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The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History

In The Great Cat Massacre: and other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), historian Robert Darton attempted to reconstruct and understand the mental world of early modern French peasants through their folktales. He began with the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France. It’s a little different than the version you may have been told. The story went as follows:

A young girl was instructed to bring some milk and bread to her grandmother’s house. While walking down a path through the woods, a wolf stopped her and asked her where she was going. She told him, and the wolf took off down a second path. The wolf, “arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed…”

When the young girl arrived, the wolf (disguised as her grandmother) offered her meat and wine from the pantry. “So the little girl ate what she was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, ‘Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!’ Then the wolf said, ‘Undress and get into bed with me.’”

After a prolonged scene in which the young girl is instructed to undress and toss her clothes into the fire, the conclusion proceeds in the now familiar manner until, at the very end, the wolf eats the girl. No hunter comes to her rescue in the original version.

The version as we know it today, according to Darton, was taken by the Grimm brothers from Charles Perrault, a popular writer at the turn of the seventeenth century, who changed the stories to suit the tastes of the Paris elites. The ending we are familiar with, in which the hunter rescues Little Red and kills the wolf, was added by Jeannette Hassenpflug, the Grimm’s neighbor, from a popular German story “The Wolf and the Kids.”

Through an examination of folktales like “Little Red Riding Hood”, Darton hoped to unlock the mentalité of the French peasant during that time period. “Folktales are historical documents,” he argued. “They have evolved over many centuries and have taken different turns in different cultural traditions… they suggest that mentalités themselves have changed. We can appreciate the distance between our mental world and that of our ancestors if we imagine lulling a child of our own to sleep with the primitive peasant version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’”

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The Road to Whatever

road-to-whateverIn The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence, Elliot Currie diagnoses a growing crisis of youth in the American mainstream. Statistically and anecdotally, it seems that alienation, desperation, and violence have slowly crept into the one demographic that has always appeared safe. Currie argues that zero-tolerance policies, pressure to succeed, and lack of social services has exacerbated this crisis. In the decade since publication, however, the U.S. has seen a marked decrease in teen pregnancy, drug use (including alcohol and tobacco), and violence.

Anecdotal evidence is not enough to indicate a trend, let alone a crisis, but according to Currie, white youth are at measurably high levels of risk for suicide, traffic accidents, drug abuse, and binge drinking compared to youth in other racial and ethnic categories. “It is increasingly clear that being middle class and white does not provide reliable protection against even the worst perils of adolescence,” he argues. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, homicide rates among African-American males 10-24 years of age far exceed those of white males in the same age group (51.5 vs 2.9 per 100,000 in 2010).

Currie argues that denial, incomprehension, or demonization has characterized our response to this crisis. As evidenced by the media’s handling of the Columbine shootings, at-risk suburban youth are portrayed as “other-than”—somehow fundamentally different and separate from their peers. Parents, politicians, and pundits often blame factors like the erosion of discipline, growing leniency and indulgence, and weakened authority of parents and schools for this violence.

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Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids

freaks-geeks-and-cool-kidsIn Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption, Murray Milner, Jr. examines the relationships that lead to the formation of school cliques while, at the same time, attempting to tackle the problems of caste-like divisions and the increase in alcohol and drug use and casual sex among teens. Milner argues that traditional explanations for teenage behavior, such as hormones, psychological development, parenting styles, and social background, are less important than the way adults have used schools to “organize young people’s daily activities” and the systems that teens have constructed in response to that organization. Milner also explores the role of consumerism in teen identity formation.

Generally, the formation of school cliques boils down to one concern: status. Why are teens in the United States so concerned with status? “It is because they have so little real economic or political power,” Milner explains. Teens have very little say over what happens in school or the subjects they study, so they concentrate on the one area where they do have power: the power to create their own status systems.

In order to maintain status, “insiders” must make it difficult to gain that status, so they frequently change and complicate the norms. That is, according to Milner, the source of teenage concern over possessing the latest fashions, music, and lingo. Businesses have spun this concern into a multi-billion dollar industry.

