Episode 71: Writing History for Young Readers

Podcast

Have you ever wanted to write a children’s, middle-grade, or young adult history book? How do you get started? What is the process like? Do I need an agent? In this episode, we talk about writing history for young readers with former Smithsonian educator and author Tim Grove. Tim is the author, most recently, of Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem. Learn more about his work at TimGrove.Net.

Listen here.

Do You Expect Me to Believe that Mike Pence Did Not Know the 49ers Would Kneel?

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Apparently the President of the United States and the Vice-President of the United States plotted to pull a political stunt at yesterday’s Colts-49ers game.

 

So let’s get this straight:

  1. These two guys are spending their time discussing how to use the NFL player protests on racial inequality for their own political advantage.  This is grandstanding at its worst.
  2. Does Pence really believe that these NFL protests are about the American flag or the national anthem?
  3. Pence knows how to take orders.  He is the court evangelical of all court evangelicals.  I would love to know if the United States or Donald Trump has ever done something that would force him to choose his identity as a Christian over his patriotism.
  4. Pence made all the Indianapolis Colts fans come early to the stadium and go through extra security when he knew darn well that he would be leaving before the start of the game.
  5. It is likely that Pence spent well over $200,000 in taxpayer money to pull off this stunt.
  6. Please, please, please don’t tell me that Trump and Pence “want to bring this country together” when they pull stunts like this.
  7. Hard-core Trump supporters who practice the religion of patriotism will love this stunt.  Even worse, I know evangelical Christians who claim to worship a God who transcends national identities who will cheer this stunt.  When these people see the image I have posted above their chests will swell and their hearts will beat faster.  Patriotism is not wrong, but the kind political anger they feel–the same kind of anger expressed during their “lock her up” chants at Trump rallies–is sinful.

Here is Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star:

INDIANAPOLIS – North Korea and its nukes can wait. The White House has declared war on the NFL. And on the First Amendment.

Two weeks after President Trump decreed that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired, Vice President Mike Pence walked out of Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday after about 20 members of the San Francisco 49ers knelt during the anthem. The 49ers were in town to play the Indianapolis Colts.

Pence was in town to upstage Peyton Manning.

What, you think he didn’t know the 49ers would kneel on Sunday? Pence knew. The 49ers are the one franchise, the only franchise, that have had at least one player kneel before every game since Colin Kaepernick was the first to do it in the 2016 preseason. Kaepernick played for the 49ers, of course. Last week, following Trump’s unpatriotic assertion that he would fire someone for exercising their First Amendment rights, more than half the San Francisco roster knelt.

Pence knew.

Hell, the media members that follow Pence were told before the game not to bother leaving their vans and enter Lucas Oil Stadium, according to a tweet from NBC News Vaughn Hillyard. They wouldn’t be there long, because Pence wouldn’t be there long. Trump, as Trump is wont to do, took credit in a tweet for Pence’s walkout by saying he’d asked Pence to leave if anyone knelt.

This was planned.

Read the rest of the piece here.

Christian College Won’t Compete Against Teams Who “Disrespect” the Flag

OzarksAccording to The Chronicle of Higher Education, The College of Ozarks, a small Christian college in Missouri, will boycott athletic contests if they detect that their opponents disrespect the American Flag or the National Anthem.

This seems odd to me.  Why would a Christian college make such a definitive defense of the American flag?  I could understand if a Christian college made a rule stating that their own players must stand during the National Anthem, but why make players from other teams do so?

Here is a taste of the piece:

The college said it had changed its contracts for athletics competition, adding a rule that all players and coaches involved show respect for the American flag and the National Anthem. “It’s a shame sporting events are being used to communicate disrespect for this great country,” the college’s president, Jerry C. Davis, said in the news release. “It’s time for colleges and universities to be positive role models. We need more emphasis on character and unity and less emphasis on political correctness.”

Read the entire article here.

 

 

The Author’s Corner with Marc Ferris

Marc Ferris is holds an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written for the New York Times, Newsday, and other venues. This interview is based on his new book, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely History of America’s National Anthem (John Hopkins University Press, August 2014).

JF: What led you to write Star-Spangled Banner?

MF: In 1996, while sitting in a graduate history seminar at Stony Brook University, I searched for a topic to write about. As a guitarist, bass player and drummer, I wanted to combine my two interests of history and music and the thought flashed into my head: every American knows The Star-Spangled Banner. The 200th anniversary would arrive in the not-too-distant future and the song had a lot of history – and controversy – behind it: think Jimi Hendrix.

Though Americans may revere the song for its official status as the national anthem, I had never heard anyone praise the tune. All I recalled were complaints: it is hard to sing, no one can remember the words of the first verse (there are four) and it is war-like. When I realized that it took Congress 117 years from the song’s inception to make it the anthem and surmised (incorrectly) that they did so to bind the country through patriotism during the Great Depression in 1931, I figured I had a decent paper topic.

To my surprise, I discovered that few books had been written about what I contend is the most controversial song in United States history and after conducting a semester’s worth of research, I knew had discovered something big. One professor in the department implored me to drop the topic, but I never considered taking his advice and managed to assemble a sympathetic committee. I am forever be grateful to professors Richard F. Kuisel, Wilbur R. Miller and Nancy Tomes for encouraging me. They knew that I loved the subject and would not be dissuaded, so they approved the topic for my dissertation.

After receiving a Smithsonian Institution fellowship, I spent the summer of 1999 gathering sources at archives in Washington, D. C., Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland. Then, life intervened and the project stalled. I had two kids and work as a freelance writer took up a lot of time. Then, as the newspaper business plummeted, I became a public relations executive. Not getting my Ph. D. or starting on the book project became the great regret of my life. As a sports fan, I cringed every time I heard the song, knowing that I was squandering a great opportunity.

Ever since I latched onto the topic, I had always marked 2014 in my mind, since it represented the song’s bicentennial. Then, in 2012, after a few personal setbacks, inspiration struck. I realized that if 2014 came and went without my completing the project, I would hate myself, so I flipped the switch in my mind, dusted off my thigh-high mound of documents and spent every waking moment outside of work writing (except for bathing, sleeping, eating, exercising and playing music). By the end of the year, I had finished a first draft.

To this day, I am flummoxed that no one had written anything substantial about the song in the interim. Many books have appeared chronicling single tunes, including My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, America the Beautiful and God Bless America, but these titles, while interesting and informative, merely circled the bulls-eye, in my opinion. The Star-Spangled Banner is the official national anthem and obviously occupies a distinctive position in the nation’s history. Even if I had come across a competing book about the anthem, I knew that I had compiled a great trove of documents and had developed a singular interpretation of the song.

Despite the fact that just about every American has heard the anthem played many times in his or her lifetime and that the bicentennial loomed, the New York publishing houses wanted nothing to do with “serious” history, as one agent called it. I didn’t mind, knowing that it’s easy for the gatekeepers to say no. Their indifference gave me the freedom to write the book I wanted to write – based on scholarship but accessible to every American with even a passing interest in the song. Had I not been so fortunate to link up with Johns Hopkins University Press, I would have published it myself.

There is no substitute for crafting a history book based on a solid foundation of research and dynamite topical material. The one lesson I would impart to anyone taking on a major project – not just a book – is that by scooping up spoonfuls of dirt, a mountain appears.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Star Spangled Banner?

MF: Studying an important musical composition like The Star-Spangled Banner presents a unique prism to explore deeper historical trends, including in this case the intersection between patriotism and religion, known as civil religion, the use of music as propaganda and competing definitions of patriotism. The most controversial song in United States history, it is the true people’s anthem and it has exerted a strong cultural hold over American culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Star-Spangled Banner?

MF: Many books relate the details about how Francis Scott Key came to write the song in Baltimore harbor as the English Navy shelled Fort McHenry through the night of September 13 and 14, 1814. This book tells the rest of the story and anyone who reads it will never look at the song the same way again. Every five or six pages, a fact or issue of interpretation will cause readers to think “wow, that’s interesting, I never knew that.”

Going through the final proofs, I decided to make a list of fun facts related to the song. I quickly complied 30 without much digging. Here are five of the most interesting:

1. Shakespeare wrote the phrase “by spangled star-light sheen” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and “what Stars do Spangle heaven with such beauty?” (The Taming of the Shrew).

2. Anyone with United States currency in a pocket or purse is carrying around a paraphrase of a line in the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, “In God is Our Trust,” parsed to In God We Trust and printed on coins since the Civil War and paper bills beginning in 1957.

3. The words of To Anacreon in Heaven, the song that Francis Scott Key borrowed for the melody of The Star-Spangled Banner, is a sly 1700’s paean to drinking and sex. Though understated, the line “I’ll instruct you, like me to entwine; The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine” is unambiguous.

4. In one of the most incredible ironies in United States history, a slave-owning southerner whose entire family supported the Confederacy wrote the Union anthem (Francis Scott Key, The Star-Spangled Banner), while an anti-slavery Northerner (Daniel Decatur Emmett) wrote Dixie, the Southern anthem.

5. Jimi Hendrix is hardly the first musician whose rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner anthem created a backlash: ragtime performers in the 1890’s and jazz bands in the 1930s played idiosyncratic versions that also raised an uproar. In 1968, Aretha Franklin and Jose Feliciano delivered controversial, individualistic versions of The Star-Spangled Banner almost a year before Jimi Hendrix performed his incendiary version at Woodstock.

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

MF: At the age of 13, my family moved to Israel for a year and living there, surrounded by ancient ruins and enmities, a love for the past seeped into my soul. I goofed off throughout high school and in my first semester of senior year, I decided to buckle down and got good grades in the required United States history course. In college, I also took a lackadaisical approach to studies until sophomore year, when, during another required course in modern United States history, I internalized the material due to an inexplicable interest and got an A on a 100 question multiple choice test.

While talking with a classmate at a party, we discussed our majors and I told him I planned to study sociology. He said “if you liked social studies last year, you should think about being a history major.” As soon as he said the word “history,” the noise faded, a light came down from the sky and the term echoed in my head. The next day I marched down to the administration office declared my new major. I am not sure whether to thank or curse Steve Essig, but from that day on, I became Mister History, finished my undergraduate years with great grades and decided that I wanted to be a history professor. I earned a Master’s Degree in the subject, taught at many top-flight institutions and entered a Ph. D. program, where I discovered a topic that I love.

