Interpretations of American History

Discussion and reviews of books and other items of interest to our members.

Interpretations of American History

Postby Tireman4 » Wed Sep 06, 2006 1:36 pm

This book, I am told, is a fantastic book. In my semester of not taking classes, I am increasing (or expanding) my bibliography. My goal is to read 15 books this semester. I have three down. :) I am just about finished with 1776. This book has been criticized by some in our department, but I like it. Interpretations of American History by Francis G. Couvares is an investigative look at the way historians have interpretated American history. It is interesting that in Civil War studies, we have come full circle from where we once were. Volume one is to Reconstruction and volume two is 1877 afterword. Needless to say, I will be busy this fall.
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Postby Crisper » Thu Sep 07, 2006 12:24 am

Tireman,

Can you share a bit more? What is the author's approach? What is the thesis? What do you mean about Civil War studies coming full circle? Is it a lively read? What reader would you recommend this to?

You say it is an "investigative look at the way historians have interpreted American history" - how does that contrast with more traditional historiography?

My favourite work of historiography was probably "The British Marxist Historians" by Harvey Kaye, but it has been years since I read it. (Decades actually :( )

I know I could just look up some reviews myself, but since you liked it enough to recommend it, I would like to hear your take on it.
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Postby Roscoe » Thu Sep 07, 2006 12:50 am

Thanks, Tireman!

I'd also like to know what you thought of 1776. I've been meaning to read this as soon as I can find the time.

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Postby Tireman4 » Thu Sep 07, 2006 12:49 pm

I loved 1776. The book is primarily about the events of American Revolution in the year 1776. Very good read. What I mean about full circle is the when the Civil War ended, most the historians (who were Northern by birth) wrote that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Now as historians, history is the study of causation and there will always other mitigating factors that cause an event. As time passed on, other reasons that the Civil War came into play, such as state's rights and unequal representation in Congress. As the 20th century wore on, you had historians bring their views into play (i.e. William Dunning and the Beards) until finally in the 1950's, slavery again was brought out into the forefront as the leading cause of the Civil War. This is clearly mapped out in Thomas J Pressly's book, Americans Interpret Their Civil War. As as young historian, observing different interpretations over time allows us to see the main picture of events that have occurred during our young nation's lifetime. Hence, the two books I am going to read (when they arrive at my doorstep) will allow me to see trends and understand a historians thinking in the time period he/she wrote in.

Edit: I have not read Interpretations of American History, Volumes One and Two yet. I am going on what my colleagues in graduate school have told me. Unfortunately at the University of Houston, this book is not required reading for the Introduction to Graduate Studies class. We, as a collective unit, are pushing for it to be. What I have heard of the book makes me salivate just waiting for it to arrive. Until that day arrives, I will be reading Battle Cry Of Freedom by James McPherson.
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Postby Crisper » Thu Sep 07, 2006 1:16 pm

Tireman,

Thanks for the summary, interesting stuff. I look forward to your reaction when you have actually gone through "Interpretations."

What is your field of history? From this reading list, I am guessing military, but perhaps that is just your current interest, or even a gap you are addressing. Are you preparing for comps? Or building a bibliography before launching into a thesis?
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Postby Tireman4 » Thu Sep 07, 2006 2:45 pm

At this time, I am still into my coursework. I am taking the semester off to focus on my running and my research. I am trying to get a journal article together about the Houston City Project within the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration. My dissertation will involve the Texas Federal Writers' Project. I am not sure I am filling a gap. I am, however, trying to tell the story of the Texas FWP. I am focusing on spending, employment allocation, red tape within the organisation as well as other types. As far as reading, I am trying to get myself fully prepared for my writtens. Expanding my bibliography helps my teaching as well as my coursework. My goal is to read 15-20 books this semester. I have two down (1776 and Empires of Light) with many to go. I do not plan to take my comps until at least one to one and a half years from now. It is better to be prepared. I consider myself a social historian, with the 20th century being my focus (New Deal).
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Postby Crisper » Thu Sep 07, 2006 4:44 pm

Tireman4 wrote:At this time, I am still into my coursework. I am taking the semester off to focus on my running and my research. I am trying to get a journal article together about the Houston City Project within the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration. My dissertation will involve the Texas Federal Writers' Project. I am not sure I am filling a gap. I am, however, trying to tell the story of the Texas FWP. I am focusing on spending, employment allocation, red tape within the organisation as well as other types. As far as reading, I am trying to get myself fully prepared for my writtens. Expanding my bibliography helps my teaching as well as my coursework. My goal is to read 15-20 books this semester. I have two down (1776 and Empires of Light) with many to go. I do not plan to take my comps until at least one to one and a half years from now. It is better to be prepared. I consider myself a social historian, with the 20th century being my focus (New Deal).


Tireman,

Thanks again for answering. Please let me know if you don’t want to talk about your work. In the meantime, I will keep asking.

You mention that you are a social historian. I was wondering if you could tell me what the dominant influences in social history are today. When I was in the field (roughly 1980 to 1995) social history was evolving away from the structuralist Marxist approaches, and moving towards a version of post-modernism that privileged everyone’s voice (but not necessarily multiple realities). My work was primarily Gramscian, but with influences from the “new cultural history” of the time.

A lot of what I see when I skim the published field today is microcosms defined by group traits: women’s history, queer history, ethnic histories, etc. Your topic though doesn’t seem to fit in that mould.

Have things changed again?

Thanks for your thoughts.
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Postby Tireman4 » Thu Sep 07, 2006 6:16 pm

At least in what I see at UH, we are still grouped. I consider myself a social historian. My dissertation can be classified as social, political and economic. As I study further and further into history, I find that many questions can be answered within a genre. For example, as a historian, I am looking to answer questions of a social, political and economic nature. This will give my research more depth and breadth.

A lot of what I see when I skim the published field today is microcosms defined by group traits: women’s history, queer history, ethnic histories, etc. Your topic though doesn’t seem to fit in that mould.

I think that we group our fields in microcosms. For example, I consider myself a New Deal historian. I can also be grouped with the 20th century historians and the like. I have found that in America, we are a labeling society. I think we feel better with labels. That is not for everyone nor do I speak for everyone. In history, I have colleagues that are studying World War I at home (2 people), Vietnam (1), integration within sports (1). They can be slotted anywhere within a genre. My topic transcends many areas.


I was wondering if you could tell me what the dominant influences in social history are today. When I was in the field (roughly 1980 to 1995) social history was evolving away from the structuralist Marxist approaches, and moving towards a version of post-modernism that privileged everyone’s voice (but not necessarily multiple realities). My work was primarily Gramscian, but with influences from the “new cultural history” of the time.

I think the dominate influences on social history are not really a Marxist or Freudian view per se. It is more of a humanistic approach. I think with the advent of giving a voice to the subject of your topic, the idea of public history is rising fast. The need to interview and use first rate sources is paramount in any good dissertation. I think you can examine lines from a Marxist or Jeffersonian source, but in the end it is how you present it. I think that social history is dominated by three items. First, the need to interview and get the voice within your topic. Second, how did the subjects of your topic deal with the environs around them? Third, did your subject (s) a/effect the history near them or in the big picture, a difference?

I think we, as budding historians, are trying to examine all parts of the equation. I think I would agree that we are heading toward a view of everyone's voice being heard (or recorded).
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Postby Crisper » Thu Sep 07, 2006 7:19 pm

Well, things have changed!

When I was in the field, every social historian was a soft marxist (small-m) almost by definition. This didn’t mean that they supported Marxist ideology, or were trying to bring about the revolution. But they all believed that class existed as a meaningful phenomenon, open to analysis. Of course, many actually denied that the term “marxist” applied to them, which is why it was called “social” history.

As a Gramscian I investigated how groups in relationships of unequal power both constructed and were constructed by a shared culture.

At that time, we were really only starting to discover the concept of “voices,” and oral history was seen as a technique, not a sub-discipline.
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Postby Tireman4 » Fri Sep 08, 2006 1:05 pm

I agree. Oral history is becoming quite the rave in historical circles. You can ask me about my research anytime. I do not mind talking about it. :) I will do my best to explain everything I am doing.
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Postby Crisper » Fri Sep 08, 2006 9:08 pm

Tireman4 wrote:At this time, I am still into my coursework. I am taking the semester off to focus on my running and my research. I am trying to get a journal article together about the Houston City Project within the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration. My dissertation will involve the Texas Federal Writers' Project. I am not sure I am filling a gap. I am, however, trying to tell the story of the Texas FWP. I am focusing on spending, employment allocation, red tape within the organisation as well as other types.


I take it this is a doctoral dissertation? It sounds like an interesting topic, but could you explain why you will focus on spending, red tape etc? Are you planning to argue that spending allocations reflect society/government valuation of this type of work? Or are you exploring obstacles to the success of individuals in the program, or the program as a whole?

I confess that I am not familiar with this level of US history, but should I assume that the Federal Writer’s Project was a government-funded program to put writers to work? If so, what kind of output was intended? I could imagine that you would end up with lots of communist-tinged material given the circumstances. Is that what happened?

We did have something up here in Canada which is often called the “little new deal,” but I don’t know if there was something parallel to a writers project. We did have Frontier College emerge at this time, which is a totally different approach to distance education - taking the classroom (by train) to the student.
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Postby Crisper » Sat Sep 09, 2006 12:30 am

Tireman,

Based on my note above, you may find this older citation of interest (I haven’t read it myself, so I don’t know if it is only a statement of intentions, a progress report, or a final analysis).

George L. Cook, "The Frontier College History Project" The Canadian Oral History Forum / Journal de la Société canadienne d'histoire orale. Volume 1, 1975-1976.

(Edited to see if the function works)
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Postby Tireman4 » Sun Sep 10, 2006 3:37 pm

Thanks. I will answer your earlier posting when I have time. I have been rushed this weekend with my reading of chapter notes for my class, my own reading and my running. I hope to answer your post by Monday. :)
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