". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Saturday, January 26, 2008

2 New Books of Interest (at least mine!)

The number of meticulously researched and sourced histories of the U.S. post-Civil War era commonly called "Reconstruction" continues to add titles. This is the latest one of which I'm aware. I've seen reviews of it in other places, but this week it's covered by one of my favorite writers about book, Jonathan Yardly, in this weekend's Washington Post Book World section, THE BLOODY SHIRT: Terror After Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky. Here follows a pull, the first 2 paragraphs of JY's essay:

[ The decade-long period known as Reconstruction, which began shortly after the Civil War and ended with the presidential election of 1876, probably has been subjected to more misinterpretation, misunderstanding and outright factual distortion than any other time in American history. For a variety of reasons, including white Southern mythologizing and national indifference to the desperate situation of the former slaves, beginning in the late 19th century fictions about Reconstruction gained not merely wide popular acceptance but also the endorsement of many prominent historians, who gave them legitimacy and staying power.

These fictions presented the white South not as instigator, perpetuator and defender of black slavery, but as the victim of politically motivated mistreatment by "carpetbaggers" and other outsiders dispatched by Radical Republicans in Washington to wreak vengeance on the South. By contrast with the rapacious industrial North, the South was portrayed as -- in the words of one historian -- "a garden for the cultivation of all that was grand in oratory, true in science, sublime and beautiful in poetry and sentiment, and enlightened and profound in law and statesmanship." Slavery metamorphosed from a "peculiar" institution into a benevolent one, and it was argued that only the South could hope to help the former slaves because "the Southern white man is the only man on earth who understands the Negro character." If only the North had left the South to settle its own problem, the fictions contended, everything would have been fine. If Reconstruction failed, the fault lay solely with the North. ]

In other words, the phony mythology that made Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and brought back the Ku Klux Klan, the foundation of decades of the movie industry's propaganda machine re the "Western," which was from the beginning of the cinema age in the U.S. the financial and popular mainstay of studios, and remained so until comfortably post the WWII era. I continue to marvel at the success of the historical revision of the Reconstruction era -- as well as of the Civil War. The principal reason for the success of this revisionism is the development of the penny press Western, followed so soon by the movies. From the beginning the pioneers of this format saw it as an unparalleled means of propaganda, and so it was, and continues to be. The principals of Western movies, even the occasional few made now, were enlisted in the Confederacy.

This is particularly ironic when examined by the light shed by the founding father of the Western as a genre (as he also founded the genre of sea stories and that of the Revolutionary romance), James Fenimore Cooper, in "The Leatherstocking Tales."

Then, to go with my reading of the Keay The Honorable Company: A History of the English East India Company, pub date 1993 -- and which, despite a plethora of fascinating personalities and lots of really great adventure tales, I'm finding very hard going, and, in fact, rather dull -- and the reading of of a history of New Amsterdam, The Island at the Center of the World, comes this, reviewed by another terrific WaPo writer about books, Michael Dirda, Vermeers's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook.

[ . . . There doesn't seem to be any obvious reason why such a formidable Sinologist should be bringing out a book with a 17th-century Dutch painting on the cover and the title Vermeer's Hat.

But the explanation turns out to be quite simple: This book isn't about Vermeer's brushstrokes or the use of light in his paintings. Instead, it really does focus on the fur hats -- and the old maps and the dishes of fruit and the silver coins -- pictured in those paintings. As his subtitle suggests, Brook hopes to use these pictorial elements to describe "the dawn of the global world," in particular the economic entanglements between the Netherlands and China. . . .

. . . . For instance, in the chapter titled "School for Smoking," he notices that 17th-century Dutch porcelain, representing Chinese scenes, often shows people smoking. Where did the painter get the idea that the Chinese smoked? This leads to an overview of tobacco commerce and consumption in Asia, building on accounts of the shipping routes, the trade laws and the movement of silver, as well as tobacco, to the East. But Brook also takes time to discuss the social impact of chi yan or "eating smoke."

Such interlacing of the economic with the social and ideological Brook labels "transculturation," a term first coined by the Cuban historian Fernando Ortiz to describe "the process by which habits and things move from one culture to another so thoroughly that they become part of it and in turn change the culture into which they have moved." Sometimes this results in the destruction of what is already there, and usually "the outcomes of these globalizing processes cannot be controlled." ....

. . .Throughout Vermeer's Hat, Brook keeps his economic history striking and anecdotal. "If there is one overwhelming condition that shaped the history of the seventeenth century more than any other, it is global cooling." Between 1550 and 1700, according to the book, temperatures fell all over the world. Grain prices rose; cold and plague decimated Venice and Amsterdam. But Dutch fleets enjoyed a herring boom, giving them money to invest in shipping. Why did Champlain push into unexplored Canada? For beaver pelts. And why did Europeans want those pelts? For expensive, durable hats. Profits from those hats would pay for something important: the search for the supposed water route across North America to China. ...

. . . . Commercially, the 17th century was an age of silver, tobacco and slaves, and Brook shows how the three interconnect to form an intricate economic network. This new international economy is revealed in every aspect of life, not only in the account books of the VOC and the histories of the Jesuit missionaries in China and Latin America, but also in the items depicted in paintings by a Delft artist who died young. All our experience is global. ]

Thus this book appears filled with answers to questions I never asked, such as the Chinese tobacco one, despite life-long acquaintance with quaint illos of sedate Chinese bearded sages with pipes in hand, if not in mouth -- even as described in the pages of Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins, in a scene at the Boston wharfs, in a warehouse that is part of her wealthy, merchant ship owning family's fortunes.


K. said...

The crap we got fed in school in South Texas about Reconstruction would fill Noah's ark and then some. Eric Foner and Richard Nelson Current have done well-regarded work setting the record straight; it's nice to know that someone has joined them.

True story: In ninth grade English class, I had to write a book report on a "classic." I asked for and was denied permission to write my report on The Grapes of Wrath. Gone With the Wind, however, received approval.

Renegade Eye said...

When cultures interact and change, some call it a dialectic.

Foxessa said...

Foner has been doing incredible work for a long time. He's also a good guy to hang out with.

There's a lot of others too.

So it's odd, isn't it, that the neocons, and all the other rightists just keep on keepin' on with ye olde same phony mythology. And the news and entertainment industries never question it.

I did notice when Westerns began to change in some areas, particularly in that of the 'Indians,' something else changed. "Broken Arrow," with Jimmy Stewart, which was an approachment fairytale which meant very well, and was famous in its day -- well Stewart's character was an officer who fought in the Union armies, not the Confederate ones.

Love, C.

Flimsy Sanity said...

The former head of the South Dakota library came from one of the Carolinas and although he was intelligent in so many ways, he once said something about how horrible it was that reconstruction put former slaves in charge of the state legislature.

I thought the beaver hats were fads. Even if it were cold, wool was probably plentiful. A favorite book of mine is Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds that talks about things like stock market runs, the crusades and the tulip craze - and how people are so impressionable... when Kennedy appeared bare-headed, hats went out of fashion.

Foxessa said...

Flimsy wrote:

[ The former head of the South Dakota library came from one of the Carolinas and although he was intelligent in so many ways, he once said something about how horrible it was that reconstruction put former slaves in charge of the state legislature. ]

Straight outta Compton! -- wait, er, outta, Thomas Dixon's The Klansman on which was based D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation! Both of which were fictions, needless to say.

Love, C.