Friday, September 12, 2008

Adios, amigos.

This charming electronic postcard comes to you from an undisclosed location somewhere in Mexico where, distant from the chemical-leeched wastelands of the Maquiladora region, sequestered from the soupy, smog-laden skies of Mexico City, and catacombed from the cacophony of Cancun, AHB III breathes the dry, salubrious air of the mountains, all the better to becalm his asthmatic wheeze. No longer will yr mustachioed maven of meritocratic malfeasance have blue Mondays, since every day and every night here will be a most pleasurable Saturday. My departure is both joyful for I will be at last unchained from the tyranny of quotidian posting, but wistful, for I am loathe to disappoint those who so ardently hoped that I would remain the Andrew Montour of the history profession, forever crossing the frontier between Metropole and Periphery and interpreting the one to the other; or the Elizabeth Van Lew of the early twenty-first century, cleverly disguised to carry messages between historiographic battlefields; or the latter-day Wallace Thurman, constantly shifting identities and affiliations while presenting his culture to another.

To my fans and foes alike, I hoist a fine crystal glass containing the delightful elixir of the blue agave and offer a heartfelt toast that you may live in interesting times. May you live long and prosper whether you inhabit Flyover America or are one of the good old boys or girls of the elite, whether you dwell in Podunk or in Princeton.

No doubt, I will enlighten my many dinner companions here with fine tales of the foibles of the American academy. Perhaps, good blogfellows, blogstresses, lurkers, lovers, tattlers and tipplers, the underplaced and, yes, the overplaced, I shall return again in another guise. Should the Fates or the Goddess Clio have something interesting in store for me, our paths may cross again. Or they may not.

Some parting words, which yr faithful correspondent hath taken the liberty of scribbling here for you, since the one-dimensional nature of this medium does not permit you to read the inscription on the obverse of the above postcard.

"Good-bye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think it a pretty good way to depart this life, lest my assassin is bedecked in the colors of orange and black. It beats old age, disease or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico - ah, that is euthanasia!"

As always yr humble servant,

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The trivial Bierce? the populist Ambrose?

Friends, AHB III has had a most interesting and unexpected journey over the last twenty-four hours. His mailboxes and comments section have been filled with missives, overwhelmingly in favor of his remaining a tribune of history department gossip. He also knows more than he wants to know about what people know, a most peculiar position for a foible-ist like himself.

Among those bloggers who have commented on the Broad-Gauge Gossip, one has made strong argument against my little broadsheet. After reading the reproachful post of Mr. Tim Lacy, I am tempted to head into the hills of Mexico for good. Lacy argues that

we should not promote the crassness inherent in delivering sound "byte" blows, slipping in snarky snippets, and promoting silly dramas. This is one reason I'm not a fan of the so-called Ambrose Bierce history gossip weblog. There's nothing like reducing the profession to a soap opera.

To Mr. Lacy's charges, I admit guilt, for crassness, snarky snippets, and silly drama can provide a necessary diversion from our otherwise serious endeavors and, in part for that reason, I created this blog. Soap operas are one of the oldest and most popular genres of our culture. Should historians always have to position ourselves on a lofty perch above such amusements, looking contemptuously down up the throngs in the bear-pit? AHB III loved Melrose Place, in part because it was a southern Californian version ofHuis Clos, with petty and pretty people. He reads the celebrity gossip in his local rag daily. Our profession needs a little levity now and then.

Many of those pleading me to keep from jumping the Rio Grande have served up a counterargument that this blog is not trivial, but actually a useful, even redemptive form of journalism. And much to yr. mustachioed maverick's surprise, a theme runs through several comments and letters like the clear waters of the Columbia River before it was befouled by industry and agriculture. AHB III could not have anticipated the argument, viz. that he is a voice of transparency and democracy, someone who breaks open the vault of elitism and provides a useful service by revealing its contents to those who do not have direct access to it because they are not part of the "old boy's network."

"We need ya brotha," reads a private note from one of my populist readers, in such charming argot. Another, deploying the argot of the cultural historian right down to the passive voice, contends that "a public discourse of our profession is direly needed." I can't add much to the splendidly-named "Gurgling Cod," except to protest that I am no "Homer, Publius, and Franklin W. Dixon." And "Ahistoricality" offers this quite compelling response to my existential crisis: "those of us who aren't well-connected to the old boys networks have never gotten a good look at the profession like this before."

Of all of the missives that I have received, whether from cod, dinosaur, or human, the most thought provoking came in an electronic missive that I received last evening. My correspondent, who revealed his or her identity to me, allows me to post the following, on the condition of maintaining her or his anonymity:

I read your post on anonymity earlier today and thought I'd respond. I'm not sure I have a firm opinion either way on your anonymous nature. But it does strike me that your blog serves some useful purposes. The public voice of this profession does largely tend to be big guns at big institutions. Folks with this inside access to the workings of these hot departments and schools have a degree of professional advantage over the rest of us who are sweating it out at mediocre schools in flyover country (but who aspire to at least slightly greater heights). I'm really struck by how much more "gossip" my pals at hot northeast schools have access to than I do. I could be wrong, but my sense is that this gossip is at times useful information that helps people guide their professional decisions. You're setting this information free -- something that is bound to be useful to those who lacked much access to it.

This doesn't exactly speak to your question about the merits of anonymity, though your anonymity, I presume, enables you to do your job better. People I guess are more likely to give you inside info if they don't know who you are. Anonymity makes your blog better. Anonymity is a means to an end.

Back in the day, my hacker pals would always say that "information wants to be free". I guess I would look at your blog more in terms of questions about information and power and access to information, rather than in terms of ethical and moral responsibility for making information or your analysis of it available.

The above letter raises issues that I had not hitherto considered, viz that this broadsheet is a sort of chant democratic.

Good readers, I have not yet decided my course of action. My bags are packed and I am prepared to retreat to Mexico, but the latter message and several others that expressed a similar theme leave me wondering whether perhaps I should continue this adventure at least for a time.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Professor Bierce's very blue Monday

Yr mustachioed purveyor of piffle and prurience is having a very blue Monday indeed. He is considering retreating to the mountains of Mexico, a good place, he hears, to disappear.

With a revivifying dose of the Black Ichor of Life coursing through my veins, I made a most delightful discovery this morning: that I had gained the favourable attention of the Tenured Radical, Wesleyan's once anonymous blogger, Claire Potter. But she, that fabulous fan of Batman and his masked companion, offered a caution that has cut to the quick of the spirit that dwells within me. I am pondering her words deeply. She warns that anonymous blogging is a dangerous thing.

She is not the only one who has offered such counsel. Several well-meaning correspondents have also suggested that I be cautious lest the mustache may be ripped from my fine visage, revealing my constructed identity as well as my real one (though reader, let me instruct you that gender and race are indeed social constructions and that, as a constructionist of the not-too-strict variety, my identity is here fluid, indeterminate or, at least, situational).

Whilst I do occasionally fret about my unmasking, I am clothed in the protective garment of academic freedom. The pleasure of my nights is seldom perturbed by narcissistic fears of the diminution of my already modest reputation. I am a mostly honest scribe who stands behind the truthfulness of everything, save about my own persona, that has appeared in this humble broadsheet. Indeed, in the company of fellow historians I have oft heard expressed opinions far less charitable and far more scandalous than anything I have posted here.

Yet, I worry. Friends, I do fear for my mortal soul. AHB III aims not to injure but to entertain, not to abuse but to amuse. That thought leads me back to Middletown's electronic Rosa-Luxembourg-for-life. Upon reading her following missive, published some time ago, AHB III is reconsidering his current avocation as masked historian who unmasks his fellows' pretenses.

Here below is an excerpt from the Tenured Radical's missive on the ethics and practice of anonymity. You may read it in full here.

I do think anonymity raises ethical and practical issues that everyone at all ranks of the profession ought to think about on an ongoing basis, and not just those unprotected by tenure. As I reflect once more on my blogging life prior to my decision to give up anonymity, several things come to mind.

When we publish things anonymously that are incautious, and we are more likely to do that when we believe ourselves to be anonymous, there are immediate and sometimes long-term consequences for ourselves and for others. There's the equivalent of the flaming email phenomenon -- putting up a post in a fit of rage, or self-righteousness, or manic humor -- in other words, making a set of thoughts public in a way that doesn't engage one's own super-ego as it should. I know because I've done it, and I had to go back and edit or delete a bunch of stuff once I came out that seemed funny at the time (was, in fact) but was potentially hurtful since the humor depended on sarcasm or on exaggerating the characteristics of composite characters that real people were too likely to see as themselves. I remember at the time how differently I saw some of these posts once I had to imagine the reality of them being attached to my name, and to real people at Zenith. That change in perspective is a learning experience I have not forgotten.

But even when the posts are serious and accurate, I do think you need to ask yourself, before publishing something that is critical of others, would I stand up for this in public? After all, simply because something is the "truth" doesn't mean you should publish it. If you can't imagine saying such a thing to someone's face, or don't want to engage your own critics publicly, you probably shouldn't put something up on the web.

I want to emphasize that I personally don't feel critical of anonymous bloggers, and complications in my blogging life will not necessarily be problems on your blog....

This is all a way of saying that the question of one's reputation, and one's responsibility for the reputation of others, is a very serious one indeed. It has many dimensions that anonymity makes very, very ethically complex...

Should yr amiable companion Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce, III, retreat into the rugged terrain of his beloved country south of the border, where he will surely consort with some revolutionaries rather than fretting away his time on this blog? Will that sabbatical mark his disappearance?

Of such a fate, AHB III remains ambivalent.

So much delectable news of our profession remains yet unreported, viz. yr commentator's mostly-written critical dissection of departmental rankings, in which he points out the folly of a system that favors the Greats of Yore but undervalues the recently risen stars, especially at ambitious state universities, most of them outside of the metropole, in the heartland and in the west...Or in which he covers the fascinating quest by the University of Southern California to become the New York University of the Golden State...Or in which he tells the yet-unfinished story of the extraordinary efforts of Vanderbilt to poach talent from its would-be Ivy competitors, undertaken with the ambition and riches of the Vanderbilts themselves... Or in which he explores the remarkable diaspora of early American history from its former centers at Harvard, Yale, and Hopkins to places major and obscure... Or in which he takes to the trenches to cover the bloody battle within the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations over the most controversial John Yoo... Or in which he watchfully accounts for the intellectual torpor in such recently trendy fields as environmental history, whiteness studies, and women's history...Or in which he recounts the remarkable recrudescence of a field only a decade ago left for dead on the scholarly battlefield, the history of international relations...Or in which he finds himself in the madhouse that constitutes the annual history job market...Or in which he serves up the delightful dish that concerns such esteemed departments as Harvard, Cornell, Chicago, Penn, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Berkeley, Davis, Brandeis, Rice, Georgetown, and Alabama that has begun to crystallize into would-be posts on this fair broadsheet...Or in which he demonstrate his polymathic talents by posting knowledgeable comments on Russian, Chinese, and Renaissance Italian history and its practitioners, they of many splendid scandals and travails? Aye, there are many splendid tales both great and small that your bard wishes to sing.

Should your bard remain cosseted in the cloak of invisibility, which is so ill-fitting to the body of his ethics? Should he instead be sipping tequila in the company of latter-day Zapatistas, leaving the purveyors of gossip to huddle in the hallways of the AHA?

Such ponderous thoughts are making AHB's Monday particularly blue. Should you not hear from me again, I will gladly read any and all of your comments and treasure them, whether they are thoughtful or inane. I will carry them with me, along with my fine computer, into the hills of Chihuahua, where if you are lucky, you may find me living a meaningful and ethical life indeed.

Yr humble servant,

Friday, September 5, 2008

The second most impolite conversation topic, part deux

AHB III will tastefully avoid the most impolite conversation topic, at least until he succumbs to temptation. But idle chatter concerning the second most impolite topic continues full-throatedly or perhaps, more accurately, deep- throatedly. For your delectation, this quite useful index of Rutgers salaries, thanks to one of my informants. AHB's first reaction: he will apply for any job, in any field, at Rutgers.

Any additions to my small but splendid data base are most welcome. Just add them to the comments section below.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Chants un-Democratic

Trust yr humble servant that he really does not want to pick on poor Princeton yet again. But he cannot resist piling on to the Enormous Heap of criticism that hath deservedly rained upon Robert Sean Wilentz, the bitter historian who, while not yet clinging to his guns and religion, has teetered perilously close to endorsing the McCain/Palin ticket. In a recent Newsweek article, Wilentz reinforces the Republican party's message that Obama is a vacuous orator. This is not the first anti-Obama volley that Wilentz has fired. Earlier this year, in the heat of the primary, Wilentz blasted the Illinois junior senator with the dubious accusation that he had played the "race card" against the junior senator from New York.

Wilentz's contumely has been the subject of so many electronic postings that AHB need not comment on all of them here. It will suffice, good reader, to say that just as the blogosphere has lit up with denunciations of Wilentz, so too has my mailbox been aglow with radioactive missives.

Wilentz is, without doubt, a historian of great subtlety and sophistication. His book, Chants Democratic, consummated the E.P. Thompsonian turn in American social and labor history and, unlike most dissertations-turned-books, has had a long shelf-life. It remains in print and is still widely read after more than two decades. Even if parts of its argument have been dismantled, the book justifiably remains a staple of graduate student reading lists. How many of you poor souls were interrogated about Thomas Skidmore and the Committee of Fifty during your oral exams?

Upon tenure at Princeton, Wilentz's writing career followed a serpentine path. With Paul Johnson, he co-authored a slight but charming book on a nineteenth century religious enthusiast. Along the way, he edited a few collections, dabbled in music criticism (quite successfully), and began turning out thousands, yea verily, hundreds of thousands of words in essays in places like The New Republic. It was even briefly rumored that Wilentz was on the shortlist to take the esteemed magazine's helm, though AHB III cannot help but wonder whether those rumours, like those that swirl every four years around minor political figures hoping for their brush with glory during vice presidential selection season, were more self-serving than serious.

Whilst he pursued a career as historian-cum-journalist, Wilentz held onto his second major book, The Rise of American Democracy, for a very, very long time. And as it sat around, it grew more and more rotund. He finally published it, to mostly favorable reviews and some notable prizes, in 2005. The rather weighty tome, AHB surmises, will seldom be read from cover to cover. But being one of the few who has consumed the book in its entirety, I can attest to the importance and power of the synthesis, even if I concur with many critics that he is much too enamored of Andrew Jackson and, among other sins, leaves historically-significant religious sects like the Mormons mostly out. Fortunately for the sake of our poor hung-over students who imbibe as much as the followers of Old Hickory themselves, Wilentz's publisher conveniently divided the book into three volumes for easy reading. More recently Wilentz has ventured into twentieth-century history, with a history of the Reagan era, but yr faithful one has yet to digest that presumably hastily-written book, so he will refrain from speculation as to its quality.

Wilentz has always had great ambitions. One informant, who knew R. Sean in his Balliol Oxford days, reported that the young, recently-minted Columbia BA boldly expressed his aspiration to become America's E.P. Thompson. Lately, it has appeared to many that Wilentz is grasping for the ring of the late to be the next Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, but he rather suspects that the Wilentz diaries will be less interesting than the recently-published AMS journals. But the Princeton chaired professor also compares his work to that of an august nineteenth-century predecessor, no Thompson or Schlesinger he. In an interview published by his university, Wilentz invites himself into the company of George Bancroft, the historian who ran the Massachusetts Democratic Party and served in the Polk administration.

I do think that historians must always be careful that their history writing doesn’t become infected by their politics. The minute you start with a political idea and try to find a version of history that affirms it, you’re a bad historian. A good propagandist, maybe, but a lousy historian. I think it is possible to be objective, no matter what one’s commitments may be. I really believe there is such a thing as historical truth, and that it is our job as historians to get at it, impossible though that task might be. As the great Dutch historian Pieter Geyl once wrote, history is argument without end. So long as we argue according to the rules of evidence, logic, and historical imagination, those arguments will get us somewhere.

Some blog-critics of Wilentz have suggested that he is engaged in a misuse of history and that he should be chastised for wrapping his recent polemics in the flowing robes of Clio. Others have lambasted him as an delusional egomaniac. Sparing no invective, Yale-based journalist/blogger Jim Sleeper called him "the increasingly and pathetically power-hungry Princeton professor." Sleeper contends that Wilentz "resembles the Japanese soldier found on a desert island in 1946 still fighting what he thinks is an unfinished World War."

AHB III finds himself on the middle ground. Yr interlocutor cavils at Wilentz's serial personification of history, as in his use of the phrase "history suggests." The mustachioed one senses that Wilentz's arguments about Obama are not particularly reality-based. There is a shrillness and anger to Wilentz's anti-Obama polemics that grates like nails on a chalkboard, though AHB believes that the Princeton don is more self-aware than one of the befuddled but still-loyal soldiers of the Japanese empire. It is clear that as a pundit Wilentz possesses a rather less subtle and sophisticated mind than he does as historian. (Perhaps the best foreshadowing of Wilentz's proclivity to use anthropomorphized history in a most hyperbolic fashion came during the Clinton impeachment hearings, when he warned those who wanted to oust the randy Arkansan that "history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness." AHB confesses to being quite enamored with the image of Clio, dressed like Sarah Palin in hunting garb sitting in her blind, rifle on her shoulder, ready to bag some of Washington's trophy mooses. But such sentiments, however colorful, constitute neither good history nor good politics). In the balance, AHB must concur with historian-cum-blogger Eric Rauchway that however flimsy Wilentz's grasp of current politics may be, he ought to be free to opine on matters of the day.

AHB wonders, ultimately, whether l'affaire Wilentz is but a tempest in a teapot? I rather doubt that Wilentz's perfervid pontifications will matter in the upcoming election. But whether or not Obama wins or loses, AHB III feels a particular sadness watching a historian whose work he has long admired expend rather too much scholarly capital in service of a most dubious cause. AHB audaciously hopes that when the dust has settled that Wilentz returns to the place he knows best, viz America between 1789 and 1865.


One of my faithful readers complained that my humble site did not allow for anonymous comments. Yr mustachioed gossip has rectified this rather glaring and thoughtless oversight. From this moment on forward, you and anyone else may comment on my broadsheet anonymously and with impunity, allowing you, like me, to vouchsafe your treasured privacy and spend your days in peace and your nights in pleasure.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The glass ceiling of punditry

AHB wonders: where are the ladies? There are not too many cracks in the glass ceiling of historical punditry. Doris Kearns Goodwin is the only prominent woman historian who regularly appears as a commentator on national television. The only other historical pundit who shares the gender of the goddesss Clio to break through is New Hampshire's Ellen Fitzpatrick, who joined PBS's rather tired squadron of talking heads in the 2004 election and continues to appear on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Fitzpatrick's matter-of-fact style is a rather refreshing contrast to the inarticulate bloviation of Mark Shields and the blow-dried history as trivial pursuit practiced by Michael Beschloss.

In the aftermath of the historic Hillary Clinton campaign and now the GOP's troubled selection of Alaskan Sarah Palin, yr humble servant offers up these suggestions for the next female talking heads.

First, AHB eliminates a few candidates. George Washington University historian Allida Black, best known for her scholarship on Eleanor Roosevelt, spent her capital rallying the embittered supporters of Hillary Clinton in the last, dying days of her candidacy. And a few leading women historians might just be a little too controversial for prime time. Surely the teleworthy Glenda Gilmore would be hounded by those watchdogs of the so-called liberal media for her comment a few years ago that George W. Bush was "all hat and no cattle." Chicago's Christine Stansell has the media connections and the scholarly gravitas but is rather too soft-spoken for prime time.

Who better to cover the tiresome recrudescence of family values politics in the Republican party, not to mention the failure of coitus interruptus in the case of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston than University of Minnesota historian Regina Kunzel? Gigi, as she is known to her peers, is a rising star in the history of sexuality and author of the most important book on the history of illegitimacy. Is Bristol Palin a fallen woman or a problem girl? Kunzel could hop into a taxi and be in CNN's convention booth within minutes.

Two scholars of real wit and presence who could liven up the commentariat are Iowa's Linda Kerber and Santa Barbara's Laura Kalman. Neither have that perfectly coiffed made for TV appearance, but both are formidable scholars. Yr faithful gossip would find our political discourse elevated greatly by Kerber's reflections on women and national service. She has also trained a number of students who have researched conservative women, giving her special expertise in the topic du jour. Kalman, a leading legal historian, would surely have wise things to say about judicial appointments and the legal issues that are sure to be on the agenda of the new president. And one last suggestion, mostly for color. U.C. Riverside's Catherine Allgor, despite the fact that her last name is a homonym with the failed candidate turned environmentalist, is a former actress who would certainly perform well in front of the camera. Her work on historical women in the early Republic and on Dolly Madison plays to the media's enduring Founder-philia. And her flamboyant style is tailor-made for the small screen.

Good readers do you too have suggestions breaking the talking head glass ceiling?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Scoop and spin at Princeton

Professor Bierce, unlike many in his profession, admires the finest practitioners of the art of journalism. For him, calling a work “journalistic” can be either a complement or an epithet, depending on the work’s literary quality, the depth of its research, and the sophistication of its analysis. Thus he tips his hat to the Boston Globe’s Chris Shea, whom he has only “met” electronically. The Bean Town Brainiac kindly announced the birth of this fine blog by your mustachioed gossip. But a restless journalist and dogged researcher he, Mr. Shea did not put the story to bed. A mere two days later, he announced that he had scooped AHB III. O cruel fate.

Mr. Shea did something that Professor Bierce, alas, cannot do without removing the mustache of anonymity. You see, Shea communicated directly with Jeremy Adelman, Princeton’s (relatively) young and ambitious department chair, who offered a rejoinder to a recent post on this site. Fortunately, Mr. Adelman did not undermine Professor Bierce’s central argument, although he added empirical detail, such as Princeton’s efforts to recruit Professor Chandra Manning, a young scholar of the Civil War, from Georgetown. In my post, I alluded to the yet-unresolved case of the young Manning, but planned to wait until her case had wended its way through the labyrinthine tenure process at the university once known as the College of New Jersey. Whether she will become the next McPherson depends, of course, on her fate at the hands of Princeton’s administrative solons and, more importantly, the quality of her future scholarship. My crystal ball is rather cloudy on that matter, as are most historians’ predictive powers. (Unlike economists, who gain their reputations by making colourful prognostications that are almost always proven wrong, we historians must be humble. We should tremble when venturing to predict the yet uncharted terrain of the history-yet-to-be).

But AHB III, he of sharp tongue, is also a man who acknowledges when he has been bested. Professor Adelman justly upbraided AHB III for neglecting the appointment of Martha (Marnie) Sandweiss, an American Studies scholar of impeccable reputation who has written brilliantly about the visual culture of the American west. Sandweiss was, of late, a greatly treasured member of the Amherst College faculty. And he mentioned Emily Thompson, the erudite historian of acoustics who rose from obscurity when she won a MacArthur grant. But methinks that Adelman spinneth too much. His case rests on the department’s recent employment of five assistant professors (the most promising of whom warranted AHB’s mention). All that Professor Bierce can say is he has never known a department’s reputation to rise or fall on its assistant professors however talented they may be. Given Princeton’s abysmal record of tenuring its own, my crystal ball, cloudy as it might be, predicts with some confidence that several of them will not be spending the remainder of their careers wearing the Orange and Black.

So Professor Bierce, in the spirit of the grade inflation rampant at Princeton, awards Professor Adelman a C+ (he would never be so uncharitable to brand such a promising if somewhat too clever bureaucrat an F). To Mr. Shea, a hard-earned A.