Mimetic Discoveries by Dr. Paul Anderson

Introduction: Guest Blog–Dr. Paul Anderson

I first encountered Dr. Paul Anderson as a lowly undergraduate and fledgling (unbeknownst to me at the time) historian in his History of the South to 1865 course at Clemson University. In fact, my first interaction with our author began my own professional relationship with words (more on this in a bit). About midterm, already awed (and to be honest, intimidated as hell!) by Dr. Anderson’s classroom presence and historical potency, I received a less than stellar grade on an essay assignment. I pretty well set the tone for the essay by referring to Rhys Isaac, noted religious historian and author of Transformation of Virginia, upon which this assignment had focused, as Isaac Hayes. And not just once. Throughout. This prompted Dr. Anderson’s simple (and to this day both mortifying and side-splitting) comment, “The R&B singer!? How can I take what you have to say seriously if you can’t even get the author’s name correct!?”

This inauspicious beginning ultimately begot an intellectual and personal relationship with Dr. Anderson that defies estimation. His influence—through candid advice, honest criticism, and encouraging council—over the past near-decade is a shining example of history—researched, written, and taught—at its finest. And we could all learn much from his example. I certainly have.

So without further ado, what follows is an excerpt from Dr. Anderson’s latest project, one focused on the teaching, researching, and writing of history; three facets of the academic life that Dr. Anderson shows—as only he is capable—to be inescapably linked. The excerpt chronicles the early stages of his own historical self and his evolving relationship with words: learning them, wielding them, and ultimately making a living among them as a southern historian.

– JHW

Mimetic Discoveries

When I was in college I paid part of my way by working summers and school breaks as a desk clerk at one of Wilmington’s hostelries, the Greentree Inn. Having toiled at Wendy’s for all of six hours and quit in a midnight huff—they wouldn’t let me run the grill, but unctuously demanded that I clean out the deep-fat fryers—I moved on to white collar. The Greentree was locally known for a couple of things, one of which was the peculiarity of ownership. The proprietor, Jay Kapner, was a New Yorker, a music nut, and to many who didn’t know him, a strange bird. Once a year, at New Year’s, he would have our handyman John Bruce go out front and change the sign to update the new prices. And every year the price would increase by one cent. John grabbed his ladder and bucket of plastic number and letters, and presto—we had new rates that reflected the turning of the calendar, a penny at a time: $19.87 was the price for a single room when I started; then $19.88; then $19.89.  Jay thought it was good promotion and chuckling fun; some our clientele, such as the guy from up the road in Chinquapin who came in every Saturday afternoon to meet his squeeze on the sly and who, graciously, called the front desk a few hours later to let us know we could re-rent the room for the night, appreciated the affordability.

Jay was a rabbi’s son. One day I was in a panic at the end of my shift because I couldn’t get the cash drawer to even out. I counted and recounted, recounted and counted again—and would’ve obsessively, compulsively counted more if the next shift didn’t actually need the cash register to book rooms for tourists and contractors and Chinquapin lovers and their successors. I was near hyperventilation when I stood just outside Jay’s office door and told him.

“I’m $7 short,” I said. “I don’t know how. I just want you to know I don’t know how. I’m not stealing from you.”

Jay was either thumbing a Rolling Stone or reading the liner notes in Trout Mask Replica or Meddle or some other obscure rock album I’d never heard of. He looked up at me and said: “Paul, you’re not going to be a desk clerk all your life, you know.”

I’ve not always known what he meant by that, or why, of all the things he could’ve said, he chose to say just that and only that. I didn’t figure it out until I started teaching.

I’ve been around words my whole life. Pop, for whom the greatest compliment was to be called a newspaperman, worked with them every day. Mom was a journalist when she met him, and although she quit the business to bring us up, she eventually returned to words full time, too. I’m sure therein was the secret to a domestic accord that can be explained no other way. One day before we left Ohio, Pop came home bearing a copy of his Painesville Telegraph, the newspaper he managed in the next town over. Above the fold, in fire-red emergency lettering, was a banner headline carrying the first words I consciously, concretely remember: NIXON TO QUIT. I remember them absolutely because Pop had the newspaper framed, and because he made sure to hang it in every house we lived in ever after. Had Mom not been a reporter she would’ve never let him get away with it. Sticking that thing on the wall was like installing an EXIT sign in your living room.

