John Hersey Book Book Review

51F3Bl8MpYL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I wrote this review for the Wall Street Journal‘s April 27 edition. Since non-subscribers can’t read Journal articles, I’m posting it here.

Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of Hiroshima, by Jeremy Treglown.

It’s barely a quarter century since John Hersey died, at the age of 78, but already his life and his career as a writer feel so old-fashioned as to be antique. Hersey is of course best known as the author of Hiroshima—published as an issue-length article in The New Yorker in 1946 and as a book a year later, and never out of print since then—but he was an old-fashioned man of letters, whose body of work was as capacious and varied as that of an Emerson or a Disraeli. He wrote many other distinguished works of journalism in addition to his profile of six Hiroshima survivors; for example, The Algiers Motel Incident (1968), published when he was deep into his 50s, was a rigorously reported, deeply engaged and structurally inventive account of racial violence in Detroit. And he spoke out in essays, reports and speeches on the pressing issues of his day. Nonfiction was his strong suit, but his third book, the novel A Bell for Adano, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1945, and he always maintained the very 20th-century belief that novels were the gold standard of a writer’s output.

Hersey (1914-93) was also old-fashioned in what might best be described with the old-fashioned word “decency.” The late Gardner Botsford, an editor at The New Yorker, gently mocked him by dubbing him “Mr. Straight Arrow,” a designation borrowed by Jeremy Treglown for the title of his new book. (Botsford was comparing him to the cartoonist Charles Addams, who was a very curved arrow and to whom Hersey’s second wife was previously married.) Hersey came by his rectitude honestly. His parents were Protestant missionaries in China (he lived there till he was ten), and he inherited a reflexive urge to do good works and see the other fellow’s point of view. His civic engagement and high seriousness bore on his fiction, which took up weighty themes—sometimes weighing it down, critics often charged—and even on his reporting methodology. Treglown writes that interview subjects trusted Hersey because they picked up on his “imaginative sympathy . . . He was someone whose decency was recognized by other decent people, so they let him in.”

That Hersey belonged to a different era is also evident in the paper records, notes, and correspondence he accumulated and eventually donated to the library of his alma mater, Yale University. At one point, Treglown tells us, the Hersey archives took up 71 feet of shelving, and they have only grown since then. Even if one could imagine a current-day John Hersey, his collected papers would fit on an 8-gig flash drive.

Researchers fantasize about such a paper trail, but Mr. Straight Arrow frequently calls to mind the bromide “be careful what you wish for.” Biographers have always to be mindful of both big-picture forest and individuated trees; captivated by all this material, Treglown spends too much time examining bark. The book slows to a halt with extended discussions about the author’s photo and jacket copy for one of Hersey’s books; about whether Hersey did or didn’t name plants correctly in certain passages of Hiroshima; about negotiations with David Selznick about a never-to-be-realized movie version of the novel The Wall; and about the minutiae of the Yale English Department, of which Hersey was a product and to which he returned to teach from the late 1960s through the mid-’80s.

I’ve just referred to “biographers,” but the designation doesn’t apply to Treglown, at least not in this book. (A former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, he has published proper lives of V.S. Pritchett, Roald Dahl and Henry Green.) It is, he writes, “a study of John Hersey’s career, not a full biography.” I imagine all the manuscripts, royalty statements and editorial back-and-forths on offer at Yale led him to that decision, but it generated a torque that seems to have directed him to library stalls and away from the wider world, to the detriment of the book. Judging by the text, end notes and acknowledgments, Treglown appears to have conducted no more than a dozen on-the-record interviews in preparing Mr. Straight Arrow. Talking to Hersey’s children, to a good sample of his scores of former students (instead of just one), to his surviving friends and colleagues at Yale, The New Yorker and the publisher Alfred A. Knopf not only would have provided anecdotes but also would have helped the author with perspective, sometimes a problem for the book.

Broader reading beyond just the Hersey papers would have helped, too. This was most clear to me in the material relating to The New Yorker: Treglown, who is English, doesn’t have a strong sense of magazine’s unique editorial culture, conventions and procedures and how they shaped Hersey’s work for it, which included not only Hiroshima but dozens of contributions from 1944 till 1988. The founding editor, Harold Ross, had an idiosyncratic approach to journalism and writing more generally, which showed up in the lengthy “query sheets” he attached to drafts of articles. Ross wrote a voluminous query sheet for Hiroshima, bringing up many minor points and some major ones. An example of the latter was prompted by Hersey’s reference, in his first draft, to a fact his characters probably wouldn’t have been aware of. Ross wrote:

Touchy technical point here, and an important one. This is a story throughout of what people see first hand and (except for a few parenthetical remarks) only that. Did this woman see her dead husband and know it that way. If so should be told that way. If not, should be out, as getting ahead of the story.

Hersey cut the line out. And Treglown makes no reference to the query sheet.

The book could also use a fuller and more nuanced sense of Hersey’s place in and ambivalent attitude toward the so-called New Journalism. Hiroshima is often named as pioneering some of the techniques associated with the movement, like dialogue and omniscient narration, yet in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Hersey spoke out what he saw as insufficient regard for facts and excessive self-promotion in some New Journalists. Treglown doesn’t mention an important 1980 essay where he laid out his criticisms, “The Legend on the License.” (“There is one sacred rule of journalism,” Hersey said. “The writer must not invent. The legend on the license must read: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP.”) More seriously, he doesn’t seem to be aware that in a 1944 Hersey article about a damaged returning soldier, “Joe Is Home Now,” written in the style of a short story and cited by Tom Wolfe as a New Journalism precursor, “Joe” is a composite character, based on interviews with more than 40 veterans.

It’s annoying when reviewers say authors should have written a different book from the one they produced. But I can’t resist saying that if Treglown wasn’t going to do a full-scale biography he might have been better off writing a critical study of Hersey. His close readings of the author’s work are credible and smart, and he’s especially insightful on the way they reflect the author’s character. He writes of Hersey’s late novels, “Whatever parts of himself he was drawing on in these books, his puritanism encumbers them as fictional elements, and his reticence—surely part of the same apparatus—keeps them largely beyond biographical reach.”

That reticence, that rock-ribbed uprightness and uptightness, was an essential characteristic for John Hersey. It was part of what made him a great journalist, an ambitious and earnest but not first-rank novelist, and someone who, as the subject of this book, has proved frustratingly hard to pin down.

 

Flossing Your Prose

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I was pleased to review Benjamin Dreyer’s new book, Dreyer’s English, for the Wall Street Journal. And I was also pleased to note that soon after the review was published, the book shot up to the number 2 spot at Amazon.com, behind only Michelle Obama’s autobiography. No connection, I’m sure.

Here’s the review (note that I call him “Mr. Dreyer” because that’s WSJ style).

I spy a trend: copy editors’ memoirs-cum-style guides. Four years ago, Mary Norris–a longtime copy editor for the New Yorker–published the splendid Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Now comes the copy chief at Random House with the rather more grand-sounding Dreyer’s English.

I hasten to say that the grandness of Benjamin Dreyer’s title is at least half ironic and self-deprecating, as is his subtitle: “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” But the name of the book does accurately reflect its difference from Ms. Norris’s. Hers is three-quarters memoir, one-quarter guide, and his is roughly the opposite ratio.

And accordingly, Mr. Dreyer has a lot of useful information to impart. In the first sentence of this review, he guided me to lower-case the “c” in the word following the colon; write “editors’ ” rather than “editors” or “editors’s” (or, heaven forbid, “editor’s”); and use “cum” (Latin for “with”) to indicate a thing with two identities, without italics or fear of offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Writing in such an utterly correct way feels good, I must say. It reminds me of something Mr. Dreyer quotes an author friend as saying–being well copy-edited is like getting “a really thorough teeth cleaning.” The result may come off as just a trifle stilted, but I’m in sympathy with what Mr. Dreyer writes later on: “There’s a certain tautness in slightly stilted prose that I find almost viscerally thrilling.” (That post-colon “There’s” gets capitalized because it kicks off a complete sentence.)

One encounters wisdom and good sense on nearly every page of “Dreyer’s English.” The whole chapter on fiction should be bound and issued to all MFA students. But part of the fun of the book, for me, was silently yelling at Mr. Dreyer on this point or that and writing a big “NO!” in the margin. He:

  • says that as a past-tense form, ” ‘Sprung’ rather than ‘sprang’ is perfectly correct. Look it up.” I did look it up and found that the respected arbiter Bryan Garner calls “sprung” “erroneous.” In the court of published opinion (i.e., the Google Books database), “sprang” is still used about eight times more frequently.
  • favors “farmers” market as opposed to “farmers’ ” market. NO! Mr. Dreyer fails to understand that a possessive apostrophe can indicate association and is not limited to cases of ownership or other actual possession. Otherwise we would shop at the “Children Department.”
  • believes that “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate or favorable” is “universally acceptable so long as the good fortune or favor is accidental.” I’m not sure which universe he’s in on this point, but I inhabit another one.

An illuminating and distinctive feature of Dreyer’s English is the portrait it provides of the copy editor’s trade. This differs from teeth-cleaning in that the subject–the author of a to-be-published book–is not directed to lie back with his or her mouth open, but rather to be part of the process.

The way it works is that the copy editor corrects spelling, punctuation, grammar and the like on the manuscript and then writes marginal suggestions or “queries” for other matters. Judging from Mr. Dreyer’s examples, these can be pointed, sometimes bordering on passive aggressive. In his section on redundancy, the author recalls editing a book containing the sentence “He implied without quite saying.” He goes on: “I was so filled with delight on encountering that, I scarcely had the heart to cross out ‘without quite saying’ and to note in the margin, politely and succinctly, “BY DEF.’ ”

Redundant or not, if the book’s author had insisted on keeping the phrase, it would have stayed. Mr. Dreyer recounts a dispute with Richard Russo, who had included in his novel Straight Man a sentence along the lines of ” ‘Hello,’ he smiled.” Mr. Dreyer wanted to revise, pointing out, with justice, that one cannot “smile” an utterance. But Mr. Russo held his ground and Mr. Dreyer ultimately gave in for a simple reason: “It’s his book.”

Mr. Dreyer once taped on his office door a remark attributed to New Yorker editor Wolcott Gibbs: “Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style.” Benjamin Dreyer has a style. It is playful, smart, self-conscious and personal, highlighted by admirable lines like “To ball [rather than bawl] one’s eyes out would be some sort of sporting or teabagging mishap.”

Sometimes, however, he crosses over into the Land of Twee. He thrice says particular usages make him “wrinkle my nose,” and he uses words and phrases like “matchy-matchy,” “a skosh later” and “his own devise.” He is fond of Britishisms like “post-university,” “that lot” and, especially, “bit,” once telling us, “a sentence’s introductory bit and its main bit need to fuse correctly.”

And he loves him some footnotes. Many a page is bottom-loaded with asterisk, dagger and double dagger, and one footnote has two footnotes of its own. On the footnote matter, Mr. Dreyer might have heeded his own advice (he was talking about overuse of parentheses): “One too many coy asides and you, in the person of your writing, will seem like a dandy in a Restoration comedy stepping down to the footlights and curling his hand around his mouth to confidentially address the audience. One rather needs a beauty mark and a peruke to get away with that sort of thing.”

If I were Mr. Dreyer’s copy editor, I would suggest losing a “bit” or two, and maybe a couple of dozen footnotes. But I’d hold my fire on the rest. After all, it’s his book.

Adieu, Lingua Franca

For seven and a half years, I had the pleasure and honor of writing a weekly post for the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s blog on language and writing, Lingua Franca. Alas, the blog has been discontinued, although I’d assured that the offerings of me and my colleagues will be available forever at the Lingua Franca site.

Here’s my final post:

I recently got an email from my friend Milena Davison in which she commented, “I find myself increasingly annoyed with the use of ‘redact’ and ‘redaction.’ I learned and sometimes even used these technical terms in connection with textual — mostly ancient — studies. When and why were they appropriated and substituted for ‘blacked out’ or ‘censored’?”

I immediately got onto the websites of The New York Times, Google Books, and the Oxford English Dictionary — as I do — in search of an answer. Fifteen or 20 minutes later, I wrote back to Milena:

Interesting on redact. The OED doesn’t have a distinct definition for this meaning, but rather includes it in a broader one: “To put (writing, text, etc.) in an appropriate form for publication; to edit.”
The first relevant citation is from a 1957 law journal: “Means should have been adopted to redact De Gennaro’s confession and admissions — before their introduction into evidence.”
And then this from 1994: “But most disturbing is a confidential memo Ickes sent to Hillary Clinton on the RTC, which has been redacted from 25 pages to just one paragraph.”
It appears to have started as a legal term of art: The New York Times in 1973 quotes a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling: “public disclosure of testimony given by him before a Federal grand jury in that district on Nov. 26, 1971, redacted so as not to reveal the names of other persons or businesses mentioned therein.” And a federal judge in 1980: “counsel for the defendants had grossly overstated the number of documents that had been released in redacted form by the C.I.A.”
Maybe the first political use in the Times is from a 1983 article with the word in quotation marks, indicating that it’s a fairly new usage: “The agreement provides that subcommittee members and staff can have copies of ”redacted,” or expurgated, copies of the documents that have been withheld, and can demand to see the full, unredacted copies in executive session.”

Having done that much research, I resolved to expand it into a Lingua Franca post. Then I remembered that after tomorrow, there aren’t going to be any more Lingua Franca posts. Quite the pity that the world will be deprived of my complete and unredacted thoughts on redact! And the same with a number of other ideas I’ve been mulling over or looking into. For what they’re worth, here are some of the items in my real, virtual, and mental notebooks:

  • Headline from The Athletic: “Schultz: Kirby Smart knows bowl games have lost their relevancy …” Seems that relevancy has been increasingly used over relevance, leniency over lenience, etc. What’s next — importancy?…
  • Choose-your-own pronouns: Do I dare touch it?…
  • The expression move the needle has definitely been moving the needle lately. Another one’s set it and forget it. Trace their rise to popularity …
  • Rachel Maddow always chooses pled over pleaded. A change in usage?…
  • People pronouncing milk and bank as melk and benk: Is this in fact on the rise, or am I just noticing it because it annoys me so much?…
  • Spend a day answering emails by choosing one of Gmail’s three sometimes eerily prescient and sometimes way-off suggestions …

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  • From a Bloomberg News story: “About 7 percent of tweets prominent women receive in government and journalism were found to be abusive or problematic.” In some circles, problematic has long been a popular euphemism for more direct terms like “abusive,” “racist,” “hateful,” or “offensive.” What’s its appeal, and is it going wider? …
  • “Black and brown people” seems to be gaining on “people of color” …
  • “Never such truer words”: a thing? …
  • Sharp-eyed Emily Gordon sends a quote from a Washington Post article: “‘I am a normy guy,’ Davis said.” Emily notes: “It’s a common slang word, but it’s misspelled. It should be ‘normie,’ meaning exceptionally or overly normal, square, vanilla, straight, non-alternative. … So, ‘He listens to all that normie music from the radio’ (snicker). Or ‘She’s one of those normie girls who just cares about good grades and getting into college.’” How different from basic? Worth looking in to? …
  • The superiority of “looking in to” over “looking into”…
  • Did the seemingly common pronunciation of Beto O’Rourke’s first name as “Bay-toe” rather than “Bay-doh” signal a decline in alveolar flapping in American English? …

For seven and a half years, the prospect of having to write a Lingua Franca post every week has concentrated my mind wonderfully. It’s forced me to turn random observations and notions such as the above into 700-1,000-word pieces, with what were meant to be cogent arguments, backed up with solid research and reasoning, and expressed in a reasonably precise and elegant manner. It’s given me the privilege of being on the same team as the sterling crew you see pictured to the right of this column, gently reminded of deadlines and deftly guided into print by Heidi Landecker and her colleagues Mitch Gerber and Carmen Mendoza, and read by a discerning group of readers, who rapidly pointed out our errors, engaged with our arguments, offered praise when appropriate, and, in my case at least, upped my game.

Hopefully I hope that when it came to discourse on language and writing, we moved the needle a little bit.

Tom Wolfe Essay–The Director’s Cut

I wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal on Tom Wolfe, who died on May 14 at the age of 88. Then I followed up with a piece on his style for the Lingua Franca blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s a mashup of the two pieces, with some additional thoughts.

One of the best passages in Tom Wolfe’s best book, The Right Stuff (1979), starts out:

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot . . . coming over the intercom . . . with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!—it’s reassuring) . . . the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’ . . . the voice that tells you [. . .]: ‘Now, folks, uh . . . this is the captain . . . ummmm . . . We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landin’ gears’re not . . . uh . . . lockin’ into position when we lower ’em . . . Now . . . I don’t believe that little ol’ red light knows what it’s talkin’ about—I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right’ . . . faint chuckle, long pause, as if to say, I’m not even sure all this is worth going into—still, it may amuse you . . .

The rendition of the “drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ ”—the style of speech even pilots from Massachusetts or Oregon universally affect, Wolfe says—goes on for another few hundred words, too long to quote here; I commend it to your attention. The voice, Wolfe ultimately tells us, originated from someone who picked it up in the mountains of West Virginia. Starting in the late 1940s, it drifted “into all phases of American aviation.” “It was the drawl,” he writes, “of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

Like Yeager, Wolfe had an infectious voice. He revived or introduced into mainstream prose style the use of italics, ellipses, exclamation points, apostrophe (or direct address), the historical present tense, onomatopoeia, kooky spelling and repeated capitalized portentous phrases (“the Right Stuff,” “the Me Decade,” “Masters of the Universe”).  More generally, he wrote with by a verve and playfulness and wit that rammed a virtual alarm clock in the ear of what he once called the country’s “somnambulistic totem newspapers.” His style was pretty much the opposite of Ernest Hemingway’s, but the two men—who both were reporters in their youth—were the most influential American stylists of the 20th century. Every journalist with literary ambitions who came of age from the late 1960s through the ’80s either imitated Wolfe, imitated his imitators or had to make the deliberate decision to reject the Wolfean approach and find another way.

Take it from me; I was one of them.

