Category Archives: Comps

Book summaries for studying for comprehensive exams

William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis

            William Cronon’s, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is neither a history of Chicago, nor a history of the West.  Rather, it is how the growth and change of each of those places happened as a consequence of their relationship with the other during the nineteenth century.  Cronon argues that though the ‘city’ and the ‘country’ are often viewed as occupying separate spheres, they “have a common history, so their stories are best told together” (xvi).  Much of Nature’s Metropolis is organized around the flow of commodities—grain, lumber, meat—into Chicago from the surrounding countryside, describing how that process changed both city and country.  The development of new technologies, particularly the railroad and the telegraph, resulted in new, larger western territories being settled, their landscapes transformed to allow for the production of staple crops and the raising of livestock.  As greater and greater amounts of raw materials began to be shipped into Chicago from the West, the city developed new technological and institutional innovations to deal with them.  Railroads and telegraphs played a large role in making Chicago the access point to the West for goods from the east coast, and the way to access eastern markets for Western farmers.  Further, the growth of western agriculture (and subsequent technological innovations like the grain elevator) resulted in the development of modern financial institutions in Chicago, such as the Board of Trade, grading systems, futures commodity trading, and others.  Ultimately, Cronon asserts that farmers, cowboys, and lumberjacks all played primary roles in the growth of Chicago, just as merchants, elevator operators, and traders were essential to the development of the Great West.

Heather Cox Richardson, West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War

In West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War, Heather Cox Richardson attempts to alter our geographic focus in assessing the postbellum era by arguing for the importance of the West in our understanding of the Reconstruction period.  Richardson argues that during the decades after the Civil War, Americans redefined what the proper relationship should be between citizens and the federal government.  By extending her analysis to 1901, West From Appomattox represents something of a departure from more traditional Reconstruction studies, instead focusing more broadly on what she terms the “reconstruction years,” while also lengthening the timeline of national reunion.

Richardson argues that questions about the role of the national government gained increased salience after the Civil War because direct federal taxation for the first time meant that the government’s reach would impact the pockets of citizens.  Ultimately, she contends that by the early twentieth century, “a newly formed ‘middle class’…divided the nation into two groups” (1).  They split the United States between “hardworking Americans,” who were working their way up with everyone else, and “special interests,” who only wanted special privileges from the government.  This “middle class”—one Richardson sees as interchangeable with terms like “mainstream Americans,” and “mainstream individualists,” as she opts not to ascribe to it any kind of traditional economic definition—pointed to the image of the westerner able to find success by only his own hard work, conveniently ignoring the ways the federal government propped up the West.  Richardson argues that this notion of the American West was “blinding,” and that “mainstream Americans” utilized this notion of the West while they “harnessed a newly active American government to their own interests,” all the while “retain[ing] a vision of America as a land of individualism” (5).

For Richardson, the emphasis many historians place on the South’s racial problems after the Civil War obfuscate what her “mainstream Americans” agreed were the most important issues of the day: who could be defined as a citizen, and what the government’s relationship to them should be.  She argues that after the election of 1896, the “middle class” decided that “the people” were those “who believed in the mainstream vision of a harmonious economy of hard workers…and that the government should bolster their version of American society,” to the detriment of blacks, women, and Indians who still faced systemic discrimination that barred them from enjoying the fruits of this “American Individualist” ethos.

Comps! Comps! Comps, Comps, Comps!

Comprehensive exams are just around the corner. Now, I can try to make this a less painful process by repeatedly reading the title of this post like this:

Or, I can figure out the best way to get organized, study effectively, and give myself enough time to prepare. (In reality, I’m probably going to do both. Just sayin’.)

The first step in the process is putting together everything I have read for each of my fields (primary field is Southern History, second and third fields are 19th Century U.S. and Latin American History.) For that, I don’t have helpful advice so much as “Oh, I’m glad I did that,” but who knows, it might help someone. First, starting my first year of undergrad, I began organizing each of my classes, most importantly the syllabus for each of my classes, into folders by class, semester, and year. I have continued this into grad school, so now I have a way of going back and recalling every book applicable to each of my fields that I have had to read for class up to this point. Many of these books I own (and I’ll get to those in a moment) but for the ones I was too poor/cheap to buy, or have lost in the process of moving from Virginia to New Jersey to Texas, at least it’s a record.

At the start of graduate school 2 years ago, I took the time to enter all (see: most) of the books I own into my Library Thing account. If you use Library Thing already, you already know how fantastic it is. If you don’t, Library Thing allows you to look up any book you own through a simple search (title or author usually gets you there), and then add it to your library with all of the Library of Congress information attached. After doing that, I added tags to all the books in my library to organize them by subject matter, with special attention paid to how they might fit in to my three fields. (On a Library Thing note unrelated to comps, I also used the LOC data to print call number labels for all of my books, while my library is still a manageable size. Is this a completely insane thing to do? Absolutely. But I’ve helped professors unpack their offices when they don’t have an organizational system other than alphabetical by author, and it’s not fun.)

While Library Thing has been/will be immensely helpful in putting together my lists, using a web-based interface for the actual note taking and study process probably isn’t the most effective way to do things. I started using Evernote for my most recent research project, and it seems to be a nice way to organize notes quickly and effectively. Using Evernote I will be able to write down basic summaries of the argument of each book on my lists, how they fit in with the historiography, and then include tags (trying to be more systematic and robust than I have been for my Library Thing) to help study which books are in conversation with one another. (Cameron Blevins has a two great posts on “Surviving Quals” here, and here. I’m looking ahead to my exams, while he is looking back, but those posts were helpful in thinking through some of the issues I might have. He also has an awesome post about what he did with all those book summaries after passing exams.)

I’m hoping that already having a good chunk of my library organized, and using Evernote to help organize my book summaries will help me prepare for comps more quickly and effectively than I could with just pen and paper, or even with just basic word documents. With that plan, and a solid soundtrack, I hope to be done with this in early August, so I can start thinking about my trip to Colombia.

Paul D. Escott, “What Shall We Do With the Negro?” Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America

In “What Shall We Do With the Negro,” Paul D. Escott explores the efforts, or often the lack of effort, of northern and southern governments to confront and address the issue of race, and racial inequality.  Escott expends a great deal of effort to eschew what he sees as the tendency of historians to look at the Civil War era, and Lincoln in particular, through rose-tinted glasses, and attempts to “illuminate attitudes and policies affecting the future status of freed people” in both the North and the South.  Escott argues that any racial “progress” that occurred during the Civil War period (emancipation, for instance) occurred as a result of unanticipated events, namely the war itself, rather than the egalitarian vision of great leaders.  Both northern and southern governments took complex, roundabout routes to dealing with issues of racial equality, and even then they dealt with many other questions before addressing the future of African Americans.

Escott, like others, for Lincoln, emancipation was an unintended consequence of war.  Escott goes further than many though, spotlighting Lincoln’s negative view of African Americans, arguing that Lincoln would have preferred peace and union over an elevation of the status of blacks, and that his priorities in terms of racial equality were far different than those ascribed by popular culture to the “Great Emancipator.”  Even in 1865, when Oakes argues Lincoln had become more radically egalitarian as a result of the war, Escott argues that Lincoln’s expectations for the improvement of the status of free people was modest at best, and only came to the national agenda as a result of the events of the Civil War.

Escott’s ultimate goal seems to be to reconcile celebrations of the Civil War era, and put them more squarely in line with the low points of Jim Crow.  He feels that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of Lincoln, and towards a celebration of the racial progress of the mid-nineteenth century.  He argues that the real story of race in the Civil War-era—where changes in racial policies only occur as reactions to unanticipated events—properly highlights America’s racist past, and is “tragically consistent” with the Jim Crow era.  Escott’s title, a question asked by many Americans during the Civil War period, highlights the fact that many believed African Americans were never equals, and instead were a problem that whites were entitled to deal with as they saw fit.

James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are arguably two of the most studied historical actors of the mid-nineteenth century, and in The Radical and the Republican James Oakes assesses their antislavery attitudes jointly, providing the reader a greater understanding of both men.  Oakes argues that though both men were marked by skepticism in the early 1850s—Lincoln of the effectiveness of radical abolitionism, Douglass of the depth of Lincoln’s commitment to antislavery—by the late 1850s the positions of the two men came closer together, as two of the most dominating figures championing the cause of antislavery, if still approaching the issue with different means.  While Oakes notes Douglass’s continued skepticism of Lincoln extending into the war years, he argues that the Civil War radicalized Lincoln’s approach to antislavery, and this in turn allowed Douglass to take a more practical, republican approach to antislavery politics.  Even as their actual views and positions edged closer together, “so long as they found it necessary to present themselves as the conservative politician and the radical reformer, the differences between them would seem greater than they actually were” (xx).  Ultimately, by the end of the war, Oakes argues that Lincoln and Douglass both shared a commitment to equal rights for African Americans, making Lincoln’s republicanism seem more radical, and Douglass’s radicalism seem more republican

Part of me questions Oakes assessment of Lincoln’s views on and approach to antislavery as becoming increasingly radicalized during the war years.  To me, he takes a more direct approach to emancipation during the war years not because he has become more radical, but because it was not until involved in a military conflict that the constitution permitted him to do so.  The war powers act, and military necessity abetted Lincoln’s “radicalism” during the Civil War, perhaps calling into question Oakes’s model of Lincoln and Douglass slowly coming around to one another’s position.

George N. Fredrickson, Big Enough to Be Inconsistent

In Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race, George N. Fredrickson attempts to strike a scholarly balance in assessing Lincoln’s views on race and slavery.  Fredrickson opens this work with an extended historiographical assessment, focusing primarily on some of the more recent scholarship.  He notes that the historiography addressing Lincoln’s racial and anti-slavery views have essentially fallen into two camps: the hagiographic praise of Lincoln as the great emancipator, or one in which he is viewed solely as a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist.  Fredrickson argues that Lincoln shouldn’t be forced into one of those two camps, and rather, that while Lincoln had long been committed to anti-slavery, he was a political pragmatist whose racial views changed over the course of his political career.

Fredrickson argues that in Lincoln’s “Illinois Years,” prior to 1860, Lincoln was committed to anti-slavery, but only within the bounds of constitutional, legal, and political constraints.  He also contends that Lincoln was “clearly” a white supremacist, though he argues that there can be degrees of racism.  Fredrickson states that Lincoln’s racism was based on conformity to the wider Illinois electorate, and thus he was a passive white supremacist, out of conformity and political expediency.

During the Civil War, however, Lincoln’s racial views changed.  While he was able to reconcile his respect for the constitution with his anti-slavery views by framing emancipation as a military necessity, increasing the Union’s manpower while destabilizing the southern economy.  As large numbers of blacks enlisted in the Union Army, however, Lincoln’s commitment to colonization waned.  Lincoln’s commitment to republican ideology would not allow for the enlistment of blacks in the military, but the denial of their rights as citizens.

By parsing out the evolution of Lincoln’s views on slavery and race separately, and by placing them in the context of the broader public opinion, Fredrickson successfully provides necessary nuance in the egalitarian vs. racist debate.

Patrick Rael, Black Identity & Black Protest in the Antebellum North

In Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North, Patrick Rael explores the ways that black northerners utilized the ideas of antebellum America generally to coordinate protest thought, and a conception of their own identity, as a way to argue for their own freedom and equality.  Black northerners both used, and contributed to the development of, antebellum notions of respectability, moral character, and middle class virtue, as a way of gaining greater respect within the community, and according to Rael, in an attempt to change the “public mind” about issues of race.  Rael’s scholarship contributes to a number of historiographical strands.  First, he seeks to blur the hard and fast distinctions drawn by other scholars (accommodation vs. resistance, for example), and argues instead that black northerners during the antebellum period wove their arguments through “the disparate strands of the ideological fabric surrounding them” (8).  He also objects to “culturalist” histories that highlight success stories among disadvantaged groups, arguing that these types of stories bely the difficulty of the lives of historical actors.  Rael seems to presage Walter Johnson’s argument about the use of agency by culturalist historians.  Finally, he objects to what he terms the black nationalist school of thought, that argues black embrace of moral uplift and elevation made them “co-opted dupes of a white middle class.”  Alternatively, Rael posits that ideas of moral uplift and bourgeois values belonged no more to whites than they did to blacks, and that, in fact, blacks themselves helped in the formation of those ideological frameworks.