What We’re Reading: August, Part 2

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Disha

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W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

Returning to W.G. Sebald during the heatwave in Europe was both balm and irritant, as I read once more the lines: “I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.” (The Rings of Saturn, 3) A meditative travelogue about a walking trip Sebald took through coastal East Anglia in August 1992, this book was first an undergraduate favorite of mine, then the focus of a collaborative project in my first year of graduate school, and remains the dreamiest and bleakest of summer reads. Though perhaps at first glance, a stroll through the life of Roger Casement, the silkworm industry, Bergen-Belsen, and the Taiping Rebellion might seem like mere literary list-making, there is a hard, righteous edge to The Rings of Saturn that I have found helpful when reading and writing about the world-historical. Walking back and forth across Heidelberg during this uneasy August also compelled me to request Yair Mintzker’s The De-fortification of the German City, 1689-1866 (2012) from the university library’s reading room, as I became aware of moving from the Altstadt to the rest of the city, from what used to be inside the walls to what used to be outside. From a concrete and discrete legal entity — the walled city — to something that lay open to blending with the surrounding countryside, the German city in Mintzker’s telling is the site of political re-imagination and traumatic (de-) construction, of “the old world to which the walls belonged and the modern world that replaced it” (5). Destruction as driving force has become the theme of my summer reading, with potentially disastrous consequences for my dissertation prospectus draft, due next semester. (And if you take up these recommendations and need a destruction-bop, I’d suggest this.)

A.J.

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John O’Brien, Keeping it Halal: The Everyday Lives of Muslim American Teenage Boys (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

This has been a crazy summer, so fair warning: I’m not going to spend a lot of time turning my prose into poetry. But when asked to recommend a book, one popped immediately to mind: John O’Brien’s Keeping it Halal: The Everyday Lives of Muslim American Teenage Boys. Simply put: I really enjoyed this book. Keeping it Halal is an ethnography focused on the lives of Muslim American teenage men as they navigate their identities in a complicated context. It’s been widely praised, and rightly so. For one, the subject matter (in hindsight) seems almost confusingly neglected. Many scholars have worked on the idea of being Muslim and American from a variety of angles. But they’ve also almost unanimously dealt with adult immigrants. After reading O’Brien’s book, it’s clear that the different stages of life should also be carefully included as we model the “immigrant experience”. Further, while the sample is rather small, O’Brien stays with them for quite a long time, allowing him to develop analysis that is deeply historical and reflects more than just a single moment.  Perhaps most importantly, the book is intimate and is surprisingly enjoyable to read. The boys featured are very much real and the struggles—and triumphs—they experience are rendered potently. While slogging through endlessly, unnecessarily dense academic readings, it can be easy to forget that reading can be both smooth and impactful at the same time. In short: I both grew and had fun reading Keeping it Halal.

Eric

I spent too long this summer puzzling over the final chapter of Istvan Hont’s 2005 Jealousy of Trade. Hont’s larger concern is the integration of political economy, and especially international trade, into the history of political thought.  In the final chapter of the book Hont pursues his arguments, or perhaps his reconstitution of arguments between neo-Republicanism and post-Hobbesian natural right theorists, into and through the French Revolution. The details of Hont’s claims about the Abbé Sièyes and Jacobin political thought, as well as the emergence of the incoherent concept of the nation-state, to the side, it seems clear to me that what emerges from his approach to the period is how territory has function as a stumbling block for political thought. Since his death in 2013, Hont has himself become the subject of scholarship. At least one attempt to think systematically about the consequences for political theory does not agree with my reading. It seems to me that we have recently seen significant attempts to apply republican political ideas, for instance, in fields that are no longer intuitive. A Hontian history of political ideas would be a useful background for such projects, rather than ruling them out of court. Is our world still one in which territorially based states can meaningfully intervene in their own economies to, for instance, alter wage levels or the organization of debt, in order to compete with other territorially based states? The intuitive answer is surely yes, we are still living in the world of jealousy of trade.

And yet any serious answer to this question must look also to contemporary conditions in the global marketplace—or, what is a somewhat different thing, the global economy. It seems to me that a full accounting of Hont’s historical framework—its genesis from the 70s on as well as its meaning today—must take place with a view to what is radically new or anomalous in the economic conditions of those years and today, as for instance Adam Tooze’s new book begins to allow us to do. Does it seriously make sense to worry about the imperial tendencies of neo-republicanism amidst such disorder? What do the conditions of global finance do to the political meaning of liberal attachment to the territorial state? And finally, how—if at all—might the 18th century help us to think through these questions?

Kristin

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Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography

In celebration of submitting my master’s thesis, I recently made a conscious effort to expand the subject matter of my reading list; however, victim of my own obsessions, I must wryly admit that I am still recommending a book which dedicates one chapter to my own subject.  With the aim of expanding my knowledge of global political history, I took up Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World.

A veteran foreign correspondent for the BBC and Sky News, Marshall presents a materialist’s perspective on national borders, their reasons for being, and causes of conflict on and within those borders.  The book is divided into ten chapters, each focusing on a different geopolitical region. Each of these chapters contextualizes current events within the given region by supplying information as to the natural resources available in the area, actions required to access necessary resources, and the state’s military defensibility.  Together, these ten case studies present and support a principle theory of geopolitics: geography dictates the needs of a people and the state which they form.

Well-researched and cohesively presented, Marshall’s book provides a great deal of useful information for readers interested in expanding their knowledge of political histories and conflicts around the world.  While providing accurate information as to the states of affairs in ten regions, however, Marshall’s work reflects ardent support for geopolitical theory and occasionally omits complicating factors from the discussion.

In short, for the newcomer, Prisoners of Geography serves as a strong introduction to regional geopolitics, while for those more knowledgeable in the subject, Marshall’s analysis may inspire fascinating questions and conversations.

Derek

Sam Wineburg; Mark Smith; Joel Breakstone, “What is Learned in College History Classes,” Journal of American History 104, no. 4 (March 2018), 983–993.

“The study of history should be a mind-altering encounter that leaves one forever unable to consider the social world without asking questions about where a claim comes from, who is making it, and how time and place shape human behavior.” It’s hard to disagree. But, for all of the conversations and fine mentorship I’ve had about teaching history over the past five years, I have never thought seriously about formative assessments to evaluate these skills during the course of the semester. The authors of a recent essay in the Journal of American History’s “Textbooks and Teaching” section explain that a formative assessment, “is distinguished from end-of-course assessment by its purpose: to inform teaching, not to give students a grade.” In fact, I don’t believe I have ever observed or participated in such an assessment. I can’t imagine who would contest the authors’ straightforward prompt: “Historians have long claimed that historical study teaches critical thinking. Our results suggest that this may not occur by osmosis. Might a more direct approach be necessary?” They helpfully suggest how we might do so.

I’d strongly recommend this small archive of insightful guidance and research about teaching history (now a decade old) and this short essay in particular: “What is Learned in College History Classes.” The authors recount the effective failure of college history students and majors to accomplish a set of tasks designed to test high school learning outcomes. The well-designed tasks test the ability of students’ to perform basic historical skills through the analysis of primary documents, thus bridging the gap between the abstract goals we claim about the purpose of teaching history and the point. In the much larger puzzle of how to promote the humanities in this era, this seems a small but very important and actionable piece.

Graduate Forum: The Radical African American Twentieth Century

This is the third in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which is running this summer. The first piece was by Andrew Klumpp, the second by Cynthia Houng.

This third piece is by guest contributor Robert Greene II.

“Remember the ladies.” This is a line from Abigail Adams’ famous letter to her husband, John Adams, defending the idea of rights and equality for women. “Remember the ladies,” however, could easily also serve as the defining idea of modern African American intellectual history. Many historians of the African American intellectual tradition have taken great pains to emphasize the importance—indeed, the centrality—of African American women to that intellectual milieu. At the same time, other fundamental questions have been raised of not just who to privilege in this new turn in African American intellectual history, but what sources are appropriate for intellectual history. Finally, the ways in which the public remembers the past animates newer trends in African American intellectual history. In short, African American intellectual history’s recent historiographic turns offer much food for thought for all intellectual historians.

 

The field of African American intellectual history has come a long way since the heyday of historians August Meier and Earlie E. Thorpe, both prominent in the then-nascent field of African American intellectual history in the 1960s. Meier’s Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915 and Thorpe’s The Mind of the Negro: An Intellectual History of Afro-Americans were both written in the 1960s and set the standard for African American intellectual history for decades to come. Both books were focused heavily on male intellectuals, however. As such they both set the standard for the field and, along with so much of African American history up until the late 1980s, left out the important voices of many African American women.

The rise of historians like Evelyn Higginbotham in the early 1990s ushered in new ways of understanding the intersection of race and gender through American history. Her book Righteous Discontent (1992) and essay “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race” (1992) both provided templates for how to easily meld women’s history and African American history into texts that became essential works of understanding the past through viewpoints and sources normally ignored by most male historians.

