Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Taking the Historiann Book Challenge

Last week, the New York Times interviewed Civil War historian James McPherson about -- books! McPherson is a prolific scholar and a wonderful writer--Battle Cry of Freedom is a classic--and he is also coming out with a new biography of Jefferson Davis. But as historian and blogger Historiann pointed out, the interview presents a very narrow view of what historical scholarship looks like in 2014. Historiann followed this up with an interview of her own and challenged other historians to do the same. And they did!  I can never resist a book meme, though I come a little late to the party (or rather, I have been meaning to post this since last Friday!) so without further ado, here is my response to the #historiannchallenge.  

What books are currently on your night stand [i.e. your personal on-deck]?
Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests (which looks amazing -- and the NPR review only got me more excited) and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. 

What was the last truly great book you read?
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration is masterful. If you are going to read one book of American history this year, read this. I have been saying that since 2012 and I mean it. From a writing perspective, I also think Warmth is a fantastic model of a different way to structure a work of history. I talked with Wilkerson at the OAH this past spring about how she came up with the structure. Wilkerson stretches the histories of her main characters out over the length of the book, then breaks them up with interstitial chapters that reiterate and carry forward her larger argument and the overarching historical narrative into which the stories of her core characters fit. She explained that in her struggle to invent her own structure, she looked to a range of models, particularly fiction. In fact, the interstitial chapter idea was inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I think this is such great advice, to look for writing models across literary genres, which is especially important for historians who want to speak to a broader, nonacademic audience.

Side note: I also was extremely taken by Leslie Chang, Factory Girls, which I read this summer. I love really smart, well-researched contemporary nonfiction. Chang weaves her own family history into this exploration of the young women who are the majority of Chinese migrant laborers and who are transforming modern China. Without flinching from the abuses and excesses of global capitalism, she pushes back against a tendency to paint these women as passive victims, instead exploring their motivations, struggles, and strategies for "making it" in the new China. 

Who are the best historians writing today? 
I hate “best” questions, but that is what this meme is all about, right? And so without further ado: Jill Lepore. Collect them all. I love scholars who can do really creative but compelling things with unusual or limited sources.

Friday, September 5, 2014

That whole "Well-behaved women" thing...

You've all seen the bumper stickers, T-shirts, coffee mugs.  "Well-behaved women rarely make history." And sometimes the quote is actually (correctly) printed as, "Well-behaved women seldom make history. -- Laurel Ulrich"

Confession: every time I see this, I cringe.

When I ask my students to reflect on whether this popular phrase is a useful way of thinking about women's history, their response is usually some variation on, "Kind of. But..." They point out that this can be read as a statement encouraging women, in the context of popular feminism today, that they don't have to conform to rigid gender codes -- defying the restrictive standards femininity is Good! So the mugs and tee-shirts become about empowerment. But when we actually start to think about the phrase as a notion or theory of history, some wrinkles appear. As one of my students put it, this seems to set up a troubling binary: you are either a "well-behaved" woman who will be of zero interest to "history" or you are a rebel, the kind of woman who breaks barriers and gets noticed. What about everyone who falls between? Those women and their lives and struggles aren't captured in that phrase.

Precisely.

My students also pointed out that the phrase skips over the more interesting question: What does it mean to be "well-behaved" and how has that changed? The premise of most academic scholarship today is that gender roles, like other social roles, are historically and culturally constructed. They change. But neither are they rigidly fixed within any historical moment. That's what makes history so complicated: everyday folk are always in the the process of negotiating and challenging the rules and boundaries and expectations of their world. Sometimes this happens in little ways that don't exactly "make" history but do make historical change, something as small and seemingly insignificant as fertility control. (As the historian Susan Klepp has argued, the biggest untold story of America in the age of Revolutions is that at some point in the late 1700s, women begun to restrict their family size, setting a host of other social and cultural and economic changes in motion. Her book, Revolutionary Conceptions is an extended exploration of how and why that came about.)

What bugs me the most about "Well-behaved women..." is the "make history" part. As it stands, that phrase just doesn't make sense in the context of the politics of women's history. The politics of women's history IS the politics of "making history."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Writing Advice from Around the Web

Fellow writers of all stripes and varietals! Come get your free interwebs writing advice!

As the summer slams to a close many of us are either firing on all cylinders or (more likely) wishing we could find the energy for that final sprint...and probably got a little behind in the race. Remember guys, it's not the speed that counts, but the distance traveled (and also the speed...and the distance...and I'm so done with this dumb metaphor).


