New history articles (June 2012 edition)

Posted in Journals, Reading by Alex L. on September 13, 2012

Historical Proceedings header

With this post, I’m starting a new monthly article series called “Historical Proceedings” that reviews a sampling of the new historical articles published in mostly academic journals (but also some popular magazines). I’m a few months behind on these and also on my monthly posts about new history books, but I’m working to catch up.

As with the books, I’ll be choosing articles every month that I think are interesting, enlightening, and well written (all, admittedly, subjective criteria). I hope these posts inspire you to read new works of history and to share your comments with me below.

The Historian journal cover“The Repression of Soviet Koreans during the 1930s” by Alexander Kim in The Historian (Summer 2012).

Joseph Stalin killed so many people from so many different communities during his purges of the 1930s that it’s hard to deny the veracity of the quote that is often attributed to him: “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” To understand the human toll of the purges, it helps to take a closer look at one cross-section of the population that was affected by them.

Alexander Kim writes in The Historian, a publication of the Phi Alpha Theta Historical Honor Society, about Soviet Koreans who were forcibly relocated from their homes in the Far East to barren lands in Kazakhstan. That they were accused of trumped-up charges of spying for the enemies of the Soviet Union was not unique by Soviet standards of the 1930s. But Kim describes how the Soviet Koreans’ integrality to the local economy (they were adept vegetable farmers) and easy ability to escape Soviet authorities by crossing the border into China delayed their repression by Stalin’s agents. That was something most other groups were not able to do during the purges.

Approximately 172,000 Soviet Koreans were forcibly relocated by train from their homes in the Far East. These journeys lasted 30-40 days, and, according to some accounts, there was a death in almost every family as a result of the severe travel conditions. I knew nothing about Koreans living in the Soviet Union before reading this article, so Kim’s work was a sobering but enlightening find.

Academic journal cover“The International Politics of Vaccine Testing in Interwar Algiers” by Clifford Rosenberg in American Historical Review (June 2012).

The American Historical Society publishes a thick issue of AHR, a premier journal of history, every few months. Each edition is filled with dozens of book reviews but only one original article. The article in the June issue seems so narrow in focus as to be irrelevant (see title above) but it’s actually a good story.

Rosenberg describes how a pragmatic French scientist, Albert Calmette, championed the vaccine against tuberculosis that he discovered in the early 20th century. Even though France was suffering many cases of this disease, the French physicians, public, and bureaucracy paradoxically made it difficult for Calmette to conduct trials of this drug in that country.

To prove the worth of his vaccine, Calmette teamed up with the League of Nations Health Organization (predecessor of the UN’s World Health Organization) to test the vaccine in French-controlled Algiers. Rosenberg’s brings up many interesting issues with this story that took place from the 1920s to the 1950s that are still relevant today. Calmette, for instance, faced the ethical dilemma while testing his vaccine that the control group of children would not benefit from receiving the medicine. He also conducted clinical trials in Algiers neither to exploit the colonial population nor to “modernize” it, so it’s a case study that doesn’t fit the mold of current theories of European imperialism.

Academic journal cover“The Indelible Legacy of a Seafaring Heritage” by Tessa Dunlop in History Today (June 2012).

“In England,” The New York Times observed in 1879, “it is regarded as a customary and proper thing to tattoo the youthful feminine leg.” The practice of tattooing  has an interesting  history that is summarized in a brief article by Tessa Dunlop. Tattoo culture is alive and well in Brooklyn (where I live) so this article caught my attention.

Tattooing was first written about in the English language during the voyage of James Cook, when his expedition observed the art in Tahiti. It’s cool to think that all instances of this art form in the English-speaking world have a connection to this great explorer. The practice became popular in the Royal Navy, and sailors who retired from the service later opened tattoo parlors in port cities catering to British civilians (there is a tattoo parlor by my apartment near Gowanus Bay called Leatherneck Tattoos that is operated by ex-Marines, another interesting historical parallel).

Getting a tattoo was even more expensive back then than now, so it became an upper-class fad in the 19th century. When prices dropped, many poorer people also started donning tattoos, and, characteristically, aristocrats began shying away from getting inked. This changed again in the 1970s, and tattoos have been rising in popularity for all classes ever since. Given the popularity of tribal and Asian-language tattoos among Americans, identification with “the outsider” or “the other,” I think, is still as much a motivator for getting a tattoo as it was when British aristocrats partook of the Polynesian art.

Academic journal cover“Knowing Ourselves: How the Classics Strengthen Schools and Society” by Peter Dodington in American Educator (Summer 2012).

So many humanities departments today are faced with the question, “Why is it important that Americans learn about the classics (or history, or literature, or art, etc)?” In the latest edition of American Educator, Peter Dodington writes a defense of why the Greek and Latin classics deserve our attention.

I found the first part of his argument — the lessons to be learned by reading Homer — very compelling. The characters in The Iliad live in a materialistic world but seek intangible prizes: honor, excellence, and the public good — but mostly honor. They go boldly after what they want, have captivating personalities, but don’t always get what they set out to find. As a way to imaginatively raise big ethical questions in the classroom (and have a symbolic language with which to talk about them) I agree with Dodington that reading Homer is a good idea.

His defense of teaching Latin in American schools seems shakier. Latin is difficult but systematic: a student of any ability can learn it if he or she is just diligent enough. And its “seeming uselessness,” writes Dodington, is an advantage because it allows students to focus and reflect on the pure process of learning. Is that the best defense the humanities can muster these days: that their very uselessness makes them useful? Dodington defends the process of Latin rather than the content. What about the writings of the ancient Romans: surely there must be something there that would make reading them in Latin really worth it. If not, why not have children learn Mandarin or Esperanto or chess instead?

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