Month: September 2015

History Majors from the Passages Program Remember Gettysburg

Passages Program Gettysburg

This summer, three incoming history majors got the opportunity to travel to Gettysburg, PA with other incoming students and several upperclassmen as part of Student Activities’ Passages program.

One Thing After Another sat down with freshman participants Jacob Bass, Drew Collins, and Tim Siracusa, as well as senior Kristen Van Uden, who led the trip along with senior Liliana Kane, junior Mike Schmidt, and Dr. Karlea Joiner, Assistant Dean of Students.

The students’ busy itinerary began with a battlefield tour led by two enthusiastic park guides, highlighting the major points of the battle.  “My favorite part of the trip was definitely touring the battlefield. Standing on the ground where one of the most important events in American history took place [was] such a surreal feeling” said Tim. The battlefield is extensive, and so the tour could not be entirely comprehensive, but the group focused on Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge, and the site of Pickett’s charge. Seeing the grounds of these famous events provided the students with a more authentic understanding of the battle. “We were able to connect with the actual place in a way that cannot be achieved through any amount of reading or study” Kristen observed. “One of the most interesting parts was when we were driving through a field that was filled with about 50 vultures. Our guide explained that in the days after the battle, the entire area would have been flooded with vultures, just like we were seeing right in front of us. It makes sense, but you don’t often think about disturbing facts like that when contemplating the more military side of the battle.”

The group then returned to the retreat center where each night they cooked family-style meals as a group, went swimming, relaxed on the porch, and played games on the lawn.

That night, they went on a ghost tour of downtown Gettysburg. The guide lit the way through the narrow streets with a lantern, accentuating the eerie atmosphere. There was even a full moon. . . .  So did you see a ghost? The students apparently could not come to a consensus.

The next day the group traversed three states in one hour to see Harper’s Ferry, the site of abolitionist John Brown’s famous 1859 raid. The buildings Brown seized have since burned down, but the students saw the arsenal where he was captured by J.E.B. Stuart who was then only a first lieutenant. In addition to information about the raid, the living history site educates its visitors about 19th-century economics. It is also a little-known fact that there was actually a Civil War battle around the town in September 1862. There were several museums in Harper’s Ferry detailing the stories of the main players in the site’s colorful history. Jacob remarked that these personal stories, as well as the ones featured at the Gettysburg museum, helped him to really connect with the people involved and made him wonder about the stories of his ancestors who fought in the Civil War.

The students finished the day with a lazy tubing trip down the Shenandoah River.

On their last day in Pennsylvania, the group explored the downtown Gettysburg area, spending time shopping and trying to meet the challenge the battlefield guide had set out for them: to locate all nine artillery shells that were still lodged in buildings. They toured the David Wills house, where Lincoln stayed after he delivered the Gettysburg Address. They later visited the cemetery where the Address was given. Kristen describes the impact of visiting the cemetery: “The number of graves, especially of unknown soldiers, was almost incomprehensible. Then you learn that the Union army refused to bury Confederate soldiers in this cemetery, so multiply that number by at least two. It forces you to really come to terms with the scope of the battle.” Some of the students were able to see the grave of Jennie Wade, a young woman who was killed by a stray bullet while baking bread at a friend’s house in downtown Gettysburg. She was the only civilian killed in the battle.

Tim originally signed up for the trip to see new places and learn more about his favorite subject. “The main reason I was interested in the trip was that I am a history major. As much as I enjoy American history, my knowledge of the Civil War era is somewhat weak, so I thought it would be a good learning experience.” What started as a potentially fun adventure and an opportunity to travel and meet new people quickly became an unforgettable and cherished experience. Jacob says that the best part was “being able to meet new people, including one of my best friends.” These shared memories have translated into daily life on the Hilltop.

Having had an encounter with experiential learning has definitely kept these students’ love for history alive. Classes are going great so far, and they are excited for what the semester brings.

Historical Empathy

Ethan Schmidt

This week a history professor at Delta State University in Mississippi was shot and killed while he worked in his campus office. Ethan Schmidt specialized in Native American and colonial U.S. history.

On average, 44 people are murdered every day in the United States. Thus it may seem odd for One Thing After Another to draw attention to the death of one particular person we did not know and whose work we had only seen in passing. But this is not simply a moment to mourn a fellow historian. Our notice of his death—amid many other news reports of deaths of all kinds—raises an important civic and professional question.

How do we—as humans or as historians—decide with whom to empathize, to whom to give sympathy? Right now no one knows why Dr. Schmidt was murdered, likely by a colleague in his own department. (This event is too recent for anyone to have a clear idea of what exactly happened; this post is working with the news as currently known). Clearly One Thing After Another’s status as a blog written by history professors might encourage us to empathize with the violent death of “one of our own.” But that same human impulse to feel for those similar to us often gets us into trouble when we write our histories. It is not a coincidence that the histories produced by historians have long reflected the historians themselves.
For a long time history was written by privileged white males about primarily privileged white males. Now history books reflect the broad diversity of human experience and of professional historians themselves. Slaves are getting as much study as slaveowners, while studies of social movements rival those of prominent figures. But empathy for the people of the past whose beliefs fundamentally contradict our own is still hard. Some historians manage it. Katherine Blee wrote an outstanding book sympathetic with the white women who found in the Ku Klux Klan an important tool for controlling their own often abusive white husbands. Christopher Browning worked hard to understand the motivations of those “ordinary men” who were transformed from policemen, dockworkers and truck drivers into the agents of Hitler’s final solution.

Recently I attended a conference of historians and talked with a colleague who had finally finished a long-anticipated biography. I was shocked to hear her say, “By the end of my research I did not like Elizabeth Bonaparte much [wife of Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother], but I still find her fascinating.” How could one give up hours and days and years of time from family and friends and enjoyable things to study someone she did not actually like? Because, the scholar said, studying that person gave us insight into very important currents, ideas, and beliefs in the early decades of the American republic. The scholar never liked the Elizabeth Bonaparte or her choices, but this historian was impressed by Elizabeth Bonaparte’s determination to thrive in elegant society as the former wife of a famous Frenchman, rather than the divorcée with a small child and no means of support that she had—to her great regret—become. It is somewhat surprising that no one had chosen to write about the famous wife of Jérôme Bonaparte before this. But historians are far more likely to take on topics they feel connected to or historical errors they feel a need to right, than unpopular people or topics for whom they feel no empathy.

It would be all too easy to close these thoughts with a comment that One Thing After Another is grateful that relations within our history department are so cordial that the murder of a fellow colleague seems unthinkable! But does empathy require us to pause and think, not about the historian who was killed, but about the social scientist whom police think killed him? Should we wonder what might have driven a well-liked scholar to the point of murder? There is always fascination in studying murderers, partly to solve historical mysteries and perhaps because we are fascinated by those who break the most fundamental of human rules—thou shalt not kill. But we rarely study the murderer with sympathy or empathy. This may be because to empathize publicly with a murderer often results in such condemnation as to make historical study politically unfeasible. But if we want to know the past and all that has made our society and ourselves what we are, we cannot romanticize or ignore the parts or the people we wish were not there—or those we simply do not care about. Perhaps empathy, the ability to understand and feel with the people of the past, even those we would prefer not to understand, is a skill historians need to practice more broadly. Even so, we are unlikely to completely supplant our human nature to sympathize with those most similar to us. In this case, it is another history professor, whose third book will remain unwritten forever.

Putting Things in Their Places: Vox’s Much-Despised Victorians

Vox Victorian

For the last couple of days, the most hated person in Twitterdom has been Sarah Chrisman. Her crime? An article she wrote in Vox, entitled “I Love the Victorian era. So I decided to live it.”

http://www.vox.com/2015/9/9/9275611/victorian-era-life

Love of the Victorian era, particularly its ideas and aesthetics, has inspired Chrisman and her husband, Gabriel, to study it in their own idiosyncratic way. This “study” appears to consist of doing away with modern conveniences and living in a Victorian house, wearing Victorian clothes, using Victorian artifacts, and reading nothing but Victorian literature. Chrisman explains this way of life by referring to her husband’s opinion that there should not be a “strict segregation . . . between life and learning.” The Chrismans’ entire lives, then, revolve around this research project which they justify in a variety of ways. First, it teaches them things about Victorian life and values that they could not learn in any other way. Second, they see a virtue in living what they understand as a simpler life. Third, they are happy pursuing life in this manner. Unfortunately, from Chrisman’s perspective, she is surrounded by people who do not understand her project. Her neighbors in Port Townsend, WA, have apparently bullied her and Gabriel, sending them, among other things, death threats. Chrisman concludes her essay by writing that:

This is why more people don’t follow their dreams: They know the world is a cruel place for anyone who doesn’t fit into the dominant culture. Most people fear the bullies so much that they knuckle under simply to be left alone. In the process, they crush their own dreams.

One Thing after Another admits it is surprised somewhat by the internet’s reaction. The Concourse, hosted on Deadspin, issued a predictably profanity-laden judgment of the Chrismans:

http://theconcourse.deadspin.com/to-hell-with-voxs-victorian-living-idiots-1729873090?utm_campaign=socialflow_deadspin_facebook&utm_source=deadspin_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

Slate provided a more restrained assessment of the Chrismans’ experiment that is excellent and well informed:

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/history/2015/09/vox_victorians_sarah_a_chrisman_s_essay_on_living_like_a_victorian_is_preposterous.html

Salon was also very critical:

http://www.salon.com/2015/09/09/victorian_lifestyle_hipsters_unleash_masterpiece_theater_level_trolling_on_tech_tethered_readers/

And the Observer produced some samples of the Twitter reaction (hardly positive) to the Chrismans:

http://observer.com/2015/09/voxs-victorian-couple-is-twitters-latest-punching-bag/

What are we to make of these contemporary Victorians? One Thing after Another recalls the British reality show 1900 House (1999) in which a contemporary British family (the Bowlers) lived like Victorians for three months. Like all reality shows, of course, this one was something of a gimmick, and the Bowlers did not approach their Victorian life in the same spirit that the Chrismans did.

Perhaps a better analogy comes to us from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1941). In this absurd tale, it is Pierre Menard’s ambition not to transcribe Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but “to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” To accomplish this feat, Menard initially plans in 1918 to “learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918—be Miguel de Cervantes.” Borges’ short stories being what they are, Menard eventually discards this approach as too easy and decides to “continue to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.” One could argue that the Chrismans’ experiment falls somewhere between these two ridiculous extremes. On the one hand, they appear to believe that in some ways, they have gone back in time by living the way they have. On the other, they are still coming to the Victorian age through the experiences of 21st-century people. In short, they are no more Victorians than the “hard-core” Civil War reenactors who populate Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic.

Surely, one might ask, shouldn’t historians sympathize with the Chrismans’ exercise? One Thing after Another does believe that material culture has much to teach us. Using the objects of our ancestors gives us some insight into their methods of solving problems, the nature of their work, and maybe even some fleeting sense of their values. But it would be the worst kind of materialism to believe that using Victorian objects makes one Victorian. As Rebecca Onion in Slate puts it:

The “past” was not made up only of things. Like our own world, it was a web of social ties. These social ties extended into every corner of people’s lives, influencing the way people treated each other in intimate relationships; the way disease was passed and treated; the possibilities open to women, minorities, and the poor; the whirl of expectations, traditions, language, and community that made up everyday lives. Material objects like corsets or kerosene lamps were part of this complex web, but only a part.

To put it more succinctly, things cannot reproduce the world view of the Victorians.

Another major problem with the Chrisman’s experiment is their uncritical understanding of the Victorian period. A number of critics have lambasted the couple for their love of the Victorian age. The Chrismans, so the argument goes, seem to have ignored the era’s difficulties (e.g. social conflict, racism, etc.) and chosen the best of all possible Victorian worlds to live out—a kind of fairy-tale, Merchant Ivory, sanitized Disney version of Victorianism. One Thing after Another’s great-great-grandfather, who lived in the real Victorian age, was conscripted, fought in a terrible war, witnessed a revolution, worked in a coal mine, and died at the age of 39 from tuberculosis. Not surprisingly, the Chrismans have not chosen to live out that kind of Victorian life.

It is love of the Victorian age that has completely tainted the Chrismans’ research project. Sarah Chrisman’s essay implies that love came first and then the “research.” In other words, their love has led them to this antiseptic Victorian life and shut them off from darker, alternative visions of the Victorian age. The Chrismans claim to have avoided secondary literature written by modern academics because it is full of misinterpretations and exaggerations. For that reason, the Chrismans read only primary sources as it is “the only way to learn the truth.” The Chrismans are wrong. The real problem is that they themselves are biased, and they will not brook anything (including secondary sources produced by extremely experienced scholars) that might contradict their rosy vision of the Victorian period. Because they are not willing to approach the subject with an open mind, they are not conducting research—no matter how much they claim their artifacts are “primary source materials.” What their experiment boils down to is a fantasy that they live out for enjoyment’s sake (although it is hard to see why anybody in 2015 would want to wear “hand-knit wool swim trunks”). For sure, they should not be bullied for their eccentricity, but at the same time, we should not buy their specious claims that they are historians or time-travelers.

Munro Takes Stock of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Jeremy Munro Image

History major Jeremy Munro ’13 was recently appointed Collections Information Specialist at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. One Thing after Another asked Jeremy about his museum work and what his experiences were like at Saint Anselm College.

Q: One Thing after Another recalls that you were originally from Derry, NH. Why did you decide to go to Saint Anselm College when it was practically in your backyard?

A: I was a pretty shy person in high school and knew I wanted to stay in New England. When touring colleges, we started at UNH, and I didn’t even get out of the car because there were so many people around. Saint Anselm College seemed like the perfect fit in terms of receiving a quality education while also attending a smaller school. It worked out well. I don’t think I would have wound up in the profession I’m in if it weren’t for Saint Anselm College.

Q: Why did you choose to major in History?

A: I’ve had a lifelong fascination with history. As a kid I would play medieval fantasy games and read fantasy novels. When I was looking at colleges, I had originally planned on majoring in computer science, but I took programming classes in high school and found them way less interesting than my history classes. The irony is my job now is computer science with a large history and art component. When I started as a history major, I thought I’d major in European history, but I took a survey class that referred a fair bit to Africa and fell in love with African history.

Q: What is your job title at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and what are your responsibilities? Which of your tasks do you enjoy the most?

A: I am a Collections Information Specialist in the Collections Management department. Simply put, we manage the art collection. We are responsible for art acquisitions, managing art storage areas, tracking artwork locations, collection photography, copyright and reproductions of the collection for scholarly books and exhibition catalogues, outgoing and incoming loans of artworks, contracting conservators to condition report and treat artworks, couriering artworks to other institutions, and generally making sure the artworks are safe and stable. I manage our artwork database and support our team of four full-time registrars as well as an art handler team in their duties. I spend most of my time updating the database or working on new data entry and export solutions, but I also assist with the management of external reproductions of collection works for scholars and publishers, managing artwork location updates, and helping with photography of the collection. I enjoy creating new data entry solutions and thinking about data abstractly. You have to create solutions which more than likely will outlive you, and that is a really empowering thought. I like to think a hundred years from now my name will still be on the database and in our object files somewhere.

Q: How did you obtain this position? Were there any experiences in college that helped you land this job or prepared you for its responsibilities?

I started work at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in August 2013 which was also the year I graduated Saint Anselm College. I started as a full-time gallery attendant. I was one of those people who tells you not to touch the artwork. I did that for six months when a job posted internally came open in Collections Management. I interviewed and have been in that department since March 2014. At Saint Anselm College, I worked at the Chapel Art Center for three years, and during my senior year I also was an intern there. My experience at the Chapel Art Center made all the difference. Having practical, wide-ranging art experience was extremely valuable. I don’t have a formal tech background, but I’ve taught myself programming at a basic level, and that background really helped. Finally, in a broad way I think studying history helps you think critically and thoroughly which is invaluable for most professions.

Q: What’s your favorite piece of art in the museum?

A: This is the toughest of questions. I was just looking through our online collections and Mark Rothko’s No. 210/No. 211 (Orange) holds a special place for me. When I worked in museum security, I used stand in the gallery that the work is in, and I’d stare at it a lot. Rothko’s works are like a Russian novel; you can spend a lifetime looking at one and always find something different. I don’t think Rothko really liked people analyzing his paintings since he was all about people just participating in the experience of them, but this painting makes me feel content. The ready-made assumption is that he’s modeling the feelings of a sunset, but I think it’s much more than that. It’s about sitting on a cliff watching the sunset on the West Coast. The world is simultaneously in front and behind you physically and not. You’re both confronting your mortality and not. In that moment, you look over your life, and both the past and the future seem just fine.

Rothko-No-210-No-211-Orange-6x6-300ppi

Mark Rothko
No. 210/No. 211 (Orange), 1960
Oil on canvas
69 x 63 in. (175.3 x 160 cm)
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photography by Edward C. Robison III.