Archive | June, 2012

May I Quote You On That?

25 Jun

In my last entry, I drew attention to the merits of narrative history and how crucial it is that historians concentrate on telling a good story in their writing if they are to have impact. Today, I’d like to elaborate on that theme, focusing on one aspect of historical writing that seems to unnecessarily impede storytelling among historians—the excessive use of quotes.

Quoting the exact words of historical characters in a narrative can significantly add to its value. It can give a unique first-hand perspective to the tale being told, and of course can demonstrate careful research and command of available resources by the historian. But there are limits to the effectiveness of quotes. In my opinion, they should only be used for impact or when attempting to rephrase their wording will detract from their meaning.

I have read several carefully-researched books lately whose authors unfortunately have missed this simple rule of good writing. Rather than transform their research into a smooth narrative, their paragraphs were filled with dry quotations, making the story halting, difficult to read, and ironically, less interesting. Often the quotes were of such mundane phrases that they seemed to be placed in the text for no other reason than to show the source from which they came had actually been consulted. Consequently when a really dynamic quote did appear, it was lost in the jumble of quotation marks.

A crucial part of the historian’s task is to explain why their research is important through weaving a compelling story that people will want to read. To simply regurgitate facts found in research, however thorough, is only half the job.


Our Nation’s Unknown War

18 Jun

Today marks the 200th anniversary of President James Madison’s signing of the declaration of war on Great Britain. As with other days of significance relating to the War of 1812, this day will come and go with barely a notice by the media and others. This lack of recognition is distressing as this conflict was basically a continuation of the American Revolution and settled once and for all the independence of the United States.

It is a shame that the war’s memory has faded so far from the American consciousness considering all of its iconic moment s in shaping our nations’ trajectory.  Our nation gained a national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” from this war.  The U.S. Navy came of age with such iconic phrases as “We have met the enemy and they are ours” as well as “Old Ironsides” herself, the USS Constitution. Perhaps most importantly, the War of 1812 witnessed perhaps this country’s greatest military victory when Andrew Jackson and a diverse fighting force defeated the British, the most militarily powerful nation in the world at the time, at the Battle of New Orleans. The victory launched “Old Hickory” along a path that would eventually lead to the presidency.

One can hope that the war’s bicentennial will shine a light on the fog that has kept Americans in the dark for far too long on the importance of this event.


In Praise of Narrative History

12 Jun

I just finished reading Robert Remini’s Andrew Jackson. The book was a riveting tale as related by a master historian. The author did not bog me down with extraneous details and useless quotes to demonstrate the thoroughness of his research, nor did he roll out unnecessary graphs and tables to support his argument, or confuse me by pointlessly attempting to place his work in the context of some obscure academic historiographical trend to which he subscribes. He simply related an engrossing story in a way that left me somewhat sad when I reached the end. I read. I enjoyed. I learned. Now I want to discover more about the topic.

Sadly, Remini (Professor Emeritus and the University of Illinois-Chicago) would probably have a hard time getting tenure with such superb work at many places today. His style of writing is glaringly absent from offerings of a majority of academics, and in general frowned upon in the academy as elementary. Amazingly, such “popular” history has somehow become looked down upon as the domain of amateur historians. If you have any doubt, take a look at the enlightened drivel that fills the pages of many academic journals and appears in the pages of many university presses.

All the work out there is not bad, but there simply isn’t enough of it that could be classified as compelling to the average reader for the historian’s craft to be considered interesting. Not enough schools seem to be teaching historians how to simply write a good story or communicate their research to a wide audience, instead focusing on scientific approaches to research that leaves them talking to themselves instead of the public. As long as the writings of legendary wordsmiths such as Remini are viewed by the academy as something less than the very best the profession has to offer, history will continue its slide into irrelevancy.



Thanks for the Day Off, Jeff Davis

5 Jun

Yesterday was a state holiday in Alabama, but I doubt very many citizens knew exactly why. It was Jefferson Davis’ birthday. Yes, as in the President of the Confederacy. By the way, he also served as U.S. Secretary of War, as a Senator, and as an esteemed officer in the Mexican War. His birthday became a holiday in a handful of Southern states in the 1890s, during the height of the “Lost Cause” movement which saw communities across the South try to come to terms with the monumental military and political failure of its leading citizens a generation earlier and the legacy their efforts left on the region. As they began to pass off the stage, their children and grandchildren succeeded in publicly vindicating them as heroes worthy of remembrance because of their valor, patriotism, and sacrifice. (They strategically overlooked any connection with the institution of slavery, of course.) Davis, who remained a public figure throughout his life, became for many the living embodiment of the Southern past by the 1880s if for no other reason than he outlived others, such as Robert E. Lee, who may have vied for the title. He was certainly not universally loved or respected in the South during his presidency. With his death in 1889 came a widespread realization that a fundamental link with the South’s distinctive past had been broken. It was only fitting to many, then, that the man and the cause he led be officially memorialized so that it might be remembered. Some Southern states set the day apart as an official holiday, while others incorporated it into Confederate Memorial Day observances.


Considering modern sensibilities, it is frankly astounding that the day is still observed anywhere. Mississippi’s observance might be somewhat understood, though, because he is considered a native son (though born in Kentucky) and that state has an unusual penchant for lauding native sons. But to be honest the days’ enduring place on the state calendars really has little to do with ideology or remembrance of any sort. Like so many other state holidays, it is just a welcome day off for state employees and its original purpose forgotten.

However politically incorrect it might be to admit, I find the lack of awareness of the holiday on some level disappointing. The day is in truth a more authentic relic of Confederate experience than any of the more famous pseudo-heritage symbols such as the flying of the Confederate flag at state capitols or its incorporation in state banners–observances that came about largely during the mid-1900s as a reactionary backlash to federal pressure on Southern states regarding civil rights for blacks. The holiday could serve to provide an opportunity for reflection on the crucial role of the Civil War era in defining aspects of the development, identity, and trajectory of the states that observe it. Instead, neither strongly advocated nor widely despised, it continues to quietly pass without fanfare of any kind. The apathy and unawareness associated with the day is symbolic to me of something much more profound than the Confederate heritage it was originally designed to proclaim. It is one small bit of evidence of our society’s growing ignorance and dangerous disconnect with our shared past. Not enough know about it, and not enough care one way or the other.



Are We There Yet?

1 Jun

Summer is here, and families across the nation will soon be hitting the road taking vacations. Although I would hope that a large percentage of these travelers would include a visit to some of this nation’s outstanding historic sites that they pass by on their journeys to the beach, theme parks, camps, or other destinations, statistics show that far too few Americans do so. For most, learning is simply not equated with fun. Leisure time is certainly not spent in such pursuits voluntarily, and school field trips that might broaden children’s cultural horizons are a relic of the past in this era of standardized testing. As a result, our country’s historic parks as a whole are insufficiently recognized, underutilized, and eclipsed by a host of other attractions for families.

It does not have to be this way.

I remember as a kid taking school fieldtrips to Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, to Historic Westville, and to the Cyclorama. When my family went to visit relatives in Atlanta my brother and I of course were taken to Six Flags, but we also went to Chickamauga and Kennesaw National Military Parks on occasion. I came to notice those brown highway signs designating historical attractions as worthy of my attention. The result of educational experience and family background instilled in me an appreciation for cultural heritage sites and an appreciation of them as entertaining destinations. While they may not have captivated me in the same way as the “Mind Bender” roller coaster or the “Thunder River” water ride, I nevertheless came to understand learning about cultural heritage could be interesting. It was all about exposure.   

I am convinced that to inspire the next generation to have an appreciation of the past and its role in a healthy society does not require training all children to be professional historians. It simply requires helping them understand that there is a world outside of Disney that is worth exploring for a few minutes. I appreciate all the workers, volunteers and other supporters that work so hard to make our nation’s historic sites the treasures they are. My hope is that a larger percentage of our citizens will recognize this fact and take advantage of the resources they offer.