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Bottom-Up History

One of the things that so appeals to me about the Freedom Riders is that they were, for the most part, regular folks. Yes, there were movement leaders and future leaders on the buses and in the cells: James Farmer, James Lawson, Wyatt T. Walker, Stokely Carmichael, among others. But for the most part, the Riders were citizen soldiers who dropped whatever they were doing to go to Mississippi (and elsewhere in the south) in 1961. So I'm happy that Breach of Peace plays a part in recording their place in history, and getting their recollections about their experiences into print.

At his New Yorker blog, Rik Hertzberg writes a brief review about a book just out in paperback that uses the contemporary observations of Union and Confederate soldiers to write a history of the Civil War:

“What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War,” by Chandra Manning (Vintage Books), is a consistently absorbing work of bottom-up history. It is based on the writings of ordinary soldiers on both sides—letters home (some of them dictated by illiterate troops to their lettered comrades), letters to political figures (notably President Lincoln), articles from regimental newspapers (a species of periodical I hadn’t known existed), and resolutions passed and forwarded by the rank and file of military units in the field (another genre new to me). It is the first book by Ms. Manning, who is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown, and it is a work of heroic research, skillful synthesis, and clear writing. . . .

The book is terrific. Taking her title from “When This Cruel War Is Over,” a mournful song that (with very slightly different words) was sung more than any other in both North and South, Manning argues, and pretty much proves, that the war was over slavery and nothing but slavery. The soldiers on both sides understood this very well and, for the most part, understood it earlier than the folks back home did.

Order it from Amazon.

Posted on March 31, 2008, in Mississippi.

Stephen Shore's Spitzer


Stephen Shore may be making one of his one-day iPhoto books today. From a 2005 interview with the photographer:

One series of books I started a couple of months ago. I think of them as time capsules, and I do them on days when the New York Times has deemed it worthy to have an eight-column headline. You can go a year and not have one, or you can have two in a couple of months. So last week it was when Scooter Libby was indicted, and the last time was when the levy broke in New Orleans. And so on those days I start with a picture of the front page of the New York Times, with the headline, and then I go around and take pictures of what's going on that day. Suddenly I'm thinking about style, and what clothes look like, or cars, or the prices of things. But I'm also interested in what ordinary life is on that day.

In the "60s I was spending a lot of time in Europe, and I was in Europe in '68, when a lot of shit was going down, as they say in the States, including the Kent State shootings. I remember reading the Herald Tribune every day, and it just seemed that the country was falling apart. But a year or so later I was in Europe again, and it didn't seem like there was anything as dramatic going on, but again I had the feeling of things falling apart. And I realized that it was because all I was getting was the news. And the news wasn't reporting that bees were pollinating flowers in Dutchess County today, and the sun rose at 6:51 just as predicted, and that the law of gravity held today as one would hope. If all you're getting are these points of news, you're missing the fact that the world's not falling apart. It's the real stuff, the stable stuff, that doesn't get reported. And so the books, my time capsules, have some of that in them too. So there are things that are very specific to a period in time, what movies are playing, but also just what ordinary things look like.

Posted on March 13, 2008, in Art Stuff.