You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2015.

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.

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...."