What to do if you do not have freedom to move and are imprisoned near a library? The answer, or at least one possible answer, pioneer environmental history. That was the case with Fernand Braudel, a French historian/ French army officer. He was captured during World War II and spent most of the war held with other French officers at a camp where he had access to the library near Lubeck, Germany. There, with access to the library and his own memory he started writing a history of the Mediterranean during the reign of Phillip II. However, in Braudel’s view and as part of the so-called Annales school of French history, one cannot simply write a history of the Mediterranean during the reign of Phillip II in simply his lifetime. You have to start with the geology of the Mediterranean. To understand a place or an event over any length of time you have to go back to the basics, the geology and the geography of a place, to understand how events played out.
This past week I have had the chance to listen to a few interviews on a website that I came across a couple of months ago. It’s a site that hosts the archived interviews that Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) did in the early 1960s for a book entitled Who Speaks for the Negro?
Warren to me is a fascinating man. A native of Kentucky who grew up hearing stories about the civil war from his grandfather, a confederate veteran. Warren grew up wanting to go to sea, to the Naval Academy in fact,and was on his until the summer before he was to attend lost one eye in a hunting accident. With that incident he instead went to Vanderbilt University and afterwards launch his prolific writing career. One of his first pieces to gather attention was published in a volume called I’ll Take My Stand (1930), a collection of essays written by him an other southern writers, it is a defense of the Jim Crow south, Warren contributed “In the Briar Patch”, a defense of segregation in the South and an essay Warren would renounce later in his life.
Warren would begin to reassess his views in the 1950s as the Civil Rights Movement commenced. The past is a subject that runs throughout his work. He is perhaps today best well-know for his novel All the King’s Men, a book about political corruption, but that also has a main character dealing hard to come to grips with his own family history. Warren during his life was mostly a poet, in fact he was the first Poet Laureate of the United States in the 1980s. Many of his poems deal with the problems of history and the power it maintains as time goes on.
The site that hosts his recordings is from his Vanderbilt alma mater. He interviewed a who’s who of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. These interviews combined with his writings give excellent documentation of one of the finest American writers of the twentieth century working through his thoughts and feelings about race in America.
I read a couple things this past week that caught my attention about my college major- history. They left me a little…disappointed, actually a bit fearful both for the field of history and the humanities in general. One was a new report on the History News Network that showed the number of college students majoring in history has continued to decline- or rather has fallen off a cliff since about 2009- over a 9% drop. The second which gave me pause was in the National Review about George Washington University decision to overhaul the requirements for its history majors- letting those not wanting to study for example U.S. history not being required to take World history or Western Civilization courses and vice-versa if they did not want to- and also eliminated a foreign language requirement.
First, I have no issue with eliminating foreign language requirements for history- especially if one is only wanting to concentrate on American history. However, I think the study of history requires one to have an open mind. I think a someone studying history should have to at least take general courses in both American and either World history or Western Civilization if they are studying history in the United States. Second, I can understand the decline in those majoring in history- our society, economy and educational system continue to not see the relevance of studying the past.However, if I may let me make an argument as to the benefits of studying history- whether one goes to college or not.
History is a discipline, interest, hobby, whatever you want to call it that goes across any other thing you can think of- because everything has a history. Pick whatever you want it has a history- not just traditional politics or warfare- which is what most study in school and t0 bored to tears about. Culture and society- absolutely. Sports- it has it. Fashion- ditto. Food Preservation- you want to talk about interesting. It is an unlimited subject which that first and foremost requires one to have curiosity, to do research, build reading skills, and acts as a collective memory for society. It covers not just the past, but also questions that are relevant to our world today.
I know that when a person goes into a bookstore by far the largest part of the history section is devoted to military history and don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong with that. Like most who enjoy history in this country- I first became interested in reading every book I could get my hands on about the civil war and World War II. I would however suggest to anyone to also pick up another book about history not specifically related to war, politics or biography. Want to know about regional and cultural differences in the U.S. and how they developed- look no further than David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, the role of the environment in U.S. history- Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature. Want to look at the history of rural Americans and their interactions with large cities and government- a fascinating study is Karl Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature . I think many people would be surprised by these works and about how they speak to issues in our world today.
I have had some topics over time that I return to again and again as I study and look at history. One of them involves strategists and thinkers. Particularly those who have given great thought to diplomatic and military affairs. One who fascinates me is Alfred Thayer Mahan, who I first ran into in a sustained way when I was working on my bachelor’s degree. He is also one of those strategists who just returns to the headlines over and over. It really makes no sense in a way. There was nothing particular special about him, yet his ideas still attract attention. Most recently articles on The National Interest blog and his writings are required reading in the Chinese Navy today. Mahan was a naval officer who won no major military encounters, became disillusioned with the navy so much that in his later years he actively campaigned not to be sent to sea. Preferring instead to hold teaching positions and to do research. Over time his writing would shape not only how the United States, but how the rest of the world prepared and understood war. He was to receive acclaim from both Theodore Roosevelt and the German Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Today I want to give some background on the early life of Mahan and how it would later influence his writing and views. Mahan is known particularly for his book The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1783 that was originally published in 1890. He was born West Point, New York in 1840. The son of a United States Military Academy instructor, Dennis Hart Mahan, who in his decades at the academy would teach most of the notable generals of the civil war- both north and south. His family had wanted him to become a minister and early on he did pursue this path, studying at Columbia University for two years. There while reading the tales of James Fenimore Cooper he yearned to go to sea. Mahan’s father helped secure him a post at the United States Naval Academy where he graduated in 1859.
He would spend the Civil War doing blockade duty of the coast of the south. After the war he was on voyages that took him to Japan, through Europe and to see the Suez Canal. In 1875 he was assigned to the Boston Navy Yard. There he was appalled at what he saw, the worlds most powerful navy during the Civil War, with rampant corruption and a navy a shell of its former self. Mahan was spend time also at the Brooklyn Naval Yard until 1883 when he was given command of the Wachusett and was sent to monitor a border war between Chile and Peru. It was in Lima, Peru that the ideas that would make Mahan influential would start to form. He was to later state that it was reading Theodor Mommsen’s History of Rome that catapulted him to start thinking about the history of naval matters. He started wondering: what if Hannibal had a navy strong enough that he could have attacked Rome directly?
Another man at this time was also starting to think and appreciate naval history in ways not thought of before, Commodore Stephen Luce, who in response would urge the navy to establish the Navy War College. Luce would appoint Mahan to start teaching at the new school. Mahan would focus his lectures on the War of 1812. While there he reached out to a New York legislator who had just written his own book on the subject, Theodore Roosevelt. With Luce and Roosevelt’s encouragement Mahan would start to write his most influential book.
George Washington, had many firsts as first President of the United States. Among them,and not specified by the constitution, was the idea of the presidential farewell address. It was published September 19, 1796 in the newspaper American Daily Advertiser and then in papers throughout the country in the following days and weeks. In it Washington started by officially declaring that he was not going to seek a third term. It was the remainder of the address which had advice in it that generations of American schoolkids had to learn.
It reads as an advice letter, from an older man to his children, not uncommon among people in this time period. He warns against division in the country, whether regional base or otherwise. The nation strength comes in its various parts staying united. He asks that people ignore those who say that the young United States was going to fail. He also warned the nation to stay out of entangling alliances, to get along with all nations, but to not have enemies or to have close friends of other nations either. It’s a fascinating read, which leaves one wondering what the United States would be like if his advice was heeded. It is also too bad that even as it was being published, dark clouds that Washington were warning against were already there. The nation was divided in many ways already.
If you have never read before, if you have never heard of it before, I think that it is well worth a read. A copy of the complete text of the address can be found at the Avalon Project of Yale Law School here: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp
This is the excerpt for your very first post.
Hello, this is a new blog and my first post. I am a history buff- or rather a history buff with an M.A. in history. From time to time I feel the need to share my interest in history and just need an outlet. I am not sure how often I will post, but over time will decide what the site will be and how to use it. I hope people will find it interesting and informative. Thank you.