Category Archives: History

Politicizing history in Texas and elsewhere

Via Robert Farley, the Wall Street Journal reports on a fight over the history curriculum in Texas schools, which seems to be just a bit politically charged. For example, this proposal:

  • Replace references to America’s “democratic” values with “republican” values

While this is the only one that’s blatantly partisan, the conservatives on the board are also pushing to de-emphasize the contributions of women and minorities, and to get more religious content into the curriculum.
This is pretty unsurprising, and not just because it’s Texas. Probably history curricula have been politicized everywhere, since the dawn of time. Recently I read a book in which the author visited a number of post-Civil-War monuments, and was disgusted at the respect accorded to various Confederate figures in the South. Which in turn reminded me of my experience learning Civil War history in a Virginia public school, where guys like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were described with a kind of heroic aura about them. There was a real effort to obscure the fact that they were fighting for a truly evil cause: I still remember that when we started the Civil War segment, the teacher explained that we might have heard that the war was over slavery, but this was a naive picture. Instead, we were told that the Civil War arose from a set of complex causes related to states’ rights, such as disputes over congressionally-imposed tariffs. Later on in my education, there was a moment of realization that, wait a minute, it totally was about slavery!
And this was a good school in not-at-all-Southern Fairfax County! I can only assume that this was part of the state curriculum. And in a way it’s understandable that Virginia would want to whitewash the most shameful chapter in its history, but it’s not just about that. It’s about white supremacists being able to put up statues of Stonewall Jackson and fly the Confederate flag in the name of their “heritage”.
Another example: after living in Virginia I briefly attended a private school in Houston whose mascot was the Rebel (as in Confederate). And while I was there, there was talk of changing the mascot of this nearly all-white school. It’s amazing to me the outcry that went up among students and alums, who thought this was political correctness gone wild, and couldn’t see what was so offensive about naming the football team after people who fought on behalf of slavery. And of course the vast majority of them weren’t racists, they just didn’t think about the Civil War in moral terms, partly because of the way the Civil War is taught in the South.
But as much as I love to bash the South, this kind of thing goes on everywhere: look at how the American Revolution is taught in the U.S. versus in Britain. Or the ongoing dispute between China and Japan over Japan’s whitewashing of their own war atrocities. So what Texas is doing now is just par for the course (not that it shouldn’t be opposed).

An extra story in a rare comic book

Today I held in my hands a copy of the most valuable comic book issue in existence, Action Comics #1 (which contains the first appearance of Superman).
Well, actually I was holding an impermeable plastic capsule containing the book; naturally I couldn’t touch it directly or leaf through it. And it was far from mint condition, so this one was worth far less than some of the other remaining copies of this famous issue. But nevertheless it was exciting to see this piece of comics history, a time capsule from 1938.
It goes without saying that the better condition a comic book is in, the more valuable it is—at least on the collector’s market. And indeed this is true of most goods. But I felt like the experience of seeing this as a historical artifact was actually enhanced by the fact that it didn’t look like it had come right from the printing press. The left edge was cracked from frequent reading, there was a food stain on the cover, and the name “Junior” was written in pencil in the corner. Some kid loved this book. I can imagine him reading it at the dinner table. The book itself has its own story that a mint copy wouldn’t have.

Election Reaction, Part I

When I was a kid I always heard that “in America, anyone can be President”. But after seeing Americans pick a total incompetent just because his dad was president, I figured that was just a myth. Something we tell children to try to convey values like equality and social mobility. A black guy with a foreign-sounding name doesn’t have the slightest chance at becoming President, right?
Turns out some myths are true after all. We really do live in an amazing country.
[My election reactions are a little late in posting… I’ve been busy.]

Unusual deaths

While poking around on Wikipedia I found their interesting and macabre list of unusual deaths. Apparently ironic deaths were big in the 20th century, whereas the 19th century is characterized by deaths from trivial accidents. The latest trend seems to be getting killed by bears, which suggests that Stephen Colbert may be on to something. Alexander Litvinenko is the most recent entry.

Independence Day

I’ve seen this on a couple blogs already, but it’s so good I want to repost it. Frederick Douglass in 1852:

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy–a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the every-day practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival….
Fellow-citizens, I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing and a byword to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice….
Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country…. While drawing encouragement from the “Declaration of Independence,” the great principles it contains and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference…. A change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe…. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other…. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.

BSL, a blogge most scholarlye and literarye!

I can’t believe I haven’t linked Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog yet. This is definitely the funniest Middle English blog out there. In a recent post, he rewrites the opening of The Da Vinci Code in the style of the Canterbury Tales. An excerpt:

So Sauyniere lyk Sinon storye tolde
False as the devil, and seyde yt forth ful bolde
For he hadde yt rehersd many a yeer
(Ye notice, o myn gentil rederes deere,
Ich telle yow nat of what thys ‘thyng’ might be-
Yt ys a tricke poetic vsid by me
To kepe yow yn confusioun most plesynge
Thurgh alle thys vague and nonspecific tesyng).

It’s quite an improvement over Dan Brown’s writing. For further reading, the best post ever on that blog is the one where he writes a rough outline for the Canterbury Tales. (Those of you who read Making Light have already seen all this.)

Attack of the Great American Novel

By popular demand, Tyler Cowen has been blogging about the Great American Novel. I’ve long been convinced that the answer is Moby Dick, so I was pleased to see that Cowen chose an appropriate set of criteria:

So what qualities must The Great American Novel have?…
1. It must reward successive rereadings and get better each time.
2. It must be canonical and grip the imagination.
3. It must be linked to American history and letters in some essential way.
4. It must span the intellectual, the emotional, the religious, and the metaphysical.
5. It must be fun. You must be sad when the book is over, and wish it had been longer than it was.
6. It must be about a large white whale and have numerous Biblical allusions.

He then chooses an interesting excerpt that was almost certainly left out of the abridged version we were assigned in high school. I decided I liked the book enough to be a badass and read the unabridged version instead, a huge tactical error since the 30-page nightly assignments ballooned to 80 pages this way. It would be interesting to go back and read it again, now that I’m ten years older and can afford a more relaxed pace.
Cowen also suggests some runners-up and dark horse picks. I can see the argument for Huckleberry Finn, but even though I love Mark Twain I wasn’t wild about that particular novel. Of Faulkner I have only read short stories, a gap I should remedy at some point.
My favorite piece of American literature from high school was Catch-22, but I can’t argue for this as the Great American Novel. The much-loved Catcher in the Rye didn’t do much for me; I suppose my teen angst was of a different character than Holden Caulfield’s.
So what are your picks for the Great American Novel? What’s your favorite “canonical” American novel? What did you read in high school that was the biggest waste of time? (My pick for the last question: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver; not especially canonical, but nevertheless assigned by my hippie American Lit teacher.)

But did he write Shakespeare’s plays?

Wow, apparently Bach didn’t write the Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor:

Scholars now think the Toccata was originally a violin piece Bach transcribed.
“If you know the piece you can just see it was written for the violin,” says Don Franklin, a Pitt musicologist specializing in the composer. “It has idiomatic figuration for the violin [and] the initial statement of the fugue subject can easily be played on the D string, crossing over to touch the G string.”
The opening of the Toccata, too, is violin-like, offering “the solo violin an opportunity to drop down through its four strings,” writes Williams. And there are other nuances that add up to an organ piece covering up its origins.
This hypothesis fits. “Bach did a lot of transcription,” says Franklin, also past president of the American Bach Society. Perhaps this Toccata simply lends itself to transcription. After all, Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral version worked out pretty well in “Fantasia” and in concerts.
The evidence all points to the fact that Toccata does not match organ music of the time, especially Bach’s. It does fit the period’s string music, however.

Via Marginal Revolution.