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Joseph S. Lucas and Donald A. Yerxa, Editors
Randall J. Stephens, Associate Editor
Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2006

Volume VII, Number 6

--David S. Brown, "Déjà vu All Over Again: Rereading Richard Hofstadter by the Light of the New Right"
--Bruce Kuklick, "How the Kennedy School of Politics Was Born"
--Beyond the Niebuhrs: An Interview with Robert Orsi on Recent Trends in American Religious History
Conducted by Randall J. Stephens [full text]
--Jerry Brotton, "When Art Meets History: The Sale of King Charles I's Art Collection"
--David E. Nye, "Why Technology Matters"
--Vernon W. Ruttan, "Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?"
--Trevor Burnard, "Only Connect: The Rise (and Fall?) of Atlantic History"
--Evan Mawdsley, "'Victors Are Not Judged': Byways on Stalin's Road to Berlin"
--Pamela Kachurin and Ernest A. Zitser, "After the Deluge: Russian Ark and the Abuses of History"[full text]
--Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "Conjectures of Order: A Review Essay"
--"Historians in the Midst of Catastrophe: Reflections of the University of New Orleans's Department of History after Katrina" [full text]

Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2006 
Volume VII, Number 6
Déjà vu All Over Again: Rereading Richard Hofstadter by the Light of the New New Right
David S. Brown

We may nod respectfully at Richard Hofstadter’s work and casually invoke his name to lend a certain gravitas to our own, but something is lost in the translation if we approach him only as the late, great past master/public intellectual of his era. For perhaps no historian today addresses so insightfully the rightward shift of contemporary politics in our era as Hofstadter. The child of a mixed gentile and Jewish parentage, Hofstadter grew up in the multiethnic city of post-World War I Buffalo. His formative experiences and ideological commitments were shaped by two shattering historical events, the Great Depression and the Second World War. The purposeful intervention of the central government during these years to combat both economic upheaval at home and Nazi power abroad struck Hofstadter as the foundation of a fresh liberal tradition in American life. The promise and complexities of the new politics preoccupied this distinguished Columbia historian through the balance of a prolific career.

The old liberalism, Hofstadter insisted, had to go. It embraced, he believed, a host of archaic or self-defeating convictions—isolationism, unregulated capitalism, and individualism—rooted in the nation’s preindustrial past. As an expression of political culture, the old liberalism had sustained a farmers’ republic for decades, during which generations of Americans believed that the concentration of state authority constituted the greatest threat to their liberties. Even after the industrial crisis of the 1890s began to shake this system, critics like Hofstadter were quick to note that despite the populist and progressive impulses that informed the pre-New Deal “age of reform,” original approaches to government activism (protection of workers, regulation of important areas of the economy, and social welfare/security) had yet to be worked out.

To American intellectuals in 1940, it seemed an even bet that the paternal state pioneered by the New Deal would not survive the return of prosperity. That year, Lewis Mumford published an anxious essay in The New Republic decrying “The Corruption of Liberalism.” His analysis prefaced by a few years Hofstadter’s more elaborate work on the subject. “Undermined by imperialism and monopoly” and acquiescent in the expansion of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, “the record of liberalism during the last decade,” Mumford wrote, “has been one of shameful evasion and inept retreat.” An ideological breech had opened in America and the 1940s proved to be a critical decade for the reconstruction of a new reform tradition that could break cleanly from the politics of the past. As a young historian, Hofstadter’s first books, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) and The American Political Tradition (1948), alertly challenged the ideas and personalities that sustained the old consensus. The latter work in particular—a biographical study that replaced hero worship with a nuanced and devastating assessment of the pre-New Deal party systems—captured the imagination of postwar students. No doubt the book owed its popularity in great part to contemporary circumstances. The ideological uncertainty of the 1930s gave way in the 1940s to decisive liberal leadership that combined social welfare reform at home with a commitment to contain Soviet power abroad. “In the United States at this time,” Hofstadter’s colleague Lionel Trilling confidently wrote a decade after Mumford’s bleak missive, “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.”1

Hofstadter never believed this . . . . 

David S. Brown is associate professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author of Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (University of Chicago Press, 2006). 


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2006 
Volume VII, Number 6
How the Kennedy School of Politics Was Born
Bruce Kuklick

In the late 1940s a number of younger academics sought to make their careers in a way not wholly oriented to traditional university departments. These students wanted to be regarded as prudent, hands-on specialists in foreign affairs—knowledgeable about the grim causes of World War II and experts in the battle against the Soviet Union. They frequently described themselves as “Realists.” Institutes for the study of policy often appeared as the best venue to undertake their work. At a number of universities new centers for such study sprang up, replacing older and pokier bodies of minor importance that had haphazardly analyzed international events from the 1930s on. The new and revived entities were attempting to duplicate the success of the early air force think tank, RAND. But the association with the military was thought to compromise the independence of RAND, although many of the people who consulted for it had positions at schools of higher learning. In the late 1940s and early 1950s scholars at Chicago, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Princeton, and Yale jockeyed to build organizations that would put RAND conceptualizations to work in a collegiate environment.

In the 1950s and early 1960s the Harvard department of government was out of step with developments at these leading universities. Its name suggested commitment to something slightly different from “political science.” While Harvard’s prestige insured that its scholars were well represented in policy-making circles, two older scholars, William Y. Elliott and Carl J. Friedrich, who had credentials as political theorists, still dominated the department. While more freestanding scholarly entities on the campus offered younger faculty more fashionable niches, officials regularly thought of closing the most significant of these, the Harvard School of Public Administration—the Lucius Littauer Center. The sleepy center had existed since 1935 but was a stepchild in Cambridge, an administrative unit that faculty in the departments of economics and government jointly ran. While the connection to Harvard had made Littauer more than respectable, training in public administration lacked the excellence associated with Harvard’s schools of law and medicine. As one evaluating committee put it, the master’s degree that the center awarded had “never been entirely satisfactory” and the students “not fully up to the standards of the Arts and Sciences departments.” It contributed little to the field of security studies that scholars in places like Princeton and Hopkins had established some fifteen years before.

The situation changed at the end of 1963 when the family of John F. Kennedy initiated plans for the presidential library that would house material from the administration of the recently assassinated leader, immediately elevated to a mythic existence . . . . 

Bruce Kuklick is Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger (Princeton University Press, 2006). 


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2006 
Volume VII, Number 6
Beyond the Niebuhrs: A Conversation with Robert Orsi on 
Recent Trends in American Religious History 
Conducted by Randall Stephens

Robert Orsi is the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard University. Orsi’s work on Catholic devotionalism, and what some call “lived religion,” has helped reorient religious history in the U. S. to the common men, women, and children who practiced their faith from day to day.  His most recent work, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton University Press, 2005), combines autobiographical insight with keen scholarship.  Peering into the worlds of devotees and academics, Orsi explores Catholic notions of suffering, the presence of the sacred for believers, and even scrutinizes serpent handlers and the observers who study them.  He is currently completing a book on growing up Catholic in the 20th-century U. S.  In that work he plans to explore the religious worlds children made and how they formed their beliefs in creative, imaginative ways. In May 2006 Randall Stephens, associate editor of Historically Speaking, spoke to Orsi in his office at Harvard University. 

Randall Stephens: Would you comment on the concept of devotionalism that is so central to much of your work? 

Robert Orsi: What intrigues me about devotionalism—and one of the reasons I find it so interesting to study historically—is that it’s a charged field where institutional imperatives intersect with people’s own efforts and desires to create a religious world. There’s a powerful interplay at work in devotional practice, and the results are not predictable. For instance, the cult of the Virgin Mary does not in any simple sense enforce an image of docile femininity on living women among 19th and 20th century Catholic women. Women appropriate the Virgin Mary. They pray to her; they make her part of their lives. She becomes a mother, sister, grandmother to them, and at that point, they use her to authorize their lives, to think about their lives in different ways, to make certain changes that might otherwise have been unthinkable. So I don’t like the simple grid of empowerment/disempowerment. Devotionalism offers a much more subtle ground where people live real, necessarily limited and contradictory lives. 

Stephens: In Thank You, St. Jude you explore the combination of institutional and popular dynamics in Catholic devotionalism. You argue specifically that St. Jude became the patron saint of lost causes in part because devotional promoters in Chicago sold St. Jude to a mass audience. But there were also women who made the saint their own.

Orsi: I see this as the dialectic of devotionalism. Women didn’t make up the devotions of St. Jude. These were the creation of priests in Chicago who needed money for their new church in a poor Mexican neighborhood. Devotions were a rich source of income in the mid-20th century. So women inherited Jude.  But once Jude was there, then women came and made Jude part of their lives, and in turn Jude helped them live these lives.

For example, the Catholic press in the 1930s and 1940s insisted that women should not work outside the home, that the working mother was a bad mother. Yet at the same time, women were praying to Jude in their devotions to him to help them find jobs because they needed to support their families. That’s what I mean about devotionalism as the ground on which women could live their lives as they found them. 

Stephens: Scholars like Eugene McCarraher have criticized the fusion of consumerism and Christianity in America. What are your thoughts on the subject? 

Orsi: McCarraher is right. It’s there all along.  If you look back, for example, to Henry Ward Beecher’s appearances in advertisements for soap and flour, you can see this at work, as well as in his sermons. Consumerist faith represented an effusive, romantic Christianity, one consumed to express and even to constitute one’s interiority. Modern American capitalism was able to make use of the religious cultures at its disposal, and to transform them in the process. 

Stephens: In a review of your latest book, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton University Press, 2005), John T. McGreevy criticizes your work for not giving enough credit to the bishops, priests, nuns, and lay leaders who changed the church after Vatican II in the 1960s.  How do you respond?

Orsi: I don’t think we have the historical materials yet to make generalizations about how the complex transformations of the era took hold or didn’t. Take the trajectory of Reformation studies as an analogy here: eventually understanding the processes of reform demanded town-by-town, if not street-by-street, studies. Something like this will be necessary to approach the effect of the Council’s reforms, because there were regional variations, ethnic and social class variations. So local studies of how things developed after the Second Vatican Council—the liturgical changes, ethical rethinking, the serious theological reformulations the Council offered—are still necessary. We need some account of how these matters were presented to laity in different parts of the country by different clergies. The northern Midwestern experience of the era was different, for instance, from that in the old industrial Northeast. We’re not at a place yet to make generalizations about the reception of the Second Vatican Council, I don’t think.

Having said that, I’ve been doing soundings in local history as I research my book on growing up Catholic in the 20th century.  Again, as in past work, I’ve been using ethnography as well as history, and the people I’ve spoken to around the country in what I’ve been calling memory groups have very much wanted to talk about their experience before and after the Council. Time after time, I was told that church officials presented the mandated liturgical and ecclesiastical changes without explanation, without discussion to among lay people. I don’t know of a lot of instances where pastors held public conversations to explain, “these are the changes, let’s talk about our feelings about the changes, and our understandings.” This was not the culture of Catholicism at that time. Priests were not inclined or trained to go out to the laity and say, “You know, the Friday meat prohibition is now being lifted. Let’s talk about what you think about that and what you feel.”  Vatican II and its aftermath represented the changing nature of Catholicism in the United States and worldwide. It marked a deep revolution in how people experienced  their sacred world. 

Stephens: How well do you think American religious historians understand the American religious experience in general?

Orsi: American religious history, as it is practiced in the universities today, is insistently committed, consciously or not, to Niebuhrian neo-orthodoxy as its moral vision, and this profoundly influences the historiography. We celebrate those aspects of American religious history that are admirable from the neo-Orthodox perspective. We don’t even ask, “Was the rise of neo-orthodoxy a good thing?” It’s arguable that as mainline Protestant seminaries in the U.S. became neo-orthodox strongholds, as they almost all did, obsessed with the idea that Christian integrity demanded a Christ against culture, Protestant liberal clergy lost the capacity effectively to participate in and to speak to American culture.   Was this a good thing? But neo-orthodoxy as a lens for American religious historiography prevents us from asking these kinds of questions. There are exceptions—I think of Marie Griffith’s work on Christian diets or Larry Moore’s study of Christian entertainments, and so on, studies done without the edge of moral condemnation that otherwise so characterizes the field.

Beyond that, how much does neo-Orthodoxy or Nieburhian realism tell us about American religion?  I tell my students that if they want to understand the history of modern American religion, they have to look at figures like Henry Ward Beecher and Peale. I say this without then going on to impose a neo-Orthodox moral judgment on such figures. Beecher is more important than the figures we tend to lionize because, in fact, American Christianity became his Christianity. 

Stephens: There are some in the field who have turned attention to other areas. One thinks of historians like George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Nathan Hatch, for example. Marsden has also called historians who happen to be Christian to acknowledge or embrace their faith perspectives. He has argued that religious viewpoints “ought to be granted a fully legitimate place in the mainstream academy so long as they prove themselves academically worthy in the same way that other points of view do . . . .” Would you agree with him? 

Orsi: As much as I respect his work, I’ve never quite understood what George Marsden is talking about when he criticizes the allegedly normative or exclusive secularity of the American university. First of all, there’s no lack of respect for evangelical historians in the academy. He himself is surely proof of that. And this is true of all the historians who are in the evangelical circle: Mark Noll, Joel Carpenter, Grant Wacker, among others. I don’t see any exclusion of these historians from any conversation on the grounds of their insider status. So too Richard Bushman is a distinguished and widely admired Mormon scholar of Mormonism. So it strikes me that there’s a little bit of the “evangelical as victim” thing going on here. I don’t think there’s any truth to that claim. If a historian does his or her work well, I truly don’t see what the issue is. 

When I had just gotten out of graduate school and was in my first teaching job, I was given the unhappy but necessary assignment of speaking with an evangelical Ph.D. student who wanted to argue that the unpredictability of the first Great Awakening, its odd patterns and surprising conversions, pointed to the reality that the Holy Spirit was the cause of the revival. I had to tell him that this was an unacceptable interpretation, and if he persisted he wouldn’t be allowed to continue in the program.  Now, if this is what evangelical critics are talking about, if that’s what it means to bring one’s religious vision into the classroom, then I think this position is completely inappropriate. You can’t get an academic degree based on notions of divine causality given that our critical inquiry is necessarily limited to the human. 

If the thrust of the evangelical critique is that we need to give a rich and nuanced account of people’s religious worlds, of their religious thought, and of the religious motivations that move them—move them even apart from political or economic considerations—I can’t think of a single American religious historian who would dissent. So, Marsden’s argument strikes me as criticism without an object in view.

Stephens: What do you make of Stanley Hauerwas’s critique of religious studies departments, that they make campuses inhospitable for people who practice their faith?

Orsi: I find it tendentious. I have yet to see any evidence for this, and surely such statements, to be acceptable in a university setting, require evidence. Religious studies departments—and I am familiar with many of them—are thoughtful venues for the study of different religions. I have never heard of a student’s religious question being rudely dismissed in a classroom. It is the case that critical studies of religion raise questions about religious worlds that might make some practitioners uncomfortable. But professors are generally quite willing to talk about even this discomfort in classrooms and in office hours. Is Hauerwas calling for a faith that is not up to intellectual scrutiny? Clearly not, given his work in general.  Again, I don’t get the point of such critical attacks.

Stephens: I believe the critique is that the pluralism of the academy doesn’t make room for people who are exclusivist.

Orsi: But what does this mean in practice? If people are exclusivists and think that Hinduism is the devil’s work, would that mean they would or should dismiss the study of that subject, that they could go into a classroom and teach Hinduism as demonic?  How would this advance knowledge?  On the other hand, plenty of foundational work in the study of religions other than Christianity was done by deeply committed and exclusivist Christians.  The question is how Christians deal responsibly with their Christianity in an environment of open critical inquiry, in which all questions are fair game.  And regardless of what some evangelicals say, the same is asked of all professors, whatever their personal commitments.

A photographer friend of mine, Rich Remsberg, produced a fine book of photos and text on Pentecostal motorcycle riders called Riders for God. I got to visit the bikers’ church a few times with  Rich. This was in rural southern Indiana. The pastor came over to me one night during a little conversation hour after one of the services and asked, “So what do you do?” I told him that I was the chair of the religious studies department at Indiana University. “Well, what do you teach there?” he wanted to know.  I said, “We teach all the world religions, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on.” And he teased me, although he was serious, “you teach those other religions to show how they’re wrong, right? How Christianity is the only rue religion?” That’s okay for a church, but not for a university.

Stephens: In Between Heaven and Earth, you remark that it is a challenge to write about figures of “special power”—saints, demons, ancestors, gods, ghosts—as agents in history. Could you elaborate on how you go about that? 

Orsi: I think that the religious studies community does a pretty good job of thinking about these questions. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference issues a strong challenge from subaltern studies to the historical guild, asking us to think about how such supernatural figures held so closely by various peoples act in history.  I think religious historians have done a better job of writing about angels, demons, spirits, etc. when they’re not looking over their shoulders apprehensively at what secular historians might say about this. It’s important to see the ways in which figures like St. Jude are not puppets being manipulated by the clergy or by women in the circumstances of their lives. They are, in fact, rich imaginative creations that acquire a vivid life of their own and in as important and historically relevant sense break free of their creators.

Stephens: Certainly, someone who is devout would say, “These are not ‘creations.’ They’re independent beings that exist in their own right.”

Orsi: I’m really interested in the question of how these figures become real in particular times and places. My current work helps me understand how children relate to these figures, and this in turn is helping me find ways of thinking about the historical and cultural reality of the really real, since the cast of a culture’s imagination begins in its work with children. How do the apparitions at Lourdes or the religious manifestations at the 1906 Pentecostal revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles become real for devotees? Or what historical sense can we make of the fact that people claimed to see Jesus there during one of Aimee Semple McPherson’s revivals?  For the faithful, there’s something ontologically unsurprising going on. But how can we historians talk about the human historical and cultural dimensions of such things?

Stephens: The new work that you’re doing is on children. It’s a topic that, like the study of imaginative religious beings, doesn’t figure prominently in historians’ work. What drew you to the topic of children?

Orsi: Historian Steven Mintz writes that children are largely invisible in history. They’re doubly invisible in religious history. Often they show up in religious contexts as objects of dread and fear. Periodically in American religious history there have been moments of high anxiety about the risks that the culture is posing to children, or the dangers of American life to children, or of the dangers that children are posing to society. And there are certain incidents, which could easily be recast as children’s events, like the first, colonial revivals in which children were active participants. As I write in my book, all the Marian apparitions of the 19th and early 20th centuries were to children. Still, children have been really invisible in American religious history and in religious history generally.  So this challenge drew me.  But in terms of American Catholicism, which throughout the 20th century was not only preoccupied with the religious formation of children but had built one of the most extensive institutional structures to achieve this, it is impossible to understand the life of the modern Catholic church in the U.S. without understanding it as the creation of adults and children in relation to each other.

Stephens: In the religious communities you study how have adults understood children and childhood?

Orsi: I think part of the problem is that adult-children relations in religious settings have not been approached with the full complexity and historical specificity that they require. There’s the idea that adults pass on their religious beliefs to children, but this is always a fraught process, the “passing on.” That’s particularly the case if we’re talking about immigrant families or migrant families. I wrote an article many years ago in the Journal of Social History about the “religious fault lines” that I saw between Southern Italian immigrants and their American children, and the question has been on my mind since.  To what extent has modern American Catholicism been shaped by this particular fault line?  But there are real problems with finding children in history. You have to use a historical methodology akin to that of historians using Inquisitional documents to reach the lives of the people the Inquisition targeted and who appear in documents refracted through authority. I have been using in part works written for or about children by adults, including prescriptive literature and Catholic children’s comics. 

Stephens: It sounds like the problem of using European colonial sources to study Native Americans.

Orsi: Right. You’re reading Jesuit missions documents to understand Native American religious cultures.  That’s why I use these memory groups, around the country, getting groups of people together in different parts of the U. S. I’ve been talking to people over 50 about their memories of growing up and what their childhoods were like, and then setting those memories in relationship to whatever printed sources I can find. 

Stephens: What is your impression of the religious worlds that these children created or inhabited in pre-Vatican II America?

Orsi: One way of approaching the history of a particular culture of childhood is to begin with the anomalous, for instance with a story that you can’t imagine a nun actually telling or a religious idea that is completely idiosyncratic. For example, I came across a widespread children’s notion that God made priests forget everything that they just heard in confession. Kids made that up some place at some time, working with what the nuns told them about the seal of the confessional. They told each other. This idea became an item for historical reflection, raising the question of what was it that children were so concerned about that they would have generated this story? What does it disclose about children’s fears or desires?

Stephens: How will your work on the subject expand our knowledge of American religious history in general?

Orsi: I agree that that’s a question a historian of childhood has to ask. How does this contribute to the general historiography? So to take one example, there was a real pressure on American priests from the 1920s to be able to speak to children, to be able to address children in language they could understand, in part because there were so many children around, because Catholics insisted that their children go to church from a very early age. Priests became specialists in “boyology,” and particular priests developed reputations, in some cases nationally, as being good with boys.  Modern Catholic notions of clerical deportment, in other words, the style and delivery of clerical authority, developed in  part in relation with children. Putting children back in the picture raises suggestive questions about the actual making of lived religious worlds.


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2006 
Volume VII, Number 6
When Art Meets History: The Sale of King Charles I’s Art Collection
Jerry Brotton

There still remains a tendency within historical inquiry to marginalize visual artifacts, or at best to see them as passive reflections of larger social processes (think of how often Van Dyck’s paintings are used as illustrations in this way). This tends to limit our understanding of how individuals in history used artifacts to make sense of their world. It also restricts our appreciation of how objects like pictures cross social, political, and cultural boundaries and are involved in the making of history (especially in an era that predates the public galleries and museums of the 18th and 19th centuries).

I came up against this problem while examining the dispersal of King Charles I’s art collection in the years 1649-1654. Everyone who works in the field thinks they know the story of the so-called “Sale of the Century,” which was also the title of Jonathan Brown and John Elliott’s 2002 Prado exhibition and Yale University Press edited collection. Yet what struck me as I began my preliminary historiographical reading into the subject was that nobody had actually undertaken a systematic study of what happened to Charles’s art collection from the creation of the Rump Parliament through to the establishment of the Cromwellian Protectorate.

Compounding this problem is the accretion of myth that grew up around the Commonwealth sale, especially after the successful restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Royalists and later historians of art were horrified at what they regarded as the sale’s cultural vandalism. Writing in 1685, William Aglionby angrily denounced the sale, insisting that “had not the bloody-principled zealots, who are enemies to all the innocent pleasures of life, under the pretext of a reformed sanctity, destroyed both the best of kings, and the noblest of courts, we might to this day have seen these arts flourish amongst us.” By this time Charles I was being recast as a saint and martyr of the royalist cause, a connoisseur ahead of his time, brought down by iconoclastic philistines. Eighteenth-century historians embellished the myth, castigating the Commonwealth for destroying what they regarded as the first flowering of sensibility among the polite arts in England. Horace Walpole claimed that throughout history “the mob have vented their hatred to tyrants on the pomp of tyranny. The magnificence the people have envied, they grow to detest, and mistaking consequences for causes, the first objects of their fury are the palaces of their masters . . . . This was the case in the contests between Charles and his parliament.” Like many other connoisseurs of his day, Walpole viewed the consequences of the sale through the prism of prevailing 18th-century conventions of taste and sensibility. The Victorians romanticized the aesthetic Charles; official royal publications and Web sites continue to describe the Commonwealth sale as a national tragedy . . . . 

Jerry Brotton is Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest book, The Sale of the Late King’s Goods: Charles I and His Art Collection, (2006) is published in the UK by Macmillan.


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2006 
Volume VII, Number 6
Why Technology Matters
David E. Nye

Last year a bright student came to me to talk about her interest in the history of bells and timekeeping in Britain from ca. 1300 until the 18th century. She had some interesting materials about the social history of bells and hoped to write a dissertation on this topic. But when I inquired, she had no answer to a whole series of crucial questions: where the centers of bronze bell manufacture had been; where the ores were smelted; what was their composition (23% tin and 77% copper was best to avoid cracking); how bells were transported, hoisted into position, and tuned; and whether bells became cheaper to make, transport, and install over time (which could help explain why they became more numerous). Her otherwise excellent training had not prepared her to think about such matters, and village bells were just part of the historical landscape. How they got to the bell tower was not part of the story she had planned to tell.

Until quite recently, a good deal of historical work proceeded on similar assumptions. For generations, historians wrote about slaves growing rice in the Carolinas without asking how Englishmen, with no history of growing rice, had reshaped the swampy coastal land, introduced the right agricultural technologies, and taught slaves how to plant, care for, and harvest this new crop. Judith Carney’s seminal Black Rice showed that planters imported rice plants and slaves accustomed to tending them from what is now Sierra Leone. Tools, plants, and technical knowledge, like bells, came from somewhere.

Technologies are not marginal to knowing the past. People have woven them into every aspect of experience, and it can be perilous to ignore them. Yet some historians limit their definition of technology to steam engines, automobiles, airplanes, and other large machines that have emerged since industrialization. They do not realize they are dealing with technology when they write about the home, the landscape, the city, the workplace, transport, energy systems, and cultural reproduction, to cite just a few examples. As this list suggests, however, historians of technology routinely include in their field the working systems of material culture, from ancient tool making to the microchip. Few are interested in objects in isolation; most argue that technologies are socially constructed.

For researchers unfamiliar with this field, the following sketch may be useful. It is an inherently interdisciplinary field, shading off at its edges into social history, material culture, museum studies, business history, labor history, engineering, the history of science, literary history, the arts, and area studies programs. The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) began in the 1950s as a crossroads where scholars from all these areas met. SHOT members established their credentials with an innovative journal, Technology and Culture, developed doctoral programs by the 1970s, and grew into an international community of scholars . . . .

David E. Nye is professor of comparative American studies and history at Warwick University. His most recent book, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With (MIT Press, 2006), explores these topics further. In 2005 the Society for the History of Technology awarded him the Leonardo da Vinci Medal, the highest honor, for outstanding contributions to the field.


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2006 
Volume VII, Number 6
Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?
Vernon W. Ruttan

It is worth recalling that knowledge acquired in making weapons played an important role in the Industrial Revolution. James Watt turned to John Wilkinson, a canon-borer who had invented the only machine in England that could drill through a block of cast iron with accuracy, to bore the condensers for his steam engines.1 In the United States, what came to be termed the American system of manufacturing emerged from the New England armory system of gun manufacture. In 1794 President George Washington, disturbed by the inadequate performance and corruption of the contract system of gun procurement, proposed a bill, which the Congress passed, to set up four public armories to manufacture and supply arms to the U.S. Army. The Springfield Armory became an important source of wood and metal working machines. Guns with interchangeable parts were first developed at the Harpers Ferry Armory.2

These are early examples of military exigencies driving technological innovation and economic growth. Defense and defense-related institutions have played a predominant role in the development of many of the general- purpose technologies that shape America today . . . . 

Vernon W. Ruttan is Regents Professor Emeritus in the department of applied economics and in the department of economics, and adjunct professor in the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. He is the author of Is War Necessary for Economic Growth? Military Procurement and Technology Development (Oxford University Press, 2006). He has been elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and to membership in the National Academy of Sciences.


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2006 
Volume VII, Number 6
Only Connect: The Rise and Rise (and Fall?) of Atlantic History 
Trevor Burnard

Stocks in Atlantic history are high. “We are all Atlanticists now,” declares David Armitage with blithe disregard for the perils of hubris. The topic has developed the type of institutional apparatus that signals it is more than a passing fancy. Courses on “The Atlantic World” abound; positions in Atlantic history have been advertised at an increasing number of institutions; and postgraduate programs for Atlantic history specialists are now appearing. Atlantic historians gather at conferences at exotic locations around the world; research centers with an Atlantic focus are created every year; and funding opportunities to do Atlantic history are becoming more frequent. Perhaps most telling, major universities, research libraries, and scholarly organizations have begun to treat Atlantic history as a subfield, making it possible for a cadre of historians to advance their careers, meet lots of agreeable people who share their own predilections in interesting and stimulating places, and network through joint participation in seminars and fellowships.

The Atlantic way allows budding historians a multitude of new research and job opportunities. This is a remarkable turnabout, considering the dim prospects facing English-speaking historians of the early modern era in the late 1970s. For a graduate student in early American history, topics and areas that had previously been at the cutting edge of scholarship were now passé. The scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s led away from a broadening vision. The work of scholars influenced by the Annales school was extraordinary, ushering in a golden age of scholarship. But a major failure of social history in all its multitudinous varieties was a loss of focus. Historians concentrated so intently on the detail of small-scale communities that, as Bernard Bailyn put it in an extremely influential 1982 jeremiad, previously “discrete and easily controllable” fields of knowledge had become “boundless” and “incomprehensible,” the “wider boundaries” unclear. Historians coming into graduate school from the late 1970s into the mid-1980s were confronted by a bewildering number of studies of small-scale communities in early America, most of which were individually excellent but, taken together, generally led to confusion. To adapt the old joke told about either economists or lawyers, one could lay down side by side a host of community studies of New England towns and never come to an agreement.

