From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lectures (2)—"Three" Lives

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Lectures à la fleur."

[a] 1,2,3...RL
The Accidental Ethnographer(s)  
Three* Complex Lives in Fin de Siècle America 

 Beloit College Phi Beta Kappa Induction Ceremony
"Presidential" Lecture 
14 May 2011  

Robert André LaFleur  
Professor of History and Anthropology

*The number “three” is to be treated very warily in the written version of this text.  

Tonight I am going to tell you a brief tale of three* lives—three men who were born just as the Civil War was ending and who died in the years between the First and Second World Wars. They loved to travel, learn, orate, and write. They were famous, not only in their home regions or in the United States as a whole, but all over the world. They spoke to packed lecture halls and churches, and were written up in newspapers on five continents. They made the news in their day, and, were they living in 2011, you would know their names. Yes, you would. 

And then they died. There were obituaries and a biography or two, but they did not last into the 1930s. Powerful or weak, hero or villain, all three were gone by the time that Hoover gave way to FDR. All were forgotten for the better part of a century until the discovery in 2008 (almost by chance) of thirty boxes of papers in a barn outside of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. I have come to know each man, in turn, over the course of the last few years of focused study and teaching. I am a singularly fortunate historian. It is not every day that a person discovers lost archives, and it is even more exciting to have the opportunity to examine three people whose careers intersected in fascinating ways, yet are almost incomprehensible when seen as a trio. Let me explain…  

Biography One—William 
Let’s call him William. He was born in 1865, had a happy and hardy childhood outside Doylestown, Pennsylvania, graduated from Lafayette College in 1891, and—channeling his ambitions toward a higher purpose—became a very successful evangelist in the American northeast. He spoke to enormous crowds, and there are stories of people in Albany, Schenectady, Trenton, and other locations climbing up ladders and listening to his orations through the windows. William was very successful at his craft—a protégée of the great revivalist Dwight Moody.

William had another idea, though. The world looked different in the 1890s and 1900s, and he was tempted to spread his gifts around the world. And that he did. His record of travel and “firsts” is just short of incredible. He journeyed to the Holy Land, and wrote extensively about it. He traveled to the South Seas and studied “cannibals” in the islands. He crossed the entire length of equatorial Africa, and encountered pygmies in the Ituri Forest, and beyond. 

And that is just the beginning. He finally thought to make his way to China, and his travels in that ancient nation are breathtaking. He was the first person—ever—to travel the entire length of the Great Wall. He sailed the length of the Yangzi River. He visited each of the eighteen provincial capitals of China. Let me just say this—I am an historian of China, and his “topics” are absolutely inspired. And I say this even before I mention that he became the only Western person ever to write a book about China’s five sacred mountains. That is how I first heard of him, because I started a similar project ninety years after he undertook his (without, at the time, ever having heard of him). In all, William wrote a dozen books, and became a kind of ambassador to the world who was respected by his peers and his audiences. 

Biography Two—Edgar 
Our second figure can be called Edgar. He was born in 1865, grew up outside Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and attended Lafayette College. He never graduated, but lied about it throughout his life, going so far at one point to use a newspaper picture of him composing text while wearing cap and gown. Looking for work after his college days, he found a certain level of skill in public speaking. He was good—excellent, really. People were struck by his words, and audiences started to gather. He learned from revivalist masters, including the venerable Dwight Moody, and started to take his show on the road throughout the northeastern corridors of the United States. Audiences were enthralled. Some newspapers report people climbing up ladders and listening through the windows. One newspaper reporter wrote of his “Monster Revivalist Meetings” while another stated that “[Edgar] left his footprints here, and they are all recorded in heaven.”

Some local business people were aghast, telling reporters of the audaciousness of Edgar’s revivalist meetings, which required businesses to close early when he spoke, even as he (Edgar) collected money for his preaching (they explicitly made the connection that he was taking revenue from them). One newspaper called him an “Evangelical Barnum” who shamelessly promoted himself at the expense of a more serious message. Other newspapers (staying equivocal) spoke of him as “a man who understands his business,” even as others termed him “a man with catchpenny subjects such as ‘man is a shadow’."

For them, he was best.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Edgar started to get a certain kind of world travel itch. You see, the world was getting smaller (Jules Verne had just written of traveling around it in eighty days). Edgar decided to travel, and he went to the South Seas, where he claimed to “cure” cannibalism. He journeyed to Africa after that, and crossed the heart of what he (and others, to be fair) called The Dark Continent. He “cured” cannibals and discovered little people whom he described in a book entitled Hunting Pigmies in Darkest Africa. You had to be there. He meant nothing ill; he thought it was sort of funny.

And then he went to China, where he developed a sense of seriousness that is not to be underestimated. He traveled the length of the Great Wall, the first person ever to do this. He sailed the length of the Yangzi River… 

You see where this is going. I just choose, for the moment, not to make it explicit. 

He sailed the length of the Yangzi river, and wrote a book entitled A Yankee on the Yangtze. He traveled to the eighteen provincial capitals of China and then to the five sacred mountains (which is where I first heard of Edgar). He wrote a dozen books, and I (as a historian of China and anthropologist who has studied all of his material and the related ethnographies) can point to perhaps twenty pages out of 3,000 that have the kind of insight that is even remotely useful to other historians and anthropologists.

And…he faked his knowledge of China. It is a long story, but that is a critical but legitimate way of characterizing the manner in which he (without any knowledge of written or spoken Chinese) peppered his works with references that made him seem like a “Sinologist”—scholar of China. Polite “sinologists” of his day (I have reviewed hundreds of the sources) constantly corrected his mistakes, and helped shore him up.
[b] Poseur    RL

William was a hero. Edgar was a poseur. The Melbourne newspaper sums it up. He was a manipulator, a charlatan, a clown. 

Biography Three—Guile (Geil) 
Yes, they are the same guy. I’ll let you in on the not-very-well-kept secret—they are all the same guy. There is the hero (William)—the guy who was known affectionately as a “muscular Christian” out to understand and tame the world. There is also the charlatan (Edgar)—the guy who made a fool of himself in Melbourne (before, let us not forget, tens of thousands of avid followers over several weeks).

So who is this third one? What I’d like to do here is to take a few minutes to examine a third way to get it wrong. It is a well-meant and ever-so-serious academic way of missing the point—so pay attention. When I first heard of him, I badly wanted to make William Edgar Geil into the very spirit of early anthropology—the figure who “got” the discipline in a way that would only be cemented two or three decades later. He would have been good for my career (think about that—and the versions of it you have seen in other people who “champion” other figures). 

I could have been his champion, claiming him as the forefather of Margaret Mead (who was also from Doylestown, born thirty-seven years later). It looked so perfect. He traveled to foreign places, spent significant time there talking with “native” peoples. He kept notebooks and carried his typewriter with him. He wrote a dozen books, gave lectures, and became a world figure. This was beginning to make its way into a story line…  He was looking like the “proto” figure in a way that would shake up the very history of the discipline of anthropology.

Oh, I wanted it to work. I spent weeks at the Doylestown Historical Society…

(We are now all on the same page, aren’t we? “He’s” the same guy; there is only one guy, and his name is William Edgar Geil, 1865-1925).

So…I spent weeks at the Doylestown Historical Society trying to force 7,000 pages of notes and lectures and text to speak in the way I wanted to make it speak. I took, well, 7,000 digital photographs of the documents, and have returned to them often. It was meant to be my sculpture of early anthropology. I molded the clay, and I tried to shape what anthropologists call the “apical ancestor” of the discipline. This could be big. This could make my career…   

And then the historian in me re-entered the room. 

The Accidental Ethnographer 
History. Life. Complexity. That is precisely the problem. Life is almost never “big” from start-to-finish. Try as I might, I couldn’t mold William Edgar Geil into the clay form that I wanted. And then I paused. All three “guys” are “straw men.” They are “fake.”  (Or so I thought…inwardly). What does that mean? Well, let’s start with this—life doesn’t have “story lines.” Life is complicated. Is that so hard to understand? (Think about that—no, really think about it). No, really. Think about it.

My wife tells the story of her convocation at Southwestern College in 1984, when a religion professor said, quite simply and without apparent emotion, “If we’ve taught you that you still have a lot to learn, we’ve done our job.” She quotes it often, and the Socratic twist is not lost on her. This simple statement is among what I call her Top Five Texas Orations (which include advice from driving instructors, band directors, and swimming coaches). Life is complicated. Get over it (you already know it, anyway).
***  ***
Her professor was right. Why do we need simple stories that valorize or vilify? Hero stories? We don’t need no stinkin’ hero stories. We need the complexity of life as lived. This is the kind of stuff (sorry for the technical—but Biblical—language) that we study in the liberal arts. Achilles. Petrarch. Richelieu. Jefferson. Eisenhower. Let’s just study life—for Pete’s saké (酒—a little Japanese cultural reference there).

Is it possible to return to something else—to look at a person (William Edgar Geil, 1865-1925) who was very definitely a “learner,” whether or not he graduated from college, and who more than occasionally took a few advantages with his public image (cap and gown; “curing” cannibalism)? Is it possible to think about an individual who, although shaped by a worldview that was Western and decidedly Protestant, was alive to at least some of the nuances of the much wider world around him—who sought to understand aspects of Africa, China, and the South Seas, even as others completely eluded him? Is it possible, in short, not to caricature?

What a concept—the complex, somewhat flawed, life.

It sounds like a lot of almost all of those we know. Complicated lives. Why don’t we all stop living in our MSNBC-FOX News worlds, and use our liberal arts educations to realize that stuff is complicated? Let’s use our intellects to understand…the stuff. Heroes? We don’t need no stinkin’ heroes (or villains)…or proto-ancestors of anthropology. We need people, and we need to take the time to understand them.

Life is complicated, people. If you have learned anything, you have learned that. That is precisely the value of a liberal education.

Welcome to Phi Beta Kappa  
***  ***
Remarks on the PBK Handshake (an interlude in an otherwise serious ceremony)

The "signs of the Society that tradition has preserved are now seen only at Phi Beta Kappa initiations. When members met in the early days, they greeted each other by drawing the back of the index and middle fingers of the right hand across the lips from left to right, thus apparently affirming that their lips would be sealed.  
I would be violating my calling as a student of anthropology if I did not add—somewhat against the grain of the seriousness of this ceremony—that it is hardly unusual for people to find secret handshakes "awkward" ("creepy" is a word I often hear). Anthropologists call this a "liminal" experience—betwixt and between, with everything seeming strange and out-of-place. Putting on my other disciplinary hat, I urge you to think historically—to view the secret handshake as a fleeting connection to an earlier time, with a fledgling nation in danger (1776), and to absorb the full spirit of the gesture. After tonight, it is up to you whether you choose to greet fellow Phi Beta Kappa members with the secret handshake or just a friendly punch on the shoulder.

Welcome, again, to Phi Beta Kappa  
***  ***
Final Remarks (at the conclusion of the PBK induction ceremony)
It has been my pleasure to serve for the last three years as the Chapter president for Beloit College. Since I enjoy lecturing, the opportunity to deliver three presidential lectures was enough motivation for me, so I signed on. It turned out to be much more, though. I have learned things about the talent of Beloit College students in all disciplines that makes me proud to be a part of this institution. Beyond that, I have had the opportunity to learn more about the national organization, and have come to understand that Phi Beta Kappa may be the only powerful national force speaking consistently and articulately to the central role of the liberal arts in American life.
I started by being grateful to my college professors for selecting me (many years ago), yet I remained skeptical. I have come to believe that Phi Beta Kappa can play a large role in the future of the liberal arts in our culture. 

I now declare this meeting adjourned, to reconvene in Pearsons Hall for our annual reception.

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