Owning Alexander

Colonial Williamsburg has pubbed a new book documenting the experiences and thoughts of black interpreters at CW. What is it like to consciously and willingly portray, five days a week, an African-American in the time of slavery? I can’t imagine the tightrope.

But encountering slavery in any manifestation can be awkward for black or white audiences.

Black guests are sometimes uncomfortable confronting what some consider a humiliating aspect of the past that should be forgotten, not memorialized. “Many people,” said Greg James, “don’t want to be reminded of people beaten, lashed, and currycombed… But would history be true without it?” …

Any person might judge the performance as too harsh a portrayal, or too understated. One minute an interpreter might be viewed as minimizing the cruelty of slavery; the next minute he or she might be viewed as exaggerating it.

Author and CW archaeologist Ywone Edwards-Ingram will lead a discussion of the book, The Art and Soul of African American Interpretation, at CW later today, followed by a signing.

I’m always intrigued by individual reactions to early American history and how, through a mix of celebration and criticism, we each make our separate peace with it, especially the awful parts. How do we integrate history into our worldviews? Which parts do we emphasize, which parts do we blur? So I’d much rather read Edwards-Ingram’s book than, say, another screed from an obnoxious academic telling us how we should feel about history:

Since the turn of the millennium, historians have lambasted the phenomenon of Founders Chic as a fundamental distortion of history. Placing the roles of specific, prominent individuals at the heart of sweeping narratives of the founding era meant that popular histories exaggerated the importance of individuals, at the expense of understanding the contribution of less-celebrated Americans or the role of broader societal and historical processes. Yet much of the reception of Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway, seems to suggest that hagiography is acceptable, so long as it’s done to a catchy song-and-dance routine. It’s as if the only problem with Joseph Ellis, David McCullough and Ron Chernow is that they didn’t write to a hip-hop soundtrack.

I’m not sure when I initially became aware of Hamilton but my first reaction was, It’s like The Wiz but for early America! Mrs. Kuhl and I, both being history buffs living 60 miles outside of Manhattan, agreed to go see it, only to be stymied by the then $600 tickets (they’re now going for $1,000). At this point we’ll probably have to wait for the movie but my feelings for Hamilton haven’t changed. In either case, black artists took something that is white as hell — The Wizard of Oz, the years of the early Republic — and interpreted it through their own experiences. It’s an ownership of something that, in its original version, conspicuously excluded people like them. It’s their separate peace.

But to academics like Ken Owen at The Junto, there’s a right way and a wrong way to interpreting Hamilton, and liking the play is definitely wrong:

Hamilton appears to use history more as a comfort blanket than as a serious means to enhance popular understanding of the American Revolution. That is something I find particularly concerning, because Hamilton (and its race-conscious casting) has often been held up as an example of how to modernize Broadway, or how to shift popular discussion of the American Revolution in a more progressive direction. At almost every turn, however, the historical philosophies underpinning Hamilton prioritize the Founders Chic model. … Insofar as it does raise progressive questions, it does so in only the most muted way—and in a way that allows a casual observer to retreat to the same comforting, comfortable narratives they would find on the shelves of a Barnes and Noble.

Meow! There you have it: “progressive direction,” “progressive questions.” For all his complaints preceding this graf, Kitty Owen’s real grudge is that Hamilton doesn’t fulfill his political ends. To the academic left (which, let’s face it, is all of academia outside an MBA program), the correct perspective toward art is a Soviet one where singing and dancing is permissible as long as the rest is social realism. Later in the comments, when a reader notes that as art Hamilton encourages viewers to ask questions about history, Owens replies, “Are they getting people to ask the right questions, though?” The dummies in the mezzanine can’t be trusted to arrive at their own conclusions, Owens believes; the proper responses are the ones dictated by snobs like him.

