Monthly Archives: January 2018

The home as the center of history

I’ve been reading Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands, and it’s as good as you’d expect a volume in the Oxford History of the United States by a scholar of White’s caliber to be.

One of the themes he returns to again and again is the importance of “home”—the independent, male-headed household—as a driving force in American history during the late nineteenth century.  The home and the values associated with it, White claims, “provided the frame in which ordinary nineteenth-century Americans understood their own lives, the economy, and the national goals of Reconstruction in the South and West.”  I

dealization of the home thus links together a lot of seemingly disparate trends and events from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the twentieth century.  The desire to propagate independent households helped form the basis for free labor ideology.  Reconstruction was an effort to extend the benefits of the home to African Americans, and those Americans who resisted Reconstruction invoked the need to defend white homes to justify racism.  Labor reformers claimed that rapacious capitalism threatened the stability and integrity of households.  And in the West, some white Americans attempted to use the idealized, male-headed home as a template for Indian acculturation, while others sought to displace or exterminate those same Indians because of the threat they posed to settlers trying to establish their own independent households.  It might not be too much to say that Americans of that era either embraced or rejected any given thing to the same degree that it nurtured or threatened the propagation and protection of independent, male-headed homes.

By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

What strikes me about White’s centering of late nineteenth-century American history on the home is that the same framework applies to the backcountry and frontier of a century earlier, my own area of special interest.  As Honor Sachs has demonstrated in Home Rule, and as Richard Maxwell Brown has argued in his work on the “homesteading ethic,” the history of the settlement and development of the eighteenth-century West is, to a considerable degree, a story of Americans’ desire to obtain and secure a competency in the form of an independent, male-headed household.

As much as historians like to talk about change over time, the idealization of the home has been a pretty consistent—and persistent—force over the past couple hundred years.  Indeed, you can see the same emphasis on the household ideal playing out across a lot of culture war battlegrounds in our own day.  But precisely because these ideals are so ubiquitous and ingrained, we risk overlooking their explanatory power, even though they might come as close as anything else to providing something like a unified theory of American history.

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Book ’em

If you’re interested in the history of TV and film, McFarland Books has a new biography of Hawaii Five-O‘s Jack Lord coming out this year.

Not the sort of thing I usually post about, of course, but I’m plugging it here for two reasons.  First, Jack Lord actually does have a connection to the American Revolution.  One of his early roles was John Fry, the protagonist of Colonial Williamsburg’s orientation film Story of a Patriot, which has been running daily for sixty years.  (In fact, it’s had the longest continual run of any motion picture in American history.)

Second, I’m a big fan of the author, because she happens to be my mom.

Here’s some more info from the publisher:

Before his rise to superstardom portraying Detective Steve McGarrett on the long-running police drama Hawaii Five-O, Jack Lord was already a dedicated and versatile performer on Broadway, in film and on television.

His range of roles included a Virginia gentleman planter in Colonial Williamsburg (The Story of a Patriot), CIA agent Felix Leiter in the first James Bond movie (Dr. No) and the title character in the cult classic rodeo TV series Stoney Burke. Lord’s career culminated in twelve seasons on Hawaii Five-O, where his creative control of the series left an indelible fingerprint on every aspect of its production.

This book, the first to draw on Lord’s massive personal archive, gives a behind-the-scenes look into the life and work of a TV legend.

And they’re not kidding about that massive personal archive.  Mom was able to get access to a huge trove of Lord’s papers—letters, scripts, memos, photographs, clippings—along with rare recordings of early performances and interviews.  She also spent some time at Colonial Williamsburg’s archives digging up information on the making of Story of a Patriot, which turned out to be quite an interesting tale in its own right.

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Military history and the art of setting up an argument

I’m revising a draft of the first chapter of my dissertation, and one of the things I need to work on is clearly and concisely articulating from the outset what I’m trying to do in that chapter and how.  It’s a matter of putting into practice the old adage that you have to tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em before you actually do it.  In my first chapter draft I didn’t do this nearly as effectively as I should have.

Since the goal of any work of historical scholarship is to make an original contribution to what we know—or an intervention into a conversation about what we think we know—writers of history have to state what it is they’re bringing to the table.  In grant applications and paper proposals it’s the difference between life and death, but it’s important when sitting down to complete the actual project, too.  Ironically, some of the best models I’ve found of setting up a book-length historical argument come from a genre that a lot of academic historians dismiss: military history that focuses on campaigns, battles, strategy, tactics, and leadership.

Take, for example, Scott Bowden and Bill Ward’s Last Chance for Victory: Robert E. Lee and the Gettysburg Campaign.  It’s a hefty book, more than 600 pages and very closely argued.  But it only takes about four of those pages for Bowden and Ward to explain what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why.  Let me note that I’m not necessarily saying I agree with the authors’ conclusions regarding Lee’s generalship in the invasion of Pennsylvania.  I’m just saying that the way they set up their book’s purpose, organization, and methodology is as clear and concise as you’re likely to find in a work of historical scholarship.

Another example is Joseph L. Harsh’s Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862.  In ten pages, Harsh explains how attention to Antietam has waxed and waned over the years, why the campaign matters, the approaches earlier writers have taken, and how his own approach corrects some important interpretive problems.

Maybe Antietam and Gettysburg have been the subject of so much writing over the years that these authors had to be especially conscientious about explaining what they were doing and why.  Or maybe this genre just lends itself especially well to explicit argumentation because it involves questions of contingency and individual responsibility.  Whatever the reason, those of us looking for examples for our own projects could do a lot worse.

By Captain James Hope (d.1892) (Hope Paintings at nps.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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