The Homer D. Babbidge, Jr. Award for the best monograph on a significant aspect of Connecticut history for 2015 goes to Wesleyan University, 1910-1970: Academic Ambition and Middle-Class America by David B. Potts.
The decisive merit of this book is its integrity. Author David B. Potts patently admires his subject and rightly so: Wesleyan is a thoroughly admirable institution, universally regarded as a gem of liberal education in a country where this model of higher learning has flourished more bountifully than anywhere else. But precisely the distinction of Wesleyan, achieved by dint of its high standards for itself, demands a biography that takes the institution seriously and whole, stinting no part of its story. This David Potts scrupulously delivers.
As an institutional history, Wesleyan University necessarily foregrounds the goals and initiatives of the institution’s president and trustees. Not so predictably, perhaps, but entirely commendably, the book systematically follows the institution’s finances—its funding sources and campaigns, how president and trustees deployed its resources, how constricted resources bound Wesleyan before World War II, how the acquisition of a golden goose called American Education Press Inc. in 1948 brought a surge of ambition expansion, and contention to Wesleyan in the 1950s and 1960s. David Potts candidly tracks Wesleyan leaders’ constant concern with their school’s status. He chronicles the conflicts that attended Wesleyan’s newfound prosperity, with President Victor Butterfield championing the primacy of liberal education against mounting faculty advocacy of the research mission.
Though an institutional history, Wesleyan University has resonances rippling far beyond the Middletown campus, indeed beyond the realm of higher education. Though David Potts never dwells on Wesleyan’s representativeness, his book provides a careful case study of key transitions in American culture. One of these was the ebbing power of the churches exemplified by Wesleyan’s graceful divorce with Methodism at the turn of the 20th century. A half-century later the rising assertiveness of the Wesleyan faculty illustrated the growing power of the professional-intellectual class (aka knowledge workers) in virtually every domain of American life.
Students too had their say in shaping Wesleyan. In the years before World War I students enthusiastically bought into Wesleyan’s transition from being a “little old Methodist college” to becoming a modern academy preparing men to make their way in a fast-moving secular society. For most of the 20th century Wesleyan students viewed extra-curricular life as their special sphere of influence. Dr. Potts reports that anti-Semitism long pervaded that sphere, but by the end of the period he surveys, fully 22% of the university’s student body was Jewish. And by then a lot of it was female, because Wesleyan finally went co-educational.
The Bruce Fraser Award for 2015 was presented to Heroes for all Time: Connecticut Civil War Soldiers Tell Their Stories by Dione Longley and Buck Zaidel (Wesleyan University Press, 2015).
Heroes for All Time is old-fashioned narrative history for the old-fashioned purpose of capturing the truth. Much history written for general audiences lets colorful jostle with accurate. Authors Longley and Zaidel make no bones about their audience—they promise the reader she will NOT hear “the interpretations of modern Civil War scholars”—but they make no concessions to colorful. They soup nothing up and water nothing down. Themselves enthralled by their material, they trust Civil War soldiers to be better tellers of their stories than any historian could be. They trust contemporary photographers to be better evokers of the soldiers’ spirit than perhaps even the soldiers could be. (It is doubtful any other state has so full and moving a photographic record of its Civil War.) The authors’ trust is vindicated. Heroes for All Time is a rock solid book, zealously researched, artfully crafted, and hard to put down.
Regiment by regiment, soldier by soldier, Connecticut troops “come alive” in these pages, but the cliché hardly suffices. Heroes for All Time asks what the troops fought for, and what they say is at variance with the testimony of most 20th century American fighters, who reported they fought to survive, to get home in one piece. Those elemental motives pervade the letters, diaries and reminiscences quoted in Heroes too, but the soldiers express as well, too eloquently to be gainsaid, the pride they took in fighting for ideals of republicanism and justice.
This is strictly Connecticut history as seen, felt, and told by Connecticans. Longley and Zaidel deftly paint in essential background: The military strategies that sent Connecticut units to one battlefield or another, the state of the Union war effort from month to month, and so on. But they make no effort to retell the oft-told history of the War. They keep a tight focus on Connecticans’ experience of camp life, battles, wounds and illness and death. Thus in their tour-de-force chapter on Gettysburg they convey in gripping detail what it was like for men of the Connecticut 14th to face Pickett’s Charge at the very center of the Union line.
Just as the authors’ reason for their tight focus isn’t state chauvinism, the effect isn’t to suggest any uniqueness in Connecticans’ experience. The effect is rather to bring sharply into view aspects of the War even readers steeped in Civil War lore may have missed. Most of these aspects are harrowing. Longley and Zaidel have no more patience with redeeming glory or romantic myth than the veterans themselves. Their superb chapter on the ambiguities of emancipation describes black Union volunteers fighting “two separate sets of enemies, the Confederates, and the bigots in their own army.” The authors call on nurse Harriet Hawley to witness the unspeakable agonies of the wounded, they describe the calamitous massacre of a regiment of Litchfielders at Cold Harbor, they do not stint the awful suffering of 400 men of the CT 16th imprisoned at Andersonville. And in the end they decline to conclude it was all worth it.
Heroes for All Time is indubitably worth the Bruce Fraser Award. It is a model of “public history” to inform and enlighten the people of Connecticut.
The Betty M. Linsley Award for 2015 is presented to “The CAmps of Kent: Memories of Summer” sponsored by the Kent Historical Society, co-curated by Marge Smith and Melissa Cherniske.
There’s a lot of ambiguity in being a seasonal getaway, a summer-vacation destination. For the vacationers there’s fun, adventure, growth, friendship, but also a flavor of fleeting make-believe. For the permanent inhabitants of a getaway place it’s flattering to be visited and lucrative too—all those summer jobs—but it’s also disconcerting to realize that seasonal visitors know you only seasonally if they know you at all. The ambiguities mushroom if neither insiders nor outsiders kept careful records. That was the case with the dozen camps that drew hundreds of youngsters to Kent, Connecticut, every summer for the better part of the 20th century.
When the Kent Historical Society first resolved to mount an exhibit titled “The Camps of Kent,” they had more than ambiguities to think about. Co-curators Marge Smith and Melissa Cherniske first had to tackle the most basic of history questions, “What happened here?” Thousands of campers fondly remembered their summer weeks in Kent twenty or forty or sixty years ago, but “institutional memories”—the history of the camps—had largely been lost. The foremost strength of this delightful project lies in the research that went into reconstructing the record of Kent camping. Curators Smith and Cherniske cast nets into a variety of waters, including social media, to catch the facts they presented in their exhibit. And their fishing continues. Smith and Cherniske have turned the exhibit into a catalyst for ongoing research.
The curators set out to inform both former campers who wanted to revisit scenes of their youth and current Kent residents who barely knew the camps existed. It would be a neat trick to usher one group down memory lane while blazing a trail of discovery for another. The curators skillfully evoked what camping looked and felt like, through pictures and artifacts: trunks, sports gear, uniforms, badges, handbooks, even counselors’ report cards. But they were also determined, in their label texts, to invite reflection by both of their primary audiences. Camp returnees left the exhibition with deepened understanding of their memories. Non-camping Kenters gained an enhanced appreciation of their town’s past.
Perhaps the curators’ most intriguing finds belonged to the least typical of Kent camps, a group of cottages known as the “Near East Camp” that appeared almost a century ago. Project curators eventually discovered this little installation provided rest and recreation for workers of an organization called Near East Relief, set up to care for non-Muslims persecuted by the Ottoman Turks in World War I.
Behind the outdoorsy games and sports at Kent’s mainline camps lay high-minded ideals, the exhibit reminds us. Camp Crumbie, Kent’s first summer retreat, was opened by the YMCA in 1908. Not all Kent camps shared the Y’s rectitude, but all of them did teach youngsters cooperation, toleration, and consideration for others. Some camp programs reflected particular educational philosophies, for example the virtues of non-competitive activities at Geer Mountain Camp, the uplifting value of music at Camp Kenico. And while the recreation at these pleasant places may have been carefree, it was hardly spontaneous. Curators Smith and Cherniske slyly observe that the “routine for campers in Kent was … one of regimented relaxation.”
For outstanding achievement in a project sponsored by a Connecticut historical society, ASCH is pleased to give its Betty M. Linsley Award for 2015 to the Kent Historical Society.