The word “shoddy” originated to describe a poor product and not a sloppy worker. The term, which first appeared in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, came out of the world of textile manufacturing. Shoddy was a sort of cheap cloth made by pressing together scraps of reclaimed wool. This inferior-quality material was inexpensive, but it would not stand up under heavy use. The Civil War saw the heyday of shoddy, both as a textile product and as an evocative term. And the evolving use of the word during the war years speaks volumes about how Northerners used the popular media to make sense of this terrible war.
History-based films serve as a teaching tool, spark an interest in the past, and provide perspective on issues in modern society. But I have yet to find a gripping, historically accurate film on eighteenth-century southern history. It is time that Hollywood takes notice of the Anglo-Cherokee War.
As stern and formidable an opponent as Confederate soldiers and civilians found William Tecumseh Sherman, the general always insisted that he would accept them as fellow countrymen as soon as they submitted to federal authority. He proved as good as his word, especially after hearing President Lincoln’s conciliatory instructions at their City Point conference, late in March of 1865. When he cornered Joe Johnston in North Carolina, less than three weeks later, the two negotiated a complicated surrender agreement that essentially established terms for peace and reunion. It seems odd that neither recognized how far they had exceeded their authority.
In a sense, then, the sinking of the Lusitania spelled an end for U.S. isolationism, dramatically demonstrating that the United States was interconnected with the rest of the world to such a degree that the events of the war could have a direct and profound effect on the lives of Americans whether they were combatants or not. More generally, it also set the stage for what Henry Luce, on the verge of the United States’ entry into yet another world war fifteen years later, would famously call “the American Century.”
One of the more touching moments in the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination came when a surgeon announced that the president was dead, whereupon the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, broke the silence. “Now he belongs to the ages,” Stanton ostensibly observed, with a poetic spontaneity for which he was not known. Numerous people recount some form of the quote, but none of them recorded their memory of the phrase until a generation later, after it appeared in the multi-volume Lincoln biography by his former secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. Nicolay was not in Washington that night; Hay is often depicted at the bedside, although the room was not big enough to accommodate all who have subsequently been placed around it at the moment of the president’s death.
“Thus has another good work been wrought in the interest of peace and good order, on our often threatened and imperiled border.” So reported the Helena Weekly Herald on the successful raid by the U.S. Army on a Plains Metis camp just south of the forty-ninth parallel in November 1871. “This colony of British Nomads,” the Montana newspaper explained, “had brought with them large quantities of liquor and ammunition to barter with the Indians for robes and peltries.” These circumstances were part of a disturbing series of reports from this stretch of the forty-ninth parallel through the 1860s and 1870s that suggested that Plains Metis traders from north of the border were encouraging Indigenous peoples in the American West “to make war upon the government of the United States and its citizens.” Reports such as these introduced the Metis to American officials and underscored just how important it was to suppress these cross-border networks if the United States was to secure its northern border.
Musically, there continues to be a deep stylistic overlap between country and soul. Some of the biggest country stars of today utilize the sounds and songs of R&B, while many contemporary soul and hip-hop artists (particularly from the South) bring the characteristics of country onto their records. Then there are the folks in the middle—many of whom, like Jason Isbell or Valerie June, are from the triangle—who draw from both traditions and blend them together in new and interesting ways. It remains one of the deepest wells of American music.
Yosemite National Park made the evening news on Wednesday, January 14, 2015. American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the top of El Capitan by ascending Yosemite’s Dawn Wall. The climbers’ years of preparation, 19-day free-climb, and personal stories riveted television audiences nationwide. News programs also gave audiences a rare treat: panoramic views of the park’s natural beauty that included cascading waterfalls, granite formations, and snow-dusted trees.
Yet Yosemite almost did not become a national park.
On March 12, a rank-and-file caucus of Branch 36 (Manhattan-Bronx) of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) spearheaded the demand for a branch strike vote. Striking the federal government has been illegal since 1912. But that is exactly what Branch 36 voted to do on March 17. Picket lines went up at midnight all over New York City. Other NALC branches voted to strike, spreading upstate and into New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania; then west to Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Colorado, and California. Together they shut down 671 post offices in dozens of cities and towns across the United States. Clerks, mail handlers, maintenance workers, motor vehicle operators, and other crafts from other postal unions joined what became the largest “wildcat strike ” (one not authorized by a national union) in American labor history. Over 200,000 postal workers struck for eight days. Despite the inconvenience of a total mail stoppage, strikers enjoyed the support of the majority of Americans.
Deng Xiaoping’s paramount political status and strength of personality played a major role in shaping China’s foreign policy during the last decade of the Cold War, opposing Soviet hegemony while allying with the United States and other Western countries in order to gain their support for China’s economic reform.
A century out from Muir’s death, humanity’s mounting influence on the planet, and what we now know about that influence, have made a truly pristine nature ever more difficult, even impossible, to find. No place on earth stays untouched by a phenomenon like climate change. To be sure, we still need our Yosemites, not least for the transcendent encounters that Muir and his descendants have helped us to find in them. Yet in a time when human impacts have turned planetary in scale, the project of protecting our wildest places has become far more bound up with what we do in our cities, suburbs, and factories than Muir ever imagined
Contemporary documentary projects such as StoryCorps and Humans of New York thrive today in a spirit similar to that which led the vision of the Federal Writers’ Project and These Are Our Lives. They remind us that every life has a story, and every story matters.
Looking at the history of the evil stepmother stereotype I think explains some of the staying power of these familiar tales. Although stepmother characterizations have been negative since as far back as ancient Greece, in Western culture the need for evil stepmothers became more urgent in the United States in response to a new idea of the proper family in Enlightenment Europe. Sentimental families, as they were called, became the ideal for the rising middle class in Western Europe.
Over the last decade around New York, a host of more localized concerns and groups have mobilized around a new bevvy of “green” causes: banding together to rebuild after Sandy, campaigning for locally grown and organic food, and fighting against fracking. At the People’s Climate March, they found welcome and common cause with those pushing for divestiture from fossil fuels, as well as those from more far flung locales, those rebuilding on the Gulf Coast after Katrina, those from island nations and from other communities on the “front line” of environmental change. In an earlier era, “the environment” had gained traction because of how it linked so many issues long considered separate, from pollution to wilderness preservation. Now “climate” may have proven itself sufficiently capacious to serve as an entire movement’s umbrella.
What is a traditional American family? In a recent article in AARP Magazine, “The New American Family: Meet 6 clans who embody our country’s changing ideas about what kinship is,” Brennan Jensen, citing high divorce rates, argues that modern families now include “a tumble of step- and half-siblings.” I applaud Jensen’s effort to complicate what we think of as a “real” American family, but I would suggest that the “new” American family is actually the “old” American family—at least in terms of the presence of stepfamilies.
“Black-on-black crime” is not real. It only exists to suggest being black is the true crime, and to deflect attention away from the fact of ongoing inequality. What many have termed “black-on-black crime” tells us more about white supremacy, and the devaluation of black life, than it does about crime. Connecting crime and blackness is central to racial control, as is the link between guns and white supremacy. The true crime is that black lives have less value to society and to even to other black people.
Southern cuisine was a key component in historic preservation efforts in the early twentieth century to promote and sell the South and its racial mores to both tourists and locals. Through constructed memories of southern food from the plantation to the mountain South, sophisticated campaigns were launched to promote the “taste” of the Old South in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Lowcountry flavors of Savannah and Charleston, the fashionable Creole cuisine of New Orleans, and the “authentic” “hillbilly” and “Highlands” foods of the mountain South.
Two days later, when Tom took the time to send Susan a letter, he was still stunned. “In the morning [the Confederates] were lions, in the evening lambs. Such facts are incredible to one who has not witnessed them but they are unfortunately too true.”
In the same letter, dated October 21, Carter offered a simple opinion as to why the battle had been lost. “The Yankee discipline,” he asserted, “is immeasurably superior to ours.” In a rare moment of frustration, he lashed out at the behavior of his army’s leaders.
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The recent debate over the exact status of the tens of thousands of Central American children attempting to cross the U.S. border reminds us that there is often a very fine line dividing an immigrant from a refugee. It turns out that, according to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of Americans—regardless of age or political or religious affiliation—view these children as refugees rather than as illegal immigrants. Of course, the term “refugee” designates a special legal status that carries a wide range of political and bureaucratic implications.