Editor of *First Things* Magazine: “There are many things more precious than life”

Corona Healthcare

An editor of a magazine or journal sets it ideological course. R.R. Reno, a conservative Catholic, is the editor of First Things. Since it was founded by Richard John Neuhaus in 1990, First Things has been a beacon of the pro-life movement.  So forgive me for being surprised at Reno’s latest article: “Say “No” To Death’s Dominion.”

Here is a taste:

At the press conference on Friday announcing the New York shutdown, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “I want to be able to say to the people of New York—I did everything we could do. And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” 

This statement reflects a disastrous sentimentalism. Everything for the sake of physical life? What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life. And yet we have been whipped into such a frenzy in New York that most family members will forgo visiting sick parents. Clergy won’t visit the sick or console those who mourn. The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of “saving lives.”

I had to read this passage several times (in fact I read the entire piece several times) to make sure I gave Reno’s argument a fair hearing. In the end, I honestly can’t come up with any scenario in which justice, beauty or honor is more important than physical life. In fact, I think this is a false binary. How do you separate justice from the dignity of life–all life? There is beauty in the nature world, but human beings–even those who are sick and elderly and quarantined–create beauty.  It would seem that the practice of respecting the dignity of another person is the highest form of honor.  Do we honor our father and mother by exposing them to an illness that can kill them?

I am not a moral philosopher or a theologian, but everything about this passage strikes me as wrong. I don’t always agree with Reno, but I have always taken him seriously as an Christian thinker. What am I missing? Reno implies that we should visit our sick parents and possibly expose them to coronavirus because showing them love is somehow more important than their lives. He wants us to live-out our Christian vocation in a reckless fashion.

I do, however, resonate with some of Reno’s piece. How long do we leave the elderly in a state of isolation? My 78-year-old parents have been on lock down now for about two weeks. How long do we keep churches closed? These are good questions and it seems like science might be able to help. I am glad to hear scientists and healthcare experts are working on this. I think we need to know more about this disease and its effects before we start pontificating.

And this:

Put simply: Only an irresponsible sentimentalist imagines we can live in a world without triage. We must never do evil that good might come. On this point St. Paul is clear. But we often must decide which good we can and should do, a decision that nearly always requires not doing another good, not binding a different wound, not saving a different life.

There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost. Satan rules a kingdom in which the ultimate power of death is announced morning, noon, and night. But Satan cannot rule directly. God alone has the power of life and death, and thus Satan can only rule indirectly. He must rely on our fear of death.

I am struck by the binary thinking here. Reno says that if churches are closed and people cannot visit their neighbors and engage in face-to-face contact, at least for the time being, then Satan must be at work. When Reno talks about “triage” it sounds a lot like what armies call “collateral damage.” In other words, we need to bomb the hell out of a country because a just war theorist thinks it is the morally correct thing to do, even if it means innocent people will lose their lives. If they die, they die. That’s the price of doing God’s will.

Reno is correct when he says that we live in a society in which we always make indirect decisions about who lives and who dies. But we should never sit back and passively accept the existence of such a society.  Isn’t part of our calling as Christians to try to work toward changing such a world? The Christian faith is paradoxical in this regard. We believe the world is broken. We also believe we must engage in acts of justice as a means of working toward wholeness (shalom). Both are true. But I am afraid in this case Reno leans too heavily on the side of tragedy. As Eric Miller recently wrote, “which of your fellow parishioners, Mr. Reno, are you willing to expose to the virus? Could you tell us their names? Will you be sure to let their families know?” There is something disgusting about using the term “triage” to talk about death in our current moment.

And this:

That older generation that endured the Spanish flu, now long gone, was not ill-informed. People in that era were attended by medical professionals who fully understood the spread of disease and methods of quarantine. Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives.

Or maybe this generation was just foolish. Reno is engaging in the worst form of nostalgia here. He has turned our ancestors into heroic Christians who stared influenza in the face, endured its “punishing blows,” and did not give death its due. The result of this heroism was 675,000 dead Americans.  Read the historians! I have been posting about the 1918 influenza for a couple of weeks now. There is a reason why, until recently, no one talked about this tragic moment in American history.

We have been self-quarantined now for two weeks. Perhaps the message for the church is patience, not a rush to judgment that leads us to make questionable claims about the dignity of human life.

The Author’s Corner with Shannon Bontrager

Book CoverShannon Bontrager is Associate Professor of History at Georgia Highlands College. This interview is based on his new book, Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921 (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Death at the Edges of Empire?

SB: One of the significant memories I have from my childhood was my grandmother’s (Mary Ann Bontrager) funeral. I was 13 and hers was my first funeral and it was such a sad dreary December Michigan day. She was a lovely woman who would peel the skin of my apples with a knife and give it to me salted, she made the best pound cake and sauce of anyone around, and she sadly died from cancer in 1986. My grandparents had left the Amish faith long before my birth and they were shunned (especially my grandfather, Ben) for doing so. My grandfather’s Amish family attended her funeral and Ben’s Amish sister even oversaw the food preparation for the meal afterwards. I remember getting my food and sitting with my grandfather at the table to eat and I did not suspect anything was up. But I remember my grandfather finishing quickly and then getting up to leave while we all were still eating. Perhaps it was one of my uncles or my dad, but I recall someone saying grandpa had to leave so that the Amish family could sit down to eat. The implication being that although they attended the funeral and even prepared the food for my grandfather, they could not have the decency to eat the funeral meal in his presence. I was shocked and angry that the boundaries of the shunning remained in place while commemorating my dead grandmother. I thought my Amish kin were cruel. My anger, however, was misplaced, as later I found out from my dad who reminded me that my Amish relatives actually had defied their Bishop who had decreed that in order to enforce my grandfather’s shunning my grandmother’s funeral was off limits to them. Their presence and their preparation of the food was a collective defiance of authority and boundaries out of respect for my grandmother’s death and my grandfather’s grief. They were risking a lot of social capital to be there. But the memory never left me and I found myself returning to it as I began to study the American past in earnest. The number of ways that people in society could use the dead (particularly the war dead) to remember, manipulate, forget the past, and create the present continued to astound me. This was particularly clear when in the late 1990s the family of Michael Blassie, who had been buried as the Vietnam War Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, identified their son using DNA evidence. They disinterred their son’s body from Arlington so that he could be closer to their home and so that the family could finally grieve after so many years of not being able to mourn truly. For me, the Blassie family signaled a moment as if the past had come back to confront the present in a similar defiant way that my Amish relatives defied their Bishop. To do what was right even if it meant crossing reinforced social boundaries. Did other people have to endure these kinds of experiences? As my research unfolded, I found the answer was often yes and it was often yes across the decades of time and was actually a central and critical theme of the American experience.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Death at the Edges of Empire?

SB: Americans, since the time of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, have developed a collective memory of empire that could be hidden, particularly but not exclusively, in the rituals and traditions of commemorating the war dead. These imperial memories work incredibly hard to separate the past from the present and the citizenry from memory by hiding the practices and realities of American empire behind the cultural memory of democratic republicanism.

JF: Why do we need to read Death at the Edges of Empire?

SB: Americans are experiencing a particularly interesting time of flux and change. The past five years have given Americans multiple anniversaries to commemorate: from the 150 year anniversary of the ending of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, to the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, to the 75th anniversary of the Second World War. We are literally living at the crossroads of memory. These moments helped make the very institutions that Americans are now suspicious of and reconsidering. At a time when Americans are increasingly growing disillusioned with religious, government, and private institutions, we are commemorating the moments that made us embrace them. Such a moment of opportunity to reevaluate the present depends crucially on our willingness to let the past fill the present. It is vitally important that when we reassess institutions (and if we choose to keep some and discard others) that we make those decisions with the past fully penetrating the present. Only by making room in the present for the past to thrive, can we determine how we should commemorate the war dead, deal with Confederate monuments, address the health and welfare of U.S. veterans, define who gets access to American citizenship, and in general, frame the kind of institutions that we want and need in twenty-first century America. Death at the Edges of Empire seeks to open a conversation about the institutions and rituals Americans have built around the commemoration of the war dead, it charts how those rituals have changed over time and circumstance, and it signals that the institution of commemoration is now potentially unraveling in real time. By understanding how past Americans often tried to keep the present free from the past, we can better shape our own collective memories by bringing the past into the present.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SB: I lived and worked in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1994-95 right in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s attempts to help Jordan and Israel sign a peace treaty. Growing up in a small town in the rural Midwest, I thought these kinds of treaties were impossible. But now in Jordan, I was in the very place where history was happening. It was a time when I was not just witnessing history, I could feel it. Around about this time, my friends and I went to tour an ancient Crusader castle called Kerak Castle in al-Karak. I remember climbing the ruins and being overwhelmed with imagining what life might have been like for Christians and Muslims eight hundred years ago. They lived and fought in the very spot where I was standing. It was a transcendental moment and it was electric. I decided right then and there while sitting on the top of the wall of the ruined palace that I wanted to be a historian. After my year abroad I returned for my senior year in college to a newly developed major in history at my small religious college. I would have to take 8 history courses (I think 4 of them were centered on the U.S.) over my last two semesters to complete the degree but I did it and I nearly got straight As (something that previously was beyond my imagination). It was such a wonderful experience to do nothing but study history and the electricity I felt at Kerak Castle in Jordan continued to power my study of American history and still does.

JF: What is your next project?

SB: My next project is tentatively titled “The Affinity of War: Traveling Memory, the War Dead, and the American Empire in France.” It is a kind of volume 2, to Death at the Edges of Empire that focuses on the travelling and transnational memories of the Franco-American interwar and early WWII period (1923-1943). It examines how French and American people took their memories and exchanged them with each other as Americans toured or made pilgrimages to World War I memory sites in France. I conducted research at the French Foreign Affairs Archives outside of Paris a few years ago and I am able to take Franco-American collective memory up to and through the Vichy regime before the U.S. diplomatic staff was forced to escape France in 1943 leaving American cemeteries and monuments commemorating the war dead behind for local French people under Nazi occupation to tend and look after until the Second World War concluded. I think it could be an exciting topic to explore. I am now at the beginning of translating the French language documents into English and then I hope to complete this, my second manuscript.

JF: Thanks, Shannon!

The Author’s Corner with Erik Seeman

speaking with the dead in early americaErik Seeman is Professor of History and History Department Chair at the University at Buffalo. This interview is based on his new book, Speaking with the Dead in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Speaking with the Dead?

ES: In my large lecture class, “Death in America,” Spiritualism is one of my students’ favorite topics. I had long wondered how a religious movement with such a specific starting point–the Fox Sisters’ communication with a ghost in 1848–could claim “millions” of adherents within a decade (leave aside for a moment that the claim was likely exaggerated).

So I started Speaking with the Dead with a simple question: Where did Spiritualism come from? But I quickly became dissatisfied with previous historians’ answers, which had focused on relatively marginal movements in the 1830s and 1840s: Shakerism, Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism. The deeper I dug, the more I found examples of people imagining communication with the dead, not only in the nineteenth century, but going back to the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century England.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Speaking with the Dead?

ES: Protestantism is a religion in which the dead play a central role. From the Reformation forward, many Protestants have maintained relationships with the dead, a tendency that increased over time and culminated in what I call the antebellum cult of the dead.

JF: Why do we need to read Speaking with the Dead?

ES: Historians have long insisted – as in one recent account of the Reformation – that “Protestantism stripped religion of mediation and intimacy with the dead.” Speaking with the Dead offers countless examples from historical, literary, and material culture sources to demonstrate that such assertions must be revised.

To use categories formulated by the religious studies scholar Robert Orsi, historians have usually conceived of Protestantism as a religion of “absence,” in contrast to Catholicism, which is seen as a religion of the “presence” of supernatural beings other than God and Christ (saints, deceased loved ones, the Virgin Mary). In my account, Protestantism is very much a religion of presence.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

ES: I went to college “in Boston” (as Harvard grads like to say, evasively). I was a History major but not at all on a path toward becoming a historian, until I started primary source research for my junior-year paper, sort of a mini-thesis. I started taking the T and the commuter rail to the Mass Archives at Columbia Point and the Essex County Courthouse in Salem. I couldn’t believe they handed over stacks of eighteenth-century wills and inventories and letters to an untested twenty-year-old. The next year I continued my research on the social history of the Great Awakening, expanded my geographic compass, and spent so much time in the archives that I got a D on my Icelandic Saga midterm. At that point I asked my Teaching Fellow, Mark Peterson, “How do I do what you do?”

JF: What is your next project?

ES: Continuing the Boston theme, I’ve just started a book I’m calling “The Pox of 1721: Boston’s Deadliest Epidemic.” It’s going to be a social history of the sort I started writing as an undergrad. This is the smallpox epidemic famous for the “inoculation controversy”: Cotton Mather and Zabdiel Boylston favored the new (or new to Euro-Americans) practice of inoculation, while William Douglass and others strongly opposed it. This controversy left an ample published record that has drawn lots of scholarly attention. But what about ordinary people? How did this epidemic play out among the unfree as well as the free, the poor as well as the well-to-do? We’ll see if I’m able to unearth enough sources to tell that story.

JF: Thanks, Eric!

The Author’s Corner with Brian Dirck

the black heavens abraham lincoln and death

Brian Dirck is a Professor of History at Anderson University. This interview is based on his new book, The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death (Southern Illinois University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death?

BD: This book actually began as something quite different. I originally planned to analyze Lincoln’s leadership during the last summer of the war, when he believed he would not be re-elected, when his emancipation policies were being widely criticized, and especially when Grant’s Wilderness campaign was creating a horrendous body count. I wondered how Lincoln was able to get Americans to accept such high numbers of casualties. This led to a more general question: so, what did Lincoln think of death and dying generally? And it turns out very little has actually been written about that; a few things here and there, but on the whole, surprisingly little. So, my book morphed into a general study of how Lincoln confronted and managed death and mourning, all the way back to his childhood.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death?

BD: I argue that the popular image of Lincoln as haunted by a hyper-emotional, tragic spectre of death is misplaced. In fact, throughout his life Lincoln learned to increasingly put emotional distance between himself and dying, which was the only way he could effectively lead the nation through the Valley of Death that was the Civil War.

JF: Why do we need to read The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death?

BD: My book fills a hole in the vast Lincoln literature (and yes, there are still holes) by looking in depth at a subject too long neglected. Death could easily compete with emancipation and the Union as key themes in Lincoln’s life, and so we need a better understanding of how he handled all the death and dying with which he was surrounded. I also believe this is a contribution to the growing body of literature on what we might call the Civil War’s “dark side,” begun with Drew Gilpin Faust’s excellent study of death during the war. I hope my book in this way contributes not just to Lincoln studies, but Civil War scholarship in general.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BD: I think my interest in history and the Civil War began with my grandma telling me stories about the war as I grew up in central Missouri, stories about the guerrilla conflicts in the area, etc. She gave me a fascination with the era, and stories of the past generally. I was then blessed with the great fortune to study history as an undergrad at the University of Central Arkansas under Dr. Gregory J. Urwin (now at Temple), and then graduate work under the late Dr. Philip Paludan at the University of Kansas. Greg and Phil together gave me their infectious enthusiasm for teaching and writing about history, and Phil helped spark my ongoing interest in Lincoln’s life and career.

JF: What is your next project?

BD: I have begun work on a study of free speech during the war, focusing particularly on the conflicts between Lincoln and Clement Vallandigham.

JF: Thanks, Brian!

“As the boomers have aged, denial of death…has moved to the center of American culture”

EhrenCheck out Yale historian Gabriel Winant‘s review of Barbara Ehrenreich‘s new book: Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Our Illusion of Self Control.  Here is a taste:

Ehrenreich contemplates with some satisfaction not just the approach of her own death but also the passing of her generation. As the boomers have aged, denial of death, she argues, has moved to the center of American culture, and a vast industrial ecosystem has bloomed to capitalize on it. Across twelve chapters, Ehrenreich surveys the health care system, the culture of old age, the world of “mindfulness,” and the interior workings of the body itself, and finds a fixation on controlling the body, encouraged by cynical and self-interested professionals in the name of “wellness.” Without opposing reasonable, routine maintenance, Ehrenreich observes that the care of the self has become a coercive and exploitative obligation: a string of endless medical tests, drugs, wellness practices, and exercise fads that threaten to become the point of life rather than its sustenance. Someone, obviously, is profiting from all this.

While innumerable think pieces have impugned millennials’ culture of “self-care”—and argued that the generation born in the 1980s and ’90s is fragileconsumerist, and distracted—Ehrenreich redirects such criticisms toward an older crowd. Her book sets out to refute the idea that it’s possible to control the course and shape of one’s own biological or emotional life, and dissects the desire to do so. “Agency is not concentrated in humans or their gods or favorite animals,” she writes. “It is dispersed throughout the universe, right down to the smallest imaginable scale.” We are not, that is, in charge of ourselves.

Read the entire review at The New Republic.

Grieving as a Historian


Stepháne Gerson, a historian of France at New York University, lost his eight-year old son on rafting trip on the Utah and Colorado border in 2006.  His Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “History in the Face of Catastrophe,” describes how history served as a way of getting through the pain.

Here is a taste:

Though history had lost its scholarly luster, it came alive in other ways. The past provided solace and companionship, immediacy and distance, inklings of understanding and a finer appreciation for what I could never understand. It allowed me to commemorate my son, expiate his death, grieve in the company of others, and soften the edges of our family tragedy.

The history I learned in graduate school and then practiced and taught rested upon reason and distance from my object of study. After Owen’s death, I learned about my emotional life as a scholar. History, it turned out, lived inside me through sadness and longing, ache and melancholy, guilt and regret, surprise and doubt, solitude and anger.

In her classic Allure of the Archives (Yale University Press, 2013), Arlette Farge outlines an embodied historical practice that rests on the historian’s openness to archives and capacity to imbibe the past. Farge invites historians to turn their senses and emotions into founding blocks of a hermeneutical relationship with actors whose archival traces they can inhabit, whose lives they can touch and imagine. A historical practice that remains attuned to the scholar’s emotional and intellectual life can generate new and fuller forms of knowledge.

Scholarly practice, Farge tells us, is neither static nor divorced from the life-world that surrounds it. Historians feel things in the archive, as they interact with past lives and real human beings. This is not something most of us acknowledge. As a consequence, we do not readily explore all of the places from which we write. Our discipline, the historian Ivan Jablonka recently wrote, has led us to overlook the ways in which our emotional and bodily lives — our tastes and longings, our health and traumas — shape our historical sensibility and hence our craft.

Could we imagine a scholarly practice — one among many — which acknowledges that what speaks to us may also be what moves us? That what draws our attention or repels us may owe much to our emotional state at a given moment? That the historical actors and events we deem important may be the ones who touch something inside us? This practice would not privilege emotion alone; it would not deny reason. But it would not pretend either that emotion plays no significant role within our craft, that what we feel and what we think are not somehow connected, and that our work would not be enriched and made more honest by deeper recognition of this connection.

Read the entire piece here.

Our Mortuary Conventions


Seattle funeral home, 1900

Jill Lepore writes about them in the October issue of The New York.  As the subtitle of her piece notes, “Our mortuary conventions reveal a lot about our relation to the past.”

Here is a taste:

There are only so many ways to deal with the dead: remember or forget, put up statues or pull them down, bury or burn. Heth is an edge case, like a head on a pike, or a mass grave, or a man hanging from a gallows, a display of decay, a spectacular atrocity. But the edge is not so far from the viscera. Frederick Douglass called slavery a tomb. The way Americans still bury their dead is a consequence of the war that was fought to end it.

“We cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg. But bodies could be embalmed and brought home, to be seen, one last time, beloved and mourned. A business grew. Before the war, families washed and shrouded and carried their own dead, burying them in boxes built of softwoods like pine and cedar. During the war, families hired undertakers to preserve their sons long enough to bring them home from distant battlefields on railway cars. “Night and day journeys a coffin,” Walt Whitman wrote. Gravestones filled the fields like poppies. There were fields of black and fields of white. 

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Terri Snyder

Terri Snyder is Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. This interview is based on her latest book The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Power to Die?

TS: During my research for my first book, I was reading county court records from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Virginia and noticed reports of suicide. Most of these accounts described self-destruction by young, indentured servants who died under bleak circumstances; their stories both absorbed and troubled me. I started collecting any references to suicide that I came across  — from courts and legislatures, newspapers and periodicals, slave narratives and plantations records, for instance – and amassed a surprising amount of material.  I ultimately focused on the suicides of enslaved men and women, however, because my research revealed that their deaths were understood, reacted to, and remembered distinctly, in ways that differed from those of free European Americans. For instance, in early modern Christianity, death by suicide was condemned as a grievous sin and a willful rejection of one’s God-ordained fate; it was also punished as a felony. When slaves killed themselves, their masters viewed those acts as powerful rejections of their authority.  In contrast, at least some enslaved people viewed suicide as a conduit to ancestral reunion and did not express reproach for others who had killed themselves.  In addition, by the era of the American Revolution, slave suicide was used for explicitly political ends. One of the earliest, popular printed anti-slavery tracts from 1773 (from which my book’s title is taken) used an enslaved man’s act of suicide to illustrate the injustice and inhumanity of slavery.  Given what I had uncovered about the visibility, meaning, and politics of self-destruction, I felt that the history of slavery and suicide needed to be written.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Power to Die?

