Fate of the Revolution: Interview with Lorri Glover

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Starting in 1787, states began to ratify the newly drafted federal Constitution which would determine the fate of the new American Republic. In order for the Constitution to go in effect, nine of the states needed to agree to the document. While five states quickly ratified the Constitution between December 1787 and January 1788, the country’s eyes stayed on Virginia. Virginia was the most populated and largest state and it was critical for the state to ratify the Constitution to legitimize the process.

Lorri Glover’s new book, The Fate of the Revolution: Virginians Debate the Constitutionpublished by Johns Hopkins University Press, explores the dramatic battle that took place during the Virginia Ratification Convention. Virginia’s convention was notable because some of the most influential founding fathers had staked out positions on the Constitution in stark opposition to one another. As Patrick Henry, James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason and John Marshall publicly debated the merits of the new Constitution, the nation waited for a decision. Glover explores the constitutional questions that divided Virginia and shows how these questions are still relevant in understanding the Constutition.

Lorri Glover is the John Francis Bannon Professor of History at Saint Louis University. She has written extensively about the early American Republic and the founding fathers. She has also written Founders as Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries (Yale University Press, 2014), The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and The Fate of America, with co-author with Daniel Blake Smith (Henry Holt Publishers, 2008), Southern Sons: Becoming Men in the New Nation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), and finally All Our Relations: Blood Ties and Emotional Bonds Among the Early South Carolina Gentry (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

Read the interview at DailyHistory.org. 

Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Fathers and Christianity: Interview with Sam Haselby

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Recently on Twitter, a debate broke out between Annette Gordon-Reed, Sam Haselby, and John Fea on the nature of Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs. The debate centered on the questions of whether or not Thomas Jefferson could be described as a Christian and wanted the United States to be a Christian nation. Ultimately, the debate could not overcome the 140 character limitations of Twitter. Fortunately, Michael Hattem preserved that debate at Jefferson, Christianity, and Twitter.

Instead of recreating the debate, it made more sense to contact one of the participants, Sam Haselby, whose recent book The Origins of American Religious Nationalism(published by Oxford University Press) examines how a conflict with Protestantism, in the decades following US independence transformed American national identity. Gordon Wood described his book in the New York Review of Books as an “impressive and powerfully argued book – that ….it was American Protestantism and not any sort of classical republicanism that was most important in shaping the development of American nationalism.” The Origins of American Religious Nationalism was published in 2015 and will be republished in paperback by OUP in December 2016. It made sense to get his perspective on the concept of American Religious Nationalism, the broad issues that underpinned the recent Twitter debate, and his understanding of early American Christianity.

Sam Haselby is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life at Columbia University and the editor of Aeon magazine. He recently published an article for Aeon entitled American Secular explaining why the secular movement failed soon after the founding of the United States.

Here is our interview.

Engineering Victory during the Civil War: Interview with Thomas F. Army, Jr.

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“The line between disorder and order lies in logistics….” -Sun Tzu

“Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” – General Robert H. Barrow, USMC

Logistics win wars. Logistics is the coordination of complex operations such as moving, housing and supplying troops and their equipment. War is the ultimate test of any logistician. During the Civil War, the Union troops fought almost the entire war in the South. Thomas F. Army, Jr. argues in his new book Engineering Victory: How Technology Won the Civil War published by Johns Hopkins University Press that the Union’s engineering prowess during Civil War gave it an distinct advantage over the Confederacy. Due to a superior education system, Northern armies had individuals who could use scientific ingenuity and innovation to rapidly build and repair roads, bridges, railways. Unlike the Confederacy, the Northern armies lacked the home field advantage. Dr. Army’s delves deeply into a aspect of the Civil War that most other historians have only discussed in passing.

Read the rest of the interview at DailyHistory.org. 

Shantytown, USA: Interview with Lisa Goff

 

Shantytown

The Harvard University Press recently published Lisa Goff’s new book Shantytown, USA: Forgotten Landscapes of the Working Poor. There’s a chance that one of your American ancestors lived in an American shantytown. While we may not realize it now, shantytowns were a common feature of 19th century America. Goff’s book explores not only how shantytowns became a prominent feature of America’s towns and cities, but why middle class Americans eventually turned on them and their residents. Read more at DailyHistory.org.

