31 January 2008

Footnote to Larry Schweikart’s Claim


In A Patriot's History, Schweikart and Allen’s claim that “[t]uberculosis existed in Central and North America” (8) appears slightly inaccurate in light of research published after their text. It is not clear, however, that their claim contradicts “research from the hard sciences” available to them, even though support for their claim remains elusive.

An excellent summary of the medical science regarding the presence of tuberculosis in pre-Columbian America appeared in Philip A. Mackowiak, Vera Tiesler Blos, Manuel Aguilar, and Jane E. Buikstra, “On the Origin of American Tuberculosis,” Clinical Infectious Diseases (15 August 2005), 515-18.

The article asserts, “it is now firmly established that tuberculosis existed in the New World before the arrival of Columbus” (516), but the origins, spread, and cause (M. tuberculosis or M. bovis) remain unknown. Moreover, conclusive evidence of tuberculosis in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica “has yet to be found” (516).

Richard H. Steckel and the Backbone of History

In his article for History News Network, “Why It's Time for a Patriot's History of the United States,” Larry Schweikart claims: “[we] note that considerable new research in the hard sciences and medicine shows that some diseases thought to be ‘transmitted’ from Europe likely were already here.”

Economist Richard H. Steckel coordinated the work of a large group of scholars that resulted in several publications, including two texts cited by Schweikart and Allen. As noted yesterday, I have not yet been able to access these books. However, several summaries of the work suggest that Schweikart and Allen correctly formulate a central generalization of this work, but then grossly distort the specifics. They correctly quote the work of this group as suggesting that the health of indigenous Americans was on a “downward trajectory” before Europeans arrived. On the other hand, errors range from semantic inaccuracies to substantive misrepresentations.

Schweikart and Allen note a study of “12,500 skeletons from sixty-five sites” (8). Steckel’s summary differs:
The combined data sets include 12,520 skeletons from 218 archeological sites representing populations who lived in the Western Hemisphere from about 4,000 B.C. to the early 20th century. For purposes of the present analysis, the samples were combined into 65 groups based on their chronological and ecological similarity.
Steckel, et al, “Variation in Health,” 270.
Steckel and his coauthors highlight complexities in their generalization that there was a general decline of health in the Americas.
The average values for the health index ranged from 64.0 for Native Central Americans to 78.1 for Native North Americans from the Eastern Woodlands. As measured by the index, the examples of very good health in the 65 samples were for coastal Brazil, coastal Ecuador, and coastal Georgia, while the worst health was found at Hawikku, New Mexico, and among plantation slaves of South Carolina. Some of the best and worst health conditions were found in pre-Columbian Native American communities.
Steckel, et al, “Skeletal Health,” 149.
Much of the decline in health appears to have stemmed from “improvements” in agriculture and the consequent growth of urban areas. Those very features of indigenous American life that Schweikart and Allen labor to conceal are the source of the decline they trumpet.
Groups living in paramount towns or urban settings had a health index nearly 15 points (two standard deviations) below that expressed for mobile hunter-gatherers and others not living in large permanent communities. Clearly, there is something about living in a large community that is deleterious to health. … these larger communities are fueled by an agricultural economy. Diet was also closely related to the change in the health index, with performance being lower under the triad of corn, beans and squash compared to the more diverse diet of hunter-gatherer groups.
Steckel, et al, “Variation in Health,” 272.
One of the key findings to emerge from the study is the downward trajectory of health prior to the arrival of Europeans. Historians, economists, and other social scientists have long celebrated the contributions of technological change for improvements in the human condition. However, our research underscores the importance of distinguishing between material and health aspects of the quality of life.
Steckel, et al, “Variation in Health,” 274.
Because indigenous Americans were civilized, their health was in decline. Hunter-gatherers were generally healthier. Indeed, nineteenth-century equestrian nomads were so healthy that they distort the general data on the improvement in health of Native Americans following colonization.
The transition to agriculture has been widely considered a benchmark development for humanity, laying the groundwork for “civilization” and all of its elements, such as democracy, learning, art, literature, and architecture. From this perspective, humans underwent a transition from a way of life that was “nasty, brutish, and short” to one brimming with leisure and excess. The findings from the Western Hemisphere project argue that, in fact, the reverse was closer to reality. This is not to say that life went from rosy and healthy to bleak and unhealthy. That is not the case. There is a misperception by much of the public—at least the American public—that prehistoric Native Americans were the original ecologists, whose impact on the environment was minimal. Moreover, it is commonly believed that few diseases existed before the arrival of colonizing Europeans, who carried with them a suite of infectious pathogens that wiped out many native peoples. In fact, pre-Columbian people show plenty of evidence of disease. Some were among the healthiest in the study, whereas others were among those with the greatest burden of disease.
Steckel, et al, “Skeletal Health,” 152.
Steckel and company are clear that America was not a disease-free paradise, but they do not support the counter myth that American indigenes were on the whole “fierce savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest” (Chief Justice John Marshall, Johnson v. McIntosh [1823]). Schweikart and Allen do not quote Marshall, but they distort the process of disease transmission when, after acknowledgment that European introduced microbes “generated a much higher level of infection,” they state, “warring Indian tribes spread the diseases among one another when they attacked enemy tribes and carried off infected prisoners” (17).

Full Citations

Richard H. Steckel, Jerome C. Rose, Clark Spencer Larsen, and Phillip L. Walker, “Variation in Health in the Western Hemisphere: 4000 B.C. to the Present.” In M. Schultz, et al., eds., Homounsere Herkunft und Zukunft: 4. Kongress der Gesellschaft für Anthropologie (GfA)Proceedings (Göttingen: Cuvillier Verlag, 2001), 270-75.

Expanded as

Richard H. Steckel, Jerome C. Rose, Clark Spencer Larsen, and Phillip L. Walker, “Skeletal Health in the Western Hemisphere From 4000 B.C. to the Present,” Evolutionary Anthropology 11 (2002), 142-155.

30 January 2008

Larry Schweikart’s Claim

In his article for History News Network, “Why It's Time for a Patriot's History of the United States,” Larry Schweikart makes a number of claims regarding the content and merits of A Patriot’s History. I’ve been spending some time examining one: “[we] note that considerable new research in the hard sciences and medicine shows that some diseases thought to be ‘transmitted’ from Europe likely were already here.” This claim raises two immediate questions. Which New World diseases were thought to be Old World diseases? What research in the hard sciences supports their claim?

New World / Old World

Which New World diseases were thought to be Old World diseases? Schweikart and Allen offer two answers:
Native populations had epidemics long before Europeans arrived. A recent study of more than 12,500 skeletons from sixty-five sites found that native health was on a “downward trajectory long before Columbus arrived.” Some suggest that Indians may have had a nonvenereal form of syphilis, and almost all agree that a variety of infections were widespread. Tuberculosis existed in Central and North America long before the Spanish appeared, as did herpes, polio, tick-borne fevers, giardiasis, and amebic dysentary.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 8.

Disease also decimated the colony. Jamestown settlers were leveled by New World diseases for which they had no resistance. Malaria, in particular, proved a dreaded killer, and malnutrition lowered the immunity of the colonists.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 17.
I’m nearly ready to present a posting here at Patriots and Peoples showing that research in the so-called hard sciences favors an African origin for malaria, at least for its most virulent strain, and that this research was widely disseminated roughly during the time that Schweikart and Allen should have been finishing the research for their text. Of course, the scientific answers regarding the origins of malaria are inconclusive, as is customary for scientific research. Scientists are a skeptical tribe and they present their research with a degree of uncertainty that is misread to produce the distortions propagated by anti-intellectual crusades against such “truths” as evolutionary theory, the necessity of habitat protection and restoration, and models of climate change that reveal the effects of carbon dioxide emissions.
I will deal with malaria and Jamestown in "Death in Jamestown" which should be posted in a matter of days. In addition, “Origins of Malaria” will address some of the latest work in the hard sciences (at the time A Patriot's History was in preparation) with respect to malaria. While I’m moving forward on these two articles, I’m pursuing other aspects of Schweikart’s claim. The existence of a variety of infections, including nonvenereal syphilis, comes as no surprise to anyone with the faintest knowledge of the vast literature on Indian health, demography, and depopulation. Indeed, except for malaria, none of the maladies listed by Schweikart and Allen are among those listed by Henry Dobyns as Old World diseases that decimated indigenous populations in the Americas.

Hard Sciences

What research in the hard sciences supports their claim? I can find no citations to medical journals or the like in Schweikart and Allen’s bibliography. There are two texts that include work in a field called macrobioarchaeology, and two short articles in popular scientific journals. The two citations to science journals are both “[a]mong those who cite higher numbers” (9), and neither supports their claim. That leaves The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere, edited by Richard H. Steckel, and Jerome C. Rose; and Michael R. Haines and Richard H. Steckel, A Population History of North America. Steckel calls his work social science (i.e. “soft science”), but his work must be the “hard science” to which Schweikart refers.
It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. –Sherlock Holmes
A. Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, 315.
According to the publisher, The Backbone of History “gathers skeletal evidence on seven basic indicators of health to assess chronic conditions that affected individuals who lived in the Western Hemisphere from 5000 B.C. to the late nineteenth century.” This book is the source for the language “downward trajectory,” a phrase available in numerous reviews, such as the New York Times article, “Don't Blame Columbus for All the Indians' Ills,” also cited by Schweikart and Allen. However, the New York Times article is clear that Steckel and Rose “say their findings in no way diminish the dreadful impact Old World diseases had on the people of the New World.” This assertion runs counter to the thrust of the argument in A Patriot’s History.

A Scholar’s Frustration

I do not own either of Steckel’s books cited by Schweikart and Allen. The Backbone of History is unavailable in my public libraries—city and county; nor does it exist in either university library in my city. The nearest copy I’ve located is 85 miles south of my home at my alma mater. A Population History does exist at one local library, but when I checked there in December, it was checked out until the end of January (their online catalog indicates that it is there today, so perhaps I can examine it later this week). Thus I’ve been forced to defer full examination of Schweikart and Allen’s professed sources, but initial forays into summaries offered in book reviews, and articles accessible through JSTOR are pushing me towards an assessment nearly identical to that offered in “America was not a disease-free paradise”: superficial reliance on quotable comments from books that argue the opposite of the larger claims in A Patriot’s History. I keep seeking credible scholarship in Schweikart and Allen’s text, but it eludes me.

29 January 2008

The True Story of Pocahontas

Smith and Pocahontas

In 1624 Captain John Smith published an account that he was rescued by Pocahontas from a death planned by her father, Wahunsonacock—the Powhatan Chief. The alleged rescue occurred when Smith was a prisoner of the Powhatans in the winter of 1607-1608, and Smith first mentioned it in a letter to Queen Anne in 1616. Smith's story has been embraced and accepted, contextualized, and disputed.
The Queene of Appamatuck was appointed to bring him water to wash his hands, and another brought him a bunch of feathers, in stead of a Towell to dry them: having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death: whereat the Emperour was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper; for they thought him as well of all occupations as themselves.
Smith, Generall Historie of Virginia (1624), Electronic Edition
Text also available at Eyewitness to History

The story was generally accepted until challenged in the mid-nineteenth century by Charles Deane and Henry Adams; this challenge appeared most prominently in the North American Review, January 1867. More recently, the Powhatan Renape Nation has challenged “The Pocahontas Myth” and its revision in the 1995 Disney film.

Others have accepted the story, but accuse Smith of misunderstanding the nature of a formal ritual in which Pocahontas played a role prescribed for her. This ritual view is advocated by some scholars, such as Michael J. Puglisi, “Capt. John Smith, Pocahontas and a Clash of Cultures: A Case for the Ethnohistorical Perspective,” The History Teacher (November 1991), 97-103. This view was mentioned by David Silverman in December 2006 in an interview for the NOVA program “Pocahontas Revealed.”

Others have suggested plagiarism: Smith’s account bears a strong similarity to an alleged 1528 rescue of Juan Ortiz by Ulele, daughter of the Ucita chief Hirrihugua, a perspective mentioned in Pocahontas film critiques in the New York Times. I have propagated this view in my classrooms, in an article concerned with Russell Means as an actorvist, and previously in Patriots and Peoples.

Others have defended the credibility of Smith’s story, especially J.A. Leo Lemay in Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? (1992). A Stanford graduate student in engineering posted a summary of this book, which was also reviewed favorably in The William and Mary Quarterly (October 1995) by Robert S. Tilton. Tilton notes that Lemay fails to address Helen C. Rountree’s argument that “that a young girl would not have had the power to stop an execution and that we have too little knowledge of Powhatan adoption rituals to make a strong case for this popular interpretation of Smith's narrative” (Tilton, 715). Tilton’s Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (1994) examines how stories about Pocahontas have been reframed to fit a variety of agendas.

Oral History

In The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History (2007), Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star” dispute Smith’s account from the perspective of oral history. They cite Smith’s statement in A True Relation (1608) of “Weramocomoco … assuring mee his friendship, and my libertie within foure days” (American Journeys Collection, 48).
Why would the Powhatan want to kill a person they were initiating to be a werowance? By Smith’s own admission, Wahunsenaca gave Smith his word that Smith would be released in four days. Smith’s fears were either a figment of his own imagination or an embellishment to dramatize his narrative.
Custalow and Daniel, True Story of Pocahontas, 19.
Children would not have been present in such a ritual conducted by quiakros (priests), they argue. Once Smith was initiated as a werowance, the entire English colony was considered part of the Powhatan society and subordinate to Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca. The English, of course, quickly came to view the Powhatans as subordinate to their rule, although it would be several years before they were able to survive in the nascent colony.

There are many fresh perspectives and surprising revelations in The True Story of Pocahontas that challenge conventional understanding of colonial Virginia. The authors assert that John Rolfe, the second husband of Pocahontas, likely was not the biological father of Pocahontas’s son Thomas Rolfe. They speculate that Thomas Dale probably was the biological father, and that he raped Pocahontas. They observe inconsistencies in the long-standing belief that Pocahontas died of tuberculosis, offering a plausible scenario in which she was poisoned at the onset of a return journey to Virginia.

In The True Story of Pocahontas, the young Indian girl is presented as a symbol of peace, riding on the front of canoes visiting the English at Jamestown so the English would understand that the Indians had come without hostile intent. Her marriage to John Rolfe aided him and the colony because it motivated the quiakros to share their knowledge of the curing of tobacco with the aspiring planter. Rolfe had planted West Indian tobacco, which was milder (and thus more suitable for recreational smoking) than the native Virginia tobacco, but it was not yet good enough to compete with Spanish leaf. Learning from the Powhatans how to cure and process his tobacco improved the quality. The economic success of his tobacco assured the continuation of the colony’s financial backing, and thus its success. Pocahontas saved the colony, but not the way Smith describes.

Historians traditionally favor written documents as evidence and may have difficulty accepting many parts of the narrative in The True Story of Pocahontas. The authority of the oral stories presented rests in the claim that following the war of 1644-1646, the Mattaponi concealed Powhatan quiakros from the English. Among the Mattaponi, the sacred history was maintained for nearly four centuries. The Mattaponi was one of six principles tribes forming the Powhatan nation.

Note regarding spelling: The name Wahunsenaca / Wahunsonacock is also spelled Wahunsenacawh. I make the effort to preserve the spelling employed in each source in my discussion of that source. John Smith used Wahunsonacock; Custalow and Daniel spell Chief Powhatan’s name Wahunsenaca. The name Powhatan also is used in many historical sources and studies, including by Smith, as the name of Pocahontas's father. It is better understood as a title than as a proper name.

25 January 2008

Pristine Wilderness?

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Lots of books on history are written by journalists these days. Most are well-written and more accessible to the general reader than the output of historians published by university presses. These journalists’s histories frequently reveal startling new ideas that have roamed the halls of academia for decades. They offer old news to professional historians. Such is the case with Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005). The back cover offers a promise regarding the contents inside. My references are to paperbound Vintage edition (2006), which contains an additional Afterword not in the hardbound first edition.

Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. … Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand.
1491, paperbound back cover

Compare a statement from a scholarly article by William M. Deneven that is cited in 1491.

In the ensuing forty years, scholarship has shown that Indian populations in the Americas were substantial, that the forests had indeed been altered, that landscape change was commonplace. This message, however, seems not to have reached the public through texts, essays, or talks by both academics and popularizers who have a responsibility to know better.
Deneven, “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (Sept. 1992), 369.

The forty years Deneven refers to stems from his observations of the striking unity of perspective between John Bakeless, The Eyes of Discovery (1950) and Kirkpatrick Sale, Conquest of Paradise (1990). Mann mentions that the special issue of Annals of the Association of American Geographers in which Deneven’s article appeared was one of the volumes he depended upon (411), and acknowledges “some of the ‘new revelations’ chronicled in 1491 occurred fifty years ago” (379). Denevan's views also are at least partly in accord with those of Shepard Krech, The Ecological Indian: they share the view that Indians changed the land, although they might disagree on the numbers of Indians.

Mann's book is written well. The prose is smooth and the story carries it along. Although the text does not uncover new knowledge, it helps orchestrate and popularize ideas that more Americans should know.

It should come as no surprise that I've already cited Mann twice on technology and once on disease. Expect to see this text mentioned again.

24 January 2008

Becker and Everyman 1932

Irreducible Bias

In his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1931, Carl Becker stated in part:

Even the most disinterested historian has at least one preconception, which is the fixed idea that he has none. The facts of history are already set forth, implicitly, in the sources; and the historian who could restate without reshaping them would, by submerging and suffocating the mind in diffuse existence, accomplish the superfluous task of depriving human experience of all significance. Left to themselves, the facts do not speak; left to themselves they do not exist, not really, since for all practical purposes there is no fact until someone affirms it.
Becker, "Everyman his own Historian," American Historical Review (1932), 233.

20 January 2008

What were they drinking?

Fact Checking

Almost two weeks ago I quoted a memory of Pat Buchanan that was published in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson (2007).

I met Hunter in New Hampshire when he came to interview the old man [Nixon]. … Hunter and I were holed up in some hotel in Nashua on a snowy night and discovered that we were in possession of, I forget, either a gallon or a half-gallon of Wild Turkey. Now I had a lot of stamina in those days, and the two of us stayed up all night arguing fiercely about communism.
Pat Buchanan in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, 126-127.
Hunter Thompson also mentioned this night of drinking and arguing politics with Buchanan.

My own relationship with Buchanan goes back to the New Hampshire primary in 1968 when Nixon was still on the dim fringes of his political comeback. We spent about eight hours one night in a Boston hotel room, finishing off a half-gallon of Old Crow and arguing savagely about politics: As I recall, I kept asking him why a person who seemed to have good sense would be hanging around with Nixon. It was clear even then that Buchanan considered me stone crazy, and my dismissal of Nixon as a hopeless bum with no chance of winning anything seemed to amuse him more than anything else.
Thompson, “Fear and Loathing at the Watergate,” in The Great Shark Hunt, 253.

Given their agreement that they drank bourbon together all night in a hotel in 1968 while arguing politics, it may not be important whether they drank Wild Turkey or Old Crow, whether they were in Nashua or Boston, and whether they argued about communism or Richard Nixon. Thompson was known to invent certain details to flesh out the stories in his Gonzo Journalism, but he is generally quite specific about the drugs he was taking or the alcohol consumed, such as sharing a couple of bottles of Bass Ale with the night watchman at the Washington Hilton in the early morning of 9 August 1974 (The Great Shark Hunt, 316). As a native of Louisville, Kentucky whose childhood classmates’ families owned some of the leading distilleries in the state, Thompson certainly understood the difference between Wild Turkey and Old Crow.

Nixon's speechwriter Buchanan, on the other hand, has plenty of experience “red-baiting”. His suggestion that he and Thompson (perhaps more of a Libertarian than anything else) disagreed on anything regarding communism spins their debate in a particular direction quite distinct from Thompson’s recollection that Nixon was the subject of their “savage” disagreement. Buchanan and his allies have a well-established anti-communist legacy that almost appears psychotic, while Thompson’s hatred of Nixon was so intense that even a review of a Blues album for The Distant Drummer in 1967 contained the line, “Nixon back from the dead, running wild in the power vacuum of Lyndon’s hopeless bullshit” (The Great Shark Hunt, 99).


Who offers more reliable facts, Buchanan or Thompson? A rising speech writer and a journalist on the cusp of a brilliant moment in his career drank together and argued politics. Each would influence millions of others towards his peculiar take on matters more important than one obscure night in a hotel room. The discord in their shared recollections reflects, however faintly, deeper ideological conflicts.

18 January 2008

Bobby Fischer 1943-2008

(crossposted from Chess Skills)

Robert J. "Bobby" Fischer was a singularly historic chess player. He remains an icon of unsurpassed chess skill and of the social awkwardness that often afflicts anyone with a single-minded pursuit of a single objective. He died yesterday in Iceland.

When he became a Grandmaster at age 15 in 1958, he was the youngest to achieve that title—a record that stood until 1991 when Judit Polgar achieved the title slightly more than one month younger than Fischer had been. The age of achievement of youngest Grandmaster has fallen frequently in recent years as noted at ChessBase News.

Fischer's battle with Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship became a minor skirmish in the four-decade long Cold War—a lone American individualist taking on the chess machine of the Soviet Union and winning, winning despite an abysmal start that included a forfeited game due to squabbles about noise and lighting.

