Forthcoming books of note

As if our TBR stacks aren’t high enough.

Next month we’re getting a biography of Daniel Morgan by Albert Louis Zambone.  It’s about time for a fresh look at the Old Wagoner.  (Don Higginbotham’s life of Morgan first appeared way back in 1961.)

Stanley D.M. Carpenter of the Naval War College has a new book on Cornwallis and the Southern Campaign coming out in February.  Looks like the focus is on the failures and miscalculations that led to British defeat:

Distinguished scholar of military strategy Stanley D. M. Carpenter outlines the British strategic and operational objectives, devoting particular attention to the strategy of employing Southern Loyalists to help defeat Patriot forces, reestablish royal authority, and tamp down resurgent Patriot activity. Focusing on Cornwallis’s operations in the Carolinas and Virginia leading to the surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, Carpenter reveals the flaws in this approach, most notably a fatal misunderstanding of the nature of the war in the South and of the Loyalists’ support. Compounding this was the strategic incoherence of seeking a conventional war against a brilliant, unconventional opponent, and doing so amidst a breakdown in the unity of command.

This emphasis on British failures, miscalculations, and infighting is interesting, because it marks something of a historiographic reversal.  Redcoat commanders and strategists have been getting more favorable treatment in some recent studies, most notably Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s Men Who Lost America.

The first volume of Rick Atkinson’s Rev War trilogy hits stores in May.  I haven’t read his World War II series, but I’ve heard good things about it.  I’ll be particularly interested to see whether he deals with some of the more obscure campaigns.

And finally, David McCullough is heading into the Old Northwest.  And it looks like he’s…well, going full-on David McCullough:

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough rediscovers an important and dramatic chapter in the American story—the settling of the Northwest Territory by dauntless pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community based on ideals that would come to define our country.

As part of the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain recognized the new United States of America, Britain ceded the land that comprised the immense Northwest Territory, a wilderness empire northwest of the Ohio River containing the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A Massachusetts minister named Manasseh Cutler was instrumental in opening this vast territory to veterans of the Revolutionary War and their families for settlement. Included in the Northwest Ordinance were three remarkable conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and most importantly, the prohibition of slavery. In 1788 the first band of pioneers set out from New England for the Northwest Territory under the leadership of Revolutionary War veteran General Rufus Putnam. They settled in what is now Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River.

McCullough tells the story through five major characters: Cutler and Putnam; Cutler’s son Ephraim; and two other men, one a carpenter turned architect, and the other a physician who became a prominent pioneer in American science. They and their families created a town in a primeval wilderness, while coping with such frontier realities as floods, fires, wolves and bears, no roads or bridges, no guarantees of any sort, all the while negotiating a contentious and sometimes hostile relationship with the native people. Like so many of McCullough’s subjects, they let no obstacle deter or defeat them.

Drawn in great part from a rare and all-but-unknown collection of diaries and letters by the key figures, The Pioneers is a uniquely American story of people whose ambition and courage led them to remarkable accomplishments. This is a revelatory and quintessentially American story, written with David McCullough’s signature narrative energy.

On Twitter, a lot of historians have noted the Turner-esque vibe here.  But what this reminds me of isn’t Turner and the first generation of American professional historians; it’s the filiopiety of Lyman Draper and those other avocational antiquarians who chronicled the trans-Appalachian West.  It isn’t so much a rehashing of a worn-out historiography, but rather a blithe disregard of historiography altogether.  And I really hope he’s not including free universal education and the prohibition of slavery among the “ideals that would come to define our country.”  Those two ideals still had a long way to go in the late eighteenth century.

Of course, you don’t review any book based on its dust jacket copy, let alone a book that isn’t published yet.  At the very least, though, Simon and Schuster’s marketing department isn’t making McCullough’s job any easier.

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Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum hosting symposium on faith in Lincoln’s America Nov. 16

Join scholars of American religion on Friday, November 16, 2018, at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, Tennessee, as they discuss faith in Lincoln’s America at this year’s Lincoln Symposium and Kincaid Lecture. Speakers include Dr. Thomas Kidd, Dr. Terrie Aamodt, and Dr. Luke Harlow.

The cost of the event to the public is $30.00 (covers lectures and luncheon).  Students, faculty, and staff of Lincoln Memorial University may attend all sessions free of charge; lunch for LMU community members is $10.00 and requires registration.

Registration is required for all who wish to attend, whether a student, faculty, or community member. To register, please email natalie.sweet@lmunet.edu by November 13, 2018.

Schedule
8:30am -9:00am: Registration, The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

9:00am: Dr. Terrie Aamodt: “When Religion Goes to War: The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Civil War”

10:00am: 15 Minute Break

10:15am: Dr. Luke Harlow, “Religion and the Meaning of Civil War Emancipation”

11:15am: 15 Minute Break

11:30am: 2018 Kincaid Lecture, Dr. Thomas Kidd: “The Enigma of Benjamin Franklin’s Faith”

12:30pm: Luncheon, Cumberland Gap Convention Center

2:00pm: Roundtable Q&A with Speakers and Book Signing

Copies of each author’s book will be available for purchase and signing at the event.

Speaker biographies:

Thomas Kidd is the Associate Director of the Institute for Studies of Religion, and the James Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University. He is the author or editor of twelve books. Recent works include Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2017), American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths (Yale University Press, 2016), Baptists in America: A History (with Barry Hankins, Oxford University Press, 2015), and George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014). He has written for outlets including the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Kidd blogs at “Evangelical History” at The Gospel Coalition website.

Terrie Dopp Aamodt is professor of History and English at Walla Walla University. Her own roots in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley informed her doctoral work in American and New England Studies at Boston University. Her revised dissertation, Righteous Armies, Holy Cause: Apocalyptic Imagery and the Civil War, was published by Mercer University Press in 2002. She has explored relationships between religion and visual culture in topics ranging from the American Shakers to the House of David barnstorming baseball teams, which pioneered racial integration in the sport during the 1920s and 30s. She has led several Civil War tours of the Virginia theater for college credit, including a bicycle tour. Current interests include the memorialization of the Civil War in the Northwest and investigation of photographs, magazine illustrations, and other images of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era in an extension of her earlier work on the Civil War. She is exploring and comparing the trajectories of the Bloody Shirt and Lost Cause responses to the war.

Luke Harlow is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is a historian of religion, race, and politics in the era of the American Civil War, and his published work includes Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830–1880, which received a Kentucky History Award. He is currently writing Faith in the Institutions of the Republic: Lydia Maria Child in Civil War and Reconstruction, a book focused on one of the most famous abolitionists and writers of the nineteenth century. This project explores the relationship between northern antislavery reformers and politicians, and raises questions about the moral foundations of democratic republicanism in the age of emancipation.

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“There’s no important human information being imparted…”

If you’re a Batman fan, you probably know that Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Killing Joke is one of the definitive works in the canon.  (And if you’re not a Batman fan, I just told you.)

Via ign.com

Surprisingly, Moore himself isn’t a fan of TKJ.  Here’s what he told one interviewer (from The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, p. 123):

The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn’t about anything that you’re ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there’s no important human information being imparted….It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn’t really relate to the real world in any way.

And from another interview, in which Moore compared TKJ unfavorably to some of his other work:

But at the end of the day, Watchmen was something to do with power, V for Vendetta was about fascism and anarchy, The Killing Joke was just about Batman and the Joker – and Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they’re just two comic book characters.

So Moore’s issue is that Watchmen and V for Vendetta touch on deeper themes and speak to the human condition, whereas The Killing Joke isn’t “about” anything except Batman and the Joker.  I’m not sure I agree with thatI think TKJ raises some interesting and provocative questions about madness and depravity, grappling with the senselessness of the world, and that old saying whereby those who fight monsters risk becoming monsters themselves.

