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Houston, Huxley and History in the Making.

July 24, 2017

 

 

"You can't go to Houston! They have guns there!"

 

These words were uttered by my French mother when I announced that I would be going to Houston, alone, after Christmas. I refrained from rolling my eyes at her and saying: "Yeah, because no one ever gets shot in Paris". It would have been in poor taste. Part of me understood why she was so worried. Both of us were Parisian-born and neither of us had ever been outside of Europe. In both our minds, Houston was probably the most exotic place in the West and immediately evoked images of cowboy hats and visible weapons. 

 

I had been awarded a research grant by the BSHS (it is worth checking out their website) to go and look at the Julian Huxley archive at Rice University. I had been researching Huxley's early career as part of my PhD thesis on the reception of Henri Bergson's metaphysical theory of evolution among British and French biologists.

On a personal level this trip was especially significant. I had never ventured so far away from home and I had never taken on such a huge archive before. The cheapest flights I could find just so happened to transport me to Houston at a time that was especially significant for the rest of the world. Half way through my stay, Donald J Trump would become the 45th president of the United States. This perhaps, more so than the guns, was what worried my mother. 

 

 

"The most diverse city in the USA".

 

The first time I heard someone say this about Houston, I was skeptical. This was perhaps true of a city like New York, but Houston? After I had heard this claim for the third or fourth time however, I realised that it was probably less a statistical fact and more a Houstonian way of distancing oneself from stereotypes. Contrary to my mother's fears, there were no guns to be seen (though I'm sure there were still plenty of concealed ones). I was told, without having asked, that Houston was, as far as the election was concerned,  a "blue island in a sea of red" and that their former mayor was one of the first openly gay female mayors in a major city in the country. The closest I ever came to meeting a Trump supporter was an Uber driver called Donald who said he "had nothing against the man". 

 

It is undeniable that Houston has a cosmopolitan feel and its museum district is fascinating. In other words, it is true that Houston is very far from the land of Jesus-freak-gun-wielding-conservatives stereotype (especially from the perspective of my academic bubble). 

 

However, despite all its liberalism and fancy museums, Houston was, to a Parisian such as myself, just as exotic as I had expected it to be. 

 

First of all, as a European I am used to being able to walk just about anywhere and use public transportation for the other places. In Houston pedestrians are either joggers or dog-walkers, anyone else who chooses to walk is a freak. I am told this is quite typical in America but it came as a shock to me.  The university was within walking distance of my airbnb and going there every day was like walking through a ghost town (a ghost town with a lot of cars). 

 

The second unmistakable sign that I had left Europe was the weather. On the first day I was wandering around in a sleeveless dress in the sunshine. On the the third day I received a Google alert about flash flooding and an email from the university library telling me to stay at home. On the much dreaded inauguration day, the skies were slightly cloudy in the morning and by 5 pm torrential rain left me stranded on campus finding shelter in the Viking-themed postgraduate bar, The Valhalla

 

At the Valhalla, I nervously ordered a drink, not accustomed to drinking in bars on my own. The bar is cooperatively run by postgraduate bartenders who take turns doing weekly one hour shifts. Before long, I had started chatting to a few of them and once they had all finished their shifts, I was following them to some less Viking-themed more expensive and trendy bars. This never felt weird or particularly risky (although I have never told my mother about following complete strangers into the Houstonian night). I ended up spending a few other evenings with the same group of people including a particularly memorable and surreal night during which Edith Piaf songs were played in the Viking decor.

 

It was always excessively easy for me to make new acquaintances in Houston. My first positive experience in Valhalla had emboldened me. One night I blindly Ubered to one of Google's top bar recommendations. Almost as soon as I arrived I made friends with a group of primary school teachers. Having never been to Houston before, it was hard for me to tell if this was natural Southern hospitality or some kind of reaction to the trauma that Trump represented for the liberal parts of the country. It might also have been due to my own special sense of freedom that came with being alone and far away from home. No one knew me in Houston. 

 

"Great is Darwin and Bergson his poet".

 

When I was not out making friends with the locals I actually did some archive work! Archive work can be one of the most exhilarating aspects of a researcher's job, mainly because it makes you feel like you are part of a secret organisation of highly skilled orphans trying to defeat Count Olaf (if you didn't read Lemony Snicket as a child, why on earth did you get into research in the first place???).

 

 

On the other hand, archive work can be tedious, repetitive and soul-crushing. It involves a lot of page-turning and a lot of photo-taking. Sometimes you don't know what you're looking for and end up going through thousands of pages of irrelevant stuff. Sometimes you know exactly what you are looking for and can't find it because it was misplaced by a careless previous researcher. Sometimes there are copyright rules which mean you have to fill out a form every time you take a picture. Sometimes the archivists are not helpful (I won't name names but I'm looking at you, person who told me I needed a form to take pictures but also refused to provide me with said form!). 

 

Thankfully, the archivists at the Fondren library at Rice Univeristy were extremely professional, friendly and appropriately devastated by the approaching inauguration, and there were no time-consuming forms. This did not mean I was out of the woods. The Julian Huxley archive is huge. Huxley only worked at Rice University (Rice Institute at the time) for a few years at the beginning of his career but the university has since acquired a whole 70 years worth of notes, correspondence, and other papers. Needless to say I did not have time to go through everything. In addition, the correspondence is organised by year and not by correspondent. This meant that to be able to see the eighteen or so letters between Huxley and G. G. Simpson, I had to request eighteen or so boxes from the archive.

Another major problem was Huxley's handwriting. I found myself photographing indecipherable pages in the hopes that once back in Leeds they would somehow magically become legible. To this day, my (poor) paleography skills have not permitted me to decode some of Huxley's worst scribbles.  

 

Nevertheless I persisted (yes I am equating being told to shut up by Mitch McConnell as well as the struggles of thousands of women in a male dominated society with having difficulty reading someone's handwriting), and it was all worth it! On the third or forth day, I found Huxley's notes for some of the lectures he was giving in Houston around 1916. I won't bore you with the details (you can read my work or come to my talks for that). Long story short, there was some mind-blowingly Bergsonian game-changing stuff in there that made it into a talk I gave earlier this month at the BSHS conference in York, and it will definitely make it into my thesis. 

 

One of my favourite finds was the way the young Huxley had summed up his position towards Bergson in an elegant phrase jotted at the top of one of the pages of his notebook "Great is Darwin and Bergson his poet". 

 

The moral of the story is:  you never know what you will find in an archive but it is usually worth persisting, despite the tedium, if only for the Lemony Snicket quality of it all and to be able to show off great never-before-used quotes in conference slides: 

 

 *Update (January 2018)* I also used Huxley's phrase in the title of article which I have just published in the Annals of Science!

 

"Keep your tiny hands off my healthcare".

 

On the day of the inauguration I had done my best to concentrate on the archive despite the sense of impending doom and the archivists' need to talk things through while shaking their heads in dismay. I gave up an hour earlier than usual and decided to explore the various events that were taking place on campus. The students had organised a "teach-in" a sort of counter inauguration with talks about racism and fascism and various workshops. I found my way into a "writing for resistance" workshop expecting some invaluable insights about the world of  activism blogging (I'm sure there's a hashtag for that. #actiblogging ?). Instead, a Ted Mosby (the most annoying character in any sitcom ever) lookalike read us his favourite poem (13 ways of looking at a blackbird) and then asked us to list 13 things that came to mind when we heard the word "sanctuary". At this point there was no escape and I had to sit there for an hour thinking "NO WONDER THEY CALL US SNOWFLAKES!!!".  

 

The next day, "women's marches" were held all over the country and all over the world. I was very curious to see what such a protest would be like in such a country on such a day and was also not opposed to shouting my grief with other mourners. My mother's advice: "Don't get arrested". 

 

I stopped for a breakfast burrito before the march (as you do) and again engaged almost immediately in conversation with strangers who ended up giving me a ride to the march which was packed. I spent part of the protest with my new friends but eventually lost them shortly after this epic selfie was taken (hey Sarah!)

 

The cute and witty signs and cute and witty sign bearers were out:

 

 

 

Some signs, perhaps less cute, but more to the point raised questions about the lack of self awareness of this movement. Many interesting articles and blog posts (for instance here, here and here) have dealt with these questions better than I could.

 

 

 

Overall, the march left me with a sense of hope. Cheeto Demon would meet resistance, he would not be able to carry out his evil Cheeto Demon deeds in peace and it seemed that more and more people were aware of the meaning and importance of intersectional feminism. 

 

I could end my first ever blog post with platitudes about the significance of being a historian witnessing history in the making but instead I'll just list a few of my favourite bars and restaurants in Houston:

 

Axelrad beergarden Drink a beer outside (unless the wind is so strong heavy glasses are lifted off the tables. Yes, that happened) and enjoy the biggest pizza you've ever seen. 

 

Tacos A Go Go gives you all the energy you need for your feminist protesting in delicious taco form.

 

West Alabama Ice House for an authentic Houston feel and next to what I am told is the best food truck in Houston. 

 

 

Weights and Measures. I was invited here by two academics who came to my talk at Rice university and we talked about theology and perception. Also, the food is delicious.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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