What Do Early Americanists Offer the Liberal Arts?—Part II

Yale College, 1807Last week, in the first part of this post, I argued that we tend to justify the liberal arts in two potentially contradictory ways. First, we assert that the liberal arts offer tools for citizenship. Second, we claim they point our way to human values that transcend any community. I argued that both of these justifications or approaches are necessary. I also suggested that early Americanists have not found it easy to explain what we contribute to the second approach.

Today, therefore, I am taking up the question I posed last week. Does early American scholarship offer anything distinctive to the liberal arts as a way of understanding humanity at large? Continue reading

What Do Early Americanists Offer the Liberal Arts?

Course of Study, Amherst College, 1824

Perhaps because the traditional academic year has ended, and probably in part because of the tides and undertows of the current election, we seem to be awash just now in excellent essays about the purposes and state of the humanities.

To do my part to put a stop to that, I am here to ask what the liberal arts have to do with early American studies.

I suspect we tend to take the relationship too much for granted.

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“Terrorism” in the Early Republic

Detail from Death of MaratLate last week, Americans learned about an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. It was initiated by a group of men who have an idiosyncratic understanding of constitutional law and a sense that they have been cheated and persecuted by the United States government. The occupation comes during a time of general unease about national security and fairness in policing. As a result, some critics have been calling the rebels “domestic terrorists,” mostly on hypothetical grounds. One of their leaders, on the other hand, told NBC News that they see themselves as resisting “the terrorism that the federal government is placing upon the people.”

I do not propose to address the Oregon occupation directly. However, since the topic keeps coming up lately, this seems like a good opportunity to examine the roles the word terrorism has played in other eras. As it turns out, Americans have been calling each other terrorists a long time.

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Podcasts for Thanksgiving

pilgrimspodcastingOn 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.

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Not Only for Readers: Why Scholars Need Narrative

1024px-Berlin_Universitaet_um_1850This 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.

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Personal Networks and a First Draft of the Literary Canon

RufusWGriswoldAntebellum 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.[1] 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.

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Single-Perspective Narratives and the Politics of Marriage History

scotus-obergefell-ahaEarlier this month, the American Historical Association announced that it had signed a Supreme Court amicus curiae brief in support of legal same-sex marriage.[1] 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.[2] Specifically, it seems, they think it’s false to say that marriage historically “serv[ed] any single, overriding purpose.”[3]

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