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Fish Guts. Or, How to read a Book, a Sentence, and a Page.

Editor’s Note:  Last month I offered a guide to the quick and dirty business of gutting a book.  Composed mainly for the benefit of graduate students in history, many of whom I see struggling to take command of a large literature and either reading too few books or too many reviews of books as a substitute, my step by step for getting the essence of an argument and its position in the scholarship was greeted with mixed reviews.  An anonymous colleague offers, contrapuntal, the below.  KW

The dedication to The Complete Angler’s Vade-Mecum (1808) courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library

Gutting a fish, like gutting a book, is a practical, if brutal, process.  You chop off the head, scoop out all the internal organs that kept the creature alive as it swam through the seas, scrape off the scales, and the next thing you know, it’s a nice chunk of consumable protein. The fish is thus efficiently rendered, with a very particular goal in mind. No need to be squeamish—we all need to eat. Let’s just not confuse this process with appreciating the fish in all its fishiness, or gutting with reading.

Graduate students in history, especially when studying for comprehensive exams, need to move through a long list of books very quickly.  KW is absolutely right when she argues that her TICCN method–Title (and structure), Introduction, Conclusion, and Notes—is better than the usual options. Better than only getting to page 97 of a 300-page book, better than slogging away into the wee hours every night and harming your health, better than thinking you’ll “know” a book by reading its reviews. KW also wisely cautions that this method of reading is best suited to getting a sense of the topography in a particular field of study. It is not how one ought to read in one’s area of specialty, and not the way people usually read when reading for pleasure.

Moreover, TICCN resembles the general advice given long ago by the philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book (1940), though TICCN is more useful to history graduate students because it is more discipline-specific. Adler talked about three stages in the reading process: (1) the analysis of a book’s structure, which includes identifying the topic addressed and the problem to be solved; (2) the interpretation of the book’s contents, which includes understanding the book’s terminology and locating the author’s propositions and arguments; and (3) criticism: showing where the author is uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or incomplete. Adler taught that with practice, the reader could perform the first two tasks at the same time, but cautioned that the last—criticism—ought to be delayed until the first two were completed. Using the TICCN method, the student will presumably discern the book’s topic and structure from the title and table of contents, and locate the study’s main arguments and central concepts in the introduction, conclusion, and chapter intros and conclusions. Looking at the notes, the student will get a sense both of how the author argues from the evidence and engages the existing scholarly conversation—both crucial to any kind of critical evaluation.

Still, some caveats are in order. Gutting a book is not the most important mode of reading for a historian. Or, to put it another way, TICCN is a great way to be an efficient consumer of historical knowledge but not a sufficient way to become a producer of historical knowledge. It should go without saying that reading textual primary sources should be an operation that’s conducted closely, carefully, analytically. Slowly. What about secondary sources?  Not all arguments are so simple, and not all language so pellucid, that comprehension can occur with a few quick blinks at a chapter’s intro and conclusion. I. A. Richards in How to Read a Page (1942, interestingly subtitled A Course in Efficient Reading) urged readers to slow down, even to the point of sub-vocalizing, because the ear could sometimes detect logical structure that the eye misses. Slowing down to be attentive to the rhythms of language within an argument not only helps readers perceive how arguments are constructed but helps them as writers, constructing arguments themselves. Reading closely and carefully, they see not just how the argument is expressed in the structural relationship of chapters to book but also in paragraphs to chapter and, as Stanley Fish explores in How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (2011), in the structure of sentences themselves.

The TICCN method takes most of the contents of each chapter and tosses it out like fish entrails splattered on waste paper. But is the evidence marshalled to support an argument merely a series of interchangeable illustrations reinforcing some general point, or an accumulation of data points or information that gives a conclusion probability like a series of weights added to a scale? This might be true for some forms of social or economic history. But in many other kinds of history—cultural, intellectual, literary, art, and so on—the sources are dense, tangled, multi-layered, multivalent, and difficult. They have to be sifted and probed, unfolded like complex origami figures. The interpretive argument emerges from the careful analysis of the sources themselves.  However the interpretive argument may be summarized in an introduction and conclusion, it cannot be reduced to those bare summaries. By ignoring the stuff of the chapters, TICCN risks missing what, in fact, the book is really about.

Since KW referenced Annette Gordon-Reed, so will I. The great value of Gordon-Reed’s Hemingses of Monticello (2008), it seems to me, is less in the conclusions she comes to or in the sources she cites than in how she takes the reader with her as she reasons her way through the evidence, line by line, and page by page.  Though the book is not really in my area of specialization, if I had gutted it with TICCN instead of reading it closely and carefully, I would have missed what’s great about the book.

Where does this leave us? History graduate students, by all means use the TICCN method as needed when plowing quickly through scores of books (outside your area of specialization) for your comprehensive exams, or generally when trying to see the contours of a field of study. Just don’t make this your default mode of reading. An additional caution: when assigning a book for a two-and-a-half-hour seminar, professors do not necessarily expect you to read every single world like a Talmudic scholar hunched over the Torah. But if they are going to devote this much class time to a book, most professors—at least one, anyway!—will expect your comments to be rooted in a closer reading than the gutting described by TICCN.

