Blogs > Cliopatria > On Snarky and Cranky Arguments ...

Sep 8, 2004 6:07 am

On Snarky and Cranky Arguments ...

Florida's last hurricane came up the Alabama/Georgia line yesterday and knocked out our electricity at 8:00 a.m. It wasn't restored until 10 p.m. last night. So, I sat here in the dark having snarky and cranky thoughts all day because I couldn't access the net to see what calumny was being posted or which philistine needed my attention in comments at Cliopatria. Thank you for being more civil than I had anticipated.

So, I wandered over to Scott McLemee's site because he's always got something good up. If you want to read snarky and cranky, try his excerpts from William Hazlett's letter to William Gifford. I don't know enough about either Hazlett or Gifford to place them clearly, but I'll take Scott's word that we might think of Gifford as"the Norman Podhoretz of his day" (‘the invisible ink that connects literature with the police'). Gifford was editor of the Quarterly Review, which Hazlett called

a depository for every species of political sophistry and personal calumny. There is no abuse or corruption that does not there find a jesuitical palliation or a bare-faced vindication. There we meet the slime of hypocrisy, the varnish of courts, the cant of pedantry, the cobwebs of the law, the iron hand of power. Its object is as mischievous as the means by which it is pursued are odious
And McLemee closes with the suggestion that Hazlett ought to have a look at The Weekly Standard!

Surely, Hazlett's denunciation of Gifford qualifies as"snarky and cranky" – as a righteous denunciation, but it seems to me that we can read it that way preciously because it is target specific. He wasn't denouncing the essayists of his age – he was one, himself; he was denouncing Gifford. And you can decide whether his denunciation was on target by reading Gifford.

So, when I read denunciations of"historians," I'm inclined to dismiss them as bitter rants – not to be taken very seriously. They rise to the level of being worth taking seriously when they are directed at particular historians. Then, you can evaluate their accuracy.

I say all that because I've got a piece in my hip pocket which is a snarky and cranky attack on a particular historian. It's full of Hazlett-like language: his books are"an avalanche of mistakes,""a travesty of scholarly and critical standards,""a compendium of misinformation, deliberate falsification, bizarre fantasy, incoherent writing, and fraudulent scholarship that is nothing less than shocking and appalling." My attorney will be glad to know that those are not my words. The piece reports those accusations about another historian. He's been given two weeks in which to reply, if he wishes.

That, it seems to me is fair game. You maintain"professional standards" by looking at the work of particular practitioners. A specific – not a generic – target; accusations made known to the accused -- not whispered behind his back; and opportunity for the accused to reply. I've known what it is to be subject to a generic attack: historians don't adhere to"professional standards." Non-sense. What historian? I've known what it is to be denied access to accusations and denied the right to reply. I've no interest in arranging the sort of kangaroo court that hung me.

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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 9/8/2004

If you're not too concerned about the literary quality of the reviews, we can include John Lott doing self reviews as Mary Rosh at

Adam Kotsko - 9/8/2004

That reminds me of Nabokov's joint review of his own memoirs and another memoir. It was republished in the New Yorker a few years ago, and I think it might be included in Speak, Memory as well. A classic of the self-review genre. Does that genre have any other members?

Miriam Elizabeth Burstein - 9/8/2004

Hazlitt is indeed a terrific writer--there's great stuff in The Spirit of the Age--and he certainly holds up far better than Gifford does. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that while the QR was definitely on the Tory/conservative side of things (as opposed to the Edinburgh Review or the Westminster Review), it still published quite a bit of serious and intelligent literary criticism. (Even when the literary critic was the author himself, as was the case with a famous review of/by Sir Walter Scott!) So Hazlitt's grumblings shouldn't quite be taken as doctrine.