Monday, March 21, 2011

Welcome to the Dynamo and the Virgin


I guess it is true that to blog one must love blogs in the same sense that to write one must love to read. Since I started my blog, which I confess was more on a whim than according to some master plan, I have been paying closer attention to the content, form, and structure of other blogs. There is one thing I have noticed about the blogs I like best and the ones that seem to be most frequented by visitors: they tend to be tightly focused on a particular subject. There are a ton of Civil War blogs and quite a few good ones (my favorites include Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Book Shelf, Brooks Simpson’s Cross Roads, and Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory), Military History blogs (I really like Steven Terjeson’s WWII History and the U.S. Naval Institute’s Naval History Blog) and blogs focused mostly on the history profession itself (I highly recommend Nick Sarantakes’s In the Service of Clio and Ann Little’s Historiann). Then there are other areas where one blog really stands out. Intellectual History, run and maintained by thirteen individuals, is one of my favorites, although I don’t consider myself an intellectual historian. My friend Pat McNamara’s, aptly titled McNamara’s Blog covers New York City Irish Catholic religious history, another area that is outside my field in many ways, but one that speaks to my own heritage. Perhaps my favorite among the niche blogs is Mark Cheatam’s Jacksonian America, which has an excellent balance in output frequency, length of entries, variety of entries within the subject, with some postings on professional matters. Bearing all this in mind I noticed my blog tended to be scattershot with a variety of topics from events in the middle east to books on ancient Rome and Egypt to Chester Arthur to my great-great-great grandfather, but most, although not obviously all, connect to my favorite time period: the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the time ranging from the end of the Civil War until the Great Depression. When I recently searched the internet and discovered that blogosphere has largely overlooked this important era in our nation’s history, I found I had the solution to my dilemma. From this point forward, Greg’s History Blog will focus on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Having solved the question over focus or mission for this blog, the next question that logically arose is what would be an appropriate name for a blog rededicated to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. After more than two months thought the one that I kept coming back to was a chapter title from The Education of Henry Adams: “The Dynamo and the Virgin.” The Dynamo is the powerful machine running relentlessly, producing energy without any sense of how it would be used. The energy creates great power but it is also of an amoral sort. In other words, what good does it do? Adams, a morose and intelligent man, who sensed a futility in life bordering on nihilism, could understand the machine. It seems clear to me that the Dynamo for Adams represents the America of his day, a place he neither understood nor approved. He can appreciate the raw power of the industrial growth, but not understand it or the amoral consequences. The Virgin represents art, desire, sex, and other human emotions alien to the dynamo. Adams clearly appreciated these traits, but felt equally uncomfortable in the face of the accompanying raw emotion, superstition, and religiosity (he refers to it as “occult”) of the era. Yet, when he decided he had to pick between the two worlds, his own and the past, he choose the distant past as the one he could easiest understand. Personally, I like the title, because it captures so many traits from the period: determination, growth, power, the relentless drive forward, naivety, self satisfaction, moral certainty, and sense of superiority.

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