Wolfe’s style was as original as it was influential, but innovations always have some ancestor or ancestors, however indirect.  The Wolfean literary forebears that come to mind, with one exception, were novelists—not surprising, considering that Wolfe championed journalism as a literary form.

John Updike’s Rabbit, Run was published to a great deal of attention in 1960, just as Wolfe was embarking on his experimentation and innovation. He surely noted that it was composed in the present tense—in recent times a commonplace, in 1960 a novelty. Wolfe also had to have been intimately familiar with the work of J.D. Salinger, a near-Hemingway-level influence on young American writers in the ’50s. Salinger was very big on italics, especially in dialogue, where he characteristically applied them to just one syllable of a word. An exchange from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”:

“Muriel. My word of honor. Dr. Sivetski said Seymour may completely lose contr–”

“I just got here, Mother. This is the first vacation I’ve had in years, and I’m not going to just pack everything and leave.”

Next, Norman Mailer, who ventured into non-fiction in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. His coverage of the 1960 presidential conventions for Esquire not only had some of the stylistic much-ness of Wolfe but also—as in this bit from the piece on the Democrats’ Los Angeles—dealt with the same West Coast hot-rod ethos he would explore just a couple of years later:

And in this land of the pretty-pretty, the virility is in the barbarisms, the vulgarities, it is in the huge billboards, the screamers of the neon lighting, the shouting farm-utensil colors of the gas stations and monster drugstores, it is in the swing of the sports cars, hot rods, convertibles, Los Angeles is a city to drive in, the boulevards are wide, the traffic is nervous and fast, the radio stations play bouncing, blooping, rippling tunes, one digs the pop in a pop tune, no one of character would make love by it but the sound is good for swinging a car, electronic guitars and Hawaiian harps.

It may or may not have been a matter of what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence, but four decades later, Wolfe fomented a public feud with Updike, Mailer, and a third “literary” novelist, John Irving, whom he dubbed “My Three Stooges.”

The one nonliterary influence I’ll mention is advertising, which was probably the main bastion of enthusiasm in 1950s and early-’60s America; its characteristic utterance was the shout, juiced with real or implied exclamation points and italics. Raid Kills Bugs Dead! and all that. Mainstream culture had nothing but disdain for it. Like his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in painting and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in architecture, Wolfe appropriated a debased discourse and used it for his own ironic devices. Come to think of it, the Right Stuff and other Wolfean catchphrases may also have been influenced by Madison Avenue, which loves a good slogan.

Moving on, here’s the opening to Wolfe’s 1964 piece “The Girl of the Year”:

Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter face brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew bottoms éclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them, these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theatre underneath that vast, old, moldering, cherub dome up there — aren’t they super-marvelous!

Now tell me that Wolfe could have come up with that sentence if James Joyce — the most original literary stylist of the century? — hadn’t written Ulysses.

Finally, here’s another passage from “The Girl of the Year,” which was a profile of “It Girl” Baby Jane Holzer:

That girl on the aisle, Baby Jane, is a fabulous girl. She comprehends what the Rolling Stones mean. Any columnist in New York could tell them who she is … a celebrity of New York’s new era of Wog Hip … Baby Jane Holzer. Jane Holzer in Vogue, Jane Holzer in Life, Jane Holzer in Andy Warhol’s underground movies, Jane Holzer in the world of High Camp, Jane Holzer at the rock and roll, Jane Holzer is … well, how can you put it into words? Jane Holzer is This Year’s Girl, at least, the New Celebrity, none of your old idea of sexpots, prima donnas, romantic tragediennes, she is the girl who knows … The Stones. …

In the deliberate repetition (the Greeks’ word for it was anaphora), in the rhetorical question, in the laser-eyed view of money and its baleful effects, in the long sentences and the voice dripping with irony, I spy the influence of the master of such set pieces, Charles Dickens. From Our Mutual Friend:

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head.

Wolfe’s long career (his final book, The Kingdom of Speech, was published in 2016) had five overlapping but distinct stages. He started out on the academic track, entering the doctoral program in American Studies at Yale after graduating from Washington and Lee University in his native Virginia. His dissertation was turned down; one reader’s report (preserved in the Tom Wolfe Papers at the New York Public Library) observed that Wolfe had “written a piece of polemical journalism, in which he offers too many assertions that are not supported by evidence.” His second try was accepted but by that time he had already taken the hint and become a reporter, finally fetching up at the New York Herald Tribune in the early ’60s. The Trib was known as a writer’s paper, and while there Wolfe made forays beyond totemic somnambulism.

But he didn’t come into his own till the third phase of his career commenced, with a 1963 article for Esquire about the culture of custom cars. He called it “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm) . . .” At the time there wasn’t a name for what he and other innovators, like Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin, were doing. Wolfe found one in a long-forgotten phrase from 19th-century England: The New Journalism. Like so many of his other coinages, it stuck.

To me the best Wolfe was Wolfe the reporter, on display in several collections published in the ’60s and ’70s (the first had the foreshortened title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby), in 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (the book narrates a cross-country trip of writer Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters) and in The Right Stuff. Everything came together: his verbal skills, his satirical sensibility, his eye for what he called “status details,” his American Studies set pieces (he was big on applying the theories of Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen to the go-go ’60s) and, maybe least recognized, his shoe-leather reporting rigor. Wolfe was able to construct amazing interior monologues from the points of view of his characters because he spent so much time listening to and just watching them.

The accuracy of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel,” was challenged pretty much from the day it came out in 1965. Wolfe, by contrast, rarely faced the charge of getting anything significant wrong.

(After my essay containing the previous paragraph was published in the Wall Street Journal, which has a circulation of some 2.3 million people, I was contacted by two people who demurred. My first correspondent commented, “As a pilot, Yeager was nuthin’ compared to say Bob Hoover, or Barney Olds.” He went on: “But the drawl thing … that is just about right.” The second, more serious, charge was that the members of a group of surfers and beachcombers Wolfe wrote about in “The Pump House Gang,” originally published in 1965, “made up stories about their antics at the Pump House by Windansea Beach in La Jolla, which Wolfe assumed were true.” Here’s an article that gets into some of the whys and wherefores.)

