Category Archives: History

People have always been just as crazy as they are now.

Zephyr Teachout, Corruption in America

Popular history is often written like a novel, shaped into the kind of story for which an author might sell movie rights. It’s possible to write good history like this, but it has to be a particular kind of history, focused on people who resemble protagonists and events that can be arranged into plot arcs. Zephyr Teachout’s Corruption in America is another kind of history underrepresented on the bestseller lists–the story of an idea and a legal concept. Teachout describes legal cases and court decisions in terms non-lawyers can understand, and the deeper beliefs about corruption that drove them. The book doesn’t need dramatization, or formulaic biographical sketches of the participants, or any of the usual human interest tricks of bestseller history. The subject is interesting in itself: an argument in response to the Citizens United case about how the United States has understood corruption and how we ought to understand it.[1] (It’s a pretty wide-ranging book. This post shouldn’t be taken as a comprehensive review; it’s more me talking to myself about some bits I found interesting.)

Cover of Corruption in America

Corruption in America defines corruption as the use of public power to further private interests at the expense of the public good. What the public good is, and when we can say for certain private interests are being pursued at its expense, are not always clear. Take the Credit Mobilier scandal. The Credit Mobilier company existed to skim excess profits off railroads; what’s relevant here is the cheap stock sold by congressman Oakes Ames to colleagues who voted on railroad funding. When the details came out, part of Ames’s defense was that he didn’t need to bribe anybody: everything was going great, Congress was very pro-railroad, so where was the motive?

He had a point, sort of: corruption can be nebulous. Did Senator Jones vote for the artichoke bill because of the campaign contribution from Big Artichoke, or did the artichoke PAC donate to his campaign because it knew he really loved artichokes? That’s why we have what Teachout calls structural or prophylactic regulations. These set bright lines officials cannot cross, like the constitution’s now-famous emoluments clause[2]: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” No need to establish motivation, or prove a quid pro quo: ban presents of any kind whatever and you remove the temptation to turn a gift into a bribe. Instead of watching for scandals and proving motives in court, change the incentives. It’s the difference between treating a disease and getting vaccinated to keep from catching it in the first place.

The emoluments clause exists because in 18th century Europe it was de rigueur to shower foreign ambassadors with lavish gifts. The iconic example for Corruption in America is a diamond-encrusted snuff box the king of France gave Benjamin Franklin: that’s it on the cover. Franklin’s snuff-storage problems notwithstanding, for Americans this was exactly the kind of archaic old-world decadence they wanted to do away with. It wasn’t that Americans didn’t trust Franklin, or any ambassador in particular: even in the absence of any specific scandal, emoluments were a moral problem. Gifts create a sense of obligation between givers and recipients. Who could say whether that sense of obligation was stronger than an ambassador’s sense of obligation to the public? Could even the ambassador know for sure? “Offices,” whether patronage positions or expectations of post-government jobs, might be even worse: they created dependencies, encouraging officials to put their employers before their public.

The United States had a representative government. Officials who furthered their personal interests, or the interests of their friends, at the expense of the public interest deprived citizens of representation. Creating a situation that tempted officials to put their private loyalties above their loyalty to the public–letting them accept gifts, or promises of sinecures, for instance–would rot the whole system.

Ideas about corruption have changed since then. Lobbying is a useful example. Lobbying got its start in the 19th century, when lobbyists literally hung around capitol lobbies. This was not a respectable career choice. There were two problems with lobbying (or maybe two facts adding up to one problem, since neither was automatically a problem in itself). First, lobbyists pedaled influence privately, out of the public eye, not just in a courtroom, or before a committee, or anywhere the arguments would be part of the public record. Second, lobbyists didn’t advocate for their own beliefs: their influence was for hire, even to causes they might not personally believe in. Lobbyists sold their personal civic engagement. For many people that was as illegitimate as selling their vote. As a result, courts often refused to honor lobbying contracts: if you agreed to lobby for someone and they stiffed you for the bill, you were out of luck.

Today, lobbying is a major industry. What changed? Well, first, there’s the artichoke problem again: Sure, Senator Jones hangs out with artichoke lobbyists… but what if some of his constituents are artichoke farmers? Representatives are supposed to listen and respond to their constituents. It’s hard to figure out where responsiveness ends and “undue influence” begins. Second, lobbying evolved. As often happens with businesses initially considered weird and dodgy–acting, police work, internet advertising–as people got used to having lobbyists around they went from shady hustlers to professionals. Meanwhile, courts stopped ruling against lobbying contracts. Judges were increasingly reluctant to pass judgement on the content of contracts: where contract law was concerned, courts were laissez faire neutral arbitrators, not moral authorities.

That last change is key: Corruption in America argues that changes in underlying legal philosophy are a major influence on how the United States deals with corruption. Legal philosophy drives court decisions, which decide which laws are valid and how we interpret them. One example of how much the American idea of corruption has changed is the 1999 Sun Diamond decision. Sun Diamond, a trade association, had been fined for giving thousands of dollars in gifts to Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture. On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled the gifts weren’t enough to justify a fine: the government had to prove a quid pro quo–unambiguously connect the gifts to a definite “official act.” Otherwise, according to the decision, a high school principal might be prosecuted for giving the Secretary of Education a school baseball cap. What’s striking is that, compared to Americans 100–200 years ago, the court’s priorities have completely flipped. Americans used to be so worried about corruption they wrote structural rules to prevent officials from accepting gifts. The Supreme Court in 1999 was so worried about criminalizing innocent token gifts they ruled against a structural rule to prevent corruption.

Which brings us to Citizens United. This was the ruling that, as long as they weren’t making literal campaign contributions, corporations and unions could spend as much as they damn well wanted to influence an election. (Which is also a campaign contribution of a sort. An indirect one, yeah, but you have to assume politicians keep track of who helps them out.)

Teachout really doesn’t like Anthony Kennedy’s opinion. In her telling it’s not just technically, procedurally bad, but also bad in its underlying assumptions. She has several points to make, but for the purposes of this blog post I’ll look at one.

The opinion rejects the argument that allowing unlimited spending distorts the political process in favor of corporate interests; thus, the rich and the poor alike are granted the right to spend millions of dollars on political advertising. Partly this is because of the court’s habit of treating corporations as interchangeable with individuals. One of the other justifications is more interesting. Quoting his own dissent from McConnell v. FEC, an earlier decision that went in a different direction, Kennedy says “Favoritism and influence are not… avoidable in representative politics. It is in the nature of an elected representative to favor certain policies, and, by necessary corollary, to favor the voters and contributors who support those policies." If favoritism is unavoidable, goes this logic, maybe counteracting it shouldn’t take priority over a corporation’s right to advertise.

This is a practical argument… but it’s a particular kind of practicality that feels familiar. Teachout detects a distaste for democracy in this decision–she thinks it valorizes corporations as information providers while casting citizens in the role of consumers–but I’m reminded more of what Jay Rosen calls the “Cult of Savvy”. Rosen coined the term to describe an attitude he saw among political journalists: as he puts it, “Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, ‘with it,’ and unsentimental in all things political.” The crucial element of savvy is realism, or something that presents itself as realism. It’s more of a performative rejection of idealism. For the savvy politics is a game, a series of strategic maneuvers. Savvy people are usually ethical in their personal lives, but when it comes to politics calling something strategically or perhaps economically wrong is as close as they come to taking a moral stand. Access to the political system is inherently unequal; representatives naturally favor certain voters and contributors; refusing to accept this is naïve. Regulations written out of idealism instead of hard-headed pragmatism will only lead to unintended consequences.

So Teachout is unsavvy when she argues for a return to older concepts of civic virtue. She frames this as a moral issue, a question of equal access: every citizen has a right to representation, to be heard, to have access to the political process. She argues for structural rules that, if they don’t perfectly guarantee equal consideration and access, at least discourage dependent relationships between public officials and concentrated wealth. The underlying assumptions of Corruption in America’s final argument are that our institutions should be structured not just around the concerns of realpolitik but around our values[3]. And “values” here mean not just what we want these institutions to do (discourage the use of public power for private interests) but the reasons we’re doing it (ideally, everyone should have equal access to the political system regardless of their wealth or power). Ideals are often not actually achievable in the less-than-ideal real world. But it’s not impractical to aim towards an ideal, and count it among the competing interests we weigh against each other when we decide how our institutions will work.

Basically, the argument is that where government is concerned equal access should be a value we treat as important. I have to agree we could stand to work on this: if we’ve learned anything from the town hall meetings of early 2017, it’s that representatives are really unused to listening to constituents.

  1. The argument is the weak point of popular narrative history: the less interesting examples tell a story and stop there, without taking a point of view on it. Some things happened, how about that? This doesn’t necessarily make these books read more like novels: any remotely interesting novel is making an argument of some kind, and watching a writer develop an argument can be as interesting as following a plot. There’s even suspense: What’s she building to? Will it be convincing?  ↩

  2. Whenever I hear the word “emoluments” some small part of me expects muppets to pop up and sing “doo doo de doo doo.”  ↩

  3. Not that the savvy people don’t have a point when they say idealistic rules and programs aren’t going to solve everything, or that they can go wrong. But “can” does not equal “must.” This isn’t an argument for not having rules at all, but for carefully considering their potential consequences.  ↩

Dark Tide and the Dubious Appeal of Drama


The Boston Molasses Flood of January 15th, 1919 was always one of those events trotted out wherever weird and strange historical events were compiled. In the days before the internet details were sketchy; usually you’d encounter a brief summary in a magazine article or a trivia book. You might have thought of it as a harmless, quirky Wes-Anderson-movie kind of disaster, had Wes Anderson been a thing at the time. You know: molasses flowing down the street past a sad but knowing Bill Murray while an old Rolling Stones song plays.

Actually, the molasses flood was not a joke. It was a blast of 2.3 million gallons of molasses moving in a 15 to 25 foot wave at 35 miles an hour.[1] Pictures taken at the time show buildings smashed to pieces. Twenty-one people died, mostly from suffocation. Horses caught in the muck had to be shot. The cleanup was awful: people tracked the molasses all over and eventually the whole town was sticky. Even the molasses itself was serious: the United States Industrial Alcohol Company used it to distill alcohol for munitions.

Cover of Dark Tide

Details on the molasses flood are more available now, partly because they’ve been pulled together on the internet. You can find even more information in the single book about the flood, Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo. What’s great about Puleo’s book is that it doesn’t just describe the flood: it explains how the flood was not just weird, but actually important.

The molasses flood wasn’t a freak accident. The U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company’s tank was junk. The Industrial Alcohol employee in charge of construction, Arthur Jell, wasn’t an engineer. He approved a tank that wasn’t sturdy enough to hold two million gallons of molasses and didn’t bother with basic safety checks like testing for leaks. People who lived and worked near the tank told U.S. Industrial Alcohol they could see molasses leaking from the seams and running down the sides. The company responded by painting the tank brown.

Asked why their tank had burst, the Industrial Alcohol Company had a ready answer: anarchists. This was not as stupid as it sounds. Anarchists were the big terrorist threat at the time, and, remember, the company used the molasses to make alcohol for munitions, most recently for use in the First World War. This was war molasses, and the company really had received threats to blow up the tank.

But the tank wasn’t just shoddy, it was obviously, embarrasingly shoddy, as the subsequent investigation had no trouble establishing. Despite agreeing the tank wasn’t up to code, the grand jury didn’t indict any Industrial Alcohol Company executives for manslaughter. (From a 21st century perspective, maybe it’s amazing they considered indicting corporate executives at all.) But there was one important consequence. The government of Boston decided that before their building department would issue a construction permit more detailed architectural plans would have to be filed with the city, including all engineering calculations, certified by an actual engineer. Cities all over the U.S. followed Boston’s lead, tightening their building codes and increasing their oversight of construction projects and engineering requirements. If the buildings in which you live and work haven’t fallen down on you lately, you can thank molasses.


Dark Tide is a good, well-researched book. I’m going to get into some caveats here, and they’re big caveats, but I really do recommend it. It includes details on the flood you won’t find anywhere else. Sometimes, though, there are reasons you won’t find those details anywere else. Like, at one point Puleo describes Arthur Jell in his office getting some concerning news about the tank, and we get this line:

“‘The tank will be safe,’ Jell said aloud, sitting alone in his office.”

He was alone when he said this? Then… how do we know? Did Jell have one of those invisible offscreen butlers, like in Citizen Kane?

That would be cool. But, no, apparently Puleo just made it up:

In some cases, I have built the dramatic narrative and drawn conclusions based on a combination of primary and secondary sources, and my knowledge of a character’s background and beliefs. For example, Hugh Ogden’s[2] letter to Lippincott from the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., is real; Ogden’s concerns about the manner in which the country has been thrown into turmoil is my interpretation based upon what I know of Ogden’s patriotism and his soldier’s attention to order.

Dark Tide tells us things about people’s thoughts and feelings the author could not possibly know. It doesn’t sound speculative–it states them confidently, as facts, with the same omniscient tone novelists use with their characters. This is truthiness presented as history.

That novelistic tone is the key to what’s wrong here: Puleo’s desire to build a “dramatic narrative.” The line I quoted comes just before a section break. It’s narrative punctuation, a cliffhanger–a strong image to imprint itself in the reader’s memory as the subject changes. (And note it’s not just a strong line but a visual image, like you’d get before a scene change in a movie–a character is in a setting, saying something aloud. This is history written in Novelization Style.)

This is not a quirk of Dark Tide alone. Many popular histories lean hard on narrative. As much as possible the authors want their books to read like novels. (And maybe like movies–nonfiction books get optioned for film too.) Which misses the point of nonfiction. A lot of topics work better when not artificially squeezed into the shape of plot, suspense, and characterization. For all that history superficially resembles story, it’s usually one of those topics. I mean, it’s not like Dark Tide’s central arguments are weak–how the molasses flood came to happen, and how it influenced engineering standards, are dramatic enough without being dramatized.

But that’s quibbling. The real problem is how the dramatized scenes distort the history–the confidence with which Dark Tide narrates scenes that were never recorded in any form, and claims to know the hearts and minds of people long dead.

Switching gears for a moment… I’m reminded of something the novelist Guy Gavriel Kay has said more than once, most recently in an article at Boing Boing. One reason Kay writes fantasy instead of historical novels is that, even in a novel, he’s not comfortable imposing (his word) his own invented personalities and opinions on people who really existed. It’s arguable whether this is actually a problem in fiction; even Kay acknowledges good novels have been written about real people. But I’d argue that historians have a responsibility to tell the truth, as far as they know it, about real people.

Sometimes we do know with reasonable certaintly what a person was thinking or doing in private–sometimes they left diaries or letters or court testimony that tell us. (At least, they tell us what they’d have liked us to think they were thinking!) But usually we don’t know, especially when we’re talking about passing thoughts as opposed to fundamental beliefs and motivations. Historians may know the reasoning behind most of Lincoln’s decisions during the Civil War, but can’t claim to know what passed through his mind during breakfast. There’s nothing wrong with speculation–discussing what the author thinks a person was probably thinking, or probably doing–but it should be written as speculation, not omniscient narration, and supported by facts. Nonfiction takes humility, a willingness to acknowledge sometimes the author just doesn’t know. Otherwise writers run the risk of coming out with passages like this one, about the Industrial Alcohol Company’s lawyer:

But in the places none of us like to visit—the darkest corners of the mind, the coldest reaches of the heart—Charles F. Choate must have felt a sense of perverse satisfaction when he received word on the afternoon of September 16 that someone, most likely an anarchist, had detonated a deadly bomb on Wall Street in New York City.

Or this one about John Urquhart, a boilermaker who worked on the tank:

Urquhart knew that all of these issues were out of his control and would be decided by smarter men.

I mean, maybe Urquhart did think the people who made the Big Decisions were smarter than he was. Maybe he mentioned it in a diary somewhere, or in testimony during the lawsuit, or something. Without checking Puleo’s sources, I have no clue. Dark Tide has a problem common in popular narrative history: the novelistic style is meant to be exciting, but reading it feels like harder work than reading an academic tome by a professional historian. Reading this style of nonfiction is a tiresome exercise in sorting source from speculation, the literary equivalent of picking the fish bones out of ten pounds of chopped tuna.

In recent posts I’ve complained fiction that uses the style and narrative techniques of nonfiction was underrated; now I’m complaining nonfiction techniques are also underrated in actual nonfiction. I like fiction in the style of essays or histories, but I guess it doesn’t work the other way around!

  1. Yes, in fact the speed of molasses in January exceeds the speed limits of most residential neighborhoods.  ↩

  2. The attorney who audited the court case over the tank and submitted the final report.  ↩

Stephen Bates, The Poisoner

The Poisoner is a biography and account of the trial of William Palmer, who was convicted of poisoning a friend and suspected of poisoning any number of others in the 1850s.

The Poisoner is the kind of narrative history I like: one that doesn’t try to read like a novel, but will leave the main path and go into detail whatever historical topics the main subject touches on, like gambling, forensics, and insurance fraud. A single story expands into a fuller picture of life at the time. It might be a little dry in places, but I like history to err on the side of dryness.

Cover of The Poisoner

The jacket copy promises “an astonishing and controversial revision of Palmer’s life” but you can’t trust jacket copy. You know the riddle about the guy on the right who always tells the truth, and the guy on the left who always lies? The guy on the left is a book jacket. Anyway. There’s little doubt that Palmer killed John Parsons Cook. The Poisoner’s revision to the standard narrative is that Palmer was not a criminal mastermind. Charles Dickens started a Household Words essay on Palmer by calling him “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey dock” and explained in typically Dickensian hyperbole that Palmer’s calm demeanor at his trial was the sign of a manipulative and devious mind. This, thought Dickens, was a man with “carefully laid plans” and “secret knowledge of the difficulties and mysteries with which the proof of Poison had been, in the manner of the Poisoning, surrounded.”

I came away from The Poisoner picturing Palmer as the serial poisoner equivalent of a W. C. Fields character. He probably didn’t poison as many people as some think. (People died around Palmer a lot, but in nineteenth-century England people died around everybody a lot.) Anyone who spends time on the internet is likely to have heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect: the idea that the people most incompetent at a task will be too incompetent even to recognize their own incompetence. The concept originally occurred to the psychologists who named it after they heard the story of a bank robber who thought he could make himself invisible to security cameras by rubbing lemon juice on his face. Palmer was, in fact, probably not much more skilled when it came to murder. Maybe Dickens was convinced Palmer had to be a master of deception because it was easier than believing the authorities weren’t very good at detecting poisoners.

Nineteenth century forensic science made poison investigations difficult. Judith Flanders’s book The Invention of Murder discusses a mid–19th century poison panic in which lower-class women were convicted of poisoning family members and acquaintances on little evidence. What struck me when I read that book was how similar the suspects seemed to the accused in earlier witch trials. Many suspects were outsiders who had something “wrong” with them–a reputation for promiscuity, a bad temper, more children than they could support. Accusations often occurred in small communities and might be based on gossip. At trials “experts” testified who had never previously seen wounds or poisonings of the kind in question. In many cases statements were believed or disbelieved based on the witness’s social class.

When I read about nineteenth century criminal investigations what strikes me is their lackadaisicalness. The investigation of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, the first 19th century British murder of note, began with sightseers trooping through the crime scene. From there the police had a very slow learning curve. The authorities of the time tend to come off less like police than like sapient prairie dogs who’d maybe seen some police once from a distance.

Then I look at how many wrongful convictions we have in the modern United States, and I wonder how much we’ve actually improved.

The Palmer investigation was nearly as haphazard. John Parsons Cook’s post-mortem was held at a inn. This was common since inns had large public rooms and it had not yet occurred to the police that, hey, maybe they ought to build more places they could use for postmortems. The supervising doctor didn’t bring his instruments because he hadn’t realized he was expected to actually perform the post-mortem; instead a chemist’s assistant and a medical student did the dissecting. No one objected when Palmer himself horned in even though the victim’s stepfather considered him a suspect. When the student removed the stomach Palmer sort of accidentally on purpose shoved him, spilling the stomach contents. It and the intestines were placed in a sealed jar. The jar then disappeared when no one was looking. When the doctors noticed this Palmer cheerfully said he’d put it by the door because he “thought it more convenient for you to take it away.” Somehow a hole had developed in the seal.

The postmortems didn’t find any strychnine in Cook. The jury convicted Palmer because as soon as Cook’s stepfather challenged him he did everything he could to incriminate himself, including blurting things he could have followed up with “Did I say that out loud?” At the postmortem the supervising doctor heard him say “They won’t hang us yet.” William Palmer didn’t lose a battle of wits to a brilliant detective. He was just a rather stupid person whose luck finally ran out.

