Category Archives: Travel

Enjoying nature in Maryland during the month of June

Guest post by Bryan MacKay

MackaySummer Solstice here on the east coast occurred yesterday, June 21, at 12:39 p.m. To mark the official start of summer, we offer the following June excerpt from Bryan MacKay’s A Year across Maryland, his week-by-week guide to enjoying the natural world in JHUP’s home state.


Enchanter’s Nightshade

The summer solstice brings this diminutive and easily-overlooked woodland plant into flower. Despite its unassuming nature, enchanter’s nightshade competes favorably with other wildflowers for the title of most evocative name. Enchanter’s nightshade is a member of the genus Circaea, named for the Greek goddess Circe. Circe was well known for her magical spells and potions. Supposedly, she used another species in this genus for such purposes, hence the word “enchanter’s.” The leaves of this species resemble leaves of the night shade family,  providing the rest of its common name. It is not in the nightshade family, however, and to my knowledge has not been used as a medicine or food.

Mackay-enchanters-nightshadeEnchanter’s nightshade grows on the forest floor in rich, slightly damp, well-shaded soil. The white flowers are tiny, less than a quarter inch in diameter, and grow on spikes (racemes) that rise above the egg-shaped leaves. The flowers have only two petals, an unusual characteristic shared by only one other genus of native wildflowers, the spurges. It’s worth a close look, even though few hikers even notice this modest plant.

Where to see enchanter’s nightshade this week: Because it is easily overlooked, few people know enchanter’s nightshade. Look for it trailside in places such as Patapsco Valley and Seneca Creek State Parks, Rock Creek Park, and Sugarloaf Mountain.


Blueberries Ripe

MacKay blueberryThe long days of late June ripen blueberries, and long distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland appreciate this tasty supplement to their spartan diets. Blueberries are a common ground cover on sandy,  nutrient-poor soils, whether they be on mountaintop ridges in the western part of the state or in pine-dominated forests on the coastal plain of the Eastern Shore. These are not the lush commercial berries you buy at the supermarket. Wild blueberries in this region are pea-sized and more tart than sweet.

Where to find wild blueberries this week:  Blueberries grow in many places in Maryland where there is dry soil. The Appalachian Trail has many miles of such ridgetop habitat.


Fireflies Light Up the Night

Mackay fireflyWhat is more magical than the glow of fireflies in the gloaming? Generations of kids have chased, captured, and observed these commonplace beetles and in the process become familiar, even enchanted, with the natural world. Fireflies don’t require wilderness. The suburban lawn seems to host very high densities of these animals with flashing lights on their abdomens. Although the first fireflies may appear by Memorial Day and persist well into July, late June seems to be the high point of their activity.

Where to see fireflies this week: Most suburban lawns host fireflies; you can even see some in grassy areas in cities. Densities seem greatest at the border between forest and lawn.


Brown Pelicans Raising Young

No natural place in Maryland may be more chaotic, noisy, and smelly than a nesting colony of brown pelicans. When adult birds arrive with fish to feed their young, the excited and raucous cries of these nestlings fill the air. Conditions in a colony are often crowded, and territorial squabbles are frequent. The smells of regurgitated fish, bird guano, and the occasional dead bird, all baking in the mid-summer sun, are pungent. A visit to a seabird nesting colony is a memorable experience.

In the Chesapeake, our largest colonial nesting waterbird is the brown pelican. With a six-foot wingspan, few birds are more conspicuous and familiar to Maryland beachgoers. Most often seen as a line of birds cruising seemingly without effort just above the waves, these handsome birds are also notorious panhandlers dockside. Less often are pelicans seen feeding, but their headfirst plunge-dive into the ocean in search of fish is a dramatic sight.

