Tag Archives: History

Histories and Historical Novels

Over the last few years, I’ve read a lot of 18th and 19th century North American history. In the very old days, I was a career historic archaeologist, so I have some professional background in history, but an archaeologist is not an historian by training or experience. As I went about reading this American history, I learned something that most non-historian Americans find unbelievable. So unbelievable that I won’t tell you now, other than that it has to do with Donald Trump and his followers. Maybe we can discuss it another time.

I’ve always liked historical fiction as well as history, and I’m starting to work on a project that puts the two together: a list of accessible histories (books written by historians who are good writers) and parallel (maybe even matched-up) novels that may be reasonable representations of the past. The novels are a challenge in this project. A book can be a good novel but a lousy history. Also, what do we do with historical science fiction or fantasy, that might involve a good description of some bygone era or culture, but that includes aliens or ghosts? (Time machines probably don’t present this problem, in and of themselves.)

By and large, I expect that most novels are not good representations of our past. I believe culture can vary dramatically across time and space. A 20th century account of the 17th century (anywhere) or a contemporary account of a very different region of the world (or neighborhood) is likely to be written to be understandable and relatable. That may require significant shifts in nuance and context, expectations and norms. By sticking with work covering time periods that are not too far in the past, and on the North American Continent, this problem is somewhat reduced. Or, made worse, because our own history, as quasi-scholarly work or as fiction, is bound to be biased in ways that get around our own BS filters. One way to pretend to avoid that is to include more work by women, non-white people, and stories about someone other than white men. That does not really remove all biases, but it makes us feel better, and that is what is important, right?

The following is a first draft of a list (with links*) of some of the fiction items in this project.

Colonial era

Caleb’s Crossing: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks (author of one of my favorite novels, People of the Book). Bethia Mayfield is a restless and curious young woman growing up in Martha’s vineyard in the 1660s amid a small band of pioneering English Puritans. At age twelve, she meets Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a secret bond that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia’s father is a Calvinist minister who seeks to convert the native Wampanoag, and Caleb becomes a prize in the contest between old ways and new, eventually becoming the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Inspired by a true story and narrated by the irresistible Bethia, Caleb’s Crossing brilliantly captures the triumphs and turmoil of two brave, openhearted spirits who risk everything in a search for knowledge at a time of superstition and ignorance.

Colonial Era and beyond

These novels start in the Colonial area then continue, epic fashion:

Chesapeake: A Novel by James Michener (a classic, needs no introduction) and New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd (also a classic).

Revolution and Federal Era

Someone Knows My Name: A Novel, originally published as The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is the story of an African woman who is abducted as a girl in her native village and sold in to American slavery. Her subsequent story is complex and fascinating. I think this book is underappreciated in the United States because Americans can’t handle the name. The author, who is Black and Canadian, explains the title: “”I used The Book of Negroes as the title for my novel, in Canada, because it derives from a historical document of the same name kept by British naval officers at the tail end of the American Revolutionary War. It documents the 3,000 blacks who had served the King in the war and were fleeing Manhattan for Canada in 1783. Unless you were in The Book of Negroes, you couldn’t escape to Canada. My character, an African woman named Aminata Diallo whose story is based on this history, has to get into the book before she gets out.”

I am putting these two novels I’ve not read (but plan to) here because they belong here and maybe you will tell ME about them.

I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott “In this beautifully written novel of historical fiction, bestselling author Susan Holloway Scott tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Eliza—a fascinating, strong-willed heroine in her own right and a key figure in one of the most gripping periods in American history.”


My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamole. From the New York Times bestselling authors of America’s First Daughter comes the epic story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton–a revolutionary woman who, like her new nation, struggled to define herself in the wake of war, betrayal, and tragedy. In this haunting, moving, and beautifully written novel, Dray and Kamoie used thousands of letters and original sources to tell Eliza’s story as it’s never been told before–not just as the wronged wife at the center of a political sex scandal–but also as a founding mother who shaped an American legacy in her own right.

Civil War, Mid-19th Century

There is approximately one gazillion novels set in the US that have something to do with the Civil War, so this is a very much narrowed down list. I won’t make it bigger until some of the other time periods are better covered. Ultimately, there are probably two or three dozen excellent novels in this era, which perhaps can be divided into categories like “the Civil War is actually in the novel” vs. “The Civil War just ended but the smoke still rises from the ashes,” and also, along gender or ethnic lines.

The March: A Novel by E.L. Dostorow. In 1864, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman marched his sixty thousand troops through Georgia to the sea, and then up into the Carolinas. The army fought off Confederate forces, demolished cities, and accumulated a borne-along population of freed blacks and white refugees until all that remained was the dangerous transient life of the dispossessed and the triumphant. In E. L. Doctorow’s hands the great march becomes a floating world, a nomadic consciousness, and an unforgettable reading experience with awesome relevance to our own times.

Late 19th Century, Turn of the Century

Little Big Man: A Novel by Thomas Berger is said by some to be one of the most underappreciated American novels. One reason may be that the literati saw no need to appreciate a Western. Another may be that Berger eschewed the establishment in the publishing world. It is, of course, the story that is told by a very old man who may or may not be an unreliable narrator of his life wafting back and forth between being a white settler/cowboy/gambler/gun slinger/guide vs. a Native warrior, husband, and student of a great shaman. This book was made into what may be one of the great movies of the 20th century. It is also, sadly, the only contribution I can find that involves Native Americans that I’d recommend. Still looking.