After becoming World Champion, Fischer stopped playing tournaments. In 1975, negotiations broke down regarding terms for his title defense and he was stripped of his title, thus facilitating his claim, and that of many of his fans, that he remained the champion. In 1992 he played a rematch with Spassky, winning decisively. His political difficulties with the United States government grew worse because this match violated U.S. economic sanctions against Yugoslavia, where the match was played.

Continue reading at Chess Skills

17 January 2008

“A City on a Hill”

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 5:14-16

We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when he shall make us a praise and glory that me shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.
John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” 1630

Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that shone as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before.
Barack Obama, “The Audacity of Hope,” Democratic National Convention 2004

The lives of hundreds of thousands of America's sons and daughters were laid down during the last century to preserve freedom, for us and for freedom loving people throughout the world.
Mitt Romney, “Faith in America,” George Bush Presidential Library 2007

The notion that the United States has been blessed for an exceptional purpose as a redeemer nation (see Ernest Lee Tuveson’s book) runs deep. Presidents, Presidential Candidates, and many politicians routinely end speeches, “may God richly bless the United States of America,” or similar sentences. It should not be considered insignificant, therefore, that three conservative histories of the United States deploy language from Matthew 5:14 in chapter titles. The first chapter of A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen is titled “The City on the Hill, 1492-1707.” William J. Bennett gives the title “A City Upon a Hill (1607-1765)” to the second chapter in America: The Last Best Hope. Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People begins with “‘A City on a Hill’ Colonial America, 1580-1750.”

In contrast to these conservative histories, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States narrates the colonial era in chapters titled “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress,” “Drawing the Color Line,” and “persons of Mean and Vile Condition.” Likewise, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen offers no biblical phrases in the early chapter titles, rather “Handicapped by History: The Process of Hero-Making,” “1493: The True Importance of Christopher Columbus,” “The Truth about the First Thanksgiving,” and “Red Eyes.”

15 January 2008

Gone Fishing: Mosquitoes, Malaria

In the summer I eat fewer bananas and catch more fish. I cut down on fruit that seems to make me more attractive to the mosquitoes that inhabit wetlands near my favorite trout streams. It’s folk wisdom, and it may be proven false by science, but as with the flies I tie on the end of my tippet, my belief is the critical factor. I think that fewer bananas (and more garlic) renders me relatively unattractive to blood sucking insects, and so the evidence of my experience bears me out.

In the winter I do more angling in the library than along streams. There I recently netted an article of interest on the introduction of malaria in the New World: Corinne Shear Wood, “New Evidence for a Late Introduction of Malaria into the New World,” Current Anthropology 16 (March 1975), 93-104. Wood’s abstract at the end of the article sums the argument.

The unique, overwhelming group-O frequency present among indigenous American populations is seen as a result of mother-child ABO incompatibility effects operating in the absence of the positive selection pressures by malaria vectors favoring enhanced survival for genes A and B that the investigation findings suggest. It is proposed that had malaria been present to act upon the original gene pool, a balanced ABO polymorphism would be found in the New World Indians today.
Wood, “New Evidence,” 5.

Comment by sixteen scholars follow Wood’s article, taking up more pages than her report. There are several criticisms that urge caution in reasoning from her preliminary results, and most suggest the need for further studies. None of them fault her assessment of the historical literature up to the time of her study. It had been inconclusive, but was leaning toward Old World origins.

There should be no doubt from the responses, and her reply, that her study does more to raise questions than offer answers. As the article was published more than thirty years ago, we might expect to find corroborating or refuting evidence by now.

A much more recent study brought to my attention by John Hawks offers a conclusion supporting at least one aspect of Wood’s contentions, that malaria could have impacted selective pressure regarding blood groups:

This work provides insights into malaria pathogenesis and suggests that the selective pressure imposed by malaria may contribute to the variable global distribution of ABO blood groups in the human population.
J. Alexandra Rowe, et al, “Blood group O protects against severe Plasmodium falciparum malaria through the mechanism of reduced rosetting,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 (October 2007), 17471-17476.

In addition, some genetic analysis published a few years ago, also inconclusive, leans towards origins of malaria in Africa. See Jennifer C. C. Hume, Emily J. Lyons, and Karen P. Day, “Archaeology of Epidemic and Infectious Disease,” World Archaeology, 35 (October 2003), 180-192.

This kettle of fish increases skepticism regarding Larry Schweikart’s claim, that “considerable new research in the hard sciences and medicine shows that some diseases thought to be ‘transmitted’ from Europe likely were already here,” if this claim applies to malaria.

I’ve addressed this question from another angle near the end of “America was not a disease-free paradise.” Schweikart and Allen name malaria once, as a New World disease that struck down English colonists that “had no resistance” (A Patriot’s History, 17).

13 January 2008

Howard Zinn on Depopulation

War, Slavery, Disease

In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn offers potentially inflated figures of the number of Indians that died. His numbers and the use he makes of them are clear in four short sentences.

For a while the English tried softer tactics. But ultimately, it was back to annihilation. The Indian population of 10 million that lived north of Mexico when Columbus came would ultimately be reduced to less than a million. Huge numbers of Indians would die from diseases introduced by whites.
Zinn, A People’s History, 16.

Zinn prioritizes the intent of white colonists to annihilate Indians. He mentions disease here, but omits it elsewhere in the first chapter. The sequence is telling: European tactics, depopulation, and then disease. Earlier in the first chapter, “Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress,” he criticizes Spanish colonization of Hispaniola without reference to epidemics, stating that from 1494 to 1508 “over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines” (7). Two pages earlier, he credited “murder, mutilation, or suicide” for decimating “half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti” during the first two years of colonization there (5).

Aside from the first chapter of A People’s History, Zinn’s one significant mention of disease afflicting Indians highlights European agency in spreading illness.

Under orders from British General Jeffrey Amherst, the commander of Fort Pitts gave the attacking Indian chiefs, with whom he was negotiating, blankets from the smallpox hospital. It was a pioneering effort at what is now called biological warfare. An epidemic soon spread among the Indians.
Zinn, A People’s History, 87.

This single documented case of deliberate introduction of lethal pathogens generates considerable discussion, as for instance NativeWeb’s “Jeffrey Amherst and Smallpox Blankets,” with links to images of the critical documents.

Implications of Large Estimates

Citing high population estimates, but deemphasizing the chief cause of depopulation presents a distorted account. All scholars that put forth high estimates, those arguing for moderate numbers, and even several of the low counters agree that disease epidemics were the principle cause of the decline in Indian numbers. Moreover, Zinn’s narrative emphasis contrasts with the discussion of causality in his principle source for some of the population figures he offers, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (1975) by Francis Jennings. The relationship between war and disease is presented with some artistry in The Invasion of America.

Not even the most brutally depraved of the conquistadors was able purposely to slaughter Indians on the scale that the gentle priest unwittingly accomplished by going from his sickbed ministrations to lay his hands in blessing on his Indian converts. As the invaders were descendants of the toughened survivors of the Middle Ages, so the Indians of today descend from those who could live through the trauma of a European handshake.
Jennings, The Invasion of America, 22.

Handshakes were more lethal than muskets. The population figures that Zinn passes along are not without controversy, as noted elsewhere in Patriots and Peoples. To his credit, he expresses some uncertainty regarding these numbers in his discussion of Bartolomé de las Casas’s criticisms of Spanish conquest. This skepticism, however, is buried within strident criticism of the effects of conquest and of sanitized commemorations.

Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas—even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?)—in conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure—there is no bloodshed—and Columbus Day is a celebration.
Zinn, A People’s History, 7.

Zinn is correct that conquest of the Americas meant death for immense numbers of Native American Indians, but his emphasis on European intent seems inconsistent with his report of the degree of population loss. Nowhere in A People’s History does Zinn offer a general discussion of the effects of epidemic disease in reducing the indigenous population of the Americas.

11 January 2008

Indian Population 1492: John D. Daniels

Praise and Expectations

At first glance John D. Daniels, “The Indian Population of North America in 1492,” William and Mary Quartery (April 1992), 298-320, is an impressive article that deserves praise as “[t]he best single review of all the literature on Indian population numbers” (Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 9). It offers a staggering list of citations, boiling down many articles and books to three or four sentence summaries of general method to identify “eleven methods,” one “expedient,” and “three schools of thought”. He states, “conflict among them culminated in a major controversy that involved far more than numbers” (298).

These three schools of thought developed chronologically from low to higher estimates. Bottom up dominated 1910-1955 and produced “estimates in the 500,000 to 2,500,000 range” (310). Area modeling “came to prevail from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s” (312), with estimates in the range “2,500,000 to 7,000,000” (310). The top down school originated with a 1966 article by Henry Dobyns, and offers estimates from “7,000,000 to 18,000,000” (310); it “gradually displaced area modeling, achieving dominance by the mid-1980s” (314).

The most influential members of bottom up school are James Mooney and Alfred Kroeber. They estimate each tribe individually, and add all estimates to achieve their totals. Area modeling is the name employed by Daniels for the work of Sherburne Cook, Harold Driver, and others that develop ecological and cultural models of areas; such factors as population density and resource availability form the base for their estimates. The top down method was initiated by Henry Dobyns who employed epidemic correction, carrying capacity, multiple multiple, and depopulation ratio multiplied by actual census data of nadir population. Although others have arrived at lower estimates, while his continued to climb, many have adopted his methods.

The crux of the problem, as Daniels sees it, stems from “the inadequacy of historical evidence” because reports by colonial Europeans “are invariably defective” (298). In order to compensate for gaps and issues of credibility in the documentary record, sophisticated methods of estimation have been developed. Daniels concludes:

Despite all the discussion of rules of evidence and logic, no one has attempted tribe-by-tribe analysis, taking all direct evidence seriously and using simple inference only when absolutely essential. In order to create a reliable estimate of the North American population in 1492, scholars will either have to find new evidence or develop better methods of handling evidence.
Daniels, “Indian Population,” 320.

From such assertions, we might expect some detailed analysis of representative primary sources to illustrate how they are “defective”. We also might expect further assessment of how particular methodologies have employed such “direct evidence,” and some explanation regarding when inference is essential. It goes without saying that Daniels’ own use of evidence should prove exemplary.


These expectations produce disappointment.

Daniels does not cite or analyze a single primary source. Rather, he assesses the interpretation of primary sources in secondary literature through that literature alone. In contrast, much of the literature reviewed by Daniels works through and argues about a wealth of such sources. Even a look through that literature reveals telling inconsistencies in his elaboration of historiography.

He identifies “report discounting” and “guesstimates” among the methods employed by Mooney, Kroeber, and others of the “bottom up” school. Daniels notes regarding guesstimates, “critics can assess reliability only when the guesser explains the reasoning behind the estimate” (304-305). Report discounting calls for comparable scrutiny, but instead Daniels shifts the emphasis: “Some scholars have scathingly rejected this procedure, defending the value of primary sources and accusing the discounters of cultural and racial bias” (306). Later he highlights cultural concerns:

[Critics of Mooney and Kroeber] alleged that prejudice and a desire to make Indians appear insignificant led to deliberate discounting of evidence of large early native populations. …
Some critics began to wonder if Henry Dobyns and his followers were just as biased in favor of the Indians as Mooney and Kroeber supposedly had been against them.
Daniels, “Indian Population,” 317-318.

He wears the mask of objectivity through careful attribution to others of this binary:

anti-Indian = low estimate / pro-Indian = high estimate

However, he reveals his face by defending Mooney and Kroeber against attacks he feels are unjustified: “since they had spent much of their lives documenting the surviving Indian cultures, they probably would have regarded the charge of cultural bias as absurd” (318). After cultural issues came into academic debates:

The second issue involves the principles of evidence and reasoning. The bottom-up approach is essentially historical; it admits only direct primary evidence and uses only simple deductive logic involving evaluation and comparison of reported data. The school rejects all forms of inference except by simple analogy.
Daniels, “Indian Population,” 318.

Daniels’s Apologia for Discounting

Daniels seizes several opportunities to commend the work of the “bottom up” school because “[t]hey normally used whatever direct historical evidence was available” (316). On the other hand, “area modelers had loosened the rules of evidence and logic” (319). Such “loosening” opened the door for Dobyns’s “radical departure at which the work of others had only hinted” (314).

This “radical departure” was first proposed in “Estimating Aboriginal Population: An Appraisal of Techniques with a New Hemispheric Estimate,” Current Anthropology (Sept. 1966), 395-416. Inasmuch as Dobyns raises significant methodological points against Mooney, Kroeber, and those that popularized their estimates, it is worth looking more closely at his arguments. He mentions as a case in point a figure of eight million Indians perishing in the Caribbean and Peru that was put forth in 1685 by the Marques de Varina to dispute the contentions of others that mining operations were the principle cause of Indian depopulation in Spanish colonies. Dobyns admits that such figures might have been inflated, but cautions against the wholesale discounting of the “bottom up” school.

To make such an assumption does not entitle the analyst to discard those figures; it does require him to seek corroborative or negating evidence. Rosenblat, Kroeber and their imitators have not done so. Their characteristic methodology has included depreciation of all historical population figures. They deprecate the departure of historical witnesses from the "truth" for motives they intuitively impute, but which uniformly led said witnesses to overestimate, in their opinion, aboriginal populations. They ignore the fact that eyewitnesses, whatever their biases, at least observed population trends which the modern analyst can never witness.
Dobyns, “Estimating Aboriginal Population,” 398.

Nowhere in “The Indian Population of North America” does John Daniels discuss how the scholarly methods that he names reveal efforts to corroborate or negate the evidence contained in colonial accounts. Yet, such assessment of historical documents is at the heart of the conception of historiography that he assumes.

New England Case Study

Henry Dobyns asserts in Their Number Become Thinned (1983) and other works that the smallpox epidemic that afflicted Mexico during its conquest by Hernán Cortés may have spread as a continent wide pandemic. He then draws upon a letter from Roger Williams to John Winthrop to offer documentary evidence for sixteenth century epidemics among the Narragansett (Dobyns, 318-319). Dean R. Snow and Kim M. Lanphear dispute his contention in several works, including “European Contact and Indian Depopulation in the Northeast: The Timing of the First Epidemics,” Ethnohistory (Winter 1988), 15-33. They review available Spanish sources, stating that “evidence suggests that epidemics did not spread northward from Mexico” (17). Then they turn toward the Northeast and offer a careful examination of the Williams letter and Dobyns use of it. They find other documents contradict Williams, or at least Dobyns's reading of him.

