“And marked his grave with nameless stones”: William Cullen Bryant’s “The Murdered Traveller”

William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant

While waiting in a Baltimore hotel lobby, I thumbed through one of its meant-to-be-seen-and-not-read bookshelves. There among old, leather-bound editions of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812, I found the collected works of William Cullen Bryant. A romantic, Bryant is known primarily for his poetic naturalism (see, e.g., “Thanatopsis“) but he was also a prodigious translator, deciding at the age of 77 to translate Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. But as this was my first introduction to the poet, I knew none of this. Skimming the volume, I was not very impressed, but then I came across a poem that I stopped to read three times in a row. Its title: “The Murdered Traveller” (copied below).

First published in January 1825 in the United States Literary Gazette (Boston), “The Murdered Traveller” tells of a skeleton discovered in the woods. Emotionless, its discoverers mark the grave with stones and continue on with their own travels, a scene then juxtaposed with the dead’s homeland. As nature reclaimed the body, back home “long they looked, and feared, and wept, / . . . And dreamed, and started as they slept,/ For joy that he was come.” It closes, “Long, long they looked — but never spied/ His welcome step again,/ Nor knew the fearful death he died/ Far down the narrow glen.”

This poem struck me because it reminded me of a story we hear too often: of missing men, women, and children whose families never lose hope that one day their loved one will return. Of course there is the famous case of Jacob Wetterling, but I also thought of when the IMGUR online community came together to identify the 15-year-old cold case of “The Grateful Doe” (a truly amazing story worth reading about). In the appendix, Bryant recounts his own inspiration for the poem: Continue reading

“The Greatest Cartoon the World War Produces is a Photo!”

I’ve posted before about the Great War, including the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and a sampling of political cartoons from the war’s first year. Recently, while searching the newspaper archives for (and failing to find) a certain Russian-Anarchist-themed comic strip, I discovered the following photograph. Titled WAR, it depicts a Belgian woman—grief-stricken, the features of her face lost in dark shadows. Continue reading

Reflection on the “2017 DFL Minneapolis Mayoral Candidate Forum” at the University of Minnesota Law School

On March 30, 2017, I had the great honor and fortune of moderating one of the few 2017 DFL Minneapolis mayoral candidate forums. When my fellow Law Democrats gave me this responsibility, I took it very seriously. Because this was my first time moderating a political forum, I spent weeks revising my opening remarks, researching the candidates, and thinking about how to distinguish our forum from what I derisively call “soft ball.” If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it right, and I’m going to make it count.

Continue reading

Two translations of Danish writer Ernesto Dalgas

I’ve blogged before about the writing advice Robert Bly once gave me, and since then, I’ve translated pieces by Norwegian poet Julius B. Baumann (1869-1923; here) and Danish writer Ernesto Dalgas (1871-1899). Like Baumann, even though Dalgas is well-recognized in the canon of his country’s literature, none of his work exists in English. So, this is my attempt to fix that. (Let me know what you think!)

Both of these first appeared on my Instagram page, where I tend to accompany writing with my own drawings/illustrations. The story “Milkwort” is from Chronicles and Fairytales (1896), and the “Life and Death” excerpt is from Poems and Drama (1904).

Continue reading

The Legal Implications of Detecting Alzheimer’s Disease Earlier

azmrpdhu_400x400

The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics

In addition to my work as an historian, I am also a JD/MA Bioethics candidate at the University of Minnesota Law School. Ever since I first read David Eagleman’s book Incognito (2011), I’ve been enamored with the field of “neurolaw,” i.e. the intersection of law and neuroscience. I’ve been lucky to pursue this interest professionally, setting out on a path that’s taken me to Eagleman’s Center for Science & Law, the magazine Voices in Bioethics, and more recently the Shen Neurolaw Lab here at the University.

Though I’ve only been with the lab since May, things have been moving along quickly. There’s more coming down the pipeline, but I’m pleased to say that last month the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics published a co-authored essay in its “Ethics in Neuropsychology” issue. Our paper is titled “The Legal Implications of Detecting Alzheimer’s Disease Earlier” and as its lead author, I’m especially proud of it for two reasons. First, it’s been an honor to work alongside Professor Francis X. Shen, undoubtedly one of the top neurolaw scholars in the field today. The guy’s brilliant. Second, it gave the lab an opportunity to develop some “first thoughts” on a topic that will, within the next decade, move the hand of the legal system. After all, as doctors get better at detecting the physiological indicators of Alzheimer’s disease long before there are behavioral changes, how should law and medicine respond?

Here’s the abstract:

Early detection of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) raises a number of challenging legal questions. In this essay, we explore some of those questions, such as: Is a neurological indicator of increased risk for AD a legally relevant brain state before there are any outward behavioral manifestations? How should courts address evidentiary challenges to the admissibility of AD-related neuroimaging? How should the government regulate the marketing of neuroimaging diagnostic tools? How should insurance coverage for the use of these new tools be optimized? We suggest that many voices and multidisciplinary perspectives are needed to answer these questions and ensure that legal responses are swift, efficient, and equitable.

You can read the full article on my Academia.edu page here.


Citation: Joshua Preston, Jaleh McTeigue, Caitlin Opperman, Jordan Dean Scott Krieg,Mikaela Brandt-Fontaine, Alina Yasis, and Francis X. Shen, The Legal Implications of Detecting Alzheimer’s Disease Earlier, 18 AMA Journal of Ethics 12 (2016): 1207-1217.

Senator Allan Spear and the Minnesota Human Rights Act

In 1993 Minnesota became the eighth state in the nation to outlaw gay and lesbian discrimination in housing, education, and employment. Unlike other states, Minnesota even went further to ensure these same protections extended to members of the trans* community. No easy feat, this was the culmination of two decades of legislative maneuvering and grassroots organizing orchestrated by people like Sen. Allan H. Spear, Rep. Karen Clark, Steve Endean, and Scott Dibble. Twenty years later, when the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, the story of the Minnesota Human Rights Act was something seasoned activists knew about but of which my generation was oblivious. For those curious about how such legislation could pass at a time when even advocates felt uneasy using the word “gay,” there was little (if anything) to turn to.

Wanting to learn more about this important moment in state history, in 2013 I applied for a Mondale Research Fellowship from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School. Although my historical interests gravitate toward early-20th century politics, I was inspired to study the life of Allan Spear after reading his autobiography Crossing the Barriers. Published posthumously in 2010, it recounts his childhood, his experience as a gay man, and his careers as both an historian and state senator. Unfortunately, given his passing in 2008, the book was never finished–and even worse, since Spear wrote chronologically, the narrative ends abruptly in the 1980s, years short of his greatest legislative achievements. Although the former-state senator Steve Milton wrote a nice afterward, his was the unenviable (and impossible) task of summarizing the last twenty years of a vibrant life in just as many pages.

When I was awarded the Fellowship, then, I set out not only to produce good scholarship on Minnesota’s LGBT nondiscrimination law, but I also wanted to do Sen. Spear’s life justice. As his colleagues on both sides of the aisle would attest, he was a brilliant, caring man, and someone without whom our state would be lesser.

In doing my research, I relied upon the rich archives available at both the Minnesota Historical Society and UMN Elmer L. Andersen Library. Furthermore, I sat down for several one-on-one interviews with Gov. Arne Carlson, Rep. Karen Clark, Sen. Scott Dibble, and the late historian Hy Berman. It took a while to write (life happens) but my paper “Senator Allan Spear and the Minnesota Human Rights Act” was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Minnesota History magazine. (The magazine’s staff even went so far as to make the video trailer posted above!)

Now that this project is behind me (always a strange feeling), I hope readers find some hope in the story of Sen. Allan Spear’s 20-year campaign to pass an LGBT nondiscrimination bill. Especially in this political environment, it is worth remembering that progress is often incremental and that while setbacks can be disheartening, it does not mean the cause is foolish, hopeless, or dead. It just means that there is more work to be done. While we should pause and reevaluate our course in light of history’s lessons, we must keep pushing forward. The struggle is a part of movement building, and building a movement is one of the most-powerful tools we’ve got to make this world a more compassionate and accepting place.

You can buy a copy of Minnesota History here.

As an historian, it’s hard to be hopeless

Like many people, I’m still wrapping my head around the 2016 election results. And while I’ve done my fair share of asking, “What happened?” I’ve (fortunately) moved on to the more-useful question of “Now what are we going to do about it?” To that I’m still working on an answer, but here is something I posted on Facebook a few days after the election, explaining why–even for as much as I worry about the next 4 years–it’s hard for me to be hopeless.

(As a side-note: Call me lucky or count me cursed, but this year my 26th birthday fell on Election Day 2016).


herbert-gaston-and-henry-morgenthau

Press photo of Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Herbert Gaston with Henry L. Morgenthau, Jr., following the latter’s appointment as Secretary of the Treasury. January 2, 1934.

Thank you for the birthday wishes, everyone. Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about this election, and while I, too, am still finding all the words, let me say this: As a student of history and political theory, it is hard for me to be hopeless. Here’s why.

For my birthday, I got two sets of gifts. The first was a collection of signed books (both published in 1920) about the insurgent, agrarian-based Nonpartisan League. Included with these was a 1934 press photograph of one of the authors, a former-NPL organizer, serving as FDR’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and shaking hands with Henry L. Morgenthau, Jr. This is proof to me that eventually the “outsiders” get their turn, and the proposals that were once “radical” become the programs we take for granted.

herbert-gaston-nonpartisan-league

Two books about the NPL: The Nonpartisan League (1920) by Herbert Gaston and The Story of the Nonpartisan League: A Chapter in American Evolution (1920) by Charles Edward Russell.

The second gift is something I bought for myself, via international auction. It’s a handwritten manuscript page by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, best-known for his work “On the Social Contract,” a cornerstone for democratic thought. Written sometime between 1748-1751, it includes a few notes Rousseau was taking for a planned work on the history of women (unfortunately, it was never finished). Holding the page in my hand, its edges brittle and the ink clearly visible through the other side, I feel I’ve gone back in time 260 years and am looking over Rousseau’s shoulder.

To engage with time in this way changes one’s whole relationship to the world, and without going too much into what I mean by this, let me focus on the following. There are few arrogances like declaring The End of Ideology or The End of History, both of which allegedly occurred the 1950s and 1990s, respectively, because as both people and economies change, so too must change our political institutions. The broader, timeless principles of liberty, justice, and republicanism must always be our cornerstones, but what we build upon them will necessarily vary. To have engaged with history as I have is to discover there have been many “End Ofs” in the last 260 years, and to declare the present The End must be categorically rejected, for where the principles I’ve listed are absent, there will always be tension, struggle, and eventually revolution.

jean-jacques-rousseau-handwritten-manuscript-page-preston

My personal copy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract and a manuscript page of Rousseau’s unpublished book on the history of women.

What I like the most about this manuscript page is that when Rousseau was writing it in the mid-18th century, there were a few unquestionable presumptions about the state and economy, these “End Ofs.” One was the divine right of kings. Another was the institution of slavery. Both of these abhorrent concepts were so deeply ingrained in western culture that even to most enlightened minds they were perceived as impenetrable.

But by the end of the next century, both belonged to the dustbin of history.

Similarly, there are institutions and ideas around us now that seem impenetrable – so much so that that one can barely imagine what a society would look like if it embraced true gender and racial equality, organized around economic principles of equity, and substituted citizenship with cosmopolitanism. But 260 years ago the same could be said about many things we take for granted – this is because, as with the Nonpartisan League, over the centuries the outsiders have gotten their turn, and what was once radical became conservative orthodoxy, again and again and again.

So, as a student of history and political theory, it is hard for me to be hopeless. Because regardless of how many thinkpieces come out proclaiming what happened another “End Of,” as long as we keep fighting, nativism and authoritarian populism will fall. Don’t worry, millennials, we’ll get our turn.