What Comes Next?

hamposterThe popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical is undeniable. It won a Grammy (Best Musical Theatre Album), will likely be nominated for (and win) multiple Tony Awards, and has been discussed by scholars and the popular press. It has been lauded and critiqued by scholars of history, theatre, and literature. But the popularity of Hamilton also raises a challenge for historians of Early America, especially those who do public or digital history:

To borrow from Miranda’s King George III: “what comes next?

How do we engage the people who are coming to this history through Hamilton? Having considered the gaps in the stories told by the show, how do we bring that history to people who are, in my anecdotal experience, eager to learn more? While offering further reading on the period or pointing people to existing programs are good places to start, I think we can do more.

To truly connect with the populations who are flocking to Hamilton: An American Musical, we need to look beyond the historical period and consider what makes the show popular. The music is strongly rooted in hip-hop, rap, and r&b, but there are also nods to classic broadway, even Gilbert and Sullivan; Miranda is speaking in a voice that is familiar and accessible to a wide range of people.

Moreover, audiences who have never set foot in the theatre (either the Public or the Richard Rogers) have been welcomed by Miranda and the show’s cast in various forms of online engagements. Miranda, who like his title character seems to work non-stop, frequently converses with fans on twitter and has joined tumblr where he reblogs and likes fans’ posts. When someone added the lyrics of the show to Rap Genius and the community started annotating, he expressed delight and even noted (again on twitter) when people guessed correctly about a riff or other fact. Members of the cast and crew have live-streamed events on SnapChat and Facebook.

Interactions between the cast and crew of Hamilton and its audience – its fandom – are conversational and egalitarian to a large extent. When the audience creates annotations, transformative works, YouTube videos, the official Hamilton community generally responds with praise or gratitude. The creators of Hamilton have embraced their fan community and recognized its voice as a valid participant in the expression of the show an experience, as a cultural moment.

The challenge as I see it for public/digital/early american historians who want to catch the wave of Hamilton’s popularity to expand the understanding of the show’s fans is to find ways to communicate which echo the accessible tone of the show and which convey a sense of shared experience where the non-expert is welcomed and celebrated. We should try to share our enthusiasm for the past with them, and welcome their enthusiasm or concerns in return, instead of imparting knowledge. Conversation, shared authority, a willingness to allow emotion to be part of the experience of history, are all useful tools as we try to convey the rich history of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America.

A note: I started drafting this post last week, before attending the 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History, whose theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Past.” Every day of the conference brought me new possibilities for creating a more inclusive interpretation of the past, as well as the challenges which exist. It reiterated what I had been thinking about when I began writing this post: that we need to create an inclusive (public) history of the Revolutionary/Early National era, telling the stories of the wise range of peoples of many races, ethnicities, gender identities, and classes who lived through this period and including our publics as participants, not an audience, when we do so.

One tweet from the conference which I feel captures some of what I’ve been trying to say came from Lara Kelland, quoting Denise D. Meringolo “I wanted to let people tell their stories, but I didn’t want us to tell them what their lives mean.”

The dead may have no control who lives, who dies, who tells their story, but the living should have a say.

History in Unanticipated Places

Yesterday my priest started her sermon with a version of the origin of Labor Day. She focused on the life and work of George Pullman, particular those actions which contributed to the 1894 strike. The sermon was also rooted in the readings, particularly James 1:17-27. (( She likened Pullman to someone who has turned from the mirror and forgotten his face, forgotten that he and his workers were all Children of God. This was church, after all. )) But what interested me was the fact that Labor Day was established in law by President Cleveland so soon after the end of the strike.

Like most Americans, I would imagine, I had forgotten that National Holidays are formally established with an Act. This particular act started as S. 730 and H.R. 28. I was going to post the text here, but I’m having trouble tracking it down. Once I do, I’ll come back and put it in. I’m curious as to what the original wording was.

My Oldest Friend

My oldest friend, by which I mean the friend I have known the longest, leaves the country today. She is off on her first posting as an employee of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and over the next twenty or thirty years she will get to live in all sorts of interesting places.

Her father worked for USAID all during our childhoods, so she has already lived or spent extended periods of time in Peru, Bolivia, Nepal, Ghana, Tanzania, and Bangladesh, not to mention North Carolina, Massachusetts, and the DC metro area. Every summer, she would come back to our hometown in North Carolina with her mother and brother. Her mom had seen too many USAID and foreign service kids grow up without a sense of place, a rootedness, so she determined that my friend and her brother would spend months every year in the town where both their grandparents lived.

Recently, we went out to dinner. My friend had just finished speaking at a panel on “third culture kids,” a term for children whose parents work and live in country or culture different from that of their origin. Most of the literature about third culture kids talks about their distance from their ‘home’ country, the place which issues their passport. I get the sense that coming back to North Carolina helped assuage some of that alienation and differentiation, which was, of course, the point.

Why, you may ask, am I talking about all of this on a blog which focuses more on history and my experiences as a PhD student? Because my friend’s experience resonates with the family about whom I want to write my dissertation. One of the first US consuls in England, married an Englishwoman and had five children, all of whom em/immigrated to the United States at some point in adulthood and there stayed. Were they English or American or something else? These five people are in some ways the cultural precursors of my oldest friend. I can’t say that I wouldn’t be intrigued by their story if I hadn’t grown up with a friend who lived overseas, but neither can I deny an increasing interest in the cultural history of early diplomats and citizens living abroad and their families.

When my friend was applying for the job, I got to sit down with someone and act as a reference. They wanted to know if she was reliable (she is), but also get a sense of how well she would represent the country. I answered, truthfully, that I felt she had grown up knowing that she was a representative of the country, and I thought she did it really well. What did it mean for people (men, women and children) to represent a nation which was only years or months old?

Safe travels, friend. Who knows where the future is going to take either of us.

 

Historical Hypochondria

I have begun to wonder if historians, or at least history students, don’t suffer from a similar problem to that experienced by medical students. Medical students often start to self-diagnose with various ailments during the course of their studies, especially when confronted with list after list of symptoms. They find themselves ticking off symptoms and suddenly thinking they have this or that strange disorder. (( But never lupus ))

Sometimes as I am reading about historical groups or events, I find myself thinking “Gee, that’s awfully similar to X or Y.” Occasionally these are happy similarites, but often they are not. This semester I’m taking a course on the South since 1865, with an emphasis on race and gender, which means I’m reading accounts of voter suppression and white supremacists’ efforts to control the public lives of women, white and black.

Continue reading “Historical Hypochondria”

Change vs. Exchange

I am reading the Baron Montlezun’s Voyage fait dans les années 1816 et 1817: de New-Yorck à la Nouvelle-Orléans, et de l’Orénoque au Mississippi, although only the part about his visit to Orange County, Virginia (perhaps I might read the rest later). He had a conversation with President Madison, at the latter’s house, where they swapped stories about American Indian boys who were taken into European or European-American communities, educated, and then invariably (in the context of the conversation) returned to their “savage” communities.

There is one translation of Montlezun, published in parts in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 1945. The footnote for this conversation adds “For a parallel case taken from North American history, we refer the reader to Smyth, who says that Indians educated at William and Mary in colonial days returned to their savage life, as soon as they went back home.”1

What strikes me is the assumption that the American Indians would stay. Historically, I understand the perspective of the Baron and the President, and even the mid-20th-century scholars, who knew that the European lifestyle was far better than the savage one in the wilderness. It was folly, to them, to abandon it. The actors in their stories who took or invited American Indian boys (because they’re all men in this instance) to “civilization” were probably trying to improve them.

From a modern perspective, however, the first thing that springs to mind is undergraduate year abroad. You go somewhere strange, learn about this other culture, then go home and share your experience with friends and family. Many of the native individuals in the story went at least semi-willingly (the young boy who went to France with General Lafayette was sent by his father, but who knows how he felt about it?). What better way to learn about your allies than to live among them for a while? It’s a strategy which also works with enemies.

There’s not a huge point to this post, merely an observation. Some people may expect foreign students who come to study in the US to become Americanized and remain, but it’s not surprising to us (I hope) that they come, learn, and go home again.

1 L. G. Moffatt and J. M. Carrière. “A Frenchman Visits Norfolk, Fredericksburg and Orange County, 1816.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 53 (1945): 206.

Ada Lovelace Day: Maria Mitchell

I signed up to  blog for Finding Ada’s day of ” day of blogging (videologging, podcasting, comic drawing etc.!) to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science.” And then I thought “wait, who will I write about?”

After all, I’m a geeky artist born to geeky artists. As much as I really enjoyed most of my science classes as a kid, I don’t know about that many historical scientists – and of course most of the ones I do know are men. I considered writing about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and how she tried to bring the Ottoman smallpox inoculations to England, of how 1930s movie beauty Heddy Lamarr was also a brilliant engineer, but neither of those felt quite on.

Then it hit me! Maria Mitchell!

Although in her time she may have been one of world’s most famous natural scientists, most people today do not know who she was. In fact, I wouldn’t know who she was if I hadn’t gone to Vassar College, where she taught astronomy in the late 19th century. Maria Mitchell was an awesome woman, and I mean that more in the traditional sense than the “Bill & Ted” one. She was an astronomer, a teacher, and an advocate for women’s rights.  Continue reading “Ada Lovelace Day: Maria Mitchell”

Citizenship and National Identity

This morning on NPR I heard a story about the push for immigration reform, and a rally in Washington to happen this weekend. Senator Russell Pearce of Arizona, who apparently opposes reform, said of the pro-reform marchers “They’re as treasonous and as un-American as anyone I know.” The quote came on the heels of a conversation with woman who works with teenage children of illegal immigrants, trying to keep them out of gangs. The teenagers feel that no opportunity is open to them because of their uncertain immigrant status.

Now, the history of the South-West and Central America are not my area of expertise. What I know has been gathered haphazardly through media and the occasional lecture. However, the question of who is an American (or rather, what makes someone an American) has resonance. As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, how a person is identified as a citizen or subject of one nation or another was a part of what led to the War of 1812.

I know that there is scholarship on how Americans resident in the (present) US came to conceptualize themselves as a new nation. What this NPR story has me wondering about, in addition to that, is how quickly or slowly did new immigrants become “Americans”? What was the process, social or political, through which a person who moved to the US after 1783 came to be regarded by their neighbors as an American and not a Brit or Frenchman or Italian, or what have you? I am given to understand that slaves, not being thought of exactly as people, were probably not thought of as citizens either. What of indentured servants?

I have no answers to these questions. I know that at the local university there are papers from numerous families from this period, including a family whose children were all born in England to an American father and English mother, but who apparently considered themselves American citizens. Maybe some small part of the answers lie there?

Christmases Past: what happens next?

With the close of the 18th century, we run into a sort of black hole of information about how people celebrated Christmas. The next big era everyone looks at is the Victorian era, when Christmas trees come into vogue and many of the “Christmas Traditions” we take for granted are first introduced. None of this kicks in until the 1840s, at the earliest. What happened in the interim?

There are new Christmas ideas afoot in the first 40 years of the 19th century. A small group of historian/writer types in New York (city) make a big deal out of Saint Nicholas and ‘traditional’ Christmases. Everyone’s favourite Christmas poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”), was published anonymously in 1823. The poem is generally attributed to Clement Clark Moore, although there’s also an argument to be made for it having orginally been penned by Henry Livingston Jr.; either way, both of these men had probably been exposed to the works for fellow New Yorker Washington Irving. In 1809, Irving had published A History of New York, which included mentions of Saint Nicholas bringing gifts to the early inhabitants of New York (described in a way which resembles that of “Visit from Saint Nicholas.”) Moreover, Irving described an ideal Christmas, to him, in his 1819/20 Sketch-book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Among the short stories in the Sketch-book are a series on ‘old Christmas’ as celebrated in England. Although these are technically fiction, Irving had spent time in England and may have based his descriptions on observations.

So we have a handful of publications out of New York in the early part of the 19th century which talk about Christmas celebrations. They aren’t wildly divergent from the Christmases of the 18th century, although I feel that they are more vibrant. There is also a strong German/Dutch influence, due to the history of New York. What I have not been able to discover is how widely read these works were. By the end of the 19th century Irving’s “Old Christmas” essays were being published independently of the rest of the Sketch-book; when did they catch the public eye? Before or after the “Visit from Saint Nicholas” and the popularisation of that other Germanic tradition, the Christmas tree? Did the story of a Saint Nicholas with tiny reindeer become popular in the Southern states immediately after the poem was published, or did it take decades?

Somehow the celebration of Christmas in America shifted from a non-holiday in the Northeast and a time for church and visiting in the South to something more standardized (as much as anything could or can be standardized here). How long did the transition take, and how did it manifest? I have not yet been able to uncover answers to my questions. I can only hope that there were some very descriptive diarists and letter-writers in the mid-Atlantic and Southern states who recorded their memories of Christmas.

A Christmas Quote

(possibly the first of a few)

One of the fun aspects of working with historic documents is seeing annual events through other people’s eyes.  I initially found this quote from an 1834 Christmastime letter to be entertaining in a macabre way (I first read it shortly after Halloween). On reflection, it seems to parallel a little our situation with the various flus. Perhaps it is also a reminder that even in the midst of despair, there can still be joy. Or, more cynically, it is a lesson in the relationship between social/economic standing and health. At any rate, I give you Christmas in Richmond, 1834.

“the Cholera has been threatening us, and given some very severe intimations of what it can do, it has not, however, yet invaded the higher ranks of society, and we go on feasting—dancing & making merry as tho’ the Enemy were not at the Gate” – Sarah (Sally) Coles Stevenson to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, 24 December 1834,

Original at the Library of Virginia. Transcription from The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2004.

Little Bitty Books

Today I went to the local U to their special collections (the joys of working for a historic site!). In one of the boxes I requested were books – three larger ones and then a series of small ones. I mean small – less than two inches wide and at best three inches tall. Most of them were almanacs, from the 1810s and 1820s, just a single signature, most likely stab bound to the marbled paper cover. The lovely one had a red leather cover, with a overlapping tongue that fit into a loop on the cover. The cover was lined with some fabric and had a little pocket inside the flap for a pencil. All of these had calendars, with blank pages opposite each month for your own appointments.The person (or people) who owned these books used those pages, and also wrote notes and addresses in the flypapers.

They were wonderful little glimpses into early 19th century material culture in the UK, into the way people used books and other printed material. It is so very much the way we still carry little notebooks around with us, catchalls of information – or, more 21st century, our pdas and cellphones.