Still, Owens’s opinions aren’t nearly as stupid as Lyra Monteiro’s, who whined that regardless of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the casting, “It’s still white history.” This is the same cretinism that would segregate black history to 28 days a year. Black and brown Americans own Alexander Hamilton just as much as I own Martin Luther King, Jr. because all of us live today in a world molded by those men. There’s no black history, there’s no white history — there’s only American history and how we as Americans individually come to terms with it.

Lest this post devolve into complete fist-shaking, Owens says one thing I do agree with, which is, “it is dishonest of [popular] authors to pretend that their work isn’t reliant on a broader community of [academic] scholars.” He’s right. I don’t hate academics; in fact, I’m thankful to them. I just wish many of them would drop their egotistical claims to being the sole proprietors of our stories.

Questionable Advice to Underage Minors

Last Saturday I was invited to participate in History Day, wherein students put together historical projects — papers, documentaries, museum exhibits, websites, you name it — based on extensive research and interviews. The projects are then judged and the winners are awarded something — what, I’m not sure. Towards that goal, the Fairfield Museum and History Center collected a bunch of historians and invited kids from around southwest Connecticut to ask us, one-on-one, for advice and direction.

I’m flattered to have been asked to help out, especially because I was only one of two historians present who didn’t have a PhD after his or her name. Most of the kids were middle-school aged and I was amazed at how deeply some of them had leapt into their subjects, but after the original shock — this was my first experience with History Day — I realized I could provide something the other historians probably couldn’t, namely guidance on finding interviewees and resources like images and how to structure their narratives.

I’ve been asked before to write articles or columns on writing advice. I always decline, mainly because I feel every writer’s methods and path are too particular to be much use to anybody else, and also because I often feel too lost at sea myself to advise others how to navigate. That said, as I sat and talked with the students there were four recurring suggestions that popped up over and over, and maybe it’s helpful to repeat them here in case you, my noble reader, find yourself or your offspring working on something similar.

Make it personal. I felt afterwards that my experience as a parent played a bigger part than my work as a writer or historian. You know how it is: your kid comes home with some grandiose idea for a school project, but when it comes time to sit and do the project with him, the ellipsis between Point A and Point Z becomes abundantly clear. Many of the attendees at History Day simply needed help drilling down to what their end product would be and how they would present it. To that end I recommended identifying a specific person or point in time — or, if the project was biographical, an episode in the person’s life — that is illustrative of the overall history or arc. One young woman was doing her project on the Radium Girls and I advised her to highlight one of the girls in particular. Readers or viewers naturally empathize with individuals and by showcasing one girl’s experience, the student could communicate the broader phenomenon.

Prioritize your content. In research, you always wind up with more information than is germane to your project. All projects have limits, whether it’s a word count or a maximum running time for a documentary or skit, and limits are good because they help structure your narrative. For example, in Smedley I left out a lot of info about Smedley’s post-war merchant trade. To the internal completist it seems a shame to leave stuff out but throwing in everything will get you, and your reader, lost in the weeds. You have to prioritize what to include, and in doing so you give the project an architecture. A zillion biographies have been written about what made Hitler be Hitler. They all work from the same pool of facts but each historian places emphasis on a different aspect: one thinks Hitler was the way he was because he was a failed art student, while the next thinks Hitler was Hitler because of his experiences in World War I, and so on. Each writer arrives at her conclusions by emphasizing or prioritizing episodes or sets of facts over others. Use the scissors. The good news is that the stuff you cut often shows up in other projects. Especially blog posts.

Pick up the phone. Free lunch was included in History Day, which was certainly an inducement for me to attend. As we sat munching, the grown-ups chuckled over how reluctant the kids were *to call* someone on the phone. One young man I spoke to was researching early Fords and how they changed American culture; another pair was doing a project on the Black Sox scandal; and still another couple of students was making a doc about cannibalism at Jamestown. Yet none of them had actually contacted Ford or the White Sox or Historic Jamestowne. I told them that big longstanding companies or franchises like Ford and the White Sox will often have dedicated historians and archives, and places like Historic Jamestowne, whose whole mission is public outreach, will likewise have staff happy to answer questions (especially from kids). It’s always worthwhile to contact a company or group directly to see what they have. Go to their website and look for their media or PR office. Or, worst case, just call their direct number and ask the voice on the other end.

Use your network. The line between history and journalism thins the closer the horizon reaches the present. There are no ancient Egyptians left to interview but if you’re writing about the Beatles as one group of girls was, then you’re in luck — as I told them, not only are there fifty years of interviews they can mine, there are still people around who’ve met the Beatles (including a couple of actual Beatles). Journalists use their contacts and networks to find and write stories — stories that others can’t write because they have different networks. Mrs. Kuhl’s dad and uncles, who sell sailboats, once sold a boat to John Lennon and even accompanied him on his 1980 cruise to Bermuda, making for some of the best stories I’ve ever heard around a Thanksgiving dinner table. If you’re writing about something that happened within the recent past, ask your family and your network about it. Even if they don’t have any direct contact with the person or event in question, they may be able to direct you toward someone or someplace that does.

Condemning the Past

Gordon S. Wood on the criticisms levied by academics against his fellow early American historian and mentor Bernard Bailyn:

College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

Wood is certainly not happy with this state of affairs. Yet it’s gratifying to see him correctly diagnose the disease — that academics wallow in “condemning the past for not being more like the present” — even if we disagree about the prescription.

A Connecticut County in Bill Penn’s Grant

Wyoming Valley by Jasper Francis Cropsey

I have a story at the Journal of the American Revolution about the absolutely true tale of Westmoreland County, a piece of northeastern Pennsylvania claimed by Connecticut as part of King Charles’s grant creating the colony:

The Susquehannah Company was founded in July 1753, when 152 subscribers adjourned in Windham, Connecticut to pay “Two Spanish Mill’d dollars” to join a new joint-stock venture. Declaring “Thatt Whereas we being desirous to Enlarge his Majesties English Settlements In North America and further To Spread Christianity as also to promote our own Temporal Interest,” their aim was to settle an area of the Susquehanna River beyond New York’s borders. … The Company proposed to settle at Wyoming, on the west bank of the river about 50 miles southeast of Tioga. Its clean soil and the scarcity of Native American settlements made it ideal to the Company members. More to the point, they believed the area was included in the Connecticut grant as per the 1662 charter.

I’ve mentioned before how, in the mid-aughts, I shopped a book idea called Lost States, detailing efforts at American state making that went pear-shaped. The book’s sample chapter, all 18,000 words of it, dealt with the first half of the Westmoreland story; this would have been followed by second and third chapters on the Republic of Vermont (using Ethan Allen’s involvement in the Susquehannah Company to segue into the conflict between New York and New Hampshire) and the resolution of the Westmoreland project. Lost States never went anywhere, and I very briefly sent around a proposal focusing solely on Westmoreland until I finally realized not everyone was as fascinated by the history as I was. Fortunately, the editors and readers at the JAR love this kind of stuff. My article is a distillation of that sample chapter.

Even today Westmoreland continues to mesmerize me, especially the religious angle. Was the Company’s obstinate refusal to take no for an answer a result of the New Light zealotry of its members?

Historians Seeking Rent

Via J.L. Bell’s Twitter feed come several reactions to Andrew Burnstein and Nancy Isenberg’s Salon essay wishing for “a restraining order on the big-budget popularizers of history (many of them trained in journalism)”:

We have to fight mediocrity as well as plagiarism – the two are more closely related than you realize. Journalists doing history tend to be superficial and formulaic. To the historian’s mind, they don’t care enough about accuracy.

I bet. Their argument is eyebrow-raising for its pettiness and cherry-picking. Civil War Memory has such a perfect response that I can only agree; and David Silbey succinctly lists the ad hominems and non sequiturs of Burnstein and Isenberg’s argument. They bean David McCullough’s John Adams — “There are far better books on Adams than McCullough’s” — but never cite a single defect, instead somehow illogically lumping him in with plagiarists. Is that because “[t]he public seems to like what is most easily digestible” in their history and in their Salon articles?

Gordon Wood commented on academic vs. journalist historians back in 2009:

Academic historians have not forgotten how to tell a story. Instead, most of them have purposefully chosen not to tell stories; that is, they have chosen not to write narrative history. Narrative history is a particular kind of history-writing whose popularity comes from the fact that it resembles a story. It lays out the events of the past in chronological order, with a beginning, middle and end. … Instead of writing this kind of narrative history, most academic historians, especially at the beginning of their careers, write what might be described as analytic history, specialized and often narrowly focused monographs usually based on their PhD dissertations.

This is an important distinction, and Wood is right that most academics don’t write narrative histories. I would agree with him further — except that even when academics do write narrative history, they’re still not very good.

Take William C. Davis’s The Pirates Laffite. Davis is a brilliant historian who has written the most authoritative account of the Laffite brothers ever put to paper, and will likely remain so for decades at least. It’s a narrative history, beginning with the earliest known information regarding the Laffites and continuing chronologically. The book is also barely readable. Davis swarms the reader with so much information that the story is buried beneath a landfill of data. The text isn’t broken up well, and every few pages I had to flip back to reread why we had gone on a tangent about some secondary or tertiary character and remind myself how he related to the Laffites. I wish Davis had abridged the book for general consumption, then kept the original manuscript as an e-pub available for hardcore Laffite scholars.

Overwhelming the reader is a flaw too. So yes, many academics have forgotten how to tell a story.

Academic historians aren’t bad people; as I’ve ranted before, what’s at issue is how they’ve sidelined themselves through their own homespun culture of (a) poor writing camouflaged as intellectualism; and (b) internecine feuding. I would also add that if Wood worries that “non-academic historians… unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive scholarship that exists,” it’s because so much of that scholarship is locked behind expensive journal subscriptions and exorbitant paywalls like Reed Elsevier — again, an unnecessary state of affairs resulting from academic culture — that academics themselves wouldn’t have access to if they weren’t academics.

Burnstein and Isenberg haven’t done their profession any favors with their imbecilic essay: it’s technocratic propaganda designed to exclude interlopers from cutting into their market share. But again, if academic historians aren’t popular in bookstores, they have only themselves to blame. Hobbled and handicapped, it’s up to the David McCulloughs of the world to take up their slack.

Suffocating History

Bruce Cole sketches an elegant portrait of historian Barbara Tuchman that’s well worth reading in its entirety, particularly for her tips on “practicing history,” as she called it. But Cole focuses on the fact that Tuchman was not an academic — to her credit.

Is a Ph.D.—the union card for the professorate—a hindrance to approaching history as Tuchman did?

Alas, the answer is likely “yes.” The years-long slog of course work, exams and the laborious, footnote-laden dissertation—written strictly to be read by other scholars—have a way of hard-wiring habits of the mind that are difficult to overcome. A few academically trained scholars do survive the tyranny of their doctorates and reach a wide reading audience. But inside the Ivory Tower, where most historians dwell, professors write books, articles, and conference papers for other professors, and mainly for those colleagues toiling in the same small subset of the past.

A grad-school professor once chided me that I wrote in a “casual” popular style. His goal was to gently push me toward a more formal tone in my papers but I stubbornly dug in my heels. Academic English is a baroque dialect, a game of tin-can telephone meant for a minority of receivers, as Cole says, and not intended for a general audience. But what then is the point of writing something no one will ever read? What rationalization can be presented for the public grants, endowments, tax exemptions, and tolerance if no outsider ever benefits? How can you ever argue that professors aren’t just a priest class removed from yet supported by society? It’s an obligation to write in a comprehensible style. I earned very good marks in graduate school — I even enjoyed it! — but the writing was the most difficult for me. I hated the writing.

I shouldn’t complain, though; general-audience historians are the main beneficiaries of this system. Leave the professorial witch doctors shut up in their temples, burning their incense and scrutinizing their chicken bones. I’m more than happy to author the books they never will.