Chasing Waterfalls (continued)

Mary Jemison was born in 1743 on board a ship as her parents emigrated from what is now Northern Ireland to America. When she was twelve, she and family members were captured from their Pennsylvania farm by Indians. The rest of her family was killed, but she was adopted by the Seneca. She married a member of the Lenape Indians, and after he died, she married a Seneca man. She had a half dozen children with the two men. When she was eighty, she published her life story, or at least the story as it was written down by an American minister, James Everett Seaver.

This book falls into the once-popular genre of captivity narrative. (Much of what I know about captivity narratives comes from Leonard Slatkin’s Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600- 1860). The numbers are not precise, but over athousand European descendants from New England villages were captured by and lived with Native Americans between 1677 and 1750. A study of 750 of these whose fates were known found that about 300 were ransomed and returned to New England after captivities ranging from six months to twenty years. Fewer than a hundred were killed, and others disappeared into Canada or elsewhere, and sixty became Indians. Some who returned to European settlements wrote about their experiences. Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson was the first and perhaps the most popular. A hundred years after its first publication in 1682, the memoir was still being printed.

Rowlandson’s book was the archetype for many captivity narratives to follow. In her first-person account, as Slotkin puts it, “[T]he Indians become the instruments of God for the chastisement of his guilty people. . . . The experience of captivity . . . leads her to the perception of her own fallen debased, even beastlike condition, her absolute dependence on God, her weakness in the face of sin, and the precarious nature of all human conditions.” The return to the New England community did not fully resolve this pain and anxiety. “Yet the captive, like the regenerate convert, has experienced a thing that his fellows has not. . . . He has perceived that life is lived on the brink of an abyss, and this perception stays with him as an acute and continuing anxiety for the state of his soul and the wrath of God’s judgment on sinful people.”

Jemison’s story, written a century and a half after Rolandson’s, was not one of survival and Christian salvation, but it, too, was popular, selling in the 1820s as much as the best-selling novelists, Sir Walter Scott and James Fennimore Cooper. While Jemison may also have represented American values in an alien world, her resolution of this dichotomy was not with a return to the white world but by finding her place in Native American society.

The Seneca certainly valued Mary Jemison. In 1797, the Seneca Nation signed the Treaty of Big Tree with the United States. The Seneca negotiators included Mary Jemison. Not surprisingly, no woman was part of the negotiating team for the Americans. I have no idea when a woman first helped the United States negotiate a treaty, but I am willing to bet it was long after Jemison acted for the Seneca. And perhaps those facts might help us understand why some abducted colonial women chose to stay with the Native Americans.

Although the Seneca surrendered much land in the treaty in exchange for money, they also retained essential hunting and fishing rights and some relatively small parcels of land. Jemison was praised for how well she negotiated, and after the treaty the Seneca made her a land grant making her one of the largest landowners in western New York, the title to which was confirmed by the state in 1817.

Perhaps to the surprise of many readers, she spoke movingly about her first Indian husband, “Sheninjee was a noble man. . . . Yet, Sheninjee was an Indian. The idea of spending my days with him, at first completely irreconcilable to my feelings; but his good nature, generosity, tenderness, and friendship towards me soon gained my affection; and strange as it may seem, I loved him!”

After Sheninjee died, however, she married a much different man. Slotkin describes Hiokatoo as “no such quasi Christian as Sheninjee but a war-loving, torturing red devil, renowned for his cruelty to the whites.” Even so, Jemison came to admire him as “a kind of Indian Daniel Boone,” who had more strength and power than those around him. “Mrs. Jemison and her second husband—the pure white and the pure Indian—emerge as admirable characters in her narrative. She states that she has refused an opportunity to return to her white family, preferring her family ties to the bloody Hiokatoo.”

The land that she was granted now is part of Letchworth State Park. She sold the land late in her life when she felt that too many whites were moving nearby. She moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, where she died in 1833. Four decades later, she was reinterred near her old home on the Genesee River on what is now Letchworth State Park land.

In chasing waterfalls, we learned about two women who had much to do with Letchworth State Park—Caroline Bishop, who was not widely known, and Mary Jemison, who had much fame. We also learned that one of the most famous women in American history, Eleanor Roosevelt, helped create a unique attraction near the waterfalls.

(continued sporadically)

Snippets–Sicily Edition (continued)

Sicilians with a desire for lingonberry jam have a problem. There is but one Ikea in all of Sicily.


“The Sicilian language is the only one in Europe that has no future tense.” Albert Mobilio, “Introduction” to Leonardo Sciascia, The Wine-Dark Sea.


When I commented that the hotel numbering did not have a Room 17, a Sicilian man responded that seventeen is considered bad luck in Italy.


As I placed a Sicilian history onto a bookshelf in a hotel lobby, I immediately concluded that I was not going to exchange it for the Italian copy there of Bartleby the Scrivener.


Aristotle’s Poetics “is remarkable for many reasons, including the pleasure to be found in reading Aristotle on tragedy, as if it has just been invented, speaking confidently about how no one knows the origins of comedy, but that probably it is from Sicily.” Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.


Before going, I consulted a reading list about Sicily. It contained more books than I was willing to read. I decided to eschew travel guides like Michelin and Fodors, but even so the listins of histories, travel writing, books about Sicilian art, architecture, or food, and novels and short stories set in Sicily was long. I used a happenstance method to make my selections. First, I went to my local library and read anything they had on Sicily. (See post of June 19, 2017: Then I went to my favorite bookstores to see what they may have that was on the list. (See post of December 22, 2017:

The histories taught me that Sicily was subject to many foreign rulers: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Bourbons. I read about Sicily in World War II and how the Sicilians treated the Allies as liberators as they pushed Germany off the island. I wondered how the Sicilians reconciled that response with the fact that Italy was fighting side by side with Germany. I read shocking histories about the Sicilian mafia; I read a memoir of an English woman who wrote charmingly about the house she inherited near Taormina and her guests there; I read a cultural history which blended many different aspects of Sicilian culture and history; and I was introduced to a writer of significance who was new to me.

From my reading, I learned that two Sicilians had won the Nobel Prize for literature. One was the poet Salvatore Quasimodo, whose name I tried to learn how to pronounce on the trip. (See post of November 19, 2018.) I had not been aware of him before, but I seldom read poetry, and I did not seek out any of his works.

The other was Luigi Pirandello, who lived from 1867 to 1936. I had read his controversial play Six Characters in Search of an Author in college (see post of May 9, 2018: and consequently thought of him as a playwright, but I now learned that he wrote novels and short stories. His works, however, did not appear on the Sicilian reading list. He was born in Sicily, but he moved away and did not write specifically about the island. Sicily may claim him, but he was not so much a Sicilian writer, as an Italian writer.

Pirandello was akin to the opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, who died at the age of 34 early in the nineteenth century. Bellini was born in Catania, Sicily, but he left for Naples when he was eighteen where he lived for eight years. He then moved to northern Italy, London, and finally Paris. His operas were not composed in or about Sicily, but Sicily claims him. He died in Paris and was buried there, but forty years later his body was disinterred and taken for reburial in Catania.

Bellini was famous and successful in his lifetime, but his works became less popular in the first half the twentieth century. That changed with Maria Callas, who often sang his operas, most notably Norma, which contains one of the most famous and difficult of soprano arias. I have not seen much opera, but I have seen Norma twice. Both were notable. The second time for the beauty of the music; the first time for an audience reaction. A famous soprano had the title role (I don’t remember who), but she was aging, and the aria had been transcribed down for her. The opera world seems to love controversy, and this was controversial. Decades ago when this happened, the Metropolitan Opera House had a room for a private dinner club before performances. The members were all men and all in formal attire. They sat together in the first ring. As the aria was about to begin, they stood up in unison and silently filed out of the theater.

“Norma” is now the designation for a pasta in Sicily. Pasta alla Norma consists of sautéed eggplant, a light tomato sauce, basil, and ricotta salata and can be found on almost any Sicilian restaurant menu. (I also saw pizza Norma.) This is apparently a traditional Sicilian dish, but its designation seems to be a recent creation. On the trip, we visited an old farmhouse surrounded by olive and almond trees. We had a cooking demonstration by the charming owner, who was, I guess, about seventy and had lived her whole life in Sicily. Somehow pasta alla Norma came up, and she scoffed at the designation. She said she had first heard that term only in the past two decades. I asked what the dish was called when she grew up, and she replied, “Fettucine with eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata.” Sicily is an ancient place with many venerable traditions, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t succumb to some modern marketing too.

(concluded Dec. 3)

I Save Playbills (concluded)

Rice also gave a more prosaic example than Shakespeare of how a staged play can be more powerful than just reading. He tells of how as a youth he saw Sherlock Holmes. Professor Moriarty is about to trap Holmes in a room, when Holmes douses the light. Moriarty tells his henchmen to follow the lit cigar Holmes has been smoking. When the lights are switched back on, Holmes has escaped. He had put the cigar on the sill of one window and escaped out the other. “It may all sound rather ridiculous, but it would be impossible to exaggerate the effect it had upon the audience. Shivers and exclamations of apprehension were followed by relief that expressed itself in delighted laughter and sustained applause. I saw the play [decades ago], . . . but I shall never forget . . . the excitement of that scene.”

I, too, remember a collection of moments that can only occur in the theater. As with Rice, they have occurred in plays both sublime and the humble, and one was also in Macbeth. Patrick Stewart was starring, and even though I have read and seen the play several times, Stewart’s portrayal made me emit a stunned gasp when Macbeth first sees Banquo’s ghost. The theater had taken my breath away. (Patrick Stewart, as well as Ben Kingsley, were in Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night Dream that so affected me half a lifetime ago, but I remember neither from that production.)

One memorable moment was in a play in a small theater with a small audience. I remember nothing about the play other than a few moments by an actor whose name I no longer know, but he once did the Dunkin’ Donuts ads where he was obsessed with getting up early to make fresh doughnuts. In this play he did a monolog on hammer toes that was funny and mournful and touching not only through his voice but also through his face and shoulders and belly.

I remember Scapino with Jim Dale. (Carol Channing was in the audience, and she sat, as Carol Channing ought, with wide eyes and her mouth open during the entire performance—that was at the uptown Circle in the Square Theater where audience members can see each other—with a bevy of good looking men around her.) A running gag throughout the play was that any character exiting the stage would say “Ciao!” Then everyone on stage, seriatim, would say “Ciao!” As intended, this chorus started to get laughs, even though I doubted it would have seemed funny on the printed page. The magical moment came after this was done for the dozenth time. After the litany of “Ciao”, the sweetest “Ciao” you ever heard came from the front row of the audience. It was from the sweetest-looking six-year-old, beaming boy you ever saw (this was a matinee). The cast could not help themselves; they struggled not to, but they broke up in laughter, and we in the audience broke up, too, laughing a prolonged and uproarious thank-you to the entire enterprise knowing that we had seen something unique.

There have been many more special moments since I started going to plays, and there have been many special productions. I now go to the theater a couple dozen times a year, and something important or magical or special does not always happen, but it happens often enough that I continue going. And for this I thank Alan Downer’s course and Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Without both of those experience, I might never have gone to the theater as much as I have. I would have missed much.

I Save Playbills

I save Playbills, those little magazines you get when attending the theater.  At the performance’s conclusion, if I can’t find mine, I feel a bit unsettled and try to find a discarded one. When I get home, I stack the Playbills on a shelf of the table next to my morning reading chair. They amass there for what I consider a season—from September until the following summer. Then I move them to a bookcase in my office where I place them on top of last season’s accumulation. Why I do this I do not know. I certainly don’t catalog them. When I move them, I may glance at them, but I seldom look at them after that. I just have them.

I get the Playbills, obviously, because I go to plays, and part of the reason I go to plays is because of Professor Alan Downer. I took his course in modern drama in college. We saw a few classic movies—I seem to remember M and Treasure of the Sierra Madre–but mostly we read plays. I found almost every one of them interesting, and I still remember many of them. On the other hand, I don’t remember any specific lecture by Downer. They must have been informative, however, for I feel as though I have a solid grasp of the development of modern drama, and that had to come from the Professor.

While I enjoyed reading dozens of plays in college, I had seen very few–a couple of high school and college productions and only one or two professional companies. I had not yet learned the real power of the stage.

Soon after I came to New York that changed. I was lucky enough to attend Peter Brook’s now legendary Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I learned that night that a script can be read, but that a play must be seen. This was not Shakespeare of the printed word, but the creation of a magical world on the stage. It drew me into that world. It was more immediate than any movie could ever be. It required live actors, a stage, and an audience. I learned that evening that the theater could present an experience that could not be had elsewhere.

When I now experience the powerful moment that only the theater can give, I think of Brook’s Dream, but I also I often think of Elmer Rice, little known today but a prolific playwright from the last century. I was introduced to Rice in Downer’s course where I read The Adding Machine. I have never seen it, even though it is occasionally still mounted, but the play stuck with me. Decades after college, I learned that Rice was a graduate of the law school that employed me, and I then read some of Rice’s writings on the theater. I was gratified to find that he stressed what Brook’s Dream had revealed to me–a play is meant to be seen, not just read. He said, “To read in a stage direction such indications of mood as ‘savagely’ or ‘tearfully’ is surely not the same as to sit tensely in one’s seat while a player strides the boards in simulated rage, or to be moved to tears oneself by the apparent distress of a beautiful actress.” And he gave some examples.

Elmer Rice explained the effect watching Act II, Scene II from Macbeth had on him.  The title character has killed Duncan, but he has not implicated the grooms as planned. Lady Macbeth scornfully leaves to do the unfinished deed. The stage directions say, “Knocking within.” That direction is repeated over the next few lines. Lady Macbeth returns, and she, too, is now covered in blood. Rice continues: “It is dramatic enough in the reading, but the full effect can be understood only when one sits in the theatre watching those two desperate figures in the cold predawn light, he already overcome with guilt and remorse, she hysterically intent upon the consummation of the crime. Then comes the knocking upon the locked gate of the castle; the inchoate fears of Macbeth and the cold disdain of his wife are punctuated by the repeated pounding. Who is there? Will the guilt be discovered? The words convey all that, of course, but they are immeasurably enhanced by the visible and audible situation. No one who has merely read the play can be aware of the intensity of this celebrated scene when it is enacted.”

(Concluded on May 11.)