Monday, March 30, 2015

Dispatches from the History Major: "Living With the Past"

I hope you are enjoying "Dispatches from the History Major."  Here is the next installment from Messiah College sophomore history major James Mueller.  --JF

I read a lot this past spring break. One of the books I read in order to prepare for my upcoming archaeology class in Cyprus this May was called Echoes from the Dead Zone. In this book, Cypriot native Yiannis Papadakis explores the complex and often virulent relationship between Greek and Turkish inhabitants of Cyprus. During his powerful account of living with both communities, Papadakis addresses issues of nationalism, religious and ethnic conflict, identity, empathy, reconciliation, and the power of historical memory. It was a good spring break.

But it was also a challenging one--a week where I was forced to wrestle with a question I couldn’t stop asking myself after I put down this book: what do we do when the past is painful and divisive? The Greek-Turkish historical narrative has certainly been distorted by the pitfalls of nationalism and collective memory; however, there’s no denying the violent and volatile relationship these two peoples have historically shared. Does the historian, trained to accurately recount and reflect upon past experiences, pick at the wounds of the past and perpetuate the mutual hatred of these two cultures by inquiring about wars, atrocities, and betrayals? Or does he allow these historical chapters to drift off into oblivion in order to uplift his community with the more positive and triumphant parts of human history?

The reason I think I struggled with this question so much was because it’s personal as well as academic. Maybe if you’re lucky, or just a remarkable person, you don’t regret parts of your history. However, I think it’s more likely that we all struggle with pieces of the past, and that sometimes these experiences still affect our relationships with God, family, friends, and other people in our surrounding community. 

I still haven’t answered this question.  The historian in me, who is unable to divorce himself from thinking in the medium of time, believes that in order to conquer a painful past, we need to accurately analyze and understand it. Only then can a person or a community come to terms with the pain and eventually heal. Only then can we make meaning of a difficult past, learn from it, and prevent it from haunting us for the rest of our lives.

The more realistic part of me realizes that history is never that simple. Most people don’t think in the dimension of time; and even if a group of people attempts to look backward in order to address their past, the subjective nature of interpretation and the fallacies of memory can twist the truth and make their history more destructive than it already was at the start. Greek and Turkish Cypriots were massacred because they engaged with their past like this. The truth doesn’t seem worth that price. Sometimes it seems more loving to purposefully forget the past in order to promote present and future reconciliation.


“Never forget.” “Forgive and forget.” These are the choices a historian has to make both professionally and personally every time he or she engages with the past. On a professional level, I’m going to continue my Rankean pursuit for historical truth. However, the wrestling match I had with the question over Spring Break didn’t leave me unscathed. It reminded me of the deep responsibility we have when we wield the past. It reminded me that good grades and book awards are far less important than respecting the people of the past. It reminded me that history is powerful. The shackles of the past are always present; it’s up to us whether we want to use history to liberate others or to keep them in chains.     

The Author's Corner with William D. Green

William D. Green is Associate Professor and Sabo Senior Fellow at Augsburg College. This interview is based on his book, A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007).

JF: What led you to write A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Minnesota?

WG: I was interested in understanding why so many leaders of the modern civil rights movement (Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, to name a few), had formative connections with Minnesota, which historically had one of the nation's smallest communities of African Americans. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it also was in Minnesota where Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells joined other black leaders at the state capitol to debate a new agenda for civil rights; and residence of a black St. Paul attorney-Fredrick McGhee, chief counsel for Washington's organization and close friend of DuBois-who first mentioned the need for the Niagara Movement, which, for some, was a precursor to the NAACP. I set out to determine whether this was mere coincidence or something else altogether, whether the "Land of Sky-Blue Waters" (a loose translation of the Dakota word from which the state derived its name) truly provided fertile ground for "radical" racial politics? To answer the question, I went back to what I believed was the beginning-1837. I soon realized that this book would become the first of more such efforts to come. 

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Peculiar Imbalance?

WG: Situated, during the antebellum years, in what then was the far northern corner of organized America, it was the political reform-minded leadership coming largely from upstate New York and New England states, who steered the territory away from the rigid caste system of "black codes" that had spread westward through midwest states. Even when the racism of Jacksonian America settled in Minnesota, it was possible for disenfranchised blacks, largely due to the patronage of political and business leaders, to gain access to economic opportunities that certain enfranchised whites--immigrants, in general; Irish Catholics in particular-did not have, thereby creating "a peculiar imbalance" among the residents of antebellum Minnesota. 

JF: Why do we need to read A Peculiar Imbalance?

WG: Though the book examines the evolution of political equality for black Minnesotans, it does so within a backdrop in which the conventional lines that designated race in antebellum America were blurred on the Minnesota frontier. Being "French" meant being racially-mixed, and a slave at Fort Snelling could become a man of property and respect as a resident of French-speaking Pig's Eye (soon to be "St. Paul"). The race-infused lines that designated cultural identity could take peculiar twists and turns. Caucasians of Anglo-American descent residing in pre-territorial Minnesota were not considered "white" by the Anglo-Americans who later became their neighbors. Light-skinned men of African descent were designated "M" for "Mulatto" in the first census and "N" for "Negro" in the second. To be Catholic was to always be viewed as a foreigner. And a person's political standing likewise shifted in time. An Indian was eligible to vote in 1851 "if he had adopted civilized habits" (meaning, at least, wearing pants), but lost the right in 1857 if he did not speak and read English. In contrast, the language requirement did not apply, for example, to German immigrants who could only speak in their native tongue. A Peculiar Imbalance navigates this little understood history of a territory with a racially- and culturally diverse population as it became a state that would, in sort order, become predominately white. And yet, this book examines ultimately what it means to be Minnesotan through a construct of race and the vision of a few determined leaders who would not countenance a society that would otherwise seek to stratify free men. 

