One of the comments we sometimes hear about living in the “digital age” is that texts are in a state of constant revision. For better or for worse, website content can change from one day to the next, and unless there is some sort of tracking in place (as on Wikipedia), the user won’t know what changed.

Yet this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Print books change in content, from one revised edition to the next. Sometimes the changes are clear, in the form of an added chapter, or documented in the new foreword by the author. Sometimes they are more elusive, woven into the original text like the near-invisible darn which restores a sweater.

C. Vann Woodward’s The Stange Career of Jim Crow (Commemorative edition) falls into the latter category. The content originated as three consecutive lectures given at the University of Virginia in 1954, edited by the author with some help from colleagues and published in 1955. For the paperback edition of 1957, the content was revised and a foreword added. Ten years later the book was again revised, not only with additional material in chapter form but worked back into the original text. A final revision, with yet another chapter, took place in 1973. The extent to which the main text was again revised is unclear.

It would, of course, be possible to hunt down all four editions and compare the content. With the help of a good scanner and quality OCR, it might not even take that long. Website revisions can be retrieved through caches, if one is lucky. The iterations of historical writing are (sometimes) discoverable.

QuickPost: Citations

I recently finished reading The Anatomy Murders by Lisa Rosner. It’s a very readable look at the early 19th century Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare, offering a great deal of context both for the Edinburgh they inhabited and the culture of medical anatomy which motivated them. I may write more on it later.

What intrigued me was the citation style. There were no footnotes or endnotes, but in the back was a section for notes, with text in bold indicating what sentence or paragraph was being supported. At first I was a bit irritated, as it made it impossible to tell while in the main text whether she was working from a source. Then I realized that I, and I imagine others, have a tendency to thing “Oh, a foot/end note. This must be based in a reliable source,” which is decidedly not always the case.

I recently tried to find the source of a quotation only to be sent from one citation to another, backwards through publications until I got to the point where there were no foot or end notes, only a bibliography. I’m learning not to trust a notation so blindly.

Childrens Books

You might say this post has nothing to do with history. And you could be right. Or not.

Over the past few years, the number of people I know with infants and toddlers has increased drastically. Some of the babies I knew are now toddlers, or even Going To School, and all enthusiastic about reading. It has me thinking back to my favourite books to read, or listen to, both as a kid and as a teenager working in the picture book section of my local bookstore.

Awesome books for kids (and grownups), according to me:

  • The Do-Something Day, by Joe Lasker.  It has the repetition that toddlers like, without being too overwhelming for an adult. Also good because everyone, adult or child, has had a “do-something day” where no-one else seemed to cooperate.
  • Ox-cart Man, by Donald Hall, illustrations by Barbara Cooney. I liked this book anyway, but I can still remember hearing it on Reading Rainbow. Add in Barbara Cooney, who’s also given us such wonders as Miss Rumphius, Roxaboxen, and Eleanor,  and it’s a definite keeper.
  • A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, by Nancy Willard, illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen. Wonderful, whimsical poems, and gorgeous illustrations. One of the first poems I ever memorized was from this book. I think I now know about a third of the poems by heart, and have a hardback copy because the original paperback, purchased by my dad as a gift for me in 1986, is in “well loved” condition.
  • Rootabaga Stories and Rootabaga Pigeons, by Carl Sandburg.  I didn’t actually read these until I was an adult. When I was a child, my family spent two weeks ever summer near Sandburg’s home, Connemara, which belongs to the National Parks Service. At the time, they sold audio cassettes with Carl Sandburg himself reading the stories. I listened to them every night as a kid, and when I read these stories now I still hear Sandburg’s intonation and rhythm, “softer than an eyewink, softer than a Nebraska baby’s thumb.”
  • Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. Yes, Goodnight Moon is wonderful, but I like Runaway Bunny better. It comforts a child with the idea that Momma will always be there, no matter where you go. When I was a teenager, I was surprised to hear it echoed the ballad The Twa Magicians.
  • Pink and Say, by Patricia Polacco. This is one of the books I discovered as a teenager. It’s about two boys in the American Civil War, one black and one white. I cry every time I read it and I’m so very glad I found it.

I have so many more books, both on my shelves and that I know to be good, but I’m going to stop here. Feel free to add your favourites in the comments.

Reading Sherlock Holmes

Preface: this was written as an entry for a contest on the blog of author Laurie R. King. I didn’t win, but thought I might post it here, with a little introduction for relevance.

I grew up with mysteries as a form of entertainment: the program Mystery! on PBS, and books like the Encyclopedia Brown series. The challenge was, and still is, to try and figure out what’s happened before the author tells you.

In historical research, there isn’t an author to tell you the solution. It is entirely up to you to ferret out all the clues and then reach your own conclusions (hopefully supported by the evidence!). I wanted to be like Sherlock Holmes and Jessica Fletcher when I was a kid; being a historian is, in a lot of ways, fulfilling that dream.

Continue reading “Reading Sherlock Holmes”

Lost Causes

When I’m not reading history essays and biographies, I like a good mystery (I also like a good historical romance, but that’s a story for another time).  Today’s read is by an author who I’ve read before, Sharyn McCrumb, but a series I have not, starring one Elizabeth MacPherson. I’m reading the first in the series, Sick of Shadows (first published 1984).

There is a point fairly early in the book (page 47 in my copy), where Elizabeth is teased by her cousins for  knowing so much about the history of the MacPhearson clan and their participation in the ’45, fighting with “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” Her cousin Geoffrey comments:

“I congratulate you on your originality,” purred Geoffrey. “It seems you have been unable to escape the Southern weakness for lost causes, but at least you managed to avoid the conventional one. I would rather hear you go on about the Scottish Alamo than to hear about the Confederacy.”

This comment, made though it was by a fictional Southern cynic, gave me pause. I am a Southerner, in case I’ve not mentioned that before (North Carolina, in case you were wondering), and yet I have no great fondness for lost causes. Underdogs, certainly, but that can be put down to the influence of Robin Hood and being a geeky child in general. I confess that I don’t view the Confederate cause as a great Romantic story; but then, I also find Lord Byron rather trying and suspect I would be likely to tread on his foot if I’d ever met him at a party.  Likewise, I see nothing ‘bonnie’ about Charles Edward Stuart’s character, although he certainly was handsome and charismatic when campaigning with the elite of Edinburgh.

The men who fought in both armies interest me, and the women who traveled with them. Both armies contained people who had been disenfranchised, and I wonder what they hoped the future would bring if they won. How the wars affected the lives of ordinary people, the long-term impact, interests me far more than the movements of units or the personalities of the figureheads.

Sometimes my lack of passionate interest in the Civil War and the cause of Bonnie Charlie makes me wonder just what kind of Southerner and Scottish-descended-American I am. Perhaps a new generation, one with a different romantic outlook than the past. Or perhaps the kind who has always preferred Robin Hood and Little John to King Richard and his Crusaders. Or simply one who also happens to be a social historian.


In June of 2010, Oxford University Press is publishing a book titled The Passport in America: the History of a Document. The blub on the book in their Spring/Summer 2010 catalogue leads me to believe that this book should offer some insight into a topic I posted about earlier – what exactly makes a person a citizen of one nation and not another.

Hopefully by then I’ll have finished a number of the other books on my “to-read” shelf and will be able to snag a copy from one of the local libraries.  I am lucky in that the local university is funded by the State, so anyone with a state driver’s license can check out books!

A quote, a book, a whole discipline!

One of the books I received this year for Christmas* was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, a book of essays on women in history. The title is her most-quoted soundbite, taken from an essay on gravestones which forms part of her first book, Good Wives.

The quote, with “rarely” used in place of “seldom”, shows up on t-shirts, bumperstickers, signature lines, and who knows where else. It is generally meant to convey that women shouldn’t be “well-behaved”, a rallying cry to speak up and be heard. Which, in a way, is missing the point.

Disclaimer: I’ve only read about 3 pages of Ulrich’s book of essays so far, so I don’t quite know how she feels about the wide-spread use of the quote. I also feel I should point out that I do consider myself a feminist, and believe that women and men should have an equal voice in their communities.

However, the thrust of the quote isn’t about the present, at least in my mind. Perhaps it’s because I read Good Wives as an undergraduate, and so have a vague memory of the context of the quote. I hear the quote as a reminder that the ordinary, lawful people of the past have very often been left out of History. National narratives tend towards the warriors and activists, the rulers and rebels. It is only recently (broadly speaking) that the well-behaved people became the subject of historical interest.

Thus, where many might read “make history” to mean “make historical change”, I read “make history” as “make it into the historical record”.  What many people might not understand is that historical events often would not happen without those well-behaved, ordinary people. Individually they might not have made an impact, but collectively they can. Millions of ordinary, well-behaved citizens made history by performing their civic duty: they voted, and in voting helped elect the first African-American President of the United States.  It’s not that I object to people thinking of the quote in one light, but I would love to help people see the social history interpretation.

That’s all for now. I will try to remember to post again when I’ve finished reading the introduction (and the rest of the book).

* I also received Georgette Heyer’s Pistols for Two – hooray for historical fiction!