Monthly Archives: July 2013

Revolutionary, my dear…

Marla R. Miller, Rebecca Dickinson, Independence for a New England Woman. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2014.

No, dear reader, you have not traveled into a new dimension (or year), but you are experiencing something unusual in reading commentary on a book that has been published next year.  We have entered that part of the year when occasionally publishing houses have books out ahead of the next year – it’s sort of like car makers.  Today’s book is part of the “Lives of American Women” series, edited by Carol Berkin and written by UMASS professor, Marla Miller.  The text arrived in my campus P.O. Box today, so I thought, “why not read it?”  An officious friend of mine pointed out that in his mind, this violated the tenets of my project – I thought about that comment a bit and respond, well, the book was on a shelf in my P.O. Box, and that shelf is mine so…technically…

Anyway, I read it, beginning with editor Berkin’s comments introducing us to some of the reasons why we should pay attention to women such as Rebecca Dickinson.  Dickinson did not fight in the American Revolution, nor publish pamphlets, nor write a history of America’s struggle for independence.  She did, however, have a long life that revealed “much about the turbulent era in which our nation was born; her life serves as a window onto the role played by ordinary women and men” (ix).  As an artisan, Dickinson was an important part of preindustrial America; as a lifetime single person, Dickinson battled both her own and outside societal pressure to marry and raise a family.

Two is better than one, for if one fall the other can lift him up.  But I must act my part alone. – Rebecca Dickinson, summer 1789

While I might not agree with some conclusions from the text (eg, that Dickinson was forging a new path for women in American society), the book provides the kind of opportunity for teachers and students of history that I like.  By exposing the life of an individual in American society, Pr. Miller has successfully given readers insight into, at the very least, the experience of a rural, skilled, female resident of the colonial northeast.  Miller has had a long relationship with Dickinson, reaching back just over 25 years when she was first exposed to Dickinson’s diary in connection with a summer fellowship at Historic Deerfield.  From that brief exposure grew an undergraduate thesis, a master’s thesis, a dissertation, several articles, and now two books (the other being The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution).

But diaries can be misleading: few of us would want to be remembered only for the things we wrote down in our most private moments, whether they were hours of worry, despair, or joy. – Marla Miller, xii

Miller’s point about diaries and journals is important.  Rebecca Dickinson’s life, or at least pieces of it, are available to us because her parents chose to educate her and because she chose to write at all.  The journal, as in depth as it is, is still not the entire story of her life, though it can make readers believe it to be a complete picture.  Miller hopes that the biography can show elements of Dickinson’s life journey.  Unfortunately, we learn early on that she began to destroy some of her older journals believing them to be “but poorly written….It served to amuse the mind, but nothing like the affairs of eternity” (February 1788).

Dickinson’s life is well contextualized as Miller seeks to quickly and clearly explain to readers the unusual nature of the eighteenth-century single woman.  Background on the settling of New England (including religious and political reasons for its settlement), the violent nature of life on its frontiers, specific rationales for settling in the Hatfield, MA region, religious upheaval of the Great Awakening, and the revolutionary period are all covered by Miller.  Besides learning that Dickinson’s grandmother had been born while held captive among native people (Canada Waite) we also come to understand the connections between her home community and the swirling changes associated with the Great Awakening.

In addition, Dickinson’s life is laid out against large events such as the revolution, in which her community was largely on the side of dissent, or Shays’ Rebellion, during which time Hatfield and most citizens were on the side of “law and order.”  In the seventh chapter, Miller uses several entries to explore some fascinating aspects of Dickinson’s views on issues like fornication, executing criminals, etc. (101-115).  Dickinson is achingly human as well.  Her life was guided by her absolute conviction spiritually and also painful and sorrowful as she wrote “how my lot fell by myself alone, how it came about that others and all the world in possession of children and friends and a house and homes while I was so odd as to sit her alone almost froze with the cold” (August 20, 1787, p.118).

This book would prove useful in courses that discuss the period including the American revolutionary period and era of the early republic.  Miller successfully balances details of Dickinson’s life with important American historical events.  The brevity of the book (and others in the series) is particularly useful for undergraduate and advanced high school student consumption.  Dickinson’s life choices as well as evidence as to how her community reacted to her provide fodder for class discussion that could easily evolve into comparative questions of modern society.  As I alluded to earlier, does Dickinson’s life truly sit as a new path for American women in the time after the early republic?  Probably not.  Her life, and the tale of how her story came to be told are quite useful for budding historians!


