Commonplace
-

Publick Occurrences 2.0

July 11, 2012

Reading and Revolutions, or, What’s the Matter with Google Books?

Michael Witmore and Robin Valenza have a fascinating post up this morning  at Wine Dark Sea asking, “What Do People Read During a Revolution?” They ran a visualization based on Google Books’ massive database (as of 2010) categorized through Library of Congress subject headings and found that there were massive spikes in the publication of histories during the 1640s/1650s and the last quarter of the eighteenth century — or, as you might otherwise know those periods, during the English Civil War and the American and French Revolutions.  Smaller spikes occur during the years around the European upheavals of 1848 and 1914. Based on that, they posit a suggestion:

What are people reading during a revolution? Poetry? Books on military technology? Theology? No. If we take the first spike, the years leading up to the English Revolution, the answer in the years leading up to the 1642 regicide seems to be “Old World History.” The second chronological peak—in the decades around the American (1776) and French (1789) Revolutions—shows the same pattern. In periods that historians would link to major political upheaval, the world of print shows similar disruptions: publishers are offering more history for readers who, perhaps, think of themselves as living through important historical changes.

As a scholar of publishing and (the American) Revolution, I found such a conclusion troublesome, for reasons I’ll elucidate below. Having read the post over again after my initial concerns, I want to emphasize that Witmore and Valenza were careful to add several contextualizing questions that need further exploration:

We should be precise: these data don’t indicate that more people are reading history, but that a higher proportion of books published by presses can be classed by cataloguers as history. There are many follow up questions one might ask here. Does publication tie strongly to actual reading, or are these only loosely connected? Are publishers reducing the number of books in other subject areas because of scarcity of resources or some other factor, which would again lead to the proportional spikes seen above? Are the cataloguing definitions of what counts as Old World History or history in general themselves modeled on the books published during the spike years?

Even allowing for those additional questions, however, I have two sets of concerns with the correlations that the graphs imply, and thus want to argue that the graphs are not nearly as illustrative or helpful as they at first seem.

First, I’ll simply repeat the hesitation that others have discussed more eloquently (most notably Ben Schmidt at Sapping Attention) about the limitations of the Google Books database as a representative set of literature. In this particular case, the most pressing limitation is that I’m not sure of the national origins of the set used in the graph, which is labeled as “all books published.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but does it include publications in English as well as other languages? If only English, both British and American? How about Ireland? Without knowing even the language of the corpus, it’s difficult to project, for example, the significance of the spike around the French Revolution, the 1848 European revolutions, or the outbreak of World War I (and subsequent Russian Revolution).

Second, I’m concerned at the use of book publication by itself as the unit of measurement. For one thing, giving each publication equal weight elides the importance of popularity. It’s all well and good if there were ten unique titles published in runs of 200 each that discussed the natural history of the South Seas, for example, but it’s less significant if in the same year (say in the 1760s) one publisher put out an edition of several thousand copies of Pamela. While this is a hypothetical (I don’t have British numbers handy), the example is certainly plausible given the appeal of history and fiction as genres for sale, and the ways in which they were frequently published in terms of size and quality of editions. Furthermore, as William St. Clair has argued [PDF], readers didn’t read in order of publication. So even as new histories were published in the 1770s and 1780s, more distantly published works remained popular. (One presumes that this last would be accounted for by unique entries for each edition, but I’m not sure whether each is entered separately.)

Third, one more comment about the books themselves. The graph appears very suggestive of the correlation between history publishing and revolution, but there’s another possible interpretation. That’s because the historical periods that the graphs identify (the mid-seventeenth century and the late eighteenth century in particular) also coincide with periods when the publication of travel and exploration narratives flourished. So did the publication of books about history spike in the 1770s because of the American Revolution, or because Captain Cook was in the midst of his voyages to the Pacific? The granular approach offered in the graphs doesn’t allow for that kind of analysis.

Fourth (and here I’m finally getting to my real area of expertise), using books as the unit of measurement seriously underestimates the importance of all other kinds of publishing and reading from these periods. For each of the historical upheavals that see a spike, it was in non-book publications—pamphlets, newspapers, almanacs, broadsides, ephemera—that much of the intellectual and political work occurred. As it happens, it appears that at least a few editions of, for example, Common Sense and Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania appear in the Google Books database, but again, there’s no allowance for popularity. Furthermore, because of the way in which GB assigns a publication date, both of those publications appear as frequently as twentieth and twenty-first century editions as they do during the period they initially appeared. More importantly, there’s no way to account for newspaper publication of the Farmer’s Letters or excerpts of Common Sense, or of the hundreds of other essays working out political questions during the American Revolution. Both during and after the Revolution, magazines were also important sites for the publication of politics, science, and yes, history, but they aren’t catalogued that way by the Library of Congress. Other scholars have done great work examining the impact of such publications in England during the Civil War (see here and here) and France (see here and here) during its Revolution, just to start.

Last, it’s important to remember that the American colonies during the era of the American Revolution were not saturated with books, by a long stretch. It’s a bit of a simplification, but few books were published in North America because of the expense, and not that many were imported, again because of the expense. So even histories published in Britain that circulated to North America did not do so in great numbers—except, perhaps, in excerpted form in British magazines or American newspapers.

These are some initial thoughts, but I make them to suggest that I find the graphs, attractive as they are, far more problematic than suggestive in what they can show us about reading, publishing, and revolutions.

Share

July 2, 2012

Picking America’s Most Influential Books

Last week, the Library of Congress posted a list of eighty-eight “Books That Shaped America” as part of an exhibition of the same name at the Library. The list includes a disclaimer from Librarian of Congress James H. Billington:

“This list is a starting point,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”

As an early Americanist, the first thing I did was to sort the list by date published, just to see how many early American books made the cut. The verdict: nine from before 1800 (none earlier than 1751) and sixteen from 1850 and earlier (which cuts off the list just before the publication of Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom’s Cabin). On a certain level, that’s fair enough: considerably more books have been published since 1850 than before. In addition, the Library has insisted that the list is a starting point, not the definitive list, and has invited comments and suggestions from the public. (The press release also notes that some books were cut because of limits on the exhibition space.)

I was also curious about the inclusion of Common Sense, for two reasons. First of all, it’s rarely classified as a “book,” but rather a pamphlet. Now, I consider my work to have implications on the field of the “history of the book,” and most of my material comes from newspapers, so I’m certainly open to a broad definition of the book. As I’ll discuss below, opening up the field that way leaves room for some other possible inclusions. Second, Billington notes in the comment above that these were books “written by Americans.” That makes it somewhat odd for Thomas Paine to be on the list. He arrived in Philadelphia from his native England barely eighteen months before the first publication of Common Sense. While the text was written and published first in North America, making it a decidedly American creation, it seems a rather loose definition to call Paine an “American.” The same goes, it was pointed out, for Jacob Riis, native of Denmark. That complication—what to do with immigrants?—bears particular resonance for asking the question of what early American books should be included on the list.

Via Library of Congress Exhibit on American Treasures

Which brings me to the question: what else should be included in the list from the early period? My answer comes from two places. One is simply my research and reading in the field. The other is that I’m thinking about what texts to assign as I put together a U.S. survey syllabus for the fall (though please note that not everything I discuss below would necessarily make sense in toto for an introductory course). To start with, there are a number of ways to judge whether a book “shaped” America. Is it based on readership? Long-term popularity? Sales? Editions? We can discuss those, but since this is a blog post, I’m going with the Potter Stewart approach and justifying choices however necessary.

[NB: I also want to refer everyone to the special issue of Common-place on “Who Reads an Early American Book?”]

First off, if we eliminate the restriction on books written by Americans, by far and away the most important book in early American was the Bible. It was the most widely owned and most widely read book in British North America; it was certainly (and remains to this day, in many respects) a “Book That Shaped America.” Actually, I’m sort of curious what the Library would do with that suggestion, and how to visually display it: the first American Bible in English wasn’t printed until the 1790s, so examples would have to be of European extraction.

Religion is one area that the Library’s list seems to underemphasize. Based simply on reading the list, one would never know about the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. I’m less of an expert in religious history, but I would suggest as at least representative of that era the collected sermons of George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards. For the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it would make sense to include Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), on the divine history of the Puritans in New England.

We also ought to consider works that discuss the massive influence of the cultural encounters between Europeans and natives. Perhaps we could include John Eliot’s Bible translated into Algonquian (and already profiled as an American Treasure by the Library of Congress). Or Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, which was first published in 1682 and went through dozens of editions right up to the Revolution. (It also, of course, is a deeply religious text.)

