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The Indy Issue from Friday March 12, 2021

 

 

Visions of the Development of Salem

By Kevin Zorn

An oil on canvas mural is displayed in the post office in Salem, West Virginia. It was painted by an artist named Berni Glasgow and its production was funded
through the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. It is titled “Visions of the Development of Salem” and depicts a group of people
receiving mail, in the background is a village and cattle.

 

Berni Glasgow was one of more than 800 artists commissioned to paint 1371 murals, the majority of which are featured in post offices.
Often mistaken as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, these Treasury funded murals were created with the intent of fostering i
nspiration in the American people who were still feeling the devastating economic and social effects of the Great Depression.

 

It is a testament to the shift in the ideological landscape today that I cannot believe the US Government, in tandem with local governments,
was capable of doing what the WPA accomplished. Yet, here are just some of the facts: from 1935 to 1943 8.5 million unemployed men and
women were hired by the government to build over 10,000 bridges, 620,000 miles of streets and roads, 40,000 new and 85,000 renovated
buildings including thousands of schools, gymnasiums, auditoriums, playgrounds, parks, libraries, college dormitories, tennis courts, and skating rinks.

 

The WPA employed artists, writers, historians, and musicians whose work directly affected the lives of millions of Americans during some of the
country’s most painful years. Musicians hired under the Federal Music Project taught free lessons to 132,000 children and adults every week.
Those hired in the Federal Writers’ Project, in addition to their popular state tourism guidebooks, recorded over 2,300 slave narratives -
an invaluable collection for scholars and historians. Under the Federal Theatre Project 1,000 plays were performed across the country every month.
Incalculable is the number of children and adults inspired by this work.

 

Through the colossal endeavors of the WPA in both its pre-war effort and its public projects America achieved full employment by 1942,
the same year “Visions” was painted in Salem.

 

It is clear that the America many of us grew up in, the structures that supported our lives, the parks we enjoyed, the schools we attended,
the infrastructure we relied upon for travel, even the art classes that inspired the next generation of creators was largely built under the
auspices of the WPA and the New Deal.

 

This is a salient reminder that capital “H” History is not simply a collection of memorized facts and figures, dates and obscure names.
No, History is alive in the communities in which we live. It not only teaches us, it haunts us as well. It haunts us with what was
possible before and what is possible tomorrow.

 

Perhaps that is the greatest battle waged in the spectacle of media and politics today - the question of what is possible.
Our expectations are managed lower and lower. We learn that the climate crisis is inevitable, that homelesness is natural,
that workers are essential until they ask for a living wage. All to say that change is impossible. Visions of better futures recede from view.

But history haunts us with an alternative. By the time Berni Glasgow painted the mural in the Salem post office, the American
government had provided millions of meaningful jobs improving, with concrete and paintbrushes, nearly every community across the nation.

 

Nick Taylor, the author of “American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA”, writes this: 

 

“These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation.
They were golden threads woven in the national fabric. In this, they shamed the political philosophy
that discounted their value and rewarded the one that placed its faith in them,
thus fulfilling the founding vision of a government by and for its people. All its people.” 

 

This weeks front page:

 

 

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In my weekly search for new material I often see, and pass over, the letters of Abraham Lincoln thinking, “Oh, what’s possibly left to talk about that hasn’t been covered in the various blockbuster films and tv series’ that have seemingly covered his life thoroughly?” This week I found something but the length of the letter, written by he, precludes me from entering placing it in my section in its entirety. So I’ll judiciously paraphrase and quote the letter in an attempt to convey the humorous story it tells.

 

Abraham Lincoln starts this letter, penned on April 1, 1838, by explaining to Mrs. O. H. Browning a predicament he ended up in after agreeing to marry the sister of a friend even though he had not seen the woman he agreed to marry in over three years.

 

I had seen the said sister some three years before, thought her intelligent and agreeable, and saw no good objection to plodding life through hand-in-hand with her.”

 

Yet, when his friend arrives with her sister, with whom he had previously agreed to marry, she looks nothing like what he remembered.

 

In a few days we had an interview, and, although I had seen her before, she did not look as my imagination had pictured her. I knew she was over-size, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff (A large character in appearing in three of Shakespeare’s plays). I knew she was called an "old maid," and I felt no doubt of the truth of at least half of the appellation, but now, when I beheld her, I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother; and this, not from withered features,—for her skin was too full of fat to permit of its contracting into wrinkles—but from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy and reached her present bulk in less than thirty-five or forty years; and, in short, I was not at all pleased with her. But what could I do?”

 

Lincoln clearly regrets having agreed to marry this woman, though on the positive side, he finds her quick-witted and funny. Bound by honor to his previous agreement, Lincoln visits the lady and planned to formally propose to her but the arrangement was ended by a twist of fate.

 

“...I mustered my resolution and made the proposal to her direct; but, shocking to relate, she answered, No. At first I supposed she did it through an affectation of modesty, which I thought but ill became her under the peculiar circumstances of the case, but on my renewal of the charge I found she repelled it with greater firmness than before. I tried it again and again, but with the same success, or rather with the same want of success.”

 

Lincoln is shocked by her response, he admits that in all his thoughts of marriage and about her appearance he had begun to feel the pangs of love for her but she, at once, cut him off.

 

“My vanity was deeply wounded by the reflection that I had so long been too stupid to discover her intentions, and at the same time never doubting that I understood them perfectly; and also that she, whom I had taught myself to believe nobody else would have, had actually rejected me with all my fancied greatness. And, to cap the whole, I then for the first time began to suspect that I was really a little in love with her. But let it all go! I'll try and outlive it. Others have been made fools of by the girls, but this can never in truth be said of me. I most emphatically, in this instance, made a fool of myself.”