2018 in Review on Roundtable

A look back at the essays and excerpts published on the Quarterly’s website this year.

By Lapham’s Quarterly

Monday, December 24, 2018

Philadelphia bookseller George J.C. Grasberger pushing a wheelbarrow piled high with books, c. 1930. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Philadelphia bookseller George J.C. Grasberger pushing a wheelbarrow piled high with books, c. 1930. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Lapham’s Quarterly published dozens of original essays in 2018, covering everything from ancient history to the recent past, memory and memorials, hot historical figures and the history of hands. Here are some of our favorites.

Levi Stahl, Dr. Johnson’s Dream

“I believe,” he told James Boswell late in his life, “there is hardly a day in which there is not something about me in the newspapers.” Boswell’s landmark biography was only the beginning: in the centuries since, there have been numerous accounts of Johnson’s life, the earliest by those who knew him, later ones by scholars who made ever more exacting use of the ever greater trove of papers and information on Johnson and his era. Johnson continues to have devotees. He is the subject of societies that attract both fans and scholars. Both his boyhood home and his London house have become museums. Three centuries after his birth, Johnson lives. Even so, in trying to learn more about Johnson’s dream, we face our perpetual enemies: silence, time, and the burning barrel.

Angela Chen, Meet Yourself

To our eyes, personality becomes destiny, and this very act of categorizing can change who we are. When we define ourselves, we become more like that which we define, in what philosopher Ian Hacking calls “the looping effect of mankind.” Biological phenomena will carry on regardless of what it is called. The heart will continue beating whether the act of muscle contraction is called “the heartbeat” or something else. Not so for the intricacies of psychology: the proud introverts become more introverted, the neurotic more neurotic, some people buy T-shirts that say no, i’m not a sociopath, i’m just an intj. Personality tests do more than help us feel seen; they provide us the tools to create. The act of labeling reinforces what is being labeled.

Patricia A. Matthew, Serving Tea for a Cause

The tea table that we now associate with quaint rituals, scones, crustless sandwiches, and charming desserts served on porcelain with sterling silver cutlery was a more political space in the eighteenth century, and antislavery conversations played a big part of the politics of the time. William Fox and others targeted sugar in part because of its ubiquity in English households. By the 1790s what had once been a delicacy enjoyed by the wealthy and elite for celebrations was now a regular part of the English diet. The antislavery activists made explicit the connection between the inhuman trade and those who benefited from it. “If we purchase the commodity,” Fox wrote, “we participate in the crime. The slave dealer, the slave holder, and the slave driver, are virtually agents of the consumer, and may be considered as employed and hired by him to procure the commodity.”

Ashley Fetters, Hot or Not History

In the centuries since the advent of the printing press, there have surely been myriad instances in which names like Ulysses S. Grant, Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, Julius Caesar, and William Henry Harrison were printed in considerable proximity to one another, and those, in turn, printed within striking distance of names like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Anton Chekhov, and Johannes Brahms. It is only in the present and recent past, however, that one might find all those names closely juxtaposed in a roster with a title like “Sexiest Guys We Studied in AP History Class, dot Tumblr dot com.”

Pablo Maurette, The Children of Anaxagoras

It shouldn’t then come as a surprise that the question about the human hand—its importance, its relation to the intellect and to human domination over nature—is at the center of one of the oldest debates in the history of Western thought. The story begins with Anaxagoras, a pre-Socratic philosopher. Only this of course means that it begins with Aristotle, the first historian of philosophy. Anaxagoras lived in Asia Minor in the early fifth century bc. He is reputed to have been responsible for introducing philosophy into Athens and we know he was an early materialist, but little other than a small number of fragments has survived from his work. In On the Parts of Animals, when he discusses the usefulness and exceptionality of the human hand, Aristotle writes: “Anaxagoras says that man is the most intelligent of the animals because he has hands, but it would be better to say that he has hands because he is the most intelligent. For the hands are a tool and nature always distributes each tool to the animal that is able to use it, just as an intelligent man would.” In Aristotle’s teleological worldview, the head exists for the sake of the brain, the neck for the sake of the windpipe, and the hands for the sake of intelligence, of thinking: “Man’s ergon [his task in the world] consists of thinking and reasoning, and this would be extremely difficult if the upper body was hanging.” Hands are the signifiers of human exceptionality in the natural world.

