Saturday, February 26, 2011

Where's the Humor in History?

Country music is one of the strongest memories of my youth. My father always had some country on in the back ground. It could be the radio or it might be a stack of LPs (comment below if you have no idea of what that relic of the past is) of country albums on the record player. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr, the Statler Brothers, and Tom T. Hall, just to name a few, echoed day after day. On the surface it might seem odd that my Brooklyn bred father who counted himself among the early rock-n-roll fans would be drawn so strongly to country music. But as I think about it, it is not so odd. No sooner had he graduated Franklin K. Lane High School than Buddy Holly died and he received his draft notice. He got out of the army before the Vietnam War heated up, but when he turned his radio on the music was not quite the same. In the next few years it only got worse. Sgt. Pepper replaced Peggy Sue and the music lost some of its innocence. A conservative hawk, my Dad could not relate in anyway to the anti-war, libertine messages of the new version of Rock-n-Roll. Where else could he go, but country music? 
As my brother and I age we now listen to country music, although for different reasons. We find a sense of nostalgia in listening to the music my parents enjoyed so much together. But there is something more. Country music is often stereotyped as being only about cheating wives, drunken sprees, or pick up trucks. While these themes do pervade many country songs, the genre has one thing Rock-n-Roll lost many years ago: a freaking sense of humor.  Some of the songs can be down right funny. Moreover, country musicians can poke fun of themselves and enjoy the laugh. 
I bring this up because there is an interesting article in this month’s issue of the Perspectives, the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, by Dane Kennedy entitled “Where’s the Humor in History?” I differ, though, in thinking it is not only professional historians who lack any sense of humor when it comes to the past. Depending on one’s point of view, the past could be seen as a progression of crimes. It is either the abuse of power leading to the abuse of minorities, or the march of an elitist minority out to destroy liberty. Making history so serious and removing its humor makes every fact charged with such importance that it must be justified and accounted for. There is no room for random events, contingency, unintended consequences, mistakes, clumsiness, etc. This is not to say, of course, that history is not serious and that bad things, like slavery, did not happen, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t approach other topics with less seriousness. Instead of books with titles like the People’s History of the United States or the Patriot’s History of the United States what we really need is one entitled Bloopers in American History

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Journey to History

Last month Mark Cheatem discussed his journey towards history on his excellent blog, "Jacksonian America." The link to the blog is here: I responded on Mark's site, but wanted to add a little bit on what first perked my interest in history on my own blog. Basically it was two things:

First, coming of age during the American Bicentennial Celebration. I was still young, but just becoming aware of what was going on. Our Cub Scouts troop made the Freedom Trail Tour through Philadelphia and there were many interesting historical shows on television as well. My mother used to remind me that every time she took us to the Forest Hills library in Queens I checked out or re-checked out the same book, Johnny Tremain. Once the American Revolution captured my curiosity, so did other events in American history, such as the Civil War. My parents bought one of those big hulking, 30 something volume mega encyclopedia sets around the time I was born and that was my first historical source. Perhaps, that is why I have had such an interest in writing for reference sets myself, having written over 100 encyclopedia and historical dictionary articles.

Second, my grandfather lived a life I found historically interesting. He was an immigrant from Ireland who came to the United States during the Great Depression. My grandmother, his wife, did so as well. It might seem odd, but they left a country that was always depressed. When my uncle offered to take them back to Ireland in the early 1970s, my grandmother pointedly remarked that she had taken her last piss in Ireland and was not going back, no way, no how. I think that answers why they emigrated to America during the Great Depression. My grandfather also served in WWII. He had some interesting stories about this. He was still single in 1942 and entered the service at the age of 38 or 39. He served in North Africa after the Torch invasion primarily as a cook. He did not talk too much about this except to say that he say  he saw an Italian tank once and thought it resembled a garbage truck. More interesting was his story about his discharge. He reached 40 at the end of the North African campaign. He was put in a unit that guarded Axis POWS after the Afrika Korps surrendered. On the way home he was only one of a handful of Americans on board a ship teeming with German POWs bound for New Jersey. He told me these guys were happy to be alive and glad to be going in the opposite direction of Russia. He was discharged soon after arrival and got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. After the war he worked for Con Edison in NY. He told me that once in a while he would run into one of the ex-German POWs in NY City at a bar or on a bus or some place like that. I never imagined my grandfather a John Wayne style war hero charging pillboxes but I still thought his experiences interesting and exciting. He kept his army hat and I used to look at it a lot as a kid. As an adult it is one of my dearest possessions. Between his immigration and war experiences, I found myself drawn into history to better understand the world my grandfather lived in.

Oddly enough, however, I never followed either of these particular fields of history. I still read in them, but chose others for my professional work. By the time I got to graduate school I considered the American Revolution field too stacked with heavyweights to make even a ripple of notices. As for the Second World War, that would have required, or I thought at the time, mostly either a European focus or one on military history, neither one appealed to me. Instead, I gravitated to the Gilded Age-Great Depression period, with an emphasis on environmental history.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Andrew Jackson and the Gipper: A Comment on the parallels of two presidents.

The 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth leads me to post an observation that has percolated in the back of my mind for some time: the enormous similarity between Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan. In terms of personality they were miles apart. Although it could be said that both played popular perceptions of them to their best political advantage. In Jackson's case it was his violent temper. For Reagan it was the idea of him being an amiable dunce. But there are many similarities between the two presidents. Both men saw their vice presidents, Martin Van Buren and George H.W. Bush, succeed them in office. Both Van Buren and Bush served one term during which they battled economic tough times that were in part due to the economic policies of their popular predecessors. Each of these successful vice presidents was followed by a term of office served by opposition party. In this case, there is a little variance in the Jackson and Reagan parallels. The William H. Harrison and John Tyler combination served 4 years after Van Buren, while Bill Clinton served 8 after Bush. But that is not a major difference. Then each of these sets of oppositional leaders was followed by what I called a super successor, James K. Polk for Andrew Jackson and George W. Bush for Ronald Reagan. Each one of these super successors followed an orthodox economic policy of their model leader to an almost puritanical degree. For Polk it was tariff reduction and a subtreasury plan to house federal deposits. For Bush it was a series of tax cuts. Moreover, each of these successors followed a militant foreign policy that borrowed much from their predecessors rhetorical exuberance, but lacked Jackson's and Reagan's corresponding pragmatism. The result was two wars, Mexico and Iraq, fought on questionable justifications.

There is one last very important parallel between Jackson and Reagan. Jackson cast a political shadow over his Democratic Party from the moment he left office in 1837 until William Jennings Bryan broke it with the adoption of populist ideas in 1896. Reagan has exercised a similar hold over his party since 1988. One wonders if Reagan's hold will match Jackson's in duration. What does this tell us, if anything, about the relationship between the electorate, leaders, parties, and ideology?