Thursday, July 15, 2004

July Common-place

The July issue of Common-place is out (well, it's been out a little while, but I forgot to get my email newsletter renewed last year when I got a new email address...).

I particularly liked the article by Richard J Bell, on his experiences of researching his dissertation - on suicide in post-revolution America. He describes the way that many a research project develops; from the dawning realisation that what he'd rather naively planned just wasn't going to work, to the excitement of tracing new sources to end up with something very different. He also discusses the ways in which internet (and other electronic) resources have impacted on his research, helping him tremendously in his search for elusive needles in haystacks. He learned that while the numbers of recorded suicides may be small (and we'll never really know how many more there were), suicide's cultural significance went far beyond his early questions ("Who?" "how?" and "why?"); he found himself moving on to rather bigger themes ("so what?"): "How Americans in the early republic responded to suicide or the threat of it and what they understood that threat to be".

Also well worth reading is a historian's eye-view of historical reality TV, Is there a historian in the house?. Emerson W Baker worked on the US TV series Colonial House, and writes about his reasons for taking what he knew was a risk, about the "constant balancing act between the ideal and the practical, between the televisual story, the sound bite, and the historical record"; he's honest about his criticisms, but also why he was glad he did it: "I have spent my career as a historian and archaeologist trying to understand what life was like for the inhabitants of early New England. Last fall I had the opportunity to walk into a version of that past, and to share that experience with a few million students of history. Flaws and all, it was the opportunity of a lifetime".

Even if you're not interested in American history, Common-place is well worth bookmarking. It's always readable, enjoyable and stimulating. But one question. Cronaca has also flagged up the magazine, with the aside: "Yes, they did give the infamous Michael Bellesiles a platform in their early issues..." Who is Michael Bellesiles and what's wrong with him? What have I missed? (Or forgotten...)

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