By Michelle Barrasso

I began my internship at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in January 2021. My work at the Commission consists of a number of roles, responsibilities, and tasks; I am an Intake Specialist in the Employment Division. The tasks I am undertaking cover a number of different areas. First, I conduct intakeinterviews over the phone with people who wish to file a discrimination claim. This entails asking the right questions while remaining neutral and drafting the complaint. After several additional steps (i.e. sending the complaint to the Attorney Advisor, requesting signatures, etc.), I enter the complaint into the Case Management System. Second, I read case documents (i.e. a Complaint, Position Statement, Rebuttal, and Evidence) and outline the case in order to investigate and analyze it — to determine whether or not a PFC or “prima facie case” has been established and if there is probable cause for discrimination. I also help the assigned investigator determine what else is needed to move forward, which is known as an RFI or “request for information.” Lastly, I read mail-in complaints which include the same documents aforementioned. I outline each one with a checklist of pertinent information and enter the complaint into the Case Management System.

The intake interviews I conduct over the phone are informed by my training in Public History for a number of reasons. I am working with the public and engaging with the individual stories of people across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, essentially recording a piece of their history and preserving it. This aspect of my internship work lends itself to an oral history framework due to the interview process of the intake as well as the documentation. Although I am not recording the Complainant’s story with a device, I am writing it down and filing it. The complaint of discrimination serves as the individual’s oral history.

I acquired these oral history skills in Introduction to Public History, a course I took during the Fall 2018 semester with Dr. David Glassberg. We covered a wide range of Public History topics, theories, and practices, dedicating a week to the subject of oral history. One of the requirements for the course was to lead two discussions, and I signed up to lead the week covering oral history because it has always been a topic that interests me. In order to prepare for the discussion, I read the section of Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World that examines the practice of oral history, and we discussed the reading as a class. We engaged in a dialogue about the uses of oral history as well as its implications, methods, and procedures. These readings and conversations provided the necessary foundation for my field service project. 

I selected an oral history based topic for my field service project, which served as the main component for Introduction to Public History. This project, titled “UMass Black Pioneers”, focuses on the stories of African American students who attended UMass Amherst during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. My two colleagues and I were each assigned one Black Pioneer to interview, and I was tasked with recording the story of Dr. Leslie McLemore. With the help of Dr. Glassberg, my colleagues and I created a list of interview questions and sent each interviewee an oral history release form, which provided their consent to be interviewed as well as archive their story. I interviewed Dr. McLemore at the UMass Digital Media Lab to ensure I had the proper technology to conduct and record the interview. At the end of the 60-minute interview, I downloaded both the audio and visual recording. The final step was the transcription process, which took me approximately 12 hours to complete. I utilize all of these skills to conduct the intake interviews for my internship with the Commission.

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By Past@Present

P@P: First, it’s so exciting to see your photo on the cover of the new issue of The Public Historian—Congratulations!  Can you tell us how that came about?

RR: Thank you! I knew The Public Historian was publishing a special issue about childhood, gender, and play, but it was a surprise when the editor contacted me about using one of my photos for the cover. It’s such an honor to have my work recognized by colleagues in the field.

P@P: More than 3000 people follow your Instagram feed, @iamexcessivelydollverted.  When and why did you launch that project?  And how do you use this platform as a public historian?

RR: I began @iamexcessivelydollverted three years ago as a way to discuss and expand upon aspects of history related to American Girl’s historical characters. Over time, the project has transformed into a discussion of the history that is overlooked by American Girl. In recent years, American Girl has introduced more characters from marginalized backgrounds, but the vast majority of the dolls they sell are white and all but two of their historical characters are Christian. I am really interested in the idea of historical fiction as public history and how we can use fiction as an entry into understanding history, so I began creating my own historical characters from time periods and marginalized communities overlooked by American Girl. I use these original historical characters to discuss histories of non-white and non-Christian communities in the United States and elsewhere. I also use this project to connect history to contemporary events. All of American Girl’s canonical historical characters fight for justice and equality in their books, so it makes sense to me to use these historical characters to discuss contemporary issues of justice and equality and to trace how contemporary racism, sexism, and inequality is rooted in history.

As a public historian, this project is an extension of my other work. I typically write history articles for online and print outlets, on topics ranging from suffrage history to environmental history. On @iamexcessivelydollverted, I often discuss topics that I’ve written about for websites and magazines, but I’m able to interact with a different readership—over half of my followers are 18-34 years old and the majority are women. Too often, history writing aimed at a popular audience is synonymous with weighty tomes about men written by men. By using American Girl dolls to discuss history for a popular audience, I’m fighting against that stereotype; writing popular history is and should be a feminist act.

American Girl dolls dressed as early 20th-century suffragists used for the cover of The Public Historian’s February 2021 Issue.

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By Allison Smith

Over the summer of 2020 I participated in the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project, hosted by Smith College, where I completed my undergraduate degree. I interviewed women in my family about their experiences making and wearing face masks, and along the way, I learned how women understood their roles in the pandemic and how they adapted to the public health crisis.

Two professors from Smith College, Darcy Buerkle and Kelly Anderson, spearheaded the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project as a way for Smith students to learn how to create historical sources. For me, this project served as a productive bridge between my undergraduate work and studying Public History at the graduate level at UMass Amherst. As a participant in the project, I could choose any topic to explore. Interested in material culture and fascinated by the changing mask fashions even in the short time from the beginning of the pandemic to the summer months, I decided to give women a space to talk about their experiences with face masks. I conducted six oral history interviews over Zoom and collected numerous survey responses from women who generously shared their experiences with mask making and wearing, pandemic life, and the political climate.

