Women’s Rage

The Cut is featuring an excerpt from Rebecca Traister’s forthcoming book, Good and Mad: the Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger this afternoon and it is a doozy. If you’re interested in American history, in politics, or pretty much anything, you should definitely go read it. As a historian, I’m intrigued by the argument Traister lays out:

Look to the start, the germinating seeds, of nearly every major social and political movement that has shaped this nation — from abolition to suffrage to labor to civil rights and LGBTQ rights to, yes, feminism — and you will find near its start the passionate dissent of women.

I’m inclined to agree, but very much looking forward to working through the book. The historiography of women’s dissent has the potential to completely reframe our understanding of American political history. The book will be out October 2nd.

Nature of Americans

Nature of Americans, a landmark study on the connection Americans feel with nature, is sweeping through the recreation and natural resource sectors of governments across the United States. I listened to a presentation of the study findings last week. Here is the gist of it.

The Americans who participated in the study feel that they are disconnected from “nature.” They told researchers that their neighborhoods feel artificial, that they don’t have enough time to go outdoors. But, at the same time, Americans across demographic lines strongly identify with nature. They see it as an important contributor to their mental and physical and well-being, and as an essential element in the development of their children.

I have some problems with the data collection methodology of the study, but what I really want to talk about today is the meaning of nature. Researchers were interested in how Americans define nature, so participants were encouraged to supply their own definition of the term at the heart of the study. Many of the results indicate that participants felt that they didn’t spend a lot of time in nature, but that they spent a fair amount of time outdoors playing sports or working out.

Something’s wrong here. Participants didn’t reflect upon the differences and similarities between playing at the park or walking through the woods, and the researchers didn’t help them. Instead, they interpreted this as direct evidence that Americans aren’t spending enough time in nature. But is the treed fringe at the edge of the baseball field any less “natural” than the carefully managed nature trail at the end of the road? If you ask State and Federal government park planners, the answer seems to be yes. So the first recommendation the authors of the study suggest is for outdoors advocates and natural resource stakeholders to “redefine nature” to include the state forest or Wildlife Management Area around the corner.

What the researchers found, overwhelmingly, is that Americans identify “nature” with the vast, charismatic open spaces of the West. This is nothing new for students of environmental history. Roderick Nash, Bill Cronon, and others have shown how John Muir and his Progressive era counterparts identified the vast Western expanses of Yellowstone and Zion, mountains and redwoods, with nature. Before Muir and the onrush of modernity after the First World War, Americans saw nature as a darkened frontier of devilish savagery, a place where the devil and his helpmeets dangled temptation and damnation from the trees. After industry, immigration, and war pulled more Americans from farm to city, they came to see nature as an escape. The religious metaphors remained, however. From an imaginary landscape of the damned, rich with demons and temptation, nature became for Americans a sacred temple of the heavenly sublime.

What this history really shows is that nature is constructed. Nash argues that wilderness was the “basic ingredient of American culture,” the construct upon which all of the other American cultural constructs were layered. Think about the “frontier spirit.” The “errand into the wilderness.” Daniel Boone. Lewis and Clark. Confronting nature is a main ingredient in the American cultural stew—the bones flavoring the broth. Now think about driving to Yellowstone. Sitting in the driver’s seat behind a line of RVs looking at a bear in the distance. Think about your backyard. Nature is what we say it is.

Bill Cronon put it best in “The Trouble with Wilderness” when he argued that wilderness is made, not simply preserved or restored. It is not “an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity,” he says, but instead holds up a mirror in which “we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.” Perhaps this is why Americans persist in identifying nature “out there,” far away from home and city. They want to get away.

It’s too bad, then, that we advertise a sacred temple in the West and offer a crowded museum instead. National and State parks are all too often a “zoo for land,” to put it in Nash’s words, “exhibited in legislative cages, clearly mapped and neatly labeled.” This is only natural when everything in the park is a “resource” to be managed; when paychecks and light bills depend on management dollars from the congress or legislature. But it is unfortunate when the study’s authors also conclude that the promise of exploration is one of the strongest factors pulling children into nature. Instead of redefining nature, then, to include your local state park, take another look at the backyard, too. Look at the woods at the end of the street, the tree in the planter on the sidewalk, and the local park. Nature is what we say it is.

Western History and Indigenous Mystery

Think about “Western civilization.” Think about rockets loaded down with cars named after inventors hurtling through the cold silence of space. Think about the apple striking Newton’s thick skull. The water wheel giving way to the steam whistle. Mushroom clouds. Think about hubris. About the terrors of slavery supposedly balanced by the gifts of education. Hushed reverence for the rule of law. Container ships full of flip-flops and remote controls and dog toys belching diesel exhaust as they plow through the Pacific gyre. All of that stuff.

A few years ago a history professor and I were trying to figure out why the administration at a large public university might argue that the history of Native Americans, indigenous Mexico and Latin America, or First Nations in Canada wouldn’t qualify as “Western” history. We both thought we knew the answer, so we didn’t bother to articulate one beyond: well, the administration is racist, of course, and “Western” history is a flawed racist project. I can’t speak for the professor, but I haven’t thought much more about it.

Thankfully, there are people who think more carefully about these things than I do, and people who can express their thoughts so much better than I can. Louise Erdrich is one of those people. This morning I was blown away by a casual phrase in her 2016 essay about the Dakota Access Pipeline, “How to Stop a Black Snake.” “Each tribal nation has its own rituals and observances,” she wrote, “but we hold in common the conviction that our earth is a living mystery upon whose tolerance we depend.

Of course. “Western” history is the history of “progress.” In this view, the earth is a puzzle. It yields its secrets to the heroic inquiries of explorers. The heroes were once seafarers, conquerors—hidalgos. Now they are scientists and inventors. There are indigenous scientists and inventors, even indigenous conquerors. But indigeneity is something different entirely, and Louise Erdrich sums up one small part of it beautifully: for many Native peoples, the earth is a mystery, not a puzzle.

This is a critique of Western history, not a part of it.

Reblog: “Librarians as Cultural Warriors & Protectors”

I want to reblog Lisa Hoover’s wonderful post from the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Blog without too much ado. Hoover’s post, “Librarians as Cultural Warriors & Protectors,” delves into Rebecca Knuth’s recent book Libricide to discuss the ways that librarians, archivists, curators, and other information professionals have both resisted and supported censorship. Knuth argues that “libricide” is part of a calculated effort by extremists to destroy a peoples’ culture by undermining its written heritage.

One quick rumination: I was thinking about Pierre Bourdieu while reading the post and it made me agree even more wholeheartedly as I read. In Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu argued that culture is best understood as habitus: the set of strategies, or the “rulebook,” by which people live. If x occurs, our habitus instructs us, do y. For its participants, the habitus is true. This is what troubles so many people about postmodernism. It acknowledges that what is true within one habitus is not true within another. Librarians may or may not choose to worry about truth, but a culture’s texts, in whatever form they take, are critical building blocks of habitus; and, for the culture within which they are embedded, libraries are regarded as repositories of truth. Extremism seeks to undermine truth by attacking existing authorities as well as free thought. If truth and culture are intertwined at the library—and if you’re the kind of person inclined to read the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Blog, I’m willing to bet you agree that they are—it is no wonder that libraries are often the first target of extremists. Information professionals occupy the vanguard of the fight against extremism.

Here’s a link to the post, once again.

Upcoming Books in Native American History

March 2018

Bockstoce, John R. White Fox and Icy Seas in the Western Arctic: The Fur Trade, Transportation, and Change in the Early Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018. Link

Calloway, Colin. The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Link

Cover for  The Indian World of George Washington

Graber, Jennifer. The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Link

Little, Ann. The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018. Link

Monaco, C.S. The Second Seminole War and the Limits of American Aggression. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. Link


April 2018

Kracht, Benjmain R. Religious Revitalization among the Kiowas: The Ghost Dance, Peyote, and Christianity. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. Link

Nohelani Teves, Stephanie. Defiant Indigeneity: The Politics of Hawaiian Performance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Link (Image)

Schulze, Jeffrey M. Are We Not Foreigners Here?: Indigenous Nationalism in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Link

Sharfstein, Daniel J. Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018. Link


May 2018

Biolsi, Thomas. Power and Progress on the Prairie: Governing People on Rosebud Reservation. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Link

Power and Progress on the Prairie

Haynes, Joshua. Patrolling the Border: Theft and Violence on the Creek-Georgia Frontier, 1770-1796. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2018. Link


June 2018

Archer, Seth. Sharks Upon the Land: Colonialism, Indigenous Health, and Culture in Hawai’i, 1778–1855. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Link

Sleeper-Smith, Susan. Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River Valley, 1690-1792. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Link

Mobile Zotero Part 2: Planning Features

Between cleanup from one hurricane, preparation for another later this week, dissertation research in history, coursework in Information Science, and a mini-vacation last weekend, I haven’t had much time to think about the mobile Zotero project. I still don’t have a name for the project, but I have at least started building a list of required features. So here, without further ado, is the first list:

  • LIbrary Read/Write
  • Note read/write
  • Search
  • Create/Modify Collections
  • ISBN Input/Scanner
  • DOI input/scanner
  • Tag navigator
  • Relationship navigator
  • File upload/download

Time to start digging into Zotero’s API, seeing how it translates into Swift, and looking at any existing libraries that might solve some of these problems for me. Avast!

Native Hatred and American Populism: The Jacksonian Beat

As Americans struggle to understand or resist the travel ban, hate crimes, aggressive immigration agents, and government-maintained lists of immigrant crimes—to list but a few of the earthquakes rollicking the American social landscape so far in 2017—it can seem as though we are living through events without precedent in American history. A quick stroll through the archives reveals that this simply isn’t true. Here’s a commonplace example from the late 1830s that resonates with today’s dark mood.

Screen Shot 2017-03-05 at 10.46.40 PM


The 1830s were just as seismic as our own time. Andrew Jackson ascended to the Presidency on the one-two punch promise of populist upheaval and Indian removal in 1828. Historians will argue over the extent of the “democratic surge” until we’re all speaking hexadecimal or Martian, but only an insane person could argue with the “success” of Jackson’s Indian policies. Indian hatred laid down a persistent beat beneath the American freestyle throughout the 1830s. Thousands of Indians in the Southeast were marched westward at the point of the bayonet and on the razor’s edge of starvation. Wars in Florida and Alabama tore villages apart, forcing the most intransigent or tragically fortunate Native peoples deep into the South’s swampy fastnesses, while war in Illinois signaled the end of organized Native resistance in the Old Northwest. When it comes to basic human conditions like peace and prosperity, the 1830s—like most decades since the European invasion began more than five hundred years ago—were bad for Native Americans.

American newspapers kept the anti-Indian beat pulsing throughout the Removal era. The image above comes from the February 1, 1838 issue of the Army and Navy Chronicle. It does a lot of work in support of American colonialism. It creates the illusion of certainty and superiority by enumerating and classifying Indians—similar, perhaps, to a list of countries with suspected links to terrorism. It instills fear by associating these thousands of potential enemies with “striking” on the frontier—not too far from, say, a list of crimes committed by immigrants, or claims of 122 “vicious” combatants returned “to the battlefield” from Guantanamo. And it links these numbers to the military by publishing it under the heading of the War Department—a bit like the current “military operation” sweeping fearful immigrant communities throughout the United States.

Most newspapers from the era laid down the same beat. If the rap wasn’t Indian war, Indian fear, or Indian hatred, it was a breathless accounting of the things that were possible when the Indians were gone. Books and newspapers in the South instructed readers to plant cotton beneath the tilled husks of old corn fields, for example, for best results (i.e., profits to buy more human beings, but that’s a different story). These “fever dreams” of cotton wealth and “flush times,” as Joshua Rothman calls them, created spectacular booms and devastating busts. We should keep that in mind as we argue over what it means to “Make American Great Again.”

Being There: Intimacy and Distance in History

Let’s start a blog post about history with a bunch of questions about the present.

I’ve had a couple of conversations with a respected local historian recently–we’ll leave names out of it–about a recent book addressing a historical site in Florida. The local historian is unimpressed. The author’s “never been there!” he told me this summer back in June. And again, August, he said the other historian’s “never even visited the site,” as though this indicates a self-evident and basic flaw in the work which bears repeating. I have no idea whether the author has ever visited the site, but the sharpness of this dismissal–and its seeming self-evidence–raises the question: does it matter?

In Swampwalker’s Journal, his meditation on wetlands, David M. Carroll writes, “The foundation of my writing and drawing is personal experience, my ‘being there,’ and what I have learned from having been there through so many epochs of my life.” Though indebted to scholars and other observers, he maintains: “Moments outside of the human world in the shallows of a marsh. with red-winged blackbirds calling and the wind rustling in cattails or reedgrass, or a solitary spell at the edge of a swamp on the edge of winter—these will bring intimations of the spirit that moves with the water, the light, and the life of the marsh.”

The aggrieved local historian seems to think that “being there” is an essential part of doing history—that significant sites somehow convey “intimations of the spirit[s]” of the long dead who once walked the soil long trod beneath that on which we walk today. He may be right. I have seldom met a historian who was not pushed toward the craft by a moving childhood experience at some historical site. Right or wrong, he forces us consider: do the dead inhabit the land, even today, or do their “spirits” live in the archives? Are we enriched more by the dust of the earth or the dust of documents?

He raises a couple of interlocking questions, really, that I can’t hope to answer in a single blog post:

  • Francis Parkman walked the battlefield trod by Montcalme and Wolfe, interpreting their steps, their sights and sounds, with his own senses. Writing in the nineteenth century, though, he looked out over a less complicated palimpsest. (Parkman died in 1893, in fact, just as Turner was proclaiming the death of the frontier he had so lovingly rendered.) For historians of the near past, Parkman’s sensory investigation may still be an option. But what about those who write of the far-gone early American past? What about the literally buried or submerged world of the ancients?
  • In “Historians who Love Too Much,” Jill Lepore describes stroking a lock of Noah Webster’s hair in the archives. That lock of hair, she writes, “made me feel as though I knew him—and, even lee logically liked him—just a bit better.” It is necessary to balance “intimacy” with “distance.” But what is the correct balance? Can I know someone without meeting them?

I am working on an environmental history of the Seminoles, the Seminole Wars, and the Florida we think we know. Like my friend the aggrieved local historian I do not believe that I can tell the history of this munificent Eden without “being there.” But like Jill Lepore I am a little troubled by a sentimental attachment to the things of the past. I must balance “moments outside of the human world,” like David Carroll, against moments outside of the present. This blog is not the place to find the answer to these deep methodological questions, but to lay down the blue lines of my thought. I will begin by challenging myself to breathe deeply: once to taste the dust of the earth, twice to choke on the dust of the archives

Walls of Privilege: Inclusion at the AHA and Other History Conferences

Late last week and over the weekend, my Twitter and Facebook were buzzing with posts from historians at the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting in Denver. I was glad to see their posts, and especially glad to read of my friends’ and colleagues’ successes. The AHA’s digital success is a wonderful development, for all the reasons Stephanie Kingsley mentions in her Perspectives on History article published after last year’s meeting, but, for most historians, they might as well be tweeting from the fiery surface of Venus. Most of us–many thousands of grad students, historians working in government, adjuncts, secondary educators, and independent scholars, to name but a few–don’t have the freedom or resources to attend a conference in the Mile High City. We’re left on the margins of the conversation, attempting to piece arguments together from 140-character summaries made in the heat of the moment and conversations with colleagues after the fact. As the well-intentioned Tweets below suggest, it’s not always easy to follow along from the outside.

The AHA, OAH, and other professional bodies continue to advocate for the importance of historical training for students across all academic disciplines and the specific relevance of graduate training in history for students entering other professional fields. The OAH suggests that grad students should “develop [their] Plan A to include jobs that are not in academia and ones that [they] might enjoy equally as well as…teaching,” while the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians Initiative is working with pilot departments “to explore the culture and practice of graduate education and how it can better support the changing needs of graduate students.” These initiatives and suggestions are timely and smart. As Anthony T. Grafton and James Grossman argue in a recent article in Perspectives, “holders of doctorates in history occupy, or have recently occupied, a dizzying array of positions outside the academy” including positions at every level of government, the armed forces, and cultural institutions around the world. Historians are everywhere.

Thoughtful essays and career diversity initiatives are too easily forgotten when annual meetings roll around. These distant and costly affairs make it startlingly clear who the AHA, OAH, and other major associations see as real historians: scholars with deep pockets. (1) Most scholars are cut out of the conversation, unable to scale the walls of privilege surrounding the field’s most important gatherings. We can read programs, thumb through exhibitor’s guides, and try to live vicariously through social media, but the most important aspects of the meeting—the exchange of ideas and professional networking—remain depressingly out-of-reach. (2)

It should not be this way. Streaming live video, moderated chats and debates, and digital publishing are ubiquitous, accessible, and inexpensive. Sessions, round-tables, and addresses should be broadcast over the web, open to moderated discussion by all. H-Net and Reddit AMAs should play a significantly larger role in the digital infrastructure of the conference.

While historians can’t help but walk into the future staring backward, avoiding these technologies is not prudently conservative; it is counterproductive. Technology is not a panacea. One look at the last Presidential election lays bare the internet’s deep flaws. But as a professional organization dedicated to career diversity, the AHA should lead the way in 2018 to open the doors of its annual meeting to the thousands of scholars who cannot afford a plane ticket, hotel stay, or cocktails at the bar. The OAH and others should follow. Until then, I’ll be at work in my government office, squinting at #aha17 tweets on my lunch break and plunging into archival sources by night.

Art and Culture and Hegemony and Stuff

Hegemony is a fifty-cent word, borrowed in its current context from Gramsci, that sits right up there at the top of the academic vocabulary vending machine alongside translated French philosophical words and phrases like “the ways in which,” or “discourse” and “practice.” But sometimes it’s useful. Here’s a tiny example of how the dismal hegemonic logic of buying and selling commodities warps our understanding of culture. Pardon the sarcastic quotations.


In “A blunt conversation about life online,” Huck writer Steven T. Hanley asks Bret Easton Ellis whether it is “overly cynical” to be concerned about “a generation with surface interests and surface knowledge” of “culture” because they don’t have to “take two buses to the only video store that [stocks] art-house titles” anymore. Ellis says, no, “it’s not cynicism.” Failure to “invest,” he continues, “equates to a lack of passion when everything comes so easily.” “If everything is at your fingertips in a matter of pushing a button,” Ellis asks, “then what does it really mean to you? What are you investing in it?”

Let’s ignore the vapid generational stereotype, because what’s one more soundless drop in the deep blue nothing of “millennial” stereotypes, and ask the real question here: what the hell is “culture?” And how in the world can one “invest” in it? Hanley and Ellis assume here (in this teeny, tiny part of an otherwise illuminating interview that you should definitely read) that culture is a sum of materialized aesthetics: that people think artistic things and transcribe their thoughts into some physical form, which, when placed alongside all of the other materialized thoughts, amounts to culture (1). In this view, culture is art. But if this is true, they miss the point. We can debate whether it is better to hold some material artifact of the idea we’re reading, watching, listening to, or whatever, but this is a fundamentally commercial question—which product is better?—that tells us very little about art. Far from “surface knowledge,” push-button aesthetics complete the sum for every viewer, reader, and listener.

Discussions of art frequently turn into conversations about things. Language reflects this tendency. Works of art have been called pieces since at least the sixteenth century, for instance. Artists have worked in a medium—materials facilitating the transformation of ideas into things—since the nineteenth century. Music, video, and digital visual art still rely on things in order to be reproduced. It is not surprising, then, that Hanley and Ellis should find themselves talking about stuff when they mean to discuss art. A little more surprising, perhaps, is that they combine the two and call it culture. This is the commodities warp: reduce and represent certain forms of cultural expression as material objects, first, and then substitute the objects in place of the vast and dynamic culture they dimly reflect.

A final thought that might be better developed elsewhere: the internet does not break the art commodities cycle, as Hanley suggests, by eliminating scarcity. It just modifies the variables. Where before both time and media were scarce, now it is only time. Hanley is doubtlessly correct in arguing that our relationship to media is changed, but as anyone who played Second Life years ago or spends real money to buy downloadable content in video games now can tell you, commodities need not be material to possess meaning. This is the real meaning of culture: the sets of rules, definitions, and sleights that allow us to ascribe meaning to everything there is, from art-house films on VHS and the buses we used to ride to find them, to interviews in digital magazines and novels from the 1980s.

(1) Well, Hanley more than Ellis. Later in the interview Ellis claims, “I think people respond to the content itself and not necessarily the medium, whether it’s films, vinyl or a hardcover book.”