The abject dread of putting words on paper

I’m at that point where it’s time to take the notes and outlines I’ve generated for my dissertation and start putting readable text on paper.  I should be psyched, but I’m terrified.  It’s like jumping off a cliff using a bungee cord made of dental floss.

Up until now, my dissertation has existed only in my own head, and as long it stays there, it can remain the platonic ideal of everything I want it to be.  But once I actualize it, it’ll never live up to that ideal.  It will only be as good as my own shortcomings as a researcher and writer permit it to be.  The longer I delay putting words on paper, the longer I can avoid the dismay of realizing how far short of the ideal it’ll fall.

That’s always been the single greatest obstacle to my productivity.  The same fear of actualizing a project plagues me whenever I try to write something.  After I finished my master’s thesis, I could’ve turned it into a couple of scholarly articles in a matter of months, since the research and writing was more or less done.  But it literally took me years to send one of the chapters off for publication.  It didn’t take years to do the revisions, mind you, but to muster up the gumption to sit down and see it through.  I had the same experience trying to turn a seminar paper into an article draft this past summer…and again this past week, while trying to figure out how to articulate this dilemma for the blog post you’re now reading.  A good third of the posts I start to write for this blog end up in the trash bin for that same reason.

Lyman C. Draper, via Wikimedia Commons

This is one reason I’ve always felt a kind of kinship with nineteenth-century antiquarian Lyman Draper.  Like me, Draper was fascinated by the early frontier.  Also like me, he had a special affinity for the King’s Mountain; the only book he saw through to publication was a history of the battle.  He accumulated enough material, however, to write a shelf full of books on pioneers and frontier battles.  In fact, he conceived a number of book-length projects over the years: biographies of Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, a volume of “border forays,” collected sketches of prominent frontiersmen, and so on.

But he couldn’t bring any of them to completion.  Even the one book he managed to get published was plagued by delays.  Draper set out to write his King’s Mountain study at the instigation of colleagues who wanted him to get it out in time for the battle’s centennial.  He missed it by a year, in spite of his publisher’s incessant pleas to hurry things along.  He just couldn’t stop tweaking, double-checking, and accumulating more and more data.

Historians have attributed Draper’s lack of publications to a number of factors.  First and foremost, he was a collector and aggregator, happiest when he was transcribing manuscripts and interviewing pioneers and their descendants.  He was also an obsessive fact-checker who insisted on verifying every obscure scrap of local tradition he came across.  Finally, he had a streak of hypochondria a mile wide, and his repeated bouts with illnesses both real and imaginary interrupted his workflow.

But I think part of the problem was simple anxiety of the same sort that paralyzes me when I try to write out a piece of research.  The problem wasn’t that Draper had a poor work ethic.  He approached the task of chronicling frontier history with an almost religious zeal.  And I suspect it was that very zeal that helped do him in.  He knew he was sitting on a goldmine of material, and I think he feared that when he set pen to paper the results wouldn’t do his sources justice.  It was easier to go on collecting, and to let the platonic ideal of his book projects live on in his head and in his notes, where they could remain unsullied.  And, to be honest, Draper was a much better aggregator than a writer; his King’s Mountain book is more valuable for the material contained therein than as a work of historical literature.

Draper is one of my personal heroes, but he also serves as something of a cautionary tale.  For as long as I can remember—for much longer than I’ve wanted to be a historian, in fact—I’ve wanted to find things out and then write books about them.  But I’ve idealized the process of research and writing to such an extent that actually doing it paralyzes me to the point of inaction.

Being in grad school has helped, since I’m accountable to people who don’t hesitate to kick me in the pants when I’m not generating drafts.  And I feel better knowing I have access to professional mentors who can critique my work before I send it off for publication.  Once they tell me it’s up to snuff, I can let go of some of my own nagging feelings that it’s inadequate.

They say a pretty good project that’s completed is better than an outstanding one left undone.  And as far as one’s CV is concerned, I’m sure that’s true.  The hard part is internalizing that fact enough to put it into action.

And on that note, I need to get back to work.

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Saving an East Tennessee cabin from the time of Jefferson

After all these hurricanes, fires, floods, and earthquakes, we could all use some good news.  Here you go:

The two-story log cabin where Isaac Anderson lived before founding Maryville College nearly 200 years ago was slated for demolition until last week, when work began to move the structure from Knox County to Blount.

The cabin was built in 1802, shortly after Anderson’s father moved the family from Virginia to Tennessee, and in 2010 the nonprofit preservation group Knox Heritage named the cabin one of its “Fragile 15,” what it considers the most threatened historic structures and places.

Under pressure from Knox County code officials, the homeowners association for Shannon Valley Farms likely would have demolished the cabin along Creek Rock Lane within the next couple of months, according to HOA Board Member Patrick Klepper. “Our plan was to bring in some dumpsters and haul it away,” he said.

Although the HOA and Knox Heritage had tried to generate interest in the cabin for years, estimates to haul it offsite and restore it have been about $60,000 to $80,000.

Maryville College alumnus Cole Piper serves on the board for the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center and brought the cabin to the attention of Director Bob Patterson.

Once Piper explained to him the significance of Anderson, the Heritage Center director said, “I wanted to make this happen.”

A Presbyterian minister, Anderson was called to be pastor of New Providence Presbyterian Church in Maryville in 1811 and moved his academy here, later founding a seminary that would become Maryville College.

 

An anonymous donor has provided funding to start the process of dismantling the cabin and hauling the pieces to the grounds of the Heritage Center, and a fundraising campaign is being planned for the cabin’s restoration.

It was headed for the dump, and now it’ll get all spruced up for visitors to the GSMHC to enjoy.  I call that a win.

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Paul Harvey will discuss African American politics and religion at LMU

If you’re in driving distance of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN, you’ve got two opportunities to hear Dr. Paul Harvey give the 2017 Dr. Robert L. Kincaid Lecture, “African American Politics and the Judeo-Christian Tradition.”  He’ll give a 45-minute talk to the LMU community at 11:00 on Sept. 21, and then a full lecture with Q&A and a reception at 7:00 that same evening.  Both presentations are at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.

Harvey is a professor of history and Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.  His books include The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (co-authored with Edward J. Blum); Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity; and Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History.

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GDP: Did you know there’s a thriller about a dinosaur dig opening this week?

Just found out about it myself.  It’s called Valley of Bones.

I’m not buying that skull, but the movie looks interesting.

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Help for museums and historic sites in Harvey’s wake

If you’d like to help museums and historic sites around the Gulf Coast of Texas recover from this catastrophe, the American Association for State and Local History has put together some great resources.

One thing we can all do right now is donate to the AASLH Hurricane Harvey Cultural Relief Fund.  Every cent will go to museums, sites, and other cultural institutions hit by the storm.

If you’ve got expertise in collections care, restoration, insurance, mold removal, or any other aspect of disaster recovery that might be useful to museum and site personnel, you can sign up online to serve as a point of contact and referral.

And if you’re a curator or site administrator, this is a good time to make sure your institution or organization is prepared for a disaster.  (For additional information, check out the AAM’s website.)

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Turn to the books

So Turn: Washington’s Spies has run its course, and now you’re itching to know more about the history behind the show.  Allow me to recommend some reading material.

I should note at the outset that this is a very Turn-centric selection.  In other words, it’s not a well-rounded reading list on the American Revolution.  This is intended mainly for those of you who are relatively new to the whole Rev War aficionado thing and want to start out by learning more about the people and events depicted in the series.

First, though, let’s take a look at some general histories of the era.  My favorite overview is Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804.  It’s the most comprehensive and up-to-date single-volume book on the Revolutionary era available.  If a narrative approach to the Revolution’s origins and military campaigns is more to your liking, try Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause.  I think Middlekauff is better on the run-up to the war and the actual fighting than he is on the Revolution’s social dimensions and its aftermath, but Glorious Cause is still well worth a read.  I’d also recommend two books by John Ferling: A Leap in the Dark for the Revolution’s political history and Almost a Miracle for the military side of the story.  And Gordon Wood’s The American Revolution is a concise overview of what was at stake in the struggle for independence, as well as a distillation of an influential and insightful scholar’s life work.

Okay, now for books that deal directly with the show’s subject matter.  Turn is all about espionage, and when it comes to Revolutionary spycraft, you can’t do better than John Nagy, author of George Washington’s Secret Spy War, Invisible InkSpies in the Continental Capital, and Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy.  Of course, you can’t do a list of Turn-related books without mentioning Washington’s Spies, the story that inspired the series.

The most famous Revolutionary to put in an appearance in the series was the commander of the Continental Army.  Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency is a great introduction to Washington and the qualities that made him exceptional.  John Ferling’s First of Men is also quite good and remarkably balanced; in fact, Ferling has written a number of fine books on different aspects of Washington’s life and career.  Both the one-volume abridgment of James Thomas Flexner’s biography and Ron Chernow’s life of Washington are also good reads.  Robert Middlekauff covers the general’s rise to fame and the war years in Washington’s Revolution.

One of the reasons Benedict Arnold’s treason shocked so many Revolutionaries was the fact that he had been one of the most revered Patriot commanders.  James Kirby Martin’s Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered examines the course of his career before he sold out to the British.  Flexner’s The Traitor and the Spy covers Arnold, André, and the plot to hand over West Point.  Peggy Shippen Arnold is the subject of a popular biography by Stephen Case and Mark Jacob.  Another controversial Continental commander who appeared in the series was Charles Lee, the subject of recent biographies by Phillip Papas and Dominick Mazzagetti.

On the British side, the Queen’s Rangers figured prominently throughout the show’s run.  Check out Donald Gara’s history of the unit.  War on the Run by John F. Ross is an engaging look Robert Rogers’s exploits, but it’s mostly focused on the French and Indian War.  While members of the British high command didn’t make too many appearances in the show, I also recommend The Men Who Lost America for a sense of the challenges imperial officials and generals faced in subduing the colonies.

What about Turn‘s African American characters?  Gary Nash’s The Forgotten Fifth is a great and very concise overview of the Revolution’s impact on black colonists, both slave and free.  Douglas Egerton’s Death or Liberty is also handy, and Benjamin Quarles’s The Negro in the American Revolution is a classic that’s still worth a read.

Another classic work that will give you some insight into the experiences of women like Mary and Anna is Liberty’s Daughters.  Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers also deals with women’s participation in the struggle for liberty.

For life in the Continental Army’s camps and hospitals, Caroline Cox’s A Proper Sense of Honor is a very valuable work by a historian whose death was a tremendous loss to scholarship on the Revolution.  And I’m a huge fan of Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War, a fascinating look at how young officers like Tallmadge understood their own service and sacrifices.

Turn also featured some of the war’s most important campaigns and battles.  Barnet Schecter’s The Battle for New York deals with the city that was ground zero for many of the early episodes.  In the first season, Tallmadge is unconscious during the attack on Trenton; you can catch up on what he missed by reading David Hackett Fischer’s splendid book Washington’s Crossing.  For Monmouth Courthouse, Joseph Bilby and Katherine Bilby Jenkins’s work is a good place to start, and if you want more detail, Fatal Sunday is outstanding.  The British invasion of Virginia in 1781 is the subject of a brand new book, and Jerome Greene’s The Guns of Independence is a thorough examination of the Siege of Yorktown.

One final recommendation.  The series didn’t shy away from the Revolution’s uglier aspects.  For an examination of the war’s dark, violent, and bloody side, check out Holger Hoock’s Scars of Independence.

If any of you Rev War buffs have other Turn-related books you’d like to recommend, let us know in the comments.

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GDP: Universe of Energy powers down

Today’s Gratuitous Dinosaur Post brings sad tidings.  As of this weekend, the Universe of Energy at Disney World’s Epcot is no more, and with it goes its animatronic menagerie of prehistoric beasts.  If you prefer your nostalgia in tangible form, they’re selling some commemorative merchandise.

In its original version, the attraction represented a lot that was off-putting about Epcot.  The theater segments on energy sources were so stodgy, so infused with belabored portentousness, that they made Spaceship Earth look like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  The last film seemed to drag on so long that you almost expected the continents to have a different arrangement by the time it was over.

But oh my, those dinosaurs.

Sure, they’re outdated now; they were already a bit behind the science when Disney rolled them out in 1982.  They wouldn’t have been out of place in a Charles R. Knight painting ca. 1900.  But they were dead ringers for the dinosaurs pictured in the books I read as a kid, except they were right there, in three dimensions, feeding and fighting and roaring their way through a three-dimensional primordial landscape.

I was still in elementary school the first time I rode U of E, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment when the curtain rose on a family of grazing sauropods and the theater seats started gliding into a swamp that you could literally smell.  It was awe-inspiring.

By Michael Lowin (Own work (own picture)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I had mixed feelings about the 1996 overhaul.  The new theatrical segments with Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye were genuinely funny, and much more engaging than their predecessors.  But I didn’t care for Ellen’s animatronic cameo during the ride.  The elasmosaur seemed so menacing when I was young that it irked me to see him played for laughs.

Still, I guess the updates gave the ride a new lease on life.  Its replacement will be a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction.  I have mixed feelings about that, too.  The Guardians movies are a lot of fun, but between Disney’s acquisitions of Marvel and Star Wars, the parks are starting to look less like coherent themed areas and more like a patchwork of intellectual properties.

U of E’s last bow didn’t go off without a hitch.  It shut down during the sauropod scene, forcing the visitors to evacuate.  But the upside is that somebody was on hand to take video, giving us an up-close and well-lit glimpse at the dinosaurs.

We’ve still got the dino ride at Animal Kingdom, assuming they don’t tear it down for an Avatar expansion.

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