Neo-consensus revisionism

Something I find weird is histories that tell you more than you would ever want to know about a subject, except how it fits in its time. I just read David Trask’s The War with Spain in 1898, which goes into the military history of the Spanish-American War in great detail, but gives less than a page (out of 600, including notes) to the war’s social or cultural context, and doesn’t even say much about politics. Trask portrays McKinley as reluctant to go to war (although remarkably efficient once he is forced to do so), but goaded on by an irresistible but unaccounted-for popular movement.

This text fills a generation-long gap in coverage of the Spanish-American war, and was hailed as a magisterial account that will be read for generations. I suppose this is true, and that it will be read closely by people interested in the details of the military and diplomatic engagements. But what it doesn’t say may be as important as what it does. I think it’s remarkable that in nearly 500 pages of narrative, William Randolph Hearst is mentioned in passing on pages 27 and 30. Trask apparently believes either that yellow journalism was not an influence on the decision to go to war or on the prosecution of the war, or that he can blame irrational public opinion for pushing McKinley into war and inadvertent empire, and leave it at that. Actually, he seems to believe that by simply ignoring the fact that the prior generation's history is all about Hearst and the splendid little war, he can make everybody forget. Maybe this is possible, if Trask's book becomes the standard text many of his reviewers seem to hope it will be. Is this how history gets revised?

The question, I guess, is: what’s more important? The details of the war, or its motivations, context, and consequences?

To Albany for research

I took the day off reading for my oral exams, to visit an archive in Albany. Got up really early, and drove across the bottom of Vermont, from NH to NY. It was cold but the roads were dry. A very pretty sunrise ride, over the Green Mountains. The drive reminded me that Ethan Allen was said to have been able to get from one side of these mountains to the other in less than a day.

SUNY has a collection of papers from a family company called “Abraham Bell & Sons.” Brian and the people who run the archive were very welcoming, in spite of the fact they were running a big, all-day seminar. A Bell & Sons were brokers and exporters, primarily of cotton to Liverpool. But they also ran a banking company that moved money between the US and Ireland, and they brought a lot of Irish people over to America during the early part of the famine, around 1840.

I already had about 130 pages of material linking A Bell & Sons to the guys I’m studying, dating from 1855-57. I was hoping to find additional letters, account ledgers, shipping manifests, or other documents to expand the range of this relationship, and give me more details about it. I was partly successful.

There were dozens of cash books, checkbooks, books filled with lists of promissory notes A Bell & Sons had received from a variety of sources over a wide range of years covering most of the second half of the 19th century, and letters. Incoming letters were pasted into scrapbooks, and outgoing letters were preserved in several letterbooks. A letterbook is a book containing sheets of very thin, semi-transparent blotter paper. Before carbon paper, these were used to make a copy of a letter by absorbing some of the wet ink from the freshly-written page. They’re generally blurry but legible. I didn't think to photograph the book itself on this trip; but I think I have a photo of one from my Michigan trip, which I’ll try to find and post sometime soon.

The A Bell & Sons blotters were very helpfully indexed at the front by the writer. These books frequently contain index pages at the front, where the writer can note the pages containing letters to particular people, since they’d be chronological in the book itself. I was able to find letters that extend the relationship between the Bell company and my guys by at least three years. But I’m happy I have many of these letters already. Some of them are completely illegible, and even the ones that blotted well are much less easy to read than the originals.

Didn’t find anything really earth-shattering on this trip. Learned that A Bell and Sons was a very big, successful company, though. This helps me understand why my guy would have been interested in using them as his “bankers.” And, they were Quakers, which helps explain how they had the patience to put up with him. And I think I found out how they got together in the first place, which will probably be helpful when I write my story.

History, 2015

What will it mean to teach history at the college level in the year 2015? This came up in conversation with my reading buddy, Tom, the other day. That should be one of my guiding questions, I think, as I go through this process.

Right now, there’s a lot of good historical material up on the web. Some of the good stuff:
Historians’ websites and blogs, iTunes U, University-sponsored sites, lecture series audios or TED talks, even YouTube has some material. Like the people who argue against self-publishing, I think we sometimes hide behind the argument that the centralized system protects unwary viewers from all the junk out there. REALLY? Do we actually want to give up critical thinking and cede control of truth to some authority, whether it’s a commercial publisher or an academy?

In some cases, it seems the only difference between some of the material freely available on the web, and the content students get in Gen Ed undergraduate classes, is the particular interpretation that the instructor wants to put on the course. This isn’t a trivial contribution, since there’s a nearly infinite number of paths through a period like “H150: US History Colonial to Reconstruction,” the course I’m currently TA-ing. But unless the POINT of the course (and by extension, the department, the school, the undergraduate education...) is to teach students the "right interpretation," (in which case, they're at a seminary rather than an academy), then it's more or less a matter of chance what the particular instructor decides to stress. For example, there will be three completely different approaches to H150 taken by HCR, Barbara K, and Leonard R at UMass in the course of just three consecutive semesters!

So, that said, the most significant difference between good online content and an undergraduate course may be the fact that there are papers, tests, grades, and ultimately credit toward university core requirements and graduation. That’s an important difference, both in terms of the learning process it implies, and the journey toward pre-professional legitimacy that keeps most of these students coming to classes. that
enough to hang a career on?


Graffiti at the Universidad de Concepción, Chile.
Means "Fight to Study, Study to Fight"

I started a new page, based on the reading and research I did for my MA degree in
Latin American History. I also put a big bunch of photos of Chile up on the site.


Memento Mori