First, in honor of the holiday, one above-the-fold link: Heather Cox Richardson, writing at the Historical Society blog, looks at the origins of Mother’s Day. Hint: it’s not about “people be[ing] nice to their mothers.”
In Rome, art restorers have uncovered what they say are American Indians in the background of a 1494 fresco in the Vatican’s Borgia Apartments. Some commentary on the imperial-religious context is available here.
“Unity,” writes Ilan Stavas, “is the great elusive dream of Latin America, and Bolívar is its Don Quixote.” A review of Marie Arana’s new biography of El Libertador reflects on his contradictory legacy in Latin American politics.
Public radio station WHYY in Philadelphia airs BBC World Update at 5 a.m. on weekdays. So on Friday morning, oddly enough, it was from the British Broadcasting Corporation rather than any domestic service that I heard surprising news from Boston.
During the night, police had chased two bombing (and robbery) suspects through the labyrinthine streets of Cambridge and Watertown, engaging in at least one major firefight along the way. Now the police seemed to be laying siege to a Watertown neighborhood. The reports at that hour were confused and confusing–not to mention frequently wrong. But as the hunt for the surviving terrorist suspect continued during the day, it became clear that the story was also, in several different ways, strangely familiar.
One of the key difficulties of teaching the American Revolution is the seeming inevitability of it all. Why did Britain even bother pursuing its bothersome colonists? After all, the patriot cause was so noble and glorious that there was surely no way that such perfidious villains as the redcoats could possibly have triumphed. And yet within that myth, there is a persistent paradox: the patriot cause is often “proven” by the victory of such an inferior force against the strongest military power in the world in the late 18th century. But for this narrative to make any sense at all, there must have been a real risk of defeat; unless Britain could realistically have defeated their colonists, why would the morality of the patriots be of any consequence whatsoever? Continue reading
In line with Matt Karp’s look back on Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution from last month, I’d like to take this opportunity to reconsider a classic work in early American history, Edmund Morgan’s The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89, which has just recently made it to its fourth edition. I have a long relationship with this slim volume. For many years before I began my undergraduate work as a 30-year old non-trad, I had been reading early American history, particularly classic works in the historiography, which has fascinated me since the beginning. I spent years going through the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries’ 970 shelves and one of the earliest books I read was Birth of the Republic. A decade later, I am now extremely fortunate to be doing my doctoral work at Yale University, where Morgan taught and worked for three decades. Though he has long since retired into reclusion (having just turned 97 last month), he still casts a large shadow over the department. Graduate students here (myself included) whisper about a rare Morgan sighting and get excited when they find one of his books at a book sale with his name (and/or marginalia) written in it. So I very much appreciate this opportunity to return to and reassess this work. Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago, the American History Guys at Backstory took on the issue of representations of history in film. Of most direct interest to those of us here at the Junto was the interview of Mark Peterson by Peter Onuf, asking why there were so few movies about the American Revolution, and why they were so terrible. The answer Peterson proffered was about patricide. The difficulty of evoking sympathy for the killing of a father figure that wasn’t manifestly evil led the British to be portrayed as caricatured villains – and even Hollywood audiences weren’t buying a tale so badly spun. Continue reading
My interests in the late colonial and revolutionary periods include print culture and history of the book. Ever since I was an undergraduate and first accessed a Readex database, I have been fascinated with colonial newspapers and not just the content but with the mechanics, logistics, and persons involved. Every major research project I have undertaken has made significant use of newspapers and pamphlets. In that time, I have come to understand and appreciate the centrality and importance of newspapers to colonial life, particularly in but not limited to urban areas. Indeed, I have always felt quite privileged to have access to such primary sources and perhaps it is part of the standard vanity of the historian but I also always suspected that general readers—the kind who buy books about the Revolution by the truckload—would be just as interested in seeing and just as excited by these primary sources as I continue to be. Todd Andrlik thought the same thing and his book, Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before it was History, it was News, appears to have proven me right. Continue reading
A relatively quiet week here; with the semester now underway everywhere, it’s probably not such a bad thing that we have fewer links to share. In any case, a little Revolution, an unidentified diary, and a forgotten war … on to the links!
For the last few years, there has been a recurring news item in early January that sets my historical rage going. The repeated refusal of the Baseball Writers Association of America to elect Mark McGwire and others suspected of steroid use in the 1990s and early 2000s was bad enough. This year tipped me over the edge; the idea that neither Barry Bonds nor Roger Clemens deserve a place in the Hall of Fame is nothing short of preposterous. For better or worse, McGwire, Sosa, Clemens, and Bonds defined an era in which baseball regained its popularity after a self-destructive strike in 1994. For the hallowed halls of Cooperstown to pretend they never really existed is willfully sticking heads in the sand.
Of course, the sanitizing of history is not limited to the game of baseball. Every year, the NCAA comes down with ‘sanctions’ on college sports programs for a series of violations, whether academic, financial, or moral. Most typically, those programs are asked to ‘vacate’ their wins – doing nothing to actually award wins to the losers. And the sorry mess of the Lance Armstrong saga reflects a similar tale – those consulting the record books will simply be told that no-one won the Tour de France between 1999 and 2005, as if the race had never been run. At least the ‘vacation’ of title or a blank space in the annals encourages the casual observer to do some further reading on the circumstances. At root, though, it is a cop-out – if the record books don’t give us the nice morality tale that we’d like to see, we just press the delete button and hope that no-one comes to notice. Continue reading
In recent years, the museum world has become inundated with edutainment sites and exhibits that hope to entice younger, more tech-savvy visitors, as well as people who do not tend to frequent museums, with all the bells and whistles of electronics and media. Videos, audio recordings, touch screens, and smart phone apps attempt to make history relevant to modern-day audiences by drawing them in with high-resolution graphics and multi-sensory experiences. At a time when funding for cultural institutions often takes a back seat, and when technology is everywhere and impossible to ignore, this push to increase revenue, visitation, and visitor interaction is unavoidable and understandable.
I recently ventured to the Boston Tea Party Museum—Historic Tours of America’s updated and expanded building (to the tune of $28 million) along the Boston waterfront, and one of the most extreme examples of edutainment that I’ve seen. My visit got me thinking about the ways in which history museums use technology and media to attract visitors, and the ways in which this technology can both clarify and obscure the historical information that is presented to the public. After touring the Boston Tea Party Museum I couldn’t help but wonder, when does a museum stop being a museum and become something else entirely? Continue reading