When I was at the University of Minnesota, a professor of mine who was teaching a course on the history of the American West (who hailed from Texas) m...moreWhen I was at the University of Minnesota, a professor of mine who was teaching a course on the history of the American West (who hailed from Texas) mentioned off hand during a lecture that whenever he left Minnesota, he felt like he was returning to the United States. Minnesota, he informed the class was, like Texas, a state with its own strange culture that did not fit totally with the others. I was intrigued by this statement, as I had also felt for a long time that Minnesota was unique though I did not have the context to inform my impression.
This collection of essays, originally published in 2000 as the 129 Volume of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, comes to similar conclusions and, if a bit dated, it was a fascinating, informative read. Called the "state that works" due to its strong economy and educated populace, there is still a certain kind of self-depreciating arrogance evident by a lot of residents, who cling to stereotypes of bad weather and "Minnesota Nice" passive aggression as they trumpet the Guthrie Theater and the (more than) ten thousand lakes (myself included). My favorite pieces were Rhoda Gilman's "The History and People of Minnesota" Annette Atkins "Facing Minnesota," Jospeh A. Amato and Anthony Amato's "Minnesota, Real and Imagined," and "Virginia Gray and Wyman Spano's "The Irrestible Force Meets the Immovable Object: Minnesota's Moralistic Political Culture Confronts Jesse Ventura," as they explore the development of this culture, both positive and negative, including injustice to indigenous Dakota and Ojibwe cultures, immigration from all continents, radical labor, social justice, and the prominence of the arts.
Some of the questions explored in the essays include such things as; Why did Minnesota elect a professional wrestler as governor? Why do we have our own version of the Democratic Party, the DFL? What makes live theater such a big deal in the state? How did another former governor almost become the foreign minister of Croatia? For a region arbitrarily enforced upon the cultural landscape by the U.S. government in the 19th century, how did the state come to have such a strong, progressive identity? As a state with long peopled by immigrants from around the world, it mixes a provincial isolationism with dynamic internationalism.
"Minnesota Real and Imagined," is a informational piece of regional cultural history that would be good reading next to something like Colin Woodard's American Nations and yes, I do feel a bit more informed about the background of my home state. (less)
In "Unfamiliar Fishes," Sarah Vowell continues in the themes of her previous book, "The Wordy Shipmates," exploring, in her witty, acerbic style, the...moreIn "Unfamiliar Fishes," Sarah Vowell continues in the themes of her previous book, "The Wordy Shipmates," exploring, in her witty, acerbic style, the complex intersections of religion, freedom, and greed in American culture, focusing on the unique state of Hawaii. Like in "The Wordy Shipmates," Vowell focuses more on the fascinating history of what forces brought a kingdom into the United States of America rather than her own persoanl experiences, though her Vowell's interactions and insights visiting various historical sights and people are still my favorite part of the work. The culture clashes between the native Hawaiians, (nobility and common people), the haole, (missionaries and American capitalists) led to many complex and odd alliances that made for gripping listening, in particular the aside on whaling and Melville. Having not studied Hawaii in depth in the past, I am now really interested in visiting (of course, listening to Vowell's lush descriptions of the islands in the depth of a Minnesota winter does not help!)(less)
[2.5] "Minnesota Mayhem" is an interesting, but slight, compilation of news paper articles from the archives of the Star Tribune, from 1871-1977 (but...more[2.5] "Minnesota Mayhem" is an interesting, but slight, compilation of news paper articles from the archives of the Star Tribune, from 1871-1977 (but without much context). From the steamer accidents on Lake Pepin to the Armistice Day Blizzard to Frank Lloyd Wright's Lake Minnetonka arrest, stories of the tragic, the bizarre, and the criminal are presented in chronological order. I found the story of the Bohemian Flats women in 1923 who refused to be evicted from their homes under the Washington Avenue Bridge, to be especially poignant today. Author Ben Welter, however, provides a little background information or historical context to the events presented, but aside from the articles themselves, there is no information on the aftermath or historical connotations alike. Still, it is fun to see how historical journalists phrased their stories and I think this would be a good resource for students looking for an introduction to a history project idea. (less)
