History on the move and in place.

One of the great joys of train travel (something I’ve been doing a lot of lately, given my location on a major stop of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Service) is the opportunity to catch up on small pleasures I don’t have the chance to indulge in most of the rest of the time in my busy life. The long stretch of time, in a library-type atmosphere, with a constantly changing view out the window, is a wonderful gift, as a recent Sunday Review piece pointed out, one which devotees of the quiet car guard quite fiercely.

I have a list of things that I tend to do on my train trips, but it usually consists of a mix of reading, breaking for a meal of food I’ve brought along, crocheting, writing, doing work that doesn’t require reliable internet service, and gazing out the window, thinking about the landscape and the industrial history of the Eastern Seaboard. My recent trip to Boston was the first time I had traveled the length of the corridor in many years, and the combination of crumbling heavy industry and breathtaking coastal scenery was inspiring.

What made the trip particularly memorable, apart from the late afternoon sun hitting the bays and estuaries of the Connecticut coast in blazes of orange and pink, was listening to one of the best bits of radio I’ve heard in a very long time, in the form of a podcast of this recent episode of This American Life, about the U.S.-Dakota war, whose denouement was the hanging of 38 Dakota tribesmen in Mankato, Minnesota in 1862. The episode, narrated and assembled by John Biewen of the amazing Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, turns personal histories into national ones. Biewen follows the lives of two people to recover the largely unspoken story of a bloody conflict between white settlers and Dakota Sioux that took place around the time of the Civil War: his own journey back to his hometown of Mankato, to understand why no one ever spoke of the event when he was growing up; and that of Gwen Westerman, a Dakota woman and English professor at MSU-Mankato, whose career path brought her back to the site of a tragedy she, too, had hardly known about. Biewen establishes these two individual stories of discovery and connection to place as the warp that anchors his narrative, allowing him to combine historical research and interviews with experts into a compelling narrative that grapples with questions of history and memory at the personal and group levels. He does an amazing job of telling a very complicated historical tale full of scholarly rigor in a way that is tremendously engaging, moving, and thought-provoking. What exactly happened in Mankato in the mid-19th century? Who were involved? Why is it that, despite the fact that the names of these individuals are inscribed across the landscape of his upbringing, he never learned of the event as a youngster? The place-basedness of his two central stories gives them enormous power, for what landscapes move us more than those of our youth?

Elsewhere I have commented on narrative style and its relationship to how we, as scholars and members of the public, approach works of popular history broadly construed. Biewen’s program seems to me to be another tick in the box for using personal histories to enrich and illuminate broader historical issues — even very thorny ones dealing with such explosive subjects as the conquest, extermination, and displacement of Native American tribes. Biewen proves that facing up to the troubling events in our history is where the really interesting stuff happens, not in reifying triumphalist narratives or ignoring unpleasant episodes. When we complicate the story, we get closer to the heart of things; and people are complicated, so when those personal connections are there, we as listeners can more readily come along for the ride, and become open to unconventional accounts of our past.

This has been a subject I’ve been contemplating a lot recently, as I spend time among staff at the National Museum of American History, who use individual objects and the stories of their owners to open up larger stories in our nation’s past. One exhibit at the museum (currently in a wing under renovation) uses one house to tell a multi-generational story about home life in the U.S. over three centuries. The house is the constant character, but the visitor gets to follow the stories of several families along the way. There are things both familiar and foreign, surprising and reassuring. It is, on a smaller and far less controversial scale, the same experience that makes the Mankato episode so thrilling: this is something I understand from my own experience and which I recognize; this is something that shocks me and that makes me question the things I thought I knew. It is, in short, the true pleasure of history, of getting to know the past as both a familiar territory and a foreign country. “Little War on the Prairie” proves that this can be done in ways that are at once rigorously historical, personally captivating, and enormously moving and thought-provoking. And beautiful. Please go listen. In a year marked by more conventional anniversaries — the Morrill Act, the creation of the USDA — this sesquicentennial is important to remember also, for, indeed, they are so very closely linked, and the U.S.-Dakota War should remind us of a less attractive side of these national achievements.


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