was Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles by Kathryn Lasky. My first reading of the book probably predates my first viewing of the Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette, but my subsequent Marie Antoinette obsession lead me cracking it open many more times. The book and I encountered each other again after many years last fall at Wicked Good Books in Salem and I just had to finally own a copy of it for myself.

As a fictionalized diary, it follows Archduchess Maria Antonia (later Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France) as she prepares to marry Louis Auguste, heir to the French throne. The free-spirited and somewhat scatterbrained teenager chafes under the high expectations of her formidable mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and the rigid etiquette she is supposed to follow as future queen of France, and enjoys more simple pleasures such as sledding trips and moon-lit wadding in the palace fountains. Upon her arrival at the glittering but cut-throat court of Versailles, she finds that her future husband, Louis Auguste, is not the fairytale prince she had hope for but soon develops a deep fondness for the awkward young man. The young and inexperienced dauphine quickly sparks a rivalry with Madame du Barry, King Louis XV’s greedy and arrogant mistress and struggles to find her footing at court. 

Being a book intended for children, Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles glosses over the sexual failings which marred the first seven years of Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis Auguste (later Louis XVI). Due to Louis’s awkwardness and lack of knowledge about reproduction, the royal couple failed to consummate their marriage for a number of years. The sexual debauchery for which Versailles was notorious for and the obscene mockery which was heaped on Marie Antoinette for most of her sojourn in France, are also left unmentioned. 

I have to admit that I’ve grown beyond books like this, them being written for kids. The language and plot are simple, almost juvenile and has little to offer an adult reader aside from nostalgia. But I would recommend it to little girls who, like me, had a taste for history, pretty dresses, and royal pomp and splendor. 

 

Bag Girl Reviews: The Poems of Anne Bradstreet

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The puritan poet Anne Bradstreet holds a special place in American literature as not only its first female writer but also as its first published author. Her book, The Tenth Muse, was the first literary work created in America. I had read some of Bradstreet’s poems in my American lit. class this year in school and I bought of a book of her poetry in the giftshop at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead.  

The poems of Anne Bradstreet focus on subjects appropriate for a puritan woman: love, family life, and religion and the hardships which women like her faced in 17th century Massachusetts such as such as childbirth, lose of and separation from loved ones, and reconciling these hardships with their religious beliefs. The puritans who colonized New England dealt with a combination of a harsh and difficult landscape and similarly harsh and difficult religious beliefs. The puritan psyche was characterized by a struggle between the flesh, material things of the world, and the spirit, the soul and spirituality. Bradstreet’s poem, The Flesh and the Spirit, deals with this struggle, presented as an argument between two sisters, personification of these two forces. The flesh argues that the spirit can never be sure if what it believes is actually true. One of the most difficult parts of being a puritan is just that, cannot you be sure that your strict religious observance is worth it in the end. The Spirit’s rebuttal to her sister is that she will avoid being troubled by doubt and rely on faith because the rewards given in heaven are far greater than anything on earth. The needs of the flesh distract you from the needs of the spirit and keep you from living a godly life, according to puritan thought.

Another tenet of puritan thought is to dismiss hardship and tragedy as “god’s will.” In her poem, Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666, takes the typically puritan view of misfortune. In describing a fire which destroyed her home, she tries to tell herself that such a tragedy is God’s will and that worldly goods are meaningless. But the reader gets a sense that this only a half hearted way of trying to make herself feel better after losing her home and everything she owns. A difficulty which comes with being a person of faith is reconciling their belief in a just and loving god with the terrible things that can happen to them, and the idea that they “God’s will” is perhaps a way of dealing with profound sorrow.

Bradstreet wrote the poem, As Weary Pilgrim, Now at Rest, towards the end of her life. She compares herself to a traveler who has been on a long and difficult journey and longs for rest For a puritan with strict religious beliefs living in the harsh climate of New England, life would seem like a long and difficult journey. Puritans saw their earthly life as filled with hardships and the only rest they could hope for in heaven after death.

The puritans came to the New World seeking religious freedom, which has become a belief upon which America was, supposedly, founded. But what the puritans meant by religious freedom was religious freedom for themselves and no one else. They were notoriously intolerant of other religious groups and had the protestant fierce hatred of catholics. Bradstreet’s poem, A Dialogue Between Old England and New, is pretty much a long rant against popery. As a confirmed, if not necessarily practicing, catholic, I felt a little bit offended.  Puritans such as Anne Bradstreet are fascinating to study because in them, we find the seeds of so much of what makes up the American psyche: our idolization of a strong work ethic (our reality is perhaps less noble), our sense of exceptionalism and curmudgeonly independence, our tendency towards bigotry, and our penchant for literal and figurative witch hunts. Perhaps our modern culture of consumerism, excess, and hedonism is perhaps a reaction against our puritanical roots.

I would recommend reading Anne Bradstreet to anyone interested in American history and literature, specifically of the puritan era.  

Bag Girl Reviews: Helen of Troy by Bettany Hughes

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Bettany Hughes is an historian whose documentaries I adore. My favorite documentaries of her’s are the episodes about Helen of Troy and the ancient Minoan civilization from her Ancient World series. The Mycenaeans and Minoans are two ancient civilizations whose culture and aesthetics I am fascinated with; Greece, specifically the island of Crete, are on my bucket list of places I want to visit. 

The definitive account of the life of Helen of Troy comes from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey but there are a plethora of, often conflicting, other sources from the ancient world which provide details of her life.  Many of these details, her conception via Zeus’s rape of her mother Leda in the form of a swan, being the protegee of the goddess Aphrodite, seem fantastic but are there kernels of truth in her story? Bettany Hughes presents Helen’s world, late bronze age Greece, as one where a superbly beautiful and high born woman like her would have wielded great power. Reports of a stunning and powerful queen and her misadventures may have been exaggerated over time. Helen was also perhaps a high priestess, officiating over religious ceremonies or a vestige of some long forgotten bronze age goddess.

A fascinating thing about Helen of Troy is that she refuses to conform the madonna/whore dichotomy of  later civilizations. She is an adulteress whose extramarital affair and elopement with the trojan prince, Paris, started the Trojan War but was also worshiped by young virgins on the cusp of womanhood in her hometown of Sparta, who hoped to gain some of her famous sexual allure.  Helen has been loathed as everything from a scheming seductress to a vapid bimbo and yet people have fascinated by her for thousands of years.

I have to admit that I had a hard time getting into this book, mostly because of the difficulty I have with reading non-fiction. Anyone with an interest in the ancient world, and an easier time reading non-fiction, will get something out of reading this.  I would recommend looking up Bettany Hughes’s documentaries on Helen of Troy and the ancient Minoan civilization on Youtube for those without the time or patient to crack open a scholarly book. I have a major girl crush on Bettany Hughes, the Nigella Lawson of ancient history, and Greece is a country rich in natural beauty and historical sites. You can relax on a beach and then explore a Minoan or Mycenaean ruin, my dream vacation destination.

After I finish college, I’m going to spend a few years taking classes at North Shore Community to get my library degree and to learn Italian and Greek  and working to save money. Then I’m going to spend some time traveling in Italy and Greece.

 

Bag Girl Reviews The Witches by Stacy Schiff

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One of the most endlessly fascinating episodes in American history is the Salem Witch Trials, perhaps it’s best known unsolved mystery. What made the citizens of an upstanding puritan community turn against itself with friends, family, and neighbors accusing one another of the worst crime they could think of: witchcraft. There is no shortage of books describing the events of 1692 Salem and providing theories as to why they happened, but The Witches by Stacy Schiff is a welcome addition.

Schiff provides a detailed and nuanced depiction of the Salem Witch Trials, going beyond the American History class stereotypes. She gives context to these events as well as possible explanations, without resorting to the typical conspiracy theories: these range from political divisions to ergot (a mold which is what LSD is derived from ) laced rye bread. It all began with a group of adolescent girls, a disenfranchised section of the community who were both largely ignored and highly scrutinized, it is possible that a combination of strict puritan religious beliefs and societal expectations and the repression of teenaged impulses and desires caused them to act out. What started off with youthful rebellion snowballed out of control, fed by the divisions and suspicions in their society.

