Monthly Archives: October 2013

There’s Something Out There

ohwhistleHalloween is this week, and as the days grow shorter and the evening shadows lengthen,  it’s time for a good ghost story. I’ve been a fan of them all my life. One of my earliest and scariest memories of Halloween is listening to the Disney album, “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House.” We also had an old 45 single of “The Headless Horseman,” sung by Thurl Ravenscroft (the man who sings the songs on “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” and the voice of Tony the Tiger). That song sung in Ravenscroft’s basso profundo was so scary to me I couldn’t even listen to it, and my brother Jeff played it over and over. I found it on iTunes not long ago and it’s still as scary as ever.

To really get the feel of Halloween, however, there’s nothing quite like settling down on a dark night with a ghost story that scares the living bejeezus out of you, and I have several good suggestions.

hauntedSince Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto in 1764, the horror novel has been wildly popular. The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) made Ann Radcliffe the most popular novelist in England.  In the twentieth century the horror novel came to be viewed as a cheap knockoff of serious fiction, nothing more than junk reading, undoubtedly because it became linked with Hollywood horror flicks. And while I’m a big fan of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), there is a whole field of supernatural writing that predates Hollywood and Stephen King and that will make your hair stand on end.

Everyone knows about Edgar Allan Poe, who practically invented the modern horror story when his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published in 1839, and Bram Stoker, whose Dracula (1897) defined for all time in literature and film the vampire genre. And if you haven’t read Stoker’s short story, “The Squaw,” you should.

We also know about the Headless Horseman (surging in popularity again thanks to the new Fox show, “Sleepy Hollow”) thanks to Washington Irving’s short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” first published in 1820. Like all good writers of the ghost story, it’s all about setting the proper mood, which Irving did: “It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travel homewards along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon. . .All the stories of  ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon now came crowding upon his recollection. The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky. . .he had never felt so lonely and dismal. He was, moreover, approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost-stories had been laid.”

Besides its familiar tale of the no-noggin Hessian, Irving’s story contains one of the richest literary portraits of a golden Hudson Valley autumn you’ll ever read.  If for no other reason, if you love fall, you’ll love reading or re-reading “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” [Comic Aside 1: Watch Andy Griffith repeatedly read the Washington Irving lines above to Opie in “A Wife for Andy,” episode 29 of season 3 of “The Andy Griffith Show.”]

So yes, read Poe, Stoker, and Irving. But now, please allow me to introduce you to some of the best of the genre of the classic ghost story, masters of the craft who aren’t so widely read today, but who should be.

lefanuStart with the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873), the leading gothic writer of the nineteenth century. A contemporary of Poe, his stories are filled with gloomy castles, supernatural visitations, and descents into madness and suicide. You could do a lot worse than beginning with his short story, “Squire Toby’s Will” (1868), which sets the mood perfectly in the opening sentence: “Many persons accustomed to travel the old York and London road, in the days of the stagecoaches, will remember passing, in the afternoon, say, of an autumn day. . .a large black and white house…overgrown with grass and weeds…” You know this is going to be good, and it is, a classic complete with demon dogs, voices in the night, and spectral vengeance.

Le Fanu was a master of the craft, and he heavily influenced later writers of supernatural stories like M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood. For some of his longer work, check out Uncle Silas (1864) and The House by the Churchyard (1863). Many think his best work is In a Glass Darkly (1872), which contains the short story “Carmilla,” which popularized the theme of the female vampire.

blackwoodNext up is Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), a prolific British writer who wrote a lot of great stories that now stand as classics in the field. H.P. Lovecraft, no slouch himself in this genre (read “The Dunwich Horror”), called Blackwood “the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere.” The next time you find yourself alone on a cold, dark winter evening, with the rain and wind lashing the windowpanes, read his short story “The Wendigo” about a legendary creature that prowls the Canadian northwoods and stalks a hunting party:  “This then was the party of four that found themselves in camp the last week of October. . .way up in the wilderness north of Rat Portage, a forsaken and desolate country.” His story “The Willows” is equally famous but in my humble opinion pales in comparison to “The Wendigo.” supernaturalStart with these two and then check out any of the myriad of other ghost stories he wrote over the course of his 82 years, many of them collected in Tales of the Uncanny and the Supernatural (1949).

