Summer Reading for Historians

Yes, we are all ecstatic that the semester is over.  For those history grad students pondering the link between history and fiction/literature (shout out to Derrida), here are a few non-history tomes to keep the juices flowing over the summer.

As a blanket statement, all historians should read War and Peace.  In 1869, Tolstoy published his rumination on the nature of history.  Believing that history belonged to the people, not just generals, politicians, and kings, Tolstoy was basically trying to write a social history – comparing the life of the military with the life of the civilian.  His humanizing portrayals of the tsar, Napoleon, and the Russian generals will forever alter your perceptions of those folks.  I know W&P can be scary, so our other 5 books are perfectly manageable.

1.  Babel Tower – AS Byatt.  For the linguists in the crowd, Babel Tower explores themes of language.  The third book in the Frederica Potter quadrilogy has our intrepid heroine forging a life for herself in the intellectual circles of 1960s London.  Gender and women’s historians will enjoy the re-creation of the limited choices intelligent women had during that time and can debate how much has changed since.  You don’t need to read the other books in the quadrilogy to understand this book.  The Frederica Potter quadrilogy is a rarity in literature, with its headstrong, generally unsympathetic heroine who makes some horrible choices but never compromises her intellect.

2.  The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood.  Any Atwood is worth reading.  Historians may be more familiar with Alias Grace or The Blind Assassin.  Again for the ladies in the crowd, I will merely quote the blurb on the back:  “Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin:  she can’t eat. … Marian ought to feel consumed with passion, but she really just feels … consumed.”

3.  Cycles-The Science of Prediction – Edward Dewey.  Economists typically study this book.  Humanities folks may be a bit overwhelmed by the formulas and graphs.  You can skip those pieces.  The key point is that human behavior/events occur in predictable cycles.  Yes, history repeats itself.  You may disagree with Dewey, but his arguments and evidence are fascinating.

4.  A Summer of Hummingbirds – Christopher Benfey.  That’s right.  Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe all moved in the same circles.  Benfey’s book is part biography, part analysis of the creative process, and part social history.  He explores the impact of post-Civil War life on American art and artists.  Learn how artists incorporated their lives into their works.

5.  Speak, Memory – Vladimir Nabokov.   A classic of Russian pseudo-biography, Nabokov actively explores how we remember and recreate memories in this memoir of his childhood and early adult years.  Nabokov explains how he uses his fiction to memorialize people but is concerned that his personal memories slip away after he has fictionalized someone.  Make sure you get the Everyman’s Library edition with the extra Chapter 16.  Nabokov writes a review of Speak, Memory in the voice of a literary critic.

 

NCPH Poster Preview

My poster Grave Markers as Protest Symbols:  Using Cemeteries to Interpret the Intra-Ethnic Conflicts of Chicago’s Bohemian Immigrants has been selected for the April 2012 NCPH poster sessionThe full conference schedule will be posted in early December.  Here is a sneak preview of the poster — using different trees.  Don’t want to give away too much.

Limestone tree grave makers allowed people to memorialize their ideals and philosophies on their graves.  These grave markers also preserve the intra-ethnic conflict between Catholic and Freethinker Bohemians. After the Catholic Church denied burials in Catholic cemeteries to Catholic Bohemians whose families had Freethinkers, the outraged Freethinkers founded their own cemetery.  The Freethinkers allowed people to personalize their grave markers with secular and/or religious symbols. The Catholic grave markers emphasized a person’s religious devotion and utilized crosses.  The limestone trees in Bohemian National Cemetery and St. Adalbert Catholic Cemetery remind present day visitors of this old conflict.

Let’s interpret the following example from Bohemian National Cemetery, the Prinz Family Tree:

BNC Limestone Tree

Common to all limestone trees is the broken branch at the top – symbolizing a life cut short.  The trees also have a space in the center where the bark is ripped off the tree to expose a spot for engraving the names of the interred.  The Prinz family tree contains five key symbols:  acorns, ivy, clasped hands, wheat sheaf, and mushrooms.  All but the mushrooms have secular and religious meanings.  The mushroom is significant to Bohemians as a symbol of ethnic pride.  If you are Bohemian, you understand the irrational love of the mushroom.  For the non-Bohemians in the crowd, we all have our quirks.

Clasped hands represent marriage if the sleeves are masculine and feminine or heavenly welcome if both sleeves are masculine.  These sleeves appear to be masculine and feminine.  Acorns can mean prosperity or spiritual growth from truth.  Ivy can represent The Holy Trinity or immortality.  A wheat sheaf illustrates a long life or the Resurrection.  Masons also use the wheat sheaf on their graves.  Since this tree lacks other Masonic symbols, we can probably reject the Masonic interpretation.

People buried in Bohemian National can be Catholic, Protestant, Freethinking, or agnostic/atheist.  We cannot assume a wholly secular or totally religious interpretation of the tree.  The sleeves are clearly secular.  The use of multiple symbols of fruitfulness/prosperity and of long life lean towards a more secular interpretation of the tree.  The family was proud of its success and lived long, productive lives.  The ceramic photograph and the tree (rather than a traditional headstone) suggest that the Prinz family had means.

A cautionary note:  acid rain has eroded the limestone, so other symbols may have evaporated or become indistinguishable.  Our next tree from St. Adalbert is undoubtedly religious.

Three Cross Tree

There may be 6 crosses on the tree.  The acid rain melted some elements on the Vachulka tree.  Jesus lost his head on the crucifix, too.  The inset crucifix scene, profusion of ivy, multiple Latin crosses, oak wreath, and rose on the right hand side all lend themselves to a 100% religious interpretation.  Christians believe that oak is one of the woods used to make Christ’s cross, and the rose either symbolized martyrdom or purity.  Given the crucifix scene, martyrdom is the more probable interpretation.  The Vachulka family stressed their piety and faith in their limestone tree.  Their own personal traits or values are subservient to their Catholic faith.

In each of these trees, the Prinz and Vachulka families memorialized their most important beliefs.  Ivy is the common element, used by both families to represent their individual interpretations of immortality.  The other design elements perpetuate the reasons why the families chose their respective cemeteries, perpetuating their beliefs into eternity.  Bohemian National Cemetery and St. Adalbert preserve these gravemarker weapons from an intra-ethnic conflict now forgotten.

*I used Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone to interpret the design elements.

Deco Spirits

During the original Great Depression, Art Deco and Art Moderne were popular art/architectural styles.  Their futuristic tone encouraged people to believe that a better future would happen.  The current glass and steel Mies van der Rohe is a bit too sterile prison for inspirational purposes.  Let’s enjoy some decorative motifs from downtown Chicago and bemoan the current sad state of architecture.

The Burnham Brothers rebuke to Prohibition (Carbon & Carbide Building)  is now swamped by the glass Smurfit Stone Building.  The slashed diamond of the Smurfit Stone is quite stunning, so the brothers would probably be more upset that their building is now a Hard Rock hotel.

The obsession with glass is usually excused because the glass reflects the river and water.  Or you could go with seahorses on your building:

You get a tree and sailboat, too!  On the downside, there are a few creepy faces:

Let’s cleanse the palate with the Crain’s archway:

The Michigan Avenue bridge tower is pretty snazzy, too.

The prohibitive cost and the lack of artisans ensure that Chicago and other major cities will be glass and steel cages for another 100 years.  When you walk in your own downtown or visit other cities, appreciate the small artistic details that are forever lost.

For the cemetery fans, I will have another round of BNC photos soon and some St. Adalbart.  The battle of the limestone trees will occur next week.  I should also have some finished needlework photos.  I really need to finish some pieces into wall quilts and other items.  Next weekend is a holiday weekend for me, so the odds are good.

Let’s end with a contemplative Preston – trying to understand why he wasn’t selected for the Celebrating Greyhounds 2012 calendar.

Celebration Time

Yes, the new school year has begun.  I’ve already attended two of my three classes and found a little cubby hole in the library.  To truly memorialize the occasion, I felt I should post my list of Top Five Favorite Historical Sites.  The selection is wickedly subjective.  I have visited most of them multiple times, and each represents a different reason why I enjoy history.  Starting with #5:

5.  Lincoln-Tallman House

I never became a huge Lincoln or Civil War person, but this house kickstarted my interest in history/historical sites.  As a wee lassie from the Midwest, this house was the most exotic building I had ever seen.  I haven’t visited in 30 years but am still grateful for its inspiration

4.  Tombstone’s Historama

Vincent Price narrates, while a metal diorama depicting the various historical eras in Tombstone rotates.  You have to see it to believe it.  Then enjoy some sarsaparilla.  Yes, you have to drive a bit to reach basically three streets.  You will thank me after you view the Historama.

3.  The JFK Library and Museum

Jackie was first class all the way and a devoted student of history.  Even if you aren’t particularly interested in the Kennedys, the library is a beautiful building; the exhibits are exquisitely displayed, and the ocean view is calming.  The library also contains the Hemingway archives for the literary fans in the crowd.

2.  Salem

From the Witch Museum to the House of Seven Gables to the Peabody & Essex Museum, I have spent months in Salem.  I dream of spending a week at the Hawthorne Hotel.  I love Finz restaurant, Colombo Yogurt, the historic homes, the graveyards.  Everything.  Standing in the garden of the House of Seven Gables is transporting.

1.  National Czech and Slovak Museum

I love my Czechs, especially when they are old and ornery.  The guide here made sure I revisited the first few artifacts on the tour that I missed because I arrived late.  The ticket gal said I should just join the tour.  She should have known better.  The more remarkable story is the recovery from the floor and upcoming re-opening of the museum.  The Czech, Iowa, and US governments all donated money to preserve the museum.  The Czechs were first and have been very generous with a number of US-based institutions.  The museum is located near the river (hence the flood) and is surrounded by Czech businesses.  If you like old time downtowns and ethnic enclaves, highlight Cedar Rapids on your map.

The Art of Cemeteries

Cemeteries aren’t the first place that springs to mind when looking for art, especially nowadays when tombstone design is expensive.  Finding stonecutters can also be problematic.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, renowned architects and sculptures did create works to memorialize a client or themselves.  These memorials were also a way to show that a family was prominent and deserved respect even in death.  Each cemetery can restrict the type of monuments or memorials allowed.  The art in Bohemian National Cemetery and Rosehill Cemetery reflect their founders intellectual and artistic beliefs.

Born from a battle where the Catholic relative of free thinkers was denied burial in a Catholic cemetery, Bohemian National maintains an inclusive attitude towards memorials, tombstones, and mausoleums.  The memorials contain examples of limestone statuary, photography, Art Deco imagery, and Chicago Cubs logos.

The limestone trees are the most striking memorials in Bohemian National.

Each tree is unique, although certain symbols are repeated.  A cluster of houbys appears at the bottom.  The bent branch references a life ended.  The oak leaves symbolize strength.

The mausoleums tend to reference Art Deco.  The most famous person buried at Bohemian National is buried in one such mausoleum:  Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago assassinated in 1933.

The torch imagery references a life snuffed out, as well as an eternal flame.  Bohemian National is replete with dual life/death images.   Clasped hands can mean “together forever” or “good-bye”.  A broken branch means a life cut short, but oak leaves and acorns symbolize life.

Porcelain ceramic photographs are also prominent on Bohemian National tombstones.  As long as the photographs are not broken, they withstand the elements quite well – better than the limestone statues.

Rosehill is a bit more staid.  Developed by Masons, Rosehill does contain its share of obelisks, including the legendary John Wentworth memorial.  If he could have created a monument larger than the Washington Memorial, he probably would have.

The sculptor Leonard Volk, known for his Lincoln life mask and hands, is buried alongside a statue of himself.

Rosehill was proud of its celebrity clientele, starting with General Thomas Ransom, killed in the Civil War.  Prominent Chicago families like Peck, Dick, Lill, and Kedzie have impressive plots.  One of the more unknown but arguably more consequential is George Bangs who created the post office mail train car.  George went with a limestone tree that included a train carving.

Before city parks existed, people would picnic at cemeteries.  The rolling lawns, peaceful settings, and beautiful sculptures are a prototype for the parks created by Olmstead and others.  Sculptors and architects like Thomas Boyington, Leonard Volk, and Anton Heller produced stunning works that are not trapped in museums or private collections. These are works meant to be appreciated and seen through the generations.

Oppression/Confirmation

I spent most of last week in pharma country, giving presentations to the oppressed souls who foist “medicine” onto the unsuspecting public.  Most of the people in the rooms had the same look of panic, fear, and desperation.  Some aggressively foisted their uncertainties onto the poor vendor (me).  Others appeared resigned to their fate or were making the best of their situation.  The trip definitely confirmed my decision to flee corporate life.

For our intellectual exercise this week, we shall tie the idea of dying empire to the corporate world.  Empires falling are classical historical areas of study, but are typically restricted to nations or tribes.  I argue that corporations are similar.  When the corporation becomes too large or unwieldy, its leaders shift focus from the original goals of the company to merely perpetuating its size.  We must grow larger, assimilate other companies, and expand our power into governments, banks, etc.  Employees live in their own bureaucratic world, ignorant of their counterparts in other departments.  My job is to ensure this form is filled out properly, and I don’t care that my intransigence is derailing a key project.  Team spirit is lost.  We are all cogs in the wheel.  Eventually, the corporation will self-destruct via greed, over-expansion, or chicanery.  (Yeah, I’m cracking out the vocab!  GRE test date is April 2.)  As Rome fell, so fell Tyco, Enron, etc.

For those who prefer a more artistic expression of corporate oppression, the works of Sinclair Lewis, King Vidor’s The Crowd (a film), and Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons explore the ideas of 1) losing oneself in the corporation, 2) the transition from a rural/simple life to the urban/hectic life, and 3) business as an empire.  Orson Welles’ film of Ambersons is excellent, too – though bastardized into a mere 90 minutes.  That’s a topic for another day.

For the historians in the crowd, Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is legendary.  Read it now.

I’m thinking about some book reviews for next week.  Maybe my top 10 favorite history books.  We shall see.

Execution

No, my PhD topic will not be the various and sundry ways to execute people.  Tempting as it may be.

As I wander home from work, I cogitate on various topics.  Initially, I had to resolve how I would use the money potentially won in the lottery.  Since you can win different amounts, you need to have a general game plan – should the occasion arise.  Now that I have my financial plans firmly in hand, I am ruminating on topics for classes.  What do the little varmints of today need to learn?  How can I use a history curricula to properly influence the next generation?

After spending a week cleaning up other people’s messes at work, two themes emerged:  accountability and responsibility.  I find it shocking how people blithely ignore potential problems and just want until a client complains about a problem.  The concept of preventing/resolving the problem before the client sees it is novel and unwelcome.  My contribution to the workforce of the future is an examination of leadership.  Why is one leader (in any realm:  business, government, sciences) considered more effective than another?

My current theory revolves around execution.  The “vision thing” is critical to inspire people to join your cause.  Pragmatically implementing the programs/tasks to realize the vision is another critical skill.  Some leaders are bogged down by the practicalities of implementation.  Others lack charisma or inspiration.  Great leaders (FDR, JP Morgan, Attila the Hun) give their followers 1) a vision and 2) a plan to achieve the vision.  If that plan isn’t executed properly, history is a harsh judge.