J. K. Rowling, History, and Revisionism

time-turner

Source: allnightavenue on Flickr

I feel like I’m writing more than a few pieces lately that start with “I love [X], BUT . . .” and apparently today is no different. I’ll just come out and say it: I love Harry Potter, but I have trouble with J. K. Rowling’s treatment of history. Harry Potter was immensely important to my young adulthood. I read the books as a teenager, went to more than one midnight movie release, bought and consumed Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Bean, and dressed as a character from the books for Halloween.[1] I tend to re-read the novels once a year, when I’m looking for ways to improve my ability to tell a story. I wasn’t a historian when I first started reading the books, so I didn’t look too critically at Rowling’s characterizations of history and historians. Now that I am a historian, I’ve come to the conclusion that although Rowling’s portrayal of our discipline is wrong, her depiction of the wizarding world’s past—and how people interpret and at times attempt to change and revise it—is much more in keeping with the task that muggle historians daily confront. Continue reading

Identity and the Founders: A Response to Mark Lilla

marymunrosampler-1788This weekend, Mark Lilla, a historian of ideas at Columbia University, published a New York Times op-ed on “identity liberalism.” Reacting to the outcome of the presidential election, Lilla argues that contemporary American liberalism’s celebration of diversity, however morally salutary in private life, has been politically suicidal at the national level. “National politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference,'” Lilla writes; “it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny.”

Lilla’s argument is a response—one of several possible responses—to what I see as a real problem. In contemporary America, demands for inclusion, equality, and dignity often seem to be made in the name of particular groups rather than in the name of the common good. Whether this perception is accurate is another matter. I won’t address that complicated question here. But Lilla’s perspective on early American history warrants a critical response.

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“A Story (true one) for Mrs Adams”: The Adams Family, William Vans Murray, and Halloween

147768819149414The Adams Family Papers, 1639–1889, at the Massachusetts Historical Society is a large collection. Its microfilm edition is made up of 608 reels which are available for research at the Society and various other libraries and archives in the United States and Europe. The Adams Papers Editorial Project has published over fifty volumes to date. (To read more about the process, see Sara Georgini’s 2014 post.) As I continue to work on volume 13 Adams Family Correspondence I am reminded of the breadth of the collection, so when I went looking for a Halloween-related letter, I wasn’t disappointed. Continue reading

The Continental Toehold Dilemma

nouvellecarte

“The heart of the English Empire in the seventeenth-century Americas was Barbados,” according to Justin Roberts in his recent William and Mary Quarterly article.[1] That claim is perhaps not surprising—Richard Dunn established the social and economic importance of the island over thirty years ago in his seminal work, Sugar and Slaves. However, Roberts takes that point further by exploring the political ramifications of all of that Barbadian wealth in the West Indies. His article also speaks to a larger sea change in the historiography of the seventeenth-century Caribbean. Continue reading

The Strange Death(?) of Political History

The glory days

The glory days of American political history?

Historians are back in the news, this time not as a scolds (“this bit of history in popular culture isn’t historical enough”) but as Cassandras. Recently Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, writing under the New York Times print edition headline “The End of Political History?,” bemoan the collapse political history as an area fit for study by professional historians.[1] Jobs in political history have dried up, fewer courses in the subject are offered in universities, few people are entering graduate school to specialize in the subject and hence “the study of America’s political past is being marginalized.” To Logevall and Osgood this marginalization has two tragic effects. Firstly, it denies American citizens’ access to the intellectual tools necessary to historicize our contemporary politics and “serve as an antidote to the misuse of history by our leaders and save us from being bamboozled by analogies, by the easy ‘lessons of the past.’” It also denies historians access to political power, the ability to influence policy and policymakers in the mode of C. Vann Woodward and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Continue reading

Gawker, Gossip, and the General Advertiser

I can’t say that I was ever the most avid reader, or the biggest fan, of Gawker. But as the trenchant news website was forced to shut down this week as the result of the combined forces of Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan, I realized that I was being more than a little hypocritical.

After all, as a historian of 1790s culture, I rely heavily on the work of Benjamin Franklin Bache. And if anything embodied the no-holds-barred, gossipy style of Gawker in the 18th century – not to mention the attempted backlash from powerful forces – it was the Aurora General Advertiser. Continue reading

Why the Exeter Chiefs Should Rebrand Themselves

This blog post originally appeared at the Imperial and Global Forum in June. It’s reposted with slight edits here for reasons I’ll go into below.

Exeter chiefs3On any given weekend, you might find yourself on a train platform, surrounded by sports fans wearing “Native American” headdresses and “war paint,” and waving inflatable tomahawks. They’ll be wearing apparel purchased from the team’s online store (the “Trading Post”), where you can also buy a “Little Big Chief” mascot. During the event, supporters will chant the Tomahawk Chop to get into the spirit of things, and afterward, perhaps they’ll rehash the game on the team’s message boards (“the tribe”). But this isn’t the Atlanta Braves. It’s not the Washington Redskins. This is a rugby match for Great Britain’s Exeter Chiefs, and it’s a problem that evokes Britain’s imperial American past.

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