Communication Breakdown

In 1969 Led Zeppelin released the first recording of a song called Communication Breakdown (feel free to click below and have a listen if you’re not familiar). The song seems to be about a girl with whom the writer is enamored, and his frustration at their inability to communicate effectively.

“Communication breakdown, it’s always the same.

I’m having a nervous breakdown, drive me insane!”

And who hasn’t been frustrated once or twice by trying to communicate with a significant other? Communication can “breakdown” in many different ways. Often, there is an issue of translation.  At one point in the song the writer exclaims, “I don’t know what it is that I like about you, but I like it a lot,” indicating an inability to translate feelings into words. The song also resonates with the idea that men and woman speak different languages, and that perhaps we need some way to translate across genders (which is largely what the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus seeks to do).

What does this have to do with early America and the people who inhabited it? Everything.

All communication has to be translated to some extent, and translating texts from the 1800’s is perhaps even more complicated than translating what your date means when s/he says “I’ll call you…” while staring off into space, and there are multiple reasons for this. Language changes over time, but so does culture, and cultural changes are often reflected in language.

As such, translating “must occur on a cultural level, not simply linguistically.” Many huge cultural shifts have happened since the birth of this country, one of the most important being how women and people of different ethnic backgrounds are treated and regarded. This shift makes it particularly difficult to translate the words of women, slaves, and natives from early America. People who are considered “subordinate” or “marginal” rarely have the freedom to communicate completely in their own terms. What it would it mean if a woman said, “I’ll call on you” during a time when it was considered the man’s place to do so? Translation getting stickier.

Today, we have access to the written account of a very interesting woman by the name of Mary Ann Talbot. Talbot encountered many hardships in her life, one of which led her to dress as a man. She acted as a man in many ways,  helping sail ships and acting as a “powder monkey” during battles, making sure gunpowder was where it needed to be. Her tale would remind modern readers of the Disney film, Mulan in many ways, except Talbot did not begin dressing as a man by choice, and according to her written account, never wanted to do such a thing, but was required to by circumstance.  However, her story was written down by a publisher named Robert S. Kirby based on Talbot’s memories. So the story is first filtered through Talbot’s memory, then through Kirby’s interpretations of those memories, and then, through a modern reader’s understanding of what sailing, war, and cross-dressing might mean, which is likely very different than Talbot’s own understanding.

Some have even claimed that her story is false because certain dates and names in the story do not match up with historical record. However, when we consider the amount of translating that has to be done in order for the modern reader to access this story, inaccurate details seem almost unavoidable. Was there anything that Talbot had to lie about or leave out for her own safety (or the safety of others)? Was there anything Kirby saw fit to embellish because it would appeal to early American readers? We may never know.

The journal of Sarah Kemble Knight (mentioned in the previous blog post) is another example of a difficult translation task. It contains several lines and anecdotes that, through today’s lens, make Kemble Knight seem like a stuck-up, holier-than-thou racist with very picky taste. However, when we put her into a context where racism is common, her stomach has been bouncing up and down on horseback for days on end, and woman are expected to be weak, her demeanor doesn’t seem quite as elitist, or does it?

The early writings of Native Americans present just as many translation tangles as do those of women. At the beginning of America, many Natives were forced into a new language, a new religion, a new social order, and a new form of literacy, and (duh) they did not transition seamlessly. Native Americans infused their own culture into their writing, and their own culture comes with its own assumptions. Hilary Wyss looks at notes that Natives wrote in their bibles, and finds “both the mundane and the profound” written in the margins. While this could be taken as blasphemy (to use a bible to mark down death days), Wyss points out that this could also be a clue into how Native negotiated between Christianity and their own beliefs.

William Apess wrote what is often considered the first Native American autobiography, and judging by his writing he was very aware of the possibility for translation issues; embedded in his autobiography are instructions for interpretation. While this is helpful for understanding his arguments and stories in many ways, even these embedded instructions do not stand the translation-test of time, for they were still written in and for a particular culture. He directly addresses readers, and while we may technically be readers, and we may feel as though he is speaking to us, we are not the readers he has in mind. I, myself, read his autobiography on a laptop. In the early 1800’s, I highly doubt that Apess imagined readers taking in his words through a screen as opposed to a book. His instructions for interpretation are meant to push against common ideas and beliefs of his time, not of ours.

At one point he states,

I presume that the reader will exclaim, ‘What savages your grandparents were to treat unoffending, helpless, children in this cruel manner.’ But this cruel and unnatural conduct was the effect of some cause. I attribute it in a great measure to the whites…”

Today, it is not uncommon to associate Native American alcoholism with terrible way that white settlers treated them and the harsh realities they faced. On top of often losing their land and their homes, “Native identity was threatened with annihilation.” A modern reader is probably more likely to associate minority struggles with majority oppression than a reader in the early 1800’s would be, so Apess’ instructions were probably meant to be more directive, and less rhetorical than you or I might interpret them.

It is also important to note, that with any of these writings, there is rarely any way for us to know under what conditions the writing happened—if any of it was forced, censored, written to please or to trick someone. Often the best we can do is guess, and try to translate as best we can.

The modern critic must recognize that the possibility of something getting lost along the way is very real, but not to attempt any translation at all seems worse,” (Wyss p.11)

So we keep translating, trying to trust in the authors of the past as much as we can, much like we try to trust in our dates as much as we can. Maybe they’ll call us?


Past Meets Present

When we create Wikipedia posts, blog posts, and digital transcriptions that involve stories from the past, we put the past and the present into one room and ask them to have a conversation with each other, to go on a journey together. In the process of trying to create these digital records of history one of those most interesting and productive questions I’ve had to ask myself is how to make the history appeal to an internet audience, or in other words: an audience of the present. Now, Wikipedia and blog posts are often used for entirely different purposes: modern audiences go to Wikipedia to find researched details, modern audiences go to blog posts for a variety of reasons and would likely expect a different, less dry tone from a blog than from Wikipedia; many expect blogs to connect more with their own experiences, to be more relatable than a wikipedia article. This has forced me to see just how relatable the past really is. I’ve even felt something verging on spiritual connection to two of the women writers I’ve been exploring from the past: Sarah Kemble Knight and H. Ralston.

Sarah Kemble Knight traveled from Boston to New York City by horseback and canoe. H. Ralston traveled from England to New York City by ship. I once traveled from Texas to the California by car. All three of us kept journals or diaries of our travels. Reading their words often echoed my own, scribbled on beaten up journals that I still have in a drawer, somewhere. Unlike their journeys, mine was not done with the intention of getting from point A to point B, but rather to spend several months living out of a car and in tents, camping and seeing the world. While this may make my travels seem different from theirs, I’m finding that it actually makes it easier to connect with them in several ways:


For one, travel in the 1700 and 1800s took much longer than travel does today- Kemble Knight’s journal spans from Oct. 2nd to Jan. 6th–more than 3 months. Ralston’s diary explicitly covers 25 days, but as there are not entries for every day and the diary does not span the whole trip, it likely lasted longer than that. It is said that at the time she traveled ships typically took 6 weeks to cross the Atlantic. The drive from Texas to California takes about 30-35 hours of driving-time, considerably less time than these two women spent on their journeys. However, I spent a little over 3 months travelling around the southwest and west coast. There is a level of delirium, exhaustion, and bliss that comes from seeing so much new scenery and meeting so many new people, from being uncomfortable but stimulated so often for so long. Often I could feel that delirium, exhaustion and bliss coming off of the pages of these women’s diaries.

” …the night warm and serene, and the Tall and thick Trees at a distance, especially wn the moon glar’d light through the branches, fill’d my Imagination wth the pleasent delusion of a Sumpteous citty” -Kemble Knight

Interaction with Nature  hike

Travel in the 1700 and 1800s was also much more dependent on and affected by nature. Kemble Knight discusses the intensity of traveling in a place so dark that the sight of the moon is welcome as an almost religious experience,  of having to get in a canoe to cross rivers (instead of going over a bridge). Ralston writes about the wind, or lack there-of and how it impacts the speed of the ship, the rough-rocking motion that one feels on a ship when it storms, and recounts that the ship she was on got into a minor wreck with another ship due to fog. The desire to reconnect with nature was one the motivating forces behind the journey I took, and as such I intentionally allowed nature to play a large role in my travels.

In today’s world there are many comforts available to us as we travel, and I indeed partook in many of those comforts, I also attempted to limit them. While camping and sleeping in cars is uncomfortable, sacrificing comfort felt like a ritual sacrifice, and like a ritual, gave me a level of spiritual satisfaction I don’t think I could have achieved otherwise. This is something else that I can feel in these women’s diaries. While they may not have had the option to sacrifice comfort on their travels or not (as travel back then was generally just uncomfortable), neither of Kemble Knight or Ralston were forced to travel and as such, I must assume they both knew the risks and decided to do it anyway. This, along with some of the descriptions found in their journals, leads me to believe that on some level they sought out discomfort in the same way that I did: knowing it would be worth so much more.

 “…though the site was dreadful to look upon, it was one I would not have missed on any account.” -Ralston, speaking of a near-by ice-berg.

 Meeting New People

Kemble Knight and Ralston also describe meeting many new people on their journeys. Kemble Knight goes from one escort to another, one person’s house to another, as it was generally not safe for women to travel alone at the time. Some of the people she meets up with she had known from the past, but many were new to her. Ralston describes her shipmates at length, and writes that two of them had become like parents to her and her sister. Her descriptions lead me to believe that Ralston’s sister was the only one on board who Ralston had known previously- everyone was a stranger before the voyage. Had I taken a road-trip straight to California, I likely would have met some new people, but not nearly as many as I met while camping on beaches, going to local events, and staying with friends in different towns for multiple days on end. Meeting so many new people, like camping or being on the road for weeks on end, is both exciting and exhausting, but also like camping or being on the road, it feels expansive. That is, it feels like your community, your awareness of people, and your awareness of yourself are expanding. The length and level of discomfort experienced while travelling often correlate to the intensity with which one needs to rely on others, both for sanity and for physical comfort. This is something else present in all of the travel journals discussed here.

“Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, two of the others are like father and mother to us. What we should do without them, I do not know.”-Ralston

In Conclusion…

I remember how dependent I felt on my journal while I was travelling, how it was often the only consistent and familiar thing I could turn to. I suspect that Kemble Knight and Ralston may have felt similarly. Perhaps I assume that we have more similarities than we really do, but the deeper I look into their travel journals, the more I can imagine being there with them, feeling the wind and the sun on our faces, our pens in hand. The differences begin to fade away (relevant though they are) and the very human similarities begin to surface. It is a feeling similar to seeing black and white photos in color for the first time.

Migrant Mother- B&W

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Migrant Mother in Color

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Kemble Knight: Travelling Beatnik from the 1700’s

“The road trip” is common theme not only in film and literature, but also in the lives of many people. After graduating college, I participated in the road trip tradition. A friend of mine and I drove west from Texas to California, then up and down the west-coast, meeting new friends and reconnecting with old friends, camping, swimming, not showering sometimes for a week. Our road trip lasted between 3 and 4 months and it is an understatement to say that it changed me.

Old Road

 The Road

Many people associate the “road trip” genre with beatnik culture in the 1950’s and 60’s, due to books such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by John Wolfe–all of which which feature road-trip adventures largely based on reality, but the genre extends beyond the beatniks. Films such as Almost Famous, Easy Rider and Dumb and Dumber also feature a road-trip as their main plotline, and while not all of these films focus on an artistic or spiritual change inspired by a road trip (as was common amongst beatnik road trip stories), many of them imply at least some change in the road-tripper. A woman named Sarah Kemble Knight made a road trip strikingly similar to the beatnik road trip, except she did in 1704, almost 250 years before beatnik culture officially began.

Sarah was a teacher in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. In 1703 her husband died, and the following year she embarked on a 200 mile road trip from Boston, MA to New York City to help “a friend in the settlement of her deceased husband’s estate .” She essentially hitchhiked her way to New York, meeting up with guides, canoeing across rivers, staying with hosts she’d never met before, some pleasant, some “unmannerly,” listening to stories told by a deaf couple and writing poems about the moon—what we think of when we think about beatnik road trips, except she was primarily on horseback, and at a time when “women of the United States of America had practically no rights.”

We know about her journey because of a journal she kept while she was travelling. While this journal only briefly discusses the reason she makes this journey—to help a friend settle an estate—the events surrounding her road trip may give us a different insight. Her husband passes away in 1703, she begins this road trip in 1704, and she opens a school in 1705: this tells us that there were a lot of changes going on within these three years of her life. Even if her official reason for travelling was to help a friend with an estate, with all of the changes going on in her life, it’s possible that this road trip provided Mrs. Kemble Knight a space for reflection, growth, and possibly even healing, as it does in the beatnik road trip narrative.

