Marking nearly a decade of gathering diverse scholars in dialogue, program plans for the 2017 Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s annual meeting in Dallas are well underway. (A friendly reminder: There’s still time to send in your proposals, due by 15 April). Given our conference theme of “Histories of Memory, Memories of History,” we hope to bring more librarians, museum professionals, and archivists into the discussion. With that in mind, we’re delighted to announce that we’ll kick off the proceedings on Thursday, Oct. 26th, with an opening plenary session on “Public History and the Future of the Past.” Continue reading
‘Tis the season for wise men and wise women bearing marvelous gifts.
Recently, I received such a gift from such a person: a couple of reams of archival materials spanning about seven years of curricular change at Stanford, from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s.
The first installment of this serendipitous archive came to me in 2015, when I was still working on my dissertation. The most recent installment came earlier this month, when my generous friend discovered another stash of materials in the back of a filing cabinet.
These were the teaching files and curricular committee meeting files of an instructor in the Western Culture program. Through a friend of a friend, s/he had heard that I was working on the “canon wars” at Stanford, and s/he generously offered to send me whatever s/he had still kept from those years. Continue reading
This post originally appeared on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Beehive blog.
The First Lady was lost. Nine miles off the main road, Abigail Adams, 56, hacked her way through the thick woods bordering Baltimore and the “wilderness city” of Washington, D.C. Eager to join husband John in the new capital, Abigail had left Quincy in early November 1800 with two servants. By Saturday the 15th, they had fallen a few days off course. For two hours, a frustrated Abigail circled the same forest paths—a precious gulf of travel time gone, since they only rode in daylight, and local inns were scarce. Abigail (accurately) reckoned that 36 miles of rough and lonely land lay ahead. She forged on, “holding down & breaking bows of trees which we could not pass,” as she told sister Mary Smith Cranch, “untill we met a Solitary black fellow with a horse and cart. We inquired of him our way, and he kindly offered to conduct us.” Abigail hired him on the spot. Following his directions, by Sunday afternoon she reached her new home, “a Castle of a House…in a beautifull Situation” with a “romantic” view of the Potomac River. Continue reading
Guest Post by Ryan Donovan Purcell, Assistant Book Review Editor
I had no expectations when I visited Fales Library at New York University to look at Richard Hell’s papers. The punk rock pioneer deposited his materials there in 2004, and I had since been curious to explore their contents. His journals and notebooks were among the most intruding items listed in the online guide. I suspected they would contain reflections of New York City during the early 1970s, and how urban decay might have influenced his art. That was my hope, not expectation.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of four biweekly guest posts by Sara Georgini. — Ben Alpers
Two men sat down on the June grass in Virginia, 1865, to talk about the war. The younger of the two, Union Army doctor Algernon Coolidge, had nearly declined the trip. Algernon still mourned the death of his twin brother (Philip) Sidney, a promising scientist and Union major lost at Chickamauga two years earlier. After enduring three years of constant combat and dismal hospital work, Algernon—a great-grandson of President Thomas Jefferson—now wondered what sort of welcome he faced in the south. Continue reading
I came across an interesting essay earlier today [h/t this comment on LGM] that uses the recent passing of radio host Casey Kasem to muse about the death of the “rarity.” In the not terribly distant past, author Rex Sorgatz notes, rare pieces of culture, like the infamous tape of Casey Kasem losing his temper in the middle of a long-distance dedication, were valuable commodities that earned their owners a certain amount of cultural capital. Now, Sorgatz argues,
With access to infinite bytes of media, describing a digital object as ‘rare’ sticks out like a lumbering anachronism….
‘Rare’ is such an quizzical descriptor, a blatant contradiction of the very nature of digital culture. Rarity describes a state of scarcity, and as we enter a proto-post-scarcity economy, digital stuff defies such shortages.
Things are no longer rare; they are either popular or unpopular.
Rarity itself has become very rare.
It’s an interesting notion, and Sorgatz provides examples of a variety of once-rare items that, now digitized, are just a Google-search away. He even notes an interesting evolution in the Simpsons character the Comic Book Guy. In the ‘90s when he was introduced, the Comic Book Guy had access to obscure cultural items unavailable to Bart Simpson and the other shows other characters. Today, Sorgatz argues, he’s reduced to insisting on the superiority of his opinion about things that are available to all the characters on the show.
But while there’s a kernel of truth in Sorgatz’s point about the easy availability of lots of cultural artifacts, on the whole I think he’s actually very wrong. And he’s wrong in a way that is of particular interest to historians. Continue reading
by Rosalind Rosenberg
[Editor’s note: this paper was presented by Rosalind Rosenberg, Professor of History at Barnard College, on March 9, 2013, at Rice University’s “Values in History” conference honoring Thomas L. Haskell. We are grateful to Prof. Rosenberg for allowing us to share this paper with our readers. — LDB]
I am currently writing a biography of the black civil rights leader and feminist theoretician, Pauli Murray. A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and mentor to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Murray played a role in the creation of new values in history that has not been fully appreciated. Through her influence on these two famous women she advanced the idea that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment encompasses rights for women. In 1962 Roosevelt invited Murray to serve on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, where Murray first gained an influential audience for this idea. A decade later, Ginsburg placed Murray’s name on her brief for the landmark case Reed v. Reed (1971), the first decision of the Supreme Court to accept Murray’s reasoning.
Murray spent most of her adult life engaged in what Tom Haskell has called “Rights Talk,” so I was particularly pleased to receive Marty Wiener’s invitation to speak today not only to say thank you to Tom for all that he has done for me over the years, but also to think, once again, about how his work helps me to think about my own.