Similarly, 17th-century British history was becoming ever more myopic, introspective, and irrelevant. Indeed, scholars of the English Civil War undertook the discipline-destroying act of claiming that the object of their study—the English Revolution—did not really exist. It seemed as if there was nothing interesting left to be said about either early modern Britain or colonial America. Branching out into Atlantic history or the related New British History was a way of escaping intellectual stupefaction. It also gave aspiring academics an entrée into a still fiercely contested job market. In part, Atlantic history has developed out of the relentless need for scholarship to be about new and unexplored fields. In part, also, it has been an understandable response by historians—as attuned to market possibilities as any other group of professionals—to the changing market of academic scholarship and employment.

What I have said thus far may strike readers as unduly cynical in its emphasis on the career-enhancing potentialities of Atlantic history. But the institutional apparatus that has accompanied the advent of Atlantic history as one of the more important historiographical developments of recent times did not develop just because it met the needs of a generation of historians anxious to be established in a dynamic new area. Atlantic history has real intellectual clout. It has reinvigorated the histories of early America and Latin America. Its principal theme—that the Atlantic from the 15th century to the present was not just a physical fact but a particular zone of exchange and interchange, circulation, and transmission—is a conceptual leap forward. True believers in the approach argue that Atlantic history, with its emphasis on movement, fluidity, and connections between nations, peoples, and events, shows how the modern world was made. The idea of Atlantic history as a field of historical inquiry that is “additive,” or more than the sum of an aggregation of several national or regional histories, pushes historians toward both methodological pluralism and expanded horizons. In short, my comments on the career-enhancing possibilities of Atlantic history may be cynical, but they are not the result of skepticism about the utility of Atlantic history as a method or as a subject of inquiry . . . .

Trevor Burnard is professor of American history at the University of Sussex. His most recent book is Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (University of North Carolina Press and The Press University of the West Indies, 2004).


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2006 
Volume VII, Number 6
“Victors are not Judged”: Byways on Stalin's Road to Berlin
Evan Mawdsley

"Victors are not judged” was one of Stalin’s favorite sayings. He used these words most memorably in a post-war speech justifying his leadership in the “Great Patriotic War.” In the good old days of the USSR there developed a similar broad brush approach to the history of this war, based as much on Russian nationalism as on Marxism-Leninism. Over time this perspective has been influential outside Russia as well. The release in Moscow of new material, however, has allowed historians to produce more unvarnished accounts of the strategic direction of the Soviet war effort. Especially useful have been the documents to and from Stalin and his Stavka (General Headquarters), giving a better sense of what was intended in particular situations.1 In addition, the availability of Stalin’s appointments diary means that these orders can be tied to the individuals that the Soviet leader consulted. Also valuable has been the publication of new memoirs and diaries, and less censored (if not uncensored) versions of earlier ones.2 Much more information about Soviet casualties has also been made public, which allows an assessment—albeit indirect—of the scale and importance of different operations . . . .

Evan Mawdsley in professor of international history at the University of Glasgow. His most recent book is Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War, 1941-1945 (Hodder Arnold, 2005).


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2006 
Volume VII, Number 6
After the Deluge: Russian Ark and the Abuses of History*
Pamela Kachurin and Ernest A. Zitser

The critical and commercial success of Russian Ark (2002), Aleksandr Sokurov’s most recent effort in historical docudrama, necessitates a thoughtful response from anyone seriously interested in Russian history, and most especially from American Slavic studies professionals.  After all, any movie that features cameos by Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Pushkin, Nicholas II, and Alexandra, and that enlists the Russophobic Marquis de Custine as the official tour guide to 300 years of history and more than thirty rooms of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, simply cries out for a discussion of its historical and ideological implications. Our goal in this self-avowedly polemical piece is to open up a critical discussion about Sokurov’s film, which we see as a significant milestone in the ongoing attempt to define Russian national identity vis-à-vis the West.

Russian Ark is undoubtedly a technological tour de force—a single, uninterrupted 90-minute shot, featuring paintings and lavish period costumes from the Hermitage Museum, mellifluous music by the Mariinskii Theater Orchestra, and a cast of nearly a thousand extras. This stunning visual spectacle can easily blind audiences to the film’s troubling political and ideological messages. The gist of these messages is contained in the film’s title, which suggests that after the deluge of the 20th century, it is a Russian ark (the Hermitage) that remains afloat on the waters of time to carry on the mission of restoring Culture to a world chastised by the wrath of God. Although this reading of the film may seem a bit farfetched, it is an interpretation that echoes the bombast of Sokurov’s open letter to American audiences, which appeared on the Landmark Theatres’ Web site soon after the release of the film in the U.S.1 Sokurov told Americans that

the time has again come for people to build arks and that there must be no delay, and that the Russians have already built their Ark, but not just for themselves—they will take all with them, they will save all, because neither Rembrandt, nor El Greco, nor Stasov, nor Raphael, nor Guarenghi nor Rastrelli will allow an ark such as this to disappear or people to die.  Those that will be together with them . . . will definitely go to heaven. 

But as the tone of the letter makes clear, Sokurov is certain that his voice will fall on deaf ears. For according to Sokurov, it is neither Americans’ ignorance of Russian history nor their supposed youthful “wish” to lead “world civilization” that prevents them from seeing the point of the movie. It is, rather, “their own hardheartedness.” Sokurov believes that Americans audiences are simply unredeemable cultural philistines. And Russian Ark is his rod of chastisement.

Sokurov’s controversial political agenda is built into the very structure of the film.  His use of the single, continuous shot—arguably the main reason why American movie critics urged audiences to go see Russian Ark—is a technological achievement that is inseparable from the movie’s ideological content. It is Sokurov’s attempt to realize Andrei Tarkovskii’s (his teacher’s) vision of the inherent equation between “real time” and “reel time.”2 Although Sokurov’s movie flits through three centuries in an hour and a half of reel time, it aims to tap into and to illuminate the deeper, real history of modern Russia. The documentary quality of the hand-held camera presents a narrative of Russian history in which the tsars are doomed by forces beyond their control. So, for example, the breathtaking scene in which the ball-goers descend the Jordan Staircase of the Winter Palace into oblivion—lined up row by row, like in some kind of Russian historical iconostasis—masterfully evokes the tragic fate of the gloriously dressed and doomed passengers of the Titanic. However, the sheer cinematic beauty of this penultimate scene should not blind us to the fact that the passengers aboard this ill-fated vessel actually had a hand in helping the Russian ship of state go down into the maelstrom of the 20th century. Treating them as pitiful victims, or what is worse, as martyrs in a nostalgic and sentimentalized vision that exists only in the partisan interpretations of nationalist mythmakers, deprives the real historical figures depicted in the movie of the agency that they most surely possessed.

Sokurov’s single shot manufactures continuities in a narrative that pointedly excludes (almost) the entire Soviet period and harkens back to a nostalgic vision of Nicholas II, the last Romanov tsar, as the saintly forgiving father—not as the “Bloody Nicholas” whose troops fired upon unarmed demonstrators calling for an end to an unjust war, economic exploitation, and bureaucratic arbitrariness. In effect, the movie’s trick photography offers a powerful justification of the controversial canonization of the “martyred” Nicholas II, who was granted the title of “passion bearer” (the lowest rung in the pantheon of Eastern Orthodox saints) in August 2000. And sainthood, like visionary filmmaking, brooks no arguments.

The ideological premise of Russian Ark is based on an unspoken, but nevertheless quite clear juxtaposition between Western “civilization” and Russian “culture.” This juxtaposition is played out in the running verbal battles between the movie’s unseen narrator (Sokurov) and his guide, Marquis Astolphe de Custine, a French Catholic aristocrat, whose international bestseller Russia in 1839 sparked a continuing debate about Russia’s Sonderweg. The filmmaker’s choice of museum guide reflects the movie’s overarching concern with the issue of Russian national identity, particularly as expressed in the evolving and frequently troubled relationship between Russia and the West: Is Russia a part of Europe or Asia? Do the Russians have a “national character”? And if so, can an analysis of this character explain what has frequently been described as Russia’s imperialist policies, its authoritarian political system, and its servile reliance on foreign models? Following in the footsteps of such early 19th-century Catholic thinkers as Joseph de Maistre, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Petr Chaadaev (whose seminal “Philosophical Letters” he read in their original, French version), Custine did not hesitate to place Russia on the other side of the great cultural divide between European civilization and Asian barbarism. Custine’s political expose was rediscovered during the height of the Cold War and hailed as a prophetic work by none other than George F. Kennan, the American diplomat responsible for formulating the policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union.3 What is less well known, and much more surprising, is the hold that Custine’s unflattering description of Russia has had (and continues to have) on Russians themselves. Indeed, Russian Ark may be seen as Sokurov’s attempt to exorcize Custine’s ghost from the Russian national consciousness.

The character of the effete French marquis embodies a surface brilliance that serves to demonstrate the self-satisfied banality and decadence of a civilization in decline. Custine’s sense of moral, aesthetic, and political superiority is challenged at every step of his seemingly pointless stroll through the Hermitage, the “Russian Ark” that saved the Great Masters of world art during the deluge of the 20th century. The scene in which the Marquis is confronted by an angry coffin maker in a war-ravaged Hermitage—an oblique reference to the 900-day siege of Leningrad and to the heroism of those museum workers who succeeded in saving the art from being looted by the Nazis—is much more than a disturbing aside in a lavish costume drama. It is, rather, a visual illustration of the nationalist trope that posits a distinction between a nation willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of cultural treasures and universal values (dukhovnye tsennosti) and a “civilized” country that simply lets the “Huns” take over its glittering world capital without a struggle. As such, this scene relies on the well-worn tactic of using the suffering inflicted upon the Russian people as a badge of their cultural and spiritual superiority. Harking back to the arguments of such eminent 19th-century Kulturträgers as Dostoyevsky, Sokurov presents Russia as the Christ of modern nations and the only hope of salvation for a materialist, bourgeois, and decadent West.

The question of Russia’s perennial indebtedness to Western models—the main theme of Custine’s running commentary and the leitmotiv of the film—is particularly troublesome to a New Russian patriot such as Sokurov. What has Russia really contributed to Western, let alone world civilization? What makes a work of art distinctively Russian if the artist continues to rely on Western representational norms and techniques? The movie as a whole offers the possibility that Russia’s primary contribution to the world of visual arts is in fact the Hermitage itself, the “Ark” that contains the highest points of Western achievement in fine arts. And, as the chronicler of the Ark, Sokurov partakes of that glory. Indeed, Russian Ark may be seen as his assertion that a contemporary Russian artist can rely on Western models (for example, such single-shot films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope) and technology (high-definition video camera and the foreign expert to operate it) and still produce a work of striking originality. And because Sokurov is still trapped within the confines of a Romantic aesthetic, according to which nationalism and originality find their most sublime expression in the figure of the national genius—whether a Pushkin or a Goethe—he rather immodestly positions himself (and his work) as the embodiment of the genius of contemporary Russia.

Sokurov focuses our attention on three masterpieces of world painting, two by Rembrandt and one by the Greek-born Spanish Baroque artist, El Greco. The latter’s Peter and Paul offers a fitting backdrop for a heated discussion about greatness, religion, and Russia’s fate in the grand scheme of things. In a scene that has puzzled many viewers, we see the Marquis scolding a young man for treating this intense religious painting, most likely intended as a devotional object to inspire meditation, purely as an aesthetic object. The vehemence with which Custine browbeats the youth suggests that there is more to the scene than a dysfunctional lesson in art appreciation. Reading between the lines of the exchange between Custine and the youth, the modern moviegoer is prodded to pay attention to the religious significance of the subject matter of this painting. For these are not just any saints, but the patron saints of both Peter the Great and his city. Sokurov suggests that Peter was not a just another monarch, but a ruler whose creation fits into the largest scheme possible—the story of the world’s redemption. To see Peter merely as the despot at the beginning of the movie is to miss the redemptive significance of what he himself described as his “paradise”—the city of St. Peter. The monarch’s presence weighs heavily on the whole movie, even though he appears for only a couple of minutes at the beginning of Russian Ark. Peter the Great is the “rock” on which the city, the building of the Hermitage, and also the film is based, but a rock that weighs heavily around the necks of any Russian nationalist. The prominence of the Petrine theme helps to explain why Russian Ark had its official Russian premiere in May 2003, at the tercentenary of St. Petersburg, which celebrated what President Putin described as “the glory of Russia, and the provenance of that glory.”

The choice of the two works by Rembrandt—the Prodigal Son and Danaë—as nonpareils of Western achievement picks up on both the religious and the Petrine themes introduced with El Greco’s Peter and Paul. On the one hand, these paintings recall Peter’s fascination with things Dutch as a model of European cultural achievement. One only needs to remember Peter’s work on the docks of Zaandam and his intention to build a new European commercial port in order to comprehend the immense symbolic significance of Dutch culture to the building of Peter’s “paradise.” It is only appropriate, therefore, that Russia’s “Ark” (like all public buildings in the Russian Federation) should fly a tricolor flag modeled on that of Holland and that the modern Hermitage—that paragon of the marriage between culture and commerce—should own and exhibit several paintings by the Dutch master. As with El Greco’s Peter and Paul, however, the Petrine theme cannot be understood apart from the religious issues raised by Sokurov’s vision of Russian history. The camera’s long and languorous shots of the Prodigal Son, a painting that embodies the idea of redemption through repentance, suggests that the contemporary religious revival fostered by the Russian political elite signals a more fundamental and wide-ranging return to the Lord. Anyone who has witnessed the spectacle of President Putin’s inauguration—which included a controversial appearance by Patriarch Alexy II, in flagrant (if as yet only ceremonial) violation of the constitutional separation of church and state—will see that Russia is no longer the land of the godless communists.

In this context, even the painting of Danaë—the story of a virgin (Danaë) impregnated by a disembodied deity (Zeus, disguised in the form of a golden shower), only to give birth to a heroic dragon slayer (Perseus)—takes on a politicized meaning.  Although this subject seems far removed from assertions of Russian nationalism and Russian Orthodoxy, the implicit references to the Virgin Mary and to St. George (and thereby, respectively, to Christ the Redeemer and Russian statehood), suggest that this painting was purposefully chosen to support Sokurov’s overall agenda. Danaë stands out for another reason: this work was attacked in 1985 by a deranged visitor, who slashed the painting across the middle and then doused it with acid. Conservators in the Hermitage worked for twelve years to restore the painting, and it was placed back on exhibit only in 1997. The Herculean efforts to restore this painting were documented in an exhibition entitled “Danaë: The Fate of Rembrandt’s Masterpiece” and have become part of the allure and lore of this painting. The inclusion of Danaë seems to suggest that while the painting was a Dutch achievement, its restoration/preservation can most certainly be touted as a Russian one. This, for Sokurov, is precisely the kind of thankless burden that would be undertaken by the people chosen by God Himself to preserve Western civilization.

As Sokurov’s patronizing letter makes perfectly clear, the movie’s historical mystifications, while aesthetically stunning and technologically innovative, were never intended to further the cause of promoting education about Russia. In that sense, the mutually contradictory opinions of Custine and Sokurov are actually two sides of the same coin. Indeed, for all of its technological razzle-dazzle, Russian Ark contributes as much to the ignorance about Russia as the “Potemkin villages” that Custine encountered at the court of Nicholas I. By representing Russia as a land that, in the words of the 19th-century poet Fedor Tiutchev, “cannot be grasped intellectually or measured by a common standard . . . but must simply be believed in,” Russian Ark only further propagates the cycle of mythmaking and fear that has characterized relations between Russia and the West. At the end of this cinematic spectacle, we are still left with the same old dichotomies between East and West, modern and backward, civilized and barbarous. Far from offering salvation to the world, Russian Ark turns out to carry the same load of Russian nationalism that helped to unleash the flood of the 20th century. 

*A longer version of this essay originally appeared in NewsNet: News of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies 43, no. 4 (2003), 17-22.

Ernest A. Zitser <zitser@fas.harvard.edu> is a research associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.  He is the author of The Transfigured Kingdom: Sacred Parody and Charismatic Authority at the Court of Peter the Great (Cornell University Press, 2004). 

Pamela Kachurin <kachurin@fas.harvard.edu> is a research associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and co-founder of the Society of Historians of East European and Russian Art (SHERA).  She is the author of numerous publications on Russia and Soviet art.

1 For the text of Sokurov’s open letter to the American public, see “Sailing Russian Ark to the New World” <www.landmarktheatres.com/Stories/ark_frame.html>. 

2 Jane Knox-Voina (Bowdoin College) explained Sokurov’s indebtedness to Tarkovskii at a roundtable discussion of Russian Ark sponsored by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University,  May 2, 2003. 

3 George F. Kennan, The Marquis de Custine and his Russia in 1839 (Princeton University Press, 1971).


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2006 
Volume VII, Number 6
Conjectures of Order: A Review Essay*
Bertram Wyatt-Brown

Michael O’Brien’s Conjectures of Order stands in bold contrast to a longstanding denigration of Southernness, intellectual and otherwise. After the Civil War, members of the northern intelligentsia found their southern brethren hopelessly backward, parochial, and dull-witted. In The Education of Henry Adams the autobiographer observed that antebellum Southerners had been “stupendously ignorant of the world.” Adams characterized the lords of cotton as “mentally one-sided, ill-balanced, and provincial to a degree rarely known.” In fact, the Southerner, Adams stated unreservedly, “had no mind; he had temperament.”1 Likewise, Henry James blasted the South’s pursuit of a false “Confederate dream” that “meant the eternal bowdlerization of books and journals” and placed “all literature and all art on an expurgatory index.”2 Referring to the South of his day, H. L. Mencken in 1917 opened an influential essay by quoting the poet J. Gordon Cougler: “Alas, for the South!  Her books have grown fewer–/She never was much given to literature.” Mencken added, “It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity . . . . Nearly the whole of Europe could be lost in that stupendous region of worn-out farms, shoddy cities, and paralyzed cerebrums.”3

As late as the 1930s, Southerners themselves deplored the seeming absence of cultural giants despite the appearance of William Faulkner and many others. The North Carolina journalist W. J. Cash traced the problem to the ways of the Old South. A “savage ideal” of white superiority and brutish brawn over intellect helped to defend slavery.4 The late C. Vann Woodward, who became the leading historian of the South, recalled that he was not alone in “parroting metropolitan wisdom” that the “critical moguls” dispensed from “the Hudson.” To the young Woodward, even Faulkner appeared to draw “his subjects out of abandoned wells.”5 The poet Allen Tate censured antebellum Southerners who “knew no history for the sake of knowing it,” leaving an inadequate legacy for successors to build upon.6 Still more recently, the Southern novelist Elizabeth Spencer wrote that during the 19th century “the South was a dormant land.” It was “‘backward’—poorly schooled, poorly fed, a crippled land.”7

In Conjectures of Order O’Brien defies all these critics. According to O’Brien, the South, far from being a listless backwater, contributed to national culture far more than has ever been recognized. To overturn those decades of neglect and even mockery, the English don at Jesus College, Cambridge University, establishes an impressive case. Broader in scope than all previous works, his imaginative, elegant, and original text inspires the scholar’s awe. How did he manage to read all that long-forgotten material? Conjectures covers literature, theology, history, political theory, science, and ethnography. It is on the basis of their erudition and breadth that the two volumes have won the Bancroft prize, the Merle Curti award, and the Frank Owsley prize, along with being short-listed for the Pulitzer.

Despite its many strengths, O’Brien’s approach leaves some significant issues unexamined. If the South were highly endowed with intellectual rigor and forcefulness, why was its record of achievement so long unrecognized? The opinions of Adams, James, and the rest cannot be casually dismissed. It is no longer fashionable to set up criteria of literary supremacy in the hierarchical manner of F. R. Leavis's The Great Tradition. Yet O’Brien makes no case for the enduring merits of these antebellum writers. Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the others of the New England antebellum Renaissance left a legacy from which later American authors drew inspiration. The South’s conservative intelligentsia feared so greatly the future that few provided that foundation for their successors. Slaveholding had much to do with that failure, just as Clement Eaton and others pointed out long ago . . . .

*Michael O’Brien, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860, 2 vols. (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Bertram Wyatt-Brown is Richard J. Milbauer Emeritus Professor of History, University of Florida, and Visiting Scholar, Johns Hopkins University.  He has served as president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (1994), the St. George Tucker Society (1998-99), and the Southern Historical Association (2000-01).  His most recent book is Hearts of Darkness: Wellsprings of a Southern Literary Tradition (Louisiana State University Press, 2003). 


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2006 
Volume VII, Number 6
Historians in the Midst of Catastrophe: Reflections of the University of New Orleans’s 
Department of History after Hurricane Katrina

The fall semester was only two weeks old at the University of New Orleans when Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast. As the UNO history faculty evacuated, most took a few books and lecture notes along, believing they would be back in the classroom in a few days. In fact, it would be weeks before they would be allowed into the devastated city and months before they would be able to access their offices. Scattered across the country in hotels and shelters, or housed with family, friends, or strangers, faculty members were torn from their colleagues and the university. The technology of the modern age—cell phones, servers, e-mail addresses—had collapsed along with their campus. Research materials were endangered. Homes were destroyed or inaccessible. The campus became temporary shelter for perhaps 2,000 storm victims and sustained over $100 million in damage.

Yet only six weeks after Katrina, the University of New Orleans reopened for its fall semester, the first and only university in New Orleans to do so. Over 7,000 UNO students attended lecture courses at satellite campuses in New Orleans suburbs or participated in online courses from locations across America and overseas. In December and January, many faculty members taught intensive intersession courses. On January 20, 2006, the University of New Orleans, against all odds, held its fall graduation.

The much reduced history faculty returned to the reopened but still damaged main campus for the spring semester. Two senior members who had planned to retire in May 2006 opted to leave in December. A job search was suspended. FEMA trailers intended to house homeless faculty and staff did not become available until April, and UNO is currently in a state of financial exigency that will mean termination of faculty and programs throughout the university. Although the campus remained dry for the most part, it is surrounded by some of New Orleans’s most devastated neighborhoods. Huge cranes and pile drivers work unceasingly along the London Avenue canal that runs alongside campus. There’s barely a functioning business for miles, and reminders of the devastation of the storm and flood are everywhere. On a positive note, in January distinguished military historian Allan Millett, recently retired from Ohio State University, joined the faculty as Director of the Eisenhower Center, founded by our late colleague, Stephen Ambrose. It was he who first suggested that the history department should tell its story.

Below are thoughts and reflections of members of the University of New Orleans history department.

Ida Altman, research professor and department chair, fall 2005, had accepted a position at University of Florida in spring 2005 but stayed to serve her year as chair. After losing her home to Katrina, she drove over 300 miles twice weekly to teach her classes.
Recalling everything that has happened since the storm and flood is like summoning up a dream: some episodes stand out clearly while others are barely retrievable. Early on I had a conversation with a cousin who suggested (insistently, it seemed) that having lost my home and all belongings, I now “knew what was really important.” It irritated me at the time—I didn’t know exactly how I felt but certainly didn’t want someone else telling me how I should. In retrospect it seems even more off the mark. Of course I was thankful my husband and I had escaped harm, as had our friends; of course I was grateful for the love and support of family. But in fact it’s all important—chatting with my neighbors, early morning walks with my dog, seeing friends and colleagues at the gym, dinner at a favorite restaurant, zydeco music at Mid City Lanes; they all made life rich  and familiar. Losses are not confined to what one can list on insurance claims.

In a larger sense, and especially in historical terms, it all does count. Since the storm I’ve lived in Mobile, which suffered relatively little damage; my husband soon resumed teaching at the University of South Alabama. Bereft and dazed, I offered to lecture to his class on the conquest of western Mexico. The lecture had peculiar resonance; the pivotal episode of that conquest was an immense storm and flood that engulfed the sprawling encampment of Spaniards and their Indian troops and auxiliaries along the banks of a river in September 1530.

The leader of the campaign, Nuño de Guzmán, was perhaps the most notorious of the Spanish conquerors of Mexico. Shrewd, ambitious, and callous, for a decade he exercised considerable power in New Spain. Yet, in the greatest test of his leadership abilities, following the flood he failed utterly, making decisions that compounded the misery and mortality suffered by his native allies. Just as some friends and I one evening speculated almost tearfully about how things might have unfolded had Edwin Edwards been governor at the time of Katrina, I wonder what the adroit Cortés might have done in the same circumstances. Yet Guzmán’s failure of leadership was only one of several factors that resulted in catastrophe.

When UNO resumed classes in October I taught four graduate students in my introductory course. We agreed that the history of Katrina and its aftermath must take into account politics and political leadership, or lack of such; weather, hydrology, geography; engineering; demographics; and the distinctive society and culture that shaped and reflected New Orleans’s neighborhoods and people. Over the years I’ve sometimes questioned the social value of what we do as historians. More than ever I feel that my students want to understand the “why” of history—not just of what happened to them but what has occurred in other times and places as well. Our job is to help them make sense of the past’s sad mysteries.

Günter Bischof, diplomatic historian, department chair 2006 and director of Center Austria, first came to UNO from Austria as an exchange student. After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard, he returned to make Louisiana his home.
I evacuated for the first time from an approaching hurricane. Being married to a fearless Cajun who considers herself a seasoned storm-survivalist, we had never evacuated before. This time our frightened 14-year-old daughter quasi-forced us to leave. We went to Hot Springs, Arkansas (the first place we could find a hotel room), and took to the waters of this historic spa while the storm raged on the Gulf Coast. With hindsight it strikes me as bizarre irony that I was sitting in a pool of hot water in Hot Springs at the time when the canal walls broke and began filling the bowl that is New Orleans. We returned to our house in Larose on Bayou Lafourche (fifty miles southwest of New Orleans) the day after the storm. Our house was okay. We had lots of wind damage in the yard, but no water damage. We were without electricity for almost a week. The only source of news was the radio.

In the days after the storm I gave many interviews to Austrian newspapers and started to get in touch with people, including my chair, Dr. Altman. I also helped get some forty Austrian students, who had begun a year of studies at UNO the week before Katrina hit, into new host institutions all around the country (only four returned to their native Austria after the storm). American universities from San Diego State to Miami were magnificently generous in “adopting” these foreign students for a semester with tuition waivers. All of them are completing the year at their new institutions, as the housing shortage in New Orleans did not allow them to return to UNO. American civil society rose to the occasion, while the government in Washington dawdled. At the same time our partner university in Innsbruck, Austria, and other European universities granted refuge and were accepting UNO and New Orleans area students free of charge for a semester of study. Mutual transatlantic solidarity and higher education networking shone bright at a time of political tensions with the war in Iraq.

Since I still had a roof over my head and was back home, I began commuting and teaching two classes at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge ten days after Katrina hit. My U.S. History Survey II was a “refugee” section with student evacuees from all the New Orleans institutions (UNO, Tulane, Loyola, Dillard, Xavier, Delgado, and Holy Cross). Students missed classes as they tried to deal with lost property, insurance adjusters, and FEMA. Perceptibly dejected, they nonetheless were intent on continuing their education in hopes of restoring some structure to their shattered lives.

Teaching and writing did the same for me. Applying myself to what I like to do best provided relief and prevented depression, especially once I saw storm-ravaged New Orleans in early October. I sent regular reports to Austrian newspapers and penned ruminations on what I saw in the city for friends around the country and abroad—some of which were published on HNN (kudos to Dr. Rick Shenkman!). Writing was a form of therapy. On October 10, on my commute to Baton Rouge, I heard a report on NPR that UNO had reopened in a satellite campus in Jefferson Parish. It made me cry. Not only would I be able to hang on to my tenured faculty position (for the time being?), but I would also be involved in rebuilding our university, which has served many poor and underprivileged students from the greater New Orleans area for two generations. Continuing their education would provide them a means of returning and contributing to the Crescent City.

When I entered the UNO main campus for the first time in early October I was not sure whether my books and lecture notes had survived the flooding on the south side of the lakefront campus. I was lucky again—they were still there. The office smelled a little musty but otherwise looked untouched. While some colleagues sadly had lost their houses and their books, my personal and professional life was still intact. Go figure. Now I inch toward better comprehension of why survivors of major catastrophes wrangle with a bad conscience. 

Assistant professor James Mokhiber teaches African and world history, and was the first to return to the city after the flood.
Behind the wheel of a spattered minivan, I struggled to make my way to campus in mid-September. My usual route followed the bayou up to the lake, through a parade of the city’s famous live oaks. I’d turn at the Greek church, pass the brick homes of the university district, and cross a small bridge over an unmarked canal. I suppose it could have been a pleasant ten-minute commute, but as an assistant professor with new courses to teach I usually had to make it in seven or eight.

It was slower going in the van after the storm. As I wound my way through the downed trees and power lines, I found myself dwelling on the scenes I had seen and imagined during our two-week evacuation. In my mind I saw the department’s halls striped with the breached canal’s muck; inside my office, I could imagine my bookshelves floating for a moment, before tipping my stashed crates of research into the floodwaters.