Today, the field of African American intellectual history has been influenced by the evolution of several related fields: African American women’s history and Black Power studies. Both fields have attempted to both overturn older assumptions about African American history and do so by focusing on previously marginalized sources and historical figures. Much of the recent historiographic trends in African American history—namely, a deeper understanding of Black Nationalism and its relationship to broader ideological trends in both Black America and the African Diaspora—would not have been possible without both a deeper understanding of the importance of gender to African American history, and a willingness to expand the definition of who are “important” intellectuals “worthy” of study.

In just the last year alone, numerous books about the intersection of Black Nationalism and gender have challenged earlier assumptions about the histories of both fields in relationship to African American history. Both Keisha Blain’s Set the World On Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) and Ashley D. Farmer’s Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (UNC Press, 2017) stretch the time period in which historians should understand the origins of Black Power—getting further away from just understanding the 1960s-era context and situating Black Power and larger Black Nationalist trends in a long era of resistance and struggle led and strategized by African American women.

Set the World on Fire follows up on other works about the Black Nationalism of the 1920s, arguing that it did not end with Marcus Garvey’s deportation from the United States in 1927. Instead, argues Blain, it was women such as his spouse Amy Jacques Garvey who kept Black Nationalist fervor alive across the United States. Meanwhile, Farmer’s book shows how the ideas of women associated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s owe a great deal to the longer arc of radical black women’s history in the twentieth century—from the agitation of black women within the Communist left of the 1930s and stretching well into the 1970s and 1980s. For Farmer, the history of a radical black nationalism does not end with the collapse of the Black Panther Party in the late 1970s.

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Amy Jacques Garber, with her husband, Marcus Garvey.

 

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Derrick White’s The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011)

Meanwhile, other trends within African American intellectual history point to the utilization of previously ignored or forgotten sources to provide a deeper understanding of the past. Derrick White’s The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (University Press of Florida, 2011) argues for diving deeper into relatively recent African American intellectual history to provide a fuller picture of the post-Civil Rights Movement era. For White, the African American think tank was an important ideological clearing house for not just African Americans, but the broader Left in the 1970s.

 

A third movement within the field is the study of African American history itself. Pero Dagbovie has led the way in this, writing several key works detailing the rise of African American history over a broad timespan. Works such as African American History Reconsidered (University of Illinois Press, 2010) and The Early Black History Movement (University of Illinois Press, 2007) detail not only historiographic trends in the field, but the ways in which the institutions necessary for the growth of African American history were born and nurtured against the backdrop of Jim Crow segregation.

Finally, the importance of understanding memory to African American intellectual history has changed the way African American intellectual historians think about the intersection of ideas with public discourse. In reality, much of the understanding of “memory” by African American intellectual historians concerns forgetting by the vast public. Books such as Jeanne Theoharis’s A More Beautiful and Terrible History (Beacon Press, 2018) emphasizes how much of the American mainstream media—along with most politicians—have been complicit in hiding the deeper, more complicated histories of the Black freedom struggle in the United States.

African American intellectual history offers plenty of new opportunity for scholars interested in linking intellectual history to other sub-fields. African American activists and intellectuals never existed in a vacuum, whether geographic or ideological. They made alliances with a variety of groups and forces, all for the sake of freedom across the African diaspora. The new turns in African American intellectual history reflect this aspect of black history.

Robert Greene II is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Claflin University. He studies American intellectual and political history since 1945 and is the book review editor for the Society of US Intellectual Historians.

“Every Man is a Quotation from all his Ancestors:” Ralph Waldo Emerson as a Philosopher of Virtue Ethics

By guest contributor Christopher Porzenheim

Even the smallest display of virtuous conduct immediately inspires us. Simultaneously we: admire the deed, desire to imitate it, and seek to emulate the character of the doer. […] Excellence is a practical stimulus. As soon as it is seen it inspires impulses to reform our character. -Plutarch. [Life of Pericles. 2.2. Trans. Christopher Porzenheim.]

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson has been characterized as a transcendentalist, a protopragmatist, a process philosopher, a philosopher of power, and a even moral perfectionist.” While Emerson was all of these, I argue he is best understood as a philosopher of social reform and virtue ethics, who combined Ancient Greco-Roman, Indian, and Classical Chinese traditions of social reform and virtue ethics into a form he saw as appropriate for nineteenth-century America.

Reform, of self and society, was the central concern of Emerson’s philosophy. Emerson saw that we as humans are by nature reformers, who should strive to mimic the natural and spontaneous processes of nature in our reform efforts. As he put in one of his earliest published essays, Man the Reformer (1841):

What is a man born for but to be a Reformer, a Remaker of what man has made; a renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good, imitating that great Nature which embosoms us all[?]

Reforming oneself, with models of moral and religious heroes from the past, and through one’s own example, others, and eventually society itself, was the idea at the center of Emerson’s philosophy. He would often echo the virtue ethicist Confucius’s (551–479 BCE) advice that “When you see someone who is worthy, concentrate on becoming their equal; when you see someone who is unworthy, use this as an opportunity to look within yourself [for similar vices].” [A.4.17.]

For example, in the essay History (1844), Emerson wrote that “there is properly no history; only biography” and argued that this “biography” exists to reveal the virtues and vices of exceptional individuals character:

So all that is said of the wise man by Stoic, or oriental or modern essayist, describes to each reader his own idea, describes his unattained but attainable self. All literature writes the character of the wise man. […]  A true aspirant, therefore, never needs look for allusions personal and laudatory in discourse. He hears the commendation, not of himself, but more sweet, of that character he seeks, in every word that is said concerning character[.]

For Emerson, the task, of all literature and history, was offering people enjoyable and memorable examples of virtue and vice for them to pattern their own character, relationships, and life by. “The student is to read history, actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary.” History is a biography of our own potential character.

The logical result of these beliefs, was Emerson’s later work, Representative Men (1850) a collection of essays which provided biographies of “wise men,” “geniuses” and “reformers” each illustrating certain virtues and vices for his readers to learn from.

Plato for example, represented to Emerson the virtues and vices of a character shaped by philosophy, Swedenborg a mystic, Montaigne a skeptic, Shakespeare a poet, Napoleon a man of the world, and finally Goethe, a writer.

Representative Men was in part a direct response to the work of Emerson’s friend Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero Worship & The Heroic in History (1841). But both men’s works shared a common ancestor well known to their contemporaries, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.

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A bust of Plutarch in his hometown of Chaeronea, Greece

Plutarch (46-120 CE), a Greco-Roman biographer, essayist and virtue ethicist, who was deeply influenced by Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, wrote a collection of biographies (now usually called The Lives) and a collection of essays (The Morals) which would both serve as a models for Emerson’s work.

Plutarch’s Lives come down to us as a collection of 50 surviving biographies. Typically in each, the fate and character of one exceptional Greek individual, is compared with those of one exceptional Roman individual. In doing so, as Hugh Liebert argues, Plutarch was showing Greek and Roman citizens how they could play a role in shaping first themselves, and, through their own example, the Roman world. In an era that perceived itself as modern, chaotic, and adrift from the past; Plutarch showed his readers how they could become like the heroes of the past by imitating their virtuous patterns of conduct.

Plutarch’s Lives provoke moral questioning about character without moralizing. They give us a shared set of stories, some might say myths, by which we can measure ourselves and each other other. They show in memorable stories and anecdotes what is (and is not) worth admiring; virtues and vices.

We might, for example, admire Alexander the Great’s superhuman courage. But, what of the time he “resolved” a conflict between his best friends by swearing to kill the one that started their next disagreement? Or, even worse, what of when he executed Parmenion, one of his oldest friends? The Lives are not hagiographies.

Instead, they are mirrors for moral self-cultivation. For Plutarch, the “mirror” of history delights and instructs. It reflects the good and bad parts of ourselves in the heroes and villains of the past. The Lives are designed as tools to help reform our character. They help us see who we are and could become because they portray the faces of virtue and vice, as Plutarch put it at the start of his biography of Alexander the Great:

I do not aim to write narratives of events, but biographies. For rarely do a person’s most famous exploits reveal clear examples of their virtue and vice. Character is less visible in: the fights with countless corpses, the greatest military tactics, and the consequential sieges of cities. More often a person’s character shows itself in the small things: the way they casually speak to others, play games, and amuse themselves.

I leave to other historians the grand exploits and struggles of each of my subjects – just as a painter of portraits leaves out the details on every part of his subject’s body. Their work focuses upon the face. In particular, the expression of the eyes. Since this is where character is most visible. In the same way my biographies, like portraits, aim to illuminate the signs of the soul. (Life of Alexander. 1.2-1.3. Trans. Christopher Porzenheim)

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Eighteenth-century European depiction of Confucius

Emerson was in firm agreement with Plutarch about the relationship between our everyday conduct, virtue and character. In Self Reliance (1841), he wrote that “Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.” This idea is axiomatic for Emerson. Hence why, in his essay Spiritual Laws (1841), he quotes Confucius’ claim: “Look at the means a man employs, observe the basis from which he acts, and discover where it is that he feels at ease. Where can he [his character] hide? Where can he [his character] hide?” [A.2.10] For Plutarch and Emerson, our character is revealed in the embodied way we act every moment; in the way we relate to others – in our spontaneous manners, etiquette, or lack thereof.

As Emersons approval of Confucius suggests, Plutarch’s Lives, and Greco-Roman philosophy in general was merely one great influence on Emerson ideals of self and societal reform.  It is to these other influences, from Confucian philosophy in particular, that we will turn in a subsequent post, in order to clarify Emerson’s philosophy of virtue ethics and social reform.

Christopher Porzenheim is a writer. He is currently interested in the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular the figures of Socrates and Confucius as models for personal emulation. He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Gilgamesh & Aristotle: Friendship in the Epic and Philosophical Traditions.” When in doubt he usually opens up a copy of the Analects or the Meditations for guidance. See more of his work here.

What We’re Reading: August, Part 1

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Regular readers of the blog will have noticed the (temporary) disappearance of our “What We’re Reading” feature, which used to run every Friday. Starting today, we’ll be replacing our weekly link round-ups with monthly reading recommendations from our editors. These longer-form recommendations will allow our editors to share some of the why, as well as the what, of what we’re reading. Here is part one, part two will be published next Saturday.

Spencer

Self-parody that I am, I have invited John Calvin to accompany me back from Geneva, in the form of his commentaries on Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and the Thessalonians. Calvin composed one of the greatest pieces of systematic theology ever written in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, an achievement that has obscured the crucial fact, to quote Bruce Gordon, that the reformer “never taught theology as a separate discipline: he taught scripture” (300). The commentaries are texts of superlative erudition—filled with careful discussions of variant readings and the opinions of previous exegetes—and of polemical vitriol (“No words can express how foul is the abomination of the Papists…” [407]). All just as one would expect from the pugnacious theological architect of reformed Protestantism. The commentary on Romans, in particular, is something of a magnum opus, “a work that radically transformed Protestant theology” (Gordon 103). But not every note is scholarly or savage: “whatever may happen, we must stand firm in the belief that God, who once in His love embraced us, never ceases to care for us” (186). Of the correction of others’ faults he writes, quite movingly, “if we want to be of service, gentleness and restraint are necessary so that those who are reproved may still realize that they are loved” (422). Love is an apt word: Calvin loved Paul, whose prophetic mission he embraced as his own, and he loved the Bible, the revealed Word of God whose very existence was a miracle—these loves fill every page of his commentaries. It has been nothing short of wonderful this summer to discover the loving Calvin.

Nuala

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Olivier Rieppel, Phylogenetic Systems: Haeckel to Hennig (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2016).

As I grapple with the concept of time(s) in modern biology I return to Olivier Rieppel’s Phylogenetic Systematics: Haeckel to Hennig. Rieppel, an evolutionary zoologist, maps the development of modern phylogenetic systematics. He covers 100 years, from the German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel to Willi Hennig, the German founder of modern cladistics, as biologists vacillate between materialism and idealism to find a methodology to uncover nature in its “real” form. Rieppel reconstructs the origins of many contemporary big questions that have haunted the discipline since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species (1859). Is evolution the basis of comparative anatomy, or idealistic morphology? What morphological characters need to be elevated to understand an organism’s history? How do we use characters to reconstruct a tree? Are all characters equal? Rippel’s impressive cannon of German biological literature is the major strength of the book. Rieppel also offers a perspective on German biology during the Third Reich, a welcome addition to a literature more generally focussed on medicine and the atomic bomb. The author argues that idealistic morphology and phylogenetic systematics represented two antagonistic ideological traditions, empiricist-positivist and organicist-holistic, and critically evaluates the impact and influence of Nazism on evolutionary biology. Side by side, I read Brent D. Mishler’s What are Species? as one always needs to balance those charismatic zoologists perspective. Mishler, an evolutionary botanist, argues that the multitude of single species concepts needs to be abandoned for a more fluid, pluralistic concept of species.  Whilst this has been happening in contemporary practice it has yet to reach consensus formally within the biological community. These books leave me contemplating time, its measurability, its complexity and the work done to tame time on evolutionary trees.

Cynthia

Edna Lewis published The Taste of Country Cooking in 1976. In the very first paragraph of the book, Lewis informs us: “I grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a community of farming people. It wasn’t really a town. The name was adopted because the first residents had all been freed from chattel slavery and they wanted to be known as a town of Free People.” The book, a hybrid between a memoir and a cookbook, is both a historical document and a commentary on a moment in history. Structured as a series of seasonal menus, the book takes us through the rhythms of life in Freetown, where the bonds (and pleasures) of family and community were not taken lightly, for slavery–and emancipation–were both still held in living memory.

Her memories of Freetown are beautiful and tender, but never saccharine. After all, it is a book that includes the menu and recipes for an Emancipation Day Dinner. “My grandmother,” Lewis wrote, “had been a brick mason as a slave–purchased for the sum of $950 by a rich landowner.” The Emancipation Day dinner included a Guinea fowl casserole, wild rice and wild grapes, and a simple plum tart. We learn what the residents of Freetown might have enjoyed for a midday dinner during the wheat harvest, what might have been served for dinner after a Sunday Revival, and what went into packing a picnic basket for a day at the horse races. Lewis gives us that other history, the one written by the body, on the land. In an interview with the New York Times, Judith Jones (who also worked with Julia Child on Mastering the Art of French Cooking) recounted that “when they were working on the book together, Jones noticed that there wasn’t a menu for Thanksgiving. She asked Lewis about it, who said, quietly: ‘‘We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. We celebrated Emancipation Day.’’ And so she wrote a menu for that, leaving it to the reader to figure out why.”

Pranav

Since the end of my research trip to England, I have gradually been working through my rather long list of readings not directly related to my own research. Though most of my time has been taken up with Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s epic novel about the Second World War, I have recently read Noah Millstone’s excellent Past & Present article ‘Seeing Like a Statesman in Early Stuart England.’ Millstone, currently based at the University of Birmingham, argues that early Stuart politics was characterized by a specific form of political thinking which he describes as ‘politic.’ It relied on decoding hidden intentions and was obsessed with secrecy and intrigue. Since simple inference could be misleading, it was deemed necessary to use a number of hermeneutic techniques that allowed one ‘to unveil the true, hidden causes behind events.’ (82).

What makes Millstone’s research and argument so impressive is his insistence that this mode of thinking cannot be understood only through printed treatises written by elite actors. He has combed through a vast amount of manuscript material that allows him to understand how ‘politic’ thinking, best thought of as a technique of interpretation rather than as an ideology, pervaded all levels of English society. Millstone is also very good at explaining the wider implications of his argument. He suggests that ‘politic’ thinking implies that there was such a thing as a ‘distinctly early modern form of the political.’ (84) Historians, therefore, should no longer think of politics as a transhistorical category that necessarily retains some common features across time and space.

Social Defiance and Counter-Institutions: What Aesthetic Philosophy Misses in the Ontology of Rock Music

By guest contributor Jake Newcomb

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Rage Against the Machine End of set, before leaving stage
Vegoose Music Festival, 28 October 2007. https://www.flickr.com/photos/penner/1977294428/

With the publication of Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock, philosopher Theodore Gracyk made the first breach into a modern ontology of rock music in 1996. Gracyk’s ontology postulated the idea that rock music is separated from other genres of music by identifying sound recording as the most important facet of the genre of rock music – which contrasts the centrality of live performance in classical music. By downplaying the role of live performances, songwriting, and songs themselves in the ontology of rock, Gracyk’s left his assertion open to critique. Some of the critiques that followed Gracyk’s ontology, like Andrew Kania’sin 2006, keep the ontology of rock music “recording-centered,” but try to refine the exact contours of what “recording” is. Kania also acknowledged that rock music is a recording centered phenomenon, and argued that the primary goal of rock musicians is to “construct [recorded] tracks,” as opposed to writing songs. Kania used this assertion to then make the claim that recording tracks precedes the existence of a song, and that it isn’t until after a track is recorded, that a “song” can exist. In 2015, Franklin Bruno entered the debate, arguing not only that songwriting and the existence of songs can precede the recording of a track, but also that the quality of songwriting and songs are as important to the fans of rock music as the skill of recording tracks. Bruno emphasized the viewpoint that songs and recordings are not mutually exclusive, but mutually dependent.

This chain of argumentation leaves out the cultural and social dimensions of rock music, which could be of particular interest to historians. Rock musicians have openly defied the status quo and socio-political norms of their times, and became symbols of resistance to the social structures that surrounded their art. Defining moments in the development of rock, and how that development was perceived by the public, are entangled with the contemporary political and economic situations that surrounded those moments. The examples below demonstrate how rock musicians have symbolized social and political conflict.

Take for example, the identity of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in the 1990s. In, The Man Whom the World Sold, Mark Mazullo argued that Cobain’s aggressive music and superstar status in the early 1990s for many people brought into the public consciousness a generational conflict between “Generation X” and the “Baby Boomers.” Nirvana’s confrontational music resonated with Generation X, who felt that the generation that directly preceded them, the Baby Boomers, had raised them in a system that could not provide the the pathways to happiness and prosperity that were promised to them by the idealism of post-war America. Mazullo quotes Sarah Ferguson, a journalist, who published an article after Cobain’s suicide saying that, “the hit ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was… a …resounding fuck you to the Boomers and all the false promises they saddled us with.” Following Cobain’s suicide in 1994 “every major print venue in the country ran obituaries and commentaries on Cobain’s heroic cultural role,” and “suicide hotlines were established across the country,” because there was an immediate fear of copycat suicides. Lorraine Ali writing for the New York Times chalked up the significance of Cobain’s death to the generational tension that allowed Nirvana to sell “millions of albums to peers who can relate to their rootless anger.” Here, Ali uses the word “peer” to describe the people who purchased Nirvana’s music, not “fans,” because to many listeners of Nirvana, Cobain was one of them, not just a rockstar. Cobain, plagued by many of the same ills that the listeners of his music were, triggered a deep emotional response from others in his generation who suffered from drug addiction, depression, chronic illness, and childhood trauma, like himself. For many young people in his generation, those characteristics of his personality and the social conditions in which he published his music were as important as the songs he wrote and the tracks that he recorded, and it is a big part of the reason why Nirvana’s music had immense and immediate commercial success.

Punk rock, a subgenre of rock that influenced Nirvana, actively resisted the mainstream and commercial entertainment industry. According to Dawson Barrett, punk engaged in “direct action” politics and “built its own elaborate network of counter-institutions, including music venues, media, record labels, and distributors,” that acted as “cultural and economic alternatives to corporate entertainment industry,” instead of trying to “[petition] the powerful for inclusion.” Which, Barrett argues, “should also be understood as sites of resistance to the privatizing agenda of neoliberalism,” because creating their own institutions and economic circuits was a conscious political choice to not participate in the dominant cultural economic ideology and social system. Barrett’s article, DIY Democracy: The Direct Action Politics of U.S. Punk Collectives, asserts that punk culture descended from “New Left Principles,” like “consensus-based decision-making, voluntary participation, and relatively horizontal leadership structures,” in direct defiance of the neoliberal ideology that evolved alongside punk in the United States. The punk rock musicians who engaged in “DIY democracy” had no desire to exist within the neoliberal commercial entertainment structure and built their own structures. Punk musicians created new modes of living to accompany their art. The development of punk music is also a history of a counter culture openly defiant of materialism, consumer culture, and mainstream political thought.

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Václav Havel, photograph by Jiří Jiroutek

The Czechoslovakian rock movement in the 1970s also created “counter-institutions.” The existence of these counter-institutions and the desire to create modes of living outside of the state-accomodated social structures of the communist regime came to a head in 1976 when the members of a rock band called “The Plastic People of the Universe,” were put on trial and convicted for their music and their concerts. The state believed that the music and community of musicians put Czechoslovakia at risk. The trial, and the verdict, were the catalysts for the creation of the Charter 77 organization in Czechoslovakia. Charter 77, made up of the Czech intelligentsia who feared that the state could and would remove their freedoms of speech and assembly, was instrumental in bringing down the communist regime in the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Vaclav Havel, a founding member of Charter 77 and a spectator at the trial of The Plastic People of the Universe, wrote in his highly influential essay “The Power of the Powerless,” that the trial between the communist judicial system and the rock band was a confrontation between “two differing conceptions of life.” The state feared that the rock band’s music and concerts could undermine the solidarity and the morality of the state. Havel criticized the state’s viewpoint and actions as an “attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life.” The state according to Havel, acting from fear, took judicial measures to prevent the rock band from living and acting according to principles of freedom of expression and individual choice, because the very act of “living within truth” put the rigid totalitarian ideology of the Czechoslovakian state into question.

Havel identified that the Plastic People of the Universe had created their own counter-institutions, and he defined them as a “parallel polis.” In the Czechoslovakian state structure, Havel theorized that rock bands, and dissident groups in general, created their own organizational and economic structures in order to perpetuate their existence, and these “parallel polis” structures developed naturally as a response to the state rigidity and limitations of communist Czechoslovakia. Creating and maintaining these “parallel polis” structures was the only way that these musicians could live out their truth, playing the music that they wanted to play and living out the communal experiences that they wanted to have. The parallel polis that The Plastic People of the Universe created had two enormous effects on Czechoslovakian society: 1) it forced the state to take judicial action and punish an entity that they perceived as a threat, which began a new crackdown on elements in Czechoslovakia that the state perceived to be subversive, and 2) inspired part of the intelligentsia to found the Charter 77 organization in order to protect the rights of free speech and criticism. The Plastic People of the Universe inspired immediate action on both sides of a political conflict. While Cobain embodied a generational conflict, the Plastic People of the Universe’s embodied a political one.

The ontologies of rock music developed by Gracyk, Kania, and Bruno all abstract rock music from the social and political conditions that surround the art. At best this is incomplete, but at worst it is misleading. The aforementioned examples elucidate rock music’s tendency to embody social and political conflict, and in the case of The Plastic People of the Universe, inspire action on both sides of a political conflict. Kurt Cobain became a spokesman for his generation not only because of his ability to write popular songs and record popular tracks, but also because he was seen by some as a martyr-like figure. Punk rock musicians often denied mainstream consumer culture and replaced it with counter-institutions and grassroots organization to avoid having to work within the neoliberal economic system. These aspects of rock music are as important to our understanding of its history as the fact that the artform is primarily mediated from the artist to the recipient through sound recording. To move toward a more comprehensive ontology of rock, the cultural and political symbolism that rock music and its practitioners embodied should be taken into account.

Jake Newcomb is an MA student in the Rutgers History Department, and a musician. His essays on his personal experience with music can be found at jakenewcomb.tumblr.com

Personal Memory and Historical Research

By Contributing Editor Pranav Kumar Jain

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Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times (2002)

During a particularly bleak week in the winter of 2013, I picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm’s modestly titled autobiography Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2002), perhaps under the (largely correct) impression that the sheer energy and power of Hobsbawm’s prose would provide a stark antidote to the dullness of a Chicago winter. I had first encountered Hobsbawm the year before when he had died a day before my first history course in college. The sadness of the news hung heavy on the initial course meeting and I was curious to find out more about the historian who had left such a deep impression on my professor and several classmates. Over the course of the next year or so, I had read through several of his most important works, and ending with his autobiography seemed like a logical way of contextualizing his long life and rich corpus.

Needless to say, Interesting Times was an absolutely riveting read. Hobsbawm’s attempt to bring his unparalleled observational skills and analytical shrewdness to his own work and career revealed a life full of great adventures and strong convictions. Yet throughout the book, apart from marveling at his encounters with figures like the gospel singer and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson, I was most stuck by what can best be described as the intersection of historical techniques and personal memory. Though much of the narrative is written from his prodigious memory, Hobsbawm regularly references his own diary, especially when discussing his days as a Jewish teenager in early 1930s Berlin and then as a communist student in Cambridge. In one instance, it allows his later self to understand why he didn’t mingle with his schoolmates in mid-1930s London (his diary indicates that he considered himself intellectually superior to the whole lot). In another, it helps him chart, at least in his view, the beginnings of peculiarly British Marxist historical interpretations. Either way, I was fascinated by his readings of what counts as a primary source written by himself. He naturally brought the historian’s skepticism to this unique primary source, repeatedly questioning his own memory against the version of events described in the diary and vice versa. This inter-mixing of personal memory with the historian’s interrogation of primary sources has long stayed with me and I have repeatedly sought out similar examples since then.

In recent years, there has been a remarkable flowering of memoirs or autobiographies written by historians. Amongst others, Carlos Eire and Sir J. H. Elliott’s memoirs stand out. Eire’s unexpectedly hilarious but ultimately depressing tale of his childhood in Cuba is a moving attempt to recover the happy memories long buried by the upheavals of the Cuban Revolution. In a different vein, Elliott ably dissects the origins of his interests in Spanish history and a Protestant Englishman’s experiences in the Catholic south. The intermingling of past and present is a constant theme. Elliott, for example, was once amazed to hear the response of a Barcelona traffic policeman when he asked him for directions in Catalan instead of Castilian. “Speak the language of the empire [Hable la lengua del imperio],” said the policeman, which was the exact phrase that Elliott had read in a pamphlet from the 1630s that attacked Catalans for not speaking the “language of the empire.” As Elliott puts it, “it seemed as though, in spite of the passage of three centuries, time had stood still” (25). (There are also three memoirs by Sheila Fitzpatrick and one by Hanna Holborn Gray, none of which, regrettably, I have yet had a chance to read.)

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Mark Mazower, What You Did Not Tell (2017)

Yet, while Eire and Elliott’s memoirs are notably rich in a number of ways, they have little to offer in terms of the Hobsbawm-like connection between historical examination and personal memory that had started me on the quest in the first place. However, What You Did Not Tell (2017) Mark Mazower’s recent account of his family’s life in Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, France, and the tranquil suburbs of London provides a wonderful example of the intriguing nexus between historical research and personal memory.

