Monthly Archives: December 2008

History as literature

Every time I step into a major bookstore I can find copies of Foote’s Civil War trilogy, the early work of David McCullough, an abridgement of Freeman’s biographies of Lee and Washington, and a book or two by Barbara Tuchman.  All these books have been around for decades, and in terms of scholarship they’ve all been superseded (to one degree or another) by more recent studies.  Yet not only do they remain in print, they continue to cast a long shadow.

This is pretty remarkable when you consider that most history books, even those that are models of research and analysis, are mere blips on the radar of the national consciousness.  How many works of historical scholarship continue to garner impressive sales and legions of new readers five decades after they’re first published?  A very, very few.

It seems to me that the reason books by Freeman, Tuchman, and Foote stay on the shelves is the fact they’ve transcended history and become genuine pieces of literature.  People read them not merely to acquire the information in them, but for the experience of reading them.  They want to immerse themselves in the language and follow the same journey that other readers have experienced; they read them for the same motives that might prompt them to pick up Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby

I’m not arguing that these books are historically superior to more rigorous, scholarly studies.  In fact, I’d advise anyone looking for an accurate assessment of Lee to turn to the work of Emory Thomas rather than Freeman, and I could recommend any number of books on the American Revolution above Tuchman’s The First Salute.  But I do think that, in this age of the academic fad and over-specialization, the endurance of classics like these should at least give us us pause, and make us consider what these writers-turned-historians knew how to do that we don’t.

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Filed under Historiography, History and Memory

Dusting off the Lincoln Bible

Several history bloggers, including me, have mentioned the Lincoln-Obama parallels that have been floating around in the press.  I think most of these comparisons are a load of horse-flop, not because they offend any political sensibilities I might have, but because of their banal superficiality.

Anyway, when Obama is sworn in, he’ll be using the same Bible Lincoln used at his first inauguration.  Washington’s inaugural Bible has probably been the most popular choice, having been used for four ceremonies (five, if you count Washington’s own).

As a former museum guy, this custom of swearing-in on historic Bibles has always irked me a little.  When I see a video of an incoming president pressing his bare flesh on one of these babies, I’m thinking, “He’s not wearing gloves!  No gloves!  Somebody get him some white cotton gloves!” 

After all, a president-elect’s hands are as oily and contaminated as anybody else’s.

According to the above-linked story, Obama is also going to follow Lincoln’s inaugural train route from Springfield to D.C.  Of course, Lincoln’s train trip started out with a misplaced inaugural address manuscript and ended with rumors of an assassination plot and accusations of physical cowardice.  I’m guessing his first bit of advice to Obama would be, “Seriously, pal,  just take a plane.”

(The photo of Lincoln’s first inauguration is from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

Following the evidence

Lately I’ve been digging back into a couple of classics on political thought during the American Revolution.  The first is Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which originated as an introduction to a collection of pamphlets written during the imperial crisis.  The second is Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787.

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of these two books.  Both of them helped generate historians’ appreciation of republicanism as the dominant theme of revolutionary politics, a synthesis that made sense of eighteenth-century Americans’ obsession with public virtue, the common good, and the invasive nature of power.

Ideological Origins and Creation of the American Republic have something in common besides their arguments, something that explains why both books were seminal when first published and have stood the test of time.  In assembling their work, both Bailyn and Wood let the evidence guide them.  They saturated themselves in what revolutionary-era Americans were reading and writing, they looked for patterns, and they made sense of it all.  They didn’t ask, “What were eighteenth-century Americans thinking about such-and-such a subject?”  Instead, they simply asked, “What were eighteenth-century Americans thinking?” 

Writing the history of political thought, or any kind of intellectual history, should be an attempt to recover a past worldview.  Bailyn and Wood didn’t consider themselves to be shapers of the evidence.  They considered themselves subject to it, and that accounts for their work’s remarkable staying power; they listened to the American Revolutionaries and then allowed them to speak to us.

(Both book cover images are from


Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Re-enacting at

You might get a kick out of this item published on Slate, in which a writer takes a crack at living history interpretation.  I’m not a big fan of subjective, first-person journalism, but it’s an interesting look at re-enacting from the outside.

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Filed under History on the Web, Reenacting

Poetic justice for historic sites

Some time ago I posted an item on IL’s wildly unpopular Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who’s been slashing his state’s public history and preservation funds.  It wasn’t so much the cuts that bothered me as it was the fact that Blagojevich has allegedly wasted thousands of dollars on needless expenses for his own benefit, while the dedicated folks who keep historic sites going suffered from cutbacks and layoffs.

You can thus imagine my delight when I discovered that Blagojevich has been arrested for corruption.  The fact that the feds arrested him at 6:15 in the morning, before he was even dressed, is icing on the cake.

A welcome ray of sunshine for public historians in the Land of Lincoln.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites

Here’s a Lincoln tribute for you

Occasionally I’ll head over to eBay just to see what history-related items they have.  Lincoln-related items are usually easy to come by; I got my set of the Collected Works by online bidding.  Today I typed “Abraham Lincoln” into the search field and encountered this listing: “Abraham Lincoln RARE Heirloom Tomato 50 Seeds for 2009.”

And here it is.  Being unaware of any connections between Lincoln and tomatoes, I did a search and uncovered a plethora of information.  According to one source

‘Abraham Lincoln’ was introduced in 1923 by the W. H. Buckbee seed company of Rockford, Ill., which named the tomato in honor of the state’s favorite son. It was released without much fanfare, but over the years it has proved itself to be one of the great tomato classics that happily survived the big shift to hybrids during the 1940s. After the demise of the Buckbee firm, the tomato was continued by R. H. Shumway of Randolph, Wis.

I’d always drawn very broad distinctions between tomatoes; you’ve got your big ones that you slice and put on sandwiches and your little ones that you add to salads.  Apparently, though, this is a very serious business.  Tomato varieties are “released” with or without fanfare, and then “continued” in the same manner as automobile models or limited edition porcelain figurines.  “Don’t be confused with Abraham Lincoln improved,” urges the eBay vendor.  “In my opinion, it isn’t as good as the original!”

At the very least, this is a cheaper alternative to collecting original Lincoln documents or artwork.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory