Knowlton in print again!

Got a thank-you and a citation in the Winter issue of Dartmouth Medicine. Billy Corbett used some of my info on Knowlton in his background piece. It’s a really nicely put together (and well-written) web-article. In the “Web Extras” they listed my url, so maybe it will get some traffic. Congrats, Dartmouth undergrads!

To the right, a title page from Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy, from the article. Note the origin and date: Philadelphia, 1839. The little pamphlet got around!

Gaiman on genre

First part of a Neil Gaiman interview, on MIT's TechTV. Talks a lot about genres, and roots. Thanks to Boing Boing for calling it to attention again. Second part here too.

Week One!

I attended the first meeting of my last class in the PhD program this week. Looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun! Beyond this writing course I’m taking, it will all be reading and writing. So it’s completely up to me to get that done!

I read a couple of anthologies over the last several days. Didn’t need to read everything in them, but I found several really good articles. It’s helpful, the way articles make the author distill it down into the point s/he thinks most important. Pointed me to a couple of historians I hadn’t known before. And, it’s interesting how the need to move quickly forces authors to make theoretical assumptions that reveal their underlying philosophy, maybe more than they would in a book-length work. I really don’t like the articles that claim a lot without evidence -- even if the author has already been over that ground in a book. It just seems too arbitrary. I’ll have to keep that in mind when I write. Even for the general public -- I think they need to see (and maybe be reminded) that authorial claims need to be supported by data
and interpretation.

I hesitate to double-post some of the “reviews” I’m writing of these books, even if they seem to fit in both the rural and radical slots. Maybe that goes back to my personal history, in the computer biz when entire systems contained less memory than some of the web-pages I have up there! But it’s good (for me) that a lot of these readings seem to have something to tell me about the development of radicalism in America
and the history or mythology of the country. This week, the “Jeffersonian agrarian” myth is especially prominent. Christopher Hill provides what is for me almost an ancient history background, but which seems to lead directly to Benjamin Franklin (I also listened to an audio-book of Walter Isaacson’s biography). The Davis anthology had clues about people in the Revolution and early Republic I should look into. Barron’s classic study of those who stayed behind is a reminder to me about setting and characters. And the contrast between Kulikoff and Taylor in Young was instructive. I’m going to read them both.

More Maps

Comparing maps is fun. Visual information sometimes beats the hell out of numerical, doesn’t it? So I’ve been thinking about cities and the countryside, as they’ve been changing over time. In America, that means as people settled the frontier (that is, as whites displaced the natives), and populations increased. Farms, villages, towns, cities. When did they arise? What did people go there expecting? How did those expectations change over time (as technology like telegraphs and railroads changed the space/time arrangements...and as new people came, who maybe hadn’t been party to the original reasons for moving. Who maybe were fed a story that didn’t completely match up with the reason the original people moved...)

Anyway, there was a certain pattern of settlement in, say, 1900. (this map is a piece of one available here)You could look at the numbers and compile a population density map that would tell you something about where lots of people lived, and where only a few lived (it was still up to you to figure out why).

Then, in 2008, using a completely different set of criteria, a different group of people (in government agencies) made a new map (available here). It too says something about where people live. This time, by way of metropolitan and “micropolitian” areas, measured on a county-by-county basis, more-or-less from population density. Or, from total population, which amounts to the same thing.

When you look at the two maps, you notice that they’re similar, but not identical. When you put them one on top of the other (It's cooler when you can use Photoshop's sliders to mess with the opacity of the layers, but hopefully you get the idea), you see some places where there are lots of people now, that weren’t there a hundred years ago. More interesting, you see some places where there used to be lots of people, but now there are not. What does that mean?

In the case of the four little dots in southern Iowa marked “V” (for 45 to 90 people per square mile), there seem to be stories behind these places. The one immediately southwest of Ottumwa is Centerville. Once upon a time it was a booming coal-mining town. The one near Des Moines is Creston. It was a “shop town” for the Burlington Northern Railroad.

