Tuesday, 15 March 2005

"It's Savory Scholar-Squirrel Stew Time Again!" I've appropriated that title from Gore Vidal's defense of Lincoln in The New York Review of Books, in which he defends his reconstruction of Lincoln's life from those academic biographers--in particular, Richard N. Current--who insist that Lincoln, his life, and his legacy belong to them. Vidal explains: How does a scholar differ from a scholar-squirrel? The squirrel is a careerist who mindlessly gathers little facts for professional reasons. I don't in the least mind this sort of welfare for the "educated" middle class. They must live, too. But when they start working in concert to revise history to suit new political necessities, I reach for my ancient Winchester...Current tells us that "[Vidal] implied that he was a greater Lincoln authority than Stephen B. Oates or any other academic historian except David Herbert Donald." As I pointed out in the last exchange, it was Newsweek that found me to be (in reference to Lincoln's alleged syphilis) a better historian than Mr. Oates, whom I have never read. I do not "imply" (Current has a guardhouse lawyer's way with weasel-words) that I am a better historian than anyone. This is the sort of thing that obsesses academic careerists. Scholar-squirrels spend their lives trying to be noted and listed and graded and seeded because such rankings determine their careers. Those of us engaged in literature and, perhaps, in history as well don't think in such terms. We also don't go on Pulitzer Prize committees to give a friend a prize which, in due course, when he is on the committee, he will give us for our squirrelings. Despite his mixed anthropomoprhisms--"scholar-squirrels" have "a guardhouse lawyer's ways with weasel-words"--Vidal's point is sound: Academics often tussle over the scraps because they're trained to avoid the Big Picture. They prize their "squirrelings" because they can't, to slip into the most apt of cliches, see the forest for the trees. In which, I presume, the squirrel away their squirrelings. Vidal continues as only he can: But note the Current technique throughtout this supremely unimportant business. One of the signs of obsession is the inability to tell the difference between what mattters and what does not. The obsessed gives everything the same weight. Current juggles words this way and that to try to "prove" what is often pointless and unprovable. Not that Vidal is immune to criticism. To paraphrase someone who will find a response to his earnest and appreciated post to me in another forum, Alistair Alexi and Andy Appleton of the Alliteration Agency would like to speak to him about the following sentence: It's savory scholar-squirrel stew time again! Or, to be precise, one scholar-squirrel and one plump publicist pigeon for the pot. So no one's perfect. Tomorrow (or possibly even later this afternoon) will witness some brilliant thinkings about how painfully out-of-touch Tom Wolfe is and why that's related to the history of the shoe-fastening technology...

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