I recently stumbled across How I Wrote 4000 Words in A Year from Daily Beast writer Jaime Todd Rubin. He has some great ideas. In particular,

"Focus on content, not word count. What matters to me most is that I write every day, not how much I write. There have been a few days where I’ve written only one or two paragraphs. Quantity will take care of itself as the streak builds.

"Be flexible. Learn to write anywhere and in small scraps of time. If you don’t think it is possible, give it a try—you may surprise yourself. Don’t worry so much about when to write each day. Eventually, you’ll find a comfort zone."

Friday, August 1, 2014

What Gangs of New York Got Wrong

Every Fall, Americanists teaching the US History survey face the same dilemma: To Show or Not To Show clips from the 2002 Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York. It is such a great film. It is such an historically inaccurate bordering on epically WRONG film.

Gangs of New York makes us historians crazy because of its terribly misleading narrative about class, race, immigration, and enlistment in the Civil War. Fortunately, one scholar's work is helping to challenge the myths Scorsese has perpetuated, while  filling in some crucial gaps in our understanding of the relationship between the Irish and the Civil War. Check out Damiel Shiel's piece Gangs of New York: Recruiting the Irish ‘Straight Off the Boat’. And I'll definitely be sharing this fascinating document, "NO RECRUITING IN CASTLE GARDEN" with my students this Fall to cap our discussion of the film.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How the Kids Do Research These Days

Greetings from New York! Here is your bonus shot of the Hudson River from the window of my train car (yes! train car) where I'm drafting this post. This is quite possibly the most scenic metropolitan train commute in America.

 
I've been thinking a lot about the way we do research today and about the way our sources and the research process make us feel.  A few weeks back I was feeling sentimental.  Today I was feeling, well, eye strain.  Allow me to explain.

Today's manuscript source was a fitting object of sentiment: a small pocket diary crammed with two years of notations, consisting of some dry financial transactions—75c for velvet, $10 to Mother, carriage 50c—and day-to-day accounts of the year that changed Charlotte Cushman’s career. The diary begins with her miserable tour of New England theaters in early 1844, follows her decision to give her acting a go in England, then takes a stormy and homesick Atlantic crossing.  Empty entries in late 1844 signal days filled up by sightseeing in Scotland until finally we arrive at Cushman's jubilant account of her successful debut and starring run at London’s Haymarket Theatre in early 1845.

Stirring stuff, huh? I was not filled with warm fuzzies.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Romance of the Archives: The Charlotte Cushman Papers

Greetings from Washington, D.C.! Rather than subject you to touristy pictures, here are some musing from the archive. Lest the exiting stories I tell suggest otherwise, allow me assure you that archiving is not all CSI-level excitement.  ~Dr. L

Today I found something I had never seen before. While wading through endless folders of newspaper clippings charting the career of 19th-century actress Charlotte Cushman, I came across two rectangles of newspaper carefully stitched together. I had to look twice before I noticed the tiny stitching in a white thread, turned brownish with age.

(Stitching? you ask. They didn't have scotch tape in the 19th century!)
Someone, perhaps Cushman, more likely her partner, Emma Stebbins, or perhaps Cushman’s black maid, Sallie Mercer, who worked for Cushman from the age of 14 on, sat down one day and, after carefully cutting out the notice from the pages of a New York paper, threaded a needle and stitched the two rectangles together. Perhaps she put it in a folder or a box or slipped it into the pages of a scrapbook to be glued down later.

Over the next one hundred and fifty years the little column would wind up in a stack of other such clippings, carefully deposited between acid-free paper in an archival box in the chill and dusty corridors of the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. This bleary-eyed historian would take it out, read the notice, marvel at the delicate stitch work, make a note on her computer, take a digital image with her Canon, and put the little stitched clipping back into its dry, dark mausoleum for the next researcher to discover.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sunday in St. Louis

Greetings from St. Louis, the "Gateway to the West." I'm here doing research at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center for my book, but even historians need a break to do some site seeing! I was particularly excited to visit Cahokia and the Gateway Arch, so I thought I'd share some of my photos with you.

The Mounds of Cahokia
The Cahokia Mounds are what survive of a major metropolis that grew up and thrived from 900 to 1200 in the heart of the American Bottom, the flood plain region of the Mississippi. There were many mounds builders who constructed massive earthworks, and the largest can be found here. At its height, scholars estimate, Cahokia was home to close to 30,000 people. It was a major center of trade, served by networks that reached either end of the great Mississippi. While scholars don't know why Cahokia was abandoned, they suspect it may have had to do in part with the devastation that much a large urban center ultimately had on the surrounding environment.  To learn more, check out Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi by Timothy Pauketat.


Ridge and conical mounds, like this, were constructed over burial sites or used to marked significant locations.