Early New England lived in fear of attacks from Indians and the French, disease and other natural disasters as well as interference from the British crown. It was divided between a number of different political and religious factions. Salem village itself was split between those supported the minister, Samuel Parris, and those who resented having to pay his salary. A top of that were various land disputes and personal grudges.

Schiff puts the Salem Witch Trial against the larger backdrop of the 17th century ( the period which saw the greatest number of witch trials worldwide) as well as World History in general, specifically the McCarthy Trials of the 1950s and  the fairly recent Patriot Act/ War on Terror era, which we are (arguably) still going through. Both of these events and those like them are often referred to as “witch hunts.” The Salem Witch Trials are invoked whenever a climate of fear and suspicion cause us to turn against one another.

The Witches by Stacy Schiff provides fascinating context to the much discussed Salem Witch Trials and is a must read for anyone who is interested in these events.  I found it dry at points but that is due to the difficulty I have with non fiction. 

Bag Girl Memorial Day Special: Remembrance Day at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead

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The Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers MA hosted a World War I themed event in honor of Memorial Day Weekend. I have a somewhat Edwardian looking dress and hat and decided to wear them. Dad and I arrived in Danvers a few minutes before ten o’clock a waited a few minutes in the car before going in.

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A local group that reenacts World War I had set up a camp on the grounds of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead and there were also reenactors portraying British sailors and French soldiers. Dad was disappointed to find that there would not be any drills or demonstrations that day. To see that, we would have to come back the next day. The first part of our visit involved poking around the event to see what was there and then looking around in the Rebecca Nurse house. While looking in the wing of the house with display cases filled with artifacts dug up on the site, we met a volunteer named Don, who gave us a tour of the second floor of the house, which I have never seen before. The meeting house was set up for crafts and coloring; I made a poppy out of tissue paper and pipe cleaners.

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Dad and I were hungry by this point, so we went to the concession stand for snacks: We both got cokes. I got a bag of popcorn and a bag of candy; Dad got a donut. Afterwards, I went to the gift shop and bought and a volume of poems by Anne Bradstreet, who we studied in my American Lit. class, and a couple of postcards. I donated my last dollar to a fund to build a World War I memorial in Washington D.C. My donation allowed me to take a packet of Flanders Poppy seeds, which I later planted in a pot on my deck. We will see how well they turn out.

The reenactors had brought a great deal of interesting things to look at. A table displaying weapons had a rifle bayonet which could be detached and used as a  knife.

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Another table, which had books and other paper goods from the period, had a romantic postcard of an American soldier kissing his girl before going off to war and a basic french book, as well as a book of “naughty poems.” I wonder what people in 1917 considered naughty.

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There was also a table set up with rations which a World War I era soldier would have eaten and a fire for cooking bacon. Another table which displayed period communications devices such as radios and cameras.

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The British encampment had cigarette cards of King George V, Queen Mary, and other members of the royal family. The French encampment had an actual Croix de Guerre medal. An adorable little boy tried on a helmet at the British encampment and appeared to be having a ball. I love seeing people bring kids to these type of events.

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We left around noon and I put my postcards and poppy in my scrapbook.

Slavery and Dehumanization in Abolitionist Literature

Frederick Douglass ends chapter two of  A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave with a description of the singing of the slaves on the plantation where he grew up: “The songs of the slaves represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears” (1188). Slave owns and slavery supporters claim that since the slaves sing, they are content with their lot but Douglass claims the opposite. His interpretation of these songs is that they are a way for the slaves to retain some resemblance of humanity in their miserable and degrading lives by expressing their emotions.

The theme of Douglass’s work is that the institution of slavery dehumanizes all who are involved with it; it turns the black slaves into ignorant animals and their white masters into sadistic monsters. A slave complaining about the poor treatment they receive from their master is unthinkable, due to the fact that the slave would be brutally beaten, possibly to death, if they they do complain: “It is partly in consequence of such facts, the slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind” (1190).  If a slave in the society which Douglass is asked about the treatment they receive from their masters, they will usually lie and say that they are treated well out of fear of punishments.

Douglass gives the character of Sophia Auld as an example of how slavery negatively affects the white slaver holders. Sophia starts off as kind and motherly towards the young Douglass but the absolute power given to her by the slave holding society corrupts her absolutely:

“But alas! This kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon” (1196).

This passage foreshadows how Sophia Auld’s character changes from kind to cruel due to the malign influence of slavery.

During his time with the Aulds, the young Douglass slowly begins to teach himself how to read and write and notice how different he is from his white playmates,“You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life. Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?” (1199). With his new education, Douglass grows dissatisfied with his life as a slave. He is now more than ignorant animal that he is expected to be.

Harriet Jacobs begins her work, Incidents in The Life of A Slave Girl, with a description of the main character, Linda’s, happy childhood. Her family is owned by kind masters who treat them well, so well that Linda is unaware that she is a slave for the first few years of her life. Linda realises her position in the world when her mistress dies and she willed to her mistress’s granddaughter and is separated from her family. She learns the hard way that the world at large sees her as an object and property: “These God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend” (924).

In the home of her new masters, Linda is subject to sexual harassment from the cruel, Dr. Flint. She falls in love with a free black man who wishes to buy her from Dr. Flint and marry her, which Dr. Flint refuses to consent to.

“Again and again I revolved in my mind how all this would end. There was no hope that the doctor would consent to sell me on any terms. He had an iron will, and was determined to keep me, and to conquer me. My lover was an intelligent and religious man. Even if he could have obtained permission to marry me while I was a slave, the marriage would give him no power to protect me from my master. It would have made him miserable to witness the insults I should have been subject to. And then, if we had children, I knew they must “follow the condition of the mother.” What a terrible blight that would be on the heart of a free, intelligent father!”

(Pages 927-8)

Linda is not free to live the life she wants or be with the man she loves. Her life is controlled by the whims of her masters.

In chapter ten, Linda begins an affair with a white man and becomes pregnant. She begs the readers not judge her harshly for what she has done because black slave women do not have the advantages of free white woman, who are protected by society and the law and are allowed to be with the men they love, “But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor slave girl too severely” (929).  Slaves, especially slave women, have little to no control over their lives.

The slave holding society which Harriet Beecher Stowe describes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin places black slaves at the mercy of their white owners: “So long as the law considered all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master,-so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil,-so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery” (813).  The life of a slave depends on the character of their masters.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Shelby family, who owns the heroine Eliza, are shown as being fairly kind masters, while Eliza’s husband George is owned by cruel people. George has become angry and resentful at his position, so much that he questions what right his master has to own him: “My master! And who made him my master? That’s what I think of-what right has he to me? I’m a man as much as he is. I’m a better than he is. I know more about business than he does; I am a better manager than he is; I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand,-and I’ve learned it all myself, and no thanks to him,-I’ve learned it in spite of him; and now what right has he to make a dray-horse of me?” (815-16). The power of slave owners is fragile when those they claim to own no longer accept their authority.

Frances Harper’s poem, Eliza Harris, refers to the heroine of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who escaped slavery with her young son. The Eliza of both the poem and the novel is determined to give her child freedom: “For she is a mother-her child is a slave-And she’ll give him his freedom, or find him a grave!” (Lines 7-8). Harper’s poem describes one of the best known scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Eliza and her son cross the frozen Ohio river which divides the slaveholding South from the free North. Eliza is overjoyed that she and her son are no longer slaves:

“With the rapture of love and fullness of bliss, She place’d on his brow a mother’s fond kiss:-Oh! Poverty, danger and death she can brave,

For the child of her love is no longer a slave!”

(Lines 45-48)

Another of Harper’s poems, The Slave Mother, describes the plight of Eliza prior to her escape. The slave mother of the poem loves her child but is tormented by the fact that her child could be taken away from her at any time and sold far away:

“He is not hers, for cruel hands

May rudely tear apart

The only wreath of household love

That binds her breaking heart”

(Lines 21-24)

Both Harper and Stowe present a scenario to elicit pathos and sympathy from their readers. Eliza and The Slave Mother show recognizably human feelings: love for their children, a fear of losing those children, and a desire for those children to have a better life. The readers of Harper and Stowe’s works are expected to put themselves in the place of these slave mothers and imagine how heart-broken they would feel if their children were taken away from them.

 

William Blake and Childhood Poverty

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The poet and artist, William Blake, spent most of his life living in London, eaking out a living as an engraver. The London of Blake’s day was a dark, violent, and oppressive place where violence and exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, specifically child abuse, was rampant. In 1822, the British Parliament passed the Martin’s Act, which prohibited the cruel treatment of animals; legislation preventing cruelty towards children was not passed until much later. During Blake’s lifetime, you could buy three children from an orphanage or workhouse for the price of a horse (Mayall). Poor and unwanted children were subject to appalling living and working conditions and beatings from both their employers and parents. Corporal punishment was a fixture of the British school system and would remain so until the 1990s. Much of Blake’s work addressed the issues of his day rather directly or indirectly and was inspired by his strong but unconventional religious and spiritual beliefs. In discussing the themes of innocence and experience, Blake gives a voice to the abused underclasses (Martin 1)

William Blake believed that his poetry and engravings were divinely inspired. He was born into family of what was known as “dissenters,” those who did not follow the Church of England; they were possibly Baptists. Blake himself disapproved of the Church of England and did not follow any specific religious denomination, though he had a strong spiritual bent and belief in God (Campe 3). His unusual and controversial religious beliefs are expressed through his art which he felt a moral and sacred obligation to create.  Songs of Innocence and Experience shows Blake’s views on human nature. Blake describes innocence and experience as “two contrary states of the human soul” and the poems in this body of work show many of its subjects from two different perspectives: one childlike and idealistic, the other more mature and world-weary. When read together, the parallel  poems highlight contradictions in their intended subject. The England of Blake’s day may have a rich and prosperous place but only thrived due to an oppressed underclass. Children may be pure innocents but the world is filled with forces which can destroy them or turn them into ferocious and corrupt monsters (Campe 6).

The companion pieces Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience deal with man’s essential purity which is corrupted by the hardships and evils of the world. The themes of purity and corruption are expressed in the two corresponding Chimney Sweeper poems through the use of black and white. Little Tom Dacre, the sweep in the Innocence version, is presented as an angelic figure in a dark and dirty world; Tom’s curly blond hair is describe as being like the wool of a lamb, a conventional symbol for innocence and saintliness “You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair” (8) and the sooty chimneys he works in are compared to black coffins  “Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black” (12). The coffin imagery is used to foreshadow Tom’s possible early death but the poem gives him the possibility of salvation, “And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy, He’d have God for this father & and never want joy… Tho’the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm; So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm,” (19-24). His life is hard and will likely be short, but his innocence gives him the hope of heaven.

The chimney sweeper in the Experience version is presented as much more tragic and pathetic figure. In contrast to the white angelic Tom in his coffins of black, this sweeper is described as “A little black thing among the snow, crying’weep, ‘weep, in notes of woe!” (1-2), an ugly black blot on the superficial purity of the world. It is implied that this sweeper was carelessly abandoned by his parents, who hypocritically attend church to appear respectable while he suffers in the streets, “And because I am happy, & dance & sing, They think they have done me no injury, and are gone to praise God & his Priest & King, Who make up a heaven of our misery,” (9-12). God, the Priest, and King refer to religion and government, those who are supposed to look after the poor and needy but do not. The Experience chimney sweeper is a miserable and doomed character, “Because I was happy upon the heath, and smil’d among the winter’s snow; the clothed me in the clothes of death, and taught me to sing the notes of woe.” (5-8). Both poems refer to the likely fate of these poor and unwanted children: a life of exploitation and an early death.

The cry of the Chimney Sweepers, “ ‘weep,” gives the poems an even more pathetic tone. In the Innocence version, it is meant to show how young Little Tom Dacre is: he cannot even fully pronounce the word “sweep” (Martin 3). While the Experience version uses the cry of  “‘weep” in a more complex way; to mimic sobbing and emphasize the tragic existence of the chimney sweepers, who were often sold off at six years old or younger (Martin 3). Children in Blake’s work are often presented as paragons of innocence and purity who cannot comprehend the evil in world or why it happens and are vulnerable to exploitation because of their youth and innocence. The “God & his Priest & King” mentioned in the Experience version of “The Chimney Sweep” fail to protect them.

