Awards, 2016

Chairperson, Awards Committee

For works produced in 2015. Presented on November 5 at the Fall 2016 ASCH conference, held at Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven. 

The Homer D. Babbidge, Jr. Award 2016

The Homer D. Babbidge, Jr. Award for the best monograph on a significant aspect of Connecticut history was presented to David B. Potts for Wesleyan University, 1910-1970:  Academic Ambition and Middle-Class America (Wesleyan University Press, 2015).

The decisive virtue of this book is its scholarly integrity.  Author David B. Potts ’60 patently admires his alma mater and rightly so:  Wesleyan is 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 history that takes the institution seriously and whole.  This David Potts scrupulously delivers.  He compresses voluminous research into fluid narrative and cogent analysis.  And while chronicling Wesleyan’s rise to eminence he scrutinizes its dark moments too, from trustees’ intolerance of political heterodoxy early in the twentieth century to the anti-Semitism that lingered until World War II.  The integrity of Wesleyan University commands respect for both its subject and its author.

As an institutional history, Wesleyan University necessarily foregrounds presidents and trustees.  More systematically than most such histories—and very commendably—the book tracks the impact of the institution’s finances on its goals, evolution, and achievements.  David Potts lucidly details  how presidents and trustees raised and managed their resources, how constricted budgets bound Wesleyan before World War II, how the acquisition of a golden goose called American Education Press Inc. in 1948 brought ambitious expansion in the 1950s and 1960s.  He also investigates 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.

Students had their own say in shaping Wesleyan.  They enthusiastically bought into the metamorphosis of a “little old Methodist college” into a sophisticated academy preparing men to make their way in a fast-moving secular society.  Along with trustees and faculty, they measured Wesleyan’s progress by its improving status relative to its rivals Amherst and Williams.  Undergraduates long viewed extra-curricular life as their special sphere of influence, but by the 1960s fraternities shrank rapidly and students took growing pride in their college’s academic distinction.  As the proportion of students from high-income families grew, the proportion of African-American students grew even faster, and finally Wesleyan took its biggest step toward mirroring its society by resuming coeducation.  Mr. Potts deftly explores the causes and consequences of all these hurtling changes over the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

Wesleyan University has resonances rippling far beyond the Middletown campus, indeed beyond the realm of higher education.  The book provides a fascinating case study of key transitions in modern 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 twentieth century.  A half-century later, the rising assertiveness of the Wesleyan faculty illustrated the growing power of the professional-intellectual class in virtually every domain of American life.  Now a little university in more than name, the institution cut an outsized figure in higher education.  In David Potts’s book Wesleyan has the rigorous and discerning profile its distinction merits.

The Bruce Fraser Award 2016

The Bruce Fraser Award for the best Public History work in 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.  Indeed, 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 twentieth-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 that 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 African American 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 a model of “public history” to inform and enlighten the people of Connecticut.

The Betty M. Linsley Award 2016

The Betty M. Linsley Award was presented to the Kent Historical Society, for its exhibition “The Camps of Kent: Memories of Summer,” co-curated by Marge Smith and Melissa Cherniske.

There is 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 twentieth 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.”