Sarah Josepha Hale, editress of Godey's Lady's Book, dedicated years of her life to the crusade to make Thanksgiving a national holiday - she was successful. And yet, Reverend Alexander Young wrote one footnote about Thanksgiving, and he may have inadvertently done more to change the history of the holiday (and the history of the Pilgrims). This is the story of the "First" Thanksgiving.
The Witchfinder General of Salem, Eric Dwinnells leads us on a Halloween journey to the heart of Salem, Massachusetts. Find it questionable that the Salem Witch Trials and The Crucible would be covered in a Halloween episode at all? That friction - the friction that defines Salem - is precisely the thing that this episode is about.
Can a witch hunt narrative be effective if it includes actual witches? In part one of a two part series on Salem and its Witch Trials, Iconography uses Hocus Pocus, Scooby Doo, and The Blair Witch Project to see how the bad witch stands in for the unknowable wilderness; then Sabrina, Bewitched, I Married a Witch, and Bell, Book, and Candle tell the story of how the witch was domesticated.
As an icon, Squanto is known, but he isn’t really known. What Santa is to Christmas and the Easter Bunny is to Easter, Squanto is to Thanksgiving. He is a sense memory from childhood. He’s more than a man, or really much less than a man, now. He is a symbol.
There he is smudged into the paint of the handprint turkey you made in kindergarten.
You don’t need to go visit Squanto – have kids and at some point when they’re in elementary school, he’ll come to you in the form of Timmy with the gap in his front teeth dressed in a fringe vest and a feather headband.
We’re going to spend the next few episodes of the podcast in Plymouth, thinking about the icons the Pilgrims have left behind leading up to their ultimate legacy, Thanksgiving and those handprint turkeys. As a first step, let’s exhume Squanto from the smudged paint, and restore to him not just some dignity but some agency.
Welcome back Iconographers. Let’s begin in the mid-90s. I guess I should be specific, this is that kind of podcast. The 1990s.
Film critic Roger Ebert is at the movies, as he so often was, ready to review the latest Disney movie, a tale of two worlds meeting for the first time, the old world and the new world. The ships arrive on the horizon, the tribe moves briskly through the forest, equal parts determined and baffled; eventually there’s a stand-off between English settlers and the native population, and at the most dramatic moment, a plea for peace and understanding.
Ebert pans the film, gives it one and a half stars out of four, scoffs about a “highly imaginary version of the first contacts between Native Americans and early settlers from England” that “runs everything through the mill of Political Correctness, so that we get a character who says, "If we want to understand them, then we should learn all we can about their culture."
Ebert’s all like um I’m pretty sure the English were “interested mostly in establishing their own culture, were intolerant of disagreement, and did not think the Indians had a culture. But this is one of those historical movies in which everything is seen in hindsight… the kind of superficial, tidied-up, idealized history that might appeal to younger viewers. No thoughtful person will be able to take it seriously.”
But wait. This isn’t what you think it is. It’s not 1995, and Roger Ebert isn’t watching Pocahontas. This is 1994, and Ebert is reviewing the live action film Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale, starring Adam Beach, Mandy Patinkin, and Irene Bedard, who, yes, also provided the speaking voice of Pocahontas one year later.
Sorry, I don’t mean to play mind games. I point out the similarities between these two Native American-fronted Disney movies that were in production at the same time to drive home a point – that there was a movement afoot 25 years ago, an effort to bring the stories of famous Native characters to the fore, to give them the hallowed status of protagonist, and to grant them something that seems so simple but is so hard to obtain in art and in life if you’re not white, male, cisgendered: Agency.
We’ll talk a lot about agency this episode – about having the ability to make one’s own choices, and about having that ability taken away –but for no suffice it to say that while putting a Native character in the starring role of a big budget family film may give the illusion of agency, he (Squanto clip) or she (Pocahontas clip) is still playing a minor supporting role in a much longer narrative that goes back centuries, and within that narrative he or she is unable to make choices that violate the rules of that world.
If you’ve ever shuddered at the Disney Pocahontas character’s intrinsic ability to translate languages because she can listen to the colors of the wind, this bit from Entertainment Weekly’s 1994 review of Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale is going to be a trigger.
“Surprisingly, Squanto perpetuates some of the stereotypes it’s trying to squash. The main character pacifies a wild bear by quietly singing to him, and jumps with his horses from the land onto a moving ship — hmm, must be that mystical Indian magic at work.”
Yes he’s thrown in a bear pit and he lullabies his way out of it. Our hero is put through hell by his white captors – called inhuman, put on display by virulent racist buffoons, doomed to never see anyone he loves again. It would be enough to break just about anyone; it does break his fellow captive Epanow, who burns a ship full of helpful Englishman while they sleep as retribution. But Squanto sees just enough goodness in his time in England, comes across the exact amount of white characters who make you think “Oh, not all white people are virulent racist buffoons,” to have it make sense for him to step into the middle of a standoff between the two worlds he now belongs to – the Old World and the New – and call for peace between the Pilgrims and the native Wampanoag people.
(clip, Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale) Now kill me. Kill me! And you’ll kill them and they’ll kill you. And more of us will die. And we will kill eachother til there’s nothing left, nothing but ashes and bones. We must end this, here, now.
It’s a speech that reaches out across the ages – a plea for cooperation in 1620, and, for the audience in 1994, a mourning all the cooperation that hasn’t happened. It’s also the only climactic speech that Squanto or Pocahontas as written by Hollywood screenwriters could ever deliver.
(clip, Pocahontas) If you kill him, you’ll have to kill me too. Look around you, this is where the path of hatred has brought us.
The cards were stacked against them from the beginning. No matter the journey they take, they have the same amount of agency as the gay best friend in a 90s rom com; their function is to tell the kind white people: “Oh sweetie, I understand you. You’re worth it, someday everyone will see that.”
This is Iconography, and I’m Charles Gustine your guide on this tour of icons real and imagined. This episode, I’d like to pick our tour of the ideas that have defined New England right back up where we left it at the end of our episode on John Smith.
It’s 1614, six years before the Mayflower sails into Plymouth Bay. Captain John Smith has already headed back to England from his glorious summer of mapmaking, and he’s left behind his second-in-command to finish the unfinished business.
PAULA PETERS: But when John Smith LEFT, he had instructed Captain Thomas Hunt to make just one more stop in the region that they called Plymouth already, but it was the village of Patuxet, and he was supposed to just do some trading, maybe get some beaver pelts before they headed home, but instead he took 20 men. And one can imagine how that might have happened, he probably lured them aboard his ship in a ruse to trade, and then they were captured.
I’m in Mashpee, the headquarters of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, speaking to the researcher and designer behind the exhibit that’s officially kicked off the massive quadricentennial commemoration of 1620.
PAULA PETERS: Natasui Sonk Waban. My name is Sonk Waban, that’s my traditional name. I am Paula Peters. I am Mashpee Wampanoag and I am one of the developers of this exhibit, the “Our” Story exhibit which is sponsored by Plymouth 400 to tell the Wampanoag story of colonization.
Like me, Plymouth 400 is not content as an organization to start the remembrance of the Mayflower’s arrival in 1620 with the Mayflower arriving. Instead, the observance of this monumental moment in American history commenced in 2014 with “Our” Story – the Our is in quotes – a multi-year, travelling exhibition which began by looking at 1614 and adds a new piece every year, and will continue to do so as we march our way to 2020.
PAULA PETERS: The mission of this exhibit really is to get people to consider the backstory to the Mayflower’s arrival. That there were so many encounters that occurred prior to the Mayflower coming that really did a lot to shape the way that the colony would be established and grow into the future. And people don’t get an opportunity to learn about those things even though they are well documented in the journals and the diaries, the writings of the European traders and explorers that came here, they’ve been more or less overlooked in favor of a prettier story.
This episode’s icon, Squanto, is perhaps the most prominent victim of this kind of over-simplifaction. Here’s a snippet from one of Paula Peter’s’s articles on the Plymouth 400 website setting the stage for the first “Our” Story exhibit piece, which is titled Captured: 1614.
The story of Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, who remarkably welcomed the Pilgrims in their own language is often re-told. It begins in the spring of 1621 almost as if the “friendly Indian” dropped out of the sky to become an invaluable emissary between the settlers and the Wampanoag. The lesser known albeit well documented truths are:
That Squanto was among 20 men taken from Patuxet in 1614.
That another seven men were taken from Nauset.
That Squanto was the only one known to return.
Practically nothing about Squanto’s life before his abduction is known. That’s because what we know about people from the 17th century comes from records – letters, censuses, diaries, books, maps. Squanto’s tribe didn’t have any of these things because they didn’t have a written language – there wouldn’t be a Wampanoag written language until the 1660s, when a white settler produced a Wampanoag translation of the Bible.
The Wampanoag culture was an oral one. They passed down their stories from generation to generation through spoken language. This had been working just fine for centuries, but the one thing an oral tradition can’t contend with is the decimation of continuity that comes with disease and war. A story needs storytellers.
And so instead we are left to pore over a map. 1605, a French explorer Samueal de Champlain navigates the coast of what John Smith will soon call New England. He’s inadvertently held up in what will become Plymouth Bay.
“The wind being contrary, we entered a little bay to await a time favourable for proceeding. There came to us two or three canoes, which had just been fishing for cod and other fish, which are found there in large numbers. Some of them came to us and begged us to go to their river.”
Champlain does a little exploration of the bay fifteen years before it becomes an English colony, and he draws a map.
He doesn’t just draw the land like John Smith would. His is a little picture of life on a summer day in Patuxet in 1605. Here’s a wetu a dome-like longhouse with smoke billowing through a hole in the top. Eight of these wetuash dot the landscape, each is surrounded by an ample patch of maize. Men with spears crowd the shore looking towards the sailing vessel, and a canoe plies the water.
Somewhere in there is young Squanto, probably in his early to mid-20s. He likely lives in his mother’s wetu – this is a matrilineal culture - with her extended family, all these families together within the massive round sanctuary created by saplings and cattail mats.
In the winter, once the crops are harvested they’ll abandon this village and head a few miles inland, build wetuash from the bark of trees so large and so old we just couldn’t fathom them today – had Champlain stopped by a few months later, he would’ve seen nothing but an abandoned bay, which, of course, would have been bustling again by the spring.
But by 1619, when Squanto returned from five involuntary years spent overseas, this would all be gone. Not because his people were five miles inland for the winter. But because his people had been beset by plague in his absence, and had died or scattered to the wind. Patuxet was no more.
Part 1: Taking
The kidnapping of natives did not start with Squanto in 1614.
Matter of fact, at pretty much the same time that Thomas Hunt was tricking Squanto and his fellow Patuxet’s into boarding a ship they wouldn’t be permitted to leave until it reached Europe, another English ship backed by the same financier was approaching Massachusetts with a native captive aboard. Epanow was a Nauset who had formulated a pretty ingenious escape plan during his years in England, an escape plan he was about to put into action. We’re going to follow him for a bit to help us understand the rationale behind and the ramifications of native kidnapping. He’s a really important part of Squanto’s story, both as a character who’ll have a big part to play down the line, and as a thematic foil to the cuddly corn-planting version of Squanto; it’s probably why the screenwriters behind Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale fudged the details and put Epanow on the same 1614 ship to England as Squanto, intertwining their journeys.
(clip, Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale)
Paula talks me through the Epanow panel in the “Our Story” exhibition that straightens the timeline out.
PAULA PETERS: He was taken in 1611 and brought to Sir Ferdinand Gorges who was a wealthy financier who never actually came to this country, but had this weird fascination with Indian men, I don’t know what that was all about, I’m gonna leave that to your imagination.
A man like Ferdinando Gorges – and there were many men like him with deep pockets and shallow scruples – had no shortage of excuses he could use to justify his kidnapping strategy.
PAULA PETERS: One was to rescue these people from the wilderness, which if you take a careful look at how the indigenous people of this nation lived, they were not in wilderness. They were many many very sophisticated in their own way tribes. The other reason was to convert them to Christianity. And that wasn’t really necessary either because indigenous people have their own spirituality which is still practiced to this day.
I want you to, if you have the fingers available, Google the original seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which dates to 1629. What you’re looking at is a nude native man, his junk covered by a conveniently placed bush, arms wide, arrow down in a sign OF fealty, with a word bubble coming from his mouth saying “Come over and help us…” I’m not making this up, it literally says “Come over and help us.”
This wasn’t really Gorges’s or Thomas Hunt’s style though – they were businessmen not missionaries, so what was in it for them?
PAULA PETERS: Another reason was to bring them back and learn native customs and language from them so that when the sailors went back they would be able to negotiate and talk to them. Another reason was to display them as curiosities. In London it was common for you to see a native man just brought to functions or parties as a curiosity.
I was curious about this “curiosity” phase that comes up in both the Epanow and Squanto stories – it’s always mentioned that they were shown around as curiosities, but it’s never clear what that entailed.
PAULA PETERS: I guess that leaves a lot to the imagination unless of course you read Shakespeare, and Shakespeare who was a really good friend of Gorges, wrote in was it Henry VIII, and you’ll have to double check that for me but I’m pretty sure that was the one… he wrote about an Indian, a strange Indian I believe he’s called in the play and he has a great tool that fascinated the ladies. I’m just gonna leave that there…
The last and most horrific reason was to sell them into the slave trade, which was really a challenge and that would be less of a reason as time went on – there was actually a ban on brining native slaves to the West Indies later on in the 17th century in like 1665 I believe or 1670. They banned entirely bringing any native slaves down there because the native slaves were convincing the African American slaves to rebel against their captors.
Epanow was never sold into slavery, but you can tell from the Gorges quote that’s displayed in the “Our” Story exhibit that Epanow is precisely the sort of dude that would have absolutely led a slave insurrection had he been given the chance.
PAULA PETERS: “He was a goodly man of a brave aspect, stout, sober in his demeanor.” So I mean you can actually interpret a lot into that. Sober in his demeanor probably means he was just bullshit at being kidnapped and taken against his will. He was definitely not happy about it, so he spent from 1611 to 1614 primarily living with Gorges and while he was there, was able to determine what it was that they valued and they valued gold so he tricked them into believing that there was gold on Nope which is the Wampanoag word for Martha’s Vineyard, so he took them, he convinced them to let him go back there, gets to Nope on the ship that Gorges provided and his people come out of course to see this ship.
They’re probably fearful and curious about what’s going on there, and they’re probably really delighted that there’s someone like Epanow who’s calling out from the ship. And he then is, ironically, he’s able to use his language as a code, because they don’t understand what he’s talking, but he can talk to the men who’ve come to the ship and he tell them in his own language that “listen I’m captured by them, I’m gonna try to escape, let’s hatch a plan.” They hatch a plan, and they come back the next day, and the next day they are able to provide cover for him as he jumps from the ship and they fire a volley of arrows at the ship and there’s somewhat of a battle that takes place, some lives are lost on either side, but Epanow escapes and he’s delivered back to his people on Nope island, and he ultimately becomes a Sachem.
And as a sachem, as the chosen leader of his tribe on Martha’s Vineyard, Epanow becomes a sizable thorn in European explorers’ and settlers’ sides for years to come. This happened over and over again – natives recruited by force into being interpreters end up turning on their captors once they’re back in America, pretending to say one thing and actually saying “kill these fools” - and it’s both gratifying to see Gorges repeatedly fail because he never learns his lesson, but also haunting, because every time he doesn’t learn his lesson, it means another family torn apart.
(clip from “Our” Story exhibit)
These clips that play at the “Our” Story exhibition, of Wampanoag actors portraying their ancestors, give a sense of the world-shattering rift that might come with a Ferdinando Gorges-sponsored expedition stopping by your village.
(clip from “Our” Story exhibit)
But just a sense because we don’t actually have journals and books from the Wampanoags of 17th century Massachusetts who didn’t have a written language, and the Europeans who were visiting them with increasing frequency and putting pen to paper did not have a vested interest in recording the natives’ treasured oral histories or their perspectives.
PAULA PETERS: The colonials were there to interpret their story. That’s why this exhibit the overall name of it is “Our” Story. And the colonials, they’re not going to highlight those parts of the story that are clearly devastating to the Wampanoag nation.
We know absurdly little about Squanto before he was captured, and we don’t know much more about him after he was captured either. We don’t know how Squanto felt, for instance, when, after five years in the wind, in chains, in Spain, in England, and then in Newfoundland of all places, he finally found his way back to Patuxet and his village was gone. Wiped off the map. Literally.
PAULA PETERS: There’s only one short sentence written about Squanto’s return to Patuxet. Dermer brings him there and he writes that “He returned to his village, finding all dead.” Now you have to know more, there was probably more emotion than that but they just don’t write about it, which is unfortunate. But channeling my inner Squanto, I’m pretty devastated.
The Dermer that Paula Peters is referring to here is Thomas Dermer, an explorer who was meant to be part of John Smith’s aborted 1615 settlement in New England, and who, in 1618, came across Squanto in Newfoundland. Squanto was at Cuper’s Cove acting as an interpreter on behalf of the Newfoundland Company’s treasurer John Slany, the man who had taught him English. Upon meeting, Squanto and Dermer quickly saw in each other a means to an end – a way for both of them to get to New England - and Dermer wrote enthusiastically to Gorges that this native who understood English might well be the aberration Gorges had been searching for – an interpreter willing to act as a legitimate go-between for the two cultures.
So Dermer took Squanto with him to Plymouth. England. Before they could make their way down the North American coastline to New England, Dermer brought Squanto back to coordinate with Gorges.
Channel your inner Squanto with Paula here for a minute. You’re as close to home as you’ve been in five years – still 1,500 miles away, but you’re halfway there, on the right side of the ocean finally. And, as rumors swirl of a great plague that has wiped out the natives of America, you’re forced to go in the wrong direction, back across the ocean. And wait for permission to return to your home and your people. If they’re still there. Maybe they are there today, and tomorrow they’ll be gone. You don’t know. You don’t have the agency to find out.
In spite of all this – in spite of the troubles that have come from Europeans, especially those affiliated with Gorges – Squanto does what no one before him had done: he faithfully acts on behalf of Dermer as guide and interpreter, helping him safely navigate the intricate web of tribes in New England as he trades and explores.
This is where Epanow, who had shirked the role Squanto now occupied, literally jumped ship, reenters the story. Dermer makes his way down to Martha’s Vineyard and meets with the Nauset sachem.
PAULA PETERS: Initially they have a pretty peaceful encounter.
After that chat, Dermer goes down to Virginia for the winter, and in the spring, he and Squanto reunite and pay Epanow another fateful visit.
PAULA PETERS: I wonder if Epanow suddenly IS incensed by the idea or learns that Dermer is an agent of Gorges, and that would infuriate him because he obviously was not very happy with his treatment by Gorges. And it may have been that turned him on Dermer but they attacked Dermer and ummm he is uh wounded very badly, some say mortally wounded. We don’t know for sure if that is what he actually died of, but it is Squanto that comes to his defense and says “Stop, he’s a good man, don’t do this to him,” despite the fact that these are essentially an extension of his people. But he defends Dermer. And I think that might be the start of him really becoming ostracized by the rest of the tribe.
I liken Squanto to the baby bird that falls out of the nest and my mother had always told us “Oh you can’t touch it because if your scent gets on the bird, the mother bird will reject it.” Well Squanto fell out of the nest and landed in Europe and was completely immersed in their cultural ways and he just became more like them then he was like his own people. And in his opportunity to try to come back and assume his prior role there was nobody there to embrace him, so Squanto was really a man with no country.
Knowing all of this casts a tragic, deeply ironic shadow over the next, more famous part of Squanto’s story; here’s a lost man, prized for an ability to speak English that makes him a pariah amongst his people, living amongst white settlers on the exact spot where his tribe had thrived just five years before, teaching these starving newcomers the skills it will take to have a good harvest and become an unstoppable force. There’s a reason this stuff doesn’t come up in your average Thanksgiving pageant.
Part 2: Giving
(clip, Kids History) Hello Englishman I’m Squanto perhaps we should strike a treaty between our peoples. Good idea. Here’s some, here this is maize. No that’s corn.
This History Channel short on Youtube in which kids tell the story of Thanksgiving has helped me come to terms with something. Squanto is a children’s icon.
For weeks before I found Paula Peters and the roving “Our” History exhibit, I’d been trying to track down Squanto’s footprints – the traces every icon of Squanto’s caliber leaves behind in the modern world. I expected John Smith to be tough to visit in New England for all the reasons we outlined in his episode, but Squanto is Mr. Massachusetts (truly if you’re being literal about the Wampanoag origins of that name).
And yet the only pins I can put in my Squanto map are the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth and a memorial plaque in the town of Chatham on Cape Cod. The museum in Plymouth has a wooden bust of Squanto that is certainly historically inaccurate since we have no way of knowing what Squanto looked like. It used to be part of a larger wooden sculpture that sat above the entrance to the museum, which depicted the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620, an event Squanto did not witness.
The memorial in Chatham states proudly that “Somewhere within gunshot of this stone lies the remains of Squanto,” which is either not true now or wasn’t true for the first few decades the memorial was memorializing – 16 years or so ago, the memorial was moved about 3 miles, well out of gunshot range. It’s possible the statement was never true, of course.
Despite the lack of monuments dedicated to Squanto, there’s no doubt that Squanto is an icon, the first name that comes to mind for many people when defining an entire formative era in American history. Search for Squanto, and plenty of books come up. Of course, they’re pretty much all children’s books.
Thank You Squanto!, Squanto’s Journey, Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving, Squanto Friend of the White Men (which has been renamed Squanto Friend of the Pilgrims), John Billington Friend of Squanto if you’re looking to journey out into the Squanto Expanded Universe. There are no biographies of Squanto currently in print that are aimed at above an elementary school reading level.
Squanto is known, but he isn’t really known. What Santa is to Christmas and the Easter Bunny is to Easter, Squanto is to Thanksgiving. He is a sense memory from childhood. He’s more than a man, or really much less than a man, now. He is a symbol.
There he is smudged into the paint of the handprint turkey you made in kindergarten.
You don’t need to go visit Squanto – have kids and at some point when they’re in elementary school, he’ll come to you in the form of Timmy with the gap in his front teeth dressed in a fringe vest and a feather headband.
We’re going to spend the next few episodes of the podcast in Plymouth, thinking about the icons the Pilgrims have left behind leading up to their ultimate legacy, Thanksgiving and those handprint turkeys. As a first step, let’s exhume Squanto from the smudged paint, and restore to him not just some dignity but some agency.
To do that, we first need to share the credit or spread the blame a bit more evenly. Come on back to 1621 with me, I have some people I want you to meet.
“About 16th of March, a certain Indian came boldly among them, and spoke to them in broken English, which we could well understand, but marveled at it.”
As they relay it in Mourt’s Relation, half letter-back-home, half publicity pamphlet for the New World, the English colonists at Plymouth were just beginning to thaw out from a winter that had nearly halved their numbers when they were approached by “a tall straight man, the hair of his head black, long behind, only short before, none on his face at all.” This was the first native to voluntarily step out of the shadows and into the light in these four uniformly terrible months they’d spent in the New World.
“He very boldly came all alone and along the houses straight to the rendezvous, where we intercepted him, not suffering him to go in, as undoubtedly he would, out of his boldness. He saluted us in English, and bade us “Welcome!”, for he had learned some broken English among the Englishmen that came to fish at Monchiggon. He was a man free in speech, so far as he could express his mind, and of a seemly carriage. We questioned him of many things…”
This episode of Icongraphy is about Squanto, but this guy, this first emissary… this wasn’t Squanto. ‘His name was Samoset.”
Samoset, wasn’t from around these parts, he was from up north in today’s Maine. He did know the people that were from around here though, the tribes who had been hanging around the periphery of Plymouth colony, feeling things out, everpresent but largely invisible. The Pilgrims, as we now know them, had spent an arduous winter burying their dead – so many dead – in secret on an out-of-the-way hill in the dead of night in a probably futile attempt to disguise just how pathetic their numbers were from these unknowable watchers.
Samoset finally revealed what the Pilgrims been wondering for months – how many people were out there watching, and who was their leader, the guy they really needed to meet. And this guy, the sachem of the Pokanoket, their chosen leader… also wasn’t our man Squanto. This was Massasoit, a powerful man of about 40 responsible for the well-being of a network of tribes who were, as Samoset relayed it, “ill affected towards the English, by reason of one Hunt, a wretched man that cares not what mischief he doth for his profit.” That would be Thomas Hunt, the man who abducted 27 Patuxets and Nausets in 1614, including Squanto.
One week after his initial visit, Samoset returned with an advance party for the great sachem himself, and here finally, we meet Squanto “the only native of Patuxet, where we now inhabit, who was one of the 20 captives that by Hunt were carried away and had been in England.”
He'd spent the months since Epanow’s attack on Dermer as a prisoner, first of Epanow, and then of Massasoit, who didn’t trust him but did see that he might be useful. Squanto made a good impression on both sides that day in March by acting as go-between in the monumental interaction that ensued – the Pilgrims and Pokanokets exchanging hostages and laying down weapons in order to ensure a peaceful meeting, and, in that meeting, working out a treaty that lasted a half century, until long after the primary signatories were dead.
At this point, Samoset largely disappears from the narrative, perhaps returns home to Maine, and Squanto begins the work we recognize him for to this day, in every elementary school Thanksgiving pageant from here to eternity.
Here’s an instructive excerpt from History Stories for Primary Grades, 1927, the chapter called Squanto, The Corn Planter.
“Squanto was an Indian. He taught the white people how to plant corn. Squanto could speak some words of English, for he had once been carried on a white man’s ship to England.”
Pause… Interesting word choice there 1927. Resume…
“Squanto liked the white man and came to live with them. He showed the white men how to dig up the ground and how far apart to make the hills. Then he showed them how to drop in the grains of corn and how deep to cover them with earth. But before Squanto covered the hills of corn he did a curious thing. What do you suppose he did? He caught a fish and put it into a hill of corn. The Indians often used fish in this way to make their corn grow. Do not forget Squanto the corn-planter.”
And we haven’t forgotten Squanto the corn-planter. We’ve just remembered him at the expense of the actual Squanto and at the expense of the other natives who played an important part in creating diplomatic relations between settlers and tribes.
Squanto wasn’t the first Native American the Pilgrims met. And he wasn’t the one who held their fate in his hands. Squanto wasn’t even the longest tenured interpreter for the Pilgrims, and as we’ll see he wasn’t necessarily the most loyal. That would be Hobbamock, a pneise or elite warrior serving under Massasoit who lived near Plymouth for years and who is the focus of the Wampanoag village you can visit today at the living museum Plimoth Plantation.
So I guess my question is… why Squanto? Why is Squanto the standard bearer not just for the peaceful coexistence between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags, but between all Native Americans and non native Americans?
Perhaps it’s because he most embodies the lesson we want to draw out of this story – he was, as we imagine him, selfless and giving pretty much to a fault, very much like the mythic version of Pocahontas we examined last episode. Together with Pocahontas and Sacagawea, the navigator for Lewis and Clark, Squanto is a member of a holy trinity of helpfulness. You’re taught from a very early age to idolize their race-blind generosity, and then, as you learn more (if you learn more) this idolatry is complicated by questions of perspective – who gets to tell their story and who doesn’t – and context – helping white colonists and explorers has pretty much never been a net positive for anyone other than white colonists and explorers.
PAULA PETERS: Oh, it’s really really whitewashed. Me from my journalism background, I looked at this story and I felt like wow we really buried the lede here. Because if everyone knew that prior to the Mayflower arriving and prior to Plymouth colony becoming Plymouth Colony that it was actually Patuxet, that it was actually Squanto’s home, that Squanto’s people all died from a plague that also came over on boats similar to the boats that kidnapped him and took him away, there’d be a whole nother spin on the story. And it’s important to get that backstory now because people are refocusing on that critical date of 1620, and while they’re looking at that we want to make sure that people do get a chance to look back. And where we’re looking at the life of Squanto, which was albeit pretty brief after the Mayflower arrived and the colonists came here, he was more loyal to the colonists then he was to Massosoit and the Wampanoag and the people of Pokanoket.
Which can create a complex phenomenon when it comes to Native American history: the icons that non-Natives, myself included, want to talk about most are the ones who stepped in to help white people. This is the big idea I wanted to run by Paula Peters after we’d done a lap around the “Our” Story exhibit – I wondered, when it came to figures like Pocahontas and Squanto (both nicknames by the way) whether there will always be a sort of eyeroll there when these two are the only two names that come up, like “Ugh, these two again,” or whether perspectives on them were changing and evolving over time.
PAULA PETERS: You know I think there is a new direction, at least from a scholarly perspective, I know that scholars on indigenous history are really refocused on this and really are making a true effort to tell the story in balance. That’s gotta filter its way down to grade schools and third grade is typically the time you would learn about the Pilgrims arriving and the first Thanksgiving be that as it may and I rather doubt that they’re going to delve too deeply into that critical backstory as I put it of the slaves and being taken and the kidnappings and the disease and all of that. They should be, but I’m going to be really surprised if that enters into the 3rd curriculum. Here in New England and particularly in Plymouth and on the Cape and where there are tribal communities it I different. We do get an opportunity to get in front of those kids, but that’s a small percentage of kids across America that are actually getting that story and I think that that’s something that needs to be updated but it’ll take time.
Paula isn’t just going to twiddle her thumbs waiting until that time comes; she’s taking her show on the road, putting her people’s story in accessible places around the state of Massachusetts. The entire exhibit moves to a new location every month. As Paula and I talk, her son Steve is dodging the family dog Mindy (stop it Mindy clip) as he packs up some of the smaller parts of the exhibit – tomorrow the whole thing is taking a ferry trip across Nantucket Sound to it’s next destination, Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard.
PAULA PETERS: You really are able to reach so many people that way and it’s just an opportunity because it’s so portable, we have that opportunity to bring it around to other places and get it in front of people wherever it goes, it’s gonna have way more eyes upon it so I’m really glad we decided to do that and not just install it one place where it would get stale…
CHARLES: Somewhere in Plymouth where it would get crowded out by all the other stuff
PAULA PETERS: Yeah and this way it just never gets stale wherever it goes, it’s like wow this is really cool, where’d this come from.
CHARLES: What do you hope people will take away from this is they were to come and see it.
PAULA PETERS: Well I really hope that they take away the balance of the story, that they hear the other side, they hear the voice of the indigenous people and that therein the lies the balance. Because for so many generations of Americans especially the story that’s taught is really taught from one perspective
Part 3: Balance
As part of giving Squanto back his voice and the agency to make and stand by his own choices (good and bad), I’m going to do something that’s going to seem antithetical to restoring balance at first. I’m going to tell you a story that’s going to make you not like Squanto very much. You may never see him the same way again.
In March of 1622, about a year after Squanto had moved in with the Pilgrims – his old bedroom in his old house, but with a new family living there basically – Captain Miles Standish, Plymouth’s military leader, was heading up north on a trading mission with the Massachusetts tribe. Along with a small crew, he was bringing the colony’s two translators, Squanto and Hobbamock.
Hobbamock had come into the picture a few months back, on loan from Massasoit as a direct representative of his Pokanoket tribe, unlike Squanto who acted as an arbiter between the Pokanokets and Pilgrims. Hobbamock and Squanto didn’t always dislike each other – not long after they became work buddies, they were both captured by a rival sachem, Corbitant, who hoped to rile up the English by taking their translators. Hobbamock escaped and helped the Pilgrims find and rescue Squanto.
But over time, jealousy and resentment had grown between the two. Captain Standish and the Governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, had noticed this and intentionally played on it, Standish working with Hobbamock and Bradford working with Squanto.
As it turns out, Hobbamock was right to be mistrustful of Squanto. Just after Standish left Plymouth with the two feuding guides, the colonists back in Plymouth got a surprise visitor, panting and covered in blood.
“They had not been gone long when an Indian belonging to Squanto’s family came running in seeming great fear and told them that many of the Naragansetts, with Corbitant and he thought also Massasoit, were coming against them; and he had got away to tell them, not without danger. And being examined by the Governor, he made as if they were at hand and would still be looking back. But no Indians appeared; watch was kept all night, but nothing was seen. Hobbamock was confident for Massasoit and thought all was false…”
And indeed, all was false. Squanto had tried to sow fear and start a hasty battle.
They began to see that Squanto sought his own ends and played his own game by putting the Indians in fear and draw gifts from them to enrich himself; making them believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would. Yea, he made them believe they kept the plague buried in the ground and could send it amongst whom they would, which did much to terrify the Indians and made them depend more on him then to Massasoit.”
So, to make this all clear, not only did Squanto attempt to incite a war between the Pilgrims and Massasoit by having a family member pretend the treaty had or would be broken any moment, it was also revealed that Squanto had been using the threat of underground plague barrels to keep the still traumatized natives in thrall to his power. Basically, If Squanto said the right words in the English language that his fellow natives didn’t understand, the Pilgrims would unleash plague on them.
This from the guy who had returned to his home in 1619 and found it wiped out by plague…
This isn’t some hidden, secret piece of history that’s only recently gained traction – it’s right there in Governor William Bradford’s first-person account. But, even though it happens in the year of Squanto’s life when we actually know and care about him historically, I never heard about this incident until I began researching this episode. Why on earth is that?
PAULA PETERS: I think that for the same reason that Thanksgiving has become a hallmark holiday, Squanto has been like their icon. And history doesn’t like you to bash their icons. And it was a much cleaner story to just say that Squanto was this great guy, he was this friendly Indian who came and taught us how to fish in this land, and to plant corn and to put fish in the mounds and all that crazy stuff, and then we had this great harvest feast and everyone sang Kumbaya and happy day. That is a much cleaner version of the story that America loved to hear for generations and generations
Why would the gatekeepers of Thanksgiving traditions be so protective of Squanto’s legacy? For the same reason that Samoset and Hobbamock both get folded into the Patuxet translator named Tisquantum, creating this one pseudo-fictitious figure named Squanto. I’m not suggesting this is some grand conspiracy lorded over by third grade teachers and Mayflower Societies; this is part of a process that’s ingrained in us, for better AND worse, of identifying history’s heroes and villains and organizing most of history’s lessons to align with the deeds that match their designation. Good deeds to the heroes. Bad ones to the villains.
Squanto is one of history’s heroes – we use him to teach our children about the giving spirit, about sharing resources and knowledge. And he was certainly capable of those things, but he was more complicated than that. The legacy he left behind was more complicated than that.
He was a fully flawed human being with selfish desires all his own. He didn’t take the loss of his tribe lying down. He had a plan and Massasoit and the Pilgrims had their parts to play in it.
His power play drove a wedge between the Pilgrims and Massasoit – one that continued even after Squanto died from, as you probably could have guessed, disease later in 1622, a wedge that almost resulted in the very battle that Squanto had been trying to instigate in the first place. Massasoit had demanded Squanto’s head upon learning of his deception, and Governor Bradford, after much deliberation, had refused, letting Squanto live out the rest of his days with him in Plymouth.
Maybe that gives you the warm fuzzies – Bradford having grown so close to the Patuxet man who lived among his people that he refused to have him killed – but, okay, investigate for just a second why that is. Bradford, as we’ll see over the next few episodes, is another one of history’s heroes, the other Thanksgiving figurehead, and any hint of cross-cultural cooperation between him and Squanto, any inkling they were bros, has an innate power.
When it comes to Squanto and Bradford, or Squanto and Thomas Dermer, or Massasoit and Bradford, we have to tread carefully. It’s important not to automatically read unlikely alliances as burgeoning friendships or as lack of prejudice. Maybe the ice broke, and these men did share an uncommon bond, but it’s more likely that they were willing to put aside their differences to work towards something mutually beneficial. These men saw value in each other. In a dangerous world where more explorers and settlers died then didn’t (R.I.P Dermer), and where natives were abducted by slavers, there was something to be said for protection and interpretation. It’s practical, but it doesn’t make for a particularly heartwarming Thanksgiving pageant.
Which brings us back full circle to Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale, “the kind of superficial, tidied-up, idealized history that might appeal to younger viewers,” as Roger Ebert called it. How does it stack the deck against Squanto and Epanow; how does it promise agency while never really granting it? It comes down to the same problem that dooms Disney’s Pocahontas – it confuses not being a slaver for wokeness, and complexity with villainy.
Bradford and poor doomed Thomas Dermer spend the film saying the same thing John Smith will say in Pocahontas. Doggedly, they beat the drum for understanding in an age that will have none of it.
The slaver Thomas Hunt and his crew and their financier Sir Ferdinando Gorges (here called Sir George) are grotesques. They take glee in their overt provocations, delight in their over-the-top hatred.
It’s so easy to sort the good Europeans from the bad Europeans, you could do it just based on screenshots. But Gorges, for example, wasn’t a preening buffoon – he was a respected and influential businessman whose misguided optimism led him to believe that the best way to form a stable trading partnership with the people in America was to bring some of them to him and train them as salesmen. He was wrong, but in a human way that’s miles from actor Michael Gambon’s shrill campy performance.
I want you to imagine an old-timey scale, like the one Lady Justice holds. We put history’s big names on this scale when we tell a story. On one side of the scale we put the heroes, on the other side, the villains. Bradford is a saint; Ferdinando Gorges is a sinner; Thomas Dermer is an angel; Thomas Hunt is a monster.
And Squanto is pure, noble, and docile… scrubbed of all his own aspirations and given the aspirations we need him to have – a Native who wants us here so much he’ll help us, a placid dude who speaks on behalf of the land and says “No worries bro, we can all share.”
We call this balance because we’ve placed everyone precisely where they need to go to keep the scales from tipping, turning history into a mess of contradictions and betrayals. But it is a mess of contradictions and betrayals. Squanto is a lot closer to the center of the scale then you might think – he is a man who lost his tribe to plague and learned to use that horror as a threat that helped him stay relevant. There should be a lot of people crowded around the middle of the scale, making some bad choices and some good choices. Taking wrong turns and right turns. There will always be outliers; Thomas Hunt can stay way out there on the end, that’s fine.
But here’s the thing about stripping our heroes and our villains of their heroism and villainy and putting them back in the middle, understood for who they were and not who we want them to be. If pretty much everyone’s hanging around the middle of the scale, that’s balance too. A much more stable balance.
On the way back to Boston from Mashpee, I stop at the Plymouth waterfront, because it’s pretty much on the way and this is the right place to think about Squanto, even if there’s nothing here officially commemorating him. It’s an area lousy with commemorations, most installed about 100 years ago, in preparation for the tricentennial in 1920, which did more to shape the waterfront then anyone had done possibly since 1620. And I mean shape it. This waterfront wouldn’t just be unrecognizable to Squanto and Samuel de Champlain; it would also be unrecognizable to Dermer and Bradford and to someone who lived in Plymouth in 1915. They gutted this place, spent years tearing down the waterfront shantytown and warehouse district, and building a grand esplanade that’s crowded with memorials.
There’s Plymouth Rock, squat and unimpressive at first glance – we’ll get to why there’s more there than meets the eye there in a future episode – and there’s an ornate casket for the presumed remains of the Pilgrims who died during that first terrible winter who were secreted away to Cole’s Hill. There’s a waterfront statue of Governor William Bradford, in buckled hat and buckled shoes, staring resolutely inland at what he will create; and looking down at him benevolently from atop Cole’s Hill is Massasoit, holding a peace pipe as he watches the Englishmen arrive in their new home. The two sculptures are a set, both works of the prolific Cyrus E Dallin. Search for “Squanto statue” online and you’ll see image after image of this giant Massasoit. Because of course the two have been conflated.
One memorial is missing from this tableau, the biggest one; she’s not here right now, she’s over in Mystic getting a makeover so she’s ready for her big day in 2020. She’s not the original, but she’s built like the original as close as we can guess and as it turns out, it’s not easy to maintain a seaworthy 17th century sailing vessel. But sail she must – it wouldn’t be the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing without a Mayflower. More on that, next time on Iconography.
Iconography is written and produced by me, Charles Gustine, with script editing from Carol Zall. Clemente Cuevas sat down with me for a jam session in Montreal and gave you all those rumbling upright bass notes.
Our guest this episode was Sonk Waban, Paula Peters, whose exhibit “Our” History is currently in Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard. Thanks to her son Steve and to Brian Logan, Communications Manager of Plymouth 400. You can learn more about Plymouth 400 at Plymouth400inc.org
Hopefully this episode has gotten you curious about what Plymouth 400 is doing, and you’ll plan a visit. You’ve got two years so like, no rush. In the meantime, help me out and keep the conversation about Squanto going. I need you to consider: Isn’t it Iconic... Donthca Think?
Office hours are open on Twitter @iconographypod, on the Facebook page facebook.com/iconographypodcast, and on the website where you can find show notes and a transcript of the episode. That’s at iconographypodcast.squarespace.com.
If you’ve enjoyed this episode, you can help the podcast in two ways – one is get the word out. Tell your people about the show. Slip it in to the conversation where you mention you should go to Plymouth 400 together.
The other thing is to rate and review the podcast on whatever podcatcher you use. Those recommendations help people find the show and help grow our Iconographer community.
To show I’m no hypocrite, here’s a recommendation for you - Iconography is a proud member of Hub & Spoke, a Boston-centric collective of smart, idea-driven podcasts. You can check all of them out at hubspokeaudio.org.
But especially check out the recent episode on cannibalism from Ministry of Ideas, a podcast about the ideas that shape our world. The mere mention of cannibalism has been used to otherize indigenous populations since the age of exploration began – but as you might guess, the real story isn’t as straightforward as it might first seem. Check the “Consumed” episode out at minstryofideas.org or anywhere fine podcasts are available.
Look up. This month, July 2018, Mars is as close as he'll get for another 17 years. On a recent trip to Houston and the Johnson Space Center, this struck as deeply moving, inspiring, and a bit sad. It also reminded me of the first episode of scripted audio I ever produced, about *The Martian* and Martians. I hope you enjoy this little interruption from our regularly scheduled programming, and it inspires you to do a bit of star/planet-gazing.
We start our journey in 1614. Why 1614 and not 1620? This episode is part of a conscious effort we'll undertake over the next few episodes to account for all the stuff that had to happen before Plymouth Rock for Plymouth Rock to become so iconic.
First up is John Smith. Yes, Colors of the Wind John Smith. After Jamestown, Captain John Smith literally put New England on the map - he named the region and drew the definitive map of it, the one all the New England settlers (Bradford, Winthrop) would have known about as they made their way to the New World.
But John Smith is sort of persona non grata in New England because of a concerted effort on the part of New England historians during the Civil War to discredit him as the founder of Virginia - a stink which has sort of never worn off even though he's proven to be a pretty truthful guy. This is an episode about all that - about how John Smith wore New England, and how New England destroyed John Smith.
Season 2 of Iconography begins with a look at the relationship between two New England icons - a marathon that's become not just the definitive marathon experience but perhaps the definitive Boston experience, and an advertisement that's transcended its commercial beginnings to become a symbol of civic pride.
In our attempt to figure out how the Citgo Sign was saved, we're joined by first-time Boston Marathon runner Andy Luce.
There are days when you can walk around in the rain for 30 minutes and not get that wet.
I had a lot of days like that in London, a city of perpetual drizzles.
The day of the 2018 Boston Marathon was not one of those days. I’m lucky I have any of this audio of cheering spectators, a) because it’s incredible that there were any spectators and b) because after a few minutes of recording, my phone was emergency-rice-treatment wet in spite of an Otter Box. My whole body felt like it needed to be put into a Tupperware full of rice to work again; I was soaked through.
I should point out that I was not running in Marathon. Ha… no… My calves were burning from the brisk 20 minute walk in the rain that brought me to my spot on Commonwealth Ave. You don’t want to hear about marathons from me; so instead let’s hear from Andy Luce, over 20 miles into his run through a downpour, already past the Newton Hills and six miles from finishing his first Boston Marathon, when he passed me.
ANDY: The hills were not the worst part of the race. I actually liked going uphill. Because the wind was coming from the east, and so going uphill it wasn’t hitting you very hard - like you were being shielded by the hill kind of. And then when you were going down the other side of the hill, it was like blasting 30 mph in your face, and that was definitely way worse.
At the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, my buddy who I was staying with was there. He was playing like a giant vuvuzela, and I was kind of out of it. I didn't even see him until I passed him and then I waved back and I was like "Uhhhnnhhh" and he was like "Oh man you are not looking good." After that, mean it's the classic route the whole way in. They’ll never change it: see the Citgo Sign, you know you’re done, you turn right, you turn left, and... I was just like almost in tears crossing the line. I was just happy to not have died.
This is Iconography. I'm Charles Gustine, your host on this tour of icons, real and imagined, and I’m thrilled to begin our journey into the buildings, people, delicacies, films, the ideas that shape our idea of a place, Season 2’s focus and my new home, New England.
That journey through New England’s icons will progress somewhat chronologically through time, starting next episode in the reign of King James in Old England, but before I get all Jacobean on you, I wanted to introduce you to the icon that first fascinated me when I moved to Boston in January. It wasn’t the Old North Church, or the Old South Church, or the New North… it wasn’t any church. It wasn’t the Bunker Hill Monument, or Harvard Yard. It has no connection to Paul Revere, or, well it does a bit in my mind, but we’ll get there.
My icon is a 60-by-60 foot sign from the 60s that pulses with color and light once the sun goes down, 200 feet above Kenmore Square. Red triangle, white background, blue letters. C-I-T-G-O. An advertisement. For a brand of gas that pretty much no one in Boston can actually buy.
Part 1: I Saw the Sign
This is the one time I’m going to admit that there’s possibly a huge discrepancy out there amongst you Iconographers.
If you’ve lived in Boston or its surrounding environs (or you’re a big baseball fan or marathon runner), you know exactly where I’m going, you’re up out of your seat, your whooping, your hollering! (In your mind… you’re probably listening to this on public transportation, and I’m guessing based on experience, you don’t actually have a seat and there are like 70 people touching some part of you right now...)
If you’ve never lived in the area, you’re probably doing none of those things. You’re like, “A sign? Like a billboard? That’s where you’re starting this whole icon thing?”
All I can say is stick with me. Because this icon is going to show us how something – anything really – can transcend its original purpose and can become something else, something new, without ever moving or changing at all.
The Citgo Sign – not just the sign itself but the elemental feelings that a red triangle sitting over any word (GoSox, Fenway, Strong) stirs in a Bostonian – is like a secret handshake that only locals know to share with each other.
The sign rests atop a building in Kenmore Square that, until recently, was owned by Boston University and still prominently houses the University bookstore, a Barnes & Noble. Kenmore Square is a multi-street intersection so complex if looks like an arcane Norse symbol, and at its center is a station that swallows up all the buses coming in from points west and spits them back out. The people on those buses, after a moment in the sun, slink underground to wait for a T that will take them east to their jobs. Or vice versa.
This is not downtown, not on the Freedom Trail. It’s past all the colonial churches, the monuments to patriots, the art museums. It’s not something you’d see if you visited the Harvard campus. No Duck Tour route goes this far. There is a prominent attraction just around the corner – we’ll meet it before too long – but the only things you might visit west of here are John F. Kennedy’s childhood home and – if you’re a staying with the locals sort – possibly your AirBnb. Passing the sign in Kenmore Square – if you even were to pass it on a visit to Boston - you might think it a cast-off from Piccadilly Circus, the Las Vegas Strip, or Times Square. A giant electric sign, orphaned, dancing by itself.
Give it time. Literally, this is an icon that needs time to steep. It doesn’t taste as good right when you pour it, but wait and… mmm...
Once you notice the sign, you never stop noticing it. If you live west of the city, like I do, it becomes a constant companion, a watch, a compass, a mood ring, a friend.
I am one of the mole creatures that slinks beneath the surface of the earth to switch from a bus to the T. When I see it in the morning, I know I’m half way to work. When I see it in the evening, flashing and pulsing, I know I’m pretty much home. It’s always peaking up over buildings, beckoning you in or out. From in here to out there, or from out here to in there. It’s like the triangle on a map calling out an important point – the border between Boston in quotes and Boston – but it’s real. 3D.
My first week or so in the city, I didn’t pick up on any of this. When you move to a new place, learning your commute, you look down, not up. Your feet might trick you and send you to Alewife or Wonderland instead of Government Center if you don’t watch them carefully. I passed directly under the Citgo sign ten or twenty times before I realized that the tiny but indelible red triangle I could see pointing to the Charles River from my office window downtown happened to be the same monolith perched atop the Barnes & Noble I passed every morning in Kenmore Square. One morning, I was starting to become a little obsessed by the way the tableau of our 14th floor office window – probably of thousands of office windows in Boston and Cambridge – had seemingly been divinely engineered to highlight this one advertisement for, of all things, Citgo. And so I broke the silence in the office and asked my deskmates what the deal with this sign was.
They both reacted as if I had asked them to explain Jesus to me; they were in disbelief that I needed to start at square one and also at a complete loss for words to describe what the contents of square one might even be. One of them was such a New England lifer he may as well have been raised by a lobster and an autumn leaf. The other was a Scotsman who had lived in the city for about two years. In spite of this, they both seemed to agree that the Citgo sign isn’t something you learn from a lecture, it’s something you learn to feel for yourself. To understand it is to become a Bostonian.
So, with that in mind, I’m going to go against their shared wisdom and try my darndest in this episode to teach you that feeling and make you an honorary Bostonian, an inductee in to the secret society of the Citgo Sign.
This will be about a lot more than the sign itself; we’ll think about Lexington by way of Hopkinton; run with Andy as he takes a right on Hereford, left on Boylston; and end by singing a rousing chorus of Sweet Caroline (bah bah) not yet, not yet...
First, let another Golden Oldie carry you back to August 10, 1983.
("You Light Up My Life" begins playing)
Part 2: You Light Up My Life
It’s a brisk evening in Kenmore Square. Fall approaches tentatively.
The mayor is delivering a proclamation that rings out over the loudspeakers. Mayors will do that – proclaim – but you’re willing to patiently wait him out; you’re here to see the lights. Not those spotlights tilted up towards the Citgo Sign; you and your 1,000 new friends are waiting for the moment when, for the first time in four long, dark years, the sign doesn’t need any help being seen, when it can take care of its own damn self again. That moment comes at 9:30. Neon flashes red, white, blue letters, here and gone, the triangles grow and shrink, grow and shrink.
There’s a cheer as the organizers crank that Debby Boone.
("You Light Up My Life" fades out)
The sign has woken from a long slumber. It almost never woke up at all – less then a year ago, a crew from Citgo was on hand to tear it down, had their tools on the roof and everything, but now, in a stellar reversal of fortunes, the company has agreed to pay 450 K to keep it lit for three more years of Boston nights.
Citgo have paid quite a bit more since that agreement ended in 1986 - to pay the lease, to light their sign and maintain it and switch out the neon for LED when that became outre.
This is essentially an act of charity on Citgo's part. They do not go into their board meetings asking "Is the Boston sign affecting our profit margin, is it increasing our market share, pull up the Analytics, we need to maximize our investment!"
I suspect Kenmore Square is a bottomless pit into which Petroleos de Venezuela SA (which owns Citgo) shovels money, for which they are paid back in goodwill, selfies, and, as of today, podcast episodes. They are now the curators of a beloved rooftop art gallery with one piece of art.
As early as 1983, John H. Dewell, VP of Marketing for Citgo back before Venezuela came into the picture, said the sign had “outlived its usefulness” for his company.
''Our view of that sign as a company had been one of advertising and marketing our products.''
By 1983, big neon signs weren’t the way you did that anymore. The Boston sign had already lost six Citgo siblings who lived in big cities like Chicago, Milwaukee... Boston was the home of the last of a dying breed. And it’s not like Boston was immune. The energy crisis had highlighted the obsolescence of these aging titans. Much older electric beauties like the White Fuel sign across Kenmore Square and the Coca Cola sign further down that told you the temperature as you drive by on Storrow Drive... they didn’t make it. The Citgo Sign was still standing, the last unicorn. But it’s neon hadn’t hummed since 1979, a four year long symbolic gesture from an energy company during the energy crisis. The Boston Globe had snapped “Neon is a cheap light source. Saving the CITGO sign’s cost of about $60 a week isn’t going to panic OPEC” while lamenting that “the Citgo sign without its neon is a scarecrow, a dead thing, a skull stuck on a stick.”
Pretty clear-cut business decision for Citgo then. In November of 82, they started hoisting equipment up to the roof of 660 Beacon; they were ready to pull down the dinosaur.
''Then, lo and behold, we ran into the public interest,'' Marketing VP Dewell said, it’s tough to tell from the article whether with a sigh or a wink. ''We discovered that people thought of it as more than just a plain old sign.''
People like Walter Guertin, whose letter to the Boston Globe from 1976, when the sign was first publicly threatened, comes very close to my own experience.
"As one who had to learn the streets of Boston through trial and error (mostly error), I remember that the Citgo sign at Kenmore Square was my savior on more than one occasion. It’s Boston’s very own ‘North Star.’ Keep the sign!"
People like Warren Thayer, also writing into the Globe in 1976, who, through their affiliation with Boston University, thought of Citgo as a friendly neighbor from pretty much the moment it went up.
"Ten years ago The Sign was already a legend—at least at BU. The highest status on campus went to those with top-floor, end rooms at Myles Standish Hall so they had an unobstructed view. If things were really bad, they had the inner peace of knowing that they could always relax, get stoned and watch The Sign all night."
It was people like this, who immediately latched onto the sign as a guide, a show, a piece of art, pretty much anything other than as an ad – it was these first members of the secret society you’re joining now, Citga Psi, who sent a petition to the Boston Landmarks Commission. Now the Landmarks Commission is, how should I put this, used to stumping for 18th century churches, graveyards, and houses that prominent figures existed in but found itself on shakier ground when the public rallied behind an advertisement that wasn’t yet 20 years old. It had been erected in 1965, and it had replaced two previous big signs that had glistened in the same place, which shouted impermanence. The Landmarks Commission ordered the dismantling be postponed while a hearing was held to figure out what a landmark… was…
Different century, same story. In 2016, another threat (660 Beacon being sold), and another stay of execution from the Boston Landmarks Commission, which had never given the sign landmark status but, now that it was at risk again, was open to another conversation. That’s how we end up at another hearing to debate the nature of landmarks. Citgo sent Brenda Rivera, corporate communications, to the hearing, where she acknowledged what had been true since Citgo was stopped from tearing their sign down at the last minute back in '82.
“Although the sign bears our name and is owned by us, it really belongs to Boston.”
Thus, an icon is born. This is alchemy, neon transmuted into gold.
Part 3: Cool Runnings
You actually see the Citgo sign everywhere in Boston – you don’t need to be anywhere near Kenmore. It’s on T-Shirts, hats, mugs. Except the word Citgo has almost always been scrubbed from below the red triangle – Citgo’s logo to this day - and replaced by some other word - Boston, Strong, Fenway, GoSox. It’s a good thing Brenda Rivera from Citgo is chill with this.
It’s pretty incredible actually, an active corporate logo being scrubbed of any associations with the corporation, able to stand innocently, without winking or smirking, fora city, for civic pride.
(Coffeshop conversation fades in)
To see how that happened, let’s leave Kenmore Square and the Citgo sign for a while and meet back up with our marathon correspondent.
ANDY: …Oh we’re live... We're on the air!
Andy Luce I are huddled in a corner of Longfellow’s coffee shop, which could not be a more adequately named placed to kick off Iconography Season 2’s production schedule. It’s the day before Andy runs his first Boston Marathon, a chilly April morning in Cambridge.
ANDY: Oh that's little bits of snow!
It’s snowing very tentatively but Andy shrugs it off.
ANDY: Well my half marathon PR is in 27 degrees, so I'm okay with the cold.
Oh how innocent we were... The weather at the Marathon can vary wildly; some years April means sunny skies – a spectator’s dream, potentially a runner’s nightmare – and some years its freezing. The latter is the only Boston Marahton weather Andy has ever known.
ANDY: I came to the race in 2015 for the first time. I was at mile 23, and it was a very cold day, very rainy. You know, we're there huddled in jackets, freezing, sipping beer, but like no one wants a cold beer! And we're seeing people go by, and they're just defeated. I mean people were suffering at that point, they're walking by - they're walking, at mile 23 they're like "I've come this far, I'm going to finish the Boston Marathon." So we're giving them jackets and coffee. They're already wrapped in those reflective heat blankets. Everyone who was going was still going to finish, no one was going to drop out. The support from the crowd was awesome, including... Like, we felt like we were part of the race. You know, we were helping people out, getting them to the finish line. Some of these guys are walking by shivering and "Here's a cup of coffee, you can make it!"
And I wasn't really running at that time, but six months later a friend mine asked to run. He wanted tor run his first half-marathon, wanted me to run it with him. And I was like "Well, I can't lose to this guy, he's asking me to run with him." So I trained and I set a goal of running under an hour and a half. And I didn't make that goal, I didn't get under an hour and a half.
I immediately the next day signed up for another half-marathon and I was like "I'm going to get this goal and then I'll be done!" This is a pattern that you'll recognize, every race, I'm like "Okay now I'm going to be done, now I'm going to be done," and then when you finish it, you immediately sign up for another. I think that's typical of runners in general, because you hate months of training and all the preparation.
I still said "Oh I never wanna run a marathon, I wanna run fast races." And then that same friend asked, he was like "I'm going to run the Chicago Marathon, will you run it with me?" Two of my friends wanted to do it and like the historical rates for getting into Chicago are like 50% if you enter the lottery likelihood of getting in. And so I said, "Okay... If all three of us get in, I'll run it." And - lo and behold, what is that, like a 12.5% chance? - we all three got in.
And so I set a very aggressive goal - if I'm going to run this I'm going to qualify for the Boston Marathon. For men under 35, that is a 3 hour and 5 minute marathon, which is right at a 7 minute pace. But what they do is the race is capped at a certain number of people so, if you wanna run, running 3:04:59, you know that's not gonna be good enough.
So I set 3 hours as what I wanted to run. The Windy City, it was pretty quiet that day and so I got 2:59:16 and I knew I was qualified.
I still had no intention to run, I was like "I qualified, running a BQ is a big deal, even if you never come to the Marathon!"
CHARLES (interrupting with question): What's that stand for?
ANDY: Boston Qualifier. Yeah, so people are like "I got a BQ!" That's a thing.
CHARLES: That's like the standard.
ANDY: Yeah at least in the running world.
CHARLES: That's what you put on the fridge!
ANDY: Yeah: "I BQ'd!" No one can ever take that away from you. You got that, you're a Boston Qualifier. Being in a running group and having a lot of running friends, there's a lot of pressure then, it's like "Now you qualified for Boston, you have to do it! It's like the race!"
CHARLES: Why is that? When do we become aware of it as "the marathon"?
ANDY: I think maybe it's the qualifying standard that's part of it. I think there's so much lore about it too, Heartbreak Hill, the whole "Right on Hereford, left on Boylston," I mean yeah the area is, the streets are tied to the Marathon more than anything else. People that don't know where Boylston Street is know that that's where the Marathon ends! People that have never been to Boston know.
I love the environment in Chicago too, but even being a spectator here was a completely different experience than running all of Chicago. I mean the city shuts down for this, it is like... I don't think there's any... I mean maybe I'll do more, this is only my second one, but everyone talks about this as the premiere environment to race in in terms of the fan support.
And it's interesting too because you can't set the world record here; and so people that are trying to go for world records, they run in London or Berlin, but I think the Boston Marathon is way more historic y'know, it's been around forever...
The Marathon - the idea of it exudes permanence right? Like the Olympics, marathons aren’t just Greek, they’re Ancient Greek.
But like a neoclassical urn in a classy hotel, marathons only seem very old. They were designed to feel that way, to lend the first modern Olympics in 1896 a sheen of legend. You see there was this Robert Browning poem in 1879 that turned the story of Pheidippedes, who was sent from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to announce that Sparta had been defeated, into a blockbuster.
"Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
'Athens is saved, thank Pan,' go shout!' He flung down his shield,
Ran like fire once more."
That was the first marathon, I guess, run in 490 BC, and also the last marathon run until 1896 AD. So the Boston Athletic Association was pretty much getting in on the ground floor when they rolled out their own version of this newfangled marathon the next year.
And if the idea of a poet latching onto the larger than life story of a messenger racing a great distance and shouting about changed circumstances in wartime sounds a bit familiar familiar… it did to the Boston Athletic Association too. The Boston Marathon run in 1897 would be run on Patriots Day, which commemorates the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and was technically also brand new though it seemed very old, having been first commemorated only three years prior in 1894 (heck, the race would have been run from Concord to Boston too, to follow in reverse the route of Paul Revere’s ride, if Paul hadn’t been such a slacker – Pheidippides ran twice as far as Paul rode... We think, we ummm have no idea with Pheidippides...).
Even as the route of the marathon and the distance changed – seriously, it wasn’t until 1921 that the current distance was standardized across the globe – the day would be inflexible. The Boston Marathon is Patriots Day. Patriots Day is the Boston Marathon.
Sorry I left you in suspense – what would Andy do?
CHARLES: Was it hard for them talk you into it after Chicago?
ANDY: Yeah no, not really. The history and the draw of the city, the race, the whole experience, it's too much to pass up. There's a guy in our running group, Rick, he's in his 60s and he's qualified for I think this is going to be his 11th or 12th in a row I think. He runs it every year, re-qualifies, takes some time off and then works his way back up for Boston again. I know a lot of people that would never miss this race. They might run other races, but this is the one. If they're getting ready for one, this is what you do.
And then when I first told myself I'm going to sign up, my first thought was, "Okay I'm going to take it easy, doing it once and getting the experience will be enough. I just want to enjoy the run, enjoy the crowd, enjoy the city, see the sights, run the Newton Hills, pass the Citgo Sign, right on Hereford, left on Boylston, do the whole thing and like be a part of the experience more than run the race.
And then I'm like, "Alright well, I wanna have a good showing, let's try and re-qualify."
And then I'm like, "Well, that's not too much harder than... I'm in better shape now, I've been running for a couple of years, I feel like I'm faster... Let's set a higher goal..." And that's the nature of running, it's always the next thing. But Boston is like the end thing for most marathon runners. It's the thing to get to.
