Saturday, December 27, 2008

How Careless!

The global financial meltdown has been hitting private universities hard; several small colleges have announced their forthcoming closure, while others, like Beloit College, have fired faculty and staff in response to declining enrollment and shrinking endowments. Even Ivy League schools aren't immune: Yale has announced a $6 billion decline in its endowment, while the losses at my Alma Mater, if they are "marked to market," may exceed $18 billion - a sum roughly equal to the gross domestic product of Panama or Iceland. This is the sort of news that makes me glad I work for a public school, where we're more dependent on state appropriations and federal aid than foundation pay-outs and tuition. I can't even visualize eighteen billion dollars - though this web page may help my curious readers to do so.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Gorey Christmas

As a follow-up to my last post, and for the entertainment of those of my readers who are Edward Gorey fans (probably most of you), I present the following links. (None of these have much to do with early American history, though they do refer to media which are at least ten years old.)

* First, here is a pastiche of the Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," written and illustrated in Gorey's style by Shaenon Garrity. Gorey himself was a fan of the original series, but apparently missed the Tribble episode. (This story appeared on Boing Boing last year, but I suspect a fair number of people missed it.)

* Gorey also illustrated at least one classic science fiction novel: a 1960 reprint of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. This cover illustration is one of the best of the set, and reminds us that the dividing line between s.f. and horror is often quite thin.

* And, finally, a link to a Nine Inch Nails video inspired by Gorey's illustrations. Trent Reznor and Danny Lohner wrote the underlying music and lyrics for the soundtrack to one of David Lynch's films, so it lies at a nexus of late-twentieth-century creepiness.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Memento Mori

While visiting the Philadelphia College of Physicians three years ago, I saw an exhibit on medicine during the early nineteenth century - a tie-in with the bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark expedition - which included a section on common causes of death, borrowed from the records of two Philadelphia churches. Such a morbid display might seem more suitable for Halloween than for a December weblog posting, but many of the listed causes of death are sufficiently vague and strange (not surprising, given the primitive state of early-nineteenth-century medicine) as to provide a bit of macabre humor. Particularly if you happen to be a fan of Edward Gorey.

And since a little Gorey-esque humor is always fashionable, I present, herewith, the "Diseases and Casualties in Christ Church and at St. Peters, This Year (25 Dec. 1802 – 25 Dec. 1803):"

Apoplexy (1)
Asthma (1)
Bilious Fever (4)
Bilious Cholic (1)
Child Bed (1)
Consumption (2)
Cancer (0)*
Dropsy (7)
Decay (25)
Drowned (1)
Fits (17)
Flux (4)
Fever (3)
Gravel (0)*
Gout (1)
Hives (6)
Hooping Cough (1)
Killed (3)
Lunacy (3)
Mortification (2)
Measles (4)
Nervous Fever (4)
Old Age (8)
Pleurisy (5)
Palsy (2)
Purging & Vomit (5)
Suddenly (1)
Scarlet Fever (4)
Sore Throat (4)
Smallpox (1)
Teeth & Worms (7)
Yellow Fever (11)

* Apparently, this list was a form or template, as it gave two causes of death that didn't apply to 1803.

The total is 139, though the two parishes counted 143 burials that year - one hopes that either the recorders made a counting error or that the four "extra" burials were of people who died the previous year. There were also 213 baptisms, so births outnumbered deaths by a 3:2 ratio. Nonetheless, Philadelphia, like most early modern cities, was a fairly unhealthy place to live, with a five-year average death rate (for 1793-98) of 40 per 1,000 - roughly equal to present-day Nigeria. (Billy Gordon Smith, The Lower Sort: Philadelphia's Laboring People, 1750-1800 [Cornell UP, 1994], p. 206)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Obligatory Self-Promotion

My first book, Red Gentlemen and White Savages, is now in press, and should be available for sale by December 21st. Alan Taylor describes it as "an original and substantial contribution to work on the Federalists and Indians, and the best book on this subject to date," while Gregory Nobles says it is "a fresh and engaging book," written "with an appreciation of complexity, but also with great clarity." The Times Literary Supplement has not yet weighed in, but I am hoping they will say my book shows "exceptional promise." One way or another, I'm sure they'll soon be talking about it in all the cafes in Paris.