I should add that as child I comprehended none of the 1970s. I didn’t know what Watergate was, what Vietnam was, or that hippies existed. Nixon was the first president I ever knew, and all I really knew by him quitting was that he wasn’t president any more. And I didn’t think overmuch about Pop’s interior decorating with words or presidents, either. After all, on his bookshelf of kitsch, right next a wooden boxing bear that I’m pretty sure he picked up at a flea market, he always kept (and still does) a copper bas-relief framed and labeled—in two syllables, because the annals of the poor are short and simple—LINCOLN. No one did yard-sale chic like Pop.

My grandfather Coneglio worked with words, not professionally but with great gusto—that’s Italian, like he was; and also, though technically two syllables, powerfully monosyllabic in its bonecrunching effect, like he was. By trade Grandpa was a produce man, a wholesaler, and he used to take me shopping at the Pic’n’Pay grocery store near his house. He shopped but also accosted and commanded: produce managers for trying to pawn off the old goods on him—Go to the back and bring up the fresh stuff!—store managers for the layout of the aisles—Parsley here . . . and cilantro . . . here!—and even, from time to time, other customers. He once stopped a woman whose mistake had been to put her hand on a bunch of Del Monte bananas. Put those down. You don’t want those. Put them back. You want Chiquitas. Really? YES, yes. Chiquita bananas are the best bananas. His voice, a booming mortar that didn’t seem to be loaded in his gut so much as launched from Sicily in the old country and carried through two or three generations of Italians behind him, was a siege gun. He saved his favorite staccato bursts for ballgames, where he unloosed a barrage of disappointment and displeasure from behind the home dugout at Frank Robinson’s Cleveland Indians. You’re a bum! A bum. And that’s all you’ll ever be! He took great pleasure in doing that. It was true, too. The Tribe played in cavernous, 80,000-seat Memorial Stadium, made more cavernous because they were lousy and the place was always empty. One time—no lie—Grandpa ordered hotdogs for us: HOT dog HERE!: an incredible feat of vocal projection, like blasting a majestic homer in that gaping reverberant ballpark, because the guy selling them was on the other side of the stadium. He came over, and even helped put mustard on mine.

My high school teachers also liked to play with words; a few took great joy in telling us to pay attention to them. To this day, the most significant I’ve ever felt in a classroom was the day Mrs. Prince let me argue with her about Jim Casey in The Grapes of Wrath. “He’s a Christ figure,” she said. “Steinbeck is telling us that by the name and the initials. J.C. is supposed to stand for Jesus Christ.” That had to be accidental. “You’re making that up,” I countered. “It’s just a name and he’s just a man with it. Besides, he doesn’t even really believe in Christianity, so how could he be a Christ figure? If he is he’d just be a hypocrite.” Mrs. Prince had one of humanity’s sweetest, kindest smiles and a gorgeous set of teeth. “No one who writes,” she grinned, “does anything accidentally.”

My first job out of college was in the family trade. I moved from North Carolina to Maine and became a reporter for a small weekly on the coast, not far from Kennebunkport, which at the time was the summer home of George Bush I and a kind of Camp David North. Aside from one course in college—the Fundamentals of News Reporting—and one semester’s internship at The Chapel Hill Newspaper, which I landed mostly because someone knew Pop, I had no training in newspapers and no professional understanding of how they worked. The Newspaper is now defunct, and has been for a long time, which point I mention not to bewail the fate of journalism in the internet age, since this one died before the internet was born, but to illustrate the desperation of anyone who chooses newspaper work for a living. If you walked around the newsroom in those days, you’d have been hard-pressed to tell the difference between the scruffled, scrivening, fulltime reporters, who scrapped there everyday and cashed a check every two weeks on account of their knowhow, and the disheveled interlopers like me who didn’t do either. Nobody there wrote for the money. I simply assumed by then that they weren’t there accidentally.

But I was. I had no notion that journalism would be my career any more than I thought history would be my career. I certainly had no inkling or itch that I’d be a teacher, let alone a historian. I was no different than the vast majority of the history majors I knew, and probably the majority before me and after me. Judging by the conversations I overhear in Hardin Hall now, and often have myself with people who talk and think and act and just like I did when I was sitting on their side of the professorial desk, I’m not sure anything has changed. I spent four years in a major I loved, in an environment I loved, without ever once thinking that history prepared me for anything. I wasn’t in it to be prepared. Career was completely, totally, absolutely divorced. Any consideration I might have given to The Doozy—What are you going to do when you graduate?—shrunk the question before I confronted it. If someone in my limited circle of acquaintance made any attempt to connect history and career, the connections were the halting, limited, traditionally circular variety. History prepares you to teach history, somebody would say. But I noted even then that none of my history friends wanted to teach (it turns out that none of them do). They, like me, thought of what we were able to do, not what we were prepared to do, when our relationship with college broke up.

Now and then someone mentioned graduate school. That was another of those traditional paths. Except I was so naïve not to make even that connection. Any thoughts I had about going to graduate school were directly attached to learning more history. It wasn’t that I was a bad student. It just never dawned on me that graduate school was professional training, the way medical school is for (real) doctors or law school is for lawyers. I knew next to nothing about academic life. Almost nothing of what is called scholarship. Nothing at all about becoming a Doctor of Philosophy, which was fine, since I didn’t know what PhD stood for or, when I found out, what philosophy had to do with anything. My notion was that if I went to graduate school one day and maybe got a Master’s degree at some point in time, I could read more books and get to know a lot more about the Civil War. I’d figure the future out when I got to it.

That bare, nebulous notion produced the first genuine conversation I ever had with my academic advisor in the History Department, a historian of some repute.  I’d been coming to his office for three years, never staying long enough to do anything more than transact the lawyer’s business of signing up for the next semester’s coursework.

We never again exchanged any more words after these.

“I’ve been thinking I might want to go to graduate school,” I said.

He was smoking a pipe and spoke puffily. “Let me find your transcript. . . 3.3 GPA .  . . good not great . . . You can try if you want . . .” He didn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t exactly not finish it either. Disinterest glazed his eyes; indifference slouched his shoulders. His condescension was a message drifting over in a lazy pheromone. “You can try if you want . . .” but you’ll fail.

So I ended up in newspapers, following an instinct toward something I could do, like a young wolf finding his way to a traditional hunting ground. It was an odd thing to be scavenging for work in New England and dangerous, too; I came equipped to weather the winter in a 1973 Volkswagen Karmin Ghia with no heat, a rusted-out passenger side floorboard, no interior weather stripping, and no brakes. Going to Maine was the decision; journalism was the accidental, attendant circumstance. My sole fixed purpose, my indomitable determination, was to spend one summer in Fenway Park. Writing for a newspaper in southern Maine, one hour or so from Boston, was a first-class ticket as far as I was concerned. It turned out to be a Willy Wonka ticket, since the Red Sox made the playoffs that year, and my friend and editor Ralph Hall got us seats to Game 1 of the American League Championship series. The trouble was that Ralph scored them only two hours before the game. Perhaps that’s not relevant information—another of the digressions for which I’m noted in the classroom—except that it brings me to the demise of the Karmin Ghia, the last Volkswagen anyone in my family ever owned. It survived the winter and the return trip south when I left Maine the next spring; it even got me down to Mississippi when I started my first tour in graduate school in the fall. But it was never the same after my hell-for-leather drive down I-95 to make sure I saw Roger Clemens throw the first pitch of the 1990 ALCS. I mashed the front right end against a concrete barrier getting around traffic on the Charles River Bridge, and did in the left rear jamming into what I assumed was a parking space on Eliot Street. The car was more Yugo than Volkswagen after that. My little brother finally offed it making 60-mile pizza delivery runs in rural in North Carolina.

I worked in the newspaper business for three years: the year in Maine and two years at the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina. The year in Maine was notable mostly for cutting my teeth (in one case nearly literally, as when the town manager of Kittery, upon catching me on the edge of a conversation I wasn’t supposed to hear, said: “Paul, if you print that, I’ll kick your teeth in”). Reporters and editors talk about all sorts of things, not all of them fit for decent company. But those conversations revolve like sun and moon around two fundamentals. They’re about finding information—who or what has it and how to get it—and how to explain what you find. Sources and words, word and sources. Most of my apprenticeship that year in Maine was of the source variety, learning my way around the various ways people collect and organize and use information, and, equally importantly, learning the ways in which the people who had the information were willing to share it. I found out that it helped to let everybody know I was from North Carolina. Since we were slow down there, people were painstaking in how they explained things to me—even things they shouldn’t have—in minute, precise, detail.

The words would come up for discussion in Ralph’s car on nights and weekends as we drove down to Boston and the ballpark. Ralph devoured everything written: other newspapers, magazines, novels especially. The Karmin Ghia had no locks, either, so every Saturday morning I’d find a pile of stuff on my car seat that I just had to read, starting with copies of all the daily papers from around the region, and always including some random accessory like the Boston Phoenix, a Don DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy novel, Frances Ftizgerald’s Cities on a Hill or Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground. We’d talk about those words and the craft of making them work, and how we might put some of that craft into the stories we were doing at the paper, on the way to and back from Fenway.

For reporters, even for those at the zenith of the profession, conversations about sources and words are really fun when: you know the person reading your story won’t believe what they’re reading; you find the information in ways you can’t believe; and the conversations you have with your colleagues aren’t fit for decent company. I hit the trifecta on my first day on the job in Boone, North Carolina, a boondocks-bureau assignment for the Winston-Salem Journal. I came up to relieve a fellow Fourth-Estater named Mark Bixler, then a recent Georgia grad, now (last I checked) an editor with CNN in Atlanta. I walked in on Mark with him in a frenzy—the phone wedged between his shoulder and ear, one hand pecking at the keyboard, the other puttering with pen and notebook, eyes darting around the room as he fired off questions into his collarbone—because the sheriff had the day before discovered a dead body in a lonely place called Deep Gap. No big deal in the course of human events except that the unfortunate victim, buck naked and block-solid frozen, turned out to be Victor Gunnarsson, a Swedish national and supposed extremist who’d once been accused of assassinating Prime Minister Olof Palme in Stockholm in 1986.

Mark was on the horn with Interpol and scrambling in the meantime to reach the State Department. You never knew, he said while mashing numbers on the telephone, who might’ve had it in for Gunnarsson, who might’ve wanted to ice him. You never knew who his enemies might be. I wasn’t sure if Interpol or the State Department knew anything about Victor Gunnarsson and his enemies list, but I was pretty sure, having spent the night at the Boone Trail Motel, that neither had any idea what he was doing in Deep Gap.

So Mark is frantic trying to find information and break in the new kid at the same time. All the while he’s upset at editors because they changed his story in that day’s paper. They’d messed with his words. “What do you think?” he asked me when his berserker reportorial frenzy subsided. He tossed me the story.

I stopped a few paragraphs in. Wild animals had disturbed the corpse.

“Really? Wow. That’s sick, Mark.”

That’s exactly what he was upset about. “That’s what they changed! That’s what they wouldn’t let in!”

“What?”

“I wrote: Wild animals had chewed on the carcass. Don’t you think that’s stronger?”

I would have occasion in my time to get upset with editors. I remember a bad case of the comedowns on the morning my byline first appeared on the front-page of the Journal, a case of writer’s remorse all the more flattening for my desperation to get there. Seven long weeks after I started in Boone I finally made the big-time while digging through lawsuits in the Clerk of Court’s office. A widowed man had died and willed $500,000 to various local charities and agencies, and now those people were fighting about how to divvy it up. A story about people arguing over money won’t put you on A-1. But these folks couldn’t get the cash until the man’s dogs died. The pot had been set aside for Blackie and Shep, a pair of homeless pups the widower had taken in for fellowship. It was theirs to live on, to get fat on, to grow old on. The dogs were now resting in the heavenly kennels, so the secondary beneficiaries wanted to get their paws on the loot.

