Sunday, July 29, 2012

When the Emperor was Divine

When The Emperor was Divine, a novel by Julie Otsuka is a powerful story of a Japanese-American family during the Second World War. It is a short book and might be a good story to use in an American history class. I have used fiction in the past (Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Edward Abbey's Monkeywrench Gang, for example) and it generally works well to encourage students to deconstruct ideas and events. The trick to make it effective is to know how representative the story is to wider experience. I have not read enough on the internment experience to know the answer to this question. For example, Otsuka's family returns to their house after the war. How often did this occur? This is an important part of her story because the author can show how different their life was after the war by contrasting their pre-war and post-war lives. Their status in the community certainly suffered from the stigma of internment. How representative is the father, who was interned the very night of the Pearl Harbor attack and does not reunite with his family until December 1945? Again, it is a crucial part of the story, and I found the last chapter "Confession" to be particularly insightful (I am still debating the meaning of the final sentence). He returns a truly broken man. In another clear indication of how internment impacted the family, the dream of a return to normalcy is crushed the minute they see "Papa" at the train station, four years after the FBI spirited him away.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Tench Coxe

Ok, this is a little outside the realm of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, but it
falls in the public history category. All historians should consider themselves public historians, especially when it comes to commemoration of past events and people. Last week I was in philadelphia to do some site seeing. I have always been a big fan of Benjamin Franklin and was drawn to his grave in Christ Church cemetery. It is a rather large marble slab glittering from the many pennies and nickels that were tossed on it (not sure why anyone does this). Although he may be the most illustrious occupant of the cemetery, there are others of note interred there, such as Dr. Benjamin Rush, for example. In walking around I noticed that there is one noteworthy individual not marked in the map or mentioned on the website, that of Tench Coxe (1755-1824), an understudy of Alexander Hamilton who co-wrote the seminal Report on Manufactures (1791). Coxe later held some other governmental posts during the early republic, and he played hardball politics in the 1800 election by releasing an controversial letter penned by John Adams. If nothing else he proves that the founders were no saints when it came to politics. They waged bitter, personal campaigns in ways anyone decrying the current tone of political debate should recognize. I would think this would make him just as noteworthy as John Taylor, who was a grave digger at Christ Church for 50 years.