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An academic gossip makes his (or her?) debut

Posted by Christopher Shea  August 27, 2008 11:39 AM

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Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce, the noted American aphorist and author of "The Devil's Dictionary," defined the historian as "a broad-gauge gossip." Now a blogger (and historian) working under Bierce's name is taking that description literally: He or she is providing an outlet for the scuttlebutt about history departments and star historians that gets bandied about at conferences, over drinks (but rarely makes it into print).

The blog is titled, yes, "The Broad-Gauge Gossip," and the blogger's full nom de keyboard is Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III, a nod, too to the late Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter. After the blog debuted Aug. 13, the History News Network introduced Bierce as "the Wonkette of the history profession," a reference to the acerbic Washington blog that covers hijinks on the Hill.

Bierce has a good voice -- in addition to Wonkette, I hear a bit of Underneath Their Robes, the now-defunct law blog -- and good sources, or so it sounds. One early post, for example, argued that the "once great" department at Princeton had "fallen onto troubled times":

That's not because of its stellar cast of European historians … Rather Princeton's woes are the result of the near-collapse of its American side. In the last several years, Princeton suffered great travails. Three prominent Americanists -- John Murrin, Jim McPherson, and Nell Painter -- have retired. Elizabeth Lunbeck decamped for the up-and-coming Vanderbilt, finally reunited with her husband Gary … The last remaining senior Americanist of the feminine persuasion, Christine Stansell, left her husband (but contrary to popular rumor not her marriage) behind and headed to Chicago, a place attempting through a quirky set of hires to remedy its own travails in American history.

What's more, "The roster of luminaries who have turned down Princeton would comprise one of the best American history departments in the country. Phil Morgan, Daniel Richter, Richard White, Walter Johnson, Stephanie McCurry, David Gutierrez, Robin Kelley, George Chauncey, Alan Brinkley, Tom Sugrue, and Lizabeth Cohen. And that's probably not a complete list."*

Dickinson Hall (in background), home to Princeton's history department

Later, Bierce lit into the Ivy League rival on the West Coast: "Ambrose Bierce has never been a great fan of Leland Stanford Junior University, that institution whose name forever honors the son of the most repulsive $tealand £andford whose railroad 'conducted the business … of promoting dyspepsia and disseminating death, hell, and the grave.' But to my present happiness, old Leland's history department has itself been somewhat derailed, though not quite enough for my full satisfaction." He also looked into what Emory's department was doing to end its run of bad luck -- it's association, for example, with Michael Bellesiles, author of the discredited "Arming America" (i.e., "the terminally sloppy historian who shot his career point blank in the temple").

On a lighter note, AHB III posted a picture of UC-Davis historian Eric Rauchway in competitive swimwear, under the caption, "Look out, Michael Phelps."

How long can Bierce keep his ID under wraps? (In a brief email exchange, Bierce would say only that he or she was a "professor in a history department.") Will he follow the route of Ana Marie Cox, the original Wonkette, who parleyed her sodomy-saturated posts into MSM semi-fame? Or of David Lat, the author of A3G, who paid a price (his law job) when he was outed as a legal gossip? (Though he's now a professional blogger.) To judge from the output so far, it will be good reading as long as the ride lasts.

*I've asked the chairman of Princeton's history department, Jeremy Adelman, if he wants to comment on Bierce's assessment.

UPDATE: See this post for Adelman's response.

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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.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

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.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

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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