2020 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 28, 2020

Winter Magic, by C. Jac Young, c. 1933. Smithsonian American Art Museum, transfer from the Newark Museum.

Lapham’s Quarterly published many original essays in 2020, covering everything from plague parables to the future of museums, the patron saints of extremism and Newyorkitis, The Martyrdom of the Franciscans and the furniture of Jean-Michel Frank. Here are just a few of our favorites.

Marlene L. Daut, “All the Devils Are Here

Around 75,000 white French people died during the Haitian Revolution, a dramatic contrast to the more than 350,000 Black people who were killed. Yet it was rare in the nineteenth century to see any acknowledgment of this disparity. Portraying Black people as perpetrators of violence rather than its victims—a tendency that persists in many parts of the world to this day—functioned as a deliberate distraction from the everyday depredations of slavery and the atrocities that both the French colonists and the French army had committed in Saint-Domingue. The visual history of the Haitian Revolution can tell us a lot about how repeated exposure to representations of Black people in aggressive postures smothers histories of white violence and turns our gaze away from Black death. Because these images have become the default—even in contemporary accounts that acknowledge the Haitian Revolution as the most radical attempt in world history to create universal liberty and equality—they have directly contributed to the stereotype that Black rage is the source of societal violence rather than an aching response to it.

Julia Harte, “Rebel with a Cause

Trotsky wept when he learned of the macabre discovery, which he took as proof of Shields’ innocence. “Poor Bob,” the old man sighed when the news was broken to him by his wife and secretaries. “Poor calumniated Bob.” As with the names used by most of Trotsky’s secretaries, “Bob Shields” was a pseudonym. Shields was Sheldon Robert Harte, the scion of a New York City silk-manufacturing magnate—and my father’s second cousin. The story of how he fled a privileged life in Manhattan to advance the proletarian revolution in Mexico is one that trickled down to me, many details incomplete, as I grew up. Tainted on the left by lingering doubts about his loyalty to Trotsky, Sheldon’s public legacy was also stigmatized on the right by the anti-communist tide that swept the United States in the 1940s and ’50s.

Adam Morris, “Degeneration Nation

Published under the pseudonym Edmund Boisgilbert, MD, Caesar’s Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century (1890) sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the final decade of the nineteenth century. Despite the author’s belief that his novel was the rightful successor to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it never entered the canon of high school and college curricula; today its readership is largely restricted to enthusiasts of late nineteenth-century culture. Yet perhaps more than any other novel published in the United States, Caesar’s Column illuminates the origins of the present crisis in American race relations unfolding under the banner of a resurgent populist nationalism. Although Madison Grant’s eugenicist tract The Passing of the Great Race (1916) is often cited by twenty-first-century journalists as the urtext of modern American white supremacy, it merely applied the new science of statistics and a welter of demographic data to a narrative that Caesar’s Column had sensationalized a quarter century prior. The novel popularized the paranoid “great replacement” theory that troubled Grant—and now animates twenty-first-century white nationalist movements in the United States and Europe.

Matthew Sherrill, “The Disaster Poet

There have been worse poets, of course, and as such it would be more accurate to describe William McGonagall as the worst famous poet in the English language, a testament in part to the man’s powers of self-promotion and the caprices of literary history. But McGonagall’s notoriety still owes much to the singularly strange power of his own badness. There’s something, I think, in poems like “The Tay Bridge Disaster”—as well as McGonagall’s many poems on his great themes of death and destruction—that is worth examining; something that might redeem him, ever so slightly, from the annals of amusing semi-obscurity; something unsettling about his ostensibly blinkered artistic vision that might help to account for why he lingers as the patron saint of misbegotten verse.

Shelley Puhak, “Stay Home, All Ye Faithful

A message opens with news of “a disaster.” Its writer warns of “lethal plague” spreading fast and moving north. The missive’s recipient, an administrator in a city more than three hundred miles away, is advised to immediately block off the roads and halt travel to and from his city. Yet both parties know this will not be a popular action; the weather has warmed, and people are eager to leave town for annual celebrations. They are likely to defy any travel restrictions. How can they be stopped? This epistolary quandary wasn’t penned at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, nor during the 1918 Spanish flu. It precedes even the Black Death, when it is commonly reported that quarantines, or cordons sanitaires, and travel restrictions originated. When the bubonic plague overwhelmed Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, it resulted in the deadliest pandemic in recorded history, killing off an estimated fifty million people, or between 30 and 60 percent of Europe’s population.

Jennifer Wilson, “The Danielle Steel of Communism

When Alexandra Kollontai, one of the founders of the Zhenotdel, the women’s department of the Bolshevik Party, wanted to turn her colleagues’ attention toward questions of sexual freedom and what love might look like under socialism, she was met more than once with an eye roll. After the publication of Kollontai’s 1923 essay “Make Room for Winged Eros,” which claimed monogamy and the traditional family structure were relics of the bourgeoisie made obsolete by the Russian Revolution, one of her colleagues in the Zhenotdel laughingly called Kollontai “the Verbitskaya of communism.” As barbs go, it was a poor choice. Every movement would probably like to have a Verbitskaya: a best-selling author who could make radical politics feel more like an erotic adventure than a series of meetings.

Kirk Savage, “The Question of Monuments

Despite our long history of questioning the authority of the statue landscape, no movement has been able to dislodge it. The “living memorial” campaign after World War I did not stem the flood of doughboy monuments. Maya Lin’s abstract “anti-monument” to Vietnam veterans was a worthy successor to Nicholas’ blank tablet, but ended up spawning a backlash of realistic statues at the end of the century. Even the trauma of 9/11 and the rise of victim memorials have not displaced figurative sculpture from the collective memorial imagination. At the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, the huge structure of suspended steel columns inscribed with names of lynching victims has a realistic counterpart in a group of chained Black figures at the entrance to the memorial site. Even as monument design has become more spatial and experiential, the demand for traditional sculptural icons has remained strong, especially for hero monuments like the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Mall. Now, for the first time since the Revolutionary era, we are witnessing a full-scale reckoning with the long inherited tradition of public statues.

Sheila Liming, “The Best Sellers Who Hated Best Sellers

As a best-selling author, Edith Wharton was aware of society’s tendency to view success and quality as being diametrically opposed. And as a reader, she enacted some of that distrust, opting for classic titles that had been vetted by previous generations over the best sellers of her day. We know this from her library, which is currently housed at the Mount estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, the custom-designed home where she and her husband, Teddy, lived and spent their summers in the early 1900s. After traveling the globe following her death in 1937, Wharton’s books—or at least the 2,700 of them that remain—came home to the Mount in 2006, after being sold by a British collector who had reassembled her library. These books have much to say about the person who was Edith Wharton, but particularly about the reader behind the enormously successful author who was Edith Wharton. They show us her wide-ranging and seemingly paradoxical interests in subjects like evolutionary science, religious history, and pragmatist philosophy—but so too do they reveal omissions she elected as a reader.


Also in 2020 the Quarterly excerpted new histories of assassins, Miss America, photography, Alaric the Goth, freedom, and books. Here are a handful of others from books published this year.

Anthony Grafton, “The Correctors,” from Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe (Harvard University Press)

Specters haunt the history of publishing and of humanistic scholarship in early modern Europe: lean, shabby ghosts. Correctors, as they were usually called, prepared manuscripts for the press, read proofs, and often added original material of their own. They were everywhere in the world of print, and many early modern humanists—including those whose names remain familiar—either praised or denigrated them and their work. What, then, did correctors and readers do?

Jamie Kreiner, “Ubiquitous Medieval Pigs,” from Legions of Pigs in the Early Medieval West (Yale University Press)

“Three deaths are better than life,” an Old Irish riddle runs: “the death of a salmon, the death of a fat pig, the death of a robber.” Of these three deaths, the fat pigs fell the most frequently: across the early medieval West, they were ubiquitous. Pigs were the consummate meat of the early Middle Ages. Horses and oxen have pulling power, cows and goats and sheep make milk and manure (and skin for parchment and packaging), sheep grow wool, and poultry lay eggs. But domesticated pigs were only destined to be butchered. It took them less than two years to reach their maximum weight, so efficient were they in converting whatever they found or were fed into meat.

Walter Johnson, “The Largest Human Zoo in World History,” from The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (Basic Books)

The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis is remembered by some as the high-water mark of the city’s history—the moment when all the world was assembled in tribute to the city’s greatness, the moment at the crest of the rise, before the beginning of the long decline. Termed the Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition, the 1904 World’s Fair celebrated the “civilization” of the continent. And on that legacy of conquest, it founded a vision for the coming century—modern, technological, commercial, imperial, American. “The Babylon of the New World,” the civic booster and impresario of the move-the-capital-to-Missouri movement Logan Uriah Reavis termed St. Louis at the turn of the century. And indeed, in its ambition, scope, and arrogance, the fair was a Babylonian gathering-in of all the peoples, things, and knowledge of the known world, a vast imperial harvest. But the comparison was double-edged, at least for anyone who had read the Old Testament.

Greg Woolf, “The Urban Gilgamesh,” from The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History (Oxford University Press)

The Epic of Gilgamesh is not just the world’s oldest poem. It is a classic, in the sense that it remained central to the literature and thought of a whole series of cultures across the Near East over millennia. We can account for its significance in several ways. Some of its themes are universal. We still agonize that even the greatest human life is limited in span; we mourn and rage against the loss of our loved ones; and like Gilgamesh we still want to know about our origins and the meaning of things. One title for the epic was He Who Saw the Deep. Gilgamesh goes on a quest for meaning. His failure to find acceptable answers is our failure, too. His fortitude in the face of that failure is true heroism. Like so many epic poems, the particular story speaks to our wider experience. But there is another theme of the epic: the life of humans in cities. For Gilgamesh is about civilization and wilderness, about war and peace, and about a world of cities.

Jia Lynn Yang, “A System of Sorting,” from One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924–1965 (W.W. Norton)

The rise of Nazi Germany would later destroy the reputation of eugenics and expose the movement as a dangerous racial ideology dressed in the garb of science. But in the first few decades of the twentieth century, eugenics captured the imagination of many of America’s leading intellectuals. In fields as diverse as economics, environmentalism, and social reform, people saw the potential for eugenics to improve the world by perfecting humanity. Among those who promoted the movement were Irving Fisher, the country’s leading economist; Margaret Sanger, the birth control crusader, who viewed eugenicists as potential allies in her cause; and Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History and a noted paleontologist who named both the Tyrannosaurus rex and the velociraptor.

Ellen Wayland-Smith, “The Magical Art of Selling Soap,” from The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling of America (University of Chicago Press)

By 1885 no one thought it particularly odd that the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher should publicly endorse Pears’ Soap, announcing that “if Cleanliness is next to Godliness, then Soap must be considered as a Means of Grace.” Women’s magazines from the 1880s up through World War I featured advertisements for a wide variety of soaps, creams, and powders that were judged to be “skin improving” rather than skin covering or masking. In part, the rhetoric of cleanliness worked because it resonated with a wide range of “clean living” health and reform regimens that were popular in the nineteenth century, from hydropathy (water cure) to temperance to vegetarianism. These movements imagined the human body as a porous organism whose health depended on strict regulation of inputs and outputs, guarding against attack by toxins and foreign bodies. Hydrotherapy, which by the end of the century counted thousands of adherents and dozens of treatment centers nationwide, operated on the principle that cold water taken internally and applied externally conferred a host of health benefits. In his 1850 medical treatise Hydropathy for the People, Dr. William Horsell counseled daily vigorous cold-water sponge baths as of “the greatest value to persons suffering from gout…nervous irritability, or weakness of the skin, etc.”

Suzanne L. Marchand, “Real-Life Rumpelstiltskin,” from Porcelain: A History from the Heart of Europe (Princeton University Press)

The German alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682–1719) was a nobody. Yet Böttger was lucky enough to have been born the son of the mint keeper in Schleiz, and to have relatives willing and able to help him; in early modern society, family resources were crucial to individuals’ success. When Johann’s father lost his job, the family moved to the Prussian town of Magdeburg to share quarters with his brother, a prosperous goldsmith. After his father’s death, Johann was again fortunate in his stepfather, a well-to-do engineer and bureaucrat who could afford to give Johann what was for the time a very good bourgeois education and pay for his apprenticeship to an apothecary in Berlin. Here the ambitious teenager demonstrated an aptitude for experiment—and a penchant for ignoring rules. His apprenticeship brought him into contact with a number of men engaged in the alchemical search for the philosopher’s stone, the mineral compound that, it was believed, could be combined with base metals to make gold. Böttger, too, became obsessed with this quest. Having received some ingredients and instructions from a mysterious wandering Greek monk, this swaggering nobody made a fateful boast: while the wisest of scholars for centuries had failed in this esoteric endeavor, he had discovered the secret to making gold.

Teresa A. Goddu, “Circulating the Facts of Slavery,” from Selling Antislavery: Abolition and Mass Media in Antebellum America (University of Pennsylvania Press)

From its outset, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) worked to establish the facts of slavery. Antislavery lecturers were instructed to make themselves “familiar with FACTS, for they chiefly influence reflecting minds” and to “make no random statements, prove all things.” Periodicals regularly offered facts or statistics about slavery: the headlines of Human Rights declared facts! facts!! facts!!! and still more facts while the Quarterly Anti-Slavery Magazine published statistics of the U.S. slave population.By ceaselessly creating facts and linking them together within a reinforcing print system, the AASS forged a factual foundation upon which to build its arguments. Throughout the 1830s, the AASS was an information-gathering, knowledge-producing enterprise. Its most prominent genre—the documentary compendium—was the principal print form through which it compiled, constructed, and dispersed facts about slavery.