Tag Archives: American History

Frances Hill – A Delusion of Satan (1995)

89522I love reading about the Salem witch trials. Obviously anything to do with witchcraft will seem intriguing and is easily sensationalized, but the trials, because the were so confined to a specific time and place make them so interesting to study. Why Salem? Why 1692? These are questions that have bothered American historians. While many are apt to pass over the witch trials or view them as simply an anomaly in American history, there are a number of scholars who have attempted to give this event a significant amount of attention.

Frances Hill’s book is one of the better accounts that I’ve read. For those unfamiliar with the trials, the historical record is shaky at best, and absolutely impossible to get through at its worst. There are so many families involved, many sharing names and way too many people to keep track of. Factor in the debts owed and the grudges held and wading through the history of the Salem witch trials becomes a giant mess. Hill does a good job however, writing clearly and focusing on the prominent community members so the reader does not get lost.

What was especially interesting was Hill’s ideas about what started the whole paranoia about witches. As most know, the panic started when a number of teenage girls appeared hysterical and claimed to be possessed by other women in the community. Hill blames this on the nature of their existence. Growing up in the Puritan faith would have caused young people a great deal of stress and anxiety. While boys had a physical outlet for these feelings (it was permissible for boys to play outside, fight, etc), girls had no such way of dealing with these emotions. Hill believes the mass hysteria that gripped teenage girls in the community was a result of this. They blamed women who were outcasts in society to begin with and as Hill points out, this episode became one of the first episodes of women-on-women bullying.

It is definitely a feminist perspective on the whole episode in Salem, but seeing as the trials involved a majority of women (only one man was convicted of witchcraft), viewing it through a feminist lense is not off base. Hill does a great job in dealing with this very interesting, but aso muddled subject.

Melba Patillo-Beals – Warriors Dont Cry (1994)

WarriorsDontCryThis book should be required reading for anyone studying the civil rights movement. I know that can be said for a number of titles, and there’s probably a few I haven’t read, but after reading these memoirs, written by one of the Little Rock Nine, I was floored by how much I didn’t know about the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School.

The Civil Right’s movement is so vast and so large that when studying it, the events at Little Rock are mentioned briefly, if at all. I had read about Governor Faubus standing in front of the doors of Central High School and the President ordering federal troops in to protect the 9 Black students, but often times the story ends there. The nine students enter the school, the end.

But of course the story doesn’t end there, the students faced persecution, torment, and physical and emotional abuse at the hands of fellow students; they faced indifference from the Arkansas National Guard, and they faced ostracism from members of their own community. Of course these students faced all these things, and yet I was floored reading Patillo-Beals’ account of her time spent at Little Rock.

These students were some of the most courageous participants in the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did they endure physical harassment, including and incident in which a white student flung acid into Melba’s face nearly blinding her, but they couldn’t do anything about it. While being harassed in the cafeteria by a group of white boys, one of the Black students spilled her soup over them, either accidently or on purpose, resulting in her expulsion. To fight back was to let the segregationists win.

While I thought I was more or less aware of the violence that went along with the Civil Rights Movement, I was still shocked at the physical attacks that these teenagers faced every single day. It really puts things into perspective and provides a look at the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of a teenage girl.

Kyla Wazana Tompkins – Racial Indigestion (2012)

RacialIndigestionMuch like Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, this book was much more race/gender/queer theory than food history. This should not be surprising given that the central argument of the book is that eating is central to the performative production of raced and gendered bodies in the 19th century, but I still would have liked to see a bit more discussion about the role of food.

The 19th century is an area that I have a specific interest in so reading this book was still enjoyable, although it was dense at times. I especially enjoyed her discussions surrounding the Alcott family and the different ideas that sprung up surrounding diet that I have discussed earlier. One of the strongest points she made was in looking at how the Americans linked the omnivores diet, which embodies a republican virtue of balance not found among the British, to racial and imperial superiority.

Bread, as it played a central role in American’s diets, also played a central role in this books. She discussed the role of bread in households as well as the impact of the change from open hearth cooking to stovetop cooking had on the family.

While she touches briefly on Sidney Mintz’s work on sugar, I wished she dealt more with it, especially since he is one of the preeminent scholars on the links between food and race. Overall however this was an interesting read.

Linda Przybyszewski – The Lost Art of Dress (2014)

“Practice the art of dress. You may be self conscious because you are far better dressed than the people around you, but maybe you can inspire them”

TheLostArtofDressAs someone who has always loved vintage fasions and has recently learned how to sew I really appreciated what Linda Przybyszewski has done with her book. She looks at the history of women’s fashion in America from the beginning of the 20th century specificially focusing on a group of women called the “Dress Doctors” who aimed to teach women how to dress.

Przbyszewski begins her book with a history of, and a dissection of the term “home economics.” Now, we tend to view home economics as a frivolous pursuit, but at the time it was considered to be a legitimate science and was often its own department within different universities. Przybyszewski writes that 303 of the 479 women faculty teaching science at the leading American universities at the time were working in Departments of Home Economics.

She then moves on to detailed discussion of the Dress Doctor’s philosophies, including preaching the virtues of thrift, simplicity, functionality, and finding flattering clothing. Przybyszewski also touches on historic trends that impacted the fashion industry including the evolution of hygiene practices (the innovation of the washing machine revolutionized doing laundry), and the introduction of ready made clothing, department stores, and credit cards, (which were originally offered by department stores as a way of appealing to customers).

While I loved reading the history that Przybyszewski provides, she does get a bit caught up in the romanticism of it. She laments the state of the fashion industry today without noting that fashion trends are constantly changing. Even though the Dress Doctors may have preached a simpler stylish way of dressing, their advice has not completely fallen to the way side and many women today, especially professional ones still play by their rules.

Eric Schlosser – Fast Food Nation (2001)

Fast Food NationEric Schlosser’s book is often lauded by food studies scholars as being a foundational text in the field, and it is easy to see why. Predating Supersize Me by a number of years, Schlosser was the first to really expose the Fast Food Industry for what it is.

Schlosser begins his book with a history of the “Founding Fathers,” men like Carl Kochner (of Carl Jr’s), the McDonald brothers and Colonel Sanders, who made their fortunes by inventing and reinventing the fast food industry bringing us to where we are today. It’s interesting that all these men started their businesses around the same time, the post-war 1950s in response to changing social and cultural patterns. Schlosser spends a chapter looking at the history, but it is something that bears further investigation.

The bulk of Schlosser’s work is looking at the problems that exist within the industry. He dedicates chapters to concerns about the environment and animal welfare, as well as the exploitation of human labour from teenagers working for minimum wage in the restaurants to working conditions in slaughterhouses. Some of it was difficult to read, but I think Schlosser intended it to be that way.

This book is great, and one of the best things about it is that since it was written in the late 1990s, it’s very easy to see how far the fast food industry has come. It is by no means perfect, and there are obviously still many problems and not all chains are a like. Since the book was published however, many restaurants have undergone rebranding and have started to offer “healthier” alternatives such as salads as well as committing to environmental causes. Working conditions in both restaurants and processing plants remain a huge issue however and debates about minimum wage have danced around news feeds for a number of years now. Most recently McDonalds has reported a loss off profits this year. With new movements towards local and organic foods, the fast food industry is going to have to start coming up with more ways to compete.

While Schlosser’s book has shown us how far the fast food industry has come, it is very clear that the industry still has a long way to go.

Gelnn C. Altschuler – All Shook Up (2003)

AllShookUpLooking at how Rock ‘N Roll changed the world, Glenn C. Altschuler, in his book, focuses exclusively on the 1950s, the decade in which he deems Rock N’ Roll music was born. I think that he is correct in this assessment, although I did have some issues with his narrow view.

This is a relatively compact read. Each chapter tackles a different social issue including race, sexuality, and the generational gap. He writes that Rock ‘N Roll entered directly into Cold War controversies ongoing at the time and appealed to the new generation of baby boomers growing up in America. I enjoyed his discussions of various musical personalities including Elvis and Perry Como, to inspirational artists like Fats Domino and Willie Mae Thornton. Even though Altschuler talks about how Rock ‘N Roll was both a form of sexual expression and sexual control, he doesn’t explicitly tackle the nuances of gender. How Rock ‘N Roll was a heavily male dominated sphere and women could only enter into it by playing virginal maids, a la Diana Ross and the Supremes. He briefly mentions the Ronettes, but says nothing about the backlash that occurred over the lyrics to “Be My Baby”

I do think that the 1950s may have been the most important decade for Rock ‘N Roll, but I also wish that Altschuler had extended his range past the 1950s and into the 60s, 70s, and beyond. Even though the Rock ‘N Roll’s formative years may have ended, it certainly did not and continued, as it continues today, to be a vehicle for protest and social change.

Paul Collins – Duel With the Devil (2013)

duelwiththedevilI picked up this book thinking it would be about the infamous Hamilton/Burr duel and the culture of dueling in the early United States. Instead it was about the murder of a young Quaker woman and how Burr and Hamilton had contact with one another during this case.

I was rather disappointed, and I don’t know if it was just that I was expecting something else, or if the book itself wasn’t all that good. It was a bit scattered and I didn’t really understand the argument. The author introduces character upon character involved in this murder of Elma Sand. From my reading however, I didn’t really get the significance of this murder and why it was important in the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The two were intimately part of the trial yes, but I didn’t see why it mattered all the much. Collin’s also did not say a great deal about this murder in relation of American society, or even Philadelphia at the time. It would have been nice if there had been some bigger picture things going on.

The duel itself only took up a sentence of this entire book, and for that reason I was disappointed. It’s not a bad book, Collins did his research and he makes some interesting points. I just couldn’t figure out what his argument was, and the book did not stand out for me.

Jeffrey Eugenides – Middlesex (2002)


Fictional Memoirs are an interesting genre. The writer must immerse him/herself in his/her character to literally feel and experience everything that that person is going through. For his novel, Eugenides’ character is Cal (Calliope), an intersex man of Greek descent. The novel is a family history, and Eugenides is able to draw on his own Greek heritage to create this spellbinding story.

Eugenides accomplishes an interesting thing. This is not only a story about Calliope’s journey of self-discovery, nor is it strictly a family history: It is in some ways a history of the United States and the “American Dream.” The novel begins with Cal’s grandparents in their village in Greece and recounts their escape from the invading Turkish army. We then travel to Detroit in the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s. Cal’s father serves in the Pacific during the Second World War and returns to marry his cousin. The family is caught in the middle of the race riots of the 1950s and relocates to the suburbs before Cal’s brother leave for College and gets swept up in the spirit of the 1960s. This is when Cal’s story takes off as Calliope begins to realize she is not meant to be a girl. We learn about medical attitudes of the 1970s and experiences San Francisco as a place where “deviants” were hidden and comforted by the fog.

The story is told from Cal’s point of view and Eugenides uses interesting narrative devices to make this believable. Often times Cal will refer to “Calliope” in the third-person, making sure the reader knows he does not identify as being her any more. Eugenides however, also treats Cal and Calliope as the same person in terms of narrative device. Throughout the novel Eugenides also alludes to aspects of Greek mythology adding a sense of whimsy to the story. Middlesex is not only a beautiful read but also a social commentary. I devoured this book and highly recommend it.

Special Post – Neal Thompson, A Curious Man (2014)


This week I also posted a book review of Neil Thompson’s, A Curious Man, on the University of Toronto Museum Studies’ Blog, Musings. While the book was mainly a biography of Robert Ripley, it still posed some good questions relevant to the Museum community, including, can we consider Ripley “Odditoriums,” both then and now, Museums? There is a debate within the art community over whether mass produced art can really be considered “art”? Ripley entertainment owns 32 Odditoriums worldwide, can a mass produced museum, constructed specifically for tourists be a real museum? Or do our conceptions of what a museum is, dismiss Ripley Odditoriums as simply kitschy and tacky tourist traps? It’s an interesting thing to think about.

Read the whole review here.

Howard Zinn – A People’s History of the United States (1980)


While this book has been sitting in my bookshelf for a while now, I just got around to reading it. When I started, I had a vague idea of what Howard Zinn was setting about to do in this book, and was therefore not overly shocked by anything written. Here, Zinn is attempting to present a history of the United States that deviates from the dominant narrative that so many grow up learning. Beginning with Columbus, Zinn exposes the great myths of the United States detailing the ways in which Indians, African Americans, women, immigrants, and the working poor, have all been oppressed an exploited by the American system, namely middle-class white men and big business.

While as a leftist Professor, and an anti-Vietnam war activist, Howard Zinn is not very objective, it does not matter. In fact the chapters written on the Vietnam War are, in my opinion, the strongest in this book. The great thing is, that Zinn proves that people do not have to be neutral to write history. Historians have this obsession with having an objective eye and remaining unbiased when writing. I, for one, have never understood this, and applaud Zinn’s embrace of his partiality. While Zinn had very string views, and I do not necessarily agree with all of them, it doesn’t matter.

The one problem I did have was that while in his attack on the dominant narrative of American history, Zinn is critical of the focus on the personalities of individual men, he does the same this while criticizing the same men. When speaking about the various Presidents, Zinn relies on their quirks and personality flaws more so than being critical of the office of the Presidency itself. It is clear that Zinn does not think that the system is working, but he puts too much emphasis on the President’s themselves.

Even though Howard Zinn passed away in 2010, this book will remain relevant for many years, and should be more widely read than it already is.