The following guest post is by Drew Maciag, author of Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism.
A prefatory note by Drew: “Upon reading Andy Seal’s excellent post on “Why Richard Rorty Was Not a Prophet” (which now has a Part 2), an example from my own research instantly sprang to mind. It’s taken me some time to respond because I was experiencing post-election stress disorder. No harm done, this topic is timeless!”
The story is often told like this:
At a particularly crucial moment in Western history, a wise and learned man saw the future and recoiled in horror. Few people accepted his dire predictions until they actually began to occur, then they marveled at the oracle’s foresight. Curiously, the prophet divined the future by looking backward into history and to inherited customs, manners, institutions, laws, and religious practices. When he observed rapid departures from long-held beliefs and patterns of behavior, he extrapolated current threats to their logical conclusions: which included widespread violence, terror, chaos, and authoritarian heroics. The visionary intellectual died while civilization was still in peril, yet his example—and his fundamental principles—survived and congealed into a powerful school of thought. For two hundred years, plenty of intellectuals who were unhappy with the transit of progress have lamented not only the original disaster (of not heeding the prophet early enough or completely enough), but all succeeding echoes of it—as if the tragedy of repeating historical errors has become an addiction. (more…)
One of the most powerful insights Edmund Morgan offered us over his long and illustrious career was that Bacon’s Rebellion, its context, and its aftermath provide an early roadmap for the history of race relations and its intersection with class politics in American history.(1) Unfolding a story of opportunities lost, Morgan suggested that Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 marked a turning point in the history of slavery in Virginia and the southern colonies more broadly.
Up till then slavery was not yet the central institution it would later be, as both indentured servants and slaves formed the underclass of early Virginia. In the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, instead of forming a cross-racial alliance that would challenge the rule of the gentlemen class, white men struck a faustian bargain across class lines on the backs of black folks, defining freedom as a white person’s privilege and slavery as the default status of people of African descent. Thus slavery became the favored labor regime in the south, indentured servitude dwindled, and blackness and whiteness became entrenched in law and custom.
Here are some of the articles and essays I have bookmarked as essential reading as we move forward. Please add your own suggestions. Discussion, as always, to follow in the comments.
There are many facts which seem to be routinely “lost”: we know them, but we forget that we know them until we are reminded of them. That Richard Rorty’s grandfather was the quintessential Social Gospeler Walter Rauschenbusch is one of those facts, in part because Rorty seems to exist at such a great distance from Rauschenbusch, both chronologically—is the Progressive Era really only that long ago?—and ideologically: while not a Dawkins-like secularist, Rorty’s avowed secularism was such a fundamental part of his philosophy and his public life that we may have trouble seeing him as the grandson of a person so devoted to bringing the Kingdom of G-d to earth.
Two weeks ago I argued that it is unwise to call Rorty a prophet for what amount to political reasons: doing so canonizes his “prophecy” as a privileged interpretation of “what really happened”—because he “predicted” our present, he must have had some kind of privileged knowledge or more penetrating awareness of the trends and tendencies of the world which led us here. Those reasons, I hope, are good enough to make us hesitate before laying the mantle of prophet retroactively on Rorty’s shoulders, but there are other reasons as well more specific to Rorty’s own self-understanding and his understanding of the nature of the United States and its history that should make the title seem singularly inappropriate. This post explores those reasons and goes on to show—I hope—why Rorty’s antipathy to much that goes along with prophecy is equally inappropriate both to our present and to the nation’s past. (more…)
[Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of six guest posts by Holly Genovese, which will be appearing every other Sunday. — Ben Alpers]
I started college as a bright eyed 17-year old, intent on becoming a Civil War historian. Not a social historian of the Civil War era or a scholar of Civil War memory, but a war historian. I took a 3 week long course on the Revolutionary and Civil War at Johns Hopkins when I was 15. My Momma and I took many a summer trip to nearby battlefields. And I tried in vain to become a reenactor-but I wanted to reenact a solider and that wasn’t allowed. Friends who knew me before around age 20 won’t find this surprising-but others might wonder how a budding military historian became a social/cultural historian of race and incarceration?
It was a process. But in my sophomore year at Temple, I took a required humanities seminar, colloquially referred to as MOSAIC. Most of my classmates were education, business, and science majors-students who were frustrated with the course. But for me, a double major in History and Philosophy at the time (I changed it 5 times), I was in love. It was the first time I read Marx and Freire, the first time I was asked to annotate a text. It was my becoming.
But the most important text I read in that class was Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Before I took this course I knew there were people studying history and sociology in cities, but I didn’t understand the study of the city as a discipline in itself. That book blew open my mind.
The notes I left in the book, on pink and orange post it notes, are very bad. They are factual summary, nothing more. Or they are answers to the reading questions my professor had assigned. But looking at these notes, I can see the beginnings of my intellectual formation. I read this book long before I read Michelle Alexander’s work or talked to Dr. Heather Thompson about incarceration, but the statements I highlighted were all about crime and incarceration. My interests, and my future, are revealed in the notes and highlights of this book in a way that I had never recognized. My tattered copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities knew long before I did that my interests lie in race, incarceration, and cities.
I remembered excitedly telling my then boyfriend about how much I loved the book and how engaged I felt when reading it. His response was to tell me that I wasn’t actually interested in Jane Jacobs and urban studies because I had never mentioned it before, because I studied war and philosophy. He couldn’t conceive of it as being my first introduction to the city as a category of analysis or a moment in time that would change my intellectual path. But here I am, six years later, an urbanist.
Reading it now, for comprehensive exams, with new eyes, is a very different experience. I am thinking about Jacobs in the context of the historiography, in the context of the hundreds of books I have read since my Sophomore year in college. But in many ways this book transported me back to my bright eyed 19-year old self, discovering urban history for the first time. I hope it always will.
Guest Post by Richard King
Though Southern writing and music, of whatever sort, remain among the significant achievements of US cultural history, the region has much less often been associated with the visual arts, especially painting and sculpture. That is why the death of William A. “Bill” Christenberry (b. 1936) on November 28, 2016 deserves to be remembered. A long-time resident of Washington, DC and faculty member at Corcoran School of Art, Christenberry’s art was rooted in Hale County, Alabama, where he grew up. But Hale was also the country which writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans visited on assignment from Fortune magazine in the mid-1930s. The result of that stay in the Alabama Black Belt was an unclassifiable book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), which contained around thirty photographs by Evans, followed by an intricate, eloquent and at times unreadable text by Agee. It was a public confession, a documentary in word and image, even a treatise on visual aesthetics and the ethics of investigative journalism.[i]