A somewhat disjointed, disorganized collection of essays on crime and vice in Minnesota history, "Twin Cities Prohibition," provides some interesting...moreA somewhat disjointed, disorganized collection of essays on crime and vice in Minnesota history, "Twin Cities Prohibition," provides some interesting information on a fascinating topic (s well as providing resources on where to find more). Consisting of Johanneck's essays on various topics across Minnesota from the 1890s to the 1940s, including personal anecdotes of visiting restaurants that were once speakeasies (fun!) or cemeteries where famous gangsters are buried, she provides an introduction to a lot of topics but there is a lack of depth. Still, "Twin Cities Prohibition" is a fast read and great for an entertaining glimpse at Minnesota "not-nice."(less)
An exhaustive and interesting treatise on the world of organized crime in St. Paul during the 1920s and 1930s, there is probably no resource that coll...moreAn exhaustive and interesting treatise on the world of organized crime in St. Paul during the 1920s and 1930s, there is probably no resource that collects as much information on the subject in publication. Drawing from extensive research of court records, newspapers, and other resources Maccabee pieces together the corrupt and vivid underworld of St. Paul in which cops and criminals coexisted in the Twin Cities. Due to the influence of an early police chief, John J. O'Connor, who provided safe haven for people wanted in other cities in order to spare St. Paul from crime (a situation which worked well for several decades before a final violent breakdown) bootleggers, racketeers, and bank robbers from around the country moved in to plan their business, left alone in exchange for bribes and promises to the authorities.
Follows the careers of a rogues gallery of gangsters and freelance criminals who called St. Paul home, including lesser known powerful figures like "Dapper Dan" Hogan, Thomas Sawyer, Nina Clifford, and Leon Gleckman, as well as such famous figures as the Barker-Karpis Gang, and the titular John Dillenger. Among the most interesting aspects of the book are the detailed locations of the bars, apartments, hotels, and clubs where they hung out (as well as the locations of shootouts, murders, kidnappings, and other events), some of which still exist in St. Paul, which makes it great for history tours.
However, "John Dillinger Slept Here" focuses so specifically on its subject that it does not speak much about greater historical trends, such as Prohibition or the Great Depression, in Minnesota or nationally, that influenced the role of St. Paul in the American criminal element. It can also be difficult to keep track of the dozens of minor criminals and hangers-on who populate many of the criminal escapades, though the extensive appendixes and maps are very helpful. As background material on this period of history in the Twin Cities, though, "John Dillinger Slept Here," is an indispensable resource. (less)
A fun depiction of the dynamic decade of 1920-1929 in the United States, "Anything Goes" paints an evocative, if brief, picture of many of the themes...moreA fun depiction of the dynamic decade of 1920-1929 in the United States, "Anything Goes" paints an evocative, if brief, picture of many of the themes and people that made the decade so interesting, including bootleggers, flappers, Ford autos, "normalcy," Fitzgerald, and Lindbergh. Each chapter provides an overview of one of these major themes. While not the most detailed, exhaustive pieces of history, Moore writes a really nice introduction to the period, great to get a good feel for the time. She does, however, focus almost entirely on the US, only talking about France as the location for many American expats, sick of conventional American mores. I particularly liked Moore's linking of current events to the contemporary issues of the '20s in the introduction, but more much could have been expanded here, especially regarding such things as the reemergence of a revitalized KKK, the Scope Trial, and fears that Hollywood (or the media) was damaging American culture. Still, "Anything Goes" would be a great way to start learning about the 1920s in the US. (less)
An interesting account of the prominence of moonshine manufacturing in Stearns County, Minnesota during the 1920s, "Minnesota 13" (which refers to the...moreAn interesting account of the prominence of moonshine manufacturing in Stearns County, Minnesota during the 1920s, "Minnesota 13" (which refers to the U of M developed hybrid corn used to brew the high quality whiskey for which the county became famous across the nation during Prohibition) provides much information about the place and time. Elaine Davis tells the story of the struggling German immigrant farmers of Stearns County (a bastion of German immigrants with a strong brewing tradition) who took advantage of Prohibition to provide safe, high quality alcohol, going against the law in the process and, on occasion, facing the consequences. Davis uses copious research and a lot of great maps and diagrams to document themes such as the role of the Catholic Church, connections to gangsters and organized crime in the Twin Cities and Chicago to traffic the booze (including Al Capone), attempts by Federal Agents to control the lawbreaking central Minnesota county, and even a recipe for Minnesota 13. The research is organized in a bit of a haphazard fashion, however, and can sometimes be a bit repetitive, reading like a a collection of separate essays on the theme of Prohibition and moonshine in Stearns County rather than a cohesive account. Still, Davis' research paints a compelling picture of the effects of Prohibition on a local level in rural Minnesota and is a good place to look for resources on daily life in the 1920s.(less)
"The Poisoner's Handbook" is a fascinating, deliciously grim account of the early days of forensic chemistry in New York City as exploding advances in...more"The Poisoner's Handbook" is a fascinating, deliciously grim account of the early days of forensic chemistry in New York City as exploding advances in chemical technology and the advent of Prohibition caused all manner of toxic materials to find their way (either by accident or through a more sinister cause) into the human body. Chief Medical Examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler, in their work establishing modern forensic medicine and coming up with new techniques to identify the presence of poison in bodies, had to contend not only with mysterious deaths caused by accidents natural and unnatural (including some very prominent murders), but also political corruption in New York City, unscrupulous businesses selling radium as a healthful elixir, and Prohibition itself. Both outspoken critics of the "Noble Experiment," the scientists were on the front lines of the government's failure to improve society by banning alcohol, as US literally poisoned its citizens with toxic additions to grain alcohol. Blum's writing really brings to life the world of the 1920s and 1930s as government chemists tried to make industrial alcohol ever more fatal while bootleggers attempted, with limited success, to turn pure wood alcohol in something the poor could use in a cocktail. Needless to say, Norris and Gettler had plenty of bodies with which to experiment. Organized chronologically by the various lethal toxins studied by the forensic scientists (and their horrible effects on human health), including carbon monoxide, arsenic, thallium, and, of course, alcohol, "The Poisoner's Handbook" is a deeply interesting read even for those with little knowledge of chemistry. (less)
For a long time, I have been fascinated by cultural differences in the United States and Canada, and after traveling throughout the continent, it was...moreFor a long time, I have been fascinated by cultural differences in the United States and Canada, and after traveling throughout the continent, it was easy to pick up on some of the differences between regions even through short trips. Especially after reading Joel Garreau's "Nine Nations of North America," I was very interested in learning more about how rival regional concerns and mores resulted in a deeply fractured in the politically united North American countries. However, I found Maine author Colin Woodard's "American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America" to be the best, most comprehensive treatise on the subject I have found, and I read it with rapt attention.
Woodard's thesis is well argued and historical, very credibly tracing the origins of rivalries in American culture to the very foundations of Euro-American society and the different approaches taken by various settling groups, some with nigh incompatible philosophies, philosophies that have persisted for centuries. Various waves of settlement from different European powers resulted in eleven separate and competing paradigms of what American society should be, that ended up somehow being united, uncomfortably, into several federations, the US and Canada. Tracing the history of these conflicts from the foundation of the first European society in North America, Spanish "El Norte" in the seventeenth century to the "culture wars" of the 20th and 21st centuries, Woodard's historical argument is very compelling stuff.
For instance, the current bitter debates in American politics, exacerbated as usual by campaign season, the so-called blue state/red state divide, makes a bit more sense after learning about Woodward's take on these rival cultures. Currently, in the US anyway, the nations are arranged in a conflict rooted into the very foundations of the country; the Northern Alliance lead by Yankeedom, founded by English Puritans who boast a very moralistic, communal culture (now secular rather than Calvinist), valuing education and social control, from New England to the Upper Midwest. As a Minnesotan, this is the culture I identify with most strongly. The Left Coast of coastal California and the Pacific Northwest up to British Columbia combine Yankee utopianism with a tolerant individualism and New Amsterdam, the commercialist, deeply multicultural New York metropolitan area round out the NA.
