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November 02, 2006

Patrick Allitt's "The American Identity"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I wrote back here about how much I enjoyed Patrick Allitt's Teaching Company lecture series "American Religious History." It's a wild and eye-opening tale that Allitt delivers in a beguilingly calm yet amused way. I've just finished another one of his Teaching Company courses, "The American Identity," and I'm happy to report that I enjoyed it just as much.

This is another zesty and offbeat cruise through American history. The course consists of 48 30-minute lectures. All but a couple of them are self-contained biographies of various American figures, beginning with John Smith in the 1600s and ending in the present day with Jesse Jackson. The subjects are deliberately all over the map. They range from textbook standards like Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass to less familiar figures like Edwin Ruffin (a defender of slavery) and Mother Anne Lee, an early religious leader.

Small warning: I'm anything but a history nut, let alone the kind of he-man who who plows through fat yellowing tomes like a hungry prisoner through a banquet. If you want deep-think from substantial people, let me recommend the postings of my co-blogger Friedrich von Blowhard (use the Search box in the left-hand column of this blog), as well as many postings on ChicagoBoyz. James McCormick especially has a gift for heavy lifting.

Me, I'm a happy lightweight. I can seldom understand why history books run as long as they do, and I don't retain a tremendous number of facts -- facts, pshaw, who cares about facts? And if a provocative point isn't being made, or if the material isn't interesting on a direct human level, or if the language starts to drag, I'm the first person in the room to start snoozing off.

Yet I'm interested -- to a point -- in a lot of subjects. I just happen to be a 500-page-long book's worth of interested in very few of them. So Allitt's bouquet of mini-biographies hits the spot. At 30 minutes each, they're longer -- and far more engagingly presented -- than an encylopedia entry, but they're lots shorter than a fullscale biography. I can't imagine why this shouldn't make many people very happy. Be honest with yourself: Are you ever going to get around to going through a complete biography of William Mulholland? If you buy one one, it'll sit on your shelf unread. Yet Mulholland was a fascinating and influential guy: the water czar of Los Angeles, as well as a man who figured in "Chinatown." Allitt delivers more than enough to both satisfy and tantalize the curiosity.

How lovely too that Allitt's mini-bios aren't primary-color, EZ tales for the kiddies. Instead, they're unapologetically adult -- each one a small miracle of concision, insight, and sympathy. Allitt is extraordinarily good at setting his subjects in perspective, at using them to illuminate larger trends and events, and at seeing life from the point of view of different times.

He also makes few harsh judgments and indulges in zero politics. The tale he presents isn't a good-guy / bad-guy one, or a heavily moral one. He seems delighted by the multidimensionality, complexity, and exuberance of America without being blind to its horrors either. Hey, life's complicated, and his presentation is accordingly full of nuance and shading. But the fact that paradoxes and contradictions abound doesn't mean we can't say a little something about life, marvel over it, and maybe even learn a few modest lessons from it.

He's gifted as well at bringing long-gone figures to life. A few of the fun facts I gleaned from his talks:

  • Park-builder Frederick Law Olmstead was one of the founders of The Nation magazine.
  • Isabella Stewart Gardner couldn't be bothered obtaining official permission when she built her art museum in Boston -- but she was such an eccentric big deal that Boston let her get away with the project anyway.
  • Louisa May Alcott's Transcendentalist father repeatedly violated her privacy by reading her personal diary.

Allitt's occasional passages about "the American character," while intelligent, aren't perhaps instantly dazzling. But they aren't the point anyway. His subject matter and his presentation of it is. The prismatic way the stories pile up is what tells the real story here. The layering of the stories fleshes out a conception of "America" that's both convincing and sophisticated.

[Insert mini-rant here about how post-modern theorists make a big intellectual deal over multiple points of view, yet how people like Allitt have been doing the multiple-perspectives thang for ages. Why don't the feet-on-the-ground practitioners ever get more credit than the damn theorists?]

Allitt, an Oxford grad who teaches at Emory, has an outsider's clear-eyed view of the States, yet in his case it comes without the usual condescension or envy. He seems genuinely amazed by the spectacle he's describing. In fact, he comes across as one of the least ego-centric teachers imaginable: kind, patient, charmed by his subject matter, thrilled to present it, and glad you're in attendance. He's also amazingly articulate in a non-showy and helpful way. He doesn't use his powers and his knowledge to impress so much as to bring you back into the subject matter, over and over again.

A few small beefs. I often could have used a paragraph or two more about how these people got by -- about their family, friends, and pasttimes, and about how they paid the bills. Is it just me, or do profs often seem to overlook how big a part of life paying the bills is for most of us? Allitt's view of American art history is very well-informed but more conventional than I'd really like, and he can sometimes seem a little East Coast-centric generally. Finally: I could have used a few more women, gays, Native Americans, and Asians among his subjects -- not because I'm a PC kinda guy (anything but!), but because it's interesting stuff that I'm curious about, and because I'd love to hear what Allitt has to say about such people.

