A Writing Group of Boston-Area American Historians Gets a Story in *Publishers Weekly*

GeorginiCheck out Alex Green’s piece at Publishers Weekly.  The writers group, known as “The Squad,” includes historians Kevin Levin, Liz Covart, Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.  (Covart and Georgini have been guests on the The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Listen to our conversation with Covart here.  Georgini here).

Here is a taste of Green’s piece:

Kevin Levin got his first taste of having his work reviewed by the historians in the Book Squad as they finished their obligatory postdinner course of mint chip ice cream. “It took me a little bit of time to pick my ego up off the floor,” Levin said. Despite the intensity of the critique, Levin (who is a faculty colleague of the author of this article at Gann Academy) came to depend on the process for writing Searching for the Black Confederates (Univ. of North Carolina, Sept.). “I don’t think I would have finished the book without it,” he said.

The Book Squad first gathered when Liz Covart, host of the history podcast Ben Franklin’s World, wanted to create a writing group to motivate her to write. Levin signed on, as did historians Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.

The group began meeting monthly at each other’s houses in 2015. The host is responsible for dinner and a piece of writing for review. For Georgini, who was completing her dissertation and converting it into a trade title, the group offered an opportunity to share her work with published writers.

“We didn’t do the traditional fetishizing of the person’s work with comments like ‘I really love what you did here,’ ” Georgini said. “We went straight into it.” Her Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family was published by Oxford University Press in February.Black Confeds

In one instance, Heather Cox Richardson told Nelson, “You went the first 18 pages of this chapter before you had a single color.” Nelson, whose The Three-Cornered War will be published by Scribner in February 2020, said the advice has stayed with her, and as a result, she often thinks about ways to bring a more vivid sense of place into all of her writing.

After each session, each member sends written manuscript edits to the author who presented that night, which Silber said was invaluable as she finalized her edits for This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, which was published by UNC Press in 2018.

For Silber, who is an academic, working with the group was challenging at times. “Being in the group, I thought a lot more about how to make my writing lively and engaged and compelling,” she said. “But it was very hard for me to tell this as a story and not add a lot of analysis.”

Silber’s struggle reflects a wider issue. “We’re in this moment where historians are torn between writing for an academic audience or a trade audience,” Georgini said. “What does it mean to write for both? So a lot of these conversations in the Book Squad were about these readers who we were imagining and also the readers we hoped to attract. That was some of the richest dialogue we had.”

Read the entire piece here.

Can We Honor Robert E. Lee Apart from the Confederacy?

Lee University

Kevin Levin raises an interesting point.  In a recent talk a member of the audience asked him if it was possible to honor Robert E. Lee with a monument for his work as president of Washington and Lee University.

Here is a taste of Levin’s post at Civil War Memory:

One question in particular caught my attention. A graduate of Washington & Lee University asked if it was possible to commemorate Robert E. Lee today in the form of a monument that focused on his time as president of the college. Imagine Lee walking astride one or two students. Lee is in civilian clothing rather than military uniform and carrying a book. Could one be erected in 2017 on campus and if one were already present would people be justified in asking for its removal or relocation?

In other words, is it possible to commemorate Lee without acknowledging his service to the Confederacy?

I attempted to answer the question by drawing a distinction between before and after Charlottesville, but admitted that I am just not sure. What do you think?

The Author’s Corner with Kevin Levin

interpreting-the-civil-war-at-museums-and-historic-sitesKevin Levin is a historian, educator, and the proprietor of the popular Civil War Memory blog. This interview is based on his new edited collection, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017).

JF: What led you to collect and edit the essays in Interpreting the Civil War?

KL: With the United States recently having completed a 4-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, I was interested in how the war was interpreted at historic sites and museums throughout the country. I wanted a better sense of how recent scholarship and shifts in our popular memory of the war impacted interpretation on the ground. With that in mind I gathered together a group of public historians and educators to talk about how their respective institutions approached the sesquicentennial. I asked them to focus on how the specific challenges posed by their location and clientele shaped their exhibits and public outreach. My contributors include some very well known public historians working at high profile sites as well those who work at places that are a bit further off the beaten path.

JF: I realize that Interpreting the Civil War is an edited collection, but does the book have an overarching argument?

KL: Given the ongoing public debate about Confederate monuments it will not be surprising to hear that taken together the essays serve as a reminder that interpreting the Civil War for the general public is fraught with challenges. Contributors to this volume shared both successes and failures. The most successful public programs turned out to be those that took chances in engaging new audiences and addressing topics that have been both ignored and/or mythologized over the previous decades.

JF: Why do we need to read Interpreting the Civil War?

KL: First and foremost, I hope these essays will be helpful for practicing public historians. This book is part of Rowman & Littlefield’s “Interpreting History” series and is intended primarily for pubic historians, but I suspect that general readers interested in interpretive controversies as well as the long arc of Civil War memory will find much to consider. Essays cover the history of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina and questions surrounding how to interpret the battle flag that was recently removed from the State House grounds as well as the challenges of interpreting the war in the former capital of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Other essays offer insight into where we may be headed in our work as public historians. A historian with the National Park Service assesses its sesquicentennial programming and offers suggestions on what work still needs to be done while the final essay offers advice to public historians on how they can engage various constituencies in communities that are currently debating the public display of Confederate iconography. I can’t think of a better moment for just such a book.

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

KL: I never intended to become a historian. In 2005 I finished an M.A. in History at the University of Richmond and was teaching full time at a private school in Charlottesville, Virginia. In November of that year I started a blog called Civil War Memory, which within a few years had become fairly popular. The exposure that the blog offered paid off gradually with opportunities to speak and write and eventually led to a contract for my first book with the University Press of Kentucky that was based on my thesis. As much as I enjoy writing, I still think of myself primarily as an educator. Although I am not in the classroom full time, my greatest joy is working with history educators on their professional development and working with students on field trips and other settings.

JF: What is your next project?

KL: I am finishing up a book-length project that is tentatively titled, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. The book explores the wartime role of body servants or what I call camp slaves in the Confederate army and how these stories evolved after the war and into the present as the myth of the black Confederate soldier. My next project will address the current debate about Confederate monuments. I plan on structuring the book as a travel narrative that will allow me to visit and interview some of the most vocal participants on both sides of this debate in different places and weave into the story the history of these very same monuments. No title yet and I am still working through the overall structure and goals of the project.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

What About Confederate Reenactors?

Confederate Reenactors

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin reflects on Confederate Civil War reenactors in a post-New Orleans, post-Charlottesville world.

Here is a taste:

It should come as no surprise that reenactors who don Confederate gray and display the Confederate battle flag are meeting more and more resistance from people who question their motivation. A group of Maine men, who reenact the 15th Alabama, have experienced this firsthand in the form of heckling during parades and from those who question their racial motivation.

Read the entire post here.

 

How We Got Our Historical Markers

Dexter

Over at Smithsonian.com, Kevin Levin, the proprietor of the excellent blog “Civil War Memory,” gives us a history lesson on historical markers.

Some of you may recall that it was a Levin blog post that triggered our recent post “Is Jimmy Carter a Lost Causer.”  Levin mentions this again in his Smithsonian piece.

Here is a taste:

Historical markers are a ubiquitous presence along many of the nation’s highways and country roads. You can spot their distinctive lettering, background color, and shape without even realizing what they commemorate. And their history is more fraught than you might think.

States have celebrated their pasts since the United States was born, but it took more than a century—and the creation of modern roads—for roadside markers to become a tool for public memorialization. Virginia’s historical marker program is one of the oldest, beginning in 1926 with the placement of a small number of signs along U.S. 1 between Richmond and Mount Vernon. A small number of markers were erected in Colorado, Indiana and Pennsylvania even before this date. By 1930, Massachusetts had 234 markers along its roads—and these early tallies don’t include markers placed by local individuals, organizations and larger heritage groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The largest number of state-sponsored programs, however, followed World War II.

In the two decades after the war, American families took to the roads on vacations that had as much to do with pleasure as a desire to explore and embrace historic sites that reflected the country’s national identity and democratic values. In 1954 alone, around 49 million Americans set out on heritage tours of the United States, including Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, Washington, D.C., and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. These sacred places allowed Americans to imagine themselves as members of a larger community bound together by common values—and encouraged good citizenship at the height of America’s ideological struggle against the Soviet Union.

These pilgrimages also reinforced a traditional historical narrative that catered specifically to middle-class white America. Stories of Pilgrims and Puritans, Founding Fathers, westward-bound settlers, and brave American soldiers dominated this consensus-driven picture of the nation’s past. The vast majority of historical markers reinforced these themes on a local level, pointing out important events or notable residents—most of them white and male—as travelers wound their way to their final destinations.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Jimmy Carter a Lost Causer?

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin discusses a fascinating story about Jimmy Carter and the Lost Cause.  It will be published in a chapter in his forthcoming edited collection, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites. The story comes from an essay on historical markers and the Civil War written by Todd Groce, the CEO of the Georgia Historical Society.

The story centers on this marker,  which was originally placed on the grounds of the Carter Center in Atlanta:

George Civil WAR

Apparently Jimmy Carter did not like the text of the marker and wanted it changed to reflect, according to Groce, “a more traditional Lost Cause interpretation.”  This happened in 2015.

Read more at Civil War Memory.

The Civil War Centennial in Jackson, Mississippi

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory found this on You Tube.  Here is what he writes:

Check out this short video of a Civil War centennial parade in Jackson, Mississippi in March 1961. There is no shortage of Confederate flags. It certainly is a wonderful example of how these events rallied white communities at the height of the civil rights movement.

There does appear to be two black individuals in the parade, one pushing a wheelbarrow at the 54 second mark, but I am not sure what to make of it.

Teaching the Civil War at the American Antiquarian Society

pastpresful

Kevin Levin, a secondary school teacher, Civil War scholar, and author of the Civil War Memory blog, sat down with fellow historian Megan Kate Nelson to talk about his experience teaching the American Studies Seminar at the American Antiquarian Society. The interview offers some nice insight into teaching the Civil War using archival materials.

Here is a taste:

MKN: What advice do you have for university and secondary teachers who want to integrate work with archival resources into their classes?

KL: With all the technology available to university and secondary teachers it is easy to lose sight of the potential value of exposing students to archival materials. As a high school history teacher I have found that university archivists are more than happy to help organize classroom projects. During my time in Charlottesville, Virginia I co-taught an American Studies course that worked with UVA’s Special Collections staff. We visited campus two times as a group to give students time with a specific document that they were required to interpret on their own webpage.

Local historical societies are almost always enthusiastic about working with teachers to expose students to collections that are often under utilized. Student work with archival materials does not have to be in the form of a semester-long course. Even minimal exposure can have a profound impact. Certainly, access to a local archive will vary. In those situations the rich collection of digital materials from the Library of Congress or Readex is the next best thing.

MKN: Has this class changed the way you teach, or the way you do your own research in Civil War history?

KL: Archival research has always been an important role in my teaching, but this particular course served to reinforce its importance. No other project gives students the experience of being able to apply the kinds of analytical skills that define academic history.

Read the entire interview at Civil War Memory

 

What Would a Civil War Course Look Like With An All-Female Reading List?

When I think of Civil War buffs I think of middle-aged white men–the kind of men who go to Civil War roundtables, tour battlefields, and read books about generals.  


Does the same thing apply to Civil War scholarship?  Perhaps. But Kevin Levin, the author of the blog Civil War Memory, argues that a darn good undergraduate or graduate course on the Civil War could be designed using only books written by female authors.  

Here are a few of the titles that would make his reading list:
Read his whole book list here.