Wolfe’s fourth act was as a polemical essayist, starting with The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), about modern art and architecture, respectively. They got attention in their time, and they pricked some art-criticism balloons that were ripe for pricking. But today, over all, they have a bit of the feel of a cranky uncle’s Grand Theory rant.

In his final guise, Wolfe became a novelist, aiming—in the tradition of Balzac, Zola and Dickens—to write narratively propulsive works that peeked into all layers of society. His four works of fiction were all best-sellers, and copies of the thick mass-market paperback editions still abound at any book sale you might happen to attend. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the novels sold 50 times as many copies, collectively, as his books of journalism.

But the public and I differ on this matter. While The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) was a tour de force—not coincidentally set in New York City, his adoptive home town, whose streets he had pounded for so many years—I wasn’t able to get through the three novels that followed it. The satire sometimes turned to meanness, and Wolfe’s racial perspective was an obstacle. He didn’t depict people of color (a term he surely loathed) as villains so much as irredeemably different and other. This myopia was apparent from the start of his career. His phrase “Wog Hip,” in the Baby Jane Holzer profile, uses a term as offensive in Britain as the n-word is in the U.S.  In the same piece, he says Mick Jagger sings “with the voice of a bull Negro.” Describing the Playboy mansion in the introduction to an early collection, he said it had “huge black guards or major-domos inside. Nubian slaves, I kept saying to myself. One of the blacks led me up a grand staircase . . .”  One of the blacks. I could go on. In a Facebook comment, the critic Gene Seymour, who is African-American, said, “Even when Wolfe did his own version of ‘bending over backwards’ to conceive African American characters who weren’t (in his view) annoying or over-the-top stereotypes, as in A Man In Full, they came across as stiff and blank.”

More generally, without the tennis net of fact, Wolfe had to rely on his imagination, which struck me as ever less Dickensian as the years went on.

The later Wolfe, it seems to me, became something of a comfortable prisoner of his early innovations. He had a bead on white Christian American men, but that, it became increasingly apparent, left out a lot of the world. Status, on which he was fixated, accounted for some human behavior, but  it’s only one of many factors that account for how we think and behave. And his voice! So fresh and right for a certain time and place! But that time ended and, not unlike Hemingway, Wolfe was locked into a style that sometimes seemed like self-parody or—worse—old-fashioned.

But the journalism he wrote in his prime will last. I have no doubt that a hundred years from now, someone who has never heard of Chuck Yeager, who only knows about airplanes from books, will read about that “little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right.” And give a chuckle of recognition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaming: The System

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Illustration by Jackie Ferrentino

Here’s the opening of a piece I recently wrote for the New York Times Review section.

I had to buy two items at CVS — a bottle of mouthwash for me and some red yeast rice pills for my wife. I plucked the Listermint from the shelf, took it to the cashier and gave her my phone number and a $10 bill. The 38 and 1/16th-inch-long receipt had just what I was hoping for: a coupon for $5 off a purchase of $15 or more, expiration date three days later.

I headed straight for the vitamin section, where the economy-size house-brand red yeast rice was on sale — buy one for $22.99, get one free. I brought my two containers to the same cashier, who took the coupon and unjudgingly charged me $17.99. But wait, there’s more. I’d get the equivalent of 2 percent of that price back in CVS Rewards bonuses for future purchases, and 1.75 percent in cash via my credit card rewards program, a total of 67 more cents to my name.

Am I pitiful or what? Don’t answer that question.

Or at least don’t answer it till you hear me out. My CVS behavior is just one data point suggesting that I’m the precise person for whom the marketing strategy of “gamification” is intended. That is, saving some money on vitamin supplements is nice, but that’s not really what brought me to the drugstore. I was there for the buzz, the shots of happy I got when the cash register spit out a receipt the length of a 4-year-old. It’s all in the game.

You can read the rest of the article here.

 

The Loneliness of Watching ‘Last Man on Earth’

I wrote a piece for Slate about my occasional feeling that I am the last man, or woman, on earth watching the Fox comedy Last Man on Earth–and about the fact that, despite its low ratings, the show keeps getting renewed.

Three days after my article appeared, the show was cancelled. However, some reports suggest that Hulu may pick it up for a final season.

In any case, if you’re interested in why I like the show, here’s my piece:

Sometimes I feel I am the last man on Earth watching The Last Man on Earth. The ratings of Fox’s post-apocalyptic sitcom, which aired the last episode of its fourth season on Sunday, started out low and then descended. This season it averaged about 1.97 million viewers per airing, worse than every single show on any network other than the CW, with the exception of its Fox stablemates Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and The Exorcist.

Nor—in contrast to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and the CW bottom feeders Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—does Last Man generate accolades or buzz. When it debuted in 2015, it got positive notices (which prompted me to start watching in the first place) and four Emmy nominations but no wins. The following year there was one nomination, for creator and star Will Forte; last year, nothing. Metacritic tallied up the best-shows-of-2017 lists of 125 publications, websites, and critics, from Adweek to Yahoo. Last Man appeared on exactly zero of them. Personally, since the early reviews, I haven’t encountered a single mention of the show, among critics, on social media, or in real life. (Admittedly, I don’t get out much.)

Adding to my sense of aloneness is the way I watch the showDVRing it on Sunday, then watching it later in the week, when everyone else in my house has gone to sleep.

The show is smart, goofy, attractively filmed, crammed with satisfying Easter eggs and callbacks, absolutely nonaspirational, superbly acted, sneak-up-on-you funny, and, most important, almost aggressively original.

Why have I and my 2 million-odd fellow Last Man fans kept watching? Speaking for myself, because the show is smart, goofy, attractively filmed, crammed with satisfying Easter eggs and callbacks, absolutely nonaspirational, superbly acted, sneak-up-on-you funny, and, most important, almost aggressively original. Sure, you could say the premise and story are a cross between Lost, The Walking Dead, and Gilligan’s Island. But that leaves out the tone and feel of the show, which are like nothing I’ve ever seen.

In the premiere, we meet Phil Miller (Forte), who has somehow survived a virus that killed everyone else on the planet. Reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, his only company is a collection of sports balls on which he’s Sharpie’d faces, although he does consider striking up a relationship with a mannequin he finds in a shop window. Phil is all savage, hold the noble. The first line we hear him say is, “Dear God. Apologies for all the recent masturbation.” He amuses himself by bowling with fish tanks and demolishing cars. (Phil is watermelon-dropping David Letterman let loose on a vacant world.) He floats in a kiddie pool, sipping the mega-Margarita he’s filled it with, and when he needs to relieve himself, heads over to a bigger pool and squats over the hole he’s cut out in the diving board.

At the end of the first episode, Phil despairs and decides to kill himself, only to see a plume of smoke in the air. He follows it and discovers another survivor, Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal). Much of the rest of the first season is animated by a running joke contradicting the title: Phil encounters other “last men,” and women, at the rate of roughly one every other week, usually in a closing cliffhanger.

A signal feature of the show, from the start, were what-crazy-twist-will-the-writers-come-up-with-this-time? storylines. Selected recaps from the show’s Wiki page give a bit of the flavor:

• “Phil parks in a handicapped parking spot, much to Carol’s dismay, but more arguing leads to Phil ramming the truck through the store entrance.”
• “Phil then heads to a jeweler with Carol for the rings, and gives her a hammer as a wedding gift to choose the ring she wants.”
• “The next day, the group continues to call Tandy by his embarrassing nickname [Skidmark], much to Tandy’s dismay, which then leads Tandy to show them his skidmark free underwear.” (In the second season, because another, more admirable guy named Phil has arrived, the group votes that Forte’s character has to be called by his middle name, Tandy.)
• “Tandy confides in Carol that Pat [a paranoid psychopath who intermittently bedevils the group] is really dead. They stage a fake fight between Tandy and a fake foam dummy of Pat.”

I have to admit I was touch and go about continuing with Last Man after Season 1. Forte’s all-in performance was amazing, but gross-out gags only go so far, and I was mainly unamused by the sex farce that took up a lot of the airtime, especially as it came partly at the expense of the marvelous Schaal: Phil’s lust for glamorous new arrivals (January Jones, Cleopatra Coleman, Mary Steenburgen) is constricted by his commitment to unglamorous Carol, made when he thought she was the only woman left alive. But I’d made enough of an investment, and was curious enough about what would happen next, to overcome my misgivings. I’m glad I did: the characters, relationships, and themes have gotten progressively deeper and more interesting.

And the wackiness remains. A running gag of the past three season is that A-listers like Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm, Jack Black, Laura Dern, and Martin Short turn up, only to quickly die, in ever more bizarre ways. An arc this season featured Fred Armisen, whose brilliant turn as a Hannibal Lecter–like serial killer/cannibal should win him a supporting-actor Emmy. (It won’t.) Ultimately, he was blown up by an exploding Rubik’s Cube that had been introduced early in the season and that, like Chekhov’s famous pistol, was destined to go off. (Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, and Chris Elliott have also made multiepisode appearances, though they haven’t been killed off. Yet.)

But mortality isn’t a gag for Last Man—or at least isn’t just a gag. Two regulars have died over the show’s run, and the emotion characters and audience feel is real, though no This Is Us–ean tears are ever, ever jerked. Indeed, maybe the most impressive thing about the show is that, while maintaining the element of wigged-out farce, it’s added layers of seriousness. The alcoholism of Gail (Steenburgen) and the firearms-obsessed psychosis of Melissa (Jones) are always on or just below the surface; all the other characters (with the exception of Coleman’s steady and dependable Erica) have their own particular mishegoss. More so than the buzzier but less original and funny The Good Place, the show has come to address issues of what it means to be alive, to be a good person, to commit to someone. (The other things the series have in common are similar go-to euphemisms. Last Man: “Oh, farts.” Good Place: “Oh, fork.”)

Spoiler alert: Sunday night’s season ender went big with its cliffhanger, as the group encountered more last people, and not just one or two. Will Fox renew the show so we can find out who they are? The ratings would appear to be just too low, but TV analysts give it a just better than even chance to stay alive. Why? Last Man does a bit better with the key 18–49 demographic than with the population at large. More important, it’s owned by the network it airs on, which means revenue for the company when the show has wrapped enough episodes to make a syndication deal, a number it would likely achieve in Season 5.

The decision should come down in the next couple of weeks. If it turns out to be negative, even though I’ve never met another Last Man fan, I’m pretty sure I can predict what the reaction of the entire hardy band will be.

Oh, farts.

The Trouble with ‘Inappropriate’

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke last fall, published reports of men’s sexual misconduct have abounded. Just this week, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an investigation of Jorge Domínguez, “a prominent Harvard professor and former vice provost accused of groping, kissing, and other inappropriate behavior by close to 20 women.” That and all the other reports divide into two distinct categories, something I didn’t really realize until watching an episode of All in With Chris Hayes on MSNBC in December. Hayes’s guests included Rebecca Traister and Irin Carmon, journalists who have been covering this beat.

Here’s the exchange that got me thinking:

TRAISTER: I think that journalism has been driving this in a way that has made it airtight, at least up to a point. So, in all of the cases where there has been terrific reporting, in advance of whatever winds up  happening to the accused, we have gotten this incredibly detailed, incredibly well checked in, all of the cases that we know about accurate vision of what has unfolded. …

CARMON: I mean, I think there is something that reporting can do here that other tools like the criminal justice system or HR are unable to do, right. You’re able to weigh all of the different stories in a way that is publicly accountable. You try to get people to use their names on the record. The thing that was the most effective I think about the Harvey Weinstein story when I got to Ashley Judd’s name, wow! Ashley Judd was on record. …

TRAISTER: I also think that you could tell where there has been the reporting and where there hasn’t been, because as this has gone on, there are some cases where some people have been fired or suspended in advance of reports. So for example, Garrison Keillor was fired pre-emptively, I believe, and we only have the sketchiest vision of what he did. … When a company fires somebody or suspends them … they’re legally obligated by some measures not to reveal all of the terms of why they are doing this, and that has left people with confusion about what is happening, what has been alleged, and you can see where there is an absence of the reporting.

So here’s the divide. In one bucket are cases driven by journalistic reporting — those of Weinstein, Domínguez, James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, and in fact not that many others. They have in common that through a combination of the prominence of the male and the frequency or severity of the offenses, a major news organization deemed the charges worth investigating and, ultimately, the investigation worth publishing. As Carmon and Traister suggested in the interview, current journalistic best practices call for a high level of checking and verification. Preferably, sources go on the record, as Ashley Judd did; if they decline to, a New Yorker or New York Times or Washington Post will use their account only if solid corroboration is found.

In the other bucket are cases the world learns about only after a company or other organization has taken a personnel action, like firing or suspension. Examples that come to mind, besides Garrison Keillor, are Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker  and Jonathan Schwartz and Leonard Lopate of New York Public Radio. Traister said the organization is “legally obligated by some measures not to reveal all of the terms of why they are doing this, and that has left people with confusion.” I am not an expert in this or any area of the law, but I suspect that companies don’t reveal details by choice, not obligation, knowing that doing so might open them up to defamation suits, compel them to to reveal accusers’ names, or cause other problems. But whatever the reason, they don’t give particulars, resulting in reactive (rather than proactive) press coverage that’s vague and often, as Traister says, confusing.

For example, in February, the Ford Motor Company fired a top executive, Raj Nair, and a press release “explained”:

The decision follows a recent internal investigation into reports of inappropriate behavior. The review determined certain behavior by Nair was inconsistent with the company’s code of conduct.

“We made this decision after a thorough review and careful consideration,” said Ford President and CEO Jim Hackett. “Ford is deeply committed to providing and nurturing a safe and respectful culture and we expect our leaders to fully uphold these values.”

The New York Times article about the move heavily quoted the release and added no details about Nair’s alleged behavior.

The word that jumped out at me in the release and the article, only because it was so predictable, was inappropriate. It is the catchall designation for bad behavior, or behavior that we are asked to think was bad, but can’t really judge, because we aren’t told exactly what was done.

There’s nothing new about inappropriate, I hasten to say. Back in 1999, I wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the word, which was coined in the early 19th century, according to the OED, and was used by Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son: “[He] invaded the grave silence with the singularly inappropriate air of ‘A cobbler there was.’” At the time of my piece, inappropriate had been propelled into heavy rotation by Bill Clinton’s inappropriate behavior, and his admission, “I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate.” I complained,

While it is currently deployed to characterize virtually anything a writer or speaker finds unsatisfactory, its most common use is clearly as a euphemism for sexually explicit material, especially when this gets onto children’s radar screens, or (as with the President) forms of sexual behavior that for various reasons are not universally accepted. … The problem with the overuse of “inappropriate,” finally, is that it is fuzzy language and inevitably results in missed signals and squawky communication.

But the frequency then was nothing compared with the present. Inappropriate appeared in the New York Times 803 times in 2017. So far this year it’s appeared 226 times, a projected annual pace of 1,755 — more than double last year.

I hate it when people talk about banning words and I certainly don’t propose a ban on inappropriate. But I have a suggestion for the press, regarding the Raj Nair-type cases, ones where the firing is newsworthy but not newsworthy enough to dispatch a team of reporters to unearthing the backstory. Ask the company for details. If it does not provide any, simply write, “the company did not provide details.” And leave the wimpy and weaselly word inappropriate to the press-release writers of the world.

The Yagoder Effect

This went out over the wires a few days ago and was picked up on Twitter:

 
The AP reporter’s mistake is understandable. Scott Israel is a New York native and has a pronounced New York accent.

Thus, if Israel were to say “shiver,” it would indeed come out as “shivva”–so presumably the reporter was correcting for accent. Unfortunately, he or she wasn’t aware of the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva” for the deceased.

A version of the same thing once happened to me. For many years, I have been a customer of Hitchcock, a purveyor of wide shoes based in Hingham, Massachusetts. One day a Hitchock catalog came in the mail, and on it my name was written as “Ben Yagoder.” A characteristic of the Massachusetts accent, of course, is to add an “r” sound to words that for everyone else ends in a schwa: so, John F. Kennedy’s famously imitated pronunciation of Cuba as “Cuber.”

I figured one of two things happened. One, a Hitchcock staffer made the same mistake as the AP reporter: heard me say “Yagoda,” (somehow) knew I was from New York, and “corrected” me. Or, two, a staffer was so wedded to the “-er” pronunciation that they extended it beyond pronunciation to spelling.

I like theory two.

“Smacked-ass”: An Appreciation

Sign outside a South Philadelphia restaurant

The night before my (adoptive) hometown Philadelphia Eagles took on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII (which I keep reading as the Trumpian insult “Lil’”), Saturday Night Live aired a brilliant skit imagining Colonials from each region trash-talking each other at the Continental Congress.

Local girl Tina Fey led the Fluffyans (the way we say the city’s name) and nailed the weird local vowels, like pronouncing the team as “Iggles,” the place where you hang your hat as something like “hay-ome,” and a generic encouragement as “C’mawn!”  She also laid down a few distinctive Philadelphia terms, like pop-pop (for grandfather), youse (for the second-person plural), and hoagie (for hero/submarine sandwich).

Since moving here in 1982, I’ve noticed a few other Philadelphia words, including wooder ice for what I grew up calling “Italian Ice”; gravy for spaghetti sauce; down the shore (“to the beach”); jimmies, for what the rest of the country (except Boston!) calls the sprinkles you put on ice cream; and the relatively recent and much talked-about all-purpose noun jawn.

But my favorite is a term I didn’t even know was a localism till last week. That’s when I read a remembrance by Stephen Fried of D. Herbert Lipson, the longtime publisher of Philadelphia Magazine, who passed away in December at the age of 88. It began:

I could tell you about my first weeks at the magazine in 1982, when Herb ordered me to get a haircut and then sent his assistant around every day to see if I had. (I hadn’t. Still haven’t.) I could tell you about the time he stormed into and out of my messy office, calling me an “unmade bed” — prompting one of my colleagues to actually buy a dollhouse bed he “unmade” for me. Or when he told the folks in the art department that I was “such a smacked ass.”

I also started working at Philadelphia Magazine in 1982 — it’s what brought me to the city — and I well remember the Lipsonian insults of Fried. I had never heard “smacked-ass” before and immediately adopted it. Well, actually, I use it in only one situation: in reference to photographs of myself. “If possible, try not to make me look like a smacked-ass,” I’ll say. Or, “Don’t use that one. I look like a smacked-ass.”

After reading Steve’s piece, I realized I had never heard anyone else use “smacked ass” since ’82, and, naturally, investigated, first by looking at the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary of American Regional English, and the prominent online dictionaries, none of which listed it. The top definition on Urban Dictionary was posted in 2004: “an absolute idiot that walks around as if he’s got no clue in life.” Searching the term on Google Books yielded 256 hits. To the extent I could discern the home of the authors, they were all from Philadelphia, including the memoirist Joe Queenan, the children’s book author Jerry Spinelli, and the crime writer Lisa Scottoline, whose novel Rough Justice has this line: “Then I hold a press conference where I tell the world that the mayor is a smacked ass.” That obviously suggested a Philly provenance. Herb Lipson himself was from Easton, Pa., but started working in Philadelphia in 1953, right after graduating from Lafayette College.

The first Google Books citation was a snippet from a 1977 criminology text, quoting (presumably) a criminal: “I just asked for change for a ten-dollar bill and felt like a real smacked-ass to myself.” The snippet view doesn’t allow me to search for any info on the person being quoted, but one of the co-authors, the late James Inciardi, was a professor at my institution, the University of Delaware, and may have done fieldwork in Philly, less than an hour away.

A Google search for “smacked ass” led me to a bulletin board where someone used it and was asked what it meant. He replied, “Northeastern US slang for ‘complete idiot.’” Someone else responded, “Funny, I’ve never heard of that in my 30 years of existence, all of it in the Northeast.” Then the original poster said, “Philadelphia, actually. Maybe it was just my mother.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang contains no entry for the term, but it does have “Face like a smacked arse,” defined as “a phrase used to describe someone who looks very depressed.” It appears to be common in Ireland and the North of England. The first cite for it is 2000 but I found a 1986 quotation on Google Books:  “Big red nose, big red face, just like a smacked arse.”—Cedar, by James Murphy. “Face like a smacked arse” has gotten quite popular, with 23 Google Books hits since 2010.

I posed the question on the American Dialect Society e-mail list and got some helpful responses. John Baker dug up a 2005 Philadelphia Inkwire (the way we say Inquirer) article discussing “Phillyspeak”: “Smacked ass. Peculiarly Philadelphian, this refers to a person, generally male, who has done something really dumb or foolish.” And Garson O’Toole found the earliest use I’ve seen, by the Inquirer columnist Tom Fox in 1971: “I had trouble my first year in high school. I was 13 and a real smacked ass. I knew all the answers. I was so smart when I was 13 I flunked everything but gym and expression.”

Anecdotally, I asked around. Everybody from Philadelphia was familiar with the expression; everyone from somewhere else wasn’t (even if they had lived here for decades). So smacked ass appears to be a particularly Philadelphia expression (with an intriguing Irish connection) that emerged no later than 1971. Any pre-dating or insights welcome.

In conclusion, here’s a message from all us Fluffyans to the Iggles, snapped by an Inkwire photographer:

Photo credit: Philadelphia Inquirer

 

One Step (Backwards) for the Parts of Speech

I was watching The Rachel Maddow Show the night, a couple of weeks ago, when Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, was about to force a brief government shutdown through a filibuster and other delaying tactics. Maddow showed video of him speaking on the Senate floor about one of his favorite themes, government waste, and I briefly glimpsed one of his visual aids that, if I read it correctly, was deeply strange. I searched the Internet for the poster, and it turned out I had read it correctly.

Armstrong.jpj

The deeply strange thing, needless to say, is that the word a is not a preposition but an article. Talk about waste; Paul spent I don’t know how much government money on a slick poster and couldn’t even be bothered to get his parts of speech right.

That made me wonder if there was anything else Paul got wrong in his attack on this study, which he initially broached in a 2016 press release. Spoiler alert: The answer is “yes.”

Backing up a bit, when Neil Armstrong arrived on the moon in July 1969, the first words he said seemed to be, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” This doesn’t really make sense, since “man” and “mankind” are pretty much the same thing. Armstrong subsequently contended that he had actually said, ” … step for a man … ” (emphasis added), which does make sense, and makes it a good quote.

You can judge for yourself by listening to this recording.

Over the years, there have been various attempts to determine whether he said “a” or not. In 2006, an Australian computer programmer ran the recording through audio software and concluded that Armstrong had voiced the article but static blotted it out. Three years later, two other researchers, using supposedly higher-quality recordings, came to the opposite conclusion. Armstrong, who died in 2011, himself would adopt the position that while he intended to say a, he wasn’t completely sure whether he had done so and preferred that the word be rendered in parentheses. That seems reasonable.

The study ridiculed by Rand Paul was published in September 2016; you can read it here. The lead author was Melissa Baese-Berk, a linguist at the University of Oregon. Paul’s poster (and his press release) misrepresented the purpose of the study, which it described as an attempt “to figure out whether Neil Armstrong used the preposition ‘a.'” Rather, the authors examine, through an experimental study, how the confusion over Armstrong’s quote may relate to broader issues regarding how we hear what others say. As Dr. Baese-Berk wrote to me in an e-mail,  “We were less interested in whether Armstrong used the article and more interested in whether this instance could illustrate the very issues of timing and speech reduction that we were interested.”

Furthermore, the poster is deeply disingenuous regarding funding. Take a look at it. How much do you think the National Science Foundation spent on Dr. Baese-Berk’s Neil Armstrong study–$700,000, right? Wrong. In fact, the grant was spread out over more than forty complementary studies. Paul’s press release is equally deceptive and misleading on this point.

Having read the Armstrong  study, I acknowledge that its findings do not amount to a cure for cancer. However, to state what should be obvious, that isn’t the way science works. It advances our understanding through fits and starts. The starts could not occur without the fits.

Nor am I saying that all academic research, government-funded or not, is worthwhile. Some of it amounts to self-perpetuating boondoggling, with little hope of eventually yielding real enlightenment or utility, and deserves to be critiqued.

But not through Rand Paul’s two-bit demagoguing.