Monthly Archives: August 2017

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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UTK profs are publishing agrarian history and talking Jackson

Here are a couple of updates on what faculty from UT’s Department of History are doing.

Dr. Tore Olsson has a new book that will appeal to those of you interested in agrarian, twentieth-century, and transnational history.  Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside reveals how rural reform movements in two countries influenced and reinforced one another.  Some of the ideas behind the New Deal were actually Mexican imports; in turn, New Deal programs like the TVA shaped Mexican development efforts.  I got to take Dr. Olsson’s seminar on the United States and the world when I started my doctoral studies, and I can tell you that once you start looking at American history from his border-busting perspective, it’s a real eye-opener.

Dr. Dan Feller, editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson, will lecture on the Indian Removal Act at the East Tennessee History Center at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, August 20.  The Hermitage will also have a traveling exhibit on hand.  The lecture is part of the East Tennessee Historical Society’s weekend-long History Fair, which is always well worth a visit.

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More alternate Civil War histories? Look away!

I assume we’ve all heard that the guys behind Game of Thrones are doing an alt-history series where the Confederacy survives into the present day, and that the entire Twittersphere ripped HBO a new one over it.

We don’t yet know how well the show would grapple with the subject matter, but that interview in which one of the GoT guys seemed to have difficulty recalling the name of the Battle of Antietam doesn’t inspire confidence, does it?

Setting aside questions of historical sensibility or whether a series about modern-day legal slavery would be in good taste, one of the reasons it strikes me as a dumb idea is the fact that we’ve seen the whole Confederacy-wins-the-war premise done So. Many. Times.  The only alt-history scenario that’s more worn-out is the notion of an Axis victory in WWII.  There are so many novels based on the idea that you could build your own Fort Sumter using only the ones written by Harry Turtledove.  In fact, a Civil War setting for alternative history of any kind is pretty stale; it’s got its own Wikipedia page, for crying out loud.

Now comes news that Amazon is developing its own alternative offering—an alt-alt-history, I suppose you could call it—which “focuses on freed slaves who form their own country, New Colonia, out of the states of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, given to them as reparations for the country’s original sin.”  At least that’s a somewhat original twist.

If you ask me, though, storytellers need to start thinking outside the box when it comes to alt-history settings.  They’ve got centuries of the human past to play with.  Give the 1860s and 1940s a rest.

 

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