Sunday, September 29, 2013

Place in Time (Part IV)

The following post is part of a series on the role of regionalism in American history. Preceding posts are below.

Because they’ve never been formally codified the way the boundaries of an American state like Wyoming or Alabama has, their number, size and shape have been contested. Some observers have made distinctions, for example, between the Tidewater south (the lowlands along the coast) and the Piedmont south (the hillier land leading to the Appalachian mountains), or distinguished between the West (an area that spans from about Colorado to California) and the Pacific Rim (a narrow strip along the coast that encompasses San Diego and Seattle). These regions or sections are not respecter of state or even national boundaries – Canadian Vancouver in many ways has more in common with coastal Portland than it does the province of British Columbia to which it belongs. Nor is demography isn’t the only misleading thing about our state boundaries. Many of us associate Colorado with the Rocky Mountains, for the very good reason that they are indeed a dominant feature of its landscape. But eastern Colorado is as flat as Kansas. So is eastern Montana. Texas has arid plains, a tropical coast, and blazing desert.

We all understand that lots of different kinds of people – different races, different sexual orientations, different classes, different politics – live in these places, and that in the United States it’s relatively easy to move between them temporarily or permanently. But we also know that there are relatively stable traits associated with them: accents, cuisine, and local celebrations. And that they tend to vote alike in elections. New England, for example, has pledged its allegiance to different political parties over the course of the last two centuries. But it almost always votes as a bloc. So does the Deep South. There are places that vary in their allegiance – these days, we call them swing counties or states. But as we’ll see, that’s because they’re places where regional cultures overlap (and cross borders). So it is, for example, that southern Ohio has more in common with Indiana than it does the rest of Ohio.

As I think we all understand, geography is a major factor in shaping the behavior of people living in the United States. Living in a place that doesn’t have a lot of water, for example, reduces population density, which means the people who live in such are place are going to be spread out and tend to believe in value, even necessity, of self-sufficiency in their everyday lives. On the other hand, different groups of people can impose their values on any given landscape, which can often support more than one lifestyle. The Eastern Woodlands of North America worked pretty well for the Algonquin peoples who inhabited them for centuries, as it has for their Euro successors. Yes, those Euros altered those woodlands, rather dramatically, but did the Algonquins. (Actually, much of the region has more trees now than it did in the nineteenth century, when large tracts of which were cleared for farming – Indians would recognize at least part of the region more easily today than they did 150 years ago.) Human beings, for better and worse, are always colonizing land in one way or another within limits that nature sometimes imposes in gradual or spectacular ways. But whatever the cause and effect, like-minded people tend to live together, reinforcing habits and folkways, even in highly mobile societies. Sometimes this seems to transcend geography – American cities, however far apart they may be, often have more in common with each other than the countryside around them. But regional accents never disappear entirely.

One of the people who realized all of this most acutely was our friend Frederick Jackson Turner. As I mentioned, Turner became vastly influential for a theory that emphasized the primacy of the West in American history, depicting it the frontier a process of that seemed to transcend place in favor of a process of democratization and development. But toward the end of his life Turner began paying attention to what he called the sectional dimension of American history, and the way the persistent traits of older sections of the national state affected the development of newer ones. Turner understood that even in his time, the forces of modernization seemed more important than older regional patterns. Still, he said, “Improvements in communication, such as the automobile, the telephone, the radio, and movie pictures have diminished localism rather than sectionalism.”

Next: Surveying the regions of North America

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Place in Time (Part III)

The following post is part of a series on the role of regionalism in U.S. history. Previous posts are below.

The United States began as a group of colonies launched by people from a series of countries – England, of course, but also Ireland the central European region of Germany, which until 1870 lacked political or geographic continuity even as it had a cohesive regional culture.  The U.S. became a nation with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was formally recognized as a state in 1783, when its territorial boundaries were drawn as part of the Treaty of Paris. We think of the “nation” part of this equation as stable, largely because the U.S. has been a republic governed by a Constitution since 1789. (Before that it was more a federation of states.) But even that was tenuous; until the Civil War, people spoke of the U.S. as plural – “these United States” – rather than singular. Many foreigners, perhaps reflecting their own experiences, still do, referring to the U.S. as “the states.”

For a long time, the most obvious feature of the United States was its shifting frontier boundary. Indeed, a century ago a lot of people thought this was the most significant thing about it. A big part of the reason why was a gifted historian by the name of Frederick Jackson Turner, who in an 1893 delivered a speech at an American Historical Association conference in Chicago that distilled his (and a lot of other people’s) thinking into a single sentence: "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development."

Here in the 21st century, it may be hard to appreciate just how unusual an assertion this really was. Turner, born in 1861 was a native of Wisconsin – which is to say he was from the edge of the American world – got his doctorate (among the first people to ever get one) at Johns Hopkins, where he was taught the then-dominant "germ" theory, which argued that western civilization owed its origins to the forests of Germany, out of which emerged a Teutonic seed that brought down the Roman empire, spread across western Europe, jumped to America, and now dominated the world. Like so much academic thought of the time, this approach to history was modeled on science, both in its emphasis on primary source research and its use of a biological model—more specifically a (Social) Darwinian model—to explain historical change.

 Turner embraced a process-driven approach to History—colleagues and students remember him as an obsessive collector of data and maps—and he too embraced scientific ideas. But when it came to evolution, Turner was decidedly on the environmental side of the Darwinian equation: he was fascinated not by the fixed, but rather the adaptable. The frontier was a place that did something to people, he said: it made them Americans. Which is to say it turned them into something new. And that's because they had lots of room to evolve through a renewable cycle. First would come the scouts, who explored a new region, wrangling with the natives as necessary.  They would be followed traders (think furs), and then farmers, and tradesmen. Once an area got settled, a new wave of scouts would push west, and the whole process would repeat in a new location. The process continued until 1890, Turner said, by which point the frontier as Americans had known it had disappeared. (They would have to come up with new frontiers, like a space program.)

Over the course the next fifty years or so, the Turner Thesis became common sense. Textbooks at the time gave more space to western expansion than they do today, describing the settlement of places like Tennessee and Arkansas. Even a historian like Charles Beard, who in fact was skeptical of Turner’s ideas and had his own about that nature of American history (one rooted in class conflict) still gave a chapter to the rise of new states in his classic 1927 book The Rise of American Civilization. These days, when textbooks do talk about western expansion, they almost always mention that the addition of new states, whose voting rules opened them up to mass participation (at least for white men) pressured older states to follow suit.

But in the second half of the century the Turner thesis came under increasing attack. Some scholars questioned Turner's data, others his findings, especially his assertions that the frontier was the engine of U.S. democracy. The most serious challenge came from those historians, notably the modern historian Patricia Limerick, who rejected the assumptions underlying the very idea of the frontier and Turner’s tendency to describe land as "empty" when he really meant it didn’t have white people on it. To Limerick, Turnerism was little more than a racist fantasy, at one point joking that for her and like-minded scholars the frontier had become “the f-word.”

Besides, there were other things – immigration, industrialization, efforts for social reform in ways that ranged from votes for women to rights for workers – that seemed more obvious in terms of determining the real boundaries of the United States. Whatever considerable regional or political differences remained in the nation in the decades following the Civil War, it still seemed to be inexorably stitching together. Nothing did a better job of this than the World Wars, which promoted mass migration (especially black people to Northern cities), the growth of industry in previously remote areas (like Los Angeles, but also places like Nevada and New Mexico), and a sense of national identity in combating the challengers like Communists or Nazis across the globe. Never before or since was the federal – which is to say, national, or central – government stronger.

But I want you to pay attention to that word “federal,” which I’m actually using for the first time in this conversation. It’s a word that has a lot of different meanings, but at the heart of all of them is some kind of alliance or partnership among a set of entities. In the U.S., as in many nations, there are subdivisions in the form of provinces, or in our case, fifty states, each of which has a measure of political autonomy. Those states, in turn, are subdivided into counties, cities, villages.

But there is another kind of geographic unit in the United States that doesn’t often make it onto maps, even though it might help explain ourselves to ourselves better than most maps do. This unit is closer to the concept of country than it is nation or state, because it reflects a set of attitudes and practices of large sets of people independent of whatever political system happens to be in place, or wherever state or municipal boundaries that happen to be drawn. Unlike some places where country/nation/state may once have been aligned, these never managed to gain recognition as discrete entities in North America. We know them as “regions” or “sections,” and give them names like “New England,” “the Midwest,” and “the South.”

