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The Tradition of Violence in the United States: A Multidisciplinary Survey (November 2014): General Histories

By Scott Gac

General Histories

A number of recent general histories explore violence in the United States.  These works are often dedicated to a particular type of violence (such as sexual or religious violence) or a particular form of expression (such as public memorials), or situate violent acts within a certain time frame, such as Colonial America or Reconstruction.  Of course, there are also works more broadly aimed at violence in the United States as a whole.

The foundational general history on violence was completed by Richard Maxwell Brown, who in 1975 published Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism, and in 1991, No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society.  Where Brown’s analysis tracked legal and cultural ideas in relation to violence, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg recently branched out to trace violence and U.S. identity from the American Revolution in This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity.  Equally broad in scope, Randolph Roth’s American Homicide links the rate of a particular form of violence—murder—to political instability, or at least to the perception of instability by U.S. citizens.

In the 1980s, scholars explored the rituals of sport and violence in the United States.  Elliot Gorn’s The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America remains the prime example.  In more recent times, the focus has shifted to the politics of collective acts of violence.  In 1996, Paul A. Gilje authored Rioting in America, which linked economic and social trends to riots in U.S. history.  In American Mobbing, 1828-1861, David Grimsted located two different responses to violence, one Northern and one Southern, as the source of the Civil War.  More recent investigations of collective violence reframe riots and mobs into terror and terrorists.  Brenda Lutz and James Lutz track this linguistic change from the Colonial era to today in Terrorism in AmericaTerror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence by Mark Juergensmeyer explores the deep ties between religion and violence in contemporary life.

Of course, the ubiquity of violence in the United States provides a platform for general chronological histories that start before the political foundation of the United States.  In New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Colonial Americas, editors John Smolenski and Thomas J. Humphrey compile a series of essays that note the varied ways in which Colonial encounters were marked by competing violent cultures.  In a more focused study, Ned Blackhawk employs the lens of violence to rewrite the history of western Native peoples in Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West.

The years before the Civil War have drawn recent attention.  In Righteous Violence: Revolution, Slavery, and the American Renaissance, Larry Reynolds follows the work of seven American authors who grappled with the tension among the several kinds of violence in U.S. society—violence of the state, religious violence, and the violence of slavery.  In Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, Sally Hadden focuses on the violence sanctioned by two states as they sought to manage the institution of slavery within their bounds.

Most authors agree that the scale and scope of violence in U.S. life changed after the Civil War.  In particular, authors have sought to explain this transformation through the lives of women, sexuality, and changes in the American family.  Linda Gordon pioneered this approach in 1988 in Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence.  Joanna Bourke’s Rape: Sex, Violence, History unpacks the specific contexts of rape in U.S., Australian, and British society from the late nineteenth century through today.  A more concentrated approach was authored by Hannah Rosen, who in Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South describes the possibility of freedom and disenchantment of violence during the Reconstruction era as witnessed by African American rape victims.  T. Walter Herbert situates his study Sexual Violence and American Manhood within more recent times to unearth the ties between masculinity and sexual violence.

Also in the post-Civil War period, Amy Louise Wood’s Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 details how white southerners ritualized social and racial supremacy through the lynching of black Americans.  The Color of the Law: Race, Violence, and Justice in the Post-World War II South by Gail Williams O’Brien uncovers why southern white violence against blacks after World War II did not reach the epic proportions that many feared.  Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire looks at the two systems of incarceration in the United States in the nineteenth century—one developed in the North, the other in the South—to reveal that the southern version of retribution and profit has won out in the last forty years.

Urban life has been the emphasis for work on violence by sociologists and ethnographers.  Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City seeks to understand the extralegal parameters that govern many inner-city areas.  The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence and the American Dream by Randol Contreras describes the Bronx in the 1980s and 1990s to show how despair (particularly the economic decline in the crack economy) led to greed, self-destruction, and horrific acts of violence.  In On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, Alice Goffman explores the urban pockets of fear, paranoia, and violence that target poor black Americans in the twenty-first century.

Criminologists James Alan Fox and Jack Levin, the authors of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, direct attention to the commercialization of violent acts, which creates a seemingly public sanction of serial killers and mass murderers.  Geographer Kenneth E. Foote, in his revised Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, makes the case that the memorialization of deadly acts denotes the willingness of recent generations to acknowledge the widespread influence of violence in today’s world.  Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places, edited by Erica Lehrer, Cynthia E. Milton, and Monica Eileen Patterson, brings together ten essays that highlight the globalization of violence and the challenges that museums, memorial sites, and heritage tours confront when trying to present violent acts for public display.

Works Cited