JF: What is your next project?

MF: This book is in its first week of distribution and I still have a 9 to 5 job, so the next book project seems far off. I would love to conduct further research into the anthem, digging deeper into all the issues that I could only raise but not fully explore. It would be interesting to write a more journalistic book or long-form magazine article about what the anthem means to Americans of diverse backgrounds, based on concerted travel across this great land, but someone would have to fund that.

More traditional themes I would like to explore include a history of country music (it’s a lot more diverse than most people think) and a history of bourbon – the spirit. Both are experiencing exploding popularity, but I would take the same “serious” approach that I expended on the country’s anthem – based on copious research but accessible to anyone remotely interested in the topic.

JF: Great stuff, thanks Marc! I should also add that I was also a student in that 1996 Stony Brook University seminar that Marc mentioned above.  Also check out this interview with Marc on MSNBC.

Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner.

The Original Lyrics to the Star-Spangled Banner

Rebecca Onion of Slate’s The Vault blog provides us with an early draft of Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner and offers some historical context.  I’ll bet most of you did not know about all of these extra verses.  Here is a taste of Onion’s piece followed by her transcript of one of Key’s earlier drafts of the song:

Of the three less-familiar verses, the third is the most interesting. It taunts the British Army, referring to the invaders as the “band who so vauntingly swore/that the havoc of war & the battle’s confusion” would strip Americans of “a home & a Country.” By calling them a “band,” rather than an army, Key diminishes the status of the British forces, whose “blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution.”

Key’s association of the British Army with “hirelings and slaves” was meant to be an insult. As historian Kevin Levin writes, the British Army liberated enslaved people in the Chesapeake region and recruited them as soldiers during the War of 1812. To Key, “freemen,” as he calls Americans, were to be lauded for their patriotic convictions, while slaves who enlisted to gain their personal liberation were to be disdained. 

The transcript:

Oh say can you see through by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming
Whose broad stripes & bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there
O say does that star spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free & the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
‘Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free & the home of the brave!
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war & the battle’s confusion
A home & a Country should leave us no more ?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling & slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free & the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever when freeman shall stand
Between their lov’d home & the war’s desolation
Blest with vict’ry & peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made & preserv’d us as a nation!
Then conquer we must when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
And the Star-Spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free & the home of the brave. 

Where Did Francis Scott Key Write the "Star-Spangled Banner?"

Indian Queen Hotel, Baltimore

He jotted some thoughts down in Baltimore Harbor, but finished the song that would become the National Anthem at Baltimore’s Indian Queen Hotel.  Liz Williams explains at the blog of the National Museum of American History:

John Gadsby, most famous for entertaining the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson at Alexandria’s City Hotel, arrived in Baltimore in the fall of 1808. He took over management of the Indian Queen Hotel, located at the corner of Hanover and Baltimore Streets (known better now as the site of the former Mechanic Theatre).
In 1827, The Baltimore Gazette recognized Gadsby as “the first man who introduced the proper style and taste for public entertainments in this city.” It was a large hotel, and over time Gadsby introduced new features to the business, including a mechanically powered coffee roaster, reading room, and public baths. The operation was large and Gadsby owned 42 slaves, most of whom worked at the hotel.
It was here, at this hotel, that Francis Scott Key found a bed for the night after arriving on land on September 16th. In his room, he compiled all of his notes and finished writing out his four verses. The lyrics were published the next day with no title, but it was soon given one by a friend: Defence of Fort McHenry. It was noted that the lyrics could be sung to the music of a well-known British club song called “Anacreon in Heaven.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

Grace Wisher and the Star Spangled Banner

The good folks at the National Museum of American History have published a post telling the story of Grace Wisher, the 13-year-old African American servant who helped Mary Pickersgill design the Star Spangled Banner which flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem of the United States of America.  Here is a taste of Wisher’s story as told by Helen Yuen and Asantewa Boakyewa of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore:

The size of the Star-Spangled Banner and its six-week timeline for completion would have necessitated many people working on the flag, including Mary Pickersgill’s three nieces and Grace Wisher. The household also had an enslaved person, whose name we do not know.
The home where Pickersgill and Wisher lived is now a museum called the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. It holds a 1962 painting by famed Baltimore artist Robert McGill Mackall. The portrait features the Pickersgill household and the three men who commissioned the garrison and storm flags for Fort McHenry: Commodore Joshua Barney, General John Stricker, and Colonel George Armistead. As a tribute to Wisher, the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House drew in a ghost figure into the painting that represents the young girl. Due to our uncertainty of what she looked like, the placeholder is a traced line, but the recognition is tangible.
A major show inspired by Wisher is now on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, Maryland. The exhibition For Whom It Stands: The Flag and the American People chronicles the flag through our nation’s history and culture. Coming full circle, the museum and exhibition are on the same city block where Wisher once lived and sewed the flag. Although none of Wisher’s personal effects are on display there and may have been lost to history, her untold story is a major theme of the show.