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Paper trails

Lately I’d been having some trouble logging into my work e-mail, and when I called the tech guys they discovered that in the process of some changes to the system my entire account had accidentally been deleted.  They were able to set up a new one for me, but all my old messages, both incoming and outgoing, vanished into whatever ethereal realm is reserved for defunct e-mail accounts.

It’s no great loss as far as posterity is concerned, since most of these e-mails dealt with mundane matters—students  apologizing for missed classes, reminders that I needed to submit paperwork, and so on.  But it got me thinking about a question that I ponder from time to time.  What is the advent of electronic communication going to mean historians of the future who will be trying to study us?

For some scholars, it probably won’t mean much at all.  Modern bureaucracies still generate reams of paperwork.  As organizations both public and private have grown and become more complex in the last 130 years or so, they’ve churned out mountains of internal documentation.  When historians write about the presidencies of Bush and Obama a century from now, they’ll have plenty of written evidence to handle.  Many organizations archive the documents they generate electronically; some of them, in fact, are required by law to do so.

The difference, I think, will involve unofficial, personal communication.  For biographers, personal letters are an indispensable tool.  Even historians writing about public events rely on personal documentation to gather information.    My own graduate research about King’s Mountain involved reading a lot of personal letters.  Until comparatively recently, it wasn’t uncommon for ordinary people to leave behind a cache of letters and other personal papers.

But what about now?  Speaking for myself, I’ve sent and received plenty of personal e-mails, but as for hard copies, I’ve got nothing but birthday cards and the occasional cover letter.  Since personal e-mail accounts are hidden behind passwords and subject to deletion, will historians of the future will be able to access the correspondence of ordinary folks like you and I?

Of course, hard copies aren’t immune to time, either.  The great Tennessee historian J.G.M. Ramsey accumulated a treasure trove of documents about the eighteenth-century frontier, some of which he used to prepare his massive book on the Volunteer State’s early days.  Unfortunately for future students of Tennessee history, Ramsey was an ardent Confederate, so when a Unionist firebrand torched his home, his remarkable archive went up in smoke.  One advantage of electronic documents is that they’re easy to back up.

Maybe future historians looking to document the lives of everyday Americans will just have to use different sources.  Instead of reading caches of family letters, they’ll pore over home videos.  Or perhaps they’ll have access to some sort of archived social media, in which case we’re not going to come off all that well…

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Putting a face on Benjamin Cleveland

Some folks in Cleveland, TN have commissioned a portrait of the town’s namesake, Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Cleveland of North Carolina.  Don Troiani will be doing the painting.  The 300-lb. Cleveland commanded the Wilkes County militia at King’s Mountain and persecuted backcountry Tories with a zeal bordering on fanaticism.  As far as I know, there aren’t any contemporary likenesses of him, so this will be the first attempt at an accurate depiction.

My favorite anecdote about Benjamin Cleveland involves the capture of two horse thieves.  Cleveland hanged one and then offered the other a choice—he could either join his partner at the end of a rope or take a case knife, cut off his own ears, and never show his face in that neck of the woods again.  The guy took the knife, sharpened it on a brick, gritted his teeth, and set to work.  To quote the Joker in The Dark Knight, “Even to a guy like me, that’s cold.”

Speaking of the Carolinas, renowned Palmetto State historian Walter Edgar is retiring.  He’s a guy who takes public history as seriously as he takes scholarship, so here’s hoping he keeps writing and speaking.

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Brief change of topic

I’m going to go a little outside the bounds of my usual shenanigans here, but I ran across something on one of the non-historical blogs I read, and being a sucker for little kids, I had to share it with you.  I think it’ll be well worth your attention.

This is Harper.  She’s almost five, and she lives in Eastern Europe.

She has some extremely serious (as in potentially life-threatening) health issues, and she doesn’t have a family of her own, at least not yet.

I say “not yet,” because there’s an American family that’s been trying to adopt a child from her neck of the woods for quite some time, and they were thrilled to find out that she was available.  The thing is, international adoption isn’t cheap.

That’s where we come in.  A 501c3 organization called Reece’s Rainbow provides grants for families adopting special needs kids from overseas.  They’ve set up an account to help this family with the costs of bringing their little girl home.  It’s tax deductible, and you can donate via PayPal or by sending a check.

Oh, and once you donate, you can also enter to win some great books and other stuff thanks to a giveaway being organized by the Ironic Catholic blog (details here.)

