Category Archives: Uncategorized

Wiggly Tales: A Random Tale Generator

[This semester I’m taking Humanities Data Analysis with Professor Ben Schmidt. One of our tasks for this week was to build a random-walk generator using 3-grams. Here’s my quick writeup of my generator cross-posted from our course blog.]

We’ve been reading a lot of fairy tales around my house recently, so I wanted to see how well-spun of a tale I could create by walking randomly through a collection of fairy tales. I selected four fairy-tale collections from Project Gutenberg to test this idea on. Code is on GitHub.

I selected these four collections:

The addition of the Arabian Nights stories to Western European fairy tales makes the random generator more interesting, sometimes throwing the geographical sense of the tale into a different place and a different world.

This version generated my favorite beginning: “once upon a time a man by the river yes he was looking straight into the deep waters skeletons of walruses.”

But other versions of the generator took an even darker turn. Here’s the raw text:

“once upon a great procession which was conscious of pain And sore regret of which she said nothing but torment and affliction that He sniffed about to give the ants were always running to and when he approached her they did not really birds but she bore thee Thou hast nothing to me Only tell me something Why this is what you say What is the news O my sister relate to me Art thou she whom he found it impossible to think of The old rough doll You are learned and wise men assembled together in his age and to nail up my mind every earthly care and sorrow with soft turf From the narrow walks and the Wezeer the father of Is both of you should care so much that renders men sinful and impure He fully realized the true the speaker s hand saying to each other till the morning following I have with me from first to last and then burst and fell fast asleep”


And here’s the story, with some punctuation that I added for “clarity”:

Once upon a great procession–which was conscious of pain and sore regret, of which she said nothing but torment and affliction that He sniffed about to give. The ants were always running to, and when he approached her, they did not really birds but she bore thee: “Thou hast nothing to me. Only tell me something: Why this is what you say? What is the news? O my sister relate to me! Art thou she whom he found it impossible to think of? The old rough doll? You are learned, and wise men assembled together in his age and to nail up my mind every earthly care and sorrow with.” Soft turf from the narrow walks and the Wezeer the father of Is, both of you should care so much! That renders men sinful and impure. He fully realized the true the speaker’s hand, saying to each other till the morning following, “I have with me from first to last,” and then burst and fell fast asleep.

And sometimes it’s important to be reminded of where your texts come from. I didn’t remove any text at all from the Project Gutenberg texts, which means that the copyright and distribution information could appear in our stories too. For example:

“The two grand annual festivals are observed with public domain eBooks Redistribution is subject to particular laws or rules with respect to our beetle to himself but the observance of this Wezeer So the porter approached the Distracted Slave of Love when his boat or playing in the lap of prosperity and the fear of him said the Fire drum Peter has gone away I ll do something in me.”

I might publish a longer generated story sometime soon, but all this generator proves is that tales can be wiggly indeed.


Geography in the American Quasi-War with France

After an AHA in which I heard a lot about how digital history needs to be about results as well as methodology, I decided to write up a post about the results I gained from mapping the Quasi-War. Special h/t to Cameron Blevins and Yoni Appelbaum for inspiring me to write about my research. I’m also using Yoni’s hyperlink-style citations.

For my seminar in Empires and Colonialism this past semester, I wrote about the United States’ Quasi-War with France. The paper argues that the Quasi-War was one of the United States’ first chances to engage with international law on a broad scale, and that the conflicting legal realities of an undeclared war helped to destabilize the French empire in the Caribbean to the breaking point. As part of that seminar paper, I mapped encounters between the French and the Americans (with a few British encounters) from 1797 to 1800. This map proved to be more illuminating than I expected, and it became an integral part of my argument about the primacy of prize courts in the Quasi-War. The map has clickable points where encounters occurred, as well as a fuller explanation of the judgments I made in creating it. You can see the map here. What follows is my explanation of what the map does.


From 1798 to 1800, the United States waged an undeclared maritime war with France. Though this conflict is often described as a naval war, it was not a traditional one. Almost no French naval vessels entered the Caribbean, and the hostile encounters between the French and the Americans were almost all battles between privateers and merchant vessels.

This screenshot shows most of the encounters between American and French vessels. Green is a French capture; red is an American; brown is an encounter that did not result in a capture either way.
This screenshot shows most of the encounters between American and French vessels. Green is a French capture; red is an American; brown is an encounter that did not result in a capture either way.

