Category Archives: Academics

The Freshest Advices, May 10, 2024

Hello again. It’s been 8 months since I’ve written in this space (not counting two editorials), so it’s good to be back in between podcasts and other duties as assigned. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Baseball, and Trying to Watch Baseball: The Beloved Braves got off to a hot start, despite losing Spencer Strider for the year, but at this moment they’ve cooled off considerably and let the Hated Phillies (HPs) catch and pass them in the standings. We’re now looking up at the HPs from second place. I doubt that will hold for the season, but if it does, I’m fine with that. Maybe we can reverse the trend from the last two years and go into the postseason as a Wild Card team, make the HPs sit around for a week as their reward for winning the division, and then beat them in the best-of-five second round. Between now and then, we will pray to Hermes, the Greek god of coaxial cable, that Comcast and Bally Sports can work out their problems so that long-suffering fans can actually watch the team again. More than any other league, Major League Baseball makes it incredibly difficult to actually watch the sport. From regional sports networks like Bally that are forever fighting with carriers Comcast and DirecTV, to Friday games on Apple TV, Saturday games on Fox or FS1, Sunday games on ESPN, and whatever games aren’t blacked-out in your region on the expensive MLB app, baseball can be harder to find than Uncle Pootsie’s dentures. Of course, if the Braves continue to play like they did in Los Angeles last weekend, we’ll pay Comcast to keep them off the air and set fire to our remotes in protest. Stay tuned.

Books, Books, and Books: If you’ve been listening to the recent Off the Deaton Path podcasts—and of course you have—then you know I’ve read some great books this year: Michael Thurmond’s new take on Georgia founder James Oglethorpe, Jerry Grillo’s biography of Johnny Mize, the Big Cat, David Henkin’s fascinating exploration of the origins of The Week, Pulitzer-Prize winner David Blight’s uncovering the unexpected history of Yale and Slavery, John O’Connor’s Secret History of Bigfoot, Clayton Trutor’s award-winning Loserville, and Elizabeth Varon’s pathbreaking biography of Confederate general James Longstreet.

What else have I been reading in 2024? The history of the British monarchy fascinates me—as does the death of famous people—and Dr. Suzie Edge has become a Tik-Tok star because of her incredible knowledge on the history of the Royals and all the horrible ways they’ve died. Check out her recent Mortal Monarchs: 1,000 Years of Royal Deaths.

Staying with the theme, if, like me, you’ve always wanted to get a peek behind the curtain at your local funeral home—or even if you haven’t—I highly recommend Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons From the Crematory. Yes, it’s every bit as gruesome as you’d think but endlessly fascinating.

Speaking of gruesome, who knew that Joseph Stalin, in addition to being one of the most vicious tyrants in world history, was also a voracious reader? And he wrote in his books, many of which have survived and are preserved in Moscow. It’s all detailed in Geoffrey Roberts’s Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books.

Speaking of Stalin, I also read The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy’s 1952 Joseph McCarthy-era campus novel that a recent New York Times article proclaimed as the novel that explains the current crisis in American higher education. To quote from the NYT: “Every squawking buzzard in American public life — every quarrel about race, class, sex, foreign policy, pronoun usage — takes wing from or comes home to roost on campus. The crisis is permanent, structural, a feature of the conflicting expectations we impose on our schools. There is a vast body of scholarship to explain why this is so. Academia is a serious place, and it takes itself seriously. But it is also, like Hollywood or Washington, profoundly ridiculous — the kind of symbolically overburdened, sociologically peculiar environment that can only really be understood through satire. Luckily, we have an entire literary subgenre, the campus novel, to fulfill that requirement.”

McCarthy’s book is one very notable contribution to that subgenre and it captures the anti-Communist frenzy of the early 50s quite well. My favorite campus novel remains 1954’s Lucky Jim by Kinglsey Amis.

A strong runner-up, however, also read recently, has to be Julie Schumacher’s hilariously funny Dear Committee Trilogy: Dear Committee Members, The Shakespeare Requirement, and The English Experience. The trilogy follows the travails of Jason Fitger, a sad sack, rumpled aging professor and chair of creative writing and literature at Payne University, “a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the Midwest.” For all that our college campuses are ground zero for the country’s culture wars, Schumacher’s trio of books will give you a cringe-worthy too-real-for-comfort look at the smallness and silliness of cut-throat university politics and the personalities that engage in them.

Speaking of campus politics in popular culture, check out Lucky Hank, an 8-part TV series that aired on AMC last spring and again this winter. It starred Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Better Caul Saul) as Hank Devereaux, the English department chair at a small Pennsylvania college, based on Richard Russo’s 1997 novel, Straight Man. The casting was spot-on (watch for Tom Bower, who played Mary Ellen Walton’s husband Kirk on The Waltons 45 years ago, as Hank Devereux Sr.) and the acting brilliant, perfectly capturing the personalities at play in the modern academy. I haven’t read Russo’s book, so I’ve no idea how faithful the show was to it, but we’ll save the subject of turning books into other mediums—or using another author’s book as the basis for your own—for another blog post.

Okay, maybe just a little bit about books adapted into movies. I recently re-read Richard Adams’s Watership Down, first published in 1972 and then turned into a 1978 animated film, a 1999-2001 TV series, and a 2018 animated re-boot. I haven’t watched any of them and probably won’t, because I love the book too much as a book to have it filtered through another lens. I first read this novel in Ms. Hewitt’s 11th-grade literature class at South Gwinnett High School in 1981 (God bless you, Ms. Hewitt, wherever you are), and re-read it two years later after my first year at UGA. The novel had a huge impact on me at that time, and I’ve hesitated to re-read it as a full-blown adult for fear I would find the whole story disappointing and not what I remembered. Turns out, the opposite is true—the book spoke to me much more now, 40+ years later, than it did then, sometimes in profoundly moving ways. This is the power of re-reading: the book hasn’t changed, but you have, and what you bring to it has altered, matured (hopefully), and deepened with the passage of time. In all likelihood, I’ll read it again in 10 years, if not before.

Great Books: Just recently I finished reading Montaigne’s Essays. Michel de Montaigne was the famous 16th-century Frenchman who practically invented the literary form we know today as the essay. Writing in his famous tower almost 450 years ago, Montaigne wrote mainly about himself—his mantra being “What do I know?”—and in so doing he wrote about all of us as well. Sarah Bakewell, in her award-winning 2012 book, How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer described it this way: “The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. . . thousands of individuals fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention. They go on about themselves; they diarize and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do. Uninhibitedly extrovert, they also look inward as never before. Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of the self. . .By describing what makes them different from anyone else, the contributors reveal what they share with everyone else: the experience of being human. This idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity—has not existed forever. It had to be invented….it can be traced to one person: Michel de Montaigne.”

The essays are at once easy and difficult to describe. Montaigne set about examining his interior life in 107 essays that have titles like “Of Friendship,” “Of Liars,” “Of the power of the imagination,” “Of drunkenness,” “Of books.” As Clifton Fadiman described them in The Lifetime Reading Plan, “They are formless, they rarely stick to the announced subject.” In fact, Montaigne may start off writing about the subject in the title of the essay, and then for the next dozen pages he may write about body odors, strange people who turn up at his house, the way his servants talk, or how he can’t eat certain foods. One essay that is ostensibly about the Roman poet Virgil discusses the size of Montaigne’s sexual organs and the pros and cons of marriage. They are literally all over the map, and loaded with quotations from his other reading, usually the ancient Greeks and Romans. Fadiman again: “Montaigne is not only the first informal essayist but incomparably the best. He writes as if he were continually enjoying himself, his weaknesses and oddities and stupidities no less than his virtues.”

All of which is why he’s read as avidly today as he was in his own time. The Essays went through multiple editions in French in Montaigne’s own lifetime and were first translated into English by John Florio in 1603. Readers have included Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley. Quoting the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Voltaire and Denis Diderot saw in him a precursor of the free thought of the Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau rightly considered Montaigne the master and the model of the self-portrait. Flaubert kept the Essays on his bedside table and recognized in Montaigne an alter ego.” Many others still do right up to the present day.

Here are some of his bon mots:

“I used to mark the burdensome and gloomy days as extraordinary. Those are now my ordinary ones; the extraordinary are the fine serene ones.”

“It is a rare life that remains well ordered even in private.”

“I set little value on my opinions, but I set just as little on those of others.”

“Old age puts more wrinkles in our minds than on our faces.”

“I am all in the open and in full view, born for company and friendship.”

“It is impossible to discuss things in good faith with a fool.”

“If you do not know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you, don’t bother your head about it.”

“If your doctor does not think it good for you to sleep, to drink wine, or to eat such-and-such a food, don’t worry; I’ll find you another who will not agree with him.”

“On the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting on our own rump.”

I suggest Donald Frame’s translation, first published in 1958. The Essays are broken up into three “Books” that run to well over 800 pages. You need not read them from start to finish; as Fadiman noted, “you may wander about almost at will in Montaigne. He should be read as he wrote, unsystematically.” Alas, I’m too structured for that—I read one Book each year over the last three years, consuming the elephant in small bites.

However you decide to read him, I highly recommend making Montaigne and his Essays a part of your life, slowly, over a number of months or years. Consume him at your leisure, the way Fadiman suggests. You’ll discover, as so many others have over the last 400+ years, a kindred spirit who “appeals to that part of us more fascinated by the questions than the answers.”

Pulitzer Prizes: Finally, the 2024 Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week, and hurrahs are due to Director Lisa Bayer and the University of Georgia Press, publishers of this year’s winner for poetry, Tripas: Poems, by Brandon Som. Anytime a university press publishes a Pulitzer winner it’s a big deal, and when the winners are published by our good friends at UGA Press, it’s even better. Congratulations, one and all.

Stay safe, and until next time, thank you for reading.

Podcast S7E11: David Blight on Yale and Slavery, History and Memory

How do we hold institutions accountable for the sins of the past? In this podcast, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Blight of Yale University talks with Stan about his latest book, Yale and Slavery: A History, and how he and a team of researchers uncovered Yale’s historical involvement with slavery, the slave trade, abolition, and Jim Crow—and the important role that slavery played in the creation of one of America’s most renowned institutions of higher learning.

Mr. Georgia History, We Salute You, and Farewell

We received word here at GHS this week of the death of our dear friend Ed Jackson on Tuesday, January 10, 2023, age 79.

The Kingsport, Tennessee, native grew up in Texas, but it was the people of Georgia and their history that he made his life’s work.

Ed went to the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s and received his B.A. in History and an M.A. in political science. He put both of those to good use when, in 1970, he arrived in Athens at the University of Georgia and began a long and distinguished career at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, retiring as Senior Public Service Associate 40 years later, in 2010.

During those 40 years Ed became the acknowledged expert, the man to ask about Georgia history and government. He trained governors, legislators, state employees, mayors, civic organizations, teachers, students, authored textbooks, spoke extensively, published widely, compiled databases, created over fifteen websites, photographed every corner of our state, and collected anything and everything that he could get his hands on about Georgia history, from postcards, to photographs, maps, artifacts of all kinds,  campaign signs, and everything beyond and between that could tell the story of Georgia and her people.

Here’s what I said about Ed in the GHS’s Headlines newsletter yesterday: “Ed Jackson’s knowledge of Georgia’s people and history was unparalleled. He was Georgia’s unofficial state historian, and all of us beat a path to his door to dip into that deep reservoir of learning. There was no subject related to Georgia that he didn’t know something about, and that he would gladly and freely share. Every conversation with him left you wiser. He was also a great friend to this institution, through his membership, his time and resources, and the knowledge that he shared through his writing and research. The Georgia Historical Society is honored to be the repository of the Edwin Jackson Collection, ensuring that his documentary legacy will live on and that his vast collection of Georgia materials will continue to inspire and teach future generations. Though not born here, Ed Jackson was one of Georgia’s great treasures, and the people of this state that he served so long and so well are richer for all he taught us.”

When the Georgia flag-change controversy was at its height in the early part of this century, Ed was the go-to expert. He lectured on the history of our state’s flags for GHS in Athens and Savannah and published an article about it in the Georgia Historical Quarterly. And who else do you know that was awarded the “Vexillonnaire Award” by the North American Vexillological Association? Ed was, in 2004, for his work with the Georgia General Assembly’s efforts to redesign Georgia’s state flag. (Vexillogy is the study of flags, and no, I didn’t know that either.)

Ed had an extensive stamp collection (he was a founding member of the Georgia Federation of Stamp Clubs, now called the Southeast Federation of Stamp Clubs), and he once lectured here in our Research Center during the Georgia History Festival on Georgia history as told through stamps.

When the online New Georgia Encyclopedia needed an authority to write the entry for Georgia’s founder himself, James Edward Oglethorpe, they chose Ed. That forbidding subject would have daunted most historians, but not him. (That’s Ed in the center of the picture to the right, taking a photograph at Oglethorpe’s tomb in England.) For good measure, he also wrote seven other entries for the NGE, including for Georgia’s Historic Capitals, the Dixie Highway, Georgia’s State Flags, the current Georgia State Capitol, and the Legislative Process. He also served as a section editor for the NGE.

Every time I called Ed and needed help, he was always happy to assist, whether it was asking him to write an article for GHS’s Georgia History Today popular history magazine (where he wrote about the Dixie Highway, FDR in Georgia, and any number of his other passions), querying him about a fact on a proposed historical marker, or to answer one of my many arcane questions about Georgia history. He was never too busy, he never said no, and he never took a dime for all he did for GHS. If he could help further the mission of Georgia history, he would.

It’s no exaggeration to say that we would not have been able to do “Today in Georgia History” in conjunction with Georgia Public Broadcasting without Ed Jackson. It was his website, “GeorgiaInfo,” created for the Vinson Institute, that provided a roadmap for all the subjects we’d cover day to day over the course of the year. Naturally, he made it all available to us—and to everyone else—without any desire for personal credit. He only wanted to teach Georgia history, and if his website helped GHS and GPB do that, then he was glad to help.

GHS honored Ed in 2002 with the John MacPherson Berrien Award for Lifetime Achievement in Georgia history (pictured here), and in 2012 with the Sarah Nichols Pinckney Volunteer Award.

Ed donated his vast and extraordinary collection of materials related to Georgia history to the GHS just a couple of years ago. The Edwin Jackson Collection at the Georgia Historical Society is now being processed, and when completed and opened for research it will be a treasure trove of riches that will be mined for decades to come.

Thank you, Ed, for all your years of self-less service to others, in the finest tradition of Non Sibi, Sed Aliis, Not for Self, But for Others, harkening back to the original Georgia Trustees. Thank you for your years of friendship to the Georgia Historical Society, to the University of Georgia, to the State of Georgia and her people—including all those yet unborn. They too are in your debt. Thanks to you, the path forward will be brighter for all those who look to the past to help light the way.

Georgia never had a better friend than this adopted son, and he will be deeply missed. He is quite irreplaceable.

We salute you, and farewell.

Podcast S6E2: Johann Neem: History and Democracy

In this episode Stan interviews Dr. Johann Neem, historian and author, whose research focuses on the history of American democracy. They discuss history in the public realm, why history has become so controversial in recent years, and where it’s all headed.