Monday, December 26, 2016

Henry Adams's 2016

I must admit that I have never been a huge fan of The Education of Henry Adams. Adams comes across to me as the guy who rants on Facebook about how everything always sucks. Yes, you know who I am talking about. We all have at least one of these people in our social media relationships. Bear in mind that I first read Adams in pre-internet and pre-social media existence, but the sentiment that he was a chronic complainer who cast all in the bleakest terms. Worst of all, to me at least, is that Adams was an entitled elitist from one of America's premier families. He tarred and feathered President Ulysses Grant most vigorously in The Education. "The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant," Adams wrote, "was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin." 1. Ouch! Granted that Adams was writing about himself and using only several episodes from Grant's Administration to tell his own memoir, The Education shaped historiography of the eighteenth president throughout the twentieth century. If you want to see an example of a twentieth-century mugwump/progressive historian using Adams as a guide, read Allan Nevins, Hamilton Fish, a biography of Grant's secretary-of-state. Nevins gave no quarter. As one of my history instructors at St. John's University used to say, "give the poor guy a break, he's dead." While I would never posit that Grant was a great or near-great president, I have felt for some time that he deserves to be considered a better president than how Nevins and other twentieth century historians depicted him. Brooks Simpson, Jean Edward Smith, Joan Waugh, and Ronald White, among others, have given Grant a more sympathetic treatment in recent years. A disappointed office seeker himself, Adams focused on Grant's appointments, which, to be honest, were unconventional. On the other hand, Adams gave almost no attention to Reconstruction, the area where twenty-first century historians are giving Grant more credit than in the past. Having said all this, in the last couple of months I feel a growing sense of sympathy for Henry Adams. In the wake of the nasty, brutish, and, protracted 2016 presidential election, I think I better understand the pessimism with which Adams viewed his own times. 
1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 249.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Classroom discussion on Frederick Douglass, The Narrative Life

I like to assign a guided book review in the US survey I (pre-Columbus to 1877) night course that I teach at Front Range Community College. The students complete a ten page paper based on the book and we spend a class session discussing it. Honestly, this is the most enjoyable class of the entire semester for me. I have assigned books on the Federalist Papers, John Brown’s Raid, the 1960s Civil Rights movement, the Black Death, and the Holocaust, for this and other courses I have taught in the past. This semester I assigned Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Although written in 1845, it is very readable, powerful, graphic, and direct. Douglass was the most famous fugitive slave of the day and he dared to reveal that the slaveholders’ perception of themselves as enlightened paternalistic protectors of their slaves was nothing less than a poorly designed and cynical self-deceit. Instead of caring for their “property” by providing medical care, housing, clothing, food, and guidance as slaveholders publicly professed, Douglass showed how they violently abused and dehumanized the slaves. The Narrative Life recounts, among other things, that slaves received an inadequate quality and quantity of food, clothing, and housing from their masters. Nakedness, lack of bedding, and eating from a trough were among the methods that the slaveholders used to dehumanize their slaves. The students receive a much better depiction of slavery from Douglass than they can from the textbook or my lectures.

My fellow teachers know that each class or cohort seems to have its own personality, and this definitely comes out in discussions such as these. Previous classes have honed in on Douglass’s fight with Covey, his escape, and the dehumanizing nature of slavery to both slaves and slave holders. In the discussion this past Monday night, my current class focused more specifically on Douglass’s perseverance, resilience, and determination to escape slavery. They read The Narrative Life as a self-help manual that imparted some important life lessons. It was more than a history text to them.

The most interesting comments, however, questioned Douglass’s version of history. Some students felt that Douglass portrayed himself as the hero of his own life and gave little credit to others for any help they might have given him. Although brief, our discussion on the inherent subjectivity of autobiographies and memoirs touched upon the possibility that not everything Douglass wrote was necessarily true. Events could have been misrepresented by design or unintentionally. Douglass, too, had biases and political motives. We also considered how Douglass could have been protecting those who might have helped him. Southerners would strike back at Douglass by attacking those they could get their hands on, if they only knew who to attack. Overall, I was heartened by how much they got out of this book about slavery and American history, and, also, their cautious approach to consuming information. We need to be on our guard now more than ever.