Why were there so many privateers in the Caribbean? Geographically, the islands had always been prime areas for piratical types—lots of inlets and tiny islands for staging. In addition, the privateers served an important role in providing for the colonies. The dominance of the sugar industry had restricted the colonies’ ability to provide basic foodstuffs for their people, both white and black. Previous to this conflict, the United States had provided a large portion of the colonies’ food for the sugar workers—one scholar states that St. Domingue relied on the commerce of at least 600 American ships for basic supplies during 1796 alone. But as a result of the non-intercourse act, the supply had dried up. Consul Turell Tufts wrote in despair to President Adams about the port of Cayenne: “Every exertion is making there in Privateering, as they consider it the very harvest of Plunder; and besides, they have no other means of procuring Supplies.” 

Constant war with Britain meant that supplies from elsewhere in the empire were difficult to come by, so taking supplies that were already present made perfect sense. When the privateers captured merchant vessels in the Caribbean, they were able to bring in both the money from the sale of the vessel and cargo, and also parts of the cargo itself. The colonial governments had a vested interest in the actions of the privateers as well—not just because of the food itself, but also because of the “consequent discontent” if food was not available. In an already volatile political environment, maintaining order sometimes meant encouraging the privateers.

It’s not surprising that the United States government decided that the French were a threat enough to build a navy. Compared to the number of captures by Barbary corsairs, the French threat was immense and widespread. There’s no way to know with any certainty how many captures actually occurred, but given the number of captures that we do have information about (more than 250 captures with enough spatial information to be plotted on a map, and hundreds more with no spatial data), the total number of captures could easily range over a thousand. When the navy did finally make it to the Caribbean, its commanders adopted strategies that helped them to deal with the huge numbers of privateers in the area. Recognizing how privateers operated, the commanders planned their locations and logistics accordingly.

At the heart of both the privateers’ and the navy’s strategy was the prize court. International maritime law had established the prize court as the appropriate way to adjudicate the legal claims of captor and captured alike. 1 Privateers, by and large, adhered to the prize-court structure; at least, the claims of piratical behavior were much less frequent than accounts of lawful prize-taking. This is not to say that every prize brought into a prize court was fairly and impartially adjudicated: privateers could count on certain ports as friendly to their causes, where the commissioners would declare captures lawful prize on the slightest provocation.

Though French privateers made captures all across the world, they found the greatest success in the Caribbean. Privateers could use some of the same tactics as the famed pirates of the Caribbean, using sheltered harbors and small islands as protection and cover. But privateers differed from pirates in that privateers needed to stay close to the ports where they could send in prizes, whereas pirates tended to plunder their captures. The abundance of colonial governments in the Caribbean meant an abundance of prize courts.

Privateers’ vessels weren’t large enough to sustain long periods at sea, and captures only reduced the time they could spend at sea. Privateers elongated their time at sea by placing prize crews on board captures and sending the prizes unaccompanied into port. These prizes were less likely to actually bring the captors their prize money, since the chances of the prize making it unscathed into port decreased when the privateer did not escort the prize back. In addition, the prize crew was taken from the crew of the privateer, which meant that even this solution would eventually leave the privateer with too few men to maneuver effectively.

The majority of captures were within a few days’ sail of a prize court. For French privateers, French ports were the ideal, but other neutral ports (such as Curacao) would do in a pinch. British ports were, of course, out of the question, as the British were at war with the French. At the beginning of the war, ports in Guadeloupe (particularly Basseterre) and Saint-Domingue were most likely to condemn American prizes. As the war progressed, and the Americans negotiated trade agreements with Toussaint separate from the French government, Guadeloupe became the primary port where American prizes would likely be condemned.

Prize courts—or rather, accessibility to prize courts—also dictated American strategy against the privateers. For a navy being literally built ship by ship, one-on-one pitched battles against the privateers could never be a feasible strategy. Instead, the naval commanders focused their attention on the prize court ports: places they could be sure to encounter privateers, and even more frequently, their prizes. This strategy had two strengths: first, it gave the navy a better chance of actually capturing privateers, and thus removing their threat. But second, it also made privateering less profitable even for the privateers who eluded capture. Prizes were relatively easy to capture, since they had a skeleton crew of belligerents along with the original crew, who were all too willing to rise up against the prize crew. And if those prizes never made it into port, all the cost in munitions, time, and crew members that the privateer had expended was meaningless. No prize court, no matter how lenient, would condemn a vessel whose papers never made it to port. Though these reasons were never spelled out in so many words, they must have occurred to at least some of those men who handed down orders.

The Americans adopted a strategy, then, that kept them very close to enemy ports. They targeted Guadeloupe specifically—a whole squadron was ordered to stay “in the neighborhood of Guadeloupe,” as the secretary of the navy had put it. They were then able to capture ships in neutral waters as they came in and out of those ports. On occasion, American naval vessels came very close to violating neutral waters: international law declared that water within a cannon-shot of land was the territory of the nation that held the land. But no one ever objected to their captures on those grounds. The naval vessels maintained an even smaller range than the privateers. Privateers usually made their captures within two or three days’ sail of a prize court; the navy maintained a distance of one day or less.

This screenshot shows the encounters between American and French vessels around Guadeloupe.
This screenshot shows the encounters between American and French vessels around Guadeloupe.

The number of naval vessels on the Guadeloupe station at any one time vacillated wildly. The secretary of the navy attempted to keep at least half a dozen ships there, but maintenance needs, expiration of terms of enlistment, sickness, or any number of other factors could pull ships off their patrolling grounds. Once Toussaint began to request the use of American naval vessels to help his cause in Saint-Domingue, the number of ships at Guadeloupe was even more unpredictable. And of course, individual captains sometimes took their ships off to places outside the strategic area for convoy duty or by sheer incompetence.

American naval vessels could not maintain perpetual patrols off Guadeloupe, no matter how ideal the circumstances. Just like the privateers, they needed a safe place to go for supplies, maintenance, and prize adjudication (they too operated on the prize system). They primarily used St. Kitts, to the north of Guadeloupe, as a base for resupply. However, prices in the islands were exorbitant, so the secretary of the navy sent supply vessels from the United States as well.

These geographical constraints did not preclude the navy’s sailing elsewhere—far from it. But the number of captures very near to enemy ports indicates that the navy’s strategy was effective. By the end of the year 1800, Thomas Truxtun, who was cruising off Guadeloupe, wrote to Thomas Tingey, “With all this cruising my success has been very limited indeed, for the french have become scarce, so much so, that what I formerly found (chasing) an amusement, and pastime, is now insiped, Urksome & tiresome.”

In fact, by this time the treaty had already been signed to reestablish commercial relations between the United States and France, though it would be another several months before the terms were ratified by all parties. Michael Palmer estimates that U.S. naval forces, averaging 16 ships at any given time between 1798 and 1800, captured 86 privateers over the course of the war. 2 This number is impressive for such a small force, but it still doesn’t come even close to an annihilation of the privateer forces. Many factors contributed to the eventual decline of French privateering, but it does seem that targeting the prize courts was one of those factors.The American naval strategy had succeeded.


  1. For more about prize law and its relationship to empire, see chapter 3 of Lauren A. Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  2. Just as we don’t have enough spatial data to map all of the French victories over American shipping, we also don’t have enough spatial data to map these American victories completely—again, the map shows about ¼ of these victories.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, honoring a woman who is often credited with being the first computer programmer because of her work programming for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in the 1840s. The day honors Ada and all women who are involved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

I am not a woman in a STEM field, not really. But I am celebrating Ada Lovelace Day today because I am the humanities scholar I am through the influence of a woman who did work in STEM—my mom. So I’d like to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day 2014 by honoring my mom.

My mom was an elementary school teacher for the first part of her adult life. Once she had kids, she transitioned to writing elementary-school textbooks for a small press, a role she maintained for the rest of her life. Though she worked on a variety of projects, her favorite, and her longest-running project, was the elementary science curriculum. Writing these textbooks gave her the chance to incorporate into a curriculum the experiments and explorations she had always done with us kids at home. We got to look at eclipses through little holes in paper, and collect animal tracks using plaster. We were always being subjected to discussions about how best to demonstrate viscosity, or the most interesting way to talk about the  distance between planets, or the kid-friendliest way to learn about civil engineering. And all of these household discussions worked their way into her textbooks.

I didn’t always appreciate my mom’s emphasis on science and mathematics. I used to cringe when she’d give me two similar items in the grocery store and ask me to figure out which one was the better deal, based on their price and weight (this was before the stores so helpfully printed the “unit price” on the price tag). Or she would play games with me to estimate how much our total grocery bill would be based on my having to keep track of all the items’ prices in my head.

When I was a teenager, I worked for the same press as my mom, and though I worked in a different department, I sometimes got outsourced to her as a researcher and writer. She gave me a vast array of different assignments, like writing about autonomous underwater vehicles, or atmospheric optics, for a call-out page in a 5th-grade science textbook. Initially I wasn’t that excited about some of the topics, but I ended up catching her enthusiasm and digging in.

In a few weeks, it will be the fourth anniversary of my mom’s death. She was able to finish the entire elementary school science curriculum before becoming too sick to work. That’s one scientific legacy. But the legacy is more personal, too. I still find myself wishing I could call her when I see things like halos around the sun, or an oddly colored insect, because I know that she would most appreciate the beauty of a random scientific phenomenon.

My whole family has been inspired by my mom’s legacy. In fact, of four kids, I’m the only one who doesn’t have some sort of higher education in a STEM field. Three of the four of us are working on PhDs (and the fourth is still in college—the bar’s pretty high, Auria…). My latent mathematician has been coming out recently as I get into digital humanities, but the very way I think about knowledge and research–even as a historian—comes from my mom. Both of my parents have always encouraged us to educate ourselves, both officially and unofficially. Both my mom and my dad have always pushed us to excel as far as we can, while supporting us along the way. But today, Ada Lovelace Day, I want to honor the one woman in a STEM field who has meant the most to me and has shaped my life more than anyone else. I love you, Joyce Garland. You’re the best role model I could ever have.

Boston Maps Project After One Semester

The major work on the Boston Maps Project for the semester is wrapping up this week. This semester, we ended up with 108 users (about 100 students) who contributed to 19 maps and over 400 annotations on our Omeka site.

Review: The Process

Throughout the semester, I attended an average of three full class periods for each of the five classes that participated heavily in the project. Some of these meetings were scheduled in advance; others were scheduled when I noticed a particular problem across a large number of students in the class.

The initial instruction took two forms. In two classes, I explained the instructions about georectification in a separate class period from my instruction about annotations. In the others, I did all the instruction about both topics in one class period. In general, I noticed that the classes who received instruction on two different occasions struggled less with the technical aspects of both georectification and annotation.

I visited each class at least one more time to provide further clarification. All the classes needed additional help with writing annotations. In each class, the students received a handout that explained the way the students should think about their descriptions, as well as the sources they should consult. It turned out that the handout was not sufficient for students to understand what was expected of them regarding either the research for or the writing of the annotations. (In retrospect, I should have anticipated this.)

Over the course of the semester, I probably received an average of one email per day about the project, with up to 10 emails per day nearer the students’ deadlines. I also met with at least one student a week in my office to work through their struggles with research, writing, or technical issues. It was actually gratifying to see the number of students who wanted my input and assistance—ironically, in this semester, when I was rarely in the classroom, I had more person-to-person interaction with students than I’ve ever had before.


Most of the students did a great job with the georectification, with very little additional instruction from  me. Though I  met with 6 or 7 of the students doing the map, only a few of those students required any real assistance—most met with me merely to reassure themselves that they were doing a good job. (They were.) When I asked two classes about their biggest challenge with the project, each group’s georectifier said that that task was their biggest challenge. However, several of them also mentioned that the georectification was one of the more rewarding aspects of the project.

One group did their georectification collectively: they projected QGIS onto a large screen and then all of them suggested points to use for the georeferencing. Their map was one of the more unusually aligned maps to begin with, but they did an extremely good job. The students of that group also told me that once they got the hang of finding points of commonality, the georectification became quite fun. In future georectification assignments, I may suggest this way of doing the work, since it seems to have been highly successful.


The annotations proved somewhat more problematic for many students (though the problems were still relatively minor). The students experienced the joys and frustrations of both freedom and constraint. Each group got to pick the features they wanted to annotate from the maps I gave them. At first, I was concerned that allowing the students to pick their own annotations might lead to uneven distribution of annotations, or features not being annotated that needed to be, but in general the annotations seem to be very evenly distributed, and of course each map has more features that could be annotated than any one group could do in a semester. So each of these maps could easily be assigned to another class in a subsequent semester and still have plenty of features to annotate.

Boston Common, with Powder House and Liberty Tree, 1774
Boston Common, with Powder House and Liberty Tree, 1774—an example of a Boston landmark whose function has changed since 1774

Some features are still common Boston landmarks, such as the Boston Common, and were easily identified (and were annotated in almost every group). However, some features on the maps were more difficult—for instance, any one of the dozen of wharves present in the 1860s, or temporary encampments built by the British during the occupation of Boston in the 1770s. Additionally, some of the features have histories that are easy to trace in the 20th century but much more difficult to trace into the 19th or 18th century. Several students picked features on their map that they had to abandon because they weren’t able to find any research about them. Doing all that searching only to have to abandon the quest was intensely frustrating for some (but it is something every historian deals with at some point, I think).

Students told me that research was a big challenge for them. They were required to cite a secondary source and a primary source that they consulted to write their descriptions. Almost all of the students mentioned that finding primary sources was a struggle. Though a few students struggled to the point of ineffectiveness, most rose to the challenge and found really great information about parts of Boston that I didn’t even notice on their maps, much less know anything about.

Sandemanian Meeting House, built 1769
Sandemanian Meeting House, built 1769—a feature I did not even notice on the map (but a student did)

In particular, students came to the realization that doing research about a feature meant more than merely finding a source that acknowledged its existence. Their research had to dig much deeper, to find out about the feature’s function not only at some point in its history, but at a particular point (in the time period around their map). In addition, some of the students mentioned that they found sources with conflicting information about the feature and had to decide which sources were right. They also had to recognize that things move: many Boston landmarks have not always been where they are today. Churches came up quite frequently as features that appear in a different place on the historical maps than their present location.

Review: The Product

For one semester’s worth of work, I am very proud of what the students accomplished. We made a very good start! Though the end product, I’m certain, is going to be very interesting and informative, the product of the semester, or rather the goal, was something less tangible. Students have provided feedback to me through private emails, as well as through class presentations of their group’s work, and several themes have arisen out of the comments I’ve received.

First, students have been (mostly unwittingly) learning the craft of a historian. Learning to dig deeper to find the piece of information you know is out there; investigating primary sources from municipal and state records to newspapers to personal diaries of Bostonians; reading maps; and sifting through evidence to decide which is the right information: All of these skills are part of the historian’s craft. Writing annotations about several different parts of Boston forced the students to practice all of these skills differently from how one might research for a larger paper about any of these topics–in some ways, an easier task, but in many ways, a harder. A research tool that was profitable for Trinity Church might have nothing for the Columbian Museum; primary sources about Faneuil Hall are so numerous that sifting through them is a chore, but finding primary sources about S.G. Bowdlear and Co. Flour required some persistence (including investigating some documents from the BPL’s rare books collection).

Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Co., est. 1855
Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Co., est. 1855—a relatively obscure business that a student annotated

Second, students learned the rudiments of spatial thinking. Many students told me that they had never really thought about maps of Boston as being sources of historical information or analysis. Georectification forced them to realize that maps are not authoritative (just looking at how mapmakers aligned their maps caused some students to question how maps were created). But doing annotations about different places on their maps also made some students aware of the relative proximity (or distance) of various connected places within the city, from simple realizations such as why the Custom House had to be close to the wharves, to how the introduction of railroads to the city changed the way the mental health asylum functioned (and eventually forced the asylum out to the suburbs to get away from the ruckus caused by the trains).

Next Steps

There’s so much more to do on the project. We need to start building out the application to effectively use all these great maps and annotations. Some of the annotations need to be cleaned up a little, and decisions need to be made about how to deal with many annotations of the same feature that say essentially the same thing. The next major interpretive step is to research and write about the maps themselves–who were the mapmakers, what was the map’s purpose, how did the maps betray their own time?

If we implement this same procedure again in undergraduate classes in order to get more maps into our series, I’ve learned a few things about what needs to change.

1. I’ll insist on having at least two full class periods for the introduction of the project. This will allow me to address some of the problems we experienced this semester up front rather than trying to put out fires later.

2. I’ll ask that professors not assign the due date as the last day or week of the semester, so students have a chance to revise their work if necessary.

3. I’ll focus more on teaching students how to do primary-source research, including showing them online archives and how to use them (rather than primarily just telling them), and suggesting that they also go the extra mile to actually visit some archives in the area. I’ll also try to enlist the help of some local archivists to make the process of primary-source research less opaque.

