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 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. By contrast, he argues 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, theological assent to Protestant teachings, or a desire for more work and 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).

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Vietnam War: Three Important Titles

Interested in the Vietnam War? Here's a short list of books you might try. Considering that they are only three books, these represent a fairly wide array of style and interpretation. When it comes to viewpoint, the outlier is Mark Moyar's Triumph Forsaken. Moyar is a leading voice among so-called revisionist historians of the U.S. in Vietnam. Milam was the only one of the three authors to actually fight in Vietnam. Sheehan's book has the distinction of winning numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

Milam, Ron. Not a Gentleman’s War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Milam was a U.S. Army Infantry junior officer who served in Vietnam. Attempting to remain objective, he brings to his work an interest in defending the reputations of almost all of his fellow platoon leaders. Because Vietnam was a catastrophe for the U.S., finger pointing was inevitable. Much of the criticism was written by “angry colonels” who faulted junior officers. This trend was made all the more easy because of the reputation of the infamous William Laws Calley, Jr. Milam turns the tables, citing a number of poor decisions that were handed down to lieutenants in the field. These mistakes, combined with the ingenious, dirty tactics of the enemy, and other factors made Vietnam something other than “a gentleman’s war.”

Moyar, Mark. Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

This is the first book in a proposed two-volume interpretive survey of the Vietnam War. The dividing line between this and a proposed second book comes at July 28, 1965, when President Johnson announced there would be a huge military build up in Vietnam. The author explains that his approach is an example of what has come to be known as the revisionist position, which stands opposed to the majority orthodox position. Like other revisionists, Moyar attempts to show that the war was not "wrongheaded and unjust." Instead, it was "a noble but improperly executed enterprise" (xi). His over-the-top, demonizing characterizations of certain leaders in his story come across as tendentious. The great value of this book is that it forcefully advances a contested interpretation of the Vietnam War.

Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Vintage, 1989.

As the subtitle suggests, this is something like two books in one. But far from presenting a biography of Army Lieutenant Colonel Vann spliced together with a history of the Vietnam War, Sheehan's work is something far more subtle and creative: a complex narrative that features a huge cast of characters and that assumes the microcosm of Vann's hopeful but tragic life is a revealing lens through which to see the macrocosm of America in Vietnam. An incredible achievement written by a journalist who was there, A Bright Shining Lie won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

From the Last Days of David to the Beginning of Exile: A Simple Introduction to the Book(s) of Kings

1 and 2 Kings in modern editions of the Bible originally formed a single book in the Hebrew Bible. In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Kings was divided into two books. This pattern was followed in Jerome's Latin Vulgate translation, and made its way into Christian editions of the Bible. In this study, I'm treating 1 and 2 Kings as a single book because that was its original form, the way it was packaged at first. Maybe the best way to introduce this book is by answering some basic questions:

What is the Book of Kings about?  What's in it?

Kings is an account of (what else?) kingship in ancient Israel. It includes the history of the monarchy from its high point in a mostly unified kingdom to its low point in the Babylonian Exile. One simple way of outlining the book presents it in three parts:

A.  The reign of Solomon (1 Ki. 1-11): his accession (chapters l-2), his successes (3-10), his failures (11).

B.  The divided kingdom (1 Ki. 12 through 2 Ki. 17): Judah under Rehoboam, and the majority of the northern tribes under Jeroboam who retain the title "Israel," separate from each other.  Israel comes under considerable pagan influence from the beginning and experiences many bloody coups before finally being exiled. Judah is less paganized, though only preserved because of God's faithfulness to his promise to David.  The prophets Elijah and Elisha are heavily involved, especially in the story of Israel, the northern kingdom.

C.  The kingdom of Judah (2 Ki. 18-25): despite the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, the paganizing policy of Manasseh finally bears fruit in the fall of Judah too.  But the conclusion of the book sounds a possible note of hope (25:27-30).

Where did the Book of Kings come from? Who wrote it and when?

This is one of those many places where we have much less information than we would like to have. The last event to which Kings refers is the exiled king Jehoiachin’s release from prison in Babylon in 561 B.C. (2 Ki. 25:27). Clearly, the book in its final form comes from after this time. We do not know the name of the author(s) of Kings.

What sort of book is this? How does it "work"?

Kings proceeds as a reign-by-reign treatment of the history. During the period of the divided kingdom, the accounts of northern and southern kings are allowed to interweave. Each king is described and evaluated according to a consistent pattern, which can be seen by looking at the short accounts of the reign of Jehoshaphat (1 Ki. 22:41-50) or Amon (2 Ki. 21:19-26). But sometimes, this "description and evaluation" is the framework which is filled by and surrounded by other material.  Sometimes the opening and closing statements are separated by several chapters. For example, the accounts of Solomon, Rehoboam, Ahab, Jehoram, Jehu and Joash, include a lot of material focused on various aspects of Israelite politics. Other sections focus on prophets, especially Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah.

Why was Kings written? What's the message?

First, the purpose of Kings is to review the history which led up to the Exile, and to explain why the Exile happened. The Book also serves as a kind of national confession: there was every reason for God to judge Israel and to send his chosen nation into exile.

Second, Kings also delivers a message of hope. For example, the end of the book seems to say, "Maybe God’s commitment to David still holds." It may be that the release of Jehoiachin--related in the final paragraph of Kings-- is there to keep Israel's hope alive. Although the Temple has been pillaged and burnt, prayer is still possible in the Temple (or towards it on the part of people who are cut off from it), and God has decided to hear such prayer. Although judgment has come in keeping with the warnings of the covenant, the same covenant allows for the possibility of repentance and restoration after judgment (see 1 Ki. 8:46-53 and compare Deuteronomy 30). Although the prophetic words which Israel ignored are another reason for her punishment, the fact that those prophetic words of judgment have come true may encourage a hope that the prophetic promises of restoration will also come true.

Third, the Book of Kings pictures God’s involvement in political life, and warns against under-valuing the significance of political structures, and against over-emphasizing them. Kings reveals how God brings judgment on any kingdom. The book also displays the interplay of the free determination of human beings (who in various political situations makes their decisions and put their policies into effect) and the free decision of a sovereign God (who nevertheless effects his will through, or in spite of, human actions). To get a handle on this paradox, we might ask: Are individuals the masters of their own destinies? Or does God finally determine every outcome? The answer seems to be "Both." In fact, in Kings, any attempt to make it absolutely one or the other runs into problems. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the confidence that God works out a purpose in history in spite of what people, even his people, might do.

Fourth, a basic teaching of the Torah, especially the Book of Deuteronomy, is that God blesses those who are faithful to him but brings trouble to those who disobey him (see, for example, Deuteronomy 28-30). This is a major theme in Kings. Thus the material concerning Solomon’s reign is arranged so that Solomon’s setbacks are understood as consequences of his association with foreign women (1 Ki. 11). On the other hand, Kings recognizes that God's justice does not work out this way in every case. The wicked Manasseh enjoys a long reign, and his apostasy only brings its fruit decades later (2 Ki. 21; 24:3-4).  Josiah is responsive to God’s word, but dies an early and tragic death (2 Ki. 23:29).

As I see the Book of Kings, these seem to be the basic messages.

Friday, February 26, 2016

A Classic Cultural History of Antebellum America

Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

"You can't judge a book by its cover" and "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." So which is it? A cultural history (which the author distinguishes from a social history), Karen Halttunen's Confidence Men and Painted Women might be considered as a study of the tension between those two pieces of proverbial wisdom in antebellum America.

Chapters 1 and 2 describe the forces that gave rise to a social problem. What generated the specter of the "confidence man" and the "painted woman," people who preyed upon young men of the period? Halttunen points to the tremendous urbanization of the time. What has been dubbed by historian Charles Sellers "the Market Revolution" had a downside: the growing antebellum city led to anonymity and increasing social disorientation.

In Chapters 3 through 5, the heart of the book, Halttunen describes "the cultural effort to resolve the problem of hypocrisy with the sentimental ideal of sincerity" (xvi). Writers of conduct manuals waged a cultural battle on the fronts of genteel codes for women's dress (chapter 3), social etiquette (chapter 4) , and mourning rituals (chapter 5).


But eventually, the custodians of American culture came to realize that their plans could be, and were being, subverted. Halttunen reiterates her conclusion as follows: "Those archetypal parlor hypocrites, the confidence man and the painted woman, were masters of the false art of etiquette: their artificial manners were assumed merely to dazzle and deceive an ingenuous audience. Sentimental critics of middle-class culture feared that etiquette, like fashion, was poisoning American society with hypocrisy" (92). In other words, the signs of gentility, signs meant to identify respectable middle-class status, could be faked by any proficient confidence man or painted woman.

Chapter 6, along with the book's conclusion and epilogue, explores the decline and derision after mid-century of the standards upheld by the early, popular conduct manuals. This part of the book also examines the image of the confidence man as it extended into the twentieth century. This is a deeply-researched and well-written book. A third of a century after it was first published, it holds up quite well.