Archive for March, 2011

I’m almost embarrassed to keep posting these so-called “classic” reviews because it gives away the fact that I’m not getting too much reading done. Right now, I’m still reading Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution. It’s a  really brilliant book, but also long and very dense. I like to read a few pages every day, especially when I’m on my lunch break, but also when I’m at home and want something to entertain my brain. I should be done with it in the next week or so, and until then my few loyal readers will have to be content with another old review. In the Fall of ’08, I took Dr. Alexander Macaulay’s gender history course at WCU and it turned out to be really difficult and really rewarding. Gender and Jim Crow is one of the best historical monographs I’ve ever read (and is almost always on comprehensive exam reading lists). After reading this book, I wanted to be just like Glenda Gilmore because her research is second to none, her analysis is simultaneously overwhelming but subtle, and she is one of the best writers in the American Academy.  Her next book is on my reading list, but don’t expect the review for some time. This is one of the better papers I wrote as a graduate student and I hope you enjoy reading it.

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Political history is generally written in a top-down fashion. When studying the public sphere, historians typically discuss elections, political parties, and the various orifices of the body politic. This attention singles out powerful politicians and influential constituents. Studying top-down Jim Crow politics presents a number of serious problems because it denies agency to the oppressed. When women and blacks have emerged in southern political history narratives, the story of their exclusion from the public sphere has garnered the most attention. From this perspective, the history of women and blacks in southern politics is a gut-wrenching story of oppression by the all-powerful and often intensely brutal southern white man, and the issue of subaltern agency seems blasé. How could anybody resist the sheer force of southern white men on their bigoted mission of exclusion? The advent of gender history in the 1990s, however, obliterated this paradigm forever. Glenda E. Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow demonstrated that the matrix of race, class, and gender defined the ways that one could shape or resist white supremacy in New South, and therefore the outcome of the fight over the institutionalization of Jim Crow was no forgone conclusion. As part of this thesis, Gilmore argues that middle-class black women entered the public sphere and very subtly defied and reshaped Jim Crow in their relentless search for racial equality. This inclusive narrative created an agenda for historians to reconsider the Jim Crow political arena through a bottom-up lens and therefore redefine what constituted movement within the public sphere. Gender and Jim Crow is a true tour de force and the New South never looked newer.

Gilmore noted that some of the worst practices by historians distorted the narrative of Jim Crow politics, including excessive labeling of subfields and reliance on one-sided documents that obscure reality. She asserted that “[t]he subfields of the discipline – African American history, women’s history, social history, southern history, political history – are drawn by and for historians. Analyses that separate these subfields misrepresent the way people actually lived their lives.” She goes on, “Basing southern political history on white archival sources has rendered African Americans as passive recipients of whites’ actions. Black middle-class men have appeared as exceptions in the narrative, while black women have disappeared altogether.” In other words, the use of too many labels and ‘white’ sources accomplishes what amounts an unintended brand of Jim Crow. By refusing to acknowledge the agency of African Americans in the political world of white supremacy, historians relegate them as powerless individuals destined to ride quietly on the back of the bus in southern historiography.

By reshaping the meaning of the public sphere using gender, Gilmore placed African American women at the front of the bus in southern political history. For example, black women working for social causes through their churches had major influence on politics. Around 1890, whites started to portray black men as savage rapists that no white woman would be safe around. When a black man raped a white woman, he violated her exalted virtue and asserted his manliness above that of white men. Black men in public therefore appeared as threats to both southern manhood and womanhood and those who entered the public sphere risked death. Middle class black women, however, posed no such threat to white gender identity and took up the cross of racial equality because their husbands, whom Gilmore dubbed ‘best men,’ could not. Through churches and clubs, African American women honed their organizational skills working for causes such as temperance, sanitation, education, and other Progressive Era reform initiatives. They then parlayed their expertise into interaction with white women after carefully gaining positive reputations as women who could get things done. When the issue of women’s suffrage arose in 1920, black women stood alongside whites and demanded the vote, hoping that white women would support them. Some did indeed champion their black associates, although white male voting registrars generally proved hostile.

In the end, these black women were deprived of suffrage just as their husbands had been twenty years before. One hundred years of hindsight and a historical perspective that tells modern observers that white men would stop at nothing to disenfranchise blacks might leave some readers cynical. They will argue that whites won because they dominated society from the top-down and kept blacks ignorant and therefore dependant. It is important, however, to remember the words of C. Vann Woodward who remarked in 1955 that most of his contemporary southerners were “[u]nable to remember a time when segregation was not the general rule and practice, [and] they have naturally assumed that things have ‘always been that way.’” For African American women in 1920, the historical perspective was quite different. Jim Crow was only two decades old and most could well remember a time when middle class black men occupied a prominent place in the public sphere. Some served as sheriffs or magistrates while others owned successful businesses that catered to white patrons. The fight to turn back the tide of white supremacy was incremental and safely cloaked in the gendered prerogatives of social reform. In the eyes of middle class black women, the triumph of white supremacy in 1920 seemed to be anything but a foregone conclusion. Furthermore, the very institutionalization of white supremacy is evidence that whites felt that blacks did constitute a major threat and that their own ultimate success was uncertain.

Ironically, Gilmore creates this inclusive narrative by only focusing on a few prominent middle class black women in North Carolina like Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Sarah Dudley Pettey. Critics will allege that these women are unrepresentative of black women across the South, but are especially anomalous compared to those in Deep South states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Strict segregation was certainly ubiquitous in the Old North State, but the racial politics of the Deep South made North Carolina a relatively tolerable, but far from pleasant, place for African Americans to live during the Jim Crow years. Simply put, it was easier to defy Jim Crow in North Carolina than other southern states. However, Gilmore’s focus on a few women in North Carolina is pragmatic for three reasons. First of all, it allows the author to keep the book focused and the reader engaged. Second, it is likely that black women in North Carolina who defied Jim Crow were more likely to leave behind source material for historians; their sisters in the Deep South could not safely leave behind such traces. Thirdly, and most importantly, Gilmore’s approach gives the audience a perspective of the entire lives of these women. African American tactics shaped by the matrix of race, class, and gender changed throughout this very dynamic era in southern history. As Woodward demonstrated, the ‘White South’ was far from monolithic and it took decades to create enough solidarity to form the Solid South. Biographical sketches show the ways that these chaotic times shaped African American responses through a vortex of change when nothing could seem inevitable or out of reach to anybody. Simply put, these examples allow Gilmore to illustrate the various historical contingencies of the Jim Crow age.

What is so stunning about the book is that Gilmore used gender analysis in such an understated way that the reader does not always clearly recognize it. Scholars like Gail Bederman and Kristin L. Hoganson were so passionate in their desire to put gender analysis into the historiographic mainstream that their use strong use of gendered images made their arguments anything but subtle. Both historians used prominent examples of gender such as political cartoons, discussions of fears of emasculation, and even occasional phallic references. Although their use of gender proved enormously fruitful, Bederman and Hoganson’s vibrant arguments in favor of gender caused their work to be pigeonholed as ‘gender history.’ As Gilmore recognized, excessive categorization of history leads to narrow and sometimes misleading historiographic conclusions. With some exceptions, the use of gender is understated and Gender and Jim Crow, despite the title, does not lend itself to easy categorization because there are no loud gendered images from political cartoons, no crisis in masculinity, and no hegemonic discourse of civilization rooted in fears of societal decay. Gilmore simply presented real women defined by their race, class, and gender who worked tirelessly in the trenches everyday and dearly hoped for equality with whites. The book, while powerful in analysis, has a common touch which helps the reader understand real lives divorced from the sometimes arduous language of academic history.

Whether top-down or bottom-up, the history of Jim Crow will likely cause feelings of guilt and accountability among present-day white southerners. In the final analysis, these feelings are justified.  For modern black southerners, however, top-down Jim Crow history is the story of defeat, oppression, fear, and hate. Although these emotions are also justified they tell an incomplete story. The bottom-up perspective however, allows black southerners to feel pride for the courage of their ancestors who not only simply lived in the Jim Crow South, but raged against the system as well. A narrative with black women alive and active in the public sphere is, as Gilmore said, “long overdue” and historians and laymen can now celebrate these women who defied convention for a goal within their grasp, but denied to them both by historical actors and historiography.


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In the Spring of 2009, I took a course on Nineteenth Century America. That turned out to be a horrible semester for me for personal reasons, but I enjoyed the course, taught by Richard Starnes.Instead of assigning everybody the same book and then coming to class for a three-hour discussion , Richard assigned everybody a different book that fit under a historiographic umbrella. Each student then came back and reviewed the book for the class. While I personally like discussing a book for three hours, the great benefit of this approach was that it allowed you to take in a great amount of historiography in one semester. This is especially beneficial when it comes to preparing for comprehensive exams, but absorbing this much historiography is great for any graduate student who needs to get a critical mass of literature under his or her belt.

The papers for this class were a bit different from most graduate courses. They were limited to one page, single-spaced. This has a very important purpose. It forces you to be summarize, analyze, and assess the importance of a book in around 600 words. This is so small challenge, and if you could do it well, the process was rewarding. Mark Twain once apologized to a friend for writing a long letter. He said he didn’t have time to write a short one. The parameters of the weekly papers for this course forced students to learn the important skill of saying the most with the least number of words.

I’ll post a number of the papers I wrote for this course (before I broke my arm and had to take an incomplete), but we’ll start with Paul Boyer’s classic study of attempts to impose moral order on American urban centers. This is a very important book for American historians and is always included in required reading lists for graduate students. It’s also well-written and easily accessible to a wide audience.

Paul Boyer. Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Urbanization is one of the central themes of nineteenth century American history. For every decade, the federal census shows the rural population gradually shifting to an urban setting. By 1920, over half of the American population lived in cities or towns. Paul Boyer’s Urban Masses and Moral Order is not concerned with the logistical process of city building, but rather how Americans reacted to this major dramatic demographic trend. For many rural Americans, the city represented the ultimate symbol of moral degeneracy because it lacked the intimacy one felt with their neighbors in the countryside. Many reform initiatives including tract societies, Sunday Schools, organizations like the YMCA, prohibition and anti-prostitution crusades, and urban beautification programs tried to replicate rural folkways on an increasingly urban society. While extremely diverse in both theory and practice, all these movements believed that urban areas lacked moral order and believed it could be imposed through social control. Boyer’s book ties together a century of seemingly unrelated urban reform movements.

Boyer begins with the Jacksonian era and discussions of tract societies and Sunday Schools. The reformers of this era believed that cities were sinful because its residents lacked proper morals. These reformers believed that by saving souls and molding minds, they could create a village within an urban setting. Boyer went into great detail discussing the Sunday Schools. Social control permeated very facet of these institutions, right down to rules, room arrangement, and curriculum. During mid-century, reformers focused their attention on lower middle class individuals who moved to the city from small towns seeking economic opportunity.  These native-born Anglo-American men included bank tellers, clerks, and secretaries. Reformers felt that they could slide into degeneracy by frequenting taverns and bordellos too often and founded institutions like the Young Men’s Christian Association to give them a sort of family that could provide love, support, and, if necessary, stern correction. Although these reformers still felt that city dwellers were corrupt these movements were less specific than the single-issue causes of decades prior. During the Gilded Age, social control in the city took the form of charitable organizations like the Salvation Army. Although many of these charities were evangelical in ideology, many were secular in nature. By the Progressive Era, social control split into two modes of thought. The first, “negative environmentalism,” maintained the evangelical spirit of direct social control by trying to shape behavior by changing laws. The other, “positive environmentalism,” grew out of new academic disciplines such as sociology and tried to improve the urban environment by creating parks, playgrounds, and building impressive buildings to foster community spirit. By the 1920s, however, cities became social control mechanisms in their own right as they became the norm for American life and advocated cultural pluralism.

The book succeeds by combining narrative and analysis to weave together a century of social control. Boyer provides a penetrating class analysis where he considers how elitist efforts affected the lower classes and also the upper and middle class individuals who volunteered. The aspirations of lower middle class people often embodied the reform movements; they fought what they did not want to become. However, the book is not perfect. Boyer does not consider the issue of race and the ways in which racial assumptions shaped the important trend of urbanization. Furthermore, Boyer’s focus is very scattered geographically, but tends to look at cities like New York and Chicago. He does not systematically look at regions or consider demographic differences in major cities. Do pockets of specific immigrant populations such Poles, Irish, or Chinese alter the path of reform movements in different urban centers? Still, Boyer’s book provides an excellent starting point for scholars looking to answer these questions. Finally, Boyer’s book demolishes the notion that social control is inherently insidious and gives historians useful examples of social control that is genuinely benevolent in theory and practice.

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Many of you are southerners. Many of you are religious. It seems only natural that more people around here would be better read in southern religious history, but, alas, this is not the case. I think it’s a little ironic that I learned so much about the history of my own religion and region from Christine Leigh Heyrman – a Jew who had never even seriously studied the South before becoming interested in southern evangelicalism. Her research, sensitivity to primary sources, and writing are sublime and I am particulalry grateful that she advanced the field so much with this prize-winning monograph. You probably won’t be able to find it at any local bookstores, but it’s easily available online if you are interested. By the way, this “classic” review (I still cringe when I write that) comes to you by way of Dr. Hunt Boulware’s class on Colonial America. While this book dealt primarily with the Early National period, Dr. Boulware was nice enough to let me review this book for his class because it was in my field (it also helped that I had read it earlier in the semester in another class).

Christine Leigh Heyrman. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

In and around the rural hamlet of Donalds, South Carolina (population 354), there are twelve churches, all of evangelical Protestant persuasion. That is one church for every 29.5 people. These numbers powerfully illustrate the intense hold that evangelical religion currently holds over the South. Southern evangelicalism has been so ubiquitous for so long that most cannot image a South without this religion at its heart. Although it is well known that evangelicalism did not take root in the South until after 1800, it is tempting to think of evangelical Protestantism after the Great Revival as a cultural behemoth that was accepted, uncontested, and celebrated by the overwhelming majority of southerners. Christine Leigh Heyrman reminds us, however, that nothing could be further from the truth. Her Bancroft Prize-winning study, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, depicted evangelicalism as radical, contentious, divisive, and a perceived threat to the stability of southern society. Heyrman argues that Baptist and Methodist clerics were not a threat to just landed aristocratic elites, but even drew the ire of backcountry tenant and yeomen patriarchs because evangelicals challenged the gendered structure of the family. Southern Cross shows that the religion can tear down rather than build up, and in order for the Methodists and Baptists to survive the antebellum South, the clergy gradually made concessions that brought southern churches in line with southern culture. Heyrman’s study is a refreshingly originally, often witty, and powerfully argued monograph. The Old South never looked so new.

What made southern evangelicalism so dangerous to southerners in the concluding years of the eighteenth century? To start with, many individuals found evangelical rituals such as baptism, foot washing, the holy kiss, and love feasts downright bizarre and even frightening. For instance, baptism was seen by some as a “watery grave.” One Virginian who found the Baptist message appealing warned his minister, “I love your preaching, but you shall never dip me.” Other aspects of the religious movement proved enormously controversial. Methodists in particular utilized a system of itinerancy to minister to a dispersed backcountry population. The physical, emotional, and social demands of the job limited the pool of ministers to young, poor, and single white men. In a society that often deferred to mature, wealthy, and married planters, young ministers with the power to expel, rebuke, and discipline established men proved to be very controversial figures. Furthermore, the early evangelical commitment to abolition only exacerbated these fears. Imagine, for instance, the anger that could arise when a middle-aged man received stern correction for owning slaves from a circuit rider the same age as his son.

Southerners perceived other aspects of the religion as radical. The evangelical emphasis on spiritual equality had tremendous implications for white and black relations and many white southerners saw the Baptist and Methodist messages as a threat to the racial order. In addition, the primacy of the family came under fire from these religious bodies. Not only were whites and blacks equal under evangelical theology, but men and women also enjoyed equality. Before 1800, the clergy allowed women to read and interpret the scripture in meetings. Patriarchal white men believed their families, the ultimate symbol of their power, were under fire. If both a husband and a wife were both seeking a conversion experience and the wife had one first, the man’s dominance of the family came into direct conflict with the wife, who could call herself spiritually superior to her mate.

Gradually, however, things began to change. With the death of Bishop Francis Asbury in 1816, the Methodist General Conference slowing began making institutional changes (such as higher pay for itinerants, building parsonages, and establishing colleges) that allowed for an older, more experienced, and wealthier clergy that did not challenge the southern social order. In time, evangelicalism and southern culture became engaged in a symbiotic relationship wherein they both began taking on characteristics of the other. The primacy of the patriarchy gradually became celebrated by evangelical clergy, women were often not allowed to be baptized without spousal consent, and blacks were pushed out to the margins of religious society. Clergymen started to engage in southern pastimes like hunting, used the legal system to their advantage, and utilized their sermons to make tough men cry and thus proved their manhood. The result of these cultural and theological concessions was an extremely pervasive evangelical language spoken “with a southern accent.”

Heyrman’s work benefits from excellent research, careful analysis, and superb story telling. While people in places like Donalds might take religion as simply a fact of life, Heyrman demonstrates that the triumph of evangelical Christianity was anything but a forgone conclusion in 1800. She relied mostly on diaries, letters, and memoirs to enter the turn of the nineteenth century southern evangelical world. Often quite witty, there are enough one-liners in this book to keep even the most stoic scholar chuckling throughout the book: “One who encountered John Early on the road in 1810, upon learning ‘that I had no abiding city…said I was either a gambler or a Methodist preacher.’” By sometimes using humor to make her point that Methodist clergy were often linked with the shady underbelly of society, Heyrman demonstrates the kind of obstacles that evangelical preachers had to overcome in order to create the so-called ‘Bible Belt.’ What is most important about this book, however, is that it reevaluates southern evangelicalism’s role in forming a community out of middling and lower class yeomen and tenant farmers. While scholars including Donald G. Mathews cite the power of evangelical religion that created a community of believers out of a disparate group of individuals, Heyrman shows that it is not so simple. Rather than being a popular movement in the South, southern evangelicalism was a battleground of constant setbacks, compromise, and victories and took sixty years to finally become the dominant mode of religious thought in the region.

There are a few notable drawbacks to the book. Although it falls squarely within her periodization, Heyrman makes no attempt to assess the importance of the Great Revival that swept portions of the South into a religious frenzy after the legendary revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Although this has been commonly cited as a major turning point in southern religion, the power of camp meetings goes almost unacknowledged in the narrative. Although she does touch on aspects of revivalism, Heyrman does not engage with scholars like John Boles, who believe this movement proved critical in creating the religious mind of the South. (Ironically, only a year before Southern Cross hit print, Boles reissued his classic work The Great Revival in paperback with the exact same subtitle as Heyrman’s book). She also continually downplays the numbers of individuals who either adhered to evangelical Protestantism or joined these churches, citing that as late as 1813, fewer than fifty percent of southerners were evangelical. Heyrman, however, does not take into serious account the striking growth of these groups before 1815 that started with nothing in 1770. It certainly makes sense that it would take a number of decades for these groups to capture the South given their extraordinarily thin numbers prior to the American Revolution. Moreover, if a religious movement captures say, 25% of any area’s individuals, could that not constitute a major historical trend? Why is 50% the magical line in the sand?

These criticisms, however, should not detract from what is, overall, a very fine book. Heyrman refocuses our attention on little known aspects of the southern religious experience and makes it abundantly clear that the establishment, growth, and dominance of evangelical denominations in the South were often in doubt, and these groups encountered firm opposition at every turn. Although today the South remains the buckle of the Bible Belt, at one time is was a hot battleground for the hearts and minds of the southern population. The South we know today was formed in part, as Heyrman suggests, because the church became more southern which allowed the south to become more religious. This fresh reassessment is a striking historiographic achievement that is now one of the standard bearers for historians of southern religion.

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Let the good times roll…

I’ve been wanting to make the blog more a bit more personal than book reviews (like most of you even care), and last month, I wrote an entry about how good the previous month had been. I really enjoyed writing it, and from the looks of things, you guys enjoyed reading it (all 20 or so of you). I might try to make this sort of posting a monthly feature here at my small piece of internet real estate. I have no unifying theme this time around, but here are some things that I think you might like.

Among the funniest things that is going on around here is my father’s battle with the squirrels. On our back deck, we have a birdfeeder. As anybody with a birdfeeder knows, squirrels love birdseed and have a great amount of ingenuity when it comes to acquiring the seeds. They will jump, hang upside down, risk life and limb, or do anything it takes to get the food. We have always enjoyed quite a nice variety of winged friends, especially cardinals, but also wrens, finches, and the occasional robin or jaybird. In fact, the window where our table faces out offers a nice view of the visitors. We like to eat and watch the birds also eat. Squirrels, however, are quite cavalier and will run off the birds and this has pushed my father over the edge. One beautiful day we are enjoying lunch and my father looks out the window and quickly gets up. The next thing I know, he’s in the bathroom, has opened the window, is holding a Benjamin pump air rifle, and has taken dead aim on our pesky neighbor. This particular rifle shoots pellets with enough force to easily kill small game or really infuriate large animals. He came back to the table with the look of a very satisfied man. Nobody, and I mean nobody, messes with our birdfeeder. And we have the squirrel carcases to prove it, if you’d like to find out personally. However, it appears that the squirrels are learning not to mess around with Old Man Bishop and his Benjamin pump rifle.

On a more upbeat note, probably the biggest thing that’s been happening in my corner of the universe was the marriage of Ben and LeighAnna, two of my best friends, last Saturday. I was honored to be a co-bestman for the occasion and I especially enjoyed the bachelor party. Let me be clear that an internet blog is not really an appropriate location to divulge the goings-on of a bachelor party, but I will say that everybody had a wonderful time. Let’s just hope that Chad never decides to put the pictures he took that night on Facebook. Wednesday, I went to pick up the tux. As it happens, I was fitted in late January and had lost around 30 pounds in the intervening months. The only thing that actually fit were the shoes. I was resized and went back the next day and, as you can see in the photo, the suit then fitted perfectly and all of us looked quite dashing for the ceremony. The ceremony was a beautiful and simple affair that lasted less than ten minutes – probably closer to five. The best thing was that there was not one ounce of pretense; this was a ceremony that perfectly fit the personalities of the couple getting married. LeighAnna wore tennis shoes and Ben wore pink socks (I’m not going to tell you what my socks looked like) and they actually high-fived at the point in the ceremony where they tell the groom the kiss the bride – don’t worry, they still kissed. Here’s the thing that I admire most about this couple: they are always themselves, no matter who is around or what the occasion is. There will be no surprises between them because these two people are real. Not only are they real, but they’re really in love. And I can’t think of a more fitting celebration than Saturday’s festivities. It was also good to reconnect with people I haven’t seen in a while. Especially Ben’s father, Erwin. He is one of the most engaging and interesting people I’ve ever met and if you think you are going to draw a box around Erwin Frazier and somehow categorize him, forget about it. He’s a free thinker in an age when people are not particularly thoughtful. A lot of other really good stuff happened this weekend that was related to the wedding, and I will be eternally grateful to Ben and LeighAnna for the joy their wedding brought into so many people’s lives – including mine.

Finally, I have to say that it’s March. And March means many things, but it always means that it’s almost baseball season again. Perhaps it’s because I’m an avid Cubs fan, but something about the start of baseball season buoys my spirits and makes me feel great. Every new season reminds me that warm summer nights lay in the very near future. There is nothing like a night at the ballpark, complete with hotdogs, cool refreshing beverages, and seats on the thirdbase line. What teams should we watch out for? The Phillies have one of the best rotations in baseball history – I think even better than the Braves teams of the mid-90s. The Red Sox and Yankees will be competitive. In general, the teams out west look pretty weak to me. One of the most interesting divisions to watch will be the National League Central. Of course, the Pirates and the Astros will go nowhere. But the Brewers might turn out to be really strong, the Cardinals have a lot of question marks but huge potential, and if the Cubs can shore up their defense, they will be dangerous. Perhaps as the season draws nigh, I will have more to say here about baseball. If the Cubs have a really great season, I will probably have quite a bit to say. If they Cubs have a terrible season, I’m sure I’ll have even more to say. One final word about the coming season relates to the Cubs. This is the first season after the passing of Cubs legend Ron Santo. He gave us all inspiration, joy, and laughter. He will be sorely missed by Cubs fans, and baseball fans everywhere who understood what he meant to the game.

That’s all I have for now. Another great month has passed, and I’m looking forward to the next thirty days. And, of course, let the good times roll!

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God bless Howard Zinn. Very few historians of his caliber were able to think so clearly, write so elegantly, and push people to reconsider the past differently from the way they received it as children. His book A People’s History of the United States became a bestseller and inspired a series, edited by Zinn, of “People’s History” monographs from experts in their field. There have been many published, including one on the American Revolution. Zinn has since died, but his “People’s History series” lives on as a testament to his life and career. In the Fall of 2008, Dr. Hunt Boulware assigned A People’s History of the American Revolution to his 600-level seminar on Colonial America at Western Carolina University. As it happens, Boulware also assigned an academic roundtable from the William and Mary Quarterly that featured a turgid and incomprensible essay by a man named Edward Countryman. I was in the course and wrote what I felt was one of the best papers in my years as a grad student. I will brag and say that I churned this thing out in less than three hours, but I long had the idea to take on academics who come across as pompous asses because they want to insert so much jargon into their books that nobody outside of the academy would read. I ended up not so much reviewing anything as railing against academic historian’s relative lack of action to do anything to combat distorted popular memories. I was pretty creative in this essay and you might notice that the tone is a bit more loose than my normal academic speak. That was no accident.

Ray Raphael. A People’s History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence. New York: Perennial, 2002.

Edward Countryman. The American Revolution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.

With the possible exception of the southern Confederacy, no other period in American history is as romanticized as the American Revolution. In popular mythology, heroic farmers marched into battle under the leadership of pious and capable generals for their perfect principles and a dream called ‘America.’ The British acted as tyrannical murderers and had no business pushing around the simple but extraordinarily virtuous colonists, who only wanted to live in freedom and pursue happiness. We must not forget the day that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree or the night that Paul Revere saved New England with his midnight ride.  Meanwhile, Native Americans and African slaves recede into the background, only entering the narrative when necessary. Who is responsible for these lies? Some might point at the Daughters of the American Revolution and their elitist ethos. Not to be outdone, Mel Gibson’s monumental clunker The Patriot, with its happy slaves, ruthless British, and blazing passion for a country that did not yet exist certainly helped these falsehoods reach a large box office audience. Moreover, public school textbooks do little to dispel these myths to legions of impressionistic youths who will later join the painfully ignorant brood of American voters whose primary source of information for electoral politics are misleading television advertisements. And then there is the Academy, one of the few groups in the United States who probe deeper than the cardboard cutouts found in textbooks and the mass media. Although university historians do ask very complex and fruitful questions about the origins of American democracy, they write books so turgid and dense that only their colleagues will read. Well, ‘read’ might too generous. Perhaps ‘skim’ is more accurate. Are poorly dressed and socially awkward scholars the last hope for presenting an account of the American Revolution that avoids sentimental flag waving and political indoctrination?

Although the picture looks grim, there is indeed a glimmer of hope for American history. There are a few historians who understand what must be done to turn back the tide of historical lies that teachers and the media tell. Ray Raphael is one such scholar and his book A People’s History of the American Revolution succeeds on many levels. First of all, the book is a pointed criticism at his fellow academics that have, for far too long, focused only a few big names during the American Revolution: Washington, Revere, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and so forth. Legions of Americans, and not just white land owners, had opinions concerning the events that occurred between 1775 and 1783. Raphael’s book is about ordinary people of all races, financial backgrounds, and educational accomplishments, the folks swept under the rug by historians because the few diaries and letters they left behind are deemed too unique to use in any book to make grand generalizations about the origins of the United States. Through his book, Raphael hoped to refocus historian’s attention away from the Continental Congress and onto farmers, day laborers, slaves, and Indians from all over the eastern seaboard. Most importantly, however, the book augments our understanding of the complex web of motivation that spurred a variety of people to action during the Revolutionary Era. Raphael even acknowledges that virtue was often the last thing on people’s minds. The author has a common touch that anybody, not just tweed clad historians, can easily consume and readily understand. Unfortunately, however, Ray Raphael is only one man. Countless other very fine scholars do not make their quite as accessible and the battle is uphill if historians hope to truly make a difference.

Similarly, Edward Countryman believes that historians should work to incorporate all parties involved in the Revolution, but he goes about in a much different way than Raphael. In the first piece of an academic roundtable published in the William and Mary Quarterly, Countryman urged historians to look east to the Old World to understand the institutional structures to understand how the imperial order actually worked in early America and how it changed after the call to arms in 1776. Countryman, however, descends into a vague essay that is not especially easy to understand, even for academics. Even renowned historian Michael Zuckerman expressed frustration that Countryman’s exciting ideas appeared unclear to the reader. If historians write in such a way that they cannot even understand each other, what hope is there for the layman? Furthermore, why are historians content to only write to each other? There is a whole world that exists outside of the comfort of the ivory tower.

In addition to his essay in WMQ, Countryman recently published a book simply entitled The American Revolution. Major publishing houses released both Countryman and Raphael’s books. It appears that neither received a huge audience in the general public, but those did read them found Raphael’s book more enjoyable. On Amazon.com, readers are free to leave short reviews to help potential buyers make up their mind. One of Countryman’s reviewers summed it all up: “I hate to be so negative for there is some good content, but I would [suggest you] only read this book if you are already well read on this time period and have nothing better to do, or if you are a professional academician with interest in this field. And for those of you who teach a history course on the American Revolution, please don’t inflict this book on your students.” Although Countryman is a scholar of the first order, he perpetuates the profound disconnect between the Academy and the general public. It is a shame that such fine scholarship and intellectual prowess is lost as bored readers consider using the book as a table prop. 

Raphael’s reviews on Amazon tell a different story. One reader noted that “[u]nlike the sometimes ‘fairy tale’ school books, one learns and feels the anguish of the early settlers as they struggled with strong class distinction, wealth vs. poverty, and desperation for the freedoms, traditions (some quite surprising) and culture of America today. One learns intimate details about the lives and values of some of our founding fathers (and mothers) who are undeserving of their elevated place in history, while discovering some whose sacrifices and courage made our independence achievable.” Another reader was even more perceptive: “[s]et in a narrative that gives us the historic context without muting the voices of the people who speak to us directly, this book brings history home to the reader’s heart and head.” These individuals actually enjoyed reading top-notch academic history and learned something in the process.

Scholars might be skeptical of using Amazon reviews to evaluate their own work, and this is understandable. Nevertheless, they are an invaluable tool to understand how history is being received by the general public. What they tell us, in this case, is that historians who insist on writing to other scholars can expect people to not read their work. While historians who are careful enough to integrate historiography into their work and still make it both enjoyable and accessible can hold out hope that the mass public will read it, internalize it, and use it to reconsider everything they think they knew about history before they picked up the book. The reader will then understand that the meaning of ‘America’ has been hotly contested since the colonial era and perhaps, God willing, that their teachers, the DAR, and even Mel Gibson were all dead wrong. The true job of any historian is not to engage in petty and self-indulgent debates with their colleagues, but to open people’s eyes. When we do this, American mythology might actually become just a myth.

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Grisham’s The Confession

John Grisham. The Confession: A Novel. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

If nothing else, John Grisham is working to consolidate his reputation as one of the most strident and outspoken opponents of capital punishment in the United States. Like Grisham, I oppose the death penalty in all cases. The novel energetically takes on the death penalty and its proponents.

I also think that Grisham is one of the best writers of mass market fiction working today. Perhaps what I like most about his writing is the ability to develop characters at breakneck pace. In ten pages that absolutely fly by, we learn more about Grisham’s characters than less capable writers are able to convey in several chapters. I will freely admit that there is little going on here that warrants much attention from serious literary critics, but the overwhelming majority of his readers are not looking for literary merit. We want a fun, engaging, thrilling, and fast paced narrative. A good way to spend a rainy afternoon. Or perhaps a sunny day, if you can find a quiet spot under a tree or maybe a nice back porch somewhere. The great pacing that made Grisham famous is on full display in The Confession.

So why did this novel fail to impress me?

First, let’s outline the premise. Keith Schroeder is a thirty-five year old Lutheran pastor living a quiet life in Topeka until a mysterious man enters his office one Monday morning. Travis Boyette, one of Grisham’s most unsavory characters, was just paroled from prison, is suffering from a deadly brain tumor, and, now facing death, has a shocking confession to make. He kidnapped, raped, and murdered Nicole Yarber nine years before in Texas. Worst yet is that the police in the small town of Slone, Texas arrested the wrong man, an eighteen year-old African-American, coerced a confession, and placed him before a jury. Donté Drumm received the death penalty and now faced execution by the State of Texas in four short days. Keith and Travis must decide the best course of action and try to stop the well-oiled machinery of the Texas criminal justice system from killing an innocent man.

If you’re a Grisham fan like me, this plot probably sounds pretty familiar. Did you read The Chamber (1994)? The Innocent Man (2006)? His collection of short stories, Ford County (2009)? The Chamber was a really long book with a story that never really went anywhere. I read it ten years ago and remember putting it down feeling disappointed. “Fetching Raymond” worked as a short story and dealt with the family of a condemned, but entirely delusional, man in Mississippi. The Innocent Man was a brilliant and thoroughly researched work of non-fiction that read like a novel and had Grisham’s trademark page-turning style. I loved the story, the writing, and Grisham made what I felt was an air-tight case against capital punishment. He seethed with moral indignation against the death penalty, but never came across as preachy. When I finished the book, I wondered how many innocent men had been killed for crimes they did not commit. If Grisham failed in changing anybody’s opinions, he certainly made all of his readers consider a thoughtful, passionate, and convincing account of a man wrongly accused and convicted of capital murder. I won’t spoil that book for those who’ve never read the book, but I highly recommend it for anybody, especially those with strong opinions on capital punishment.

Grisham’s faithful readers know that he uses his novels as vehicles for social criticism, but that’s not the problem here. Grisham’s fans have been beaten over the head with this issue – it’s time to move on, John. We admire your work with the Innocence Project  and, please, we beg of you to keep up the fight. It’s important. But the death penalty makes for one downer of a novel. And this is the second novel, third book, and forth overall treatment of the subject you’ve given us. Much of this book is basically a fictionalized account of The Innocent Man, and it’s difficult not to feel frustrated with this repetitive effort by a master story-teller.

Furthermore, as a southerner, I found Grisham’s portrayal of the region appallingly one-dimensional. While many of the attitudes of southerners toward the death penalty that Grisham freely exploits are very common – too common, in my opinion – his portrayal of the average white southerner leaves something to be desired. I know that people in Texas have guns. Everybody knows it. I’m not sure that all Texas sit around on their suburban front porches with loaded shotguns ready for action. (I swear there are sections of the book that are pretty close to that description). Moreover, race relations in the South are better than Grisham would have us believe. Sure, there are many grievances accompanied by lots of emotion on both sides, but we are not on the verge of a race war. Or even a riot. Not even in Texas. In my opinion, we are simply living our lives and we are doing our best – white and black, liberal and conservative. Perhaps as a white southern male himself, perhaps Grisham felt he could generalize all he wanted for the sake of drama. I think he went a bit overboard, and he knows better. There is a lot of nuance in the region that he should take into account. I fear that people outside the region might actually think that this book is an accurate portrayal of the South. It is not. This novel seems like it would be better set in the 1970s. If only they had the Internet and DNA evidence back then, I might have not been rolling my eyes so much at plot elements that exploit the South’s history on race.

In other areas, Grisham is on firmer ground – provided you haven’t read most of his books (like me). While some of the characters are lacking, many are endearing and well-developed. Robbie Flak, Drumm’s lawyer, leaps off the page. The character of Keith is believable as a good-hearted Christian minister who understands what Christ’s teachings are all about (I could really go off on a tangent on real-life Christian ministers, but I’ll spare you). You simultaneously hate, pity, and admire Travis at once – which I think is difficult to pull off. Taken on its own merits, the plot is solid, but loses steam half-way through.  While there are moments of great suspense, there were no dramatic surprises that caught me off guard. The book might have been unbearable without the last hundred pages or so when things turn for the better. The book ended on an upbeat note, and Grisham really owed that to the reader. But after four hundred pages, I would have preferred a more interesting pay off, as we saw in The Partner (1997) – my favorite Grisham novel by far.

If you’ve never read Grisham, or only read him sparingly, you might give this book a shot. It goes quick, doesn’t overload the senses, and has a message I admire. If you have read most of Grisham’s novels, including The Innocent Man, I would suggest you skip this one. You’ve heard it before. And if you’re still reading Grisham after twenty years of his left-leaning social commentary, he’s probably preaching to the choir.

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I am currently reading Gordon S. Wood’s brilliant book on the American Revolution, but I’m in no real hurry to finish it. It’s good reading, but I’m trying to more or less recover from the past few months of long work weeks. So, I just read a few pages every day. With that being said, however, I want to use this blog more regularly. And it occurred to me that I have a stockpile of good reviews that I wrote during my tenure in grad school. While some of these reviews might not interest all of my readers (all half dozen or so of you), some might interest those who are just passing through my little patch of cyberspace. And so here is a review that I wrote in August of 2008 in Dr. Alexander Macaulay’s 600-level seminar on gender history. I personally think this was one of the better weekly papers I wrote during my tenure at WCU. I hope you like it, and check back for other “classic” reviews (I can hardly write that without feeling like a fool). My apologies if the tone is a bit more formal than normal, but remember that I was writing this for a class.

Mary Beth Norton. Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

In the fall of 2003, graduate students gathered for their first-ever 600-level seminar at Virginia Tech. The subject was American history through the early national period under Professor Roger Ekrich. For week one, students read Edmund S. Morgan’s perennial classic American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. Seven days later, the class discussed another seminal text, Kenneth A. Lockridge’s A New England Town: The First Hundred Years. Ekrich’s juxtaposition of these two canonical texts so early in the course highlighted one of the central comparisons of colonial American historiography: New England and the Chesapeake Bay. Many authors and professors take this very approach because the two regions took very different paths. In 1996, Mary Beth Norton used this classic comparison in Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society, but used different analytical tools than those available to Morgan and Lockridge in the 1970s. As with many historiographic debates, the maturity of gender analysis in the latter part of the twentieth century forever changed the depth and complexity of New England/Chesapeake comparative studies. Norton’s book analyzed gendered power in the family, community, and governmental levels in these two regions and forever changed the way historians thought about the development of American society. Her evidence and the structure of the book draw the reader into seventeenth century British North America and she makes a persuasive argument. However, it is the use political theories that she dubbed “Filmerian” and “Lockean” based on the writings of scholars Robert Filmer and John Locke which made this book convincing.

Norton contended that early New Englanders lived with a Filmerian worldview that saw paternal authority as analogous to governmental power. In this view, family was the bedrock of society and fathers were seen as family governors. This theory, rooted largely in the Fifth Commandment and other Old Testament theology, placed the man at the head of the household, and therefore at the head of government. In addition, the Filmerian theory suggested that those at the top of the social hierarchy were better suited to lead those of middling and lower status, and were, in essence, parents. Without this Biblically-based familial authority stabilizing society, civilization would denigrate into heathen savagery. The theory however did not provide its adherents with a complete blueprint for all situations and at times, such as when a widow becoming the head of a household, women caused “flashpoints of conflict” for Filmerian society (10). Along the Chesapeake Bay to the south, settlers lived in a Lockean world and separated family from civic life polity and placed men at the top of society. Here, governmental authority derived from the consent of the governed. Norton sites demographic and religious differences including a high male population density and Catholic leadership for the rise of Lockean society. For Norton, unique conditions in the Chesapeake region spawned Lockean social structure purely out of necessity. 

Overall, the use of seventeenth century English political theory is not a problem for Norton. However, it is striking that Norton makes the unverifiable contention that the majority of English people advocated what Norton called the “unified theory of power” related to Filmerianism (8). For this assertion, she only cites two secondary sources and simply takes this information as granted. During the Age of Enlightenment, Europeans had a wide body of theoretical literature at their disposal and thus simply assuming that most people advocated this view seems to be something of a leap. Furthermore, as Norton herself freely admits, Locke had yet to write his First Treatise of Government before her periodization concluded around 1670, giving her work a notable chronological issue. Simply put, there is no way she can conclusively demonstrate that these particular ideas permeated the settlements of colonial America or were even relevant once settlers entered North America and different circumstances than they faced in England.

Although many scholars have criticized Norton for the use of these terms, Norton’s use of these words is pragmatic. The ideas of Filmer and Locke are used as a theoretical framework for her argument and are in no way causal factors for her thesis. Much like scholars who use social science theory such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology as analytical tools to explain history, so too does Norton use Enlightenment Era political theory to explain gender and power in colonial America. Here, the terms “Filmerian” and “Lockean” serve as guideposts to understanding rather than specific terms that are causally linked to specific ideologies. Although Filmer was the political opponent of the Puritans and Locke had not yet written his most famous work, when reading Norton’s book, one comes away thinking that most people in Puritan New England did think of civil society in paternal terms and most on the Chesapeake did believe that governments derived their power from the people’s consent.

The reason the book is convincing is its evidence. Norton and her research assistants compiled literally thousands of civil and criminal cases from both New England and the Chesapeake and from this used quantitative analysis to make her generalizations. In legal proceedings, Norton found her perfect sources. Often the only way to determine power structures of the past is to find evidence of the consequences for violating societal norms, and legal trials reveal this quite nicely. Moreover, using these cases shatters whatever nostalgia one might have about the colonial era and instead replaces it with a world replete with adultery, fornication, slanderous gossip, and even rare but not entirely unheard-of, cases of bestiality. But beyond being material for erotic tales of intrigue, sexuality and sexual activity are closely related to because gender identity, the reader understands that adultery, while still taboo on the Chesapeake, was an especially egregious offense in New England. Unwarranted sexual access to the wife circumvented a man’s territory and thereby threatened his authority and the entire familial order, and therefore, the entire gendered power structure of society. This is why, Norton suggests, more Puritans were convicted in criminal court of adultery than Cavaliers despite similar statutes, thereby indicating that moral violations against the family structure were more important in New England.

The book is very well-structured, and is divided into three sections (family, community, and state), each with a prologue and followed by several chapters. Each prologue contains a lengthy vignette that demonstrates her argument and acts as a literary hook. In the section on family, for instance, Norton tells the reader of the “dysfunctional” Pinion family (27). Over the years, fellow colonists accused this family of debauchery ranging from infanticide to adultery. These people were run out of towns and one of its members was executed, all because their behavior was seen, according to Norton’s framework, as damaging to Puritan society. Once Norton begins her chapters, she does not rely on a large narrative, but instead tells stories. Not only are these stories deeply intriguing (and often quite juicy), the examples she chose support her thesis and offer analysis while avoiding detail covered in other monographs. This allows the book to flow and the reader to come away with a clear picture of the way gender identity bestowed power in the colonial world. For example, Norton discussed the cleric Increase Mather, whose sons caused him great pride and he discussed them in great detail in his journal. His daughters, however, are only mentioned when they caused him some level of grief or distraction. Thus, when his sons honored their father, it caused Mather great pride. His daughters caused very little pride because they were women and therefore powerless and irrelevant.

Some individuals might suggest that Norton’s use of gender analysis is determinist. A decade before Norton’s book appeared, Joan W. Scott published a seminal article on the uses of gender in historical research in the American Historical Review. Here, Scott famously remarked that “gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power.” This definition of gender has shaped the field and practically all of the scholarship written on gender in the past twenty-two years. Did Mary Beth Norton see colonial America in terms of gendered power in 1996 because of Joan Scott’s 1986 article? In all likelihood, the answer is yes. Scott’s article drew the roadmap for all gender analysis to follow. But to assert that theory determines one’s conclusions misses the point. Seeing the colonial era in terms of gendered power is productive because it shines new light on old subjects. Norton’s fresh assessment of Anne Hutchison reevaluates her from a gendered point of view and turns her from an early feminist into a gentlewoman simply doing what came natural. Graduate students will always read books by Morgan and Lockridge, but Norton now stands proudly among them as a different look at a topic that is almost four hundred years old.

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