A Study in Scarlet: A 1887 detective novel written by Arthur Conan Doyle marking the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who would … most famous detective duo in popular fiction. by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You may not think of a Sherlock Holmes story as an historical novel. Well, it really isn’t because it is a bit more of a contemporary novel. But that was then, and it was set in the American West. I have to add this caveat: I’m not sure if this book is the sort of insightful and real look at a particular historcial time period as the other novels discussed here. But it is a classic, and I wanted to include it simply because if you nave not read it, you now must do so! Wikipedia actually has a nice summary of the conversation over Doyle’s coverage of the Mormons. Do not, that he was an historian as much as he was a detective story writer. But not of that time or subject necessarily.

Beloved by Toni Morrison. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement.

Ultimately I want this list to go up to and include World War II. I am not short of entries for that period, but I’ll get to that later.

On The Verge Of Ending White Supremacy in America

The United States are divided between white supremacists and others who feel that African Americans should have the same rights as anyone else. Entire regions of the country express their distinctiveness with rallies, protests, and often, physical conflict sometimes leading to death. The President of the United States is widely regarded as a do-nothing idiot, but his very lack of legitimate activity seems designed to tacitly support the know-nothing right wing white supremacists. But there is a new leader coming, one who will fight against white supremacy and hard right conspiracies even as he works to pull the country together. Those watching closely are concerned, however, that the new leader may not even make it alive to his own inauguration, given the violent nature of the times and the severe, vitriolic hate expressed by those opposed to him.

Welcome to 1861.

“On the eve of his 52nd birthday, February 11, 1861, the President-Elect of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, walked onto a train, the first step of his journey to the White House, and his rendezvous with destiny.

But as the train began to carry Lincoln toward Washington, it was far from certain what he would find there. Bankrupt and rudderless, the government was on the verge of collapse. To make matters worse, reliable intelligence confirmed a conspiracy to assassinate him as he passed through Baltimore. It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the Republic hung in the balance.

How did Lincoln survive this grueling odyssey, to become the president we know from the history books? Lincoln on the Verge tells the story of a leader discovering his own strength, improvising brilliantly, and seeing his country up close during these pivotal thirteen days.

From the moment the Presidential Special left the station, a new Lincoln was on display, speaking constantly, from a moving train, to save the Republic. The journey would draw on all of Lincoln’s mental and physical reserves. But the President-Elect discovered an inner strength, which deepened with the exhausting ordeal of meeting millions of Americans.” (Publisher’s summary.)

I herby recommend* Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington by Ted Widmer.

This is a very good book, compelling, startling, and if you don’t already know the story, highly informative. I won’t push it because it is already widely acclaimed. Even the guy who wrote Hamilton says it is a must read. I know you are going to get it and read it. Instead, I will point out two arguments made in the book that are not necessarily the main arguments, but that I found to be very important.

First, trains. The story is of course almost entirely played out on a train or near a train, in a train or on the way to or from a train. This gave the author license, appropriately and we are glad he took it up, to discuss the role of trains in the formation of North and South differences in the US. I won’t make the argument here, I’m just telling you that you will find it in the book (mainly in the beginning chapters) and you will find it fascinating.

Second, Lincoln’s prowess as a speech writer and speaker. Surely you’ve heard the story that Abe Lincoln write the famous Gettysburg Address as an afterthought on the back of a napkin on the way to the battlefield (on a train). That of course, never happened. Lincoln worked hard on that address, over a longer period of time. It is a finely crafted speech based on a thousands of years old oration by the first citizen of Athens, but of course much updated. Lincoln crafted that, and other speeches, with an earned, and learned, appreciation of rhetoric as well as history.

But it is also true that Lincoln was probably not the best presidential orator before he was president. Prior to 1860, Lincoln argued cases against fellow lawyers in front of tough judges. He entertained his colleagues on the circuit court with memorable stories and parables, back in the days when the “circuit” meant lawyers, and sometimes judges, travelling, eating, and sleeping together while going from one town to the next to handle cases. He ran for office a few times (won once) and engaged Douglas in the famous Lincoln Douglas debates. He studied the classics, and he studied history, not formally but by walking in total hundreds of miles to to borrow books. Then he ran for election again and won, having made very few speeches during that campaign. So, on the day Lincoln was elected President, he was a skilled communicator, but not necessarily a skilled presidential speaker, at a time when a skilled presidential speaker seemed rightly to be a key factor in ultimately keeping the United States alive.

And he understood this, and every day for the entire train trip, he worked on that. He gave over 100 speeches in 13 days. A handful of these, including the one he gave at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, are counted among the great speeches. Another handful, he really screwed up, such as one of the first, given in Ohio, in which he pulled an Omar, saying something like “nothing is really happening.” (Ilhan Omar meant, “one thing happened and then an inappropriate reaction to some other thing occurred in an exploitive manner, which was bad” and Lincoln meant “so far no full-on battles have been fought yet.”) For both Ilhan and Abe, the press and the detractors went to town.

But overall, what Lincoln did was to fine tune his skill. For two weeks he gave many great speeches — and lived several near death experiences involving crushing crowds, being shot at with friendly cannon fire twice, nearly bombed once or twice, and nearly assassinated by a thousand assassins once — while the whole country followed every move reported near real time by telegraph. Abe Lincoln purposefully (and incidentally) set up a nation wide culture of expectation and commitment. He created, over this two week period plus a few days in DC and his inaugural, a North ready to fight and a South forced to define its own role as starting a war to defend slavery.

That final real life master class in presidential speech giving turned an excellent orator into one of the best ever.

Hey, did you bump on my wording in the first sentence, above? (“The United States are divided between white supremacists and others who feel that African Americans should have the same rights as anyone else.”) That’s how they would have said it before Lincoln’s presidency, and before the Civil War. “The United States are …” The United States became a singular entity because of Lincoln and the war. Now, it is “The United States is…”

If you went back in a time machine to become an antebellum grammar Nazi, you would have to learn this.

Hacking America, History of Information, History of Africa, William Shakespeare

At this moment, there is a batch of very interesting and generally acclaimed books for sale really cheap in Kindle form in the US, that I suspect readers of this blog will be interested in.

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro. Good reviews, but this is outside my area of expertise so I can’t say for sure, but it looks good.

Creek Mary’s Blood: A Novel by “Burry my Heart at Wounded Knee” author Dee Brown.

Africa: A History is an anthology that includes some older material, but all good. This is totally within my area of expertise, and I can say this book is full of classic writing by classic scholars. Not a light read. Edited by Alvin Josephy.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick.

The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election by Malcom Nance.

Food Or War by Julian Cribb: Excellent new book

For many years, scientists who studied biology, behavior, and ecology (under the name of various disciplines) looked at resources, including and especially food, as a major determinant of social structure in social animals, herd structure in herd animals, and so on. Then, there was a revolution and it quickly became apparent that sex, not food, underlies everything and is the ultimate explanation for the variation we see in nature. That pair of dimes lasted for a while, then the other penny dropped and thanks to key research done by a handful of people (including me, in relation to human evolution), it became apparent that there was a third significant factor, that ultimately trumped sex as an organizing force. Food. Continue reading Food Or War by Julian Cribb: Excellent new book

Super Cheap Super Science eBooks

For some reason there is a sudden avalanche of of inexpensive (most $2 or less) of kindle science books that are good, and a couple of other not so science books that also happen to be good and on sale. Without further ado:

The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth’s Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Anil Ananthaswamy. Sais to be “A thrilling ride around the globe and around the cosmos.” —Sean Carroll.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2018 (The Best American Series ®) edited by Sam Kean. An amazing diversity of topics, including politics of and in science.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel. Anyone alive in the eighteenth century would have known that “the longitude problem” was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day-and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Thousands of lives and the increasing fortunes of nations hung on a resolution. One man, John Harrison, in complete opposition to the scientific community, dared to imagine a mechanical solution-a clock that would keep precise time at sea, something no clock had ever been able to do on land.

Out There: A Scientific Guide to Alien Life, Antimatter, and Human Space Travel (For the Cosmically Curious) by Michael Wall. In the vein of Randall Munroe’s What If? meets Brian Green’s Elegant Universe, a writer from Space.com leads readers on a wild ride of exploration into the final frontier, investigating what’s really “out there.”

Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern. Called “spellbinding” (Scientific American) and “thrilling…a future classic of popular science” (PW), the up close, inside story of the greatest space exploration project of our time, New Horizons’ mission to Pluto, as shared with David Grinspoon by mission leader Alan Stern and other key players.

And, not science but still cheap right now:

The classic Texas: A Novel.

Eleanor: The Years Alone

He, She and It: A Novel by Marge Piercy.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Accessory to War

Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang is a good and interesting book, and I recommend it.

This is not a book that fully explores the alliance and overlap between war and makers of war on one hand and science and scientists on the other. Authors Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang focus on one part of that relationship, the link between astrophysics and related disciplines (really, astronomy at large) and the military.

Even as I recommend Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, which I do, I want to broaden the conversation a little with a couple of thoughts about the relationship, from my own experience. Then, I’ll give you my strident critique of the book (there is One Big Problem), and then, again, tell you to buy it

Back when I was working in or near the Peabody Museum, in Cambridge, the museum’s assistant director, Barbara Isaac, hired me to work with the NAGPRA database. NAGPRA was the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Ultimately, large swaths of the Peabody Museum’s collection would be turned over, or some other thing done to it, as per the wishes of the various Native American groups associated with that material. Most of the work had already been done. But, Barbara is a meticulous person and wanted to make sure the dotting of each i and crossing of each t was double checked. So, I was one of two people charged with going over the printouts, on that old green and less green striped paper, bound in large blue cardboard books. Each line (or two) was an item or collection of items, with notes, and an indication of what was going to happen to the material. There were just a few options, but the basic idea was this: An item listed was either going to be returned to a tribal group, or not. My job was mainly to look at stuff that was not going to be returned and, given my ongoing scan of what was going to be returned, and my knowledge of North American prehistory, ethnography, and archaeology, to earmark things that said “do not return” but where maybe we should be returning it. So, for example, after noting that a particular South Dakota Lakota tribe would have this, and that, and this other, soapstone tobacco pipe returned to them, when I saw that the ninth pipe on the list, several lines down and all by itself, is labeled to not be returned, I’d earmark that. Nearly 100% of the time, that ninth pipe was just something that nobody wanted, or it didn’t really exist (not all museum databases are exactly accurate). But, it would be earmarked.

Many items on the list had information as to how the item had originally gotten to the museum.

