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Archive for the category “Interview”

MUP Remembers Leonidas Polk

Bishop/ROBINS_dj080306On this day in 1864, Leonidas Polk, one of the Confederacy’s more unique generals as he was also an Episcopal bishop, died this day in 1864 during William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. In fact, Sherman was directly involved in Polk’s death as the general spotted a cluster of Confederate officers scouting along a ridge. On his orders, the 5th Indiana Battery opened fire and General Polk was nearly cut in two.

Today, Glenn Robins joins us to discuss his biography of Polk, The Bishop of the Old South, and Polk himself.

1. Why do people remain interested in Leonidas Polk?

Aside from a basic interest in the mid-nineteenth century, I think people are fascinated with why a high-profile and well-liked cleric accepted a combat assignment with the Confederate army rather than serve as a chaplain. The noted Civil War historian James McPherson contends that the Civil War armies may have been the most religious in American history. And yet, there is really no one comparable to Polk, a bishop who became a general. Also, the dramatic and unusual circumstances of Polk’s death—being killed by artillery fire—seem to have created something of a sympathetic figure. Some people see him as a symbol of the Confederate cause by conflating his religious devotion, his reputable personal character, and his military service. Finally, religious generals such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are viewed simply as Christian, whereas Polk is a decidedly Episcopalian figure, which appeals to a certain population.

2. What were your reasons for writing this biography of Leonidas Polk?

Generally, Leonidas Polk is known as the Bishop-General and his life is viewed through the narrow lens of the Civil War. I wanted to construct a narrative of Polk’s life that emphasized his prewar activities, particularly his ministerial career, his ownership of a large sugar plantation, and his role in developing the University of the South.

3. What surprised you the most about Polk’s prewar life?

First, in economic terms, he was a very successful sugar planter. He used innovative farming techniques and employed a slave management system that afforded slaves more responsibility and greater autonomy. Second, he was deeply committed to his ministerial responsibilities. He helped make the Louisiana Diocese a vibrant Episcopal organ in the South that challenged the societal influence of the region’s larger protestant denominations. Third, Polk had a remarkably ambitious vision for the University of the South. He did not envision the university as an insular institution—quite the contrary. He hoped that the university would compete with the premier universities of the nation and of Europe. He intended to recruit world-class scholars, promote academic excellence, and cultivate the Episcopal faith, as well as make the university a gathering place for social elites and public intellectuals. Of course, the war and Polk’s death changed all of that.

4. What stands out about Polk’s Civil War generalship?

Polk was a mediocre corps commander serving in a theater dominated by mediocre generals. Despite his West Point education, Polk had no real military experience and was probably not deserving of such a high-ranking appointment. It’s counterfactual history, but I have always wondered how Polk would have fared in the Army of Northern Virginia under that army’s superior leadership. Whatever limitations Polk had as a fighting man, he was widely popular with his men. Late in the war Polk became more involved in the religious life of the Army of Tennessee. He baptized several generals, including Braxton Bragg, which was truly bizarre considering that each man attempted to have the other stripped of his command.

5. Having reached the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the death of Leonidas Polk, do you have any thoughts about future studies in these areas?

I think for those individuals who survived the war more work needs to be done on their postwar lives and not just on their involvement in the political reconstruction of the nation and their respective states. Instead, there needs to be a greater emphasis on how the war impacted the participants as individuals and as families, and on how groups and individuals understood and assigned meaning to the war. As for those figures like Polk who died in battle, we need clear assessments of their initial view of the war and to know if their view of the war changed over time, and why. And for those individuals who have become symbols of a particular version or interpretation of the war, we need to examine whether the memory of the man matches the realities of the man.

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The Warm Springs Story Available Today!

The Warm Springs StoryThe long-anticipated release of F. Martin Harmon’s The Warm Springs Story: Legacy and Legend has arrived! Mercer University Press is proud to be part of such important scholarship on a much neglected aspect of medical, presidential, and Southern history.

Today, F. Martin Harmon stops by the blog to offer us a few insights into the book.

 

 

1. Why has Warm Springs been so ignored in the studies of FDR?

This question is easy to answer because of the voluminous ways Franklin Roosevelt impacted his era. Looking back now, it seems he was involved in everything. By being president for so long, his fingerprints are all over the twentieth century, such as coping with the Great Depression with his various social programs, the build-up to WWII and the war years; the start of Social Security, rural electrification and the TVA, and national parks and the continued conservation efforts started by his cousin, Teddy, and so on. I just think historians ran out of time and space when it came to his adopted home. After all, Warm Springs was very much tied in with his disability and his own, very personal efforts to overcome polio, a struggle he kept in the background. With all of the other pieces of history that he touched, I just think historians have largely missed the important role he played in disability awareness, compassionate healthcare, rehabilitation, medical fundraising and research, and independent living—all things the famous “spirit of Warm Springs” was about. It’s understandable, but in its own way was no less impactful than all the other things for which he has been better known.

2. In the book, you discuss how close Warm Springs came to closing despite its historical significance. Why do you think states are so shortsighted in such matters?

In the early years, immediately following FDR’s death in 1945, polio was still very prevalent and there were good reasons for keeping the historical and medical parts of Warm Springs separate. The Georgia Warm Springs Foundation was still a very active force under FDR’s anointed lieutenant Basil O’Connor and although the Little White House and its environs was an immediate and ongoing attraction, it made sense to keep the two entities separate. That all changed, however, with the advent of the Salk vaccine. The hospital’s emphasis had to shift with polio’s gradual decline. Naturally, other forms of rehabilitation were embraced by the medical powers-that-be. Meanwhile, the state kept alive Georgia’s FDR history at the Little White House and eventually got into the rehab business itself with vocational rehab, and, unfortunately, kept it all separate after assuming control of the medical side from the foundation. As with many things at that level, politics probably got in the way of logic. With more than one department in charge at Warm Springs and elected officials coming and going, the merging of everything that could have been so beneficial never happened. Tourism was continued through the FDR story, but the much larger (and warmer) Warm Springs story never got its due and so never had a chance to enhance the ongoing rehab legacy and economic potential. Worst of all, the famous water was allowed to fade away—the very reason for (and name of) the place—a marketing gaff rarely committed at a location with such historic significance. With so much on their plate, I think many Georgia leaders didn’t want Warm Springs, but they also didn’t want to be responsible for its going away. It’s a shame the federal funding (and control) that was discussed never happened because the significance warranted support from that level. The state was never up to running a rural hospital no matter how famous, especially given ever-increasing competition in the medical marketplace, and, as always, visionaries were few and far between. I’m sure other states have endured similar missteps for similar reasons. In tough economic times, which state budgets almost always profess, common sense solutions are often missed even when obvious advantages far outweigh risks. It all becomes too political to handle.

3. Do we have a modern polio, that is, a disease that is wrecking lives and ruining human potential?

At one time, diabetes was called the new polio and a diabetes management program was even proposed at Warm Springs to renew its medical glory. Unfortunately, that idea came at a time when Warm Springs was more concerned with upgrading vocational rehabilitation as part of the labor department rather than branching into a new medical rehab future. And although cancer probably remains the disease we would like to conquer most, it does seem that the ongoing problems caused by a lifetime of diabetes probably most closely mirrors a life with polio and what we now call post-polio syndrome.

4. How has the social stigma of physical handicap changed since FDR’s struggle with polio?

There’s no doubt Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a trendsetter and one of the trends he clearly established through the creation of Warm Springs was bringing disability out into the open, where it could (and should) be dealt with honestly and fairly on a day-to-day basis. Obviously Warm Springs was way ahead of its time in the use of automatic doors, ramps and inclines, hand rails, accessible bathrooms, and even elevators. Warm Springs was ADA compliant fifty years before the actual act made such things mandatory. In the final twenty-one years of his life, FDR returned to Warm Springs repeatedly for his own restoration, but also because he wanted each and every Warm Springs patient to realize that disability should be no excuse to abandon one’s dreams. How else could you view a “handicapped” or “crippled” man who had achieved the nation’s highest office? He was (and is) a hero to the disability community. When the great debate was raging over whether or not to allow a statue of him in a wheelchair at the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, no less an authority and historian than Hugh Gallagher, a man with polio himself, famously proclaimed, “Don’t let them take our hero” in support of the statue.

5. What were you surprised to learn about FDR during the writing of the Warm Springs Story?

Perhaps my biggest surprises concerning Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to do with the what-might-have-beens that could have altered (for good or bad) the history of Warm Springs if FDR had never returned to politics, allowing his vision of Warm Springs to come to pass. With such a prominent, energetic, and charismatic man working constantly on Warm Springs rather than the economy, war, politics, and the nation’s future, imagine what he might have achieved for Warm Springs’s tourism and medical fronts. In fact, his documented plans for the place in lieu of all he accomplished as president and how famous he became make it even more of a head-scratcher that such things have been ignored by the generations since. Added to that was my realization of the marketing corners he was willing to cut and the truth he was willing to stretch to ensure survival of the place. He was, after all, a master of public relations, in his own words “one of America’s two greatest actors” (along with Orson Welles), and no place exemplified his talent for the well-placed comment (or con) more so than Warm Springs.

 

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Georgia’s Confederate Monuments Released Today!

Confederate Monuments  Today, the Press released Georgia’s Confederate Monuments and its author, Gould B. Hagler, Jr., has graced the blog with an interview.

 

 

1. Did you sense any sort of emotional pattern to the various monuments throughout the state?

There is a pattern that changes over time. The earlier monuments were expressions of grief. Every family was in mourning. These memorials evoke strong feelings a century and a half later. Take, for example, the cenotaph on Greene Street in Augusta. The names of Richmond County’s dead are so numerous that they spill over from the tablets on the sides to the steps of the base below. Or consider the small memorial built by the Linwood Sunday School, which lists the twenty-three young men from that one country church who lost their lives.

Soon the monuments took on another function, evoking a sense of pride. The Confederate soldier fought with bravery and determination against great odds. While the monuments continued to function as expressions of grief, they also praised the martial qualities of the Confederates living and dead.

The monuments also have things to say about the cause for which the Confederates fought. The obelisk in Decatur is the best example. A long inscription argues the legitimacy of the Confederate case and says emphatically that might does not make right, that the constitutional principles remain valid.

 

2. Well, you’ve seen them all now. What’s your favorite and why?

Many of the monuments have features that make them special. I could not pick one favorite, but I will mention three that are special in different ways.

The monument on Broad Street in Augusta, my home town, is one of several Georgia monuments built on a grand scale. It has a statue of the Confederate Everyman at the top, and statues of four generals at the base. It is covered with beautiful carvings and inspiring words. This monument is a beautiful and unique work of art.

The monument in Fayetteville is quite different. It is a very modest granite slab honoring the Confederate heroes of Fayette County. What makes this one special is its date: 1934. During the Great Depression, when people were struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead, they still remembered.

The Brunswick statue is close to my heart because of what I had to do to get the picture. I took a decent picture but it did not have the qualities I wanted. Because of the monument’s orientation and the surrounding trees, in order to get a good shot I had to be there near the summer solstice and late in the afternoon. Plus the weather had to be exactly right. And there was a deadline to meet. One July day, I knew it was now or never. I drove five hours to Brunswick, spent an hour or so taking pictures—and then turned around drove home. So instead of having a rather pedestrian shot of this fine monument, I managed to get what I think is the best photograph in the book.

 

3. Had memorializing wars been significant in Georgia prior to the Civil War? What made this war unique in that sense?

There are some monuments and memorials related to the Revolution, I am sure, but I do not know whether any were built prior to the Civil War. Two Georgia towns have names related to the Mexican War—Ringgold and Buena Vista.

The Civil War was unlike anything before or since. The casualties were enormous, unique in American history. The battles were fought here, Georgia men dying on Georgia battlefields, buried by the thousands in cemeteries near these battlefields, near their homes. Georgia women nursed the wounded and dying. No family was untouched. This was not something they read about in the newspapers. They saw it. They lived it. They endured it.

 

4. We’ve had significant conflicts since the Civil War, but local memorializing of them does not seem nearly as common. Why do you think that is?

You are right; it is not as common. World War I was not nearly as costly as the Civil War, so that is a factor. I should say not nearly as costly to Americans. Go to Canada and everywhere you will see memorials to the men who died in the Great War.

It is interesting that four of our monuments honor Georgia’s Confederate veterans and Georgia men who served in the United States Army in World War I.

Few monuments were built after the Second World War, but now interest is increasing. There are now many “all-wars” monuments, and many of these new ones have elements honoring Georgia’s Confederates along with the veterans of other wars from the Revolution to Afghanistan.

 

5. Was there a sentiment you were surprised to find absent among the memorials?

No, quite the opposite. They cover the whole range. As I said before, they mourn the dead, honor the bravery of the living and the dead, and honor the Confederacy itself. But they do more than that. As time went on, the theme of reconciliation appeared. There is the famous Peace Monument in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. The monument in Westview Cemetery quotes the verse from Isaiah about beating “swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.” Two monuments in Atlanta honor the men who fought on both sides at Peachtree Creek. More recently, two monuments in the North Georgia mountains honor local men who fought for the Union as well as those who fought for the Confederacy.

Interest in this era is not waning. Almost all the monuments are well maintained. Many have been cleaned more than once since I started photographing them in the early 1990s. Some have been damaged over the years and have been carefully repaired.

Even more significant is the construction of new monuments. Not counting the “all-wars” monuments, there are thirty-one that have been built in the last twenty-five years, one of which was too recent for inclusion in the book. I know of one being planned, and there are probably others I don’t know about—yet.

 

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An Interview with Matt Jennings, Author of The Flower Hunter and the People

JenningsWith the recent release of Matt Jennings’s The Flower Hunter and the People: William Bartram in the Native American Southeast, we thought it a good idea to tap the author for some insights into the book. Here’s what Dr. Jennings had to say:

 

 

1. What were the differences between Bartram’s view of Native Americans and that of most British colonists?

Most British colonists, and the Americans who succeeded them as the would-be masters of eastern North America, took a dim view of Native Americans. At best, Native Americans represented people trapped in an early stage of civilization who might benefit from exposure to Protestant Christianity and capitalism. At their worst, the continent’s first nations represented evil and savagery, and they deserved whatever violence the European invasion and subsequent expansion of the United States might unleash. William Bartram was not willing to admit a basic social equality with Native Americans, but he did believe that Native people had histories and cultures that merited serious study and understanding, and that alone set him far ahead of most of his contemporaries on this issue.

 

2. Who was the audience for William Bartram’s writings and how did they fit in with colonial and British culture?

Bartram was plugged into one of the most vibrant scientific communities in the British Empire (and the most vibrant scientific community in the early United States in Philadelphia). Principally, he wrote for his colleagues. However, during Bartram’s time, the study of natural science was not just the province of elites, or university-trained scientists. Well-read amateurs also contributed their findings, and Bartram’s writings blend cutting-edge eighteenth-century thought with writing that, even today, is fairly accessible to laypeople.

 

3. How did Bartram’s Quaker faith affect his view of nature and Native Americans?

Bartram’s Quaker beliefs influenced him profoundly. At several points in his studies, he invoked a “Great Monitor,” a divine force that oversaw all of nature, including Native and white people alike. Like all Quakers, Bartram also supposed that everyone carried around an aspect of the divine within her or himself, sometimes known as an “Inner Light.” And all people had access to this Inner Light.

 

4. How would William Bartram view today’s environmental policies?

This is a tough question to pose to a historian. Historians preach repeatedly that we must avoid judging historical figures by current standards, and pulling people of the past out of their historical context. On the other hand, why study the past if you believe it has absolutely no bearing on current affairs? As a student of Native American history, I’m also particularly wary about putting words in the mouths of the people whose stories I try to interpret. Having said all of that, I’m fairly certain that William Bartram would be dismayed by the callous disregard that our policymakers, and we as a society, have shown for our environment. Climate change is one part of it, but I think that William Bartram would be dumbfounded by our inability or unwillingness to wean ourselves from fuel sources that are clearly detrimental to our environment, and he certainly would disapprove of any policies that threatened to limit the diversity of species that he probably viewed as embodying some piece of the divine.

 

5. Most Americans probably still hold some “noble but primitive” view of pre-colonial Native-American culture. How do scholars’ views differ?

Another tough question. I’m wary of using pre-colonial, pre-contact, prehistoric, or any such descriptor when referring to ancient North America, and I’m just as wary of drawing lines between categories like “scholar” and “Native American.” since the lines are quite blurred. For a long time, historians and archaeologists wrote as if Native Americans could be easily consigned to some past age. To be blunt, in the West, history and archaeology evolved to serve the very states that committed genocide and dispossessed Native nations. Native activism and more sensitive scholarship have helped to improve this situation, but you’re right. Most non-Native people have a limited understanding of Native-American history, and it often rests on half-remembered racist history-class lessons and pop-culture stereotypes based on Hollywood films, to say nothing of the “tomahawk chop,” the use of Native mascots, and other such tomfoolery. I must also point out that most non-Native scholars have fairly limited experience in Indian Country, and, as such, they risk repeating stereotyped or inaccurate images of the type you asked about. For what it’s worth, these images are really old in Western society. Columbus himself praised the simple, yet attractive Taínos, and denigrated the “savage Caribs.” We are not likely to erase these caricatures overnight, but recognizing they exist is a step in that direction. For non-Native scholars, trying to forge connections with Native communities is crucial. At its best, the scholarly community (largely non-Native), takes Native voices seriously and incorporates them into an inclusive, even-handed narrative of early American history.

 

6. What are the main things you hope readers get out of The Flower Hunter and the People?

Well, I think it’s important to recognize that William Bartram was both firmly rooted in his own time, and yet, his vision managed to transcend that time. He advised the American government as it plotted to extend its dominion over Native nations, and that can’t be overlooked. He also failed to fully understand, or wasn’t granted access to, the full flowering of Native-American knowledge. But in the same set of texts, Bartram laid forth a vision of Native America as a diverse people, an ancient people, and a people that deserved consideration and respect. Like a lot of great nature writing, Bartram’s words reflect his own time, but they also carry a certain timeless quality. Bartram’s passion, along with his fairly accurate renderings of Native-American culture, allow his writings to reach us in our own time.

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An Interview with Stephen Roth, author of the novel A Plot for Pridemore

Mercer University Press couldn’t be prouder to announce the release of Stephen Roth’s first novel, A Plot for Pridemore. The 2012 winner of the Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction, this novel is a whirlwind of intrigue and shenanigans in a small Missouri town.

Stephen is a native of LaGrange, Georgia, and long-time journalist, and he stopped by the blog today to talk about his terrific foray into fiction.

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1. Baby Alison and her rescue from a well inspires the mayor’s scheme to bring infamy to Pridemore. Did news stories similar to Baby Alison’s strike you when you were younger?

I have always been fascinated by news accounts of extraordinary things happening in ordinary places, and the effect that those stories have on people. The fictional Baby Alison story is inspired by the real-life Baby Jessica rescue that happened in 1987 in Midland, Texas. During the handful of days workers were trying to rescue Jessica McClure from the well, you could not go anywhere in my hometown of LaGrange, Georgia, without hearing people talking about it. I remember sitting at a high school football game on a Friday night and the PA announcer suddenly blurting, “Ladies and gentlemen, the little girl in Texas has been rescued from the well!” Of course, everyone stood up and cheered. That left an impression on me. Nobody in that stadium knew Baby Jessica or her family, but they were all pulling for her with all their heart.


2. The heart of the plot for A Plot for Pridemore is the decline in the American small town. In what ways is this topic significant to you?

I have had the good fortune to know a few small towns in my life. Some of
them have been more prosperous than others. I wasn’t thinking about the decline of American small towns when I wrote the book, but I thought the idea of a dying town and how to save it would be an interesting topic. I also love the setting of a small town—the slow pace, intimacy and the familiarity people have with each other. In a way, I feel that Pridemore itself is one of the more intriguing characters in the book.   

3. Pete Schaefer is a journalist and appears more level-headed than many other characters in the novel. How closely do you relate to Pete as a fellow journalist?

I don’t know how level-headed Pete really is, but I do identify with him. Like Pete, I started my newspaper career working for small publications, living by myself, eating Taco Bell in my studio apartment. There’s a loneliness and uncertainly to starting out on your own after the shelter of college. There is a lot of grunt work. You aren’t making much money at all. There are moments of, “Is this really what I spent four years of my life preparing for?” I think that is what Pete struggles with in this story. 

4. Pete’s romance with the under-aged Angela seems a risky choice for you, particularly if the novel is meant to appeal to those with rural, small-town sensibilities. Tell us about that choice.

In this book, it was important to me to give every character a dark, unseemly side. There are no white knights in A Plot for Pridemore. I think the relationship with Angela tells us a lot about Pete. He is twenty two years old or so, technically an adult. However, there is a blind spot in his moral character. Maybe it is immaturity, or maybe Pete is just hard wired to do things that most of us would resist. To me, that makes Pete more interesting than just being an unhappy guy who writes newspaper stories.  

5. Digby seems to be quite the under-achieving pawn in all of this. Do we undersell Digby to our peril or is he the pawn that he seems? 

Oh, I think Digby definitely has his own agenda. He may not be attuned to everything that is going on, but he has some awareness. He has his own way of manipulating others. 

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