Archive for April, 2012

Time Traveling at the OAH

Jim Marten’s recent experience at the Organization of American History conference, held in Milwaukee, reminds us of just how small the academic world can be.

My past and present collided at the Organization of American Historians conference at the Frontier Airlines Center in Milwaukee earlier this month.  On the way back from lunch with South Dakota State University professor John Miller—from whom I’d taken my first college-level U. S. history class in 1975—we paused for a moment on the corner of 4th and Wisconsin and John called a well-dressed young man over to take our picture.  That young man happened to be B. J. Marach, a first-year MA student in our graduate program.  We all got a kick out of the confluence of generations gathered on a Milwaukee street corner.

This is just the most extreme example of the kind of time traveling that is possible at a major history conference, which can be a kind of reunion of a clan of history geeks. Something like 2,000 people show up for typical OAH meeting—over 1000 were on panels, giving or commenting on papers, and several hundred other people attended.  The central gathering point of this and of all history conferences is the book exhibit. Over fifty academic publishers display the latest books in dozens of different fields in American history.  Between sessions, even during sessions, historians, students, a few spouses, and even a stroller-bound child or two, stroll and mingle, checking out the books, scanning name tags for familiar names, searching for old friends, meeting with potential publishers for future projects, killing time.  Like everyone else, the book exhibit inspires in me a certain level of anticipation—that book looks really interesting—and guilt—I have a pile of other books that I should really read before I add a new one to the list.

As I engaged in this ancient conference ritual of wandering the book exhibit, an odd but not unpleasant thought occurred to me: the book exhibit is an intellectual time machine.  On every aisle, in nearly every booth, I saw books written by mentors and professors, or new editions of classics I’d read for my PhD exams.  Other books had been written by contemporaries from grad school days at UT-Austin (yes, my classmate H. W. “Bill” Brands has published yet another big book!).  I saw books I have assigned to classes over the years (Confederates in the Attic still appears at exhibits, many years after its publication).  But the image of the book exhibit as a time machine really struck me when I noticed other books by current colleagues and students.  Coincidentally, Laura Matthew’s brand new book, Memories of Conquest, just out this month, rested next to my own most recent book, Sing Not War, at the University of North Carolina Press booth.  Harvard University Press prominently featured Andrew Kahrl’s brand new The Land Was Ours, while MU librarian and friend of the department John Jentz’s new book, Chicago in the Age of Capital, could be found at the University of Illinois Press. I’m always proud of the department I serve as chair, but I’m especially proud to see our work displayed among the books written by our peers from around the country and the world.

Perhaps the most powerful sense of the book exhibit as a portal into my intellectual past came when I spotted books written by former MU graduate students.  Ann Ostendorf’s Sounds American boasted a poster and a pile of paperback copies at the University of Georgia Press booth, while John McCarthy’s Making Milwaukee Mightier was featured at the front of Northern Illinois University Press’s display (no doubt because it’s about Milwaukee).  I’d been a reader for both of the much-revised dissertations on which those books were based (Kristen Foster and Tom Jablonsky were, respectively, directors of Ann’s and John’s dissertations).  Books by former MA students also drew my attention: since getting her BA and MA at Marquette, Heather Marie Stur has gone on to receive a PhD at Wisconsin and obtain a tenure-track job at Southern Miss and published her first book, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era with Cambridge University Press, while Pabst Mansion historian John Eastberg’s The Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion could be seen at the University of Wisconsin Press.

Each of these books, from each of these generations of scholars, brought back specific memories of seminar papers that grew into theses and theses into books, of the evolution of students into colleagues and even friends.  And from there it’s pretty easy to recapture my own memories of the joys and challenges of those intense periods of work and study, the frustrations and triumphs of the publishing process, the sense of accomplishment and bittersweet relief that comes with the completion of a project that you have lived with for years.

I’ve been to dozens of conferences large and small over the last quarter century, but this is the first time that I’ve experienced the sensation of a convention exhibit, held in a giant, sterile, fluorescent-lit hall, acting as a kind of personal archive of the recent and long-ago past.  It’s a little odd and humbling to start thinking of one’s own life as history rather than as just life.

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department.  His most recent book is Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America.  He frequently blogs on Civil War topics, such as slavery, veterans, and inspiring future Civil War historians.


Holocaust Remembrance Day at Marquette

Dr. Peter Staudenmaier recently participated in Marquette’s hosting of a Holocaust survivor.  Today, Holocaust Remembrance Day, he reminds us of the importance of remembering the Holocaust and the multiple roads that led to the Holocaust.

Today, April 19, is Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorated in communities around the world. In preparation for observing this date, Marquette hosted a remarkable event at the beginning of the month with holocaust survivor Robert Behr. Born in Berlin in 1922, Mr. Behr and his family were interned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942 and managed to survive until the camp was liberated in May 1945. Now 90 years old and a resident of Washington DC, Mr. Behr agreed to come to Marquette to talk with students about his experiences. The chief event, an evening panel discussion on April 2 with Mr. Behr as the principal speaker, was organized at the initiative of a group of Marquette students and sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs. To the surprise of the organizers and panel members, more than 500 people attended the event and engaged in a searching discussion of this exceptionally challenging historical subject.

Along with Bonnie Shafrin of the Milwaukee Holocaust Education Resource Center, I was asked to participate on the panel with Mr. Behr. It was an honor to take part in the event, before the largest audience I have ever addressed, and I took the opportunity to examine some of the difficult questions which confront anybody who tries to come to terms with the seemingly incomprehensible Nazi campaign to exterminate European Jews. Mr. Behr himself provided much of the historical context, in the midst of a moving personal account, and encouraged Ms. Shafrin and myself to raise issues that would help illuminate this aspect of the past for the students. It was an occasion for both historical reflection and earnest consideration of the relevance of the past for present concerns.

Continue reading ‘Holocaust Remembrance Day at Marquette’

“Warning: Black People at Leisure” – Harvard University Press Blog

Dr Andrew Kahrl’s recent post on issues of race and leisure (the subject of his new book) and the recent killing of Trayvon Martin.  This was originally posted on the Harvard University Press blog.  

“Warning: Black People at Leisure” – Harvard University Press Blog.

Upcoming talks by Marquette Historians

Dr. Kahrl will be giving a talk titled “Racial Justice and Environmental Sustainability” at Sweet Water Organics on Wednesday April 18th from 5-7pm.

Andrew and two colleagues will also participate in this week’s Organization of American Historians Meeting in Milwaukee.  The entire program can be read at

On Thursday, April 19, at 1:30, Alison Efford will present the results of her new research on a panel called “Ethnicity on the Urban Frontier: Comparative Perspectives on Milwaukee Germans.”  Alison’s paper is called, Suicide in the City: Self-Destruction and the German Immigrant: Community in Late-Nineteenth-Century Milwaukee.

On Friday, April 20, at 8:30, Andrew will moderate a roundtable discussion on “Assessing the Spatial Turn in US History” featuring historians from across the country.

And on Sunday, April 22, at 8:30, Tom Jablonsky will chair a panel on “Mapping Milwaukee’s History.”  The commentator for that panel will be John McCarthy, a Marquette History PhD now teaching at Robert Morris University.

John Krugler and Jim Marten served on the local arrangements committee for this year’s OAH meeting.

On Seeing History–the Joplin tornado and Historical Memory

James Marten gives us his thoughts on the relationship between history and memory after his recent visit to Joplin Missouri, a place ravaged by a tornado, and a people whose trauma should not be soon forgotten.

Recently a few of my colleagues have reflected on scholarly journeys that have taken them to Egypt, Nigeria, China, and Samoa.  But I’m going to spend a few paragraphs reflecting on a much less exotic place—Joplin, an old zinc mining town of 50,000 in southwestern Missouri—and on something that many would not even consider history yet: the F5 tornado that cut through town on May 22, 2011, killing 160 and injuring nearly 1000 people and causing $3 billion in damages. (See this Youtube video of the tornado.)

I flew to Joplin in late March to deliver the annual Jeans Lecture at Missouri Southern State University.  It was actually a delightful trip. My hosts in the Department of Social Science, Steve Wagner and Virginia Laas, were gracious, the audience welcoming (including the ten or so fifth or sixth graders who followed their teacher down to the podium after the talk to shake my hand, as though I was a minister standing at the church door after a Sunday service), and my flights through Memphis and Springfield on time.  Joplin is a typical small city in the heartland.  The mining industry that nurtured it between the 1880s and the 1940s has completely vanished; it is now the commercial and medical center of a large rural area.  The motels, big box stores, and chain restaurants clustered near the exit ramps of I-44 have drawn business away from the circa 1940s downtown, which seemed to have nearly as many empty storefronts as flourishing businesses.

Encountering up close the physical evidence of a months-old catastrophe and talking to perhaps ten or a dozen people who had lived through it was a moving experience that started me thinking about a question that is too personal, too abstract, too subjective to have just one answer: how do people actually process an event that is so clearly historical?  When do events—both traumatic and triumphal—transcend the transient nature of personal experience and memory?

Continue reading ‘On Seeing History–the Joplin tornado and Historical Memory’

Lost and Found: Three hundred year-old Mexican document found in Milwaukee

Laura Matthew on the secret life of primary sources and the responsibility historians have to them, and to each other, when documenting the past. 

I have been thinking about how documents are lost, then found.

A week or so ago, my friend and colleague Aims McGuiness from the History department at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (UWM) left me a voice mail message. “There’s this mysterious document at the American Geographical Society Library here at UWM,” he said. “It looks colonial-era, and maybe Mexican. The librarians don’t know what it is, or how they got it. Could you come look at it?”

“Ooh, fun!” I emailed him back (yes, that’s a direct quote). “I can always make time for a lost document.”

Little did I know. A few days later, Jovanka Ristic and Kay Guilden at the AGS Library unrolled in front of me a piece of bark paper on textile, about six feet long and two feet wide. The document had the characteristic look of an indigenous land title from Mexico’s mid-colonial period, a mix of traditional pictographic narration and alphabetic text.

Two sections in Spanish told me that the document dated from 1691-1709, and came from Santa Catharina de Tepexi. The rest of the text looked oddly like Zapotec – odd, because Tepexi is in the current state of Puebla, whereas Zapotec is spoken further southwest in Oaxaca. Since I am no expert in indigenous languages (nor, as it turns out, in Mexican geography), this was as far as my observations could take me.

But I knew who could take it further. The next day I wrote my friend and colleague Michel Oudijk at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Michel and I co-edited a book together in the mid-2000s. He studies ancient Zapotec history through the pictographic writings of the colonial period. He also wrote a book on the leader of Tepexi, Puebla, during the conquest period. “Hey Michel,” I wrote, “there’s this document here in Milwaukee….” I described what I’d seen, and sent some pictures the librarians had provided.

“Wooooooooooooooowwwwwwww, Es el Códice de Santa Catarina Ixtepeji!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” came the response in my email a day later. (Again, a direct quote).

As it turned out, Michel and his friend and colleague Sebastián van Doesburg had been searching for this document for over a decade, in archives throughout Mexico, Europe, and the United States. It is not from Tepexi in Puebla, but from the Zapotec town of Santa Catarina Ixtepeji in Oaxaca. Sebastián had even published an article on the document in 2000, based on a grainy black-and-white photograph of the document’s left-hand corner from the 1950s that he had found in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.

Scholars writing in the 1960s reported that a document on leather from Santa Catarina Ixtepeji had been sold to a German consul in the early twentieth century. The scholars included this information in their catalogues of pictorial manuscripts from Mexico, with the hope that someday, somewhere, a document that was once seen would resurface.

(Sebastián’s research suggested that in fact there may have been two lost documents from Santa Catarina de Ixtepeji. The second, it seemed, was sold by a British consular official in Oaxaca named Rickards, a Mexican of Scottish descent, from his private collection. This is the document at the AGS Library).

I rode the bus home that afternoon with a big, goofy smile on my face. I will not use the once-lost Códice de Santa Catarina de Ixtepeji in my own research – but I know exactly how excited Michel and Sebastián were feeling at that moment.

I know, because last year I got an email from my friend and colleague Christopher Lutz, informing me that Sebastián van Doesburg had found the lost city council books of the first successful Spanish capital of Guatemala. Those books, dating from 1530-1553. had been stolen and sold from Guatemala sometime in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

At the time, Sebastián was doing research in the Hispanic Society in New York City. The archivist there asked him to look at these books. Sebastián looked, and though it wasn’t his area of research, knew they were important. He wrote Chris, and voilá. A century-long mystery solved, an incalculable resource for the history of Guatemala returned to the scholarly community. The “lost” cabildo books are currently being transcribed for publication by a Guatemalan team of historians.

I rode the bus with a big, goofy smile on my face that day, too.

There is an unpleasant side to this tale. Countless pieces of Mesoamerican history are scattered throughout Europe and the United States, as a consequence of direct or indirect imperialism and the power of the purse. Antiquities-hunting became something of a craze in the nineteenth century. Dealers scoured indigenous villages for old stuff they could sell to the highest bidder, often a foreign business magnate with a penchant for collecting.

Scholars also bought, copied, and “borrowed” manuscripts. Sometimes things were simply taken. And this swindling continues. In 1995, the politically-appointed president of the national archives in Guatemala sent his wife to sell sixteenth-century documents to Swann Gallery in New York City. Oftentimes, these precious pieces of the past end up hanging on someone’s living room wall or tucked away, “lost,” in an unorganized bundle sold or donated to a library after the buyer’s death.

When I once found a document signed by the famous conquistador Bernal Díaz de Castillo in the Guatemalan archives, I sat in satisfied awe for a few moments at my desk. But I was careful to mention it only to a few trusted Guatemalan friends and colleagues. A document with Díaz del Castillo’s signature currently goes for $125,000; royal decrees from seventeenth-century Guatemala go for $30,000.

But today, I can’t keep the smile off my face. I have repeated the mantra “friend and colleague” because even though research and writing can be solitary, it also means being part of a community. Friends and colleagues, librarians and archivists, all share time together in the archive. We share ideas about what we find, and the challenge of writing about it in some coherent, convincing way. We also share information, and each other’s joy at finding a key fragment of the past that was once lost.

When one of those fragments is recovered, so is piece of history. It’s why we do what we do, and there are few moments that are quite as satisfying.

Update: AGS curator emeritus Christopher Baruth has discovered that the Códice was sold to the AGS in 1917 by a mining engineer, A.E. Place. Baruth suspects that Place had bought it from the private collection of Rickards, whose family was also involved in the mining industry.

Laura Matthew is an assistant professor of Latin American History who specializes in colonial Guatemala.  Her first book, Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala will be coming out soon (Spring 2012) through the University of North Carolina Press.

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