Have you ever memorized a poem just because you loved it? To commemorate National Poetry Month, Dr. Deaton in this Dispatch considers the power of poetry to evoke the beauty and tragedy of life as no other literary style can–and recites his personal favorite.
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Dred Scott: The Worst Supreme Court Decision Ever?
In this Dispatch, Dr. Deaton discusses the case of an enslaved man, Dred Scott, whose pursuit of freedom went all the way to the Supreme Court–and helped cause the Civil War.
Climbing Mount Nevins
Fifty years ago this week, on March 5, 1971, historian Allan Nevins died in Menlo Park, California, at the age of 80. Nevins was one of the most influential and prolific historians ever, the author of so many books, articles, essays, and reviews, that no one really knows exactly how prolific he was. He is best remembered now as the author of the 8-volume work known collectively as Ordeal of the Union, a history of the United States from 1847 through 1865, covering the period from the end of the Mexican War through Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
I confess to being fascinated by Allan Nevins since I first came across a short tribute to him written by another historian, Ray Allan Billington, as a preface to a volume of Nevins’ essays published after his death, Allan Nevins on History. If history ever had an honest-to-goodness ambassador, an enthusiast par excellence, Nevins was it. He lived and breathed the subject as perhaps no one else ever did, and his enthusiasm captured my young imagination—and still does all these years later. He was a fierce advocate for good, readable history, written for that elusive Every Man and Every Woman, not for the specialist or the academic. He always was, in the best sense of the word, a public historian. Above all, he loved and collected books, a man after my own heart.
It was that love of books that first interested my younger self in Allan Nevins, just starting to get seriously interested in history and building my own library. At dear old Oxford Too, that cavernous and now-defunct used-bookstore in Atlanta, I came across a copy of Nevins’ classic The Gateway to History (1962). The essays within were historiographical and bibliographical gems (even though I didn’t know what those words meant then) with titles like “A Proud Word for History,” “Literary Aspects of History,” and “The Reading of History.” Every page dripped with Nevins’ passion for readable, clear history and his wide and deep knowledge of authors and books. I was hooked; I still have that book and have read it to tatters.
As a third-year student at the University of Georgia, I joined the History Book Club and as a gift for joining received all 8 volumes of Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union, published between 1947 and 1971. I put them on my shelves and there they remained for years, set aside for that day when I’d have more leisure time, when the required reading of graduate school and then professional obligations were past. Finally, just last year during the pandemic, 35 years later, I pulled down the first volume and am currently finishing the second.
The work is divided into three different series: Ordeal of the Union, covering 1847-1856 (2 volumes); The Emergence of Lincoln, 1857-1861 (2 volumes), and The War for the Union, 1861-1865 (4 volumes). As Gary Gallagher has noted, they are outstanding works of scholarship and literature, covering a vast canvas of American political, economic, diplomatic, social, and military history. The sweep is enormous, the research voluminous, the writing clear and penetrating. The first two volumes won the prestigious Bancroft Prize and the last two earned Nevins posthumously the National Book Award. If Nevins had done nothing else, these 8 volumes would be a monumental literary legacy of enduring fame.
But these volumes hardly scratch the surface of Mount Nevins. Indeed, to give his bare-bones biography hardly does him justice. He was born in Camp Point, Illinois, in 1890 to a hard-working Scots Presbyterian farmer and his Irish wife. Nevins later joked that he never really worked hard a day in his life after he left that farm. His father had a library of 500 volumes on which Nevins cut his intellectual, and from that point forward he became an indefatigable reader and collector of books.
Nevins graduated with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Illinois, and that was the end of his formal education. He never received the union card of the professional historian, the Ph.D., in part, it was later said, because nobody knew enough to question him during the oral examinations. He published his first book at age 24 and never stopped writing and publishing, despite working day jobs for several New York newspapers and then teaching full-time at Cornell University and then Columbia.
As best as anyone can figure, Nevins wrote upwards of 50 books, edited about 100 more, and perhaps penned a thousand articles and essays over a career that spanned 57 years. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice. Even more impressive, he won them for biographies of two historical figures that you’d avoid unless you lost a bet: Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president, and Hamilton Fish, governor of New York, US Senator, and Grant’s Secretary of State. He also wrote major biographies of John C. Fremont, John D. Rockefeller (2 volumes), Henry Ford (3 volumes), Henry White, Abram Hewitt, and Herbert Lehman. Dip into any of them and you’ll find that, as in all of his books, the research is meticulous and exhaustive, the writing flawless.
Besides biographies, Nevins wrote a history of the New York Evening Post, of the American States During and After the American Revolution, of The Emergence of Modern America, a volume on American Press Opinions from Washington to Coolidge, a history of political cartoons, an edited collection of several volumes of editorials by journalist Walter Lippman, two volumes on American foreign policy, other smaller volumes too numerous to count, as well as the aforementioned 8 volumes of the Ordeal of the Union. I won’t even begin to list all the other works he edited.
In addition to teaching full-time and writing all those books, Nevins oversaw about 100 doctoral dissertations at Columbia, wrote a never-ending stream of book reviews, articles, and essays for publications far and wide, contributed dozens of entries to the Dictionary of American Biography, founded the first Oral History program in the nation at Columbia in 1948, amassed manuscript collections for the Columbia library, all while keeping up a prodigious correspondence of more than 12,000 letters during his lifetime.
As they say in the late-night commercials, but wait, there’s more: During World War II he served as special representative of the Office of War Information in Australia and New Zealand in 1943-1944, and in 1945-1946 worked in London as chief public affairs officer at the American embassy. He also served two stints as Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University, as well as terms as president of the American Historical Association, the Society of American Historians, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also was instrumental in founding American Heritage magazine, to reach an even larger audience of general readers interested in history.
And that’s not all: for 19 years, from 1938 to 1957, Nevins hosted a 15-minute radio show called “Adventures in Science,” which covered a wide variety of medical and scientific topics. When television arrived, he took to that medium as well. He served on government commissions, wrote speeches for presidents, and continued to write for national publications, always reaching a wide audience far beyond the academy. He had a lifelong disdain for those whom he called “pedants,” exemplified in his mythical “Professor Dryasdust” who was concerned only with talking to other academics in unreadable jargon.
After he officially “retired” from Columbia in 1958, Nevins became a senior researcher at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, wrote an introduction for John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, chaired the national Civil War Centennial Commission from 1961-1966, edited the 15-volume Civil War Impact series, and continued to publish, even after a crippling stroke meant re-learning how to type. He worked nearly to the end and published the last volumes of Ordeal of the Union in the year of his death.
His love of history went beyond his own teaching and writing, however: In 1965, Nevins gave Columbia University $500,000 to endow a chair in economic history, though he never made more in salary than $11,500 annually. His Scots’ upbringing had served him well—he pinched pennies and invested book royalties wisely.
When did he eat and sleep, and where did he get that energy? Missing from the articles written by and about him is anything about his routine and his work habits, how he managed to squeeze out so much productivity in a 24-hour day, for so many years on end. No less than publisher Alfred A. Knopf described Nevins as “the most industrious and hardworking man of my acquaintance.”
Though he worked 12-hour days routinely, by all accounts he was a good and attentive father to his two daughters (whom he affectionately called “Pudge” and “Cub”), even if he did take his wife to Civil War battlefields on their honeymoon. Douglas Southall Freeman’s Spartan schedule—getting up at 2:30 in the morning, writing for hours in his attic study before going to work, rigorously curtailing his social engagements—was lionized even in his own lifetime, but Nevins’ remains a mystery. Still, stories and anecdotes about him are legion.
This from Billington’s essay, “Allan Nevins, Historian, A Personal Reminiscence”: “Life to him was a continuous race against time, with every second so precious that it must be used for productive purposes. Those who knew him during his years at Columbia recall his frantic dash to or from the subway each day, his arms laden with books and a portable typewriter, his short legs chopping the ground, a graduate student panting at his side seeking word on a freshly finished chapter of a doctoral dissertation. At the Huntington Library, after he had reached an age that slows most men, Allan slackened not one whit. His entrance each morning was a spectacular event; he came laden with a briefcase bulging with work done the night before, his arms heavy with books and manuscripts. The elevator to the second floor was too slow; his steps pounded up the stairs at breakneck speed; he sprinted down the hall to his office.” Time was so precious to him that he was overheard telling his secretary one morning, “I got up this morning thinking it was Thursday. Mary [his wife] told me it was only Wednesday. I’ve gained a whole day.”
Clocks at the Huntington were kept five minutes fast in order to get Nevins out of the building each day before it closed.
To no one’s surprise, he was notoriously absent-minded: Witnesses said he forgot his own son-in-law’s name; he once arrived at work wearing two neckties, one on top of the other; and lunch guests were kept waiting so long while he finished one more sentence that it was not unusual for them to give up and eat without him. He once gave a tour of his home to two visiting young ladies, reached the door of his study, announced, “this is where I work,” sat down at his typewriter and forgot his guests entirely. After an awkward few minutes, they found their way out and left. Cocktail parties at the Nevins home were always presided over by Mary Nevins, until Allan came bounding down the steps, frantically putting on his jacket and breathlessly welcoming his guests.
It wasn’t unusual after dinner for him to offer tours to those who wanted “to see my books,” as he led visitors around his book-crammed rooms, including the bathroom, where he opened a medicine cabinet with two of three shelves lined with books. “I want to show you an example of Mrs. Nevins’ tyranny,” he complained, pointing, “She will not give me that shelf.” He had books everywhere—a vast collection in his office at Columbia, several thousand in a farmhouse in Connecticut, and stacked floor to ceiling in his 3-car garage after he moved to California. He once feared that the 15,000 in his New York home would cause the second floor to collapse. Like a true bibliophile, Nevins kept buying books and remained a voracious reader to the end.
The end came 50 years ago this week in a nursing home in Menlo Park, California. After a crippling coronary and a paralytic stroke, Allan Nevins died at age 80 on Friday, March 5, 1971. His obituary was carried on the front page of the New York Times, a rare tribute for a writer of history. Bruce Catton, no slouch writer himself, called Nevins “one of the very greatest historians we have ever had.” He was buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
Arnold Bennett wrote that all authors, whether of history, poetry, fiction, or biography, all have one thing in common: they are all trying to capture something beautiful and emotional in their writing. Death finally ended Allan Nevins’ insatiable curiosity about every aspect of the American past, but his unquenchable desire, his passion to make history understandable, readable, and ultimately relevant and useful to all the rest of us is still there for those who care to discover it. Nevins has been gone for a half century, but Mount Nevins remains.
There is a story that President Kennedy hosted a meeting in the White House that included Nevins. When the meeting ended, Kennedy put his hands on Nevins’ head and said, “God, I wish I had that brain.”
One Giant Leap
Douglas Brinkley, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race (Harper Collins, 2019, 548 pp.)
Since humans first crawled out of the primordial soup millions of years ago, they have gazed up at the moon in the night sky and dreamed of what it was like. Only 24 people–all men–have ever been there. Twelve of them walked on it.
With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this summer, I thought I’d check out Douglas Brinkley’s new book on that historic event. Your favorite blogger reviewed Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite a few years ago [Cronkite was a space junkie], and this new book seemed a natural with all the fuss over the moonshot anniversary.
Despite the title, American Moonshot is not a history of the space program or of Apollo 11, but is instead a history of JFK’s leadership of the program up until his death. It is very thorough through the Mercury program, less so for Gemini or Apollo.
Still, the book is a goldmine of information and insights, as you’ll see below. And Brinkley makes clear that without JFK’s single-minded devotion to space exploration, the great events of July 1969 would never have happened.
As I watched the commemorations of Apollo 11 this summer, I was deeply moved once again by the tremendous courage of the astronauts, from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo. They willingly placed themselves on top of rockets that could have blown them to bits; they could have been sent into orbit and never returned, or they could have been stranded on the moon to die very lonely deaths. Their country called them and they answered, in the name of science, exploration, duty, and Cold War patriotism.
Still, the thing that I can’t help wondering about the moon landing of 1969 is the dramatic impact it had on everyone at the time–President Nixon called it “the greatest week in the history of the world since creation”–and how little of that effect seems to have lingered across the years. The space shuttle program gave NASA a boost in the 1980s (at least until the Challenger disaster) but when’s the last time you talked to someone who dreamed of being an astronaut when they grow up?
Has anything ever seemed so momentous at the time that has arguably had so little impact on the world now? Was all the sacrifice and billions spent to get there ultimately worth it?
I think it was, but a lot people then and now disagree, perhaps most famously Gil Scott Heron in his 1970 song, “Whitey on the Moon”:
“I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)
The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)”
To be sure, as Walter Isaacson pointed out, while working to solve the problems of manned spaceflight, NASA laid the foundations for all kinds of modern technology, to wit: satellite TV, GPS systems, microchips, virtual reality technology, solar panels, carbon monoxide detectors, cordless power tools, bar coding, even the Dustbuster.
Research into space medicine contributed to radiation therapy for treating cancer, foldable walkers, personal alert systems, CAT and MRI scans, muscle stimulant devices, advanced types of kidney dialysis machines, and many others.
What NASA didn’t invent: Teflon (developed by DuPont in 1941), Velcro (invented in 1941 by a Swiss engineer to remove burrs stuck in his dog’s fur), or Tang (1957).
Rather than reviewing Brinkley’s book in detail, I thought it might be fun to provide you with a bulleted list of some of the things I learned that I didn’t know before. What follows is another list in the ever-popular feature known as
Fun Facts Known by Few
- Jules Verne, writing in the 1860s, predicted that the United States would beat Russia to the moon, that the voyage would be launched from Florida, and that it would take four days–all of which turned out to be true.
- Theodore Roosevelt (no longer in office) was the first president to fly in a plane, October 11, 1910. The first sitting president to fly was FDR, January 14, 1943.
- In a 1920 headline, the New York Times famously lampooned Robert Goddard’s idea of a rocket being able to operate in a space vacuum. After Apollo 11 landed on the moon 49 years later, the Times famously issued a public retraction.
- Brinkley pulls no punches on former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun: “NASA was lucky to have a rocket engineer as talented as von Braun to work on Apollo. But he shouldn’t be remembered as an American hero. His direct role in the Nazi concentration camp labor programs, where thousands perished under inhumane conditions, makes him a pariah figure of sorts”
- Following his success with the Nazi V-2, von Braun worked to design the first trans-Atlantic ballistic missile, which Hitler wanted to use to attack New York, Washington, and Boston. It was called “Projekt Amerika.”
- A Nazi V-2 rocket launched on October 3, 1942, broke the sound barrier and traveled to an altitude of 52 miles, reaching the ionosphere and marking the first time in history that a man-made object had technically ever flown beyond Earth’s atmosphere. On June 22, 1944, another V-2 became the first man-made object to reach outer space.
- Hitler’s commitment to the V-2 rocket meant that Nazi rocket engineers would work on and solve many of the problems of space flight that ultimately helped to speed up the moon landing by decades.
- JFK enrolled at Embry-Riddle Seaplane Base in Miami in 1944 to learn to fly; his flight log confirming this was not discovered until 2018.
- In 1946, the Army Signal Corps bounced radio waves off the moon and received the reflected signals back, proving that radio transmissions through space and back to Earth were possible. This would be crucial for space exploration.
- On September 14, 1961, the Soviets unmanned Luna-2 spacecraft crash-landed on the moon, becoming the first man-made device to touch another planetary body.
- When the first Atlas rocket that would launch the Mercury astronauts into space exploded just after liftoff during its first test, astronaut Alan Shepard quipped, “Well, I’m glad they got that out of the way.”
- In 1961, as planning for Apollo began, NASA identified more than 10,000 separate tasks that had to be accomplished to put a man on the moon.
- Alan Shepard was the first American in space aboard Freedom 7 in 1961 and is the oldest man to have walked on the moon, as commander of Apollo 14 in 1971. He was 47.
- A reporter asked Shepard what his thoughts were as he sat waiting on the launch pad aboard Freedom 7. His reply: “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder.”
- In 1999, the Liberty Bell 7 was discovered and recovered from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, 16,000 feet below the surface, almost 38 years to the day after Gus Grissom splash landed on July 21, 1961.
- The Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who piloted the Vostok 2 at age 25 in August 1961, was the youngest person ever to fly in space. He died in 2000, age 65.
- In April 1962, JFK had a 79% approval rating as president. Only 12% disapproved of his performance.
- JFK’s favorite beer was Heineken
- Cape Canaveral flight director Chris Kraft thought astronaut Scott Carpenter performed horribly aboard Aurora 7 in May 1962, talking to himself, peering out the porthole, and ignoring NASA requests to check his instruments: “I swore an oath that Scott Carpenter would never fly again.” He didn’t. Kraft died July 22, 2019, age 95, two days after the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
- Dr. William Lovelace II, an aeromedicine pioneer who chaired the Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, believed that women were physiologically better equipped for space travel than men. In 1959 he invited American aviator Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb to take the same tests as the Mercury astronauts, along with 18 other female aviators. They graduated with flying colors and the those at the top became known as the “Mercury 13,” ranging in age from 23 to 41. When NASA got wind of it, they shut the entire program down: “Since there is no shortage of qualified male candidates, there is no need to train women for space flight.” John Glenn came out publicly against the program as well. The next year, the Soviets did what the Americans wouldn’t, making Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space, in June 1963. She orbited the Earth 48 times and remains the only woman to have been on a solo space mission. It would take the Americans 20 more years to send Sally Ride into space aboard the Challenger in 1983.
- During NASA’s heyday between 1964 and 1969, the space agency employed 36,000 people, hired 400,000 contractors, and operated facilities worth $3.65 billion.
- President Dwight D. Eisenhower always derided the frantic moon-shot efforts as an unnecessary and expensive Cold-War stunt. He died on March 28, 1969, nearly 4 months before Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon.
- Jackie Kennedy sent Wernher von Braun a note two months after JFK’s death, lamenting that her late husband was “at least given time to do some great work on this earth, which now seems such a miserable and lonely place without him.”
- As the Apollo 11 launch approached, former LBJ Press Secretary Bill Moyers and future Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan lobbied the Nixon administration to name the spacecraft the John F. Kennedy. Nixon refused and did not mention JFK in the days before or after the moon landing.
- 528 million people around the world watched the moon landing on television.
- Neil Armstrong took a fragment of the Wright brothers’ famous Kitty Hawk plane with him on Apollo 11, linking man’s first successful flight with the first moon landing.
- A total of 12 men have walked on the moon, all between July 1969 and December 1972. Four of them are still alive: Buzz Aldrin, Harrison Schmidt, Charles Duke, and David Scott. NASA has pledged to put a woman on the moon as part of Artemis by 2024.
Finally, perhaps my favorite story of all: just before climbing back into the Eagle and leaving the moon for the last time, Neil Armstrong reminded Buzz Aldrin to leave behind some NASA-sanctioned mementos he had brought with him. Aldrin reached into his shoulder packet and pulled out a package containing four items: two medals honoring Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin–the first human to orbit the Earth–and Vladimir Komarov, both of whom were killed in separate 1967 accidents; an Apollo 1 patch that memorialized Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, all killed in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967.
These were fitting tributes and recognition, deep in the midst of the Cold War, of the courage and sacrifice of their American and Soviet colleagues, upon whose shoulders they stood.
The last item was an olive-branch pin, symbolizing that the Apollo 11 astronauts had “come in peace for all mankind.”
Aldrin bent down and laid the package on the lunar surface. It’s still there.
The next time you look up at the moon, think of that small bag, and reflect a moment on all that it symbolizes, and on the giant leap it took to place it there.
The Greatest Novel Ever Written?
Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1. The C. Scott Moncrieff Translation, Edited and Annotated by William C. Carter (1913; rpt. Yale University Press, 2013, 487 pp.)
“What are you reading these days, Stan?”
Let’s face it, one of the best reasons for reading an author like Marcel Proust is being able to tell people that you’re reading an author like Marcel Proust. To get the full effect, you should be wearing a bow tie, adjusting your monocle, and holding a pipe.
While I was reading Proust, I had no less than three occasions to tell inquiring minds that I was reading Proust, just as if I’d tee’d it up myself. Even without the bow tie, monocle, or pipe the effect remained the same: the questioner seemed impressed, slightly bemused, or downright baffled by my choice of summer reading. Responses ranged from “Hmm, something heavy,” to “A little light reading, huh?” to “Who?”
My own response might be, “Why?”
The reason, of course, is that Proust is one of those writers, like James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe, that usually show up on the list of 20th-century authors who are “must-reads.” But are they really? You began to wonder once you start reading their books. Their writing can seem like trying to climb the literary Mount Everest–forbidding, daunting, and, yes, even unreadable. Who hasn’t cracked open Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and wondered, what the hell is even going on here?
In Search of Lost Time is made up of not one but seven volumes, of which Swann’s Way is the first. Proust published it at his own expense in 1913; he published two more volumes before his death in 1922 and the last four were published posthumously between 1923 and 1927.
“This is the longest first-rate novel ever written. Its difficulties, like its rewards, are vast. If you respond to it at all (many do not) you may feel quite justified in spending what time you can spare over the next five or ten years making it a part of your interior world.” So wrote Clifton Fadiman in his essay on Proust in The Lifetime Reading Plan nearly 60 years ago. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls it “one of the most profound achievements of the human imagination.” All of this is still true.
What is this book about? In 1909 Proust experienced a moment that perhaps you’ve shared: the involuntary recall of a childhood memory. It happened through the act of eating a piece of bread dipped in tea. Struck by the impact of it, he committed the rest of his life to writing a novel about recapturing lost time, the vanished past that gives our lives beauty and meaning. The novel was formerly referred to as Remembrance of Things Past.
Sometimes it’s heavy sledding, and sometimes not. The prose is famously beautiful, but, as Fadiman says, Proust can analyze “with intolerable exhaustiveness” and you may agree with him and other critics that the book is “less like a narrative than a symphony.” Proust could challenge Henry James for sentences that go on for days, but for all the underbrush, when you do come upon a clearance the views are indeed magnificent.
To say that there is a Proust cult would be an understatement. Shelby Foote–he of Civil War and Ken Burns fame–read all seven volumes at least nine times in his life and considered him second only to Shakespeare among writers. Alan Jacobs in The Pleasure of Reading in the Age of Distraction (Oxford, 2011) wrote that one of his high school teachers affirmed that she read the entire seven volumes every summer “because the book was so great, and so deep, and so subtle that she always found something new in it, always had more to learn about it and through it.” Yale University Press is in the midst of publishing new editions of the C. Scott Moncrieff translation, edited and annotated by the renowned Proust scholar and biographer William C. Carter.
There seem to be three schools of thought on this tome: that it’s the greatest novel in the world; that it’s unreadable; or, finally, that it’s mammoth but minor. To which of these do I subscribe after finishing the first volume?
I did not find it unreadable, though I can definitely say that at times I felt like the proverbial buyer who wanders in but is “just looking around”–I wasn’t always sure what was going on but I admired everything and just kept moving. At this point I wouldn’t call it the greatest novel ever written, but give me another year and I’ll be ready to tackle the next volume.
If Proust really is better than Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen, Hugo, Dumas, or a host of others, he will be a mountain well worth climbing.
Check back with me in about ten years.