The Devil in the White City

Chicago was an eventful city in the 1890s. It had a booming population, reaching the status of second city in time for the census at the start of the decade and, as a center of industry, its leading citizens were determined to make Chicago the site of the World’s Fair commemorating Columbus’ voyages to America. To the eastern elite Chicago was unsuited for this distinction as a smelly, uncouth, backward city. But win the bid it did, commissioning the architect Daniel Hudson Burnham to design a fair that had to be ready to open in 1893 and surpass the grandeur of the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, by any means necessary.

The end result was the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, an event that set a single-day record for peace-time attendance at nearly three quarters of a million on Monday October 9. The White City and accompanying Midway with its massive Ferris wheel, the first of its kind, spinning above it, was a marvel of engineering and science. The designers had to overcome monumental challenges of the landscape during construction, and the final product featured the latest technological marvels, including widespread lighting systems powered by a grid using alternating currents.

But just a few blocks away from the fair there was another building designed with the utmost care. But where the fair was designed with an eye toward grandeur and beauty, this other building, designed by an amateur, was sinister in its functionality. This building was owned and operated by a charming young man who went by H.H. Holmes, the first known serial killer in the United States.

Erik Larson weaves a narrative from these two stories as they build toward their conclusions, with interspersed vignettes from a young man named Patrick Prendergast who believed he was owed a political appointment. The result is a highly engaging book that brings to life in 1890s Chicago and makes the case that this remarkable event shaped the direction of modern America in a myriad of ways.

From a purely aesthetic point of view I loved this book and I can see why it is a popular choice to assign students. But at the same time, the more I read, the more I thought it was a remarkable coincidence that Holmes was active at the same time as the fair. The details of Holmes’ method and the reality of his building offer the perfect counterpoint to the opulence taking place down the street, even if the two narratives are practically unconnected. Nor do I doubt that the broad strokes of the chillingly fascinating account of Holmes’ life are accurate, but Larson breathes life and pseudo-sexual motivation into the killer in a way that is based on supposition.

(Larson acknowledges the difficulties of the sources about Holmes in his notes, and it is not actually clear whether Holmes killed anyone in town just for the fair.)

The result is that while the part of my brain that was reading The Devil in the White City for pleasure ate this story up, the academic side of my brain was left asking what this part of the story contributed to Larson’s case that this fair shaped modern America.

There were other, smaller quibbles that gnawed at me at times, including Larson’s seeming obsession with gout that emerges from being overly enthralled by the characters in the book at the expense of systems that were taking place at the fair (tell me more about the food not at banquets, please). But these complaints notwithstanding, The Devil in the White City is a deeply engaging read that brings the city of Chicago of that era to life and death.

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I have been spending more time reading than writing over the past week. I’ve also finished Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I’m on the fence as to whether I will write about the first two, but I absolutely loved the third and have thoughts.

One Nation Under God

In their struggle against the New Deal, the business lobbies of the Depression era had allied themselves with conservative religious and cultural leaders and, in so doing, set in motion a new dynamic in American politics.

One of the things I like about teaching American history, and particularly twentieth century US history, is that it is fairly easy for students to see its relevance on contemporary society, which is a reliable way to turn up student engagement. One activity I like to do with students is to establish a broad premise, talk with the students to establish what preconceived ideas are floating around in the zeitgeist, and then work with them to understand how these ideas came from.

For instance, I do this with students when it comes to American religion in the twentieth century. I begin by asking them whether the United States is, broadly speaking, a religious country in general and a Christian country in particular. Some students will bring up the establishment clause in the Constitution, but eventually students say yes. I then ask how we know this, and, among a variety of answers, some student will inevitably point to “In God We Trust” printed on currency. I then work the students through some of the midcentury religious revivals and particularly the emergence of organized religion into the political sphere in the 1950s out of which public declarations of faith in the pledge of allegiance and US currency developed. My point with this activity isn’t to challenge anyone’s faith or even to explicitly reject the idea that most Americans in any given year considered themselves Christian, but rather to encourage students to see how, when and why these symbols came into being and therefore to think critically about what they mean.

I mention this example because I recently had a chance to read prominent #twitterstorian Kevin Kruse’s book One Nation Under God. The elevator pitch for this book is that Kruse goes looking for how the phrase “one nation under god” made its way into the pledge of allegiance of the 1950s. I was aware of the religious revivals in the 1950s and had always interpreted it as the realization of Cold War branding of the United States as distinct from “godless” communism, though, in retrospect, that was a lazy assumption.

