Posts Tagged ‘Niche History’

Some facts are bigger than others

25 June 2009

By Juliana Adelman


I’ve been on my holidays in the US (don’t be jealous, we’ve had 8 straight days of drizzle) and so in addition to novels I’ve been reading random things I find on the shelf of the cabin. One such random thing was a collection of essays by Gore Vidal (The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000). Highly recommended: lots of food for thought on the purpose of scholarship, of academia, of literature. At the end of an essay/review from 1997 on the appearance of a new collection of letters written by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) Vidal commented: ‘American scholarship is now a sort of huge make-work program for the conventionally educated. In a case like this, scholar squirrels gather up every scrap of writing they can find and stuff these bits into volume after volume, with metastisizing footnotes.’ Vidal continues: ‘To them, one “fact” is equal to any other’ (p.86). Although these remarks are now more than ten years old, they would hardly be considered less controversial (I imagine) if made today. Being myself ‘conventionally educated’ and essentially a participant in the system which Vidal was condemning, his dismissal of what was surely painstaking labour by ‘scholar squirrels’ stung a bit. But he has a point. Scholarship must be something more than simply gathering up facts without deciding which facts are bigger than others. Read More