Monthly Archives: September 2017

No on-air historians deployed in ‘The Vietnam War’

I’ve been enjoying the new Ken Burns series, especially the riveting firsthand accounts from Vietnam veterans on both sides.  But the absence of on-air commentary from historians has been an unpleasant surprise.  I’m not trying to imply that historians had no input in the series; I’m sure Burns has done his homework and consulted with a lot of knowledgeable people.  I’m talking about the way the series conveys information, not the quality of the content.

When a documentary uses historians as talking heads, it puts a human face on the discipline.  And by that, I don’t mean that it introduces audiences to individual scholars.  I mean that viewers can see how historical knowledge is something constructed by real live people.  It isn’t an assemblage of facts that descends from on high; instead, it’s a conversation among many voices working together, and sometimes arguing with one another.

When you watch The Civil War, for example, it’s clear that Barbara Fields, Ed Bearss, and Shelby Foote are asking different sorts of questions and approaching the same subject from distinct perspectives.  In the Vietnam series, by contrast, the eyewitness insights of participants are embedded within a single, overarching story told from the perspective of a seemingly omniscient narrator.

You might argue that a documentary about a war that’s still a living memory doesn’t need historians’ commentary as much as a series about the nineteenth century.  But I think historians’ voices are all the more necessary when you’re covering a subject as raw as the Vietnam War.

H Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment at Huế (National Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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 allow.  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.

1 Comment

Filed under Graduate School, Research and Writing

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Appalachian History, Historic Preservation, Tennessee History

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts