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“History is what we choose to remember”*…

In the mid-1940s, Edmund S. Morgan, a mild-mannered young historian, was teaching at Brown and making a name in the quiet field of early American studies. Having published a slim, well-received collection of essays on the New England Puritans, he might have seemed the very model of the unassuming scholar at the outset of a modest career, satisfied to refine the work of great forebears in a narrow field. That wasn’t Edmund Morgan. The Second World War was over. The United States was developing an energetic vision, which would come to fruition in 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy, of its new global leadership role. In keeping with that vision, Morgan launched a bold new interpretation of the nation’s founding.

Throwing out elder historians’ prevailing focus on the founding generation’s self-interest (Clarence Alvord had said that George Washington became a patriot to defend speculations in Indian land) and on its class conflicts (Carl Becker had said that the Revolution was not only over British rule but also over the rule of elite Americans), Morgan sought to identify the grand principles that the revolutionary generation agreed on. “What the colonists had to say about Parliamentary power and about their own rights deserved to be taken seriously,” he explained later.

As the U.S. began to exercise new power around the world, Morgan set out to show that the protests in the 1760s and ’70s against the Stamp Act and other British policies offered slam-dunk evidence of a founding American consensus on principles of rights. Inherent to the American character, that consensus unified the colonists, he said, inspired the Revolution, and brought about the United States. In the larger context of his work, and the work of similarly minded colleagues, the lesson was that the founding American commitment to rights persisted in postwar U.S. commitments to modern liberal democracy.

The impact of this interpretation was by no means limited to the late 1940s and the 1950s. Historians who built out what Morgan largely began—what became known as the consensus approach—turned early American history into a booming field and made big names for themselves. Born about a century ago, in Morgan’s generation, were Douglass Adair, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter, Forrest McDonald, and Bernard Bailyn. Born in succeeding decades were Pauline Maier, Gordon Wood, Carol Berkin, Sean Wilentz, and Akhil Reed Amar, among others. As dissertation advisers for scores of scholars, many of them have held great sway in their profession.

Even more striking is their success in shaping conceptions of the American founding widely held among the American public. That power and some of its complications were seen in recent controversies involving two of the younger members of the group (though not young anymore), Wood and Wilentz. In late 2019, Wilentz organized a letter, also signed by Wood and three other historians, criticizing The New York Times Magazine’s much-discussed 1619 Project, which frames slavery, racism, and Black Americans’ struggles for equality as the key drivers of American history. The signers said the 1619 Project ignored objective historical fact and was steeped in politically influenced bias. In early 2020, Wilentz followed up with an essay in The Atlantic whose title put the issue bluntly: “A Matter of Facts.” Because these objections to the 1619 Project were made not on the basis of a competing framework but on the basis of plain fact revealed by deep expertise, they struck many readers as insurmountable on their face.

That’s how consensus history works. Anyone hoping to explore the depths of America’s not-so-consensus-filled past will run into this presumption, on the part of widely respected scholars, of their superior objectivity as a basis for higher authority. The roots of that presumption can be found in the approach launched by Edmund Morgan about 70 years ago…

William Hogeland (@WilliamHogeland) explains how not to learn about the American past: “Against the Consensus Approach to History.” Eminently worthy of reading in full (soft pay-wall).

* “In fact, the past is not history, but a much vaster region of the dead, gone, unknowable, or forgotten. History is what we choose to remember, and we have no alternative but to do our choosing now.” -Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis

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As we ponder our past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1653 that a Dutch settlement on the southern tip of Manhattan Island was incorporated as New Amsterdam. It became the seat of the colonial government in New Netherland… and in 1664, after the English took over from the Dutch, New York City.

The Castello Plan, a 1660 map of New Amsterdam (the top right corner is roughly north). The fort gave The Battery its name, the large street going from the fort past the wall became Broadway, and the city wall (right) possibly gave Wall Street its name.

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Happy Groundhog Day!

“An ordinary life isn’t ordinary when you put a frame around a moment”*…

 

meyerowitz

 

Joel Meyerowitz is a pioneer of street photography. He started in the early 1960s in New York City, using color film when most other photographers were shooting in black-and-white. He’s had exhibitions of his work all over the world, and has published more than 30 books. A retrospective of his work is scheduled to be shown in Berlin later this year, and he’s working on a new project of self-portraits. At age 82, he’s continuing to explore the medium of photography every day…

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An interview with Meyerowitz, including his thoughts on street photography in the time of coronavirus (with memories of 9/11): “Ready for Surprise.”

* Joel Meyerowitz

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As we capture the moment, we might spare a thought for another extraordinary street photographer, Vivian Dorothy Maier; she died on this date in 2009.  A nanny, mostly in Chicago’s North Shore, she took more than 150,000 photographs during her lifetime, primarily of the people and architecture of Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles– photographs that weren’t recognized until after her death.

A Chicago collector, John Maloof, acquired some of Maier’s photos in 2007, while two other Chicago-based collectors, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow, also found some of Maier’s prints and negatives in her boxes and suitcases around the same time.  Maier’s photographs were first published by Slattery on the Internet in July 2008; but the work received little response.  In October 2009, Maloof linked his blog to a selection of Maier’s photographs on Flickr [now collected on this site], and the results went viral, with thousands of people expressing interest.  Maier’s work subsequently attracted critical acclaim, and since then, has been exhibited around the world. Her life and work have been the subject of books and documentary films, including the Academy Award-nominated Finding Vivian Maier.

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Self-portrait

 

Written by LW

April 21, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Don’t hate the media; become the media”*…

 

Joan Jett (Runaways), Debbie Harry (Blondie), David Johansen (New York Dolls), and Joey Ramone (Ramones)

As a city that represents endless possibilities, New York has long been the setting for the dawning of new movements, styles, and musical genres. And perhaps no music origin story has inspired as much appreciation, celebration, and imitation as the birth of punk rock in New York City in the 1970s.

In [an] excerpt from his new book New York Rock, Steven Blush gathers interviews with many of the artists, critics and original scenesters who witnessed first-hand the formation of punk’s distinctive subculture—a unique prism of influences, crosscurrents, and psychoactive distractions that coalesced around groundbreaking artists like The Ramones, Television, Richard Hell, Talking Heads, and Blondie…

Read on: New York Rock: The Birth of Punk, an Oral History

* Jello Biafra

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As we make our way to the mosh pit, we might recall that it was on this date in 1975 that the Sex Pistols made their live debut at St Martin’s School Of Art in central London, supporting a band called Bazooka Joe, which included Stuart Goddard (the future Adam Ant).  The Pistols’ performance lasted 10 minutes.

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Written by LW

November 6, 2016 at 1:01 am

“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding”*…

 

On the heels of last Sunday’s look at the NYPL Labs’ extraordinary interactive version of the Green Books, another visit to the Library, which has taken advantage of it’s enormous public domain collection to enable one to compare the photos from the 1911 Fifth Avenue from Start to Finish collection with 2015’s Google Street View.   The work of Bert Spaan, it illuminates one of the Big Apple’s most storied thoroughfares:

Fifth Avenue, the street that became the social and cultural spine of New York’s elite, first appeared on the Commissioners’ Map of 1811. At that time, it was merely a country road to Yorkville (then just a tiny self-contained village), but in the proposed grid plan it would be a grand boulevard. As the City grew and prospered Fifth Avenue became synonymous with fashionable life, the site of mansions, cultural and social institutions, and restaurants and shops catering to the elite. In 1907, alarmed at the approach of factories, the leading merchants and residents formed the Fifth Avenue Association. The Save New York Committee became a bulwark against the wrong kind of development. Perhaps inspired by this contemporary movement, photographer Burton Welles used a wide-angled view camera in 1911 to document this most important street from Washington Square, north to East 93rd Street.

Take a stroll at “Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue.”

* John Updike

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As we spread the news, we might recall that it was on this date in 1988 that three armed men entered the Bank of America’s World Trade Center location, disarmed two Brink’s guards delivering money to a currency exchange center there, then fled with with $1.6 million.  The heist was the brainchild of former mob boss Ralph Guarino. Given the heightened security on the heels of the 1993 WTC bombings, he needed help from a long-time employee of the facility, who handed over his ID badge and informed Guarino of the next expected delivery of cash to the bank; three hired goons were dispatched to carry out the robbery on that day.  The three entered the bank via passenger elevator early in the morning, tying up employees and stuffing cash into duffel bags as planned.  Luckily for law enforcement, the theives were not very discreet; only one of the the trio bothered to cover his head, so the other two were readily identifiable on security cam footage.  They were apprehended quickly following the robbery, leading to the capture of Guarino, who chose becoming an FBI informant over jail time.

The heist is unpacked in detail in the 2003 book Made Men.

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Written by LW

January 14, 2016 at 1:01 am

Gotham…

In the late 1940’s, before he found fame as a filmmaker, a teen-aged Stanley Kubrick worked as a photographer for Look Magazine, shooting around Manhattan (and often working alongside Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee).  The Museum of the City of New York has over 8,000 of his photos in their collection– at once a window on post-war New York and an early peek at the aesthetic that we’d all come to recognize in Dr. Strangelove and Clockwork Orange (and, if less directly, in 2001 and The Shining).

Read the backstory (and see more snaps) at Gothamist, here and here.

Kubrick in his days as a photographer for LOOK

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As we mutter “redrum,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1905 that Henry James returned to the United States for the first time in 25 years.  The son of theologian Henry James, Sr. and brother of philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice James. James was raised on both sides of the Atlantic.  After finishing Harvard Law School (and deciding that he preferred writing fiction to legal briefs), he left the U.S. for France, where he lived briefly, then the U.K., where he settled and wrote the  works on which his reputation rests: Daisy Miller (1879), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), What Maisie Knew (1897), The Turn of the Screw (1898), The Wings of the Dove (1902), and The Ambassadors.  After his return, James worked mainly on the “New York Edition” of his works and on his autobiography.

James’ work was a break from the Romantic tradition embodied in the novels of Dickens and Thackeray; indeed, with William Dean Howells, George Eliot, and Stephen Crane, he pioneered the Realist novel.

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Written by LW

August 30, 2013 at 1:01 am

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