I think when you think about Boston, I think the Marathon is one of the first things that you think of and that's definitely not true for like New York or Chicago or London or Berlin. The Marathon is part of the culture of the whole city.
The marathon has been shaped by the city – its turns and elevation changes are a consequence of urban planning that predated the idea of the modern marathon. But, considering its late arrival, can the city be shaped by the marathon?
(Fans sing along to Sweet Caroline at Red Sox game)
Part 4 – Sweet CitgoSign (bah bah bah)
I’m at Fenway Park. We - 32,886 strangers, one wife, and I - are singing along with Neil Diamond, raucously adding our own interjections in glorious unison because this is what you do at Fenway Park. Not since 1912, when the park opened, obviously, but for long enough that it’s… expected.
This may all seem a bit silly. A game, a show, a lark. I don’t think we – and I include myself in that we – take sports as seriously as we might when considering the transformational ideas that form the identity of a place.
But sports are major civic events. They bring disparate communities together in one place, sharing one intense experience. In Boston (you’ll probably agree with me even if you root, root, root for an opposing team) athletics are especially integral to a civic identity. That is a thread we’ll tug at more in future episodes, mark my words.
Right now, I just want to think about cold hard numbers:
- around 30,000 people run the Boston Marathon every year
- about 500,000 people line the streets from Hopkinton to Copley to watch them (when the weather cooperates)
- more than 5 times that number attend Red Sox games at Fenway Park every year.
Let’s not even get into the numbers of people who watch from home, Bostonians from a distance, or Bostonians for a day. Which means that millions of people a year grow to associate the Citgo sign with their integral Boston experiences. And, I mean, could you ask for a more powerful, more dedicated, more terrifying lobby than Boston sports fans?
The Citgo sign, as it turns out, is in an absolutely magical location, somehow a crucial architectural piece of both of Boston’s oldest, most treasured sporting traditions – baseball in Fenway Park and Marathon Day.
Give Citgo some credit for that; they did once care about maximizing profit using the sign, and they knew the urban landscape of the Fenway/Kenmore Square neighborhood, knew the events that defined it. When they put up a new sign in 1965 to replace their old sign with their old name – Cities Service – they did the math, they tested the angles.
The sign sits just high enough on 660 Beacon that you can see it over the Green Monster in Fenway Park, so that, even though it’s three blocks away, on the other side of a major highway, it has essentially become an extension of the most striking feature in America’s most beloved sporting venue (tied with Wrigley Field in Chicago if you’re getting ready to @ me).
This quirk of urban topography - the notion of a ballpark not ending where the bleachers end but stretching into the city beyond (rather than stretching into a sea of parked cars as so many modern ballparks do) - it’s become part of the romance we have with holdouts like Fenway and Wrigley. And wouldn’t you know it, the Citgo Sign has been adopted there too, transcending its corporate implications and even its Boston connotations and becoming an icon of baseball’s bygone age. My favorite fact about the Citgo Sign is that, for years there was a Citgo Sign floating above the left field wall in Houston’s Minute Maid Park. The Citgo logo appears on the outfield walls of minor league stadiums in Maine and Texas. Boston’s Citgo sign lost its family during the energy crisis in the 70s and 80s, but, as a means of paying tribute, baseball’s stadium architects have given it a new family. The Citgo Sign is a mommy.
As if this weren’t a charmed enough existence, being grandfathered into the storied Fenway Park, the Citgo Sign is also perfectly positioned so that there are unobstructed views of it for miles down some of Boston’s biggest streets – most especially the one that marathoners run down for the hardest miles of their race, the final miles that they didn’t train for, couldn’t train for. The sign seems to speak to them.
As it’s become cliché to say (clip plays, announcer saying "...it gives these runners this extra mile, the Citgo Sign...") it gives runners a boost at exactly the moment they need it, and they’ve always returned the favor, giving the sign a boost when it was in dire straits. One runner called the landmarks commission in 1982, when the sign seemed like it would be gone in mere days and plainly stated they couldn’t take it down because when you see it, you know you can finish the marathon. The next year, when the sign’s lights were turned back on, a first time marathon runner, Paul G. Garrity, was quoted in the New York Times confirming “the sign is an important reminder that the end may not be near, but is at least only four or five miles away.”
''Boy, did I see the sign, 'It was the only thing to suppress pain for about a mile. I fixed on it because I was really sore. What other city would make an oil company sign a landmark?''
This connection has become even stronger since 2013’s Boston Marathon Bombing, which seemed to solidify the bond runners had with the marathon landscape rather than complicate it. Bombing survivor Dave Fortier, who lead the media blitz when the sign was threatened in 2016, ran his first and he thought at the time last Boston the year of the bombing; the shared trauma made him a regular and made him a fervent defender of the sign.
“I’ve got certain landmarks I look for to get myself back to Boston. That sign is the biggest to me because it says I’m back. It’s like I’m home.”
This is the X-Factor that saved Citgo’s sign in 1982 and 1983 (and 2016). This is how it survived when identical signs in other cities were dismantled, and when older, more prestigious signs were removed from Kenmore’s neighboring streets.
If it had just been about beautiful signs that evoked a different age, the White Fuel sign would still be spewing oil from its derrick across Kenmore Square, with the Gulf sign next door, the Shell sign a bit further down; Commonwealth Ave would be a Las Vegas Strip of petrol, a Piccadilly Circuit. And that would be a marvel, but what Boston has is even better, a survivor, an underdog, a statement piece.
It was by finding itself, uncluttered and alone, in the crosshairs of every marathon runner, every power hitter visiting Fenway Park, and, oh yeah, everyone who idolized them that the sign persevered, living long enough to become an icon, a pop art masterpiece, and maybe this time, fingers crossed, an official landmark.
If ley lines are real, if they truly do carry power, the Citgo Sign must be on one, right smack dab on the most powerful point on the ley line from which Boston draws all its mystical sporting essence, that power that’s equally alluring when its teams are legendarily losing or legendarily winning. The sign probably – I’ve not checked through the proper channels, but probably - sits atop a now inaccessible Lovecraftian portal where the Boston sporting gods live, doling out curses and blessings as they see fit.
I had my own first time marathon runner to check in with. I followed up with Andy after the race to see if he had experienced that magical Citgo Sign moment. Turns out thanks to the weather, it hadn’t quite worked out that way.
CHARLES: So when was the moment you first thought for sure you were going to finish?
ANDY: Ummmm.... I can't even say that it was like a mile left.
CHARLES: (laughs) That's how rough it was?
ANDY: Yeah... A lot of the last five miles I don't really remember too much, like you're more feeling the crowd than even hearing it. It was really washed together in a very visual sense where it's gray and windy and everyone's in coats. I'm just staring down with this big floppy hat sometimes covering my eyes, I gotta pull it back.
Andy started the race wearing very short American flag shorts...
ANDY: People were like, oh my goodness... who... WOO, GO AMERICA!
...a long sleeve shirt, two hats, and gloves.
ANDY: I actually made a pretty bad error. At one mile in I was warming up and then like by two miles in I was like "I'm getting pretty hot." And so at 5K I actually took off my long sleeve shirt and both hats."
By the time he passed my spot at mile 20, he was wearing the same shorts and gloves, no shirt and a poncho.
ANDY: I saw like a girl and I guess her mother. They were completely covered and ponchoed but over the edge there was a piece of plastic and I come to them and I'm like "Is thish a ponsho." And I can't really speak too well, my face had stopped being functional. (laughs) It was so cold. My lips were pretty blue. And then they give it to me and I have big gloves on my hand and even inside of it, they're like frozen. So I could not, I was like fighting with the poncho to open it and the girl just takes it and opens for me and puts it over my head.
He also had picked up an entirely different hat from off the ground.
ANDY: And the hat was like two of my head big (laughs). It was flopping around the whole time and I had to like hold it on for the wind.
Andy did finish with pretty much exactly the same time he ran in Chicago two years ago, which is either remarkable because of the very different weather conditions or a bit of a let down after two years of training. Either way, he met one of the goals he set for himself before the race – he automatically requalified for the Boston Marathon.
ANDY: All things considered, a really good day. I mean it was pretty miserable, but yeah, it was... a special thing to have done.
As you might expect, especially after a run as grueling as his was, Andy isn’t committing to taking advantage of his BQ next year quite yet – he did tell us that’s the runners mentality, waxing and waning.
But, based on what I gleaned from our chats – this sense that even though he couldn’t see the course through the driving gales or his two-sizes-too-large beanie, he could hear it, could feel it, the crowd and something else pushing him along - I wouldn’t be surprised if that same runner’s mentality waxes after a few months of waning and I find myself cheering for him streetside on Patriots Day again. I hope the weather is better.
Before we wrap up and I make a very exciting announcement, I want to take you across the Charles River from Kenmore Square for a moment, just a little walk along the riverside. I didn’t tell the whole truth when I mentioned that all the other electric signs were removed. The Shell sign a few blocks down from Kenmore Square was, but it wasn’t scrapped; it retired to a Shell gas station in Cambridge basically within shouting distance of its old haunt. There it was dwarfing the gas station, a giant outline of a shell drawn in yellow neon, with the word SHELL in red. Older then the Citgo Sign by a generation. But this sign wasn’t on the marathon route and it wasn’t visible from Fenway, and it was falling apart after nearly eight decades of shilling Shell - by the turn of the century when it lit up it said HELL.
And so it too went dark for a few years. And then, this sign received an honor it’s younger sister across the river is still waiting to receive – in 2009, the Cambridge Historical Commission designated it a landmark.
Here’s the weird thing. When the sign came back to life in 2011, it was actually a different sign – the owner of this Shell Station Tibor Hangyal and his patrons had saved up for a decade and finally gotten Shell to get an exact replica made. So now Cambridge’s spectacular sign, the one championed by everyone who needs you to understand that no, Cambridge is not in Boston, and yes it does have an even more beautiful gas giant – is both much older and much younger than the Citgo Sign. I should also point out that, in the course of visiting the Shell sign, I did fill up my tank at the Shell station. I don’t know what that says about the integrity of the icons, but the fact remains: Shell 1, Citgo 0.
Iconographers, I have big news. The change in region isn’t the only new thing about this podcast in season 2. Iconography is now a proud member of Hub & Spoke, a Boston-centric collective of smart, idea-driven podcasts – I can say that because I have been a non-stop, incessant, effusive fan of all their shows. You can check all of them out at hubspokeaudio.org. You’re going to hear about all of them in episodes to come, but I want to tell you about a new episode from a fellow Hub & Spoke show called Ministry of Ideas, a show about the ideas that shape our world. I have been salivating over this episode for weeks, and now it’s here – Tomorrow, Today, an episode on Worlds Fairs. We wouldn’t have some of the world’s greatest icons without World’s Fairs – the Eiffel Tower, the St. Louis Arch, the entire climax of Men in Black. But alongside the grandeur, there were exhibits that reinforced and exacerbated ethnic stereotypes. I just listened to the episode, and, you’re really going to like it. Check that episode out at https://www.ministryofideas.org/ or anywhere fine podcasts are available.
