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Now tweeting professionally as well as personally

Here’s a bit of news for those of you who are kind enough to follow me on Twitter as well as this blog.  In an effort to facilitate networking with other historians and institutions and to develop a professional online profile, I’ve now set up a second Twitter account for myself: @mlynchhist.  I’ll be keeping my aspiring-early-Americanist hat planted pretty firmly on my head while tweeting at that handle.

I’ll still be tweeting at my original Twitter account (@mlynch5396), too, and will probably cross-tweet most of my historical stuff there.  It’ll just be mixed in with my exclamations on dinosaurs, religion, news, regional matters, the human condition in general, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

While I’m talking Twitter, let me encourage those of you who read the blog but don’t follow one of my Twitter accounts to keep up with me on that platform, too.  A lot of the links and comments on American history that I would’ve posted here a few years ago now end up on my Twitter feed, so if you’re interested in what I cover here, I’d love you to join in on the rest of the conversation.

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Resources for those looking to help Tennessee wildfire victims

More than 17,000 acres burned in the Smoky Mountains, seven precious lives lost, more still missing, 700 buildings damaged.  The situation in Gatlinburg is post-apocalyptic.

If you’d like to pitch in, Knoxville’s NBC affiliate has a list of organizations, businesses, and charities that are collecting money and supplies.  You can also make a $10 donation by texting “REDCROSS” TO 90999.

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We need libraries with real books in them

If you haven’t already, read Ann E. Michael’s defense of libraries with real, physical, honest-to-goodness books on real, physical, honest-to-goodness shelves that you can actually browse.  Seems odd that this is a concept in need of defending, but that’s this century for you.

Here’s an excerpt:

During a recent meeting at my college, a high-level administrator suggested that our campus library — a relatively new and spacious building — was too full of windows and good views to be devoted merely to storing books. Essentially, he was promoting the idea of off-site text storage, with an eye to moving student-resource departments — tutoring, the writing center, retention — into the library. Study centers instead of book stacks.

I have a stake in that proposal, as I am the writing-center coordinator. If I’m honest, I’ll admit how much I would love to get my peer tutors out of our classroom-building basement and into the library. It is a terrific space.

I don’t think it’s the right move for the college, however. Downsizing the stacks and increasing student and faculty reliance on virtual sources limits the silent conversation between people and books, arrests the opportunity for surprising encounters with unexpected materials, and thus dampens synthesis — the very stuff of new ideas.

That’s very true; the simple act of looking over the shelves, of getting a sense of what information is available on a given topic simply by taking a few steps down an aisle, is a very useful step the research process.  I think every historian has had those moments where they’ve been looking for one book and accidentally stumbled across another that opened up a new and profitable line of investigation.  Sure, some libraries’ online catalogs allow you to “browse” the titles shelved near a particular book electronically, but there’s no substitute for putting in a shoe leather.

I get why libraries want to minimize the amount of space devoted to stacks.  Those coffee shops, art displays, and Zen mindfulness seminars have to go somewhere.  But, if you’ll indulge a rant, my problem with doing away with open stacks is twofold.

First, libraries are just about the only institutions set aside for providing access to books.  If I’m hard pressed for coffee, I can hit Dunkin Donuts or 7-Eleven; if I need a copy of One Vast Winter Count, by contrast, I don’t have many options besides the library.  I don’t have a problem with a coffee shop in the library, just as I don’t have a problem with an ATM inside a Burger King.  But when they start dismantling the broilers to fit in more ATM machines, somebody needs to stop and remember what Burger Kings are for.

Second, the measures libraries use to minimize shelf space—off-site storage, closed storage, and e-books—are a major pain in the tuchus.  Who wants to have to notify a library ahead of time so they can send a guy to a warehouse to pick up a book that you could’ve walked in and grabbed for yourself?

And e-books…do not get me started on e-books.  I’m not at all opposed to electronic texts.  Yesterday, in fact, I sent an e-mail to a reference librarian telling her how much I love one of the new databases that UT’s library is trying out.  I freaking love being able to sit in my apartment and download primary source material.  It’s saved me countless hours and a great deal of money in the past few years.

But when it comes to reading academic titles, though, I have never—and I mean never—had a good experience with using electronic books provided through a library subscription.  Pages invariably fail to load.  The images don’t configure on my device properly.  And forget checking references.  With a physical book, all you have to do to check out an endnote is riffle through the pages with your thumb and forefinger.  Good luck trying that with an e-book.  Ever tried to read a military history book online, moving back and forth between text, maps, orders of battle, and references?

I’ve had proponents of e-books remind me that multiple patrons can check out the same electronic book simultaneously, something that’s impossible with physical books unless a library has more than one copy.  And I’ll admit that it’s a great feature of electronic books…on those occasions when you can actually use them that way.  In practice, however, a lot of the libraries I’ve used only permit one simultaneous user per e-book.  This doesn’t just eliminate the biggest advantage e-books have over hard copies; it can also make it impossible for even one reader to use a book for any substantial length of time.  I’ve often been trying to read an e-book only to have something go haywire with my connection, my device, or the library’s website.  When I attempt to access the book again, I’m unable to do so, because the website informs me that someone is already using it.  That someone, of course, is me, since getting booted off the site prevents me from logging out, so as far as the website is concerned, I’m still reading the book.

Electronic texts and off-site storage might save your library some space.  But the people who need to get at information, who need the library for those things that only libraries can do, will foot the bill.  And they’ll be paying up with a whole lot of frustration.

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Game on: developing a historical sensibility in Westeros

Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin put in an appearance at the 50th annual Balticon a few days ago:

Though Martin didn’t speak in detail about the books, he said the Vietnam War was part of what shaped his writing and the complexity of his characters.

“We have the capacity for great heroism. We have the capacity for great selfishness and cowardice, many horrible acts. And sometimes at the same time. The same people can do something heroic on Tuesday and something horrible on Wednesday,” he said. “Heroes commit atrocities. People who commit atrocities can be capable later of heroism. It’s the human condition, and I wanted to reflect all that in my work.”

I haven’t read any of Martin’s novels, but my cousin got me hooked on the TV series a couple of years ago when he loaned me the first two seasons on DVD.  I’ve never been much of a fantasy buff, but one night I decided I might as well watch the first episode to see what everybody was raving about online.  That first episode turned into another, and then another…and hours later, I was still perched in front of the TV.  There were aspects of the early seasons I found off-putting; I’m hardly a prude, but the nudity was gratuitous to the point of absurdity.  Still, it’s an undeniably riveting show, probably the best plotted series I’ve ever watched.

Quite a few current TV shows either have a historical setting or intersect somehow with the past’s people and places: Turn, Vikings, Reign, Call the Midwife, Sleepy Hollow, Houdini and Doyle.  But if you ask me, the makers of GoT display a more fully realized historical sensibility than the people behind any other TV series—or creators of many historical films and fiction, for that matter.  It might sound odd to use the term “historical sensibility” when describing a fantasy series set in a world that never existed, but I see two object lessons for historians and writers of historical fiction in GoT.

The first is the three-dimensionality of the characters, reflected in the Martin quote above.  As the series has developed, it’s become harder and harder to categorize GoT‘s characters as “good” or “bad.”  Except for a few outright scoundrels, most of the characters wear grey hats, rather than black or white ones.  Their motivations and their actions are as complex as those of any flesh-and-blood human being.  Even the most sympathetic characters are three-dimensional enough to retain some sense of complexity and fallibility.  And the show’s creators have managed to stir up some degree of sympathy for despicable characters who seemed all but beyond redemption in early seasons.

This knack for human complexity is indispensable for writers of history books, whether fiction or non-fiction.  History, after all, is ultimately the stuff of human existence.  It requires a degree of empathy with your subjects; you can’t male sense of people unless you can understand what drove them and crawl inside their skulls to see things as they saw them.  But historical writing also requires an ability to acknowledge a person’s faults and failures.  The historian must get inside his subjects’ heads, but simultaneously retain enough objectivity to be frank about their shortcomings.  This balance of empathy and aloofness is one of the most difficult of all historical skills to develop, especially in an age of social media and sound bites, when we’re all too prone to label historical figures as either heroes or villains and reduce them to simple caricatures.