See Lisa M. Gordis, “None Need Think Their Sympathy Wasted,” Common-place, v. 9, no. 3

I would be remiss if I didn’t add at least one title in the political realm. Common Sense was by far the most important publication of the revolutionary period (on which I refer you to Pauline Maier’s fantastic book, American Scripture). Other authors (and publishers) did significant work elsewhere, such as in the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. The letters, penned by John Dickinson, were first circulated in newspapers in 1767 and 1768 during the protests over the Townshend Acts and later repackaged as pamphlets in eleven editions from 1768 to 1774. Benjamin Franklin found Dickinson’s arguments against British taxation so well distilled that he arranged for a London edition (to which he could not resist adding his own preface).

Last, it seems important to more closely reflect the urgent importance of the novel in early Republic reading culture. For example, consider Charlotte Temple, written and first published in Britain by Susannah Rowson (another immigrant: she later moved to the United States). The book was the most popular novel of the 1790s, so much so, in fact, that people visited the “grave” of Charlotte Temple in the Trinity Church yard in lower Manhattan. To a lesser extent, the same is true for The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster, which was also popular at the time and has become a popular text in English and history courses.

These are just some first thoughts, of course, and I would never claim that my suggestions are the only ones possible or even that they are the last word. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions in the comments, and by all means please do respond to the Library’s call if you feel so inclined.

Share

June 19, 2012

The Weakness of Being a Herd of Cats

Power grabs are nasty, brutish, and quick.

They’re intended to overwhelm and surprise the victims. To cause confusion. To frustrate your enemies’ abilities to mount counterattacks.

What we’ve been watching unfold at the University of Virginia during the last two weeks is a nothing less than a coup, carefully planned and staged when nobody was in town and when nobody was watching.

I have no original reporting to add, and I think Timothy Burke nailed it in his post about the incredible ham-handedness of the Board of Visitors as a horde of micro-managers who are either treating UVA in a way they’d never treat their own private businesses, or who are so inept that they’re walking proof that wealth is mainly based on luck in marriage and genetics.

What’s striking to me is how familiar this should be to historians. We’ve seen appointments of ‘midnight judges,’ a Saturday night massacre, a night of the long knives. We’ve seen Bush-Gore, Hayes-Tilden, Adams-Jefferson.

When he learned that UVA Rector Helen Dragas – a real estate executive – had gone to UVA’s President Teresa Sullivan on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend to tell her that 8 of the 15 members of the university’s board were prepared to demand her resignation, a friend of mine thought it couldn’t have been true. Eight of fifteen was “bare majority” and “nobody” would run a university like that. It was too divisive. It flew in the face of everything a liberal education was supposed to stand for at Thomas Jefferson’s school.

Yet some people do operate that way; some just did.

We’re not used to thinking that the bare-knuckle power plays which are routine in politics, corporate boardrooms, and statecraft could be so portable. It’s shocking to think that one rector, weeks before the expiration of her term, would do something like this. Sullivan was in her second year, and by press accounts, Dragas and several members of the university’s business school community began working on what they called the “project” to have her fired. Who knows if Sullivan suspected that Dragas was telephoning board members individually, holding meetings to dodge open records laws and evade other board members who would expose her sleazy m.o. Dragas timed the meeting with Sullivan to coincide with the holiday weekend, after students had left town, when many faculty were away and several big money donors on the board were either overseas or – in one case – recuperating from surgery. To this day, she has offered no clear account of why Sullivan was removed. No specific complaints, no particular flaws or faults. Nothing.

There was a protest on the university’s famed Lawn yesterday. The faculty senate had a meeting with Dragas at which she gave no clear explanation for Sullivan’s removal. They held an overwhelming ‘no confidence’ vote in Dragas soon after.

What’s interesting to me is that Dragas doesn’t care. Just look at this portion of the statement she issued late in the day yesterday:

We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University. For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you – our U.VA. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.

In case you’re not fluent in Bullshit, that statement is what it looks like when you extend your middle digit in the direction of your iPhone and ask Siri to transcribe it. Dragas has no intention of explaining her reasons. It doesn’t matter to her whether we, or the students, or the faculty, or the alums, or the other members of the Board don’t know why this was hatched.

We’ve been lulled into thinking that a university operates on a consensus model, and maybe we’re about to witness why it should. But my hunch is that trustees will learn from this. Dragas acts like this because she can, and as long as she can, she will. It doesn’t matter to her whether the faculty senate is upset, because right now the faculty senate seems to have no legal standing to do much of anything except pass resolutions with no binding authority or quit their posts.

We like to think that we can rely on the good intentions of board members whose ostensible and historical role has been to serve as caretakers. But we are ill-equipped to deal with a board that goes rogue. By some media accounts, Dragas and her cabal want UVA to start closing departments and to begin shifting 1st- and 2nd-year instruction to an online format. Why? Because several of her conspirators are invested in an online education provider and want that company to be given a preferential role in transforming UVA’s curriculum.

If you wanted to have a discussion about the goals of online ed or the structure of departments, you’d have that conversation with people who work in academia. But if you wanted to just grab some revenue streams for your pals, this is how you’d do it, because at the end of the day you don’t really care about the content or the consequence for the faculty, students, or university – you only care about the money pipeline.

I keep hoping that some rich member of the UVA Board of Visitors is going to step forward and publicly call for Dragas to resign and for Sullivan to be reinstated.

But that hasn’t happened, and even if it did, it would only paper over the enormous problem that’s been exposed during the last two weeks:

Faculty governance institutions, as they are currently constituted, are far too weak to stand up to board members who see the university as an oil deposit or a copper vein. I suspect that Dragas’ enemies on the board know they’ve been beaten. I hope that the smarter ones among them are taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the university’s rulebooks and the Virginia statutes concerning higher ed. I hope the Faculty Senate is lawyering up for a fight.

Remember how we used to wonder how we were going to answer the argument that the university should be run like a corporation?

It turns out that you can just skip over the conversation part.

If this can happen at UVA – and, let’s just say it – IT DID – we should all feel the fierce urgency of now. We’re not used to thinking of ourselves collectively – in practice, many of us are Mugwumps and anti-Federalists – but we’d better start.

The people coming after our institutions, our students, and our jobs are organized, committed, and highly motivated. The rules matter, and if we’re going to survive as a profession, we’d better learn how to play hardball and start figuring out ways to make it impossible for future Helen Dragases to unravel 200 years of traditions in service of a crassly self-interested self-enrichment scheme.

Share

April 3, 2012

More Than We Thought

If you thought you knew how many died in the U.S. Civil War, you may be wrong, according to this morning’s New York Times. David Hacker of Binghamton University has offered new estimates in the December 2011 issue of Civil War History of the number of men killed in the Civil War (not women, see the article for why) that increase the total by about 20%. [NB: if you have access to Project Muse, you can read the Civil War History piece here.]

Portrait of Captain Bacon and the 34th Mass. Company E, courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Hacker made the estimates by blending traditional methods of statistical estimation with new tools available digitally:

Enter Dr. Hacker, a specialist in 19th-century demographics, who was accustomed to using a system called the two-census method to calculate mortality. That method compares the number of 20-to-30-year-olds in one census with the number of 30-to-40-year-olds in the next census, 10 years later. The difference in the two figures is the number of people who died in that age group.

Pretty simple — but, Dr. Hacker soon realized, too simple for counting Civil War dead. Published census data from the era did not differentiate between native-born Americans and immigrants; about 500,000 foreign-born soldiers served in the Union Army alone.

“If you have a lot of immigrants age 20 moving in during one decade, it looks like negative mortality 10 years later,” Dr. Hacker said. While the Census Bureau in 1860 asked people their birthplace, the information never made it into the printed report.

As for Livermore’s assumption that deaths from disease could be correlated with battlefield deaths, Dr. Hacker found that wanting too. The Union had better medical care, food and shelter, especially in the war’s final years, suggesting that Southern losses to disease were probably much higher. Also, research has shown that soldiers from rural areas were more susceptible to disease and died at a higher rate than city dwellers. The Confederate Army had a higher percentage of farm boys.

Dr. Hacker said he realized in 2010 that a rigorous recalculation could finally be made if he used newly available detailed census data presented on the Internet by the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.

The center’s Integrated Public Use Microdata Series had put representative samples of in-depth, sortable information for individuals counted in 19th-century censuses. This meant that by sorting by place of birth, Dr. Hacker could count only the native-born.

Hacker then revised the data to control for the normal mortality rate and other factors, and acknowledged problems with estimating deaths for women (both white and black) and for black men. The new counts overturn data that historians have relied on for over a century. In a blog post last fall, Hacker answered the question of why the revised higher count matters:

So what? Above a certain count, do the numbers even matter? Well, yes. The difference between the two estimates is large enough to change the way we look at the war. The new estimate suggests that more men died as a result of the Civil War than from all other American wars combined. Approximately 1 in 10 white men of military age in 1860 died from the conflict, a substantial increase from the 1 in 13 implied by the traditional estimate. The death toll is also one of our most important measures of the war’s social and economic costs. A higher death toll, for example, implies that more women were widowed and more children were orphaned as a result of the war than has long been suspected.

The techniques that Prof. Hacker employed are fascinating, and point to some of the possibilities in thinking about newly digitized data sources. My question, however, is why—after publishing Hacker’s post on the Disunion blog last September, and with his journal article in print for four months—the Times waited to publish this piece until just now.

Share

March 15, 2012

Social Media, Early American Style

Filed under: Historians,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 8:22 am

I’m sure many readers of this blog are familiar with or members of SHEAR (and if you aren’t, it’s the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic).

SHEAR seems to be moving into the sphere of social media, having just established a Facebook page and a Twitter feed (@SHEARites), and of course continues to operate H-SHEAR. As many of you know, these spaces provide more opportunities to interact with both the organization and other members, and hopefully will prove as fruitful for SHEAR as they have for other organizations in curating events and discussions. It will be particularly interesting to see how SHEAR’s social media gambit plays out during the annual conference in Baltimore this July.

And if you happen to be interested in the Society of Early Americanists, it also recently started a page on Facebook and opened a Twitter account (@TheRealSEA). Unfortunately, its next conference isn’t until February 2013 (in Savannah), but the call for papers and panels is up and open for submissions.

It’s exciting to see so many historical organizations engaging with not only scholars but the broader historically-interested public. So go ahead and “like” them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and join the conversation.

Share

March 7, 2012

Early Americanist Interviews Live Subject (Film at Eleven)

Filed under: American History,Ben Carp's Posts,Generations,Historians,Military,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 10:40 pm

This past weekend in Queens, New York, I interviewed my grandfather on camera about his World War II experiences.   A librarian at Tufts had put a packet from the Veterans History Project in my hands, and ever since then, I have felt a gnawing obligation as a historian to record my grandfather’s story, both for my family and for posterity.

When I finally got around to setting this up, it all came together very quickly. It was a daunting experience for a number of reasons: first, I study the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries! My subjects tend not to talk back. Nor am I an expert on the European theater and the experiences of World War II veterans. Furthermore, I have come to appreciate that oral history is its own fully developed methodology, and I felt somewhat guilty about being such a novice interviewer–though the VHP, to its credit, seems to encourage this. Finally, I had to scale a bit of a learning curve with the video equipment, much of which I borrowed from the Tisch Media Center at Tufts University. Thankfully I also had my brother’s help–he oversaw the camera and digital memory while I concentrated on the interview.

So how did it go? My grandfather told his tale (though he tells it better in his own words): as a young man from Brooklyn (just like Captain America!), he enlisted at age 18 in 1942 and wanted to work on airplanes. Caught up in the romance of the Air Force, he ignored the advice of the friendly officer who urged him to request a posting as a clerk/typist, and he bounced around several training camps before becoming certified to work on the P-47 ThunderboltHis unit, the 395th Fighter Squadron (the “Panzer Dusters”), was activated in June 1943 in Westover, Massachusetts, and was subsequently relocated to Farmingdale, Long Island. Six months later, he was in England. Two weeks after D-Day, he was in France with the First and Third Army. His unit reached Belgium, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. He was slated to board a ship for the South Pacific and Okinawa when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So instead he was discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he boarded a bus to Manhattan and (later) a subway back to Brooklyn.

After he went through the basic chronology, we took a break for lunch, and then I asked him to flesh out some of the details. We heard about ruined towns, seasickness, frenzied days at the airfield, pup-tent habitats, wiser comrades, bureaucratic fumbling, a tragic loss, a court-martial, and a day of drinking and reminiscence before the discharged soldiers were ready to re-enter civilian life.

As I said before, I thought I’d be stymied by the differences between World War II and the periods of history I know best. On the contrary, though, I was struck by the way in which certain refrains from the life of the soldier resonate across time. This semester I am teaching a course on “American Military History to 1900.” So I was primed to hear broader truths in my grandfather’s story about the difficulties of military logisticswartime devastationunit cohesion, the soldier’s desire for self-governance, the mixture of motivations that lead a young person into military service, and the reliability of an older person’s memory about events from his younger years.

I am already thinking of more questions I wish I’d asked on the recording, but I suppose that’s typical. In any case, it’s been interesting to share this experience with relatives, colleagues, librarians, and students. Many of them have stories of their own about veterans in their families and the veterans’ willingness to discuss their military service (or not). Others express regret that they didn’t record their relatives’ stories before it was too late. Everyone seems really glad that I did this: it was a great opportunity to both connect with a family member and link his life to a major shared experience in American history. It certainly helped me to understand a bit better why genealogists do what they do, which was apropos of Karin Wulf’s paper this week at the Boston Area Early American History Seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

At least one student has asked where to find out more about the Veterans History Project. And my grandfather is thinking of connecting with the Facebook page for the 368th Fighter Group Association. Once my brother and I have prepared a transcript of the interview, we’ll be sending it, the digital video, and the forms to the Library of Congress.

Share

November 28, 2011

Valences of Liberty

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Democracy,Film,Foreign policy,Historians,Voting — Benjamin Carp @ 2:46 pm

In the past few weeks there have been two excellent reviews of John Lewis Gaddis’s George F. Kennan: An American Life, by Louis Menand and Frank Costigliola.  Ta-Nehisi Coates does an interesting riff on these reviews, which gives him a chance to muse about the challenges of self-mastery in a democratic society.  Kennan is most famous for his advocacy of a doctrine of containment in 1947.

By coincidence, I watched John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for the first time this weekend, itself a product of the Cold War years (and which previous critics have linked to the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.).  It’s a movie that asks, “how do you respond to violence that can’t be contained?” and ponders the nature of the American conquest of the West.

A fun question to ask yourself: “who is the hero of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?”  Is it the man who believes in achieving self-mastery through education, representative democracy, modernity, and the rule of law, or is it the man who believes in achieving self-mastery by proving himself as physically dominant, but denying himself the fruits of victory?  And what does it say about America when the non-violent hero achieves worldly success, not wholly because of the values he’s espoused, but because the populace lionizes him for a violent deed?

The Library of Congress selected the movie (which stars John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin) for the National Film Registry because of its cultural, historic, or aesthetic significance, while Gaddis assesses Kennan’s “American Life.”  It’s interesting to ponder both artifacts side by side when thinking about American power and American democracy.

Share

November 27, 2011

Holiday Historian Buzzkills: Thanksgiving Edition

Filed under: American Indians,Colonial Period,Historians,Holidays,Regionalism — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:42 am

Historians are great fun at holiday gatherings. There is no hallowed, sentimental tradition we can’t contextualize the fun out of, and what better time than lingering over the gravy and cranberry sauce with people you only see once or twice a year? But I jest, at least for myself. The Pilgrims, Mayflower, et al have never ever come up at any of our family Thanksgivings, and indeed I strive to avoid history or politics as conversation topics on that occasion. Obviously the whole thing weighs on the minds of many of my colleagues, however, as well as the editors who commission essays from them. Below are a  just a few I found over the weekend. I agree with almost all of them, by the way.

  • As Randall Stephens pointed out in a 2009 Historical Society post, the Pilgrims/friendly Indians story is actually one of the most long-debunked in American history. Mark Twain sent it up. The head of the New England Emigrant Aid Society trashed it. Historians have been pointing out for years that the Plymouth colony turned to violence shortly after their turkey was digested, so Peter Mancall of USC uses that as just a starting point for a discussion of the maypole-dancing Merrymount colony led by Thomas Morton. Mancall argues that Morton’s settlement offered a more truly peaceful and less Christian alternative model of coexistence with the natives. (Some may remember Merrymount and the maypole from the Nathaniel Hawthorne story notable for its proto-hip theme of a groovy American Eden disrupted by angry, violent European bluenoses.) Morton also apparently wrote the very first Pilgrim-debunking book as well, earning him extra cred with historians. Next November confuse your grade-schooler’s teacher by requesting a maypole dance to go along with the Pilgrim hats.
  • Yale University Press asks us to consider what the Pilgrims must have smelled like. Hint: not like the sage in their stuffing or delicious pumpkin pie.
  • Raymond J. Haberski, Jr. at the US Intellectual History blog records destroying his daughter’s grade school dreams:

