Tag Archives: Colonial America

The best of the best from my seminar reading lists

Well, my coursework is done, so from here on out it’s just comps and the dissertation.  I’ve still got quite a lot of reading to do between now and the end of the road, of course, but the end of classes means one chapter in my career as a graduate student is over.

As one of my professors remarked this past semester, grad school gives you the opportunity to be exposed to more books than you’ll ever be able to read again in such a short period of time.  With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to look back over the books I’ve been assigned to read and select one exceptionally good title from each course.  Think of this post as…

THE FIRST AND LAST

LYNCH AWARDS FOR OUTSTANDING BOOKS FROM

MY GRADUATE COURSE REQUIRED READING LISTS

A few preliminary remarks are in order before we get rolling.  I’m only including reading seminars in American history.  That means no books from research seminars, foundational courses in theory and methodology, more practical-driven courses (such as classes on teaching the world history survey or professionalization), and courses in world or European history.  I read many fine works in these classes, but since American history is my thing, I’m going to stick with the stuff I know best.

I should also add that I’m only including required texts from these courses, so books I read for purposes of presenting an individual report or for a historiographic paper aren’t eligible for inclusion.  Maybe I’ll do another round someday and pick up all those loose ends.

Now, without further ado, here are my picks.  We’ll start with the courses I took way back when as an M.A. student.

Topics in Early American History.  This was the first graduate course I ever took.  Competition in this category was especially stiff, since my professor had us read many of the classics in the field.  But if I had to pick the one book from the required reading that was most exceptional, I’d probably go with Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  Morgan addresses the great paradox of American history: How did a slave society come to enshrine freedom and equality as its most important ideals?  It turns out not to be such a paradox after all.

Topics in American Military History.  It’s hard for me to be impartial when it comes to Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.  It’s long been one of my all-time favorite works of historical scholarship, so it was probably bound to be my top pick among all the books I read for my military history class.  Royster asks and answers many of the most important questions the Continental Army’s existence implies about the Revolution.

Topics in Modern American History.  William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is one of the most well researched and elegantly presented history books I’ve ever read.  You wouldn’t expect an examination of the relationship between geography, the commodification of resources, and urbanization would be this engrossing.

Civil War and Reconstruction.  I got quite a bit out of The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, by Emory M. Thomas.  Thomas argues that the Civil War didn’t just separate the North and the South, but also wrought an internal revolution within the South itself.  Ironically, a war fought to preserve a particular way of life proved to be a powerful agent of change.

Jeffersonian America.  Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution was a very close runner-up to beat Edmund Morgan’s book in my first category.  Fortunately, it popped up again on the required reading list for this course, so I can give it the props it deserves.  Wood explains what was so revolutionary about the Revolution, an event that turned the hierarchical, organic world of colonial America into a society we might recognize as much closer to our own.

History of American Religion.  Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt is a model of historical argumentation.  She demonstrates how radical evangelism posed a formidable challenge to the early South’s familial, masculine, and racial ideals.  In order to win over southern planters, evangelical preachers had to adapt.  Those adaptations created the evangelicalism that many people associate with the region today.

That covers my M.A. courses.  Moving on to my doctoral coursework…

U.S. and the World.  I think I can speak for everybody who took this class when I say that Kate Brown’s Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters is both enlightening and hard to put down.  With vivid, elegant prose, Brown tells the parallel stories of two Cold War communities—one in the U.S., the other in the Soviet Union.  Both communities were built for one purpose: the production of plutonium.  In each case, the inhabitants enjoyed a level of prosperity much greater than that of their neighbors.  But both the people in these communities and those who lived downwind and downstream from them paid a fearsome price for this high standard of living.

Native American History.  William Cronon makes the list again for his now-classic Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.  It’s one of the foundational works of environmental history, and also one of the very best.  The European conquest of the New World marked a transformation in the ways America’s inhabitants interacted with the physical environment.  I think every aspiring historian should read this book as an example of how to present and sustain a clear, forceful, and persuasive argument.

