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Fall Convocation Address: "The Character of American Sunlight"

Fellow faculty and administrators, honored guests, students, the wonderful Convocation choir, and especially the class of 2015--welcome.  It's a pleasure and honor to address you as we mark the 150th birthday of Vassar College. I invite you, this fall, to take advantage of the many opportunities to discuss, celebrate, and even enlarge Vassar's history, through special events on campus.

How many of you are attending your first Convocation?  Let's see a show of hands.  So, you've wandered in on this rainy afternoon, because your student fellow, or your adviser, or your professor said you should come. Or maybe you've just put off writing one of those first essays of the semester--while we on the faculty procrastinate before grading them.

How many of you have attended two Convocations?  Three? Up to ten?  At least twenty?  It seems risky to ask anyone to raise a hand beyond that number.  I've attended about 24, I think, but you lose count after awhile, and I'm sure there are folks here who have participated in fifty or sixty.  One colleague told me this morning he did a count and had attended 65.   He and others may have been here in spring 1975, when Professor Glen Johnson began by saying, "As most of you know, Saigon fell this morning."  He went on to quote some words from then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, and to express concern about the possible Reaganization of U.S. politics.

My own experience with this ritual began in spring 1995, when I'd just been hired and came looking for an apartment. The Convocation speaker that April was Philosophy professor Jesse Kalin. He told how even as a child, he had a tremendous passion to understand death.  He grew up on a farm, where slaughtering animals was the necessary prerequisite for Sunday supper. Hoping to better understand death by watching it happen, Jesse reported, he went out to the barn one morning and strangled a chicken. 

I thought, wow. In self-examination and the search for truth, these Vassar people are serious. It was a moving address, and many memorable Convocations have followed:  talks by beloved colleagues in History;  Janet Gray's exploration of the politics of breast cancer research; Eamon Grennan starting with his beautiful poem, "Taking My Son to School." And no one who was here in fall 1999 will forget the talk by English professor Ann Imbrie, who died seven years later of cancer at age 55. Ann, like many others, left eloquent legacies if you know where to look for them.

If you're here for the first time today, with no context for the experience, I hope Cappy's stories and mine give you a sense of participating in an event of modest historical significance:  a ritual through which, since 1914, we at Vassar have marked arrivals and departures, acknowledged the passage from one scholarly generation to the next, shared our intellectual struggles, and affirmed ourselves as a community. Knowing a bit about past Convocations enriches our gathering here today.  That's what history does:  it gives depth to the present. Activities that may seem unintelligible or pointless or flat, with history acquire an added dimension of meaning.

I think most learning takes place through stories, like those of Convocations past; stories that help us--nudge us--to see our experiences as part of a larger landscape.  We often assume a story is fiction. That's one kind of truth, but contrary to the message you may have received through high school standardized tests, history is another kind of story-telling--not a list of facts and dates and treaty provisions. History is a kind of narrative that purport, at least, to be non-fiction.

My own story, my history, begins in Smithfield, in a part of rural southeastern Virginia known as the land of Pork, Peanuts, and Pine. It's a beautiful place, full of tidal creeks that lead down to the James River and Chesapeake Bay. It's a friendly place: people often drive badly, but not because they pass you on a solid line at 80 miles an hour talking on the cell phone.  Instead, they tend to stop in the middle of the road in front of their cousin's house, leave the car door open across both lanes, and stroll over to see how everybody's doing. 

The stories of my ancestors in coastal Virginia stretch back four centuries. Most of them farmed. A few were oystermen. My parents went to college--an experience that opened up new worlds of literature and culture. Afterward, my Dad joined the Army--like most men in those Cold War years, he didn't get much choice--and my parents spent four years in what was then West Germany, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

The stories that shaped my childhood were my parents' travel stories. They loved Europe. They went everywhere, even taking a two-day bus ride through communist East Germany and Poland into the Soviet Union, when Nikita Khrushchev first opened it for tourism, and few non-Russians had come in. Sitting around the dinner table, Mom and Dad told stories of Europe:  museums and concerts and castles; the long funny breadsticks they got in Pisa--or was it Bologna?; the French hotel keeper who demanded to see their marriage license before she would give them a room. 

Looking back, this intense focus seems a bit peculiar. Our family dwelled on past events, and distant places where my brother and I had never been. On the other hand such stories carried a powerful subtext, in a rural Southern world full of constraints and restrictions. Growing up, I knew very few women who had professional careers. Until quite recently, and among some people even today, the prevailing view of women might be summed up in a story about my great grandfather, who was prone to cuss at "damn women drivers." His granddaughter--my mother--once summoned the pluck to point out to him that the offending driver had actually been a man.  There was a silence. Then great-grandpa responded, "Hmff. Drives like a woman."

 In an indirect way, my parents' travel stories contradicted such messages:  You don't have to fit into the roles that are cast for you here, they suggested. There are other worlds out there, full of people who live and think differently, and you can grow up and join them.  That required some waiting, and I was not patient about it.  Adolescence is an age when many of us feel lonely and isolated. By definition, it's a time when you don't yet know your place in the world--what your own story will be. That can be painful, and those of us who are more advanced in years make it harder when we assure young people that you are, right now, for sure, having the very best years of your lives. That's a story that you should listen to with a critical ear.

The drawback of hearing so much about Europe, in my childhood, was a certain absence of attention to the place where I was. As a historian, though, I've learned that you can tell a great deal about a place by comparing the stories that get told there with ones that don't. Among white people in Smithfield, Virginia, that's particularly true of stories about race. If you go there and look in the phone book, you'll find that a third of the county is named "Edwards," and if you stay awhile you'll find that about half the Edwardses are black and half are white. When I grew up there in the 1970s, thousands of people had moved out over the previous century and a half, but not many had moved in.  So when my father, Robert B. Edwards, got into a fender-bender with a black farmer on a tractor whose name turned out to be . . . Robert B. Edwards, the implications were fairly obvious.

But as the story circulated, as I heard it, no one discussed the possibility that the two Robert B. Edwardses might be blood kin, or that ancestors of one very likely claimed ancestors of the other as human property.  Among whites, that history is rarely narrated; the local museum says a great deal about ham and peanuts and tobacco and steamboats, but nothing about slavery or Jim Crow--in fact, virtually nothing at all about African-Americans, who today are a quarter of local residents and once constituted the majority. That's a mutual failure of local public history and of thousands of individual memories.

What's true in Smithfield is true, one way or another, in most places. There are complicated histories, and there are silences. To inquire into the relationship between stories that are taken as truth, and those that are suppressed or unspoken, is to inquire, I think, into fundamentalism, one of the great problems--perhaps the great problem--your generation faces. You may assume fundamentalism is religious, or even that religion and fundamentalism are the same thing. But I think it's something much bigger. It emerges from what Vassar's first great historian, Lucy Maynard Salmon, called "the proneness of the human mind to seize half of a truth"--she might have said, half of a history--"and remain content with it."

This can be a religious impulse, but there are secular fundamentalisms, too. British biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, for example, has said that the lesson of the 9/11 attacks is that religious faith is "lethally dangerous nonsense" and that religion does not deserve anyone's respect. That, I think, is a statement of secular fundamentalism.

Historian Jill Lepore has coined the term "historical fundamentalism," marked in the United States, by the idea that "the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired." Lepore observes that the phrase "Founding Fathers" was in fact not used until 1916, when Warren G. Harding coined it in an address to a national Republican convention. Harding used it again in his 1921 inaugural address, a speech so full of empty platitudes that critic H. L. Mencken said it reminded him of "a string of wet sponges."

The most powerful and dangerous fundamentalism out there, right now, may not belong to a sect of Christians, Muslims, or any other religious group. It may instead be what British author Philip Pullman calls "market fundamentalism."  In a speech last year, in response to a government plan to eviscerate libraries in Oxfordshire, Pullman referred to market fundamentalism as "this madness that’s infected the human race, . . . like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days. . . . The greedy ghost understands profit . . . but that’s all he understands."  Market fundamentalism carries an implicit historical narrative, which goes like this:   innovation, progress, and prosperity have all come from private enterprise; everything else has been an impediment and a drag.  That is what Lucy Maynard Salmon would call "half a truth," and as Pullman warns, it has the capacity to "kill off" those things that are "humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent [in] our public life."

It seems urgent, then, to examine our economic stories, and our economic histories. My bent in this direction can perhaps be traced back to Smithfield, since it the headquarters for Smithfield Foods, which recently became the largest pork producer in the world. There used to be half a dozen local ham companies, and every farmer kept a pen of hogs. Today you won't find a pig anywhere in the county, unless it's on a truck driven up from North Carolina, whose government has exempted hog farms from state zoning laws.

Smithfield Foods led the industry in vertical integration, the classic kind pioneered in the late 19th century. In doing so, it has concentrated hog production in giant factory farms. That's a lousy way for pigs to live, but of course it has consequences for humans, too. Smithfield Foods has paid $12.6 million for breaking the Clean Water Act. It's notorious for what one judge called "egregious and pervasive'' violations of labor law. A story less often told is the drastic loss of jobs that vertical integration has caused. In 1980 there were over 660,000 hog farmers in the United States; today there are fewer than 60,000.  In the past decade, Smithfield Foods has aggressively expanded in Eastern Europe. As in the U.S., the number of hog farmers in Romania has dropped by 90 percent. 

Market fundamentalism, fixated on the belief that corporations create jobs--has no place for this story. Of course you won't hear from Smithfield Foods. If you visit the town of Smithfield, you'll find that what the company's vast global operations have done, locally, is turn a gritty little working-class town into a picturesque showcase. The CEO of Smithfield Foods makes $10 million a year (which is actually small potatoes, these days, for an American CEO). He's lavished many of those dollars on Smithfield, building a conference center and a community theater and installing bronze sculptures on Main Street. He recently unveiled a park with miles of paths and boardwalks through the woods and marshes. It's a lovely place to walk. Through the complex magic of the global economy, you don't have to think about where the money came from. In fact, as historian William Cronon observes, modern capitalism draws much of its allure from the very fact that its operations are hidden from consumers and centers of power.  It would take patient months to track a pig from Romania to the slaughterhouse to the grocery store, but it takes twenty minutes to eat a plate of ham biscuits at the historic Smithfield Inn, which is now owned by Smithfield Foods, and according to the company is "steeped in tradition and charm reminiscent of simpler times in the genteel old South."

As the songwriter Steve Earle says, "Won't nothin' bring you down like your hometown."

Journalist Tom Wicker has said that Americans are innocent of history.  Not ignorant, he says; that would imply that "they just didn't take the course in school."  Innocent.  I would say, rather, that Americans are impatient with history. We prefer to focus relentlessly on the future. Perhaps that inclination is connected to our longstanding inability to control the power of big business, and other powerful institutions that have no interest in any version of history that doesn't serve the needs of the "greedy ghost." For whatever reason, trivializing history has long been an American pastime.  Even novelist Henry James, the sharpest of observers, concluded that Americans aren't interested in history because we just don't have much of it--particularly the tragic kind. He wrote cheerfully, "The past, which died so young [here] and had time to produce so little, attracts but scanty attention."  In America, he claimed, "the light of the sun seems fresh and innocent."  

Historian Patricia Nelson Limerick responds eloquently to those words in her essay "Haunted America," which considers America's wars of conquest against native peoples, and what they say about "the character of American sunlight."  "The sun that shines on North America," Limerick writes, "has . . . seen plenty."  The story of conquest is all around us, in fact, hidden in plain sight, just as an encounter between two men named Robert B. Edwards, one black and one white, tells an unacknowledged story. In Smithfield, Virginia, every low tide turns up arrowheads and every shovel of dirt brings up oyster shells from 500-year-old Indian middens. Here in the Hudson Valley, you can trace the overwritten history of native peoples in the names of Wappingers Falls and of Poughkeepsie, which is a Dutch spelling of a Wappingers Indian word.

As a nation, Limerick observes, Americans fail to connect our past very much to our present. When we do acknowledge histories of violence and tragedy, we do so without much nuance. We want good guys and bad guys, people wearing white hats or black ones. It's just a matter of where we put the hats. That's soil in which fundamentalisms--religious, secular, market-based, or any other kind--find it easy to grow. To recognize this problem does not preclude us from criticizing, say, Smithfield Foods.  But it challenges us to explore the roles of consumers, voters, legislators, financiers, and everyone who shapes the world in which such a company operates. That is what those of us do, who study the era of Andrew Carnegie and other pioneers of vertical integration:  we try to resist "half-truths," however attractive they may be, and in conversation with one another, tell stories that are as useful and true as we can make them.

To practice history, and to get a liberal arts education at Vassar, is to resist one's own inner fundamentalist. Each of us has one--a part that hates complexity, fears alien and challenging points of view, and yearns to be "content with half a truth."  The historian's particular form of resistance is to take the long view.  One of my favorite descriptions of how history works is this one, by the English socialist William Morris--a description that seems particularly apt at this political moment in the U.S., the Middle East, and elsewhere. Morris wrote that "men  fight and lose the battle, and what they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes it turns out not to be what they meant, and so other men have to fight for it under a different name." (He could have added that men and women fight and win, and then find that what they thought they had won is  transformed or vanishes before their eyes.)

To study such processes is to seek truth with both passion and humility. "The only wisdom we can hope to acquire," wrote the poet T. S. Eliot, "is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless."  That means we never lose our grasp on the provisional, changeable, local nature of what we know and what others claim to know. We don't give up the search for whole truths, and we don't give in to that inner fundamentalist. If we at Vassar can cultivate those qualities among ourselves, then we're headed in the right direction for the next 150 years.

Back in 1871 a Vassar student wrote, "Each Soul must be given breath and time to work out its own destiny and not swallow at one gulp the formulas and precepts of another  . . . Life is a process of crystallization which like granite takes time, quiet, darkness, and sometimes upheaval, to perfect it."  May your Vassar education, which I hope will include some history, offer you that time, quiet, darkness--and yes, a little upheaval--in a world too often overwhelmed with noisy salesmanship, fundamentalist certainties, and contempt for the past.

A poem that captures this hope is "Hermit Crab," by Mary Oliver, so I will end by reading part of it, as an invocation for our year together. "Hermit Crab":

When I set it down, it hurried

along the tideline

of the sea,

which was slashing along as usual,

shouting and hissing

toward the future,

turning its back

with every tide on the past,

leaving the shore littered

every morning

with more ornaments of death--

with a pearly rubble

from which to choose a house

like a white flower--

and what a rebellion

to leap into it

and hold on,

connecting everything,

the past to the future--

which is of course the miracle--

which is the only argument there is

against the sea.

Thank you.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, September 7, 2011