Category Archives: reviewing the reviewers

August 1, 2012, 1:07 pm

Gore Vidal: pretty good historian, and a great character in US history.

I read Henry Adams before I read Gore Vidal, but I liked Vidal better. Both were funny, but only Vidal was having fun. Which is not something everyone understands, that you can have great fun at the apocalypse. It was perhaps his least American trait.

A critic complained about the versions of Henry Adams and Henry James that Vidal made up. Vidal responded, but they made me up. He shared with Adams an apparent sense that American politics ought to have belonged to him, and as it didn’t, American history would. As motives to write history go, it isn’t the worst. He knew that the affairs of the republic were run by a small group of people who wanted to protect its property. He judged each faction of the group more or less by its tendency to agree with him.

In consequence, he had mixed feelings about FDR, who employed his father and disagreed with his grandfather; he held enduringly…

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June 22, 2012, 5:06 pm

Some notes on Woodrow Wilson and the underappreciated harms Presidents can do.

Regular readers will know we frequently give time and attention to the best of presidents, with special regard to the underrated Franklin Roosevelt. But perhaps we should give equal time to the bad presidents whose badness goes insufficiently remarked – not just the mediocre presidents, but those whose harms go underappreciated.

Entirely coincidentally, I have an essay in the current Reviews in American History on Woodrow Wilson, apropos Cooper’s biography. Here’s the beginning of the essay, for the record:

In the 1912 election, the Democrats gained sixty-one seats to increase their majority in the House of Representatives and seven seats to get a majority in the Senate. Yet their presidential candidate, Woodrow Wilson, won fewer votes than William Jennings Bryan had in 1908, 1900, or 1896. Wilson also underperformed Democrats in Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, and elsewhere,…

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June 18, 2012, 5:18 pm

FDR: not the antichrist.

(Another in an irregularly produced series)

THE ARTICLE
Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth
of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age,” Journal of American History 98, no. 4 (March 2012): 1052-1074.

A NONTRIVIAL QUESTION RAISED
When and why did white evangelical Christians, or fundamentalists, become categorically opposed to American liberalism?

DISCUSSION
There is a journalistic rule that all headlines that ask questions are properly answered “no,” and this article is no exception; even to white evangelical Christians, it turns out, FDR was not the antichrist. According to Sutton, they thought he was moving in that direction, though.

This article fits in with the discovery that modern conservatism predates not only the alleged overreach of liberalism in the 1960s or early 1970s, but also World War II. As Sutton says, “As the actions of…

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June 12, 2012, 6:05 pm

Does David Brooks just pick dates out of a hat?

From the howling vacuum that is David Brooks’s historical consciousness escapes this gem:

Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted.

Let’s pass swiftly over 1955, when our institutions were so trusted that vast swathes of the unReconstructed South decided they could disobey the Supreme Court, a state of affairs that would last until the Great Golfer sent the 101st Airborne (late of Normandy) to liberate Little Rock, and say uncomprehendingly to ourselves, 1925? When the nation realized that agents of the Doheny and Sinclair petroleum concerns were delivering cash and livestock to the Secretary of the Interior in exchange for favorable considerations? When Americans so trusted their institutions that they were defying federal law on a …

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June 11, 2012, 8:08 pm

In which I say some things about railroads, and digital history, and other matters.

The TLS teases the article here.

June 9, 2012, 6:54 pm

Some notes on Prometheus and Jesus and Lawrence of Arabia.

MILDLY SPOILERY.

Prometheus wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the Star Wars prequels, but my saying that tells you about how good it was. And it tells you what kind of movie it is, too - it is after all a prequel, that exists to explain a lot of the weird stuff in Alien. The thing is, as Patton Oswalt shrewdly notes, just because we like ice cream doesn’t mean we’d like to eat a bag of rock salt. We don’t actually want to see Darth Vader as a little kid; we don’t, really, need to know where the Alien came from and what the space jockeys were unless it’s wrapped in a story bigger than “oh, that’s what that thing was.”