These images did not really begin to fade until I pulled up beside our building. While the low brick buildings across the street were ruined, the waters had just lapped at the glass doors of our breezeway. The department’s halls were maybe a little dank. I opened the door to my office and shined my flashlight on my stowed research. I still may have an academic career, I thought selfishly. A friend helped fill the back of the filthy van with my folders. Let’s hurry, he quipped, we don’t want to be the first people in the city to be shot for looting academic research. That afternoon, I shared the campus news with my colleagues in the emerging diaspora. The message went out amid reports of missing colleagues and more. Already my elation had faded. My priceless folders ended up in the corner of a garage.

Over the next several weeks I traveled the city, shelters and outlying parishes with a British television crew, and grew more dismayed about the extent of the damage.  At the same time, the university administration mounted ambitious plans to restart the semester online, and I found myself almost openly rebellious. The idea of teaching a course on African history, in the midst of everything, seemed preposterous. Later experience has shown that, from a practical point of view, this was a wiser course of action than I had let myself understand at the moment. As our enrollment numbers decline, and the first waves of firings and retirements begin, it is clear that we—and the city—have not yet heard the last of Katrina’s effects.

I think about this a lot when I drive home after class now. From the small bridge over the canal, I can see the workers reinforcing the broken levees.  I watch the debris piles come and go outside the empty homes, and wonder how many people will attend the summer festival at the quiet Greek church. I slow down when I turn onto the shady tree-lined boulevard by the bayou. I try to forget about the arborist I heard recently on the radio, saying that many of these leafy great oaks are in peril, and may even be dead. They just don’t know it yet, he said.

Andrew Goss, assistant professor of history, is the department specialist in the history of Asia and Indonesia and has been with the department for two years. 
Five weeks after we evacuated, my wife and I returned to our house in uptown New Orleans. We found   it largely as we left it, with minor wind damage and no flooding. After pulling down the hurricane boards, we opened the windows and peeked into the refrigerator. It had been emptied of all the meat prior to the      evacuation, and we were able to salvage it with bleach and baking soda. We had been very fortunate and were full of hope. As members of the first round of regular residents back in the city, we felt like pioneers in a frontier town, capable of exerting our will on its future. After a month of inactivity in exile, glued to the TV and the Internet, we were euphoric at the prospects for action. With a safe haven to return to every night, the city looked more like opportunity than ruin.

The University of New Orleans reopened a week later, and in addition to reviving the first part of the Asian history survey I had started five weeks earlier, I began teaching a new history of science survey course online. This might have been a daunting task, with no books or lecture notes at home, and without electricity or a phone line. But in fact the experience freed me from the usual pressures facing a new faculty member. Professionally I was on my own, without anyone watching over my shoulder. In those early weeks there were still few rules, and we all shared a collegial sense of a shared mission. I gained access to my office before the campus was closed down for mold remediation, and the manager of the streetcar barn across the street offered us an energized extension cord during the first critical week of classes. The rewards were immediate. My students, both online and at the satellite location, were grateful for the return to class, and were eager to turn their minds towards Aristotle and the Ramayana. All four of my Asian history students had perfect attendance, arriving twice-a-week—at 7:45 am!—for nine weeks straight. It was the kind of course I had always dreamt of teaching.

Reflecting back now on the past six months, I see how Katrina led to the maturation of my historical consciousness. Questions about the political and social causes of the man-made part of the disaster caused me to shed the narrow intellectual worldview I had inhabited in graduate school for an outlook in which historians answer questions important to their community. Even before returning home, I had begun working with my colleague Connie Atkinson on a grant proposal examining the historical parallels between floodworks technology in the Netherlands and Louisiana. Even with no access to research materials, it was some of the most natural writing I had ever done. It was so obvious that in the effort to rebuild south Louisiana, historians would play a critical role, and that I, too, could do my part.

Much of the euphoria has worn off today. Classes have resumed on campus, and so have the usual challenges of grading, worrying about publications, and dealing with plagiarism. And the reality of      considerable cutbacks at the university, caused by lower student enrollments and diminished state funding, has finally set in. But for me, Katrina has opened up my work, granting a kind of freedom to pursue less narrowly defined intellectual agendas. 

Joe Louis Caldwell, associate professor of history and former department chair, is a native of north Louisiana and specialist in post-Civil War U.S. history.
On Saturday night, August 27, and again on Sunday morning, August 28, 2005, I listened to Mayor Ray Nagin and other city and state officials as they pontificated about the likely path of Hurricane Katrina. By early Sunday morning my wife, my daughter, and I had decided to evacuate our homes and our uptown neighborhood. As I left, I was stopped by a neighbor who asked me to try to persuade her husband to leave New Orleans. I did so and was rebuffed. The 85-year-old Reverend Montgomery informed me that he believed emphatically that the Lord would take care of him. At that point, I excused myself; he promised to pray for me, and I promised to do the same for him. My family and I left for Opelousas, Louisiana, the home of one of my wife’s brothers. In the evacuation traffic, it took us nine hours to make the normally two-hour trip. After staying with my brother-in-law for a month, we rented a trailer and remained in Opelousas for another five months. I came back to New Orleans briefly in September, when persons living in our zip code were allowed to come in to the city to examine their homes. We returned permanently in February 2006. Now we live in a FEMA trailer situated in the driveway of our damaged home.

I’m haunted by the images of that September visit. I arrived in the early morning hours. There were no streetlights. A misty pall hung over the city. As I drove down Claiborne Avenue, I saw a black Cadillac hearse upended on the neutral ground, leaning against a palm tree, reminiscent of something from a movie set. Arriving at my house I found the usually lush green neighborhood a dusty brown; there were no dogs, cats, pigeons, or “hoot” owls. The silence was deafening.

The dispersal of my uptown neighborhood reflects the larger picture of storm-ravaged New Orleans. My recalcitrant elderly neighbor, mentioned earlier, who chose to remain and ride out the storm, did survive but water rose over ten feet inside his two-story home. He retreated to the second floor where he was forced to spend a terrifying night sleeping atop a dresser. Rev. Montgomery, a veteran of World War II, had finally left his home when the National Guard came to his door—he said he could not refuse men in the uniform of the United States Army with whom he had served in the Pacific Theater. His stepson, Byron J. Stewart, who lives around the corner, evacuated his family to Alexandria, Louisiana.  Joseph Victor, a retired truck driver, who lived a block away, evacuated with his family to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Chalmous Smith, another neighbor, evacuated to Jackson, Mississippi. Charles Wilson, a neighbor employed at a local hotel, fled to the Convention Center and after two days there made his way to the Superdome and from there was evacuated to San Antonio, Texas. Most people in my neighborhood with the wherewithal to leave did so. Like our neighbors, when my family and I left before the storm, we packed for a weekend away from home. It was a very long weekend.

Arnold R. Hirsch, research professor, Ethel and Herman Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies, and director of the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies, is president-elect of The Urban History Association.
We were reluctant to leave our home, which was situated on a piece of (relatively) high ground in the Carrollton-University area uptown. We had listened to the dire warnings that attended the coming of Hurricane Ivan the year before, and evacuated for the first time during the quarter century we had lived in New Orleans. It was an absolute fiasco. Poorly planned and executed, our trip, undertaken with all the help and assistance the state could muster, got us to Lafayette in twelve hours—an excursion that normally took two or three. Saved by a late change in the hurricane’s course, we returned home, vowing never to be stampeded out of our home again. My wife proved particularly adamant on that point, as a chronic illness and prescription drugs precluded my providing any relief for her as a driver.
Our bravado disappeared the next year with Katrina’s approach. We packed quickly and lightly—we were sure we would be home in a few days—and left our larger suitcases out for the next weekend’s planned flight to Chicago where my nephew would be getting married. Aside from some T-shirts and jeans, I grabbed only my laptop on the off chance I would get to do some work over the next few days. The tuxedo would have to wait. We left in the predawn hours on Saturday, heading for our closest complementary accommodations: a cousin’s home in Dallas. From there, I monitored Katrina’s approach, staying up through the night as it made landfall, listening to the same reports over and over again as it moved inland. I slept a couple of hours once it appeared the worst had passed.

I awoke to begin planning our return only to learn of the collapse of the Industrial Canal and 17th Street levees. Exhausting the selections made possible by cable television, I went to the Internet for more information  and then back to cable again. My wife and I watched in horror as our city disappeared beneath Lake Pontchartrain’s unrelenting waves. Knowing only that we could not return home, we spent the rest of the week in Dallas and made ready for what seemed our inevitable trek to Chicago. We had family and a place to stay there. That trip proved uneventfully sad, though it was punctuated by the unfailing kindness of strangers who after learning we were in flight from New Orleans offered food and refreshment, words of solace and encouragement, and even clothing. Curiously, the only tension that I can recall resulting from our presence came not from the inherent awkwardness of receiving such aid, but from the testiness of soon-to-be relations who seemed gravely put out that we did not stop at a tuxedo rental on the way to the wedding.

Once in Chicago we quickly fell into a routine, albeit an unusual one. First came the constant monitoring of events and conditions in New Orleans. The scenes in the Superdome and Convention Center shook us badly, as did many reports in the national media. A large fire on Carrollton about a mile from our home went uncontrolled far too long and gave us some concern. We quickly found both local and extraterrestrial sources (satellite pictures) on the Internet and mined those to supplement the more conventional reports.

The passage of each day brought us into closer contact with those who returned almost immediately and a few who had never left at all. We were most appreciative for the bits of news gleaned this way (particularly eyewitness accounts that eventually informed us that our house sustained only minor damage and had not been flooded). We remained apprehensive, however, about the safety of friends who remained in harm’s way. Soon, my wife took charge of the process that would enable us to return home, contacting (and contracting) electricians, plumbers, roofers, painters, landscapers, appliance repair services, and inspectors of various sorts. Daunting tasks when taken individually, collectively these chores drew on reserves of patience and persistence that I could not have previously imagined.