They contend that the first epidemic to hit New England arrived in 1616. It may have been the bubonic plague, or it may have been yellow fever or trichinosis. In any case, they find wanting the evidence that it reached the interior, although it clearly devastated the coast from Maine to Massachusetts. There is no dispute that an epidemic struck the coast of New England before the English established their colony there. There is considerable debate regarding its extent—epidemic or pandemic—and whether it was the first.

Daniels’ assertion—citing earlier work by Dean R. Snow—thus seems terribly misleading:

[According to some] major epidemics of Old World diseases preceded European explorers by a few years or decades and killed a significant percentage of the native population. … Some authorities maintain, for example, that a serious epidemic hit the Northeast before the first English settlers arrived.
Daniels, “Indian Population,” 306.

Although it is not cited by Snow and Lanphear, Mourt's Relation corroborates their recognition that an epidemic swept the coast of New England in 1616. The document was written principally by Edward Winslow and published in London in 1622. It is one of the key primary sources for the history of the Pilgrims in what later came to be called New England. The entire text with modernized spellings is accessible online at The Plymouth Colony Archive Project.

Two excerpts:

So we light on a path, but saw no house, and followed a great way into the woods. At length we found where corn had been set, but not that year. Anon we found a great burying place, one part whereof was encompassed with a large palisade, like a churchyard, with young spires for or five yards long, set as close one by another as they could, two or three feet in the ground. Within it was full of graves, some bigger and some less; some were also paled about, and others had like an Indian house made over them, but not matted. Those graves were more sumptuous than those at Cornhill, yet we digged none of them up, but only viewed them, and went our way. Without the palisade were graves also, but not so costly. From this place we went and found more corn-ground, but not of this year. As we ranged we light on four or five Indian houses, which had been lately dwelt in, but they were uncovered, and had no mats about them, else they were like those we found at Cornhill but had not been so lately dwelt in. There was nothing left but two or three pieces of old mats, and a little sedge. Also, a little further we found two baskets full of parched acorns hid in the ground, which we supposed had been corn when we began to dig the same; we cast earth thereon again and went our way. All this while we saw no people.
Mourt’s Relation

About noon we met again about our public business, but we had scarce been an hour together, but Samoset came again, and Tisquantum, the only native of Patuxet, where we now inhabit, who was one of the twenty captives that by Hunt were carried away, and had been in England.
Mourt’s Relation

The Pilgrim records are clear that Tisquantum (Squanto) was the only survivor of his home village and that abandoned villages were present throughout the region. Although there are several possible explanations for abandoned villages, disease was certainly one cause prior to English settlement in the Northeast.


Daniels’ seminal article is nearly comprehensive, but terribly superficial in its review. Its convoluted scheme to organize a mass of scholarship gets cited, but not embraced in subsequent scholarship. His footnotes offer a useful point of entry into the field of pre-Columbian demography, but an alphabetized bibliography might serve just as well. His analysis offers a few useful questions, but no credible answers. The entire article seems to be a thinly disguised defense of the lowest estimates—the lack of credibility of which is the starting point for all scholarship in the field.

A far better review of the literature is available in Russell Thornton, “Aboriginal North American Population and Rates, ca. A.D. 1500-1900,” Current Anthropology (April 1997), 310-315. Thornton’s article, as Daniels, is not without an agenda. Thornton’s concern emphasizes the interplay of disease with other aspects of colonialism to produce long-term population decline for the indigenous population of the Americas from initial contact through the nineteenth century. His 1997 summary is broader in scope and less comprehensive than Daniels, but its summary of the themes and contentious issues in the scholarship presents a far more credible overview. The failure of Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, to mention Thornton while they praise Daniels is but one indication that their claims rest upon shoddy scholarship.

Daniels’s article might appear to be the source for the statement: “One recent scholar, examining the major assessments of the numbers, points to at least nine different measurement methods, including the time-worn favorite, guesstimates” (Schweikart and Allen, 8). This sentence neither rests upon Daniels’ identification of eleven methods, nor upon his observation that count multiple “has been used more than any other” (305), but it otherwise bears a strong similarity to his thesis. In any case, we can apply Daniels’s scheme to some of the numbers in A Patriot’s History. Daniels explains that the method he calls depopulation ratio (DR) assumes the significance of disease, so scholars start from a nadir population that is usually reasonably certain; then they multiply. Ratios have ranged “between 5:1 and 25:1 and nadirs for North America from 1870 to 1930” (308).

Schweikart and Allen both assert and conclude a depopulation ratio (DR) near 1:2. They state that 56 million deaths, as some have alleged, requires an aboriginal population of 100 million (56% depopulation). Then by rounding Ubelaker’s 1,894,350 down to 1.8 million, they state 800,000 died (50% depopulation). I’ve already noted in “Depopulation: Ubelaker’s Low Estimate” that Ubelaker’s own figures include nearly 1.4 million dead (72% depopulation). It would seem that Schweikart and Allen have reversed Dobyns’s most controversial process, applying a ratio of 1:2 to the lowest available estimate after rounding it down. Such numbers are dishonest.

09 January 2008

Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson

The New Journalism

Hunter S. Thompson was representative of the era in which he lived. From his abuse of drugs to his love of guns, he reflects the excesses of American culture at the end of the twentieth century and into the next. It was a time of cultural ferment, well reflected in the character of Thompson from his caricature as Uncle Duke in Doonesbury to his Gonzo journalism.

Hunter S. Thompson aspired to become a novelist like the men he admired, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. His career took a different course. Instead, he became a journalist who, along with others dubbed “The New Journalists,” inserted himself into the center of his stories. Although his work is entirely absent from one anthology sitting on my shelf, Norman Sims, ed., The Literary Journalists (1984), his name often comes up early in discussions of the revolution in reporting. He is included in Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism (1973), and mentioned by Terry Gross in her Fresh Air conversation with Marc Weingarten, who discussed Thompson in The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight (2005). There should be no doubt that Thompson’s Gonzo journalism was significant in the reorientation of subjectivity and objectivity in public discourse.

A Man of Contradictions

Hunter Thompson’s writing in Hell’s Angels (1966) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) created a persona that he struggled to embody. Thompson often then seemed a caricature of himself. At least that is part of the image that appears in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, edited and arranged by Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour.

How much of Hunter was spontaneous and how much was arranged was always one of those questions that people would kick around. I found that he was like jazz. The piece was arranged. It was disciplined. But within that, he was a free instrument and he would go off.
Curtis Robinson in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, 358.

He adored his grandson, but tried to conceal these tender feelings from his friends, as when he covered the screen of his laptop when Doug Brinkley walked into the room because he was looking at pictures of the child (Gonzo, 371). We are told that he could charm any woman in the room, but those that loved him most learned to fear him.

I think that underneath all of that bravado and violence and anger and fear, though, was an understanding that he was not living the right life—that he was hurting people. He knew he could get what he wanted and that he could make people feel really, really scared and make them tremble.
Sandy Thompson in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, 433.

Conservative Perspectives

There are those that cannot find any merit in his writing. William F. Buckley Jr., “One can be sorry that Hunter Thompson died as he did, but not sorry, surely, that he stopped writing” (NRO). Others may regret their recollections:

I met Hunter in New Hampshire when he came to interview the old man [Nixon]. … Hunter and I were holed up in some hotel in Nashua on a snowy night and discovered that we were in possession of, I forget, either a gallon or a half-gallon of Wild Turkey. Now I had a lot of stamina in those days, and the two of us stayed up all night arguing fiercely about communism.
Pat Buchanan in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, 126-127.

Of course, Thompson’s vehement hatred of Richard Nixon should rile up conservatives, as might his fond memories of Pat Buchanan.

…it is hard to shed anything but crocodile tears over White House speechwriter Patrick Buchanan’s tragic analysis of the Nixon debacle. “It’s like Sisyphus,” he said, “We rolled the rock all the way up the mountain…and it rolled right back down on us.”
Well…shucks. It makes a man’s eyes damp, for sure. But I have a lot of confidence in Pat, and I suspect he won’t have much trouble finding other rocks to roll.
Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker,” in The Great Shark Hunt, 20-21.

Oral Biography

In Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, Wenner and Seymour have arranged a collection of statements from more than one hundred individuals about their experiences with Hunter Thompson. The list of contributors reads as a Who’s Who of late twentieth century cultural politics: Presidential hopefuls Pat Buchanan and George McGovern, as well as President Jimmy Carter; actors Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, Anjelica Huston, Sean Penn; writers Norman Mailer, William Greider, William Kennedy, Tom Wolfe; performers Marilyn Manson and Jimmy Buffett; journalists Ed Bradley, Warren Hinckle, Richard Goodwin; and many others. Some that should be included were cut, however, as noted below. The result is a biography rich in contradictory analysis by people that saw different things even when they were in the same room together. These collective reflections present a complex picture of the life of a man.

The difference between Nixon and Clinton is the difference between the Truck and the Traveling Salesman. The Boss was our Satan, and Mr. Bill is our Willy Loman. …
He was weird, Bubba. He played in a league where Clinton will never be anything but a batboy. Nixon was a monster with insanely wrong convictions. Clinton is a humorless punk with bad habits. Nixon was so bad that he could get innocent people in to politics, but Clinton is bad in a way that will get all but the worst ones out.
Hunter S. Thompson, Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, 229.

No other writer has connected better than Thompson with my inherent distrust of everything Clinton. His caricature of Clinton as a batboy in the League of Evil is succinct and accurate.

I came late to Thompson’s writings for several reasons, not least because of my self-sheltered childhood as a conservative Republican. When Hell’s Angels was published I was absorbed in rereading Go Dog, Go by P.D. Eastman. When Hunter was on the campaign trail with Nixon and McGovern I followed events through Mad Magazine rather than Rolling Stone. Later, I turned to the output of university presses and literature by dead white males (and Thompson was still living). I’m not yet knowledgeable enough regarding Thompson’s oeuvre to offer the sort of definitive review of Gonzo that might supplement the likes of Marc Weingarten’s Los Angeles Times assessment, but it didn’t take Google long to reveal that Anita Thompson (Hunter’s widow) has issues with the book.

The reason peopled loved him is because he is one of the rare human beings who is essentially decent, with moments of rotten behavior.
Anita Thompson, Owl Farm Blog, 2 November 2007

My first clear memory of reading his work was an evening or two of ripping through Better Than Sex the year I finished graduate school, probably shortly after my wife unplugged the cable to our TV so I could no longer watch the trial of California v. O.J. Simpson. Later I read The Rum Diary, Hell’s Angels, and some articles published in Rolling Stone and elsewhere, republished in The Great Shark Hunt, which I bought the first week of September 2001. According to Anita Thompson, a lot of his later work merits attention, too. Perhaps her own The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Hunter S. Thompson should be read alongside Wenner and Seymore’s Gonzo.

Anita Thompson is not among those whose remembrances are included in Wenner and Seymour’s book; she told Wenner in a letter that he should burn the manuscript.

I wish I could appeal to your sense of decency and that you would burn this awful manuscript. It would be the right thing to do. I realize you're probably laughing at me to even suggest it. Oh Well.
Anita Thompson, Owl Farm Blog, 2 November 2007

The New York Daily News reports Wenner claiming that her dislike of the book stems from a sense of personal insult.

"She's attacking the book because she's not in it," Wenner told us. "We just took her out. We took her narrative thread out and had other people tell the story. Anita and I get along fine, but she has an exaggerated sense of who she was in terms of Hunter. She had another kind of role."
"Widow's fear & loathing over Hunter S. Thompson bio," 21 November 2007

Weingarten, for his part, believes that Jann Wenner made Hunter S. Thompson as much as Thompson made Wenner.

I think the editors are huge. Hayes, Felker, and Wenner gave these writers their heads to let them do their thing, but they also had a vision of how this kind of writing could enliven journalism, make it new. Conversely, writers like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese had tremendous respect for these editors—they wanted to do good work for them.
Weingarten, Mediabistro Q&A, 7 December 2005
He said much the same to Terry Gross when he was reflecting on the relationship between the New Journalism of Thompson, Wolfe, and Joan Didion and the newer New Journalism of the web.

I’m not so impressed with what I read on the web, particularly the blogs, which I think are too hastily written. I think journalists need editors to do the job right.
Weingarten to Terry Gross, Fresh Air, 27 February 2006


Whittier Boulevard is a hell of a long way from Hollywood, by any measure. There is no psychic connection at all. After a week in the bowels of East L.A I felt vaguely guilty about walking into the bar in the Beverly Hills Hotel and ordering a drink—as if I didn’t quite belong there, and the waiters all knew it.
Thompson, “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” in The Great Shark Hunt, 122-23.

I’ve read and taught several accounts of the stirrings towards revolution among Chicanos in the 1960s and 1970s, including Oscar Zeta Acosta’s fictional memoir, Revolt of the Cockroach People; Roberto Rodríguez, The X in La Raza; Rodolfo Acuña, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos; and F. Arturo Rosales, Chicano!: The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Thompson’s “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” published in Rolling Stone in 1971, and then reprinted in The Great Shark Hunt in 1979 still offers a sense of immediacy that with the passage of time dissipates in the others.

Oscar Z. Acosta died young, so there is no tribute to Hunter from him in Gonzo. However, Hunter’s tribute to Acosta is excerpted in the text, as are many other texts—just enough to whet the appetite:

What finally cracked the Brown Buffalo was the bridge he refused to build between the self-serving elegance of his instincts and the self-destructive carnival of his reality. He was a Baptist missionary at a leper colony in Panama before he was a lawyer … But whenever things got tense or when he had to work close to the bone, he was always a missionary. And that was the governing instinct that ruined him for anything else. He was a preacher in the courtroom, a preacher at the typewriter and a flat-out awesome preacher when he cranked his head full of acid.
Thompson, Rolling Stone 254; rpt. in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, 145.

I think there is no doubt that Hunter S. Thompson was at the top of his game in the late Sixties and early Seventies, but as his widow claims, his insights at the end of the millennium also merit attention.

