Monday, March 4, 2013

Inventing Traditions in the Old and New Worlds

      Darkness Visible contains stories of new "traditions" invented by immigrants as part of their assimilation into American culture.  Two of these involve that most traditional holiday, Christmas. Eirwen and Gwyn Jones have to decide if they are going to get a Christmas tree, a German-American custom, for their children.  Karl Bernhard, who can't afford to buy a real tree, makes one out of a broomstick.  However, it's not only these little traditions that sometimes need to be invented or reinvented.  Colonized nations also need to redefine themselves as unique cultures by using a reconstructed or invented past.

      In 1999 at a banquet celebrating St. David's Day, I gave a talk on "The Invention of Welsh Tradition" to the Minnesota St. David's Society. A large part of my talk was derived from historian Prys Morgan's scholarly article, "From a Death to a View: The Hunt for the Welsh Past in the Romantic Period."  I thought Morgan's account of the search for a new Welsh identity in the late 18th and early 19th century fascinating. For example, I was greatly amused by the shenanigans of Iolo Morganwg (born Edward Williams) in promoting his fabrication that the triple harp is a Welsh invention and in forging fake bardic poetry and documents to show that Welsh Prince Madoc did indeed make it to the New World.
Iolo Morganwg, "Eddie of Glamorgan" 1747-1826

      Some of the attendees were upset by my talk.  How could I undermine all their cherished beliefs about the "Land of Song" (another Romantic invention that Morgan takes on in the article)?  It's probably a good thing that I didn't give a talk to a Scottish group based on Hugh Trevor-Roper's "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland," wherein he traces the development of the kilt and tartan "traditions." I might have been,  in "Monty Python" nomenclature,"slit up a treat."
An old postcard of the memorial to Prince Madoc in Mobile, AL, the site of his alleged arrival in North America.
       Recently I ran into some people from South Dakota who were completely committed to the belief that Prince Madoc came to America via Mobile and made his way up the Mississippi to come in contact with the Mandan tribe in South Dakota in 1171, scholarship to the contrary be damned.  I prudently was not drawn into a debate with them.  As T.S. Eliot famously wrote, "Humankind cannot bear too much reality."  But I am not surprised at the heated resistance encountered by historians and folklorists on this issue.  In response to the resistors, I point to the authority of Prys Morgan himself--author, retired history professor, president of the National Eisteddfod of Wales at Swansea, president of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, joint director of the Iolo Morganwg project at the Centre for Welsh and Celtic Studies, and a Founding Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales.  You can't get more Welsh than that.
     Inventing traditions has been only part of the reconstruction of a national identity in the former colonies of England in the British Isles, namely Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.  Twentieth-century Welsh nationalists successfully saved ir hen iaith (the old language), Welsh, from being obliterated by English, and have secured its place as a living modern language.
       At the turn of the last century, Irish nationalists took on the even bigger task of developing a modern Ireland through its literature.  Declan Kiberd, in his 1996 work, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, "offers a vivid account of the personalities and texts, English and Irish alike, that reinvented the country after centuries of colonialism. The result is a major literary history of modern Ireland, combining detailed and daring interpretations of literary masterpieces with assessments of the wider role of language, sport, clothing, politics, and philosophy in the Irish revival" (Goodreads).
Prince Madoc saw flying saucers in South Dakota! (Just kidding)

      But there's also a disturbing aspect to these "inventions." From Queen Elizabeth I, who used the Madoc story to undermine Spain's claims in the New World, through the 19th Century, the British had a vested interest in the legend, which first appeared in a 15th-century poem.  It's unfortunate that the true believers of these "histories" often unintentionally treat other cultures as the colonial powers treated the native peoples they colonized--as inferiors.  An internet search of sites about the Madoc legend revealed that a number of them, including the BBC site, hail Madoc as the "discoverer of America." Ask the original native peoples what they think about that claim.  It suggests that anything deemed worthwhile by European culture, from prehistoric stone forts in Alabama to the Mandans' use of boats resembling the coracle. were invented by people from the Old World.  In the 18th century early British explorers spread the story that the languages of the indigenous peoples of America are related to Welsh, the legacy of Prince Madoc.  According to the invaders, American Indians apparently have little they can call their own.
      But the adherents to the Madoc story can provide no documented proof for their claims, except perhaps the forgeries of Iolo Morganwg. I accept the consensus view of scholars like Early American historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who contend that the Madoc legend is just that--a story that got traction after being used for centuries by various persons and groups (an English monarch, Welsh nationalists, British explorers, Welsh enthusiasts in the US) to further their agendas.

A verifiable, real "Prince Madoc", a research vessel of the University of Wales, Bangor, shown here in Belfast Lough.
       But I am not saying that these inventions are somehow bad or disreputable.  In fact, they have been an important part of the birth of the modern post-colonial nations of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Perhaps the biggest irony is that Iolo Morganwg used the Madoc legend to rebuild a national identity of Wales separate from that of the power that colonized Wales, England. It's a common misconception that myths are untruths, while actually they are potent metaphorical expressions of cultural identity.  As the Merriam-Webster online dictionary puts it, myths are stories of  "ostensibly historical events that serve to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice." 
      My family has constructed several Welsh" traditions" that have no connection with the practices of my Welsh ancestors--the making of Welsh cakes for St. David's Day, for example.  I have also adopted other traditions from countries with which I have no ancestral connections, like the serving of Icelandic skyr around the Christmas holidays.  These traditions, whether old or new, familial or adopted, are what gives my family a sense of who we are and where we came from, that is, our identity as Americans.
      New Americans like Eirwen and Gwyn often have a difficult time deciding which is the more important part of their identity--the Old World or the New.  My Grandfather Katilius, an immigrant from Lithuania, wanted his children to learn the Lithuanian language, but my grandmother, who emigrated to America as a young child, was of a different mind.  She wanted her children to speak English only; she wanted them to be instantly identifiable as Americans. Soviet Russia intervened as well to block communication between my grandfather and his relatives back in the Old Country.  My grandmother's wish was granted.  If an American said to my mother, "I'm German," or "I'm Slovak," (meaning their ethnicity) my mother would proudly reply, "I'm an American."
      If you want to believe that Prince Madoc made it to South Dakota or that the Vikings erected a runestone in Kensington, Minnesota, go right ahead.  Drink green beer on St. Patrick's Day, do the Highland fling in a kilt.  Just don't try to convince me that these are derived from historical fact.  If you want to believe, just do it.
          King, beggar and fool, I have been all by turns,
          Knowing the body’s sweetness, the mind’s treason;
          Taliesin still, I show you a new world, risen,
          Stubborn with beauty, out of the heart’s need.

                                                                    --R.S. Thomas "Taliesin 1952"

The Church of St Hywyn. Aberdaron (built 1137). where R.S. Thomas served as vicar.