She met Queen Victoria, helped to build the Brooklyn Bridge, wrote up last Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation, and lectured a “stunned” roomful of New York lawyers on women’s property rights. Is she on your syllabus, or listed on your museum wall? Meet Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903), another of the many “hidden figures” who have powered the American fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As a Brooklyn native, Roebling’s work looms large in history and memory for me. (If a similar hometown monument sparks your professional imagination, send a proposal by 15 April for our 2017 conference, details here). My blog series pivots next to exploring the dense lives of American women scientists, Puritans to Progressives, who invented, innovated, and laid down the prologue for today’s women in STEM. (more…)
The following guest post comes to us from Chris Fite, who is a PhD student in History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include the histories of botany, horticulture, and agriculture. He is currently following the trail of William J. Robbins, American botanist and longtime director of the New York Botanical Garden. Among other things, Robbins liked to remind people, “Without plants, we would starve to death, die of suffocation and expire from a combination of deficiency diseases.”
The New Yorker recently published a short humor piece called “Puritan Yoga.” It imagines a contemporary yoga class run by seventeenth-century Puritans. As one might suspect, it is not a flattering portrait. Reading it on the subway, I felt a surge of indignation on behalf of the Puritans. Am I upset that someone poked fun at them? Not so much. What bothered me was a broader perception that this satire reflects. Puritans often play a caricatured role in the American imagination. Generations of schoolkids have learned about Calvinist killjoys in bonnets and pointed hats. Just like the New Yorker yogis, these gloomy colonists spent every moment in abject terror of the Almighty and their own bodies. Historically, the Puritans have also served as proxies for debating the place of Christianity in American politics and culture.
What are the sources of these perceptions? I suggest that one place to look is the traditional canon of high school literature classes. Two of its staples, The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, put the Puritan legacy front and center. Of course, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller adapted this legacy for their own purposes and historical circumstances. As good constructivist scholars, it is easy to say, “Puritans as historical actors are different than Puritans as characters used by later authors.” That distinction is not self-evident for the countless students reading these works. The difference between history and historical memory is not an intuitive concept, nor even one that is easy to understand when first introduced by teachers.
We also cannot forget “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the oft-anthologized sermon by Jonathan Edwards. In my own experience, Edwards was not celebrated as an early American intellectual. Rather, he was presented as the ancestor of the American “fire and brimstone” preacher. This archetypal evangelist is a convenient catch-all for perceived Christian excesses in the past or present. As teenagers, we were relieved that we didn’t live in Edwards’ time and place. The significance of his sermon in its time and place was something I only appreciated much later. For that matter, John Calvin, one of Edwards’ chief forbears, didn’t come out looking too great either. He did not appear as an early modern humanist, or even a humane person. He was the dour Reformer obsessed with damnation.
I try to stay mindful of such experiences as I work on a PhD in the history of science. Despite the narrow-sounding name, our field is by no means limited to things that people have called “science.” We consider the myriad ways in which people sought to understand the world around them. Their ideas and actions do not fit neatly into boxes labeled Science, Religion, Philosophy, Magic, or Poetry. Yet, the triumphal narrative of modernity is built on boxes and labels. Rational heroes, like Isaac Newton or Giordano Bruno, must be cleansed of their irrational sins. Less fortunate are the magicians, mystics, alchemists, charismatics, spiritualists, and others who blur the lines of (ir)rationality. They become malcontents relegated to the margins of Progress.
Arguably, English and American Puritans contributed greatly to the development of modernity (to the extent that we can ever define modernity). However, the popular caricature of the Puritan relies on a different understanding of modern. In that definition, what is modern equals what is right and good in the present or recent past. In this way, the Puritans join modernity’s malcontents in the popular imagination. They become zealots who lived in dysfunctional communities. They also become fodder for jokes about ignorance, shame, and anything else considered illiberal in our own time.
Historical misperceptions are frustrating. However, they should also prompt us to reflect on our own work as historians. What do these misperceptions tell us about historical memory? How we might promote different understandings? For those more familiar with the histories of Puritanism and its historical memory, I welcome suggestions for further reading or for addressing these issues in the classroom.
Like last week and Andrew Hartman’s wonderful post, today I am posting the paper I gave at the African American Intellectual History Society. Some of this will seem familiar to readers of this site, but it is my first crack at what I hope to be the beginning of the second, post-dissertation project I shall begin working on over the summer. Meanwhile, AAIHS has begun publishing a re-cap of the conference–my reflections on it will be posted on their website later this week. Enjoy!
The plight of the black South as an intellectual center was on the mind of Vincent Harding when he wrote a nuanced and otherwise appreciative review of Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual in 1968. Cruse’s book, released the previous year, set off an avalanche of both praise and criticism amongst leftists of all racial hues and ideological dispositions. Harding, a confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a Southerner, noticed an unfortunate omission from Cruse’s magnum opus. “His single-minded focus on Harlem,” wrote Harding, “eliminates treatment of that crucial group of black intellectuals who have operated in the South for the last decade, and who have much to do with the latest resurrection of blackness.” For Harding, forgetting about the African American South was a mistake which threatened to erase not only an entire region of the nation—not to mention the experiences of millions of African Americans—but also damage the growing intellectual ferment of a resurgent African American radical tradition.
