historian, author, film producer

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Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on “Ink and Thread”

Last night at the University of Nebraska’s James A. Rawley graduate conference in the Humanities, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich presented the keynote address on “Ink and Thread,” an examination of the material objects at the center of early American Mormonism–personal diaries and quilts. Her talk was inspiring and eye-opening, especially in the way she reframed the early Mormon movement around family, community, and identity, and used the material objects to reveal her argument. So often, historians use objects and images merely as illustration, but not Ulrich. For her the object itself needs to be interpreted and examined as visual material. The digitization of rare historical sources has led scholars often to see and encounter these diaries and letters as computerized texts, stripped of their original form. But Ulrich reminds us that the form, the object, deserves scrutiny and analysis–and I think she does so, and does so exceedingly well, because of her experience with digitizing texts.

Ulrich, the award-winning author of A Midwifes’ Tale and the creator of DoHistory, is researching the lives and experiences of the Mormon founders in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. Her “object-oriented” approach brings together the craft of diary keeping and quilt making, suggesting that the men and women of this period crossed and intersected genres in surprising and significant ways. Her presidential address in 2009 to the American Historical Association focused on one quilt–an 1857 object that dozens of Mormon women stitched and signed as a symbol of opposition to the American troops headed toward Utah to occupy the territory. That quilt–The Fourteenth Ward Album quilt–provided the main structure for her talk at Nebraska as well. And it is a beautiful object. Digitized images of it reveal the exquisite detail and signatures on its blocks. Ulrich also showed the diary of Wilford Woodruff, one of the leading figures in early Mormonism. His richly embroidered penmanship demonstrated a quilting effect in the diary, a level of detail, imagery, craft, and, indeed, art that drew on the genre of the quilt and the family album. Ulrich’s presentation argued that by understanding the relationship between family, community, and identity through these objects we can piece together the experience of these Americans, see them in more complete context, and understand their struggles and triumphs with more clarity.

Reflections on James Agee and “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”

It has been seventy years since James Agee and Walker Evans published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and yet their work speaks across the decades, powerful, moving, poignant, gripping, exhausting, blazingly brilliant. I taught this book again last week for the first time in a long while in a graduate seminar. And I was struck by how much historians have to learn from Agee still. It may be at first glance that Agee’s obsession with being a “spy” is the stuff of drama, comical in its overreach or pathetic in its self-absorption. Certainly, some of my students saw it this way.

But Agee, “a spy traveling as a journalist,” brings us into the world of cotton tenancy in such vivid detail and with such excruciating emotion and with such fidelity and honor and care and love, that we have to pay attention. We have to sit still and listen, to every sentence, every colon, every comma, every gesture. What can we learn as historians from Agee now? Certainly, we can aspire to the hyper-awareness of power and the drama of power relations in his opening scenes “Late Sunday Morning,” “At the Forks,” and “Near a Church.” He was “sick in the knowledge that they felt they were here at our demand, mine and Walker’s, and that I could communicate nothing otherwise; and now, in a perversion of self-torture, I played my part through. I gave their leader fifty cents, trying at the same time through my eyes, to communicate much more.” (31) Agee tells us about his “impulse” to “throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet” until he realizes that such a demonstration of love or allegiance or forgiveness or repentance would only terrify the black couple he was asking directions.

The book is in its way a hypertext–arranged in ways for the reader to move across and within it, shifting time, event, impression, and voice. But at the center of all of it is Agee’s struggle to tell about the past. “It seems likely at this stage,” he writes about in the middle of the book, “that the truest way to treat a piece of the past is as such: as if it were no longer the present.” Instead of “chronological progression,” Agee decides that the “‘truest’ thing about the experience” is “rather as it turns up in recall, in no such order, casting its lights and associations forward and backward upon the then past and the then future, across that expanse of experience.” (244)

More than anything, Agee was deeply aware of his own presence in the lives of his subjects, and he was ashamed of his complicity in their exploitation. It is a humbling lesson for any historian. We traffic in stories, in lives, and in histories, and we carry out our work often unaware of the potential for misperception, misjudgment, and mistake. Agee considered the camera “a weapon, a stealer of images and souls, a gun, an evil-eye.” (362) When he meets Annie Mae Gudger for the first time, Agee is painfully aware of her: “you, Annie Mae, whose name I do not yet know, and whom I have never yet seen, and who I gather, are George’s wife (though there has been no foolishness of ‘introductions,’ nor any word spoken, of any such kind): it is you I was first aware of from when I first came into this room, before you were yet a shadow out of the darkness, and you I have had on my mind while we have sat here, and so much cared toward.” (398)

Seventy years later we still need Agee: his precision, his language, his poetic rendering, his documentary methods, his passionate care for his subjects, and his soul searching introspection. We need his honesty. And we need his humility.

Source: all quotes from James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families, with an introduction to the new edition by John Hersey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988)

Time to Drop Lost Cause Thinking about the Civil War

For an op-ed Commentary in today’s Roanoke Times on the Governor of Virginia’s “Confederate History Month” proclamation, see William G. Thomas’ Give up the Lost Cause.

Most recently, the old Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War has found its way into Governor of Virginia Robert McDonnell’s proclamation declaring April “Confederate History Month.” There is something about the mythic Confederate effort that make some in the current political debates look back with admiration–its tired claims of perseverance, crusading against long odds, defense of home, and resistance to overwhelming federal authority have been trotted out at key moments in the last 150 years.

McDonnell’s rather unbelievable omission of slavery from his first proclamation was an indication of just how resistant some people are to the idea that slavery had something to do with the Civil War. The Confederacy’s raison d’etre was to perpetuate slavery, both as a social system and as a “right.” The state’s rights its leaders asserted were to hold slaves and take them where one pleased, as well as to secede from the Union when it suited their interests. Confederate high officials, from Georgia’s Alexander Stephens to Texas’s Louis T. Wigfall, over and over again stated as much.

But slavery was even more at the center of the Confederacy than many whites are willing to admit or understand. Haley Barbour and others have tried to dismiss slavery as unimportant or irrelevant. They try to downplay its role in the Confederacy. But the slave economy was growing stronger in the 1850s not weaker. Slaveholding was expanding not contracting. Few thought it would die out or disappear on its own accord. Indeed, most whites in the South had come to believe that slavery was rational, Biblical, legal, civilized, and modern. In this way slavery was a prime driver of the Southern economy and society. And a large section of the North’s as well. Wealth, property, contracts, wills, estates, and law teetered on the muscle and shoulders of the enslaved black South. We seem to have forgotten the enormity and complexity of this social structure. And for too long many whites have denied the essential appropriation that slavery was–an vast transfer of wealth by the exploitation of labor. Slavery reached and touched everything and everyone in the South. It was the central political issue in secession. It’s time we remember just how important slavery was.

We now know, however, that secession was contradictory and complex, a separation of loyalties not just states. The most urban parts of the South, for example, and the most recognizably modern as well–rich in telegraphs, railroads, mixed economies, finance capital, banks, and advanced political systems–were also the first to secede and the most committed to slavery. Whereas, the most remote and perhaps disconnected places were reluctant Confederates at best. Secession divided whole states, especially Virginia, and the boundaries of “the South” or even of the Confederate States of America were never very clear and consistent. We know also that the new Confederate nation was an example of historical forces converging in unexpected ways: electoral and constitutional breakdown, rapid crystallization of uncertain national loyalties, and inherent contradictions  changing the shape and behavior of modern societies. It is no longer useful to think that the South stood for agrarianism and the North for industrial modernity or their associated respective values. Nor was the South was simply defending itself against Northern aggression. Both societies were too similar to make such views plausible, yet the old Lost Cause ideas persist.

It’s time to drop the Lost Cause.

Lincoln’s First Inaugural and American History

When Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as President of the United States, he faced an unprecedented crisis. Seven states had already formally seceded from the Union, set up their own government in Montgomery, Alabama, and were actively recruiting more states to join them in forming a rival national government. Lincoln’s inauguration speech has often been admired for its moderation. The new President stated clearly that he would “hold, occupy, and possess” the federal government’s buildings and forts in the seceded states, but also that “there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.” Lincoln tried to speak past the fanatics to “those who love the Union.”

We can admire Lincoln’s calm restraint, yet in retrospect Lincoln would seem to have misjudged the temper of the times and the resolve of the Southern whites. At the core of Lincoln’s first inaugural address was his assertion that “plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.” Hundreds of thousands of white southerners disagreed, of course, and saw their nation as an independent republic, fully justified in peaceable separation from the Union. Lincoln asserted that “one section of the country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.” Although he knew well that many Northerners found little wrong with slavery, Lincoln claimed that “physically speaking” the country could not be separated. And in his beautiful and poignant closing, calling on the “mystic chords of memory” and “the better angels of our nature,” Lincoln hoped Americans would set “passion” aside and renew their bonds of affection in the Union.

Lincoln had reason to believe in these feelings for the Union and that they might avert the looming conflict and violence; indeed, he probably had to have this faith on that day. His personal qualities and his political calculation led him to take a position of open invitation to the white South to return their hearts to the Union. He hoped time would cool off the angry response to his election, and with this expectation his inaugural address was genuinely offered as an attempt at reconciliation. Despite the elegance of his rhetoric, Lincoln’s idea that the American continent could not be physically separated into two or more republics was an assertion unsupportable by history or logic. Various empires had controlled large parts of the American continent and national identities in other parts of the world constantly changed the maps and atlases.Lincoln, however, challenged his “dissatisfied countrymen” to think twice about their actions. He vowed to uphold the constitution and his oath to defend the government, and he said that they in choosing secession bore the responsibility for a civil war. Most of all, Lincoln urged that both sides take time and move deliberately. With time, he hoped, these sad divisions might heal.

The difficulty Lincoln faced was in convincing white Southerners that these sentiments mattered. Few were listening. What happened to make such a distance of feeling, such alienation, possible? Lincoln likened the separation to a divorce, but all such analogies fail. Lincoln’s inaugural address, brave and elegiac as it was, was speaking into a hurricane. The white South in spirit and identity left the Union long before March 4, 1861. The divergence is difficult to time and locate in American history. Too often, our histories have followed Lincoln’s logic that separation was impossible, secession was a “sophism,” and the civil war was the product of discontented extremists–a set of arguments most forcefully made in his message to Congress on July 4, 1861. We might reconsider, however, the national purpose of the Confederate South and its origins. Historians, such as Drew Gilpin Faust, Anne S. Rubin, Peter and Nicholas Onuf, and Edward L. Ayers, have helped us see the white South’s national identity as deeper and more complex that Lincoln might have admitted. These historians and others suggest a white South whose Confederate national loyalties proved durable, even advanced and logical, drawing on the same sources of American nationalism in the Revolution and early national history. They knew what they were doing. We need to retain Lincoln’s sense of historical contingency, for he (almost alone) in his inaugural held out the possibility that things might be different, that persuasion and good will might be reciprocated, and that a reservoir of Unionism might save the nation from war and bloodshed. But we also might consider how sectionalism reinforced its own logic by slowly recasting forms of national identity, and in the process how two modern nations of Americans emerged ready to fight one another on modern scale of conflict. Then we might understand how Lincoln’s eloquent first inaugural fell on deaf ears.

Why Did Virginia Secede?

Today it seems almost inconceivable. Eleven states, in the Southern region of the United States, called constitutional conventions and in a matter of months formally withdrew from the nation. In breathtaking speed they had established an entirely new and separate nation with a capital at Montgomery, Alabama. What made this possible?

After all, secession seems entirely counterintuitive. Why would the most wealthy individuals, the men with the most to lose in society, risk everything, including slavery, as well as their lives, peace, property, prosperity, position, and inheritance? Why would they knowingly bring on a war with the United States by creating a new and risky republic in the South, and then throw everything into its defense until their capital lay in ruins, their population half-starved, and every army battered into total submission? 

Historian and leading scholar of the Civil War, James McPherson answers that secession was a “counter-revolution” not a “revolution.” White southerners, he argues, saw the Lincoln administration and the Republican Party as the revolutionaries. The move to secede was a counter-revolution, a conservative  effort designed to protect what they had and stem the tide of change sweeping across the nation. All of their resistance, he argues, was aimed at maintaining slavery and their position in society. To McPherson the answer is straightforward–they saw a greater risk in the Union and perceived themselves as the inheritors of the true republican virtues of the Revolution. Their new republic was, therefore, modeled on the “union as it was” before the slavery issue threatened their principles and prosperity. McPherson indicates that the South was in a way seeking to turn back the clock or at least stop time. Their vision was not progressive but regressive. 

When you read the four volumes of The Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, or an updated history of what the southern delegates said to the Virginia convention (Charles Dew, Apostles of Disunion), however, a number of further considerations become equally important. Virginia, of course, included West Virginia at the time and so delegates came from the far western, mountainous counties too where slavery was less prominent. The convention met for weeks in Richmond and those favoring immediate secession maneuvered to keep the convention in session, hoping for a dramatic event that might tip the votes their way. Eventually, the got their wish, as President Abraham Lincoln called for troops from Virginia and the other states after the firing on Fort Sumter. Lincoln clearly intended to suppress secession in the South and Virginia’s delegates voted the next day 88-55 to secede with the South and join the Confederacy.

Let’s reconsider, though, what these delegates said. 

First, not a single Virginia delegate criticized slavery. Indeed, many of the western delegates were slaveholders and those that did not spoke in support of the institution. No delegate wanted to be branded an abolitionist. Delegates outdid one another to voice their commitment to slavery. Slavery and its protection was clearly in the forefront of their motivations.

Second, slavery was not just an abstract or political issue, but one that for these white men was centered on “property.” When Thomas Branch of Petersburg offered his constituents’ views in the form of a resolution to the Convention, it was to affirm that “negro slaves are property.” Somehow, these white Southerners thought, the North had lost sense of slavery as a form of property and needed to be reminded of the bare, essential nature of the rights the South was going to defend. Branch for his part only needed to state that he would represent the will of his constituents and that meant immediate secession.

Third, the debates read as if they took place outside of time, and indicate that the delegates, however duly constituted, had few ways to articulate what was happening in the spirit of the white South. Despite the fast pace of events and the complex political and diplomatic issues at stake, the Virginia delegates spent hours and days parsing words such as “sovereignty” and “person” and “vital” and “social institution.” The delegates gave long-winded explications of constitutional history and read into the record as evidence the speeches, letters, and proclamations of Lincoln, New York U. S. Senator William H. Seward, Massachusetts U.S. Senator Henry Wilson, and others. There was remarkably little discussion of the real events taking place, the possibilities of war, the nature of the conflict, or the resources at their command. The delegates were assembled to debate “secession” as a legal right and to craft an ordinance that would tender Virginia’s withdrawal from the United States of America.

Fourth, despite the close votes in February 1861 and the reluctance of some to cause a war, the majority of these delegates already understood themselves as part of a Southern, modern nation on equal footing with the North, as well as Britain, France, Russia, and Italy. Indeed, a number of delegates placed the idea of the Confederacy in the context of newly forming nation-states in Europe. They saw themselves as part of the vanguard of modern state formation. Their sense of Southern progress, civilization, and modernity may be the most surprising aspect of the debates.

This last point is critical. The state conventions and legal machinations that flowed from them structured the debates over secession in very specific and circumscribed ways, especially in Virginia. Unlike the deep South states where the procedures moved quickly in December 1860, Virginia with its long history of Revolutionary heritage stood in the breach for months, the decisive tipping point, and the Virginia delegates knew it. It was no wonder they acted cautiously.

Only when we take the debates for what they were–a constitutional forum burdened with the history of Virginia’s role in the United States–can we begin to see the underlying frameworks that made secession not only possible but likely. The view of slaves, of course, as property offered the decisive common ground for these white Virginians. But confidence was equally important. Not confidence in a constitutional right worthy of defense, but instead confidence in the capacity to hold up a modern nation-state on the world stage. In this respect nothing about Virginia’s secession might be considered counter-revolutionary. “Nations act on their interests,” one Virginia delegate argued, “not on their sentiments.” (Vol. II, p. 673)

The idea itself is strikingly modern. As for the South, and indeed Virginia, it could not do otherwise if it purported to be a nation, to be sovereign to itself, to be a civilization worthy of the world’s respect. “It is a fact, Mr. Chairman,” the delegate concluded, “that there is a separate national existence at Montgomery.” (Vol. II, p. 675) The question was when, not if, Virginia would join it.