George Stocking’s Stockings: Needlepoint to Pique the Historical Imagination

Many HAN readers will be familiar with George Stocking’s work on the history of anthropology; not all will know that he was also an artist. Until his last year of high school, while living in Manhattan, he thought of himself as bound for a career as a painter (Stocking 2010:25-26). After college, he worked in a meat packing factory, seeking to organize a union; he grew disillusioned with the Communist Party and entered graduate school in 1956, “to understand why American culture was so resistant to radical change” (69). That set him on the path of a scholar and teacher.

Yet in the 1970s, when George was settled on the faculty at the University of Chicago, he returned to his artistic pursuits. Not in painting, however—but in needlepoint. At first, he purchased kits for a footstool and pillows. After the birth of a grandchild, he needlepointed a Christmas stocking, using a standard design. In 1980, he dispensed with the kit and designed his own Christmas stocking, creating an original pattern with biographical details tailored to the recipient: his seven-year-old grandson, Jesse, who was much taken with The Incredible Hulk. The stocking portrayed Santa as a muscular, green-skinned superhero who seems to have arrived on a garbage truck, punching through a brick wall, to the amazement of a Krazy-Kat like Mickey Mouse.

Figure 1

Over the next dozen years, George needlepointed stockings for each of his grandchildren, with increasingly ambitious designs. In 1992, for example, his stocking for his granddaughter Isabel (Figure 2) included the image of three stockings hanging from a mantle, two of which were recognizable as stockings George had made previously, while the third was a miniature of Isabel’s own stocking, itself containing very tiny images of the three hanging stockings. George later described this as “a self-representational, historical, infinitely regressive pastiche” befitting the postmodernist spirit of the times: “Although I had to take out quite a few stitches to get the colors right, and could only carry the regression back two steps, I was very pleased with this one—finishing it gave me a high as great as the first review of Victorian Anthropology” (2008:22). Many scholars of the era spoke of culture as a “text” and drew out the term’s semantic links to textiles and weaving; here Stocking was knitting his own genealogical narratives.

    

Figures 2, 3

George’s most elaborate and biographically rich stockings were those he made for his grown children. His daughter Rachel Stocking, a medieval historian, received a needlepoint masterpiece (Figure 3) which depicted her in a medieval scholars’ garb, along with the Panama hat she had sported when receiving her Ph.D. At a table lit by candelabras, she writes her dissertation’s first words (in Latin), while an open tome on a lectern displays her initials after those of others in her family with Ph.D.’s.

At her feet are her two cats, as well as a lion with a bandaged paw, representing the medieval Church father, St. Jerome. The medieval discipline of maintaining awareness of one’s mortality (to better focus on saving one’s soul) is symbolized by the hour glass and skull on the table as memento mori. Those who knew George will recognize this motif: he was unusually alert to his own looming fatality, and for decades was wont to foretell his own imminent death in even casual conversations. Santa’s sleigh is visible through arched windows, soaring above castle turrets and a cathedral. At the top, Rachel’s name is bordered with flowering vines and songbirds, its initial blocked and flourished like an illuminated manuscript.

George created another extraordinary stocking (Figure 4) for his son Tomás, who played bass for a Bay Area rock band. It depicts him in a house concert, with Santa on drums and Rudolph on keyboard. In front of a blazing fire, all look cool in sunglasses, while Rudolph’s antlers emerge from a Blues Brothers-style fedora, lit cigarette at his side. Through the window we see the musicians’ sled parked on the neighbor’s rooftop. Here again the design includes a self-referring image of the stocking itself hanging from the mantel, alongside a miniature of another stocking George had made previously for Tomás’s daughter, Samantha, and just the toe of a mysterious third stocking, perhaps for Tomás’s second child, Dorian, yet to be born.

 

Figures 4, 5.

The stocking George created for his daughter Susan Stocking Baltrushes, a sculptor (Figure 5), depicts Santa posing as a discus thrower while Susan sculpts him. Santa has left his boots by the chair and draped his coat over it; if not quite a nude model, he wears only his undershirt and striped suspenders. Three of Susan’s children look in from the doorway, while her oldest, Jesse (the Hulk fan), pops in from the side. Rudolph lies in the foreground, while a sculpture of Susan’s that George liked to call “Freefall” floats over them all.

In 1993, George created an album of photos of the stockings he had made to that point. He formally dedicated the album to his brother Myron, who had once told George “that the aspect of my creativity that really impressed him was not at all the books, but the… stockings.” The album included a photograph of the brothers contentedly engaged in needlework (Figure 6):

Figure 6

Notwithstanding what he saw as the “double edge” of Myron’s comparison, George wrote that his stockings “were related to the books, and may have even helped me write them. I began doing stockings at the end of a decade in which my writing had been blocked, and they were produced in a period when I began to write more freely.”

A striking vision of the symbiotic relationship between George’s needlepointing and his writing was expressed by George’s children in a stocking they created for him as a gift (Figure 7).


Figure 7

It shows George in “his most characteristic pose”: at his desk, hand on chin, deep in thought. Shelved on the wall behind him are books he has written, the titles’ initials in tiny letters on their spines. But instead of writing, George is shown designing stockings. In so doing he carries forward the example of his major influences, including Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski, whose faces appear in portraits on the wall, accompanied by the stockings these towering anthropologists are imagined to have themselves created: Boas’s stocking incorporates Tlingit motifs, while Malinowski’s is in the style of a Trobriand Islands canoe prowboard. In this Borgesian vision, George’s stocking-making is projected onto a past from which he draws inspiration, just as he drew inspiration from the past in his writing.

George often worked on his stockings while watching Chicago sports: here the set is tuned to a Bulls basketball game, with Michael Jordan in mid-dunk. The sign below the roof marks the location as the Institute for Advanced Santa Studies (IASS), recalling George’s productive fellowship year in 1992-1993 at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton—where he not only wrote much of After Tylor, but designed and stitched fully three stockings.

*     *    *   

When considered as artworks, Stocking’s stockings manifest qualities akin to his scholarship, including an interest in self-referentiality and the intimation of themes through clues, tip-offs, or pointers rather than full explication. They reflect his strong documentary impulse and his characteristic drive to represent and preserve biographical detail. Here that impulse is extended to himself and his family. In his memoir’s bibliography he listed his 1983 album of his stockings—from which he said he got “more sheer joy, I think, than from any of my scholarly books”—as “Unpublished album (20 pages) for private circulation and eventual deposit in the Special Collections Research Center of Regenstein Library” (2010:224). In other words, he left a breadcrumb trail for them to be found.

I know from conversations with George that he relished the unconventionality of being a male needlepointer, and he enjoyed the admiration often expressed by strangers when he passed the time aboard flights and in other public places by working on his stitching. In the late 1980s when he spent a year at the Getty Center, he took out his needlepoint during the bus ride to his cohort of Getty Scholars’ initiation retreat, “much to the amazement of all,” he later recalled, adding: “Also easily amazed by traveling male needlepointers are airline stewardesses, who usually stop to admire when they are not busy serving” (2008:14).

George appreciated the humorous aspect of “Stocking’s stockings,” but they were much more than a joke. “Along with whatever creativity went into them, there was a lot of loving effort” (2008:5). Also, George was keenly aware that, whatever the stature he enjoyed as a scholar of the history of anthropology, there were many people beyond his immediate family with whom he interacted regularly, for whom the history of anthropology and the products of his scholarship had almost no meaning. And so these stockings—little known to his professional colleagues and perhaps regarded by them as just an eccentric hobby—conversely held for these others in his life a welcome interest and value. As George observed in his memoir, he was sometimes told by people close to him, “I can’t understand a word of your books, but I love your Christmas stockings” (2010:118). There are of course many occasions in everyone’s life when professional identity and accomplishments are all but irrelevant, and among these the celebration of seasonal yearly festivals with one’s extended family is surely high on the list.

George’s needlework may be most interesting for its trajectory in his life, as it developed from a simple pastime into a creative project layered with biographical and aesthetic significance. As he increased his technical skill, his stockings became more expressive and he attempted more ambitious experimentation with genre features and form. Such development exemplifies what Edward Sapir, in an essay George loved, describes as the characteristically human drive to achieve mastery in given areas of endeavor, epitomized by the arts:

The self seeks instinctively for mastery…. To relate our lives… to forms of expression that carry conviction to others and make us live again in these others is the highest spiritual satisfaction we know of, the highest welding of one’s individuality with the spirit of his civilization. (Sapir 1924:424-425)

When George instituted the section of this publication that he named “Clio’s Fancy: Documents to Pique the Historical Imagination,” the prototypical document he had in mind was the “juicy” letter of a past anthropologist that a HAN subscriber might find in an archive but would be unlikely to publish otherwise. But now, at a time when what was once “the letter” has been fragmented into diverse media forms, we should recognize that there are many kinds of documents that can pique the historical imagination. Even needlepoint stockings.

 

Acknowledgments:

Unattributed quotations are from the short text George wrote to accompany his 1993 album. In 2008 George’s children produced an expanded version of this album which they presented to him on his eightieth birthday; this article draws on their work, especially the explanatory captions by Susan Stocking Baltrushes. I am grateful to her for generously sharing her album for this article, for photographing the stocking in Figure 7, and for reading a draft and checking my descriptions. The stocking in Figure 7 was designed collaboratively by George’s children and stitched by Melissa Stocking Robinson. I wish to thank John Tresch for his editing, and Tracie Canada, Lise Dobrin, Richard Handler, and Wendy Zomparelli for reading drafts. Special thanks go to the HAN advisory board for inspiring me with the idea that George’s needlepoint stockings indeed do “pique the historical imagination.”

References Cited:

Sapir, Edward. 1924. Culture, Genuine and Spurious. American Journal of Sociology, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 401-429.

Stocking, George W., Jr. 2010. Glimpses into My Own Black Box: An Exercise in Self-Deconstruction. History of Anthropology, volume 12. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Authors
Ira Bashkow: contributions / website / bashkow@virginia.edu

4 Comments

  1. Curtis M. Hinsley

    December 21, 2016 at 10:46 am

    I smiled throughout this wonderful, loving embrace of a remarkable man. Thank you, Ira and friends.
    Curtis Hinsley

  2. Thank you, Ira! This is a wonderful tribute to George’s creativity.

  3. How wonderful to see this! As someone who is a regular visitor to the AAAS headquarters in Washington, DC, where there is a dedicated art space, I am also reminded of how science and art are often so symbiotic! What a very special form of creativity are George Stocking’s originally designed needlepoint stockings, and thanks to Ira for sharing this story about them!

  4. How brilliantly humanizing to add this dimension to one of our discipline’s greatest story tellers. Thank you, Ira.

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