BOOKS & THE CULTURE Marching Orders BY CHAR MILLER San Antonio On Parade: Six Historic Festivals By Judith Berg Sabre Texas A&M Press 264 pages, $29.95. hat is it to describe a world?” historian Robert Darton wonders in a superb essay on 18th-century Montpelier, France, published in The Great Cat Massacre would we reduce our own surroundings to writing, if we felt the urge and had the energy?” His questions cut to the heart of the historical enterprise, framed as it is around perspective and interpretation, emphasis and orientation. “Would we begin with a bird’s-eye view and then narrow the focus as we descended to a key intersection, the local version of Main and Vine? Or would we enter the city like a stranger, passing from countryside to suburbs to some imposing cluster of buildings at the heart of the urban spacea town or church or department store?” Other choices would lead to different visions of a particular place in time, and would vary depending on culture and society. “Perhaps we would organize our Description sociologically, beginning with the municipal power elite or working upward from the workers. We could even strike a spiritual note, starting with a Fourth of July oration or a sermon:’ a reminder that every built environment is constructed out of the human capacity to think, plan, and communicate. Which only adds to the confounding array of possibilities that confront historians of the urban past. So infinite are they, Darton muses, that they can become “paralyzing. For how can one put ‘the true idea of a city’ on paper, especially if one cares about the city and the supply of paper is endless?” Darton’s analysis of Montpelier, a growing market town and administrative center in Languedoc, revolved around a massive unpublished manuscript left behind by an obsessive recorder of life in that provincial town; hoping to turn his city into text, this anonymous member of the French bourgeoisie toted up “every chapel, every wig maker, every stray dog in what to him was the center of the universe.” But there was a precise ordering to his description which paralleled the community’s hierarchy, beginning with the local bishop and ranks of clergy, running through the civil leadership, and tabulating the customs, folkways, and behaviors characteristic of the three estates that structured pre-Revolutionary France. Much of the manuscript, Darton observes, “reads like an account of a procession:’ and its author “organized his thoughts in the same way as his countrymen arranged their processions:’ because such parades served “as a traditional idiom for urban society.” Pre-industrial Americans also loved strutting their stuff in public, often to ritually confirm the new nation’s democratic ethos. It was an embattled ethos, it turns out, for although the street was an accessible stage that all social strata employed to demonstrate their presence in and significance to the commonweal, their differing sensibilities occasionally clashed. In some cases, violence flared along the parade routes of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. But most processions however much they appeared to challenge the status quo were pacific. By making spectacles of themselves, marchers hoped to establish that they had made it in America, that they belonged. Those claims of inclusion became considerably harder to display at the close of the 19th century. As the industrial revolution restructured society, politics, and labor, those who raked in the new wealth reconceived the purpose of public rituals.They appropriated once-open celebrations \(and found authority over the polity. Nowhere was this more starkly revealed than in The Veiled Prophet Celebration of Saint Louis, founded in 1878 in the immediate aftermath of a 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9/12/03
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