My first-grader asked me about the Pilgrims yesterday after having seen a movie in school about a mouse who stows away aboard the Mayflower. She liked the mouse, didn’t know what she thought about the Pilgrims, but was curious about the Compact made aboard the Mayflower. She said that she would like to see the original document (which made my heart leap) to check if the mouse’s prints were on it (my heart sank). So I told her that the mouse was fiction, the compact was not. I then wondered why we need to include mice in historical stories, why not just make either a movie about a mouse or a movie about the Mayflower.

The daughter then retaliates on behalf of the mouse by hammering the Pilgrims on gender.

  • While not in so many words, Steven Cromack at the Historical Society Blog reminds us that Thanksgiving is an invented tradition, cooked up by women’s magazine editor (and actual cookbook author) Sara Josepha Hale as a way of bringing the whole Union together through a “new National Holiday” on the eve of the Civil War. Once the South was out of the Union, President Lincoln finally declared Hale’s new holiday for the last Thursday in November. So the togetherness thing clearly worked out really well. Thanksgiving and the Plymouth narrative that went with it were always about installing a soothing version of New England Puritanism as the national founding mythology, over and against other stories and lineages (like Virginia’s) that were both quite distinct and perhaps more truly foundational in terms of what the nation would become. It took decades of New England propaganda to really establish Thanksgiving as a non-sectional icon, and I wonder if football was not only thing that ever really reconciled southerners to it.
  • Cromack mentions that the modern Thanksgiving was not finally legislated until 1941. Researching that for 10 minutes leads to the conclusion that Tea Party types should totally boycott the holiday and report to work next Thanksgiving in protest. Not only was the Thanksgiving holiday a worker-coddling Big Government mandate, it was also necessitated by FDR’s earlier attempt to change the date of Thankgiving. The FDR Library has the hate mail to prove it.
  • Probably the ultimate buzzkill here is that, far from Black Friday’s being a perversion of  Thanksgiving tradition, it turns out that the holiday qua holiday (a time officially set aide for family gatherings and not going to work) was always about shopping. Moving the date around the calendar was motivated by requests from businessmen who wondered how they were going to sell their way out of the Great Depression with only 24 shopping days until Christmas. It seems that business had lobbied to move the former informal Thanksgiving to an earlier date during FDR’s first year in office, because the last Thursday fell on November 30 in 1933 — the idea was that since no one would start Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving, move it up and they would shop more. It must say something about the depth of denial that much of the business world was in at the time that it could be believed that switching some dates on the calendar could fool the public into overlooking the little matter of world-wide economic collapse. Roosevelt ignored the calls the first time, but when Thanksgiving landed on November 30 again in 1939, he caved in and moved the annual Thanksgiving proclamation a week earlier. The New Deal was in retreat at the time and FDR wanted to seem friendlier to business. This experiment in more sensitive governance resulted in the avalanche of anti-government, pro-tradition outrage documented on the FDR Library’s page. The missive on the dire threat to the calendar industry must have inspired some Bolshevistic thoughts in the White House.
  • For my own contribution, watch this space for evidence that the holiday celebrations of the Pilgrims got started in New England as conservative politics. Federalists held the first of a series of “Feasts of the Sons of the Pilgrims” in 1799, when the Alien and Sedition Acts were in full swing, to urge the loyal children of “the Fathers of New England” to hold the line against immigrants, liberals, and Frenchmen. Unlike the sanitized Sara Josepha Hale version, the Plymouth story of 1799 included a fairly accurate and unapologetic account of what the Pilgrims did to unfriendly Indians and the limits of their acceptance of even the friendly ones: ”The memory of our Ancestors—May their ardour inspire and their success encourage their descendants to maintain their birthrights and may all their enemies be converted like Massasoit, or suffer like Phillip” (i.e. “King” Philip, the Wampanoag chief whose head ended on a post in Plymouth).
  • To include the equally fun anthropologists, check out Magnus Fiskesjö’s deconstruction — or more properly, construction — of the odious modern tradition of the Presidential Turkey Pardon: “The reluctant sovereign: New adventures of the US presidential Thanksgiving turkey.” If anything, Fiskesjö is far too respectful. The power of life and death is sooo cute.
  • Finally, moving away from the Thanksgiving story to typical Thanksgiving activities, the redoubtable Jesse Lemisch gave me permission to quote his Facebook post about trying to watch television this weekend: “It disgusts me that I turn the TV on to watch what passes for news, and instead what’s on is huge lunks in uniforms trying to kill each other. The mindset of football is the mindset of the pepper-spraying cop.” I (almost) wish I had said that while watching the annual Thanksgiving Day Lions game before dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house on Thursday. Alas, I am not as tough as Jesse!
Share

November 15, 2011

The Flight from Downtown Manhattan

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Historians,Media,Military,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 3:40 pm

From the US Army's American Military History, volume 1

 

Noreen Malone of New York magazine had the interesting idea to interview Early American historians to see if George Washington’s flight from the southern tip of Manhattan in 1776 might hold any lessons for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was evicted from Zuccotti Park this morning.

Share

November 10, 2011

No Countryman for Old Founders

Filed under: Founders,Historians — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:22 am

Please tell me I did not read a great historian whose work I love dropping aggressive ignoramus Rick Perry on Thomas Jefferson’s head. Excessive exposure to hair-care products or animal waste seems like a better explanation of the ideological origins of this guy.

Watch The Excruciating Agony As Rick Perry Gets Confused, Forgets His Own Plan Mid-Sentence

Here is what Edward Countryman has to say in an interview with History News Network:

In the larger context of American political history, what is most noteworthy to you about Governor Perry’s candidacy?

One way to see the whole current impasse is as a rerun of the city and country opposition that runs right back to the respective visions of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson for America’s future.  Hamilton’s vision turned on the presumption that the power established by the Constitution was there to use and presumed an active government, and it continued through Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Lyndon Johnson and, now, Barack Obama.  Jefferson regarded that power as something to fear . . . . It’s no accident that Ronald Reagan had Jefferson prominently on display in his Oval Office.

And yet, Jefferson did not promote dumb-ass generalized fear of government activities he can’t even name.  His unfortunate fling with the idea of state “nullification,” the Kentucky Resolution of 1798, was aimed at blocking a flagrantly unconstitutional federal effort to suppress an opposition party — not a bad shot to pick. 1798 was a time when some fear of government was not unjustified, just like the fears many of us had when George W. Bush was in power and John Yoo was writing his memos developing a “unitary executive” that could do whatever it wanted to anybody anywhere in the world.

My plea to all historians who feel the easy Alexander-Hamilton-as-Modern-Liberal meme coming on: check Mike Wallace’s “Business-Class Hero” first, a brilliant early take-down of the ongoing Hamilton revival.  It is an artifact of the financialization of our whole political culture that liberals can so easily conflate the use of government power to protect and enrich investors and banks with the sort of  public regulations and government-led social improvements they value. Hamilton never dealt with any of the latter, and his idea of social improvement was kind that trickled down from the wealthy in the wake of economic development, maybe. Perhaps Reagan had the wrong guy on display. Vindicating or fearing of government in general is not the only dimension in these long-term debates in American politics. Another one — it makes me so sad that historians cannot seem to remember — is the question of whether or not to deed over the government to moneyed interests. No one with any feeling for Occupy Wall Street should be celebrating Hamilton, who would have cleaned those parks out with mounted troops long ago.

Really there is no need to ancestor-worship any Founder, or demonize them either. At some point, academic Jefferson-bashing just becomes a snarky form of reverse culture warfare. It seems obvious to me that different aspects of both modern liberalism and conservatism can be traced back to both Hamilton and Jefferson, and other aspects to neither. What modern liberals actually support is deploying government power (Hamilton) in the name of democracy (Jefferson). The social aspects of democracy that tend to concern us most now were of little concern to any of the Founders, so nothing to see there in any case.

Share
« Previous PageNext Page »

Copyright © Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved
Powered by WordPress