Memory, race, and gender

I read two useful books for my topic this week, which have helped me start to get a handle on where my question fits into larger happenings. First I read David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2002). This is an important work for anyone studying the Lost Cause to be familiar with. Blight argues that over the course of the fifty years following the Civil War, white Northerners and Southerners were able to reconcile by downplaying the aspects of the war that had to do directly with the end of slavery. White Southerners led the way in this by embracing a Lost Cause mentality that largely ignored the role slavery had played in secession and the conflict itself. White Northerners, Blight says, were willing to reconcile on the South’s terms in order to speed up reunion at the expense of black Civil War memory. Though the South lost the war, by the early twentieth century they were winning the war of ideas in conjunction with equally white-supremacist Northerners.

The second book I read was Caroline E. Janney’s Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (2008). The book is about Ladies’ Memorial Associations (LMAs) in five Virginia communities during the first fifty years after the Civil War. These LMAs sought to keep alive the memory of their town’s local soldiers and a feeling of Confederate identity through public commemorations, including the building of monuments and the organization of Confederate cemeteries. Janney argues that participation in LMAs allowed white Virginian ladies to continue a tradition of civic engagement in an area they defended against male encroachment, the realm of memory. In doing so, the Ladies crafted the particular brand of Confederate memory we have come to know as the Lost Cause. Their work has been overshadowed, however, since the rise of national organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). [taken in part from my secondary source reception essay for this week]

With these books as guides, I will be able to incorporate questions of race and gender into my own research. I’m excited to move beyond 1915, which is where both of these books stop. Since I am going to look at the memory of war during another war (at least WWI, possibly the Spanish-American War), my question will be slightly different from each of these but will benefit from these well-respected previous works.

Spotsylvania Confederate Cemetery Monument

Spotsylvania Confederate Cemetery monument, dedicated 1918

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Databases and More

Inspired by an exercise in Dr. Agmon’s class, I started thinking about my topic temporally. The question below is, of course, simply the first attempt at formulating my project—I anticipate changes as I delve further into my research.

How did World War I affect Confederate memory and memorialization in Virginia?

Between 1900 and 1919, 83 Confederate soldiers’ monuments were unveiled in Virginia, according to Thomas J. Brown in The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration (p. 26). This last great period of monument building coincides with World War I, which sent Americans from both North and South overseas. Some historians credit the Spanish-American War in 1898 with helping the nation to heal again, but I’m interested more in looking at the WWI period since it corresponds with the semi-centennial of the Civil War. Answering this question would help us to understand the historical context of public monuments which are still around today. It would also add to the understanding of the evolution of Confederate memory in the state where most of the fighting took place.


The databases I looked at for this week were WorldCat and America: History and Life. These are both secondary source databases for the most part, which is what I was looking for at this stage. Both seem very useful, especially America: History and Life since it has links to full text online. I skimmed several ebooks, which I am not used to but seem to be easy to figure out. WorldCat is great in conjunction with interlibrary loan, since it lets me know what’s out there. I started with basic searches in each one, looking for Confederate monuments to see what came up.

One of the most promising secondary sources I found was actually a 2002 dissertation from a student at the University of Maryland. She wrote about Confederate memory in Luray, which had also piqued my interest as I went through some books because there are two Confederate soldiers’ monuments in the town. Usually there is only one, most often in the county seat. Luray’s two monuments jumped out at me because their dates were 1898 and 1918, both dates which corresponded with the other wars I was looking at. This thesis would not have shown up most places, but it did come up for me in America: History and Life. I have ordered it through interlibrary loan so we’ll see if I ever actually get to have a look.

Switching up search terms was the key to finding multiple sources. For example, I first searched Confederate monument oration, then changed out oration for dedication to see if I could find sources on the unveiling ceremonies of various monuments. Which reminds me—next I will search for unveiling! As I searched, I was surprised to not find more explicit secondary sources having to do with Confederate memory during WWI. I guess that’s good news for me though, and of course I have plenty more searching to do as we move forward.

Also, I’m trying Zotero again and already it’s coming to me more easily…

Some sources:

An Illustrated Guide to Virginia’s Confederate Monuments, Timothy S. Sedore (2011).

This is a really useful book for finding monuments in Virginia. I found it in ebook form, which makes searching for key dates really easy. Using keyword searches for dates between 1914 and 1919, I have so far identified nine or ten Virginia monuments dedicated to Confederate soldiers during that time. (If I decide to look at the Spanish-American War instead, there are about the same number dedicated in 1898-1899). Sedore’s book, though it only has monuments from Virginia, has more information that Widener’s wider geographical survey of nationwide monuments. Sedore also has some good introductory material which may prove useful.

I came upon an ebook of the Ceremonies Attending the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial on the Battlefield of Gettysburg, from 1917. By searching the text for “Great War,” I found the address given at the ceremony by the assistant secretary of war mentioning the troubling situation in Europe. Though not in Virginia, this monument and its dedication could prove a valuable addition to my research!

Another source not directly related to Virginia, but showing similar themes to the ones I am looking for, is Memorials of Dixie-land; orations, essays, sketches, and poems on topics historical, commemorative, literary and patriotic, by Lucian Lamar Knight. This was written in 1919 and seems to deal exclusively with Georgia (Knight was state historian), but seems to be a good example of the type of source I’d like to use. The dedication, for example, is “To the Sentiment of Brotherhood which a Great World War Has Intensified and Strengthened in the Heart of a New America,” Woodrow Wilson, and his Confederate uncle and father, the latter who “bequeathed to me the inheritance of a good name…which, to the associations of an ancient chivalry, adds what is richer still: the memories of an old gray jacket and the pledge of an allegiance to the Confederate flag” (p. iii).

To end, some pictures of the Floyd County Confederate memorial (1904)…I thought the reference to soldiers as braves was really interesting:








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Baby steps

I have taken the first step towards my project and actually procured an advisor! Dr. Quigley, with whom I am also working for the Graduate Assistantship, will be advising me throughout my research process. I met with him briefly to talk about where I should start my secondary reading. He gave me some good books to look at since I have switched my topic to Confederate memory and monuments. At the moment, I am thinking of perhaps looking at monuments in contested areas like the counties of West Virginia and their neighbors in Virginia. I am interested in seeing how the war and Confederate soldiers were memorialized, when, and by who. Dr. Quigley gave me an article to look at (discussed below): “Written in Stone: Gender, Race, and the Heyward Shepherd Memorial” by Caroline E. Janney (2006). He also suggested books by Fitzhugh Brundage, David Blight, and Gaines Foster, some of which I have checked out of the library. Another book he suggested is Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves by Kirk Savage. As for primary sources, in addition to the monuments themselves, I will look at newspapers and records from the local organizations involved with commemoration.

I have to admit that I was very skeptical of Scrivener at the beginning of the semester. But I watched the tutorial and it actually seems really useful and intuitive. And for only $35 for a student version, it’s pretty affordable…I may very well go ahead and get it!

I tried using Zotero last semester, but it baffled me. I think I’ll give it another try this time around since Endnote costs money. I’m sure that by following online tutorials and instructions I can manage Zotero. I wish it wasn’t just based in Firefox—I know you can get for Chrome, but that one was even more confusing than the real one when I tried it out before. We shall see what I end up deciding about all that.

As for interactive note taking, I wasn’t absolutely clear on what Single meant. When I read through Janney’s article I tried to be interactive by writing in the margins when I identified points of her argument, references to the historiography, and questions that I had from the reading. I guess that’s the basic idea! It did help me to read Single’s chapters since I was inspired to actually write down connections I made while reading instead of just underlining and hoping I’d remember later. Janney’s “Written in Stone” was very interesting. It was about the controversy over a monument placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Harpers Ferry to commemorate the free black victim of John Brown’s raid, Heyward Shepherd. Janney raised some interesting points about the contested nature of Shepherd’s memory and the unique ways in which the UDC, NAACP, and others dealt with the proposed monument, its dedication, and its reinterpretation 60 years later. I think the scope of my project would require looking at more than one monument, but this angle is a good one to keep in mind.

In addition to that, I looked at several books to get a start on my reading: Monuments to the Lost Cause: Women, Art, and the Landscapes of Southern Memory, edited by Cynthia Mills and Pamela H. Simpson (2003) (a collection of essays—I read the ones on Virginia for now, but other articles may be more useful); Confederate Monuments: Enduring Symbols of the South and the War Between the States, by Ralph W. Widener Jr. (1982) (mostly pictures of Confederate monuments arranged by state, with some general introductory material—possibly useful for finding good monuments to study in depth); and The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History with Documents, by Thomas J. Brown (2004) (a collection of primary documents with introductions—will be helpful as I narrow my topic I think!). So off to a start, and I’ve taken plenty more books out of the library in preparation for the weeks to come!

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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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Oh, what a tangled web we weave

File:Zygiella web.jpg

This week we took an interesting look at global history. Global history, as it sounds, is large in scope, encompassing the whole history of humanity. The book we read was a collaboration between a father and son, William H. McNeill and J. R. McNeill, called The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. Like last session’s Deep History and the Brain, The Human Web begins far back in the remote past, with the first humans in Africa. From there, the McNeills take us right through to the present day, addressing human history all over the world and at all times. Definitely an ambitious project!

To get a handle on the huge scope of human history, the McNeills use a framework of webs, networks that have linked people since the beginning of time through any number of possible human interactions. These webs, “The exchange and spread of such information, items, and inconveniences, and human responses to them, [are] what shapes history” (4). J.R. makes a clear distinction in an interview for Historically Speaking that these shaping forces of history are not the driving forces: those, as he says, are “the ambitions—individual and collective—of people” (Yerxa).

Here’s the interview and an article by the McNeills which was mostly reprinted as the introduction for The Human Web:

It is interesting see where the McNeills think these ambitions have led humanity, and where they think it is going. Before getting to that point in the book’s afterword, however, we are led on a several thousand years’ jaunt through the interactions between people that have shaped history up to this point. As the authors point out in their preface, “This book is written for people who would like to know how the world got to be the way it is but don’t have time to read a shelf or two of history books” (xvii). They do a good job of meeting this goal.

So what exactly is “the way the world is” through the perspective of the human web? There’s no denying we live in an increasingly global society. Also, as the McNeills put it, “Urbanization and population growth stands as the cardinal social change of the last century” (318). Globalization has led to wide inequalities and we have entered an Anthropocene age, where human factors seemingly shape the earth more than natural or geological ones.

I was a little disappointed to read what each author had to say about where human history may be heading. J. R. writes that with humanity’s increased capability for destruction in recent centuries, “the chances of cataclysmic violence seem depressingly good” (323). At least his father has a slightly more optimistic view (just slightly): “My personal hunch is that catastrophes—great and small—are sure to come and human resilience will prove more than we can easily imagine” (326). This seems a fairly obvious takeaway from human history…we haven’t imploded yet, have we? Of course, both McNeills take a surprisingly presentist view of the world situation, as if our own times are the most important and dangerous, a view I tend to take with a grain of salt. William even states, “we live on the crest of a breaking wave. Luck, intelligence, and awkward tolerance may keep the web from breaking. Let’s hope so” (327). Again, if the scope of human history has taught us anything, it’s that humanity fumbles on.

As we discussed in our last class, nobody considers their own times to be part of anything greater; people in the Middle Ages, for example, didn’t think of themselves as in the middle of anything. I would take the eminently optimistic view that there is still a lot of time stretching before us, so yes, it pays to live carefully, but there is no need to imagine an impending global catastrophe just because humanity balances on a web. We’ve been up here for a long time.

File:Fallout shelter.jpg

there will always be something you can worry about…

An interesting side note from the interview linked above: the public prefers to read histories on a larger scale, which is why historical writing has lagged popularly with the increase in micro-historical studies. I guess if you want to sell books as a historian, it’s well worth it to consider embracing global history!

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Our brains, ourselves…

After our two week blogging holiday, I’m back! And this time things are going to get deep.


As in, deep history. Deep history is the study of the far past, what many would call “prehistory.” As Daniel Lord Smail argues in his book On Deep History and the Brain, the distinction historians have made between documented history and the time before is a false one, a leftover of medieval histories that began with the Garden of Eden and thus had a clear beginning. Since the 1860s, when Darwin’s theories and other scientific revelations began to break down people’s conceptions of time, sacred history has metamorphosed into secular terms, but generally starts at the same place. The fertile crescent of Mesopotamia replaced Eden and the birth of civilization, not the creation of man, became square one for understanding human history.

Smail challenges this new timeline. He disputes the need for written documents to constitute “history:” “what does it matter that the evidence for the deep past comes not from written documents but from the other things that teach—from artifacts, fossils, vegetable remains, phonemes, and various forms of modern DNA?” (6). Anything can be a historical document if approached with a critical eye. The question becomes, then, to what extent is the use of this kind of evidence really “history?” Is there a clear line between history and anthropology, or biology, or other fields that study human life in the past? Smail says no. He writes, “The archeologists, anthropologists, molecular biologists, and neuroscientists who study the deep past are also historians, regardless of the archives they consult. This book is designed to show how we might bring about reunion within all these realms of history” (11).

Smail’s purpose in writing this book is not just to draw our attention to broad scope of history outside the written word, though. His last two chapter seek to convince readers of the utility of brain studies in thinking about deep history. He refers to “neurohistory” to describe the application of recent scientific work on the human brain to questions of “pre”-history. It’s pretty complex stuff. The point that jumped out at me was that “Culture, in some fundamental sense, has been revealed as a biological phenomenon” (154). The example he gives is one of accidental cultural implications: the ingestion of alcohol or tobacco by pregnant mothers. In cultures where this is acceptable behavior, the activities of these mothers result in biological consequences for their unborn babies. When those children grow up, they may have a predisposition to alcohol or tobacco use, which then permeates the culture around them. It’s almost cyclical in this understanding. As Smail goes on to say, “Civilization enabled important aspects of human biology” (155). This leaves us with the age old question: which came first, the chicken, or the egg? Culture, or biology?

The deep past, Smail argues, can help us understand and answer this question. The end result is a history devoid of any grand plan or teleology, whether it be God’s or evolution’s. We often think in terms of progress, one generation moving further along towards…something. In fact, as Smail argues, “We are being swept along by the things that have arisen as our new physiologies have interacted in unpredictable ways with the new ecology formed by our Neolithic ancestors” (189). By seeking to understand people who lived an unfathomably long time ago, before the dawn of what we consider history, we can really come to understand ourselves. You can take it or leave it, but Smail’s book is certainly food for thought.



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I am a part of all that I have met

Geoff Eley’s A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society neatly mirrors the historiographical trends we have studied so far this year. Using his own academic career as a basis for his investigation of the history profession’s shifts in the past forty years, Eley provides a great record of one historian’s journey from the social history of the 1960s through the new cultural history of more recent years. I enjoyed the story, but I found his conclusion the most compelling. At the end of the book, Eley writes, “My first point in concluding this book concerns the urgent need for a basic pluralism” (200). He goes on to mention current scholarship and “new studies [that] specifically refuse the polarized division between the ‘social’ and the ‘cultural,’ vesting recognizably social and political topics with a cultural analytic, responding to the incitements of cultural theory, and grounding these in as dense and imaginative a range of sources and interpretive contexts as possible” (201). Even typing that sentence is exhausting, but I quote it here in its entirety because in it Eley so eloquently illustrates what I have come to see as a major theme of our Historical Methods course.

We have been learning about different historical approaches and theories, but to what end? I don’t think we are meant to choose one and stick with it. The time for picking a side has long past, if you believe Eley’s narrative. Instead, I see what we’re doing as giving us new historians a sense of the different frameworks we will encounter in the historical literature we use. Being able to recognize, say, a Marxist perspective can help us understand the work more deeply. While we have been reading texts exemplary of particular approaches in this class, the work I have been reading in my other classes supports Eley’s notion of the plurality that has become standard in the field today. I think he’s right to point out this phenomenon, and I agree with him that the rise of plurality adds much to the opportunities historians (especially those of us just starting out) have. The theories we are learning about are tools which we can use, or not, as we set ourselves to work on various historical projects.

In an American Historical Review forum on A Crooked Line, William Sewell and Gabrielle Spiegel discuss their readings of Eley’s argument as a desire “to revive social history’s effort to grasp (capitalist) social totality without giving up the immense intellectual gains made possible by the cultural turn” (Sewell 402). William Sewell criticizes Eley at this point for not laying out a method for accomplishing this goal—for not finding “a theoretical perspective adequate to the task” (Sewell 402). On this I must agree with Eley in his forum response (“The Profane and Imperfect World of Historiography”): Sewell and Spiegel, I think, miss the point. Eley doesn’t lay out one theory because no single theory can stand alone anymore. As Eley points out, “as a matter of principle,…no one set of theories and methodologies can serve as an answer to each and every question that historians are now trying to ask” (“Profane” 433).  

I am not a Marxist. I am not a feminist. I am not a post-structuralist. I am not a cultural historian, a social historian, or a historical anthropologist. I am all of these and none of these; perhaps as I move forward I will choose to follow more closely one approach or another. But for now I am happy to be plainly a historian, learning from those who have come before, but also willing to strike out on new paths. I will gladly embrace Eley’s “basic pluralism.”

that which we are, we are;/ One equal temper of heroic hearts

-“Ulysses,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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Gender (mind) Bender

I feel like I have finally read the essay that started it all. Since I started grad school, it has been literally impossible to avoid the influence of gender on historical studies. Many of the books we have read deal explicitly with gender and male-female power relations; even those that do not are subjected to criticism in our discussions, based on the exclusion of this discourse. It’s almost the easy way out, at this point—if you have nothing to say about a book, talk about how the author ignored gender.

Of course that’s not true in all cases, but my point is that gender is inescapable. I’m glad to have read Joan W. Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” the piece widely credited with really starting the gender craze. It helped clear up some misconceptions I had; although it still seems to me that studies of “gender” typically revolve around women, I know now not to think of the two as interchangeable. (I actually learned this a little earlier in the semester, when I mistakenly referred to the gender class offered this semester as a “feminism class” and was gently corrected.)

So—gender is the hot thing at the moment, as far as I can tell. Scott’s article appeared in 1986; it’s been hot for a while. I hesitate to say that gender is overused, but I’m a firm believer in the adage “everything in moderation.”  As Joanne Meyerowitz writes in her essay “A History of ‘Gender,’” “Like all historiographic moments, this one, too, will no doubt pass” (1353). Maybe then we can move past viewing the study of gender as a novelty to be employed in every study and let it take its place as one of the many historical factors that are, as Scott would say, “useful,” not overpowering. Gender is a great tool, but, as Marxism and other theories that all once had their day in the sun remind us, there is no one “magic key” to understanding and studying history.

Although Scott’s original article was much easier to get through than some may have led me to believe (to be fair, as my colleague pointed out this morning, we did read Foucault last week…), her reexamination of gender and sex in “Unanswered Questions” (2008) left me a little baffled. And so I’ve posted my discussion questions for the class below—they’ll be on the Google Doc come Tuesday morning as well!


A History of “Gender” – Joanne Meyerowitz

Meyerowitz explores Joan Scott’s 1986 article in regard to its canonical status. She says that it has remained a seminal work mainly because of its influence on the field, as evidenced by the many works dealing with gender which were written following Scott’s article. The final paragraph sums up Meyerowitz’s point nicely.


One critic of Scott’s article said it “intellectualize[d] and abstract[ed] the inequality of the sexes.” Do you think this is true? Is that necessarily a criticism?

On page 1352, Meyerowitz writes that “As a measure of success, Scott’s essay increasingly served as a voice from the recent past stating eloquently what everybody, it seems, already knew.” For those of us reading “Gender” for the first time, did you find this to be true?

What do you think the legacy of “Gender” has been, or what do you consider its greatest influence in the years since its publication?


Unanswered Questions – Joan W. Scott

Scott complicates her current notion of gender by insisting that “the term gender is useful only as a question” and broadening her discussion of gender to include the terms and usage of “sex” and “women.”


What did you take as the main point of this essay?

Do you buy Scott’s claim that “There is no essence of womanhood (or of manhood) to provide a stable subject for our histories” (p. 1426)? How does this actually affect our study of history?

How does language/semantics affect historical discourse?

Scott talks about a history of “women.” What would that add to the field? She claims that “‘Women’ in the Middle Ages were not ‘women’ as we think of them today” (p. 1426). Is that valid considering that most Europeans at the time, for example, were illiterate and would have had little access to contemporary high theology and scientific thought?

What do you make of her final conflation of sex and gender as indistinct categories?


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History, that mythological beast

I know what I want to address in this blog post, but I’m having a very hard time articulating it. So bear with me and I will work through my initial thought processes and try to come up with a tidy conclusion in a few hundred words…

My topic this week is Postmodernism. Brushing aside the shadow of modernity that this term inevitably casts (*shudder*) I will skip ahead to our reading in Tosh’s Pursuit of History, Chapter Seven: “The Limits of Historical Knowledge.” Already that sounds like an ominous title. Of course as historians (and grad students) we are continually seeking knowledge. Unfortunately, the past is never completely knowable. Whether there are too few records or too many, sources availability and reliability of sources is an inevitable limit, and one that I think should elicit a sigh of resignation rather than panic.

So far, okay. Sources can be unreliable. But Tosh doesn’t stop there; he continues with a discussion of the “intellectual shifts” that have occurred in recent decades. The rise of Postmodernism has “rejected historicism as the basis for history” (195). As Tosh describes in his first chapter, historicism seeks to know the past on its own terms, taking into account the changes that have necessarily occurred between the time we study and today. Historical events can only be understood in context, but also lay the foundation for events in our own time. Postmodernism seems to say the opposite: we can never really know, let alone interpret, the human world, including human history.

Sources are unreliable. Now historians are also unreliable, it seems. Which brings us to the part of the reading that inspired me for this post. On page 198, Tosh says, “In place of historical explanation, Postmodernist history can only offer intertextuality, which deals in discursive relations between texts, not causal relations between events; historical explanation is dismissed as no more than a chimera to comfort those who cannot face a world without meaning…history no longer has a big story to tell” (198).

Eek! My first thought was to reject this notion completely. Of course history has a big story to tell—in fact it’s the only story, really. But then I started to think about the ways in which this view, usually in a more diluted form, has influenced how historians—myself included—think about the past. I’ll freely admit to having shared the opinion in classes that all history is relative—at least to a degree. We’ve danced around this issue in Historical Methods class many times. Like some of my colleagues, I do think there is an objective truth to history (as well as the rest of life). But I can see the limitations of our knowledge in searching for that truth. No one who does not live through an event can really ever know what really happened. I don’t think, however, that that means we shouldn’t be trying our best not only to figure out what did happen, to the best of our ability, but also to learn from it as we move into the future.

On page 203 Tosh comforts us with the compromise: “Many welcome a greater sophistication in interpreting texts and a heightened awareness of the cultural significance of historical writing. But few are prepared to join in a rejection of the truth claims of history as usually practised” (203). Basically, postmodernism sounds good on paper, but it doesn’t have all the answers. Nor should it; if we’re to take anything from this theory, it is that absolute truth in history (or its methods) is not something so easily grasped, if it’s possible to grasp it all. I’m fine with that…for now!



 File:Chimera Apulia Louvre K362.jpg

I’m surprised Tosh didn’t define “chimera” in the margins…

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Thick Description, I presume?

Just like every week, doing the readings for class this time involved a voyage of discovery. First I was reading about cats being slaughtered by jovial eighteenth century printers; next it was cockfights in 1950s Bali. By the time I got to Clifford Geertz’s “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” I had a decent handle on the theme for the week. Lo and behold, it was exactly as the syllabus proclaimed: cultural history/historical anthropology. I had also decided that Geertz was not good to read aloud; his sentences are as long and tangled as a post-kitten ball of yarn.

The idea of “thick description” is interesting. I enjoyed the article on cockfighting until I got to the section on gambling. The precise, quantitative description of exactly how the bets worked and the odds people looked for completely lost me. It was too thick for my taste, I guess. But the article overall, the “cultural readings of very densely textured, concrete faces” (thanks Tosh!), was still really interesting (Tosh 266). I liked Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre” even better—in part thanks to his very engaging literary style. I would not have seen Darnton’s essay as thick description before I finished the rest of this week’s readings; compared to Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” the description of the massacre seemed less thick, somehow. Perhaps that was just because I could clearly understand everything he was talking about and didn’t get bogged down in even and odd bets, etc., etc.

But after reading Tosh’s chapter “Cultural Evidence and the cultural turn” and Roger Chartier’s “Texts, Symbols, and Frenchness,” it was more clear to me that thick description did not merely involve a muddlingly complex number of facts. More important is how the author of a thick description piece can draw larger conclusions on the culture they are studying from whatever small event they are discussing. This brings anthropology into the mix, since that is the field where this technique is mostly applied (or so it seems). How can anthropology inform our study of history?

“The Great Cat Massacre” shows us how. Darnton is writing not only about a particular event in 1730s Paris, but also about the French Ancien Regime in its entirety. He lays it out for us early on, when he writes that “anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be most opaque. When you realise that you are not getting something—a joke, a proverb, a ceremony that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it” (Darnton 3).

So anthropologists and historians are in the same business. Since we have decided that “the past is a foreign country,” it really is the job of historians to hack through the jungles of time in order to observe, catalogue, and explain the native culture of that most exotic land known as Long Ago.


In other news, Virginia Tech’s own Virginia Center for Civil War Studies posted the following link on their Facebook page with the heading, “The fascinating story of a slave forced to support the Confederate war effort.” I thought it would be neat to put this here in light of our discussion several weeks ago on “black confederates.” Bonus round: how would applying “thick description,” if possible, help interpret this story?

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