Reckoning With Both the Man and the Myth
On Saturday 9 July 2016, the San Francisco History Association held its 18th Annual Awards Dinner at the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club on Washington Square. At the Dinner, the Association presented The Emperor's Bridge Campaign with its 2016 Ron Ross Founder's Award, which is "given each year to a person, group of people or organization for performing an impressive undertaking that support's San Francisco history."
The Dinner was emceed by Campaign Advisor Judi Leff. Also present were Campaign board members Joseph Amster and Kristian Akseth, as well as Dan Macchiarini, a good friend of the Campaign.
What follows are the acceptance remarks offered at the Dinner by Campaign founder and president John Lumea.
In his introduction, Ron Ross misspoke, saying that the Campaign was trying to name the eastern crossing of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton. Lumea and others at the "Norton table" quickly interjected from the floor that the Campaign's project is to name "the whole thing" for the Emperor. Ross asked what the Campaign planned to do with the western crossing, which is named for former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.
Lumea opened with a good-humored response.
Reckoning With Both the Man and the Myth
The Challenge and the Joy of Researching and Teaching About Emperor Norton
As Emperor Norton is my witness, The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign harbors no ill will towards Willie Brown. In fact, we’d be delighted if he joined us in our effort to name the Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton in 2018 — a fitting present, we think, for the Emperor’s 200th birthday.
On behalf of The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign, thank you so much to the San Francisco History Association for the honor of this wonderful 2016 Ron Ross Founder’s Award. The SFHA and Ron Ross are amongst the earliest and staunchest supporters of the Campaign and our work, and we are grateful for their ongoing friendship.
THE RON ROSS FOUNDER'S AWARD
Presented on behalf of
The San Francisco History Association
The Emperor's Bridge Campaign
For its work to honor history
by working to rename the
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge
the Emperor Norton Bridge
When you’re a start-up, it’s important to have early champions who catch your vision.
In late September 2013, about 40 people gathered at a new Tenderloin bar called Emperor Norton’s Boozeland to consider next steps. Over the previous six weeks, my Change.org petition to name the Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton had raised 4,000 signatures. But we had not been successful. Not yet.
Our Board today includes people who were there that night and who came into the Campaign’s orbit within the next couple of months.
In addition to myself, two of those Board members are here tonight: Known to many of you in this room for reasons totally unrelated to Emperor Norton is Joseph Amster. And — one of the "Boozeland 40" — Kristian Akseth.
Also serving with us are Sabine Luisi, Aaron Almanza, Mark Hogan and Devin McCutchen.
And we’re very lucky to have as Advisors: Ron Ross and Judi Leff, as well as Charles Fracchia, founder of the San Francisco Historical Society and John Law, a founder and leading light of countercultural movements including the Suicide Club, the Cacophony Society, the Billboard Liberation Front and Burning — and someone who understands on a deep level how important Emperor Norton is to keeping the San Francisco and the Bay Area in touch with its true self.
In the first year after that Boozeland meet-up — and leading up to the Campaign’s becoming a nonprofit in October 2014 — we positioned our bridge-naming project as a “campaign within the Campaign.” And we built out a larger cultural and historical mission in which we now are working on a variety of fronts — research, education advocacy --- to honor the life and advance the full legacy of Emperor Norton.
Balancing the life and the legacy of this particular figure can be a tricky business. Scholars of the historical figure of Jesus often talk about “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith.” I don’t want to push that metaphor too far here. But, in researching and teaching about Emperor Norton, we are challenged to reckon with both “the man” and “the myth.”
The myth of Emperor Norton is cherished by many — and it’s an important part of what keeps him alive and relevant.
But sometimes the myth and the man are at cross purposes. There’s a headstone in Colma claiming that Emperor Norton was born in 1819. But a number of us in the Campaign — including myself, Joseph Amster, Judi Leff and Julie Driver, the Emperor’s great, great , great, great niece — completed a research project in early 2014 showing that that’s not the case.
A few months ago, I published a long essay on the Campaign’s blog on the results of my research — assisted by Lindsey Westbrook, a regular presence at the Association's monthly talks — showing that there doesn’t appear to be any documentary evidence that Emperor Norton actually wrote or said anything like the anti-Frisco “proclamation” that is attributed to him. Some who don’t like that finding may be on our Board. They may even be in this room.
But one has to follow the evidence where it leads. And what impresses me more and more, as I do my own research, is that the Emperor Norton who presents himself in his own writings is every bit as wonderful — often much more wonderful — than the received caricature of him as a cranky but lovable kook.
Last summer, the History Association awarded the campaign a generous research gift to help us research, write and publish a book of selected Proclamations of Emperor Norton. The great historical gift of this project has been the opportunity to delve deeply in the full body of the Emperor's decrees and to see what he actually wrote — in the 1860s and ‘70s —
- against political corruption and corporate fraud
- for treating marginalized groups of people more equitably
- against religious sectarianism
- for fair labor practices; and
- for using science to advance the common good.
It strikes us that this is a person who is more than worthy of having his name “in lights” on the Bay Bridge — not least, given that it was he — Emperor Norton --- who set out the vision for the bridge in the first place.
I close with a brief note about our latest project.
As early as 1861, the cartoonist Edward Jump began to feature Emperor Norton in his work. That same year, the new Tucker's Hall in San Francisco opened with a comic opera titled Norton the First, or, Emperor for a Day. In 1863, a German artist signed his name, "T. Grob", to a painting in which he depicted Emperor Norton as one of a large cast of characters. And, by the mid 1870s, one could pop into a San Francisco shop and buy a sculptured figurine of the Emperor.
Emperor Norton's legacy in the visual arts has grown substantially in the nearly 160 years since he declared his Empire in 1859.
Beyond that: From the 1930s to the 1960s, there were a number of dramatic portrayals of the Emperor on film. And, since the 1950s, there have been a half-dozen or so operas and musicals about Emperor Norton, plus an impressive array of songs covering a wide terrain of pop, rock, folk and jazz.
As part of its mission to advance the legacy of Emperor Norton, The Emperor's Bridge Campaign long has been interested in the variety of ways in which the Emperor has been taken up as a muse for art.
To engage others in this aspect of our mission, we are creating a comprehensive, authoritative, searchable digital archive of representations and interpretations of Emperor Norton in the visual arts, in music and in film — the mediums that are most readily presented online. We are calling this archive...
ARENA: Archive of Emperor Norton in Art, Music & Film.
ARENA launched this week with a Visual Arts section — four annotated slideshow galleries featuring artistic "renderings" of Emperor Norton from the early 1860s to the present:
- Paintings, Drawings, Engravings & Illustrations
- Sculptures & Fabrications
- Public Art
You can find the Archive on our Web site: EmperorsBridge.org.
While you're on our site, have a look around. You’ll find our original research about Emperor Norton and loads of information about our projects and events.
A parting shot...
This November marks the 80th anniversary of the Bay Bridge — the Emperor’s bridge.
We plan to make the most of this wonderful opportunity to focus public attention on who Emperor Norton is — and what he means.
We hope you’ll join us.
Thank you so much — and thank you again to the San Francisco History Association for this fabulous honor.
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