Alex Green,  “Enemies” with Disabilities

Little more than fragmentary evidence remains of life at the Fernald School during that time. What is known is that in 1941 the Fernald School had a reputation as a pioneering institution of its kind in America. Its status belied its unappealing appearance: the campus of large brick buildings included dormitories, classrooms, day rooms, and doctor’s offices overfilled with people of all ages and types of ability, living in poor conditions. With nearly two thousand inmates and over a hundred acres of buildings and farmland, the Fernald was poised precariously between needed reforms—which it would have no way of getting during wartime—and chaos.

Mohammad Fadel, The History of the Shariʿa

What is shariʿa? It is often translated as “Islamic law,” as if it represented the law in its entirety. It is also commonly thought to be a rigid set of practices and punishments inherited directly from early Islam that are meant to be applied in a single inflexible manner. But none of this is accurate.

Yves Jeffcoat, A Dream Misheard

I am reminded of the duality of America as I stare up at this Martin Luther King Jr. statue, a jacket draped over his arm and a book in his hand, poised to walk toward the street that bears his name. Dedicated on the fifty-fourth anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 2017, the statue stands on a dark pedestal of Georgia granite. His famous words from that August 28, 1963, speech are etched around the top of the pedestal, as if forming protection from the impure or a portal for the ancestors. To be black in a country that recognizes its racist past and present but does not willingly reckon with it is to be torn and disoriented. But this tension is not unfamiliar. The statue’s unwavering defiance despite being surrounded by monuments to racist former Georgia governors—including slavery supporter Joseph Emerson Brown and segregationist Eugene Talmadge—mirrors that of King’s nonviolence and civil disobedience. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue,” King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And the clash of the Two Americas—the one that values freedom and the one that takes it away—was a problem that King acknowledged and sought to reconcile.

Jacob Mikanowski, Time After Time

The first full interrogation of German scientist Felix Houtermans by the NKVD took place in January 1938 in Kharkov, to which he had been transported after his arrest in Moscow a month before. It lasted eleven straight days, a procedure known to the secret police as a “Conveyor.” During those eleven days Houtermans was given only two breaks, of five hours on the first day and two hours on the second. The rest of the time he was kept awake. After the fourth day, he was also kept on his feet. By the end, he was falling into unconsciousness every twenty to thirty minutes, and his feet were so swollen that his shoes had to be cut off afterward. The interrogators told him they were going to arrest his wife, that his children were going to be sent to an orphanage under new names, so he would never see them again. As he would later tell his cellmate, this last threat is what finally broke him.

Olivia Rutigliano, The Lady Is a Detective

Many of these female detectives do not conform to gender expectations, mainly because they operate in an archetype that is hard to gender at all. The detective, new as both a profession and as a literary archetype, was a gray-area outfit with only one qualification: outstanding problem-solving abilities. Thus, many detectives, male and female, greatly resemble one another. G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown (1910­–36) operates on an “intuition” highly similar to Hilda Wade’s. Sherlock Holmes is a master of disguise, and so is Dorcas Dene. The very point of the detective is to defy the trappings of normalcy and do extraordinary work; if this were not the case, then the regular police constabulary would have no trouble solving the crime at hand and locating the perpetrator on their own.

Matthew Sherrill, “Yawns Innumerable”

In February 1831, some two years after suffering a humiliating defeat in his presidential reelection bid, and two weeks before assuming office as a freshly minted Massachusetts congressman, John Quincy Adams sat down to write an epic. “I began this morning a Poem,” he wrote in his diary, “the conception of which is amusing but requiring more continuity of purpose, more poetical imagination, and more command of language and power of harmony than belongs to me.” Despite his professed sense of inadequacy—a sense he carried through all his writerly endeavors—Adams wholly committed himself to the project. He sometimes composed in the early hours of the morning before getting out of bed or muttered spontaneous verse to himself on long walks around Washington, DC’s Capitol Square, which he would later transcribe before dinner. The following year, Adams would publish the result of his ramblings: Dermot Mac Morrough, or, the Conquest of Ireland, a mock-historical epic of 266 ottava rima stanzas, in four cantos.

Monica Potts, The End of History at the Museum of the Bible

And yet the world keeps on not ending. For some, Christ hadn’t returned because Christians were doing things all wrong. So they changed something and became a new denomination, like the Seventh Day Adventists, who moved church from Sunday to the true Sabbath. Others, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, have seen predicted return dates come and go, and have had to explain those away. But for many Christians the focus is still on the certainty of Armageddon, not on the timing. We should prepare for Christ’s return tomorrow, because what if tomorrow comes and you were caught unready? Have fun in the hellfire of damnation! The world’s been ending tomorrow for two thousand years. With all that focus on being ready for the end, who cares much about the present? Or, for that matter, the past?


Also in 2018 the Quarterly excerpted new histories of horses and the slave ship icon, silhouettes and Vikings, the original Siamese twins and the 1918 flu pandemic, Chopin’s piano and Greek food. Here are a handful of others from books published this year.

James S. Romm, “Study Death Always”, from How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life by Seneca (Princeton University Press)

“Study death,” “rehearse for death,” “practice death”—this constant refrain in his writings did not, in Seneca’s eyes, spring from a morbid fixation but rather from a recognition of how much was at stake in navigating this essential, and final, rite of passage. As he wrote in On the Shortness of Life, “A whole lifetime is needed to learn how to live, and—perhaps you’ll find this more surprising—a whole lifetime is needed to learn how to die.”

Sarah E. Igo, Defining Privacy—and Then Getting Rid of It, from The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America (Harvard University Press)

Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century—when growing corporate and state power as well as new citizenship claims would press the issue—privacy remained largely dormant as a public language. At the same time, however, a more fulsome notion of the private sphere and its prerogatives was taking root. It trailed the evolving meaning of the word privacy itself. Privacy had once been considered a form of privation, implied by the Latin privatus and privare. Linked etymologically to selfishness—the love of one’s own private interests—as well as deprivation, the concept was undergoing a slow metamorphosis. Already by the turn of the nineteenth century, privacy carried far more positive connotations, unlike the similar terms of “alienation, loneliness, ostracism, and isolation.” Not simply the condition of being alone, privacy was coming to refer to a set of ideas about personal freedom and individual autonomy, an “inner uncoerced realm.” It denoted an interior sanctuary as much as an exterior, physical one.

Susan Jacoby, A National Pastime Divided, from Why Baseball Matters (Yale University Press)

The role of the Civil War in spreading baseball across the nation, far beyond the northeastern states where the game began, is the first example of baseball’s complicated relationship with America’s iconic image of itself. Union soldiers from the Middle West, many of whom had never been exposed to baseball before serving in the army, learned the game from their contact, during the prolonged waiting times in encampments between battles, with soldiers from the Northeast who already played and understood the prematurely named national pastime. Some Union officers actually sent reports to their superiors recommending that baseball be promoted in encampments in order to keep the minds of soldiers off the war. Baseball equipment was a problem. The standard “ball” was a walnut wrapped with yarn until a piece of horsehide would fit around it tightly. Branches of oak trees were cut down and carved into bats. Special baseball gloves did not yet exist.

Guy de la Bédoyère, Making an Ancient Roman Murderer, from Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome (Yale University Press)

The story of Agrippina’s death is well known, but remains mostly remarkable for the farcical way it was carried out. Had it been dreamed up by a novelist it would be roundly dismissed as a hopelessly implausible and idiotic plot twist. Suetonius says Nero tried three times to poison his mother but abandoned the plan when he discovered Agrippina had fortified herself with antidotes. The others say that he rejected any idea of poisoning Agrippina for that very reason, not least because he knew she would realize immediately what was happening anyway.

Philip Hoare, “To Die of a Dolphin and Moonshine”, from RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR: In Search of the Soul of the Sea (University of Chicago Press)

The sea was an opening more effective than any suture. And Elizabeth’s happiness was complete when her beloved younger brother Edward came back from the family’s estate in Jamaica, his return made more dramatic when he’d “nearly died a glorious death” on the way home across the Atlantic, supposedly poisoned by “a dolphin which had hung in the moonshine!” It was a voodoo-like notion, evoking the watery spirits of the Caribbean, where I once saw a boat rowed out with a Haitian mambo priestess sitting in it, her head wound with a white turban, casting offerings of cigarettes and rum to the lwa, the spirits of the deep who were thought to drag the unwitting down into their domain. “The moonshine poisoned the dolphin, and the dolphin poisoned Bro,” Elizabeth reported, unaware that in the Caribbean, the dolphin was also a fish, “and poor Brozie grew quite black and swollen in the face. Would it not have been a glorious death—to die of a dolphin and moonshine?”

