Friday, February 29, 2008

123 of the Day: Leap Day!

Since it is Leap Day, I hope that the powers that be will forgive me for blowing off my assigned books in favor of some pleasure reading. I don't have a very well-developed cosmology, but I like to think that you can fly under the radar a little on Leap Day.
So today, I am reading Alan Dundes' Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore. Here's your snippet (again, I'm fudging a little here because it's a short book - only 118 pages, so these are the final three sentences):
The multiple versions of nearly every major episode in both the Old and New Testaments — the creation of woman, the flood, the wife-sister subterfuge, the Ten Commandments, the name of the twelve tribes of Israel, the names of the twelve deciples, the Sermon on the Mount, the Shema, the Lord's Prayer, the words inscribed on the cross, and the last words of Jesus before giving up the ghost, among scores of examples — attest to the folkloricity of the Bible. There is no one fixed text, but only multiple texts that manifest extraordinary variation in number, name, and sequence. The Bible may well be "the greatest book in the world" and "the most important book in the world," but it is truly folklore, and it is high time that it is recognized as such.

That's pretty much his argument, and I find it pretty convincing. At bottom, Dundes' conclusions are even more unsettling than Bart Ehrman's for anyone who believes that the Bible is inerrant. At least Ehrman posits a (theoretical) original text with an original author (i.e. someone wrote the Gospel of Mark). For Dundes, the men who wrote the Bible, from Genesis right on down through Revelation, were not engaging in an act of authorship; they were compiling and transcribing an oral tradition. He does not demean the Bible by calling it folklore - indeed, he has a profound respect for folklore's place in human culture.

Nevertheless, the absence of an original text poses a substantial problem, not only for those who believe the Bible to be inerrant, but for moderate believers who nonetheless ascribe to the idea of a single, universal truth. If the Bible is a collection of myths, legends, and other forms of folklore, where does that leave God in the text's creation? I suppose you could argue that God inspired early versions of the stories, or that oral tradition developed after many people witnessed the same miraculous events. Still, in this telling, the Bible is hardly "the word of the Lord."

While I was reading, I had a recurring fantasy involving me, this book, and a devout Christian in which I quiz said Christian on various Biblical texts. Sample questions:

Name the 12 apostles.
If he come up with the list given in Matthew 10:2-4, just refer him to Mark 3:14, 16-19, Luke 6:13-16, or Acts 1:13 for alternate lists.

How many women visited Jesus' tomb after his crucifixion?
1 (see John 20:1)? 2 (see Matthew 28:1)? 3 (Mark 16:1-2)? 4 or more (see Luke 24:1, 9-10)?

What are the Ten Commandments?
Admittedly, this one seems to be a stumper even without considering the multiple versions in the KJV (let alone different versions in various translations).

The point here is not to humiliate people by pointing out piddly little discrepancies. The point is that any single version of the Bible contains multiple versions of the same myths, legends, and parables because the Bible was not divinely inspired. It was composed, transmitted, and eventually written by people.

On Theories of History

Earlier this month, this article by Kay Hymowitz earned some attention from feminist bloggers. My aim here is not to rehash their insightful comments on Hymowitz' sexist, reductionist pearl-clutching over the sad state of today's single young men (SYM). Rather, I would like to address Hymowitz' ill-informed and (unfortunately) popular approach to theorizing historical change.

She begins with a nostalgic appeal to the fairly recent past:
It’s 1965 and you’re a 26-year-old white guy. You have a factory job, or maybe you work for an insurance broker. Either way, you’re married, probably have been for a few years now; you met your wife in high school, where she was in your sister’s class. You’ve already got one kid, with another on the way. For now, you’re renting an apartment in your parents’ two-family house, but you’re saving up for a three-bedroom ranch house in the next town. Yup, you’re an adult!

Fair enough. The 1950s and 1960s saw historic lows in the average age at marriage, so the guy she describes is hardly atypical in that respect. On the other hand, he is fortunate to have finished high school: assuming he graduated with the high school class of 1953 (at age 18), he was one of the privileged 35-40% of Americans who finished high school in the '50s. It's also reasonable to assume that he didn't attend college: only 7.7% of American 25-year-olds had a bachelor's degree in 1960. So far, so good.
But here's where the historian in me gets pissed off:
Now meet the twenty-first-century you, also 26. You’ve finished college and work in a cubicle in a large Chicago financial-services firm. You live in an apartment with a few single guy friends. In your spare time, you play basketball with your buddies, download the latest indie songs from iTunes, have some fun with the Xbox 360, take a leisurely shower, massage some product into your hair and face—and then it’s off to bars and parties, where you meet, and often bed, girls of widely varied hues and sizes. They come from everywhere: California, Tokyo, Alaska, Australia. Wife? Kids? House? Are you kidding?
Not so long ago, the average mid-twentysomething had achieved most of adulthood’s milestones—high school degree, financial independence, marriage, and children. These days, he lingers—happily—in a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. Decades in unfolding, this limbo may not seem like news to many, but in fact it is to the early twenty-first century what adolescence was to the early twentieth: a momentous sociological development of profound economic and cultural import. Some call this new period “emerging adulthood,” others “extended adolescence”; David Brooks recently took a stab with the “Odyssey Years,” a “decade of wandering.”