While on her journey she encounters some difficulty. She is often so disgusted with the food she is offered on her journey that she goes to bed “supperless”; if you’ve ever taken a road trip you’ve probably experienced this—eating on the road can be rough sometimes. She witnesses things she doesn’t approve of, such as masters who display “too great familiarity” with their slaves, and natives who “marry many wives and at pleasure put them away,” which she notes honestly in her journal. While her naivety and racist undertones are not particularly consistent with the “beatnik” scene (Hunter S. Thompson was certainly not naïve), we must remember that this was the early 1700’s.

On my road trip I encountered a lot of people who believed in “open relationships” because they thought rules were stifling—something that I was curious about, but soon learned was too intense for me. Sometimes I met people who made me feel like I was on another planet. I imagine the confusion I felt for these people was somewhat similar to what Kemble Knight felt, as while she expresses discomfort and distaste for these practices, she also details them carefully and seems interested in them.Road trips push us out of our comfort zones, and Mrs. Kemble Knight was pushed out of hers, as these experiences demonstrate.

There are also many moments in her journal in which she seems inspired by her surroundings and experiences. She retells many of the stories she hears from other people, and writes of New York:

 “The Bricks in some of the Houses are of divers Coullers and laid in Checkers,”

…which sounds like a long lost line from the song Lucy in the Skies with Diamonds, by the Beatles.

What is perhaps the most impressive thing about this journey of hers? After only 3 months of travelling in a car, I was worn out and ready to be home. Her trip lasted 5 months, and her last journal entry indicates that by that time, she too, was ready to be home. So, we have major life changes followed by a long road trip filled with strangers, discomfort, and artistic inspiration—it may have been the 1700’s, and she may have been on horseback and in canoes, but I think Sarah Kemble Knight deserves the title of honorary beatnik.


Knight, Sarah Kemble, and Bruce Rogers. The Journal of Madam Knight. New York: Peter Smith, 1935. Print.


The Many Faces of Calvinism in Early America

Text on Predestination; Jedidiah Mills 1747

Text on Predestination; Jedidiah Mills 1747

It’s hard for me to take the idea of predestination seriously. You know, that idea in some religious faiths that the fate of all beings is decided upon their creation, that some are saved, some are screwed and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. If that’s the case, then someone tell me, what’s the point of anything?

Predestination is a major component of Calvinism, named for one of its founders, John Calvin. I’ve always felt the same about Calvinism as I have about predestination—it just doesn’t really make sense.  I was in a play in high school called “Life During Wartime” in which this same John Calvin was written in as the narrator—he went on and on about original sin and predestination throughout the play, only to be confronted by the ghost of a dead character at the end. This ghost, after a heated debate with Calvin, asks him how exactly it is that he knows he is saved. He cannot answer.

Calvinism was predominant in early America, and apparently a popular belief of the time was that life status, success, and happiness were indicators that someone was to be saved, and misfortune, a sign that someone was doomed. Slavery was also predominant in early America, and being enslaved would be considered some pretty serious misfortune. This would imply that all slaves were doomed. How did slaves take to this idea of predestination, or Calvinism in general?


Let’s begin on a positive note, a note that perhaps surprised me most.  As it turns out, in some ways, religion in early America—regardless of its questionable content—helped to create communities for slaves, and ultimately was a big contributor to the abolition movement.

One of the sad realities of slavery is that it involves “disconnecting and disassociating [slaves] from their social, cultural, and familial pasts, thus negating what made them individuals,” (May, p.10). Religion helped give slaves both a common language and a common belief system (complete with a past-story) to connect with.  This helped them to “establish a common ground on which to speak about social and political rights,” (May, p.5) which would eventually help advance the abolition movement, but I’m sure also provided slaves with some emotional and psychological relief.

Different people interpreted Calvinism differently, and allowing slaves to participate in religion meant that slaves would begin to add in their own interpretations of Calvinism. Jupiter Hammon, the first African American to publish poetry in America, was taught religion by his master and remained a slave for all of his life. He wrote many poems about religion and salvation, but interprets Christianity differently than strict ideas of predestination would support. In one poem he exclaims “Redemption now, to everyone,” and states that sinners who repent “shall not cry in vain,” (Hammon p.46).  Here, Hammon describes a more egalitarian view of salvation than would typically be associated with Calvinism. Also, the fact that his works were published means that to some extent they met the public, and thus to some extent, his religious writings began crafting that common language and common community that Africans had been previously kept separate from in America.

But it wasn’t only slaves that interpreted religion as more egalitarian, some white, land-owners did as well. The first anti-slavery publication in North America was largely supported by biblical references and religious teachings. It was written by Samuel Sewall, a white judge and merchant in Early America.


Calvinism wasn’t always used and interpreted for good. Many slaves were denied access to Christianity altogether, as if it were something reserved for white people alone. One of the reasons for this was the obvious contradiction between Christianity and slavery: masters had to make sure their slaves weren’t Christians, because if they were, then it would be wrong to enslave them. Some people, like the Reverend Cotton Mather, chose to use fancy words and strange logic to get around this contradiction, and supported both teaching slaves religion and keeping them slaves.

Mather did this by teaching slaves a slightly different version of Calvinism than “masters” and white people were taught. In The Negro Christianized, he outlines a version of Christianity that he believes could and should be taught to slaves—much of which focuses on the holiness of subordination (figures, right?).  Interestingly, he also changes much of the “We” and “Us” language found in the Lord’s Prayer to “I” and “you” language. It’s likely that this focus on addressing the slave as a singular person was meant to prevent slaves from creating a community of worship, because as mentioned above, communities are harder to enslave than individuals.

Fortunately, Mather’s attempt at creating a way of teaching slaves religion that would not help them to create community, question their servitude, or justify rebellion was ultimately (and thankfully) unsuccessful, as in the long run, religion did work to create community for African Americans.


And yet there is another angle to look at with regard to slavery and religion; at the time they came to America, “African Americans were already fully formed and cultured individuals and groups,” (May, p.10) with their own religious beliefs, community, history, language, etc. Religion often plays a big part in determining how we view the world, our souls, what happens after death, how we are supposed to interact with each other, and many other aspects of life. As such, many Africans brought to America were not looking for a new religion, a new world view.

“Africans generally chose not to adopt Christianity for nearly the first two centuries they were in North America. In fact, the vast majority of African and African American slaves living in the British-American colonies were born and died with almost no knowledge of Christianity.” (May, p.11)

The religious and spiritual practices in Africa varied greatly around the time of America’s birth. But generally, African religions had a focus on “orality, extemporaneous address, and enthusiasm,” (May, p.17, emphasis added). These traits were not lost as slaves began to claim Christianity as their own.

Phillis Wheatley Statue in Boston, MA

Phillis Wheatley Statue in Boston, MA

In early America, the concept of “enthusiasm” was viewed a little differently than it I is today. It was more explicitly associated with religious experience and there was much debate over how genuine it was. However, enthusiasm was not something slaves were supposed to show, as it would imply that they had a direct connection with god and thus did not need their masters or preachers. Nevertheless, “scholars suggest that the enthusiastic worship of early black Christians constituted a retention of traditional West African worship practices that featured ecstatic dance movement and spirit possession,” (May, p.20), indicating that Traditional African religions were often used to alter, to personalize Christianity.

Phillis Wheatley, another famous African American poet from Early America, often wrote about Pagan gods and stories in her poems, but uses some Christian imagery as well. She seems to move in out of these two modes of thought seamlessly. This is perhaps most interesting when we take into account that pagan myths may have had more in common with some Traditional African religions that Christianity did—pagan myths come from a predominantly oral culture that viewed “divine madness” (or enthusiasm) as a positive thing (Plato).

So, ultimately, Calvinism in early America was not just one thing. It was not just predestination and it was not just a bunch of white people talking about original sin. It was used to provide community to slaves and to support abolition, it was used to deny abolition, it was reinterpreted to be more egalitarian, more hopeful, and it was fused with enthusiasm and Traditional African religions.  So, while John Calvin’s idea of predestination is still lost on me, it is clear that slaves reinterpreted religion in ways that helped them to change the world—something that does make sense.

America’s First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island. Ed. Stanley Austin Ransom, Jr. Port Washington: Kennikat P, 1964. 35-41. Print. 10.

Carretta, Vincent. Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley, Penguin Books; New York, 2001.

Mather, Cotton and Royster, Paul, editor, “The Negro Christianized. An Essay to Excite and Assist that Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity (1706)” (1706). Electronic Texts in American Studies. Paper 28. Web. 7 Sept. 2014.

May, Cedrick. Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760-1835. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2008. Print. 24.

Sewall, Samuel. The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial. Boston: Bartholomew Green and John Allen, 1700. Web. 6 Sept. 2014.