In recent decades, studies of material culture have moved into the mainstream of historical scholarship. Once the domain of specialists, object-based analyses are now common in many fields. In Touching America’s History, Meredith Mason Brown undertakes something of the sort without identifying it as belonging to the genre. Instead, he speaks of a “reliquary approach to American history” (p. 2). Using fifteen artifacts as a basis for exploring select episodes and events, Brown recounts ten histories. His “relics” include stone tools used by Algonquin peoples in early New England, two nineteenth-century diaries, a pistol carried by a Confederate officer during the Civil War, and a porcelain fragment reputedly taken from a toilet at Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof. Most have personal associations with Brown, either through ancestry or other connections. Brown’s histories begin with a May 1637 massacre of Pequot Indians near the site of present-day Mystic, Connecticut, and continue through to World War II. Relying principally on secondary sources, he offers readers informative but thoroughly conventional histories of well-known events.
Brown’s artifacts introduce each of the ten chapters of the book. The officer’s pistol, for example, is the inspiration for a chapter on William Preston, an ancestor who fought in the Mexican War, served in Congress, and later as a general with the Confederacy. Another item, the transcript of the court-martial of the author’s great-uncle, provides the basis for a chapter on the Philippine-American War of 1899–1902. Because of Brown’s personal ties to artifacts and historical actors, each chapter explains how the author came to possess the artifact in question and how he is related to associated figures. Brown [End Page 136] is, therefore, narrator and participant; his histories are personal, if for no other reason than his role as a collector. His presence is especially strong in the last three chapters, which concern twentieth-century artifacts. These focus on men whom Brown knew personally, and his writing reflects the closeness of his relationships with them.
Brown deserves credit for investigating the lives and experiences of his ancestors, and his attempt to highlight the evocative power of artifacts is laudable. His analytic approach, however, falls short. Brown makes no attempt to study the physical qualities and social roles of his artifacts, which robs him of valuable strategies for uncovering historical meanings. His examination of the mnemonic power of artifacts is equally feeble. His “relics” serve solely to introduce historical subjects. Does using them in this fashion really make history “come alive,” the goal announced by Brown at the beginning of the book? Reader’s familiar with the work of scholars such as Henry Glassie, Bernard Herman, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich will surely think otherwise. Brown’s basic method of selection is also problematic. Rather than examining artifacts associated with a particular event, place, or socioeconomic group, his choices are based on ownership and personal associations. He is the common characteristic. Without unifying qualities rooted in historical processes, opportunities for meaningful analysis are nonexistent.
Brown’s histories leave much to be desired. Although he writes in a clear and lively style, he makes no attempt to situate his subjects historiographically. Instead, he recounts such well-known events as John Brown’s assault on Harpers Ferry, the battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga, and the fall of Nazi Germany in familiar fashion. Brown thus imparts nothing new to knowledge of the histories he tells. His interpretations are resolutely whiggish, and he seems unaware that the American story may be something other than a tale of incremental progress over time.
Brown has written a book that will interest members of his family and close friends but is unlikely to have a broader appeal. Heavy on antiquarianism and lacking scholarly rigor, its main value lies in [End Page 137] its exploration of material ties to historical figures. By delineating his personal relationships to artifacts and associated historical actors, Brown offers suggestive insights into the...