Saturday, July 18, 2009

good news update to yesterday's post. . .LSU Press lives to publish

Apparently I got in on this story right at the tail end of the two-month period of uncertainty over the Press's fate. Prompted by bibliophile Drew Wagenhoffer, I collected some timely updates to the LSU Press saga. News items from last week, and this week report that the Press has survived, less $100,000 from the mother ship.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports the story here. Press Director Mary Katherine Callaway says they need to retool, but is optimistic. The Press will now be able to celebrate its 75th anniversary next year. Just to be safe, BYOB.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"I dust a bit," Ignatius told the policeman."

"In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip." — John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces)

It's no secret that the world of publishing is undergoing a transformation in the digital age, and no market sector is unaffected. Times are especially tough for university presses, who often rely on subsidies from cash-strapped universities to continue their noble work. I learned about these pressures firsthand, five years ago, when my position was eliminated at Stanford University Press after a nine-year run. Years earlier, the press itself barely survived the chopping block. In the late 90s, when then-Provost Condoleeza Rice backed a plan to let SUP be absorbed by Oxford Press, only the staunch resistance of certain faculty saved the day.

Some presses faded away during that period, and quite a few more are unlikely to weather the current storm. I'm saddened to see that LSU Press, one of the most prolific publishers of Civil War titles, has reached a budgetary crisis that could conceivably spell the end of the company. In its storied history, LSU Press has won more Pulitzers than any other academic publisher (four), and remains the only university press to win Pulitzer Prizes in the categories of fiction and poetry. The publication of A Confederacy of Dunces, a brilliant and deeply American novel, is one of the great success stories in all of publishing (here's a shout out to brother Woody, who gave me a copy of this book right after I got out of college and landed in San Francisco).

To the staff at a typical university press, it seems irreconcilable that an institution spending large fortunes on athletics can't find the relatively minuscule funding needed to keep a small press operating. But things are never quite so simple. Big-time athletic programs ordinarily generate revenue for the school, but academic presses rarely do.

Ted Genoways, editor of the the Virginia Quarterly Review, wondered whether LSU wants "to be known as someplace that supports the history and culture of your region or some place that has fantastic outside linebackers?" But LSU's chancellor, Michael Martin, offers the compelling rejoinder that "in some respects, the press has been saved by the outside linebackers --
up to this point."

I am a big fan of university presses. I love the notion of disseminating knowledge just for the sake of it. I love the fact that history manuscripts are, usually, carefully vetted. I appreciated that some university presses continued to produce books meant to last, as if they were sacred objects, resisting some of the production short-cuts (e.g., cardboard for cloth) that would enhance the bottom line. I love the idealistic perspective that, sometimes, the importance of a particular book might carry more weight than it's projected profitability, when deciding whether to publish.

Of course, that's no way to run a business -- even university presses need customers. When once, one good-selling title could float the boat for a handful of obscure monographs, the pressures of a weak market have made that an unaffordable luxury. As for the production values that created "sacred objects" -- they have necessarily been going out the window, or are being compromised through belt-tightening. Print-on-demand technology is an irresistible solution to small presses looking to keep a long list of slow selling books in print. The only thing certain is that the old models of production and distribution no longer work, and the very mission of the university press
needs to be re-thought.

I would hope the prestige alone of a press like that at LSU would spare it from oblivion, but in an era when everything from General Motors to California is bankrupt, any money-losing concern is a candidate for closure. Here's hoping LSU emerges from the crisis, and maybe leads the way for others following close behind. Read more about the bleak future of university presses in this Philadelphia Inquirer
article (speaking of industries with bleak futures).

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
-- Jonathan Swift

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kenneth M. Stampp, R.I.P.

another giant in the field passes

Celebrated Historian Altered Understanding of Slavery

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kenneth M. Stampp, 96, a historian who helped transform the

study of slavery in the United States by exposing plantation owners as practical businessmen, not romantics defending a noble heritage, died of heart ailments July 10 at a hospital in Oakland, Calif. He had vascular dementia.

His death was confirmed by the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught from 1946 until retiring in 1983.

The full WaPo obit can be read here.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

introducing Woodbury Historical Tours

Lee's Retreat, and the Surrender at Appomattox
August 7 and 8,
with Ron Wilson and Patrick Schroeder

2 days of tours, includes lunch, and Saturday dinner with speaker
$250 : 20 seat limit : HQ: Farmville, VA
See more info and itinerary

Unseen Appomattox

August 22, with Patrick Schroeder

includes lunch $125 : 20 seat limit :
HQ Appomattox, VA

See more info and itinerary

[photo above: former and current Appomattox National Historic Park chief historians Ron Wilson, left, and Patrick Schroeder]

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Hoodistas go off the deep end

I noticed in the last issue of Civil War News that a group of John Bell Hood worshipers, the John Bell Hood Historical Society, actually took an ad out to denounce historian and author Wiley Sword. Why? The reason given in the attack ad is because Sword called Hood's memoirs inaccurate and unreliable.

Hmmm. As the kids say, "duh!" Where have these people been? One of the first things any earnest student of the war discovers is that Hood's autobiography is a self-serving, wildly distorted rewriting of history meant to exonerate himself at the expense of others, mainly at the expense of General Joe Johnston. It is one of those primary sources so compromised by inaccuracy, misrepresentation, and tortured rationalizations, that competent historians would never consider citing it to substantiate any assertion that wasn't already thoroughly corroborated elsewhere.

To the members of the John Bell Hood Historical Society, those aren't just fighting words, they are part of an "unholy Jihad." To wit, quoting from the web site devoted to attacking Mr. Sword, "As Sword did in his acclaimed 1991 book, Embrace an Angry Wind: The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, in his latest effort he engages in an unholy Jihad against Gen. Hood, filtering from historical records any and all documented evidence that does not support his biased, agenda-based premise."

I'm no expert on radical Islam, but wouldn't an "unholy jihad" translate to an "unholy holy war"? Is it fair for me to refer to the members of a "historical society" as "worshippers"? Yes, when they respond to perceived criticism of their hero with words like "desecration" and "unholy."

But there are any number of things the Hoodites object to in at the two Sword titles mentioned above. They don't like Sword's comment that Hood was ambitious. Aren't all officers ambitious, they ask disingenuously, seemingly oblivious to Hood's shameless power grab before Atlanta, seeking to discredit Johnston and to get Hardee passed over for promotion.

Likewise, they take Sword to task for such egregious assertions as, “. . .young Hood struggled with the academic curriculum [at West Point], winding up forty-fourth in his class of fifty-two upon graduation in 1853.” Now what, you may ask, is the objection? The Hoodites think it unfair of Sword not to have mentioned that Hood's class originally had 93 cadets, and that 41 of them dropped out. Some representative of the historical society writes, "It would be more fair and accurate to view Hood as ranked 44th out of 93 original cadets in his class." Nevermind that the 41 drop-outs are not part of Hood's graduating class. They don't rank non-graduating cadets. What would be the point of that? How ridiculous that the Hoodites feel they must add 41 to the rolls in order to mitigate Hood's pedestrian academic record.

The "Sword Exposed" website is a long exercise in nit-picking, rationalization, and selective highlighting of comments from contemporaries that compliment Hood. For example, the site challenges Sword's assertion that Hood's "decision to sacrifice the lives of so many in an unlikely military gambit was condemned as ‘murder’ by some of his men.” To counter that, the site admits that some men did feel that way, and then quotes Sam Watkins from Co Aytch: ". . .We all loved Hood, he was such a clever fellow, and a good man. . . Poor fellow, I loved him, not as a general, but as a good man. . ." So where's the contradiction? If anything, Watkins is validating the notion that the men did not consider Hood a great general.

It's one thing to take issue with a historian's work. By all means, put up a web page and point out your problems with it. There's nothing wrong with hard-hitting book reviews, as long as they are honest, substantiated critiques, but acting as apologist destroys credibility. For a self-described historical society to take out an ad in response to "desecration"disagreements with an authoris just embarrassing. Sort of in the same way that Hood's book, Advance and Retreat, is an embarrassing entry in the realm of Civil War memoirs. At least Hood's book generated proceeds which helped care for his 11 orphans, and that is a positive good. Conversely, what's the value of a historical society that engages in character assassination against Civil War historians?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

A brief follow-up to the query posted here last Saturday

-- whether our 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant, visited California suffragette Sarah Wallis's (Mayfield, now Palo Alto) farm in 1877: Mary Lyon, author of this article on Sarah Wallis for "California Historian," pointed me to several of her sources, including Unsettling the West: Eliza Farnham and Georgiana Bruce Kirby in Frontier California (Santa Clara University, 2004), page 314.

Next, we'll see what Dorothy Regnery's article in The Californian offers by way of substantiation. Separately, I'll query Grant authority Brooks Simpson on the chance that he can resolve the question in one fell swoop.