Sabbatical research continued

For the second time in one week I was fortunate to spend several hours at the New-York Historical Society working in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.  On this visit I was chiefly concerned with utilizing a digital camera to document a number of the images I had discovered on the previous Tuesday.  I had enough time to take over 170 pictures, while also working my way through four books and three additional boxes of archival material before the doors closed.

While most of the pictures covered images from the Bella C. Landauer collection, I was also able to snap a few from the Gosman family papers.  These two collections offered me a broad spectrum of materials that presented a variety of views of Native Americans from the 1840s through the early 1940s.  Landauer was chiefly concerned with the advertising world and as a result, the bulk of images I’ll be analyzing from her group included pamphlets and broadsides related to so-called Indian patent medicines.  The Gosman collection, as I mentioned the other day, was a completely unexpected piece.

The Gosman family’s papers reach back to the eighteenth century but the contributions from a teenaged Richard Gosman are thus far the only pertinent pieces.  Gosman was heavily influenced by publications like Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.  Below, a comparison between an actual Leslie’s publication and a cover for Gosman should give readers a sense of what I am seeing when working with the material.

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Gosman clearly consumed and understood the manner in which these papers operated as well as their intended audience.  Much of his written text as well as the general content for his versions of the press contain stories that mirror the style one would see in the time period in question.  Gosman’s pieces were brought to my attention largely because of the large number of Native Americans included throughout his newspapers.  Gosman’s images reflect a general nineteenth century American sensibility about what Native Americans “should” look like.  Despite the fact that the young boy grew up in a state with a strong Native American presence, (the Iroquois Confederacy), Gosman only seemed to envision natives as ensconced in fringed leggings, eagle feather headdresses, and, typically, involved in conflict with white Americans.  If indeed Gosman had seen Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show at Madison Square Garden (as is implied in one edition), it is no wonder that his understanding of Native Americans would prove so limited.  Another comparison is apt so I’ll include another sample from a Leslie publication (one aimed at younger boys and girls) and a piece from Gosman.

 

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There is much more to be done with Gosman’s pieces and I have a number of examples to more thoroughly analyze.  I’m also convinced that if similar collections to Gosman can be discovered, there will be value in pursuing a separate project that explores how children and young people co-opt elements of the adult world in creative ways.  Between Gosman and the Landauer collection though, I believe I have extended the possibilities of the study.  The day before I returned to the archives, I determined that a database would prove necessary in terms of keeping track of the types of images, region of origin, purported Native American tribes represented, scenes depicted, media, etc.  I’m hopeful that building a catalog of the examples I find will allow myself and other researchers to more thoroughly understand the choices made by individuals in representing native people as well perhaps shed some light on why this problem continues.

Although I will explore Landauer in more detail separately, a few brief words and an example of this collection is worth remark.  The bulk of the collection I examined focused on medicine companies from the late nineteenth-century, many of which were located in the northeastern United States, yet that laid claim to close connections with Native American medicines and “spiritual” solutions to physical ailments.  In particular, the Kickapoo Medicine Company of New Haven, CT took great liberties with the history of the Kickapoos in general, presenting an invented “sagwa” liquid as a cure all for many an ailment.  In large, lavishly illustrated pamphlets, the company presented the “history” of the Kickapoos and the arguments for why their medicines were of great benefit to the general public.  A cursory level of research on my part reveals zero connection between the founders of this company and the Kickapoos themselves.  Like Gosman, the founders of the company chose to illustrate native life on their own terms.  While I’m not surprised by my initial findings, I am curious to see where the pursuit of additional ephemera takes me.

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*Gosman and Landauer Collection images from the NY-Historical Society

 

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Even the children might critique Stalin

Eugene Yelchin, Breaking Stalin’s Nose. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011.

A friend suggested this text, especially in light of my reading Bloodlands, and it was, in a word, perfect. Yelchin’s protagonist is ten-year old Sasha Zaichik, a young boy living in the Soviet Union in what may be the post-World War Two era. Written and illustrated by Yelchin, the book is dedicated to the author/illustrator’s father who “survived the Great Terror.” Readers of my review of Tim Snyder’s book will understand what such survival is a remarkable feat.

Young Sasha is a great fan of Joseph Stalin at the outset of this remarkable little book, writing a touching letter about why he wants to join the Young Pioneers and how he is “fortunate to live in the Soviet Union, the most democratic and progressive country in the world.”(2-4) Yelchin describes life in a komunalka (communal apartment), the joys of carrots, eternal hunger, and the fear of a life in which the State Security is an omnipresent force “purging the vermin from our midst.”

Sasha has a problem however and Yelchin brilliantly unveils the complex and uncertain nature of life in the Soviet Union. Sasha’s father is an important officer in the State Security, yet that doesn’t protect him from arrest. The fate of Sasha’s mother is revealed as the story evolves as well, and in general, what we see is an increasingly cynical world system that depends upon blind obedience, even in the face of personal uncertainty.

The book poses interesting questions about life in a totalitarian state, speculates as to how a young person might engage with such an environment, and carries it off with a blend of humor and almost Kafka-like bizarreness at times. Breaking Stalin’s Nose would be highly appropriate for history courses exploring totalitarianism and perhaps even as a humorous foil to either the entirety of Bloodlands, or excerpts from that book. Yelchin succeeds in his aim to portray how fear had become an integral part of people’s lives. In addition, he hopes that the text can serve as a model for people to understand the problem of living in fear. “To this day,” writes Yelchin, “there are places in the world where innocent people face persecution and death for making a choice about what they believe to be right.” (Author’s Note)

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Sabbatical synopsis

This fall, I am embarking on the first sabbatical of my academic career. I began teaching twenty years ago in January 1994 as an adjunct at Northeastern University; other than a brief break when I was a non-teaching assistant in graduate school, I have been working. Part of my sabbatical plan for this fall is to engage with historical research and writing in a more regular manner than I have since about 2009. I have been fortunate in engaging with teaching a subject I truly enjoy – the methodology of teaching history – but that coursework, and advising future secondary school history/social studies teachers, has occupied the majority of my time over the past five years.

My application was relatively simple: “I am requesting a sabbatical in Fall 2014 in order to complete research and begin analysis of the ways in which visual culture represent Native Americans in the nineteenth century.” In addition I pointed out that this particular project stemmed from some rudimentary work I did in relation to the National Endowment for the Humanities program in summer 2012 (see blog posts from July 2012).

I have had the great fortune of finding a campus-sponsored writing group this semester as well. A group of fellow faculty and myself are all working through Wendy Belcher’s text on writing articles for publication. I have set the goals of editing a paper I presented in January 2014 on missionaries in Nebraska in the early nineteenth century as well as completing a book proposal based on my research into frontier community development in Nebraska. In addition, I hope to get a draft worked through of this research on how Native Americans are represented in visual culture.

This past Tuesday I re-visited the NY-Historical Society and was delighted to discover a number of sources that will aid me in research and perhaps even inspire a few additional avenues of writing. The bulk of today’s post is focused on writing up what I found on Tuesday, with a few thoughts on the steps I might take from here.

Several pieces from the manuscript side struck me as useful for courses I teach such as Native American History or the United States history surveys.  I quickly made notes on a few items referenced below that would likely require return visits and perhaps photographs.  In some instances, I wrote down quotes that I believe might prove useful as exercises with students in future classes – perhaps providing the students with the quote and some historical context and then working through quick analysis schemes.

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 1

  • 22 August 1710 – brother we are told that the great queen of great brittain had sent a considerable Number of People with your excellency..to Setle upon the Land Called Skokere?, which wasa great Surprise to us and we were much Dissatisfied at the news, in regard the land belongs to us as your excellency has seen yesterday by the instructions which were given by the late Lieutenant Governor John Nansan to Hendrick…dated the 19th of May 1699…
  • June 21 1842 – letter from Quakers referring to Indians invoking the “present evil and destroyer of the human race is whiskey” you cannot prosper in any undertaking without refusing to taste, touch, or handle this unclean thing.  Your white brethren are so well convinced of this truth that a great change has come over them in this respect.  It is considered among them to be unmanly and disgraceful to use firewater…

Years ago I completed a long bit of research on factionalism in the Cherokee Nation from the 1830s through the Civil War period.  I had originally intended to return to this field for my Ph.D. research and then I wrote on other topics but I am always interested in finding new materials – in this case I was able to hold in my hand an original letter written by Principal Chief John Ross!

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 2

  • February 15 1864 letter from John Ross regarding the suffering Cherokees
  • September 26, 1871, office of US Agent for the Cherokees

I was curious about these comptroller records that seemed to indicate how land sales were conducted in lieu of the residents (natives) paying some form of tax.  It’s not a project in which I’m engaged, but it interested me from the perspective of providing some different types of documents for students to work with in class.  The second item had a number of “animal totems” for signatures to represent assent on a treaty agreement by Delawares.  The particular images fell outside the purview of my study in both chronology and type (I’m trying to discern why people outside native culture choose to portray natives in a certain way) but I found the animals intriguing and discovered them on another document.

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 3

  • Comptroller, New York State lands sold in 1843 includes reference to Buffalo Creek Reservation for paying of tax? Total is $26.24
  • Reduced facsimile removed from Charles Heartman auction catalog book? June 11, 1932; treaty from 13 July 1765 featuring animal signatures for a variety of Delawares – deer female?, turkey, porcupine, wolf?, turtle?, possom, buck, fox or wolf?, beaver

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 4

  • Treaty/petition to the legislature of New York 12 January 1788 mixture of names and animal signatures, turtle, fox?, bear? Hendrick Onaghtoron…

My first find in the manuscripts side of the NY-Historical Society came only five folders into the process and immediately at the front of said folder.  It was the type of image I was not surprised to find, being an ad for tobacco products and featuring an image that uses regalia as well as a pose reminiscent of late 16th and early 17th century European perceptions of native people.

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 5

  • West Jersey Press, Wednesday June 23, 1869 ad for JP Grant manufacturer and dealer in cigars, tobacco, wholesale and retail, no 3 market street Camden NJ, ALL goods sold at Philadelphia prices native male leans on barrel and sack, loin cloth and breech clouts, leggings, tobacco Clay pipe on left hand smoking, musket in right, roach atop scalp, necklace of some type with shells?, plug of tobacco at his feet
  • Very interesting translation of Indian interpreter extract from book of town records Salem county New Jersey

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The translations of certain dialects I found fascinating as well and certainly the material from folder 6 I plan on revisiting for a separate project related to missionaries among native people.

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 6

  • Translations of prayers Abenaki, Penobscot

The alleged portrait of Black Hawk was one of the few items I expected to find in this collection and for awhile I thought it might have gone missing from the box.  The sketch is purported to be the work of Dr. Samuel DeCamp, a military surgeon who served in the U.S. Army from at least the 1830s through his retirement in 1862.  The portrait is different from others of Black Hawk (a Sauk chief) I have seen, including a famous George Catlin piece.  The side profile is one such notable issue as is the pronounced nose – whether the work is therefore that of an untrained artist and any less “accurate” a portrayal I can’t say.  I’m curious to dig into this piece more and DeCamp’s background to see whether the claim in the file can be supported.

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 7

  • Sketch supposedly of Black Hawk by Dr. Samuel DeCamp

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The following collection was a great example of the kind of unexpected stuff that happens when you walk into an archive.  As soon as I explained my project to Tammy K. she immediately suggested I look at the Gosman papers.  It’s the kind of collection I never would have stumbled on with my own efforts, yet because she was paying attention at some point to these documents, they came to my attention.  Young Richard Gosman was between the ages of 11 and 13 when he produced what, in Tammy’s words, were in effect ‘zines of the nineteenth century.  He wrote articles, created the names of the papers, illustrated them, and drew up his own ads for each as well as kept track of volume numbers, etc.  If you peruse my rough notes below, you can see some of the cool observations one can make out of this type of primary source.  As my artist/actor friend Tony W. pointed out – something must be done about these papers!

What’s fascinating to me is the level of work and creativity Gosman placed into his creations – the recipes are likely from his own family kitchen in Long Island City, the most common add is for eggs from the RHG company (him), and there are great stories about seeing a variety of shows at Madison Square Garden.  The images Gosman creates of natives are exclusively those representing native people from the Great Plains, and, arguably, are largely Lakotas.  The young boys and older men are almost exclusively in fringed leggings and shirts and on horseback, often adorned with complex feather headdresses.  As some of Gosman’s drawings appear to be real people, one has to wonder whether he saw their images in programs from Wild West shows or in actual newspapers, etc.  Regardless, this particular collection opens up a lot of possibilities – there is ample material with which to work on the question of visually interpreting native people, but there is also much to consider in terms of the entire project.  Are there other such examples?  I feel as though there are multiple directions for this particular resource.

MS 257, Gosman papers 1747-1932

  • Richard Gosman school composition books
  • Gosman has created these interesting newspaper/club journals that reflect some interests of his (stories, fables, graphic representation) and he also populates his journals with ads, often for an egg producer who bears his own initials!
  • People’s paper January 1887 – article on how to get to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show from Blissville Long Island City to Madison Square Garden: gleasons car for three that would five cents, then the 34th street boat for 8 cents, then the 4th avenue cars for 38 cents if it is two persons and a child
  • Image in back “the Wild West soon to be managed by RHG – two plains Indians on horseback riding in saddles with reins, war paint is applied, fringed leggings and shirts, one native holds aloft a spear and has a long eagle headdress; the other no discernible weapon but feathers in hair;
  • March has recipe for queen muffins – quart of. Milk, 3/4 cup yeast, 2tbs white sugar, 1 tbs butter or lard, 1 tsp salt, flour to make a batter, 2 eggs; set batter leaving eggs out, to rise overnight, beat eggs very light stir into batter, bake on muffin rings on a quick oven twenty minutes; natives on back named Cut Meat, Rocky Bear, Sun Eagle; Rocky is “chief of the souixs” hand drawing a bow, Indian horseback saddle blanket and reins, spear, fringed leggings and shirt, one feather; natives on bottom have necklace, earring, two feathers minimum except rocky bear who has larger eagle feather headdress
  • Reference to PT Barnum show and John L. Sullivan, the boxing elephant? (from a rival circus show run by Adam Forepaugh?), as well as the skeleton of Jumbo
  • July 1887 Sioux boys breaking ponies image no saddles but reins; leggings with fringe at least one feather
  • April 1887 Flies Above and Red Bear; scene at bottom with trooper getting shot by native with pistol; one native down, several on horseback
  • August 1887 Indian fight ad in reference to circus
  • September 1887 how we brought the mail to Cisco features tale told by older man and illustrated with natives firing arrows at stage
  • December 1887 includes Father Christmas modeled after Nast? Long wolf with eagle headdress and earring; Indians running with fringe etc
  • January 1888 – Tim Tooley dying as struck by an arrow; native shot with pistol  one feather fringed sleeves, arrow, “fell like a log from his horse”
  • February 1888 native running no shirt, two feathers fringed leggings
  • Illustrated monthly no date native with eagle headdress on horseback no saddle, reins, fringed leggings, fringed shirt; hunting scene natives watching white hunter they are in background and have larger headdresses; native on back rides away from pistol bearing other
  • Harpers young people 1885 – several illustrations some native people with dogs, etc

Much of the Patriotic Envelope collection has been digitized and you can see some of that collection via a Library of Congress digital exhibit that the NY-Historical Society put together with funding from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

PR 117 Patriotic Envelope Collection Box 7

  • AJ89017 – the school of The Indiana zouve – union soldier zouve but in buckskins, fringed, moccasin, musket, powder horn, dead deer at feet
  • AJ90010 – USA published by car bell hartford, ct – Indian bare chested, breech clout, gun, blanket, necklace with bear claws, feathers overlooking waterfall and pine trees
  • Death to traitors envelope
  • AJ92004 – interesting sunny south our country babe (Hercules?) strangling snake of abolition and holding confederate flag
  • Admiral William T. Sampson image and native above him holding the American flag,  native has necklace and blanket, etc

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PR 117 Patriotic Envelope Collection Album 4

  • Sailor next to native dressed in red blanket leggings, moccasins, holding hatchet, gold arm band, feathers in headband, background has natives in dugout canoes but they are spearing a deer????
  • America? Reclining against shield and with eagle roman type toga and headdress with feathers
  • Wigfall on his promised descent to Washington breech clout, leggings, fringe, tomahawk in hand (reference to Texan secessionist Louis T. Wigfall)
  • Envelope featuring Washington holding a musket and looking on a portrait of himself dressed as roman, Columbia or liberty is with him and there are two natives  one with scalp lock feathersm blanket, breech clout, and other with longer hair, feathers, spear and blanket

PR 117 Patriotic Envelope Collection Box 8

  • Maybe in the future look at folder five as it has some interesting language choices in terms of calling for a “greater” United States Spanish American war era

PR 301 Decorative Envelope Collection Box 1

  • Nothing really in here though there are a few firsts that could be interesting to some people with Olympics envelopes and a series from the White House that lists presidential dates?

As in manuscripts, I was aided in the print collection by some folks who, once they heard what I was looking for, made some suggestions.  The Bella Landauer collection was something I had a vague recollection of from my visit in 2012, but I hadn’t read the finding aid online as yet.  This collection clearly exhibits characteristics of a needed deep read because in two folders alone from one box I found quite a few examples that will prove useful.

PR 031 Bella C. Landauer Collection Series II, Ephemera Box 37

  • Folder miscellaneous – need to examine some dates but this one is worth a deep return visit as it includes numerous illustrations as well as a fantastic pamphlet from Edwin Eastman “captured and branded by the Camanche Indians in the year 1860” which includes a long listing of medicines Eastman learned about while captured; several pieces in German which is useful, and a Cherokee medicines and rejuvenating elixir pamphlet from Dr. Merwin and Company
  • Folder Kickapoo – “the Indians as a race, represent the embodiment of perfect health.  From the time the pilgrim fathers…”

All in all, it was a profitable visit and one I am likely to soon repeat so I can take more time with the collection.  Along with looking at these objects directly, I’ve been reading a variety of secondary sources to help contextualize the images I’m looking at in this archive and others I hope to visit this fall.  Meantime, you can find me on occasion near 79th and Central Park West, hanging with Frederick Douglass or perhaps Abe Lincoln.

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Philip Kerr takes up Prayer

Philip Kerr, Prayer. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014.

I have written on Kerr in the past, chiefly focused on his Bernie Gunther character, though I’ve read a few of his other works as well.  Prayer is unlike any other text I’ve read of his writings, and I’m uncertain still as to whether this is a good thing or not.  As I worked my way through the novel, I commented to a friend that I found the book creepy and more than a little frightening at times.  In the end, I lean more on the idea that the story is a bit messy, the main character thoroughly unlikeable, and some of the resolutions left me wondering – is it over? Was it real?  What was real?

FBI agent Gil Martins is a Scottish immigrant who spent formative teenaged years in Boston, MA, worked as a lawyer, and quit in the post 9-11 malaise to become an agent for the Federal Bureau.  He’s on the backside of a failing marriage, drinks too much, and has lost his faith in God, if not also humanity.  When the story opens up, we learn that Martins, raised Catholic in divided Glasgow, has converted to evangelical Christian but is really more of a burgeoning, if not fully committed, atheist.  The personal religious struggles of Martins are somewhat interesting, but as other reviewers have noted, Kerr has not created the most sympathetic protagonist.  Martins, as written, simply cannot pull off the sardonic, self-aware witticisms that come so easily to Kerr’s Bernie Gunther.

Perhaps this is unfair – making comparisons between the creations of an author, but arguably it is also the fate of a writer who largely works in the serial of the Gunther cosmology (or at least as done so for roughly ten years).  Despite what I perceive as a misstep in character design, there are elements of the story that certainly worked to keep me intrigued.

Ultimately however, I ended up disappointed in the novel.  I am still unclear, five days or so removed from finishing, exactly how the string of murders that were under investigation by Martins are resolved, or perhaps they aren’t?  I wrote earlier that the book was both creepy and frightening.  I will stand by that judgement and it is in this particular element that I see success in Kerr’s writing.  He effectively creates an unsure, unsafe, and bizarre environment with a touch of the paranormal.  My personal problem was, I did not care what happened to Martins, I was not certain I cared about the main antagonists, and I found the seeming abandonment of some characters, like Martins’ FBI partner, odd.

Does Martins, and Kerr by proxy, ask some interesting questions about the nature of God and prayer in general?  Perhaps, but I still found that in spots, the story was “flabby.”  Prayer is worth investigating, but if you leave off halfway through the novena? I won’t judge.

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Here is the place…

John A. Matthews and David T. Herbert, Geography, A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press, 2008.

Readers may be aware that I have long had an interest in maps, cartography, and geography. Some folks may also know that I minored in geography while completing my Ph.D. In history at the University of Nebraska. These days I spend a significant amount of time on geography in history survey courses, my methods of teaching history course, and various upper division elective offerings including Native American history. In almost all of my graduate readings courses, I will assign a book that has a significant (if not 100%) focus on geography.

Like many of the texts published for this series, the work of Matthews and Herbert functions as a quick introduction to the discipline, including an examination of presumptions, its historical roots, and the variety of fields of focus. The authors immediately point out the difference between the modern study of geography and the “over-simplified” understanding expressed by many people. Geography is much more than descriptions of space and place; the physical and human side of geography are equally important and create bridges between the natural and human worlds.

In surprisingly quick order, the authors are able to give readers a real sense of core geography concepts as well as a more nuanced argument about the future of the discipline.  For example, we are introduced early to struggles over depicting space on a flat surface (the three dimensional planet on a map). The authors also introduce us to the importance of both place an environment in serious geography coursework, research, etc.

The text is replete with illustrations and diagrams that help make sense of theories, ideas, and even the history of geography.  Matthews and Herbert argue that there are five main phases to the study of geography thus far, ranging from exploring and mapping the world to the emergence of divergent interests like integrated, physical, and human geography.  This use of illustrations and diagrams continues, embracing both theoretical ideas (as revealed in the “future of geography” in the final chapter) and little insights into exercises or practices that might be explained and modeled in the classroom.

Much of the academic language is kept to a minimum, so laypeople can get a sense of the discipline without feeling too overwhelmed.  I believe the sheer breadth and depth of additional disciplines that can and do influence geography may be surprising to some readers.  When explaining the nature of physical geography, readers quickly grasp that professionals no something of earth systems, geo-archaeology, climatology, soil studies and more, just to name a few.

While in general the authors strive to choose practical examples from around the globe to illustrate their explanations, if there is a weakness of the text it is a heavy reliance on cases from the United Kingdom.  Therefore, some readers may not see all that the authors do when examining photographs of a rural landscape in Wales or gentrification on Elder Street in a London neighborhood.  This is not to suggest that the authors don’t explain the points they are making with these particular picture choices – they do, and now I know that a Welsh rural tradition is to have a hendre (home farm) as well as a hafod (summer dwelling).

There are a few other minor quibbles, (e.g., discussion of how tobacco barns in the American mid-West are cultural markers? mid-West??  I suppose non-residents might interpret Kentucky as mid-West but…), but over all Matthews and Herbert have offered another quality book to the “very short introduction” series as well as offering their view on the future of geography and the belief that the field of study should renew “focus on the core concepts and methods” while still pulling more ideas and theories from outside the discipline – it’s a model they call the “integrated-development scenario.”

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Teleuth kai Olethros

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Snyder’s Bloodlands was brought to my attention in the context of discussing Fred Anderson and Drew Cayton’s The Dominion of War in late June 2014.  Pr. Cayton mentioned Snyder’s approach at describing the violence beset on a region in eastern Europe termed “bloodlands.”  For Snyder, this region extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. 

Bloodlands-2010

In the text, Snyder seeks to lift the veil on the sort of mass violence visited upon the region by both National Socialism (German Nazis) and Stalinism (Soviet Union).  Snyder emphasizes, with strong prose and devastating  precision, the methods by which the Nazis and Soviets murdered at least 14 million people between 1933 and 1945.  Bloodlands is solely focused on the fate of civilians or soldiers whose treatment resulted in their deaths.  This is an account about deaths OFF the battlefields, despite the fact that half of the soldiers who died in the Second World War were killed in the same region!

From the preface onward, Bloodlands is both unrelenting and fascinating.  As someone who has long taught that the horrors visited upon European populations by the Nazis were also experienced by the Soviets, I was “glad” to see confirmation of my past lessons.  Yet the text is as frightening as it is fascinating.  Snyder explains that the killing in the region took on five separate forms – forced starvation through state policy, executions of “enemies of the state,” executions of the educated elite (as Germans and Soviets killed approximately 200,000 Polish citizens between 1939 and 1941), executions of a variety of civilians, and depopulation that took millions of lives as the Nazis cleared their eastern frontier of people and industrial centers.

