Diego Rivera and Bertram D. Wolfe, “Portrait of America,” 1934
When John Adams looked back on the American Revolution (something he liked to do), he reflected that, “The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People.” The colonists’ drive to independence marked a new era of American history, Adams thought, when “Thirteen Clocks were made to Strike together; a perfection of Mechanism which no Artist had ever before effected.” Scholars have struggled to frame the experience of the Revolution in picture and on the page. How can we use digital tools to curate collections of revolutionary culture and #vastearlyamerica for use in the classroom?
Today I want to pretend that I know how to read science journals, particularly a recent Naturearticle by scientists Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin entitled “Defining the Anthropocene.” Reading a summary about the article was provocation enough to read the article itself, which in turn sparked a more extended rumination about chronology, interdisciplinarity, and scholarly divides. Continue reading →
Over at Slate last week, our Junto colleague Eric Herschthal reviewed some of the latest popular histories of revolutionary America, including two new studies of the years around 1776 by Richard Beeman and Joseph Ellis. Eric takes a very critical view of the analytical stance of the books–arguing that they are too in thrall to outdated and invalidated historical techniques; focusing too much on elites and ‘leadership’ at the expense of more recent trends in scholarship, such as the new emphasis on those who stayed (or tried to stay) neutral during the Revolutionary War.
Perhaps the most provocative part of the review is this statement:
“If you bought a popular book on science, one that came with a similar sheen of intellectual prestige, and learned that it essentially ignored years’ worth of scholarship, you’d demand your money back. Why should history be any different?”
I bet few graduate students these days haven’t read, or at least seen referenced, Walter Johnson’s essay “On Agency.” Published a decade ago, the essay was prompted by what had become hackneyed trope in slavery scholarship. Everyone seemed to ascribe slaves a role in shaping their lives—“agency”—despite the power asymmetries inherent in the slave-master relationship. Johnson famously called for an end to this kind of writing. But one of his subtler points may have been lost amid his overarching argument. It wasn’t that slave agency was unimportant, but that it had lost its contemporary relevance. Finding agency mattered in the Civil Rights Era, the years in which the scholarship flourished, because it bolstered African Americans’ claims on the nation’s past, and thus its future. Continue reading →