History of American Thought and Culture

Disempowering workers in the American imaginary

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The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “disgruntled” is now largely an American term.

Are you a disgruntled employee? Is that a bad thing?

Corporations or organizations use the term “disgruntled employee” to explain away workers’ allegations of employer malfeasance. “This complaint doesn’t reflect our company culture; this is a controversy cooked up by a few disgruntled employees. Our workers are overwhelmingly happy on their jobs. Our workers are very happy with their working conditions and their pay. We know, because we ask them if they’re happy, and they assure us that they are.”

Maybe they don’t use exactly those words, but many employers try to deflect accusations of harmful behavior by dismissing the…


Writing Gear Review

This reading tool offers a clear solution to a vexing problem

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What is this sorcery? Will the magic last? / ©2021 L.D. Burnett

Yesterday I wrote about a problem that bedevils academics and authors alike: how to prop open the pages of a book on your desk or on a bookstand so that you can type or write notes in another document.

Book weights or page weights, whether the fancy leather-clad kind offered by Levenger, or the cheaper silicone-sheathed models available on Amazon, look great in the advertising photos but are somewhat less robust a solution in real life. Yesterday I heard from one friend on Twitter who uses three leather book weights to hold a book’s pages open.

For me, that’s too…


Writing Gear Review

Gadgets for holding down a book’s pages make a weighty promise

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This book weight is twice as heavy as a well-known brand, but it doesn’t pack a punch.

Authors and academics alike have a particular set of skills when it comes to handling the written word, but we also often need a particular range of tools in order to do so effectively. In this post, I’m going to review one of those tools. Please note: there are no partner/affiliate links in this post, and this isn’t sponsored content. This is just me telling you I’ve got 99 problems with writing and I’m trying to solve just one of them.

Consider the problem: you want to take notes on a long passage from a book, and you have to…


This Writer’s Life

At least I can get rid of my home office now

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At least my desk is clean

This morning I went out to fill the bird feeder. This is one of my Sunday obligations, a promise to myself to care for the sparrows upon whom the Lord’s gaze rests.

I stepped out into a swampy, steaming mess of heavy humid air: the atmospheric moisture that will fuel the severe thunderstorms predicted for us in the next few hours. Maybe damaging winds, maybe hail the size of golf balls.

After the week of deadly, damaging winter storms and power outages, now we get this.

But if you had stepped out into the yard with me this morning, you…


Caftans and Coffee: Notes on Fabulous Living

Last year’s pandemic purchases got me through some bad days last week in frozen Texas

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This is my coffee setup for a power failure. I’d replace the glass components with metal if I could.

Today I want to focus on life’s blessings. Top of the list: coffee.

When things are normal and the day seems livable, a hot cup of coffee with some half-and-half or frothed milk still feels like a gracious benediction.

When things are all messed up and everything seems impossible, a hot cup of coffee is sometimes the only thing between a body and absolute despair.

Last week, things were all messed up in Texas. We are booking the leak detection service and the plumber and the landscaping sprinkler repair people to take care of some issues at our home. And…


The Culture Wars, Then and Now

Rush Limbaugh’s “fans” are outraged that professors say mean things about him

The rank hypocrisy of Rush Limbaugh fans complaining on social media and elsewhere because a large segment of the public (including yours truly) tweeted some variant of “#BIH Rush” is a sight to behold—not that any of them would know, for none of them has ever looked in a mirror.

Rush Limbaugh was a polarizing figure—deliberately so. He was racist and sexist and bigoted and morally grotesque, and he was proud of it. He made a living from it. He made money and gained hearers precisely because he was intentionally offensive and pushed the norms of acceptable public discourse to…


What is “Western Civilization”?

Anti-slavery editors on England and Russia during the Crimean War

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Photo by Raul Varzar on Unsplash

For those familiar with the history of abolitionism and anti-slavery politics in the Transatlantic world, it probably comes as little surprise that American anti-slavery newspapers took the side of the English and the other “Western Powers” coming to Turkey’s aid against Russia’s invasion of Ottoman lands along the Danube. England, after all, had abolished slavery in all its possessions and territories in 1838, and enslaved Americans seeking freedom could find it across the northern border in Canada, or by stepping foot on English soil anywhere in the world that their masters or their hired-out work happened to take them.

Thus…


What is “Western Civilization”?

How newspaper coverage of the Crimean War shaped Americans’ views of Western Civilization

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Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau expressed bitter contempt for his compatriots’ passion for newspapers, particularly their interest in the latest news from abroad. “There was such a rush, as I hear, the other day at one of the offices to learn the foreign news by the last arrival,” he wrote, “that several large squares of plate glass belonging to the establishment were broken by the pressure, — news which I seriously think a ready wit might write a twelvemonth or twelve years beforehand with sufficient accuracy.”

When the original draft of that passage first appeared in Thoreau’s journals in 1848…


What is “Western Civilization”?

Saul Bellow’s infamous culture wars rant revealed more than he knew

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Photo by Juan Camilo Guarin P on Unsplash

In one of the most infamous one-liners of the 1980s culture wars, Saul Bellow told James Atlas, who was working on a New York Times Magazine profile of Allan Bloom, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.”

Later, Bellow denied ever having made that remark as quoted. He claimed, in writing, that an unnamed journalist had misunderstood him.

If I were a journalist whose career depended on a reputation for accuracy and care in quoting sources, I would have defended myself from Bellow’s backtracking. I’m not shy, and neither…


COVID changes not just how we die, but how we live

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(Getty)

My parents’ next-door neighbors have COVID. The wife is doing okay; the husband is not. He can barely breathe; he may have to go to the hospital.

He doesn’t want to go, she doesn’t want him to go, because they know that if he goes into the hospital he may never come home. They don’t want to say goodbye like that.

Meanwhile, their neighbor across the street is struggling through her own goodbye. Her husband died of a heart-attack last week. …

L.D. Burnett

Essayist, historian, columnist at ArcDigital, editor of TheMudsill.substack.com. Published in Slate, Chronicle Review, Public Seminar. Book under contract.

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