I object to using the determiner an instead of a in front of the word historian. It seems pretentious and unnatural. I believe almost nobody says “an historian,” yet I read it all the time.
I’ll grant that some English dialects do talk of ’istory and ’istorians. But in most dialects, as well as in what I consider standard usage, people always pronounce the initial h. Because that’s so, I insist that “an historian” (used in writing) is unambiguously pretentious or archaic. Continue reading →
In honor of Howard Zinn, whose death is in the news, I’d like to publish a review of a book he could never have written. The book is The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson, a conservative ideologue with a charming prose style. I reviewed the book for LibraryThing by contrasting it with Howard Zinn’s best-known work.
Let me contrast Paul Johnson with another popular historian, Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States ). Both are good, entertaining writers, but Zinn is honest about his radical bias, while Johnson assumes a “god’s-eye” view of history that presumes to report “what really happened” without the biases that mere mortals are prone to. Of course, the bias is there anyway. Zinn is radically democratic and suspicious of all elites, whereas Johnson writes of a world well managed by a few superb individuals; the rest of the people are an abstraction he calls the “demos.” Johnson deserves credit for writing well and engagingly about a remarkable range of topics, from politics and war to art and popular culture. But he deserves censure especially for his apologetics for European imperialism. Throughout this thick book, every European or American military adventure in Asia, Africa, or the Americas is reported with modifiers like “had to,” “like it or not,” and “reluctantly.” Thus we read that Britain went to war in China “for altruistic as well as commercial reasons,” as if China was in need of a foreign power to peddle opium to its people and lob shells at its port cities. There is no doubt that most European officers really believed in the “civilizing mission” of imperialism, but it seems ridiculous for a latter-day historian to agree with them in this sly way. I recommend taking this book with a grain of salt — remembering that the slaves who manufactured table salt during this period had a history as well.
Since I wrote that, Johnson has churned out a lot more Tory literature, been humiliated by a sex scandal, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush.
Paul Johnson, the sanctimonious rakehell, is not to be confused with Paul E. Johnson, a superb American historian.
[I wrote more about Zinn here, but the WordPress app for the iPhone gobbled it all up. Apparently some genius programmed the app so the Save button sometimes mean Cancel. I'll revisit this if time permits. And I will not try to write any more posts on a phone.]
This is one of those Facebook memes: a list of 15 books that matter to me, written down in the order I thought of them, without reflection or editing. I scribbled it down last year, felt satisfied, and forgot to post it. So here it is for whatever it may be worth. Continue reading →
The symposium, co-sponsored by the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Daviston, AL will feature scholars from around the nation, including Gregory Dowd (A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815), David and Jeanne Heidler (Old Hickory’s War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire) and Gregory Waselkov (A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Red Stick War of 1813-1814).
For more information about the symposium or the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities visit www.auburn.edu/cah or call 334-844-4946.
Update: Video from the symposium will be podcast later this summer, most likely in July. Plans are to include some footage from a tour of the Horseshoe Bend battlefield. Podcasts from the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center are distributed through iTunes; a search for auburn draughon will take you there.
My contribution will be to talk about Burnt Corn, the fight that turned a Creek civil war into a war between Indians and Americans. The episode, which ended in a rout of the American militia by a smaller Indian force, was the subject of what we now call “spin,” from more than one quarter. I’ll be dealing with claims that the Creek Indians were tools of America’s British enemy.
One of the most curious facts about the battle is that it inspired Alabama’s first home-grown literary work, a mock-heroic poem about the commander of the militia at Burnt Corn called The Last Battle of Sir John Falstaff the 2nd, or, The Hero of the Burnt-Corn Fight. I think it’s a good example of the genre, a slashing satire full of self-reflexive humor and playful allusions, which deserves to be remembered for its own sake. I won’t go into this at the conference, but I believe the poem, by one Lewis Sewall, fell into oblivion because it jarred in so many ways with the canonical origin myth of the Deep South.
Contrast A.B. Meeks’ sentimental romance The Red Eagle, which embroiders the life of Scotch-Indian William Weatherford. It was reborn in handsome 20th-century editions used to afflict generations of Alabama schoolchildren. While I don’t imagine the kids are waiting breathlessly for another 19th-century poem to memorize, I do think it’s high time the rest of us had a new edition of Falstaff the 2nd. Today the poem only survives in a few damaged copies guarded by archivists. Philip D. Beidler at the University of Alabama has published more about this subject than anyone else.
One of the greatest American historians, John Hope Franklin, died on March 24 at the age of 94. History News Network has collected tributes here.
Besides his pioneering historical writing, mainly on the American South, Franklin is remembered for contributing his knowledge to the petitioner’s successful arguments in Brown v. Board of Education, the historic decision that ended legal public school segregation. He came to Selma in 1965 to join the protest march to Montgomery.
Franklin was the first African American to chair a history department (Brooklyn College), to say nothing of the Southern Historical Association, which he presided over in 1970. Probably he was the first professional African American historian to be a mentor to white graduate students. I learned recently that Ed Bridges, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, wrote his dissertation at the University of Chicago under Franklin’s direction.
Historical myths and simplifications about a monolithic “Islamic world” are a besetting problem in the U.S. media, and I think professional historians should be concerned — especially when a member of the profession is responsible for sowing confusion in the first place, as in this case.
The story, in brief, is that the world’s Muslims see Barack Obama as an “apostate” who deserves to die for abandoning their religion. Acceptance of the story relies on the assumption that Muslims are irrational savages. It also overlooks the fact that the media in the Muslim world are uninterested in this alleged issue.
I have a feeling this story won’t go away, so here are some links for my own reference, and for anyone else who’s interested. (All URLs are shortened via snipr.com.)
Edward N. Luttwak, “President Apostate?” http://snipr.com/2diw8 This is the New York Times opinion article that first stirred the pot.
Emory professor Abdullahi An-Na‘im responded with “Misrepresenting Islam” http://snipr.com/2dj9c (Religion Dispatches).
Clark Hoyt, “Entitled to Their Opinion, Yes. But Their Facts?” http://snipr.com/2dity After canvassing Islamic scholars, the NYT public editor criticizes Luttwak’s piece.
Svend White, “Who’s Smearing Obama?” (Religion Dispatches) http://snipr.com/2dj4k traces the rumor campaign back to Daniel Pipes, the Chicken Little of Muslim fright tales. White mentions how this story serves the aggressive propaganda strategy of “swiftboating,” or telling fibs in order to recast an opponent’s political strengths as weaknesses.
P.S. Dr. An-Na‘im’s insightful (and historically aware) new book on Islam and the secular state is reviewed at the SSRC blog: http://snipr.com/2djbu. Great read.
P.P.S. This post started out as a Facebook note; hence the written-out URLs.