Friday, March 30, 2012
Last April was the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. High school social studies teachers of the subject, and many American textbooks for that matter, tend to outline it as a conflict between North and South. In reality, the Civil War was a Western war, and one that redefined an entire nation: North, South, and most importantly, West.
Left out of the history books, and almost completely faded from historical memory, is the curious character of Asbury Harpending (who forgets a name like that?), and a plot by Southern elites that, if it was successful, would have delivered California to the Confederacy in a single move. Such an event would not only have ensured a Confederate victory, but would have fundamentally altered the course of American history.
By the 1860s, San Francisco was the heart of California. In only a decade’s time, San Francisco was the largest city on the West Coast. One historian noted, “What had taken New York 190 years to accomplish, or Philadelphia 120 and Boston 200, San Francisco had achieved only in 8.” The city held three-fourths of the state’s resources and one-fourth of its population. Its manufactures generated significant amounts of goods and its businesses, farms, industries, and merchants, employed the most workers. Finally, making San Francisco vital to California and the Union was the amount of gold leaving the San Francisco Bay. Each ship that left the Bay for the east coast of the United States, carried anywhere from $1 million to $3 million worth in gold. Ulysses S. Grant said, “I do not know what we could do in this great national emergency were it not for the gold sent from California.”
Asbury Harpending arrived in California with nothing more than a revolver and a 5-dollar note. His memoirs, which he wrote at the end of his life, told a tale of a secret society formed San Francisco in 1861. One day, thirty men, all Southern sympathizers, gathered in the home of an unknown wealthy San Franciscan. After swearing an oath of secrecy, the unnamed leader, whom they all called “General,” gave them their orders. Each man was to assemble a band of one-hundred men and “organize an army of Southern sympathizers, sufficient in number to beat down any armed resistance.” Then, together, they would seize the arsenal at Benicia, which housed all of California’s arms and munitions, and Alcatraz Island—the largest military fort west of the Mississippi.
At the start of the war, the Commander of the Pacific was General Albert Sydney Johnston. Johnson was born in Kentucky, a hero of the Texas revolution, and was in a position to hand over the entire Western coast to the Confederacy. Harpending later wrote, “This was the man who had the fate of California absolutely in his hands. No one doubted the drift of his inclinations (35).” Johnson, however, had heard rumors of a plot. According to the Congressional Record, for safekeeping, he ordered the 10,000 muskets, 150,000 rounds of ammunition, and percussion caps located at Benicia Arsenal moved to Fort Alcatraz.
If this plot had been successful, it would have meant a complete capitulation from the people of San Francisco and would have fundamentally altered the course of the war. Putting California in play during the Civil War would have altered Union strategy. Union generals would need to divert troops to California, a lengthy journey by land, and an even longer one by sea, taking soldiers away from the South. In that time, the secessionists could have consolidated their numbers, prepared for their defense, and sat and waited for the Union army. It also would have torn apart California politics, as the Democrats and Copperheads had an active presence in San Francisco and other California cities. With military might behind them, there could have been the possibility for another situation similar to bleeding Kansas. With Alcatraz and Fort Point in the hands of secessionists, nothing remaining could have protected the West Coast. In addition, the gold that exited the Bay would not have made its way to the Northern lines, but down through Arizona, New Mexico, and into Texas and the Confederacy.
Such an event would have altered the course of American history because the Confederacy might have won the war. With the plot dead, the Committee of Thirty disbanded, each going their separate way. “And the rest,” as the cliché goes, “is history.” For other stories from the life of Asbury Harpending, his memoirs, The Great Diamond Hoax and Other Stirring Incidents in the Life of Asbury Harpending, is available on Google Books.
 Rodger Lotchin, San Francisco, 1846-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 30.
 T.F. Cronise, The Natural Wealth of California (San Francisco: H.H. Bancroft, 1868), 80. For extensive descriptions of virtually every manufacture, see Chapter XI, page 596.
 Qtd. in Leonard Richards, The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2007), 230.
 Asbury Harpending, The Great Diamond Hoax and Other Stirring Incidents in the Life of Asbury Harpending (San Francisco: James H. Barry Co., 1913), 26-30.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — As President Barack Obama pushes to fast-track an oil pipeline from Oklahoma south to the Gulf Coast, an American Indian tribe that calls the oil hub home worries the route may disrupt sacred sites holding the unmarked graves of their ancestors.
Sac and Fox Nation Chief George Thurman plans to voice his concerns this week in Washington. He said he fears workers placing the 485-mile Keystone XL pipeline that would run from Cushing to refineries on Texas' Gulf Coast could disturb holy ground without consideration of the tribe. He and another tribe member say the pipeline's route travels through areas where unmarked graves are likely buried>>>
"Bowers Museum Opens ‘Sacred Gold’ Exhibit," Antiques and Arts Online, March 27, 2012
The Bowers Museum's newest exhibit, "Sacred Gold: Pre-Hispanic Art of Colombia," opens to the public March 31 and remains on view through July 1.
This rich exhibit traces the legacy of gold in pre-Hispanic Colombia in more than 200 exceptional objects, supplemented by text, map, chronology and photographs that put in context the pieces that make up this collection from the Museo del Oro and the Banco de Republica, Bogotá, Colombia.>>>
Ray Mark Rinaldi,"Anschutz Collection of Western art to open to the public in 2012," Denver Post, March 27, 2012
The Anschutz Collection, one of the country's most-respected collections of Western paintings, will open its doors to the public full-time later this year, adding another attraction to Denver's growing portfolio of small, quirky art museums. . . .
The Anschutz Collection is built around the biggest names in Western art, starting in the early part of the 19th century, and includes works by such standard bearers as Frederic Remington, George Catlin and Charles Marion Russell.>>>
Sarah Yager, "Making New Promises in Indian Country," Atlantic Monthly, March 23, 2012
On December 2, President Obama delivered the keynote address at the third annual White House Tribal Nations Conference. His adoption into the Crow Tribe on the 2008 campaign trail had been a historic step in the relationship between the federal and tribal governments, and that warmth still lingered in the applause that greeted his appearance onstage.
That morning, Obama announced, in his administration's latest effort to reduce obstacles facing Indian communities, he had signed an executive order to lower the dropout rate and start closing the achievement gap for Native American and Alaska Native students. "Standing in this room, with leaders of all ages," he said, surveying the densely packed auditorium at the Department of Interior headquarters, "it's impossible not to be optimistic about the future of Indian Country.">>>
Stephanie Taylor and Dana Beyerle, "Warning issued to Alabama Historical Commission," Tuscaloosa News, March 21, 2012
MONTGOMERY | The sponsor of a bill that would change the underwater artifacts law warned members of the Alabama Historical Commission after a commission employee sent an email opposing the bill.
At stake is what lies at the bottom of Alabama's waterways and who it belongs to — the state or to the private divers who uncover artifacts.>>>
Monday, March 26, 2012
One of the more enjoyable things about my Fulbright experience in Norway has been getting to know other American Fulbrighters and to hear about the work they are doing. Martin Fisk (Oregon State University, University of Bergen) is studying bacterial life "deep in the Earth and their impact on the rocks in which they are found. This research could contribute to solutions of a number of environmental problems and help to identify evidence of past life on Mars." He's one of the researchers who is taking part in a future Mars Rover mission. Others are studying climate science, literature, drama, public art, the nature of genocide, and much, much more.
The historian Sean Taylor--a Fulbright scholar at the University of Agder in Kristiansand--is associate professor of history at Minnesota State University Moorhead. His research focuses on colonial, revolutionary, and early national America. While in Norway he is working on a dynamic new pedagogy that is changing the way we draw students into debates about history. Called Reacting to the Past, this history game offers students the chance to engage history on a more direct level.
The Reacting to Past website at Barnard College describes it as follows:
In the video embedded here I speak to Taylor about his use of this pedagogy and how it has worked in his classroom. He also speaks to me about Barnard College's role in developing curriculum and hosting events. And finally Taylor tells me a little about how he'd like to use Reacting in the classroom in Norway.
Friday, March 23, 2012
Americans' taste changes over time, like almost everything else, that is.
Witness the change in diet and the range of good eats available since the 1980s. The food and drink revolution of the 1980s and 1990s even introduced artisan cuisine to the Velveeta cheese belt. In the Midwest microbreweries began to crop up in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now most Americans who live near civilization can shop for extra virgin olive oil, goat cheese, and cracked-wheat bread at there local supermarket or by a plate of Rare Ahi Tuna with Wasabi Vinaigrette, garnished with some unidentifiable greenery, at an area bistro.
Long ago, we drank Folgers, Maxwell House, and instant coffee. Now, coffee chains have familiarized Americans with the wonders of Mediterranean, Sumatran, and Kenyan varieties. The rage for the exotic even extends into the bizarre. Several years back the ultra-rare Kopi Luwak made a splash, or should I say, plop.
Before the 1970s most Americans brewed coffee at home with inferior peculators. Enter Samuel Glazer, a founder of the company that rolled out Mr. Coffee in 1972. Glazer passed away earlier in March at the age of 89.
Over at NPR Robert Siegel and Oliver Strand of the NYT discuss the change that the Mr. Coffee drip machine wrought:
SIEGEL: Because that's the way that coffee was brewed on an industrial scale, if you will, for big companies and hotels.
STRAND: Yeah, there were these large batch brewers that were basically enormous versions of what we started to use in our homes; these little countertop plug-in coffee drippers.
SIEGEL: And so, he wasn't the engineer himself but they figured out let's get somebody to make a miniature version of a huge coffee brewer.
We raise our cups of Cà phê sữa đá (iced Vietnamese coffee) to you, Mr. Glazer!
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
"How should Shakespeare really sound?" Telegraph, March 12, 2012
Inspired by working with Kevin Spacey, Sir Trevor Nunn has claimed that American accents are "closer" than contemporary English to the accents of those used in the Bard's day.
The eminent Shakespearean scholar John Barton has suggested that Shakespeare's accent would have sounded to modern ears like a cross between a contemporary Irish, Yorkshire and West Country accent.>>>
"Was Macbeth Irish? Juliet from Cornwall?" Guardian, March 18, 2012
If you listen to a new CD that tries to capture the original pronunciation of Shakespeare, you might think so.
I'm not a great fan of "authenticity" in Shakespeare: partly because tastes change, and partly because we can never be absolutely sure how the plays once looked and sounded. But a new 75-minute British Library CD, seeking to recapture the original pronunciation of Shakespeare through a selection of scenes and speeches, has a certain historical curiosity.>>>
Nick Clark, "Is this a dagger which I see before me? Historian to explore Shakespearean violence," Independent, March 21, 2012
Rising knife crime in London, youth gangs out of control, and helpless lawmakers attempting to curb the fighting by banning certain types of blade. It may sound familiar, but this was the London of William Shakespeare's day, and gives an insight into one of his most enduring love stories.>>>
Sarah Fay, "How to Talk to Shakespeare, H.G. Wells, and Emily Dickinson," The Atlantic, March 14, 2012
Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris envisions the ultimate creative writing program. In the film, Gil Pender, an American screenwriter and struggling novelist, travels back in time and gleans writing advice from literary luminaries living in Paris during the 1920s and the fin de siècle. Pender is a 21st-century, wannabe writer, a Hollywood hack who is awkward and uncertain in the presence of iconic figures like Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. When Pender asks how he can become a "real" writer, Stein tells him to strengthen the plot of his novel. Hemingway—speaking in "clean," "honest" prose—recommends he overcome his fear of death. We never find out if Pender makes it, but many of us would prefer his experience to that of enrolling in one of America's 300 graduate writing programs: no silly workshops, no other aspiring writers, and direct instruction from "true"—i.e., deceased—masters of the craft.>>>
Monday, March 19, 2012
NPR recently aired a story on the tower of 7,000 Abraham Lincoln-centered books (they’re actually replicas and amount to roughly half of the 15,000 total Lincoln volumes in existence) that now extends 34 feet above the floor of Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. It’s an arresting sight, a soaring tribute to our most important president and the historians who have written about him.
What this immense stack portends to a graduate student considering a career in Lincoln studies, I can only dimly fathom. It’s worth noting that there was no foundation of journal articles here; just books. Most of us won’t have reason to find the Lincoln book tower so daunting. We spend our professional lives erecting theses upon much less imposing and much more manageable stacks of historiography.
Still, the Lincoln Tower heralds an increasingly universal condition among historians that we might term superabundance. The problem derives from the formidable supply of primary sources—thanks to Google Books and other online repositories of historical texts—as well as our output of monographs, journal articles, and dissertations. As a result, what often makes historical research challenging today has less to do with the scarcity of primary sources or their geographic dispersal than the mini-towers of primary and secondary sources that we need to sort through on our way to an original argument. Superabundance is a first-world-type problem in that it mainly afflicts the comfortable and its direct consequences, which may include regular bouts of ennui, are far from catastrophic. Still, it’s an “issue,” as Americans like to describe their non-fatal maladies.
Historians aren’t alone in confronting the scholarly challenges posed by superabundance. Nearly every other academic field is afflicted by its own prodigious production. In a 2009 issue of Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein reported that “[f]rom 1986 to 2008, Wordsworth collected 2,257 books, chapters, dissertations, etc. Faulkner came in at 2,781, Milton at 3,294, Whitman at 1,509, Woolf at 3,217, and Shakespeare at 18,799.”
No doubt many thousands of illuminating volumes on Lincoln and Shakespeare are yet to be written. But how many more—and at what rate? This is the weightier question posed by our own scholarly superabundance. The good embodied in that indomitable stack of Lincoln volumes is not the profit that some ideal reader might reap from digesting every single one of them, because no sane person would—and certainly not a person who hoped to ever write anything themselves. Moreover, and this warrants more than passing mention, only a handful of libraries can now afford to own more than a fraction of the total.
Recognizing that humanities research contributes a great deal to the public good and that every teaching historian should have extensive and regular experience with it, would higher education be any worse if only 2000 works on Lincoln were produced over the next decade, as opposed to 2500? Would our public culture suffer? Over the last three years or so, Mark Bauerlein has been unsettling Chronicle readers with questions of just this sort. In particular, he asks: Might there be diminishing marginal returns in humanities scholarship? And might the sheer volume of this production bury high quality work under a heap of scholarly mediocrity?
Last May, Stephen J. Mexal countered Bauerlein with a stout defense of research quantity, arguing from the twin premises that 1) “we cannot know in advance which projects will matter, or in what way. The easiest way to account for this uncertainty is to produce as much work as possible and let the future worry about quality or utility” and 2) the peer review process is indefinitely scalable and “a larger community of active scholars means a stronger, more democratic community of ‘peers’ to perform the valuable work of peer review.” (For another astute consideration along these lines—comparing scholarly projects to the risks inherent in new business enterprises—see Johann Neem’s post, “The Value of Useless Research.”)Mexal and Neem make a convincing case for generous funding of a wide-range of humanities research, which I’m pretty sure Bauerlein also favors. But Bauerlein’s argument is really about priorities. It assumes a resource-neutral environment in which the superabundance represented by the tower of Lincoln books is not a reason to halt, or even significantly curtail research, but simply to reevaluate our priorities as scholars and teachers. Perhaps wary of too close an association with market economics, Bauerlein calls it “redistribution.” What he’s really pointing to is the need for a realignment of incentives. It boils down to this: If we’re going to improve the quality of higher education and expand its impact, we may need to reward interaction with students more generously and reward individual research quantity less so.
Friday, March 16, 2012
Michael Dirda, "The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank," Washington Post, March 8, 2012
Freud insisted that during the analytic hour, the psychoanalyst should maintain the detachment of a surgeon, staying reserved, objective and unemotional. It’s hard not to find this ironic, given the often soap-operatic lives of the men and women who formed Freud’s inner circle. Doctors sometimes like to be perceived as Olympian gods, but these letters remind us how often gods are venal, petty, jealous and spiteful.>>>
Graham Robb, "Balzac's Business," TLS, March 14, 2011
What does a novelist need? Balzac’s letters suggest the following: a peaceful place to work; a home full of beautiful, expensive objects to create “happiness and a sense of intellectual freedom”; coffee strong enough to maintain the flow of inspiration for two months; debts and publishers’ contracts with draconian penalty clauses to reinforce self-discipline with compulsion; several aliases and hiding places to prevent the creditors’ bailiffs from confiscating the expensive objects; and a constant state of romantic excitation without the time-consuming consequences of love.>>>
The Letters of Henry James (1920), Archive.org
Colm Tóibín, "A Man with My Trouble," LRB, January 3, 2008 (Colm Tóibín reviews 'The Complete Letters of Henry James)
After the death of Henry James’s father in 1882, his sister-in-law Catharine Walsh, better known as Aunt Kate, burned a large quantity of the family papers, including many letters between Henry James senior and his wife. Henry James himself in later life made a number of bonfires in which he destroyed a great quantity of the letters he had received. He often added an instruction to the letters he wrote: ‘Burn this!’ To one correspondent, he wrote: ‘Burn my letter with fire or candle (if you have either! Otherwise, wade out into the sea with it and soak the ink out of it).’ In two of his stories, ‘The Aspern Papers’ and ‘Sir Dominick Ferrand’, valued letters are turned to illegible ashes – ‘as a kind of sadism on posterity’, in the words of his biographer Leon Edel. James was fully alert to the power of letters, having paid close attention to the published correspondence of Balzac, Flaubert and George Sand, and alert to the power of editors. After reading Sidney Colvin’s edition of the letters of his friend Robert Louis Stevenson, he wrote: ‘One has the vague sense of omissions and truncations – one smells the thing unprinted.’>>>
Michel Martin, "Can I Just Tell You? The Power Of Memoirs, Biographies," NPR, February 29, 2012
Can I just tell you? The stories of other people's lives are the one true remedy of arrogance. When you think about what your forebears went through so you could have the luxury to judge them, it is truly humbling. But it is also exciting because however ridiculous the political campaigns get, however high gas prices go up, however hard it gets to make that mortgage payment, you can be assured that someone has gone through worse.>>>
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
It is particularly hard to get students interested in United States history. But this can seem almost impossible when studying ancient civilizations. How could a teacher get her students interested in Confucianism? If 19th-century U.S. history seems distant, what about the Warring States period in 481 B.C.?
One of the ways might be to take the ideas Confucius posited and find them in today’s culture. According to Confucius, an individual must be great, humble, and exhibit tremendous self-discipline. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam are Confucian heroes. A teacher can use Tolkien’s Middle Earth to examine Confucianism and the Warring States Period of China.
In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth stands upon the brink of destruction. All that the dark lord Sauron needs to destroy the world is his “ring of power.” Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, possessed the one ring and brought it to the Council of Elrond. There he sat quietly as the leaders of the free races debated what to do with the ring. Eventually, the group decided that someone must cast the ring back into Mount Doom, where it was forged. No one, however, could agree on who could or should take the ring. At long last Frodo volunteered to carry the burden, bear its suffering, and resist the temptation to use its power. Tolkien writes, “At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. ‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’” In the wake of this declaration, the free peoples of Middle Earth rallied behind the hobbit, and so began the journey of the fellowship of the ring. Throughout the journey, Frodo was tempted to use the ring and to surrender to its temptation. But, he resisted, often with the help of friend Sam.
With the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty, China entered a civil war that would last for several centuries. At the center of the Warring States conflict was a debate over the role and purpose of the emperor. In his Analects, Confucius posited that the king needed to exhibit te, or the great magnetic, moral force produced by holding fast to the “way of the ancestors,” (the tao.) In order to do this, the king had to follow the li, or the traditional, ritually prescribed actions including etiquette. In The Analects, the Master [Confucius] said, “He who rules by moral force (te) is like the pole-star, which remains in its place while all the lesser stars do homage to it” (Analects, Book 2, Ch. 1). Confucius continued that the king must, “govern them by moral force (te), keep order among them by ritual (li), and they will keep their self respect and come to you by their own accord” (2.3).
Confucius’s words about how the king should act were merely an idealistic vision of what a good emperor should look like. He saw the reality of the Chinese monarchy: every dynasty rose in the glory of victory and fell violently from power. For Confucius, there was no good king, no savior, no real exhibitor of te at the top. Confucius believed that no living man could separate himself from the corrupting power that comes with ruling. If the king at the top could not provide order to tame the chaos, or provide stability for the bottom, what hope was there for the world, or those living in it?
Confucius believed that humans could impose their will on the world. As there was no savior coming to rescue the world, every person must act as the good king. Each individual must be the savior of everyone else and have the wholeness of a king. Everyone must exhibit te. On the part of the person, this takes tremendous self-discipline (8.4). According to the Analects, self-discipline meant that individuals must overcome selfish desires, remove all traces of arrogance, and “be loyal and true to your every word, serious and careful in all you do.” As for the person who has “taken goodness for his load,” as Frodo did, Confucius wrote (8.3):
With caution and care,
As though on the brink of chasm
As though treading on thin ice.
Frodo and Sam took “goodness” for their loads and acted because Middle Earth was “on the brink of chasm.” For Confucius, the tao was “the way” to take control of the chaos, to free oneself from the pain of living in the midst of civil war or strife. Every individual has the capability to do this.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam exhibited te (moral force). They held fast to the simple ways of their people and were not corrupted like the race of men. They were the saviors of Middle Earth, had the wholeness of kings, and exercised tremendous self-discipline to resist a multitude of temptations. In the wake of their willingness to make the impossible possible, Middle Earth fell in line behind them. Frodo and Sam stepped in and acted as great kings.
What other Confucian heroes can you think of?
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), 264.
Monday, March 12, 2012
Boy oh boy, there are a lot of stories out there! It continues to amaze me, how everyplace I look, there's interesting, compelling history that could potentially turn into serious projects. Yes, okay, maybe I have a short attention span and maybe I need to complete some things (like my dissertation) before taking on any new projects. I’ll give you that.
So what I’m trying to do is get a little bit of info, when I find these topics, so I can get back to them later. In a sense, maybe this is how authors worked in the days when they were doing the final edits on one manuscript while writing the next, proposing the one after that, and looking for the projects after those. In the world of self-publishing, the steps are a little different, but maybe the principal is the same.
The one thing that has really struck me, as I’ve been getting down to writing one project that I’ve been thinking about for a couple years, is how wasteful it is to go over the same ground again and again simply because I didn’t complete the job earlier. I have file folders, backup hard drives, and memory sticks filled with documents. I’ve downloaded hundreds of pdfs from Google or the Internet Archive. I have a stack of index cards nearly four inches high, two partial bibliographies in Endnote and one in Sente. And I have a half dozen outlines and drafts.
It’s good that I’ve been thinking about this project as long as I have been, and it will probably be a better end product because of it. But next time, I’m going to try to be a little more careful about identifying the material I’m collecting, and writing about it as I’m collecting it. In real-time.
Maybe I thought I wasn’t ready to actually start writing this, or maybe I was just lazy – or too excited about the research. You know how it is: one link leads to another, and soon you’ve got gigabytes of great material. But now that it’s writing time, I need to go back over all this material, rediscovering the paths I followed that led me to these records and relearning how they all fit together. Makes me think if I could have been a little more detail-oriented on the front end.
So I’m trying to build a single bibliography for this new, potential project I’ve just discovered. I’m connecting the documents to the entries in Endnote, so I’ll know where they are (and I won’t have to wonder where the most recent ones are!) I’m writing little abstracts and synopses now, so when the time comes I’ll understand how it all fits together and where each record fits in the story. I’ve even got a timeline and a cast of characters, that I can add to anytime between now and whenever I really start this project.
Wish I would’ve started this sooner! The original project I came to grad school thinking about is still out there on a back burner. That folder on the backup drive measures about 29 gigabytes, and some of the files date back to 2006. It will be fun revisiting all that stuff someday. But very expensive.
Friday, March 9, 2012
Elise Blackwell, "Is Everyone a Writer?" Chronicle, March 3, 2012
The only aspect of my job as an MFA director and creative writing professor that I dislike—aside from those “and then I woke up” stories freshmen sometimes write—is gatekeeping.>>>
Patricia Hampl, "F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Essays From the Edge," American Scholar (Spring 2012)
The first readers to comment on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Crack-Up” essays made no pretense to literary criticism. They just wanted to dish—and diss. The dismay of old or former or soon-to-be-former friends came at Fitzgerald fast and furious, along with smack-downs from those critics who bothered to remark on the essays as they appeared in three successive issues of Esquire, in February, March, and April 1936.>>>
Rob Latham, "The Exegete: On the career of Philip K. Dick, up to and including The Exegesis," Los Angeles Review of Books, February 24, 2012
When Philip K. Dick died in 1982 of a series of strokes brought on by years of overwork and amphetamine abuse, he was seen within the science fiction genre as a cult author of idiosyncratic works treating themes of synthetic selfhood and near-future dystopia, an intriguing if essentially second-rank talent.>>>
"Five Female Writers Who Changed The Course Of Chicago Literary History," Chicagoist, March 8, 2012
March is Women's History Month; for 31 days we celebrate the women who have made our employment, the oration of our opinions, and our lifestyles possible. When it comes to contemporary authors, there's plenty of strong female voices in Chicago.>>>
Scott Martelle, "Book review: 'Watergate,'" Los Angeles Times, February 19, 2012
A few months ago I attended a book launch party for Adam Hochschild's World War I history, "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918," where he offered a concise dissection of the difference between writing novels and writing history. To write history, he said, the story needs only to be true. To write a novel, the story must be plausible — an often much more difficult thing to accomplish.>>>
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
I’ve been pondering the idea of self-publishing history, and I think the time has nearly come.
Say self-published to anyone over about 30, and the first thought they’ll probably have is “vanity press.” It has always been possible to have a manuscript printed and bound, and there are plenty of examples of useful histories that have been produced this way. Nearly all the “Centennial” histories on display or for sale at small-town historical societies were written by local people, mostly without formal literary or historical training, and published in small lots by local printers or specialist publishers. There were once many more local printers willing to take on “octavo” printing and bookbinding. Dr. Charles Knowlton, for example, self-published his 500-page tome Elements of Modern Materialism using a small printer in Adams, Massachusetts, in 1828 (he bound the volumes in leather and stamped the spines with gilt ink himself), and his infamous birth control book, The Fruits of Philosophy was also produced at Knowlton’s own expense and sold by Knowlton out of his saddle-bags to his patients, until Abner Kneeland began advertising an expanded second edition in The Boston Investigator in 1833.
There are a number of companies specializing in reprinting out-of-copyright books, and many old town histories are for sale at historical societies in these reprint formats. But there are many more stories at these repositories than made it into those old histories, and there are often local historians who work for years at these societies, digging up material on particular families, or on political and social movements that interest them. The market for their stories may be very specific (as in the case of town or regional history), diffuse (as in the case of genealogy), or may be too small to be economically feasible for a standard publisher. This is where self-publishing can change the game.
I’ve been watching the self-publishing industry for several years, and it has changed dramatically. When I wrote my first novel, companies like iUniverse were just beginning to offer self-publishing packages online. These companies used the newly-developed print on demand technology that companies like Amazon and Ingram were adopting to produce mainstream titles just-in-time, to print their clients’ work. They offered editorial services, marketing packages, and bare-bones “publishing,” if you wanted to do those other things yourself. For a little over a thousand dollars, you could get your book into print.
The objection to vanity publishing has always been that it’s trash. If you couldn’t get a publisher interested in your book, the wisdom held, it did not deserve to see the light of day. There’s some truth to this argument, but I think it was much more valid when the book trade was big, profitable for small publishers, and the business was widely distributed among thousands of firms. Nowadays, a small number of media giants control nearly all of the titles that “move,” as well as most of the backlists that fill the rest of the shelves in bookstores. These companies, studies and anecdotal accounts suggest, are becoming ever more conservative. The costs of launching a commercial title are so high for them that they would much prefer to get a new book from an established author than to take a risk.
But wait a minute. The major publishers, just like iUniverse, Amazon, and Ingram, print on demand. So, where are the costs? Hint: they’re not in the royalties. The real expenses are pre-production costs and distribution, and overwhelmingly, marketing. This is partly because the publishers’ economic model is still based on bookstores, and the need to put thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of physical copies on shelves around the world. But what about those regional, special-interest, niche-market titles?
There are a number of new small publishers catering to niches. Combustion Books for anarchist steam-punk titles and Chelsea Green for sustainable living and farming titles like Harvey Ussery’s brilliant The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, for example. But I chose in 2007 to buy the bare-bones package and self-publish. I lined up my own editing (author Terry Davis, whose workshop I was attending, for story; my Dad, a master teacher of language and literature, for line-editing), sent in my file and my check, and they printed my book. That was just the beginning. I quickly learned that having a title, even on Amazon, does not make the registers ring. Marketing, getting the word out, getting people to look for it, took some real effort. Luckily, the internet offers people in niches an incredible opportunity to find kindred spirits, wherever they may be. I found teen-review websites where I could have my young adult novel read and reviewed by actual teens (they liked it), and I found a contest I could enter my book in (which it won). It’s still selling well, five years later.
But back to history. I had a delightful conversation this week with a woman in Maine who has written a memoir that should be published. It has humor, conflict, suspense, local flavor, and incredible human interest. But how to get it into print? Well, the good news is that, since I tried it in 2007, the self-publishing industry has gone through another generation of change. You can now publish on Amazon, Lulu, and a variety of other platforms, with much more format-flexibility than was available a few years ago and completely free of charge. And they pay much better than they used to back in the early days. Much better on a per-unit basis, in fact, than traditional publishers. If you know what you want to say, if you’re comfortable with the technical end of putting a book together (I like to remind myself that Knowlton and many of the people who published books in the past didn’t have a professional editor, either), and especially if you know who will want the book and how to reach them, self-publishing might be something to consider.
(For Historical Society members going to the conference this Spring, I notice there isn’t a formal session about publishing options. Maybe we can get an informal thing going, or talk about it over lunch if anyone’s interested . . .)
Monday, March 5, 2012
Academics do their fair share of traveling. Research trips. Conferences. Job interviews . . . Hiltons. Best Westerns. Off-season dorm rooms that smell of Ramen Noodles and stale beer. Roach motels that smell even worse.
For me, a trip to Svalbard this week for my work as a Fulbright Roving Scholar is without comparison.
Today I join my two colleagues, Sarah Anderson and Isaac Larison, at the Longyearbyen Skole. The three of us will be speaking with students about the American educational system, postwar US history, Native American culture, religion in the South, and more.
Longyearbyen's population hovers around 2,000, much more if you throw in polar bears and Siberian Huskys. The village looks a little bit like an IKEA-designed base camp on the planet Hoth. Very cool. We're thrilled to be up here 800 miles north of the arctic circle. And strangely, thanks to warm ocean currents, it's more mild than one would think. All three of us have spent plenty of time crisscrossing the country in planes, trains, and automobiles. It certainly helps that, like plenty of others in our profession, we like to travel.
In a primer for grad students who are about to make their way into their field of choice, Paul Gray and David E. Drew write in the Chronicle about one of the perks of higher ed: travel. (A shrinking perk, for sure, as states cut budgets, and deans slash and burn.) In "What They Didn't Teach You in Graduate School 2.0," Gray and Drew write:
Food for thought for those, to quote the Pernice Brothers, "contemplating suicide or a graduate degree."
Perhaps the travel bit was a bigger boon in ages past. More than 30 years ago David Lodge parodied the academic jetset in his hilarious, exuberant novel Small World. (Sadly, no characters are zooming north to Svalbard.) As a send-up that's now become a period piece, Lodge's book reads like a Mad Men version of the tenured-and-sinecured classes. A choice passage:
Now where was that Svalbard Museum, and where did I put my extra hat?
Friday, March 2, 2012
Ah . . . the adventures of the archives. The thrill of the dusty old book hunt. The joy of finding that seldom-seen document. Have a look at this fun video that the NYPL has put out there to capture the wonderful world of research. (H/t to Susan Watkins, director of ENC's Nease Library.)
Some background from the good people at the NYPL:
Our hero, played by actor Ronan Babbitt, uses several library resources to help him discover his family secrets. We first see him receive library materials from our page, Sarah, which means that he filled in a call slip after consulting the library catalog. Our hero then flips through the card catalog drawers. Since we no longer use the old card catalog drawers for our books, what you will find here are three sets of indexes: one for coats of arms, one for images of passenger ships, and one of New York City illustrations.>>>