A grisly tale of murder . . . for kids?

[Boston Globe]

In this weekend’s Boston Globe Ideas section, I’ve got a short interview with Michelle Ann Abate, the author of a new scholarly book on the history of homicide in children’s literature. If your only exposure to YA and children’s lit is hearing about the scandals involving The Hunger Games — and unfortunately that describes me pretty well — then you might be surprised that there even is a history of homicide in this genre. But Abate makes a convincing case, and in the interview she also talks about how the adult reactions to these violent books have shifted.

A brief history of revising

[Boston Globe]


In this week’s Ideas section, in the Boston Globe, I’ve got a story about the history of revising. Today, we think of revising as an arduous, necessary process. But in an interesting new book an Oxford prof named Hannah Sullivan argues the Modernists were actually the first group to revise in this way.

Check out the story for more — there are cameos by Ernest Hemingway, John Milton, and Virginia Woolf, among others. But on my blog I did want to address one obvious (if insider-y) question. If the Modernists loved revision so much that they kept at it throughout the literary process, including when their work was in proofs — and one of Sullivan’s key points is that these discrete stages actually encouraged revision — then why didn’t their printers and publishers complain? James Joyce would call in revisions by phone even as his novels were in their final proofs. But, as any editor will tell you, changing work in proofs is expensive.

The answer to this question — and another important context for the Modernists and the rise of revision — comes from the patron-like figures who supported their work. In her memoir Shakespeare & Company, Sylvia Beach recalls Joyce’s publisher warning about “a lot of extra expenses with these proofs. . . . He suggested that I call Joyce’s attention to the danger of going beyond my depth; perhaps his appetite for proofs might be curbed.”

But Beach explains that, for her, the most important thing was that Joyce could work as diligently and obsessively as he wanted to:

I wouldn’t hear of such a thing. Ulysses was to be as Joyce wished, in every respect. I wouldn’t advise ‘real’ publishers to follow my example, nor authors to follow Joyce’s. It would be the death of publishing. My case was different. It seemd natural to me that the efforts and sacrifices on my part should be proportionate to the greatnes of the work I was publishing.

So there you have it — one reason “Thou Shalt Revise” has grown into the literary world’s first commandment is that the Modernists had the resources to revise and to experiment with the rules of revision.

“I was always slightly less Foucauldian than I sounded”: A profile of Stephen Greenblatt

[The Boston Globe]

In Sunday’s Boston Globe, in the Ideas section, I’ve got a profile of Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt. In his new book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Greenblatt writes about the fifteenth century’s rediscovery of Lucretius and his poem On the Nature of Things. Given Greenblatt’s subtitle, it’s no surprise that the book continues his push into the world of popular writing, a push that started with his Will in the World.

Actually, Greenblatt’s been writing reviews for The New Republic and op eds for The New York Times since the 1980s; nothing about his career is easy to summarize or diagnose. Still, writing a Shakespeare biography for Norton seems far different than writing an academic book for the University of Chicago Press. I asked Greenblatt about this (and N.B. that none of the quotations in this post made the profile — Greenblatt’s a compulsively quotable guy). “For me, there isn’t a big gap between the two,” he said about academic and popular writing. “It wasn’t like I was deciding to write detective fiction.”

After doing two interviews with Greenblatt, and reading or re-reading many of his books and essays, I’d say this is one of his defining traits: a weird inability to admit that anything he’s ever done was intentional, programmatic, or calculated. When I asked him about the genesis of New Historicism, for example, he said, “We weren’t a group of people who thought we were going to plot the transformation of the field.” Yet Greenblatt transformed his field — and not enough people point this out — through some very deliberate and unglamorous channels: he edited collections of academic essays; he co-founded a journal and book series; and he conjured up not only broad theoretical concepts, but also specific close-readings (of Marlowe, Spenser, and many, many more) that still occupy specialists in those fields.

So, Greenblatt’s The Swerve highlights his transformation from highly specialized academic to . . . literary journalist? (The Swerve doesn’t have much original scholarship, so far as I [or a scolding Michael Dirda] can tell. Unlike Dirda, though, I think it’s a good book; name me a literary journalist who could pull off as many fun and learned tangents as Greenblatt does in his book.) But The Swerve highlights another transformation for Greenblatt, and it’s the one that drives my profile: How did the scholar who argued that not even Shakespeare could escape the limits of his culture end up writing a book whose subtitle claims that, thanks to one book and one author, The World Became Modern?

It was very, very hard to get Greenblatt to address this. At one point I rather desperately read him the passage from Renaissance Self-Fashioning that comes up in my profile, then asked what his 1980 self would think of his 2011 book. “I think he’d like it,” Greenblatt replied. (He’s also compulsively sly.) Still, after some prodding, he admitted that “I was always slightly less Foucauldian than I sounded. I’m a little more optimistic now.”

Greenblatt remained uneasy about his publisher-provided subtitle. “I’m skeptical about any straight-forward teleology,” he said, like any good scholar. Still, he took literary scholars to task for their retreat from the public sphere. “Our work is important. But something about how that work is presented is self-diminishing, self-defeating.” Greenblatt added: “Why do we spend our lives on this? Why is it exciting? Why is it fun? Is it really just ideological demysticifcation? That’s fine, but there can’t be a full diet of that.”

Notes on the Johnstown Flood National Memorial (and on David McCullough)

[The New Republic]

The New Republic‘s just put out a special 9/11 issue, and I’ve got a feature in it on the long struggle to build the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I don’t have a lot more to say about Shanksville, but I would like to write a bit about the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. Like the Flight 93 memorial, the Johnstown memorial sits in rural Pennsylvania and is operated by the National Park Service. Unlike the Flight 93 memorial, though, the Johnstown memorial commemorates something that happened more than a century ago. I visited Johnstown on my drive back from Shanksville; it helped me think, however approximately, about the way time inflects national tragedy.

It also helped me think about David McCullough. Before we get to him, though, let’s talk about the building of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. In 1964, a Pennsylvania congressman pushed through a bill — well, he championed a bill; it was unanimously approved — that allocated $2 million to build two Pennsylvania memorials, one for the Allegheny Portage Railroad, the other for Johnstown Flood.

The Flood had provided the nineteenth century with its second biggest scandal, after Lincoln’s assassination. It all started at the  South Fork Dam, which backed up the Conemaugh River and created the  Conemaugh Lake. Next to the Lake sat the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, where the East Coast’s elite would come to, well, fish and hunt. One thing they didn’t do was worry about the fact that the South Fork Dam kept springing leaks. In 1889, though, it failed completely. Nearly 5 billion gallons of water spilled down through the mountains and into the steel mill city of Johnstown. Early telegram reports suggested that the Johnstown Flood had caused 10,000 casualties. The final count was bad enough: 2,200.

*  *  *

Around the same time Congress was taking an interest in the Johnstown Flood — they put the National Memorial ten miles above Johnstown, next to what was left of the South Fork Dam — David McCullough was taking an interest in it, too. It was an odd choice for both of them since memory of the Flood had largely faded. In fact, the only scholarship on the subject was a 1940 dissertation, which McCullough ended up thanking in the introduction to The Johnstown Flood, his first book.

In Paris Review interview, McCullough created a typically charming scene of the book’s origins:

When we were little kids, we used to make a lake of gravy in our mashed potatoes; then we’d take a fork, break the potatoes, and say, The Johnstown flood! — with no idea why in the world we did it. That was about all I knew about it until I saw the photographs of the flood, quite by chance at the Library of Congress. . . .  I wrote The Johnstown Flood at night after work. I would come home, we’d have dinner, put the kids to bed, and then at about nine I would go to a little room upstairs, close the door, and start working. I tried to write not four but two pages every night. Our oldest daughter remembers going to sleep to the sound of the typewriter.

Reviewers loved the book when it came out in 1968. They praised McCulloguh’s research and his writing — especially since he’d chosen an event where, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “no neat narrative line, centered on a dominant protagonist and with all ends neatly tucked in, is possible.”

A “neat narrative line”? A “dominant protagonist”? Today, that feels like a pretty fair description of McCullough’s historical method. Or at least of a prominent critique of that method, where Harry Truman or John Adams simultaneously shape and float above history.

*  *  *

It’s no surprise that McCullough’s Johnstown book didn’t sell like his later presidential ones. Still, it helped bring the Flood back to people’s attention. In 1986, as Johnstown was gearing up for the Flood’s centennial, the director of the city’s new Johnstown Flood Museum — not to be confused with the separate Johnstown National Memorial — could tell the A.P. with a relatively straight face that “it’s part of American folklore. Everyone’s heard of it.”

The government poured another $5 million into the memorial for renovations — by now, the key congressman was John Murtha — and a group of locals formed the Johnstown Flood Centennial Committee. The Committee made an ambitious schedule of more than 100 events. Still, everyone wanted to focus on the historical heroism of Johnstown’s everyday citizens. “We don’t want to build an amusement park,” another city booster told National Geographic.

*  *  *

Those sentiments echoed the ones I heard from anyone associated with the Flight 93 National Memorial. After spending three days there, I started the eight-hour drive back to Connecticut. It was a different route than the one I came on, a route that let me see the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. The memorial’s visitors’ center — the center was one of the things added for the Flood’s centennial — still stocked copies of McCullough’s book. When I stopped by, though, it lacked very many visitors. Thanks to strip mining, the Conemaugh River had turned the color of tomato juice.

Still, the combination of the visitors’ center, which had several wonderful displays drawn from McCullough’s research, and the geographical features — all that remained of the South Fork Dam were its two enormous sloping banks — made the memorial quite powerful. It left me wanting to visit the Johnstown Flood Museum, but I didn’t because I had to keep driving. Honestly, I hadn’t planned on being so moved by the experience.

A review of A Black History of the White House

[San Francisco Chronicle]

In tomorrow’s San Francisco Chronicle, I’ve got a review of Clarence Lusane’s new book A Black History of the White House. Lusane’s is a subject worth tackling, though he doesn’t always live up to his material. Slavery crops up all the time in presidential biographies — Joseph Ellis, who isn’t anyone’s idea of the perfect biographer, still managed 70 mentions of “slavery” in his prize-winning book on Thomas Jefferson — but Lusane treats the subject comprehensively. And when he maintains that focus, it creates some interesting juxtapositions and powerful arguments.

While I wasn’t able to locate a copy in time for my review, I did want to flag a similar title: Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black & White. This book comes from David Barton, Glenn Beck’s in-house historian. Given Beck’s previous attempts at history, I’d bet it’s safe to say that something more than the historical impulse informs this book’s findings. And that’s one reason we should be glad for a book like Lusane’s. Despite its imperfections, it contributes to our democratic conversation.

More Mark Twain

[On the Media]

Well, now Mark Twain’s Autobiography has really arrived. On this week’s Saturday Night Live, Bill Hader trotted out his terrific Julian Assange impression. “If I am falsely imprisioned for one more day,” Hader-slash-Assange says, “anyone purchasing Mark Twain’s new autobiography on Amazon as a Christmas present for their father will instead send him the book Everyone Poops.”

The joke makes sense, as enough people are buying the book to keep it on the New York Times best-seller list, hovering between second and third. But Twain’s success started long before the holiday shopping season. This summer, the media came together and anointed the Autobiography’s forthcoming edition as a major literary event. The Times didn’t get there first, but it did put Twain on the front page. And its story is wholly representative: coming this fall, after a century-long embargo, readers will finally meet a realer, darker Mark Twain. A few weeks later, Newsweek devoted its entire cover to Twain and his upcoming book (“Now we must get reacquainted all over again”). Thanks to the coverage in the Times and Newsweek and elsewhere, Twain went viral.

But there’s success, and then there’s success. And Twain’s book has exceeded everyone’s expectations. Plenty of bookstores have run out of copies and had to create wait lists, as the Times noted in another lengthy story. In fact, Twain’s autobiography has become a holiday success story with a full roster of heroes: the author (a serious literary figure), the publisher (an ideas-driven university press), and the printer (a small, employee-owned press based in Michigan). The book got an initial print run of 7,500, but there are now more than 500,000 copies in print — still only a third of the initial print run for authors like George W. Bush and John Grisham, but enough to turn heads even in publishing’s blockbuster age. To keep up with the demand, Twain’s Michigan printer has kept three shifts going — it even rehired some of the people laid off during the recession — and taken to shipping the book off in semi trucks packed with 10,000 copies each.

So, again, it’s a holiday success story, and I don’t want to sound like a literary grinch.  But it’s worth examing how, exactly, the book became such a hit. The media continues to commission tons of reviews, but here, at least, reviews never seemed to matter since the book debuted on the best-seller lists at a time when only one or two had been published. Instead, the book seemed (and seems) to benefit from its pre-release hype — the kind of embargo-powered nonsense that led Saturday Night Live to describe it as a “new” book. A few weeks back, I wrote a story for Slate outlining why the embargo was nonsense, and some of the better reviews — the New Yorker‘s, the Washington Post’s —have also pushed back against the hype. In this week’s Times Book Review, Garrison Keillor goes a step further, in a review that might be best described as affably brutal: Twain’s Autobiography is “a wonderful fraud on the order of the Duke and the Dauphin” and, later, “a powerful argument for writers’ burning their papers.”

I also don’t want to sound like I’m taking credit for this; if you review a 736-page “autobiography” that, thanks to various scholarly apparatuses, amounts to only 264 pages of text, you damn well better point it out. But the bigger point is that nothing the media has done can stop the media’s snowballing hype. Let’s remember that, this summer, the editors from the Mark Twain Project, which handles Twain’s literary estate and receives his royalties, gave the Times a few juicy quotations and some “exclusive” online excerpts of Twain “speaking from the grave.” As recently as 2009, the Project was in deep financial trouble. Clearly, that’s no longer the case — and all it took was the Project sacrificing its scholarly integrity. I’ve had chances to follow up on my Slate story with interviews on CBC’s Q show and on NPR’s On the Media, both of which you can find on my handy new media appearances page.

And speaking of financial trouble: it doesn’t bode well for Tina Brown and Newsweek that I completely missed that cover story while researching my original story.

A Profile of Jill Lepore

[Boston Globe]

In this week’s “Ideas” section of the Boston Globe, I’ve a profile of Jill Lepore and her new book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. Lepore was a great interview. (A couple of favorite [and context-free] lines: “I drink my cup of coffee and I think about the history of coffee. In my brain, everything unfolds on a time line”; “Arthur Schlesinger didn’t have to deal with email.”)

Lepore’s also written an interesting, if uneven, book. One thing I couldn’t get to in my profile was her critics within the academy. Lepore’s smartest move in The Whites of Their Eyes may be accusing the Tea Party of presentism — the Bicentennial was also, in Lepore’s phrase, “a carnival of presentism” — because this makes it harder to level one of history’s dirtier words at her. (The president of the American Historical Association defines presentism as “the tendency to interpret the past in presentist terms.”) Still, that’s exactly what people have done to her previous work. Consider the end of Brendan McConville’s blistering review-essay of Lepore’s New York Burning:

The unintended lesson within New York Burning is for those of us who study early America, and it goes something like this: colonial Americans aren’t like us, and that is what is truly disturbing and fascinating about them. Efforts to make their lives a long prologue to the emergence of our own world don’t work, even though some things they did clearly affect us.

I will say that, when it comes to writing about complex historical ideas for popular audiences, I’ve developed a lot of sympathy for Lepore. In the profile, for example, I wanted to explain why Sharron Angle was crazy to call Jefferson and Franklin “social conservatives.” Jefferson was easy enough — as was Franklin, if I’d talked about his views on gender inequality. But I figured I had to broach the issue of slavery at some point in a story on colonial America, so I went with Franklin’s abolitionism. Problem is, I’ve read David Waldstreicher’s excellent Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution, a book that shows this matter is much more complicated than simply referencing Franklin’s run as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. I had to finesse the point, and quickly. I’m embarrassed to say one draft had “Franklin’s semi-abolitionism,” which my editor smartly shot down. “Franklin’s public abolitionism” might not be much better, but I hope it at least registers the skepticism conveyed in Waldstreicher’s book. It’s a small example, but one that nicely illustrates the difficulties in practicing responsible public history.

One more thing: it’s worth rewatching Santelli’s original “rant heard round the world,” if only for the studio’s confused reactions. “It’s like mob rule there” and “he’s a rabble-rouser” —  no surprises there, but how about this line: “Rick, I congratulate you on your new incarnation as a Revolutionary leader.”