Bringing the Past to Life

February 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

Twenty-odd years ago, I took a course on pre-Revolution US History  at the University of British Columbia.  I don’t know what possessed me to do this, frankly. It must’ve fit into my schedule.  Anyway, it turned out to be one of the best courses I took in undergrad.  It was taught by Alan Tully, who went onto become Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor of American History at the University of Texas.  We read a bunch of interesting books that semester, including one on the early history of Dedham, Massachusetts.  But, the one that has always stuck out in my mind is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Diary of a Midwife: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812I remember being deeply struck by this book as a 20-year old in Vancouver. I had a pretty strong interest in women’s history as an undergrad, but this was one of the best history books I’ve ever read.

In my last semester teaching at John Abbott College in Montreal, I taught US History, and assigned this book. I even got in touch with Dr. Tully to tell him how influential that course had been on me, and how influential this book had been and to thank him.  I think he was chuffed to hear from me, even if he didn’t remember me (I wasn’t a great student,I barely made a B in his class).

I am teaching US History to 1877 this semester and I have assigned this book again.  Last time I assigned in, in 2012, my students, much to my surprise, loved it.  And they loved it for the same reasons I do.  Ulrich does an incredible job showing the size of Martha Ballard’s life in late 18th century Hallowel, Maine.

Based on the singular diary of Ballard, Ulrich delves into the social/cultural history of Hallowel/Augusta, Maine, drawing together an entire world of sources to re-create the social life of Ballard’s world.  I’m reading the book again for class, we have a discussion planned for today.  I’m still amazed at how Ulrich has re-created Ballard’s world.  And even if Ballard’s written English isn’t all that familiar to us today, 200+ years on, you feel almost like you’re in the room with Ballard.  She has her own singular voice in my head, I feel like I know her.

Writing history isn’t easy. It is a creative act, attempting to bring to life things that happened 10 or 200 years ago.  We work from disparate sources, with multiple voices, created for a multitude of different reasons.  They agree with each other, they argue with each other.  And it’s our job to bring all of this together.  In many ways, we’re the midwives of the past.  The very best History books are like The Diary of a Midwife or E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class: they bring the past to life. They make us feel almost like we were there.

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The Making of the Historian

January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of my favourite history books is Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary.  The book, published in 2001, tells the story of Bridget Cleary’s death at the hands of her husband, Michael, and a mixture of extended family, in Ballyvadlea, Co. Tipperary in Ireland in March 1895.  As Bourke unravels the story, the murder of Bridget Cleary is an opportunity for the historian (or folklorist, in her case) to examine the collision between modern culture and folkways.  Ballyvadlea in 1895 was essentially the boondocks of Ireland, far removed from the encroaching modern world, people there still lived according to old Irish ways, with beliefs in fairies, banshees, and the like.  Whether or not Michael Cleary and his cohorts actually believed in this is neither here nor there, argues Bourke, what matters is that the belief system still existed and was still accessible to Cleary and his co-conspirators. 

When I was in graduate school, I was fascinated by the collision between modernity and ancient folkways.  In particular, I was interested in charivari, a means of community policing in pre-modern societies in Europe and amongst settler societies in North America.  In fact, I was so interested in this, I set out to do my Master’s degree on this topic in Québec.  What fascinated me then, and still does today, and why I enjoy Bourke’s book so much (I usually assign it when I teach Irish History) is the way in which modern legal culture intersects with traditional folkways. 

Societies have traditionally been able to police themselves.  Today, we live in a society where the state is omnipresent, whether in the form of of our driver’s licenses, or the regulation of education, and various other means.  When someone breaks the law, we expect the police to make an arrest, the prosecutor to secure a conviction, and the jail to secure the lawbreaker until her debt to society is paid.  But it hasn’t always been that way. 

In October 1855, Robert Corrigan was beaten to death in Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, a remote agricultural community, some fifty miles south of Québec City, in the foothills of the Appalachians.  He was beaten by a gang of his neighbours for stepping out of line.  They did not mean to kill him, they meant to discipline him for his bullying, aggressive behaviour.  That Corrigan was an Irish Protestant and his murderers Irish Catholics was secondary (at least in Saint-Sylvestre, for the rest of Canada, that was the most important detail in the highly sectarian mid-19th century).  When the state attempted to arrest the accused men, they were easily able to elude the police forces sent in from Montréal and Québec, aided by their neighbours.  When they did finally turn themselves in in January 1856, they did so on their own terms.  They were also able to rig the jury when they went to trial in February so that they were acquitted. 

The Corrigan Affair, in this light, was entirely about a local community maintaining its right to police itself in the face of the power of the state.  The mid-19th century in Canada was a time of massive state formation and expansion.  The same period in Québec saw a spate of construction projects around the province of courthouses and jails and other such buildings.  The buildings were all the same down to the shade of paint used on them.  Why?  Because the state was attempting to establish its control across the province and it was attempting to do so with the message that the state was indifferent to local contingencies.  Not surprisingly, the people of Québec rebelled against this.  The mid-19th century in Canada offers endless examples of local communities rebelling against the state in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Québec, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. 

The Wild West in the United States is another such example.  The West has a reputation for violence that is only partly deserved.  Much of the legends of the Wild West are just that: legends.  But violence there was.  Much of it was about the same thing as charivari in England or The Corrigan Affair in Québec: community policing.  Disputes were settled between the belligerents for several reasons, most importantly, the state did not have the power yet to mediate between its citizens. 

Historians have been studying this collision between folkways and the rise of modernity since the 1960s.  During that era, that great generation of English historians (E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Dorothy Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm) became fascinated by this collision.  I always find it interesting when I see the influence of the historians I read in graduate school still on me today, all these years later. 

Last semester, our favourite work study student, Alvaro, graduated.  Alvaro had worked in our departmental office since we both (as in my wife and I) arrived here in the fall of 2012.  For his graduation, we decided to buy him the books that had the greatest impact on us in our development as historians, as Alvaro is planning on going on to graduate school.  I got him E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.  I first read this book in 1996, my first semester of graduate school.  It was one of the few books I read in graduate school where I just couldn’t put it down.  Meticulously research, and brilliantly insightful, Thompson crafted an historical study that could stand on its own on its literary merits.  I re-read it a couple of years ago.  It remains one of my favourite books of all time. 

The Value of Death and the Value of Passion

December 14, 2013 § 4 Comments

I am reading what is turning out to be one of the best books I’ve read in years, Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination.  Schulman is a survivor of the AIDS Plague in New York City in the 80s and early 90s.  She is deeply implicated in queer culture in New York, in the fight for the rights of those inflicted with AIDS during that era and the fight to commemorate and remember those who died.  81,542 people died of AIDS in New York City from 1981 to 2008.  2008 is 12 years after the Plague ended, according to Schulman.

The Gentrification of the Mind is a blistering indictment of gentrification in the East Village of Manhattan, an area of the city I knew as Alphabet City, and the area around St. Mark’s Place.  It’s the same terrain of Manhattan that Eleanor Henderson’s fantastic novel, Ten Thousand Saints, takes place in (I wrote about that here).  This is one of the things I love about cities: the simultaneous and layered existences of people in neighbourhoods, their lives spatially entwined, but culturally separate.

Schulman’s fury drips off the page of The Gentrification of the Mind, which is largely her own memoir of living through that era, in that neighbourhood where she still lives.  In the same flat she lived in in 1982.  She makes an interesting juxtaposition of the value of death, arguing that the 81,542 were of no value to our society, that their deaths were marginalised and, ultimately, forgotten.  Whereas the 2,752 people who died in New York on 9/11 have experienced the exact opposite in death: their lives have been valued, re-assessed and immortalised.  Her point is not to take away from those who died in 9/11, but to interestingly juxtapose those who died due to the neglect of their government and culture and those who died due to external forces.

I just finished reading Amy Waldman’s The Submission, a fictionalised account of the process leading to the creation of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero.  Waldman reminds us that the lives of those killed on 9/11 were not valued equally, something that should be intrinsic to us all.  The lives of the people who worked in the food courts, the restaurants, cafés and those who manned the parking lots, the custodial staff did not mater, in the end, as much as the first responders, the office workers, the people on the planes.

And this is an interesting argument.  Schulman’s response is much more visceral than mine, but she was there in the 80s and 90s.  I wasn’t.  She was also there on 9/11, I wasn’t.  But I am an historian, she is not.  Death is never equal, just as life isn’t.  It has been this way since forever.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey, set in Ancient Greece, the lives of the foot soldiers and the sailors under Odysseus’ command are worth nothing, whereas the lives of Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus are valued.  The deaths of the first two cause mourning and grief for Odysseus, both at Marathon and on his epic journey home.

All throughout history, people’s lives have been valued differently.  What Schulman sees relative to the victims of the AIDS Plague and 9/11 shouldn’t be surprising.  It doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t make it okay.  But, fact of the matter, it’s the same as it ever was.  And, after researching, writing, and teaching history for much of the past two decades, I can’t even get all that upset about the devaluation of the marginalised in society anymore.  I don’t think it’s any more right in 2013 than I did as an angry young man 20 years ago, but I have become so jaded as to not even register surprise or anger anymore.

So in reading Schulman’s book, I am surprised by her anger and her passion, and I am also intrigued by it, and I’m a little sad that being an historian is making me increasingly resigned to bad things happening in the world.  It might be time to get my Howard Zinn, E.P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm out, and remember that those men, even after a lifetime of studying, writing, and teaching history, maintained a righteous anger at injustice.

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