Leonard Nimoy’s Spock made the most powerful case for the value of emotional intelligence* that I’ve ever seen. I’m also pretty sure that the Roanoke episode of “In Search Of…” made me the historian I am today. And, more important still, his life offscreen suggested that personal decency can far outstrip fame. RIP to a wonderful entertainer and a better person.

I’d like to think that he wouldn’t want this forgotten:

And here’s Nimoy on Roanoke:

Also, as commenter Kevin points out, Nimoy was good for the Jews:

* Yeah, it’s not a great phrase, but there it is.

As this article makes clear, I’m a plucky outsider who beat long odds!

0901_Poe_obit

Nothing brings me more joy than Edgar Allan Poe’s obituary.

I don’t know enough to know for sure, but this looks like potentially big news. Relatedly, I don’t know where I was when the Challenger blew up, but I do have a flashbulb memory from when I learned that Magic Johnson had HIV.

Possibly the right response to Gordon Wood’s “History in Context” in The Weekly Standard – a “get off my lawn essay,” as one historian says – is parody. After all Wood does begin the essay by saying his mentor Bernard Bailyn is woefully under-appreciated, and then proceeds to mention that Bailyn has two Pulitzers.1 What else can one do but mock?

Well, one can take Wood earnestly, as is one’s wont, and ask, what happened to the younger Gordon Wood? How would he fare before the stern tribunal of Weekly Standard Wood?

I ask because Wood the elder expresses dissatisfaction with those historians “obsessed with inequality,” who

see themselves as moral critics obligated to denounce the values of the past in order to somehow reform our present. They criticize Bailyn’s work for being too exquisitely attuned “to the temper of an earlier time” and, thus, for failing “to address the dilemmas of its own day.”…

These historians need to read and absorb Bailyn’s essay on “Context in History,” published in this collection for the first time. Perhaps then they would be less eager to judge the past by the values of the present and less keen to use history to solve our present problems. In some sense, of course, they are not really interested in the past as the past at all.

But, as another Bailyn student pointed out to me, Wood was not always so scornful of judging and using the past for present purposes, nor so principled about letting the past be past. Consider this important passage from Wood’s remarkable first book, Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787:

Considering the Federalist desire for a high-toned government filled with better sorts of people, there is something decidedly disingenuous about the democratic radicalism of their arguments.… In effect they appropriated and exploited the language that more rightfully belonged to their opponents. The result was the beginning of a hiatus in American politics between ideology and motives that never again closed. By using the most popular and democratic rhetoric available to explain and justify their aristocratic system, the Federalists helped to foreclose the development of an American intellectual tradition in which differing ideas of politics would be intimately and genuinely related to differing social interests.… and thereby contributed to the creation of that encompassing liberal tradition which has mitigated and often obscured the real social antagonisms of American politics.… the Federalists fixed the terms for the future discussion of American politics.

Listen to what Wood the younger is saying, here: “disingenuous” surely sounds morally critical, as does “appropriated and exploited.”

Talking about what might “never again” be, and even about “the future” certainly doesn’t sound like thinking about “the past as the past.”

And bringing up “differing social interests” and “real social antagonisms” sounds like it might entail concern about, if not obsession with, inequality.

Perhaps Wood the younger would have to get off Wood the elder’s lawn.

I am actually more interested in what Wood the younger would say to his older self, concerned as he was with arguments that foreclosed discussion of genuine social antagonism. I have never really found persuasive Wood the younger’s argument that 1787 marked some kind of end-of-Eden, after which honest political discourse was never again possible in the United States. Rather, I think the Federalists’ disingenuous behavior has constantly to be emulated and that initial foreclosure reenacted to keep differing social interests unexpressed.


1A feat rarely matched, and then only by the likes of another giant among colonial historians, Alan Taylor.

No, not my lovemaking, Battle Lines. Or so says Publishers Weekly. The full review, if you want to read it but fear links, is below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

My friend Phillip Barron has put together a flip book of sample pages from Battle Lines. If you’re interested, you can check it out here.

I recently re-watched Do the Right Thing and found the ending a little shocking. No, not the violent part – which has, sadly, only become more familiar in the quarter century since 1989 – but the actual last scene.

The morning after the movie’s climax, the camera shifts up and away from the street while in voiceover we hear the storefront DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson). He has served throughout the film as a kind of Greek chorus and now he’s the last voice we hear, after the assault and the murder and the burning of Sal’s, and he says … “Register to vote. The election is coming up.”

Which struck me, in 2015, as awfully anemic. Is that really the conclusion we’re meant to draw, after all that heat, after repeated invocations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X? Register and vote?

I wondered if maybe Jackson’s performance had thrown me off and made me expect more of Love Daddy than I should have. After all, Jackson’s real talent is for the veneer of geniality over the threat of violence (see Jules or, in a different register, Nick Fury) – for conveying hidden weight, in the manner of a lead-filled sap with a polished leather finish.

But those roles came later. Maybe Mister Señor Love Daddy is supposed to be a bit of a buffoon. After all, during the climax of the movie, the camera catches him in his window, and his response to the police turning firehoses on his neighbors is to yell and … change his hat. Maybe we’re supposed to see him as impotent, inept – the kind of guy who would, on reflection, respond to brutality by delivering the Polonian advice, “Register to vote.”

Or maybe Spike Lee meant it seriously. There’s evidence he does, or did. On the twentieth anniversary Blu-ray, you’ll find an interview in which Spike Lee mentions he wrote and filmed Do the Right Thing in the midst of Ed Koch’s administration – but now, he says, everything’s different.

Those were heady days, 2009, to be sure, when maybe elections could fill you with hope and change. But: enough to, in retrospect, justify that flat-footed ending? “Vote”? After a movie that began with Public Enemy urging, “Fight the Power!”, and whose first line of dialogue had Love Daddy himself shouting, “Wake up!”?

Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members captures the absurdity of the present moment in the hallowed halls of academe: the beleaguered state of the humanities; the way a shrinking pie has left even tenured scholars, already an insecure subset of the species, more fragile than usual; the fraught relationship between faculty and their administrative paymasters.

In all honestly, it’s not an important book by any measure. But it’s a very easy read. Schumacher organizes Dear Committee Members around a series of letters of recommendation written by a senior member of an English department at a small, Midwestern college. The conceit works well, and there are a number of laugh-out-loud scenes. You should read it for the lulz!

I write to record a position on a subject already treated in more specialist fora.

I refer, of course, to a matter routinely, if implicitly, raised by the auditors of curricula, every time they ask for samples of a syllabus: if they request more than one, what do they say they want? Syllabi? Or syllabuses?1

Doubtless this issue vexes few of the hoi polloi, nor troubles many alumni of great universities. Indeed, academics – from the Hebrides to the Antipodes – seem often to use “syllabi.”

A highly scientific anti-prescriptivist study has it that the answer is “syllabi.” I prefer “syllabuses,” though.

If your etymological antennae are twitching, you can find a detailed account of the story of “syllabus” at the specialist links in the first sentence of the post. But the short version is, it’s a made-up word, erroneously thought to be adopted into Latin from the Greek, which it wasn’t. I.e., there isn’t a true proper correct answer, horribile dictu.


1I’ve never actually heard anyone insist it’s syllabūs.

Battle Lines has its first review. From Kirkus (2/15/15):

A graphic rendering of epic destruction and intimate despair, as the authors make Civil War scholarship come alive for readers young and old.The artistry of Fetter-Vorm (Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb, 2013) powerfully captures the devastation that the war wreaked on the country, extending well past the armistice, while the historical context by Bancroft Prize winner Kelman (American Civil War Era History/Penn State Univ.; A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, 2013, etc.) provides the contextual depth. In the preface, the authors ask, “what hope could there be for a country so deeply divided against itself, a country so thoroughly drenched in the blood of its own people?” The chapters that follow humanize that history from various perspectives: the black man freed into another kind of servitude, Irish immigrants rebelling against conscription, women left behind without provisions for survival after their husbands and sons went to war. But the most arresting images throughout are panoramas, two-page spreads, where text is minimal or nonexistent and the chaos and carnage speak for themselves. The power of the art puts the “graphic” in graphic narrative, with limbs amputated by saws, corpses that could no longer be identified as belonging to one side or another, and battlefields turned to slaughter. Interspersed with these large-scale depictions are vignettes of those touched in various ways by the war, from the well-known poet Walt Whitman to soldiers only known by the journals they left behind. Without the illustrations, the text seems aimed at a young-adult or even younger readership, but the artistic impact extends far beyond. In this gripping graphic narrative, the complexities of history achieve clarity, and the depth of the tragedy has a visceral impact.

No star, though. Jonathan got a star for his last book. I didn’t. I think I see the problem here.

For my new book, I spent long hours trawling through the many, many reels of the microfilmed diaries of Henry Morgenthau, Jr. We didn’t have them at my university, so I had to order a few at a time from Interlibrary Loan, wait, and then seize upon them and go through them before they were due back at their home institution. Working through them at that speed, and on the microfilm reader whose lens & screen combination wasn’t quite right to show a full page, invariably gave me motion sickness.

Then they showed up, digitized, free to download. The joke was on me.

Except, for some reason, the digitized edition seems to begin with Book 1. Which you would think was okay – except the first book is actually Book 00. And that’s the book that covers the beginning of the Roosevelt administration – a critical period during which decisions were made about monetary policy that lasted for the duration of Roosevelt’s terms in office.

A peril, perhaps, of the digital archive.

…does it take to create a spamnado? Earlier today, what seems like the entire profession received an automated e-mail from some organization whose servers are hosted by Cal Tech. The original message was spam of some sort, I’m guessing, though I didn’t pay it any mind, so I can’t say for sure. What came next, though, caught my attention: first one person and then scores of others began sending “unsubscribe” replies, all of which, naturally, went out to the entire list (which, again, seems to consist of the entire profession). As more and more people sent out increasingly irate replies, the messages kept bouncing around cyberspace. At last count, I have well over a hundred such e-mails in my inbox, many of these messages from the profession’s most eminent scholars.

Which is to say, we seem to have been tested by Skynet earlier today. And as a profession, we failed catastrophically. The past is not in very good hands.

California’s measles outbreak has now reached more than 70 cases. 1

Populations especially at risk are those born after 1957 and vaccinated between 1963-1967 or not vaccinated. People born before 1957 would have been exposed to measles naturally and are ok; those not exposed to the virus in the wild will be vulnerable. People vaccinated 1963-1967 might have got the “killed virus” vaccine, which the Centers for Disease Control now say is ineffective, and they will be vulnerable.

Unvaccinated people will be vulnerable2 for what ought to be obvious reasons.

California permits unvaccinated students to enroll in public schools if their parents file a form saying their beliefs do not permit vaccination.

The percentage of unvaccinated students in Sacramento-area schools is over fifty percent in some cases.

As the historian Robert Johnston remarks, scholars used to treat anti-vaccination activists as “the deluded, the misguided, the ignorant, the irrationally fearful” but now they command ‘If not sympathy, at least a modicum of respect.”

I suppose we should respect those whom we can rationally fear.


1This is the outbreak that the press keep saying, correctly if punctiliously, began at “Disneyland Park and Disneyland California Adventure,” as if there were some important meaningful reason they couldn’t say “Disneyland”; Disneyland is offering a pretty good discount right now, by the way.

2A correspondent, I think correctly, points out in comments that all are potentially vulnerable once we drop below a percentage where we have “herd immunity.”

I still haven’t whittled that blog post down to size. In fact it’s now bigger. Meantime here’s another something on the web: a TLS essay I wrote on Martin Wolf’s The Shifts and the Shocks. There’s no paywall. Here’s a snippet, which provides the piece its rather nice illustration:

In the 2011 film Margin Call, which dramatizes the onset of our dismal era, the banker character played by Jeremy Irons delivers a monologue with which he attempts to justify his ruthless self-interest. Events like this just happen, he says. He lists a series of dates corresponding to financial panics, the modern part of which runs like this: “1819, 1837, 1857, 1884, 1901, 1907, 1929, 1937” – and then Irons pauses slightly before continuing – “1974, 1987 . . . .”. It is a slight pause, but there is room in it: room for, after the war, what the French call les trente glorieuses, the decades of widespread economic growth and prosperity. That gap in the string of crises undermines the Irons character’s argument: the disasters do not have to happen. During the period in that pause, banking was tightly regulated, capital movements were controlled, exchange rates pegged (if adjustable). As Wolf says, “finance was repressed. That certainly prevented crises”.

In the print edition the essay is called “Missing dates,” which I actually like a bit better, and which derives from this section.

I started writing a blog post yesterday but it’s now up to 1500 words and I don’t know what to do with is, so instead I’ll urge you: Plan your Saturday night now! Here’s a preview: In a world …

Aww yeah, baby: C-SPAN 3.1 Saturday, January 24, at 8pm and midnight, Eastern time. Or 5pm and 9pm, here on the edge of the American West.

This is a lecture2 from the World War II class that Ari and I debuted as a co-taught course in 2012, but which this year I taught all by my lonesome; I’m sure it shows. The subject is some of the various ways in which the motive of revenge overtook the strategy of the Axis and the Allies.

At some point after airing the full video will be here and also you’ll be able to get a podcast and listen to me holler at you while you drive.


1The connoisseur’s C-SPAN.
2Yes, C-SPAN 3’s Saturday night programming is a filmed college lecture; look, either you’re the audience for this or you aren’t.

Here’s a post I wrote way back when. I think things have changed quite a bit in the past seven years. Whether because recent events have laid bare the emptiness of the rhetoric of a post-racial America, because the President of the United States is African American, because popular culture, including films like Selma, has begun to force audiences to reexamine some of comforting myths of American history, I really don’t know. Regardless, other than a few dead links that I can’t seem to fix, there’s still a bit of worthwhile stuff in the post.

————————————————

The Martin Luther King of American memory serves this nation as the safe Civil Rights leader. When shrunk to fit within the confines of soundbite history, the pages of a textbook, or the scenes of a primary school pageant, King is cleansed of anger, of ego, of sexuality, and even, perhaps, of some of his humanity.

Counterpoised against the ostensibly violent Malcolm X, who supposedly would have forced America to change its ways by using “any means necessary,” King comes off as a cuddly moderate — a figure who loved everyone, enemies included, even whites who subjugated black people. Although there’s some truth lurking behind this myth, there was more (about both X and King) to the story: complexities and nuances that escape most popular recollections. Martin Luther King, no matter how people remember him now, was not nearly so safe as most of us believe.

On March 12, 1968, less than a month before he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, King visited the wealthy Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. Largely white, Grosse Pointe was — and to some extent still is — a bastion of establishment power. By that point in his career, King had embraced issues that moved well beyond the struggle against de jure segregation in the South. He had begun focusing most of his energy on inequality nationwide — de facto issues of poverty, job discrimination, fair housing, and, as Matthew Yglesias notes, the Vietnam war.

Read the rest of this entry »

We took the kids to see Selma, and I think you should see it too. (I mean, my God: it’s got both Stephen Root and Wendell Pierce.) Its historical liberties notwithstanding, it’s a great piece of historical fiction. As a sometime practitioner of both history and historical fiction, let me explain why.

First, here’s John Steinbeck on the scholar and the truth; the fisherman and the fish:

the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from a formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D.XVII-15-IX.” There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed—probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.

It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way…. [W]e were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizon and crowd the sky down on us.

(Yes, it’s a favorite passage.)

So clearly, it’s the business of the historian to count those spines (and get the count right). Historians go further, too: we traffic in permissible artifice. Call it cautious narrative, which indicates more often than it depicts: maybe, to press the analogy, we’re allowed to stuff and mount that fish in a lifelike posture that nevertheless permits the observer to see those spines and plainly ascertain their number.

Beyond that we daren’t go.

But purveyors of historical fiction aren’t trying to do that, at all: instead, they want to give us that other, otherwise unreachable, truth: the fisherman and the fish, the leap, the flash, the struggle. That too is true.

Historians can tell us it happened: fictionalizers can make us see it happening and feel the fight between angler and prey.

So, Selma gives us that fight, and how. The night march and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson are terrifying and heartbreaking. Bloody Sunday is grippingly staged and shot. David Oyelowo is a great King, Tom Wilkinson is a great Johnson, Oprah Winfrey can actually act, in case you didn’t remember. (Only why, in a movie that has Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, and George Wallace, do they all have to be played by Brits?)

And I’m not greatly bothered by the depicted conflicts between King and the younger activists – Zeitz says the movie overplays them, but they were real.

I even think making Johnson a foot-dragger who has to have his mind changed is actually fine-ish, though. It didn’t happen this way, not in 1965. But it did pretty well happen. Johnson did help make the Civil Rights Act of 1957 weaker. And he did at last push the Voting Rights Act through. King’s activism helped propel him forward.

(And even in 1965, Johnson was still incredulous at the thought that he hadn’t done enough. “Could anybody do better? What do they want?” he asked.)

But. I do think it’s stepping over the line to make Johnson responsible for the infamous “suicide letter” to King. This is like telling us the fisherman leaped into the water and wrestled the fish into submission with his bare hands. I mean, someone did catch and kill that fish, but not like that.

The suicide letter (which appeared in Athan Theoharis’s From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover and was recently analyzed in full by Beverly Gage) was a genuinely vicious thing. The FBI sent it to King, with tape-recordings of his sexual infidelities, saying “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

As Zeitz points out, this letter had nothing to do either with Selma or with Johnson. But the movie has Johnson saying he needs to put King off, picking up the phone, and barking “Get me J. Edgar Hoover,” then cutting to Coretta Scott King listening to the tape with her husband. In the language of film, that’s as much as saying, Johnson ordered the sending of that letter and that tape.

Which is a shame, really; DuVernay doesn’t need Johnson to sink that low for the narrative to work. I suspect she did want to get in some evidence of King’s infidelities, and the complexity of his relationship with his wife, and this was the way to do it. To establish Hoover as acting independently from Johnson would have taken up too much screen time in a movie already packed with incident (Malcolm X is in it!); as it is, I’m not confident all viewers will remember Hoover from his single, brief, establishing scene.

But it is a shame.

Still, Lyndon Johnson was a big man with a secure place in history, and I bet wherever he is, he can take it. And you and yours should still see the movie. Which is fiction, if historical fiction.

(Also recommended: NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, with friend of this blog Gene Demby, discussing this question, too.)

The National History Day queries have gotten out of hand. I say this as someone who: a) is an employee of a public institution and takes his obligations to the public very seriously; b) participated in and learned a great deal from the National History Day competition; c) likes working with anyone, including middle school and high school students, interested in the past.

All of that said, everyone in the profession now gets huge numbers of requests from students who want us to weigh in on topics about which we know very little. Worse still, these students want us to reply via e-mail.

Here’s a typical letter:

Dear Mr. Kelman:

My name is [redacted]. I’m a student at [redacted]. I’m participating in National History Day. As part of my assignment, I have to interview an expert about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Please reply to these five questions.

[questions redacted to preserve the student’s confidentiality]

Thanks,

[redacted]

There’s something to annoy nearly everyone there, right? Regardless, what are we supposed to do about this kind of thing? My current policy is to beg off politely if I don’t know anything about the topic at hand, and to offer to do a phone interview if I do have the relevant expertise. But that makes me feel churlish in the first instance and somewhat creepy in the second.

Seriously, what’s a guilty Jew to do?

This is officially an award-winning blog

HNN, Best group blog: "Witty and insightful, the Edge of the American West puts the group in group blog, with frequent contributions from an irreverent band.... Always entertaining, often enlightening, the blog features snazzy visuals—graphs, photos, videos—and zippy writing...."
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