This is, indeed, a Minnesota story. But it is as well a story about the American West, for the book sheds light on the impact of civilization as it envelopes a society already in transition, documenting the uneasy process by which one pluralistic community became part of a nation indivisible. A clear example of this is reflected in the Eliza Winston case, a fugitive slave set free in a Minneapolis courtroom. In the aftermath Minnesotans were poised to launch their own fratricidal conflict over the issue of slavery. But upon receiving news of Fort Sumter, just a few months later, they rushed to enlist thereby making their state the first to send volunteers into the federal army after Lincoln had issued his call to arms to preserve the Union. In this, fundamentally, A Peculiar Imbalance is an American story. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

WG: My interest in becoming an American historian began when I was very young. Born in Massachusetts, and growing up in Nashville and New Orleans, I was always mindful of history. My parents enabled my interest by taking me to different historical sites every year. Years later, during a time in my life that I called "my detour"-I was a lawyer at the time-I published my first article in history. It was after a long evening in the law library when I returned to my office to find a stack of reprints that had been left on my desk. At that moment, I knew I wanted to return to the academy to teach and research history. 

JF: What is your next project? 

WG: The sequel to this book, titled Degrees of Freedom: The Origins of Civil Rights in Minnesota, 1865-1912, will be coming out this May. I am presently finishing another project that documents why four Lincoln Republicans left the campaign for black equality in the 1870s.

JF: Looking forward to seeing it! Thanks Bill.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

What does it take to publish in the William and Mary Quarterly?

The Junto Final 4 is here.  Happy to say I use 3 of the 4 in my U.S. survey course.  But Emily Conroy-Krutz wants more women's history

"The United States seems to resemble the Evangelical vision less and less"

Is our obsession with STEM education dangerous?

Richard Brookhiser reviews Robert Middlekauff's Washington's Revolution

Andrew Hartman discusses his new book A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars

Undergraduate mentoring

A recap of the Religion in Early America Symposium at the National Museum of American History

Why don't political conservatives value the liberal arts?

Is Texas a Southern state?  A Western state?

A criticism of Obamacare backfires for a member of the House of Representatives

The end of the slave trade

Matthew Crawford's new book: The World Beyond Your Head

Benjamin Rush on alcoholism

"I write to find what I have to say.  I edit to figure out how to say it right"

James McPherson on Lincoln and the end of slavery

Thomas Banchoff reviews Garry Wills's The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis

Teaching the Narrative of Frederick Douglass

Why Reconstruction matters

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Shut Up and Dance With Me

This mashup video is bound to make you smile:

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society--Update #100

It is time for another update on the ABS project as it enter its final month.  I have been doing three things lately:

1.  Oral history.  Over the last couple of months I have been to New York City; Crawford, Nebraska; Columbia, Missouri; Easton, PA; Cleveland, TN (actually, I am heading there on Monday); and Upland, Indiana.  I have or will have interviewed three ABS presidents, an ABS General Secretary, three deans of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship, and three current vice-presidents.  I am thankful to my team of student assistants who have been frantically transcribing these interviews so that I can send them off to the interviewees for final approval.  These interviews will be important sources as I write the final one or two chapters of the book.

2.  Picking images.  I have chosen 30 images for the book.  This was not an easy process because the ABS photo collection is so rich.  I think I have chosen a nice blend of sketches (mostly from the early 19th century), photographs, and other images (such as ABS seals and posters).  Oxford University Press has been very generous in allowing me so many images.

3.  Research.  I have been reading through the papers of some of the ABS presidents and general secretaries from the 20th century.

4.  Writing.  Most of my time, of course, is now involved in writing.  The research is 95% complete, but I still need to do a lot more writing between now and the beginning of May.  In other words, I have my work cut out for me. 

Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Author's Corner with Russell Lawson

Russell M. Lawson is Professor of History at Bacone College. This interview is based on his new book, The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith's Exploration of New England (University Press of New England, 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith's Exploration of New England?

RL: I grew up in Oklahoma and moved to New Hampshire to attend the University of New Hampshire; there I fell in love with coastal New England. I began to study the early explorers of the New England coast, and found Captain John Smith to be the most intriguing. Yet no one had ever written at length about Smith's voyage to New England; the focus, rather, had been on Smith's role as a founder of Jamestown. Part of the reason for this omission is that Smith wrote at length about New England, but was vague about the particulars of his voyage. I studied him for so long that I came to know him, as it were, well enough to re-create his voyage.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Sea Mark?

RL: Captain John Smith was a visionary, seeing the northeast coast of America as a place for settlement and English fishing villages, who acted upon his ideas with a voyage in 1614 followed up by numerous books promoting the colonization of the land that he christened, New England. Smith brought all of his beliefs and assumptions—about England, Christianity, colonization, conquest—to bear in his voyage and books; New England was in his mind a reflection of himself; New England was a sea mark for English explorers and colonists.

JF: Why do we need to read The Sea Mark?

RL: After Smith departed Jamestown in 1609 and returned to England, New England became the sine qua non of his existence, the focus of his activities, dreams, plans, existence, and self. After Smith's voyage along the New England coast in 1614, he spent years planning a return, leading a group of adventurers to establish a colony that would be the vanguard of England's activities in America. Yet he never returned. Failure, happenstance, frustration, even pirates, kept Smith from returning to New England. He turned to the pen, writing about what he wished he was doing: journeying, exploring, fighting, fishing, establishing colonies. He became the foremost advocate of English colonization. All of his many books and activities on behalf of English colonization were based on a three month voyage from Maine to Massachusetts in 1614. The Sea Mark shows a side to John Smith, reveals a part of his life, rarely contemplated by historians and their readers.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RL: I grew up being fascinating by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and read all of the great classics in high school and college. I earned a Master's degree in Ancient Mediterranean history. But I was also intrigued by Renaissance explorers, and after I met Linda Phillips, whose family came from New England, and we married, and I had the chance to visit and explore New England, I became a committed historian of early America, focusing in particular upon the northeast. So we moved to New Hampshire, where I earned my Ph.D. in early American history at the University of New Hampshire.

JF: What is your next project?

RL: I have signed a contract with Praeger to produce a nonfiction trade book on servants in colonial America. This book will re-create the experiences of English, Scottish, Irish, French, German, Spanish, African, and American Indian servants in colonial America. The book will focus not only on indentured servants, English felons transported to America, redemptioners arriving to America from the Rhineland, and apprenticeship, but also on servants in the Caribbean Islands, servants in English Canada, Dutch servants in New Netherlands, and American Indian and African-American servants in the colonies.

JF: Sounds intriguing! Thanks Russell.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Correspondents Wanted: OAH 2015

The Way of Improvement Leads Home is looking for writers/correspondents to report from this year's (April 2015) annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in St. Louis.

I am looking for blog readers who are going to the conference and might be interested in serving as "correspondents." I can't pay anything, but I can promise the fame associated with your words and by-line appearing on this blog!

What am I hoping for out of these reports? Frankly, anything. Let the spirit move you. I would love to get general observations, reports on sessions you attend, job market updates, or any other kind of stuff you might have the time or inclination to write about.

Feel free to be as creative and journalistic as you want. If at all possible I would like to get some stuff as the conference is going on, but general summaries would also work. Feel free to write as few or as many as you would like. I will try to get stuff posted here in real time (or thereabouts) during the conference.

As for your identity, we can go one of two ways. You can identify yourself and we can introduce you with a little bio. Or you can remain anonymous and write under a pseudonym. The choice is up to you.

If your interested, shoot me an e-mail at jfea(at)messiah(dot)edy and we can get the ball rolling.  I the meantime, check out our AHA2015 posts to get an idea of what some of our correspondents at that conference wrote about.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Virtual Office Hours: Spring 2015 - Episode 8

Messiah College : A New Kind of History Department
Featuring Messiah Student Rachel Carey

The Author's Corner with Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein is Charles Phelps Manship Professor at Louisiana State University. This interview is based on his new book, Democracy's Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All the While Being Dead (University of Virginia Press, April 2015).


JF: What led you to write Democracy's Muse?

AB: The seed of the idea for this book was planted some years ago when I saw, in Washington, President Kennedy’s notes from which he adlibbed remarks to a 1962 gathering of forty-nine Nobel laureates at the White House: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge . . . ever gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” I began, then, to keep track of the partisan politicians who have professed that Thomas Jefferson, if he were alive today, would mirror their views.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Democracy's Muse?

AB: The emotive founder was the first, but by no means the last, to designate his nation as “the world’s best hope.” This book charts, in their often colorful and at times desperate language, the strong statements of presidents, congressmen, and public intellectuals, from FDR’s time to Obama’s, as they have struggled to define what the “Jeffersonian ideal” means to modern America.

JF: Why do we need to read Democracy's Muse​​?

AB: Jefferson’s political sentiments have reverberated across time and space in enchanting ways. Mikhail Gorbachev said that he frequently turned to Jefferson when he was fashioning reform of the Soviet system. At present, Jefferson remains a flashpoint in national conversations about the inherently secular or religious character of the American republic. And then there’s his sex life. Democracy’s Muse is as concerned with popular culture as with the pathos and pathology of the present partisan environment—the book ultimately weighs in on what we can and cannot know about the historical Jefferson, and why that question matters.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AB: My path was more circuitous than that of most historians in that I majored in Chinese history and politics in college. I spent more than a decade doing business in China and Japan. I was nearly forty when I returned to academia, exchanging the study of Maoist political culture for that of early America. The only shared element I can think of in reflecting on my bifurcated historical travels is a fascination with the revelatory nature of language. Chinese ideographs explain a great deal about Chinese perspectives; from that study, I developed an interest in, and sensitivity to, the desirable goal of teasing greater meaning out of early American texts.

JF: What is your next project?

AB: I co-authored the book Madison and Jefferson (Random House, 2010) with my partner, Professor Nancy Isenberg. We plan to collaborate on another book—another political pairing out of America’s past.

JF: Good stuff, thanks Andrew!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sunday Night Odd and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Geoffrey Kabaservice reviews Randy Boyagoda, Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square

Dressing up as Indians

St. Chesterson?

The origins of African-American politics

Robert Putnam and the American Dream

17th century New England "sermon culture"

Does the United States still have citizens?

Prayer and Nebraska football

University presidents tackle the crisis in the humanities

Abraham Lincoln's travel reimbursement

The other Selma marches

How the game Monopoly became what it is today

Mark Noll reviews two new books on American evangelicalism

Evangelical academic publishing

A Dr. Seuss museum is coming to Springfield, Massachusetts

Historians discuss The History Manifesto

A historical reflection on sin

The problem with single-perspective narratives in history classes

Quote of the Day

When I was growing up, Billy Graham was very popular. He was the greatest preacher and evangelist of my time — that guy could save souls and did. I went to two or three of his rallies in the ’50s or ’60s. This guy was like rock ’n’ roll personified — volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution — when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30- or 40,000 of them. If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. There’s never been a preacher like him. He could fill football stadiums before anybody. He could fill Giants Stadium more than even the Giants football team. Seems like a long time ago. Long before Mick Jagger sang his first note orBruce strapped on his first guitar — that’s some of the part of rock ’n’ roll that I retained. I had to. I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear.

--Bob Dylan in AARP: The Magazine


HT: John Haas on Facebook

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Author's Corner with Virginia Scharff

Virginia Scharff is Distinguished Professor of History at The University of New Mexico. This interview is based on her new book, Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West (University of California Press, April 2015).

JF: What led you to write Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West?

VS: Since 2003, I've held the position of Women of the West Chair at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles (though my day job is as Distinguished Prof. of History and Associate Provost for Faculty Development at the University of New Mexico). At the Autry, I've worked on programs, publications, and exhibitions, including Home Lands: How Women Made the West (2010). I'm co-curator of a new exhibition, Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West, due to open April 25, and this edited volume is one of two which will be companions to that exhibition. I asked ten wonderful historians of the U.S. to contribute essays inspired by objects in the exhibition, written for general, rather than scholarly readers. I think the contributors did a wonderful job, and I also wrote the introduction, edited their essays, and contributed a piece of my own.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West?

VS: The history of American expansion westward and the history of the struggle over slavery have been told as two separate stories. But we believe they are intertwined strands of a single story.

JF: Why do we need to read Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West?

VS: Readers will find here a whole lot of "Aha!" moments that will make them see American history differently. Did you know, for example, that the last Confederate general to surrender was a Cherokee leader? Did you realize that what became the West was home to unfree labor of various types, both centuries before the Civil War, and long after emancipation? Did you know that the first law giving American women the vote was passed in Wyoming Territory in 1869? John, you probably did, but a lot of people will find a lot to ponder here.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

VS: I have always been fascinated with our history, and have been particularly interested in women's and environmental history, though I write all kinds of things. I am committed to the idea that we will be a better country if we know our history, warts and all.

JF: What is your next project?

VS: I'm working on a historical novel set in nineteenth-century America.

JF: Thanks Virginia!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dispatches from the History Major: Presentism and Jesus

I hope you are enjoying "Dispatches from the History Major."  Here is the next installment from Messiah College sophomore history major James Mueller.  --JF

Presentism is old news at this point in my college career. 

During my first year at Messiah College, I took Introduction to History with Dr. Fea and within the first two weeks we were discussing the concept of a “usable past,” using his book Why Study History? as our guide. After we finished talking about the ways the past informs, inspires, and provides us with meaning, Dr. Fea, in a subsequent discussion on the past as a "foreign country," made sure to highlight the dangers of consuming the past in this way. I learned that we need to take the past on its own terms and not project our own modern biases on the people who came before us. The following year, when I took Historical Methods, Dr. LaGrand had his students read an article he wrote called "The Problems of Preaching Through History." This article and subsequent class discussion further convinced me of the problems of examining the past with a modern agenda.

I’m glad my professors introduced me to these historical concepts early in my college career, because I see manifestations of them everywhere. The one which makes me cringe the most, and the one I’m going to talk about here, is the way people manipulate the historical person of Jesus Christ. 

My most recent encounter with this issue occurred when I was reading Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull House last week for my U.S. Urban History class. I was struck by the way Addams ignored the ideological teachings of Christ and instead focused instead on his social teachings. For this progressive pioneer, Christ was a radical political figure who preached social equality and upset the status quo, not a spiritually-minded rabbi who focused on particular or exclusive teachings. Her Jesus was a progressive Jesus.

This got me thinking about all the other types of Jesus I’ve encountered in my life: Republican Jesus, Democrat Jesus, best friend Jesus, Caucasian Jesus, hippie Jesus, somber Jesus, military Jesus, homosexual Jesus, Jesus the 6-year-old wizard, lovey-dovey Jesus, angry Jesus…I’m sure you could add some more to my list if you gave it some thought.

A few of these types of Jesus may offended you. A few of these types of Jesus may have seemed almost accurate. All of them are reflective of historical presentism in some way or another.

And that’s why I wanted to write about this issue. Characteristically, we fail to think in the dimension of time (especially when it comes to Jesus) and this makes us oblivious to the pitfalls of presentism. However, as a Christian I believe that God chose to reveal himself to us as a creature in time. Therefore, it is imperative that we give Christ the same amount of respect that historians try to give other historical figures. Instead of projecting our own modern stereotypes onto him, we need to take Jesus on his own terms in his own historic time period.    

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

48 Hours in Crawford, Nebraska

I know I wrote last Saturday night that I would be taking some time off from blogging this week, but I could not resist posting these photos from my recent trip to Crawford, Nebraska.  They were taken by John Erickson, the former Executive Secretary of the United Bible Societies (one of many posts he has held).

I was in Crawford for about forty-eight hours to interview John for the American Bible Society book. John and his wife Nancy have a beautiful home in this Nebraska panhandle town and they showed me some great Lutheran (of the Swedish Augustana variety) hospitality!




Virtual Office Hours: Spring 2015 - Episode 7

Messiah College : A New Kind of History Department
Featuring Dr. David Pettegrew

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Author's Corner with Sam Haselby

Sam Haselby is Visiting Assistant Professor of American Religion and Political Culture at Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (Oxford University Press, February 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Origins of American Religious Nationalism?

SH: I was reading the European literature on nationalism, Eugen Weber's Peasants into Frenchman, Linda Colley's Britons, George Mosse's The Nationalization of the Masses, and others. I found them fascinating, and asked Eric Foner who wrote the version for the United States. He said, no one, that's a good idea. An argument I had with Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity focused my interest in nationalism and changing class relations on religion in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Origins of American Religious Nationalism?

SH: The American Revolution posed, rather than answered, the question of American nationality. The answer came with the colonization of continent, more specifically from the resulting crisis of governance on the frontier. Both the birth of popular American Protestantism and the advent of systematic Anglo-American missionary must be understood as responses to this crisis, and each had deep and enduring effects on American political culture.

JF: Why do we need to read The Origins of American Religious Nationalism​?

SH: It gives a more historical understanding of the role of religion in forming American nationalism, and vice versa.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SH: As an undergraduate at Macalester College, reading The Education of Henry Adams. It provided me with a way of coming to terms with a certain ambivalence about the U.S.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: It's about Anglo-American missionaries and the opium trade as an important chapter in the history of globalization.

JF: Can't wait to hear about it! Thanks Sam.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Spring Break at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

I'll be spending part of my break in this Nebraska town
We are taking a week off from blogging here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I need time to do three things:

1. Wrap up the American Bible Society project with a lot of writing and some more oral history interviews.
2. Watch some NCAA basketball
3. Make my usual two-day excursion to the Pennsylvania state basketball championships in Hershey.

We will continue to feature The Author's Corner and the Virtual Office Hours this week, but we will probably not be posting daily.

Enjoy the week.  See you next Sunday.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The New "Common-Place" is Here


I know I am a day or two late with this announcement, but I encourage you to check out the Winter 2015 issue of Common-Place.  It includes articles by Anne Marie Plane, Lisa Wilson, Andrew Lipman, Meredith Neuman, and a roundtable on Kathleen Donegan's Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America.

The Author's Corner with Robert M. Owens

Robert Owens is Associate Professor of Early American History at Wichita State University. This interview is based on his new book, Red Dreams, White Nightmares: Pan-Indian Alliances in the Anglo-American Mind (University of Oklahoma Press, March 2015).

JF: What led you to write Red Dreams, White Nightmares: Pan-Indian Alliances in the Anglo-American Mind?

RO: While researching my dissertation about William Henry Harrison’s early years, and the Indian wars of the 1790s, I was struck by a letter from Secretary of War Henry Knox wherein he noted his great fear that Creek Indians from the Southeast were meeting with Ohio Valley Indians. Knox noted that this could lead to the most “pernicious effects,” that is, a pan-Indian confederacy opposed to American expansion. I realized that historians of this period tended to treat affairs north and south of the Ohio River as discrete topics, but for Americans at the time, they were inextricably linked. I wanted to write that story.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Red Dreams, White Nightmares

RO: From 1763 through the War of 1812 and beyond, an all-consuming fear of broad Indian coalitions proved the driving argument for American Indian policies. As the nineteenth century wore on, and slavery became increasingly important to the South, fears of pan-Indian wars were further linked to the fear of slave rebellions as well.

JF: Why do we need to read Red Dreams, White Nightmares

RO: Red Dreams, White Nightmares illustrates how Anglo-Americans’ fears of the other, especially Indians and slaves, drove American policies of expansion and served as a unifying factor for a politically, ethnically, and economically diverse white population. The rhetorical threat posed by Indians and blacks served as a justification for the uglier aspects of empire building.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

RO: I always loved history, but in my sophomore year of college I decided that I wanted to pursue academic history as a profession.

JF: What is your next project? 

RO: My next project looks at the mediation of intercultural crimes, particularly murder, in Early America.

JF: Looking forward to hearing about it! Thanks Robert.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Connect With Us Through Our Almost Spring Membership Drive

The snow is melting here in central PA and I sense Spring is in the air.  There is no better time for a membership drive!  We haven't done one in a while.

As my regular readers know, we occasionally do "membership drives" here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  This is the time when we blatantly self-promote what we are doing at the blog.  Perhaps some of you have enjoyed a "Virtual Office Hours" or an "Author's Corner."  Or maybe you are regular reader of "Sunday Night Odds and Ends" or have benefited from our "What Can You Do With a History Major?" series.  Some of you just may be daily readers who are entertained and informed by what we do here.  We need your support!

It takes time to produce the daily content at the blog, and thus far I have resisted a few offers to bring the blog to other websites/hosts because I think it is important, at least for now, to keep the "The Way of Improvement Leads Home" independent. I also have decided not to put ads on the blog.  So if you have benefited from what we are doing here we encourage you to consider connecting with us.

As we enter the winter season, let me remind you of several ways that you can connect with The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  

  • Tell a friend about The Way of Improvement Leads Home or send out a Facebook post or tweet about what we are doing here. 
  • If you have a blog or website consider linking to us, placing The Way of Improvement Leads Home on your blogroll, or doing a post one of our posts that you find helpful.
  •  While the blog does not get a lot of comments, the discussion can sometimes get quite lively at Facebook.  Friend me at Facebook ("John Fea") and participate in the conversation.  Or follow me at Twitter: @johnfea1.  If you are a history buff (as most of my readers are) you may be interested in #whystudyhistory).  I have been using Twitter much more this year as a way to promote our content.
  • Are you a former history major doing something exciting with your degree? Have you transferred the skills you have used as a history major to a non-history related job? If so, we want to hear from you! Consider contributing something to our well-received "So What CAN You Do With a History Major Series." Please contact me if you fit the bill.
  • We are always looking for correspondents to report from major historical conferences such as the AHA, the OAH, the AAR, the Omohundro Institute, ASCH, SHEAR, and others. If interested, please get in touch.
  • We are trying do something different here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. We want to bridge the gap between academic American history/religious history and the general public.  Consider a speaking engagement at your college, organization, historical site, church, public library, etc...  Do you have an idea for a seminar at your church or a teacher-training session at your school, or a session or two on how to integrate faith and the teaching of history, or a historical tour, or something else related to American history?  If so, let us know and we would be more than willing to brainstorm with you and try to make it happen. Check out the "Speaking" tab for ideas. 
  • Do you have any suggestions for how we might improve The Way of Improvement Leads Home?  What kinds of things would you like to see at the blog?  Are we doing anything particularly well?  Drop me a note at jfea(at)Messiah(dot)edu
  • Are you a publisher or a publicity agent for a publisher and have a book that you would like reviewed?  If so, feel free to contact me and we will see what we can do about doing a review or a note.
Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Do You Want to Make Money From Writing Books?

There are a lot of ways to make money from writing books, but for many of us who publish monographs with university presses, royalties are not one of them.  So far my name is on the cover of four books--two with university presses and two with small trade presses.  All four of those books have done well based on the relative expectations that the presses set for them.  They have all been assigned and taught in college and high school classrooms.  Through this blog and other things that I do I have been able to sell a few of them to non-academic audiences.  As might be expected, the two trade books have sold much better than the two university press books.  But in the end, I am not anywhere near the point where I can quit my day job as a college professor and start living off my royalties.  In fact, receiving a royalty statement and check in the mail--especially from the university press books--can be a very depressing experience.

With all this in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed Claire Potter's realistic post entitled "How We Make Money From Books."  She encourages academics to forget about going for big advances from university presses.  At the most, you might be able to negotiate for a few thousand dollars more.  Of course many first-time authors may not get any advance.  This was the case for me with The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Since then my advances have been small and very unimpressive.  

Claire argues, and I tend to agree with her, that instead of going with a press based on the advance, an author who wants to publish an academic book should pick a press based on the editor, the recommendations of friends, and the advertising budget or plan.  (I would add projected price point to Claire's list).  Remember, if your academic press book sells 1000 copies it will probably be considered a huge success.

In the end, if you still want your books to work for you financially, think about the big picture.  Claire reminds academics that a book might get you tenure or promotion, resulting, of course, in a salary bump.  You may also make some extra money speaking about the book.  (Potter recommends placing speaking fees in a Vanguard Roth account--of course this does not apply to some of us who have to use the extra money to pay for braces, fix the lawnmower, pay for club volleyball, or buy school clothes).

Here is a random taste of Claire's post:

Although university presses are always ambitious for the crossover book, it is a rare achievement, and yours probably isn’t one. Crossovers tend to target certain fields: think war, biography and presidents.  There are a few authors in every academic field who do well in the commercial publishing world (some of them very well), and there are occasional breakout hits: for example, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) would never be published today by a commercial press, but in the early years of women’s liberation it was a mass market hit. In the contemporary landscape, it is more likely that if you publish with a commercial press now, you began by doing a good job for a university press that worked hard to get your book out there.
Academic bestsellers are a strange genre. They are a whole different species from commercial bestsellers, and they generally do not cross over to a popular audience. An important characteristic of such books can be that they are useful to scholars across fields, and across disciplines; and that they are very well written. Somebody told me years ago that Columbia University Press sold out its first hardback run of Joan W. Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History (1988), and had declared it a bestseller: that first edition probably ran to fewer than 5,000 copies. What is more important about such a book, as you will see below, is the role it played in the author’s career, that it is still in print, and that people still teach the essays from it.
Oh yes, I almost forgot.  Congratulations on the book contract, Claire!


Virtual Office Hours: Spring 2015 - Episode 6

Messiah College : A New Kind of History Department
Featuring Dr. David Pettegrew

Monday, March 9, 2015

Rick Kennedy Discusses Cotton Mather on a Boat in San Diego

Classic Rick Kennedy here.  I wish I could be as cool as him.

Check out his forthcoming book The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather  According to Kennedy, if Mather lived today he would be a blogger, youth pastor, and a supporter of praise bands.  My favorite part of the interview is when Kennedy says that Mather needs a hug.

Undergraduates Doing Local History in Spokane, Washington

Larry Cebula
If you don't read Larry Cebula's blog "Northwest History," you really should.  In my opinion, Cebula, who teaches public history at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, is one of the most interesting public historians in the blogopshere today.  His blog even has a "mission statement!"

Cebula and his students are in the midst of a project to provide digital markers for every site of historical significance in the Spokane area. What a great way to get students excited about the past in their own backyard!

Check out this piece on Cebula's project at The Spokesman Review.  Here is a taste:

On a cold gray Tuesday afternoon in Cheney, Larry Cebula tells his students to grab their jackets. The Eastern Washington University history professor pulls a long, wool overcoat over his suit, throws a scarf around his neck and looks out at his class: “Let’s take a walk.”
They walk across campus – in twos and threes, across lawns of crunching brown leaves – to see what has become of the place where, 130 years ago, a mob broke into the rickety wooden jail, looped a rope around the neck of an “unnamed Indian,” lobbed it over a sturdy branch and yanked it until the man was dead. These students have read yellowing articles about the incident, but history looks different when you’re standing there.
When they get there, they stand silently in a semicircle looking for evidence of that past. But this corner – at Fourth Street and College Avenue – is ordinary. There are no bloodstains, no scars from the frontier justice executed here so long ago. There’s a yellow fire hydrant. A parking lot. A light post. A red and white “No Parking Here to Corner” sign. A spindly, fatigued tree. Runners in neon speed by. A car passes, windows vibrating from a bassy stereo.
“What should we do here?” Cebula, 54, asks his students. “What should we do with this site?”
They’re quiet for a second. Then a student with an Amish-style beard says a monument would commemorate something no one would want to remember. “Although I would say I would rather have a monument than this nasty parking lot,” another student counters. They all laugh.
Well maybe a monument won’t happen, Cebula says, but what about something less permanent? Something less formal?
For the past two years, in fact, Cebula and his history students have bypassed bureaucracy and popular opinion, compiling digital markers for more than 400 historical points of interest in the Spokane area. They do it digitally, on the website SpokaneHistorical.org and its matching smartphone app.
Read the rest here.

Dispatches from the History Major: "National History Day"

I hope you are enjoying "Dispatches from the History Major."  Here is the next installment from Messiah College sophomore history major James Mueller.  --JF

Last Saturday, I had a discussion with a middle school kid about Plutarch’s inherent source issues, the problem of projecting modern sentiments onto people or time periods in the past, and the cultural practices of 1st century B.C. Egyptians. If we’re being completely honest, this kid intimidated me. He was performing at a high-level of historical analysis at an age when I was still watching Sponge Bob and debating with my childhood friends over the best way to make farting noises with only a hand and an armpit. No, I didn’t find this kid at some reclusive private school in the mountains being trained by monks with long, hoary beards. I found him, and a number of other bright youngsters, at Messiah College during the South Central Pennsylvania regional competition for National History Day (NHD)

This was my first year judging for NHD, and it was a blast! I judged about fourteen different websites for the middle school division, and I was absolutely blown away by some of the contestants and their projects. I’m going to highlight three contestants in particular in order to give you a glimpse at some of the amazing hearts and minds I had the pleasure of meeting.

First, there was Jocelyn  (not her real name). The theme for this year’s NHD was Leadership and Legacy, and Jocelyn developed her website around the push for women’s equality during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the interview I asked her what her most useful primary source was during her research, and she instantly answered, “The Declaration of Sentiments.” She then proceeded to tell me and my judging partner all about how she discovered this topic and what it meant to her as a young woman growing up in a world much different from the foreign one she had been researching for the past six or more months. Her passion was palpable and it was fantastic to see someone so lit up over their research!

Next, there was Caleb  (not his real name). This little guy developed his website around Branch Rickey and his creation of the farm baseball system in the 1920s. He was thoughtful and articulate during his interview, and he only spoke after he had taken the time to really think about his answers. One of the best parts of the whole experience was when he started talking about Rickey’s push for black players to be integrated into the new farm leagues and how amazing he thought that was. “Most of my favorite players aren’t white,” said Caleb. “If it weren’t for Rickey and the courage those black players had, I couldn’t cheer for guys like Pujols or other African-American players today.”

Finally, there was Owen (again, not his real name). Owen’s website focused on Cleopatra. Here is the thesis found on his website’s home page: “Cleopatra VII’s determination to face Roman imperialism as a female in a male-dominated world, intelligent use of cultural and political allies, and cunning use of intrigue reveal her depth and honor as a leader. As such, Cleopatra’s relentless commitment to the Egyptian world in the face of an aggressive and powerful conqueror reveals a queen who stands out as one of the most significant and admirable leaders of the ancient world.” His argument was thoroughly revisionist – debunking the popular perception of Cleopatra as merely a seductress who meddled in Roman politics during the end of the Late Republic – and mature. As I said in my opening paragraph, his interview was just as impressive!