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To err…

Alina Tugend, Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. New York: Riverhead Books, 2011.

…at some point he had to learn by failing. If I had saved him, what kind of adult would he be? What kind of employee would he be? – p. 61

I don’t like making mistakes. It is a character flaw of mine that creates problems when I project my lack of comfort with mistakes on others – not the easiest issue to have when raising children either, but we generally make do. New York Times columnist Alina Tugend suggests I might learn a thing or two or three from letting go and making a mistake, then learning myself up something from the experience.

Tugend wonders why people instinctively feel the need to cover up mistakes when, in fact, quite a bit of positive development can occur when these mistakes are recognized and analyzed. In working with budding teachers, I discuss the value of mistakes all the time. We point out throughout the undergraduate experience, “you will make mistakes, you will improve because of them.” This fact may be observed in terms of lesson plans, time management, lecture material, classroom management – in short, the breadth of the teaching experience! Tugend emphasizes some similar points throughout the book, particularly in chapters 2 and 7. On a related point, the seventh chapter explores how cultural differences make educators approach mistakes by students in different ways – is process more important than the final grade? I hope that both can be important, but I have to concur that process is vital as it serves as a building block for learning.

I appreciate that Tugend begins the text with an attempt at defining what is meant by error. She uses dictionaries, academics, and business people. Important too is the observation that while misjudgment or a failure of a planned sequence might help define mistakes, it was the consequence s which made a difference (9-11). It is consequence that often determines our reaction to the mistake, but it is also here where humans struggle the most. How to react when the mistake may appear large but the consequence is, in reality, quite small, is a skill I would argue. Tugend explores how people deal with the consequences in a variety of situations.

While Tugend points out that not every error can be a corrective, she tends to focus on those that have some positive outcomes in Better. Her examples in chapter four on medical mistakes are illustrative, particularly the suggestions from Dr. Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist. Pronovost wanted a simple checklist used by doctors to minimize the risk of infections, particularly for patients receiving catheters. As Tugend explains, he worked hard to give people ideas about the steps they needed to take, a study of the results of taking the steps, and a push to change the culture. We do some similar work in teaching, particularly in terms of the latter issue.

Give Better a read to “better” understand how we make errors and deal with them, but also to get you thinking about whether little mistakes, in the end, add up to much.

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Wait, was there an election?

L. Sandy Maisel, American Political Parties and Elections, A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007

The key question [about politics] has always revolved around the locus of power (72).

Pr. Maisel has worked at Colby College in political science for over forty years and has also been a candidate for the United States Congress. Maisel’s contribution to the very short introduction series from Oxford University Press, while somewhat repetitive in spots, is a valuable tool for interested citizens as well as teachers of American government.

As befits these books, Maisel writes clearly and concisely. He emphasizes how it is difficult in such a book to make decisions about essential versus interesting, whether complex concepts are understood by readers, and the difficulty in choosing general descriptives versus contemporary, familiar examples to explain political process (xi). Equally important for Maisel is stating why it is important that people understand how elections work. He argues that the electoral process is a connection between people and government and as such, the people need to understand whether their will is reflected in political leadership. Maisel is, in his words, “a passionate believer in American democracy, but…also an ardent critic” (xii). I couldn’t agree more with his sentiment, particularly as he stresses that these two ideas are not incompatible.

Each chapter follows a useful formula that makes the material come together for the reader. Maisel outlines, at times with a simple introductory example, a series of points he will cover, the body of the chapter follows, and a summary concludes, giving readers an even shorter introduction (should they choose) to a very short introduction. In the opening three chapters this is quite helpful as Maisel explains the context in which we should try to understand American politics and government, the origins of the election process itself, and why political parties came to be, along with their organizational models and evolutions (1-76). Along the way, readers are exposed to debates over the Constitution, definitions galore of important political terms, origins of the American party system, and the esoteric nature of the Electoral College.

At times, this organizational structure and some use of specific examples results in some repetition of points. Also, the text works current political examples into the book yet I wonder whether that shortens the shelf life. Already, some of the questions Maisel asks about campaigns and the. Impact of Howard Dean as Democratic National Committee chair for example have bee answered, so the speculations within fall a bit flat.

