A Shopkeeper and a Historian

“Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it says and imagines about itself is true.”

-Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, The German Ideology, 1845.

Normally if you ask me which historians have influenced me the most, I would give you a list of scholars like Studs Terkel or Warren Susman who have written fascinating books and found helped me understand history and historical sources in profoundly different ways. But after encountering this quote from Marx and Engels the other day, I have to add an anonymous and imaginary shopkeeper to the top of my list. Continue reading “A Shopkeeper and a Historian”

“Ask What You Can Do For Your Country:” The History of an Inaugural Sentence

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country.”

A short yet iconic line. I bet you just read it in Kennedy’s voice too (I did). On that cold and gloomy January day, the president broke the ice with a message of hope and excitement that inspired millions of Americans and promised a fresh new start for the country. These words are just the tip of the iceberg, and if we dig a little deeper we can use this short sentence to learn a whole lot more about civics, politics, and the changing role of individual Americans in society from the Civil War to today.

Several decades after the inauguration, Bill Moyers reflected on Kennedy’s inspirational rhetoric and personality: “I remember John Kennedy not so much for what he was or what he wasn’t but for what he empowered in me. We all edit history to give some form to the puzzle of our lives, and I cherish the memory of him for awakening me to a different story for myself. He placed my life in a larger narrative than I could ever have written. In his public voice John Kennedy spoke to my generation of service and sharing; he called us to careers of discovery through lives open to others…It was for us not a trumpet but a bell, sounding in countless individual hearts that one clear note that said: “You matter. You can signify. You can make a difference.” Romantic? Yes, there was a romance to it. But we were not then so callous toward romance.” According to Moyers, what Kennedy brought a new perspective on an American’s individual role in improving their society. To the young Kennedy supporter, this message rang much louder and clearer than anything he had ever heard before.

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Kennedy delivered his famous address on January 21, 1961. Image credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

You may be interested to know that although Kennedy’s inaugural call to action sounded new and different from his political contemporaries, it was actually the result many years worth of experience and thinking. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., eminent historian and special assistant to President Kennedy recalled that: “This thought had lain in Kennedy’s mind for a long time. As far back as 1945 he had noted down in a loose leaf notebook a quotation from Rousseau: “As soon as any man says of the affairs of the state, What does it matter to me? the state may be given up as lost.” In his address accepting the democratic nomination in 1960, he said of the New Frontier, “It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” On September 5 at Cadillac Square in Detroit, Kennedy departed from his prepared text to say “The new frontier is not what I promise I am going to do for you. The new frontier is what I ask you to do for our country.” He continued to polish the thought in the back of his mind until he was ready to put it in final form for the inaugural address.” Continue reading ““Ask What You Can Do For Your Country:” The History of an Inaugural Sentence”

So Much Nostalgia!

If you remember my post on Currier & Ives and the Nostalgic Past, you’ll remember that I wrote about the sharp divide between the world depicted by Currier & Ives prints and reality. I also wrote about how these images created a nostalgic vision of the world that didn’t reflect reality accurately, kind of like a funhouse mirror (historian Roland Marchand uses the term ‘Zerrspiegel’ to describe this phenomenon among advertisers and commercial artists).

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This was what comfortable country life looked like in 1868, according to Currier and Ives. Image credit: Library of Congress.

If you recall (or even read) my other post, then you might remember that I quoted a passage from historian Jackson Lears about what nostalgia meant to Americans in the 19th century.  I thought it was especially useful in understanding how longings for the past shaped how Americans looked at their lives in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Tom Watson, Populist Leader and opponent of false agrarian nostalgia. Image credit: C. Vann Woodward’s “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel” (1938).

Turns out that Dr. Lears has written another interesting book, “Rebirth of a Nation.” Its a history of the United States from 1877 (end of Reconstruction) to 1922 (not sure yet what he is using as a bookend here). I’m only a few chapters in, and I came across this interesting passage that made me think about nostalgia, Currier & Ives artwork, and how Americans thought about themselves and their history at the turn of the 20th century. In his chapter on the struggles between city and country Americans, he quotes Tom Watson, a Populist farmer from Georgia who championed poor farmers and agrarian causes. In 1888, Watson was a member of the state legislature and found himself speaking out against “prosy people” who had never worked the tough farm life and were trying to make money by investing in agriculture from their distant city offices:

“It takes these city fellows to draw ideal pictures of Farm life- pictures which are no more true to real life than a Fashion plate is to an actual man or woman…In Grady’s farm life there are no poor cows. They are all fat! Their bells tinkle musically in clover scented meadows & all you’ve got to do is hold a pan under the udder & you catch it full of golden butter. In real life we find the poor old Brindle cow with wolves in her back & “hollow horn” on her head & she always wants to back up where the wind won’t play a tune on her ribs & when you milk her you get the genuine ‘blue milk’…”

Continue reading “So Much Nostalgia!”

Richard Silvester and Maryland Agricultural College: “A School for the Farmer’s Boy”

Do you think that farming is “the loveliest of all professions on the face of the earth?” Would you argue that agrarian work is “the vocation on which all prosperity rests?” Or would you be so bold as to say that working on a farm “brings men into contact with that mysterious principle of life, that essence of God in the world?” If you answered yes to any of these, then you should have gone to the Maryland Agricultural College in 1895! This small land-grant college that eventually became the University of Maryland, College Park (my alma mater!) was originally a school devoted to training farmers and using agriculture experimentation to support the state’s farms. In order to really understand the college’s role in agriculture in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I think the best thing to do to get acquainted with Richard Silvester, the 16th president of the school.

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Richard W. Silvester (1857-1916). Image Credit: 1900 Reveille.

Continue reading “Richard Silvester and Maryland Agricultural College: “A School for the Farmer’s Boy””

John Haberle: A Counterfeit Artist

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John Haberle, Imitation, 1887, oil on canvas, Image credit: Smithsonian Gallery of Art.

Take a good look at this picture. Does it look like a photograph? Well look again, its a painting! And its 130 years old! I was at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. the other day walking through a room of still life paintings when I came across one called Imitation by artist John Haberle. I thought it was so detailed and real-looking that I had to stop and admire it for a good long while. Usually when I’m walking around the National Gallery I stop and look at the paintings that have funny hats or interesting facial expressions. When I’m being serious I’m usually more drawn to landscapes, especially from Hudson River School artists. But this time it was Haberle’s painting of what looks like the contents of someone’s pockets tossed onto a board and framed.

Upon further research, I learned that Haberle was not just a still life painter, he was particularly gifted at a special kind of still life painting called “trompe l’oeil” (French for “fool the eye”). Though the art-style had been around since at least the Renaissance, it was particularly popular in the late 19th century in Europe and the United States. Perhaps artists felt like they had to compete with photography which seemed like the most “real” depiction of real life. Other popular American artists who specialized in trompe l’oeil were John Peto and William Harnett. According to one writer, “Trompe l’oeil images share an affective intention of double wonderment: first, to make their viewers wonder “Is this real? and What is real?” and, second, to make us wonder (in the sense of “marvel”) at the artist’s virtuosity in provoking such questions in the first place.” Where photographs offer a way for viewers to look through a “window” at reality, trompe l’oeil paintings subvert this kind of realism in a way, by appearing “real” for a moment before the viewer realizes that it is not. Continue reading “John Haberle: A Counterfeit Artist”

“Above all things, avoid a dress suit”

Everywhere you look in the news today, you see stories about politicians and what they’re up to. One common theme in all these stories, it seems to me, is that people in politics are untrustworthy and you can never tell what they’re actually thinking. Everything is rehearsed and carefully phrased so that all the public really sees is smoke and mirrors. This definitely isn’t a universal truth, but it has some merit and I think this is the way that many Americans perceive the political world around them in the 21st century.

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Photo Credit: New York Public Library

I’d like to introduce you to a career politician from a long time ago who I think is a pretty genuine person. You probably won’t agree with his politics, but he is a blunt man who won’t leave you guessing what his actual position is and what his goals are. Continue reading ““Above all things, avoid a dress suit””

Currier and Ives and the Nostalgic Past

There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy…It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives. These wonderful things are the things. We remember all through our lives…

“Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson, 1948

Currier and Ives has a special place in American society and our memory of the past. The prints made by the 19th century lithography company usually invoke fond memories today, which is exactly what they were designed to do. “Mention Currier and Ives and most people think of images of 19th-century home life — of lovers whispering in each other’s ear; elegant children holding fluffy kittens; idyllic farmhouses set in a snowy landscape,” a 1998 New York Times article wrote when describing a new museum exhibit of their prints. Back in the day Currier and Ives was called “the Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints,” though its rare to see original prints in homes today. But, they had an impact on home decoration and our ideas about what a “good home” looked like that I think are still relevant today. There is one print called “The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age” that I really like, and I think is a good example for understanding the wider world of Currier and Ives. Continue reading “Currier and Ives and the Nostalgic Past”