….Don’t forget WW Norton/Countryman Press recently published my first endeavor, The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History, in which I use humor and cultural analysis to show how this seemingly simple structure shaped the complex American identity, for better and for worse.
Just passing along two stories I wrote recently, both related to my book, The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History.
The first, for The Daily Beast, is all about the iconic cabin’s dark side, i.e. its use in slave trade and to demolish Indian traditions. Cheery stuff.
The second piece, written for Salon, revolves around dead presidents and why we idolize their mythical cabins.
It’s Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and we should only be sharing happy memories of the sixteenth president, the Great Emancipator, the Honest One, but I don’t know when I’ll next receive the opportunity to share this random, tangentially-related fact I learned while writing my book, so, you know, indulge me….
In 1936, the interwar period, Americans were aghast to learn that a shop adjacent to the “Lincoln birth cabin” in Hodgenville, Kentucky, was selling foreign-made wares: products described as “relics of Lincoln’s day,” but which the Chicago Tribune revealed to be as “cheap in material and theme,” constructed in far-off lands like Japan or Germany, and all “exploiting the patriotic sentiments of the American public.”
From the Tribune’s 1936 report:
“The articles…sold for 25 cents each and are cheap in construction, material and theme. One of a black and white china ash tray in the shape of a dog. This was made in Japan. Another, made in Germany, is a small wooden box labeled ‘Hope Chest’ and ornamented by a stenciled rose. Within are a nude kewpie doll and a square of cloth.
Still another of these souvenirs stamped with the words ‘Lincoln’s Birthplace, Kentucky,’ is a miniature wooden spinning wheel. This, according to the label, was made in Czechoslovakia.”
And this so close to a place the Cincinnati Enquirer described in 1909 as a “mecca for all patriotic men and women,” a place the Wisconsin Daily Northwestern called “a mecca for all Americans,” a place President Wilson himself said “expresses so much of what is singular and noteworthy in the history of the country”?! What a travesty!
Now, can only image what these people would say if they learned this “Lincoln birth cabin” was itself an elaborate ruse erected as much to honor Lincoln as to glorify America’s broader rags-to-riches/logs-to-luxury myth. And, more importantly, what would they say about Americans electing a president whose oft-licensed — and etymologically appropriate — last name and well-branded family are tied to dozens and dozens of shoddy products produced overseas, all created precisely to exploit American patriotism?
My first book hit stores this week. Called The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History, it traces American history via uses and cultural representations of our nation’s favorite hard wood, the titular log cabin. It’s a fun and informative little tome — and, most importantly, it’s filled with hundreds of awesome images.
Three years in the making, the projects’ impetus came in part from my own bafflement over how the log cabin became such a beloved symbol: What forces shaped our collective national consciousness to make us so blindly, unquestioningly adore what is essentially a stack of sticks? The answers are in the book. What’s not in the book? The word “symbolaton.”
An amalgamation of “symbol” and “automaton,” the term was meant to be a neologism meaning, roughly, “an automatic symbol,” i.e.: an object or totem that Americans worship without considering why or how — kind of like the national anthem or the pledge of the allegiance. [I guess my work has a theme, huh?]
Unfortunately, “symbolaton” doesn’t quite work because “automaton” means, literally “self-motion,” which gives the impression that the log cabin is moving by its own will, its own power. Though the structure indeed took on a life of its own over the years, and was certainly axiomatically perpetuated in America, the locution lacked the precision I sought. It’s close, but not cigar.
The term “symbolicon” was also thrown around in my noggin and then tossed out, largely because it doesn’t really mean anything, and so too was the phrase “zombie icon,” which comes closest to what I hoped to convey but which still didn’t make the cut. Oh well.
But even though there are no neologisms in The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History, it’s still an entertaining and — gasp! — educational read. Please check it out.
And for more Fun with Words, click HERE.
Americans are, sadly, all too accustomed to lying presidents. Donald Trump tells a fib almost every time he opens his mouth. Bill Clinton lied about Monica Lewinsky; Richard Nixon lied about Watergate; and the entire Dubya Bush administration made up weapons of mass destruction. Yet as notable as these untruths were, none were as impactful or as blindly accepted as one told during the presidential campaign of 1840, the so-called Log Cabin Campaign.
I’m taking some time off from online activities for a few days, to get some R&R before my book comes out. (Yeah, I wrote a book: The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History; it comes out Nov. 7.)
In the meantime, enjoy this audio from the Grateful Dead’s September 20, 1970, show at Fillmore East. It’s the entire 23 track set, obtained from Archive.org, which has all of the FREE National Archive GD audio’s.
Set list BELOW…