I want to commend and thank John Fea for modeling best practices when it comes to not only acknowledging but also citing informal academic work, including blog posts, in more formal, peer-reviewed scholarship.
In his 2015 book, The Rise of the Right to Know, Michael Schudson argues that an important driver for that rise, in the post-World War II United States, was “a general shift to a more critical culture in…society” (p. 109). I think Schudson’s narrative is Panglossian, even within the chronology he covers, but let me attempt to provide his full argument before I offer a refutation. (more…)
One of the peculiarities of American historiography is that very few historians over the years have chosen to use the concept of nationalism as their primary category of analysis, especially for the era one would expect to find such a study—early America, when insurgents in the North American British colonies chose to forge a nation together. I can think of two major books and one major article in the last half century or so to have embraced early American nationalism as their focus: In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism by David Waldstreicher (1997), Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood by Peter Onuf (2000), and “Look on this Picture… and on this: Nationalism Localism and Partisan Images of Otherness in the United States, 1787-1820” by Andrew Roberston (2001). Mysteriously there was a five year window (1997-2001) for American nationalism. Any comparison to European history will surely suggest that historians of the United States have chosen other paths of inquiry much more than their counterparts in the European field. For in European history the study of nationalism in the post WWII era has always been at the very center of historical study and interest. To be sure much of this has to do with the interest in European nationalism in the wake of WWII and with the complacent notion of American ‘consensus intellectuals’ that in America nationalism has never reigned supreme as it had in Europe. But I suspect that something else—not disconnected with this complacency—is at work. Maybe the problem is that American nationalism is not relatively insignificant, as many once had it, but that it is rather too large a phenomenon.
Earlier today I was re-reading some of Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1992), which was the third part of Slotkin’s mammoth trilogy, following Regeneration Through Violence (1973) and The Fatal Environment (1985), books which covered the development of the frontier myth up to the Civil War and during the “Age of Industrialization,” respectively. As I noted a few years back in a review here of Daniel Horowitz’s excellent Consuming Pleasures, these kind of multi-volume projects are rare feats in academia today, even if historians—such as Frederick Jackson Turner—were once considered subpar if they did not have a four- or five- or eight-volume opus to their name, à la Parkman or Henry Adams. Alongside Horowitz’s more informal trilogy (The Morality of Spending; The Anxiety of Affluence; Consuming Pleasures), I can think of Alan Wald’s troika chronicling the American Left across midcentury (Exiles from a Future Time; Trinity of Passion; American Night), David Brion Davis’s Problem of Slavery books and… well, I’ve already run dry for examples in US history since the 1970s. No doubt something important has slipped my mind!
But aside from a desire to pay tribute to Slotkin’s genuinely epic scope and formidable focus, what I wanted to discuss here was instead his theory of myth, which seeps into a theory of ideology and of symbols. In this re-read, what struck me was the sheer confidence and brio of Slotkin’s method, a tone which borrowed something from the energy of poststructuralism even if it eschewed the poststructuralist’s lack of discipline and love of deferring the point indefinitely. Slotkin’s tone is not playful like Geertz’s can be, but is similarly borne toward the reader on a sense of total assurance that everything will add up once it has been fully examined and the right approach has been selected. And it occurred to me, since I don’t really find that kind of confidence in today’s cultural or intellectual historians when they are interpreting a text, to wonder where that sense of assurance came from. What follows is a very sketchy attempt to answer that question. (more…)
“So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help”
I’ve long had a Kurt Vonnegut problem. I get it him I think, but sometimes he seems to pile on his ironies a little too high. I rarely take the time to read Vonnegut in a close way like I would Faulkner or Melville or Kafka or whatever. I wonder now if this isn’t my loss. I’m not sure. One of my best friends in the world happens to be a Kurt Vonnegut fan. He lives in a small town in West Texas now. He’s a big Bernie Sanders supporter. He carries a leather wallet with a hammer and sickle imprinted on it. He also served in Afghanistan at one point in his life.
Last week the city of Columbia hosted a symposium on the Reconstruction era. Headlined by a talk by Eric Foner at a local church Thursday night, the symposium attempted to both present current trends in Reconstruction historiography and also show how these trends affect the public history of the Reconstruction period. The symposium was a melding of academic and public histories of Reconstruction. The history of the Reconstruction era in South Carolina has undergone a dramatic public re-interpretation in recent years, following up on decades of changing academic scholarship on the Reconstruction period. Today’s post is a reflection on where Reconstruction historiography is going, with special care paid to what intellectual historians, in particular, can contribute to this still-vibrant field.