But The Killing Joke‘s profundity or lack thereof is a topic for another time.  What struck me about Moore’s comments is the implication that a work’s quality depends on it being “about” something deeper than its ostensible, immediate subject matter.

Maybe TKJ is “just” a Batman and Joker story, but it’s a superb Batman and Joker story, and one that’s had a lasting impact on the characters.  Isn’t it enough that for what it is, it’s one of the best?

I bring this up here on the blog because I think it bears on how we evaluate works of scholarly history.  Some monographs are “about” more than what their Library of Congress sub-headings would indicate.

Take Ron Eller’s excellent book Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, for example.  As its subtitle indicates, it’s partly a regional history of the postwar era.

Via kentuckypress.com

But it’s also a critique of the ways we think about progress and development. We tend to associate these ideals with economic growth. We assume that “development” itself is an intrinsic good. We trust that it’s a remedy for poverty. We don’t stop to consider whether poverty might be rooted in structures that benefit some people rather than others, whether the remedies we propose will reinforce these structures, or whether the end goal of “development” is even desirable for the targets of our good intentions. We don’t question our assumptions about what “progress” means.

Eller’s work has implications that are relevant to much more than Appalachian history. It’s applicable to much of the recent past beyond Appalachia or America, and raises important questions for the present and future, too.

Stephen King has said that when you’re writing a novel, story comes before theme.  You tell the story first, and then later you can go back and figure out what the implications are and whether you need to tease them out more. I suspect something along those lines is true for most historians whose projects take on big thematic implications.  You start out with an interest in a particular topic, you investigate it, and only then do you figure out what the broader implications are.

I’m still trying to work through whether my current project will have implications for anything besides the American Revolution or the early frontier. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. For now, at least, I’ll be satisfied if I just end up saying something worthwhile about the topic at hand.

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The new Tennessee State Museum opens this week

Here’s the schedule for the grand opening, for you lucky dogs making the trip to Nashville.

And here’s a breakdown of the permanent exhibits:

  • Tennessee Time Tunnel, which seems to be a sort of port of entry to the other galleries, sort of like Main Street at the Magic Kingdom.
  • Natural History
  • First Peoples, from the end of the last Ice Age to 1760
  • Forging a Nation, from 1760 to 1860
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction
  • Change and Challenge, from 1870 through World War II
  • Tennessee Transforms, 1945 to the present

If it seems odd that the Civil War and Reconstruction get a whole gallery to themselves, bear in mind that the TSM’s Civil War collection is huge. And the old building’s exhibits didn’t include anything at all on much of the twentieth century, so it looks like we’ll be getting a much broader, fuller examination of the state’s history in this new setup.

Still, the prospect of covering the whole century between the Anglo-Cherokee War and Lincoln’s election as a single unit seems like quite an undertaking.  Of course, I’m partial to the period between the late 1760s and the collapse of the State of Franklin, so I wouldn’t want to see it get short shrift.  One thing I adored about the old TSM was its extensive treatment of the frontier.  The “Forging a Nation” gallery includes a Rev War exhibit, and I hope that means all those wonderful King’s Mountain relics are still on display.  Anyway, I can’t wait to get over there and see the new place for myself.

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WBIR talks to my mom about her Jack Lord biography

If you’d like a copy of her book about the star of Hawaii Five-O and Colonial Williamsburg’s Story of a Patriot, you can get it from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, or direct from the publisher.

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Ron Hoffman, 1941-2018

Dr. Ronald Hoffman, an eminent scholar of the American Revolution, passed away earlier this month.  He was the longest-serving Director of the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture, editor of the papers of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and a prolific author.

He looms especially large in all the research I’ve done and am doing, because he co-edited An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry During the American Revolution, one of fifteen volumes based on a series of conferences he convened under the aegis of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.  An Uncivil War is indispensable to any study of the Revolutionary backcountry, and is perhaps the most valuable secondary source on that subject I’ve ever encountered.

