On Chronology in History

November 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

In last month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a review of what looks a fascinating book, Henry Petroski’s The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s InfrastructureThe review, however, is plagued by an inability to keep a historical chronology.  I always remind my students that chronology matters, especially in a history class. And when grading exams and essays, I find myself over and over again writing “Chronology?” in the margins.

The review, by Aaron Klein, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, is plagued by such problems.  For example, he recounts Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 ‘Report on the Subject of Manufactures,’ wherein he argued that the federal government had the constitutional authority to spend on internal infrastructure.  But then, in the next sentence: “Hamilton’s view was rejected by President James Madison and his successor, James Monroe, who both vetoed major infrastructure legislation passed by Congress” for constitutional reasons.  Problem is, in 1791, George Washington was President.  Madison was elected president in 1809, 18 years after Hamilton’s ‘Report,’ and 5 years after Hamilton was murdered in a duel by Aaron Burr.

On the next page, Klein recounts the creation of the interstate highway system in the US.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the key here, as almost anyone knows (you know, those signs on the interstates that note they are part of the Eisenhower Interstate System.  The key legislation here came in 1956.  Klein writes:

Eisenhower’s highways were part of a series of great infrastructure projects that helped usher in unprecedented prosperity.  Government investment and private entrepreneurship laid railroads across the continent; built huge power plants, such as the Hoover Dam; and provided universal phone coverage. Those projects generated economic growth and united the nation.

Factually, this is true. Infrastructure did aid in national growth and unity. But. The railroads were built in the late 19th century.  The Hoover Dam was built from 1931-33.  In other words, looooong before the interstate system.  And while Klein is making a larger point about the need for government investment in the US’s ailing infrastructure, his inability to maintain a chronological reality here undercuts his argument about the importance of the Eisenhower system, given it was the last of these infrastructural developments and nearly a generation after the other examples he provides.

In short, kids, chronology matters.

Griffintown

October 31, 2016 § 2 Comments

I just recently received the cover art for my forthcoming book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood.  It will be published in May 2017 by the University of British Columbia Press.  To say I’m stoked is a minor understatement.  The art work is by my good friend and co-conspirator on many things Griff, G. Scott MacLeod.

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The Wisdom of Marc Bloch

October 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

10724719_716131381768977_171791364_nMarc Bloch is one of the most influential historians ever.  An historian of mostly medieval France, he, along with Lucien Febvre, founded the Annales school of historiography in the late 1920s.  The Annalistes preferred examining history over the long durée, and across various periods of time.  They also advocated a more complete history than one of generals, presidents, prime ministers, and other so-called Great Men.

Bloch met his end at the hands of the Gestapo on in Saint-Didier-des-Champs, in France, on 16 June 1944, ten days after D-Day, as the Nazis realised they were going to lose France.  Bloch had been a member of the Résistance since 1942.  He was captured by the Vichy police in March of that year and handed over to the Gestapo.  He was interrogated by Klaus Barbie, and tortured.  It was a sad end for a great man.

Bloch had served in the French Army during the First World War, and remained a member of the Army reserve in the interregnum between the two wars.  He was called up into action during the Second World War and was on hand for the baffling collapse of France in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg attack in May 1940.  That summer, he wrote his blistering and searing account of the Fall of France, Strange Defeat, not knowing if his words would ever see the light of day.  The book was published in 1948, four years after his murder, and three years after the war ended.

Bloch is unflinching in his critique of French High Command, and France in general, for the collapse of its Army in 1940.  In part, he blames the High Command’s over reliance on a false reading of history, that led it into a state of pathetic stasis, incapable of recognising that 1939-40 was not 1918, and that the Second World War was a different war than the Great War.  In this passage, he makes a passionate argument for what the study of History is.

History is, in its essentials, the science of change.  It knows and it teaches that is impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical…the lesson it teaches is not that what happened yesterday will necessarily happen to-morrow, or that the past will go on reproducing itself.  By examining how and why yesterday differed from the day before, it can reach conclusions which will enable it to foresee how to-morrow will differ from yesterday.  The traces left by past events never move in a straight line, but in a curve that can be extended into the future.

I assigned this book for my historiography class, and was deeply struck by this passage.  I’ve re-read it four times now, it goes against what our culture thinks history is.  Our culture thinks history is exactly what Bloch says it isn’t, that it can teach us to avoid the same mistakes over and over again.

I was thinking about this in light of my Irish history class dealing with The Liberator, Daniel O’Connell last week.  O’Connell led the movement for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, succeeding in 1829.  He the turned his sights on the Repeal of the Act of Union (1800), which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  In this, he failed.  He failed because times had changed, and attitudes were different.  In the early 19th century, many in Britain, and even some amongst the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, had come to the conclusion that the denial of civil rights for Catholics in Ireland was not a good thing, and that Emancipation was necessary.  Three of the staunchest opponents of Emancipation came around to O’Connell’s way of thinking: Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary; The Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister, and King George IV).  In the 1840s, though, when O’Connell’s Repeal movement reached its apogee, he did not have a groundswell of support in Britain (or amongst the Protestant Ascendancy) for Repeal. Thus, he failed because O’Connell failed to learn the proper lessons of History.

We would do well to remember Bloch’s maxim. Even we historians.

On Reading: My Books of 2013

January 2, 2014 § 5 Comments

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I read. A lot.  In 2013, I decided to track the books I read for pleasure, so I created this stack.  It got dangerously tall and slightly unsteady around November.  This also doesn’t include the other two dozen books I read for classes and research purposes in 2013.  But of this stack of 33 books I read in 2013, I can happily report that almost all of them were excellent reads and all but a couple were, at least for me, important reads.  I have blogged about some them already. (Kim Eichlen’s The Disappeared; Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints (and here) Teofilio Ruiz’s The Terror of History; C.J. Shivers’ The Gun; Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind (also here); Terry Eagleton’s On Evil; and Amy Waldman’s The Submission).  Time permitting, I will write about more of these books.

So, for those wondering, the best non-fiction book I read last year was Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind, with Eagleton’s On Evil a close second.  As far as fiction goes, I’d say it was a tie between Hilary Mantel’s Bringing Up the Bodies, Zadie Smith’s NW and the grande dame of CanLit, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.  Here’s the interesting thing: I’ve never liked Atwood.  I’ve always thought that her ability as a writer couldn’t cash the cheques here imagination wrote.  But Oryx and Crake has caused me to re-think my position.  The next two books in that trilogy, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam are in my stack of books to read already.

The only truly disappointing book I read in 2013 was the 1993 Booker Prize winner, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle, the great Irish novelist whose work I have always enjoyed.  Tant pis.

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