They Wouldn’t Know Originality If It Came Up and Bit Them On the Ass

Brooks Simpson’s latest post over at Civil Warriors elaborates on a short comment he posted to my blog in response to some thoughts about Edward Bonekemper’s new book on McClellan.  He begins with the following:

Over the last decade or so I’ve pondered whether readers of historical works as a rule value originality and fresh thinking. Doubtless some readers do: they tend to be more discerning readers who have read more broadly and deeply, and so they are in a position to appreciate original though because they understand the context of the discussion and the topic. But do more occasional readers – the folks who claim to be avid readers (and in some cases claim to be actual historians) based on a rather meager menu of reading – really care? I’m not so sure.

I tend to agree with Brooks here, but I will go further and suggest that most consumers of Civil War histories care little for originality because they do not understand the concept as it is understood at the ground-level.  What I mean by that has actually been discussed by Brook in previous posts as well as this most recent entry, and it comes down to training in analytical thinking, critical review of primary sources, as well as a strong background in historiography.  This takes place in graduate programs, though it does not imply that the skills cannot be acquired elsewhere and it does not imply that those who go through these programs necessarily emerge as competent practitioners. 

Let’s face it, somewhere around 80-90% of the literature in our field is unoriginal and usually involves a simple rehashing of what has already been said.  The challenge is, of course, that producing something original involves understanding a process rather than a concept.  Back to Simpson:

This is not always easy to achieve, but it’s hard to justify engaging in historical scholarship otherwise. Moreover, it’s in the nature of professional training as a scholar. In crafting a dissertation topic, you set forth the literature that already exists and the ensuing historical conversation: then you define how your contribution is new, different, and (so you believe) better. You may come to that point in different ways.

The Civil War community is a strange lot.  It’s easy to imagine people like ourselves reading incessantly, but my guess is that most people don’t read at all.  Those who do read tend to read traditional military history as told by competent writers who tell their stories well.  Most people have little patience for trying to fit an interpretation into a broader historiographical context or are willing to take the time to seriously consider the kinds of evidence used in a study and the interpretation of that evidence.  I should point out that it is not clear that they should have to do so.

Original thought on this level takes predictable forms:  Sometimes we get the old uncovering of a long lost skirmish that somehow rises to the level of decisive moment in a campaign or perhaps even the war.  In other cases we read that x’s actions did or did not lead to victory or defeat.  While some of these studies may give us something to think about it does not necessarily rise to the level of originality.  Most of these books involve little or no creativity in the interpretation of sources.  It’s unfortunate because the field of military history has undergone a transformation in recent years that has yielded many imaginative studies.  [See the latest issues of the Journal of American History for an excellent round table discussion about military history.] 

Publishers don’t help the situation given their tendency to market their titles in ways that often times deceive their readers into thinking that what they are purchasing is original.  This was my complaint surrounding David Eicher’s latest book.  While it may be a decent place to start the idea that internal squabbling within the Confederate high command doomed the war effort is anything but original.  The interpretation has been around for decades.

Then there is the large contingent of those in the Civil War community who take offense to any interpretation that conflicts with their preconceived assumptions about the war.  Examples are all over the place and readers of this blog do not need a recap.  These are people who have little interest in history, rather they cling to a picture of the past on faith and respond to anything new as revisionist.  Those who write from this perspective offer us the same old paternalistic nonsense or stories that are designed to reinforce a personal religious outlook.  If this is not the most blatant example of ignorance of the historical process I don’t know what is.

I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I have little to say to most people out there who share my interests in American history and the Civil War in particular.  I don’t mean to sound snobbish it’s just that my goals in reading, writing/publishig, and now blogging about the past resonate with a fairly small group of people. 

They Wouldn’t Know Originality If It Came Up and Bit Them On the Ass

Brooks Simpson’s latest post over at Civil Warriors elaborates on a short comment he posted to my blog in response to some thoughts about Edward Bonekemper’s new book on McClellan.  He begins with the following:

Over the last decade or so I’ve pondered whether readers of historical works as a rule value originality and fresh thinking. Doubtless some readers do: they tend to be more discerning readers who have read more broadly and deeply, and so they are in a position to appreciate original though because they understand the context of the discussion and the topic. But do more occasional readers – the folks who claim to be avid readers (and in some cases claim to be actual historians) based on a rather meager menu of reading – really care? I’m not so sure.

I tend to agree with Brooks here, but I will go further and suggest that most consumers of Civil War histories care little for originality because they do not understand the concept as it is understood at the ground-level.  What I mean by that has actually been discussed by Brook in previous posts as well as this most recent entry, and it comes down to training in analytical thinking, critical review of primary sources, as well as a strong background in historiography.  This takes place in graduate programs, though it does not imply that the skills cannot be acquired elsewhere and it does not imply that those who go through these programs necessarily emerge as competent practitioners. 

