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For 40 Years, Crashing Trains Was One of America’s Favorite Pastimes

3 Jul
The "Crash at Crush" explosion.

The “Crash at Crush” explosion. THE TEXAS COLLECTION, BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

ON SEPTEMBER 15, 1896, TWO locomotives crashed head on 14 miles north of WacoTexas. The locomotives’ boilers exploded on impact, sending debris flying through the air for hundreds of yards, killing at least two spectators and maiming countless others. One man even lost an eye to a flying bolt.

But no one ran from the calamity. In fact, after the crash, thousands of bystanders ran toward the destroyed locomotives hoping to claim a piece of the wreckage. That’s because the 40,000 or so people scattered along the tracks that September day knew the locomotives were going to crash and had paid to be there.

So begins Justin Franz’s fascinating account of staged train wrecks. You may read his entire Atlas Obscura piece here.

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The Wild West Meets the Southern Border

4 Jun

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

Tombstone’s reënactors re-create a peculiar and selective representation of the past. Photograph by Chris Verene for The New Yorker

Shakespeare is in New Mexico. Tombstone, in Arizona. Both are old mining towns near the U.S.-Mexico border. They came into existence in the eighteen-seventies, during the silver strike, but soon suffered the same fate as most of the other mining towns in the region: boom, depression, abandonment, and then a strange kind of afterlife.

Some years ago, I spent a summer in the Southwest with my then husband, our daughter, and my two stepsons, and we visited both places. It was 2014, the immigration crisis was very much in the news—unaccompanied children from Central America were arriving at the border in unprecedented numbers, seeking asylum—and I was beginning to do research on the situation. My husband and I were obsessively meeting deadlines, and the kids were getting impatient with us, feeling…

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The Day Christian Fundamentalism Was Born

26 May

For many Americans, it was thrilling to be alive in 1919. The end of World War I had brought hundreds of thousands of soldiers home. Cars were rolling off the assembly lines. New forms of music, like jazz, were driving people to dance. And science was in the ascendant, after helping the war effort. Women, having done so much on the home front, were ready to claim the vote, and African-Americans were eager to enjoy full citizenship, at long last. In a word, life was dazzlingly modern.

But for many other Americans, modernity was exactly the problem. As many parts of the country were experimenting with new ideas and beliefs, a powerful counterrevolution was forming in some of the nation’s largest churches and Bible institutes. A group of Christian leaders, anxious about the chaos that seemed to be enveloping the globe, recalibrated the faith and gave it a new urgency. They knew that the time was right for a revolution in American Christianity. In its own way, this new movement — fundamentalism — was every bit as important as the modernity it seemingly resisted, with remarkable determination.

Historian Matthew Avery Sutton suggests that 100 years ago, fundamentalist Protestantism was born. While the specific year and occasion are subject to debate, Sutton adeptly and concisely describes the concerns of fundamentalists and points out some ongoing impacts. You can read the rest of his New York Times op-ed here.

GEN Z IS THE LEAST RELIGIOUS GENERATION. HERE’S WHY THAT COULD BE A GOOD THING.

8 May

Generation Z Community Gen Z

Members of Generation Z are losing their religion, for better and for worse. My 17-year-old daughter, Sheila, does not believe in God. She attended church twice when we were trying to decide whether to raise her with religion (we decided against it). She’s been at synagogue a few times, attending friends’ bat mitzvahs, but those friends don’t believe in God either. Her circle of close friends is diverse in many ways: white, black, Latina, Jewish, Indian; three identify as bi or gay. They are less diverse when it comes to religion: Except for one girl, who’s an Evangelical Christian, religion is not important to these kids.

Sheila and her friends are typical of a growing trend in her generation. I say this not only as a parent. I teach at a Catholic university where increasing numbers of my students lack even basic knowledge of the tradition they were supposedly raised in. And I’m a sociologist of religion who has spent 15 years studying those who leave it.

So begins religious sociologist Christel J. Manning’s report and musings on Gen Z and religion. You may read her entire Pacific Standard piece here.

THE CONSUMER AGE TURNED AMERICANS INTO GAMBLERS

2 May

Iowa Lottery CEO Terry Rich presents a check to Lerynne West, one of the winners of a $700 million Powerball prize in November 2018. Courtesy of AP Photo/Charlie Neibargall.

Today legal gambling in the United States is widely accepted and more prevalent than ever. But as recently as the 1950s, gambling was seen as a fundamentally un-American way to make a living. This shift in attitudes towards gambling—which took about a half-century to achieve—spoke to generational shifts in American beliefs about morality and capitalism.

So begins historian David G. Schwartz’s concise and cogent history of attitudes toward gambling in the U.S. in the 20th and 21st centuries. You may read his entire Zocalo essay here.

How the Census Changed America

1 May

 

The inventor Herman Hollerith devised a punch-card system to record census information. His invention transformed data-processing technology. Photograph by American Stock Archive / Archive Photos / Getty

In April, the Supreme Court began to hear arguments about one of the central requirements of the Constitution. It’s right there, in Article I, Section 2, clause 3: For a government of the people to function, the people must be counted. The Founders wanted an “enumeration” to occur within three years of the first meeting of Congress, and then “within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” A census, in other words.

So begins Ted Widmer’s brief consideration of some of the history of the U.S. Census. While he rightly notes the partial exclusion of African Americans for much of this history, he fails to note the even longer exclusion of most American Indians. Indians were not declared U.S. citizens until an act of Congress in 1924.

You may read Widmer’s entire New Yorker article here.

WHAT THE DODGERS AND GIANTS’ 1958 MOVE WEST MEANT FOR AMERICA

28 Mar

Few phrases are as evocative of a mythical, imagined urban past as “Brooklyn Dodgers.”

Those two words, particularly in the borough that is now a punch line for hipster jokes, bring to mind a different America, one where the U.S. saw itself as more of a political innocent just discovering its global superpowers, where hardworking immigrant families advanced rapidly into the middle class, and where young people survived on a diet of knishes, homemade pasta, kielbasa, and other foods from the old country (but rarely drank anything stronger than a milkshake). The nostalgia evoked by the phrase “Brooklyn Dodgers” was broad enough to include African-Americans making steady advances into the promise of full citizenship, symbolized by the integration of baseball by Jackie Robinson and the excellence of his teammates, from Roy Campanella to Don Newcombe.

Those fantasies—of the Dodgers, of baseball, of America—came crashing down in 1957. It was announced that winter that the Dodgers and their uptown rivals the Giants, who made their home in Harlem, would leave New York the following year for Los Angeles and San Francisco.

This move West, still decried in Brooklyn and among older New Yorkers, changed how Americans thought about baseball and the country.

So begins Columbia University professor Lincoln Mitchell’s summary of his book on the westward move of baseball in the 1950s. You may read the entire Zocalo Public Square post here.

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Reading, Thinking, and Blogging about History

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reflections at the intersection of American history, religion, politics, and academic life

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Reformed. Done Daily.

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blogwestdotorg.wordpress.com/

Thoughtful Conversation about the American West

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"History is the record of our loves in all their magnificent and ignoble forms." Eugene McCarraher

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