Tuesday, February 3, 2009
I found a bag of Lincoln logs on the curb. Rushing to catch the bus, I passed them by quickly, saying to myself something like, “That is a big bag of Lincoln logs next to that trash can.” It was not until I got a few steps beyond them that it really sunk in. I went back. I am not sure if I’d ever seen Lincoln Logs in person before, never having any as a child, but they are an American icon, a reactionary recognition. What is the word for a nostalgia that isn’t your own memory, but a collective one? Erin Cho states in her essay Lincoln Logs: toying with the frontier myth, “The log cabin came to be identified with democracy and the frontier spirit as Americans began to marvel at their own progress and to make a virtue of their early struggles with the wilderness.”
What drew my attention most about this bag was the odd jumble of plastic cowboys, Indians and horses rolling around with the 200 or so logs. The Indians had feathers and buffalo headdresses ready for the Great Plains or just headed to a particularly good party. The cowboys had a lot of flair too, sporting an array of Skittle colors. Both groups were armed to the teeth, ready to kill each other. At first I thought this was just some other less culturally sensitive toy set thrown in with the industrious and neutral Lincoln Logs, but when I got home that day, I was able to find someone selling a log set with my same Indians on eBay so they must have come together.
Invented by John Lloyd Wright in 1919, the son of the much more famous Frank Lloyd Wright, Lincoln Logs originally contained instructions for building the cabins of both Abraham Lincoln and Uncle Tom—an interesting and unexpected comparison. I am even more surprised when I discover that there is a long history of Lincoln Log characters (originally metal and hand painted). They are anything but neutral in their portrayal of race and gender. I dump the whole lot of it onto my living room floor and attempt to start reconstructing.
I don’t drive. I have had this fact pointed out as the reason I am not very good at giving directions. Never navigating my world at the speed of a car why would I remember the exact names of street signs, or exact exits off of freeways? I wonder if, experiencing the city I live in differently than many people around me, I am in some ways living in a different city. Matthew Coolidge, founder of The Center for Land Use Interpretation, told me yesterday that earth is inert and that place is altogether a psychological space, a human condition. If no one perceives its existence than a location does not exist. Louis and Clark did not only “discover” a stretch of land that extended all the way to the Pacific, but created it in the minds of the American people. Even more fascinating is the realization that we are not all living is the same psychological location. We agree there is a “South,” for example, but not where it is entirely. Sometimes, it is as far as Maryland and Missouri, while almost never Delaware. Oklahoma is in, sometimes, because of its Confederate history. According to a survey by the University of North Carolina, “perhaps surprisingly, 11 percent of people in Utah, 10 percent in Indiana and slightly fewer people in Illinois, Ohio, Arizona and Michigan claim to be Southerners.” We also feel differently about where our neighborhoods begin and end and how cities are divided. I am not alone in geography being a matter of taste.