Lost in Translation?

2011 August 18
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"Army of the Potomac—Scene in camp of Negro regiments—Method of punishment of Negro soldiers for various offences." Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, December 10, 1864.

A recent post on The Huntington Library blog entitled “Captured in Translation” compares a Civil War photograph and news engraving to demonstrate the discrepancies between photographs and their adaptations into mass-produced formats in the era before photo-mechanical reproduction. The blog post by Steven Robles is a useful comment on the importance of attending to the strengths and weaknesses of archival visual evidence; it also raises a question about whether “translation” is the process we need to evaluate.

The photograph and engraving both show African-American soldiers being punished on a “wooden horse.” But the photograph, which is in The Huntington’s James E. Taylor collection of Civil War images, “captures just two soldiers straddling the suspended beam with stoic faces,” while the engraving published in the December 10, 1864 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (above), shows seven soldiers perched on the beam, “some playing cards while others nap.” The nonchalance and obstreperousness exhibited by the punished black soldiers in the engraving appear to support the illustration’s accompanying textual description, which condescendingly claimed that black troops required greater discipline than white soldiers because of their “obtuse sensibilities.” That bias prompted Steven Robles to be skeptical about the claim in the description that the “drawing is from life.” Without directly saying so, he suggests that the photograph was the actual source for the illustration. Thus, the comparison seems to offer an example of the limitations of the process of translation from photo to engraving imposed by the reproductive technology of the time, which “allowed for some creative adjustments on the part of the illustrators.”

But should we assume that the engraving was a translation of the photograph? The photo is in the collection of images by James E. Taylor, who was one of the more prolific of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper‘s special artists covering the war—and, therefore, one might be led to conjecture that Taylor was the artist who made the sketch upon which the engraving was based. But the drawing was the work of another Leslie‘s artist, Joseph Becker, who rendered it in October 1864 during the siege of Petersburg (it can be viewed in the excellent online Becker Collection). While Becker undoubtedly made biased “creative adjustments” in this sketch (as he did throughout his long career, notably when covering the bitter 1874-75 “Long Strike” in the anthracite coal region of eastern Pennsylvania)—and certainly sketch artists used photographs as references for drawing uniforms, equipment, locations, and other visual details—this sketch and its subsequent rendition as an engraving were not translations of another medium.

Moreover, the question of bias and/or distortion is not only germane to the artist-reporter sketch or subsequent published wood engraving: the photograph’s depiction of black soldiers’ punishment also requires further consideration regarding interpretation. The soldiers’ stoic faces may be less evidence of their actual attitudes toward or behavior when facing punishment than an indication of the limits of photographic technology. The slow exposure time and stillness required of photographed subjects may have imposed those unreadable expressions.

ASHP on Twitter + Facebook!

2011 August 3
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by ASHP Staff

If you haven’t heard already, Herb (of HERB fame) is on Twitter tweeting about social history. Follow @ashp_cml for news, tips, and resources from HERB for learning about history from the American Social History Project.

We are also now on Facebook! We post polls, links, and resources from out extensive archive or teaching materials.


Link Tuesday!

2011 June 28
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by ASHP Staff

And a break from your regularly scheduled programming here, the resident staff webmaster and Queens resident with a keen interest in urban planning presents a few links that might be of interest to our readers.

Craigslist’s “Missed Connections” are an over 130-year-old mode of communication according to a great post on Ephemeral New York. (Yes, with actual newspaper clippings from 1872 to prove it)

The always engaging Newtown Pentacle elaborates on his claim that ‘Newtown Creek is where the Industrial Revolution actually happened.’

Lost City wonders “who goes to the Bohemian Hall Beer Garden,” and I fully support his finding that it might be  the most honestly diverse drinking spot in all of the five boroughs.

ASHP’s been busy at work on a few upcoming seminars and updating materials on many of our websites. Stay tuned for a return to regularly scheduled social history updates!

The Conspirator and the fate of historical print and visual culture

2011 April 17
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Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper, May 27, 1865

Conspirator Lewis Payne awaiting trial, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, May 27, 1865.

Robert Redford’s film The Conspirator has received many justifiably negative reviews (see the particularly astute comments of A. O. Scott in the New York Times). I would like to add one more criticism  of the film’s overall inaccuracies, omissions, misrepresentations, and anachronisms (not to mention clichés, thin characterizations, poor staging, and tepid performances).

The Conspirator’s presentation of the usual historical drama cleanliness in its production and costume design also has been remarked upon by others, but I was taken aback by the related decision to shun using any actual contemporary visual and print media in the requisite flaring newspaper headlines that pepper the transitions in the film. The newspapers and magazines in 1865 certainly offer visually dramatic, if also distinctly historical, material that the camera can exploit to dramatic effect—yet, in The Conspirator, faux documents flash before our eyes featuring huge newspaper headlines accompanied by large tonal illustrations, neither characteristic of print journalism until late in the century. Moreover, for some reason the headline typography is consistently presented as under-inked—I assume because the production designer decided that this treatment would satisfy the audience’s expectation of an “old tyme” look.

I’m sure some will view my grousing as particularly trivial, and The Conspirator is definitely not alone among film historical dramas in preferring its own invented stand-ins for the visual culture in the past (one of my favorites being the 1860s Gustave Doré wood-engraved illustrated bible that the African captives read in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film about the 1839 Amistad mutiny and subsequent trial). But, much like its willfully blinkered script, from which slavery is completely excluded (as well as the Surratts’ former ownership of slaves), The Conspirator chose to substitute its own imaginary notion of what constituted American print and visual culture over what Americans viewed and read—and, thus, how they understood the world around them—during and after the Civil War.

Teaching “What This Cruel War Was Over”

2011 March 28
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by Leah Nahmias

Next Tuesday, April 5, ASHP/CML will host a public panel discussion of the disconnect between scholarly and public understandings of the Civil War. This free panel, The Great Divide? Civil War Myths and Misinformation, is part of our year-long series of public events marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. One of our panelists, Gary W. Gallagher, recently edited a volume of essays on the many ways in which Civil War veterans and their descendants seeded Lost Cause mythology and misinformation into the historiography of the war; into public commemorations of the war at battlefield sites, in holidays, and in the form of monuments throughout the land; into the politics of a generation of Republicans and Democrats following the war; and even into the culture of novels, school textbooks, and other arenas of public and private life.

1929 Appomattox marker

At past professional development seminars, ASHP/CML educators have introduced the lesson “What This Cruel War Was Over”, which examines changing attitudes toward slavery and union between 1860 and 1865, with a monument that enshrines the Lost Cause myth. The monument pictured here was placed at Appomattox Courthouse in 1929, when the Lost Cause mythology was in full bloom. The text of the monument reads:

Here on Sunday, April 9 1865 after four years of heroic struggle in defense of principles they believed fundamental to the existence of our government Lee surrendered 9000 men the remnant of an army still unconquered in spirit

Students are asked to decide who is included in the Civil War marker, who is left out and what the marker says—if anything—about the reasons the war was fought. Then students examine primary source documents from the 1860s to determine the actual reasons the war was fought, and how the war transitioned from a war for union to a war for freedom. Finally, students write text for a new Civil War marker, one that finally answers the question what the cruel war was over.

It is useful to begin the lesson with the monument for several reasons: one, it’s a convenient hook to get students’ attention and to frame their task for the activity: why write an essay when you can write text for a monument? Further, it is important to teach students how to critique the memorial landscape around them, especially in places like where I taught in North Carolina, where it often seems the Lost Cause is enshrined every few blocks. As incidents during the civil rights era and since have demonstrated, the presence of Civil War monuments is contentious and their meanings change as our political and social realities change. Finally, as with other cultural productions including historical paintings and films, monuments usually illuminate more about the people who created them and their contemporary audiences than they teach about what actually happened in the time period they claim to be about.

The lesson is part of ASHP/CML’s newest educational resource, HERB. HERB, named in honor of ASHP’s co-founder Herbert G. Gutman, is a free website of primary documents, teaching activities, and other resources for teaching U.S. history. As with all ASHP/CML resources, HERB’s materials look at how ordinary people both influenced and were influenced by the nation’s political and economic transformations. We are pleased to finally be able to link to this extensive archive of our educational materials in the Now & Then blog and hope you’ll help us spread the word about HERB to your colleagues and friends who teach U.S. history!

State of Siege and Public Memory at Ole Miss

2011 March 25
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by Leah Nahmias

Several armed men in uniform on the campus of the University of Mississippi, October 1, 1962. The men were part of the law enforcement effort to restore and maintain order on the campus during the riots that occurred after the integration of the university by James Meredith in late September. The Confederate monument in question is at left. (Special Collections, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.)

Several armed men in uniform on the campus of the University of Mississippi, October 1, 1962. The men were part of the law enforcement effort to restore and maintain order on the campus during the riots that occurred after the integration of the university by James Meredith in late September. The Confederate monument in question is at left. (Special Collections, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.)

One of the most vivid stories a professor told me in graduate school was about the guy whose job it is to repair Civil War monuments, in particular the ubiquitous “Standing Soldiers” that dot the courthouse squares of small towns around the United States. We were discussing Kirk Savage’s brilliant Standing Soldier, Kneeling Slave: Race, War and Monument in 19th Century America, which is required reading for anyone interested in public history, memory and the Civil War.  The professor in question had  recently visited the Ole Miss campus where, not surprisingly, a Confederate soldier stands atop a monument at the entrance to the campus.  Walking around the campus at night, my professor came across the repairman patching holes in the marble base of the statue, where the inscription reads “In memory of the patriotism of the Confederate soldiers of Lafayette County, Mississippi/They gave their lives in a just and holy cause.”

The two men chatted about the work; there are a lot of Civil War monuments (in fact, in the late 19th century the monuments were mass produced and manufacturers asked towns to specify whether to write “USA” or “CSA” on the belt buckles of the statues) and most statues are now about a hundred years old: suffice it to say, repairing Civil War monuments is good line of work if you can get it.  My professor remarked that it was odd that these particular repairs were being done at night, though.  The repairman told him there was a good reason for that: he was actually repairing bullet holes that had damaged the monument during the riots that engulfed Oxford when James Meredith tried to integrate the campus in 1962.  Either the memory of the riots themselves, or the anger that such traces of violence during the 1960s were now being erased, were contentious enough that he had been asked to work at night when few others were around.

This newspaper ad was placed by the segregationist Citizens' Councils of America (based in Mississippi) in a Seattle newspaper in 1964 during open housing battles there.

This newspaper ad was placed by the segregationist Citizens' Councils of America (based in Mississippi) in a Seattle newspaper in 1964 during open housing battles there.

The story caught my imagination: here we are, still repairing monuments that some would like to see relegated to the dustbin of history.*  Moreover, some officials would rather preserve the Confederate monument and erase the more recent memory of the battle for integration and black civil rights.  In this case, I think the bullet holes are important to preserve because the Confederate monument, I would argue, is no longer “complete” without the later evidence of the black freedom struggle.  I wonder if there’s opportunity for some sort of intervention at the site even now, some sort of signage or artwork that could surface these questions about how we remember the past, and what it worth preserving.

This story is really just a long wind up for my pitch for the new American RadioWorks documentary State of Siege: Mississippi Whites and the Civil Rights Movement, which considers the uniquely strident efforts of white Mississippians to maintain segregation.  (Maybe someone will make sure State of Siege winds up on Haley Barbour’s iPod to remind him that things weren’t as sunny as he remembered them.)  Mississippi segregationists ardently defended segregation at home and around the country. I came across the add a left, placed in a 1964 Seattle newspaper, while researching open housing campaigns: clearly white Mississippians were looking for allies anywhere around the nation where they thought their message might resonate. Further, they made an explicit link between the Civil War era and the current battle over citizenship and rights.

Nearly always present at pro-segregation rallies was the Confederate battle flag, which helped to further conflate Civil War memory and the black freedom struggle. If you are interested in hearing more discussion about the contentious memory of the Civil War–and in particular, the persistent and insidious divide between how scholars and the general public understand the conflict–you are welcome to attend ASHP/CML’s upcoming FREE public panel “The Great Divide? Civil War Myths and Misinformation” on Tuesday, April 5 at 6pm at the CUNY Graduate Center.

*For more on what to do with Confederate monuments, I highly recommend Sanford Levinson’s Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies.

New Funding for The September 11 Digital Archive

2011 February 22
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by Pennee Bender

We are pleased to announce that The September 11 Digital Archive has received a Saving America’s Treasures grant to assist in the preservation of the collection at http://911digitalarchive.org.

Cutting edge at its launch nearly ten years ago, the Archive now is showing its age. This award will pay to transfer this groundbreaking digital collection to a stable, standardized, up-to-date archival system. This data transfer is an essential first step in guaranteeing that the world’s largest public collection of digital materials related to the events of September 11, 2001 will be available to scholars, students, policy-makers, and the general public in the coming decades.

Launched in 2001 as an effort to capture the personal experiences, responses, and images produced in the wake of 9/11, staff at ASHP/CML and at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University (CHNM) used electronic media to collect, preserve and present the history of those events and the public responses to them. ASHP and CHNM built a simple portal to accept electronic submissions of first-hand accounts, emails and other electronic communications, digital photographs, artwork, and a range of other materials. Through partnerships with local community and labor groups and national cultural institutions, the archive grew to its current size of over 150,000 digital objects.

The Save America’s Treasures program is one of the largest and most successful grant programs for the protection of our nation’s endangered and irreplaceable cultural heritage. Grants are awarded for the preservation and/or conservation work on nationally significant intellectual and cultural artifacts and historic structures and sites.

ASHP Presenting at Upcoming Social Studies Education Conferences

2011 February 9
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by Leah Nahmias

To promote HERB, the American Social History Project’s forthcoming database of primary documents and teaching activities, educators from ASHP will be presenting at two conferences in March. We will introduce teachers to the various features in HERB and the assortment of professional development seminars and teaching materials developed by ASHP/CML over its 30-year history. To mark the Civil War sesquicentennial, we will also model a few teaching strategies and documents looking at the theme of emancipation and the Civil War.

On Thursday, March 17, you can find us at the New York State Council for the Social Studies annual conference, this year held in Rochester, New York.  Presentation times haven’t been confirmed, but we’ll be sure to update this post and tweet specific times when they are announced.

On Friday, March 18, we’ll also be at the Middle States Council for the Social Studies regional conference in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Educators from the mid-atlantic region are invited to attend two full days of presentations and sessions. ASHP will be presenting from 12:40–1:35.

We welcome history educators, administrators, and our colleagues from all grade levels and community and four-year colleges to attend our sessions and learn about this exciting new resource at ASHP!

The Good Old Days of Uncomplicated Civil War Narratives

2011 February 1
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by Leah Nahmias

We are pretty excited round here for our upcoming series of panel discussions on the Civil War, which kicks off next Thursday, February 3, with Did the Real War Ever Get in the Books? In our first panel, historians Bruce Levine, Jim Oakes, Stephanie McCurry and Greg Downs will discuss recent scholarship on such issues as how ideas about gender influenced politics and society; the sustained and decisive actions of African Americans (both enslaved and free) to secure emancipation; and the currents of dissent that roiled the Confederacy.

In anticipation, we’ve done a little digging around in the Internet Archive to see if we could find any old educational films to conveniently frame outmoded ways of thinking about the Civil War. Fortunately (?), the United States Information Agency, the propaganda wing of the Cold War State Department, created an entire film series Scenes from American History that provides forehead-smacking depictions of the past. There are enough hearty pioneers, noble be-wigged Founding Fathers, and efficient—and curiously worker-free–factories chugging along to populate any number of Tea Party fantasies of the good ol’ days. “A House Divided”, the fifth part of the series produced in 1960, is almost a 30 minutes long and includes 10 whole seconds depicting slavery (2:07-2:17).*

As painful as USIA’s narrative of progress is, it is actually not the biggest offender among 1960s government films on the Civil War that I found. No, that honor has to belong to the Department of Defense’s 1963 film A Nation Sings: A Musical Remembrance of Civil War Tunes. The film, which I assume was some sort of television special, actually opens with soldiers dressed in blue and gray holding the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars. Keep in mind, 1963 was not just the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg; it was also the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the year that Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to prevent black students from attending and riots broke out in Birmingham after months of non-violent protest against segregation. And yet the military holds a celebration that opens with the Confederate flag, features soldiers dressed in Confederate uniforms singing sentimental songs, and strikes up the band for a rousing rendition of “Dixie.”*

Internet Archive and YouTube are rich troves when it comes to seeing how the Civil War has been remembered in other eras. Both of these films, and scores of others, were produced around the time of the Centennial in 1961-1965. Be sure to leave your most surprising vintage educational film finds in the comments.

*Note: The titles of each film will link to the film in Internet Archive; we were unable to format the video files so that they embedded properly in this post.

Fact Checking Claims about the Transcontinental Railroad

2011 January 26
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by Leah Nahmias

Last night in his State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned the Transcontinental Railroad as an example of historical infrastructure-building projects that employed thousands.  While I would like to see investment in green transportation solutions and stimulus spending that provides jobs rather than tax breaks for people who do not need them, I am always bothered when politicians make rosy claims about the past.  Many organizations and individuals set out to fact check the president’s State of the Union address each year, but I thought it might be worthwhile to give a bit more context to his claims about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.

From Who Built America?:

Between 1867 and 1873, railroad companies laid 35,000 miles of track in the United States–as much as was built in the three previous decades. In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Congress had chartered the Union Pacific and Central Pacific corporations to construct a line between Omaha, Nebraska, and Sacramento, California. In 1869, a golden spike–hammered into place with great ceremony at Promontory Point, Utah–marked the completion of the link between the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.

The largest government subsidies in U.S. history financed the railroad boom. Between 1862 and 1872, Congress gave the railroad companies more than 100 million acres of public land and over $64 million in loans and tax breaks…

Obama had this to say about the Transcontinental Railroad:

America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, constructed the Interstate Highway System.  The jobs created by these projects didn’t just come from laying down track or pavement.  They came from businesses that opened near a town’s new train station or the new off-ramp.

In asking for similar federal investment in infrastructure projects today, the president makes basically two claims about the benefits of the railroads then: they created opportunities for business and they employed thousands of people. While I would like to see investment in green transportation solutions and stimulus spending that provides jobs rather than tax breaks for people who do not need them,

It is absolutely true that railroads spread commerce, but it is important to note how especially good railroads were for big business. In addition the subsidies for railroad companies described above, mining and lumber companies gobbled up millions of acres of cheap public land along railroad routes–by paying homesteaders to file bogus claims that they never intended to farm or by filing spurious claims themselves. Government subsidies helped create powerful corporations, completely unregulated, that employed thousands of workers and hired “armies of lobbyists” to guarantee further subsidies and land grants.

Heavy snowfall sometimes buried tracks so deep that rotory snow plows could not operate. Then it was necessary to employ shovel gangs to clear tracks. This photo shows (a) group of Chinese workers on the switchback near the summit of the Cascades, in 1886.

Heavy snowfall sometimes buried tracks so deep that rotory snow plows could not operate. Then it was necessary to employ shovel gangs to clear tracks. This photo shows (a) group of Chinese workers on the switchback near the summit of the Cascades, in 1886. (Special Collections Division, University of Washington Libraries)

It is also worth considering what kinds of jobs the railroads created in the 1860s and 1870s: grueling, poorly paid, and dangerous. Further, mostly immigrants built the rail network.  In the east, most laborers were Irish and in the west, most were Chinese. The Central Pacific railroad recruited laborers directly from China, paying for the worker’s passage to the U.S. and promising payment of $75 after seven months of work. (Chinese workers were also a significant part of the labor force in the mines that opened up along railroad lines; immigrants from northern and eastern Europe filled the timber camps of the Northwest.)  Especially on the Central Pacific workers faced brutal conditions, including snowstorms, rockslides and explosions that claimed the lives of hundreds, if not thousands; railroad workers everywhere faced an unrelenting pace and low wages. Chinese workers were only paid about two-thirds of the wages for white workers.

Again, from Who Built America?:

The dramatic increase in immigrants and wage laborers and the enormous expansion of industry and wealth raised fundamental questions about the survival of traditional American ideals and values. Business leaders and their intellectual supporters tried to create a rationale for these vast changes in American economic and social life by combining two concepts: “laissez-faire” and “Social Darwinism.”  …Not all Americans agreed. Even the generally conservative New York Times expressed concern in 1869 that the increasingly rapid descent of the independent mechanic to the level of a dependent wage earner was producing “a system of slavery as absolute if not as degrading as that which lately prevailed [in] the South.” …More than any other single fact, the development of industrial capitalism and the attendant deterioration of working conditions lay behind the rapid growth of the American labor movement in the years after the Civil War.

When one considers the boon to big business that the original federal investments in infrastructure created, it is surprising how ardently opposed the modern Republican Party is to similar investments today. And given the Republican Party’s ambivalent, if not hostile attitudes about the safety of workers, especially when the workers in question are immigrants, is doubly surprising that these proposals are met with such scorn.  If Obama’s proposals do go forward–doubtful in today’s political climate–it is likely that corporations will again take advantage of the opportunity. However, one hopes that the jobs that are created will generally be safer and more fairly paid than in the past.  On that point, we’ve made some improvements, though there is of course a disturbing pattern of failing to adequately prosecute companies that do not protect their workers in this and other recent administrations.

Note: As for Obama’s claims about brining electricity to rural communities, see this earlier post from Now and Then for a little historical perspective.