Archive | February, 2014

Tell Me About It

27 Feb

We have commented many times in this blog on what instigates people’s interest in the past, and lamented the fact that so few seem to have an interest at all. It seems to me that one of the most common, and incidentally one of the strongest, motivations for people who do want to study any part of the past is the personal connection to people in history. I can’t tell you how many times I have been approached after a presentation, received a call on the phone, or had a visitor ask to speak to me seeking information that helps them understand the context of an ancestor’s life. “Can you tell me about” so and so, they ask, followed by a reference to an ancestor who may have had a connection to the place or event.

I have ceased to be surprised when, after attempting to answer their question, they invariably reveal that they know as much or more about the subject than I do. Still, I am almost all the time delighted to talk with them, feeling that for a moment at least my role of public historian is appreciated and that I am in some vague way providing a meaningful service. (At least unless it becomes a lecture on their family history.) I will admit that at times these exchanges have bothered me a little, as I wondered if I made any substantial contribution to the enrichment of such narrowly genealogically-based appreciation of the past or I just was someone who got to listen to their story.

I’ve at length come to believe that on some level, I have made a substantial contribution. Within reason, being a sounding board can sometimes be a valuable role to play as a public historian because it helps you make a connection and, sometimes, you even learn a little something about a topic you had never thought to research. Whatever the public’s point of entry into the study of the past, it is the public historian’s duty to educate people, enrich their understanding with the knowledge they have, and inspire them to further inquiry. All this is done more effectively when you understand what motivates people to learn about history in the first place.


Review of Robert E. Lee in War and Peace: The Photographic History of a Confederate and American Icon, by Donald A. Hopkins

21 Feb

Despite the fact that Robert E. Lee was the leading figure in a losing war whose cause is anathema to modern Americans, he remains an icon in national history. Studies of him continue to appear, most (thankfully) measuring him as a man and symbol rather than reminding us at every turn that he was associated with the detestable institution of slavery. A peculiarity of the mountain of material on Lee is that there are several volumes devoted exclusively to chronicling images of the man. Roy Meredith’s noted 1947 work, The Face of Robert E. Lee, seems to have started the trend. Phillip Van Doren Stern (The Man and the Soldier) and Emory Thomas (An Album) have been among the more distinguished entrants into this growing literary niche. Now from Mississippi surgeon, collector, and author Donald Hopkins comes the latest book on images of Lee, Robert E. Lee in War and Peace: The Photographic History of a Confederate and American Icon.


Hopkins’ book is, without doubt, currently the authoritative reference source on the subject. He chronicles every known image of Lee, explains how, when, and by whom they were taken, and corrects much incorrect information on Lee photographs that have been repeated over the years. Readers should know that this book is essentially a reference source, detailing not Lee the man or Lee the symbol as much as providing in-depth information on the literal photographs of him and the photographic processes by which his image was created and copied. Save for a shameless publisher-staged “interview” with the author as an appendix, you accordingly get exactly what you expect with this book. Hopkins has accomplished his goal in exceptional manner. The only quibble many will likely have with the book is that for a book so photograph-oriented, it features very few large-format images where details are visually easy to discern. Still, it is attractively laid out and definitive on its subject.


Review of Dr. J: The Autobiography, by Julius Erving with Karl Taro Greenfeld

17 Feb

I will be admitting my age, or at least my fascination with professional sports at a very early one, when I say that Julius “Dr. J” Erving was my first sports hero. I’m not old enough to remember the ABA years, but I well remember his last years with the Philadelphia 76ers and the 1983 NBA championship won over the Lakers in which teammate Moses Malone famously predicted the team would win in “fo, fo, fo.” For a starstruck ten year old, Erving appeared so much better than all those around him that it seemed impossible the Sixers could ever lose a game. He also, even to my young eyes, seemed a little more sophisticated than most other pro athletes at the same time, and hence even more likable. So when I saw that “the Doctor” had written an autobiography, I knew I had to have it.

Dr. J

The book is in many ways exactly what you would expect of the life story of a professional basketball player, but in important ways much more. Sure, there is the chronicling of his experiences on the basketball court. These range from his childhood influences and athletic development to the backstory on the twists and turns that made him successively a larger than life playground legend, a celebrated collegiate star, the very embodiment of the new “above the rim” style of basketball showcased in the short-lived American Basketball Association, and finally, the first of what many might call the “modern” NBA superstars whose lineage includes names like Michael Jordan and Lebron James.

What makes the book really interesting, however, is its profound revelation into the character and mind of its subject. Erving is candid about the tragedies as well as his triumphs which he believes have defined him, and few of them in his mind occurred on a basketball court. He is fiercely proud of his rise from humble beginnings to success—in basketball, in obtaining his college degree, in business, in contributing to his community, in fatherhood. A major theme of his reflection is that his is an “American” story, for he came of age in an era in which many of contemporaries questioned the place of a black man in American society and many of his friends found his patriotism and desire and ability to live what they might have termed a “white” life off the court surprising. He is a man who has suffered incredible losses. He lost his father as a boy, his beloved younger brother in college, close friends during his ABA career, an admired older sister just after reaching the pinnacle of his NBA stardom, and suffered through the tragic death of a teenage son in his retirement years. The book is accordingly somber at times, but as a consequence consistently features erudite insight into his existential contemplations and celebration of the small things in daily life.

What most people surely will comment on about the book, though, is its shocking honesty. While Erving admits he has an unusual penchant for order, which manifests itself in neatness and disdain for the drugs and excessive drinking so many of his contemporaries were involved in, he has created some pretty spectacularly chaotic situations for himself in his personal life. Infidelity, a child by a woman who was not his wife, a rocky relationship with a delinquent son, and violent fights with his spouse and divorce are among the failings he discusses openly in the book. To his credit he doesn’t justify or explain away his shortcomings, but rather admits his disappointment in betraying his upbringing through them. In the pages of the book, he manages to incorporate them convincingly into a balanced portrait of himself as a man blessed with exceptional talents who has both lived up and down to expectations. In other words, the book is exactly what a good autobiography should be.


Civil War Trust maps

12 Feb

As we have posted previously in this blog (here and here), we love maps. Today we would like to bring attention to an organization producing some truly great maps of historical subjects—the Civil War Trust (CWT). Trust members receive regular mailings about preservation threats to Civil War battlefields across the nation, all of them accompanied with an artful, detailed, and informative map of the conflict under discussion. These maps communicate layers of critical information that are important in understanding the battles over the course of several hours and sometimes even days. They are exactly the type of maps that one needs to fully appreciate the intersection of land, people and events which as at the heart of the Trust’s mission. Well done, CWT.

CWT Vicksburg map


Review of Clearing the Thickets: A History of Antebellum Alabama, by Herbert James Lewis

10 Feb

For a state with as rich an antebellum past as Alabama, there are surprisingly few books that chronicle its founding era. There are books about individual regions or cities, books on individual topics, and many that provide some overview of major themes in the era. So, when I saw Clearing the Thickets had been published, I was intrigued and anxious to obtain a copy. I found it to be in some ways to be exactly the detailed history of the period it purports to be, while in others felt it missed the mark on its subject.


The good things about this book, and there are many, are that it provides a general outline of the major issues surrounding the early development of the state of Alabama and in large measure the region of which it is a part. After chronicling in overview fashion Native American settlement and European colonization of the region, author Herbert James Lewis traces off the history of the state in nine chapters covering the period 1798 (formation of the Mississippi Territory) to 1861 (outbreak of the Civil War.) There are few noteworthy people, places or events in the state’s history during those years not mentioned here. It is a virtual textbook for the time period in Alabama history.

The bad things about this book, which are few but notable, are that it is driven almost entirely by the legislative record and at times pretty dry. Much of Lewis’ book examines the history of the state through the lens of records of legislative acts and debates during the administrations of successive governors. There are portions of this book that are quite literally an enumeration of bills. Attempting to understand the dynamic nature of frontier Alabama through such a standpoint leaves a lot off the table, and Lewis is at his best in the book when he strays from this approach to provide context for selected subjects that give bits of life to his narrative. Unfortunately, only the last chapter of the book is expressly devoted to providing interpretation of the rich cultural life in the early state, and even that focuses more on failed attempts at infrastructural development that real societal issues.

The book is not the engrossing narrative many would hope for, but it is a superb reference source on early Alabama. Considering the relative shortage of such volumes in recent decades, I think that despite its shortcomings it merits consideration of anyone who is interested in the pre-Civil War development of the state and the old Southwest at which it was at the heart.


Cracker Barrel history

5 Feb

Since I am a public historian, it will come as no surprise to anyone that I find historic images and artifacts fascinating. I love tangible pieces of the past, whether they are inherently beautiful such as old maps and prints, a pristinely-preserved piece of furniture, or a just a relic of a battered old flag or broken piece of ancient pottery. Objects tell stories, and provide context for the historical narrative that connects yesterday to today. Being in their presence somehow inspires and fascinates me, and I suppose they are one of the reasons I have pursued a career in the cultural heritage field. I also love some good down home food, which brings me to the curious connection between the two I see manifested in restaurants and a variety of other retail establishments across the country.

Take Cracker Barrel, for example. I like the food there; it’s basic American fare, served in generous portions and in a unique atmosphere that is unmistakably part of its identity. As anyone who has ever been in one knows, the restaurant is a themed establishment, overtly connecting its menu with the array of classic Americana that decorates its walls: old gas stations signs, cola advertisements, farm implements, and assorted dry goods. The combination of biscuits and Nehi Grape soda ads somehow communicate a simpler time that millions of people find appealing. Cracker Barrel isn’t the only place to figure this out, as I’ve noticed plenty of other chains and local eateries attempt to give their stores an identity as a community fixture through historic photos and memorabilia adorning the walls. All of this is well enough, and I suppose seems like a pretty innocuous use of history.

Cracker Barrel

I do wonder, however, whether the casual use of historic items to create a feeling of familiar warmth and sense of community isn’t inadvertently reinforcing misguided notions about the field of history. For far too many people, in my opinion, history is purely a celebratory and nostalgic endeavor. I understand and appreciate the fondness for the familiar and storied and fully endorse the way the past can be used as a point of community pride and the building of a unique sense of place. But there is more to history than just “the good stuff,” and if we ever get to the point that the past is used solely as a selling point for a positive image, I think we are on a slippery slope. So much of that warm nostalgia generated by those old things in Cracker Barrel, after all, could be used in museum exhibits depicting the grinding poverty of the Great Depression era, the back-breaking labor of poor farmers, the backwardness and privation in the early twentieth-century South, and the rise of national chain brands that devastated local businesses and created dull homogeneity in America as much as in a slick promotional piece connecting a product with a supposedly happier time. And, of course, I don’t think some of the overtly racist advertising materials from the time period that might have originally appeared side by side with the old Double Cola sign would ever make it into a restaurant. It isn’t that I think that these items are being misused because they are removed from context, mind you. I find them intriguing and entertaining. I am just curious what those with less interest and knowledge about the past think about when they view them.

In my career I have often been taken aback at the shameless assertion of some of the seemingly knowledgeable people I have encountered that were adamant that history is to be studied to be “celebrated” or that the past was “better” or “simpler”  than today. I have been asked more than once why I wanted to tell difficult stories as well. As historians, we know some elements of the past are more fun than others, and some topics yield themselves more easily to certain settings than others. To have a full understanding of the past we need to know the good and the bad. I do find it troubling that it seems the most common use of history all around us is not for education but as décor or to shamelessly sell something, whether it be a brand of clothing or real estate. In this capacity, the past is purposefully filtered, communicating only positive and reinforcing stories that make people feel comfortable. All is well as long as we all know that only one part of the story is being related in this manner. Call me a pessimist, but it seems as if for a lot of our historically-ignorant populace, Prince Albert cans and old movie posters are about all the history for which they have any use or curiosity.