Patryk Babiracki: Showcasing Hard Power, Russia Reveals Her Longstanding Soft Spot

babiracki_sovietWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Patryk Babiracki, author of Soviet Soft Power in Poland: Culture and the Making of Stalin’s New Empire, 1943-1957. Concentrating on the formative years of the Cold War from 1943 to 1957, Babiracki reveals little-known Soviet efforts to build a postwar East European empire through culture. Babiracki argues that the Soviets involved in foreign cultural outreach tried to use “soft power” in order to galvanize broad support for the postwar order in the emerging Soviet bloc. Babiracki shows that the Stalinist system ultimately undermined Soviet efforts to secure popular legitimacy abroad through persuasive propaganda. He also highlights the limitations and contradictions of Soviet international cultural outreach, which help explain why the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe crumbled so easily after less than a half-century of existence.

In a previous post, Babiracki draws a comparison between Ukraine’s present and Poland’s past. In today’s post, he argues that Russia’s aggressive tactics against the West may indicate the country’s weaknesses.


In recent months, Vladimir Putin has been playing hardball with the world. Yet Russia’s bullying and bravado can be seen as signs of a longstanding weakness.

The Kremlin is flexing its muscle throughout its Western “near abroad,” most aggressively in Ukraine. Russian troops intimidated the population of the Crimean Peninsula before the Russian Parliament officially annexed it. The Russian government has been actively backing separatist insurgents in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. The Russian military has been crossing air space and territorial waters of its neighbors, including Estonia, Sweden, Finland and Poland—thereby creating new and dangerous patterns of international interactions. Such behavior strikes some as a symptom of Russia’s growing self-confidence, a perception that feeds into the popular view that Russia and the West are on the verge of a “new Cold War.”

Yet the historical analogy also underscores Russia’s present weaknesses. Fighting the Cold War in its East European backyard, the Kremlin lost a series of key cultural battles. While keeping a seemingly tight grip on its East European vassal states, Moscow failed to win over the majority of East Europeans to their cause through culture and ideas. They failed to generate what Joseph Nye Jr. has termed “soft power,” or power of attraction—a power which reduces tensions, minimizes the cost of imperial rule, and which helps to achieve long-term imperial stability.

Soviet soft power in Eastern Europe in the decade after World War II failed for many reasons. Some had to do with the intrinsic inefficiency and impotence of Soviet institutions, which hampered effective Soviet propaganda abroad. But more broadly, it failed because there was relatively little attractive about the Soviet system in the first place. The Bolsheviks aimed to create a rational, egalitarian and bountiful state; some successes in this regard notwithstanding, they ended up ruling largely through terror and deceit, spilling oceans of blood and depriving millions of material and spiritual fulfillment.

The Red Army liberated much of Eastern Europe from German occupation, but countless crimes committed by Soviet soldiers undermined Soviet soft power beginning with the last months of World War II. By 1948, East European communists, under close watch of Soviet authorities, transformed their countries into Soviet-style totalitarian party-states. With the consolidation of the Soviet sphere of influence, East Europeans had to sever all contacts with the West; although connections across the “Iron Curtain” were rekindled in 1956, the partial opening of the valve only stimulated more hunger for freedoms, foods, and fashions that East Europeans now could smell and see, or even experience briefly—but which their own governments denied them. The notoriously empty shop shelves in Eastern Europe spoke louder than any artistic statement about the alleged superiority of socialism. And, unable to compete with the West through culture—especially through promoting a distinctively Soviet, appealing way of life—the Kremlin repeatedly had to quell East European rebellions with Soviet Army tanks.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine today are part of the same story of Russia using force where it failed to persuade.

Vladimir Putin’s assault on the post-Cold War order has been accompanied by an aggressive upsurge of Russian propaganda abroad meant to justify the aggression. Kremlin-controlled media outlets such as “Russia Today” promote a distorted version of reality in numerous languages in order to sway international public opinion in favor of the Russian government and against the West. Russian government-paid “trolls” churn out pro-Kremlin comments in foreign internet forums. Certainly, Russia freed itself from many structural, financial, and ideological constraints of the Soviet system in managing its soft power resources. But its propaganda continues to be ineffective: Russia’s anti-liberal sloganeering appeals largely to populist left- and right-wing anti-EU parties, whose leaders share the goal of breaking Europe’s liberal consensus. Continue reading ‘Patryk Babiracki: Showcasing Hard Power, Russia Reveals Her Longstanding Soft Spot’ »

Steve Estes: Faith in Charleston

Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement, by Steve EstesWe welcome a guest post today from Steve Estes, author of Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement. Once one of the wealthiest cities in America, Charleston, South Carolina, established a society built on the racial hierarchies of slavery and segregation. By the 1970s, the legal structures behind these racial divisions had broken down and the wealth built upon them faded. Like many southern cities, Charleston had to construct a new public image. In this important book, Estes chronicles the rise and fall of black political empowerment and examines the ways Charleston responded to the civil rights movement, embracing some changes and resisting others.

In a recent post, Estes discussed the killing of Walter Scott in the context of the city’s history of racial relations and policing policy. As we reel from news of the racially motivated murders at Emanuel AME Church this week, Estes again brings valuable historical insights. 


Charleston is nicknamed the “Holy City,” because of the many steeples that punctuate the graceful poetry of its skyline. There are more than 900 houses of worship in the Low Country, representing all of the world’s major faiths, and more than a few minor ones. Some of the congregations were founded in the 1600s, others in the 2010s. Some meet in grand buildings on the National Historic Registry, others in humble strip mall storefronts. Regardless of how old they are or where they meet, Charleston’s congregations are driven by faith. That faith was sorely tested this week with the racially motivated murders of worshipers in Emanuel AME church. How could a city so steeped in faith witness a scene of such unimaginable horror in one of its holy places?

In the mid-1600s, the political philosopher John Locke wrote into a draft of the Carolina Colony’s constitution, “No Person whatsoever, shall disturb, molest or persecute another for his speculative opinions in religion, or his way of worship.” Locke also proposed a representative government with minimal property requirements for voting. Yet the same draft of the constitution that guaranteed religious freedom and representative government also defended slavery, stating: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves.” The Carolina colonists did not adopt Locke’s constitution, but the tensions inherent in the document—between tolerance and bigotry, freedom and slavery—defined the city’s history.

By the 1790s there were houses of worship in the city ministering to Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Huguenots, Lutherans, Catholics, and Jews. In fact, there were more Jews in Charleston in 1800 than any other city in North America, including New York. Continue reading ‘Steve Estes: Faith in Charleston’ »

The Society of Civil War Historians launches new website

News from The Society of Civil War Historians, the organization affiliated with The Journal of the Civil War Era, which is published by UNC Press:

The Society of Civil War Historians logoOn June 19, the 150th anniversary of the day that Gen. Gordon Granger landed at Galveston and announced to Texans that the war was over and slavery had ended, the SCWH launched its new website at

Fully integrated with the Society’s Facebook page and Twitter feed, the site will be a resource for information about publications, conferences, and Society news for members and non-members alike.

One of the key features of the new website—which will be edited by Megan Kate Nelson—is the opportunity for members and other interested parties to contribute content directly to the site, particularly in the following categories:

-Member News
-Calls for Papers
-Fellowship and job announcements
-Events at museums, libraries, and archives

The SCWH Outreach Committee (Jim Marten, Megan Kate Nelson, Megan Bever) welcomes feedback and encourages members to engage their colleagues and the profession via the new website.

Cartoon: We’re looking for people who like to steal, by Mark Wahlgren Summers

summers_ordeal[This article is crossposted from]

We’re excited to kick off today a series of political cartoons from historian and illustrator Mark Wahlgren Summers, author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction.

On Thursdays over the coming weeks, we will feature a new cartoon—hand drawn by Summers—that offers a creative, satirical spin on Reconstruction history. Each cartoon is accompanied by brief commentary from the author/illustrator to help put things into context. These cartoons stimulate your brain, tickle your funny bone, and bring history to life in a whole new way. 

First up in the satirical scaffold today: corrupt politicians and the businessmen who love (to bribe) them. (Click image for full size.)

1980 MWS, Looking for People who Like to steal

“We’re looking for people who like to steal.” The postwar era has gone down among historians as “the Great Barbecue,” “the Blackout of Honest Government,” and “The Era of Good Stealings.” It was unquestionably corrupt, and among the greatest corrupters were the railroad executives, out for subsidies and advantages. Tom Scott’s Pennsylvania Railroad dominated the Keystone State as completely as the Camden & Amboy did New Jersey’s. Senators took retainers from the corporations they defended, and a railroad construction firm, Credit Mobilier, passed out stock at bargain rates to congressmen who otherwise might wonder how government funds used to build America’s first transcontinental railroad actually had been spent.

Mark Wahlgren Summers is professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He is author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction, A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction, and many other books.

Erin A. Smith: Popular Religious Reading, Cultural Identities, and Religious Communities

smith_what_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Erin A. Smith, author of What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America. Since the late nineteenth century, religiously themed books in America have been commercially popular yet scorned by critics. Working at the intersection of literary history, lived religion, and consumer culture, Smith considers the largely unexplored world of popular religious books, examining the apparent tension between economic and religious imperatives for authors, publishers, and readers. Smith argues that this literature served as a form of extra-ecclesiastical ministry and credits the popularity and longevity of religious books to their day-to-day usefulness rather than their theological correctness or aesthetic quality.

In a previous post, Smith explores the past and present day implications of the slogan, What Would Jesus Do? In today’s post, Smith investigates the motivations behind the divided and polarized “religious right” and “spiritual left” of American readership. What do these groups have in common?


In 2006, the Baylor Religion Survey included questions about religious reading for the first time. The 1700 American adults surveyed fell into two main “camps of readers” of popular books that followed religious affiliations—evangelical and New Age. Evangelical Christians reported reading Left Behind and The Purpose-Driven Life. New Age readers reported reading books like The Celestine Prophecy and Dianetics.[1] At first glance, this appears to fit a familiar (and depressing) rubric—red America and blue America, the religious right and “the spiritual left.” Moreover, the people in each group read only books targeting readers like them, written by writers like them. Nobody read outside their comfort zone or in order to encounter ideas that might differ from those they already held.

This was a sociological survey, designed to offer a statistical overview of religious reading in America (19% of the sample had read any Left Behind books or The Purpose-Driven Life; 28.5% had read The Da Vinci Code). Although illuminating and true, the statistical survey is incomplete. Perhaps a closer look at how and why people read religious books would offer a more nuanced picture. Although liberals and conservatives were largely reading different books, they might be reading them for similar reasons and in similar ways.

For example, I conducted ethnographic research in the early 2000s with a Unitarian-Universalist (UU) reading group. As in the Baylor study, these UUs were enthusiastically reading and discussing “heretical” books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003). They made immediate, personal connections between their own position as embattled religious liberals in the Bible Belt and Brown’s heroic characters, fearlessly challenging religious orthodoxy by pursuing the “truth” that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife and his most beloved disciple. Texts like The Da Vinci Code provided readers with a usable past—connection to an alternative (heretical) Christian tradition, access to a suppressed history of women as spiritual agents, and a roadmap for seeking enlightenment through spiritual practice rather than right belief. Continue reading ‘Erin A. Smith: Popular Religious Reading, Cultural Identities, and Religious Communities’ »

Interview: David Gilbert on the birth of the Manhattan musical marketplace

David Gilbert, author of The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace, talks with Gina Mahalek about the roots of “black music” and American popular culture.


Gina Mahalek: What was the Manhattan Musical Marketplace that you discuss in your book?

David Gilbert author photoDavid Gilbert: This is a term that I coined to explain the historical formation of New York City as the center of American popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century. I think that many music fans, musicians, and scholars kind of take for granted that NYC has always been America’s capital of popular entertainment, and I wanted to tell the story about how this came to be. Rather than assume Broadway Theater and Tin Pan Alley song publishing just naturally developed into leading culture industries, I want to call attention to the moment in which these spaces—and their connotations—developed. And I want to emphasize African Americans’ roles in creating both New York’s unique culture markets and important facets of American popular culture.

GM: How did black entertainers help create Broadway and Tin Pan Alley?

DG: Through their artistry and their ability to capitalize on white Americans’ increasing interest in black culture. Broadway Avenue was just a street with a bunch of vaudeville houses and some larger theaters in the early 1890s. Yet when African Americans began performing on its stages between 1898 and 1906, blacks’ innovations in dance styles, comedy, and especially the rhythmic sounds of ragtime helped make Broadway shows more popular and laid down many of the artistic approaches that would define American musicals for generations. And blacks’ roles in New York song publishing were even more stark—a “popular song” was not really that popular before African Americans began composing ragtime tunes. In the early 1890s, a well-selling tune sold tens of thousands of copies, but after ragtime rhythms started to get printed—and the so-called coon song craze took off, in 1896—songs sold in the millions.

GM: What were “coon songs”?

DG: Right, OK. When most people think about ragtime, they think about instrumental piano songs, like Scott Joplin tunes. But the most popular ragtime songs between 1896 and the 1910s were ragtime songs with lyrics. And these lyrics were usually full of racist stereotypes straight off the minstrel stage—African Americans fighting and gambling, shirking work, and on the hunt for sex, often across the color-line. White women on Broadway, who were known as “coon shouters” performed coon songs on stage and helped popularize the sounds of ragtime rhythms. Of course, they also disseminated very racist stereotypes, essentially updating the racism of blackface minstrelsy—which was an antebellum entertainment—for a post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow era in which white Americans were trying to re-institutionalize racial inequalities and re-create new forms of white supremacy. And most astonishing: many coon song writers Continue reading ‘Interview: David Gilbert on the birth of the Manhattan musical marketplace’ »

Video: Sulmaan Wasif Khan on China, Tibet, and the Complications of “One Country, Two Systems”


In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa, leaving the People’s Republic of China with a crisis on its Tibetan frontier. Sulmaan Wasif Khan tells the story of the PRC’s response to that crisis and, in doing so, brings to life an extraordinary cast of characters: Chinese diplomats appalled by sky burials, Guomindang spies working with Tibetans in Nepal, traders carrying salt across the Himalayas, and Tibetan Muslims rioting in Lhasa.

What Chinese policymakers confronted in Tibet, Khan argues, was not a “third world” but a “fourth world” problem: Beijing was dealing with peoples whose ways were defined by statelessness. As it sought to tighten control over the restive borderlands, Mao’s China moved from a lighter hand to a harder, heavier imperial structure. That change triggered long-lasting shifts in Chinese foreign policy. Moving from capital cities to far-flung mountain villages, from top diplomats to nomads crossing disputed boundaries in search of pasture, this book shows Cold War China as it has never been seen before and reveals the deep influence of the Tibetan crisis on the political fabric of present-day China.

In the following video, Khan talks about China’s takeover of Tibet, the complications of the “one country, two systems” policy of governing, and the importance of the role of non-state actors in shaping the trajectory of empire.

Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China’s Cold War and the People of the Tibetan Borderlands from ChinaFile on Vimeo.

Sulmaan Wasif Khan is assistant professor of international history and Chinese foreign relations at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. His book, Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China’s Cold War and the People of the Tibetan Borderlands, is now available.

Interview: Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett on Harry Golden, ‘Carolina Israelite’

In the following interview, author Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett talks about her new biography of Jewish American writer and humorist Harry Golden, Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights.


Gina Mahalek: Who was Harry Golden?

hartnett_kimberlyKimberly Marlowe Hartnett: Harry Golden (1903–1981) was a Jew, a writer, a humorist, a bit of a con man, and a fearless advocate for civil rights. He and his family immigrated to New York’s Lower East Side in 1907 from what was then Austria-Hungary, and is now Ukraine. His high-flying career on Wall Street ended in 1929 with a scandal, a trial for fraud, and a prison sentence. Struggling to make ends meet as an ad salesman, he landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1940, and soon launched his homely little newspaper, the improbably titled Carolina Israelite. His first book, Only in America, was a surprise bestseller in 1958, and was followed by several other popular books, including four more bestsellers, and scores of magazine and newspaper articles.

GM: Let’s start with the title: How did Harry Golden make us care about Jews, the South, and civil rights?

KMH: Golden had a gift for confronting controversial issues and talking about them in ways that educated and entertained people. He exposed racism in all its guises and deconstructed anti-Semitism, and he did it with wit and originality. By the late 1950s he had a very wide readership. Golden became a sort of cultural matchmaker in his speeches and writings. He introduced whites to blacks, Gentiles to Jews. His endless stream of anecdotes gave northerners a glimpse of Dixie and southerners a sense of the Lower East Side. Once he got his reader or listener to laugh—and it never took long—he could get them to question the status quo. Golden was a contrarian; earthy and sophisticated, well-read and sentimental, brave and irreverent. His following was appropriately diverse as a result. It helped that his life encompassed some of the most fascinating and telling events in America’s modern history.

GM: Such as?

KMH: Golden’s life story is a bit of a Forrest Gump tale. His family was part of the great wave of newcomers in the early twentieth century that shaped and enriched this country. He grabbed money with both hands during the frenzied 1920s stock market. When Brown v. Board of Education sounded a death knell for “separate but equal,” he was cheering with students on the campus of a southern black college. He wrote speeches for Adlai Stevenson, and exchanged warm letters with Robert Kennedy and Billy Graham.

While bus boycotts, protest marches, bombs, showdowns on schoolhouse steps, and black-voter registration were all over the nightly news, Golden had a front-row seat. He cajoled audiences into donating to nearly every major Jewish organization in the country, as well as the NAACP, the Urban League, and others.

He broke bread with NASA insiders as Apollo 11 headed for the moon. He faced angry college audiences when he refused to condemn Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam. Anywhere big news was breaking, Golden seemed to be there.

GM: Is Golden best described as a journalist, humorist, or Jewish activist?

