The National Museum of American History Remembers Steve Jobs

The blog of the National Museum of American History includes several reflections from the staff of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation on the life and legacy of the late founder of Apple Computers.

My favorite reflection comes from Monica Smith, an exhibit project manager at the Lemelson Center:

An Iconic Place of Invention
Few places are as iconic in the lore of modern invention as the “Apple garage.” This humble attachment to Steve Jobs’ parents’ ranch-style home in Los Altos, California, is where he famously teamed up with Steve Wozniak to develop and sell the Apple personal computer. They formed the Apple Computer company here on April Fools’ Day (clearly they had a sense of humor) in 1976.

I believe the enduring fame of this place of invention—a pilgrimage site for computer history buffs—is based on its ordinariness. A lab or factory may seem alien, but most of us know the look, smell, and feel of a garage. To think that our individual personal computers have their roots in such a simple suburban location is somehow endearing. No matter how rich and famous Jobs became, he seemed accessible in part because of the garage story and how it has inspired generations of budding innovators.

Paul Boyer and the Brethren in Christ Church

Many readers of this blog will recognize the name Paul S. Boyer.  He is the Merle Curti Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Early Americanists will know him as the author of Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft.  Scholars of twentieth-century culture might know When Time Shall Be No More or By the Bombs Early Light. Before coming to Messiah College, I used his co-authored U.S. survey textbook, The Enduring Vision.

Devin Manzullo-Thomas reminds us that Boyer was also a member of the Brethren in Christ Church, the denomination that founded and remains loosely connected to Messiah College.  Devin has tracked down a piece Boyer wrote for the History News Network reflecting on his experience growing up Brethren in Christ.  Here is a taste:

My future perspective as a historian was influenced, too, by my very conservative religious upbringing. The Brethren in Christ church, an offshoot of the Mennonite church, took seriously the biblical injunction”Be not conformed to this world.” The members did not vote, generally refused military service, and dressed very plainly-no neckties for the men; head coverings, cape dresses, and dark stockings for the women. They avoided the movies and other worldly amusements, and viewed the secular power of the state with profound skepticism. I’m no longer a part of that subculture (which in any event is very different today), but its influence has shaped my life and work.

A grade-school teacher in Dayton, Ohio taught me that history is something people can feel passionate about. A southerner, she informed us in no uncertain terms:”If you get nothing else out of this class, just remember that slavery was NOT the cause of the Civil War.” But I can’t claim that the study of history initially gripped me very deeply. My copy of David Saville Muzzey’s A History of Our Country, assigned in a high-school class, is full of my scribbled drawings and witticisms (e.g.,”In Case of Fire, throw this in”). The teacher called him”Fuzzy Muzzey,” signaling us that even textbook writers need not be viewed with total reverence. Now a textbook author myself, I appreciate Muzzey a little more. He writes in his preface:”Boys and girls have sometimes said to me that they have ‘had’ American history, as if it were measles or chicken pox, which they could have and get over and be henceforth immune from. … Do not for a moment think that you are `going over’ American history again in high school in order to add a few more dates and names to your memory. You are studying a new and fresh subject, not because American history has changed, but because you have changed. … You are getting new outlooks on life,–new ambitions, new enthusiasms, new judgments of people and events. Life broadens and deepens for you. So history, which is the record of former people’s ambitions and enthusiasms, comes to have a new meaning for you.”

After high school I enrolled at Upland College in California, a small denominational school that has since closed. Wendell Harmon, who had written his Ph.D. thesis at UCLA on the Prohibition movement in California, taught U.S. history at Upland. Wendell had a skeptical turn of mind and a dry sense of humor. His classes, including a seminar on American Transcendentalism, jolted me into realizing that studying history could be intellectually engaging, even fun. In June 1955, preparing to leave for two years of voluntary service in Europe with the Mennonite Central Committee, I asked Wendell for reading suggestions. His list included Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition (1948). I devoured the book, writing on the flyleaf words that were new to me (salient, milieu, inchoate, sinecure, ubiquitous). Hofstadter’s cool-eyed revisionist look at America’s political heroes was eye-opening. There is no canonical version of history-all is up for grabs! My copy of this 95-cent Vintage paperback, now falling apart, is still in my library. 

You may recall that we did a post recently on Paul’s brother, Ernest, a pretty good scholar in his own right. (That post, I might add, was also inspired by a post by Manzullo-Thomas at The Search of Piety and Obedience).  The Boyers were a pretty intellectually-charged Brethren in Christ family.

American Georgics

If you are like me, and are interested in writings about place, land, American history, and community, then I would encourage you to pick up a copy of American Georgics: Writings on Farming, Culture, and the Land.  I have not read it yet, but it looks like a great collection of primary sources on the agrarian tradition.  It is published by Yale University Press and edited by Edwin C. Hagenstein, Brian Donahue, and Sara Gregg.

The reader includes essays by: Crevecouer, Alexander Hamilton, John Taylor of Caroline, James Madison, Edmund Ruffin, Jesse Buel, Lousia May Alcott, Susan Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau, Willa Cather, Liberty Hyde Bailey, Henry Wallace, H.L. Mencken, Ignatius Donnelly, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Wes Jackson, and Wendell Berry.  It also contains an extensive bibliography.

This would make a great textbook in a course on American agrarianism, American cultural history, or even something on the Jefferson tradition in America.  I hope to get my copy soon.  When I do, you can expect another blog post–maybe even a series of posts on these writers.

A Cultural History of the Hollywood Sign

I have always been intrigued by the famous “Hollywood” sign that sits on the hill overlooking the motion picture capitol of the world.  That is why David Thomson’s review of Leo Braudy’s The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon (Yale University Press) caught my attention.

Here is a taste of Thomson’s review, published at The New Republic.

It was in 1923 that the original sign, HOLLYWOODLAND, a gimmick and a brazen caption, was put up near the top of that hill, in letters fifty feet high and thirty feet wide. They were wooden structures, supported by telegraph poles, with tin and white paint facings. The sign advertised a housing development in the area below the slopes of Mount Lee, in the Santa Monica mountains, close to Griffith Park. It was built on rough ground, so the sign was never in type-set alignment. From the start there was a wavery touch of emotion to it, as if, to quote the song from the unrestrained Douglas Sirk movie, “A faithless lover’s kiss is/ Written on the wind.”

Our guide to the sign could not be improved on. Leo Braudy is a long-time Los Angeles resident, a professor at the University of Southern California, and the author of The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History. He is an expert on—but also a fond victim of—the atmosphere some of us long to believe still clings to those idiotic letters.

Hollywood! It is a name like Babylon. Kenneth Anger put the two together in 1965 in a book that served up lurid movieland scandals yet only made the place more attractive. I suppose this is what we still want to believe in. Why do we tolerate a Hollywood Foreign Press Association (with its Golden Globes) if we aren’t believers? But how many teenagers living in greater Los Angeles today know what “Hollywood” ever meant, or could tell you much about Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, and the rest? I was at a large Midwest university recently, speaking to a class studying Alfred Hitchcock—but hardly any of the students had seen a Hitchcock film, or were in the habit of going to a movie theatre with a screen as big as those white letters on the hillside.

The Sad History of the Snowman

Read Bob Eckstein’s great post Smithsonian.com about the history of the snowman.

Until Frosty came along, the snowman, according to Eckstein, was “abused by children and exploited by advertisers.”  Here is a taste:

There is also visible evidence in trade cards, beautifully illustrated pieces of paper that were the business cards of their day. Shop owners would leave them on their counters for customers and collecting them became a popular hobby. Like so many other advancements in the world — including the first photographs and early silent movies — the snowman was right there, showing up front and center. And more often than not — taking a beating. With the popularity of postcards by the turn of the century, it was no different; images of snowmen pelted with snowballs by gangs of scamps and wayward youths plowing their sled or pig-driven toboggans into snowmen (that’s right, there used to be pig-driven toboggans).

Some of these early postcards show snowmen being bludgeoned by two-by-fours and stomped on by tots. There are examples of snowmen being held up by gunpoint by little girls and stabbed with brooms. At one point, a snowman is dragged into a studio and forced to pose with kittens—while not violent, it was certainly humiliating. But the ultimate indignity would have to be a holiday card showing Santa Claus in a convertible racing car running over a horrified snowman, who is screaming for dear life…

Rhys Isaac R.I.P.

Rhys Isaac, the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner for The Transformation of Virginia, died today of cancer.  He was 72.

I never met Isaac, but like most early American historians of my generation I have benefited immensely from his work.  I still occasionally go back and re-read parts of The Transformation of Virginia, but I actually like his biography of Landon Carter, Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation, a whole lot better.