On a personal note, I had the honor of eating lunch with Dr. Hoffman years ago as an M.A. student.  He patiently listened to me talk about my (then very nebulous) research and was generous with his advice.  He was a giant in the field, but he treated me like a colleague.  The reminiscences I’ve read from other students and junior scholars over the past few days indicate that such kindness was typical of him.

The Omohundro Institute sponsors a postdoctoral fellowship in his name.  For information on how to donate, along with details about a celebration of his life scheduled for next month at William and Mary, click here.

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Mary Todd Lincoln without the caricature

We ended up having a little extra wall space in our new exhibit, so we’ve decided to get with our designer to create a new panel on Lincoln’s family life.  I’ve spent the past few days working on the text.

Writing exhibit copy is always hard—much more difficult, in my experience, than any other type of writing.  Your audience is necessarily broad and you don’t have much space.  The pressure to be clear and concise can be downright crushing.  And since museums speak with an authoritative voice, you have to be as even-handed as possible.  Covering the Lincolns’ marriage within these guidelines has been especially difficult, mostly because of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division via Wikimedia Commons

She was undeniably volatile.  She shouted.  She screamed.  She chased Lincoln out of the house with a broom, clocked him on the nose with a chunk of firewood, and chewed him out in front of friends and neighbors.  She pestered him over his informal manners and his unfashionable, ill-fitting clothes.  She bullied the maids and haggled unbecomingly with salesmen.

Lincoln’s friends and neighbors described her as “a hellion — a she devil — vexed — & harrowed the soul out of that good man — wouldn’t Cook for him — drove him from home &c — often & Often.”  His law partner William Herndon, one of her more strident detractors, claimed that she made Lincoln’s life “a domestic hell.”

But the stories of Mary’s theatrics (plentiful though they are) don’t tell the whole story of the Lincolns’ marriage.  Her niece remembered, “Mr. Lincoln enjoyed his home and he and Mary idolized their children. So far as I could see there was complete and loving kindness between Mary and her husband, consideration for each other’s wishes and a taste for the same books. They seemed congenial in all things.”  Another neighbor reported, “Mary was a little high strung. She came of blue blood, blue grass Kentucky stock; and her tastes were somewhat different from Abe’s, but, law, they got along well together.”

And it must be said in all fairness that her husband was a difficult man to be married to.  He was gone for weeks or months at a time, traveling the Eighth Judicial Circuit or conducting political business, leaving Mary to raise the children alone.  (In 1850, Lincoln was away from Springfield more days than he was home.)

Even when he was home, some of Lincoln’s eccentricities must have compounded her stress.  He answered the door in his shirtsleeves, sat down to dinner without his coat, and stretched out on the floor to read.  He became so absorbed in thought that he didn’t notice her speaking to him, or failed to see that one of the boys had fallen out of the wagon in which he was pulling them.  When she launched into one of her tirades, one neighbor recalled, he would ignore her—or worse, laugh at her.

If we’re going to give our visitors a sense of what Lincoln’s domestic life was like, Mary’s tantrums have to be a part of the story.  They’re too prominent in the record to dismiss (although I suspect Herndon pressed the issue in his interviews with Lincoln’s acquaintances, given his evident dislike for the woman).

At the same time, though, our handling of the Lincolns’ marriage needs to be well-rounded.  As tempting as it is to devote all our space to colorful anecdotes about Mary’s histrionics, those incidents don’t tell the whole story.  We don’t want to reduce her to a crude caricature.  Some depictions have stooped to this level.  In D.W. Griffith’s 1930 film Abraham Lincoln, Mary is an unbearable shrew, played almost strictly for laughs.

What our exhibit needs, in other words, is detail and nuance.  That’s not easy to pull off in the tightly confined space of a single panel.  A biographer could take an entire chapter to develop a balanced appraisal of Mary.  We have to do it in a few sentences. And those sentences have to be accessible and engaging to everybody from elementary school students to members of our institution’s faculty.

Sometimes people think public history is easier than academic history.  The truth is, public history only looks easy because part of the job is making it look easy.  And that’s usually the hardest part of the gig.

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