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A brief history of secret histories

Posted by Joshua Glenn  March 24, 2008 01:50 PM

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In an LA Times review of Ekaterina Sedia's novel "The Secret History of Moscow", this past weekend, Ed Park wrote:

After "American," the most overused but irresistible prefix for titles might be "The Secret History of." Unscientific trend-spotters (me) attribute the popularity of this modern-day usage to Donna Tartt's 1992 novel, "The Secret History." Now bushels of articles and books promise to reveal secret histories of disco, the Beatles, Paris, the potato, emotion, various wars, myriad subcultures.

I agree with Park that Tartt's critically acclaimed bestseller must have helped spur the popularity of the "secret history" meme. But let me just add a few more thoughts.


A little research reveals that in 1994, three secret histories were published: "Vessels of Rage, Engines of Power: The Secret History of Alcoholism" by James Graham; "Round in Circles: Poltergeists, Pranksters, and the Secret History of the Cropwatchers" by Jim Schnabel; and "Behind the Oscar: The Secret History of the Academy Awards" by Anthony Holden. The year 1996 saw the publication of "Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer" by Edward Jay Epstein; "Lord of the Dead: The Secret History of Byron" by Tom Holland; "Repossessing Ernestine: A Granddaughter Uncovers the Secret History of Her American Family" by Marsha Hunt; "Outlaws (Secret Histories)" by Lauder Clark; and "My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber's Secret History of Modernity" by Eric L. Santner.

Even more tellingly, in 1996 the following titles were reissued in paperback: "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt; "The Secret History of Alcoholism" by James Graham; "The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet" by David Kahn; "My Secret History" by Paul Theroux; "The Book of the Dragontooth: An Ancient Manuscript on the Secret History of the Dragon and the Unicorn" by Michael Green; "Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry" by Clinton Heylin; "Noise from the Underground: A Secret History of Alternative Rock" by Pat Blashill, Henry Rollins, and Michael Lavine; and "The Memory Cathedral: A Secret History of Leonardo Da Vinci" by Jack Dann.

However, I don't think we can give Tartt all the credit (or blame) for this meme. Greil
Marcus's "Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century," which appeared in 1989, was also a much-admired book. Marcus + Tartt = "secret history" meme. QED.


FYI, secret histories go way back. The 6th-century Roman historian Procopius wrote a book known as the "Secret History" (Anekdota, first published in 1623) that consisted of scandalous outtakes from his seven-volume "History of Justinian's Wars." And there was a "Secret History of the Mongols published in the early 13th century.

During the 18th century, French and English writers cranked out dozens of tracts and treatises with boffo titles like "The Secret History of the Court and Reign of Charles the Second, by a member of his privy council"; "The Secret History of the White Staff, Being An Account of Affairs Under the Conduct of some Late Minister, And of what might probably have happen'd if Her Majesty had not Died"; and even "The Secret History of the Calves-Head Club, Complt. or, the Republican Unmask'd. Wherein is fully shewn, the Religion of the Calves-Head Heroes, in their Anniversary Thanksgiving-Songs on the Thirtieth of January, by them called Anthems; for the Years 1693, 1694, 1695, 1696, 1697, 1698, 1699, &c. With reflections thereupon. Now published to demonstrate the restless, implacable Spirit of a certain Party still among us, who are never to be satisfied 'till the present Establishment in Church and State is subverted."


As Ed Park notes, these days secret histories are a dime a dozen. This year, we've already seen the publication of "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning" by Jonah Goldberg; "Jack: Secret Histories" by F. Paul Wilson; "Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader" by Kasra Naji; "Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs, from Communism to al-Qaeda" by Robert Wallace, H. Keith Melton, and Henry R. Schlesinger; "The Secret History of the English Language" by M.J. Harper; " "On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders" by Michael Banks; and "Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column" by H.G. Cock. That doesn't even count paperbacks.

Forthcoming: "Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan" by Chip Kidd.

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1 comments so far...
  1. Well, it all WAS secret until the books started hitting the shelves ...

    Posted by Michael A. Banks August 11, 08 01:59 AM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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