Wednesday, June 22, 2011


June 22, 2011:

I have just spent the better part of two days going through the files I keep of magazine and newspaper pieces I've written over the years since I began writing them in 1976, and it's been kind of mind-blowing. Wow! So many! Stuff in men's magazines on manly subjects, in women's magazines on relationships, reviews of books I've long since forgotten, long reporting pieces on the art world, pieces on American history, sports stories, pieces on child abuse and education, on human psychology, travel stories, war stories, profiles galore, and essays--personal essays--on everything from cooking to the humor pieces Lorraine and I wrote for Glamour to the death of my father. And not everything is here. Pieces are missing. For American Heritage I wrote a long piece on literacy in America, and it's not here. There are art world pieces I don't have. So there's more. And then the ethics columns I wrote for Esquire. They're not all here, either. So where are they? In this house, they could be anywhere.

I'm doing all this not out of some sort of narcissistic impulse to celebrate myself but because I would like to collect the best of the personal essays into a book, and that has become conceivable now thanks to the ebook technology that is turning the hairs on the heads of publishers gray. All I have to do is key the chosen material into my computer, send the file to Amazon, and for a few hundred bucks, much of which goes to a book designer, they'll make it available to the world. I'll then have to publicize it myself, but for that I only need a website, and some help from my friends. and a considerable amount of luck. Or so I tell myself. But whatever happens, I will have gotten it out there, made a move to preserve it, because a certain amount of it is worth preserving. I say that without any false modesty whatsoever. I was good. That's the most amazing thing that has come out of this experience, to see just how good I was, and sometimes still am. And how can you not feel happy about doing something really well?

But it all came to nothing. Magazine careers are peculiar that way. Nobody pays much attention to the bylines in magazines unless you're writing for Vanity Fair or the New Yorker or a place like that, and I never did. It has been the most miscellaneous career, a career scrambling from magazine to magazine as one would fold and another launch, or the editors who were my friends would leave or be fired, or I would get bored writing about stuff in which I didn't have a whole lot of interest in the first place. I was a fox, not a hedgehog. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing, and it is the hedgehog, with his monomania, who generally makes a lasting name for himself. But the regret is minor. I loved researching and writing about the art world, for example; I was writing for the late Thomas Hoving at Connoisseur and he taught me where to look to find the bodies, the innumberable scandals, large and small, the fakes and forgeries, how to smuggle statuary out of Italy (which he personally did), who were the good guys and who the bad, and it was non-stop fun. But then Connoisseur folded, thanks partly to Hoving's extravagant ways with his own expenses, so I wound up at Men's Journal writing profiles and their book review column, followed that editor to National Geographic Adventure, and so on and so forth until the book column shrank to half a page and the magazine itself died.

So it had been with American Heritage; so it had been with Psychology Today; so with half a dozen others. Versatile--you had to be really, really versatile in this business to survive. So I got to be versatile, and it became difficult to write books, which requires the skills of a hedgehog, which, as I say, get you remembered.

Well, versatility is going to put me in ebooks. I'll still write the normal kind, paper and ink, but no print publisher in his right mind would reprint my personal essays. I don't have that kind of name. Very few writers do any more. The whole business of writing has changed as the market has morphed and realigned and shrunk, and fewer and fewer people read outside the bestseller list, and publishers run scared. But it is a business and you gotta keep up with it. So here I am writing a blog, which I began well over a year ago strictly for my own pleasure and because if I'm not writing I might as well swim over the horizon, and blogs were unthinkable ten years ago; and then I took it public so anybody could read it. Now ebooks are rapidly taking a larger and larger share of the market, and the only thing to do is to go there, too. As my daughter says, you have to keep writing, Dad. It's the only part of you that has any chance of surviving.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


June 15, 2011:

Today's New York Times reports that "American students are less proficient in their nation's history than in any other subject." Proficiency declines, furthermore, as students reach high school; in fourth grade 20 percent are proficient, in middle school 17 percent are, while only 12 percent of high school seniors are. And Sarah Palin thinks that Paul Revere rode to warn the British that the Americans were coming, while her followers tried to change the Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere to support her ignorance of what actually happened.

OK, I'm a historian. It's predictable that I would find this, of all the items in today's news, by far the most alarming. But I just finished writing a piece for a history magazine about the two wars the United States fought in the early 1800s against the Barbary regencies in North Africa, which had been engaging in systematic, wholesale piracy against European shipping in the Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic since the sixteenth century. The United States, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, who hated the system of legalized bribery by which the European powers paid these regencies not to attack their shipping, was the first commercial nation to decide to wage war against them instead of paying tribute to them, thereby setting a precedent for American foreign policy that remains in force to this day.

Is it useful to know this? I would argue that for American diplomats and American leaders, the people who have to deal with the wider world on a daily basis, it is essential. The context of events is what gives them their meaning, what saves them from seeming random and chaotic and beyond our grasp. History IS context. To handle a negotiation with Libya, say--the first of these two wars was fought with Tripoli, now the capital of Libya--and not to know the context, the background, the continuity of U. S. relations with the country, would be stupid in the extreme. I'm confident that Obama knows that history and that context pretty well, and so does the State Department. But does Sarah Palin?

You cannot become a citizen of the United States without knowing its history. You have to pass a test in it. I would guess that most newly minted citizens know far more of it than most high school graduates. If you know history, so much that seems irrational about American atitudes begins, if not to make sense, at least to have context. You would know, for example, that the American opposition to, indeed hatred for, taxes is as old as the American Revolution, that Thomas Jefferson shared that antipathy, and that he had to go against his own ideological disposition to build the navy that defeated the Barbary pirates. He had to change his mind. Jefferson made a point of knowing history. When he was serving as American minister to France in the 1780s he built the largest collection in the country of rare books relating to America and its history. He had a copy of the Koran in his library as well, and read it. He read the classical historians in their original languages, Greek and Latin.

George Bush couldn't locate Afghanistan on a map when he took office. Sarah Palin knew all about Russia because she could see it from her kitchen window.

If you don't know history, the world that surrounds you is largely a mystery, and you will wind up believing all sorts of things about it that simply aren't true. You will live in the myth/world inside your head: that everybody in the world wants what we want. That we are an essentially peace-loving people. That our enterprise is "free." That the playing field is level. That we are not racists. That America provides more opportunity than anywhere else.

All of these statements are demonstrably false, and have been from the beginning of American history. It's not that America is a bad country; it's that America is like most of the rest of the world, the product of a highly contentious, complicated, contradictory past, full of strife, laced here and there by brief periods of relative calm. Once you understand this, you can shed your illusions and begin to deal with America as it really is. The study of American history is obviously essential to this process. History is one source of prudence, forethought, tolerance and wisdom. Without it we doom ourselves to ignorance, to ever more strident ideological conflict, and to cultural and economic decline, all of it fed by myths about who we really are.

A little more than one-tenth of American high school seniors have enough knowledge of American history to qualify as whatever the National Assessment of Educational Progress defines as proficient.

No wonder Sarah Palin feels so much at home here. She knows nobody is going to care that she knows so little about Paul Revere.