KMH: It’s not easy to label Golden! He was not a conventional newspaper reporter; he rejected many of the usual rules of engagement by reporting on the momentous civil rights story while he participated in it himself. He was often deadly serious and hilarious in the same piece of writing. He was most definitely not a model Jewish activist—he regularly horrified Jews in Charlotte and beyond with his sweeping (often self-aggrandizing) criticisms of what he saw as their passivity or hypocrisy on racial issues. Nor was he a member of the Jewish literary intelligentsia of his day. Yet Golden managed something that most editorial pages and people he liked to call “super sophisticates” did not: he held on to his moral outrage over racism. He truly believed that America could and would do better. He was a pop-culture star and was recognized by many of the civil rights movement’s leaders as an effective ally. In 1963, in the revolutionary document, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. cited Golden as one of a small number of whites who wrote in “eloquent, prophetic, and understanding terms” about the civil rights struggle.

GM: How did Golden become so influential?

hartnett_carolinaKMH: First, he had a deep love for America. Despite accurate criticism that he took a sentimental, simplified view of the immigrant experience, Golden hit on a theme that resonated with an enormous range of people when he reflected that this country gave newcomers “hope and life,” and they in turn gave back everything from poetry and music to medical breakthroughs and world-changing inventions. As he liked to say: “There has never been a more even trade.”

He was also an unabashed self-promoter, very funny, and at the start of his fame he had a writing style that was fresh and appealing. Golden was essentially a blogger before blogs (or the Internet) existed. He wrote in a catchy, short-essay style, and was fast on the draw with one-liners that delighted the press, keeping him in the public eye. His satire would not be out of place in a Seinfeld episode. He created a series of “Golden Plans” to solve various societal ills, beginning with the Golden Vertical Negro Plan, which urged removal of chairs from classrooms, playing off the ludicrous Jim Crow practice that allowed mixing of races as long as people were not seated. He wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea, but he was the funniest—and surely the best at promoting his own cleverness.

And, finally, he had fortuitous timing. As “brotherhood became a civil religion,” as historian Leonard Rogoff has so aptly put it, Golden’s brand of Yiddishkeit—cultural Judaism—and his “we’re-all-on-the-same-ball-of-yarn” view of his fellow man were very appealing.

GM: You call him a “blogger before blogs existed.” How did he reach so many people pre-Internet? Continue reading ‘Interview: Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett on Harry Golden, ‘Carolina Israelite’’ »

Martha S. Jones and Barbara D. Savage on roundtable discussion, ‘Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women’

Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, edited by Mia E. Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. SavageThis week the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) hosted a six-day roundtable on Toward an Intellectual History of Black Womenthe new volume edited by Mia Bay, Farah J.Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage. Over on the AAIHS website, editors Jones and Savage respond to the conversation.

Jones writes:

No question posed here spoke to me more than that asked by Kientz Anderson in her Introduction to this roundtable: “Who are intellectuals?” This question was that which guided our work from the outset. I hope it isn’t revealing too much to say that, in one important sense, crafting a response was not very difficult. Yes, we searched, probed, rethought, and reimagined women of the past as thinkers and producers of ideas. Of course we stretched understandings of genre, and overthrew conventions of sites for and means of production. We looked hard to find black women and their ideas in new and unexpected places. It was work. But it was also easy in that the women about whom we wrote had always been there, waiting for us to hold them up to the light. They were intellectuals even before we set out to write their histories, of that I am certain.

There is, however, another version of Kientz Anderson’s question and it is: “Are we intellectuals?” What happens, I’d like to consider, when we hold up the mirror and ask whether the editors and contributors to Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women are themselves intellectuals? Are we the sorts of producers of ideas that warrant such an esteemed and carefully guarded designation? I’ll pause here to shift voice; I speak only for myself when I say “I’m not certain.” The question led me to make a self-assessment. It turns out that intellectual is a label I cannot don easily. I may term myself academic, professor, historian, or scholar, even doctor in some settings. But intellectual is something I cannot quite call myself. It is awkward, ill-fitting, and when the words pass over my lips—“I am an intellectual”—I immediately feel I am over-reaching.

I was raised to be a doer. It is a quality I likely share with many of the women chronicled in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. As a girl, I won the most praise for what I could do, rather than for my ideas. Continue reading ‘Martha S. Jones and Barbara D. Savage on roundtable discussion, ‘Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women’’ »

Michael H. Hunt: The Pentagon’s Durable Asian Fairy Tale

hunt_arc_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Michael H. Hunt, author of Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam, coauthored with Steven I. Levine. Although conventionally treated as separate, America’s four wars in Asia were actually phases in a sustained U.S. bid for regional dominance, according to Hunt and Levine. This effort unfolded as an imperial project in which military power and the imposition of America’s political will were crucial. Devoting equal attention to Asian and American perspectives, the authors follow the long arc of conflict across seventy-five years from the Philippines through Japan and Korea to Vietnam, tracing along the way American ambition, ascendance, and ultimate defeat. They show how these wars are etched deeply in eastern Asia’s politics and culture.

The authors encourage readers to confront the imperial pattern in U.S. history with implications for today’s Middle Eastern conflicts. They also offer a deeper understanding of China’s rise and Asia’s place in today’s world.

Featured below is a crosspost from Hunt’s blog, On Washington and the World. In his post, Hunt evaluates the opinions in Washington, D.C., concerning U.S. relations with eastern Asia. 


The Pentagon’s fairy tale history of U.S. involvement in eastern Asia appears alive and well. So at least statements made by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during his recent visits in Singapore and Vietnam suggest. Following the lines of the mythology that seems to exercise strong appeal in official U.S. circles, Carter claimed that the United States, by playing a pivotal military role in the region over the past seven decades, has “helped maintain peace and stability.” (See the transcript of his address in Singapore on 30 May and his interview in Vietnam with the BBC dated 1 June.)

The notion of the U.S. military as a force for peace and stability doesn’t hold historical water now any more than when Carter’s predecessor invoked it. (See my earlier post on this topic.)

From the late 1940s Washington extended the Cold War struggle from Europe to Asia and in the process spawned regional disorder. U.S. policymakers recruited clients, created dependencies, and resisted calls for revolutionary change wherever they were heard throughout the region. In defense of the status quo, U.S. forces fought in Korea and Vietnam, helped defeat insurgents in the Philippines, and devastated Cambodia from the air. These efforts twice resulted in costly military collisions with China, first in Korea and then in Vietnam. To the surprise and dismay of the U.S. political class and military leaders, neither confrontation with Beijing went well—and this at a time when Mao Zedong’s China was just getting on its feet. (Readers interested in the details are invited to consult Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam, which I coauthored with Steven I. Levine.)