Kruse traces the origin of these revivals and the first steps to bring religion from the realm of the personal to public life further back into the 1930s, when, he says, corporate leaders looked to religion to rehabilitate their brands from the stigma of the depression. In turn, and from a combination of personal piety and cynical self-interest, they helped sponsor events that sparked the 1950s revivals. The wave of religion encouraged and manipulated by President Eisenhower changed the nature of public religion in America and created an alliance between capitalism and christianity that dovetailed with American Cold War propaganda. In addition to the changes implemented to the pledge of allegiance and the face of currency, it was in this same period presidents began hosting the National Prayer Breakfast that has since become an annual event.

Where Americans once blanched at bringing the church and the state too close together because of the risk of corrupting the church, Kruse documents how in some of the early controversies over children reciting non-denominational prayers and the pledge of allegiance in schools, the ACLU was hesitant to take up the case on behalf of the parents.

Even though it took me longer to read than I would have liked (a combination of a busy schedule and a lot of detail meant that this was a slow read for me), I really liked On Nation Under God. I knew most of the broad outlines of this story, but the virtue of this book is that Kruse presents a mountain of evidence rather than relying as I was on general impressions. And within that evidence there are unexpected developments.

Two of my takeaways both came from his discussion of issues of religious faith in schools, which was taken to the Supreme Court.

One was the way in which the religion that made its way into public life was light on doctrine as a way to circumvent theological disputes and generate broad support. Nowhere was this more true than in the attempts to establish a non-denominational prayer to be recited daily in schools in New York. Critics thought its “vague theism” was so diluted as to be meaningless, but it strikes me that this pervasively felt, doctrinally ambivalent Christianity remains a legacy in American public life.

The other was an insight into the composition of the court in the 1950s and early 1960s when it passed down rulings on whether students should recite a prayer (no, it is not inherently patriotic) and the pledge of allegiance with the added language of “one nation under god” (yes, it is a declaration of patriotism, not a prayer). Kruse documents how some of the staunchest defenders of these decisions were themselves deeply religious and active in their churches, but that they believed that this was an unconstitutional act of establishing a religion.

As an outsider to both the field of American history and mainstream American Christianity, I am sure that there are facets of this book and its ramifications that I missed, but the broad strokes of this evolution in American political discourse was supremely enlightening for where they came from and thinking about how this relationship between business, religion, and government has developed in the decades since.

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I finished reading Drago Jančar’s I Saw Her Last Night, a fascinating Slovenian novel about the disappearance of a woman in the last years of World War 2, told through the memories of five people who knew her. I’m between books at the moment, but leaning toward next reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

My Own Devices

My usual way of being could probably be summed up as chronically un-hip. I usually read books, list to music and see movies well after that phase has passed. When culture swings back around to where I am, such as with the Song of Ice and Fire (which I started reading in about 2000 when I was in early high school), the hipness doesn’t quite stick. I generally have pretty good taste, in my obviously biased opinion, so this un-hipness doesn’t bother me. It just is.

This is all preamble to talking about a book that, in reading it less than a month after its publication, might possibly be the hippest thing I have ever done in my life. That book, published less than a month before I read it, is My Own Devices, a memoir by the Minneapolis hip-hop artist Dessa.

The essays in this collection consist of stories from and about Dessa’s early career as a touring artist that put friends, family, and challenges front and center. Each essay could stand on its own (and several were previously published), but the through line is her side of an extended, intermittent romantic relationship. Heartbreak became an addiction that defeated “time, distance, and whiskey”—what Dessa calls “over-the-counter remedies” that included moving to New York so that she wouldn’t be in the same town. The collection reaches its climax in the essay “Call off your Ghost,” which recounts her self-crafted experiments with fMRI-scanning and neurofeedback conditioning break this addiction.

Dessa writers beautifully, which is one of the reasons I like her music so much, and in fact there is a passage early on about her ex’ sage advice to rap more like she writes. Pulling back the curtain on these parts of her life put the songs into greater context, particularly for the early releases that aren’t quite as fully developed as in the more recent albums. But that would make this collection only of interest to fans of her music, when this is so much more. What I found particularly effective here is the self-portrait of a bright young woman who is simultaneously curious about the world, wrapped up in her neuroses, and ambitious to the point of grating against her lack of accomplishment.

I can’t do My Own Devices justice here. It is thoughtful meditation family, friends, and art, with a little less science than I was anticipating form the subtitle. (Science shows up in a couple of essays, generally as an adjunct to family or heartbreak.) Dessa is refreshingly blunt, acknowledging her imperfections even while telling her story in a sympathetic light. In short, I loved My Own Devices, going so far as to complain online that I started it at a time when I knew I would have to put it down, and am adding it to my list of Dessa’s work that I recommend to just about everyone I meet.

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I am now reading Kevin Kruse’ One Nation Under God, which argues that the public performance of religious piety in American life was invented in the 1930s by an alliance of corporate executives and religious leaders who opposed the New Deal and came to fruition during a 1950s post-war religious revival.

The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America

One cannot solve a problem until one acknowledges a problem exists.

People hate complaining because they do not like to list. When you listen to someone complaining, you are forced to acknowledge them as a human being instead of a category. You are forced to witness how social systems are borne out in personal experience, to recognize that hardship hurts, that solutions are not as simple as they seem.

Sarah Kendzior an expert on totalitarian regimes, particularly in central Asia, and a journalist based in St. Louis who I’ve followed on Twitter for some time. The View from Flyover Country is a collection of essays penned between 2012 and 2014 on issues that range from media to race to higher education. I read the entire collection in about three sittings last weekend, only setting it down when some of the essays hit a little too close to home.

The fact that The View From Flyover Country is a collection of essays published for Al Jazeera leads to a certain amount of repetition one would expect to find in a series of articles published on their own, but also offers scathing critiques of the present economic and social order in easily approachable chunks that cause her call to action to swell like a flood. Kendzior laces her criticism of the status quo with a deep humanism, making the case that the economic systems that have already shattered at least one generation and are hard at work on a second one deprive many Americans of not just economic opportunity, but basic dignity.

In the post-employment economy, is self-respect something we can afford? Or is another devalued commodity we are expected to give away?

The foundations of the system as Kendzior identifies it are rising inequality paired with increasingly expensive barriers to entry into lucrative careers that create pay-to-play environment. Simultaneously, she articulates that we are living in a post-employment economy in many sectors, where corporations aim to stay profitable by reducing wages and offloading costs onto the workers. These conditions, combined with the toxic potential of the new media landscape create totalitarian echoes.

Kendzior penned these essays well before the 2016 presidential election, but that campaign season and the events that have unfolded since have done nothing invalidate her words. If anything, the curtain was stripped back to reveal systemic and ideological weaknesses in the American system. Where people had previously brushed these off with wave toward a black president, long strides that have been made by women, or a general sense of American achievement—some of which is warranted—has been shown to also be gilding atop gross and growing inequality.

There are no easy solutions and Kendzior doesn’t pretend that there are. But to the extent that the first step to making things better is to acknowledge that a problem exists, The View From Flyover Country should be mandatory reading for everyone in the United States.

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I was under the weather this week, which managed to consume most of my energy left for reading, but I did start The Man Who Spoke Snakish, a fablistic novel by the Estonian author Andrus Kivirähk. It is too soon to judge the book, but I enjoyed the first few pages.

1491 – Charles Mann

The companion to Mann’s other book named after a year in the late 15th century, 1493, 1491 is a history of the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans, reporting on the best consensus of recent scholarship. Although he drying states at one point that his thesis is merely that this topic is worthy of more than seven pages, I think his argument is a good deal more sophisticated, namely that despite the popular myth that the Americas consisted of vast stretches of unspoiled nature, these continents were in effect vast gardens that had been shaped by millions of native inhabitants.

As was also true in 1493, Mann should be lauded for his lucid explanation of long-standing academic schisms. One of the problems with a book of this sort, as Mann notes, is that there are times when there is no consensus, in part because there are times when the sources are, shall we say, speculative. For instance, the chapter “Pleistocene Wars” is dedicated to wars between scholars over what happened during the Pleistocene, rather than wars that took place then. This is the chapter Mann gives to populating the Americas, the so-called Clovis Culture, and the possibility of multiple waves of migration. In this example, Mann delves into the controversies over dating the scattered bits of evidence, but in others he acknowledges more sinister problems with the evidence, such as how the European colonists eliminated the knowledge bases of the cultures they encountered.

You will note that I have not mentioned a single specific native group. Mann goes through many, though certainly not all, in some detail, but the themes are the same again and again. Native Americans (the collective term I still reflexively use, though Mann has an appendix dedicated to the problems with it) were technologically, mathematically, and agriculturally sophisticated in ways that are not often appreciated by people accustomed to European land-use patterns and intellectual culture, or who are deceived by giving priority to the empirical evidence of native culture that dates to generations after European contact.

The hemisphere described by Mann was teeming with human life in 1491, so densely populated that the colonists found themselves unable to stay. Within a few decades most of those people were killed by European diseases, which allowed laughably small numbers of men to conquer enormous swathes of territory with the help of native allies, particularly in South America, and allowed previously-controlled species like the bison and carrier pigeons to undergo explosive population growth—ironically shooting past the carrying capacity only to become associated with the natural bounty of the Americas. Mann also offers a welcome correction to the noble savage myth that Native Americans were endowed with a preternatural connection with the land, arguing instead that their ability to steward the environment developed from past failures and a willingness to develop sustainable practices.

In sum, I enjoyed 1491 a hair more than 1493, but they work in tandem to ask and answer some big questions about the history of the world.

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I had never given any thought to reading Philip Roth’s books until hearing people talk about his work after he passed away this summer and thinking that they sounded up my alley. I’m just now starting that process, with his alternate history The Plot Against America.

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it…or you defy it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart.

Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception.

Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive. So woods are spooky.

It has been a running theme this year that going back to finally read things that I probably could have, or should have, read years ago. A Walk in the Woods isn’t quite the oversight that some of the other books have been, but other than hearing about the recent movie this book only came to my attention when it was recently given to me as a gift. It was very much my speed.

A Walk in the Woods is a literary travelogue of the summer of 1996 when Bryson decided that he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail. At the outset of the story Bryson has just moved back from the UK and settled in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he gets obsessed with hiking. From there, he is consumed by a bit of temporary insanity, deciding with his friend Stephen Katz (a pseudonym) that he is going to become a true mountain man by completing the entire thru-hike. Of course he doesn’t make it.

The adventures of Bill and Stephen form the narrative backbone. There are the eccentrics met on the path, the decision to subsist primarily on Snickers, and the simple pleasure of a shower after days on the trail, as well as the interruptions, challenges, and pleasures of hiking, alone and with partners. Bryson then weaves the history of the Appalachian Trail and commentary about the geological and natural features encountered along the way. These sections, while less silly and humorous than the main narrative give the impression of someone ambling through the woods lost in thought—something Katz allegedly complained about on multiple occasions. Some of the science has advanced since 1998, but it held up for the most part, with Bryson explaining in graphic detail a) the consequences of global warming and b) the scars of human encroachment on the landscape. Technology might have advanced past where it was in 1996 when this trip took place, but these issues remain.

Bryson’s prose is light and humorous, which keeps the pace moving through the hundreds of miles that he and Katz hump packs north from Georgia. Hiking is hard work, which he acknowledges from the outset, and makes clear in the book how woefully unprepared both of the mountain men actually were.

I read A Walk in the Woods on a recent trip to Vermont. It still made me wish I were out hiking, but at least I got to read it while surrounded by woods.

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I haven’t had as much time to read recently as I’d like and so am still reading Fahrenheit 451.

Ghost Wars – Steve Coll

Two events on successive days in September 2001 changed the trajectory of modern Afghanistan. On the 11th, terrorists hijacked four planes in the United States, crashing two into the Twin Towers in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington DC. On the 10th, suicide bombers posing as reporters assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, the leading Afghan leader opposing the Taliban. Coll’s book tries to explain what led to these two events.

The story in “Ghost Wars” begins in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghan government was in effect a client state of the Soviet Union, but plagued by civil war and insurrection, leading to a stream of military aid, which grew to a flood and finally a full-fledged invasion. As part of its Cold War strategy, the US worked in tandem with Pakistan’s ISI and the Saudi intelligence services to funnel resources to Afghan rebels.

The rebels were not a united front and aid was not distributed evenly. Pashtun mujahideen in the southern part of the country received the lion’s share, for a number of reasons. They were close by Pakistan and so easy to supply, as well as being the preferred allies or clients of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. At the same time, devout Christians saw fundamentalist Muslims as natural allies—fellow religionists in the fight against Communism.

Ahmed Shah Massoud, the independent Tajik leader in the northern Panjshir Valley received the short portion, being harder to supply, attached to illegal opium smuggling, and not as fanatical in his religion. In years to come this choice would prove costly. The actions of the CIA, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in the last years of the Cold War kicked off a transnational, radical Islamist movement of which Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda was just one particularly virulent strain.

Coll tackles the monumental task of mapping the shifting currents of Afghan politics, including the rival alliances during the 1980s, the rise of the Taliban after 1994, and how these developments were related to the other political developments in the Middle East, but it is made even greater still by also charting how American interest in the region waxed and waned throughout the region. The result is both the story of the situation in Afghanistan and an enormously frustrating one of bureaucratic and political calculus in America. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1990s when the US administrations declared the Cold War won and Afghanistan a lost cause that was not worth engaging with. The result was that the US had effectively no presence in the region for years, until after the threat from terrorists trained in Afghan bases originally supported by the United States was beyond dispute.

There is too much in Ghost Wars to do a summary justice, but several themes stand out. One is the wide the blind spots of many US policy makers. These included the decision to cultivate militant religious fanaticism and to abandon the region after the end of the Cold War, both of which smacked of short-term thinking with little long-term planning. But equally frustrating were those issues that the US policy makers were concerned with. In the 1990s this meant a focus state-sponsored terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, to the exclusion of transnational actors and conventional attacks. The deliberations in Coll’s recounting, moreover, seemed to register too little awareness that the agendas of even American allies would not necessarily align with the best interests of the United States. The confluence, then, went to explaining how the United States lost touch with, let alone control over, this powerful movement it had helped set into motion.

A second, related, theme is the deep divisions between Afghan and Arab. Coll makes clear that the Arabs were outsiders in Afghanistan, sometimes tolerated, but never really accepted, which added a second level of complexity to the situation. Moreover, it was in this somewhat fragile situation where Osama bin Laden began his slow rise—tolerated because of his wealth, but a relatively minor player until the United States made him the face of transnational Islamic terrorism.

Ghost Wars is a deeply frustrating book to read, by turns making the reader feel for for the Afghans, the CIA, and becoming infuriated by the seemingly-obvious mistakes out of blindness, short-term thinking, and a host of other considerations. But it is also a compelling look at developments that continue to affect the world today even as it seems that US administrations (not simply the one in office today) continue to make some of the same mistakes of policy and rhetoric that characterized the US interactions with Afghanistan from 1979 until 2001. Radical Islamic terrorism is not a phenomenon that developed in a vacuum and the United States is complicit in its rise.

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I am now reading Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem and so far I’m finding it as good as it is touted to be.

Inventing Ethan Allen – John J. Duffy & H. Nicholas Muller III

Fiction resists fact to persist as heritage – David Lowenthal (as an inscription at the start of a chapter)

“[The founders of the Vermont Historical Society] thought that the robust growth in the state’s formative years and the bold assertions of its independence held lessons that would help the state deal with what they deemed as its declining prospects….[Henry Stevens] set out to sculpt Ethan Allen as a figure of such stature to inspire and guide Vermont through the vicissitudes of change he and his colleagues largely regarded as negative.”

As a child obsessed with history growing up in Vermont, it was inevitable that I collected the stories of Ethan Allen, considering with pride his “noble” defense of Vermont against the predatory New Yorkers and his “heroic” capture of Ticonderoga from the British. (The fact that he got captured in a foolish and impetuous invasion of Canada just meant that he was human.) Ethan Allen was obviously a great man, the founder of a state that I was, and am, proud of.

If pushed as a somewhat more developed historian, I would have obviously pushed back on these stories as foundation myths. I might have even admitted that Allen was a terrorist against the New Yorkers, who probably deserved it (more on this in a minute). That much is abundantly clear, but I didn’t have evidence for the formation of the myth or even for much about Allen’s life.

On a recent road trip, however, I visited Fort Ticonderoga and picked up Inventing Ethan Allen, which attempts to explain exactly that.

Duffy and Muller’s central thesis is deceptively simple: the Ethan Allen of legend was not the historical Ethan Allen, but a figure that was developed first by Allen’s brother Ira and later by the State Historical Society in order to give the small state a prominent past, particularly during the 19th century when Vermont was suffering from a deep economic slump.

The historical Ethan Allen is a shadowy figure, such that none of the statues allegedly bearing his features was based on his likeness. Born in Connecticut in 1738, Allen’s early years were filled with failed business ventures such as mining, before getting a break as a land speculator in the contested space between New Hampshire and New York. This territory was, in effect, sold twice, once to Allen, his family, and some other speculators, and once by New York. When challenged on the land, Allen’s cohort consolidated their claim to the Champlain Valley in the form of the Onion River Company, terrorizing the New Yorkers who moved in, and ending up with a bounty on his head. The Revolutionary War provided Allen new opportunities, and he touted his victory over the score of British soldiers at Ticonderoga even though he outnumbered them by more than four to one, before a series of blunders cost him leadership of the Green Mountain Boys. Nevertheless, he emerged from the war with more land than ever, both through a dowry brought by a second marriage and through legal machinations that stripped “traitors” of their land.

The portrait of Allen painted by Duffy and Muller is, by and large, unflattering. He is bombastic, arrogant, and self-serving, even while largely blundering about. Instead of a defender of freedom for small farmers, he was as ruthlessly exploitative as the New Yorkers, just better at waging the war of pamphlets. Instead of a valiant patriot who won a stunning blow at Ticonderoga, the fort was in disrepair and the Allen brothers (along with Governor Chittenden) entered into negotiations with Frederick Haldimand about bringing Vermont back into the British Empire as a province. Instead of a philosophical thinker who published tracts on ideas of liberty, he was a plagiarist who took credit for his teacher’s work. And adding to these complications, Duffy and Muller argue, was that Vermont’s early ban on slavery actually provided cover for men like, and probably including, Allen to own slaves.

When Allen died his image and legacy ceased to be his own. This could have gone poorly for Allen given his shady reputation and numerous enemies, but it turned out to be a blessing. Allen’s record as an arch-patriot was taken up, burnished, and expanded in the succeeding years by a series of historians who took it upon themselves to give Vermont a past equivalent to Massachusetts or Virginia. The first of these writers was Ethan’s brother Ira, who was probably central to downplaying the Haldimand negotiations in the first histories since they likewise implicated him, but it was the foundation of the State Historical and Antiquarian Society in 1838 that breathed new life into the legend. This society was founded by four upper-middle class, non-farming, anti-slavery elites who thought that Vermont in the 1830s suffered from economic and moral decay that could be restored only through a careful retelling of the state’s history. Allen, the enlightened patriot and hero of Ticonderoga was the cornerstone of that project.

Through these efforts and the nature of stories, Allen went from a hard-drinking, narcissistic bombast to a larger-than-life exemplar of backwoods and populist virtue, a trickster straight out of a folktale.

Inventing Ethan Allen is an achievement that balances the historical Ethan Allen, with the more complicated story of memory and the formation of cultural mythology. I say this both as a born Vermonter, where the discussion about the economic struggles of 19th century Vermont struck close to home, and as a historian interested in memory, where the discussion of Allen resonated with my recent reading of Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash. The combination of these things and that Ethan Allen was a larger-than-life character made this a fascinating read. I may still have an instinctual mistrust of New York, but I can concede that the origins of Vermont are much more complicated than appears in the white-washed tradition. But then, that is usually the case.

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I’ve recently finished two novels, The Company She Kept, a Joe Gunther mystery by Archer Mayer, and Robin Hobb’s The Assassin’s Quest. I have thoughts on both, but neither is the first book in a series, so I am undecided on whether I will write about them.

White Trash – Nancy Isenberg

[Redneck] had become part of the cultural lingua franca, a means of sizing up public men, and a strangely mutated gender and class identity.

White Trash starts from a provocative thesis: all (or nearly all) developments in American history can be traced to the underlying tension between “the American Dream” on the one hand and what to do about the *white* people who don’t measure up. Isenberg examines how these tensions are articulated, repurposed, exploited, and weaponized as America went from a country where land was plentiful to one that was heavily urbanized, and as notions of science, eugenics, and racial uplift changed.

America’s tortured history with non-white people, Isenberg suggests, are painful consequences of this other, innate conflict.

Isenberg begins her story in Britain, showing how the only reason many of the early white settlers left was that they were “waste people” in England, discarded to North America to turn their lives around or just not be around anymore. Once in America, though, the question of what to do with these people remained. Many of the colonial elite wanted to avoid interbreeding with people they saw as lesser than themselves, and there was an open question whether giving them land (where squatters were often already living) would allow for racial uplift. Then came the Civil War, a hybrid class-race war, the age of Eugenics where the idea was to stop poor whites along with African Americans from breeding, and finally the emergent “Cult of the Country Boy” in the 1950s.

White Trash has something of a teleological progression toward the final two chapters of the book, a section called “The White Trash Makeover.” Her argument holds water. The terms change and the widespread cultural cache that the lifestyle currently holds is a modern phenomenon, but “white trash” has been a persistent part of the American landscape for centuries. The change, Isenberg posits, is that what was once explicitly marginal is now mainstream, albeit in a way that still consciously frames itself as marginalized.

The story in White Trash is distinctly uncomfortable, particularly as someone whose hometown Isenberg might as well have been writing about. This same discomfort makes it all the more important. Certain aspects of redneck culture have been commercialized and accepted, but it is notable that in the latest iteration of the electoral victory for this class of people, the people filling the executive branch are overwhelmingly not representative of them. This seems to me not an accident, the latest iteration of the same issues that shaped the debates around squatters in the 1700s.

In a classroom, I would want to build from Isenberg’s book to make more explicit the horrific consequences of these class conflicts for people of color and other minorities, and not simply in that they are treated as a lower class. Overall, though, I found White Trash to be an effective frame through which to think about American history, one that recognizes the aspirations of the American dream, but also recognizes the ways in which that dream is dangerous as an exclusionary club with which to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t measure up in terms of breeding, education, culture, or wealth. There are ways to quibble with White Trash, but the overall product is a powerful message that demands consideration.

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I’ve been in the end of semester crunch the past few weeks, with a conference thrown in to boot, and have also finished two short novel/novellas, Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past and Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. With the semester coming to an end, I hope to start writing here with some more frequency, but, at the moment, I’m mostly just tired.

Discussion in the College Classroom – Jay Howard

A couple weeks ago I crowd-sourced a reading list on teaching with the aim of getting better at my job. As much as I trust the people who contributed to the list, it wouldn’t be worth much if I didn’t then start reading; I have decided to write up some of my notes and observations, posting them here and on Twitter.

First up is Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom.

The short recap is that I found this book useful:

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Howard starts by making the case for the value of discussion in the classroom, with the caveat that not all conversation is created equally and that the job of the instructor is to lead students past superficial observation toward deeper meaning. His advice is divided between two interconnected categories: best practices for communication in the classroom and structuring courses to encourage and reward active participation.

Both categories are designed to overcome the prevailing social norm in the college classroom, “Civil Attention”—defined as the appearance of attention regardless of how tuned in the student actually is—a norm that is reinforced by over-reliance on lecture and a reluctance to ask direct questions (which Howard notes may be mistaken for hostility by the professor).

In order to change these norms, Howard calls for instructors to start on the first day of class by communicating and expectation of communication and what participation entails. The latter part will vary based on class, but it is important to convey what counts and how to avoid misunderstanding between a professor who wants students to talk all the time and students who believe they “participated” by doing the reading and showing up.

Howard addresses a number of issues, from how to avoid the trap where one or two students take on the responsibility for participation, grading discussion, and how to run an online discussion board, but some general principles stand out:

  • Large class size inhibits conversation, and it is often useful to subdivide a class down to groups of six or eight, even in large lectures, and encouraging students to exchange information and ideas.
  • It is easy to forget that students are not subject matter experts who have been thinking about issues for year. Give students time to formulate answers to difficult questions.
  • Ask good questions. Avoid factual questions or questions with yes or no answers, but ask opinion questions that can be supported through the text
  • Positively reinforce behavior your want to see by acknowledging student contributions, questions, and risks.
  • Give students peer to peer obligations that prepare them to engage in discussion.
  • Engage with students before and/or beyond the classroom, such as requiring a two minute visit to office hours to say hi. This gets the students comfortable with engaging with the instructor.
  • Above all: be aware of what is going on with the class. This includes body language and what the syllabus says, the physical distance between instructor and student, and whether the course structure is facilitating or erecting barriers to student participation.

Howard’s advice is based on a combination of extensive personal experience and research studies on student participation, but he is careful to note that not only will these suggestions not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but also that what works with one set of students won’t necessarily work with a different set of students the next time the same course is offered, let alone with a different instructor. Nor does he dismiss the utility of a content-based lecture format, all the while offering ways to blend the two formats to maximize student engagement.

There are too many specific suggestions even to begin listing them, but they make this book worth reading. There may be a point of diminishing returns in reading books on pedagogy (unless that is your field of study specifically), but Discussion in the College Classroom is a useful place to start.