AMERICAN HISTORY | An Overview of The Journal of American History

The Journal of American History is a quarterly journal that was originally established in 1914 as the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. Under the guidance of its first editor, Clarence Walworth Alvord, founder of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association which headed the journal, the first volumes dealt mainly with the history of the political and territorial disputes of American frontier states, particularly those in or near the Mississippi Valley. However, even its first volumes branched out a bit to look at history of the Northwest or Florida, for instance, and though the journal’s scope was regional, it was generally not as provincial as its original title suggests. Within the first fifty years the journal developed a close relationship with the History Department of Indiana University, and by 1964, with the publication of issue #51, it was decided to change the name to The Journal of American History, and to rename the professional association to the Organization for American Historians. The rationale for the change was explained in the June 1964 issue:

Back of this change in title is an awareness not only of a growing nationally distributed membership in the Association but a recognition of a decided shift in contributor emphasis from regional to nationally-oriented history. This change is reflected not only by articles that have been published in the Review over the past half century, but by articles submitted for consideration by the managing editor and the board of editors. For example, only ten out of 167 articles submitted for possible publication during this past year were definitely concerned with Mississippi Valley history.

Though the geographic outlook of the journal expanded, the topics still dealt mainly with political history.

However, as the landscape of professional history broadened, these changes were reflected in the articles found within the journal, as well as in the authors of those articles. Social history and women’s history became more frequent, and especially prominent were conversations dealing with race. These were appearing with regularity by the late 1990s and into the new millenium. For instance, the June 1999 issue included the articles, “Mobilizing Women, Anticipating Abolition: The Struggle against Indian Removal in the 1830s” by Mary Hershberg, and “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924” by Mae M. Ngai. Or in the 2000 issue, with articles such as “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s” by Walter Johns and “From Amazons to Glamazons: The Rise and Fall of North Carolina Women’s Basketball, 1920-1960” by Pamela Grundy. Signifying this shift is the appointment of Joanne Meyerowitz as editor from 1999 to 2004, who has written extensively in gender studies and whose 2002 work, How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States, won prominent awards. In addition to these shifts, a move to seeing American History within the context of a global community is reflected in the extensive list of “International Contributing Editors”.

From 2005 to 2016, the journal was edited by Edward T. Linenthal, a historian whose particular interests lie in memorials and sacred spaces. A shift towards the inclusion of public history and historical memory is reflected in the 2007 special issue, “Through the Eye of Katrina: The Past as Prologue?”, which states in its introduction: “As historians have long recognized, current events – especially traumatic shocks that disrupt the status quo – alter our perceptions of the past. In the shadow of human catastrophes, scholars are pushed to formulate new questions and to revisit old orthodoxies as they probe for fresh meaning.” Here the journal looks to current events as history-in-the-making.

The journal has expanded in other ways, including online articles, podcasts, and a blog called Process, which “features posts about teaching, public history, careers in history, the newest scholarship on U.S. history,” among other topics. The current editor, Benjamin H. Irvin, a historian of Early America, began his post in the summer of 2017.

BOOK REVIEW | A History of Horror

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror offers a substantial list of horror films from the silent beginnings to the first decade of the twenty-first century. He takes a studio approach, highlighting the directors, producers, and a few of the actors which thrived under certain eras. Only on rare occasions does he touch upon the cultural aspects under which these films were made, and a great deal of the text is taken up by various plot synopses. For someone new to the genre looking for a curated list of horror films to seek out, this book will suffice.

However, for a reader who’s been baptized in the blood and gore of the genre, curious inaccuracies will have one scratching their head. Some errors can be brushed off as innocently typographic, such as placing the release of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn as 1986 and not 1996, or referring to Chucky as Charles Ray Lee instead of Charles Lee Ray. Others are more difficult to ignore, such as claiming that Henry Frankenstein perishes with the Monster and the Bride in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), when the Monster actually tells Henry and Elizabeth, “Yes! Go! You live!” and then proceeds to kill himself, the Bride, and Dr. Pretorius while his creator makes his escape. Dixon’s obvious distaste for slashers and, in particular, the Friday the 13th franchise, likely accounts for why he inaccurately describes the first installment: “Jason, played in the first film by Ari Lehman, is a mute, imbecilic, homicidal maniac in a hockey mask who runs amok at Camp Crystal Lake, where an assembly line of teens who smoke pot, have sex, and drink are hacked to death for their ‘transgressions’.” This description may serve to characterize some of the later installments, but it calls into question how much Dixon remembers the first film, or the second for that matter.

While Dixon’s long catalogs of films are largely comprehensive, he neglects the atomic age creature features, such as 1954’s Them! and many other influential sci-fi horror films of the 1950s. Where he proves most useful is in his inventory of foreign horror films for the first decade of the 21st century, which he rightly designates as being superior to the Hollywood horror offerings of the time (though he leaves out the most famous French Extremity film, 2008’s Martyrs). Dixon will, however, find few who are sympathetic to his favorable analysis of Twilight as a positive influence on the genre, and rightly so.

For someone new to the horror genre, Dixon’s history is a useful guide to finding which films one should explore. For a veteran fan, though, there’s not enough to recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW | African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927

African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927, is a slim volume which gives a taste of the African American experience from the dawning of the Revolution to the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. There are many fine pieces found within, and it is interesting to see the attitudes change over time, such as when Phillis Wheatley, an eighteenth-century slave, expresses gratitude for have left Africa to learn about Christ (“On Being Brought from Africa to America”), gives way to Langston Hughes’s romanticism of his ancestral roots in the continent’s past “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”).

The only grievance which I can muster lies in a lack of notation that may have given many of the poems their proper context. This is especially so in the many dialectical poems where frames of reference would have been helpful. In particular, James Edwin Campbell’s “The Cunjah Man” was so dialectically dense that I had to read it several times to get even a sense of what the subject was. As it stands, I am not sure the “Cunjah Man” is a hoodoo conjurer, the Devil, or something entirely unrelated.

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BOOK LOG | June 2020

What follows is a list of what I read/listened to in the month of June 2020, accompanied by a short publisher’s description and my brief thoughts/reactions.

NONFICTION

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

“One of the most influential works of this century, The Myth of Sisyphus–featured here in a stand-alone edition–is a crucial exposition of existentialist thought. Influenced by works such as Don Juan and the novels of Kafka, these essays begin with a meditation on suicide–the question of living or not living in a universe devoid of order or meaning. With lyric eloquence, Albert Camus brilliantly posits a way out of despair, reaffirming the value of personal existence, and the possibility of life lived with dignity and authenticity.”

A fascinating rumination on absurdity and on living a life without meaning, or more properly, finding your own meaning in life. Camus encourages us to accept and to find power in a meaningless universe. I read this book right before reading Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man and was surprised to see both books, published around the same time, tackled so many of the same themes.

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Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam by James M. McPherson

“The Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest single day in American history, with more than 6,000 soldiers killed four times the number lost on D Day, and twice the number killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks. In Crossroads of Freedom, America’s most eminent Civil War historian, James M. McPherson, paints a masterful account of this pivotal battle, the events that led up to it, and its aftermath.”

I had read Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, McPherson’s collection of essays, and really enjoyed it. I looked forward to checking out this slim volume and was not disappointed. McPherson masterfully balances the dramas of war, political maneuvering, social change, and global pressures in this account. The reader comes away not only with a sobering understanding of the battlefield carnage, but also with an appreciation for just how much was at stake and how easily the currents of history might have shifted. This is an excellent primer. For a more detailed military history, readers should check out Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears.

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FICTION

The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

“While on holiday, Scott Carey is exposed to a cloud of radioactive spray shortly after he accidentally ingests insecticide. The radioactivity acts as a catalyst for the bug spray, causing his body to shrink at a rate of approximately 1/7 of an inch per day. A few weeks later, Carey can no longer deny the truth: not only is he losing weight, he is also shorter than he was and deduces, to his dismay, that his body will continue to shrink.”

Matheson crafts a thoughtful, fast-paced sci-fi horror novel. The horror of the novel comes from the fears of emasculation, which is a common theme we see in the 1950s due to the rise of suburbia. Until the end, Scott Carey can’t get out of the mindset of the 1950s male, with expectations that he should be taller than his wife, the primary breadwinner, the master of the house, and respected by his child. He should be ruler of his domain. The book, therefore, is a record of the slow death of the male ego. The situations in which Carey finds himself in the book are dark, especially for the 1950s, including nearly being molested by a drunk in a car who mistakes him for a prepubescent boy. His shrinking stature also makes him susceptible to being bullied by neighborhood teens. More than anything we see his sexual frustrations, such as when he’s sitting next to his wife and desiring her, but he’s the size of a twelve-year-old and is afraid she’ll reject him or be disgusted if he tries anything. As he gets smaller he resorts to spying on a teenage babysitter and then later laying with a doll in a dollhouse desperate for some form of human affection.

It’s not until he drops the rigid ideals of conformity that he stops thinking of himself as a freak or a child or effeminate and comes to accept himself for what he is that he finds release.

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For a discussion of the 1957 film version, The Incredible Shrinking Man, listen to Episode 89 of The Horrorcast.

The Witches by Roald Dahl

“This is not a fairy-tale. This is about real witches. Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, cunning, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you’re face to face with one? Well, if you don’t know yet you’d better find out quickly-because there’s nothing a witch loathes quite as much as children and she’ll wield all kinds of terrifying powers to get rid of them.”

This was without a doubt my favorite book when I was a kid. I remember the summer after second grade sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard devouring each page. The curse of the little girl trapped in the painting, growing older each day, haunted me for years. This time I read it with my seven-year-old son and took to it just as I had. It’s certainly different reading it as an adult. One sees the gendered assumptions more clearly, for instance. This time I was struck by the Grand High Witch’s germanic accent and her diatribe against children, and I wondered if Dahl was channeling Hitler’s speeches as he wrote it. But considering Dahl’s documented antisemitism, there’s room for doubt.

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AUDIOBOOK

The Life and Times of Prince Albert by Patrick Allitt

“In 10 lectures, award-winning historian Patrick N. Allitt transports listeners to England in the 1840s and 1850s. During those two decades, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, became one of the most influential people in the country and remains a figure of fascination even today. In fact, the British royal family as we know it wouldn’t exist without the private and public actions of this detached, impartial, and upright political figure.”

Royal life does not usually peak my curiosity, but Allitt does a fine job of explaining the era in a balanced and objective manner. I was surprised to find how many modern customs and attitudes stem from Albert, and it was very interesting hearing the impact he had on Britain and the world.

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BOOK REVIEW | Common Sense

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, published in January of 1776, is undoubtedly one the most influential works in the history of mankind. Its first run sold out within two weeks and went on to sell around 500,000 copies in a country with only about 2 million free people. Its message was simple, its language easily understood: Britain had no right or ability to properly govern America, the monarchical system was profoundly flawed and unnatural, and the colonies were in a perfect historical position to both win independence and maintain it. While most of the ideas found in the monograph were not begun with Paine, and had been repeatedly debated upon the floor of the Continental Congress, they had not yet been presented directly to the people in so clear and accommodating a manner. The result was a steady tide of public support for independence, and perhaps most significantly, for the Continental Army and General Washington’s rapidly depleting resources.

John Adams once wrote of it: “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain,” acknowledging the general approval that had been raised before declaring independence that July of 1776. However, Adams, like many others at the time, was no fan. The more years that went by the more he grew to hate both Common Sense and its author, the former for the radically democratic ideals it espoused, the latter more than likely for the attacks on Christianity Paine would publish as The Age of Reason while imprisoned in France during the French Revolution.

Paine was a recent English immigrant who failed at just about everything in life until he befriended Doctor Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia and was encouraged by him to write his tract for independence, published at first anonymously. This began his long career as a revolutionary. Undoubtedly the poorest of America’s Founding Fathers, he took up the rifle and joined Washington’s army, writing the inspiring The American Crisis along the way (“These are the times that try men’s souls…”). After the Revolution he would join anti-monarchical radicals in England, penning the immortal Rights of Man, before escaping arrest and fleeing to France, where he became immersed in the tumult of the French Revolution.

However, after he published the controversial The Age of Reason, he found many of his former friends had abandoned him, with Thomas Jefferson being the sole exception. He died in the Greenwich Village area of New York a destitute, his funeral attended by a paltry few.

Thomas Paine

Read today, it is not difficult to see why Common Sense persuaded so many in its time. Paine writes inspiring prose. His observations, too, can be profoundly philosophical and transcend their intended subject. For instance, he opens the text with this historical truth: “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.” Every civil rights movement can testify to the generational shifts to which these simple words refer.

Paine does not weigh his writing with provincial grievances against the crown, but rather places his arguments on more meta-historical grounds. He sees the Revolution as not simply a fight for the American independence for which he was advocating, but as a new chapter in mankind’s history, where men may remake their political structures anew, based not upon heredity and tradition but upon liberty and reason. Much like Lincoln would come to give Union soldiers a greater cause than punishing rebellion in the mission of slavery’s destruction, thereby reinvigorating the war effort by boosting morale, Paine also reaches for higher causes to inspire. It is not only the colonies’ freedoms that are at stake, but liberty itself. In these moments the text truly shines, such as when Paine passionately pleads: “O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her – Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”

Of course, like every best-seller before and since, the work is not without its flaws. Paine is seemingly contradictory at times, and his biblical arguments against monarchy are weak but can certainly be marked up to a need to pander to his intended audience.

It should be remembered, however, that the pamphlet was intended to be a timely piece, the intention of which was not to create an all-encompassing political philosophy, but to convince people of the day that independence was the only logical and moral path for America to take, and that the opportunity was slipping by. Common Sense, despite its shortcomings, still holds the power to inspire, and so much of what Paine wrote rings true today as it helped to ultimately define Americans’ views of government, freedom, and their own history, much as John Adams would have hated to admit.

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For another look at Paine, see my post: Thomas Paine, Reappraised.

Thomas Paine, Reappraised

Some years back I was walking through Greenwich Village and came upon an old building plaque which read:

Thomas Paine

Born – 1737

Died – 1809

On this site.

The world is my country

All mankind are my brethren

To do good is my religion

I believe in one God and no more

Every American school kid grows up learning about Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” which justified for many Americans the revolutionary cause and argued for the superiority of representational government. (For a closer look, see my review.) John Adams had reportedly stated, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Born in England, Paine immigrated to America after meeting Benjamin Franklin in 1774. During the war he served under George Washington, and it was at the Continental Army’s seemingly lowest point, in the winter of 1776, that he penned “The American Crisis,” which began with the immortal lines, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Despite his revolutionary accolades, he found little financial support in the newly established United States. When revolution broke out in France, he showed his endorsement by responding to Edmund Burke’s conservative attacks on the revolutionaries by publishing his Declaration of the Rights of Man. He traveled to France to oversee the French translation but soon ran afoul of Jacobin extremists due to his opposition to the death penalty. Imprisoned, he began writing his last great — and most controversial — work, The Age of Reason, a three part condemnation of Christianity and religion and a call for deism and scientific inquiry. Convinced that Washington had played a role in his imprisonment, Paine wrote a public letter condemning his former ally.

These attacks on the revered first president and on Christian theology destroyed Paine’s reputation in the United States. Nevertheless, he returned to the new republic, finding few prominent friends save for Thomas Jefferson (who was sympathetic to Paine’s views), who invited him to the White House during his presidency. Nearly everyone else abandoned him, and his name was bile on the lips of those who spoke it.

On his deathbed, he was asked by a doctor if he wished to accept Jesus Christ. Paine replied, “I have no wish to believe on that subject,” and took his final breath. His few remaining friends attended his quiet burial. In 1819, the English radical William Cobbett stole his bones and brought them to England, hoping to give him a more proper burial. Over time, however, most of the bones have been lost.

Paine is a personal hero of mine. He was a citizen of the world, a man of moral convictions, and an advocate for the liberty of both body and mind. As I stood reading the plaque, which had been placed there by the Greenwich Village Historical Society in 1923, I kept imagining that small party of mourners paying their respects to a man who deserved more recognition and appreciation. As I rode the train back home a poem began rattling in my mind. A simply rhymed verse, it was my own eulogistic offering of sorts. I jotted it down and I now share it here.

Lingering Paine

There is a bustling village
Where well-known Paine had died,
Within the crooked nooks
Of Gotham’s old design.

It was on a street called Grove
At number fifty-nine,
When whispers could be heard
On corners at the time.

Long before the beatnik pens
Let out their desperate sighs,
Stonewall's mortar buckled
Beneath the weight of cries.

The words that stirred a people
And helped a nation rise,
They echo with us still,
And keep this Paine alive.

Further Reading

If you would like to learn more about Paine, I recommend the late Christopher Hitchens’s Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography as a worthy primer. It is a slim volume, written with Hitchens’s signature wit, that succeeds in giving the reader a summary of Paine’s life and the reasons for why it mattered, and matters still.

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