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.

The Author’s Corner with Calvin Schermerhorn

Calvin Schermerhorn is Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University. This interview is based on his new book The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 (Yale University Press, April 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860?

CS: The book starts with the premise that some of the most creative people in American history were among the most destructive as well. I was struck by the savvy creativity and intense entrepreneurialism of slavery’s businessmen. And at the same time I was shocked and disturbed by the effects on subjects whose lives were shattered, ended, or turned upside down by the slave trade. That massive forced migration was vital to the production of American cotton and sugar — and to the U.S. and global economy. And that same process of human trafficking was absolutely reliant on chains of credit linking New Orleans and Richmond with New York and London. To tell that story, I looked for a bridge between big-picture history of processes and small-focus history of people and particular events. The Business of Slavery bridges macro-history and micro-history by looking at American capitalism at the level of the firm. Many of the subjects of the book were “Masters of the Universe” to borrow from Tom Wolfe. Several were New Yorkers. But I really wanted to tell the story of those who were trafficked and sold, including kidnap victim Solomon Northup, who published Twelve Years a Slave, and also several obscure subjects like Sam Watts who was bought, sold, and mortgaged with money that traveled oceans.

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

CS: The slavery business shows the creative destruction of a vital sector of the American economy from the War of 1812 to disunion in 1861. Rather than a localized or marginal process, the process of commoditizing people was deeply enmeshed in a national economy and international finance and shows the process of modern capitalism more strikingly than any other enterprise.

JF: Why do we need to read The Business of Slavery?

CS: It’s a good read about a troubled and troubling history. The Business of Slavery follows the money. In a narrative of seven firms or partnerships, along with the stories of the captives themselves, the book goes beyond traditional questions of slave-labor and production, looking instead at strategies of firms. It’s a business history rather than merely an economic or cultural history. It reassembles chains of supply, chains of credit, and maps international networks responsible for slavery’s growth. It turns out that the hopeful modernity of capitalism, including individual liberty, advancing technology, and the immense social trust and optimism required for the system to work were also components of turning people into products and flinging them across a vast geographic space, from the head of the Chesapeake Bay to the bottomlands of the Brazos River in Texas.

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

CS: I was pursuing a Master of Theological Studies degree at the Harvard Divinity School when I came across some truly inspirational historians doing work in American intellectual and religious history. I wasn’t very good at theology. And I wrestled (and still do) with the divide between personal faith and what is suitable for classroom instruction and scholarly debate. But I always had an interest in history. I’d gone to historic sites as a kid, collected coins, and even served as a costumed interpreter in a living history museum (I played an English colonist in Maryland among Yaocomico Indians). And the kinds of questions historians asked inspired me to delve more deeply into the past of the Chesapeake region where I grew up, particularly its deep yet scarcely mentioned African American history. It’s been a tremendously fulfilling journey from there.

JF: What is your next project?

CS: I’m finishing United States Slavery: A Family History for Cambridge University Press. It delves into American slavery’s history from the Revolution to Reconstruction through the lives of enslaved people, contextualizing family ordeals with the big processes of westward expansion, financial integration, and the upheaval of war and its legacy. In my spare time I’m writing a historical novel on the unintended consequences of human intention and action. The main drama is American slavery and the coming of civil war, particularly around Richmond, Virginia, and Boston, Massachusetts. The novel follows a handful of characters, free and enslaved, telling their personal stories, revealing the secrets and emotions the archives can’t or won’t, all textured with the stuff of history.

JF: Sounds like promising work, thanks Calvin!

And 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.

The War of 1812: America’s First Crisis

Robert P. Watson, a Professor of American Studies at Lynn University, explores the leaders, battles, and politics behind The War of 1812. The New York History Blog reviews Watson’s new book, America’s First Crisis: The War of 1812.

Here is a taste:

In America’s First Crisis: The War of 1812 (SUNY Press, 2014) Robert P. Watson tells the stories of the battles and leaders and shares the blunders and victories of the war. What started out as an effort to invade Canada, fueled by anger over the harassment of American merchant ships by the Royal Navy, soon turned into an all-out effort to fend off an invasion by Britain.


Armies marched across the Canadian border and sacked villages; navies battled on Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain, and the world’s oceans; both the American and Canadian capitals were burned; and, in a final irony, the United States won its greatest victory in New Orleans—after the peace treaty had been signed.

The New "Common-Place" is Here

Here are some highlights from the July 2012 issue of Common-Place:

  • A forum on the War of 1812 with contributions from Nicole Eustace, Paul Gilje, Joseph Rezek and Karim Tiro.
  • Reviews of books by Ashli White, Matthew Clavin, William G. Thomas, Sarah Rivett, and Adam Jortner.
  • An interview with Kariann Yokota about her book Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonoal Nation.

A Nice Introduction to the War of 1812

James Lundberg of the College of Lake Forest offers a nice primer for those of you who want to learn more about the War of 1812.  You know, the War of 1812–the war that nobody knows much about.  In case you forgot, we are in the midst of celebrating this war’s 200th anniversary.

Here is a taste from his piece at Slate:

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, a fact that may elude all but the most committed enthusiasts of America’s more obscure wars. Don’t expect coverage to compete with or even register alongside the steady drumbeat that has accompanied the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It’s hard to imagine a flurry of 1812 books flying off the shelves, or the New York Times commissioning a blog series about the conflict. Like Avogadro’s number or the rules of subjunctive verbs, the War of 1812 is one of those things that you learned about in school and promptly forgot without major consequence.
There are plenty of reasons for this. The War of 1812 has complicated origins, a confusing course, an inconclusive outcome, and demands at least a cursory understanding of Canadian geography. Moreover, it stands as the highlight of perhaps the single most ignored period of American History—one that the great historian Richard Hofstadter described as “dreary and unproductive … an age of slack and derivative culture, of fumbling and small-minded statecraft, terrible parochial wrangling, climaxed by a ludicrous and unnecessary war.”
Historians of the period and of the war may resent Hofstadter’s summary dismissal, but it offers some clues as to why neither is the subject of much popular interest. The very things that put Hofstadter off—the bumbling diplomacy, the bitter infighting, the ineptly executed war effort—force us to confront a vision of the United States that doesn’t generally fit our understanding of its origins. The war plays out as a disappointing second act to the Revolution, with the nation suddenly at the whim of Europeans and Indians and riven by internal dissent, and the heroes and heirs of 1776 acting without the pluck and ingenuity that we expect of them. How are we to commemorate that?

Read the rest here.


And for a more comical version of the War of 1812:

http://www.collegehumor.com/e/6583679

How Should Canada Commemorate the War of 1812?

Here is an interesting article on the dilemma that Canada faces in celebrating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.  (HT: Joe Carter).  A taste:


This may not be the best time to plan a war commemorative. The United States is marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which will consume five years and already has attracted considerable attention. Seven years ago the attempt to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War was a dud. There’s not a huge appetite for yet another set of commemorative books, historical novels, re-enactments and school dioramas.

But this landmark will not go away, even if most people’s memories of the War of 1812 disappeared the last time they picked up a Kenneth Roberts novel. And embedded in this anniversary are several sticky questions, such as:

How does Canada celebrate its victories over American invaders without alienating its biggest trading partner? How does the United States approach a war in which its principal adversary, Great Britain, is now one of its closest friends? And do the British pause to mark this event at all, given that for them it was but a brief, minor sideshow in the far more important Napoleonic Wars?

Along with the Korean War, the War of 1812, which most Americans remember dimly as being about impressment on the high seas and freedom of movement on the Great Lakes, is often called the Forgotten War.

It does seem that this article is correct in suggesting that the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 has been lost amid the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Having said that, I have no idea what is being planned next year for the bicentennial. 

Thoughts?