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Help out a family from my hometown

Via one of the local TV stations, I just found out that a nine-year-old boy from my hometown died in a tragic accident over the weekend.  His mom has donated her son’s organs, turning this tremendous loss into an opportunity to offer life to somebody else.  If you’d like to do a good deed for a grieving family, you can help out with medical and funeral expenses by donating to their GoFundMe page.

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When the legend becomes Wikipedia, print the legend

I was at the grocery store the other day and ran across Bill O’Reilly’s Legends & Lies: The Real West, the companion volume to the ten-part TV series.  O’Reilly’s name is in the title, but the cover lists David Fisher as writer, so I’m assuming Fisher did the heavy lifting.  Anyway, it’s selling like crazy.

Nobody in their right mind should expect a glossy, heavily illustrated TV companion book to be a model of scholarly rigor.  But it looks like O’Reilly/Fisher really phoned this one in, even by the lackadaisical standards of pop history.

Check this out (sorry about the pic quality; snapped this on my phone in the store):

Yep, that’s Wikipedia on a list of “especially trustworthy” websites.  Wikipedia, for crying out loud.

Now you can all rest easier, knowing that your kids’ middle school research papers meet the same benchmarks as bestselling history books.

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Can academic historians get writer’s block?

Not long ago I finished reading Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing for one of my classes.  Silvia is a psychologist, and some of the book is aimed specifically at people working in that discipline, but I’d recommend it to anybody who has trouble cranking out the theses, dissertations, journal articles, and books on which our livelihood supposedly depends.

There is, however, one passage of the book with which I take issue.  It’s the part about writer’s block.  Silvia doesn’t believe in it, at least as far as academic writers are concerned (p. 45):

Academic writers cannot get writer’s block.  Don’t confuse yourself with your friends teaching creative writing in the fine arts department.  You’re not crafting a deep narrative or composing metaphors that expose mysteries of the human heart.  The subtlety of your analysis of variance will not move readers to tears, although the tediousness of it might.  People will not photocopy your reference list and pass it out to friends whom they wish to inspire.  Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement.

Writer’s block, he says, just means you’re not writing.  All you need to do is start.  It sounds pretty straightforward.  In my experience, alas, that’s not how it works.  I think we’ve all had those occasions where we’re sitting in front of the computer, ready and willing, but the words and ideas just wouldn’t come.

Academic writers have to figure out how to articulate complex ideas and abstract concepts, tie them together, organize them, and present them persuasively.  We write to solve problems and to explain to others how we’ve arrived at our solutions.  You can’t do that without a little inspiration.  You can’t even come up with the problems themselves without inspiration, without a certain spark of creativity and insight that isn’t always forthcoming.

We might not be artists, but successful writers of any sort need something to say, and they need to know how to say it.  That sort of thing isn’t always on tap, even when you’ve got the discipline to sit down at a keyboard.

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The Battle of New Orleans on the big screen


Two hundred years after the Battle of New Orleans was waged — earning it an eternal place in Louisiana history books and further burnishing Andrew Jackson’s reputation as one of America’s original action heroes — it is getting the Hollywood treatment.

In a ceremony timed to coincide with local bicentennial celebrations of the historic skirmish between American and British troops, fought in January 1814 as one of the closing salvos of the War of 1812, Hollywood producer Ken Atchity and brother Fred unveiled plans Friday (Jan. 9) for a major feature film about the battle’s place in history and Jackson’s role in it.

With a planned budget of $60 million to $65 million, the independently financed “Andrew Jackson and the Battle for New Orleans” is being targeted for a possible 2016 release, with shooting to begin as early as this summer. Envisioned by Ken Atchity as a sweeping action epic in the vein of 2000’s “The Patriot” and 1995’s Oscar-winning “Braveheart,” the film will be shot entirely within a 30-mile radius of New Orleans, he said.

A script for the film has been written, and while it will strive for historical accuracy, it will function as a mainstream Hollywood-style movie, not a “schoolroom movie.”

I’m really excited to see this happening, but as I’ve said before, what I’d really like to see is a sprawling, three-hour, Patton-esque Old Hickory biopic.  I’d start with a brief scene at the American lines on Jan. 8, 1815, zoom in on Jackson’s face as he scans the horizon for signs of the British, and then flashback to his boyhood injury at the hands of a redcoat officer during the Revolution.  Flash forward to the Dickinson duel and the run-up to the War of 1812, cover his Creek campaign, then New Orleans for the big climax.

Time permitting, I’d include the whole 1818 Florida imbroglio, and then cut to James Monroe and John Quincy Adams mulling it over and discussing the fact that the country hasn’t heard the last of Jackson…annnnd roll credits over some rousing military music.

Here’s an earlier Hollywood take on Jackson in New Orleans, with Charlton Heston as Old Hickory and Yul Brynner as Jean Lafitte in The Buccaneer (1958).  Heston was probably used to filling Jackson’s boots at that point, since he’d played the same role in The President’s Lady just a few years earlier.

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Should history books cost an arm and a leg?

Over at the always-interesting Boston 1775 blog, J.L. Bell draws our attention to an interesting new title on gossip in American history.  Unfortunately, as he notes, a copy of the book will set you back nearly a hundred bucks.

Hefty price tags aren’t unusual when it comes to academic books.  Many university press hardcovers cost upwards of forty dollars.  If you’re only going to sell a few copies of a book to large research libraries, it makes sense to slap a high price on each copy.

But what about readers who want copies of these pricey academic books?  Many of them are probably going to be academics themselves, and they can get a free book from a journal looking for a review or a complimentary desk copy from publishers who want to sell to students.  Other potential readers—grad students, bloggers, independent scholars, reenactors, and history buffs—will either have to cough up some serious dough or wait for copies to start showing up in used bookstores or on Ebay.

One of my professors refuses to submit her manuscripts to one very prominent academic publisher because their books are so expensive.  She feels an obligation to make her work accessible and useful to people beyond the academy.

If your primary concern is writing for an academic audience, or if publication is just a means to some professional end (job, tenure, promotion, accolades), then you can afford to be unconcerned about your book’s cost. But I think it’s worth asking whether historians have an obligation to do whatever they can to ensure that interested lay readers can afford their books.

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Essex on the silver screen

The trailer for Ron Howard’s film In the Heart of the Sea, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestseller of the same name, is finally out.  It’s about time somebody put the tragedy of the Essex on the big screen; it’s one of the most harrowing and incredible episodes in human history.


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The USSR was a sick Triceratops

For my America and the World course I’ve been reading We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis.  The twentieth century isn’t really my thing, but I’ve really enjoyed this book.

One of the themes running through We Now Know is that the Soviet Union operated with a number of disadvantages.  Its authoritarian structure could not create and maintain alliances as well as the democratic U.S., which was more accustomed to compromises and building coalitions.  The USSR therefore had to coerce its “allies,” whereas allies of the U.S. enjoyed more flexibility and initiative.  And since there was nobody in a position to say “no” to a Stalin or a Khrushchev, nobody could stop them when they pursued a course that was misguided, as they tended to do often.  (Gaddis notes that “there seems to have been something about authoritarians that caused them to lose touch with reality.”)

One of the few things the USSR had going for it was the appearance of military strength, which brings us to this delightful metaphor:

The end of the Cold War made it blindingly clear that military strength does not always determine the course of great events: the Soviet Union collapsed, after all, with its arms and armed forces fully intact.  Deficiencies in other kids of power—economic, ideological, cultural, moral—caused the USSR to lose its superpower status, and we can now see that a slow but steady erosion in those non-military capabilities had been going on for some time.

To visualize what happened, imagine a troubled triceratops.  From the outside,  as rivals contemplated its sheer size, tough skin, bristling armament, and aggressive posturing, the beast looked sufficiently formidable that none dared tangle with it.  Appearances deceived, though, for within its digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems were slowly clogging up, and then shutting down.  There were few external signs of this until the day the creature was found with all four feet in the air, still awesome but now bloated, stiff, and quite dead.  The moral of the fable is that armaments make impressive exoskeletons, but a shell alone ensures the survival of no animal and no state (p. 284).

Looks like she’s come down with a nasty case of perestroika, but we’ll need to check her poop to be sure. Image via

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