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In the TLS for 17 April, you can find my essay on Nicholas Wapshott’s The Sphinx, about the presidential election of 1940, the isolationists, and how Franklin Roosevelt engineered the US shift toward war. The essay starts like this:
Franklin Roosevelt recognized the threat Adolf Hitler posed from the moment of the German Chancellor’s appointment. In January of 1933, Roosevelt—not yet inaugurated, though already elected, President—told an aide that Hitler’s ascent was “a portent of evil”, not just for Europe but “for the United States”. He “would in the end challenge us because his black sorcery appealed to the worst in men; it supported their hates and ridiculed their tolerances; and it could not exist permanently in the same world with a system whose reliance on reason and justice was fundamental:. From then onward, Roosevelt’s policies raced Hitler’s: the New Deal was not merely a programme for recovery from depression, but one to rebuild economic strength while preserving democracy in the United States so the nation would be ready to fight Nazism when the time came.
The New Deal gave Americans not only the material capacity to fight fascism, but faith in American institutions. Which is why, of course, the prevalence of remarks like this one remains so appalling.
If you’re interested, Slate just posted an excerpt from a chapter — on Appomattox and memory — from Battle Lines, the graphic history of the Civil War I’ve written with Jonathan Fetter-Vorm.
Perhaps my favorite story of the Civil War comes from Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, which took place 150 years ago today. Here’s an excerpt, below the fold, from a piece I wrote last year about that episode.
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!
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.
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 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
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.
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.
…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.
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.
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.
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]
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: arikelman.org. All are welcome.
The New York Times, April 28, 2012:
Presidents running for re-election typically boast of programs they created, people they helped or laws they signed. They talk about rising test scores or falling deficits or expanding job rolls. President Obama is increasingly taking the unusual route of bragging about how he killed a man.
To be sure, that man was Osama bin Laden, and he is not mourned among either the president’s supporters or detractors. But in the days leading up to the first anniversary of the raid that finally caught up to the Qaeda mastermind, Mr. Obama has made a concerted, if to some indecorous, effort to trumpet the killing as perhaps the central accomplishment of his presidency.
The article does nod to previous Presidents running on their toughness, but then goes completely off the rails when talking about a recent Obama interview in the Situation Room:
Tony Fratto, a deputy press secretary under Mr. Bush, said that it was “unseemly” to use the room for such a purpose. “I don’t believe it ever would have occurred to us to conduct an interview in the Situation Room,” he said, “and don’t believe we would have considered it appropriate.”
Mr. Fratto (and Times), I give you the USS Abraham Lincoln from the New York Times, May 16, 2003:
George W. Bush’s ”Top Gun” landing on the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln will be remembered as one of the most audacious moments of presidential theater in American history. But it was only the latest example of how the Bush administration, going far beyond the foundations in stagecraft set by the Reagan White House, is using the powers of television and technology to promote a presidency like never before.
Officials of past Democratic and Republican administrations marvel at how the White House does not seem to miss an opportunity to showcase Mr. Bush in dramatic and perfectly lighted settings.
Media strategists noted afterward that Mr. Sforza and his aides had choreographed every aspect of the event, even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Mr. Bush’s right shoulder and the ”Mission Accomplished” banner placed to perfectly capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot. The speech was specifically timed for what image makers call ”magic hour light,” which cast a golden glow on Mr. Bush.
The New York Times, June 21, 2004:
The story of how President George W. Bush ended up with Saddam Hussein’s pistol mounted in his private study off the Oval Office has dribbled out in the last few weeks, and it is a good one.
In that context, Saddam’s pistol is a bookend of sorts, the prize of a president who viewed the badge as reason for waging two wars.
To the Delta Force that brought it back, the gun is a piece of history representing nothing less than mission complete. “These kinds of experiences you only have a few times in your life, and they’re very powerful,” said Major General David Grange, a retired commander in the Delta Force during the Gulf War. “It’s ‘Sir, we got him.”‘
As to whether Bush will ever give the gun to the Iraqis, he didn’t say.
Politics was so much more dignified in the Bush administration.