Archive for January, 2011

C. Vann Woodward. Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.

For any graduate student in southern history, C. Vann Woodward is a towering and intimidating figure. Although Woodward has been dead for over eleven years and his seminal works are now a half-century old, he remains one of the central figures in southern historiography. Of continuing importance for historians are four monographs: Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938), Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction (1951), Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951), and The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955).  Like all seminal historiographic achievements, Woodward’s work has been criticized and revised by future generations of competent historians. While many of Woodward’s interpretations have fallen out of favor, Origins of the New South rescued an entire time period from historical oblivion. If that were not enough, he challenged historical orthodoxy, namely that southern history was in fact a series of dramatic ruptures instead of a timeless place that operated along a line of historical and cultural continuity. While most southern historians are well beyond the historiographic debate of continuity versus change that Woodward inaugurated, his work remains critical in understanding southern historiography and southern history because of its pioneering narrative and arguments. Historical events described by Woodward in a few paragraphs or in a chapter struck young historians who took the ball and wrote dissertations which later became books. He shattered an old paradigm and southern history never looked the same. Graduate students in southern history will read Woodward’s work and find inspiration for generations to come. In addition, Woodward trained a number of prize-winning historians including James McPherson, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, David Carlton, Barbara Fields, and many many others.

After decades of criticism, Woodward answered the critics in Thinking Back,  a semi-autobiographical reflection on his life in the academy. Recapitulating the historiographic debates of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s is well beyond the scope of my blog, but I will offer some thoughts, few as they may be, on both Woodward and Thinking Back.

It would have been easy for Woodward to be defensive – and perhaps angry – in the face of so much criticism – much of it revisionist. Woodward comes across in this book as both gracious and genuine and reminded the reader that “both the critic and the criticized share as their common goal the pursuit of truth” (5). Later, he argued – I’m paraphrasing here – that truth often arises out of heated controversy. This is, of course, true of history but could also be applied broader to many forms of truth – social, political, or even religious. Perhaps Woodward’s most germane message to readers in the twenty-first century is that articulating ideas thoughtfully and listening to each other in a thoughtful way can lead to truth, something that is in short supply today. Woodward detested blind allegiances to ideology. Although he was a passionate liberal, he was never loyal to twentieth-century liberalism in an ideological sense. He was loyal to things he believed in, such as social justice and equality. The things Woodward believed in made him a liberal – and never the other way around (a phenomenon I’ve noticed).

Beyond explaining  the formation of southern historiography, Thinking Back is useful to a non-academic but educated audience. History, that is to say written history, arises as much as the era in which it was written as by the era that is written about. I find the autobiographical elements of the book where Woodward described his education and experiences that formed his intellect and much of his scholarship most interesting. Not only do we learn that Woodward once tried graduate school in sociology (for two days), we also learn about the milieu which gave birth to The Strange Career of Jim Crow. We find out that Woodward never intended the book to receive the general readership it received when Martin Luther King, Jr. called the book “the Bible of the Civil Rights Movement.” Rather, he conceived his audience of the book (which was originally a lecture series at the University of Virginia) to be both southern and educated. This caused him to write the book with certain assumptions in place. Surely his audience did not need the excesses of the Jim Crow system explicated in the detail that an outsider would need. More importantly, however, he envisioned his audience as one loyal to the status quo who believed that Jim Crow was a time-honored southern tradition that could not be uprooted because it was simply too engrained into individuals of both races. His findings that the system of segregation really began fully in the 1890s was directed at this audience as jolt to those with historical amnesia. Woodward never considered that the book would be popular and widely cited by Civil Rights activists, who sometimes took quotations out of context and embarrassed him. Woodward also explored some of his formative experiences, including seeing grinding poverty throughout the South, his education in Arkansas, New York, Georgia, and North Carolina, and associations he made with intellectuals – white and black, left and right. Understanding what forms the sensibilities of the historian is sometimes as important as the past itself to understanding how we receive written history. Some might be uncomfortable with this statement, but it is inevitably true as all human enterprises are flawed. Rather than running from this, I personally think that this is something that should be cautiously embraced because it allows us to see the importance of individual perspective.

Finally, there is the question of Woodward’s southern heritage and upbringing. While he eventually left the South and spent the last decades of life  in Connecticut after accepting a position at Yale, it is obvious that Woodward deeply loved the South. For someone who spent much of his career raging against the southern status quo, it might be a bit surprising that Woodward couldn’t hide his love of his deeply flawed home. To me, this makes perfect sense. Southern novelist and storyteller George Dawes Green once described the essence of being southern as hating what you love. For any southerner honest about the region’s history, this inevitably is the case. For example, how can the same people capable of strong family ties, irrepressible humor, engaging story telling, wonderous leisure, and love also be responsible for the worst chapters in southern history? As Woodward closes Thinking Back, he obliquely argued that the destruction of Jim Crow and integration of the South into the mainstream of American culture is not only expunging the South of its worst qualities but also simultaneously robbing the region of its uniqueness and thus its most striking virtues. Could it possibly be true that the South can only remain unique as long as it embraces its culture of hate? While it is a bit premature to say one way or another(it’s been less 50 years), it appears that, in some ways, Woodward was prophetic in this prediction. Any southerner can see that the South, as a unique cultural entity within American society, is waning, and fast. We might have slow accents, dialectical quirks, grits, sweet iced tea, and an unexplained urge to eat fried chicken at noon on Sunday, but those are, to me, very shallow and ultimately ephemeral expressions of southernness. And as the South continues to emerge from its dreadful past, what else will there be that we not only hate, but equally love? Northern migration into the South? Working a nine to five? Air conditioning? Atlanta traffic? Doubtful. And if that’s what it took to end what Woodward called “human betrayal in the South,” I freely admit that the loss of southern identity was well worth the price.


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The Lonesome Dove Saga

Last night, I finished Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove tetralogy, a series totaling over 2,500 pages. McMurtry began with an idea for a screenplay that went nowhere after the actors backed out. He set it aside and lost interest because he had no title. Years later, he was near Fort Worth, Texas and saw a church bus that simply read “Lonesome Dove Baptist Church.” From that small burst of inspiration, McMurtry produced what the dust jacket for Comanche Moon (the final installment of the series) called a “peerless vision of the American West.”

I would add the words transcendent and definitive to that description. I am not normally a fan of the Western genre because it often swims in cardboard stereotypes and relies on action instead of rich character development. McMurtry gives readers an epic adventure saga while simultaneously transcending the genre by making the series about people – a thing that all great literature has in common. The books are all character driven and the West simply becomes a place and not a stereotypical set of tropes. So instead of readers being riveted by cowboys chasing Indians (which certainly happens in this series), the real story is the relationship between two Texas Rangers – Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call – living in a place and time that naturally lent itself to adventure. Because adventure simply was a factor of life for many in the West, the action scenes in the series take on a certain routine quality. Placing characters into that framework allowed for marvelous personalities that leapt off page and made Gus and Call heroes to the reader – despite both of their flaws.  Placing touchable characters in the West, instead of making characters to fit the Western genre, allowed McMurty to place the Lonesome Dove saga into the pantheon of American letters…and not just fun, but forgettable, Western fiction. If you are like me and normally don’t like Westerns, this one is worth your time. I am certainly no expert on Westerns, but I feel like I can understand and appreciate an excellent Western better than I ever could have before.

Because some of you have not read the any of books or seen the splendid mini-series based on Lonesome Dove, I will not spoil any plot elements.  I will, however, offer some suggestions for how to tackle the series. I decided to read the books in the order they were written. McMurtry published Lonesome Dove in 1985, which he won the Pulitzer Prize, but this is the third of four in the series. The author followed the incredible financial success and critical acclaim of the book and the mini-series with Streets of Laredo (1993), which took place twenty years after the first book. Later, McMurtry wrote two prequels that took place in chronological order. Dead Man’s Walk (1995) featured the earliest adventures of Gus and Call, while Comanche Moon (1997) covered their middle years before they retired from rangering and opened a livery stable. The series offers the reader the arc of the lives of its characters and to get the best sense of that, you could read the series in its chronological order. I feel, however, that Lonesome Dove really is the centerpiece of the series and should be read first. It’s also the best book in the series and if you don’t want to proceed with the other books, at least read the greatest Western ever written. After reading Lonesome Dove, I would suggest reading the prequels before Streets of Laredo simply because the last book deals with the sadness of having to face and accept being past one’s prime. As such, read Streets of Laredo last because it is a more natural ending than the final chapters of Comanche Moon.

