Blogs > Cliopatria > Wherein I Descend from Mt. Memphis with the Ten Commandments

Dec 2, 2006 1:33 pm

Wherein I Descend from Mt. Memphis with the Ten Commandments

I'm just back from the Southern Historical Association convention in Memphis and delighted to find wonderful conversations going on at Cliopatria in my absence. I choose not to conclude from that that I am dispensable, though of course I am; but it is sobering to note that my posts have had morelinks in my absencethan whenI'm actually here! Maybe I should go away more often, but I have a lot of catching up to do on those conversations and all the other blogs!

The convention reminded me of why I love the SHA and return to it year after year. It's the annual re-union of professional friends I've known for many years. It offers pointed debate about important issues and congenial conversation over good meals. I had lunch on Thursday with William K. Scarborough of the University of Southern Mississippi and Berkeley's Leon Litwack. You could hardly find two more diametrically opposed historians in the country. Scarborough is a tough old reactionary who has opposed every progressive reform for the last fifty years. Litwack is a"red diaper baby" who finds most progressive reform falling far short of necessary change. The very sight of the three of us breaking bread together was stunning to anyone who knew who we were. Yet, they've known each other for years and the company and conversation could not have been more delightful.

Rebunk was at the convention – at least two-thirds of it was – and, of course, they resisted my every caution about harsh criticism of others on the net. I found that my friend, Allison Dorsey, from the Martin Luther King Papers Project is now Tim Burke's colleague at Swarthmore and that Michael O'Brien, my editor at Cambridge University, is impatient to get my version of the essays, sermons, and speeches of Vernon Johns in hand for final editing.

I was on the program committee for this year's convention. There was general agreement that our work was well done. I can't report on all the sessions, but two that I attended are worthy of special note. We had advance warning that Saturday morning's session on the defense of Jim Crow after Brown was likely to produce fireworks -- so much so that word spread that there would be a"food fight in L-5," the room's number. And so it was. Two of the papers offered very smart commentary on the use of social science research to challenge Brown and the challenge of independent schools in the post-Brown years. The"food fight" featured the debate between Arkansas's David Chappell and Jane Dailey of Johns Hopkins over the degree to which religion was important in Jim Crow's defense. I won't declare a winner here, only that it is fascinating to watch two very smart historians clash on important issues.

The other session that especially interested me was a retrospect on the work of my teacher, George B. Tindall of the University of North Carolina. The session offered three excellent papers on the work of a giant in Southern history. We missed only his response, because Tindall was unable to be at the convention. But the papers were of such quality that we've reason to hope that they will appear in a special issue of an important history journal, together with Professor Tindall's response.

For Cliopatria, however, I want to offer George Tindall's Ten Commandments. They began in a draft prepared by William Hesseltine at the University of Wisconsin and were refined by Tindall, who commended them to his many dozens of graduate students:

Clio's Decalogue: The Commandments of the Muse

IThou shalt smite the Philistines hip and thigh with thy first sentence. This is the First Commandment.

IIThou shalt love the active verb with all thy heart, with all the soul, and with all thy mind, and thou shalt have no passive verbs before me; the present tense, moreover, is an abomination unto the muse.

IIIThou shalt not take the names of thy cast in vain, for the muse will not hold that one guiltless who faileth fully to denominate and clearly to identify in relation to the subject all persons or incidents, be they Zora Neale Hurston, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, or the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. Only after thou hast performed this ceremony of purification mayest thou use familiar terms like unto Hurston, Lamar, or The Duel to the Death.

IVRemember the footnote, to keep it holy. In thy text shalt thou labor thy subject, but neither discuss thy documents nor yet thy methodology. Footnotes were made for scholars and not scholars for footnotes; yea, verily, the greatest is not the writer who citeth the most obscure document, nor yet the one who pileth Ossa upon Pelion.

VHonor thy chronology, to keep it straight, and put thy time clause first, that thy days may be long upon the printed page.

VIThou shalt not kill thy reader, neither with the dangling participle, nor the split infinitive, nor with string of prepositional phrases, nor yet with adjectives and adverbs.

VIIThou shalt not commit adulteration, neither with slang nor with jargon, yea though the words be favored of thine instructors.

VIIIThou shalt not covet thy source's prose, imagery, or purple passage, nor anything that is thy source's, for lo, thou canst say it better thyself. Thou mayest quote only to season thy store, and that in fear and trembling.

IXThou shalt not bear false witness, nor pass judgment upon mankind, nor yet pardon any man or woman for anything; thou mayest seek the reason for error but neither the excuse nor the blame. Vengeance is mine, saith the muse.

XThou shalt not steal thy reader's attention by using"this" for"the," nor"the" for"a," neither shall thou employ negations. Neither a"no"-er nor a"not"-er be; but rather an accentuator of the positive; in this respect shalt thou do as these commandments say do and not as they, alas, do.

Thanks to Dan Carter and Bobbie Donaldson of the University of South Carolina, Nan Woodruff of Penn State, Bob McMath of Georgia Tech, and Bruce Shulman of Boston University who made the Tindall retrospective a great success.

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Jonathan Dresner - 11/7/2004

Thanks! That's quite good. I'll have to make that a permanent link from one of my web pages.

Now I have my first handout for my thesis writing group this spring....