In this section, Hymowitz outlines a basic narrative of decline. Things were one way in the 1960s, today they are different (and worse). The unstated implication is that the norms of the 1960s are somehow natural, better, or historically representative. However, the lost "independence" of the 1960s young adult that Hymowitz laments is also a historically specific norm. Although many Americans seem to believe that Americans in the undefined past married young, had lots of children, and lived self-sufficient lives, this halcyon vision ignores almost every historical fact available to anyone who is willing to make the barest effort to educate his/herself. For example, the average age at marriage in 17th-century Massachusetts ranged from the mid to late twenties for men and the early to mid twenties for women (see: David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed, Roger Thompson's Sex in Middlesex, etc.). In 17th-century Virginia, a white man looking for a white wife was lucky to find her at any age. Think of it this way:
It’s 1665, and you’re a 26-year-old white guy. You’re an indentured servant in Virginia, or maybe you work on your father’s land in Massachusetts. Either way, you’re not married because you aren’t independent yet. For now, you’re sleeping on a pallet in the kitchen in your master’s/parents’ house, but you’re saving up for a few acres of your own in the next town. Yup, you’re an adult!

Perhaps this may seem a small point, but I think that it's implications are far-reaching. As an historian who hopes to have some contact with the public, even if only in the form of undergrads, one of the most important fictions that I hope to battle against is the idea of linear decline or improvement. Good luck with that, right? It is a crucial point: events do not move inexorably toward a fixed endpoint, whether that end is perfection or debasement. Times change because people change them, not because we are on an unalterable course toward the next chapter in the textbook. When people fail to realize the contingency of all historical events, their ability to make change in their own time is greatly diminished. Just because we have Roe v. Wade now doesn't mean we'll have it forever unless we fight to protect it. Just because young adulthood is different now than it was in 1965 doesn't mean it is necessarily worse.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Transgressing the Bounds

Today, I am reading Louise A. Breen's Transgressing the Bounds: Subversive Enterprises Among the Puritan Elite in Massachusetts, 1630-1692 (2001). It occurs to me that most people probably don't read a book every day and that, if they do, those books do not have a lot of punctuation in their titles. I've gotten a lot better at this whole 1 book 1 day thing since coming to grad school, but I'd still like to spend some more time with some of them. One thing the grad school reading experience has impressed upon me is this: BE CONCISE!

Bless Louise A. Breen, who makes her point in 220 pages. Every page over 300 decreases the likelihood that I will read the whole book with any degree of care. But anything other than 123 pages is too short, as it does not conform to my 123 meme.
This quotation is from page 123, but I fudged the sentence count to get around some long primary source quotations:
Those active in transatlantic affairs urged that Massachusetts do nothing to jeopardize its international image and argued that the colony was obliged to protect, and thereby to accept as bona fide New Englanders those persons (Winthrop had thought of them almost as traitors) who had settled in territory adjacent to New Netherland. A May 1653 letter subscribed by teacher Edward Norris and many "pensive harts" in the mercantile community of Salem explained that the New England colonies must stand up strongly to the Dutch not only to ensure that the Indians did not think them weak but also to avoid being "looked att by the Parliament of England as Newters and dealt withall accordingly which may bee mischiefe to the whole countrey." The New Haven governor Theophilus Eaton produced a declaration of the "case" against the Dutch that similarly emphasized the need to expand the definition of community so as to include those English warring against the Dutch abroad, as well as those English who had moved to settlements close to Dutch territory.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Red Badge of Courage

I'm still reading The Middle Ground. I'm about to head out the door to a screening of The Red Badge of Courage for my Civil War class, so here's a snippet from the 1917 Appleton & Co. edition:
At times, he thought he could see heaving masses of men. He hurried on in the dusk. The day had faded until he could barely distinguish place for his feet.
Oh, late 19th-/early 20th-century novels! How I hunger for your simple sentence structure! How I long for paragraphs that begin and end on the same page! We can run away together and neither of us will ever see a semicolon again.

Then again, I am a sucker for adjectives. It would never work out between us. Besides, you'd drag me toward Hemingway, and I don't want to go there.

For now, I will content myself with Audie Murphy and a nice, fat monograph on French-Algonquian relations in the mid-to-late 17th century.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Middle Ground

Today, I am reading The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 by Richard White (1991).
Page 123 is taken up by a large image, so here is page 124:
Indian hunters shifted to seeking the so-called menues pelleteries and, more significantly, to trading deerskins and bearskins, although initially there was not much demand for either. In 1726 Intendant DuPuy suggested importing leather workers or finding some way for the army to use the skins which otherwise would either be smuggled to New York or traded there directly by the Indians. Although the Louisiana posts sought deerskins, the Canadians took them only from necessity.

I'm just getting started, but it looks good. I'll let you know how it goes as I read more.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Winthrop's Journal

Today I am reading the abridged version of John Winthrop's journal for my 17th century seminar. Page 123 is mostly footnotes, so here's page 124:
At the general court at Boston, upon the complaint of a kinsman of the said Hockin, John Alden, one of the said magistrates of Plymouth, who was present when Hockin was slain, being then at Boston, was called and bound with sureties not to depart out of our jurisdiction without leave had; and withal we wrote to Plymouth to certify them what we had done, and to know whether they would do justice in the cause, (as belonging to their jurisdiction) and to have a speedy answer, etc. [What a sentence!] This we did, that notice might be taken, that we did disavow the said action, which was much condemned of all men, and which was feared would give occasion to the king to send a general governor over; and besides had brought us all and the gospel under a common reproach of cutting one another's throats for beaver. By this time the fort at Boston was in defence, and divers pieces of ordnance mounted in it.

After that sample, perhaps you can understand why my reading group opted for the abridged version rather than all 800 pages.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

From Property to Person

Today, I am reading From Property to Person: Slavery and the Confiscation Acts, 1861-1862 by Silvana R Siddali:
The second – and much more serious – attack on slavery occurred under the proposed confiscation legislation. This came under much more debate in Congress because such legislation raised significant questions about who controlled the conduct of the war, and because, according to conservatives such as Congressman John Crittenden, it directly interfered with internal institutions within states. Emancipation legislation extended congressional control (to its utmost limits) over the South's peculiar institution, but it did so within constitutionally sanctioned parameters.

I'm starting to think about my research papers for the semester, and I feel like I have to come up with something good for my Civil War class - maybe even something publishable. Why? Well, I don't think there's much demand on the ever-tightening job market for 17th century Puritan-lovers. If I do get a job, I will definitely have to teach the 19th century if I want the leisure to also teach the 18th and the 17th. Since my dissertation will be situated in the earlier years, it would be great if I could have an unrelated article on something 19th centuryish just to prove that I have the chops.
Currently, I'm going through some secondary literature, looking for evidence of how slaves imagined the North. I don't know if it's going anywhere, but we shall soon see.

Also, happy birthday, Mom!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development

Today, I am reading Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development edited by Stanley N. Katz, John M. Murrin, and Douglas Greenberg. This book mostly consists of excerpts from or boiled-down versions of monographs, thus saving the besieged graduate student some time. For that, I applaud it.

Since it is a book of essays, the 123 meme doesn't really capture the overall flavor of the book, but I'll give it a shot anyway. Page 123 falls near the end of Peter N. Moogk's "Reluctant Exiles: Emigrants from France in Canada Before 1760":
Another captain in their employ had returned to France without delivery receipts for his mythical workers; "I was obliged to pay that [fine] on your behalf" complained the writer. This frank discussion about evading the laws indicates that there were admiralty officers who cooperated in the deception, undoubtedly for a consideration. Thus embarkation lists should be treated with caution.

I'm not reading the rest of Moogk's article today, but we are considering it in my 17th century seminar. Today, I have articles by Jared Diamond, Patricia Seed, and James H. Merrell. I'm unfamiliar with Merrell, but I've read Diamond's books and Seed's Ceremonies of Possession, so it shouldn't be too onerous.

123 of the Day: Presidents Day Edition

For Presidents Day, I bring you a book about my favorite president: John Quincy Adams. While I acknowledge his shortcomings as a political leader, I admire his lifelong commitment to national service and his conduct in the House of Representatives.
The book is Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress by William Lee Miller.
Page 123:
Shortly before Calhoun made that speech in the Senate, as we shall see, a South Carolina congressman, Henry Pinckney - not a lodger at Mrs. Lindenberger's - had in fact "broken ranks" and taken a position that from Calhoun's point of view would divide and distract the Southern members exceedingly. Calhoun's remarks in the Senate may be interpreted as directed toward that recalcitrant member of the other house, as well as his fellow senators. But though he certainly did urge that the South stand united with respect to the petitions, the incendiary publications, and the underlying constitutional point - that the national legislature could not touch the subject of slavery - he did not do so (his followers insisted) from any personal motive.
Unfortunately, that 123 sample doesn't give you a taste of John Quincy Adams, but perhaps it is fitting on this day to give thanks that John C. Calhoun was only a vice president, never the real deal.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Puritan Watch

Ever since I found my interests drifting backward in time from the 18th century to the 17th century, I have become more aware of references to "Puritans" in the modern media. Typically, these references characterize the early residents of Massachusetts Bay as dour, grim, sexually repressed, and allergic to happiness. Many historians much abler than I have already shown this idea to be flat-out wrong, but it persists.

Today's sighting comes from the New York Times. The article is about Dr. Carla Pugh, who builds simulators to help med students and young doctors practice examinations and procedures that make them feel icky - mostly exams involving reproductive organs. Dr. Pugh is doing fine work, and I applaud her. However, the quote at the end (from sex columnist Dan Savage, whom I usually love) is inappropriate:
What good is a mechanic who doesn’t like getting greasy? If you have a squeamish doctor, get a new doctor. That’s America. Canada got the French. Australia got the convicts. We got the Puritans and we never got over it.
For the record, there was plenty of "earthiness" in 17th- and 18th-century American culture. Savage is possibly thinking of the Victorians (though that is somewhat problematic as well).

American Colonies

Today, I am reading:
by Alan Taylor
One West Country leader concluded that "nothing but fear and force can teach duty and obedience to such rebellious people." Treating the Irish as treacherous beasts, the English waged a war of terror and intimidation, executing prisoners by the hundred, including women and children. The English commander Sir Humphrey Gilbert decorated the path leading to his tent with human heads.

It's basically a chronological survey, which can be a bit tedious, but it's actually fairly good. I'm getting a review of elementary facts, which is always useful. Plus, I'm trying to think about how I might use this book with my own students someday, as I will undoubtedly teach a class called "America Before 1865" at some point in my academic career.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Last semester, I was working on a project that involved some demographic statistics from seventeenth-century Windsor, Connecticut. I soon realized that I did not know enough about statistics to make sense of them. Thus, this semester finds me taking an intro-level statistics course. Although it is sometimes difficult to hear the lecturer over the inane babble of the undergrads who refuse to stop chattering just because class has begun, I am learning quite a lot and enjoying it.

Today, I came across this art installation:

Who says statistics and humanities don't mix?
Bravo, Icaro Doria.

Rape and Sexual Power in Early America

I tried to apply the 123 meme to Wesley Frank Craven's The Southern Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, 1607-1689. Alas, Mr. Craven's delightful writing style being what it is, there were only five sentences on page 123. If there were a fine for promiscuous use of the semicolon, Mr. Craven would owe the reading public a substantial debt.

Instead, let's have a look at Sharon Block's Rape and Sexual Power in Early America:
A father or husband could notify a magistrate about the crime, but the victim would have to give a deposition with specifics of the attack. Here the victim's world of women fell away as she had to tell her story to what was sometimes a roomful of men. Victims who had already been questioned or examined by other women probably had some idea what a magistrate would expect in a rape accusation and might have been bolstered by the support of mothers, fathers, husbands, or masters.

Methinks Roger Thompson should take a look at this book instead of declaring patriarchy dead.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Times of Their Lives

This is fun. I can't resist adding one of my books from last week:

The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony
by James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz (2000):
A variety of punishments were given, ranging from fines between five and forty shillings to, less frequently, being set in the stocks or whipped, particularly for repeat offenses. The first case documented for alcohol abuse, or being "drink drunk," in the court records is that brought against John Holmes, who later became the messenger of the court for the government, on April 1, 1633. He was "censured for drunkenness to sit in the stocks, & amerced in twenty shillings fine.

On second thought, these little snippets of my readings may lead me to question what I am doing with my life . . .

123 Meme: Sex in Middlesex

Step 1: Pick up the nearest book of 123 pages or more.
Step 2: Find page 123.
Step 3: Read the first five complete sentences.
Step 4: Post the next three sentences.

Here's mine:
Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649-1699
by Roger Thompson (1986)

In 1682 when he was sixty-nine, he was caught in the prison in the act of copulation with the already heavily pregnant Mary Lovell. For this, he was dismissed from his post, evicted from his house, and sentenced with a certain poetic justice to be whipped twenty stripes in April 1683. Six months later the flogged flogger flagged and died.

Interesting. I should do this for all of my seminar books.