Early America and the Atlantic.  Another modern classic: Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.  This book has the distinction of appearing on the required reading lists of more courses than any other title I’ve been assigned in grad school; it’s been assigned in three of my classes.  That ought to tell you something about what a worthwhile investment it is for anybody interested in early America, slavery, and the history of race.

Independent Study on the American Revolution.  Lots of good books to choose from here, too, but I think my favorite is Michael McDonnell’s The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia.  The Revolution wasn’t a unifying experience for the Old Dominion.  Far from it.  In fact, mobilization exposed the rifts between gentry, middling farmers, and the lower sort.  The need for manpower forced Virginia’s elites to make concessions to middling whites, and bred resentment among those poorer men who bore the burden of filling the ranks.  I love this book for McDonnell’s thorough research and the care with which he reconstructs the relationship between waging war and the political order.

Gender as a Category of Analysis in American History.  So before the 1960s, homosexuals were so far back in the closet they were essentially invisible, right?  Wrong.  In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, George Chauncey uncovers an American gay culture that was both active and visible decades before Stonewall.  What I found most remarkable about this book, however, was not so much the fact that Chauncey has discovered a lost world, but the detail with which he reconstructs it.  Even if you’re not interested in LGBT history, you should read this book to admire the array of sources Chauncey employs to resurrect a slice of the past many Americans have forgotten.

Classic and Contemporary Readings in African American History.  The standout title from this class, at least for me, is Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life.  When we hear the phrase “slave trade,” most of us think of the traffic in human bodies between Africa and the Americas.  It’s easy to forget how ubiquitous the internal trade was before the Civil War, and how profoundly it shaped the course of American history.  Deyle puts the domestic slave trade back at the center of the story where it belongs with research that is downright awe-inspiring in breadth.

By selecting only one book from each class, I’ve left out a lot of fantastic stuff, but I think these titles are the cream of the crop.  If you’re a fellow grad student, maybe you’ll see something here that will help you out.  And if you’re neither a student nor a historian, I encourage you to dive in anyway, so you can enjoy some of the best the discipline has to offer.

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Jean O’Brien will discuss memory and Massasoit at UTK

If you’re interested in colonial America, Native American history, or historical memory, you’ll want to attend the UTK History Department’s 2016 Milton M. Klein Lecture.  Jean O’Brien will be discussing the public memory of Massasoit, the seventeenth-century Wampanoag leader most commonly remembered today for his association with the Pilgrims.

O’Brien is Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota and a co-founder of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.  Her publications include Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England and Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650-1790.  She is a past president of the American Society for Ethnohistory, and a recipient of the Western History Association’s American Indian Historian Lifetime Achievement Award.

The 2016 Klein Lecture will be at the McClung Museum on UT’s campus on Wednesday, April 13 at 5:00 P.M.  And it’s totally free!

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Hearing seventeenth-century colonists in ‘The Witch’

Writer-director Robert Eggers has really played up his painstaking approach to historical accuracy in making The Witch.  One of the more interesting ways the film evokes a sense of the past is its characters’ use of Early Modern English.  The syntax and the use of archaic second-person pronouns seem to come right out of the King James Bible—or perhaps I should say the Geneva Bible, which was the preferred version of the New England Puritans.  In fact, Eggers lifted whole swaths of his dialogue from period accounts.

Even more striking to me than the syntax and vocabulary is the way the characters pronounce the words themselves.  The first time I saw the trailer, what hit me more than the overall creepiness was the distinctive ring of those opening lines spoken by actor Ralph Ineson.  What went we out into this wilderness to find?  Leaving our country?  Kindred?  Our fathers’ houses?

There’s something singular about the cadence, about the way those vowels come rolling out.  Given Eggers’s obsession with accuracy, I wondered if the pronunciation reflected an attempt to reconstruct some sort of archaic English dialect.  Since many of the Puritans who joined the Great Migration to the New World hailed from East Anglia, I thought perhaps the filmmakers had reverse-engineered a seventeenth-century speech pattern from that part of England.

