Friday, May 24, 2013

Blog Round Up: Biography

"It's Not You, Stonewall, It's Me" by Wallace Hettle on History News Network here ponders the biographer's relationship to his subject in a whimsical way. What if you just find out you don't like your subject? This could be a problem, and many have asked me how it was that I made such a good friend of William Temple Hornaday, who has generally been described by historians as an argumentative, vain, whackjob who did far more damage than good. Moreover, he was a racist who panned every non-anglo race he encountered. His comments about the Irish really got my blood boiling. On the other hand, I found him very interesting, and, on many subjects, quite funny. There certainly was not a lack of material in his thousands of pages of letters at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Library of Congress. And, in some ways, I think he had a better plan for the conservation movement. I never remotely considered dropping him as a subject.

"No Biographer Could Possibly Guess the Important Fact About My Life in the Late Summer of 1926" on Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Blog here takes a quote by Virginia Woolf to demonstrate that there is a limitation to biography. Namely, we cannot know all about our subjects, particularly what goes on deep in the recesses of their mind. This was especially true of Chester Arthur, the subject of my first biography. He burned nearly all his correspondence, and his shady record has left room recently for conspiracy theorists to consider that he was not even an American citizen. There was one tantalizing letter among his papers that he received from Senator Roscoe Conkling. "A friend is at the Westminster," Conkling wrote in November 1880, "and it will be very agreeable to me if you will observe the fact promptly." (Chester Alan Arthur Papers, Library of Congress). The wording is curious and one ponders its meaning. This is only one of the many mysteries of Chester Arthur's life, and sits in that gray area just beyond the biographer's reach.

"Driving the Dissertation" by Alyssa Zuercher Reichardt on The Junto here ponders the utility of going where your subject has been. Francis Parkman pioneered this method of historical inquiry over 150 years ago.  In Barack Obama: The Story,  David Maraniss (which I commented on here ) literally traced the footsteps of the future president, as well as those of his parents and grandparents. Maraniss saw the landscape and interviewed many who knew or met one of his cast of characters. Reichardt drove through Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wester Virginia studying 18th century traveling routes. Of course, much has changed in the intervening centuries, but she felt that this trip did increase her understanding of her subject. I never followed Hornaday's path, which lies closer to Maraniss in time, but perhaps closer to Reichardt in historical space. By this I mean that there was little of what he actually saw left to see. I did see the Bronx Zoo, but none of the other places Hornaday set foot. The Iowa farm and Stamford home are both gone. Perhaps I could have gone to Iowa State University at Ames, but that seemed tangental and beyond my limited means, especially in the dissertation days. Trips to India and Borneo were so far out of the question that they did not enter my mind until just now. Besides, I don't think I need to get malaria in Asia to understand how crippling multiple fevers were to a young Hornaday as he stumbled through the forests of India on a quest for elephants. Perhaps in my next subject I will make a greater effort to visit the sites.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Blog Round Up: Professional issues for the Historian

"Size Matters?" from the Historical Society blog Here ponders the question of why history dissertationsThe Defiant Devil is a little over 200 pages of text.
are so large? In fact, history dissertations are, on average, longer than any other field in the humanities or social sciences.  My sense is that if the anecdotal evidence of declining attention spans is true, then, yes, it is a problem, and might further widen the divide between professional academic historians and the wider, non-specialized reading public. The comments to the blog posting are interesting as well. Some made the case that historians do suffer from an inability to boil down lengthy arguments to shorter, pithier examples. I know I have suffered from this. There is always one more fact, that I feel needs to be included, analyzed, and contextualized. Are other academic professions better at this? I cannot really answer this question because I have not read any dissertations outside of history. Some comments focused on setting some expectations for the graduate student writing their dissertation, such as limiting the page count. I tend not to favor such Stalinesque techniques. One comment noted that the dissertation author sometimes has to write for the lowest common denominator. In other words, that one committee member who wants a detailed discussion of the kitchen sink, or, who gives you multiple titles of books that you feel obligated to include in your analysis, even though they are not really essential to your work. Although the article focused on dissertations, I feel the same argument applies to many books as well. It is always a little frustrating to get through a good chunk of the book when you start to feel that it should have been a journal article, not a full length monograph. Some books are terribly too long. I am happy to say that

"Long Odds of the Tenure-Track Job Search" from the Chronicle of Higher Education here examined the intense competition for academic jobs. Sometimes the odds of securing the position you applied for are 600 to 1. In a way that made me feel better for not having one of these jobs because it helps me to explain this to those who perennially wonder why I am not employed as a full-time history professor. Those outside of academe have a hard time grasping the academic job market. I usually begin my explanation with a question, "when was the last time you saw a new college constructed?" Sure, there are some intensely for profit colleges going up, but the history is only a small part of their otherwise moneymaking ventures, such as nursing, paralegal, etc. Second, I explain that when one gets a job in a college or university, they keep it for life. This means that that position will not come up for hire for at least 20 years, and more likely 30 or 35. I then have to use a Supreme Court analogy to make this clear. Finally, I tell them that I have applied for positions, but have ultimately received a letter stating there were "75" or "210" applicants. Now, I will cut to the chase and respond that a recent study of the respected Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the odds of getting a job are as high as 600 to 1.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Shifting Baselines Syndrome

I have to admit I never heard of Shifting Baselines Syndrome before reading Jon Mooallem's Slate article, "The Last Buffalo Hunt." You can read it here: (and in the shamless self promotion department, Jon does mention not only my friend William T. Hornaday, but also The Most Defiant Devil).

Shifting Baselines basically means each generation redefines its "norm." The best way I can illustrate it
is to compare the views of an older person whose baseline dates back two generations and a younger man whose baseline is established at that time. In this case the older man is William Temple Hornaday, conservationist and first director of the Bronx Zoo. Hornaday was born in 1854, and grew up on a farm in Iowa. His baseline of nature included vast buffalo herds and enormous flocks of passenger pigeons. By the end of the 19th century both species were rocketing down the path to extinction. Hornaday played a significant role in saving the buffalo from the abyss, but the passenger pigeon could not escape the grim fate of extermination. By the late 1920s the seventy year old Hornaday was predicting the imminent demise of all wildlife, expecting nothing but starlings and sparrows would exist by 1950. At the same time he was writing his grim forecasts of doom a young bespeckled boy was growing up in Illinois. Describing himself as the "Great Naturalist," Ronald Reagan found nature to be an abundant source of wonder.
He liked to roam the woods, and, as he wrote in his An American Life, "exploring the local wilderness." (p. 31) These rambling adventures led the future president to comment that he lived a childhood out of a Mark Twain novel. Reagan didn't miss the passenger pigeons and other wildlife that Hornaday did, because Reagan never knew them. He created a baseline without the the species that defined Hornaday's. What Hornaday considered a loss was something outside the younger man's perspective, or baseline. I think this is an interesting and intellectually useful concept that I will think more of in the future.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Most Defiant Devil is available for pre-order

My biography of The Most Defiant Devil: William Temple Hornaday and His Controversial Crusade to Save American Wildlife will be published by the University of Virginia Press in August 2013. Amazon has my book available for pre-order. I am very excited!  Here is the link: