Under the Hood of a History Dissertation

title page

So this past week I finished it. As in, It. The dreaded dissertation. It’s been written, proofed, and approved by the dissertation advisor unit. The defense is set, and I can move onto other projects. As you can see, I’ve finally settled on a title, which I quite like: “Through a Glass, Darkly: The Eugenic Impulse on the Southern Plains, 1910-1960.” The first part of the title comes from a paper written by W.F. Hoyt, a Professor of Science at Wesleyan University in Salina, Kansas, for the Kansas Academy of Science in 1907. The full excerpt goes like this:

“From repeated deception the scientist is learning extreme caution concerning alleged discoveries and revolutionary theories. There are many mysteries which science has never explained, and may never solve, but thanks to the patient investigator and the keen philosopher, there are some things we do know, even if seen as “through a glass darkly.” One of these is that if the established facts and principles of modern science are ever overthrown, it will be by the trained scientist with microscope, telescope and spectroscope, not by the ignoramus with the divining-rod.”

Hoyt was of course, as have so many others before and since, invoking an excerpt from the King James translation of First Corinthians to explicate the imperfect manner by which humanity experiences the world, both physically and metaphorically. It is one mediated by that which seems clear but is not, and necessitates an understanding that what appears on the other side is an imperfect simulacrum of any external real world independent of individual experience, if such a place exists. And I think it encapsulates the American eugenics movement perfectly.

So, the dissertation is done, and what’s a guy to do? Spend a little time with it in statistical form, of course! Sometimes those numbers, they can reveal characteristics of structure, style, and content that would otherwise go unnoticed. Plus, it gives a little closure that’s otherwise difficult to come by in a project of this size. So what, oh what, does a history dissertation look like under the hood?

VITAL STATISTICS: 260 pages, 89,338 words, 6 chapters, 528 footnotes, 141 secondary sources, 433 primary sources.

Let’s start with some word clouds (click to embiggen):

dissertation word cloudA word cloud of the 150 most common words among the total 70,836 words in the body of my dissertation

dissertation bibliography wordcloud

A word cloud of the 150 most common words among the 3,507 words in my Bibliography

dissertation primary source wordcloud

A word cloud of the 150 most common words among the titles of the primary sources used in my dissertation

Of interest to me are a few things. Sociology, psychology, biology, and genetics all show up in dissertation with more or less equal regularity (the first word cloud above); this makes perfect sense, as I intended to explore and answer questions about how eugenic ideas moved between disciplines and intellectual arenas with ease, taking on new forms as individuals deployed it in the course of their own academic pursuits. This was as much a project about the mental lives of individuals on the southern plains as it was a cultural and institutional history. And if you compare the three word clouds (my work, the secondary literature, and the primary sources I used), a number of important themes emerge: science, marriage, heredity, family, genetics, and nature.

Equally important, I think, are the collocations which do not take place among the three. For instance, you can see “racism” figures prominently in the secondary literature on the movement as a whole, but does not in either my dissertation or the primary source material. Certainly, I wouldn’t go so far as to say eugenics was never about race. But on the southern plains, its wasn’t a racist–or really racialist–project. Proponents on the southern plains saw dysgenic forces primarily in the individual, not the population. And when they spoke of “race degeneration,” mostly (though not always) they were persuaded by social concerns–divorce, increased poverty and state welfare costs, the proliferation of crime, etc.–and therapeutic ones (the right of children to be well-born, getting rid of the feebleminded, etc), not by the danger of non-whites to the human race. Much of the secondary literature has had something to say about eugenics as an undertaking concerned significantly, if not primarily, with race. In Oklahoma and Kansas, this was simply not the case for most.

 running word count

A running word count of every time I sat down and opened up my dissertation

Couple of interesting things here too:

  • It appears as if I wrote it in almost exactly ten months, starting January 20th and finishing on October 22nd. This is only mostly true. I had 4 conference papers that I’d presented at some point over the past two years, one of which was garbage but the other three of which made it largely unscathed into the final dissertation (and each folded into a different chapter). So anywhere from 30-36 pages of the writing was done.
  • As you can see, I sat down to work on it 85 times, which seems absurdly low. It feels like 850. You can see I took most of June off (I don’t remember this happening, really) and only opened it up to work 4 times in August (this I do remember, because we were moving ourselves, three cats, and all of our possessions from Rhode Island to Minnesota, and gents, that times some time).
  • You’ll see Chapters 1 and 4 are running up near thirty thousand words, or almost 80 pages, each. The others are more traditionally sized, at 30-40 pages each. There are people who will say any diss. chapter longer than fifteen thousand words is suffering from some kind of Tourette’s that just needs to be stopped by the advisor. Here’s what I say: your chapters are exactly as long as they need to be. In my case, eugenics on the southern plains constituted an intellectually, institutionally, and culturally cohesive movement during the period 1910-1930. So why break it up? Likewise, my final chapter treats five individuals in five different disciplines/arenas—art, psychology, zoology, sociology, and journalism. They offer a rich matrix of experience that connects like a dense web across the southern plains. Am I supposed to sever those connections artificially, only then to have to repeat prefatory material in a new chapter? Finally, 4 chapters means 4 introductions and 4 conclusions (one for each), on top of the initial dissertation introduction and final conclusion. I wasn’t about to write 2 more just to satisfy some unwritten rule. I have no idea how other people do it, but this felt organic.
  • It took me four months to write the final chapter (80 pages), then three months to write the first chapter (80 pages), a little less than a month to write chapter 2 (45 pages), then four days to write the final chapter (30 pages). Certainly the first chapter I wrote (chapter 4) was the slowest-going, and I gained steam throughout. But I also consciously did the hardest chapter first, and the easiest last. So while it seems as if the final chapter went super quick, in reality almost half of it was already written (it was the last conference paper I’d not yet worked in, it was shorter than the rest, and I’d been writing small bits along the way ), and, as I only needed to explore institutional numbers on sterilizations and scandal in the 1930s. A dissertation, I’ve discovered, is like a puzzle with a few thousand pieces where you’d only got a general description of the scene that’s supposed to unfold (“this puzzle depicts the development of an intellectual movement in Oklahoma and Kansas during a fifty-year period, and included some men and women doing science-y stuff. Ages 2-99.”). The edges are easy, and as you progress pieces fall into place. The end of the puzzle goes considerably quicker than the beginning. Plus, you know, deadline to defend this fall. I’m sure there was a little motivation there.
  • My best day was when I wrote the introduction. 13.2 pages in one day, and I can attest that was 9a-530p, with about forty minutes for lunch. I barely remember it, in fact, it seemed to go so quickly. I seemed to sit down at my computer and then all of a sudden it was 5p. My worst day was April 20th, when I managed to squeeze out less than 300 words. But here’s a secret about taking on a writing project of this length you never really understand until you do it: at the end of the day, especially when you’re cranking out a few thousand words of writing, you feel emptied of words. Just a void bereft of any and all semiosis. Spend eight or ten hours writing, then try to have a conversation with anyone. You’ve got this internal monologue going on as you write, but then it keeps going when you stop writing. So once in awhile I’d be talking to my wife at dinner or on a run or whatever, in the middle of a sentence that I was re-writing in my mind as I was saying it out loud, and then I’d just say to myself “Screw it. This is redonkulous,” and  have to shut my mouth for awhile.


Writing is hard. Dinosaur Comics recognizes this.

On sources and footnotes:

  • First-time citations of secondary sources—i.e. how many sources in each chapter were ones which were showing up for the first time:
    • Introduction: 36
    • Chapter 1: 51
    • Chapter 2: 15
    • Chapter 3: 12
    • Chapter 4: 16
    • Conclusion: 11
    • Total: 141

Clearly, this thing was front-loaded to a degree, though that makes some sense. Fully a fourth of the sources were first dealt with in the introduction as I set the scope and bounds and contributions of my dissertation compared to the rest of the literature. For a lot of those sources, this was the only time they were mentioned. More than a third of the rest came in the first behemoth chapter, as I approached in some detail the initial themes and trends and characteristics that would describe eugenics on the southern plains during the first third of the twentieth century, comparing and contrasting it to the bulk of the literature which also spends its time in the 1910s and 1920s. The remaining chapters saw pretty consistently a dozen or so new sources as I shifted focus from discipline to discipline and into the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. I’m a little surprised Chapter 3 saw 12 new sources, as that was solely about sterilizations on the southern plains 1930-1940.

The nice thing about the secondary literature on the history of eugenics is it’s completely doable—there are only a couple of hundred books on the subject that are worth reading, unlike, say, the Old South or Colonial America. I can say with confidence I’ve read the vast majority of them, perused most of the rest, and probably missed a few along the way.

About 17% of my word count lived in the footnotes, or fifteen thousand or so words. I never would have guessed it was this much. I do tend to like to use the footnote as a space for conducting something of a parallel conversation with the reader when the material calls for it. I like to imagine that one could, in fact, get a semi-decent sense of the project’s argument and place in the literature by just reading the footnotes.


xkcd: citogenesis

Concluding Thoughts:

I have no idea how well this describes the average history dissertation. The minimum my graduate program requires is 200 pages, including bibliography, but from my limited informal experience probably a quarter of my peers ran over. I offer no conclusions based on this evidence. I just like simple numbers like these, and it gives me a satisfactory feeling of closure to run through them. I also learned a few things along the way.

slowlorisblog Goes Big League, Other News, and Then Finally Some Writing

scienceblog logo

Two items of note today before we jump into things.

First, some exciting news. I’ve joined the team over at ScienceBlog, which is, if you’re unfamiliar, a compendium of (sometimes) acerbic and (always) insightful scientists, researchers, professors, postdoctoral fellows, and science journalists bringing more (good) science writing to the public. I first encountered them through Nathanial Comfort’s excellent Genotopia a few years ago. I’m honored to join them. My digital scribblings will find a home over there will be at slowloris.scienceblog.com. The walls and the ceiling are up, it’s mostly painted, and I’ve said hello. Subscribe if you’re of a mind, and feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested.

Do not fret, however, because I will remain active here as well! ScienceBlogs focuses more on timely issues and in addition has a readership with a little thicker glasses. So while I will be posting there once a month, with those essays focusing on current items of interest in the history of science, technology, and medicine, here I will continue to write about the same stuff as always. From here out, just think of the slowlorisblog as having a split personality, only the chiseled-jawed academic persona here will be aware of about the even more chiseled-jawed, and also mustachioed, self-effacing purveyor of recondite facts over there.

Second, starting August 1st posts are going to slow down for a bit. I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the dissertation tunnel, so from here until the end of September I’m going to scale back here and ramp up there. Expect just a few posts between now and then, as my schedule and sleep levels allow, as opposed to once a week. I will still be updating the READ ME and Neat History pages regularly, so go there for your fix if you can’t find anyone else to play with. Don’t cry. I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.

It’s going to be an exciting second half of 2014. So let’s get on with it, already.

 Indian and European Land Use in Colonial and Pre-Colonial America


I’ve always been fascinated by environmental histories. Something about demoting humanity from its traditional place (in our discourse and all too often, histories) in the order of things and just treating it as another force for change on the landscape is liberating and, in my experience, makes for an excellent read.

Today I’d like to visit pre-colonial and newly-colonial New England and talk a bit about what happened to the land—in all its interconnected glory—when Western Europeans arrived, what it looked like before, and what that means for the way the larger narrative (economic, cultural, and agentive) gets taught in our high schools and survey courses. Understanding local ecosystems and the larger environment of New England from a pre-colonial standpoint and tracing the transformations that occurred during the prolonged and staggered arrival of various Europeans peoples on the shores of North America provides, for those of us living today, remarkable insight into not only how Europeans and Indians defined their respective relationships with the land, but allows for a more nuanced awareness of their interactions with each other. In the case of the former, the relationship Europeans had with the land—their characterizations of it in written texts, conceptualizations and abstractions of its meaning, and their uses of it in everyday activities—and subsequently the changes that occured after their arrival can be attributed largely, though not solely, to a capitalist mindset. This probably takes you by surprise not at all. Yet Indians too had a dynamic relationship with the ecology of their world, and it would be a mistake to describe their own activities, despite what the popular media and high-school history has taught us—as harmonious with the land without acknowledging that they were active agents in its transformation for their benefit.

How do we learn about European encounters with the land, and how they fit it into their particularized worldview? Primary sources! Of course, any consideration of the primary texts in which Europeans described New England must bear in mind three things: first, that they viewed, and thus described, the New World in terms of commodities—emphasizing exportable, fungible, saleable goods, and in effect telling the reader at least as much about where they came from as where they currently were. For example, the shortage of wood back home and other immediately and recognizably marketable goods like sassafras led chroniclers to focus more on those resources than other aspects of the land. And though “permanent” settlers were less likely than merchants to write of the countryside as a catalog of commodities, all, to some extent or another, engaged in organizing the land according to the use they had, or imagined, for it.

Secondly, any text describing New England was inherently disingenuous—even if unintentionally—in two ways. In describing the bounty they encounter, explorers, settlers, and boosters by and large never failed to inflate the degree of abundance. Aided by the likes of Richard Halkuyt and others back home who saw the New World as a great opportunity for the English, diaries and journals often contained gross exaggerations and outright lies. In addition to this, such writings also failed to mark—even when what they were saying was faithful to their experience—that the bounty they “saw” may not necessarily always be there. This led new settlers to the region to expect, as an example, that bushes would be heavy with strawberries year-round, leading first generations of settlers to neglect to lay in a proper store of food for the winter simply because they expected to, like they supposed the Indians did, survive by gathering whatever they needed. Of such notions they were quickly disabused.

Lest we talk only about white settlers, it’s important to note that the latter fact also requires clarification. Northern and southern Indians had (sometimes vastly) different relationships with their respective ecosystems, and neither can be characterized as having had no impact on the land. In the north, low population densities allowed for a hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence and led to a stable relationship governed by the life cycles of a natural food supply. Indian tribes moved from place to place in accordance with what was plentiful at that time—crabs, clams, and fish on the coast, alewives and other fish at certain places on the rivers during spawning time, nuts and berries in the spring and summer, and pigeon, turkey, and meat of the four-legged variety during the winter, when the latter was easiest to track. The relationship the southern tribes had with the land was more complicated, because added to the hunting-gathering cycles were planting cycles, which allowed for higher populations but also concentrated calorie base and more intensely affected the land.

Lastly, and this is the one that will find most readers exposed to the common narrative a little uncomfortable, is that it would be a huge mistake to conclude that pre-contact Indians lived in perfect harmony with the land, leaving no trace behind them. Certainly the northern tribes had less of an impact on the ecology of their environment than the southern, agrarian tribes did. But the latter made extensive use of burning, removing individual trees by setting a small fire at their base to strip away its bark, and starting wide-ranging burns to clear fields for planting or drive game during hunts. What resulted was what environmental historian William Cronon calls, eloquently, a “mosaic . . . of New England ecosystems, [with] forests in many different states of ecological succession.”[1]

What, then, can we say about the differences between arriving colonists and the Indian tribes they encountered? Perhaps the most important cultural conception that differentiated the Indians of New England from the European colonists arriving on its shores—and the one that in turn influenced how each interacted with the ecosystems they inhabited—was their respective concepts of what it meant to “bound the land.”[2] This goes far beyond the reductivist notion that Indians didn’t believe you could own land, while Europeans did. Rather, it was—for both—predicated in complex social institutions, cultural norms, and legal precedent.

Let’s look, for example, at the tribes of northern New England that subsisted by moving to specific locations at certain times of the year. While the arriving colonists saw land as a parcel with finite boundaries and an inherent transferable (almost fungible) nature, Indians emphatically did not. What resulted was confusion when colonists engaged in activities they thought, in some cases very commonsensically, were seen by all as “buying” the land. While it appeared to the Europeans that a sachem or group of sachems agreed to exchange the land itself for whatever goods were being offered, to the Indians’ point of view the land as a concrete, reified notion of ownership was a mostly foreign concept, not a part of their cultural lens.

In such exchanges they were trading only the rights to specific uses of the land during certain times of the year—such as the fishing or gathering they engaged in alternating seasons. This is called “usufruct” rights. Not, as the colonists thought, to own with vertical infinitude any landscape bounded by the terms of the agreement. Trouble resulted when tribes or sachems traded the same rights on one piece of land to different groups of Europeans—an act practiced with regularity amongst themselves and one with which they did not imagine the colonists would have a problem. For the colonists it was a completely different matter. Merely one among the myriad examples of how this different mindset operated for the Europeans was the granting to Massachusetts Bay Colony.

As more Europeans settled in New England populated areas became more crowded, and colonists spread outward onto land Indians had abandoned (because they could no longer practice the subsistence hunting and gathering or farming they had before) and forced disease-thinned tribes to move farther inland. What resulted over the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries was a series of changes that brought about radical changes to the land on which both the colonists and Indian tribes hunted, built, worked and played, and loved, laughed, lived, and died over the next century.

Excellent environmental histories of colonial America abound. Easily among the best is William Cronon’s Changes in the Land, from which I pull liberally here. It’s short, well-written, and incisive. But you can also check out Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature (which I reviewed not too long ago here) or J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires, both of which are also excellent.

[1] Cronin, 51.

[2] Cronin, 54.

*image by jjpeabody over at deviantart:

The Case for Elv and Unqua: Why We Should be Counting in Dozens

dozenal header

Welcome to PART 3 of our ongoing series here at the slowlorisblog, 42 STEPS TO A BETTER WORLD. That time, it sure is flying. To think we’re already 1/14th done! At this rate, we’re looking at a finish date of 2019, and that’s way ahead of schedule. Today, we offer a radical proposal (accompanied by perhaps as many links as we’ve ever had in a single post): that we’ve been counting in a count(ha)er-productive way for millennia, and to offer an alternative way to do it and make the whole world a better place.

Here’s how most of us count:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Here’s how dozenalists (also called duodecimalists) propose we should be counting. It is also the official sponsored counting system of the slowlorisblog from here onward:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, X, E, 10

(many dozenalists represent the X as an upside down 2, and the E as a backwards 3)

Both the Dozenal Societies of America and Great Britain propose that we should be counting not in base-10, but in base-12. Phonetically, they’d sound like this:

one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, elv, unqua

(It is, in my opinion, a massive failing of the movement that most of them insist on forcing us to replace, conceptually, the Roman number 10 in their number line with a set of numbers that is in fact “12-large,” while phonetically retaining “ten” for the numeral X. Others have suggested calling the numeral X do. Whatever the case, it’s obvious that one of the largest obstacles to adoption is going to be pronunciation. Especially when it comes to large numbers.[1] But if we can put this problem aside for just a moment, we’ll see many potential benefits).

Historically, the way we count is more or less based on the number of fingers and toes we have. Other societies have counted differently: the Babylonians counted in base-60, the Mayans in base-20, the people of Papua New Guinea are said to count in base-6, the Umbu-Ungu in base-24, and various positional and other computational systems favor base-36. So counting in tens isn’t some kind of incarnation of Natural Law. It just happened, and we stuck with it.

Proposing any kind of change like this is sure to ruffle some feathers. It would cost a good deal to do, in addition to annoying parents who thought they knew how to count, Especially when little Umlaut comes home asking why mommy didn’t teach her about the number elv.

There are really two, not necessarily mutually exclusive, cases to be made here: that switching to the dozenal system would be a beneficent move in terms of everyday convenience, and that it provides mathematical benefits with larger impacts in that field of praxis. The former of these is the easier one to make, but it’s also much less convincing to the average reader. Convincing one generation to re-learn how to count so as to (mostly) benefit the succeeding ones rarely works. This phenomena affects not only knowledge systems, but technology. Look at the arguments to be made for switching to the Dvorak (or other alternative) typing systems. The latter of these, the mathematical benefits, are murkier, but still titillating. Let’s dive in!

Mathematical benefits

  1. Fractional representation: Fractions, in total number, digit-length, and common-use ones are, I think, inarguably simplified when it comes to dozenal math. Compare them for yourself below. The big takeaway for me is that 1/3 stops being a mess, and most of the other common fractions go from two or three digits to one. The only real backward step is that 1/5 goes from .2 to 0.24972497 (recurring).
1/2 0.6 .5
1/3 0.4 .333 (repeating)
1/4 0.3 .25
1/5 0.24 (repeating) .2
1/6 0.2 .1666 (repeating)
1/7 0.1714285 (repeating) .142857 (repeating)
1/8 0.15 .125
1/9 0.1333 (repeating) .111 (repeating)
  1. Recurring digits: In the real world, problems with factors of 5 come up far less than problems with factors of 3, and the the dozenal system brings with it a host of inherent properties making it superior to the decimal system.[2] That means recurring digits (and the rounding inexactitude they often require) come up less often. Nevertheless, the real benefit that in the dozenal system when recurring digits do come up, they tend to be much shorter than in the decimal system. This is because 12 sits in the middle of two prime numbers (11, 13) rather than, as 10 does, next to a composite number (9).[3] It also is the result of their respective factorizations (the process of breaking numbers down into all the small numbers which, when multiplied together, get you to the large number), where dozenal offers further benefits. The prime number 2 shows up twice in the factorization of 12 (as opposed to once in 10), and the prime number 3 shows up once instead of not at all. Basically, more primes = good, less = bad.[4]
  2. Superior highly composite numbers are those which have a greater number of divisors relative to the number itself. 12 is one of these. 10 isn’t even a highly composite number (those positive numbers with more divisors than every smaller positive number). This means the math, including but not limited to the two cases above, gets cleaner all the way around.

Everyday benefits

Basically, it makes counting better all the way around, in terms of weights (pharmacists and jewelers use a 12-ounce pound), measures (a circle has 12 divisions of 30 degrees, there are 2 sets of 12 hours in a day, 12 months in a year, 12 inches in a foot for carpenters) or money (the British pound system, but also American financial markets as they are based around a 12-month year). There are a host of others, that if you are curious about you can check out at the American Dozenal Society Education Resources Page[5]

Thus, for children, it makes math easier to conceptualize and understand. For those of us raised on the decimal system, we can just use a calculator.

What a Dozenal World Would Look Like





Fans can join the movement and its (only semi-facetious) legislative proposal, the Dozenal Establishment Act.

Further Reading

Interview with Dozenal Society of American Don Goodman

The Dozenal Society of America

The Dozenal Society of Great Britain

A nice video introduction to base-12

Some other stuff

[1] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db4b20a_0.pdf

[2] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db27309_0.pdf

[3] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db4b109_0.pdf

[4] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db4b211_0.pdf

[5] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/leech_thomas_dozens_tens.pdf

Exorcising the Demons of our Past: Why Eugenics Wasn’t What You Think It Was, and Why That Matters

Science of human perfection

BOOK REVIEW: Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

With for-profit companies offering genetic testing at prices approaching the commercially viable for the first time since the sequencing of the human genome ($1,000), eugenics as a topic of discussion in academic circles and in the popular news cycle alike will increase dramatically in frequency over the course of the next decade. In fact, it will likely be one of the conversational signposts of the twenty first century.  Designer babies, three-parent children, genomic medical therapeutics, and the stubborn persistence of racism and poor arguments disguised as science, like an eye booger clinging crustily on and just generally being a pain in the ass for everyone.

What was eugenics? For those unfamiliar, eugenics was a wildly popular scientific, cultural, social, and political movement in America (most popular) during the first half of the twentieth century. Spurred by advances in genetics after the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s famous work with pea plants in 1900, it developed simultaneously to medical genetics (i.e. using knowledge about genes to improve medical care). Both stretch all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century (though most histories of medical genetics really begin in the 1950s).

So eugenics developed alongside humanity’s first stumbling investigations about what, how, and why traits get passed along from generation to generation. Eye color, physical build, demeanor, mental ability, susceptibility to disease—these are the types of qualities a new breed of scientists called geneticists initially sought out in the base material responsible for the direction taken by human evolution. Naturally, many quickly (and early on) suggested that now that humanity had access to the “germ plasm” (as they called DNA, which wouldn’t be discovered until the 1920s) we could take a conscious hand in directing the future of human evolution.

What does this have to do with Nathaniel Comfort’s Science of Human Perfection? Everything! This book is an attempt by Comfort, an historian of genetics and medicine at Johns Hopkins University, to do two things: 1) recover the thread of “medical genetics” from the history of eugenics, and 2) Demonstrate how the larger eugenics movement, reviled in the popular mind as the twisted progeny of the Nazis unleashed upon Europe’s non-Aryan ethnicities, was in fact a far more complex phenomena that, at its heart, was about “human improvement and the relief of suffering” (x). Now “human improvement” sounds an awful lot like the superman programs of the Third Reich, but, as Comfort shows clearly, the larger aim of the movement saw “improvement” as eliminating disease, inherited disorders, as well as increased intelligence and a stronger constitution.

Comfort traces this thread of medical genetics as it gradually thickened from 1910-1930. He notes the abandonment of most geneticists of eugenics by the 1930s as two obstacles appeared: first, the complexity of designing reliable experiments that could account for the complicated milieu going on inside the “germ plasm” as it was affected by environment (this is the classic nature vs. nurture dichotomy), and second, the ethical boundaries to carrying out those experiments on human beings. Instead, scientists like Michael F. Guyer at places like the University of Wisconsin occupied themselves with mice, fruit flies, and corn.

During this process, Comfort introduces another welcome formulation of distinguishing the strands of eugenic thought: Galtonian vs. Garrodian. The former settles its gaze on the population, whilst the latter emphasizes the individual. This opens up a whole new framework for understanding American eugenics that moves beyond the positive-negative dichotomy and adds nuance without sacrificing the accomplishments of previous scholarship.

Comfort follows the narrative into the 1950s and the advent of heredity clinics (which we still have today in the form of marriage counseling as it pertains to heredity), and shows how geneticists, with the onset of the Cold War and worries about the effects of radiation on the human genome, and also now bolstered by a quarter century of advances in knowledge and technique, re-approached medical genetics in the 1950s. There, The Science of Human Perfection ends.

This is a monograph that is, importantly, thoroughly researched and convincingly argued. Despite seeing increasing popularity in the scholarship during the last twenty years or so, eugenics still remains something of the bastard stepchild of history of science in academia. To blame this trend solely on the uncomfortableness the subject tends to engender (being tied so closely with the (bio-)political) seems to come, at least in part, from a public that wishes to forget the United States ever had an active movement for forced sterilization  and a larger history of science community of scholars who have gone along with that. At the same time, this is something of a copout and a cliché all at once. American eugenics was not Nazi eugenics: in intellectual grounding, structure (both in terms of the individuals proponents and organization), praxis, or even mostly time. And the threads of American eugenics, as we can see in Comfort’s excellent treatment (and elsewhere), certainly didn’t die with Hitler in that underground bunker in April of 1945. Comfort, thankfully, elaborates with nuance and persuasiveness on both realities.

Even more welcome by those of us in the history of science who are too used to slogging through interminably boring prose, is that The Science of Human Perfection is incredibly well-written.Comfort has a wonderful way with words, and an ability to render primary sources into a compelling narrative. It is, aside from being one of the more important revisions of the historical literature on eugenics, one of the best-written studies in any sub-discipline of history I have had the pleasure of reading.

For anyone interested, Comfort runs the excellent Genotopia over at scienceblogs.

Book Review- Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature

It’s a strange day when a book arrives in your mailbox to review and on the back are laudatory quotations from scholarly giants William Cronon and Richard White. Snagging one of these guys is the equivalent to scoring over a million points in Donkey Kong. Getting both is like achieving the latter upside down. It just doesn’t happen.

So I was excited to crack open Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature and see what it had to offer. I’m technically not an environmental historian, but alot of the stuff I get to read and write about intersects with notions about the natural and landscape. But this book has it’s own website. Which is kind of a Big Deal.

The short version of this review is Fiege nails it. Absolutely nails it. For the long version, read onward, oh denizens of the internet.

The best examples of historical scholarship usually do one of two things: either they open up, in dramatic fashion, new areas of exploration via methodological tools or theoretical frameworks, or they cut across the bounds of time and the scores of texts which the history profession produces to synthesize scholarship and show that what we thought was many was actually one. Mark Fiege accomplishes the latter of these in The Republic of Nature.

This is, as the author acknowledges from the outset, something of a peculiar book. It does not propose to be a radical or alternate history, refuting the claims of previous surveys of American history. And yet the narrative it weaves uncovers a tapestry of experiences and interconnections that will be striking and new to most. Indeed, it is not a comprehensive survey at all, but instead chooses nine moments of experience in American life, from the Salem witch trials, to the American Revolution, King Cotton, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, the transcontinental railroad, the Manhattan project, Brown v. Board of Education, and the oil crisis of 1973-4, to excavate the place of environment and relocate it from the borders of American history to its center.

Chapters 3 (King Cotton), 5 (Gettysburg), 7 (the Manhattan Project), and 8 (Brown v. Board) are the strongest of the book. Of these, I was most pleasantly surprised by the latter two. Throughout, Fiege marshals an impressive understanding of the secondary literature, supplemented by select primary sources, to delve into the rhizomatic. Collectively, these chapters demonstrate best what seems obvious by the end of the study: that American history is environmental history. The individual human experience remains ineluctably rooted in the demographic, the topographical, the geological, the biological, and the ecological. The cycles that govern nature equally govern human lives—work and play, love and hate, life and death. The forces that shape, equally, the countryside and the city, also influence profoundly human industry, politics, conflict, interaction, and scientific and technological inquiry. Fortunes wax and wane interchangeably according to the degree with which the natural is transported, transformed, and traversed.

To single the above out is not to suggest the rest of the text falls short. Indeed, there are moments in the chapters below that will, even to seasoned scholars, offer novel interpretations useful in constructing with more fidelity the penumbra of experience in American life. Chapter 2 (By the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God) remains the weakest, locating republican fervor in the shift from divine law to natural law and presenting the opportunity for revolution at the same time it portended trouble down the road for slavery. Fiege’s analytical framework seems the most stretched here, and has trouble accounting for the totality of experience with little information presented that does not already exist elsewhere. Chapter 4 (Nature’s Nobleman) is somewhat less thin, locating the inception and maturation of Lincoln’s particular antislavery ideology in his formative experiences as a child and young man working the land and coming up against the harsh realities of free market labor. In places, it struggles to connect this experience with the political expediencies of war and the decisions that they necessitated. Other chapters, like the first (Satan in the Land), do not suffer from analytical flaws but rather see somewhat more compelling treatment elsewhere (in this case David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder (1989)).

That this review enumerates these fuzzier moments in The Republic of Nature should emphatically not to suggest to potential readers that Fiege’s narrative is one worth passing over. Indeed the opposite—the above moments merely shine slightly less in a study that is as a whole a stunning and beautifully treated reconceptualization of the those moments in American history which survey courses have taught us to dread. 

On One Instance Where Open-Access Stinks, and Digitally Embargoing Humanities Dissertations


Rarely will you find me on the side of the fence that argues against open-access. In fact, during the course of my long and illustrious life, this is the first. And yet it’s an excellent example of how anyone who argues for the wholesale beneficence (or maleficence) of something or another is completely full of crap or woefully misinformed. Which until recently included me when it came to mandated digital publication of and open-access to dissertations.

But let’s back up a second.

What is this crazy penmonkey talking about so early on a Tuesday morning and shouldn’t he better get to it in the first paragraph if he doesn’t want to lose my interest? What’s that?! A Buzzfeed article on the 38 Things You Need to Know Right Now Oh God Please Click Me Fulfillment Lies Beyond?

Let’s start with a basic proposition.  PhD students (and newly minted PhDs) in the humanities already live a precarious existence. They are easily one of the most vulnerable populations to have gotten a four-year degree, for many, manymany reasons, despite the hard work they do.

In the good ole’ days, before the interwebz, PhD and MA students finishing their theses and dissertations printed out a couple copies and physically plunked them on the desk of some graduate college librarian, where they were then filed away for eternity. You wanted to read it, you had to physically go to that university library, or request a photocopy. That required time and effort, and it effectively meant that even though anyone could theoretically get ahold of anyone else’s work, in practice it was embargoed by geography and opportunity-cost. Today, the majority of graduate schools prefer (or require) the thesis or dissertation in digital form, and as part of the spirit of open-access, it has evolved to the point where as soon as you upload your work it gets sent off to UMI or someone and, shortly thereafter, made freely available to the rest of the world of scholars. If all this meant was that your brilliance and eloquence would be more easily discoverable by the walled garden of tenure-track academia to which you were trying to gain entry, there’d be no problem. But the reality is that, for those of us in the humanities (especially, though in other realms as well), the fact that your completed work sits out in the wild has increasingly meant that journal editors (less) and university press acquisitions editors (much more) have become increasingly unwilling to pick up contracts for monographs or accept articles for publication.

Why? Because as library costs become increasingly strained, library acquisitions folk themselves (the people who buy the books from the presses, and serve as the majority of the latter’s market base), already able to access your work via the subscription to the dissertation/thesis index they already pay for, have become increasingly unlikely to purchase the book unless it seems to deviate significantly from the original dissertation and/or appears highly original or significant to the discipline. Scholars (the other primary market for academic publishing) act the same way. Why pay twice for something when you can pay once?

The consequences of this process have become worrying enough that the American Historical Association stepped in last summer and strongly suggested all universities adopt a policy that allows graduate students to digitally embargo their work for a certain amount of time. Most TT (tenure-track) positions will require a new faculty member to publish a book within the first 6 years in order to go from Assistant to Associate Prof., and so the knowledge that while you go through the necessary process of revising, rewriting, and adding research your work is protected is not only crucial to a state of mind, but a job. How crucial?

Here’s a good piece from Bill Cronon, former president of the AHA, on the ramifications of mandated open-access of PhD dissertations the humanities:

My graduate students typically spend 5–8 years working on book-length manuscripts that will hopefully get them their first academic job (if that is their goal), and, when published, justify their getting tenure (assuming tenure survives all these changes—a whole different set of questions). My students’ work is very much their own. Unlike the sciences, they are not employed by me to work on grant-funded projects that I oversee as principal investigator. The vast majority never receive federal money, and most never even receive grant support beyond graduate fellowships (mainly for serving as TAs) that generally fall short of meeting basic living requirements. They support themselves mainly by teaching, which is one reason they take longer to complete their degrees than is typically true in the sciences . . . I can’t believe we would ever pass a law requiring nonacademic writers to post online the first draft of their book manuscripts; why would we demand this of newly minted PhDs even before their careers are properly launched?

The evidence is mounting that mandating open-access to dissertations is devastating to new PhDs leaving school with mountains of debt, and their job security is being further threatened by this trend in publishing. Some have argued, weakly as far as I’m concerned, that mandated open-access isn’t all that bad for book contract-seeking scholars. The majority, however, has engaged with the issue cognizant of the real-world ramifications that exist. Cronon, if I may go to him once more, offers the best summation of the range and depth of the problem and the squawks of the naysayers:

This isn’t remotely about dissing online scholarship or defending the book-length monograph as the only legitimate form of historical scholarship. It quite emphatically is not about refusing to share the fruits of historical scholarship for all time to come. It’s about preserving the full range of publishing options for early-career historians and giving them some measure of control over when and how they release their work to the world. As a practicing historian who has worked closely with a fair number of publishers for more than three decades, I can testify that concerns about online dissertations competing with books are very real. Indeed, I’ve had at least one former graduate student whose publisher refused to permit publication of an article in one of our discipline’s most prestigious journals for fear that it might undermine sales of his soon-to-be-published book. Since the publisher threatened to cancel the book contract if the article appeared, I can only imagine what it would have done had the entire dissertation been available online. In another instance, I had to intervene with a government agency to request the removal of an online version of one of my students’ dissertations that had been posted without the student’s permission and that the publisher said would likely jeopardize the book contract if it remained available for free download. I’ve had several editors from distinguished presses tell me (off the record, unsurprisingly) that although they would certainly consider publishing a revised version of a dissertation that had been posted online, the general effect of online posting would be to raise the bar for whether they would look at such a dissertation in the first place or eventually offer it a contract. And I’ve heard of university libraries that now save money by choosing systematically not to purchase university press books based on dissertations that are available online.

There are also many who have taken this as an opportunity to decry the tenure assessment system and agitate for changes in that arena as a solution to the larger problem (of recently minted PhDs as the profession’s most vulnerable population), of which mandatory open-access is but one of many contributing symptoms (though no doubt a significant one). It’s true, the system generally sucks, and more every year. At the same time, while I’m generally for agitation of any kind at any time, in this case it misses the point at the same time it obfuscates the battlefield for those of us who have years of grinding work invested in our monograph. The reality of the matter is that History Departments, representative of others in the Humanities or not, are slow-moving beasts. Whine and complain all you want, but bucking the tenure system in pursuit of some altruistic desire to level the playing field for new PhDs is not how they were built,  nor how they are maintained. Further, experimentation (as any of the proposed plans I’ve seen to shifting to new criteria by which a department can grant tenure will require) requires imagination, flexibility, a willingness to be wrong, and a certain bold come-what-may insouciance that, while demonstrated with flair and joie de vivre in the writing of many, doesn’t really personally describe many historians I’ve ever met. So suggesting change to the tenure-granting process amounts, in the end (to me, at least) like a magnificently naive way to seem to be for our cause whilst at the same time remaining spectacularly and embarrassingly standing on the sidelines.

Unlike my post last week asking the humanities to get their collective shit together, I end this one with some legitimate advice. Check with both your graduate college and department, and see if they require online publishing of the dissertation. If they don’t, great! If they do, get someone on the phone and ask why. And unless that reason’s “Because we offer all graduating PhDs a tenured position at $100,000 a year, with your very own parking spot and rhesus monkey-butler to boot!”, it’s not good enough. Use the literature here to organize a petition in your department and challenge the prevailing ignorance behind the open-access policy for theses and dissertations.

At Oklahoma State University (where I skulk the halls) all theses and dissertations are required to be submitted electronically, after which they are usually released into the wild. A digital embargo is allowed, but requires consent from one’s committee chair, and while the standard options allowed are 6 months to 2 years anecdotal evidence given to me says no requests up to 5 years have been denied. All of this is good news, except the last bit here. Awareness of this problem is so abysmal that the graduate college representative I spoke to said s/he saw only 2 requests this past spring out of 700 applications for graduation. A third of a percent.

Speak with your committee chair and get her or his advice. If s/he doesn’t have a strong opinion, maybe that’s your signal right there to pick a new mentor. Because this is obviously not an issue that’s going to go away, and it’s having a significant enough impact to reverberate across the collective arenas where such issues get discussed on a regular basis. Consider carefully what it means for your job prospects over the next decade before you decide to digitally embargo your dissertation or not. I know I will.


An Open Letter to the Humanities (on getting their collective shit together)

humanities word cloud

(A word cloud by Eugenia Williamson of 150 doctoral dissertations in the humanities and social sciences from 2010. Assuming the average of 5 years for each dissertation, it represents about 6,574,357 hours of scholarship)

You know I wouldn’t cuss at you willy nilly, like some jackanape off his meds. But curse words are semiotically useful in many ways, and so I use them when I find myself growing grim about the mouth, or whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, so as to avoid knocking people’s hats off.

Some food for thought (and then something more) for those of us who spend nigh on a decade and accumulate $25k/50k/100k+ to get a PhD in something in the arts/humanities. I recently found myself (checking the source of a story from somewhere) at the faculty web page of what will remain an unnamed business professor at Boston University. Professor Shillyshally, as we will call him, has been there ten years. He earned a BS from a state university, an MBA from a relatively prestigious private school. He worked on Wall Street on the trading floor for ten years, and did some advisory work for the Fed. Then, he secured a teaching job from the early 2000’s onwards, probably pulling in $150k/year.

