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David Brion Davis, 1927-2019

The historical profession lost another one of its giants. David B. Davis was an eminent scholar of slavery and abolition, author of a number of magisterial works, and founding director of the Gilder Lehman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale.

Here are a few words from his colleague David Blight:

He was an intellectual in pursuit of truth and wisdom. In his presence one always learned something. He was a deeply spiritual man who saw the historian’s craft as a search for the minds and souls of people in the past. He devoted his life and career to understanding the place of the inhumane but profoundly important and persistent practices of slavery and racism in the world. He was a philosopher at heart, a lyrical writer, and defined why we do history. We stand on his shoulders. At the GLC we carry on his legacy every day. We loved him. His portrait hangs on the wall at the GLC amidst a large portion of his book collection, still containing his post-its, book marks and thousands of annotations. We will always have him nearby.

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Crichton and the “unknown unknowns” of the past

One of the most notable instances of dramatic license in Jurassic Park is the venom-spitting Dilophosaurus.  As far as we know, neither Dilos nor any other dinosaur had venom, let alone used it as a projectile weapon.

But that’s only as far as we know.  As Dino Dad Reviews noted on Twitter, there’s a lot that we don’t even realize we don’t know when it comes to dinosaurs:

I can understand if people are simply annoyed that it’s [i.e., a venomous Dilo] an overused trope in pop culture now, but the idea as originally in JP is entirely reasonable, not too different from the informed speculation of All Yesterdays.

Chrichton includes this to build upon the theme of what All Yesterdays calls “unknown unknowns” in he study of prehistory. Things that we aren’t simply unsure about, but are completely surprised by because we had no particular reason to suspect them.

A beautiful Dilo at the Royal Ontario Museum. Eduard Solà [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

This is well worth noting. In the novel, this “unknown unknown” underscores the deadly risk the park’s managers have taken in resurrecting extinct animals and keeping them captive:

Knowledge has its limits. Moreover, there are limits to what is knowable at all. It’s a recurring theme in Crichton’s work.

His protagonists tend to be scientists, researchers, academics, experts—people whose business is to know their stuff.  They find themselves confronting the subjects of their expertise in visceral and unexpected ways.  Paleontologist Alan Grant must traverse an island populated with live dinosaurs in Jurassic Park; primatologist Peter Elliot faces off against a murderous breed of apes in Congo; and medievalist and experimental archaeologist André Marek gets stranded in fourteenth-century France in Timeline.

Readers be warned: spoilers for Crichton’s Micro and Congo in the next paragraph.

Sometimes the characters’ specialized knowledge saves them.  In Micro, when a group of young scientists find themselves shrunk to insect size, they survive by weaponizing their own research projects.  And in Congo, the expedition members escape the jungle after Elliot is able to decipher the apes’ language.

Time and time again, however, Crichton’s characters confront the limits of their expertise.  It’s not that their expertise is defective.  In fact, many of his protagonists are exceptional and ambitious researchers with impeccable academic pedigrees.  But their academic training and research can’t prepare them for the unknowable unknowns.

That’s especially true of the characters who study the past.  The distant past, by its very nature, is something one can’t experience firsthand, at least not in its totality.  Both Jurassic Park‘s Grant and Timeline‘s Marek specialize in long-dead subjects.  When they encounter these subjects as living, breathing antagonists, the experience takes them across the frontiers of what is knowable in their respective disciplines.

Marek is an avid practitioner of living history.  Steeped in medieval languages and customs, he practices jousting and archery in his spare time.  When a time traveling accident leaves him and and his colleagues marooned in medieval France, he’s the only one who seems right at home.

The Battle of the Herrings, 1429. Bibliothèque nationale de France [Public domain]

When he watches his first authentic, fourteenth-century sword match, however, it’s disconcerting:

A fellow time traveler asks, “André, is everything all right?”  Marek replies that he has a lot to learn.

In Crichton’s thrillers, the problem of unknowable unknowns is the stuff of life or death. For those of us who study the past here in the real world, a world without time machines and de-extinction, the problem is less immediate.  But it’s still one worth considering.

Like Marek, we all have a lot to learn about the times and places we study.  If we could travel to the settings of our own work, what unknowns would surprise us?  And how should an awareness that these unknowns exist inform our study of what we think we can know?

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WBIR talks to my mom about her Jack Lord biography

If you’d like a copy of her book about the star of Hawaii Five-O and Colonial Williamsburg’s Story of a Patriot, you can get it from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, or direct from the publisher.

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Edward Ayers will deliver 2018 Jackson Lecture at UTK

One of the big highlights of the academic year for the University of Tennessee’s Department of History is the annual Charles O. Jackson Memorial Lecture.  This year’s talk should be especially notable.  Dr. Edward Ayers, a bona fide academic superstar and a stellar historian, will present “Southern Journey: The Story of the South in Movement.”

Dr. Ayers is Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond.  He is a recipient of the Bancroft Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and the Lincoln Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He has also been named National Professor of the Year. His books include In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863; The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America; The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction; and Southern Crossing: A History of the American South, 1877-1906. He is a co-host of the history podcast BackStory.

The 2018 Jackson Lecture will be at the East Tennessee Historical Society‘s headquarters in downtown Knoxville at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20.

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Come and take Lincoln’s journey with us

I couldn’t be happier to announce that the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum‘s new permanent exhibit Log Walls to Marble Halls is now open in our renovated Kincaid Gallery.  From now on, our visitors will get a more in-depth and engaging look at Lincoln’s life before the presidency than we’ve ever been able to offer before.

The emphasis is on Lincoln’s ascent from his frontier beginnings to the political and professional prominence he achieved by 1860, and how his ambition and lifelong habit of self-improvement reinforced his convictions about the American experiment, politics, and the escalating controversy over slavery.

Some of our most remarkable artifacts are back on display and looking better than ever, including a corner cupboard made by Abraham Lincoln’s father in Kentucky, a tea set used by the Lincoln family in their Springfield home (donated by Abraham Lincoln’s last direct descendant), a family portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, and a flag and campaign banners from Lincoln’s Senate race against Stephen Douglas.

The exhibit also features other priceless pieces of our collection that haven’t been on public display in years, or are now on exhibit for the first time: scales from the Lincoln-Berry store in New Salem, rare campaign ribbons, sheet music, a first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and more.

I think this is the most exciting thing that’s happened at the ALLM since the place opened back in 1977.  It’s certainly the biggest thing we’ve done since I was an undergrad intern there many years ago, and something a lot of us have dreamed about for a long, long time.  I hope you’ll come and check it out.

And we’re just getting started.  If you’d like to help us finish transforming the way we tell the story of Lincoln and his era, consider a contribution to our capital campaign.

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Ira Berlin, 1941-2018

One of the greats passed away yesterday.  Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America is an absolute classic, one of the most comprehensive, nuanced, and elegant studies ever written of slavery’s evolution across space and time. It appeared on more required reading lists than any other text my grad professors assigned.

The last time I was in a seminar to discuss Berlin’s book was my adviser’s Atlantic course. We couldn’t help but admire the deftness with which he balanced the power of structures against the power of agency, and the variety of American slave societies against their common trajectories. “It’s an art,” my adviser said. And Berlin was one heck of an artist.

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Governor’s proposed budget would kill University Press of Kentucky

Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed budget eliminates state funding for the University Press of Kentucky.  If this goes through, the press will shut down after 75 years of exemplary publishing.

That would be especially devastating for Appalachian history, since UPK is one of the most important publishers in the field.  Civil War and Southern history would take quite a hit, too.  But this goes beyond historiography, since UPK is an indispensable resource for anyone interested in state and regional topics as a whole, as as Tom Eblen explains:

Thomas D. Clark, the legendary Kentucky historian, helped start UPK in 1943. Since then, it has published 2,100 books that have sold 4.6 million copies in 40 countries. Currently, about 85 percent of its sales are books in print and 15 percent are e-books.

While scholarly publishing is part of UPK’s mission, Salisbury has increased the focus on important books about Kentucky and Appalachia that will sell well in the region but don’t have the kind of national audience mass-market publishers require.

Among them: The Kentucky Encyclopedia, the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, Atlas of Kentucky, The Complete Guide to Kentucky State Parks and countless books of Kentucky history, biography, literature and explorations of the state’s culture, politics, food, bourbon, plants, animals and trees.

UPK publishes contemporary Kentucky writers, such as Crystal Wilkinson and Bobbie Ann Mason, and has kept in print works by famous Kentucky authors of the past, such as Robert Penn Warren, Jesse Stuart, James Still and Janice Holt Giles.

Upcoming publications include a cultural history of Elkhorn Creek by former state poet laureate Richard Taylor; a comprehensive guide to Kentucky reptiles and amphibians; a book about the UK basketball team’s 1978 championship season; and a book about Kentucky Senators by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

As a publishing partner with the U.S. Army, UPK publishes a lot of military history. Several of its titles have made the Army Chief of Staff’s Professional Reading List.

Now would be a good time to start contacting lawmakers in the Bluegrass State, folks.

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