Now I’m turning the tables on you, Iconographers; I’m ending every episode asking ya’ll what you thought of our icon, or in this case joint icons.
So you’ve heard my case for the marathon and the Citgo Sign, now you tell me: Isn’t It Iconic? (Donchya Think?)…
How have sporting traditions transformed the shape of your town? Don’t be afraid to go negative – in Boston, this has largely been a romance, but I know in a lot of places with newer taxpayer funded sports complexes like my hometown of Miami, it’s been much more like sitting through a horror film. “No don’t do that, don’t pay for THAT! RUN!!!”
P.S. If you feel like I didn’t go deep enough into the history of the marathon or Fenway Park, don’t fret; they’ll get their own episodes in good time. As a matter of fact, the current plan is to bookend this entire season by revisiting the Boston Marathon as the season finale.
Which brings us to the Citgo Sign. Enlighten me – get it, enlighten… Where you live, is there some strange landmark that has transformed – you know not how – into a beloved symbol? An objet d’heart as Time Magazine once called the Citgo Sign?
I want to hear about it and continue this discussion. I definitely also want to hear from those of you for whom the Citgo Sign is that symbol, will always be that symbol.
Office hours are open on Twitter @iconographypod, on the Facebook page facebook.com/iconographypodcast, and on the website where you can find show notes and a transcript of the episode. That’s at iconographypodcast.squarespace.com. Also if you want to leave ideas and questions in fawning iTunes reviews, I’ll check those too!
The next episode of Iconography will drop July 4th, and appropriately, it’ll be about the dueling origin stories of America, and the man who found himself very near the center of both: John Smith.
From England to New England. No I didn't move from London to Boston so I could have that catchy tagline, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Heck no, I'm going to ride that horse all the way from Charlestown to Cambridge shouting "Season 2 is coming! Season 2 is coming!"
Check out this trailer to hear about some changes to the format of the show, what topics we'll be addressing, and to hear a snippet of Season 2 Episode 1, coming June 20th.
The Season 1 finale! Revisit 2015, when the most recent Bond film came out on the tails of a series of revelatory spy films - and world events - that argued for 007's irrelevance.
- How the NSA shows up in mainstream entertainment
- So many Bond themes
- Melissa McCarthy showing the men (mostly Statham) how it’s done
- Kingsman’s scathing class critique
- Ilya Kuryakin and the demonized other
- Bridge of Spies and the reality of spy craft
- The wonders of Ilsa Faust
- The murky waters of Sicario
- A cameo appearance from HERCULES MULLIGAN!
This episode contains spoilers for Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, and Curtain.
There are very few things in life that are truly once in a lifetime experiences. If you had picked up the New York Times on August 6, 1975 you would have experienced one of them. “Hercule Poirot Is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective.” It would have been the first time you had ever seen the Times honor a fictional person with an obituary, let alone on the front page. It would be the last time you would see it as well.
The date of Poirot’s death is August 6th 1975. That’s the date “his death was confirmed by Dodd, Mead, Dame Agatha’s publishers.”
The date of death is October 15th, 1975. That’s the date they “put out Curtain, the novel that chronicles his last days.”
The date of death is sometime in 1940. That’s when Agatha Christie locked Curtain, Poirot’s last case, in a vault with the promise that it wouldn’t be opened until her death, and then, knowing full well how her most famous detective would die, went on writing cases for Poirot for decades.
The date of death is never. Poirot was just in a cinema near you, his mustache more voluptuous then ever. A sequel has been promised. Perhaps Kenneth Brannagh will play Poirot for decades until he too sends the detective off with his own version of Curtain. And still… Poirot will live on. He will outlive us all.
This is the story of Guy Fawkes, but it's also the story of the comic book that forever gave him rosy cheeks and a smile that taunts authority.
You never know what your legacy is going to be.
There once was a scholar at Cambridge who dedicated probably 90% of his adult waking hours to scholarship - cataloging dusty old manuscripts, caring for fragile old artifacts, studying creaky old churches. He never married, never had children, never retired. In the other 10% of his time, for kicks, he wrote and recited stories… stories about bachelor scholars went looking for dusty old manuscripts, found fragile old artifacts, and poked around creaky old churches, and oh yeah, these things were all cursed and studying them meant confronting unspeakable horrors.
M.R. James is iconic because of what he did in those rare moments he wasn’t giving his heart and soul to academia - those nights and weekends when he smirked and wondered “How can I scare the crap out of my friends?”
I spent 28 apparently forlorn years without reading any Terry Pratchett outside of Good Omens. One month ago, my book club was reading his The Wee Free Men. And just like that, I was an acolyte. A convert.
Which doesn't necessarily make Discworld an easy candidate for an Iconography episode. How does one map onto our world a fantasy world that rides around on the back of a turtle, where there is no London or England - or, to be more precise, where those places exist, but only in a magicless round world that’s kept in a glass sphere at Unseen University?
I went to the HisWorld exhibition at the Salisbury Museum to find out.
Here's the outfit referenced in the episode: "Black cane, with a silver head - literally a head, the head of his most famous character Death. Black satchel bag, black T-Shirt, black leather jacket, and crowning it all, the piece de resistance, the black Louisiana fedora. The cane and fedora, joining his round spectacles and white beard, would put one in mind of John Hammond, a kindly old dreamer with a twinkle in his eye. But this was John Hammond taking fashion tips from Ian Malcolm; be old-fashioned, fine… but spice it up with some darkness and danger."
The label below the mannequin reads in part: “I don’t become a real person with the hat on. I become an unreal person with the hat on. It’s tough under there, sometimes the hat has to come off. The hat is an antidisguise.”
In the same room, there's a reconstruction of Terry Pratchett's study: "The centerpiece of the exhibition, even more alluring then the mannequin in Terry’s clothes, is the full reconstruction of Terry’s office, with his old desk topped with six screens. Every once in a while, an invisible Terry Pratchett types a few paragraphs about Sam Vimes or plays Doom while emails from Neil pop up, and you can feel everyone in the room inhale. It almost feels like he’s there."
The walls of the HisWorld exhibition were gilded with fantastic art from Josh Kirby, Paul Kidby, and even Pratchett himself. These drawings of Tiffany Aching are from Paul Kidby.
In the same room, the famous hard drive (recently steamrolled) containing Terry's manuscripts is on display, as well as Paul Kidby's Pratchett bust, part of his work on the 7 ft.-tool Terry Pratchett statue that will soon be in Salisbury.
There's plenty of humor in the exhibition (as one would expect), but nothing made me chuckle more then a detail I caught on the way out - a Nac Mac Feegle in the donations box, eagerly awaiting your contribution.
Here's the second half in a series inspired by Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. This episode goes far beyond what that film focuses on - it goes from Chamberlain to Churchill and from Sedan to Petain, and yes even to Charlottesville, Virginia. I simply couldn't have expected the condemnation of Nazis and their symbols to have become so relevant when I started this episode, but I hope I did the condemnation justice. I should warn you that there is some audio from Charlottesville in the episode; not much, but it could still trigger some truly harrowing emotions. On a lighter note, I do an impression of Queen Wihelmena of the Netherlands in this episode, so you'll probably want to see how that goes.
If you could only learn about Dunkirk from the stories that have gravitated towards it; from Mrs. Miniver and Atonement and The Snow Goose – the novels and films – and from Their Finest and The Battle Of Britain and the Dunkirk movie that was made in 1958, and the Dunkirk movie that just came out… If that’s all you had… what could you learn?
Would you understand how the French Army, supposedly the world’s supreme fighting force, bolstered by alliances with Belgium and England, and by an unbreakable border fortification, the Manginot Line, fell in one month?
Would you be able to explain how the 30,000 men that British high command hoped, optimistically, to be able to evacuate before the Nazis closed in turned into 300,000?
And, what would you learn? About Britain, about France, about Nazis… about soldiers, about civilians… about war, peace, victory, defeat, and humanity.
This episode, I imagine what’s just on the periphery of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk; who else, besides Mr. Dawson, is setting off from England in a little dinghy? Who is up in the air monitoring fuel readings alongside the self-assured RAF Pilot Farrier? Who else, besides the baby-faced private Tommy is ducking the Luftwaffe amidst the dunes of Dunkirk?
Last month, Michael Bond passed away at 91. Inspired by a lonely teddy bear he saw at Selfridge's on Christmas Eve, 1956, Bond created Paddington Bear.
That bear has overshadowed the station that leant its name to Bond - people flock there just to see his little statue, unaware that the statue on Platform 8 depicts the greatest engineer of his (or any?) age. This episode, we consider why.
To wrap up our three-part series on the turn of the 13th century, we take a look at King John - no longer a petulant prince - and how he transformed England for the best by being the absolute worst.
Jay-Z, John Philip Sousa, and Kurt Weill are along for the ride.
This episode we consider the legacy of Richard the Lionheart - was he a disobedient son, a bad governor, a harbinger of death? This far out from the 1190s, does it matter anymore who he was, or does it matter who he's become?
To help, I pulled in three films that feature Richard: The Lion in Winter (1968), The Crusades (1935), and Robin and Marian (1975).
This episode: one of our most iconic stories, one that has been popular for centuries. A lot of people wonder if the Robin Hood legend us based on historical fact – was there a real Robin Hood – but what I think we should be asking is “How much is history, the history we think we know, based on this story?”
This episode, it's our first culinary icon! (Researching this episode was great.) What does it mean for a national cuisine - one that finds itself frequently derided for its blandness - to be tied so obviously to a meal as fickle - as subject to trends, whims, diets, advertising forces, and let’s be honest, early morning laziness - as breakfast? And what do the French have to do with it?
Plus: Why are these the foods that, when gathered together, give us the Full English breakfast? Why are some of them - eggs especially - so tied to breakfast in Western culture to the point of looking out of place in any other meal, and why are some of them - beans especially - so specifically English? Each ingredient of the fry-up tells a fascinating story about what breakfast has been to the English, and what it still is despite all odds. This episode, we'll tell the story of breakfast with some help from Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope, Nigella Lawson, a taunting Frenchman, and Misters Snap, Crackle, and Pop.