Monday, June 8, 2009

Review: Jacoby says Hiss case is ultimately about us and the U.S., not Hiss

Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (Icons of America) Alger Hiss and the Battle for History by Susan Jacoby

Susan Jacoby, a former Washington Post reporter and now a keen observer of the American intellect and intelligencia, has examined the strange case of Alger Hiss and the hold that his perjury conviction nearly 60 years ago has had on the minds of the political elite for generations.

This slim volume doesn't examine the case itself. (She takes at as a given that Hiss was both a Communist and guilty of perjury.) Rather, she looks at the debate that it has engendered, and the schools of thought that divided those who thought Hiss guilty from the beginning and those who thought he was framed.

The debate, she says, wasn't about Hiss so much as it was about the New Deal, the kind of government we have, and ultimately how we view America.

Jacoby is an excellent writer with a strong hold on her sources and her interpretations. For those interested in the topic, this book is well worth the time.

A journalist writing a novel

What's the biggest different between writing journalism and writing fiction?

Since the publication of Kill the Quarterback, I have been asked that question more than once.

For an old line journalist like me (when I started in the business, they still used typewriters and pastepots), writing a novel had one big advantage:

You could make things up.

I suppose I had always wanted to do that but, like every other good journalist, I had suppressed the urge -- suppressed it to the point of never thinking about it. My mind was imbued with accuracy, verification, getting the facts, finding out what really happened, points of view, getting direct quotations right, getting paraphrasing even more right.

That's what make journalism hard work. That's what gives it value.

But in writing a novel, I didn't have to worry about that so much. I had to be more-or-less accurate within setting and time period, but I could make sources sound like they should sound. I could make the "facts" what they needed to be to fit the story. I could even twist things around a bit and make people act out of character if I wanted to.

The other side of that coin, however, is the dilemma of every novelist:

You have to make things up.

As a journalist, if you are good enough, you don't have to worry much about how the story will come out. Get enough facts, information, quotations, et al, and the story will speak for itself. It ends where it ends. You don't have to go beyond that.

But as a novelist, you have to make things turn out a certain way. You have to resolve the major conflicts and story lines. You have to make it all fit with no gaps that even unclever readers will discover and inevitably point out. The reader, having suspended disbelief and invested some time, needs to be reasonably satisfied.

That's what makes fiction work. That's what gives it value.


The novel is Kill the Quarterback. Don't be shy. Buy a copy for yourself and a dozen more for your friends (here at Amazon). It's not about football.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Leonardo and the 'fleeting quality of imagination'

Procrastination is a sin.

That's what we're taught anyway. Putting things off, not getting things done -- those things mark you as a slacker, a nere-do-well, a skylarker (military), a goldbrick (also military), a bum. And around the part of the country where I live, you're just plain "sorry."

W. L. Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, has a different take on the whole procrastination thing and lays it out in a perceptive essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required).

According to the E-prof, the patron saint of us academic procrastinators is none other than Leonard da Vinci:

If Leonardo seemed endlessly distracted by his notebooks and experiments — instead of finishing the details of a painting he had already conceptualized — it was because he understood the fleeting quality of imagination: If you do not get an insight down on paper, and possibly develop it while your excitement lasts, then you are squandering the rarest and most unpredictable of your human capabilities, the very moments when one seems touched by the hand of God.

The fire of imagination and creativity doesn't respond to the tick of the time clock. It comes when it comes -- and sometimes leaves without a finished product.

Leonardo ended his life with about 20 finished paintings and lots of jobs un-done. Yet he left more than 500 pages of notes and drawings (that we know of), and they show us the essence of his genious and how his mind flitted to a subject, bore into it for as long as it interested him, and then flitted to another one.

Those are not the habits, as Pannapacker points out, that would get him tenure or promotion in a modern university. What we reward instead, he says, is completed mediocrity.

One could construct a strong argument against Pannapacker's thesis, but the idea is intriguing and attention should be paid.

Friday, March 20, 2009

American Lion by John Meacham: review

Politicos who believe the American presidency wields too much power can blame Andrew Jackson. American Lion, a biography by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, argues that Jackson transformed the presidency from being subservient to Congress to an independent and vital factor in government by crisis and force of will. Jackson made himself the center of every controversy during his two terms and was the first to bypass Congress and to appeal directly to the people. Meacham's account enlivens and humanizes the guy we see on the front of the $20 bill.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

25 random things about me

Now that the 25-random-things rage on Facebook is about spent, it's about time I got in on it. Here's what I just posted.

1. I keep bees. That usually starts a conversation.

2. The kids make me look like a wizard and a genius every day. I am in awe of them. I wouldn't dare tell them that, however.

3. I love choral music. I'm also a big fan of baroque, bluegrass and fusion jazz.

4. If I am still in bed at 5 a.m., that means I have overslept.

5. My wonderful wife Sally and I discovered gardening after we moved to East Tennessee a few years ago. We have had great fun doing that together.

6. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I prefer watercolor over pen and ink. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I prefer pen and ink over watercolor. On Sundays, I can't decide.

7. When I was in the first grade, my mother wrote a note to my teacher excusing me from class as lunch because it was the first day of the World Series. This was in 1954, and the Series was still played in the afternoon then. I came home and watched the game. That was the game when Willie Mays made The Catch. I don't remember seeing it.

8. The three best reasons for being in education are May, June and July.

9. In 2008, I lost 25 pounds, got my first novel published and grew potatoes. I'm glad I didn't have to choose.

10. I once interviewed Billy Graham at his home in Montreat, N.C. When the interview was over, he asked if I needed to go to the bathroom. I didn't, but I said I did. I figured that was the only chance I would ever get to see Billy Graham's bathroom.

11. I believe in the First Amendment. Not many people do.

12. About two and a half years ago, our cat, Squeaky, died. I still think about her a lot.

13. I am a connoisseur of sunrises (see #4).

14. I am a very lucky fellow. (See picture below. See also my Picasaweb albums. )

15. In 1970, I was one of the very last people in the U. S. to receive a draft notice. I spent four years on active duty in the Navy.

16. Writing for the Mass Media, one of the textbooks I have written, is now in its seventh edition. The book is 25 years old. That's older than most of my students.

17. I once met Bear Bryant. I have a story about that.

18. I have worked for newspapers in five different cities: Bristol, Knoxville, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Chicago. Technically, it's six cities. Does anybody know why?

19. I own two Miatas. One is red. The other is green. Long story.

20. My favorite joke is the one about the kid who gets his grade report at the end of the term and has all Fs, except for one D. He thinks about it and come to the conclusion that he has been concentrating too much in one subject.

21. I created a web site called and also do blogs called The Writing Wright and Honey Dot Comb. Sally came up with that last name, but she denies it.

22. I have one rule of civil behavior for all of my classes, large and small. It's a rule I impose on myself, not on my students. The rule is: If you're talking, I'll listen.

23. Football, basketball and hockey are minor, off-season sports invented to take up the space between the end of the World Series and Opening Day.

24. I grew up in Nashville. That's significant.

25. Writing is one of the most important things that we do.

This was a good exercise, and it was fun.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

America reclaims its true story

My friend Chuck Warnock (Confessions of a Small Church Pastor) says that Tuesday saw more than the inauguration of a new president.

America, he says, reclaimed its "true story."
I believe that we as a nation returned to our story on Tuesday. America’s story had been one of creation, not destruction. Our story had provided the hope of the American dream to immigrants who flooded onto our shores. Our American story had said that we do not start fights with other countries, that we will take the first blow, that we are never the aggressors. Our nation’s story had survived a war of independence, a fledgling government, a civil war that almost ripped us permanently apart, two world wars, a great depression, the immorality of slavery and the injustice of segregation. And yet we went on, we learned from our own mistakes, we gave the right to vote to women and minorities, we continued to believe that America stood for the best in our common humanity, that we were a global lighthouse to others who yearned to be free.

We had strayed. We had lost our way. We did things to ourselves and to others that we never should have done. It will take some time to fully restore ourselves.

But Tuesday was a start.

Read the entire article.

Photo by Tom Kai, taken on the Mall on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009

William Hazlitt on the lot of the writer

William Hazlitt is a name we hear little of today, but in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, he was a well-known and well read journalist and essayist (when those people were really valued) in England.

Here is what he wrote on the lot of the writer:
An author wastes his time in painful study and obscure researches, to gain a little breath of popularity, meets with nothing but vexation and disappointment in ninety-nine instances out of a hundred; or when he thinks to grasp the luckless prize, finds it not worth the trouble -- the perfume of a minute, fleeting as a shadow, hollow as a sound. . . . He thinks that the attainment of acknowledged excellence will secure him the expression of those feelings in others, which the image and hope of it had excited in his own breast, but instead of that, he meets with nothing (or scarcely nothing) but squint-eyed suspicion, idiot wonder, and grinning scorn. -- It seems hardly worth while to have taken all the pains he has been at for this!

A new biography of Hazlitt, William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man by Duncan Wu, has been published recently, and it was reviewed by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago.

The review is certainly worth reading, and so too, I suspect, is the book.