Students – This is where you will post your completed projects. First, click “Register” at the menu bar at the top of the page and follow its instructions, using the same email address you gave me. After you’re registered, click on “add me” in the sidebar and then enter the password I gave you in the Blackboard announcement.  You should then see a “+” in the menu bar – click that and then “post” to add your project to the blog. Remember to also add categories and tags from the menu boxes on the right. Add the category for the appropriate project number and any others that match your subject matter. Add a tag with your first and last name OR your Twitter handle if you prefer, and any other tags that make sense to you. Click “Publish” when you’re done!

If you have difficulties navigating the site, check out the qwriting help first – it answers a lot of questions. If you can’t get your post up by the deadline, email it to me and I’ll do it.

Sam Hurley

History Engages the Public

22 October 2018

Dr. Antonova

Views on Popular Historians

Gregory M. Pfitzer, an American Studies professor, writes over 200 pages of what it means to write popular history and where it has gone towards. His book entitled Popular History and the Literary Marketplace; 1840-1920 observes only a microscopic view on only 80 years of history. It is clear his focus on this particular period introduces the idea of when America was beginning to become world leaders. As results of the Civil War, the Industrial Revolutions, and the Great War, those three important moments in American history has changed the dynamic of what America was from a colony to an independent world power.

Popular history books resemble books like Anne Frank or The Lies My Teacher Told Me. Not always having a wonderful ending, those books share the creative writing styles of non-historians while having a historical reference. Defining popular history has a few blurred lines, nevertheless, for a near accurate definition; it means the author may indulge the ideas and wants of a larger audience while relating to history. Pfitzer’s introduction and table of contents provide what he plans to share in his book, while chapters 1-6 and the conclusion becomes an analytical reference book.

Pfitzer writes that he creates two questions to which is the central purpose of his book. He tells the reader based on the works of Charles Knight eight-volume Popular History of England, Edward Eggleston, Edward S. Ellis, Julian Hawthorne, William Cullen Bryant, and his collaborator, Howard Gay, Huey Long, John Clark Ridpath, Alice Kessler-Harris, and others, he wants the reader to consider “popular histories both as material and as cultural artifacts.” He lays out the groundwork of how history must be reviewed by “first the material, reducing it to their simplest component.” As the book goes on, it develops as a history of popular history through a large number of sources and quotes.

The number of quotations and sources used showed there was a great deal of work placed into this research and the publication of the book; however, it was hard to find his own personal points. By constantly reading other writers words it is unclear if he had any of his own. He used a quote from Alice Kessler-Harris speaking about social history and writing saying it “was colorful and anecdotal but lacked [an] explanatory capacity.” Ironically, Pfitzer’s book was lacking that explanatory capacity and was unclear at times.

As a problem with writing through a microhistory, topics are short—which can force the writer or researcher to add and fill in more to meet a criterion. Pfitzer recognized that popular history has always been important and some topics still need discovery or a full explanation. The time presented in the title was for an 80-year span; however, he constantly needed historical evidence past that period or before to support his argument.

Nonetheless, Pfitzer historiography of various popular history authors and their fight writing popular history does shed light on the genre. Whether the book meant to be a popular history book or a book based on the history of popular history, Pfitzer is able to introduce the idea of the quality of books. The quality not only based on the pricing, but the writing style and the intended audiences. This book not only was an analytical reference but an extended critique and book review on works about the academic vs public reception of popular history and its authors.

Diana Lumaque                                                                                                                                                                  Project 2

HIS 799

 

 

Since the Charlottesville riots of 2017, many states have opted to remove conflicting individuals memory from American history. Removal of Confederate statues occurred in Southern states, and in other regions throughout the United States. In New York City the “Father of Gynecology,” J. Marion Sims statue was removed from New York City due to his unethical medical procedures performed on female African American slaves without Anesthesia. Historical debates conclude that these statues reveal the change in morals and ethical attitudes in today’s society.

The removals of these statues are controversial for several reasons. For descendants of White Southerners, some defend the economic way of life lived by their forefathers, while African American descendants whose forefathers are linked to being enslaved feel mixed emotions. In “Why removing the Jefferson Davis Statue is a Big Mistake,” by co-writers Tom Palaima and Al Martinich discusses the removal of memory from American history on the University of Texas. The university saw mass protests from both supporters and opponents of the Jefferson Davis statue’s presence on the school campus.

The point of contention of both authors concerns the omission of aspects of history even if it represents a negative impact of history. The authors present valid arguments suggesting, “It is an instance of the general failure of many public institutions of higher education to own up to their history. Remembering these histories offers moral and political lessons for our society as a whole.” The placement of the statue is in front of a current generation who is NOT willing to honor the legacy that these people left behind. Are there any present democratic society’s that honors historic individuals with tumorous doings in history?

Authors Palaima and Martinich fail to acknowledge people of all ethnicities are gaining greater access to a higher education. As a result, the statues do not represent our current American culture anymore. Statues, such as those who have links with the Confederacy should not be present or “dedicated” to individuals who divided the American culture. Also, the statue symbolizes oppression of a minority group (African Americans). America’s culture is rich with a diverse population. The inclusion of minority presence in American history has recently begun to become included in debates, scholarly monographs, and academics in general. For educational institutions removing these disputed figures shows the cognizance of many Americans who recognize oppressive individuals who should not have a dedication such as a statue in their remembrance.