But even with 48 lectures to play with, a speaker can't touch on everything, of course. And these are all minor quibbles -- as in "I hope he gets around to doing a sequel, and I hope he includes some of this material in it." I'm being an ingrate, in fact, because "The American Identity" made me almost perfectly happy. It's as enjoyable and informative as I could ask for a lecture series to be.

I notice that "The American Identity" is currently on sale for a very good price -- buy now! -- and that Allitt's "American Religious History" isn't. If money's tight, then it's best to wait for the Teaching Company's products to go on sale; they do so a couple of times a year. But don't overlook "American Religious History," which I found a major treat. I'm looking forward, needless to say, to going through Allitt's other Teaching Company offering, "Victorian Britain."



posted by Michael at November 2, 2006


Relax, Michael. Louisa May Alcott's father AND mother read her diary, which was more a plan for moral improvement than a record of teeny-bopper's temptations and flirtings. They not only read Louisa's writing, but also wrote answers back to her. In those days parents shared the lives of their children. Whether that was better or worse probably depends on how it turned out for individuals, but it was surely different.

Life was very serious in those days and a heckuva lot shorter as well. Funny that now we live a long time but don't seem to have time for much serious stuff. Maybe if it were all presented as well as you think this history is, we could do a bit of moral improvement of our own.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on November 2, 2006 4:02 PM

P. Mary -- "Serious stuff", what's that? "Moral improvement", are you kidding? Anyway, Allitt did mention that both ma and pa read Louisa May's diary -- I just wanted to emphasize that it came to me as a surprise that Transcendentalist Daddy should do such a thing. Allitt does suggest, though, that Louisa May felt violated by mom and dad's prying eyes -- they were always working on her, in exhausting ways. Do your sources suggest a different view of the events?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 2, 2006 4:18 PM

I just listened to Allitt's religion course last week! I've been recommending it to all and sundry. A fascinating course, especially for heathen like me who can't tell Congregationalists from butter.

For one thing, it further solidified my belief that modern liberals are nothing more than post-Christian Puritans. The utopian hostility to tradition, the forced humility, the preference for theory over experience, the love of micromanagement, the endless jeremiads about people having too much fun (SUVs, tobacco, the environment, consumerism), the gloom laden vision of a dreadful reckoning just up the road, the insistence that massive changes be made NOW... classic American left-wingery. And can't we see the first stirrings of modernism in the Puritan hostility toward decoration?

(Heh. Immediately after writing this I checked out the American Identity page and found this: "The 17th-century Puritan leader Cotton Mather is the spiritual ancestor of today's vogue for political correctness, which Professor Allitt sees as a secular transfiguration of the Puritan belief that you can think, do, and say the right things and gradually get rid of the wrong things." Indeed.)

And I was surprised to find that frontier evangelicalism had an interracial streak from its very earliest days. An 18th century Virginia congregation was so impressed by the preaching of a slave called Uncle Jack that they got together and bought him his freedom, and he became a circuit preacher. The founder of pentacostalism, William Seymour, was black and led a mixed-race congregation - in 1906! And on and on, example after example.

And yet what has always been the coup de grace of the movement's Northeastern critics? The race card! "They're not just zealots, they're... racist! Oooooh!"

Bunk, largely - not entirely, but largely. The Puritans have been bitching about the Revivalists since Cane Ridge, and their arguments haven't changed a jot! Only now it's about Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Falwell and George Bush.

So I've been surfing through the Teaching Company's Americana wing lately and my experience with Allitt was just great.

But I wish I could say the same about Arnold Weinstein's course on American literature. A hugely aggrevating man. He engages in the lamest of mid-20th-century symbol hunting: finding phallic symbols in everywhere you look, seeing the most innocuous events as metaphors for castration, detecting endless anxiety about impotence and "the female libido" whatever the hell that is, ranting on and on about - I kid you not - our precious bodily fluids ("it's about the blood, the milk, the urine..."). The man's a maniac.

I must really love American literature to suffer through so much for its sake. Weinstein would prolly call me a Christ figure, the bastard.

So Allitt yes, Weinstein no.

Posted by: Brian on November 3, 2006 11:53 AM

Michael – Re: Are you ever going to get around to reading a biography of William Mulholland?

(Cough) (ahem) I’ve read two Mulholland biographies, and found them to both to be fascinating, but flawed works. But then again, I have a thing for history, especially California and Texas history, and sometimes mini-biographies just won’t do. That said, I have always wanted to jump into some of the Teaching Company stuff, and am now even more tempted to do so now that they offer audio downloads of their lectures in addition to CDs, DVDs and (ugh) audiotapes.

Re: A few small beefs. I often could have used a paragraph or two more about how these people got by -- about their family, friends, and pasttimes, and about how they paid the bills.

I agree with you here. Oddly enough, some history writing since the 60s tried to focus more on daily life and “non-traditional” subjects, but was often derided as being PC, too narrow, trivial or somehow subversive by those traditionalists who were more comfortable with a “great man” view of history. But a lot of this stuff is really good, and does an admirable job of filling in the gaps and giving a more palpable sense of what life was like in earlier times, a great antidote to more dry and dusty views of history.

For example, as a companion to the “Victorian Britain” series I would recommend something like Daniel Pool’s informative (but not to be taken as gospel) “What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England.” A review and excerpt is available here:

And although it does not cover the same period, stuff like a DVD of the PBS series “The 1900 House” and “Manor House” are fun and informative attempts to recreate the daily life of late Victorian and Edwardian England.

And although it is out of print, Gorton Carruth’s “What Happened When: A Chronology of Life and Events in America” is a great reference to all kinds of stuff, great and small, about America. For example, brief entries would note not only major historical and political events year by year, but also note the best selling plays and books of the time, and other more mundane stuff. Some of this material has been incorporated in the historical website Skagit River Journal,

Here is a bit from the year 1881:

• July 8, The first ice cream sundae is served — by accident. Druggist Edward Berner of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, can't serve the desirable, but scandalous flavored soda water that customer George Hallauer wants — because it is Sunday, the Sabbath. Mr. Berner compromised and put ice cream in a dish and poured the syrup on top (chocolate syrup was only used for making flavored and ice-cream sodas, at the time). Voila! An ice cream Sunday! (The spelling was later changed to 'sundae').
• Literary magazines became very influential. The Century Illustrated Monthly succeeded the famous Scribner's Monthly in 1880, with Richard Watson Gilder as editor until his death in 1909.
• Helen Hunt Jackson, a writer living in the West, published A Century of Dishonor, a book that exposed the U.S. government's ruthless treatment of Indians. Other books of the year included: Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris, a collection of black folklore in dialect; Dr. Breen's Practice by William Dean Howells, a novel with the previously unusual idea of a society woman as a physician. Henry James wrote his masterpiece of his early novels — Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square about Americans at home in the U.S.
• The rich begin building truly palatial homes following William Kissam Vanderbilt who completed his mansion that year on Fifth avenue for $3 million
• Electricity in houses and streets for the first time in Britain.
• Henry P. Crowell of Ravenna, Ohio, buys a bankrupt mill and starts the production and advertising of "Quaker Oats"
• First U.S. Lawn Tennis championship.
• Feb. 19: Kansas adopts statewide prohibition
• Feb. 22: President Hayes issues executive order to Secretary of war Alexander Ramsey that prohibits sale of liquor at military posts
• Sept. 7: Jesse James commits his last holdup (Chicago-Alton train). Governor of Missouri places bounty on brothers Frank and Jesse James.

Posted by: Alec on November 3, 2006 2:16 PM

Brian -- Glad to hear you enjoyed Allitt and tks for warning me off Weinstein. I'm wary of any lit series myself -- how to go through them without reading the books under discussion? And who has time for that? I should, of course, I know I should ... But I wonder if any of the Teaching Company's lit series are good. Anyway, please let us know about other TeachCo products you're enjoying.

Alec -- Thanks for the recommendations, sounds like fascinating stuff. Timeline/chronologies can be great, no? Lining events up always surprises me. I'm still trying to digest the fact that Michealangelo painted the Sistine ceiling before Shakespeare began writing, for instance. How'd that happen? Two bios of Mulholland? That's some serious buffery. But many great stories therein, I bet. I actually liked a lot of the innovations of the '60s -- the emphasis on the broader panorama, on how normal life was generally lived, all that stuff. FvB and I were both super-annoyed with the Great White Whale version of culture that we were being sold. Too bad about the way that the political types took the innovations over, though, no? I never wanted to throw out or overturn the old stories, I just wanted to see them added to.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 3, 2006 2:30 PM

Oh, FWIW, among the Teaching Company profs, I've liked Taylor, Greenberg, Kors, Messenger, and Allitt especially much. I'll be interested to hear how you react to them, as well as how you use them. Recently I've been buying the CD versions and putting them on an iPod. Tedious putting them on the Mac, but great to have the whole thing in the 'Pod. Plus, when I'm done, I get to pass the CD package along to friends, or donate 'em to a library or something.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 3, 2006 2:33 PM

FWIW, my favorite Teaching Company prof so far is Elizabeth Vandiver, having enjoyed her lectures on Homer, Virgil, and Herodotus.

Posted by: ken on November 3, 2006 2:52 PM

Poor Louisa May just didn't have much fun in life. Her father with his high-flown ideas, free for all, and her mother with her do-goodery didn't make money, so once LMA discovered her pen was golden she was more or less compelled to keep it up. She didn't much like "Little Women" which was based on "Pilgrim's Progress" to please her father and by the time she got out to the later novels, she really disliked the whole deal. She wanted to write horror stories. And run off with Thoreau, who wouldn't even take her on a walk.

L.M. Montgomery got herself into a similar fix with "Anne of Green Gables" which was so successful that she had to write sequel after sequel to support the family. Her husband was a chronically depressed Presbyterian minister so she ran his church for him, too. Raised two sons.

It pays for a woman to be slightly incompetent and narcissistic. A Puritan conscience can be bars of iron.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on November 8, 2006 10:48 AM

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