What We’re Reading

Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner

by Joyce A. Berkman

In 1963 our first son was born. We named him, Jeremy Saul Berkman, in part after Johann Sebastian Bach. My husband, Lenny, and I have always shared a deep reverence for Bach’s compositions, deeming Bach (1685-1750) as the premier composer, the musical fount, of modern Europe.  I trace my devotion to his work not to my early piano study but to my attendance at the Carmel Bach Festival during the 1950s. This internationally acclaimed summer festival, founded in 1935 by two extraordinary female art entrepreneurs and lifelong partners, Dene Denny and Hazel Watrous, introduced me to the range and majesty of Bach’s work.  The many concerts, master classes, open rehearsals, recitals, lectures, that took place initially over four days cast a spell on me. This spell strengthened after Lenny’s and my trip to Leipzig, where Bach spent most of his adult career. We visited St. Nicholas Church — where Bach’s works were performed in his lifetime, and whose bells launched the collapse of the Soviet Union — and St. Thomas Church, where Bach served as Cantor in 1723 and where so many of Bach’s Cantatas and Passions premiered.

In this extensive, captivating biography and critical study of Bach, John Eliot Gardiner blends his analysis and performance experience of Bach’s music with his interpretations of Bach’s complex personality, historical situation and musical genius. Gardiner evokes his Dorset, England childhood under the daily gaze of one of the two extant portraits of Bach, painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1748. Among today’s leading conductors of Bach’s choral compositions, having presented all of Bach’s 200 cantatas in a single year, Gardiner links what he learned through conducting Bach to his evolving grasp of Bach’s musical goals and compositional strategies.[1]

Although Gardiner’s concerts and recordings primarily present Bach’s sacred music, he wards off any conclusion that he or the music itself aims to implement particular church doctrine. Rather, he insists that Bach’s work “springs from the depths of the human psyche and not from some topical or local creed.” (15)

Before Gardiner wrote this riveting biographical, historical and musicological study, he had also scoured existing scholarship on Bach and on early modern European history. Gardiner had already published various studies of early modern music and on Bach which had garnered him numerous honors and awards, even knighted in 1998 by Queen Elizabeth II. Shortly after the publication of this biography, Gardiner became the president of the Leipzig-Archiv, which, together with the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, is the central co-holder of Bach primary documents. Bach Digital, a collaborative enterprise of the Leipzig Archive, the computing center at Leipzig University and the Staatsbibliothek, is in the process of digitizing every extant work Bach autographed, making these sources widely accessible.

Fortunately, Gardiner’s university training was as much in history as in musicology, amply evident in this biography. He informs the reader in text and copious footnotes about essential documentary sources, interconnects past and present historiography, and addresses many of the controversies rife among Bach scholars

Unlike the plenitude and diversity of primary sources that bear on Bach’s professional career, primary sources on Bach’s personal life are woefully sparse. Far more documents appear to be extant, especially correspondence between other composers of Bach’s time and their family and friends, than we have for Bach.  Further, Bach did not leave us a memoir or autobiography.  At best we have a hastily written obituary by Bach’s second son and one of his pupils, the Nekrolog.  Gardiner laments that we “know less about his private life than about that of any other major composer of the last 400 years.” (xxv)  Equally unavailable are sources on audience response to initial performances of Bach’s works.  With a twinkle, Gardiner muses, “Might one or two adverse, even waspish, comments overheard from the congregation as it filed out of church…goad him towards his own brand of dare-devilry and to still bolder experiments?” (317)

At the heart of Gardiner’s treasure trove of sources, naturally, are Bach’s musical texts and music themselves. Gardiner perceptively infers Bach’s religious outlook and psychological insights from many of these.  As one of countless examples, Bach’s Actus Tragicus, which he composed at age 22,  underscores a lifelong motif in Bach’s approach to death: a desire to soothe and offer hope, yet “never saccharine, self-indulgent or morbid.” From the “yearning dissonance given to two gambas, to the ravishing way the recorders entwine and exchange adjacent notes, slipping in and out of unison… we are being offered music to combat grief.” (149) Bach surely had his share of grief. By age nine he had lost both parents. His first wife died early, and 12 of his 20 children died before they turned three. Death was an omnipresent trauma for him and for those he knew.  (I immediately dashed to YouTube to hear Actus Tragicus, which, I feel, does bear out Gardiner’s claim.) Sadly, although we’re overwhelmed by the plenitude of Bach’s compositions, e.g. cantatas composed weekly for two straight years, many of his compositions are lost, including many cantatas and his St. Mark Passion. 

Gardiner’s major thesis is the dual reality of Bach’s unparalleled musical genius and very human, problematic personality: “Bach the musician is an unfathomable genius; Bach the man is all too obviously flawed, disappointingly ordinary and in many ways still invisible to us.” (xxv).   Resisting prevalent hagiography of Bach while also utterly in awe of his musical genius, Gardiner treads a middle ground in which he presents Bach’s artistic and personal struggles within a tumultuous political, economic, societal, religious, and cultural historical reality, an array of forces pressuring Bach to conform to ruling religious and artistic beliefs and musical conventions, which he subverts as much as he can. Gardiner faults the hagiographic bias as concealing Bach’s “everyday self, the self that lived beside, beneath and within the narrative of his most un-ordinary music-making” (525) and  offers examples of Bach’s irascible, prickly, petty behavior, (203) epitomized in the chapter  “The Incorrigible Cantor.” When the Leipzig Council hired Bach, his Cantorate included serving as Director of the St. Thomas Boys Choir and as Director of Music for the main city churches. Assessing Bach as man and as musician Gardiner deems Bach’s character failures as “less heinous than those of Mozart or Wagner”. 

Gardiner the historian emerges definitively in his claim that Bach’s “church music, unique in the history of music, could have happened only at this time, in this place and under these circumstances” (527). Gardiner cites the role of Thuringian geographical and societal landscape on young Bach and the toll of constant warfare and devastation on the lives of prior generations of Bach’s family. Bach was fortunate to be born when many families enjoyed relative freedom from such dire circumstances. 

In accounting for Bach’s creative brilliance and immense compositional legacy, Gardiner explores the complicated interplay between nature and nurture, and compares the Bach family with other famous musical families of his era.  Gardiner describes Bach’s family’s long history of musical performance, including regular family chorale singing. Composed by Martin Luther, these chorales, often adapted folksongs, molded the “close synergy between Luther and Bach.” (129-130)   

Ever widening the frame of his study, Gardiner adds the role of chance.  When nine-year-old Bach was orphaned, he joined the household, in Ohrdruf, of his oldest brother Johann Christoph Bach, which became a most fortuitous turn of events.  This musically talented brother introduced him to Georg Böhm, young Bach’s principal mentor. Böhm eased Bach’s entrée into the “rich cosmopolitan life of Hamburg, with its new opera house and its many fine church organs “.  Bach was privileged to learn from the city’s “great organ-builder Arp Schnitiger at close quarters…” (90)

Bach’s time in Ohrdruf was brief. Family needs, political conflicts, professional ambitions and musical ideals sparked Bach’s sequence of moves around Germany. Even when he settled permanently in Leipzig, his work took him to other cities for short periods of time.  None of these cities met Bach’s musical vision.  Bach, notes Gardiner, had a “lifelong obsession” a “pipe dream” of composing in a paid position that would enable him to compose freely in conformity “with the way the God-inspired Temple music was organized in the time of King David” (195). He wanted the freedom to create music “to the glory of God” in his own distinct way. Though this desire spurred many of his moves, he did not find the freedom he sought anywhere, even in Leipzig, with its “innate conservatism, artistic indifference and discord…a creaky structure, undermanned and underfunded” (196), but he resolved to meet this goal, his “Endzweck” regardless, and soon exhibited a dazzling “fecundity.” (290)

Gardiner deftly places Bach within the wider development of the European Enlightenment.  Its emphasis on science and mathematics posed no problem to Bach. For him, music was a science and pervasively mathematical, at its best expressing the harmony of nature and the cosmos. Gardiner cites Theodore Adorno’s claim that “Bach was the first to crystallize the idea of the rationally constituted work” (14)

German society, including Leipzig’s, was increasingly secular, “the community of belief and convention…was starting to alter, or even to break down.” (278) Although known as the city of churches, Leipzig remained indelibly Lutheran, yet its population of roughly 30,000 experienced no religious consensus. The six main Lutheran churches with 22 services bitterly contested views of Lutheran doctrines. (278). Factions split churches and the local government; tensions divided church and lay authorities.  In countless forms, social class, professional, religious and gender differences stratified the city’s system of status and power.

Bach upheld various older musical conventions while appropriating new musical styles.  Various arresting chapters probe Bach’s Janus-faced musical orientation, looking past and forward.  Opera is one of many examples. Though spurning creating secular opera, he was a superlative dramatist. Using Biblical, rather than secular, narrative as his text, he created an operatic “mutant”. (102).  Gardiner attributes to Bach the creation of “a synthesis” of myriad past and present musical idioms.

In the process of creating this synthesis, however, Bach could not remove himself from the political and ideological tumult that surrounded him.  In one of the most absorbing chapters, “Collision and Collusion,” Gardiner reveals the ways Bach deployed “the interplay – even friction – between words and music in his church cantatas” thereby yielding ambiguous and contradictory meanings from Gospel texts. (439, 447).  Irreverent Bach deliberately altered a key word in a homily (197) or highlighted through musical choices theological confusions and inconsistencies. Bach exploited music’s ability to transcend words so as to “chip away at people’s prejudices and sometimes toxic patterns of thinking” (477). Gardiner lauds Bach’s commitment to the truth of human experience, applying his “boundless invention, intelligence, wit and humanity to the process of composition.”(xxxiv)

In conclusion, a few words about this biography’s title. It derives from Weg zum Himmelsburg (The Way to the Castle of Heaven), the name for the painted cupola in the palace church of Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the cupola and court music library destroyed, alas, by fire in 1774. The cupola’s inspired design appears in one of the volume’s many vivid illustrations, inviting the reader to hear the chords from the organ gallery where Bach performed early in his career, 65 feet above floor level, as those chords descended to its listeners below as though from heaven. Ultimately, Gardiner beholds Bach, with all his human deficiencies, striving to compose at a heavenly level of perfection, his efforts yielding triumphs of transcendent glory.

[1] Gardiner focuses exclusively on Bach’s choral work, which reflects Gardiner’s conducting experience.

By Audrey Altstadt

My early summer reading began with three books about women’s lives. One overlapped with my teaching life (Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, about the great codebreaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and yes, that’s how she spelled her name); another overlapped with my travel life (Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders, about her months bicycling the Silk Road, which I never did or would do).  The third book spoke to my writing life, as most books do, but this one resonated in a deeply personal way. Richard White’s Remembering Ahanagran: a History of Stories (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998) is White’s investigation of his Irish mother’s memories and life stories which he scrutinized against the historical record of her birthplace in Ireland and the US where she married and raised her children.

In this book, White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, tackles a problem that all historians face – how do we know what’s true? This book is like none of his others because here he investigates own mother’s stories, at her behest, and with her in tow as he returns to her Irish village to get additional local stories and check state and church records against their memories. With this process, White enters the territory not merely of the biographer, but of the memoirist. White himself is a character is this book. He listens to the stories again and again, but he argues with his mother about his investigations of “truth” in the documentary record. The subtitle “a history of stories” gives us a clue about his intellectual and academic approach to the family lore.

The resonance of this book for me was three-fold. My own mother’s family emigrated to the US from Ireland, from the same county as White’s mother, indeed, from a neighboring village. Like his mother, Sarah Walsh, my mother’s parents settled on Chicago’s south side. But the one forward-looking element of this reading experience was that I am a historian writing a memoir. My memoir is unrelated to my family –that I will save for my golden years – but about my first year in the USSR as a doctoral student in the late Brezhnev era.

Like White and his mother, I have memories of my own experiences of that time and I know the stories of others who shared those years of grad school and of research in the USSR. The year I spent in Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, was an adventure academically, politically, and personally. I arrived in September of 1980 on the heels of the US boycott of the summer Olympics in Moscow which was retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous December. US-Soviet relations were at the lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. By going to Baku, in the Soviet south near the Iranian border, I was close to the American hostages then being held in the occupied US Embassy in Tehran. And I arrived weeks after the start of the Iran-Iraq War when the US-backed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was bombing the Iranian border just south of Soviet territory. Naturally, I want to get the facts of the time right.

Audrey Altstadt (middle) in Baku, 1992

Although it’s easy to look up the dates of invasions and bombings, or presidential decrees and decisions of the Soviet Communist Party, as White found his mother’s school records, there are a thousand details that cannot be readily verified. Yet those details tell a story of their own.  And so does my memory of them. When I tell my fellow historians that I am writing a memoir, their first question is “do you have diaries, notebooks, letters?” We think about evidence, of course. That’s what we do. And I have those things, which might be considered historical documents and primary sources by some future historian, but they are singularly uninformative. In the Soviet Union in 1980, it would have been foolish for an American to record frankly all the things she did and people she met. Our rooms were searched regularly, our communications monitored. As one of two Americans in Baku, and the only one who spoke the languages, I was followed for months even after I settled into my boring routine of going from dorm to university to market.  Writing about Soviet acquaintances put those people at risk. That was the reality of our lives, it was not some movie fantasy. Memories are my foundation for the memoir – the train across the steppe from Moscow to Baku, my first view of Baku bay in the sunshine, the fragrances of the bazaar, the rickety chairs in the archives and the crooked glass that made car tires look square.  

As White encountered conflicting stories about the family home, Ahanagran, I found disparate memories among old friends.  Wanting to share feelings as well as facts, I tried to lead my reader from the familiar to the new. Take the case of the jetway. When our group arrived in Moscow, we left our Lufthansa flight and spilled out into the new and gleaming Sheremetova-II airport, built for thousands of visitors to the Olympics. How did we get from the plane to the airport corridor? I think we used a jetway as in the US, but I do not clearly recall. I ask friends who were in the group. They say we “must have” deplaned onto the tarmac and walked into the terminal because the USSR had no jetways in 1980.  But I think they are projecting that knowledge backward to our arrival. I had been outside the US only once before and had never deplaned onto the ground. If I had walked down the plane’s stairs onto the cold and, as I recall, snowy ground of the Moscow’s airport, I am confident I would remember. Since I don’t remember such a thing, I think there was a jetway bought and installed specifically for foreign travelers. And that’s what I wrote – we left the familiar jetway behind. We entered a world of novel, even strange, experiences — the airport was empty, the Soviet guards stared us down, the passport control process was intimidating.

White describes reading his mother’s 1936 immigration form with her. She commented, “How much I’m finding out about myself.”  White found out about his mother and Ireland and the immigrant experience in writing this book, but also about himself, and perhaps more from the process than the facts. So it is with all of us who write.

The Public History in Historical Perspective Series, published by the University of Massachusetts Press, has enjoyed many successes and steady growth since its inception in 2009. The significant achievements of the series have not only made it a cornerstone of the UMass publishing program, but have also inspired and shaped new generations of public historians. “I can’t actually believe it’s only ten years old–the series has accomplished so much in that time,” says Seth Bruggeman, the editor of Born in the U.S.A: Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory, and an associate professor of History at Temple University. “It has, most significantly, established itself as THE series for serious print scholarship in public history.” 

Books in the series provide critical perspectives to scholars who seek to understand the role of history and memory in public life. There are currently 23 titles in the series, including the just  published title The Genealogical Sublime by Julia Creet. As Edward T. Linenthal, a member of the series editorial advisory board explains, the titles explore topics such as “the history of history-making in the U.S., layers of remembrance of place and event, the power of material culture, and titles of great interest to me, that focus on remembrance of violence. To mention only a few: Erin Krutko Devlin’s Remember Little Rock, Memoria Abierta’s Memories of Buenos Aires: Signs of State Terrorism in Argentina,  Michael Scott Van Wagenen’s Remembering the Forgotten War: the Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War, and James E. Young’s The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between.

Not only have titles in the series won numerous prizes, including the National Council on Public History’s “best book” prize four times, but they have become standard texts in Public History courses across the country. Some of the award winners were Susan Reynolds Williams’s Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America, James E. Young‘s The Stages of Memory, Andrea A. Burns’s  From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, and Michael Scott Van Wagenen’s Remembering the Forgotten War. As Mary Dougherty, the director of University of Massachusetts Press says, “The titles in this series do great work in advancing the scholarly conversation, and they are helping to shape the public historians of tomorrow.”

The idea of launching the Public History in Historical Perspective Series emerged in 2009, after author and cultural historian Briann Greenfield approached the UMass Press to publish her book, Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England. At that time, Clark Dougan was the senior editor on the Amherst campus, and he raised the idea of creating the series with Marla Miller. “[T]he vision for the series came out of Marla and Clark’s work on my book as both saw the potential for something more,” recounts Greenfield, whose book became the first work in the series. “I’ve been especially lucky to be associated with the series.  The books that followed have furthered our understanding of public history—what it has been and what it can become.” 

The series has developed and grown in relationship to the field of Public History.  “The series is truly remarkable insomuch as it has almost singlehandedly redefined public history historiography during the last decade,” says Bruggeman, a member of the series editorial advisory board. “I cannot imagine a meaningful conversation about public history today that doesn’t somehow reference Denise Meringolo, Amy Tyson, Andrea Burns, Tammy Gordon, and Lara Kelland.”

As Matt Becker, the editor in chief at UMass Press, notes, the books in the series “collectively map out key historiographical and theoretical foundations for the field of public history: Denise D. Meringolo’s, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, for instance, delineates the profession of public history, tracing its roots back to the nineteenth century, while Andrea A. Burns’, From Storefront to Monument offers an overarching history of the black museum as a political movement that began in the 1960s and 1970s. It is thus the most significant book series in public history because of this role of, essentially, defining the field.”

Many authors choose to publish their work in the series because of the exemplary support and insight they receive from the editors. The acquisitions editors who work on the Series provide detailed comments on manuscripts during the review process, and as some authors point out, help to develop scholars’ arguments.

Of course, the editorial feedback supplied by Marla Miller, Series Editor and Director of the Public History Program at UMass, has been crucial for the series’ success and shaping the scholarly discourse within the field. “I’ve benefited time and time again from my encounters with the series,” says Seth Bruggeman. “As an author, I’ve benefited tremendously from Miller’s editorial insight and her willingness to connect me with colleagues who, in the case of Born in the U.S.A. (2012), became key contributors. As a member of the advisory board, I’ve been so impressed by how quickly and how seriously great manuscripts get reviewed. And, as a teacher, I’ve filled my syllabi with series titles.”

Briann Greenfield tells Past@Present that what made publishing with UMass Press unique was the experience of working with the editorial team who “pushed my interpretive focus, asking careful questions and pointing out strengths and weaknesses in the argument.” “My book was a much better book for their insight and support. Marla, especially,” adds Greenfield.

In the same vein, Denise Meringolo, who published her first book in 2012 with the University of Massachusetts Press, describes her experience during the manuscript revision process as “incredibly positive.” She recalls that “David Glassberg encouraged me to submit my proposal to the press, and I was incredibly gratified to receive enthusiastic support from both the then Executive Editor Clark Dougan and from the series editor, Marla Miller. I found the revision process to be daunting, and I honestly might not have succeeded without Marla’s patient support. Not only did she provide detailed written feedback on early drafts, she also met with me on at least two occasions to offer guidance and words of encouragement. Since the publication of my book, I have had experience with a variety of platforms and presses, and I now know how unusual this level of author support is.”

“We are extremely proud to publish the series, Public History in Historical Perspective,” says Mary Dougherty, the director of University of Massachusetts Press. According to Dougherty, over 15,700 copies of series titles have been sold, including library copies available to borrow in electronic or paper formats. A number of the books in the series are routinely assigned in courses.  And the press and the series are now poised to drive innovation in the realm of digital scholarship, an area of keen interest among public historians.  A significant collaboration with Greenhouse Studios (at the University of Connecticut, led by series board member Tom Scheinfeldt), funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will research and model new approaches to peer review processes and  workflows for digital humanities, work that will support authors whose vision for their scholarship includes a digital component.

“With exciting manuscripts in various stages of completion, readers can look forward to a series of continued excellence,” says Edward Linenthal. “Such case studies transport us into the intimate and at the same time very public ‘predicament of aftermath.’ More generally, they offer stark evidence that the past remains forever dynamic.”

-By Mohammad Ataie

Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road

Past@Present: In September, in connection with an upcoming exhibition at the National Building Museum, Professor Marla Miller undertook a trip to the borderlands separating the U.S. and Mexico. Upon her return, she gave a presentation to the department about this work, and now two of our graduate students are completing internships with the NBM to contribute to this research.  Watch for more on this project from UMass Public History in 2020.

Marla Miller, on Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road (Dey Street Books, 2018)

In September, I had the privilege of accompanying National Building Museum curator Sarah Leavitt to El Paso, Texas, to contribute to the planning of their 2020 exhibition “The Wall/El Muro: What is a Border Wall?”  Together we visited the National Border Patrol Museum, Chamizal National Memorial, and (easier said than done, but that’s a story for another time) International Boundary Marker #1, placed in 1855, in the aftermath of the US/Mexican War. We explored the Texas and New Mexico borderlands, crossing into Juarez and passing through several check-points across the region.  We accompanied hardworking attorneys from Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center to the El Paso Processing Center, and observed asylum interviews at the Centro de Atención Integral a Migrantes in Juarez. 

It is difficult to describe the emotional terrain these physical travels covered.  The border is visible everywhere, a scar of steel and concrete across the Rio Grande Valley. A constant tension, even fearfulness, permeated our movements: particularly memorable was a moment when, lost and high over Juarez on an I-10 off-ramp, we were afraid that we were somehow accidentally crossing the border, even though that wasn’t really possible, and we as white history professionals with solid citizenship were never in any real danger.  And yet our hearts raced, our relief palpable as we returned to surface streets.  We felt keenly the weight of our privilege as we moved freely across these lands in ways that so many of the people around us could not.

As we traveled, I thought about books I have read or want to read to better understand this fraught subject. On the flight to Texas, I listened to the riveting podcast Border Trilogy, which explores the fascinating and difficult work Jason De Leon describes in The Land of Open Graves (University of California Press, 2015).  I recalled the powerful study we brought out in our UMass Press Series “Public History in Historical Perspective,” Remembering the Forgotten War: The Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War, by Michael Scott Van Wagenen (UMass Press, 2012), which contemplates how that conflict appears in expressions of collective memory on both sides of the border. I planned to read other books Sarah recommended, including Carrie Gibson’s El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America (Grove Atlantic, 2019), and Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border, by Porter Fox (Norton, 2018).

But my border reading began sooner than expected.  As Sarah and I parted ways, I wanted to pick something up for the flight home.  And Serendipity was kind, because there it was, in the airport bookshop: Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris (for a traditional review of the book, click here)Just then anything with “borders” in the title would have appealed, but Harris also promised insight into the Silk Road—a longstanding interest for this historian of material culture.  This stunning memoir of Harris’ travels, on bicycle, with a childhood best friend, across Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tibet, Nepal, and India, and the extended contemplation about crossing borders of all kinds, was exactly what I wanted.