The best thing about these books is that it is rare for an author to write so extensively about male friendship. While there is the vapid bromance genre in film, this is a great story about two men, opposites though they are, who love and respect each other. While both of the main characters do have their romantic interests throughout the book, the main story is the friendship that binds these two men and their lives together in good and bad ways. Good literature about this deep a of level of friendship that does not bathe the reader in sentimentality is both rare and valuable.

After finishing the Lonesome Dove tetralogy, I am taking a break from fiction and focusing on some of the non-fiction I’ve been putting off for a while. I plan to post my reading list, but my next book is C. Vann Woodward, Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History, followed by several dozen historical monographs. I plan to use this blog to write about what I’m reading, so check back if you are interested.

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Here in Greenville, the top news story is the major snowstorm bearing down on the area. Meteorologists are predicting the kind of snowstorm that the we experience once every few decades and are already making comparisons to the great Blizzard of 1988 (a storm that is burned into my memory). And it would take a storm that big to eclipse Saturday’s assassination attempt of Gabrielle Giffords in the news cycle. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I am a proud liberal and almost always vote Democratic. This story has evoked a lot of emotion from people on both sides of the political spectrum, and I too have strong opinions on this matter. What I hope to offer, briefly, are my thoughts on this assassination attempt and its implications.

Within minutes of NPR breaking the story, the left broke into a fury. Long outraged over the right’s use of revolutionary rhetoric, many leapt to say “I told you so.” We all remember Sharon Angle’s assertion that if the left continued to get its way that conservatives might be forced to take “Second Amendment remedies.” Moreover, Sarah Palin’s campaign map that targeted congressional districts (with a cross hair, no less)  that needed to be won for the Republican Party upset liberals and many wondered if the rhetoric had simply gone too far. I was among the liberals that was concerned about the use of violent language in 2010 election.

Currently, we do not know what inspired Jared Lee Loughner to murder. While we do know that he seems to be politically motivated, the real question to me is what is Loughner’s reality. There is no question that Loughner is mentally ill, and my guess is schizophrenia – a very serious disease. If he comes out and says himself that he was influenced by the toxic political environment, then I will line up with my fellow liberals in attacking conservatives for their campaign. But my guess is that he was more influenced by the voices in his head than by anything that jaybird Sharon Angle said.

There is no one person to blame for this tragedy. While I believe Loughner must be held accountable for his crimes, his actions were not his failure. He has a biological brain disease that was either left untreated or poorly treated. In my opinion, the crimes of the mentally ill are societal failures. Failure of society to understand, or even care about, the mentally ill. The mentally ill can’t care about themselves in a meaningful way because their reality is not ours. I could write for hours about the kinds of reforms we need in our healthcare system – that includes mental health. But briefly, I will say that I earnestly hope that the Giffords tragedy will highlight the fact that mental illness is everybody’s business. Society cannot turn a blind eye to this issue any longer. Effective, affordable, and accessible care are a must. Long-term care facilities are desperately needed in every state. While mental hospitals are stigmatized, the care must be effective and humane. There is a lot to be said for medication and therapy. Some patients need to be committed longterm against their will because they might stop taking their medicine and start shooting if left on their own. As it stands now, the criminal justice system is playing too large of a role in the mental health of Americans. This is reactive, not proactive, use of taxpayer money. Maybe this will be a wake up call to the nation that it’s time to do something effective and humanely about the mental health crisis in the United States. Budget deficits, tax cuts, and Tea Parties be damned. The time to act is now.