Let’s face it, somewhere around 80-90% of the literature in our field is unoriginal and usually involves a simple rehashing of what has already been said.  The challenge is, of course, that producing something original involves understanding a process rather than a concept.  Back to Simpson:

This is not always easy to achieve, but it’s hard to justify engaging in historical scholarship otherwise. Moreover, it’s in the nature of professional training as a scholar. In crafting a dissertation topic, you set forth the literature that already exists and the ensuing historical conversation: then you define how your contribution is new, different, and (so you believe) better. You may come to that point in different ways.

The Civil War community is a strange lot.  It’s easy to imagine people like ourselves reading incessantly, but my guess is that most people don’t read at all.  Those who do read tend to read traditional military history as told by competent writers who tell their stories well.  Most people have little patience for trying to fit an interpretation into a broader historiographical context or are willing to take the time to seriously consider the kinds of evidence used in a study and the interpretation of that evidence.  I should point out that it is not clear that they should have to do so.

Original thought on this level takes predictable forms:  Sometimes we get the old uncovering of a long lost skirmish that somehow rises to the level of decisive moment in a campaign or perhaps even the war.  In other cases we read that x’s actions did or did not lead to victory or defeat.  While some of these studies may give us something to think about it does not necessarily rise to the level of originality.  Most of these books involve little or no creativity in the interpretation of sources.  It’s unfortunate because the field of military history has undergone a transformation in recent years that has yielded many imaginative studies.  [See the latest issues of the Journal of American History for an excellent round table discussion about military history.] 

Publishers don’t help the situation given their tendency to market their titles in ways that often times deceive their readers into thinking that what they are purchasing is original.  This was my complaint surrounding David Eicher’s latest book.  While it may be a decent place to start the idea that internal squabbling within the Confederate high command doomed the war effort is anything but original.  The interpretation has been around for decades.

Then there is the large contingent of those in the Civil War community who take offense to any interpretation that conflicts with their preconceived assumptions about the war.  Examples are all over the place and readers of this blog do not need a recap.  These are people who have little interest in history, rather they cling to a picture of the past on faith and respond to anything new as revisionist.  Those who write from this perspective offer us the same old paternalistic nonsense or stories that are designed to reinforce a personal religious outlook.  If this is not the most blatant example of ignorance of the historical process I don’t know what is.

I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I have little to say to most people out there who share my interests in American history and the Civil War in particular.  I don’t mean to sound snobbish it’s just that my goals in reading, writing/publishig, and now blogging about the past resonate with a fairly small group of people. 

Gender and the Civil Rights Movement

My Women’s History course is moving along nicely.  This past week we discussed issues relating to black feminism and the Civil Rights Movement.  I offered a few reflections yesterday morning on our tendency to see the Civil Rights Movement along gendered lines.  Most of our images are indeed centered on men such as Martin L. King, Malcolm X, Stokeley Carmichael, etc.  I suggested that even the prominent place of Rosa Parks in our national narrative is in part a result of the fact that it led to King’s emergence as a national leader.  Would we remember Parks if her arrest was not followed by a city-wide boycott of the buses?  I enjoyed our discussions because it gave me a chance to think a bit more about the connection between gender and race as factors in how our national narrative has been constructed throughout much of the twentieth century.  I’ve never thought much before this class about how gender has shaped our understanding of this particular event.  Luckily our textbook does a fabulous job of providing an overview of both black and white women and the issues that they faced in various organizations such as the NAACP, SNCC, and the SCLC.  I supplemented the text with a few readings including a primary document authored by Mary King who reported on the position of women in SNCC in 1964.  We also discussed a short article by Beverly Guy-Sheftall titled "African American Women: The Legacy of Black Feminism" which is contained in a collection edited by Robin Morgan called Sisterhood Forever: The Women’s Anthology for a New Millennium.

Bw1 Specific women that were discussed include Ella Baker who was active in the NAACP and was later appointed "acting" executive director of the SCLC.  She was one of the founders of SNCC following the Greensboro sit-ins and organized numerous voter registration drives throughout the South.  Diane Nash also worked Bw6_2 with SNCC and organized the Nashville sit-ins; she is best known for pushing for  continued Freedom Rides following the violence of Anniston and Birmingham in 1961.  One of the most interesting stories for me involves Fannie Lou Hamer who grew up on a large cotton plantation.  Although she only managed to work through the sixth grade Hamer eventually joined SNCC and succeeded in registering to vote in 1963: "We just got to stand up now as Negroes for ourselves and for our freedom, and if it don’t do me any good, I do know the young people it will do good."  Hamer organized voter registration drives in Mississippi.  She Bw7 died in 1977 as a result of a brutal 1963 beating she received as a result of her political activism.  We also talked about the challenges posed by the presence of white women in these organizations such as Virginia Foster Durr and Anne Braden. 

The final group of women we discussed were those who took the initiative to break theBw3  color barrier in colleges and universities throughout the South.  They include Autherine Lucy who became the first black student to be admitted to the University of Alabama in 1956.  She was expelled three days later "for her own protection" against threats from white students.  Seven years later Vivian Malone and another male black student were admitted to the school.  Charlayne Hunter took the important step of integrating the University of Georgia in 1961.  There are, of course, others. 

One of the interesting questions for discussion centered on the unique challenges that being both black and a woman posed for those interested in political activism in the 1960s.  Mary King states the following in her evaluation of SNCC in 1964: "Most men in this movement are probably too threatened by the possibility of serious discussion on this subject.  Perhaps this is because they have recently broken away from a matriarchal framework under which they may have grown up."  Guy-Sheftall lists a number of points in an attempt to show that the perspective and challenges of black women in America are unique, and as a result, cannot be ignored:

1. Black women experience a special kind of oppression in this country, one that is both racist and sexist, because of their dual racial and gender identities.

2. This "double jeopardy" has meant that the problems, concerns, and needs of black women are different in many ways from those of both white women and black men.

3. Black women’s unique struggles with respect to racial and sexual politics, their poverty, and their marginalized status have given them a particular view of the world.

Next week we move on to women and education.  I plan to show the movie Mona Lisa Smiles.  Now don’t think tha I’ve sold out as I plan to use it as one perspective on this topic.  We will read some primary sources as well as excerpts from Lynn Peril’s book, College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Coeds, Then and Now

What I Don’t Want For Christmas: Part 2

Edward Bonekemper’s latest book on George McClellan would make the perfect gift for fellow blogger Dimitri Rotov.  In all seriousness this study looks like a complete disaster which would at least be consistent with his earlier books on Lee and Grant.  I probably sound overly harsh, but I absolutely cringed when I tried to get through his earlier book on Lee, which was nothing more than a poor rehashing of Alan Nolan’s argument.  While I disagreed with Nolan’s evaluation of Lee’s generalship at least he was able to put forward an argument in a clearly articulated manner.  Bonekemper’s latest book is titled, McClellan and Failure: A Study of Civil War Fear, Incompetence and Worse.  Here is a description:

Promoting his own ideas and career regardless of the consequences, McClellan spent his Civil War command defying his superiors and attempting to avoid battle, eventually becoming a thorn in the side of President Lincoln and the Union cause. Removed from command on November 5, 1862, McClellan’s overly cautious attitude nevertheless permeated the Army of the Potomac for years. From West Point to Antietam, this volume examines his Army career. The main focus of the work is McClellan’s Civil War service and the ways in which the man and his decisions affected the course of the war. The Union Army’s invasion of northern Virginia, the Peninsula Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run are examined in detail with special emphasis on the roles which McClellan played–or did not play. Through a combination of incompetence and paranoia, McClellan managed to throw away numerous chances at a Union victory and, consequently, a quicker end to the war.

Going back to the title of the book one has to wonder what Bonekemper means by “and worse.”  Maybe we will learn that McClellan beat his wife.  It is hard to imagine any study by Bonekemper being worth a purchase price of $45.  Do yourself a favor and spend the money on Ethan Rafuse’s new book, McClellan’s War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union.

The Inflatable Lee, Jackson, Grant, Lincoln…

Since I am so tired of reading story after story about Confederate flags and statues I thought this commentary by John Kelso was just what the doctor ordered.  Kelso, who writes a weekly column for Austin American-Statesman, has come up with a solution to the problem of the removal of Confederate statues:

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. UT has been trying to decide what to do with four
bronze Confederate figures on campus, among them Jefferson Davis and Robert E.
Lee. The House debate got so contentious that Reps. Senfronia Thompson,
D-Houston, and Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, nearly went roller derby on us and
had to be separated.

Why is Robert E. Lee’s statue at the University of Texas anyway? Lee never gave money to the
athletic department. Was he ever a member of the Longhorn Foundation? Rich
lawyer Joe Jamail rating a statue inside Royal-Memorial Stadium I can
understand. He keeps writing checks to keep the football team in the Top 10.  Until Lee gets his own skybox, I’m not sure why he rates recognition. They
should put a Jamail bronze on horseback on UT’s South Mall and stick Lee in
front of Posse East. 

OK, so here’s my main plan. Instead of statues, why not switch to big blowup
dolls? When the public decides it’s time for some notable to disappear, you just
walk up with a pin and, pop, they’re history. Besides, inflatables are a lot
cheaper than a $400,000 statue.  I know because I called Alvimar, a New York company that makes inflatables,
to ask about prices.  "A 15-foot-tall what inflatable?" the gal on the phone asked. "A Robert E.
Lee," I said. She didn’t seem to recognize the name.  A minute later, this guy named Dan got on the line.  "A ballpark figure, probably $7,000 or something like that," said Dan, when I
asked him how much a 15-foot helium Lee blowup would cost. "And it would take
five to seven weeks to make it. You’d have to send me all the pictures and
artwork."

So would it be a realistic Robert E. Lee? "They would be more cartoonish
characters," Dan said.  OK, so it’s a Robert E. Lee that looks like Elmer Fudd. I’m cool with that,
as long as it keeps the Legislature from squabbling.

Thanks John.