Back in the Saddle Again

It’s a new semester and with one under our belt, it looks like this time we’ve been thrown right into the deep end!

I met with Dr. Quigley, Dr. Thorp, and Dr. Wallenstein to discuss my possible avenues of research. When I went into my first meeting, with Dr. Quigley, I was toying around with two possible ideas. My first idea rests on the question of American identity in the Early Republic, or more narrowly, in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. I want to know how American Southerners, especially Virginians, considered themselves before the crises of the Jacksonian and antebellum years. Did the average Virginian (and here I am confining myself to middling and upper class whites, probably, since I imagine most sources reflect their views) see him or herself as first an American, a Virginian/Southerner, or both depending on the situation? When was a framework available that would allow Virginians in 1861 to renounce their American identity and project a new Confederate or state-centered one? For my methods historiography paper last semester, I looked at some of the work that has been done on nationalism in this time period. The Early Republic is not a period I know a lot about, so I am interested in learning more. I want to know how people conceived of their “Americanness” because I think that would help to explain how the Civil War was ever allowed to happen. I especially like trying to ground the issues of the period I’m studying in the everyday lives of people living through it. From what I have read so far, I expect that the answers to these questions will be more nebulous than clean-cut. Nationalism depends on many factors. Identity is not quite the same, so I am looking to read more on that as well.

My second idea has to do with memory of the Civil War, especially public monuments. I would be interested to see how public memorials and sites of memory change throughout Virginia (once again keeping my scope narrow and regional) based on wartime geography. For example, how have counties that had large unionist populations chosen to commemorate the war? Who actually decides what is remembered in these communities?

Dr. Quigley suggested that I begin looking at primary and secondary sources to see what’s out there on these topics. He suggested that sources or the approach I want to take will narrow the research and make for a better project. For my first topic idea, sources may be hard to find since most people don’t discuss national identity except in times of crisis. Aside from crisis, national holidays are another time these issues come up, according to Dr. Quigley. He suggested that I might want to look at celebrations of Washington’s Birthday, since that holiday was celebrated in Virginia almost on a par with the Fourth of July in the early nineteenth century. This would also be a good scope for a Master’s thesis. The next (first?) step is to look at sources available and see if anything jumps out. Dr. Quigley suggested I look at the catalogues for VT’s Special Collections, the Virginia Historical Society, and maybe the archive at Washington & Lee. Newspapers are a good place to start. He also gave me some books and articles to look at on the subject of nationalism and public celebrations, including some titles I used last semester for my historiography. Dr. Quigley suggested I stick with this first topic since the issue of Civil War memory can also be very tricky, since the historian must be well-versed in the context of the periods of memorialization. I think I may tackle an aspect of that question for the article in his research seminar, perhaps focusing strictly on a single time period like monuments erected during Reconstruction or immediately after.

My next meeting was with Dr. Thorp, who first made it clear that he is primarily a colonial historian and doesn’t know all that much on my topic. I spoke with him mostly about the identity and Washington’s Birthday idea, since I liked Dr. Quigley’s suggestions. Dr. Thorp suggested I look at pilgrimages to Mount Vernon, possibly, to get another angle on the public’s connection to Washington. He said I should consider newspapers, but also possibly court records (maybe a rowdy party for General George made it into the records), possibly almanacs, and also depictions of Washington in folk art and decorative art. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, the Abby Aldridge Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the Virginia Historical Society, and the Library of Virginia came up as good places to look for these sources. Dr. Thorp left me with some good advice on committees, as well: it pays sometimes to have someone who is not an expert who can pick out otherwise overlooked ambiguities or references in a paper.

Finally, I met with Dr. Wallenstein. He pointed out that the issue of national identity in Early Republic Virginia is still a massive topic, with many people to consider as cases—for example, Jefferson, Madison, and Marshall. He repeated Dr. Quigley’s directive to see what has been done already and what’s out there. The VA Historical Society and Library of Virginia are essential places to look. If I focus on Washington, Mount Vernon joins the others to make up an essential trilogy. Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary could furnish good evidence as well. Dr. Wallenstein encouraged me not to put the other topic (Civil War memory) to rest too soon, especially before I look at what’s available. Since I am considering doing that one in Dr. Quigley’s class, I will be doing similar preliminary work—Dr. Wallenstein suggested I keep an open mind depending on what I come up with. He also informed me that with his schedule of leave he will not be really involved with any new student research, so despite his expertise in Virginia history I will not be asking him to advise me.

Time to hit the books!

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