work Archives

March 20, 2006

Berkin - Revolutionary Mothers

Carol Berkin
Revolutionary Mothers: women in the struggle for America's independence
New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2005.

This is a nice light and readable book about the experiences of women during the American Revolution. Berkin has several intentions here, including pointing out that the American Revolution was not a mere matter of a couple of bloody noses but was instead very much a destructive war, especially along the Canadian border and in the South.

She tells her story through anecdote piled on anecdote, all of them compelling, some detailed and others a simple harrowing paragraph - like the woman who fled British foragers only to watch her infant daughter die in her arms from exposure as they hid in the woods.

Berkin takes care to mention both patriot and loyalist, white, black and indian women, to tell stories of heroism and deprivation together, and especially, to focus on the marked class difference between the camp followers who did the armys' laundry and the officers wives who provided moments of gentility and refinement during winter camp.

This is a great book for undergraduate or even for high school students. I know that I found a heck of a lot of great details that I will work into my classes in the future. Berkin hides her scholarship - no notes, no visible impedimentia of theory or structure other than an introduction that explains why she chose to arrange her chapters as she did. This makes it a very accessible book for the students, and we professional types can always go digging until we find the footnotes.

Good stuff!

Posted by Red Ted at 08:38 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 05, 2005

Greeley - The Denominational Society

Andrew Greeley
The Denominational Society: A Sociological Approach to Religion in America
Glenview, Illinois, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1972

I read this a few years ago and wanted to go back over it for Greeley's definition of civil religion and of denominationalism itself.

Greeley is probably my favorite writer about modern American religion; I find his perceptions more useful than those of Noll, Marsden, and the Wheaton-Notre Dame alliance of critical evangelical historians. Greeley is a sociologist, a Catholic priest, and the author of a whole mess of popular murder mysteries. He thinks well, writes well, and writes from a perspective shaped more by a life within a religious bureaucracy than a life of religious ecstacy and Evangelical promise. That last is not quite right, but I do find that his quiet and questioning scepticism provokes me to more useful thoughts about religion and America than does the work of the other main group of religious writers.

The Denominational Society is a look at the face of religion in the United States at the beginning of the 1970s, an era when political religion meant the legacy of mainline Protestant reform in aiding the civil rights movement and the concurrent struggle against poverty and despair within America, an era when the Vietnam War was continuing to divide Americans, and the era when the debates about Civil Religion and the nature of the American Way of Life were raging in the academy. It is both dated in its surrounding assumptions and very smart in its attempt to explain the broader picture of American religion and American society.

I have read a lot of Greeley's other sociological work, and I recommend it all highly. I was never able to get into his mysteries and could not finish his autobiography, but no one writes for everyone.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:28 AM | Comments (0)

February 19, 2005

Gehrig - American Civil Religion: An Assessment

Gail Gehrig
American Civil Religion: An Assessment
Society for the Scientific Study of Religion
Monograph Series Number 3

This is a literature review and literature organization monograph, originally written as a sociology dissertation.

Useful for me in that it reminded me of some categories and approaches to civil religion and religion as a civil experience.

Written like a work of graduate sociology - which is not bad, but which is a very distinctive style.

This was more gutted than read, but I will list it anyhow.

Oh, and I read both of these this morning. (Note, morning started at 4:30am when I handed the toddler to J and went off to start reading.)

Posted by Red Ted at 01:59 PM | Comments (0)

Jones/Richey - American Civil Religion

American Civil Religion
Donald Jones & Russell Richey [ed]
New York, Harper & Row, 1974

This is a collection of essays about the amorphous but powerful topic of American Civil Religion.

I found it useful because it contains Bellah's 1967 Daedelus article.

Lots of sociological theory, lots of quarreling about definitions, extent, and meaning, lots of very good thinking.

I took some useful notes towards refining my argument, including a change to my changed title - my original idea for a new title was conceptually incomplete and did not lend itself to a coherent narrative.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:58 PM | Comments (0)

August 18, 2004

Sedgwick - New England Tale

Catherine Sedgwick
A New-England Tale
University of Virginia eText center

I am assigning bits of this to the kids this semester, and skimmed through it to see what to give them. I think they are getting three chapters, about 15,000 words, but that might be a bit much.

This is Sedgwick's breakthrough novel - I think it is her first - and it is very much in the mode of the religious politics of 1820s New England. I had encountered it before only in secondary sources: a contemporary book review castigating it for making a mockery of conversion religion, and Ann Douglass' work on the feminization of American culture where she uses it as a case study in changing literary and social mores.

Suffice it to say that Sedgwick: does not agree with the Trinitarian establishment; accuses the bastions of small town morality of being hypocrites; makes sure that all the heros are religious outsiders, all the villains from the elite, and writes the whole thing in a language that draws on the Bible to condemn organized religion.

It is a pretty good little melodrama, and a very easy read.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:09 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 16, 2004

Wills - Under God

Garry Wills
Under God : religion and American politics
New York : Simon and Schuster, c1990.

I read this very quickly.

I got it because I had a brain fart and confused Robert Bellah, who wrote about civil religion in the 1950s, with Gary Wills, the journalist and political commentator.

This is a perfectly reasonable review of religion in the 1980s Presidential elections, of Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson's different ways of deploying religiosity, and of the way that religious rhetoric continues to permeat the American discourse despite the formal separation of church and state.

He includes a brief review of the founding and the early republic, including a good look at Lincoln's use of God talk. I might do something with his section on Lincoln, the rest is not so useful.

I disagree with him on civil religion and the American religious settlement. Details of that disagreement will wait until I finish, if only because I am still thinking over my position.

So, I gutted this for work, but a book is a book.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:38 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 20, 2004

Hoffer - Devil's Disciples

Peter Charles Hoffer
The Devil's Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996

Hoffer offers another retelling of the Salem story. Unlike Boyer's focus on conflict within Salem town and Salem village, Karlsen's focus on systematic misogyny and constructed social behavior, Hall's focus on the world of wonders, and Carlson's explanation grounded in disease, Hoffer tells the tale as a prosopography. In his interpretation, the trials took place because of a combination of individuals, each with their own histories and motivations, connected by the vagaries of the Atlantic economy, and each responding to the others. It is a multivariate interpretation focusing on individual agency. As such it does a good job of telling the tale, a good job of using the tale to dig into some of the social interactions of the late seventeenth century, and a poor job - because he is not trying to do that job - of providing sweeping interpretations that could be used elsewhere. In that he bows strongly to the microhistorians - he is telling his tale, not trying to elucidate the rest of time and space in some grand theory of human behavior. As a result, the book works internally. We do get a good feel for the individuals, we do see how and why they act, and we do see some of the combination of motives and pressures that led the community to go along with the prosecutions.

Hoffer focuses on Tituba the black slave, Parrish the minister, and the three afflicted girls, with a later discussion of Cotton Mather's vindication of the trials as part of Mather's deep need to be seen to be useful to his society. He claims in his introduction that he is setting his tale in the Atlantic world, and to the extent that he focuses on the story of Tituba and Parrish this is true - the two met in Barbados, moved to Salem, and were caught up in a crisis driven in part by the Glorious Revolution in England, the Dominion of New England at home, and the legal difficulties of the colony. Still, his core explanation for the continued trials is that the three girls were colluding in their evidence, coaching one another in their behavior, and making up tales for the sheer pleasure of taking down the obnoxious people in their community and the great people in the colony. They went from nobodies to celebrities, and thus they must have been making up their tales. For the rest, he explains why people felt the need to accept the girls' tales, and he tells the overall story of the witch trials as a tragedy stemming from fallible humans each trying to solve their own problems and collectively creating a disaster. This is a common narrative mode in history writing, and an effective mode, but it can be a depressing mode when you think about it.

I think I will use this as part of my class on Salem.

Posted by Red Ted at 05:19 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Carlson - A Fever in Salem

Laurie Winn Carlson
A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999

Carlson argues that the Salem epidemic was lethargic encephalitis, the same disease that hit the US and parts of Europe in epidemic force in 1919 and 1920. The 1920 variety of encephalitis, a generic name for inflammations and infections of the brain, appears to have been carried by bugs and animals, and produced paralysis, hallucinations, and painful prickings. The symptoms match the accounts of the afflicted people in Salem. She postulates that this form of encephalitis is one that emerges and disappears at long intervals, and she finds another outbreak in New England in the 1740s that was interpreted as disease not as witchcraft, and some accounts from the early 17th century that also match the Salem symptoms.

It is an interesting proposal, one worth testing.
It does explain why afflictions and accusations were found outside of Salem - answering Boyer and Nussenbaum, and why both men and women were afflicted, answering Karlsen.
It does not explain the fits that the girls went through when confronted by some of the accused witches, unless the symptoms could somehow be provoked. Remember the trial of Martha Carey, where the girls trembled when Martha looked at them, and exhibited physical reactions mirroring what the accused did - she tilted her head, and they almost broke their necks.

Reviews have been skeptical, the most favorable pointing out that Carlson's explanation for why the accused acted this way is largely irrelevant to the historian's question of why the actions were interpreted as they were. Others have been less kind, jumping on her many errors of fact or poking holes in her hypothesis about the transmission and scope of the disease.

Mention in class as a possibility for the crisis, but don't use it as the "real" explanation.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack