Sunday, September 30, 2012

How History Should Be Told

A few days ago I was flipping through the channels when I came to a live broadcast of the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. There speaking to a group of hundreds of admirers was Robert Caro, the great biographer of Lyndon Johnson.

As of 2012, Caro has now completed four of a projected five volumes covering the years of LBJ. Caro had a lot of interesting things to say about Johnson the man. But what I found most interesting was his reflection on how he conceives of his project. He told the crowd:

I don't think of these books as being about Lyndon Johnson. . . .  I never had the slightest interest in writing a book just to tell the life of a famous man. From the moment I first thought of doing books, I thought of biographies as a way of examining the great forces that shaped the times that they lived in.

Caro's words reminded me of something I had read in the original preface to Fernand Braudel's 600,000-word history of the Mediterranean world during the second half of the sixteenth century. A father of modern historiography, Braudel relates that when he began his research on what would eventually become such a massive work, he meant only to write a diplomatic history of the reign of the Spanish king Philip II. But the further he explored the man and his times, the more the historian realized that whether he was studying the king of Spain or Don John of Austria, "despite their illusions" such leaders of the time were "more acted upon than actors" (19).

More acted upon than actors. Such an interesting phrase, it suggests that although it would be foolish to say that human leaders such as Alexander the Great or Martin Luther or Adolf Hitler made no real difference, historical contexts like geography, political states, and economies are also "participants" in the story that is history.

So, whatever I eventually publish in the field of history, I want it to be about people. I also want it to be about "the great forces that shaped the times they lived in." That seems to me the right way.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Death of R. W. Officer's Adopted Daughter, 1900

This post is a follow-up to the previous one which reproduces the obituary for Lota Venable Officer. It appeared in the newspaper serving Atoka, Indian Territory at the time.

Lota was R. W. Officer's first wife. The two were married in Winchester, Franklin County, Tennessee on Christmas Day, 1871. A number of secondary sources, which simply repeat each other, have them married on December 25, 1870. But the original marriage certificate, of which I have a copy, clearly indicates 1871.

Lota died on January 30, 1900, and her obituary appeared in the paper dated February 1. Two weeks later, on February 15, the same paper ran the following article:

Gone Home.

Elder R. W. Officer received the sad news Saturday, that Mrs. Allen Cunnings had died at her home at Allen, I. T.  He immediately left to attend the funeral services. Mrs. Allen Cunnings, nee Pheobe Gertrude Anderson, was an adopted child whom Mr. and Mrs. Officer took into their home and care at the age of seven years. She was Leon's playmate and was cared for and given the best advantages. She attended school in Atoka, and then Mr. Officer sent her off to school for three years. Soon after returning from school she married Mr. Allen Cunnings, a worthy and faithful man and a kind husband. This home was not blessed by any children, and since she had been called away so early, 'tis better so. She was a christian and had been for a number of years; but she was never strong; consumption was the cause of her untimely death. To the friends and bereaved husband we extend our sympathy and commend them to the Great Comforter of whom we can get that peace and comfort that passeth all understanding.

Indian Citizen-Democrat, February 15, 1900.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Lota Venable Officer's Obituary from Atoka, Indian Territory, 1900

Related to my on-going project on R. W. Officer (1845-1930), I’ve made a new friend at the Atoka County (Oklahoma) Historical Society. Sometime back, she sent me two very interesting pieces from the Indian Citizen-Democrat (Atoka, Indian Territory) which date back to February 1900.  One of the two articles appears below. I will soon transcribe the second and make it my next post.

As anyone acquainted with Officer knows, he was a prolific writer for leading papers and journals among the Churches of Christ and Christian Churches. This was the case until about 1907, at which point the stream of articles dried up. Officer’s first wife, Lota Venable Officer, died at Atoka, Indian Territory on Jan. 30, 1900.  I have yet to see the obituary that R. W. wrote for the Gospel Advocate vol. 42 (Feb. 15, 1900), but Earl I. West quotes from it in his work Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 3, p. 134. What follows is the obituary that appeared in the local newspaper at Atoka:

At Rest.

"The weary time is over,
Her troubles cease to be"

In October 1853, at Winchester, Tenn., a baby girl was born to Major and Mrs. Venable, and was called Lota, and yesterday, the family and friends looked for the last time upon the body or house in which she had for 47 years lived, and in the Indian Territory that body was laid to rest. Miss Lota Veneable [sic] was educated at the renowned and fine old Mary Sharp College where as a student, artist, and young woman, she held the esteem and respect few can claim. About thirty years ago Miss Lota Venable became Mrs. R. W. Officer, and as a wife and mother, that character esteemed in young womanhood, blossomed, bloomed and shed its influence upon the lives of husband, son and those enjoying her friendship and as they laid her body to rest though rejoicing in “that hope,” her inheritance in Eternity; yet feeling that an earthly stay, strength and comfort has gone. For many years health and physical ease have been vainly sought by her, and her husband has been untiring in his efforts and determination to secure medical aid which would restore her health. During the last twenty-two weeks of her life she has patiently and bravely born a tormenting complication of diseases. During this long and lingering season the faithful, devoted and tender care of that husband, son and Miss Mamie Phillips shed around her such a halo that the darkest and heaviest cloud of sorrow’s hoar was dispelled. When she became aware of the fact that her days were to be only a few more, she simply said of death she had no fear and of her future she knew; but the parting from those she loved was all she had to regret. She asked them to be brave and not let her see any tears and so they did. To her boy she bid farewell and told him she knew he would live as she wished and had taught him. Supported in the arms that have nursed, lifted and protected her for years, she passed away as one falling to sleep. Her last motion and words were an appeal to Miss Mamie to help her to breathe easier. Mr. Officer’s loneliness and care of his invalid wife being ended is closely akin to the sadness of a mother who has laid to rest the babe of her bosom - - the empty lap, the hands can do no more for the beloved one. But the Great Physician has touched and healed that painful body, the soul shackled is loosed and is with the world’s Redeemer. The imprint of her character and life she has left with us in her son. The funeral services at the home Wednesday at 3 o’clock bespoke the esteem of the life here lived - - a host of friends, the beautiful flowers and kindest sympathy. While singing her favorite hymn “How Firm a Foundation” the body was covered in its last resting place in the city of polished white mansions of stone. Of the dead that die in the Lord, we are assured they are blessed, and to those yet waiting there is promised “All things work together for good to those who love the Lord.” God grant we may all be lovers of and die in the Lord.

 “In Heaven above where all is love

   There will be no sorrow there”
--Indian Citizen-Democrat (Atoka, Indian Territory), February 1, 1900.

Sometime back, someone interested in my research kindly passed along to me a recently-created web page featuring Lota Venable Officer’s gravestone.  Here’s a link to that page:
Again, I have yet to see the original article R. W. immediately sent to the Gospel Advocate magazine. But according to Earl West, who cites the GA article, the woman attending to Lota was none other than a daughter.  Also, in West’s report based on Officer’s article, the young woman’s name is spelled Maimee, that is, with the double e at the end of her name. But what seems clear from the obituary posted above is that son Leon Officer and Miss Mamie Phillips do not have the same relationship to the deceased.  This makes me wonder if “Miss Mamie” was a young woman who, years before, had been adopted by the Officers. If that were the case, why would she be wearing the last name of Phillips? We know that Officer rescued orphaned Indians and sometimes “placed” them with Christian families he knew through his extensive network. It appears that he and Lota sometimes fully adopted others. And this is related to a second article which, again, I will pass along within a day or so.

Your comments and questions are welcome.