“Bully!,” says Teddy.

21 08 2013

History blogging from me? “Bully!,” says Teddy. It’s at the blog of the Historical Society, which remains my favorite history blog even when I’m not writing for it.

Oddly enough, I’ve been reading Heather Cox Richardson’s West From Appomattox for like the fourth time in anticipation of teaching it again fresh out of the starting gate in my 1877-1945 class and TR is the most interesting person in that book too.


Extended metaphor of the day.

27 03 2011

I just finished Linda Gordon’s prize-winning biography of the photographer Dorothea Lange. It’s very good. I think here subtitle, “A Life Beyond Limits” is actually a reference to this metaphor from the book’s introduction:

“Neither photography nor history simply reports facts. Historians and photographers choose what to include and exclude in the pictures they shape, frame their subjects so as to reveal, emphasize, relate, or separate different elements, and use interpretive techniques to do this. Some will argue, of course, that historians and documentarists have no business promoting their opinions, but that argument rests on the false assumption that it is possible to avoid doing so. History and documentary photography necessarily proceed from a point of view shaped by social position, politics, religious conviction, and the thousands of other factors that mold every human being.

This does not mean that it is appropriate for historians or documentarists to shape their creations as they please, regardless of the evidence. They must try to limit their own biases and must never manipulate evidence or select only the evidence that supports their perspective. When using examples to make a larger point, historians and photographic documentarists must look for the representative, the paradigmatic rather than the exceptional. Yet they must highlight what is most significant and remove detail that impedes the clarity of the main point; if they did not, no one would read a history book and photographs would be incomprehensible.”

Now apply that metaphor to one of Lange’s long-suppressed images of Japanese internment during World War II depicted above. Useful, isn’t it?

What exactly happened to the battleship Maine?

1 02 2011

Continuing my run through the history of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century America, I’ve been reading Rebirth of a Nation by Jackson Lears. It’s even better than American Colossus to my eyes since so much of it is new to me even though this is my favorite time period.

The throwaway line at the end of this sentence on p. 207 particularly startled me:

“After the battleship Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898 (supposedly it was there “to protect American life and property”), the drumbeat for war became relentless, in the newspapers and Congress-even though no evidence was ever found to implicate the Spanish in the disaster, which recent historians have discovered was caused by an accidental fire in the coal room.

[emphasis added]

Having thought the cause of the Maine explosion was still undetermined, I immediately turned to the footnotes hoping to see who these “recent historians” happened to be. Lears doesn’t say. [Stupid trade books!]

Can anybody out there do Lears’ job for me, or is he jumping the gun on a definitive answer to one of history’s great mysteries?

How not to review a book.

6 08 2010

Via Ralph, I see that a biography of Staughton Lynd I heard about at the AHA a few years back is out now. Too bad the New Republic let someone who wants to turn the historiographic clock back to 1960 review it. I admit that I haven’t gotten a look at the book itself yet (though it’s definitely going on my wish list), but I still think I know enough in order to break down the ridiculously anachronistic last sentence here:

Like Progressive historian Charles Beard, Lynd accused the founders of staging a counter-revolution that betrayed the democratic potential of the early republic. Yet Lynd went “Beyond Beard,” reviving the abolitionist interpretation of the Constitution and moving slavery from the margins to the center of debates over the founding. The righteous indignation he applied to these difficult questions helped initiate the long fashion for sneering at dead white men of ideas, and turned history from a means of understanding to a record of heroes and villains.

[Emphasis added]

Sneering at dead white men? The new social history of the 1960s (which indeed is now pretty old) was about assessing the contributions of people left out of traditional narratives. African Americans, women, labor got their stories told, sometimes for the first time. It was a revolution in perspective that has led to many of the most interesting and well-respected works in American historiography. Maybe Charles Beard sneered. Who else?

Lynd’s response to this review is similarly stupified by that line:

Toward which “dead white men of ideas” does Mr. Summers consider that I “sneered”? He sneers at me in a way that I do not recall ever denigrating any one, in print or otherwise.

I’m not sure I could ever be so classy if I ever got reviewed this way. [Lynd, however, is the subject rather than the author of the book. The author, Carl Mirra, is a bit more aggressive in his response to the review.]

The part about turning “history from a means of understanding to a record of heroes and villains” is perhaps even more appalling. If it took until the 1960s to make history the functional equivalent of a Hollywood western, does that mean that Edward Gibbon was completely objective? The reviewer is upset simply because Lynd’s heroes aren’t his heroes, those “dead white men of ideas.” Which, incidentally, is exactly why he never should have been allowed to review this book in the first place. He brings far too much baggage to the task.

You want students to take the Michael Palin position.

2 02 2010

As the author of an article on teaching history with YouTube, I naturally liked Randall Stephens’ post on videos to use in historiography classes. But I also like it for two more reasons:

1. It reminded me that I wanted to see Howard Zinn’s “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train” again all the way through.

2. It gives me an excuse to post the only YouTube clip I’ve ever used teaching that class:

I made a vow a long while back not to talk Python with students, but I make an exception here because an argument really is “a collective series of statements to establish a definite proposition.”

Howard Zinn was a breath of fresh air.

28 01 2010

I must be doing something right as a historian since my e-mail box started filling up with Howard Zinn tributes before I even saw the news that he had died.

I went to a Howard Zinn speech before I ever read one of his books. It was Madison in the early-1990s and I must have been the only history grad student in the audience who had never even heard of A People’s History of the United States. I distinctly remember my reaction, though: I couldn’t believe he was saying such things. I had simply never encountered an all-out assault on the Heroic Master Narrative of American history before. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but the notion that one could even contemplate mounting such an attack was absolutely exhilarating

Running into Zinn’s actual scholarship, I was less impressed. I loved A People’s History the first time I read it, but the more I learned about American history in general the more I realized its flaws. I think of it as a book to give precocious 15-year-olds who think that history is boring. Hopefully, it can then serve as a gateway to better-researched stuff.

To me Zinn’s best book is his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Besides the fact that the title is the best metaphor for discussing historical bias that I’ve ever encountered, it is much easier to enjoy without qualms as you can’t expect him to be objective when he tells his own story. Lifting a sentence from it quoted in the Boston Globe‘s obituary:

“From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’ ; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”

As I remember it, he argues that since kids grow up with the Heroic Master Narrative of American history their whole lives, he doesn’t need to give that side of the story. We all already know it far too well.

I think this perspective is why his books have sold so well. People who don’t know anything about history from the bottom up are probably just as surprised by his arguments as I was when I first heard him. He will always be a breath of fresh air to people who pick up his works for the first time.

Pure and simple character assassination.

23 02 2009

Thanks to HNN, I see that the Public Editor took on that Stan Kutler story yesterday. Here’s the meat of his review:

Frederick J. Graboske, who was in charge of the Nixon tapes at the National Archives when Kutler was researching his book, accused Kutler of deliberately mixing up two tapes, but there was no evidence in the article to back that up.

Cohen [the reporter] said she made sure that Kutler’s denial got on the front page, and she quoted another scholar who has worked with the Nixon tapes saying that any mistakes were honest and predictable. Cohen, who listened to the tapes and studied the transcripts, said she thought Graboske was a “completely straight, honest broker.”

I asked Graboske how he was certain Kutler mixed the two tapes on purpose. To have done it, he said, “would have been the height of sloppiness, and Stanley is a sloppy researcher or he did it deliberately.” That is a different answer than he gave Cohen. If plain error was a possibility, I do not think The Times should have printed the charge without strong evidence. Journalistic balance, giving both sides, did not produce fairness here.

Go back to the original story for a moment. Here was Kutler explaining his research process:

“Are you aware under what conditions I worked in 1996?” he said by telephone from Mexico. “It’s only because of my lawsuit that you or anybody else can pick up a tape. In those days, I could not leave the archives with that material. I used state-of-the-lost-art equipment. I brought in a team of court reporters to help me with the first drafts.

You’d think the guy in charge of the tapes at the time would know this, wouldn’t you? This is character assassination, pure and simple. Graboske knew better when he made those charges, and that would explain why he’s backpedaling now.

Unfortunately for my friend Stan, this might be the closest thing to an apology he gets. He deserves more.

Stan Kutler has a stalker.

13 02 2009

Via the AHA blog, here’s Robert Schneider, the editor of the American Historical Review:

Before I drafted my own cover letter, of course, I read Peter Klingman’s piece. Appended was a letter in which he noted its “shocking and controversial” contents, adding the claim that Stanley Kutler “egregiously violated the profession’s position on the integrity of the historical record by deliberately altering evidence.” Peter Klingman’s piece itself was true to this introduction: it is filled with ad hominem remarks and charges, and concludes with a ringing J’accuse-like denunciation, using the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct as a platform. While the piece includes long citations from the tapes and arguments about Kutler’s editing that may or may not be true, it is virtually littered with charges impugning his honesty, integrity and motives. I will refrain from quoting from the article, as it is copyrighted by Peter Klingman, but words like “forgery,” “fraud,” “distortion,” “fabricate,” “reprehensible,” “counterfeit,” “invent,” “alter,” “dishonest,” and the like crop up with disturbing regularity. Whatever this is—and whatever value and validity his case may have—it is not the stuff of scholarship.


Like I wrote before, attack the history, not the historian. But even if Peter Klingman had followed this advice, shouldn’t he have shot lower than the American Historical Review if he really wanted to get his paper published (as opposed to getting a summary of his charges in the New York Times)?

And come to think of it, I think the Times owes Stan an apology. My cat could submit a paper to the American Historical Review, but that doesn’t mean her judgment is worth anything.

