Tag Archives: gay history

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, Colonial America, Graduate School, Historiography

Our gaydar seems to be broken

Here’s an excerpt from a press release that’s been popping up around the Internet for the past few days:

In what is hailed as the largest gay history project of its kind in the nation, 30 U.S. publications serving lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people will celebrate October as Gay History Month by presenting “We are America: How members of the LGBT community helped create the U.S.A.”

This groundbreaking month-long series will provide compelling evidence that our Founding Fathers not only welcomed LGBT people to helped create this country, but without the contributions made by LGBT people, American history might have turned out quite differently.

Based on the information contained in the article, this seems to have little to do with the discipline of LGBT history and more to do with seizing on any possible indication that a given historical figure might have been gay and then running with it as hard and fast as possible.

Take this revelation, for example:

Following the historic repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it might surprise many Americans that the individual often considered the father of the United States military was a gay man: Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. He wrote the “Revolutionary War Drill Manual” and introduced drills, tactics and discipline to the rag-tag militia, which culminated in our independence and victory over the British.

Aside from the failure to properly distinguish between “the rag-tag militia” and the Continental Army, this brief passage contains one whopper of an assumption.  It is by no means certain that Baron von Steuben was gay.  In fact, the case rests mostly on rumors which circulated in Europe before his departure for America.  Steuben was accused of having inappropriate relations with young boys during his service at the court of Prince Josef Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechingen.  One of Steuben’s biographers notes that the rumors “were never proven, but they were no less damning than if they had been.”  They squelched a hoped-for military appointment by the Margrave of Baden, leaving Steuben to travel around Europe in search of employment. Eventually he ended up in Paris, where (through the French Minister of War) he met Benjamin Franklin, and the rest is history.

Baron von Steuben, by Charles Wilson Peale via Wikimedia Commons

There is some additional, circumstantial evidence that Steuben may have been homosexual, but it’s not terribly impressive; it rests mostly on close relationships he had with male contemporaries, and of course such emotional relationships were not as unusual in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they would be today.  My point is not to argue that Steuben was straight—perhaps he wasn’t—but simply to demonstrate that the writer or writers have jumped across the gulf between possibility and certainty without so much as a backward glance.  (They’re not the only ones to do so.  Google “Baron von Steuben gay” and you’ll find website after website proclaiming Steuben’s homosexuality with absolute certainty, completely unaware of the tenuous nature of the case for it.)

We’re also told flatly that Katharine Lee Bates, author of “America the Beautiful,” was a lesbian.  Again, this is a case of manufactured certainty.  The contested belief that Bates was a lesbian relies on her relationship with Katharine Corman, with whom she lived until the latter’s death from cancer, and to whom she dedicated a book.  The exact nature of their relationship is uncertain, but you’d never know it by reading the press release.

In a particularly desperate attempt, we’re also told that “it is impossible to refute that [James] Buchanan might have been gay.”  No kidding; it’s “impossible to refute” that a great many people were gay, in the same way that’s impossible to refute that James Buchanan was really a walrus dressed in a rubber human costume.  But history doesn’t operate on the basis of whether or not something is “impossible to refute.”  It operates on the basis of whether or not something is probable in light of the evidence available to us.  In the case of Buchanan, what we’re dealing with once again is rumor and innuendo, based on his very close relationship with William Rufus King and contradicted by references to women in his letters.

Finally and inevitably, the press release trots out the ever-trusty gay Abraham Lincoln question, ignoring or unaware of the ways that proponents of the gay Lincoln meme have misinterpreted masculine relations of the nineteenth century.

Let me stress again that what irks me is not the argument that any or all of these historical figures may have been gay; perhaps some of them were, though in the case of all except for Bates, I very much doubt it.  What bothers me is the substitution of certainty where it doesn’t exist.  Debate has been transformed into fact, and many readers will be misled and exposed to bad history as a result.

I doubt either party would appreciate the comparison, but this whole article reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Christian Nationalist pseudohistorians.  In both cases, what we have is not really an attempt to understand a phenomenon (whether religion or sexuality) within its proper historical context, but rather an attempt to jump on any pretext—no matter how unsubstantiated or unlikely—which allows you to claim a prominent American figure as a member of a particular group.  It has about as much to do with the discipline of LGBT history as the notion that Washington knelt in the snow at Valley Forge has to do with the history of American religion.

6 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory