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.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Out of the Archive: The Dangers of Seeing a Dancer

Fanny Elssler in the shadow dance. N. Currier, 1846. 
I just got back from the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women in Toronto, Canada (fabulous city, fun and stimulating conference) where I presented some of my work on the European dancers who toured America from the late-1820s through the 1840s, particularly the Viennese dancer and star of the Paris Opera, Fanny Elssler. From 1840-1842, Americans crowded theaters in cities throughout the country for the chance to see Elssler’s twirls and kicks. Elssler performed in Romantic ballets like La Sylphide but was also famous for her interpretations of European folk dances. Her tremendously popular La Cachucha dance was based on the Spanish bolero. American critics fixated on whether Elssler’s dancing was immoral spectacle – those diaphanous white skirts revealing her (clad) legs! – or “poetry of motion.” Some have argued that the use of such idealized terms to describe Elssler ("divine Fanny") and her dancing worked to manage the “erotic overload” of the performance.  (See for example Maureen Costonis’ 1990 essay, “The Personification of Desire: Fanny Elssler and American Audiences” in Dance Chronicle.) 

In my work, I’m interested in how these celebrities also intersected and informed struggles over American cultural identity and over the presence of different groups in public space. These struggles were of course connected to changing ideas about gender and battles over public sexuality -- for example see Mr. Southworth Goes to the Theater. Elssler was of great interest to “respectable” middle-class white women, which shocked moral reformers who felt that this was not a respectable spectacle. One of my favorite sources illustrating this is an 1847 didactic novel by Timothy Shay Arthur, The Maiden: A Story for My Countrywomen

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mapping Slavery

Here is the latest gadget making the rounds of the historian-net: a time-lapse map of the spread of American slavery using US Census data.  You can use the map to follow the spread of slavery, but also overall population, free population, and free African American population. And make sure you read Mullen's essay, which I found very helpful in showing me ways to read the various imaging possibilities:
A striking way to see the importance of slavery is to look at a map of the total free population: a photo negative, if you will, of slavery. When looking at the density of the population that was free, large swathes of the South appear virtually depopulated. (Perhaps this is what a history book looks like that fails to take includes slaves?)

Check it out! http://lincolnmullen.com/blog/the-spread-of-american-slavery/

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Student Exhibits About Slavery

In my Race and Slavery class this term, I decided to try something new for their final projects. Rather than asking them write yet another paper (they did plenty of that), I tasked them with producing some kind of public exhibit about the history of slavery. They had to think about their audience and the goal of the exhibit. It had to combine textual and visual elements and incorporate different kinds of primary sources.

As anyone who has had to make a compelling Powerpoint for a lecture or talk knows, communicating historical content in a visually appealing way requires a deft balancing act. As a class exercise, I gave them 30 minutes to create an 3-5 panel exhibit about Thomas Jefferson and slavery based on a set of 6 primary sources. They discovered it was harder than it seemed.

The final project also built from conversations in the final weeks of the semester about representations of slavery today. We talked about slavery in film, at museums and historic sites, and in contemporary public life (for example, the recent Donald Sterling incident). I asked them to think about how you would want to communicate some of what you learned this semester to someone who might never take this type of class. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

When Witchcraft was Real

A TV show about Salem?  Fabulous? Or a disaster?

I had to take a break from grading to share the following review of the Salem series over at Books & Culture.  Here's a taste:

The end goal of television is to have viewers watch commercials, so we historians don't expect to learn our history there. However, we can learn what viewers want to learn about history. After watching the first episode of the new TV series Salem, it is obvious that viewers today want to turn The Crucible upside down and hear the witches' side of the story. ... The most startling aspect of Salem is that it oddly vindicates Cotton Mather. TV viewers are apparently ready to watch him ferret out the truth about demonic plans to up-end the social order.

And they, the witches, fight back.  Interesting.  I like the premise of the show. Starting a show with the premise that witchcraft IS real seemed to me to be a great way to probe what is for me the central fascination of the Salem episode: for early Americans, witchcraft WAS real.