Monthly Archives: May 2013

RIF: Reading is Fundamental or Reading is Franklin?

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography and Other Writings.  Selected and Edited with an Introduction by L. Jesse Lemisch. New York and Scarborough: Signet Classic, 1961.

I’m coming to you “live” from near the KFC Yum! Center (actual name!) in downtown Louisville where I’ll be spending the next week or so grading Advanced Placement United States History exams.  I’ve graded exams off and on since 1999 and it’s always an interesting experience.  This year should prove no different as I have been assigned a question whose topic is covered by a book I ALMOST brought off my shelf for the “review project” (Bernard Bailyn’s The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century).  Bailyn’s book almost made my criteria for this trip – slim and not to bulky to carry since I’m gone from the office for a week – but I decided to go with a stack of Bedford/St. Martin’s “Brief History with Documents,” some electronic books if necessary, and, at the last minute, a book on memory.

We’ll see how my personal challenge holds up this week given the amount of reading during the day I have to complete, but at least on a travel day like today, I have been able to make a serious dent in my first choice.  Bedford/St. Martin’s also has a version of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, but I went with the older Signet Classic because I liked two things – 1. the way it felt in my hand and 2. Pr. Lemisch’s selection of “other writings.”  In various airports today I added a third “like” – the edition fit nicely into the back pocket of my jeans.

In the introduction, Pr. Lemisch offers readers both a brief biographical sketch of Franklin and background on the autobiography itself.  Among the themes included in the “other writings” section, Lemisch chose Franklin’s thoughts on religion, excerpt’s from Poor Richard (Franklin’s alter ego), as well as examples from Franklin’s scientific and political endeavors.

Franklin’s autobiography is divided into two parts, the first of which reads as a letter to his son, written from England in 1771.  In part one, Franklin explores bits of family lore, including the probable spot of origin of the Franklin surname, the profession of his grandfather, father, and uncles, and the close connection with one of those uncles, his namesake and godfather.

Franklin was born in on Milk Street Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1706, and died in Philadelphia after a long life in 1790.  Franklin discusses being part of a large family (17 children for Josiah Franklin by two wives) and recalls how it was his father’s intent that this tenth son would be Josiah’s “tithe” to the church (22).  Young Ben was to become a minister and so was sent to what was then called Boston Grammar School (now Boston Latin – alma mater of my grandfather, father, college roommate, and almost an uncle).  The expense was such that Josiah Franklin had to pull his son from school and by age ten, Benjamin was working in the family tallow chandler business (23).

As befits a memoir written some fifty plus years after many of the events described, there is an uneven nature to the stories.  Franklin drops in and out of the story of his life with either nothing, or vast amounts of detail.  For example, he offers a fascinating discussion of how he worked at bettering his writing and vocabulary.  Franklin believed at a young age that he was defeated in a debate not on merit of argument but rather about command of language.  As a result, Franklin collected books and other printed material, reading and altering it to make himself better.  His method was to write short versions of the ideas followed by setting the original aside for a time and then taking up the short versions later in an effort to complete them accurately.  Another strategy was to take the narrative form and turn it into verse, then turn it back into prose.  Franklin believed strongly that such exercises and the sheer amount of reading he did aided him in learning how to arrange his thoughts (27-32).

This particular emphasis on reading made me think back to two things – a 1970s public service announcement and a class I was teaching in the spring of 2001.  The former made clear that reading was the foundation of all learning.  The latter affirmed that argument when a flustered student asked me: “Mr. Aieta, how do you know all this stuff?” and I replied, “I read books.”  Another student in the course, the brightest I have ever taught since I began this profession in 1994, offered a burst of laughter and a knowing smile at my response.

Franklin’s tale includes details about societies he helped sponsor, the origins of fire fighting in Philadelphia, and of course lending libraries.   It is a shame that the nature of his own life, and the history of the colonies interfered with his ability to make a more complete record of his experiences.  Thirteen years pass between the beginning of part two and part one, and then another four years is gone before Franklin completes the second half.

In this latter section, we learn about Franklin’s efforts at temperance, silence, order, and more as well as his views on the famed George Whitefield and the doomed Braddock expedition.  Franklin’s arrival in London in 1757 concludes the autobiography and we are poorer for his not living a bit longer to sketch out his experiences in London and Paris in later years.  Fully 30 more years of experience don’t get their due. Pr. Lemisch’s choice “other writings” round out this wonderful little volume.  We learn methods of frugality from Richard Saunders, all manner of naturalist observations, musical instrument invention (the glass harmonica), his matter of fact regret about having not inoculated son Francos against the small pox. We see the husband at work as well in a series of communications between Benjamin and his wife Deborah.  He is not particularly giving of his affections but in examining these letters, we can see something of the man in question.

In sum I encourage the consumption of Franklin’s autobiography in general.  The reader is all the richer if this particular edition is perused.


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Inventing America, part deux

Gordon Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.

Yesterday’s authors suggested that emancipation was the single most dramatic event in American history.  Pr. Wood will quibble, stating that the American Revolution is the most important event in the history of the United States.  Wood believes this is the case for the obvious reason that without it the nation itself does not exist and because the Revolution helped to “infuse our culture [with] our highest aspirations and noblest values” (2).  In a way, parts of Wood’s finely crafted introduction read like a speech from Jor-El to his son: “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards.  They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fail.  But in time, they will join you in the sun.  In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”  Wood on the United States: “Our believes in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era….The Revolution, in short, gave birth to whatever sense of nationhood and national purpose we Americans have had” (2,3).  The stumbling part is covered by Wood too, and in essence, he argues we are fascinated with the founding fathers and the period because our identity is “fluid” and by examining this period in history, we get a grounding as to who and what we are, as well as what we might yet become.

Pr. Wood has collected a number of his previously constructed essays in this text and explains their presence clearly and lucidly in the introduction, just as he crafts a wonderfully worded and concise series of statements on the changing tradition of historical writing on the revolution.  Full disclosure: there was a time when I fled from historiography.  In retrospect, I cannot understand why I ever held such an ignorant opinion.  As Wood makes clear, time and time again, we can better understand the past when we begin to unfold how we and those who came before us interpret the events under study.

This text is divided into three parts, covering the American Revolution, the Making of the Constitution, and the Early Republic.  After explaining his thoughts on these three eras of history in the introduction, Wood has placed his essays from the past half century into the appropriate sections.  A vital point that Wood expresses is how it is not ideas alone that drive human action – passion must always play a role as well.  Wood’s passions shine throughout this collection, giving us fifty years worth of thought, analysis, and more.

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Ira Berlin, Barbara Fields, Steven Miller, Joseph Reidy, and Leslie Rowland, Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Each of the authors collaborated on these essays, which makes for a different kind of approach than any of the other texts I have read thus far.  Collectively, the essays ask important questions about how slaves gained their freedom and what freedom as a concept, ideal, etc. meant.  The authors strive to place slaves in the forefront as active participants in gaining freedom, not recipients.  The argument is presented that emancipation as an idea and event altered life in the United States for everyone.

In the introduction, the authors suggest that there is no other “event in American history [that] matches the drama of emancipation” (ix).  I am not certain I completely agree.  Was the moment in time one of extreme drama?  Yes, and emancipation certainly created an opportunity for a deep change in American society.  That being said, there are many events of high drama in American history for consideration, some of which could also be described as having far reaching impacts (eg, debates on and approval of the Constitution).  Particularly in light of the author’s contention that by emancipating slaves, the United States was taking part in a global transformation, I believe the example of the Constitution is an important one in light the years of transmitting the form and ideals of the republic around the world.  Rather than belabor this minor critique, I’d like to discuss elements of the impetus behind these essays and some of the main arguments presented in each.

The essays emerged as part of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, a research endeavor whose aim it was to write a documentary history of slavery to freedom.  As the internet has expanded and changed over the past 21 years, the project has “kept up,” affording those interested an opportunity to examine many of the documents that the researchers began to unearth from the National Archives in 1976 (xi).  The authors believed that by collecting the documents and making them accessible, (initially in print, now partially available digitally as well), readers could better understand the history of emancipation from the perspective of the slave, former slaveholder, and outsiders (xiii).

The first essay explores the destruction of slavery, richly addressing the actions taken by slaves, abolitionists, politicians, and generals.  At the foremost, as would be expected given the intent of the authors, is to emphasize the agency of those enslaved: “the war provided the occasion for slaves to seize freedom” (5) is an important theme.  In teaching emancipation, I believe this point is one of the most important on which to focus student understanding.  Students cannot operate under the false presumption that slaves had no hand in their own liberation.  One of the most interesting aspects of the first essay is its emphasis on how the various aspects and cultures within slavery caused it to be a brittle institution (11).  Another important focus in this section explains the role of the military in the lives of former slaves.

The second essay discusses the growth of free labor during the war years.  The term free labor remains one of the more confusing ones to explain to students as they often do not grasp the fact that free, in this case, refers to ones ability to choose a profession and employer.  Freedom could emerge from owning “productive property” as well as controlling the source and fruits of ones labor.  But what of the life that freedom could create?  At least 250,000 free people of African descent were free yet at the same time, unfree in America.  What was independence then for these individuals?  Yes, some white Americans were comfortable with both abolition and the possibility of equality.  Some decided to work among the free blacks and former slaves to change the world that the slave system had created (89 -98).  The authors effectively describe the work undertaken by free people and the debates among those seeking to help them change their lives.  This section also strives to explain how contraband laborers, colonization supporters, and the Emancipation Proclamation itself all contributed to differences in how free labor evolved during the war years.  Finally the essay asks difficult questions about the commitment of Northerners to the idea of freed slaves acquiring control over the “property” of their labor – could these individuals set their work day, own land, decide what crops to plant?  Despite some successes, the emancipation of slaves was limited in many ways.  The majority of laborers found themselves working for wage labor rather than as independent land owners (182).

The final essay focuses on the relationship between military experiences and the freedom for the majority of American slaves.  The army, especially after 1862, had become a force of liberation.  It was, of course, not only white soldiers that were involved here as free blacks and ex-slaves took a military role (189-190).  This section discusses in detail the challenges facing both the black soldiers themselves and their supporters in the military ranks and civilian population.  Like the previous two essays, this piece is based on documents pulled from the National Archives research that has been undertaken over the past thirty-seven years.  Protests over free blacks retaining officers’ ranks or equal pay between white and black troops dominate the discussion in this final section.  An additional important theme is how and why military service transformed the lives of free black Americans (both immediately and into the future).

While the collection is an important introduction into concepts and salient themes connected to emancipation, the authors might have done more to fulfill the promise of the event as the most dramatic in American history.  Drama – good drama certainly – requires characters.  These characters need to resonate with people, a fact that is true whether discussing novels, non-fiction monographs, or television, film, and theater.  While people do appear on these pages, they read a bit flat.  This is especially the case in the final chapter where readers might benefit from, as my graduate school advisor always put it, hearing the voices of actual people.

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Teaching to Inspire

Rosanne Liesveld and Jo Ann Miller with Jennifer Robison, Teach With Your Strengths, How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students. New York: Gallup Press, 2005.

In the introduction to this work, the authors discuss how the Gallup Organization has studied the question of “what makes a teacher great.”  The authors argue that teachers can have a greater impact on their students, and therefore society, than their parents.  Due to this conclusion, the importance of the teaching profession can’t be understated.  The main purpose of the book, however, is to explore how “teaching with strengths makes teachers happier, more productive, likelier to stay in the field, and far more successful in the classroom.” (11-13)

Years ago, when I began teaching, I had zero experience.  I had not been through a training program, I had not, other than leading class discussion or guest lecturing in a classroom, taught an entire class period (high school, middle school, or college), and I certainly had never planned out an entire year.  I had, one would think, very little on which to base my lessons in my first semester.  So, like many instructors, I learned on the job.  I did have two advantages that many starting teachers do not – two parents who, between them, had over 50 years of teaching experience.

That fact aside, I still remember sitting outside my first classroom (this was for what was then called World History II), day one, and thinking, “I have a plan, I have a plan, I have a plan.”  I sort of did; I focused on that about which I excelled and had been good at most of my life – my memory.  That particular lesson went ok, once the students got past the idea that the 23 year old in front of them was “in charge,” but I knew that I couldn’t rely simply on memory and storytelling, even if these were two strengths.

This text asks teachers to do just that when attempting to succeed – use your strengths more than anything else and don’t under any circumstances, believe that to be truly good at your job, you must concentrate on your weaknesses.  The authors argue that working on weaknesses in an effort to improve your overall teaching won’t work.  Teachers end up dividing their energy, perhaps become frustrated, and in worst case scenarios, do more harm than good to themselves and their students.

In addition to this overarching philosophy, the book has a lot to say about teaching as a profession that is important for educators and the general public to understand.  According to surveys conducted by Gallup, (as a reminder, Gallup is the publisher so consider this point carefully), whereas 76% of American adults believe that a lack of student discipline is a serious problem in public schools, only 4% of teachers reference the students when asked why they might wish to leave the profession (17).  The authors follow up this statistic with an important observation about how the public (and teachers with little talent at their jobs) assume that students are a captive audience.  This assumption negatively impacts teaching, argue the authors, because effective teaching works with volunteers who are emotionally engaged with learning (17,18).  Perhaps most important, the authors emphasize that to have success, good teachers must “tap students’ innate interests and needs to help them learn” (18).  To bolster this point, Teach describes how mediocrity in teaching can emerge because of a false believe that “anyone can teach” and that while learning more about work for which you have a talent can be rewarding, no amount of advanced education will turn a mediocre teacher into a great one (19, 23).

Starting at the conclusion of chapter one and repeated in additional sections, the text offers prospective and current teachers exercises and case studies, all of which could be quite useful for training classrooms or self-reflective practice.  It wouldn’t be cricket to reveal a lot of the “action items” or “_____ in teachers sounds like this” sections, but I can say that these points, along with the “CliftonStrengthsFinder” are some of the most useful pieces I’ve examined that confirm and expand my thoughts on teaching in quite some time.  Teach With Your Strengths, like a lot of other helpful teaching aids (see Harry Wong, Daniel Pink, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Louis Rubin, Bruce Larson and Timothy Keiper), is most assuredly another arrow for the quiver.

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Inventing America

Jack Rakove, Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Pr. Rakove is the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies at Stanford University where he has taught since 1980.  Rakove came to my attention during my first year teaching for University College at Northeastern University.  As adjuncts in the UC, Rakove’s book on James Madison was the supplemental reading assigned for the US History to 1848 course.  Knowing little about him, I enjoyed the book and my students found it interesting as well as illuminating for the period.  A couple of years later, I was given Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution as a gift, and found the text’s discussion of what the creators of the constitution hoped to solve in creating a new government compelling.

About two or three years ago I listened to Rakove’s Colonial and Revolutionary America course through iTunes U (via  It was in listening to Rakove online that I learned more and more about this Pulitzer Prize winner.  A long-suffering Cubs fan, Rakove’s classes were full of information, humor, and, like my own, completely behind schedule.

Speaking of behind schedule, Revolutionaries, has not helped me keep mine.  It’s a lengthy tome, though it moves apace as Rakove draws rich portraits of important figures and their connection to the creation of the United States.  The text is divided into three parts focusing on “the crisis” that led to the war for independence, the “challenges” that faced constitution writers (in states and at the national level), and the “legacies” of men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington.  This organizational tool is quite helpful as it almost divides the text into three different books.  Rakove, however, threads it all together, from his prologue forward.

I’ll be adding more thoughts about Revolutionaries later, but I thought I would close with a few comments about that prologue.  “The World Beyond Worcester” begins by introducing us to a young schoolteacher working in Worcester – John Adams.  I went to college in Worcester some 232 years after Adams wondered whether his students were “Kings, Politicians, Divines, Fops, Buffoons” etc (1).  Sometimes I shared the same questions about my classmates – well, at least the Fops and Buffoons part.

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The American Revolution according to Carp

Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

No less a personage than John Murrin suggested that Carp’s achievement with this text was to craft the most important study of origins of the American Revolution in nearly three decades.  Other historians pointed out that the book was well written, demonstrated strong and far ranging research, and opened discussion on a range of important subjects in the time period.

Pr. Carp gets dual praise within one week from me (and dual pickings from the bookshelf) as well as serious consideration for book selection in my upcoming revolutionary America and the early republic class.  Carp is, I would argue, presenting an innovative (yet concise) book based on an impressive number of manuscript collections and newspapers.  He writes vividly about how port cities connected the American colonies economically, culturally, and politically to the British empire.  Carp argues that the physical environments of cities served as catalysts for political change.  Urban colonists, therefore, were among the first to get rid of a British identity and unite as Americans (this despite the fact that Loyalists were significant numbers in the urban setting!)

Rebels Rising, which evolved out of Carp’s graduate research, focuses on political activity in Boston, New York, Newport, Charleston, and Philadelphia.  Interestingly, and, I suppose somewhat problematically, Carp examines different aspects of each of these cities: waterfront, taverns, congregations, elite patriarchy, and common people at the state house, respectively.  His point is that people’s everyday interactions in different cities evolved into life and community altering political activities.  I like this idea and approach, though I do wonder whether focusing on the same types of environments in each city might have revealed other continuities?

This complaint of mine is minor – because truthfully I have to agree with Murrin, Jane Kamensky, and others.  This text is concise, yet the best kind of dense, and truly zesty.  I’ll close with a few examples of key points I believe Carp offers readers of the period that are important to understand.  From the opening sentences of the piece, Carp emphasizes the ways in which American cities represented the possibility of anybody knowing one another.  People talk about six degrees of Kevin Bacon – I’ve been two degrees from Mr. Bacon since his wife Kyra Sedgwick referred to my daughter as beautiful and how interacting with her made her day eight years ago – but Carp’s point is that it was possible in the compact cities of Revolutionary America for any two people to know each other (3).

These cities were full of activity, animals, smells, celebrations, and opportunity?  That opportunity and gathering space sometimes created political mobilization and that, as Carp argues, these urban people created community, defined it, and created challenges for their environments (5).  And yet, as Carp explains, these same cities became places where that community of revolutionaries could barely hang on to the independence movement they had created.  I am not fully convinced that urban environments changed so completely after the revolution as to diminish their importance in fomenting political change – rise of Democratic party politics? labor movements? draft riots? (and that is only the nineteenth century) – but,  Rebels  Rising is important writing about the American revolutionary era.

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Gunther and noir

Philip Kerr, A Man Without Breath. New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 2013.

Yesterday I pointed out that I might take today off but I started a new Gunther novel today so today I’m doing a half job posting.  I have yet to finish this particular novel, but I thought I’d offer a few comments on one of my favorite fictional characters and the nature of ‘series’ writing in general.

Years ago in my first year of teaching, a colleague introduced me to author Patrick O’Brian and his series of Napoleonic era fiction.  I became fascinated with naval tactics and terminology from the early nineteenth century, educated on the nature of the complications of being Irish, Catalan, and English, and intrigued by the moral ambiguities of Captain Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin, and others.  As the years passed and I devoured the Aubrey/Maturin canon, I enjoyed the stories (not all equally, but overall) and looked forward to the next installment.  Then O’Brian died.  I fussed.  I fidgeted.  I still have yet to finish the series.  I can’t bring myself to do it for some reason because, of course, should I read Blue at the Mizzen, it’s over.  I have the same problem with the last bits of season three of Arrested Development.

Anyway, other series have come into my life that I hold in equal esteem, and thankfully, two of the three authors are still alive and producing works,  Philip Kerr is one of those writers.  I came to Kerr via one of the other two surviving authors, Alan Furst.  Furst had been recommended to me by a colleague and I ate up his spy novels that transport the reader to Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.  Furst’s works are, not strictly speaking, serial, but there are so many overlapping locales, characters, and more, that one can’t help but be pulled into the idea that it is all interwoven as a single tale.

I forget whether a Kerr book was next to a Furst I picked up or whether the interwebs made the connection for me or what have you, but regardless, once I met Bernie Gunther, the Berlin cop and soldier with a conscience, I was hooked.  The narrative tools of any Kerr novel are strong, not the least of which being because of his powers of description.  A reader is transported to Weimar Germany, Berlin after the Nazis, the Eastern Front, South America in the years after the war, etc.    I won’t go so far as to share the opinion of the Chicago Tribune – “history is wasted on historians.  It ought to be the exclusive property of novelists – but only if they are as clever and knowledgeable as Philip Kerr” – but Kerr’s work is first rate history and story telling combined.  He clearly has deeply researched life in Germany in the interwar period and under the Nazis, and he is vastly skilled at creating characters in an unpleasant place that you care about.

A Man Without Breath, the latest Gunther novel, takes place between early March and early May 1943 and revolves around Germany’s defeat at the hands of the Soviets at Stalingrad and revelations about the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest earlier in the war. Gunther, the Great War veteran, is recovering from the effects of a British bombing and from his having been forced into work for Reinhard Heydrich and other folks whom Gunther finds distasteful.  Now, Gunther is employed by the war crimes division, investigating cases of crimes committed by German soldiers.  Kerr notes, with great irony, that his protagonist never gets to investigate the work of the einsatzgruppen who are committing actual war crimes.

Janelle is expressing shock that I wrote anything today – I concur, so I’ll wrap it up for now.  Oh, and by the way, the other series author who passed away most unfortunately is Jean Claude-Izzo, whose Marseilles Trilogy is tremendous.  I wish he were still with us.

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