Conspiracies, criminal masterminds, and brilliant psychopaths are all over pop culture. We’ve built entire TV shows around impossibly skilled assholes like Hannibal Lecter, Dexter, and Pale Imitation of Francis Urquhart. Counterintuitive as it seems, these stories are comforting. No one could blame us for falling prey to the well-directed malice of a master criminal, and no one could blame the police for convicting the wrong guy. Those master criminals are smart. That real police might be fallible or even corrupt, that we’re less likely to be targeted by a genius than randomly endangered by a doofus with an assault rifle… Those ideas aren’t just frightening: they’re indignities.

Links to Things

I haven’t posted one of these in a while.

A Review, Sort Of: The Ties That Bound vs. At Home

This blog has been stagnant for over a year now. I’m getting to the point where I’d like to revive it. Unfortunately I haven’t written anything in a while, so until I get back up to speed the quality of my writing will be shaky. I plan to start off by finishing some half-written reviews of books I read weeks or months ago, of which this is the first.

Book Cover

The Ties That Bound by Barbara Hanawalt describes the lives and environment of English peasants during (mostly) the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. (I wish I could come up with a snappy opening line, but I haven’t tried to review a book, or write anything at all, in ages, and the gears have rusted.)

Social history is the kind of history I’ve found most interesting lately. Unfortunately as social history goes further back in time primary sources can get a little sparse. Not a lot of 14th century English peasants left diaries.

So The Ties That Bound relies on archaeology to detail living environments, then turns to legal documents and other less direct sources to explore family structure, life stages, and social ties. Its particular focus is on coroner’s inquests. Accidental deaths, it turns out, were well documented on all levels of society. Inquests supply not only details of peasant life but also the names of people who would have been unremembered by history had they not inadvertently stabbed themselves or fallen off haystacks. After a while you expect every anecdote to end in tragedy, giving The Ties That Bound undertones of Edward Gorey–The Ghastlycrumb Peasantry, maybe–as Hanawalt occasionally acknowledges: “While ditches may have been created chiefly for drainage, they served a variety of functions, aside from indirectly reducing population.”

Not that this is a snarkfest. The Ties That Bound is written in the best academic style: not overly technical, but not working too hard to avoid dryness or difficulty. Historians trust that the information they’ve gathered will hold the reader’s interest. It is, after all, the reason the reader picked up the book.

Book Cover

Which brings me to another social history I read around the same time, Bill Bryson’s At Home. This purports to be a history of the home in England over the last few centuries. It has a serious case of attention deficit disorder.

The way Bryson organizes At Home is promisingly clever. Each chapter is a room in a house–“The Kitchen,” “The Drawing Room.” Rooms are how we organize domestic life; pattern a history of domestic life after a house and the history almost falls into order by itself. You would think.

But At Home is all over the place. Half the Drawing Room chapter is taken up with mini-biographies of eccentric 18th century celebrity architects. “The Passage” is mostly a history of the Eiffel Tower. “The Dressing Room” focuses not on the wardrobes of the vast bulk of the English population, but on Beau Brummel. Bryson begins “The Cellar” with the Erie Canal, explaining “The reason I have prefaced it all with the story of the Erie Canal is to make the point that building materials are more important and even, dare I say, interesting than you might think.” But wouldn’t the quickest way to convince readers that building materials are interesting be to actually write about them, interestingly?

Well, sure. I mean, I must be open to the idea that building materials can be interesting, or I wouldn’t have picked up a book named after and organized around a kind of building. But Bryson, having chosen as his topic the history of the home in England, displays no faith in its ability to hold the readers’ interest. So At Home prioritizes pithy celebrity biographies–the more eccentric the better–over describing how people lived. Celebrities left more documentation, after all, and making grotesques entertaining doesn’t take much effort. And the Erie Canal, as a large, singular, and significant project, is just naturally more memorable than a cellar.

Every so often At Home walks up to its ostensible subject and touches it, gingerly, and for a moment it’s interesting. One section on the architectural and engineering principles behind stairways–more complex than you’d think–manages to make stairs compelling. But then At Home backs off again, running to the safety of another colorful anecdote, too afraid of boring the reader to focus for long on its core subject. At Home is like a software manual that gives bios of the people who programmed the software, and tells funny stories about things that happened while they were programming it, but only as an afterthought gets around to telling you how the program is supposed to work.

Here’s why I bothered to write up this rambling rant about two apparently random books: At Home is not alone. I’m bored with popular nonfiction, the kind that makes the bestseller lists, in general. Whatever the subject–history, psychology, sociology, biology–the tone is the same: light, breezy, and depthless.

Popular books on academic subjects–science, history, whatever–fall into a few types. One kind is padded with mini-biographies of scientists or archaeologists or historians, descriptions of their appearance and minor eccentricities, and stories about how the pop-nonfiction writer met them in their offices. You also get anecdotes about the author’s travels to historic sites, or visits to businesses, nonprofits, government offices, and other slightly relevant institutions. Whatever actual information these books contain sometimes seems structured around the stories–introduced by and organized around them–rather than the other way around. The information may take up more space, but it feels secondary.

Pop psychology and sociology gravitate to a style pioneered by Malcolm Gladwell: The author begins every chapter with a colorful (and often familiar) anecdote, preferably involving a celebrity. The chapter goes on to cite a series of psychological, sociological, or economic studies centered around a theme taken from the anecdote. These are always presented without context that might help us evaluate them. (Were the results replicated? How did other scholars respond? Who knows?) The chapter ends by finishing the anecdote in a way that sums up the chapter’s theme.

And then there’s the kind of pop nonfiction exemplified by At Home: the quirky kind. At Home approaches every subject by looking for the oddest details and most colorful characters and focusing its attention there, sometimes pushing the original topic to the side, like an artist who sets out to draw a portrait but ends up filling most of the paper with one weirdly shaped nostril.

Most of these books seem to be written by journalists rather than scholars. What these kinds of pop nonfiction books have in common is a journalistic feature-article writing style that they’re taking places it wasn’t meant to go. Every subject, even if it must be awkwardly mashed and folded to fit, becomes a human interest story.

Which betrays a narrow view of what humans might be interested in. More seriously, the human interest approach to history illuminates less about human lives than academic writing.

Compare At Home to The Ties That Bound. In the “What We Can Remember” version of history the image conjured by the word “peasant” is an illiterate rustic prodding dirt with a stick. Standard pop culture peasants live packed into hovels, start breeding in their teens, have few ambitions and are given no way to pursue any that might exist. In fact, The Ties That Bound finds English peasants–both men and women–who made wills and contracts, joined guilds, and bought and sold rights to farm land. They both farmed and ran businesses on the side. When land was scarce adults didn’t necessarily marry until their late twenties. Throughout the book The Ties That Bound argues that these people, although their lives were not like ours, were more active and recognizable than we tend to think.

At Home argues… not much. Bryson sums up 700 pages of anecdotal meanderings with the observation that, over the last few centuries, some things have changed and some haven’t. How about that? He then notes that contemporary civilization uses a lot of energy; that there is massive inequality between the UK, the subject of his book, and the developing nations At Home hasn’t mentioned at all; and that maybe in future both of these will change. The first point is inane. The other points are non-sequiturs. At Home is a book without a central thesis. It tells stories, but those stories don’t add up to an argument. At Home has nothing in particular to say.

Quirky, breezy books like At Home portray history as a collection of discrete stories with strong plots and extraordinary characters… but real life is weird and complicated and not like a story at all. In a way, the books that emphasize detailed research, well-organized evidence, and a strong central argument before narrative wind up telling better stories than human-interest-style nonfiction. They have two things that improve any story: a sense of genuine curiosity, and a point of view.

In Which I am Unconvinced by The Daughter of Time

An early portrait of Richard III

In January1, I picked up Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. I was in the mood for a mystery, and this is reputedly a great one. It’s a witty, compulsively readable, entertaining book, and it managed to convince me that Josephine Tey was Completely Wrong.

The author of a detective story is usually the ultimate authority on who killed who, she being the one who shoved killer and victim together and said “Let’s you and him fight.” However, The Daughter of Time is the one where Tey’s detective, Alan Grant, livens up a hospital stay by “investigating” the murder of the 12-year-old King Edward V and his brother in 1483, accepted by most historians as having been ordered by Richard III. On that last point, Josephine Tey chooses to dissent.

Some Wikipedia-style canned context might be useful. Edward IV died in April of 1483. The heir to the throne was Edward V, then 12. Even 15th-century monarchists weren’t dumb enough to hand absolute power over to a 12-year-old, so England needed a regent.

Edward IV had intended his brother Richard for the role, but there was a problem. Three years into his reign, Edward revealed that–surprise!–he’d secretly married a woman named Elizabeth Woodville. Not everybody was happy about this. For one thing, Edward’s supporters had planned to ally with France by marrying him off to a French princess, and the sudden appearance of Elizabeth sunk the whole deal. The bigger problem was that, although Elizabeth was the daughter of an earl, she was still technically a commoner. The Woodvilles were now dramatically upwardly mobile, and some of the existing nobility thought of them the way David Broder thought of Bill Clinton: they came in and trashed the place, and it wasn’t their place. Apparently one of the people who thought this way was Richard.

With Edward V raised by and surrounded by Woodvilles, Richard’s chances of hanging on to the role of Lord Protector were not great. Also, to be fair, the more power the Woodvilles had the less safe he probably felt, this being an era when political blunders didn’t just put you in danger of spending more time with your family. So as Edward V and his brother–also Richard, because like most royal families the Yorks were very bad at thinking up names–were on their way to London for the coronation Richard intercepted them, arrested their Woodville escorts, and installed them in the Tower of London (which at the time was a palace rather than a prison).

In June, Richard announced that Edward IV liked secret marriages so much that he’d had another one a few years before marrying Elizabeth Woodville, rendering that marriage invalid and the princes illegitimate. Next in line to the throne was–gosh fellas, what a coincidence–Richard III.

As summer wore on into fall, it began to occur to people that it had been a while since anyone had seen the princes.

So. I should say first that I was open to The Daughter of Time’s argument, mostly because I’m not big on monarchy. I’m okay with True Kings as long as they’re safely trapped in the pages of Big Fat Fantasy novels, but I’d prefer they stay out of the real world, thanks. As far as I’m concerned, the whole “hereditary absolute ruler” deal taints everyone it touches. I have no emotional attachment to either side of the was-Richard-a-killer argument because a “no” answer doesn’t stop me filing Richard under “villain.” But the further I got into The Daughter of Time, the more I wanted to argue with it. Something about it was… well, almost creepy. And, I eventually realized, familiar.

Last year I read James Shapiro’s Contested Will, a history of the belief that Shakespeare’s plays weren’t written by Shakespeare (or, as the anti-Shakespeare partisans like to call him, the “Stratford Man”). Shapiro grounds the most common arguments, and the shift in favorite secret identity from Francis Bacon to the Earl of Oxford, in their historical context. The anti-Stratfordians’ arguments are, it turns out, very much of their times, and changed with the literary fashions, but a certain style of argument–for the purposes of this essay it needs a name, so I’ll call it “Heroic Contrarianism”–recurs throughout Shapiro’s survey, as it does when I see an Oxfordian in the wild. Or a creationist. Or a climate change skeptic.

And here was the same Heroic Contrarianism, in a different context, in The Daughter of Time. It took me over a week to get through this slim novel because I ended up reading two conventional popular histories at the same time, as an antidote.2

What reminded me of the Oxfordians was Josephine Tey’s implacable, unshakeable faith in her own Rightness. By this I don’t just mean that she thought she was right. Most of us do, most of the time. Capital-R Rightness is to ordinary conviction as triple espresso is to chamomile. The Daughter of Time is Right like a concrete bunker impervious to logic, rhetoric, or fact. The fact that, by backing Richard III, Tey is rejecting the judgement of legions of professional historians inspires not an instant of self-doubt. In fact, it’s crucial. Bucking conventional wisdom is a fundamental characteristic of Heroic Contrarianism, and what makes it invulnerable. Tey is bravely right. It’s not just a belief, it’s a moral conviction: being a truth-teller feels righteous… and maybe a little romantic, like she’s set herself apart from the sheeple. Which is what makes this kind of argument so infuriating: you can’t miss the implication that the sheeple is you.3

The Daughter of Time is a book-length argument, but this argument doesn’t exist to convince anyone else. It exists to protect the author’s own convictions. The Daughter of Time isn’t defending the truth. It’s defending the feeling that the author is one of the few enlightened forward-thinking souls who can see the truth.

Presented with a fact, we all look for a way to fit it into our existing assumptions. Ideally, if the new fact doesn’t fit what we think we know, and we can’t find a reason to believe it isn’t actually a fact, then at some point, to some extent, however reluctantly, we modify our assumptions. “Reluctantly” is usually the operative word–even reasonable people don’t like changing their minds–but for a Heroic Contrarian like Alan Grant, there’s no give and take at all. Grant never integrates new information into his theory–he integrates his theory into the new information. Every fact is interpreted in the light of Grant’s preconceptions. The jigsaw puzzle must show the picture Grant has in mind, even if Grant has to mash the pieces together to make them fit. Sometimes this is easier when Grant lets the less-convenient pieces fall beneath the table.

Alan Grant snags a research assistant to do the legwork and starts digging into the evidence–or at least what evidence he can find, and find satisfying. Many of his conversations with his assistant run along these lines:

“Wait a minute–I’ve discovered a new fact that appears to throw our entire theory into doubt!”

“Ah, but this explains it.”

“This” being a massive assumption. As soon as the assumption stands on its own, however shakily, Grant finds a reason to stop looking.

Grant’s theory depends partly on the notion that no one during Richard’s lifetime believed that anything had happened to the princes at all. When he discovers that in 1483 rumors were already circulating that the princes were dead, Grant is put out. For a few minutes. He immediately argues himself into believing the rumors never spread beyond a couple of isolated areas where Richard’s enemies were strongest. This isn’t true: even before the murders, rumors that the princes were dead, or in mortal danger, spread all over London. Four men were executed for concocting a harebrained scheme to rescue the princes by setting fires around the city as a distraction. (This account, from a Tudor partisan, is the only one I could find on the internet.) Grant could have argued that the fact that the rumors existed, and travelled widely, doesn’t mean they were true. Instead he simply denies that the rumors were widespread, and moves on to something else.

“Something else” almost always begins with an incredulous tirade on the stupidity of historians. How can they be so gullible as to believe that Richard arranged those murders? After Grant repeats the point a few times it begins to sound like he isn’t criticizing the historians so much as congratulating himself. Alan Grant is a policeman. The historians he’s reading are respected professionals with degrees and weighty academic reputations. How can they not see what Grant sees?

The Heroic Contrarian would suggest that it’s because they’re professionals. One of the oddest received ideas in our culture is the notion that wisdom can be found in ignorance. We look down on eggheads. In our movies and on TV, the intellectual’s book-learning fails while the hero’s street smarts and the innocent’s naivete win out. Ignorance is purer than knowledge; education is treated as though it’s some kind of grit gumming up the workings of scholarly brains.

This is the perfect narrative for Heroic Contrarians. Biologists are hidebound. Shakespearian scholars are mired in orthodoxy. Complacent historians chant a litany of rote-memorized Tudor propaganda without understanding what any of it means. The Heroic Contrarian, as an ignorant outsider, comes to the problem with no preconceptions, and his day job gives him special insights denied to the professionals. It is thus that he sees the truth.4 Surprisingly often, the Heroic Contrarian is an engineer. Alan Grant is a policeman. What Grant believes his police experience gives him, and what he believes the historians lack, is insight into human behavior.

A later portrait of Richard III

Grant’s ideas about criminal psychology are black-and-white. Richard III’s policies in office were, in Grant’s opinion, admirable.5 It is inconceivable to Grant that Richard could have been both a good administrator and a ruthless killer. When Grant learns that Richard, prior to the “Edward V is a bastard” gambit, floated the idea that it was his own brother Edward IV who was illegitimate, Grant simply refuses to believe it. He has no evidence against it. Richard was simply too nice to do that to his own mother.6 As a murder suspect Grant prefers Henry VII, a master of “sharp practice” whose reign brought heavy taxes and the Star Chamber.

Grant also thinks it’s significant that Elizabeth Woodville came out of sanctuary and brought her daughters to court in the spring of 1484. That must mean the princes were still alive! Who could believe, asks Grant, that a bereaved mother would reconcile with the man who murdered her sons? Those historians! So crazy!

Grant doesn’t consider that historians might also have special knowledge that he doesn’t. They may know facts his amateur research didn’t uncover: for instance, it’s notable that, before she agreed to leave sanctuary, Elizabeth insisted that Richard publicly swear a detailed oath to ensure her daughters’ safety. Beyond that, historians have context. Alan Grant judges Elizabeth’s actions by the standards of a 1950s middle-class country house inhabitant, and in those terms her behavior doesn’t make sense–but Elizabeth made her decisions in 1484, in a completely different culture and environment. She was an ex-queen, out of favor in a time and place when being out of favor was genuinely dangerous. Keep in mind that there was no police inspector handy to investigate her sons’ murder. Assume that her first priority was to safeguard the lives of her remaining children, and preserve for them whatever status and access to power she could. In that case, making nice with Richard might actually have been the pragmatic choice. But to think of that, Grant would have to be able to think his way into another time–to think less like a policeman and more like a historian.

Not that there aren’t legitimate historians who believe Richard III was innocent. The biggest difference between the Oxfordians and the Ricardians is that there’s some actual non-insane controversy about Richard III. But legitimate historians don’t argue like Alan Grant. They’re not even starting from the same point. The clue that starts Grant’s investigation is the flimsiest thing in The Daughter of Time–so silly my willingness to entertain its argument took a hit before it began, and never recovered. I have no idea how Josephine Tey herself came to believe Richard III didn’t have the princes killed. Grant believes it because he can pick criminals out by their faces. That seems like an inconveniently plot-short-circuiting skill for a detective-novel hero, but never mind: Grant sees a portrait of Richard and thinks Richard just doesn’t look like a killer. Before he realizes it’s Richard, Grant thinks it looks like the portrait of a judge.7 By contrast, once Grant settles on Henry VII as prime suspect Grant can’t help remarking on his thinning hair and bad teeth.

Most Heroic Contrarianism starts from apparently common-sensical but entirely wrong assumptions about how the world is supposed to work. To a creationist, it feels right that the Earth always existed as it has now. To an Oxfordian, it feels right that Shakespeare’s great plays were written by a noble spirit, not a money-grubbing tradesman. If some common actor and part-time malt-speculator could write a transcendent work like King Lear… well, something would be wrong with the world. To Grant it feels right that criminals have a certain look. It feels right that criminals have certain features, behaviors, and attitudes that don’t match the image of Richard that Grant formed from an idealized portrait painted a century after the man’s death. Grant catches a glimpse of Richard III that doesn’t match his prejudices, and spends the rest of The Daughter of Time reassuring himself that he lives in a world where a criminal has a certain kind of face.

But what kind of world is that? Shortly after I read The Daughter of Time, I read something else that clarified the problem: fantasy writer Theodora Goss posted a short essay on her blog about Agatha Christie’s novels, and how Christie and other “golden age” mystery novelists stereotype their characters and then present those characters’ behavior, and its adherence to or deviation from stereotype, as clues:

We’ve seen such dresses and know what sorts of women wear them. And if we haven’t—well, in a sense Christie indoctrinates us into a world in which there are such women, and we begin to understand the code. We begin to understand that certain things mean certain other things. As Hercule Poirot points out, the fact that Mr. Fanthorp wears an Old Etonian tie means that he simply wouldn’t interrupt a conversation taking place between people he doesn’t know—and the fact that he does is therefore meaningful.

Compare this to Alan Grant’s first snap judgement of Richard III based on his portrait, and his conviction that Richard was just too nice to arrange an assassination. This isn’t historical thinking. It isn’t even genuine police-detective thinking. It’s detective-novel thinking.

Before evidence, before logic, Grant’s theory is based on class. It’s striking that, within the novel, the reactions to Grant’s theory divide neatly along class lines. Upper-class characters, Grant’s friends and family, listen seriously and agree that of course Grant’s ideas make sense. Lower-class characters, like the nurses and messengers who visit Grant’s hospital ward, believe the standard story. Not because they’ve thought it through–in Josephine Tey’s eyes, they seem barely capable of thought–but because they’ve accepted it placidly, like sheep.

I mentioned that Grant isn’t big on historians. He saves his greatest scorn for Thomas More, whose History of Richard III is the primary source for the conventional story of the murders. Grant dubs him “the sainted More”–when he says it, you can see the spit fly–and works on the principle that, if More said it, it must be a lie. More did have an axe to grind, his work wasn’t written according to anything we would recognize as acceptable academic standards, and it ought to be read skeptically, but Grant doesn’t give him any credit at all–not even for talking to people with firsthand knowledge of Richard’s reign. Actually, who More talked to seems to be the main problem. Too damn many of them were servants, and “backstairs gossip” is worthless by definition. Again, evidence doesn’t enter into it. More is unreliable not because he was a bad historian but because he lacks “sensibility.”

Grant is relieved to run across the idea that More’s account was actually written by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury. Morton was Henry VII’s Lord Chancellor, and administered Henry’s tax policies. He was immortalized as the creator of “Morton’s Fork”: If a noble was a big spender, he must be making enough money to spare some for the king. If a noble lived frugally, he must be saving enough money to spare some for the king. Morton is exactly the kind of guy Grant can’t stand. He’s a “climber” mooching off his betters, a resentful ingrate who doesn’t know his place–exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to throw in with Henry VII.

Henry himself is a bounder. He’s “shabby,” an “adventurer” with “no public office or employment.” He’s a flashy, vulgar, throne-grabbing social climber, an obnoxious second cousin wearing a loud checked suit. Richard, on the other hand, looked like Grant’s idea of a respectable well-bred English nobleman. He behaved the way Grant thinks a respectable well-bred English nobleman ought to behave–at least, Grant refuses to believe the stories that he didn’t. And that’s all the evidence Grant needs:

That charming men of great integrity had committed murder in their day Grant knew only too well. But not that kind of murder and not for that kind of reason. […] He would murder his wife for unfaithfulness suddenly discovered, perhaps. Or kill the partner whose secret speculation had ruined their firm and the future of his children. Whatever murder he committed would be the result of acute emotion, it would never be planned; and it would never be a base murder.

I’m trying to get my head around the concept of a murder that isn’t base. I think it’s the kind of thing you only get in novels, and only in certain kinds of novels.

James Thurber wrote a story called “The Macbeth Murder Mystery” about a detective-novel fan who spends a boring evening in a hotel with nothing to read but Macbeth. She concludes the real murderer was Macduff. Not to spoil the joke, but what’s actually happened is that she’s run afoul of something known as genre protocols. Different genres of writing–not only the categories used to market fiction, but also different forms like essays, memoirs, or poetry–have their own rules and conventions. A novel is different from a memoir. You approach and understand it differently, according to different protocols.8 Read a story with the protocols of another genre–assume Macbeth should work like an Agatha Christie novel, say–and you’re likely to misinterpret or miss something.

I argued earlier that Heroic Contrarianism usually starts from some wrong assumptions about how the world is supposed to work. Alan Grant–who is, I think, a mouthpiece for Josephine Tey’s actual beliefs–thinks he lives in a world of good breeding and bad blood, of decent people and bounders and nothing in between. Alan Grant views the world through all the worst impulses of the stereotypical golden age detective novel. He’s a detective-story protagonist responding to the story of Richard III as though it were one of his cases. Like Thurber’s mystery fan, he’s reading history with the wrong genre protocols.

  1. Yes, it’s taken me that long to finish this. I know I apologize a lot on this blog for writing slowly, but look at it this way: the fact that I haven’t written much this past year means that apologies that are close in sequence still probably came months apart. ↩

  2. The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir and A Brief History of the Wars of the Roses by Desmond Seward. Not necessarily perfect works themselves–I was suspicious of the Weir book’s total absence of footnotes–but I couldn’t read any further in Tey without an alternate view. ↩

  3. This is how Heroic Contrarianism differs from ordinary disagreement. I myself insist, against all argument, that Robert Altman’s Popeye is one of the best musicals ever filmed, but I hope I’m not goddamn smug about it. ↩

  4. This is another one of our culture’s weird received ideas, related to the one I already mentioned: the idea that someone with no expertise at a particular thing can succeed at it by applying their experience doing something not at all similar. In fiction, this usually results in comedies about washed-up drywall contractors using their drywall contracting skills to whip misfit small-town baseball teams into shape; in real life, it leads to the idea that we can solve our problems by electing corporate CEOs to public office and having them run the government like a business. ↩

  5. Richard also supposedly comes off as an affable sort in his letters, although Tey is cheating here: Grant’s evidence is a “translation” of a letter that reads as rather neutral in the original. ↩

  6. It’s worth noting here that Richard’s mother didn’t bother to attend Richard’s coronation. ↩

  7. In real life Richard didn’t have a withered arm and wasn’t hunchbacked. At most, his shoulders were a bit asymmetrical. ↩

  8. Which is how David Frey got in trouble: he wrote a novel and told his audience to read it as a memoir. ↩

Links to Things

I thought it might be time to do another links post. So:

  • Lance Mannion argues that one thing all great novels have in common—even such mournful volumes as Madame Bovary and Lord Jim—is a sense of humor:

    If a part of you doesn’t laugh when Emma Bovary takes her poison, or Jim stands there and lets himself get shot, or Anna kneels down to wait for the train, or Ahab goes down with the damn-ed whale then you haven’t been paying attention.

    I don’t mean this the way Oscar Wilde meant it when he said that a reader must have a heart of stone not to read of the death of Little Nell and laugh.

    I mean that Flaubert and Conrad and Tolstoy and Melville all intend us to see that there is something ridiculous as well as something beautiful in human beings taking themselves and their troubles so seriously.

  • Shaenon Garrity, with several things people who know Popeye through the cartoons tend not to know about Popeye:

    1. Popeye is old. I don’t mean the strip is old. Everybody knows the strip is old. I mean Popeye himself is supposed to be a senior citizen. He’s a grizzled old sailor, with emphasis on the old, with extra old added on. Although his official bio now describes him as 34, according to the Segar-era strips he’s in his sixties, and his father (more on him later) is pushing 100. That’s why Popeye is bald and missing an eye. Because of the oldness.

  • Chris White, at McSweeney’s, solicits a little empathy for history’s failures:

    It’s easy to care about a Lincoln or a Washington—they give us so many mattress sales. But greatness is a relative condition. There is no Lincoln without Pierce, and when you ignore those who failed, you miss out on the humanity of the past. You miss out on the reassuringly universal stories that will play out again in our future.

  • Colin Marshall at The War on Mediocrity has written “The Plight of the Social Maladroit,” a five-part series about how much of life—including the stuff that we seem to be doing by ourselves—is about connection and collaboration. Part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five:

    As examples of the unsociable novelists the likes of which we stand to lose, Miller cites David Foster Wallace, J.D. Salinger, V.S. Naipaul and Thomas Pynchon. Fair enough. But could any set of names scream “outlier” louder?

    And even they, in presumably that least collaborative of all art forms, collaborated. They collaborated with their publishers, their editors, their research sources, their friends and associates who read drafts. Most importantly, they collaborated with their audiences. That sounds like nonsense, and maybe it is, but if it’s not nonsense, I’ll bet it’s beyond relevant. What’s a work, after all, without an audience? I hate to go all zen on you again, but if an audience isn’t an important partner in a work, how different is that work from one hand clapping, a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it, etc.?

Alternate Histories

Cover Art

I haven’t written much lately. I’ve felt used up and exhausted and, honestly, I feel like I haven’t been thinking much lately. Writing is thought set down and recorded, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I haven’t come up with much in the way of text.

Also, the random, unmoored weirdness of the news I’m reading overwhelms me. I have never spent so much time staring at my newsfeeds with the same expression as Krusty the Clown after a viewing of “Worker and Parasite.” American politics is deranged. Sometimes it’s goofy deranged, like a Muppet. Sometimes it’s scary deranged. Either way, the election coming this November, like a black hole in the center of the galaxy, looks set to pull American politics further and further into outer space.

I’d been thinking of jump-starting the blog with occasional posts, in the style of the “Links to Things” posts, documenting the stories that made me sit up and say “Huh?” So I decided on the ground rules–every story would be about an actual politician, current or aspiring, rather than some talk radio host or blogger–and collected stories. These were the first three I remembered:

It occurred to me that these stories had something in common.

There’s a science fiction subgenre called alternate history. It is what it sounds like: stories set in worlds where history happened differently. Alternate history bores the hell out of me. This is maybe a little strange given how interested I am in real history, but there it is.

I have to assume that Sue Lowden, Robert F. McDonnell, and the Republican Governors Association are more interested in alternate histories than I am. They’re living in them.

Governor McDonnell lives in a world where the Confederacy was untainted by slavery, where romantically doomed rebels fought for the lofty abstraction of “states’ rights.” The Republican Governors Association hails from a timeline where Guy Fawkes was not a terrorist but an anti-authoritarian V-For-Vendetta superhero. Sue Lowden remembers the good old days when country doctors made housecalls on poor-but-honest folk in little Norman Rockwell towns and would treat the concussion little Timmy got falling out of the apple tree in exchange for a basket of fresh zucchini.

None of these timelines much resemble the universe most of us live in. How did Governor McDonnell get there? How did Ms. Lowden pierce the barrier between the worlds? I think it has something to do with how we teach history. (Maybe. As with anything I write, this could be crazy.) Continue reading Alternate Histories

Links to Things

  • The amazing comics site What Things Do—which features complete stories by Sammy Harkham and John Porcellino, among others—is serializing What Am I Doing Here by Abner Dean. I was introduced to Dean’s long-out-of-print work by an article in Comic Art #9, and it floored me—it’s surrealism in the style of classic New Yorker cartoons.

  • Too Busy Thinking About My Comics is a blog I discovered from a link in the comments here. The author (I feel weirdly unsure whether it’s okay to use his name—he signed his comment here, but his blog seems to be anonymous) writes about superhero comics and British pop culture. Admittedly, those aren’t the kind of comics I read these days, but I have fond memories of Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis’s Justice League and sometimes I still like to read about them. But It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t, because this is the best kind of criticism: sharp writing, and musings and insights that hook you even if you thought you didn’t care about the cultural artifact the writer is riffing on. I recommend “The Intrusion Of The Fantastic Into The Mundane No 1: The Thunderbirds Of Edinburgh” and “The Invention Of Loneliness: What Green Lantern Can Teach A Boy That Starro The Conqueror Can’t”, both of which managed to move me.

  • At the other end of the same topic, I once checked some of the later Justice League comics out of the library and my basic reaction was “What is this crap?” I couldn’t follow the Grant Morrison issues at all, and I speak as someone who mostly understood The Invisibles. It sounds like Justice League has now gotten about as dumb as it possibly can. But at least the MightyGodKing blog got a hilarious review out of the deal.

  • “Making Smarter Dumb Mistakes About the Future” is an article by Cory Doctorow about why so many old science fiction futures were so wildly wrong. It focuses on three common mistakes which Doctorow characterizes as “Like Today, But Moreso,” “Just Enough, And No More,” and “That’s Not Weird, It’s Dumb.”

  • The Believer chronicles ancient Roman poetry slams. Apparently they were pretty horrific deals. Juvenal classed them as health hazards.

  • A hectic calendar of literary competitions soon sprang up. At first, the Sebasta in Neapolis (Naples) was the most prestigious event, luring the Emperor Nero himself to compete before a crowd of thousands. The audience was not permitted to leave the auditorium during the thirteen-hour recital; it was said that a woman gave birth during the performance, and one old man feigned death so he could escape to the bathroom.

  • Finally, here’s a fascinating essay on scurvy, and how we gain knowledge, and lose it, and gain it back again.

Links to Things

Here’s another list of interesting links I’ve collected recently:

  • Jo Walton, at, on science fiction reading protocols:

    We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues. When you read that the clocks were striking thirteen, you think at first that something is terribly wrong before you work out that this is a world with twenty-four hour time–and something terribly wrong. Orwell economically sends a double signal with that.

    And an earlier essay on the same subject by James Gunn:

    Earlier in the essay, Delany refers to the fact that “the conventions of poetry or drama or mundane fiction–or science fiction–are in themselves separate languages,” and in other essays call the process by which one approaches and reads those languages as “protocols.” As I thought about it, I realized that good reading is a matter of learning the protocols and applying them with understanding and sensitivity to a particular genre: poetry, for instance, is not read with the same protocols as prose, or an essay, as an article, or a short story, as a novel, or any of these, as drama.

  • On the other hand, there’s this post from another writer in which “genre fiction” is pitted against “literary fiction,” and the Virginia Quarterly Review is held up as an example of all that is wrong with the literati. There are people who look down on genre fiction–David Langford finds one or two examples every month for Ansible–but hardly anyone listens to them anymore and it’s really time for genre fans to stop obsessing over it.

    But I’m linking to this particular post because, rather wonderfully, the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review shows up in the comments to point out that the VHQ does, in fact, publish genre fiction. I think this is what the kids these days call “pwned.”

    Elsewhere, Rachel Swirsky explains the difference between genre as a tool and genre as a prophecy.

  • Ten ways to write badly. I only draw comics and write blog posts, but I must admit I’m guilty of the first half of rule 7 (“Write only when the muse moves you.”) Got to work on that.

    Additional rules for writing badly, the way I write badly:

    11. Adverbs are your friends.
    12. So are semicolons.
    13. Em dashes! Lots of em dashes!
    14. Interjections are so much better than actually organizing your thoughts.

    Too much of the time I spend revising blog posts is spent just cutting down on these four problems.

  • Much of the art in the Louvre is anonymous. Who made it? And what assumptions do we make about the people who made it, and why do we make them?

  • On a less tasteful note, this is what can happen when language changes.