Le Fanu and Blackwood are superior storytellers, but the absolute master of this genre—again, in my opinion—is M.R. James. Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) was a British medieval scholar and provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and of Eton College.  If you’ve ever heard Andy Williams’ great Christmas song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” you’ll recall the line about “there’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” I always assumed that line referred to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, but it harkens back to an English tradition in the Victorian era of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve, a tradition personified by James. He wrote most of his ghost stories to be read aloud to his colleagues, rhodesfamily, and friends on Christmas Eve.  The stories were originally published in four books between 1904 and 1925, and they are unequalled in their perfection of the genre. He took the Gothic tales of the nineteenth century and modernized them, placing them in contemporary British society and updated them for a twentieth-century audience. [Comic Aside 2: “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was co-written by George Wyle, who also co-wrote the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song]

James-vol-1Thankfully for the modern reader, thirty-five of his stories have been gathered in two paperback volumes and re-published by Penguin Press, edited with introduction and notes by S.T. Joshi: Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories: The Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James, Volume 1, and The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories: The Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James, Volume 2. They’re worth every penny.

James was unparalleled in creating a mood that sets the perfect tone for his stories, almost all of which followed the same formula: the story is set in an English village, seaside town or country estate, an ancient town in Europe, or in old church institution or university; the protagonist is usually a reserved, bookish type, naïve and unassuming, who somehow manages to find themselves receiving several unwanted james-vol-2supernatural visitations from beyond the grave, often through the discovery of an old book, map, or manuscript. And while many of the stories take place in characteristically gloomy settings, James turned many of the traditional literary devices on their collective heads. The scariest parts of many stories—like “Rats”—take place in broad daylight, for instance.

His most famous story is “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” but they are all scary and unsettling. This passage from “Casting the Runes” is typical: “He was in bed with the lights out . . .when he heard the unmistakable sound of his study door opening. . .no light was visible, no further sound came. . .he decided to lock himself in his room . . .he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow, only it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his own account, a mouth with teeth, and with hair about it, and not the mouth of a human being. . .”

Le Fanu, Blackwood, and James are three nearly forgotten authors who are all worth reading, but no suggestion of good Halloween reading would be complete without a visit to the gloomy, haunted moors of Devon, in England’s West Country, where, as Sherlock Holmes said, the setting is a worthy one “if the devil did desire to have a hand in the affairs of men”:

hound-cover“But one false statement was made by Barrymore at the inquest. He said that there were no traces upon the ground round the body. He did not observe any. But I did—some little distance off, but fresh and clear.” “Footprints?” “Footprints.”  “A man’s or a woman’s?”  Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered:  “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

I first discovered Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902) when I was ten years old, and I have re-read it many times since.  There are other masters of the macabre that will chill your blood on a dark night: W.W. Jacobs (most famously “The Monkey’s Paw”), Ambrose Bierce, and the aforementioned H.P. Lovecraft. Dip into these authors almost anywhere and you’ll be amply repaid, though you probably won’t sleep well.

A final note on how to get copies of all these stories: the advent of the Kindle and other electronic reading devices have made all these otherwise hard-to-find stories available at your fingertips. Some authors like Doyle are easily found in almost any bookstore, but others (beside the James books above) are long out of print—and out of copyright. For the latter reason, they are cheaply and widely available on your Kindle. You can get the complete works of Sheridan Le Fanu, for instance, for $2.99 on Kindle, and it downloads in minutes. I’m not advocating the e-book over the real thing (a subject for another blog entry), but one of the beauties of the Kindle is the ease with which one can find the complete works of some great authors and their otherwise scarce books for practically nothing.

Whether you read these authors on dark autumn nights or bright summer days, make their acquaintance. You will not be disappointed. You may then agree with John Milton that “millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.” Or they may leave you invoking the old Scottish prayer: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us!” This autumn pull your chair closer to the fire, turn down the lamp, and turn the page. Did you hear that? I think there’s something out there.

Worth Reading:
Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation

Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a NationJefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation. By John Ferling. Bloomsbury, 2013, 436 pp., $30.