Now, to be clear from the start, I don’t have anything against Professor Shillyshally. I don’t fault him personally for being successful at what he set out to do. As an individual he’s not my target. But, if I may begin what many might mistake for a rant: what. the. actual. fuck. His CV shows no scholarly publications. There’s one non-paid talk to a public bank. His (non-academic) book just came out in 2012 by McGraw.

Here’s where I stop to anticipate the collective response, Hey, Einstein, he’s a business professor. Not physics, English, history, or sociology. Different disciplines do things differently. Get your head out of your ass.

To which I say: Ok. Fine. I buy that. But then why is he housed in an accredited university, where in the American tradition (as well as the rest of the western world), the general philosophy is supposed to run something along the lines of the below, from the 1963 Robbins Report to the U.K. government (I’ve bolded the relevant portions):

“[U]niversity places should be available to all who [are] qualified for them by ability and attainment . . . four ‘objectives [are] essential to any properly balanced system’. The first objective, a utilitarian one, [is] ‘instruction in skills'; but universities must also promote the ‘general powers of the mind’, to produce ‘not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women’. Thirdly, while the balance between teaching and research might vary, teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth, since ‘the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes of the nature of discovery’. Last . . . ‘the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship’.”

Anyone not agree with the above goals? Is this not exactly what Humboldt had in mind when he envisioned the modern university system two hundred years ago?

Professor Shillyshally, who for the purposes of this post serves as but a representative example of thousands of other “professors” in various business and other non-humanities disciplines at four-year accredited universities across the United States, meets less than half of these objectives. Don’t believe me? Peruse the faculty anywhere, and you’ll find a handful just like him. Everywhere. Where is his contribution to the scholarship? Evidence of teaching or research excellence? Cripes, where are his qualifications to teach at a well-regarded private university? And how is he getting paid so much?

The answers to these questions lead me ultimately to the incredibly deflating conclusion: Because we (in the humanities) have let it. But how have we let it get to this point? What have humanities faculty been doing in colleges and universities across the United States? Why do they continue to let administrations persuade them that the arts and humanities (and to a degree social sciences) are fundamentally worth less than the hard sciences (to which this attack is not directed, because those mofos work hard) and, far more importantly, business?

Because, friends, that’s what they’ve done. Through naivety, or lack of concern, they’ve screwed grad students of the last twenty years (and next twenty) over but good. Let’s take one example with which I (and many of you) will have intimate experience. How many students at your respective university have to take Composition I and II? Usually ALL the students. The American History Survey? Usually ALL the students. Our two respective departments touch every single student that walks in and out twice, and yet our tenured faculty can’t seem to find the leverage to make an argument for more tenured positions in the department (thereby initiating the tribble-fest that is more grad students to teach more sections as underpaid GTAs = glut of the market = more fixed-term positions instead of tenured positions because adjuncts usually have a laughable amount of bargaining power, ad infinitum).

How about an honest-to-goodness mission statement, humanities? How about some passion, some sense of self-worth? How about taking that ability to reify those abstract ideas in the writings of a poet or a scholar or a philosopher in a journal article and apply it to your job? The legwork, in some cases, is even being done for you. So why do we, as graduate students in the humanities at a Tier-1 research school (admittedly, something of a useless indice in and of itself), never hear about the business-side of things? Especially in the instances where we might actually have the opportunity to develop skills that can be directly measured (teach a grant-writing class for cripe’s sake) and used to advance our position instead of always playing godforsaken defense. We are conditioned to get a dirty taste in our mouths when we have to talk about anything other than pure research, like networking, or self-promotion. Or fear when we get told too late that grant writing is a critical skill to learn, because no one has bothered to mention it earlier, or provided an opportunity to attend a single informational seminar. We’ve convinced ourselves, and been convinced, that this is all not what an academic should be doing.

Granted, one should not be going to graduate school if s/he doesn’t want to take the initiative. Those of us who didn’t start out self-motivated learn quickly to correct that, or we’re out relatively early. I acknowledge that the onus is partly on us, to cowboy (and cowgirl) up, and learn to figure out how to succeed on our own if we want to do this for a living. Equally, however, is the onus on the shoulders of our departmental faculty. For goodness sake, we’re taking nine or twelve or fifteen graduate credits while simultaneously trying to choose a thesis or dissertation topic that doesn’t suck and putting together a committee that successfully navigates the minefield that is intradepartmental politics (oh, they don’t like each other because one time twenty years ago someone gave a dissenting opinion as to whether the other should get tenure, and then instead of acting like professionals a third person told them? or someone stole a favorite grad student in the early nineties and now no one can get through a department meeting together? Jesus people. It’s like a high school in here sometimes)!

So, yes, I feel comfortable saying some of the responsibility lies on faculty shoulders, especially those of you with tenure who teach two classes per semester, to say, “Hey, if you want to compete with those Ivy-League SOBs you need to present at two conferences a year, and get an article published before you get out of here, go to this seminar on self-promotion in academia, and actively seek out money so you can show a hiring committee you can bring in the bucks and they won’t have to foot the bill for your research all the time, oh and here’s how to negotiate with a prospective department head to get more salary, more time off, a research lab, a spousal hire, whatever.”

What have I heard instead, over the years and from three different departments (two of my own and from extensive experience with another)? You will never work at Harvard, or MIT, or Penn. You will not get a job in those departments that lead the discipline in your emphasis. You will have to settle for a small regional state school, or a community college. You will VAP or adjunct for the first five years. The unspoken one in the air is Most/many of the graduate students here end up doing something else. Which is fine for some—we all learn through this process what is and isn’t for us—but, and feel free to comment below if you haven’t gotten the same sense from your department, which should not, I repeat, should not be a dominant feeling.

So I guess this has turned into something of a call to action to the humanities. We need people not willing to cut your throat to get ahead (though that seems to work in other disciplines just fine, and maybe we should consider it too) but rather a pooling of our resources, a willingness to look dumb in front of each other for not knowing what we should be doing, and an acknowledgement by the faculty who mentor us that inexperience does not translate to a lack of potential. We need to start evaluating our faculty intra-departmentally on their ability to get their students hired at real jobs in academia, or lose that tenure, because for the love of Zeus maybe at least that will motivate faculty to get off their tuckuses and do something that isn’t whine and complain about how no one should go to grad school (which is what I heard constantly as an undergrad and still hear as a grad student even though, you know, it’s a little late for that).

Because I tell you what. I’m finishing this PhD. Then I’m going to go out, and find a job at a university where I want to work, and write, and think, and talk, and mentor the next generation of graduate students in History to be better at this process than I was, or at least an iota more prepared. And if I run into you, whether you’re a fellow graduate student or an award-winning professor in the humanities, and you act like this is all a zero-sum game where my loss is your win, hoarding your knowledge and your resources and contacts, here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to switch sub-disciplines to whatever it is you pollute with your black-hole attitude, find your weakness, and utterly destroy you. Don’t think I won’t. If there’s one thing you’ve done for me and the rest of my generation of graduate students in the humanities, it’s show us how to set the entirety of our minds at a problem no one else cares about or even recognizes exists, and pursue it mindlessly with the determination of Sisyphus himself with no prospect of remuneration at the end of the tunnel except for the dubious reward of self-satisfaction.

Some more excellent reads on the case for the humanities:

Steve Fuller, Who Needs the Humanities?

Christina Paxson, The Economic Case for Saving the Humanities

Mary Sue Coleman and John L. Hennessy, Lessons from the Humanities and Social Sciences

Steve Fuller, Keynote Address, Networked Learning Conference 2014

Robert Anderson, The Idea of a University Today

Alexandre Afonso, How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang (via Declan Kuch, @agentdeclan (thanks!))

Energy and Power: The History of Hydroelectricity in the American Northwest

Hirt and Wilma book review

Paul W. Hirt. The Wired Northwest: The History of Electric Power, 1870s-1970s. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. ix, 462 pp. $49.95)

David W. Wilma, Walt Crowley, and the HistoryLink Staff. Power for the People: A History of Seattle City Light. (Seattle: HistoryLink in Association with University of Washington Press, 2010. Illustrations, notes, index. 131 pp. $29.95.

It is a rare opportunity to review two texts which complement one another so well with regards to theme and scope. Paul W. Hirt in The Wired Northwest presents to us an ambitious, comprehensive, and integrated history of the development of regional power in Washington, Utah, Oregon, and British Columbia from 1870-1970. David Wilma, Walt Crowley, and the HistoryLink staff, on the other hand, attempt to render in detail a microcosm of Hirt’s larger narrative—that of the history of Seattle City Light, a municipal electric utility that in numerous ways lies at the heart of Hirt’s story—during almost the same period. Together, they offer a compelling account of reification, rationalization, ideology, and regional identity.

Harnessing the region’s rivers and watersheds remains, from the beginning, central to both stories, as environmental historians of the Northwest have shown for decades. Wilma, et. al. traces the stuttering emergence of this new technology that promised to liberate the masses from the darkness in the quickly growing city of Seattle in 1886, with two dynamos generating enough electricity for just three hundred sixteen-candlepower lamps from a single hydroelectric power source. Though, as Hirt points out, initially uneven in adoption and  use, questions about who would control production, transmission, and consumption of the nascent resource would immediately engender debate between public utilities charged with providing low-cost energy to as many as possible and private companies who claimed to be the inheritors of the American capitalist spirit.

Hirt’s wonderfully rich narrative of the northwest emphasizes the region’s early adoption of the electrical revolution, pioneered by industry magnates who both lighted private residences and began the process of illuminating those job sites where artificial light promised to increase productivity and profits, like mines and shipping yards, as well as re-organize factories on both sides of the border. Subjects include the amalgamation of small utilities into ever larger ones, the enthusiastic optimism in the possibilities offered by this new technology (some of which were quickly tempered by unequal service and prices for residential and commercial customers), apprehension of growing monopolies, conflict between competing industries attempting to rationalize the river (hydroelectric versus fishing), and the distinctive nature of energy history in the Northwest,  uniquely marked by geography as hydroelectric boosters, entrepreneurs, cooperatives, and regulators followed the twisting rivers, gorges, and watersheds of the region.

Hirt tends to favor the machinations of the private utility and the needs of industry, yet given his charge to synthesize a hundred years of energy history this is not entirely his fault. Municipal utilities, as shown by Wilma, et. al., were, especially in the early years, mercurial and small in number. Indeed, Wilma, et. al. provides a balance to Hirt’s narrative of the ideological struggle which quickly developed between proponents of private and public power by reminding us of the development of a powerful electric sensibility by the masses of people that could only be sated by more reliable, lower-priced, and increasing amounts of electricity.

Together Hirt and Wilma, et. al. demonstrate the fear of “foreigners” held by West Coast citizens, as they saw bankers, financiers, and capitalists from Chicago, Boston and New York attempt to enter the electric utility market via direct and indirect avenues of influence. They both also agree that the 1915 victory of the National Electric Light Association, effectively prohibiting municipal electric utilities from selling power beyond city limits, was a serious blow to anti-corporate interests in the public-private war. This conflict would, over time, come to dominate the electric industry no just in the Northwest, but across the United States.

At the same time, they each bring independent subjects to bear. Hirt highlights the particularities of electric power in the United States and Canada, like the fact that for Canadians growth remained generally slower, government regulation less transformative (especially during the world wars), and the worldwide depression of the 1930s more inhibiting to rural electrification, technical progress, and large hydroelectric projects because of already-strained economies and cautious financiers. He also spends considerable time with the Bonneville Power Administration and the long-reaching effects of federally funded hydroelectric projects would have on shaping the industry. Wilma, et. al., on the other hand, traces in meticulous detail the Seattle City Light’s sometimes rocky growth into the largest publicly owned utility in the region. Particularly welcome are moments like Seattle City Light’s implementation of public tours from 1929-1940, designed to keep the utility in the public eye during economic hardship. Picturesque train rides, guided tours of the monumental engineering project at Skagit River, an overnight stay, and imported plant and animal life made the destination successful to the tune of twenty-two thousand visitors per year by the start of World War Two. Especially useful to the reader is Wilma, et. al.’s rendering of life as a City Light employee with respect not only to daily activities for linemen, sales people, and troubleshooters, but the extent to which they all formed a complex association of families who lived, learned, worked, voted, commiserated and celebrated together.

The two texts are not without their disagreements. For instance, Wilma, et. al argues that in the early years of Seattle City Light residential customers were charged eight cents per kilowatt hour, with reduced rates as usage increased, while for commercial customers, rates were “generally higher” (28). This is in contrast to the trend unearthed by Hirt, which without fail notices commercial customers who use far more electricity than the average residential customer enjoying significantly reduced rates. Such trends provided continuous ammunition for the multifarious interests publicly debating the merits of various degrees of public and private ownership.

Both Hirt and Wilma end their parallel narratives with the onset of the 1970s and how the philosophy of pushing unending consumption (on the basis that production would meet future needs) suffered a relatively quick, if not easy, death. Economic realities along with local and global politics changed the landscape of public and private power. New imperatives transformed what it meant to be a corporate or public electric power entity in the late twentieth century, as the advent of the environmental impact study and new definitions of conservation among bureaucrats together redefined the manner by which the public accepted the harnessing of nature’s energy for their own and future generations.


This review will be published in the upcoming issue of the Pacific Northwest Quarterly.