Lenox considers variety in its past, present, future


It is difficult to see ways of thinking "ingrained in us, in our parents and grandparents -- ways of thinking because of how we were raised," said Sharon Hawkes, executive director of the Lenox Library, as she talks with me about the Community Read the library leads this month. "We have to look back to look forward."

Tonight, the library will hold a slide show and conversation about Lenox's present and past.

Hawkes has found this kind of conversation living in a library. She lived for five years in Maine, in a community where French-Canadian and Irish families had come to work in the mills -- as Irish and Italian and Polish families came to the Berkshires -- and where once people were afraid to speak French in public.

Now, the newcomers there speak Somali and Arabic (and sometimes five languages or more, including English.)

"The community wanted to be accepting," she said.

The library there held get-togethers for the Mainers to meet families in the Somali community -- teens dressing in western styles, interpreting America for their parents, Hawkes said.

So she hopes Lenox will find, in Karen Shepard's novel, "The Celestials," new ways to think about its past and its present.

The town has more variety and tension in its history, she suggested, than many people realize.

She touches on the 54th regiment, the first African-American regiment recruited to fight in the Civil War.

And Fanny Kemble, a nationally renowned actress who lived here, married a Georgia plantation owner and was appalled by what she saw. She kept a journal and pulished it during the Civil War, and it helped to sway Great Britain to the Northern cause, Hawkes said.

The Lenox Library has two copies of Kemble's diary, one illustrated with early 20th century watercolors. These are fragile books, kept carefully in the archives, and readers will soon be able to see them readily online -- the library has joined a statewide project to digitize materials from its collections.

After the war, and into the next century, Hawkes looked toward the people who kept the houses, gardens and farms of the Gilded Age.

"Where did the people who worked in the mansions live?" she asked.

She admired James Van der Zee, who was born here and who went on to become a photographer in the Harlem Renaissance. The Lenox Historical Society wants to put up a plaque to him, Hawkes said.

Lenox School of Jazz brought greats like Dizzie Gillespie to teach at the Music Inn.

And what is now Ventfort Hall became a place for people to stay when many Berkshire inns would not allow them, because they were not white or Christian -- and a vibrant community of artists and musicians gathered there, including Lorraine Hansbury, the playwright of the Tony-nominated "A Raisin in the Sun."

So Hawkes looks around her and asks Lenox: What can the town do today?

If you go ...

Where: Lenox Library, 18 Main St.

Admission: Free

Upcoming events:

Library slideshow on people
in Lenox's history on Feb. 20

Book discussion
at The Bookstore, Feb. 25

Library showing of the film
‘The Visitor' on Feb. 27

Information: (413) 637-2630, info@lenoxlib.org


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