In some ways, it is quite natural that I have come to see affinities between Hobsbawm’s autobiography and Mazower’s memoir. Both are stories of an exodus from persecution in Central and Eastern Europe for the relative safety and stability of London. But the surface level similarities perhaps stop there. While Hobsbawm, of course, is writing mostly about himself, Mazower is keen to tell the remarkable story of his grandfather’s transformation from a revolutionary Bundist leader in the early twentieth-century to a somewhat conservative businessman in London (though, as he learned in the course of his research, the earlier revolutionary connections did not fade away easily and his grandparents’ household was always a welcome refuge for activists and revolutionaries from across the world.) However, on a deeper level, the similarities persist. For one thing, the attempt to measure personal memories against a historical record of some sort is what drives most of Mazower’s inquiries in the memoir.

The memories at work in Mazower’s account are of two kinds. The first, mostly about his grandfather whom he never met (Max Mazower died six years before his grandson Mark was born), are inherited from others and largely concern silences—hence the title What You Did Not Tell. Though Max Mazower was a revolutionary pamphleteer, amongst other things, in the Russian Empire, he kept quiet about his radical past during his later years. His grandfather’s silence appears to have perturbed Mazower and this plays a central role in his bid to dig deeper in archives across Europe to uncover traces of his grandfather’s extraordinary life. The other kind of memories, largely about his father, are more personal and urge Mazower to understand how his father came to be the gentle, practical, and affectionate man that Mazower remembered him to be. Naturally, in the course of phoning old acquaintances, acquiring information through historian friends with access to British Intelligence archives, and pouring through old family documents such as diaries and letters, Mazower’s memories have both been confirmed and challenged.

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Mark Mazower

In the case of his grandfather, while Mazower is able to solve quite a few puzzles through expert archival work and informed guessing, there are some that continue to evade satisfactory conclusion. Perhaps the thorniest amongst these is the parentage of his father’s half-brother André. Though most relatives knew that André had been Max’s son from a previous relationship with a fellow revolutionary named Sofia Krylenko, André himself came to doubt his paternity later in life, a fact that much disturbed Mazower’s father, who saw André’s doubts as a repudiation of their father and everything he stood for. Mazower’s own research into André’s paternity through naturalization papers and birth certificate appears to have both further confused and enlightened him. While he concludes that André’s doubts were most likely unfounded, a tinge of unresolved tension about the matter runs through the pages.

With his father, Mazower is naturally more certain of things. Yet, as he writes towards the beginning of the memoir, after his father’s death he realized that there was much about his life that he did not know. In most cases, he was pleasantly surprised with his discoveries. For instance, he seems to take satisfaction in the fact that, in his younger years, his father had a more competitive streak than he had previously assumed. But reconstructing the full web of his father’s friendships proved to be quite challenging. At one point, he called a local English police station from Manhattan to ask if they could check on a former acquaintance of his father whose phone had been busy for a few days. After listening to him sympathetically, the duty sergeant told him that this was not reason enough for the police to go knocking on someone’s door. Only later did he learn that he was unable to reach the person in question because she had been living in a nursing home and had died around the time that he had first tried to get in touch.

The Pandora’s Box opened by my reading of Hobsbawm’s autobiography is far from shut. It has led me from one memoir to another and each has presented a distinct dimension of the question of how historical research intersects with personal memories. In Hobsbawm’s case, there was the somewhat peculiar case of a historian using a primary source written by himself. Mazower’s multi-layered account, of course, moves across multiple types of memories interweaving straightforward archival research with personal impressions.

While these different examples hamper any attempt at offering a grand theory of personal memory and historical research, they do suggest an intriguing possibility. The now not so incipient field of memory studies has spread its wings from memories of the Reformation in seventeenth and eighteenth-century England to testimonies of Nazi and Soviet soldiers who fought at the Battle of Stalingrad. Perhaps it is now time to bring historians themselves under its scrutinizing gaze.

Pranav Kumar Jain is a doctoral student at Yale where his research focuses on religion and politics in early modern England.

Geneva’s Calvin

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

How the mightily Protestant have fallen. Almost five hundred years after Geneva deposed its (absentee) bishop and declared for the Reformation, there are nearly three Catholics and two agnostics/atheists for every Protestant Genevan. This, the city of John Calvin, acclaimed by his Scottish follower John Knox as the “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles” (qtd. in Reid, 15), revered (and reviled) as the “Protestant Rome.”

Of course, a lot changes in five centuries, as well it should. No longer a fief of the House of Savoy or a satellite dependent on the military might of Bern, Geneva has become the epitome of a global city, home to more international organizations than any other place on the planet. The rich diversity of twenty-first-century Geneva is a transformation undreamt-of in the days of Calvin—and one reflected in the astonishing diversity of the reformed tradition in contemporary Christianity, whose adherents are more likely to hail from Nigeria and Indonesia, Madagascar and Mexico, than from Geneva or Lausanne.

In a sense, I came to Geneva looking for John Calvin, as a student of the Reformation and more particularly of the city Calvin remolded in his three decades as the spiritual leader of Geneva. I came to participate in a summer course offered by the Université de Genève’s Institut d’histoire de la Réformation, whose very existence owes much to the special relationship between this city and the religious transformations of the sixteenth century. I came, too, to immerse myself in Geneva’s exceptional archives—principally the Archives d’Etat de Genève (the cantonal archives) and the Bibliothèque de Genève (a public research library operated by the city government)—to understand how Calvin and the structures he created maintained the vision and the day-to-day realities of a godly city.

So my eyes were peeled for the footprints of the reformer, far more than the average visitor to this beautiful city at the far western edge of Lake Léman. And as much the intervening years have changed the city, I did not need to look too far. For Calvin remains the most iconic (how he would have hated to be called iconic!) figure of whom Geneva can boast (though he was born some four hundred miles to the north and west, in Noyon). One of the city’s most famous tourist attractions is the International Monument to the Reformation, usually known as the Reformation Wall, a massive relief that spans one side of the Parc des Bastions on the grounds of the Université de Genève. Erected in 1909—the quatercentenary of Calvin’s birth and the 350th anniversary of the university’s foundation—the centerpiece of the memorial is a larger-than-life sculpture of Calvin flanked by three of his associates: Guillaume Farel (the French reformer who convinced Calvin to stay in Geneva), Theodore Beza (Calvin’s protégé and successor as the leader of the Genevan church), and Knox. The Reformation Wall offers a curious vision of Calvin: the gaunt, dour likeness of the reformer, in Bruce Gordon’s felicitous phrase, “casts him to look like some forgotten figure of Middle Earth” (147).

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The central relief of the Reformation Wall

The Reformation Wall is the most prominent monument to Calvin in Geneva. There is a memorial in the Cimitière des Rois at a grave long thought to be his, but the true location of his remains has been unknown since his death in 1564. There is the Auditoire de Calvin, a chapel next to the cathedral where the great man taught Scripture every morning. There is the Rue Jean-Calvin, running through the very heart of the Old Town. And, in a more diffuse fashion, there is Geneva’s abiding relationship with the Reformation: the Musée International de la Réforme, the Ecumenical Centre housing groups like the World Council of Churches, and the reformed services that take place each Sunday across the city.

IMG_4212Yet what has struck me in the past month has been the extent to which Calvin’s presence in Geneva slips the bounds of Reformation Studies, the early modern period, and even the persona of the reformer himself. Thus a restaurant in the Eaux-Vives neighborhood, whose logo traces out the features of its namesake. A learned friend mooted the possibility—which I suspect have not been actualized—of a restaurant run according to Calvinist theology: “One’s choice of dish is not conditional on how good the dish actually is.” Thus, too, Calvinus, a popular local brand of lager. (The man himself was certainly fond of good wine, at least [Gordon, 147].)

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Spotted in the gift shop of the Musée International de la Réforme

But perhaps my favorite sighting of Calvin came in the gift shop of the Musée International de la Réforme. In the children’s section, in pride of place among the illustrated biographies and primers on the world’s religions, were several volumes of that sublime theological exploration, Calvin and Hobbes.

It is worth noting that Bill Waterson, the peerless thinker behind said magnum opus, chose the names of his protagonists as deliberate nods to the early modern thinkers (1995, 21–22). And in their turn scholars have taken Waterson’s pairing as a jumping-off point for analyzing early modern thought: next to one of the albums of Calvin and Hobbesin the gift shop—rather incongruous in the children’s section—was Pierre-François Moreau, Olivier Abel, and Dominique Weber’s Jean Calvin et Thomas Hobbes: Naissance de la modernité politique (Labor et Fides, 2013), one of several scholarly works to juxtapose the authors of the Institutesand Leviathan. Charmingly, the influence occasionally flows in the other direction, as another friend flagged with the delightful art of Nina Matsumoto.

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Nina MatsumotoJohn Calvin and Thomas Hobbes, used by kind permission of the artist.

Calvin is by no means unique in having his image and persona coopted by the new devotions of consumerism and mass media. Nabil Matar ended his keynote lecture, “The Protestant Reformation in Arabic Sources, 1517–1798,” at this year’s Renaissance Society of America meeting with the use of Luther’s likeness to advertise cold-cuts. Think of Caesar’s salads, King Arthur’s flour, Samuel Adams’s beer.

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Calvinus

I hasten to say that this post should not be taken as a lament for the (mythical) theological and intellectual rigor of yesteryear. I may not be thrilled that many Genevans will know Calvin first and foremost as the face on a bottle of lager, but nor would I particularly welcome a reinstatement of the kind of overwhelming public religiosity the man himself enforced on this city. Things change. Calvin’s Geneva is long gone, for better and for worse, and as a historian it is no bad thing that I can—must—look at it from without.

More to the point, the demise of Calvin the theologian is easy to exaggerate. The very fact that Calvin is used to sell beer and to brand restaurants indicates the enduring currency of his cultural profile. Furthermore, countless visitors to the Reformation Wall, to the Musée International de la Réforme, and to Geneva’s historic churches are devout members of one branch or other of the Calvinist tradition, coming to pay their respects to, and to learn something about, the place where their faith took shape. For millions of Christians across the world, John Calvin remains a towering spiritual presence, the forceful and penetrating thinker whose efforts even now structure their beliefs and practices. God isn’t quite dead, certainly not in “the most perfect school of Christ.”

Graduate Forum: Writing Art in the Present Tense

This is the second in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which will be running this summer. You can read the first piece, by Andrew Klumpp, here.

This second piece is by Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng.

Truism: All histories are subjective.

Truism: All historical narratives are the products of a series of choices and decisions–of evidence and argument, of style, emplotment, tone.

Truism: All narratives are representations.

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Douglas Crimp, Before Pictures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures (University of Chicago Press, 2016) is obviously a work of memoir. It is–less obviously–also a work of history. Less obvious, because Before Pictures is so clearly grounded in the experience–in the mind and body–of a single person, Douglas Crimp, and so the work’s claims to truth and to knowledge remain, at least in our more conventional (or academic) ways of thinking about history, too narrow, too personal, too subjective. How do we leap from this single data point to broader deductions about a society and an age? Here we have one experience, one voice, one point of data — but can it be serialized, integrated into ever broader series of documents, or data points, until finally we come to a bird’s-eye view of the situation?

Crimp’s answer: maybe we do not. Maybe that leap is impossible–and undesirable. Maybe we acknowledge the limits of our ability to know.

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T. J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Since 1999’s Farewell to an Idea, T.J.Clark has grown increasingly increasingly skeptical of conventional art history, which Clark finds, on the one hand, hopelessly positivistic, shackled to dreams of objectivity and universalism, and on the other, excessively logocentric, more interested in text and context than in the artwork itself. The Sight of Death (Yale University Press, 2008), Clark’s diaristic account of his encounter with two Poussin paintings at the Getty, marked a decisive turn toward a different mode of writing, one that emphasizes the experiential, subjective nature of all writing on art.

The practice of art history proceeds along two axes–the critical and the historical. The critical component occurs in the present tense–it is bound up with the historian’s experience of the work, and it harkens back to art history’s roots in connoisseurship, which emphasized that beholder’s critical judgment of a work’s quality. This turn (or return) to the subject and to experience is only partially a consequence of postmodernism. It carries with it a degree of faith in the integrity of both subject and experience, an insistence that by grounding narrative and argument in the personal, the private, the contingent–we can come up against something both material and real. Doubt must end somewhere. It ends with the touch of flesh and blood.

In that sense, in their recourse to the personal, the subjective, to the first-person experience, neither Clark nor Crimp are decisively breaking with the art historical tradition. Neither the insistence on the primacy of the object nor the turn towards a transparently subjective mode of writing are new. What, then, is new? The answer lies in the logic behind this emphasis on the subject’s relationship to the object, and the insistence that we–both writer and audience–remember that this relationship occurs in the present tense. Ontologically speaking, it is the only tense possible, as one material being confronts another — object to object, one might say, existing in the same temporal plane.

These two books, though very different in their interests and investments, share a certain common ethical and political grounding: they refuse transcendence. They take immanence as a basic condition of experience. There can be — there will be — no God’s eye dream of meta-vision, no fantasy of transcending the boundaries of space/time or of this material world. This commitment–to remaining immanent in this time, this world, fully contained and bounded by its material constraints–is both political and ethical. It grounds the writer in the present, and so the writer must remain both agent and participant in the now. Transcendence can also be a mode of escape, a turning away from the exigencies of the moment, a refusal of responsibilities, even of agency.

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Opening Reception, Pictures, Artists Space, September 23, 1977. Photo courtesy of Artist’s Space.

This refusal of transcendence has different resonances for Clark and Crimp. For Crimp, it represents a kind of freedom, or liberation, from the burden of history–but of a specific kind of history. Before Pictures is ostensibly a memoir of Crimp’s life before “Pictures,” the 1977 Artists Space exhibition that launched Crimp’s career and also gave name to the “Pictures Generation.” In that sense, it is a personal bildungsroman (and closely follows the conventions of that genre). Before Pictures is also an intellectual history, an account of how Crimp moved away from the practice of conventional academic art history towards something more personal. And here, “Pictures” is not the inflection point. The “change of direction” is precipitated by his 1989 essay, “Mourning and Militancy.” This essay, “the final essay I published in October during my thirteen-year stint as an editor there,” was also “the first in which a personal experience formed the germ of the argument.” In an interview with Jarrett Earnest, Crimp described the two dialectical poles in Before Pictures as “autobiographical and critical.” This is the moment when the autobiographical and the critical come together. And it is also, in a way that would become important to the subsequent shape of Crimp’s career, the moment when Crimp’s two worlds–the gay world and the art world–are no longer separated. One self need not be alienated from the other self. It is also a re-imagining of the subject position of the writer, as both critic and historian. That subject is no longer imagined as one that conforms to the ideal subject of the liberal/capitalist regime, that of a heteronormative, white, bourgeois male.

“One thing I can say for certain,” Crimp wrote, in the final paragraph (echoing the denouement of Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays), “When I wrote the Pictures catalogue essay, and even more when I rewrote it for October, I was convinced that with sufficient insight a critic could–even should–determine what was historically significant at a given moment and explain why. That conviction was a result of my intellectual formation as an art historian and aspiring art critic. Moreover, it was possible to believe such a thing then: the art scene as I experienced it from 1967 to 1977 was small enough to seem fully comprehensible. That, of course, no longer holds true. And because it is so clearly not true now, it seems unlikely that it could really have been true then. In the meantime, coming to the understanding that my knowledge of art can never be anything but partial has been liberating. It has allowed me to write about what attracts  me, challenges me, or simply gives me pleasure without having to make a grand historical claim for it. No doubt that is why I respond to the reception of Pictures with ambivalence. It historicizes me.”

Note the final word here, the choice of the verb form, to historicize, over the noun. Note the resonance with historicism. Note Crimp’s ambivalence about submitting to this process, with all of its overtones of pastness, of being finished, of belonging to the past–and therefore being shut out of both present and future).

To be historicized is to become historical — and it comes with its own sense of triumph, as well as sadness. (For Crimp, who would become very involved in AIDS activism in the 1980s, this is a melancholic victory, won by virtue of having survived.) It also means submitting to historical representation, finding one’s self shorn of its particularities and slotted into a narrative–submitting, in other words, to being shaped, edited, and represented by another.

And this carries the danger of being re-inserted into tradition, being made to carry the burden of that grand history, when the point was to work oneself loose from it.

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Giotto di Bondone, Scenes from the Life of Joachim: 5. Joachim’s Dream, 1303–1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy.

“I am with Walter Benjamin in thinking the pretense of the historian to enter the lost mental world of a long-ago maker a hopeless fantasy,” Clark declared in a 2017 lecture on “Joachim’s Dream,” one of the episodes in Giotto’s fresco cycle for the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel in Padua. “In front of Joachim’s Dream, I don’t believe it can ever be me who time travels to the Trecento, on the contrary, it’s this stubborn fragment of an utterly unknowable past that brings, or refuses to bring, its now with it, into my present, putting my picture of pastness and continuity in doubt. I either own up to my naive claim on the work, the way the work answers or resists that claim, the way it suspends my usual pragmatic sense of history, or I settle for that far flight of historicist fancy called looking with a period eye.”

Crimp shares, with Clark, a radically constrained sense of the possibilities of making knowledge via conventional academic historical approaches. What any individual can really, truly know–what one can deduce from historical evidence–is narrow, straitened, far from the promise of universal history. While neither Clark nor Crimp is quite as radically skeptical as, say, Hayden White–who came to hold an unfavorable view of the relationship between professional historians/historiography and state ideologies and apparatuses–they share a sense of discontentment with the status quo of institutional historical practice. They share a discomfort with the profession’s conventions and structures, and Clark, at least, is also uncertain of its value (even while continuing to practice as an academic art historian, a disjunction between theory and practice highlighted by James A. van Dyke in his review of The Sight of Death).

*

Clark closed The Sight of Death with a gloss on a Hugh MacDiarmid verse: “The present may be theirs,/but a’ the past and future’s oors.” MacDiarmid’s “bluster,” Clark argues, “at least has the virtue of pointing to what an antithesis to modern life will now have to be made from.”

