Trapper, early twentieth century. Library of Congress
The thermometer here has been hovering in single digits and New York City recorded wind-chill temps below zero. In Saranac Lake, where I spend time during the summer, wind chills yesterday dropped to around -40. Times like these, I think of a delightful little volume written by a nineteenth-century fur trapper from northern Canada. Martin Hunter's Canadian Wilds is available to read on Google Books, if you want to get a fire going in the living room and do a little browsing on your tablet. His book is full of old-fashioned lore about staying alive in difficult conditions. Here is some advice from Chapter 16, "Things to Avoid:"
Jack London's tyro in "To Build a Fire" would not have come to grief if he had followed Hunter's advice that "a proper partner is necessary" while traveling in the wilds, "for safety, successful hunting, and division of the many necessary labors, when the hunting or trapping day is over." Hunter reels off a list of possible disasters with fatal consequence, not least the risk of getting caught in your own animal traps. "I have known two men to lose their lives in a most horrible way of torture and agony, and these men were not novices at the business," he notes. One was middle-aged and "born and brought up to trapping, and the other was an old Nova Scotian who had trapped and hunted for forty years and yet he died in a bear trap." Hunter recounted one of his own near-misses when traveling alone in winter:
Despite such sage wisdom, Hunter was not without his crotchets:
So go ahead: throw another log on the fire and cozy up with this book until the cold wave snaps. You will feel even better if you line your head up with True North!
Trump continues to take us into uncharted territory. But the latest bombshells, relating to the FBI's secret counterintellligence investigation into whether Trump was an agent working in the Russian interest, are often mischaracterized, sometimes intentionally. Jeanine Pirro of Fox News asked the president, with a bit of a smirk on her face, if he had ever "worked" for the Russians. To her, the answer seemed beyond obvious. Trump a spy for the Russians? Ridiculous. In one sense, she was right.
The proper question is not whether Trump "worked" for the Russians as an agent within some formal arrangement; it's whether he was a Russian asset—someone over whom the Russians have been able to exert hidden influence. As one commentator put it, Trump is too undisciplined, impulsive and irrational for the Russians ever to even consider trusting him as a spy. But those same qualities, along with greed and a disdain for ethics and the law, make him a perfect candidate for a Russian asset. Over the past decades, he has surely provided them with plenty of kompromat.
Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, put the issue with waspish clarity. All the public evidence points to Trump being a Russian asset. The question is, is he participating wittingly, unwittingly or half-wittingly?
Donald Trump continues to drag us farther into uncharted waters and unplumbed swamps—threatening the Democrats if they do not accede to his demands to build a wall across our southern border and threatening fellow Republicans if they dare to break ranks with him. Fortunately, Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, has jumped in to guide us with a timely history lesson. As the New York Times reported, Cornyn "said Mr. Trump had made the case that Republicans had a much better chance of prevailing if they remained united in opposition to spending bills to get the government funded again."
“What did Benjamin Franklin say at the constitutional convention?” Mr. Cornyn told reporters. “We need to hang together or we’ll hang separately. That’s what it reminded me of.” The aphorism is clearly a favorite of the senator's; he has quoted it before, in urging Republicans to pass "POTUS's legislative agenda."
Unfortunately, Cornyn needs his own history lesson. Franklin said no such thing at the constitutional convention. He is alleged to have said something along these lines when the Declaration of Independence was signed at the Second Continental Congress, thirteen years earlier. After John Hancock put pen to paper signing his own flashy John Hancock, he is said to have exhorted others: "We must be unanimous; there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together." To which Franklin replied, "Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."
I add the qualifiers--allegedly, supposedly—because we don't have strong authority for the anecdote. Franklin's earliest biographers made no mention of it, including Parson Weems, who always plucked down a good yarn whether it was true or not. Only in 1840 does Jared Sparks record this bit of dialogue, sixty-four years after the event.
But even assuming the tale is true, it doesn't suit Cornyn's purpose very well. At the birth of the young republic in 1776, both Hancock and Franklin were urging members of Congress to put aside their differences and "hang together" as a united people. Cornyn is telling Republicans to "hang together" so they do not unite with Democratic members of Congress. He is putting party unity above national unity and conciliation.
With this kind of advice in the face of the chaos being sown during the continuing shutdown, we are all much more likely to hang separately.
I had an enjoyable visit recently to the Princeton Day School, whose sophomores are reading A Little History of the United States. (More on that soon in a future entry.) One student's book caught my eye: her neatly colored tabs calling out key pages in the narrative.
Some people respond to color immediately; others seem oblivious to its effects. When first putting together the college American history survey I'm a part of (Experience History; also its shorter version, US: A Narrative History of the Republic, both McGraw-Hill titles) one element I paid close attention to was the coordination of colors used on maps. Too many charts seem to use colors in random fashion: blue for this value, orange for that. But suppose you have a chart for the time it took Americans to travel on a journey starting in New York City during the early years of the Republic. This is how it looks in our text:
In theory, you could choose any color for any value here: blue for 6 days, yellow for 5. I've seen plenty of maps done in that haphazard fashion. But the values shown here represent a progression, from shorter to longer trips. The map becomes easier to read if the colors are chosen as a progression too. I asked production to move from hot colors (purple, red, orange, yellow) into cool colors (green, dark green, blue) to connote fast travel (hot) and slow travel (colder).
Similarly, in showing which nations of the world are the heaviest Internet users, I came across this map in Wikipedia:
It does have a color-coordinated gradation, but to my mind, the gradation is counterintuitive. The heaviest Internet usage here is shown in dark purple, then moving to blue and light blue as usage declines. My guess is that it would make more sense to use "hot" colors like red and orange for the heaviest usage and cold colors for places where the fewest people use the Web. In doing our own map, we started with black as the fewest users ascending to blue, light blue and so on...ending with red as the color for the "hottest," highest percentage of users.
There are complications in achieving this coordination. Graphic designers begin the production process by choosing a "color palette" for the entire book, so that the look and feel of the text is consistent throughout—a good thing. But those restrictions sometimes limit the number of colors available. Bottom line is, being sensitive to color in design makes for better history!
There is potentially no limit to how far you can take a sensitivity to color. The most striking example I'm aware of personally, was in the living room bookshelves of the poet Lucie Brock-Broido. She had her books arranged not alphabetically or even by subject matter, but by the color of their spines! It made for a striking appearance in terms of interior decoration...but I'm thinking she had to have a good memory for the colors of specific books, or she would have spent a long time poking around looking for a particular title!
One of my distinct summer pleasures is returning each year to our Adirondack camp. Here one finds the usual outdoor pastimes, from canoeing and hiking to just sitting on the dock listening to the calls of the loons. But the pleasure I’m referring to now is accomplished indoors, a process of turning the clock back in time. That is to say, browsing through the various camp libraries, whose volumes reach back a century and more.
I use the plural because there are several small-scale libraries here, tucked away in different buildings, each with a different identity. Where I’m sitting now, in a boathouse overlooking the lake, four bookshelves are crammed with paperback mystery and suspense novels, collected over the past thirty years. Some are familiar to me, such as Elmore Leonard’s Swag or P. D. James’ Devices and Desires. Other authors’ names ring a bell, though I’ve never read their books, including Sara Paretsky and Lawrence Block. Still others I’ve never heard of, yet clearly prolific creators whose volumes populate these vast sub-fields of idle diversion. There is “Edgar Award-winner” Sharon McCrumb, also Stuart M. Kaminsky, creator of “the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov Mysteries,” and Diane Mott Davidson (no relation), a writer who specializes in a “unique blend of first-class suspense and five-star fare,” and whose back covers boast such gastronomic encomia as “a delicious whodunit” (Bon Appétit) and “a rich feast” (Publishers Weekly).
I am usually good for about one volume a summer plucked from these shelves, though never more. Back in the 1940s critic Edmund Wilson wrote two classic screeds bemoaning the quality of detective fiction; and as the years go by, I find myself increasingly in agreement with his acerbic assessments. Still, these shelves yield up occasional treasures.
In the main living room, however, the selections are much more unpredictable and engagingly odd. Each side of the fireplace boasts a glass-protected shelf filled with volumes acquired by various camp owners beginning sometime after 1911. The great majority are hardbacks, though great literature most are emphatically not.
As a historian, I enjoy the encounter with the popular predilections of decades gone by, where the questionable taste of readers is not merely dull, as Edmund Wilson might have it, but unpredictably exotic and strange. I wandered in this morning and, running my finger across the titles, pulled one book off the shelf that I had never noticed before:
I have no idea who Grace Denio Litchfield is. The book was published in September 1904 and the title page informs us that she was also the author of “In the Crucible” and “The Moving Finger Writes.” That volume ought to have been titled “The Moving Finger Writes Tremulously,” judging from the first page of The Letter D:
I could not bear to read further, but did flip the book open, at random, to page 109, where I found a fellow named Robert walking with Ruth on an April afternoon, a wind “chill with the memory of March...sweeping down the street.”
Well? Wasn’t this worth a tug off the shelf? I confess that, upon reading these words, a rose tint suffused my pallid cheeks as I felt the shadow of Grace Denio Litchfield hovering o’er. And then the shade of another creature—destined, decades later for a Boris Karloff picture—in which Dr. Frankenstein, like Robert, brays those immortal words, “It’s aliiive!!”
All right. As one writer to another, I owe Litchfield an apology. We authors should be humble about the bookshelves our works are likely to end up on, to be taken out decades later and trod upon with glee. Grace Denio Litchfield made an apparently satisfactory living from her output. (Yes, I googled her after I began writing this, and discovered that she published at least a dozen novels and poetry collections. In the Crucible is her account of being nearly crushed to death during an earthquake in Italy.) The hilarity derived from her pages gives proof of how fickle popular tastes can be, including our own. What will future owners of this camp, pulling books off the shelf, derive perverse pleasure from? Will they include sentences which, today, strike us as discerning prose but decades hence will seem trashy or horribly overwritten?
“The little I have read has been only of the best,” Robert assures Ruth. Our goal is the same. Yet a little voice whispers that our notion of what truly lives, moves, and “is the real thing,” may prove as ephemeral as Robert’s or Grace Denio Litchfield's fancies.
Two postscripts. As I began posting this entry, my eye lit on something on the cover of The Letter D. Scroll back and see if you notice it. It's the letter F! Tucked in the lower right corner of the six inscribed letter D's on the cover. What can it mean? It's the only wiggle in the novel that has thus far aroused my curiosity, and it tempts me to skim further to see what the title means and what that subversive F is all about. But I could not quite bring myself to haul the book home and continue to delve. If there are any Litchfield devotees out there who can provide an answer, drop me a line! Otherwise, I'll see how strongly I'm drawn to return to the puzzle next summer...
Finally, when I began this post, I intended to talk about two other books that caught my eye, but for now they must wait. The Letter D was where the moving finger, gliding along the dusty shelf, abruptly landed. That's the fun of this odd time machine tucked away in a wilderness camp.
Last month I attended my fiftieth college reunion, at Haverford College. There, I was part of a panel discussing "Statues, Monuments and the Moral Tide of History." Also participating were fellow classmates Jack Rakove, a historian now teaching at Stanford University, and John Hough, Jr., a fine novelist whose work includes Seen the Glory, about the battle of Gettysburg. Glenn Swanson, another classmate who has long taught American history, acted as moderator. Finally, and most pleasing for the rest of us, Roger Lane was present, emeritus professor of History, who taught us all fifty years ago and today remains as insightful as ever (far right, photo above). I'm posting below my own talk for that morning, "The Ecology of Confederate Monuments." For those interested in hearing the remarks of all the panelists, this video is available from Haverford.
The Ecology of Confederate Monuments
Comments for a panel at Haverford College
Class of 1968 50th Reunion, June 2, 2018
© 2018 James West Davidson
First, I want to say what a thrill it is to be back in class with Roger Lane! He really was the guy who first brought history alive for me. And the number of students who would echo that sentiment, I know, are legion.
I want to enlarge on Roger’s themes, though coming at it from a slightly different direction, which, metaphorically speaking, is ecological. The discipline of ecology shifted the gaze of biologists from the analysis of individual species to understanding the relations among plants and animals within their larger habitat. Similarly, I want to focus less on the monuments themselves than on the historical context which encouraged their creation—their original habitat, so to speak.
Roger has appropriately referred to slavery as America’s Original Sin: a system of racial slavery, he adds. But by the time these monuments were created, legal slavery had been struck down for decades. After 1865 race and slavery were no longer yoked together. This separation had significant consequences for understanding the role played by race.
Geneticists have established the scientific futility of trying to define race, be it black, white, red or brown. But as a social construct, race remained of tremendous import in the post-emancipation South. Most significantly, it was a construct whose definition was being transformed to suit new social needs. One might even say, race was being reconstructed.
We’re familiar with Reconstruction as the process undertaken by the Union to bring the seceded Southern states back into proper national relation. That process ended formally in 1877, with the elevation of Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency. And the standard survey textbooks treat Reconstruction pretty much as over and done with by 1877. But in fact, the reconstruction of race as a concept was still very much under way in the 1880s and 1890s. In pre-Civil War days, the law of the land prescribed a legal status, slave, which could be regulated and legislated. But once the legal props of slavery disappeared, it became a good deal more difficult for one group of people to keep another in an inferior position.
Race became the key. During the 1880s and 1890s a line was drawn—“the color line,” it was called—that was increasingly buttressed by new laws, customs, and sanctions, until finally it became established that a person with any “black blood”—even a single drop—was on the far side of the color line. Historian Martha Hodes has brilliantly laid out this transformation. “Without the legal status of slavery and freedom as a dividing line,” she said, “white Southerners had to rely on the fickle categories of “black” and “white” to define white supremacy. The color line, therefore, had to be...established first by stricter racial definitions, which would come to fruition in the late nineteenth century with a codified “one-drop rule.” It also had to be established by distinct political, economic, and social castes for white men and black men, a task that required constant vigilance on the part of white people in order to ensure that no black man crossed over into the territory of political power, economic independence, or social authority.”
Continue The Ecology of Confederate Monuments
In earlier posts I've noted that Yale Press has licensed various foreign editions of A Little History of the United States, most recently an edition published in the People's Republic of China. Yale had sent me a copy of the edition, so I knew what it looked like, but only recently have I received word of its actual presence on the mainland.
From time to time I have corresponded with a Chinese citizen, William Wang, from the city of Xi'an in central China—originally the eastern terminus of the fabled Silk Road, if my information is correct. Mr. Wang found his way to this website after happening upon a copy of a college text I've collaborated on, Nation of Nations. (Alas, only Volume 2 was available to him.) For the last year or two we have exchanged emails from time to time on various subjects. But a recent communication, including the photo below, brought word that he had finally connected with A Little History:
No disappointment that he didn't buy the book—one must be thrifty and Mr. Wang prefers to work on his English by reading books in their original format. It was very good of him to send along a photo.
In addition, I am pleased to report that in the past few months, Yale has also licensed Japanese and Thai editions of the work. Not out yet, but they will be added to the queue along with a promised South Korean edition. Delighted to see the Asian market spreading!
Easter morning here, and I spent part of it reading the Sunday Times. (In my younger years, I liked to jibe that Marx said religion is the opiate of the masses, whereas in this more secular era, the Sunday Times is the opiate of the middle classes.) Opiated or not, I was struck scanning the lead stories on the front page that a striking change had occurred over the last couple of decades. I went back and hunted up the Easter Sunday front page from twenty years ago, and sure enough... Take a look at a listing of the primary front-page stories two decades apart. (The fact that it's Easter has nothing to do with it!)
April 12, 1998
Political Interests Arouse Raging Debate on Census
Steven A. Holmes
In W.N.B.A., Hope for Union of Their Own
Can-Do American's Patience Paid Off With an Ulster Pact
A Straight-Arrow Policeman Turns Loose Cannon at C.I.A.
Evidence Is Scant that Workfare Leads to Full-Time Jobs
April 12, 2018
Years of Claims of Harassment in Justice Dept.
Extortion or the Price of Freedom? Bail Bondsmen Accused of
Exploiting Poor Clients
Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Shaila Dewan
Taliban’s Move into High Tech Puts U.S. in Bind
Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Jawad Sukhanyar
Cuomo Budget Sticks Thumb in Mayor’s Eye
Vivian Wang and Jesse McKinley
Catching a Whiff of Faded Ballpark Memories
Hey, Alexa, What Can You Hear? And What Will You Do With It?
Notice anything? This is not an earth-shattering revelation, but out of the five main stories fronting the 1998 paper, four look to be done by white males. Compare that with the by-lines of 2018. The diversity of the reporting staff has increased sharply, both in terms of gender and ethnicity. My admittedly impressionistic sense is that same diversity extends through the paper as a whole; and the OpEd section has gained a much wider and more diverse line-up as well. All to the good.
A good copyeditor is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
Was that Keats who said that? Hmmmm. A good copyeditor would send you back to check, or might even correct your mistaken quote. But the best copyeditors are as scarce as hen’s teeth. Forty years ago, the good ones would probably also tell you to use quotation instead of quote in the sentence above, the latter being a verb, not a noun. These days, the more informal usage has become fairly common.
When I started writing in the mid-1970s, I was young and innocent and ignorant of how valuable a good copyeditor could be. Partly, I didn’t fathom that bit of wisdom because the best copyeditor I’ve ever had, bar none, was for my first book, which I wrote with John Rugge: The Complete Wilderness Paddler. I was astonished at some of the things she caught. (I think it was a ‘she’ but I can’t say for sure. They were sometimes anonymous and even when not, you never meet them.) I still remember her changing Jello to Jell-O, though I can’t remember whether she put a trademark symbol after the word. Also, she would write things like, “On page 40, you mention a book called The Bark and Skin Canoes of North America by William Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle. But in the bibliography on page 258 you say it is 'Howard T. Chapelle.' Which middle initial is correct?” That may have been the point when I first went out and bought a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style.
My next book, The Logic of Millennial Thought, had a fairly dismal copyeditor —and this was Yale University Press! He/She actually introduced an error into the text. I had Samuel Sewall "poring over a manuscript” and the copyeditor “corrected” it to read “pouring over a manuscript.” As if Sewall had other things to do with his beer than drink it! Fortunately in page proofs I caught one other mistake that was missed…a misspelling of the title of my book smack dab on the title page! It read The Logic of Millenial Thought instead of Millennial Thought. It’s a bit tricky because millennial has two n’s but millenarian, a similar term, has only one. I almost missed it. Then there is my Oxford book, ‘They Say:’ Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race. The theme of the book revolves around identity, and how you define yourself over and against how others define you. What they say, in other words. And in fact, Ida Wells for a while wrote a newspaper column entitled “They Say”…sort of news notes about goings on in the African-American community in Memphis. So the title of my book has “They Say” within quotation marks. The copyeditor on the book was only so-so, and using the quotation marks seemed to me to be logical. Only some years later did I go back and, by accident I expect, discover that, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, it was improper to include quotation marks in a book title, even if the title included a quotation, like “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” Patrick Henry and the Rise of Specious Eloquence. This makes sense to me now, but I regret to say I didn’t think about it at the time. And neither did my copyeditor.
The best copyeditors are at trade houses supposedly, like Knopf or Viking or Little Brown. Textbook and university press copyeditors vary much more in quality. Sometimes copyeditors will have specific issues they focus on that others have ignored. I remember that for the third or fourth edition of After the Fact, we had a copyeditor who went through and systematically changed every reference in which we used "black" or "white" as a noun . (E.g., "a number of whites converged at the waterfront..." was changed to "white men" or "white people.") That was the only copyeditor we had used who made those changes, which earlier copyeditors had not flagged. But sensitivities do change over time. I note that the same distinction became an issue in 2007, when the Associated Press wrote an article referring to Barack Obama as "the lone black" in the U.S. Senate. A faculty member of the Poynter Institute for journalists explained the thinking on using black or white as a noun:
The best copyeditors have an eye both for detail and for larger meanings. It’s seldom that one gets someone who does both chores well. For A Little History of the United States, my editor told me I was given one of the house’s best copyeditors, and I can believe it. As every copyeditor does, she kept a style sheet of how key terms and names were treated, for consistency (Vietcong, not Viet Cong; use a comma after the full name, separating it from Jr., as in Martin Luther King, Jr.) But she asked larger questions. For example, my manuscript spoke of the huge toll taken by disease in the Americas during the sixteenth century, noting estimates of something like 90 million deaths over the course of the century. She queried: "This might be fine, but it’s my job to question! It’s said [in an earlier chapter] that there were 8 million Indians in North America in 1492. Granted that here you’re talking about Central and South America over a period of a hundred years, but still... 90 million? Please verify."
I replied, "Quite all right to query—the figure is astonishing and the estimates extremely difficult to make. The population die-off estimates vary widely and have expanded greatly from those made by scholars in the first half of the twentieth century. A very rough estimate (but such estimates must inevitably be rough given the paucity of record-keeping), is that North American population was around 8-10 million (I went with the lower range of the estimate, and some scholars out of the mainstream, notably Henry Dobyns, have suggested 18 million). Central and South America had about ten times as many people, estimates suggest. And calculations are that the successive pandemics killed off over 90 percent of the population. Charles Mann, 1491, reviews the debate between so-called “High Counters” and “Low Counters.” You’ll see I changed my figure of 90 million above; I think it does make sense to give a range, so that people get a sense that when we say about 50 to 90 million, we’re talking wide variation. I do tend to lean toward the High Counters’ side (though I’m no expert, just have read in the literature). Even if we’re talking 50 million, it’s still a bigger loss than in any other century of recorded world history."
To sum up: Praise be to sharp copyeditors! They make life immensely easier for authors; and, while invisible to readers, make life better for them too.
I graduated over fifty years ago from The Harley School in Rochester, New York and was delighted to receive the above snapshot from Karen Saludo, who works at the school now. "I was walking down senior hallway and saw your book!" she reports. "You can see it has been used quite a bit."
In fact I knew that, having corresponded with Sandy Foster, who teaches American history there. He assigns it as summer reading to help students get up to speed before they take his class there in the fall, and reports high student engagement, which I'm glad to hear. This specimen seems well thumbed, certainly, which would seem to indicate a dogged devotion to the work!
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors