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Map of Paterson, New Jersey (1893)


Note: this is a revised and expanded version of a post that was previously published on this website. I haven't spent significant time in Camden for several years; here's hoping that things have changed for the better.


I read an essay by Guy Davenport not too long ago, focusing on the rediscovery of the archaic in modern poetry and art, and implicating the modern city as a symptom of cultural amnesia and loss -- but notably for my purposes here -- gainsaying our collective experience of place. The essay appeared in the Georgia Review in the Fall of 1974, and is titled "The Symbol of the Archaic". I want to provide a brief excerpt from that essay followed by the text of a piece I wrote some months ago, which examined the possible relationship between the New Jersey cities of Paterson and Camden. I'm lifting the following passage from Davenport's essay, and in the process may be confusing his argument -- I may return to his essay at some point to reconsider. Meanwhile, here's an excerpt from Davenport that struck me as relevant to my interests here:


The unit of civilization is the city. The classical ages knew this so well that they scarcely alluded to it intellectually. Emotionally it was a fact which they honored with rites and a full regalia of symbols. The city appeared on their coins as a goddess crowned with battlements. She was the old grain goddess Cybele-Demeter, and it is clear that ancient men thought of the city as a culmination of a process that began among the cityless hunters who learned to pen cattle and live in the enclosure with them, who developed agriculture (the goddess's second gift, after the bounty of the animals) and made the city a focus of farms and roads.


About the time the Romantic poets were being most eloquent about ruined cities, the city itself was undergoing a profound change. The railroad was about to cancel the identity of each city, making them all into ports of trade, into warehouses, and markets. Eliot's Waste Land, Joyce's Ulysses, Pound's Cantos, Bëly's Petersburg, all epics of the city, appear at the same time as the automobile, the machine that stole the city's rationale for being and made us all gypsies and barbarians camping in the ruins of the one unit of civilization which man has thus far evolved.


The city lasted from Jericho, Harappa, and Catal Hüyük to its ruin in Paterson, New Jersey (as one poet specified), from Troy to Dublin: Joyce's long chord. Pound in the Cantos makes another chord of meaning with the beginning and end of Venice, Europe's first outpost against the barbarians. (Georgia Review, Winter 1974, Vol. 28 No. 4, pp. 645-6; accessed online at https://www.jstor.org/stable/41397160).


Keep in mind that the period invoked by Davenport opened in the wake of World War II (Williams' Paterson was published in parts between 1946 and 1958) and had witnessed the rise of Fascism and Totalitarianism in Europe, arising from developments further back, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I believe that this history forms the background for Davenport's argument. But my intention here is nevertheless to suggest that place, perhaps especially as defined in connection with urban environments, continues to resonate and matter to the making of meaning within human communities-- though given the geomantic implications here I might suggest that space, rather than "place" per se, may matter more. Davenport has a point in suggesting that with the advent of the automobile, the city became an occluded locale, somewhat alienated from human experience, but the image he conjures of people morphing into "gypsies and barbarians camping in the ruins of the one unit of civilization which man has thus far evolved", overreaches. Davenport's railroad, and later, the automobile, may stand in for the depredations of Industrial Capitalism more generally. But my experience of cities and of human communities -- whether in cities or in outlying areas -- has been quite different. Human capacity is dauntless; which is to say that people do not simply succumb. In my view, the city has retained its significance as a locus of meaningful human experience and identity.


I'll offer a closer look at Williams' Paterson at some other time. For the moment, here are some thoughts on Paterson – and Camden – spun on a thread of personal reflections.




I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and have always felt I'd lived a charmed life there. Although I moved away with my family before entering high school, I continued to visit my grandmother, who had stayed on, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins, who'd stayed on even if temporarily, relocating, family by family, from the city to the suburbs. But for me, that pattern of returning to Paterson has been a force that's remained. When I had the opportunity to attend college in Paterson, I seized it. Seton Hall University operated a branch there in the 1960s (now long gone). And it turned out that the Paterson branch was enormously interesting because it drew professors not only from the ranks of the main campus in South Orange – including highly-educated Jesuits – while also tapping newly-minted PhDs from Columbia University (Paterson and New York are only about 15 miles apart) who were hip to all the recent and emerging intellectual trends. So although Seton Hall Paterson may not have been an especially prestigious place to go to college, put on your resume, or evolve a professional network, that education was profoundly important to me. It fed my intellectual curiosity and led me into areas of reading and research that have stayed with me these many years since.


Growing up in Paterson was important for other reasons too. We lived in a diverse neighborhood – working class for the most part – comprising whites (Irish, Jews, Italians, Germans, and English) as well as African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Syrians (mainly from Aleppo), Lebanese, and Jordanians, among others). The latter group has continued to grow, supplemented by more recent immigration from Turkey and Palestine. (At this point Paterson may boast the largest population of Turks in the United States.) There's also a sizeable Peruvian population there (some refer to Paterson as "Little Lima") which was well-established by the time I did fieldwork in the city in the 1990s.


Paterson's proximity to New York was also a factor. I routinely went into the city from a very young age, at first with my parents, especially my father, and later got there on my own. In the early days, I went mostly down to the area around the south side piers, and the West Village, but by the time I got to college, I shifted my focus mainly to the East Village, to hear music at the Fillmore East, and to the great museums farther north on the island – the Met, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, MOMA, and the American Museum of Natural History. And of course, there was The Cloisters, that magnificent collection of medieval art and artifacts located far uptown, on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River.


Given the Columbia PhDs and the Jesuits who instructed me at Seton Hall, and having had access to the great cultural institutions of New York City, and having grown up in a culturally diverse neighborhood, I feel that I've been fortunate. My identity as a writer, especially as a poet, was awakened by the towering muses of William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg -- two widely admired Paterson poets. Allen's father Louis was also a poet, who regularly published his poems in the Paterson News. I read Louis Ginsburg's poems as a boy and aspired to publish my poems in that same newspaper. All of this contributed not only to my self-identification as a poet, but also to my abiding feelings for the city.


When some years ago I worked in Paterson on a project for the American Folklife Center (Working in Paterson; https://www.loc.gov/collections/working-in-paterson/about-this-collection/), I had the opportunity to meet with Paterson mayor Bill Pascrell, who has since gone on to Washington to serve in Congress. When we met in his mayor's office that day, the first thing he asked me, knowing that I like he am a Paterson native, was, "What is it about Paterson that makes it so special?" At first, I could only marvel that he shared my feelings for the city. But I recovered and tried to answer (rather ineffectively, I might add, and we both agreed that we hadn't decided anything). Anyway, Mayor Pascrell just shook his head, I shrugged my shoulders, and we got on with the business at hand. 


I've thought about that conversation quite a bit since that meeting, and more recently have come to some conclusions -- emotional and personal, not rational -- and probably not conducive to argument or debate. But here's my thought. First, Paterson is a relatively small place – it's about two miles in any direction from the geographic center of the city. Second, it's geographically defined by the Passaic River, which flows west to east to form an arching, dancing dome over the city. From a geomantic perspective, I believe that would mark Paterson as a propitious and potentially sacred space. And finally, the Passaic Falls – the second-highest falls east of the Mississippi. Those falls would inspire Alexander Hamilton to establish the Society for Useful Manufactures (SUM) at Paterson in 1794; Paterson would be the place where the Industrial Revolution was jumpstarted in this country. Contra Davenport, not the railroad, nor any other development would "cancel" Paterson's identity; the Falls would preserve -- and enhance it.


I mention the Falls for their historical importance, and their symbolic dimension as well. The Falls are a powerful presence, centrally located within a relatively small geopolitical space. And it seems they're part of everyday consciousness; it's as though everyone in the city can "hear" or otherwise perceive them at a deeply sensory level, much or all of the time. That, along with the shaping activity of the Passaic River, evokes a profound feeling of belonging, of deeply embedded shared experience. Paterson has had its problems – poverty, crime, lack of opportunity for many residents – but I've never spoken with anyone who lives or has lived in the city who hasn't felt that there's a significant though indefinable quality about Paterson.


Now it happens that I had a significant experience that led me to this, far away and at some distance from Paterson. After moving back to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in 2003, I determined to develop project work in the Delaware Valley, rather than travel distantly to do fieldwork. I'd still travel, but I wanted to develop local connections, dig in more deeply, and have the opportunity to follow up. That opportunity materialized in Camden, just across the river from Philadelphia.


At the time, according to statistics, Camden had the highest crime rate in the country. It was plagued by poverty, and as I came to believe, by corruption in city hall. Money had been pouring into the city, but with scant if any visible results in the neighborhoods. I developed contract work with a local arts organization and began going over the river and into Camden regularly. I didn't own a car, so I took the PATCO train into Camden and walked from the station into the neighborhoods. Although the city was regarded as a dangerous place I didn't know how else to do my work. But as I've learned over the years, people everywhere love, work, raise kids, gather, party, and so on, even in the so-called dangerous places. Life went on in the Camden neighborhoods pretty much as it did in other, more fortunate places.


But I want to say that when I first stepped foot in the neighborhood known as North Camden, I was overtaken by a feeling very much like the feeling I had in Paterson! It may have had to do with the streets, or the houses, or the people. I didn't know. But when I rode on the bus through the city, as I did on occasion, observing Camden from that perspective, I realized that Camden doesn't look anything like Paterson. Or at least, there wasn't any obvious comparison. So then what was it?


I've always loved looking at maps, and still use them extensively. And of course, doing fieldwork in the days before GIS I depended on published paper maps and atlases to navigate to places and find my way around once there. I also used maps to plot any more significant social, cultural, or geographical features I'd identified during fieldwork, and if possible identify and study any emerging patterns that could be meaningful. So when I first looked at a map of Camden, I was surprised to find that like Paterson, it had been shaped by the protective dome of a river – or in this case, two rivers. At  Camden, the Delaware River flows along the western boundary of the city and rises over the top of the city, where it meets the Cooper River flowing in from the south and east. To the south, there's Newton Creek, which feeds the Delaware and jabs east towards the center of the city, to form a watery southern boundary. (I've been told that Newton Creek has silted up quite a bit over time and that many years ago it joined the Cooper River, forming a defining circle around the city, forming an insular space.





In Camden, too, I recognized that same feeling of uniquity I'd personally felt in Paterson. In Paterson, however, I hadn't associated that feeling with the river dome, until I had that experience in Camden; until I'd noticed that the geography, and the riverine setting, were fundamentally the same in both places.


I've shifted attention and argument here, divagating along a geomantic fractal to bring Paterson and Camden into alignment -- rather than estabish the uniquity of Paterson per se. But what interests me here is the alignment, the common experience to be had in both places, as I myself experienced it. Does lived experience in either place reflect the commonality of topographical conditions beneath the respective river domes of these two cities? The question is probably unanswerable. Speaking personally, however, my answer would be yes -- irrespective of whatever civilizing process may have been at work to radically transform our cities, and empty them of meaning.


I want to close with a postscript on poetry, reemphasizing the references in the preceding text. These two cities -- these places -- have engendered a significant and enduring body of poetry during the past two centuries. Two poets, in particular, come first to mind: Walt Whitman in Camden, whose Leaves of Grass revolutionized verse form -- and content -- in the second half of the 19th century, and William Carlos Williams, whose verse epic, appropriately titled Paterson (alluded to by Davenport), written almost exactly one hundred years after Leaves of Grass, was and remains a key modernist text. There were other significant poets in both places too – Allen Ginsberg, a native of Paterson (whose father Louis was also a poet), and the notable American haiku poet Nick Virgilio in Camden (Virgilio died in 1989). Ginsberg's Howl, a signature work of the Beat movement, is another foundational 20th-century text. Virglio's output and his impact in and around Camden and neighboring Philadelphia was large, with what is perhaps his most famous poem, reflecting the Japanese roots of haiku:



   out of the water …

       out of itself.



Nick Virgilio
Photo by J. Kyle Keener


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Christopher Witt's "Star Pill"

 Citrullus colocynthus, Koehler's Medicinal-Plants, 1887 (Wikipedia)


Reflections on a Herbal Formula Attributed to Christopher Witt*


In October 2011, Joel Fry**, archivist at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia, sent an image to me from William Bartram's commonplace book, featuring an herbal formula attributed to Christopher Witt. (For background on Witt, see my earlier post on this blog, dated April 22, 2019.) Joel explained that the entry dates to the years 1771-1772, several years after Witt's death in 1765. The formula, copied out in Bartram's handwriting, is only seven lines long and was one among many entries in a book composed of stitched-together codices. The entry closes with the words, "D Witt Star Pills".  The page is a tantalizing vestige, providing evidence of Christopher Witt's medical-herbal practice, and an enticing fragment of his Materia medica. As Joel Fry noted, "I suppose that recipe for the 'Star Pills' might be one of the few documents of Witt's medicines." Indeed! It's possibly the only such document known -- or extant! 


The formula contains abbreviations that remain indecipherable, probably indicating quantities of ingredients used. The jpeg image of the Star Pill formula is reproduced here (the formula appears in the first full block at the top of the left-hand page); readers are encouraged to contribute information about deciphering or explaining the minutiae of the formula.




I've transcribed the ingredients of Witt's Star Pill formula as follows: "colicynth" (probably colocynthus citrullus); "gamb" (possibly gamboge, or garcinia hanbury); and "ol mentha", (possibly oleum menthae, or essential oil of mint).  The fourth and final ingredient in this formula, written here as "Fenicis probably fennel, whose botanical name is foeniculum vulgare.  Fennel is known to be soothing to the stomach, which as we shall see would conjunction with mint plays an important role, given that the active ingredients are harsh. The ingredients are first prepared in some way not specified by the formula, and then combined with three parts ("xxx") "syr" (possibly syrup), "enough to make the whole into a Mass for Pills".  Witt's formula (as reproduced here by William Bartram) continues: "Divid [divide] it into 24 gr. pcs. each of which divide into 4 pills.  Dose 3 Pills, lye 2 hours on the left side to prevent being sick. This most excellent, to purge off Water.".


Administration of the formula can thus be divided into six steps:  1. the initiation of the process (indicated here by the first word of the formula, "take"); 2. a list of ingredients and their proportions; 3. the mixing of ingredients and forming of the pills; 4. dosage ("dose 3 Pills");  5. special instructions for the patient ("lye 2 hours on the left side"); 6. a clear recommendation as to the efficacy of the pills ("most excellent to purge off water").  Here's a closeup of the formula:




A historical note may be useful here. Bartram set down Witt's Star Pill formula in 1771 or 1772, about 30 years before Lewis and Clark embarked on their journey of exploration through what at that time were the far western territories of the United States. According to the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation website, along with other supplies, the expedition packed herbal medicines for various applications, including a formula that had been developed by Benjamin Rush, the preeminent Philadelphia physician of that era. Known famously as "Rush's Bilious Pills", the formula featured calomel and jalap, two highly efficient laxatives. These pills were nicknamed "Rush's Thunderbolts" for their powerful purgative effect on the body.


Possibly as a result of the persistent influence of Galen's theory of the four humors and their continuing influence on medical practice, bloodletting, and purging were employed and were possibly the most popular approaches among physicians for treating a variety of illnesses, throughout the 18th century. Barbara Griggs in her book, Green Pharmacy, quotes a French tourist on the medical practices of the time in North America:


"The practice of this country", observed a French tourist in 1788, is the English practice; that is, they are much in the use of violent remedies." A Boston doctor, questioned about local medical habits in the mid-eighteenth century, put it more bluntly: "the local practice," he said, "was very uniform, bleeding, vomiting, blistering, purging, anodyne, etc. if the illness continued there was repetendi, and finally murderandi."


Witt's formula was milder, though its purpose was largely the same, acting as a purgative within the largely Galenic medical/humoral tradition.  


Let's now take a brief look at the formula's ingredients. Colocynth was well-known among herbalists at that time, and according to some sources was used in treating syphilis.  But it was a dangerous product. Christopher Sauer's herbal, published in the 18th century – roughly the time Bartram compiled his Commonplace Book -- has an entry on colocynth:  "Both the fruit and seeds of the colocynth possess a highly volatile, raw, irritant, bitter salt combined with oily, resinous substances.  Therefore, colocynth not only purges the blood much too drastically but also, when taken even on occasion, its caustic poisons eat into the stomach and bowels, causing severe inflammation." (Quoted from William Woys Weaver's edition of Sauer's herbal, Sauer's Herbal Cures, p. 112). The plant, a member of the melon family, is native to Africa and is known there by the name "egusi".  According to the Cambridge World History of Food:


The egusi (Citrullus colocynthus) is of the same genus as the watermelon and, like it, a native of tropical Africa.  But the similarities end abruptly with taste, because the egusi is an extremely bitter fruit.  Instead of the pulp, it is the seeds of the egusi that are utilized.  Oil is extracted from them, and they are ground into powder for cooking purposes.  They are also roasted for consumption. (Vol. 2 p. 1770) 


Colocynth is also known as the "Vine of Sodom", as mentioned in Deuteronomy 32/3, King James version: "For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter." Witt's formula doesn't specify whether the pulp or the seeds are used. Very likely, though, it was the pulp, which, despite the dangers in consuming it, was considered a highly reliable purgative, possibly what herbalists nowadays might describe as a "low-dose botanical". The instructions indicate that the patient is to lie down when the pills are administered to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of the fruit.  The herbalist James Duke offers a contemporary description of colocynth and confirms that the plant is useful in removing excess fluids from the body.


According to Duke:


Dried pulp of unripe fruit is used medicinally for its drastic purgative and hydragogue cathartic action on the intestinal tract. When the fruit is ripe its pulp dries to form a powder used as a bitter medicine and drastic purgative. This powder is so inflammable that the Arabs collect it to use as kindling. The fruit is used to repel moths from wool. In India, the vine is planted as a sand binder. Seed, often removed from the poisonous pulp and eaten in Central Sahara regions, contains a fixed oil.  


Note that by "hydrogogue", Duke is designating a cathartic that promotes discharge of fluids from the bowels.  The US Dispensatory for 1918 accordingly describes colocynth thus:


The pulp of colocynth is a powerful drastic, hydragogue cathartic, producing, when given in large doses, violent griping, and sometimes bloody discharges, with dangerous inflammation of the bowels. Death has resulted from a teaspoonful and a half of the powder… Even in moderate doses it sometimes acts with much harshness, and it is therefore seldom prescribed alone. By some writers, it is said to be diuretic. It was frequently employed by the ancient Greeks and the Arabians, though its drastic nature was not unknown to them. Among the moderns it is occasionally used in obstinate dropsy, and in various affections depending on disordered action of the brain. In combination with other cathartics it loses much of its violence, but retains its purgative energy, and in this form is extensively employed. The compound extract of colocynth is a favorite preparation with many practitioners, and, combined with calomel, extract of jalap, and gamboge, it forms a highly efficient and safe cathartic, especially useful in congestion of the portal circle and torpidity the liver. (See Pilules Catharticae Composite.) It is best administered in minute division, effected by trituration with gum or farinaceous matter. The active principle has sometimes been employed, and, in the impure state in which it is prepared by the process of Emile Mouchon, may be given in the dose of a grain (0.065 Gm.).


Note the use here of colocynth in combination with gamboge, much the same as in the Star Pill formula.  The appearance of this combination in the US Dispensatory, which had been the official reference for pharmacists, is indicative of the well-established nature of the formula, as well as its applications. (More recent editions of the USD are medicine- rather than pharmacy-oriented.)

What, then, of the other ingredients in the Star Pill formula?  They're likely included to ameliorate the distressing effects of the colocynth, which appears to be the principal ingredient of the Star Pill.  According to the Wikipedia entry for Gamboge, the plant is used to provide color, and as a dye. If this was Witt's intention in including it, then it's possible that he did so with the "whole picture" in mind; color can have a salutary effect on the patient and contribute to the psychological or "placebo" effect of a medicine.  But the gamboge may also have been included to counteract the extreme bitterness of the colocynth.  A principal source on plant foods notes that the fruit of the gamboge, or "garcinia cambogia",


…are eaten as an appetizer, having succulent yellow pulp and a pleasant subacid flavor.  The rind is dried, or made into a brine with salt, and used as a sour tamarind-like condiment for fish, curries and other foods… (Steven Facciola, Cornucopia II:  A sourcebook of edible plants, p. 79)


Parenthetically, "cambogia" does indeed refer to Cambodia, and is native to Southeast Asia and India. Colocynth has West Asian (Turkish) and tropical Asian as well as African roots.  According to the US Dispensatory of 1918, gamboge is a powerful purgative and hydragogue, and should be dispensed with caution:


Gamboge is a powerful, drastic, hydragogue cathartic, so very apt to produce nausea and vomiting and much griping when given in the full dose that it is almost never employed except in combination with other cathartics. In large quantities, it can cause fatal effects, and death has resulted from a drachm. The full dose is from two to six grains (0.13-0.4 Gm.), which in cases of tenia has been raised to ten or fifteen grains (0.65-1.0 Gm.). It may be given in pill or emulsion, or dissolved in an alkaline solution. In the dose of five grains (0.32 Gm.) the resin is said to produce copious watery stools, with little or no uneasiness. If this be the case, it is probable that, as it exists in the gum-resin, its purgative property is somewhat modified by the other



These two ingredients, colocynth, and gamboge, worked synergistically to produce the desired result but perhaps also to balance any potentially distressing effects and keep them in check. The inclusion of essential oil of mint, and "fenic" [fennel] in turn would temper the distressing effects of the principal ingredients. That said, the U.S. Dispensatory for 1918 notes that fennel itself might also be used as an emetic:


Peppermint is an aromatic stimulant, much used to allay nausea, relieve spasmodic pains of the stomach and bowels, expel flatus, or cover the taste or qualify the nauseating or griping effects of other medicines.


And further:


Fennel seed was used by the ancients. It is one of our most grateful aromatics, and in this country is much employed as a carminative and as a corrigent of other less pleasant medicine, particularly senna and rhubarb. It is recommended for these purposes by the absence of any highly excitant property. An infusion may be prepared by introducing two or three drachms of the seeds into a pint of boiling water. In infants, the infusion is frequently employed as an enema for the expulsion of flatus.


It appears from this brief review of the Star Pill that Witt had contrived an effective purgative, using a potentially dangerous substance to effect the purge in conjunction with other purgatives, but tempered by mint and possibly also by fennel. It's interesting to add that the US Formulary for 1946 offered a formula similar to Witt's, which the Lewis and Clark website suggests was a "milder" version of Rush's formula:


A milder version of Rush's Pills remained an official compound until the 1940s. Here is the recipe for Compound Mild Mercurous Chloride Pills that appeared in the 1946 edition of the National Formulary. This "mild" formula was nonetheless a big gun, combining four purgatives of slightly differing qualities. Early 19th century physicians regarded jalap as "active" and "rapid." Gamboge, from Cambodia, was a "drastic" and "powerful" purge. Calomel (mercurous chloride) was believed to stimulate the liver and the gall bladder, although the opposite was true. Colocynth, or bitter apple, from India and Saharan Africa, was termed a"drastic" and "powerful" purge. According to the United States Dispensatory of 1918, the compound extract of colocynth "combined with calomel, extract of jalap, and gamboge . . . forms a highly efficient and safe cathartic, especially useful in congestion of the portal circle and torpidity of the liver."


There is much more to be learned about Christopher Witt, and some research has already been done, with the promise of more to come. But at the moment it appears that his Star Pill formula was more or less in line with contemporary medical conceptions and practice.


I'll conclude this post with a brief note from Pious Traders in Medicine by Renate Wilson (a book, by the way, recommended to me by Joel Fry). The passage captures something of the predicament in tracking Witt's activity down:


Least well documented but intriguing is Daniel Falkner, born in 1666, who came to Pennsylvania in the 1690s and returned to Germany and then to the colonies as an agent of the Frankfurt Company, an enterprise closely connected to the nascent Pietist movement. He practiced medicine and served New Jersey and Pennsylvania congregations until his death in 1741. He corresponded with the elder Francke in Halle, and, as late as 1730, was referred to as a veritable "Galen" by the head of the Albany congregations, a man not known for his generous temperament.


We might say the same about Christopher Witt: he too is "least well documented but intriguing". The above is highly suggestive, given that Falkner was closely associated with the Kelpius community – and that the reference to the "Albany congregations" was taken from Julius Sachse's book on the German Pietists, a principal (though at times unreliable) source for our current knowledge of Kelpius!


As noted, Joel Fry provided me with a copy of Witt's herbal recipe, which he discovered while digitizing William Bartram's Commonplace Book. Here's the note Joel wrote at that time, which also provides citation information:


The William Bartram "Commonplace Book" remains in private, Bartram family hands, but I made a digital scan of it a few years back. The same WB correspondence book "William Bartram: The Search for Nature's Design" 2010, has a chapter I wrote on the "Commonplace Book" with a description. and index to the complete MS. But there was only room in the book to transcribe the short introductory essay "On Gardening". So, if you ever want to publish, reference the Witt Star Pills, you can use the following credit: (Private collection, John Bartram Association, Bartram's Garden digital copy). (email from Joel Fry, 27 October 2011)


*This post was previously published on the Kelpius Society website, with additional images, at http://www.kelpius.org. For background information on Christopher Witt, see my earlier post on this website, dated April 22, 2019.


**Joel Fry, longtime archivist at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia died unexpectedly in March 2023 following a brief illness.




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Streeper-Piper Mill, Springfield Township, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Guiermo Torres, 2007 (in Philadelphia's Wissahickon Valley, 1620-2020 Vol. 1)


Below are notes for a fieldwork project I undertook in Cheshire County, New Hampshire in the autumn of 1997. Working in rural New England at that time, I became fascinated by the whirligig, gradually realizing that this diminutive object was probably associated in some way with the ancient craft of the millwright. Was the whirligig a bauble or toy, or did it signify a relation to a time-honored craft and technology, which was at one time widespread in New England -- and elsewhere in rural America? Was the whirligig a trace or signifier of a deeper and more complex relationship? I'm posting a redacted version of that one section of the report here, part of an ongoing process of reviewing fieldwork projects I've done over the years and where possible updating them.




Mr. H is a talented craftsman and woodworker. His output ranges widely, from whirligigs (or windmills) to entire houses (he built the house where he and his wife now live). Mr. H was born in Amherst, New Hampshire, and as a young man worked for a sawmill, then moved to Connecticut to take a job sanding floors. "I hated it there", he recalled, and later returned to New Hampshire to stay. His father was a millwright, and worked for the Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, although Mr. H has no memory of that (by the time he was born his father had left the mill and was working in the woods cutting timber). Mr. H remembers as a child building timber sleds and sled shoes -- miniature versions imitating the full-size ones his father built and used.


Mr. H is an inventive individual with an inquiring mind and a capable hand. As he explained, "I worked with my hands, used my head, and figured out how to do things." I became interested in him because I felt that he embodied the mythos of the New England individual -- ingenious, resourceful, energetic; but also because at a certain point in my work in New Hampshire, I became interested in whirligigs.


In my view, whirligigs are very likely intrinsic to the activity of the millwright. They are wind-driven, not water-powered devices, but like the water-powered mill they make use of an external energy source and convert it into motion or other form of directed activity. The whirligig mechanism is designed to animate various carved figures such as men cutting wood, women milking cows, boats moving over water, and so forth. Mr. W, the man who initiated the business that RD later worked for, was a millwright whose business was in Spofford –which, tellingly, is situated on an old mill site. Mr. H's father was a millwright too, and though Mr. H himself was not, he remembers setting up a small device with a paddle wheel across a stream when he was 10 or 12 years old, just to get the wheel to move and see how it worked.


Mill sites and mill ponds can still be seen on the New England landscape, and in fact, the traveler may occasionally come across what can be described as a "working mill" (in Alstead, for example). Water mills are certainly a part of what might be thought of as the "concept of New England". And it's interesting to speculate about a possible continuum: from water-powered mill to industrial factory to the diminutive version of the mill mechanism that we know today as the whirligig -- which is at once a functional object and a whimsical one: a clever representation of deep currents in New England culture. In this respect, the whirligig gestures toward what it is not, or rather, points away from what it is. Whirligigs are decorative items, they're "fun", but their connections are very likely much more deeply significant though oftentimes hidden from plain sight.


SC is the owner of a small factory in Spofford that makes whirligigs. He is the third owner of the factory (the founder was Mr. W, and the next owner was Mr. G). SC provided a tour of the factory and explained the production process and the function of the various workstations.


SC buys wood for the whirligigs in Brattleboro, Vermont, and Alstead, New Hampshire. He acquires the lumber and then planes it down to the thicknesses required for the various whirligig models. The basic shapes are cut out using established patterns. He recalls counting the patterns at one time, and "got as far as 139." Individual parts are next painted, then assembled, inspected, and packed. The whirligigs are produced in quantity and shipped all over the country. Whirligigs are visible, by the way, throughout the Cheshire County landscape -- and beyond. At that time, in fact, SC had just returned from the New England State Exposition, where he'd exhibited his work.


SC explained that there had been a sawmill on the factory site, operated by waterpower. The dam was blown out in 1938, he said. "The guy who lived here…tinkered with whirligigs in the winter months when the water froze" – at which times the mill would be inoperative. SC gave me a tour of the site, pointing out where the original sluiceway, dam, and millpond had been. When he bought the property and business he bulldozed the old mill structure, filled in the sluiceway, and built new buildings for the factory. He explained that the previous owner was his brother-in-law, who'd purchased the property in 1972.


SC is a mechanical engineer who graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. When he bought the business, he inherited the original designs for the whirligigs -- the sawyer, the woodcutter, the cow milker, and noted that "they are basically untouched from what Mr. W designed". The designs vary in complexity. For example, the ship has only six parts, the cow has 22. After purchasing the business SC  introduced several new designs – including a baseball player. The previous owner originated the sailboat and carp fisherman, while SC introduced the bass fisherman, along with a man cranking an antique car. He also created "Saturday Night Scrub" (a bathtub scene), a golfer swinging a golf club, and a group of mallards, among others.


The process has been iterative. SC said that each successive owner has created "offshoots" based on pre-existing designs. Mr. W designed a cow-milking figure, which Mr. G maintained for his catalog, but SC changed the milking figure to Uncle Sam, and named it "Taxes".


SC said that the history of whirligigs is "pretty damn interesting." He keeps his designs simple because simple figures are "more marketable". Complexity means more parts, he explained, which means more labor, and higher costs. SC is a collector of whirligigs too; he searches widely for them, and when he locates one has it sent along home. He also holds onto the prototypes for all the whirligigs, whether they are put into production or not. He displayed a "Horse and Buggy" whirligig that was never produced and offered for sale because it was too complex. The prototype is stored with other stalled designs -- (a Christmas scene, Santa Claus milking a cow, a sleigh-riding scene, a Statue of Liberty/ocean liner scene) -- in a small area of the building that he calls his "museum".


SC said, "They call them whirligigs, but I call them windmills. They don't do anything. Whirligigs are action figures. They are something." The comparison to windmills is suggestive; SC is indicating the deeper significance, and the many ramifications, of the whirligig.


The history of whirligigs is compelling and can surely be explored as a feature of the preindustrial/industrial past of the region -- all the while keeping an essential image in mind: the frozen millpond, the seasonally quiet mill in winter, the miller/millwright with time on his hands who creates a whimsy using skills adapted from the "real" work, and translated into a remarkable diversion for the winter months. A passage from Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children comes to mind here:


Once, I shyly gave her a necklace of flowers (queen-of-the-night for my lily-of-the-eve), bought with my own pocket money from a hawker-woman at Scandal Point. 'I don't wear flowers,' Evelyn Lilith said, and tossed the unwanted chain into the air, spearing it before it fell with a pellet from her unerring Daisy air-pistol. Destroying flowers with a Daisy, she served notice that she was not to be manacled, not even by a necklace: she was our capricious, whirligig Lily-of-the-valley. And Eve. The Adam's-apple of my eye.


What does the whirligig "mean?" Perhaps, alongside "whimsy", it signifies freedom.


Driving south to Spofford Road, then heading east, there was at that time a cluster of objects set on sticks with windmill-type propellers affixed to one end. The house at that spot was owned by Mr. D, who explained that those objects had been locally produced in a small factory nearby and that his mother, who was inside at the time, had worked there at one time.


Mr. D's mother, RD, explained that the business was started by Mr. W in 1925. He was a Seventh Day Adventist, she said, and was a "very clever man" who designed and made "windmills." The first of these was a figure made to look like it sawed wood when the wind moved the mechanism. RD explained that this first figure was sold in Vermont, "on the Hogback, in a gift shop up there." There is an interconnected line of ownership here: WG (see above) bought the business from Mr. W, who subsequently sold it to the present owner, SC. "He runs the mill now", she said. She added that WG and his sister have moved to Jamaica, Vermont, where they continue to make and sell birdhouses and other items crafted from wood.


RD remembered that the original windmill factory was set up in an old barn and that two employees and the owner worked together in that space. She recalled approaching Mr. W in 1953 to ask for a job because she'd heard he "needed someone to paint." She was hired, and at first, she painted the wooden figures by hand. Later, Mr. W introduced a screen painting process. They made trucks, horse carts, rocking horses, and other objects. RD said "The man that runs it now is just as clever as Mr. W was. Mr. W made all the machinery. He had a machine to bend the metal shaft, but now they buy them all done" – cutting one step out of the local production process, perhaps to meet demand and boost profits.


RD worked there until 1973; then "did some hand work in the cellar" [in her home] until age 80. She added that the current owner "now sells everywhere, ships by UPS." Mr. W, however, delivered his product to the nearby states of Vermont and Massachusetts, and throughout New Hampshire. The factory is located on the original site, a few miles from Mrs. D's home. After a while, she went down to her basement and returned with some old "windmills" she herself had painted, made by Mr. W in his small factory.


I'd hoped to investigate this very interesting artifact further in that part of New England, but my work has been consistently contingent, making it difficult to return to any one place, or to any given subject. Whenever I've been asked what my "subject" is, my answer would always be the same: "fieldwork itself". And so it goes.


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 Lucy Audubon c. 1870 (Wikipedia image)


Watching a film on The Criterion Channel some months ago, it occurred to me that there may be something lurking, some connection between the reading I'd been doing, which I might explicate through the lens of the film. The film in question is from an Iranian director. Here's the basic description, lifted from The Criterion Channel website:


Close-up Directed by Abbas Kiarostami • 1990 • Iran. 
Starring Hossein Sabzian, Abolfazi Ahankhah, Mahrokh Ahankhah. Internationally revered Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has created some of the most inventive and transcendent cinema of the past thirty years, and CLOSE-UP is his most radical, brilliant work. This fiction-documentary hybrid uses a sensational real-life event—the arrest of a young man on charges that he fraudulently impersonated the well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf—as the basis for a stunning, multilayered investigation into movies, identity, artistic creation, and existence, in which the real people from the case play themselves. With its universal themes and fascinating narrative knots, CLOSE-UP has resonated with viewers around the world.


I'll describe my impressions of this film in more detail at another time; at the moment, however, it offers a potentially useful jumping-off point. But first, some readings that I feel may connect with this film in an interesting way, and perhaps also touch on my series of Eupalinos posts, ongoing.


In their June 2, 2022 issue, The New York Review of Books published a review of a book by Axel Honneth, longtime member of the Frankfurt School, former student, and later, close associate of Jürgen Habermas. My understanding is that the two frequently co-taught seminars in philosophy at Frankfurt or Hamburg. With that, I have in mind Habermas's writing on the development of the public sphere, his Theory of Communicative Action in particular, which corresponds, if obliquely -- somewhat at an angle perhaps -- with Honneth's version of same. As Habermas's biographer Stefan Müller-Doohm notes,


Axel Honneth criticizes the concept of communicative reason from a different angle, pointing out that inclusion, in the sense of belonging to a society, does not result primarily from the experience of processes of opinion- and will-formation. Rather, according to Honneth, the precondition of communicative action is the experience of social recognition.


That book, by the way, is Recognitions, based on the Seeley Lectures given by Honneth at Oxford in May 2017; which calls to mind, across the span of many years, the work of Martin Buber and other thinkers who have outlined a theory of social identity based on the multifaceted relations between self and other. But here I'll pause to ask, Would the movie I've alluded to, Close-up, be more strongly related to the Pierre Janet-themed blog post I published recently, rather than to Honneth and his work?


I've gotten hold of a copy of the Honneth book and have begun reading through it. I've also been reading a book of interconnected poems called Audubon's Sparrow by Juditha Dowd. The book is subtitled A Biography — in Poems and is written in the voice mainly of Audubon's wife, Lucy, detailing her struggles with life, and with that relationship — her husband opting to follow his star, often leaving her behind as he rambled through various countrysides, observing, capturing, and painting birds, and later traveling to London to promote publication of his book with a London printer. The poetic sequence eventuates in their reuniting, setting up together again in a big house on the Hudson River, with Audubon succumbing to a stroke sometime later and Lucy carrying on alone once again, eking out a living as a music instructor.


Therein lies the crux of the story; as located in the ambiguities associated with togetherness and separation, characterized by Dowd in terms of Audubon's personal struggle with his identity — Storekeeper? Artist? It's not clear whether Audubon's more mundane agon correlates in some way with Honneth's argument, though I believe the latter is fundamentally and profoundly significant. I'll get to that in a moment (possibly a long moment from this writing); but Dowd explores a version of this, whether the high or the low version, in her book. The Audubon couple eventually decided to establish a store at Henderson, Kentucky, seeking to secure a more stable livelihood and wherewithal. But there may be some foreshadowing with Dowd setting the closing line of the following stanza in italics:


This sturdy cabin is our first real home  

My husband writes in his journal  

As better could not be had we were pleased


"As better could not be had"... This is Lucy quoting her husband (his words set in italics); which convey a subtle emphasis, offering a window into Audubon's mind, a window that will open wider later in the book. Meanwhile, her husband sets up as shopkeeper, and entertains or rather explores the idea of establishing a sawmill. But the picture is clouded. A poem titled "Audubon, at the Window":


I do not dissemble when I say that I'm a happy man  

though something weak within me says I'm not.


In closing the poem, Dowd has Audubon reflect more pointedly,


I'm a provisioner of farmers, of travelers and families,  

while something in me sighs that I am not.


There's more -- embedded in the coursing verses of the extended poem -- too much poetry to quote here. But the question is pressing — is this Honneth's (and Valéry's Socrates) concern? Or is Audubon, as portrayed by Dowd, grappling with a more routine conundrum, rather than the deeply situated psychic struggle to establish (and project) a personal identity? Honneth's discussion probes more deeply, but I've gone far enough into this question for the moment.

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Negative Capability

Posthumous portrait of Keats by William Hilton, National Portrait Gallery, London (c. 1822)


This post has been in formation, along with two or three others, for several months as I've gradually reintegrated office time into my schedule. I can't recall the origins of this post, but I'd been thinking about past fieldwork projects and ways to write about them. And for some reason, the Baltimore project — conducted in 1994-95 in that city — came immediately to mind. I think that the connection was between my work in port communities and the experience of displacement and marginalization, which had been rising there as elsewhere, discussed these days under the category of houseless, but the condition can take other forms. While I don't equate the displaced with the unhoused (the former produces a psychic condition, the latter a material one), this problem got me thinking. And it got me thinking especially about someone named Girlie Hoffman, whom I met while doing fieldwork in East Baltimore, in the port communities strung along the harbor. I'll return to her in a moment.


Meanwhile, I was reading A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers, a book of interviews, conducted by Kyle Schlesinger, focusing on artisanal letterpress printing and associated crafts (such as letter carving); reading this book out of a personal interest in the relationship between setting type and establishing the appropriate verse form for a given poem; crafting the poetic line. (A number of these printers are also poets; shades of Charles Olson!) The book is co-published by Cuneiform Press and Ugly Duckling Presse.


As Johanna Drucker expounded in her contribution to Threads Talks Series, a collection of talks on book arts (co-published by Cuneiform Press and Granary Books):


What would a descriptive language of the techniques of production add to our understanding of poiesis? How would an understanding of the technical and formal conventions of the graphic means of production in which we experience written poetry shape our understanding of what a poem is and can be? Do the expressive limitations and/or affordances of various graphic means inform the aesthetic qualities of a work through features of its actual production?


This very interesting subject of the relation of setting type (or other graphic technologies) to writing and its effect on the experience of reading poetry may inform the basis of a subsequent post, but for now, I want to mention that one of the interviewees in that book on printers, an Australian poet (and printer) named Alan Loney, spoke of a book called Carving the Elements, with essays by the artisans involved in that bookmaking project. That book was a new edition of Parmenides' writings, the ancient Greek philosopher who formed the subject of one of Plato's dialogues, and who was Zeno's teacher. Readers may know that Zeno was famous — or infamous — for his paradox regarding movement, and especially for my purposes here, his paradox regarding place. Zeno's paradoxes, four in number, were likely efforts on Zeno's part to disrupt the hegemony of common knowledge as it was constituted at that time — common knowledge then as now the bane of philosophers (not to mention mathematicians and physicists).  Zeno's influence has been considerable, as André Laks and Glenn W. Most, editors of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Early Greek Philosophy, Western Greek Thinkers, explain:


…the influence of Zeno's arguments has been immense, if only by reason of the refutations that philosophers have been obliged to seek for them (beginning with Aristotle, in the exposition of his doctrine of the continuous n Books 4 and 6 of his Physics), but it is due less to the philosophical positions that he defended than to the logical challenges that his paradoxes posed. Modern theoreticians of mathematics and physics have continued to find these interesting.


So, what does Zeno have to do with Girlie Hoffman? As I mentioned, I met Girlie while doing fieldwork in East Baltimore, in the Canton neighborhood (her bar and home were located at 1517 S. Canton Street). At that time Girlie had become something of a cause célèbre locally for refusing to sell her property — house and bar/lunch counter — to an oil company who were developing a tank field in that neighborhood. Girlie's bar was right next to the water, and from that place, she (and her mother before her) had served generations of merchant seamen who came ashore for food and drink as the longshore crews worked their ships. The site of the tank farm had at that time become the de facto preserve of the oil company, which wanted to expand and absorb Girlie's property into their tank farm. She refused, even as her business dwindled due to the shift in activity at the port (containerization was advancing at that time, and with it the dramatic shrinkage of turnaround time for visiting ships, leaving sailors with virtually no time ashore). When I met her Girlie was still tending bar, still preparing the homemade soups that she (and her mother) had become famous for. I visited her several times, whenever I was in the immediate area, and wrote a bit about her in my fieldwork report. Here's a brief excerpt (Girlie's friend Henry Erdman was present during this interview):


Girlie Hoffman has refused for many years to move from the site, despite repeated efforts by the oil company to induce her to sell. (Her sister has also refused to sell out. Ms. Hoffman owns the lunch counter and the property it's situated on, as well as another property nearby, and some empty lots and land off the alley that runs behind the store. According to Mr. Erdman, Ms. Hoffman "has tied them [Exxon] up" by refusing to sell her land to the corporation...Girlie Hoffman says that the oil company "didn't give much money" for the properties they purchased from local owners. "And all that money they got," she said. "People think you gotta sell but you don't have to sell." Ms. Hoffman refused to leave because she "grew up right here," at the lunch counter; the family's living quarters were at the rear of the store. "It (the store] feels just like home," she says.


The keyword here is "home", proposed against the powerful corporation's efforts to evict Girlie; she continuing to resist. I'd note that this process of dislocation was widening in Baltimore at the time, especially in the traditional port communities, along with the development of the Inner Harbor (Harbor Place) project, designed to attract tourists and tourist dollars. This development process would be consequential for the people living in those neighborhoods. At one point in our conversation, Girlie Hoffman told me that, "people say this place is like home, it's comfortable. Don't you think so?" I could only agree. Others, not so lucky (or as obstinate) had begun to experience dislocation and displacement from their ancestral port-side neighborhoods. As one resident told me:


I remember the port as always being very busy…You had the feeling that you were really living in a working port…being in the Inner Harbor was something you'd do every day…So today, the Inner Harbor isn't part of the port…and the kinds of people you see are very different. Everybody was there in the old days, for better or worse. Today you see a much more middle-class group of people. And the old working people are gone.


Another resident expanded on this sense of dislocation, locating it in the public domain. She recalled driving along Pratt Street and seeing the ships tied up at docks there:


You could almost reach out and touch them. It was an amazing sight…Harbor Place is okay, but the big ships were impressive.


In short, my fieldwork in East Baltimore at that time, encouraged the view that the people in those neighborhoods were increasingly being distanced from place, from the sites and locales where they'd lived and worked, and where they continued to live, then in the grip of "developers".


I'll conclude for the moment by appropriating Zeno's concept to my purpose here. Hermann Fränkel, writing of Zeno in Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy, notes that:


Of his [Parmenides'] immediate pupils there are two of whom we can form some notion, Melissus and Zeno of Elea. Zeno sought to prove the homogenous continuum postulated by Parmenides by presenting with much wit and ingenuity the difficulties that arise if one assumes, on the one hand, infinite divisibility, or on the other, elementary quanta which are incapable of further division. On the former assumption, Zeno's contemporary Anaxagoras built his original system, while the latter led to the atomic theory.


Is "place" an elementary quantum, or is it infinitely divisible? The historical experience of the people of East Baltimore may have embraced the quantum, but their more recent experience has been subsumed by the divisible. More later...


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