AHA Day 3 — Sun Belts & Biographies

9 Jan

I’m going to do a lengthy overview of the two panels I attended on Saturday. If that’s not your thing, wait for the roundup post, where I’ll try to post more condensed thoughts about the 2013 meeting of the AHA meeting.

[Note: I stopped taking notes on my computer and switched to live tweeting the sessions. I did this because the AHA had *horrible* wireless service at the conference locations. I couldn’t balance my computer and phone effectively, so I chose my phone to make sure the conversation was public for others who were at different sessions or conferences. Feel free to browse all of my tweets within the #AHA2013 archive.

Saturday 9-11Am – From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: A Roundtable with Darren Dochuk.

I love text-based panels that bring authors into the discussion on their work, so this session was a treat because Daniel K. Williams (Univ of West Georgia) and Molly Worthen (UNC CH) were excellently positioned to examine Dochuk’s work. You can also read a short post about this session here.

Williams argued the Dochuk’s work marks an important turning point in the narrative history of the Religious Right (as opposed to an intellectual or theological history). Methodologically and analytically, Williams said, the growing body of Sun Belt scholarship is eroding the idea that we should look first to the religious liberalism of the 1960s to explain the growing allegiance of political and religious conservatives in America by the late 1970s. By focusing on the local histories of southern plain folks, Dochuk was able to provide a more compelling macro historical portrait that was sensitive to the many ways that the roots of the Religious Right started in, among other places, Texas theology brought to Southern California. Dochuk advanced five significant revisions of this history according to Williams: 1) focused on the people at the bottom and not the leaders at the top; 2) placed southern California conservatism within Sun Belt scholarship; 3) turned back to the Cold War 1950s instead of the liberal 1960s as the key decade; 4) emphasized the unity/continuity of free market capitalism and religious conservatism; and 5) broadened the diversity of groups we use to explain the Religious Right beyond Southern Baptists.

Williams also generously provided a historiographic perspective on Dochuk’s work. Methodologically we can see the obvious value of works like Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors, but also, if my ears didn’t deceive me, John Dittmer’s Local People. He praised Dochuk’s balance of local and regional and national, suggesting that each scale was necessary to really get at the roots of the Religious right. There was considerably more than I could keep up, but thankfully Dochuk took the opportunity to add to the historiography of his own work in his reply.

Molly Worthen was less structurally or historiographically focused than Williams. She painted Dochuk’s work not with broad summation, but broad queries about the issues at hand: What does it mean to be plain folk? What is the value of theology for plain folk? What is the value of theology for the Religious Right? Her comments seemed to suggest that there is a *doing* present in Dochuk’s plain folks that obscures their casual yet surprisingly sophisticated theologies. In this way, she said, traditional theological ideas are pretty much absent—and perhaps this is one of the reasons why the work was a success. It was analytically valuable as well as truthful to the plain folk inspirations in the Sun Belt. Too often, Worthen warned, theology can be a deceptive mask for political action (cf. Putnam’s American Grace). In Dochuk’s plain folks we see a hybridity that was far more receptive to legitimate motivations in the political and religious realms.

Dochuk’s reply was gracious, but also revealing. He set up his response in a helpful trinity: What was I trying to do? What did I do? What do I wish I had done? [I don’t think he answered these questions too forcefully, but his response was fascinating and perhaps I just missed the signposts.] This gave him the opportunity to tackle Williams’ historiogaphic comments as well as clarify Worthen’s plain folk theological suggestions and then reply to several laments. Dochuk said his concern was always to bring religion—a serious consideration of religion—to the telling of this political history. We can get tunnel vision, he said, that lets us trap evangelicals, fundamentalists, and the Religious Right in an amber crystal of the Culture Wars. By focusing on the political history, one can avoid that trap and yet bring far greater clarity to the essential religious character of the movement’s roots. Additionally, looking at these flows on the local level allows us to have a far more crisp picture of the small actions that built their way up into a major movement. On this point he noted that John McGreevy’s Parish Boundaries was an essential guide.

Dochuk also noted that critics had been right to suggest the final section of the work was weaker and less thorough. Not only was it attempting to branch outward and give broader national context to the localism of the first portions of the text, but it was also completed separately from the initial dissertation project. This is not an excuse, naturally, but it does help explain the differences in tone, source material, and so on.

It was at this point that I became a bit frustrated with the congeniality of the panel. While I find Dochuk’s work excellent–for many of the reasons above—there are some pretty serious concerns that were never raised. While class is central to the plain folk, the issue of race in the construction of the religious right was never really addressed in a satisfying way. Nor was the racialized context of Southern California anywhere near as central as it probably should have been. Moreover, there is a degree of dis-context that ignores the diverse religious context of the Sun Belt. It would have been excellent had the panel had a scholar to wrestle with these—say a potential provocateur like Anthea Butler or Rudy Busto or a specialist in Latino evangelicals like Roberto R. Treviño or Arlene Sanchez-Walsh.

Panels always operate under pretty serious constraints, but I think it may have weakened the work a panel like this should do. As a friend said, historians are generally kind folks that don’t like to be too confrontational in these public forums. That’s a bit of a shame really, because, in general and not in this instance, verbal fisticuffs probably make for better conferences than fawning platitudes. And I want to say clearly not in this instance because there was no fawning and not even really any platitudes, just honest attempts to praise something that deserved praise. It was just that the panel composition left the weaknesses in Dochuk’s work without an appropriate critic–even as kind-hearted and respectful as a fellow historian would have been in such excellent company.

Saturday 11:30-1:30 – Biography and American Religious History

This panel was even more unexpectedly good than I had hoped for. Sometimes things just work out, as when Ed Blum is listed as a commenter but in fact turns out to be a presenter and the audience is treated to a response by Nick Salvatore instead.

Rachel Wheeler (IUPUI) began with what she called a “circumstantial” case for biographies, her 18th century Moravian Indian subject Joshua. Born as a Christian to one of the first converted couples among the Mohicans, Joshua’s life begins close to the start of the century and ends just after the Revolutionary war. Wheeler said she saw Joshua as someone who might be a kind of Martha Ballard of American religious history. Ballard, for those who haven’t read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s excellent A Midwife’s Tale, became  a rare window into the lives of women in 18th century Maine, shedding light on early American medicine, sexuality, households, and much more. Joshua would be a similar window into the 18th century, except replacing women with native Christians on that era’s midwestern frontier. You can read some of Wheeler’s initial published work on Joshua here behind the JSTOR paywall, but her comments in the session suggested that one of the primary benefits to studying Joshua is his unusual hybridity. He appears to have been “fully” native and “fully” Christian. Certainly that’s a challenging contention to substantiate. Identity politics will surely emerge as a central element in explaining Native Christian lives alongside major historical developments in pre-revolutionary America such as the Great Awakening.

Christopher Cantwell (Newberry Library), the panel’s organizer, presented next on his book project about Frank Wood. Unlike Wheeler’s Joshua, who is largely written about in sources, Cantwell’s subject, Wood, was a voracious hoarder of evidence about his own conversion to Christianity at the turn of the 20th century. Testimony, Cantwell is going to argue, has more conventionally been used backwards by scholars–to make big arguments about denominational shifts and national movements. The personal lives revealed in testimonies have all to often been obscured by other priorities (especially when it comes to testimonies of major church leaders as opposed to conventional church members). Turning to this lay church member reveals another side to the rise of fundamentalism in America–a far more personal and local one than we’ve traditionally seen when focusing on big narrative events (like the Scopes trial). The best part? Wood was a socialist. If that won’t shake up our understanding of fundamentalists in pre-WWII America, I don’t know what else you could be holding out hope for.

Kathryn Lofton (Yale) was the third speaker, and she begun with a theoretical salvo against the way in which biography, as a discipline within history, has said very little about “the masses.” If you’re thinking that sounds fairly socialist (or perhaps just socially progressive), you’ve got the gist of the tone of her critique. Recalling her work on Oprah, Lofton said she wrote about a sage who argued she was (at the least) the voice of the masses. She defined the masses by packaging their experiences into a consumable form. But why, Lofton wondered, should we give these “sages” what they want by continuing to let them dominate the masses when we write biographies about them? How can we get the masses to speak for themselves? Her answer was the religious biographies of common folks–and here Lofton only intimated her subjects. After Oprah, the epitome of fame and celebrity, Lofton is inverting her lens and seems to hope to reveal the other side of the equation. I’m excited to see how it develops. If there’s more information about it, be sure to let me know.

Edward Blum (San Diego St) unexpectedly took a full turn in the session–not to comment on the work of Wheeler, Cantwell, and Lofton–but to give the audience some welcome insights into his recently published biography of W. E. B. Du Bois. Blum had a different sort of problem than the other speakers–how could he, a modern white male, presume to say anything about the kind of life and experience of one of America’s most beloved black men. At least, that’s the perspective that Blum said he had to consider when, as he was working on the biography, he was also reading James Cone’s seminal A Black Theology of Liberation. You’ll find in Cone’s work a forceful attack against the presumption of white folks to speak for black folks when it comes to issues of race, empathy, and theology. Cone argued that if you wanted to understand what it was like to be black, as a white person you should start by  listening to and learning from black people. How, Blum wondered, would he be able to stay true to Cone’s admonition while writing about Du Bois? The answer was treat the biography as an opportunity for Du Bois to teach Blum. Rather than turn to Du Bois’ comments on black folk, Blum turned to his comments on white folks. The inversion created a conversation where Du Bois was speaking to who Blum is as a person (or at least one part of him). It was a level of self-awareness about subject and author that seems–at least by critical assessments in journals and Amazon reviews–to have been a success.

Finally, Nick Salvatore, (Cornell) winner of the Bancroft prize for Eugene V. Debs and author of several other excellent biographies, commented on the papers. He had helpful comments for or about each presenter: On Wheeler he cautioned that snippets of evidence hold both risk and reward when used to reveal a full life. Ulrich pulled it off, but it will be Wheeler’s sources that carry the day for her. If they aren’t there, then how will she effectively pull in the vast secondary material from that era? On Cantwell, he wondered whether the inversion of testimony will require new methods of analysis that aren’t obvious yet. Will he have to construct them as he tries to re-orient these sources? On Blum, we learn that innovation sometimes requires intense self-awareness and a willing to let out authorship creep into our scholarship.

In commenting on Lofton, however, Salvatore gave what seemed to me the most valuable advice of the session–that our empathy for our subjects begins by fully perceiving their historical character. Our lives and our subjects’ lives are lived in times and in circumstances not of our choosing. Sensitivity to the context of lives lived within the boundaries, conventions, and obligations of the past is the beginning of good biography, even as we push biographies to say and do more for our readers in the present. Balancing new sources, methods, scales are for nothing if we can’t find adequately understand the richness of a life lived at a particular moment in time.

[I’ve got one more panel to summarize, and then I’ll compose my roundup post. Stay tuned! Also, I apologize for the inconsistent links. I wrote much of this on the airplane. -Dave]


3 Responses to “AHA Day 3 — Sun Belts & Biographies”

  1. Mark Edwards January 9, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    Thanks so much for these thoughtful and thorough summaries, David!


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