Category Archives: Books

Podcast S4E2: The British Are Coming: Rick Atkinson and the American Revolution

This week Stan interviews Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Atkinson about the first volume of his new Revolution trilogy, The British Are Coming: The War for America, Volume 1: Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777.  Rick discusses researching at Windsor Castle, George III’s handwriting, walking the battlefields, Washington’s leadership, and plays “Overated/Underated.” All this plus another edition of the ever-popular This Week in History.

Podcast S4E1: The Cigarette: A Political History

In our first podcast of the season, Stan talks to Sarah Milov of the University of Virginia about her recent book The Cigarette: A Political History, and about the fascinating history of smoking and anti-smoking in America–including a snippet of the creepy Johnny Smoke PSA from the late ’60s. We also check out “This Week in History,” from Jimmy Carter to Janis Joplin to Tomochichi, “Obituaries You Were Too Busy to Notice,” and this week’s edition of “People You Thought Were Dead but are Still Living.” 

Q&A with Erskine Clarke

The Georgia Historical Society is erecting a new historical marker this fall about the Columbia Theological Seminary, with a series of blog and social media posts scheduled for the week of September 12, 2020. I asked Columbia’s own Erskine Clarke to talk about the Seminary and its history, along with his own history and his thoughts about some of the issues in contemporary America.

Erskine Clarke is Professor Emeritus of American Religious History at Columbia Theological Seminary, where he taught from 1973 to 2008. He graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1963, received a Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary in 1966, and a PhD from Union Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1970. Erskine is the author of several books on southern religious history, including Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (Yale University Press, 2005), which won the prestigious Bancroft Prize from Columbia University, as well as GHS’s Bell Award for the best book in Georgia history; By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey (Basic Books, 2013), and To Count Our Days: A History of Columbia Theological Seminary (University of South Carolina Press, 2019).

Erskine Clarke, PhD

Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in South Carolina and in a neighborhood in Columbia where history was in the air. Ancestors and their stories helped to shape our little world, told us who we were, and provided guidance for how we were to live in that white South Carolina world. When I was a teenager, I discovered to my great surprise that all South Carolinians were not white and that these black South Carolinians–who had been moving all around me in my little world–had their own ancestors and stories. Their ancestors and stories challenged the ancestors and stories that I knew, and they began to challenge my little world and my understanding of my place in it.

Two things slowly began to dawn on me—this white world and this black world were deeply intertwined, that each world could not be understood apart from its relationship to the other. And second, I began to realize that I knew almost nothing about this black world that was so fundamental to my own self-knowledge. So early on I began what has been the focus of my work as a historian—probing the relationship between these two Southern worlds and trying to squint hard and look across the great distances that separate me from black Southerners and to catch glimpses in their eyes of the world as they see it and have experienced it.

You have written several books about religion and slavery in the South. What about this topic piqued your interest?

As I began to explore these two overlapping worlds of white and black southerners, it became clear that religion played a huge role in both worlds. And that was particularly true in regard to slavery–the fundamental and foundational experience for both worlds. To understand something of the white southern world in all its complexity and contradictions, I thought it important to probe the ways the religious life of whites was both shaped by and helped to shape slavery. Slavery helped to shape the ways southern whites read the Bible, thought about God, and organized church life. But the religious life of southern whites also helped to shape the ways they struggled with slavery and sought to find some innocence and some relief from the burden of white southern guilt.

At the same time, the religious life of African-American southerners played a large role in their struggles against the deep oppression of their enslavement. Their religious life, in all of its own complexity, reminded them that they were a somebody, not a nobody; that the present social order was not eternal but passing; and that God had a command for white slaveowners—“let my people go!” Once again, the white world and the African-American world overlapped, even as they kept their distinctiveness. And in that overlapping they influenced one another, perhaps especially in congregational life where whites and blacks often worshipped together in surprisingly large numbers.

Similarly, what inspired you to write a book on Columbia Theological Seminary?

Most obviously because I had been professor of US Religious History at Columbia for many years and the seminary had a pressing need for a history that explored in some depth its complicated story. I had long resisted writing such a history because, as I wrote in its Preface, institutional histories can invite a yawn. They are important for specialists and for those with a personal interest in a specific institution, but as a category of historical writing they do not evoke an image of a page-turning narrative. What I found, however, was a story that increasingly fascinated me with Columbia’s distinctive and peculiar character, with the personalities of the major players and their eccentricities, and with the ways its history tells a larger story of the American South and of religion in the United States.

And once again, I was intrigued by the overlapping of a white southern world and an African-American southern world. The second chapter, for example, tells the story of enslaved African Americans whose labors and sorrows and very bodies provided the wealth that made possible an institution of significant influence in the Antebellum South. These enslaved people were not nameless, but men and women with their own histories, their own distinct personalities, and with their own various strategies for resisting the deep oppression of slavery. The way the two worlds overlapped to tell a southern and American story is a major theme through the book.

Why do you think the seminary was first located in Lexington?

The Rev. Thomas Goulding had moved to Oglethorpe County in 1822 to escape from the “miasmas” of the Georgia lowcountry which were believed to cause malaria, or “country fever” as they often called it. The county was being rapidly filled with settlers as a new cotton kingdom was pushing westward, bringing not only whites eager for land and profits but also massive numbers of enslaved people being uprooted from seaboard areas to do the clearing and plowing of land and chopping of cotton. It was a period when theological schools were being established as a Second Great Awakening was sweeping the country and people were joining churches in unprecedented numbers. Theological seminaries—new graduate professional institutions with a full-time faculty, capital funds and a campus, a library, a resident student body, and a three-year curriculum–were the means by which some denominations began to provide churches with an educated clergy. The requirement of a college degree for admission was intended to ensure that theological students had both the philosophical and linguistic background provided by a collegiate education and—not incidentally—the general culture and manners taught in the colleges. Goulding had the necessary Christian experience, educational background, and social graces needed to teach young men wishing to enter the ministry. The Presbyterian Synod of South Carolina and Georgia called him to begin the work of establishing a theological seminary. Five students gathered in the manse in Lexington, and in this way the foundation was laid for the seminary.

Lexington, however, as little more than a village, was not the location needed for what was envisioned. The synod consequently moved the seminary to Columbia, SC, to be near the South Carolina College with its large library and distinguished faculty. A handsome mansion was purchased in Columbia, across the street from the mansion of Wade Hampton, the largest slaveowner in the South, and to it came students from the major colleges and universities in the nation. By the time of the Civil War, it had one of the largest theological libraries in the country. In 1928 the seminary moved to Decatur as a move out of the Old South toward the New Commercial South of a booming Atlanta.

You reference that Columbia Theological Seminary’s leaders sought to follow a middle way on the great intellectual and social issues of the day, including slavery. How did Columbia Theological Seminary stay on a “middle way” while also benefiting from a plantation economy?

Columbia leaders believed that wisdom was found in moderation and prudence, that extremes led to trouble and heresy, and that a middle way was the way of Christian faithfulness and discipleship. They sought a middle way in regard to knowledge, between rationalists and romantics; a middle way in regard to ethics—asking not what does my conscience demand in regard to slavery, but what is my present allotted sphere and task as a white southerner born in the midst of a system of slavery; and a middle way in politics, between those on one extreme or the other, between radical pro-slavery people who said slavery was a positive good, and abolitionists who called for the immediate abolition of an evil system. These “extremists,” these “radicals,” Columbia faculty, students, and board members said, would divide the Union if not checked. What was needed were prudent compromises and a kind and paternalistic attitude toward enslaved African Americans. Slaves should be taught to read and their marriages and families honored and kept together. Columbia’s most famous professor, James Henley Thornwell, even insisted that “it is no part of the essence of Slavery” that the “rights of the slave should be left to the caprice or to the interest of the master.” In this he was challenging the fundamental assumption of the slave-holding South—that masters, and masters alone, had full dominion over the whole body and soul and will of the slave; that masters and masters alone had the right to decide if a slave was to be sold and a family divided; and that masters and masters alone had the right to decide if their slaves could attend religious services.

What Columbia folk never fully acknowledged was the way their moderation and prudence were self-serving. They envisioned a humane, well-ordered, class-stratified society where whites were in charge—especially respectable, well-educated whites—and where blacks stayed in their place of obedient servitude. What they discovered when Lincoln was elected was that they could not stay in a comfortable middle—they had to decide for one side or the other, for slavery or for freedom. They chose the side of slavery and gave themselves, their sons, and much of their wealth to the cause of a slaveholding Confederacy.

Could you elaborate on Columbia Theological Seminary’s impacts on popular debates such as the “Scopes Monkey Trial”?