To learn more about mask making on a global scale, I also attended the Homemade Mask (Virtual) Summit in June 2020, an event hosted by Tulane University.1 During this virtual summit I realized how far-reaching this network of women was and I became even more encouraged to continue collecting oral histories. The Smith College project—which to date has preserved over 100 oral testimonies, and counting—is only one project of many, as the IFPH (International Federation for Public History) is collecting public history projects about COVID-19 in a Made By Us map.2 The COVID-19 Pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to capture history in ways that ensure diverse stories are told and women’s voices are heard. 

Patricia Stowell showing off face mask, June 23, 2020.

My grandmother, Patricia Stowell, is one of those women who rose to the challenge of mask making. She and other women from her retirement community in Punta Gorda, Florida, shared face mask patterns and debated the various advantages and disadvantages of each. Looking on YouTube for tutorials, my grandmother endeavored to find a pattern that was “loose enough to breathe, but tight enough so that I feel it’s working.”3 She also followed CDC guidelines, using two 10×6 rectangles of tightly woven cotton.4 After drafting a prototype, she located scraps of cotton she had laying around from previous quilting projects and began machine-sewing masks. Stowell not only sewed masks for herself and her husband but her children and grandchildren. After sending masks across the country to her relatives, she joined forces with her friends to make over 100 masks to donate to the local children’s hospital. The generosity and dedication of these women represent only a snapshot of the communities of crafting women across the world protecting those around them. 

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By Jessica Scott

This article was written as a result of a semester long practicum with Associate Professor Sam Redman focusing on research into the original production of Artifacts at the End of a Decade. Professor Redman also serves as a member of the steering committee for the UMCA exhibit opening February 16th.

It was early Fall 2019 by the time co-curator Jill Hughes and I decided to show the artists book Artifacts at the End of a Decade in its entirety for our 2020 UMCA Curatorial Fellow Exhibition. We’d only seen  its “pages” through the thumbnail images on the website for the 5 Colleges Museum’s Digital Database but we were already piqued by how it stood out from the rest of the collection’s 3000 works on paper. Published in 1981 by Steven Watson and Carol Venezia-Huebner, Artifacts at the End of a Decade is an unbound artists’ book consisting of of 44 unique pieces of photography, ceramics, fiber, print, clothing, painting, and drawing, contributed by artists including Martha Rosler, Fab 5 Freddy, Laurie Anderson, Sol LeWitt, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs, and Robert Kushner, among many others. As a multidisciplinary American survey of the 1970’s in the form of an artists’ archive, it’s a work that was both a response to its time and far ahead of it.

An image of an opened archival box containing the artists Watson and Venezia-Huebner's portfolio "Artifacts at the end of a Decade."
An image of an to closed archival box containing the artists Watson and Venezia-Huebner's portfolio with the title "Artifacts at the end of a Decade" on the cover of the box.

Artifacts in its portfolio, photography by Stephen Petergorsky.

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An Interview with Brad Paul

Brad Paul is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association (WISCAP). He has twenty years of local, national, and international experience developing partnerships and managing policy, education and research agendas related to issues of land, labor, housing and poverty reduction. Brad earned his PhD in History from UMass Amherst in 1999. His dissertation focused on 19th and 20th century U.S. labor, and comparative labor and industrialization in South Africa and the American South. Brad has long been active in national anti-poverty and homelessness policy and advocacy work, serving as both the Housing Policy Director and Director of Public Policy at the National Coalition for the Homeless and then as co-founder and Executive Director of the National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness (NPACH). His writings on housing, homelessness, human rights, and labor have appeared in Clearinghouse Review, Ms. Magazine, Shelter Force, International Union Rights, and the Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working Class History. He is also the primary author of the 2003 Bringing America Home Act, comprehensive federal anti-poverty legislation introduced in the 108th Congress. Prior to joining WISCAP, Brad worked in the field of international development for a number of organizations, including Technoserve Mozambique and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). He has previously served as Visiting Scholar in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Brad lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Brad Paul

As the executive director of the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, you are involved in anti-poverty and homelessness policy and advocacy work. Can you share a bit about the challenges and the rewarding aspects of your work?

One in ten Wisconsinites live below the poverty line, and close to 40% of all households struggle to meet their basic needs. Last year, local school districts identified over 18,000 homeless kids in the state. Taken together, it shows just how fragile economic life can be for low-income families. Our challenge is to impress upon lawmakers, the private sector, and the public where they fit in and how they can make a difference. As an agency, we often struggle to secure the necessary support that allows us to pursue policy and programs that can make a real difference for people. The donor community understands how their dollars contribute to direct service, but less so of the equally critical need for public education and policy change. On the other hand, the rewards seem obvious. Last year, close to 250,000 low-income Wisconsinites received some form of assistance from our member agencies. Knowing that we have an important role to play in helping meet the emergency and longer-term economic needs of individuals and families with children is both daunting and immensely satisfying.

You earned a PhD in History from UMass Amherst. What drew you to labor history? How does your background as a historian inform what you do?

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by Audrey L. Altstadt

Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that an international observer team monitored and assessed the US election of November 3. The team’s preliminary report, issued midday on November 4 noted that elections were “competitive and well-managed” and the media, despite polarization, “made efforts to provide accurate information.” The report did sound the alarm that “evidence-deficient claims about election fraud created confusion and concern” and that “Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president… harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

“What international observers?” say many Americans, voicing some mixture of doubt and shock. “How can it be? What do they know?”

Among the many international organizations of which the United States is either a member or participant is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE considers democracy and human rights to be pillars of the rule-of-law state and, therefore, matters of security. Based on that idea, OSCE offers to consult member states on their domestic processes related to democracy and human rights including the conduct of elections. Member states can invite OSCE to their elections, as the US State Department has done since 2002. OSCE teams follow a carefully crafted procedure to examine a country’s election laws and practice, to observe polling and vote counting, and publish reports explaining the election in a dispassionate way.

We who study the USSR and post-communist states are familiar with the OSCE and its election monitoring in Russia and other states formerly ruled by communist-party governments since the dissolution of the USSR in late 1991. In my studies of (and experiences living in) post-Soviet Azerbaijan, I have watched or read reports by OSCE teams as they do their complex jobs in election after election. The OSCE office that is charged with election monitoring is the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR – pronounced like “oh, dear”).

Once the host country invites OSCE to monitor its election, ODIHR assembles a Needs Assessment Team to determine specialists and numbers of observers. About two months before the election, a Core Team arrives to set up operations followed by a Long-Term Monitoring team of about 30 that studies conditions, and finally a large Short-term monitoring team is added to expand the number of observers who deploy on the days of balloting and counting. In our recent election, ODIHR deployed 102 observers to various locations as permitted by local laws in most states, though 18 specifically ban international observers including Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Texas.  (Note 101, p. 19) Among the team members are specialists in law, media, political affairs, and other areas. I have known observers who are permanent OSCE staffers or former diplomats. The team is recruited from member states of the OSCE except for citizens of the host country. The core and long-term teams examine election law and oversight structures, processes for candidate and voter registration, media coverage and campaign atmosphere, and a host of details such as themes of the campaign, and whether an incumbent uses state resources for political purposes.

Since I am most familiar with OSCE-ODIHR monitoring and reports for Azerbaijan, I will explain a few significant features of the process for that post-Soviet country. Since the1990s, ODIHR has reported that structural and practical electoral features favor the ruling party and incumbents to the extent that challenges are extremely difficult and even dangerous. Despite some reform, the Azerbaijani government does not change the features that sustain the lopsided power of the regime. Among the most egregious violations of national law and/or OSCE standards that members agree to follow are the structure of the Central Election Commission which administers elections and is packed with members of the ruling party. The ruling regime consistently uses official resources for political purposes, orchestrates biased media coverage, and threatens critics of the regime. Manipulation goes down to local levels where supervisors in jobs and schools pressure employees and even adult students to vote for incumbents.

Election day shenanigans may be the things we most often associate with stealing elections. Azerbaijan and other post-Soviet states including Russia have engaged in overt ballot stuffing, “carousel” voting when a group of voters is bussed from one polling station to another to vote repeatedly, and the failure of poll watchers to check on these fake voters thereby enabling their actions. In virtually every reporting year between 1995 and 2013, ODIHR rated about a quarter to a third of Azerbaijan’s polling stations as bad or very bad.

But the greater manipulation of Azerbaijan’s elections took place in counting. Observers reported the poorly concealed addition of pre-marked ballots to boost totals for an incumbent. In some years, as many as half the counting stations and procedures were rated as bad or very bad. That included two presidential elections casting doubt on the legitimacy of Azerbaijan’s current president.

What did the OSCE ODIHR team find in the US? On the day after polling, according to OSCE procedures, team leaders hold a press conference and post a Preliminary Report on the website. The team found that procedures were overwhelming orderly and lawful, but “evidence-deficient” claims of fraud risked undermining public confidence. (Schedule, team members, and reports for the US election are available on the OSCE website)

The 24-page Preliminary Report was posted midday on November 4, before several post-election disputes clearly emerged. The report recapped the complex US electoral structure – with elections run by states and varied levels of discretion over thousands of local jurisdictions – and thus provided detailed information that many Americans probably don’t know about their own country’s system. The general conduct was deemed to be orderly and lawful, despite hundreds of pre-election lawsuits. Most problems were dealt with quickly and in accord with appropriate laws. The campaign, however, was “characterized by deepening political polarization, extremely negative campaigning;” and “the incumbent president’s use of discriminatory and pejorative statements against individuals on the grounds of their gender and origin was of particular concern.” (p. 11)

Because OSCE focuses on democratic process, it included in this report many examples of statements that it considered threatening, specifically the president’s allegations “that the electoral process, and postal voting in particular, would be open to widespread fraud, while not providing any further information or evidence…” and his suggestion that he would not honor the outcome and commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Noted the report: “Statements of this nature by a presidential candidate risk eroding public confidence in democratic institutions and delegitimizing the outcome of the election.” (pp. 11-12)

Among the many areas addressed in the report, those on early and mail-in voting take on added significance in the days after balloting. The OSCE reported that “most states” decided to start processing mailed ballots before election day because of the large number of those ballots. It elaborated variations in Footnote 129 (p. 22), beginning with this important point: “Alabama, Mississippi, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania required absentee ballot processing to start only on election day.”  By week’s end, Pennsylvania’s continuing ballot count has become a major focal point of partisan tension.

The OSCE Preliminary Report closed with cautionary comment about the night of balloting:

“Despite the fact that the results of the election were still inconclusive, the incumbent president again questioned the integrity of the process and declared victory. Counting and tabulation are ongoing and should continue in accordance with the law and OSCE commitments. Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

As the OSCE ODIHR team worries, the greatest present threat seems to be to the democratic process itself and public confidence in our elections despite the overwhelming evidence that legal procedures have been followed.

Audrey L. Altstadt

By Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Kathrine Esten, and Rebecca Simons

Imagine a United States embroiled in a deadly pandemic, divided over something as simple as whether or not to wear a mask. Or imagine a United States drawn into distant military conflicts despite deep societal tensions at home. Or imagine Americans going into a presidential election wishing that the previous four years had never taken place.

We’re not discussing 2020. This is 1920. Starting on October 1, the Gibson House Museum, a historic house in Boston’s Back Bay, is featuring a new outdoor exhibit titled “1920: The Gibsons’ New Normal.”

The exhibit follows the Gibson family and their staff through three waves of dramatic societal change that preceded the election of 1920: the Influenza Pandemic, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and the First World War. The impetus for the project came after the Gibson House Museum was forced to close to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Museum staff wanted to find a way to remain connected and relevant to the neighborhood community.

While these areas of study are fascinating under normal circumstances, their centennial anniversary comes at a time when the lessons of the past are more relevant than ever. Seeking to understand the Gibson family’s eagerness to embrace a “return to normalcy,” the staff and interns at the Gibson House Museum found themselves reflected in an America burdened with instability and social tension.

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Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner

by Joyce A. Berkman

In 1963 our first son was born. We named him, Jeremy Saul Berkman, in part after Johann Sebastian Bach. My husband, Lenny, and I have always shared a deep reverence for Bach’s compositions, deeming Bach (1685-1750) as the premier composer, the musical fount, of modern Europe.  I trace my devotion to his work not to my early piano study but to my attendance at the Carmel Bach Festival during the 1950s. This internationally acclaimed summer festival, founded in 1935 by two extraordinary female art entrepreneurs and lifelong partners, Dene Denny and Hazel Watrous, introduced me to the range and majesty of Bach’s work.  The many concerts, master classes, open rehearsals, recitals, lectures, that took place initially over four days cast a spell on me. This spell strengthened after Lenny’s and my trip to Leipzig, where Bach spent most of his adult career. We visited St. Nicholas Church — where Bach’s works were performed in his lifetime, and whose bells launched the collapse of the Soviet Union — and St. Thomas Church, where Bach served as Cantor in 1723 and where so many of Bach’s Cantatas and Passions premiered.

In this extensive, captivating biography and critical study of Bach, John Eliot Gardiner blends his analysis and performance experience of Bach’s music with his interpretations of Bach’s complex personality, historical situation and musical genius. Gardiner evokes his Dorset, England childhood under the daily gaze of one of the two extant portraits of Bach, painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1748. Among today’s leading conductors of Bach’s choral compositions, having presented all of Bach’s 200 cantatas in a single year, Gardiner links what he learned through conducting Bach to his evolving grasp of Bach’s musical goals and compositional strategies.[1]

Although Gardiner’s concerts and recordings primarily present Bach’s sacred music, he wards off any conclusion that he or the music itself aims to implement particular church doctrine. Rather, he insists that Bach’s work “springs from the depths of the human psyche and not from some topical or local creed.” (15)

Before Gardiner wrote this riveting biographical, historical and musicological study, he had also scoured existing scholarship on Bach and on early modern European history. Gardiner had already published various studies of early modern music and on Bach which had garnered him numerous honors and awards, even knighted in 1998 by Queen Elizabeth II. Shortly after the publication of this biography, Gardiner became the president of the Leipzig-Archiv, which, together with the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, is the central co-holder of Bach primary documents. Bach Digital, a collaborative enterprise of the Leipzig Archive, the computing center at Leipzig University and the Staatsbibliothek, is in the process of digitizing every extant work Bach autographed, making these sources widely accessible.

Fortunately, Gardiner’s university training was as much in history as in musicology, amply evident in this biography. He informs the reader in text and copious footnotes about essential documentary sources, interconnects past and present historiography, and addresses many of the controversies rife among Bach scholars

Unlike the plenitude and diversity of primary sources that bear on Bach’s professional career, primary sources on Bach’s personal life are woefully sparse. Far more documents appear to be extant, especially correspondence between other composers of Bach’s time and their family and friends, than we have for Bach.  Further, Bach did not leave us a memoir or autobiography.  At best we have a hastily written obituary by Bach’s second son and one of his pupils, the Nekrolog.  Gardiner laments that we “know less about his private life than about that of any other major composer of the last 400 years.” (xxv)  Equally unavailable are sources on audience response to initial performances of Bach’s works.  With a twinkle, Gardiner muses, “Might one or two adverse, even waspish, comments overheard from the congregation as it filed out of church…goad him towards his own brand of dare-devilry and to still bolder experiments?” (317)

At the heart of Gardiner’s treasure trove of sources, naturally, are Bach’s musical texts and music themselves. Gardiner perceptively infers Bach’s religious outlook and psychological insights from many of these.  As one of countless examples, Bach’s Actus Tragicus, which he composed at age 22,  underscores a lifelong motif in Bach’s approach to death: a desire to soothe and offer hope, yet “never saccharine, self-indulgent or morbid.” From the “yearning dissonance given to two gambas, to the ravishing way the recorders entwine and exchange adjacent notes, slipping in and out of unison… we are being offered music to combat grief.” (149) Bach surely had his share of grief. By age nine he had lost both parents. His first wife died early, and 12 of his 20 children died before they turned three. Death was an omnipresent trauma for him and for those he knew.  (I immediately dashed to YouTube to hear Actus Tragicus, which, I feel, does bear out Gardiner’s claim.) Sadly, although we’re overwhelmed by the plenitude of Bach’s compositions, e.g. cantatas composed weekly for two straight years, many of his compositions are lost, including many cantatas and his St. Mark Passion. 

Gardiner’s major thesis is the dual reality of Bach’s unparalleled musical genius and very human, problematic personality: “Bach the musician is an unfathomable genius; Bach the man is all too obviously flawed, disappointingly ordinary and in many ways still invisible to us.” (xxv).   Resisting prevalent hagiography of Bach while also utterly in awe of his musical genius, Gardiner treads a middle ground in which he presents Bach’s artistic and personal struggles within a tumultuous political, economic, societal, religious, and cultural historical reality, an array of forces pressuring Bach to conform to ruling religious and artistic beliefs and musical conventions, which he subverts as much as he can. Gardiner faults the hagiographic bias as concealing Bach’s “everyday self, the self that lived beside, beneath and within the narrative of his most un-ordinary music-making” (525) and  offers examples of Bach’s irascible, prickly, petty behavior, (203) epitomized in the chapter  “The Incorrigible Cantor.” When the Leipzig Council hired Bach, his Cantorate included serving as Director of the St. Thomas Boys Choir and as Director of Music for the main city churches. Assessing Bach as man and as musician Gardiner deems Bach’s character failures as “less heinous than those of Mozart or Wagner”. 

Gardiner the historian emerges definitively in his claim that Bach’s “church music, unique in the history of music, could have happened only at this time, in this place and under these circumstances” (527). Gardiner cites the role of Thuringian geographical and societal landscape on young Bach and the toll of constant warfare and devastation on the lives of prior generations of Bach’s family. Bach was fortunate to be born when many families enjoyed relative freedom from such dire circumstances. 

In accounting for Bach’s creative brilliance and immense compositional legacy, Gardiner explores the complicated interplay between nature and nurture, and compares the Bach family with other famous musical families of his era.  Gardiner describes Bach’s family’s long history of musical performance, including regular family chorale singing. Composed by Martin Luther, these chorales, often adapted folksongs, molded the “close synergy between Luther and Bach.” (129-130)   

Ever widening the frame of his study, Gardiner adds the role of chance.  When nine-year-old Bach was orphaned, he joined the household, in Ohrdruf, of his oldest brother Johann Christoph Bach, which became a most fortuitous turn of events.  This musically talented brother introduced him to Georg Böhm, young Bach’s principal mentor. Böhm eased Bach’s entrée into the “rich cosmopolitan life of Hamburg, with its new opera house and its many fine church organs “.  Bach was privileged to learn from the city’s “great organ-builder Arp Schnitiger at close quarters…” (90)

Bach’s time in Ohrdruf was brief. Family needs, political conflicts, professional ambitions and musical ideals sparked Bach’s sequence of moves around Germany. Even when he settled permanently in Leipzig, his work took him to other cities for short periods of time.  None of these cities met Bach’s musical vision.  Bach, notes Gardiner, had a “lifelong obsession” a “pipe dream” of composing in a paid position that would enable him to compose freely in conformity “with the way the God-inspired Temple music was organized in the time of King David” (195). He wanted the freedom to create music “to the glory of God” in his own distinct way. Though this desire spurred many of his moves, he did not find the freedom he sought anywhere, even in Leipzig, with its “innate conservatism, artistic indifference and discord…a creaky structure, undermanned and underfunded” (196), but he resolved to meet this goal, his “Endzweck” regardless, and soon exhibited a dazzling “fecundity.” (290)

Gardiner deftly places Bach within the wider development of the European Enlightenment.  Its emphasis on science and mathematics posed no problem to Bach. For him, music was a science and pervasively mathematical, at its best expressing the harmony of nature and the cosmos. Gardiner cites Theodore Adorno’s claim that “Bach was the first to crystallize the idea of the rationally constituted work” (14)

German society, including Leipzig’s, was increasingly secular, “the community of belief and convention…was starting to alter, or even to break down.” (278) Although known as the city of churches, Leipzig remained indelibly Lutheran, yet its population of roughly 30,000 experienced no religious consensus. The six main Lutheran churches with 22 services bitterly contested views of Lutheran doctrines. (278). Factions split churches and the local government; tensions divided church and lay authorities.  In countless forms, social class, professional, religious and gender differences stratified the city’s system of status and power.

Bach upheld various older musical conventions while appropriating new musical styles.  Various arresting chapters probe Bach’s Janus-faced musical orientation, looking past and forward.  Opera is one of many examples. Though spurning creating secular opera, he was a superlative dramatist. Using Biblical, rather than secular, narrative as his text, he created an operatic “mutant”. (102).  Gardiner attributes to Bach the creation of “a synthesis” of myriad past and present musical idioms.

In the process of creating this synthesis, however, Bach could not remove himself from the political and ideological tumult that surrounded him.  In one of the most absorbing chapters, “Collision and Collusion,” Gardiner reveals the ways Bach deployed “the interplay – even friction – between words and music in his church cantatas” thereby yielding ambiguous and contradictory meanings from Gospel texts. (439, 447).  Irreverent Bach deliberately altered a key word in a homily (197) or highlighted through musical choices theological confusions and inconsistencies. Bach exploited music’s ability to transcend words so as to “chip away at people’s prejudices and sometimes toxic patterns of thinking” (477). Gardiner lauds Bach’s commitment to the truth of human experience, applying his “boundless invention, intelligence, wit and humanity to the process of composition.”(xxxiv)

In conclusion, a few words about this biography’s title. It derives from Weg zum Himmelsburg (The Way to the Castle of Heaven), the name for the painted cupola in the palace church of Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the cupola and court music library destroyed, alas, by fire in 1774. The cupola’s inspired design appears in one of the volume’s many vivid illustrations, inviting the reader to hear the chords from the organ gallery where Bach performed early in his career, 65 feet above floor level, as those chords descended to its listeners below as though from heaven. Ultimately, Gardiner beholds Bach, with all his human deficiencies, striving to compose at a heavenly level of perfection, his efforts yielding triumphs of transcendent glory.

[1] Gardiner focuses exclusively on Bach’s choral work, which reflects Gardiner’s conducting experience.

By Audrey Altstadt

My early summer reading began with three books about women’s lives. One overlapped with my teaching life (Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, about the great codebreaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and yes, that’s how she spelled her name); another overlapped with my travel life (Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders, about her months bicycling the Silk Road, which I never did or would do).  The third book spoke to my writing life, as most books do, but this one resonated in a deeply personal way. Richard White’s Remembering Ahanagran: a History of Stories (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998) is White’s investigation of his Irish mother’s memories and life stories which he scrutinized against the historical record of her birthplace in Ireland and the US where she married and raised her children.

In this book, White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, tackles a problem that all historians face – how do we know what’s true? This book is like none of his others because here he investigates own mother’s stories, at her behest, and with her in tow as he returns to her Irish village to get additional local stories and check state and church records against their memories. With this process, White enters the territory not merely of the biographer, but of the memoirist. White himself is a character is this book. He listens to the stories again and again, but he argues with his mother about his investigations of “truth” in the documentary record. The subtitle “a history of stories” gives us a clue about his intellectual and academic approach to the family lore.

The resonance of this book for me was three-fold. My own mother’s family emigrated to the US from Ireland, from the same county as White’s mother, indeed, from a neighboring village. Like his mother, Sarah Walsh, my mother’s parents settled on Chicago’s south side. But the one forward-looking element of this reading experience was that I am a historian writing a memoir. My memoir is unrelated to my family –that I will save for my golden years – but about my first year in the USSR as a doctoral student in the late Brezhnev era.

Like White and his mother, I have memories of my own experiences of that time and I know the stories of others who shared those years of grad school and of research in the USSR. The year I spent in Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, was an adventure academically, politically, and personally. I arrived in September of 1980 on the heels of the US boycott of the summer Olympics in Moscow which was retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous December. US-Soviet relations were at the lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. By going to Baku, in the Soviet south near the Iranian border, I was close to the American hostages then being held in the occupied US Embassy in Tehran. And I arrived weeks after the start of the Iran-Iraq War when the US-backed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was bombing the Iranian border just south of Soviet territory. Naturally, I want to get the facts of the time right.

Audrey Altstadt (middle) in Baku, 1992

Although it’s easy to look up the dates of invasions and bombings, or presidential decrees and decisions of the Soviet Communist Party, as White found his mother’s school records, there are a thousand details that cannot be readily verified. Yet those details tell a story of their own.  And so does my memory of them. When I tell my fellow historians that I am writing a memoir, their first question is “do you have diaries, notebooks, letters?” We think about evidence, of course. That’s what we do. And I have those things, which might be considered historical documents and primary sources by some future historian, but they are singularly uninformative. In the Soviet Union in 1980, it would have been foolish for an American to record frankly all the things she did and people she met. Our rooms were searched regularly, our communications monitored. As one of two Americans in Baku, and the only one who spoke the languages, I was followed for months even after I settled into my boring routine of going from dorm to university to market.  Writing about Soviet acquaintances put those people at risk. That was the reality of our lives, it was not some movie fantasy. Memories are my foundation for the memoir – the train across the steppe from Moscow to Baku, my first view of Baku bay in the sunshine, the fragrances of the bazaar, the rickety chairs in the archives and the crooked glass that made car tires look square.  

As White encountered conflicting stories about the family home, Ahanagran, I found disparate memories among old friends.  Wanting to share feelings as well as facts, I tried to lead my reader from the familiar to the new. Take the case of the jetway. When our group arrived in Moscow, we left our Lufthansa flight and spilled out into the new and gleaming Sheremetova-II airport, built for thousands of visitors to the Olympics. How did we get from the plane to the airport corridor? I think we used a jetway as in the US, but I do not clearly recall. I ask friends who were in the group. They say we “must have” deplaned onto the tarmac and walked into the terminal because the USSR had no jetways in 1980.  But I think they are projecting that knowledge backward to our arrival. I had been outside the US only once before and had never deplaned onto the ground. If I had walked down the plane’s stairs onto the cold and, as I recall, snowy ground of the Moscow’s airport, I am confident I would remember. Since I don’t remember such a thing, I think there was a jetway bought and installed specifically for foreign travelers. And that’s what I wrote – we left the familiar jetway behind. We entered a world of novel, even strange, experiences — the airport was empty, the Soviet guards stared us down, the passport control process was intimidating.

White describes reading his mother’s 1936 immigration form with her. She commented, “How much I’m finding out about myself.”  White found out about his mother and Ireland and the immigrant experience in writing this book, but also about himself, and perhaps more from the process than the facts. So it is with all of us who write.

By Marla Miller

Now more than ever public attention is drawn to the ways in which public art creates space to talk about a wide range of subjects, past, present and future. Earlier this year in Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts—an industrial village within the larger community of Montague—artist Nina Rossi embraced a fleeting moment in the history of Spinner Park to offer a thoughtful, provocative, and even joyful intervention around a local monument that both celebrates and elides histories of women’s work. Though most recently she has embraced multi-media work with a range of materials, including found objects, Rossi here turns to photography, in artwork that invites us to contemplate both idealized and real images of working women, and presents a rich case study of the possibilities when artists work in public history spaces.

Since the mid 1980s, “The Spinner”—a nineteenth-century classical figure holding a drop spindle—has stood near the corner of Avenue A and 4th Street to celebrate the women who once worked in the nearby Griswold Cotton Mill. The town is working this year to update the park, making it safer, more functional, and ADA-compliant. The 700-pound, cast iron Spinner will remain in the newly refurbished park, but is off its base as it is being restored during the construction. The work left the figure’s pedestal in place, but unoccupied. Rossi—never, in her words a “huge fan of the romantic, sentimental version of a mill worker symbolized by the Greek/Roman spinning goddess”—took advantage of the sculpture’s temporary absence to replace it with a succession of local women. Each mounted the empty pedestal holding tools of her trade today, moments Rossi captured in photographs.[1]

Left: The Spinner and Spinner Park before renovations (photo:, 2016). Right: Weaver Peggy Hart (photo: Nina Rossi, 2020)

Rossi’s intervention is an important one. Monuments with female figures are far more often allegorical than representational. One study of some “5,575 outdoor sculpture portraits of historical figures identified by the Smithsonian” found that, after subtracting examples of abstract, allegorical, or anonymous figures, fewer than 200 statues (that is, not even 4%) remain that depict identifiable women. Recent attention to the installation of statues of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park (the first women to join nearly two dozen men), or to the highly anticipated monument to Ida B. Wells, planned for the Chicago neighborhood where she lived and worked, shows the high degree of interest in the ways women’s history is marked on the landscape.

The daughter of UMass sociologists Peter H. and Alice S. Rossi—the latter “a founder of the National Organization of Women and specializing in family, sexuality, gender and feminism”—Rossi believes that her work “has that kind of sociological vision. This is where my perspective comes from.” “The drop spindle daintily held by a draped classical figure,” Rossi observes, seems “very unrealistic for what must have been a dirty and mechanical and noisy job tending thundering looms inside the Griswold mill.” “Other women in town worked in the paper mills, mostly in the rag room, slicing up rags by running them up on fixed knives,” she continues, and “I doubt they looked much like this perky nymph, or would have identified with her. But I have always loved the fact that the park and statue was a homage to female workers. So I thought an updated, modern version using living local models would be fun.” And the timing was perfect: not only was the pedestal vacant—and its surrounding azaleas in full bloom—but in the wake of the lock-down associated with the pandemic, “we were coming out of weeks of huddling at home. The idea of doing a public art project where I could interact, however briefly, with people again was very appealing after weeks of solitude and lack of inspiration.”

Rossi began by inviting women whom she knew personally, but word quickly spread, and by the project’s conclusion some forty women embraced the chance to strike a pedestal pose. Rossi has made her photos available as a series on her website. And so we meet musician and poet Nina Gross, copyeditor and grantwriter Trouble Mandeson, town clerk Deb Bourbeau, and chef Ashley Arthur. Clothing and textile makers are still well represented, by corset-maker Jackie Lucchesi and UMass Amherst public history student, weaver Peggy Hart. Artists and musicians hold brushes and instruments; activist Edite Cunha carries the all-important clipboard. Amy Donovan, who works for the Franklin County Solid Waste District, chose a bucket and shovel.

The Spinner statue, purchased in the 1980s, was cast by Alabama’s Robinson Iron Works (who also contributed the lamp posts lining the street) after a sculpture created by 19th-century French artist Louis-Léon Cugnot (1835-1894).[2] Cugnot was well known for his allegorical figures. According to one source, this form, rendered in the Art Nouveau style, was not intended to depict the work of spinning per se, but rather represented Clotho, the “Greek goddess of destiny,” “measuring the thread of human life.”[3] But the statue gained new meaning when installed in a town built upon the labor of female textile workers.

At the same time that Cugnot’s figure was first cast in France, in 1875, a world away the vision for the Turner’s Falls cotton mill took shape. The Griswold Cotton Mills was founded by Joseph Griswold in the nearby town of Colrain in the 1830s. By 1879, the company had moved to a new, larger factory in Turner’s Falls—a planned industrial community founded only a decade before on the banks of the Connecticut River.[4] The 1880 U.S. census counted just over thirty women and girls employed by the cotton mill, the majority of them either Canadian or born to Canadian parents. Mothers and daughters worked alongside one another, as did sisters—sometimes whole families working together in the cotton mill. The 1884 Sanborn map noted that the “carding & spinning rooms” where most of these employees worked “run night and day.” Weaving took place on the ground floor, with the carding and cloth rooms above; the third floor was devoted to spinning, spooling, and warping, and the 4th allocated for storage. By 1891, some 500 mill hands ran 700 looms and 30,000 spindles, producing light weight fabrics and fancy goods.  A large boarding house and tenements housed workers from the Griswold mills.

The Spinner best represents the real women of the town’s cotton mills in that she is depicted as a young woman: In 1880, the median age of women employed as weavers, spinners, spoolers, and warp tenders and web drawers in the cotton mill was twenty, though several workers were as young as twelve and thirteen, and a handful were in their thirties, or had reached forty.[5] But the dangerous work performed by women in these mills certainly looked very different from the spinner of the sculptor’s mythological imagination. Cleaning and preparing fibers, swapping in fresh bobbins, warping and weaving cloth—in contrast to the quiet, contemplative image of the Spinner, this was all difficult and dangerous work, performed around heavy machinery, in deafening environments. Among other risks, the fiber-laden air made cotton workers vulnerable to a range or respiratory illnesses, while the common practice—before the introduction of self-threading shuttles–of sucking thread to bring it through a shuttle contributed to the spread of tuberculosis.[6]

Women in another western Massachusetts mill. (Photo: “A Chicopee Cotton Mill – spinning room – 3 men, 12 women on the production floor,” Chicopee Archives Online, accessed August 6, 2020,

As textile companies moved their operations from New England to the southern states, plants like Griswold’s could no longer compete. Between 1922 and 1933, some 93 Massachusetts cotton mills closed, including Griswold’s. Most closed before 1928, throwing 40% of the Commonwealth’s textile employees out of work.[7]  By the time the Griswold property was sold to the Kendall Company in 1932, the firm had switched its focus to manufacturing hospital dressings, medical gauze, and related products,.[8] World War II boosted revenues, but soon competition from southern mills caught up, and the company closed it in 1952, forcing some 135 employees to look elsewhere for work .[9]

The post-war decades were difficult for Turner’s Falls economy, as mills closed one by one and jobs vanished. With the assistance of the Massachusetts state government, in the mid-1980s the town launched a revitalization effort that included plans to create a park on an abandoned lot on the main street. Town leaders decided to celebrate the women who had once worked in its textile industry by installing the Cugnot figure in what became “Spinner Park.” A plaque placed at the figure’s 1985 dedication reads “May the charm, grace and elegance of this statue be a lasting symbol of women at work”—language that may seem incongruous with the actual labor of millwork, but the statue’s installation ceremony also brought, and honored, several women who had worked in the Kendall mill, as well as the Esleek and Strathmore paper mills.[10] In their presence, the abstract, allegorical Clotho took on another valence, as the representative of these real, working women.

Thirty-five years have passed since the Spinner’s installation. Today, as the park undergoes renovation, Suzanne LoManto, executive director of RiverCulture (the town’s cultural programming department), notes that “the intention of the Spinner statue has always been to honor Montague’s industrial past, and especially to acknowledge the women who worked in the mills.” As part of work, local sculptor Jack Nelson will refresh and restore the Spinner before it is reinstalled—creating the opportunity embraced by artist Nina Rossi to recognize, and celebrate, the diverse ways in which women work in the contemporary community.

Nina Rossi’s photographs now appear on the wall enclosing the construction site, allowing visitors to imagine contemporary women atop Clotho’s pedestal. (Photo: Nina Rossi, 2020)

In summer 2020, Rossi’s photos became part of the physical presence at the site, printed on weatherproof polymer paper with a landscape fabric backing and mounted on the construction fence, along the Fourth Street side of the site.  While Clotho is absent, these photos remind viewers of the working worlds of women today. Meanwhile, Rossi is continuing to contemplate the additional possibilities offered by the moment, such as installing a time capsule inside the refurbished statue, containing these photos alongside perhaps “some survey or written statements from the people who posed,” or other ways to document women’s working lives in 2020. Whatever comes next, Rossi muses, “40 real women being represented inside a statue that is supposed to stand in for dozens or hundreds of 19th-century women” could be “a cool contrast of technology and vision.” 

Note: the first published edition of this article omitted Sojourner Truth’s name from the list of statues honoring women in Central Park. We apologize for this error.

[1] All quotations from Nina Rossi are drawn from responses to an email interview, June 26, 2020.

[2] See

[3] Alternatively, one auction house claims that “The statue represents a girl from an Italian village on the island of Procida.”

[4] “MHC Reconaissance Survey Town Report: Montague,” (1982), pp. 3, 10. For another story related to larger conversations about local history and memory, see this account of an effort to rename Turner’s Falls, in light of a growing effort to disassociate the community from William Turner’s 1676 attack on a Nipmuc encampment during King Philip’s war: Cori Urban, “Turner’s Falls May Be Renamed Because of Association with Native American massacre,” MassLive July 16, 2020.

[5] Interestingly, the work was not as strictly segregated by gender as we might assume: weavers in the census records are identified both as male and female, and the same is true of spinners (at least per the Federal Census of 1900), who could also be male or female, usually in their early teens

[6] Janet Greenlees, “Workplace Health and Gender among Cotton Workers in America and Britain, c.1880s–1940s,” International Review of Social History, Volume 61Issue 3 (December 2016) pp. 459-485;.

[7] Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism (NY: Penguin, 2015), 394.


[9] North Adams Transcript, 26 February 1952.

[10] Tim Hilchey, “Montague Honors its Working Women,” [Greenfield Recorder], May 13, 1985.