A guy leaving half a million bucks to his dogs is sort of like a Scandinavian radical being murdered in the middle of winter in the middle of nowhere, and not by political friends or enemies, but by a former police officer who wanted to keep the formerly suspected assassin from making Swedish eyes with his fiancée. (Which according to police is what happened to poor Victor Gunnarsson. So much for Interpol and the State Department and the CIA, whom the sheriff contacted to see if space satellites captured the perpetrator in the act. If I remember right some of the most valuable information was actually unearthed in a steakhouse in Salisbury, North Carolina.)

People will read that, I thought. So I wrote:

Blackie and Shep handled wealth well. They lived in a pen, like other dogs, and they ate regular dog food. Money didn’t change ‘em.

But for two old strays, they didn’t do half bad.

And here’s how it appeared the next day, slightly above the fold under the headline “Dogs’ Legacy to be Divided,” and under my name:

Blackie and Shep handled wealth well. They lived in a pen, like other dogs, and they ate regular dog food. Money didn’t change them.

But for two old, former strays, they didn’t do half bad.

I was disconsolate, fallen flat over one word. The editor insisted the dogs were no longer strays, but only had been homeless at one time. Hence the propriety of former strays. I was livid over mistaken punctilio. I meant old in two ways when I wrote it—age as well as status. Old already connoted former without making the sentence so formal. It was a story about dogs living the high life—and his one word ruined the tone and feel of the whole thing, moving it closer to the kind of story you write when you’re writing about people arguing over money. I wasn’t too happy about the black-tie formalization of ‘em, either. I felt like George Pickett, who upon meeting Robert E. Lee after the War carried on an icily stiff interview with his former commander in a Richmond parlor. “That old man,” Pickett said to an uncomfortable companion as they left, “wrecked my division.” That editor wrecked my first front-page dog story.

Yet that was only one conversation of many, one colloquy among daily ones about river conservation projects, tax revaluation controversies, and economic development proposals; one discussion among ongoing tutorials about obituaries for moonshiners and bankers; one consultation among seminars on other lawsuits and other murders, sewer lines and school-bus routes, elections, and the occasional feature about the 71-year-old man who demanded his withheld motorcycle license or the county renting out one of its dilapidated voting houses to a guy who needed a storage shed for his wife’s “what-not collection.”  The latter story ultimately found its way into my classroom as the seed of my joke about Sherman’s urban renewal project in Columbia. The penurious county commissioner who advocated the transaction said that no violence had been committed upon the sanctity of democracy because renovating the place would require the extravagance of  “a match and a gallon of gasoline.”

I learned a lot about reporting and especially about words, of course, but in journalism I also learned a greater lesson. A reporter is a finder of things, an explainer, but above all a reporter is a listener. Historians are too, although the sources we find and explain tend to be dead. We listen to learn. Journalism’s grand lesson taught me not just to find the right words to explain, but to find and listen to who had them first—to hear them rightly from the people sharing them. I only now comprehend that lesson for all of its awesome power. It’s the same thing Jay Kapner taught me. We are, all of us—detectives, bankers, county commissioners, editors, dentists, graphic designers, grocers, even moonshiners and motorcyclists and hotel proprietors; the people I talked to and listened to everyday; people who’d mastered a profession or a hobby or a craft—we are, all of us, teachers.

Dr. Paul Anderson (Ph.D., Mississippi) is an Associate Professor of History and Alumni Master Teacher at Clemson University and the author of Blood Imagine: Turner Ashby and the Civil War in the Southern Mind.

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One Response to Mimetic Discoveries by Dr. Paul Anderson

  1. MCH says:

    Given the often unfortunate state of writing in history–with graduate students more or less made to believe that the best stories are only for journalists or popular writers to tell–I sincerely hope some of the messages imparted here get out loud and clear. Well done, Dr. A.

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