A view of Public History in the light of recent events in Charlottesville

This week in North Philly Notes, in response to the Charlottesville Syllabus, which details books and articles about confederate statues and other related issues, we showcase our public history title, Presenting the Past.

In recent years, history has been increasingly popularized through television docudramas, history museums, paperback historical novels, grassroots community history projects, and other public representations of historical knowledge. This collection of lively and accessible essays is the first examination of the rapidly growing field called “public history.” Based in part on articles written for the Radical History Review, these eighteen original essays take a sometimes irreverent look at how history is presented to the public in such diverse settings as children’s books, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Statue of Liberty.

presenting the pastPresenting the Past is organized into three areas which consider the role of mass media (“Packaging the Past”), the affects of applied history (“Professionalizing the Past”) and the importance of grassroots efforts to shape historical consciousness (“Politicizing the Past”). The first section examines the large-scale production and dissemination of popular history by mass culture. The contributors criticize many of these Hollywood and Madison Avenue productions that promote historical amnesia or affirm dominant values and institutions.

In “Professionalizing the Past,” the authors show how non-university based professional historians have also affected popular historical consciousness through their work in museums, historic preservation, corporations, and government agencies. Finally, the book considers what has been labeled “people’s history”—oral history projects, slide shows, films, and local exhibits—and assesses its attempts to reach such diverse constituents as workers, ethnic groups, women, and gays.

Of essential interest to students of history, Presenting the Past also explains to the general reader how Americans have come to view themselves, their ancestors, and their heritage through the influence of mass media, popular culture, and “public history.”

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Lessons from the juicy details of a protracted legal battle

This week in North Philly Notes, Jean Elson, author of Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness—about the notorious divorce between Nina and James Walker in early twentieth-century Rhode Island—provides some keen observations about the issues raised during the sensational trial. 

The events leading up to and taking place throughout the Walker divorce hearings raised issues that were not solely individual matters; they signified social changes evolving in American culture at the time. Acrimonious testimony often focused on incompatible views of gender, family, and class—ideas that characterized broader cultural debates of the Progressive Era. The trials raised many questions including the following:

§  Must a wife obey her husband’s orders?
James Walker viewed his opinion as the only one to be taken into consideration, and his wife, Nina, began to rebel against this.

§  Is a wife required to submit to her husband’s sexual desires?
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sex meant the risk of pregnancy for women, and pregnancy was a dangerous undertaking at the time, with a high mortality and morbidity rate.

§  Are children the property of their father?
During the early 20th century courts were just beginning to award custody to mothers in divorce cases. The judicial philosophy changed from viewing children (and wives) as property of the father and husband to considering a mother’s love and devotion to children as more important. Nina was fortunate that enlightened judges awarded her custody throughout the long divorce proceedings, as well as when the divorce became final.

§  Should fathers provide their children with emotional, as well as financial, support?
The new view of fathers at the time of the divorce was that they could provide love and companionship for children, rather than just moral education. This is currently taken for granted. Nina and James, as well as witnesses for each side disputed whether James was capable of providing emotional support.

§  Is corporal punishment of children to be condoned?
An important issue in the Walker case was Nina’s charge that James physically punished the children, a situation that would not have been as seriously questioned prior to the Progressive period.

Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness_sm§  Must a husband be faithful to his wife?
Nina charged James with adultery, as well as “gross misbehavior and wickedness” (a charge only acceptable in Rhode Island) with the children’s governess. Previous generations of upper class women may have been more likely to accept that their husbands had mistresses. The issue of whether James engaged in extra-marital sex was so important that James’s purported mistress was examined by doctors to determine whether she was a virgin.

§  Must a wife remain with her husband when doing so endangers her physical or mental health?
Nina claimed that her marriage endangered both of these. Whereas endangerment of physical health by a husband had long been an acceptable ground for divorce, it was only in the early 20th century that judges began to accept endangerment of mental health as a valid reason for divorce.

§  Is a wife obliged to be more loyal to her husband and his family than to her own?
James claimed that Nina’s family constantly influenced her in a way that was detrimental to the marriage, and Nina resented James’s family’s interference in their married life.

§  Should a feminist always support the woman when a husband and wife argue?
James’s sister Susan was a well-known feminist and suffragist, but took her brother’s side in the divorce dispute. She did not see the connection between the public rights of women she upheld and her own sister-in-law’s powerlessness in her own home. Nina did not make this connection between public and private rights either, and she was vehemently against giving women the right to vote, although she wanted more power in her marriage.

§  How involved should parents be in a grown child’s marriage?
Both Nina’s and James’s family were very involved in the couple’s married life, to the detriment of the couple’s relationship with each other.

§  Is it proper for a single working-class woman to befriend a married upper- class man?
Nina’s side claimed that it was completely inappropriate for James to be on friendly terms with the family governess and to correspond with her (their letters are a very interesting part of the story).

§  Is divorce the appropriate solution for a troubled marriage?
Divorce was probably the right solution for Nina and James Walker, but the Walker children were cut off forever from their father and his side of the family.

We continue to grapple with most of the above questions in contemporary American society.

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