Thursday, January 05, 2017

Demons, Baseball, Skynyrd and More! My Sweet Sixteen Books of 2016

For someone pursuing a doctorate in History, I really didn't do that much reading last year. Much of the time I was skimming books by the dozens and reading lots of reviews. Still, I did manage to read from cover to cover a good number of books that I simply should have read, some of which I actually wanted to read. On occasion, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that a title I had been avoiding was much more engaging than I thought it would be. And, I wound up reading a few books that had almost nothing to do with my academic program. Anyway, out of that group of titles I thoroughly digested last year, here are sixteen of my favorites:

European History

1. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon Press, 1950). Back in the day when I was hanging out at Yale Divinity School, people uttered the name Roland Bainton with something like reverence. The name plate below his giant portrait might just as well have read Solomon or Paul. After reading this book, I understand a bit more about why. Here I Stand was likely the twentieth century's best biography of Martin Luther in English. It was certainly the most popular and influential. Yes, it represents old-school historiography. More recent works, for example, rightly emphasize that Luther was no Lone Ranger of the Reformation. Without other leaders and places like Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva, nothing from Luther's legacy would ever have worked out the way it did. But in an age when Europeans and Americans were more comfortable with the idea of a singular, patrician leader like Franklin Roosevelt, this book was the perfect biography. It's still a great read.

2. Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Clarendon Press, 1972). The author begins this contemporary classic with a basic assertion: "the style of pictures is a proper material of social history." In other words, paintings do not simply illustrate history once it is established by documents. Instead, paintings should be thought of and used as primary sources, along with documents. Or, as the author concludes, "the visual is  . . . the proper complementary to the verbal." This book goes a long way in establishing works of art as primary sources for understanding history. Baxandall's reflection at the end of the book about the actual primacy of the visual is by itself worth the price of admission. More historians should know this book.

3. Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2006). The Very Short Introductions series keeps reeling me back in. A year goes by, I forget everything I didn't like about the last volume I read, and I wind up trying out some other title. It's not that the authors of the series aren't great scholars. They are. The problem, in my opinion, is the format. The small size of these introductions means they're more than an article, less than a complete survey. It's a tough awkward job for any author. However, with this particular volume, Jerry Brotton manages to pull it off. His coverage of the Renaissance begins with a good survey of the historiography, and then proceeds with sections on art, literature, humanism, religious reformation(s), women, exploration, etc. If you don't read any other book on the topic, read this one.

4. George Huppert, After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe, 2nd edition (Indiana University Press, 1998). Huppert specifies that his chronological coverage runs from the first outbreak of the Black Death in Europe in 1347 to its last appearance at Marseilles in 1721. Why this periodization? He explains: "After the Black Death had done its work, the survivors became more prudent. They did not allow themselves the luxury of multiplying again to the point of outstripping their resources as dramatically as they once had. To forestall famine, they learned to control population growth" (ix). This is the organizing theme for what has to be one of the most engaging social histories of the period. For students of Early Modern Europe, this is a must read.

5. Giovanni Levi, Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist (University of Chicago Press, 1988). Don't be fooled by the sexy title. This book really isn't about an exorcist. It's about the complex world of a small-town priest in northwestern Italy in the 1690s. Along with a few other Italian historians, author Giovanni Levi is one of the founding fathers of a sub-discipline known as microhistory. No, that word doesn't refer to a tiny topic or bite-sized history. As Carlo Ginzburg explains it, think instead of what you do with a microscope: intense, detailed analysis. That's exactly what Levi gives the reader. If you want to learn about the history of exorcism, read something else. If you're interested in the detailed reasons why, for example, people in the early modern era sometimes got a much higher price when selling land to a family member as opposed to a complete stranger, then Inheriting Power might be for you. Just don't take it to the beach. It's not that kind of book.

6. Gary K. Waite, Eradicating the Devil’s Minions: Anabaptists and Witches in Reformation Europe, 1525-1600 (University of Toronto Press, 2007). According to the author, this work “examines the rhetoric used against Anabaptists and their specific treatment by churchmen, interrogators, and executioners in the light of the magical world view that we know dominated the culture of the sixteenth-century populace.” In other words, Eradicating the Devil’s Minions compares the persecution of religious dissidents with that of the largely fictitious sect of devil-worshipping, magic-performing witches. Bottom line: in the era of the early Reformation, some people treated religious devotees as though they were witches, and vice versa. Seems like that sort of thing has a way of coming back around.

American Religion

7. Paul Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837, 25th-Anniversary edition (Hill and Wang, 2004). The early-nineteenth century Protestant revivals collectively known as the Second Great Awakening have deeply influenced American religion from the antebellum period to the present day. Because of its broad, long-lasting significance, historians have raised questions about how the Awakening began, what contributed to its rise, and what its essential character was. Some time around the 1960s, historians began probing the possibility that the revivals involved something more than just religion. For example, were there social, economic, and cultural contexts to the revivals? First published in 1978, A Shopkeeper's Millennium is one of the seminal works along this line of study. We get a taste of what Johnson is up to when he writes: “Revivals were a means of building order and a sense of common purpose among sovereign, footloose, and money-hungry individualists." Some religious people who have read Johnson's work have accused him of being reductionistic. They think that Johnson has taken a thoroughly-religious episode in American history and has turned it into something else entirely. I'm not sure that that criticism will stick. Read it and see what you think. Either way, like many other readers, you'll probably be pulled in by this engaging book.

8. Michael J. Lee, The Erosion of Biblical Certainty: Battles over Authority and Interpretation in America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). As the author describes it, this book "examines how learned Americans dealt with the new and often unsettling ideas" coming out of Europe in the early eighteenth century, and that raised critical questions about the status of the Christian Scriptures and how they should be understood. Lee argues that by taking up evidentialist challenges to conventional views and literal interpretations of the Bible, American biblical scholars "gradually became increasingly naturalistic in their understanding of revelation." In effect, they conceded "that the Bible was accountable to outside authorities and needed to be reconciled to new fields of knowledge." The majority of English rational Protestants were confident that true reason would never contradict what the Bible affirmed. They believed that, if anything, rational inquiry would always confirm the Scriptures. Their American counterparts agreed. But neither group seems to have anticipated that their latitudinarian approach would subject revelation to independent investigation to test its veracity. In effect, the assumptions and presuppositions of the debate turned out to be the sources of the decline of traditional positions during the nineteenth century.

9. Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Cornell University Press, 2008). On one level, Artillery of Heaven simply tells the story of American Protestant missionaries and one As’ad Shidyaq. Born in 1798, Shidyaq lived in that part of the Ottoman Empire now known as the Lebanese Republic. His life forever changed when he became the first convert to Protestant Christianity in that part of the world, and was subsequently tortured and killed. He thus became the first Protestant martyr of the American mission to the Middle East. As interesting and significant as this story is, Makdisi has received special notice for how he tells it. In general, most historical accounts of Christian missionary work are examples of institutional, denominational history. This is only natural since those producing the historiography are members of the community of faith that conceived and conducted the mission activities they describe. Makdisi presents another possibility. As he puts it, "[t]he only way to tell a story of a cross-cultural encounter involving Americans and Arabs is to enlarge dramatically the conventional scope of inquiry."

10. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture. New edition (Oxford University Press, 2006). The first edition of this book appeared in 1980 and instantly became a classic of American religious history. Marsden's basic conclusion was that fundamentalists of the late-19th and early-20th centuries  "experienced profound ambivalence toward the surrounding culture." He acknowledges that such is true of many distinct groups and movements. But, he notes, conservative Protestants in the U.S. went from being respectable in the 1870s to being peripheral and a laughingstock by the 1920s. What happened? Marsden answers that historians can only respond to such questions not by proving anything—not scientifically, anyway—but by an illumination that comes by way of what he calls "sympathetic insight." In his description of fundamentalism in America, Marsden begins by insisting that the phenomenon was essentially a religious movement. At the same time, like all other religious movements, fundamentalism lived within and responded to a distinctive culture. And that has everything to do with its character.

11. Mark R. Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Oxford University Press, 2015). This book begins with an important historical footnote: back in 1967 Lynn White Jr. published an essay in Science magazine "claiming that Christianity had caused the environmental crisis." As Stoll points out, White's idea is one that lingers "in the back of a lot of people's minds when they think about religion and the environment." The author noticed, however, that many figures in the history of American environmentalism grew up in either Congregational or Presbyterian churches, both types "in the Calvinist tradition." What was the connection? Starting with questions like that, Stoll has written a unique book, one that "overlays American environmental history on American religious history." He makes a solid case that, in fact, religion had everything to do with the rise of American environmentalism, and that a person's formative religious outlook brings with it a controlling theology and view of the world, facets of thought that always make a difference in the way a person considers nature. Our environmental crises would not improve with the disappearance of religion, but it might improve with a religious tradition that could, like the old Calvinists, bring about systemic change for the better.

12. Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2014). This book is an intellectual history of conservative Protestantism in America from the end of the Second World War to the early years of the twenty-first century. Worthen defends her approach by pointing out that while not all thoughts and thinkers are equally good, scholars must take into account "that all people think, and that material forces alone cannot explain human experience." Though not herself an evangelical, Worthen evinces a real appreciation for her subjects and what she calls their crisis of authority. So, what does she believe is the crisis? In order to hear her answer, we must first understand her idea that the identity of American evangelicals is revealed not so much by their beliefs, but by their struggles. Worthen insists that what unites modern evangelicals is not their doctrinal conformity--which they have never been able to achieve--but their shared questions "borne out of their peculiar relationship to the convulsions of the early modern era." In other words, if we want to comprehend who evangelicals are, we should listen not to their confident affirmations, but to the questions and doubts with which they constantly wrestle.

American Political and Cultural History

13. Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (Yale University Press, 1982). Ever wondered why charades is a well-known game in America? As Karen Halttunen explains, it has something to do with cultural changes that unfolded in the U.S. beginning in the 1830s. The so-called Market Revolution and the growth of cities in America generated a new social phenomenon: anonymity, the problem (and potential) of becoming a face in the crowd. In a sprawling city unknown by the young man who had recently moved there seeking a job, who could he trust? America's response to this question was to establish certain habits, manners, and clothing that would make up the look and the way of respectable people. These kinds of social and cultural markers would indicate, it was hoped, who the good people were. The weakness of the plan, of course, was that when motivated by some less-than-virtuous desire, bad people could adopt the look just as well as good folks could. There are reasons why con men often succeed.

14. Jill Lepore, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (Knopf, 2005). Grave suspicions about slave insurrections. The heartless treatment of black people: falsely accused, arrested, jailed, beaten, falsely convicted, and then burned at the stake or hanged, one after the other. It's all the stuff of the antebellum South, right? Not always. In this case, such horrors were perpetrated in pre-Revolutionary New York City! Read it and weep. The detail of this book will engage and impress you. The episode it relates will make you wonder about bigger questions: How is it that we human beings justify inhumanity? How do we legitimize incredible violence? Lepore is one of the most popular American historians of our day, and with good reason. She has an eye for great stories and tales that have yet to be really told.

15. Mark Ribowsky, Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd (Chicago Review Press, 2015). Disclaimer: If you check out the Amazon reviews of this book, you'll hear it panned and pummeled again and again. Informed fans and self-appointed sleuths love to hate it. I decided to read it anyway, as a sort of guilty pleasure. Ribowsky is a good writer, maybe a bit too "good," as he often uses sappy language and way too many words for my taste. Sometimes, reading Ribowsky is like watching a B-rate movie that you just can't pull yourself away from. Sure it's kind of cheesy, but you don't want to miss what comes next. He emphasizes the essential and central role played by Ronnie Van Zandt. The band was always his band. In fact, Ribowsky convincingly argues that without Ronnie, there would never have been anything like Lynyrd Skynyrd.

16. George Vecsey, Baseball: A History of America's Favorite Game (Modern Library, 2006). If you're a long-time, well-versed fan of baseball, this book won't tell you much that you didn't already know. On the other hand, if you're more like me--someone who likes baseball, who keeps up with a certain team, but who doesn't know that much about the history of the game--then this book is for you. Vecsey is a veteran New York Times sports columnist who writes chapters as though they were long magazine articles. Some of his chapters tell stories of dark episodes (for example, "The Black Sox" and "Four Scandals"). Other chapters focus on the life and times of incredible players and personalities ("The Babe" and "Jackie Robinson"). Vecsey has a serious crush on almost all of his subjects, but he doesn't allow love to get in the way of insight. Above all, he knows how to write. The result is a book that, if you care anything about baseball, you'll wind up savoring like a good cup of coffee or a favorite dessert.

So, what were some of the better things you read in 2016? Has anyone else read the titles (or authors) I've listed here? And, what's on your reading agenda for 2017?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Demon Possession in Context: Giovanni Levi's Microhistory of a Seventeenth-Century Exorcist

Giovanni Levi, Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Pp. xxviii, 209.

Inheriting Power was first published in Italian in 1985. A microhistory, the book focuses on the village of Santena and the surrounding region in northwestern Italy during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, particularly the 1690s. In a real sense Giovan Battista Chiesa, the exorcist of the subtitle, is nearly incidental to the world that the author reconstructs. In fact, Levi once described his book as an exploration of “one village’s land transactions studied to discover the social rules of commercial exchange at work in a market which had yet to be de-personalized.”

Chapter 1 tells the story of how Chiesa, the suffragan priest of Santena in northwestern Italy, became a regional celebrity healer and exorcist during the warm months of 1697. For his unconventional ministry to hundreds of people, Chiesa was summoned to answer before church authorities in Turin. Apparently, under canon law, not much of a case could be made against him. If he was ever sentenced, we do not know what the penalty was. After his trial in November 1697, none of the available records so much as mention him. He practically vanishes. “We do not know his date of death, nor what became of him, nor what new ties he may have forged. His history can only be read backward, by asking who he was, where he came from, who his friends and his family were, and why he became a healer and gathered a following” (19). Nonetheless, the promise of Levi’s study is that “even though there is no correspondence here between symbolic representations and the polarized social reality, the patterns of behavior of the chief actors in this local flare-up of the ancient war against the Demon can be tied to an underlying context of passions and conflicts that took years to develop and were not riding the momentary wave of a new cult” (12). Levi’s research question asks about the political and socio-economic contexts of events that might otherwise appear to be simply unusual.

Chapter 2 explores three contemporary massari (i.e., middling) families. Levi reveals how it was that within these families, the systems of dependence and assistance extended well beyond the boundaries of the truly-modern nuclear family. “In reality, there is a sort of anachronism in considering the household as the sole unit of analysis” (60). Levi also notes how these extended families deliberately diversified their occupations and activities as a means to survival and success. His point is that this was a world where the majority of the population was fairly obsessed with the “search for security.” Thus, Levi suggests that when the people of Santena and the surrounding area turned to Giovan Battista Chiesa for divine help, they were responding to the need for greater predictability and control in an uncertain world (64-65).

In Chapter 3, Levi identifies a trio of hypotheses stemming from his study to this point: (a) “The relative value of goods was not completely free to vary; it expresses proportions determined by conditions existing in the community, and it contributed to the persistence of such conditions.” Here, the operative word is community. (b) “The relative value of goods did not have the same significance for all members of the community. Significance varied in relation to position on the scale of wealth and social status of the contractual parties.” (c) “The situation in Santena at the end of the seventeenth century was in no way exceptional. It was one example of land-market mechanisms common to many other areas in Piedmont during the ancien rĂ©gime.” This was not an impersonal market world controlled by supply and demand. Rather, it was concerned with “justice” and a “just price,” a world in which “relative value was the result of concrete social situations” (80-81). Levi explains this interpretation with land-sale statistics that reveal a wide range of prices. (See his graphs on p. 90). The differences clearly depend on the identity of the buyer. Specifically, did a peasant sell part of his land to a family member, a near neighbor, or to an outsider?

Chapter 4 uses “the biography of Giovan Battista Chiesa's father to describe a highly mobile and dynamic relationship between the community and a local political leader” (100). Here, Levi shows how for many years the father of our main character accumulated and leveraged local authority as he served his community in ways that extended far beyond his official responsibilities. When he died in 1690, his son “felt his position was unassailable, and he must have considered himself invested with the same boundless power that his father seems to have exercised in the community” (122).

Chapter 5 takes the reader back to the year 1694, when our future exorcist was brought up on charges that he neglected his priestly responsibilities and, more to the point, pilfered funds and abused his clerical authority. It was no coincidence, writes Levi, that 1694 marked the height of a desperate time. During the previous four years, traveling armies trampled and pillaged the region, a terrible hail storm ruined virtually all the produce of an entire growing season, and heavy snows in late spring shortened yet another growing season. The crisis led to a number of premature deaths (125-27). Just before these events, Giovan Battista Chiesa’s father had died, and the priest dealt ruthlessly with peasants who were desperate to bury their dead, but who could not pay the price for a religious burial.

Chapter 6 resembles Chapter 3 in that it also examines extended families. But here, Levi turns from the massari of Chapter 3 to families of notables. Among these wealthier residents of Santena, in a family with several sons it was common for one of them to become a priest. Consequently, all land to which he held title would be tax-exempt. Upon the death of one of his brothers, the priest could transfer ownership of his land to the son(s) of the deceased. The sisters of these sons would be married off to respectable massari families who would provide for them well enough, but who would not expect large dowries. About this world, Levi remarks: “A strong potential for change lurked beneath established hierarchies that had become self-sustaining and rigid. Messianism and miracles often find living space in an ambiguous climate of truce and dissatisfaction, of outward peace and latent conflict, in which no equilibrium ever is definitive or stable” (157).

A brief final chapter returns the reader to the story of Giovan Battista Chiesa. The mercenary priest of 1694 became the apparently-generous healer and exorcist of 1697. What had changed? “It does not seem accurate,” writes Levi, “to say that he took up exorcism in an attempt to find a way to keep the prestige and the power that he had showed himself so incapable of maintaining after the death of this father. It is highly probable that as his preaching garnered successful cures, he himself began to believe sincerely in the new powers of healing that many saw in him” (162), a false dichotomy as I see it. The hundreds of people healed by Chiesa came from peasant, massari, and even notable backgrounds. However, all of them were “secondary personages in their respective kinship groups.” Not one of them was a first-born son or the head of a family. Apparently all of them were men and women “who felt a pressing need to find a reason for their misfortunes” (163). Many of their troubles “went back to complex problems of administration of all the many local communities in the state” as Victor Amadeus II “fought to affirm the central power of the state” (168).

Note: If you've made it this far down the page, then you know that the foregoing is a book report, a summary. For more about Inheriting Power, see the great review by Stephen Greenblatt, “Loitering in the Piazza,” which appeared in the London Review of Books in 1988.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism

Mark R. Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xiii, 404.

Mark Stoll, Associate Professor of History and Director of Environmental Studies at Texas Tech University, begins this wide-ranging study with an important historical footnote: in 1967 Lynn White Jr. published an essay in Science magazine "claiming that Christianity had caused the environmental crisis," a notion that lingers "in the back of a lot of people's minds when they think about religion and the environment" (1).

Stoll noticed, however, that many figures in the history of American environmentalism grew up in either Congregational or Presbyterian churches, both types "in the Calvinist tradition" (2). What was the connection? Starting with questions like that, the author has written a book that "overlays American environmental history on American religious history" (6). Stoll further describes his work and identifies his thesis as follows:
Inherit the Holy Mountain uses religion as a wholly new tool for dissecting American environmental history. Historians have invoked a long list of factors to explain the motivations behind conservation and environmentalism: nationalism; monumentalism; Transcendentalism; democratic ideals; growing appreciation for wilderness; nostalgia for the disappearing frontier; alarm at disappearing game; antimodernism; fear of urban pollution, corruption, disorder, immigrants, and class conflict; automobiles and leisure time; and masculine ideals of conquest and domination. All of these factors, and more, played their roles. Yet as this book shows, a religious perspective gives the history and development of environmentalism a trajectory, unity, and power. Rather unexpectedly, even to the author, religion turns out to provide extraordinary insights into environmental movement's past--and future (9).
So what exactly are those "extraordinary insights"? For one, Stoll shows how Calvinist thought served as the foundation of American environmentalism, "from its moralism to its suspicion of humans in the landscape to its urgent evangelism" (53). All of these had everything to do with the Puritan vision established in books like John Milton's classic, Paradise Lost. Thus, when Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists recommended spending time alone in the woods or some other natural surrounding, they weren't suggesting something new. They were repeating "long-standing Calvinist advice" (41).

Stoll describes the theological ethic of stewardship, accountability to God for all things. This was an old, patristic theme, but one that Calvinists, especially Puritans, revived and emphasized. A Puritan buzzword was improvement. Along this line, one should conserve soil and improve land. A good steward is the farmer who uses the best, most productive techniques, and who also ensures that the land will be productive in years to come. It was actually Huguenots, French Calvinists, who "wrote the pioneering works of modern agriculture" (72).

Moreover, in the same way that American environmentalism was not fathered by Emerson, nor was it born on the Atlantic coast somewhere near Boston and Harvard College. Rather, it was fathered by Calvinist thinkers, and was born along the Connecticut River Valley, near places like Northampton, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut. The movement's alma mater was Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, home to Yale Forestry School, the nation's first such postgraduate program (91).

The movement influenced not only schools, but art as well. Born to Congregationalists, famed landscape artists Thomas Cole and his protege Frederic Edwin Church inspired "the nation's leading advocates and creators of parks, forest conservation, and agricultural improvement." Indeed, with only one exception,
every one of them either like Church grew up in New England Congregationalism or was no more than one generation away. The American conservation and environmental movements were born in the elegant steepled churches rising above the greens of Connecticut Valley towns (78).
During the years that surrounded the dawn of the twentieth-century, American Presbyterians, similar to those earlier Congregationalists, built on the Reformed tradition which represented "a virtual training ground for environmental activism" (140). But whereas New England Congregationalists of the nineteenth century focused on the stewardship of the individual over his farm, "Presbyterians . . . called the nation to moral account."

Indeed, the Progressive Era belonged to Presbyterians. "Between 1885 and 1921," Stoll writes, "Presbyterians held the White House for nearly 28 out of 36 years, over three-quarters of the time" (150-51). From the 1880s through the 1940s, Presbyterians headed up the Department of Interior almost the entire time. Their leaders included, among others, John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and U.S. Presidents Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. This was the heyday of American conservation. As Stoll notes, however, Presbyterianism in the U.S. has since become liberal and ecumenical, not so confident in its righteousness, less preachy.

Stoll explains that since then environmentalism has not gone away, but has fractured into a number of unorganized impulses and movements. Even to this day, environmentally-minded people are often lapsed, "spiritual but not religious," Presbyterians of some sort. "For three decades after World War II theirs were the most prominent and effective voices for environmental causes" (174). These folks represent a sort of "second wave" of Presbyterian interest in "a proper moral relationship of humans to the natural environment" (175). They include such names as Alice Hamilton, Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, and Annie Dillard (193). From Muir to Carson, they exhibit a great capacity for identifying and railing against evil. Yet, unlike the Puritans, they were not so good at holding up a unifying vision for how to order a society.

What has happened more recently? Stoll answers that during the last few decades an "outsider" environmentalist mode replaced the old "insider" conservation ethic. Given that change, it should come as no surprise that Henry David Thoreau's reputation rose spectacularly. During the countercultural 1960s and 1970s Thoreau "was canonized as the greatest saint in the environmentalist pantheon" (215).

Beginning around that time, some African Americans, particularly Baptists, along with Jews, Catholics, Methodists, and Episcopalians, have become involved in environmental issues. But the environmentalism they promote tends to be more about social justice, rather than about "nature, wildlife, and resources" (234). Stoll points out, for example, that unlike the old Congregationalists, contemporary Baptists tend to be much more individualistic than communal. Consequently, environmentalists who grew up Baptist, like the recent presidential candidate Al Gore, tend to preach  sermons to individuals rather than to the government about what it should be doing.

Environmentalism stemming from the black church has typically been a fight against "environmental racism" (238-39). On the Roman Catholic front, in the wake of Vatican II, it appears that of all the issues Catholics disagree about (abortion, women in the church, clerical celibacy, etc.), the one thing they agree on is "the centrality of the moral principle of social justice" (243). Indeed, as Protestant environmentalists have faded even more, "Catholics along with Anglicans have fairly taken over the enterprise of environmental writing that is explicitly religious, as opposed to vaguely spiritual" (249). Jewish environmentalism tends to relate to the faith's emphasis on community, and involves human beings as part of the subject. Jewish theology associated with justice and righteousness "implies social goals and duties" (258).

The up-to-date report? "If it is not dead yet, environmentalism is certainly weak, divided, and wandering in the wilderness" (275).

In sum, Stoll makes a solid case that, in fact, religion had everything to do with the rise of American environmentalism, and that a person's formative religious outlook brings with it a controlling theology and view of the world, facets that always make a difference in the way a person thinks about nature. Our environmental crises would not improve with the disappearance of religion, but it might improve with a religious tradition that could effect systemic change for the better.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Race and Civil Rights in 20th-Century U.S. History

If you're interested in exploring how race and civil rights played out in America during the last 100 years, you could hardly find three better books than these. To follow the story chronologically, you would read Boyle, then Branch, and finally Brilliant.

Boyle tells a story from 1920s Detroit. Branch focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Civil Rights movement from 1954 to 1963. Brilliant looks at civil rights in California between 1941 and 1978.
The tight monograph in the group is Brilliant. In my opinion, due to book size and literary style, the easiest to read is Boyle. Here's a taste of each one:

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

The first thing readers should know is that Taylor Branch has a serious "man crush" on Martin Luther King, Jr. His obvious bias is just fine with me mainly because (a) it's understandable and (b) it's nice when an author doesn't attempt to hide what he really thinks. The second thing to know is that this door-stop of a book is just the first of three volumes chronicling the life and times of MLK. Branch begins with the assumption that the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. "is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years" (xii). For obvious reasons, he also asserts that any biography of King must relate the story of the civil rights movement. Branch gives some attention to King's predecessors, his family of origin, and his early years. However, this lengthy, engaging narrative really takes off in 1954, when King became the minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. It ends in 1963 with the March on Washington and, finally, the assassination of President Kennedy. Branch’s focus on King has drawn criticism from those who see the leadership of the civil rights movement through a much wider lens. This book won a Pulitzer Prize.

Ask any well-informed American what the 1920s were all about, and the answer will likely include flappers, speakeasies, dancing the Charleston, the Harlem Renaissance, and the growth of jazz. Arc of Justice reveals that the answer should also include the presence of deadly racism in America, even in a northern city like Detroit. Boyle sets out to tell the story of one Ossian Sweet, his family and friends, and the incident and subsequent trial that made him a significant historical figure. A fine piece of journalistic and popular history, this book does not begin with a thesis statement per se. As Boyle continues, however, it appears that he wants to drive home the point that although the saga of Ossian Sweet is a compelling story, one that should be told, of greatest significance is the story's context, an American racism that often seems to recognize no restraint or limit. In that sense, it might be possible to categorize Arc of Justice as a work of microhistory.

The main title of this book quotes the insightful lawyer and author Carey McWilliams (1905-1980), who made the observation as early as 1943. McWilliams was referring to a racial diversity in America that simply did not match up with the standard black/white binary conception of racial differences and interests. It was significant that McWilliams lived for many years in California, home to large numbers of Asian-, Mexican-, and Native Americans. Brilliant's book "examines the civil rights consequences of California's racial diversity--how America's 'racial frontier' became America's civil rights frontier" (5). Its coverage begins in 1941, the year the U.S. was dragged into the Second World War, an event that was soon followed by the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans. The book concludes in 1978 with the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke "reverse discrimination" case.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms: The Religion of 16th-Century Radical Rednecks

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Take a look at any list of classic studies in Renaissance and Reformation Europe and you're bound to see this title. First published in Italian in 1976, Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms would also make any list of classic microhistories. It's that significant.

So then, what's this book all about and why is it so popular? Start with the main character, the "sixteenth-century miller" of the subtitle. Domenico Scandella, commonly known by his nickname, Menocchio, was born in 1532 in a small town in a region of far northeastern Italy called the Friuli. One of the most basic things we know about him is that although he seems to have been well-liked by many of his contemporaries, he spent a lot of his time spewing religious heresy. He would argue theology anytime with anyone, including (and maybe especially) priests. So, Carlo Ginzburg raises the obvious question: what were the sources of his unorthodox ideas? Was he a Lutheran? An Anabaptist? Or what?

It's strange. Although Menocchio said any number of things that might seem to point in the direction of Lutheranism or especially Anabaptism, other things he said clearly show that no self-respecting Lutheran or Anabaptist would have acknowledged him as a brother in the faith. As an alternative to those theories, Ginzburg posits that the coming of the Reformation to Menocchio's world had opened up the way for an ancient peasant radicalism to bubble up to the surface. And that's what he espoused.

As you might guess, Menocchio's heresies combined with his big mouth and combativeness got him into trouble with the religious authorities of the day. His first appearance before inquisitors came in 1584, the year he turned 52. The reason we know as much about him as we do is because the record of his interrogations has survived. And it was here that he revealed his heresy for posterity, including the part about the cheese and the worms:
I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed--just as cheese is made out of milk--and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time, and he was made lord, . . . (5-6).
Menocchio's opinion was that religion is a racket. Relics, images, the Atonement, and all of the sacraments, especially baptism and confirmation, were invented by priests and monks in order to keep the church in business. And the pope is no more than a man. God loves all people and, regardless of the religion they subscribe to, all of them can be saved in the same way: by loving one's neighbor.

So where does this come from? Again, Ginzburg argues that neither Lutheranism nor Anabaptist doctrine seem to be at the root of the strange miller's worldview: 
Provisionally, it's best to attribute [Menocchio's ideas] to a substratum of peasant beliefs perhaps centuries old, that were never wholly wiped out. . . . On the basis of this hypothesis, then, Mennochio's radical statements will not be explained by tracing them to Anabaptism or, worse yet, to a generic 'Lutheranism.' Rather, we should ask if they don't belong within the autonomous current of peasant radicalism, which the upheaval of the Reformation had helped to bring forth, but which was much older (21).
But what about Menocchio's books? It just so happened that he was quite literate, and that he owned and borrowed any number of books. Did he cobble his heresy together from them? In response to this question, Ginzburg is at pains to show that, although the miller was an avid reader for many years, he did not derive his ideas from books. It is much closer to the mark to say that he filtered all of his reading through the aforementioned "peasant radicalism" that Menocchio inherited by way of "oral tradition" (32-33).

The bulk of Ginzburg's work goes on in this way, revealing how Menocchio, in his interrogations, showed himself to be something other than a Lutheran, an Anabaptist, a dualistic Manichean, or a universalist follower of ancient church father Origen (the latter two types being what his inquisitors sometimes imagined he was). Eventually, he convinced his judges that not only was he a heretic, but a dangerous one at that. The Church had to protect innocent, ignorant people from a menace like him. They sentenced him to be compelled to reenter the Church, publicly forsake his heresies, fulfill penances, wear a penitential garment, and spend the rest of his life in prison at his children's expense (93).

After two terrible years in prison, Menocchio had had enough. With the help of a lawyer, apparently, he composed a letter begging for forgiveness and release. His request was granted, but he was confined to his village for life, and a friend had to act as a sort of bondsman who would guarantee the heretic's whereabouts and good behavior.

In time, Menocchio renewed his life in the community. He was back to work, and even held an official local position. But it seems he couldn't help himself. Soon, he was also back to his old tricks, talking with all sorts of people to whom he expressed his unorthodox, heretical views. According to reports, the same kinds of discussions he had with a man named Lunardo he also had with a Jew named Simon who stayed for a while at Mennochio's house. Clearly, he had not given up his old ideas. Nor had those two years in prison scared him into silence, at least now that he was out. As fate would have it, word made its way to the inquisitors, who had him arrested and confined in the prison at Aviano in June 1599 (103). By this point, he was 67 years old. His wife and his only devoted son had died. He was more or less without defense or help.

But was his a singular case? Ginzburg answers that it wasn't. There was, for example, a "rustic in the Lucchese countryside who hid behind the pseudonym Scolio." Like our main character, Scolio "projected onto the written page, elements taken from oral tradition" (112). For example, much like Menocchio, he was convinced that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all preached some version of the Ten Commandments. Something else that the two men shared was "a common store of traditions, myths, and aspirations handed down orally over generations" (117).

Next, Ginzburg introduces yet another peasant radical, Pighino ("the fat one"), also a miller. The author notes that sixteenth-century millers had, at best, mixed reputations. And they were well known for their radicalism. Dealing with a wide variety of people, they worked in out-of-the-way places, where folks would freely exchange ideas much as they would at "the inn and the shop" (119). These were the places where the cultures of "peasant religious radicalism" and of "peasant egalitarianism" were kept alive (123). Consequently, we should reject any assumption that "ideas originate exclusively among the dominant classes." What is required of historians is a "more complicated hypothesis about relationships in this period between the culture of the dominant classes and the culture of the subordinate classes" (126). This, as I see it, represents the most significant contribution that Ginzburg's work offers to the historiography.

Oh, and what became of Menocchio, our backsliding heretic? I've given you enough to this point. You'll have to get the book and find out.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Ussama Makdisi on a Nineteenth-Century Protestant Mission to the Middle East

In 2008, Ussama Makdisi published his award-winning title, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East. On one level, this book simply tells the story of American Protestant missionaries and one As’ad Shidyaq. Born in 1798, Shidyaq lived in that part of the Ottoman Empire now known as the Lebanese Republic. His life forever changed when he became the first convert to Protestant Christianity in that part of the world, and was subsequently tortured and killed. He thus became the first Protestant martyr of the American mission to the Middle East.

Roman Catholics, members of the Maronite Church, and Greek Orthodox Christians were all officially tolerated in the Empire. But in the early nineteenth century, Protestantism was something new. Makdisi sums up the encounter between American missionaries and the Ottoman Empire as follows: “One reflected a determination to refashion the world on evangelical terms at a time of ascendant Anglo-American power; the other, a violent refusal to accept these terms" (5).

Makdisi insists that the story he tells is not an example of a clash of cultures, much less a clash of civilizations. It is much more specific than that, he explains, and therefore reflects no such general “clash,” an obvious disavowal of the so-called “[Samuel] Huntington thesis.”

As interesting and significant as this story is, Makdisi has received special notice for how he tells it. In general, most historical accounts of Christian missionary work are examples of institutional, denominational history. This is only natural since those producing the historiography are members of the community of faith that conceived and conducted the mission activities they describe. Consequently, denominational historians of missionary efforts have typically ignored those materials that reflect the ideas and that chronicle the culture of the target group. In countless examples, missionary historiography is essentially Christian hagiography. Based on reports from the field and memoirs that missionaries often publish, such historiography relates the episodes of heroic evangelists who took the gospel to exotic, distant places. From the Apostle Paul to the recent past, and in most every era of the history of the Church, missionaries have been among the top candidates for canonization. As Makdisi puts it, even most of the recent historians of American religious history “have consistently reproduced, in admittedly less evangelical terms, the perspective and structure of classic missionary memorials, charting the unilinear path of missionaries from dynamic West to stagnant East, from light into darkness, from white to nonwhite, from historiographically important to less important, and thus have continued to overlook the actual histories and archives of non-Western societies” (7). Counter to this tradition, Makdisi is convinced that "[t]he only way to tell a story of a cross-cultural encounter involving Americans and Arabs is to enlarge dramatically the conventional scope of inquiry” (15).

Thursday, April 28, 2016

An Intellectual History of American Evangelicalism since 1945

Worthen, Molly. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

In The Age of Evangelicalism: America's Born-Again Years, Steven P. Miller observes that one popular motif in the academic study of American evangelicals can be labeled "give 'em a fair shake." According to Miller, this model "seeks to explain the evangelical subculture to an audience that, presumably, carries reflexive hostility or incredulity toward this Bible-bound 'other'" (Miller, p. 6). He would no doubt place in this category Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (which, incidentally, was also published in 2014, also by Oxford University Press).

Worthen, who currently teaches at the University of North Carolina, presents a history of "conservative white Protestantism" in America from the end of the Second World War to the early years of the twenty-first century. She does not deal with African-American Protestants, who tend to think of evangelicalism "as a white word." Nor does she tell the stories of "Latinos, Asian evangelicals, and other new immigrants" (5).

She defends her intellectual-history approach by pointing out that while not all thoughts and thinkers "are equally good," scholars must take into account "that all people think, and that material forces alone cannot explain human experience" (9). Though not herself an evangelical, Worthen evinces a real appreciation for her subjects and what she calls their Crisis of Authority.

So what does she believe is the crisis? In order to hear Worthen's answer we must first understand her idea that the identity of American evangelicals is revealed not so much by their beliefs, but by their struggles. She insists that what unites modern evangelicals is not their doctrinal conformity--which they have never been able to achieve--but their shared questions "borne out of their peculiar relationship to the convulsions of the early modern era" (7). In other words, if we want to comprehend who evangelicals are, we should listen not to their confident affirmations, but to those doubts with which they constantly wrestle.

Worthen asserts that three types of questions stand at the center of the American-evangelical crisis. These questions ask about "how to repair the fracture between spiritual and rational knowledge; how to assure salvation and a true relationship with God; and how to resolve the tension between the demands of personal belief and the constraints of a secularized public square" (4). Put another way, evangelicals deal with questions about the relationships between "reason and revelation, heart and head, private piety and the public square" (2). Worthen suggests that neither Roman Catholics nor liberal Protestants are troubled in this way because both groups have an agreed-upon, extra-biblical arbiter: Roman Catholics look to the Pope and the magisterium, while liberal Protestants allow the goddess of reason to rule. By contrast, evangelicals confidently claim the Bible alone as their guide. But because they have no single complementary authority, it seems impossible for evangelicals to achieve and maintain harmony. As Worthen writes, "it is no secret that the challenge of determining what the Bible actually means finds it ultimate caricature in their schisming and squabbling" (7).

With Worthen as their guide, readers meet and hear the thought leaders of post-war American evangelicalism, men like Carl F. H. Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today magazine, Harold Lindsell, author of the immensely popular 1976 book, The Battle for the Bible, which defended the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and Francis Schaeffer, evangelicalism's highly-influential cultural prophet. She concludes that American evangelicalism represents "a discernible family of intellectual traditions . . . yielding the religious landscape we know today" (9).

One of the great strengths of Worthen's treatment is her close acquaintance with her subject. She set out to understand who evangelicals are and largely succeeded. One downside of this book relates to its intense focus on American evangelicalism as a tradition that has always paid close attention to ideas. Because it is a tightly-focused intellectual history, Apostles of Reason usually fails to register what all the fuss was about. Why did millions of Americans convert to some brand of conservative Protestantism during the post-war era? To get more answers to that question, read the Miller book too.

You can see a BookTV interview with Molly Worthen discussing Apostles of Reason here.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

U.S. Presidents of the Twentieth Century

Interested in U.S. Presidents of the Twentieth Century? This list of seven books includes some of the better works that I have sampled so far. Any one of these would be a good pick. Happy reading!

Brands, H. W. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New York: Anchor Books, 2009.

Brands presents a full-scale biography of Roosevelt, a son of privilege who became a “traitor to his class” by appealing to and serving the interests of the American masses. The book argues that while FDR was not himself a radical, his presidency radically altered the way Americans viewed the role of the federal government in the lives of citizens, and the role of the U.S. in the world. Brands suggests that FDR’s political aspirations forever changed when a fifth cousin, Theodore, became the U.S. President, and later when FDR married Theodore’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt, whom the President “gave away” at the wedding. From that time forward, FDR modeled himself after "Uncle Ted." Brands frequently quotes the letters and diaries of the main characters.

Dallek, Robert. Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Dallek explored hundreds of manuscript and oral history collections before writing this 600-page biography of LBJ to the time he became U.S. Vice President. The author notes that former presidents eventually have a moderate legacy. Early disapproval is followed by a more-generous retrospective. Yet, as late as 1990, Johnson was still considered a complete failure, painted by the likes of Robert Caro as the megalomaniac who dragged America through Vietnam, and who initiated the far-from-great Great Society. With this book, Dallek set out to initiate a more-balanced portrait of LBJ as a flawed but truly representative figure of mid-twentieth century America.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2003.

Unlike previous biographers of JFK, Dallek has produced a study that fully exploits "written contemporary documents, telephone and Oval Office tapes, . . . and oral histories" (ix). Above all, the author gained access to the big majority of Kennedy's medical records, which were then deciphered with the help of a physician. The records reveal that JFK as the picture of health was an incredible illusion, one that disguised serious problems and chronic pain. Dallek devotes many pages to the Kennedy family, to JFK's formative years, his experiences during World War II, and his political campaigns. Yet, the 1,033 days of JFK's presidency take up more than half of this massive book. Throughout, the author appears to be aiming for a rational, balanced interpretation of his subject.

Flippen, J. Brooks. Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

This book explores the significance of the presidency of Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). Flippen observes that President Carter took for granted that he could retain the loyalty of fellow religious conservatives, while courting support from the left. Carter gave his blessing to initiatives related to the growth of feminism, the legalization of abortion, and equal rights for homosexuals. All along, such issues were becoming more partisan, with each side becoming more deeply entrenched. Flippen concludes that because each issue bore a religious dimension, the Carter Administration served as a catalyst for the rise of the Religious Right.

Link, Arthur S. Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954.

Link sought "to comprehend and re-create the political and diplomatic history" of the U.S." from the beginning of the disruption of the Republican party" to America's entrance into the First World War (xv). His treatment includes major sections on sweeping reform legislation enacted by Congress from 1913 to 1917, and the process by which the U.S. was drawn into the war. Link wrote only after he spent several years working through manuscript archives and periodical literature from the Wilson years. As the author put it, his book is based "almost exclusively upon research in the sources" (xv). A categorized 30-page "Essay on Sources" appears at the end.

McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Truman is a celebratory, full-scale biography of the 33rd U.S President. It runs to nearly 1,000 pages. Over the span of a decade, McCullough interviewed hundreds of associates and friends of Truman, and read almost everything previously written about him. The author concluded that Truman’s early experiences of struggle—as a farmer in Missouri and artillery officer during World War I—forged an upright character and legendary toughness that served him well. McCullough, a master storyteller, demonstrates the potential of history written for a popular audience. With this book, he single-handedly improved the image and increased the public stature of Harry S. Truman.

Wills, Garry. The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.

Wills wrote this book in the wake of Senator Ted Kennedy’s unsuccessful run in 1980 for the Democratic presidential nomination. Like a political observer trained in family psychology, the author attempts to explain the unique privileges, burdens--and now failures-- of the youngest Kennedy son. He depicts it all as the result of the family’s development and abuse of power over many decades reaching back to the patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy. This book presents an almost completely negative view of the Kennedy family and the presidency of JFK. Even his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for which President Kennedy usually receives high marks, is criticized. This book was intended for a general, non-academic audience. It contains no documentation.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Friday, March 25, 2016

Two Classic Articles by Historian E. P. Thompson

Thompson, E. P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present 38 (December 1967): 56-97.

With apologies to Stephen Hawking, this article is sort of a brief history of time. Thompson observes that almost all people have had some way of keeping track of time and of measuring it. In pre-industrial societies, time was reckoned by the sun, moon, planets, and stars, and was measured by comparison to a task, often one associated with something like farming or cooking.

The author relates how, coming into the modern era, England as well as other parts of Europe began to develop more-accurate clocks and watches. The proliferation of these time pieces, each version more accurate than the one before, matched up with the British Industrial Revolution’s demand “for a greater synchronization of labour” (69). Of course, some tasks have never been very time sensitive. And, some work, like harvesting a crop, occurs only at a certain time of year, and then only when the weather is conducive. Still, even before 1700 at least some work places in England were governed by a “disciplined industrial capitalism, with the time-sheet, the time-keeper, the informers and the fines” (82). This development was accompanied by a Puritan and, later, Methodist emphasis on the Christian’s stewardship of and responsibility for time. Yet, as people like Ben Franklin illustrate, this culture encompassed more than radical Protestantism.

Thompson notes that this endemic aspect of modern, industrialized societies naturally generates a sense of superiority when compared to “undeveloped” nations. But he wonders if “developed” societies have lost as well as gained some things in the transition. He asks if sometime in the future the pendulum might swing back in the other direction. Finally, he ends on the wistful note that certain things, like poetry, simply cannot be manufactured.

Thompson, E. P. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past & Present 50 (February 1971): 76-136.

The title of this article might have been, “From the Moral Economy of the English Crowd to the Amoral Economy of the English Capitalists.” Thompson laments that an old, traditional economic system in England, one that worked relatively well, was crushed by a new system powered by capital and industry. He identifies the end of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the nineteenth as the historic moment of transition.

His secondary claim, with which he begins, is that the historiography of the earlier period routinely speaks of “riots” in response to food shortages. This view treats “the mob” as though they were a bunch of reptiles who mindlessly lashed out whenever they became extremely hungry. But as Thompson relates, the pre-industrial crowd’s age-old routine of forcibly “setting the price” of grain was hardly ever like a riot. The aforementioned changeover of the system is closely related to why it is that modern historians have so misinterpreted “the mob” and their “riots.” That is to say, modern historians have assumed and asserted that such developments have relieved western societies of "the mob."

These two articles clearly exhibit a Marxist theoretical perspective. It is also clear that Thompson himself sympathizes with the often-overlooked characters featured in his history “from below.” As one might expect, he typically ignores any good that has resulted from the developments he dislikes. He is a romantic, passionate Marxist, one who can be quite persuasive as well as entertaining.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Production or Consumption: Which Comes First?

Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Jan de Vries says that this book “is a study in economic history,” one that addresses “consumer aspirations rather than productive activities,” and that focuses “on the household unit rather than the individual” (ix). He asserts that in the history of consumer behavior, demand does not simply follow supply. Instead, demand interacts with supply. A second part of his argument is that consumer demand is represented not by the tastes of individuals, but rather by the desires of family units. Consumer demand that stems from households, and a willingness to work more in order to meet that demand, is what de Vries means by the term industrious revolution (ix-x).

Most of the book deals with “northwestern Europe: England, the Low Countries, and parts of France and Germany” and also British North America during the so-called long eighteenth century, 1650-1850 (x). In short, de Vries says that the industrious revolution both preceded and helped to generate the industrial revolution. Along the way, he provides some answers to a few basic questions about the history of consumption. For example, is consumption guided more by consumer agency, or by structural and institutional forces like manufacturers, merchants, and cultural traditions? The author notes that most theorists have operated on the premise that supply precedes demand. He argues, by contrast, that the relationship between supply and demand is much more interactive. His thesis illustrates the idea of reciprocity:
[M]y historical claim is that northwestern Europe and British North America experienced an “industrious revolution” during the long eighteenth century, roughly 1650-1850, in which a growing number of households acted to reallocate their productive resources (which are chiefly the time of their members) in ways that increased both the supply of market-oriented, money-earning activities and the demand for goods offered in the marketplace (10).
Naturally, a simultaneous increase in both demand and supply, one that moves a society from poverty to relative prosperity, assumes a coordinated and increasingly-efficient system of labor and consumption. According to de Vries, that is exactly what happened in “significant parts of western Europe (and colonial North America)” over “the course of the long eighteenth century" (72).

I thoroughly enjoyed learning what I did from this book. Among other things, The Industrious Revolution corroborated and added to some things I have gained from a couple of my other recent books. In Chapter 3, a subsection titled “The Working Year” compares medieval and early modern Europe to what at least some parts of Europe became with the rise of the Protestant Reformation. Effectively, almost all of the many holy days were deleted from the annual cycle. As de Vries points out, the Reformation permitted people to work, at least, about 20% more each year (87-92). This part resonates with Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation (Princeton, 2013), in which the author describes the effect that the Reformation had on the cult of the saints. The significant increase in available working days that came with the Reformation makes me wonder: which came first, assent to Protestant teachings, or a desire for more work for the sake of more consumption?

Also in Chapter 3, under “Agricultural Specialization,” de Vries notes that American historians have sometimes imagined that there were, at one time, many Jeffersonian, landed, and self-sufficient gentlemen. Afterward, beginning sometime around 1830, a Jacksonian market revolution changed everything in America. But the fact is, says de Vries, in the Jeffersonian period Americans were feverishly trading the natural resources of North America for consumer goods from abroad, especially England. In other words, long before the Jacksonian Era, Americans were neck-deep in the trans-Atlantic market (95-96). This observation completely matches the evidence presented by Kariann Yokota in her book, Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation (Yale, 2011).

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Seeing Through Fifteenth-Century Eyes

Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Baxandall begins his contemporary classic with a basic assertion: "the style of pictures is a proper material of social history" (Preface). In other words, paintings do not simply illustrate history once it is established by documents. Instead, in addition to documents, paintings should be thought of and used as primary sources. Or, as the author concludes, "the visual is  . . . the proper complementary to the verbal" (153). In order to show how this works in connection with fifteenth-century painting in Italy, he presents his case in three parts.

In Part I, "Conditions of Trade," Baxandall identifies a fundamental point of departure: "Money is very important in the history of art" (1). Artists have to put food on the table. Consequently, art is among other things a business. In fifteenth-century Italy, a painting was the result of a contractual relationship between an artist and his wealthy client. Baxandall quotes extensively from intriguing letters that reveal this relationship. He notes that as the fifteenth century progressed a change unfolded. Early in the century, clients were most interested in the quality of the painter's materials. They especially valued shiny gold and silver, and a blue color known as ultramarine, which came in several grades of varying cost. Later in the century, the emphasis shifted from the quality of materials to the quality of the painting itself. In other words, clients no longer cared so much about the value of the materials. Instead, they cared about the skill of the artist. The author concludes Part I by raising the question of how people determined the relative skill of a painter and quality of a painting. Upon what basis did people make such distinctions?

Masaccio (1401-1428), St. Peter Distributing Alms
In Part II, "The Period Eye," Baxandall identifies how painters and public "attended to visual experience" in ways that were distinct to fifteenth-century Italy, and "how the quality of this attention became a part of their pictorial style" (27). He notes that, above all, painters cared about the opinions of the people who cared the most about art and who took the greatest pleasure in it, "the patronizing classes" (38). So, then, how were the assumptions and cognitive skills of these viewers related to what painters actually did? In other words, how did expectations about what viewers knew, and might want, make a difference in how painters did their work? (40). In reply, Baxandall points out that we moderns simply cannot have the same kinds of experiences with fifteenth-century paintings that people at that time surely had. Why? Because the artists knew and shared what people of their own time would bring to a painting--their experiences, knowledge, skill sets--and painters did their work in conscious relationship to them (48). For example, because people in fifteenth-century Italy grew up in a Christianized society and had heard the sermons of popular preachers, painters could be certain that everyone would recognize a biblical story. Painters could also include distinct hand gestures that people of the time would instantly recognize.

Other commonplaces of the culture were also factors. The author describes, for example, the relationship between fifteenth-century painters and dramatic productions of the day. Some characters or narrators in contemporary drama never left the stage. They merely sat until it was time for them to speak again. Not surprisingly, such characters appear in contemporary paintings as well. Too, some painters depicted subjects performing certain dances that were well-known at the time. To provide yet another example, Baxandall explains that Italian school boys learned a very practical mathematics they would use throughout life. At the time, no staple items came packaged in a standardized quantity. Consequently, it was important to be able to figure the surface or the volume of something being considered for purchase or trade. Unique barrels and jars meant that one needed to be able to take a measurement or two and, using geometry and mathematics, quantify the volume or surface of an object. This became second nature to most men. Baxandall suggests that painters appealed to their viewers by displaying hats, bodies, columns, etc. in ways that would provoke this sort of calculating on the part of viewers and, thus, draw them in.

Finally, in Part III, "Pictures and Categories," Baxandall addresses the question of just how well his idealized fifteenth-century Italian man represents historical reality. He implies that, in fact, many people of the time possessed the essential "equipment for looking at Quattrocento paintings" (111). In 1480, Cristoforo Landino provided a summary of this "equipment" when he set out to write an overview of the paintings of his time. A paragraph from Landino's text includes sixteen terms he used to describe four Florentine painters. These sixteen terms provide the outline for Baxandall's discussion. Throughout, he identifies the links between these terms and their contemporary cultural values.

As he concludes, Baxandall circles back to the beginning of his book. He started "by emphasizing that the forms and styles of painting respond to social circumstances." Now, he ends the book "by reversing the equation--to suggest that the forms and styles of painting may sharpen our perception of the society" (151). So much of history depends upon texts, words. But as every historian can attest, these do not often reveal the past as well as we would like. Baxandall concludes that because "visual sense is the main organ of experience," pictures certainly can and should be considered "documents as valid as any charter or parish roll." In this particular case, "they offer an insight into what it was like, intellectually and sensibly, to be a Quattrocento person" (152).