We have seen Weird Times in this country before, but the year 2000 is beginning to look super weird. This time, there really is nobody flying the plane. ... We are living in dangerously weird times now. Smart people just shrug and admit they're dazed and confused.
The only ones left with any confidence at all are the New Dumb. It is the beginning of the end of our world as we knew it. Doom is the operative ethic.
Hunter S. Thompson, “Prepare for the Weirdness,” ESPN, 20 November 2000

From the days of “fear and loathing” to those of “dazed and confused” we have been living in interesting times, and that brings to mind an ancient Chinese curse.

08 January 2008

Twilight of the Books

This (therefore) will not have been a book. While the form of the “book” is now going through a period of general upheaval, and while that form now appears less natural, and its history less transparent, than ever, and while one cannot tamper with it without disturbing everything else, the book form alone can no longer settle—here for example—the case of those writing processes which, in practically questioning that form, must also dismantle it.
Jacques Derrida, (trans. by Barbara Johnson), Dissemination, 3.

The Decline of Reading
One morning late in 2007, my wife found me in my office absorbed in reading Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Books” in The New Yorker online, as well as some of the research referenced there. (Crain's blog Steamboats are Ruining Everything was awarded "Best Writer" by the History News Network's Cliopatria Awards.) In particular, I was somewhat discomfited by the National Endowment for the Arts report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (2004) and To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence (2007). Among the eye-openers from these reports, Crain mentions the disturbing factoid that the number of adults in the United States who are proficient readers has declined from 15% to 13%—I had not imagined it was under 50%.
According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 the average adult’s skill in reading prose slipped one point on a five-hundred-point scale, and the proportion who were proficient—capable of such tasks as “comparing viewpoints in two editorials”—declined from fifteen per cent to thirteen.
Crain, “Twilight of the Books”
The source:
A statistically significant change does arise, however, in the percentage of American adults who read at the Proficient level. They slipped from 15% in 1992 to 13% in 2003.
To Read or Not to Read, 64
The trend is worse.
The deterioration in reading rates and proficiency of 17-year-olds makes possible a scenario where, according to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 5% of high school graduates are Proficient readers
To Read or Not to Read, 61.

Reading and Civic Participation

Among the concerns expressed in the study is observation of a correlation between reading proficiency and civic participation. Fewer deficient readers vote.
84% of Proficient readers voted in the 2000 presidential election, compared with 53% of Below-Basic readers.
To Read or Not to Read, 19.
The authors of the report express concern that those who do not read do not vote, which reflects the sort of notion of democratic participation we might expect from a government agency. I’m more concerned that a substantial percentage of the 87% who are not proficient readers do vote. I’d rather not have folks incapable of “comparing viewpoints in two editorials” choosing my representative in Congress or the next President.
My Lord Sebastian,
The truth you speak doth lack some gentleness,
And time to speak it in. You rub the sore
When you should bring the plaster.
Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1.
My wife gets upset when I say things like that, so we turned the conversation in another direction.
(edit: she might have quoted Shakespeare--see comments below)

Reading Challenge for 2008

We resolved to read more together in 2008. We challenged each other to track our reading, and to keep up with one another in number of books and total pages. We count only books that we start and finish in the calendar year. There was a mutual recognition that I seem to read more, so she was permitted a two-day head start, while I cannot count anything begun prior to dinner on December 31. I was encouraged to quickly finish Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, which had been given to me on December 25 by one of my sons, and I was discouraged from beginning until late on the last day of the year Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico, which I had purchased recently. Hugh Thomas, Conquest counts in the challenge, but the life of Thompson (434 pages plus Johnny Depp’s “Introduction”) does not. Well, I agreed to the terms, even if we could not agree whether it was a contest between us or a cooperative resolution.

It is well known in my household that I buy books more often than I read them, that I start books that I never finish, and that I spent more time reading blogs and the like than books. In 2008, I am challenged to finish the books that I start.

This morning I finished Gonzo. Over the past few years, I’ve occasionally read parts of Hunter Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales From a Strange Time (1979). Perhaps now I’ll try to get through it cover to cover. If I start it anew, I can count it in the challenge.

07 January 2008

“the burning of boats”

The Treachery and Resolve of Cortés
To keep those who remained loyal to the Cuban governor [Valazquez] from returning to Havana and disclosing his treachery, Cortez resorted to a simple but drastic expedient. Once he and his men landed on the shores of Mexico he burned his ships.
Allen Weinstein and R. Jackson Wilson, Freedom and Crisis, 2nd ed., 11.
As a college freshman hoping to become a teacher of history, I highlighted the declaration that Cortés burned his ships and committed this fact to memory. Now, Hugh Thomas informs me that this fact is none such: it is a fabrication that results from bad handwriting.
The Caudillo next proceeded with audacity to an action which took even his friends by surprise. He ordered the masters of nine of the twelve ships which were anchored off Villa Rica to sail their vessels on to the sands.
Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico, 222.
It is important that we get these facts correct. Thomas states that the “action was, as all who observed the thing agree, and as Cortés himself wrote, a grounding, not a burning” (223). The phrase “the burning of the boats,” he tells us, first appeared in 1546 in Diálogo de la Dignidad del Hombre (Dialogue of the Dignity of Man) by Cervantes de Salazar. Thomas speculates that the error derives from confusion between two words rendered indistinguishable by sloppy handwriting: quebrando (breaking) and quemando (burning).

Whether burned or run on the sand and stripped of rigging and wood, it remains true that Hernán Cortés achieved two important aims, augmenting his army with former sailors now become soldiers, and, more important, committing his forces to success or death in Mexico. But the legend that he burned ships that were, in fact, run aground threatens to cast doubt on many other details of the enterprise. The legend carries history into the realms of myth.

Postscript 1 March 2008:

I found an old article, absent from the footnotes to pp. 222-223 in Conquest, that makes an effort to explain the development of the myth The conclusion sums the author's point.
The expression in English and Spanish "to burn one's boats" (quemar las naves), a reference to Cortés in the minds of many people, has contributed to its continuing popularity and perpetuation. In the end, to present the legend today as historical fact can only be attributed to ignorance; but its use in creative literature must not be condemned, for it is dramatically appealing and actually a mere embellishment of the truth. Cortés' deed, one way or the other, remains a universal symbol of bold vision and heroic action.
Winston A. Reynolds, "The Burning Ships of Hernán Cortés," Hispania 42 (1959), 322.

05 January 2008

Books on my Desk

The Fall of Old Mexico

Among the texts that have been occupying my time the past week or so, and likely will for at least the next week, are several concerned with the success of Hernán Cortés in conquering the Triple Alliance (Mexica / Aztec Empire) in 1521.

Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (1993).

The standard modern work on the subject.

Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (2001).

Offers a novel thesis regarding the causes of European military prowess through the centuries, and one detailed chapter concerned with Cortés and Montezuma: "Technology and the Wages of Reason."

Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005).

Part one, "Numbers from Nowhere?" concerns demography and depopulation, and devotes a portion of the text to the processes by which the Triple Alliance succumbed to Castilians that they outnumbered.

Allen Weinstein and R. Jackson Wilson, Freedom and Crisis: An American History, 2nd ed. (1978).

The first chapter, "Cortez and Montezuma," was the first thing I read in the first college history course I took. Suffice it to say that the book was new then, and that James Carter was still living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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