Sunday, June 1, 2008

Nature's Metropolis


William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: WW Norton, 1991)

Here, Cronon looks at Chicago as both a product of and a shaper of the "first-nature" environment surrounding its metropolitan areas. This is the best possible example of how environmental history could integrate the urban and the rural and downplay the concept of "wilderness," a goal that everyone is always talking about. Cronon shows how Chicago used its position on Lake Michigan to attract railroads, which in turn attracted trade from the "great West"'s hinterlands, which in turn located Chicago as a gateway city: raw goods would enter the city and exit as value-added commodities, with Chicago performing the work of abstracting the commodity from its original context. Chicago was dependent on the strength and financial capital of New York and Philadelphia, which financed the railroads and established Chi-town as the broker of Midwestern ecological capital.

Commodities that Cronon looks at include wheat, lumber, and meat. In each case, Cronon argues, manufacturers in Chicago figured out how to use economies of scale to aggregate these goods into mass quantities and to abstract their value from their physical presence. This last happening worked especially well with wheat, which created the modern concept of the "exchange," at which people traded wheat without ever even seeing the wheat in question. (Here is where I figured out what a "futures market" is - it's more fascinating than one could ever imagine.)

Cronon writes that Chicago's effect upon the rural sites which came within its orbit was both positive for people's lives (easier selling of their goods; better access to cheaper things) and negative (they were at the mercy of distant forces for their livelihood; if they were merchants, they were undercut by cheaper Chicago prices). Cronon shows how certain small-potatoes merchants and farmers resisted the pressure of the giant Chicago firms through associations (sometimes more effective, other times less).

I've been waiting to read this one for a long time, and it was definitely un-disappointing. Cronon's ability to be both a good storyteller and a "man of infinite research" (as TR said about Henry Adams) is a thing to envy. His inclusion of financial records, technological analysis, and cultural productions (novels, esp. in the World's Fair chapter) makes this book a model of enviable American Studies practice.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cultures of United States Imperialism


Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, eds. Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham: Duke UP, 1993).

This (654-page) anthology of essays aims to integrate the study of foreign relations and the study of American culture, breaking down boundaries between internal and external imperialisms and generally rejecting the idea that America is special because it hasn't had an empire (except for those little island states taken over at the end of the 19th century). Authors look at the ways in which America's project has been a fundamentally imperial one since the beginning.

Some of the noteworthy essays that I may need to refer to later:
-Donna Haraway's "Teddy Bear Patriarchy," on the fear of degeneration and white male anxiety in the founding of the AMNH (this essay originally appeared in Social Text and also appears in Primate Visions)
-Bill Brown's "Science Fiction, the World's Fair, and the Prosthetics of Empire, 1910-1915," is fantastic - analyzes the ways that scifi from this period merges man's perfect body and the extensions of his machines to imagine the technological manipulation of distant "prosthetic" places (as exemplified by the Panama Canal - which is the gap which Hercules creates in the body of the earth, in the image appearing on the cover of the book). Brown contrasts this emphasis on the perfect body with the previous century's scifi, and scifi from Europe, which sees science as a way to recuperate lost bodies or make up for deficiencies. Brown is at Chicago and co-edits Critical Inquiry - he also has written on "Thing Theory," which Janet had referred me to earlier this year and which integrates the analysis of the movements of material objects into an analysis of lit
-Vincente Rafael's "White Love: Surveillance and Nationalist Resistance in the US Colonization of the Philippines" contrasts the United States census, which was used as an "educational" tool by American colonizers intent on "lifting" certain Filipinos above others, and which fixed categories of race and gender, with Filipino street theatre which celebrated indigenous gender categories and created a Filipino identity
-Amy Kaplan's "Black and Blue on San Juan Hill" describes the controversy over TR's description of the supposed "cowardice" of the black soldiers during the Rough Riders' surge over San Juan Hill - Kaplan writes that the black community resisted this categorization, and that the way that TR focused on this cowardice, and the supposed disorganization of the Cuban resisters who assisted the United States, shows that race, and the organization of categories, was the most visible "happening" in the middle of a confusing battlefield. This episode also shows how TR lumped Cubans and American blacks together - they are seen as usable, when commanded by a white man, but not effective soldiers if working by themselves.
-In "Anti-Imperial Americanism," Walter Benn Michaels (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago, writes on race, literature and national identity) describes how pro-KKK southern writers saw themselves as "colonized" by Reconstruction.
-In "The Patriot System, or Managerial Heroism," Susan Jeffords talks about the Gulf War (which took up an inordinate amount of space in this book - see pub date, 1993) - she writes that Americans justify the war by describing themselves as the most competent of techno-managers - it's interesting to think about how different this thesis would look if applied to the current Iraq War...

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Bulldozer in the Countryside


Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge UP, 2001)

I can't decide if I love it or hate it when a book tells me all of its major arguments in the introduction, summarized in bullet-pointed numbers and even bolded for my convenience. Part of me thinks that this is a sign that I should forsake trying to read this whole book and simply read the intro. But then the other part of me thinks "If I stick to the intro, maybe I will miss something really cool..." Like, for example, the chapter on septic tanks in this book.

Rome argues that environmentalism really took shape around the time of the development of the postwar suburbs (194os-1970s). Contrary to earlier interpretations, Rome says that gov't agencies (such as Fish and Game) had a much bigger hand in conservation efforts than previously thought; that scientists and policymakers acted for conservation even before the publication of Silent Spring (1962) and that common perceptions that citizen action formed the basis of environmentalism are erroneous; and that consumerism, in this case epitomized by the purchase of homes, works counter to environmentalism. Comfort-seekers of the post-war era, many of whom were working-class and were being offered the opportunity to own a house for the first time in their lives, were not apt to mind when developers cut corners with environmental protections.

Rome looks at the septic tank (which was intended to facilitate development of areas distant from the city center) as an exemplar of the way that developers tended to push the limits of the topography where they operated, and that home-owners did not look too closely at the specifics of their new homes (until the tanks failed and it was too late). The anti-detergents outrage, which took hold after some homeowners in Long Island and New Jersey found suds in their tap water, was another crusade that, Rome argues, came about only because of inconveniences to homeowners - not because of fearfulness about damaged ecosystems. The chapter on the fight to preserve open space was also interesting, because of its inclusion of homeowner activists.

Rome
teaches at Penn State, and writes that he is working on a book about Earth Day and another about environmentalism of the Progressive Era. I hope he comes out with the latter before I write my dissertation, so that I may read it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Natural Visions


Finis Dunaway, Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Dunaway's book looks at imagery of environmentalism in the twentieth century, examining how photographers and filmmakers participated in and were funded by organizations both governmental and non-governmental whose mandate was to foster environmental awareness. Dunaway moves from looking at a Progressive-era photographer, Herbert Gleason, who created romantic-sublime imagery of the West; to the New Deal-era documentaries of Robert Flaherty, who lamented the death of the farm family, and Pare Lorentz (whose "The Plow That Broke The Plains" provides this image of a baby with the implement in question, which Dunaway argues exemplifies Lorentz' belief that the early pioneers were like prodigal children who wrecked the land without thinking); to the Sierra Club coffee-table books by the likes of Eliot Porter, which were the brainchildren of David Brower, whose vision of a nature outside of technology and humanity directly contradicted the New Deal technophilic imagination.

Throughout, Dunaway argues that environmental reformers who used art in their appeals passed over Benjamin's anxieties about the efficacy of the mechanically reproduced work of art, choosing instead to believe that their art could create a new "ecological sublime" (shades of David Nye) which would "rejoin beauty and sublimity, turn the ordinary into the astonishing, find awe in the diminutive, seek wonder in the everyday" (212).

But my question is: does it work? Do people change their minds after seeing pictures of bugs or cows? Nye's argument was that the technological sublime operates in part by bringing people together to witness something that exemplified human progress. How could the ecological sublime take advantage of this same dynamic? Nye also argues that the technological sublime always trumps the ecological sublime - at least, the "bigger" ecological sublime, of Adams' Yosemite and the like.

Dunaway is a professor of history at Trent University in Ontario. I know he has an article in the recent American Quarterly about use of imagery in seventies environmentalism.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Through Other Continents


Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)

This book is a call to think outside the limits of American literary study (and study of other literatures as well). Dimock calls for interpreting American culture as an extreme holism incorporating human experiences reaching back into "deep time" and across the globe, a paradigm she sees as best illustrated by the spread of religion and languages. (She also uses Deleuze/Guattari's rhizome idea to illustrate this.)

Articulating an understanding of humans as fundamentally connected through the experience of embodiment, she then goes on to destabilize any number of other supposed "connections" which create the categories by which we define our academic studies. "Eras," she argues, should be seen as more plastic; even death should not curtail our inclusion or exclusion of particular people in categories of inquiry (this is a post-human moment). Dimock argues that the nineteenth century, with its expanding scientific knowledge, created opportunities for some people to see themselves as part of a "species" instead of as nations.

An example of a person in the nineteenth century American scene whose thought must be seen as transcending these boundaries is Thoreau, whose interest in the Bhagavad Gita Dimock sees as a "translation" across time. (John Brown, she argues, is also translated "across death" by his actions and by Thoreau's writings.) The acts of reading, writing, and translation are all radical acts, she argues, which challenge the primacy of time and allow us to hear the dead and reaffirm connections between ourselves and those who live far from us. Ezra Pound and fascism; Henry James in Italy; Robert Lowell and Vietnam all show up in different chapters. Her final chapter, on Gary Snyder and Native American and Japanese thought about tricksters (liminal animal/human figures), animals and ecology, reaffirms her conclusion that embodiment points the way to connection and empathy.

Dimock
is in the English and American Studies departments at Yale. She recently co-edited a book on transnationalism and literary studies, Shades of the Planet, with Lawrence Buell; has written a book on Melville and individualism; and co-edited, with Priscilla Wald, a special issue of American Literature which I should read: Literature and Science: Cultural Forms, Conceptual Exchanges (Duke UP, 2002).

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Crimes Against Nature


Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, and Thieves and the Hidden History of American Conservation (University of California Press, 2001)

Jacoby, who now teaches at Brown (and who got his PhD from Yale's history program), is working on a second book about cultural remembrance of violence against Native Americans since frontier times. He describes himself as interested in how "human and non-human actors" create history in mutuality.

Teddy Roosevelt's picture is here as a reminder of the way that famous conservationists get all the credit for early 20th-c conservationism, while, as Jacoby claims, we forget to mention all of the people whose lives were altered for the worse by this new understanding of who should be in charge of the land. Jacoby describes conflicts between more elite conservationists and different brands of environmental transgressors, suddenly categorized as abusers by the new environmental order: hunters who persist in ranging over the Adirondack reserves of the wealthy New York set; poachers who kill Yellowstone bison (the Army was actually sent out to stop them!); and Havasupai Indians in the Southwest who continue to hunt in the new national forests which are established on the peripheries of their new, land-poor reservations.

Throughout, Jacoby contends with Roderick Nash's assessment that wilderness "appreciation" appeared first in the Eastern elite (2) and tries to reach an understanding of what he calls the "moral ecology" of the working-class residents of newly conserved lands.

Friday, May 16, 2008

American Technological Sublime


David Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994)

Nye teaches at the University of Southern Denmark, and has written several other books on technology and modernity in the US, including Electrifying America (on my list) and Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. I'm not sure if he was trained in American Studies, but he apparently got his degree from Minnesota, so it seems likely. Regardless, this book could easily be used to answer the question "What does an ideal American Studies book look like?"

This book approaches its subject not through some artificially delineated rubric defined by race, age, gender, or time ("Italian immigrants in the cities, 1881-1911"). Nye picks an idea - that there is a particularly American form of expression/social interaction, called the "technological sublime" - and then picks a bunch of examples throughout American history in order to develop this idea. He effectively, then, creates a new rubric or a new category. And he uses the breadth of methodological sources that I would want from an American Studies book - responses from observers both "high" and "low"; examples from public entertainment settings (such as from expositions) and from cityscapes and defense departments (this shows how "technological sublime" is produced and managed by various agencies, with a larger or smaller degree of intent); the inclusion of fiction. I do think he could have had more in here about film, though.

Nye traces how the sublime, originally a concept articulated by Burke and Kant in order to describe a response to a natural object of great magnitude or impressiveness, shifted its boundaries in America to encompass the technological. On the way, Nye argues, the experience of facing the sublime shifted from an individual to a crowd context; from being provoked by nature to being provoked by machinery; and from an experience of "substance" into an electric image (277). His examples of various varieties of "technological sublime" include the electric sublime (see: lighting displays at World's Fairs); the industrial sublime (the curving, uniform lines of the factory walls at Manchester, NH's Amoskeag Mills - "complexity and order on a massive scale" [113]); the geometric sublime (skyscrapers and dams) and the dynamic sublime (the railroads).

His penultimate chapter, which describes the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, shows how the technological sublime as practiced in these public contexts participates in a utopianism that promises not a difference in social interactions but a difference in the kind of "stuff" that we own. These sort of un-radical (or even repressive) historical precedents for the technological sublime of television can be found way earlier, however, in the "industrial sublime," which subsumed images of workers below images of machinery, beginning in the late nineteenth century, and in the "geometric sublime," embodied by skyscrapers that shut out and alienated the street-level public while impressing a generalized "public" with their mass.

There is interesting thought in here too about the interplay between nature and technology - Nye claims that if a naturally sublime site faces down a technologically sublime possibility, as in the case of dam construction, the naturally sublime will always lose to the potential of construction, because while the natural sublime speaks of limits, the technological sublime speaks of "the idea of reason in constant evolution" (60).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Daughters of Suburbia


Lorraine Kenny, Daughters of Suburbia: Growing Up White, Middle Class, and Female (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2000)

This "autoethnography" has Kenny returning to her Long Island hometown (Shoreham-Waring River) to follow eighth-grade girls around for a year. It is not a book about "self-esteem" or any other Reviving Ophelia-style trope, thank God - it's about how whiteness and middle-class-ness articulate themselves in the form of absence. Kenny intersperses chapters about the kids at SWR Middle School with chapters about famous cases of media attention to white girls from LI - Amy Fisher, Cheryl Pierson (who hired a friend to kill her abusive dad), and Emily Heinrichs (a former white supremacist and teenage mother whose chapter was perhaps the most interesting, as her story was represented so many different ways in the media).

The most interesting sections of this book for me were the ones on narrative and on "multiculturalism" in an all-white school. The chapter on stories that teenage girls tell about and to each other resonated with me very much (as did many of the things that Kenny discusses here). Kenny writes that girls are so obsessed with story because they lead such "normal" or "boring" (aka, non-racialized) lives. "Girls' wild stories make being normal possible," she writes (101).

The chapter on "multiculturalism" and its failures in an all-white context shows how the silences surrounding the real stakes of racial difference create situations in which white kids don't recognize their own privilege - and how these silences are created by the adults around them. Kenny describes how the kids from this school did an exchange with the kids from a blacker adjacent school, and how the real differences between the pedagogical styles, social systems, and infrastructure between the two schools, which could have been a fertile topic of discussion, were instead left to the kids to parse themselves (or not, as the case may be). Adult failures to explicate how being white is actually a subject position leave kids without a leg to stand on when it comes to discussing race.

Kenny is apparently now working for the ACLU, for their Reproductive Freedom project, though I couldn't find any more information on her online.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Do Glaciers Listen?


Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005)

Cruikshank, a professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia, specializes in the ways in which different types of knowledge - scientific, "folk," native - struggle to establish themselves as legitimate; and works in the Yukon and also sometimes in Siberia.

This book is about the way that native Alaskans (Tlingit and Huna in the St. Elias Mountains area) look/ed at glaciers, and the difference between their conception of glacier "consciousness" and the scientific bent of Western explorers with whom they have come into contact. Following Harold Innis' ideas about the way that empire establishes itself by eliminating alternative forms of communication and knowledge; Bahktin's belief that storytelling and folk humor can equal resistance; and Benjamin's understanding of the tragedy of the loss of interactive storytelling, Cruikshank looks at stories told by Tlingit and Huna elders about the place of social glaciers in their cultural history, and compares these stories to white/"scientific" conceptions of the glacier as natural fact.

Glaciers, to the Yukon women Cruikshank interviews, are social beings, sensitive to being excluded or made fun of, and obedient to laws of their own (for example, they hate it when you cook with grease nearby them; glacier travel requires boiled food only). There is a reciprocal relationship between men and glaciers - a relationship not recognized by white men, or at least not by most white men - John Muir is cited as an example of an American who approaches sensitivity when it comes to interactions with the natural world, although his insensitivity to the native people who guided him through that world troubles that approbation a bit.

In a weird coincidence, a couple of days after reading this book I read this article in the New Yorker about a composer who makes music according to the rhythms of various instruments which measure activity of the earth. It would be interesting to know what the Native Alaskans might think about this...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bananas, Beaches, and Bases

Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

Enloe, a political scientist at Clark and author of multiple other books about women, empire, and labor, sets out to prove basically that women exist in the arena of international politics. This is one of those ideas that seems obvious to an American Studies eye - of course there are women at every turn; of course gendered assumptions allow constructions such as military bases and light industry factories and tourism to exist - but may be transgressive when considered in light of assumptions about how diplomacy works.

Considering such figures and sites as Carmen Miranda, diplomatic wives, prostitutes who service military bases, and women who work in garment industries, Enloe tries to show that modernization "relies on women's contentment with traditional roles" - as auxiliaries, sex objects, or consumers. (In other words, "not only is the personal political, but the international is personal.") Enloe also shows instances of resistance to this general trend, as when diplomatic wives campaigned in the 1970s to be granted the status of "private persons" (rather than auxiliaries to their husbands' work), or when Philippine leaders asked that American soldiers be required to be tested for venereal diseases, as the prostitutes around military bases had to be, or when Mexican garment workers protested after the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, after which company indifference killed many of their co-workers.

In The American Political Science Review, Anne Sisson Runyan liked the book, though wished that Enloe had been more specific in describing exactly how international politics becomes "masculinized" (and men render concepts such as risk, security, and nationalism wholly masculine). In The Women's Review of Books, Anne McClintock (she of Imperial Leather, which I haven't read) loved the book; she especially liked how Enloe focused on the gap between women of privilege and women with no social capital, and how the first group is sometimes complicit in the oppression of the second.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Technological Utopianism in American Culture


Howard Segal, Technological Utopianism in American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985)

This book promised to tell me about twenty-five different utopian thinkers in the years 1880-1940ish, all of whom counted on technology to carry out many of their utopian objectives. However, frustratingly, there was only one chapter on the actual plots of the utopias themselves. Segal seemed to dismiss his own sources, calling them stilted and sometimes formulaic, and chose to concentrate instead on the social circumstances surrounding the writing of these utopic texts. That was a bit annoying, considering that there were some really awesome-looking images in that chapter, particularly of the plans for King Camp Gillette's city in The Human Drift (1894) - a book which I think I should check out.

Segal argues that these twenty-five authors turned to writing about technological utopia, rather than creating actual utopian communities (like the Brook Farms and Fourierian phalansteries of the earlier part of the century) because society had grown to be more complex and bureaucratic, and it was harder and harder to imagine change on a community level. In the absence of this, these writers turned to technology on two counts: the technology of writing/imagination; and the technology of social control. Like the efficiency experts I covered in my review essay about Haber, Jordan, et. al, these writers saw administration as the saving technology which would eliminate emotions from politics and leave society running rationally.

These writers favored "megalopoli", as opposed to small towns, as ideal imagined communities. (See picture of Gillette's planned apartment building in his city, "Megalopolis," described in The Human Drift.)

Elements of the technological utopia which Segal argues have actually come to pass include the interpenetration of work and leisure; the elimination of popular political thought (partially as the result of the former); the death of play; the bureaucratization of art; and conformism in personality.

On page 95, Segal criticizes Leo Marx for saying that Americans stopped searching for the middle landscape after the Civil War - says instead that urban, suburban, and regional "middle landscapes" continued to be seen as ideal - ex. Frederick Law Olmsted's parks.

Segal teaches at the University of Maine, and has written on Henry Ford's village industries and a book called Future Imperfect: The Mixed Blessings of Technology in America.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Engines of Change

Engine and boiler from John Stevens' Little Juliana steamboat, 1804. Hindle and Lubar use steamboatery as an example of how inventions were often co-developed by several different independent people, who then competed to claim credit.

Title: Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790-1860 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986)

Authors: Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar. Hindle, who died in 2001, was apparently a guiding light of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), and an early adopter of the method of studying science, technology, and material culture in historical context. His first books included The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America (1956) and David Rittenhouse (1964), but apparently his most famous book is Emulation and Invention (1981), which was particularly focused on describing early American inventions in verbal terms for a verbally-oriented audience (that would be us, historians). Hindle worked at NYU and the Smithsonian, which published this exhibit companion volume. Lubar, Hindle's co-author, is a professor at Brown in the Department of American Civilization, with interests in material culture, museums, public culture, and the history of technology. Some other interesting books he's written or edited: History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, ed. with W. David Kingery (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993); InfoCulture: The Smithsonian Book of Information Age Inventions (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993). Here's his blog about museums.

The painting "Men of Progress," 1863, by Christian Schussele, depicted famous inventors, with Samuel Morse at the center and Benjamin Franklin looking on benevolently from above.

My Review: Hindle and Lubar describe the history of early American invention as being powered by three factors: an abundance of natural resources (wood, iron); an abundance of labor (including slaves); and a cultural climate which favored invention. The "special American conditions," in this story, meant that fewer people rejected or protested against technological advancement, because more people were flexible non-specialists who participated in many different types of production; also, people could see how technology would widen economic gaps, because of the example provided by the European Industrial Revolution, and were able to adjust their speed of technological development to ameliorate its social effects.

Chapters include interesting ones on machine shops, communitarian experiments (the Shakers, New Harmony), and the rise of railroading. There are many good pictures, as you might expect from a book which came from a museum exhibit.

I found the book to be overly invested in a story of American exceptionalism that celebrated the inventiveness of classes of men such as machinists and inventors, without examining the later results of this technological development or questioning the rightness of all of this invention—there's a definite feeling of positivist progressivism about the narrative.

Reviews of Others: In the Journal of American History, John Staudenmeier lauded the exhibit and the book for having respect for technological achievements of the past, rather than making fun of bygoners' missteps (is that really so endemic an attitude?) But he says that extending the exhibit's scope beyond the 1860s would bring some of the more negative consequences of technological development to light, a move which he says the exhibit attempts to make, but is often thwarted by the sheer impressiveness (or "sensuality") of the machinery. In the Winterthur Portfolio, John Skemer wrote that the book avoided the "one-man, one-invention" schema of history, but criticized it for portraying the America of this time period as focused exclusively on technological advancement, citing works which have found that there were other, more flexible, cottage-type modes of production co-existing with this Whiggish drive for industrial advancement.

The Hall rifle, invented by John Hall, was the first American rifle with fully interchangeable parts. The government ordered 1,000 of them in 1819 and it took Hall four years to complete the order. Things got a lot better in the mass-produced gun business later on. Hindle and Lubar hold that the invention of fully interchangeable parts was one of the most significant American contributions to the world economy in the nineteenth century.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Disciplines of Virtue



Title: Disciplines of Virtue: Girls' Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)

Author: Lynn Vallone, professor of English at Texas A&M. Her most recent book is Becoming Victoria (2001), about Queen Victoria's childhood in cultural context. Vallone was also an editor for the Norton Anthology of Children's Literature (2005).

My review: This collection of previously published essays moves from England to America and roughly chronologically, delineating how books, both novels and "conduct books," instructed female children in the arts of self-discipline and virtue. Vallone visits discourses around reclaimed prostitutes, Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), dowries, humor, and dirt. Her ultimate idea: the concept of "virtue" is used to signal to girls and young women that they can add value to themselves through their efforts to be good. If they self-negate enough, eventually they might be seen as virtuous enough that they could marry "up" in class, as Pamela does. Side casualties of this ideology are tomboys (liminal figures) and humor: "the ultimate lesson is that girlhood is not funny" (132).

(Ironically, Vallone writes, one of the ways of self-negating or being "good" in eighteenth-century England is by helping reform penitent prostitutes. Thus, through the act of helping, the "good" female accrues sexual value, while the prostitute is scrubbed of her one-time value and left in position of being suitable only for domestic service.)

Finally, Vallone points out, usefully, that in girls' fiction, as opposed to boys', the danger comes from within, not from the world.

The reviews of others: In American Literature, Barbara Ryan wrote that the choice of texts reads oddly to Americanists (yes) and wishes that Vallone had juxtaposed her textual readings with understandings of how girls read the books (as opposed to aligning them with general cultural practices). In the American Historical Review, Lori D. Ginzburg agreed that Vallone's work would have done well to pay better attention to the books' audiences, and added that she wished Vallone had paid more attention to the lives of the women, not dealt with in the book, who remain tomboys or never marry (and some of whom become authors of children's books).

Words: "abecedarian" ("a person who is learning the words of the alphabet, or a beginning learner of any kind"); "eudemonism" ("the doctrine that the basis of moral obligations is to be found in the tendency of right actions to produce happiness"); "soteriological" ("the theological doctrine of salvation as effected by Jesus").

Leads: Secondary: Anne Scott MacLeod, A Moral Tale: Children's Fiction and American Culture (1975); Elliot West and Paula Petrik, Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850-1950 (1992)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Word in Black and White


Title: The Word in Black and White: Reading "Race" in American Literature 1638-1867 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

Author: Dana D. Nelson, professor of English at Vanderbilt. Her other book is National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men (Duke University Press, 1998). Looks like she's working on a project about the history of alternative ideas of democracy.

My review: I'm going to have to get over my distaste for the use of quotation marks around words like "race" or "black" or "white", and the capitalization of the word "Other", and a host of other early-90s-race-lit-crit things which just distract and annoy me. This book is about the "ingraining" of categories of race through literature, in the pre-Civil War US. Basic philosophy: "to write is to know is to dominate" (see Lepore). The authors discussed include Edgar Allen Poe (for the awesome Arthur Gordon Pym book), Cotton Mather, Fenimore Cooper, Sedgwick, and Lydia Maria Child, the last being the only author Nelson describes as fulfilling the ultimate liberal white authorial mission of both disdaining racism and proposing alternative modes of racial interaction. Other authors, including Melville, whose "Benito Cereno" comes under Nelson's scrutiny, manage to criticize white slave-owning but don't move beyond into prescriptiveness.

Nelson borrows ideas from Richard Slotkin, Annette Kolodny, Richard Drinnon, Mary Louise Pratt, Karen Halttunen, and Abdul JanMohammed.


Books: Secondary: Nancy Stepan, Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800-1960 (1982)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

American Civilization


Title: American Civilization (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993; but written in 1950)

Author: Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989), Marxist scholar from Trinidad. Through his life, which was lived in T&T, London, and America, CLR James engaged with various strands of Marxism (while he repudiated Stalinism). He was integral to the anti-colonial movement, and wrote on such subjects as A History of Negro Revolt (1938) and The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Rebellion (1938). He also wrote on dialectics, Melville, and cricket. Throughout his writing, he engaged with the theme that constitutes most of American Civilization's concerns: how should the individual human live within a system that continually seeks to dehumanize?

My review: Throughout this book, James sets up a series of dichotomies between civilization and barbarism (which he sees as regimes which, like Stalinism, decline to develop the potential of individuals); people and monopolies; freedom and slavery; and democracy and oligarchy. He never uses the word "Marxism," perhaps partially because he's trying to write this book to convince authorities to let him stay in the US even though his visa has expired, but partially perhaps because he's invested in the idea of finding a way forward that's not constrained by a particular ideology?

The history of America, he says, is the history of individualism: first, from 1776 through the middle of the nineteenth c, an individualism that finds expression; then, from the middle of the nineteenth c onward, an individualism that either gets perverted into monomania (as in Melville's Ahab, a character James sees as prescient) or gets subverted by the capitalist system. People in America, James thinks, are unhappy, and have been unhappy ever since the mid-nineteenth c, because secretly deep-down they recognize that the ideals of individualism and happiness have been hopelessly submerged by the realities of capitalism.

James says that America's lack of truly significant cultural production is due to these conditions. The writers of the American Renaissance mostly failed at expressing this thought, because they were the first to try to express the question of the relationship of the totally free individual to his/her society. This left them with exhilarating possibilities but a sense of formlessness (see Whitman). The mass culture of the forties and fifties is an example, for James, of the degree to which the mind of the masses has become sad and upset at the state of things - if the mass culture is an expression of the mind of the people, as James says it is, then the movies of the forties and fifties betray a deep fear at the state of society.

The connection between this mass culture and the state of mind of the American "negro" (as he says) is that the realization that society is not what it says that it is is a quintessentially American one - the frustration of the black American at the continual failure of white America to live up to its rhetoric. Similarly, American women are in despair because they are now responsible for creating, out of the home, the one site where society lives up to its promise.

James calls for the abolition of what he sees as the bankrupt intelligentsia, the training of workers in both technical and intellectual realms, and factory ownership by workers. Only by advancing this collective well-being, he argues, can the individual be truly well.

(A quote from James on the status of the intelligentsia, as epitomized by the scientist: "The most miserable of all are the scientists. They are slaves if ever there were any, mutinous and rebellious sometimes in words, but slaves. They make atomic discoveries and bombs and then go home and cry. When Germany was defeated, the contending powers each captured where he could, some of the most highly developed and trained scientists, the most highly developed and trained minds the world has ever known, and put them to work in Moscow or Washington. They work, do as they are told, find what they are told to find, like any laborer at a dollar an hour. And in free America, if any one of them dared to defy the authorities and declare he would have nothing to do with a bomb which would kill a quarter of a million people, the whole machinery of politics and propaganda would set to roll and leave him utterly crushed. He would probably find it impossible to continue scientific work at all. And yet, the real dilemma is in his own mind, he does not know whether he ought to or not. The Journal of the Atomic Scientists is one of the most pathetic publications in the world." [262])

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Errand into the Wilderness


Title: Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956)

Author: Perry Miller (1905-1963), longtime professor of history at Harvard and one of the American Studies founding fathers. Taught Edmund Morgan and Bernard Bailyn, as well as Walter J. Ong (the Wikipedia entry features a suspiciously large amount of information on the Ong connection...I think some of the Ong people must have gotten in there and fixed it up). Miller wrote mostly on the Puritan mind early in his career (Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630-1650, 1933; The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, 1939; Jonathan Edwards, 1949; The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, 1953), and Errand comes at the end of this Puritan phase. After this, Miller moves to writing about the Transcendentalists, which he sort of starts doing at the end of Errand with his musings on the possible relationship between Jonathan Edwards and Emerson. His final books were on the "life of the mind" (so Cartesian) and "the legal mind" in America, before the Civil War.

My review: This collection of Miller essays has a much more sparkling, attractive writing style than you would think when reading the words "analysis of Puritan thought." Miller describes, at the beginning, how he came to decide that analysis of Puritan thought would be his life's work. He was at the mouth of the Congo River as a young man, watching ships loading case oil (what's that? oh, it's just oil shipped a particular, now-outmoded way) onto other ships destined for the interior. Realizing the craziness of the fact that this oil was coming from the "inexhaustible wilderness of America" and being inserted into another such wilderness, he epiphanized that the impetus behind America was worth study. (He kind of compares himself to Edward Gibbon, who had the epiphany that resulted in writing Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while sitting in ruins, but calls himself "minute" in comparison.)

What major ideas does this collection cover? Puritans were driven by a vision of becoming a "city on a hill," and this drive led them to conceptualize the wilderness as their theater on which to show the rest of the world the efficacy of right Puritan gov't. When the events in England in 1649 (Charles I beheaded; governance passes to Parliament and religious crackdowns become less prevalent) meant that eyes turned away from America to the events in the home country, Miller believes that the Puritans were thrown into a state of confusion about their mission. The synod of 1679 examined the questions that this era of Puritans perceived that they faced, including rampant adulterous sex, heresy, drinking, pride in wealth, and the decline of morality in business dealings (welcome to America!) Miller also explores the significance of the covenant in "The Marrow of Puritan Divinity" (covenant being a way to combine Puritan religious thought with a sort of social contract ensuring good behavior); looks at Thomas Hooker and combats ideas that the founder of Connecticut was a democratic ruler; describes the early society of Virginia as possessing far more religious feeling, at least initially, than is typically thought; describes Jonathan Edwards as a thinker who defied the commercial turn of his merchant-oriented society in order to bring more people into the church; and connects Edwards and Emerson in a speculative essay linked by the concept of closer personal access to some sort of "divinity."

The reviews of others: The book was widely reviewed in a number of disparate places when it came out. I know that later on, Miller's work was discredited within American Studies for being too intellectually oriented, focused on too narrow a sample of people, etc. In the New England Quarterly, H. Shelton Smith pointed out that although many people before PM thought that "the New England mind" had been explored to the point of exhaustion, PM brought a fresh newness to the topic. Smith pays homage to Miller and then proceeds to completely disagree with Miller's idea, expressed in the titular essay, that the Puritans expected to one day return to England and govern there (after proving themselves with the City on a Hill). Smith writes that colonial historians took Miller's 1935 essay"The Marrow of Puritan Divinity" too far, to the point of positing that the Puritans weren't actually Calvinists, because of their belief in the covenant. Smith writes that although some of the conclusions others drew from the essay could actually be found in the text, he welcomes any writing which shows how complex seventeenth-c Calvinism was. Smith also admires Miller's prose, calling it "enviably lucid" (it was). Just for fun, I looked at another review that was in Modern Language Notes, penned by Herbert W. Schneider. Schneider liked most of what he saw in the collection, but thought that Miller characterized Emerson as overly connected to the American scene - Schneider thought Emerson's mind ranged far further afield than that.

Words: tergiversate (to change one's mind repeatedly, to equivocate)

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Rites of Assent


Title: The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America (New York: Routledge, 1993)

Author: Sacvan Bercovitch, who admits in the preface that he was actually named after Sacco and Vanzetti! So awesome! Although the executed anarchists get no further mention in the book, the theme of dissent, coupled with the general awesomeness of the name, mean that they get pride of place in this entry. Bercovitch retired from teaching at Harvard U. in 2001, after a career including stints at Brandeis, UCSD, Princeton, and Columbia. Before and after retiring, he's won any number of Lifetime Achievement Awards, including the Bode-Pearson Prize for Lifetime Achievement in American Studies. Books mostly revolve around Puritanism and its place in the cultural imaginary: The Puritan Origins of the American Self, 1975; The American Jeremiad, 1978; The Office of The Scarlet Letter, 1991.

My review: This book is actually a collection of essays, published 1972-1991. The overarching story here is the way in which American official ideology establishes consensus, and has done so ever since the days of the Puritans.

The series of essays moves in chronological order. Bercovitch believes that after the Puritans, any belief in America also had to incorporate a belief in expansion and mission. The major contributions of the Puritans to the official American mindset, he writes, are "the preposition 'into'" (aka, the idea of progress), conceptual vagueness as to the nature of the community covenant, and the justification of imperialism on the continent (related to the first). Jonathan Edwards took the concepts of the Puritans and expanded them to a broader audience, modernizing and commercializing the message.

Meanwhile, after the Revolution, any concept of "dissent" or "rebellion" from this official ideology was also official-ized, meaning that revolution was state policy. Therefore, any threat of more "deep" or threatening revolutions, such as those perpetrated in France, could be submerged in the official fiction of omnipresent "American revolution." Thus, the individual and the nation emerge aligned.

Bercovitch sees this absorption of dissent as an immensely effective alternative for nation-building. He uses Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) as an example of how this plays out, literarily speaking: Hester eventually capitulates to the voice of the community and replaces her letter after casting it away. She's unable to find happiness outside the community, even if that would have meant freedom, and eventually returns. Bercovitch finds the ambiguity of Letter to be, in and of itself, somewhat smothering - if you can choose any meaning you want from the book, "its ambiguity is a function of prescriptiveness" (211) - the reader never ends up choosing, and therefore never ends up rebelling. Thus, American freedom of choice smothers all who would oppose. (Reminds me a bit of the Thomas Frank, Conquest of Cool, thesis - or perhaps it's vice versa.)

Reviews of others: In American Literature, Kenneth Price wished that Bercovitch had engaged with his critics while putting together this book, and pointed out that Bercovitch's idea of American ideological hegemony aligns itself too much with concepts of American exceptionalism. Price also writes that perhaps Bercovitch doesn't find an oppositional tradition within American thought because he's only looking at New Englanders - what about Rudolfo Anaya, or Harriet Jacobs, even Edith Wharton? Interesting. In the Journal of American History, James Hoopes wrote that Bercovitch's argument is a "greased pig" - if there's no such thing as radical dissent or even analysis that can step outside of the American tradition, then how could Bercovitch himself be analyzing? Hoopes doesn't buy the argument that SB's Canadian, Jewish, radical roots could give him enough of an oppositional positionality to make the switch happen.

Words: "chiliastic" ("of, pertaining to, or holding the doctrine of the millennium"); "apodictic" ("of clear demonstration; established on incontrovertible evidence").

Books to follow up on: Primary: Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826); J. Fenimore Cooper, The Crater; Or, Vulcan's Peak (A Tale of the Pacific) (1847).

Monday, January 28, 2008

Whither American Studies?


Or should it be "Whence American Studies"? A special group post about seven essays navelgazing the field, spread over several decades. Listed here chronologically, for reasons which shall become clear.

Susman, Warren. “History and the American Intellectual: Uses of a Usable Past.” American Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2, Part 2: Supplement. (Summer, 1964), pp. 243-263.

Warren Susman died in 1985 when he was only 56, of a heart attack, while commenting on a paper at a conference. Yike! At the time of his death, he was teaching at Rutgers. His essays were collected that year in Culture as History, which I will be reading but haven't yet. Other books include one called Herbert Hoover and the Crisis of American Capitalism and one called Culture and Commitment, 1929-1945, both paperbacked in 1973.

This essay puts forth a chronology of the ways in which historians have used mythic and ideological characterizations of the past, creating stories or narratives in order to justify future actions. (See Bercovitch on this, too.) Susman points particularly to Turner's frontier thesis as an example of ideological history which announced new directions for the society. 1890-1940 was a period in which historical awareness, wielded by individuals "removed from the seats of power", was seen as a tool for creating better futures (it seems like he approves of this period?) However, since 1940, historians have been too interested in creating myths or narratives, which do not assume that human problems could be solved by an analysis of the past. It seems that Susman wants a new public history committed to problem-solving.

