Author’s Corner with Elisabeth Ceppi

CeppiElisabeth Ceppi is Associate Professor of English at Portland State University.  This interview is based on her new book Invisible Masters: Gender, Race, and the Economy of Service in Early New England (Dartmouth University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Invisible Masters?

EC: The project began as an essay I wrote in my first year of graduate school (so long ago: 1992-3!) about the 1672 case of the demonic possession of Elizabeth Knapp, a sixteen-year old residing as a servant in her minister’s household. Over the years I revised that essay multiple times; it eventually became my MA thesis, a chapter of my dissertation, and a journal article. But even so, I knew I had only begun to figure out what Knapp had to teach about the meaning of service in early New England. After finishing a term as English department chair in 2009, I began new research on the theology of service in sermons by the leading ministers of the first generation of Puritan migration, which led me to reconceive the project and convinced me that it needed to be a book, not a series of essays.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Invisible Masters?

EC: Perhaps because it is such a commonplace of Christian labor, the metaphor of Puritans as “servants of the Lord” has generated almost no scholarly attention; the book argues that it was the foundation of a complex discourse of obedience and authority that powerfully shaped the lived experience of covenant theology in New England households, churches, public governance, and economic relations. As they developed a moral language for a racializing culture of service, Puritans transformed the traditional lived metaphors of faithful service and its opposite, hypocrisy, into an ethic of mastery.

JF: Why do we need to read Invisible Masters?

ECAs I suggest above, it is the only study that historicizes and interprets service—and the figure of God as Master—as an essential concept in Puritan theology and social life. In doing so, it revises familiar accounts of early New England’s relationship to modernity, including the emergence of the “Protestant work ethic” and of the affectionate family model from the patriarchal “little commonwealth.” It contributes to the growing body of scholarship on racial slavery in early New England by emphasizing its embeddedness in religious culture, and by showing how “the public” emerged as a space of white mastery over racial others. It offers new readings of canonical works of early American literature, including Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and the works of Mohegan minister Samson Occom. Finally, I also hope the example of the Puritans invites us to question how and why we privilege mastery over service as values in our contemporary culture and provides some insight into how ideals of public service and self-mastery came to be bound to distinctions of gender, race, and class.

JF: When and why did you get interested in the study of the past?

ECI teach and study literature, but my decision to specialize in early American literature was a swerve. I went to grad school with the intention of studying modernism, but in my second term I took a class to fill a pre-1800 requirement, “Typologies of Gender in Puritan America,” taught by Janice Knight (this is where I first encountered Elizabeth Knapp). The class was a fascinating introduction to a world of ideas and language and genres that seemed alien and strange and not at all like my idea of literature, and yet at the same time felt so vital in its power to pose urgent questions to the present. I loved the challenge of using my skills at interpreting language and literary form to think historically, to try to understand what these texts meant to those who wrote them and those they wrote about, and also to explain why they still matter today.

JF: What is your next project?

EC: I have started working on an essay about Theodore Winthrop’s 1863 novel, The Canoe and the Saddle, a fictionalized account of his travels to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in 1853. The novel became a best-seller after Winthrop died in the Civil War but has been neglected by scholars. His depictions of his indigenous guides and the incursions of English culture on the romantic landscape both conform to and defy expectations in interesting ways, but I was particularly intrigued by a passage in which Winthrop’s narrator satirically refers to a troubled Englishman he encounters as a “drapetomaniac,” a notorious concept from scientific race management (devised by a Mississippi doctor, Samuel Cartwright) that pathologized the enslaved who sought to run away from their masters. The essay will examine what Winthrop’s extension of this term to the Pacific Northwest reveals about the role of travel literature in New England’s culture of management.

JF: Thanks, Liz!

Eager Beavers

GoldfarbOver at Pacific Standard, Kate Wheeling interviews Ben Goldfarb, the author of Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter.  

Here is Wheeling’s introduction to the interview:

Since I first picked up Ben Goldfarb’s Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, I haven’t been able to stop talking about these semi-aquatic rodents.

If you’ve interacted with me at all in the last several weeks, I might have mentioned that beavers have transparent eyelids so they can see underwater! That they secrete a musky oil that contains the active ingredient in aspirin! That a half-mile-long structure built by beavers is visible from space! That an ancient member of the beaver family the size of a small black bear once roamed much of the modern-day United States! (To find out just how seriously the U.S. considered using beavers as a defensive weapon of sorts during the Cold War, you’ll have to read the book.)

But none of those facts are what converted me into a “Beaver Believer,” as the group of scientists, land-managers, and environmentally minded folks who are working tirelessly to bolster beaver populations around the U.S. are known. It’s not that beavers need our help—the animals are not even remotely endangered, though their numbers are also nowhere near what they were before Europeans arrived in North America—but we certainly need them.

Beavers are not content simply to survive in the environment that nature provides them. Instead, the animals engineer it to ensure access to things like food and shelter, reshaping entire landscapes in the process. Sound familiar? Humans, for better or for worse, may be the most planet-altering species—but beavers did it first. To quote Goldfarb, “We are living in the world that beavers created.”

Before their numbers were devastated by the fur trade, North America looked much different. For one thing, it was a much soggier landscape. Beavers don’t just build lodges and dams, but entire wetlands. Thanks to the beavers’ efforts, streams back up behind their dams, forming ponds, marshes, and swamps, filled with stumps and dead or dying trees and bustling with frogs, fish, and otters, to name just a few of the countless creatures that rely on beavers to make their habitat possible. Beaver ponds help store water, recharge aquifers, filter out pollutants, mitigate floods, and stop wildfires in their tracks.

Read the interview here.

The Author’s Corner With L.H. Roper

RoperL.H. Roper is Professor of History at the State University of New York at New Paltz.  This interview is based on his recently edited book The Torrid Zone: Caribbean Colonization and Cultural Interaction in the Long Seventeenth Century Caribbean (University of South Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Torrid Zone?

LHR: In 2012, I began a correspondence with Laurie Wood (now at Florida State) in which we lamented both the perennially secondary position the Caribbean occupies in our understanding of ‘colonial America’ and the particular lack of a comparative treatment of the history of the region’s colonization by Europeans.  We decided to do something about this state of affairs and we began recruiting ‘partners in crime’.  Happily, there are a number of young and talented historians who are working on the Caribbean whom we were able to recruit along with several ‘seasoned veterans’.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Torrid Zone?

LHR: The agendas and behavior of Native people had a significant effect on Caribbean history well into the eighteenth century. The Torrid Zone, particularly by virtue of the global extension of the personalities involved in its colonization and their conceptions of society and politics, constituted a fully representative, but not especially distinctive, manifestation of the sensibilities at work in European overseas colonization.

JF: Why do we need to read The Torrid Zone?

LHR: The contributions are filled with insights on the history of the seventeenth-century Caribbean generally and of places such as Jamaica and Suriname particularly.  Since this region constituted the primary target of European interest in the Western Hemisphere at this time, it is impossible to have helpful understanding of the expansion of European interests, including the colonization of North America, or the cultural interactions that this expansion generated—and the effects of these phenomena—without some knowledge of what went on in the Torrid Zone.  The essays also shed helpful light on the networks of merchants and political figures—operating both in the Caribbean and outside of it—who managed European operations in the region and who extended their social and political influence elsewhere.  Readers will learn a good deal about the Native agendas and responses to European activity in the Torrid Zone as well.

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

LHR: Although I was trained nominally as an American historian, I regard myself primarily as a historian of the expansion of overseas European (particularly English) interests and of the cultural interactions this generated.  While I was in graduate school during the ‘Pleistocene Era’, it dawned on me that the best way to comprehend ‘early American history’ was through a better understanding of the social and political worlds in which overseas traders and colonizers operated, from which colonists (and colonizers) derived their worldviews, and with which colonists (perhaps to a surprising degree) maintained close social, political, and economic associations.  This view has only strengthened over the course of my career.

JF: What is your next project?

LHR: I hope to begin work on two (having just finished two books in the past year).  The first is a further investigation of English involvement in the ‘Guinea trade’ and the other is an examination of the European colonization of the region bounded by the Connecticut and Susquehanna Rivers and Chesapeake Bay between 1636 (the founding of the Connecticut colony) and 1741 (the Treaty of Lancaster).

JF: Thanks, Louis!

Russell Shorto on “Revolution Song”

Shorto bookWriter and historian Russell Shorto‘s new book is Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom.  Here is a description:

In his epic new book, Russell Shorto takes us back to the founding of the American nation, drawing on diaries, letters and autobiographies to flesh out six lives that cast the era in a fresh new light. They include an African man who freed himself and his family from slavery, a rebellious young woman who abandoned her abusive husband to chart her own course and a certain Mr. Washington, who was admired for his social graces but harshly criticized for his often-disastrous military strategy.

Through these lives we understand that the revolution was fought over the meaning of individual freedom, a philosophical idea that became a force for violent change. A powerful narrative and a brilliant defense of American values, Revolution Song makes the compelling case that the American Revolution is still being fought today and that its ideals are worth defending.

Over at the DesMoines Register, Shorto answers a few questions about the book.  Here is a taste of the interview:

You are known for your Dutch histories. How did you come up with the idea for “Revolution Song”?

 

Yes, my intellectual heart is in the Netherlands in the 1600s and what fascinates me about that time is that’s when you have people beginning to look into microscopes and telescopes and see that the world is not necessarily the way it was told to them by the church or by the state.

So they begin to come up with a new formulation of knowledge based on reason, and reason is something that applies to all. We all have this curious thing in our veins, and I was fascinated by how that led people, as this nation spread out, to come up with new demands based on the primacy of the individual. You see leaders in America take this great wave of interest in individual freedom and begin to focus it on their political separation.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Victoria Johnson

AmericanEden+Final+Cover+DesignVictoria Johnson is Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York.  This interview is based on her new book American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (Liveright, a division of W.W Norton, 2018).

JF: What led you to write American Eden?

VJEight years ago, in the course of research for a journal article on contemporary American botanical gardens, I came across David Hosack (1769-1835) for the first time (in Peter Mickulas’s Britton’s Botanical Empire). I love New York City, and I was floored to learn that Rockefeller Center had once been a botanical garden—the first founded in and for the young United States. I knew immediately that I wanted to write a book about Hosack. He was a polymath and involved in several dozen organizations (quite a few of which he helped found) and he was not famous enough to have had a critical edition of his papers published. Following his trail as I reconstructed his life eventually took me to about thirty archives in the US and Europe.

JFIn 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Eden?

VJ: There is a botanical garden two centuries old buried under one of the most iconic urban spaces in the world. The man who created it, David Hosack, is a forgotten architect of New York’s rise to civic primacy in the nineteenth-century United States, and his life story thrusts us into the post-Revolutionary generation’s battles over what kinds of institutions make cities and nations truly great and stable.

JF: Why do we need to read American Eden?

VJMany, many historians have written eloquently and rigorously on politics and natural history in the early Republic, and I’m deeply indebted to them for their scholarship. Because American Eden is a biography, we get to see through David Hosack’s eyes the very fraught political relationships all around him and to feel the excitement and heartbreak of institution-building and scientific inquiry. In the process, certain figures from the Founding era take on new complexity: not only the shadowy Hosack, long known simply as the attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel, but also Hamilton and Burr themselves, both of whom loved botany and horticulture. New York City likewise comes into clearer focus in American Eden. We don’t usually think of nature, agriculture, and natural history when we think of New York in the early Republic, but Hosack botanized right in the city as well as on Manhattan’s beaches and farms and in its meadows and woodlands. Finally, I’d add that while history is a field of intellectual inquiry that matters regardless of any explicit links we make to our present circumstances, I’ve found Hosack’s struggles enlightening as I try to make sense of contemporary American political culture and our divided views on science and nature.

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

VJ:  I’ll answer the “historian” part first and then the “American” part. My PhD is in sociology, with a specialty in organizational sociology, but I was drawn to historical research early. One of my dissertation advisors in Columbia’s sociology department was Charles Tilly, who had a huge influence on my choice of dissertation topic: political relations between the French government and the Paris Opera from Louis XIV to Napoleon. That became Backstage at the Revolution (Chicago, 2008). For my second book, American Eden, I crossed the Atlantic and began studying American history because of my fascination with David Hosack and his enormous, unacknowledged contributions to New York, his young country, and translantic scientific networks.

JF: What is your next project?

VJ: Book tour! I will be sharing Hosack’s story of intense civic engagement and devotion to science with as broad an audience as wants to listen, in both the US and the UK; I have talks lined up running through 2020. In the meantime, I’m slowly starting to think about what comes next (to quote a certain king).

JF:  Thanks, Victoria!

Rob Schenck Tells His Story

SchenkReverend Rob Schenck was a Christian Right leader who parted ways with his fellow cultural warriors after studying the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He tells his story in a new memoir: Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love.  

Here is a taste of his interview with Mother Jones magazine:

MJ: So, when you look at the future, what do you think the result of the evangelical embrace of Trump will be?

RS: I say in the book that the Trump phenomenon may portend the total collapse of American evangelicalism, which for me would be sad, but not the saddest thing. We have an old phrase in evangelical parlance built on some biblical texts: “What the devil means for destruction, God means for good.” So, could God use this terrible thing in the end to bring about a better form of evangelicalism in America? We may reach a toxicity level where the patient must succumb, but we believe in resurrection, so out of death can come life…So, maybe this is the demise of what we now know as American evangelicalism, and largely, the Trump phenomenon is a symptom, rather than a cause. We made this terrible deal with Donald Trump because we were already demoralized. He didn’t demoralize us—he is the evidence of our demoralization.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner with Stephen Brumwell

TurncoatStephen Brumwell is a freelance writer and independent historian based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.  This interview is based on his new book Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Turncoat?

SB: I wrote Turncoat after becoming fascinated by the central enigma of Benedict Arnold’s remarkable life. Why would an officer famed for his bravery in the American Revolutionary cause, who was clearly obsessed with his reputation as a man of honor, behave in a way that would be widely interpreted as utterly dishonourable? I was sceptical about the usual explanations – greed, or resentment at his shabby treatment by Congress – and wanted to re-examine all the available evidence to see if I could find a more convincing explanation for his behaviour.

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

SB: By reassessing Arnold’s military career, Turncoat seeks to explain how he gradually came to believe that his country’s interests would be best served by ending the damaging civil war between Britain and her American colonies. Faced with a dysfunctional, ineffective Congress that seemed uncaring about the men who were actually fighting for American liberty, and hounded by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, Arnold concluded that the cause in which he’d made his illustrious name had lost its way, and that he could better devote his talents to restoring Crown rule, and peace to the fractured British Empire.

JF: Why do we need to read Turncoat?

SB: With its dramatic twists and turns, the treason of Benedict Arnold is deservedly one of the best known stories of the American Revolutionary War. By uncovering archival sources not previously used by scholars, Turncoat offers a fresh and challenging interpretation of a tale that still resonates today. For example, this new evidence not only supports the contention that Arnold’s primary motivation in changing sides was ideological, but also removes any lingering doubt that his wife, Peggy Shippen, was actively involved in his treasonable correspondence with the British.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian (or how did you get an interest in the study of the past)?

SB: Growing up in an area of southern England full of castles, which I explored at weekends with my parents and brothers, I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember. When I finally went to university, and was given an opportunity to undertake postgraduate research, I decided to focus on the French and Indian War (a conflict in which I’d long been interested), seeking to contest existing stereotypes of the British redcoats who fought it.

JF: What is your next project?

I’m still finalising my next book project, although I have several ideas, involving both non-fiction and fiction. In either case, I’m keen to draw upon my interest in the past, although it’s possible that I’ll stray outside my specialist field of British-American military affairs in the second half of the eighteenth century, and tackle something different. Whatever the subject and approach, my objective will be to present a compelling narrative with an authentic backdrop.

JF: Thanks, Stephen!

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Clark

ClarkJonathan Clark is Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. This interview is based on his new book, Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Thomas Paine?

JC: Chance, the most important agent in human affairs. I was invited to write a brief essay to accompany the recent Yale UP edition of Paine’s selected works. I thought this would be easy, since I had read, and taught, Paine for many years. But as a preparation, I decided to read through Paine’s entire printed output. As I read, I reluctantly concluded that I had not understood Paine at all … and that nobody else had. I finished the essay, but I wrote a book as well.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Thomas Paine?

JC: Paine is one of those famous figures who have been heavily mythologized, turned into ‘usable’ versions of themselves to answer the needs of later movements. The book argues that the ‘historic’ Paine was, to use a metaphor, more the inheritor of an old house than the architect of a new one; a man of his age, not the inspired prophet of a future modernity; and that this argument, if justified, calls in question the construction of ‘modernity’ itself.

JF: Why do we need to read Thomas Paine?

JC: Reinterpreting Paine allows us better to understand a wide variety of causes and issues of which recent historiography treats him as a privileged interpreter, including the American and French Revolutions, the nature of the societies they launched, reforming and revolutionary movements, and the current hegemony of natural rights discourse.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Of if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

JC: I am not an American historian; I am an historian of Anglo-America, a shared transatlantic culture in the eighteenth century. I contend that there was little, and perhaps nothing, that was specifically American about the causes of the American Revolution.

JF: What is your next project?

JC: A history of the Enlightenment. It will show how this famous movement was devised as a series of genealogies, projected back onto the past to provide justification for a series of twentieth-century crusades.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan.

Thomas Frank on the Other Populism

MounckWhat is populism?  Cultural critic Thomas Frank does not think Yascha Mounk, the author of The People vs. Democracy, really understands the roots of populism in American life.  Here is a taste of his review at The Guardian:

 

As for populism, historians typically trace the populist rhetorical tradition in America back to the time of Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. A radical leftwing political party that called itself “Populist” swept much of the country in the 1890s, and protest movements described as populist have come and gone. Populism’s evil rightwing doppelganger is usually dated to 1968, when George Wallace and Richard Nixon figured out how to turn the language of working-class majoritarianism against liberalism. Rightwing populists have been building movements and winning elections in the US ever since.

Mounk barely acknowledges any of this. Instead, he asserts a frightening new vision of populism without discussing the old one. “There can no longer be any doubt that we are going through a populist moment,” he writes at one point. “The question now is whether this populist moment will turn into a populist age – and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt.”

Sounds bad, all right. Demonic, even. But the phrase “populist moment” rang a bell. I went to my bookshelf and pulled down my copy of – yes – The Populist Moment by the historian Lawrence Goodwyn, a celebrated study of Populism published in 1978. Here is how it starts: “This book is about the flowering of the largest democratic mass movement in American history. It is also necessarily a book about democracy itself.” What Goodwyn meant was that Populism in its 1890s permutation represented a vision of democratic participation that was actually more advanced than what we settle for today. Far from being a threat to democracy, Populism was democracy’s zenith.

To produce a whole book on populism while ignoring this completely opposite interpretation strikes me as a serious oversight. Yes, I think we need to understand why liberal democracy is crumbling around the world. But to describe this process with the unmodified “populism” is a mistake. It is, after all, an American word. And the history of American populism contradicts item after item in Mounk’s devil theory. Populism is simply not what he thinks it is.

Read the entire review here.

“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.

Rethinking America with John Murrin

Murrin

Princeton historian John Murrin never wrote a monograph.  But his essays packed a punch.

Princeton Alumni Weekly is recognizing a new book of Murrin’s classic essays titled Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic

I can think of few early American historians who have had more of an influence on the way I think about the colonial and revolutionary America.  I will always be grateful for his endorsement of my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

At one point or another, I have taught, or built lectures around, the following Murrin essays:

“The Great Inversion, or Court versus Country”

“No Awakening, No Revolution?: More Counterfactual Speculations”

“A Roof Without Walls: The Dilemma of American National Identity”

“1776: The Countefactual Revolution”

They are all in this book.

Here is a taste of the Princeton Alumni Week piece:

Opening lines: “Americans have always shared one conviction about their Revolution: It was a good thing for the United States and the entire world. The revolutionary generation believed that its principles would benevolently affect social conditions, agriculture, political economy, the fine arts, and even basic demographic trends. Only now are many of these themes being recovered… The early chroniclers of the Revolution began to lose some of the movement’s context even while quoting directly from its fundamental documents. They explained and defended the Revolution in terms essentially constitutional and political, as the triumph of liberty, equality, and limited government against the menace of irresponsible power and aristocratic privilege—rather feeble dangers, they somewhat paradoxically implied, if only by giving these challenges little real chance of success in America’s unique, libertarian environment, which they found at work in the very first settlements.”

*The Devil’s Music* Playlist

StephensOn Episode 38 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, we talk to University of Oslo historian Randall Stephens about his new book The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Randall talks about his new book and I reflect on my own experiences at the intersection of evangelicalism and rock music.  The episode will drop next weekend.

In the meantime, head over the the website of Harvard University Press and listen to a Spotify playlist of songs and artists that Stephens considers in The Devil’s Music.  It includes music by Sam Cooke, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley & the Comets, The Beatles, Cliff Richard, Larry Norman, Phil Keaggy, Andre Crouch, Sha Na Na, Bill Gaither Trio, Bob Dylan, Amy Grant, Keith Green, DeGarmo & Key, Michael W. Smith, Stryper, DC Talk, and Sufjan Stevens.

And if you are a Randall Stephens fan, don’t forget to check out “The Randall Stephens Collection.”

Jon Meacham Offers Some Advice for Surviving the Trump Era

Jon Meacham Photo and Book 03082018

Meacham is on tour for his new book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.  In a recent piece at USA Today he shares some advice on how to survive the age of Trump.  A taste:

►Enter the arena. The battle begins with political engagement itself. Theodore Roosevelt put it best: “The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that he shall work in politics; his second duty is that he shall do that work in a practical manner; and his third is that it shall be done in accord with the highest principles of honor and justice.”

Politicians will disappoint; that’s inevitable. But they will also, from time to time, thrill. “Every man who has been in practical politics,” TR remarked, “grows to realize that politicians, big and little, are no more all of them bad than are all of them good.” One need not become a candidate (though that’s certainly an option worth considering) or a political addict hooked on every twist and every turn and every tweet. But the paying of attention, the expressing of opinion and the casting of ballots are foundational to living up to the obligations of citizenship in a republic.

►Resist tribalism. Engagement, especially at a time of heightened conflict, has its perils: Those motivated by what they see as extremism on the other side are likely to see politics not as a mediation of difference but as existential warfare where no quarter can be given. The country works best, however, when we resist such tribal inclinations.

Ever practical, Eleanor Roosevelt offered a prescription to guard against tribal self-certitude. “It is not only important but mentally invigorating to discuss political matters with people whose opinions differ radically from one’s own,” she wrote. “For the same reason, I believe it is a sound idea to attend not only the meetings of one’s own party but of the opposition. Find out what people are saying, what they are thinking, what they believe. This is an invaluable check on one’s own ideas. . . . If we are to cope intelligently with a changing world, we must be flexible and willing to relinquish opinions that no longer have any bearing on existing conditions.”

If Mrs. Roosevelt were writing today, she might put it this way: Don’t let any single cable network or Twitter feed tell you what to think.

►Respect facts and deploy reason. There is such a thing as discernible reality. Facts, as John Adams once said, are stubborn things, and yet too many Americans are choosing this view or that perspective based not on its grounding in fact but on whether it’s a view or perspective endorsed by the leaders one follows.

Read the entire piece here.

The Hopeful Christianity of Jimmy Carter

Carter Jimmy

Check out Elizabeth Palmer’s interview with Jimmy Carter at The Christian Century.  Carter’s new book is titled Faith: A Journey for All.

A taste of the interview:

In Faith, you write, “I have faith that God is slowly bending eternity toward redemption, and that someday . . . moral perfection based on love as expressed by Jesus Christ will prevail.” What gives you a basis for this kind of hopefulness?

The history of America gives me hope. We’ve been through some very trying times in the past, and the resilience of our country and the principles of our Constitution have always prevailed. I have confidence that in the future we’ll do the same thing, despite the difficulties we face today.

We went through a civil war to do away with slavery, and later we struggled to give women the right to vote in our democracy. In the 120 years since the “separate but equal” ruling of the Supreme Court, our judges have had to struggle with discrimination against African Americans. We’re still struggling with that. We’ve had a resurgence of discrimination in the last few years—and it’s against not only African Americans and other minorities but also immigrants. We have a great disparity in income, with people’s opportunities depending on how rich they are. There’s also a disparity of treatment within our judicial system. We have about seven and a half times as many people in prison now as we did when I left the White House, for instance, and we have the most prisons of any country on earth.

These problems have long existed, but they’ve been aggravated or brought to the attention of the public more recently, since the election. But in general, our country has proven able to deal with such struggles.

You note the divisions in our society that have increased sharply in recent decades—divisions rooted in political differences, racial tensions, economic inequality, and more. If you were president today, what would be your first steps toward mending those divisions?

I’d emphasize through public statements that I pledge to keep my country at peace and to be a champion of human rights. One of the things that America would like to be is a superpower, but there are more elements of being a superpower than just military strength. The United States of America ought to be seen by the rest of the world as a champion of peace, not war, a champion of human rights, a champion of equality, and a champion of generosity to help people in need. Those are the kind of values that need to be emphasized in the future of America, and I hope and pray that this will be the case.

If you had one final Sunday school class to teach, what would it be on? What Bible verses would you choose?

I change my Sunday school lesson every Sunday to accommodate modern-day headlines. But one of my favorite Bible verses is “Be ye kind one to another, as God through Jesus Christ has been kind to all of us” [Eph. 4:32]. And that’s a challenge. We now have the possibility of eliminating all living creatures on earth with the use of nuclear weapons. The next step in the evolution of human beings has to be learning how to live with each other in peace and with some degree of love. Jesus said we should not only love our neighbor but love our enemies [Matt. 5:43–44], which means loving those with whom we disagree. We have to learn how to get along with Russians and Muslims and North Koreans in a constructive spirit of care, instead of asking what’s the best excuse we have to go to war with them.

Read the entire interview here.

 

My Review of Gary Dorrien’s *Breaking White Supremacy*

DorrienThe Christian Century just published my review of Gary Dorrien’s Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel.

Here is a taste:

Pick up any general survey of Christianity in America and turn to the section on the social gospel. It is likely that the narrative will be dominated by the names of two white pastors: Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschen­busch. Along with some other lesser-known white social gospel Prot­estants, they sought to Christianize America through reforms, government programs, and voluntary societies de­signed to address poverty, disease, immorality, and all forms of injustice resulting from industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.

It is highly unlikely that the names Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, or Howard Thurman appear alongside Gladden and Rauschenbusch in the typical textbook narrative. But according to Gary Dorrien, these leaders of the black social gospel movement represented an intellectual tradition in American Chris­tianity that was “more accomplished and influential” than the white movement led by Gladden and Rauschenbusch.

Read the rest here.

Do You Read *The Babylon Bee*?

BeeIf you don’t, you should.  It is hilarious.

Over at The Weekly Standard, Mark Hemingway has a nice piece on the satirical Christian website.  (Am I showing my age if I say that the Babylon Bee reminds me a lot of the old Wittenberg Door?)

The article also talks about a new Babylon Bee book: How to Be a Perfect Christian: Your Comprehensive Guide to Flawless Spiritual Living.

A taste of Hemingway’s piece:

It’s safe to say that thus far, to the extent it has noticed, secular America is confounded by the success of the Babylon Bee. In March, Facebook threatened to reduce the visibility of the Bee’s stories. The reason? One of Facebook’s fact-checking partners, Snopes.com, obliviously labeled a Bee story (“CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News Before Publication”) false rather than satire. Considering how important Facebook traffic is to Internet publications, the threat was no joke.

“We’ve been ‘Snoped’ before a number of times, but this was the first time Facebook used it to threaten us and to redirect readers away from our link and to Snopes’s website,” says Ford. “Over an article about CNN spinning news in a washing machine! It was just insane.” Snopes has fact-checked more than a dozen other Babylon Bee stories in the last two years. Last fall, the Bee even responded to all the unwarranted attention by publishing an article entitled “Snopes Rates Babylon Bee World’s Most Accurate News Source.” After an outcry on social media about the Bee’s mistreatment over the CNN gag, Facebook came to its senses and issued a public statement calling its treatment of the Bee a mistake. For its part, Snopes has continued to classify Bee stories as false, as it occasionally does stories from the Onion and other satirical publications, but has apparently not repeated the mistake of labeling Bee stories as false in Facebook’s fact-checking system.

Read the rest here.

Inside the Mind of the Book Editor

What Editors DoIf you have written an academic book or hope to write one soon, you need to read Rachel Toor‘s interview at The Chronicle of Higher Education with Mary Laur and Peter Ginna, the editors of What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing.

Here is a taste:

What are some of the main commonalities that emerged between the different types of publishing that might be of use to academic authors?

Peter: I make the argument in the book that editing has fundamental similarities across categories of publishing. There are real differences between, say, trade and scholarly presses, but for editors at both, the single most important question is: Should I acquire this book? And related to that: Who is the audience for it? And do I know how I can get that audience excited about it? We often need to think about an audience bigger than the one that’s on the author’s mind. That is, the author may be more worried about a tenure committee than about the New York Review of Books.

Editors also ask themselves, What is working with this author going to be like? Do I want to spend a year (or several) bringing this person’s work into print? At one place I worked, some authors were known as “LITS” — “Life is too short.” Most authors are a pleasure to deal with, but either way it’s an intimate relationship. You want the author to be a partner in the publishing process, so how you get along with them is important. Finally, whatever kind of book you’re publishing, editing the text comes down to reading it with loving care and trying to make it the best version of itself it can be.

I have worked with some great editors over the years, including Bob Lockhart, Jana Riess, Cynthia Read, Charles Van Hof, Lisa Ann Cockrel, and David Bratt.  They have all been great. When my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction was picked as one of the three finalists for the George Washington Book Prize, Jana came with us to Mount Vernon for the big awards ceremony!

Read Toor’s entire interview here.

OAH Dispatch: Historians on “Hamilton”

Rutgers UP

The editors of Historians on Hamilton sign books! (From Rutgers University Press Twitter feed)

We are happy to have Julianne Johnson writing for us this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento.  Julianne is a Ph.D student at Claremont Graduate University and Assistant Professor of History at College of the Canyons in San Clarita, California.  Enjoy!  –JF

Friday morning’s 8am session Historians on Hamilton at the OAH conference was uncharacteristically full.  Scholars Patricia Herrera of the University of Richmond, Claire Bond Potter of The New School and Renee Romano of Oberlin College led a panel discussion surrounding their contributions to a new book from Rutgers University Press titled Historians on Hamilton; How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s PastRomano and Potter are both editors of, and contributors to, the book.  The panel discussion approached the phenomenon of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton The Musical by interrogating how the show has been received, how the show is revolutionary, and what historians can learn from the show about how to communicate the past to popular audiences.

All three panelists challenged the audience to consider how Hamilton The Musical does history.  Renee Romano, Professor of History, Comparative American Studies, and Africana Studies at Oberlin, considered Hamilton in the context of historical memory and what she describes as a “new civic myth.”  Romano questioned whether Hamilton The Musical is expanding the circle of “we” for Americans by offering young people of color a sense of belonging and challenging white audiences to accept minorities in the roles of our founding generation.

Patricia Herrera, Professor of Theater at the University of Richmond, told a heartwarming story of her experience listening to Hamilton The Musical with her children while taking a road trip throughout our nation’s national parks.  Her young daughter’s desire to be Angelica Schuyler for Halloween pushed Herrera to interrogate how Hamilton The Musical conflates the historical figure of Angelica the slave owner with the beautiful African American actress playing her on stage.   For Herrera, the national parks and the musical perform a similar function.  The parks represent beautiful democratic vistas and leisure for white Americans on the backs of a tragic narrative for Native Americans.

Finally, Claire Bond Potter, Professor of History at the New School, discussed her interest in Hamilton The Musical and Miranda from a social media perspective.  Her chapter in the book, “Safe in the Nation We’ve Made,” looks at how the musical reaches a large audience on social media, allowing for a more authentic connection and turning fans into cultural investors.

Palpable throughout the panel discussion was the historians’ respect for Miranda’s work and a hope that other historians will use the musical as an entry into teaching and talking about history. At the end of the session, the line in the exhibit hall to purchase the book had the Rutgers staff sweating.  I secured my copy and am happily reading it now.

Michael Roth on Steven Pinker’s *Enlightenment Now*

EnlightenmentOver at Inside Higher Ed Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University and a strong defender of humanities and the liberal arts, reviews Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

A taste:

In his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Pinker expands his purview to include progress in everything from access to basic nourishment and health care to income and increased choices in how we spend our time. In every important area, Pinker sees robust improvement. The world is getting safer, more prosperous and less authoritarian. “Look at the data!” he cries again and again, and you will see that human beings have much to cheer about and much to look forward to. Evidence from surveys even suggests that we are happier — although not nearly as happy as we should be, given the progress we’ve made.

Pinker himself is not happy with colleges and universities, especially humanities programs, which, he claims, tend to emphasize the tragic, the negative, even the apocalyptic. He takes particular aim at Nietzsche and the streams of critical theory that flow from his thinking. Nietzsche’s antimodern polemics against smug, middle-class complacency especially rankle the Harvard University professor who can’t seem to imagine why anyone wouldn’t be grateful for the greater access to food, shelter and leisure that modernity has created.

There is plenty to criticize in Pinker’s historical portrait of triumphant modernity. He ignores any part of the Enlightenment legacy that doesn’t fit neatly into his neat, Popperian understanding of how scientific progress is made through disconfirming hypotheses. In describing progress in societies that behave more rationally, he says almost nothing about the social movements and struggles that forced those with power (and claims to rationality) to pay attention to political claims for justice. When science leads to bad things, like eugenics, he just dismisses the results as bad science. He criticizes those with whom he disagrees as being narrow-minded or tribalistic, but he seems to have no self-awareness of how his own thinking is plagued by parochialism. He writes that we have to cure “identity protective cognition,” but for him history is an effort to find figures like himself in the past so that he can write a story that culminates with people who have the same views as he. “There can be no question of which was the greatest era for human culture; the answer has to be today.” Maybe he thinks that the gesture of expecting an even better future is an expression of intellectual modesty.

But as much as Pinker’s self-congratulation may annoy anyone concerned with (or just curious about) the ways the achievements of modernity have been built through oppression, exploitation and violence, it would be a mistake to ignore the extraordinary accomplishments that he documents in Enlightenment Now. Take the astonishing reductions in poverty around the world. Over the last century, the portion of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced from 90 percent to under 10 percent. The acceleration of this progress in the last half century has been truly remarkable, and we can see similar good news in regard to decreased child mortality and increased life expectancy (to pick just two of the subjects Pinker covers).

And Pinker is right that many of us in the humanities and interpretive social sciences are loath simply to celebrate such gains when discussing the legacies of the Enlightenment or embracing contemporary critical thinking. Why? Part of the reason is that the story of those achievements should not be divorced from an account of how social injustice has made them possible. Humanists don’t dismiss the importance of reductions in poverty, but neither do they simply want to describe slavery, colonialism and other forms of exploitation as the price one has (always?) to pay for progress.

Read the entire review here.

Evangelical Activist John Perkins on Racial Reconciliation

One BloodOK–time for a different guy named Perkins.  Very different.

The Tennessean is running a nice piece on John D. Perkins, longtime evangelical rights activist.  Perkins’s new (and last) book is One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race.

A taste of the article:

John M. Perkins, a leading evangelical voice on racial reconciliation, thinks that 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the church is not focusing enough on unity. 

“It scares me. We’re not talking about togetherness,” Perkins said. “That doesn’t improve the issue.”

Perkins, a minister who fought for civil rights in Mississippi, is hopeful for the future. But he believes that for reconciliation to happen, people must first affirm the dignity of all human beings and then move forward together.

“I believe that’s the gospel,” Perkins said. “God created man to reflect his image in the world and his likeness and then he said, ‘Don’t make no other god before me.’ What we’re doing is making ourselves god before God and each other.”

Perkins, 87, was in Nashville on Friday sharing that message, which is included in his new book, “One Blood.” The roughly 200-page work, co-written by Karen Waddles, is billed as Perkins’ parting words to the church on race.

Read the entire piece here.