By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
The Thanksgiving week New Yorker featured this article by Nick Paumgarten on the Grateful Dead–“Deadhead: the Afterlife,” aptly under the Annals of Obsession–that would interest any of this blog’s readers who possess a fascination for this band or its cultural moment (either the original moment of supposed authenticity or the attenuated moment of revival, take your pick). Or those who don’t.
Any true aficionados or ersatz Deadheads, of course, should treat themselves. But the essay presents a plethora of details one need hardly be a fan to enjoy. In fact, in two long paragraphs preceding his in-depth discussion of the near-reverence the Dead has occasioned, Paumgarten delivers a wonderful riff that could stand on its own as an impressively succinct critique of the whole scene inspired by people like Garcia; it lends itself beautifully to being quoted out of context as a rather damning indictment of all participants in what was undoubtedly at times a crazy-ugly circus, from performers and audience members to the drugged-up hangers-on who never made it past the parking lot. Here it is and if the shoe, or sandal, fits…
“What’s to hate? Even the fanatic can admit to a few things….
Most objectionable, perhaps, were the Deadheads, that traveling gang of phony vagabonds. As unironic as the Dead may have been, Deadheads were more so….They dispensed bromides about peace and fellowship as they laid waste to parking lots and town squares. Many came by the stereotypes honestly: airheads and druggies, smelling of patchouli and pot, hairy, hypocritical, pious, ingenuous, and uncritical in the extreme. They danced their flappy Snoopy dance and foisted their hissy bootlegs on roommates and friends, clearing dance floors and common rooms. The obnoxious ones came in many varieties: The frat boys in their Teva sandals and tie-dyed T-shirts, rolling their shoulders to the easy lilt of ‘Franklin’s Tower.’ The so-called spinners, dervishes in prairie skirts and bare feet. The earnest acoustic strummers of ‘Uncle John’s Band,’ the school-bus collective known as the Rainbow Family, the gaunt junkies shuffling around their vans like the Sleestaks in ‘Land of the Lost’—they came for the party, more than for the band. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to go in to the show. They bought into the idea, which grew flimsier each year, that following a rock band from football stadium to football stadium, fairground to fairground, constituted adventure of the Kerouac kind.”
But, really, his acknowledgement of the downside of the Dead and their sideshow is probably what kept me reading what Paumgarten presents in terms that are nothing if not hagiographic. (See also his great listing here of his favorite concert recordings, which could match the vocabulary of appreciation of the wine connoisseur with the most subtle of palates.) Even those, like myself, who might love some of the music but be profoundly disturbed by sadly believable secondhand accounts of the larger scene and times, might find the piece of interest. If a hagiography of the Dead might not appeal, perhaps the idea of a kind of hagiography of hagiography will exert a strange pull, as it did for me.
The main focus in Paumgarten’s piece is actually not so much the band and its followers, or even the music, although he has perceptive commentary on each of these, but the way in which the music was recorded and preserved. As such, it is a kind of study not just in the fascination with the Dead but in fascination itself.
Why and how do we become fascinated with particular people, places, things, and events more than others? Once in thrall, what do we do with those moments of encounter that strike us as some of the most intense and genuine, of great meaning and importance.
How do we–and should we–preserve and remember those moments? The answer here–and maybe everywhere–seems to be simple. How, indeed. Through that same obsessive-compulsive eye for detail that explains just about everything we do that actually lasts.
Paumgarten’s article traces with care a partial answer to these questions–when it comes to this particular object of fascination. It’s a story not just of passive reception of moments of performance, or even of active-passive participation, such as it was, but of the active recording of those moments even as they unfolded, of the anticipation of a future, of the creation and overseeing of an archive, of a deliberate and sustained re-experiencing of those moments after the fact.
Paumgarten’s piece takes our eyes off what might have seemed to have been, without question, the main event, and, in the manner of the most interesting writing–of history or perhaps any kind–makes us question what the main event really was and is. He directs our attention to a subset of fans of the music, as set within yet also implicitly of interest outside of its original context, whose fascination runs so deep as to be strangely fascinating in its own right.
“There is a silent minority, though, of otherwise unobjectionable aesthetes who, as ‘Grateful Dead’ has become a historical record, rather than a living creative enterprise, have found themselves rekindling a fascination with the band’s recorded legacy. These are the tapeheads, the geeks, the throngs of workaday Phil Schaaps, who approach the band’s body of work with the intensity and the attention to detail that one might bring to birding, baseball, or the Talmud. They may be brain surgeons, lawyers, bartenders, or even punk-rock musicians. Really, it shouldn’t matter what they do, or what they smell like, or whether they can still take a toke without keeling over. It’s the music, and not the parking lot, that’s got them by the throat.”
Even further, Paumgarten’s portrait fuels meditations on the very activities that define us–as both creatures and creators of the past, whether through our collecting, connoisseurship, research, scholarship, or mere inhabiting or enduring of moments, whether of the original-feeling kind or those seemingly once, twice, or thrice removed but perhaps in fact just as originating–in their own story. In the words that touched me the most, he captures a side of the sensibility of some of these lovers of the music. Rather than inevitability placing the highest value on the most scientifically accurate reproduction of the sounds of the original event, some embrace the imperfections as part of the experience of re-experiencing it. This of course abandons the hubris of a certain kind of attempt at mastery masquerading as earnest fidelity; it humbly accepts the passage of time; it defers, making it clear a recording is not trying to be one and the same as the original. It also appeals to me, perhaps, because our record-keeping no longer privileges the past over the present as the main moment of generation and our sole entry into the fascinating kingdom of authenticity, but allows us to start to live again, fascinated all over again by each new moment, but with the help of the past, which is always a necessary prerequisite anyway, even when we don’t intend for it to be as much as some did in the case of the exquisitely well-preserved legacy of the Grateful Dead.