Graeme Wood


Gordon S. Wood on his peers’ work

San Francisco Chronicle

The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History

By Gordon S. Wood

The Penguin Press; 323 pages; $25.95

The past century has been thrilling for those interested in history but perhaps even more thrilling for those interested in historians. The profession in this country developed its first big fissures in 1913, when Charles Beard encouraged the Progressive School to jettison Founding Father fairy tales in favor of more disabused views of early America.

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Pump Up the Unrest

News of this enfilade of Turkic vibes arrived just as Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) was holding a Washington hearing on the status of Iran’s Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Arabs, and Baluchis. All these minorities have some grievances against the ayatollahs, but only the Azerbaijanis have yet to resist Tehran in any meaningful way. Not coincidentally, they’re also the largest and most powerful minority in Iran: they make up a third of the country’s population, and they are the only ethnic minority that could bring down the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately for the U.S., the Azeris really like Iran’s current government. Azerbaijanis are more religious than average (Tabriz is a city of mosques), disproportionately approve of theocratic rule, and wield enough clout that other more secular groups — such as the Kurds — have complained that Iran is ruled by a “Turkish government.” Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly,

Anthrax and English Breakfast

Originally appeared on

In the current issue of Microbiologist, researchers report that tea could be an antidote to anthrax.

Anthrax, scourge of tabloid staffers, has infected exactly one person in the U.S. during the last five years — a New York musician who contracted it from the raw African animal skins he used to make drums. Those of us who procure our hides from reputable sources face no danger. But if anthrax does break out, commonly consumed plants (slightly modified) do seem to be one of our best defenses. A few years ago, researchers rejiggered the genomes of tobacco cells to produce anthrax antigens, a first step toward making a safer vaccine. And now it appears that Earl Grey, in addition to his supposed aphrodisiac effects, could fight off the bacillus, without any modification at all. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Mayflower Compact

DC’s Mayflower Hotel was grimly quiet last night, dulled by a silence befitting the undertakers‘ convention it happened to be hosting, or a wake for the political career of its most famous guest in the last month, Eliot Spitzer. In the bar, guests sank into velvet cushions and speculated loudly about what a $4300-prostitute looks like. But their conversation eventually wandered back to other matters, and before long the bar had no reminder of the Mayflower’s newest notoriety, other than a single news crew outside the window, and a CNN ticker about a “DC hotel” in the background on the TV, with sound and subtitles conspicuously off. Read the rest of this entry »

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Bout Time

The big lie about Viktor Bout is that he escaped capture because he was hard to find. In recent years he did hide — the New York Times reports that during his two months in Bangkok he switched hotels often to avoid detection, landing finally at the swish Sofitel Silom — but during his previous two decades of international mischief he conducted himself with surprising openness. He didn’t get caught, because either through negligence or complicity, figures at the governmental level let him go, and let his business flourish. Read the rest of this entry »

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Crying Wolves

In Zimbabwe, for a few months during the early stages of the collapse of civil society under Robert Mugabe, I flitted from bookshop to bookshop, happy as a hummingbird in a tropical greenhouse. Paperbacks cost as little as a penny apiece, and hardbacks rarely topped a single US dollar. The inventory consisted largely of remainders or possibly even of books reported by distributors as unsold and destroyed. And one book was everywhere: Fragments, the 1995 Holocaust fraud by Binjamin Wilkomirski. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Las Vegas Treat

Extracting ricin — so potent that a single drop could kill you and your whole family — isn’t difficult, which is why a man with obvious social handicaps and no relevant training apparently succeeded in producing enough to poison himself half to death. Governments have made breathless claims about Al Qaeda’s desire to weaponize the chemical, and the dubious success of this poor man’s homebrew will stoke the fears of the stokeable.

My reaction: It’s good that the guy has a hobby. I hope Al Qaeda’s hobby is the same. Ricin is, first of all, one of the more pitifully ineffective chem-bio agents — botulin, sarin, and anthrax are much worse. But even if Al Qaeda produced those, their scientists would be far more likely to poison and kill themselves than to poison and kill others.

The recipe for ricin has been publicly available since 1962 (amateur chefs, click here), and almost no one has died by malicious ricin poisoning. Even if they were capable of buying ricin off the shelf, they’d have to figure out a way to inject or spray victims with the stuff, and anyone who’d submit to an injection or puff of mist from a stranger on the street probably would be easy to kill by conventional means anyway. Let us hope that Al Qaeda is following the fearmongers’ cue and ordering chemistry sets through the post right now, rather than conventional weapons available for the same price.

Originally appeared at

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Growing (Up) at Eight

The boy at the center of this novel is a sort of Sixties royalty, a princeling of the radical left. The son of two figures sufficiently extreme to have concocted bombs and appeared on national news, his name is Che (“Jay,” insists his patrician grandmother, his legal custodian after abandonment by his mother), and he’s too young to know that the obligations of royalty are manifold, and rarely chosen.

The plot skips around, chronologically, but reveals quickly that the woman he thinks is his mother — arrived to pick him up from Grandma — is a Radcliffe bookworm and erstwhile friend and employee of the family. She finds herself, seemingly against her will and judgment, shepherding the boy through a world of radicalism, codes, and shadows, made more obscure still by the confusion of Che, whose tortured perspective we share.

The political aspects of the novel have attracted much of its reviewers’ attention, but its real grace is the bold portrayal of a timid child at the center of an adult drama. This is too rare in fiction about kids. Huck Finn, read by Che and his kidnapper on their journey, keeps good humor and self-confidence even when tormented morally. That sort of exuberance graces only some children in real life. In Che we feel his shivers of fright and self-doubt, his longing for familial love even when those closest to him have all found something they value more. Its depiction of Che and of Dial, the ‘Cliffie kidnapper, are sufficient to make this novel a beauty.

Originally appeared at

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly,