David McCullough beats the dead like they owe him money.

I don’t know why I find this Onion article so funny and yet feel so awkward laughing at it at the same time (h/t anonymous, who put this link in my comments yesterday.)  Historians and other humanists:  how do you feel about it, and why?

I think it has something to do with shame about exploiting the dead, plus slavery, neither of which is very funny.  (But of course, my opportunities for exploitation are much more limited than McCullough’s.)

This, on the other hand, is just shamelessly funny.

I’m sorry that I don’t have much else to offer here at the beginning of the semester. I don’t have any appetite for writing a post called “Summer is Over and I Haven’t Written My Syllabi OMG!” or “First-Year Students These Days!” or “I’m Totes LMFAO at My Dumb Colleagues” or “I Am Already Sick of Meetings And It’s Only August.” All of that is true of course, but you know where to find it if that’s what you’re looking for.

Also, a new word for you: Unbloglich. Unglaublich is German for “unbelieveable,” so unbloglich means “incredibly inappropriate for blogging, or outrageously unbloggable.” I just thought that up myself. (Don’t ask me why I’m thinking in German these days.)

18 thoughts on “David McCullough beats the dead like they owe him money.

  1. The McCullough gag is pretty funny, because he basically is really a hack. But they dragged it out into too long a piece.


  2. Is it the beginning of the semester?!? Uh, oh. I just got that weird physical reaction like when I was in the 4th grade and it had poured all night, and the elementary school asphalt playground was a lake, with a real railroad tie floating in it, and I got so absorbed in the group business of pushing the tie around like a boat that I didn’t notice that the “group” had disappeared. Classes had been underway for ten minutes and the playground was ringing with nothing but silence. I ran like crazy for the door but I’ve blanked on what happened next. Mrs. Allen was *not* happy. Is it THAT degree of “beginning of the semester” already? Looks like I might get left back again! I always enjoy that Rod Steward “Late September and I really should be back at school” moment around now, but this is different.

    The thing I thought was funny about yesterday’s link to the McCullough thing was that I was about five allusions into it before I realized he couldn’t have said all those things. Comradde, if they hadn’t “dragged it out,” I’d be thinking that McCullough was really going to “ring that chump like a doorbell!”


  3. Given that Douglass made a pretty good living off of the Frederick Douglass legend himself (3 autobiographies, remember), I’m inclined to think of him and McCullough (and his ilk)-as-portrayed-in-the-article as kindred spirits.

    A lot of 19th-century reformers seem to have had fairly strong desires for celebrity, financial success, or both (and some of the more self-effacing and/or self-sacrificing probably derived some pleasure from seeing themselves, and being seen, through those lenses). And I can certainly think of some 20th/21st century scholars of their work (cough-Skip Gates-cough) who have both produced extremely valuable work and indulged in more than a bit of self-promotion (sometimes to the detriment of their work, sometimes not). Both reform and scholarship are human enterprises, driven by the usual complicated mix of human desires. I’d actually rather see that admitted than swept under the rug.


  4. Aw, let’s go for even easier – write a hyperbolic rant about what students don’t know these days or how technology will destroy/save education and publish it while getting coverage in the eager media. Right?


  5. “you’re looking at a zeitgeist factor that could spell some serious cabbage”

    To me, this encapsulates why it is funny. McCullough makes money selling books to certain classes of white people; mainly books about the great accomplishments of similar classes of white people.


  6. “Theory and history don’t change. Or so I thought.”

    That’s where you’re wrong, koshembos. What is history? Is it the platonic unrecoverable past, utterly unknowable to us, or is it the textual and material remnants of that past which remain open to re-interpretation, review, and rediscovery generation after generation?

    History changes all of the time. People discover new evidence (or reinterpret old evidence), and write new books, and it’s the newest books and the latest ideas that I like to introduce my students to. I bet that 85-90% of the historians who comment here approach their teaching that way, too.


  7. Probably the reason that the Onion article seems a touch disturbing is because they portray McCullough treating as a commodity the life of a man who was once classified as property. Still, some of the humor lies in the fact that McCullough would never have recognized that bit of irony and he would totally think this way, claiming credit for every idea he pilfered along the way and hailed as if he rescued Douglass from obscurity by inventing the whole concept of black biography.


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