Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spare Time in Texas: Recreation and History in the Lone Star State
By David G. McComb. Austin: University of Texas Press, September 2008. Cloth:
ISBN 978-0292718708, $60; paper: ISBN 978-0292718890, $24.95. 300 pages.
Review by Muhammad Aurang Zeb Mughal, Durham University, England
History does not only mean the record of wars, kings and queens, disasters, or the spread of movements. History also accounts for the lives of common people and their daily activities not specifically related to their economics, politics, or religion. Spare Time in Texas is the recreational history of Texas since its emergence as a state. The book presents the different activities of Texans that they have pursued in their spare time including prostitution, gambling and drinking, football and baseball, visits to zoos and libraries, theatre, movies, radio, and television. According to McComb, who grew up in Houston and is affiliated with Colorado State University, recreational activities are “true interests” and are representative of an individual’s character because one does not choose these activities under the direction of a boss or as a job requirement (1).
McComb describes how cowboys after their farm activities came to saloons, bars, or restaurants for entertainments like gambling, drinking, and prostitutes, which have sometimes been in separate places and sometimes been under the same roof. Discussing the biological aspects of human sexuality and prostitution, McComb has shed light on the life of prostitutes and certain legal and moral concerns associated with this profession, which served as a form of pleasure or entertainment for cowboys. He has also collected information about red-light areas like “Post Office Street” and “The Chicken Ranch” from the research of different historians and social scientists. Similarly, he discusses the brief history of “The Garten Verien,” “Gruene Hall,” and “Scholz Garten” while providing details about Scottish whisky and German beer from their household use to their commercial preparation. Gambling at “Fatal Corner” and “The White Elephant” are also interesting elements of the history of recreation in Texas.
Public recreational spots like parks, zoos, and beaches are an important aspect of human life due to the participation of more than one generation and gender. City parks in Texas were built by philanthropists; later, changes in transportation systems gave rise to the development of rural parks. These public recreational places provide the pleasures of nature and are an integral part of Texan life covering approximately two million acres (68). McComb has collected the history of different such places in Texas from their construction to their development. Some of these are the plazas and parks of San Antonio, Barton Springs of Austin, Stewart Beach of Galveston, Palo Duro Canyon, Big Bend National Park, The Desolate Shore, Padre Island National Seashore, and the zoos of Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Brownsville, as well as the Gladys Porter Zoo.
A sports stadium either small or great occupies a considerable area of land and resources for its construction. Therefore, allocating resources to stadiums shows the value of sports. Football and baseball are an integral part of Texans’ recreation, and the Astrodome and Cotton Bowl stadiums are among the places where Texans have most enjoyed watching sports.
In the area of academic leisure pursuits, no one can deny the importance of books and libraries. McCombs stresses that reading acts as a pleasure beyond academic requirements. People enjoy reading books in their areas of interest in their leisure time. Thus, libraries enjoy the status of an important place. In Texas, there are many private and public libraries, and some of them are for special subjects and disciplines. Texans also own small personal libraries in their homes, while schools and universities have huge libraries with millions of books in them.
Another important and widely used source of recreation in Texas is theatre. Even after the introduction of radio, cinema, and television as alternative forms of entertainment, live theatre performed on the stage in front of audience is still popular (145).
At the end, the book has a special section that presents the history of recreation in Texas in carefully selected black and white photographs with some explanation of the context of each photograph. In all regards, the book is a wonderful description of the history of Texas recreation, providing considerable insight into Texan culture. There are some aspects not covered, however: for instance, video games and the internet.
Not only the idea itself but the way McComb has traced Texan character in the history of recreation is very innovative. It provides an opportunity to look into the history of the State with a different angle and to reveal some important aspect of Texans’ lives. The book has the potential to help researchers of history, recreation, and the American South. McComb’s use of phrases from everyday Texas life and literature will be appreciated by the readers with a literary aesthetic. Those interested in U.S. culture, especially that of the South, will find this book helpful in understanding Texans’ way of life and the status of recreational activities in their lives. Similarly, the history of these recreational activities and places in Texas will be revealing for many Texans. This book will serve as a valuable future reference on the topics it covers.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument
By Seth C. Bruggeman
Athens: University of Georgia Press, November 2008. Cloth: ISBN: 978-0820331775, $59.95; paper: ISBN 978-0820331782, $24.95. 280 pages.
Review by Nancy Zey, Sam Houston State University
Most driving maps and road atlases feature “points of interest” so that motorists can pick up a bit of history and culture as they make their way toward a particular destination. Some of these points are the birthplaces of famous individuals, such as the house in Mississippi where Elvis Presley made his earthly entrance. The house in Iowa where John Wayne first appeared is similarly highlighted. Many Iowa maps also mark the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.
The future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk?
Honoring a spot where a fictional character will be “born” more than two hundred years represents an extraordinary example of a general American fascination with natal sites. But of the numerous birthplaces sanctified around the country perhaps none has inspired as much devotion or commemorative activity as the little corner of Virginia where George Washington came into existence. In his new book, Seth C. Bruggeman skillfully details the complex and highly contentious process of memorializing and then reconstructing Washington’s earliest home on the Potomac, a story that ultimately centers on “memory, ownership of the past, and the wonderfully slippery meaning of authenticity” (6).
The story begins with Washington himself. Born in 1732 on Popes Creek Plantation, the future first president spent only three years there before the family packed up and moved forty miles westward. Popes Creek subsequently passed from one relation to another until fire reduced the house to rubble in 1779. Nearly four decades later, Washington Parke Custis traveled to the location where his adopted grandfather was born and placed a stone maker there proclaiming the spot’s significance, an act that seems commonplace today but, according to Bruggeman, was quite novel at the time. A renewed surge of patriotism as well as a Romantic captivation with historical sites and relics compelled Custis to make his pilgrimage, and interest became so widespread that, by midcentury, the Washington descendant who owned the acreage gave it to the state as a permanent landmark. Lack of funds as a result of the Civil War and Reconstruction prevented the creation of a monument, and the Commonwealth of Virginia eventually passed the deed to the federal government. Finally, in 1896, Congress funded (and the War Department erected) a fifty-foot granite obelisk near the ruins of Washington’s ancestral abode.However, almost as soon as the mortuary monument appeared it seemed out of date. Americans at the turn of the twentieth century were becoming enthralled with historic house museums, particularly those associated with the Founding Fathers, such as Monticello and Mount Vernon. Groups of philanthropic ladies had orchestrated the preservation of those structures, and benevolent women would rally again on behalf of Washington’s birthplace. Yet nothing, save a few stones, remained of Popes Creek Plantation. Josephine Wheelwright Rust, a descendant of the Washington family, believed that a replica of the house represented the only fitting tribute, and she launched an association to build one, even though no one really knew what it looked like. When Rust suddenly died, the National Park Service took over and what became known as the Memorial House opened to visitors by the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday.
Questions about authenticity immediately arose among the visiting public, and the questions only became more complicated with the introduction of historical archaeology and the uncovering of “Building X,” the remnants of the Popes Creek house. In a quixotic search for the authentic, the Memorial House underwent several decorative overhauls, and a bizarre living history component was added: farming demonstrations by “Uncle” Annanias Johnson, purportedly the last slave to be born on the plantation. Indeed, living history ultimately proved a saving grace for the site by functioning as a bridge between imagined and authentic past.
When Bruggeman first visited the George Washington Birthplace National Monument in 2003, both the Memorial House and farm demonstrations remained, and an oyster shell showed visitors an outline of the original home. Bruggeman came to the site as a graduate student with the task of writing an administrative history and left with heaps of data as well as a captivating idea for a book. Each chapter reveals rich details of the numerous individuals involved in commemorating the birthplace over nearly two hundred years, as well as the historical circumstances that facilitated or hampered the ongoing project. At the same time, Bruggeman deftly paints the broader context of each development, such as the ancient roots of creating a “locus sanctorum” and of fetishizing relics, the gender politics informing the effort to construct a historic house museum during the Progressive Era, and the lingering Jim Crow tensions surrounding the place as it became a national destination among American tourists. The author inserts himself periodically, inviting the reader to observe the historian’s craft in progress.
Toward the end of the book, Bruggeman notes that current birthplace stewards still endeavor to bring visitors as close to Washington’s first breath as possible, even though research suggests he may have drawn it elsewhere in the county. The story he tells—of Custis, Rust, and others—is verifiable but unlikely to draw many visitors to the remote patch on the Potomac. For those interested in public history, however, Bruggeman’s account of Washington’s birthplace provides an engaging tour through our longstanding, perhaps innate, fixation on relics and pilgrimage sites as well as the complicated process of remembering the past.

The Complete Route 66 Lost and Found: Ruins and Relics Revisited
By Russell A. Olsen
Osceola, WI: Voyageur Press, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0760334928, $25. 320 pages.
Review by Anna Thompson Hajdik, University of Texas at Austin
Russell Olsen’s The Complete Route 66 Lost and Found is a notable contribution to the history of the most fabled of America’s highways. Olsen was motivated by his own fascination with the travel route and set out to document not only the still-thriving, more touristy businesses along the highway, but also to rediscover the history and stories behind many of the now-abandoned gas stations, cabin courts, motels, and trading posts that were bypassed after the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. While sections of historic Route 66 still exist throughout the country, much of it has been lost in the name of modernity, progress, and industrialization, replaced by what many scholars consider an indistinct homogenization and placelessness that pervades contemporary American life.
Olsen’s main goal is to reclaim the heyday of Route 66, an era he characterizes in the book as dominated by small towns, eclectic road culture, and a wide-eyed innocence that viewed the early automobile as a symbol of freedom and adventure. The book is organized by state, beginning with Illinois and ending with California. In addition to individual businesses, Olsen devotes sections to cities, regional centers, and small towns on the route, including Albuquerque, Amarillo, Flagstaff, and Tulsa, but also Victorville, California, Baxter Springs, Kansas, Rolla, Missouri, and Chenoa, Illinois among many other communities. Historical and contemporary images of small-town main streets are juxtaposed with one another, and Olsen includes concise summaries of the town’s development and relationship to the highway. Most of the towns are still around, their main streets a bit sleepier and not quite as bustling as they once were.
Olsen is a storyteller, and that is this book’s great strength. Each stop he documents includes both a historical and contemporary photograph as well as concise vignettes about past owners, geographic details, or colorful tales related to the Old West. What is especially remarkable is the sheer number of sites that have been entirely reclaimed by the elements and natural landscape. From an abandoned meteor crater observatory near Winslow, Arizona to the now desolate Road Runner’s Retreat, a deserted truck stop outside East Amboy, California, Olsen’s chief project is to bring these pieces of roadside Americana to life. This is vividly accomplished through the use of such materials as souvenir postcards and vintage photographs that captured these businesses in all of their prosperous glory. Olsen doesn’t stop with the past however, and includes fascinating material gathered from interviews with current business owners, leaders of local preservation groups, and civic boosters. In this way, Olsen engages in a kind of vernacular approach to the history of Route 66, one that emphasizes the mostly working-class stories of the small business owner -- those individuals who lived alongside the highway, rather than the romanticized figure of the traveler and tourist that endures in popular culture.
One site that stood out in particular was the long abandoned Conoco Station near Arcadia, Oklahoma. In fact, the images from this site grace the cover of the book. The historical photograph shows the probable proprietors of the station along with their genial looking black lab staring into the camera. During the Great Depression, Olsen states, the station’s owners began a counterfeiting operation in the back room of the station. Soon enough the U.S. government traced the funny money back to the owners and only months later the station was abandoned. Olsen includes an evocative contemporary photograph of the stone remnants of the structure and intones, “The stone ruins remain, seemingly daring time and the elements to take their best shot” (222).
However, Olsen’s project falls short of the more scholarly studies of Route 66 that have been released in recent years. Because no more than a few paragraphs are devoted to each site, he’s never quite able to provide the historical background of Arthur Krim’s Route 66: Iconography of the American Highway (2005) or William Kaszynski’s Route 66: Images of America’s Main Street (2003). It is clear at times that Olsen prioritized quantity over quality with his project, especially as entries in different states begin to blur together into one giant scramble of gas stations, motels, and eating establishments that have seen better days. One also gets the sense at times that Olsen was under the gun to finish a few of his entries because he often ends each selection with trite and cliché phrases that become repetitive about mid-way through the book. Finally, the author fails to engage with other serious scholars of tourism history, a rich and diverse body of literature that has offered a much more complex understanding of the role travel has played to the formation of American identity than what Olsen presents here.
Olsen’s book however still has a place in the varied body of Route 66 literature. It may find its most receptive audience in the still vibrant community of Route 66 aficionados largely made up of nostalgic baby boomers and historic preservationists that continue to treat the highway as the original “Mother Road” of America’s transportation system. It should also be noted that Olsen includes two Route 66 fan periodicals, Route 66 Magazine and National Historic Route 66 News in his list of sources and so he knows his target audience very well. In addition, while the majority of businesses along the highway have faded into obscurity, Olsen brings much needed attention to efforts of local historic preservationist groups by showcasing sites like Soulsby’s Service Station in Mount Olive, Illinois – restored to its original appearance in 2003 and the U Drop Inn in Shamrock, Texas – restored in the 1980s. These grassroots restoration efforts are inspiring and stand as useful examples of what small communities can accomplish when they share common goals and band together. For anyone planning a Route 66 road trip, Olsen’s book would be an indispensable guide to the lost landscapes and still thriving businesses along America’s most historic of highways.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film
By Barry Curtis. London: Reaktion Books, October 2008. U.S. Release: Feb. 2009. Distributed in U.S. by University of Chicago Press. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-86189-389-5, $16.00. 256 pages.
Review by Kevin M. Flanagan, North Carolina State University, Raleigh
A perennial trope in horror and suspense cinema, the “haunted house” is a perfectly ambivalent figure through which to assess mankind’s fears. Sometimes the source and subject of a film’s terror—as in such diverse offerings as The Amityville Horror (1979) and Monster House (2006)—other times peripheral, as one part in a differently figured ambiance of dread (as with Buffalo Bill’s lair in The Silence of the Lambs [1991]), the haunted house has been present during most moments of cinematic history and has been articulated by many cultures throughout the world.
Rather than merely point out uses of the haunted house figure throughout film history, Barry Curtis’s Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film synthesizes a variety of technological, thematic, and literary sources in tracing the continued popularity of the old, dark house to audiences, critics, and filmmakers. Eschewing an over-reliance on the haunted spaces of Gothic literary tradition—Curtis gives them their due, but the temptation would be to chart an easy transition from horrific literature to film—Dark Places instead draws extensively on studies in architecture and critical theory.
The book’s chapters are organized around a cluster of ideas, or of convergent traditions which have been consistently articulated by numerous films. In Chapter 1 (“The Haunted House”), Curtis explores the iconographic and spatial dimensions that have characterized the haunted space. Though Curtis reminds that “all houses are haunted” by historical events and their relationship with their residents, he succinctly ventures that these places all posit a kind of showdown between inhabitant and the house itself, usually over a loss, “something excessive and unresolved in the past that requires an intervention in the present” (34). Curtis locates the main thrust of the haunted house film as residing in Victorian notions of material possession (accumulated goods, to which Freud would attribute overvaluation and cathexis) and in notions of fantastic interiority, which is amplified by the Gothic tradition, though actually rooted in the moral and practical function of the single family home (40-44). These ideas—along with the theoretical prospects of Gaston Bachelard and Walter Benjamin—play out against The Haunted Mansion (2003), Rose Red (2002) and Dead of Night (1945). This variety of examples analyzed (dare one say, the uncanny selection) is a real strength of this book.
Chapter 2 (“Gothic and the Uncanny”) provides a slightly different historical foundation, one which traces the Gothic’s simultaneous interest in the mysteries of the occult with the reasoned path of science and technological mastery. Curtis explains one of the impulses behind early horror cinema (notably F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu [1922]) as being its reliance on “a full range of technical devices,” including the superimposition of images, stop-motion photography, and the use of ornate studio sets, at once a celebration of the rational and technological and the wildly imaginative. This is placed within the larger context of visual haunting, from the fifteenth-century magic lantern (“the earliest images in printed books and in the slides used in magic lanterns featured skeletons and images of the afterlife”) to nineteenth-century dioramas and panoramas (90, 94). In short, early cinema audiences were already familiar with illustionistic terror and in supposed communication with the dead (96-97). The issues brought up in these cultural formations and their attendant technologies continue through the history of haunted house cinema, yet are morphed by emergent concerns, such as with the digital ghosts in The Net (1995) and Pulse (2001) and Fear Dot Com (2002). Again, the range of examples is impressive, but belies what could be seen as the central fault of Dark Places. In his minute attention to the widest variety of thematic and theoretical issues associated with the haunted house in film, Curtis treats historically important films such as Citizen Kane (1941) with the same reverence as such exploitative and trashy fare as Thir13en Ghosts (2001). This is not an inherently bad thing, but it is debatable whether the book should focus on the best instances of the haunted house or with the widest range of examples. Curtis opts for variety, but some of the films could use a more sustained and linear examination.
The third chapter (“Film – ‘A Fragile Semblance’”) further connects cinema technology itself to ghosts and haunting, showing (for example) that the fixity of the photographic image is often a preoccupying theme of haunted house films, such as with the final image of Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) (125-126). Chapter 4 (“Unreal Estate”) combines many of the issues from the previous chapters, and highlights the accumulated importance of Curtis’s wide-ranging arguments from previous sections. Dark Places is fairly unconventional in approach and is rather circular in its presentation of its arguments. The chapters do not present straightforward theses or direct teleological sections, but rather expose nuance and connections to sometimes unlikely precedents.
Dark Places is a valuable work for film scholars focused on the horror genre or otherwise. In considering the widest possible legacy for the haunted house on screen—and by bringing theoretical and multi-disciplinary sophistication to bear on such an unlikely topic—Curtis has fashioned a noteworthy exploration of one of cinema’s unsung icons.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

America’s Ocean Wilderness: A Cultural History of Twentieth-Century Exploration

By Gary Kroll. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, April 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-7006-1567-4, $34.95. 249 pages.

Review by Charles Mitchell, Elmira College

In America’s Ocean Wilderness, Gary Kroll adapts the tools and tropes that have come to define the study of the American West and its terrestrial wildernesses—the mythology of the frontier, the social construction of nature and landscape, the competing and yet inextricably entwined forces of science and commercialism, the relentless pressures of colonialism and capitalist exploitation, the gendered spaces of violence and domesticity—and applies them to the ocean. Blending environmental history, popular culture, and biographical profiles, he has produced an informative and engaging history of the ocean’s evolving place in America’s cultural consciousness, from the waning days of whaling through the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau and the Hawaiian vacation episodes of The Brady Bunch. Along the way, attentive readers will be rewarded with helpful suggestions of primary sources for classroom use and a treasure trove of term paper topics. Kroll’s argument is straightforward. Over the course of the twentieth century, the ocean was transformed in the American imagination from a mare incognita into a frontier wilderness, a space that would provide opportunities for manly self-renewal and resource extraction, a proving ground for feats of engineering and military technology, a stage on which to play out the ameliorating influences of domesticity, and, ultimately, a fragile ecosystem in need of care and healing. He organizes his discussion around a series of personal portraits, studies of seven key figures in the exploration and popularization of the ocean whose overlapping and interconnected careers map out the development in American thinking about and responses to the ocean. The first two chapters focus on Roy Chapman Andrews and Robert Cushman Murphy, contemporaries and sometime colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History who, Kroll suggests, embody the yin and yang of early-twentieth-century attitudes toward the ocean. Andrews stands in for the modern, technocratic business elite who saw the ocean as a resource to be managed for commodity extraction and recreational opportunites; Murphy represents the skeptical anti-modernist who sought to imbue the ocean with a nineteenth-century romantic sublime to preserve it from the ravages of commercialism. The story Kroll tells of these two naturalist-explorers serves as a reference point for the rest of the book. Andrews studied whales from the deck of whaling vessels in the Pacific, using his access to the ships and crew to expand his knowledge of their behavior and acquire specimens for the museum. As such, his ability to “do science” depended on the material support of those who might have different motivations than he, a theme that Kroll returns to throughout the book: the integrity of science (and the scientist) confronting the pragmatic demands of funding. In Andrews’s case, this was most evident in his need to tiptoe around his concerns about the over-harvesting of whales for fear of alienating the very industry on which his research depended. Thus, calls for a kind of scientific management of ocean resources emerge as a means of reconciling the short- and long-term interests of the industry in much the same way that Theodore Roosevelt urged the conservation of land-bound flora and fauna. Kroll extends the Roosevelt analogy by observing that Andrews’s portraits of vigorous whalers testing themselves against the sea played a significant role in transforming the ocean into a sportsman’s playground, offering ocean fauna as worthy substitutes for big-game hunters looking for the next new trophy. If Andrews pointed ahead to a world of scientific specialization devoted to pursuing knowledge as a means of control, Murphy’s preferred mode was nostalgia, an uneasy blend of the pastoral and the sublime, as he apprehended an ocean already appropriated by America’s “dangerous frontier myth of inexhaustible resources” (40). Murphy looked back to a history of natural science thoroughly imbued with the humanities, a tendency, Kroll suggests, that made him more alert to the intertwining of human and natural history. Through his studies of oceanic birds and the relationships between island-based cultures and natural resources—especially in the guano islands of South America—Murphy articulated a view of the ocean as what we would today call an ecosystem, a heterogeneous space characterized by a wide variety of micro-climates within which human society was inescapably enmeshed. The rest of Kroll’s book follows the tension between these two stances through the work of those whose oceanographic studies shaped the image of the ocean in America’s cultural imagination: William Beebe, whose philosophical musings on the ocean sublime, undertaken from his perch in a deep-sea diving submersible, did for the ocean what Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir did for the wilderness; Rachel Carson, who brought an “oceancentric” perspective to the study of the sea; Eugenie Clark, the “lady with a spear” who struggled, successfully, to redefine ocean-study as appropriate for her gender; Thor Heyerdahl, whose Kon Tiki unleashed a fever for all things Polynesian in American popular culture, from Tiki bars to Trader Vic’s to surfing; and, finally, Jacques Cousteau, whose perspective on the undersea world Kroll presents as shifting uneasily between Andrews’s vision of technocratic control and Murphy’s anti-modern anxiety about an exploited frontier. The strength and appeal of Kroll’s study derives from his central analogy: in the twentieth century, Americans thought about and related to the ocean in ways similar to how they thought about and related to the dry-land wilderness in the nineteenth century. This generates many thoughtful and provocative observations and should earn his book a place within the broader study of nature and culture. At the same time, Kroll occasionally lets his tropes run away from him. The neat dichotomy he proposes between Andrews and Murphy, though a useful rhetorical device, oversimplifies their actual views. Similarly, Kroll is too eager to draw direct aquatic parallels to the greatest hits of American Wilderness Studies, especially Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden. And, especially in the case of Murphy, his portraits occasionally veer toward hagiography. But these are mostly nuisances, inevitable quirks in a first book that do not distract from the interesting and important story the author has to tell.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn since 1876. By Jerome A. Greene. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, May 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8061-3791-9, $34.95. 384 pages.
Review by Robert E. Meyer, DePaul University

In Stricken Field, author Jerome Greene faces the daunting task of producing an “administrative history” of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (as the dust jacket identifies this volume) that transcends the dull recounting of a bureaucracy implied by such a characterization. For the most part he succeeds, although not without considerable attention to the mundane. In Chapters 2 through 6, Greene dutifully chronicles developments in such matters as the electrical system, plumbing fixtures and dimensions of the caretaker’s quarters. These chapters tell the story of the battlefield from the first attempts to memorialize the site in the form of rough wooden markers where the bodies of the Seventh Cavalry troopers were found after their 1876 defeat, through the establishment of Custer Battlefield National Cemetery, under the control of the War Department until 1940, to the current administration of the site by the National Park Service.However, this workmanlike narrative is happily augmented by a wealth of fascinating tidbits, such as the fact that Gen. Philip Sheridan, who considered Custer his protégé, sent a detachment under his own brother, Lt. Col. Michael Sheridan, to the Little Bighorn in 1877 to remedy the scandalous condition of the graves dug immediately after the battle, which, due to the harsh Montana winter weather and the intervention of wild animals, no longer fully contained the corpses that had been committed to them. Also of interest are the references to participation of members of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Crow tribes at memorial observances, as in 1926 when former adversaries White Bull, a Lakota warrior, and General Edward S. Godfrey, one of Custer’s lieutenants in 1876, exchanged symbolic gifts, with White Bull receiving an American flag, and Godfrey coming away with “a prized wool blanket” (64). In this passage, Greene comments on the symbolism of the exchange, calling it a “none-too-subtle message . . . that the tribesmen, once demonstrably hostile to the government, were now acceptably subordinate to it” (64).Each of the last four chapters of the book contains its own separate chronology. Chapter 7, “National Park Service Interpretation” sets up the struggle to control the meaning of the memorial, with those favoring a celebration of American military exploits and sacrifice (and glorification of Custer) eventually giving way to a broader view. Chapter 8, “Research and Collections,” tells of how the collection of artifacts and documents at the Little Bighorn grew, while Chapter 9, “Support and Interest Groups,” deals primarily with the history of the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association (CBHMA). Disputes between this group and the National Park Service reflect the conflicts associated with reassessment of the battle, as the CBHMA opposed the appointment first of Barbara Booher and then Gerard Baker, both Native Americans, to the position of superintendent, and objected to the sale of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (subtitled “An Indian History of the American West”) at the park’s bookstore.Throughout these sections, as in the book as a whole, Greene, a former Research Historian for the National Park Service, handles his material objectively and expertly. Extensive endnotes serve as evidence that Greene has studied not only the voluminous published literature, but has pored over letters, memos and other documents to piece together the fabric of his narrative. Occasionally, however, definitions of technical terms with which historians and archivists are no doubt familiar (e.g., “accession” and “interpretation”) are either delayed or completely omitted, leaving the uninitiated reader to grope for meaning.The emotional peak of this book—and it is a tribute to both to the material itself and to Greene’s treatment of it that such a phrase is appropriate—occurs in Chapter 10, “Indian Memorial,” with the account of the movement to have the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne dead honored at the Little Bighorn site, an effort which came to fruition with the dedication of a new memorial in 2003. Greene points out that, in 1925, a letter from Mrs. Thomas Beaverheart of the Northern Cheyenne requesting “that a marker be placed on the battlefield to indicate the spot where her father, Lame White Man, had fallen in battle” (170) received no response from the superintendent. Since this was during the period when the site was administered by the War Department, it is not surprising that attempts to honor those who defeated a regiment of the U.S. Army were unwelcome. Greene notes that, after the site came under the administration of the National Park Service, this “military perspective” (227) remained unchanged, at least to begin with, partly because the superintendent from 1941-1956, Edward S. Luce, was a former member of the Seventh Cavalry. Things changed gradually as members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), most prominently Russell Means, prodded (sometimes harshly) the white establishment to a more inclusive vision. One important adjustment involved changing the name of the site from Custer Battlefield National Monument, a name that was offensive to those Native Americans who had pushed, in 1972, for a plaque honoring warriors who “opposed the hostile aggression of the United States government” (227), to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, its current name. As he does throughout this book, Greene explains the conflicting motivations of the interested parties in dispassionate terms. He departs from this measured approach only in the last paragraph of Chapter 10 when he offers the following opinion: “In the final analysis, the Indian Memorial is in the correct place at the correct time” (238).The Lakota and Cheyenne won the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but lost the larger conflict of which it was a part. At the time, their victory was seen as an abomination, their defeat as the justified subjugation of a savage and anachronistic way of life. In the broadest sense, this volume serves as a reminder that it is necessary, though painful, to look at events of the past through a series of new lenses, and to recognize that the truths we embrace are sometimes honored at the expense of other, equally valuable truths.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

from Palgrave Macmillan
The American Landscape in the Poetry of Frost, Bishop, and Ashbery
by Marit J. MacArthur