James Adair’s History of the American Indian and the Ringlings’ Connection to the Other

In the Ringling collection, there is a rare first-edition book from 1775 named “The History of the American Indians”. Published in London by an Irish-born colonial South Carolina trader named James Adair, it describes the customs, dress, and traditions of North American indigenous folk from the eyes of a contemporary Western settler. While it is not as overtly racist as many contemporary that called for Indigenous assimilation or extermination, it espouses many of the quaint ideas of the time. Particularly noteworthy are its odd theories on race and culture.

Adair argues against the polygenism of the time, which claimed that different races of humanity had different biological origins. In particular, he argues against the idea that Indigenous Americans are “Pre-Adamites”, human-like creations of God separate from those descended from Adam. Instead, Adair puts forth a bold hypothesis that race changes in humans due to climate. For instance, he claims that white Spaniards introduced to South American heat immediately take on the skin tone and characteristics of American Indians. Tellingly, he claims to have known “a Spanish lady, who conceived, and was delivered of a negro child, by means of a black picture that hung on the wall, opposite to the bed where she lay.”

Without scholarly knowledge of the cultural practices of the groups Adair describes, it is difficult to give a statement on the accuracy of his claims. It is reasonable to discount some of his other theories, however, which include speculation that Native Americans are descended from the lost tribes of Israel. Even with the limitations of archaeological knowledge in the era Adair lived, his evidence relies on oversimplification and misinterpretation of Native and Jewish society and theology. Claiming that Jewish and Native American peoples have a similar religion and societal order, he makes questionable assumptions on the role of the “Great Spirit” in indigenous belief system and the applicability of the word “tribe” across vastly different civilizations.

Though this case is not as extreme as comparable works of the time, Adair’s text still Others the Indigenous American peoples in certain ways. He casually stereotypes them as mysterious and inferior, even when praising qualities he admires. This ingrained racism toward non-white culture, and its study and consumption as an exotic curiosity, continues to seep its way into many modern forms of entertainment. The circus is one branch of popular culture particularly affected, and Ringling Bros. circus offered many exhibits importing what seemed odd about foreign cultures to Western audiences..

Finding this book in John Ringling’s personal library brings to mind a fresco on the roof of the Ca d’Zan. On it is depicted dancers of various nationalities in traditional costumes, many in an inaccurate or objectified manner. While these dancers were probably not meant as caricatures, the art of their societies is not put on the same type of display in the Ca d’Zan or Ringling Museum as the art of European cultures.

As in Ringling’s copy of Adair’s history, the place of the non-European in the Ringling grounds, museum, and circus is of a misunderstood Other. While the Other’s arts are seen as splendid entertainment, they are never put on the same level of Ringling’s European art or Adair’s Israeli admirations.

Cited Works

Adair, James. The History of the American Indian. London, 1775.


The Optimism of the Archive

An archive can be – is – many things. An archive is a concept, a metaphor enabling us to think of fragments, loosely affiliated objects, and tangential documents as related to one another. It is also a term used to refer to a storage site or repository–be that material or digital. Institutions as diverse as museums, libraries, and digital databases are considered archives. An archive is a place devoted to collecting documents, distinct from a museum (which can house a large variety of objects in addition to texts) or a library (which focuses on circulating books and other published materials). Whether the product of a single person or by constructed by a group, the archive suggests, through its organizational structure, an attempt at unity. Each archive attempts to anticipate an audience, yet in its acts of gathering it must remove the very objects it wishes to preserve from circulation, an act that, in effect, limits the object’s future audience to those able to access the archive. Still, imperfect as the gesture is, its value is real and ranges from the maintenance of national history (the Smithsonian, for example) to entertainment (a community library’s dvd collection) to future use, only to be anticipated, such as the seed bank in Norway’s Svalbard or the golden records aboard Voyager. The seed bank and the golden records indicate two opposing yet compatible visions of the archive: one in anticipation of environmental catastrophe, the other in the expectation that launching a bottle into “the blue cosmic ocean,” as Carl Sagan writes, “says something very hopeful about life on this planet” (http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/goldenrec.html). Whatever the purpose, archives are valuable, practical tools, varying in scope and material, gathered and maintained for anyone with the inclination and opportunity to use them. The past is our present. Sometimes archives help us rediscover what might otherwise have been lost. Gaps in knowledge come from deliberate human agendas. History is a constructed narrative, a sorting of events according to a moral analysis or to notions of teleology and it is therefore always a limited account. For example, if we only have records from the victors of a war, we can only ever know half the experiences of war (if we can even imagine war has any victors). But the artifact––be that a lab book, a diary, a photograph, a textile or a sound recording, links the present to the past and enables the archivist to unearth, rework, and rewrite historical narrative. History is power. The histories of individuals and groups – especially minority groups – can be transformed through narratives designed to favor some interests and not others. Too often are the pasts of these people swept into obscurity; archives devoted to their history can bring it back, giving a sense of place and of belonging in a world that failed to recognize their contributions. In the case of the Ringling Library, the archive of John Ringling’s personal books provides an opportunity to explore the material traces of his reading. The objects can never fully disclose John Ringling. He will always remain outside of and beyond the objects he possessed. But they conjure otherwise intangible specters of one person’s engagement with the material and intellectual culture of the early twentieth century. Marginalia, book plates, creased pages, and faded spines can tell us much about how and why a book was read, and where it was stored (and thus what value it held for its owner). Some books are gifts, others are casually acquired, others, like Ringling’s facsimile Gutenberg Bible, represent prestige acquisitions. Examining his library we can restore a bit of his personality and taste, retained in his belongings. Ringling was wealthy and he knowingly created a massive visual arts collection, knowing that it would preserve his name, long past his death. But there can be archives that are seemingly less significant and more personal in form. Social media accounts, diaries or journals, and communications between friends are all forms of archivization. These daily archives hold the same value as archives at larger institutions like the Library of Congress or the Bibliothèque Nationale. Put simply, an archive is a repository of the past, whatever form that may take. Archives can retain the past, preserving treasures and junk alike so that today and tomorrow our present will be more pliable to better understandings of human history and more welcoming to better ways of living. Margaret Konkol & Amber Standridge

The Return of the Ghost as Text: Leaves of Grass and Derrida’s Memoirs

In my search for journals and articles related to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the archive, I stumbled upon a perfect amalgam of the pieces I was researching: a collection of essays connecting the theories of Jacques Derrida and classic literature, among which was an essay on Leaves of Grass, titled The Haunting of (Un)burial: Mourning the ‘Unknown’ in Whitman’s America.” The essay examines the idea of mourning–that which is left behind, which cannot be reached again, is lost forever, through  the work of Derrida, who is intimately acquainted with “that which is left behind,” from his fevered exploration in the archive. The author of the essay, Lindsay Tuggle, explores Whitman’s Leaves of Grass through the theories in Derrida’s Memoirs, and argues that it is a “collected work of mourning: ongoing, impossible, infinite.” She suggests that Leaves of Grass acts as a sort of house for the “anonymous dead,” the “ghost-guest,” the casualty of war that remains unburied, nameless. Tuggle notices the transformation in Whitman’s treatment of death, through the growing editions of LoG, from a celebration of the natural phenomenon, and a “meditation” on the spirit, to what Tuggle describes as an “anxiety,” and an “obsessive concern” with the countless unnamed casualties of war.

Whitman originally published two volumes of war-based poetry separately from Leaves of Grass, but added these two volumes to it with the release of the following edition. Tuggle describes how Whitman, in these earlier war poems, often refers to the dead as “specimens,” and suggests that in doing so, he “rescues the soldiers from their value as war commodities”(Tuggle, 62), illustrating a sort of “hospitality not only to the dead, but beyond death,” an idea which Derrida explores intimately in Memoirs. Tuggle discusses the idea of hospitality both to the known dead, the beloved dead, and to what she calls the “anonymous dead,” and how this connects to the rite of burial. Whitman’s primary treatment of bodily decay as a spiritual ascendancy, a “transcendence” (Tuggle, 64), is said to “evoke burial as proof of love:” a beautiful but unnecessary act of mourning, as the natural decay of the body is approached by Whitman as a “phantasmal” event, an act of love by the earth, who now accepts the decaying body into itself. However, following the Civil War, Whitman’s exploration of death and decay displays a shift from a celebration of a natural phenomenon, to an anxious search for the “unfound dead” (Tuggle, 68). Whitman attempts to bury and resurrect the dead through his poems; it seems almost as if he struggles to assuage his anxiety about the “infinite dead,” through a poem-burial.  Tuggle suggests that this transformation of treatment toward the war-dead stems from Whitman’s experiences with the dying soldiers during the Civil War, and the witness he bears to the countless bodies left unburied on the battlefields. The earth cannot accept these countless bodies, and so Whitman can no longer extend the same “hospitality” as before–there are too many, and the earth is too full. Tuggle, in an essay that seamlessly joins the exploration of mourning and preservation with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, approaches each poem like a body, and essentially performs an autopsy on a collection of poems which aged and changed with Whitman until his own decay, encompassing perfectly the idea of treating the dead with hospitality.

Works Cited

Seaboyer, Judith. ““The Haunting of (un)Burial: Mourning the ‘Unknown’ in Whitman’s America.”.” Re-reading Derrida: Perspectives on Mourning and Its Hospitalities. Lexington, 2013. Print.

The Challenge of the Archive

Archivization is a deeply human endeavor and, naturally, is plagued by human error. At its core, the archive is beholden to its archiver. The means of the archiver determine the form and functionality of the archive, which in turn affects just what can be archived. As Derrida puts it “the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the achievable content” (Derrida 17). Consider the library before any sort of universal system of organization. Each library is then defined by its process of archivization and the utility thereof. But there is no perfect system. Each library would be forced to make concessions on utility and accuracy. Any attempt at archiving will encounter these problems. Creating catalogues too specific runs the risk of losing information in the masses of diverse categories. In the same way, attempting to archive too much will render the archive useless. An archive in which nothing can be found is almost the same as no archive at all. Even in the library with a “universal” system, the archivable material will never fit perfectly into the system’s schema. Any useful schema for archivization on a large scale must be broad enough to permit the human error of judgmental categorization. Two archivers may focus on different aspects of their archivable content and then categorize it differently. Even when using a unified system, archivization is still limited by the archiver.

Any archive, no matter its form or content, is plagued with tradeoffs. Authenticity or utility? Accessibility or preservation? These are the questions the archiver is forced to answer and in these situations personal choice reigns supreme. The Ca d’Zan at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art provides a good example of the choices of the archiver. Once a winter home for one of the wealthiest families of the Gilded Age, the Venetian palazzo is now a blend of museum and diorama. Here there is a balance struck between the original intentions of the house and the desire for a public showcase. In some places the original possessions of the Ringlings are displayed behind ropes or glass, in others, props or replicas replace objects either lost or deemed too valuable to be housed here. The Ca d’Zan in its current state is meant to be toured, but to be toured as a guest and not as a patron. Even though great pains are made to present it as it would have been viewed at the height of the Ringlings’ prominence, it is still in the process of archivization. In places, modern touches have been added for its continued use. Security cameras are fastened into the ceilings, a closet has been filled with air conditioning apparatus. In such a way, the Ca d’Zan will never be fully archived, as preservers struggle to hold back the flow of time. The book collector Walter Benjamin is called to mind, “Only in extinction is the collector comprehended” (Benjamin 67).

The challenge of the archive is its inseverable connection to the archiver. As the archiver cannot archive everything, there must be exclusion. As the archiver is tossed about by time, so is the archive. As the archiver makes mistake, these mistakes forever echo in the archive. It is this condition of difficulty that makes the archive so fascinating a medium.

– Rory Sharp

Further Reading



Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter, Hannah Arendt, and Harry Zohn. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Print.

Derrida, Jacques, and Eric Prenowitz. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1996. Print.

Book illustration: why illustrated literature? (By Stetson Cooper)

Whenever the concept of illustrated literature is on the mind, the first things I think about are all of the storybooks I read as a child. There was Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Besty Lewin, which depicts a group of farm animals learning to use a typewriter to demand better treatment from their farmer. Another one of my favorites was Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins, where the text of the book describes a path the chicken Rosie is walking, whereas the illustrations accompanying the descriptions shows a fox trying, and failing, to hunt her along the way. When children’s books are illustrated, it’s done in a way to establish setting, plot, and to allow the child’s mind easier travel into the world the author is creating. However, our attribution of illustrations almost exclusively to children’s books is a recent phenomenon. Illustrations to accompany literature started as hand-drawn illuminations of scholarly texts (mostly bibles and biblical stories), which advanced into wood-cut illustrations after the invention of the printing press. In the 19th century, illustrations were treated as a delight of the page, typically pressed into a book using nickel or metal based ink. Once the new technology enabling illustrations was available, they were a commercial commodity.

In the early to mid 20th century in the United States, illustrations were popularized by the expansion and development of popular media, including comic strips and advertisements in the forms of posters and billboards. As illustrations became important in new media, society’s reaction to their inclusion in books was more passive. Their inclusion and arrangement in books became more stylized and and added to the personality of the books they resided in, rather than expanding on or aiding the text the book was describing. Illustrations, while still being created for the direct purpose of a text, also were used to aid in the creation of the aesthetic of the entire work as a whole.

In my discussion of Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, two differing illustrations were examined in two different editions of the book by the Thomas Y. Crowell company, one being printed in 1943 (left) and the other in 1950 (right):

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In each printing of both books, this image is the first thing seen by the reader. The 1943 printing shows a crumpled woman bound by thorns, face obstructed, unable to play her music. The 1950 image is exactly where the prior illustration is placed in its edition, however the contrast is drastic: her hair is smoothed, round, and out of her face, a simple style typical of women in the turn of the decade. Both illustrations were drawn by Willy Pogany, both have the same central image of the woman and the guitar, but why are there so many intense changes? One explanation can be found in the historical contexts of the printings: 1950 was the beginning of a prosperous era for the United States in the face of the global aftermath of World War II, and the significant changes made in the second illustration is evident of this; the woman is upright, drawn with a pleasant face, loosely holding the guitar and looking upward. It is a much more simple, toned down version of its predecessor as a result of its placement in history. The editors of the collection felt that, in this period of prosperity, a book of love sonnets should be made prettier and daintier to appeal to the public. The fact that these images are the first illustrations seen before entering the content of each book attributes to their ability to create the book’s holistic aesthetic.

What is an archive?

What is an archive? A collection of things? A gathering of objects? What purpose does it serve? For who, for what? The archive, as modern definitions might imply, is a storehouse of material and/or immaterial goods. A litany for and not against its institutional or individual bearer, the archive speaks through its collected documents. Books, newspaper articles, artwork, photographs, brochures, recordings, oral histories, biographies detailing its progenitors, financial records, etc.. The archive is representative of a concept, as archived by the archivist, institutional identity, or individual responsible for describing and cataloguing its contents. This is the archontic power, through consignation as Derrida defines it, “the act of consigning through gathering together signs […] coordinate[s] a single corpus, a system or synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration” (2). This configuration is the structure of the archive. Unity, its representative exterior. The impression that the archive leaves on us is the message that it articulates.

The archive speaks through its signs. Its collection of materials, representative of the identity that it stands in for. In the case of the Ringling estate, each constituent part represents the whole. From the Ca’d’Zan to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art to the Ringling Library, these parts are indicative of a larger image. Each one enclosing a piece of the archive. The Ca’d’Zan contains an imprint of John and Mable’s summer home, enclosing their furniture, decor, clothes, beds, miscellaneous baubles, John’s ties, etc.. Their lives. The museum contains their tastes, great paintings and sculptures of the renaissance with their rich oils and gilded frames. Last, the library contains thousands of volumes of book and other printed materials, vast information relating pieces of the archive’s mission as described by its bearer. The archive contains a legacy. A history, an identity. A collection of signs unified by their enclosement, their gathering together. Parts speak through the whole, speaking through the archive.

-Corey Culbertson


Works Consulted

Derrida, Jacques, and Eric Prenowitz. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1996. Print.

What is a network?

A major facet of the archive is the way its contents interact with each other. This evokes a familiar word: the network. The network has the tinge of a corporate term, and just so, as the corporate approach is very much characterized by the archiving principle, that of control. In the modern world, much of the functions of society are concerned with understanding how people, things, and events interact with each other, and how they will effect subjects of interest. It is always in the advantage to reduce the network to one as simple as possible so that we may comprehend what we are seeing, unlike the vast complexity of networking we see in nature, and what makes it seemingly impossible to forecast meteorological or geological events to certain degrees of accuracy. The network, for human purposes, is a controlled network, one that can be recalled by thought, paper, or computer. The network is enabled by the archive, and the history of the archived, most importantly. The method in which a cover is binded to paper, or the city in which a book is published, and any other factors that you can imagine, tie together individual artifacts to each other, separate some from others, and brings the collection in contact with the outside world. Networking is always interdimensional; from one book to the other, from one library to the other, from one system to the other, from one time to the other, ect. In some ways, this is where we get the pleasure from collecting, and how the archive becomes further useful to us. We master the collection in terms of its past, present, and future; our control of it is complete in this way, as if its entire being becomes the possession of the archiver. The collection becomes a microcosm in the eye of the beholder, and from the height of stewardship, we can see the interrelationships between objects like a god over the laws of nature. The network elaborates the purpose of the archive. It makes clear what the archiver is looking at and its significance, and exemplifies its existence.

-Joseph Estevez