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January 14, 2011
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Celebrating Civil War soldiers without confronting their horrors

Worcester, MA—The current issue of Common-place, the online history journal, burnishes memories of the Civil War, celebrates pseudonyms and acknowledges the reality of teaching history "with all its loose ends, unanswered questions, and subversive propositions."

Writing in The Common School, Jim Cullen explains that to teach history is to live with discomforting realities. " …one must almost always ply one's trade aware of one's minority status-that you spend most of your time among people who know, and likely care, less than you do about the past.

"The other reality is that while you like to think of yourself as part of a community of scholars, more often than not that community is virtual, only fleetingly glimpsed at conferences, or on the pages of publications like this one, whose importance may well be as much psychological as they are intellectual, Cullen continues.

His article, "A Raft of Hope," features an excerpt from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck and Jim discuss two hucksters, the self-styled "Duke" and "Dauphin," who have been fleecing the citizens of Mississippi River towns. Huck applies a garbled version of history as he explains to Jim why "kings of all kinds are mostly rapscallions."

Cullen explains that Huck is by no means alone in his misinterpretation of the lessons of history; most people haven't taken a history class since high school.

"A sophisticated grasp of history is the exception, not the rule, and one thing that defines a sophisticated grasp of history is a consciousness of the way that the past keeps changing, both in terms of how it's interpreted and the information available," Cullen writes. "Yesterday's common sense is tomorrow's myth, and history is perpetually in between."

Tyler Rudd Putman's article, "Innocents at War" highlights "the dirty, miserable, and joyful minutiae of soldier life in the Union army" as recounted in the story of a beloved fictional veteran of the Civil War. Author Wilbur Hinman's book, Si Klegg and his memoir, The Sherman Brigade, were unique among post-Civil War books because neither dealt with generals and grand campaigns. "The non-violent use of the bayonet as a candlestick or roasting skewer was far more fascinating to Hinman than the movement of divisions and brigades," Putnam writes.

The conversational tone and slapstick humor of Si Klegg appealed to both veterans and boys too young to have served in the war. "Hinman wrote the Civil War as most men experienced it. In these books, personal experience trumped omniscient narrative. And for a brief moment, the heroes of the war were not Grant or Lincoln or Lee, but that quintessential everyman," Putnam writes.

Moreover, "Hinman provided us with a textual version of this public memory: the Civil War as veterans wanted to remember it," Putnam notes. He "let (Civil War veterans) read about the great event of their lives without confronting its more scarring aspects."

In Common Reading, Ann M. Little-whose alter ego, Historiann, is an irreverent cowgirl writing an American history blog-defends pseudonymity "as a vital tradition in American letters."

Little's article, "Silence Dogood Rides Again," explains that pseudonymity launched the career of Benjamin Franklin nearly 300 years ago when the sixteen year-old wrote in the voice of a middle-aged widow he called Silence Dogood, and slipped her letters under the door of his brother James's newspaper, The New England Courant.

Many academic bloggers follow Franklin's example, Little writes, "because they can publish things that they otherwise couldn't publish under their own names."

Pseudonymity also can work in the service of community building in the blogosphere, according to Little. "… although I often criticize public figures and many of the features of academic and American life, I've tried to build a community of readers and commenters who can share stories and information and perhaps use that knowledge to their own benefit."

"Who knew that there would be 2,000-3,000 people a day interested in reading about my idiosyncratic and not necessarily interconnected interests?" Little writes. "My playful pseudonymous identity helps pull it all together."

Brian Connolly's article, "Intimate Atlantics: Towards a Critical History of Transnational Early America" considers the importance of hybridity in shaping a transnational identity. Connolly cites J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's transnational hybrid as described in Letters from an American Farmer as "neither an [sic] European nor the descendant of an [sic] European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country," and an 1858 statistical survey of incestuous offspring by S.M. Bemis, a Louisville physician.

Bemis saw "incest as a problem facing all classes and ethnic groups in the United States," Connolly writes, but also claimed there was "an antidote to incestuous reproduction - the sanguine environs of the West. The geographical blessings of the ever expanding United States ameliorated the potentially degenerative effects of incest."

