A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Sunday, May 10, 2015

June 10 reading in NYC


On June 10 I will be giving one of my rather rare readings. I will introduce and read a selection from African Lives, my most recent book, and will offer a sneak preview of Thoreau’s Wildflowers, coming next spring from Yale University Press.

I am pleased to be sharing the stage with Julia Barclay-Morton. Refreshments will be available between our readings. The reading will take place in Bruce’s Garden next to Isham Park in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan. (Take the A train all the way to 207th Street, or the 1 train to 215 Street.) Books will be available for purchase.

Here are the details:

Geoff Wisner and Julia Barclay-Morton
Bruce’s Garden, Isham Park
June 10, 7 pm

See you there!

Posted by geoff on 05/10 at 02:27 PM
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A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Sunday, March 15, 2015

A sentence by W.G. Sebald

The slow unfolding of memory that drives W.G. Sebald’s last novel Austerlitz makes it one of the most powerful of the many Holocaust narratives I have read. Toward the end, the title character gives voice to this detailed, unhurried, and suffocatingly endless single sentence about the concentration camp of Theresienstadt.

It seems unpardonable to me today that I had blocked off the investigation of my most distant past for so many years, not on principle, to be sure, but still of my own accord, and that now it is too late for me to seek out Adler, who had lived in London until his death in the summer of 1988, and talk to him about that extra-territorial place where at the time, as I think I have mentioned before, said Austerlitz, some sixty thousand people were crammed together in an area little more than a square kilometer in size—industrialists and manufacturers, lawyers and doctors, rabbis and university professors, singers and composers, bank managers, businessmen, shorthand typists, housewives, farmers, labourers and millionaires, people from Prague and the rest of the Protectorate, from Slovakia, from Denmark and Holland, from Vienna and Munich, Cologne and Berlin, from the Palatinate, from Lower Franconia and Westphalia—each of whom had to make do with about two square meters of space in which to exist and all of them, in so far as they were in any condition to do so or until they were loaded into trucks and sent on east, obliged to work entirely without remuneration in one of the primitive factories set up, with a view to generating actual profit, by the External Trade Section, assigned to the bandage-weaving workshop, to the handbag and satchel assembly line, the production of horn buttons and other haberdashery items, the manufacturing of wooden soles for footwear and of cowhide galoshes; to the charcoal yard, the making of such board games as Nine Men’s Morris and Catch the Hat, the splitting of mica, the shearing of rabbit fur, the bottling of ink dust, or the silkworm-breeding station run under the aegis of the SS; or, alternatively, employed in one of the operations serving the ghetto’s internal economy, in the clothing store, for instance, in one of the precinct mending and darning rooms, the shredding section, the rag depot, the book reception and sorting unit, the kitchen brigade, the potato-peeling platoon, the bone-crushing mill, the glue-boiling plant, or the mattress department, as medical and nursing auxiliaries, in the disinfestation and rodent control service, the floor space allocation office, the central registration bureau, the self-administration housed in barrack block BV, known as “The Castle,” or in the transport of goods maintained within the walls of the fortress by means of a medley of carts of every conceivable kind and four dozen ancient hearses brought from the now defunct Jewish communities in the Bohemian countryside to Terezin, where they moved along the crowded streets with two men harnessed between the shafts and four to eight pushing or putting their weight against the spokes of the wheels of these oddly swaying conveyances, which were covered by ulcerations of peeling black varnish and from which, before long, the rickety superstructures, high-built coach boxes, and silver-bronzed canopies resting on turned columns had been roughly sawn away, so that the lower parts, on the sides of which rows of letters and numbers were coarsely painted in lime-wash, scarcely betrayed their former function, a function, said Austerlitz, for which they were still frequently employed even now, since much of the load carted round Theresienstadt every day was made up by the dead, of whom there were always a great many because the high population density and poor diet rendered it impossible for the course of such infectious diseases as scarlet fever, enteritis, diphtheria, jaundice, and tuberculosis to be stemmed, and because the average age of those brought from all regions of the German Reich to the ghetto was over seventy, and these people, who before they were sent away had been led to believe some tale about a pleasant resort in Bohemia called Theresienbad, with beautiful gardens, promenades, boardinghouses, and villas, and many of whom had been persuaded or forced to sign contracts, so-called Heimeinkaufsverträge, said Austerlitz, offering them, against deposits of up to eighty thousand Reichsmarks, the right of residence in what was described to them as a most salubrious place, these people, Austerlitz continued, had come to Theresienstadt, completely misled by the illusions implanted in their minds, carrying in their luggage all manner of personal items and mementoes which could be of no conceivable use in the life that awaited them in the ghetto, often arriving already ravaged in body and spirit, no longer in their right minds, delirious, frequently unable to remember their own names, surviving the procedure of being sluiced in, as it was termed, either not at all or only by a few days, in which latter case, on account of the extreme psychopathic personality changes which they had undergone and which generally resulted in a kind of infantilism divorcing them from reality and entailing an almost total loss of the ability to speak and act, they were immediately sectioned in the casemate of the Cavalier Barracks, which served as a psychiatric ward and where they usually perished within a week under the dreadful conditions prevailing there, so that although there was no shortage of doctors and surgeons in Theresienstadt who cared for their fellow prisoners as well as they could, and in spite of the steam disinfection boiler installed in the malting kiln of the former brewery, the hydrogen cyanide chamber, and other hygienic measures introduced by the Kommandantur in an all-out campaign against infestation with lice, the number of the dead—entirely in line, said Austerlitz, with the intentions of the masters of the ghetto—rose to well above twenty thousand in the ten months between August 1942 and May 1943 alone, as a result of which the joiner’s workshop