History doesn’t have to have a news peg. Our historical work can be important, compelling, moving, and relevant without making thumpingly explicit connections to today’s news cycle. Both historical characters and events and our contemporary readers are ill-served by extravagant pleading for relevance. I’m not saying, of course, that journalists shouldn’t be writing history; on the contrary, I insist on public history as a big tent where everyone doing the work is welcome, including journalists and the writers of popular history books. But sometimes a journalistic lens can distort the real meaning of the story.
The newly released Snow-Storm in August, by Jefferson Morley, seems to me to encapsulate much of the good, as well as the problematic, about telling history in a newsy way.
The book is about the 1835 race riots in Washington, DC and the criminal trials, prosecuted by Francis Scott Key, that followed. It is an interesting story interestingly told, cutting between several major viewpoint characters including Key, Anna Thornton (an alleged assault on whom was an origin of the riots), abolitionist Reuben Crandall, who was charged with inciting the riot by distributing anti-slavery pamphlets, and Beverly Snow, whose restaurant was destroyed in the riot. It’s very useful to history work to have big splashy popular history books with actual marketing budgets (for example, I received an ARC from the publishers) that not only illuminate lesser-known incidents in American history but do it from a cultural history and African-American history lens, not just a political history perspective.
Given the ongoing War of 1812 commemorations and the concomitant anthem discussions, it was a delight to see a non-hagiographic portrait of Key, who is portrayed as a cranky and dogmatic political animal with a troubled family life.
Snow, a freed African-American restauranteur, is the real hero of the story. He started an “epicurean” restaurant, with menu, individual tables, fancy food, a multiracial clientele, and many of the features of contemporary restaurants. If only he had left more of a paper trail! Morley reads deeply into Snow’s newspaper advertisements and few surviving letters (from jail, where he was held for his own protection, and from Toronto, where he eventually settled.) We learn a good deal about Jacksonian-era food culture.
So, a little-told story about antebellum American racial politics. Sounds great, yes? But it can’t just be that—it has to be the riot that uncovered deep-seated racial tensions! the trials that would change the nation! This kind of hyperbole is par for the course by now, and props to Morley for not including this kind of language in his subtitle (it’s the descriptive “Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835.”)
But what drove me crazy was at the very end of the book, where Morley claims that because there was political polarization in 1836, it is the same political polarization we see today, specifically the (questionably accurate, even for today) “red” and “blue” divisions. Contemporary liberals are just like 1830s abolitionists, he says, advocates of “multiracial citizenship” and limitable property rights, and contemporary conservatives, just like the mainstream politicos of the 1830s, advocate for property rights and more limited citizenship, though he generously admits that “conservatives no longer believe in slavery.” Is he really saying that Francis Scott Key’s politics (he was a pal of Jackson and fan of African repatriation) are analogous to those of contemporary conservatives? Readers deserve more than this ahistorical and simplistic collapse of the past into the present. I wish Snow-Storm in August had focused more on the fascinating story and less on pegging the story to contemporary politics.