Category Archives: American Studies

Hooked on history: the Missouri Crisis, San Juan Hill, and my grandparents’ attic

Guest post by John R. Van Atta

Sevvanattaeral years ago, as I wandered around the book exhibit at a meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Houston, Johns Hopkins University Press’s Witness to History series caught my eye. After the meeting, acting on senior history editor Bob Brugger’s encouragement, I worked up a proposal for a volume on the Missouri Crisis, a subject that we thought could stand a little more consideration than recent literature had given it. The proposal eventually won approval from JHUP’s editorial board, and that was about all there was to it. Wolf by the Ears: The Missouri Crisis, 1819–1821 was published in May.

In years past, historians have paid more attention to the internal political dynamics of the Missouri controversy—the strategies within the debate itself, the implications for party development, the mechanics of Congressional deal making, and so on—than to the external social, cultural, and economic forces that gave the confrontation such urgency in the first place, informed the participants of the debate, and generated much of the reaction afterward. This book attempts, briefly, to unpack the crisis from that old box, examining the outside stimuli that gave the confrontation in Washington such resonance around the country.

The sectional conflict that led to the Civil War supplied plenty of historical drama over the years, never more so than in the fight over Missouri statehood, which first surfaced in Congress in 1819 and did not grow seemingly quiet until early 1821. At that time, Thomas Jefferson said that dealing with the implacable issue of slavery in national politics resembled trying to hold a “wolf” by the ears. Focusing on whether federal lawmakers should, or even could, prevent slavery from spreading beyond the Mississippi, the “Missouri Crisis” provided the first full-blown sectional controversy in United States history. This fight held the potential to end the fragile Union then and there. Angry exchanges during the Missouri debate proved as heated as any in the sectional disputes that followed and led to southern secession in 1861, and while the Missouri confrontation appeared to finish amicably with a famous compromise, the passions it unleashed proved bitter in the extreme, widespread, and long-lasting.

In North vs. South struggles after 1820, the language that antagonists employed always seemed reminiscent of this earlier crisis, but why did pent-up feelings explode in 1819–1821—and not at earlier moments when the subject of slavery had arisen? The answer, in large part, is that the Missouri Crisis revealed the power that slavery by then had gained over American nation-building, an impulse that fueled both anti- and pro-slavery convictions. Thus the need to focus on the larger historical processes at work in the years leading up to 1820, as revealed not only in Congress but also at the grassroots level—in towns, hotels and taverns, churches, state houses, lecture halls, and the like all around the country—a far broader “public sphere” than that of Washington, D.C. alone.

My discussion in this book broadly tracks the slavery issue from the Revolution to the Civil War, with a primary goal of looking ahead to, concentrating on, and relating back to the events of 1819–1821. The analytical emphasis falls less on the insider-politics detailed in other studies and more on beliefs, assumptions, fears, and reactions on both sides of the slavery argument. Some might fault this approach as “missing the trees for the forest.” But that vast, tangled forest is where one finds the keys to changing sectional perceptions that distinguished the Missouri Crisis from previous ones, animating not just the politicians in power, but many other Americans at the time and later down the road.

For my next project, I am under contract with Johns Hopkins to write another volume for the Witness series that will concentrate on Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. I’m approaching the story much more as a cultural study than as a military one. It will be entitled Charging up San Juan Hill: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of Imperial America. In a broad sense, this inquiry would furnish largely for student-readers a look into historical forces that underlay American empire-building at the end of the nineteenth century.

The overarching problem to be addressed in this next book would be the cultural meaning of “empire” for a hitherto republican civilization, all the more vital in an era of jarring social changes and lingering sectional tensions between North and South. Serious worries about Americans becoming corrupt, lawless, self-centered, fixated on luxury, and otherwise lacking in fundamental values had developed much earlier than the 1890s. Many observers understood republics to be fragile and that commitment to republican governance required attention to the more general question of the structure and character of society. They knew that republican societies, being vulnerable to decay from within, seldom survived very long without regenerating core virtues that provided the hardiness and moral strength of their people. I would argue that a vernacular of regeneration, varying from voice-to-voice and shifting in form to fit changing circumstances, echoed farther into the nineteenth century than historians sometimes realize. Although he wrote and spoke of roles demanded of both genders, Roosevelt’s primary concern focused on American manhood—the declining strength of male leaders in society, especially the privileged elite. He and others often expressed that concern in updated terms, of course, but still in language really not so distant in meaning from that of public virtue in the earlier nineteenth century.

Sometimes people ask me what led me into a career as a historian, and I usually answer that question by referring back to my childhood. We lived in southern Illinois back then, and every summer my parents would take my brothers and me to stay for several weeks at my grandparents’ farm in northwest Ohio, near the town of Clyde. We usually worked in the peach orchard all day. At about age 12, I first learned to drive on my grandfather’s World War II-era Willys jeep, traveling around the orchard and gathering the dozens of half-bushels that we had picked. More to the point, I found that exploring the attic and the closets upstairs in that old 1890s farmhouse was, for me, like opening a treasure trove of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artifacts, including decades-old magazines that my grandparents never threw away, old World War II army uniforms that had belonged to my father and uncle during the war, and other bric-a-brac representing times very distant from my own experience. All of it seemed like entering into a magically different world. It fascinated me; I was hooked.

vanattaJohn R. Van Atta teaches history and constitutional law at the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut. He is the author of Wolf by the Ears: The Missouri Crisis, 1819–1821 and Securing the West: Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785–1850, both published by Johns Hopkins.


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Late-night talk shows (or what keeps me up at night)

Guest post by Rebecca Krefting

I’m a worrier. I worry that I will sleep walk and chug turpentine (it happens). I worry that I will throw myself off a cliff given the right opportunity (that’s a thing). I worry that my neighbor’s cat will give me poison ivy (that’s for real). And I worry about the state of late-night television in the coming years. Without Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s conservative alter ego, where are we headed, what can we expect, and where exactly will I find my nightly dose of satire?

Jon StewartJon Stewart’s run on The Daily Show ends next week. The last taping will be on August 6th, and millions will be tuning in for Stewart’s farewell show. Though the numbers are not in yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if viewer ratings rivaled David Letterman’s final show last May. Relatedly, in December 2014, after nine years and nearly 1,500 episodes, Stephen Colbert hung up his hook as conservative bombast on The Colbert Report. No doubt these changes in late-night talk show hosts will test viewers’ allegiance to the show versus its host, though there are plenty of examples of shows remaining successful with host changes, e.g., The View (boasting the highest turnover rates), The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (formerly hosted by Jay Leno), and The Daily Show (formerly hosted by Craig Kilborn).

Here’s one way these late-night talk shows might have reassured me, keeping my blood pressure within a normal range: Stop hiring only men (and mainly white men at that) as if being a dude is a requisite for the job. Of course, producers can argue that a familiar face will sustain good ratings—that’s why Colbert will succeed Letterman as host of The Late Show on CBS on September 8th. But Stewart’s replacement, South African comedian Trevor Noah, doesn’t quite fit the formula because not many people knew who he was prior to this monumental passing of the baton. You know who would fit the formula if it were just a ratings game? How about: Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, or Chelsea Handler? Janeane Garofalo would also make a terrific host for The Daily Show. She is known for her charged comedy, exhibiting a deft ability to critique the political machinery and a keen understanding of social inequalities. Plus, as the former cohost of Air America’s The Majority Report, she has the right kind of experience to maintain the careful balance of comedy and pointed social critique that Stewart so carefully cultivated. Now that’s a show I wouldn’t miss. Even newbie funny lady Grace Helbig, whose social media metrics were similar to Trevor Noah before he got this ridiculous promotion, would be a viable female candidate up to the challenge of replacing Stewart.

But we got Trevor Noah instead. The same guy who came under fire for some sexist tweets shortly after the announcement was made. I share stand-up comic Patton Oswalt’s views (and many others’) that comics have a right to free speech. And yes, I understand that social media is the new drawing board for testing material, a place where comics can flex their creative muscles.

However, I also live by the rule WWJD? (What Would Jon Do?), and I am pretty sure he wouldn’t have peddled such schlock.

I am not optimistic that The Daily Show on Noah’s watch will deliver the biting political commentary that it did under Jon. More likely, the show’s writers will adjust to Noah’s personality and comic personae, altering its deliverables and making it a new show with different content, as when Stewart replaced Kilborn many years ago.

Here’s what else I know: late-night talk shows, especially on cable channels, are going to pander to the widest audience possible. Colbert will make a terrific host for The Late Show—that is, if you enjoy a watered down version of the Colbert that stole my heart. With ingénue Noah as mouthpiece for The Daily Show and a network-friendly Colbert, someone hardly recognizable, I fret that real political satire (at least on television) is a thing of the past. And, with the 2016 elections looming, we need such voices more than ever.

kreftingRebecca Krefting is an assistant professor in American Studies and the director of the Media and Film Studies Program at Skidmore College. Besides being a worrier, she is the author of All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents. Follow her on Twitter: @beckrefting.

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Fall books preview: history

Fall 2015 very largeWe’re excited about the books we’ll be publishing this fall—and pleased to share this series of “Fall Books Preview” blog posts! Be sure to check out the online edition of JHUP’s entire Fall 2015 catalog, and remember that promo code “HDPD” gets you a 30% discount on pre-pub orders. We continue of our preview posts today with forthcoming books in history:

pettigrewLight It Up: The Marine Eye for Battle in the War for Iraq
John Pettegrew

Light It Up examines the visual culture of the early twenty-first century. Focusing on the Marine Corps, which played a critical part in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, John Pettegrew argues that U.S. military force in the Iraq War was projected through an “optics of combat.” Powerful military technology developed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has placed war in a new posthuman era.

“A bold, complex, wonderfully written book with a revolutionary thesis: that technologies of seeing and the outlook of marines combine to form a ‘projection of force’ beyond the traditional meaning of the concept. Provocative and original.”—William Thomas Allison, Georgia Southern University, author of My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War

Available in October

dowdGroundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier
Gregory Evans Dowd

Rumor—spread by colonists and Native Americans alike—ran rampant in early America. In Groundless, historian Gregory Evans Dowd explores why half-truths, deliberate lies, and outrageous legends emerged in the first place, how they grew, and why they were given such credence throughout the New World. Arguing that rumors are part of the objective reality left to us by the past—a kind of fragmentary archival record—he examines how uncertain news became powerful enough to cascade through the centuries.

“Skillfully written, informative, and stimulating. More than just a collection of rumors and the stories they generated, this book is a smart exploration of the issue of hearsay and the limitations in the evidence historians depend upon to craft their narratives.”—Colin G. Calloway, Dartmouth College, author of New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America

Available in January 2016

traversHodges’ Scout: A Lost Patrol of the French and Indian War
Len Travers

Pieced together from archival records, period correspondence, and official reports, Hodges’ Scout relates the riveting tale of young colonists who were tragically caught up in a war they barely understood. Len Travers brings history to life by describing the variety of motives that led men to enlist in the campaign and the methods and means they used to do battle. He also reveals what the soldiers wore, the illnesses they experienced, the terror and confusion of combat, and the bitter hardships of captivity in alien lands. His remarkable research brings human experiences alive, giving us a rare, full-color view of the French and Indian War—the first true world war.

“Fascinating, vivid, and highly informed. Travers is a master of foreshadowing and verisimilitude. This is the social history of war at its best.”—Gregory Evans Dowd, University of Michigan, author of War under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, and the British Empire

Available in December

reinbergerThe Philadelphia Country House: Architecture and Landscape in Colonial America
Mark Reinberger and Elizabeth McLean

In this masterly volume, Mark Reinberger, a senior architectural historian, and Elizabeth McLean, an accomplished scholar of landscape history, examine the country houses that the urban gentry built on the outskirts of Philadelphia in response to both local and international economic forces, social imperatives, and fashion. The Philadelphia Country House explores the myriad ways in which these estates—which were located in the country but responded to the ideas and manners of the city—straddled the cultural divide between urban and rural. Illustrated with nearly 150 photographs, more than 60 line drawings, and two color galleries.

“Reinberger and McLean have succeeded in illuminating the nature and significance of a specific building type in colonial America, the country house or seat, focusing on those around the city of Philadelphia. The scholarship is extremely sound, the documentation is profuse, and the book effectively presents a tremendous amount of information on a significant topic that deserves elucidation. No comparable study exists.”—Damie Stillman, University of Delaware Professor Emeritus

Available in October

mcmanusHell Before Their Very Eyes: American Soldiers Liberate Concentration Camps in Germany, April 1945
John C. McManus

On April 4, 1945, United States Army units from the 89th Infantry Division and the 4th Armored Division seized Ohrdruf, the first of many Nazi concentration camps to be liberated in Germany. In the weeks that followed, as more camps were discovered, thousands of soldiers came face to face with the monstrous reality of Hitler’s Germany.

Military historian John C. McManus sheds new light on this often-overlooked aspect of the Holocaust. Drawing on a rich blend of archival sources and thousands of firsthand accounts—including unit journals, interviews, oral histories, memoirs, diaries, letters, and published recollections—Hell Before Their Very Eyes focuses on the experiences of the soldiers who liberated Ohrdruf, Buchenwald, and Dachau and their determination to bear witness to this horrific history.

“This is a history that demands to be published. The use of personal witness accounts is the only way to capture the essence of the traumatic experience the American soldiers had to deal with.”—Daniel D. Holt, editor of Eisenhower: The Prewar Diaries and Selected Papers, 1905−1941

Available in November

condonShays’s Rebellion: Authority and Distress in Post-Revolutionary America
Sean Condon

In this concise and compelling account of the uprising that came to be known as Shays’s Rebellion, Sean Condon describes the economic difficulties facing both private citizens and public officials in newly independent Massachusetts. He explains the state government policy that precipitated the farmers’ revolt, details the machinery of tax and debt collection in the 1780s, and provides readers with a vivid example of how the establishment of a republican form of government shifted the boundaries of dissent and organized protest.

“The deepest account of the rebellion I have read, the book keeps a strong narrative line and grows in drama as it proceeds. Undergraduates should cherish this work. Riveting.”—Barry Levy, University of Massachusetts–Amherst, author of Town Born: The Political Economy of New England from Its Founding to the Revolution

Available in July

josephsonFish Sticks, Sports Bras, and Aluminum Cans: The Politics of Everyday Technologies
Paul R. Josephson

In Fish Sticks, Sports Bras, and Aluminum Cans, historian Paul R. Josephson explores the surprising origins, political contexts, and social meanings of ordinary objects. Drawing on archival materials, technical journals, interviews, and field research, this engaging collection of essays reveals the forces that shape (and are shaped by) everyday objects. Ultimately, Josephson suggests that the most familiar and comfortable objects—sugar and aluminum, for example, which are inextricably tied together by their linked history of slavery and colonialism—may have the more astounding and troubling origins

“Josephson draws readers into the complexities and fascinations of the study of technological history. A lively and provocative book.”—David E. Nye, University of Southern Denmark, author of Technology Matters: Questions to Live With

Available in November

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“Season of Misery” for colonial Americans and true Yankees

Guest post by Dane A. Morrison

Recently, the online journal Common-place published a roundtable on Kathleen Donegan’s Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America, a book that has garnered a good deal of attention among early Americanists. The collection of brief essays expands upon a session held at the American Studies Association conference in 2014 and features thoughts from Dennis Moore, Abram Van Engen, Kathleen Wilson, Sari Altschuler, Karen Stolley, and Birgit Brander Rasmussen, as well as a lovely reflection on writing Seasons of Misery from Donegan herself. They present us with one of those wonderful moments of intellectual engagement that challenge historians to reconsider their field in fundamental ways; that leave us not only with an impression of “oh, I didn’t know that,” but, more broadly, “oh, I never thought about it this way before.” The online conversation was particularly interesting to me because my own book, True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (JHUP, 2104), tries to do something similar, extending the argument into a later period and across the globe.

Seasons of Misery asks us to consider the experiences of British American explorers and settlers as something distinct from the regurgitated, pre-packaged events that seem to contain and confine many popular histories. In the words of commenter Abram Van Engen:

For Donegan, the key question is not how settlers became American, but rather how they became colonial. Becoming colonial, Donegan shows, is a process of loss with very little gain; it is the disorientation of no longer being English, but not necessarily the new orientation of being something else either. Donegan dwells in the incoherence of Jamestown because it is precisely that lack of coherence which signaled the new formation of colonial (not American) identity. And in so many cases, the result of so much disorientation and incoherence was a suffering that resulted from, and produced, violence; and a violence that led to further suffering. What we see in Donegan’s book is story after story of bewildering confusion and death.

Or, as Dennis Moore summarizes, Season of Misery “extrapolates from overwhelmingly catastrophic, unsettling details to examine larger questions” of America’s colonial period.

“List of Mens’ Names, Rank, Places of Birth, and What Has Become of Them,” in Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, 1817 (Author’s Collection)

“List of Mens’ Names, Rank, Places of Birth, and What Has Become of Them” in Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, 1817. (Author’s Collection)

I was struck by how much of this conversation overlaps the five narratives that anchor True Yankees, a study of post-revolutionary American journeys to the East and their contributions to constructions of national identity. The experiences of these global travelers and expatriates were frequently punctuated, and as often ended, in “seasons of misery” similar to those that define the colonial era in Donegan’s book. We can recall Amasa Delano’s remarkable chart, which traced the fate of the men who sailed to Canton aboard the Massachusetts in 1790:

Of the 61 men who boarded the Massachusetts in 1790, 48 (78 percent) were no longer living, many having died from disease and accidents at sea. The East, especially, had been a dangerous place for American mariners. They had “died at Macao” and “died at Canton,” were “lost overboard off Japan” or “murdered by the Chinese near Macao,” and enslaved in Algiers. Their remains were scattered across the East, “buried . . . outside of  Batavia roads,” “buried under the walls of Macao,” and “thrown overboard in the Straits of Sunda.” (True Yankees, 63-64)

The vessel’s owner, Samuel Shaw, and two of his brothers would die of tropical fever within the first decade of America’s Old China Trade. As a “projector” of East Indies expeditions, Edmund Fanning lost not only shipmates and crew, but also entire ships which vanished without a trace. Harriett Low’s sojourn in Macao ended when her uncle and patron, William Henry Low, contracted tropical fever and died at the Cape of Good Hope. Robert Bennet Forbes’s life in the East was marked by great wealth and great loss—his brother Thomas, shipmates, friends, and relations.

The Common-place discussion leaves historians of America and the world with a second, broader impression. The essays remind us of how much of global history—at least, the world beyond the Atlantic—still remains outside the ken of early American studies. Karen Stolley observes how Donegan’s book:

raises broader questions . . . about how we do Atlantic Studies or Transatlantic Studies or comparative studies generally in ways that recognize the complexity of metropolitan and colonial networks and that don’t impose contemporary geographic or cultural or disciplinary configurations. How do we go “beyond the line,” to generate a more inclusive consideration of comparative colonial experiences?

This is an important question, of course. As noted above, it challenges us to reconsider how we conceptualize the field. What is curious for historians, I wonder, is how confined that line is, how constraining in narrative construction, analytic authority, and comparative power. By limiting the construct to “Atlantic Studies or Transatlantic Studies,” historians of early America will find it difficult to recover the consciousness—the worldview, as it was called a generation or so ago—that scholars such as Donegan seek to understand.

View of Foreign Cemetery on Dane’s Island, attributed to Sunqua,     1840, was the final resting place for a number of American travelers. (Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

View of Foreign Cemetery on Dane’s Island, attributed to Sunqua, 1840, was the final resting place for a number of American travelers. (Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

As True Yankees demonstrates, as early as the colonial period Americans constructed the meanings of their “seasons of misery” in a global context, referencing their participation in the Turkish wars, as pirates in the Indian Ocean, as captives in Barbary, and as victims of the “Asian despotism” and “Turkish tyranny” of George III and Parliament. To recover the meanings of misery and other early American experiences, we need to look farther afield and to the far sides of the world.

morrisonDane A. Morrison is a professor of early American history at Salem State University. He is the author of True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity.

Use promo code “HDPD” to receive a 30% discount code when you order your copy of True Yankees.

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Taps for the Good War Myth?

Guest post by Michael C. C. Adams

On May 8, seventy years ago, the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Germany (Victory in Europe or VE Day), followed on September 2 by the surrender of our Pacific opponent (Victory over Japan or VJ Day). As we once again ring down the curtain on our commemoration of World War II, it is worth asking whether the Good War myth, spawned by the conflict, is now in eclipse?

The total victories in WWII were an enormous accomplishment, due in good measure to U.S. contributions in manpower, industrial production, and financial strength. There was much to be proud of. America was the only nation to emerge from the war more prosperous and powerful at a relatively modest cost. But, over time, this achievement was magnified into “The Good War.” From the 1960s on, America’s economic world dominance declined and military victories were harder to achieve, with stalemate in Korea and failure in Vietnam. Domestically, there were major challenges to race and gender discrimination. Many Americans, particularly adult white males, reacted by turning to the 1940s as a golden age. Back then, they said, Americans were united, without ethnic or sexual divides, and everyone knew what they fought for and put shoulders to the wheel. The boys were happy warriors.

Combat in WWII was traumatizing.  Romanticizing it misled those who engineered the conventional wars of the 21st century.

“The Anguish of Combat,” drawing by Howard Brodie. Combat in WWII was traumatizing. Romanticizing it misled those who engineered the conventional wars of the 21st century.

None of this was fully accurate. The myth crested in the 1990s when prominent military historian Stephen E. Ambrose wrote that America saved the world for democracy, and argued that D-Day was the key battle. Ambrose at times implied that the U.S. virtually alone forged victory. He wrote sentimentally of the white male rifle squad of WWII as a band of brothers. TV journalist Tom Brokaw felt inspired to conclude that WWII Americans were the greatest generation in human history, a gross simplification of history’s complex patterns. After 9/11, Brokaw predicted that the grandchildren of WWII Americans would be another greatest generation.

This did not happen, and we now hear less about the mythic picture of WWII. Is this important? Absolutely. How we understand the past profoundly molds the ways in which we approach the present and plan for the future. History impacts real world events. Take the Munich analogy. According to mythologizers, at this 1938 summit meeting, Britain and France missed a clear opportunity to stop Hitler’s aggression, leading to the conclusion that we can never “appease” opponents, but must meet all disagreement with force. This distortion of Munich reverses traditional foreign policy, putting war ahead of diplomacy. George W. Bush and Tony Blair used the Munich analogy to justify attacking Iraq before the UN weapons inspectors had finished work. Precipitate demands for strikes on Iran instead of negotiation embrace the same rationale.

In the unique economic circumstances of WWII, U.S. government spending jump-started under-utilized industrial capacity to create unprecedented prosperity. This led to a popular belief that wars invariably boost the economy. Actually, the reverse may be true: massive military spending detracts from other public needs, such as the need for new roads and bridges or better schools and libraries. We cannot simply wish upon a war to solve our economic dilemmas.

Obsession with duplicating the WWII experience led to misreading 9/11 and therefore to inappropriate conventional military responses that cost billions in treasure and hundreds of thousands of civilians killed or driven from their homes, along with thousands of our troops dead or wounded physically and mentally. Top officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor. But the events shared only one element in common: serious intelligence failures resulted in “surprise” attacks. The differences were crucial. Pearl Harbor was attacked by the official forces of Imperial Japan. Our enemy was clear and could be fought to conventional unconditional. 9/11 was perpetrated by outlaws mainly originating from our ally, Saudi Arabia. They had no national allegiance or conventional military structure. To destroy al-Qaeda, leading military historian Michael Howard urged an international police action, economical in lives and treasure, with a decent chance of succeeding.

Instead, we launched a conventional war on Afghanistan to deploy our mighty arsenal and allow a vicarious return to The Big War. This strategy appeared to work temporarily but bogged down into America’s longest war when resistance morphed into insurgency. The Taliban and al-Qaeda were not destroyed but shifted operations into western Pakistan. The Bush administration then launched a second inappropriate conventional war, on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Rebutting nervous critics, Vice President Dick Cheney insisted our forces would be welcomed as liberators, replicating France in 1944. Unfortunately, Saddam Hussein was not a foreign occupier like the Nazis. Instead, we became the hated alien occupiers and Iraq remains a failing state.

Parallels to WWII largely fail. WWII was paid for in part by super taxes on the wealthy, and salaries were capped. In the War on Terror, we cut taxes for the rich, leaving a legacy of debt. WWII was fought through the Selective Service, which inducted millions. Our current military is volunteer and represents perhaps 1% of the population. Most young people do not wish to fight, not because they are selfish or cowardly but because they have not bought the rationales for endless war in their short lifetimes. And they know that the most privileged largely shelter their children from harm’s way.

Good War analogies are diminishing because they are irrelevant. Is it time to bury the myth?

adamsMichael C. C. Adams is the author of The Best War Ever: America and World War II, appearing this month in its second edition, and Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War, both published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Happy birthday, Frederick Law Olmsted


Frederick Law Olmsted, c.1890, courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

Sunday, April 26th, marks the birth date of Frederick Law Olmsted. No short list of the most important and influential Americans of the nineteenth century would omit the name of Frederick Law Olmsted: mid-century agricultural reformer; sharp-eyed observer of slavery and slave society before the Civil War; mainstay of the United States Sanitary Commission; and the nation’s leading landscape architect and park designer—the creator of Central Park in New York City and leading conservator of Yosemite in California. Olmsted’s hundreds of projects preserved the natural world and placed the built environment comfortably aside natural beauty.

Within days of Olmsted’s birthday, Johns Hopkins University Press will publish Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks, edited by Charles E. Beveridge, Lauren Meier, and Irene Mills. This project, in the works for 40 years, highlights Olmsted’s drawings and plans in large format and glorious color. Lavishly illustrated with over 470 images—129 of them in color—this book reveals Olmsted’s design concepts for more than 70 North American public park projects through sketches, studies, lithographs, paintings, photographs, and comprehensive descriptions.

A recent Boston Globe review of Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks called the volume a “visual compendium of Olmsted’s work, taking readers on a visual tour through some of America’s most significant public landscapes.”

“Enlightening and lavishly illustrated . . . Whether your interest is in Olmsted and his work, landscape architecture in general, the development of nature-based recreation, or American history, Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks can provide a substantial expansion and deepening of your thoughts in your area of interest, as well as help connect it to other related (and perhaps even previously unconsidered) areas of study.”—The Well-read Naturalist (Full review may be read here.)

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Also new from Johns Hopkins University Press is The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: The Last Great Projects, 1890–1895, edited by David Schuyler, Gregory Kaliss, and Jeffrey Schlossberg. This concluding volume of the monumental Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted captures some of Olmsted’s signature achievements, including Biltmore, George W. Vanderbilt’s massive estate near Asheville, North Carolina, and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Chicago Tribune Architecture Critic Blair Kamin called this final volume “A fascinating new door stop of a book . . . [whose] revealing glimpses into the mind of America’s greatest landscape architect take on fresh relevance.”

We who care about American history benefit greatly from the work of the historians—Charles McLaughlin, Charles E. Beveridge, and many others—who, since the 1960s, have devoted themselves to the selection of Olmsted’s most significant papers, annotating them, and seeing them to publication in The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted.  Here we have, in wonderful combination, first-rate scholarship, distinguished book publishing, and the memorable work of an extraordinary American.

On Tuesday, August 4th at noon, Lauren Meier will speak about Frederick Law Olmsted at 92nd Street Y. For details, please click here.


Filed under American Studies, Conservation

Jacob Lawrence and the Great Migration

Guest post by Peter Rutkoff

A new exhibit, “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works,” opens today at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We invited Peter Rutkoff, c0author of  Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrations, to offer this appreciation of Lawrence and his work.

Jacob Lawrence post
I marvel at the circumstantial miracle that allowed a twenty-three-year-old African American from the South to create the artistic masterpiece of the Great Migration. I equally marvel that such a wonderful creative series—sixty panels that “read” like the pages in a children’s book—has never found a permanent home. Instead, as we will soon witness at the Museum of Modern Art, the Great Migration Series only negotiates short-term stays at any single place before it re-divides and shuttles back to its other residences.

Jacob Lawrence painted the history of African America. And by the time the Rosenwald Foundation awarded him a fellowship for the Migration Series, he had already completed three sequences of paintings on Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Toussaint L’Ouverture. These precursors, the historical ancestors of African America, allowed Lawrence to tell the epic story of migration and transformation that changed us all.

Imagine those who resided in Lawrence’s imagination, the teachers and mentors who guided him to greatness and informed the beauty and power of his art. His Southern family, those who brought him North from South Carolina and Virginia; his mid-Harlem neighborhood that introduced him to the Harlem Artists Guild, to Augusta Savage’s WPA-funded Harlem Community Arts Center, and to the towering presence of Adam Clayton Powell’s Abyssinian Baptist Church; and to the intellectual nexus of Harlem—the Schomburg Library. And, yet, nothing compared to the intellectual and artistic community that comprised what he called the “dawn patrol.”

Along with his friend, fellow Southerner Romare Bearden, Lawrence joined a small circle of artists and writers in Harlem in the late 1930s. They called themselves the 306 Group, after the address on West 141st Street that Harlem WPA muralist Charles Alston had converted into a studio. They painted and wrote and debated, and as the “dawn patrol” hit all the local spots, including Mom Young’s, where “for twenty-five cents you could get a beer that she made herself in a coffee-can-sized container.”

Often joined by writers Countee Cullen and Ralph Ellison or WPA Negro Theater Unit actors Rex Ingram and Canada Lee, as well as Alston and the young female painter (and Lawrence’s future wife) Gwendolyn Knight, Lawrence and Bearden helped form 306 into a salon of ideas and culture. As members of the Second Harlem Renaissance they saw themselves as black artists embracing modernist aesthetics and racial solidarity.

In this way, Lawrence’s voice, at once visual and historic, spoke of and to the experiences of masses of African Americans who had braved the journey North—one that he understood in epic, indeed biblical terms—during and after the First World War, a half-generation earlier. But he did so at the very dawn of a Second Great Migration whose journey was about to begin with the shattering of peace in 1939.

Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” continued his journey as an historian of Black America, and like so much of art that aspires to greatness, did so in the language of the people who Lawrence so beautifully rendered.

rutkoffPeter M. Rutkoff is a professor of American studies at Kenyon College. He is the coauthor, with William B. Scott, of  Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrations (forthcoming this fall in paperback) and New York Modern: The Arts and the City.

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