Tag Archives: literature

I Disagree With Some of the Best Books Ever

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 9.28.20 AMA former student recently asked me to comment on David W. Blight’s  Race and Reunion. I said it was a great book…but one with which I disagree. And I talk about disagreeing with it all the time. Perhaps a little explanation is in order…

But first, I would like to say that this is an important work in the field of Civil War memory – maybe the most important (at least right now). It is beautifully written and about as captivating as a history book can be. I just think that Blight has missed his mark. Here is my thinking on what I term Blight’s (and others’) “reconciliation premise” – paraphrased from my book, Across the Bloody Chasm, on the subject of veterans, commemoration, and national reconciliation.

Blight, while curiously overlooking northern efforts to commemorate the fight to preserve the Union, examines how participants at events geared toward reconciliation, such as the 50th anniversary reunion at Gettysburg in 1913, ignored the principal issues leading to war and the Union war aim of emancipation. At these events, mentions of slavery or emancipation were conspicuously absent. Blight reasons, together with white supremacists, reconciliationists “locked arms” and “delivered a segregated memory of the Civil War on Southern terms.” He concludes, “Forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture [and] the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race.”

Scholars can and should agree that Civil War veterans from both North and South shared in their racist sensibilities; they can likewise condemn them for their actions. But while the participants were undoubtedly racist, emphasizing veterans’ reconciliatory impulses solely as efforts to commemorate a “white only” war runs the risk of obscuring veterans’ intentions. Did veterans calculatingly contribute to historical amnesia along racial lines in the name of reconciliation? There is relatively little evidence pointing to this conclusion. It is true that from the point of view of most veterans, reconciliation seemed the soundest course of action. Yet the memories that informed the terms of reconciliation suggest that Civil War veterans acquiesced to reaching across the bloody chasm (see what I did there?)  only so long as their former enemies accepted their respective arguments – a scenario that seldom transpired.

Even a cursory look at the historical record reveals that the memories of slavery, emancipation, and the trials of freedmen coupled with other contentious issues such as treason and the right of secession loomed large for former soldiers from both North and South. In fact, questions concerning race functioned as a leitmotif throughout the reconciliation era. Whether veterans celebrated the demise of slavery and saw emancipation as a worthy component of their cause, or viewed slavery as an incident rather than a cause of the war, race and the plight of black Americans functioned as a central narrative in the battle to write the terms of reconciliation.

Evidence suggests (and I have examples to spare – just ask) that Blight’s efforts to illustrate the memory of the war as a “white only” “southern terms” affair miss the bull’s-eye by a Confederate mile. The terms of reconciliation were – and still are for that matter – undecided, hashed out, and fought over…on a national scale. Slavery, emancipation, and black people in general were central to this post-war conflict over memory. Neither Union nor Confederate veterans let the citizens of a reunited nation forget their positions on this volatile subject – a subject that has remained among the most divisive generations after the conflict. But as always – I suggest you read Race and Reunion and judge for yourself.

With compliments,

Keith

The Americanist Independent: Volume One in Review

President_George_WashingtonGreetings all!

Volume One of the open-access web journal, The Americanist Independent is officially in the books.

I am extraordinarily happy with how all eight issues turned out. What’s more, I am thrilled to have worked with a number of very talented teachers, students, and independent historians. We did a good thing, folks!

For those of you how have yet to subscribe (remember…it’s gratis) you can do so HERE and click on any of the tabs. I suggest you begin with Scholarship. Here’s what you’ll get:

 

Issue One:

Explorations in Visualizing the Irish of the American Civil War by Damian Shiels

The American Slave: A Database – An Examination of the Methodology and results of Digitizing the Slave Narrative Collection by Keith D. McCall

Those Gals Had it Easy: The Conspicuously Untroubled Lives of Boydton Virginia’s Reconstruction Belles by Samantha Upton

RockinThruHistory: Learning History One Song at a Time by Damien Drago

Issue Two:

Chasing After the Daughter of the Lost Cause by Heath Hardage Lee

The North Carolina Confederate Pensions, Past and Present by Aaron M. Cusick

The Civil War Institute Annual Conference at Gettysburg College: CWI2014 Reviewed.

Harristorian Archives: The Pennsylvania Report of the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Issue Three:

The Checkbook is an Autobiography: The Case of Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930) by Stephen H. Grant

The Letters and Writings of Bill Evans, World War II Aviator by Mike Rogers

Recreating the “Good War”: Pride and Pitfalls in WWII Reenacting by Jared Frederick

Controlling Atoms: Evaluating the AEC During the Eisenhower Years, 1952-1958 by Nick Lacasse

Issue Four:

Creating Veteran Identity for Women within the Veterans Administration by Amy Rebecca Jacobs

Selling Mr. Consumer: Forming Male Consumer Identity by Nick Lacasse

The Tide of Domesticity: A Study of Gender, Environment, and Florida’s  Indian River Culture –  1870 and 1890 by Dara R. Vance

Every Piece of This War is Man’s Bullshit: The Women of Cold Mountain, a Review Essay by M. Keith Harris

Issue Five:

California Gold, Privateering, and the Russian Navy: A Story of the American Civil War by Glenna Matthews

“When Cleverness and Knowledge Arise, Great Lies Will Flourish”: Civil War Soldiers and Calculated Manipulation on the Battlefield by Mary C. Roll

History in the Classroom and the Interactive Notebook: A Conversation with Luke Rosa by M. Keith Harris and Luke Rosa

“Not All They Resolved It To Be”: A Review of The Field of Lost Shoes by Robert Moore

Issue Six:

One Nation, One Flag, One Language: The Grand Army of the Republic and Patriotic Instruction in Indiana by Nicholas W. Sacco

The March of Freedom: African-Americans in the United States Military and their Affect on the Civil Rights Movement, 1880-1950 by Aaron Nathaniel Stockel

Military Race Riots During the Second World War by Elizabeth Lambert

Fury: A Historical Review by Micha Benjamin Flowers

Issue Seven:

Messengers of Uplift: Fisk University Student Resistance in 1925 by Dara R. Vance

Podcasts and History: Why More Historians and Public History Organizations Should Podcast by Elizabeth M. Covart

Civil War Military Historians are Freaking Out by Megan Kate Nelson

In Defense of Gallagher, Hess, and Meier by Kevin Levin

Issue Eight:

LBJ and the Electrification of the Texas Hill Country by Jena Fuller

Patriotic Profiteers: Lykens County Coal Company and the Civil War by Jake Wynn

The Siege of Milwaukee: The Cause and Effect of Anti-German Sentiment by Kevin Kolesari

And there you have it – if you are a new subscriber you clearly have a lot of reading to do! Volume Two, Issue One is in the works – and things are looking great…so stay tuned for summer!

With compliments,

Keith

The Americanist Independent

On the Books

158046-bestsellers-lrgGreetings all!

I have just been listening to historian Edward L. Ayers interview fellow blogger Kevin Levin on NPR’s Backstory  concerning his recent post on Civil War Memory. The topic: history bestsellers in 2014.

In the post, Kevin offers his observations on a few salient characteristics shared by the authors on the list. Among those enumerated, notable is that most of the authors are journalists – not academic historians.

Kevin’s reasons behind this? Well, for one, it’s because journalists tell an entertaining story (which implies that academics don’t…but more on that later). And ultimately, that is what the reading public wants: entertainment. But more importantly, these authors have much more far-ranging influence than your garden variety academic. They benefit from exposure on television, in the press, and they have a strong social media presence. With this I think Kevin is pretty much right on the money. Take it from me, I know a robust Internet presence helps sell books (see what I did there?). In a follow-up post, he counsels academics, and I would agree: if you want to keep up, you had better get to work.

Get to work indeed. Many (though certainly not all) academics are missing out on an enormous opportunity to engage with the general public precisely because they do not take advantage of the instantaneous and world-wide connections provided by social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Let’s take the journalists…I can assure you that they have things covered in the exposure department.