Last Saturday I had a discussion with a group of little historians. I’m thankful for a competition like NHD where kids can hone powerful historical skills, and I’m already looking forward to next year!

The Author's Corner with Martha Hodes

Martha Hodes is Professor of History at New York University. This interview is based on her new book, Mourning Lincoln (Yale University Press, February 2015).

JF: What led you to write Mourning Lincoln?

MH: I was in New York City on 9/11--it was the first day of NYU’s Fall semester, and I saw the second plane hit the tower on my way to class. I also have childhood memories of Kennedy’s assassination. I’ve been teaching the Civil War for nearly 25 years, and I wanted to know how people responded to Lincoln’s assassination on the level of everyday life. I wanted to know what those responses could tell us about the meaning of the Civil War and its aftermath.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Mourning Lincoln?

MH: Mourning Lincoln is a story about clashing visions of the nation’s future in the immediate aftermath of Union victory and Confederate defeat. In the end, African American mourners and their allies reached for the martyred Lincoln in order to uphold the most radical political outcome of the Civil War.

JF: Why do we need to read Mourning Lincoln?

MH: The story of Lincoln’s assassination has been told many times, but Mourning Lincoln tells that story in a new way--through hundreds of diaries, letters, and other personal writings. The book thus complicates the idea of a static “nation in mourning” and illuminates a key moment of intense conflict in the war’s aftermath.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MH: I was a double Religion and Political Theory major at Bowdoin College. While I was earning an MA in Religion at Harvard, I had a work-study job at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library for the History of Women. That changed my mind: I wanted to study and write about people’s lives, rather than dwell only in the realm of ideas.

JF: What is your next project?

MH: I have lunch, dinner, and coffee appointments with a series of writer-and-scholar friends to trade ideas on this very question.

JF: Can't wait to hear what you all come up with! Thanks Martha!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Obama the Historian

I loved Obama's speech at Selma.  It was one of his best. This president is a brilliant public speaker.  I think we are going to miss these grand framing speeches when Obama leaves office.  I know that I am.

A lot of pundits are saying a lot of things--mostly glowing--about the speech today. I don't have a lot to add to the chorus, but I did want to say a few things about Obama the historian.  My thoughts here are less about the references Obama made to historical figures and more about how his speech reflects, or doesn't reflect, historical thinking skills.

Context:  Early in the speech, Obama made it clear that what happened in Selma was part of the larger Civil Rights movement.  Most people might take this rhetorical move for granted, but I appreciated it. 

He also went further on this front.  He connected the Civil Rights Movement, like Martin Luther King Jr. did so brilliantly in his March on Washington speech and in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," to the history of American freedom--Lincoln, Franklin, FDR, the American Revolution, immigration, women's rights, etc...  The Civil Rights movement was all about trying to get the nation to live up to its own ideals.  Or as Obama put it, "Selma was a contest to determine the true meaning of America."

Change Over Time:  I think Obama's use of the historical thinking skill of change over time was excellent.  Here is what he said: "What happened in Ferguson may not be unique but its no longer endemic, its no longer sanctioned by law or by custom, and before the Civil Rights movement it most surely was."  In this section of the speech Obama rejected the idea that "nothing has changed" in America.  There has been a lot of change in race relations over the past fifty years, and it is the historians responsibility (and in this case the President-historian) to point that out.  This part of the speech reminds me of what my colleague James LaGrand recently wrote in a piece about how some are comparing what happened in Ferguson with Jim Crow-style lynching. Check it out.

Continuity:  After leading with change over time, Obama reminded us that racial discrimination "still casts its long shadow upon us."  Yes, things have changed, but there is still work to do.  What happened in the past still haunts us today.  We are still affected by it. It strikes me that continuity works much better than change over time in speeches like this.  I think that is largely because continuity appeals to what historian Sam Wineburg calls "our psychological condition at rest."  We all want to link the present and the past.  But we all know that historical thinking is an "unnatural act."  It forces us to admit to things--like the fact that African Americans in this country are better off today than they were fifty years ago--that our inherent political or activist impulses might struggle to acknowledge.  Referencing all the good that has come out of the Civil Rights movement might weaken our attempts to improve race relations today.

Complexity:  Frankly, there was not much here.  The complexity of the human experience over time does not usually work well in political speeches. Obama stuck to a certain story line that favored Americans overcoming obstacles and discrimination on the quest for greater freedom.  He used the past effectively to make his points, but as we all know, the story of America is much more complex.  Jefferson owned slaves.  Jackie Robinson campaigned for Barry Goldwater.  Lewis and Clark paved the way for the decimation of native tribes in the West. The drive to spread American liberty and freedom informed the White Man's Burden.  And so on.  Obama also neglected to acknowledge that people like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, Booker. T. Washington, Nelson Rockefeller, Phyllis Schlafly and others may have also affected change in the United States.

I am not condemning Obama for invoking a past that is useful.  References to Robinson's support for Goldwater or Jefferson's slavery would have taken away from his soaring rhetoric and probably would have been inappropriate for a speech like this.  I am just here to point out it failed the complexity test.

For those of you who are teaching your students how to think historically this semester, I encourage you to bring the text of the speech to class this week and have them analyze it with a historian's eye.

In the meantime, watch this: