Month: June 2014

On Writing History

Clio by Mignard

One Thing after Another could not avoid ruminating upon the thoughts inspired by the following quote. These thoughts are especially relevant as we approach the 4th of July, a time of year, by the way, when many professors in our department are writing and therefore making history.

“None but those who have tried it can tell what is the trouble of writing an history….Tis like taking a piece of wilderness to convert into a field.  Many a hard knock and heavy loss be requisite in the one and many head-aching and brain-perplexing hours must be spent in the other.” Jeremy Belknap, 1785

Jeremy Belknap wrote American history and biography in the period after the American Revolution.  As other Americans looked forward, drafting and ratifying the Constitution that would bind the states into a nation, Belknap looked backward.  He recognized that nations need histories, and histories require sources.  As a minister in New Hampshire, Belknap began collecting documents related to the exploration, settlement, and growth of the American colonies.  He would eventually move back to his hometown of Boston where he organized prominent men around the idea that history could only be written if the primary sources, the documents, the “factual and accurate materials” were found, preserved, and shared.  That idea would become the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Belknap wrote history in an age that did not always have high expectations of historians.  The renowned biographer Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote in 1751 that, “It is natural to believe…that no writer has a more easy task than the historian.”  Johnson felt that philosophers had to deal with works of omniscience beyond their intellects, while poets had to trust to imagination and creativity.  Both were thus likely to experience hardship and errors.  However “the happy historian has no other labour than of gathering what tradition pours down before him . . . his materials are provided and put into his hands, and he is at leisure to employ all his powers in arranging and displaying them.”

Belknap’s sharp-edged answer to Johnson’s flight of fancy emphasized that history is as much method as materials.  He saw the historian’s work as locating materials, selecting those most likely to be truthful or accurate, and then arranging potentially competing facts so they made a compelling and period-appropriate explanation for people’s actions and events.  This is the historical method.  As Belknap wrote, “If [Johnson] had to write the History of a country, and to search for his materials wheresoever they were likely or not likely to be found…in the garrets and rat-holes of old houses, when not one in a hundred that he was obliged to handle and decipher would repay him for the trouble; that ‘tradition,’ whatever it might ‘pour down,’ is always to be suspected and examined, and that the means of examination are not always to be obtained, – in short, if he had to go through all the drudgery which you and I are pretty tolerably acquainted with . . . he would be fully sensible that to write an History as it should be is not so easy a work.”

Now that it is summer, many of us in the department have turned our attention from a focus on teaching to a focus on research (though some of us do teach in the summer as well).  We pull out the letters, court transcripts, shipping records, or government documents that form the “materials” of our work. We bemoan what was not saved or cannot be found, and we check out archives, libraries, on-line sites, and the occasional garret for the thrill of what we might find.   We “suspect and examine” tradition as written by other historians in journal articles and books. We agree, disagree, debate, and defend.  Perhaps most important, we ask questions– not simply about what happened, but about why.  We ask how the context of the time, the definition of what was possible or permissible, affected events and people’s choices.  We ask what was not saved, who was not heard, what people could not say.

There are moments, many of them, that are “drudgery,” and we are all very clear that history is “not so easy a work.”  This is why we sympathize with students in our classes as they write research papers!  Yet we also thrill that we get paid to ask questions about the past and to shape the answers.  We make the past not a collection of facts, but a web of explanations.   Jeremy Belknap called writing history a “public good,” something that had to be done to ensure that new and future Americans understood and valued their past.  But for historians, it is also a private pleasure, one of the best parts of summer. 

All quotations are from Louis Leonard Tucker, Clio’s Consort:  Jeremy Belknap and the Founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston: Published by the Society; Distributed by Northeastern University Press, 1990): 46-47.  This is one source of received wisdom Professor Salerno is reading this summer. 

Ewald Gathers Intelligence on the London School of Economics

Ewald 2

A History major from Smithtown, NY, Jessica Ewald ’12 played varsity soccer for Saint Anselm College and apparently caught the intelligence analysis bug while she was here (or is that a secret?). Jessica just completed an MA in International History at the London School of Economics. The History Department has stayed in touch with Jessica, and not long ago, One Thing after Another asked her about her experiences.

Q: You’re from NY. What was it like to come to college in New England? What brought you to St. A’s?

A: When I was applying to colleges, I knew that I wanted a small, liberal arts school in New England with high academic standards, so Saint A’s suited me perfectly.  I’ve always liked the region – the scenery, the history, and the people. Saint A’s couldn’t have been a better fit for me.

Q: Tell me something memorable about one of your classes at St. A’s (doesn’t have to be history!).

A: The most memorable history class that I took was Professor Pajakowski’s reading seminar on Nazi Germany.  World War II is my favorite time period, and being able to study this particular aspect of the period was incredibly fascinating.  I’ve been able to apply much of what I learned in this class to my studies during my semester abroad, as well as during my time here at the London School of Economics.

Q: You played soccer, right? How did you balance athletics and academics? What advice would you give to other student athletes?

A: I found it quite easy to balance my time between soccer and schoolwork because it was something that I had been doing for as long as I can remember.  I was particularly close with a well-known soccer trainer on Long Island who constantly reminded his players that, in playing soccer in college, we would be “student-athletes,” not “athletic students.”  School always came first, and while I have always placed a premium on academics, those exact words were never far from my mind.  I think that playing varsity soccer actually made me a better student in that I had to make sure to meet deadlines with time to spare as we did travel a fair amount, sometimes even taking weekend trips.  Likewise, knowing that I was caught up on assignments made it easier to give my undivided attention to soccer when I was out on the field, so it was a win-win.

Also, I was invited to join the Honors Program but was unsure if I could handle both the soccer schedule and the demands of the Honors work.  I spoke with Dean Cronin during the summer advising session, and he encouraged me to play soccer and be part of the Honors program because college was about my entire experience, in and out of the classroom.  He was right–I graduated Magna Cum Laude.

The best advice I have to offer other student athletes is to keep the  foregoing thought in mind: you are “student-athletes.”  School must always come first.  In doing so, you’ll find that you will become a better student and a better athlete.

Q: What drew you to history? Did you start out as a history major? If not, when did you declare and why? Tell me something memorable that you read in a history class.

A: I loved math in high school.  In fact, I remember going back to visit my former Calculus teacher who I studied with for three years, and he was shocked that I didn’t choose to major in the subject!  The history department at my high school presented the material in an intellectually stimulating fashion which sparked my interest.

There was never a doubt in my mind that I would stay with history as my specialty.  It is a huge field and offers more opportunities than most other areas of study.  I have found that, as a history student, I have developed skills that I may not have acquired in pursuing another subject.  Critical thinking, as well as analytical and research skills, allow history students to explore a great variety of topics, allowing them to pursue endless opportunities and intellectual endeavors.

For me, the most memorable book I read was assigned here at the LSE, Tapping Hitler’s Generals: Transcripts of Secret Conversations, 1942-45, written by Sönke Neitzel.  I read this work for my Secret Intelligence class, taught by Professor Neitzel himself.  As I’ve mentioned, World War II is my favorite time period to study, and having taken Professor Pajakowski’s seminar and studying Nazi Germany more closely, Professor Neitzel’s book was of particular interest.  It discusses the British monitoring of conversations among German prisoners of war at Trent Park, and just how much knowledge about the Holocaust British intelligence was able to acquire.  It was interesting to learn what MI6 was able to learn, and then to discuss in class whether or not they should have acted on this knowledge.

Q: Briefly tell me something about your semester abroad.

A: I studied in Salzburg, Austria in the spring of 2011.  I wanted to study in Central Europe because of my deep interest in modern European history, particularly the World War II and Cold War periods.

My time in Salzburg changed my life.  I was able to travel to nine different countries and see things that I had only previously read about in textbooks.  What struck me most during my four-month stay was the overall value placed on history in Europe.  History was ever-present in every city I went to, in one way or another.  Cities like Rome and Athens preserve the ancient ruins, while cities such as Paris and Barcelona revere the arts and architecture of some of the greatest creative minds.  War memorials are widespread in London, Vienna, Prague, and southern Germany.  Concentration camps are frequented by thousands each and every day.  Granted, the United States is young compared to these European countries, but the way in which Europe keeps history alive is truly astounding.  Had I not studied abroad as a junior, I’m not sure that I would have found myself at the LSE.

Q: Tell me about the program at LSE. What are you learning? Can you briefly tell me about your classes at St. A’s prepared you for graduate school? How is grad school different? Any ideas about what you’ll do when you are done?

A: I am currently completing my Masters in International History at the London School of Economics.  I am taking courses in Crisis Decision-Making in War and Peace (1914-2003), Secret Intelligence in the Twentieth Century, and Presidents, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy from Roosevelt to Reagan (1933-1989).  The international history department here is geared heavily towards the Cold War period – some of the professors at the LSE are the most renowned historians in the field.  It is a great privilege to be able to study with these individuals and read their publications.

Saint A’s prepared me well for graduate school.  As the years went by, I fine-tuned my research and writing skills, as well as my critical and analytical thinking.  I also developed more confidence in my thoughts and seminar contributions, which has been tremendously beneficial in my classes at the LSE.

Yet, on the other hand, graduate school is quite different from undergrad–especially in the United Kingdom.  Essentially, it is an independent study system.  The syllabus for each class lists a number of books, and we are expected to come to class prepared for discussion.  When I am not in the classroom, I am in the library.  It is also different in that each term we are assigned a non-assessed essay in each class, and only have one exam per class, which takes place in the summer term.  100% of my grade will come from that exam.  I also have to write a dissertation, which is comparable in length to an undergraduate senior thesis.

Q: How do you like living in London? What do you like most?

A: I love living abroad, and can’t think of a better city to study in than London.  I find that it is very similar to New York City in a number of ways–busy streets, crowded sidewalks, and the “on-the-go” lifestyle.

What I do find to be unique about this city is the respect for and awareness of history and culture.  Many of the museums here are free, and those that are not offer student discounts – a feature not commonly found in the States.  I also love that war memorials can be found throughout the city, and there is a small church not far from the LSE that was bombed during the Second World War and still has the markings.  “Remembrance Sunday” is a huge deal here, and some people wear poppies year-round to honor those who served Great Britain in the First and Second World Wars.  Perhaps people are more aware of history since Britain was directly impacted; I admire their respect and reverence.

I also love the international feel of Central London.  I don’t hear as much English during the day as most people think I do – there are over 140 different countries represented at the LSE.  Even when I am not on campus, I hear so many different languages on my fifteen-minute walk to school every day and that always amazes me!

How Great Was Alexander the Great?

Alexander Mosaic

As we bid farewell to the old humanities program and prepare to teach the new one at Saint Anselm College, it seems to make sense that we contemplate some of the questions raised in this recently re-issued book review by Mary Beard (Professor of Classics at Cambridge University) that was originally published in the New York Review of Books almost three years ago:

Beard points out that the historiography regarding Alexander the Great has not changed much over the years. In fact, we ask many of the same questions about Alexander that the Romans did. Such a tendency should come as no surprise, she argues, because our Alexander is largely a product of Roman historians. New material and information have emerged over the years, including the “Alexander Sarcophagus” and material excavated near Vergina. For the most part, though, we still rely on Roman descriptions of Alexander. The Romans themselves relied on earlier documents no longer extant. However, these earlier documents were refracted by Roman experience.  As Beard puts it, the Romans “depended on the writings of Alexander’s contemporaries. . . . But they are bound to have seen this story through a Roman filter, to have interpreted and adjusted what they read in the light of the versions of conquest and imperial expansion that were characteristic of their own political age.” Since our Alexander is the product of Roman sources, we see him in much the same way as they did. The Romans were ambivalent about Alexander. So are we. Like the Romans, we wonder whether or not Alexander was admirable or deplorable.

Beard implies that scholarship about Alexander remains in a kind of Roman prison and that it would be best if the field broke free. Fair enough. But it strikes One Thing after Another that academics who study Alexander do much the same good work that our students did in the second year of the old humanities program—admittedly on a more sophisticated level. Since the program was entitled “Portraits of Human Greatness,” much as we often tried, it was impossible to avoid discussing whether such-and-such figure was “great.” One of the first pieces of advice the blog master of One Thing after Another received upon arriving at Saint Anselm College was, “Don’t ever assign a humanities paper asking whether so-and-so was a portrait of human greatness.” This was sound advice, because students invariably felt compelled to respond in the affirmative to this question (and to lay it on a bit thick). It was not difficult to see why: figures would not have been included in a program entitled “Portraits of Human Greatness” unless they were great, right?

Invariably, though, the question of greatness involved a multitude of problems. The most important of these consisted of determining a standard by which to measure greatness. This difficulty did not merely divide the students; it split the humanities faculty as well. By “human greatness,” did one mean a saintly person, an influential person, or a high-achieving person? Disagreement over this issue was reflected by the diverse types of figures who ended up in the program. At one time or another, Maximilian Robespierre, Dorothy Day, and Pablo Picasso became portraits of human greatness. Frequently, members of the humanities faculty would muse provocatively that if influential people qualified as portraits of human greatness, then it was not entirely clear why we had never developed a Napoleon, Hitler, or Stalin unit (aside from the fact that it would bring the college a hurricane of bad publicity). Surely these people, particularly the latter two, were monstrous, but they had changed the world.

These thoughts bring us back to Alexander. In 335 BC, during one of his earliest campaigns after his father’s death, he defeated the Thebans, killed almost all of their men, looted their property, burned the city down, and sold the remaining women and children (around 30,000 people) into slavery. The story was similar in Tyre: after a lengthy siege in 332 BC, Alexander slaughtered 6,000 soldiers within the city walls, crucified 2,000 men on the beach, and sold another 30,000 people into slavery. Ditto in Gaza that same year. In 330 BC, after conquering Persepolis, the Persian capital and perhaps the most magnificent city in the Near East, Alexander had it looted and may have been responsible for the fire that utterly destroyed it. Alexander was also responsible for mass killings in the Punjab as he attempted to conquer that region after 327 BC.

As Beard points out, it will not do to say that people at the time judged Alexander by a different, laxer standard. Even contemporaries expressed dismay at Alexander’s antics. Consider the response of the pirate who was asked by Alexander what drove him to terrorize the seas: “The same thing as drives you to terrorize the whole world.” The Romans were hardly a squeamish people, but they too appeared uncomfortable with Alexander’s behavior. It is instructive that Dante Alighieri, who lived in rough-and-tumble times himself, had Alexander occupy the Seventh Circle of hell in the Inferno, “screaming in pain, up to his eyebrows in a river of boiling blood, spending eternity alongside such monsters as Attila the Hun and Dionysius the tyrant of Sicily.” Alexander’s conquest of the known world was an unparalleled feat, and such feats require violence in the same way that an omelet requires the breaking of eggs. But in this case (as with, say, Napoleon), does the violence of the achievement destroy the value of the achievement itself? Especially if that achievement was temporary (Alexander’s empire barely survived his death) and inadvertent (the spread of Hellenistic culture was a byproduct of that empire)?

Van Uden Walks Us through Manchester’s Past

Kristen van Uden and Benedict

Those of you who read the Union Leader might have seen the following article:

Kristen Van Uden ’16 is a History major and Russian Area Studies minor from Manchester, NH. Recently, while working with the Manchester Historic Association (MHA), Van Uden produced a booklet entitled “Manchester Remembers” that maps out a walking tour of 20 sites in the city that are associated with public commemoration. The MHA will be selling the booklet at the Millyard Museum. One Thing after Another had some questions for Kristen who is spending the summer working at the Office of Admission.

Q: One Thing after Another understands that this booklet originated in your public history course at Saint Anselm College, but where did you get the idea for this particular project?

A: Having grown up in Manchester, I had always walked by these historic sites without much background information concerning their significance.  I had always wanted to learn more but was unsure of where to start.  I imagine that many Manchester natives are faced with the same problem.  My project is designed to provide a quick and interesting introduction to these sites, with the ultimate hope of prompting further research.  With so many demands on our time, I knew that not many people would put forth a great deal of effort toward educating themselves about seemingly obscure sites throughout the city.  Therefore, I developed something that can be read in less than an hour that will hopefully give people finding themselves in Manchester a better understanding of their surroundings.

Q: How did you go about finding these historic sites?

A: I started with sites I knew of already, such as the John Stark House and Pulaski Monument.  The Manchester Historic Association then suggested that I focus on monuments.  This is when I really developed my criteria for including sites in the booklet.  I chose to focus on remembrance and commemoration.  The booklet is not designed to give a comprehensive history of Manchester, but rather to highlight those sites or events that citizens have made efforts to preserve and honor. I then researched sites that would fit the theme of commemoration.  The Manchester Historic Association allowed me to use a comprehensive survey of Manchester’s monuments as a starting point.  Much of the important logistical information can be found on the monuments themselves.

Q: Did you have to leave anything off? What was it? Why did you leave it out?

A: I left out many historic buildings that are privately owned or still functioning, such as the Palace Theatre or historic homes.  These structures are certainly interesting and possess historic and cultural importance, but they did not fit the overall theme of public commemoration.  I also did not include historic churches for the same reasons.  However, this would be a great subject for another tour/booklet.

Q: Surely you must have encountered some interesting stories as you did research on all of these sites. Which site had the most interesting story?

A: The Merci Train Boxcar was the most unique item I featured.  I had never known about the story of this distinctive gift from France to the U.S. until I explored it for the project.  I also really liked learning about the monument dedication ceremonies of the first half of the twentieth century. The dedication of Victory Park’s WWI Memorial on Memorial Day in 1929 was quite a celebration, including an entire day of parades and festivities. There was even a flyover by a small plane dropping bouquets of roses.  That fascinating post-WWI culture is not preserved so much in the monument itself, but the patriotic spirit it resembles is present in the monument’s timeless message.

Q: One Thing after Another hates to sound like your parents, but what are your plans after graduation? Do you plan to go into public history at all?

A: I’ve always loved public history as I have experienced it, mostly through living history sites such as Colonial Williamsburg.  It was great to be able to study the many aspects of public history, especially material culture and its connection to archaeology.  I’m not quite sure what my plans are after graduation.  I know I would enjoy a job in public history.  I am definitely planning on attending grad school in Russian Studies if I can afford it!

From Heroic Disaster to Simple Heroism–the Uses of the Franklin Expedition

Franklin Expedition End

On the morning of May 19, 1845, two British vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, left Greenhithe, England. Commanded by Sir John Franklin, their mission consisted of finding the Northwest Passage. The expedition was last seen by Europeans in July 1845 when crews on two British whalers encountered HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in Baffin Bay, near the southwest coast of Greenland. After that point, the expedition disappeared. By 1848, the Admiralty, which had heard nothing from the expedition for several years, began organizing search parties to find Franklin’s men and ships. The mystery of the expedition’s fate seized the British imagination. As years went by, various search parties, explorers, and scientists found clues that hinted at the expedition’s end. In 1854 John Rae, who was surveying the Boothia Peninsula for the Hudson’s Bay Company, encountered some Inuit people who told him about a group of white men who had starved to death near the mouth of the Back River. The Inuit showed him several objects that had clearly belonged to the expedition. In 1859, the Fox expedition, commissioned by Franklin’s wife and led by Francis Leopold McClintock, discovered a cairn on King William Island that contained two messages written on a single sheet of paper. The first, dated May 1847, indicated that HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had wintered in the ice off King William Island and that all was well. The second, dated April 1848, explained that the crews had abandoned their ice-bound ships only several days before and were headed to the Back River. By that point, nine officers and fifteen men had died, including Franklin. McClintock’s men found several skeletons, graves, and artifacts on the island. Succeeding expeditions found more of the same. Since then, historians, archaeologists, and scientists have pieced together the crew’s fate. When they abandoned their vessels, the men were already suffering from lead poisoning, possibly a result of their water distillation system and the badly soldered cans from which they obtained their food. Of the roughly 100 men who left the ships, many died crossing King William Island. Among skeletons that have been discovered, there is evidence that the men resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. About 30 or 40 reached the northern end of the Adelaide Peninsula on the Canadian mainland, but all eventually died there from the combined effects of starvation, scurvy, and exposure.

The demise of the Franklin expedition is a dramatic, interesting, and morbid story. The blog master of One Thing after Another was fascinated when he saw an exhibit about the expedition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England which included artifacts recovered from the tragedy. As we have seen in class and on this blog repeatedly, however, historical events are not merely interesting; they are also useful. For good for ill, they serve the purposes of scientists, economists, journalists, and, of course, politicians.

As the following article in Slate makes clear, the Franklin expedition now serves the purposes of Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister:

How could the story of the Franklin expedition possibly be useful to anybody? This article argues that Harper is using the search for expedition artifacts to assert Canada’s sovereignty over the Northwest Passage (which, as the earth warms, is increasingly becoming a viable trade route) and as well as over Canada’s northern possessions (where there are substantial mineral deposits). While asserting that sovereignty (and partially for its sake), he is also using the Franklin expedition as a founding myth to unite all Canadians behind principles that he sees as important. To quote the essay, “Harper envisions the far North not as a wintry and sparsely populated wasteland, but as the romantic birthplace of the nation” where “the Conservative values of patriotism, heroism, toughness, and adaptation to the land and sea all come together.” Franklin, so the argument goes “fits in with that narrative perfectly.” While the Franklin expedition has long been conceived of as a heroic disaster, Harper’s view requires reframing this episode as simply heroic.

Of course, we should not single out Harper for engaging in this kind of behavior. For better or for worse, politicians everywhere use historical events in the same way to stake claims about territory or national qualities. When Slobodan Milosevic, then Serbia’s newly elected president, spoke at the Field of Blackbirds  in 1989 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, he made claims about the special virtues of the Serbian people–as well as claims to Kosovo. In 2004, when Jacques Chirac, then the French president, visited Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and commemorated its heroism in sheltering Jews during the German occupation, he too made claims about that heroism and the national character. “Here, in adversity,” he asserted, “the soul of the [French] nation manifested itself. Here was the embodiment of our country’s conscience.” And so it goes. The public’s memory of the past is unceasingly refracted by these kinds of political projects.