Holy Thursday, another pair of companion poems, refers to a religious procession during the Easter season where the poor children of London are brought to a church service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s Innocence version, uses the term “innocent” frequently to describe these poor children, “‘Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,” (1), “Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands,” (8). They are even compared to angels, “Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door” (12). Blake paints these impoverished orphans as a picture of helpless innocence to get us to sympathize with their plight.

The Experience version of Holy Thursday has a darker tone. Blake laments the fact that so many children in a prosperous country like England are living in poverty, “Is this a holy thing to see, in a rich and fruitful land, babes reduced to misery, fed with cold and usurous hand?” (1-4). His verses take a more melancholy tone,  “Is that trembling cry a song? Can it be a song of joy?” (5-6). The world for the poor orphans described in the previous poem will be desolate and difficult, cold, bleak, and filled with hardships, “It is a land of poverty! And their sun does never shine, and their fields are bleak & bare, and their ways are fill’d with thorns; It is eternal winter there,” (8-12).  The innocence of these children is not enough to protect them from suffering. Blake addresses a bitter truth about his time period; that thousands of children in London were orphaned and living in poverty. Both of the Holy Thursday poems are meant to address the plight of needy children and elicit sympathy for it.

Blake presents childhood as a double edged sword. Children might be guileless and uninhibited but they are also dependent and vulnerable. The corresponding Innocence and Experience poems show these two sides of their subjects. They present innocent and needy children but also a society that exploits and abuses them. Innocence, experience, youth, maturity, good and evil are all faces of the same coin: youth and innocence are fragile and finite states and even the most virtuous person has the potential for evil.

William Blake’s religious beliefs and social conflicts influenced his work. His Songs of Innocence and Experience show his views on the dual nature of the human soul. “Innocence” epitomizes the the purity and optimism of childhood but also it’s helplessness and vulnerability. “Experience” represents maturity and corruption as well as knowledge and enlightenment.The Chimney Sweep of the two poems of the same name is portrayed as both an angelic figure and as a crack in society’s hypocritical facade. He is destined to live a short and miserable life but has the promise of heavenly salvation. The poor orphans who attend the Holy Thursday church service are innocents worthy of protection but also a reminder of how the Church and State have failed. Blake condemns a society that exploits helpless children when it is supposed to protect and provide for them and turns them into evil and destructive individuals.  Loss of innocence through experience is an inevitable and perhaps necessary part of a person’s development but should not lead to corruption and vice.Though the lives of these children are difficult and unhappy they are also a symbol of hope. There is a chance that they make overcome their hardships and maybe grow up to change the world for the better.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Hamilton: A Comparison

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I recently looked up a show called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson on YouTube. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a punk/emo rock musical based on the life of our notorious sixth president, Andrew Jackson. Even though it predates the smash hit, Hamilton, it feels like a follow up piece  and the two musicals beg for a comparison.

Both Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Hamilton seek to do a similar thing: tell a story of a figure from American history using a modern genre of music which highlights specific themes in that person’s life. Hip-hop is used to Hamilton to show Alexander Hamilton’s quick mind and skill with words and how his rise to the top and dramatic fall parallels many of the themes found in rap music. Punk/emo music in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson characterizes the Jacksonian age as America’s angsty adolescence. Bloody Bloody Andrew also bares a lot of similarities to the Green Day rock opera, American Idiot; both are tales about an individual looking to rebel against society, only to have it backfire on them. Andrew Jackson is presented as an angry, chaotic, and rebellious figure (pretty much if St. Jimmy from American Idiot became president) who comes to power by appealing to the anger of America’s underclasses, who eventually turn against him.

Hamilton and Jackson both start off as kids from nowhere with something to prove who get their chance to make something of themselves: the American revolution and the shaky beginnings of American government and politics. But the Hamiltonian world of banks and big government is the world that Jackson believes is screwing the common man over and wishes to dismantle.

The relationship between Jackson and his wife, Rachel, is nearly identical to that of Hamilton and his wife, Eliza. Both men are shown as loving their wives and yet constantly putting their own needs and ambitions before them. But unlike the demure and devoted Eliza Hamilton, Rachel Jackson is an equally angsty Whatsername to her husband’s Jesus of Suburbia. She sings the angry, woman-scorned, breakup song “The Great Compromise” which is reminiscent of Green Day’s “Letterbomb.”  Eliza and Rachel are presented as stabilizing figures who try to keep their husband’s grounded, with little success. Hamilton cheats on Eliza during a moment of weakness and blabs about it to the press to avoid embezzlement charges while Jackson goes against Rachel’s wishes and runs for president, which causes his enemies to rummage through his family’s dirty laundry.