TS: To put it most simply, suicide is part of the history of slavery in North America: the suicides of enslaved women and men were visible from the beginnings of the slave trade, evident across British American slave societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a focus for anti-slavery activists in the early United States, and remembered by ex-slaves and in African American folklore, literature, and the visual arts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Acts of self-destruction by enslaved people carried completing cultural meanings, exposed the paradox of personhood and property that was fundamental to the legal institution of slavery, and were a political force in challenging attitudes both toward slavery and suicide.

JF: Why do we need to read The Power to Die?

TS: The Power to Die allows us to see both slavery and suicide from an original perspective and to understand the complex implications of self-inflicted death under slavery in early America. Partly, the book is focused on experience.  It has many examples of enslaved people who died by suicide or chose death over enslavement.  In a sense, this book is a witness to those deaths and examines the circumstances, when knowable, that surrounded them as well as the range of responses to them.   At the same time, this book also looks to the larger cultural, legal, and political meanings of self-destruction by enslaved women and men.  Accounts of their deaths by suicide found in legal forums, periodicals and newspapers, and popular literature and drama reflected prevailing ideas about race, gender, and temperament, expressed competing legal, cultural, and political tensions over slavery, and in the hands of anti-slavery activists, were used to challenge the peculiar institution.  The book concludes with a consideration of the memory of slave suicide in modern America. All of this makes for a widely chronological and interdisciplinary study, which I hope will appeal to historians of slavery and race, scholars of early America, and those interested in understanding death and violence in the American past and present.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

TS: I decided to pursue a Ph.D. relatively late as an undergraduate, and I was divided about whether to study early American history or literature, so I wed the two interests by choosing American Studies. I was also working on feminist causes outside of the university, so I knew that gender was going to be an element of my work.  But, honestly, I think I only began to become a historian when I took a class in early American women’s history with Linda Kerber; her example continues to profoundly inspire and shape my own work. I also attended graduate school with an amazing cadre of fellow students, and they also influenced my development as a historian.  Even today, these relationships still form the core of my scholarly networks, intellectual exchanges, and friendships.

JF: What is your next project?

TS: I am working on a biography of an early American family. The study begins on the eastern shore of Virginia in 1703, with the marriage of a free woman of color to an enslaved man.  The couple had seven children, and my book follows the life stories of those children as they and their descendants mature and migrate across and beyond the Atlantic seaboard.  I am particularly interested in using this family history to understand the changing experience of race, law, and freedom in early America. 

JF: Thanks, Terri!

Obituary of the Day

I don’t know if this is real or not, but it is certainly funny.  From the Delaware Cape Gazette  Here are some highlights:
Walter George Bruhl Jr. of Newark and Dewey Beach is a dead person; he is no more; he is bereft of life; he is deceased; he has rung down the curtain and gone to join the choir invisible; he has expired and gone to meet his maker.
He was surrounded by his loving wife of 57 years, Helene Sellers Bruhl, who will now be able to purchase the mink coat which he had always refused her because he believed only minks should wear mink. He is also survived by his son Walter III and wife Melissa; daughters Carly and Paige, and son Martin and wife Debra; son Sam and daughter Kalla. Walt loved and enjoyed his grandkids.
Walt was preceded in death by his tonsils and adenoids in 1935; a spinal disc in 1974; a large piece of his thyroid gland in 1988; and his prostate on March 27, 2000.
He drifted through the Philadelphia Public School System from 1937 through 1951, graduating, to his mother’s great relief, from John Bartram High School in June 1951.
Walter was a Marine Corps veteran of the Korean War, having served from October 1951 to September 1954, with overseas duty in Japan from June 1953 till August 1954. He attained the rank of sergeant. He chose this path because of Hollywood propaganda, to which he succumbed as a child during World War II, and his cousin Ella, who joined the corps in 1943.
There will be no viewing since his wife refuses to honor his request to have him standing in the corner of the room with a glass of Jack Daniels in his hand so he would appear natural to visitors.
Cremation will take place at the family’s convenience, and his ashes will be kept in an urn until they get tired of having it around. What’s a Grecian Urn? Oh, about 200 drachmas a week.
Everyone who remembers him is asked to celebrate Walt’s life in their own way; raising a glass of their favorite drink in his memory would be quite appropriate.
Instead of flowers, Walt would hope that you will do an unexpected and unsolicited act of kindness for some poor unfortunate soul in his name.

Wilfred McClay on Medicine, Limits, and Death

You should be reading the stuff that Wilfred McClay writes.  He is one of the best cultural critics writing today.  If your new to McClay, start with his Merle Curti Award-winning book The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America.  You will not be disappointed.

Or check out McClay’s short piece at The Hedgehog Review, a journal published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.  Here is a taste of “Against Mastery“: 

How, for one, will we make sense of death if it comes to be viewed as something with no intrinsic meaning, but chiefly as a piece of bad luck, a matter of bad timing—the misfortune, for example, of contracting the disease before the march of inevitable medical progress had caught up with it? Or worse, how can we ever be reconciled to death when it becomes understood as something almost entirely accidental, and largely preventable?

Do we imagine that complete control over our biological fates will necessarily make us happier? Perhaps it will. But one can as easily imagine that there might be little room for uninhibited joy or exuberance in such a world. More likely it will be a tightly wound world, saturated with bitterness and anxiety and mutual suspicion, in which life and health will be guarded with all the ferocity of Ebenezer Scrooge guarding his money. Growing mastery means growing responsibility, and the need to assign blame, since nothing happens by chance. Some of the blame will be directed at the parents, politicians, doctors, and celebrities who make plausible villains, or conspiracy theories that explain why someone else is always at fault. But much of the blame will devolve upon ourselves, since in being set free to choose so much about our lives, we will have no one else to blame when we make a complete mess of things. 

The Attempt to Bring George Washington Back to Life

Here is a post for all of the Messiah College students headed to Mount Vernon on Saturday as part of the History Club field trip.

Over at the Mount Vernon website, Mary Thompson has a very interesting piece on Dr. William Thornton’s attempt to resuscitate George Washington after his death on December 14, 1799.  Here is a taste:

At least one friend wanted to help the process of “resuscitation” along after George Washington’s death in 1799.  William Thornton was a physician, trained in the best medical schools in Europe, who also designed the Library Company of Philadelphia (1789), the United States Capitol (1792), and a number of important homes in the DC area, including the Octagon, Woodlawn, and Tudor Place.  He was appointed one of three commissioners for the new federal city (1793-1828) and was named first superintendent of the U.S. Patent Office in 1802.  Twenty years after Washington’s death, Thornton wrote that when the former president was suffering through his final illness, a family member invited Thornton to Mount Vernon to see if he could help.  Thornton left for the estate, in the “fullest confidence of being able to relieve him by tracheotomy.”  He was shocked to discover that Washington had died before his arrival and was now “laid out a stiffened Corpse.  My feelings at that moment I cannot express!  I was overwhelmed with the loss of the best friend I had on Earth.”  But Thornton had a backup plan:

The weather was very cold, & he [Washington] remained in a frozen state, for several Days.  I proposed to attempt his restoration, in the following manner.  First to thaw him in cold water, then to lay him in blankets, & by degrees & by friction to give him warmth, and to put into activity the minute blood vessels, at the same time to open a passage to the Lungs by the Trachaea, and to inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration, and to transfuse blood into him from a lamb.  If these means had been resorted to, & had failed all that could be done would have been done, but I was not seconded in this proposal; for it was deemed unavailing.  I reasoned thus.  He died by the loss of blood & the want of air.  Restore these with the heat that had subsequently been deducted, and as the organization was in every respect perfect, there was no doubt in my mind that his restoration was possible.

Twenty years later, Thornton still seemed a little miffed that people questioned his idea, wondering “whether if it were possible it would be right to attempt to recall to life one who had departed full of honor & renown; free from the frailties of age, in the full enjoyment of every faculty, & prepared for eternity.”  Thornton at least got his way, after insisting that the body be enclosed within a lead coffin, so that Washington could eventually be buried at the United States Capitol.4   That move never happened.

Remembering the Dead on Independence Day

Richard Kauffman, the book review editor at The Christian Century, feels “out of step with the rest of American culture” on the Fourth of July.  I will let him explain:

The fourth of July joins Memorial Day and Veterans day as the three times a year I feel out of step with the rest of American culture. While I’m grateful for my country’s freedoms and opportunities, and I want to mourn with those who mourn the losses of war, I cannot participate in rituals that glorify war.

Eamon Duffy, who teaches the history of Christianity at Cambridge University, has helped me to better articulate my own discomfort with memorializing war. Remembering the war dead is a highly tribal act, Duffy argued in a speech he gave for Remembrance Day 1998 in the UK (a speech included in his collection Walking to Emmaus). We are remembering our own war dead. There’s no room in our rituals for remembering others’ losses, especially not those of our enemies.

The dead themselves are silent; we hijack them and use them for our own purposes. “They become ventriloquist’s dummies,” says Duffy, “through whom we utter the words we think we need to hear.” Behind all the trappings of the ceremonies is a nostalgic longing for the moral clarity of a nation united around war, in which divisions are silenced and people have a clear sense of right and wrong. Or rather, of who is in the right and who is in the wrong—of our enemies’ uniform as the embodiment of evil.

Most of the people killed in war aren’t heroes. Most of them are victims of war. Though they were fallible, sinful human beings, we make them into secular saints by virtue of them having been killed in war. Of course, the ones who actually fight the wars often have their own misgivings.

Read the rest here. Thanks, Richard.

Love and Death on the Wrecking Ball Tour

Joan Walsh offers us a view from the “pit” on Springsteen’s recent stop in San Jose.  Her piece in Salon is a thoughtful reflection on the role that death has played in this Springsteen tour–from Clarence and Danny to Springsteen’s Catholicism and references to “Calvary.”  Here is a taste:

The “Wrecking Ball” tour is also making me more conscious of Springsteen’s Catholic upbringing (which was maybe more overtly on display in “Devils and Dust.”) In the haunting gospel “Rocky Ground,” he’s the shepherd who needs his flock. “We are Alive,” a song told from the point of view of the dead in their graves who declare that their “spirits rise,” opens with a reference to “Calvary Hill,” which is one of the album’s two references to Calvary, where Jesus died. The other reference is sort of controversial. In his searing “We Take Care of Our Own,” an indictment of all the ways we actually don’t do that in this country, he rails against our indifference to the struggles of the poor, “from the shotgun shack to the Superdome,” continuing

There ain’t no help, the Calvary stayed home
There ain’t no one hearing the bugle blowin’

Springsteen fan boards immediately lit up about the “mistake” – he would seem to have meant “cavalry,” the soldiers who charge in on horseback to save the day, often at the cry of a bugle – but I recognized his Catholic school education, in which you learn the excruciating physical details of Jesus’s suffering and death at Calvary before you learn about divisions of the military, and you confuse the two words for the rest of your life. Two other recent “Calvary-cavalry” mix-ups come from two other Catholics, Bill O’Reilly, who confused the two when reading his Lincoln audiobook, and Conan O’Brien, who reportedly mixed them up in a comic-dramatic rendition of “War Horse.” Even though the song’s official lyrics were later corrected to “cavalry,” he sang “Calvary” again Tuesday night, another deeply Catholic reflex that provided a clue to why his rituals of grief and redemption are so physical.

I have my tickets–September 2 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

Raising the Civil War Death Toll

How many people died during the Civil War?  For over a century the standard death count stood at 618,222.  But David J. Hacker, a historian at SUNY-Binghamton, begs to differ.  In an article recently published in Civil War History, Hacker concludes, based on his study of digital census data from the 19th century, that the death toll was actually 750,000 (20% higher).  According to this article in The New York Times, Eric Foner has said that Hacker’s essay is “among the most consequential pieces ever to appear” in the pages of Civil War History.

I guess I need to change my Civil War lecture notes for next Fall.  (Indeed, the mark of a significant piece of scholarship is one that forces college professors to change their lecture notes!)

HT: AHA Today

Death Elegies from Gettysburg

Daniel Rolph is the author of “HSP’s Hidden Histories,” a blog sponsored by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  In a recent post, Rolph quotes from the death elegies written by some of those who lost family members from Philadelphia at the Battle of Gettsyburg.  These elegies offer much insight into the culture of suffering and death during the Civil War.  Here is a brief taste of Rolph’s post:

It was a common practice in America, from the Colonial period and well up into the American Civil War era, for family members to express their mourning or grief, in what are referred to as elegies, a written ‘lament’ or tribute to the dead. Often times these elegies were rhymed couplets, which appear quite frequently in newspapers of the day, revealing not only the bravery, courage, and sacrifices of the soldiers involved, but also the eloquence in writing, of those who paid tribute to the deceased in verse.

Various regiments of volunteer soldiers from Philadelphia, fought at the Battle of Gettysburg in early July of 1863, resulting in the tragic deaths of many of its residents. The newspapers are filled with sorrowful yet proud poems honoring those who’d gave the ultimate sacrifice during that famous engagement in Adams County, Pennsylvania.

For example, Augustus Joseph, of Co. ‘H,’ 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, or ‘Rush’s Lancers’ (though his body had not yet been retrieved), had the following poem printed in his behalf, within the Philadelphia Public Ledger, on August 7th, 1863:

“On Gettysburg’s bloody field, a wounded soldier lay;
Hist thoughts were on his happy home, some hundred miles away.
A soldier friend stood by his side, a tear stood in his eye,
And cold the sweat stood on his brow, he felt he soon must die.
‘When you see my mother dear, be careful how you speak,
The cords of life may snap too soon, her heart may be too weak.
Go tell her that my aching heart, did heave a gentle sigh.
Go tell her that her son so true, a soldier’s death did die.”

Robert W. Ray, of Frankford, age 37, of Co. ‘I,’ 121st Pennsylvania Regiment, was honored by the following in an elegy written by his wife:

“His country’ s cause, it was his own, before his foes he would not bend.
He stood upon a freeman’s throne, for equal rights did he contend.
When husband last was home to rest, I little thought death was so nigh.
He pressed our children to his breast, and said, ‘for you and these I’ll die.’
From home into the field he went, where armies met a dread array.
Where tyrants and oppressors sent, to beat out freedom’s gentle sway.
The Lord of Hosts our army led, and victory on our banner hung,
And when they searched among the dead,
my husband amid the throng.
My heart it beats with anguish deep, as o’er the dead, I sit and mourn.
But why cast down my soul and weep, for soon will dawn a glorious morn.
The Saviour will for thee appear, to gather up thy little dust;
Husband, children, and father dear, in Christ our Saviour shall find rest.”

Praying at Ground Zero

I don’t know about you, but I have 9-11 commemoration fatigue.  There is a part of me that is glad that the ceremonies are over–at least for the moment.

Yet, glutton for punishment that I am, I continue to read some good stuff on the tenth anniversary of this tragedy and get the urge to blog about it.

For example, Mark Silk, writing at his fine blog Spiritual Politics, discusses Michael Bloomberg’s decision to keep clergy out of yesterday’s Ground Zero commemoration. He then calls our attention to a way in which the commemoration of the dead might serve both religious and civic ends.  Here is a taste:

Let’s hark back…to the way New Englanders used to remember the fallen on Memorial Day.

In “An American Sacred Ceremony,” anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner‘s classic account published six decades ago, Memorial Day in “Yankeetown”–Newburyport, Mass.–began with members of the different religious bodies attending services in their own houses of worship; then forming a parade and marching together to the town’s main cemetery, where separate ceremonies were performed; then reforming the parade with a final collective salute, and heading back to town. As Warner summed it up:

Here we see people who are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Greek Orthodox involved in a common ritual in a graveyard with their common dead. Their sense of separateness was present and expressed in the different ceremonies, but the parade and the unity gained by doing everything at one time emphasized the oneness of the total group. Each ritual also stressed the fact that the war was an experience where everyone sacrificed and some died, and not as members of a separate group, but as citizens of a whole community.

In today’s America, it is no longer possible to make the civil religious umbrella work with a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a Protestant minister; or an Abrahamic triplet of rabbi-priest-imam; or anything short of a herd of be-robed clerics. And even then there will be exclusions–of those of no faith, of course, but also Mormons and Missouri Synod Lutherans, and others who for their own theological reasons will not pray with those who do not share their beliefs.

Teaching War

Dwight Simon teaches history to middle-schoolers at Epiphany School in Boston.  In this very thoughtful essay at The Smart Set, he reflects on “the seductive stories of mankind’s battles.”

…as a teacher of history, as a teacher of wars, imagine the knotting of stomach and tightening of chest that occurred when I encountered, seven years late, Drew Gilpin Faust’s article ‘“We should grow too fond of it’: why we love the Civil War.” Faust writes:

War is, by its very definition, a story. War imposes an orderly narrative on what without its definition of purpose and structure would be simply violence. We as writers create that story; we remember that story; we provide the narrative that by its very existence defines war’s purpose and meaning. We love war because of these stories. But we should ask ourselves how in the construction of war’s stories we may be helping to construct war itself.

Amplified in her recent Jefferson Lecture and supplemented by her Bancroft Prize-winning This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, the last decade of Faust’s scholarship forces historians into the uncomfortable work of reassessing their assumptions about war, how war stories are told, and how the very study of war by a disproportionate number of historians may in fact serve to perpetuate it.

But surely historians aren’t the only ones at fault here. While Faust asks hard questions of her own profession, let me present the same fearful possibility to the teachers of America’s millions of primary and secondary school students. Have we — by the curricula we accept, the readings we assign, the stories we tell, the movies we show — glamorized war, infused it with meaning, and made it normal and respectable for future generations to wage?

By structuring curriculum in certain ways, we shape the next generation’s perception of past reality. Indeed, it is possible — likely, even — that for many in times and places past, war was a priority, so by making it a priority in our classrooms we simply reflect what once was. But I fear, with Faust, that our project is much more creative. That by making war a priority in our curriculum – organizing teaching units around it, surrounding ourselves with gripping stories about it – we actually make war a priority in ways that it wasn’t. We construct a past that never was, and in doing so construct a future that need not be: a world in which war is a constant presence, a fellow traveler. A world in which war is normal. Operating out of such a norm, might our students move on to build such a world themselves? “Our narratives are not just modeled from war,” Faust insists, “they become models for war.” 

For many of my students, war is a video game, war is a Hollywood movie. Many boys, socialized neatly into aggression and weaponry just as society seems to have wanted it, use their video game experiences of war and combat to situate and understand their classroom study of war. Admittedly, this is often helpful. Students bring a sort of first-hand knowledge of the strategy and boots-on-the-ground experience of war that could hardly be possible without such innovative virtual tools. Even more, it’s worth noting that while video games are easy fodder for the declinists of each generation, there is still much disagreement about whether a person’s behavior in the virtual world of gaming encourages corresponding actions in real life. While several of my students seem to spend every waking weekend hour sniping Nazi zombies and other enemy combatants in the sprawling Call of Duty franchise, this has thankfully not caused any of them to actually become snipers, their non-virtual time much more innocuously spent debating new colors of skinny jeans or engaging in the hopelessly Darwinian struggle that is middle school lunch and recess.  

And yet I wonder. Faced with these very fears that Faust brings up, I endeavored to make my eighth graders’ study of the Civil War more reflective, with qualitative and quantitative data on the deadly costs of the war. Faust’s This Republic of Suffering helped here. Culling statistics and quotes from her book, I sought to confront my students with the terrible pain and suffering that accompanies war. The handout I eventually distributed — a proud achievement, I thought — included a quick-fire compendium of devastating statistics and provocative reflections from soldiers, the enslaved, and observers of all kinds, alongside several grim photographs of Civil War battlefield dead. At the end, I asked students to reflect: “Was the war worth it?” Forced to balance the overwhelming statistics of dead and wounded — of battlefields flowing with blood and piled with bodies — with the prospect of slavery abolished, most students seemed relatively unconflicted: the war was worth it.  

Read the rest here.

Drew Gilpin Faust: The Civil War and the Meaning of Life

I am glad to see that The New Republic lifted the subscribers-only wall on this amazing essay on the meaning of war.  Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard and the author of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, offers her reflections as we enter the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  Here is a taste of her conclusion:

…two months from now, we will again witness a re-enactment of the Battle of Bull Run. Tens of thousands of participants and spectators are expected. The enthusiasm to refight the Civil War has only grown in the fifty years since the centennial observances. Most of the costumed soldiers and camp followers will have read extensively about the war; they will wear garments accurate to the last button and stitch; they will use period weapons and canteens and knapsacks, for authenticity is the watchword of the thriving re-enactor culture. They will in these myriad details get history just right. But what will they understand of war? Will this re-enactment do any more to acknowledge the war’s purposes and politics—and their continuing significance to America—than did the re-enactments of fifty years ago? Will its celebratory mood and mode acknowledge what Frederick Douglass declared he would never forget: “the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery”? Will the re-enactors tell only an old “battle piece” of courage and glory and how sweet and proper it is to die? Will we in this historic sesquicentennial—to be observed at a time when Americans are involved in real conflicts in various places across the globe—forget what a heavy responsibility rests on those who seek to tell the stories of war?