Origins and Leadership in Early 20th Century Labor Movements

In the set of readings we have read for this paper, the labor movements and actors discussed are not innovators in their movements. Immigrant labor movements had been well established by the time these laborers come on the scene. Instead of negotiating new forms of resistance, these workers took the forms of resistance they learned in their home countries, some of which had been imported back from the United States, and applied them to their situations in the U.S. In so doing, they were able to at times respond to capitalism’s abuses as one, and in others they fractured and became ineffective. In Wobblies on the Waterfront, Peter Cole argues that leadership is vitally important to social movements, and that external repression is merely a secondary factor when social movements fail or lose influence (Cole, Loc 168). Cole’s work shows that external pressures and repression could affect leadership, and in fact this was a strategy employers and the government used to break labor movements. These readings show how leadership and styles of participation was affected by customs and ideologies learned in home countries, and how having diverse experiences there and in the United States led to fractures in leadership that doomed many of these movements to failure.

In Wobblies, Cole argues that the interracial IWW Local 8 was in part a reaction to the fact that black longshoremen were manipulated in the southern ports, in which many worked before migrating north, by the white leadership of the AFL’s ILA (Cole Loc 691-753). When they came north they were attracted to the IWW because of their open acknowledgement that employers pitted black and white workers against each other in an effort to quell labor unrest (Cole Loc 816). Not wishing to repeat their experience in subordinate roles in the south, African Americans took leadership roles in the Local 8 that reflected proportionately their membership (Cole, Loc 1969). Leadership started to fall apart as both a cause and a consequence of race relations within Local 8 disintegrating (Cole, Loc 3366-3397). While Cole credits the strength of employers with destroying Local 8 in 1922, he also argues that a more sensitive leadership, which could have more deftly handled the lockout, could have held the union together (Cole, Loc 3428).

Paul Avrich’s Sacco and Vanzetti traces Sacco and Vanzetti’s activism back to their birthplaces in Italy. Nicola Sacco emigrated to the United States with his brother, who had spent time in the military and would not be confined to his father’s farm. His brother had also become a socialist, although Avrich does not think that influenced Sacco. When Sacco envisioned his new life, he saw himself making a living in a thoroughly modern country – one with relative freedom (Avrich, 11-13). Vanzetti, on the other hand, had toiled long and hard as an apprentice in a pastry shop and later became skeptical of the Church. It was in Italy that he became attracted to humanism and he went to the U.S. thinking it a place where freedom of thought was a right (Avrich, 15-19). Their experience in Italy, and their idealism about the United States would influence their decision to dedicate themselves to the anarchist cause in the U.S.

Sacco was shocked at the condition of working people in the United States and was attracted at first to the IWW, but later, after the Lawrence strike, he turned to libertarian anarchism and dedicated his life to the cause (Avrich, 26-28). Vanzetti, an autodidact, came to his full radicalism from reading, and finally meeting some anarchists who impressed him with their devotion to the cause of dismantling the government, which he considered an evil (Avrich, 31-33). They both eventually became Galleanists. Galleani was the publisher of Cronaco Sovversiva, the main libertarian anarchist newspaper (Avrich, 27). While Sacco and Vanzetti were absolutely dedicated to the Galleanist cause, they were merely foot soldiers. In a movement that eschewed structure and leaders, Galleani was an ideological leader as his publication set the tone for the movement (Avrich, 48). Galleani was a strong leader and never wavered in his dedication, but the United States’ government was able to deport him and other leaders in the movement, leaving the movement in the U.S. with a void in leadership that could not be replenished by new immigration. With these pressures, the libertarian anarchist movement lost influence after the 1920s (Avrich, 208-209, 211).

The Carlo Tresca that Nunzio Pernicone describes in his biography of Tresca understood the dangers of division in the labor movement. Tresca first felt the stirrings of radical feeling amongst railroad workers in Italy. He was at heart a pragmatist who became a leader amongst many diverse labor groups, despite not adhering to a set ideology. Tresca was the person labor groups could count on for help when they were in a bind or needed a speaker to rally the troops. Tresca faced down challenges from everyone from Galleani’s followers, to the BI, to Benito Mussolini (Pernicone, Loc 1555, 3688, 3669).

Tresca’s influence in labor movements waned over the years, but he found new relevance as a leading anti-Fascist. Repression of this movement, too, weakened the cause, but did not stop the Mussolini regime and a sympathetic U.S. government from understanding that eliminating Tresca as a leader was of the utmost importance. Tresca was critical, too, of Communism, which had dominated the labor movement in the years after the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Communists also wanted to see him out of the picture. In the end, he was assassinated. He was critical of so many that it is hard to tell which group actually did the deed, but what is clear is that he was such a strong and influential leader that his critics wished him gone. They knew that his leadership and public critique adversely affected their ability to meet their goals (Pernicone, Loc 3639, 5622, 7414).

Jennifer Guglielmo describes Italian women’s radicalism in the United States in Living the Revolution. These women had experience with resistance in Italy, and they used these same methods in the United States once they became wageworkers. Important to the erasing of women in labor history is the idea that women had spaces for resistance that were more personal and private than men’s spaces. Thus it appears on the surface, that with a couple of notable exceptions, the labor movement amongst Italian immigrants in the United States was devoid of women leaders and dominated by male leaders (Guglielmo, 9-43, 138, 151).

One could argue that prominent women labor leaders, such as Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn and Emma Goldman influenced the Italian women’s labor movement. Flynn was described by Tresca’s daughter Beatrice as not inhabiting women’s spaces, and therefore having no knowledge that a movement existed amongst them at all. And Goldman, speaking to Italian audiences became a role model for Italian women, offering them an example of an anarchist woman who spoke out to mixed audiences in a leadership role (Guglielmo, 172, Pernicone Loc 2128-2159).

Goldman was impressed by Italian leader Maria Roda, and offered to teach her the ways of leadership amongst anarchists. Roda was one of the few women to be published in the anarchist press, arguing against the stereotype that women were weak and had no place in the movement. However, unlike Goldman, Roda ultimately preferred to direct her efforts to organizing women specifically (Guglielmo, 159, 156). Even so, she was prominent enough to capture the attention of the Italian government, who sought to repress her activism even as it credited her father with inspiring it (Guglielmo, 156-157). Again, she was a first generation immigrant who was exposed to radicalism in Europe before she came to the U.S. That she had faced trial in Milan added to her credibility amongst anarchists and the Italian government. She was a leader they needed to contend with.

Guglielmo argues that Italian women were dismissed as less than white, with all of the negative stereotypes so often applied to non-white women in the early 20th century at the very time they were finding the space to assert their feminism as workers and leaders in the labor movement (Guglielmo, 82-102, 172-175). This dismissal was not accidental. Employers and others in power knew that these women exerted power in their homes, in their neighborhoods, and in the workplace. According to Guglielmo, the resolution came once Italian women were offered the opportunity to become white and were fully assimilated (Guglielmo, 230-232). But this offer was not made until after the mass deportations of labor leaders back to Italy. The repression of the movement led to a leadership vacuum that arguably made assimilation more appealing.

Labor movements after the initial wave of movements in the late 19th century were influenced by lessons learned before migration, and this allowed immigrants to come to leadership positions with a set of skills for teaching and enacting resistance. Both internal and external forces fractured labor movements, but deft leadership could hold groups together in the face of intragroup acrimony or external repression. Many who fomented dissent within movements were strict ideologues who valued adherence to ideology over more pragmatic goals, and these actors ultimately weakened the labor movement. Those who sought to repress from outside quickly learned that dismantling leadership, or dividing a group, was as or more effective than outright violent repression, and they used it effectively to put down labor movements in the early 20th century.



Works Cited:

Avrich, Paul. Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Cole, Peter. Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia. University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Guglielmo, Jennifer. Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945. 1 edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Pernicone, Nunzio. Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2010.


Literacy and Orality in Labor Movements of the Late 19th and Early 20th Century U.S.

Our readings over the past several weeks in Radical Movements have covered the history of various labor movements and considered many different places and actors. The time period covered has been from the May Day demonstrations of the 1880s, to the integrated, powerful Local 8 in Philadelphia in the 1920s. Despite the seeming difference between all of these disparate experiences of labor movements, they do have some things in common. They were largely made up of immigrants reacting to the experience of working in industry in the United States, and they exported ideas born in their adopted country back to the places they came from. The power of oral, face-to-face experience brought the often-illiterate workers together as a working-class community and informed the ideas they exported back using literacy and the technology of print.

Walter Ong’s 1985 essay, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” outlines his ideas about the affordances of written communication and those of oral communication (Walter Ong, 23-50). While these workers were all from literate societies, and indeed moved into another literate society, they were not all literate. They relied on those who could read and write to bring them news of distant happenings, while using oral communication to form their ideas, and their identities, as working people with common cause (Michels, Loc 1325).

There is no better example of this process than the Yiddish working class experience described by Tony Michels in A Fire in Their Hearts. This was a community that had to negotiate even the common language they would use in oral communication in order to survive as a community (Michels, Loc 1325). Initially, some who spoke German allied with the extant German labor community and passed these ideas onto the Yiddish workers using a hybrid Yiddish language that most could understand, even if they did not at first whole-heartedly embrace its use (Michels, Loc 104, Loc 2295) When they wanted to write, in order to formally analyze and communicate over time and distance, to bring in Ong’s ideas regarding writing, they disagreed over the structure of the new Yiddish writing, in part because less formal writing felt less intellectual (Michels, Loc 2292 and Ong 39). This less intellectual writing would make the kind of “intensive linear analysis,” that Ong argues is tied to writing, seem less analytic, and more informal in its arguments (Ong, 29).

The making of a Yiddish language in the United States from whole cloth points up Ong’s idea that the creation of a written language from disparate spoken dialects, as in the case of the Yiddish immigrants, increases the number of words available for use, even orally, exponentially. The increase in words is necessary to convey context outside of the environment from which ideas spring. In order to communicate with the larger, global community about Yiddish identity, new words had to be invented (Ong, 42). This in turn inalterably shaped the community, as evinced in the struggle for control of the written Yiddish language (Michels, Loc 1342).

Cole’s Wobblies on the Waterfront seems like a different situation, but I contend that black workers from the Great Migration and others from the West Indies, were as unfamiliar with industrial work in northern cities as immigrants from other nations. And they, too, used spaces and face-to-face meetings and demonstrations to form their unique, interracial Local. When they wanted to communicate with the IWW, they did so in writing. When the IWW communicated to them in writing, their lived experience overcame their intellectual alliance with the larger union, and they rejected what they did not like (Cole, Loc 2746).

While industrial, and by extension government, interests wanted to denounce the laborers as terrorists, they did so by appealing to the larger American populace though newspapers. But labor had the power of the demonstration, which allowed their movements to be seen by the outside world even though most were not literate. The problem with this was reach. As Ong argues, literacy has the advantage of distance over orality. But orality has the advantage of immediate feedback. If one does not like what the speaker is saying, they can confront them on the spot (Ong, 42, 39). Of course industry liked having a one-sided narrative that told their side of the story blasting like a fire hose to non-immigrant, middle-class Americans.

Green’s Death in the Haymarket shows how the demonstration, and competing narratives of what happens at them, can be manipulated by the press to serve capitalists needs. The bombing was used to paint labor groups as terrorists, even though the facts of the events are contentious and fuzzy. The people who were there, however, disagreed strongly with the official explanation, and Lucy Parsons spoke of the executed men’s innocence for decades afterwards in face-to-face meetings that used orality’s immediacy to convince her audience. Telling, too, is the impulse to claim the space of the Haymarket for the police in the form of a police memorial. In the end labor reclaimed the space as hallowed ground for their movement – a place where a community came together and asserted its right to gather, as well as a place that marked the spot where their members were martyred (Green, 9, 236, Loc 5232, Loc 5367, Loc 5429).

The ability to demonstrate, or to even gather in saloons or meeting halls, was unique to the United States. Bismarck made labor gatherings illegal, as did Russia (Goyens, 56-57 and Michels, Loc 449). Once immigrants from these regions came to work, they found welcoming spaces where those who had gone before could inform them of how to survive as workers (Michels Loc 548). Black workers subject to strict Jim Crow loitering laws had a similar experience once they came north. These spaces gave a community based on orality and face-to-face experience a chance to blossom.

