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October 1, 2005 Contact: James David Moran
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Common-place find origins of reality TV in antebellum travel narratives
Online history journal links Survivor to "Manifest Destiny"

Worcester, MA. – The October 2005 issue of Common-place, the online history journal, discovers that TV’s popular Survivor series shares more in common with antebellum travel narratives than exotic locations.

As writer Amy Greenberg, whose article, "Americans in the Tropics," is featured in Common-place’s "Talk of the Past" explains, in tropical travel narratives that proliferated in the 1840s and 1850s, "the supposed racial superiority of the American Anglo-Saxon and his culture seemed to insure success to the individual who, borrowing a slogan from Survivor, was willing to ‘outwit, outplay, and outlast’ his competition."

Greenberg notes that contestants in Survivor form and break alliances, romance one another, struggle with the heat, and compete in physical and mental challenges that reward individual strength, willpower, and agility–all in the pursuit of a million-dollar prize for one driven winner.

From the antebellum travel narrative through reality TV, some things just haven’t changed, Greenberg concludes, noting that the tropics promised success to Americans simply by virtue of their being American, reassuring them of the universality of their values.

"… these narratives of Americans in the tropics promised, as Survivor and its kin do today, that yesterday’s failure in the United States could be tomorrow’s success in the tropics," Greenberg writes.

Common-place features consider violence in early America, the emergence of a 24 hour city through a panoramic map of time and an online resurrection of a famous P.T. Barnum museum.

In "Finding PT Barnum on the Internet," writer Thomas Augst describes The Lost Museum, a website that virtually re-creates Barnum’s celebrated American Museum, which burned to the ground in 1854. Augst notes that the site, sponsored by the American Social History Project of the CUNY Graduate Center, in collaboration with the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, "seeks to popularize the taste for nineteenth-century America by framing its cultural insights and artifacts in the narrative devices of an unsolved mystery: who might have burned down Barnum’s museum."

In "What’s ‘Sacred’ about Violence in Early America?" writer Susan Juster notes the "striking similarities between New World violence against indigenous peoples, perhaps the exemplary form of colonial violence, and the European wars of religion, which many historians consider the apex of human savagery in the early modern era."

Whether construed as heathens, infidels, apostates, or devil worshippers, Indians and Africans occupied a position of spiritual significance for their European neighbors, and acts of violence directed against these religious and racial outsiders were, I would argue, always acts of sacred violence.

In the nineteenth-century "urban time seemed to move in frighteningly unpredictable ways," notes Peter Baldwin, who presents a 24-hour panorama of American city life, "Mapping Time." With excerpts from sources as diverse as Walt Whitman and a minister from Brooklyn who warns young men against the temptations of the night, Baldwin’s article demonstrates "the emerging structure of urban day and urban night. We can see people inching toward what we would now call the twenty-four-hour city," he writes.

In "Publick Occurrences," professor-turned student Natalie Zacek tells what she learned about teaching at a National Endowment for the Humanities summer research seminar. Zacek concludes: "…as the gap between our experience of academia as students and as teachers expands, it is this ability to regain, even temporarily, the student’s-eye view of our material, our disciplines, and our pedagogic practice that is the most critical encounter of all."

When college students in New York found empathy with enslaved Africans by dancing the "ring shout," teacher April F. Masten knew her course, "Dancing American History," succeeded in making the slave experience come alive for them. Writing in "The Common School, "Masten explains the premise of the class, learning to dance as other people danced, provides information—missing from other sources—that can deepen our understanding of the past. She notes that "Dancing American History" is not a "history of dance" class; rather, the class presents dance as an embodiment of its historical context.

In "Tales from the Vault," Tara Dirst and Allan Kulikoff find an answer to the question, "Was Dr. Benjamin Church a Traitor?" as well as answers to all sorts of questions about early American history through a new, online version of Peter Force’s American Archives.

The American Archives Digitization Project has digitized, indexed, and published a compilation of nine folio volumes, with 15,573 densely packed columns – the equivalent of forty-three 500-page books. Because it is a compilation of documents from 1774 through 1776, this online search engine is uniquely valuable to historians, students and anyone interested in the early days of the American Revolution.

In "Ask the Author," Rhys Isaac, explains the principal differences between the approach adopted in his new book, Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom and the approach of his celebrated earlier work, The Transformation of Virginia.

"I had researched and written Transformation very consciously as dramaturgic description and narrative," Rhys writes. In contrast, "It became my strongest aspiration in Uneasy Kingdom to be attentive to the everyday-life narratives I was absorbing while crafting a story for our times."

The current issue of Common-place also contains the following book reviews: Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald’s America’s Founding Food, The Story of New England Cooking, by Kathleen Curtin; Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers by Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor; Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s Creatures of Empire by Gregory Nobles and Margaretta M. Lovell’s, Art in a Season of Revolution, by Akela Reason.

The October 2005 issue of Common-place will be on-line through December and then available among the journal’s archived issues on the website. Individuals may subscribe to the journal to be notified of publication of each issue. Common-place is published quarterly, in October, January, April, and July.

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 Florida State University 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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