What’s Up With That Cane?

26 07 2011

My current read, At the Precipice: American’s North and South During the Secession Crisis, by Shearer Davis Bowman, hepped me to a bit of information of which I was previously unaware, and prompted a trivia question for you, dear readers.

We all know that on May 22, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was brutally attacked in the Senate chamber with a gutta-percha walking stick in the hands of cowardly Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina.

Any idea why Brooks carried the cane? Here’s a hint: it wasn’t for show, and it wasn’t strictly for beating defenseless Yankees.

Preview: Orlando Figes, “The Crimean War”

15 05 2011

The folks at Henry Holt and Company sent me a copy of a new book by Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: A History. It’s a big one – 493 pages of text and about 40 more of notes. Earlier this year I finished reading my first comprehensive study of the conflict, Trevor Royle’s Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854-1856. I knew virtually nothing about the Crimean War prior to that, other than Into the Valley of Death rode the 600. But it became obvious to me that anyone studying the Civil War owes it to themselves to at least get a handle on what happened in the Crimea in order to put our American war in some kind of context. It quickly became apparent that many of the “firsts” we attribute to the later war were at best seconds.

Royle’s book was published in 2000, so the first question is what sets Figes’s book apart? It claims to have drawn on “untapped” Russian, Ottoman, and European sources. If you compare the bibliographies of the two books, it’s obvious that Figes lists a lot more book titles in languages I can’t understand (OK, I remember enough high school German to decipher parts of a few) than does Royle. On the other hand, Figes’s select bibliography does not include the archival unpublished collections that are in Royles. But that’s the thing about select bibliographies – what was the selection process?

The real issue for me is whether Figes can do a better job than Royles at keeping all the military and political figures involved straight in the reader’s head. The diplomatic aspects of the Crimean War are labyrinthine, to say the least, and I think Royle took the readers’ familiarity with such things for granted at times. As for pacing, the Light Brigade’s Waterloo is reached at about the midpoint in each book.

Royles’s book concludes with the historical impact of the war and its aftermath, which was far-reaching and resonates to this day. While Figes doesn’t ignore this, he chose to wrap things up with The Crimean War in Myth and Memory, which should be interesting to Civil War readers who have been inundated with similar topics over the past 15 years. (I realize that there is much, much more to the literature than these two books, but I’m limited in my exposure.)

I’m not sure when I’ll get to this one, but if anyone has read it or has a better idea of how it fits into the extensive historiography of the Crimean War, please let us know in the comments section!

What Is Truth?

10 01 2010

I’ve finished Joan Waugh’s U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.  I’ll give some thoughts on the book at some point in the near future.  But it and Larry Tagg’s The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln got me to thinking: what do we really know of “public opinion” as of a point in time?  I mean, it’s hard even today, with polls out the wazoo, to tell what public opinion is on any given topic.  The most typical resource relied upon for public opinion has been newspapers, including reporting and editorializing.  But let’s keep in mind that newspapers never have been objective, and during the middle period of the 19th century in this country they were unabashedly partisan.  That’s why they had names like “The Democrat”, “The Whig” and “The Republican”.  They reflected the viewpoints of their owners and editors (again, no different from today).  If we admit the lack of objectivity, then we don’t take editorials at face value – we also delve into letters to the editor.  Of course those were selected for publication by the editor as well.  So perhaps we should look in the records of the newspapers themselves: files of letters to the editor that never made it into print.  If they exist, we have to rely on the objectivity of the newspaper in saving the letters.  And even that pool is tainted because it will consist of correspondence from readers of that particular newspaper.  As consumers, we have to deal with another filter, that of the historian who selects (evaluates) what’s pertinent, what’s worthwhile.  Anyway, all this thinking just makes me look more suspiciously at generalizations about what people in the north or south “thought” or “felt”, and about how “pressure from the public” or even the press, influenced decision makers.

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A Question for Pointy Heads

3 12 2009

OK, excuse the title of this post – I wanted to get your attention.  I’m not one of those outsiders who holds academe in disdain; I even have a few friends and acquaintances on the inside whom I like and admire.  That clarification made, I have a question for them and any others of their ilk who’d like to contribute: has good old-fashioned American self-loathing affected how the history of the middle period – those years surrounding and including the Civil War – has been interpreted and taught on campus?  If so, how?

Man, there are some great self-loathing cartoons out there, and even a fake magazine, but I didn’t have any time to get permission to use them.

Opinion as Historical Fact

30 01 2009

The problem with the elliptical trainer is that over the course of 50-60 minutes my mind starts to wander. Yesterday I had my iPod on and was watching CNN’s close-captioned coverage of the Illinois governor’s closing statement at his impeachment hearing – no, you can’t comment on the proceedings here, I’ll delete it. Afterwards, two CNN talking heads were discussing what was going on, when one said to the other that the reason the Governor chose to boycott all but this portion of the trial was that he could not be challenged in his closing statement. The other head said yes, that was exactly the reason.  Now, it might very well be the reason, but unless someone can point me to some statement by the Governor that such was his reasoning, this was nothing more than a guess.  This kind of stuff happens all the time in Civil War literature. Take for instance the opinion, long stated as fact, that McDowell’s advance on Manassas was slow due to a fear of masked batteries. Or that Oliver Otis Howard deliberately tried to sabotage the reputation of Abner Doubleday at Gettysburg (I wrote about it on Dmitri’s blog here and here). An article by a “big shot”  perpetuating that old saw compelled me to write a very long letter to the editor of a magazine criticizing the author-in-question’s practice of presenting opinion – in the case of Howard, completely unsupported opinion – as fact.  And also in that case, citing as support another of his own works in which he presented the same unsupported opinion as fact.

Damn that elliptical machine.

McPherson’s “New” Book on Lincoln

31 10 2008

Check out this review of the new James McPherson book, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, by James Durney on TOCWOC.  Astute and valid criticism, I think.  McPherson is a fine writer, a synthesizer by reputation, but his choices of what to synthesize seem somewhat pedestrian.  While on that subject, here are some thoughts on synthesis from an earlier Robert Bateman article I linked to in this post:

At the outset, a historian examines the available evidence about a historical event or period. He or she looks at the primary sources, be they eyewitness accounts or relevant contemporary documents, and from these develops an understanding of the basic outlines. But what follows next is at the core of the difference between journalism and history. The historian is then expected to interpret these sources to create a framework for a new understanding of the events, which goes beyond a recitation of who, what, when, where and why. This first interpretation, therefore, is the first thesis.

Let us assume for a moment that the historian was the first to address a given topic, and therefore his thesis is widely accepted as it is also the only one available. Time passes. We circle the sun. Children are born, raised, go to high school and learn the thesis (albeit usually in a synopsized version) as a part of their general education. Eventually one of them is masochistic enough to go to graduate school with the intent of pursuing a degree in history.

For the youngster, there are only two real routes available when selecting a dissertation topic. The budding historian might attempt to find a brand new area of study that has never been written about (fat chance there, but sometimes it happens), or he or she can read deeply of the already extant body of historical literature on a topic or period, re-examine the foundational materials underpinning the dominant thesis, perhaps uncover some additional material not noticed before. Then the new graduate student will proceed to offer a new interpretation, different and disagreeing with the original thesis in large ways and small, thus creating the anti-thesis. Obviously, if the author of the original thesis is still around, this might not go over swimmingly. Presuming the young historian has done a good job, his becomes the new “accepted version,” and the pendulum swings.

Skip forward a few more years, and the third phase comes into effect. This time, however, it is usually an older, more experienced and already established historian who completes the cycle. Age and experience have given the older historian some ability to read across multiple interpretations as well as the wisdom to craft his ideas carefully. The senior scholar, recognizing that there are some positive elements in both competing ideas, also brings to bear a much broader understanding of the field overall, and he has time on his side. (He is not living the life of penury, eating macaroni and cheese meals, that young grad student had been.) To this person is left the task of melding thesis and antithesis into a new and greater whole, the synthesis. This, then, becomes the new narrative, necessarily upsetting both the adherents of the thesis and the anti-thesis, but accepted by the larger field as superior to both.

Thus does one cycle of history end. It may have taken five years, or perhaps as many as 50, but at every step there was dispute and criticism flowing from one historian against another. (It’s a dynamic not usually seen within journalism except in the case of egregious acts of ethical violation such as Jayson Blair’s.) The arguing among historians, you see, is very much a part of what makes history.

What is it called when the senior scholar only considers the thesis in his synthesis?

Please take time to read Lt. Col. Bateman’s article.  I’ve pointed people to it before, but they can’t seem to get past the historian vs. journalist part of the piece.  Particularly at this time of year, what he has to say about historians’ personal biases affecting their analysis of current events is well worth considering.

Everyone Has an Angle

15 07 2008

A friend passed on this article by Lt. Col. Robert Bateman.  A good look at what historians do, how their job differs from that of a journalist (ideally, anyway), and how their opinions are just as biased as anyone else’s.  In summary:

In other words, while journalists may write the first draft of history, among historians there is no such thing as a “last draft.” There is only the most current, and the one certain thing within history is that it will change again soon enough. – R. Bateman

Check it out.


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