And there is a curious thing about the verb “to gut.” When referring to fish, the stuff that is extracted from the body is what’s thrown away.  When referring to a book, the stuff that’s extracted from the body of the text is thought to be the “essential contents” or the “important passages.” This reversal points to a nagging question: it is not always so easy, when dealing with books or pages or sentences rather than fish, to know at a glance what is important and essential, and what is not—what are good guts, and what are bad.


In early December a teenage boy who has been a part of our family’s close community for a decade, the same age as my younger son, took his own life.

All around us people are thinking through the implications of this loss. We think first of his family, and how much we want to help them, though we know there is nothing we can do but stand nearby as they grieve what we can only barely grasp. We think of our community, and how it is changed. We think of the boys, his friends. My son is a wise soul; he knew right away that saying things out loud that others were too shy or too uneasy to say was nonetheless the right thing to do.  He spoke of grief and anger and confusion, and of his constant concern for the family. “Can I hug you again?” he said to his friend’s mother at the memorial. He rounded up his friends to talk with a grief counselor together, and he continues to make use of the counselor at school.

He understands that none of us will be the same. He understands that we shouldn’t want to be the same.  Every week he returns to this loss, not pushing it out of mind. “Grief is hard,” he says.

I’ve written about Hamilton the musical plenty of times now, but in the aftermath of the suicide I’ve listened to this one song hundreds of times.  It sounds every parent’s bass chord. Unimaginable.

There are moments that the words don’t reach.

There is suffering too terrible to name.

You hold your child as tight as you can,

And push away the unimaginable.

The moments when you’re in so deep,

It feels easier to just swim down.

Sometimes I feel I spend most of my energy as a historian considering two inexplicables: the nearly unfathomably specific details of an individual life, and the vast commonality of human experience. The former can be so alluring, while the latter is often about cruelty and misery and is always, in the end, about death. It is the most shocking and the most routine of human experiences.

I’ve read and now written a lot about death for my book on the culture of early American genealogy. Death, whether the unexpected death of a young person or of an ailing or elderly person, was a moment that often prompted the kind of reflection I’ve been exploring– for family connection and memory. The death of people who had the means to memorialize their family and friends in text and object and image, but most often the death of people who were far away from those who loved them, or who left only the merest of traces that we can recapture. Scholars such as Rick Bell and Terri Snyder have written about suicide in early American contexts. Vincent Brown and Erik Seeman have written about death’s ubiquity. I’ve learned a great deal from these historians and others. But I know my writing is deeply informed by personal loss, including this most recent one.

When the Hamilton soundtrack was first released, my older son and I would skip the darkest, saddest parts of the musical’s second act as we were enjoying the high energy and snappy attitude of the earlier songs. As soon as we got to Hamilton’s desperation and depravity in The Reynolds Pamphlet…we were off, heading back to Guns and Ships or even You’ll be Back. We’re all spending a lot more time in the chaos and tragedy of the second act now.

Efficient Reading

This blog post’s real title is “How to Gut a (Scholarly) Book in 5 Almost-easy Steps,” but I kind of can’t bear “gut” as a verb, even though I’ve used the phrase for years to describe efficient reading.

Not sure about efficiency.  But she does look a little like Clyde, one of the Omohundro Institute’s excellent mascots.

The premise of efficient reading is that graduate students in particular need to get their heads around a huge (I’ll leave “vast” for my next post–on the seminar I’m teaching this semester) volume of scholarship, and that’s just not possible without some sharp strategy and canny tactics.  A second premise is that when you’re trying to learn a field, getting a sense of the major arguments, methods, and sources is the key rather than the details. Doing research or reading in your area of speciality is different, and calls for different strategy and tactics.

I’ve seen graduate students struggle with a heavy reading load, and I’ve seen them use various methods to try and lighten that load.  One is to not make it through the reading, which is obviously not ideal.  (Understatement.)  I’ve also seen some use book reviews as a substitute.  Also not ideal, but for reasons I’ll explain below. And I’ve seen students sacrifice a lot to make it through every last page, and sometimes (often?) that trade-off (especially with sleep and general health) wasn’t a wise one.

The reason students do this are many, but among them are a sense of anxiety about their ignorance. I don’t think they believe me when I say that the more you know, the better perspective you’ll have on just how little you know. Plenty of clever people have found ways to phrase that. Earlier this month astrophysicist Adam Frank described for NPR how important ignorance is in a world that seems increasingly casual about expertise and “alternative facts.” It might seem counter-intuitive, he noted, but by exposing the limits of our own and others’ knowledge it clarifies where expertise lies and has been achieved. Get used to being ignorant because it’s not only okay, it’s the natural state when you’re leaning. The helpful bit here for graduate students is the same, I think, as it is for me.  It’s not to say that we will never achieve knowledge, even expertise, but that there will always be limits to it if we’re curious about the world. If we think that learning is not only important but exciting and interesting then–yay!–we’re in for a lifetime of acknowledging our (relative) ignorance.

But to the heart of this brief post. My method for efficient reading is TICCN.  I’m referring here to reading a book, but I use the same basic method for an article.