On the other hand, the oligarchical, traditionalist and rigid Deep South, founded by elite slavers (taking over from the aristocratic, anti-democratic Tidewater colony along Chesapeake Bay) followed by the deeply independent-minded, violent and religious Scots-Irish of Greater Appalachia and the colonial corporate Far West, creating the Dixie Bloc which opposes the North in most ideas. Rounding out the nations are El Norte, the oldest nation, mostly conquered by the US, from Los Angeles to South Texas and Northern Mexico along the Rio Grande, is coming into its own and, in spite of sharing many desires of the Far West, may come to support the Northern Alliance. Also, the First Nations of Alaska and Northern Canada, indigenous people regaining sovereignty and power, are also coming to political relevance. Finally, the nation I found it hardest to wrap my head around, the Midlands region, the "Heartland" of American culture, tolerant of many ethnic and religious backgrounds (springing from the English Quakers of Philadelphia and spreading into parts of Pennsylvania on through Iowa and Ontario). Generally family centered and apolitical, this group forms the "swing states." Immigrants, Woodard writes, are an important part of tempering these cultures, but generally adopted the dominant cultures of their new homes, even if the founding groups are largely gone (as with the multicultural Dutch merchants who founded New York City).
So far, I have found Woodard's argument to be quite accurate, though it is certainly open to much debate. As a Minnesotan, for instance, I would not argue that the state is mostly a solid part of Yankeedom, but I think that the borders of the Midlands are quite porous and mix along the borders of these nations in this state; this may explain the slightly different cultures of rural and urban people in the Upper Midwest, a division Woodard does not discuss. Also, he could definitely spend some time responding to the unifying nature of technology and popular culture, such as the Internet, which may in the future cause a greater unity of experience throughout the young members of these nations. Still, I cannot help but utilize his arguments as I encounter other works, whether they be movies, books, even music. The Stuff White People Like blog and book, for instance, makes a lot more sense to me now- it is really stuff people from Yankeedom, the Left Coast, New Amsterdam, and people influenced by these cultures like, as viewed by a Midlander from Toronto. A really interesting and thought provoking book, and I will make sure to follow Woodard's writing in the future, to see how his theories progress.(less)
[2.5] For all of the personal feelings and anecdotes of the lives of four women prominent in the wild writing scene of 1920s American literature, "Bob...more[2.5] For all of the personal feelings and anecdotes of the lives of four women prominent in the wild writing scene of 1920s American literature, "Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin" was a quite superficial treatment of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and Edna Ferber and their times and acquaintances. Everyone, it seemed, knew each other and spent much time drinking, squabbling, and engaging in other debauchery. Depression and mental illness were common ailments as well.
Meade's joint biography follows a rigid, strictly chronological order, explaining in a paragraph or two what each writer was up to for any given month from 1920 to 1930, but in spite of the all the parties and writing going on, I never really got a feel for the personalities of either the writers nor the period, except that they were mostly messed up. I was compelled to resort to Wikipedia on multiple occasions when another writer or lover showed up with little introduction, only to disappear just as quickly, or when I wanted a little more information on who Edna Ferber or Edmund "Bunny" Wilson were, or what they wrote and when. It reads a bit like a summary of four separate biographies lumped together. Still, a lot of the info included about this most prolific creative decade for these four writers is very interesting (though the lack of index makes it difficult to access them).(less)
"The Templars and the Assassins: The Militia of Heaven," attempts to tell the story of these legendary religious orders, which still feature heavily i...more"The Templars and the Assassins: The Militia of Heaven," attempts to tell the story of these legendary religious orders, which still feature heavily in conspiracy lore and occult theory in popular culture (such as the popular "Assassins Creed" video game). I was interested in learning about them from the perspective of the esoteric and mythical, to come to a better understanding of where these stories originated, but author James Wasserman focuses more heavily on their known history and unfortunately it is all a little dull. Wasserman writes a standard treatise on Crusades history, explaining in rather disorganized chapters the religious and political worlds of Europe and the Middle East, and specifically the parallel development of the two religious “secret societies” of Christianity and Islam and their rises and falls. His historiography, though, I found a bit questionable, often referring to the debatable “dark ages” in his set up of the Crusades. Alarm bells began to go off for me when Wasserman goes on odd tangents involving the “modern corporate-socialist state into which the United States is fast plunging,” or the “ethical degeneration of late Roman society presaged our modern plunge toward secular humanism and moral relativism.” For me, his historical interpretations must be taken with a grain of salt. Only a very little in the work regards the actual connections between the Templars and the Assassins and what, if any, influence they might have had upon each other or their respective cultures. There is a nice bibliography and appendixes of period documents, however. Still, there are other, more accessible general works on both religious groups and the Crusades as a whole and I cannot recommend this book for either straight history or even as an entertaining speculation fest. (less)
A sober and measured account of the legendary Templars, Piers Paul Read writes quite a useful tome exploring the background, rise, and fall of the fam...moreA sober and measured account of the legendary Templars, Piers Paul Read writes quite a useful tome exploring the background, rise, and fall of the famous order of military soldier-monks. However, I was quite surprised at how dry I found the writing given that Read is a novelist (though I am unfamiliar with his other work) and I must admit finishing "Templars" was a bit of a struggle. Beginning with overviews of the religious history of the three Monotheistic religions of the Holy Land and continuing into the emergence of the "Poor Fellow Soldiers of Jesus Christ and the Temple of Solomon" during the various Crusades, which includes the bulk of the work, Read concludes with their post-crusade destruction at the hands of the King of France and the Pope in the early 1300s. I feel "Templars" would be quite useful if read in conjunction with other works on this period of history, but it can be a bit dense reading. While quite positive towards the Templars and skeptical of the many contemporary conspiracy theories that surround them, the book focuses mainly on their political and military role during the Crusades, as well as the many men and women in the European and Arabic world they cooperated and competed against, with surprisingly little said of their cultural or even religious traditions. Many of these names of major royalty, knights, and political leaders can tend to get muddled, and I had to refer to other Crusade works on occasion to understand some points. While perhaps an important historical work exploring the Knights Templar, I would not recommend tackling the book as a introduction to the topics.(less)
2.5. I had looked forward to reading this book, as an ardent armchair urban explorer and follower of the oddities of local Twin Cities history. I have...more2.5. I had looked forward to reading this book, as an ardent armchair urban explorer and follower of the oddities of local Twin Cities history. I have followed the vibrant Twin Cities urban exploration scene for years online (while having not had, so far, the opportunity to visit any of these underground cites personally) and I was eager to explore vicariously and in more detail the tunnels, caves, and passages that honeycomb the region through Greg Brick's work. I had read about the controversy surrounding Brick's ill conduct regarding other explorers, which gave me some pause, but decided to read it first and come to my own conclusion, gaining at least some new insight into the history of the subterranean world of the region. While insight was provided, Brick's bitterness and sense of superiority towards others makes it less enjoyable than its premise suggests. Sadly, in the end the book was a bit of a disappointment, no matter how interesting I found the subject matter.
Greg Brick definitely shows his strengths as a researcher and “Subterranean Twin Cities” remains an important reference work detailing the natural and social histories of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and how these cities came to have extensive and mysterious networks of caverns, tunnels, and sewers buried beneath them. I especially found the history of mushroom farming and blue cheese manufacture in city caves to be fascinating, as well as the various legends and folklore surrounding specific subterranean places in the metropolitan area.
Unfortunately, while Brick certainly painted his explorations of the Twin Cities sewers in all their disgusting glory, and I applaud him for it, much of his anecdotes and writing style in general fell flat for me, particularly in comparison to the rollicking online accounts by the “Action Squad” and others. The writing style just was not as gripping as the interesting facts behind them, and while Brick might be a great researcher and explorer of hidden places, he is not an engaging writer. This is not helped by the aura of smugness that clings to many of his interactions with others throughout the book, particularly the younger urban explorers; in spite of engaging in questionable activities himself over the years (including attempting to drain a pond inside a local cave in order to explore deeper through a surreptitious excavation) he definitely looks down upon others as not “scholars” and not fit to explore while he was a certified researcher. No matter that, more often than not, no one was truly authorized to plum the sewers for the simple passion of exploration, Brick included. In spite of these shortcomings, “Subterranean Twin Cities” is still a useful reference work for Twin Cities history, and well worth reading for anyone who is interested in the topic, though it is a shame it is a not a little less bitter. (less)
The Kensington Runestone is an interesting and unique curiosity of Minnesota history and folklore that was for decades seen as little more than a goof...moreThe Kensington Runestone is an interesting and unique curiosity of Minnesota history and folklore that was for decades seen as little more than a goofy Scandinavian-American roadside attraction of no real historical importance. Recently, however, researchers like Scott Wolter have vividly revived the debate regarding the origins of the runic inscription, which purports to date from the fourteenth century. Under the scientific scrutiny of Wolter, a geologist, new theories and ideas have revived popular interest in the runestone story. Even for those who, like myself, remain skeptical of a medieval origin for the runestone, this continued study into the stone can only increase understanding. In “The Hooked X,” Wolter continues his study of the runestone, drawing on a variety of cross disciplinary research, to make the case that, since he believes his findings indicate a medieval origin, some unknown group must be responsible. It is here that Wolter draws the infamous Knights Templar into the runestone story, through the linking symbol of the mysterious “hooked x.”
Unfortunately, it is also here that Wolter’s though provoking scientific analysis on the stone takes a back seat to pure speculation as the book attempts to connect the stone and other North American anomalous archaeological sites with that current standard of conspiratorial lore, the Knights Templar. While written in a breezy, entertaining style, the work is organized rather haphazardly, jumping awkwardly between discussions of various esoteric subjects related to Templar and Masonic lore, which maybe, just maybe, might have something to do with the Kensington Runestone. In addition, it relies a bit too heavily on personal anecdotes that further detract from the books main arguments. Like much of fringe research, “The Hooked X” relies on coincidence, hearsay, and creative speculation to link ideas as diverse as sacred geometry and goddess worship and connect it all into a great narrative. While it is an interesting and amusing thought to picture a minor piece of Minnesota folklore as linked to an ancient and influential secret history that shaped the destiny of nations through the centuries, “The Hooked X” does not provide solid evidence. Wolter and Nielsen’s “Kensington Runestone: Compelling New Evidence,” is a much more useful pro-runestone resource that can be of interest to people on both sides of the debate. While a fun read, “The Hooked X” is a bit too speculative to recommend, except purely as forteana. (less)
For some reason, I have found myself intrigued by the period of history known the 1970s, the “me decade.” While dividing history into convenient decad...moreFor some reason, I have found myself intrigued by the period of history known the 1970s, the “me decade.” While dividing history into convenient decade long portions may be an oversimplification, as pointed out by Francis Wheen in “Strange Days Indeed,” particularly in a century of such drastic change, something about the “Seventies” seems to represent a turning point in the 20th century. While missing the decade personally by two years, I still have found study of this time of mixed crisis and banality to be oddly familiar. Wheen’s book, which examines this ten year period through the lens of one its, arguably, most defining features; paranoia, paints a vivid and disturbing picture, yet one compelling in the similarities that can be found to the world today. Paranoia, according to Wheen, truly erupted onto the world scene at the time and his anecdotes involving Nixon, Mao, Harold Wilson, and Idi Amin illustrate how a deep fear of the future had haunted the halls of power throughout the world. In addition, he describes the emergence of fears of a doomed economy, terrorism, growth in occult and conspiratorial beliefs, and other interesting themes. I particularly enjoyed Wheen’s citing of various period literature and cinema to illustrate his points, which really help to evoke the thoughts and feelings of the time. On the other hand, the variety of these diverse themes brought together in “Strange Days Indeed” under the overarching theme of paranoia can bury his arguments in these many interesting stories. While linked loosely by date, his chapter’s can seem a bit disorganized. Still, I found every subject described by Wheen to be interesting. His conclusion, linking many of these themes to conditions today, was something that I had noted throughout the work- there seem, culturally, to be many parallels between the 1970s and the 2000s that Wheen was able to hint at during the course of the book. “Strange Days Indeed,” then, was one of the most interesting and though provoking accounts of the 1970s I’ve read, even when it runs into problems tackling such broad topic. It is a very topical book as well, and a good read for anyone interested in the 1970s and its relation to the contemporary world. (less)