Of all the places for a couple of American historians, why are John Fea and Drew Dyrli Hermeling going to 1930s Czechoslovakia? In this episode, the team try their hands at some comparative history while John discusses the internationalization of the study of the American past. They are joined by Bruce Berglund, who explores the search for meaning in one of Europe’s most secular societies with an added dose of international sports history for good measure.
History always matters, but in times of great political change, good historical thinking is especially important. And since it’s Presidents’ Day, we thought the best place to start Season 3 is at historic Mount Vernon. In this episode we discuss George Washington’s leadership, paying special attention to his 1796 Farewell Address. We are joined by Douglas Bradburn (@douglasbradburn), the founding director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the study of George Washington (@gwbooks) at Mount Vernon.
Two weeks ago, we discussed the Civil War. But the Civil War didn’t just occur
spontaneously. Instead, it was a reaction to many larger political currents that had their roots in the very foundation of the United States. One such current was abolitionism. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss this issue and connect it to John’s own work on the American Bible Society. They are joined by the highly decorated historian Manisha Sinha (@ProfMSinha), who has just released The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.
Perhaps there is no story more important to the United States than that of our Civil War. It is no surprise then that historians continue to find new things to say about the conflict. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss such things as living in the shadow of Gettysburg, the war’s most famous battle, teaching the Civil War, and the continued applicability of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. They are joined by the graphic historian Jonathan Fetter-Vorm (@fetter_vorm) who illustrated and co-wrote Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War.
When the Chicago Cubs finally ended the “Curse of the Billy Goat,” they demonstrated just how historic “America’s Pastime” truly is. When Michael Phelps won his 28th Olympic medal in Rio de Janeiro, he furthered his case for being known as the greatest Olympian history has ever know. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling once again tackle the history of sports, and are joined by Emmy award-winning sports historian, Amy Bass (@bassab1).
Well, we have finally arrived at Election Day. After a long and grueling campaign, we are about to find out who will serve as the president of the United States for the next four years.
Is it truly possible for academic historians to climb down from the ivory tower and connect with the public? Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss the ways in which historians can engage with people outside of the academy, whether that be on Twitter or at the invitation of a mega-church. They are joined by Slate historian Rebecca Onion, who’s own work on the Vault invites readers to engage with intriguing documents and artifacts.
Perusing the shelves of your local bookstore, it’d be easy to assume that historians love biographies. However, historians have long wrestled with the problems of hero worship that are so often present within biographical literature. Join host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling as they discuss this genre of historical writing. They are joined by historian Ann Little, who discusses her latest work on the eighteenth-century life of Esther Wheelwright.
Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are back and ready for season 2. In this episode, they tackle the issue of historical reenacting. Is it just another kind of historical thinking? Or is it something different? They are joined first by “Thomas Jefferson” who discusses the current state of his 1800 campaign for the presidency. He is followed by Steve Edenbo, a professional “actor-historian” who portrays Thomas Jefferson. Edenbo discusses the process of researching and embodying such a famous historical figure along with the state of his profession in a post-“Hamiltonian” world.
The long awaited Bruce Springsteen episode has arrived! Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling address the historical, political, and even spiritual significance of the Boss. They are joined by Marc Dolan, author of Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock N’ Roll, who discusses how Springsteen has changed over time with an emphasis on his live performances.
In Episode 8 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast John Fea and Drew Dyrli Hermeling talk about the complex life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed and Jefferson scholar Peter Onuf talk with John about their new book, The Most Blessed of Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.
Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss America’s national pastime. That’s right–it’s The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast’s first annual baseball episode! John and Drew talk about the marketability of nostalgia, the youthful dreams of a World Series for the home team, and the way sports turn even the most critical historian into an uncritical fan. They are joined by espn.com uniform expert, Paul Lukas.
Historians often wrestle over how to tell their stories of the past. Complex jargon can make their work inaccessible to non-academics while readable narratives can draw the ire of the academy. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling address this tension while discussing dissertation research and Fea’s new book, The Bible Cause: History of the American Bible Society. They are joined by Nate DiMeo, author, producer, and host of the popular historical podcast, the memory palace.
Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss the many ways in which they have encountered the past, especially within the realm of public history and historical preservation. They are joined by the Director of Education at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, Tim Grove, who shares his experiences with mail order grizzly bears and Chinese restrictions on printing historical maps.
Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling tackle presidential politics in this, their third episode. John discusses the “usable pasts” employed by candidates on both sides of the aisle. Later Fea and Hermeling are joined by Yoni Appelbaum, the Washington Bureau Chief for the Atlantic, to further discuss the role of historical thinking within politics.
Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling explore the ways historical thinking permeates all things and contributes to a democratic society. They are joined by James Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association. During the interview, James talks about the role of history in American society and the meaning behind #everythinghasahistory.
Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling sit down and discuss the launch of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, including expectations for the venture and a brief explanation of what the phrase “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” actually means.
Sylvester Johnson is Associate Professor of African American Studies and Religious Studies at Northwestern University. This interview is based on his new book African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write African American Religions, 1500–2000?
SJ: I wrote the book because my research on religion and race kept leading me back to two issues: the vast significance of colonialism—not just slavery and racism—in the formation of religions during the past few centuries and the ambivalent nature of the political order of democratic freedom.
Concerning the first, scholars of religion in the Americas typically devote scarce attention to colonialism. But several important works have engaged seriously with religion and colonialism—among these are studies by Charles Long and David Chidester. I wanted to reframe the narrative logics that typically guide research into studying Black religion and, by doing so, develop an account of religion and race insofar as they have been shaped by colonialism.
The second issue, freedom, is arguably the most important idea in contemporary global politics. But freedom is not merely an idea. It is a complex of institutions, practices, and regimes. And virtually every narrative account of Black religion handles freedom as a major touchstone of racial and religious history. Most of us are conditioned to think of freedom in opposition to slavery and the biopolitics of governing human populations through race. But enough work has been done by scholars such as Orlando Patterson and Michael Mann to demonstrate that freedom, like slavery, is an institution, and not a benign one. If freedom had hands, they would be coated with the blood of the unfree and less free. I wanted to explain how freedom has worked to shaped religion and politics in harmony with colonialism, slavery, and the creation of racial states that ensure life and prosperity to some through killing and dominating others.
This book, I hope, will contribute in a meaningful way to that larger aim.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of African American Religions, 1500–2000?
SJ: The central argument is that colonialism, not merely slavery and racism, has been a profoundly decisive factor in the formation of African American religions. The political order of colonialism has generated both state practices of racism and democratic freedom, which have become enduring themes in Black religion.
JF: Why do we need to read African American Religions, 1500–2000?
SJ: This book examines United States empire in a serious way within the context of Atlantic geographies to explain five centuries of Black religious history. This is not a survey but a monograph that proffers an extended argument about religion, race, and politics. It is fair to say that most of us are fans of democratic freedom. After completing the research for this book, however, I have been moved to tender my resignation as an uncritical devotee of democratic freedom. Freedom is actually a colonial project. That might sound absurd at first, but I hope readers will sit with the book and the related studies that other scholars have produced to understand what I think is the single most important institution of our time (freedom). I think that’s a good reason to read the book.
SJ: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JF: It’s obvious from my first two books that historical methods are very important to how I execute my research, but I also draw on other methods and disciplinary practices. I identify as a scholar of religion and of African American Studies. These are interdisciplinary disciplines that have been optimal spaces in which I have produced my work. I have found that the status of being a “historian” proper is largely reserved for history PhDs, which I am not. That said, it should be patent that studying the past is not the exclusive reserve of history PhDs; otherwise, there would be very little for everyone else to study. Since I was an undergraduate, I have enjoyed using archival sources and other forms of data contemporary to periods under study. It brings challenges, of course. It’s similar to piecing together a puzzle without ever seeing the picture on the puzzle box. It should come as no surprise that historical studies generate varied and at times conflicting accounts of “what happened.” There is another element that I enjoy as well—the interpretation of cultural history. It is easier to agree on isolated factoids but more difficult to discern the larger meaning of it all. This second type of work requires serious attention to social theory. This is how I approach the work of producing a historical study—as a theoretical contribution. My ultimate aim is to engage with the big questions that transcend specific disciplines and to offer some rejoinder that might advance our understanding of why, for instance, democratic freedom has been such a singular feature of racial states.
JF: What is your next project?
SJ: I am co-editing a volume on religion and the FBI (with Steven Weitzman of U Penn), and I’m writing a monograph on race and US empire. My collaboration with Tracy Leavelle (Creighton University) and over a dozen other scholars examining “religion and US empire” has been very generative for my research on that score. I have also begun researching the challenge that machine intelligence (commonly called artificial intelligence) is raising for theories of the human, concepts of objecthood, and the future of governing through race. It’s a new direction, but one that is quickly raising new questions for humanities scholars as the research and development of cognitive machines continues apace.
JF: Thanks, Sylvester. Great stuff!