Time to get positive

Yeah, I get a little POed about the whole state of the world, from time to time. Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama revises an Act he sponsored as a Senator, so he can keep giving weapons to the Congo? That’s Change, I guess...not the type advertised, though. And has anyone noticed? The lead story on GMA next morning was the Anna Nichole Smith verdict. How long has she been dead?

And then, closer to home, there’s higher education, and the history profession. I have to remind myself that everything wrong with the system now, is an opportunity to improve it. All the bad old histories I’m struggling through right now, are also opportunities to learn and improve. My reading buddy Tom is right -- historians need to be contributing something to the social dialog right now. Somebody needs to be saying, “
no, Glenn Beck, that’s not what happened. And that’s not what it meant.” If others aren’t willing to step up, in a few short months we’ll be in a position to do it.

Walked this morning, and took a pic of this graffiti in the pedestrian tunnel. This is a pretty conservative town, so the fact that someone painted that on the wall (and the powers that be left it there) is hopeful. And while Obama turns his back on whatever sliver of idealism he may once have had, and arms the Congolese militias, some regular people in Washington (state, not DC) went ahead and adopted orphans from the Congo, and then set up a non-profit that helps others do the same. They accept donations through the mail or Paypal.

Overdone Chestnuts

I’m sitting in Lindy’s Diner, waiting for Steph and the kids to join me for lunch. It’s a work-day, but I didn’t have to be on campus for anything. So rather than commute, I walked to the local library and did my morning’s work there. Read most of Handlin (The Uprooted) and wrote my review. Gotta read something good, now (I went back to the library after lunch and did just that). I’m amazed at how bad some of these old histories were. And it blows my mind that some of the same people who pooh-pooh the old town histories (“oh, you can’t really get anything much out of them; they were all written by amateurs, you know”), take these magisterial, empty-of-evidence, condescending academic histories seriously!

What is it I find so obnoxious about a history like Handlin’s? First and foremost, there’s absolutely no evidence in it. There are a few facts here and there; statistics on how many people came in each decade, how many miles of railroad track and paved highway were built before 1910 -- scaffolding for the story, which is all made up, and frequently in a pseudo-first person voice where the narrator is inside the heads of these poor unfortunate peasants, showing us their confusion and alienation. Several times in the story, Handlin actually gives us italicized statements, written as if they’re quotes, complete with bad grammar and colloquial contractions. Why not just write a historical novel, where interior monologues and invented dialog are welcome?

But apparently, they were welcome in mainstream histories written by Pulitzer Prize-winning academics, published in “Universal Libraries” for the edification of everyman. I think Handlin got away with this partly because he was talking about peasant immigrants, who were as alien to his readers as Tahitian islanders. He could be as condescending and patronizing as he wanted, and most of his readers never even noticed! Okay, okay, it was 1951. But people (respectable historians) are still quoting Handlin, and referring to him as if he should still command historiographical respect. But really, is
The Uprooted anything but a primary source, anymore?

On the other hand, I really liked Parkerson’s
The Agricultural Transition in New York State (the book I read after lunch). So, rather than just constantly ranting about all the things wrong with old histories, I think I’ll make a list of these flaws, and how to correct them. Then I’ll find the newer histories that fix these flaws -- and also the old ones that bypass them. So when it’s my turn, I’ll have a rubric. April 1 2011, I should be done with my exams and sitting in front of the computer, writing. It can’t come fast enough.

Catching up

I’ve fallen behind on posting, so I’ll be adding a bunch of things to my reading blog in the next couple of days. I’ve been reading like crazy, but I need to get a bunch of my ideas into the computer. In some cases, I’m a little torn about how much I want to say. My post of Wiebe’s Search for Order, for example, will probably offend some Wiebe fans (I checked -- the author died in 2000, so I don’t have to worry about hurting his feelings). I really don’t like that type of writing -- I hesitate to even call it history. I think (I HOPE!!) the days of unsubstantiated claims and “it is because I say it is” assertions are long gone. I don’t want to write history that way, and if I ever do I hope someone will print this page, wrap it around a delicious bass, and whack me upside the head with it!