I have also benefited directly from Isaac’s vast knowledge of early American history.  Back in the mid-1990s, as a graduate student at Stony Brook, I sent an early draft of my work on Philip Vickers Fithian and the “rural Enlightenment” to the William and Mary Quarterly in the hopes of getting it published in this prestigious journal.

The reviewers for the journal were encouraging, but concluded that the piece was not yet ready for publication.  One of those reviewers signed his name at the bottom of the review (it is standard for reviews of this sort to be anonymous).  It was Rhys Isaac.

Isaac suggested was that I develop my thoughts on Fithian’s reading habits.  He knew Fithian’s diary well, and urged me to look more deeply into the significance of his reading of Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, a sentimental novel Fithian read while he was working as a tutor on Robert Carter’s Nomini Hall plantation.

I took Isaac’s advice.  A few years later I would publish a revised version of this paper in The Journal of the American HistoryMany of Isaac’s suggestions also made it into my book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

I will always be grateful to Rhys Isaac for passing along those comments and for identifying himself as a reviewer of that original paper.  May he rest in peace.

The Lonely Crowd Turns 60



In October 1950 David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney published The Lonely Crowd, a sociological analysis of the “American character.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education has a short piece, authored by Rupert Wilkinson, on the significance of this landmark work in sociology and American studies.  Here is a taste:

The book spoke to middle-class concerns about conformity and softness in the new, standardized suburbs of postwar America. For all its moralistic rigidities, the inner-directed type looked more individualistic, hence more attractive to many Americans, though Riesman insisted that in other-direction he did not depict more conformity but rather a change in “modes of conformity”—the way people were induced to conform…

…It was the first book to stress a change in modern society from a culture of production and scarcity to one of consumption as a social act—from making things to relating to people, from “the hardness of the material,” as the authors put it, to the softer touch of consumer-focused sales and services. In politics Riesman coined one of his many engaging labels, the “inside-dopester,” to describe a person drawn to political life as a consumer, eager to be in the know rather than to make policy. (At the time of writing the book, Riesman and Glazer were much concerned about voter “apathy,” which they connected to a passive, consumer view of politics.)

Read Wilkinson’s full and insightful analysis here.

State Fairs

Tony Woodlief is gearing up for the Kansas State Fair. In the process he writes about the meaning of state fairs in American culture. Here is a taste:

Fairs embody our roots in agriculture, entrepreneurship and rabble-rousing. Where else can you, in a matter of minutes, buy a tractor, ride a camel, sample the latest in waterless car-washing technology, marvel over a 20-pound cucumber and then saunter a few hundred feet to hear Hank Williams, Jr. belt out “Family Tradition”? Let’s face it: no matter how sophisticated we become, a life-size statue of Elvis sculpted from 800 pounds of butter will always fascinate us.

And if you don’t understand this, then I’m afraid you don’t understand America. Don’t look for enlightened insights about American culture from those like Frenchman and “American Vertigo” author Bernard-Henri Lévy, who could afford no more than a “quick visit” to the Iowa State Fair, but who lingered over prisons in a manner that would make Foucault blush. If you’ve never hurled a tattered baseball at a pyramid of milk jugs, run your hand along a shiny new combine, or cheered at a pig race, then save your opinions for people who roll their eyes at Lee Greenwood.

Come to think of it, perhaps a qualification for commentators on American culture should be the ability to explain a cheese curd. The food alone can make fairs worthwhile, all of it from heaven or hell, although I’m not really sure which.

There are the funnel cakes, steak sandwiches, and roasted and buttered corn on the cob so hot you can brand cattle with it. And let’s not forget the panoply of fried delicacies. Every year brings an item that nobody before had thought—or dared—to fry and eat: pickles, Twinkies, HoHos, and—surely a sign of the apocalypse—bacon-cheeseburger doughnuts. Alongside these are all manner of skewered delights: pork chops on a stick, potato chips on a stick, cheesecake on a stick, waffles on a stick and, as ever, corn dogs and candy apples on sticks.

Culture Wars–1920s Style

We may think the so-called “culture wars” are a late 20th century phenomenon that has spilled into the 21st century, but as Randall Stephens notes in his review of Barry Hankins’ new book Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties, and Today’s Culture Wars, cultural conflict has been around for a long time. Stephens writes:

The era from the 1930s to the 1980s, an era of relative religious stability, Hankins suggests, may have been the aberration. The pitched battles over immigration, alcohol, Darwinian evolution, obscenity laws, and public morality that riled Americans in the 20s “were a prologue to our own age,” says Hankins. Like our era that period was “a time when religion was culturally central, participating fully in politics, media, stardom, social life, and scandal.” Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, Daddy Grace, and Father Divine elbowed Charlie Chaplin, Al Joslon, and Clara Bow for newspaper headline space.