Harris’s lifelong fascination with exploration is rooted in her Ontario childhood, as she explored the land in, around, and beyond her family’s home.  She eventually pursued graduate work in science, intending—as part of her lifetime affinity for difficult, unfamiliar horizons—to be part of the team that one day heads to Mars.  But Mars, she realized, would only ever be encountered via the mediated environments necessary to sustain human life, and she wanted to be in and of the landscapes she traversed.  Eventually, this meant travel — inspired by Marco Polo’s “The Description of the World” – along the Silk Road. By bike.

Harris takes readers along several journeys all at once, from her evolution from aspiring lab scientist, to historian, to traveler and writer. She narrates other trips made, by bicycle, across the US and abroad, as she traces this journey along the Silk Road and shares what she learned about herself, and what happens when the abstracts of international power relations play out on natural and cultural landscapes.  Harris’ prose is downright lyrical, with long, thoughtful passages that range widely and comfortably across science, history, and philosophy.  Lands of Lost Borders is many things: a travelogue, an adventure tale, a scholar’s contemplation of histories of exploration, and a meditation on science, global environments, and the impacts of political contestation on lands and communities.

A historian of science (which she studied formally at Oxford), Harris is inspired by, and critical of, other explorers and scientists (the career of Charles Darwin, in particular, gains scrutiny).  For a reader focused on borders, Harris’ musings are powerful and provocative.  She and her traveling companion were constantly traversing, navigating and evading borders and their accompanying tangible and bureaucratic infrastructures.  The effect of these unseen lines across the very material landscape that she covered pedal by pedal offered constant opportunity for reflection. “We’re so used to thinking of nations as self-evident,” she writes (33), “maps as trusted authorities, the boundaries veining them blue-blooded and sure.”  But in truth, borders are “ghost-like”—“a kind of haunting presence on horizons otherwise fenceless and patrolled only by the wind.” (33) In a passage that flows seamlessly from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 to 1882) to Hsu Yu (or Xu You, c. 2356–2255 BC),  Harris—quoting the latter’s assertion that “Names are only the guests of reality”— proposes that “boundaries are little more than collective myths—fictions that a certain number of people, for a certain period of time, believe are fact” (115).

Harris’s ruminations resonated with our visit to Chamizal National Memorial, which honors the peaceful resolution of a border dispute.  In the years following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, as the Rio Grande channel naturally shifted, so too did national land claims.  A century of contention ended in 1962-63 when Presidents John F. Kennedy’s and Adolfo López Mateos resolved the dispute: the U.S. returned land to Mexico, and both nations together relocated four miles of the Rio Grande to a more stable, concrete channel. Land that Mexico transferred to the U.S. was set aside as Chamizal National Memorial, to celebrate the diplomatic success. When Harris asks, on the Aksai Chin, “What if borders at their most basic are just desires written onto lands and lives, trying to foist permanence on the fact of flux?” (33) she could just as easily be commenting on this effort to pin down the Rio Grande.  

When asked, in an interview, about the overriding goal driving her work, Harris responded: “Dissolving the borders that divide people. . . waking people up to the fact that this is one small planet and nothing, truly nothing on it, exists in isolation.” “What happens in a factory in Bangladesh,” she continues, “matters in Canada, what happens to glaciers in Nepal matters in Fiji. We’re all complicit, we’re all connected. . . .   I’d use unlimited resources to educate and inspire people – through art, literature, science – to recognize the complex interdependency of life on Earth, this pale blue dot we all call home.”

Lands of Lost Borders explores the consequences of such artificial propositions.  “The problem with borders,” Harris proposes, “isn’t that they are monstrous, offensive, and unnatural constructions.”  Rather, their menace is grounded in the same “evil that Hannah Arendt identified—their banality” (245).  “We subconsciously accept them,” she continues, “as part of the landscape—at least those of us privileged by them, granted meaningful passports—because they articulate our deepest, lease exalted desired, for prestige and permanence, order and security, always at the cost of someone or something else. Borders reinforce the idea of the alien, the Other, stories separate and distinct from ourselves. But would such fictions continue to stand if most of us didn’t agree with them, or at least quietly benefit from the inequalities they bolster?”

In the end, it’s hard not to follow Harris to the end of her through-line.  “The barbed wire begins here, inside us,” she concludes, “cutting through our very core” (245).

We sat down with author, public historian, and PhD student Ross Caputi to discuss his first book, The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History, co-written with Richard Hil and Donna Mulhearn and coming out this year with the University of Massachusetts Press. The Sacking of Fallujah reveals how the people of Fallujah themselves experienced the U.S. sieges and sacking of the city, and the casualties, political destabilization, and infrastructure crises they faced in the aftermath. In this interview, Caputi discusses how the book came to be, and the reparations framework utilized by the Islah Reparations Project, which public historians can use to think about reparations and the forms they should take.

The Sacking of Fallujah is now available for pre-order on Amazon and from the UMass Press website. The book’s official release date is April 8, 2019.

Caputi’s next project focuses on the Italian village of Grumento Nova, and combines historical linguistics with oral history to document its distinctive language and how it has been shaped by modernization. You can find out more about his work here, and follow his Twitter @caputi_ross.

Susan Kaplan, Senior Reporter and Host of All Things Considered, New England Public Radio

“…Out of order we created chaos. Initially that chaos bred an organization called Al Qaeda in Iraq. But in place of Al Qaeda in Iraq we got this new entity called ISIS. I think it is a fair statement that were the US to have not invaded Iraq in 2003 ISIS simply would not exist today.” —Historian, former Army Colonel and Vietnam War veteran Andrew Bacevich.[1]

I’m a public radio reporter with a passion for covering veterans and the military. Newly acquired knowledge from graduate work in the UMass Amherst history department has woven into my journalism, for the better.

Interviewing authors goes with my job. Andrew Bacevich’s life trajectory has taken him from West Point to Vietnam, Army Colonel to Boston University professor. This storehouse of experience gives his arguments and analysis on war and the military bricks and mortar credence. Bacevich has walked the walk.

Like many other veterans I’ve interviewed, he seldom speaks and never boasts about his service. We spoke on Wednesday, April 13. I was at New England Public Radio in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bacevich, on a book tour, spoke from a hotel room in Atlanta. In our interview Bacevich said, “The US effort to use military power in an effort to somehow fix the greater Middle East pre dates 9/11 by 20 years.” This point is emphatically illustrated at the start of his newest book, America’s War For the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

<img class="wp-image-646 size-large" src="" alt="Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. New York: Random House, 2016.” width=”545″ height=”812″> Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. New York: Random House, 2016.

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Read more entries by UMass History alum Brian Bixby on his blog Sillyverse.

By Brian Bixby, Alumnus, Department of History

The Shakers are best known now for the chairs they produced, a fact which obscures their history as a celibate communal religious movement. Similarly the interest in the Shaker founder, Ann Lee (1736-1784), has obscured interest in other Shakers who played a prominent role in the movement. Recently, historians have turned to documenting the lives of these other leaders. UMass’s own Glendyne Wergland (Ph.D. 2001) wrote One Shaker Life: A Biography of Isaac Newton Youngs, 1793-1865 (2006), about a lifelong Shaker who lived at the center of Shaker society in New York. Now Carol Medlicott, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Northern Kentucky, brings us Issachar Bates: A Shaker’s Journey (2013), about a man who only joined the Shakers in his forties, and spent most of his life with them traveling about the upper Midwest.

This biography of Issachar Bates (1758-1837) is a good read. Bates was a paradox, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a husband with many children, a sometimes alcoholic, and a cantankerous individual, yet he became one of the most important missionaries for the Shakers, a sect which prized pacifism, abstinence from both sex and alcohol, and submission of the individual to communal guidance. His travels took him through the Revolutionary battlefields, out to the frontiers from New York to Indiana, and to the heartland of the Second Great Awakening around Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Along with two other Shakers, Bates was responsible for bringing Shakerism to Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. And while it is often forgotten there were Black Shakers, their second convert in Ohio was an ex-slave named Anna Middleton. Read More