Bad history or bad historian?

1 02 2009

I see that my friend and former boss Stan Kutler made it into tomorrow’s New York Times (and not in a good way):

At the center of the quarrel is “Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes,” a 1997 collection of transcripts edited by Stanley I. Kutler, a pre-eminent historian of the Watergate era, that has become the standard reference. Mr. Kutler has been a hero to many people because of a lawsuit he brought with the nonprofit group Public Citizen that led to the release of 201 hours of recordings related to unethical or illegal activity in the Nixon White House.

But longtime critics of his transcripts say Mr. Kutler deliberately edited the tapes in ways that painted a more benign portrait of a central figure in the drama, the conspirator-turned-star-witness, John W. Dean III, the White House counsel who told Nixon that Watergate had become a “cancer” on his presidency.

[emphasis added]

If you know anything about the Nixon tapes, you’ll know that Kutler’s response to the charge makes sense:

“Are you aware under what conditions I worked in 1996?” he said by telephone from Mexico. “It’s only because of my lawsuit that you or anybody else can pick up a tape. In those days, I could not leave the archives with that material. I used state-of-the-lost-art equipment. I brought in a team of court reporters to help me with the first drafts.

“I am responsible for whatever was transcribed,” said Mr. Kutler, recently a plaintiff in a lawsuit to compel former Vice President Dick Cheney to preserve his records. “Did I make any mistakes? Of course. Did I ever make a deliberate mistake, did I ever deliberately transform a negative into a positive?

“Please, I’m a trained historian. I don’t work that way.”

Irrespective of my fondness for Stan, I’ve been worried about precisely this sort of thing for a long time. If people don’t like Kutler’s work, attack the work instead of the the historian. If he did a bad transcript, do a better one. If the 1997 book was a rush job, then ignore the book. There’s no reason to smear the man’s character. What makes it worse is that when you read the article you’ll see that there are obvious political motivations among at least some of Kutler’s attackers. They like Nixon. Kutler can’t stand him.

This is nothing short of the criminalization of historiography, and that’s not a good thing for any historian.

Update: Looks like Jeremy Young agrees with me:

The real fault, however, lies with Klingman and Hoff, who chose to attack Kutler’s character in the press rather than submitting their case to serious adjudication by their fellow historians. I know nothing about the merits of their case against Kutler, but I can’t help but think that his interlocutors wouldn’t be resorting to character assassination if they had sufficient evidence to prove their claims. In any case, their behavior in this affair has been unprofessional to say the least.

And I’m guessing that Young doesn’t know Stan at all.

Update #2: From KC Johnson:

There are, to be short, lots of non-malevolent explanations for mistakes in Kutler’s transcripts—ranging from honest errors in attempting to transcribe the tapes without a good editorial process in place to (perhaps) his choosing to exclude transcripts of one or two conversations not for sound editorial reasons but because they were particularly difficult to hear, and thus transcribe.

At this rate, I will be absolutely shocked if this story has legs.

Gordon Wood is half right.

18 03 2008

This morning, Ralph sent me to this review of Gordon Wood’s new book of essays, The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History. Since I’m always looking for good books for my historiography class, I read it with great scrutiny.

According to Wood (as filtered through the reviewer):

“The result of all this postmodern history, with its talk of ‘deconstruction,’ ‘decentering,’ ‘textuality,’ and ‘essentialism,’ has been to make academic history writing almost as esoteric and inward directed as the writing of literary scholars. This is too bad, since history is an endeavor that needs a wide readership to justify itself.” As watchers of the bestseller lists are well aware, “popular historians who have no academic appointment, such as David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, Ron Chernow, Thomas Fleming, and Stacy Schiff, have successfully moved in to fill the void left by the academic historians preoccupied by issues of race, gender, and multiculturalism.”

I agree. Deconstruction make for dull reading. That’s why I have so much trouble picking books for my historiography class that students will actually read.

So far, so good. But then the review gets to this (again, the words are mostly Wood’s):

But the present “should not be the criterion for what we find in the past. Our perceptions and explanations of the past should not be directly shaped by the issues and problems of our own time. The best and most serious historians have come to know that, even when their original impulse to write history came from a pressing present problem. . . .To be able to see the participants of the past in [a] comprehensive way, to see them in the context of their own time, to describe their blindness and folly with sympathy, to recognize the extent to which they were caught up in changing circumstances over which they had little control, and to realize the degree to which they created results they never intended — to know all this about the past and to be able to relate it without anachronistic distortion to our present is what is meant by having a historical sense.”

Unfortunately, it’s all that deconstruction stuff that Wood doesn’t like which explains why this objective is impossible. Authors can no more escape their own era than they can change the color of their skin, and making believe one can is really the worst sort of hubris. Just because the study of history as a text makes for dull reading doesn’t mean we can just skip it.

So I guess I’ll just have to keep looking for other books to assign.

%d bloggers like this: