Monday, October 25, 2010

1877: America's Year of Living Violently: by Michael Bellesiles

1877: America's Year of Living Violently
by Michael Bellesiles
Rating: 2.0/5.0
The New Press

When Michael Bellesiles' Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture was published in 2000, it hit with all the force of a knee to the crotch. That crotch was the cuddly-as-a-teddy-bear National Rifle Association, which got rather rankled by the book's assertion that gun ownership in colonial America was rare and that firearms ownership in the United States became prevalent only during the Civil War era as manufacturing techniques improved and gun prices dropped. While that organization fumed and roared, the accolades poured in for the then-Emory University professor from critics, journalists and fellow historians, with the book ultimately scoring Bellesiles the Bancroft Prize.

Then the bottom fell out. The NRA's reactionary ranting gave way to reasoned examinations from serious historians who no doubt have forgotten more about history than most of us ever bothered to learn; the author would soon be accused of everything from taking quotes out of context to deliberately misquoting his sources and including statements that were historically inaccurate. After a lengthy academic review of the text, Bellesiles would eventually be stripped of his Bancroft and fired from Emory University.

1877: America's Year of Living Violently should prove far less controversial for Bellesiles. The book is a passable, if largely unremarkable, account of all the violent, shitty and otherwise awful events that transpired in that year. The author captures the obvious topics - the continuation of an economic depression that started in 1873, the contested 1876 presidential election that wasn't resolved until January of 1877, Reconstruction's ultimate failure as blacks' rights were eliminated throughout the South as "Redeemer" governments reclaimed power, the labor unrest that would culminate in a series of strikes that summer, westward expansion and the terrible toll it exacted on Native Americans - while giving the reader a marginal sense of the country's political and cultural climate. It rarely offers anything new in terms of historical scholarship, but it's readable and avoids becoming too academically dry.

But a disgraced reputation is difficult to repair, and I found myself nagged by certain doubts as I read 1877. Are Bellesiles' references legitimate and are the quotes accurate? Does he have his facts straight? Is he able to approach American history from an unbiased perspective? It's possible that other readers will have similar doubts, and though Arming America's legacy is more complicated than the extremists who either loathe or worship it admit, a historian's past writings can inform a reader's opinion of that historian's most recent work.

The book is flawed in other ways. Too often Bellesiles' view of history is incredibly simplistic: heroes are heroes, villains are villains, and there is rarely any middle ground. He rightly rakes a few well-deserving individuals over the coals, most noticeably those who used violent methods to restore white power in the South and leaders who used federal troops against striking laborers, but in general the author shows little appreciation for or interest in history's complexities. Bellesiles is prone to the type of generalized statements historians should avoid - "Everyone hated Jimmy Kerrigan, including his wife..." "The Rangers had no more respect for the border with Mexico than they did for human life" "While the rest of the country threw aside the promises of the Constitution when it came to black people, Kansas welcomed them..." The author's transgression here is obvious: he makes sweeping generalizations that can't be proven and assumes that in 1877 all members of a particular group held identical views on these topics and acted in the same way. It's a sloppy and careless approach to history.

Bellesiles also fails to acknowledge developments that don't fit his depiction of 1877 as an orgy of violence and social turmoil that stunted the nation's social progress, including Henry Flipper becoming the first African-American to graduate from West Point, the founding of the American Humane Association or even something as innocuous as the first cantilever bridge being built in Kentucky. It's just another shortcoming in a book whose reductionist account of history is impossible to ignore. Readers who aren't familiar with post-Civil War 19th century America should be warned that there are far more objective studies to be found, while readers who have even the smallest working knowledge of this period are also likely to be unimpressed.

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