Sunday, March 24, 2013

The End of Cosmic America

This will be my final post as a Cosmic American. The monicker has run its course and alas, it is time to change directions. This is not to say that I have given up on the blogosphere. Far from it. Indeed, I think still, as I have for some time, that this particular medium is a vital component to the intersection of academic and public history. But it is time for a change of focus. As I move more towards my scholarly work concerning American commemorative cultures and national identities, I feel a change in my Internet presence is necessary. So those of you who will undoubtedly be on pins and needles until I have written something new, you will be able to access the new site HERE.

So what will become of Cosmic America? For now...nothing. Many of the posts and exchanges here are well worth keeping online. I will also continue to maintain the CA Facebook page. In time, these posts will be stored for reference (yours and my own) elsewhere. But there will be no further Cosmic America Civil War blog posts. Ever.

I have greatly enjoyed being a part of the Civil War online community and will continue to make my contributions as a Civil War historian here and there. The new site - currently in development, will be much broader. In a sense, I am simply casting a wider net - and doing so under a different name.

Stay tuned...and as always,



Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Hattie McDaniel's Academy Award Acceptance Speech

Greetings All, this week, in my course on Reconstruction at UCR, we discussed a few scenes from Gone With the Wind. The discussion included Hattie McDaniel's portrayal of Mammy as well as a few notes on the actress herself. She was a fascinating woman off the screen - a outspoken supporter of civil rights, she once lobbied the city of Los Angeles to purchase a home in an exclusive all-white neighborhood. We watched her Academy Award acceptance speech for her role as Mammy as well.
What does this suggest to you about race, historical memory, and Hollywood in 1940?


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

John Steinbeck and the Nineteenth Century

I adore John Steinbeck. I really do. His words, his works, they capture so very much. The human experience. The American experience. I have recently been reading East of Eden for the who knows how manyth time and I was once again taken by his distillation of the nineteenth century. The step toward verse - near poetic, but yet not. So cold and matter of fact. And I think he got it right.  I offer...

History was secreted in the glands of a million historians. we must get out of this banged-up century, some said, out of this cheating murderous century of riot and secret death, of scrabbling for public lands and damn well getting them by any means at all.

Think back, recall our little nation fringing the oceans, torn with complexities, too big for its britches. Just got going when the British took us on again. We beat them, but it didn't do us much good. What we had was a burned White House and ten thousand widows on the public pension list.

Then the soldiers went to Mexico and it was a kind of painful picnic. Nobody knows why you go to a picnic to be uncomfortable when it is so easy and pleasant to eat at home. The Mexican War did two good things though. We got a lot of western land, damn near doubled our size, and besides that it was training for generals, so that when the sad self-murder settled on us the leaders knew the techniques for making it properly horrible.

And then the arguments:

Can you keep a slave?

Well if you bought him in good faith, why not?

Next they'll be saying a man can't have a horse. Who is it who wants to take my property?

And there we were, like a man scratching at his own face and bleeding into his own beard.

Well, that was over and we got slowly up off the bloody ground and started westward.

There came boom and bust, bankruptcy, depression.

Great public thieves came along and picked the pockets of everyone who had a pocket.

To hell with that rotten century!


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Civil War - in Living COLOR!

Color? Perhaps. But living? I am not quite certain. I recently had a conversation with my Twitter friend (tweep?) @Hungry4History regarding the merits of colorized Civil War photographs. We agreed that they offer an new look at a familiar subject. One on hand, the images let our imaginations take the helm. The color allows a modern observer to - perhaps - get a little closer to realism. But of course we do this with the full understanding that the colors chosen are left to the discretion of the artist. There is no way of knowing for certain the precise shade of blue a Union soldier's pants had faded to after a hard campaign. Still, as someone who has more than a passing interest in style - I think it is fun to imagine President Lincoln wearing a dark purple necktie as opposed to the customary black. Hello.

I am also troubled by these images for precisely that reason. We don't know. So in a sense, these are more like forgeries...or at best, cases of tampering with historical documents. And they never really look quite right - the eyes of the living resemble the eyes of the dead. Like the cold lifeless eyes of a fish staring back at you in the supermarket. These efforts to resurrect the Civil War to a vibrant new life of color are reminiscent of the Ted Turner campaign years ago to colorize classic black and white films. We all remember how that worked out. They were...and still are...quite horrible.

These people are all dead now, some killed in battle, others by disease, and still others of natural causes decades removed from the conflict. But they were quite alive when their images were captured - painstakingly so with the technology of the age. And the black and white stills do offer life. Look closely at their faces. The subtlety of shade and deep texture reveal so much more than you might at first think. The history of the war is written on their countenances in black, white, and every shade in living detail. Does the colorization enhance this notion, or distract us from it?


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Grant v. Lee Twitter Experiment










From time to time, as Cosmic Americans know, I ask some sort of little question on Twitter to get the ball rolling toward a conversation. Recently I asked the hypothetical: "Who would you rather have on your side, Grant or Lee...and why?" Kind of a silly question of course, since there are so many other factors to consider when it comes to victory and defeat, but my point was to get people talking about the military prowess of each commander. 

The most interesting thing happened. The votes were unanimously cast for Ulysses S. Grant. This surprised me a little - the Twitter universes is a big place, and surely there have to be some Lee fans out there. But not this time.

A number of things could explain this. One, we are naturally looking at these two men retrospectively and well, we know who won. So yes, we all like to pick a winner.

But I think there is more to it than that. Answers indicated that Lee was overrated both in his time and by subsequent generations...that he was too audacious and unnecessarily bled his army to defeat. Grant, on the other hand, masterfully used the resources that those before him did (or could) not. This suggests to me that myths surrounding both men have changed drastically over the last several decades. 

Others suggested that northern leaning sentiment is slowly taking over the Internet - that perhaps a less technologically savvy older generation favors the Lee camp and thus doesn't really use social media platforms to speak their minds. I'm not sure if I agree with this - I have seen plenty of web-based pro-Confederate groups who maintain active forums declaring the many virtues of their beloved Robert E. Lee.

At least one person figured that I might have driven the pro-Lee crew away and they just did not participate. After all, besides being a "Yankee metrosexual wearing purple sunglasses" I am also on record as favoring the Union cause...maybe I was just baiting them. (I wasn't. I am also on record as stating that I think RE Lee was a hell of a soldier) 

I'll give the Lee crew a chance to weigh in here. But as it stands so far - Grant is a clear winner in the "who would you rather have on your side" contest.

And by the way, the winner of last week's "Bibliophiles Unite" contest on Twitter was @WeezieWeaver - she figured out after a few helpful hints that the book in question was Marshall W. Fishwick's Lee After the War published way back in 1963. Well done.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bibliophiles Unite! I like this game.

Avid readers, book nerds, and just regular geeks should enjoy this game. The rules are simple: I Instagram a shot of some text from a book that I am currently reading, post it to Twitter, and you guess what it is. Sound like a tall order? Don't fret. There will be plenty of hints on my Twitter feed. Get the answer correct and I will give you a shout out right here on Cosmic America. The book pictured is The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview by Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Congrats to @BobRBogle for getting it right. Nice work, Bob!


Friday, February 8, 2013

President Ben Wade


As you all know by now, i have a strong dislike for counterfactual history. I find it entirely useless, as a matter of fact. So you can rest easy. I am not going to try and construct some "what if" scenario featuring the gentleman from Ohio ascending to the executive office.

But not so very long ago, Senator Wade came within one vote of doing exactly that. During the 1868 impeachment trail of Andrew Johnson, Wade was serving as president pro tem of the Senate. Since the vice president's seat was vacant, then Wade was next in line should something happen to Andy Johnson. Something...for a conviction in an impeachment trial.

But too bad for Ben Wade. It seemed a few of his fellow republican colleagues thought him a touch too radical for the job. His ascendency would surely have secured his nomination for president in '68 - and many thought he was too radical to win. What's more - he was pro-labor and favored a high tariff. This made northern business interests cringe. And what's worse - I don't think his colleagues liked him very much at all. I'm not sure how Mrs. Wade felt.

Sure, pleny of people would have loved to sack AJ, but not if it meant filling his seat with Ben Wade. In the end, he missed it by a tad - only one vote short of the 2/3 necessary to make him president.

Some alleged that Senator Ross of Kansas - the deciding vote - may have been helped along by promises from the Johnson camp. Ben "the Beast" Butler launched an inquiry to check in to such matters, but nothing really came of it.

Poor Ben Wade just couldn't catch a break.