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


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.

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.

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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.

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!

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.

…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.

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.

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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]



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?

I have a new author’s website:  All are welcome.

This article in Vanity Fair left me thinking that it’s only a matter of time before performance-enhancing drugs become the norm rather than the exception in the academy. I mean, what happens you realize that the assistant professor that your department just hired can concentrate for hours and hours without taking a break for weeks on end? What happens when you realize that s/he is far more productive than you are because of these extraordinary powers of concentration? And then, what happens when you learn that the secret to her or his success is a prescription for methylphenidate? What are you going to do about it*? As for me, I’ll probably go out for a bike ride and then take a nap. But that’s because I’m old and pretty much past my prime already. But if I could still be a contender — whatever being a contender means — I wonder if I’d think twice and call my doctor.

Here’s the thing: I’ve long known that there are people in the profession who are smarter than I am (some of these people have offices near mine). My response to such cruel realities has been, on the one hand, to acknowledge my limits and, on the other hand, to work my ass off to try to make up the stagger. Put another way, I’ve accepted that nature is fickle (Bill Cronon is a once-in-a-generation intellect; I’m not) and tried to overcome the vagaries of genetics with a response rooted in nurture (my willingness to work hard)**. That said, I think I’m going to find it pretty difficult to take when it turns out that people are outperforming me because they’re relying chemical enhancements*** to help them publish.

Now wait, before you give the obvious reply, yes, I know this already happens. Eric drinks coffee. I don’t. And that’s the only reason he’s written four books and I haven’t. Really, though, if there were a pill that would allow me to be significantly more productive, I worry that I’d think long and hard about taking it. Actually, I suspect that choice is already here. It’s just that I don’t have the right dealer.

* Whitey.

** The nature/nurture divide is far too simple here, I know. Some people are smarter and harder working than I am. Oh well.

*** Especially when it turns out that some people process these chemicals more efficiently than other people and thus have better results when they ingest them. Oh, nature, you are truly cruel!

Given what an ignorant slut* he seems to be, I guess I’m willing to be more charitable than Timothy Burke and accept that David Levy (not the good one, mind you) only worked fifteen hours/week during his academic career.

Really, though, rebutting this sort of disingenuous crap is beneath my dignity. But I do think Corporate Spokesperson Levy should be shunned. Beyond that, take a look at the Burke post. It’s smarter and more thorough than Levy deserves. And unlike Levy’s pat drivel, Burke opens up some avenues of discussion.

* Corporate category; I don’t care about the man’s sex life.

I’ve probably never said this here before, but having finished my book on Sand Creek, I’m now co-authoring* a graphic history of the Civil War. As a consequence, I’ve been following this discussion with some interest. I don’t have much to add except this: I decided, very early in the process of writing the book, that we would NEVER put fictional words into the mouths of non-fictional historical figures. Which is to say, although my co-author badly wanted to insert a couple of gold bug stanzas into the Gettysburg Address, I put my foot down. On the one hand, this seems very much like what Silbey suggests should serve as best practices (both in literature and scholarship, if I understand him correctly). But on the other hand, I have to admit that we worked around the attendant problems by making up characters left and right to voice the dialogue and carry the weight of the story we’re trying to tell. I’m reasonably sure that this makes me a lousy historian in Silbey’s eyes and a lousy storyteller in Eric’s. Mission accomplished!**

* With Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. Who also worked on this project. Which is awesome.

** (Note to self: wear flight suit and codpiece, not academic regalia, to graduation this year. Unfurl self-congratulatory banner at key moment. Bathe in applause.)

Students in my Civil War class tend to be fascinated by the disjuncture between the Lincoln of memory, who stands tall as the Great Emancipator, and the Lincoln of history, who only very gradually embraced emancipation as a necessity of war and then later as a moral imperative.* One of the crucial moments in that evolution was the controversy over treating slaves as contraband of war, an episode during which several of Lincoln’s generals, in fall 1861, outstripped their Commander-in-Chief and began practicing not-quite-emancipation on the ground. They refused to return slaves that crossed the Union lines to their former owners, leaving those people in an odd situation: not quite free, but no longer enslaved either.

The BBC has a story up about one of the sites where that controversy played out: the South Carolina Sea Islands. I have to admit that this is the kind of article that threatens to get under my Civil War historian’s skin but then ends up totally tickling my historian of memory’s fancy. The story is “little known” and a “secret history,” says the Civil War historian? Not so! There’s a great book on the subject! And Chandra Manning is working on a new monograph about contraband camps! But then the historian of memory says, “stop being such nit-picking jerk and check out the stuff about the two Mitchels discussing their sense of shared heritage.”

Anyway, it’s an interesting (and annoying, yes) story that’s at least in part about the enduring nature of a certain kind of reconciliationst Civil War narrative.

* This formulation is decidedly too simple, I know. Consider it a kind of shorthand for the sort of thing about which scholars write long books that win prizes.

Charles Pierce (who is awesome) included this in his touching remembrance of Don Cornelius. Ad agencies really should use historical figures as pitchmen more often.

Or so it seems. No, I’m not talking about Joe Paterno again [spits]. I’m talking about the description of the United States as a Grand Experiment in democracy or sometimes as a lower-case grand experiment in democracy. I always assumed that one of the founders* said that, that it was a quote in other words. But no, it seems that’s not the case. Unless I’m missing something — which is entirely possible; no, really, it’s entirely possible — the whole thing is a charade.

* Probably Jefferson [spits], right? I mean, he’s usually the guy who said the stuff about the things, isn’t he? But apparently not in this case. Unless, again, I’ve missed something. Which is to say, this is chance for you to note that somebody is Wrong on the Internet! And not just any somebody, but me.

David Greenberg’s review of Chris Matthew’s new Kennedy biography is, like everything Greenberg writes, worth reading. It’s a wonderful takedown, I think, because it’s not entirely captivated by the search for the perfect snark (they’re wily, snarks are, and should be hunted at dawn and dusk, when they typically rest).

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If Mark Wahlberg had been seated in first class on that fateful day, there would have been no 9/11. Yes, seriously. I dare you to challenge his logic.

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