Overall, I’m very pleased by how the project went this semester, and I’m looking forward to continuing the work. Right now it seems that the more work we’ve done, the more work remains. Thankfully, it looks like circumstances have aligned so that I’ll be able to continue putting significant time and energy into the project next semester and in spring 2015, as the project becomes an official NULab project. Hopefully this change means more people across more disciplines will get the chance to work on the project.

Harsh Words for a War (in 1812)

The War of 1812 had been going on for about six months when this list was published by the Federal Republican (reprinted in the Salem Gazette, December 29, 1812, which is where I found it). If this piece is no less vitriolic than some political rhetoric of the twenty-first century, at least it is much more succinct.

Reasons, not long, for believing the War will be Short.

1st. Because the army lacks men.
2d. Because the treasury lacks money.
3d. Men and money are the sinews of war.
4th. The navy lacks encouragement.
5th. Because the President lacks nerves.[1. James Madison]
6th. Because the secretary of state lacks head.[2. James Monroe]
7th. The secretary of the treasury lacks heart.[3. Albert Gallatin]
8th. The secretary of the navy lacks every thing.[4. Paul Hamilton. History has not been kind to Paul Hamilton, who is generally viewed as an incompetent and inefficient secretary.]
9th. Because the secretary of the war—is not.[5. This list was published in the two months during which James Monroe was acting as secretary of war, due to the resignation of William Eustis, who resigned in December 1812 after his lack of preparedness was blamed for the debacles with the army. The new secretary, appointed in February 1813, was no better than Eustis.]
10th. Because General Hull’s proclamation has failed.[6. In July 1812, General WIlliam Hull issued a proclamation to the residents of Upper Canada, assuming that they would side with the United States in this war and telling them that he did not need their assistance to defeat the British. Needless to say, this proclamation did not go over well, and Hull surrendered to the British at Detroit on August 16.]
11th. Because General Smyth’s two proclamations have failed.[7. General Alexander Smyth’s proclamations were to his own army, assuring them of their superiority and the ease with which the British army would be defeated. Unfortunately, Smyth did not adequately prepare his men or his materiel. These proclamations also gave the British advance knowledge of his planned attack.]
12th. Because both Hull and Smyth the fast friends of administration, the one is pronounced a traitor by his friends, and the other is known to be a recreant, and is denounced by his own army, who have offered a reward for his head.[8. Hull was the traitor, Smyth the recreant.]
13th. Because the people are too wise to pay taxes.
14th. Because administration is too weak and too cunning to lay them.
Lastly, and to conclude, because war requires men and money and brains and nerves and honesty—whence we conclude that either such an administration will rid us of the war, or the war soon rid us of such an administration.
Thus ends our war creed, and let all the people say

Concord Hymn Glosa

The Minute Man, by JeromeG111 (from Flickr, CC-licensed)
The Minute Man, Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by JeromeG111

This Patriots’ Day week, we mourn for the victims of the explosions in Boston. I’m not a native Bostonian, but I’m a Bostonian now: my emotions have fluctuated between deep sorrow and deep anger that someone would do this to my city, to my fellow Bostonians. I’m so thankful for our police officers, firefighters, National Guard, and all the first responders.

To celebrate the patriots of Massachusetts, from minute men in 1775 to first responders in 2013, I offer this glosa on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn.”


By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

Invention on a Concord Hymn

The barely risen sun hung reflected in the river,
Two lanterns in the still-silent gray of dawn.
The growing light showed spring burst from Winter—
A violent wrenching of color from snow, flower
From deadness; eager water shattering the panes of
Cold glass encasing the river; ice turned to mud
On its banks. There, where philosophy and letters
Gave way to contraband (though secreted away
Some days ago), delicate crocuses began to bud
By the rude bridge that arched the flood.

The night before, the bridge had shivered
As a horse beat down its planks, the rider
Crouched low on its flanks. At the Emerson Manse
He pulled up. Pounding on the reverend’s door,
He called, “The Regulars are coming out! Coming!”
He pounded again; then, without another word,
He rode to the next house, and the next, and the next.
By sunrise, the townships for twenty miles out
Heard the news; the minute men, in Concord,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled.

The men who came brought their muskets oiled,
Their cartouches full, and their lives ready,
To give them all—Death to Tyranny!
Some saw the flaws in politics, kings, and Acts;
Some thought only that goods cost more, and work
Paid less, because of England. Muster they would,
Here, where intrusions by Gage freshly stung,
Here, where they worked their farms with their sons,
Here, they’d keep freedoms by force if they could;
Here once the embattled farmers stood.

The news—“The Redcoats come from Lexington!”
Sent the minute men to the hill to watch them come.
They watched as Concord-town fell (it seemed)
To the Regulars. Said one Patriot, “I’m not afraid,”
So they advanced on the bridge, but did not fire.
The Redcoats, surprised, formed ranks, but one misheard
And fired his gun across the bridge. The others fired;
Two Patriots fell, but still they advanced on the bridge.
At last the Patriots stopped, at the captain’s word,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

Historical Literacy and Public History, Part 2

My first experience doing public history was in third grade, when I dressed up as Miles Standish to do a book report of a biography I’d read about him (yes, I was the only girl in my class to read about and dress up as a male). Looking back, I know that what I was wearing was not even close to correct as far as what Standish would have actually worn. But the experience–and even some facts about Standish–have remained with me despite the inaccuracy of my costume.

My other vivid memory of history was becoming a junior ranger at Jamestown and Yorktown National Park Service sites. I remember having to card wool, identify tools, and other somewhat mundane (to an adult) things. I’m sure that the rangers there made the junior ranger program as historically accurate as possible, and I benefited from their work. Less successful were junior ranger programs elsewhere that only asked me to write things down or solve word jumbles and such.

Based on my childhood experiences, it seems to me that the way to get kids to have a sense of history is to get them to experience it in some way. (I do recognize that, as a person who has ended up in graduate school for history, my experience may be abnormal.) And the experience does not necessarily need to be 100% historically accurate in order to be effective.

Before people can have an interest in history, they must be aware of history–not just that it happened in books, like a sort of true fairy-tale, but that it actually happened. The earlier this realization occurs, the more likely (I would guess) history will matter later.

In other words, children have to understand a narrative before the facts mean anything. Many people never get past the narrative and into the actual facts of history. But again, I wonder–is that so bad?

Historical Literacy and Public History, Part 1

Historians and political pundits often lament the woeful historical ignorance of the public. They claim that the lack of historical knowledge causes people to make bad political choices or appreciate their country less than they should. But I wonder whether the ignorance of the American public about history (which I’m not disputing) has the profound political ramifications that so many pundits claim.

For the final paper for Issues and Problems in Public History, our professor asked us to write a paper that synthesized our readings into an argument about how the mythic past and historical memory propel the practices of public history. Working on this paper made me think about how history really functions, at least in the United States. What follows is the theoretical background for a couple of future blog posts about historical literacy and public history.

History and politics interact on several levels. These levels are fluid, often working together to help form the basis of people’s historical consciousness.

First, identity. David Lowenthal suggests that “we alter the past to become part of it as well as to make it our own.”[1. David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 331.] Individuals base their identity in large part on their past, both their own past accomplishments and their forebears’. What is true for individuals is also true for nations. Lowenthal suggests that personal memory is to identity what history is to collective “self-awareness”: memory and history validate a sense of identity.[2. Lowenthal, 213.]

Forming a collective identity is difficult because the collective has to attempt to incorporate the identities of all its members. This means that collective historical memory is both something less  and something more than individual historical memory. It is less because it operates by consensus–only the things that the group agrees on are maintained in the collective memory–but more because it provides a historical grounding for people who do not have a personal past they can or want to identify with.

When individuals cannot claim their own past, they can identify with the past of a larger group they are part of. But when groups or nations do not have a past they can meaningfully identify with, they may turn instead to an invented tradition. These traditions are not just for nostalgic effect: Eric Hobsbawm argues that invented traditions are explicitly didactic, and they are used to cope with social change.[3. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1, 5.] History can be used to establish political legitimacy for groups who can establish their historical identity, perhaps even more so when the tradition is invented: Hobsbawm suggests that “all invented traditions, so far as possible, use history as a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion.”[4. Hobsbawm, 12.]

It is remarkable how powerful and pervasive an invented tradition can be. One only has to look at the obsession of Scotland (and the world) with tartans and clans to see that invented identity can hold as much weight as, if not more weight than, an identity based in historical fact. Most people who claim an invented identity probably do not even know that their tradition is fabricated. Those who do know either consciously choose to not care, or they change their way of identifying themselves. As Lowenthal points out, we almost always change the past to make it more positive and more coherent.[5. Lowenthal, 325.] But in the process of creating such a past, we exclude or marginalize those who were in the historical record but do not reflect well on our sense of ourselves.

Narratives. Identity is constructed most effectively through the use of narratives, which is the second point at which public history and politics intersect. A single person can be a part of many narratives, from the highly individual to the cosmic. These narratives are effective for at least two reasons. First, everyone remembers stories, especially about themselves. It is not necessary to know the facts of one’s history in order to be part of (and be aware of being a part of) a larger narrative. In fact, the specific details do not even matter all that much.

All people need to know in order to be a part of the American national narrative is that America has always been about about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all; if even that is too much to remember, then citizens of the United States need remember only that they live in the greatest nation on earth. That metanarrative will inform their political choices and all them to call others’ political choices into question if they appear to diminish America’s greatness.

Second, narratives are flexible. They can be leveraged on all sides in order to achieve political goals. Because they are not strictly fact-based, their interpretations can be multiple and even conflicting; they may be able to merely co-exist instead of colliding head-on.

Tragedies. Some events in history do not fit into the standard heroic narrative. The grave injustices, serious misjudgments, and horrifying tragedies in history do not fit into a narrative of progress and greatness. dealing with these events and injustices is the third point of intersection between public history and politics. When narratives in conflict cannot bend to co-exist, public historians must decide which narrative is the correct one and thus which to perpetuate. Often, historians fixed on a particular narrative simply ignore the ugly parts of their past; as Lowenthal says, “Americans for whom history has to be a chronicle of national greatness shun reminders of what seems shameful and demeaning.” But this type of historical forgetfulness, though impossible to avoid in the general public, is irresponsible in the hands of historians who ought to know better.

So, as historians, both public and academic, how do we work with ideas of identity and narrative? 

Academic Hardcores and Academic Farbs

In the book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz encounters Civil War re-enactors of varying levels of seriousness about their craft. They divide into two main categories: hardcores and farbs. The hardcores get into their roles as accurately as possible, even starving themselves so they look like haggard Confederate soldiers. They eat, drink, and breathe the Civil War. (One hardcore says, “I don’t do drugs; I do the Civil War.”)[1.  Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 14.] By contrast, the farbs dabble in re-enactment but do not trouble with the exacting details of appearance and behavior that hardcores do. Hardcores, of course, disdain farbs and farby behavior.

Horwitz gets involved in this dichotomy of re-enactor culture because he joins up with a super-hardcore named Robert Hodge. In the course of his travels with Hodge, Horwitz learns just how far hardcores will go to preserve the illusion of actually living in the past. He experiences, as much as is possible, the life of a Confederate soldier.

In a class discussion of the book, the question was raised: Are academic historians hardcore about their discipline, or are they farbs? 

The class suggested that most academic historians would call themselves hardcore. However, many historians have never lived where their subjects lived, or worked with their subject matter, so perhaps they are in fact farbs. (Our professor gave the example of a historian writing a book about wood without ever having done any woodworking.)

The question about hardcores and farbs, re-enactors or historians, is whether painstaking and total immersion into the culture about which you are focused is really beneficial to your understanding. Do you have to have experienced in some way your subject in order for you to write about it intelligibly?

For some subjects, it seems impossible to have any meaningful present experiential connection with your work. (For instance, there’s not really enough information about ancient Sumer to definitively experience it.) But for a subject like mine, the navy, I do wonder whether learning to sail would help me to understand a ship’s culture in a more meaningful way.

This idea dovetails with the reading for my other class for this week: Clifford Geertz’s “Thick Description” and “Deep Play,” as well as Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre.” These works demonstrate that no matter how ingrained you get in a foreign culture (whether present or past), you will always be Other. You can’t be in the Civil War just because you look like you’re from the Civil War. But you can read about the Civil War, and apply the principles of thick description, trying to understand the symbolic meaning of the rituals of the Confederacy instead of emulating their hygiene practices.

My reading of Geertz indicates to me that no one can ever be 100% hardcore. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a historian ought not try.


What do you think? Are you a hardcore? If you are, why are you? If not, why not? (Also, if you’re in another discipline, are there parallels for your discipline?)