And this is where Clark diverges from Crimp. For Clark sees, in the past, the tools for making the future–and poignantly, perhaps, for making the future revolution. Let me finish, then, with Clark’s own words. The antithesis to modern life “will have to live in the past–retrieving the second term in MacDiarmid’s last line will mean (will depend on) retrieving the first. It is never the present that dreams the future, for the present has no past life with which to to make the non-existent real.”

Louis-Sebastien Mercier, between prophetic and historical engagement with time

by guest contributor Audrey Borowski

Louis-Sébastien_Mercier

Portrait of Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814), (Public Domain).

In his novel The Year 2440 published in 1770, the French homme de lettres Louis-Sebastien Mercier (1740-1814) evokes an idealized Paris in the twenty-fifth century. In it, Paris has been rebuilt on a scientific plan, luxury and idleness have been banished and education is governed by the ideas of Rousseau.  The historical past, that “shame for humanity, every page being crowded with [its] crimes and follies” has effectively been superseded in favour of an atemporal Enlightenment vision of the ancient regime in such a teleological fashion that the vision of the future delivered by Mercier has merely been “deduced” from the present with which it was already pregnant. Both present and future constitute two distinctive points on a same linear continuity that merely follows its natural course of indefinite ‘perfectibility’.

And yet Mercier seems to repudiate this vision almost as immediately as he had laid it down on paper by questioning the conditions of its enforceability, something The Year 2440 had neatly sidestepped through the device of the dream. In the sequel to The Year 2440, The Iron Man, Mercier presents the reader with a rather different picture, one of Paris in disarray in which an “iron man,” embodying force and justice, deambulates throughout the city in an attempt to wipe out any trace of its barbaric past through moralization, graffiti, and even force when necessary, and to bring it in harmony with the ideal it ought to be. His attempt to enforce the dream of The Year 2440’s enlightened ideal society, and to rewrite the past and script the future, fail miserably and rather farcically when the protagonist is captured and dismembered.

Mercier could not resist the urge to ridicule the demiurgic pretensions of the “fabricators of universe” and self-proclaimed sages of his time who had imposed the tyranny of their own certainty and dogmas on knowledge. They had confiscated knowledge and obfuscated reality through the dissemination of an inaccessible jargon in the shape of ‘artificial algebraic formulas’ which had reduced the infinite complexity of the world to illusory certitudes. And, in the belief in their own narrative of triumphant progress, they had spawned a new form of occultism and intolerance towards knowledge other than mathematical. Reality, in its infinite and sensible complexity was a force made up infiniments petits which escaped all control and defied any simple causal explanation and which, in the revolutionary period, had morphed into a “force,” a chemical poetic replete with “fermentations,” “toxins,” and “explosions.”

Ultimately, “the sphere of sentimental moralities was lit up by a sun whose phases were unknown to our calculators.” Against the tyranny of abstract calculations and predictions, Mercier sought to rehabilitate alternative forms of knowledge including linguistic, in particular. He rejected the mathematization of the sensible in favour of the vibrancy of language.  For Mercier, the writers were the true painters of their time. Language, under the influence of court society, had lost its “colour;” it had become stultified, denatured and “expressionless” and fallen into such a state of decomposition as to have become reduced to “exaggerations” and “unintelligible utterances.” The Terror itself had occurred through the “abuse of words” which, in its dissemination of “magical and sanguinary” jargon had turned words into “words that kill.” For Mercier, meaninglessness bred violence.

Language needed to be constantly renewed for only a language embedded in the here and now could enliven us and “make that unknown fibre vibrate” in us. It was not the preserve of grammarians or bound by fixed rules but a “mysterious art-form” which conveyed the “power of our ideas” and the “warmth of our feelings.” Periods of unrest, such as the French Revolution presented auspicious junctures for the renewal of language. In the preface to the Nouveau Paris, Mercier even advised young authors “to make their own idiom since [they] had to depict the unprecedented.” Mercier’s own endeavour to emancipate language from the hold of the academies culminated with his Neologie of 1801.

In Mercier’s two following Parisian works, Le Tableau de Paris (1781-1788) and Le Nouveau Paris (1798), Mercier reasserted his materialist take on history. Uchronia gave way to concrete and fragmented day to day accounts which sought to convey the urban tumult at the heart of Paris, that gigantic organism which bound together rich and poor, and criminal and law-abiding. In Le Tableau de Paris, Mercier was engaged in the seemingly impossible task of capturing in writing a contemporaneity which was constantly slipping away from beneath his feet.  The city he described was like a palimpsest, a vessel which was constantly renewed but whose past lay hidden just beneath the surface. In this manner, the history of the city of Paris was first and foremost thought through the multitude of superimposed layers which composed its ground. Its temporal density offered itself to the discerning eye; a walk through the city was a walk through time. Within this historical configuration, the past was fully integrated to the present into which it continuously flowed. Each corner and monument resurrected ghosts from the past, further blurring the different temporalities at play.

In Le Nouveau Paris (1798), written after the outbreak of the French Revolution, the experience of time had been still further accelerated and even the immediate past had already been historicized:  Mercier henceforth walked in Paris on “that no longer [was].” The Revolution had marked a radical rupture and given rise to a new sharpened historical consciousness. Historical writing henceforth played the role of a funerary rite, acknowledging the past whilst firmly excluding it. The Terror was held at an incommensurable distance and exorcized: the “shadow” of Robespierre was only evoked to be better purged.  Crucially, history, in the awesome forces it conjured, acquired an aesthetic dimension: in its admixture of greatness and brutality, it became a source of sublime.

Cut off from its past and with no discernible future, post-revolutionary Paris was drifting aimlessly in a state of generalized confusion caught between fantasies of regeneration and prospects of looming destruction. Construction inevitably seemed to spell future destruction, linking ruins, past and future in a strange and seemingly inexorable “poetic of ruins” before which all civilizations were called to disappear. Pure historicity seemed to have reached its logical conclusion.

Ultimately neither fiction nor any authority which struck Mercier as sacralized could ever stand the test of time nor the fickle judgment of the historical process. Writers could imagine the future from the past and speculate as to what of the past would survive but ultimately, only time would tell. In those circumstances, it was incumbent on us to resist the temptation of “pantheonising lightly.” Renown, like all else, was “beholden to the course of events.” Seeking to decide on ruins or great men from the present was absurd: only the future looking back on its past could pass those kinds of judgments. Attempts to overwrite history or to seek to predict it retrospectively through future projections were not only futile, but also hubristic.

Yet, Mercier’s gaze was never stable, torn between present and future, between a materialist and prophetic engagement with time. On the basis of his Year 2440, Mercier would, for instance, later self-style himself the “genuine prophet of the revolution” in the new preface he penned in 1798. He recognized that those projections also expressed a deep yearning toward something that went beyond the purely factual. As he wrote in Adieux à l’année 1789 published in the Annales patriotiques et littéraires, one still had to “dream of public felicity in order to erect its immutable edifice.” (« il faut encore rêver la félicité publique, afin d’en bâtir l’édifice immuable »)

Dream acted as a powerful motor in history; it offered the hope of tearing mankind “from the formless chaos” in which it was mired; it provided it with a horizon toward which it “could run with all its might,” ready to “precipitate its march to reach out for it and grasp it.” That The Year 2440 with its “mass of enlightened citizens” would never come about suddenly was eminently clear; but this would not stop man of dreaming of seeking to escape the historical predicament in which he found himself trapped and its final overcoming, once and for all.

Audrey Borowski is an historian of ideas at the University of Oxford.

Dutch Pasts and the American Archive

By Editor Derek Kane O’Leary

Edmund_Bailey_O'Callaghan

Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan

Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan (1797-1880) was an unlikely candidate for the mammoth translation and historical project that he undertook at mid-life. A paradigmatic Atlantic creole, he had for decades crossed borders, learned new languages and skills, enmeshed himself in diverse networks, and, always, adapted to his sundry beachheads around the Atlantic.  He migrated from County Cork in Ireland to medical school in 1820s Paris; to Lower Canada where he practiced medicine and turned journalist and politician in the 1830s, and then on to the Democratic political machine of New York and his major intellectual labor: translating and writing about the reams of Dutch documents from the colonial history of New Netherland, the short-lived Dutch colony along the Hudson River and current-day New York, which fell to the English in 1664. He has, mostly, been forgotten.

It is a seemingly cacophonous life. But a motif holds together each movement. O’Callaghan passed a childhood amid “The Liberator” Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic emancipation movement against British rule; observed university opposition to the policies of the Bourbon Restoration (under which his medical school was shuttered); and provided medical care to the impoverished community of newly arrived Irish immigrants in Quebec. Then and there, as the editor of The Irish Vindicator and partner with Canadian Patriote leader Louis-Joseph Papineau, he shifted to political activism in support of local autonomy within the British empire, an opposition that tenuously united Irish and Francophone Canadian interests. And, when the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837 misfired, he fled across the border to New York. There, he encountered the Dutch colonial archive, in the faded margins of a national narrative based on the Anglo-American founding. It enthralled him, and he devoted years to re-centering it in the national epic. Throughout, he bore with him an anti-hegemonic disposition–especially to British power in the Atlantic–which sprouted in Ireland, matured in Paris, peaked as strident political opposition in Montreal, and transmuted to state-sponsored archival revisionism in New York.

In 1846 O’Callaghan released his first historical account, the History of New Netherland; or, New York under the Dutch.  It drew on Dutch-language records in Albany and would be followed by his sprawling New York state-sponsored translation and publication project of Dutch-language documents held in the state archive and gathered abroad. He lauded the virtues of these Dutch founders, and hoped to present them as the ideological forebears of the U.S.

To the North in New England, it met a chilly reception. In 1846, the North American Review—redoubt of elite New England letters—deflated O’Callaghan’s endeavor to elevate the Dutch record alongside New England’s founding story. The Review placed the work in contrast to another, wildly popular depiction of the Dutch colonial period: Washington Irving’s (1783-1859) History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, published in 1809 under one of his pseudonyms, Diedrich Knickerbocker. It found that in O’Callaghan’s effort to counteract Irving’s “mock-heroic style,” he “errs, if possible, in going to the opposite extreme” –that is, he had gone overboard in praise of the Dutch (The North American Review, Vol. 62, No. 131 (April, 1846), 448). To the Review and many other readers, Irving’s work, if beyond belief at times, appeared eminently entertaining, informative enough, and in proportion to the Dutch presence in the continent’s past.

Diedrich Knickerbocker

Rendering of Diedrich Knickerbocker (1849)

In casting Dutch North America in this new light and receiving this riposte, O’Callaghan was writing into a decades-old debate about the place of New Netherland in the national narrative. Irving had fashioned the genre with his History, in which his fictive narrator performed as an affable, hapless, Dutch-descended chronicler of his city and state. For years, in New York, elsewhere in the U.S, and across the Atlantic, the book delighted audiences. Reprints ensued through the century. Though the early editions were burlesques in text rather than imagery, by the mid-1830s they were accompanied by a new sub-genre of Dutch-themed art, which was spurred by the book’s success.

In passing, here is one such image, the frontispiece to the 1836 edition, which will echo in a moment:

Dutch and natives

The point of humor here, including the physical and sartorial features ascribed to the Dutch, is clear enough. It is easy to imagine how those proud of their Dutch descent grimaced at the caricature. The analogy struck between the two Dutch and two Indian figures is more suggestive, though. The downward diagonal composition from Dutch to Indian (likely Mohawk fur traders from the west of New Netherland, on whom the Dutch depended) signals their perceived power dynamic. But all four figures are held tightly together, their placement and pipe-smoking mirror images, and their dependence on commercial transaction the fulcrum of the scene.

GCVerplanck portrait, 1855-1865

Gulian Crommelin Verplanck

Amid the widespread praise of young Irving’s work, one contrary assessment reverberated strongest. Gulian Crommelin Verplanck’s name implies the genealogy that connected him to New Netherland’s founding generation. He was a long-time New York politician and generally busy civic figure. In December 1818, he addressed the New York Historical Society, then still a stumbling, underfunded institution, where he was an active member. After a sweeping comparative survey of European states and their respective colonial projects in the Americas, he paused toward the end to note the special accomplishments—and then, more importantly, the troubled historical legacy—of the United Provinces and their North American colony, New Netherland. “These remarks,” he began, “ought to have been wholly unnecessary in this place; but I know not whence it is, that we in this country have imbibed much of the English habit of arrogance and injustice towards the Dutch character.” If ambivalent about the root cause of the anti-Dutch sentiment he perceived in the U.S., he did have a more proximate culprit in mind.

It is more ‘in sorrow than in anger’ that I feel myself compelled to add to these gross instances of national injustice, a recent work of a writer of our own, who is justly considered one of the brightest ornaments of American literature. I allude to the burlesque history of New-York, in which it is painful to see a mind, as admirable for its exquisite perception of the beautiful, as it is for its quick sense of the ridiculous, wasting the riches of its fancy on an ungrateful theme, and its exuberant humour in a coarse caricature. This writer has not yet fulfilled all the promise he has given to his country [Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1821, volume III (New York, 1821), 41-124, emphasis added].

Verplanck’s speech was published in 1821 in the Collections of the New York History Society, which was then sent to members and peer institutions throughout the U.S., parts of Europe, as well as Latin America. In this passage, then, we observe an important civic institution calling out Irving, a roving New Yorker, then living his long expatriation in London. His famous Sketch-Book had just been published to considerable acclaim, and more than any U.S. writer in these years, he embodied American identity before European audiences. From Verplanck’s vantage point, Irving had triply sinned, remaining subservient to British anti-Dutch prejudices, squandering his talent on this fanciful topic, and failing to live up to what his country expected. A pivotal chapter in the state’s history had been shunted outside the bounds of national history and would need to be properly inscribed within it.

Over the ensuing decades, the State of New York and the New York Historical Society worked in tandem to refurbish the colonial archive of New York, in part to outdistance the long shadow cast by Irving. In addition to proper translations of the records held in the state house at Albany, they believed that the grand narrative of its state depended on a mission to collect documents relating to the colonial history of New York, led by the young New York lawyer John Romeyn Brodhead between 1841 and 1844 in Holland, London, and Paris. The goal, as announced at the New York Historical Society, was to bring this past into

the limits of well-attested history, [which] at once dissipates the enchantments of fiction; and we are not permitted, like the nations of ancient Europe, to deduce our lineage from super-human beings…It is a sufficient honour to be able to appeal to the simple and sever records of truth (Chancellor Kent’s Discourse, Proceedings of the New York Historical Society (New York, 1844), 12).

What would amount to a $12,000-project was animated at its core by a sense of archival deficiency—that the colonial history of the state could not be properly told, that certain records belonged there, and that a comprehensive documentary past could be reassembled. The Dutch record was especially deficient, with just fragments moldering in Albany, and the rest across the ocean in Dutch archives. Brodhead returned in 1844 with 80 volumes of records, most culled from London, and the remainder drawn from Holland and France.

O’Callaghan both wrote into this longer tension about the Dutch colonial period and publicized this newly accessible archive for a national audience. The tension around writing the history of New Netherland for two centuries–from Verplanck to more recent studies of Dutch America–has been presented in terms of proportionality: has the Dutch role in the American narrative been adequately represented or not? Is our depiction of it in proportion to its historical reality? But O’Callaghan encountered a deeper impediment: not only were the Dutch illegible or underrepresented in the national narrative, but that they had been relegated to prefatory remarks as a people fated to fade. (In Firsting and Lasting, Jean O’Brien analyzes the practice of reducing American Indians to a preface to the nation’s history during this period.)

To return to the North American Review’s take on O’Callaghan’s History, while he documented the Dutch colonists’ industry and sobriety, the review fingered instead their fatal sin of “rapacity.” This, it countered, led to New Netherland’s demise at the hands of the English. For, unlike New Englanders, the review showed, the Dutch tore resources (the furs, above) from the land, but did not improve it. Within an early U.S. worldview, this placed them closer to the indolent Indian than to the productive English colonizer of New England. It almost included them in the trope of the vanishing American Indian. Just as the Indian was fated by its very nature, it seemed, to disappear from the American landscape, so too could this depiction of the Dutch help to normalize their fading from national story. Meanwhile, this trope could stress the preeminence of a national story that traced the emergence of Anglo-American communities to the north in New England. Judith Richardson has written compellingly about the “ghosting” of the Hudson River Valley, notably in Irving’s tales of “Rip van Winkle” and “Sleepy Hollow”, in that both American Indians and Dutch-descended inhabitants take on a spectral, otherworldly quality. In this review, we see a similar elision between indigenous and Dutch, not in terms of their aesthetic or ontological qualities. Instead, they are kindred in a type of antiquated, extractive labor that could not persist in the westward arc of American empire.

Not to stress this analogy too much, or to detect a clear genealogy between these two images (John Otto Lewis‘s 1835 Indian portrait, left, and John Quidor’s rendering of Rip van Winkle‘s degenerated son, 1849, right), but these visualizations of Indian and Dutch figures rhyme, each cast at the inactive margins of history and the nation.

The author emphasizes this link between pasts and present by closing with a comment on the Oregon boundary dispute with Great Britain, which would soon settle competing land ownership claims in the Pacific Northwest. This ongoing geopolitical question is a seeming non sequitur; but it in effect leverages the historical rationale for New Netherland’s decline and New England’s success to tell a larger story about the continent:

Should the negotiation upon this subject long continue open, the same result can scarcely fail to happen in that territory which took place two centuries since in New England. The tiller of the soil will drive out the hunter.

The tiller of the soil will drive out the hunter: By this, he meant the inevitable triumph of Anglo-American settlers over the continent, as well as over those lesser peoples who only extracted wealth from but could not improve upon it.  O’Callaghan, Irish expatriate and resistant leader, worked for years to inscribe the Dutch on the first page of the nation’s history. The effort mobilized considerable resources from his state and an array of its elite political and literary figures to build a Dutch archive that could help to elevate the state’s place within the national historical narrative. But this encounter with the New England literary establishment reveals the terms on which access could be granted and refused.