The American Civil War represented a time in history that saw the division of the United States and vulnerability to outside interference. Presently, most democratic countries do not praise individuals who represent a dark era in history. Is Germany placing statues of Nazi officials in public facilities for remembrance? Furthermore, Russia recently removed statues of Joseph Stalin, yet there is controversy surrounding its recent resurrection, considering Stalin murdered millions.

Lastly, in Haiti, a statue of former dictator Papa Doc Duvalier was removed. The state of Texas is controversial in its history and coming of statehood. The authors seem to lack empathy in regards to the statue’s presence on its campus. For example, no American would allow or agree with a statue of King George III being placed anywhere in America. King George III is a negative aspect of American history because it displays opposition to the birth of the American nation.

The author’s arguments seem to dictate that the University of Texas is engaging in revisionist history. As mentioned by the author, the Removal of Jefferson Davis statue from its prominent location on the campus of the University of Texas conveys the continued difficulty to distance its self from its historical embrace of racist values and practices. Jefferson Davis’s political career includes being a United States Senator and Secretary of War. However, Davis is most known for being the President of the Confederate States of America.

The change in times exposes that higher education institutions are becoming morally and ethnically conscious of what it wants to represent and the change in values. This speaks volumes considering that the University of Texas at Austin removed other statues such as Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnson from its campus on August 17th, 2017. Events that shaped the University’s decision occurred as a result of violent racial crimes that transpired in America.

The deadly mass shootings of the millennium saw the violence against unarmed African American males and police shootings, the Charleston Church shooting in South Carolina, and among other deadly occurrences. Race relations in America are accessible through many waves of communication and through education. Southern states in particular that removed controversial figures face division among one another. It is understood that the older generations have closer ties to these Confederate figures and oppose its removal.

Although these statues represent the only time in American history that almost tore the country apart, there is a denial of the oppression caused to its Southern African American counterparts who endured the hard truths of relatives who were human capital. African Americans also have a rich history in the United States, yet where are the statues of influential African Americans on the University of Texas campus? African Americans have made important contributions to American history from the colonial period to the present, shouldn’t they also be recognized for their impact on American history?

The central argument details that the statue of Jefferson Davis serves as a remembrance of history that many should learn from and, they contend that the university should “own” or take responsibility for the statue that has been present on its campus starting in since 1933. The authors also shed light on the fact that its institution denied many minority students in the very beginnings of its opening. Why would these facts not be uncomfortable for the university’s students today? The student population is made up of minorities who may be greatly offended by it’s the presence of Confederate statues because it serves as a reminder of the oppression their ancestors suffered through. Even though things have changed over the course of the century, minorities are still experiencing similar kinds of oppression that their ancestors lived through. The authors are dismissive of those who still suffer from the very racist values present in today’s American society.

Racism is prevalent and is a present practice that was first developed in the Southern States as an economic system through the institution of slavery. It seems as though the authors do not acknowledge the counterclaims of their focus and re-instates the term “white privilege.” Privilege is when an individual or group thinks something is not a problem because it is not a personal problem to that person or group personally. Sadly, the authors underlying tone suggests all person attending the university should maintain the Jefferson Davis statue because it has historical meaning. The campus should claim it on ownership over its place on the University of Texas Campus, although it’s a negative representation. The article makes no mention of how it affects minorities and arguments considering why the university had a valid reason to remove it.

The article presents a controversial topic in history concerning the history of memory. American society is changing and redefining ideas, values, and beliefs. Although racism will always be a covert or overt attitude of some Americans, America is a very diverse country. Minorities have always contributed to the growth of this country. Moreover, diverse groups of people are shifting America’s Anglo- Saxon traditions of thoughts, beliefs, and American society. The incident at Texas University is a part of racism confronted in the American society and the history of it in this country. The memories of history are preserved in many ways. Statues of Confederate individuals represent a dark period in American history. The factors that made it negative were the economic differences that compromised the country and the oppression of minorities. The statue should be removed completely from the campus. Its presence serves no purpose in this day and age.

 

 

 

Dear _____

I was wonder if you would be interested publishing an as-yet untitled manuscript of approximately 75,000 words. Strictly speaking, this is a work of fantasy as well as historical fiction as traveling through time is central to the plot.

The inspiration for my novel is the Diana Gabaldon’s popular Outlander series in a backhanded fashion.  I was struck by Gabaldon’s themes of a stranger in a strange time and of choosing between two loves and lifestyles. I was however, left wanting a little more internal conflict from her protagonist rather than a star-crossed romance. While there are clashes of values between her characters, they are overshadowed by something of a “love conquers all” plotline.

My story is set in both the present day and in 1916 Ireland around the Easter Rising with the first half set in 1916 and the second in the present day.This period is heavily romanticized as one where a handful of brave freedom fighters challenge their oppressors on behalf of their countrymen, and I am interested in exploring the truths behind the myths. What were the opinions of the Irish? How much support did the rebels have prior to the Easter Rising? How much did they have after? What was the mood as regarded Irish Independence in the context of World War I?

As far as internal conflict and two loves, one that you leave behind and one that you discover; I would rather take the opposite approach to Outlander, what it the woman spends her time trying to get back to the man she left behind? Not out of a sense of duty, but because that is who she chooses? How is their relationship affected? On a personal level how does she reconcile her experiences with how the Easter Rising is portrayed? What has she gained from her round trip through time? What has she lost?

 

“She knew the stories: the men beguiled by the Faery Queen, Persephone whose mother won her half a year beneath the sky, but maybe the stories were wrong. Maybe the men were enthralled against their will. Maybe Persephone counted the days until she returned to her Underworld lover. No one asked in the stories.”

By Ilanna

Cormac Shine’s recent article, “Our World is Changing, It Is Time for Historians to Explain Why,” encourages historians to reach out to a public audience, not only to inform them about the past but also to explain the present, and even to advise on policies that will affect the future. Shine echoes the arguments of Jo Guldi and David Armitage in their controversial History Manifesto, in which they urge historians to avoid focusing on minutiae and instead focus on long-duration history—all for the express purpose of linking the past with the present. This way, historians can be well equipped to even project their ideas into the future and directly inform policy. Shine feels that it is a waste of good talent for historians not to use their professional knowledge in debates over current political, social, and economic issues.

Shine’s argument raises the old question: what is the purpose of studying history? In the modern world, an obsession with utility and practicality has made this question urgent. Why does the field of history exist? I had to ask myself this question when, as an undergraduate student, I felt myself drawn to the field and began to seriously contemplate majoring in history. The practical side of me battled with the intellectual side: is it enough I asked myself, to dedicate one’s professional life to a discipline simply because one finds it interesting or entertaining? Should there not be a more practical purpose to the field?

Although academics in related fields—most notably economists—commonly attempt to predict the future and prescribe advice based on their predictions, historians are often reluctant to engage in such activities. This is not at all surprising; contemporary historical methods are designed to highlight nuanced differences between the events of the past. Almost by definition, the modern field of history is the study of the past in its own context and on its own terms. Historians are far more interested in studying exceptions than rules, and as such make it difficult—if not impossible—to create any patterns, let alone project those patterns into the future. The field is not designed to inform current political policies or to predict the future, and the historians who have tried this have often failed. (So have the economists, as it turns out, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.)

What, then, is the relevance of studying history? Should the entire field be dismissed as a modern cabinet of curiosities, a collection of arcane facts to perhaps be pulled out on trivia night, but have no utility in the real world? Our instincts tell us otherwise.

The modern discipline of history may not be designed to predict the future, but it is certainly useful—and necessary—to use the past to understand the present. Shine’s argument for historians to begin projecting into the future and informing policy is problematic, but his belief that historians are well-equipped to understand the causes and context of current issues is spot-on. Precisely because history emphasizes differences and changes over time, it can show us that social, political, and economic realities are not fixed. To fully understand the present, we must have a grasp of how those realities emerged. The first step in solving any societal problem is understanding the problem. Historians are well-equipped to do this, and in fact have been doing this since the professionalization of the field in the nineteenth century.

This information is meaningless, however, if it is not accessible to the general public. Because historians are sensitive to context, they have valuable insights into our current situation. As Shine puts it, historians are valuable because they “provide much-needed perspective and nuance” on current realities. I agree with Shine that it is time for historians to share these insights with the public.

Should historians behave like economists, identifying patterns and projecting those patterns into the future? Probably not. The field is simply not designed for those types of activities. Should historians be informing policy? Again, no—at least not directly. Historians should do what they do best—provide a larger perspective of the world, so that current issues become more nuanced and better understood. And historians should make an effort to get their information out of the exclusive sphere of academia, so that the general public can better understand both the past and present, and so make more informed choices.

By John Bellantuomo

John’s projects this semester are all part of a larger historical fiction project.

 

PROMPT

WRITE A HISTORICAL FICTION THAT SOMEHOW:

  • directly considers questions of what history is
  • how it affects ordinary people
  • how it is created by historians and passed on through others

TITLE – Losing Your Head

PREMISE OF THE HISTORICAL FICTION:

  • Takes place during the French Revolution
  • King Louis XVI is on trial for treason by the Jacobins and the National Convention
  • Main character of the story, is out to prove that the accusations that King Louis XVI is being accused of are really those of Queen Marie Antoinette

OTHER TIDBITS

  • Story will consist of multiple “flash backs”
  • But told from the point of view of Troy

PRELIMINARY CHARACTERS:

  • Marie Antoinette
  • King Louis XVI
  • Maximilien Robespierre
  • Troy Boule
  • Greg Sole (boss)

As the story develops, more characters will come into play and be added to the list of Characters

EXCERPT FROM THE PIECE:

“How did I get here?”, whispered the King as he gasped for air. Sweat dripping down his forehead as the soldiers carry him up the stairs, dragging his legs along the floor and place his head to the Guillotine. “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!”, he screams out with every ounce of strength he has left.

“STOP!!!!!!!” screams Troy, running through the crowd, which is eagerly awaiting the beheading of their King. “We are executing the wrong person! This man is innocent!” The crowd laughs, as Troy makes his way from the back to center stage. “I tell you, it wasn’t him and I have the evidence to prove it. This man was not given a fair trial and it’s all because of HER!” as Troy viciously points to soon-to-be widow, Queen Marie Antoinette.

As his eyes open wide, Troy awakens from a deep sleep. Full of sweat, with his heart racing, Troy can’t help but feel that he had just lived his last dream. It was so incredibly surreal that he couldn’t help but think that he was a part of it. His mind began to wonder… “when did this take place? Could that have been me in a previous life? Did they really execute the wrong person?” He felt incredibly puzzled. Making his way from the bed to his dresser, Troy’s mind couldn’t help but continue its puzzling. “Should I look into this? No, it was only a dream – don’t be silly.”

Troy then went about his day, at his cushy job as a newspaper journalist. While, he was a hard worker, he had a tendency to procrastinate and today wasn’t any different from the others. “BOULE!!!”, screamed Greg, Troy’s boss. “Where is that article?! It was due on my desk two hours ago!” “I’m sorry, I’m just finishing up the final touches on it right now.” Says Troy, hastily. “This is the last time accepting your assignment late Boule, next time…you’re fired. I swear it’s like half the time you spend here your dreaming or something.” Greg states as he exits Troy’s office.

As the day progressed, Troy would go on to finish his piece on how in his second bout, President Trump, vows to right the wrongs he committed in his first term. Once submitted, Troy grabs a bite to eat from his favorite Chinese restaurant on Lexington and 4th and starts his journey back to his apartment. However, similar to his mindset while he was finishing his article, Troy still couldn’t help but shake his dream from last night. It felt so real that his heart couldn’t stop racing all day. Nevertheless, after he got home, Troy showered up, put his favorite TV show on and laid in bed…

Sssssssnk… “there goes another head, I wonder who it was this time.” “Must’ve been the soldiers who been guarding the King. Word on the street is he’s next.” Whispers a peasant as he walks his wife through a nearby alley in search for some spare bread. A man exits from the shadow after hearing the conversation. “WOAH. Is this really happening? Am I back in the 1700s!?” yells Troy to himself. He begins to wander, trying to take in the area and the sensation that he’s feeling. “There’s no way this is real…this has to be a dream. I have to find a way to wake up this is crazy.” Troy ventures off in hopes to determine what exactly is going on. Thinking he’s simply in a dream state Troy assumes that anything is possible. “If I’m dreaming…that means I should be able to fly!!” Troy climbs to the top of the nearest building and starts running. “I can do it! I can do it!” he jumps of the ledge and immediately falls before even reaching the next building 10 feet away. Troy reaches out trying to grab anything to stop the fall but dislocates his shoulder on his way down before he falls into a huge stack of hay.

“Huhhhhhhhhh”, Troy immediately wakes up in a writhing pain. “Awwwww, my shoulder!! What happened!?!?” He jumps out of bed still screaming in pain and runs to the nearest emergency room. Once the x-rays came in, the doctor told Troy, “it appears you have dislocated your shoulder. We’ll need to pop it back in, now when you’re ready, this may sting a little.” “OWWWWWW!!!” screams troy as the doctor thrusts his shoulder back into place. “Looks as good as new! Just don’t do anything silly for a week or two and it’ll be back to normal. Just out of curiosity Troy, what exactly were you doing that caused this?”

Unsure if he should tell the truth, Troy jumped out of his chair and said, “I had a nightmare and fell out of my bed” knowing for sure that he doesn’t move a muscle in his sleep. After his stint at the hospital Troy runs home and attempts to go back to sleep to see if his adventure would continue. He slams the door to his house, runs to his bedroom and leaps into his covers. Troy shuts his eyes and tries to enter his dream state. “Why can’t I fall asleep!?!” Annoyed, he turns on the TV and begins to watch as he slowly falls into a deep sleep…

by Kasey

Adam Hochschild’s book “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa” explores the history of the colonization of the Congo. Hochschild’s book has been credited with playing a large part in ensuring the public does not forget the horrific crimes endured by the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgium between the years 1885-1908. Despite the depressing nature of what happened in the Congo, Hochschild’s retelling of this period of time and what occurred during it has been well recieved. Since its publication in 1998, the book has become a bestseller and can be easily found in various bookstores. It has won multiple literary and history prizes, such as, the Mark Lynton History Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize. As of 2013, over 600,000 copies of “King Leopold’s Ghost” were in print in numerous languages. In 2006 a documentary with the same name was created based off Hochschild’s book. Perhaps due to its popularity, “King Leopold’s Ghost” has been reviewed numerous times by both scholarly and popular outlets. The reviews praise Hochschild’s writing abilities, discuss his use of source, and comment on his character development of historical figures within the book.

The reviews all seem to echo the same sentiment when on the subject of Hochschild’s ability to make a compelling story out of this history of colonization. This in part is attributed to Hochschild’s engaging writing style and ability. Stephen McCloskey, who reviewed “King Leopold’s Ghost” for a volume of Development Education Without Borders goes as far as to say, “King Leopold’s Ghost is an immaculately written, highly accessible history that offers a richly informative and insightful analysis of Europe’s relations with Congo and Africa in a previously neglected yet hugely important period.” The books success and popularity supports McCloskey’s assessment of “King Leopold’s Ghost” as accessible and well written. Reviewers from other outlets also support this idea. In Publisher Weekly’s review they say, “Hochschild’s superb, engrossing chronicle focuses on one of the great, horrifying and nearly forgotten crimes of the century…” The book also has glowing reviews from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times supporting the idea that Hochschild’s writing is accessible to average readers and the general public. In a review from the New York Times Michiko Kakutani refers to Hochschild’s depiction of the historical characters as “larger-than-life figures, the sort of characters who might easily populate a Victorian melodrama were it not for the tragic and very real consequences of their actions.” This bold claim is a testament to Hochschild’s ability to write a history that captivates and holds an audience despite it being a history and its dark subject matter.

The idea of Hochschild’s work as a well written account of a forgotten history is common within reviews of the book from both popular and scholarly reviewers alike, however, it is not agreed upon universally. Lysle E. Meyer who reviewed the book for the International Journal of African Historical Studies uses a different tone when reviewing “King Leopold’s Ghost.” He takes issue with the claim on the books cover that this history is “a largely untold story” calling the claim “fallacious” and leading one to believe that in certain academic circles this is not at all a forgotten history. However, Meyer admits begrudgingly that, “In any case, if the author (who only recently discovered this historical scandal) and his publishers succeeded in this venture, it can be attributed to his engaging prose and ability to communicate a sense of outrage.” He also praises the book for raising awareness among the general public about the history. And despite the reviewers unapproving tone at the author staging the historical events as unknown, his comments parallel other reviews in regards to Hochschild’s use of secondary sources.

Many reviews of “King Leopold’s Ghost” acknowledge that although Hochschild uses primarily secondary sources he does so well. In the New York Times review Kakutani says that through Hochschild’s use of secondary sources to tell this part of the Congo’s history he, “has stitched it together into a vivid, novelistic narrative that makes the reader acutely aware of the magnitude of the horror perpetrated by King Leopold.” However, his use of secondary source is not limited to the horror and atrocities Hochschild tells of throughout his book. Hochschild also uses these sources to tell the story of activism which emerged in throughout Europe and America on behalf of the people of the Congo. The reviews praise Hochschild’s depiction and character development of Edmund Morel and Roger Casement who actively campaigned against King Leopold’s rule in the Congo. The books ability to shed light on even lesser known, but important activist is also highlighted. In the Los Angeles Times review Neal Ascherson says, “One of the real triumphs of “King Leopold’s Ghost” is that Hochschild also rescues Morel’s remarkable precursors from oblivion: two black American churchmen, George Washington Williams and William Sheppard, who saw the truth about King Leopold’s Congo for themselves and tried to warn the world.”

Despite all praising Hochschild’s representation of the activism that took place during this time, some reviews where more critical of his use of sources than others. In regards to the secondary sources Lysle E. Meyers states that Hochschild’s “gets the most out of them, for his purposes.” However, he dislikes the way citations only appear in the back of the book and claims he found “some interesting assertions lacking source citations.” Meyers was displeased with the lack of footnotes and the difficulty it caused in finding the appropriate sources at the back of the book. This is a commentary that none of the other reviews had on the book. Meyers acknowledges that the lack of sources was probably due to “the average reader’s reputed aversion to them.” The formatting of the book and the lack of footnotes was not acknowledged by any of the other reviews. This formatting decision may have been made with the idea the book would be more widely received by the general public without footnotes and other formatting characteristics considered academic.

In general reviewers had ample praise for Hochschild’s engaging and accessible writing. As well as, his ability to create dramatic characters out of the historical figures involved. If his goal was to write a history that would engage the public it appears he succeeded. However, if his goal was to write about a piece of history forgotten about he may find himself challenged by scholars of African study. Even the most critical reviews of the book do not deny it has played a role in reaching an audience that most likely would otherwise not ever learn of this history. Although there are some aspects of the book that can be argued about by the more scholarly outlets, overall it is not a surprise that such a positively reviewed book has reached a popular audience.

Citations

Nonfiction Book Review: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-395-75924-0

Kakutani, M. (1998, September 1). ‘King Leopolds Ghost’: Genocide With Spin Control. Retrieved from http://movies2.nytimes.com/books/98/08/30/daily/leopold-book-review.html

Stephen Mccloskey. (2013). King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review, 17, 129-134.

Meyer, L. (1998). King Leopold’s Ghost. The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 31(1), 118.

Ascherson, Neal. (1999). KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa;o7 By Adam Hochschild; (Houghton Mifflin: 384 pp., $26)f7.(Touch of Evil)(Book Review). Los Angeles Times, p. 2.

Franz Kafka is potentially one of the most discussed and simultaneously most ambiguous authors of contemporary literature to date. The author’s identity as neither fully Czech, German, or Jewish was a perpetual source of his own internal conflict. In this book published as part of Yale University Press’s “Jewish Lives” series, Saul Friedländer attempts to analyze Kafka in an interdisciplinary approach that makes the book interesting, and potentially appealing to the public, but contentious in regards to the standards of historical biographic writing. Dr. Friedländer received his PhD from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, professor emeritus of history at UCLA, and has written other works of Jewish history, including the Pulitzer Prize winning The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. However, this work failed to gain that same traction from peers as well as the general populous comparatively. Academic reviews and reviews on popular sites both provide mixed opinions on Friedländer’s book Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt that vary from well received to ambivalent.

Due to the interdisciplinary approach to his historical biography of Franz Kafka, Friedländer’s work has been reviewed by numerous scholarly publications ranging from theology journals to Jewish studies journals. Larisa Reznik, a PhD recipient in Theology from the University of Chicago, penned a piece in Religious Studies Review that discusses her qualms with this biographic work. She notes that the book itself has strengths in its ability to sell a narrative and take a look at the way Kafka’s personal internal conflicts potentially dealing with his sexuality, faith, and cultural identity shaped his stories. Similarly, within the book itself Friedländer states that this is a departure from his usual retelling and interpretation of history. However, she notes that there are methodological problems with telling such a complex story in a way meant for popular consumption.[1] Though short and concise, important historical, theological, and psychological concepts are simplified in such a way that it may lose its potency and thus lose the accuracy that a book attempting to cover a topic so comprehensively may need.

Paul North, a professor of Germanic language and literature at Yale University provides a much more complimentary review of Friedländer’s biography. In Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies published by Purdue University, North describes Friedländer’s work as “the first place students in college courses or the general public get an immediate sense of how Kafka is being read by scholars now … In their place is a Kafka for the present day caught in a net of ambivalences towards ethnic gender, political, and aesthetic denominations.” [2] North is impressed with Friedländer’s ability to synthesize information in a way that this is not so much assertive in nature as it is inquisitive and provocative of further questioning. He applauds Friedländer for hitting on some of the most contemporary historical issues in regards to Czech history, most importantly being the concept of identity within Austria- Hungary. Kafka is considered a poster child for the issue of ethnography within the mixed state. North also commends Friedländer on the Freudian exploration of Kafka’s sexuality and sexual preferences. Though certainly not the norm for historical biographies, North feels it provided a level of comprehensiveness that many others in their attempts to analyze Kafka contextually have failed to do.

The court of public opinion provides analyses of books, especially academic works, which vary greatly from those of academic peer reviews. In the New York Review of Books, John Banville reviews Saul Friedländer’s work alongside those of his contemporaries for an affective examination of his literary and historical competency. Though not explicitly negative, Banville does touch on the fact that the book strays quite far from conventionally accepted ideas of Kafka based on the knowledge historians have of him. Centered on the uncensored German writings of Kafka by his longtime friend and admirer Max Brod, Friedländer suggests the idea that much of Kafka’s existentialism stems not only from his cultural identity crisis in a splintered Prague, but potentially from his repressed sexual urges. Though Kafka’s sexuality has been discussed in understanding his literature, Friedländer goes beyond his field of study in history to psychoanalyze Kafka based on these short writings. Banville is neither complimentary nor averse to Friedlander’s analysis, but based on the language with which he refers to the book’s central motifs it can be concluded that he is not completely sold on the Freudian suggestions that Friedländer puts forth.

Perhaps the most vocal in their questioning of Friedländer’s work is an anonymous reviewer on the site publishersweekly.com. The author of this review refers to Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt as “reductive and speculative.”[3] The author further provides examples as to why they feel this biography “falls disappointingly short in its treatment of these intricacies.” [4] The author does note the fact that despite these contradictions that Friedländer presents within his work that brings its validity and worth as a piece of academic literature into question, it does provide insight into newly re-thought concepts on Kafka and his place in Czech literature’s history.

The variance between reviews for the same piece of literature can be expansive, as visible by the wide aray of opinion on Saul Friedländer’s Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt. When writing a biography of such an enigmatic individual as Kafka, it is often necessary to write in an interdisciplinary manner in order to be all encompassing of the individual. However, Friedländer forms much of his thesis on psychoanalyses that stem from assessment of documents relating to Kafka. For many, it provided a new lens with which one can view both Franz Kafka himself, his literature, and the ethnographically diverse environment in which he lived while in Prague. However, it did stray from the typical academic standards of historical writing as noted by multiple reviews. Though the reception of Friedländer’s book has experiences this broad spectrum of both praise and criticism, it is evident both from having read the book and reading the reviews that the work had its fair share of provocative insight as well as misgivings which may have prevented it from hitting the mainstream success of his other works.

 

References

Banville, John. “A Different Kafka.” The New York Review of Books. October 24, 2013. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2013/10/24/different-kafka/

[1] Larisa Reznik, “Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt. By Saul Friedländer. Jewish Lives.” Religious Studies Review 39, no. 4 (2013): 251.

[2] Paul North, “”Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt by Saul Friedländer.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 33, no. 2 (2015): 148-51

[3] “Nonfiction Book Review: Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt by Saul Friedländer. Yale Univ., $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-300-13661-6.” PublishersWeekly.com. April 29, 2013. https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-300-13661-6.

[4] Ibid.

It probably won’t come as a surprise that the Liberal Arts often aren’t given a lot of respect in popular culture. As a student of history myself, I can’t tell how many times I’ve cringed when I hear someone make a joke to the tune of “would you like fries with that?” in response to learning about my major. In the defense of history, it is ironic how despite the popularity of lampooning students for pursuing the degree, we as a culture have an obsession with the subject. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the newest political crisis in action, and I can all but guarantee that you’ll find history cropping up in the political debates. Not that this is particularly surprising after all; understanding the past is crucial for understanding the present.

Perhaps because of this, it should come as no surprise that many people (trained historians and otherwise) have taken it upon themselves to write about historical topics as they relate to current issues. This has led to a number of individuals writing about history with questionable motives, research, or biases. One prime example of this problem is the works of far right commentator Dinesh D’Souza. A known provocateur, D’Souza has published a series of books on American history that can only be described as controversial. Some of D’Souza’s works include the End of Racism (1995), the Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and its Responsibility for 9/11 (2007), and the Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left (2017). While it might be hard to infer from the titles of these books, D’Souza’s works are known for being vitriolic and have often been criticized for their questionable and oftentimes conspiratorial content.

Given D’Souza’s reputation, it would seem disheartening to think that these are the type of people writing on our national history. There is hope however, as historians pushing back against people like D’Souza have found a new platform to reach the public. Earlier this year, D’Souza had taken to Twitter to lash out against critics in response to his then-upcoming documentary, Death of a Nation: Can We Save America a Second Time. Throughout the work, Death of a Nation makes a number of extraordinary claims, including accusing the Democratic Party of widespread racist and fascist policies, and D’Souza uses the policies of the political parties during the 1960s to back up his claims. Up until this point, D’Souza had been aggressively defending his stance the modern Democratic Party had retained the same stances of its pre-1960s counterpart. This had attracted the attention of many academics, including Princeton University professor Kevin Kruse. This was of particular importance to Kruse, who identifies as a “Twitterstorian” or historian who engages on social media and particularly Twitter.

 On July 2nd, D’Souza had responded to a tweet by Richard Jones, who had pointed out the political shift of the Democratic and Republican parties during the Civil Rights Era. 

In his tweet, D’Souza rather aggressively demanded a list of “racist Dixiecrats who switched parties and became Republicans” to back up Jones’ tweet. Less than 24 hours after the tweet was posted, Kruse had a response ready. As a professional historian who has written extensively on the politics and social developments of the 20th Century, Kruse proceeded to break down D’Souza’s argument in what was nothing less than one of the most entertaining threads of the summer.  

In his responding thread, Kruse not only provided a sample list of 30 politicians who switched parties during that time period (as D’Souza requested), but also provided analysis into the political factors that influenced their decisions. To back up his arguments, Kruse linked a number of primary sources in his tweets, including newspaper clippings and political advertisements. As a final thought, Kruse made a point of criticizing D’Souza’s focus on Southern politicians rather then ordinary Americans as a way of measuring the sociopolitical changes of the time. 

As one might imagine, Kruse’s comments have become somewhat of an internet sensation, and to date have been retweeted over 11 thousand times. Due to the attention garnered, D’Souza and Kruse have been engaged in an ongoing Twitter War over various topics of history since that initial exchange. During this time, Kruse’s tweets have not only provided readers with a huge amount of information on U.S. history, but also all of the entertainment value that one would hope for from twitter. 

This ongoing feud has not only have garnered attention from traditional media sources such as The New Republic, but also spurred on similar responses from other Twitterstorians such as U.S. historians Eric Rauchway of the University of California, Davis and Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College. D’Souza meanwhile has played to his base, and has either claimed that Kruse and others were part of some greater Left-Wing conspiracy, or more often has resorted to ad hominem attacks. Despite all of D’Souza’s efforts though, the Twitterstorians have kept the good fight going and have continued to debate him in the virtual stage.    

This brings me to an even larger point: What are the implications of using Twitter as a medium for historical discussion? First and foremost, this addresses a long-standing problem with historians on how to engage with the larger public. Truth be told, the metaphor of “the Ivory Tower” that many love to use didn’t come out of the blue; due to the nature of academia, it is true that historians have had a bit of divide with the public in the past, and many of the sources that we traditionally use (such as monographs and academic journals) can be hard to access for most people. Given that factor, it should come as no surprise that “popular historians” such as Dinesh D’Souza have cropped up. As was seen in D’Souza’s case, this type of historical work can sometimes mean playing into the expectations of their audiences rather than challenging them in any meaningful way. 

By comparison, Twitter has given historians a much more even playing field. Despite being limited to only 280 characters per tweet, twitter has proven to be a gathering place for academics to come about and discuss history in a meaningful way. Even when debating with D’Souza online, Kruse consistently composed his tweets in a scholarly fashion in order to make his points clear and concise. On top of that, he would often cite sources and provide links in order to not only strengthen his arguments, but also to provide readers with a way of seeing the sources themselves for the sake of personal growth. It is important to note that Twitter hasn’t just become a place for historians to react to polemicists and other personalities; more importantly, Twitter has become a place where both trained historians and members of the public can come together to examine topics in history in an open and scholarly way. Hashtags such as #twitterstorians and #ahahistorians have come include threads and posts ranging from professional discussions on current political trends to resources for students and amateur historians. While some threads are certainly the result of disputants, the majority of historians’ posts are done more for their own sake rather than for the sake of proving someone wrong on the internet. 

For all intents and purposes, the phenomenon of twitterstorians seems to be growing rapidly. As of right now, Kevin Kruse has over 173 thousand followers on twitter, and that number seems to be growing as time goes on. What then is the takeaway of this? As much as our culture seems to love to criticize the “Ivory Tower,” it certainly seems as though we’re all to happy to embrace it on a digital medium.  Perhaps this tells us that we aren’t as apathetic to history as some would like to believe. To paraphrase a quote of Kruse’s from an interview on the podcast the Way of Improvement Leads Home last March, it seems that there is certainly a hunger for this knowledge out there, and if we as historians don’t provide it, someone else will. Perhaps through means such as Twitter and other social media, we may be able to satisfy that hunger and bring a change in the way that the liberal arts are viewed! 

Generally speaking, academic historians are trained to argue a thesis based on evidence, while journalists are trained to discover, analyze, and report information. In the case of the two works of popular history that I discuss in this article the roles are somewhat reversed. The scholarly historians Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace present a chronological series of narratives and facts resulting in a comprehensive historical synthesis in their Pulitzer-Prize winning 1383-page book “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898”. The journalist and author Russell Shorto argues that the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam on Manhattan island was the true foundation of modern liberalism in American society in his 416-page book “The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America”.

The popular reviews of both works are generally positive and enthusiastic about their ability to popularize New York City history. The academic reviews however, view The Island at the Center of the World as providing an entertaining narrative but a flawed argument. The academic reviews praise Gotham as an entertaining and comprehensive synthesis while criticism of a lack of a central narrative or thesis and the absence of discussion of evidence is minimal and qualified. The reviews of these works show how readers can be led astray by popular histories that are entertaining but not up to the standards of scholarly historians, but also how a history book can both appeal to a popular audience and also convey information based on sound scholarship. The reviews demonstrate that there is a difference between getting the public to care about history and to understand it.

In the American Historical Review, historian David C. Hammack praises Gotham for demonstrating the “classic virtues of narrative” and for not shying away from discussing important topics such as European violence against Native Americans and male violence against women. In The Journal of American History, historian Edward K. Spann calls Gotham a “truly classic work, concisely and beautifully written”. Hammack’s main criticisms are the omission of discussion of evidence and the exaggeration of the importance of some facts. However, Hammack writes that these problems are part of how Gotham successfully presents New York City history in a “extended and colorful narrative”. Spann criticizes Gotham for lacking a central thesis, but also admits that the authors intentionally focused on narrative in order to provide a “fascinating show of many acts”.

In The Journal of American History, historian Paul Otto praises The Island at the Center of the World for providing an engaging and popularizing narrative. Otto however, criticizes Shorto for not properly evaluating bias in sources and for exaggerating the importance of Adriaen van der Donck who is a central part of the book. Otto also challenges the central argument that the Dutch colony was the foundation of American liberalism and broader American values such as “tolerance, openness, and free trade”. Otto claims that while there were some liberal aspects of seventeenth century New Amsterdam, Shorto does not establish a connection between those aspects and more recent developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Also, in the scholarly journal New York History, historian Joyce Goodfriend praises The Island at the Center of the World for providing an entertaining plot, for delving into primary sources, and for challenging the overwhelming “Anglophilia” that permeates the narrative of American history. On the topic of the book’s main argument however, Goodfriend criticizes Shorto for “smoothing over” less flattering historical topics such as the Dutch role in the slave trade and instances of religious intolerance in the colony of New Netherland. Overall, Goodfriend calls Shorto’s main argument an “unwarranted conceptual leap” that erroneously links the diversity of New Amsterdam with modern ideals of pluralism.

The popular reviews of the two works do not vary so much in their criticism as do the scholarly. The popular reviews generally provide praise for both. In The New York Times Book Review, author and journalist Kevin Baker praises The Island at the Center of the World as a captivating work with fascinating historical “tidbits”, humor, and a powerful central argument. Baker calls, “undeniable”, Shorto’s central argument that the tolerance of New Amsterdam influenced the development of the entire nation. Also from the New York Times, journalist Clyde Haberman praises Gotham for containing a wealth of facts and perspectives, but also criticizes it for being a “serious reference work” that can overwhelm a reader. Haberman also writes that while Gotham does not contain a groundbreaking thesis, it does carry important themes about the development of New York City.

Looking at the popular and scholarly reviews of these two works shows a clear discrepancy. The scholarly reviewers are able to offer a challenge to Shorto’s argument that does not seem to be present in the popular reviews. There could hardly be more of a contrast between an argument being “undeniable” and being an “unwarranted conceptual leap”. The popular reviews also show that The Island at the Center of the World may have a popular edge over Gotham in the form of a central plot and argument. While there is clearly praise for Gotham’s wealth of information and narrative vignettes, it is conceivable that a book of over 1000 pages without a unifying thesis could be overwhelming to a public or any audience. It’s style of many interesting narratives though can certainly have an appeal.

One does not need to look into New York colonial history very long to discover the prevalence of an argument similar to the one Shorto makes. I have seen it in documentaries and heard it repeated by several individuals. It is tempting to accept the narrative that the Dutch in New Netherland were central in the larger development of American society in relation to such influential themes as pluralism and liberalism. The academic reviews however, show that the narrative is not that simple and that the argument may resemble more of a myth. Historians who seek to popularize New York colonial history should be aware of this argument and give it proper attention, however they should also explore other avenues for finding meaning in the area’s colonial past.

Cormac Shine’s article “Our world is changing. It’s time for historians to explain why” is a compelling one and I believe quite necessary in today’s society. Shine explains why historians are important and why historians should have more prominent roles in shaping the world of today. However, it seems that historians are only willing to engage other historians at a scholarly level and that is something that needs to change because the world is only getting the perspectives of others that are not in the field of history. Historians seem to take a backseat to other experts in their fields of study and Shine’s argument is that historians should be at the forefront of what is happening around us. Historians need to stop engaging with other historians and broaden their scopes for the regular Joe Smoes of the world. Historians need to start engaging in public conversation with the general public to let them know how the world around them is being shaped. The public relies on economists, political scientists, accountants, and others, why not rely on historians who study what has shaped where society is now and where it might go just by studying the pattern of the flow of history. Shine touches on the financial crisis of 2008, a time where it was dominated by economists, but what would have happened if historians had engaged the public in this matter.

As technology and social media become a means of reaching out to people that might not have been reachable in the past, historians should start to engage with people who are curious as to why the things around them are happening. If a person wants answers of what’s happening in the world around them there is no better place to look then in the past to see why the world is in the current state that it is in. Of course it is impossible to predict the future but by studying the past it is possible to predict possible outcomes of situations as Shine mentions in his article, “imparting lessons from the past, and deploying techniques such as scenario building, which analyses historic trends and events to understand likely future situations.” Historians shouldn’t have to keep to themselves what they know just because they don’t think the general consensus wouldn’t understand or engaging with people who are not historians seems silly, but, it is something that more of us historians need to do with the public sphere. Historians don’t have to engage the general public in a scholarly manner, it can be simplified and made interesting by describing a narrative that people can relate to and learn from. It could be the type of conversation you have at a bar without going into details of dates of when past historical events happened. As a historian all you have to do is present a narrative that shows how the world is being shaped today and make it interesting enough that you hold the attention of the people or set demographic a historian is trying to reach. Let us historians be the ones that help others understand the world around us. Shine’s article is a great start, however, it is historians that should be having these type of conversations not a blogger from The Guardian.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2018/jan/18/our-world-is-changing-its-time-for-historians-to-explain-why


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