Many, many items, especially items taken from Native Americans living in what was the frontier between about 1840 and 1900, were taken by medical doctors who, as we all know, also stood in for naturalists, or some kind of traveling scientist, on military and quasi military expeditions (Like Darwin).

And many of those items were taken for use as medical specimens.

We initially learned that Native Americans have a particular blood type because, in part, of studies done on blood stains on shirts of slain warriors, collected after various battles with the US Army units accompanied by such scientists. There are a few famous cases of Native American bodily remains, mostly but not all skeletal remains, sitting in the anatomy teaching rooms of this or that college. But a lot more, a lot not noticed by either historians or even the all seeing all knowing Wikipedia, are or were sitting in museums around the world. Collected, by scientists wearing military uniforms, on military ventures, with a scientific twist.

So the science-military link is not exclusive to astronomy and astrophysics.

I wrote elsewhere about the person I met who was taking Pentagon funding to build an object that would help cure cancer. An example of a scientist subverting the military funding process. And so on.

OK, my complaint.

The authors have two long chapters (and references elsewhere) covering the early history of human endeavor in general (not limited to military) and the evolution of astronomy, mainly as it related, over a very long period of time, to navigation. One chapter covers land, the other the sea.

Staring somewhere along the way in each chapter, we get a very nice, well done, and pretty full description of the process of humans learning about the stars, about the earth and how to find one’s way, etc. But prior to that, the authors do what so many authors do and I so much dislike. I’ve written about this before. We get a version of human prehistory, and indeed, current human variation (or at least, ethnographically recent), that is bogus. For example, the authors speak of the first modern humans wandering around in the Rift Valley of Africa. There is no evidence that modern humans evolved there. Using just the archaeology, southern Africa is a more likely origin, and the physical anthropology record is simply incomplete. There are early fossils there, but that is because the rift valley is and was a big hole that made fossils. The entire rest of the continent is big, and the evolution probably happened there, not in the rift.

Similarly, ethnographic variation we see in the present and recent times is stripped out. For example, most rain forest dwelling foragers are not known to have a sky oriented cosmology, or to use the sky for much information about seasonal change in ecology, or navigation. And, there have always been a lot of rain forest dwelling foragers.

Putting that criticism aside, however, Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military is a very enjoyable and informative read, and makes all the important points about the sometimes uneasy, sometimes too easy, relationship between science and the military enterprise, with a careful look at politics, government, and powerful industrial interests.

Now we also need a book on the broader issue of military-technology links. And, we need a personal ray gun that zaps out of control robots:

The Nature and History of Presidential Leadership: A book of olden times.

The timing of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book is perfect.

She is an excellent historian and writer, and you probably know of her as the author of several of the best, or at least very nearly the best, volumes on a range of key subjects in American History. She wrote Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln about Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written about Johnson, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II about FDR, and The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism about TR.

And now, we have Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Does the leader make the times or do the times make the leader?

In Leadership, Goodwin draws upon the four presidents she has studied most closely—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson (in civil rights)—to show how they recognized leadership qualities within themselves and were recognized as leaders by others. By looking back to their first entries into public life, we encounter them at a time when their paths were filled with confusion, fear, and hope.

Leadership tells the story of how they all collided with dramatic reversals that disrupted their lives and threatened to shatter forever their ambitions. Nonetheless, they all emerged fitted to confront the contours and dilemmas of their times.

No common pattern describes the trajectory of leadership. Although set apart in background, abilities, and temperament, these men shared a fierce ambition and a deep-seated resilience that enabled them to surmount uncommon hardships. At their best, all four were guided by a sense of moral purpose. At moments of great challenge, they were able to summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.

This seminal work provides an accessible and essential road map for aspiring and established leaders in every field. In today’s polarized world, these stories of authentic leadership in times of apprehension and fracture take on a singular urgency.

America is part Mexican

The Dogs Still Bark in Dutch

I grew up in the old Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now known to you as the State of New York. There, I carried out extensive archaeological and historic research, and along the way, came across that phrase, “the dogs still bark in Dutch.”

It is an idea that might occur to a denizen of Harlem, the kids off to Kindergarten, sitting on his stoop eating a cruller, or perhaps some cole slaw with a gherkin, and pondering the Dutch revival architecture down on Wall Street.

There was a war between the Dutch and the English in the 17th century, and as a result of that war, colonial lands were passed back and forth multiple times. In the case of the colony of New Amsterdam, the passing to the English involved the arrival of a warship on the Hudson, but they used their cannon only to wake up the governor so he could receive a letter telling him about the change. Actually, the colony went back and forth a couple of times.

But when the English took over that Dutch colony, they did not remove the Dutch, or really, do much at all. There were some old Dutch customs, such as the Pinksterfest, a bit of a happy go lucky free for all dance party with vague religious overtones, that were illegalized, because the English versions of Christians at the time didn’t like dancing. But mostly nothing happened to affect day to day life for most people. The Dutch parts of the collection of English Colonies and the early United States retained its Dutchness long enough for someone to remark of the time that even with all the political change, the new form of money, the change in monarch, all of that, the dogs still barked in Dutch.

(I oversimplify two centuries of history slightly.)

We know we are eating burritos, yet we call them tacos

I think this is a Minnesota custom but it could be more widespread. This is what you do. You get a large flour tortilla, some kind of meat or beans, tomatoes, lettuce, salsa or hot sauce, grated cheese and sour cream, and you put all that stuff inside the tortilla, roll the tortilla up, eat it, and then say, “That was a good taco, you betcha.”

The part about the tortilla, lettuce, cheese, etc. is not Minnesotan. That is widespread. But calling a burrito a taco may be more local. And, we know it is a burrito. Nobody in Minnesota ever gets confused about what they are ordering at a Mexican restaurant. In fact we’re pretty good at that. Indeed, of all the upper mid west cities, I’ll bet you that Minneapolis has one of the oldest Mexican restaurants, and there has always been a Mexican community here, though it has grown in recent decades.

But never mind the taco-burrito distinction. We Minnesotans also mix up “yet” and “still” and do things “on” accident instead of “by” accident. Don’t get me started on soda vs pop vs sodapop.

What I really want to talk about here is “Mexican food.”

Go find some hipsters and tell them, “Imma go get Mexican food, wanna come?” and you’ll find out that there is no such thing as “Mexican food,” that what you really mean is “Tex-Mex” and that if you want some authentic “Mexican food” there’s this great taco truck down the street that has authentic tacos.

So you got to get the authentic tacos. I did that the other day. Hipsters everywhere. All the tacos, though, were various meat or bean substances, some kid of lettuce, tomato, etc. with some sort of sauce, on a flour tortilla. The only difference between our home made “tacos” and these legitimate “tacos” was that our burritos are chimichanga size, and those burritos were hand size.

Don’t get me started on chimichangas.

Anyway, here’s what I want to say about Mexican food. It is Mexican, and it is not Tex-Mex. Why is it not Tex-Mex? because Tex-Mex is a made up word, a made up category of food. It was made up because people thought this stuff we call “Mexican food” was fake, an American, non-Mexican version of what they eat in Real Mexico. It was not understood that America did not invite Mexico over as long as they bring the Tacos, that things Mexican in America are not immigrated, but rather, indigenous, often. Even though many Mexicans actually do go back and forth across the US-Mexico border, the truth is, the geographical and cultural entity that gave rise to the Country of Mexico also gave rise to the Country of the United States, in part. In part for both. The Yucatan is no more Hispanic Mexican than El Passo is Anglo-American.

Both modern countries have histories that involve big areas of land, country size areas of land by European standards, that had this or that national, ethnic, or cultural thing going on, and all of that stuff contributes to the present. Native American zones were everywhere, of course, and for the region of which we speak here, that included hundreds of languages, many language groups, and numerous entirely different but often overlapping or intermingled lifeways (such as foraging, bigly civilization, and all the arrangements to be found on the small-group-forager to pyramid-building-nation spectrum).

America did not become a first-Native then Anglo-European country that then had Mexicans show up to fix our roofs and run Tex-Mex style taco trucks. Mexican culture, or more broadly speaking New World Hispanic culture (or some other word, you pick) was in place, across a huge area, long before the United States took its current form, and a whopping big chunk of the eventual United States was part of that. And no, I’m not talking about Texas, or even New Mexico, or the Southwest, or the land ceded to the US in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. I’m talking about a big blobby thing that includes regions from Atlantic Florida to California, from the Rio Grande to the Great Lakes, overlapping with other big and small blobby things that were French, English, Dutch, Creole, Acadian, Russian, and so on.

So don’t call what we eat “Tex-Mex” because that implies that we are America sans Mexico. We are Mexico. Even up here in Minnesota, the Cowboys sometimes spoke Spanish. A cowboy IS a Spanish-American thing. And out east, the dogs still barked in Dutch. And our northern beginnings are as French as anything else.

America is part Mexican, but not because they came to us. Rather, we come from them.

Palpable History: Dictator’s Voice, Dictator’s Words

It is a good idea to occassionally experience history. This helps us understand ourselves, and our possible futures, better. Much of this is done through reading excellent texts. For example, I’m currently reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin’s objective is to contextualize Lincoln by looking at him in the broader context of the individuals that ran against him for the Republican nomination, and whom he later added to his cabinet. Goodwin succeeds, at several points, in placing the reader in a time or place of great import. Watching the very young Abraham Lincoln lower himself onto a log (he was out cutting firewood), his face buried in his hands and tears streaming from between his fingers, and not leaving that spot or position for hours after learning of the death of his mother. Or the layout and use patterns of Lincoln’s office in the White House, where he occupied a corner desk, and various members of his cabinet and military came and went with urgent messages, and made vitally important decisions, until the end of the day when Lincoln would sit down for a long read. That sort of thing.

So here, I’m going to invite you to do something a little strange. I’ve got here an audio recording of Adolf Hitler having a normal conversation (about extraordinary things) with a fancy dude by the name of Mannerheim, during a visit to Mannerheim at the time of his birthday. Wikipedia has the story on the audio recording. Here, it is presented as a YouTube video so you can follow who is speaking, and what is being said.

The reason to listen to this for a few minutes (no need to listen to the whole thing, though if you know anything about WW II, it may become captivating after a while) is because Hitler almost always screamed at his audience, and this is him speaking in a normal voice. I want to pair this audio experience with a linguistic but read experience. After listening to the audio recording with Mannerheim, read through the transcript of Hitler’s only other known “conversational” bit of significance.

There is a recording of that as well. It is a speech but one in which he speaks normally for much of the time. The point here, though, is not to listen to it to get the voice experience (but that is interesting) but to read his words. To hear how he formulates his statements, how he describes his situation. How he aggrandizes himself in the face of failure, how he belittles his enemy. How he schizophrenically moves between the gigantic and the modest, how he moves around his own goal posts as needed to make himself look big league smart.

Below you’ll find the two videos and the text. If either video vanishes (they do sometimes) you can easily relocate one on YouTube

The Mannerheim Recording:

The text of Hitler’s Stalingrad Speech:

If we follow our enemies’ propaganda, then I must say that is to be compared with “Rejoicing towards Heaven, depressed until Death”‘ The slightest success anywhere, and they literally turn somersaults in joy. They have already destroyed us, and then the page turns and again they are cast down and depressed. I did not want to attack in the center, not only because Stalin knew I would. I provide one such example. If you read the Russian telegrams every day since June 22nd, they say the following each day: “Fighting of unimportant character”. Or maybe of important character. “We have shot down three times as many German planes. The amount of sunken tonnage is already greater than the entire naval tonnage, of all the German tonnage from before.” They have so many of us missing that this amounts to more divisions than we can ever muster. But, above all, they are always fighting in the same place. “Here and there”, they say modestly, “after fourteen days we have evacuated the city.” But, in general, since June 22nd they have been fighting in the same place. Always successful, we are constantly being beaten back. And in this continued retreat we have slowly come to the Caucasus.

I should say that for our enemies, and not for your soldiers, that the speed at which our soldiers have now traversed territory is gigantic. And what has transcribed this past year is vast and historically unique. Now, I do not always do things just as others want them done. I consider what the other probably believe and then do the opposite on principle. So, if I did not want to attack in the center, not only because Mr. Stalin probably believed I would, but because I didn’t care about it at all. But I wanted to come to the Volga, to a specific place and a specific city. it happened to have Stalin’s name, but that’s not why I went there. It could have had another name.

But, now this is a very important point. Because from here comes 30 millions tons of traffic, including about nine millions tons of oil shipments. From there the wheat pours in from these enormous territories of the Ukraine and from the Kuban region then to be transported north. From here comes magnesium ore. A gigantic terminal is there and I wanted to take it. But, as you know, we are modest. That is to say that we have it now. Only a few small pockets of resistance are left. Some would say “Why not fight onwards?” Because I don’t want a second Verdun! I would rather hold this with small combat patrols! Time does not matter, no ships are coming up the Volga! That is the important point.

Hitler’s Speech, 8 November, 1942:

Feeding Wild Birds

When the Texas A&M University Press asked me to consider reviewing Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation by Paul Baicich, Margaret Barker, and Carrol Henderson, I had mixed feelings.

Was this just another backyard bird feeding guide? That would be nice, but not too exciting. After all, feeding birds is just a matter of getting a bird feeder and keeping it full, right? Was it an indictment of what some might consider a bad practice, because it brings birds in close contact with killer windows and cats, and causes them to become dependent on fickle human providers? Was it yet another guide to help bird lovers in their never ending battle with squirrels and other feeder-exploiting non-birds?

But, I figured, what the heck, I’ll have a look. And I’m glad I did. This is a great book because it is full of stuff you would have never thought important or interesting, but that is, in fact, important and interesting.

Americans have been feeding birds on a variable but more or less regular basis for well over a century. Human feeders have become part of the ecology of birds, and the practice has probably figured into the redistribution of a number of species, some invasive, some not. Bird conservation and birding, and generally, interest in birds, has been significantly enhanced by the practice of “bringing the birds to the people,” which is usually the reason to do this. The annual backyard bird count, which plays an important role in tracking conservation and zoological status of birds, is an extension of backyard bird feeding.

See also: Books on birds and nature.

Just as importantly, and really, one of the main reasons to read this book, is that the practice of feeding birds, supplying feed, designing feeders (and baths and other things) is an historically rich, complex, nuanced, and fascinating endeavor. Understanding the history of feeding birds is a little like collecting stamps. You can’t avoid myriad connections with history, in this case, world political history, history of American industry, game hunting, conservation, and, the environmental movement.

The history starts in the nineteenth century, when regular feeding of birds became a thing. By the early 20th century, books on the topic, and a commercial and do-it-yourself industry, formed around the problem of delivering seed. Over time, various seeds and other feed products were invented, and the same industry that feeds our pets and farm animals got involved in producing bird feed. Before World War II, the practice and the associated industries were established, if not yet fully mature.

Things got tough during the depression and World War II, because of limited resources (see especially the chapter on “Hemp, the Devil’s Birdseed”).

Somewhere in there, the practice of feeding game birds developed. Bird baths were invented and deployed. Suet was introduced. Windows and cats increasingly became problems, and increasingly, solutions developed (partly).

The authors investigate the spread of various species, including invasive species, with bird feeding. Of particular interest is the spread and distribution of the Cooper’s Hawk, which in some areas specializes in hanging around the feeder-equipped backyard where it is easy to find prey. (This hawk specializes in catching birds in close quarters.)

During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the practice involved a lot of experimentation, including how to address squirrels, and a further diversification of feed types and types of birds attracted, and the development of more companies making more products. By the end of the 20th century, the practice was fully institutionalized, and most of the current practices and products were developed, from seed to suit to hummingbird juice.

See also: How do birds survive the winter?

If you are a feeder of birds, this book will help you be a better feeder of birds. More importantly, it give you something else. Both bird watching and bird feeding (and lots of other things people do) are pleasurable, and people get hooked on these activities, their leisure time enriched. But these are also activities that are potential touchstones to other, vast areas of knowledge. Just as birders could, in my opinion, have an even better time birding if they knew more about the ecology and evolution of birds, bird feeders can appreciate this activity a great deal more knowing about the history. And this history is not dry, or a hard slog of any sort. The book is engaging, compelling, and just plain cool.

I strongly recommend Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation for your avian culinary edification.

What is the Magna Carta?

It begins with a garden or two. Once you have gardens, you have a resource that has the two most important characteristics anything can have with respect to human society. First, you can eat it. Second, your enemies can destroy it.

If you have just a few gardens and get your food somewhere else, no big deal. But back in the old days, and by “old days” I mean any time during the last several thousand years everywhere and anywhere that is not urbanized and has gardens, most people relied on their gardens. These gardens were maintained by families or small villages or occasionally larger cooperatives.

Since a garden can be destroyed by enemies, you have to have a way of defending the garden and everything else. So weapons, militarism, bellicosity, and all that become normal. Note that you could have a herd of beasts instead of a garden and something like this would still happen. Note that if among your beasts there are those you can mount, usually horses, then your weapons, militarism, bellicosity, and all that are now much taller and can run faster, so if you are the only ones with that setup you win.

This all leads eventually to an arms race that usually no one wins for too long. This is the Hobbesian world of Warre, where people are nasty brutish and short, or at least, their lives are. Eventually almost everyone in the world is doing this. Societies that resemble Medieval Europe’s Feudalism emerge wherever there is enough of this going on, which is why a French Knight and a Japanese Shogun and a Shona Chief are all kinda alike.

Then, something like climate change happens. Not the globally devastating climate change we are seeing today, but something likely more regional and not as severe, but that affects everyone’s gardens in roughly the same way. Over here you have famine more often, but over there you have higher productivity many years in a row. Maybe there is a three year long drought that causes mass migration, or maybe there is a summer with out a winter.

Or, if not climate change, population density increases too much and the gardens are not enough. So less than ideal land is planted, or more rapid turnover of cropping in a swidden system becomes normal, or something like that happens. People need to cooperate more to irrigate more, or to store or move around food more. The garden’s of the village become something slightly different.

In any event, the pot is stirred, but when you stir the Stone Soup of society over a large area, you don’t increase homogeneity like when you put all the different stuff in a blender to make a smoothy. Some stuff gets all mixed together evenly but other stuff clumps up and gets all goopy. The goopy parts, the clumps, those are Lords, or Bishops, or Shogan, or Overlords, or something that is bigger than in the old days. Instead of the guy in charge (and it will almost always be a guy because men can’t have babies and thus feel the need to take over everybody else’s junk all the time) being older and stronger and better connected than the other guys in a village, the guy in charge is the one with an extra 100 horses or a better blade or a clever strategy like stabbing the other guys up close instead of throwing something at them.

This is how you get a king.

Once you have one king, you’ll get other kings, or emperors, or whatever, until finally the only way somebody can be a lord or a chief is to suck up the king and that means fighting for the king. And taxes, you get them too. The gardens are now owned by the king, or if not, might as well be. The most convenient way to make this work, by the way, is to make sure that most people are not valid individuals, that they don’t have a place at the table. Those would be the slaves, or peasants, or whatever you want to call them.

Now there are kings or the equivalent everywhere, and some of them are relatively good and some are relatively bad. Badness may be enhanced by technology. Perhaps you’ve invented beer or wine but store it in lead casks so the privilaged few with the drink are more likely to be brain damaged. Or perhaps there is a mind-damaging venereal disease kings tend to get. Or perhaps just bad upbringing. Sometimes you get boy kings because the system of inheritance of power requires it, even though that is totally dumb. Boy kings can go either way. They tend to totally burn out or, alternatively, take over the world, eventually.

And you have kings with more power or with less power.

Eventually, in a region, something the size of a European Country or so, you get both a bad bad man as a king and a king that is very powerful all wrapped up in the same person. Everything that is bad about this sort of self organized system is now worse than it has ever been in anyone’s memory. It isn’t just the peasants taking it in the neck, but also, people in the middle who have power, lords and chiefs and such. Straws fall among the elite breaking one camel’s back after another.

This is when the people in the middle, who have now lost their power, insist on an agreement with the King that happens to benefit the peasants and slaves of the very distant future. That would be the Magna Carta, in the case of England. Other parts of the world have had other outcomes.

The BBC on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, has produced a fun and interesting video exploring this history (though it starts later in time than the history I just outlined above.)

Sugar: A Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Abbott (Review)

Somebody tipped over a bag full of a white powdery substance. Most of what fell out splayed across the dirty wooden table, but about a cup poured onto the dirt floor of the open-air Baraza at our research site in a remote part of the Congo’s Ituri Forest. Embarrassed about tipping onto the ground more of this valuable substance than most people living within 50 kilometers would ever see in one day, the tipper started to push loose dirt onto the powder to cover it up. But the spill had been noticed by two children lounging nearby; in what seemed like a fraction of a second, the boys were face down on the ground licking up the spilled material, taking with it mouthfuls of dirt and who knows what parasites and other kooties. It was a sudden and short lived fiasco and a scene etched hard into my mind. To this day, decades later, when I think of this I breathe a sigh of relief that it was not me who tipped over the bag of white sugar.

These kids and everyone else in the Baraza that day were very familiar with sugarcane. Everyone grew at least a little. Sugarcane was to the Ituri Forest villagers what Hastas is to urban gardeners in the US. Everyone grew at least a little where it would fit and not get trampled or take up extra gardening space for real food.

The sugarcane was eaten raw. You would use a machete to cut a off a long section of the giant grass plant, and carry it around. With your teeth or with the help of a knife you would slice open a section of the cane and chew on it, sucking out the sweet water inside. When the sugarcane was ripe, the pathways and, really, any open surface would be littered with spent wadges. But still, not much sugarcane is grown in the Congo compared to other crops then or now. Sugarcane, originally from the Pacific and India, was, however, grown for centuries in large quantities where it was transplanted in the New World. You probably know of it as one of the vertices of the Triangle Trade (sugarcane = rum). But there is still a connection to these kids, the two who scarfed up the dirt and sand and sugar spilled on the baraza floor.

No sense sugar-coating it. The story of sugar is the story of slavery. The Congo was probably not the biggest source of slaves for the Caribbean and South America. The eastern Congo, especially, was on the Indian Ocean slave route. But generally speaking, West and Central Africa supplied millions of people, captured, owned and sold, to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Over the centuries since its introduction to West Asia and Europe, and by extension, the New World, sugar grew in importance from a rarity to a common element in the diet, often carrying with it symbolic importance as an indicator of class or by its use in food art. Sugar is distilled and concentrated solar energy that preserves well and is easily transported. The production and distribution of sugar is one of a handful, maybe the most important of engines for the rise of Immanuel Wallerstein’s global system (that I almost did my PhD on by the way).

You’ve got to love it when a molecule changes history. Primates (and a few other groups of animals) lost their ability to synthesize and use ascorbic acid because fruit producing plants had evolved to have their seeds dispersed in exchange for Vitamin C rich pulp. Therefore, the British Mercantile System. Similarly, C12H22O11, one of a class of molecules used by plants to store energy (and sometimes entice monkeys or ants to do their bidding) drove the most momentous of historical changes and its production, in one form or another, makes up an inordinate percentage of the effort expended to feed our species.

Nobody really questions the importance of sugar, but how aware is the average person of the details of its sweet success? More so than before for those who have read Elizabeth Abbott’s “Sugar: A Bittersweet History.” Before you go check and yell at me for not restricting my writing to things that happened during the last five minutes, I’ll admit that the book came out in 2010 and I’ve only just now noticed it. I was focusing on other things, I promise. But I am pretty sure that no major revisions of history of the last thousand years or so have been made that would make this engaging book out of date or less relevant.

We all like to consume knowledge, but if you also like knowledge of what you consume you should read this book. It will make you feel bad, and likely awed, but also, a lot smarter, hopefully enough to offset the shame.

One of the most important things that ever happened in history is really a category of things and took a few centuries. This was the transplantation of crops and to a lesser extent horticultural technologies across the globe beginning with the Portuguese and extending at a quickened pace with all the major colonial ventures. This is probably more pervasive than you think. The lifeways and culture of the Yanomamö were greatly transformed, in my opinion, buy the introduction of south and southeast Asian (and possibly African) crops, mainly the plantain. The earliest records suggest that the Yanomamö were foragers, but all the later ethnography shows them as horticulturalists. The difference between “typical” equatorial foragers and the Yanomamö may well be the inclusion in their economy and society of a key crop that is also a highly vulnerable resource. Vulnerability of one’s resource base can shape one’s attitude at the socio-cultural level. What crops are mainly grown in swidden fields in Africa? South American ones. There would have been no Irish potato famine had there been no potatoes. They come from the Andes. And as mentioned sugar/rum was one of the vertices of the Triangular Trade and along with a few other crops (like Cotton) formed the agricultural structure of the slave-based economy that made up the largest single capital component of the rise of the United State’s economy. If the modern US economy is the fat bank account, slavery was the first big deposit in that account and New World Slavery happened because of this small number of transported crops.

By the twentieth century, sugarcane had circled the globe, traveling north and west from New Guinea then back again to the Pacific, and its legacies mark its global passage even where it is no longer grown… In the Caribbean, where King Sugar is now expiring as a major industry … and where most former colonies have become independent, political and commercial unions remain skewed along historical lines. Sugar culture is at the root of why Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians and Guyanese are mired in political enmity, why Hawaii and Fiji endure perpetual conflict between their Native and their Asian populations and why the official currency fo Mauritius, off the coast of Africa, is the rupee and its population is primarily Indian…

It is a good book. Overlook Publishers, available for the Kindle. I am probably going to work this into this week’s lecture in Intro to Archaeology.

The Bible as Ethnography ~ 05 ~ The Virgin Birth

i-fc0baa42c324cefa8495fdb0044234b2-dice.jpgI have a cousin in law who tells this story: Her youngest child found out about sex. Then he made the connection that if he existed, his parents must have had sex. So he confronted the parents with this, and mom was forced to admit, yes, of course, this is how babies get “made” and this is simply how things are. The child did not seem too concerned.

Moments later, the child noticed his sister playing in the other room. A thought occurred to him … a light went on, as it were. He turned back to his mother with an expression somewhere between accusation and perplexity.

“You did it twice?!?!?”

Continue reading The Bible as Ethnography ~ 05 ~ The Virgin Birth