Mildly Malevolent

"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell

"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde

contact info:

ecohn-at-uchicago-dot-edu

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Saturday, October 04, 2003

The October issue of Commentary Magazine has several interesting articles on American history. (Commentary being Commentary, one of the leading periodicals of the neoconservative movement, I'm not necessarily convinced by the argument of either article, but I consistently find the magazine interesting.) The issue includes a review of the new Bayard Rustin biography by John D'Emilio (a leading scholar of gay history), as well as a review of a book by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr on "historical revisionism" and accounts of the U.S. Communist party. (Not surprisingly, I have a higher opinion of the first article than of the second.)


According to the conventional wisdom, Civil War generals can be classified into two categories: competent professional soldiers and incompetent politicians. That argument has always seemed weak to me (George McClellan was a professional soldier who was a disappointment on the battlefield, for example), and now someone has published a full-scale study of the relationship between "professional" and "political" generals in the war.

I've been planning to comment on the relationship between "political" and "professional" generals in American history for a while, but I haven't had the chance. This is the sort of issue that commentators on Wesley Clark would do well to pay attention to: some commentators like to point, say, to Franklin Pierce's service in the Mexican War as a precedent for Clark, without realizing that Pierce was a politician who went to war (rather than a general who entered politics.) I'd argue that the position of the army in nineteenth-century history was fundamentally different from the position of the army today in both its relationship to the government and its relationship to the population at large. (A higher proportion of male Americans served in the army, the War department held a more significant position in the U.S. bureaucracy than the Defense Department does today, etc.) Most any historical comparison of Wesley Clark with past generals who've run for president strikes me as less than iffy, in any case: Clark is running more as a foreign affairs policy wonk than as a war hero, and doesn't fit the traditional profile of a general-turned-politician.

Sometime I'll comment more on the Washington Times Civil War section (the source of the review I've linked to), which I find oddly intriguing.


As anyone following the news carefully knows, the crisis in Iraq has almost completely bumped the situation in North Korea out of the headlines. Here's an excellent Fred Kaplan article about whether North Korea is now bluffing the West about its nuclear arsenal, and here's a Washington Post story about North Korean defectors.


A Guardian article describes the art of writing biographies--and suggests that you not believe everything you read. Another Guardian article describes the life and letters of Mary Wollstonecraft.


William Steig, the New Yorker cartoonist who wrote the 1990 children's book Shrek, has died at 95.

For more on Steig, see his website (which includes a biography and a profile by Roger Angell.)

Random Steig fact of the day: Steig was once a patient of the bizarre psychologist Wilhelm Reich, and even climbed into Reich's Orgone Accumulator.


Something I did not know: Bobby Jindal, the Indian-American Republican expected to win the first round of Louisiana's at-large gubernatorial primary, took his nickname from the youngest boy on the Brady bunch. (His real first name is Piyush.)

This campaign is an interesting one to watch: it's noteworthy that a non-white is leading for governor in a state where David Duke came in second 12 years ago. Jindal's electoral strategy is also fascinating, since he's combined a high-minded, policy-wonkish program with fairly intemperate attacks on abortion and gay marriage. Will this pay off for him?


J.M. Coetzee reviews two Nadine Gordimer books in the latest New York Review of Books. If I weren't rushing to finish the next draft of my Fulbright essay, I'd probably have something to say about the article...

Coetzee also argues that Dutch literature is more important than you think it is.


Is America in the midst of a cheating epidemic? I doubt it, but this NYT article is still kind of interesting.

Friday, October 03, 2003

My opinion of Frostburg State University isn't very high. And I say this as a Harry Potter fan.


Archives are cool.


Here's some proof that Fox News is bad. (Not that we really needed any proof...)


From today's New York Times:

  • The New York Public Library has opened a cool-sounding exhibit of Russian cultural artifacts.
  • Wanna bet on the future?



Do we need to understand W.B. Yeats's "batso mystical philosophy" to understand his poetry? What's the value of humor in writing? Are long biographies bad? Clive James reviews R.F. Foster's new Yeats biography.


Peter Ackroyd, an English writer best known for his densely written biographies of historical figures, has just begun publishing a series of children's books on world history.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

More on when Dali met Disney.


If I were Peter Carey, I'd be really annoyed today. Carey won the Booker Prize in 2001 (for The True History of the Kelly Gang) and in 1988 (for Oscar and Lucinda), but no one seems to realize that. The BBC is reporting that J.M. Coetzee (the winner of this year's Nobel in Literature) is the only writer to have won the Booker twice--a mistake repeated in a University of Chicago press release. (Coetzee teaches at Chicago, though he's a South African novelist who lives most of the year in Australia.) I could swear that I've seen the same error repeated several other times today, and I suspect that it appeared in the early wire service reports that were published by the online versions of American newspapers.

Tangent: three years ago, when I'd just ended my life as a poor starving writer and begun my life as a poor starving grad student, I temporarily harbored the illusion that I'd have time to do lots of freelance writing while I worked on my doctorate. One of my ideas was to write a critique of U.S. coverage of the Olympics. All of the TV commentators wanted to portray the Olympics as the last vestige of the Cold War, I planned to argue--they played up competition between the U.S. and the Russians and loved to show ominous photos of tough-looking Slavic athletes. (The wrestler Alexander Karelin always appeared in a sinister light.) In doing so, they missed the real story of the Olympics: the globalization of athletics. TV reporters occasionally mentioned--but never emphasized--stories about dual citizens shopping for the teams they could compete for most easily. They sometimes mentioned the multinational roots of prominent athletes--including a Russian-American swimmer and a Russian-born French gymnast--but never realized that such stories undercut the Cold War angle of their reporting and told something interesting about international mobility in the post-1991 world.

I was reminded of this article idea when I read about Coetzee's Nobel and a trivial question occurred to me: what nationality is Coetzee? He was born in South Africa and lived there a majority of his life. He also spent some time working in England as a computer programmer and earned a doctoral degree from the University of Texas at Austin, but he was denied a green card and returned to South Africa. Some South Africans now consider him a traitor (they say that he earned a literary reputation by writing about his native country's troubles and then moved to Australia), and he spends a quarter of each academic year at the University of Chicago.

I don't mean to suggest that nationality is ever a straightforward issue, or that this question is closely related to issues like globalization. (Coetzee fits into a long tradition of writers from the former British Empire who've moved around within the Commonwealth.) I wonder if there are more cases like his these days, and whether this trend will increase in the years ahead.

Update: Several articles in The Sydney Morning Herald refer to Coetzee as a South African writer. One article mentions the number of other Nobel laureates associated with the University of Adelaide (three), but doesn't claim that Coetzee is Australian. That's probably the only reasonable thing to do, unless Coetzee has Australian citizenship or has publicly said that he's Australian.


I love The Onion! A headline from this week's issue: "History Channel Devotes Entire Day Of Programming To Footnotes, Bibliography."


The life of Elisabeth Nietzsche, according to The London Review, is "a story of mediocrity triumphing over inspiration, meanness over excess, ressentiment over the ?bermensch. Her transformation of her brother's work into a Nazi cookbook bears an uncanny resemblance to the rise of National Socialism itself in a chaotic Germany. "


Robert Graves is cool, and The Times Literary Supplement provides more evidence of this in its article on his book about the Golden Fleece.


(Via Bookslut) Newt Gingrich, it seems, is a big fan of Wesley Clark's book on Bosnia and Kosovo.

Gingrich, for those of you who don't know, seems to have begun a second career as a book reviewer. In addition to his many Amazon.com reviews, Gingrich reviews random books on his website. (Most of them are spy thrillers or mediocre history books.) Gingrich is also working on an "epic trilogy" of alternative history novels that will explain what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War. (The first volume, on Gettysburg, was published this year.)


One of these days, I may have to declare a moratorium on posts dealing with David Greenberg articles. (He seems to be publishing articles constantly these days, perhaps in conjunction with the publication of his Nixon book.) I was impressed by today's Greenberg "History Lesson" column from Slate, which described Richard Nixon's populist strategy and the lessons it offers today's Democrats.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

David Brooks, easily the most interesting columnist at The New York Times, has written a column arguing that the "culture wars" of the 1980s have given way to the "presidency wars" of the 1990s and beyond.

I think he's right. (His argument is a simplification, of course, but as simplifications go it's very effective.) It would have been nice if Brooks had written more about the cultural trends behind this phenomenon--something I tried to do in a past blog entry on hatred of Bush and Clinton. That's a hard topic to write about, though. I ended up deleting my entry, since--like the vast majority of political writing on blogs--it wasn't especially well defended (and it needed so many qualifications and hedges that it wasn't a good read.) Brooks is a much better writer than I am, of course, so perhaps he'll return to the subject in more detail sometime.


The historian Jill Lepore (who wrote a pretty good book on King Philip's War) discusses Talk Like a Pirate Day and asks "When did pirates get to be so funny?" (The article is kind of fluffy, but it quotes interesting historians like Marcus Rediker.)

Another Common-place article discusses The History Detectives, a show I've been planning to watch sometime.


The KGB's anti-hangover pill has come to America.


There's something oddly comforting about TAing. When you're in the midst of rushing to finish a Fulbright application and hurrying to take care of various other administrative details, it's nice to have to sit back and read Augustine.

I'm looking forward to next week's readings a little more, I have to admit. My European Civilization class is reading Beowulf, which I haven't looked at since high school--and, like any Tolkien fan, I find Old English really intriguing.


Bookslut links to a review of the new Mitch Albom book--a review so negative that the Detroit Free Press wouldn't print it. (That newspaper also employs Albom.) The review's best line: "Where some attempt to write the Great American Novel, Albom seems content to write the Great American Postcard."

Then again, making fun of books like this almost seems too easy.


How important is it that biographers are experts in fields relevant to the subject of their work? That is, how important is it that a biographer of a historical figure be a historian, or that the biographer of a literary figure know a lot about literature or about his subject's work? Or, in blunter terms, does a biographer need to know what he's talking about before he begins his research?

I find this question oddly intriguing. Yesterday, for example, I wrote that the political strategist Kevin Phillips (best known for developing Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in 1968) had just published a biography of William McKinley. Moreover, the same series of biographies will soon release a biography of Warren Harding (one of America's most scandal-plagued presidents) by John Dean, the Watergate figure. Neither of these men, it seems fair to say, is a traditional biographer, though Phillips has written a little history and Dean has written about the identity of Deep Throat.

This morning I looked into the series of biographies for which Dean and Phillips are writing in a little more detail. The American Presidents Series, published by Henry Holt, seems like an interesting project. Some of the books in the series are written by "traditional" experts in the field: William Leuchtenburg (a well-known FDR biographer) is writing a volume on Herbert Hoover, for example, and Sean Wilentz is writing about Andrew Jackson. Some of the books are written by well-known historians writing outside their usual fields of expertise: Robert Dallek (a biographer of JFK and LBJ) is contributing a volume on James Monroe, for example. Still other choices are less traditional: the novelist E.L. Doctorow is writing a Lincoln biography, while John Seigenthaler (a journalist and former RFK aide) is writing about his fellow Tennesseean, James K. Polk.

There's a part of me that's less than impressed by this idea: after all, I tend to think that a writer should know what he's talking about, and I have doubts about whether John Dean knows anything about the U.S. politics of the 1920s. Ultimately, though, I have to say that I kind of like the idea behind this series:

  • The biographies in the series will all be short--say, around 200 pages. Too many presidential biographies end up really long, which can be wonderful for people like me but which doesn't always lend itself to good writing.
  • I'm always skeptical of the claim that "You should always write about what you know." It seems like an acceptable, but poorly developed, bit of advice for elementary school kids, but cliched and silly advice for intelligent adults: it would be more appropriate to say that "you should always come to know what you want to write about." Some of these people may end up making interesting points that wouldn't have occurred to someone with more formal training in the field: I'm curious what E.L. Doctorow will have to say about Lincoln, for example, and maybe Dean will turn out to have some interesting light to shed on an earlier presidential scandal.
  • None of these books are intended to be the defining books on their subjects. (I hope not, anyway!) Some of them may turn out to be interesting or worthwhile. Most of them will be utterly forgettable. If Henry Holt wants to publish a series that will be experimental and (probably) unprofitable, that's fantastic--I wish more publishing houses were willing to be risky in what they choose to publish.

Maybe I'm overestimating the chances that this project will be a commercial failure. Maybe I'm overestimating the chances that it will result in a successful book or two. Even so, I'll be interested in seeing how this project works out in the end.

In short, then, I don't expect this series to result in lots of great new scholarship (though certain volumes could be historically interesting.) It may well be an interesting experiment in popular history-writing, however, and some of the less traditional could conceivably have an interesting lesson or two for academic historians.


Is the White House leaker in the Plame scandal Karl Rove? A reporter from The Guardian says so--see Dan Kennedy's take on the issue here.


Can a biography be so reverential that even its own subject wouldn't like it? The Village Voice thinks so, claiming that a new biography of the critic Kenneth Tynan "would surely have inspired the book's own protagonist to heights of creative derision."

I'm intrigued by one Tynan quotation that appears in the article: "As a critic," Tynan wrote, "I'd rather be a war correspondent than a necrologist." The reviewer gives very little context for the quote--using it as evidence for Tynan's "warrior spirit." Personally, I'd be interested in the context of the quotation, and I'd love to see more obituary writers who see themselves as critics.


What does the word "frog-march" mean? The Washington Post answers this question, calling upon J.K. Rowling for help.


In The Washington Monthly, David Greenberg reviews two new books on Watergate and the press (suggesting that they present the contemporary media in an unflattering light), while Laura Rozen discusses the neconservative theory behind the Bush administration's self-deceptions on Iraqi intelligence.


Erin McKean's Weird and Wonderful Words is a charming little book. (McKean, incidentally, may be the University of Chicago quizbowl team alum best known in the outside world.) Still curious what a "snollygoster" is? It's "a dishonest politician, especially a shrewd or calculating one." "Mundungus," it seems, is an obscure word for "bad-smelling tobacoo"--a definition sure to amuse J.K. Rowling fans. Finally, I vow to use the word "blandiose" more often from now on. (The word was coined by Kenneth Tynan and means exactly what you think it does.)

Being a geeky grad student, there were times when I wished the book were a little more academic. (I would have gladly traded the [charming] Roz Chast drawings for some more commentary, for instance.) I was also intrigued by certain tangential details: McKean attacks the idea that there's a connection between the words "snollygoster" and "snollygaster," the second of which describes a "mythical monster of Maryland." Do other states have mythical monsters (besides, say, the New Jersey devil)? What exactly is a snollygaster?

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Philip Pullman doesn't like testing.

My apologies for the really short, sort of inane entries today. Maybe I'll expand them later. Or maybe not: I'm pretty busy right now (what with my first day of TAing and having to take care of lots of administrative details for my Fulbright and the Russian Studies workshop.)


In Slate, Polly Shulman asks what Madonna's new children's book says about her.


Wesley Clark: time travel enthusiast?


Janet Maslin reviews a book about Fallingwater.


The political strategist Kevin Phillips has written a new biography of William McKinley, in which he argues that McKinley is a better president than is widely believed.

I'm intrigued by the next book in the series of presidential biographies in which this book appears: a biography of Warren Harding by John Dean (of Watergate fame.)

Monday, September 29, 2003

William Tyndale: more important than you think?


The New Yorker discusses the review from hell.

In another New Yorker article, David Remnick pays tribute to George Plimpton. Personally, I think that Plimpton should have called The Paris Review "The Druid's Home Companion," as he had considered early on.

Jonathan Franzen's profile of Dennis Hastert is, unfortunately, not unline, but an interview with Franzen is. Why did Franzen (a novelist) decide to write a political profile? "It was a great opportunity to spend the summer hanging out with Republicans," he says.


Joshua Muravchik's Commentary article on neconservatism is now available online.


Is this Jack Beatty essay exactly right or a little over the top? I haven't quite decided yet. I basically agree with everything he says, and yet the article rubs me the wrong way.


In The New Yorker, Louis Menand reviews The Chicago Manual of Style:


Some people will complain that the new "Chicago Manual" is too long. These people do not understand the nature of style. There is, if not a right way, a best way to do every single thing, down to the proverbial dotting of the "i." Relativism is fine for the big moral questions, where we can never know for sure; but in arbitrary realms like form and usage even small doses of relativism are lethal. The "Manual" is not too long. It is not long enough. It will never be long enough. The perfect manual of style would be like the perfect map of the world: exactly coterminous with its subject, containing a rule for every word of every sentence. We would need an extra universe to accommodate it. It would be worth it.

I'm not sure I completely buy this argument: I agree that the new Chicago Manual probably isn't too long, but I'm not sure that Menand and I agree completely on "the nature of style." I'm too busy to comment in detail on this now, so until I get the chance (or give up), just read the review.


The wonderful world of blogging often amuses me. I've been really busy lately, and I haven't had much of interest to say: nevertheless, I've been getting a lot more daily visits since I got back from Russia than I was getting while I was away. This makes me wonder whether my hit count will start falling once I start posting interesting entries again...

Soon (I hope) I'll start posting more original content, scrap my often-dysfunctional comments section, and add more links to random articles that probably won't interest you. But it might be a couple days until I have the time...

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Tidbits from my Sunday morning reading: