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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

March 4, 2015: Forgotten Wars: The Aroostook War

[Two hundred years ago this week, the U.S. declared war on the North African nation of Algiers, leading to the unremembered conflict about which I wrote in Monday’s post. That Second Barbary War is one of many such forgotten wars in American history, and I’ll also highlight and AmericanStudy others for the remainder of the week’s posts. Leading up to a special weekend post responding to a relevant recent piece by one of my model AmericanStudiers.]
On national history, local history, and lumberjacks.
I wrote a paragraph about the 1839 Aroostook War in this 2012 post on complex American histories of territorial conflict and expansion, and argued there for that forgotten and bloodless war’s significant national and international connections and legacies. Much like the far more extended, violent, and famous (if inaccurately remembered) Mexican American War, the Aroostook War helped determine a border that has become a permanent part of the national and continental landscape. And its culminating Webster-Ashburton Treaty likewise illustrated and amplified the period’s international policing of the continuing, illegal slave trade, giving the war, like the state of Maine in which it took place, a promiment role to play in the era’s tensions over slavery and gradual moves toward sectional division and the Civil War.
Better remembering (or rather remembering at all) this forgotten war would thus help us engage with a number of significant 19th century, national and international histories. Yet just as no history of the Mexican American War can ignore the much more specific local histories at play, neither can we tell the story of the Aroostook War without a deep engagement with particular details of Northern Maine, New Brunswick, and their environment and world. Or rather with one specific such detail: timber, the vital natural resource that was and still is found in particular abundance and quality in precisely the disputed territories between those northeastern regions. If we have to understand the period’s two Barbary Wars as centrally defined by and illustrating international relationships and histories (as I have argued in the week’s prior two posts), then it seems just as clear that, its national and international consequences and meanings notwithstanding, the Aroostook War was the era’s (and perhaps American history’s) most local conflict, the most driven by issues and realities present on the ground in (and to a degree only in) the specific area in question.
Plus, lumberjacks. From one of the most prominent mythological representations of American identity (and his big blue ox) to the unique and popular sports competition show that has become a mainstay of ESPN’s non-major-sport coverage, lumberjacks have occupied a longstanding place in our collective consciousness. Yet despite that cultural presence, I don’t know of any well-known American histories that include this community or allow us to engage with what they have contributed to our national story and identity. Well, the Aroostook War provides just such a history and opportunity, one that can also help us locate historical lumberjacks in the central role they played in the development of the Industrial Revolution in America (and around the world). After all, there’s a reason why both the U.S. and Britain were so desperate to lay claim to those disputed northeastern territories and their miles of prime timber—and better remembering their dispute can help put timber and those who work with it back in our historical as well as cultural narratives.
Next forgotten war tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other under-remembered conflicts you’d highlight?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

March 3, 2015: Forgotten Wars: The First Barbary War

[Two hundred years ago this week, the U.S. declared war on the North African nation of Algiers, leading to the unremembered conflict about which I wrote in Monday’s post. That Second Barbary War is one of many such forgotten wars in American history, and I’ll also highlight and AmericanStudy others for the remainder of the week’s posts. Leading up to a special weekend post responding to a relevant recent piece by one of my model AmericanStudiers.]
On three longstanding legacies of the late 18th century conflict.
I wrote an early post about what I would call the most significant legacy of the First Barbary War (1801-1805): the Treaty of Tripoli with which it concluded, and more exactly that treaty’s unequivocal statement on the separation of church and state in America. In order to nip in the bud precisely the kinds of anti-Muslim sentiments about which I wrote in yesterday’s post, the Treaty’s authors (John Jay and Joel Barlow) included an article that begins “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” in order to argue that “no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” I’ve written at great length about “historian” David Barton and his continual attempts to argue that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation; I don’t pretend that widespread knowledge of the Treaty of Tripoli would dissuade Barton himself, but it might put a dent in the number of Americans convinced by his inaccurate and mythologized accounts.
If the peace treaty that concluded the First Barbary War provided one such lasting legacy, the battle that won the war for the U.S. produced another. Although the Barbary Pirates were primarily a naval threat, this war was won not just at sea (as was the Second Barbary War) but also and perhaps most significantly on land: led by Marine Corps Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, a small group of U.S. Marines and hundreds of foreign mercenaries marched from Egypt into Algiers, capturing the city of Derna, raising the U.S. flag in victory on foreign soil for the first time, and contributing substantially to the decision of Barbary ruler Yusef Karamanli to sign the peace treaty. It’s to remember this victory that the Marine Corps Hymn includes the phrase “to the shores of Tripoli” in its opening line—although, given the fact that O’Bannon’s troop included far more mercenaries than Marines, it’d be important to complicate that enduring image of U.S. strength with a recognition of how much we have also always depended on non-traditional fighters and allies for such victories.
Many of the First Barbary War’s soldiers were thus not part of the American military proper—but many also were, and a group of six prominent such American soldiers who were killed in the course of the war’s assaults on Tripoli were honored in the nation’s oldest military monument: the Tripoli Monument. Designed and sculpted in Italy with the help of the Bishop of Florence, transported to the U.S. aboard none other than the U.S.S. Constitution, and displayed first at Washington’s Navy Yard, then on the grounds on the Capitol, and finally at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, the monument thus reflects not only the war’s efforts and losses, but also the international, naval, and evolving Early Republic histories and identities to which both Barbary Wars can and must be connected. Yet it also and most simply—and in many ways most crucially—reminds us that these wars, like all of our military conflicts, depended on the lives and sacrifices of individual, ordinary Americans, both those who survived to return to life in America and those who did not. I won’t make that point about every war in this week’s series—but I could, and we should be sure to remember it.
Next forgotten war tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other under-remembered conflicts you’d highlight?

Monday, March 2, 2015

March 2, 2015: Forgotten Wars: The Second Barbary War

[Two hundred years ago this week, the U.S. declared war on the North African nation of Algiers, leading to the unremembered conflict about which I’ll write in today’s post. That Second Barbary War is one of many such forgotten wars in American history, and I’ll also highlight and AmericanStudy others for the remainder of the week’s posts. Leading up to a special weekend post responding to a relevant recent piece by one of my model AmericanStudiers.]
On why we should remember forgotten wars, and why perhaps we shouldn’t.
It’d be possible to make the case that the Second Barbary War just represented a second theater within the much more famous War of 1812. Algiers had allied itself and its significant naval might with England during that war; although the U.S. conflict with England was officially ended by the December 1814 Treaty of Ghent, the Battle of New Orleans took place a month after that event (news was slow to cross the Atlantic in those days), and President James Madison’s early 1815 request for Congressional approval of military action against Algiers was thus a partial response to the African nation’s role in that prior war. Yet the new war was also driven by other forces, especially ones related to U.S. shipping interests and experiences in the region: tributes that Algerian raiders were requiring of ships trading in the Mediterranean; a group of U.S. sailors that had been impressed into captivity and service on Algerian ships; and so on. In any case, Madison dispatched two armadas to engage the Algerians, and the force commanded by Stephen Decatur won a decisive victory and dictated the terms of the peace treaty in June 1815.
There are lots of reasons why we should better remember the Second Barbary War, starting with the always appropriate “Because it happened!” But I would argue that it’s particularly useful as a way to push back on any sense of an isolated American identity in this post-Revolutionary, Early Republic era. It’s true that the U.S. did not develop overt, globe-spanning international imperial ambitions until later in the century (although of course the continental imperial ambitions already well underway by this time were entirely international in their era as well). But that doesn’t mean that the U.S. didn’t have an extensive international presence throughout the 19th century, and indeed from its earliest post-Revolutionary moments; there’s a reason why all of our late 18th and early 19th century wars (with the exception of 1812, at the start of which we were invaded) were precipitated because of conflicts that began on the high seas, after all. Moreover, the slave trade and the related international relationships such as the Triangle Trade to which it connected also linked Early Republic America to the rest of the world very fully. All of those would be histories that would help us remember our longstanding, indeed originating, international ties, but the Second Barbary War provides a particularly clear example of the existence and effects of those links.
So we should remember it, on its own terms and for what it can help connect us to about our national identity. Yet I have to admit that I’m somewhat hesistant, in an era when so many Americans believe us to be at war with Islam (and concurrently fear the threat of “sharia law” and the like here on the homefront), to remind Americans that two of our earliest wars (both the Second and the First Barbary War, on which more tomorrow) were with Muslim nations. Of course the answer to ignorance isn’t more ignorance, and I’m not genuinely arguing that we should continue ignoring forgotten histories because they could feed into contemporary ignorance. But at the same time, histories that connect to such contemporary controversies and bigotries are especially in need of careful and nuanced presentation and analysis, of framing and contextualizing that can provide understanding as well as awareness. To remember the existence of the Second Barbary War, that is, is only the first of many steps we need to take when it comes to this forgotten war.
Next forgotten war tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other under-remembered conflicts you’d highlight?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

February 28-March 1, 2015: February 2015 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
February 2: American Conspiracy Theories: Roswell: A series AmericanStudying our crazy beliefs starts with historical and cultural contexts for alien invaders.
February 3: American Conspiracy Theories: JFK: The series continues with a couple arguments for why we have so many doubts about one particular assassination.
February 4: American Conspiracy Theories: Men on the Moon: Two compelling cultural engagements with a longstanding conspiracy community, as the series rolls on.
February 5: American Conspiracy Theories: Black Helicopters: How a 1990s conspiracy theory foreshadowed our 21st century world.
February 6: American Conspiracy Theories: 9/11 Truthers: The series concludes with how not to respond to a contemporary conspiracy theory, and how to do so.
February 7-8: Crowd-sourced Conspiracies: Fellow AmericanStudiers share their responses to the week’s posts and other conspiratorial connections—add yours in comments!
February 9: I Love Attica Locke’s Mysteries: A Valentine’s-inspired series starts with the compelling first two novels, and upcoming third, by a new writer I love.
February 10: I Love David Simon’s Perspective: The series continues with three of the many reasons why I love one of the great 21st century American artists and voices.
February 11: I Love American Historical Films: Five wonderful historical films that reflect all that the genre can do and be, as the series rolls on.
February 12: I Love Writing Book Reviews: How the reviews I’ve had the chance to write to date illustrate all that I can learn and take away from the experience each and every time.
February 13: I Love Magical Historic Sites: The series concludes with five examples of historical and cultural sites that immerse us in American history and identity.
February 14-15: I Love Being an Uncle: But wait, a special Valentine’s weekend post on the new familial role I’m excited to add to my list of loves.
February 16: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Breaking Bad: My annual series on things I don’t love as much as I should starts with a beloved recent TV show.
February 17: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Sinatra and Elvis: The series continues with two undeniably talented and influential artists, and why I don’t quite love either.
February 18: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Emerson and Thoreau: What I do love about two American titans, and what I don’t, as the series rolls on.
February 19: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Boxing: The American sport without which we can’t entirely understand history and race, and my objections to it.
February 20: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Low Five: The series concludes with five historical figures who get no love from this AmericanStudier.
February 21-22: Crowd-sourced Non-Favorites: A collective airing of grievances from fellow AmericanStudiers—you know you’ve got some complaints to add in comments!
February 23: Western Mass. Histories: The Blackstone River Valley: A series on a too-often overlooked Mass. region starts with a new National Historic Park.
February 24: Western Mass. Histories: The Celestials in North Adams: The series continues with a forgotten historical and cultural moment, and the novel that helps us remember it.
February 25: Western Mass. Histories: Mass MOCA: Three of the many reasons to visit an amazing Western Mass. museum, as the series rolls on.
February 26: Western Mass. Histories: The Bridge of Flowers: Three evocative, very American stages in the history of a unique landmark.
February 27: Western Mass. Histories: The Belle of Amherst: The series concludes with why we shouldn’t simply connect Emily Dickinson to her Western Mass. home, and how we can.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, February 27, 2015

February 27, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: The Belle of Amherst

[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
On why we shouldn’t limit Emily Dickinson to her hometown, and why the connection still matters.
When it comes to American authors who are associated with prominent and very specific images of them and their work, I would put Emily Dickinson on the short list, right alongside Poe and his Raven and Twain and his white suit (and maybe Plath and her Daddy issues and suicide). Most of the authors whom I include on my American Lit survey syllabi are unfamiliar to the majority of my students, but these are the exceptions, Dickinson among them; they do have a sense of the poet, one entirely tied to biographical details such as her lifelong seclusion within her Amherst home and her unwillingness to publish the poems that she obsessively wrote in that space. The latter stereotype is easy to push back on—I just share with them Dickinson’s conversations with Thomas Wentworth Higginson about publishing her poetry. But the Amherst connection? That’s a harder nut to crack.
After all, Dickinson’s biographers and historians have confirmed that (to the best of our knowledge) she never left her family’s property for the last two decades of her life, leading to the local descripton of her as “the nun of Amherst” (one often revised in the 20th century to “the belle of Amherst”). One of her most famous poems open with the lines, “This is my letter to the world,/That never wrote to me,” amplifying that sense of separation and seclusion. Yet as a number of recent scholars have demonstrated, during precisely that era of increasing seclusion Dickinson was profoundly engaged with and impacted by the Civil War, to cite only one example of why and how her interests, imagination, and writing ranged far beyond her home and town. Indeed, if we flip the reading of the “letter to the world” lines, we can remember that just because illness and family issues and other factors limited Dickinson’s mobility and ability to travel, that doesn’t mean she was not deeply engaged with varied and widespread histories, stories, and communities; her poetry, like her letters, consistently reflects such broad and deep engagement.
But if we can and should take the poet out of Amherst, we can’t and shouldn’t take the Amherst out of the poet. Which is to say, there are many ways in which the identity of this small Western Massachusetts town can be connected to the work and perspective of its most famous resident. For one thing, Amherst has as longstanding a history of higher education as any small American community—Amherst College was founded in 1821 (9 years before Dickinson’s birth) and the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1863, meaning that Dickinson did her artistic and intellectual work in a hotbed of such activity. For another, the town is also a hotbed of political activity and activism—throughout the 19th century, as illustrated by local products such as Helen Hunt Jackson, Chief Justice Harlan Stone, and Congressman Edward Dickinson, Emily’s father; and into the present, as demonstrated by the saying “Only the ‘h’ is silent” to describe the town. And for a third, the town has as deep and complex a relationship to American history and identity as did Dickinson, having been named after a hero of the French and Indian War who was also one of the first to recommend the use of smallpox-covered blankets in conflicts with Native Americans. A town that is as complex, engaged, and intelligent as Dickinson herself—not a bad fit after all.
February Recap this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

February 26, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: The Bridge of Flowers

[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
On three compelling stages to the history of the Shelburne Falls landmark.
I’ve written a couple of prior posts about historic sites that developed in direct connection to the late 19th and early 20th century era of local trolley railways: Charlottesville (VA)’s Fry’s Spring’s period as a “trolley park”; and one of the most popular such trolley parks, Newton (MA)’s Norumbega Park. (Both Boston’s Revere Beach and New York’s Coney Island are in that conversation as well.) Although the Bridge of Flowers is now known as a pedestrian bridge, it began life as a trolley bridge, built in 1908 to allow the cars of the Shelburne Falls & Colrain Street Railway to journey between the towns of Shelburne and Buckland. Although these trolleys carried heavy freight and goods as well as passengers, they nonetheless also allowed for residents to travel much more easily and frequently between these communities, creating in the process the kinds of communal and social experiences for which the trolley parks became so famous.
The railway went bankrupt in 1927 and the bridge seemed destined for unuse and decay; but thanks to a couple significant subsequent efforts, the bridge has instead continued to offer such social experiences ever since. In a 1928 letter to the editor of a local paper, Shelburne’s Clara Barnard quoted her friend, the late Antoinette Burnham; Burnham, collaborating with her invalid husband Walter, had developed an idea to turn what could be an industrial eyesore into “a bridge of beauty.” Later that year, the recently founded Shelburne Falls Women’s Club sponsored the project, and in the spring of 1929 loam and fertilizer were added to the bridge, providing the starting points for the first blossomings of what has become an annual Bridge of Flowers. To my mind, this inspiring moment represents a local, practical version of the City Beautiful Movement, and indeed can be seen as an embodiment of that movement’s emphasis on bringing natural beauty to all Americans, regardless of their geographical location and social status.
If the idea behind the Bridge of Flowers was designed to be perennial, however, the initial building of the bridge had not been, and a 1975 Hampshire College study determined that the bridge had deteriorated dangerously by that time. A subsequent 1979 engineering study recommended repairs that would cost nearly $600,000, but Shelburne Falls and its neighboring towns were up to the challenge: a combined effort of the Women’s Club, the Shelburne Falls Fire Department, and numerous private donations, coupled with a sizeable Massachusetts Small Cities Community Development Block Grant, yielded the full required amount, and the restoration efforts began in May 1983. My favorite detail about those efforts is that every plant from the bridge was removed and cared for in private gardens throughout the restorations, so that they and the bridge could be returned to full bloom once it was safe and ready once more. No idea, no matter how inspiring or beautiful, can be sustained without continued care and commitment, a reality potently illustrated by the beautiful Western Mass landmark that is the Bridge of Flowers.
Last history tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

February 25, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: Mass MOCA

[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
On two reasons you should visit the great museum any time, and one reason to do so ASAP.
The small town of North Adams isn’t just home to the histories about which I wrote in yesterday’s post: it also hosts a unique institution of public higher education, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA); and an even more unique museum, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA). Housed in a sprawling complex of former industrial buildings that date back more than two centuries and have received National Historic Register status, and making excellent use of the specifics of that space (many of which feel as if they could still house the factory floors and workers who once occupied them), Mass MOCA rivals the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in combining the universal appeal of an art museum with the specific identity of a site and its histories. I know North Adams isn’t exactly next door for most of us, but if you find yourself in either the New York or Boston areas with room for a daytrip, Mass MOCA is well worth your time.
That’s true not only because of the museum’s unique location and identity, but also because of how it presents its modern art exhibitions. I can’t put it any more clearly than does the museum’s own mission statement: “If conventional museums are boxes, MASS MoCA strives instead to be an open platform—a welcoming environment that encourages free exchange between the making of art and its display, between the visual and performing arts, and between our extraordinary historic factory campus and the patrons, workers and tenants who again inhabit it. That is, we strive to make the whole cloth of art—making, presentation, and public participation—a seamless continuum.” I agree with every word of that, and would add this: in my admittedly limited experience, “modern art” has tended to be equated, by (it felt to me) the institutions and artists themselves, with “snobby and difficult to understand,” with an audience experience that is at least as uncomfortable or uncertain as it is engaged or (dare I say it) entertained. I was certainly challenged by much of what I encountered at Mass MOCA, but I was also consistently engaged and entertained, and I would say that complements the museum’s stated mission very nicely.
Those are reasons to visit Mass MOCA any time, but I have to add one reason to go within the next few weeks if you’re able: Brooklyn-based artist Teresita Fernández’s amazing exhibition “As Above So Below,” which runs through March. I’m a big believer in the power of words, but I don’t think my words here can begin to do justice to the unique and potent effect of Fernández’s works, especially when combined with Mass MOCA’s spaces and settings (with which Fernández clearly worked to plan and create a number of the works included in the exhibition). If you get a chance to see the exhibition, I can’t recommend it enough; if you don’t, there’s a video intro at this site, and apparently a 96-page hardcover accompanying catalogue you can try to get your hands on as well. But like Mass MOCA overall, this exhibition is particularly striking and special when you’re inside of it.
Next history tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?