An important shift in the early 1970s has no place in Carter’s simple generalization about America in Asia. Continue reading ‘Michael H. Hunt: The Pentagon’s Durable Asian Fairy Tale’ »

Video: Barbara Ellis on Chesapeake Gardening and Landscaping

Watch: Barbara Ellis is author of Chesapeake Gardening and Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide. In this video produced by The Chestertown Spy, Ellis talks about the origins of the book, her lifelong interest in plants, why she doesn’t use herbicides, and more.

Chesapeake Gardening and Landscaping, by Barbara EllisFormer managing editor of gardening books at Rodale Press and publications director at the American Horticultural Society, Barbara W. Ellis is the author of Chesapeake Gardening and Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide and Covering Ground: Unexpected Ideas for Landscaping with Colorful, Low-Maintenance Ground Covers, among other books.

Steve Estes: Cameras and Cops

Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement, by Steve EstesWe welcome a guest post today from Steve Estes, author of Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement. Once one of the wealthiest cities in America, Charleston, South Carolina, established a society built on the racial hierarchies of slavery and segregation. By the 1970s, the legal structures behind these racial divisions had broken down and the wealth built upon them faded. Like many southern cities, Charleston had to construct a new public image. In this important book, Estes chronicles the rise and fall of black political empowerment and examines the ways Charleston responded to the civil rights movement, embracing some changes and resisting others.

In today’s post, Estes puts the killing of Walter Scott in the context of the history of police policy and race relations in Charleston.


Video recordings of police brutality in the past year, including the horrific shooting of Walter Scott in the South Carolina Low Country, have led many to argue that body cameras will solve the problems of racial profiling and brutality in law enforcement. While body cameras do bring accountability to both police and suspects, they are no panacea to cure this systemic problem.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, urban police departments struggled with similar problems of racial tensions and police brutality. They addressed these problems in three ways. First, the concept of community policing got cops out of their cars and put them back on the beat to meet the people they served and protected. Second, urban police forces aggressively promoted diversity through affirmative action, hiring trailblazing African American and Latino chiefs for the first time in history. Finally, police forces began to prioritize hiring better-educated officers. All three of these strategies were successful in helping to professionalize and diversify city police departments across the country.

I saw this first hand in my research on Charleston, South Carolina, in the post–civil rights era. In 1960 Charleston had a police department that was almost entirely white, policing a city that was majority African American. By the 1970s, a new chief had implemented community policing. By the early 1980s, the city had hired its first black (and Jewish) chief, Reuben Greenberg. Greenberg continued community policing and required all new hires to have a college degree. White and black Charlestonians embraced Greenberg as both a symbol and catalyst of real change.

At this same time, however, the Charleston police department and departments around the country were deployed to fight two “wars” on the home front. Continue reading ‘Steve Estes: Cameras and Cops’ »

Patryk Babiracki: Post-Soviet Ukraine: Not Unlike Postwar Poland. What Putin’s Russia (and the West) Can Learn from the Cold War

babiracki_sovietWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Patryk Babiracki, author of Soviet Soft Power in Poland: Culture and the Making of Stalin’s New Empire, 1943-1957. Concentrating on the formative years of the Cold War from 1943 to 1957, Babiracki reveals little-known Soviet efforts to build a postwar East European empire through culture. He argues that the Soviets involved in foreign cultural outreach tried to use “soft power” in order to galvanize broad support for the postwar order in the emerging Soviet bloc. Babiracki shows that the Stalinist system ultimately undermined Soviet efforts to secure popular legitimacy abroad through persuasive propaganda. He also highlights the limitations and contradictions of Soviet international cultural outreach, which help explain why the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe crumbled so easily after less than a half-century of existence.

In today’s post, Babiracki draws a comparison between Ukraine’s present and Poland’s past. Will history repeat itself in this eastern European country?


Geopolitics matters. Ukraine may be fated to remain in Russia’s orbit as long as the Kremlin has the power to disrupt the country’s westward drift. But unless Russia develops a genuine power of attraction, Ukraine will become a festering imperial sore.

The conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine certainly differs from the “old” Cold War. Yes, just like in the old days, Russia and the West claim to offer alternative solutions to the world’s problems. Each country’s politicians believe that they represent the superior option. But unlike communism earlier, the Russian anti-liberalism hardly constitutes an ideological threat to the West. Russia and the world had already been economically codependent during the Cold War; now they are even more intertwined. Recently, the crashing ruble has shown that the new Russian autocracy is even less of an autarky than its Soviet predecessor was.

Still, today’s Ukrainian battleground resembles Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Like Joseph Stalin in Poland, Vladimir Putin tries to assume control over Ukraine through faits accomplis. Now, as then, the Kremlin actively intervenes in the affairs of its sovereign neighbor. Publicly, the Russian leaders deny any such involvement, and in a well-rehearsed Soviet scenario, accuse the West of meddling instead. In the bipolar world of the Cold War, Stalin needed a supine Poland as a buffer state against the West. Today, against the backdrop of deepening ideological incongruities, political divisions, and international tensions, Mr. Putin clearly wants Ukraine to fill that role.

Much like Poland after World War II, today, Ukraine is a terrain contested by Russia and the West. Much like Poland then, Ukraine may now be doomed—at least until Russia reforms itself or, like the USSR, collapses under the tremendous weight of its own problems. A weak agricultural country with inexperienced, quarrelsome elites, Ukraine has little the West will want to fight for on the long run. Neighboring Russia is big, flush with oil and gas, and desperate to prove its strength to the world. Europe is dependent on Russian oil and business and internally divided, and the United States—freshly out of the recession, pivoting to Asia in its foreign policy, and militarily overstretched throughout the Middle East—is far away anyway.

With oil prices falling, the ruble is tumbling down, and Russia’s immediate economic prospects are grim. But the Russian leaders’ political will to retain Ukraine is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. The lands that became modern Ukraine had been part of Russian empire for three and a half centuries. Vladimir Putin has shown inexhaustible energy in obstructing Ukraine’s rapprochement with the West; Ukraine’s prospective successes in integrating with the EU (or, in a more adventurous scenario, with NATO) would be a heavy blow to Russia’s prestige and to Mr. Putin’s ego. Therefore in the long run, it seems unlikely that any person or institution can prevent the Russian president and his cronies from wresting Ukraine back firmly into the Russian orbit. Continue reading ‘Patryk Babiracki: Post-Soviet Ukraine: Not Unlike Postwar Poland. What Putin’s Russia (and the West) Can Learn from the Cold War’ »

J. Matthew Gallman on the Civil War History of the Word “Shoddy”

Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front, by J. Matthew GallmanOver on our CivilWar150 site, J. Matthew Gallman, author of Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front, writes about the Civil War–era origins of the word “shoddy”:

Writers have good reason to like the word “shoddy.” It is an evocative word, suggesting very much what it in fact means. Today we commonly use “shoddy” to describe poor workmanship. The carpenter who measures poorly, producing corners that are not square, has done a shoddy job. So has the painter who leaves behind paint on window panes or carpets. We might stretch the case to encompass anyone who has worked hastily and without pride in the result. Shoddy work is nothing to admire.

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.

In the first months of the Civil War, Northerners struggled to produce sufficient materiel to clothe, arm, and feed its new army of citizen-soldiers. A combination of haste, inexperience, and corruption produced some disappointing results. Before long, federal investigations had begun to uncover stories of malfeasance, and hordes of satirists, cartoonists, and poets had taken aim at the purveyors of shoddy goods. In some cases the targets were quite literally textiles that could not stand the test of hard marching. In July 1861 the cover of Vanity Fair—playing on published reports about Philadelphia contractors—showed embarrassed volunteers in dissolving uniforms “closing ranks” so that the passing ladies would not see more than they should. Other satirists expanded the definition of shoddy to include poorly made shoes, burnt coffee, and rotten meat. And whereas the term originally suggested poor products, the fraud investigations also turned up dishonest contractors who intentionally sold under-sized tents and corrupt inspectors who accepted bribes to look the other way.

Read the full post, “Shoddy: The (Sometimes) Strange History of a Civil War Term,” at

Daniel J. Tortora: Why Hollywood Should Take Notice of the Anglo-Cherokee War

Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756-1763, by Daniel J. TortoraWe welcome a guest post today from Daniel J. Tortora, author of Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756-1763. In his engaging book, Daniel J. Tortora explores how the Anglo-Cherokee War reshaped the political and cultural landscape of the colonial South. He chronicles the series of clashes that erupted from 1758 to 1761 between Cherokees, settlers, and British troops. The conflict, no insignificant sideshow to the French and Indian War, eventually led to the regeneration of a British-Cherokee alliance. Tortora reveals how the war destabilized the South Carolina colony and threatened the white coastal elite, arguing that the political and military success of the Cherokees led colonists to a greater fear of slave resistance and revolt and ultimately nurtured South Carolinians’ rising interest in the movement for independence.

In today’s post, Tortora makes the case for bringing the history of the Anglo-Cherokee War to Hollywood.

There’s one question I get every semester as a history professor, most recently at Colby College: “Professor, are we going to watch The Patriot?” I can’t tell if this question is serious or not, but students say my “No” answer and explanation are comical.

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. And here’s why.

Like Carolina in Crisis, a film depiction can:

  1. Promote a more accurate understanding of Indians

A modern film can take viewers into Cherokee town houses and villages, humanizing Indians and revealing the richness of their culture.

A modern film will show Cherokees struggling to preserve and honor their culture and sovereignty, and working for a better future—all familiar themes today.

Include the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Warriors of AniKituwha. Film on location at Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, North Carolina.

  1. Offer a realistic and nuanced view of race relations in the eighteenth century.

The Patriot (2000), albeit exciting and emotive, whitewashes African American slavery. Let’s see African Americans disembarking from slave ships in Charleston harbor, toiling as laborers on plantations and in British armies. Let’s see them fighting for freedom against the odds—like Abram, the enslaved messenger.

A film can show how British policies pit Indians against each other in the eighteenth century.

A film can also powerfully capture the voices of the white defenders of Cherokee rights and sovereignty and those who challenged the status quo when it was unpopular to do so. And it can expose the legacy of eighteenth-century racism.

  1. Clarify the southeastern origins of the American Revolution.

A film can introduce viewers to the diverse cast of characters who played a role in the proceedings in the Revolutionary Era. Let viewers see mobs jeering British soldiers in Charles Town—nearly a decade before the Boston Massacre. Introduce them to Christopher Gadsden, the conservative firebrand who would later design a flag appropriated by the Tea Party movement.

  1. Garner interest in historical sites and boost tourism.

For seven years I have crisscrossed the Southeast researching and investigating, leading tour groups and giving presentations. A film would attract visitors to my favorite can’t-miss destinations: Fort Loudoun State Historic Area; Cherokee, North Carolina; Historic Charleston; Macon County, North Carolina; and Ninety-Six National Historic Site.

What would such a film look like? Continue reading ‘Daniel J. Tortora: Why Hollywood Should Take Notice of the Anglo-Cherokee War’ »

Toby L. Parcel: Can Neighborhood Schools Also Be Diverse Schools?

parcel_end_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Toby L. Parcel, coauthor, with Andrew J. Taylor, of The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments. One of the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan areas, Wake County, North Carolina, added more than a quarter million new residents during the first decade of this century, an increase of almost 45 percent. At the same time, partisanship increasingly dominated local politics, including school board races. Against this backdrop, Parcel and Taylor consider the ways diversity and neighborhood schools have influenced school assignment policies in Wake County, particularly during 2000-2012, when these policies became controversial locally and a topic of national attention.

In the following post, Parcel explains that what seem to be competing interests may in fact be common interests in school assignment decision making in a rapidly growing school system.  


Are preferences for neighborhood schools and diverse schools really polar opposites? As Wake County has debated policies of public school assignments over the last several years, many have framed the debate this way. Media coverage often juxtaposes assignment plans that promote diversity in schools and classrooms with others that place more emphasis on children attending schools close to home. Citizen groups have formed on both sides. Races for school board have focused closely on candidate preferences.

In The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments, Andy and I have discovered that despite this very public polarization, many citizens actually favor both diverse and neighborhood schools. Neighborhood schools remain very well ingrained in American life. Possibly this is because that, although private schools have always been an option, the vast majority of adults, including those with children in Wake schools today, attended neighborhood schools growing up in North Carolina or elsewhere. Neighborhood schools also present advantages for children and families, particularly in terms of proximity between home and school. But we have found many of those who value neighborhood schools also strongly support diverse schools, places where children from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds interact and learn together. Can these two preferences be reconciled?

Complicating this picture is the reality that Wake County population has grown quickly but unevenly across the jurisdiction. Combining this with a sluggish system of funding from Wake County itself, school assignment policies became controversial. Just finding space at school for increasing numbers of students became challenging. When this was combined with long-standing and successful student assignment policies supporting diverse schools, conflict became acute. Continue reading ‘Toby L. Parcel: Can Neighborhood Schools Also Be Diverse Schools?’ »

David Gilbert: Who Owns Black Culture?: Racial Appropriation and the Marketplace

The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace, by David GilbertWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by David Gilbert, author of The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace. In 1912 James Reese Europe made history by conducting his 125-member Clef Club Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The first concert by an African American ensemble at the esteemed venue was more than just a concert—it was a political act of desegregation, a defiant challenge to the status quo in American music. In this book, Gilbert explores how Europe and other African American performers, at the height of Jim Crow, transformed their racial difference into the mass-market commodity known as “black music.” Gilbert shows how Europe and others used the rhythmic sounds of ragtime, blues, and jazz to construct new representations of black identity, challenging many of the nation’s preconceived ideas about race, culture, and modernity and setting off a musical craze in the process.

In today’s post, Gilbert explores the idea of black music past and present and how calling out white appropriation of black culture is a way of highlighting ongoing social inequalities.


Every six-to-twelve months, it seems pop music critics headline the latest example of white appropriation of black styles. Whether it’s the most recent examples of white ladies’ dance moves, white rappers, the “Harlem Shake,” or white R&B singers “singing black” on American Idol, critics are quick to criticize. And for good reason. It is clear that white performers have access to most any style, genre, or performance practice they’re interested in. Just as it is equally clear that entertainers of color rarely have the luxury to perform a dance or piece of music without assuming some form of racial identity, or receiving some form of racial pigeon-holing. What is more, while white “stars” of stages, videos, and webcasts often make significant earnings, black innovators rarely earn comparably. It is a hallmark of the history of pop music in the United States, the black artists who invented new styles of blues, jazz, rock, and rap rarely received fiscal compensation commensurate with their innovations.

Because the racial inequities that pop culture highlights are the same ones that undergird so much of American society more generally, critics are right to call attention to them. Often, single cases of racial appropriation and unequal cultural access highlight social norms that many white Americans prefer to ignore. Yet to peruse online notices of racial appropriation, one might think this was a new or at least recent phenomenon. A turn to American cultural history may help us see that distinguishing an authentically racial sound from an inauthentic one is more problematic than many realize. Not only does the language of black authenticity assume a very constricted, homogenous conception of “black music” and black people, but this game of locating the essential sound of blackness—and documenting white people’s borrowing of it—elides more fundamental issues about social, economic, and political inequalities in the United States, issues that find revealing expressions in pop culture, and music history specifically.

First things first. It is inarguable that black musicians, living and performing in all- or mostly-black neighborhoods, created most of America’s tremendous styles of pop music: ragtime, blues, gospel, jazz, bebop, R&B, rock, soul, funk, hip-hop. Although whites have worked alongside blacks in creating and codifying these styles, they have much more frequently borrowed blacks’ cultural practices, acknowledging neither the roots of the music nor the act of appropriation. One may recognize racial appropriation, in fact, by the degree that white “popularizers” of ragtime, swing, rock’n’roll, or rap claim ignorance, rather than admit their observable source materials. But does this mean these styles of music belong only to African Americans? What does the term “black music” mean in the context of a marketplace where goods, ideas, and cultural forms become transmogrified into commodities, available by purchase (and emulation) to anyone who can afford it?

Even looking back before mass music markets existed in the United States, there are few indications that any music style generated from a single race. Historians have traced aspects of West African music, dance, and singing forms through U.S. slavery and into the Reconstruction period, and echoes of their influence remain in most pop music today. Yet scholars also emphasize the cross-race borrowings that Irish, French, Spanish, Dutch, English, and Native Americans had with Africans throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in urban areas and along waterways connecting the coasts with the hinterland. Whether it’s the African origins of the banjo, the convoluted history of the slave-era Cakewalk dance, or Appalachian fiddle-play, it is hard to locate any essential qualities of a racially homogenous black music in America. Yet questions of racial ownership and origin become both accentuated and concealed in the marketplace.

Music markets obscure original artistic authorship, making a commodity out of the very idea of an “original artist.” Continue reading ‘David Gilbert: Who Owns Black Culture?: Racial Appropriation and the Marketplace’ »

William Marvel: Sacrificing General Sherman

marvel_lincolnsOver on our Civil War blog, William Marvel, author of Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton describes the intense conflict between General Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton shortly after Lincoln’s death. Marvel begins:

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, but both probably considered their proposal justifiable because their political leaders would have the opportunity to accept or reject it. Even Lincoln would surely have disapproved it, because it involved subjects over which he claimed sole authority, such as the restoration of political rights, amnesty, and the fate of state governments. He would, however, never have responded with the wrath shown by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

Lincoln was dead by the time the document started for Washington. General Grant received it first, and immediately asked Stanton to call an emergency cabinet meeting, at which everyone concurred that the convention was unacceptable. Stanton vehemently condemned not only the agreement but Sherman himself, and he wrote an order for Grant to go to North Carolina and supervise the operations of Sherman’s troops. He also issued a public rebuke through a press release, in which he accused Sherman of violating an express order against such negotiations—although Sherman had never seen that order. Adding insult to injury, he inaccurately blamed Sherman’s cease-fire for allowing Jefferson Davis to escape, and insinuated that the general might have made a bargain that allowed the rebel leaders to get away with the Confederate treasury. Stanton also published Henry Halleck’s order directing Sherman’s subordinates to ignore their commander’s instructions, which Halleck had based on Stanton’s jaundiced information.

Read Marvel’s full post, “Sacrificing General Sherman,” at

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett: Digitization with a Bit of Resentment

hartnett_carolinaWe welcome to the blog today a post from Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, author of Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights. This first comprehensive biography of Jewish American writer and humorist Harry Golden (1903-1981)—author of the 1958 national best-seller Only in America—illuminates a remarkable life intertwined with the rise of the civil rights movement, Jewish popular culture, and the sometimes precarious position of Jews in the South and across America during the 1950s. During World War II, the cigar-smoking, bourbon-loving raconteur landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, and founded the Carolina Israelite newspaper, which was published into the 1960s. Golden’s writings on race relations and equal rights attracted a huge popular readership. Golden used his celebrity to editorialize for civil rights as the momentous story unfolded.

In today’s post, Hartnett traces some of the technological changes that have transformed the fields of journalism and research, creating both new possibilities and a sense of nostalgia. 


I’ve been researching Harry Golden for more than a decade, and in the years we’ve cohabited, the reach of technology has stretched back in some extraordinary ways. I often catch myself wondering what he would have made of it all.

Years ago, it took me months to find all of his family’s records of traveling from what was then Austria-Hungary to New York City in 1907. That Harry’s father and older brother traveled separately from his mother and sisters complicated things, as did the fact that throughout his life, Golden gave various years for his own birth, from 1902 to 1905.

When the passenger manifest of the S.S. Graf Waldersee was first transcribed, it rendered Golden’s original surname, “Goldhirsch,” into something unrecognizable. Yet within a couple of years, the family name was there for all to see on genealogical databases, corrected by some patient soul to its proper spelling.

The musty copies of Life and Time and Saturday Review magazines with articles by and about Golden’s unique fight for civil rights that I found at yard sales and in the jumbled backroom of a Portland, Oregon, junk store have since popped up online like so many digitized mushrooms.

These technological leaps shouldn’t surprise me. Growing up in the newspaper business, I collected the fallen metal letters as the journeymen printers in the back shop set the type for my mother’s small newspaper—fingers flying, somehow managing to set whole pages without errors despite the challenge of doing it all backwards as necessitated by the printing method. (All the more impressive given that more often than not, the printers had enjoyed their liquid dinners at the Legion Hall down the street.)

By the time I became a reporter at age 19, the shift to phototypesetting was solidly in the works and by the time I left the Seattle Times in 2003 to research my book about Golden, the whole journalistic process from note-taking to layout took place on computer screens, and the printing press was miles away.

The online riches still do take me a bit by surprise, though. Just this month another record surfaced in a new database, making public the fruits of my painstaking hunt years ago to find out when and how Golden’s sister Matilda had chosen to estrange herself from her family for a life in Hollywood as a clothing designer.

I’ve been asked several times (usually by people of my vintage and older) if I resent this digitizing of my trade. The answer: Only a tiny bit.  Continue reading ‘Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett: Digitization with a Bit of Resentment’ »

Marianne Gingher: Amazing Place Is a NY Times Bestseller

Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers, edited by Marianne GingherWe welcome a celebratory guest post today from Marianne Gingher, editor of Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers. In this collection of twenty-one original essays, some of North Carolina’s finest writers ruminate on the meaning of place, untangling North Carolina’s influence on their work, exploring how the idea of place resonates with North Carolinians, and illuminating why the state itself plays such a significant role in its own literature. Contributors include Rosecrans Baldwin, Will Blythe, Belle Boggs, Fred Chappell, Jan DeBlieu, Pamela Duncan, Clyde Edgerton, Ben Fountain, Marianne Gingher, Judy Goldman, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Randall Kenan, Jill McCorkle, Michael McFee, Lydia Millet, Robert Morgan, Jenny Offill, Michael Parker, Bland Simpson, Lee Smith, Wells Tower, and Monique Truong.

Listen to a podcast episode of WUNC’s “The State of Things” featuring Gingher and contributors Stephanie Elizondo Griest and Bland Simpson.


It seems fitting that I should document the AMAZING PLACEment of this wonderful book on the New York Times Bestseller List. Thursday, May 7,  2015, I got word it was named #8 by the New York Times Bestseller list for the TRAVEL category. Thanks first and foremost to all the fabulous writers in the book who made it such a hit that people are buying it and telling their pals to buy it! (It would make a dandy graduation present for the North Carolina literature lover in your house! OR simply the homesick-for-North Carolina grad or the grad that knows, to borrow our former Poet Laureate, Fred Chappell’s famous book title, he or she is “one of us forever.”)

I have been touring the state a bit and the response to the book has been genuinely warm and enthusiastic. Book signings sponsored by bookstores like the Regulator in Durham (at Motorco, a fun venue in downtown), Quail Ridge in Raleigh (my high school prom date was in the audience!), Scuppernong in Greensboro, the Bull’s Head Bookshop in Chapel Hill, and Park Road Books in Charlotte have allowed me to share the book’s many treasures. Thanks to some of the contributors who accompanied me on promotion: Michael McFee, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Bland Simpson, Belle Boggs, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Michael Parker, Fred Chappell, Jenny Offill, and Lydia Millet. It does take a village to convey the fabulous range of the book. Sorry, but I am going to eventually wear out the word “amazing.” Yet to come is a trip to Manteo and Duck’s Cottage Bookstore that I am eager to reschedule for June.

Below is what I hope will be the first of several AMAZING PLACE cartoons!


cartoon by Marianne Gingher showing woman at typewriter with text "What do James Taylor, Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Wolfe, Virginia Dare, Andy Griffith, the Red Clay Ramblers, O. Henry, Richard Petty, Doc Watson, Billy Graham, and Jesse Helms have in common? This Amazing Place called North Carolina"

© Marianne Gingher

Marianne Gingher is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and editor of Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers (2015) and Long Story Short: Flash Fiction by Sixty-Five of North Carolina’s Finest Writers (2009).