For my part, I fell in among old friends and institutions in Chicago that provided a seemingly endless array of activities and opportunities. Professionally, I had more than I could handle. What struck me most was how easily I fell into a network left behind nearly three decades before. I picked up with friends from undergraduate days who made it seem as though I had been away for no more than an extended summer break. Graduate school friends made me a T.A. once more, and later, local professional contacts kept me engaged in my current work. It was heady stuff and all, it seemed, too good to be true. Moreover, enough of my family remained intact to provide the delicate balance of joy and angst (tsuris for purists) that let loose another flood—this one of memories. And then there was the city itself. Birthplace, but no longer home, its allure, I understood, could be found in the very unreality of my situation. By mid-November we anxiously, but eagerly, headed south to reclaim both house and home.

Catherine Candy, assistant professor of history, the department’s specialist in the British Empire and the history of Ireland and modern India, has lived in New Orleans for two years. 
What I will remember about the UNO history department in the wake of Katrina is the startling alacrity with which, with the university servers down and e-mail addresses gone, colleagues created a Yahoo department listserv within three days and had it up and running from a hotel room in Houston, although it took many weeks of detective work to trace everybody. I will also remember the incredible kindness of colleagues on my return to the city.

When it became clear that we would not be going back to New Orleans for a while, I evacuated to family in Ireland and was persuaded to talk about the hurricane in my old primary (grade) school where I was   interrogated so tenaciously by the children about the fate of the children of Katrina that I wondered if anyone had studied transnational children’s solidarity. On taking refuge at my alma mater, Irish historians at once remarked on the comparisons between the discourse on the famine in Ireland and that of Katrina. As the UNO faculty cobbled together courses for our widely scattered students in October, from Ireland I created a hastily pulled together online course that attempted a comparison of the two catastrophes in terms of roles of the state, class, race, gender, empire, evacuation/emigration, death and the “horror.” Then, by early October, the news came of the tragedy in Pakistan and India, so that tracing the common global history of the shaping of all three catastrophes and aftermaths looms as the next teaching challenge.

Michael Mizell-Nelson, assistant professor of history and specialist in U.S. labor and race relations, is a long-time resident of New Orleans.
From the air as I approached New Orleans, I saw the great number of blue tarps covering rooftops throughout the city, so I wondered just how many of our things might have survived on the second floor. We lived across the street from the 17th Street canal levee breech, so I already knew that the first floor was a complete loss.

The muck that earlier covered our neighborhood had dried into dust laden with heavy metals and kicked around by the wind. Markings on the kitchen door revealed that our house had been searched on September 25 (almost four weeks following the disaster). Another mark near an upstairs window indicated that someone in a boat had checked our house for survivors before the ten feet of water had drained.

We were lucky in that there were no broken windows and no roof damage; also, no neighbors seeking higher ground had used our place as refuge. Everything in the upstairs rooms remained dry but smelled of sewerage and mold. The mold had sprouted along the walls, but stopped one step beneath the second floor landing. The second floor looked just as we had left it. Our daughter Keely’s Brownie vest lay on the floor in the middle of her bedroom—exactly where she had left it. Except for the muddy footprints of the search-and-rescue people, the top floor had survived—and so had my research materials. Since we rented, I needed only to salvage our possessions and leave our former neighbors behind.

We were most fortunate in having a second floor; many of our neighbors lived in single-story homes, where little could be saved. The sight of one neighbor’s collection of family photographs—three decades of family history—strewn about the lawn in an attempt to salvage some of the images broke our hearts.

Parents can’t help but view Katrina through the eyes of children—their own and others. The kids’    artwork that filled our walls was destroyed. I can accept losing all of the art, except for one piece our daughter made as a five-year-old. It’s a self-portrait that included an Escher-like touch: her hands drawing her portrait. I found no trace of that portrait. I have some regrets about losing the hundreds of record albums and books, but I would do anything to reclaim her picture.

Despite our children’s losses, they are also relatively fortunate. At least one child in our daughter’s class is experiencing a post-Katrina divorce. Several classmates face temporarily disrupted homes as parents live apart in order to preserve jobs that moved away from the city. Our family endured no such emotional or economic traumas. If ever I begin to consider our family as unfortunate, I need only glance at the three plastic tubs of our photos and videotapes, intact and safe, and think of our neighbors and their family photographs, water-soaked and mildewed, scattered like debris across their lawn. 

Raphael Cassimere, Jr., Seraphia D. Leyda Professor of History and specialist in African-American and U.S. Constitutional history, is a native New Orleanian and alumni of UNO.
Like so many, my wife and I evacuated New Orleans. As we returned to the area along the I-10 through Jefferson Parish, west of the city, the damage seemed moderate, but as we entered the city the specter of       death, decay, and desolation was everywhere. The shock of seeing our Bywater neighborhood was tempered by the welcomed sight of a few neighbors, but we learned that an elderly neighbor had died inside his home. Before going inside our house, we said a brief prayer. Although the damage was worse than we hoped, we still felt blessed, especially later as we drove to the university. En route the scenery was indescribable. Destruction was everywhere. If Katrina was an “act of God,” then as St. Peter observed long ago, “God is no respecter of persons.” Katrina was an indiscriminate destroyer. My thoughts turned to the awesome task of rebuilding.

James Russell Lowell wrote, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide.” I believe New Orleans has been given a rare second chance to get it right. After the devastation caused by the Civil War, New Orleans lost an opportunity to build an inclusive society that treated all as equals before the law, without regard to race, color, or ethnicity. Bigotry and bitterness aborted the dream, and it failed. Now, we can start over again. But where do we begin? Economic and social reform, an updated building code, 21st-century levee protection, moral reform? While these are important, the foundation on which all else is built must be an excellent public school system, second to none, regional or national.

We should not clone the old system. At best, it would replicate mediocrity. The best and the brightest should be recruited who must represent the racial and ethnic entirety of our community and be held to the highest standards. Expectations should be very high and monitored continually. Those we entrust to manage our public schools must be persons of ability and integrity. We can no longer allow greedy self-interest groups to select policy makers and administrators solely on the basis of patronage. We must not tolerate cronyism or nepotism. Our children must learn to live harmoniously within an ethnically, racially, and socially diverse community.

We have a chance, perhaps our last, to create a school system that can be a model for the state, indeed, the nation. Instead of just catching up, we can lead the way. We must not retreat to our divisive past. Rather, we must be bold as we venture into the uncertain future. 

Connie Zeanah Atkinson, assistant professor of history, associate director of the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies and a specialist on New Orleans music and U.S cultural history, was a music journalist in New Orleans for many years.
Again and again, we are asked by friends, family, and generous strangers, “What do you need?” What we don’t need is stuff. And where, in our FEMA trailers, would we put stuff anyway? On the other hand, we need so much. Our students need textbooks, and a place to live. Our department needs research money, money to hire new people, money for graduate assistantships. Our neighborhoods need everything.

What do I need? Well, I need to get over the shame of needing. I have learned that it is more difficult to receive than to give. I need to know what is going to happen with my university, my neighborhood, my city. I need to know how to shape the experiences that I have had and use them in teaching. I need to understand what role a historian of the city can play as events are happening all around us. And I need to figure out what to do about the anger—anger for the harm done our beautiful city, anger when she (yes, New Orleans is always a “she”) is mistreated, disrespected, and misused. The anger flashes when I hear discussions of not rebuilding her; of the plans created by policy makers without      consideration of her special architecture, neighborhoods, and culture; of the nation’s money being poured into corporate contracts that never make it to the city’s people. My anger flared up again when the Southern Historical Association moved their 2006 annual meeting away from New Orleans to Birmingham, Alabama. This very public rebuff was especially irksome. If New Orleans is of no interest to historians of the South after the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history, when will she be of interest? In their letter announcing the move, officers of the Southern sent us their “prayers and best wishes”—and yes, we need those. Their conference we needed even more. 

Mary Niall Mitchell, assistant professor of history and specialist in 19th-century southern and U.S. cultural history, was the recipient of the 2004-2005 Oscar Handlin fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.
I am not doing a Katrina project. This is not to say that Katrina projects, carefully planned and   considered, are not worthwhile, particularly those that involve engineering for our unreliable levees and psychological counseling for our devastated population. It is to say that I am not at all certain of what the historian’s role should be in the aftermath of such a disaster. While still sitting at my mother’s desk in Florida in September (or was it October?) I received e-mails from university officials encouraging me to develop a project, write a grant, teach a class related to Katrina. One such missive even suggested that a collection of narratives from Katrina survivors would make a great book. The water had only just receded, I thought. My house, untouched by flooding, did not have electricity. My answering machine would not pick up. I was still looking for my neighborhood, the Irish Channel, on satellite maps. Mice and coffin flies were having a house party in my kitchen. Everyone I knew from New Orleans was in a state of shock. Nobody knew what would become of the city, much less the university, which was surrounded by floodwater. Nothing in my experience up to that point suggested a “project” for me, a historian.

Since then, eloquent, meaningful, and necessary work by journalists, songwriters, and artists has   appeared. It is all in the interest of healing, and if ever a population needed a deep dose of catharsis, it is the people of New Orleans after Katrina. Some of my colleagues at UNO and other schools are gamely instructing students in the methods of oral history so that they can collect the experiences of survivors. This, too, is important work. But I worry that in emphasizing the importance of “Katrina projects” in the immediate fallout of this disaster, we are missing the opportunity to deliver insight more profound than the idea that catastrophes make compelling reading. Having lived through such a disaster, and being daily disoriented, disheartened, and surprised by it, we have gained a perspective on history that most people never fully acquire. We are acutely aware that we do not know what is going to happen next. We are in the middle of the history that will someday be written, not because it will sell books but because, with perspective, reflection, and research, we will learn from it. It is this inability to predict the future, not the desire to seize on the recent past, which should shape our thinking. As students of history, we should take from Katrina a renewed appreciation for what those in the past endured, and for the difficult, often wrongheaded choices they made despite and because of the uncertainty they faced.


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