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German Women for Empire: Imperial Feminism

german-women-for-empireIn German Women for Empire, 1884-1945, Lora Wildenthal paints a compelling picture of contributions made by German women in the pursuit of imperial ambitions. In Germany’s African and Pacific colonies, women from diverse backgrounds played a conscious and often enthusiastic role, carving out a place for themselves as guardians of “Germanness” and racial purity. In Imperial Germany, feminism took on a distinctly chauvinistic tone, demonstrating that history is full of nuance.

Germany was late to the colonial game, seizing territory in Africa and Asia in the second half of the nineteenth century. This included modern day Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Namibia, Togoland, Cameroon, and parts of Botswana and Nigeria. Its Pacific possessions included parts of present day New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. German women participated in the establishment of these colonies through nursing and missionary work. For women who wanted to experience the most independence, nursing was their chosen field. The German-National Women’s League, founded by Martha von Pfeil and Frieda von Bülow, was one of the first and most influential nursing organizations in the colonies.

Wildenthal portrays von Bülow as a striking figure and an adventurous woman who sheltered the German-National Women’s League from male oversight. She evangelized the colonies in several novels, portraying them as an ideal place for women to work alongside men to promote radical German nationalism. Von Bülow, conservatively dressed and menacingly pointing a revolver, graces the cover of German Women for Empire.

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Absolute Destruction: A Problematic and Contradictory Book

absolute-destructionAbsolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany by Isabel Hull is a problematic and contradictory book. It is a good example of what happens when a historian begins with a thesis and then shoehorns data to fit that thesis. Hull’s core argument is that the Imperial German military (between the years 1904 and 1918) practiced institutional extremism, which led to the unchecked extermination of civilian populations in Africa and Europe. The unlimited application of violence defined that extremism. This made the German military unique among the militaries of other European powers. She set out to show, “how and why the institution designed to wield controlled violence exceeded the reasonable, effective, or goal-oriented limits of its use.”

According to Hull, there were three reasons the use of violence appeared unchecked: the German military’s separation from civilian institutions, the use of violence through “quasi-automatic mechanisms,” and an institutional gravitation toward total solutions―“the establishment of perfect order and complete obedience by the enemy population” in a permanent form.

To prove her thesis, Hull examined the behavior of the German military in Southwest Africa (present day Namibia), German military culture, and the behavior of the German military during the First World War. She drew from a large number of German sources and personal letters, as well as the philosophy of Hannah Arendt.

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Colonial Intimacies: A Revealing Look at American Indian Marriage in New England

80140100390110lHow did Puritan missionaries affect Native American marriage practices in colonial New England? How did Native Americans react to these changes? These are the questions Ann Marie Plane seeks to answer in Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England. From the diverse marriage practices of pre-1620, to Anglicized marriage of the late 1600s, to the partial reconstruction of “traditional” Indian marriage in the 1740s, American Indian practices were profoundly altered by Puritan evangelization and colonialism.

For American Indians living in New England, many aspects of their marriage practices changed, including polygamy and the distinction between elite and common marriages, divorce, the role of formal legal bodies, inheritance, notions of household, and even expected gender roles. By the time American Indians began to assert their independence by appealing to past notions of “traditional” marriage in a now English-dominated colony, it was difficult for them to determine what that looked like.

Ann Marie Plane cautiously explains there were no uniform practices among American Indian tribes, and that marriage practices were always in flux. She was able to find some generalities in primary sources, which were mainly generated by early explorers and missionaries. Clan affiliation and kinship were more important to Native Americans than the bonds between a husband and wife. The nuclear family did not form the foundation of American Indian society like it did for the English. There was also a distinction between common and elite marriage. Elites (tribal leaders) practiced polygamy, while most Indians had only one partner. Because many extended family members lived in a residence together, children were raised communally. Also, sexual activity prior to marriage was not taboo as it was in Puritan society.

Plane distinguished four types of marriage in Native American society: some marriages were arranged in childhood and some in adulthood, but both of these involved a dowry paid to the woman’s family. In the third and fourth types, a man and woman chose to marry by either having a public ceremony or by simply taking up residence with each other.

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