The New Huck Finn

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Generally speaking, I am against the censorship of literature. Taking a look at the American Library Association’s list of Banned and/or Challenged Books, which includes a list of books, place and years of bans and/or challenges and the reason behind the challenges, can be a frustrating, and even a saddening experience for anyone who cherishes free speech, great literature and the dialogue over ideas, no matter how challenging some ideas may be. It is because of my typically strong feelings on this issue that a story that was published this week in Publishers Weekly caught my attention. It was announced this week that a small publishing company, New South Books, would be printing a new version of Mark Twain’s classic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and in this revised version, by English Professor and Twain Scholar Alan Gribben, the word “nigger” will be omitted from the text, and replaced with the word “slave” and the term “Injun” will be replaced by “Indian”. What was particularly interesting to me in this story was the author’s and the publisher’s justification for these changes. As a person who has devoted his life to the works of Twain, Gribben has reworked the American masterpiece in the hopes of expanding the readership of the book, especially among young students and the general public who presumably may be offended by the original language, or in the case of students, too young or lacking the intellectual context to properly understand Twain’s intent behind the language. According to Gribben, the book has been banned countless times for reasons of language, or it has simply not been taught by teachers who felt uncomfortable in introducing the work into their classrooms. For Gribben, the removal of what essentially amounts to a little over 200 words was worth any criticism he might face if the end result is that the book is introduced into many more American classrooms and more young people are afforded the opportunity to be introduced to Twain. Continue reading

The Historian’s Craft in the Information Age

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The Wikileaks scandal in the news recently has led me to contemplate the implications for future historical research. Our ability to access these digitized cables from as far back as 1966 is certainly significant; WikiLeaks is doing all it can to maximize access, offering users the ability to download archived versions of the leaks so that even if the site is legally (or illegally) shut down, cables can be stored on computers around the world. 

As cliche as it may sound, information has fundamentally changed. The way we store and access information is completely different, as is the information itself. Continue reading

A Year in Review @

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As another year passes and a new one begins, I’ve been reflecting on the ways this site has changed and grown over the past year.  This project is somewhat different from what we first envisioned when I was invited by Jim Clifford and Tom Peace to join the team in 2009.  Originally imagined as a space to publish short, accessible academic papers, the website has grown to include regular blog posts, podcasts, and book reviews, while we’ve formed some exciting partnerships with organizations and people that share a similar philosophy: history matters, the past affects both present and future, and history ought to be as widely accessible as possible. Continue reading

Reflecting on Kan’s “Shamanism and Christianity”: Making Sense of Family Conversion Narratives

As the days grow shorter and winter winds weave their way through household doors and windows, I find myself spending longer hours curled in library corners reading about Indigenous history and the lives of Indigenous peoples outside of my hometown. The morning of 1 December, I had the pleasure of opening Hoxie et al’s American Nations: Encounters in Indian Country, 1850 to the Present (2001). I began by leafing through the text’s 504 pages and found myself reading Sergei Kan’s “Shamanism and Christianity” word-by-word before reaching the bottom of my coffee cup. Continue reading

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

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book coverI don’t normally rush out to buy the Giller Prize winner.  I’m regrettably not a big follower of recent Canadian literature.  In fact, during the past year I’ve had little time to read fiction more generally.  However, when a small press won the prize for the first time and the interviews with the author suggested the book might be very compelling, I downloaded a copy of Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists. is not really the place for fiction reviews and I’ve got few credentials as a literary reviewer, but as a historian, I found the book fascinating. Continue reading

You Are Here: Not A Year-In-Review Post

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It’s the middle of December and we’re not only two short weeks away from the new year, we’re quietly tip-toing our way into a new decade.

While many writers will be surrendering their soapboxes to reflection and summation — perhaps as the basis for trying to predict where it seems we’re headed — I’d like to offer a different sort of historically-minded meditation: a brief you are here assessment informed by two somewhat interconnected statements that recently caught my attention. Continue reading

On Light and Dark: the historicity of colour and non-colour photographs

What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time. – John Berger

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Peasant Girls, 1909. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division (LC-DIG-ppmsc-03984) (4)

A few months ago, one of my contacts on Facebook shared a link to the Prokudin-Gorskii Digital Photographic Collection, which is available online through the Library of Congress. What struck me the about the collection was that the photographs, appearing in beautiful  vibrant colours, were taken prior to the First World War. That’s right: these photos are over 100 years old. The introductory text provided by the Library of Congress tells me that I’m looking at images that “offer a vivid portrait of a lost world – the Russian Empire on the eve of World War I and the coming Revolution.” Continue reading

Strengthening Community through Digitized Local History

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The most common question I get when people ask where I live is: “Why are you still living there?” I live near Jane-Finch and York University in Toronto, a neighbourhood better known for its crime and distance from key services than its rich cultural and community life. Over the past five-and-a-half years, however, I have learned that my neighbourhood’s bark is worse than its bite. I like where I live and a recent Toronto Public Library history project does a really great job at demonstrating some of the reasons why.

Over this past summer and fall the York Woods branch of the Toronto Public Library has been engaging with seniors and high school students to create the Black Creek Living History project. Continue reading