The Cubs and a New Episteme

By Phillip Naylor

A new baseball season is starting, but like so many other fans (including departmental colleagues Kristen Foster and Dave McDaniel), the Cubs’ 2016 season remains an inimitable existential experience. Actually, it seemed more like a temporal displacement still leaving me in disbelief over its monumental achievements—103 regular-season wins (celebrated by ubiquitous “W” flags even here in Milwaukee), the National League Pennant (dreamt of since childhood), and the World Series Championship (beyond reverie). Perhaps I had entered an alternate universe? Or should I invoke Michel Foucault and an idea of a disrupted, discontinuous episteme, i.e., the displacement (and replacement) of configured relations and knowledge? Was my condition postmodern as well as existential, if not metaphysical? Ontology (being) and epistemology (knowing) were also at play during the 2016 season.

Oh sure, I perceived a couple of years ago while attending a late season Brewers-Cubs game of the potential of young players like Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Jorje Soler (now a Kansas City Royal). The Cubs won that one. Ironically, when Kristen, Dave, Kitty, and I went to a game last September, the Brewers pummeled the Cubs 12-5! I tried to repress the thought that this signaled a cosmological corrective. Nevertheless, future National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) Kris Bryant did not play (to Kristen’s particular disappointment) as Manager Joe Maddon rested him—apparently preparing for the postseason—and to my astonishment, the Cubs’ victories subsequently mounted.

An extraordinary discourse developed along with a shifting episteme—Cub fans now talked positively and anticipated winning rather than losing. Oh sure, there was a vestigial fatalism, perhaps a dreadful Ted Savage-like out-at-the-plate moment (against the Cardinals in 1967). Nevertheless, I discovered that the season sparked long dormant synapses activating currents of memory and history, e.g., my impression of Wrigley Field when the Macks took me to my first game (I had never seen a venue so verdant); a Memorial Day double header when my friend Kenny and I explored Wrigley’s empty upper grandstand during the second game; my sunburn while sitting in the sizzling right field bleachers with my father and brother; and introducing my children to Wrigley’s ambience with its faint organ music allowing reflection regarding the game’s subtleties between innings (unlike Miller Park’s electronically generated cacophony producing sensory overload).

Then there were memories of the Cubs themselves. Foremost was Ernie Banks. Yes, Ernie, that slender slugger from the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs whose baseball prowess and power earned him the respect, if not adoration of fans. Indeed, he was indirErnie Banksectly, like African American players of his generation, a Civil Rights figure by his very presence on the field. Banks’s positive attitude (“Let’s play three”) and dignity profoundly impressed. His love of the game transcended the ineluctable team losing streaks. I was proud that he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1958 and 1959.

As a boy, I poured over my Cub yearbook, which introduced me to (Joe) Tinker-to- (Johnny) Evers-to (Frank) Chance, “Three Finger(ed)” Mordecai Brown, and Gabby Hartnett (and his twilight home run against the Pirates in 1938). Yes! There had been great Cubs like Lewis “Hack” Wilson who in 1930 hit 56 home runs and drove in 191 runs (the latter statistic remains a record). I learned about Phil Cavaretta and the 1945 pennant winners. The Cubs had been winners, but the World Series Championship (last won in 1908) remained elusive.

The 2016 season reminded me how my friends and I avidly collected baseball cards. I cherished my Cubs collection—now long gone. Each card was an archive with biographical and statistical data. I learned about geography too, i.e., the location of minor league teams. (Trading cards provided early experiences of the role of utility in assessing a player’s value!) Memory recalled a great blunder—the Cubs’ trading of outfielder Lou Brock (a Hall of Famer) to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Ernie Broglio in 1964. Brock immediately helped lead the Cardinals to a World Championship while, sadly, Broglio’s arm became sore.

And the Cubs chronically lost. I would check team standings in the home-delivered Chicago Tribune to see how close the Cubs were to escaping the cellar. If they lost, how bad was it? An 8-6 loss was palatable; at least “we” came close. Yet I kept on being a fan. While at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle (UIC today), I watched for the “W” or “L” flag fluttering from the scoreboard as my northbound Englewood/Howard A or Jackson/Howard B (now Red Line) or Evanston Express train approached the Addison stop. Oh sure, I had my moments when Cubs teams frustrated if not alienated me. Yet no matter what I said, denounced, and even renounced, I still could not let go.

The worst was the 1969 season. After a phenomenal start, “Cub Power” dissipated. The Mets’ eventually overtook the Cubs and capped their “miraculous” success vs. the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Decades after that season, a new Western Civilization Varsity Theater Program teaching assistant (TA) entered my Coughlin Hall office and introduced himself. He wore a Mets hat. I immediately informed him that he was not to wear that hat again in my presence. Of course, I told him that I was kidding (Yeah, kinda!) and he ended up being one of my finest TAs that I had the pleasure to work while “in the Varsity.” Of course, there were other disappointments such as the 1984 National League Championship Series loss to the San Diego Padres after the Cubs won the first two games in Wrigley but lost the next three on the West Coast. Despite the heroics of Mark Grace in the 1989 National League Championship Series, the Cubs were outhit by Will Clark and the San Francisco Giants. In 2003, with five outs needed to win the National League Pennant and return to the World Series, a fly ball drifted foul toward the stands in left field tracked by the Cubs’s Moises Alou…‘nuff said! Despite that loss and other heartbreaks, 1969 remained the most odious season.

There was also tragedy concerning the Cubs that had nothing to do with the game on the field. In 1962, Ken Hubbs was Rookie of the Year. (Hall of Famer Billy Williams won the award in 1961.) Hubbs was a brilliant, seemingly flawless second baseman and set major league records for his errorless fielding. He was the first rookie to win a Gold Glove award. The future looked very promising, but Hubbs perished in a plane crash in February 1964. (See: https://miscbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/remembering-1960s-cubs-second-basemand-ken-hubbs/ airplane) I was also moved by the death of Jack Quinlan in March 1965. Jack was the Cubs’ superb radio announcer who died in an automobile accident in Arizona. Quinlan’s broadcast partner was Lou Boudreau, the former brilliant player-manager who led the Cleveland Indians to their last World Series Championship, 68 years ago. As reiterated often during the 2016 World Series, Cleveland’s been waiting a long time too.

Favorite Cubs paraded through my consciousness during 2016. There was Walt “Moose” Moryn who habitually and heroically (and repeatedly) collided with right field foul line brick wall chasing line drives and fly balls. With no padding, man, that had to hurt! His most famous catch was in left field where he grabbed a sinking line drive to preserve Don Cardwell’s no hitter in May 1960. He could slug, too, and was an all-star. Dick Drott and Moe Drabowsky had fire-balling right arms. I remembered Gene Baker, Don Hoak, Hobie Landrith, Bob Rush, and Cal Neeman among so many others on losing teams. I must add here that these are names that my esteemed colleague, Professor Emeritus Tom Jablonsky, knows well. (I miss you, man!)

I never subscribed, however, to the cachet image of the Cubs as “lovable losers.” The Cubs were simply the Cubs; a baseball team that usually lost games. When I taught at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, I readily identified with the Red Sox. Marquette history doctoral graduate Pete deRosa (who is a professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and a baseball scholar) and I used to compare the Red Sox and the Cubs while watching games in Fenway Park. Red Sox memorable losses were, however, much more dramatic, if not Sophoclean, i.e., Johnny Pesky’s hesitant relay in the 1946 World Series or Bill Buckner’s error in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series (against the Mets!). I highly recommend Stephen Jay Gould’s article on history and memory: “Jim Bowie’s Letter & Bill Buckner’s Legs,” Natural History, 109, no. 4 (May 2000): 26-40. (My undergraduate seminar students read it this semester.) I must add, Pesky was a great Red Sox (“Mr. Red Sox”) and humanitarian. Buckner played well with the Cubs before being traded to the Red Sox. (Overlooked, he had a distinguished career with over 2,700 hits.). Gould argues that Buckner has been unfairly portrayed and blamed regarding the Red Sox loss in the sixth game and the World Series. See also: http://weldbham.com/blog/2011/10/27/bill-buckner-shouldn%E2%80%99t-be-blamed-for-a-red-sox-loss-in-the-1986-world-series/. Of course, after 86 years, the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and then in 2007.

I particularly appreciate how the Cubs’ success in 2016 evoked fans’ memories and histories—for some, even at deeper ontological and epistemological levels bringing them to tears when the Cubs secured their World Series win. Will the Cubs repeat in 2017 as they did in 1907 and 1908? I can entertain such thoughts now. I feel quite existentially comfortable with this new episteme and thankful for it.

Phil Naylor is professor of history and author of France and Algeria: A History of Decolonization and Transformation and North Africa: A History from Antiquity to the Present, among other books. He teaches courses on the Middle East, North Africa, and Rock and Roll. 

Their Stories are Fascinating and Powerful: Remembering Wisconsin’s Red Arrow Division in the First World War

By Capt. Brian J. Faltinson

This post comes from MA alum, Iraq war veteran, and public historian Brian J. Faltinson, who describes the ongoing commemoration of the centennial of one of the most famous military units to originate in Wisconsin, the “Red Arrow” Division that formed during the First World War. Downtown’s Red Arrow County Park is named in honor of the men who served.

I remember in fifth grade checking out a book on each world war from the school library so I could pass the time on a long drive to my grandparents’ farm in Watertown, South Dakota. I do not precisely remember why, but I found the book on the Great War to be the more fascinating of the two.  Today, I am fortunate as a historian and public affairs officer with the Wisconsin National Guard to share the stories of some of Wisconsin’s World War I soldiers.

The Wisconsin National Guard for the next two years is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 32nd “Red Arrow” Division and honoring its service in World War I with d of the raa project we call Dawn of the Red Arrow. (The image to the left is of Facebook masthead of the Dawn of the Red Arrow (Wisconsin National Guard Image).  We consider the organization of the 32nd Division to be the beginning of the modern Wisconsin National Guard and most of our units trace their origins to that division.  Given that the U.S. Army ranked behind Portugal when it went to war with Germany, the National Guard was a vital part of building an army capable of fighting on the Western Front.  In September 1917, 15,000 Wisconsin National Guardsmen from units in 72 Wisconsin cities joined with the Michigan National Guard at Camp MacArthur, Texas, to form the 32nd Division.  The division entered combat in May 1918 in Alsace and would later fight in the Aisne-Marne, Oise-Aisne and Meuse-Argonne campaigns.  The French awarded the division a battle citation for its ferocity in combat near Soissons and formalized “Les Terribles” as the division’s nickname – making the 32nd the only American division to earn a nom de guerre from a foreign nation. The division pierced every single German line it encountered and, as a result, its unit insignia is that of a red arrow punching through a German battle line. This success in battle was earned at great cost; the division suffered over 13,000 casualties of which over 2,600 were killed in action.

The overarching theme of Dawn of the Red Arrow is to have the division’s soldiers tell their own story. We have partnered with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, the Wisconsin National Guard Museum and the Wisconsin Historical Society to find and share the photos, letters, memoirs, artifacts and stories left behind by the division’s soldiers.   A recent research trip to the National Archives found the division’s operational records, daily staff journal, official photograph collection and two hours of U.S. Army Signal Corps film that captured the division’s time in France. These records ranged from private’s observation Ruffreport of enemy activity from the trenches to the division’s operations orders for each of its battles.  Connecting all of these stories and creating their proper context so they can be properly understood is a series of video-recorded interviews with Marquette’s Dr. Julius Ruff (pictured here with Brian Faltinson–photo courtesy Wisconsin National Guard) and history professors from Ripon College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We will tell these stories as they happened 100 years ago, which means this project will last through June 6, 1919 when the division’s Wisconsin members marched in a welcome home parade on Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Avenue.

The history of the division as a whole is well-established and our goal is not expand the historiography, but to honor these Soldiers and restore their presence in today’s memory. Their stories are fascinating and powerful.  Cpl. Edward DeNomie, a Ho-Chunk Tribe Native American, provided a veteran’s audio interview to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and we hear in his own words about how he joined the Wisconsin National Guard while enrolled in the Federal government’s Indian School in Tomah, Wisconsin. Capt. Paul W. Schmidt, who wrote his unit’s history after the war, joined the Wisconsin National Guard in 1898 and led Sheboygan’s Company C, 127th Infantry Regiment in France. Chaplain Capt. Gustave Stearns of Milwaukee wrote vivid letters home to his congregation describing the war. His bravery and compassion on the battlefield with regard to caring for the wounded and dying on both sides earned him a Silver Star and an Iron Cross.  However, the most emotionally powerful collection we have run across features 1st Lt. Bruce W. Clarke, an infantry platoon leader. The collection starts with an almost perfect, crystal clear ID card photo of Clarke, followed by some mundane platoon leader administrative notes and then a message book he used in France to send dispatches to his commander – copies of some of those messages remain legible. The collection’s final photograph is a 1931 image of his mother dressed in black grieving at his grave at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France.

The stories of these and other individuals are easily shared through the Dawn of the Red Arrow website, Facebook page, as well as other social media.  We tell some of these stories as we find them and others will be regular features.  Some items are thematic or concentrate on a specific person, place or event, while others track “on this day 100 years ago”. We want to use these modern media platforms to bring the black-and-white images and words on aged pieces of paper to life so people can connect with these soldiers.   A demonstration of that potential happened during my week at the National Archives, when Red ArrowI regularly posted research updates.  A post of the earliest known photograph of the Red Arrow insignia, painted on a battle-scarred artillery piece (see image to the left, courtesy of the National Archives) went viral and dramatically expanded our audience.   There are thousands who currently wear that insignia, tens of thousands who once wore it and countless more who know someone who once did.   That image had tremendous meaning to those people.  We use social media to share this raw material of history which we will assemble into our culminating product of a one-hour film that tells the division’s story from its service in Texas during the Mexican Border Crisis to its return to Wisconsin after World War One.  We are targeting the film to premier in October at the Wisconsin Centennial Commission’s World War I Symposium in Madison.

Capt. Brian J. Faltinson graduated from Marquette in 1998 with an M.A. in American History. He has been a member of the Minnesota and Wisconsin National Guard since 1988 and is an Iraq War veteran.  He has been the Wisconsin National Guard’s chief historian since 2007.  In his civilian career, he is a project manager & historian with Heritage Research, Ltd, an environmental and public history consulting firm in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

Guest Blog: A Virtual Journey into Digital Humanities

With the help of a Mellon Grant for the 2015-2016 academic year from the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, a band of MU historians set out to explore the brave new world of digital humanities.  More accurately, they sought to find out about a world more or less new to them. In Jim Marten’s “The Civil War Era,” Tim McMahon’s “Modern Ireland,” and Bryan Rindfleisch’s course on Native American history, students produced maps, explored texts, and used social media to get at historical issues and questions in ways a regular research paper cannot.

Lezlie Knox’s “Black Death” course partnered with the Raynor Memorial Library’s Digital Scholarship Lab to produce original projects on pandemics through history.  The lab’s dmlDigital Scholarship Librarian, Elizabeth Gibes, was embedded into the class, and helped Lezlie and the students engage multiple applications and approaches to come to a better understanding of how pandemics–from tuberculosis to yellow fever to polio–have affected people around the world.

Two of the projects have already been featured on the Digital Scholarship Lab’s blog (click here and here to read about Katherine Stein’s and Cara Caputo’s projects, respectively).

But the lab’s most recent blog post covers the class in its entirety, and includes an interview with Lezlie.  Please read it here.

Where in the World Are MU Historians?

Years ago PBS aired a popular children’s show called “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” With the clever live-action sketches, animation, and an acapella group, viewers learned geography—not just where a country was on a map, but how the people of those countries lived.

One of the primary objectives of Historians@Work is to present the many “journeys” taken by MU historians and students.  Some are figurative, but many are literal.  The latter is certainly the case in this installment, as we learn about the upcoming summer research adventures of a half dozen of our associate professors.  Each was recently awarded funding from Marquette’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, which grants Summer Faculty Fellowships (stipends) and Regular Research Grants (for travel expenses) to two or three dozen Marquette faculty each year.

This summer our band of historians will outdo the fictional Carmen San Diego, as they conduct research in Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, Germany, Ireland, and Italy, as well as Virginia, California, and Chicago.

This year’s awards, worth over $50,000, made history for our department—we have never received so many awards in a single year. This obviously reflects the interesting subjects these historians are exploring, as well as the success of their previous research.  Below, in their own words, you can read about their projects and their travel plans.

Michael Donoghue: Race, Identity, and Gender in U.S. Military-Cuban Relations 1941-1964  I plan to travel to Cuba and Virginia this upcoming summer to investigate the local records of U.S. Military-Cuban relations from 1941-1964 in Havana and Guantánamo City, Cuba and at the Marine Historical Division in Quantico.  3The focus of my research is on the intersections of race, identity, and gender that occurred between U.S. military personnel and the Cuban people from World War II until the closing of the U.S. Guantánamo naval base from Cuban contact in 1964 – and how these interactions contributed to the anti-American atmosphere of the Cuban Revolution.  I hope that this project will make a significant contribution toward our understanding of the many strands and forces that helped shape the Cuban Revolution beyond, high status actors, larger events, and economic indices, as it focuses on the personal and social relations that contributed to many revolutionary processes.  Michael is author of Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone (2014).

Alison Clark Efford, Suicide and Immigrant Emotions, 1882-1924  I received funding for two research trips, one to San Diego to investigate suicides among Japanese immigrants in the early twentieth century and the other to Chicago to research suicide, immigrant Catholicism, and the influential “Chicago School” of sociology. My larger book project explores the negative emotions that sometimes accompanied immigration by addressing the extensively documented act of suicide. I probe the inner lives of a variety of immigrants and shows how suicides drew wider attention to immigrant emotions. As early as 1861, the New York Times noted that the foreig1n-born accounted for about a third of the city’s population but three-quarters of its recorded suicides. By the turn of the century, the suicidality of immigrants was accepted as common wisdom. Whether commentators thought it reflected ethnic characteristics or the trauma of relocation, immigrant suicide became entangled with fears about alienation in modern society and rapid demographic change.  Alison is author of German Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship in the Civil War Era (2013)

Lezlie Knox, Mariano of Florence and Religious Life in Cinquecento Italy.    Mariano was a prolific author—in less than 25 years, he wrote fifteen treatises in both Latin and Italian.  These works range from shorter works on devotional themes to lengthy—really lengthy–histories of his religious order (male, female, and lay branches of the Franciscan Order) and his native Tuscany.  Many of these works remain in manuscript, due in no small part to Mariano’s cramped handwriting!  This grant will fund my completion of archival work in Italy, as well as time to do work at the Antonianum, the Franciscan Order’s pontifical university in Rome, which has one of the best libraries for my subject.  However, I am not just interested in Mariano as a Franciscan historian, but also in the ways his works describes religious culture in the towns and ecclesiastical centers of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italy.  My study of his life and writings contributes to a broader 2understanding of society and culture during the later Middle Ages, particularly one which approaches that era as vital in its own right rather than symptomatic of later medieval decay or, conversely, a threshold to the humanistic attractions of the Renaissance.  Lezlie is author of Creating Clare of Assisi: Female Franciscan Identities in Later Medieval Italy (2008) and co-editor of the forthcoming Visions of Sainthood in Medieval Rome:  The Lives of Margherita Colonna by Giovanni Colonna and Stefania.  She has also received a $3000 Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society to help fund this research.

Laura Matthew: Circulations: Death and Opportunity on Mesoamerica’s Costa del Sur, 1500-1630  I will devote the summer to research for a book-length project examining migration, networks, and trade along Mesoamerica’s southern Pacific6 Coast in the century after European invasion. The SFF and RRG will fund a deep foray into the Guatemalan national archives, a first exploration of the regional archives of Chiapas, and travel along the routes described in the documents to achieve a more grounded sense of the places and spaces she is writing about.  Laura is author of Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala (2012), recipient of the 2013 Howard F. Cline Memorial Prize from the Conference on Latin American History and the 2013 Murdo MacLeod Prize from the Southern Historical Association. 

Timothy G. McMahon, Beyond the Boundary Commission: Partitioned Identities in Modern Ireland   The United Kingdom government partitioned the island of Ireland through legislation in 1920, creating two states that claimed distinct identities (Northern Ireland as British, the Irish Free State as Irish). Partition had, however, been proposed and rejected on two prior occasions by many of the people who seemingly embraced it in the 1920s. A the new states sought to reinforce the distinctiveness of their populations, people living on either side of the new border continued to interact in spite of the new reality. The present project builds on the work of Rogers Brubaker to propose a new way of thinking about how the reality of a novel state boundary shaped identities, examining the 4interdependence of daily lived experience with movement politics and parliamentary legislation. Given the recent Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the possible shake-up of the United Kingdom—which has already seen calls from some in Scotland to secede and from some in Ireland and Northern Ireland to examine the relevance of the existing border—a detailed study of identity formation on this frontier has both historical and contemporary relevance. My proposal will enable me to undertake three weeks of archival research in Dublin and Belfast before spending approximately six weeks drafting an article to address the changed attitudes of the early 1920s.  Tim is author of Grand Opportunity: The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society, 1893-1910 (2008) and editor of the memoir Pádraig Ó Fathaigh’s War of Independence: Recollections of a Galway Gaelic Leaguer (2000).

Peter Staudenmaier, The Politics of Blood and Soil: Environmental Ideals in Nazi GermanyMy project aims toward a book manuscript examining controversial historical questions about the role of environmental protection efforts and ecological sustainability within the Nazi regime. Though scholars in a variety of fields recognize the prominence of “blood and soil” ideology in the Third Reich – the belief in an essential link between natural regeneration and racial renewal – there is no consensus on its historical significance or practical relevance. My research represents the first comprehensive analysis of the topic, based on extensive archival research5 over the past five years. It is structured around three main case studies: the emergence of early alternative agricultural movements during the Weimar era and their reception under Nazi rule; the role of Nazi “advocates for the landscape” in environmental planning during the Third Reich; and the ecological components of Nazi policy in conquered territories in Eastern Europe during World War II. I plan to use the Summer Faculty Fellowship to complete the final stages of research and begin writing the book.   Peter is author of Between Occultism and Nazism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race in the Fascist Era (2014).

The Silence at Promontory Summit Was Deafening

By John N. Vogel

PhD alum John Vogel reflects on a recent visit to an iconic historic site.

The silence at Promontory Summit was deafening.

I find the significance of silence often encountered at historically prominent places is proportional to that of the event that occurred. The impact of silence is reflected in one’s pensiveness, and how lost one can be in the event, the site of which is being observed many years later. So it was as I recently visited the National Park Service’s Golden Spike National Monument.

We all know, at least to some extent, of the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory promontory-summit-golden-spike-photo-loc-2Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869.  The moment was captured in the famous photo to the left (courtesy the Library of Congress).  It was that spike, in both a real and ceremonial sense, that physically united the nation–which for the first time had been tied together in a functional and intractable way.  That first transcontinental connection inspired an untold number of histories that have expressed affection or derision for the railroad, as well as offered all sorts of analysis.  It is unquestioned that Thomas Durant, of the Union Pacific, and Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins, all of the Central Pacific, were interested in making money with the railroad they built.  But that does nothing to diminish the physical and national accomplishment that was the first transcontinental link.

That portion of the route passing through Promontory Summit was bypassed between 1902 and 1904 with construction of the Lucin Cutoff across the Great Salt Lake. The new route provided a straighter, flatter and shorter path across northern Utah than the original alignment to Ogden.  Rail traffic through Promontory Summit was thereafter limited to local trains.  The route was eventually abandoned and in 1942, just after the beginning of the Second World War, the track was removed for use in the war effort.  Promontory Summit was designated a National Historic Site in 1957.  About a mile-and-a-half of rail was re-laid in order to accommodate the replica locomotives that provide a dramatic way of commemorating the site’s history.

On the day I visited this iconic spot, the Park Service’s interpretive center closed at 5:00 PM and the parking lot was almost immediately empty. There is nothing around Promontory Summit except a few ranches off in the distance. I was alone on the high plains, waiting for the sunset that would occur three or four hours later on a partly cloudy jnv-promontory-summit-2012evening.  I alternately walked along the tracks, sat on a nearby bench, and read and re-read the various commemorative plaques and monuments at the site.  Constant throughout the evening was the wind so common to the high plains.

As I waited for sunset, I was reminded of the classic Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall novel, Mutiny on the Bounty. Nordhoff and Hall wrote of a character, Roger Byam, who returned to Tahiti many years after the fateful mutiny.  As he looked over the island, Byam observed that  “suddenly the place was full of ghosts, shadows of men alive and dead . . .”  I saw no ghosts that evening.  Yet I found the spirit of all those who built that first transcontinental railroad was inescapable.

Promontory Summit is a place of unquestionable significance in the history of our nation. East and west were tangibly tied together as one and have been ever since.  Yet despite the thundering importance of this place, the silence at Promontory Summit was deafening.

John N. Vogel graduated from MU in 1989 with his Ph.D. in American History. He is the President and Senior Historian of Heritage Research, Ltd., an environmental and public history consulting firm that works with states, engineering firms, municipalities and others to research and produce components needed for environmental impact statements, business and institutional histories, and legal research. He is also author of Great Lakes Lumber on the Great Plains (1993).  

“The Troubles of His Country Were His Own”: Rev. N. A. Staples

By James Marten

This year two parts of my lives collided: my work as a historian of the Civil War era and my membership in the First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee.  First Church is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, and I’m helping the congregation commemorate the milestone by organizing speakers and writing a monthly blog.

First Church was formed in the spring of 1842, but a few months earlier a notice had appeared in a local newspaper asking Unitarians interested in starting a church to gather at a local meeting hall “at early candlelight” to talk it over.  Although the congregation has had its ups and downs–in fact, it suspended services at least twice in the nineteenth century, and once had its mortgage foreclosed–since 1892 it has been housed in a brick church at Ogden and Astor, on Milwaukee’s lower east side.  The denomination as a whole and our congregation in particular is noted for its social activism; today it is one of the largest congregations in the denomination with around 800 members.

My January blog highlighted the unique life of one of our earliest ministers, N. A. Staples. He was an unusual character–kind of hard to live with, it seems–but he represented the radical abolitionists who helped spark the Civil War in 1861.  The blog is based largely on a biography and collection of sermons written and compiled by one of his close friends, but Staples’ complicated personality comes through as clearly as his passion for reform and his belief in the liberal Christianity promoted by Unitarians.

You can read the blog here.

Jim Marten is chair of the MU History Department and has been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee for over twenty years.

Christmases Past: A Holiday Blog

By James Marten

It’s no coincidence that the most benign and popular of the three spirits who haunt Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Although in the end Ebenezer’s journey through select moments of his holiday memories are more bitter than sweet, this first of three ghostly tours reminds us that the ways in which we and our families celebrate Christmas—or any holiday, really—create a shared history among family members that can become treasured memories or dramas fraught with ambivalence.

Part of that memory-making, at least for some of us, threads through popular culture, whether it’s the smooth jazz-infused A Charlie Brown Christmas, the jerky stop-motion animation of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or the star-studded, over-the-top music specials that have flooded the airwaves since the 1950s (anyone remember David Bowie singing “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby?).

But three iconic representatives of the genre are grounded in history, and self-consciously reflected that history when they were made. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (actually published in 1843 as A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas), christmascarol1843_-_184has appeared in countless plays, cartoons, radio shows, and movies. Each version, in its own way, has captured conditions on Victorian England familiar to any historian: the class conflict reflected in the presence of the urban poor (the waifs revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Present), the barely-getting-by lower middle class represented by the Cratchits, the comfortable middle classes shopping and feasting throughout the story, and the wealthy folks who barely appear but are clearly present; the overburdened system of private charities and over-used work houses and prisons so loved by Scrooge; even the massive dislocation of the provincial population to London and its fabulous economic opportunities and worrisome dangers. Indeed, one of Dickens’ motivations for writing the little book was to offer not only a heart-warming holiday story, but to highlight the egregious conditions in which many Londoners lived.

Less concerned with societal ills than with individual redemption, It’s a Wonderful Life traces everyman George Bailey’s life from the 1910s through the 1940s, with major events like the World Wars and the Great Depression neatly framing the movie into three acts.  Smaller episodes reflect those times, from the druggist’s near-disastrous grief from losing wonderful-lifehis son during the WWI to the run on the Baileys’ building and loan in the early 1930s that ruins the George and Mary’s honeymoon, to the incredible energy poured into the war effort on the WWII home front.  Along the way we glimpse the effects of eastern European immigration and the development of the kind of the kind of suburban housing that would be made famous by the post-war Levittowns.  Every one of these and many other historical moments plays a role in the life George resents—and every one provides a specific kind of Christmas memory showing why his presence enriched the lives of others.

It’s a Wonderful Life appeared in 1946, as soldiers returned from war and adjusted to peace (like George’s hero brother Harry—a pilot like Jimmy Stewart, acting in his first movie since returning from several years of active duty) and as the country tried to glimpse a little optimism after the shattering destruction of the war. Eight years later, White Christmas came out at a time when, despite the Cold War, Americans felt more confident and the world was more or less at peace; filmed in living color and featuring peppy musical numbers, it occupies a place on the spectrum of Christmas movies about as far from It’s mmwhitechristmas02Wonderful Life as possible.  Yet even a bit of fluff like White Christmas is rooted in war-time and post-war America, from the GIs longing for home at the make-shift show put on by comrades just before they go into combat to the sudden rise to entertainment prominence of television to the bittersweet reunion of already aging veterans who gather to honor their old general after he’s been rejected by an army too modern to need an old-school soldier like him. Despite its modern sensibilities, White Christmas seems to have been produced to create nostalgia.

Whether these or other Christmas classics are on your must-see list, or if you simply watch a few minutes here and there while channel-surfing, for many of us these stories—and no doubt countless others—firmly meld fictional Christmases into real history and into our lives.

Happy Holidays on behalf of my colleagues in the Marquette University History Department!

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department.  He’s a little sheepish about admitting that one of his favorite holiday movies is Love Actually.

 

 

 


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