T = Title and structure.

I = Introduction.

C = Conclusion.

C = Chapters.

N = Notes.

Title and structure may be self-evident, but I’m surprised how often or how quickly, as critical readers, we pass over a book’s title. And just as telling, sometimes more so, are the chapter (and section) titles and structure.   Reading an Introduction for the articulation of the thesis is pretty basic, but it’s worth noting that you need to do that intentionally. This is where the author wants you to know where her argument relates to other scholarship, how it contributes to and challenges work in the field. Which field or fields does she think her work is best speaking to or with? How is she positioning her work vis a vis established scholarship? Emerging scholarship?  Particular methods and theoretical positions? The conclusion is next for me because I want to know whether the author in fact ends where she meant to end up.

Reading the introduction and conclusion of each chapter, then, is the next step in assessing the argument’s development. It’s also a way to assess which chapters carry which burden of the argument. Sometimes it’s clear that particular chapters are more consequential than others in moving the argument ahead, and then it’s important to pay particular attention to the evidence that’s marshaled there. I try to skim the notes for each chapter to understand when the type or volume of evidence changes. This is not to suggest that more traditional, textual evidence is reflective of a chapter’s significance (either for the book, or more generally speaking). It might be that the most important argument of the book comes from a particularly revealing analysis of a single source– or interpretation of previous scholarship’s reliance on same. It is to note that attention to how an author marshals evidence can be, along with primary argument and scholarly positioning, the most important thing you take from an efficient reading.

And no, I don’t always read this way. For work that’s in my research area, and when I’m reading for the joy of reading history (which I try to do regularly), I read more deeply and thoroughly. But thinking historiographically, getting a sense of how evidence and argument are related within a book (or essay), and how those relate to other scholarship, I find pretty well served by this approach.

The reason I don’t recommend reading reviews as a method is because the best reviews, in my opinion as a longtime and kind of intense book review editor, are not a summary of the book at hand. The best reviews are a intellectual convening of author and reviewer, with distinct perspectives and aims. Last year I wrote about Annette Gordon-Reed’s review of Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016) as a model of the form.

Book reviewing is the best kind of thinking work, or at least in almost a dozen years as a book review editor that’s what I tried to sell to reviewers as the primary benefit of their labors. Reading is never passive. The act of reading is always an exchange between text and reader; as a reviewer, you read with the outcome of that exchange more explicitly in mind. Particularly for non-fiction reviewers, attentive to the prose, evidentiary foundation and argument of a book, reviewing can be the most rewarding way to read. So, what’s in it for the reader of the review? The review extends the conversation between book and reviewer to include the review reader. And when they tell two friends… it’s geometric. That’s why the best of the genre doesn’t only tell you why you should want to read the book, but why you should read the review.

Okay, so no surprise that I did a forensic analysis of that review, breaking it down to a model, an actual model of sections with this pattern of paragraphs: 3-3-3-3-3-4-5-3.  You’ll have to read that piece to see why I think that’s a genius pattern and an exemplary review. But one thing it isn’t is a book report. It’s a review that would tell you what the book is about, but it tells you more about Gordon-Reed’s encounter with the book.

So. There are lots of ways to read because we’re all wired differently, and we all have different priorities. But this works for me, and I hope it helps students in particular. If my approach isn’t as useful for you, I’d still encourage you to identify your method, surface the process, and organize your notes accordingly.

Happy (efficient) reading!

The Revolution in Bricky Reds

In the fall I shared a primary source packet I created for the community reading group I host at the Omohundro Institute throughout the year.  Finding new ways to explore early American history with non-specialists, especially historical scholarship that has made or is making a contribution to the field, is intensively researched and offers fresh perspectives, is rewarding.  You can see some of the books we’ve read listed on the OI’s website.  The selections are heavy on Virginia, for now.  And they reflect the interests of the group, which asked to read Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs:  Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Omohundro Institute and UNC Press, 1996).

Among the books we read for the fall was Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught:  The Washingtons Relentless Pursuit of the Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (Atria, 2017).  I had wanted to intensify the experience of the group, to emphasize the significance of the relationship of historical evidence to argument, and to explore the ways that particular types of archival abundance and scarcity shapes our historical narratives.  And, for me, the historical process is the same process of discernment every citizen of a democracy society must regularly exercise.  So for last election day, I created a packet of some of the most important archival materials that Dunbar analyzes and explores in her National Book Award finalist book, including newspaper advertisements, and George Washingtons correspondence in the key period just before and following  Ona Judge’s escape.  I think it was very helpful for the discussion, and I’m looking forward to seeing the group again this week to know if having those materials, in addition to the text, spurred further, later conversations.  Honestly I’m sure it would have been even better if I had been able to make the packet available significantly ahead of our meeting, but I’m still working on timely delivery!  You can find my post and packet here.

This week we’re discussing another book I have read in many formats and multiple times, and have gifted to friends and family, Jane Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color:  The World of John Singleton Copley (W.W. Norton, 2016).  One of the most powerful themes of the book is the often cruel vagaries of the eighteenth century, the ways that circumstance rather than innate qualities shaped lives then as it does now.   Copley is known to us as a quintessentially American artist, and yet was as skeptical of American identity as he was loathe to assume it.  How could he?  He was a British subject, through and through.  Copley’s astonishing ability to see foreground and background, what Kamensky calls his period-specific, bifocal “bivious gaze,” is plain from cover to cover.  He watched England from Boston, and then America from London.  He also offers a view that is  at once passion and cool assessment.  The lavish colors he employed, from Mercy Otis Warren’s unforgettable blue dress, to the arresting reds (Kamensky calls them “bricky”) of redcoats and robes, and drapery, tempt us to see a world either in intense motion or calm repose.  There is Paul Revere (1768), with that steady gaze, and there is the water pulling Watson and the Shark tautly together.

The Death of Major Peirson (1783). Tate, London.

On Copley’s canvases and Kamensky’s rendering, the Revolution is less the object of this book than a messy, violent, complex background.  One is tempted to compare the war to Kamensky’s professed favorite among Copley’s paintings, The Death of Major Peirson (1783), but one knows the limits of one’s art history background.  Leaving that temptation aside, and indeed the temptation to luxuriate in the luxury that Copley was increasing called to portray, Copley’s life as the model of American ambition tells a story about what he was prepared to sacrifice (family), what he wasn’t prepared to sacrifice (often, pride), and the power of an imperial, British identity.

The source packet for this book is very different than for Never Caught, for multiple reasons.  Some of Kamensky’s most powerful evidence is from Copley’s brush, so I included links to some of the most indicative paintings (of his, but also Thomas Gainsborough’s Ignatius Sancho of 1768).  Some of Copley’s correspondence is easily captured (via Founders Online) and in what Kamensky reports is a quite good edition from the Massachusetts Historical Society of the early correspondence.  Much of the later material  is in problematic edited collections or still in manuscript.  The correspondence I chose to include highlights, I think, that bivious allegiance of Copley’s, as he wrote to John Adams in the 1790s to offer prints of his work to the President and Vice-President.

I’m still working my way through the process of creating these packets.  The next reading is yet to be determined, and will be a group decision.  I’m looking forward to their choice, and to the challenge of finding ways to connect the material to the arguments and narrative in ways that further enrich the readings for us all.  Meanwhile, I’ve posted the one for Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color below.

K. Wulf Primary Sources for Kamensky, Rev. in Color

Civic Engagement (with a Source Packet)

Here in Virginia it’s another important election day, and I’m about to host another reading group for life-long learners.  This group of (mostly) retirees comes to the Omohundro Institute to discuss a mix of explicitly scholarly and dual-audience history.   This year we began, by request from returning readers, with Kathleen Brown’s 1996 OI book, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs:  Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia.   Many of the folks in the reading group also attend an OI life-long learner short course through William & Mary’s Christopher Wren Association.  In the last two years those courses focused on various topics, including Digital Early America.   In 2018 we’ll be teaching #VastEarlyAmerica.  Packing about 35 people in our seminar room for several Wednesday mornings in the spring, we get a chance to talk about the history we know is important with a fresh audience.  The hardcore group has been turning out for the extra, year-round reading group, and the discussions have been great.  The schedule and previous reading list is on the OI website.

Many historians are increasingly attentive to, or at least very vocal about, the value of speaking, teaching, and writing about history as a form of civic engagement.  The most obvious examples in the last months have centered on the fate of Confederate memorials, and the role they played in the twentieth-century politics, and are playing in the twenty-first century politics, of racial violence.  There are so many ways in which historians can take civic action, one of which is addressing, as in that case, a specific history or historical developments.

By reading scholarly books with non-specialists, I get to share not only the history, but the scholarly process.  We focus on that essential relationship of argument to evidence– and by extension, method.  What constitutes evidence?  How do we assess different types and uses of material?  How tightly or creatively is an author using that evidence?  In an age when discernment seems broadly fragile, when the difference between heated comments and bot-generated, targeted bile has become difficult to parse, when digitally altered text and images about, this small exercise in critical reading seems not only important, but a logical extension of my work.

This week we are reading Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s 2017 book, Never Caught:  The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.  I have this book in several formats, the hardcover I read most closely, the e-book I took with me when I was traveling last week and wanted to keep reading, and the signed proof copy that Erica gave me last year– that’s a treasure!  This book, which I’ve regularly described as one of the most important founding era biographies and one of the most important books about George Washington, is a stunning look at how Ona Judge managed to escape and to make a new life for herself and her new family.  But it’s also and fundamentally a book about the practice of racial slavery, as practiced by America’s first president.

And it’s a terrific use case of source material.  What little there is to document Judge’s life before and after slavery is patiently detailed.  The explicit depictions of slavery and Judge’s case in the Washington correspondence, cited in some  other recent work, is unpacked and put into its most urgent context:  Judge’s.  I admire the book’s light touch, moving along at a good pace while taking time to illustrate how Judge experienced Mount Vernon, New York, Philadelphia, and then her life in New Hampshire.  It makes this a perfect book for a source packet.

I’ve attached here the materials that I shared with the reading group and that we’ll be discussing alongside Never Caught today.  These are all materials that are central to Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s narrative and argument.  I included information about where to locate each source, and we’re going to discuss, too, how they can seek out these (and other) primary sources.  I started with the Pennsylvania Act for the Gradual Emancipation of Slavery (1780) and ended with the text of Ona Judge’s 1845 interview in The Granite Freeman.

Most days we do what we can to make a difference where we think we can.  On this election day it feels just right to be talking about how to discern the sources that reveal the story of a woman who fought for freedom over 220 years ago, and appreciating the woman who has brought her story to light.

KW-Never Caught Source Reader

Hey! Scholarly Publishing is a Business #NACBS17

I’ve been asked to contribute to a panel on scholarly publishing for an audience of graduate students at the 2017 North American Conference of British Studies in Denver.

I can’t show slides (my fault, I asked about the AV too late), but I think this may be a much better idea.  Instead of talking through the slides at the session, I’m going to post them here, and tweet a digest version.  Probably the key is the links!   Many of these links are to posts by my colleagues/ fellow chefs in the Scholarly Kitchen, though a bunch are links to pieces they have written elsewhere.

Sara Damiano’s piece from the October 2017 WMQ. On my iPad.  Multi-platform publishing!

The basic premise of my contribution to the panel is this:  scholarly publishing is business.  That’s not exactly news, but is important to understand.  I don’t mean here to invoke the bogeyman of rapacious capitalism feasting on humanities scholarship.  Publishing, even the non-profit publishing that dominates the humanities, needs to be sustainable.  That has to be achieved one way or another, through revenues that are subscriptions (which for humanities journals are extraordinarily modest), book sales, or–and this is a big factor–subventions from endowments or other benefactor support.  Often it’s a small but vital helping of the former and a big portion of the latter.

For individual authors, especially those just beginning a career, some essential aspects of scholarly publishing–the ones I’ll address are Open Access, metrics, and social media and online publication–are importantly connected to that basic fact.  You can’t understand how OA is functioning, for example, without understanding that it, too, is tied to the business of publishing.  You can’t understand how metrics work, for another, without understanding the economy of attention.

Yes, I’m well aware that what graduate students might most want to hear at a session like this is “how do I get published?!”  And that’s an important part of this panel, too.  Developing your best work, engaging with as many colleagues as possible as you frame and refine your analysis, managing peer review, and collaborating with an experienced editor are all significant aspects of the publication process.  But you’ll be publishing within a broader context, and understanding just a bit about it will make you a more informed author, better able to manage your career and the lifecycle of your scholarship.

Looking forward to the Q&A at the session, and to my remarks from my fellow panelists!

KW for NACBS on publishing

Writing Fourth: Roundup for July 4th

I love reading July 4th writing.  We should be reading, writing and thinking about history every day, but this holiday particularly inspires and provokes.  There is lots of social media reflection as well as semi-formal and more formal writing out there, and I’ve rounded up some of the blogs and op-eds, mostly by historians,  written for today or shared again to mark the holiday.  I’ve also highlighted some of the archival and digital projects focused on America’s founding that are featuring special materials or collections.  I’ll add to the list throughout the day and this week as the reading accumulates!


On the OI’s Uncommon Sense, Elijah Gould wonders “When Did America Really Become Independent?”  Gould, a historian of international law and politics in the revolutionary period, concludes that “The answer is later than Americans usually think — and the quest for the international recognition that made the new republic independent affected its history every bit as much as the ideals in the Declaration.”  (Joyce Chaplin’s measured suggestions on this topic earlier this year covered by John Fea here and here.)

The AHA blog features a review of the new Museum of the American Revolution by Penn graduate student Anna Leigh Todd.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History revisited a 2013 post on how soldiers celebrated July 4th in 1776 (hint:  they didn’t).

For a day of hotdogs and apple pies, the Junto shared Rachel Hermann’s piece from 2013 about the problematic notion of “American food.”  (In my house a German aunt’s blueberry kuchen is the ritual favorite.)

Sara Georgini writes about changing religious (even liturgical!) texts during the Revolution, as intercessions for the king were replaced by prayers for the president.  This exercise in “tracking changes” illuminates not only growing discomfort with the king’s religion, but the challenges the Book of Common Prayer would continue to face in the new United States.

News and Op-eds:

Religion in the early United States, and the implications of how we understand that history for invocations of religious freedom today, is pervasive in the major newspapers today.  In the New York Times, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onus offer a synopsis and analysis of Thomas Jefferson’s evolving religious beliefs and a reminder of the value of the civil religion he favored.

In the Washington Post Sam Haselby also writes about the significance of religion for American national beginnings.  Haselby argues that the contemporary debate about a Christian founding is almost entirely about the political stakes of simplifying the much more complex historical record.

Post reporters also offered multiple stories on early American topics for the holiday, including Paula Dvorak writing about Maryland printer Mary Katharine Goddard .  (This is a nice piece, though I confess I’m very tired of the “why doesn’t anyone know?” construction.  Remember this similar framing about Pauli Murray in the New Yorker?  Tiresome.  Historians do know, of course, but public narratives make it tough to put people of color, and any women, front and center, and that’s why “no-one knows.”)

Documentary, Digital History and media projects:

Harvard’s Declaration Resources project, led by Danielle Allen, has multiple resources highlighted for the holiday.  Their blog includes a conversation with three authors of books about the Revolution for young readers, for example.  The free e-book, Fresh Takes on the Declaration of Independence can be downloaded here.   The extensive resources include a careful comparison of versions of the Declaration, and a discussion of the recent scholarly and press coverage of the “Sussex Declaration,” a rare manuscript parchment version of the document housed at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester, England.

The New York Public Library shared Mark Boonshoft’s blog from earlier this year about the Boston-centricity of the Revolution’s history and the broader New England resistance that sometimes overlooks.  Boon shift highlighted some of the NYPL’s relevant, newly digitized collections such as 8 boxes of papers of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, a volume of minutes for meetings from the Long Island town of Brookhaven, and 7 boxes of papers of Sam Adams.  Irresistible reading.

The Library of Congress reminded all of us just how rough a rough draft can be.  Jefferson’s June 1776 rough draft of the Declaration is here.


Well, I’m only going to mention one at first– on Ben Franklin’s World Liz Covart interviews historians Danielle Allen, Peter Onus, and Patrick Spero on making and declaring independence.  There’s loads of great supplemental content on the OI Reader including texts, bonus audio, annotations and bibliography.  And shhhhh…. I’m sharing just with you that there’s a sneak peak of the OI Reader for iPhones as of today (already on tablets and all Android).  Not really making a big deal about that until September, but let us know what you think!


There are plenty of historians and journalists who have published pieces on the meaning of the fourth in later historical periods or using the holiday to reflect on American patriotism.

For July 4th reflection it’s hard to do better than Frederick Douglass.  The AAIHS editors posted an abridged version of his 1852 speech in Rochester on Black Perspectives.  The Washington Post editorial board also emphasized Douglass this year, in “A 165 year-old Reminder of the Promise of July 4.

The LA Times reached for a slightly earlier 19th century history– the speculations (the work of God?) surrounding  the July 4 deaths of three presidents  (Adams and Jefferson in 1826, James Monroe in 1831.)

I strongly recommend AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman’s piece from 2015 on history and historical analysis as fundamental acts of patriotism— and the challenge of conveying that conjunction.

History is ours collectively.   It is the premise and the promise, but not easy or pretty.  What better way to spend the fourth than in contemplating these truths?

A Star-Spangled Metaphor

The Star Spangled Banner, the garrison flag that was stitched by Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill and flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, is an American icon.  As a metaphor, perhaps it is as tired as the stitches that no longer keep the flag whole.  Backed by layers of structure supplied by the master conservators at the Smithsonian, the flag now rests at a 10 degree angle, under low light.  An online exhibit, “Star Spangled Banner:  The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem,” features an interactive exploration of the flag’s origins, its travels before arriving at the Smithsonian in the early twentieth century, and its recent conservation.

What makes this flag so compelling?  The combination of its origins, its long history as a family keepsake of the Fort McHenry commander and a precious relic of the young American nation, the anthem it inspired with its “broad stripes and bright stars,” and, as a material object, its history of public display all suggest the warm glow of American nationalism.  It pulls with it the colonial revival, the centennial and the bicentennial of the Revolution.  It helped to highlight the War of 1812 commemorations.   In 2013 the Maryland Historical Society sponsored a recreation of the flag that involved over 2,000 volunteers.

Repair Work on the Star Spangled Banner, 1914.  Smithsonian Archives.

What makes it such a powerful metaphor for both the early history and the enduring significance of American national values, however, is the way this tattered flag both embodies and reveals the difficult project of nationalism itself.  It survives and is viewed by more than a million people a year because it has been so carefully rebuilt.  The conservation strategies and technologies of successive eras have been brought to bear on the challenge of preserving this treasure.  Nineteenth-century patching and mending alternated with snipping bits to give as keepsakes.  In 1914, a few years after the flag came to the Smithsonian, expert Amelia Fowler supervised ten women who took eight weeks to attach a linen backing  (with 1.7 million stitches!) to stabilize it.  Decades of monitoring light, heat and dust, in its first fifty years of display at the Arts and Industry building, and then after  1964 when it was moved to a vertically in “Flag Hall” at the National Museum of American History, still left the flag in deteriorating condition.  A major effort from 1994-2008 included the creation of a separate, state of the art conservation lab.

In other words, the Star Spangled Banner was private property for a century, and since the early twentieth century has been an increasingly costly public works project.  Its endurance was first the result of soldiers at Fort McHenry, but since 1814 has been the work of countless professionals and volunteers.  The Star Spangled Banner could not be managed by one family; its endurance has required massive collective action.

But of course there is more to the metaphor than what the flag’s material condition has compelled.  Its layers of meaning go beyond the removal of the 1914 linen backing and the application of two new stabilizing layers nearly a century later.

This tattered flag symbolizes, in Francis Scott Key’s telling,  Americans’ fortitude in battle.  Although only the first stanza of the song is traditionally sung, it has four original stanzas.  The second, like the first, queries then extols the flag’s survival.  The third stanza turns from the victors to the vanquished.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Like the flag, the song was cherished in the nineteenth century ( Oliver Wendall Holmes even wrote a fifth stanza for it at the beginning of the Civil War) but became an American national tradition in the early twentieth century.  Just a few years after the flag was given to the Smithsonian, President Woodrow Wilson ordered it be played at military and other events, and in 1931 a law was passed recognizing the Star Spangled Banner as the American national anthem.

But what Key was writing about was hardly a straightforward account of a successful battle heralded by the flag’s survival.  Key’s history as a slave-owner, his experience with black British soldiers in the months before he observed Fort McHenry under attack, his pro-slavery rhetoric and work as the District Attorney in ante-bellum Washington DC , and the language of the anthem’s third stanza all point to the ways that the flag and the song are deeply embedded in the long history of race and racism in America.  In the Washington Post this week Margaret Jordan joined other voices concerned that “Too many Americans still don’t see Black history as their own.”  Or, put another way, American historical narratives still too rarely account for the braided nature of national failures and achievements.

The history of the Star Spangled banner reveals other layers, other histories:  women’s labor, for example, that made and tended and preserved the flag for centuries.  Native American dispossession, which was a dominant outcome of the War of 1812.  The point is this:  no American history is simple, nor could it be.  America at its best is honest about the past, and aspirational for the future.  The flag among flags can help us do both.




Catching Up with Atlantic Families #AtlFam17

My Spring graduate seminar on Atlantic Families is zooming through the semester– or at least, that’s what it feels like to me.  We’ve read and discussed approaches to the field of “family history,” some inherent contradictions between feminism and history, and the challenge of archival creation and resonances.   Now we’re well into a topical approach to considering how families shaped Atlantic worlds, and how Atlantic world dynamics shaped family structure, choices, and experiences.  Students (in pairs) are doing a terrific job of leading, and framing, the seminar discussions.

Our last readings focused on families and the creation of merchant trade networks and polities.  One of the most challenges books in any semester I’ve taught it is Francesca Trivellato’s The Familiarity of Strangers:  The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period (Yale, 2009).  I assign Trivellato’s book because it raises questions about how and when family connections, whether of choice or as compelled by law, drive economic action.  In the early modern period, global trade was particularly reliant on cultivating connections that would facilitate credit, and family was a, if not the, primary connection of value.  Trivellato asks whether “trust,” a concept associated with such familial networks, could be mobilized to scale as she looks at the enterprise of the Ergas and Silvera families (and their trade in such items as coral and diamonds).  Mostly a Mediterranean story, this book stretches the “Atlantic Families” concept geographically.  But it’s essential reading for the themes of family, trade, and state-building echoed in the same week’s readings, from Julia Adams on the Dutch state and Susanah Shaw Romney on Dutch settlement in early New York.

This week builds on these themes by looking to British law, particularly coverture, and the role of family strategies in response to law  in the formation of capitalism.  There is important work on early North American women regularly involved in complex finances (by Ellen Hardigan O’Connor and Sara Damiano among others), but this week we focus on England where the scholarship is somewhat denser and deeper.  I’ve assigned Amy Erickson’s essay on “Coverture and Capitalism”  approximately a gazillion times, but find it useful and thought-provoking.  This week I also read some of Erickson’s follow-on work that wasn’t assigned for the course, including an essay on “the Short History of the Mrs.”  Th constant here is that laws of marriage were created in the early modern period to serve– and then shape?–a specific economic and political form.  Thinking about how essential aspects of “family” connect to emerging “economy” is the key.

Assets rec’d by Penelope Nesbitt, widow of James Nesbitt of Barbados, 1749, in the Lascelles Slavery Archive at the Univ. of York

In the course we then start to connect both– economic structures and family strategies in the imperial centers– more directly to slavery and the Atlantic slave trade.  Because there is no history of early modern economy without a history of family.  And there is no history of either without the history of slavery and the slave trade.  A point I’m trying to make by bringing Simon Smith’s book on the Lascelles family is one that’s increasingly dense in both the scholarly literature and in public history in Britain:  Caribbean slavery in particular was deeply entwined with the British economy, and especially so as it turned the corner into modern capitalism– and with family economic strategies.  An on point example is the Lascelles Slavery Archive at the University of York, which draws on Smith’s work to contextualize the digital archive of materials related to the family’s interests in the Caribbean through the twentieth century.  Among the transcribed examples on the site is the sale of four men and one woman in the course of another woman’s, Penelope Nesbitt, settlement of her husband’s estate.  So much one could do with this singular piece of evidence, as the seminar knows from reading Marisa Fuentes on the archives of Barbadian slavery.

The themes of law and the constitution of race through the regulation of family (especially sexuality and marriage)  accelerate in the last third of the course.  Stay tuned!


Art, Feminism, and Intellectual Tourism

This week I got to see a painting I’d been admiring and thinking about for thirty years.  Artemisia Gentileschi’s (1593-c. 1656) c. 1638 self-portrait, La Pittura, is part of the “Portrait of the Artist” exhibit at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.   (The Standard called the show “dense and varied, often bizarre, consistently intriguing.”  I agree. ) Gentileschi was arguably the most important woman painter of the early modern period, an Italian painter who came to London in the 1630s under the patronage of Charles I, daughter of another Italian painter, and a rape survivor.  The records of her rape case also survive.  When some of Gentileschi’s other work was exhibited at the National Gallery from October to January last year, The Gurdian covered the basic story of how the rape (naturally) influenced her paintings, particularly Susanna and the Elders  and Judith and Holofernes.  The self-portrait, La Pittura, was painted more than a decade later, and makes a different statement.  While Susanna and Judith reflect aspects of the trauma and rage Gentileschi experienced, in La Pittura she portrays herself as the figural representation of painting (as no man could).  Strong, clever (in composition as well as affect), in this painting there is no-one to detract from Gentileschi herself.

I write this as an enthusiast, decidedly not an expert.  The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace is one of my favorite places in London.  I am only ever in London for work, and while the work I’m doing is lots of fun, including lately lots to do with the Georgian Papers Programme, I’m still trying to stick to a work schedule.  But the opportunity to spend a few hours with a painting I first learned about–and fell in love with– as an undergraduate was too good to pass up.

The lovely thing about this gallery is the intimacy.  It’s not only modestly sized (just three rooms for this show) but the art is displayed in close quarters.  No isolated position with obvious lighting, even for Gentileschi’s painting that covers the exhibition catalogue.  Rather, it, like all the other pieces, is positioned on a wall with other (very interesting) pieces.   I was visiting on a rainy Sunday afternoon in early March; perhaps things get more hectic at other times.  I only had to wait for a few other visitors until I could get closer to La Pittura and appreciate Gentileschi’s work alone (except for the gallery guard, who turned out to be a fan of this painting, too).  I spent enough time staring (again, inexpertly) at the components of the painting that I could wonder whether she meant the gold chain she wears to bear the emblem of imitation (the mask, eg, life imitates art) to look like links of tortoise shell?  That chain is so important to the painting’s thematic resonance.   Or, I can speculate about a link to maritime empires anywhere.

There are other of Gentileschi’s paintings that can rivet the attention, but for me this one was always the most compelling.  I’m sure it was such a revelation in part because I first encountered it, and her, as an undergraduate.  I took a took feminist art history with the great Mary Garrard, who was at the time writing the first major study of Gentileschi.  Garrard was my first experience with a professor who talked about their own research in any extended way.  That obviously shaped the course material, but it also shaped the way we studied the artists and their work.  This seemed like a front row seat for intellectual creation.  More recently, I’ve read a bit about other scholars’ perspectives on this vitally important artist.  Garrard was among the very first generation of feminist art historians, and like all feminists in scholarly endeavors there have been retrospective assessments about what constituted feminism then/ now and for scholarly purposes.

Of course what I know about this subject could fit in a thimble.  That’s part of the joy of intellectual tourism–learning a little bit and then a little bit more.  It’s unlike the particular rewards of working in your own field, where you think within the context of much deeper and denser background.  It’s liberating, even a little bit reckless– I don’t know much, but I’m going to offer a thought about this.  After I started writing this post I discovered that “intellectual tourism” is actually a thing.  It refers to exactly the thing I was doing, visiting museums and other cultural sites to simulate thought as well as curiosity.  I’d love to know more about Gentileschi’s experience at court and how the art patronage of Charles I intersected with the North American histories that were unfolding simultaneously, for example.  The Royal Collection Trusts’s catalogue entry describes the likely acquisition of the painting by Charles I (evidenced by inventories of items that were recovered by Charles II) but it seems unclear when she actually painted it and when and whether she gave it to the king (or he requested it).  A technically and topically difficult piece, it would be fascinating to know why he found it compelling, too.

Years later I asked Mary Garrard to talk to one of my classes on women in early modern Europe and America, and told her how important her class had been, and that it helped to make me an early modernist.  She talked with the students about Gentileschi, about women artists, and about the conventions of art and artists that had typically closed that work to most  women.  I think she thought, with that sort of pained way one approaches enthusiasts, that it was great I was so inspired but, really, I wasn’t much more sophisticated about art and art history than I had been as an undergraduate!  That’s okay by me.  I loved that class then, and I’m still loving it now.

Garrard also wrote (and taught) about eighteenth-century artists Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Maria Cosway.  Both were represented in this show at the Queen’s gallery in interesting ways that could have been the basis of their own post.  In fact tweeting about Cosway, whose prints were part of a wonderful exhibit of women printers at the New York Public Library in 2015-16 and a couple of whose prints are in their digital collections is of course an endlessly complex subject, actually made me start thinking about having a blog.

Mary Knowles, Needlework picture. Royal Collection Trust c. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.

One more note about art, feminism, and intellectual tourism.  Another piece in this exhibit is by the expert needlewoman Mary Knowles (1733-1807).  A Quaker, abolitionist, and intimate of Queen Charlotte, the Queen asked Knowles to create a needlework portrait of George III in 1771 (after the famous Zoffany).  She did, but then in 1779 she created this marvelous self-portrait in which she, like Gentileschi, is an artist at work.  In this piece, only a close up view of which does it any justice, she is stitching the portrait of the king.  She even very cleverly left a loose thread at his fingers.

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