What’s Wrong With J.E.B. Stuart?

On Friday I am heading down to South Boston, Virginia to lead a TAH Grant seminar of 28 high school history teachers.  Our topic is Civil War Memory.  I am going to take care of the morning session, including an overview of the topic as well as interpretive case studies with documents, film, and monuments.  In the afternoon Professor Robert Kenzer is going to talk about how to use Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary in the classroom.  I am really looking forward to this session given my passion for teaching as well as the subject.  

In preparation for the seminar I was allowed to suggest one book that would be made available to all participants and which they would be expected to read beforehand.  I selected Gary Gallagher’s recent study of the Civil War in popular culture because I thought it would both introduce the teachers to the subject of memory and give them a sense of how they can talk about the subject in the classroom.  My favorite chapter is the one on Civil War “art”, which has been a regular topic on this blog from the beginning.  I guess you could say I have a love-hate relationship with it.  On the one hand the range of images provide the perfect gauge through which to measure our collective memory of the war.  At the same time much of this art is just downright horrific.  Anyway, I am going to include a few of my favorite prints in the visual portion of my presentation.  As I was putting this part of the presentation together I came across this hilarious painting of J.E.B. Stuart by John Paul Strain titled “Bold Cavalier.”    I apologize for the quality of the Strain print, but if you click here it will take you to Strain’s own gallery thumbnail.

It looks to me like Strain took the famous photograph of Stuart on the right and just transferred his head to the body on horseback.  The effect is simply hilarious.  Stuart looks completely detached from the people around him and looks to be preparing to be photographed.  Or perhaps he just wants to get away from his adoring fans.  Either way it makes for a good laugh.

Henry Louis Gates as Filmmaker

99-gatesToday I showed a segment of Henry L. Gates’s “Looking for Lincoln” to my Civil War Memory class.  They enjoyed it and it provides an excellent overview of some of the themes that will be explored in this last full week of classes before the trimester ends.  We looked specifically at the segments on emancipation and race.  Gates spends time interviewing both David Blight and Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Throughout Gates proceeds as if he is on a personal journey to better understand the history of Lincoln as well as the evolution of Lincoln mythology.  In a conversation with Goodwin, Gates suggests that his search has left him disillusioned and disappointed to learn that Lincoln harbored racist views or that the impetus for the Emancipation Proclamation was not borne of pure motives, but political expediency and military necessity.  In a charming little give and take Goodwin encourages “Skip” not to blame Lincoln for the conflict between history and mythology, but to try to reconcile the two. Goodwin hopes that out of conflict will come empathy for Lincoln and a more sophisticated understanding of his life within the context of the war and the mid-nineteenth century generally.

At one point one of my students wondered out loud whether Gates was really confused about Lincoln.  I soon realized that he was inquiring how a professional historian whose area of expertise is race relations and the nineteeth century could be confused about Lincoln.  It’s an excellent question.  After all, Gates is currently the director of the W.E.B. Dubois Center of African and African American Research at Harvard University.  Of course, Gates is not confused about his subject.  I tend to think that Gates is modeling the kind of journey that he likely took when studying this subject seriously for the first time and one that he hopes others will take as well.   His interviews with professional historians pit him as the outsider who is trying to better understand Lincoln; this comes out clearly in the dinner table scenes with Harold Holzer, James Horton, and David Blight.  There was nothing said over dinner that Gates didn’t already know, but the viewer is left with the impression that this is just another step in his journey to better understand Lincoln.  In proceeding in this way Gates entices his viewer to join him on this journey.  It also works to collapse the distinction between the academic and the neophyte.

All in all I think this is an entertaining approach to the history documentary without having to sacrifice content and scholarship.

Hey SCV, Welcome to 2009

I am pleased to see that the Sons of Confederate Veterans have given a thumbs-up to the recent PBS Lincoln documentary, “Looking For Lincoln”, narrated by Henry Louis Gates.  The reviewer takes pride in the way in which the SCV is portrayed as well as the emphasis on the challenging of various “Lincoln myths.”

For the first time in memory, almost all the coverage was positive. In the rare worst case it was neutral and not negative. Our flags and symbols were prominent. If every one of us went out flagging for a whole day we couldn’t have nearly shown our colors to as many as the millions watching.   Our people were shown were well dressed, with attractive personalities and articulate messages including delegates in the scenes at the reunion.

The reviewer is no doubt correct to note that the SCV was allowed to state their position on Lincoln, but this should not be confused with any tacit endorsement of that position by the producers or even Gates himself.  The goal of the documentary was to survey the way various groups, and at different times, have remembered and commemorated Lincoln.  It was not Gates’s purpose to criticize any one interpretation.

More interesting is their assessment of how the documentary handled what the SCV assumes to be a deeply ingrained set of Lincoln myths.  The SCV and other heritage organizations have been outspoken in blaming academics for not addressing these myths:

The bottom line is the program attacked the Lincoln myth and presented so many of the negatives in Lincoln’s life that have been avoided by historians for years. This includes some who appeared on the program and now exposed by having to admit there is a Lincoln “myth”. They also chide each other for not viewing history in light of the times, rather than viewing it, as they often do, as if the events were today.

The program further gives us an opportunity to see to it that it is and used by schools throughout the country to help overcome the problem of children being misled on the life of Lincoln and the causes of the War Between the States. Is also serves as an introduction to the Sons of Confederate Veterans by the SCV being portrayed in a favorable light. Dr. Gates has assured me he wholeheartedly endorses this idea. In his case, he has convinced me he is interested in the truth as defined in the program, though he continues as a devoted Lincoln fan, blemishes and all.

This is a bizarre thing to say given that Henry L. Gates as well as others featured on the program, including Allen Guelzo, David Blight, Harold Holzer, and James O. Horton are all academics and have been arguing for a more sophisticated interpretation of Lincoln for well over twenty years.  Unless you’ve had your head in the sand academic historians have challenged every aspect of the Lincoln myth out there, especially his position on slavery and race.  Actually, the more you think about this passage the more confusing it is.  I am not aware of any high school history textbooks that fail to follow the outline of Gates’s documentary.  In other words, most texts distinguish between Lincoln’s views on race and slavery and do a pretty good job of explaining the complex set of conditions that led to the Emancipation Proclamation – the very core of Lincoln mythology, according to the SCV.

I think what this reflects is how far removed the SCV – as an organization – is from a mature understanding of Lincoln/Civil War historiography.  They think that “Looking for Lincoln” somehow reflects a new direction in scholarship when all it really is is an entertaining/educational overview of what most historians have come to believe about Lincoln.  The straightforward historical interpretation of Lincoln that emerges is a synthesis of the last twenty-five years of scholarship.  Maybe if the SCV took the time to get beyond their meaningless generalizations regarding professional historians and took the time to read their books they would see this.  Welcome to 2009.

Visualizing the Lost Cause

Check out the excellent video that Caitlin, from Vast Public Indifference, put together in response to one of my recent posts on Civil War art.  Caitlin’s commentary begins around 2:10.  The video is here, but I encourage you to read her full post, which includes another video.  Does anyone really believe that the images in this video reflect how white Virginians lived?  More to the point, do people who fall into the demographic of those who are attracted to this “maudlin crapfest” actually believe that this reflects how they would have lived in antebellum Virginia?  Even a cursory understanding of Virginia’s antebellum history demonstrates that many believed the commonwealth was headed in the wrong direction [click here and here].  Can we do no better than yearn for a return to a time when slavery was accepted?  Such nostalgic silliness is nothing less than a yearning to return to slavery.

I am going to show this to my Civil War Memory class tomorrow.  They are currently working on their final projects and a number of them are putting together videos from our trip to Richmond as well as collections of various images related to memory.  Well done, Caitlin.

Update: Check out the obligatory response from Richard Williams who can’t think of anything more interesting to say other than to accuse us of South bashing [blah, blah, blah].  Do you really find the history of the Confederacy and the antebellum South in these images?  Scary and just a little disturbing – no offense.

Why I Love My Job

This semester I am working with a senior on an independent study, which focuses on the admittance of female students to the University of Virginia in the early 1970s.  The student in question has already been accepted by UVA on a full scholarship to play golf.  After reading a number of secondary sources and meeting with a member of UVA’s history department, who focuses on women’s history, I decided it was time to head on over to Special Collections to check out some primary sources.  My goal was to get her acclimated to the system so she can go in alone and on her own time.  We looked at a number of collections, but one in particular stood out.  It was called the “Woody Report” and it was commissioned by the university in 1968 to gather information from various campus community’s on where they stood on the issue of the integration of women into the university.

We thumbed through the pages, but at one point my student looked at me and said, “Mr. Levin, do you realize that this is the originial copy of the report?”  I knew at that moment exactly what was going on in her mind, and I also knew that this student would never look at history the same way.  In that moment she made the leap from textbook to an actual document.  It’s impossible to communicate the experience of holding history in your hands; in those moments time collapses and you are confronted with a piece of a story that you’ve only read about through the interpretation of another.  As we drove back to campus I casually remarked that she would have to find time in her schedule over the next few weeks to go back and check out some additional collections.  Well, she looked at me and said that she had already decided to go back first thing tomorrow morning.

…and I’ve had a smile on my face since then. 🙂

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

lincolnIf you are in the area today stop by room 4C for Lincoln cupcakes, Lincoln Logs, and a viewing of D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln” starring Walter Huston.  One of my students is bringing in Lincoln punch, but I’m not sure what that means.  I should probably sample it beforehand.

Are You a Newly-Minted Ph.D in History Looking for a Position in a Private School?

If the answer is yes, than listen carefully.  My department is currently looking to fill a couple of positions and we are getting swamped with applications.  Compared to years past we are seeing a sharp increase in the number of applications from people who have recently earned a Ph.D in history.  I assume the increase has something to do with a contracting job market in the academy as well as the state of the economy.

While I’ve strongly encouraged young Ph.Ds to consider a teaching career in private schools I think it is important to understand your competition as well as the expectations of most search committees.  First and foremost, do not send the same resume that you would send to a college or university search committee to a private school.  It should be obvious, but we are looking for very different things.  You need to emphasize your teaching experience beyond any publishing you may have done or grant writing.  In fact, if your publications are extensive you may want to consider widdling it down a bit.  Your resume needs to reflect a history and continued interest in teaching and interaction with students rather than any scholarly accomplishments.  That’s not to say that your publications are not relevant; in fact, most history departments in the private school sector are looking specifically for candidates who have a mastery of the content rather than a long list of workshops on the latest pedagogical fads.  Don’t just mention in passign that you were a teaching assistant or grader for a specific class; briefly describe your responsibilities and the extent to which you worked directly with students.  You may also want to limit the number of academic presentations and professional memberships in your application.  There is nothing worse than having to read through a long list of esoteric paper titles.  It only works to make you look like an asshole.  Again, message is everything.  Applications that fail to take these recommendations seriously send the message that the candidate is going to leave at the first opportunity.  In short, you will not be given serious consideration.

Other recommendations: Most private schools are looking for coaches.  Indicate those sports that you could coach and those that you feel comfortable assisting.  To the extent possible do some background reseach on the school that you are applying to.  Check out the history curriculum as well as the electives offered.  Indicate in your application those subjects that you can teach and consider suggesting electives that will compliment those already being offered.   Finally, check out the clubs that are offered and indicate which ones you would like to be involved with.  The more student oriented your application looks the better chance you will get that phone call.