"The force of the American national body is that it is always already a transnational, hybrid body," Connolly writes, "bounded by race, and thus draws on the strengths of transnational Europe without suffering the degeneracy and decadence of the national European body."

Jonathan Beecher Field's article, "Our Antinomians, Ourselves: Or, Anne Hutchinson's Monstrous Birth & The Pathological Obstetrics" finds a chilling similarity in how the details of the famous woman's miscarriage were publicized in 1639 and 1959.

"Monstrous birth" was the name Hutchinson's opponents gave to the miscarriage she suffered shortly after being expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony "in the wake of what scholars term the Antinomian Controversy," Field writes. John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony and a Hutchinson antagonist, publicized details of the "monstrous birth," which were supplied to him by her physician, John Clarke.

More than 300 years later an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, "New England's First Recorded Hydatidform Mole," offers a medical diagnosis for the "monstrous birth" alleged to have issued from Anne Hutchinson.

The article considers "the firstness and even the New Englandness of the growths within Hutchinson's body, but not the body that contained these growths," Field notes. "It is worth noting that a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal could print an article in 1959 that shares Winthrop and Clarke's total indifference to the humanity of the owner of the womb it discusses."

In Object Lesson, Edward E. Andrews' article, "Digging Up History" describes how strong soap and elbow grease are saving New England's historic cemeteries as a handful of preservationists labor to safeguard the invaluable treasures within New England's historic cemeteries.

"Scholars, preservationists, and town and church administrators need to recognize that grave markers are not permanent and can't be taken for granted; like any historic treasure, gravestones should be carefully protected and diligently preserved," Andrews writes. He notes that gravestone preservation also creates opportunities to introduce students to funerary rituals, ideas about death, and to provoke discussions about how past cultures imagined and experienced both death and life.

"As living museums, cemeteries require no admission fees and have no curators. Indeed, gravestones may be silent reminders of the lives of the past, but if meticulously preserved and carefully interpreted, these stones can speak to us," Andrews writes.

In Tales from the Vault, Alden O'Brien explains how her efforts to transcribe the 30-year diary of Sylvia Lewis Tyler, an early nineteenth-century woman, resulted in a research journey "that has drawn upon documents, artifacts, and field trips, in an effort to illuminate Sylvia's written words and reconstruct her world and life."

Sylvia started her diary in 1801 at the age of 15; by the time she finished at age 46 in 1831, there were 19 volumes.

O'Brien's article, "Beyond Words," notes that Sylvia's records are richly informative as social history. "Since she was compulsive about chronicling her daily doings, I have assembled nearly twenty years of records for spinning, knitting, sewing, quilting, and laundry… I've found her entries, whether on textile production or fashion, socializing or foodways, travel or churchgoing, immensely useful in my study of the objects and people I research at the museum," O'Brien writes

She continues: "Her mundane chronicles, over time, gave me a record of an entire community, and every bit of background and context I've found in my research has filled in the picture."

In Ask the Author, Wendy Bellion explains how spectators reacted to trompe l'oeil objects during the post-revolutionary decades. Bellion's book, Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception, explores the changing forms and functions of trompe l'oeil illusion during the early republic.

Between the 1790s and 1820s early national Americans "created, displayed, experienced, and wrote about a tantalizing array of pictorial and optical deceptions, including trompe l'oeil portraits and still life paintings…solar microscopes, zograscopes, and phantasmagorias, that magnified tiny things to magnificent proportions, even mechanical devices…" Bellion writes.

She explains explains: "Trompe l'oeil exacts several things of its spectators, and in the reactions it yields, we can understand something of its broader cultural and political significance."

Trompe l'oeil "…challenges us to look, touch, and listen… in order to understand the artistry by which it effects its illusions," Bellion writes. "It invites us to undeceive ourselves of the fiction before us, and in so doing, it posits that the senses can detect and explain deception.

Poetic Research offers Richard Greenfield's "Duck River Latitudes."

The current issue of Common-place also contains the following book reviews: Thomas M. Truxes' review of Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History by Wim Klooster; Jonathan Chu's review of The Ideological Origins of American Federalism by Alison L. LaCroix and Jake Rudman's review of The Fort: A Novel of the Revolutionary War by Bernard Cornwell.

About Common-place

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal's features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Oklahoma Department of History.

About the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world. The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.

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