in the former riding school could no longer make enough deal coffins, there were sometimes more than five hundred dead bodies stacked in layers on top of each other in the central morgue in the casemate by the gateway to the Bohusevice road, and the four naphtha-fired incinerators of the crematorium, kept going day and night in cycles of forty minutes at a time, were stretched to the utmost limits of their capacity, said Austerlitz, and this comprehensive system of internment and forced labor which, in Theresienstadt as elsewhere, was ultimately directed, so he continued, solely at the extinction of life and was built on an organizational plan regulating all functions and responsibilities, as Adler’s reconstruction shows, with a crazed administrative zeal—from the use of whole troops of workers in building the branch railway line from Bohusevice to the fort, to the one man whose job it was to keep the clock mechanism in the closed Catholic church in order—this system had to be constantly supervised and statistically accounted for, particularly with respect to the total number of inmates of the ghetto, an uncommonly time-consuming business going far beyond civilian requirements when you remember that new transports were arriving all the time, and people were regularly weeded out to be sent elsewhere with their files marked R.n.e. for Ruckkehr nicht erwunscht, Return Not Desired, a purpose for which the SS men responsible, who regarded numerical accuracy as one of their highest principles, had a census taken several times, on one occasion, if I remember correctly, said Austerlitz, on 10 November 1943 outside the gates in the open fields of the Bohusevice basin, when the entire population of the ghetto—children, old people, and any of the sick at all able to walk not excepted—was marched out after assembling in the barracks yards at dawn to be drawn up in block formation behind numbered wooden boards, and there, through the whole of this cold and damp day, as the fog drifted over the fields, they were forced to wait, guarded by armed police, and not permitted to step out of line even for a minute, for the SS men to arrive, as they eventually did on their motorbikes at three o’clock, to carry out the count of heads and then repeat it twice before they could feel convinced that the final result, including those few still within the walls, did in fact tally with the expected number of forty thousand one hundred and forty-five, whereupon they rode away again in some haste, entirely forgetting to give any orders for the inmates’ return, so that this great crowd of many thousands stood out in the Bohusevice basin on that gray tenth of November drenched to the skin and increasingly distressed until well after dark, bowed and swaying like reeds in the showers that now swept over the countryside, before finally, driven to it by a wave of panic, they poured back into the town from which most of them had never emerged except for this one time since their transfer to Theresienstadt, where soon after the beginning of the new year, said Austerlitz, what was described as a Verschonerungsaktion or general improvement campaign was undertaken, with an eye to the imminent visit in the early summer of 1944 of a Red Cross commission, an event regarded by those authorities of the Reich responsible as a good opportunity to dissimulate the true nature of their deportation policy, and consequently it was decided to organize the ghetto inmates under the command of the SS for the purpose of a vast cleaning-up program: pathways and a grove with a columbarium were laid out, park benches and signposts were set up, the latter adorned in the German fashion with jolly carvings and floral decoration, over a thousand rosebushes were planted, a children’s nursery and creche or Kriechlingskrippe, as it was termed, said Austerlitz, in one of those perverse formulations, were adorned with pretty fairy-tale friezes and equipped with sandboxes, paddling pools, and merry-go-rounds, whilst the former OREL cinema, which until now had served as a dumping ground for the oldest inmates of the ghetto and where a huge chandelier still hung from the ceiling in the dark space inside, was converted within a few weeks into a concert hall and theater, and elsewhere shops stocked with goods from the SS storehouses were opened for the sale of food and household utensils, ladies’ and gentlemen’s clothing, shoes, underwear, travel requisites, and suitcases; there were also a convalescent home, a chapel, a lending library, a gymnasium, a post office, a bank where the manager’s office was furnished with a sort of field marshal’s desk and a suite of easy chairs, not to mention a coffeehouse with sun umbrellas and folding chairs outside it to suggest the agreeable atmosphere of a resort inviting all passersby to linger for a while, and indeed there was no end to the improvements and embellishments, with much sawing, hammering, and painting until the time of the visit itself approached and Theresienstadt, after another seven and a half thousand of the less presentable inmates had been sent east amidst all this busy activity, to thin out the population, so to speak, became a Potemkin village or sham Eldorado which may have dazzled even some of the inhabitants themselves and where, when the appointed day came, the commission of two Danes and one Swiss official, having been guided, in conformity with a precise plan and a timetable drawn up by the Kommandant’s office, through the streets and over the spotless pavements, scrubbed with soap early that morning, could see for themselves the friendly, happy folk who had been spared the horrors of war and were looking out of the windows, could see how smartly they were all dressed, how well the few sick people were cared for, how they were given proper meals served on plates, how the bread ration was handed out by people in white drill gloves, how posters advertising sporting events, cabarets, theatrical performances, and concerts were being put up on every corner and how, when the day’s work was over, the residents of the town flocked out in their thousands on the ramparts and bastions to take the air, almost as if they were passengers enjoying an evening stroll on the deck of an oceangoing steamer, a most reassuring spectacle, all things considered, which the Germans, whether for propaganda purposes or in order to justify their actions and conduct to themselves, thought fit after the end of the Red Cross visit to record in a film, which Adler tells us, said Austerlitz, was given a sound track of Jewish folk music in March 1945, when a considerable number of the people who had appeared in it were no longer alive, and a copy of which, again according to Adler, had apparently turned up in the British-occupied zone after the war, although he, Adler himself, said Austerlitz, never saw it, and thought it was now lost without trace.
Posted by geoff on 03/15 at 02:10 PM
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A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Saturday, February 14, 2015

The letters of William T. Sherman

imageThrough my mother’s side of the family (Hatfields and Shermans) I am related to General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general best known for the destruction of Atlanta and the March to the Sea that followed. A few years ago I read his memoirs, and more recently I wondered whether his letters had ever been collected.

They have, in a 900-page collection called Sherman’s Civil War, and they are even more unvarnished than his published memoirs.

I was waiting as patiently as a Red headed person could, for the official acts of the convention charged with the destiny of Louisiana… 1.20.1861

Attached to General Scotts staff, as Inspector General — I did not dream of this, but it really does well accord with my inclinations and peculiar nature. 6.20.1861

Then for the first time I saw the Carnage of battle — men lying in every conceivable shape, and mangled in a horrible way — but this did not make a particle of impression on me — but horses running about riderless with blood streaming from their nostrils — lying on the ground hitched to guns, gnawing their sides in death — I sat on my horse on the ground where Ricketts battery had been shattered to fragments, and saw the havoc done. 7.28.1861

Indeed I never saw such a set of grumblers as our volunteers about their food clothing arms &c. and I shall make a Requisition for two wet nurses per soldier, to nurse them in their helpless pitiful condition. 8.3.1861

Among the keenest feelings of my life is that arising from a consciousness that you will be mortified beyond measure at the disgrace which has befallen me — by the announcement in the Cincinnati Commercial that I am insane. 12.12.1861

Dear Brother, I am so sensible now of my disgrace from having exaggerated the force of our enemy in Kentucky that I do think I Should have committed suicide were it not for my children. 1.4.1862

I prefer to follow not to lead, as I confess I have not the confidence of a Leader in this war, and would be happy to slide into obscurity. 1.9.1862

I am sometimes amused at these newspaper Reporters. They keep shy of me as I have said the first one I catch I will hang as a Spy. 4.14.1862

I know one fact well, that when danger is present, or important steps are necessary Sherman is invariably called for, but in unloading steamboats repairing roads &c. &c. I get provoking, short, curt orders to do thus and so. 1.24.1863

I have with me the invariable Hill who still puts me on a damned allowance of segars & whiskey & insists on blacking my boots & brushing my clothes in & out of season. 6.27.1863

If I am killed you will have but a small pension, and if I live I will never see Ohio if I can avoid it. Yrs. ever, W.T. Sherman 10.14.1863

Therefore if the People of the South are unwilling to live in the same land with us, let them go, even to Madagascar and if they cannot pay their passage we might help them, as an act of grace. 1.28.1864

Miss Baileys 2nd letter I answered sending autograph and describing my hair as red, bristly & horrid — I think She is satisfied to leave my locks out of the cluster of flowers to be made up out of the hairs of the Great men of the day. 4.18.1864

Out of the forces now here, and at Atlanta I propose to organize an efficient army of 60, to 65,000 men, with which I propose to destroy Macon, Augusta, and it may be Savannah and Charleston, but I will always Keep open the alternates of the Mouth of Apalachicola and Mobile. 10.2.1864

I can make the march and make Georgia howl. 10.9.1864

Posted by geoff on 02/14 at 05:44 PM
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A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Saturday, January 17, 2015

Chief Joseph Brant does my ancestor a favor

imageIn William Leete Stone’s 1865 biography Life of Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) Including the Border Wars of the American Revolution, and Sketches of the Indian Campaigns of Generals Harmar, St. Clair, and Wayne, and Other Matters Connected with the Indian Relations of the United States and Great Britain, from the Peace of 1783 to the Indian Peace of 1795, the author describes the Mohawk chief‘s actions in the aftermath of an attack on the town of Minisink in 1799.

The account, he says, was given to General Morgan Lewis “in after-years by Brant himself, while on a visit to the city of New-York.” (I have broken up the single long paragraph for readability.)

Among those who were grievously wounded was Lieutenant-Colonel Gabriel Wisner, a gentleman of great respectability, a magistrate, serving among the Goshen volunteers. In surveying the battle-field, the situation of Wisner arrested the attention of the Indian commander, who examined his condition.

The chief saw that he was wounded past hope of recovery, but he was, nevertheless, in the full possession of his faculties, and was even able to converse. Believing his case to be altogether beyond the power of medical and surgical skill, and having no means of carrying him away, Brant reflected a moment upon his own course of duty.

He was disposed to save his life if he could, and yet felt that it was impossible. To leave him thus helpless and alone upon the field, in the possession of his senses to a degree enabling him to appreciate all the horrors of his situation, would be the height of cruelty. Added to which was the moral certainty, that the wolves abounding in the forest, guided by the scent of blood, would be gorging themselves alike upon the wounded and the dead. The thought, therefore, that Wisner might be torn in pieces while yet alive, seemed to him even more than savage cruelty. Under these distressing circumstances and considerations, the chief argued with himself that true humanity required a speedy termination of his sufferings. Having formed this conclusion, the next point was to compass his death without inflicting additional torture upon his feelings.

With this view he engaged Wisner in conversation, and while diverting his attention, struck him dead in an instant, and unperceived, with his hatchet. It was but a savage exhibition of humanity; but there was benevolence in the intention, however strangely reasoned; and the motive of the final blow is to be applauded, notwithstanding the shudder caused by its contemplation.

imageLouis Aubrey Wood’s 1920 biography The War Chief of the Six Nations: A Chronicle of Joseph Brant gives this version:

After the fight, as Brant traversed the blood-stained field, he bent over the wounded form of Gabriel Wisner, who was a magistrate of Orange county. The fallen man, though suffering excruciating pain, was still able to speak, but the chieftain saw that he was dying. There were wolves in the forest, and these would soon visit the scene of carnage. To bear Wisner from the field would avail nothing. For a moment the War Chief debated what he should do. Then, turning the attention of the wounded man in another direction, he poised his hatchet. In a flash it had smitten the skull of the dying magistrate and his misery was at an end. In this act as in others Brant showed that his contact with civilization had not freed him from the basic instincts of his savage nature. Few white men could have performed such a deed even on the field of battle with so much calmness.

Posted by geoff on 01/17 at 10:03 AM
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A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Saturday, January 03, 2015

Starting the year with George Templeton Strong

Currier & Ives, 1876.

Whether watching the Columbia sophomores inhale nitrous oxide (1838), reading William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico (1844), or paying 80 calls in a day on his Manhattan neighbors (1849), George Templeton Strong began the new year in memorable ways

Follow @StrongsCivilWar and @StrongsNewYork on Twitter for more. 

Posted by geoff on 01/03 at 11:37 AM
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