Ong states in his essay that writing is essential because, “to live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance (Ong, 32).” Print materials allowed immigrant workers this opportunity. Ideologies could be passed back and forth between countries of origin and local situations. And these materials could be accessed by illiterate members of labor groups by being read aloud in the very spaces that allowed the community based on orality to come into being. In these spaces the community could discuss the ideas presented, even if they could not speak back to the writer directly. German workers in the United States could keep the nascent labor movement in Germany vital, even though it was actively politically repressed, via newspapers produced in the U.S. (Goyens, 67)

Literacy is a vital component of modernity, and as an adjunct, industrial capitalism. Ong points out that writing was first used “in urban environments for use in recording ownership and related uses (Ong, 35).” It is not surprising that government and industry turned to writing in defending their right to property and labor. That labor groups coopted the technology of writing and used it for subversive purposes did two things. First, as stated above, it kept ties to distant workers intact. Second, using writing gave the workers access to the rhetorical device that comes with analytic argument. In this way they leveled the playing field with industrialists to some degree. That they could use capitalism’s own tool against itself is remarkable.

Of course philosophy is strongly tied to writing and analytic argument, too, and Marx and Lassalle are no exception (Ong, 43). It stands to reason that the intellectuals in the labor movements who admired these thinkers would like to participate in a similar, analytic fashion. That their participation allowed movements to change in the face of contemporary and local circumstances, and have those changes argued and examined across the globe is a bonus to the global movements.

Ong points out that “writing distances the source of the communication (the writer) from the recipient (the reader), both in time and space (Ong, 39).” While this is effective for communicating over distances, it lacks the immediacy of oral communication. Would Emma Goldman’s in person confrontation of Johann Most, whip in her hand, been as effective if they had had a written back in forth in letters or newspaper articles (Goyens, 131)? Likely not. This kind of in person debate is still valued in our culture today. We like to watch political debates, even though we know ahead of time what the candidates’ positions are, because we want to see how they handle in person confrontations. We like to see their ability to form community through oral persuasion. Conversely, writing gives the writer the power of voice over time and distance. It is no wonder that Johann Most valued his control over the German laborers main newspaper (Goyens, 202).

Another affordance that writing gave the labor movements is the ability to set the parameters of their organizations through administration. Ong states that in wholly oral cultures, “leaders interact non-abstractly with the rest of society in tight-knit, often rhetorically controlled configurations (Ong, 40).” And this certainly did happen in the labor movements; Goldman was making a rhetorical move when she confronted Most (Goyens, 131). But written administration, while contentious in these movements, did allow the group to understand the purpose and goals of the groups very clearly.

Labor groups in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century made use of both orality and literacy to form the bonds that turned them into international communities. Literacy was a new tool for many of them, but the structures of high capitalism, and its multinational nature, required its use. This turned out to be of great benefit to the workers as they were able to analyze and exchange ideas over time and distance. However, literacy was also a tool used against labor as capitalist power used the press to discredit the labor movements as terrorists, and ultimately un-American. Labor was so thoroughly discredited that the May Day holiday, which originated in the United States, soon perceived to be a foreign import, if it was remembered at all. But it is writing that allows the historian to fix the erasure, to bring the laborers ideas back to the present, and to reclaim the power they once had for others to use in their present lives.



Works Cited:

Cole, Peter. Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia. University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Goyens, Tom. Beer and Revolution: The German Anarchist Movement in New York City, 1880-1914. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.

Green, James. Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America. Anchor, 2007.

Haverty-Stacke, Donna. America’s Forgotten Holiday, n.d.

Michels, Tony. A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Walter Ong. “Writing Is a Technology That Restructures Thought.” In The Written Word: Literacy in Transition, 23–50. Oxford: The Alden Press Ltd., 1986.


Toward a Museum Exhibit Made Whole

Jody Shipka proposes that the current way of teaching composition, with its formulaic style and rules to be followed, disguise the process of writing and is rarely useful outside the academy. She envisions compositions that are not limited to texts, but incorporate other semiotic devices, and allow the composer to point up and closely examine the processes that affected how the composition was created. After reading Towards a Composition Made Whole , I was struck by that parallels between what is considered rigorous in traditional composition classes is similar to the formulas museum professionals use to create museum exhibits.((Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.))

This assignment presumes that the goal of the public history student/professional is to challenge “master narratives,” many of which were created in the 19th century literary imagination and therefore were created most often by white propertied men, or the women who benefited from those men. Racial minorities, poorer women, and the illiterate were left out. What can we do with material culture to challenge museum-goers armed with understandings handed down from master narratives?

As Julia King points out in Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past: The View from Southern Maryland, the presence of material culture items vs. the ordinary texts academic historians have long used is not a magical solution that will call up a documentable “truth.” Instead, even archaeologists and museum professionals are enthralled by master narratives, and often just prop them up with material culture objects.((King, Julia A. Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past The View from Southern Maryland. Chicago: University of Tennessee Press, 2012.)) This problematizes Shipka’s notion that by simply adding semiotic devices beyond mere text necessarily makes a composition more whole. In fact, it the case of museums, material objects can add an air of legitimacy to an accepted narrative that is not nearly as simple as it seems.

Roy Rosensweig and David Thelen found in The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life that museums are the most trusted way for Americans to find out about their history.((Rosenzweig, Roy, and David P. Thelen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.)) Part of this stems from an Enlightenment notion that objects represent a truth that can be revealed with sufficient examination and categorization.((Conn, Steven. Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.)) But part of it has to do with people feeling a personal connection with the objects themselves and their own family stories. Much of this connected feeling stems from the fact that the master narratives against which many have constructed their family identities (think enterprising and tough pioneers coming to this country for religious freedom or economic opportunity) are rarely challenged in museum exhibits.

In fact, as Robert Post points out in Who Owns America’s Past?: the Smithsonian and the Problem of History museums, specifically the National Museum of American History, have been under increasing pressure to toe a political line that seeks to further ensconce the master narratives into the American historical consciousness.((Post, Robert C. Who Owns America’s Past?: The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.)) And smaller museums, desperate for funding and visitorship also lean toward safe, familiar themes in their exhibits.

The assignment is this: choose five to ten objects around which to create a museum exhibit that attempts to upend a master narrative. The objects do not necessarily have to be unusual or unique, or to have belonged to a famous figure. Contemporary museums are using everyday consumer objects in their exhibits, and you can too. Digital objects are also objects and can be used as well. Long texts should be avoided, as museum visitors rarely read long descriptions. You will be expected to present your project to the class. Also, write a 1500-word essay addressing the following questions: How does your exhibit challenge a master narrative? What are the difficulties in attempting to challenge the assumptions of museum guests and/or other museum professionals? Was altering the narrative difficult for you personally? How would your chosen retelling affect funding? Whose story gets told in your version and whose is subsumed?

Whitney Plantation is an example of a public history site which upends the expected narrative.

Review of The Marketplace of Revolution by T. H. Breen

In The Marketplace of Revolution, T. H. Breen argues that it was a shared consumer culture, and the political power that came from that consumption, that united the thirteen colonies against the British in the mid-1770s. British North America experienced a boom in consumption mid-century, with middling people able to afford what would have been considered luxury goods at the beginning of the century. Able to afford may be putting it too strongly, as these purchases were largely made on credit. To Breen, it was this availability that gave more people a political voice than would have been the case before the consumer-goods boom.
This argument is juxtaposed against those of historians who would credit ideology with inspiring the Revolution and uniting the colonists. Rather Breen says that social conditions made colonists embrace ideology in ways they would not have if things had been different. And it was the desire for a fairly homogenous range of consumer goods that all the colonists, from Boston to Charleston, had in common.
Breen outlines the way the colonists came to embrace the idea that personal choices could be political, and since politics and personal life were tied, women and the poor were not only able to participate politically, but the Revolution depended upon them doing so. The politicization of consumption took a few decades to incubate, but once it did it became a very powerful force that is still often utilized today.
When ordinary people started acquiring imported goods seen as luxuries, commentators decried the practice, with unease about being able to tell the rich from their social inferiors being a primary concern. The liberal use of credit by middling consumers was also a concern. But this ignores that fact that the very act of immigrating to the colonies, at least for those who did so voluntarily, meant that people wanted to change their station, and buying the right consumer goods could make one appear, at least, to have become a success at business.
Breen notes that this does not sit well with those who like to think of the colonists as being self-sufficient and therefore an example against which our current consumer culture compares badly. An alternative to this is to see the colonists as understanding consumer power in ways that could be instructive to us.
Breen shows that Britain used its laws to create a market in North America for its goods, and that the exportation of these goods allowed Britain to become the industrial/imperial powerhouse that it was in the eighteenth century. Having a closed market for its goods meant that Britain could fund its imperial wars without affecting its citizen’s pocketbooks, which meant that internal unrest was minimized. At the time, Britain was pre-industrial so most of the manufactures were made at a small scale, in homes and on farms. At the same time, the British had to afford the colonists a degree of respect, since British manufacturers were utterly dependent on them. This allowed the colonists to identify more with their Britishness and feel as if they could enjoy the spoils of empire along with their fellow Englishmen.
Meanwhile, colonial shopkeepers were policed by consumers and needed to be impeccably honest and modest. This was to quell fears that merchants might become too powerful. Breen shows that this desire for policing of merchants echoes the mandates of seventeenth-century religion.
For the first time, colonists did not suffer inconvenience for lack of things. Never before had they had so many choices in consumer goods on which to style an identity to their liking. Breen connects this consumer choice with two things: the idea of the curtailment of consumer choice as a human rights issue, and choice as a political weapon to be leveraged against those who wish to curtail that choice.
Breen stresses that it was not merely conveniences that drove consumer spending, but also fashion and fluidity of the markets. When even middling people followed fashion, traditional deference suffered. And tea was a product that anyone could buy who wished to be seen as fashionable. There were other required accouterments that were required in serving tea, and all of it symbolized a consumer’s good taste. Diatribes against people overturning social order, be they poor people indulging in imported fabrics, young people who insisted on their share, or women who made many of the buying choices, began to appear. These polemics did little to stem the almost insatiable desire for consumer goods.
This was the consumer environment that existed in the decades leading up to the revolution. During the Stamp Act crisis, colonists recognized that their consumption could be used as a political force, but they directed merchants to not import goods rather than relying on each other to boycott British goods. The Stamp Act was repealed relatively quickly, and colonists went back to their happy consumption. But they came away with an uncomfortable awareness of their status as colonists, and not full British citizens. Their post-Seven Years’ War patriotic zeal was their way of dealing with this uncomfortable feeling. If only they could assert their Britishness enough, they would be seen as equals with the British.
Breen argues that print, another consumer good, was key in uniting the colonists as one people tied together by the joys and problems of consumerism as a closed market. By the time urge for Revolution came in the mid 1770s, consumers had the tools at their disposal to not only protest Britain as individuals, but also enforce boycotts amongst others.
Women were particularly targeted as weak-willed and ready to selfishly consume, but this really reveals a tension between men, who were used to having all the political power, and women, who now had the power of non-consumption at their disposal as a strong political force. Breen’s tracing of the discourse around tea drinking is fascinating. Tea started out as being a drink that could “undermine the moral health” of women in particular. As the drink came to represent the tyranny of Britain, it came to be seen as a substance that could feminize men.
Breen does not dismiss ideological explanations for Revolution, but he does say that these ideologies would never had taken hold of the thirteen colonies without the personal political power associated with consumption, and the ubiquity of consumption and consumer goods across the colonies. His argument that the colonists went from seeing themselves at the top of the Empire, along with the British who lived in Britain, raises interesting questions, such as what role did exotic consumer goods play in colonists’ feelings of Britishness? British consumer goods were traded with Native people in exchange for political partnerships. Did this play a role at all in colonist’s perceptions of consumer goods from Britain, considering they were the people who desired Native land the most? It is also refreshing to see an author not buy into the idea of consumerism as a purely negative thing, as eighteenth century and twenty-first century polemicists would have us believe. Instead it is a way of forming identity and expressing the personal, and therefore the political.

1. T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).

Why I’m a Fan of Drunk History

“You make life worth living.”
“Love this!”
“Can’t wait!”
“Wish it was on every night!”

Believe it or not, these are comments about history. Not the latest monograph shaking up the historical narrative, or a popular professor’s seminar, rather these are reactions to the television show Drunk History. If you’re not familiar with it, it goes like this: each episode tells three stories, usually revolving around a city, but sometimes a concept, like their “Sports” episode. An actor/comedian learns a story about a historical character, gets loaded, and recounts the story to the best of their ability. Costumed actors then reenact the retelling, and when the narrator quotes someone, the actors lip-synch the words. It is that simple. But the result is hilarious.


Part of what makes the stories so amusing is the fact that the drunken narrator uses contemporary language to describe people and events. Much of this language is vulgar. When the British take over Washington D.C. in the war of 1812, the narrator, and the costumed actor say, “British assholes are about to come take a giant dump on Washington.” The narrator describing the 19th century, “This is the 1800s. No one has any money. People were, like, sweeping the streets. And maybe you’d find, like, a crust of bacon. And you’d eat it.” African-American entrepreneur and abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant is described as the “head bitch in charge.” This language is familiar and not stuffy at all. It is the way friends who are very comfortable around each other talk. Seeing the costumed actors speak in this voice provides the comedy, and also makes the character accessible. It all feels like a drunken friend trying to explain something that happened to them last week.

The stories are always biographical, and are always either about a person you probably haven’t heard of but who has done some amazing things, or about someone familiar who did something surprising. Minorities and women are very often featured, as are gay, Lesbian, and working class people. This show is aimed at an audience educated with textbooks mediated by the state of Texas via the culture wars, and it does a great job highlighting the fact that our history is complex and intersectional. It also humanizes the “great men” of history. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are backbiting jerks, and George Washington lives in a “fucked up wooden teethed, white hair powdered wig, goddamn fucking male chauvinist world.”

As for the people most people haven’t heard of, one episode featured an enslaved Robert Smalls who creates an opportunity to flee to the Union during the Civil War, and recruits other African-Americans into the Union army, flying in the face of those who buy the Lost Cause story of loyal Confederate slaves. Another features Sybil Ludington who goes on a midnight ride to round up the militia during the Revolution, outdoing Paul Revere by miles. Baron Von Stueben, gay man, teaches the Continental Army how to fight and become a disciplined force, blowing up the idea that gay men are less than masculine. There are too many stories like this to mention here. Show creator Derek Waters clearly has a mission both to entertain and to teach with this series. So what’s not to love?

Admittedly, this show does not provide the nuanced arguments of which academic historians are so fond. And being mostly biographical, the stories are limited because they can’t really cover wider events and historical processes. But people watch this, and they learn from this, much like they learn from Ken Burns’ miniseries. The difference here is that Drunk History does not claim that its stories happened exactly as they are retold. We are all in on the joke, which is more honest than claiming to know exactly what happened. Have historians not wanted to show a complex history that includes more actors than just the rich white men since the days of the New Social History? Aren’t they suspicious of claims to objective truth? The stories presented are not just made up, they are all fairly solid in the events that happened, timeline, etc. They just don’t claim to be exacting recreations.

Perhaps you object to the drunkenness, but realize that it is the fact that the narrators are drunk that allows them to talk about controversial subjects, and, as in vino veritas, it gives the narrator’s feelings about a subject more weight. Most of the narrators are very passionate about the stories they’re telling.

Does learning history have to be boring to be valuable? I hope none of us believe that. Perhaps we should embrace the show and incorporate it into teaching, as a jumping off point for more nuanced discussion, especially about how people of the past relate to people and power today. And we should be happy that students (and young people in general) are learning history in alternate ways, and finding it delightful.

Review of The Minutemen and Their World – Robert A. Gross

The Minutemen and Their World by Robert A. Gross was written in 1976, at the height of the popularity of the New Social History. While others used legal documents, inventories, and other sources to produce town studies designed to tease out the lived experience of non-elites, Gross’ work was more ambitious. He wanted to place everyday people into the context of the American Revolution. Concord, Massachusetts was an obvious choice of town to study, since it played such an important role in the start of the war. When Gross combined his social history with the standard political history of the revolution, something new emerged that was different from both social and political history; it became a study of the ways in which everyday people become politicized enough to revolt.

Gross argues that colonial Americans saw themselves in local terms. In other words, their social position was mediated through local relationships. And in late 18th century Concord, there were cracks in the social cohesion. Part of this is the nature of the New England town, where taxpayers supported religion and everyone was expected to participate to a degree. By this time elites were full church members, but most people were not. As economic pressures expanded town boundaries, going to church meetings became a huge burden on those in remote areas, yet they were unable to get support to form their own churches because they were still expected to fund the main town church, which mainly benefited the elite. It is in this circumstance that revolutionary rumblings from Boston reached Concord. Gross argues that these divisions allowed everyday people to confront traditional authority. Coupled with Britain’s desire to more tightly control colonial affairs, Concordians became revolutionaries.

The newfound ability to question traditional authority did not turn the world upside down. In fact Concordians kept and respected social strata in their militias and elsewhere, but it did make them more attuned to abuses of elite power and the ways in which it could circumscribe their own lives. They wanted elite power to be good and right, as was the contemporary ideal, and would do anything to defend such power. Only when they felt their own rights were being abused would they complain, and ultimately revolt.

Even when they decided to resist the restrictions placed upon them from London, they still desired to keep their community whole. Pressure was placed on those who resisted embargoes to comply. The political ideals of the day meant that elites who wished to resist revolt could not even argue their point as that would have seemed self-interested, which would have put one’s elite status into question. Divisions, therefore, were negotiated away rather than argued for their own sake. Revolutionary rumblings actually united the town more solidly than it had been in the previous decades as these negotiations appeased those in the outskirts who were asserting their rights against the town core.

Concord became, as a result of its geography, the place where the Massachusetts government chose to stockpile arms. Thus the townspeople participated in a militarization of their town. Militia musters increased greatly in frequency, and took place in the center of town. While elite status still meant an elevated status in the militia, Gross points out that compared to British regulars who had deep class divisions when compared to officers, the local nature of the Concord militia meant that the divisions were far more subtle and actually increased town cohesion as all the locals were expected to defend their town.

Gross sees the restrictions of the town structure, and the lack of availability of new land, as important in making young people resist parental authority. If one wanted to inherit parental land when the town was new and the farms still fertile, it was important to obey one’s parents. But as farmland was worn out, and dividing up town farms further would not give a person the means to support himself, this obedience to parental authority waned. Entering a trade was an insecure proposition, as it relied on indebtedness and the fluctuations of the market. Gross sees the insecurity of young people’s prospects as being important to the move toward revolt, as elders saw the world they expected to pass on to their sons disappearing, and sons resisted the figurative authority of the crown as they resisted the authority of their fathers.

When the first shots were fired at Concord, the town became a place where American identity was created against British identity. British regulars raped; Minutemen scalped. Women used cunning to protect American interests, while the British threatened to kill their newborns. In the end American ingenuity saved the common goods so that the Minutemen could fight another day, and the British atrocities were borne and survived.

After the battle, Concordians began to see themselves as part of a wider world intent on revolution. As the war dragged on structural changes occurred that would permanently alter the townspeople and how they saw themselves. Young, landless men serving in the army saw parts of the country they would not have otherwise seen. Students from Harvard College relocated temporarily to Concord and brought with them exciting new social prospects. Economic changes shook up the class hierarchy of the town. The birthrate slowed. Occupations changed to focus on the war effort. Even the deference afforded to elites in most instances changed. But at the end of the war, the same problems with the availability and fertility of the land still existed, and young people, having experienced the outside world, still left.

Gross shows how older forms of town cohesion changed as elites started voluntary associations and asserted their authority through them instead of the community. The community suffered because of this as membership in one meant a distancing from those not associated. Young people, in the face of economic prosperity, altered traditions and threw off older styles completely, even those that had supported the revolution that allowed them to do so. The revolution was one that sought to protect the status quo, but Gross argues that the demonstrated ability to throw off authority that was no longer working altered the way the next generation saw their world, and allowed them to remake it.

The fact that this is, at heart, a social history means that individual actions are sometimes subsumed to statistical probabilities. While a cultural historian looks for all of the discursive possibilities, the social historian assumes that people act in the most probable ways based on data. This is a shortcoming of social history in my view, but does not lessen the quality of Gross’ work for the innovation that it was.

It may be this drive for probability that causes Gross to be rather critical of the practice of sustenance farming. While I agree that there were serious problems with the model, Gross’ distaste for the practice verges on the edge of proclaiming that market capitalism is the natural state of things. In this work, too, the absence of cultural history methods reduces women and the enslaved to statistical footnotes, since records on them are far less common. Gross did try to include these groups, but the coverage seems understandably thin based on the method.

Lastly, Gross’ reflection in the afterward that his fascination with the youth of Concord was related to the counter-cultural movement of youth in the 1960s is understandable, but I wonder if this would have been better served with some emotional distance. The cultural changes of the 1960s ultimately led to the conservative triumph of the 1980s and historians are exploring how that process occurred and showing how the youth movement was often very conservative. Since the radical nature of the American Revolution also turned rather conservative in the post-War era, this would be something worth exploring vis-à-vis youth culture of the late 18th century.

Robert A. Gross, The Minutemen and Their World, 25th edition (Hill and Wang, 2011).

What I Learned about William Byrd (and us) by Making Him Tweet

A couple of months ago I decided I wanted to learn PHP, since that is a common programming language for the web widely used by the Open Source community.  I like having an actual project in mind when learning a language, rather than relying on tutorials that often cover topics that aren’t that useful to Digital Humanities projects. Inspired by @samuelpepys and, which is both a digital archive of Samuel Pepys and a Twitter feed that utilizes that archive, I thought it might be interesting if Virginia’s own 18th century diarist, William Byrd II, had a similar website and Twitter feed.

My first task was to get some diary entries into a database, which made me consider carefully how to structure that database. In the end the structure is a copy of the original, physical structure: a column for the diary name, the diary entry date, and the text of the entry in its entirety.

So far this has not caused me to think too much about the diary entries themselves, which follow a similar daily pattern – Breakfast and morning reading, visits and interactions, dinner, prayers (or not) and a pulse check on how the day went. When one reads Byrd’s diaries, these things are taken as Byrd intended, as a whole assessment of an entire day. While letters between people, even family members followed a rigid convention in the 18th century (see Sarah Persall’s Atlantic Families p. 70-79), Byrd’s diary entries also follow a convention although, being secret, it didn’t have to. Byrd was interested in keeping his entries both temporal and focused on tracking particular events, such as food, exercise, familial relations, business dealings, and prayers.

Byrd’s diaries are a unique primary source because they were written in a secret code and intended for Byrd’s personal use; no one else was going to read them. This diary has been a boon for historians of slavery and gender/sexuality, because while these topics were not spoken about much between people, Byrd felt free to write about them in his secret diary. But most readers, like Byrd himself, read the text as a daily whole. Yes, people have gone through and found all mentions of the enslaved, or all sexual encounters, but the rest of that day’s entry, and the surrounding entries usually contextualize these readings. By making William Byrd tweet I took away the context.

My tweeting strategy from a programmatic standpoint was to tweet whenever someone loads the page at, which will display a random day’s diary entry. The script takes the diary entry and breaks it up into individual sentences. I then randomly select a sentence, and if it’s under 140 characters, I use the Twitter API to send it as a tweet from @williambyrdsays. Once I got this working the resulting Twitter feed astounded me. William Byrd II, different word use notwithstanding, could for the most part be any contemporary tweeter. He tweeted, as some do, about what he had for dinner, about the weather, and about his exercise habits. His tweets about interpersonal interactions were personal, but not overly reflective, as are many tweets where people are tweeting about hanging out with others, or being angry at others.

What this tells me about both Byrd and contemporary Twitter users is that what was important for a man to record as a record of his personal life in the 18th century are strikingly similar to what people feel are things worth saying about their lives in the 21st.

Yes, the audience is different, but the idea that the same concerns are what people use to convey identity is amazing to me. And I never would have made the connection without doing this (rather silly) exercise.

There are some critics of the Digital Humanities who say that DH reifies distant reading, but in the case of this project the opposite happened. Sentences glossed over, considered unimportant because they are repeated so many times, become important when they stand on their own and are publicly revealed.


Commercialism, Politics, and Public History Historiography

In answering the question “who owns the past?” one must engage with two concepts, the first being the past, and the second being ideas of ownership. Recent scholarship in public history points to a broad idea of both of these terms. The past can be artifacts in the Smithsonian, landscapes, or even consumer goods meant to serve as a token of remembrance. Ownership can mean control over narratives through structures of authority, or control via the actual ownership of artifacts. In the late 20th century there was a change in what and who owned the past in all of these regards, with expertise losing ground to moneyed interests, and those with political might gaining power over those with less. This generally follows the rise of conservatism in the 20th century, and is not surprising if seen as part of this process.

In Possessed by the Past, David Lowenthal argues that heritage, the creation of a mythic past to do necessary cultural work to explain the present, is different from history. The key difference is that history, while also doing cultural work, is required to have sources and is based on research. While Lowenthal is clearly skeptical of the heritage industry, he also concedes that history is not strictly objective. History, too, is doing cultural work. The lines are blurry, but heritage, according to Lowenthal, “requires historical error.” In this way he shows that he is wary of the erosion of historian’s professional authority in constructing a past, but allowing that even the historian’s history is constructed.

David Glassberg’s series of essays in Sense of History is similar to Lowenthal’s argument in that it acknowledges that the history that people outside the profession are interested in differs from what professional historians are creating. He advises historians to look to their own humanity in order to bridge this gap. People, according to Glassberg, want to find personal connections to history, and historians are skeptical of the value of connecting with the past in a personal way. What he misses is that popular histories, like the Civil War miniseries, are popular because people are not only making personal connections, but that these personal connections are for the most part flattering. African Americans did not personally connect with this narrative, and therefore did not watch. Ken Burns had found a niche and filled a need; it was not meant to be for everyone.

Appealing to niche audiences becomes more problematic when the creator of the narrative is the Federal Government, which is supposed to represent everyone. Denise Meringolo’s history of the National Park Service shows that government is not immune to the changing nature of the American culture. National public history begins with the park service, but visions of what history meant was not strictly dictated by Washington, as workers and visitors on the ground made their own, useful narratives. When the field of public history began to be taught in universities, it created a tension between non-professional practitioners and professionals. Similar to Glassberg, she proposes public historians become attuned to the needs of the public. But there is a political aspect to the National Parks, and funding issues, that challenge the authority of university-trained public historians.

Robert Post, Seth Bruggeman, and Anne Whisnant have all recently written institutional histories of nationally owned public history sites, and all deal with change in direction of their institutions over time. Post’s work is about the Smithsonian’s American History and Air and Space museums, which at their inception were both under the umbrella of “technology.” Mid-century saw the advent of exhibit design. Exhibits were made appealing to visitors to entice more visitors to come through the doors. Late in the century, political and business interests intermingled to drive the direction of exhibits, pushing out trained historians. Political and business interests cannot be separated; in an age of austerity, and valorization of private enterprise, government and business become one and the same. Even purely political fights, such as over the Enola Gay exhibit, are staged in such a way as to imply that brand America might be tarnished if anything negative is said about the US in World War II.

Bruggeman shows how wealthy interests have long held power over public history sites in his study of Wakefield – George Washington’s birthplace. Wealthy, powerful women drove the narrative at the beginning, making the site appeal to their tastes and how they wanted to remember Washington. Later, when professional historians challenged the narrative, there were heated battles over the narrative of the site. Visitorship at this site is low, showing how the cultural work that the ladies set out to do early in the century does not resonate today, and attempts to show a more “authentic” site plan has failed to reignite visitors’ imaginations. In this way it is almost the reverse of Post’s and Linenthal’s narratives. Once moneyed interests left Wakefield, so did the visitors. This touches on Glassberg’s point about the need for public historian’s to get in touch with their humanity to tap into the cultural zeitgeist in order to improve a site’s appeal.

Anne Whisnant’s Super Scenic Motorway also shows how commercial and political interests shape public historic spaces, but in her account of the creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it is national powers that mostly dictate over local interests. The exception is when local people are able to either play the system, in the case of Grandfather Mountain, or to present a united political front, in the case of the Cherokee. As with Wakefield, commercial interests shaped the Blue Ridge from the beginning, with regions only signing on with promises of tourism and development dollars. But national government’s push to keep the highway free from commercial interests thwarted many plans. Moreover, the national narrative of Appalachian people being stuck in time and backward was furthered and reinforced by the creation of the highway. Middle-class city dwellers wanted to visit the parkway to see picturesque hillbillies and did not want to see anything that might make them question their presumptions. As Whisnant and Bruggeman show, commercial interests in public historic spaces are nothing new.

Julia King, too, shows how St. Mary’s City is designed to appeal to visitors who have a particular view of the past that they do not want challenged. In leaving the assumptions of certain groups unchallenged, other groups’ stories are necessarily left out. Again, much of the dictating of the narrative comes from political interests, which in this case dictate how a space must remain decidedly non-commercial in order to maintain a landscape vision that will adhere to certain romantic remembering of the past. King argues that multivalent narratives are necessary for people to make that personal connection to historic sites that Glassberg argues for. But with interests keen on, somewhat ironically, keeping out commercial interests, the usefulness of the area for many is constrained.

Tammy Gordon’s Spirit of 1976 argues that the American Bicentennial celebration was seen as being cheapened by crass commercialism – one could get bicentennial themed anything – but by the 1980s, commercial interests having a hand in national celebrations was perfectly acceptable. The idea of a celebration that is national in scope, and pure in that it is free of commercial interests, was still a desire that some had in the 1970s. The conservative turn of the 1980s, however, made this kind of pure celebration impossible. It would never be funded. But is a pure national celebration even possible? If one looks at the experience Whisnant lays out concerning the Blue Ridge, it is clear that national interests are largely urban and middle-class. Again, some are left out. In Gordon’s account of the Bicentennial, many groups found ways to celebrate in their own ways, even if they were not directly interested in the American Revolution. And part of what allowed this was the commercial marketing of the celebration.

Contemporary public historians must contend with a government that is not interested in funding their projects. Public/private partnerships are considered the ideal way to fund projects. As such, it is often necessary to bend to commercial interests. But rather than seeing this as merely a grab for authority, public historians can look at sites where commercial and donor interests have been successful in helping people connect with sites and artifacts. Glassberg’s assertion that historians should look to their own humanity to find ways to connect with the public applies to political and commercial interests as well. We are all human, and living in a time when identities are largely created and reinforced by commercial choices and possibilities. And connecting with these commercially-produced identities is what make people visit sites.

Reaction Paper to Memorial Mania

Michelle Davison
February 10, 2014

Review of Memorial Mania

Erika Doss’ Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America describes and analyzes the relatively new desire in the US to memorialize events. She argues that these memorials are intended to evoke emotional responses in those who visit them. They are conceived by those who feel the emotional response to the events they are memorializing should be remembered. In Doss’ view, memorials can tell us a lot about those who create them in that they expose who and what is deserving of commemoration, and who and what is either subsumed or ignored. The best memorials, according to Doss, are those which are able to show multivalent interests and serve a wide public.
Doss acknowledges that this mania for memorials is tied to a mania for statues that existed from the mid-19th century until the early 20th century. This mania was decidedly top-down, and was an attempt by the powerful to create a consensus about what it meant to be an American in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is no accident that most of these statues celebrate white manhood, and immigrant groups used memorials to their men to assert a claim to their equality to non-immigrant white men. African-Americans, too, erected statues honoring important figures, but these were mostly self-funded endeavors, while white men were commemorated with public money. Martial manhood was especially celebrated, and many of these depicted an abstract war participant rather than an individual. It took a questioning of what it meant to be an American, and the allowing of competing views, to quell the enthusiasm for commemorative statues.
Today Americans have taken this statue mania and modified it to fit the need to create “the symbolic expression of particular concerns.” There are key differences between statue mania and memorial mania. First, statues were usually figurative while memorials can be figurative or more abstract. Second, the top down nature of statue mania is mitigated by the fact that diverse groups seek to memorialize, and this is not to necessarily gain consensus, but instead is meant to legitimize their concerns as being worthy of memorializing. Doss argues that the term “memorial” is preferred over “monument” today precisely because monuments are meant to be seen only one way, while memorials allow one to evaluate their own place and feelings in the events being memorialized.
The rest of Doss’ book is divided into sections based on the emotions various memorials are meant to inspire. In the chapter on “Grief,” Doss argues that “unexpected, violent, and televisualized death” results in the phenomenon known as the “temporary memorial.” Doss finds these memorials fairly formulaic in composition, with teddy bears, flowers, and hand-written notes being ubiquitous, and for that reason are the contemporary method of communal mourning. Doss seems skeptical of the ability of things purchased to deal with grief. Her emphasis is on loss, not remembrance. In Doss’ view, the purchase of items to place on temporary memorials encourages remembrance in an unhealthy way. This critique of the way the contemporary public deals with tragic events seems particularly harsh, as Doss comments on the cheapness and availability of items typically used in these memorials. That they are so typically used does seem to point to the effectiveness of the cultural work that temporary memorials to tragedy does.
Doss is critical of the cooption of tragedies by certain groups, but the religious right in particular. She believes that “grief’s affective potential in America lies in its ability to mobilize social and political action, and to orchestrate productive change.” When the religious right wields this power, however, it is not considered by Doss to be an acceptable action. The 20th century has witnessed the rise of conservatism, and in some instances conservatism’s adherents have the cultural authority over certain circumstances. Yes, there is contention when it comes to sudden, unexpected tragedy, but many who are Christians look to faith to reassure them. While one may not agree with the political agenda put forward, one cannot dismiss the people who are true believers. Are they not entitled to their feelings and identities?
Doss is also critical of the pressure put on some institutions to catalog and preserve the consumer goods that make up temporary memorials. Since these goods are cheap, mass-produced consumer goods, and are not made of “precious materials,” she does not think them worthy of the bother of a “museum-trained archivist.” One wonders if she would find consumer goods worthy of museums at all, in any circumstance, since most things contemporary Americans value and base their identities on are mass-produced and usually cheap. The cheapness and widespread availability of digital media is also critiqued. The 9/11 Digital Archive is called out for particular criticism, as it is not concerned with verification of stories uploaded to the site. Doss calls this “critically vacuous” and goes on to say, “by refusing the risk of interpretation it fails to interrogate how and why (and which) experiences and feelings constitute self and national identity.” But this does not seem to be the project of the 9/11 Digital Archive, which seems to be more interested in discursive possibility than the making of identities.
Doss’ concerns about cheapness call out her belief in the power of consumerism to memorialize, but she does not seem to think memorials are valuable unless they are expensive to produce and require a Herculean effort to realize. It is the DIY ethos that she seems to have trouble with, yet it is this very sense of belief that the individual is important that pervades contemporary American culture. That digital methods are fairly cheap and easy for individuals to produces is called “narcissistic” by Doss. Again, if these methods did not serve a cultural purpose, they would not exist. These DIY methods showcase the range of identities that can be made of tragedies and give power to those who may never have it in institutionally mediated settings. Yes, some of these responses will be trite or downright ugly, but they exist and that is what matters. If you are looking for one, simple answer to the way people should feel about tragedy, this diversity is a problem, but the solution should not be to dismiss these efforts, rather it should be to explore the meaning behind it.
In her chapter on “Fear”, Doss points to the meaning of many memorials related to terrorist attacks. She argues that these are designed to remind citizens of their vulnerability, and the result is that Americans feel the need for more security, and that Americans are unified in this. Minimalist designs are used in this type of memorial “because of its theatricality, its emphasis on felt experience and audience engagement.” These traits are necessary to unify Americans. The stories of terrorism tend to leave out the terrorists, which makes nuanced thinking about terrorist acts impossible. Even putting the names of victims on these memorials is a political act according to Doss, designed to convey “a deceitful narrative of national consensus.” Again, Doss is critical in this chapter of those who respond to trauma by consuming souvenirs and memorabilia. But it is in this way we are conditioned to respond. By owning a souvenir, we are able to show that we identify with others who are feeling loss.
Memorials to war are analyzed in Doss’ chapter on “Gratitude.” She critiques most of these memorials, the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. is the subject of particular criticism, on the basis that they make war seem like a noble sacrifice for which the public should be grateful. Again, this message intends to unify feelings about war, but later in the chapter she gives examples of war memorials that attempt to show the scale of loss in a real, public way. The narrative of war is contentious, which is why erecting permanent memorials only reflects the needs of some in the present, and these meanings will be diminished over time. Just as we are able to historicize statue mania, so will our future selves historicize various war memorials.
In her chapter on “Shame,” Doss finds some memorials that do nuanced work representing some aspects of the past that many would like to forget, and some others that miss the mark. Duluth’s memorial to three men who were lynched there gives these men the dignity they lost when a mob killed them and used their mangled bodies as spectacle. Other attempts at using memorialization to acknowledge America’s ugly, racist past have been less effective.
In the final chapter, Doss covers “Anger” by showing how communities resist narratives they feel are being imposed on them via memorials. This becomes a problem especially when there are multivalent histories that could be memorialized. The solution is not more memorials because “commemorative accrual must be accompanied b a critical reconsideration of historical memory itself.” But this political reconsideration is in itself a political act that can inspire contention. Reacting to anger about inclusion is where Doss feels real progress can be made, as long as contentious groups can discuss matters civilly.
Doss’ work attempts to show how “memorial mania” has worked in our culture in a political way to try to drive unity and common feeling. This has washed away any discussion about why the things being memorialized happened, leading instead to sanitized narratives. She sees hope in memorials that show many perspectives at once, while at the same time disparaging the importance of the individual’s response to events being memorialized. Consumer responses are also looked down upon for their supposed cheapness and inability to convey feeling the way that Doss feels art can. Yet each memorial is a consumer choice. The difference is those funding the projects make these choices, be they national or local governments, or private donors. Yes, memorialization is inherently political, but the belief that large, expensive memorials are more meaningful and useful to the public than individual responses, even if they are standardized responses, conveys elitism on the part of the author that seeks to limit the range of acceptable responses and feelings.