Fortunately, there are a bunch of books I’ve read recently and really liked.
HCR’s Wounded Knee is one of these. I think it sets a new (high) bar for making political history immediate, intimate, and dramatic. There are people in it, and some interesting storytelling techniques. Similarly, Postel’s Populist Vision is going on the list of books I will use in my classes. And I’m looking forward to finishing Handlin’s Uprooted, and then comparing Parkerson’s Agricultural Transition in New York State and Guglielmo’s Living the Revolution. I even picked up Howard Lamar’s Charlie Siringo’s West, which I hope says something more about Lamar’s vision of the frontier. Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence was a harder read, and doesn’t lend itself to the quick, grad-student-reading-for-orals approach. But I bought a copy of it and also the sequel, The Fatal Environment, which I might read instead for the list...

Steampunk Brain

Steph made this pic for me. David Rumsey has put a lot of his maps on Second Life, and the gears are a brush pattern that's available for Photoshop. Apparently, she thought my brain was overheating, and needed a little ventilation!

Blacksmith Lessons

I’ve started up again, with the blacksmithing lessons. I was a little rusty, but had a lot of fun the other night. Used 3/8 inch stock, and practiced some basic stuff.
Points, both on the flat and the angle -- which seemed trickier, but actually wasn’t, because you’re moving less metal. In both cases, I need to get better at making a shorter point -- they tend to drift longer...

Twists are fun! It’s great to get the bar into the vice, and then get the wrench on the top and turn it. The way the metal moves is immediate satisfaction. And then straightening the bar between the vice jaws is fun, too. It’s great to see things change like that.
The bottom one is a 540 degree twist. The top one is a 360 degree veined twist. You use a chisel (or a sharp straight peen on the back of a second hammer) to score a vein on each side of your stock, then you twist it. If you hammer the bar flat again, you can vein it again, and then twist the other direction, and you end up with diamonds. But you need bigger stock for that -- there’s not a lot of room to work on 3/8”. I love this stuff!


Reading lists, again.

Once again, I’ve revised my field reading list for my Comprehensive (“Oral”) Exams, which are now scheduled for Spring Break in March 2011. Or rather, I’ll do the written part over Spring Break, and then the “Oral” more or less immediately afterward. Then, assuming I pass, I’ll be “ABD,” and the last job will be to write up the dissertation. Actually, I’m really excited about that part. It’s why I’ve been doing all this, the past year and a half. So I’m looking forward to getting to it full-time.

Shitake Surprise!

Talk about low maintenance gardening! I spent most of my time in the library this summer, reading for my Orals. The yard and garden really got the short end, as far as attention went. I planted some tomatoes, peppers, cukes and pumpkins in the spring, and then pretty much ignored them. We got pretty good yields, in spite of the drought.

The biggest surprise, which I found by accident when I was picking a few cherries off the vine to eat in the garden, was that the border logs that stop the soil from washing away into the neighbor’s yard had sprouted a flush of shiitake mushrooms. I drilled them last year, and drove a bunch of
Stamets plugs into them. Totally forgot about them, this year. Especially with the dry weather -- it hasn’t exactly bee a big year for wild mushrooms around here. I guess I’ll watch more closely, from now on!

The Big E

Went to the Big E (Eastern States Exposition) in the rain today. My bride won several ribbons, so we had to get down there! I’m going to enter something next year, even if it’s only photography. They need a blacksmithing category. The 600 pound butter sculpture was really something...

It was a weekday and pouring, so most of the people there were 4-H kids and people selling pillow pets and steam mops in the “Better Living” building. This fair covers the entire New England area -- it seems to be about 1/2 the size of the Minnesota State Fair, based on attendance. Funny thing is, I grew up less than 100 miles away, and never heard of it until I was an Aggie at UMass.

Fun day had by all, in spite of the dampness. That’s a fair-record pumpkin behind me, on the right, from Benson Vermont. I think it was 1,254 pounds. The one on the left, from Erving Massachusetts, was “only” 993.