The challenge of unfolding history.
Writing about history, or a historical figure, must be tricky. A big reason, at least in my mind, is that you have to find and confirm information without a living witness. So, it must be incredibly satisfying to put together the puzzle of someone’s life who lived more than a century ago.
Lyn Millner took that challenge when she wrote The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet. It’s the story of Cyrus Teed, the leader of the Koreshan movement of the late 19th, early 20th century.
This book isn’t just for history junkies like myself, it’s the story of a fascinating, historical oddity. Cyrus Teed is like many cult leaders in American history. He’s also nothing like any of them.
It starts with a vision, a visit more like it, by an angelic figure. That then leads to a spiritual revelation and the creation of a new religion. This was the beginning of Koreshanity.
Teed slowly builds his flock over the years, and as he builds on his vision, he becomes a victim of it. The media loves him for his outrageous statements and exploits, but that fame puts a target on his back. Teed and his followers find themselves hated wherever they go.
Eventually, Teed lands in Florida with a new vision for a new Jerusalem. On a patch of swamp in southwest Florida, Teed brings his flock and they begin to build their permanent home.
In Florida the Koreshans found themselves welcomed, at first. They achieved a lot of industrial success. They created a political party. They established a city. They had their own publishing business. The list goes on. Eventually though, their beliefs, their way of life, ostracized them.
The Koreshans had similarities to other religions that were started in the 19th century, especially the Mormons (and Teed had a connection to Mormon founder Joseph Smith). Like many of them, his ideas eventually faded into history.
Millner shares how she spent almost five years digging up all she could about a person she calls a fascinating lunatic. I agree, he really is fascinating.
Poetry in a whole new light.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit the home of Marvin Sackner. He is a retired pulmonologist, and former chief of pulmonary disease at Mount Sinai Medical Center. I could have spent days in his home considering how many works of art were hanging from his walls.
Sackner, and his late wife Ruth, spent almost 40 years traveling the world meeting artists and collecting works labeled Concrete Poetry. They put many of those images into a book called The Art of Typewriting.
The book covers the span of concrete and visual poetry from the mid and late 19th century to more recent works. It was an eye-opener for me, even though I studied Art History in college. It just wasn’t in the curriculum.
So many of the pieces were filled with texture and patterns that baffled me when I realized that they were created on old manual typewriters. I could have stayed in his home for days marveling at the works on his walls.