Dayton Duncan has worked with Ken Burns for more than 30 years writing and producing some of the most important and critically acclaimed documentaries in history. In this podcast he talks about his career with Burns and Florentine Films, living part-time in Georgia, and what comes next.
With the reopening of the Georgia Historical Society’s newly expanded and renovated Research Center, GHS is again getting visits from scholars, students, and researchers from all over the world researching and studying a wide variety of topics. Off the Deaton Path would like to introduce our readers to some of these visiting scholars and share with you what they’re working on and what they’re finding at GHS.
This week we’ll spotlight Dr. Alisa Luxenberg, Professor of 18th- and 19th-Century European Art at the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art. She is the author of two books: The Galerie Espagnole and the Museo Nacional, 1835-1853: Saving Spanish Art, or The Politics of Patrimony (Ashgate, 2008); and Secrets and Glory: baron Taylor and his ‘Voyage pittoresque en Espagne’ (Centro de Estudios Europea Hispánica, 2013). She is the co-editor, with Reva Wolf, of Freemasonry and the Visual Arts from the Eighteenth Century Forward (Bloomsbury, 2020).
Tell Us About Yourself: I was born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. My public high school was superb and allowed us to apply to an off-campus AP course in art history taught at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Each week for the entire year, we visited its world-class collections to examine works of art from the culture and period we were studying—I was captivated. When I matriculated at Duke University, I wrongly thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, and eventually gave in to my love of art history and double majored in French literature. I went on to do a Master’s in Art History at Boston University, took a year off to work for an art dealer in New York, and then continued in the PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. The variety of voices in those art history departments, the superb museums in New England, and the real-world experiences with auction houses were essential to my formation as an object- and archive-based scholar open to the multiplicity of scholarly interpretation.
I have been teaching at the University of Georgia since 1999 and will be stepping down at the end of this academic year. I was fortunate to have taught elsewhere: Princeton, the American University in Paris, Washington University in St. Louis, Ohio State, Case Western Reserve, the University of Kentucky. I learned so much about teaching from having created so many different courses and interacting with diverse student bodies. A good thing, too, since I had no training in pedagogy! At UGA I mainly teach a rotation of eight courses in 18th- and 19th-century art, with some special topics sprinkled in. My research has focused on French and Spanish artistic interactions and early French and American photography.
Art history has always fascinated me for the rich fabric that one can weave around the work of art, which performs at the intersection of language, materiality, aesthetics, and often too, of politics, religion, gender, and class. I love the adventure of embarking on a research project, not knowing what I will find, forming questions no one has thought to ask, and the sheer thrill of opening manuscripts and books that no one has touched for generations or even centuries.
I’m convinced that I chose European art because of my own family history. Europe seemed very close to me; both of my grandfathers were immigrants who, along with one grandmother, spoke with strong foreign accents. The calamities that they and their families suffered during the Holocaust and behind the Iron Curtain weighed heavily on them and gave us sobering glimpses of their European past.
Tell Us About Your Current Project: This project represents a real break with the bulk of my career as it examines material culture in the U.S. However, it also enlarges upon my last major publication, a co-edited volume on the relationships between freemasonry and the visual arts (with Reva Wolf, Freemasonry and the Visual Arts from the Eighteenth Century Forward,Bloomsbury, 2020). I dove into freemasonry through the baron Taylor, a major figure in French 19th-century culture, high-ranking Mason, and the protagonist of my first two monographs.
After finding intriguing masonic objects in the Special Collections Libraries at UGA, I realized that I could parlay my knowledge in freemasonry into new research that fulfilled the land-grant mission of UGA and related more directly to Georgians. To that end, I am curating an exhibition of masonic materials (mostly) from Georgia that will open in January 2023 and writing a scholarly catalogue to accompany it.
Through these items we can perceive the pervasiveness and impact of freemasonry on life and culture in Georgia, from the State seal to the emblem of UGA, from college fraternities to other masonic and para-masonic groups like the Order of the Eastern Star, Knights of Pythias, and Gridiron Club. Although largely segregated, freemasonry provided Blacks in Georgia a safe place through which to help their fellow men and communities endure Jim Crow laws and advocate for their civil rights. Freemasonry left its traces everywhere in Georgia, once we are prepared to recognize the signs. Most of us have probably had a Mason or two in our families at some point. I know I was surprised to learn of some in my family! They were Jewish, Catholic, or immigrants, and serve as instances of the religious and class tolerance professed by masonic bodies. In these and other ways, freemasonry offers us an example of how, during quarrelsome times, people overcame their differences and met as equals, “on the level,” to try to improve themselves and reduce suffering in the world.
What Are you Finding at GHS? In general, it is difficult to do research into freemasonry for numerous reasons, but primarily because it is a secret society and, in the U.S., limited to men, and many lodges closed, or their records were lost over time. Some states have Grand Lodges that offer a masonic research collection; Georgia does not. At the beginning of my project, I thought the GHS would be my main research source, but it closed for renovation before I had my grant in hand, so I have been waiting more than three years to come! It forced me to find other resources, which allowed me to fine tune my research at the GHS.
The most significant collections for my project are those related to the eminent Savannah lodge, Solomon’s Lodge No. 1 (GHS 940), one of the first three recognized masonic lodges in the British North American colonies. These records have been microfilmed and contain 18th- and 19th-century minute books –a rarity, as so few have survived, due to fire, war, or neglect—that provide an idea of the membership, practices, and concerns of the lodge, as well as the masonic lives of specific members. For example, we hope to include a portrait painting of the Savannah Mason, John Habersham (Georgia Museum of Art), in the exhibition. Little research has been done on the painting or on Habersham’s masonic life. Now I will be able to provide documentary evidence of his freemasonry and possible readings of the portrait in relation to it.
Item: In this column on September 24 I noted that a very rare original copy of the US Constitution was coming up for auction at Sotheby’s and that it would likely sell for $20 million. Those estimates were wrong by half. As GHS President Dr. Todd Groce noted in the AJC, the document sold for an astounding and record-setting $43.2 million. GHS owns a draft copy of the Constitution, one of only 12 in existence, that is annotated and signed by Georgia delegate Abraham Baldwin. The copy at auction was bought by hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, who will lend the document to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, for public exhibition. The museum, founded by Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, opened in 2011. And in case you were wondering, Bill Gates set the previous auction record for a book or manuscript in 1994 when he purchased the Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci at Christie’s for $30.8 million.
Item: As you no doubt heard, the Georgia Bulldogs—thanks to their undefeated regular season—have made the College Football Playoff for the second time, despite losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship in Atlanta on December 4. Yes, we all hoped this might be the year we finally beat Nick Satan and his Crimson Tide, but there’s no denying that Bama’s had Georgia’s number for a while now—seven straight losses since the last Georgia win in the series 14 years ago in 2007.
Who can blame Dog fans for thinking this was the year? Bama had looked positively human against all its SEC foes, scraping out wins over Arkansas, LSU, and Florida, taking four overtimes to beat Auburn (on the same field where Georgia crushed the Tigers), while actually losing to Texas A&M. In the week leading up to the game, the press in typical fashion dished out what Bama coach Nick Saban calls “rat poison”—hyping Georgia’s defense, yammering about Bama’s porous offensive line, even the threat that Georgia’s Jordan Davis might eat Bama QB Bryce Young like a Varsity chili dog. None of that happened. Georgia’s defense received a good-ol-fashioned butt whipping, Young looked like the Heisman Trophy winner he is, and overall Bama played like the New England Patriots.
One could legitimately ask, where had this Bama team been all season long? Which is the real Crimson Tide: the one that played with razor-thin margins all season, or the Super Bowl champs who dominated in Atlanta? Looming over it all is this: should Georgia get by Michigan in the Orange Bowl, and Bama beats Cincinnati in the Cotton, the two teams will meet yet again for a national championship. Could Bama really do that to us again? Surely, they can’t channel the Patriots twice in one season. Can they? All I can say is, no one of sane mind should ever underestimate Satan and the Tide. The question of the year: how much misery can Georgia fans be expected to endure in one single season? I don’t know about you, but maybe this is the year to record the game and sign up for that New Year’s Eve pinochle tournament down at the Mason’s lodge.
Item: December is upon us, and at some point this month you’re bound to hear Andy Williams’s classic Christmas song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Williams recorded the song, written in triple time, on September 10, 1963, and released it on his Christmas album that October. It has become a seasonal staple and has been enormously popular since its first release 58 years ago, appearing in commercials, movies, and TV shows, including in the trailer for the new Disney/Marvel series Hawkeye. But here’s the interesting part to me–the song was co-written by George Wyle, who also co-wrote the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. How’d you like to have those royalty checks? By the way, Wyle’s grandson, Aaron Levy, plays in Norah Jones’s band. Now you know.
Item: December means Dickens, and this year I’m reading the first book he ever published, Sketches by Boz: Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People. Pre-dating Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers, Sketches is a collection of short essays that Boz (Dickens’s nickname) published in various newspapers and magazines between 1833 and 1836, when he was ages 21 to 24. I’m reading the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition with illustrations by George Cruikshank, first published in February and August 1836. It’s still astonishing to me that anyone could write with this level of maturity and insight into the human condition at the equivalent age of a freshly minted college graduate. Though it lacks the appeal of a full-fledged Dickens novel, there are still some vintage Dickensian character sketches here. You can see him limbering up, stretching himself for the great novels to come.
Item: Speaking of Dickens, as the Season is upon us, if you’ve not seen the 1984 film version of A Christmas Carol, starring George C. Scott, check it out. It’s the best of all the theatrical versions of the Dickens classic, from the location setting in Shrewsbury to the perfect casting, right down to Old Fezziwig. Frank Finlay’s Marley is the best you’ll ever see, though Edward Woodward’s (of The Equalizer fame) Ghost of Christmas Present is a strong runner-up. David Warner as Bob Cratchit, Roger Rees as Scrooge’s nephew, and Angela Pleasence as the Ghost of Christmas Past top off a stellar cast. And for good measure, director Clive Donner worked on the 1951 rendition, Scrooge. Now you know that too.
Item: Speaking of A Christmas Carol, fans of audio books who want to experience the original 1843 novella in a new way should check out the versions read by Simon Prebble (whose father, historian John Prebble, authored the famous Fire and Sword Trilogy of Scottish history) and the version narrated by Dr. Frank-n-Furter himself, Tim Curry.
Item: Speaking of Old Fezziwig—and this will be the last Dickens reference in this post—if you’re a fan of great seasonal Christmas brews, you’ll be happy to hear that Sam Adams has brought back in its holiday pack both Holiday Porter (“inspired by the famous drink of London’s Victorian era luggage porters. Brewed with generous portions of Caramel, Munich and Chocolate malt, this hearty porter finishes with traditional English Fuggles and East Kent Goldings”) and—joy to the world—Old Fezziwig Ale (“Like the character that inspired it, this beer is festive and worthy of a celebration all its own. Bursting with spices of the season, its full body accompanies a deep malt character, with notes of sweet toffee and rich, dark caramel”). Old Fezziwig was missing from last year’s holiday pack, turning festive ale lovers everywhere into small-hearted grumpy grinches who refused to bang their slew-slunkers. And no, I’m not getting paid to write this, nor is Sam Adams a sponsor of this blog, but I and they should be.
Hoist a glass and enjoy the holidays. See you in 2022.
Once again this year, in celebration of the spooky season Stan reads a favorite ghost story, “Rats” by the master of the genre, M.R. James, first published in 1929. Also, this week in history and a dark day in Mayberry. Draw near the fire, dim the lights, and enjoy…..
Dr. Michael Scott Van Wagenen is associate professor and public history coordinator at Georgia Southern University. He is the author of the award-winning, Library Journal best seller Remembering the Forgotten War: The Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War (University of Massachusetts, 2012), The Texas Republic and the Mormon Kingdom of God (Texas A&M, 2002), as well as several articles and book chapters. He is also co-editor with W. Paul Reeve of Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore (Utah State University, 2011). In the past 30 years, he has written, produced, directed, and/or edited over 20 documentary films. His work has twice won highest honors at the National Education Film and Video Festival and been screened at the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Margaret Mead Ethnographic Film Festival, Chicago Latino Film Festival, and several other venues. Dr. Van Wagenen received his BA from Brigham Young University, an MAIS from the University of Texas at Brownsville, and his PhD from the University of Utah.
What first got you interested in history?
When I was very young my grandfather would tell me stories about his experiences as a Navy officer in the Pacific during World War II. That definitely sparked an awareness in me that there was this adventurous place called “the past” that you could visit through stories, books, museums, and films.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
The first book I read was an “abridged for young readers” edition of Robinson Crusoe. I was in first grade and binged it all in a day. I was hooked on historical fiction and non-fiction after that.
What book did you read in grad school that you never want to see again—and what book was most influential?
I studied folklore to enhance my understanding of history and really struggled with Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957). I’m sure it was me, not him. On the other side of things was Michael Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991). I couldn’t put that book down, and it really inspired my interest in the theories of collective memory.
What’s the last great book you read, fiction or non-fiction?
It’s a bit of a local cliché, but I finally got around to reading John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil this summer. I loved it—much better than the film.
You’re a documentary filmmaker: what movies and documentaries most inspired you when you were young? What filmmakers?
I don’t really remember watching documentaries as a kid. I watched a lot of old war movies and historical dramas on television: The Thin Red Line, Beau Geste, and Nicholas and Alexandra come immediately to mind. I also loved the satirical war television series F-Troop and Hogan’s Heroes. As far as filmmakers go, the first director I can remember being aware of was Akira Kurosawa. In high school in Los Angeles, I would go to the art house theaters to watch his films. Toshiro Mifune was my original action hero.
When you’re not reading for your particular field of history, what else do you like to read? What genres do you avoid? And what’s your guilty reading pleasure?
I am a complete sucker for a beautifully illustrated coffee table book. I have my own large collection of folk art books that I read and reread—my guilty pleasure, I suppose. As far as what I avoid: definitely self-help/motivational. Anyone who thinks they have the answer likely doesn’t.
What do you read—in print or online—to stay informed?
I consume it all, from left to right. I like to make my own decisions about things after I have read or listened to as many perspectives as I can. As you can guess, my politics are confusing to most people.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
As a kid I visited my grandparents who were staying on a secluded part of the California coast. We were hit by a big storm with lots of wind, rain, and pounding waves for a couple of days. There was no television or radio—just a blanket, a lamp, and a stack of pulp westerns to read. I know I’ve romanticized that moment, and I have tried to recreate that environment over and over with no success. Hurricane season is not through yet this year, so who knows?
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
The Giant Joshua by Maurine Whipple (1941) is a historical fiction novel about Mormon polygamy in the mid 1800s. While it made a modest literary splash when it came out in 1941, it is largely forgotten today.
What book or collection of books might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have a small collection of books about UFOs. I was raised during the new-age UFO revival of the 1970s, so that shaped my childhood. I have actually published on historical UFOs and will likely develop a class on them. My approach to UFOs is similar to that of Carl Jung, who viewed them as another way to interpret the values and beliefs of a people.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
Sadly, less MAD Magazine.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Grasshopper Jungle (by Andrew Smith, 2014). I like a good young adult fiction book, and this one was widely praised and loved. I guess my own childhood was too urban, too undersexed, too lacking in actual alien encounters for me to connect with it.
What book would you recommend for America’s current moment?
Don’t Bite Your Friends by Lisa Rao (2009).
What do you plan to read next?
My daughter is a professional writer, and she just sent me her latest manuscript. I’m thrilled to be diving into that one!
What is the next book or article you’re going to write?
I am putting the finishing touches on an article titled “Mormons, Memory, and the Mexican War: The Role of Mormon Battalion Commemoration in the Formation of Latter-day Saint Identity, 1921 – 2021.” I use as a case study the United States’ only religiously segregated military unit to explore how collective memory and identity are constantly evolving to serve a number of social, political, and religious agendas. What’s next after that? I am writing an article about a Mexican folk art particular to the Otomí people of central Mexico. Between the early nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries they created a particular style of crucifix, called a cruz de ánimas, that they venerated to end their ancestors’ suffering in purgatory. These artifacts serve as a preliterate genealogical pedigree, and very little has been written about them.
When and how do you write?
Mornings and nights are best for me. There are too many distractions during the day. I am one of those people who need large blocks of time to find my focus.
With which three historic figures, dead or alive, would you like to have dinner?
I have three immigrant ancestors: one Dutch from the 1600s, one Irish from the 1700s, and one Scottish from the 1800s, who I would love to meet. I would cook Tex-Mex food and ask them so many questions that they would be begging to crawl back into their graves!