Thanks to all of you who filled out the survey! If you’d still like to weigh in, please do; I’m basing next year’s changes on your answers. And last week’s holiday special was quite popular, so I’m extending it. Details below.
History cranks and fiends, here are the most popular 11 posts of 2021. I’m thrilled to see my readers embrace such a wide range of topics, and my favorites among them.
You cannot deny that many of the founders looked like birds.
A great interview with Kelvin Parnell Jr. on Selma Burke, a Harlem Renaissance sculptor who exists in presidential history as part of an anecdote about FDR. We take turns unpacking the story, and find there’s still much to be learned.
I love texting with patron saints of collective knowledge, and the first feature in a series with Rosemary K. J. Davis, the Accessioning Archivist for the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, did not disappoint. Come for the uterus but stay for Blume’s “Idea Box,” and other surprising details.
On July 25, 1963, President John F. Kennedy called General Godfrey McHugh about his aide’s “obvious fuck- up.”
7. “Your Favorite Professor. Georgetown’s MVP gets set up by her students, and finds her second visit to Mount Vernon just as bad as the first.”
Historian Marcia Chatelain, the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize-prize winner for history, talks about everything from whom she would study, marry, and kill to the “oppressively white” modern makeup of Mount Vernon.
A long essay on the long- forgotten origin of that misnomer: Mary’s sensational 1875 insanity trial, a kangaroo court orchestrated by Robert Lincoln, her only surviving adult child, who hoped, like so many of men his time, to rid himself of a woman who embarrassed him. Robert’s plan backfired, but Mary’s legacy withstood the most damage. Mary was declared sane by the court and the press was sympathetic towards her situation—but in America’s collective memory, she’s still crazy.
When it comes to talking craft and process, history is a rare but esteemed guest of the American literary community. In May, I focused on popular history, and had the honor of interviewing New York Times bestselling author Rebecca Traister, Times op-ed columnist Jamelle Bouie, Pulitzer Prizers-prize winner T.J. Stiles, historian Rebecca Onion, editor Brian Wolly, author Pamela Newkirk, and podcast hosts Jody Avirgan, Kellie Carter Jackson, and Nicole Hemmer.
Mary was branded as “crazy” long before the trial began, and scholars have done little to correct the record.
3. “Confessions of a Feminist. A serialized biography of Jane Grant (1892-1972), first woman reporter at The New York Times and co-founder of The New Yorker.”
Jane Grant has no biography to challenge the ones that have reduced, diminished, and ignored her work. She has a hard-to-find memoir, and her name appears in fewer than a dozen articles on The New Yorker’s website, none of them dedicated to her. After a disappointing adventure in historiography, I paid deference to my inner public historian and serialized my research with a request: I hope that someone will write this essential woman’s biography.
2. “Taft is still NOT stuck in the bath. Let’s drown this fat-shaming myth about the 27th president.”
William Howard Taft did not need to be pried out of the bathtub. He preferred baths to showers, it’s true, but there was no nightly fiasco when it was time for bed. There’s not a single historic news article or magazine story, eyewitness, or gumshoe historian who has said otherwise.
As reviewers and readers of You Never Forget Your First noticed immediately, I take issue with how Ron Chernow handles women and slavery in his own biography of the first president, but he never responded to any requests or comments about it. Yet when Jessie Serfilippi, 27, posted a paper about Alexander Hamilton’s life as an enslaver to her employer’s website, the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, Chernow had comments for all the major outlets. Did he defend his scholarship? No. He issued vague attacks on Serfilippi, whose paper was a direct challenge to the man he’d sold as an “uncompromising abolitionist.”
“Subscribers” (unpaid) will be upgraded to “paid subscriber” for six months.
Monthly paid subscribers will receive one year free.
Yearly paid subscribers/Founding Members, choose your bounty: A thank-you note on my Washington stationary (include your mailing address) or give a lucky recipient a six-month subscription to SMK (include an email address).
If you buy both books, or more than one copy of one title, email me your mailing address and I’ll send a thank-you note.
Want a signed/personalized copy? Order it through Oblong Books.
ON A RELATED NOTE
I’m honored to be featured, along with Marcia Chatelain, Eric Foner, Marcus P. Nevius and many more in PBS’s “Preserving Democracy: Pursuing a More Perfect Union.”
See you next week! In the meantime, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram and my books, as well as others mentioned on SMK, on Bookshop, Amazon, and your local bookstore or library. If you have a question or comment, I want to hear it! firstname.lastname@example.org.