Thursday, June 28, 2012

Every Man a Historian Means Every Man: Speaking with the Fringe

The amazing power of the internet age is the pure democratizing ethic it has injected into our culture. We aren't simply pleased when the world around us solicits and listens to our opinions, we've come to expect it. Every news story has a comment thread; every article asks for our feedback. The White House solicits input from the American "user" and offers meaningful responses. In short, we are a people who are growing more vocal in our daily lives. The brilliant constitutional law professor and master of cultural understanding Lawrence Lessig has called our culture "Read-Write" as opposed to "Read-Only."

What does this have to do with anything? This past weekend was the annual Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. One of the perks of being a faculty member is getting to sneak into the back for a few of the sessions. I snuck into Sunday's panel on Civil War Blogging, featuring A-list bloggers Kevin Levin (, Brooks D. Simpson (Crossroads) and Keith Harris (Cosmic America). And one of the challenges which arose from the audience during the conversation was a desire for authority in blogs.

One commenter noted that he reads Crossroads because he has faith in Simpson as a historian, that he trusts Brooks' authority thanks to his published work. Another commenter asked if the Organization or American Historians or the CWI should publish a listing of "approved blogs."

Luckily, Brooks eviscerated the concept pretty handily by noting that the commenter was simply trying to impose a new authority on a medium essentially lacking in authority. And Brooks voiced the fear that if there were authoritative blogs, the world of the Civil War internet would simply devolve into a mirror of academia: historians writing for themselves and themselves alone. Brooks' comments were masterful, and will hopefully show up on C-SPAN sooner rather than later.

But the strongest conversation came when moderator Peter Carmichael posed the question of why we even listen to the fringe elements floating on the internet. Why should we even allow the voices of the "uninformed" enter the dialogue at all?

But here's the flaw in demanding authority be exercised on the democratic net: it's undemocratic. If every man is an historian, able to read the sources, find the data and come to his own conclusions, then we need to encourage every man to be an historian, not just the ones we think aren't whackjobs.

"To speak up for democracy..."
We do get to set the rules of the debate in our forums. On our blogs, that means we can ask commenters to be civil, and some of us go as far as to choose not to host comments we find counterproductive. In our parks and historic sites, that means we can ask folks to be civil, to listen to others' views respectfully and to investigate the historical sources honestly. But if we truly believe in the ethic of the internet, we can't simply allow only those who agree with us to speak.

In the end, democracy is about faith in the marketplace of ideas. I trust the intelligence of the American people. I think they can all be their own historians. Writing off a portion of the people is never going to help them to see the historical evidence, read it carefully and find true meaning in the past.

Writing them off, refusing to have real meaningful dialogue with them can only serve to alienate them.

The "every" in "every man a historian" really means "every." If you start from that point and move forward, the democracy of ideas truly means something.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Lost and Found: Where the Iconic Meet

Gilded icons: brilliant,
striking and with deeper
meanings. / CC Cea
I know exactly when I began believing in the Muppets again. I am a child of the '80s. I was five years old when Jim Henson died. I remember watching the TV with my Mom crying beside me as Frank Oz's Fozzie, Richard Hunt's Scooter and Dave Goelz's Gonzo read to their friends the condolence letters sent by thousands of grieving fans. I remember the slow building of "Just One Person."

But somewhere along the way, I lost the Muppets. Or they lost me. "Or did something break we can't repair?" Every time I heard Steve Whitmire's voice come out of Kermit's felt maw, my heart sank. That wasn't my frog, my Kermit. For over a decade, for the better part of my childhood, the loss of Jim Henson was palpable. I held a grudge against something, someone, for taking away this frog (and the person who he embodied) I cared deeply for away from me.

Then I saw the newest Muppets movie. It was good, but it was still Steve Whitmire. It was a different Kermit, with a different voice and a different personality. Then this new voice told Miss Piggy, "it's time for our song." The crowd in the Muppet theatre applauds, and a familiar banjo patter begins. "Why are there so many songs about rainbows?" Kermit asks in song.

I burst into tears. More of the characters joined in. Eric Jacobson's Miss Piggy, Bill Barretta's Swedish Chef, John Henson's Sweetums all sing along with Kermit on the most iconic of Muppets songs. My heart broke. I sat in the theatre, next to my Mom, and cried. At that moment, Steve Whitmire became Kermit. I couldn't hear the difference in his tone or inflection. He was that frog and the frog was him.

The iconic power of the song, the raw emotional pull of its lyrics about dreams being possible coupled with its lilting banjo line, transformed a ping-pong ball adorned felt puppet into a being, a real living thing. And the iconic power of that song and it's message of hope and perseverance transformed Steve Whitmire's voice into Kermit the Frog's voice, lost for me since Jim Henson died in 1990.

Icon comes from a Greek word meaning image or likeness. But the iconic moments in our lives have more to do with the Greek Orthodox Christian interpretation of that word. Wander through the market stalls of any of the former Soviet satellite states and you will find vendors peddling small hammered metal trinkets with beautiful Eastern European depictions of the Madonna and Child or any one of a number of Saints. The icon has deep spiritual meaning. It plucks at the heart somehow. It represents a larger truth, be it God or the simple beauty of man's artwork, to the believer and unbeliever alike. It encapsulates the essence of something larger than just the sum of its parts, something greater than the wood, tin and paint from which it is made.

Interpreters share many stories. We tell tales of valiant soldiers and courageous protestors, civilian bystanders and student sit-ins. But the stories which resonate the most with an audience are those that touch the heart. Looking for the passingly iconic in history is not hard. Many things in history represent something larger than just the paper they are written upon or the ink spilled to craft them. But looking for the icons which transcend, those which possess the power to pluck the strings of any soul requires skill, practice and a bit of luck. They often hover around those magical human things we call dreams and love.

In the realm of the Civil War and Civil Rights, the transcendentally iconic often lies where these two worlds collide. It is the image of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. standing in the, "symbolic shadow," of the Great Emancipator in 1963. It is the farm owned by a black man where, in 1863, the future of black men's right to citizenship in the nation would hang in the balance during bloody combat. It is the bridge named for a Confederate general and slaveholder where in 1965 the sons and daughters of former slaves were mercilessly beaten for wanting something as simple as a right to vote that had been promised to them a century before.

How do you find the iconic? Sometimes it is as simple as looking for the intersections of history, where two tales crash into each other, forging a broader transcendent meaning. Sometimes it takes stepping outside of your own frame of view, to see the world from a broader perspective. Keep looking. The deep, iconic and meaningful connections are out there waiting to be found and shared.

Or as Kermit the Frog said once. And another Kermit the Frog still says today:

“Someday we'll find it
The Rainbow Connection
The lovers, the dreamers, and me.”

The Iconic floats over New York's streets. / CC Musicwala

This piece originally appeared as part of the pre-course reading material for the recent Civil War and Civil Rights training course I helped organize and conduct at work with the NPS. But that course only reached 19 students over the course of four days. Sometimes icons need to be shared with the wider world.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Good Morning to the Night: Requiem for My Battlefield

"It's got a lot of songs to sing
If I knew the tunes I might join in..."
The fireflies have started to appear around Gettysburg. We have a new sliding glass door in the kitchen that I can press my face against and see them. I did it the other night when Jess mentioned they're out there.

I live up on Seminary Ridge, now. The right flank of the final Confederate push on the afternoon of July 1st flushed right across the postage stamp lawn out my front door. The next night, young men from Virginia and North Carolina milled around, eating and singing and readying themselves for the pain of the next day.

I look out my windows, or I wander these streets or these fields, and I see ghosts. I don't mean the pretend, "boogity boogity," ghost tripe they peddle in town. I mean the resurrected dead who wander in my mind. If I squint out the window, between the fireflies, I can see the forms of men swilling Pennsylvania whiskey and chanting out rebel tunes from hoarse throats.

This field swarms with more than just fireflies. It swarms with living memories.

After grabbing an ice cream, Jess and I went driving on the south end of the battlefield last night. She flipped off the AC and rolled down her window. On the radio, John Lennon was singing the last few lines of, "In My Life." "Though I know I'll never lose affection," the ill-fated Beatle sang, "for people and things that went before." The song's last strains faded and Elton John began singing, "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters."

"They know not if
it's dark outside or light..."
I turned to Jess and asked her if we were the only people who did this. Everyone else tooling around the field was squinting into the growing darkness and desperately trying to listen to their auto tape tour. They were trying desperately to read the last few lines of this wayside or that monument in the dying sunlight. But we were intently listening to the King of Pop (yes, I went there) sing about his undying love for a place and her people.

That field means so much to me, but that meaning goes so far beyond the phantoms of the dead wandering through my mind. They're always there. But there's a cleanness on the landscape, a centering calm and a beautiful quiet. It's mournful and celebratory all at once. Sort of like Elton's song.

When I squint at that field, I don't just see soldiers floating across it. Phantom trolley cars cruise down long-rotten rail lines. On the fields north of town, a legion of white hooded ghosts appear and disappear in long clouds of hate-filled mist. On a rostrum in the cemetery, the ghostly voice of a Vice-President demands, "together."

But that's not all. I can squint and see Tim and Garry giggling gleefully as they dive headlong into photos and parade around in front of PCN cameras. Somewhere on Culp's Hill, a crowd of Civil War Roundtable members still clips away at the pricker bushes incessantly in my mind. And now, in the valley of death, I'll forever hear Elton John singing, "And I thank the Lord for the people I have found, I thank the Lord for the people I have found."


Last week, while while we were sitting in a meeting with a visitor to the building, the interpretive training staff was talking about how we all live in different places. One of my co-workers lives right in Harpers Ferry. My boss lives across the river in Maryland. I drive an hour to and from work each day from Gettysburg.

The woman we were talking to asked me the simple but loaded question, "you're looking to move down here though, right?"

The answer fell out of my mouth before I could close my lips. If my mind could have kept up, it would have said something judicious, something measured. Thank god it couldn't.

"No, never."

Thursday, June 7, 2012

College Kids with Guns: Hidden in Plain Sight

The College Church, across the street
from these scene of today's tale.
Sunday morning found me out in the field with a stalwart group of Gettysburg devotees: the Gettysburg Discussion Group's annual spring Muster. When the coordinator of this year's Muster put out the call for something a bit different, perhaps something in town for Sunday, my ears perked up. I've been looking for groups to test out the nuggets of the College's Civil War story on and the GDG seemed like the perfect group of guinea pigs.

The GDG has been around for a healthy stint, trading barbs about the Gettysburg Campaign and various other topics for years. I was first turned onto the group in 2004 and have alternated between an active member and a detached lurker. One thing that's never changed: these are battle-centric people. The conversations revolve chiefly around the obscure idiosyncrasies of the battle. In short, they focus on the type of thing that tends to cure insomnia for the bulk of folks out there.

If I could interpret for these folks, and help them see value in the civilian story alongside the military story they so deeply care about, I could begin to prove a major point on interpretive theory. Shifting our stories, telling different stories on these landscapes than those we've traditionally presented, will not alienate our traditional audiences. Instead, it only serves to give them even more reason to care about these places than the same tired reasons they've already found.

Of course, like all these types of revelations, I stumbled upon the answer accidentally. The most powerful moment on the tour came at a stop I hadn't quite planned.

Charles Schaeffer in 1862, from a
brilliant Tyson Brothers album in the
Gettysburg College Special Collections.
As we moved from the former President's House on the south end of campus into the borough toward our final stop on the Diamond, the group began straggling. Stopping to let them catch up, I realized just how close we were to the home of Professor of German Charles Schaeffer. The professor's home became a shelter for one of the most awkward and unique participants in the battle at Gettysburg during the dark days of July. Inside those walls, Frederick Lehmann sought solace and safety.

Frederick Lehmann was a student in the Preparatory division at Pennsylvania College in 1863. A native Pennsylvanian from outside Pittsburgh, Lehmann got an itch on the morning of July 1st as the sound of battle echoed over the hills west of Gettysburg. Like much of the town, he went rubbernecking.

But the teenager Lehmann did more than go look. He picked up a rifle from a wounded Federal soldier. He scrounged for a cartridge box and cap pouch. He joined the fight. Somewhere in the melee of the day, the young student was captured by Confederate forces. With help of the persuasion of a Federal officer, the rebels let him go and placed him in the care of Professor Schaeffer.

But curiosity got the better of Frederick on July 3rd. He wandered into Chambersburg Street in front of the Professor's house and quickly found himself the target of a bullet through the lower leg. He recovered, but forever bore a limp, the painful reminder of a curious young kid.

The GDG folks had never heard the story of Frederick Lehmann before. They stood transfixed. The first question out of their mouths was simply, "how did you find that?"

So I walked them through the research process. They had the vicarious thrill of discovery as I explained the tiny steps I made toward understanding who Lehmann was. For this crew, the joy of discovery was just as powerful as the tale of Lehmann itself.

Sometimes history is like a grand police procedural. The thrill is in the chase, not in the story completed. Piecing the story together bit by bit, from piece of evidence to piece of evidence, can help give a visitor the joy of discovery that the historian feels in the archive. When they finally have the clues and their minds line up all the pieces, when they become their own historians, that spot will forever be remembered as a meaningful place of discovery for them.

For the group I had the honor of leading on Sunday, that spot is the south end of the 7-11 parking lot. Maybe not that illustrious of a place, but it's the humble spot of pavement where Frederick Lehmann came back to life for them for just a few moment, resurrected from the cold paper records of history.