There are, though, some parts of Prometheus that are truly excellent. Michael Fassbender is the main one. His performance as the android David is excellent. Fassbender should have been in a decent adaptation of an Asimovian robot story; he knows how to wrestle …

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May 25, 2012, 12:53 pm

My new course will be titled “US History: The Awesomeness of Awesome Americans.”

Updated to add, “Hello, Paul Krugman readers!”1

“A Crisis of Competence,” which bills itself as “A Report Prepared for the Regents of the University of California by the California Association of Scholars, A Division of the National Association of Scholars,” (hereafter CAS, for short) has garnered a great deal of attention. It was, apparently, the basis for Rick Santorum’s laughably false claims that California’s universities do not teach US history – though to be fair to the report, Santorum evidently misunderstood what was in it. It was the subject of an April 1 news story (no, not an April Fool’s) in the Los Angeles Times. And it was the basis for a May 20 op-ed in the LA Times. To be fair to the LA Times, its own editorial, on April 7, was skeptical of the report, describing it as “a mélange of anecdotes.”

This is correct: the paper’s methodology is highly suspect,…

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March 15, 2012, 8:53 am

Alterman on Gaddis on Kennan.

Eric Alterman has this to say about George Kennan and John Gaddis:

Had Kennan not lived so long, Gaddis might have done a fair job as his biographer. But as Kennan, despite remaining an old-fashioned conservative in the tradition of Walter Lippmann and Hans Morgenthau, moved further and further to the dovish/diplomatic wing of foreign policy debate, his biographer rushed headlong in the opposite direction. Kennan, for instance, strongly opposed Bush’s Iraq adventure, while Gaddis sounded like Dick Cheney on steroids during this period. Cautioning Democrats not to take issue with intellectual currents underlying Bush’s foreign policy, Gaddis argued: “The world now must be made safe for democracy, and this is no longer just an idealistic issue; it’s an issue of our own safety,” later adding, “A global commitment to remove remaining tyrants could complete a process Americans be…

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January 13, 2010, 7:28 pm

On doing without.

Roger Ebert writes about nourishment without eating and making out without having sex. (Briefly: the former he endures; the latter he adores.)

In the hands of a writer sick with ambition, these subjects might have become the occasion for a meditation on the virtues of discipline; for a writer poisoned by sentiment, they might have become treacly elegy. But Ebert seems these days just to be writing because he really wants to tell you how it is, and it’s very good writing indeed.1


1Which is not to say that I’ve never felt misled by his movie criticism. Not to go too deeply into things, but I would leap to play the dour Siskel to his thumbs up for Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and Synecdoche, New York.

November 23, 2009, 2:53 pm

The banality of book reviews.

Does this (here and here) happen often? Does the Times often review the same book twice? I can’t think of another instance like this, I have to admit, but I don’t pay much attention to the Sunday Book Review anymore, so I can’t say for certain.

Regardless, in this case, if you don’t feel like clicking on links, the book in question is Sir John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History. Which book, I should say, I haven’t read and won’t be reading. And not just because the second review linked above, authored by the normally genial James McPherson, savages Keegan’s efforts as terribly sloppy, but also because, coincidentally, just last week Eric and I taught Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler in our graduate seminar.

(more…)

September 11, 2009, 4:06 pm

That’s how it’s done.

Chuck Klosterman’s review of the newly released Beatles boxed set is a thing of beauty. Imagine trying to review the Beatles’ collected works. Nearly everyone knows the material. Nearly everything that can be said has already been said. There are no superlatives left. So Klosterman employs an ingenious gimmick.

From the first paragraph:

Like most people, I was initially confused by EMI’s decision to release remastered versions of all 13 albums by the Liverpool pop group Beatles, a 1960s band so obscure that their music is not even available on iTunes. The entire proposition seems like a boondoggle. I mean, who is interested in old music? And who would want to listen to anything so inconveniently delivered on massive four-inch metal discs with sharp, dangerous edges? The answer: no one.

And it goes on from there. Klosterman, with this deft move, allows himself to make the…

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