In 1859 Judge John Perkins of Mississippi, owner of several large plantations and hundreds of slaves, gave Columbia a large endowment for the establishment of the Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in Connection with Revelation. The seminary board and faculty were enthusiastic about the new professorship because they believed reason and revelation, science and the Bible, corroborated one another. The board called Dr. James Woodrow to the professorship. He had received his scientific training and PhD summa cum laude from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and was an expert in analytical and synthetic chemistry. He was later to be elected to major scientific societies in Europe and to membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The same year Woodrow came as a professor to Columbia, Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of  Species.

Forty years before the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, an intellectually rigorous debate broke out on the Columbia campus in the 1880s over Woodrow’s teaching in regard to evolution and over the concept of development not only in biology but also in human culture—including religion. What was at stake, however, was not only questions of religion and science. Those who attacked Woodrow were trying to defend a remembered southern white culture and society. A literal interpretation of the Bible had long been used to try and keep black southerners “in their place.” To call that biblical interpretation into question appeared to call into question the foundations of white southern society. Woodrow was eventually forced out of the seminary—he went down the street to become president of the University of South Carolina. But he was later honored by the church and made moderator of the synod. And he was remembered for his struggle for academic freedom. In 1961 Clement Eaton, in his presidential address before the Southern Historical Society, reviewed the Woodrow controversy. He ended his address: “In the attainment of the large measure of freedom of teaching which we enjoy, the subject of my paper, James Woodrow, played a significant and triumphant role.” Eaton saluted Woodrow’s memory and, thinking no doubt of the controversies and pressures swirling around the Civil Rights Movement, he hoped that any professor in those tumultuous times who faced a similar crisis of academic freedom would display Woodrow’s “great moral courage.”

If you had to narrow it down to one fact about the history of Columbia Theological Seminary, what would you like your readers to come away with?

The story of Columbia Seminary is like a line running through the history of the South since the 1830s and in many ways through the larger story of US society. Slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the New Commercial South, the Civil Rights Movement, the growing affluence and international character of Atlanta, and a new demographic and cultural diversity—all are reflected in the story of Columbia. And what the Columbia story also tells is how people of Christian faith interpreted this larger southern and national story and acted within it. Columbia’s story has been a struggle to know the truth and to do what was right and just. Deep within that story are reminders of how good intentions can so often go astray. But also deep within that story is a community’s confession and belief that God is not through with them yet and that out of even a flawed and troubled history, by God’s grace, good can come.

What are your thoughts on the contemporary efforts for our society to come to terms with racism in America? Specifically, what do you think Columbia Theological Seminary should do, if anything, to come to terms with its own history of racism?

The Columbia story is one in which it becomes clear how deeply racist assumptions are embedded in the larger story of the nation. Even people of good intentions, people of a genuine spirituality and a desire to do what is right, even they as white Americans have supported and been a part of white America’s determined effort to keep “blacks in their place.” The realization about the depth and systemic character of the harsh racism in American has come as a shock to most of us who are white. We are having to ask ourselves, “Whom, what, do I see when I see an African American—perhaps especially a young black male?” And that hard question invites serious introspection and honest confession. It is in many ways a profoundly religious question and a question that can lead to conversion, to a struggle to see the world in new ways and to act in new ways that support the building of what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community.”

Columbia Seminary has been struggling to name and address the racism in its history and in its long-standing character. Along with intentional and focused discussions of racism and racist assumptions on the campus, the seminary has taken some concrete steps lead by African Americans who are now in key leadership roles at Columbia—including the Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Dean of Students, and the Dean of Advanced Studies. This year a new building was named in honor of the first tenured African-American professor. And perhaps most significantly, the seminary now offers free tuition to all of its African-American students as Columbia remembers and attempts to repay at least in part the many African Americans whose labors and sorrows provided the wealth that established and sustained the institution.

Any thoughts on the historical marker placed in Lexington?

I am, of course, delighted that the Georgia Historical Society has placed the historical marker in Lexington. Many in that community have worked hard to make a handsome museum of the old manse where Thomas Goulding held the first classes for the seminary. Like other historical markers around the state, this one will encourage those passing by to stop and to read and to wonder about those who had once called this place home.

Reading in Place: May 6, 2020

Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Doubleday, 2019, 450pp.)

During the last month to six weeks, as we’ve been sheltering in place, have you had more or less time to read? To watch and read the news, you’d think people had nothing but time on their hands.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to work from home, but that certainly hasn’t translated into more time to read. Like a lot of people, I find that I work longer hours now without the natural distance barrier between work and home.

Nevertheless, I have kept up the same reading schedule during this time. I read in the pre-dawn hours, and for me, those are still the best minutes of the day for focused, steady reading. It’s still and quiet, inside and out, and nothing else distracts me.

I just finished reading Bill Bryson’s new book, The Body. I first met Bryson, like a lot of other people, through his 1998 book, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. I was in the midst of hiking Georgia’s portion of the AT at that time, and Bryson’s book was just what I needed.

Naturally I had to go out and buy and read nearly everything else Bryson had written, before and since, which include:

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America (1989)

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way (1990)

Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe (1992)

Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States (1994)

Notes from a Small Island (1995, an American living in England)

I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty-Five Years Away (1999)

In a Sunburned Country (2000, about Australia)

Bill Bryson’s African Diary (2002)

A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: Travels Through My Childhood (2006)

Shakespeare: The World as Stage (2007)

Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors (2008)

At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010)

One Summer: America, 1927 (2013)

The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain (2015)

Bryson holds dual American & British citizenship, giving him unique insight into both cultures, which he frequently shares with his readers. He has a very singular gift as a writer, the ability to be hilariously funny one moment and deadly serious the next, sometimes in the same book. And when he’s funny, he’s really funny.

For those keeping score, his travel books tend to be humorous (I’ve never forgotten his descriptions of “shitty-shoed rednecks” in The Lost Continent), while his explorations of language and science are usually serious, though not without their own comic asides.

His memoir of growing up in Iowa, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend it. Among autobiographies, it may not rank with, say, The Education of Henry Adams, or The Confessions of St. Augustine, but neither of those two, so far as we know, ever trained a white-hot beam of sunlight on their Uncle Dick’s bald spot with a magnifying glass while he was napping, as Bryson did in his youth.

[For the record, in 1989’s The Lost Continent, Bryson visited Savannah, pre-Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and found it charming, if hot.]

Bryson’s new book, The Body, is equal parts enlightening, eye opening, and, at times, downright scary. For this liberal arts major that did abysmally in science and biology, it’s quite an education. What follows are some of its more fascinating factoids:

You blink 14,000 times a day, so much that your eyes are shut for 23 minutes every day.

Since you started reading this sentence, your body has produced a million red blood cells.

DNA is extremely stable and lasts for tens of thousand of years: “Probably nothing you own right now—no letter or piece of jewelry or treasured heirloom—will still exist a thousand years from now, but your DNA will almost certainly still be around and recoverable, if only someone could be bothered to look for it.”

“Even when you do nearly everything wrong, your body maintains and preserves you. Five out of every six smokers won’t get lung cancer. Most of the people who are prime candidates for heart attacks don’t get heart attacks. Every day, it has been estimated, between one and five of your cells turn cancerous, and your immune system captures and kills them. Think of that.”

“No one has ever come close to explaining why our fingers wrinkle when we have long baths.”

Viruses bide their time. In 2014 French scientists found a previously unknown virus in Siberia that had been locked in permafrost for 30,000 years but “when injected into an amoeba, it sprang into action with the lustiness of youth.”

Every bit of penicillin manufactured since 1943 has descended from mold growing on a single random cantaloupe bought by a lab assistant named Mary Hunt in Peoria, Illinois.

Because antibiotics have been overprescribed, the death rate for infectious diseases has been climbing and is now back to the level of the 1970s.

In 1848 in rural Vermont, a young railroad builder named Phineas Gage was packing dynamite into a rock when it exploded prematurely, shooting a 2-foot tamping rod through his left cheek and out the top of his head and landed 50 feet away. The rod removed a perfect core of his brain an inch in diameter. Gage survived and did not lose consciousness, though he lost his left eye and a suffered a changed personality. This was the first proof that physical damage to the brain could transform a person’s personality.

There is no end to conditions caused by brain disorders. Anton-Babinski syndrome is a condition in which people are blind but don’t believe it. Riddoch syndrome victims cannot see objects unless they are in motion. Capgras syndrome causes sufferers to be convinced that close friends and relatives are imposters. And with Cotard delusion, the victim believes they are dead and nothing can convince them otherwise.

There are people who have completely lost the ability to smell, known as anosmia. Even worse, some people suffer from something called cacosmia, where everything—everything—smells like feces. “It is, by all accounts, as horrible as you would imagine.”

You swallow about 2,000 times a day. Reading that probably made you swallow.

Choking is the fourth-most common cause of accidental death in America today.

The amount of heat in chilies is measured in units called Scovilles, named for Wilbur Scoville (1865-1942), who wrote an academic paper entitled “Some Observations on Glycerin Suppositories.”

“An easy way to experience the limitations of your taste buds is to close your eyes, pinch shut your nostrils, and eat a flavored jelly bean collected blindly from a bowl. You will instantly apprehend its sweetness, but you almost certainly won’t be able to identify its flavor.” You need your sense of smell to help you do that.

“The current generation of young people is forecast to be the first in recorded history not to live as long as their parents because of weight-related health issues.”

Just by standing, you can burn an extra 107 calories an hour.

Nicholas Alkemade, a British airman during World War II, leapt without a parachute from a burning plane that was 3 miles in the air. Pine tree branches broke his fall, and he landed unharmed in a snow bank, with only minor abrasions and a sore kneecap. He died peacefully in bed 43 years later. But the world’s record is a flight attendant who in 1972 fell 33,000 feet—6.1 miles—without a parachute when the plane she was in was blown apart in midair. She survived. “The human body, in short, can be a wonderfully resilient thing.”

The longest any human has held their breath is 24 minutes and 3 seconds.

Charles Osborn, an Iowa farmer, hiccupped continuously for 68 years. They started in 1922 when he tried to pick up a 350-pound hog and stopped in 1990, a year before he died.

Sleeping is the most mysterious thing we do. All parts of the body benefit from it. If you are deprived of it for long enough you will die, but why you die is a medical mystery. “As far as can be told, sleep does nothing for us that couldn’t equally be done while we were awake but resting.”

The longest anyone has intentionally gone without sleep is 11 days and 24 minutes.

Mitochondrial DNA is passed on through mothers alone: “A woman endows all her children with her mitochondria, but only her daughters have the mechanism to pass it onward to future generations.” Thus “the mitochondrial pool shrinks a little with every generation” and “we are all now descended from a single mitochondrial ancestor—a woman who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago.”

“Between 1485 and 1551, Britain was repeatedly ravaged by a terrifying malady called the sweating sickness, which killed untold thousands. Then it abruptly stopped and was never seen there again. Two hundred years later, a very similar illness appeared in France. Then it too vanished. We have no idea where and how it incubated, why it disappeared when it did, or where it might be now.”

Smallpox was the most devastating infectious disease ever. The last person on Earth to be killed by smallpox was 1978. “Officially just two stocks of smallpox remain in the world now—in government freezers at the CDC in Atlanta, and at a Russian virology institute in Siberia.” But in 2014 “someone looking through a storage area at a FDA facility in Bethesda, Maryland, found vials of smallpox dating from the 1950s but still viable. The vials were destroyed.” Are there more? No one knows.

It is estimated that 50% of men over age 60 and 75% of men over 70 have prostate cancer at death without being aware that they have it. Some scientists have suggested that if all men lived long enough, they would all get prostate cancer.

Life expectancy on Earth improved by as much in the 20th century as in the whole preceding 8,000 years. The average life span for an American female improved from 48 in 1900 to 80 by century’s end, and for men from 46 to 74.

The longest-lived person was a woman in France who was born in 1875 and died 122 years later in 1997.

This list barely scratches the surface of the wisdom in this book. It is chock full of fascinating information about the bodies we inhabit, from skin to brains to skeleton.  The notes above are meant simply to give you a bit of its flavor, not to suggest that the book is nothing more than a list of interesting factoids and stories. There’s a lot of good hard science and medicine packed into it, and to Bryson’s credit that it’s all accessible to the average reader, even if you’re confirmed in your right-brain-ness. As always, Bryson makes for a most agreeable and jovial host. In these difficult days of COVID-19, his chapters on viruses and infectious diseases make for especially compelling reading.

Bryson’s book is not the only one I’ve read while sheltering in place. I’m currently working through Rolfe Humphries’ translation of The Aeneid, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire always beckons.

In the meantime, as we ride out the current public health cris, take care of your body. As the old saying goes (and as Bryson reminds us):

 Exercise regularly.

 Eat sensibly.

Die anyway.

Dispatches From Off the Deaton Path: Christopher Morley

In this Dispatch, Dr. Deaton remembers the life and works of the one of his favorite writers, Christopher Morley, born 130 years ago today.