Turns out the characters’ dialect is a little more complicated than that:

According to Eggers, the family originally hailed from Essex before migrating to the New World, factually consistent with the Great Migration. “But I cast Ralph [Ineson as the father], and Ralph’s Yorkshire accent, Yorkshire attitude was so amazing that we decided to make the family from Yorkshire.” This didn’t mean fudging a detail. With Eggers, it’s about recalibrating. Hunting for evidence, the director discovered in Dedham, Massachusetts, the Fairbanks House, the oldest surviving timber-frame residence in North America. Its original owner, Fairbanks, was from Yorkshire and moved to Massachusetts with Essex people. When he couldn’t get along with the church, he moved his family outside. “So I was like, ‘Well, this is perfect.’ Way back when the family was from Essex, we talked about doing a 1770s Essex dialect. But it sounds insane. It sounds like a pirate. So we worked on creating a Yorkshire accent that was sort of free of some of the modern urbanisms, but that could suit this language.”

In other words, it was Ralph Ineson’s own natural Yorkshire accent that shaped the film’s dialect, not the other way around.  Here’s Ineson speaking out of character:

So what did the seventeenth-century colonists who settled in English America sound like?  As is the case with all other dialects, it depended on where they came from.  Just as there are different regional dialects in the British Isles today, there were a variety of different speech patterns in England in the 1600s.  If you’re familiar with David Hackett Fischer’s analysis of cultural transmission from Britain to America, you probably know that regional distinctions in the mother country gave rise to variations in colonial speech patterns.

We can get a sense of at least one of those varieties thanks to the work of David Crystal, who helped the Globe Theatre reconstruct four-hundred-year-old English to mount a production of Shakespeare as his original audiences would have heard it.  Think of it as the linguistic equivalent of Jurassic Park, using scholarship to bring an extinct dialect back from the dead.  Here’s a video of David and his son Ben demonstrating the difference between 1600s London pronunciation and modern “received pronunciation.”

And here’s another video featuring Ben Crystal performing some Shakespeare in the original pronunciation:

Crystal’s point about the “piratical” sound of Shakespearean English brings to mind Eggers’s comment that the 1770s Essex dialect the filmmakers tried out “sounds like a pirate.”  Oddly enough, most people associate pirate speech with West Country dialect, and both Essex and London are on the opposite side of England from the West Country.*  The reason archaic English dialects sound piratical is probably because of the prominent pronunciation of the letter R.  These forms of English were still rhotic in the 1600s, which made Talk Like a Pirate Day a perpetual celebration in many parts of England and colonial America.

But there’s a twist.  It seems the place where non-rhotic English first appeared was…East Anglia, the very region from which many of the Puritans originated.  That’s odd, though, since Eggers claims that a 1770s Essex dialect sounded “like a pirate.”  By the late eighteenth century, the transition to non-rhotic English was already old hat in East Anglia.  Go figure.

Still, Crystal’s effort at linguistic resurrection can give us a hint of how some of the earliest English colonists sounded, since both the area around London and the southwestern part of England did supply settlers to America in the seventeenth century.  And since London was a place where people from different parts of Britain mixed and mingled, it seems likely that the English spoken in the city during Shakespeare’s time contained traces of several dialects that ended up in the American colonies.

In fact, you can still find remnants of these original speech patterns here in the U.S. if you know where to look for them.  One of those places is Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay, where some residents speak a distinctively archaic dialect harkening back to the seventeenth-century Virginia settlers who came from southwestern Britain.

If the speech of Tangier Island or Crystal’s reconstructed Shakespearean sound strange and unfamiliar, take it as one more reminder that the past was a foreign country.

*I’ve heard two explanations for the association of West Country speech with pirates.  First, the West Country has a long maritime tradition.  Second, West Country native Robert Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island was so memorable that it pretty much cemented the popular image of pirates for decades thereafter.

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History at the movies in 2016

For a couple of years Hollywood was giving us history bloggers plenty to talk about, with acclaimed films like 2012’s Lincoln, Argo, and Django Unchained and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave.  That hasn’t been the case in 2015.  I think I only saw a couple of history-related movies this past year, none of them particularly memorable.  Or maybe we all spent so much time blogging and tweeting about that Hamilton musical that we just missed all the films aimed at history buffs.

Some of the movies headed for theaters in 2016 take American history as their subject matter, though, so let’s take a look.

The Revenant.  This one hits select theaters on Christmas Day, but doesn’t get a wide release until Jan. 6.  It’s based on Michael Punke’s novelization of a true incident in the life of fur trapper Hugh Glass.  After joining an 1823 expedition into the American West, Glass barely survived a nasty bear mauling only to be abandoned by his companions, forcing him to endure a 200-mile trek to Fort Kiowa in present-day South Dakota.  The legendary mountain man Jim Bridger was a member of the same party.  The trailer’s fantastic.

The Witch.  A horror movie set in 16th-century New England seems like a no-brainer, but I don’t know that anybody has made one until now.  Looks pretty scary!  (Suggested tagline: In space canst no man heare thou screame.)

The Free State of Jones.  Matthew McConaughey plays Rebel deserter Newt Knight, who waged a mini-Civil War against Confederate authorities in Mississippi.  No trailer for this one yet, but here’s a look at the historical background.

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.  They did a made-for-TV movie about the Indianapolis back in the early nineties, and one of the writers of Jaws pitched the idea of building a prequel around the sinking.  (It probably would’ve been better than the Jaws sequels we eventually got.)  Mario Van Peebles directs this new version.  A local news crew visited the set during filming in Mobile, AL.

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George Washington’s gritty origin story

Seems like all the heroes are getting their origin stories re-told.  Batman Begins, The Wolverine, Man of Steel, Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, GothamAnd now this…

New Line has closed a deal to acquire The Virginian, a formative period action thriller about Founding Father George Washington before he found his place in defiance of the British Army. The script is by Michael Gunn, a protege of Aaron Sorkin. This one has had more than its share of buzz around town, because agents of talent have asked to read it on behalf of their star clients, though there is no star attached at this stage. Donald De Line will produce. Deal was mid-six figures.…

The script’s movie potential is best described as Last Of The Mohicans meets Braveheart. A down-and-out, young George Washington — desperate to join the British Army — accepts a dangerous mission to conquer a French fort and save the American colonies.

Wait, mid-six figures?  Geez, maybe we really should get on that Southern Campaign script.

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Emily Blunt’s reluctant American Revolution

The last time I went to Colonial Williamsburg, I was sitting in the capitol’s courtroom and listening to the guide give his spiel on eighteenth-century trials, when it suddenly hit me: Americans lived under a monarch before the Revolution.  I don’t mean that I didn’t know this before, of course; I mean that it hit me viscerally for the first time.

I’d never felt so distant from the inhabitants of eighteenth-century America as I did at that moment, sitting in that reconstructed courtroom where men—where subjects—dispensed justice under the aegis of a crown on the far side of the Atlantic.

Gordon Wood describes the colonists’ monarchical world in The Radicalism of the American Revolution (p. 11-12):

This was no simple political status, but had all sorts of social, cultural, and even psychological implications.  As clarified by Sir Edward Coke and other jurists in the seventeenth century, the allegiance the English subject owed his monarch was a personal and individual matter.  Diverse persons related to each other only through their common tie to the king, much as children became brothers and sisters only through their common parentage.  Since the king, said William Blackstone, was the “pater familias of the nation,” to be a subject was to be a kind of child, to be personally subordinated to a paternal dominion.…The whole community, said Benjamin Franklin in 1763, is regulated by the example of the king.

The colonial past, in short, is a foreign country.  Or at least it is here in America, where we don’t much stock in personal ties to a monarch anymore.

Americans pull down an image of George III on Bowling Green in New York, July 1776. By Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (original uploader was Shoreranger at en.wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This brings us to the current brouhaha over British actress Emily Blunt’s reaction to becoming an American citizen.  While folks here in the U.S. took offense at her off-hand joke about the Republican presidential debate,* what interested me about her remarks was her distress at getting drafted into her own personal American Revolution:

One part of the process that was particularly concerning for Blunt was renouncing allegiance to Queen Elizabeth.

“I had to renounce my Queen!” Blunt said.

“The thing that’s weird is I do get to keep both my British citizenship and this, but you have to renounce her. But it’s kind of typically American – not to be rude. I had to renounce her in the room but I don’t actually technically renounce her. They were like, ‘just say it, you don’t have to mean it but just say it.'”

This emotional and personal sense of investment in a monarch is something that seems strange to Americans, but would’ve been familiar to our colonial predecessors.  Blunt’s vexation over having to renounce her queen might help us understand why so many Americans hesitated to take that last, fateful step toward independence—and why some of them refused to take it at all, deciding instead to fight, go into exile, and perhaps die for their commitment to their king.  Renouncing Parliament was one thing; renouncing the monarch was something else altogether.

Oh, and as long as I’m on the subject of Emily Blunt and the British monarchy, let me recommend the 2009 film The Young Victoria.  It’s a very good movie, and Blunt is outstanding in the title role.

*Honestly, though, if your first taste of American citizenship was Trump’s hair on TV, wouldn’t you be having second thoughts too?

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German America: A colonial counterfactual

Today’s historical thought experiment comes to us courtesy of the eminent diplomat and accomplished ladies’ man Henry Kissinger.

In his massive (but engrossing) history of diplomacy, Kissinger describes how Cardinal Richelieu, that most pragmatic and unsentimental practitioner of seventeenth-century statecraft, redirected European political history.  Richelieu successfully sought to magnify French power at the expense of the Holy Roman Empire.  As Kissinger states, the cardinal “feared a unified Central Europe and prevented it from coming about.  In all likelihood, he delayed German unification by some two centuries.…As a result, Germany developed no national political culture and calcified into a provincialism from which it did not emerge until late in the nineteenth century when Bismarck unified it.”*

Germany, then, did not enjoy the same political unity and economic vigor that other European powers were beginning to enjoy in the early modern period.  One consequence of this, as Kissinger notes in passing, is that Germany “missed the early wave of European overseas colonization.”

Since he’s more concerned with the impact of Richelieu’s statecraft on later European diplomacy, Kissinger doesn’t explore the implications of this notion that delayed unification knocked Germany out of the running as a potential colonial power.  But if you’re an early American historian, it provokes some interesting counterfactual speculation.

Ephrata Cloister, a German religious community founded in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. By Bestbudbrian (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

European political history isn’t my specialty, so I don’t know if a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century German unification was as likely as Kissinger makes it out to be.  But if German unification hadn’t been delayed, would Germany have created its own American empire alongside the New World colonies of the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English?  And if so, what would that German America have looked like?

I’m not sure it’s possible to answer questions like this constructively.  In order to describe a possible German-founded American colony we have to draw on what we know of early modern Germany, but a unified Germany capable of planting American colonies wouldn’t be the early modern Germany we know.  This Catch-22 makes it hard to imagine what the relationship between the colonies and mother country would’ve been like, or what sort of political and economic order would’ve characterized the German colonies themselves.

Of course, a great many German migrants did settle in colonial America, which might offer a basis for thinking about the cultural life of these hypothetical colonies.  But they did so as minorities and latecomers to the English colonies.  Perhaps their experiences would have been quite different had they arrived earlier and lived in settlements founded under German auspices.

Many of the Central Europeans who did settle in colonial America were members of Protestant sects who maintained their distinctive religious identity in the New World, but it seems likely that a more unified Holy Roman Empire would have been able to enforce more religious conformity within its territory.  Religious divisions, after all, contributed to the empire’s lack of cohesion.  A politically unified Germany would probably have necessitated a more religiously uniform nation.

Then again, a religiously uniform Germany might have foisted its religious dissidents off on its colonies.  Perhaps German America would have served as a haven for nonconformists in the same way that English America did.

That’s the thing about these broad historical counterfactuals.  You have to make so many adjustments and account for so many possible variables that it’s easy to strain your tether to the actual history to a point where it snaps, and then you’re not engaged in a historically useful exercise anymore.

And in the end, maybe the presence of German colonies in early America wouldn’t have made that much difference.  The demographic and economic power of English America was considerable, so maybe German colonies would have gotten gobbled up anyway, becoming the cultural, religious, and linguistic enclaves that the eventual German settlements actually were.

*This post is a lot more entertaining if you read this excerpt aloud in your best Kissinger voice.  Go on, try it.

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