Speaking of Sneakboxes

As I wrote previously, the LESLEY Documentation Project was born in part of my desire to revisit the kind of fieldwork that got me excited about doing history in the first place.  What I didn’t know when the idea first got legs, however, was that LESLEY is a sneakbox.  Sneakboxes are funny little boats, perfected a century and a half ago by waterfowlers tired of mucking about in the New Jersey Pine Barrens’ marshy littoral.  Although LESLEY is much larger and much more refined than its work-a-day cousins, its bulbous hull and crowned deck recall the type perfectly.

It also happens that I absolutely love sneakboxes.  For me they recall the summer I interned at the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Culture (the summer before I first visited the Independence Seaport Museum, for those of you following this thread).  It was a transformative time, one that I’ve described here as priming me for the culture wars.  But it was also the summer that I first met the sneakbox.

My charge at the AFC was to create a finding aid for researchers seeking collections related to boatbuilding.  The American Folklife Preservation Act (1976), which created the AFC, had generated considerable support for ethnographic folklife projects all over the continent.  Thousands of hours of audio recordings poured in from everywhere.  There were interviews with  Apalachicola watermen, Rhode Island quahog diggers, Georgia fishermen, and of course, New Jersey sneakbox builders.  I listed to them all that summer, sitting in the AFC, headphones on, half asleep and half mesmerized by the hypnotic normalcy of people describing their daily lives.

By the end of it, I had worked up a pretty good guide to all the AFC’s various bits and pieces of audio that had anything at all to do with boatbuilding.  It was the bits about sneakboxes, though, that fascinated me most.  I had never heard of a  sneakbox before, but the idea of a tiny boat that could sail anywhere–even over ice–captivated me.  And there was something too about the sneakbox recordings.  Narrators like Theodore “Ted” VonBosse spoke about these boats with a powerful fondness, as if speaking about home, or recalling an old friend:

Much to my surprise, it turns out that all of the recordings I picked through that summer have recently been digitized, by an entire corps of AFC interns no doubt.  What a sensation to encounter these voices again.  They take me back to the AFC during those days before digital audio gear.  Back when the Enola Gay was ground zero.  Back before I had any inkling that a summer internship could turn out to be so valuable.

On Boats and Ideas and Stepping Away

There is a framed black-and-white photograph in my office that depicts Tim White, a former head of the Workshop on the Water at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum, fitting a centerboard case into a wooden boat under construction in his shop. I took the photo myself way back in 1995 while doing field research for my undergraduate thesis project. It captures at least two moments. One is evidentiary: a simple act of boatbuilding. The other is more oblique: a young photographer in a strange city, excited by ideas, fascinated by boats, and emboldened by the documentarian’s gaze.

Tim White in the Independence Seaport Museum Boat Shop, Philadelphia, PA, October 27, 1995.

It was that second moment—not the first—that I went hunting around for in my old field notes sometime toward the end of my first year on the tenure track. I had come full circle, landing back in Philadelphia after years away. And yet, life and work in the university hadn’t turned out to be quite what I hoped for. Despite some bright spots, I found myself pretty quickly surrounded by unclear expectations, combative colleagues, and worse than crippling bureaucracies. Disciplinary orthodoxies turned out to be far more entrenched than I had suspected. More broadly, the in-crowd hierarchies that prevail across academia wore deeply on me, and still do. I found it harder and harder to recall what it was like to be excited by ideas, to be fascinated by anything, to be bold.

The photo of the boat shop, I hoped, would be a reminder, encouragement to revisit the things and places that had put me on this course years ago. And so it was. Before long I had reacquainted myself with the Seaport Museum, finding there colleagues who remain today among my most valued. I even dusted off some old boat research and found a few new projects along the way.

But the most important memories buried within that old photo had less to do with WHAT ideas excited me back then, than with HOW I got excited about ideas in the first place. I thought about the museums that thrilled me when I was a kid. I thought about how much I loved woodshop in high school. I thought about learning to do field research at the American Folklife Center and with the National Park Service. And I thought about professors I had respected for abandoning the classroom whenever it made more sense to show students how things work than to tell them.

Since then I’ve sought in my teaching to flee campus, or at least to get out of the classroom, whenever possible. I’ve tried it all: fieldtrips, outreach, partnerships, scavenger hunts, bus rides, walking tours, digital meet-ups, throwing pots, really whatever it takes. This semester I’m pushing further by staging an entire semester of course meetings at, where else, the Independence Seaport Museum. More than two decades since taking that photo of Tim White in his shop, I’m returning to the same spot with my own students to stage the LESLEY Documentation Project. Tim’s not there any more, but the boats are, and so is the shop, and amid all of it we’re getting excited about ideas that are all but impossible to conjure in the stubborn fixity of a seminar room.

The modern American university is a difficult place, run through with contradictions and inequity. Much that is good remains there, but I’ve become convinced that to find it we must step away as often as we can. Doing so, in my case anyway, amounts to an act of self-preservation. And for my students, especially in this age of anger and anxiety, learning to preserve ourselves may just be the most important lesson.

Seth Bruggeman interviews Tim White, Independence Seaport Museum Boat Shop, Philadelphia, PA, October 27, 1995. Photo by Chad Mahood.

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A bibliography of the rise, fall, and rise of my excitement about maritime pasts: