Category Archives: Historiography

David McCullough turns back the clock on frontier history

When the PR campaign for David McCullough’s The Pioneers kicked off, yours truly said this:

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….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.

Now the book’s out, and it looks like the marketing didn’t lie.  Here’s Rebecca Onion’s take from Slate:

Unfortunately, the book is exactly as advertised. When it comes to representing “pioneers” as isolated and hardworking idealists fighting off “threats” from residents of the land they are taking, this book—about the settlement of Marietta, Ohio, and the Northwest Territory more generally, in the years after the Revolutionary War—is a true throwback. Its success (it is No.
10 on Amazon’s best-seller list for books, as of Friday) shows how big the gap between critical history and the “popular history” that makes it to best-seller lists, Costco, and Target remains.

A “throwback” indeed.  Some of these excerpts could’ve come right out of the work of Lyman Draper and his fellow nineteenth-century antiquarians, fixated as they were on their subjects’ public virtue, sterling private character, and domestic contentment:

McCullough writes of Manasseh Cutler: “He had as well great love for his large family, his wife and children, and was ever attentive to their needs for as long as he lived.” (That’s a stand-alone paragraph!) Later, about Cutler’s son Ephraim: “It would be said of Ephraim Cutler that along with so many of his strengths, virtues, and worthy accomplishments, his place as the most notable of Ohio’s surviving pioneers, he was also blessed in his family.”

Andrew Isenberg agrees that The Pioneers is a historiographical leap backward:

The fortitude of the settlers McCullough describes was quite real. So too was land fraud, racial hierarchy and the ousting of Native Americans from their homes. McCullough so blithely ignores these less-attractive aspects of the settler narrative that he could have written this book in 1893, when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his famous “frontier thesis,” which argued that the conquering of the wilderness forged the American character. For that matter, McCullough could have written it decades before Turner, when the dominant interpretation of U.S. history was that American moral character flowed from New England descendants of the Puritans such as Cutler and Putnam.

Like those 19th-century historians, “The Pioneers” presents American history as a grand civics lesson, in which the accomplishments of our principled forebears serve as inspirations. Rather than wrestle with the moral complexities of western settlement, McCullough simplifies that civics lesson into a tale of inexorable triumph.

For more, check out William Hogeland, who’s been sharing his reactions to the book on Twitter.

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John Buchanan returns to the Revolutionary South

Here’s another one to add to the list of new and forthcoming books on the Rev War in the South.  John Buchanan’s The Road to Charleston picks up where his acclaimed The Road to Guilford Courthouse left off:

Greene’s Southern Campaign was the most difficult of the war. With a supply line stretching hundreds of miles northward, it revealed much about the crucial military art of provision and transport. Insufficient manpower a constant problem, Greene attempted to incorporate black regiments into his army, a plan angrily rejected by the South Carolina legislature. A bloody civil war between Rebels and Tories was wreaking havoc on the South at the time, forcing Greene to address vigilante terror and restore civilian government. As his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson during the campaign shows, Greene was also bedeviled by the conflict between war and the rights of the people, and the question of how to set constraints under which a free society wages war.

Joining Greene is an unforgettable cast of characters—men of strong and, at times, antagonistic personalities—all of whom are vividly portrayed. We also follow the fate of Greene’s tenacious foe, Lieutenant Colonel Francis, Lord Rawdon. By the time the British evacuate Charleston—and Greene and his ragged, malaria-stricken, faithful Continental Army enter the city in triumph—the reader has witnessed in telling detail one of the most punishing campaigns of the Revolution, culminating in one of its greatest victories.

Road to Guilford Courthouse is probably the most engaging book ever written about the Southern Campaign, so it’s nice to see Buchanan finishing the story of Greene’s reconquista.  The Road to Charleston hits stores this March.

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Two Rev War books from Ian Saberton

Ian Saberton released two new Rev War books this year.  You might be familiar with Saberton’s six-volume edition of Cornwallis papers, a tremendous boon to those of us interested in the Southern Campaigns.

First up is The American Revolutionary War in the South: A Re-Evaluation from a British Perspective in the Light of the Cornwallis Papers:

Relying principally on Ian Saberton’s edition of The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War, 6 vols (Uckfield: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, 2010), this work opens with an essay containing a groundbreaking critique of British strategy during the momentous and decisive campaigns that terminated in Cornwallis’s capitulation at Yorktown and the consolidation of American independence. The essay begins by analysing the critical mistakes that led the British to disaster and ends, conversely by describing how they might have achieved a lasting measure of success. The remaining essays address certain characters and events in or connected to the war.

The second book is a biography of George Hanger, who commanded Tarleton’s Legion at Charlotte while Tarleton himself was sick.

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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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“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 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.”  It 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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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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