Mark Kurlansky, Eat Cheese. Mostly Fresh. Not Too Much., from Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas (Bloomsbury Publishing)

The Romans, who often commented on the inferiority of other cultures, took excessive milk drinking as evidence of barbarism. Because milk spoiled quickly in the climate of southern Europe and kept far better in northern Europe, northerners used far more milk. This led southern classical cultures, which were contemptuous of northerners in any event, to take the greater consumption of dairy as evidence of their barbarian nature. During a visit to conquered Britain, Julius Caesar was appalled by how much milk and meat the northerners consumed. Strabo disparaged the Celts for excessive milk drinking and excessive eating in general. Tacitus, when illustrating the crude and tasteless diet of the Germans, singled out their fondness for “curdled milk.”

Leslie Umberger, Untitled (Two Selves), from Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor (Smithsonian American Art Museum/Princeton University Press)

In the late 1920s, Bill Traylor, a black man from rural Alabama, found himself at a crossroads, when he would leave behind one lifetime and embark on another. Then in his midseventies, he realized that his tethers to plantation life had fallen away, so he traveled, alone, into the urban landscape of Montgomery. In the segregated part of town, he found work and lived successively in several different places; he would spend the next twenty-plus years there, with one foot rooted in his agrarian past and one in the evolving world of African American urban culture. After being in Montgomery for about a decade, his physical strength waning, Traylor made the radical steps of taking up pencil and paintbrush and attesting to his existence and point of view.

François-Xavier Fauvelle, Crossing the Sahara in the Fourteenth Century, from The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages (Princeton University Press)

First of all, you will have to deal with a desert mafia. For if they are not your guides and your guards, they will rob you. In the past, the severed heads of these Berber bandits covered the ground of the palace at Sijilmasa; there were highwaymen, then, who stopped you across the Sahara en route to the Land of the Blacks. It was the end of the thirteenth century. Authority in North Africa belonged to the Almohads. Though very much concerned with moral and legal precepts, they were not much concerned with protecting their neighbors’ lives. In other periods, robbers were converted into protectors—for a price, of course. Between mid-February and mid-April 1352, Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan traveler who delighted in exploring the whole of the Islamic world, crossed the Sahara. The Masufa, a tribe of the Sanhaja confederation, controlled the caravan. Let’s be clear: the leader of the caravan, the scouts, the camel drivers, the guards were all from this tribe. It was better to put one’s fate into their hands than to fall into their hands. Anyway, one was forced to trust them: the guide of Ibn Battuta’s caravan was blind in one eye, or at least that’s what the caravan members were led to believe, but he remained the authority on a route that was not easily visible, as a Roman commercial road would be, a route that wound through loose, stony ground and was always susceptible, as they were also led to believe, to being hidden beneath “mountains of sand.”

Neil Bartlett, Oscar Wilde’s Radical Wit, from In Praise of Disobedience: The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Other Writings by Oscar Wilde (Verso)

Let’s start with “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” (Wilde is great with his titles, by the way; they always tell you almost everything you need to know.) Surely that’s not the kind of title one expects from the famously witty Mr. Oscar Wilde? Certainly not, if one imagines him to be a West End dramatist primarily concerned with the bon mots of the upper and upper-middle classes. But you’d be wrong to be surprised. Wilde was the contemporary of John Ruskin, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, Peter Kropotkin, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx, and all of his writing—all of it, the journalism, the essays, and the plays—takes as its starting point the assumption that the members of his audience are well aware that they are living in a time of radical challenges to the way British society is both structured and thinks of itself.

Edward Burman, The Art of Not Dying, from The Terracotta Warriors: Exploring the Most Intriguing Puzzle in Chinese History (Pegasus Books)

Qin Shihuang was a member of a ruling family which sought immortality from the early days. The emperor himself certainly believed that he would be able both to live and to reign forever, and constantly sought elixirs which would guarantee eternal life. He was willing to believe the tales of magicians and alchemists to a remarkable extent. There had existed for many centuries legends about the three spirit mountains in the Bohai Sea where fairies who possessed the elixir of immortality were said to live. But it was difficult to reach them. Sima Qian explained in his “Treatise on the Feng and Shan Sacrifices” that although the three mountains were close to land, once a boat arrived they would appear upside down in the water, and “when mariners drew closer the wind would push their boat out to sea.”


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