As I have mentioned several times before over posts in this blog (see for example this post), I have found nationalist mythology to be the most enduring and crucial challenge I face as an historian of early America. This is one of the reasons I turned to ‘settler colonialism’ as a conceptual tool, for I found no other framework that helped me wrestle with this mythic predicament. As theorist Lorenzo Veracini noted, the U.S. is, alongside Israel, one of the “two polities” in which “the very invisibility of settler colonialism is most entrenched.” And, he added, “the more it [settler colonialism] goes without saying, the better it covers its tracks.” (1) Further complicating the situation, history as a discipline both in the U.S. and in Europe historically emerged as one of the cornerstones of this nationalist mythological project. Thus, in pursuit of the historical truth, as best as we can make it at least, as historians we face an at times almost impossible task, one that requires us to transcend the premises at the center of are own discipline.
In high hopes of rattling a bit the scaffolding upon which this deep link between nationalism and history have been constructed I have recently started examining how historians of different polities have sought to challenge their nationalist mythologies. My intuition was that since the myth of exceptionalism is so central to American national mythology, a comparative examination could prove particularly subversive. In what follows I thought to relate some impressions of a book I recently finished reading as part of this agenda, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914 (1976) by Eugen Weber. This is not a review and far from exhaustive, only some observations that I found pertinent to my comparative agenda.
In his essay collection Society and Solitude (1870), Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated the powers of those Western pioneers who brought the rudiments of Eastern civilization with them to the frontier. In this myth of development, the piano was the great augury, appearing almost ex nihilo:
Tis wonderful, how soon a piano gets into a log hut on the frontier. You would think they found it under a pine-stump. With it comes a Latin grammar, and one of those tow-head boys has written a hymn on Sunday. Now let colleges, now let senates take heed! For here is one, who, opening these fine tastes on the basis of the pioneer’s iron constitution, will gather all their laurels in his strong hands (10).
It would be great if Emerson were simply out of touch. The sentiment seemed hopelessly optimistic or downright atavistic in the aftermath of the Civil War, but Western myths like these survived the slaughter. Emerson’s mythic piano got plenty of play in the decades to come. Eastern settlers brought “civilization” to the frontier; heroic “tow-head boys,” cast light into the Western darkness, in turn casting their light eastward in the offing. It conjures up Bryan, “the boy orator of the Platte,” or at its best Julius Wayland’s Appeal to Reason.
In a review in the pages of Overland Monthly in 1870, Bret Harte let some air out of Emerson’s bloated mythos, noting that anyone with any kind of experience in the West knew that “the piano appears first in the saloon and gambling house…the elegancies and refinements of civilization are brought into barbarism with the first civilized idlers, who are generally vicious” (386). What plays in Concord doesn’t play the same way in Dodge City, Ralph. 
Jangling pianos also appeared in the saloons and gambling houses of the terrifying HBO series Deadwood, which ran for three seasons from 2004 to 2006. Deadwood’s pianos were essentially Harte’s pianos, but with some startling complications. The show gave an inside view of a rough-hewn mining camp eventually taking the shape of a small community. “Community” seems too positive a term for what it becomes, but it does have some of the trappings. It so happens that a piano features during one of the Deadwood’s founding moments, when camp leaders meet to found a municipal government.
Deadwood worked over many of the tropes common to the Western, heaping them on to excess. Outrageous physical violence and horrible, exploitative sex frequently interrupted the strange, cracked frontier speech of the show. The weird dialect—its baroque cursing and odd syntax—was the wondrous concoction of the show’s creator David Milch. Up to that point, no one on this planet had ever talked like that. Yet the words are strangely apropos in Milch’s alternate universe. Maybe people talk like that in hell. Maybe people talk like that in Hogarth paintings in hell.
Two important history conferences were held this weekend: the Future of the African American Past Conference, hosted by the American Historical Association; and the Memphis Massacre Conference, commemorating the events of 1866 in Memphis, Tennessee. Both conferences were important for two broad reasons. One, they both indicate a continued interest by some historians—especially those focused on the African American experience—to speak to the public about history. Second, they both speak to Emily Rutherford’s concerns about opening up intellectual history to groups traditionally marginalized within the field. An intellectual history from below, as it were, would provide the fodder for more questions to be asked within American intellectual history. As this week’s conferences prove, a general concern about history from below—and its connections to current events from below—engulf the historical profession in new, and intriguing ways.
[Editor’s note: The following guest post comes from longtime friend of the blog and S-USIH member David Weinfeld. Beginning his fall, he will be the visiting assistant professor of Judaic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. David received his PhD in History and Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University and has taught at NYU, Temple University, Queens College, and the University of Toronto.]
During the United invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was a sophomore at Harvard University, living in a dorm called Mather House. Named after Increase Mather, former president of the university who had been involved in the Salem Witch Trials, the dorm has some pretty views of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, Mather is an ugly pair of buildings, crafted in the 1970s Soviet style, or as former resident Conan O’Brien quipped, “designed by the same firm that built Hitler’s bunker.”
I didn’t feel like I was in Hitler’s bunker, though. I felt intellectually alive, bombarded with information. The September 11 attacks were fresh on everyone’s minds, as America contemplated going to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. I desperately tried to make sense of it all. A liberal Canadian, my gut told me to oppose it. I was never convinced Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and if he did, I didn’t think he’d use them. I did not believe he had any connection to Al Queda either. I hung up an anti-war sign in dorm room. But Mather House changed my mind.
One of the benefits of being a regular at this blog is that one sees a variety of intellectual influences. You observe those influences both in the historians themselves and their historical subjects. As a consequence one is compelled to ponder the philosophers and intellectuals who have impressed you.
Like most readers here, my professional historical influences derive from a certain period. I attended graduate school, in history, from 1998 to 2006. My program was exceptionally strong, on the U.S. side, in cultural history, urban history, and public history. While acknowledging and using those strengths, I bent my optional and field exam readings toward the history of education and intellectual history. That preference also came up in my minor field readings and exams on western Europe (particularly focused on post-18th-century Britain and France). So my professional influences derive from those subfields and areas.
INTELLECTUAL HISTORY FROM BELOW
by Emily Rutherford
When he came to give a lecture at Columbia University last month, Chris Hilliard was introduced as “an intellectual historian from below.” “From below” is a term to conjure with in modern British history: a field whose forebears include E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Raphael Samuel, Christopher Hill, and others; a field in which class as a category of analysis is never far from the foreground. But “intellectual history from below”? Isn’t that an oxymoron? To judge from classrooms, conferences, even the pages of (ahem) a certain journal, it would seem that there is a rather specific and narrowly-defined vision of who gets to be a subject of intellectual history. But if, as Joyce Chaplin suggested in her Lovejoy Lecture earlier this month, intellectual historians might attune themselves to the nonhuman, surely they might also profit from inquiries into less elite, less educated subjects—even illiterate or barely literate ones. I am going to tell you a bit about how Hilliard has done this in his work. And then I am going to get a bit polemical. “Intellectual history from below” means two things: it refers to the subjects the intellectual historian investigates; but also to the culture of the field itself, which could be made more equitable and welcoming by a rethinking of what sort of subjects constitute intellectual history. As an editor at JHIBlog, I have had probably a hundred conversations with potential writers who say, “What I do isn’t intellectual history/history of ideas. It’s not clever enough. It’s too far from political thought or the history of philosophy.” This perception is widespread and it is holding intellectual history back. Hilliard’s work shows us how it can be changed.