Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

On the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition: Four-hundred and one years after Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas (and "discovered" the Americas), the city of Chicago hosted a World's Fair. It was to be bigger and better than any previous World's Fair, as its planners particularly sought to outdo the Paris EXPO of 1889 (where the Eiffel Tower had been unveiled). Despite the onset of a serious financial panic in 1893, the Fair's planners spared no expense to show off Chicago's greatness. Only two decades since the city's Great Fire of 1871, the Fair represented a grand opportunity to exhibit how the rebuilding process had made Chicago ultra-modern, especially in terms of railways, roadways, and skyscrapers. Some of the Fair's highlights included the world's first Ferris Wheel, one of the world's first steam locomotives (the John Bull), and numerous Beaux-Arts/neoclassical buildings which required around 120,000 incandescent lamps to light up at night. Pragmatist philosopher William James remarked that everybody who visited the Fair "grew religious," while socialist politician Eugene V. Debs believed the Fair had a "healthy effect" on American workers at the time. By the time the Fair closed in October, it was drawing more than 150,000 visitors/day. With such attendance figures, the total number of visitors eventually surpassed 25 million.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia

On Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia: As mayor of Philadelphia for most of the 1970s, Francis "Frank" Rizzo left an indelible mark on the city's history. Whether it was his rocky relationship with the local African-American community or the attempted voter recall during his second term, Rizzo certainly proved to be a controversial figure. Yet prior to his mayoral career, he served as Philly's police commissioner in the late 1960s. And it was Rizzo's tenure as police commissioner that offered the clearest hints as to how he would govern as mayor. For example, in a city where one-third of the residents identified as African American, Rizzo increased the number of black police officers to mimic Philly's demographics. Although the department's number of black officers only made it to 2 in 10, it was still above the national average for big city police forces at the time. Regarding police tactics, Rizzo was one of the first commissioners to require his officers to patrol in pairs. And in neighborhoods where ethnoracial tensions ran high, he often paired officers with different ethnoracial backgrounds. Despite these unique initiatives, however, Rizzo's tenure was marred by an August 1970 police raid on the Black Panther's headquarters. Even though he did not directly authorize the raid, Rizzo placed great trust in his officers to employ heavy-handed tactics when detaining suspects and gathering evidence.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On American Romanticism and Washington Irving

On American Romanticism and Washington Irving: As a literary genre that emerged in the early 19th century, American Romanticism consisted of writers who often transposed historical events into fictitious contexts. Two of the genre's earliest pioneers included James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. While both authors' origins can be traced to New York state, it was Irving who based more of his publications in the surrounding geography of his hometown (Tarrytown, NY). In just two years (1819 & 1820), Irving published perhaps two of the most popular short stories in American Romantic literature: "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." For the story of "Rip Van Winkle," Irving adopted the literary technique of flash-forwarding through time. As a Dutch colonial settler in the Hudson Valley, Van Winkle fell asleep after drinking moonshine in the Catskill Mountains. He woke up decades later only to discover that the American Revolution had occurred and that New York had become part of a new, independent nation. And as for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving developed a fantastical tale of ghosts, ghouls, and haunts, in a post-Revolutionary War town along the Hudson River. The most memorable of which was the Headless Horseman, who notoriously terrorized the story's protagonist (Ichabod Crane) in a climatic chase.

Monday, September 1, 2014

On Sociology and Émile Durkheim

On Sociology and Émile Durkheim: It's been stated that sociology is the social science with the most methods and the least results. Originating in the late nineteenth century with help from works by French social theorist Durkheim, sociology focuses on social trends and organizations that affect whole groups or categories of people. Often contrasted with psychology, which attempts to explain the specific behaviors of individuals under certain circumstances, sociological methods seek to identify general pressures acting on social groups (and how those pressures influence group actions). Durkheim's research, in particular, was key to having sociology emphasize human groups as opposed to human individuals. One of his common metaphors for sociology involved comparing it to bronze, which as a metal composed of tin, copper, and lead was much harder than its individual components. Similarly, he reasoned that the features of an entire social group cannot be measured simply by examining the features of individual members. Metaphors aside, however, it was Durkheim's 1897 book Suicide which really helped to legitimize sociology as an academic discipline. In it, he studied the suicide rates of European Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups to uncover general trends. One such trend Durkheim found was that suicide rates were highest among single, Protestant, Scandinavian men. Suicide rates increased as well among men who had military experience and no children. Such trends proved appealing to a mass audience, as sociology gained legitimacy in academia.

Friday, August 15, 2014

On the "Lost Cause" Mythology

On the "Lost Cause" Mythology: The North may have won the Civil War, but the South won Reconstruction. Ever since that Palm Sunday in April 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army to Ulysses S. Grant at the Old Appomattox Court House in Virginia, the South has been concerned with rewriting history while the North has been concerned with industrial/monetary gain. For many Southerners, the war was over before it even began. Yet the South fought valiantly, regardless. That is essentially the "Lost Cause" mythology in a nutshell. If you examine maps of American railroad lines in the 1860s, they illuminate the North's distinct industrial advantage over the South. The sheer capacity of the North to outproduce the South in terms of guns, cannons, and ammunition was vastly superior. Nevertheless, Southerners persisted against all odds to preserve their "way of life," which included slavery and "states' rights" at its core. Perhaps one of biggest "Lost Cause" myths that emerged in the postbellum era was the idea of blacks not being suited for self-government (i.e. voting). In fact, an entire school of historiography (Dunning School) centered largely on this single myth. Historians who belonged to the Dunning School, most notably William A. Dunning, believed the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was the worst affront to Southern life than any other Reconstruction effort.