The second reason I think GoT exhibits a sort of historical sensibility has to do with the notion of the past as a foreign country.  Consider that the makers of GoT face pretty much the same situation as producers of any historical drama.  They have to establish a world with which viewers are unfamiliar, one with its own cultures, customs, geography, politics, players, and backstories.  It’s not our world, and its inhabitants have little in common with us.  But effective drama also requires characters in whom an audience can become invested.  Fantasy thus requires storytellers to perform a balancing act.  On one hand, they have to create realms where so much is unfamiliar, and populate those realms with people who are so very different from us; on the other hand, they have to make us relate to that place and people.

Good historical fiction, I think, requires the same balancing act. When I read historical fiction or watch historical movies and TV shows, I want the stories to reflect that “foreignness.”  I don’t want people who differ from moderns only with regard to their clothes and hairstyles.  At the same time, however, great fiction taps into those deep, elemental aspects of the human condition that we can all relate to, regardless of the place or time in which we live.  That tension between particularity to a specific time and place on the one hand and the universality of the human condition on the other is hard to maintain, but I’m always in awe of how well the makers of GoT sustain it.  And it’s something many writers of historical non-fiction could stand to emulate as well.

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Selling humans in the Capitol’s shadow

This week I’ve been reading Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life for one of my classes.  It’s one of the most engrossing books I’ve come across in grad school, and if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to put it on your list.

One of the topics Deyle addresses is the slave trade in Washington, D.C.  I knew slave traders were active in the District of Columbia until 1850, but I didn’t know (or I’d forgotten) that trading in human beings went on just a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol building.

One of the illustrations in Deyle’s book is a map from an anti-slavery broadside showing three of the largest pens where D.C. traders kept their merchandise.  The map places the slave house of Joseph Neal & Co. on Seventh Street near the southern edge of the National Mall.  That’s less than two-thirds of a mile from the Capitol.  Here’s a modern map of the Mall with a dropped pin near the site of Neal’s slave house.  The Capitol is on the right side of the image, the Washington Monument on the left:

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 9.53.33 PM

There were a couple of other large slave pens just a few blocks north, one of which belonged to a trader named William Williams.  Solomon Northup of 12 Years a Slave fame spent about two weeks imprisoned there after his kidnapping.  Here’s how he remembered Williams’s slave prison and the savage beating he endured there:

The light admitted through the open door enabled me to observe the room in which I was confined. It was about twelve feet square—the walls of solid masonry. The floor was of heavy plank. There was one small window, crossed with great iron bars, with an outside shutter, securely fastened.

An iron-bound door led into an adjoining cell, or vault, wholly destitute of windows, or any means of admitting light. The furniture of the room in which I was, consisted of the wooden bench on which I sat, an old-fashioned, dirty box stove, and besides these, in either cell, there was neither bed, nor blanket, nor any other thing whatever. The door, through which Burch [James H. Birch, the D.C. slave trader who purchased Northup from his kidnappers] and Radburn entered, led through a small passage, up a flight of steps into a yard, surrounded by a brick wall ten or twelve feet high, immediately in rear of a building of the same width as itself. The yard extended rearward from the house about thirty feet. In one part of the wall there was a strongly ironed door, opening into a narrow, covered passage, leading along one side of the house into the street. The doom of the colored man, upon whom the door leading out of that narrow passage closed, was sealed. The top of the wall supported one end of a roof, which ascended inwards, forming a kind of open shed. Underneath the roof there was a crazy loft all round, where slaves, if so disposed, might sleep at night, or in inclement weather seek shelter from the storm. It was like a farmer’s barnyard in most respects, save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there.

The building to which the yard was attached, was two stories high, fronting on one of the public streets of Washington. Its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. A stranger looking at it, would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol!

Such is a correct description as it was in 1841, of Williams’ slave pen in Washington, in one of the cellars of which I found myself so unaccountably confined.

“Well, my boy, how do you feel now?” said Burch, as he entered through the open door. I replied that I was sick, and inquired the cause of my imprisonment. He answered that I was his slave— that he had bought me, and that he was about to send me to New-Orleans. I asserted, aloud and boldly, that I was a freeman—a resident of Saratoga, where I had a wife and children, who were also free, and that my name was Northup. I complained bitterly of the strange treatment I had received, and threatened, upon my liberation, to have satisfaction for the wrong. He denied that I was free, and with an emphatic oath, declared that I came from Georgia. Again and again I asserted I was no man’s slave, and insisted upon his taking off my chains at once. He endeavored to hush me, as if he feared my voice would be overheard. But I would not be silent, and denounced the authors of my imprisonment, whoever they might be, as unmitigated villains. Finding he could not quiet me, he flew into a towering passion. With blasphemous oaths, he called me a black liar, a runaway from Georgia, and every other profane and vulgar epithet that the most indecent fancy could conceive.

During this time Radburn was standing silently by. His business was, to oversee this human, or rather inhuman stable, receiving slaves, feeding, and whipping them, at the rate of two shillings a head per day. Turning to him, Burch ordered the paddle and cat-o’-ninetails to be brought in. He disappeared, and in a few moments returned with these instruments of torture. The paddle, as it is termed in slave-beating parlance, or at least the one with which I first became acquainted, and of which I now speak, was a piece of hard-wood board, eighteen or twenty inches long, moulded to the shape of an old-fashioned pudding stick, or ordinary oar The flattened portion, which was about the size in circumference of two open hands, was bored with a small auger in numerous places. The cat was a large rope of many strands— the strands unraveled, and a knot tied at the extremity of each.

As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face downwards, Radburn placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted upon my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before. When again tired, he would repeat the same question, and receiving the same answer, continue his cruel labor. All this time, the incarnate devil was uttering most fiendish oaths. At length the paddle broke, leaving the useless handle in his hand. Still I would not yield. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips the foul lie that I was a slave. Casting madly on the floor the handle of the broken paddle, he seized the rope. This was far more painful than the other. I struggled with all my power, but it was in vain. I prayed for mercy, but my prayer was only answered with imprecations and with stripes. I thought I must die beneath the lashes of the accursed brute. Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!

At last I became silent to his repeated questions. I would make no reply. In fact, I was becoming almost unable to speak. Still he plied the lash without stint upon my poor body, until it seemed that the lacerated flesh was stripped from my bones at every stroke. A man with a particle of mercy in his soul would not have beaten even a dog so cruelly. At length Radburn said that it was useless to whip me any more—that I would be sore enough. Thereupon Burch desisted, saying, with an admonitory shake of his fist in my face, and hissing the words through his firm-set teeth, that if ever I dared to utter again that I was entitled to my freedom, that I had been kidnapped, or any thing whatever of the kind, the castigation I had just received was nothing in comparison with what would follow. He swore that he would either conquer or kill me. With these consolatory words, the fetters were taken from my wrists, my feet still remaining fastened to the ring; the shutter of the little barred window, which had been opened, was again closed, and going out, locking the great door behind them, I was left in darkness as before.

For more info on the slave trade in Washington, D.C., check out Mary Beth Corrigan’s article in Washington History and this piece from the National Archives.

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Help out a family from my hometown

Via one of the local TV stations, I just found out that a nine-year-old boy from my hometown died in a tragic accident over the weekend.  His mom has donated her son’s organs, turning this tremendous loss into an opportunity to offer life to somebody else.  If you’d like to do a good deed for a grieving family, you can help out with medical and funeral expenses by donating to their GoFundMe page.

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When the legend becomes Wikipedia, print the legend

I was at the grocery store the other day and ran across Bill O’Reilly’s Legends & Lies: The Real West, the companion volume to the ten-part TV series.  O’Reilly’s name is in the title, but the cover lists David Fisher as writer, so I’m assuming Fisher did the heavy lifting.  Anyway, it’s selling like crazy.

Nobody in their right mind should expect a glossy, heavily illustrated TV companion book to be a model of scholarly rigor.  But it looks like O’Reilly/Fisher really phoned this one in, even by the lackadaisical standards of pop history.

Check this out (sorry about the pic quality; snapped this on my phone in the store):

Yep, that’s Wikipedia on a list of “especially trustworthy” websites.  Wikipedia, for crying out loud.

Now you can all rest easier, knowing that your kids’ middle school research papers meet the same benchmarks as bestselling history books.

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