Tormenting People in Two Sketches

I subscribe to the Poetry Magazine newsletter, and about an hour ago a new poem by Joyce Carol Oates, from the current October issue, arrived in my mailbox. It is entitled “Little Albert, 1920,” and it is about a behavioralist experiment in which a child was taught to fear things that he otherwise enjoyed, by a malicious experimenter John Watson.

Not having been a psychology major, I was not familiar with the experiment, so “Remember me? Sure. / You do” (lines 6-7) was not as insinuating as it might be to some readers. But still the lines were, and it’s an enormously disturbing poem. On the podcast in which the editors discuss it, the final words are that the poem shows us “the way we conscript people for our unsavory games.” Also, I learn there, that one can watch the experiment on YouTube, although I will neither force myself to do so nor link to it.

The poem distracted me from another activity, attempting to determine whether Harriet Beecher Stowe had any input into the text of the 1896 Uncle Tom’s Cabin from Riverside Press. For various reasons connected to fact that I have transcribed Stowe’s novel several times, have proofread it several times, and have prepared a collation of five versions, I was searching somewhat idiosyncratically for comments about Stowe’s level of awareness in the 1890s, and she is known to have in her late years to not have been well, her mind faltering.

On, a federated bookseller site, an antiquarian vendor under name John Windle has a $19,000 copy of that edition, its value attested because with the edition is enclosed a card on which Stowe wrote out a passage from her novel and another by her daughter, explaining the procedure for gathering the signed cards to the person for whom the particular autograph card was inscribed.

The elderly author shows a flash of her old industriousness in the full page inscription in Volume I: “Not one throb of anguish not one tear of the oppressed is forgotten by the Man of Sorrows the Lord of Glory. In His generous patient bosom he bears the anguish of a world”, and in Volume II where she quotes from Uncle Tom’s death scene: “Oh Mas’r George ye’ are too late. The Lord’s bought me, and is going to take me home and I long to go. Heaven is better than Kintuck…”Both volumes are also inscribed “Written for Mr. W. H. Cathcart…” and signed and dated in full, and inserted in Volume I is an ALS by Stowe’s daughter, Miss H. B. Stowe, 4 pages, 8vo, Hartford, Oct. 17, 1894. “. . . I wished my mother to write in them for you if possible. But writing for her is such an effort now . . . [I] only ask it of her very occasionally . . . I have had her write an extract for each volume on separate paper. I did not venture to have her write in the books, for fear of defacing them . . . I have had her attempt two or three times to write for you but without success until to day, when what she has written is quite as good as we can ever expect from her again. . .”. Only two copies are recorded at auction with inscriptions by Stowe from the text, neither having two inscriptions.

So I suppose that I have reached a full circle, with this otherwise unknown Stowe household event from the 1890s, a daughter in her 60s hovering around a mother in her mid-80s, former trying every day to get her faltering mother to write out legible passages, failing two days in three, fearful always that the author will “deface” the published books and detract from the value that would accrue to them were a signature card and passage included.

Yep, that was necessary, the many weekly episodes that got the cards signed, affirmed by today’s price tag of $19,000. I do not see herein a “flash of her old industriousness” but a cruel game: to “conscript people for our unsavory games” indeed.

What is the matter with us?

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Great Sentence, Henry Mackenzie

This essay in Aeon, “Simplicity or style: what makes a sentence a masterpiece?” reminded me of a wonderful sentence that I chewed on recently from Henry MacKenzie’s Julia de Roubigny. My favorite is the second, but the paragraph has two (or three) great sentences in series, depending on whether period-em dash stops a sentence. I incline to does not, but definition of sentence in em-dash heavy prose no easy thing to deal with. It is written by the title Julia to her friend Maria, with her concerns about a man Montauban, one who somewhat later will confess his love for her.

There is something hard and unbending in the character of the Count, which, though my father applauds it under the title of magnanimity, I own myself womanish enough not to like it. There is an yielding weakness, which, to me, is more amiable than the inflexible right; it is an act of my reason to approve the last; but my heart gives it suffrage to the first, without pausing to inquire for a cause.–I am aukward at defining: you know what I mean; the last is stern in Montauban, the first is smiling in Maria. (25)

Chewed on it for about 5 minutes when reading, went back after seeing the essay, and think I got it, but the rhetorical parallelisms and the gendering of emotional tenors make it a lot of fun to parse. She’s writing to her friend, and the breaking off in sentence seems as if she’s abandoned the attempt–but she has not. Below a cheat-sheet.

Montauban’s hard and unbending quality my father applauds.
I do not like that his quality.
To me, yielding weakness is more amiable than inflexible right.
My heart likes first (yielding weakness).
The last (inflexible right) I designate as stern, I don’t like. Without saying so, presumably her head is rejecting.
The first, yielding weakness, is smiling in my friend.

Makes perfect sense that a young woman would not like the guy, and at the same time, if he knew, it might deflate his confidence that qualities that he likely associates with his sexual prowess are not arousing to her. Or, which is worse, incite his anger. That his quality is “magnanimity,” what her father thinks it is, must be wrong, because inflexible sense of rightness is not magnanimity. So, no, she definitely should not marry the guy, if she has a say, from her very first description of him: they are not compatible. It’s a sentimental novel, so I trust she will have a say. I have not finished the book. I’m only a third through. So I’ll see how my guess holds up and update the post upon completing the novel.

Update, upon completing the novel: “Dear reader, he killed her.” But I suppose, having parsed the above sentence, that she had warned herself adequately about her likely fate. But were I her correspondent or a 21st-century advice columnist, I’d say, “Young woman, listen to what your heart is telling you: Do not marry that man.”

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Antebellum Slavery Law on the Separation of Children from Parents

In the first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with reasonably thorough historical annotation, by Phillip Van Doren Stern, he notes that Stowe’s “[s]aying that Eliza was only eight or nine years old when she was sold in Louisiana gave Mrs. Stowe a great deal of trouble. Louisiana readers were quick to point out that their state law forbade slave children under ten years to be separated from their mothers” (589).

William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870), a major antebellum southern writer and pro-slavery apologist, took pains in his Oct. 1852 review of Stowe’s novel to insist that Stowe was mistaken about slave law.[1] According to Louisiana’s Black Law or Code Noir, Simms explains, “Every person is expressly prohibited from selling separately from their mothers, the children who have not reached the full age of ten years” (637). Those found in violation could be subject to a fine of $1,000 and imprisonment for not less than six months.

In her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), Stowe with considerable sarcasm protested that she did not buy these purported legal protections for the defenseless child. (For readers unfamiliar, Cassy is an enslaved woman, Butler the man who purchases her and betrays her into compliance by threatening to and then by selling her children.),

Suppose Butler wants to sell Cassy’s child of nine years. There is a statute forbidding to sell under ten years;–what is Cassy to do? She cannot bring suit. Will the state prosecute? Suppose it does,–what then? Butler says the child is ten years old; if he pleases, he will say she is ten and a half, or eleven. What is Cassy to do? She cannot testify; besides, she is utterly in Butler’s power. He may tell her that if she offers to stir in the affair, he will whip the child within an inch of its life; and she knows he can do it, and that there is no help for it;–he may lock her up in a dungeon, sell her on to a distant plantation, or do any other despotic thing he chooses, and there is nobody to say Nay.

How much does the protective statute amount to for Cassy? It may be very well as a piece of advice to the public, or as a decorous expression of opinion; but one might as well try to stop the current of the Mississippi with a bulrush as the tide of trade in human beings with such a regulation.

We think that, by this time, the reader will agree with us, that the less the defenders of slavery say about protective statutes, the better. [3]

We from 20th century forward have had a lot of faith in the protections of law–even when observed only in the eventual justice that follows after a violation and an extended court case–but you see, in the nineteenth century, pro-slavery apologists did not want the subtext (what Stowe suspected and knew) to be identified as the text. And they protested vigorously that Stowe misrepresented the practice, something the Trump administration declines even to do, not bothering even with “a decorous expression of opinion.”

That is, the Trump administration policy on separating minor children from immigrant parents lacks even what antebellum pro-slavery thinkers thought prudent, the fig leaf of law. I for one assume that should a policy revision be announced or another legal fig-leaf be instated, that will be no cause for relief that this barbaric practice would cease. What would then go on behind closed doors–even should the law expressly prohibit it–might well resemble what is clearly the intended policy. This administration and its apologists are ever on the lookout for ways to demonize non-white peoples—i.e., Trump’s “animals” and the now familiar “illegals,” a coinage that denies humanity to the persons so labeled—so to assume the same administration will change its attitude seems to me mistaken.

Sometimes I think the America’s favorite myth, that we are perpetually made new again, has as its pernicious obverse that we refuse to recognize a burden of the past, even when it’s staring us in the face.

[1] For the establishment that Simms was author of the unsigned review, see Charles S. Watson, “Simms’s Review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” American Literature, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Nov. 1976), pp. 365-368. JSTOR.

[2] Simms’s review in the Southern Literary Messenger is entitled “Literary Notices.” See, p. 637.

[3] See Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,

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George Harris’s “machine for the cleaning of hemp” and Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin

I have been unsatisfied with how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s footnote on George Harris’s “machine for the cleaning of hemp” has been annotated in editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Generally, editors annotate only Whitney’s cotton gin, the well-known antecedent to which George Harris’s supposed hemp-cleaning machine is compared, which oddly emphasizes explaining what everyone is supposed to know, Whitney’s gin, rather than what no one does, the unknown real-life counterpart to George Harris’s fictional invention. The unknown fact, the hemp-cleaning machine that is a parallel to Whitney’s invention and why that former might matter are the interesting parts–and will be the subject of this post. Editors who annotate for scholars and students assume first that we today do not know about Whitney’s invention, and some speculate about rumors that cotton gin was not solely Whitney’s invention. Below are several examples:

  • “In 1793, the American manufacturer Eli Whitney (1765-1825) patented the cotton gin, a machine that separated cotton from its seeds. There were persistent rumors in Stowe’s time that this cotton-gin was actually the invention of a slave or was based on a slave’s idea. Slaves, however, could not patent their own inventions by law” (Ammons, ed. UTC, 1st ed. [1994] 10 n3; 2nd ed. [2010] 10-11 n3).
  • “Eli Whitney (1765-1825) in 1793 patented the cotton gin, which mechanically separated cotton from its seeds.” (Yellin, ed. UTC [1998] 521).
  • “Eli Whitney patented the cotton-gin, a machine that removes the seeds from cotton, in 1793” (Railton, ed, UTC, [2008] 53 n10).
  • “In 1794, Eli Whitney (1765-1825) patented the cotton gin–a machine used to separate cotton from its seeds–but there were rumors during Stowe’s lifetime that the invention was actually that of a slave” (Diller, ed. UTC, [2009] 58 n1).

All four basically agree on the cotton gin information: excluding slight difference about patent date (gin invented and patent applied for in 1793, Whitney was granted the patent in 1794, though the term for the patent began in 1793)[1]; both Diller and Ammons note that contemporary rumor held Whitney’s gin to have been invented by an enslaved person, though they disagree about how “persistent” such rumors were. Ammons supplements with another historical fact, that humans legally designated as property could not own intellectual property. Ammons, Yellin, Railton, nor Diller supply sources for information in their annotation, so we’ll just have to trust that Ammons based her information on an unknown source. Yellin, Railton, and Diller presumably trusted Ammons.

But no one has provided annotation for the parts of Stowe’s footnote that would matter more, neither of the “young colored man in Kentucky” to whom Stowe attributes the non-fiction counterpart to George Harris’s invention, the mechanically advanced method for cleaning hemp, nor the reason why such a machine would be considered especially significant, comparable even to Whitney’s gin. Therefore, in order to annotate more usefully, I’ve tried to determine whether antebellum rumor attributed the invention of such a machine to an an African American man (enslaved or free), why a hemp cleaning machine would register as significant–a latter-day cotton gin–for Stowe’s antebellum audience (as note seems to imply), and what a hemp-cleaning machine was supposed to do and how.

I begin with the final, what a hemp-cleaning machine was supposed to do and how it was done. To my surprise, though I guess I should not be surprised, there is a scholarly monograph that covers a lot about the topic, James F. Hopkins’s A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky (U of Kentucky, 1951). As Hopkins explains, in reference to antebellum period, “hemp was a crop of considerable importance to the farmers and manufacturers of Kentucky. The price of the fiber was undependable, but during the period under consideration it was usually high enough to encourage production, which reached its greatest height around 1850” (68). Coincidentally, I remind you, Stowe’s novel written right around top hemp prices. That is, the presence of a bagging factory in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is no throw-away fact.

In his chapter, Hopkins over six pages describes what the process of cleaning hemp consists and the general method for doing so during the period, both by machine and by hand brake,[2] obviously with more detail than is necessary for an annotation of Stowe’s work. One basic thing to be understood is that unlike with cotton, where seeds must be separated from the fibers, with hemp it is the woody stalks that must be removed so the longer and thicker fibers can be used for rope or twine: the remaining tow (refuse fibers, from short broken strands down to lint) would serve for bagging or cloth. To “clean” hemp is to separate the stringy fibers from the woody core, a process that followed the water-rotting of the stalks, either in a body of water or from snow or rain and dew in the fields.

In Kentucky, George’s machine would have automated the breaking and cleaning, generally performed with a portable hand brake, a process described as “monotonous and fatiguing, requiring considerable strength and skill on the part of the laborer” (Hopkins 61). Presumably, the design of George’s machine would either have consisted of a spinning conical shaft or vibrating and fluted rollers (58-59). George may also have designed an automated version of the hand brake, which consisted of smashing the stems between two pairs of wooden slats and then striking the fibrous mass against a stake or with a wooden paddle to knock the shattered wooden remnants free. (58). Below is a picture, which illustrates a hand-brake in use during the 1940s.


“Unknown African American male with a hand brake,” from John Winston Coleman, Jr. Collection on American Slavery, University of Kentucky Special Collections. More pictures at

That is back-breaking, dusty labor, a far cry from

…the mildest form of the system of slavery is to be seen in the State of Kentucky. The general prevalence of agricultural pursuits of a quiet and gradual nature, not requiring those periodic seasons of hurry and pressure that are called for in the business of more southern districts ….

Side note: No, it ain’t that. Maybe crushing hemp stalks with a hand brake did not quite compare to sugar cane processing, but that was some evil work. And still was evil work when picture above taken in the 1940s: don’t forget that a lot did not change between the 1840s and 1940s. The past ain’t past.

But on to the potential cultural significance of mechanizing the hemp-cleaning process when Stowe was writing her chapter in 1851. I think it’s helpful to consider this under two headings, comparable mechanical genius to a patented invention, Stowe’s emphasis, and the potential significance of each invention (cotton gin and hemp cleaning machine) for antebellum slavery and for American national pride.

Before either we need to understand hemp and its cultural significance in 1851. Midwestern farmers had difficulty supplying premium hemp, used for shipping, so premium hemp was typically imported from Russia: Riga hemp designates the quality stuff, named after the port in Latvia from which it originates. It’s an earlier Russia scandal. That domestic shipping and the U.S. navy continued to rely on foreign-sourced hemp was a sore spot in the antebellum midwest, a source for chauvinist complaint in newspapers. But Kentucky’s warmer weather (relative to Latvia) was a problem. Rotting hemp fibers in standing water produced a fetid smell, killed fish, and rendered the water unusable for livestock, so Midwestern farmers preferred dew-rotting and field-cleaning (as pictured above), a difficult-to-control process. In consequence, the fibers from field-processed Kentucky hemp had a higher ratio of tow to string. Bagging was used for purposes like to bag raw agricultural products, which your upscale coffee shop may flaunt in a decorative display of bagged beans–and poor people wore bagging as clothing. If you know this material, it’s probably by the name burlap.

To return to cultural significance–of Whitney’s gin and the proposed hemp-cleaning automation–as we gathered from annotations above, Eli Whitney at mid-century was celebrated as the famed American inventor of the cotton gin as well as automating fire-arm manufacture; his gin patent is for arguably most culturally significant early American industrial machine. Whitney’s gin rendered hand combing to remove cotton seeds obsolete and was both credited with spurring cotton production and, in anti-slavery discourse, blamed for spreading slavery, both results tied to how Whitney’s gin had increased dramatically the profitability of short-staple, also known as green-seed, cotton, which could be grown in upland areas so that cotton cultivation no longer restricted to flat coastland.

Why the invention of a hemp-cleaning machine mattered is less known. Kentucky hemp growers and processors were displeased that imported Riga hemp received a much higher price than Kentucky hemp. Because water-rotted, Riga hemp had longer fibers, which made it stronger and better suited for rope in shipping. The desired invention is an industrial process by which Kentucky hemp would qualify as premium stuff for shipping applications, instead of lesser-grade hemp for bagging. For a taste of this ongoing concern see sample articles in midwestern newspapers and magazines.[3] Those are just samples: search Chronicling America for “hemp” between 1845 and 1850, and there are many articles.

Stowe added this footnote for the first edition: it is not present in the Era serial. But from antebellum print sources I cannot substantiate Stowe’s rumor that a hemp-cleaning machine was invented by a black man from Kentucky–or that such a rumor had currency. There is reason to doubt that such a rumor had wide purchase: antislavery thinkers were critical of the cotton gin, an innovation associated with the domestic expansion of slavery. In a Congressional speech that Frederick Douglass reprinted in his newspaper (admittedly a bit later, 1854), Gerritt Smith, for example, argued that Whitney’s invention “came into operation and fastened Slavery upon our country.” Enslaved persons were of course denied the ability to own intellectual property like inventions, but it seems unlikely that an African American in the antebellum period would want credit for a machine were it projected to have a similar influence as Whitney’s, expanding the attractiveness of slavery in the hemp-growing regions of the Midwest as the gin had for cotton-growing regions in the south.

Since Stowe declines to document the footnote claim about the hemp-cleaning machine in her Key (1853), her invocation of a black counterpart to Whitney may have another purpose, to hint at southern perfidy. Denying George Harris the fruit of his labor has in Whitney a well-known parallel: in defiance of his patent, the Yankee inventor’s design was pirated widely, and southern courts declined to recognize patent infringement of similar designs.

In sum, I cannot confirm Ammons’s annotation claims that antebellum rumor held that “the cotton-gin was actually the invention of a slave or was based on a slave’s idea.” The attempts to recover the history of black inventors appears to have begun in earnest in the early 20th century, though rumor may date earlier.[4] However, I have found no citation evidence for antebellum observations about Whitney’s debt to enslaved mechanics or laborers, though it stands to reason that during his brief months among Georgia planters he would have observed the cotton cleaning process as practiced by enslaved black women. I do not hold that no one in antebellum period was capable of imagining a black inventor/mechanic’s contribution–and certainly Whitney’s gin derived in part from hand tools used by African American women to clean short-staple cotton–but that such a rumor was in print during Stowe’s day I cannot confirm.[5] Several free-born African Americans applied for and received patents in the antebellum period, but rumors that Whitney’s invention was aided by Francis Littlefield Greene[6] or by forgotten black informants emerged into print during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when activist historians strived to recover undocumented achievements under the systematic oppression regimes that denied freedom and opportunity during the antebellum period.

Without further documentation, my current take on the evidence is that Stowe’s claimed rumor is the writer’s invention, a rhetorical flourish, which is not to deny that such a rumor could have been in currency when Stowe lived in Cincinnati, that it could have origins in African American oral culture, and that it may hint at the contributions of African Americans to Whitney’s gin design. More likely, Stowe’s jibe was intended to be politically inflammatory, but it seems that she missed her mark: other parts of her work were so inflammatory–such as that Tom was a Christ figure–that arcane debates about a hemp-cleaning innovation comparable to Whitney’s cotton gin seems to not have registered as particularly significant.

The underexplored counter-current here is that were a hemp-cleaning machine invented, the hemp industry in Kentucky had the potential to encourage the expansion of slavery into the upper midwest–just as Whitney’s invention had encouraged cotton production and led to expansion of slavery in south. To antislavery thinkers, this was a fault, not a feature. It seems impossible that an antislavery thinker in Stowe’s day could miss that implication, though the annotation our present editions does acknowledge that argument by implicit parallel, when discussing cotton-gin rumor. On the other hand, if the machine were invented by a black man, his inventiveness would (in 19th century antislavery terms) be considered a credit to his race. I guess Stowe’s possible point is that slaveholders were so cruel and stupid that they failed to grasp their own opportunity to profit from the inventiveness of better-treated chattel: as an antislavery argument it’s a crappy one, but not one particularly egregious for Stowe. After all, she also argued at end of novel for voluntary emigration to Liberia and that free African Americans on Shelby plantation would be better off and outright prefer staying in benevolent semi-enslavement under their reformed capitalist landlord.

Comments welcome.

[1] See “Patent for Cotton Gin (1794),”

[2] See pages 58-63 on Google Books if you’re interested. (Of course, cast your skeptical eye on his account of the pleasures with which enslaved persons are said to have performed these tasks.) Hopkins, History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky, (1951) 61.

[3] R. Deering. “Hints to Young Growers.” The radical. (Bowling Green [Mo.), 16 Sept. 1843. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. G. W. W. “Hemp.” The Radical. (Bowling Green [Mo.), 26 Aug. 1843. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <

[4] Negro Year Book: An Annual Encyclopedia of the Negro. Vol. 5, Negro Year Book Publishing Company, 1914. Google Books,

[5] I can be proven wrong, but I’m no slouch when it comes to this type of research. I checked every database to which I have access: APS Online, Chronicling America, Gale Historical Newspapers, ReadEx Early American Newspapers, Accessible Archives, NCCO, Google Books, etc.

[6] The earliest claim that a woman, slaveowner Catherine Littlefield Greene (1755-1814), “originated the idea” for which Whitney merely provided a mechanical model dates to post-Civil War suffrage movement. See Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman as Inventor. Vol. 1, New York State Woman Suffrage Association, 1870. Open WorldCat, See page 3-7.

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A Close Reading of a George Will Editorial

I wasted three hours on this a while back, about twice as long as it took George Will to write the column that I analyzed. Out of the draft bucket and into the public, little commentary: it’s still a pretty good analysis of a fair portion of that blithering dolt’s columns.

George Will’s editorial, “Schools push a curriculum of propaganda”, a parodic analysis in five parts.

  1. Sarcasm
  2. Anecdote
  3. Nostalgic Platitudes
  4. Outrage
  5. Call for Action


So long as subject is not baseball, sarcasm is how we begin: climate science, public education, aid for the poor, racism, and national debt are subjects best served with slimy insults:

The real vocation of some people entrusted with delivering primary and secondary education is to validate this proposition: The three R’s — formerly reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic — now are racism, reproduction and recycling. Especially racism.

Mr. Will is feeling cheeky. Notice his closing gambit, “patois of progressivism,” which in addition to its clever alliteration offers dim-witted readers the pleasure of discovery: progressive speech is so larded with jargon and nonsense that is not up to English standard—it’s a patois, get it? One of those kinda-like languages but not really languages languages.


Does someone have a suitably obscure anecdote, preferably a recently-announced practice in some American hinterland that has been supported by rumor on some conservative web site? Can’t anybody find an anecdotes in which out-of-control progressives offend traditional religion or encourage educational change? OK, here we go:

In Delavan-Darien High School’s “American Diversity” curriculum, students were urged to verify white privilege by visiting a Wal-Mart toy section and counting the white and black dolls.

Bingo! Now we all know that this hinterland is the tip of the iceberg. Cause if today Delavan-Darien High School, tomorrow we’ll have an affirmative action president.

Nostalgic Platitude

In the good old days, it was not always so. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research are trotted out, defenders of the days before people were employable in positions with titles like

“diversity,” “equity,” “race,” “ethnicity,” “sustainability,” “green,” “gender,” “inclusion,” “identity,” “interconnectivity,” “globalization,” “climate,” “campus climate,” “cross-cultural” or “multiculturalism.”

Do notice how cleverly Mr. Will slipped in “climate” before “campus climate.” While we’re purging the universities of liberals—weren’t we talking about high schools, Mr. Will? Oh, that’s right, ideas from transparently ridiculous California universities “trickle down” to Wisconsin high schools in same way that tax cuts for rich get pissed down on all of us—in Mr. Will’s world we need to expunge climate scientists lest their contributions to intellectual diversity start to infect campus.


Grab your opposite-sexed partner and sing along. Fire the administrators, fire the teachers, cut taxes, elect Republicans—lest things get out of hand (Don’t they have a Republican governor in Wisconsin? Shhh! This is a facts-free outrage joint). Oh please Mr. Will, can’t you find some straight-shooting Reagan-era education honcho to voice our outrage for us?

“If you serve a child a rotten hamburger in America, federal, state and local agencies will investigate you, summon you, close you down, whatever. But if you provide a child with a rotten education, nothing happens, except that you’re liable to be given more money to do it with.”

Oh, thank you, sir William Bennett. Rotten meat and food poisoning, preventing an occasional dead child or two—that, my friends, is the very soul of government overreach. As the good Dr. Swift once told us, how are we ever going to have a robust capitalist system if namby-pamby sticklers stop us from roasting little children and serving them to capitalists? Psst! Mr. Will and Mr. Bennett, the good Dr. Swift was kidding—poke, poke. Even conservative as Swift was, he still understood how satire worked.

Call for Action

Blow the trumpets, and call out the hounds.

But only until the soaring tuitions and taxes that fund this featherbedding for administrators of political correctness create a critical mass of parental and taxpayer disgust.

We taxpayers and parents must repel the threat, the possibility that racial privilege exists, or may have existed sometime, or could be imagined to exist as a thought experiment—which is urgent because we heard someone’s rumor about a thought experiment in one Wisconsin high school, in one class, in one assignment, though “After objections, the school district is reconsidering this curriculum.”

Cause remember, friends don’t let friends, coworkers don’t let coworkers, and white folks don’t let white folks think about racial privilege—cause if they do next thing you know they’ll be believin’ in climate change and forgettin’ ’bout ‘riting and reading and maths and baseball.

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Despair and the Textual Scholar

Despair seems the most apt way to describe how I felt about my work when I drafted this post. And I’ve decided to rescue it from my drafts and clean it up a bit for public appearance. So here goes. One truism about editorial work is the every text and every project is different, and that’s true, which I notice when I compare my work on printed versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with Melville’s Billy Budd MS. I’ll consider the latter mostly in this post, which will prompt an observation on the former.

The major editorial problem with  Billy Budd is that the MS is in multiple states of revision. When we edit for the Melville Electronic Library, our transcriptions for the the most part mimic, in digital form, the Hayford-Sealts genetic text of Billy Budd. I say “our” transcriptions, meaning those provided by the editorial team, each assigned a few leaves. But the transcriptiosn are mostly their transcriptions, that of Hayford and Sealts. If you’ve ever looked at the Hayford-Seallts genetic text, the first thing you’ll think is that no one in his or her right mind would attempt to read this, though, if one is doing scholarship, to do so is nearly indispensable and “nearly” only because so many publish without doing it. Nonetheless, my only initial pleasure upon perusing their genetic text was the reassuring sense that someone actually did this. But now that I’ve spent a few months trying to encode Melville’s MS, I have read parts of the Hayford-Sealts extremely closely, and I am more often than not simply in awe. When the new transcriptions that I make of Melville’s awful hand are correct, they’re a digital re-encoding of Hayford-Sealts work. With only some 50 or 80 hours of work put into this, I don’t even bother disagreeing, even if I could quibble on whether a letter in cursive is fully formed.

But there’s a lot more than agreeing on how to read Melville’s cursive hand. For example, Hayford-Sealts have labeled Melville’s major stages of composition as A, B, C, D, X, E, F, G, p. Now, oftentimes, a single leaf will have multiple composition stages, and stages are often subdivided, so sometimes the revision stage for a single alteration is best described as p Da (pencil revision of the a sub-part of the D stage) or p Gb (pencil revision of the b sub-part of the G stage). When in TextLab, and you need to assign an alteration to a revision stage, you are presented with the following menu, which replicates the Hayford-Sealts stages.


Now, to be honest, I have no idea whether that portion of menu has all the Hayford-Sealts stages or whether tiny quibbles have led to refinements, but the simple fact is that every time I need to designate a stage, a Hayford-Sealts name fits the bill. Because each of these is a matter of judgment, I accept theirs. I know revision stages are an artificial interpretive construct (and I know the reasoning cannot be anything other than circular, that phrases in color ink on this page seem to have derived from Melville’s attempt to do X, which is based on attempt to classify revision moments into stages), but Hayford and Sealts did the work and I didn’t. So I’ll trust them.

When display of my XML re-encoding doesn’t match their text, I just assume I’m wrong and go back and examine the Hayford-Sealts genetic text. Basically, to encode a text digitally is to apply extreme punctuation, and our work is dependent on an alternate form of extreme punctuation in print format. We should not forget that, even though, more often than not, scholars during practice of encoding barely even consider conventions that have been settled upon: we just do it that way as the “right way” to do it.

When I’m doing my own scholarly work on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there is by contrast no towering work of editorial scholarship in the background. Until I bring project near its final shape or present to funders, it’s up to me to decide which things matter, and which don’t.


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What is Candidacy?

This is a memo that I sent to graduate students, to explain candidacy.

As this is a question coming up frequently, candidacy is permission to go forward with a dissertation, by passing what we call “qualifying” and what the university generically calls “comprehensive” exams.

After you pass both exams, all three, or navigate whatever hurdle your department puts up (it is instructive to view the variety of procedures in Kent State PhD programs), then you are a candidate.

To notify graduate school that you are a candidate, you file a form, signed by your advisor, entitled “Report of Candidacy” (follow link, second column top right in desktop browser view).

That form has the following field: “Probable title of dissertation (if known).” From that field we may conclude that to be a candidate one need not need have completed a prospectus and filed a dissertation topic approval form (next step).

The frequent term “ABD,” all but dissertation, means you remain in the academic equivalent of what the Baltimore Catechism of my Roman Catholic youth described as Purgatory, accompanied in my memory by stylized soul drawings with fires burning all around them. I believe this is the very illustration:

Heaven, Earth, and Purgatory, from Baltimore Catechism

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Annotating Nineteenth Century American Foods

Today I decided to annotate Aunt Chloe’s “tea rusks” and the “seed-cake” with which someone is often plying little Harry. And I stumbled across this wonderful digital repository of nineteenth-century cookbooks, Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project, which is hosted by the library at Michigan State University,

And based on a quick review, the biscotti-like crispy toast typically served with tea or coffee today and the lemon poppyseed cake of my youth are not the baked goods that Stowe had in mind. Among the Feeding America cookbooks is one by Stowe’s sister Catharine E. Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book: Designed As A Supplement To Her Treatise On Domestic Economy (Harper’s, c. 1846, 1850). And it seems a good bet that her sister’s recipes for “Caraway Cake” and “Egg Rusk” would be fair approximations for the bakery goods in Stowe’s novel. So here are my draft annotations for two instances.

For Chloe’s tea rusks (ch. 4):

An everyday, yeast-raised cake, from a stiff dough, baked individually on a buttered pan, served with tea. That Chloe brushes with egg white hints that hers are above common: Stowe’s sister Catharine Beecher’s “Egg Rusk” recipe, included with the “Plain Cakes” category of her cookbook, lacks an egg wash finish (145).

And for Harry’s seed-cake (ch. 17):

Any of a variety of cookie-like cake, rolled out and unleavened, flavored typically with a pungent seed, such as anise, coriander, or caraway. Stowe’s sister Catharine Beecher’s “Caraway Cakes” recipe is flavored with lemon zest (143).

To search by individual recipe through Eastern Michigan’s entire collection, go to and select the “Recipe Name” tab.

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“The worst use you can put a man to is to hang him.” Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

As far as I know (and I’ve checked several editions, including Diller’s Broadview; the two Nortons, Ammons’ and Gates-Robbins’, and the two Oxfords, Sklar’s and Hedrick’s–the five most extensively annotated editions), no editor of Uncle Tom’s Cabin has identified the source for the above quotation-like paraphrase, which Stowe attributes to “a humane jurist.” Here’s what I can tell you about the probable source, after several hours rooting around in Dictionary of National Biography, Google Books, APS Online, Chronicling America, and ReadEx Early American Newspapers.

One version of this phrase, attributed to John Wilkes (1725–1797), is cited at the close of prominent Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830) in the following form: “THE VERY WORST USE TO WHICH YOU CAN PUT A MAN IS TO HANG HIM.” Versions of this phrase–attributed to many–were common in nineteenth-century print after Bulwer-Lytton’s novel was published, especially in discussions of capital punishment. Wilkes was a British journalist, politician, and wit who served as an alderman, the mayor of London, and a member of parliament in the late eighteenth century. During a term as city sheriff, Wilkes opposed the death penalty for lesser offenses (DNB).

What I don’t say, in that citation-scarce annotation, is that there are several slightly variant versions, that Stowe’s other immediate sources include Charles Southwell’s The Confessions of a Free Thinker, the Lisbon, Ohio Anti-Slavery Bugle, the Maumee, Ohio City Express, as well as New York Herald, and I don’t say the quote was also attributed also to Massachusetts Governor Marcus Morton and to London journalist William Cobbett.

And the reason that I don’t do any of those things is because the earliest version of quote that I have found is the Bulwer-Lytton version, that appeared to proliferate in 1830s (after the novel published), and it’s for an annotation, for which I am informed that I as an editor am expected to speak in my ex cathedra voice, without sources. Now that the source of this quotation is no longer scholarship but has become a free-floating fact on the Internet, you may annotate your own edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin without attributing the quotation to anyone.

Coda: The phrase appeared in Charles Dickens’s Household Words, in the form that Stowe gave it, on September 17, 1853, attributed perhaps archly to no one in particular: “forget what practical philosopher it was who said” (see Household Words version at this link). Given the date, the year after Stowe’s novel was an English bestseller, it seems reasonable to suppose that Richard Horne is recalling Stowe’s novel and quoting Stowe’s absence of a particular attribution.

Sep. 22, 2017 Updated: Remembered the fabulous Household Words project, and added the coda, replacing former speculation that it had appeared in Household Words but that I did not know when (thanks Google Books).

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Remarks for Graduate School Luncheon: A Short Story about Me and a Frog

This is a talk that I gave to the graduate student luncheon, on August 24, 2017, for students entering the English department to pursue a degree or certification in one of our various graduate programs. Several faculty colleagues enjoyed it, some encouraging me to post it on the department’s web site. I am too uncomfortable to post it on the university-owned domain, though I of course speak in my formal role as sub-sub administrator. I decline to gloss my talk here, as it was meant to stand alone. I leave it in the form of occasional remarks, with minimal minor revisions to reflect some of my ad lib explanations and asides (at least to best of my recall).

My colleague Debby Rosenthal, a professor and now department chair for English at John Carroll University in Cleveland, signs off her email with a bit of wisdom literature, a contemporary proverb: “The shortest distance between two people is a story.” Because last semester our department chair Robert Trogdon wrangled me into this job of Graduate Coordinator, it falls to me to host this gathering, for new graduate students, and for which I thought it best to prepare a few words. In the hope that I can shorten the distance between us, in a moment I’ll tell you a bit my own graduate school story. But first, I’ll briefly summarize what a Graduate Coordinator is. I have two fairly well-defined roles: one, to learn policies and handle administrative tasks and to advocate for and to try in collaboration with faculty to improve the several graduate programs in English at Kent State; two, to advise students, part of which includes translating and communicating policies to you in timely fashion, mostly via the graduate student listserv. For that second role, advising students, I hope to hold onto some humility, to remember that advice about graduate school is not necessarily always good advice about life.

During rush and whirl of first weeks, and with the group of students here today from diverse programs–master’s and doctoral level in literature and rhetoric and composition, masters in teaching English as a Second Language, and creative writing: or as we say with our department’s abbreviation soup, LCTSP, LRSP, TESL, and NEO-MFA–this is neither the time nor venue to communicate details–so in my story will stick to larger themes, and hopefully give a bit of good advice, if not about the particular graduate career on which you are about to embark, then maybe about the place of graduate school in your life.

On idealistic days, I think of the two graduate coordinator roles–departmental administrator and student advisor–as being reasonably compatible. If by advising I can help keep you and your plans for study from running afoul of institutional policies and expectations (which could probably be found on a web site or in a handbook or degree planning guide were your search thorough, exhausting, and scholarly), I probably serve both you and the department simultaneously. When I’m more cynical, what I hope to have the courage to advise you against a system of professional training that can be exploitative. By way of illustrating the conflict between the two roles–to remind you that faculty and institutions can take advantage of (or at worst, exploit) graduate students–my story is about my own times in grad school.

My family is from central Texas, which is where I went to undergrad. A few months after I married my college sweetheart, I set out for graduate school at Indiana University in the fall of 1992–doctoral program, comparative literature, unfunded. In spring 1993, I was informed that I was a 2nd alternate for a teaching fellowship the following year. I had a chance at a fellowship if enrollments rose and more sections opened up–or two people ahead of me on funding list dropped out–or if no one of those things happened, I could expect to be twice as deeply in debt after second year of grad study. This did not seem like a good risk. My spouse was homesick and also wanted to go to graduate school, so of concern that I might not get funded I had applied to English department at North Texas in Denton, where I ended up enrolling following semester, with funding via a teaching fellowship. In short, I quit one grad program for another. Two weeks after I drove away from Bloomington with an overloaded U-Haul attached to an undersized pickup, the comp lit department at IU called to offer me a teaching position and funding. Yes, that is exactly how carelessly thoughtless graduate programs can be. My anxieties about debt did not register for the department, or at least were secondary to department’s need, to have ready supply of on-call instructors, some held on call up until the day that the semester started by a chance at tuition remission. I have not regretted my decision not to return to IU, because I place a higher value on my family’s happiness. Also, if you ever pull a U-Haul trailer 900 miles behind an undersized pickup, you would not want to repeat the same three weeks later either.

The next year was pretty good, at school in North Texas in the English department, but my wife and I wanted to start a family. It was only at this point that I learned that a master’s in English literature does not itself count as a career path. This fact, apparently well-known among faculty, was a genuine discovery to me, during my second year of graduate study. So–drawing on years of moonlighting in alternate careers: newspaper copy editor, technical writer, bookstore warehouse worker, scholarly press typesetter and copyeditor–I put graduate school on back-burner and this time headed into what would become almost a decade-long career, technical writing at software companies, where I wrote documentation and training materials for payroll, accounting, income tax preparation, and toll and traffic management industries. Two times now I had quit or postponed full-time graduate school–once in Indiana with debt and no degree, once in North Texas with a little more debt and a degree that was at best tangential to the careers that were paying my family’s bills. This alternate version of my life, I would note, does not appear on my professional vita.

The first moral of my story is: if you no idea what you will do with your degree, and you discover that you’re digging a deep financial hole, stop digging. That is, you can quit graduate school. Also, if the type of degree you that earn means the most likely kind of work that you can get is part-time adjunct teaching–those of you starting an MA in Literature, in Rhetoric, and NEO-MFA especially, that’s you–local universities will be willing to exploit you. If you are from a family of means or your partner has a good job, the amount that you personally will be harmed by the exploitation may be psychologically manageable. If you’re unfunded and not well-connected financially and spiraling into debt, then do everything you can to avoid being exploited among the ranks of adjunct faculty who teach many of our classes.

Now I DO encourage you to respect, to advocate for, and to support the efforts of our adjunct faculty to unionize and to agitate for better wages and benefits. Adjunct faculty have been exploited for decades. It wouldn’t hurt to unionize staff and graduate students as well–if possible. Nonetheless, the administrative ranks and tenure-track faculty benefit from the exploitation of other workers on campus, and you may need to fight with, or against, some of us to change that.

To return to my own story, 7 years after getting a degree at North Texas I returned to graduate school, this time to the PhD program at University of Virginia, but this time funded. That isn’t the whole truth. One source of funding was tuition remission, a teaching fellowship. And you know that vaguely worded advice you hear about no outside employment? I ignored it. My second source of funding I did not talk about, when at school, continuing to moonlight 20 hours per week in my old career, which paid about 5 times as much per hour as my teaching fellowship. Four years later–after falling further in debt and nearly suffering a stress-induced nervous breakdown–I finished a PhD, was unable to find a faculty position, and set off with a freshly-minted PhD from Virginia to Nebraska for a one-year post-doctoral fellowship. Two years after earning my degree, I received my first conference interview at the Modern Language Association (a national professional organization for language and literature study), my only on-campus interview, and my only full-time tenure-track job offer–that would be this one. Had I not gotten a job at Kent State that year, I would have quit this profession a third time. As much as I like this job, I would also say that between 1995 and 2005, I had a decent career in technical writing. And, by the way, it pays better. Never forget, as one of my North Texas grad school professors said about being a professor, “It’s a job”–even if you have to think about it as a calling to be successful, which you do.

Now I love my job, and my colleagues, most of the time. But one reason that I got a faculty job is that I was able to draw on my outside experience—s a technical writer, as a document designer, etc.–to enrich my scholarship. A reason that I got a chance at this Kent State job was that I published, two journal articles while in graduate school. So this is my second piece of advice. Always make sure your graduate school work is looking forward to something else. Your work for a class project does not end because the class ends. Your class papers and projects need to go somewhere–become teaching exercises or lesson plans, become blog posts for your public profile, become presentations or conference papers. If you’re an MA student and want a PhD, you need to ensure that a class paper might turn into the germ of a project that will become part of PhD application. Especially if you want a PhD to turn into a faculty job, your class projects as often as possible need to turn into conference papers, dissertation chapters, and, most importantly, peer-reviewed journal articles. Obviously, this can’t always work out. But to be successful in a graduate degree program, especially the PhD, you are going to have to devote yourself to the academic and scholarly work, to write with publication in mind, not for an assignment. But the more of yourself that you can put into that work–even the parts of yourself that may seem separate from your academic English self, such as the other languages that you speak or read–the more compelling your work can be. Regardless of your degree—now I’m talking to everyone, not just PhD students–don’t construct an ideal of a teaching and professional life in which it stays pure and uncorrupted by worldly concerns–your own personal ones and that of others. Learn new domains of knowledge, but also expand current domains of knowledge, qualities, and skills that you already possess–languages, technical computing and software skills, long-term planning skills, teaching techniques, oral presentation expertise, research and writing–and remember that all those can transfer to careers outside academia.

One of my plans, as graduate coordinator, is to expand and diversify the types of opportunities we provide to students, including brief seminars on publishing in academic journals as well as mainstream publications, continuing in graduate school as well as seeking careers in types of employment that are not on the faculty track, or are outside the university entirely. Again, watch our graduate student listserv for those announcements.

All of you, I’m sure, know the legend of the boiling frog, that a live frog will leap immediately out when put into a pot of boiling water but won’t leap out of gradually heated water. The usual moral that is taken from the story does not, to my mind, match the experiment very well. In the original of the experiment, Friedrich Goltz demonstrated that some frogs in fact WILL leap out of gradually heated pot of water–and some frogs won’t. The difference between the two sets of frogs, both placed into the gradually heated pot, was that one set of frogs, the ones who did not leap out, had had their brains surgically separated from their spinal column. I suspect there’s a lesson to be had in there somewhere.

It appears that I have finished my stories but left out many moments when I felt exploited in graduate school. There were more of those moments. Let it suffice that institutions, and people who serve institutions, can be thoughtless and even ruthless. I’ll wrap the mantle of charity around those moments. Another piece of advice: graduate school and even the profession of scholarship in your field consists of small groups of specialists. When its time to burn bridges, remember how small these social circles are. So I advise that you communicate with your peers, join AGES (English graduate school society)–and look out for yourself and for one another. As the title of Spike Lee’s movie said, do the right thing.

Upon starting or returning to grad school, it may be hard to explain to your family and friends why you would want to do it. After you’ve been in it a while, it may become hard to imagine yourself ever leaving. But if upon thinking carefully about current or future opportunities it does not seem wise to stay, you can leave. If you can do this kind of work, you can do other kinds of work, other jobs, some of which pay quite well. Use grad school’s flexibility to combine continuing your education with figuring out how to acquire skills that can serve other types of careers. But how your stint in grad school fits into your larger life–your family, your purpose, your career–is typically up to you. So long as you are in this pot, always keep looking one or more steps ahead. If an alternative looks like a better choice for your life than staying in academia, or if at this moment you’re jumping back into academia, remember that you can take another leap, in whichever pot you want to get into–or out of.

Now you know my biases about graduate school, which will likely inform what I tell you in my role as an academic advisor. Don’t rely to much on one person’s wisdom–not even mine. The life experiences of other faculty–and of your peers–may impart different lessons. Also, for particular local and university matters, the office staff, Sheri McMahon, Jenni Nikolin, Lauren Gougler, and Christine Strock, bring the wisdom of collective experiences that faculty do not have. Balance several sources of professional advice against that which concerns your personal life. Now I’m going to turn this over to a panel that has been assembled by current graduate student Yvonne Lee.

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