Each one of these five policies reveals a horrific side of humanity.  That five million Soviets starved, largely because of Stalin’s requisitions policies, is bad enough.  That many individuals, particularly in Ukraine, were denied food and then called unpatriotic for daring to starve in front of witnesses reveals a horror that is hard to fathom.  The simplistic quota-meeting efficiency of NKVD execution squads is mind boggling – two officers to hold a victim while a third placed a pistol at the base of the skull.  Four such teams alone killed 20,761 people on the outskirts of Moscow in 1937 and 1938 (83).  These executions came after troika judges might hear as many as sixty cases per hour, confirming the orders to kill at the behest of the state.  The fate of thousands of murdered Polish officers in the Katyn Forest after the outbreak of World War Two was hidden by the Soviets as well as their allies.  Ironically, the Nazis, who engaged in similar activities, attempted to reveal this mass execution to the world (a story seen in films like Engima, historical works, and historical fiction such as the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr).  Forced starvation of civilians in cities like Leningrad, the executions of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Belarus or Warsaw, the elimination of the Polish state and Jews in both Nazi and Soviet held territories – the list continues.

Somehow, despite all of these appalling details, Snyder’s text is eminently readable and “easy” to follow with the notable exception of the eleventh chapter.  In a text that makes links between all aspects of these policies that result in mass death, the post-World War Two coda on Stalin’s anti-semitism and eventual death doesn’t quite fit.  I suspect that Snyder includes the section as a method of demonstrating how the “bloodlands” policies encountered resistance in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  I would characterize this piece as working better as a separate article perhaps?  Despite this very small misstep, Snyder’s Bloodlands is essential reading for students and professors of the twentieth-century.

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The Mini Saga exercise

Several years ago I chose to assign Daniel Pink’s  A Whole New Mind, Why Right-Brainer’s Will Rule the Future to my budding secondary history/social studies instructors.  Pink’s thoughts on slightly different ways to think about the world are not necessarily “new” nor unfamiliar to some of my students.  In addition, the ideas are not, strictly speaking, related to education, yet I found the text generated the most consistent discussion in class (for good or ill).  A close second, in terms of sparking conversation, remains John Arnold’s good History: A Very Short Introduction, particularly when pushing students to think more expansively about history in general.

Whole New Mind offered some intriguing exercises that I found helpful in getting students to think about teaching and education from slightly different angles.  Pink divided the text into section on themes like empathy, symphony, play, and story among others.  Each section included a “portfolio” section that made suggestions for the reader to continue exploring the theme either through the internet or on ones own.

In “story” I fell for the mini saga exercise described in the portfolio.  A London newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, had run a contest a number of years ago asking writers to submit tales in 50 words – no more, no less.  I’ve adapted this exercise for the classroom, giving students ten minutes or so to develop a 50 word mini saga on a particular historical topic, biographical portrait, or concept. Most students choose a person or event – in addition, they find the exercise both challenging and entertaining, particularly as each class begins to chew on words a bit, frantically counts words, edits, curses a bit, etc.  I participate as well, typically choosing an event or person I know well, and attempting to capture the essence of the story or person in that small amount of words.

I explain to students that “writing small” is a massive challenge, yet a good exercise in which to engage as it will help them in their own classrooms.  If you can’t break down events, I argue, into small, consumable bits, you cannot effectively reach students and string together a lesson that will make sense and create connections across the class period.  In addition, it’s a great academic workout for students who struggle with longer essays and can serve as a substitute assessment for students who are acquiring both social and academic English language skills.  While the purpose, ultimately, is to craft a great piece with good syntax, sometimes, getting students who won’t (or can’t) string together three paragraphs, to write even these small 50 word stories is enough to get a sense as to understanding and retention.

I’m way over 50 words in my explanation, so I’ll close with one of my essays from an earlier semester – see if you can figure out what historical story I’m telling!

The people before them were unlike their nation yet perhaps they could be useful?  In addition, they appeared so weak as to not be a threat of any kind.  Striking up a conversation, such as it was, could not be too dangerous?  In this second year, all people must share.

Final note – if you’re hoping to get students to have fun while learning a few habits of grammar (including picking on my 50 word mini saga for its lack of pronoun specifics) check out Weird Al’s Word Crimes:

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