Brown pelicans are fairly new to Maryland. Their numbers in the United States were decimated by organochlorine pesticides in the 1960s; the species was once even extinct in Louisiana, where it was (and is) the state bird. After DDT was banned in the United States, brown pelicans made an amazingly rapid recovery, reaching historic levels by 2000. As the population grew, birds on the Atlantic coast expanded their range northward above North Carolina, nesting for the first time in Maryland waters in 1987. In 2010, about 2,500 brown pelican chicks were banded on Bay islands near the Virginia border. By late summer, pelicans are a common sight at Ocean City, Maryland, and are now seen as far north as New Jersey.

Where to see nesting brown pelicans this week: While pelicans in flight and fishing in Maryland are easy to spot, nesting birds are found mostly on uninhabited islands in Chesapeake Bay. As of this writing, the largest colony is on Holland Island, but that will doubtless change, as Holland is being steadily eroded away. Nesting waterbirds are very susceptible to disturbance by humans, with very negative results, so observe the colonies with binoculars from a boat at least fifty feet offshore. Never go ashore; some birds would very likely die due to such an intrusion.


Bryan MacKay is a senior lecturer emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of A Year across Maryland: A Week-by-Week Guide to Discovering Nature in the Chesapeake Region; Hiking, Cycling, and Canoeing in Maryland: A Family Guide; and Baltimore Trails: A Guide for Hikers and Mountain Bikers.

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Enjoying Nature During the D.C. Summer: Go Early, Go Often

by Howard Youth

The nation’s capital wears its thick cloak of green this time of year. The towering trees, the flourishing vines, the humidity. Tourists feel they’ve stumbled into a tropical city. But, no, it’s just Washington, D.C. in summer. A very exciting time and place for the naturalist. So, drink a lot of water, accept the sweat, and head out early to the city’s wonderful natural areas. You’ll be richly rewarded.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

In 1976, at the age of ten, I developed an interest in reptiles. Two years later, herons grabbed my attention. These alluring birds drew me into birding, a passion I keep to this day. In Washington, D.C. at this time of year, if you are up early and near the Potomac or Anacostia rivers, you are bound to see a heron of some stripe. When you watch one stalk the shoreline in search of frogs or small fish, it’s easy to agree with the many paleontologists who believe birds evolved from trim, predatory dinosaurs. One of the best heron-watching sites is Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Walk the boardwalk into the restored tidal marsh there, or stroll along the lily and lotus ponds. By July, herons dispersing from bay or coastal breeding areas augment the small number of herons present in the area through the breeding season. At Kenilworth, you will likely see the small green heron, the large, grumpy-sounding great blue heron, and the great egret. But others show up, especially in July and August, and these might include little blue heron, black-crowned and sometimes yellow-crowned night-herons.

From July into August, spotted immature black-crowned night-herons loiter around the National Zoo’s Bird House, having just left their nests in the trees. The zoo’s night-heron colony is just one example of how zoos around the world not only exhibit, but also attract, wild creatures. The zoo is open very early for walkers, joggers, and nature buffs. If you walk from the Connecticut Avenue entrance down to the bottom of the hill and back, you not only get a great workout, but you also have the chance to see wild gray catbirds, eastern chipmunks, woodpeckers, wood ducks, cardinals, white-tailed deer, and of course gray squirrels, including black-coated ones that descended from black phase gray squirrels released at the zoo last century. These black squirrels hailed from Ontario. In many parts of that Canadian province, most gray squirrels are black.

Summer in Washington means noticing those small creatures you might have missed in other months. Even if you close your eyes, you can’t ignore the city’s summer wildlife. Listen to the growing crescendo of buzzing annual cicadas, invisible but seemingly everywhere, or the chittering of chimney swifts catching insects high over the city streets. With the abundant heat and humidity, dragonflies and damselflies flourish, snapping up mosquitoes and other small flying insects. At dusk, you might see bats doing the same thing.

Sun-drenched stumps and rock walls may be adorned with five-lined skinks, small and shiny lizards. The females and young sport black stripes running down their backs and flashy blue tails. Males are gold with red heads. Green frogs and bullfrogs, snapping and painted turtles, and maybe even a snake or two will cross your path. Likely snakes include common garter snakes and black rat snakes. The northern copperhead, the only poisonous species in the area, is rare in the city and unlikely to be seen.

While spring in Washington boasts tree and shrub blooms—yoshino and kwanza cherries, dogwoods, mountain laurels, redbuds, azaleas—summer has colors all its own. Day lilies, herbs, meadow flowers such as asters and butterfly weed, and of course, ornamental crape-myrtles: these are plants you see coloring the view at the landscape level. If you don’t want to miss anything, remember that when it comes to appreciating nature, it pays to stop and look around at the small things. The unheralded jewelweed grows in clumps along waterways and moist woodland edges. Its tiny but spectacular blooms draw hummingbirds. The white and red clover and dandelions growing in the lawn attract many pollinating insects, and cottontail rabbits as well.

Growing up in the area, I spent many hours exploring the C&O Canal. If I imagine the tow path, it’s usually a still summer morning, with a bit of mist rising from the water, a dense overhang of American sycamore, tulip tree, and mighty oaks. Another persistent memory: Walking across the entrance bridge to Roosevelt Island, blue-backed barn swallows drifting over the water with a backdrop of tangled vegetation, a mix of vines, shrubs, and trees that made it easy for me to fall in love with tropical places. For if you spend July and August in Washington, D.C. you feel that the heat, and the bounty, of equatorial realms moved north for a spell.

youthHoward Youth is the author of Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C., published by Johns Hopkins Press.

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Spring Returns to Washington (Really!)

Guest post by Howard Youth

April is a month when there’s no denying winter’s retreat. Even if the thermometer dips below freezing, it rarely stays there for long. Days stretch longer, too. For local plants and animals and the wildlife enthusiasts who observe them, it’s a very busy time.

Washington, D.C. is a capital city not only in the geopolitical sense, but also in a much more animated way. Its location, chosen by George Washington as the best place for a seat of government and commercial hub, also serves the naturalist very well. Washington hosts a staggering array of living creatures thanks to this happy combination of factors: it sits between north and south, at the confluence of two rivers, and along the fall line where piedmont meets coastal plain. Grab a backpack, a pair of binoculars, and a handy field guide (may I recommend my book?), and you will see what I mean. Let’s start with some famous flowering trees.

Youth-cherry-treeMost tourists hope to visit Washington, D.C. in spring. It’s always a gamble planning ahead and trying to be in town when the cherry blossom trees bloom. Here are some insider tips for cherry blossom watching this time of year. First, keep an eye on the National Park Service web page, where you can find updates on predicted bloom dates. Of particular interest is the predicted date for peak bloom, when 70 percent of the Yoshino cherry tree blossoms (pictured above) are open. Top spots for viewing include the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument. But you also want to visit East Potomac Park, where you find not only the Yoshinos but also the later-blooming Kwanzan and other ornamental cherry varieties. All of these locations are detailed in the Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C. Following the ferocious winter, this year, the cherry tree experts predict the Yoshinos’ peak bloom will fall between April 8 and 12. Last year’s peak hit within this window, on April 9. The year before was an early March 20.

But when it comes to wildlife—and I’m not talking the bar scene here—Washington, D.C. is so much more than Yoshino blooms. Below are just a few highlights. All locations mentioned here are detailed in the field guide, including visiting tips and key wildlife-watching locations, as well as identification tips.

As you walk around the capital city, watch for these sure signs of spring:

  • Millions of tulips and daffodils blooming in various parks, including along the George Washington Memorial Parkway (Lady Bird Johnson Park in particular) and at the National Arboretum, Dumbarton Oaks, the National Zoo, and many other places.
  • Walk the C&O Canal tow path and keep your eyes open and your ears ready for abundant bird song. Early this month, the adjacent Potomac River provides a corridor for migrating waterfowl and hawks. After the third week of April, neotropical migrants arrive, stake claim to territories, and begin building their nests. These birds include Baltimore and orchard orioles, warbling vireos, yellow-billed cuckoos, great crested flycatchers, and scarlet tanagers. Barn, tree, and northern rough-winged swallows arrive shortly before these species.
  • For other creatures, the business of raising young is well underway. During April, many birds fledge their young, including five woodpecker species, American robins, blue jays, European starlings, Carolina chickadees, and common grackles. Young eastern gray squirrels frisk about. Rare sights in winter, eastern chipmunks and woodchucks (or groundhogs) become familiar sights again in Rock Creek Park, Fort Dupont Park, and other green spaces.
  • Temperature also plays a role. Temperatures above 60 degrees mean dragonflies will be active and bats will be wheeling around at dusk. Above, say, 50 degrees, you may hear tiny frogs called spring peepers “beeping” in low, wet areas, or hear the long trill of breeding American toads. Warm, sunny days draw out the local reptiles, including eastern painted turtles, common water snakes, and striped lizards called five-lined skinks.
  • April also heralds the widespread return of insects. Eastern tent caterpillars’ gauzy nests appear in the crotches of cherry and other trees. Nesting and migrating birds such as cuckoos and orioles feast on this easy protein source, while tiny blue-gray gnatcatchers gather some of the caterpillar nest silk for their own cup nests.
  • Spring ephemeral wildflowers accent floodplain forests this month. These include mayapple, Virginia bluebells, Dutchman’s breeches, and spring beauty.

But April is just a great head start for anyone interested in Washington, D.C.’s varied wildlife. At any season, there is much to see here. At the National Arboretum, for example, you will find something in bloom most months. Even in the dead of winter, sparrows, woodpeckers, hawks, and ducks liven up the landscape.

For those who care to look, every day in Washington, D.C. is a celebration of nature. It’s easy to escape the grind by retreating to the city’s many parks. Any naturalist knows that, when it comes to wildlife, Washington is truly a city that never sleeps.

youthHoward Youth is the author of Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C.  He is a freelance natural history writer and former associate editor and communications manager for the Friends of the National Zoo. His work has been published in Audubon magazine, National Wildlife, and the Washington Post.  The book’s illustrator, Mark A. Klingler, is a natural history artist in residence at Carnegie Museum of Natural History and illustrator of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, also published by Johns Hopkins. The book’s photographer, Robert E. Mumford, Jr., is a wildlife photographer whose work has appeared in Birder’s World, Smithsonian Zoogoer (the National Zoo’s magazine), and the New York Times.

 

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Filed under Animals, Botany, Conservation, D.C., For Everyone, Regional-Chesapeake Bay, Travel, Washington, Wild Thing

September news and new books

News and Notes

Political Science Catalog coverTake a peak inside our latest Political Science Catalog, covering International Relations, Democracy Studies, Security Studies, and American Politics.

Charles Rzepka, author of Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard, wrote a moving eulogy honoring the late author, who passed away last month.

Michelle Ann Abate, author of Bloody Murder: The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature, argues in a Q&A in The Boston Globe that kids’ books have always been surprisingly violent.

The Amish aren’t necessarily anti-technology, they’re just more thoughtful about it. Don Kraybill, co-author of The Amish,  was interviewed on NPR’s All Tech Considered about the misconception that the Amish are opposed to technology.

Hot off the Press

The 36-Hour Day, audio edition This best-selling book, hailed as “both a guide and legend” for people caring for someone with dementia, is now available for the first time as an audiobook. Also available from Audible.com.

Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial Life in Our Minds and in the Cosmos Whether you are drawn to the psychological belief in Aliens, the history of our interest in life on other planets, or the scientific possibility of Alien existence, Alien Universe is sure to hold you spellbound.

Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age Michael Olesker recounts the stories of some of Baltimore’s most famous personalities as they grew up during the “decade of conformity.”

Schizophrenia: A Brother Finds Answers in Biological Science A neuroscientist explores the biological bases of schizophrenia and tells the heartbreaking story of his own brother’s battle with the disease.

The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller The twentieth anniversary edition of this now classic tale of a sixteenth-century miller facing the Roman Inquisition features a thoughtful new preface.

Social Networks and Popular Understanding of Science and Health: Sharing Disparities Stretching well beyond social media, this book documents disparate tendencies in the ways people learn and share information about health and science.

New in Paperback!

Einsteins Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion “Gimbel is an engaging writer . . . he takes readers on enlightening excursions through the nature of Judaism, Hegelian philosophy, wherever his curiosity leads.”—New York Times

New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America, 2nd edition This second edition incorporates fifteen years of additional scholarship on Indian-European relations, including information on the role of gender, Indian slavery, relationships with African Americans, and new understandings of frontier society.

Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America “An intriguing, instructive history of the establishment and development of the life insurance industry that reveals a good deal about changing social and commercial conditions in antebellum America.”—Choice

 

 

inboxCurious about life sciences, or want to learn more about American history? Click here to let us know which subject areas you are interested in so that we can let you know about books we know you’ll want to read.

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End of summer news and new books

News and Notes

hecht

The August 8 edition of the London Review of Books featured a magnificent Colm Tóibín appreciation of The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht.

morhaimAmericans are living longer than ever, aided by ever-advancing life-saving medical technologies and treatments. Dr. Dan Morhaim, author of The Better End: Surviving (and Dying) on Your Own Terms in Today’s Modern Medical World, joins Midday with Dan Rodricks, to discuss end-of-life care.

Hot off the Press

Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard Charles J. Rzepka’s enticing exploration of the work and life of the “Dickens of Detroit” looks at what makes the dope-dealers, bookies, grifters, financial advisors, talent agents, shady attorneys, hookers, models, and crooked cops of Elmore Leonard’s world “cool.” [ed. note: With sadness we note that Elmore Leonard passed away this morning due to complications from the stroke he suffered in early August.]

Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski The first comprehensive account of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s complementary roles as author, academic, policy maker, and critic.

A Year across Maryland: A Week-by-Week Guide to Discovering Nature in the Chesapeake Region  Bryan Mackay invites readers to explore the Chesapeake Region, throughout the year, from watching bald eagles nesting in January to harvesting mistletoe in December.

Lights On! The Science of Power Generation  Mark Denny takes us on a fun tour, examining the nature of energy, tracing the history of power generation, and explaining the processes from production through transmission to use.

Spark from the Deep: How Shocking Experiments with Strongly Electric Fish Powered Scientific Discovery  William J. Turkel tells the story of how human beings came to understand and use electricity by studying the evolved mechanisms of strongly electric fish.

Prelude to Revolution: The Salem Gunpowder Raid of 1775 The latest contribution to the Witness to History series, Prelude to Revolution tells the story of a critical event in America’s early history, when a new nation’s fate was still uncertain.

New in paperback!

beilensonTapping into The Wire: The Real Urban Crisis “A convincing argument that nonviolent drug users are part of a significant public health problem that demands an effective response from cities . . . Readers cannot help but feel sympathy for those who struggle with addiction and the plight of government officials who strive to create alternatives to this dilemma. Highly recommended for readers interested in substance abuse or criminal justice issues and prepared for intellectual engagement.” —Library Journal

katzLeaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan “Katz makes a concise and readable argument for why withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan will serve to weaken the forces of radical Islam, and along the way provides a trenchant critique of the uses to which American power has been put over the past decade.”—Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University

Journals News

The Journal of Democracy has released two new podcast episodes featuring conversations with authors from the July 2013 issue. You can download the files from the journal website or subscribe via iTunes to have them automatically delivered to your digital audio player.

New Literary History will hold a conference next month on “Interpretation and its Rivals.” The two-day event will take place at the University of Virginia, the journal’s host institution, and will feature four panel sessions. The conference is co-sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities and Global Cultures and Johns Hopkins University Press.  

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Summer Travel Then and Now

Guest post by Daniel Kilbride

The summer tourist season is upon us. Travel today certainly has its frustrations. If Dante were to write The Inferno in our own time, he would certainly reserve a special circle of hell for the customer service employees of certain airlines. And anybody (like me, recently) who has ever had to drive into North Carolina’s Outer Banks during the summer knows that the much-touted speed of our conveyances is a relative concept.

Still, twenty-first century leisure travelers enjoy conveniences that women and men from earlier periods could hardly dream about. Travel can be so frustrating for us precisely because we take speed, ease, safety, and comfort for granted. When we are inconvenienced, we feel as if we are being deprived of an entitlement. Those conveniences are very, very new developments. My book Being American in Europe, 1750-1861 is not primarily concerned with transformations in the means and frequency of trans-Atlantic travel. Rather, it focuses on how Americans abroad struggled to situate themselves in western civilization at the same time they tried to develop a sense of national distinctiveness. But when reading the letters and diaries of my travelers, I could not help but appreciate the enormous difficulties they encountered in endeavoring to visit Europe. Even though transformations in tourism—what we might begin to call the beginnings of the travel industry—can be seen late in this period, even the most privileged traveler in the early nineteenth century endured barriers and indignities that would have any modern traveler writing angry letters to their chamber of commerce (and/or their blog).

It began with arranging one’s Atlantic crossing (getting to one of the big coastal cities would necessitate a blog post of its own). Before the establishment of regular passenger-mail-cargo routes early in the nineteenth century, would-be travelers had to track down a ship’s captain and haggle for a berth—and to bring along necessities like food and drink on their own. The adventure only really began once aboard. In the era before steam travel, a traveler might have to wait days or weeks before favorable winds enabled the ship to set out on the ocean. Kicking back in business class was not really an option, either. As passenger travel grew in the 1830s and 40s—and as early steamships began to make the crossing—shipping lines strove to promote comfort and even luxury. But technological limitations made this almost impossible. Early steamships captured the public imagination because of their association with progress, but they were not much faster than sailing vessels, on average. They were also dirty, noisy, and prone to explode—that last feature a big drawback on the open sea. Travelers’ accounts resound with stories of flying china and silverware, waves swamping genteelly-dressed women, and passengers throwing all pretense of refinement into the wind as they surrendered to seasickness and puked over the side of their boat.

At most, a modern airline passenger has to endure a talkative neighbor for a couple of hours. That was not an option before the era of grand steamships. When Levin Smith Joynes crossed the Atlantic in 1840, he discovered that among his fellow passengers was William Lloyd Garrison and a number of African-American abolitionists on their way to the World Anti-Slavery convention in London. The encounter was unpleasant for everybody involved. Garrison and his party were appalled by the outright racism and proslavery views of Joynes and the other passengers, who on their part were put off by the abolitionists’ moral grandstanding against gambling, drinking, and other ways of passing the time. Suddenly, that insurance salesman sitting next to you on that flight to D.C. doesn’t seem so bad.

Diligence_Stagecoach_001Things did not look up upon arrival.  Today, we have Fodor’s and Baedeker’s to tell us where to go, when and how to get there, and even what to think about what we see, hear, and taste. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers did not have that luxury. When it came to how to get from place to place, what to visit, and where to stay and eat, they were on their own. During his 1800-04 Tour, James Oldden Jr. of Philadelphia relied on his fellow carriage passengers for local knowledge. Without a guidebook, he took advice wherever he could get it.  He thought long and hard before visiting the Continent (speaking only English) and only did so after securing a bagful of letters of introduction to local notables. During his visit to the Continent he endured the loss of all his luggage and several life-threatening crashes of his diligence (a kind of large, misshapen stagecoach) in France. No wonder that early modern travel attracted only adventurous spirits.