Nevertheless, Maisel has created a strong introductory text addressing questions of American political power, its origins and locations. Use of this book in an introductory political science course or a survey level United States history course would prove as informative as it would useful. Of particular use for class or section discussions, and perhaps short paper topics, would be Maisel’s final chapter in which he reminds readers of five essential questions and concerns:

  • Level of Participation
  • The Presidential nominating and election process
  • The cost of democracy
  • Lack of competition
  • Campaign Discourse
  • Each one of these concerns is accompanied by explanations and reminders as to what Maisel has said earlier in the text along with subsections for each. As I stated, the possibility for specific papers or class discussion is strongly aided by this chapter. Finally, Maisel returns to an important point that Americans (politicians and citizens alike) seem to miss frequently. Our government and electoral process is not for all. “One cannot export culture and traditions. One should not claim perfection for a system that even in the present context has apparent flaws” (147). In short, we can hold up our model to the world if we like, but we cannot force it on others – also, we must explore, question, praise, and reform our system to move this version of democracy forward. Maisel offers us a useful context and history, a blueprint for more discussion, and faith that we can demonstrate true leadership within our nation.

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    The extension of credit by instrument

    Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010.

    Lehman Brothers had vanished, Merrill had surrendered, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were just a week away from ceasing to be investment banks. – 18 September 2008

    In most of his works, Michael Lewis builds his evidence and argument on the backs of human stories. Part of what makes The Big Short intriguing is that Lewis begins with elements of his own experience, reminding readers about his work that was described in the earlier Liar’s Poker.

    The subject of Lewis’ book is the collapse of the United States stock market in 2008. Lewis argues persuasively that for some people, this crash was predictable and avoidable. More important for Lewis’ story, there were ways to make money off of the same situation that was costing some companies their very existence. The characters to whom we are introduced are interesting, possess numerous quirks, and share in common their ability to have both foreseen this economic disaster, and profited from the experience.

    Some readers may find the level of detail undertaken by Lewis to be overwhelming – do we need to hear in grand detail about every level of Mike Burry’s idiosyncratic behavior? Perhaps not, but it makes Burry compelling in a variety of ways.

    I think what I enjoyed the most about The Big Short is that Lewis described much of the situation with an air of incredulous wonder. The same level of wonder struck many of us as we watched the market tank, though I recall thinking “well, that was fairly predictable.” My students had been pestering me since 2003 regarding the possibility of a return to the Great Depression – I always pointed out that the repeal of Glass-Steagall made me a bit nervous for a crash, though not for something on the same level as the 1930s. As Lewis reveals to use all the ultimate failure of the market was more complex than a simple response to repealed legislation – greed, overreach, and an honest lack of understanding played tremendously important roles too.

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    Working to understand France

    Lynn M. Case & Warren F. Spencer, The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970. (part two)

    As I mentioned in part one of this commentary, The United States and France is a long piece of nearly 610 pages followed by extensive notes and bibliographic commentary.  I also pointed out that in the first go round, the general style appeared to be very formal in sentence structure and wording.  I’m happy to report that this issue resolved itself relatively quickly – whether I simply got used to the authors’ idiosyncratic choices or the material did, in reality, smooth out, I’m still unclear.  Perhaps by our third or fourth report I’ll have a conclusive thought.

    While at times Case and Spencer have a tendency to go for the long quote to prove a point (there are some immensely long block quotes) the authors also make use of primary evidence in an interesting manner by going for a more conversational style at times.  The reader gets a a good sense of this when conversations between Napoleon III and his foreign ministers or other nations’ foreign ministers are taking place.  This choice has the effect of bringing the words to a livelier level – the authors still maintain their point, but do so in a manner that reminds the reader of the human element.  This skill is sometimes lacking in historical writing.

    From a content perspective, the debate back and forth within France over supporting preservation of the Union, supporting the Confederacy, or maintaining neutrality is interesting.  It is clear that in the early going most of the French press was at least nominally unionist.  However, Case points out that some of this may have been due to a clever tack by French writers, praising American democracy as a method of critiquing their own limitations on freedom under Napoleon III.  Northern diplomats at times despaired that the Confederacy would be granted “belligerent rights.”

    This point on belligerent rights is of interest as well because of its repercussions in the modern era.  Case reminds the reader that the world looks at those in revolt and wonders whether they should be recognized as a new nation.  However, foreign countries, (even today, but particularly in the late sixties) delay.  Case used the historical example of France waiting two years to recognize the United States as an independent nation.  Further, he points out that recognizing independent sovereignty was often dependent on the new nation using bellicose actions to demonstrate authority.  For their part, officials from the United States consistently demanded foreigners stay out of what was described as an American affair and problem.  Meanwhile, Case also does a great job portraying how even within France itself, the foreign ministry was less than clear as to what its government wanted to do in relation to the Confederacy.  Case also conveys clearly the trepidation that French ministers had when dealing with Secretary of State Seward.  I imagine, and Case helps create the scene, that discussions must have been very uncomfortable and tense as ministers have to explain that France would be interested in ideas like neutrality or mediating a settlement between the two parties, etc.

    …the Federal government, which is determined to perish rather than recognize the Southern Confederacy, will not suffer the Europeans to have relations with its present leaders, which would raise their prestige.” – William Seward, United States Secretary of State, 1861

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    The home stomping grounds in fiction…

    Dennis Lehane, Moonlight Mile. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

    About ten years ago I picked up a book at my branch of the Los Angeles public library entitled Shutter Island and was introduced to Dennis Lehane. The book impressed me because it was an unusual sort of mystery and appealed to me due to its Boston locale. I didn’t know much about the author though that same year the first major film based on a Lehane novel was released. Mystic River, which I watched with a very strange audience at the Los Feliz 3, and Shutter Island inspired me to dig into Lehane more deeply and I believe I picked up Prayers for Rain next, introducing me to Patrick Kenzie and, in that novel, his estranged lover Angie Gennaro. For readers familiar with Lehane’s novels you’ll recognize that this was an “ass end to” way to approach the characters, who had been introduced in his award winning 1994 novel A Drink Before the War.

    I liked the characters, I liked Lehane’s style, and, as someone who had been away from my home state of Massachusetts for nearly ten years at that point, the scenes gave me a nostalgic thrill as well. I had always enjoyed Robert Parker as well, whose Spenser mysteries had been a staple to me since the mid 1980s, but there was another personal connection with Lehane’s chosen environment.

    My parents on both sides grew up in Dorchester, one near Uphams Corner, the other in a couple of different houses closer to Neponset Circle. These names, if you are not connected to the area, are meaningless, yet the neighborhoods and the parishes shaped my parents’ lives immensely along with six aunts and uncles and a variety of grandparents, great aunts and uncles, cousins, etc. Dorchester itself is the largest “subdivision” of Boston and home to about 1/6 of that city’s population. It has long been a home to shifting groups of immigrants – indeed Lehane’s parents were Irish immigrants.

    I spent a lot of time in Dorchester as a child, chiefly at the paternal ancestral home on 8 Barry Park near Uphams Corner. The Aietas owned that house from about 1905 or so until 1987 – there’s a photograph hanging downstairs in my house now portraying my great-great grandfather, his wife, and various sons and daughters sitting on the porch. My mother would (and still does!) talk about her girlhood in Dorchester and walking from parish to parish on Holy Thursday to make the stations of the cross. My mother and father both knew the family who lived at 6 Percival Street at one time, a house made famous as being the first “This Old House.” I have heard the specific version of the Boston accent unique to Dorchester so much in my life that at times, it is easy to figure out that someone is not just Bostonian, but from a specific neighborhood within Dorchester.

    This latter point can be amusing and, in the case of Hollywood movies, can be annoying. One of the most amusing examples was on day one of a long term substitute teacher job, sitting in the faculty room listening to an English teacher tell a tale. When completed, I introduced myself and said, I’m sorry, but which parish in Dorchester did you grow up near – I think St. Peter’s but…he laughed and affirmed my guess but pressed me on how I could have known. Or the woman I sat next to randomly at a history conference whom I quizzed as to how close to Neponset circle she must have lived – pretty close as it was perhaps two streets from my mom’s place on Westglow.

    My point is that good authors make their environment as much a character of their books as the people they create. Lehane is a master on this front though sometimes in subtle ways (eg, discussing the cross streets, which T stops run where, etc). Equally important of course, is that while I care about the neighborhoods, perhaps more than typical readers, I also deeply care about Patrick and Angie. They are, as is often the case in tough mystery novels, principled people but who also make some interesting choices and whose decisions and use of violence is often something that makes some readers a bit squeamish. It is one of these decisions, made by Patrick in Gone, Baby, Gone that is probably the most infamous and debated both by those who read the novel and/or saw the film. Indeed, that decision creates serious repercussions for Patrick and Angie’s relationship, and ultimately the crux of the story expressed in Moonlight Mile.

    I can’t say much about this story without giving away important details about the mystery, but Amanda McCready, disappeared and rescued by Patrick some 12 years earlier in Gone, Baby, Gone is once again missing. Central to Moonlight is Patrick’s struggle with whether he did the right thing by returning Amanda to her addicted and checked out mother, a debate that is augmented by his mixed feelings about his current main employer, and of course, Amanda’s new disappearing act.

    There is much to commend in the novel, including Lehane’s caricatured portrayal of a fitness guru’s offensive mind processes, a wonderful quick nod to television’s Arrested Development, of which Patrick is assuredly a fan, and the presence of minor sociopath Bubba Rogowski. One of Lehane’s strengths is typically dialogue which is why an important scene in which Patrick is talking with a number of prep school girls falls a bit flat. Maybe it is because I taught at the west coast version of a school like the one Lehane is portraying, but the rhythm and word choices there didn’t quite ring true. I think of M. T. Anderson’s masterful Feed and how he captured that late adolescent patter so well and wish this scene in Moonlight had read as smoothly.

    In the end, that point is quite a minor complaint – the mystery is solid, the moral dilemmas are intriguing, and the twists in storyline are believable which can be a challenge in private detective fiction. If Lehane can pardon the pun, on any given day, I enjoy his work whether it is the mystery novels or the rich historical fiction. I’ll be investigating Live By Night shortly and I urge others to do likewise!

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    Civil War diplomacy

    Lynn M. Case & Warren F. Spencer, The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970. (part one)

    The late co-authors of this work make clear from the preface that their interest in pursuing the topic of Franco-American relations in the Civil War era is a labor of love driven partially by the fact that not a lot of recent work had been done on the subject by the late 1960s.  Chiefly, the authors believed that other historians had mined the diplomacy with England and even Germany effectively, but France promised “undiscovered” diplomatic history.

    Case and Spencer divided the labor on the text.  The authors had previously pursued studies of the French foreign ministers who served during the Civil War (Edouard Thouvenal and Drouyn de Lhuys respectively).  Case worked through the first nine chapters, while Spencer wrote chapters ten through sixteen.  Together, the two men wrote the preface, introduction and seventeenth chapter.  As I have written before, co-authored books always intrigue me because of the compromises that must be made as well as the practical problems authors may face in putting together a book at a distance from one another (Case worked in Pennsylvania, Spencer in Georgia).

    The book is a long piece at some 608 pages of regular text followed by extensive notes and bibliographic commentary.  As a result, I have been slowly working my way through the wording, not helped out by the general style which, while readable, is very formal in sentence structure and wording.  A little over twenty years ago I used the book as a source for an independent paper project I was completing along with two other students.  At the time, I was looking for only certain points related to diplomacy in 1863 and early 1864, so it was very much an index and skim search.

    Despite its very formal nature, the book remains clear.  Readers identify quickly the main intent of the authors and the citations demonstrate the depth of their research.  Case and Spencer attest that the diplomatic impact of the American Civil War was extensive, particularly in the Western Hemisphere.  They tie the event to a number of others that relate to nationalist conflicts in Italy, the Prussian and Austrian territories, etc.  Case and Spencer also emphasize that the war period was almost a proving ground of sorts for international law with examples of how to deal with recognizing new nations, defining neutral rights, protecting foreign people and property in wartime, and more.  The authors make interesting points about the war’s impact on employment and poverty in Europe, the historiography of foreign affairs in the period is explored, and revelations about previously unknown resources and papers are made  (particularly documents from Edouard Thouvenel that later amounted to some 25 microfilm rolls after legal reproduction issues were cleared).

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