Next: Continuity and Change in American regions

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Place in Time (Part II)

The following is the second of a series of posts on regionalism in American history. (Previous post below).

If you managed to stay awake for some of your high school U.S. history classes, you have at least a vague sense of the country’s story as a series of maps. The only really fixed parameter on maps of the colonial era has been the Atlantic seaboard, which provided the dominant feature on each of the original thirteen colonies, whose westward boundaries were, as a matter of settlement, measured in dozens of miles, and whose northern and southern boundaries were often represented as straight lines understood to extend indefinitely. Such maps were often more aspiration than reality, because at the very moment they were being produced by the English, the French had their own maps that occupied some of the same territory. And though they weren’t published in any modern or conventional sense of the term, Indian tribes had their own maps that also portrayed them as occupying (or, at any rate, claiming) the same territory.

With the end of the American Revolution and a complex series of negotiations that culminated in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the newly created United States of America was now depicted by itself and Europeans as a solid slab of land bounded by two bodies of water: Atlantic Ocean in the east and the Mississippi River in the west. The boundaries of the states themselves within that slab (augmented by the admission of Kentucky and Vermont in 1791, followed by Tennessee five years later) remained vague and contested in the early republic. The government of Connecticut acknowledged the existence of New York and Pennsylvania to its west, but claimed all territory due west of its territorial boundaries all the way to California – a cheeky claim in all kinds of ways. One of the few things the weak national U.S. government of the 1780s got right was convincing such states to relinquish their claims in exchange for the national government assuming their debts, and in passing a series of laws we have come to know as the Northwest Ordinances. These laws, written by Thomas Jefferson, laid down an orderly process by which new states could be created from the unorganized pocket of the country that we typically consider the Middle West: the five states of Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837) and Wisconsin (1848). I find it interesting that while the maps that created these states also effectively created the justification by which a series of Native Americans could be shoved out of this real estate, the names of these places reflect the language of their previous inhabitants to this day (Michigan, for instance, is a Chippewa term that translates to “great water,” which does a pretty good job of describing a place whose contours are defined by a series of lakes).

But you probably regard all this as trivia. More vivid, perhaps, are the maps you may remember seeing countless times in your childhood that show the huge territorial gains the United States made in the first half of the nineteenth century. You can probably visualize the huge wedge of land – bigger than the original U.S. itself – known as the Louisiana Purchase, which Jefferson, overriding his small government scruples, purchased from France in 1803. You can probably also see the Mexican Cession of 1848, another huge chunk of territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War that made the U.S. a continental power. In between, literally and figuratively, was Texas, created as independent state by American settlers who revolted against Mexico in 1836 and whose admission into the Union nine years later was a cause of the Mexican War. Then there was the Oregon territory, a split-the-difference resolution of a boundary dispute between the U.S. and Great Britain in 1846 that gave us that states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, as well as slivers of Montana and Wyoming. Florida, another purchase, became essentially an offer a badly weakened Spanish empire couldn’t refuse in 1819 after General Andrew Jackson chased some Creek and Seminole Indians into it. Sell it or lose it, the Spaniards were essentially told. Decades of war against the Seminoles followed.

That pretty much fills in the map, though the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 added a big piece of North America that isn’t contiguous with the “Lower 48” (as Alaskans like to call it), and the annexation of Hawaii became an important naval base in the Pacific. Other acquisitions, like Guam and Puerto Rico (wrested from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898) have not been fully integrated into the United States. But the process of nation building is now largely complete, and largely centered on North America. The last two contiguous states to enter the Union on the North American continent, Arizona and New Mexico, were added in 1912. Alaska and Hawaii came aboard in 1959. It’s possible that Puerto Rico join the Union at some point – Puerto Ricans are ambivalent at the prospect – but as likely as not the number of stars on the flag isn’t going to get any larger.

 Which may be why you probably don’t think much about what might be termed the territorial integrity of the United States. The map hasn’t changed any since the time your parents were born; it’s something you take for granted. You know you live in a big country, which was, compared to most of Europe, pretty big even in its original state (King Charles II’s 1682 grant to William Penn for Pennsylvania was bigger than England). Indeed, as nations go, they don’t come much bigger: the United States today is the third-largest nation on the planet as a matter of geography, coming in behind Russia and Canada. (It happens to be number three in population size as well, behind China and India). Given that about half of Russia and Canada are sealed under permafrost –  at least for now – the U.S. has more on its rivals than mere square mileage would suggest. There’s a lot to work with between the redwood forest and the New York island.

But for all the charm in its variety – all those places you can ski, swim, survey autumn foliage or arid mesas – the span and diversity of the United States seems, as a matter of your national identity, secondary at best. Instead, it’s the abstractions that matter: common language, common law, common market. If these are not phenomenal achievements – I believe they are, ones that other societies past and present can only envy – they have certainly conferred tremendous benefits and indeed explain much of the nation’s rise to international pre-eminence. They have stitched the country together in ways that transcend any number of geographic differences. For proof you need not consider the virtually identical burger and fries (or pizza, or burrito) you can procure anywhere in a 3,000 mile span, but rather the rituals, from football games to proms, you can find at just about any American high school.

You realize that there are variations in climate and landscape across the continent, and that they have consequences in terms of accent and custom. But even if you’re not a big NASCAR fan, don’t celebrate Patriots Day or eat a lot of gumbo, you know about all these things thanks to a tightly stitched national media market and understand that they all fall under a capacious umbrella we know as American. I’m most aware of this when I watch a sports network like ESPN, where a scoreboard shows a dozen or more ball games taking place simultaneously at cities around the country, or when, coming out of a commercial break, a TV network gives us a shot of a local landmark before returning to the stadium. Geographic diversity is charming.

But I’m here to tell you that the shape of the United States is a little more fluid than you think, and that those maps that form the backdrop of our lives are at least a little illusory. As Americans, we tend to conflate the terms nation (a political construct), state (a geographic one) and country (a cultural one). But Kurds, a people sharing customs, language and history sprawled across Iraq, Turkey and other states in the Middle East, would not do this. Iraq, a state that consists of multiple – and hostile – ethnicities and religions, exists principally as a state because of the way the British drew its boundaries a century ago. Britain itself is a nation that includes Scotland, a country that in recent years has sought and received a measure of political autonomy. Much of the misery of the world derives from the lack of alignment between state, nation, and country.

Next: A sense of place -- and its contenders

Monday, September 16, 2013

Place in Time (Part I)

The following is the first of a series of post on regionalism in U.S. history.

Maps, like movies, tell such wonderfully true lies. That’s “true lies” in the sense of certifiable falsehood as opposed to a half-truth or statement that can’t be proven, like “drinking alcohol will kill you,” (yes, under some circumstances) or “Michael Jordan is the best basketball player to ever play the game” (what’s the definition of “best,” and how do you measure it?) The assertion that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq on the eve of the U.S. invasion of 2003: that’s truly a lie, one uttered repeatedly by officials in the Bush administration to mislead the American people to support a war against Iraq.

“True lies” can also refer to statements that are not factually correct but reveal a larger truth.  It is untrue – a true falsehood, as it were – to say that the character of Ilsa Lund ever utters the words “Play it again, Sam” to the piano player in the classic 1942 movie Casablanca, even though generations of film lovers have associated the line with the movie. But this fictive line, which refers to a song called “As Time Goes By,” that Ilsa really does want Sam to play, is the only real way – which is to say a way rooted in history – that she can express her now-secret attachment to Rick Blaine. At the end of that movie, Blaine will lie to Ilsa’s husband Victor Laszlo about his relationship with her as an act of kindness and as a way of honoring his true self. (If you don’t know what I mean you must see this movie!) In the world of Casablanca, which in some respects remains the world in which we live, facts don’t get in the way of truth, and on those occasions when they threaten it, as when a gambler asks Karl, an employee at Rick’s café, if its casino is honest, Karl answers by saying “as honest as the day is long.” That, truly, is a non-lie.

Maps are never as clever as Hollywood movies, however. They can’t afford to be – their existence is premised on an unwritten assertion of accuracy, of describing the boundaries of the world as it is, and no one will pay any attention to them unless they’re perceived as trustworthy. They do this often enough that we take their accuracy for granted. But maps also conceal, distort, and omit all kinds of things – in a way, that’s the essence of what a map is, i.e. a simplification of the world that helps people get their bearings. And yet even the most scrupulous maps get dated, even falsified, as facts on the ground change.

The maps that I’ve tended to find the most fascinating are political maps – maps that mark the boundaries cities, regions, and states. These of course are lies in some sense because in real life such boundaries are almost always invisible, at best marked by posted signs that signal you’re crossing lines you wouldn’t otherwise know exist. No flora or fauna change when you move between New York City and Westchester County, for example. Even when maps denote actual physical features on a landscape, it’s hard to say with any certainty where they begin and end.  What spot marks the rise of the Andes Mountains? The beginning of the Sahara Desert? Where is the mouth of the Nile River? (If you assume there are actually answers to these questions – there are more than one, depending on which direction from which you approach them – they’re subject to changes in climate and topography.) At best, maps are approximations, like so much else in our daily lives.

The other kind of maps I’ve tended intriguing are – surprise, surprise – historical ones, especially those that depict dramatic shifts in boundaries, like battlefield maps or those that mark the rise and fall of empires. Such maps are masterpieces of compression. Even those that illustrate changes that take place over a relatively short period of time (like, say, the conquests of Alexander the Great between 334 and 323 BC) convey years of action into a glance that can be absorbed in seconds. And yet, paradoxically, a small shape on a few inches of paper can capture the conquest of a vast continent or more.

Such maps have a way of leading me to suspend my usual ideological or political beliefs. I don’t really believe it would have been good for Europe as a whole for Napoleon to retain the territory his armies overran in the first dozen years of the nineteenth century, but I find myself oddly rooting for him when looking at maps that reconstruct his surge into Russia in 1812. More bizarre – and troubling – is the way I marvel over the comparable terrain engulfed by the German army in World War II. It doesn’t take long for even a novice map reader to appreciate how hard it is for any military force to dominate a continental stretch on the face of the earth, and to feel a thrill at the scale of conquest by a Genghis Khan or Tamerlane. Are these maps revealing lies I tell myself about who I really am and where my loyalties are? I wouldn’t think so. But maybe I am a little imperialist at heart.

In the space of a simple diagram, maps seem capture the fates of millions. But again, such pictures can be misleading at best. How accurate is it, really, is it to designate this or that sliver of central Asia as part of the Mongolian empire, given the vast distances, limited communication, and the avowedly hands-off approach of Mongolian civil administration that was one of the keys to its success? Were there any challenges, implicit or explicit, to such authority? Can it tell us anything meaningful about the lives of the people who lived in a fragment that’s shaded this way or that? Who makes these maps, anyway? And by whose authority have they ended up in our hands?

  These questions become more pressing when we get closer to home – if we pause to think about them. Which, often, we don’t. There are so many maps in our lives that we take for granted. Those of our hometowns, for example. Or our home states. And those of the United States. None of the boundaries in these maps are arbitrary. Sometimes they’re geographic, in the sense that a river, coast, or mountain range determines them. Kansas, for example, would be a neat rectangle, except that it gets nicked in the corner by the Missouri River, which determines is northeastern boundary. But the significance of that river in the shaping of Kansas was a decision that somebody made – there are plenty of rivers that run right through the middle of cities, for example – after a battle or some kind of meeting (or a meeting that was some kind of battle). We may not know or care about those meetings or battles, which as likely as not took long ago. But they nevertheless determine the taxes we pay, the kind of commute we have to work or school, or why we live in one place and not another. 

Next: Mapping American history

Monday, September 9, 2013

Storied analysis

In But Where is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac, cultural historian James Goodman plumbs ancient scripture -- and modern secular faith

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

It's possible to describe this book in a fairly straightforward way, so I'll begin by doing that. But Where Is the Lamb? is an exegesis of nineteen verses from the Book of Genesis, a foundational piece of scripture for Jews, Christians and Muslims. James Goodman chronicles an array of interpretations these faith communities have generated with a slab of prose that's reproduced in its entirety on the cover of the book.

More specifically, Lamb (as I'll call it) is a reading of one of the most famous and perplexing stories in the canon of great world religions: God's commandment that Abraham sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, Abraham's preparations to act on this instruction, and the last-minute reprieve that gets delivered before Isaac is to be killed. Just what was God doing when he issued this injunction? Why did Abraham act on, if not execute, the order? Did Isaac understand what was happening? (The title of the book refers to the question he asks as his father prepares his sacrifice.) These are some of the questions Goodman plumbs in about 260 compact pages.

That said, the narrative arc of his study is vast, and, notwithstanding its brevity, surprisingly detailed. One can describe the first thousand or so years of interpretation as an intra-Jewish dialogue conducted against a backdrop of the rise and fall of Israel, the spread of Hellenism, and the expansion of the Roman Empire. So it is that we're introduced to the book of Jubilees, which argues that God always knew that Abraham would obey and was demonstrating this to Satan, much in the way he did with Job. The Hellenic-minded Philo, by contrast, emphasized Abraham's fidelity in a context of Greek religion, where the sacrifice of one's children was relatively common. (There's an intriguing anthropological subtext in the Lamb regarding the role of child sacrifice in the ancient world that might have been strengthened with a nod to places like pre-Columbian America -- it seems to have been remarkably widespread.) The Roman-era Flavius Josephus makes the tale of Abraham and Isaac one of fidelity by father and son, while Pseudo-Philo emphasizes the latter's conscious sacrifice, a model for Jewish martyrdom around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

The arrival of Christianity shifted the terms of the conversation about Abraham and Isaac. As was done with the Old Testament generally, the story became -- as far as Goodman is concerned, it was reduced to -- a set of typologies. Abraham's would-be sacrifice of his son prefigures God's actual sacrifice of his own son, Jesus. Abraham's wife/Isaac's mother Sarah, who was certainly a figure of some scrutiny earlier, gets foregrounded as a Mary figure. Such readings of the story prompted responses, some critical, others accommodating, within mainstream Judaism, though of course isolating the strands of Jewish tradition was a complicated matter in the early centuries of the Christian era.

The Muslim tradition introduced another wrinkle into the story by substituting Ishmael -- Abraham's illegitimate son by Hagar -- as the son to be sacrificed, though this was not a feature of all Islamic readings. Perhaps the simplest way of distinguishing the core differences in the three Abrahamic traditions would be to say that for Jews the story has been one of obedience; for Christians one of faith, and for Muslims one of submission. There is of course a considerable amount of overlap in these concepts, but Goodman teases out their nuances well enough to make clear that their implications really do cut in different directions.

That said, it was not really philosophical nuances that drove the rise of anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages -- in the case of the Crusades, it was a matter of Christians finding an indispensable enemy closer to home than the Levant. Centuries of pogroms gave the Abraham/Isaac story new significance for many Jews, some of whom drew analogies between Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son and their own willingness, literal as well as figurative, to sacrifice their children rather than to submit to Christianity by the sword.  This threat of systematic destruction never disappeared, but with the arrival of the Enlightenment new interpretive directions emerged, among them a quest to trace the historical record more accurately, a literary sensibility that expanded the story's meaning beyond religious indoctrination, and more psychological readings (the analysis of Kierkegaard in particular is quite compelling). Goodman continues his interpretative tour through the Holocaust and beyond, weaving landmark figures like Elie Wiesel into it. Along the way he also incorporates non-textual renderings of the Abraham/Isaac story from Rembrandt to Bob Dylan.

Considered solely on these terms, But Where is the Lamb? is an impressive book. (It must be a source of satisfaction to Goodman that Lamb is published by Schocken Books, the imprint of great Jewish writers from Franz Kafka to Primo Levi.) As he makes clear, Goodman is not a biblical scholar by training, though he has a journalist's suppleness in his ability to distill and sequence complicated ideas. I will confess that by the end I started to feel that the book had a one-damn-thing-after-another quality: it becomes increasingly clear as one reads that the Abraham/Isaac story, like so many others in scripture, can and has been bent in any number of different and even contradictory directions. (Abraham and Isaac as a parable of feminist empowerment? Sarah, re-enter stage left -- talking.) This sense of sprawl gets intensified because Goodman does not provide a compact argument as to how he understands the story, though his (conventionally modern) opinions are reasonably clear. Yet impatience of the kind I'm describing is at least partially misplaced. Though Lamb functions as a work of popular history, that's not the only, or even primary, reason to read it.

Actually, one can better another sense of what Goodman is really up to by considering this book in the context of his others: his Pulitzer-Prize nominated 1994 study Stories of Scottsboro, and Blackout, his 2005 book on the infamous 1977 electricity outage in New York City. In these works Goodman established himself as a leading practitioner of subgenre of cultural history known as memory, a distinctively postmodern historiographic school that explores the plurality of meanings that surround a given event or text. In some ways, the study of memory is now among the most vibrant of the intellectual currents to follow in the wake of the egalitarian currents of the 1960s. While others, like the New Social History, had similarly democratic impulses, they never managed to fully resolve the contradiction between its insular, even elitist methodology, and its purported egalitarianism. Such problems continue to afflict theoretically-minded approaches to the humanities on the ideological left.

Goodman doesn't have this problem: his prose is marvelous in its clarity. Lamb is written in an informal, first-person style marked by invented dialogue, speculative fancy, and phraseology -- like "Don't let me give you the wrong impression," "Believe me when I tell you" and "Believe me when I say" -- that most professional historians abjure. He even violates what might be considered a cardinal sin of expressing self-doubt, the subject of entire chapter in a book that is executed as a series of short, concatenated essays. "You have no training or special expertise in any relevant area," he quotes his editor as saying. "You don't even have the languages you would need." Goodman's reply: "'It's worse than that,' I said to him (and ever afterward to anyone who would listen). The real problem is not that I am not qualified. It is that I know how much I don't know.'"

There's something almost showy about this confession, because Goodman clearly had enough confidence to execute the book and expect that his reader would get to this point (which comes toward the end). He gets away with it as a matter of scholarship because this is in fact a deeply researched and well-documented book. Experts in the field are likely to argue with his assertions, but I suspect it will be hard for them to avoid taking him seriously.

But I don't think establishing his bona fides as a religious commentator is where Goodman's heart is in any case. I'm going to guess that he fretted more about matters of voice and structure than he did evidence and argument. In an important sense this is less the work of a historian than it is a fictively-inflected non-fiction writer. Here I should note that Goodman holds an unusual joint appointment at Rutgers in History and Creative Writing. And that he is the editor of the journal Rethinking History, which seeks to stretch the expressive boundaries of professional scholarship.

All of which strikes me as the logical outcome of his disciplinary obsessions -- which, you might say, have resulted in a crisis of faith.  When you make pluralism a (dare I say) sacred value -- a tendency that has dominated not just cultural history, but American intellectual life generally in the last half-century -- you're virtually begging for challenges to authority that are as likely to result in free market deregulation as they they are multiculturalism. If it's impossible to know what's true, you're thrown back on yourself. (Theologian G.H. Davies wrote in 1969 that the voice telling Abraham to kill Isaac came not from God but inside his own head, prompting angry fellow Baptists to withdraw the book they had commissioned from circulation.) If meanings are endlessly plastic, why should anybody pay attention to yours?

Goodman in effect goes about trying answer this question in two ways. The first is by avowedly embracing, as a lifelong Jew, the faith of his fathers (and mothers). When intellectual precepts are nothing more than a series of shifting currents, and the scientific method rests on a foundation of endless revision ("We now know ..."), the weight of tradition, religious and otherwise, becomes more appealing. As Goodman notes, ancient scripture seems vexing to us moderns because we're fixated by conflicts in the record, a fixation that can be loosely dated with the birth of modern Europe (i.e. that place and time when religious pluralism became common sense). But the writers who emended or supplemented the Torah all those centuries ago never understood themselves to be doing anything but elaborating on received truth: their confidence in the law mattered more than their quibbles or their doubts. Facts, chronology, translation: these were all beside the point. Which they remain for millions, even billions, of people, which is something that scares the hell out the secular imagination, even though it makes a kind of sense.

Clearly, such an answer can't be wholly sufficient to Goodman, either. Perhaps he believes, like the Puritans, that faith is an irresistible gift, not a choice. In any case, he's too much a creature of his own culture, and still too invested in the rituals of academic life, to surrender the longings for grace in that faith, which among other things involves the transcendence of a book that just might reach that mythic General Audience we all covet. But he has apparently concluded that the best way to get there is by not simply theorizing, but acting, on the truism that history is an art, not a (social) science. Which is the second half of his answer as to why we should listen to him, whether or not we're believers: even more than persuading us, he wants to beguile us with the alchemy of the written word. In this regard, Lamb is an imaginative experiment in history as literature. Believe this goyim when I when I tell you: this is the general direction in which the future of history lies -- and comes to life.