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Knoxville: Summer of 1915


Knoxville: Summer of 1915  by James Agee (This is in its entirety with the same paragraph breaks as originally provided by the author. The “Samuel Barber” version set to music uses approximately a third of this text)

“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child. It was a little bit sort of block, fairly solidly lower middle class, with one or two juts apiece on either side of that. The houses corresponded: middle­ sized gracefully fretted wood houses built in the late nineties and early nineteen hundreds, with small front and side and more spacious back yards, and trees in the yards, and porches. These were soft wooded trees, poplars, tulip trees, cottonwoods. There were fences around one or two of the houses, but mainly the yards ran into each other with only now and then a low hedge that wasn’t doing very well. There were few good friends among the grown people, and they were not enough for the other sort of intimate acquaintance, but everyone nodded and spoke, and even might talk short times, trivially, and at the two extremes of general or the particular, and ordinarily next door neighbors talked quiet when they happened to run into each other, and never paid calls. The men mostly small businessmen, one or two very modestly executives, one or two worked with their hands, most of them clerical, and most of them between thirty and forty-­five.

“But it is of these evenings, I speak. Supper was at six and was over by half past. There was still daylight, shining softly and with a tarnish, like the lining of a shell; and the carbon lamps lifted the corners were on in the light, and the locusts were started, and the fire flies were out, and a few frogs were flopping in the dewy grass, by the time the fathers and the children came out. The children ran out first hell bent and yelling those names by which they were known; then the fathers sank out leisurely crossed suspenders, their collars removed and their necks looking tall and shy. The mothers stayed back in the kitchen washing and drying, putting things away, recrossing their traceless footsteps like the lifetime journeys of bees, measuring out the dry cocoa for breakfast. When they came out they had taken off their aprons and their skirts were dampened and they sat in rockers on porches quietly. It is not of the games children play in the evening that I want to speak now, it is of a contemporaneous atmosphere that has little to do with them: that of fathers of families, each in his space of lawn, his shirt fishlike pale in the unnatural light and his face nearly anonymous, hosing their lawns. The hoses were attached at spigots that stood out of the brick foundations of the houses. The nozzles were variously set but usually so there was a long sweet stream spray, the nozzle wet in the hand, the water trickling the right forearm and peeled-­back cuff, and the water whishing out a long loose and low­ curved and so gentle a sound. First an insane noise of violence in the nozzle, then the irregular sound of adjustment, then the smoothing into steadiness and a pitch accurately tuned to the size and style of stream as any violin. So many qualities of sound out of one hose: so many choral differences out of those several hoses that were in earshot. Out of any one hose, the almost dead silence of the release, and the short still arch of the separate big drops, silent as a held breath, and only the noise of the flattering noise on leaves and the slapped grass at the fall of a drop. That, and the intense hiss with the intense stream; that, and that intensity not growing less but growing more quiet and delicate with the turn the nozzle, up to the extreme tender whisper when the water was just a wide of film. Chiefly, though, the hoses were set much alike, in a compromise between distance and tenderness of spray (and quite surely a sense of art behind this compromise, and a quiet deep joy, too real to recognize itself), and the sounds therefore were pitched much alike; pointed by the snorting start of a new hose; decorated by some man playful with the nozzle; left empty, like God by the sparrow’s fall, when any single one of them desists: and all, though near alike, of various pitch; and in this unison.

“These sweet pale streamings in the light out their pallors and their voices all together, mothers hushing their children, the hushing unnaturally prolonged, the men gentle and silent and each snail-like withdrawn into the quietude of what he singly is doing, the urination of huge children stood loosely military against an invisible wall, and gentle happy and peaceful, tasting the mean goodness of their living like the last of their suppers in their mouths; while the locusts carry on this noise of hoses on their much higher and sharper key. The noise of the locust is dry, and it seems not to be rasped or vibrated but urged from him as if through a small orifice by a breath that can never give out. Also there is never one locust but an illusion of at least a thousand. The noise of each locust is pitched in some classic locust range out of which none of them varies more than two full tones: and yet you seem to hear each locust discrete from all the rest, and there is a long, slow, pulse in their noise, like the scarcely defined arch of a long and high set bridge. They are all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums, the boldest of all the sounds of night. And yet it is habitual to summer nights, and is of the great order of noises, like the noises of the sea and of the blood her precocious grandchild, which you realize you are hearing only when you catch yourself listening. Meantime from low in the dark, just outside the swaying horizons of the hoses, conveying always grass in the damp of dew and its strong green-black smear of smell, the regular yet spaced noises of the crickets, each a sweet cold silver noise three-noted, like the slipping each time of three matched links of a small chain. But the men by now, one by one, have silenced their hoses and drained and coiled them. Now only two, and now only one, is left, and you see only ghostlike shirt with the sleeve garters, and sober mystery of his mild face like the lifted face of large cattle enquiring of your presence in a pitch dark pool of meadow; and now he too is gone; and it has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt; a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber. A street car raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints ; halts, the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter, fainting, lifting, lifts, faints forgone: forgotten. Now is the night one blue dew. Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose.Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes. Content, silver, like peeps of light, each cricket makes his comment over and over in the drowned grass. A cold toad thumpily flounders.Within the edges of damp shadows of side yards are hovering children nearly sick with joy of fear, who watch the unguarding of a telephone pole. Around white carbon corner lamps bugs of all sizes are lifted elliptic, solar systems. Big hard shells bruise themselves, assailant: he is fallen on his back, legs squiggling. Parents on porches: rock and rock: From damp strings morning glories : hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums. On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts.

“We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs, and they have kept on talking. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.” ©1938

Knoxville is a city of the mid-south, a place where a Yankee might, just might not feel out of place. The autobiographical nature of Agee’s recollection of a past that can never be reclaimed tells us what is lost. Listening to Samuel Barber’s setting for soprano and piano takes me back to suburban Chicago, which is hardly the same—in either geography or time. Looking at the postcard above seems to have made me wax nostalgic.

I post Agee’s text here for your enjoyment on a blustery winter day and the prospect of a long, languorous summer of your own.

PS: This evocative RPPC is too sweet to pass by without bringing it into the project. Clearly, it must be somewhere in the “lake country” west of town. There are several resorts or inns, but this one is significantly less rustic. So I’m open for nominations.

The Boulevard

Years ago, forty or forty-five at least, a call came to our office for me. I was not available, so the secretary asked for a message. “Tell him Professor <blank> called from the university.” Since I was employed at the State University, she sought clarification: “Which university?”, there being a number of them in the vicinity. After a moment’s hesitation, he intoned with obvious annoyance, “THE University”, and hung up. From which we took it to be the OTHER university about seventy-five miles downstream. When you live in this state, it’s not unreasonable to imagine we’re limited to one of pretty much everything. He certainly thought so.

This put me in mind of the two weeks I visited the Isle of Skye — that’s “An t-Eilean Sgiathanach” in Gaelic — trying to learn some of my native language (though I’m only 50% Scot, and Lowland, at that). In this context, the Scottish connection relates to Gaelic (Gaedhlig, pronounced “GAY-lig” (the language enjoys a lot of silent letters) and a peculiarity of its grammar: in the Highlands and Islands, one and two are singular; three or more are plural. Apparently you’ve got to have at least three of something to brag about it, like having three hands. And so it is, there are several items in Agincourt which begin with “The”. As though there is only one — in the spirit of that self-anointed professor and a nod to my Scottish roots.

The Square. The Commons. The Avenue. The Boulevard. The Auditorium. The College. The Shades. The Hump. You don’t have to specify, because there’s only one and no threat of confusion.

Postcards continue to appear which would make wonderful additions to Agincourt’s imagery. Fortunately, many of them are of Iowa communities, so it’s not stretching the point to claim them for the Project. The card above is out of my price bracket, however, so I won’d be bidding on it, I guess. But that doesn’t stop me from “borrowing” it for a while, until I can gain the rudiments of PhotoShop and “fix” the caption.

The view is precisely what I saw in my mind’s eye when conceiving two blocks of North Broad Street that had become boulevarded during the “City Beautiful” moment.


Guessing this fellow is a member of the U.C.T. or United Commercial Travelers. This was a mutual support organization, a source for low cost insurance and benefits for surviving spouses and children. Being “on the road” was a grueling and on occasion dangerous occupation. And since the salary was dependent on commission, an uncertain livelihood. You’d be surprised how many small and moderate-sized towns had a “U.C.T.” hotel somewhere near the train station. Exactly the sort of accommodation this guy was looking for. Agincourt’s is at Broad Street and Louisa, southwest corner. I hear the Bon Ton Café isn’t bad, either. In any case, he deserves a lot of respect for being part of an important stage of American commerce.

In case you don’t know how this worked, a postcard would arrive at local businesses announcing arrival of a U.C.T. salesman within about a week. He would represent various types of product, ladies undergarments, for instance. On the appointed day, the salesman would set up his sample case in a room specially set aside for that use in the local U.C.T. hotel. That hotel had no direct connection with the organization; it simply catered to their needs for affordable accommodations near the train state. At the appointed time, local merchants arrived to “inspect the goods” and place their orders for the upcoming season. Having transacted a day’s worth of business, he — there may have been women salespeople on the road, but I’m unaware of them — probably set off on the next train for his destination the following morning. A week’s worth of that was about all anyone could take before needing to restore your energy back home. Then, another week or two of the same. I don’t know the lifespan of a typical commercial traveler.

What’s in a name?

At the beginning of each semester in the architectural history sequence I teach, students are reminded of the difference in meaning between “architectural history” and “the history of architecture”. One of them is the sequence of styles, along with names, dates, and locations; more or less objective stuff with little difference of opinion. The other is history, generally, seen through the lens of architecture. Option #2 is my preferred point of view — though you’ll have to inquire from students whether I’m achieving that worthy goal.

Over many years I’ve drawn a conclusion that I’m ill-equipped for my assigned job. My degrees were intended to bring me into the architectural profession; mine was a standard professional education for the 1960s and resulted in a BArch, a rare breed these days. Yet my principle task is exposing students to the history of the profession they hope to join, and the role that buildings have played as material culture in the course of history. It probably goes without saying that I have no academic preparation for that teaching assignment. I am, as they say, neither fish nor fowl and would not be considered in a faculty search today. And so it was with mixed feelings that I ordered a copy of the 2019 book The Architecture of Art History, the consequence of a 2015 conference session. Any discussion of the relationship between architectural and art history was bound to disconcert me.

Co-authors Mark Crinson and Richard J. Williams have done an admirable job discussing the evolution of this relationship — though I’m barely forty pages into it. Yet one of their examples confuses me. Allow me to quote from the first page of Chapter 2, “The Architectural Unconscious”. Referencing a 1985 book by Michael Braxandall, Patterns of Intention,

“…[T]here occurs a juxtaposition [of two images] which may be just a fortuitous result of the alchemy of book design. Knowing the author’s delight in such effects, however, it is almost certainly intentional. In one image, a photograph, we see the Forth Bridge from the height of one of its piers; its tubular steel columns and latticework seem both to recede sharply and be flattened by the symmetry of the image, only the cotton wool smoke of a train alerts us to the vertiginous plunge below. On the facing page, the painted women of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon stare fixedly back at us, not symmetrical quite, but spread across the image and mingled a coruscating surface of drapes and jagged planes.

The Forth Bridge is an engineering wonder of the late 19th century, a bridge spanning the Firth of Forth, a body of water in Scotland not far from Edinburgh. The Picasso you can probably imagine. At any rate the upthrust arms and elbows of the women are organized in variously sized triangles and rhomboids. [I’ll add the illustration as soon as soon as I can get to a scanner.] “Do the women bridge the distance? Does the bridge stare back at us?”

Yes, the counterpoint of these two images (both in black-and-white, by the way) is interesting and might be an argument for the link between these two historical fields: they are at once “both comparison and face-off, an assertion of similarity and a negation of it.” They reference a similar comparison/contrast in a book by Siegfried Giedion of another Picasso painting and a photograph of the corner of the Bauhaus building of 1925. The meaning of these two examples will, I’m sure, make sense in the fullness of time. But one thing concerns me.

The photograph (Figure 2.1) was taken by one of the authors. On the right is Picasso, reduced to black and white, perhaps to emphasize geometry over color; on the left, the Forth Bridge in Scotland. And their discussion contrasts daubs of paint on canvas with an assemblage of “of purposeful metal”, a comparison I find interesting and, perhaps, useful in my teaching. But there are two issues: First (leaving aside the rendering of the painting in B&W, their caption includes the name Picasso and the title and date of the work. The caption within the illustration—which appears in the Baxandall book—also credits the Museum of Modern Art, where the painting can be found. Presented to us is the flat black-and-white image of a flat colorful painting by a world-renowned artist. The authors’ caption also names the bridge, its engineer Benjamin Baker, and date of execution. The caption within the illustration, however, states “Forth Bridge, view S from top of N pier.”

What troubles me is simply this: The painting is a planar work of art defined spatially by its frame. And it is being compared to a planar photograph [uncredited here but perhaps elsewhere in the book] of a fragment of the Forth Bridge. We are shown a flat image of a flat painting in its entirety; whereas, it is paired with a flat image of a flat photograph strategically composed for optimum comparison with the painting. It is not the Baker bridge that is compared to Picasso’s vision, it is a two-dimensional shard of a three dimensional object that must be encountered through space, time, and circumstance. One is the full monty, while the other is a glimpse, a vignette. And that glimpse ought be considered as such and credited here with the photographer’s name whose vision has been useful in this context. We are not dealing with a comparison between art and architecture (or engineering). Rather, we are comparing one form of art (a painting) with another form of art (a photograph). I fail to understand their argument.

I shall discuss this with my shrink next Tuesday.


Commercial Vernacular

Broad Street and a short distance away, east and west, would have been Agincourt’s commercial core. Even today much of the community’s buying and selling would still be situated there, though with a smear across the northern city limits which became County Hi-way #7.

From the Square and the Commons, the two blocks north would probably be more “substantial”, i.e., two- and three-story brick fronts on twenty-five-foot lots. I’m guessing that two blocks south, toward the Milwaukee depot, might be a mix of smaller, less fashionable businesses, like shoe repair, and the occasional tavern. This image from the internet—too expensive for my budget but fair game to “borrow”—was too good to pass by: a two-story shop is unusual, in my experience, and of more than a little interest.

All that glass! I’ve rarely seen so much and such large panes. Handsome proportions, too. Someone exercised a lot of good judgment.

Mio Asahi [contemporary]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

ASAHI, Mio (contemporary; Japanese)

“A Friend Has Come From A Distant Place, I’m Very Happy” / 遠くから友達が来て、とても嬉しいです

etching and aquatint / 11 3/4 inches by 14 1/4 inches / ed 50


Asahi is represented by a gallery in Seattle, where her biography is short:

Mio Asahi’s etchings with aquatint bring to light a past beyond our imagination. Dragons, witches, demons, swirling clouds and metallic colors fill the etching plate, bringing the artist’s whimsical world into our own. Her muted palette with highlights of hand coloring create a look all her own.

The print is a gift to the collection in memory of Mary Grace Tabor Bernhard, founder in 1950 of Agincourt’s Montessori School.


“The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.”
James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

My life seems constructed from quotes by others. It’s not that I pattern myself after them; rather they seem to resonate with patterns already set in me. They come after the fact, not before, having articulated something I might have got around to. Nah, who am I kidding.

At the University of Delaware during the 1993-1994 academic year, I enrolled in a spring semester seminar titled “American History after 1850”. [Want to guess the seminar I took in the fall?] Dr Carol Hoffecker directed four of us, more or less independently, guiding the selection of a topic and reviewing progress at several intermediate points. Between terms I had asked that several files be shipped from home; two banker’s boxes of research on the Episcopal churches of Dakota Territory that I’d gathered during the previous twenty years — yes, twenty years; I have a long attention span.

What began as a more or less traditional architectural historical narrative had morphed into a collection of biographies (as I explained to Dr Hoffecker during our first meeting) of the various people associated with the design, construction, and use of the churches. I had grouped them into four categories linked with those roles: “Bishops and Pawns” treated clergy; “Sticks and Stones” told of architects and builders; and “xxx” grouped the many laypeople associated with parish life. Because the British had played such a disproportionate part in territorial affairs, there was a special section called “The Land and Its Gentry”. At some point during this introduction, Dr Hoffecker interrupted to tell me I was engaged in the historical method called “prosopography”.

Prosopography, “a study that identifies and relates a group of persons or characters within a particular historical or literary context”,  was by that time out of fashion among scholars. But the moment for me was special because she had given a name to something that simply seemed to proper way to proceed. I was doing something before it was a thing.

studies personality and how people change over time. His narrative approach to studying human lives places stories and storytelling at the center of human personality.

For more than two decades, McAdams and his students have been coding life-story interviews, looking for themes of one particular life story — redemption. Their published work shows that people who tell their life story in redemptive terms — such as overcoming suffering or adversity — enjoy better mental health and higher levels of happiness, compared to people whose life stories show fewer themes of redemption.

Moreover, researchers have found strong associations between redemptive life stories and an adult’s concern about the well-being of future generations, something that comes into sharper focus as people age.

“The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that’s all there is.”
Carson, the butler, “Downton Abbey”

“If we cannot tell a story about what happened to us, nothing has happened to us”
James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

Philip Greenwood [born 1943]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

GREENWOOD, Philip [born 1943]


etching and aquatint / 6 1/5 inches by 5 5/8 inches (image)

signed / #108 of 150


Welsh artist Phil Greenwood is now represented by an American gallery:

Phil Greenwood is a landscape artist who creates wonderful etching prints. Discover Phil Greenwood’s work online and in our Oxfordshire Art Gallery. Phil Greenwood was born in 1943 in Dolgellau, North Wales and now lives in Kent. Educated at Harrow and Hornsey Colleges of Art, Phil Greenwood went on to teach and lecture in printmaking for a short time and since 1971 has been a professional artist/printmaker. Since the early 1960s Phil Greenwood has exhibited extensively throughout this country and abroad. His work is in many private and public collections, including a vast number of museums, education authorities and universities, such as the Tate Gallery, Arts Council, British Council, Greenwich Museum, Edinburgh Education Authority, Liverpool University and Loughborough College of Education. Phil Greenwood works mainly on copper plates. His work is extremely economical in that he usually uses only two plates and two or three colours to achieve a great range of tone and colour by the depth of the etch and by overprinting and fusing one colour with another. His images do not always relate to a specific place – he develops and works with an amalgamation of ideas recalled. The atmosphere exemplified by the landscape is the important factor. Phil Greenwood’s work has been used by the National Trust as well as in books such as the Encyclopedia of Printing, Art of Drawing and Painting and articles and front cover illustrations for Leisure Painter. Unicef and H. Ling have used his work on greetings cards, Deutsche Grammophon on CDs and Sanyo featured his work on their 1995 company calendar.