Wise, Gene. "’Paradigm Dramas’ in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement.” American Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3. (1979), pp. 293-337.

Although Gene Wise has his name on a prize given by the ASA for the best student paper, along with Warren Susman's, so I know he was important, he is not very evident on Google. There should be a permanently cached area on the ASA's site with biographies of these luminaries. I couldn't even find books of his on Amazon.

Regardless, this essay describes several "eras" in the history of American Studies, as distinguished by episodes he calls "paradigms." First is the era of Vernon Parrington, who wrote Main Currents in American Thought in 1927 with very little institutional support and, Wise says, kicked off the tradition of American Studies thinkers who, "driven by concentrated fury," try to create order with the "materials of American experience." We then move on to Perry Miller, author of Errand into the Wilderness (1956), who, while he had plenty of institutional support, also tried to "think through America" - in his case, from the standpoint of Puritanism.

While Miller was in graduate school, various other schools began to offer interdisciplinary programs, including Harvard and GWU. Harvard was the first to award a PhD in Am Civ - to Henry Nash Smith. The 1950s began to look like a "golden age", because of the flush of cash influxed into the field from sources like the Carnegie Corporation, But, Wise says, we can't forget that this cash was dirty money, and in order to get it we had to reinforce some kind of status quo. Here the myth-and-symbol school flourished.

During the 1960s, of course, criticisms arose, culminating with Bruce Kuklick's essay (below) which pretty much dismantled myth-and-symbol as a viable category of analysis. Wise uses Robert Merideth, who taught a course called "Culture Therapy 202" at Miami U in the late 60s, as the representative actor from this time period - Merideth saw the role of teacher as an adversarial one, and viewed AMS as a discipline that must "save" people from the culture.

Then we experience...Fragmentation. Wise views the discipline as a growing one, but believes that other, "legitimate" departments have begun to take over AMS' territory (American lit, social history) and wonders what the future will be like.

Kuklick, Bruce. “Myth and Symbol in American Studies.” American Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4. (Oct., 1972), pp. 435-450.

Kuklick is on the faculty at UPenn, in the history department. He's interested in political, cultural, intellectual, and diplomatic history of the US (well, what else is there? he doesn't do environmental history, I guess). He's written nine books, including Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War, from Kennan to Kissinger (2007) and To Everything a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976 (1991 - that one's about baseball!)

This essay pretty much sounded the death knell of the myth and symbol school. Kuklick points out that conceiving of such a thing as a "myth" borders on accepting the idea of a Platonic "truth" - invests the "myth" with a life of its own, outside the minds of each person who believes in it. Moreover, myth and symbol indulges in the "what you mean, we?" fallacy - can a scholar really describe the function of a myth as it works for each and every person in the United States? and if not, which people are we talking about? Finally, who determines which works hold this mystical "myth" inside of them? Why pick Moby-Dick over any other novel? Just because you like it and think it's good? That's no way to operate, says Kuklick, referring specifically to Leo Marx and his Machine in the Garden, but also pretty much indicting the whole complex of ideas surrounding myth-and-symbol. Kuklick admits that he doesn't have another idea as to what American Studies should do to get around the problem.

Lears, TJ Jackson. “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 3. (Jun., 1985), pp. 567-593.

Lears, on the faculty at Rutgers, wrote No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (1981), on my list for later, as well as Fables of Abundance: a Cultural History of Advertising in America (1994) and Something for Nothing: Luck in America (2003).

This particular essay looks at the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and asks whether they are applicable to American Studies' attempt to describe the functioning of culture. Lears likes Gramsci's reimagining of Marxian ideas of culture because it offers more wiggle room for the human element - rather than conceiving of culture as simply the false consciousness that the ruling class uses to convince everyone else to fall in line (the base/superstructure argument), Gramsci believes that each person renegotiates his/her relationship to the culture through an ongoing process. Occasionally, a person may act in a culturally "acceptable" way, even while thinking something different, or vice-versa. Lears argues that this works well in American culture, and believes that we should focus on studying language in order to understand these individual processes better. (Picture is of Gramsci, Lears' "wily Sardinian", not of Lears.)

Denning, Michael. "’The Special American Conditions’: Marxism and American Studies.” American Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3. (1986), pp. 356-380.

Denning, in the Yale American Studies department, writes on labor and culture in the US. His books include Culture in the Age of Three Worlds (2004), The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (on my list; 1997), Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working Class Culture in America (1987), and Cover Stories: Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy Thriller (1987).

Following Lears, this is another essay about Marx's relevance in the study of America. Why, Denning asks, has marxist (he lowercases it) studies not made a mark (ha) on American Studies? First, theorists tend to focus on Europe, even American theorists. Second, since American Studies came of age during the Cold War, its "totalizing" explanations of American culture could be seen as an alternative to marxist understandings. (Here Denning cites Daniel Boorstin, who testified in front of HUAC, as an example of this school of American Studies.) However, Denning claims, certain American studies writers have been working in marxist ways without explicitly acknowledging their debts to that tradition. A complete revision of the understanding of America would have to set aside "exceptionalism" - only once this is done can marxism be seen to be relevant.

Kerber, Linda. “Diversity and the Transformation of American Studies.” American Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Sep., 1989), pp. 415-431.

Kerber is in the history department at the University of Iowa. She specializes in gender, citizenship, and legal history. Her books include No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (1998); Toward an Intellectual History of Women (1997); Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (1980); and Federalists in Dissent: Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America (1970).

This piece is actually an address to the ASA, given when Kerber was president. It's a look back at the places where American Studies has had "gaps", including histories of race, class and gender, but also takes care to point out that scholars *have* been working in those areas all along. Kerber calls for more work in the areas of science and technology (yay). In general, she calls on the ASA to move beyond the "constraints of cold war ideology" to study the workings of power in American society.

Lipsitz, George. “Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and American Studies.” American Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 4. (Dec., 1990), pp. 615-636.

Lipsitz is the chair of the AMS department at UC/Santa Cruz, and got his PhD from the University of Wisconsin's history department. He's into race, culture, and social identity, as well as urban history and social movements. Books include American Studies in a Moment of Danger (2001; focuses on the effect of globalization on the idea of "the nation" and thus on American Studies as a whole), as well as The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (on my list; 1998) and Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s (1994).

In this piece, Lipsitz calls for a type of American studies that could be flexible enough to look at culture in all of its permutations; resists "hypostatization into a method"; recognizes the way that nationhood plays a role in culture; and, interestingly, "understands that struggles over meaning are inevitably struggles over resources" (621). As of now, Lipsitz says, the most sophisticated cultural commentators in America are not academics but artists, writers, and musicians (David Byrne! Tracy Chapman?) This is partially because American studies has not really got on board with European cultural studies, clinging to questions of "what is American?", to the detriment of more interesting open questions.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

American Slavery, American Freedom

Title: American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975)

Author: Edmund S. Morgan, professor emeritus of the Yale history department. Studied under Perry Miller at Harvard. Teacher of John Demos. Winner of many awards for his books on colonial and early Republican history, and for his life work in general, including the National Humanities Medal in 2000 and a Pulitzer "special citation" in 2006 (is that like an Oscar lifetime achievement award? I think so). Other notable books (he wrote a bunch) are The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (1955); The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (1956); and Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (1988), which won the Bancroft Prize. Morgan has also written biographies of Ezra Stiles, Roger Williams, and Benjamin Franklin.

My Review: This book attempts to answer the paradox embodied in its title: how could a society founded on the ideals of human freedom accept the blatant violation of that ideals in its very midst? (Morgan sees this as the fundamental paradox of America as a whole.) In order to answer the question, Morgan looks at the hundred years during which Virginia existed previous to the beginning of wholesale African slavery, describing the social and labor conditions of the colony.

The Jamestown colony, he writes, was founded with a great need for labor - indeed, those who became rich at the outset were those who could manage to marshal the greatest number of servants, not those who had the most land or the most capital. The upper classes of Britain looked at Virginia as perfect place to offload the lazy, unproductive classes of people who were unemployed in the home country. These people would accept contracts to come to Virginia as servants and serve a certain term to pay for their passage. Once in the colony, excuses would be made to extend their term, and once they were set free, there was very little hope for the American Dream - land was difficult to work if you were doing it on a small scale; land was only available on the dangerous, Indian-proximate frontier; and women were scarce, meaning family life for these "small" ex-servants was nonexistent. More than anything, though, these servants usually just died so early in life (as did most people in Virginia) that they didn't have a chance to ask for their rightful place in Virginia's economic order.

For Morgan, this short life expectancy is one of the major reasons why Virginia's planters saw it as economically more advantageous to import English servants, rather than African slaves - why pay the higher price for a slave when s/he was likely to die soon, leaving a planter without having exploited the full "term" of their labor (that is, their lifetime)? There were some Africans in the colony before the end of the seventeenth century, but Morgan says that they were unaccompanied by the later racism they experienced. They worked alongside white servants, and intermarried with whites.

When life expectancy began to go up, and events such as Bacon's Rebellion convinced the upper classes that the lower classes were indeed dangerous, slavery began to look like a better option. With a plantation of African slaves, control would be easier and economic advantage easier to extract. In a story familiar from such books as Roediger's Wages of Whiteness, the white lower classes were pacified with minor economic advances, begrudging cession of political rights, and the knowledge that they, at least, were "better" than the Indians and black people living alongside them in the South. Meanwhile, the upper classes could (mostly) rest safe in their beds, knowing that the poor people who supported their wealth were enslaved and controllable. (The "mostly" refers to the fear a lot of them retained of slave rebellions, which were actually rare.) Voila - slavery and freedom, side by side.

Souvenir from the 1907 Jamestown Exposition ("Meet Me On The War Path"!)

Reviews: The book won the Francis Parkman Prize, as well as others. In the Journal of American History, Russell Menard wrote that the book was "graceful, learned and witty" (it is that) and loves it, mostly, except when he worries that by attributing all of English racism to economic need, Morgan gives short shrift to any possible other explanation - it's almost mechanical, an account which Menard compares unfavorably to Winthrop Jordan's more subtle work (presumably White over Black [1968] though Menard doesn't specify). Menard also wants more evidence about the decline in mortality, a point at which I found myself confused as well, and wants more drawn-out analyses of the difference in prices between slaves and servants. In the Journal of Social History, Lois Green Carr said that she liked the book, too, but thought that actually servants had more opportunity when "graduated" from service than Morgan had it, and that those who joined Bacon's Rebellion were not actually reacting from stringent conditions for freedmen at the time - that things were status quo for them, until about the 1680s.

Words: "feeoffee" ("a person invested with a fief")

Poster for Terence Malick's 2005 film "The New World," with Colin Farrell as John Smith - a film I have to admit I found myself embarrassingly swept away by, with a good representation of the dirtiness and desperation of the Jamestown settlement, and a really romantic one of the nobility of the Indian.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Colonial Era Timeline

The time has come, the Walrus said, to start making timelines.

Pre-Revolutionary America - Key Events

1585-1587 - Various Foundings of Roanoke Colony (Morgan)
1590 - Publication of Thomas Hariot's Briefe and True Report
1607 - Founding of Jamestown Settlement (Morgan)
1620 - Founding of Plimouth Plantation (Demos; Karlsen)
1638 - Anne Hutchinson exiled from Puritan church, colony
1639 - Birth of Increase Mather (Bercovitch)
1649 - King Charles I, enemy of the Puritans, executed; eyes of the world turn away from American colonies (or so they perceive) (Miller)
1662 - Halfway Covenant proclaimed, admitting to the church a wider array of members
1663 - Birth of Cotton Mather (Bercovitch; Miller)

1675-6 - King Philip's War (Young Cotton Mather sees Philip's head on a stick) (Lepore; White)
1676 - Mary Rowlandson abducted in Lancaster, MA, by Nashaway Indians (Lepore; Kolodny)
1676 - Bacon's Rebellion (Morgan)
1679 - Synod, examining questions of "why the land suffers" - the angst of the Puritan elders (Miller)
1682 - Rowlandson publishes The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, forward by Cotton Mather1690-1730ish - African slavery takes hold on a broad scale in Virginia (Morgan)
1691-2 - Plymouth Colony, others absorbed by Massachusetts Bay Colony
1692-3 - Salem Witch Trials (Karlsen)
1697 - Fast day of atonement for the witch trials ("Tragedy, caused by Satan and his works among us")
1703 - Jonathan Edwards born (Bercovitch)
1706 - Ben Franklin born
1723 - Death of Increase Mather (damn, he was old) (Bercovitch)1728 - Death of Cotton Mather (not so old) (Bercovitch)
1732 - George Washington born
1733-4 - Great Awakening begins in Northampton; properly takes place 1739-40 (Bercovitch)
1743 - Thomas Jefferson born
1756-63 - Seven Years' War (Winston Churchill called it the "first world war") (White)
1763 - Cession of Canada to the British (Indians felt betrayed by French; Puritans felt their mission justified) (White; Bercovitch)
1775 - Thomas Paine's Common Sense published in England
1776 - REVOLUTION!