Does history matter? Part I

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Grab a cup and join me!

That’s the question for today:  what are we historians doing, and does it matter?  I wonder if it’s possible that 20 years after earning my Ph.D. that I might have chosen the wrong academic discipline.  Most historians are way too methodologically conservative for me.  Why has it taken me half a career to figure this out?  Is it history, or is it me?

I always preferred history to literature.  I always took at least one English literature course per semester in college, and toyed for a time with majoring in English, but I never got the hang of writing a literature paper.  You historians can probably guess the kinds of papers I wrote for my English classes, papers that explored the historical context of whichever text or author I was supposed to be writing about instead of the text itself!  I worked with loads of lit students in graduate courses in cultural theory, which were a big deal in the early 1990s at Penn.  I appreciated its insights for history, but was a bit dazed at the thought of applying the ideas just to one or two “texts,” instead of loads of “primary sources.” Continue reading

Quick, someone at a liberal arts college do something the Wall Street Journal can b!tch about endlessly

Do I look like a dangerous leftist to you?

. . . because they can’t complain endlessly about the “illiberal arts” majors at Middlebury College, can they? Or can they?  The amount of ink they have spilled over the shut-down of white nationalist Charles Murray‘s talk there is pretty impressive, considering the shambling embarrassment of a presidential administration and the inability of the governing party to agree on much of anything.  I guess there’s always the antics of a few pissed off students at an elite, private liberal arts college in Vermont, population 2,500 students, to induce panic in the ruling classes.

It’s kind of cute that they seem so fearful of us!  If only we faculty were the diabolically powerful leftist Svengalis that they imagine we are.  Most of us are just desperate to wean our students from fragment sentences, the bizarre use of the word “off” these days (“Based off of. . . ”  What???  What is a “base?”  Is a “base” something you put stuff ON, or OFF OF? Yegads, people.), and to inculcate an appreciation of the subjunctive tense as well as to pass on a little discipline-specific knowledge.  (Just a little!) Continue reading

Marcia! Marcia! Marcia! A member of a Monstrous Regiment of Women pipes up a tune & smokes it.

Portrait of Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), by John Singleton Copley, 1763.  In her correspondence with Abigail Smith Adams and John Adams, Warren called herself “Marcia,” and Adams signed herself “Portia.”

Do women historians exist?  If we exist, do men historians know it?  Going by the antics of the editors of the Journal of the American Revolution, the answer to both questions is an entirely nonsensical no! Which you must admit is pretty hilarious, especially considering that the very first historian of the American Revolution (yes, that one!) was, in fact, a lady!  It’s true!  Mercy Otis Warren’s Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (3 vols., 1805) is widely recognized as the first, and for probably more than a century the only authoritative history of the American Revolution.

For a historical subfield invented by a woman, you’d think there would be a little more remembering of the ladies happening in this list of the “100 Best American Revolution Books of All Time.”  You’d think that, but you’d be so very wrong.  Tragically wrong, in fact.  Of the 114 separate books they list, there are only 11 by women, and one co-authored by a woman.  And of those 11 single-authored books by women, fully three are by the great Pauline Maier, so the list includes only ten women historians in all.  TEN women, and eleven and a half books.  Take that, Marcia!   Continue reading

No Free Lunch? Or, how much work do we have to do to be collegial & promote our work?

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I *love* getting letters!

Friends, this semester is busybusybusy for me–I’m doing a lot of talks for the book, in addition to the usual teaching and service.  I’ve just given up entirely on that little thing called “scholarship” until the spring semester is over.  (How many more weeks to go is that?  Oh, lord.)

Fortunately, a troubled soul wrote a letter asking for our advice.  That’s worth at least 20 minutes of work avoidance, don’t you think?  Give a broad a break–I’ve got a few ideas, but let her know what you think, especially if you’re a fellow scientist and have a better grasp of the traditions and etiquette of academic culture in the sciences.  Read on, friends–the highlights in the letter below are my own: Continue reading

The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright TONIGHT in South Berwick, Maine!

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

Friends, if you’re in New England anywhere near the Piscataqua River, come out and see me talk about my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright*at the Berwick Academy as a guest of the Old Berwick Historical Society’s Forgotten Frontier lecture series this winter and spring.  Last night, I was a guest of Bowdoin College where I also gave a talk about my book–the audience there will be hard to beat.  They were so attentive and asked so many questions that they kept me more than an hour AFTER my 40-minute talk with their questions and responses.  Whew!  And thank you! Continue reading

From the mailbag: it’s an old-fashioned, Historiann round-up!

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A belated Valentine to all my readers!

Oh, my friends:  so much is happening globally, nationally, regionally, locally, and even here at the Black Cat Ranch that it’s hard to find time to blog even just one little bit these days.  My apologies!  Over the weekend I saved up some bits and bobs of oakum, old yarn, and loose string that might distract you from that sense of impending doom that weighs on so many of us these days.  Who knows?  It might help, and it surely can’t hurt, right?  So, andiamo, mi amici–

  • First, a request from a reader, Catherine Devine, who writes:  “I’m designing a ‘NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED’ banner, and I want to have the names of women across time, occupation and location in the background. Esther Wheelwright’s definitely there 🙂 I have the beginning of a  list, but I’m white and not a historian. Your readers are sane and and well informed. I’m looking to politics, art, science, literature – anywhere. There will be plenty of room on the banner.  If you’re willing, please have people send me names & references to catherinedevine at mac dot com with ‘Persisted’ in the subject line. I’m hoping to create one of the only footnoted banners ever. Oh yeah, I’m not doing this for profit. I will share the file for printing.”  Readers, can you help?  You can also leave suggestions in the comments below–I’ll be sure to let Devine know when this post goes live so she can check in there, too.

Continue reading