In between personal, familial and financial failures, Mark Twain took time to see the world and insult the peoples, locales, and histories of the places he visited. It is in this tradition of being annoyingly unsatisfied and too smart for our own good that we present "Not So Innocent Abroad:" a deplorable, ethnocentric, at times hilarious, and always historically unreliable dump on every place we have ever visited.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

When History Both Sucks and Blows (and falls over)

Henry Clay's Ashland (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), Lexington, Kentucky, USA:

So when you’re a professional historian, historical sites become simultaneously both more exciting and more annoying. Exciting because you know what happened at the place and why it was significant—who did what, to whom, how, and when—but nobody else, including the docent, has any damn idea. Or, even when the docent seems to know what they’re talking about, the tour is geared toward the brain-dead drones that seem to follow me to historic sights—it’s a real problem, I’m thinking of writing my congressman (except that she’s a brain-dead drone par excellence).

On a research trip that had me driving from Harrogate, Tennessee, which is on the western end of the Cumberland Gap and right over the border from Kentucky—literally you drive across the border in you’re in downtown Harrogate with it’s oddly placed, Colonel Sanders funded, Lincoln Memorial University and local Shoney’s. Anyway, I was on my way to Louisville and had plenty of time to stop off in Lexington to visit Henry Clay’s house, Ashland. Clay (1777-1852) is a very fascinating American figure, oddly lionized for his curious ability to make deadly antagonists, one of whom was mostly right and the other entirely wrong, meet in the middle. Didn’t the middle between wrong and mostly right used to be called still wrong? Anyway, I wanted to check the place out. So I get there a little early (it opens at 10AM and costs only $9 for adults) and stroll around the grounds which includes the Clay family gardens, the stable, and, my personal favorite, the Clay family outhouse.

The Lincoln Memorial Museum and Library in Harrogate, Tennessee. This building was made possible by Colonel Sanders--chicken money, it's a powerful wondrous thing.

Henry Clay may have dropped a deuce here.

Henry Clay's Ashland.

Clay's Column.

The sarcophagus of Henry Clay. When the zombie apocalypse begins, the Henry Clay zombie should be fairly well preserved.

The disabled stone monument.

I meander further afield and find a large stone tablet lying flat on the ground commemorating a small Civil War skirmish that occurred on the grounds and won by the Confederates. The monument clearly looks broken, unless some avant-garde jerkface decided the newest thing in commemorative stone slabs was to just toss them on the ground and break them—a possibility I had to take seriously.

When the house opened up I strolled in and met the docent whose name I no longer remember—which works out well for her—and she was very personable and let me know when the tours started. I slid into the gift shop to begin plotting my souvenir purchases for after the tour. That taken care of, me and the BDDs (brain-dead drones) shuffled into the video room where we get to find out that Clay never actually lived in this house because the original Ashland had to be rebuilt—it seems old Harry, frontier Kentuckian that he was, used inferior materials that began to really decay in the decades after his death. Of course they tell you this after you pay the $9! Anyway, the tour begins and, I must say, a more inept docent’s tour I have never seen. The woman was a born mute—or at least she should have been for all the use she made of her speech faculty. Not only that, every attempt at explaining Clay’s politics was a rehashed cliché, poorly explained. “Clay cared about Latin America......a lot,” “Clay worked to save the Union......again,” “Clay was a nice man,” “Mrs. Clay didn’t like Henry’s gambling, fortunately he usually won [waits for laughter, a smattering arrives]," "Clay was a Freemason......” This litany cannot be fully explained without impersonation to affect all of the stammering and uncertainty. I spent much of the time praying for it to end. One really interesting thing, Sandra Day O’Connor, admiring Clay the lawyer, got the Smithsonian to lend Henry Clay’s legal briefcase to Ashland which you get to look at on the tour.

Finally, the giftshop! Not only did I add to my ever-growing collection of busts of historical figures I have comparatively few problems with—with a fine looking Henry Clay—but I fell in LOVE. The woman working the register in the shop was gorgeous, and had the prettiest Kentucky accented voice. Plus, sexiest of all sexy qualities, she worked in the field! I was mildly hoping that my credit card would get declined—and when you’re a graduate student this is always a distinct possibility—and I’d have an excuse to stay longer, but alas! it was not to be. As it was, I didn’t have any really good opening moves except: “Hello, I’m a traveling graduate student on my way to Louisville, what do you say you blow this popsicle stand and get a motel room with me, baby?” As well as that approach has always worked for me in the past, I just did not have the time. Or so I thought.

As it turned out, my expected short stop at the Lexington Cemetery to see Clay’s giant column-topped tomb ended up taking an hour as I searched a very small cemetery backwards and forwards for its biggest tomb that one can easily see from the road. How did this occur? I still am not completely sure. My best theory is that the Lexington Cemetery is actually a series of cleverly disguised wormholes designed to never let you leave. Only a crafty Kentucky woodsman could ever navigate it easily and successfully. When I finally did find the tomb, it was quite nice, built by the mob of 100,000 Kentuckians that came out to see The Great Compromiser buried.

So I feel like I’ve forgotten something. Oh YES! The stone slab monument. It turns out local Kentucky rapscallions knocked it over—the docent speculated that it was Civil War related vandalism. That’s right; in Kentucky, a state that never seceded from the Union, youths go around seeking out neutral monuments to Confederate victories on the grounds of historic sites devoted to figures who died nine years before the war began. And to think, that beautiful lovely sounding goddess in the giftshop works and lives amongst such anthropomorphous specimens.

If you want a relatively inexpensive trip through a Victorian style house that is built on the site of Henry Clay's old Ashland with Clay relics strewn throughout, Ashland might be for you. There are other docents, so you might have a good tour and the adjoining lands are quite lovely and open to walking around. Just stay away from the fox in the gift shop, she's mine!

From the travels of Alexander Marriott, July, 2009, for some informative literature about Clay and the non-sense of the South, you might find these books valuable:

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