Pigs, Parks, and Power in the Antebellum City: Interview with Catherine McNeur

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Two hundred years ago, instead of being littered with gleaming glass towers and skyscrapers, Manhattan was home to thousands of wandering pigs and livestock. Antebellum Manhattan bore little resemblance to modern Manhattan’s gleaming skyline. Catherine McNeur, assistant professor at Portland State University, has written a new book, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City,  published by Harvard University Press that explores a Manhattan filled with shanty towns, farmland and domesticated animals running loose in the streets. Her book examines the battle between upper class Manhattanites and poor New Yorkers over the direction and shape of the city. While poor Manhattanites depended on farming, domesticated animals and recycling the city’s garbage for their survival, wealthier residents were deeply concerned about sanitation, the threat of fires and epidemics, and the deepening poverty of the city.  If you want to see more of her work, visit www.catherinemcneur.com.

Here is our interview:

Why did you become interested in antebellum Manhattan? What was the inspiration for the project?

As an undergrad at NYU I wrote an honors thesis about an architect who worked in antebellum Manhattan. I loved taking walks around the city, finding remnants of that era in the brick rowhouses and other buildings that are mixed in with more recent structures. The antebellum period felt both familiar and foreign and I loved that.

A few years later after I had started grad school, I was searching for a topic for a research seminar and remembered reading about the hog riots that had occurred in the 1820s. The mere idea of that was amusing to me—hogs roaming the streets of Manhattan?!—and I wanted to look into it further. As I started doing research, the topic quickly expanded to include food, parks, shantytowns, sanitation and the like. 

How would you summarize your book?

Ultimately, Taming Manhattan is a book about the dramatic physical, social, and economic changes facing the city during a period of vast urbanization. New Yorkers from all social classes found in the urban environment a means for controlling these changes, whether that involved maps, animals, parks, manure, food, or shantytowns. The progress that seems almost inevitable to us now in terms of cleaner streets, more green spaces, fewer epidemics, safer food sources, and fewer livestock blocking traffic hardly felt inevitable to the New Yorkers and other urban Americans witnessing those changes and often times the battles over those issues were highly contentious.  There were a lot of people who lost when those steps toward “progress” were won. In Taming Manhattan, I focus primarily on those environmental justice issues.

Manhattan
Manhattan

The Manhattan that you have described in your book is fundamentally different than today’s NYC. What differences do you think will shock your readers most about antebellum New York?

I think for most people who know New York, they’ll probably be surprised by just how incredibly filthy it was. People today complain about Manhattan’s smells and grime, but it’s practically sterile compared to the nineteenth century. Often times New Yorkers forgot that their streets were paved because of all the manure, garbage, mud, and general filth that had accumulated on top of it. That said, while many antebellum New Yorkers complained heartily about the filth they encountered daily, there were many who truly valued the waste on the streets, from the city government that collected and sold animal manure, to the ragpickers who gleaned reusable and salable raw materials from the piles of trash.

Today, most Americans never see hog farms, but they play a prominent role in your research. Hogs appear to have been a part of everyday life for the antebellum residents of New York City. Why did people have cows and hogs in the city? How pervasive were hogs in Manhattan?

Hogs and other livestock had been a common part of urban life for centuries in New York City and most other cities and for quite some time people of all economic classes relied on them as food sources. By the nineteenth century, they were almost exclusively the property of the poor. Before municipalities outlawed livestock (which happened mainly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States), it wouldn’t be uncommon to find cows, goats, pigs, or fowl roaming the streets, let alone in dedicated stables or hog farms.

Getting a true count for the number of hogs in Manhattan at any given time can be hard because many were kept illegally by the time the city or state began counting. An 1820 estimate put the number at 20,000, or roughly 1 hog for every 5 New Yorkers. From tourist descriptions, government documents, newspaper accounts, and diaries, it is clear that New York was well known to be lousy with hogs—first free-roaming, later confined in piggeries–in the antebellum period.

