Friday, September 30, 2011
On Wednesday the history department at my institution hosted San Diego State University historian Edward J. Blum, who delivered an intriguing lecture on "What Humor Tells Us about Race and Jesus in America."
Blum is the author, with Paul Harvey, of the forthcoming Jesus Christ in Red, White, and Black (UNC Press, 2012), which "examines the central roles played by depictions of Christ in racial battles from the colonial era to the present."* Blum has also authored a variety of other books and articles on race, religion, and American culture.
In his lecture here on campus, Blum asked students, faculty, and community members to think about how humor in America has changed since the 1970s. What might have been utterly taboo in previous decades--jokes about Jesus, or cracks about religion and race--are now common.
A reporter from the local paper, Dan McCready, showed up and wrote a brief piece on the event. (See the article here along with a short video.) Blum addressed depictions of Jesus and described how Americans have talked about and represented God over the decades and centuries. Those images and ideas about race in general led to innumerable conflicts in the 1960s and 70s, many rehearsed on TV and the big screen. Said Blum to McCready: "What happens in the 1970’s is [that] Americans tire out from the Civil Rights movement, they tired out from all the struggles and we see a backlash to racial problems." Enter Archie Bunker, Dirty Harry, and Rocky Balboa.
Using episodes from South Park and Family Guy, along with popular films, Blum ably guided the audience through the twists and turns of popular culture and showed how we got from point A to point B. Few topics could get students to think about change over time as this did. And I'm always glad to have that key aspect of history discussed by visiting speakers!
Thursday, September 29, 2011
My understanding of art history is tenuous. At best. But one thing I’ve learned from the popular science writer Jonah Lehrer is that a revolution in 19th-century painting coincided with the advent of a disruptive new technology.* That technology was the camera, and the artistic innovation that it encouraged was Impressionism. With the emergence of the camera, Lehrer writes, “painting lost its monopoly on representation.” Once the static could be captured by a mechanical device, the painter’s comparative advantage resided in his or her ability to convey the fleeting, sensory-laden character of everyday experience. Representation gave way to impression, symbol, and expression.
There may be a lesson here for academia, and historians in particular. Educationally related technological breakthroughs of recent decades—yellow lined paper, VHS players, Laserdiscs, PowerPoint, the insulated thermos mug—could be harnessed by the lecturing professor in the traditional classroom. DVDs and YouTube allowed the professor to illustrate her points with a vivid film clip, or to catch a rejuvenating 45-minute nap. However, the larger cyber universe won’t be so easily tamed. The internet, as we have been told, is a genuinely disruptive technology. There will be no napping.
None of this is news. Dan Allosso has been writing about the radical and generally positive impact online learning is likely to have. I wrote something myself a couple of years ago. And nearly every day, someone pronounces the end of the university as we know it. Usually, that person is Kevin Carey, but not always. Online learning clearly presents a challenge to the way things have been done. (If you doubt it, ask yourself whether you are capable of giving a better lecture on a particular topic than anyone in the world—or check out Jonathan Rees’ blog.) It’s concurrence with an increasingly untenable college cost structure should be worrisome to all of us.
Setting aside the daunting tuition and student debt issues, the parallel rise of the camera and Impressionist painting offers us an example of how a disruptive technological change can result in the sort of transformative change that Allosso, Carey, Rees and others been talking about. Like the Impressionists, we need to capitalize on the ephemerality and distinctiveness of each classroom situation, every day. We also need to presume that the seats bolted to the floors in our lecture halls and classrooms will not be occupied because a professor happens to be standing in front of them delivering the same lecture—one now easily recorded and distributed—he has been giving for the past 15 years. Because of the web’s capacity for delivering knowledge to us in the comfort of our homes or our carefully guarded Starbucks tables, the live lecture’s marginal utility as a means of conveying static truths to a passive audience has diminished, maybe forever.
History teachers need not wholly despair. For years, pedagogical experts (don’t smirk, there is some truth to the designation) have been telling us that students need to be actively engaged in order to learn better anyway. Until now, many of us have been able to evade the implications of that insight because our anecdote-riddled sixty-minute accounts of past events have been so, well, engaging. But like the 19th-century artists who found that their value as purveyors of verisimilitude had faded, we too need to develop creative ways to use history to expand our audience’s understanding of the world. That’s a cliché I know—like telling a baseball team that it needs to win one game at a time. And this process will prove challenging for people like me who have always seen ourselves as doing our job best when we represent the past most faithfully. But it may already be past time for us to think seriously about painting water lilies.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
National Geographic has rolled out a new magazine, Exploring History, which promises readable and easily accessible essays and features on ancient to modern topics. The magazine has the polish of History Today, though it does not include the range of historians that HT does so well.
The first installment includes a cover story on Abraham Lincoln that delves into that giant's political career and his inner world. K. M. Kostyal presents the man who would become the 16th president as a contrarian:
Kostyal draws on the work of scholars and uses firsthand sources throughout and asks "What propelled Abe Lincoln from the obscurity of frontier life to leading the nation, and becoming the most written about president of the United States?" Like other articles in this inaugural issue, this piece could be used for undergrads in a history survey.
The Fall 2011 issue also includes essays on "Rome's War Machine," "The Rise and Fall of Moctezuma," "Joan of Arc--Beyond Belief," and "Birth of the Pyramids." Editor Anne Alexander writes "Just as National Geographic has been revealing the wonders of the world to readers for more than a century, this magazine will dig deep to unlock the mysteries of time, from the dawn of civilization to the modern era."
Richly illustrated and laid out with clean precision, Exploring History is a must have for history buffs, general enthusiasts, teachers, and professional historians.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Rana Mitter, "The Opium War by Julia Lovell – review," Guardian, September 2, 2011
The newly refurbished National Museum of China opened in March 2011 in Tiananmen Square, adorned with groundbreaking technology and architecture. But the story it tells is far less innovative than the design. In the museum's narrative, China's modern period of history opens with the opium war, the original sin of western imperialism in East Asia that forced China to open itself to a century of humiliation, conquest and exploitation until Chairman Mao came to sweep all that away. It's titled "The Road to Rejuvenation", but it could just as easily be called "1842 and all that". This version of the past says more about contemporary Chinese politics, still drawing on China's history as a victim of western imperialism, than it does about the reality of the clash between the 19th century's greatest land and naval empires. Even in a 21st-century museum, the stain of a history more than 150 years old is central.>>>
Daniel J. Watkin, "Historical Opera Is Canceled in Beijing," NYT blog, September 26, 2011
An opera about Sun Yat-sen, China’s first president and Nationalist leader, has been canceled shortly before its scheduled opening at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing because of official objections to the music, according to the composer’s representatives. The work, “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” by Huang Ruo and a production of Opera Hong Kong, was to have opened on Friday, roughly coinciding celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese revolution. Mr. Ruo’s management, Karsten Witt Music Management in Berlin, said a government official had gone to rehearsals and decided that the music was inappropriate.>>>
John DeFore, "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie)," Washington Post, September 23, 2011
Filmmaker Tsui Hark, who helped define Hong Kong cinema in the '80s and '90s, brings supernatural sleuthing to the Tang Dynasty in "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame," a lightweight but enjoyable yarn set in the days before the official rise to power of China's only empress regnant.>>>
Karen Wada, "Huntington Library sets shows on American history, Chinese mirrors," LA Times, September 1, 2011
Two American history shows -- one looking at the sweeping changes spawned by the transcontinental railroad and the other at how Civil War photographs influenced the ways the nation grieved -- will highlight the 2012 exhibition season at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. . . . The Huntington also is announcing Thursday an addition to its 2011 calendar: the first public display of a group of Chinese bronze mirrors spanning 3,000 years. "Ancient Chinese Bronze Mirrors from the Lloyd Cotsen Collection," which will run Nov. 12 to May 14, will feature about 80 intricately decorated items from the Qijia Culture (c. 2100 to 1700 B.C.) to the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234).>>>
David Whiting, "‘New’ China asks for understanding," OC Register, September 23, 2011
. . . . Echoing many I met, Hong Lei, a deputy director-general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, suggested that instead of looking at China from an American perspective, try looking at China though a Chinese perspective.
For Lei and others, that means getting to know a little Chinese history. Why history?
Stuff happens and laws get made, often for a reason.
Consider our First and Second Amendments. Without British oppression, they might not exist.
In a small-world twist, British oppression also helped form modern China.>>>
Monday, September 26, 2011
Yep, I’m well aware that this is not a technology blog. But for the next few paragraphs, please indulge me by reading how a forthcoming, yet-to-be-confirmed gadget (and, while we’re on the subject, the Borders meltdown) will impact the bookselling business.
So here’s the rub. In November, Amazon will almost certainly introduce its own tablet. Now, on the surface, this may provoke a yawn and something like, "Really, another iPad clone?" And you would be justified for such a response--numerous non-Apple manufacturers have tried to emulate the success of the iPad. Most (even my own beloved HTC Flyer, which, unlike the rest, allows you to write on the screen, synch the notes to Evernote and perform a full-text search to find them--a true digital notepad) have sold a moderate number of units, but nothing to trouble the Cupertino-based behemoth. Others, like the ill-fated Motorola Xoom and, even worse, the discontinued HP Touchpad have tanked.
But here is where Amazon is different. Unlike its afore-mentioned peers, the company isn’t trying to create an all things to all people device, and doesn’t have some kind of inferiority complex about the iPad that leads to throwaway features such as a rear-facing camera--which will own the Worst Tablet Thingy Nobody Uses title until tablet makers get the hint and stop including it.
By contrast, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his crew know their customers--not least because they have millions of data points from all the amazon.com transactions--and realize what they want. With the Kindle, this was the largest selection of ebooks, long battery life, no screen glare, and the convenient, portable size of a paperback book. With the forthcoming Amazon Kindle Tablet or whatever they call it, the first three of these will hold true. The fourth is trickier because it will be a glossy touchscreen instead of an e-ink display. However, from my own tablet experience, if you set the background color to sepia and reduce the contrast to minimum, the eye strain issue typical of reading on a shiny screen goes away.
Amazon also knows that its customers want music and movies on the go, and don’t want to worry about storing them on a tiny device. So what has it done in advance? Boosted the selection of its instant video streaming service, and launched its own cloud-based music offering. Amazon’s MP3 store is a winner--consistently offering albums cheaper than iTunes with an equal selection. There are rumors that those who buy the Kindle Tablet will get the video subscription fee waved for a year. Double win. And it’s not a coincidence that on the "Shop All Departments" menu on the Amazon homepage, its video, MP3 and e-book "departments" are #s1, 2 and 3 on the list. The next reason for buying the Kindle Tablet will be the price: the estimated $250 cost is half that of the cheapest iPad. Due to its convenient form factor, focus on e-books, movies and music (instead of apps, a market that Apple dominates) and brand loyalty, I predict that the device will own the #2 spot in the tablet sales charts.
Anyway, I digress--back to books. The ability to reach tens of millions of customers via one device (Kindle) put Amazon in a strong position in its continuing pricing negotiations with publishers. With two such devices (not counting the Kindle DX flop here), this will be solidified. Amazon is also riding the wave of the Borders implosion. As publishers will no longer to fight over table space at the big B--though Barnes & Noble is still a factor--they will focus their attention on getting books onto Amazon’s "best of" lists, on offering early discounts for forthcoming bestsellers, and to finally getting e-book pricing right. Now, the debate over what an ebook is worth will continue, because Amazon knows its users are ticked off when ebook prices go over 10 bucks (some Kindle user groups even flag such books to dissuade others from buying), and the publishers need to maintain the perceived value of books and boost per-copy margins. But with the power of its ever-wider reach, Amazon will be, for better or worse, in a stronger position to tip that argument towards its side of the see-saw. It will also be fascinating to see how the success of the Kindle Tablet and decline of Borders affects hardback and softback prices on amazon.com. If only we’d see the start of e-book and hardback bundles.
Another factor that bolsters Amazon’s position as the primary bookseller is its publishing arm. Initially focusing on obscure books and relatively unknown authors, this is now pinching big-name writers such as Timothy Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Work Week. And the interesting thing? Instead of being wooed, Ferriss and his fellow defectors come to Amazon! As the company expands its roster and its catalog, it is developing a seamless, end-to-end model--signing talent, publishing their books, and selling these titles through its own distribution point. This is a powerful new variation of Amazon’s self-publishing empire, which already has an almost unassailable position in that ever-growing niche.
How traditional publishers will compete with these factors remains to be seen. From a writer’s perspective, the benefits of going with a publisher instead of Amazon’s publishing arm are undeniable--skilled editors with years of experience, publicity managers with large contact books, and relationships with newspapers, magazines, radio stations and bloggers. Same goes for the "why to sell rights to a publisher instead of self-publishing" list, to which you can also add guaranteed money up front. Also, it’s unclear (to this writer, at least) whether Amazon will publish physical copies or just ebooks. If it’s just the latter, are they missing out on potential revenue, or merely reading the tea leaves and seeing ever-increasing ebook sales, diminishing hard copy revenue and more bookstores closing? Regardless, Amazon is the dominant force in bookselling, and with its latest gadget soon to be unveiled and its publishing wing taking off, that won’t be changing any time soon.
Friday, September 23, 2011
How did we get here?
I'm typing this on my MacBook Pro, a laptop that is a gazillion times more powerful and "pro" than the towering, whirring, always-freezing-up computers I used back in grad school. In fact, my iPad is much faster on many applications than the Dell laptop I carted around five years ago. (Check out Dan's great post from February on a related topic.)
For a little wisdom on the early days of computing and the accelerated pace of change, have a look at this clip of a BBC documentary from the early 1990s.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
David Hill, "Book Review: Good Living Street," New Zealand Herald, Sep 19, 2011
A family history. Also a social and intellectual history, and a different take on the Australian Dream. Historian and environmental lawyer Tim Bonyhady follows three generations of Austrian Jews from the scintillating salons of late 19th century Vienna through World War I, Nazi occupation and growing persecution, to a made-for-television escape to Sydney, and a realisation that the struggle wasn't over.>>>
Michael Taylor, "BOOK REVIEW: A bloody season for black Americans," Richmond Times-Dispatch, September 18, 2011
The year 1919 was a terrifying time for many African-Americans. From April to November, a wave of anti-black riots and lynchings swept across the United States. By the time the violence subsided, hundreds of people, most of them black, were dead, thousands had been injured or forced to flee and damage to homes and businesses was estimated to be in the millions.>>>
Chris Hale, "American History Now: An Apt Book for the Times from Temple University Press," Perspectives on History, September 2011
Published by Temple University Press for the American Historical Association, American History Now is a thought-provoking follow up to The New American History, originally published in 1990 (with a revised edition in 1997). Like its predecessor, American History Now thoroughly examines the current states of American historiography, editing out certain areas or specializations that have lost favor since 1990 (such as social history) and emphasizing new ones at the forefront of current research (such as borderlands and religious history).>>>
Anson Rabinbach, "The untold story of the city," TLS, August 22, 2011
In 1934, Martin Heidegger wrote a famous essay explaining why he had refused an invitation to teach in Berlin. “Why I Still Remain in the Provinces” was an anti-urban philippic, warning that cities exposed thinkers to what he called “destructive error”. But when the wise philosopher listened to the local peasants and to “what the mountains, and the forest and the farmlands were saying”, he was reassured. Heidegger was by no means the only twentieth-century intellectual to subscribe to an inexhaustible liturgy of anxieties about modernity and the perils of city life.>>>
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
I'm teaching a course this semester on rock history. That's a topic I naturally enjoy and it fits in well with other classes I've offered--America in the 1960s, History of the Civil Rights Movement, the South since 1865.
But I've found my inner cynic asking, is this worth a semester of study, time, and attention? Does the subject lend itself to an academic, historical treatment. (Maybe I imagine a medievalist indignantly saying, "You teach what?!")
In the end, I think rock history does, in fact, deserve critical, serious treatment. Since the 1970s historians have studied and taught topics once considered to involve, as E. H. Carr might have put it, "facts" of no historical significance. We now have courses in our profession on sports history, the history of leisure, and more. So why not this? And, of course, it's not like this is the first time a rock history class has been offered.
Still, I like to challenge students now and then with questions about rock's relevance and larger cultural impact. The class is organized around a series of questions--some large, some small. On the small side, yesterday we asked why it is that over fifty years later most of the students in the class know at least 10 different Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller songs. Could the average college student come up with even three songs from the 1920s? So . . . what accounts for the longevity of rock? Why has it lasted when other styles lay in the dustbin of history? Will twenty-year-olds still remember 1950s rock in another fifty years?
We can also talk about change over time and ask questions about how we get from point A to point B. The class reading from the other day covered the rise of Sun Records, the critical response to rock in the media, and the appeal and star power of Elvis Presley. We looked at two versions of the same song to talk about how early rockers reworked what they sang. The orginal, Bill Monroe's 1947 "Blue Moon of Kentucky," is embedded above. Elvis's rock-a-billy retooling is obvious in the cover version from less than a decade later. But what accounts for the difference between the two? What musical developments were underway in the years between the two?
In addition we also have some overarching questions, like the following:
What factors led to the popularity of certain bands and performers?
How was rock based on earlier styles of music?
In what ways did rock change society?
How can we best understand the relationship between fans and musicians?
Is “rock” still a viable form?
We'll see how well those questions work as the semester progresses. Perhaps I'll settle on other ones if these prove useless!
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
For the last year I've been kicking around an idea for a new series of video interviews. I thought it might be interesting to ask various historians why they decided to study history. In the short responses that I'll post you'll hear about what drew a scholar to the field and what engaged them on a personal level. I've always enjoyed reading autobiographical reflections of historians, and this is, in some way, a little extension of that genre.
The first installment features Jack N. Rakove, who reflects on his early fascination with history and his later pursuit of graduate study and career as a professor and author.
Rakove is William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and Professor of Political Science and Law at Stanford University. He received his PhD from Harvard University in 1975. Rakove is the author of a variety of books on legal and political history and the American Revolution, including: The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (Knopf, 1979); James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic (Scott Forsman, 1990); Declaring Rights: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford 1997); Founding America: Documents from the Revolution to the Bill of Rights (Barnes & Noble, 2006); and Revolutionaries: Inventing an American Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2010). His Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (Knopf, 1996) won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in History. Rakove is currently working on a book titled Beyond Belief, Beyond Conscience: The Radical Significance of the Free Exercise of Religion for Oxford University Press.
Monday, September 19, 2011
My mother was a WAC, so I’ve always paid particular attention to women’s participation in WWII. But this new photo essay in The Atlantic took my breath away. It shows female snipers, field workers, nurses, executioners, prisoners, and pilots, from a whole range of countries.
These photos are stunning. My patience is short for photo essays. I rarely make it past the first few images, but I’ve examined this essay in its entirety twice already. It’s worth it.
Aside from their individual significance, these photos together make a statement about women, history, and women’s history. The resistance fighters, condemned prisoners, harvesters, and so on, in these images are not shown as wives and mothers, or in any role that highlights their gender; they are integral actors in the wide range of extreme roles humans assume during wartime.
Seeing these photos begs the long-standing question of under what societal conditions we can study women separately from men. Surely, in these images, ideology, survival, and nationalism trump gender. But just as surely, gender trumps other social impulses at other times. Is there any reliable way to gauge gender’s relative importance compared to other factors? Or does it have to be studied on a case-by-case basis?
Thursday, September 15, 2011
The Conspirator, a 2011 film about the plot to kill president Lincoln, is now out on DVD and Blu-ray.
Peter Rainer, "The Conspirator: movie review," Christian Science Monitor, April 15, 2011
Robert Redford’s workmanlike “The Conspirator” is about Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a Confederate sympathizer who was executed for her complicity, which she denied, in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Tried in a military court as a civilian along with eight other alleged conspirators, she became the first woman to be executed by the United States federal government.>>>
Anthony Lane, "Casualties of War," New Yorker, April 18, 2011
Of the many questions posed by “The Conspirator,” and left unresolved, the most pressing are these: How much did Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) know of the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln? How could she not have known of it, given that some of it was hatched within the respectable boarding house that she ran in Washington, D.C.? If her son John (Johnny Simmons), who certainly did know of the plot, had surrendered to the authorities, rather than remaining on the run, could he have saved his mother’s skin? Why did Andrew Johnson, the new President, reject the last-minute, late-night application by Surratt’s lawyer for a retrial? And was there ever any likelihood, considering the public revulsion at the murder, that she would receive a fair trial in the first place?>>>
Jason Solomons, "The Conspirator – review," Guardian, July 2, 2011
Almost by decree, British actor Tom Wilkinson turns up in mutton chops to play an American senator in Robert Redford's starchy period piece The Conspirator. Has Tom pinched those whiskers from the Hollywood props cupboard, forcing studios to cast him in every historical movie just so they might wrench them back off him during make-up? He's clearly too quick for them. I swear Tom Conti did a similar thing and nicked the FilmFour moustache back in the 1980s. He never gave it back either – he just secretly handed it on to Alfred Molina. I hear the 'tache now lives in Malibu and has its own agent.>>>
Rex Reed, "Movie Review: The Conspirator is Redford’s Best Film in Decades," New York Observer, April 12, 2011
As an iconic actor, conscientious director and liberal political activist, Robert Redford loves history lessons. Everybody knew about white-collar crime in the White House during Watergate, but nobody knew anything about the two reporters who exposed the story until Mr. Redford and Dustin Hoffman played them in All the President’s Men, in the interests of the great profession of journalism. In The Conspirator, Robert Redford the director addresses another footnote to American history that’s left out of textbooks: the little-known story of Mary Surratt, an innocent woman caught up in the U.S. government witch hunt following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It’s an exhaustively researched, brilliantly scripted, carefully made film that cautiously avoids preachy propaganda of yesteryear, while unavoidably reflecting the similar anxiety, tension and fear of a polarized nation today. What goes around, Mr. Redford seems to be saying, comes around.>>>
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
It’s interesting and sometimes instructive when different threads of work occasionally overlap. I had this experience earlier in the week, when I turned from some brainstorming I was doing regarding the Historical Society’s RIHA program (thinking about how I might structure a proposal that incorporated some 19th-century American and British social innovators who lived on the fuzzy edge between religion and irreligion), back to my online Environmental History project. I’ve been dragging my feet completing the next video in that series, but I had some time yesterday afternoon, so I parked myself in the library’s coffee area determined to write up my notes on Theodore Steinberg’s Nature Incorporated, which is the basis for my next “chapter.”
For those unfamiliar with Steinberg’s book, it’s an insightful look at early New England textile industrialization, and how the social understanding of common resources gradually changed to allow corporations to completely control the Merrimack River from Lake Winnipiseogee to the ocean. Taken from his dissertation, Steinberg’s story of the gradual “instrumentalization” of natural resources leans heavily on the work of his advisor, Morton Horwitz, who showed (in The Transformation of American Law) how many of the most sweeping legal changes of the nineteenth century happened not as a result of legislative or executive action, but through seemingly insignificant lower court rulings and changes in contract law. This is clearly a missing link in the chain of “how the heck did we get here?!” that environmentalists have to deal with, so you can see why I want to highlight it in an “EH for regular people” series. But neither Steinberg’s book nor Horwitz’s are easy reads, so they’re easily overlooked outside the academy. So my task is to render the main ideas in 10-15 minutes, in plain English.
So here’s the overlap: around 1810, Boston merchants Francis Cabot Lowell and Nathan Appleton each individually seem to have visited Robert Owen’s New Lanark textile mills in Scotland. Lowell and Appleton took what they learned at Owen’s water-powered mills, and returned to Massachusetts to form the Boston Manufacturing Company on the Charles River and later, as the Boston Associates, developed the Merrimack. No doubt the size of New Lanark (Owen’s mills were the largest in Britain at the time) and the community that had been built to serve the mills suggested some of the new forms of social engineering the Boston Associates developed in Lawrence, Lowell, and Manchester. They had a different effect on Owen himself.
Robert Owen emigrated to Indiana in 1825 and established a socialist community called New Harmony, on the site of an earlier “Harmony” built by the followers of German pietist George Rapp. The New Harmony Working Men’s Institute (est. 1838) contains the oldest continuously operated library in Indiana. Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen, became a leader of the Working Men’s Party in New York before entering politics as an Indiana Representative, corresponding with Lincoln about Emancipation, and writing a radical draft of the 14th Amendment. Both the Owens are claimed by social reformers, radicals, and secularists in Britain and America as founding fathers of their various movements.
Robert Owen’s story suggests that there was a moment of recognition, when he and others like him discovered the magnitude of the social forces they were manipulating. Why the Owens chose to respond to this discovery as they did, and the Lowells and Appletons as they did, might turn out to be a very interesting, very contemporary story.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
With the brief lull following my manuscript submission, I’ve finally been able to start reading for pleasure again. Having zeroed in on Churchill-focused books for the past three years, I scoured my shelves for something completely unrelated, and settled on Juliet Barker’s Agincourt, which vividly recreates the battle between heavily outnumbered British troops and their French foes on October 25, 1415.
One of the central figures is Henry V, the iconic English monarch. Previously, I had (somewhat embarrassingly, for an Englishman) only read of his exploits by way of William Shakespeare in Henry V, and through watching the film portrayals by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.
Such the Bard’s reputation and flair for characterization that we (or at least, I) often forget that he took creative license in his portrayal, and was crafting plays to entertain common, noble, and royal audiences rather than to provide an accurate historical record.
Still, it came as a surprise when Barker revealed that the incident that defines Act I, Scene II – the French prince sending Henry a set of tennis balls that mocked his youth and poured scorn on his negotiators’ attempts to acquire former British territory in France by peaceful means – was merely a myth. Shakespeare did not invent this incident, but seems to have conveniently used this piece of royal tittle tattle for dramatic effect and to set up one of Henry’s most famous utterances in the play:
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have match'd our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set
Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard
In fact, Barker contends, Henry did not believe that negotiations with the French would yield the land he was claiming without force and while the French did not play ball with English diplomats, no tennis equipment was sent across the English Channel to irk the monarch. So much for fancy words and clever plot tools.
Rather than relying on the playwright’s populist tales for source material, Barker makes fine use of medieval chronicles from Britain and France, including Thomas Elmham, Archbishop of Canterbury and founder of All Soul’s College, Oxford Henry Chichele and Enguerrand de Monstrelet. She uses their stories and anecdotes judiciously, relying on material that is verified in more than one account and debunking falsehoods as needed – such as Raphael Holinshed’s account of the tennis balls that inspired Shakespeare’s aforementioned scene.
As with all primary sources, these chroniclers’ words are not without bias. Many were supported by royal or noble patrons and some, as in Chichele’s case, were in the king’s inner circle. They were indeed writing for posterity, but in many cases, feared that negative observations about their masters could lead to severe punishment in the present. After all, this was an age in which beheading and burning at the stake were common. Thus, the chroniclers’ characterizations of Henry and other leading figures of the era were mostly positive. Yet despite their partiality, these writers give us an invaluable window into this distant age that is far less opaque than the work of Shakespeare – not least because, in the case of Henry V, he was writing about the Battle of Agincourt more than 150 years afterwards.
Reading Agincourt got me thinking about how the art of the chronicle has evolved. Who are the chroniclers of today? Perhaps certain journalists, historians, and filmmakers, or have bloggers taken on the mantle of these Middle Ages scribes? What value will their accounts hold for future generations, and how will their myths and bias find their way into our enduring literary works?
Monday, September 12, 2011
On September 12, 1940, a dog named Robot ran away in southwestern France. Robot’s owner, the teenaged Marcel Ravidat, along with three of his buddies—Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas—set out to find him. They found not only the straying dog, but also 900 other animals, all painted on the walls and ceilings of a complex of caves near the village of Montignac.
These dramatic paintings of more than 2000 images in total—including abstract figures, animals, and one human figure—make up the Lascaux cave paintings. They are estimated to be more than 17,000 years old. They are the world’s most famous collection of Paleolithic art.
Extensive tourism to the site changed the environment of the caves and encouraged the growth of fungus and mold, forcing authorities to close the caves to protect them. But anyone interested can take an on-line tour of the caves at: http://www.lascaux.culture.fr/. One can only imagine the awe, and perhaps the growing fear, of the boys as they saw the giant horses, ibexes, and bison from thousands of years before thundering across the ceilings of the caves.
The serendipity of the discovery of the Lascaux caves reminds me of the 2009 discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found. In that case, Terry Herbert decided to try out his metal detector in a farm field close to his home. When it started to beep, he turned up not old beer cans, but more than 3,500 items of gold and silver, inset with precious stones, made in the 6th to 8th centuries C.E.
The treasures of Lascaux can help us to understand the first expressions of human culture, and those of Staffordshire the culture of Anglo-Saxon artistry and warfare. For a historian, though, their discovery also represents the extraordinary excitement of discovering something new and unexpected in the world around us.
Friday, September 9, 2011
Like most other good, red-blooded Americans, I have spent much time lately thinking about the Alabama Claims.
After the Civil War, the American government demanded that the British government pay damages in reparation for the destruction caused to American shipping by warships built for the Confederacy in England. International arbiters threw their weight behind the American argument, and in 1872 Britain paid America $15.5 million to settle the cases.
A paragraph or two on the Alabama Claims shows up in every textbook on the American Civil War, and scholars always refer to them when discussing the foreign policy issues of those dramatic war years. Sometimes we even mention them when we talk about postwar trading patterns, explaining that the burning anger Northerners developed for England during the war encouraged them to look for new trading partners in the Pacific to enable the nation to sever ties with Europe.
But it came to my attention this summer that I had never seen a discussion of what ultimately happened to that $15.5 million. In the references I’ve seen, it simply stops dead when it goes to the United States.
It turns out that’s not at all the way it played out.
I had a conversation this summer with an elderly woman who mentioned that her prominent family’s financial start had come from the lump sum her seafaring great grandfather had received from the U. S. government because he had been “captured by pirates.” This didn’t quite add up, since I couldn’t figure out why the government would reimburse a sea captain for a pirate attack, and because the dates the man lived didn’t coincide with any major pirate activity on the American East Coast, where he sailed. My friend knew the name of his ship, enabling me to chase down what had happened to it. A quick search of on-line newspapers revealed that the “pirate” who had captured and plundered his ship was Rafael Semmes, captain of the C. S. S. Alabama, and the ship had been taken during the Civil War. Her great grandfather received a cut of the Alabama Claims money, and it was enough to enable him to establish a store, hotel, ice cream parlor, and bowling alley in his New England town. To this day, his heirs remain a leading family in the community.
Was it unusual that her family had received enough cash to establish them as prominent citizens in their New England town? I started to poke around a bit, and at the Yarmouth Historical Society discovered the history of Alfred Thomas Small, the master of the Lafayette. Semmes captured this ship on February 23, 1862, and held the captain and crew in chains for several days before sending them back to Boston in another of his prizes. He then burned the Lafayette to the waterline.
On June 10, 1875, Captain Small received a settlement of $6,712.91 from the Alabama Claims, along with $3,391.51 in interest since the taking of his ship, netting the captain a tidy sum of more than $10,000. It was enough to set him up as a local magnate in a thriving seaport. After thirty-five years at sea, Captain Small settled in Yarmouth, Maine, and managed the Yarmouth Manufacturing Company that generated electricity for the town. He quickly became a leading citizen.
Two stories of wealth brought into New England towns through the Alabama Claims do not a pattern make, but they are suggestive. Has anyone ever traced down what happens to reparations claims in general? How do they affect economic development? In the end, who pockets the cash, and what do they do with it? And what about the Alabama Claims in particular? Since the ships taken by Confederate raiders largely came from New England, did the Alabama Claims have a noticeable effect on postwar development in small New England towns?
Seems to me like a thesis begging to be written. Any takers?
Thursday, September 8, 2011
James Hookway, "Historian Won't Let Scotland's Most Famous Dog Lie," Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2011
EDINBURGH, Scotland—To millions of people around the world, he's the loyal dog who kept a lonely vigil at his master's graveside.
Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier, supposedly spent 14 years pining by the grave of his owner, a local known as Auld Jock who died in 1858. The tale of devotion has beguiled generations of visitors to Scotland's capital and inspired dozens of children's books and a 1961 Disney film, "Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog.">>>
"Humans are Hardwired to Respond to Animals," International Business Times, August 30, 2011
No matter how immersed we are in the high-tech modern world, a new study finds that the human brain is hardwired to respond to animals.
Animals have been an important source of both food and fear throughout human history, and they have helped to shape our evolutionary path. Years of running from and running after animals have apparently left a mark on the human brain - just looking at a photo of an animal jolts our brains into actions.>>>
Jonathan Jones, "Horses shaped our art of war and peace," Guardian, August 29, 2011
Horses throng the history of art. The most ancient paintings that are known, in Chauvet cave in France, feature herds of horses, and Mark Wallinger is keeping the equine dream alive in today's art even if he never does get the money for his giant horse at Ebbsfleet.
The Chauvet horses are wild animals, observed by ice-age artists among the mammoths and rhinos of a Europe abundant in beasts long gone today. But our artistic relationship with the horse has evolved alongside the animal's domestication.>>>
"Trip to the Zhou: Remains of horses and chariots unearthed from tomb dating back to 3,000-year-old Chinese dynasty," Daily Mail, September 2, 2011
It could have been as early as 700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ that these horses were moved on to greener pastures - and no one has laid eyes on them until now.
Archaeologists have painstakingly uncovered the almost 3,000-year-old remains of horses and wooden chariots in a Zhou Dynasty tomb in Luoyang, Henan Province, China.>>>
Amina Khan, "New species of ancient rhinoceros found in Tibet," Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2011
Searching across the Tibetan plateau, paleontologists have discovered a species of woolly rhinoceros that may be an ancestor of the great ice age beasts that roamed the plains of North America, Europe and Asia.
The Coelodonta thibetana fossil dates to about 3.7 million years ago, about a million years before other known woolly rhinos.>>>
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Okay, yes, I recently renamed my website history-punk.com; so this is an opinion from outside the mainstream. But I’ve been wondering about the “online education” debate. Part of the problem with some of the discussions I’ve been seeing lately is that they no longer seem to be focused on the students at all, or on learning at all. They lose sight of the fact that the students are the market, and what’s best for the students should drive the discussion. It’s easy enough to acknowledge that this isn’t always the case when administrators choose online as a way of simply cutting costs. But it seems from the complaints of some “technoskeptics,” that the goal is protecting a pedagogical system and an institutional structure that conserves their “right” to full employment at a high wage with good benefits. While we’d all like that, the rest of the economy is already struggling with the hard task of assessing the effects of new technology on the changing roles of workers. Especially in the value-added service sector.
I’d like to refocus the conversation on what works. What helps students learn? What are students’ goals? I think students generally have two sets of goals. One is clustered around learning skills and knowledge that will help them live their lives. The other focuses on career credentials. One of the things that’s becoming more clear to me as I’ve been working on and talking about my writing handbook (which the world can now see parts of on You Tube for free) is that—especially in Gen. Ed. courses—we’re more often teaching life skills like reading, critical thinking, and spoken/written communication than we’re teaching data they’ll need to carry with them always.
An area I haven’t seen addressed by the online-education debaters yet is the ability the web gives students, to see and hear the very best teachers talking about material they have intimate knowledge of iTunes U and TED are a couple of examples of media that push videos of very high-octane lectures out to a mass audience. I’m very excited about the opportunity to watch Richard Feynman’s physics lectures, or to see James McPherson talk about the Civil War, and I think the fact that everybody suddenly has access to incredible quantities of very high quality teaching material, for free, changes the game. These people were once only available to rich kids at elite schools. Now they’re out there for everybody.
I’ve gotta believe 100-level, Gen. Ed. courses are by far the most prevalent in terms of both student participation and instructor employment (all the more-so if we count adjuncts and grad students). So if these are really the majority of the courses, the question is: how does the presence of an instructor in the classroom play against the opportunity for a student to see the person who defined the field talking about their original research and insights they’ve gained over a lifetime of devoted study?
Yes, of course instructors in the classroom do other things that a video lecture from Stanford is not going to be able to do. But now we’re talking about tasks. The iconic role of the professor has been deconstructed. Of course, professors at universities that employ TAs to run discussions and grade papers had already begun this deconstruction themselves. What does a guy like me offer to students that they couldn’t get from iTunes U? That’s the question that should be shaping our career development. And I don’t think the answer is “accreditation.”
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Read the latest issue of Historically Speaking at Project Muse. (Make sure to go to the site with a university or library computer that has full Muse access.) Among the essays, interviews, and more in the September issue is Philip White's conversation with "Erik Larson on Narrative Nonfiction and In the Garden of Beasts." Here's a sample:
Erik Larson: Well, I do have some historical training from my time as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, and that training was rigorous. With regard to journalism, I wrote features for the Wall Street Journal. I don’t know if the Journal taught me or if I brought it to the table, but I developed the ability to spot telling details, nuggets of fact or description that make stories come alive.
White: Is it true that you were inspired to write In the Garden of Beasts after reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?
Larson: The thing that caused my imagination to kick in was the fact the Shirer had been there in Berlin and had met Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, but he met them at a time when nobody knew the ending. And that’s the key thing— nobody knew the ending. What would it have been like to have met what turned out to be these awful people when nobody knew what was coming down the pike?
From there I started looking for characters. It’s a process—finding what kind of narrative energy this person could apply. I read memoirs, newspaper accounts, and letters, looking for little things that might lead to bigger things. I knew nothing about Dodd when I stumbled across him. I found him compelling but by no means someone I could hang a book on; he was a little dry, and I’m not that interested in diplomatic history. But I liked the fact that he was a plain-spoken, low-key guy who was thrust into a job for which he was anything but qualified. From a narrative perspective that made him interesting. He was an outsider, and that’s what I was looking for—an outsider who entered into the world of the Reich during its first two years. Then I discovered that Martha Dodd had written a memoir. After reading that I decided that these might be the two perfect characters, and happily both underwent transformations in their first full year in Berlin.
White: What were some of the richest sources that you found?
Larson: You really can’t use Dodd’s diary or especially Martha’s memoir without a lot of triangulation with other source material—for example, the diaries of Undersecretary of State William Phillips, Assistant Secretary of State Wilbur Carr, and especially the papers of George Messersmith, Consul General for Germany, at the University of Delaware.
The Library of Congress’s manuscript division is God’s gift to anyone who does research, and the Dodds’s papers were there—Martha has more than seventy linear feet of papers. You could read her diary and then read my book and say “Well, wait a second, she didn’t mention Boris [Winogradov, an official at the Soviet embassy in Berlin]”. But she didn’t include him because she feared he would be killed. Only by going though her papers do you find out about Boris.
Madison, Wisconsin, unexpectedly, also proved to be a trove of information. At the Wisconsin Historical Society on the campus of the University of Wisconsin they have the complete papers of a lot of people who were players in the Dodds’s world in the mid-1930s: Martha’s friend Sigrid Schultz, who first tried to cue her into the realities of Nazi Germany; Louis Lochner, the AP Bureau Chief; and H.V. Kaltenborn, the radio correspondent who refused to believe how bad Messersmith’s accounts were until his last day in Berlin when his son was roughed up a storm trooper. I spent about two weeks photocopying everything.
And then there was Berlin. The big value in going there was for stage direction being able to walk from my hotel to all these nodes of action within fifteen minutes in any direction. The embassy was fifteen or twenty minutes away from Hitler’s Chancellery, the Gestapo headquarters was fifteen minutes, if that, from the Hotel Esplanade, where the Dodds first stayed. Knowing this provided some of the mortar for the narrative. I was struck with how flat the city is. Strangely enough, the first thing I thought of when I saw the city from my hotel room was Corpus Christi, Texas, which I visited during my work on Isaac’s Storm—Corpus Christi was so flat, so seemingly vulnerable to a hurricane. Berlin was vulnerable to the final Russian assault. In terms of narrative structure, I remember periodically thinking that this was “Dodd’s Storm.”>>>
Monday, September 5, 2011
On this blog we've included quite a few posts on "Why Study History?" beginning with one that Heather wrote back in March 2009. So, with the semester starting, it seems like a good time to revisit that question.
There are so many reasons why we study history. Sure, we might like to think that our encyclopedic knowledge of the Battle of Bull Run will win friends and influence people. It probably won't. Far too many undergrads and men and women on the street tend to believe that the study of history involves pointless rote memorization and war trivia. (History Channel maybe?)
As I get ready to teach my course on Critical Readings in History (a methods and historiography class) it helps me to think about the bigger picture. What large lessons does history teach us? How does it help us think critically about the world in which we live?
We learn about cause and effect from history. It teaches us about continuity and disruption. We also answer big questions and learn how to solve all sorts of problems related to what it means to be human.
Over at the Guardian Simon Jenkins writes about what history is and what it is not ("English History: Why We Need to Understand 1066 and All That," September 1, 2011). He begins with a content question that obsesses observes on this and that side of the Atlantic:
The answer is none of them as such. All seem static moments torn out of the context of history to suit a particular outlook on the world. Evans is the most wrong of all. His disparaging use of words such as rote and patriotic implies that facts about one's own country are in some way irrelevant, even shameful. All history must start from the reader's own standpoint in place and time. Otherwise it is just a blur.
To guard against the one-damn-thing-after-another approach, Jenkins warns:
History provides us with a context to help us better understand our world today. It also teaches us innumerable lessons about human behavior, the nature of politics, change over time, how to write and tell a good story, and so much more.
But how does one best convince students that all this matters?
Friday, September 2, 2011
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness," Mark Twain famously quipped. So, here's to broad-minding it and globe trotting.
In spring 2012 I’ll be traveling to Oslo, Norway, to begin six months as a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies. Rovers shuttle around the entire country, leading seminars with high school English teachers and teachers-in-training at colleges and universities, and deliver lectures and seminars to upper and lower secondary students on a variety of topics, broadly under American Studies themes.
For the students, or pupils as they calls them, I’m preparing lectures and discussions on: "Remembering the American Civil War 150 Years Later"; "To Begin the World Anew: The Founding of the American Republic and America’s Political Debates"; "Advertising the American Dream"; "European Travelers in 19th-Century America"; "Race, Rock, and Religion: 1955-1966"; "The Praying South: Why Is the American South the Most Religious Region of the Country?" (I've been thinking of another one on regional American accents and what those tell us about the nation's history.) My workshops for teachers will deal with online resources, getting pupils interested in historical and cultural debates, creating digital archives with students, and Norwegian immigration to America.
One of the country's most famous sons, Roald Dahl, once remarked: "Though my father was Norwegian, he always wrote his diaries in perfect English." I’m especially interested in the close connections between America, Great Britain, and Norway. Norwegian students learn English from a very early age and their proficiency and knowledge of both the US and Great Britain is surprisingly extensive. In English in Europe (Oxford, 2004), Manfred Görlach observes:
Though, it is true, students in Norway know less on the specifics and more on the generalities, and perhaps, gain much of their understanding from pop culture and television. (A little like knowing about California through Entourage, Baywatch, or Beach Boys songs.)
I’m just getting back from a one-week stay in Norway, where I met with my fellow Rovers—Isaac Larison and Sarah Anderson. (Both have terrific plans for conducting their work in the classroom and with teachers! Interacting with them and our hosts gave me some great ideas about how I’ll be proceeding. Isaac and Sarah will start their travels shortly.) I also got a good briefing about Norwegian life from the Fulbright office in Oslo—thanks to Kevin McGuiness, Rena Levin, and Petter Næss Sara Ullerø, and Abbey Schneider for the thorough orientation. And I spent some valuable time with the other Rovers observing English classes in Halden and Sarpsborg. Karin Pettersen, Steinar Nybøle, Thomas Hansen, and the faculty and staff of the Norwegian Centre for Foreign Languages in Education were tremendous hosts, telling us much about the Norwegian education and describing the ideological context of the system. A visit to Halden Fortress and a traditional four-course Norwegian feast in one of the castle’s buildings was a treat.
I’m looking forward to interacting with students and teachers and seeing how American culture is perceived through a Norwegian lens. In the months ahead I’ll be writing dispatches from Norway about my experiences in the classroom and my work with teachers.
Are Norwegian students more or less like American high school juniors and seniors/college freshmen and sophomores? How do they view the United States’ and America's relationship with the rest of the world? What interests them most about American culture and society? I’m eager to explore these and many other questions once I’m in Norway in four months. (I'm already thinking about a survey to conduct with the pupils about the US.)
Finally I want to get in a plug for the Roving Scholars Program. If you would like to teach and conduct research abroad and if you are at all interested in a Fulbright like this, you should apply for a position for 2012-13. The application deadline is in the middle of September. Have a look at the refurbished Norwegian Fulbright site here for more details.