The Author’s Corner with Matthew Fox-Amato

exposing slaveryMatthew Fox-Amato is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Idaho. This interview is based on his new book, Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Exposing Slavery?

MFA: I was (and still am) interested in how social movements have used the power of culture to effect change. I also wanted to better understand the role that images of suffering have played in shaping modern experience and, more specifically, American politics. Initially, a project about abolitionist photography seemed the way to pursue these interests. I was aware of the many photos of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth as well as certain images that abolitionists circulated during the Civil War, such as the “Scourged Back” (1863), in which a fugitive slave poses with his flagellated back towards the camera. My plan was to examine how abolitionists drew upon this new visual technology to fight racism and expose the violence of bondage.

But the project changed as I began finding evidence in the slave South. I came across a few digitized photographs, commissioned by enslavers, of enslaved people in the 1850s. I found written sources suggesting enslaved people actively engaged the medium, as in, for instance, a newspaper article about African Americans purchasing photographs from an itinerant daguerreotypist in a small town in Alabama. These and other sources led me to revise how I was conceptualizing antebellum photography. The medium was more than simply a tool for abolitionists: it served as a cultural middle-ground, through which various historical actors–in both the North and South–made claims about themselves and the world. How, I now asked, did photography influence the culture and politics of slavery? And how was the medium shaped in the process? My book aims to answer these questions.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Exposing Slavery?

MFA: Photography exacerbated the political crisis over slavery. In turn, those most invested in the potential futures of slavery–enslavers, enslaved people, abolitionists, and Civil War soldiers–turned photography into a political tool.

JF: Why do we need to read Exposing Slavery?

MFA: It is abundantly clear that the digital world has reshaped the intertwined relationship between media and U.S. politics–whether one looks to changes in newspapers or the influence of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. To make sense of these changes, we need a more textured understanding of how media have shaped politics in the past. My point in Exposing Slavery is not that the emergence of photography simply helped promote freedom and equality and diminished anti-black racism. It is, instead, that photography catalyzed conflict, because actors from across the political spectrum seized on it for different political goals–much like we see with social media today.

I also want readers to come away with a new approach for conceptualizing historical actors. Exposing Slavery puts visual culture at the center of American history in a very specific way. Not only does it analyze images as evidence (rather than simply illustrations), but it also foregrounds how non-artists helped produce images and delves into the ways in which they circulated, displayed, and gazed upon those images. I show, for instance, how some enslaved people preserved photographic portraits of their loved ones, a practice that enabled them to maintain familial ties amidst the disruptions of the domestic slave trade. Likewise, I reveal how white Union soldiers helped craft interracial scenes during the Civil War. These images, which routinely pictured black men kneeling beneath and serving white soldiers, reinforced racial hierarchy as slavery crumbled. These and other instances demonstrate how non-artists shaped history through photography. We see the past anew once we begin to grapple with the many consequential ways that ordinary historical actors (not just trained artists) have used and made meaning from images.

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

MFA: I was riveted by my first serious work in an historical archive. When I was writing my undergraduate thesis about the Hollywood Production Code (film censorship enacted in the 1930s), I spent time at the Margaret Herrick Library in LA, poring over letters between Code executives and studio producers. I was captivated by the letters I read–documents full of conversation about what should be kept, altered, and cut in various film scripts. I felt like I had a front-row seat to the creation of popular culture, and was struck by the idea that my thesis would be dramatically shaped by the questions I asked about these sources. It was in this moment that I knew I wanted to study the past for a living.

JF: What is your next project?

MFA: I’m beginning a new book-length study about the historical relationship between visual journalism and the White House. The project examines how sketch artists and photojournalists have visualized the presidency, and how administrations began to create and disseminate their own news pictures. I’m fascinated by connections between visual media and the uneven development of democracy. This book explores one part of that larger story.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

The Author’s Corner with Jeremy C. Young

theageofcharismaJeremy C. Young is Assistant Professor of History at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah.  This interview is based on his new book, The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Age of Charisma?

JY: Growing up, I was inspired by politicians from the Gilded Age and Progressive Era such as William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson; I often wished modern American politics contained such larger-than-life figures.  I came to graduate school wanting to write a hagiographic dissertation about Wilson and the League of Nations, which, well, wouldn’t have been a very interesting book.  My advisor, Michael McGerr, encouraged me instead to think about why I found these figures so inspiring.  After digging through primary and secondary sources, I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt this way about turn-of-the-century leaders.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of ordinary Americans had been transformed through emotional connections with politicians, evangelists, and social activists.  This was the real story, I decided: not the leaders who made emotional appeals, but the followers who responded to them and the relationships followers and leaders built together.  Why did Americans of this period experience such profound emotions when interacting with leaders?  What could these emotional experiences tell us about the development of American society and culture?  Those were the questions that motivated my research, and, in the end, I think my book answers them.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Age of Charisma?

JY: The Age of Charisma argues that the modern relationship between American leaders and followers grew out of a unique group of charismatic social movements prominent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Drawing on hundreds of letters and testimonials, the book illustrates how “personal magnetism” in public speaking changed the culture of leadership by enabling a shift from emotional remoteness to emotional availability – thereby enhancing American democracy and creating a culture in which today’s leaders appeal directly to Americans through mass media.

JF: Why do we need to read The Age of Charisma?

JY: My book reshapes our understanding of American history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in a number of ways.  It outlines the origins of the strange, singsong speaking style used by turn-of-the-century leaders and shows how central that style was to American culture.  It offers a fresh interpretation of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, centered on the unique relationship between leaders and followers of the time.  It uses the testimony of followers to challenge common assumptions about popular civic participation by defining charismatic followership as a meaningful and historically-significant activity.  It demonstrates how individual emotional experience shapes large-scale historical trends.  Finally, it explains why Americans today demand that their leaders shake hands, kiss babies, deliver speeches, and forge emotional connections with their followers – something Americans of the mid-1800s neither expected nor wanted – and why these emotional connections are a positive and necessary feature of American democracy.

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

JY: While I am in fact an American historian, I tend to think of myself as a writer who works in the field of American history.  I’ve always known that I needed to produce and share creative work in order to feel fulfilled.  When I went to college, my career goal was to become a concert pianist; I decided I needed a backup plan in case I wasn’t successful, so I added a history major.  About halfway through school, I realized two things: I didn’t enjoy practicing piano, which seemed like a bad sign for someone planning a career in that field, and I did enjoy writing history papers. So I switched emphases and focused on history instead, and I haven’t looked back.  I chose American history over other subfields because I wanted my work to have some impact on current events. There is a message about strategies of activism in The Age of Charisma, but you have to work hard to find it; I don’t spell it out in the book.

JF: What is your next project?

JY: I’m currently in the early stages of a book project that will explore nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans’ fascination with alternate realities.  Over the past hundred and fifty years, a broad swath of Americans have demonstrated a belief in a hidden world beyond the reach of everyday experience – a longing for a secret reality available only to a select few.  This belief in imagined realities has been shared by science fiction authors and religious leaders, philosophers and conspiracy theorists.  At the same time, a number of Americans have obscured their own private realities of trauma through fictitious public performances of gender; burlesque performers, escape artists, con artists, evangelists, and pinup girls have all participated in this type of identity performance.  The persistence of alternate realities, I argue, suggests that a large group of Americans have never accepted or felt comfortable in modern industrial society – and, consequently, that the American social order is far more fragile than we might think.

JF: Thanks, Jeremy!

Conservatism and the Media in Historical Perspective

 

buckley

William F. Buckley interviewing Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1971 on Firing Line

 

The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondent reports are rolling in this morning!  Here is William Cossen‘s report on a fascinating session on American conservatism.  Read all of Cosseen’s posts from the AHA in Denver here.  –JF

On Friday, I attended an excellent AHA panel, “Supplying Conservatism: Media Infrastructure and the Rise of the New Right.”  This panel’s four papers shed new light on a subject of continued importance, especially given last year’s presidential campaign.

The first paper, Nicole Hemmer’s “‘Hatchets with Soft-Covered Sheaths’: Conservative Publishing and the Goldwater Campaign,” examined the birth of an early 1960s trend among conservatives toward independent publishing of paperback books.  Examples of such books include Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo and John A. Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason.  These books and similar titles were at the center of what Hemmer (the University of Virginia’s Miller Center) described as the creation of an unmediated, conservative, grassroots publishing movement.  Conservative bookstores played an important role, Hemmer argued, in serving as “alternative distribution systems” to mainstream publishers.  Why did these independent bookstores and books – which were printed in the millions – appear when they did in 1964?  Hemmer explained that many conservatives had become impatient with a GOP establishment that they felt had become too conciliatory and complacent in the face of growing liberalism.  This provided fertile ground for the rise of alternative conservative media.  “This isn’t just populism,” Hemmer argued.  “It’s populism plus.”

The second paper, Heather Hendershot’s “Firing Line: Steering Wheel and Compass of the Modern Conservative Image,” described William F. Buckley’s important role through his long-running television show Firing Line in making conservatism not only respectable but also “stylish.”  Hendershot (MIT) did a fine job weaving film clips from the show throughout her talk, reminding audience members just how entertaining and informative Buckley’s show was at its peak.  Hendershot explained that the show’s premise was to figuratively place liberals on the firing line.  Firing Line drew a diverse political audience.  Interestingly, many liberals would tune in and then walk away from the show with a deeper resolve to promote liberalism.  However, it also played a critical role in constructing the intellectual framework of the New Right.  Buckley’s urbane, witty manner, which was also evident in his magazine National Review, served, Hendershot argued, as “walking, talking proof of the insufficiency” of Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid style thesis.

The third paper, courtesy of my Penn State graduate school colleague Paul Matzko (congratulations on your recent graduation, Dr. Matzko!), “Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right,” explored an early 1960s protest against and boycott of consumer items – especially Polish ham – originating in communist Eastern Europe and being sold in the United States.  This protest was led by conservative women and facilitated by religious radio broadcasters, groups often absent from general histories of the rise of the New Right.  Matzko explained that while figures like Buckley played important role in the growth of conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century, radio broadcasters may have had a far larger numerical impact in terms of audience size than Buckley’s National Review.  The rapid spread of right-wing radio stations in the 1950s and 1960s laid the organizational groundwork for the New Right alongside Buckley’s intellectual contributions to the movement, the latter of which were described in Hendershot’s paper.  This growth of conservative broadcasting, coupled with conservative women’s grassroots organizing, came together in response to President John F. Kennedy’s promotion of increased trade with communist countries.  Polish hams came under attack as almost apocalyptic symbols of an alleged communist takeover of the United States.  The ensuing boycott had a massive economic impact.  Matzko recounted a Polish embassy estimation that the protest led to a $5 million loss in trade with Poland – in just a few months in 1962 alone!  Matzko concluded that actions such as the Polish ham boycott were the “stuff” of which modern conservatism was made.  The protest, much like the independent book publishing described by Hemmer, revealed the power that hundreds of thousands of dedicated, non-establishment political figures could have in elections and in the formulation of public policy.

The panel’s final paper, Michael McVicar’s “Surveillance – Dossier – Exposé: The Infrastructure and Technique of the Anticommunist Blacklist,” provided a revealing glimpse into the nuts-and-bolts methods used by conservatives from the 1920s into the 1960s  to infiltrate, uncover, and eliminate what they perceived to be a growing communist threat in the United States, which dovetails nicely with Matzko’s paper.  McVicar (Florida State University) explained that early religious, anticommunist activists built on organizational techniques and classificatory charts pioneered by late nineteenth-century management experts to construct extensive databases that sought to connect liberal Protestants with communism and alleged communist front groups.  These archival materials have been underutilized by historians, and McVicar’s research promises to provide a more nuanced genealogy of the New Right reaching to the years immediately following the First World War.

President-elect Donald Trump’s electoral victory has clearly been on the minds of many historians attending this year’s AHA, serving as the subject of not one but two major conference sessions.  This panel on the New Right was not responding directly to the outcome of election, as it was organized much earlier than November.  Still, the speakers’ contributions to the subfield of New Right history provide many useful insights into how this political movement and its legatees have continued to thrive, and the panel itself was a model of thoughtful organization and planning that brought together four papers complementing each other exceptionally well.

The Return of Lafayette

Jonathan Wilson of the University of Scranton has written a really nice piece for The Readex Report on the Marquis de Lafayette‘s visit to the United States in 1824. Lafayette was so popular in the United States due to his involvement in the American Revolutionary War that Wilson describes his return as a “media event.”

Here is a taste:

In summer 2015, a wooden frigate named the Hermione sailed from France to the United States. It was recreating one of the voyages that brought the Marquis de Lafayette to fight in the American War of Independence. The new Hermione was a painstaking replica of Lafayette’s ship, built with authentic eighteenth-century methods. Its voyage, however, became a modern multimedia spectacle—with international television coverage, a website, and a busy Twitter account.

Advanced technology aside, something similar happened nearly two hundred years ago. In the summer of 1824, Lafayette himself, now an elderly man, returned to the United States after many years in France. Enormous crowds of Americans, many of whom were too young to remember the Revolution at all, turned out to see the legendary general in person. His tour of U.S. cities also became a national journalistic event; today, we can trace it through thousands of surviving newspaper articles. Exchanging stories through the federal postal system, newspaper editors helped their readers visualize other communities’ celebrations. By doing so, they helped Americans experience the feeling of membership in one nation.

The attention started even before Lafayette sailed from France, and from the start, making sense of a slow and unpredictable information supply was part of the newspapers’ job. For example, in January 1824, when Congress debated a resolution inviting General Lafayette to visit the United States, representatives argued over whether anyone knew for sure that Lafayette would actually want to visit. Congressmen from French-speaking Louisiana claimed to have special information no one else had: they said they had seen letters about the subject from the general himself. Newspapers relayed their information around the country.

The unpredictability continued long after Lafayette accepted Congress’s invitation. Newspapers tracked his movements as well as they could, trying to help their readers prepare. In June 1824, the New York Gazette announced that the general was finally on his way to New York City from the northern French port of Le Havre. Newspapers in New England picked up the story, but they seemed mildly skeptical—probably in part because they hoped the general would honor Boston with his first American stop instead.

Read the entire piece here, including lots of excerpts from 19th century newspapers.

If you are interested in learning more about Lafayette, I found Sarah Vowell’s recent talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia to be very entertaining.