January 2020: Two New Publications

This month brings the culmination of two projects of mine which have finally reached publication: “Language Ideology in the Paxton Pamphlet War,” in Early American Studies, and “‘Government in Petticoats’: Gender Poetics in New Jersey’s Newspaper Literature, 1789-1807,” in New Jersey Studies. These are my first two articles to reach publication, so I’m feeling especially proud and gratified.

I first started writing “Language Ideology in the Paxton Pamphlet War” in November 2016. The Paxton pamphlet war was a year-long storm of pamphlets, broadsides, letters, and many other documents that responded to two Euro-American massacres of Native Americans in Pennsylvania in December 1763. After those violent slayings, the group of populist frontiersmen—largely from the town of Paxton—proceeded to lead an armed march toward Philadelphia, threatening to attack the Native Americans seeking refuge there. Fortunately, the crisis was averted, but the events continued to be discussed in the pamphlet war, and tensions hardly dissipated. In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, reading and writing about white populists exacting cruel and shameless violence on a friendly local ethnic group was an intense process. The parallels between the events of 1763-64 and America’s contemporary socio-political turmoil were disturbing—and still are. And the topic that my essay focuses on—the way that ethnic groups used written representations of one another’s language to assert their own dominance and superiority—resonates as much as ever today.

Like “Language Ideology,” “Government in Petticoats” was originally a dissertation chapter that I later revised into article form. It won the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance’s 2019 “Graduate Essay in NJ History Award,” which was a great honor. I was even presented the award at the 2019 New Jersey History Conference, which featured lots of important work about women in NJ’s history (the conference theme was “NJ Women Make History”). I’ve included a link and an abstract below.

Also keep an eye out for the Spring 2020 issue of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, which will be published my article on Walt Whitman and Trinity Church!


Language Ideology in the Paxton Pamphlet War”: This essay examines the literary texts of Pennsylvania’s 1764 Paxton pamphlet war, giving close attention to the linguistic representations through which vying parties attempted to claim superiority in the Anglo-American sociopolitical hierarchy. Competing ethnic and political groups published creative literature (including poetry, dialogues, a farce, and a narrative) disparaging their opponents’ British virtue and status by lampooning their literary and grammatical acuity and emphasizing their deviation from “acceptable” spoken English. Through analysis of the pamphlet war’s portrayals of Quaker, American Indian, and Scots-Irish Presbyterian language, this essay demonstrates that the interrelated issues of language, virtue, and British identity were central to the concerns of provincial Pennsylvanians in 1764.

‘Government in Petticoats’: Gender Poetics in New Jersey’s Newspaper Literature, 1789-1807”: This essay analyzes the literature (poetry, anecdotes, fiction, and miscellanies) of New Jersey newspapers between 1789 and 1807, a period when many of the state’s women were legally enfranchised. Scholarship concerning New Jersey’s ephemeral texts by or about women and the vote during these years has been limited, often because of the archive’s perceived limitations: there is little direct reference to women’s suffrage to be found there. However, by concentrating on the literary texts often overlooked in favor of more expositive, essayistic pieces, this study sheds new light on early republican anxieties to define and control gender in the public sphere, and it offers a new critical perspective of shifting and interrelated notions of womanhood, gender, and early American ideologies of liberty, equality, and rights.


 

December 2019: Using Ben Franklin’s Self-Improvement Chart in a Modern Context

A few weeks ago, I visited Philadelphia for the first real time. As we followed our Free Tours by Foot guide from one historical landmark to the next in the Old City, my wife had to be direct with me at one point and tell me to “please stop talking about Benjamin Franklin so much.” I couldn’t help it- here was his print shop and there was his house and there was his filled-in privy pit, and did you know X, and isn’t it amazing that Y, and so on.

She was right of course, but it was hard for me to be anything less than super excited while in the presence of the actual physical remnants of Franklin’s life. Although I didn’t always recognize it, Franklin has had a tremendous impact on my life. I first read his autobiography in Michelle Kohler’s undergraduate Early American Literature class at Tulane (the same class in which I first read Whitman), and I remember being genuinely inspired by Franklin’s narration of his own industry, virtue, and self-improvement.

As it happens, this was also around the same time that I had started to keep a food and exercise journal. A year and a half earlier, in January 2006, Discovery Health was giving out free fitness and nutrition journals at the mall, and (it already being January, the month of fitness resolutions), I decided to give it a go. The chart worked really well for a while, holding me accountable for my actions (or lack thereof) and giving me a sense of pride when I wrote in my accomplishments. But, like most New Year’s resolutions, I eventually got distracted and “fell too far behind to catch up” and…well, you know how it goes.

Day #2 as an 18-year old outdoes my fittest day as a now-year-old.

But the next year, when I trained for my first marathon, I remembered this little booklet, and I came back to it. It was a great tool now that I had a long-term goal, and I used it until I ran out of space. After that, I decided to design my own, based on this one but slightly tailored to my needs and wishes (and home-printer conveniences).

The week of my first half-marathon

This turned out to be a great system for training for a race- it kept me focused on daily and weekly goals, conscious of my intake of food and output of energy, aware of patterns in my diet and exercise (if my running suffered, I might look back to see if I was eating too little or too much), etc. It was a good system, but I didn’t think of it beyond goal-oriented training.

And then, about five months after that first marathon, I read Ben Franklin’s autobiography in that class at Tulane. Possibly because of my own history of holding myself accountable in a daily charts and also possibly because of my Catholic upbringing, I connected with its ethos of rigorous self-discipline and self-improvement. Here’s a passage from Chapter 9 of Franklin’s autobiography:

It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.

So what did he do? He created a daily chart to track his accomplishments and shortcomings of virtue.

Conceiving then, that… daily examination would be necessary, I contrived the following method for conducting that examination.

 

I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.

Benjamin Franklin’s Virtue Chart

The result, Franklin reports, was great: “I enter’d upon the execution of this plan for self-examination, and continu’d it with occasional intermissions for some time. I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”

The idea was fascinating to me. One could quantify and pin down and track and strategize his/her successes and shortcomings, rather than letting them float about uncharted in the nebulous ethers of the mind, where it’s so easy for thoughts to get lost, delayed, forgotten, etc. I revised my chart again to jettison some unnecessary things (like blood pressure, which I’d check at the free blood pressure stand at Target twice a year) and to alter the format to match my needs again. Most of all, though, I picked up the chart again not just for races (although it was crucial for my success with marathons and Ironmans) but for general well-being and self-improvement.

This became especially important as a doctoral student, when stress, lots of reading and writing and stationary (in-)activity, and an all around unusual lifestyle can significantly affect one’s health. I had put the chart down for a few years, but about three years into my Ph.D. I picked it back up, this time for a serious, long-term commitment. The chart helped me work off weight that I had gained at the beginning of my doctoral studies, and it has helped me maintain a steady weight and health ever since. It has helped me track stress, injuries, and, most of all, my work. It was during my dissertation work that I began using the chart not just as a food and exercise tracker, but as a research tracker, recording the articles or chapters I read that day, the proposals I wrote, the presentations I designed, the applications I submitted, how many pages or words I composed, etc. I took notes on my sleep habits and was able to connect that with patterns in productivity. I set goals for myself in the notes section, and I checked them off with pride. The accountability of writing down a success or leaving a space empty for a shortcoming has been a tremendous source of motivation for me. I’ll also say that I’ve learned self-forgiveness through this, because nobody can possibly be perfect all the time (as Franklin himself admitted). While one may think that this system breeds self-hate or unhealthy self-pressure, it’s actually helped me moderate the demands that I put on myself, because I know that in the past I’ve come up short and turned out fine, and I also know that it will do no good to place five articles on tomorrow’s agenda when I realistically won’t get through more than two or three.

Ah, and one other thing: the system has been fantastic for remembering what doctor I went to for X injury, and what I ordered the last time we went to Y restaurant, and what I did each day on Z vacation.

In 2019, I got tired of always printing out 2-3 double-sided sheets of paper and folding them over into little booklets that would get beat up everywhere they went, so I created a little bound booklet using the same format.

Now, heading into 2020, I decided to make a few more changes. Reflecting on my little Moleskin book in which I recorded sudden thoughts and notes during my first year at Tulane (yes, the same year I read Franklin), I added “Notes” pages to the back of the 2020 booklet. I also changed the formatting so that the open book will display one week per verso/recto, and it now includes a space for weekly strategy- a good spot for weekly goals, reflections, considerations, priorities, etc. Since it’s not just a food and exercise journal anymore, but now more a life tracker, I’ve renamed it a “Personal Almanac,” which may upset purists but to me it seems fitting. And, inspired by the Library of America’s ribbon marker, I added one into this booklet as well- a classy touch!

I’m proud to say that today is Day # 1,482 of keeping this journal, and I have no plans to stop using it and revising it any time soon. For now, I guess the only things it lacks are some Franklinesque aphorisms. I guess I’ll find some of those tomorrow, but then again:

Have you somewhat to do to-morrow; do it to-day.

November 2019: Public Fellow Work

This will be a very quick post, since it’s already December and I’m behind. I just want to give an idea of the type of work I’ve been doing as a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at Library of America. The work I’ll feature here is some of the writing I’ve done for our website, since that’s easiest to showcase. What I love about the position is that, no matter what type of project I’m working on (whether an author interview, a literary timeline, or an author biography), it always builds on the skills I developed during my doctoral studies…so take that, everybody who says a Ph.D. in the humanities offers no real world skills! For example, one of the strategies I always taught my writing students was to study “mentor texts” to learn the conventions of a new genre before trying to write in that genre themselves. That has been immensely useful as I’ve had to write in completely new genres and as I’ve had to write within the parameters of an institution with its own styles, preferences, and brand. Know that I’m leaving out a lot of work that that can’t be shared yet, but stick around and you’ll see that all soon enough!

Here is an interview I conducted with two-time Pulitzer Prize-Winning NYT journalist Nicholas Kristof, who was a genuine pleasure to work with. I had attended the United Nations Association of NY Humanitarian Awards in October and was inspired by Kristof, who was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, so I reached out to interview him about the relationship between journalism, human rights, and the American past and present.

Here is an interview I conducted with two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor, who was the very first scholar I read for my historiography list during comprehensive exam preparations back in 2014. The interview is about Taylor’s new book on Thomas Jefferson’s ambitions for an American system of public education and on the founder’s complicated legacy in American history.

This post is a simple introduction and contextualization of a video recorded at one of our events on a new title, March Sisters, a collection of four women writers’ reflections on the influence of Alcott’s four March sister characters on their own lives.

And here is another simply introduction to a video of our recent event in which Jonathan Franzen discusses the influence of the Peanuts cartoons on his own life and on American culture.

Hope you enjoy!

October 2019: Mpreg Data Visualizations by Jon Heggestad

I always welcome guest blog posts, and this month I’m delighted to feature an inspiring post by Jon Heggestad about his exciting work in Digital Humanities (DH). As one of the leading students of DH at SBU, Jon’s contributions to the university’s DH community have been significant, and he has also been a pioneer of public writing among graduate students. I’ve always loved hearing about his projects, so I couldn’t have been happier when he suggested contributing a guest post to this site. Please read on to learn about Jon’s fascinating work on mpreg (male pregnancy) fan fiction.


Jon Heggestad is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the English department at Stony Brook University. With interests at the intersection of literary analysis, queer and feminist theories, and the digital humanities, Jon’s dissertation traces out a queer lineage of the pregnant man as a literary trope.

A Study in Data Visualizations: Describing Mpreg in Fan Writing

In Digital_Humanities, an introductory textbook to the field penned by many of the leading voices in DH, distance reading is referred to as “almost not reading at all.” The authors of this volume refer to it instead as engaging “the abilities of natural language processing to extract the gist of a whole mass of texts and summarize them for a human reader in ways that allow researchers to detect large-scale trends, patterns, and relationships that are not discernable from a single text or detailed analysis.”1

This post expands and challenges this definition by delving into one offshoot of distance reading: data visualization. While the use of charts, graphs, and pictures has a history as old as humanity itself, recent works by scholars like Matthew L. Jockers and Franco Moretti have popularized computational methods of data visualization within the humanities.

As much of my own work is conducted around texts found (or even born) online, I’ve taken to computational ways of reading to help me sift through the immense bodies of work I often encounter. In the study below, I illustrate how data visualizations have aided my work and suggest that, rather than viewing this method as “almost not reading at all,” we instead view data visualizations as merely different, albeit less traditional forms of reading, and that these differences might lead us to new epistemological understandings as well. 

***

Mpreg,” short for “male pregnancy” might not be a term that the general public is yet familiar with, despite its steady rise in popularity over the past two decades as a fanfiction trope.2 That being said, its increase in popularity has garnered it more notoriety as well, with Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel, the creators of the popular podcast Fansplaining, pointing to it as one of the “most widely reviled” tropes in fanfic today.3 

And certainly mpreg is divisive among fans. While some warmly take to the idea of Sherlock Holmes rubbing Watson’s pregnant belly or Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter arguing over which crib to buy, other readers find these narratives “twisted and perverse.”4

In my own interactions with those new to the genre, however, I’ve found that the most common response is simply one of curiosity. What is mpreg? What does it entail? Yet, answering these questions isn’t the easy task that it might at first appear to be.

Archive of Our Own (AO3), a site hosting millions of fan-made stories, returns over 43,000 texts when “mpreg” is entered in the search field.5 One of the most useful questions that distance reading responds to is how to deal with such a large corpus.

One possible solution is offered through data visualization, which can provide—at a glance—a level of insight that might not be achieved even after weeks of reading these texts. That being said, I’ve still elected to draw some constraints around the scope of my inquiry, analyzing only the 1,400+ mpreg works found in the MTV series Teen Wolf fandom.

Fig. 1: Most frequent tags in Teen Wolf mpreg fics (click to take a closer look)

Using a text scraper created by Jingyi Li and Sarah Sterman (current graduate students), I gathered the metadata from the Teen Wolf mpreg fics in a spreadsheet, isolating the tags writers had used to identify their works.6 After cleaning this data, I then used Tableau (a data visualization software) to organize and display the results. The bar graph in fig. 1 depicts the 50 most common tags used by mpreg writers in the Teen Wolf fan community.7

“Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics” is the most frequently used tag, and it comes as no surprise for fans who know that mpreg is a subgenre within the larger Omegaverse genre of fanfic. Frequent occurrences of tags like “Mates” and “Derek and Stiles are Mates” indicate a common Omegaverse practice noted by Milena Popova, which relies on a “life-long psychic bond with a partner.”8 In Teen Wolf, this OTP (One True Pairing) is most common between the characters Derek and Stiles. The visualization above allows viewers to confirm at a glance many of these important elements in the Teen Wolf fics.

Continuing this analysis, the popularity of tags like “knotting” and “fluff” illustrates the coexistence of what’s often regarded as opposing poles in mpreg practices: erotic writing vs. domestic narratives. In order to better understand these coexistent tropes, I changed the bar graph above to a stacked bar graph (fig. 2), displaying the category divisions that make up each tag count. “Categories” on AO3 refer to the intended audiences of fanfics.9 What I found is that tagging practices in this fandom transgress the boundaries that I initially expected: “fluff” is a tag frequently used in fics labeled for “Mature” and “Explicit” audiences, for example, while “smut” and “knotting” are used multiple times in fics intended for “Teens and Up.”

Fig. 2: Most frequent tags in Teen Wolf mpreg fics with categories identified (click to take a closer look)

***

So what do these visualizations tell us about methodology? In her “Introduction: Data Visualization and the Humanities,” Elyse Graham identifies two main ways that data visualizations are used: explication and discovery.10 While she goes on to say that this earlier use is more prevalent, I’ve shown how both methods can occur simultaneously in the visualizations above. Not only was I able to quickly indicate for those new to mpreg what the main themes of the genre are, I also came to the realization that the binaristic division I’d been imposing on mpreg was, in fact, blurred by the writers of these fics.

Lastly, Graham notes that one benefit of using data visualizations “is the practice of inquiring into its own conditions, even if doing so sometimes makes the discussion cautionary rather than celebratory” (9). While agreeing with her call to use data visualization methods for reflective purposes, I can’t help but be excited regarding the new questions that emerge with new distance reading methods.

Certainly, data visualizations look very little like our traditional ways of reading. But as N. Katherine Hayles points out in How We Think, there are more ways to read than one. And learning how to read in these new ways can be an enriching practice for all.

Footnotes:

1   Burdick, Anne et al. Digital_Humanities. MIT Press, 2016, p. 39.

2   While I identify mpreg as a trope here; it’s also frequently referred to as both a genre and a fetish.

3   Klink, Flourish, and Elizabeth Minkel. “Five Tropes Fanfic Readers Love (And One They Hate).” Fansplaining, 27 Oct. 2016, https://www.fansplaining.com/articles/five-tropes-fanfic-readers-love-and-one-they-hate.

4   Shrayber, Mark. “What Exactly Is Mpreg? A Male Pregnancy Enthusiast Explains.” Jezebel, 3 Nov. 2014, https://jezebel.com/what-exactly-is-mpreg-a-male-pregnancy-enthusiast-expl-1651553874.

5   These numbers reflect a search conducted on October 14, 2019.

6   “Tagging” in fan communities refers to the practice of adding metadata to and “imposing order” on fanfics so that they can be more readily found by the readers searching for these terms. 

McCulloch, Gretchen. “Fans Are Better Than Tech at Organizing Information Online.” Wired, June 2019. https://www.wired.com/story/archive-of-our-own-fans-better-than-tech-organizing-information/.

7   This list has removed “mpreg,” which appeared far more often than any of the other tags and thus skewed the rest of the graph.

8   Popova, Milena. “‘Dogfuck Rapeworld’: Omegaverse Fanfiction as a Critical Tool in Analyzing the Impact of Social Power Structures on Intimate Relationships and Sexual Consent.” Porn Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, Apr. 2018, pp. 175–91, p. 7.

9   AO3 allows fic writers to categorize their works by their intended audiences: general, teen and up, mature, or explicit. Those fics that aren’t categorized as one of these four options are automatically labelled “not rated.”

10  Graham, Elyse. “Introduction: Data Visualisation and the Humanities.” English Studies, vol. 98, no. 5, 2017, pp. 449-458, p. 2.

September 2019: American Holly

When my grandfather returned from WWII, he used the GI Bill to get a degree in horticulture from SUNY Farmingdale. From there, he started his own company, Stanley’s Nursery, at 1161 Old Country Road in Plainview (Long Island). That land—more or less a farm back then—is now typical Long Island suburbia- strip malls and parking lots and busy roads (see picture below). That was where my father grew up. And on that land, my grandfather planted an Ilex Opaca, an American Holly.

Years later, his son (my father) got his own degree in horticulture, bought his own house (the house that I grew up in), and took a cutting of his father’s tree and planted it in our garden beside the front door. I grew up with it, never knowing its history until about a year and a half ago when my parents sold the house and moved to Florida. When I learned the story, I immediately went to the house to take my own cutting. All but one wall of the house had been demolished, the garden was almost completely uprooted, and the Holly itself was still standing but hacked up and in bad condition. I took two cuttings, put them in sand, and wrapped the pot in plastic to keep the humidity in. Reading that Holly is especially hard to propagate, I went back the next day to take some more cuttings, but the tree had been completely cut down and destroyed. So I put all I had into keeping my two sprigs alive, calling my father several times a week with a question about moisture or spots or sand or pH or light or mites, etc. One of the sprigs died after about four months, but the other has survived, despite lots of challenges along the way. For those of you who know me well, you know what a big place this holly has in my life. Here’s a video of it from its first planting to just last week:

Those who follow me on Twitter will also know that on my 31st birthday, I decided to write a poem a day for a year, a practice that I’ve kept up beyond the initial one year goal. Many of those poems were written early in the morning when I would get into my office, make my tea, and carefully tend to the Holly before starting the day. Over time, the cutting has grown to represent more than just a family heirloom to me, too. To me, it conjures questions of shared cultural memory, of complicated ancestries of land ownership, colonialism, and imperialism, of personal and national identity, of the environment and ecology, and ultimately of life and death.

“When the Holly last in the dooryard bloom’d”  The Holly is visible in the back-right of the garden (ca 1989)

Since I’ve been exploring these topics in my poems for the past ~450 days, I have a lot of material, and I decided that I will edit and curate the poems into an actual book of poetry. The book will be my perspective on America as a scholar of early American history, as a citizen of the current era, as a person invested in the special role of place in cultural identity, and as the son, nephew, and grandson of horticulturalists. I have yet to really begin exploring presses, but if anybody has any suggestions for subject matter like this, please let me know. I’ve been very excited about this prospective book, which I’ve had in my head for a few months. It’s just a matter of dedicating weekend time to editing and organizing the poems and researching presses.

This will be all for now. Oh, and if you’re wondering how things are currently going with the Holly, they’re great- it’s planted in a pot in the ground, and I’m anxious about it spending its first winter outdoors, but I’m taking all precautions to make sure it stays as healthy and strong as possible. More updates soon!

 

August 2019: Gettysburg

For an entire week (of gorgeous weather) in late June, I came down with some kind of flu-like sickness and was more or less apartment-bound. How better to spend that week than by watching the full Ken Burns Civil War series? I often feel like I don’t know enough about the Civil War. How can anyone when there are people who devote entire lifetimes to studying one particular battle or one specific figure? So I decided that this would be a mini refresher course and, hopefully, a way to add to my knowledge of the war. I have to say: despite some considerable qualms I have with the series (I’ll spare you for now), it was well worth the watch. It was informative, emotional (who can ever hear Ashokan Farewell without tearing up and thinking of the war that was “fought in ten thousand places”?), and it had a good degree of detail where it was most needed. It placed the war and its battles and figures into a larger context that should help any non-Civil War specialist feel more competent in his or her ability to think about and discuss the war. It also gave me ideas of what aspect of the war I wanted to study next. Of course Whitman’s Memoranda of the War was at the top of my list. I listened to it as an audiobook on my commutes, and it only got me more interested in the war. There were a few other small forays into small topics, but then I turned my attention to Gettysburg, and I planned all summer to go for a visit. Well, after reading a lot of books and listening to a lot of podcasts about Gettysburg, I took the trip as a birthday treat to myself in mid-August.

Gettysburg is about a four hour drive from NYC, which gave plenty of time for listening to even more podcasts and audiobooks. I ended up camping at Artillery Ridge Campground right on the outskirts of the park, which was good because I got in late in the day and was close enough to make a quick visit to Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, and the Wheatfield. And just before a downpour, I went on a twilight run through the southern part of the park that was one of those magical runs I know I’ll remember for a long time to come. Here’s a picture of the confused evening sky before the sudden torrent:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a long, hot, 36 hour visit, and I did a lot in that time- from ranger-led tours to the Cyclorama, from visiting the museum to trying to walk the entire park, from a self-guided car tour to reading Lincoln’s speeches beneath a tree at the “Angle.” Of all parts of the visit, I think I’ll remember three the most: the monuments, the tourist merchandise on sale in town, and walking from Cemetery Ridge to Seminary Ridge and back.

First: the monuments. When I first got in, I stopped at the first monument I saw and read it. Such & Such Brigade, Such & Such Division, Such & Such Corps. On the First Day, Did X; Second Day, Y; Third Day, Z. I tried to fit that into my understanding of what happened, and I tried to remember it. Cool! Then I stopped at the next monument (ten yards away) and read it. Such & Such Brigade, Such & Such Division, Such & Such Corps. On the First Day, Did X; Second Day, Y; Third Day, Z. Okay. I’ll remember that, too. After a few more minutes of monument reading and after a glance up the road, I realized that this method would be impossible to sustain. There were too many monuments. I remember at one point standing in the valley to the west of Little Round Top and looking at the dozens and dozens of monuments around me and thinking how utterly strange and unnatural it looked, monuments beside trees, monuments on hillsides, monuments on rocks, monuments in the grass, monuments practically on top of monuments. According to the National Park Service, there are 1,328 monuments, markers, and memorials at Gettysburg National Park. That surreal figure is hard to imagine if you haven’t been there. At times, the monuments were definitely distracting, and there were even moments when I felt that their overwhelming presence was somewhat irreverent. And yet there were other times, like standing alone on the southern slopes of Little Round Top in the early evening quiet, reading and reflecting on the markers and monuments of the 20th Maine, when they created a sense of grave and spiritual importance. Still, at the end of my first day (really just a few hours), I felt a strange feeling of discomfort- partially because the monuments reminded me of passing the hundreds of billboards along the interstate in Florida, partially because of the intensely conservative (and yet recently all too familiar) merchandise on sale in the town itself, and partially because of the social/political conversations I overheard at this site- a site marking a fractured American society that turned against itself in the most destructive way. I thought how strange it was that the park was there to remind us of the dangers inherent in this sort of division and rancor, and yet a century and a half later the lessons are lost on so many of us. As somebody who studies early and nineteenth-century American history, the phrase “American experiment” has become increasingly meaningful to me as I’ve continued to realize that nothing about the early United States was promised or guaranteed. This sort of exercise in self-rule had not been attempted in modern western society. It was a delicate invention, and the world didn’t know if it would prove managable, durable, and successful. The world was watching, and if America failed, the very idea of democracy anywhere in the world risked endangerment. I don’t know that the current station of American democracy in the world is so very different.

Back to Gettysburg: Day 2, I woke up early, refreshed, and excited for a full day on the grounds. I’ll skip through most of what I did and focus on my walk from Cemetery Ridge (the Union line) to Seminary Ridge (the Confederate line) and back. In the blazing heat of the early afternoon, I had been on a tour with a fantastic Park Ranger. I forgot his name but below is a picture of him leading the tour- I’ve been on a lot of tours in a lot of places, and this young man is perhaps the best tour guide I’ve ever had, period. Knowledgable, enthusiastic, entertaining, and also able to discuss a very complicated battle in such a way that all of us hungry, sweating tourists were able to follow along easily and willingly.

Our tour ended at the “Angle,” a cluster of trees that played a role in Pickett’s fatal charge at Union lines. Looking west from the Angle, there is a road running north to south, some fencing along it (true to 1863), and otherwise nothing but a mostly flat (but here and there dipping and rising) field of crops stretching for about a mile to Seminary Ridge, a ridge also running north to south (parallel to Cemetery Ridge), covered mostly by trees, and, on July 3, 1863, the starting point of Pickett’s charge.

Here are two pictures looking toward Seminary Ridge from Cemetery Ridge and the Angle.  After hearing so much about Pickett’s charge, in which, trying to cross the field before me, over a thousand Confederates died in under an hour and total losses exceeded 6000, and after seeing that this part of the park was virtually unvisited by tourists, I felt some sort of obligation to walk the mile across the field and the mile back. Trudging along in the intense mid-day heat along a dirth path that cut across the farmland, I was surprised at the lack of insect noise around me. In fact, there was hardly any noise, except when an occasional breeze rustled the leaves of the low plants around me. I remembered, when visiting Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, the powerful physical and emotional effect that the undulating buzz of the insects had on me: in the midst of all that sorrow, at an epicenter of human loss and sorrow, all was not lost, because the insects still buzzed. Here, in Gettysburg, there was no buzzing, no chirping, no singing. Just the August heat and my dogged footsteps in the baking Pennsylvania soil where so many people died 156 years ago, now forgotten. There were, however, a few puddles here and there where large groups of small, bright blue moths gathered and clung to the moisture and lifted and scattered suddenly when I passed by. Their color seemed out of place in the field, and I was glad for it.

I’ll leave things there for now. See you in September.

July 2019: Archives & Genealogical Research

How are archival research skills useful outside of academia? Well, lots of ways, but I’m especially interested this month in genealogical research, which, I’m sure, some wouldn’t take seriously as “research” at all. But consider this: in an education/professional climate marked by doubt over the uses of a humanities degree, Ancestry.com boasts an annual revenue of over a billion dollars and a paid subscription base of three million users. Three million! As an educator who uses archival research in my teaching, that figure excites me. It shows that everyday people are interested in digging into historical documents, connecting threads, pursuing leads, and learning about and finding meaningful connections with the past. PBS even has a show specifically about ancestral research. If we’re trying to give students an authentic learning experience, I wonder why we haven’t yet tapped into the exciting, personal, and genuinely engaging field of genealogical research. This post is going to be about my own (very) recent archival adventure based in genealogy. The genuine investment that it sparked in me has been far deeper than much other research (which I’m usually pretty excited about and invested in as it is), and to me it serves as evidence that there is value in tapping into this passionate experience to motivate students to become involved in archives for academic and non-academic research (and maybe there shouldn’t be such a distinict binary here).

A young man in navy flight gear, including a helmet, googles, and a jacket with a large fur collar.

For decades, this photo was one of the only pieces of documentation we knew of that bore witness to our family member’s existence.

The past year has been a breakthrough period in some of my own genealogical research—with particular regard to my father’s father’s brother, Benny Zukowski. All my family ever knew about him was that he “died in WWII” in a plane crash, but nothing more. My father always said that his father never talked about the war, and for good reason I’m sure. He and his three brothers all served, but their experiences were kept private and their stories have been buried with them…until recently.

Having never known anything about my mysterious great uncle, I’ve now and again felt an urge to learn more about him and fill in the blanks of his story. So every few years I would Google his name, never to come across anything.

A 2012 newspaper clipping from the Bristol Press about my email to them.

Then, in 2012, I had some luck. An article in the Bristol Press (this line of my family lived in Bristol, CT in the 1920s-40s) mentioned Benny Zukowski, listed his real name as Bronislaw, and identified his squadron. These were new leads that wouldn’t take me anywhere new just yet, but would be useful later on. I emailed the local historian who wrote the article, but never heard back from him. To my surprise, I was recently shown the article on the left.

In any case, that discovery led me to some key search terms that would be important in more recent years, when I used the research tools I’d been using in my dissertation to try to unravel this mystery (of course, one of the research tools/skills I now have is the common sense and confidence to pursue the author of this article by every means available until I get an answer, but back then it took a lot of guts to reach out to him the one time). Through strategies like using digital newspaper archives, modifying searches with truncation, wildcards, and priximity settings, and  adding new terms like “Bristol” and “Fleet Air Photographic Squadron Five” (VD-5 for short) expanded my knowledge of the world Benny was in, but I still found very little about him. 

Then, one rainy moroning last November, I tried again. To my surprise, I found an article published about two weeks earlier, advertising a “Gold Star Exhibit” honoring four Bristol veterns who died in WWII— Benny was one of them. It was on display at the local public library for a few weeks only. So my sister and I made plans, and, not knowing at all what to expect, we took the two hour drive and showed up unannounced. What a powerful experience! When we walked in, I immediately saw the Gold Star Exhibit across the room and even in that short flash of a moment couldn’t believe that I was looking at my great-uncle’s actual belongings. A staff member named Jay welcomed me and my sister, and I said something silly like, “I’m a Zukowski.” I’ve since been told that the experience was powerful for Jay as well, but even then I could register on his face the recognition that this was a profound situation. He was super grateful to have us there, showing us to the exhibit and explaining what was what. He also introduced us to several community members who were in the room for their own local history research projects. By the end of our visit, several of these people (Jay included) were looking through old phone directories, yearbooks, and digital records to help me and my sister find out more.

Part of the exhibit on Benny Zukowski, November 2018.

That day, I was able to look (through glass) at Benny’s wallet, some of his photos, his rosary, a mess pass from the day he died, his flight log, some photographic instruction manuals (he was an aerial photographer), and his dogtags. In all of the excitement (yes, archives are exciting places!), we learned what kind of planes he was in, what his (and my grandfather’s) home address was, and the very basic fact that my grandfather had three brothers (not one), and that they had all served in the war. Most importantly, Jay pointed us to Bristol’s Memorial Military Museum, which was the organization to which Benny Zukowski’s materials officially belonged.

Over the next seven months, I stayed in contact with two key individuals at the Military Museum— Mike and Carol—who invited me to see their entire collection on Benny. Unfortunately, the visit had to be postponed until July because of building renovations, but that’s of no matter because two weeks ago I finally took the trip back up to Bristol and was blown away by all that they had there…in terms of material and information.

They explained to me that, according to the donor (a distant relative of mine), when Benny died (six months after the war officially ended!), the Navy sent all of his belongings back to his parents (my great-grandparents), who looked at them once, put them in the chest at the foot of their bed, and never looked at them again for the rest of their lives. That explains why the materials were in such good shape. The collection includes, among other things: silk aviator maps of Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines; a smoking pipe; a straight razor; a lighter and lighter case; handwritten notes on photographic mission instructions; a handwritten note in Japanese; a Chinese translation book; a Japanese military log; dozens of photographs; a bracelet inscribed to Benny from his fiancee (no, we didn’t know he had a fiancee!); a copy of the Western Union telegram to his parents informing them of his death; numerous medals and naval diplomas; a bowtie; a mess pass from the day he died; lots of pencils and buttons and glass lenses; nine prayer books (several in Polish); the original box in which the Navy sent his parents his military burial flag; and four rolls of undeveloped film.

There was also a one-page “biography” of Benny and his military service, which Mike thinks must have been written by a family member decades ago. And there was an official letter from the Navy to my great-grandparents detailing the major milestones in Benny’s military service. These two documents, together with all the other materials, filled in so many gaps of understanding. Here are a few excerpts from his biography:

  • He “earned his first Air Medal for completing 5 flights over defended enemy territoy in the Bonin, Volcano, and Caroline Islands area from December 21, 1944 to February 17, 1945.
  • “He participated in the first long-range reconnaissance over enemy occupied territory, with no previous information on enemy defenses or installations, and remaining for a prolonged period of time to provide large scale photographic coverage.”
  • He earned his “third Gold Star in lieu of a fourth Air Medal was earned for flights over the Ryukyu and Caroline Islands area from March 29 to May 2, 1945. On these flights, he gathered additional information that aided in the successful invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.”

And, after many years of having virtually no information about it whatsoever, some details about his death:

  • “Having survived more than 25 missions over enemy occupied territory, Benny died tragically after the war was over. He was on a flight over the town of Atami, Japan with seven of his closest friends on March 11, 1946 when the Liberator he was flying in struck a mountain ridge at approximately 9 a.m. All aboard were killed instantly.”
  • “The first letter received indicated that Benny died ‘while engaged in a local flight.’ A later letter from the Bureau of Naval Personnel says his plane crashed while on a photographic mission. His family always believed he died on his flight home. Benny was just 20 years old when he died.”The entire visit lasted about 3.5 hours, and it was immensely moving. First, to feel proximity with an ancestral family member who has always been treated as “lost.” Then, to be able to reclaim him from that “lost” status and to flesh out his story and character and life…to find him embodied in these documents and objects and to find his story finally told. I have relied a lot on archivists, and I have always appreciated what they do, but never before has my respect and appreciation been so deeply felt. It is an amazing that my distant relative thought to donate these materials to a museum, but what’s perhaps even more amazing is that museums and historical societies even exist. People dedicate their lives to making sure that community members and researchers can find local and personal information, access their past, make important connections, and learn about themselves, their families, and their communities. I genuinely mean it when I say that it is a noble cause, much the way that local libraries are institutions meant for the free, open education and improvement of community members and of society as a whole.

While visiting, a local reporter happened to be interviewing somebody else in the room about an exhibit the following day. On his way out, he stopped and asked what I was doing. I told him the story, and he ended up interviewing me the next day and publishing this article just last week in the Bristol Press.

Four rolls of film and a cardboard box for one of them.

Undeveloped rolls of film from ca. 1945-46.

One of the most exciting parts of this whole experience is that I asked Mike and Carol if they’d be willing to send the undeveloped film out for processing if I could find an expert lab specializing in old film processing. They agreed, and after consulting with over a dozen archivists, preservationists, museums, and film specialists, I found a lab. The four rolls were sent out last week, and we should be hearing from the lab any day now with updates. It turns out that one of the rolls was actually color film as well, so if that roll can be developed, it may provide the only known color photographs of my great uncle.

I’ll post more updates about the film processing in August. For now, a more personal glimpse into one way that I’ve applied my academic skills in non-academic settings, and some thoughts on the meaningful experiences that those skills can help produce.