Archive | May, 2016

Review of Old Cahawba, by Todd Keith

31 May

I visit a lot of historic sites, and whenever possible I try to pick up a copy of the little overview history booklets many sell as a souvenir from my visit. I love the majority of these publications. When well done they are short and to the point, providing concise histories of the historic sites they chronicle, explaining their significance, and sometimes featuring a few of the best images of the site and what happened there which can be located. Design, however, is rarely their strong suit.


Recently on a visit to Cahawba Archaeological Park I picked up a guidebook about the history of the ghost town of Cahaba (originally spelled Cahawba), the site of Alabama’s first state capitol. The scenic historic site is located at the confluence of the Alabama and namesake Cahaba Rivers on the site of the old town, and has a rich and diverse cultural and natural heritage. In addition to hosting the state capital, the town witnessed two distinct heydays before fading to oblivion, ruins of both which survive. There are also historic cemeteries on the site, remnants of a walled Mississippian-era Native American community, a Civil War prison, and stunning natural diversity and beauty.

Old Cahawba manages to pack in overviews of all these aspects of its story and more in a mere 40 pages, and by standards of the genre, is a truly beautiful booklet. Richly illustrated, artfully designed, and professionally written, the booklet is definitely among the best of its type in my collection. I must admit that as a narrative history, it leaves some things to be desired, primarily since, as is the norm in this type of publication, it features no little melodrama. But shining a spotlight on the site is exactly the purpose of such publications, and readers certainly expect nothing less than glowing descriptions of the historical importance of sites chronicled in them. The bottom line is that I cannot imagine anyone reading Old Cahawba and not coming away with a better understanding of the site’s story and wanting to learn more about this amazing site. It is local history well-presented in an understandable fashion.


Review of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick

24 May

During some of my recent travels, I finally got a chance to listen to an audio recording of Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick’s epic account of America’s most famous colonial beginnings. It was one of those many books I had wanted to read for a long time, but somehow had not gotten around to it. As you might expect given Philbrick’s reputation the fact that I have favorably reviewed other works of his in this blog, I highly recommend it as a wonderful piece of narrative history.

Philbrick Mayflower

Transporting readers back nearly 400 years ago to when the Pilgrims famously “landed on Plymouth Rock” the book chronicles the reasons behind their famous migration, how they came to settle where they did, and what life was like in those tumultuous first years. The book examines in detail some legends associated with the colony, pointing out, for instance, that contrary to popular mythology, the colonists probably did not step on “Plymouth Rock,” which has been both moved and broken a few times anyway. Yes, the book includes an account of the first Thanksgiving, or at least the gathering that has become engrained in American lore as the origin of the holiday, but it is much more than that. It is nothing less than a history of Plymouth Colony and the first decades of cooperation and conflict between Native Americans and English colonists which did so much to shape the trajectory of what became America. Technically, the book is actually two stories in one, I suppose, as just under half of it is devoted to chronicling the background, course, and consequences of King Phillip’s War—an Indian/colonial settler feud which in some ways can be understood as both the culmination of early colonial diplomacy and harbinger for the American future. King Phillip, a descendant of the proud sachem that greeted the Mayflower’s passengers, in 1675 inspired a large-scale resistance to the colonists’ acquisition of land that ended in disaster for native groups in the region. Soon after, the colony merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony to form the Province of Massachusetts Bay, forerunner of what we now know as Massachusetts.

The book is replete with iconic American characters familiar to students of our nation’s history that Philbrick brings to life, such as the swashbuckling Miles Standish and the resourceful and trusted sachem Massosoit. Philbrick expertly weaves a tale of their two very different worlds coming into contact, examining how they dealt with each other, how they at various times relied to degrees on each other, and how, in the end, they found themselves at odds. It is a study of colonial history in microcosm that is both entertaining and informative. I will admit to now very much wanting to visit Plimouth Plantation, the reconstruction of the landmark village the Mayflower’s passengers built, and to see the landscape in which they and their native neighbors lived, worked, cooperated, and, ultimately, fought. My compliments go to Philbrick for detailing with unprecedented clarity one of the most pivotal and celebrated episodes in the saga of our nation.


Review of Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

17 May

Last summer I posted an entry in this blog addressing the mostly negative buzz surrounding the character of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s recently-discovered sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, entitled Go Set a Watchman. In it, I observed that I found it entirely believable that a leading citizen of a Deep South town in the first half of the twentieth century could at once be committed to the administration of justice in the eyes of the law and at the same time harbor racist sentiments; something a lot of readers of Lee’s recently-released book seemed to abhor if not entirely reject. At best they expressed disappointment, and at worst disillusion with the sequel. I finally got around to actually reading Watchman recently, and I stand by my original supposition. In fact, I will go so far as to say that Watchman, while not as inspiring or as polished, is in its own way equally as compelling a piece of literature as Mockingbird for the reason that it demonstrates just as well the complexity and contradiction of Southern culture at the time. The book, in my opinion, is nothing less than a window into Lee’s own tortured frustration at dearly loving her home yet feeling that she no longer had at place in it intellectually or morally because of her stance on bigotry. It is sociology, it is cultural analysis, and it is history.


Since so much has been written about the book, I will refrain from much discussion of its rather unpolished nature—it was, after all, published “as is” after discovery over five decades since the author last touched it and abounds with complex and seemingly unfinished storylines. It presents some coherent thoughts nonetheless, the preeminent of which is the main character’s attempt to deal with incongruity of her image of her father after she returns home from New York as an adult to discover he has become involved with the local chapter of the Citizen’s Council and appears to her to be a classic Civil Rights obstructionist.

A few testy exchanges between the Jean Louise (the adult Scout Finch) and Atticus, in which she challenges him for raising her with a degree of idealism he perhaps never reached, contain the essence of the book:

“Jean Louise, I’m only trying to tell you some plain truths. You must see things as they are, as well as they should be.” “Then why didn’t you show me things as they are when I sat on your lap? Why didn’t you show me, why weren’t you careful when you read me history and the things that I thought meant something to you that there was a fence around everything marked ‘White Only’?” (243)

“I mean I grew up right here in your house, and I never knew what was in your mind. I only heard what you said. You neglected to tell me that we were naturally better than the Negroes…” (247)

“You cheated me, you’ve driven me out of my home and now I’m in no-man’s-land but good—there’s no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I’ll never be entirely at home anywhere else.” (248)

Atticus’ rationale, even if presented in the most decent way possible, of course comes off as unconvincing. But Lee humanizes and in a way helps explain why so many otherwise good people seemed to sit idly by while glaring societal problems festered in the South of her youth. In simplest terms, they had to live in their communities, and even the most enlightened were reluctant to become a martyr for a cause they were sure to lose. Jean Louise in the end makes a reluctant peace with her father, coming to appreciate him as a good but flawed man, realizing she never should have seen him as anything but that. Things don’t all end on some artificial upbeat measure, though, as the racist views which held sway in her hometown appear as entrenched as ever at the novel’s end.

The book is so clearly a statement on the era in which the story contained in To Kill a Mockingbird transcended that it seems a shame in hindsight that it was not released in the era in which it was set. The book is a social history of the South at a particular time, providing with rare candor the inner turmoil produced in people who were aware that their society had problems but were all too often unwilling or unable to initiate change until it was forced upon them. Had it been released decades previously, it may have had as much resonance as To Kill a Mockingbird. It never will today, but as a historian of the South, I am glad we finally have it.


Demonstrating Relevance

10 May

This website contains numerous blogs discussing our opinions on the current state of the field of history. Relevance is one topic that keeps coming to the forefront. As the importance of history moves further and further from people’s minds and the need for history education is pushed to the side, it becomes more and more vital for history professionals to stress the relevance of history. Failure to make the study of history pertinent and significant to people today will lead to devastating losses to historical sites and treasures not counting the continued failure of our citizens to understand basic ideas of citizenship and society.


This need seems to be gaining steam within the profession as I see more and more articles being written about it. A recent American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) History News magazine contained a well-written technical leaflet authored by Mark Sundlov entitled Demonstrating Relevance in the Winter 2016 issue(Volume 71, #1). Sundlov discusses the need for relevance and the basics of communication and expectation of relevance by the listener. Communication must be clear and the listener must know the message historians give is relevant or will quickly become distracted and the message will be lost. The article goes on to discuss different audiences such as educators, neighbors, donors, and community leaders and how the message must be specifically tailored to each one of them. My compliments to Sundlov for placing this information in a technical leaflet, giving the topic its just due like AASLH’s other museum educational leaflets. Please take the time to check out the article yourself.

If you are not a member of AASLH, I fully encourage you to join this worthwhile organization which strives to further the field of history by providing excellent resources to its professionals.


Review of Alabama Memories, by Chip Cooper

3 May

Like so many historians, I have an embarrassing backlog of books I have collected over the years that I have been meaning to read. Every once in a while, I manage to dust one off that has been sitting on my shelf for way too long and finally read it. Such was the case with Chip Cooper’s noted photograph book, Alabama Memories. Originally published in 1989, the book features stunning images of otherwise mundane scenes across the state that Cooper invites readers to contemplate as evocative of a changing way of life. Nearly three decades later, they are just as powerful as ever, perhaps more so.


A short introductory essay explains the purpose of the images and Cooper’s methodology. Following are dozens of interesting photographs of a range of subjects that communicate a sense of an Alabama that is often overlooked in the frantic pace of modern society. Sure, the collection as a whole is certainly not definitive in capturing the essence of life in the state, but there is a reason the book can still be found in used bookstores and coffee tables across from Tuscumbia to Point Clear. Taken together they demonstrate the author’s keen artistic and historic sensibilities, as well as his fondness for the natural environment which has played such a large role in the state’s development; unique patterns, colors, and reflections, old Royal Crown Cola advertisements painted on the side of downtown stores, architectural details of historic homes, the ramshackle ruins of old cotton warehouses in the later afternoon sun, a snowy field, fall color in a hardwood forest, morning fog on a meandering river.

Cooper has long been noted for unabashed reverence for the vestiges of the culture we have lost in modern times. He has acquired a reputation for drawing attention to how interstate highways zip us around the small towns that once stood at the center of life in Alabama and the South in general, observing how the monotonous sprawl of shops and subdivisions has obliterated our appreciation of handmade craftsmanship in our built environment, lamenting how humble gathering spots like crossroads stores are everywhere falling into ruin if not already having been outright dismantled, and encouraging us to look at the wildly beautiful natural scenery in which we find ourselves but rarely seem to notice. He finds beauty and eloquence in the smallest of details. If you appreciate those sensibilities, you will certainly enjoy this collection of images.