I never thought my first visit to Asheville’s famed Biltmore would turn into an exercise in wokeness, but here we are! It’s 2020 and any left leaning individual with a blog and understanding of optics must be #wokeaf.
It took me until July to visit The Biltmore when my parents visited, because I just kept thinking, “it’s just a big house, how cool could could it actually be?” Pretty cool is the answer. The glass-rotunda-ed foyer reminded me of my elementary school Titanic obsession. The library made me want to up my Amazon game. I keep trying to figure out how the turn-of-the-century basement pool would look with water, and if I could retire to the Biltmore’s back veranda, I know I’d have made it.
While I found the house impressive, I didn’t learn anything about the Vanderbilt family or how The Biltmore helped establish Asheville as a city. Not really.
You see, The Biltmore is still owned and operated by the Cecil family, who are direct descendants of George Washington Vanderbilt II who first built the house back in the 1880’s. The Biltmore does a great job of emphasizing how altruistic and giving Vanderbilt was, how important he thought it that the workers on his sprawling estate received a first-class education and how he essentially saved the Pisgah National Forest from being developed. It’s his his family though, in charge of preserving and spinning his legacy however they see fit, and we’re seeing more and more that Americans aren’t comfortable having legacies that are anything but completely untarnished.
I never got that. I used to think, well, if I had shitty ancestors I’d embrace it, because it doesn’t necessarily say anything bad about me, ya know? I realize now though it’s easy to embrace the bad if you’re descended from Lithuanian coal miners and Irish farmers. They didn’t leave me America’s biggest house or inherited wealth to justify.
Am I suggesting that George Washington Vanderbilt II was a monster? Frankly, I haven’t done any more research on the man other than what I was able to discern from plaques and booklets on my tour, although the older I get the more I think that it’s virtually impossible for anyone with the amount of money Vanderbilt had to be a genuinely good person. I also think it’s possible to portray someone as a nuanced, complicated human that did some really progressive things, while also acknowledging how that kind of turn of the century privilege and wealth certainly wasn’t gained from altruism or love for the great outdoors, but again, that means these current ancestors would have to grapple with how they ended up as privileged as they are. It’s a complicated topic, and truthfully don’t know that it’s something I’d want to grapple with if I were in their shoes. I just think it bears pointing out, especially considering the the events of this past summer surrounding removing monuments of the Confederacy, the recent backlash to the 1619 project, and Trump’s scary, scary recent executive order,
Apologies if you just came hoping to hear about Victorian rotundas and upstairs/downstairs intrigue, but had to read my leftist, so therefore socialist, agenda. This is precisely why Anitfa is coming for your suburbs.