There’s an old saying that the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. To the casual observer, the Tea Party that rose up in opposition to President Barack Obama’s policies in 2009 might seem to be a new phenomenon. But after reading John Ferling’s new book about Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation, you realize that the Tea Party is nothing more than the latest iteration of a movement that goes back to our country’s founding.

Jefferson as a Tea Partier? Probably not. But the political strain they represent goes back to Jefferson’s earliest opposition to the nationalist policies of Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s.

What is the proper role of government in our lives? Americans have never been able to agree on the answer to that question, and it has bedeviled us since the Revolution. And what, after all, was the real  legacy of the American Revolution? A strong central government that could properly govern and defend the states united while promoting business and trade, or a loose confederation of states that could look after their own affairs and where farmers and small landowners would flourish? This was the breeding ground for the dispute that began at the Constitutional Convention and that has continued from that day to this. What should government do and not do? What is an inalienable right? What is equal justice under the law? These three questions have run on parallel tracks through our national history from that day to this, and in trying to answer these questions Americans have created Democrats, Know Nothings, Republicans, Populists, labor unions, conservative think tanks, Progressives, Dixiecrats, and the Tea Party, among many other strains of the American body politic. It was the central reason for the rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton as their personal disagreements hardened into institutionalized political parties as they argued over the true legacy of the American Revolution.

John Ferling is one of our country’s best historians of the American Revolution. He ranks right up there with David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, and Gordon Wood, and even a casual glance at their work will show you how much they’ve relied upon Ferling’s books in their own. Ferling wrote a biography of John Adams (University of Tennessee Press, 1992) nearly ten years before McCullough, and it’s every bit as worthy of the accolades that the latter received for his work, even if it didn’t inspire an HBO miniseries. Ferling’s literary output since 2000 is amazing: seven books in the last thirteen years, each an original and thought-provoking work on the founders and the founding era (and all except the last few written while he was teaching at the University of West Georgia). Chock full of graceful prose and penetrating analysis, they’re all worth reading, as is his biography of Washington, published in 1988.

There are many good comprehensive histories of the Revolution, but the best place to start, in my opinion, is two volumes by John Ferling. A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (Oxford, 2003) is the best political history of the years 1750-1800.  Ferling’s companion volume, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (Oxford, 2007) covers the military conflict, and—again, in my opinion—there is no better military history of the war available today. Here’s what I wrote on the flyleaf of the book when I finished it: “A first-rate book, the best one-volume history of the war to this point. Ferling’s best work yet. Probing analysis of leaders, campaigns, and issues on both sides. Its final summary chapter is the best account available of why the British lost and the Americans won, as is his summation of Washington.”

Among his other books is a prosopography (a Ferling-esque word; his books are scattered with words that you’ve never heard of, like persiflage, umbra, and lucubration) of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson (Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution, Oxford, 2000); a study of the pivotal election of 1800 (Adams v. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, Oxford, 2004); a political history of George Washington (The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon, Bloomsbury, 2009);  and Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free (Bloomsbury, 2011).

How, one might ask, does Ferling keep plowing the same ground and still have something new to say? Part of it is simply attributable to his maturity as a scholar. Unlike others who leap from one time period to another with each book, Ferling has spent his entire professional life laboring in the vineyard of the Founding era. Ferling isn’t just dabbling in this period; he knows it as well as anyone can who is now two centuries removed from the time about which he’s writing. He is well-versed in what the Founders wrote, what they read, what they believed, and what they hoped to achieve. But he’s not awe-struck by them. Simultaneously, his reflections on people and events have deepened with the years, as he himself has aged. As should happen as we grow older, his own insights about human nature reflect his growth as a human being; he’s more empathetic, more forgiving of human foibles and less harsh on their failures, though he isn’t afraid to point them out and to hold men and women accountable for not only what they achieve, but what they fail to achieve.  He knows what it’s like to live life, make mistakes, and have regrets. It’s the primary reason why people in their 20s shouldn’t write biographies.

Alexander Hamilton is one of the great success stories in American history. He was born in the West Indies and grew up in poverty. His father abandoned the family early on and his mother died when he was 13. After coming to America and eventually joining the Continental Army, Hamilton served on Washington’s staff and witnessed and endured first-hand the hardships of war.

His outlook from the beginning was national; having no family, he never left the army on leave, never went home, and after suffering through the winter of 1778 at Valley Forge, he came to believe that the decentralized government created by the Articles of Confederation wasn’t fit for war or peace. How could any government worthy of the name leave the army that was fighting for its country’s independence starving, unpaid,  and in rags? Put quite simply, the national government lacked not talent or leadership, but power. As Ferling puts it, “Fearing an oppressive central government, the states had overreacted [in the Articles of Confederation] and, in Hamilton’s opinion, had created a monster,” a government that was feeble, weak, and unable to pay its bills.

Hamilton proposed a new constitutional convention while he was still in the army in the early 1780s, though it wouldn’t happen till the famous gathering of demi-gods in 1787. Serving in Washington’s army shaped Hamilton’s worldview and his policies for the rest of his life and was the basis for his support of a strong central government and the economic policies that Jefferson despised.

Jefferson never served in the army and though it’s not fair to say he sat out the war, he certainly never experienced the privations and hardships of the soldiers in the Continental Army. His worldview was Virginia, which as Ferling fairly points out, had existed for 150 years when the Revolution began, and Jefferson’s roots there ran deep. It was perhaps only natural that Jefferson’s focus should remain there through most of the conflict, serving in the House of Burgesses and then as Virginia governor during a very difficult period. With the exception of one remarkable year in the Continental Congress when he penned the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson remained in Virginia throughout the war. His contemporaries and fellow Virginians from Richard Henry Lee to Washington himself pleaded with Jefferson to come down off the mountain and get involved in the conflict, but he always begged off, citing his wife’s precarious health or other domestic issues. He left himself wide open for criticism.

When they later became rivals in Washington’s cabinet, Hamilton always viewed Jefferson through the lens of Valley Forge—as did another Jefferson nemesis and Army veteran, John Marshall—and he could never understand how Jefferson could portray himself as the living embodiment of the American Revolution when he had spent that miserable winter and many others during the conflict snugly at home at Monticello.  For his part, Jefferson viewed Hamilton as nothing more than an Anglo-phile immigrant upstart who never really understood the character of the American people and whose policies would enslave small farmers to stock jobbers and the monied elite.

The truth is, Jefferson never favored anything more than a revision of the Articles of Confederation; he was never in favor of a wholesale re-boot that Hamilton et al. pulled off in the Constitutional Convention. While serving in Washington’s cabinet, the two men demonized each other and framed their rival’s opinions as not just wrong but as a threat to the future of the republic itself. Sound familiar?

As Ferling puts it, “Hamilton’s vision was distinctly different from that of Jefferson. The Virginian’s emphasis had been on the preservation and expansion of the individual’s freedom and independence. Hamilton emphasized the well-being and strength of the nation.” Jefferson may not have spent time at Valley Forge, but his tenure in the diplomatic circles of monarchical Europe strengthened his faith in democracy and civil liberties that Hamilton never shared. Conversely, Hamilton trusted the capitalist marketplace and a strong military in a way that  Jefferson loathed. Working out these differences would create the first two political parties, Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, which institutionalized their personal disagreements. Their political rupture split the country asunder in the 1790s and set America on the course it still follows right up through the latest round of budget negotiations between the two parties in Congress: what is the proper role and scope of the national government of the United States?

There are many good stories here, and Ferling tells them well: Hamilton’s on-and-off relationship with Washington, his affair with Maria Reynolds, and his fall from political grace during the election of 1800. His account of the Jefferson-Hemings story is balanced, and he presents the evidence (and its problems) about as fairly as one could wish.

Hamilton was of course killed in a duel by Aaron Burr during his rival Jefferson’s first presidential administration. By that time, with Jefferson and the Republicans in the ascendant, Hamilton was convinced that his political career was over and that all of his dreams for a strong central government that would preside over a thriving business community lay in ruins. Jefferson’s Arcadian vision had seemingly won the day and the hearts of the American people. If he had only known. We may still revere Jefferson’s championing of civil liberties and the freedom of the common man, but we live in Hamilton’s America, an economic and military colossus that sits astride the world.

During the recent debate over raising the debt ceiling, economists forecast that an American default would be catastrophic for the world’s economy. I think Hamilton would have been pleased that the American economic engine has become that powerful. And I think he’d still be fuming at small-government proponents who, as he said in describing Jefferson, would reduce the national government to “the skeleton of power” and bring on “national disunion, national insignificance, public disorder and discredit.” Humbug, Jefferson might reply.

Does it comfort us to realize that the problems that confound us as a country—national debt, the size and role of government, our commitment to democracy and civil liberties, and the promise and limits of market capitalism–baffled some of the best minds in American history? It suggests that we’ll never figure this out, that we can’t really ever lay these eternal arguments to rest. But it also reinforces the point that the American republic is an ongoing experiment in self-government. The founders didn’t give us a finished product, they gave us a framework, and each generation adds another layer. As we argue over gay marriage, debate immigration and the country’s changing demography, or spar over whether corporations have the same rights as individuals, we’re reminded daily that the rivalry that forged a nation—and the heartbeats of these two founding icons—still echoes after more than two centuries.  As Abraham Lincoln said, our habit of argument is a mark of our liberty. A healthy and functioning democracy shouldn’t have it any other way.

“That History Commercial”: Today in Georgia History

tigh“Hey! Aren’t you the guy that does that history commercial every night on TV?”

I was walking back to my office one afternoon after lunch in Chatham Square here in Savannah, and that question was shouted at me from a guy unloading a truck on Gaston Street. That history commercial?  He was referring to Today in Georgia History.  I was flattered that he watched the show and, as we say, tickled at his notion of what the 90-second program was.  Yep, that’s me, I said. “Keep it up, it’s great!” he shouted back.

The Georgia Historical Society launched Today in Georgia History, a daily 90-second TV and radio program, on Georgia Public Broadcasting in September 2011, and it has been a rewarding and powerful way for GHS to fulfill its mission, to reach new audiences, and to teach Georgia history on a daily basis. The program was produced in collaboration with GPB. In addition to receiving the praise of viewers, this innovative program has won two Emmy Awards, a Leadership in History Award from the American Association of State and Local History, and a Georgia Historical Records Advisory Board Award for Excellence in the Educational Use of Historical Records.

Today in Georgia History, or TIGH as we call it, features historical events or people associated with a particular day in Georgia history. TIGH began with the question, how can the Georgia Historical Society teach Georgia history every day in a way that will be entertaining and educational,  help raise our visibility around the state, and get audiences to stand on new ground and see the past in a different way?

emmyWe proposed the idea of a short 1-2 minute daily radio program to Teya Ryan, President and Executive Director of Georgia Public Broadcasting, and she loved it. But, she asked, why limit it to radio? She saw the potential for something much bigger—radio yes, but let’s broadcast it on TV and internet as well, with illustrations, photographs, maps, and other graphics that flesh out each subject in a more meaningful way, and broadcast it across the state—and into Georgia classrooms—every day.

This turned out to be a good decision for many reasons. The ability to market TIGH as an educational program is tied very directly to the visual product; teachers made it clear to us that the program would be more useful in the classroom if there was a visual element rather than just an audio segment. And ultimately, as regards funding, the ability to reach students and teachers is vital to the success of any project like this, because it’s been our experience that getting funding for education projects for children is easier than for other types of programs, like lectures for adults.

Both Teya and my boss, Todd Groce, GHS President and CEO, wanted me to act not only as lead researcher and writer of each episode, but also as the face and voice of the show as well. Why me? We wanted the show to be more than just the usual trivia that often makes up the “today in history” spots in the media, and in addition to my background with both journalism and history degrees, they felt that having an honest-to-goodness professionally trained historian as the on-air host—rather than just hiring an actor to read a teleprompter—would give the show a credibility and authenticity it might not otherwise have.   “You’ll be the Steve Thomas of Today in Georgia History!” Teya told me, and as a fan of both the show and the long-time host of This Old House, I was excited and grateful for the opportunity.

So we began work on creating a daily TV show that would tell Georgia’s story in a new and hopefully thought-provoking way—and do it in less than 90 seconds and about 165 words.  At one point we counted over a hundred people at both GHS and GPB working on the show.  Georgia Public Broadcasting put together a team of seasoned and dedicated professionals that included producers, editors, sound and lighting technicians, graphic artists, and set designers.


It was my great pleasure—and it was great fun—to work with legendary Atlanta producers Don Smith and Bruce Burckhardt, and the GPB crew that included Keocia Howard, Mark Harmon, Ashlie Wilson, Rosser Shymanski, Layron Branham, Marilyn Stansbury, Bob Brienza, Tom Spencer, Tiffany Brown Rideaux, and all the other talented folks at GPB who worked so hard to make me sound and look good. GPB commissioned an original score for the TIGH theme music that TV viewers and radio listeners would instantly recognize as belonging to our show.

The GPB team worked with a dedicated group of staff and interns at the Georgia Historical Society, including my colleagues Laura García-Culler (who acted as GHS’s executive producer), Christy Crisp, Leanda Rix, Katharine Rapkin, Maggie Brewer, Sophia Sineath, Elise Lapaglia, and Alison Zielenbach. They worked tirelessly to track down the images from hundreds of institutions across the country that would flesh out and illustrate that day’s subject. Not only did using these illustrations help promote the GHS collections and those of other repositories but also demonstrated the ongoing need for institutions like ours that preserve the documentary evidence of the past.

We didn’t shy away from controversial topics either; we took an unflinching look, for example, at the myriad ways in which slavery, Jim Crow, and the continuing problems of race have shaped Georgia’s history and identity right up to the present. The production team put into daily practice on TIGH what we at GHS do as an institution every day: GHS as a public history institution serves as a bridge between the academy and the public, taking the best of cutting-edge historical scholarship and making it accessible to the lay public without watering it down. This was one of the reasons the show received so many accolades from viewers and professionals alike.

The project began in the spring of 2011 and by the time production ended a year later, we had collaboratively created an impressive body of work that over the course of 366 days (leap year!) covers the entire scope and sweep of Georgia history, from 1526 to 2009. We told the stories of artists, authors, athletes, singers, actors, poets, musicians, architects, politicians, civil rights leaders, agriculture, aviation, military history, Native American history, political history, economic and business leaders, sports, education, weather history, cultural topics and religious subjects, covering every historical era from the colonial period through the 21st century. There’s no facet of Georgia history that we didn’t cover in the course of the year.

In order to help fund the project as part of a larger capacity building  campaign, GHS secured a $900,000 grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.  We needed to raise our visibility across the state, particularly in Atlanta, to help the institution attract the resources it would need to sustain future growth. When we invited someone to become a GHS member or walked into a corporate or foundation office, we wanted them to know who we were, and TIGH has helped raise the visibility of our brand in every corner of the state.

In addition to daily radio and television broadcasts, we created an interactive website,, to serve as an educational resource for teachers and students. Many history classes around the state begin their day by watching the daily segments on the internet. The site features audio and video streaming of each segment, as well as transcripts, tips for teachers, curriculum, writing prompts, review questions, discussion topics, classroom exercises, follow-up research topics, and selected primary source materials. The web resources align with Georgia’s social studies curriculum and performance standards.

Public response to TIGH has been overwhelming and positive. No other kind of program we’ve done has matched this one in reach. By the end of 2012 nearly six million Georgians had seen or heard the program and it was being used by thousands of Georgia teachers and students in the classroom. And it will continue to live for years to come on the internet.

For me, working on “that history commercial” was one of the most professionally rewarding things I’ve ever done. When the show won two Emmys—for short-form writing and overall cultural and historical excellence—at the regional National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences gala in Atlanta on June 8, 2013, it was a tribute to the hard work and dedication of all the talented professionals at both organizations who worked on the show. I will always be proud to have been part of the TIGH team.

Worth Reading:
The Letters of C. Vann Woodward

The Letters of C. Vann Woodward. Edited by Michael O’BrienThe Letters of C. Vann Woodward. Edited by Michael O’Brien. Yale University Press, 480 pp., $40.

C. Vann Woodward has cast a long shadow over the American historical profession for the last 75 years. His path breaking biography Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel, first appeared in 1938, the first of Woodward’s 15 books and numerous essays and reviews that transformed the way we understand the American South in the years following the Civil War.

Woodward was born in Arkansas in 1908 and graduated from Emory and  Columbia before receiving his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina. He taught for many years at Johns Hopkins and Yale, where he was Sterling Professor Emeritus until his death in 1999.

I had the pleasure of spending some time with Woodward on a cool early January day in 1998, a year before his death at the age of 91. I had just completed my Ph.D. at the University of Florida, and Woodward was on campus to speak and to visit with Bertram Wyatt-Brown, one of his most distinguished former students. Wyatt-Brown was my advisor and mentor at UF, the author of Southern Honor, and himself a giant in the profession. Among all the students who showed up for the private lunch that day with Woodward, I was the only one who brought copies of some of his books for him to autograph. I’m looking at them now on a shelf here in my office.

Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History

Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History

They were all path breaking works—Origins of the New South, 1877-1913; The Burden of Southern History; The Strange Career of Jim Crow; Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction; Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History; American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North/South Dialogue; and the aforementioned Tom Watson. In person, he was quiet and unassuming, soft spoken, and delighted to be asked to autograph them. He inscribed each of them differently, personalizing them all, bemused at some titles he hadn’t seen in years.

All of this was recently brought to mind when a new book from Yale University Press landed on my desk, The Letters of C. Vann Woodward, edited by Michael O’Brien. It’s a wonderful collection of letters written to and from Woodward, and they offer a rare glimpse into the mind and thoughts of one of our most influential and gifted historians.

Besides the influence of his own published scholarship, he mentored some of the leading scholars in America, including Wyatt-Brown, Civil War scholar James McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom), Willie Lee Rose (Rehearsal for Reconstruction), Louis Harlan (Booker T. Washington), and William McFeely, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass. McFeely was my mentor for a Master’s degree in history at the University of Georgia, so I was thus fortunate enough to be trained by not one but two of Woodward’s best students.

Wyatt-Brown and McFeely were each, in their own ways, heirs to the Woodward tradition—warmly generous with their time, loyal to their students, and unfailingly polite but professionally critical with anything you wrote for them or asked them to review. Woodward was all of these things as well, as these letters make clear, and he was justly proud of his students’ accomplishments while being self-deprecating about his own. His 1982 edited volume of Mary Chesnutt’s Civil War won for him a long-overdue Pulitzer Prize. Three of his own students—McPherson, McFeely, and Harlan—won that prestigious award as well, while others, including Wyatt-Brown, were nominated for it.

Michael O’Brien’s introduction is a good guide through the letters, but their worth is not in explaining the importance of Woodward’s historical writing and its impact on our thinking. One can look elsewhere to find that. The treasures here are different, though just as rewarding; they are more revealing of the temperament, character, and the evolution of the thinking of a man whose work influenced so many others.

Woodward’s published letters cover every phase of his career. They’re all worth reading, but even casually dipping into them reveals a deep humanity that most scholars sorely lack. He asks John Hope Franklin, the most prominent African-American historian of that day or this, if he’s thought about where he will stay at a conference in segregated Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1949; describes to Virginia Foster Durr the pain of losing his only child to cancer in 1969: “The ordeal was mercifully short but all the more poignant and bitter. The most haunting and unbearable part was . . the knowledge that it was the last of it all”; and rejoices to Wyatt-Brown in 1995 that after a non-malignant diagnosis of a colon polyp, “I leaped out of the bed, kissed the nurse, thanked the doctor and emerged in a world more beautiful than I remember it being before.”

The stoic academic that so many of us awe-struck students saw at professional conferences, that stares back at us from nearly all of his photographs, the man who weathered the devastating loss of both of his wife and son, is nowhere to be seen here. Here was Woodward in his 87th year, happy to be alive. Historians have long known Woodward the scholar, but this is a side of him that few ever saw.

In writing to a distant cousin, a college student whom he had never met, Woodward told of the tragic loss of his son Peter, and asked “Are you a hippie with granny glasses or a square with horn-rimmed? Revolutionist or jock, it doesn’t matter. The cousinship is the thing, and you must still have something of the southerner in you or you wouldn’t ever have bothered to write.”

And there it is. For all of us who struggle to understand the history of the American South and its connection to the world we live in now, C. Vann Woodward will always be a welcome companion who labored mightily to light up the dark spaces of our past, and whose published letters now reveal the true depth of this remarkable southern gentle man. For all of us who love history, he remains a kindred spirit. The cousinship is indeed the thing.