The subtitle of your book is “Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City,” but these battles were not just environmental. Were they just as much battles between the nativists vs. the immigrants and the prosperous vs. the poor?

Oh definitely, but the larger point that I try to make in the book is that the environment can’t be separated from the battles between classes, races, and ethnicities. In fact, it’s integral for understanding those battles. For example, it would be impossible to separate the increasing privatization and inaccessibility of park space in the 1830s from the growing class disparities in that period.  Along a similar vein, the fervent nativism of the 1850s can be better understood when we look in detail at food regulation during that decade. 

Who were the biggest winners and losers as New York City sought to regulate farmland and undeveloped spaces?

The owners of the livestock and the residents of shantytowns certainly had the most to lose. In each battle, though, the tally wasn’t always clearly in favor of their opponents. The livestock owners fought back, for instance, and kept animals on the streets for decades after the city had begun attempting to enforce anti-livestock laws. Political corruption also got in the way and protected some so-called nuisance industries while eliminating others. That said, through the increased regulation of the urban environment you see increasingly privatized and controlled spaces that didn’t allow for the same kinds of informal land uses that poorer New Yorkers once relied on.

What surprised you the most during your research?

 

I think the part that most surprised me most was how much nineteenth-century Americans embraced recycling (though they didn’t use that term) in a way that we might consider modern today. It’s typical to look back at the nineteenth century and point fingers at the Industrial Revolution as a moment when we became much more environmentally wasteful. But many types of manufacturers in the mid-nineteenth century actively embraced recycling as a way of obtaining raw materials. So much urban waste was reused—toothbrush manufacturers, button makers, fertilizer companies, and sugar refiners all used discarded bones found in the garbage heaps to make their products, for instance. Offal boilers transformed a lot of the food waste from garbage heaps into tallow for candle makers and soap makers. Whatever was leftover was fed to pigs and converted into edible protein. Regional farmers purchased animal waste from the streets. For several decades, Americans even embraced poudrette—processed human waste—as a fertilizer. This all would come to change, of course, and it would be a mistake to completely revise the way we understand the massive production and consumption involved in the Industrial Revolution. Still, modern recyclers are often confident that what they are doing is very revolutionary, that they are breaking with the past in a major way. In reality, there are some ways that nineteenth-century Americans were doing even more to find ways to reuse their waste.

How would you recommend using your book in class? How can your book help understand environmental issues in Antebellum America? 

Ideally, this book will be useful in a range of different courses—whether they focus on the antebellum period, environmental history, urban history, city planning, public health, or the history of capitalism. 

The majority of environmental histories of America focus on the Progressive Era and beyond, so Taming Manhattan will add to our understanding about what was happening before the Civil War. Antebellum Americans were making dramatic changes to their urban environments, attempting to transform nature alongside the social conditions that seemed to be making cities unsustainable. In the process, they defined what kinds of land uses belonged in an “urban” versus a “rural” setting—definitions we often take for granted, or, alternatively, are working to revise today.

Catherine McNeur’s book Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City will be published this fall by Harvard University Press and is available for pre-order at Powell’sAmazon, and Barnes and Noble. To learn more about her teaching and research, visit www.catherinemcneur.com.

You can also check out the DailyHistory.org Bookshelf at Powell’s Bookstore.

The History Manifesto: Video Interview with Jo Guldi and David Armitage

The History Manifesto is new book from Jo Guldi and David Armitage that argues historians need to shift back to longer-term narrative history.  This may help historians recapture the prestige and influence that allowed them to help shape public policy.  The shift to microhistories (writing about time periods of 30 years or less) has limited historians influence.  Guldi and Armitage believe that the shift to longer narrative histories will encourage policy makers to take a longer approach to issues relating to human rights and the environment. The authors want the entire history profession to shift to long term thinking.

Guldi and Armitage make a fascinating argument.  Additionally, new digital analytical tools will make it easier for historians to research and write about longer periods of time.  Whether or not this shift would increase the prestige and influence of historians is debatable.  There are a number of reviews about The HIstory Manifesto online.  Scott McLemee has a brief review of their book at Inside Higher Ed.

Here is a short interview with the authors where they describe their project.

 

Rebel on Pointe

Here is an interview with Lee Wilson about her new book Rebel on Pointe. Wilson’s book is a memoir that delves the world of dance luminaries such as George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev and Rosella Hightower. Check out The Florida Bookshelf’s interview with Lee Wilson.

The Florida Bookshelf

Rebel_on_Pointe“Wilson has a gift for telling stories…Rebel on Pointe is one terrific read that fans of all ages will enjoy for its clear storytelling, historic perspectives and histrionic characters from someone who lived to see the status of women greatly elevated, and who was herself a part of that story.”—Critical Dance

“Touching and beautiful; Lee Wilson is an inspiration to us all for finding a passion in life and moving beyond familial pressures and societal norms.”—Zippora Karz, former soloist, New York City Ballet

“The culture of the ballet world is divulged in all its glorious detail. Wilson’s compelling account of her training and career shows the true courage and persistence this profession requires.”—Ali Duffy, founder and choreographer, Flatlands Dance Theatre

“Lee brings to her writing the same keen intelligence she brought to her dancing. It is a joy to relive some of the important moments…

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African American Soldiers During the Civil War: Interview with Author Bob Luke

Soldiering for Freedome

Johns Hopkins University Press recently published Soldiering for Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained, and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops written by Bob Luke and John David Smith.  After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, African Americans volunteered to fight for the Union.  Soldiering for Freedom seeks to explain how these men were recruited, used, treated during the Civil War.

In addition to writing Soldiering for Freedom, Luke also wrote The Baltimore Elite Giants: Sport and Society in the Age of Negro League Baseball.  His co-author Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at University of North Carolina and the author of Black Judas: William Hannibal Thomas and”The American Negro.”

Here is our interview with Bob Luke.

What drew you initially to the story of black Union soldiers? How did you first start on this project?

The Civil War fascinated me long before I co-authored the book.  My grandfather on my father’s side, born just ten years after Appomattox, treasured his copy of Francis Trevelyan Miller’s The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes. He bought it during the Depression with money saved from ever-declining sales at his art supplies store in Denver.  My grandmother never quite forgave him for the extravagance. I poured over Mathew Brady’s graphic photographs, read the articles, and happily accompanied my parents on trips to battlefields such as Gettysburg, Antietam, and Balls Bluff. Twenty-year old Private Samuel W. Isenberg, 1st Regiment, Pennsylvania Light Artillery, (14th Reserves), my mothers’ great grandfather, saw action at Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.  I watched Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War several times and attended a book signing where I got an autographed copy of his companion book. Burns included the role of “black” soldiers but as a minor theme.

When Robert J. Brugger, Senior Acquisitions Editor for Johns Hopkins University Press, for whom I’d written a book about the Baltimore Elite Giants, a Negro league baseball team, suggested a book summarizing the role of African American soldiers, U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) as they became officially known, I saw an opportunity to delve into a Civil War topic of which I knew little.  Fortunately, I soon discovered much had been written on the subject, and that John David Smith, a nationally recognized expert on the subject, was willing to lend his expertise.

 Most historians labor in solitude, but you teamed with a partner.  What are the advantages to having a partner to work with on a book like this?

John David Smith, Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, and author of books on African Americans in the mid to late Nineteenth century, brought instant expertise to my research findings. He quickly pointed out areas of the text that needed work, supplied quotes that enlivened the text, and brought the footnotes into acceptable form.  He saved time in the fact checking process, insured a level of credibility that may have been difficult to achieve without his involvement, and provided a comprehensive bibliography. In addition, John David supplied much appreciated companionship to what could have been a lonely task indeed.  Though we had not met and collaborated solely by e-mail, we soon fell into a simpatico rhythm of electronic back and forth.

The movie Glory about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was released back in 1989 to critical acclaim.  Were you ever concerned that you needed to address the many aspects of the movie in your book (accurate or inaccurate) or did you feel as though you could tell this story in a fairly fresh way?  

Glory deserved, in my opinion, its critical acclaim as a movie.  It graphically portrayed African Americans’ sacrifice, suffering, bravery, achievements, and white officer on black recruit cruelty. In so doing it presented not only a compelling story but brought attention to the then lesser known role of African American Union soldiers.  The movie did, however, take many liberties with the regiment’s history, and by extension, with the history of the U.S. Colored Troops. To have discussed the accurate points and tried to correct the liberties would have unnecessarily focused too much attention on one regiment and distracted the readers, many of whom are college students who may not be familiar with the movie, from the book’s main theme – the various ways in which African American soldiers were recruited, trained, and deployed.  I mentioned the movie only in passing. As a general rule, I don’t look for history at the movie theater. 

Memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment

Once the Proclamation was issued, the Union began recruiting black troops.  Did blacks begin volunteering to serve in the military before recruiting centers were even established?  How were free blacks and former slaves recruited into army units? 

The recruitment of African American soldiers was at differing times and places legal, illegal, haphazard, voluntary, systematic, and coercive.  Prior to Lincoln’s Final Emancipation of January 1, 1863, slaves by the thousands, individually as well as families, fled farms and plantations to join the army and win freedom for themselves.  Males worked as laborers while the women cooked and laundered.  In another pre-Proclamation effort, generals and politicians, notably in the Carolinas and Kansas, unbeknownst to Lincoln, promised slaves their freedom if they would enlist. Lincoln promptly voided the promises. Immediately following the Proclamation, which gave the army authority to arm African Americans, a group of prominent abolitionists led by industrialist George Stearns and including William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Philips, and Julia Ward Howe raised funds to support a network of more than 100 black recruiters. They worked the Mississippi Valley, the northern states, Canada, and the mid-west as far as St. Louis. The recruiters, who received two dollars for every able-bodied man they delivered, made all manner of promises, most of which were never kept.  Many of these recruits formed the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantries. 

As the need for Union recruits became ever more pressing, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton authorized Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to mount a recruiting campaign throughout the Mississippi Valley. Acting with Lincoln’s full authority, Thomas raised over 70,000 black troops. He ordered Union officers to accept all blacks who were streaming into their camps. Thomas gave speeches and set up recruiting centers. Some recruiters sought volunteers. Others visited farms and plantations often ordering the men at gun point to “volunteer,” dragging the reluctant out from under beds, and rounding up those who fled to the woods to avoid conscription.  Private citizens continued to play a major role, again in the North.  Poet, journalist, and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant led a group of prominent New York City men to form the New York Association for Colored Volunteers. The association attracted enough volunteers from throughout the state, aided by the promise of a three hundred dollar enlistment bonus, to form a regiment. Philadelphia merchant, Thomas Webster, exhorting blacks to “forget the past” and promising them the “acclaim from all for their valor,” helped recruit three regiments from that city. John Mercer Langston, a recent African American Oberlin graduate, having seen his offer to form a black regiment rebuffed in 1862 by Ohio’s Governor David Todd, spearheaded the formation of a black regiment once Todd realized he had no choice but to supply an African American regiment from the Buckeye state.

Company E, 4th US Colored Troops 1865
Company E, 4th US Colored Troops 1865

It is widely known that black soldiers were often treated poorly by fellow white soldiers and officers.  It what ways were black troops discriminated against?

When the war began most whites felt it was “a white man’s war.”  Congressmen publicly derided African Americans’ willingness and ability to fight.  The governors of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Connecticut spurned offers by blacks to enlist. The prospect of blacks in arms enraged and scared many whites, especially slaveholders. Blacks, free or slave, at the time were not even considered to be citizens due to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling in 1857.

