Last Saturday afternoon, a few dozen people were crowded into the front parlor at the antebellum Mabry-Hazen House on Dandridge Avenue. That fact in itself was remarkable. The parlor, stocked with delicate-looking porcelain, rare old books, and obscure tintypes of people who died over a century ago, is always off limits to visitors. It’s there just to look at across a Plexiglas barrier. Online, there are dozens of pictures of the rooms at Mabry-Hazen, but they’re all views from the corridor.
But Saturday that barrier wasn’t even there, and all these folks were standing right in the room itself, like the Mabrys did when they had another unexpected funeral there, as a shaven-headed newcomer demanded that visitors come into the parlor and sit on the ancient furniture, drink from the ancient tea set, pick up those ancient books and thumb through them.
The man giving the orders is Franklin Vagnone. He advertises himself as an anarchist.
Among historic homes, the Mabry-Hazen House has always stood out.
It’s not just that the family was prominent. Businessman Joe Mabry would be well-known to regional historians even if he weren’t the person most responsible for establishing, in 1853, Market Square, which is in 2014 our most popular and exciting public space. He did that just before he built his elaborate and distinctive home on this east-side hilltop. Considering that “General” Mabry looms so large in Knoxville history, it seems almost like a gothic novelist’s flourish that he and two of his grown sons were killed in Gay Street gunfights. The shot that felled General Mabry in 1882 was likely audible from this house. Caskets of the slain Mabrys once rested in the front parlor.
The house remained gothically dramatic into the middle part of the 20th century. Joe Mabry’s granddaughter, “Miss Evelyn” Hazen, was involved in producing the Harbrace Handbook, a strict grammatical guide used by college freshmen nationwide–which belies the fact that she was central to the most explicitly lurid sex scandal in Knoxville in the 20th century. Then she lived here mostly alone, like Dickens’ Miss Havisham, but perhaps with more animals, breeding rumors that are hard to sort apart today. If the Mabry story were a mass-market pulp novel, there are editors who would suggest toning it down a little.
The house is well-run by a foundation appreciative of its story. Its docents tell it well, the parts that kids might overhear, anyway, and allow visitors access to the rest, by way of a book about Miss Evelyn’s specific legal complaints about the sexual desires of one reckless young man.
Last Saturday the house became the first local test case for a brash new approach to historic houses. For decades since its opening, the Mabry-Hazen house has been accessible to the public mainly by its corridors. You can step into each room only a couple of feet, and view the original antebellum furniture, the gorgeous marble fireplaces, the family silver and porcelain tea services, the mid-19th-century books, the puzzling tintypes. But you can’t touch any of it.
“Come in!” the shaven-headed Yankee demanded. “Sit on the chairs!” For an anarchist, he’s on the bossy side.
He’s kind of a famous one, though, author of The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. It has infuriated the curators of historic homes from coast to coast.
Vagnone was invited by Knox Heritage, and among historic-home sorts, it was a big deal. Several custodians of local history were in attendance. Among the guests was Dan Brown, an officer with the Tennessee Historical Commission, who drove over from Nashville just to witness this spectacle. Calvin Chappelle, executive director of the Mabry Hazen House, was an awfully good sport about the whole thing.
He was sometimes abrasive, and the presentation he gave just before that exercise seemed to suggest some telltale manifestations of attention-deficit disorder, but Vagnone gives our old history cages a hearty rattle, with his essential question, “Why do historic sites suck so much?” He cited an alarming-sounding decline in visitation to arts and cultural institutions, 23 percent between 1992 and 2008, and it doesn’t help that there are more of them than ever.
He brings up some fresh and maybe essential ideas. Some of us enjoy museum houses as they are, enjoying their perhaps idealistic stories, respecting their careful distance, but many, perhaps most, don’t have the patience to stare at a rocking chair or a corner cabinet full of silver.
Vagnone’s lesson of what he calls “twisted preservation” is an important corrective. There’s perhaps not a very good reason not to touch, say, a marble mantelpiece or an 1850s book of poetry, provided you don’t have motor oil on your fingers. And there’s no excuse whatsoever, he says, for no-photography rules. Photographs of nearly everything are so universally available online, he says, as to make copyright infringement meaningless, and modern flashes don’t bother anything. It’s a good point.
He also criticized houses that idealize or sanitize their subject. He contrasted Jefferson’s Monticello, as restored, with some contemporary visitors’ accounts of it as a sometimes shabby place, in Jefferson’s time, with stuffing oozing out of the chairs and leaks in the roofs. Vagnone supposes that was the true and consistent look of Monticello. Obviously, though, if the roof was always leaking, Monticello’s famous dome wouldn’t have survived. All our ceilings spring leaks now and then, and we get them fixed.
Even if Monticello were a hellish pigsty, you could argue that it might be appropriate to present it as an Apollonian ideal, especially considering Jefferson’s own idealism, which was once important to the founding of a nation.
By abolishing the Monticello approach to history, though, Vagnone’s advice might result in narrowing and limiting the available experience, and, paradoxically, foretell a new kind of historical homogenization, which may be underway already.
Vagnone emphasizes the importance of giving the visitors a glimpse of historical figures’ personal lives, their elemental biological functions, and specifically their sex lives. He outlined the “Corset shows” at one of New York’s oldest homes, the Morris-Jumel mansion, which is older than anything in East Tennessee except for the Indian mounds. The rare colonial landmark that once served as a headquarters to George Washington is now a venue for risqué romps, a sort of avant-garde vaudeville dance celebrating the several lovers of Aaron Burr.
It’s true that for centuries, even published biographies never remarked on any subject’s sex life. Maybe puritanical squeamishness was part of it, but also part of it was a plausible belief that whom the subject had sexual intercourse with, and how often, was not necessarily every random reader’s business, and moreover not necessarily a major factor in the subject’s contribution to society. For the last 40-odd years, it’s been very different, even to the degree that a certain dwelling on the subject’s sex life, even speculatively, is almost required. If a writer goes to the trouble of writing a biography in the 21st century, chances are the sex part is pretty juicy.
The new movie about Stephen Hawking is–a surprise to some theoretical physicists who know his work–a love story, with little about his ideas. And I suspect people who never did have sex lives to speak of, like George Bernard Shaw–a great, important, and often very funny essayist, novelist, and playwright, in spite of the lack of evidence he ever actually had sexual intercourse–may never be the subject of a movie.
The term “Disneyfication,” which came up in the discussion of pristine house museums, provides some irony. About 20 years ago, Walt Disney Studios started ladeling some proto-Vagnone-ish elements into their cartoons for children, especially in the seemingly limited realm of fart jokes. Are there Disney movies today that don’t seem to gratuitously break the rules of Disney movies 50 years ago? Today it’s required, so much part of the formula that parents who once relished fart jokes can find them tiresome.
Even Disney’s no longer Disneyfied. Maybe nothing is.
Throughout culture, especially in movies about deep history, the stench and slop of life is emphasized beyond the inspiration that was the reason the stories were originally told. It’s the way we’ve been telling stories for the last generation or two.
Listening to his talk, I thought of the contrast between Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, from 1938, and the Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, from 1991.
I liked both movies. The Kevin Costner version had one thing right. Robin Hood, if he existed at all, likely didn’t wear tights, and probably didn’t deliver clever quips at nearly the sparkling rapid-fire rate Errol Flynn did.
After I saw the Costner version, I said, “Ooh, the cinematography. That sure was realistic, and sometimes gross. What’s for supper?”
But the Errol Flynn version, which I’ve seen a dozen times, still makes me want to go out and run around in the woods, to learn to use a bow and a rapier, to say clever things under stress, to challenge the ensconced powers that be, to leap and laugh at fate.
Both good movies, but that’s the one I’d regret never seeing again.
If you’ll allow a digression from a digression, Flynn’s version actually seems more inspired by Shakespeare–not just the tights, a Shakespearean convention since the 19th century–but also in terms of its dialogue, very obviously written and rehearsed, and not in any way realistic, or typical of its time. But still, in its own way, effective.
Nobody accused Shakespeare of realism. As a general rule, people don’t speak in iambic pentameter. Even in his plays based on historical characters and events, it’s hard to tell that realism was ever his goal.
I like the idea of making historical houses more accessible. Historic houses should be centers of community engagement, when possible. They should be interactive, they should be socially relevant. Kids should be able to touch more than they’re allowed to. Certainly these rooms were never so precious when people lived here, and there’s nothing authentic about velvet ropes or Plexiglas.
But if we Vagnonify everything, including the stories, is it possible they’ll be just as predictable as everything he denounces?
The ethic has already been slipping in around the edges, even here in Knoxville, sometimes in very healthy ways. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed moonshine garden parties at Blount Mansion, and vintage baseball in the big field behind Ramsey House (with many fans arriving by way of our only passenger train!). Those were unquestionable successes, and made the history sing.
Others I’m not as sure about. Vagnone prioritizes “conjecture, gossip, and rumor” in the service of telling a compelling story. A few years ago, I took a tour with my daughter, with a docent who didn’t know I sometimes wrote about local history. She was talking about the founding of our state in 1796, specifically the constitutional convention held in downtown Knoxville. She didn’t say anything about what made the constitution remarkable, though there are several remarkable things you could say about the first Tennessee constitution, like the fact that it demanded that no foreign government ever control the Mississippi River—a bold statement, when Spain and France controlled Louisiana–and that it allowed free black men the right to vote. But what she told us was how the men who signed the first constitution in 1796 must have stunk to high heaven, because they were wearing wigs and waistcoats, and Tennessee became a state on June 1, when it’s always hot here, and they were surely sweaty and stinky. She thought that was pretty funny, and was pretty sure we would, too. But making the signers stinky because it’s hot requires a little finesse. Congress approved Tennessee’s constitution on June 1, but the local event, the drafting and signing of the constitution, took place in the dead of winter. They signed it in downtown Knoxville on February 6.
It’s a date now forgotten, but, for Tennessee’s first 50 years or so, February 6 was celebrated as the state’s birthdate.
I didn’t correct her. Making things hot and stinky seemed important to her, and maybe to the rumor-and-conjecture approach to history. There was plenty of soap sold on Gay Street in those days, as well as perfumes for both men and women. Maybe our founding fathers stank in spite of it all, even in the winter, and maybe the fact they stank makes the constitutional convention more interesting to schoolchildren. Will they remember anything else about it?
Part of what Vagnone is recommending for museum houses is part of a trend that’s been making its way into most other parts of mainstream culture for more than a quarter century. He is, in essence, demanding that museum conform to the current popular preoccupations with the grunting and grinding of our mortal lives. And maybe historic houses do need to do that to survive. If we don’t let people walk on the oriental rug, or take a selfie in front of the antebellum silver, or sit on the notorious old sofa, in this era of declining museum-house visits, they might all fall apart anyway, because nobody will want to help pay for keeping them up. And some variety’s bound to be healthy.
It was, at least, an interesting afternoon.