On the road this week for Thanksgiving? Or expecting to spend long hours in the kitchen? For some of us, this holiday means listening to podcasts. (And podcasters have noticed. Thanks, Serial.) Whether you’re downloading them for the road or streaming them from a browser, this could be a good week to catch up on episodes related to the history and culture of the Thanksgiving holiday. Here are a few suggestions we’ve compiled for your convenience this year.
This week’s roundtable began with a reference to Kurt Newman’s confession, earlier this summer, of feeling “anxiety” about a defining medium of historical scholarship: the book-length narrative. Writing for the USIH Blog in July, Kurt charged that narrative tends to conceal the historian’s assumptions and methods. More specifically, he observed, any narrative will be constructed around an ideological telos. Therefore, the book-length narrative is a dubious vehicle for a scholarly argument.
In our roundtable, we have responded to this useful provocation primarily by assuming its truth. Narrative is a powerful means of ideological initiation; its power is what makes it so valuable to historians-as-artists when they try to communicate with a reading public. On that basis, we and our commenters have been discussing the various ways narratives can exert power. Sara Georgini explored the ways Henry Adams adapted medieval narrative strategies. Jessica Parr described using stories of George Whitefield’s life as a convenient, though dangerous, structure on which to hang an argument about his public image. In the comments, similarly, J. L. Bell observed that Alan Taylor’s book William Cooper’s Town usefully subverts the very expectations its narrative structure inspires in readers.
As we wrap up today, however, I want to return to Kurt’s perceptive critique. I am not sure our response so far is adequate.
Antebellum editors were bulk retailers. Whatever else their business involved, it happened at scale, and I’m often astonished by how much prose a nineteenth-century newspaper or magazine editor could churn out in a day. Of course, most of that prose was recycled, and much of it was banal. As a forthcoming article by Ryan Cordell, based on research by the Viral Texts Project at Northeastern University, observes, the most-reprinted antebellum newspaper articles were pieces of “information literature”—not news, but scrapbookable things like an 1853 starch recipe or a clipping about the dietary value of tomatoes. Apparently, antebellum readers welcomed such textual flotsam—but it was especially useful to editors, who needed a steady flood of context-free, easily resized gobbets of writing for their pages.
The bulk-retail principle applied to literary editors, too, and the difference between “literary” and other kinds of antebellum periodical work is hard to define. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about what that meant for the formation of an American literary canon in the antebellum period.
Earlier this month, the American Historical Association announced that it had signed a Supreme Court amicus curiae brief in support of legal same-sex marriage. This well-written, scholarship-rich brief was apparently drafted by Nancy Cott, and it was signed by many other distinguished historians of marriage.
In discussions that followed on Twitter, some professional historians who were happy with this brief (as I imagine most were) told me they supported it on the basis of historians’ collective interest in historical accuracy. History has been distorted, they argued, by conservative arguments—specifically, by conservatives’ appeals to what marriage has supposedly always been like. They agreed with the AHA that conservatives have advanced not only an unconvincing interpretation but also a set of demonstrably false claims. Specifically, it seems, they think it’s false to say that marriage historically “serv[ed] any single, overriding purpose.”
Kyle T. Bulthuis, Four Steeples over the City Streets: Religion and Society in New York’s Early Republic Congregations. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
In many respects, Four Steeples over the City Streets is a story about different ways of being Anglican in New York City. It’s also a story about how external social changes influenced and threatened a vision of social order without destroying it. And it’s a story about how different kinds of New Yorkers in the early republic–black and white and male and female–experienced their community in religious terms. Continue reading
We talk a lot about accessibility in historical writing. Many of us worry whether the academic historical profession has much to say to a broad popular audience. It’s a pretty old form of anxiety. But what do the general public in the United States really want from their history books?
A few days ago, I decided to try an experiment. I collected all the one-star customer reviews at Amazon.com for the last twenty years of Pulitzer Prize winners in history. (No award was given in 1994, so I included books from 1995 to 2014.) I wanted to see whether I could identify common complaints. Obviously, this wouldn’t be a very scientific experiment, but at least it would be reasonably systematic—slightly better, perhaps, than relying on anecdotes from acquaintances.
Edward E. Baptist. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 2014.
The Half Has Never Been Told attempts a difficult feat: to analyze slavery’s place in the history of American capitalism, but also describe it as a lived experience. This is a story about commodities, bonds, and blood.
To join the abstract and the concrete, Edward Baptist relies on extended metaphors. His narrative traces the form of a human body: the ten chapters move from “Feet, 1783-1810” through “Tongues, 1819-1824” to “Arms, 1850-1861.” Overall, the narrative book follows an image, adapted from a Ralph Ellison essay, of “slavery’s giant body,” stretched across the territory of the United States, serving as the stage on which the drama of American history is acted.
Today’s guest post comes from Alexander Manevitz (@), a Ph.D. candidate in History at New York University.
When I started my doctoral program, “memory studies” struck me as more of a trend than a field. Something everyone talked about doing but couldn’t really define. After all, isn’t all history sort of a study of memories and how they’re made and used? Well, as with all things trendy, I was late to the party. My first year of graduate school, I read Michele-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past and David Blight’s Race and Reunion within a few weeks of one another, and I realized how wrong I’d been, and my interest has only grown from there. I have since turned to questions of memory and amnesia in my own scholarship.
My work focuses on Seneca Village, a once-vibrant community in upper Manhattan where community activism and urban development collided when the city evicted the residents to clear land for Central Park in 1857. Despite its significant role in the development of African-American social activism in the early republic and its place in relation to one of the young nation’s largest urban development projects, Seneca Village has been almost entirely forgotten in popular and scholarly memory.
After a hiatus for Independence
Day Week, we’re back today for chapters six and seven of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs. These chapters guide us into the eighteenth century, showing how an increasingly recognizable racial order, predicated on the authority of white householders, took shape in Virginia.
Three days ago, the Washington Post reported the results of an investigation into a large collection of files provided by Edward Snowden. Reviewing 160,000 intercepted electronic conversations and 8,000 other documents, which Snowden apparently accessed on NSA servers after that agency collected them, the Post’s reporters found that nearly half of them contained information pertaining to U.S. citizens. Overall, the article says, the sample showed that the government scooped up information on nine bystanders (as it were) for every “targeted” individual under electronic surveillance. On that basis, the reporters speculate that the NSA may have collected information on as many as 800,000 non-target individuals in 2013.
I don’t intend to comment here on the legality, ethics, or wisdom of the NSA’s programs or the Snowden leaks. But I do think this report is fascinating and important. And I think it’s worth considering from the standpoint of digital history.