Once in the army, they were confined to segregated regiments all of whose line officers were white. They received less pay than white soldiers.  Protesting the inequity cost Sergeant William Walker his life by firing squad. Until the last two years of the war most were assigned “fatigue duty”, various forms of manual labor, freeing white soldiers to do the fighting.  When they did see action they faced enslavement or execution if captured. Jefferson Davis considered captured black troops, and their white officers, to be traitors rather than prisoners of war; a status Jefferson accorded white Union soldiers. Confederate troops murdered many at the battle of Fort Pillow after they had surrendered.

The War Department often issued smooth bore muskets that lacked the accuracy of the standard issue rifle to African American soldiers.  Many were thrown into battle with little or no training.  Many who did receive training experienced pistol whippings, verbal threats, blows with the flat of a sword or fist, and being hung by the thumbs from many, but not all, white officers. Some favored the use of rewards such as a two day pass for the regiment’s most accurate rifleman or a small medal to members of a regiment’s company who performed best in drill.  White soldiers tried to scare black recruits by telling them they’d be shipped to Cuba or put on the front lines of every battle. In spite of it all, about 180,000 African Americans served in the army while about 20,000 saw service in the navy.

Troops at Dutch Gap in 1864
Troops at Dutch Gap in 1864, Courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Commons

How did black units perform in combat during the war? Did their performance convince Union commanders to alter how they were utilized?

African American troops took part in 449 fights, the majority of them minor engagements and skirmishes.  In all engagements, however, small or large in scope, they demonstrated courage and ferocity in combat.  Knowledge of what awaited them if captured fueled their intensity.  Their commanders at first used them to poke holes in enemy lines.  More often than not they succeeded in breaking through enemy positions while making a dent in officers’ skepticism of their worth. One officer wrote to his wife, “I confess I am surprised at the dash and courage of these men. I have never felt sure of them before and even now I fear they would not have that steadiness under fire that many [whites] have but for a charge they cannot be beat.”

Later in the war they took part in large-scale offensives in such battles as Fort Hudson and Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana; Olustee, Florida; the Battles of the Crater and New Market Heights outside of Richmond, Virginia and the Battle of Nashville.  There they proved to be steady under fire even while taking heavy losses. Following the Battle of Nashville, Colonel Rueben D. Massey said of them, “Death had known no distinction of color, nor had Valor, for the black’s were as near the enemy’s lines as were the whites.”

Were there any situations when the treatment of black soldiers improved?  If so, why?

Treatment of African American soldiers by the Union remained relatively unchanged and shoddy throughout the war.  Congress did not allow equal pay for all black soldiers until just a month before the war ended. While many attained non-commissioned officer status, none were selected as line officers for USCT regiments.  Those who protested their treatment often encountered a court martial, a jail sentence or worse. Their performance in battle, however, did change the opinion of them for the better on the part of many whites.  Eighteen African American soldiers and four seamen won a Medal of Honor. In a final tribute to their contributions toward saving the Union, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton selected the 45th USCT to be part of the honor guard for Lincoln’s second inaugural address in March 1865.  A month later he chose the 22nd USCT to lead Lincoln’s funeral procession as it neared the U. S. Capitol.  Few whites in 1861 could have imagined those honors being accorded to African American soldiers and sailors.

How would you recommend using this book in a class?  What will students be able to take away from reading your book?

I could see the book in a class on African American history or the Civil War.  It’s a historical hors d’oeuvre, 107 pages excluding footnotes and bibliography.  Students would gain an overview of race relations in mid-nineteenth century in general and during the Civil War in particular.  The bibliography provides many avenues for more in-depth reading.

The History of Doctors Without Borders – Interview with Renée Fox

Renee Fox

This April, John Hopkins University Press published Renée Fox’s new book, Doctors Without Borders: Humanitarian Quests, Impossible Dreams of Medecins Sans Frontieres. Renée Fox is currently both a Professor Emerita of Sociology and the Annenberg Professor Emerita of the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Fox is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and an Honorary Member of Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.

Renée Fox’s major teaching and research interests – sociology of medicine, medical research, medical education, and medical ethics – have involved her in first-hand, participant observation-based studies in Continental Europe (particularly in Belgium), in Central Africa (especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo), and in the People’s Republic of China, as well as in the United States.  It was during her research that she first learned of French medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders.  In 1994, Fox began an extensive ethnographic study of MSF that would span decades.  Her access to MSF was unparalleled.  Noted scholar Charles E. Rosenberg described Fox’s book as “an extraordinarily insightful study of an extraordinary organization.”

In addition to her newest book, Fox has also published Experiment Perilous: Physicians and Patients Facing the Unknown; The Sociology of Medicine: A Participant Observer’s View; Essays in Medical Sociology; In the Belgian Château: The Spirit and Culture of a European Society in an Age of Change; In the Field: A Sociologist’s Journey, and (in co-authorship with Judith P. Swazey), The Courage to Fail: A Social View of Organ Transplants and Dialysis, Spare Parts: Organ Replacement in American Society, and Observing Bioethics.  She is a pioneer in her field and an extraordinarily distinguished scholar.

Here is my interview with Renée Fox about her new book.

How did you become interested in studying Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières)? When did you  first become aware of the organization?

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)  was founded in 1971 by a small group of French physicians and medical journalists in connection with their front-line experiences in the Nigerian Civil War in Biafra, and their response to the tragedies and atrocities that they witnessed in that context. Over the course of the period 1959 to 1993, I spent a considerable amount of time in France and in Belgium, engaged in first-hand sociological research on how social, cultural, and historical factors affected clinical medical research and research careers in a a contemporary European society.

It was because of my presence on the French medical scene that I learned of the existence of MSF soon after it was created. But it was not until 1994 that I made  contact with MSF in Brussels, Belgium, where it had established its second section in 1980.  By this time, my research had evolved into a study of “Belgium through the windows of its medical laboratories,” which in turn had opened on to research that I was conducting in the former Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The fact that Africa in general, and the Congo in particular, were major loci of MSF’s work  played a significant role in my decision to undertake a sociological study of MSF.

You have published a number of books in the Sociology of Medicine. Are there any themes and ideas that connect your previous work to this book on Doctors Without Borders?

The themes that link my book about Doctors Without Borders with my previous  work include:

  • Moral dilemmas that are intrinsic to medicine and its practice.
  • Medical uncertainty.
  • The limitations of  medical  interventions and action.
  • latrogenesis: The unintended negative consequences, and  especially the harm that can result from even the most competent, well-planned,  compassionate, and virtuously motivated medical acts.

In addition, I  hoped that my research about and within MSF would bring me closer to dealing with  the relationship of disease and sickness to poverty, inequality and  social injustice than had characterized my previous work.

What makes Doctors Without Borders unique compared to other medical NGOs?

There are numerous ways in which the ethos and the organization of Doctors Without  Borders  distinguish it  from most other medical NGOS. These include its “culture of debate”; its constant  self-scrutiny and self-criticism; its anti-heroic  heroism; its participatory democracy; its decentralized structure and processes of  decision-making; the degree to which it has maintained the effervescence of a social movement throughout its forty -three year-long history; and some of the ways in which it maintains  its independence from governments and partisan political forces  — among which one of the most notable is the fact that more than ninety percent of its overall funding comes from five million private, non-governmental sources.

An important part of the Doctors Without Borders mission is “to witness” human rights violations. What does it mean to witness these crimes? Is  Doctors Without Borders able to remain apolitical if it “witnesses”? 

“Temoignage” or witnessing  is one of MSF’s basic principles. Its scope includes  speaking out publicly  about  exclusion from, or inadequate access to health care, as well as about  criminal violations of human rights. A recent example of such “witnessing” is the speech before the United Nation’s member states delivered by MSF’s International President  in which she denounced the lethally inadequate international response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The most vigorous form that  such witnessing can take  is advocacy. Especially in such  instances, there is the danger that it may encroach on MSF’s principle of political independence, impartiality, and neutrality.

MSF Sign in Chad
MSF Front Door in Chad

Throughout its history Doctors Without Borders has been managed in a remarkably democratic (perhaps somewhat chaotic) fashion. Is this a strength  or weakness of the organization?

During the more than twenty years that I have been observing and reflecting about MSF, I have wondered how, within its “culture of debate,” “ideas matter for action,” decentralized, participatory democracy framework it is able to achieve  the timely consensus that is necessary to make the crucial decisions with which it is  continually confronted, and spring into action in a coherent and coordinated  way when called upon to do so. I do not feel that I have ever been able to  satisfactorily answer this question.

What is especially impressive in this regard is the alacrity with which MSF is able to respond to emergencies. Contributing to their emergency medical response are their ready-to-ship kits with supplies tailored to the specific type of crisis, whether it is a natural disaster, an epidemic, or a violent conflict.

With respect to MSF’s overall decision-making what some MSFers refer to as a latent  “informal hierarchy” that exists within the organization seems to help to make it more functionally viable — though its members and their influence are not always easy to identify.

Doctors Without Borders appears to have two different missions, responding to an immediate humanitarian crisis and providing  longterm health care in underserved areas.  Do these two missions compete with  each other?  Is Doctors Without Borders better at handling one of these missions better than the other?

There can be tension  between these two “missions.” In the early phases of MSF’s history it specialized in emergency medicine. But when HIV/AIDS  emerged as a  new, infectious disease that evolved into  a pandemic, MSF wrestled with the question of whether it should undertake its treatment. Among the key considerations that it faced in considering this project was the  significant  allocation of its commitments, personnel, and material resources to the long term  care of persons afflicted with this disease that it would involve, and how competent the members of the organization were to deal with this assignment.  Once it made the decision to  “take on” HIV/AIDS, beginning in South Africa,  MSF demonstrated a trail-blazing capacity to successfully apply long-term antiretroviral  therapy for the disease in resource-poor contexts.  MSF has thereby shown itself to be equally proficient in handling these “two missions.”

What has made it possible for Doctors Without Borders to persevere?

Its distinctive culture, its  foundational principles and value-commitments, its  “social movement” characteristics, the widespread public  admiration it has accrued, and the support that it receives from millions of private donors.

How would you recommend using your book in a class?  What message do you think  your book will best convey to students?

I think that the book could be appropriately and fruitfully used in undergraduate and graduate sociology of medicine and medical anthropology courses, in  courses concerned with social movements, in public health and global medicine courses, and in medical school contexts where the intent is to teach about social and cultural aspects of health, illness, medicine, and medical care. It would also be useful as reading for members of organizations engaged in medical humanitarian work, especially in connection with preparing them for field assignments that they are about to undertake.

I hope that the “message”  the book conveys about the principles, values, world-view,  motivation, and commitments underlying the  medical humanitarian action  of Doctors Without Borders and its  personnel will be edifying for readers, and a source of inspiration for them.

David Mitchell in the Labyrinth of Time: Review of THE BONE CLOCKS and Preview of an Interview with the Author

The University of Wisconsin Press blog has both a review of David Mitchell’s (author of Cloud Atlas) new book, The Bone Clocks, and brief interview with Mitchell. The Bone Clock “follows a central character’s life through six decades in six sections.” Some of the sections follow the protagonist Holly Sykes while others allow other characters to tell her story through their interactions with her. Check out Paul A. Harris’s review of Mitchell’s book.

University of Wisconsin Press

As an online preview of a special issue of SubStance devoted to David Mitchell’s fiction, we are posting a review-essay of his book by Paul Harris and an excerpt of an interview with the author. The interview will appear in the special issue in spring 2015.


The Bone Clocks coverA Review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks
by Paul A. Harris, Editor, SubStance

David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, the latest iteration of his fractal imagination, follows a central character’s life through six decades in six sections that simultaneously succeed as stand-alone stories. Protagonist Holly Sykes narrates the first and final chapters; in the middle ones, her life is seen prismatically through the lenses of others who cross her path: Cambridge student Hugo Lamb, war journalist Ed Brubeck, bad-boy author Crispin Hershey, and Horologist Marinus. Navigating this narrative proves to be a rollicking ride: the plot is a propulsive page-turner, picking up…

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