Dissent Magazine: Intellectuals and Their America

The Winter 2010 issue of Dissent is running a nice symposium entitled “Intellectuals and Their America.” The editors have asked several prominent left-leaning public intellectuals to comment on the current state of American life.

In our own uncertain era, it is useful for women and men with a reputation for thoughtfulness and creativity to reflect on issues that bear profoundly on both their craft and their country.

The symposium features short essays by E.J. Dionne Jr., Alice Kessler-Harris, Jackson Lears, Martha Nussbaum, Katha Pollitt, Michael Tomasky, Katrina vanded Heuvel, and Leon Wieseltier.

They were asked to respond to one or more of the following questions:

1. What relationship should American intellectuals have toward mass culture: television, films, mass-market books, popular music, and the Internet? 2. Does the academy further or retard the engagement of intellectuals with American society? 3. How should American intellectuals participate in American politics? 4. Do you consider yourself a patriot, a world citizen, or do you have some other allegiance that helps shape your political opinions?

Here is a what I got out of each response:

Dionne: Progressives and liberals are finally beginning to learn, thanks to Barack Obama, that in order to create change in a participatory democracy they need to stop debating about texts in the isolation of the English Department and start hitting the streets with their ideas.

Kessler-Harris: Is not happy with Obama’s first year. He has not delivered on the “change” that he has promised. His grand vision has been “obscured by the daily political battles in Washington as well as the failure of the Obama administration to adequately articulate principled and ethical aspirations.” The Left needs to help Obama better articulate his vision by developing a unified language of social change and bringing it to a larger public. Michael Moore, the television show Law and Order, Rachel Maddow, and Bruce Springsteen are all mentioned as figures that the intellectual left can learn from.

Lears: Like Dionne and Kessler-Harris, Lears, laments the fact that the Right has taken over the public sphere while the Left has simply watched them do it with no real response. He calls for public intellectuals who critique, rather than serve, the interests of government.

Nussbaum: Liberals should be engaged with mass culture, but in doing so they should not give up “slow reading.” We “need to remind them that thinking is slow and rigorous, and that it does not always go well with the fast pace and the flash of popular culture.”

Pollitt: Patriotism is bad for America because it “prevents us from seeing ourselves the way other see us.” It blinds us to the country’s real social problems. Instead, we should cultivate a cosmopolitanism that takes “seriously the idea of one world.”

Tomasky: The historic liberal critique of mass culture is silly. Mass culture is our friend. By engaging with it we become “part of something.” Intellectuals need to be engaged. They need to “get out there.” They need to go to Home Depot, Applebees, and high school football games. Such engagement is the “first prerequisite of true political participation these days.” This, Tomasky believed, is the essence of true patriotism.

vanden Heuvel: We have no true intellectuals today because “most of the commercial boundaries between high-brow and low-brow culture have long since dissolved.” Intellectuals should thus make a “critical embrace” of the culture.

Wieseltier: Intellectuals need to embrace mass culture because it can contain “wise and deep expression of the human spirit;” it is essential to being a legitimate critic of culture; and it provides pleasure and enjoyment. He also affirms his identity as a patriot and a world citizen.

I found myself resonating most strongly with Tomasky. Dionne’s piece references Michael Walzer in arguing that the most effective cultural critics are “embedded in their societies and operate as much out of love as from alienation.” It seems that Tomasky’s thoughts best reflect this, although nearly all of the intellectuals surveyed affirm his idea in one way or another.

Why aren’t more cultural critics participating in mass culture? Do you want to be a good cultural critic? Then I invite you join me at my local Outback Steakhouse (we will order a “bloomin’ onion–well done) or take a walk with me on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey!

The Better Homes and Garden Cookbook and the 1960s

Did you know that The Betty Crocker Cookbook was the best-selling non-fiction book in 1950 or that the Revised Standard Version of the Bible dominated the non-fiction best-seller lists from 1951 to 1955? This makes sense to me–1950s, white Protestant middle-class, traditional gender roles, suburbs. etc..

Did you know that Bob Hope’s I Never Left Home topped the non-fiction charts in 1944? Again, Hope had been entertaining the troops during the war.

In 1937, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was the best selling fiction book (as it was in 1936) and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was #1 on the non-fiction chart.

In 1926, Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows was the best-selling non-fiction book. The following year it was Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. (And we all made such a big deal when Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, another quasi-philosophy book, hit the best-sellers list a few years ago).

In 1970, the New English Bible battled it out with Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask for the #1 spot on the non-fiction list. The Bible lost.

And here is my favorite: In 1968, the great year of revolution and student rebellion, the best-selling non-fiction book in America was The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book!! (In fact, the top ten non-fiction list was dominated by cook books, diet books, and dictionaries).

I got all of this information from a great website called “Books of the Century.” It was created by Berkeley graduate student Daniel Immerwahr. The site lists the best selling books–fiction and non-fiction–for every year of the twentieth century. A student of American culture could spend hours examining and analyzing this list.

Hat Tip: Tim Lacy at US Intellectual History.

John Patrick Diggins, R.I.P.

In case you have not heard, historian John Patrick Diggins past away last week at the age of 73. The New Republic is featuring an obituary by Ronald Steel. Here is an excerpt:

Since the founding of this journal nearly a century ago, its editors have tried to remain true to the vision of our nation’s founders: to be visionary without seeking utopia, to be progressive without succumbing to doctrine, to be pragmatic without eschewing a passion for ideals. This has often placed us on embattled ground: “to the right of the Left and to the left of the Right”–to borrow an illuminating phrase used by one of the nation’s most imaginative intellectual historians to describe himself.

It is in part for this reason that we pay special homage to that historian, John Patrick Diggins, who died of cancer last week in New York at the age of 73. Although gentle and soft-spoken in his personal demeanor, and refined in his tastes, he boldly embraced intellectual challenge and never shrunk from necessary combat.

I confess that I have not read much of Diggins. I skimmed On Hallowed Ground and The Lost Soul of American Politics and read some of his scathing critiques of the National History Standards. I liked his contarian style and admired his intellectual courage and independent thinking. His writing roars, and sometimes I wish I had the same guts in my own work.

A while ago I blogged on Gordon Wood’s review of On Hallowed Ground. Wood was rough on Diggins, going as far to suggest that he was not an historian.

I was unaware that Diggins, at the time of his death, was writing a biography of Reinhold Niebuhr. Now that is a book I would have looked forward to reading.

History from A to B

We continue to think through Gordon Wood’s The Purpose of the Past. Chapter 5 is Wood’s 1989 review of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford, 1989). The title of the chapter is “Continuity in History.”

At 972 pages, Albion’s Seed qualifies as a tome. Believe it or not, I read the entire thing in graduate school. Fischer’s central thesis, which he describes as a “modified germ thesis,” is that the cultural roots of the United States are British in nature. In order to prove this, Fischer describes over twenty different folkways that the British brought with them to four different regions in four different periods of seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century migration. They are:

1). The Puritan migration from East Anglia to New England
2). The Wessex migration of indentured servants to the Chesapeake
3). The migration of North Midland Quakers to the Delaware Valley
4). The migration of Scots-Irish to the Appalachian backcountry

Each of these British settlers brought their own food, speech, architecture, social customs, labor practices, religion, approach to education, etc… to the particular places they settled. Fischer tries to show that these different folkways not only shaped the culture of these early settlements, but continue to shape them today.

Wood is impressed with Fischer’s work, particularly for how it offers a critique of the lingering staying power of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis.” But he also writes: “In his zeal to demonstrate persistence and continuity, however, Fischer ultimately misses the point of history, which is to show not how things have remained the same through time but how they have changed.”

In a related criticism, Wood chides Fischer for failing to raise the possibility that his four British cultural regions will eventually have to give way (if they have not done so already) to the fact that twenty-first century America will be largely Hispanic, Asian, and African.

But there are other probems with Fischer’s work that Wood only alludes to in his afterword. Shortly after Albion’s Seed appeeared, the William and Mary Quarterly devoted a symposium to the book. The scholars who participated were specialists on the various regions Fischer covered in the book. All of these authors dismantled Fischer’s treatment of the particular regions and further questioned his understanding of early American ethnic and cultural history. If you are a graduate student, this forum is must reading.

Wood’s review of Albion’s Seed reminds us that “the task of the historian is to determine how people in the past moved chronologically from A to B.” Since “people rarely stay the same between A and B, describing and explaining change through time” is “at the heart of historical reconstruction.”