Bonnie Smith’s damning conclusion to The Gender of History has been much on my mind lately. I quoted a long-ish excerpt from her peroration in this post a few weeks back, so for now I’ll just zero in on the most nettlesome couple of sentences:
The historian of historiography, which is virtually all male, seldom shares the stage with a woman; rather, he is fortified by epigones admiring his laws and making him a ‘star,’ fraternal clusters who think of contesting them, and still others who will analyze the agon in terms of historical movement through serial or even postmodern time. Whether produced by his facts, the range of his historiographic reach, or his flights of theory, this imposing construct of male subjectivity (albeit with new demands for public performance and new calls to meet the challenge of powerful women, themselves increasingly cast as phallic maternal rivals) continues to function as the centerpiece for an increasingly difficult historical epistemology.
Some readers may wonder, 1) Is she right? 2) Even if she’s right, is her conclusion really all that damning?
I have wondered this myself, and I’m still puzzling over it.
As Jeremy Popkin points out in his very excellent single-volume survey of historical writing, From Herodotus to H-Net, historiography is actually a species of intellectual history. Historiography concerns itself with the way in which historians have conceived of the task of historical writing and how those conceptions have changed over time. So if historiography remains an overwhelmingly masculine preserve, and if this is a problem, this is a problem not just for history in general but for intellectual history in particular.
[Note to readers: “Memories of the Student Movement and the New Left in the United States, 1960-1969” is a five-part participant-observer account of the period written in 1996 by Jim O’Brien, New Left activist, historian, and editor at New England Free Press. Part I of this essay can be found here, Part II of this essay can be found here, Part III of this essay can be found here, and Part IV of this essay can be found here.]
TWO VIEWS OF THE NEW LEFT: THEN AND NOW
By Jim O’Brien
For SDS as an organization, the denouement of its 1969 convention is quickly told. The delegates who’d stayed in the main hall elected a slate of national officers loyal to the PL program and prepared to set up their own national office in Boston, the PL stronghold within the student movement. The breakaway convention carried over an extra day and elected a slate of candidates from the “Weathermen” faction. The other major New Left faction, under the name Revolutionary Youth Movement-II, prepared to go into opposition within what most people assumed would be a framework of business as usual (minus Progressive Labor) in SDS. All three groups offered leadership to the burgeoning protest movement on American campuses, an offer that was never to be accepted.
The “Weathermen” took their election as a catapult into the unknown. Ignoring the traditional coordinating role of the national office, they forged themselves into a cult of a few hundred seeking to catalyze a revolution by sheer boldness of example. They tried to show their toughness by provoking fights in working-class neighborhoods, whether running through high-school corridors yelling “Jailbreak” or parading National Liberation Front flags on beaches. After a few months they abandoned the SDS national office altogether and became the “Weather Underground.”
The opposition Revolutionary Youth Movement-II faction held together for only a few months before splitting apart into small sub-factions that sought to form classical Leninist parties. The main groups were the Revolutionary Union, later the Revolutionary Communist Party, then and now led by Bob Avakian; and the October League, which became the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) and then dissolved.
The Progressive Labor version of SDS kept the trappings of a national student organization, with officers and conventions, but had nothing relevant to say to the student movement. Their program was to take the “Worker-Student Alliance” one step further and seek an alliance between students and campus workers. It was an arranged marriage sought by neither partner. My own experience with it came one day in Madison when I was given a leaflet by a friend who belonged to the tiny local Worker-Student Alliance Caucus. It announced a rally to support parking benefits for campus workers. According to the leaflet, the rally should have started a half-hour earlier on the very site where we were standing by ourselves talking.
Michael O’Brien, Perry Miller, and the Intellectual Histories of Two Regions (Guest Post by Mitchell Snay)
[Editor’s Note: The following guest post comes to us from Mitchell Snay, who is professor of history at Denison University, where he teaches courses in American history from the colonial period through Reconstruction. He is the author of three books: Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Fenians, Freedmen, and Southern Whites: Race and Nationality in the Era of Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), and Horace Greeley and the Politics of Reform in Nineteenth-Century America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). He is also the co-editor of Religion and the Antebellum Debate over Slavery (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998). This is the fourth and final of a series of guest posts, curated by Sarah Gardner, collectively entitled “Michael O’Brien, Intellectual History, and the History of the American South,” which has been appearing each Friday for the last several weeks. You can read more about the series here. — Ben Alpers]
I have chosen today to honor Michael O’Brien’s contributions to Southern intellectual history by relating his Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life in the Old South, 1810-1860 to Perry Miller’s two-volume study of Puritan thought, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century and The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. I am not the first to suggest this analogy. C. Vann Woodward once told Michael that he was to Southern intellectual history what Miller had been to Puritanism and it is not beneath me to pick up an intellectual crumb left by Mr. Woodward. Even superficially, there are suggestive similarities between these major works. Both are two volumes and both are long: Conjectures of Order comes in at 1202 pages of text while The New England Mind is a shorter but denser 970 pages. As intellectual histories of an American region, they are both magisterial achievements of research and interpretation. (more…)