The one in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is where the big copper mines at Houghton, Hancock, and Calumet were located. Nothing there anymore but trees. So, you get the idea. It’s change over time. The question is, are there interesting stories underneath?

Why History?

Okay, I only read parts of Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City. I got a few points out of it, that I think are significant. Are these really the result of the argument of the book? Or are they just Williams-isms? But, if the argument of the book is just a way to objectify (demonstrate, celebrate) the train of thought and feeling that led him to those particular Williams-isms, then cool: I got the point without having to read all the second-rate poetry along the way.

Because, let’s be real.
The City of Dreadful Night is more interesting as an artifact than as a poem. James Thomson’s life interests me, as does his vision of a nightmarish, dystopian London in the 1870s. But that does not in any way make me want to read the poem.

Does this make me a lowbrow, literalist, anti-intellectual materialist? Maybe, from a certain point of view. There’s a silk smoking-jacketed, punting-on-the-Cam, NPR-in-the-background perspective that likes its historical explanations laced with allusions to canonical literature. But that sort of thing leaves me wondering, was this really in the minds of the people in the story? Or is it just a shorthand way to
tell the story to a particular type of audience? And, if it’s shorthand, what is it missing? That’s one thing Williams seems to have been keenly aware of: the tendency to reduce complexity and smear out ongoing evolution in an idea like “city” or “country” until it’s a handy, but misleading, archetype.

As I was showering this morning, I was ticking off the books I might say influenced me to study history. It’s been in my head for a few years that Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle” really got me interested, but I think it was more of a reminder than a discovery. The cool thing about
Quicksilver and its sequels is the richness of “alien” (in the Carlo Ginzburg sense) material available in the past. And I thought it was cool, how Stephenson studiously puts known people in known situations, but is completely free to speculate about what’s going on in their heads.

But he’s not completely free. He has to convince his post-modern, sci-fi audience that these people are plausible. That means they have to seem authentic and fit the time, but be recognizable to his readers as heroes and villains. So, in what world are they authentic? The thing that interests me now about
Quicksilver is how historians deal with these issues.

Another book that sticks with me is Colin Tudge’s little
Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers. Because it’s far-out, and yet plausible (and of course, because it has neanderthals in it). I like the way he reaches a little past what we know, to speculate about what might have been. There are so many possible perspectives and subjective “realities” in the past, that it seems like an enormous invitation to find the weird, the alien, the deviant. Maybe it’s this age of conformity that makes me look for dissenters and resistors in the past. I like Tudge’s idea (I had it too, but he puts it really well. I will probably use it for a story someday) that the neanderthals were superior individuals, who “lost out” to better organized, collectivized sapiens.

What does this have to do with history? Individual/collective, rural/urban, all these binaries we use to understand the world. Joan Scott says “meanings are constructed through exclusions.” Any definition, she says, “rest[s] always...on the negation or repression of something represented as antithetical to it.” Why repression? Because identity is all about reducing a universe of words
describing a thing to the two or three “important” ones that define it. But important to whom? When? Why?

Scott says “oppositions repress the internal ambiguities of either category.” (all this is in
Gender and the Politics of History, p. 7) I’d say this binary view is particularly interesting when you’re looking at something like male/female or rural/urban. But it’s a simplification of the actual processes of identity formation and grouping. Identity is about taking adjectives and making them nouns. Grouping is about drawing boundaries between items that include these reified qualities and other items that do not.

Unlike set theory in math class, it’s not as easy in life to pick the “defining” quality. And it’s not a value-free or a power-neutral process. Am I the only person in the world who’s annoyed when the cute moose on Nickelodeon or Steve on Blues Clues does the “one of these things is not like the other” puzzle with my kids? Fer crine out loud! Leave the little ladybug with the off-color spots alone! She just wants to be with the other bugs!

But that’s the way we’re wired, I guess. It’s all evolutionary. Until it’s not, and then it kills us.