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Britain’s Last Communist Historian, in Praise of Alex Trebek, and Harper Lee’s Drawings

I’m reading Robert Penn Warren’s Democracy and Poetry these days. The book is the text of his 1974 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities and, therefore, as a lecture, it necessarily discusses the self in democracy and poetry (Warren’s primary topic) in broad terms. Still, it’s a prescient work that reads, at times, like an arts-focused 1974 Why Liberalism Failed. I’m not sure what to make of it yet, as examples that don’t quite fit Warren’s thesis keep coming to mind. Still, there is something that rings true in his argument that American democracy after the Civil War, while claiming to offer people liberty, has alienated them from themselves by ruining local communities (the self, Warren argues, is only a self in a community) through the centralization of government, business, and media. Twentieth-century poetry is largely a testament of this alienation, Warren argues, and I see his point. I also see how poetry has, at times, contributed to it. Anyway, I hope to share more at some point, but if you’re interested in these questions, pick up a copy and give the slim volume a read.

In other news: In Public Discourse, Scott Yenor writes about how the ideological bias of some sociologists may be ruining the discipline [1]: “How widespread is this problem? There is no way to know exactly. It is possible, to paraphrase Michael Kinsley, that the scandal is not what is retracted but what passes for social science. Studies show that peer review is ‘unnervingly inconsistent.’ Peer review processes can expose methodological errors, but only when peers are predisposed to be curious and critical about the methodologies. As the professoriate becomes more domineering in its zeal to explain everything as caused by discrimination, the peer review process is bound to suffer and is suffering. Many peer-reviewed articles are based on dubious, easily manipulated data. All the findings fit to print, so long as they confirm academic prejudices.”

In praise of Alex Trebek [2]: “Alex Trebek announced a few days ago that he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and that he plans to keep working as he fights the disease. Let me be clear: This is not an elegy. I hope Alex will be hosting ‘Jeopardy!’ for a long time to come. It’s impossible to even imagine the show with anyone else. But he’s been doing one job so long, and so well, that I think we sometimes take him for granted. Let’s make sure that we appreciate the man as long as we have him… In person, he’s decidedly not the stern, judicial presence you might expect. On TV, he’s all business. He has 61 clues to get to, and not a lot of time. Hosting such a dense, fast-moving game is an insanely hard job, but he makes it look effortless. Here’s the belief that lies at the core of Alex’s TV persona: ‘Jeopardy!’ itself, not he, is the star of the show. It’s all about the format, the players, the facts, the dissemination of answers and questions. It’s hard to imagine any modern TV personality deftly avoiding the spotlight like that.”

In defense of Andrew Jackson [3]: “Andrew Jackson’s reputation is drifting down, down, down, like a sere autumn leaf. Whereas in 1948, the first year of Arthur Schlesinger Sr.’s poll of historians, Old Hickory ranked sixth among the presidents, in recent surveys by a variety of sponsors he has dropped into the midteens. It seems only a matter of time before Jackson is banished to the reputational basement with Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, presidents who never dragged their country into war, which is the yellow brick road to greatness. Brad Birzer, a professor at Hillsdale College and the author of very fine biographies of Russell Kirk and Charles Carroll of Carrollton, has taken up the cause of Old Hickory, the man and the president, with In Defense of Andrew Jackson, a slim but well-argued and very welcome book from Regnery.”

Harper Lee’s drawings [4]: “Nine of the images are caricatures that Lee created and captioned during college—most likely during a Shakespeare class that she took, because they include a series of his characters. King Lear stands on the cliffs of Dover, with a price tag (‘$3.98’) hanging from his cloak like an Elizabethan Minnie Pearl; Julius Caesar smokes a pipe while ‘contemplating the infinite’; Othello towers over an angel and a devil, apparently displaced from his scrawny shoulders; Cassius drips dry outside the Roman baths, where ‘you must have a ticket before you bathe’; and Malvolio, ‘the impatient one,’ crosses his legs while ‘waiting to go to the jakes’ (nowadays more commonly known as the john).”

Sohrab Ahmari reviews Max Boot’s The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, and he is not particularly impressed [5]: “Max Boot is among those who see conservatism as an adjunct to liberalism. He takes it as self-­evident that his style of conservatism is the only kind with moral legitimacy; ­everything else is Continental ‘chauvinism,’ ‘blood-and-soil’­thuggery, or odious Trumpism. The best bits of The Corrosion of Conservatism come early, when Boot describes his childhood under Soviet tyranny and his years as a precocious, politically hyper-conscious teenager in Reagan-era California. The most sympathetic character we encounter is his mother—the ­fiercely loving émigré, who ‘enrolled me in swim classes, piano lessons, and Hebrew school to give me the athletic, musical, and religious education that she had lacked.’ All this, though money was tight and his ­father largely absent. Yet Boot never took to sports, nor the piano, nor Hebrew study, and he didn’t retain his native Russian. His real passion was America…But it soon becomes clear that Boot views his adopted homeland through a set of abstract, free-­floating propositions about rights and norms—his patriotism is attached to liberal proceduralism. The religious and spiritual warp and weft of the land elude him entirely. That is, when he isn’t disgusted by them.”

Essay of the Day:

Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s eclectic, “multi-angled” analysis of the past helped history move away from “detached narrative.” He was also pig-headed [6]:

change_me

“What sort of person, apart from the doggedness and seemingly boundless knowledge, was the young or youngish Hobsbawm? Evans is a fine historian if perhaps not a natural biographer, and sensibly does not over-indulge in psychological speculation, but cumulatively an impression emerges: keen simultaneously to be accepted but different; susceptible to beauty, including natural beauty (as fuelled in adolescence through marathon cycling trips in the English countryside); insecure in relationships with women (including a disastrous first marriage), but a sympathetic enough listener to be attractive to them; and possessor of a strong judgemental streak, shading into intolerance. ‘Over-rated’, he wrote to a cousin in 1943 about the Isle of Wight, ‘and I’m glad a lot of those Victorian boarding-houses went west.’ That last character trait was also to the fore in his role between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s as a music critic under the pseudonym Francis Newton. Elvis Presley he dismissed in 1956 as ‘a peculiarly unappetising Texan lad’; Miles Davis four years later was not only ‘of surprisingly narrow technical and emotional range’, but came unhealthily close to ‘self-pity and the denial of love’; soon afterwards, the musical limitations of the trad jazz phenomenon were ‘only exceeded by the deficient amateurishness of many of its musicians’. In 1959 his survey entitled The Jazz Scene received a respectful enough review from Philip Larkin. Even so, ‘there are times when, reading Mr Newton’s account of this essentially working-class art, the course of jazz seems almost a little social or economic parable’. And Larkin added that ‘Mr Newton has little charm as a writer’.

“But of course, charm à la Sebastian Flyte was hardly the point. Over the ensuing decades, Hobsbawm produced an astonishing body of work (above all, The Age of CapitalThe Age of Empire and The Age of Extremes, which between them sought to cover world history from 1848 to 1990) as well as an abundance of short-form writing. He was an inveterate and often dominant presence at historical conferences around the world, and stayed politically engaged. He was also happily married – the biographer’s curse – and Evans fails at times to bring to life these years of maturity, with too many dutiful lists of advances agreed, sales figures notched up, colloquia attended and honours received. Accordingly, much of the intensity and interiority of the book’s first half goes missing. Yet through it all shine Hobsbawm’s immense energy, his relentless but also inquisitive focus (though struggling at times to embrace convincingly the new histories of gender and identity), his driving sense of the unforgiving minute. His mind remained a formidable machine; so too his body, well into his eighties; and both no doubt fortified by belonging to (certainly by the 1990s) the most famous historian alive.

* * *

“But to get the truly authentic flavour of how middle England viewed Hobsbawm, one must listen to Sue Lawley’s chilly, ultra-polite interrogation on Desert Island Discs in 1995. After he denies knowing at the time about the murderous purges of the 1930s, though adding that if he had come across reports then he would not have believed them, she goes for the jugular: ‘Lawley: You are saying that such was your commitment and your dedication that if there was a chance of bringing about this communist utopia which was your dream, it was worth any kind of sacrifice? Hobsbawm (slowly): Yes, I think so. Lawley: Even the sacrifice of millions of lives? Hobsbawm: Well, that’s what we felt when we fought World War Two, didn’t we? Lawley: Isn’t there a difference between killing someone in war and killing your own? Hobsbawm: We didn’t know that. Dead is dead. Lawley (after pause): Shall we have record number three?’

“Almost two and a half decades later, it still makes for excruciating listening. Painful too is when Lawley asks why he decided not to leave the CP after Hungary in 1956. His reply (one made by him many times over the years) is twofold: that ‘I didn’t wish to deny the whole of my life’; and that ‘I didn’t want to suggest to anybody that I was trying to get an advantage by abandoning views which in the past could not have been said to bring me anything except disadvantage’. ‘But isn’t there surely also in all of that’, asks Lawley, ‘an element of not wishing to say that perhaps you had been wrong?’ To which he answers: ‘No, not at all’.”

Read the rest. [6]

Photo: Lake Brienz [7]

Poem: Timothy Whitworth Smith, “A Parting of Ways” [8]

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