Where’d ya go, Chip Hilton? Our historical imagination turns its lonely eyes to you.

chiphiltonMy sabbatical is mellowing me out and I’m definitely enjoying the relaxed, non-wired vibe at the Huntington.  The Huntington is wired, but what I mean by un-wired is that people here appear to be living their professional and personal lives in meatspace, face-to-face, rather than online.  They’re reading historical manuscripts and valuable rare books, they’re having coffee with each other, they’re meeting for lunch in the garden cafe.  In other words, not everyone in the world is on Twitter or blogs or Instagram all of the time!  It’s like it’s the War of 1812 or something:  before telegraphy even.

So, inevitably, I’m going to miss a lot of what’s happening now.  (I do believe my knowledge of both British and North American history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will be nonpareil in Colorado upon my return, however.)  Clearly, I missed a fascinating little interview with James McPherson of Princeton University in the New York Timeswhich is purely coincidental to the publication of his new biography of Jefferson Davis, I am sure.  McPherson is probably the most famous American military historian, and among the most famous historians of the Civil War era.

Some friends of mine alerted me to this interview, because something about it just didn’t seem right.  Let me quote an extensive passage from it now:

What books are currently on your night stand?

Ron Chernow, “Washington: A Life,” and Daniel James Brown, “The Boys in the Boat.” In very different ways, these books chronicle unlikely triumphs over seemingly insuperable odds to found a nation from 1775 to 1797 and to win an Olympic gold medal in 1936.

What was the last truly great book you read?

James Oakes, “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865.” A powerful analytical narrative of the confluence of politics and war that ended America’s shame and trauma.

Who are the best historians writing today?

Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, Gordon Wood, Eric Foner, David McCullough, David Hackett Fischer. In elegant prose, based on impeccable research, they have covered the broad sweep of American history from the early colonial settlements through Harry Truman’s administration.

What’s the best book ever written about the Civil War?

The best book is actually an eight-volume series published from 1947 to 1971, by Allan Nevins: “Ordeal of the Union,” “The Emergence of Lincoln” and “The War for the Union.” It is all there — the political, economic, social, diplomatic and military history of the causes, course and consequences of the war, written in the magisterial style for which Nevins was famous.

Do you have a favorite biography of a Civil War-era figure?

Jean Edward Smith, “Grant.” A lucid and empathetic account of the victorious general and underrated president that helped usher in the current revival of Grant’s reputation.

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We U.S. Americans are now beyond parody: guns, race, gender, and parenthood, ca. 2014

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Shame!!!!!!

Jesus Mary and Joseph.

As I’m sure all of you know already, a nine-year old killed the man who was instructing her in the use of an Uzi submachine gun this week at a shooting gallery in Arizona.  The  juxtaposition of this story with a story from earlier this summer, in which a mother spent more than two weeks in jail for letting her 9-year old girl play in a park by herself while she did her shift at McDonald’s, says it all:  “In America Today, a 9-Year Old Girl Can’t Play Alone in a Park But She Can Play With an Uzi.”

Andy Borowitz satirized the current conversation about parenting and guns yesterday in “Nation Debates Extremely Complex Issue of Children Firing Military Weapons,” but then I open the L.A. Times this morning to find exactly this kind of “experts say. . . “/”others argue that. . . ” debate as to the best way to teach children to use guns in the pages of one of America’s great newspapers.  As though the use of semiautomatic weapons by children is a debatable issue!  Where were the voices of public heath experts, family practice doctors, and pediatricians?  Where were the voices of parents in Chicago, whose neighborhoods are routinely interrupted by gun violence and who fear for the safety of their children just walking to and from school? Continue reading

Valley of the creepy dolls!

For realz!  Anonymous gifts to little girls of  “creepy dolls” that look like the gift recipients.

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Yes, my mother bought me this book.

Personally, I think the creepy part is the fact that people in San Clemente, California live in a gated community.  (Isn’t all of Orange County effectively a gated community?)  I can’t even imagine living in a neighborhood with an HOA (Homeowner’s Association, which tells you what color you can paint your house, and what color your window treatments must be, and so on), let alone a gated community. Continue reading

Like Bowe Bergdahl, many 18th century captives didn’t go home again

librarywithcaptivesPer my comparison of recently freed Taliban captive Bowe Bergdahl to Anglo-American captives of the eighteenth century, the Wall Street Journal reports that so far, “Sgt. Bergdahl has refused to see his parents or speak to them on the phone, the official said. The decision by Sgt. Bergdahl, who returned to regular duty on Monday, suggests a deeper estrangement between the soldier and his parents than the military understood when he was released. Still, officials said, they don’t know the precise cause of the tension or when it began.”

Slate comments that “the news that Bergdahl has refused to speak to his parents is an unexpected plot twist in a story already full of hairpin turns.”  Actually, no.  The eighteenth-century evidence suggests that Anglo-Americans who were adolescents or young adults and who were adopted by new Native or French families frequently chose to remain with their new families rather than return home again.  (I wrote about these captives, especially the girls and women who didn’t return, in chapter four of Abraham in Arms.)

Many captives became very attached to their new families and caregivers.  In the case I cited last month in my analysis, Sylvanus Johnson–a child captive from age six to eleven–forgot how to speak English, forgot his own parents, and for the rest of his life allegedly “so much preferred the modes of Indian life to the prevalent customs of civilization, that he often expressed regret at having been ransomed.  He always maintained, and no arguments could convince him to the contrary, that the Indians were a far more moral race than the whites.” Continue reading