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On this day in 1925 The New Yorker first appeared, and every year the magazine’s editors mark the august anniversary by reiterating in appropriate fashion the picture of dandy Eustace Tilley, who graced the first cover. Though he became an institution, Tilley started as a joke, a man self-evidently out of tune with The New Yorker, with America, and indeed with 1925.

If the city’s new voice had a real face it was this one: the tough but humorous map belonging to Harold Ross, the New Yorker‘s first editor. He came from Colorado and worked as a reporter and photographer in San Francisco and Atlanta. He spent time also in Panama and, maybe most important, edited the Army’s newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Which is by way of saying, he knew the West, the South, the new cities, the new army and the new colonies—the ingredients that, when added to an acquaintance with the capital of capital, New York City, would give you an excellent working understanding of modern America.

Fortune gave this account of his virtues:

There are two things that measure Ross’s genius. One was the fact that he never deluded himself on how little he knew—and he learns some things rapidly; the other was his sublime dissatisfaction with everything and everyone as he battered his way to what he was after but did not know how to ask for. He is not a large man, but he is a furious and a mad one. Men left The New Yorker for sanitariums, they had fits on the floor, they wept, they offered to punch his nose (he is terrified of physical violence). But he kept on hiring and firing blindly. By hit or miss he found the individuals who could articulate his ideas—and who could stand the pace of his temperament.

One of the men he might have driven crazy was his big backer, yeast magnate Raoul Fleischmann. But Fleischmann stuck out the flat first years and became a successful publisher by 1927. And the talent accreted with agreeable speed around Ross; within a couple years of starting he had Katharine Angell, James Thurber, and E. B. White. He liked lean, clear writing and disliked dirty jokes. Infamous cover aside, he created an institution that belonged not just to the metropolis but to the nation and indeed the world.


On this day in 1872, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its doors. I grew up, for the most part, in Cleveland, Ohio. And my family used to make the seven-hour drive to New York City pretty regularly. Or at least often enough that I learned to love art at the Met. Huh, if that’s not the most pretentious sentence I’ve ever written, I’d like to avoid the one that takes top billing. Even if I turn my head sideways and squint while I read it, the one above makes me sound like an ass. But it’s true.

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About two weeks ago, a news producer for one of the television stations in Sacramento called to ask me, “Will Barack Obama be our first black president?” I didn’t write about this at the time, because I was a bit freaked out and didn’t want to make sport of someone I don’t know. But the time has come to tell the story.

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I dearly love the TLS. Here is part of a tribute to Rees Davies:

As a memorial to Rees Davies – perhaps the closest rival to Marc Bloch that Britain can claim to have produced, both in terms of scholarly method and of humanity – this book has the added advantage of a postscript from Davies himself, reminiscing about his early failure to obtain a place at Oxford, where the Master of his prospective college questioned him about his Welsh-speaking ancestors and the fairy tales and myths of his home area with all the condescension, Davies tells us, that an anthropologist might have displayed confronted with “a member of the Dinka or the Nuer”. One senses here that the wounds of the greatest historians go deep, and that from them flows much that is best and most humane in their writing. This is historical scholarship at its best.

Davies was indeed a deeply humane and decent man, who behaved very kindly to me when I was young and impetuous. Now I am old and impetuous, and he’s gone. Soon the burden of decency to the youth will fall to the likes of me.

But that paragraph is followed immediately by this one:

Nonetheless, even the most spectacular of fireworks displays have their occasional dud rocket, and in this instance there are essays that fail to become airborne. Solipsism is perhaps the greatest potential failing of the professional historian, and in this instance there are two essays (politeness forbids one to name them) which exhibit all the coherence of a madman in a telephone box, scoring rhetorical points off a listener who long ago had the sense to replace the handset.

On this day in 1847, rescuers found the Donner party, trapped high in the Sierras near Truckee Lake. Daniel Rhoads later remembered the scene:

At sunset, we crossed Truckee Lake on the ice, and came to the spot where, we had been told, we should find the emigrants. We looked all around, but no living thing except ourselves was in sight. We raised a loud hello. And then we saw a woman emerge from a hole in the snow. As we approached her, several others made their appearance, in like manner coming out of the snow. They were gaunt with famine; and I never can forget the horrible, ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice, very much agitated, and said, ‘Are you men from California? Or do you come from heaven?

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Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, argues that the shift to contingent faculty isn’t just an economic development but also an attack on academic freedom. It’s an interesting point, and I feel silly that I haven’t considered this before now. At the same time, it’s absurd to me that Nelson allowed himself to be videotaped with his tie looking like that. Honestly, I’m not sure which outrages me more: the tie or the situation surrounding contingent faculty. For the moment, I’m going with the tie, which is both ugly and a huge mess.

Via howtheunversityworks.

On this day in 1865, William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops, having already made Georgia howl, took the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Given that, and also because it’s President’s Day, it might make sense to consider how close the cult of Abraham Lincoln — of which I am a member in good standing — came to never having been founded. And also, how much our collective memory of Lincoln actually owes to the field tactics, good timing, and daring of William Sherman.

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Okay, the NYT article on a “bizarre literary reading” of The Great Gatsby gives me an opportunity to air my own pet and possibly bizarre reading thereof. I’ve asked around and nobody seems to think it’s either been done or is entirely non-credible. I now throw myself on the mercy of the Internets, asking “Isn’t Tom Buchanan afraid that Daisy has black ancestry?”

I think he is. People act funny at first when I say this because Mia Farrow played Daisy and Mia Farrow is blonde. And isn’t Daisy blonde? No, she’s not: when she gets caught in the rain, “A damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek,” and when we read in flashback about Gatsby and Daisy, we hear that “he kissed her dark shining hair.”1

We know that Tom is surprisingly tangled up in the subject of racism—which is to say, it’s surprising that he’s been researching it: “the fact that he ‘had some woman in New York’ was really less surprising than that he had been depressed by a book.” What book? Tom:

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Heather Cox Richardson, author of West from Appomattox, The Death of Reconstruction, and The Greatest Nation of the Earth, as well as all-around brilliant historian and fine human being, writes apropos this discussion and this one:

By the way, Hannibal Hamlin was on the ticket in 1860 because he was from Maine, and Maine voted before any other state (hence the saying, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”) Lincoln needed the momentum he could get from having a local boy on the ticket in 1860. HH was jettisoned in 1864 to broaden the party into a national concern. Johnson, a border state man who had stayed with the Union, seemed the logical choice.

“Logical” does not in this context mean “good.”

Our various discussions about spit and memory reminded me of my favorite passage on the subject of truth and observation, which I had thought was probably everybody’s favorite, but the Internets wouldn’t yield it up to me in full. So here it is, John Steinbeck from The Log from the Sea of Cortez:

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A new kind of adoption in France:

President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday defended a plan to require 10-year-olds to honor child victims of the Holocaust…. “We do not traumatize children by giving them the gift of the memory of the country.” The president wants each child in the last year of French primary school, at about 10 years old, to “adopt” the memory of one of the 11,000 Jewish children in France killed in the Holocaust, learning about the selected child’s background and fate.

Which will encourage religious belief.

Adding to the national fracas over the announcement, Mr. Sarkozy wrapped his plan in the cloak of religion, placing blame for the wars and violence of the last century on an “absence of God” and calling the Nazi belief in a hierarchy of races “radically incompatible with Judeo-Christian monotheism.”

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I thought this ad was fair.

But this is funnier.

Via LitBrit.

In a thoughtful and provocative comment below, PorJ discusses politicized memories of the Maine. Well, it just so happens that on this day in 1898, as Silbey has been kind enough to remind us, the Maine exploded and sank in Havana’s harbor.

The Maine was in Cuba in the first place, ostensibly protecting American interests — again, please see Silbey’s post, as he, um, actually knows something about this material — because pro-independence Cubans, rallying around the memory of writer/poet/activist José Marti, were trying to throw off the yoke of Spanish colonial power. Or something. Anyway, a little before 10 pm on February 15, the Maine blew up, killing more than 260 people on board.

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We are grateful to again welcome David Silbey, author of The British Working Class and Enthusiasm for War, 1914-1916, and A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1900. Don’t blame him for the title. Many thanks, David.

Historical Friday cat-blogging: from Harper’s Weekly, 3/26/1898, p. 296.

It really should have been a conspiracy. The timing was simply too perfect for it to be anything else. When the armored cruiser Maine blew up in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, killing 260 American sailors, it came at such a dramatic moment that it had to have been a deliberate act: sabotage, attack, conspiracy. An accident would have been so deflating.

The Maine had sailed to Havana Bay as a symbolic assertion of American influence. The fighting between Cuban insurrectos and the Spanish crown had been ugly and President William McKinley thought that sending a thoroughly modern embodiment of American might to the island would protect the interests of the United States. Instead, it provoked a war.

The response within the United States to the ship’s explosion was immediate and angry. No one doubted that the Spanish had blown it up somehow. Few stopped to consider that the last thing the Spanish would want to do was provoke the United States to intervene in a civil war that Spain was already losing. The Spanish had done it, and the Spanish must pay. “This means war,” exclaimed the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who quickly set his papers to foment militarism. However yellow the journalism Hearst and his colleagues practiced, Americans were more than willing to go along with it.

McKinley appointed a court of naval inquiry, ostensibly to investigate, but also to give him time to consider. Passions ran too high. When Wall Street slid on the prospect of war, a newspaper article, in a remarkable display of public venom, referred to the financial community as the “colossal and aggregate Benedict Arnold of the Union and the syndicated Judas Iscariot of humanity.” The naval inquiry reported back that the ship had been blown up by person or persons unknown and McKinley sent a message to Congress recommending that the United States intervene in Cuba. The Spanish-American War was about to start, a war between an ancient empire, living off past glories, and a new and thrusting power.

More than a hundred years later, it looks as though the reality of the sinking was indeed deflatingly prosaic. Investigation in a less fevered time and place suggests that the Maine blew up because of a build-up of gas in a coal bunker. Improperly vented, such gas could ignite with explosive force. Most tellingly, the external armor plates of the ship were bowed outward, not inward as they should have been for an external explosion.

But perhaps not so prosaic after all, as it suggests that going to war over mistaken perceptions is not so rare in American history. The Spanish had nothing to do with the Maine; the Iraqis had nothing to do with 9/11. Neither fact saved either from war with the United States.

W00t! W00t! </fanboy>

Ahem, let me compose myself.

Nah: w00t! Dear every American academic who was a child in the early 1980s, your role model is back…. <goes to dig out hat>

Vodpod videos no longer available. from posted with vodpod

via Yglesias.

Apparently, this is from the Emmy-nominated Palestinian children’s show, “Pioneers of Tomorrow.” I say “apparently,” because I’m not sure that I can believe this clip is real. First, it seems to allude to key scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But not in a good way. And, as anyone can tell you, the humorists in Hamas are far subtler than this clip suggets, particularly when dealing with Crusades comedy. Second, I don’t know if the title of the YouTube will come through, so I’ll just note that it’s “Martyred Mouse and Killer Bee Replaced by Jew Eating Bunny.” Which raises another question about this clip’s authenticity: isn’t “Jew Eating” a compound adjective in this case? Shouldn’t it be “Jew-Eating”? Third, and finally, I’m really not spoofing the revolutionary struggle of the Palestinian people. But I am making fun of the idea of Jew-eating bunnies. Because everyone knows that bunnies don’t eat Jews; my people are far too gristly to make for good eating. Bunnies prefer meals of carrots and lettuce washed down with the blood of Christian children.

The New York Times says on this day in 1903 the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor was established. Dullsville, right? Wrong! Here are three exciting things you can say about it next time you get the chance — say, at a quiet moment during your Valentine’s Day evening:

1. It represented a victory for Theodore Roosevelt’s particular style of leadership — using press coverage to pressure Congress. While McKinley had begun to use the press in a modern way — issuing press releases to try to control coverage and so forth — Roosevelt did it much better, largely because reporters did not drop dead of boredom when he opened his mouth. Roosevelt also wasn’t above a deft bit of — spin? fibbing? — as previously discussed on this blog.

2. It represented a position on antitrust somewhere between the unashamedly pro-corporate wing of the Republican Party, as represented by e.g. Nelson Aldrich, and the populist wing of the Democratic Party. By lodging investigatory and subpoena powers in an executive bureaucracy, Roosevelt was able to go after trusts he thought were misbehaving and leave alone those he thought were fairly tame. This discretion represented a prima facie fudge (that’s technical legalese, special for CharleyCarp) of the Sherman Antitrust Act, which forbade “every combination” in restraint of trade. But as was typical of Roosevelt, there was a good deal of constructive bluster and a bit less actual prosecution. Remind me to tell you about Justice Holmes and the Northern Securities case come March 14.

3. If you squint just right at the provisions to collect and publicize information about corporate accounting, coupled with Roosevelt’s annoyance at stock-watering, you can see the beginnings of the Securities and Exchange Commission, there. Which reminds me of the pre-Security Analysis career of David Dodd, but we can’t do all our “this day” material at once, can we? Another time.

When I used to teach a course on the history of 1960s at my old job, I always asked students how many of them believed that anti-war protesters had spat upon Vietnam veterans when the latter returned home from tours of duty. The point was to introduce the idea that politics underlies collective memory and mythology.

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A little while ago I said to you all,

you’re looking around the political scene today, thinking, who looks a bit like Richard Nixon

If it were me, here is where I would look.

My esteemed colleague, Alan Taylor, would like to know why Republican senators are carrying water for Roger Clemens. So he asked me to ask you. Does anyone know? Campaign contributions? Past favors to highly placed GOP candidates? They love drug-abusing megalomaniacs?

And while we’re on the subject, I’m also interested in what makes a successful power pitcher so delusional that he thinks, “I know, I’m going to bring my high heat to the U.S. Congress. I’ll prove my innocence by blustering my way through a hearing on the Hill.” I mean, I understand that athletes are treated like gods, and that Clemens is a man of epic competitive drive and ego, but please.

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