Recently Published (by Me)…

…on the Books and Culture website, a review of two books on D-Day. (I mean to say, if I don’t use my own website for relentless self-promotion, won’t that be an indication that I just never understood what the internet was actually for?)

I am not a World War II historian, or even a buff or amateur aficionado. So the essay isn’t really about D-Day, or the books under review, but explaining to interested lay readers the divides in military history that condition what they get to read. If you’re looking for a thumbs up or thumbs down on Craig L. Symonds’s Neptune, well, I would give it “thumbs up!”. But that was not my primary goal. Books and Culture is not Consumer Reports–The Books Edition. 

Does that sound snobbish? Well, if it does, than snobbery has been defined downward. My model here is H.L. Mencken–admittedly a terrible snob, in his way–whose legislative (and, I think, modest and self-effacing) pronouncements on criticism I should probably post on the tack board above my desk:

The motive of the critic who is really worth reading—the only critic of whom, indeed, it may be said truthfully that it is at all possible to read him, save as an act of mental discipline—is something quite different. That motive is not the motive of the pedagogue, but the motive of the artist. It is no more and no less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world.

I had then, and I have now, very little interest in many of Mr. Dreiser’s main ideas; when we meet, in fact, we usually quarrel about them. And I am wholly devoid of public spirit, and haven’t the least lust to improve American literature; if it ever came to what I regard as perfection my job would be gone. What, then, was my motive in writing about Mr. Dreiser so copiously? My motive, well known to Mr. Dreiser himself and to every one else who knew me as intimately as he did, was simply and solely to sort out and give coherence to the ideas of Mr. Mencken, and to put them into suave and ingratiating terms, and to discharge them with a flourish, and maybe with a phrase of pretty song, into the dense fog that blanketed the Republic.

The critic’s choice of criticism rather than of what is called creative writing is chiefly a matter of temperament —perhaps, more accurately of hormones— with accidents of education and environment to help. The feelings that happen to be dominant in him at the moment the scribbling frenzy seizes him are feelings inspired, not directly by life itself, but by books, pictures, music, sculpture, architecture, religion, philosophy—in brief, by some other man’s feelings about life. They are thus, in a sense, secondhand, and it is no wonder that creative artists so easily fall into the theory that they are also second-rate. Perhaps they usually are.


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Superprofessors have a lot to learn.

More or Less Bunk

I wanted to follow up my call for a superprofessor educational campaign with a post about something besides academic politics that the average superprofessor [Is that a contradiction in terms?] might not understand either, namely the pedagogical details of commercial MOOCs as currently constructed.

If there’s anything that you’ve been able to read on this site that you might not find elsewhere in the MOOC backlash blogosphere, that would probably be the details of what it’s like to take a MOOC and, to a lesser extent (because I will never teach one) what it’s like to be a superprofessor. Michael Feldstein makes an important distinction which anybody who wants to be a superprofessor will eventually have to face:

The distinction between a “course” and “courseware” is a blurry one, but basically, if you take the particular instructor out of the course, what you have left is the courseware. If the…

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“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe Is Published-This Day 1852


Harriet Beecher Stowe c1852.jpg

A book that helped to change history- Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published on this day in 1852. The anti-slave novel helped to lay the groundwork for the Civil War. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was the best selling novel of the 19th century and the second best selling book behind The Bible. In the first year after it was published it sold over 300,000 copies and this was in 1852 not today. It sold over 1 million in Great Britain. Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe during the Civil War and remarked “So, this is the little lady that started the war.’

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ALZ observes: I think this has to be one of the most bizarre “just so” stories told in a historic house museum. Most of them are attempts to square the circle, to give some sort of “practical” or “common-sense” explanation for some sort of human behavior that, like a lot of human behavior, defies common-sense. But this is so counter-intuitive that it baffles me, just a little bit. Does that mean I don’t think that someone has spun this story to a group of rapt visitors? No. I can easily believe that they did.

History Myths Debunked


Thanks to Brian Miller at Historic Odessa in Delaware for submitting this oddball. He says it is often stated in Odessa kitchens that cooks went barefoot for this reason.

I had not heard this one before, nor had Frank Clark, food historian and supervisor of Colonial Williamsburg’s foodways program, but he said, “I can pretty much tell you from experience that would be impossible. You might not burn your feet on the hot brick, but the heat of the fire on any bare skin is hard to take, especailly when you have to get your feet up next to the fire to get out coals and the like. Plus the chance of stepping on a stray ember is constant. I do it all the time. Sounds like a unsubstantiated myth to me. I think if someone was barefoot, it was only because they had no shoes, not for any advantage…

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March 10 1813: Presidential Letter



On March 10 1813, President Madison, in Washington, writes to former President Thomas Jefferson, in Monticello.

Dear Sir,—I have received your two favors of the 8 and 21 nit. The conduct and character of the late Commander at Niagara, as portrayed in the narrative enclosed in the first, had been before sufficiently brought to our knowledge. Some of his disqualifications for such a trust were indeed understood when he was appointed Inspector General. Gen1 Dearborn seems not to have been apprised of some of the sides of his character, though he has an apology for what’he did in the paucity of General officers provided for the army at that time, and the difficulty of making a satisfactory selection. The narrative is returned, as you desire. It gives me pleasure to receive a confirmation of the unchanged dispositions of those whose sympathies with R S- could not fail to be most…

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Cures for Depression: Confront the Pain of Being Human

This concludes the series on Samuel Johnson and depression. This quote does not come from Boswell, or even my Zotero “note cards” of Johnsoniana, but from Jack Lynch’s great The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page. Originally it was recorded in the “Anecdotes of the Revd. Percival Stockdale”, which was then collected and included in Johnsonian Miscellanies, edited by G.B. Hill.

I called on Dr. Johnson one morning, when Mrs. Williams, the blind lady, was conversing with him. She was telling him where she had dined the day before. “There were several gentlemen there,” said she, “and when some of them came to the tea-table, I found that there had been a good deal of hard drinking.” She closed this observation with a common and trite moral reflection; which, indeed, is very ill-founded, and does great injustice to animals — “I wonder what pleasure men can take in making beasts of themselves.” “I wonder, Madam,” replied the Doctor, “that you have not penetration to see the strong inducement to this excess; for he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

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Teaching in a straitjacket.

Teaching in a straitjacket..

via Teaching in a straitjacket..

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