Archive | June, 2013

Getting the Word Out

26 Jun

A person who studies and reads history without creating scholarship of some sort is nothing more than a history buff instead of a true historian. Anyone can read books and watch documentaries and talk a good game. Gathering research is a fine endeavor, but for it to be worthwhile, one must analyze it and then put it in a format accessible to the public. For the most past, historians write article and books.

I recently came across an article online from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the excuses scholars give for not writing. I am convinced that Rachel Toor in “I Don’t Write Enough Because…” has been inside my head and knows my recent failures for not doing enough writing lately. “I don’t have enough time; I am exhausted; There are too many distractions at home or office; I am burned out; My kids are taking too much of my time.” The list goes on and most of them apply directly to me. I think most of these excuses boil down to a general laziness. Anyone who writes for a living faces this difficulty from time-to-time.

Writing good history is not easy. I stress good as there continues to be a large amount of poor history being published. (See past and future entries in this blog for details.)  Writing traditional narrative history takes time and effort. And too often, the “story” is left out of “history.” But it is important to write and write every day!! Like any other skill, practice makes perfect. History provides a plethora of stories and subjects that are fascinating and deserving of being explained to the public at large. Historians are charged with uncovering this past and must publicize their findings whether via articles, books, exhibits, etc. So, we all need to overcome our excuses and get the word out!


Heritage for Sale

21 Jun

I’m alarmed to see that “privatization” is increasingly becoming the buzzword for benighted government officials unwilling or unable to find a solution to keeping alive our endangered state-run cultural heritage institutions. Rather than deal with a very real problem, our myopically reactionary state leaders are essentially telling many state agencies to either do their work themselves or they won’t do it at all. And they do it with a smile and an assertion that this is the way forward for America. Take the recent actions of the state of Georgia as an example of the inadequate vision of the role of government with which cultural organizations are saddled.


The state came dangerously close to shuttering its woefully understaffed state archives (which had been reduced to being open to the public a mere one day a week) as it was not a “core function of government” with virtually no awareness of the outrageous nature of the proposition. I personally spoke with one powerful political leader about the situation who frankly thought that if the Archives couldn’t turn a profit, it needed to be closed down anyway. The absurdity of such an understanding of the services the institution provides doesn’t deserve further comment here. I do wonder what this gentleman thought of the merits of the prison system, but that is a topic for another day. Thankfully, a plan was ultimately hatched by advocates across the state to have the state archives kept alive by being transferred to the University of Georgia system. This is not optimal, but at least the collections have been saved and access to them preserved on some level.

As if this wasn’t enough, we now see that several state parks in Georgia are being “privatized” to “increase their profitability.” Some right-wingers herald this as an appropriate distinction between public and private interests. But when you read between the lines, all this really means is that the state is totally divesting itself of some of its most precious resources (which belong to the people) for a short-term savings in payroll and maintenance. The hard-working state employees who staff these places will essentially have to work for less and with no benefits if they want to continue working at these places at all. Their jobs will be less education-focused and more profit-focused. That works at Disney, but not at a state park.

I cringe to see what private interests will do to these facilities when they realize not every heritage resource will turn a tidy profit. I am not an advocate of “big government” as the best way to organize our society. However, I do believe that heritage, education, and preservation are indeed CORE functions of government, not extras that we can only indulge in when we have a budget surplus. The issue is scope, not importance, of these functions to me. Since it’s my tax money they are determining is best used by being thrown down the bottomless pit of economic incentives for private business development or making up for the deficiencies in our archaic and obscenely illogical health care system, I guess I have that right. Sadly, it appears my opinion is the minority. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think “state-run” is a bad thing sometimes. Indeed, sometimes I think it the best possible thing.


Review of The Civil War in Kentucky, by Lowell H. Harrison

17 Jun

In preparation for a trip to visit Civil War sites in Kentucky this summer, we recently read Lowell Harrison’s The Civil War in Kentucky. Though now nearly 40 years old, it is still recognized as one of the standards on its subject. The book is highly informative, explaining in a mere 106 pages the complicated nature of Kentucky’s divided loyalties in the war, its strategic location, the several battles fought on its soil, the social and economic consequences of the contest, and the unique political situation in the state from 1861-1865.


Kentucky was important to both the Union and the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln said it best when he noted that, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” Both sides treated the state, which had officially declared itself neutral, very carefully early in the war. When Confederate General Leonidas Polk decided to break Kentucky’s neutrality and lay siege to Columbus, Kentucky on September 4, 1861, Union forces responded in kind. The Bluegrass state instantly transitioned from buffer zone to one of the centers of conflict. Scholars today recognize Polk’s decision as one of the war’s biggest blunders.

The book contains several interesting tidbits about Kentucky’s role in the war. For instance, George Johnson, governor of Confederate Kentucky, was killed at Shiloh in April 1862. Also of interest is that Kentucky did not vote for native Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election. This fact summarizes the general consensus of many of Kentucky’s citizens in the war.  They were opposed to secession, strongly favoring the Union, but were not advocates of Lincoln and his “abolitionist” party. Kentucky was a slave state and many of its citizens wanted to preserve their “institution.”  Kentucky, perhaps better than most states, typified the “Civil War” aspect of the fighting by suffering the horrible effects of a partisan guerilla war that devastated its countryside and divided communities during and well after the war.

All in all, Harrison’s book provides a nice summary of the war in Kentucky. It reads quickly, with the exception of the multitude of pages concerning John Hunt Morgan and his endless raids in Kentucky. Perhaps the book’s strongest contribution is found on its last page, where it talks about how during reconstruction, Kentucky suffered the fate of many of the former Confederate States. This development ultimately led Kentucky into the ranks of the Southern Democratic Party for generations. In effect, then, Kentucky only became truly “Southern” long after the war was over.


Review of Superfluous Southerners, by Jay Langdale

13 Jun

I recently read my friend and colleague Dr. Jay Langdale’s book, Superfluous Southerners: Cultural Conservatism and the South. Based on his award-winning dissertation, the book examines the origins, development, and trajectory of traditionalist conservatism in the South. The book is deceptively slim. Although it is only 116 pages, the book is an intellectual evaluation of the highest order. Complex and erudite, the book is packed with information, terminology, and research that require the reader to have an academic background to appreciate.

Superfluous Southerners

While expressly not for the general public, neither is Langdale’s book written solely to his fellow intellectuals. It is a sophisticated narrative history of an intellectual movement with which few are familiar. Langdale begins his study with an overview of the motivations and careers of the famed “Vanderbilt Agrarians” who are generally credited with defining the traditionalist conservative intellectual viewpoint. Anyone who ever took a historiography course in Southern history has heard of them—Richard Weaver, John Crowe Ranson, Allen Tate, and others—but usually their work just appears as a last-gasp reactionary backlash to the belated modernization of the South in the 1930s. You hear about I’ll Take My Stand and move on.

What makes Langdale’s work a genuine contribution to Southern historiography is that he illuminates the story of the Agrarians, and the story of those that came before and after them, better than most. He demonstrates that traditionalist conservatism can be placed in a continuum of American thought. He shows that it is not so much a reaction to a contemporary circumstance as an independent mode of philosophy. Whether or not you understand or agree with that worldview is inconsequential. Langdale has simply shown that conservatism has intellectual underpinnings rooted in philosophical thought that continues to be a part of public discourse in America.


Review of The Scott Massacre of 1817, by Dale Cox

5 Jun

Dale Cox’s most recent in a growing list of books on Southern history is a chronicle of one of the most significant but unknown events in the long-running wars between the United States and Creek and Seminole Indians. In The Scott Massacre, Cox has assembled the first narrative history of an event which has previously been only mentioned as a footnote, if even that, in many histories.


 Cox’s book centers on the massacre of a boat full of military men, their wives and children, ascending the Apalachicola River in 1817 as a reprisal for the destruction of the Seminole village of Fowltown a short time earlier. The events, either together or separately, depending on the historian, are usually credited with being the starting point of the first of the three Seminole Wars. Cox excels at setting the context for this overlooked event, explaining in amazing detail the background for the conflict and unearthing aspects of this forgotten story that even the most knowledgeable will find new. The scope of the book is also impressive, as it includes previously unpublished casualty lists, original newspaper articles about the affair from across the country, and dozens of images of historic sites and individuals which are connected to the event.

Readers should know this is not a flowing narrative, though. It is a series of tightly-focused and short chapters, one or two which goes significantly astray from the primary focus. Given its unusual spacing and large number of images, the book feels significantly shorter than its ca. 170 pages would imply. These are not quibbles as much as facts, though. The book chronicles in unprecedented detail a true turning point in Southern history, fleshing out a story that for long has remained obscure.


Kudos to the Tennessee Historical Quarterly

3 Jun

I recently ordered two back issues of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly (THQ), the journal of the Tennessee Historical Society. These two 2012 issues featured articles relating to the War of 1812, which is of special interest to me.  These particular issues deserve special merit as they represent the perfect example of high-quality scholarly work in a manner that is easily accessible to the public.


Each issue contained three articles dealing with various facets of the War of 1812. I appreciate journals devoting issues to specific topics or themes. If a topic interests you, it gives you more reason to obtain it and a better chance of reading all of it as compared to the too-typical journal containing a wide range of articles on topics sometimes so obscure, you wonder if anyone actually reads it at all.

Topics examined in these issues included slavery in the war, a historiographical examination of the causes of the war, and the Cherokee-American alliance during the Creek War. What made these articles so enjoyable was they were written mainly for the general public in mind. No academic, social science mumbo jumbo, but well-written narratives that clearly explained the topic, provided well-thought of conclusions, and motivated the reader to seek out more information. Articles also contained a few images that added depth to the topic. The articles were also the perfect length, not too short or even worse, dragged on too long. For the academic reader, each article, unlike many magazines geared toward the general public, contained endnotes for those interested in the origin of facts and information. The conclusion of each issue also contained a few book reviews that were also well-done; book reviews being another lost art in the field of history which is also deserving of a blog.

Too many journals today contain articles that are dry, poorly written and read too much like scientific experiments bristling with loads of data and facts. To put it simply, many have taken the “story” out of history and are simply boring and impossible to read. I highly recommend the Tennessee Historical Quarterly to historians, both the academic and armchair, in providing solid scholarship in a reader-friendly format!