Monday, December 2, 2013

Eisenhower, MacArthur and the Fallacies of Statistical Sampling

David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies is one of my favorite books. It is insightful, witty, and humorous. In one such fallacy, one he labels "The Fallacy of Statistical Sampling" Fischer provides several examples of the error, including a 1936 Literary Digest prediction that Kansas Governor Alf Landon would defeat the incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt in the upcoming presidential election. Of course, Landon did not win. In fact, he suffered the biggest defeat in our nation's history, with FDR capturing 98.5% of the electoral college. Fischer argues that the Literary Digest poll was not an accurate barometer of the electorate at large because its sample drew disproportionately from wealthier Americans. In hindsight this seems so obvious as to be silly to miss. Far away on the other side of the globe, in the Philippines, a forty-five year old Lieutenant Colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower couldn't believe the results of the Literary Digest poll. However, his boss, General Douglas MacArthur gave great credence to the poll. Partially this resulted from wishful thinking on the general's part. He  despised the FDR and hoped to see him ousted from the White House. The other issue is that, according to Eisenhower's Diaries (edited by Robert H. Ferrell, 1981) MacArthur bet 1,000 pesos on the Kansas governor winning the election. Eisenhower tried to dissuade his chief from this delusion and showed evidence that Landon could not even carry his (both Alf's and Ike's) home state let alone carrying the country. Although Eisenhower did not pinpoint the specific flaw of the Literary Digest poll, he knew that the survey lacked a "proper index." (p 22) MacArthur would have none of it and called Ike and another staff officer who ridiculed the Literary Digest poll results as, "fearful and small-minded people who are afraid to express judgements that are obvious from the evidence at hand." (p.22) Eisenhower's reaction in his diary was to scrawl, "Oh hell." (p.22) Six weeks later, on November 15, 1936, the subject came up again. This time MacArthur felt cheated by Literary Digest. Not only was he out 1,000 pesos, but he became fearful that the administration would discover that he had bet against them, quite literally.

Monday, November 18, 2013

William Temple Hornaday and the T-Rex

In my last posting I mentioned how Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History, Columbia University, and the New York Zoological Society named tyrannosaurus rex,  perhaps the most famous dinosaur. What I neglected to mention is the role William Temple Hornaday played in this paleontological development. It was one of the little stories that never made it into The Most Defiant Devil due to word count and a desire to keep the narrative fluid and focused. Tangents about dinosaurs and other trimmings found their way to the cutting room floor. On a hunting trip along Hell Creek in Montana, Hornaday came across a field of dinosaur bones. Among other things, he recognized the distinct skull of a Triceratops. Although the skull itself was badly damaged and fractured, Hornaday brought one of its horns to New York City to demonstrated the potential of this unknown fossil cache. Henry Fairfield Osborn sent one of his men, who unearthed the remains of what Hornaday described in a magazine article reprinted in A Wild-Animal Round-Up as, "predatory, and carnivorous to the utmost." He continued the story. "A skull, four feet long, and set with frightful teeth, was unearthed and sent to New York; and in due time the world was introduced to Tyrranosaurus [sic.] Rex, the Tyrant Dinosaur, late of Hell Creek." (emphasis in the original, both quotes are on page 80).

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Earth Speaks to Bryan

During the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925 Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society, wrote The Earth Speaks to Bryan. It was slim addition to his awe-inspiring canon of published material. Over his scholarly career, the prolific Osborn published over 1,000 items, including books, articles in both popular magazines and scholarly journals, reviews, introductions, prefaces, lectures, addresses, etc. As a professor at Columbia University, president of the American Museum of Natural History, and one of the foremost experts on evolution and paleontology Osborn possessed the scientific authority to speak definitely on the topic. He had the best education money could afford the scion of an elite New York family, and he had studied in England with the disciples of Charles Darwin. You can read his observations of these notable men of science in his memoir, Impressions of Great Naturalists (1924). After obtaining his doctorate in 1880 he taught at Princeton University before moving to Columbia. In 1906 he declined his childhood friend’s, President Theodore Roosevelt’s offer to be secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Begging Congress for money was not his style and leaving his comfortable Hudson River estate for the swampy national capital was not to his taste. Over the next twenty years Osborn ascended to the very pinnacle of scientific authority in the United States. Among other things he discovered and named a new species of dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Attacking William Jennings Bryan came naturally to Osborn, a conservative Republican who viewed the Great Commoner’s version of populism as dangerous demagoguery and a genuine threat to the socio-economic order. Citing the book of Job, Osborn asked that the Earth be allowed to speak for itself, thus the title of his exposition. The story the Earth told went much further back than 4,000 years, and Osborn chastised Bryan for not allowing Scopes to speak this truth. Osborn provided a detailed (and very dry) discussion of geological evidence and of tooth and toe fossils over time to demonstrate that the planet had to be much older than the literal interpretation of the Bible implied and that that species evolved in form. If the Bible was not literal science, however, Osborn still maintained it was rightly the foundation of morality. Nor did he view evolution as antithetical to the existence of God. Instead, he argued that God used evolution as His mechanism to bring about change. We might call this “intelligent design” today, but it was common among the first generation of evolutionists to make this argument. They saw no contradiction between a liberal interpretation of Christianity and Darwin’s theory. Oddly, Osborn put the locus of man’s evolution in Central Asia, where he had travelled in the 1920s to collect specimens, not Africa. But this is where the ugly side of Osborn’s evolutionary theory rears its disgusting head. Like most of the men of science in his generation, he allowed evolution to underwrite a very nasty form of racism. There are more than a few specimens of this thought in his vast canon of writings, including the preface for his friend Madison Grant’s “scientific” racist diatribe, The Passing of the Great Race (1916). In addition, Osborn supported the display of an African pygmy named Ota Benga with the chimpanzees at the Bronx Zoo in 1906, and created the Hall of Man display at the American Museum of Natural History to connect his racial and scientific views of human evolution to development.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

William T. Hornaday, Some Corrections

William T. Hornaday and The Most Defiant Devil got something of a nice write up here and I thank the author Forrest Whitman and the poster Aaron Storms for doing so. Still to correct two minor points. First, Hornaday could be most welcome in the halls of power, especially Congress. He testified on several occasions, and never failed to find sponsors for his bills, or powerful allies in the House or Senate.  Second, while Hornaday could be abrasive and downright rude with those whom he disagreed, he was also a very affable, charming, and gregarious person with a ready smile and great sense of humor. He formed many friendships that lasted for decades, but these were mostly with individuals outside the conservation movement. Those inside the conservation movement, on the other hand, felt the sting of his frequent loyalty tests and demands for policy purity.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Uncomfortable Wall Mates?

This building is mural is on a building across the Denver Convention center. It is an interesting grouping of cultural icons, Theodore Roosevelt and Muhammad Ali. I have no idea why these two towering men are grouped together or even if they were painted by the same artist. As a fan of manly, sporting competition, Roosevelt would have admired Ali’s amazing skill in the ring. On the other hand he would have labeled Ali a “shirker” for having avoided service in Vietnam by adopting Conscientious Objector status. Moreover, Roosevelt’s social Darwinist thinking did not predispose him to look on African-Americans favorably. While he famously dined in the White House with Booker T. Washington, he also surrendered to his prejudice by dishonorably discharging 167 black soldiers for the Brownsville “raid” in 1906. I am not the only historian who feels that this was the low point of domestic policy in Roosevelt’s presidency. On the other hand Ali would like have been uncomfortable around Roosevelt for the same reasons, seeing him as a war mongering Jingoist who did not believe non-Europeans to be his equal. The war against the Filipino insurgency would certainly have reminded Ali of the war he opposed in Vietnam.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Follow the Money

In citing sources in footnotes or endnotes, historians tie specific points in their text to specific references that support either their arguments or contain the location from which they accessed the material, such as an original quotation. Discussions on articles, books, and other sources that have had a larger impact on the intellectual framework of the book or its thesis tend to be included in the introduction or in the text. But, what about works that have impacted an historian’s work, but in a more general way? I completed my dissertation on William Temple Hornaday in 2001. I put Hornaday away for a little while, spent a lot of time prepping for my classes (I taught as many as three semester while working a full time, non-academic job) and working on Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age President and Politician. One of the books I squeezed in during this time was Alonzo Hamby’s seminal biography of President Harry S Truman, Man of the People. Hamby followed many themes of Truman’s personal life, but the one that really stood out to me was his depiction of Truman’s finances. We might remember his failed haberdashery, but that was only one scheme that didn’t work out in Truman’s quest for financial security. As historians we often focus on the outcome our subjects had on the world around them, the bill they sponsored, the book they wrote, their invention, etc., without giving much attention to how the mundane features of everyday life drove them. This is where Hamby’s book stood out for me. On one sense, who cares about Truman’s finances? How on earth did that impact his decision to use the atomic bomb (twice), contain Communism, or send troops to Korea? On the other hand, we read biographies to understand more about the people who make these monumental decisions. Truman’s constant insecurity about money does say something about him, even if it does not address directly the question of why he dropped the bomb. All this is to say, that only after reading Man of the People did I think more deeply about the role of money in William Temple Hornaday’s life. He worried about money all the time. Like Truman, he too engaged in some money making schemes, mostly related to real estate, which did not pan out the way he intended. One of my arguments is that he did not push back too much on his employer’s demands to restrain his tongue because he feared losing his secure, well-paying job. This created lots of tension, which I explore in The Most Defiant Devil. In conservation matters, Hornaday understood the importance of money and created an endowed fund, The Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund, to ensure that he had the cash to wage his conservation campaigns on his terms, and he was most critical of those conservationists who accepted cash from what he considered dubious sources, such as gun makers. Deep Throat’s adage to “follow the money” certainly applies to biographers and historians.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

First review in for The Most Defiant Devil

The AP released a review of the Most Defiant Devil. This link is to the Washington Post, but it has been carried in many other papers as well. Feedback appreciated.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Scrapbooking fool, William Temple Hornaday

Eve Kahn has a very nice article here on William Temple Hornaday's scrapbooks at the Widlife Conservation Society (aka the Bronx Zoo). Self promotion disclosure: Eve interviewed me and my comments are in the article. However, it is a very nice piece on the scrapbooks, which Hornaday consciously constructed as an historical source to a future generation who would ask the question, why didn't anyone do anything to stop the slaughter of American wildlife? Also, The Most Defiant Devil received a very nice review on the AP, which was carried here by the Washington Post.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Recent Reads: American Diplomacy, 1900-1950

I recently finished George F. Kennan's short book, American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, which was based on a series of lectures he delivered at the University of Chicago. It is not particularly good history due to its episodic treatment of events, but Kennan was more interested in analyzing the events he discusses in terms of extracting diplomatic lessons for the post-World War II world. The lessons learned are: 1. Wars should be waged only as a last resort and when the national interests requires it. 2. Governments should not make diplomatic promises or make threats it does not keep. 3. The United States should follow a realist policy and avoid highly charged emotional rhetoric and moral justifications for intervention. 4. The United States needs to remain actively involved in diplomacy at all times and not periodically. 5. Strategic objectives should be determined by long range national interests and not election cycles. Number two caught my eye. In American Diplomacy, Kennan spends a chapter on how John Hay's celebrated Open Door in China policy was a big mistake precisely because we did not live up to the words or ask others to as well. Japan noticed this and increasingly encroached on Chinese sovereignty. Because our interest in China waxed and waned (see #4 above), it exacerbated our relationship with Japan. This, of course, bore its ugly fruit on December 7, 1941. One can see that in terms of 1950, the architect of containment was arguing against both American firsters and their neo-isolationist allies, and those who wanted to roll back the Iron Curtain through force of arms. Still, while I think Kennan was wrong to completely eliminate morality from American foreign policy, there are some lessons in American Diplomacy that worth revisiting in 2013.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Recent Reads: Yates, Flawed Victory: Jutland 1916

Who won the Battle of Jutland in 1916? Did Admiral Jellicoe and the British Grand Fleet win because they chased the Germans back to port, or did the German High Seas Fleet under the command of Admiral Scheer win because they inflicted more causalities on their enemy? As a corollary, as Keith Yates points out in his book, Flawed Victory: Jutland, 1916, the Germans were smart enough to get their version out to the world first, thus scoring a huge propaganda victory and setting the subsequent tone of historical debate. The British Admiralty, on the contrary, totally botched their immediate post-battle public relations, taking three press releases to finally announce that they have won a decisive victory over the Germans. In a work that is generally favorable to Admiral Jellicoe, Yates argues that Jutland was a major British victory, and, in fact, one of the most important naval battles in history. It removed an important weapon from the German hands, secured the blockade, and caused the Germans to embark on a new naval policy, one that brought the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. My big take away from this book is that the German policy of naval expansion in the last two decades of the nineteenth- and first two decades of the twentieth- century was a really bad national policy choice. They could never catch up to the British, despite the fact that Germany did build a first rate fighting navy. It needlessly provoked the British and diverted resources and manpower into a weapon they could only use minimally when it was most needed. There were several minor sorties following Jutland, but most of the best officers and men joined the U-boat service. The rest grew increasingly sullen and restless as they whiled away their time at port. My other take aways from Flawed Victory are: • The British navy was obsessed with Admiral Horatio Nelson’s decisive victory over the French and Spanish at Trafalgar in 1805. Every officer and every engagement was measured by that impossible yardstick. There was an enormous letdown in the British Navy, government, and people after Jutland because the German fleet had not been totally annihilated. This led to a long and very acrimonious public relations battle as each admiral, officer, and politician weighed in with each really trying to sound more Nelsonian than the other. • The British did not manage their information very effectively. Admiral Beatty’s (British Cruiser commander) signalman made several significant mistakes over several engagements. Several of the signal ships did not pass messages along the line. Some messages were misinterpreted (sometimes due to smoke and sometimes due to lack of clarity). Finally, room 40, which was Naval intelligence unit that intercepted all the German naval communications, did not pass important information to Admiral Jellicoe during the battle. Room 40 intercepted signals indicating Admiral Scheer’s retreat route following Jutland, but did not relay that to Jellicoe. • The British had bigger guns and boats, but the Germans had the better training in gunnery, night fighting, and superior range finding equipment. • Jutland was a fitting parallel to the Somme, because they both ended with a stalemate.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Favorite Civil War general

I am taking my cue from a posting on Eric Wittenberg’s blog, Rantings of a Civil War Historian here that his favorite general is John Buford, the Union cavalryman who was instrumental to the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended 150 years ago today. Wittenberg is also writing a biography of Buford. My favorite Civil War general is Philip Kearny, the one-armed Union soldier killed at Chantilly, Virginia on September 1, 1862. Kearny is best remembered for his critical comments of George B. McClellan’s ponderous Peninsula Campaign.

The scion of very wealthy family and nephew of famed frontier soldier Stephen Watts Kearny, Philip joined the Army against his father’s wishes and obtained a commission without attending West Point. The younger Kearny lost an arm at Churubusco in the Mexican War. Afterwards he served as an army recruiter in New York City where he thrashed some young punks with his one arm when they jeered him and his recruits, and on the staff of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. In addition to fighting on the frontier and during the Mexican War, Kearny rode with French troops against rebels in Algeria, and again later in Italy at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. He was a colorful figure on these and American Civil War battlefields later on, as he charged through the smoke waving his sword with his one arm, and clenching the reigns of his horse in his teeth. For more information on Kearny, the source remains Irving Werstein, Kearny the Magnificent, which was published in 1962. Here is a good internet biography.

Kearny is not my favorite general solely due to his interesting life, but because in the process of writing a graduate level term paper on him at St. John’s University, I examined a personal manuscript collection for the first time. His papers are housed at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark, New Jersey. Kearny’s own letters were a mess. His handwriting is even worse than mine. With only one arm, he had no ability to hold the paper and write, so the sentences tended to move in a circular pattern as he scribbled. In addition to his letters, I read the handwritten letter of condolence from President Abraham Lincoln to Kearny’s widow, as well as letters from other important historical personages, including one from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton informing Mrs. Kearny that her husband was scheduled to have received the command of a corps before he was killed. It is interesting to ponder the possibility of Kearny leading a corps or even army. I am not sure if army command would have been possible had he lived. On the one hand he had experience, a willingness (one might even say desire) to fight, and he was a War Democrat, a valuable commodity to the Lincoln Administration. On the other hand, Kearny was known to criticize his commanders and he was uncomfortably close to newspapers, particularly in New Jersey, hostile to the administration. In the parlance of the 21st century, he “leaked” unfavorable information to the press.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Freshman

I have commented on my love of silent movies in several past blog postings. The Freshman (1925) has
some historical significance as being the first movie on the subject of football. Despite its being a comedy, the cinematography provides some sense of what the game was like in its infancy. Early football was an in-the-trenches, brutal game. There were no glitzy 400 yard passing games; instead, it was all a grinding ground game done one yard at a time. Begun in the late 19th century at the Ivy League colleges as a way to train the manly future leaders of society in the hard knocks of Social Darwinism, football was another element in what Theodore Roosevelt called the “Strenuous Life.” Large wedge formations crashed into each other at running speed, resulting in a substantial amount of injuries. As president, Roosevelt successfully urged college teams to adopt some safety measures, such as wearing helmets. In our own century when even baseball players wear guards and pads to prevent injuries, it might be surprising that early football players took the field with not much more than an average farm hand would have worn. Among the many injured college players in the early days of football, was one future president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower. Like many in the future leadership class, Ike loved the grittiness and toughness of early football. It tested one’s toughness, which they believed also served as a measure of one’s moral character.

The Freshman is interesting in another sense. It critically portrays a young man who confuses life on the silver screen with reality. Harold “Speedy” Lamb (played by Harold Lloyd) is a young, na├»ve, and impressionable young man just about to set out for college. Looking for an idol, he finds one in the leading character of the film “College Hero,” which he has recently seen. Harold’s buffoonish efforts to gain popularity by acting like his screen idol make him the butt of jokes and pranks by what I can only refer to as the “cool” crowd. So lost in the gap between what is real and what he wants to believe, Harold even thinks he is part of the football team, when, in fact, he is the water boy. Only towards the end of the football game, the centerpiece of the movie, after multiple injuries have drained the bench and his coach refuses to put him, does Harold learn the truth. Still the injuries kept coming and Harold does get in the game. In the end he scores the winning play and gets the girl. Expressing my own agency as a viewer, I gave The Freshman an anti-Hollywood message. The film is conscious of the gap between big screen Hollywood fantasy and reality. It certainly must be one of the first movies to poke fun at viewers and how they shaped their world views around movies.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

128th Annual Meeting of the AHA

I am happy to say that I will be presenting a paper at the January American Historical Association annual meeting in early January in our nation’s capital. The theme of the annual meeting is Disagreement, Debate, and Discussion, which I think is a great topic. The title of our panel is “A Place to Play: Outdoor Recreation and Environmental Conflict in the Twentieth- and Twenty-first-Century United States.” My paper is entitled, "Disagreement, Debate, and Discussion over the Meaning of Nature Protection: Wildlife Conservationists and the Battle over the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929." Here is my abstract:

This paper will examine the vitriolic debate throughout the 1920s between sportsmen, as led by John B. Burnham and the American Game Protective and Propagation Association, and their opponents within the conservation movement, led by William T. Hornaday of the Wildlife Protection Fund, over the establishment of migratory bird refuges in accordance with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Caught between these two opposing factions, scientists and some legislators considered prolonged discussion over hunting regulations in the refuges a minor consideration compared to the more pressing need for immediate wetlands protection. The disagreement among the conservationists who had worked well together to secure federal protection of migratory birds in the previous decade centered on the questions of why do we protect nature and who should benefit from this protection. Using the correspondence collections of key players and organizations in this debate, as well as books, and magazine and newspaper articles, I examine their competing answers to these two questions and why it generated so much conflict between them.

The spirited disagreement, debate, and discussion over the Migratory Bird Conservation Act had several consequences. The discord delayed much needed wetlands protection at a time of drought, and it exposed the fault lines within the previously successful progressive conservation coalition. The battle over the relationship between nature and the motivation to protect it drove a wedge between hunters and non-hunters within the environmental protection movement that still remains today.

I hope to see you there.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Blog Round Up: Biography

"It's Not You, Stonewall, It's Me" by Wallace Hettle on History News Network here ponders the biographer's relationship to his subject in a whimsical way. What if you just find out you don't like your subject? This could be a problem, and many have asked me how it was that I made such a good friend of William Temple Hornaday, who has generally been described by historians as an argumentative, vain, whackjob who did far more damage than good. Moreover, he was a racist who panned every non-anglo race he encountered. His comments about the Irish really got my blood boiling. On the other hand, I found him very interesting, and, on many subjects, quite funny. There certainly was not a lack of material in his thousands of pages of letters at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Library of Congress. And, in some ways, I think he had a better plan for the conservation movement. I never remotely considered dropping him as a subject.

"No Biographer Could Possibly Guess the Important Fact About My Life in the Late Summer of 1926" on Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Blog here takes a quote by Virginia Woolf to demonstrate that there is a limitation to biography. Namely, we cannot know all about our subjects, particularly what goes on deep in the recesses of their mind. This was especially true of Chester Arthur, the subject of my first biography. He burned nearly all his correspondence, and his shady record has left room recently for conspiracy theorists to consider that he was not even an American citizen. There was one tantalizing letter among his papers that he received from Senator Roscoe Conkling. "A friend is at the Westminster," Conkling wrote in November 1880, "and it will be very agreeable to me if you will observe the fact promptly." (Chester Alan Arthur Papers, Library of Congress). The wording is curious and one ponders its meaning. This is only one of the many mysteries of Chester Arthur's life, and sits in that gray area just beyond the biographer's reach.

"Driving the Dissertation" by Alyssa Zuercher Reichardt on The Junto here ponders the utility of going where your subject has been. Francis Parkman pioneered this method of historical inquiry over 150 years ago.  In Barack Obama: The Story,  David Maraniss (which I commented on here ) literally traced the footsteps of the future president, as well as those of his parents and grandparents. Maraniss saw the landscape and interviewed many who knew or met one of his cast of characters. Reichardt drove through Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wester Virginia studying 18th century traveling routes. Of course, much has changed in the intervening centuries, but she felt that this trip did increase her understanding of her subject. I never followed Hornaday's path, which lies closer to Maraniss in time, but perhaps closer to Reichardt in historical space. By this I mean that there was little of what he actually saw left to see. I did see the Bronx Zoo, but none of the other places Hornaday set foot. The Iowa farm and Stamford home are both gone. Perhaps I could have gone to Iowa State University at Ames, but that seemed tangental and beyond my limited means, especially in the dissertation days. Trips to India and Borneo were so far out of the question that they did not enter my mind until just now. Besides, I don't think I need to get malaria in Asia to understand how crippling multiple fevers were to a young Hornaday as he stumbled through the forests of India on a quest for elephants. Perhaps in my next subject I will make a greater effort to visit the sites.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Blog Round Up: Professional issues for the Historian

"Size Matters?" from the Historical Society blog Here ponders the question of why history dissertationsThe Defiant Devil is a little over 200 pages of text.
are so large? In fact, history dissertations are, on average, longer than any other field in the humanities or social sciences.  My sense is that if the anecdotal evidence of declining attention spans is true, then, yes, it is a problem, and might further widen the divide between professional academic historians and the wider, non-specialized reading public. The comments to the blog posting are interesting as well. Some made the case that historians do suffer from an inability to boil down lengthy arguments to shorter, pithier examples. I know I have suffered from this. There is always one more fact, that I feel needs to be included, analyzed, and contextualized. Are other academic professions better at this? I cannot really answer this question because I have not read any dissertations outside of history. Some comments focused on setting some expectations for the graduate student writing their dissertation, such as limiting the page count. I tend not to favor such Stalinesque techniques. One comment noted that the dissertation author sometimes has to write for the lowest common denominator. In other words, that one committee member who wants a detailed discussion of the kitchen sink, or, who gives you multiple titles of books that you feel obligated to include in your analysis, even though they are not really essential to your work. Although the article focused on dissertations, I feel the same argument applies to many books as well. It is always a little frustrating to get through a good chunk of the book when you start to feel that it should have been a journal article, not a full length monograph. Some books are terribly too long. I am happy to say that

"Long Odds of the Tenure-Track Job Search" from the Chronicle of Higher Education here examined the intense competition for academic jobs. Sometimes the odds of securing the position you applied for are 600 to 1. In a way that made me feel better for not having one of these jobs because it helps me to explain this to those who perennially wonder why I am not employed as a full-time history professor. Those outside of academe have a hard time grasping the academic job market. I usually begin my explanation with a question, "when was the last time you saw a new college constructed?" Sure, there are some intensely for profit colleges going up, but the history is only a small part of their otherwise moneymaking ventures, such as nursing, paralegal, etc. Second, I explain that when one gets a job in a college or university, they keep it for life. This means that that position will not come up for hire for at least 20 years, and more likely 30 or 35. I then have to use a Supreme Court analogy to make this clear. Finally, I tell them that I have applied for positions, but have ultimately received a letter stating there were "75" or "210" applicants. Now, I will cut to the chase and respond that a recent study of the respected Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the odds of getting a job are as high as 600 to 1.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Shifting Baselines Syndrome

I have to admit I never heard of Shifting Baselines Syndrome before reading Jon Mooallem's Slate article, "The Last Buffalo Hunt." You can read it here: (and in the shamless self promotion department, Jon does mention not only my friend William T. Hornaday, but also The Most Defiant Devil).

Shifting Baselines basically means each generation redefines its "norm." The best way I can illustrate it
is to compare the views of an older person whose baseline dates back two generations and a younger man whose baseline is established at that time. In this case the older man is William Temple Hornaday, conservationist and first director of the Bronx Zoo. Hornaday was born in 1854, and grew up on a farm in Iowa. His baseline of nature included vast buffalo herds and enormous flocks of passenger pigeons. By the end of the 19th century both species were rocketing down the path to extinction. Hornaday played a significant role in saving the buffalo from the abyss, but the passenger pigeon could not escape the grim fate of extermination. By the late 1920s the seventy year old Hornaday was predicting the imminent demise of all wildlife, expecting nothing but starlings and sparrows would exist by 1950. At the same time he was writing his grim forecasts of doom a young bespeckled boy was growing up in Illinois. Describing himself as the "Great Naturalist," Ronald Reagan found nature to be an abundant source of wonder.
He liked to roam the woods, and, as he wrote in his An American Life, "exploring the local wilderness." (p. 31) These rambling adventures led the future president to comment that he lived a childhood out of a Mark Twain novel. Reagan didn't miss the passenger pigeons and other wildlife that Hornaday did, because Reagan never knew them. He created a baseline without the the species that defined Hornaday's. What Hornaday considered a loss was something outside the younger man's perspective, or baseline. I think this is an interesting and intellectually useful concept that I will think more of in the future.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Most Defiant Devil is available for pre-order

My biography of The Most Defiant Devil: William Temple Hornaday and His Controversial Crusade to Save American Wildlife will be published by the University of Virginia Press in August 2013. Amazon has my book available for pre-order. I am very excited!  Here is the link:

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Question for the audience

A question for the audience: Where do you draw the line between historical fact and artistic license? This question comes up most in discussions about films with historical themes, such as JFK or Lincoln, but the same discussion also applies to books. I admit I am a purest on this question and feel historical facts, as we can understand them, are always more interesting and colorful than fabricating information to add color. Edmund Morris's Dutch, a biography of Ronald Reagan, famously added characters that allowed the author the ability to provide some additional perspective.  Morris felt this allowed him to tell a better story. Like many, I feel adding fictional material to what is purported to be an historical account (as biographies are) damages the integrity of the final product. In Dead Certainties Simon Schama tells two stories. One is the death of General Wolfe during the British conquest of Quebec in 1759, and the second is a murder mystery revolving around the death of George Parkman, uncle to historian Francis Parkman. The historian Parkman is the only thing tying the two sections of the book together. In this case Schama  identifies his book as a novella, but he weaves verifiable fact with fiction. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this work, but I still wonder what was real and what was not. Currently, I am reading William F. Buckley's Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater, an account of the conservative movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the introduction Buckley refers to the work as "reliable" but adds that it is "not strictly factual" (both quotes are from page xi). In essence, Buckley feels he has the spirit of the times, but takes liberty in writing conversations (although he defends himself in stating that these words fit the character of the orator as the author understood it). One wonders, though, where to draw the line in using this book for classes, research, etc. I almost put down Flying High, but decided to continue reading it because it is enjoyable. On the historical side, I will take the broadest message from it. Of course, works labeled historical fiction are a totally different beast. It makes no pretense to historical accuracy, even though many historical events are portrayed accurately in such works. I do find historical fiction a valuable tool to understanding the past. I believe that examining other possible outcomes to real events helps better understand what actually did happen.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Top 10 Gilded Age Primary Sources

Here are my top 10 favorite primary sources of the Gilded Age (1877-1900). Please let me know your

1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907). The grandson and great grandson of presidents, Adams had no use of an age that pushed him to the side with no afterthought. His "education" was in learning his place in this new and ever changing world. This very personal quest combined with the author's sharp and cutting wit give The Education its value as an historical text. On the hand, it also explains the book's serious limitations. For a lack of a better phrase it is full of piss and vinegar and has very little positive to say on the age or many of the people in it. In that sense it is like reading Allen Nevins's biography of Hamilton Fish or Matthew Josephson's, The Robber Barons in that for all their insights, all you come away thinking after reading them, is thank God I did not live between 1877 and 1900.

2. Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick (1868).  Classic pull-yourself-up-from-the-boot-straps stuff. The poor are poor because they deserve to be. One has to work to succeed, as it should be. Perseverance, thrift, and constant improvement are the themes. Alger's success as a single theme writer demonstrates the power of that theme during this period.

3. Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888). I know, another less than surprising pick. Bellamy uses fiction to depict a futuristic utopian society. I did not find this particularly good fiction and the romance scenes were clumsy at best, but it inspired thousands of Americans to join "Bellamy Clubs" to advocate for deep political and social reform.

4. Andrew Carnegie, "Wealth" (1889). In this article he wrote for the North American Review, Carnegie argues that the wealthy are the trustees of the national wealth who have an obligation to provide an example of good living to the population, and should use their wealth to provide opportunity, or "build ladders," as he phrases it, for the poor. He also argues on the positive nature of the economy and how driving prices ever lower is good for the consumer. Social Darwinism creeps into this essay, when he declares that while the economic systems of the time might be harsh for the individual, it is beneficial for the race.

5. The Diary and Letters of Rutherford B. Hayes (online edition ). Although Hayes is not regarded as one of the greatest luminaries of our nation's highest office, he left an extensive diary that offers insights into the role of the presidency during the Gilded Age, including some important events, such as the massive railroad strike of 1877.

6. Francis Parkman, "The Woman Question" in the North American Review (1879). Wonder why it took so long for women to gain the right to vote? Read this to understand the mindset of those who opposed it. Parkman declares women are unfit by nature because they are always sick. This is the height of gall coming from a hypochondiac who suffered from many maladies of his own (and quite possibly all psychosomatic in nature). Nonetheless, it is a good example of the anti-suffrage position written by an oterwise very intelligent man.

7. Josaih Strong, Our Country (1885). Nothing captures social Darwinist thinking as well as this work. Strong ties a trait to every race (all of the bad of course) and makes a case why they should not be admitted to the United States.

8. Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890). Riis, a Danish immigrant, lugged his bulky camera through the slums of New York City snapping photographs of the urban poor in their dingy tenements, at work, drinking, in the midst of crime, and other scenes that would have shocked the American middle class. The photographs dwarf the text and always make good discussion points in the classroom. This book should be paired with Stephen Crane's, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1896) for extra umph.

9. Mark Twain. Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). It is hard to pick out a Twain novel for this list, as they all have a claim. Not to mention that the era acquired its derogatory name from the title of one of his novels. I selected this one because the Gilded Age celebrated its inventors, and, in this work, Twain questions technological improvement. Even Bellamy sees technology as a positive force, but Twain is one of the first to question it, in his own unique way.

10. Mark Twain. "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895). In this North American Review article, Twain savagely mocks the literary style of America's first great novelist. I like Cooper (as I do Twain) and I still find this work to be hilariously funny. Yet, it captures the rebellious spirit of the naturalist and realist authors of the latter part of the Gilded Age.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Top 10 histories of the GAPE (Gilded Age and Progressive Era)

Inspired by a series in the Guardian, which I stumbled across this past weekend, I am initiating a series of my top 10 lists. Granted these will reflect my own interests and make no attempt at providing a definitive list all historians could agree on. Still, I would love to hear any feedback you have. If there is something I missed, please let me know so I can check it out.

I tried to create a separate list for each era, but kept stumbling over those histories that crossed the period. Thus, I decided to make one list. It was not easy. In the future I will make a separate list for biographies, African-American, and environmental history.

1) Alan Dawley, Changing the World (2003). This is one of my absolute favorites. I like how it places World War I at the center of the story, instead of at the end, as is done in most books on the subject of the Progressive Era. He argues that the Progressives sought social justice, a revitalized public life, and an improved world. It was an ambitious and global movement. World War I presented certain challenges and opportunities, and, as Dawley argues, it led to significant changes within progressivism, which emerges, in his words, tougher and leaner. Of course, the meat of the book is an excellent history of how this happened.

2) Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955). Still love this story of a reform movement driven by middle class angst. If nothing else, it should be read to understand the subsequent historiography of the period, which is often a response to Hofstadter.

3) James Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory (1986). This deep, sweeping transAtlantic study connects emerging progressive politics and emerging ideas centered on pragmatism in such an impressive way. It was a tough call as James Livingston, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution (1994) and Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings (1998) are also excellent works in the same category.

4) Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent (2003). McGerr sees progressivism as a radical movement that while focused on the needs of individuals, sought to transform society.  While there were numerous success stories, the movement ultimately failed in its bold mission.

5) Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (2001). There are a ton of good books that examine the emergence of modernism in the late 19th century. Menand shows how the Civil War shaped the thought of such important figures as William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Their thought (and that of many others I did not mention) subsequently became the prevailing conventional wisdom. The key part is that they did not shape their ideas in solitude; instead, they debated, discussed, and often disagreed with one another. As a side note, I do like this theme of the Civil War casting a long shadow over the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and feel it could use some additional work. On this theme, I recommend Richard Bensel, Yankee Leviathan (1990), on the growth of the state, and  Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation (2009) on how the understanding of the war as violent regeneration shaped the society and politics of the GAPE.

6) Sidney Miksis, Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy (2009). Miksis makes the case that the Progressive Party was a real political movement (meaning it was not a vanity campaign by Theodore Roosevelt) and played a critical role in breaking down party loyalty and ushering in the era of issue politics. I would pair this with Peri Arnold, Remaking the Presidency (2009), which discusses how Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson governed in this period of transition from party rule to issues.

7) Roy Rosensweig, Eight Hours for What we Will (1983). I admit I am not not very big on social history, but this book speaks to me. What is freedom after all? If you think it includes having your own free time that you alone control, this books will speak to you as well. The concept of "Eight hours for what we will" (with 8 for sleeping and 8 for work to round out the 24 hour day) is critical to the emergence of the consumer economy, which was one of the major changes to emerge from the GAPE. Rosenzweig also touches on such themes as immigration, urbanization, and politics.

8) Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers (1992). Skocpol traces the origins of the welfare state to the post-Civil War pension systems and the manner in which benefits were expanded in terms of scope and eligibility. Contrary to Western European paternalist systems that provided benefits to working men, the United States developed a maternalist system that sought to provide benefits to mothers in need.

9) Mark Wahlgren Summers, The Era of Good Stealings (1993) and Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion (2000). Ok, I cheated by naming two, but I could not make up my mind. Summers deals with Gilded Age politics better than anyone else. In the first title, he exams the role of corruption in the Gilded Age political economy, and argues that it was more stated than real. In other words, better to slander your enemies with than to prove. The second is one of the best campaign analysis I have ever read.

10) Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order (1967). Still a favorite of mine. Wiebe describes how urbanization, the railroads, industrialization, and an emerging middle class transformed the United States from a series autonomous localities, to one nation, and one marketplace.

Honorable Mentions:

1) Gregory J. Dehler, Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age Politician and President (2007). Ok, it is my book, but it is also my blog.

and more seriously:

2) Burton Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism (1976). Bledstein shows how the growing professionalization, standardization of practice, and education improved the delivery and quality of services. This ranges anywhere from historians to medical doctors to civil engineers. It was one of the more important trends of the Gilded Age, as quacks were driven out of practice, and a greater reliance on science dramatically improved lives. This is always a big part of my lecture on the Gilded Age.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Play Ball!

Now that new baseball season is upon us, I would like to recommend the awesome Library of Congress digitized collection of Progressive Era baseball cards. It is a fun way to get to know the "Deadball Era," as well as an instructive lesson in sports print culture and the birth of the consumer economy. Here is the link:

Most of the greats are represented, including Ty Cobb (looking spiffy on some cards and gritty in others), Roger Connor (who had the home run record before Babe Ruth crushed it), Walther Johnson (my candidate for the best pitcher ever), Christy Matthewson, Cy Young (all time wins leader), and Smokey Joe Wood (the Red Sox pitcher who gave up the mound for the outfield and inspired Babe Ruth to do likewise), just to name a few. Don't look for Honus Wagner or Joe "Shoeless" Jackson. Few of the players look what we today would think of as athletic. These men did not have personal trainers, advanced exercise regimens, or specialized diets to maximize performance. Nor did they receive exorbitant salaries. On the other hand, they amassed stats that still stand to this day, such as TyCobb's batting average and Cy Young's win record. If you would like to read more of what I have to say on this website, here is a review I wrote for

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Indexing the Most Defiant Devil

I am working on the index now for my upcoming book, The Most Defiant Devil: William Temple Hornaday and his Controversial Crusade to Save American Wildlife due out later this year from University of Virginia Press. I am very excited that the culmination of nearly twenty years of work will finally see print, but this is most gruelling part of the entire project.

Monday, March 4, 2013

One for the Books

Blogging has slowed to a crawl as the semester begins. Thankfully, reading never stops. To me reading is a metabolic function like breathing or eating. I don’t feel I am living if I am not reading. I get very punchy and agitated as my family can attest. Although I read mostly history, I also pick up books relating to literature and fiction, health, hobbies, politics, sports, etc. I especially enjoy books about books and reading. After hearing Joe Queenan on NPR a couple of months ago, I knew I needed to read his latest work, One for the Books. It is a great and remarkably quick read and one of the few books that will really make you snicker, if not laugh out loud. Having grown up a very rough section of Philadelphia, Queenan believes we read to escape, and for that reason books will always serve humanity. At first I questioned this because so much of my reading is informational and professional in nature. After reflection, however, I came to see Queenan has a point. My grandfather can suffice for exhibit A. Born in Galway, Ireland in 1903 he immigrated to the United States in 1928. He held mostly odd jobs and was an elevator operator throughout the 1930s. After a stint in the army in North Africa he worked in defense industries before getting married and landing a blue collar job at Con Edison, New York City’s power company. He stayed there until his retirement in 1968. He had an 8th grade education, but he loved to read. Spread out in his recliner in a haze of smoke with pipe clamped between his teeth he spent a good chunk of his day reading. After my grandmother died, he read whatever was available. His niece bought him supermarket bags full of novels. He read them one right after the other in his octogenarian years. I never paid much attention to what he was reading until I stumbled over a bag of books in the garage while looking for some sports equipment and noticed they were all trashy romance novels, the sort of thing with Fabio on the cover, which hardly seemed to be the reading material I expected would captivate my man’s man grandfather. For years I thought he read them because they were free and available (and light weight, which is essential for older people), but I realize now that he was escaping. He had outlived his wife, almost all his friends, almost all his siblings (his youngest sister is still alive and will be 101 in May), and needed someplace to go. And, anyplace would do.

On another point Queenan reawakened me to libraries. I used to go the library very often. In fact, for a very long period I did not buy any books at all because I borrowed bagfuls from the local library. But, then we bought a pug who chewed up some books. After spending $100 on repairing library books over several months, I shied away from borrowing books and opted to purchase them instead. At this point you might ask, why didn’t the genius put the books where the little dog could not get them? Well I did, but often one book was moved, or dropped, or fell from the shelf and ended up in range of the pug. After reading One for the Books I realized how much I missed roaming the stacks of the library looking for books to pull off the shelf, sample, and either return or check out. It is a very simple form of exploration and one I had forgotten how much I enjoyed.

Monday, February 18, 2013

President's Day

For whatever it is worth, I am not a big fan of president's day. I can justify the celebration of Washington and Lincon because they represent our best values and common purpose. On the other hand, I see no reason to celebrate the office itself or all its other occupants. To celebrate Washington and Lincoln as equals in national leadership with the likes of James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Richard Nixon is a bit insulting to not only our first and sixteenth presidents, but to the celebration of the holiday itself. Why celebrate Watergate? Johnson's Reconstruction policy? Buchanan's pro-slavery position on Kansas? Sure, I picked some of the worst examples possible, and there were pleny of other good and decent presidents who did some good and decent things. But that is exactly my point. Why lump them all together?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Recent Reads: Inauguration Edition

David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Story.

My most important take away from this book is learning how much President Obama consciously shaped his own identity through a series of myths. Most of the myths are based on events that took place. But, Maraniss discovered that his reconstructions of the events differed in some ways from those told by Obama in Dreams of My Father. Some stories are told out of sequence with altered effects. Characters in the Dreams of My Father are composites of real individuals. Finally, some meanings are given greater weight in the memoir than they might have actually had at the time. This was no shock to me. As a biographer, I see conscious mythmaking to some extent or another in every biography. Moreover, we are not all St. Paul on the Damascus road. Revelation can come slower, and events of the past can be revaluated later in life granting it greater influence.

I really liked how Maraniss traced the genealogy of Obama’s maternal and paternal lines from Kansas and Kenya to their intersection in Hawaii, itself a multicultural melting pot. Maraniss visited the scenes of Obama’s life in Africa, Indonesia, and North America and talked to those who knew the president, his parents, and other key figures in the book. These travels resulted in lots of primary material and some good photographs that appear in the gallery. I found the most interesting parts of the book to be about the senior Barack (pronounced Bar-rick, not BUH-rock) Obama who, as a member of the founding generation of post-colonial Africans, participated in a unique historical moment, the formation of a nation. He might have played a more significant role had not alcohol driven him to ruination. One of the major thesis of the books is that the son was so much better off without the physical presence (he appears to have always been a mental presence) of the ill tempered, demanding, self-absorbed, arrogant, and abusive alcoholic father in his life. Despite the mixed race genealogy and the lack of parents, there was a lot of ordinariness to the future president’s life. He was not terribly interested in school work, hung out with friends, was absorbed in sports (especially basketball) and girls. And being a child of the 70s he and his friends in the “Choom Gang” smoked a lot of pot. I am not sure how many of us would want our teenage years given such scrutiny.

James Kloppenberg, Reading Obama

As where Maraniss wrote a very personal biography of the inner thoughts of our 44th president, James Kloppenberg constructed an intellectual biography of Barack Obama to explain his political philosophy. I loved this book. It is a great demonstration of how ideas substantively shape our thinking. Instead of finding Obama to be a Kenyan anti-imperialist, Marxist, socialist, or whatever else has appeared on the bookstands in the last four years, Kloppenberg finds Obama to be a pragmatic progressive in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson and a Madisonian who considers democracy a battleground of ideas requiring give and take. I accept this thesis. More interestingly, Kloppenberg finds the roots to both his progressivism and his pragmatism in the works he knows Obama has read. Reading this made me realize why Obama has given those on both the right and left political fits. He is not ideologically rigid. To be pragmatic is to look at an issue in the light of the current situation and environment. It is the art of what is possible. The president has used a phrase about not letting the perfect becoming the enemy of the possible. This allows just enough daylight for his enemies to pour in every crackpot theory and for his disappointed friends to doubt his sincerity to their cause.

David Corn, Showdown

This makes the case that Obama has been a successful president. He did not always do what his friends have wanted him to do, but he has succeeded in getting as much done as was possible in the political environment. Instead, of seeing the financial negotiations with the Republican House leadership in 2010 and 2011 as failures and capitulations, Corn argues the president deftly fashioned a second stimulus (but not called as such) and secured some of his administration’s top goals (such as an historic arms control treaty with Russia).

Monday, January 14, 2013

To Google as in to search for an Elk

First a little background: On January 1st a Boulder police officer shot and killed an elk, affectionately known in the community as “Big Boy.” According to several accounts the officer allegedly violated a department policy about discharging a weapon without permission. Furthermore, there were photographs of the officer holding the head and rack of the elk as a hunter would pose with a champion trophy (he wasn’t called “Big Boy” for nothing). Finally, the officer asked another officer (who allegedly called in sick that day) to haul the carcass to a taxidermist where it was butchered into meat. The citizens of this community, and the larger Boulder population, are outraged that such a peaceful biotic citizen as “Big Boy” could have been gunned down in the name of public safety. There is a very interesting story in all this about our relationship to “wildlife” in suburban communities. Outrage has led to town meetings, a memorial, a ballad, and a protest march through the Pearl Street Mall. My own opinion is that if the officer is proven guilty of violating department regulations and Colorado wildlife laws, he should be held accountable.

Now (finally) for the main point I wanted to make: The local news interviewed a young man in his early 20s who observed the protest march through the Pearl Street Mall. He told the reporter that he wanted to see what the rest of the country thought about the “Big Boy” incident so he “googled it.” I know others have commented on how the word google has become a verb. If nothing else, it is an example of how not only technology effects language, but also how adaptable the English language is to revision. As a teacher, however, I am a little alarmed and frustrated by this new addition to our lexicon. Don't get me wrong. Google is my search engine of choice, and I consider it the best tool on the web. Google means to search the internet, but, it has surreptitiously replaced the term research, a much more deliberate inquiry into an object. Google means to look up a topic like George Washington on the internet and be directed to the Wikipedia page, a couple of other short biographies (on many topics these multiple webpage merely repeat each other word-for-word), along with a local high school, and the famous bridge connecting New York and New Jersey. That skimming through a couple of thin internet biographies passes as research among college freshman these days (at least at the community college level) marks some degeneration of an essential skill. Firmly dedicated to the concept of a liberal arts education, I firmly believe research skills are important for a functioning democracy.

Part of research is to know the value of a source; they are not all created equal. In fact, teaching students how to evaluate the authority of a source is one of the toughest parts of teaching research. In the past, I handed out accepted webpages (the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, for example) and other tips (no books marked “juv” or “YA” in the library catalog, for the most elementary example). This could be paired with a library orientation, including how to use the databases to find print citations (including book reviews to help evaluate your sources), and how to use the catalog search engine more effectively. The first part of the research paper was to submit an annotated bibliography. This gave me the opportunity to filter the sources and discuss with students as needed. This method ate up lots of class time (always a scarce commodity in a survey course) and I felt as if I was doing too much hand- holding. This past fall, I tried a different technique; one that I hoped would give the students some more responsibility towards their own learning. I allowed students to select their topic after some classroom discussion and then move to an annotated bibliography. The next phase of the project consisted of meetings with individual students. My intent was to provide some individual attention to each student and have a more detailed discussion on the project depending on the student's individual needs. While the meetings themselves went well, and I got to know the students better, it did not fulfill the function of teaching them how to do the research. Maybe in the future I should just tell them to "google" how to right a term paper!   

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Heading Home (1920): Babe Ruth and Normalcy

“He made a Nation of Leagues forget the League of Nations.” So opens the 1920 silent movie, Headin’ Home staring Babe Ruth. As a lover of baseball, silent movies, the early twentieth century, and the Yankees, I was naturally drawn to this movie when I saw it scheduled on TCM. The plot is fairly hokey and has no correlation to the real Babe’s life. The fictional Babe was the most modest lad who grew up in a wholesome small town, protected little girls and their dogs, lived with mom, and didn’t drink, or chase women. He struts around town whittling a baseball bat from a log (no, I am not making that up) with a baseball mitt permanently affixed to the belt loop on his trousers. So addicted to baseball, he comically delivers a chunk of ice, a fraction of its original size because he kept stopping at the sandlots along the way to join games. This varied, of course, with the rough and tumble, trouble filled, urban youth of the real Babe who was a well known womanizer and boozing playboy. Far from modest, Ruth most flamboyantly exemplified the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption identified with the “Roaring Twenties.” Moreover, Headin’ Home depicts the Sultan of Swat who was then just changing the entire course of baseball culture and history by glamorizing the home run. In one critical scene, Babe breaks a 14-14 tie by hitting a towering homerun that crashes through a church window five blocks from the sandlot. The real Babe did not make the major leagues on the strength of his hitting. He came up as a pitcher, and was probably the best southpaw of the late teens. Another one of Ruth’s impressive credentials.

The movie is full of corny sayings like, “he was one goat that never let out a bleat” and contained a few political references, such as when Babe used his own “14 points” to end a marital spat between a couple. Nonetheless, I can see this movie as not only an attempt to cash in on Ruth’s suddenly skyrocketing celebrity, but also as a cinematic call for a return to the small town, traditional values Warren G. Harding dubbed “Normalcy.”

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Czar" Reed

I recently finished Mr. Speaker! a biography of "Czar" Thomas Brackett Reed by James Grant. Reed represented Maine in Congress through most of the Gilded Age and served as Speaker of the House for  the 51st, 54th, and 55th Congresses in the 1890s. He was a large and imposing presence both physically and intellectually. Reed was a conventional Northeast Republican in economic matters, supporting both the protective tariff and the gold standard. More unorthodox positions included support for women's suffrage (despite his wife's opposition to it) and his anti-imperialism stance during the McKinley administration. His greatest contribution was to re-write the House rules during his first tenure as Speaker. Motivated by a strong belief in majority rule, Reed "broke" the filibuster in the House, which quickened the speed at which the lower chamber addressed legislation. Grant clearly hopes the current crop of politicians in Washington will draw from Reed's experience. Reed used his new rules effectively to pass an impressive number of bills during the (in)famous "billion dollar" 51st Congress, including the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Elections (a.k.a. "Force Bill"), and the McKinley Tariff. Grant hardly mentions the significant extension to the pension system, which attracts the attention of historians.

This is a work of popular history and Grant delves deep into the background of issues, such as the tariff, sometimes going to the early 18th century. The author is at his best when discussing economic and currency issues. These can be tricky topics and he handles them deftly. As a specialist in this era, I found these forays to be a diversion. In their place, I would have liked to have seen some deeper analysis of the issues and politics of the era. I realize I was not in Grant's intended audience, but I feel an awful lot of good scholarship has been done on the period and could have enhanced our understanding of Reed's era. Most of the books cited in the notes are older sources. Noticeably absent are the works of Sven Beckert, Richard Bensel, Charles Calhoun, Edward Crapol, Lewis Gould, Ari Hoogenboom, Jackson Lears, Allan Peskin, Joanne Reitano, Gretchen Ritter, Theda Skopol, Stephen Skowroneck, Mark Wahlren Summers, and Richard Welch, to cite some specific examples.