The beautiful Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson was originally married to an abusive jackass named Lewis Robards when she met the dashing frontier lawyer, Andrew Jackson. Rachel wed Andrew in 1791, although their union was technically bigamous due to the fact that she had not yet obtained a divorce from Lewis Robards. She would later get the divorce and remarry Andrew in 1794, though their union was considered by many to be invalid. When Andrew Jackson latter ran for president, this dirty little secret came out and Rachel was ostracized in Washington society as a bigamist and adulteress. She died of a heart attack in 1828 soon after his election as president, possibly due to the stress of such a scandal.

Andrew Jackson, as portrayed in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, is many negative things but is an objectively better husband than the more sympathetically portrayed Alexander Hamilton, although both of their marriages suffer from similar problems. The two men put their careers and reputations before their relationships with their wives and bring scandal and heartbreak on their families. But Jackson appears to be too immature to understand the consequences of his actions; Hamilton knows precisely what he is doing and how it could hurt those he claims to love but does it anyway. He jeopardizes a perfectly good marriage by cheating on Eliza and makes the situation worse by leaking the scandal to the press to beat his enemies to the punch. In contrast, Jackson turns down a crazed fan who throws herself at him by saying “my wife is mad enough at me as it is”, and jumps in to defend Rachel’s honor when the public starts calling her a whore. The real life Andrew Jackson famously challenged to a duel  any man and the nearest male relative of any woman who insulted his wife.  

Hamilton paints its protagonist as a flawed but ultimately admirable figure, whereas the central character of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson essentially behaves like a petulant teenager (which is even more hysterical considering the real life Andrew Jackson was in his sixties when he was president). Both musicals deal with how history and posterity remembers important figures. Alexander Hamilton was an unsung founding father with a checkered reputation and dismissed as an elitist jerk, but has re-emerged in recent years as an unlikely pop culture icon and the face of electoral reform. Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson was celebrated as a rugged man of the people in his own day and more many generations afterwards but our modern world view has condemned him as a genocidal tyrant. It is easy to deify or vilify historical figures, especially when they represent values which either mesh or clash with or own: a significant number of people despise Thomas Jefferson in particular for being a slaveholder and Andrew Jackson in particular for the treatment of the Native Americans. Reviling a specific individual in an attempt to distance ourselves from negative parts of our history is a lot easier than dealing with them.

Essay 2: A Review of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

It was the day after Thanksgiving. My mother and I took some of our visiting relatives to downtown Gloucester MA to look in some of the shops. I rewarded myself for putting up with the boredom of watching my mother and aunts look at tchotchkes and knick-knacks by taking a look in the bookstore across the street. There I found a copy of Ron Chernow’s celebrated biography of founding father Alexander Hamilton and the basis for the musical cultural phenomenon, Hamilton. I made plans to spend winter break with my friends Ron and Alex.

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the cutthroat rivalries, media wars, and outright shit talking described in Chernow’s work show that American politics has been colorful from its very birth. But as far as I know, Donald Trump never called Hillary Clinton a hermaphrodite, at least not publically. The slandering  and backstabbing of our early politicians  makes one chuckle and think “somethings never change”.

Perhaps the book’s greatest merit is how it shows our often deified founding fathers as flawed and human individuals; men who achieved great things but had great flaws and made major mistakes. Like the hero of an ancient greek tragedy, Alexander Hamilton gained glory and greatness but was ultimately brought down by his shortcomings. The life, loves, achievements, failures, rise, and fall of our first treasury secretary make a fascinating read, if you do not get too bogged down in intricacies of early American foreign and domestic policy and the origins of our two party system.

Nonfiction prose has always been difficult for me to get into and I found it difficult to keep focused at many points while reading this book. But this this just personal taste. Anyone with an interest in American history be able to get something out of it. It is a must read for any Hamilton fan.

Bag Girl Goes: 1930s

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October 31st, 1931

Jasmine and I went into town around nine o’clock this morning. We planned to go see a movie at eleven thirty and I called for a taxi a couple hours early because I was afraid that the taxi company would be busy today. Fortunately, there was not a wait and the taxi arrived shortly and brought us to the cinema in downtown Salem, where Jasmine bought tickets for the eleven thirty showing of Dracula. Then we went to a nearby coffee shop for breakfast.

It was a bit chilly in the shade today but other than that it was a crisp and lovely autumn day. Jasmine put on her Halloween costume early, since today is Halloween. She went as a cowboy and I drew sideburns and a goatee on her face using an eyebrow pencil. I was stuck with my frumpy old feed sack calico dress and my old coat which as huge tares in it; I must talk to mother about getting fabric to patch it up. Times have been hard for both mine and Jasmine’s families but despite this, I was too soft hearted not to give change to the beggars and hobos were passed.

When eleven thirty rolled around, we returned to the cinema. Jasmine and I had decided that she would buy the tickets for the movie and I would pay for the popcorn but I told her that she would have to pay for her own snacks because I was running low on my money for the week and needed what I had left for lunch and the taxi. Mother would be angry with me if I asked for more money this week. Luckily Jasmine was not upset with me and I promised that I would buy lunch.

I’ve heard that Dracula is so frightening that the ushers at the movie theaters showing it have to hand out smelling salts to people as they go in; It was every bit as terrifying as I had hoped. Jasmine was so scared that she burst into tears but I remained brave and unaffected. After the movie, we went to a favorite deli of ours for lunch, I treated like I promised, and then we ran some errands. Jasmine insisted on stopping into a store where the boy she is sweet on works, so she can make goo goo eyes at him, but alas for her, he was not there.

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We finished up with our errands around four in the evening and took a taxi home. Back at home, I helped Jasmine freshen up her eyebrow pencil beard and sideburns and put on my own Halloween costume. I wore my good silk dress with a pair of silver shoes and a paste jewel headband and called myself Cinderella. Our plans for the evening were to go to a nearby speakeasy, where Jasmine and I listened to live music and tried to make awkward small talk with strangers we did not really want to talk to and who did not really want to talk to us. Only two things made going there worthwhile.

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The first was that there was a palm reader who looked over the lines and bumps on my hands. My palms are square shaped, which means that I am realistic and practical. The bumps on my palms show that I am passionate and imaginative. I have a long thumb, which means I stubborn.

The lengths of my fingers show that I want to live a nontraditional but have a desire to make money and that I had a temper as a child which I learned to control. My head line and life line are close together which means that I’m smart and independent. The life line shows that I will live a long and healthy life which some sort of interruption in middle age. The love line shows that two years from now, when I’m twenty-three, I will have the confidence to attract the right person; I will get married at age twenty-four. I will have two marriages and child with each husband.

The most interesting part was when the palm reader told my past lives by looking at the wrinkles on my wrist. My first past life was as a celebrate female writer in renaissance France, the second was as a male revolutionary who wrote fiery political pamphlets during the American Revolution.

Later on the evening, there was a seance in a small back room of the speakeasy, where a planchet and cards with letters on them were set up on a table. The small back room was dark except for several candles. This is the first seance I’ve ever been to and I did not know what to expect. The first two spirits we tried to contact were those of Mary Sibley and Rebecca Nurse, two people involved with the Salem Witch Trials. We could not get ahold of Mary Sibley but Rebecca Nurse came to speak with us. We asked her there she was and she said heaven. One of us at the table said that she was descendent of the Putnam family, who accused Nurse of witchcraft, and asked her for forgiveness, which was granted. Then we tried to contact Salem’s favorite son, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The letters the planchet landed on spelled out “he is here” but Hawthorne would not speak with us.

Jasmine and I tried to contact our grandfathers. I could not get ahold of mine but Jasmine’s told her that he was proud of her and her father and that he was grateful they could speak. We made sure to say goodbye to the spirits before they left, as we were supposed to do.

All of that communing with dead has made me tired and I have to get up early tomorrow. May we all sleep well and not be disturbed by vampires or restless spirits.

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