So if you’ve got a little money to spare, even if it’s just ten or twenty bucks, click on the Reece’s Rainbow link to send a check or make a PayPal donation.  There are plenty of other kids listed on the site, too, and I encourage you to check them out and pitch in wherever you can.

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Breaking up is hard to do

Robert Massie has a new piece on how biographers cope with coming to the end of their books.

You don’t want the subject to die; you don’t want to lose the friend you have made, the companion you are accustomed to, and perhaps you also don’t want to see the whole cast of supporting characters, and the historical and cultural environment in which they all lived, vanish with them.

Nevertheless, the end must come. When that happens, how does a biographer feel? Exhausted? Relieved? Euphoric? At long last, a person of leisure? Or something different. Wistful, sad, bereaved? You were with the subject every day. Now this companion has departed and left you behind. He or she has concluded the time shared with you. That part of your life is over.

So many biographers develop an affinity for the subjects of their investigation that I used to be a little suspicious of the genre.  But lately I’m inclined to think that this affinity is part of the special insight the biographer has acquired during the course of his or her research.  Rather than the biographer losing objectivity and becoming blind to a subject’s faults, maybe it’s the reader who stands to benefit from the biographer’s appreciation of the subject’s finer qualities.

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Dirt flying

Gordon Belt recently directed my attention an online petition directed against Spike TV’s upcoming reality series about artifact hunting. You can read it (and sign it, if you so desire) by clicking here.  There’s also a petition in support of the show, hoping that the program will “correct the false impression that relic hunting is unethical.”

Coincidentally, the president of the Society for American Archaeology is protesting a similar show which is about to premiere on the National Geographic Channel, and has written a letter of complaint to the National Geographic Society’s CEO.  Critics of this show have an online petition, too.

Personally, I’m not opposed to relic hunting on principle, at least within reasonable limits.  If somebody wants to take a metal detector and look for Minié balls or buttons on private land, that’s fine with me, as long as they have the landowner’s permission and the site isn’t particularly significant.

From Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to historically sensitive ground, that’s another matter.  Battlefields, the sites of prison camps and hospitals, burial sites, and things of that sort are best left to the pros, even if the land in question belongs to private parties who don’t object to relic hunting.  In archaeology, context is everything.  Indeed, the information about an artifact’s context is as valuable as the artifact itself.

Since the shows haven’t aired, I don’t know what sort of digging we’re dealing with.  If we’re talking about sites and finds that merit a systematic approach, I’d rather see them left alone than get picked over by relic hunters, even if a full-scale excavation in the near future is unlikely.

If this sounds snotty, let me point out that when it comes to archaeology, I’m not a professional, either.  History and archaeology are two completely disciplines, with their own separate methodologies, programs of study, professional associations, publications, and so on.  Historians and archaeologists draw frequently on one another’s expertise, of course, but even a terminal degree in history won’t prepare you to run a large-scale excavation.

A few years ago, I got the chance to work with a professional team of archaeologists for a few days, when they came to campus to do some shovel tests for a survey of the area.  It was fun and interesting, and I learned quite a bit, but by no means am I under the impression that I’m competent to interpret a site just because they showed me how to classify soil samples and screen for artifacts.

If it turns out these shows are promoting irresponsible behavior, then I’ll add my voice to the chorus of protest.  Until then, I’m going to wait and see what they’re digging up and where they’re doing it.

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Reach out and touch someone

Me, to be specific.

Up until now, I haven’t made my e-mail address available here on the blog, mainly to avoid having my inbox filled with incoherent rants in case I posted something that set somebody off.

Lately, though, folks have started getting in touch with me about speaking engagements and various other things that they’d probably prefer to handle through e-mail, but since they had no address, they’ve had to leave a comment here on the blog.  So I’ve decided to set up a new e-mail account and post it on the “About the Blog” page for anybody who’d like to contact me. The address is mlynch5396@hotmail.com.

Truth be told, I needed a new e-mail address anyway.  The one I’ve used since high school is both difficult to spell and embarrassingly geeky, so I’m going to try to phase it out.  It didn’t occur to me when I was a teenager that someday I’d actually have to put that Hotmail handle on a résumé.  Come to think of it, I wonder how many potential jobs it’s cost me already.  Oh, well.  What’s done is done.

Since I mentioned speaking engagements, let me add that I’ve done quite a few public lectures, presentations, and seminars for historical societies, museums, and so on, and I’m always happy to do more.  So feel free to contact me if you’d like me to come and talk about the American Revolution, colonial history, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, regional history, museums, preservation, or the past in general.

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In recognition of Valentine’s Day

…I recommend you spend a few moments perusing the remarkable letters exchanged between John and Abigail Adams.  They don’t make marriages like that anymore.

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Re-animating George Washington

So William Thornton, the guy who designed the U.S. Capitol, wanted to bring George Washington’s corpse back to life.  Good to know.

Here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth:

I proposed to attempt his restoration, in the following manner. First to thaw him in cold water, then to lay him in blankets, and by degrees and by friction to give him warmth, and to put into activity the minute blood vessels, at the same time to open a passage to the lungs by the trachæa, and to inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration, and to transfuse blood into him from a lamb. If these means had been resorted to and had failed all that could be done would have been done, but I was not seconded in this proposal; for it was deemed unavailing. I reasoned thus. He died by the loss of blood and the want of air. Restore these with the heat that had subsequently been deducted, and as the organization was in every respect perfect, there was no doubt in my mind that his restoration was possible. It was doubted by some whether if it were possible it would be right to attempt to recall to life one who had departed full of honor and renown; free from the frailties of age, in the full enjoyment of every faculty, and prepared for eternity.

Reminds me of that joke about a zombie protest.  “What do we want?  BRAINS!  When do we want it?  BRAINS!

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Peddling crap and frivolity pays big dividends for History Channel

You know that old saying about how nobody ever went broke by underestimating the public’s intelligence?

Last year, the History channel had a growth spurt, gaining hundreds of thousands of viewers while most of its competitors struggled to grow at all. This year, even more remarkably, the channel did it again.

That makes the network’s executives a subject of both envy and sympathy in the television business. They swiftly took History from top 20 status on cable to top five, a feat rarely if ever accomplished — and now they have to keep it there.…

Its biggest show for the last two years has been “Pawn Stars,” about a family that buys and sells watches, necklaces and artifacts. Just last week, History scheduled a spinoff, “Cajun Pawn Stars.” But the channel is also considering shows that may seem suited for TNT or even ESPN, like a “Hatfields and McCoys” mini-series and a jousting competition. The goal, it seems, is to steal market share from the other big boys.

History has been able to declare its “best year ever” for five years in a row because it took what could be seen as a radical turn away from its brand nearly five years ago.

For that, we can thank Nancy Dubuc, The History Channel‘s general manager.  As you might recall, she’s the same person who had the grapes to refer to shows like Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars as “vérité documentaries on people doing history today.”  There’s a sense in which that’s true, but it’s the same sense in which Uwe Boll is a bold iconoclast on the cutting edge of modern cinema.

“We started to show that History was a great alternative to sports in attracting upscale men,” said [Dubuc's] boss and mentor, Abbe Raven, the chief executive of A + E Networks. As advertising buyers spent more on History, “we took those revenues and invested them in programming to build the future.”

All this time, “upscale men” have been the ones watching shows like Swamp People.  I can see them now, all those upwardly mobile professionals coming home after a long day in their corner offices, a copy of the Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker in hand, sitting back to enjoy a good cigar and a snifter of brandy while watching this:

So what can we look forward to in the future?

Another producer, Craig Piligian, who makes “Top Shot” and “Big Shrimpin’ ” for History, has another show on the way called “Full Metal Jousting,” a production that harks back to the Renaissance, or at least Renaissance fairs. Mr. Piligian said his pitch was as follows: “Guys about 6-foot-2 wearing 180 pounds of armor on them, running at each other on 2,000-pound horses at 35 miles per hour and hitting each other with a pole that doesn’t break.”

“They like that it’s loud, it’s promotable, and it’s different,” he said.

Note to self: Come up with “loud, promotable, and different” idea for TV show, pitch it to The History Channel, bask in riches and glory.

Next year they’re rolling out (I’m not making this up) a mini-series about the Hatfields and the McCoys.  If they can handle this difficult aspect of Appalachian history with the same sophistication and sensitivity so characteristic of Swamp People and Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy, then we’re in for a real treat.

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Hold onto your butts!

Some guy managed to crash his car into a 1750′s house in Northampton, MA, leaving a gaping hole in the structure itself and destroying some of the artifacts inside.  Nice job, buddy.

And while it doesn’t have anything to do with this news story, or with history in general, I can’t resist directing your attention to a recent art exhibit.

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