But popularity aside, are these journalist-author-personalities up to the challenge? I suggest that not all best-selling journalists – even Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists – are created equal, at least when it comes to writing history. While the American public thirsts for a good historical tale, many would-be historians fall short in their efforts to rise to the occasion. The well-read, and might I add informed public, certainly get the entertainment they desire. What they often do not get is engaging history – but rather, shallow reports of historical events. So let’s not be confused here. Entertaining stories and history are not necessarily the same thing. Though first-rate journalists may have a flair for the written word, I am not convinced that they stand up to the rigors of academic research. And I do not want to sound snotty – but much of their work fails to match the standards set in academia. Some just write bad history well – and that is a damn shame.

Case in point. I recently read journalist Dick Lehr’s book on the controversial film, The Birth of a Nation. The book was not without virtues.  The writing was vivid, punchy, and yes, entertaining. But the history didn’t cut it for me. Lehr’s book was full of pretty obvious historical errors. His analysis was one dimensional and the book lacked depth and insight (spoiler alert: the film is racist…and black people didn’t like that).  I can only surmise that this is because the man is not a trained historian – so I forgive his shortcomings. And let’s be honest – if I tried to be a journalist, I would most likely blow it. So I will stick to doing what I know how to do – and keep writing history.

On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed journalist Rick Atkinson’s WWII Liberation Trilogy. This series was exhaustively researched and beautifully written. And yes, it too was entertaining. So I guess you never know. Like in any profession (even academia…) some are just better than others.

So while Kevin might call for academics to get on board with the 21st century and reach out to a world of potential readers, I would add that journalists should up their game as well – perhaps hit the archives and the historiography a little harder. And as a side note or a story for another day, I would be thrilled if academic historians would not only reach out to but also write for a broader audience. To my friends in the hallowed halls – dial down the esoteric language. It sounds so…academic. You’ll just wind up writing a better story, and that’s a good thing.

As always, feel free to weigh in here.

With compliments,

Keith

 

Thomas Dixon – A Question

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 11.03.22 AMI have recently been engaged in a re-read of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman – the novel that inspired D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.

This book is undeniably racist. But riddle me this. Is Dixon writing with historical accuracy from  his perspective or intentionally manipulating history with an eye toward a cultural/political agenda? I’ve heard both sides of the argument – generally the latter. Thoughts?

With compliments,

Keith

John Steinbeck and the Nineteenth Century

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 10.58.15 AMI adore John Steinbeck. I really do. His words, his works, they capture so very much. The human experience. The American experience. I have recently been reading East of Eden for the who knows how manyth time and I was once again taken by his distillation of the nineteenth century. The step toward verse – near poetic, but yet not. So cold and matter of fact. And I think he got it right.  I offer…

History was secreted in the glands of a million historians. we must get out of this banged-up century, some said, out of this cheating murderous century of riot and secret death, of scrabbling for public lands and damn well getting them by any means at all.

Think back, recall our little nation fringing the oceans, torn with complexities, too big for its britches. Just got going when the British took us on again. We beat them, but it didn’t do us much good. What we had was a burned White House and ten thousand widows on the public pension list.

Then the soldiers went to Mexico and it was a kind of painful picnic. Nobody knows why you go to a picnic to be uncomfortable when it is so easy and pleasant to eat at home. The Mexican War did two good things though. We got a lot of western land, damn near doubled our size, and besides that it was training for generals, so that when the sad self-murder settled on us the leaders knew the techniques for making it properly horrible.

And then the arguments:

Can you keep a slave?

Well if you bought him in good faith, why not?

Next they’ll be saying a man can’t have a horse. Who is it who wants to take my property?

And there we were, like a man scratching at his own face and bleeding into his own beard.

Well, that was over and we got slowly up off the bloody ground and started westward.

There came boom and bust, bankruptcy, depression.

Great public thieves came along and picked the pockets of everyone who had a pocket.

To hell with that rotten century!

With compliments,

Keith