Finally, I will say that I hope that this will tone down the political rhetoric in the next election. While there was no direct cause and effect relationship between the 2010 midterms and Jared Loughner’s mental health, maybe this tragedy will make politicians think twice before using language with violent implications. I don’t mean to cast dispersions on conservatives; liberals said some pretty stupid and hateful things during the Bush Administration. The toxic political environment is bad for the country and this tragedy might make it worse, or make it better. People are very divided right now on politics, and maybe our national grief over this awful event might remind people of our mutual patriotism and shared humanity.

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Hall of Fame Inductions

Yesterday, baseball fans learned that the BBWAA elected two players into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven will join executive Pat Gillick as inductees this summer in Cooperstown.

The only thing surprising about Alomar’s election is that he was not elected on his first year of eligibility. He is one of the best second basemen to ever play the game. While this was only his second year on the ballot, his brief delay into the Hall of Fame say volumes about the failure of both writers and fans to recognize excellence at second base. I once heard a scout argue that second base is the hardest position to scout for because top infield talent usually ends up at shortstop, and then third base. Sluggers end up in rightfield, leftfield, or on first base. Top centerfielders are a breed unto themselves, along with pitchers and catchers. But second base is often occupied by good, not great fielders, with limited use at the plate. Thus, a player like Alomar, with a sure glove, a good eye at the plate, and an occassional burst of power is truly among the rarest of breeds in Major League Baseball.  

Gillick, elected by the Veteran’s Committee, was an obvious choice. The former general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies assembled some of the finest teams in recent history and produced three World Series champions, including back-to-back championships with Toronto in 1992 and ’93. Gillick’s teams were never flashy and never had tremendous star power, like so often produced in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Boston, but his legacy speaks for itself.

Blyleven’s election to the Hall of Fame is, to me, due mostly to longevity than any other one factor. His statistics, with the exception of his record of over 3,701 strikeouts, are not staggering. While he had many excellent seasons, his overall body of work does not place him among the truly great pitchers of all time. Nevertheless, longevity should not be cast aside when considering candidates for Cooperstown. Rewarding pitchers, a position that makes staying power particularly difficult, for longevity is not unheard of. The names of Don Sutton and Phil Niekro rush to mind. But both Sutton and Niekro had over 300 and 3,000 strikeouts. While Blyleven deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, his election is indicative of a much more important and disconcerting trend in baseball.

The appearance of Raphael Palmerio on the ballot for the first time, with his paltry 11%, says all the needs to be said about Blyleven’s (and, to a lesser extent, Alomar’s) election. With the specter of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs looming over baseball, writers are now rewarding workmen players like Blyleven who earned their statistics. The numbers might not be awe-inspiring, but they demonstrate honesty and prolonged hard word. And it’s refreshing to see that honesty and hard work, two virtues that never go out of style, are still being rewarded.

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The Wonders of a New Year…

Including many other things, the new year signals a new chronological historical  marker that delineates time. Moreover, the turning of the calendar is a reminder to humans of the grand order of things, that time – however vague a concept – is beyond our control and is continually happening all around us.  You might be more practical and see the new year in strictly financial terms, as the beginning of a new tax cycle or a new fiscal quarter.  Some simply celebrate with family or friends. Or the new year might just be an excuse to stay up late, drink too much, and, if you aren’t lucky, endure a hangover on the first day of January.

But for many, including myself, this particular new year is a harbinger of hope. This year, I feel inspired to take a more active control of the parts of my life I can control. After so long of feeling that a great albatross was weighing me down, I feel like a great burden has been lifted. Not only that, but I’m looking at life with a certain clarity that I’ve not always enjoyed. I am patently aware that many difficult changes must take place in my life.

But, for the first time in my life, I feel up to the challenges I face.

  • I need to take the GRE and, furthermore, do well on it.
  • I need to apply to graduate school.
  • I need to save several thousand dollars and move.
  • I need to change my diet and loose around 75 pounds.
  • And there’s the little matter of my marital status that needs to be resolved.

While the new year means different things for different people in different contexts, the past year and the dawning of a new beginning signifies to me that I am in control in of my life. And that I’m up to the challenges that life brings.

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