History Archives

August 5, 2009

Refighting The Battle Of Agincourt


I joined the Medieval Studies program this afternoon for a practical demonstration about the Battle of Agincourt in 1415--a memorable part of Shakespeare's Henry V with the St. Crispin's Day speech--led by a military historian and a master armourer (pictures with a bow and arrow above). This was a fascinating presentation that included a hands-on exploration of the armor and weapons of the time as well as a fascinating overview of the context for the battle as well as the strategy and tactics of the English and the French. I visited Agincourt (in France, it's Azincourt) in 1990 and have a much better sense now of what happened in this momentous showdown.

October 4, 2009

One Day University


Just finished a slate of lectures as part of the One Day University program. This meant getting up in time to take the 5:45 a.m. train from New Haven so I could be at the New York Hilton before 9:00 for the first lecture on Moby-Dick. Subsequent presentations were on the psychology of art appreciation, Shakespeare, the philosophy of the ancients, and connections between Beethoven and The Beatles. Pretty interesting day overall. Now back to Grand Central for the train to Connecticut.

November 3, 2009

Some Compelling History


Gordon Wood's Empire Of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 arrived today; it's the latest volume in the excellent Oxford History of the United States series. (The Stanford Department of History was nice enough to give all of us Coe Fellows last summer a copy of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe--another first-rate entry in this series.) Looking forward to digging into this book.

November 9, 2009

The Fall Of The Wall


Today marks the 20th anniversary of the momentous day when the citizens of Germany started dismantling the Berlin Wall, the physical embodiment of a forty-year Cold War. I visited the Wall less than a year later and hacked out a souvenir chunk for myself. Amazing to consider how different the world is from what I knew a quarter-century ago!

November 11, 2009

Remembrance Day

Today, the 11th of November, has been variously known as Veterans Day, Armistice Day, and Remembrance Day. It marks the cessation of hostilities at the end of the First World War. Whenever I've traveled to U.K. schools with our squash teams, I am struck by the memorials observing this war on the campuses; Americans have never seemed to appreciate fully the impact this conflict had on the peoples of Europe. I personally like the name Remembrance Day, perhaps because I am an historian. It's one of those holidays--like Memorial Day and Thanksgiving--that asks us to step beyond ourselves, for however brief a time, and be grateful to others.

December 2, 2009

Good Morning, Vietnam!


Today is the first day of the winter trimester here at Choate. I am teaching History 423, The United States In Vietnam, an elective course I taught with some regularity before I was appointed Director of Athletics in 1996. In fact, it has been thirteen years since I did this course. So this term will be like getting reacquainted with an old friend. And I'll be able to approach the material from a relatively fresh perspective too. Moreover, I have visited Vietnam since the last time I handled this subject, so my time in Saigon should inform my teaching. Should be fun!

December 3, 2009

Fire In The Lake


I am prepping for tomorrow's class and reading Frances FitzGerald's Fire In The Lake for the first time in a long while. Though it's controversial in some (i.e., right-wing) circles, I always liked this book because it's so well grounded in Vietnamese culture and history and helps unwind the Indochina conflict(s) by dealing with the culture clash(es) involved. This work holds up pretty well as I return to it nearly fifteen years later.

April 24, 2010

Neoclassical America


I visited the National Constitution Center, within sight of Independence Hall here in Philly, to see the "Rome & America" exhibition. I got interested in this topic when I was a Coe Fellow in the Stanford history department a couple of summers back. And it turns out the professor who ran the workshop that year (and whose book The Culture of Classicism I enjoyed) was one of the curatorial consultants for this exhibition (and she was prominently featured in the short film played in the museum). Here she is in a short video clip.

May 4, 2010

"Four Dead In Ohio"


Hard to believe it's been forty years since the Kent State shootings, when National Guardsmen opened fire on student demonstrators, killing four of them. When I taught a course on the Vietnam War, I used to show a film called The War At Home, which captured the domestic social and political tensions associated with what was going on in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. Of course the truth of the anti-war movement on college campuses in that era is that protests dropped off significantly once the draft was abolished.

May 8, 2010

The Meaning Of The Parthenon

A very thoughtful article in the New York Times about the Elgin Marbles controversy:

The British Museum is Europe's Western front in the global war over cultural patrimony, on account of the marbles. The pamphlets give the museum's version for why they should stay in Britain, as they have for two centuries -- ever since Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Sublime Porte at Constantinople, and with the consent of the ruling Ottomans (not to mention a blithe disregard for whatever may have been the wishes of the Greek populace), spirited them from the Acropolis in Athens. The pamphlet stresses that the British Museum is free and attracts millions of visitors every year from around the world, making the sculptures available to, and putting them in the context of, a wide swath of human civilization.


Mostly, though, the issue comes down to the fact that culture, while it can have deeply rooted, special meanings to specific people, doesn't belong to anyone in the grand scheme of things. It doesn't stand still. When Walter Benjamin wrote in the last century about the original or authentic work of art losing its aura, he was in part suggesting that the past is not something we can just return to whenever we like -- it's not something fixed and always available. It's something forever beyond our grasp, which we must reinvent to make present.

Today's Acropolis is itself a kind of fiction. Over the centuries and through succeeding empires and regimes, it became Christian and Turkish, and briefly Venetian, after it had been Roman. The Parthenon was a pagan temple, a church, a mosque, an arms depot (disastrously, under the Turks) and even a place from which the Nazis hung a big swastika flag whose removal by Greek patriots helped spur a resistance movement. Modernity has mostly stripped the site of all those layers of history to recover a Periclean-era past that represents, because it has come to mean the most to us, its supposed true self -- a process of archeological excavation, based on another modern kind of fiction about historical and scientific objectivity that inevitably adds its own layer of history.


But the general question, looting and tourist dollars aside, is why should any objects necessarily reside in the modern nation-state controlling the plot of land where, at one time, perhaps thousands of years earlier, they came from? The question goes to the heart of how culture operates in a global age.

The Greek proposal that Britain fork over Elgin's treasures has never involved actually putting the sculptures back onto the Parthenon, which started crumbling long before he showed up. The marbles would go from one museum into another, albeit one much closer. The Greeks argue for proximity, not authenticity. Their case has always been more abstract, not strictly about restoration but about historical reparations, pride and justice. It is more nationalistic and symbolic.


But as the Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has cautioned about the whole patrimony question: "We should remind ourselves of other connections. One connection -- the one neglected in talk of cultural patrimony -- is the connection not through identity but despite difference."

What he means is that people make connections across cultures through objects like the marbles. These objects can become handmaidens for ideologues, instruments for social division and tools of the economy, or cicerones through history and oracles to a more perfect union of nations. Art is something made in a particular place by particular people, and may serve a particular function at one time but obtain different meanings at other times. It summons distinct feelings to those for whom it's local, but ultimately belongs to everyone and to no one.

We're all custodians of global culture for posterity.

Neither today's Greeks nor Britons own the Parthenon marbles, really.

You can access the complete piece here.

June 11, 2010

My Favorite Biography


Looking forward to the November release of the third volume of the Edmund Morris biography of Theodore Roosevelt. I just pre-ordered it on The first two installments were excellent.

October 3, 2010

Six Lectures In A Row


Since we have an informal long weekend break with no classes scheduled tomorrow, I am escaping into Manhattan for the day. I am in the middle of a One Day University program, sitting through a half-dozen presentations by college professors (and former New York governor Mario Cuomo) on such diverse topics as the U.S. Supreme Court, psychology, creative writing, and Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. Pretty fascinating stuff.

October 18, 2010

This Is A Sweet Coffee Table Book


Lots of detailed history and tons of photos and production artwork fill this book about the making of the best of the six Star Wars films: The Empire Strikes Back. It was a a lot cheaper on Amazon than it would be in the bookstore.

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