On his way to becoming a successful artist, Romare Bearden was a promising varsity baseball player at Boston University, who occasionally played for The Boston Tigers, a Negro League team. Once during his student years, major league talent scouters tried to persuade him to try out for a professional team. He turned down their offer. Playing professional ball would require him to pass for white. A staunch race man in the 1930s, in a pre-Jackie Robinson world, the future artist was not willing to repudiate his blackness in order to play pro-ball.
For the last fifteen years I have been having an intense dialogue in my head with a long-dead historian, Isobel D. Thornley (1893-1941). Isobel is my best frenemy. Two pieces she wrote in 1924 and 1932 remain standard citations for one of my favourite subjects, medieval sanctuary; this is a feat of scholarly longevity that few of her contemporaries can boast. Having dug through the same documents—and benefitted enormously from following in her footsteps—I admire Isobel’s archival diligence and the boldness of her arguments. I also disagree with almost everything she says.
Given his near half-century career, the Romantic-era publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809) left behind a notably small archive. We know from a letter he wrote on today’s date in 1799 that he destroyed some of his correspondence and business documents while serving a two-year sentence for seditious libel in King’s Bench Prison (imprisonment was a fate that progressive publishers were all too familiar with during the 1790s). Even allowing for Johnson’s cautious document purge, surely his post-prison years (he continued to publish for nearly a decade after his release) would have generated hundreds if not thousands of letters and accounting notes. Perhaps more of Johnson’s papers will emerge before long, but for now, the two hundred letters held by the Pforzheimer Collection at the New York Public Library, alongside a couple dozen pieces of correspondence flung across various other libraries and private collections in Britain and the United States, comprise the extant Johnson archive.
Newton’s famous remark, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” is not in his published work, but comes from a letter to a colleague and competitor. In context, it reads simply as an elaborately polite acknowledgment of previous work on optics, especially the work of the recipient of the letter, Robert Hooke.
One evening in mid-October 1764, the young Edward Gibbon sat among the ruins of the Capitol at Rome. The prospect before him must have looked like a Piranesi print–bony cattle grazing on thin grass in the shade of shattered marble columns. It was then and there that he resolved to write the history of the decline and fall of Rome. For Gibbon, the half-millennium between the High Roman Empire and the Early Middle Ages, the era between the mid-3rd and mid-8th century AD which scholars now call Late Antiquity, was marked by an Awful Revolution. Gibbon thought that in the 2nd century AD the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth and the most civilised portion of mankind. He shared the confidence of many of his contemporaries that progress was as inevitable as it was desirable; thanks to the steady advance of civilisation and rationality, no people need ever relapse into primitive uncouthness. The Awful Revolution which had caused the fall of the Roman Empire from its high point in the 2nd century was, therefore, a calamity which demanded an explanation. He found one; “I have described,” he wrote, “the triumph of barbarism and religion.”
The crusades are so ubiquitous these days that it is hard to imagine anyone ever forgetting them. People play video games like Assassin’s Creed (starring the Templars) and Crusader Kings II in droves, newsfeeds are filled with images of young men marching around in places like Charlottesville holding shields bearing the old crusader slogan “Deus vult” (God wills it!), and every year books about the crusades are published in their dozens, informing readers about the latest developments in crusader studies. And the news these books deliver from the frontlines of research can come as a bit of shock to our crusades-saturated systems: for the longest time, many historians believe, there was little to no interest in the crusades in the Islamic world. At a time when reminders of the crusades are everywhere, these experts ask us to imagine a world from which memories of Christian holy war had all but vanished.
Imagine that a man comes to the highest office in the land with absolutely no political experience. As a young man, he had arrived in the big city to make his fortune and became one of the richest and most famous men in America by making big deals and taking great risks. Some schemes worked out and others did not. Not long before reaching his lofty office, he undergoes a political and spiritual conversion that makes many suspicious and leads them to question his dedication to the cause.