Wednesday, April 9, 2014

You are reading what is now an archive of approximately 500 discrete posts. American History Now began as a blog at the dawn of the Obama era on February 4, 2009 with a piece about "Outlaw Pete," a song on Bruce Springsteen's new album Working on a Dream (which in retrospect looks like one of the Boss's weaker efforts, though the song holds up well). In the years since, a new post for American History Now has gone up anywhere from once to three times a week. They can be categorized the following ways:
  • Posts that chronicled the lives of fictive students and teachers (The Felix Chronicles, The Maria Chronicles, and the Horace Chronicles, which ran at at History News Network in the winter and spring of 2014) and can be seen in their entirety here;
  • Posts that functioned as excerpts of first drafts of books, principally Sensing the Past, which was published in 2013, as well as A Short History of the Modern Media (2014) and an abortive book project on the history of the self-made man (it was eventually published as a long essay in The Hedgehog Review in 2013);
  • Book reviews that were cross-posted at the HNN book page, where I was a Book Review editor from 2009 to 2014;
  • Short posts on what I've been reading, watching or listening to on vacation or traveling;
  • Some miscellaneous stuff (ranging from tributes to Abraham Lincoln to Billy Joel).
I began this blog for two basic reasons:
  1. To participate in some of the excitement about new media, and the opportunities for ordinary people to become bloggers and publish work in ways that had previously been limited to those with access to capital, the professional publishing infrastructure, or both;
  2. To give me a creative outlet at a time when I was between book projects and was unsure what do to next.
So, has American History Now been a success? I guess I'd say yes: any enterprise that helped keep me out of trouble -- which is to say has given me at least an illusion of purpose for five years -- has been valuable. The blog has had about 150,000 page views, which is strictly small potatoes, though a handful of my pieces have been accessed thousands of times, which I think counts as a small audience, one that's both global and unlikely to have exposure to my work any other way.  On the other hand, I haven't exactly found fame and fortune.

I've decided to suspend this blog (and book reviewing for HNN) to concentrate on writing books. I'm currently working on a cultural history of the United States from 1945 to the present, which I hope will see the light of day at some point. But uncertainty, I've discovered, lies near the very essence of the writing life.

In closing, I'd like to thank three sets of people: my family, for sustaining (and putting up with) me; Google, whose Blogger platform has been a truly marvelous gift, and you, dear reader, for the privilege of your attention. May you find a lifetime of pleasure in the written word, wherever you may happen to encounter it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


in which we see a chronicle of history born anew

This is the final installment of the Secret Life of Teaching published at HNN.

By Horace Dewey

            I make a detour when I arrive at school for a final round of faculty meetings to take a look at the quad. Surprisingly, there are no obvious traces of yesterday’s ceremonies. Less than 24 hours ago, this space was teeming with parents, grandparents, alums, and hundreds of students —- some of whom were wearing caps and gowns and about to dissolve into living ghosts. Today, all that remains is a sole folding chair. And since it’s brown, not black like the hundreds that had been set up, I’m not even sure it was here yesterday. The only sign that anything relatively unusual had happened are the distressed stripes of grass running horizontally across the quad. The maintenance crew will take care of that in pretty short order, and this space will revert to a stretch of silence, punctuated only by the occasional round of elementary school day-campers singing here on summer afternoons, or administrators walking to and from their cars. Birds and bees will hold dominion for a season.
            I’m relieved it’s finally over. It’s been three weeks since the seniors finished classes, a period punctuated by end-of-the-year parties, final exams, the prom, the senior dinner, and other rituals. Graduation is the most tedious. People typically experience a string over a string of a dozen or so years: elementary school and middle school, then high school, college, each a little more bittersweet and dogged by anxiety, followed perhaps by a postgraduate degree. And then that’s it for a generation. But we teachers (especially high school teachers) go through the process every year. The students, the speeches, the recitation of the school song: they all tend to run together. If anything is likely to be memorable, it’s the weather: hot or rainy, surprisingly cool or surprisingly beautiful. There’s usually a moment of genuine gladness at some point in the morning, as we witness the visible signs of maturity in some of our charges. And there’s often a moment of genuine regret, too, when we face an esteemed colleague’s retirement, the graduation of the final child in a cherished family, or a fond farewell from a clutch of friends who complemented each other so nicely. Any of these people may reappear at some point, in some perhaps transfigured way. But the uncertainty of such scenarios, and the certainty of time’s passage, make such moments bittersweet at best.
            It’s always a relief when you get in the car and head home after such rituals, and I’m glad to seize a life, however quotidian, that’s truly my own. For years now, it’s been my habit to come home from graduation and mow the lawn. I think of Winslow Homer’s 1865 painting “Veteran in a New Field,” which depicts a recently returned Civil War soldier threshing wheat. Figuratively speaking, my campaign is over, and I’m eager to get back to my farm. 
            This notion of closure is among the greatest satisfactions of teaching. Other walks of life are comparably cyclical. But I don’t think any afford the kind of clean lines and closed books that a life in schools does. Many working people take extended summer vacations, but few of them are as expansive and sharply chiseled as that afforded by an academic schedule. As we are all veterans of schooling, this experience is a virtual birthright. But only teachers refuse to relinquish it. 
            The time will come—unexpectedly quickly —when my longings will turn away from completion and repose toward the rebirth that comes with the fall. In my case, the longings typically return long before it's time to actually return to the classroom. But as I make my way from meeting to meeting, from a final faculty softball came to a final trip to the local watering hole before we all disperse, I pause to savor the cadence. The present is past. And history will be born anew.