Package tours and guidebooks, which began to appear around the middle of the nineteenth-century, made travel accessible to more conventional spirits. In the transaction, some of the spontaneity and adventure of foreign travel was surely lost. The traveling world was also smaller. Men traveling abroad in the early nineteenth century could expect to spend a festive July 4th and Washington’s Birthday as the guest of the American minister, a privilege few Americans enjoy today. But the travel industry also democratized tourism, making it accessible first to privileged women, and then to ordinary people. That, at least, is progress.

kilbrideDaniel Kilbride is an associate professor of history at John Carroll University in Ohio. He is the author of Being American in Europe, 1750-1861, published by JHU Press.

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Expectations, surprises, and creative liberation

Guest post by Daniel Kilbride

I suppose that every historian approaches a research subject, even a new one about which he or she might know very little, with certain expectations. Some of us do much more: several years ago, a young historian shocked me with his very ambitious itinerary for research, writing, and publication. When I asked him how he expected to conduct his research so quickly, he replied that he knew what he wanted to find; not worried about finding contrary evidence that would contradict his preconceptions, he would simply record what he needed to confirm his thesis and move on to the next collection, the next library. Few historians, one hopes, are so mercenary (or, as my students like to put on their resumes, “goal-oriented”), but certainly it is the rare researcher who approaches a new project with no preconceptions.

I had some of my own assumptions when I began work on Being American in Europe. I feared that I might be very bored. More than one person has asked me if reading the letters, diaries, and travelogues of early Americans isn’t unlike watching the interminable slide show of your niece’s Disney vacation. Thematically, I knew that the spread-eagled nationalism of the pre-Civil War era makes our era’s sometimes cringe-worthy patriotism seem mild by comparison. I thought the paradoxical combination of excessive self-regard and sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the Old World would produce among Americans abroad a positively belligerent attitude toward Europe.  Sometimes I was right on both counts. In my worst moments with the sources, I pined for something as banal as an album of photos with Mickey, Minnie, and the Princesses. There is nothing that makes an afternoon seem quite so endless as a folder full of dull travel letters. I also came across quite a few figures that in a later era would be described as “ugly Americans.” Being American in Europe opens and closes with such a figure, Philadelphian Harry McCall, who sat in cafés across Britain and the Continent, writing letters that shot venom at the men and women who passed by his table.

More often, though, I was wrong (and was delighted to find myself mistaken). Many of my sources were not only vividly descriptive of European scenes, but marvelously opinionated—and opinions are a cultural historian’s bread and butter. Additionally, apropos of my second fear, these opinions were also surprisingly self-critical. Travelers, it turned out, did not solely venture abroad on a mission to vindicate the United States against the corrupt Old World. They were certainly anxious to justify their young republic, but they were eager to do so on Europe’s terms: they wanted not to separate themselves from western civilization, but to situate themselves within it.  The central theme of Being American in Europe is how travelers navigated the tension between the nationalist impulse to define a distinctive American identity against the secular and religious despotisms of the Old World and the post-colonial wish to orient the United States within western civilization.

This brings me back to the question of expectation. The discovery that Americans were not implacably hostile to Europe set me free. It forced me to abandon the hypothesis that had governed my early research. It compelled me to allow the sources to determine my thesis—a commonsensical orientation, I know, but one (see the anecdote above) that historians oftentimes resist, to their peril. Admittedly, I should have known better. I came to the topic of travel by way of my first book, An American Aristocracy, in which I studied southern travelers to Philadelphia in the era of the sectional conflict. Then, following the scholarship, I expected to find planter women and men interpreting Philadelphia through a haze of prejudices culled from proslavery literature. Instead, I found cosmopolitan people who thrived amidst the energy of America’s second-largest city. I suppose that experience should have cautioned me against putting too much stock in preconceptions. But, when preconceptions fall, they fall hard—and the result can force a writer to let the sources speak candidly to him or her. As a result, I was able to see that the task of being American in Europe was a lot more complicated than I had imagined it to be.

kilbrideDaniel Kilbride is an associate professor of history at John Carroll University in Ohio. He is the author of An American Aristocracy: Southern Planters in Antebellum Philadelphia.

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