Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Book Review: The Same Ax, Twice

Same Axe Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age, by Howard Mansfield was recommended to me by a colleague at the museum. This book is not just a look at history, it is specifically how we use history, recreate history, honor it, and interact with it today. Every chapter is a series of vignettes of different historical reenactments and recreations: the first airplane, people who make their own telescopes, Civil War Battle reenactments, and more. It turns out there are a ton of really diverse ways that modern Americans are interacting with the past. Mansfield talks about how we here in New England have been interacting with the past since the Victorian era with the invention of “Old Home Days” as a means of cultural celebration and mourning the loss of family members moving away from their local roots.

Mansfield is from New Hampshire, and writing with an incredibly local perspective. This is particularly interesting to me, having grown up here a lot of the villages and towns are familiar. The history of this region is something I grew up with. I think the book would still be interesting to folks outside of the state who enjoy regional sociological studies, but that could just be me. As someone who has both consumed the tourism of the region, as well as worked in the tourism field here, I agree that nostalgia is a part of our touristic appeal. Nostalgia is an odd concept, but one that is important when discussing how people view history, and in this case, New Hampshire history. A few years ago I tried to read “The Past is a foreign country” by David Lowenthall and I admit I did not get very far in that book before I had to return it to the library. “Same Axe” reminds me of Lowenthall’s book, in a smaller format.

I found the whole to be fairly melancholy: guys reviving old engines are described as puttering among the exhaust and nostalgia. American progress is described as a sad state of affairs. After a section on the Nevada atomic test sites Mansfield concludes: “American places are but a moment’s bright flash, followed by long, confused memories.”

But the diversity of history presented and the amount of connections that people were making to the past was inspiring for someone like me who often wonders if I am alone in my obsession with change over time.

Howard Mansfield has written a number of other books on history, I’ve also been told I have to read “In the Memory House” and any number of his other books. I think I’ll wait until a sunny day though, just in case they are as mopey as “Same Axe.”


  1. Hmmm....this is a book I will be on the look out for.
    Thanks for the notification.

  2. HA! This reminds me of that book everyone has not only wholeheartedly embraced, but has also written about, and quoted from, ad nauseam (particularly certain sections on sleep/sleep patterns): "At Day's Close, Night in Times Past," by A. Roger Ekirch. I borrowed a copy from the library this past summer and have yet to get beyond the third chapter (yes! I've now renewed it 12 times!). Reading the book has been like trudging through deep, wet 'n heavy snow drifts, and thus, I have yet to reach the chapter(s) that've engendered so much adulation. But I tell you, based on what I've read thus-far, I'm not sure I care to, as it's also been a rather depressing journey. I can't imagine who'd want to live in the past, because, at least according to Ekirch, if you weren't mugged or murdered street-side, you'd fall unnoticed into a ditch out in the boonies on a moonless night, or you'd die when your home was torched in order to cover up its being burglarized. If Ekirch is to be believed, the past was a frightening time!

  3. Like Carolina, I couldn't make it through the whole book (I got almost half-way). His writing is extremely disjointed, jumping from person, place, time hither and yon and back again. As you pointed out, it is both melancholy and mopey. But in addition to that, I also detected an undertone of derision for those that reenact, recreate, experience, or experiment with history. Simply because we'll "never know for certain" (whether because the information isn't available or a previous/current generation has romanticized it) does not make these hands-on activities without value.