Intellectual history

On Tzvetan Todorov: A Personal Recollection

By guest contributor Richard J. Golsan

Tzvetan_Todorov-Strasbourg_2011_(1)Early one morning last February, I received a text from a friend in Paris telling me that Tzvetan Todorov had died. The text concluded with the word “Désolée,” which captures so well feelings of regret and sorrow, and also empathy. My friend knew that I had known Tzvetan for twenty-five years, that I admired him tremendously, and that from an intellectual mentor Tzvetan had become a close friend, whom I looked forward to seeing every time I went to Paris. Although I had known that Tzvetan suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and I had been shocked by his condition when I last visited him last September, I never really imagined that he would die, and so soon.

Devoirs et délices (photo credit: Seuil)

I first met Tzvetan when he came to Texas and stayed in my house for three days while he lectured and gave a seminar for the Interdisciplinary Group for Literary Historical Study at Texas A&M University. Unlike so many other visiting scholars of his stature who fly in, give their lecture, dine with faculty, stay at a nice hotel, and fly out the next morning, Tzvetan wanted to get to know the people he visited, and not just the academics. At my house, where he wished to stay even though we only knew each other through correspondence, he spent as much time talking to my wife and two sons as he did to me. Later, in his autobiography, Devoir et délices he would speak about how the birth of his first child changed his life as well as the trajectory of his intellectual interests, and it became clear to me then why he wished to spend time with my entire little family. For many years Tzvetan was married to the novelist Nancy Huston, with whom he had two children. In conversations he would refer to “my Nancy” and “your Nancy” when talk to turned to family and daily life at home. As so many of his works confirm, for Tzvetan, “life in common” with family and friends was the cornerstone of a rich and happy life as a public intellectual who was respected and admired around the world. In the first years I knew him I visited Tzvetan in his study in his apartment near the Bastille. His daughter Léa and especially his son Sacha were very frequently around, and his tenderness for them and attentiveness to their needs was always evident. Later when he had moved over to the Left Bank and we would take long walks in the Jardin des Plantes or chat in a café near his apartment, he would speak fondly and proudly of his children, now grown. His daughter Léa had become a documentary film maker, and at our memorial conference for him at Reid Hall in Paris this past July, she showed parts of a documentary she was making on Tzvetan during his last visit to his native Bulgaria. Unfortunately he died before the film could be completed.

In our many conversations we ran the gamut of family, politics, books we had read and admired, travels, and many other subjects. He was generous with me in every way—he offered advice on my life and career, told me of important events or debates in Paris, often before they happened. For example, involved early on as an advisor in the Livre noir du Communisme project—which was very close to his heart, given his youth in Communist Bulgaria—Tzvetan told me months before it appeared about the controversy it would generate, and what his own views were.

Tzvetan frequently expressed admiration for friends and intellectuals he admired, and was always circumspect about those whose ideas or views he disliked or found dangerous (in Devoirs et delices, he is open about his dislike of Jacques Lacan and André Glucksmann). Always seeking to live the role of the “responsible intellectual” rather than the “engaged intellectual” of which he was suspicious, he was cautious about the positions he took in the public arena. He wanted to make sure that they measured up to his high standards of being truly thoughtful and reasonable. He was, he told me, discouraged by the often shrill intellectual polemics in the French media. After he published Le nouveau désordre mondial, which obliged him to become involved in these polemics, he said he was done with plunging directly into heated controversies of the moment. He would later, of course, change his mind in the face of new situations and what he perceived as new dangers.

One of Tzvetan’s many qualities was his ability to sum things up with just the right phrase or observation, which he pronounced with a kind of sympathetic detachment. Once when I was overly dramatic in my estimation of the meaning and impact of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s first-round victory in the presidential elections in 2002, Tzvetan stated simply: “Joe, the world is not getting to be a better place.” The phrase, bracing in its simplicity, punctured my apocalyptic pronouncements on the spot. Near the end of his life, he told me that he did not despair of disturbing or even devastating global events and developments, because he did not believe in grand or overarching historical narratives that supposedly gave meaning to these developments while placing them in an imaginary and fictitious “grand scheme” of things. He believed that these crises or disasters had to be dealt with one at a time and on their own merits.

Tzvetan’s ability to capture things in their essence and their profundity was also apparent in more personal things he said to me. In summer 2012, he invited to me to lunch, a break with our habit of walks in the park or café stops. After a long and pleasant lunch in an Indian restaurant near Jussieu, he confided in me that he was worried that he had Alzeimer’s disease. As we left, for the first time he hugged me and said: “You have to promise to come see me next time you are in Paris, even if I don’t remember who you are.”

Javier Cercas (photo credit: Albin Olsson)

Looking back on our encounters in the last years of Tzvetan’s life, it was clear to me that his life was becoming increasingly difficult, and painful. His marriage of many years ended abruptly, and what he feared was Alzheimer’s disease turned out to Parkinson’s disease. From the wiry, fit man I had known he became thinner and moved with increasing difficulty. But there were things that he very much enjoyed. He had received an award in Spain, and as a result spent a few days with the tennis champion Rafael Nadal, who had also received an award and whom he found delightful. He began watching Nadal’s matches on TV when he could. He also told me of his meeting with the Spanish novelist Javier Cercas, author of Soldiers of Salamis, many of whose ideas he shared and whose company he enjoyed. His admiration for figures like his friend the ethnologist, Resistance fighter, and Nazi camp survivor Germaine Tillion, never waned, and he wrote a lovely essay about her in May 2015, when her remains were placed in the Panthéon, alongside other luminaries of France’s Republican past. Tzvetan also still found pleasure and comfort in his work, writing and completing his final book, Le triomphe de l’artiste, shortly before he lost the ability to type.

I last saw Tzvetan in September 2016, when we spent two evenings together recording an interview that covered his entire life and work. There were so many things I did not know about him, despite years of friendship, and this made the visit all the more moving. When he had come back to Paris the month before, after spending the summer with friends in the country while completing his last book, his condition had worsened dramatically. He could no longer leave his apartment, and had difficulty walking about. While the interview went on, friends called repeatedly to ask after him. His daughter Léa hovered discreetly about, and this appeared to please him a great deal.

At the end of the interview we said goodbye at the door. As I left the building I was frightened for Tzvetan, and yet it did not occur to me that I would not see him again. Now that Tzvetan is gone, however, in looking at his books on my shelves, and thinking back to Léa Todorov’s brief film of him in Bulgaria, I remember the man and his ideas. Despite the sadness of his demise, he lived the life that he wished for, and lived it better than most. His legacy, and the memory of his friendship remain, and that is some comfort.

Richard J. Golsan is Distinguished Professor of French and University Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University. His most recent monograph is The Vichy Past in France Today: Corruptions of Memory (Lexington/Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). He also recently edited a collection of essays with Sarah M. Misemer, The Trial that Never Ends: Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” in Retrospect (University of Toronto, 2017). Last summer, he went under the FHN spotlight. The interviews with Tzvetan Todorov mentioned above are forthcoming in South Central Review.

Intellectual history

JHI 78:3 available

The latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 78 number 3, is now available in print, and online at Project Muse. The table of contents is as follows:

George Y. Kohler, “‘Scholasticism Is a Daughter of Judaism’: The Discovery of Jewish Influence on Medieval Christian Thought,” 319–40

Richard Serjeantson, “Francis Bacon’s Valerius Terminus and the Voyage to the ‘Great Instauration’,” 341–68

Melissa Lo, “The Picture Multiple: Figuring, Thinking, and Knowing in Descartes’s Essais (1637),” 369–99

Sasha Handley, “Deformities of Nature: Sleepwalking and Non-Conscious States of Mind in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain” 401–25

Timothy Alborn, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed: Gold in the British Bible, 1750–1850,” 427–47

Lawrence Cahoone, “The Metaphysics of Morris R. Cohen: From Realism to Objective Relativism,” 449–71

Guido M. Vanheeswijck, “The Philosophical Genealogy of Taylor’s Social Imaginaries: A Complex History of Ideas and Predecessors,” 473–96

Journal authors are always encouraged to submit a blog post about their article to JHIBlog—Timothy Alborn has already written “Gold Tried 500 Times in the Fire.” And if you’re a reader of JHIBlog, why not consider subscribing to the Journal? Subscription information is available at the Penn Press website, including information about special rates for students.

Intellectual history

The state, and revolution: A site-specific view of centenaries (Introduction)

By guest contributor Dr. Dina Gusejnova

Editors’ Note: We are pleased to present a series of multi-media reflections on centenaries of the Russian Revolution by Dina Gusejnova, which will run for three weeks. The editors would welcome proposals for future audiovisual pieces.


2 GG queue Revolution
Entrance to the Revolution exhibition at the British Library (photograph by Georgios Giannakopoulos)

Since August 2014, centenaries have been hard to avoid. And there is no end in sight until at least 2019. London easily beats other European cities as the capital of European centenary-mania. A few years after the monumental poppies of World War I have left us, London has been truly taken over by the year 1917. Just as one ‘Revolution’ closed at the Royal Academy, another one opened at the British Library, and this is to name just two of the biggest public institutions. Revolutionary posters pursue you through the dark tunnels of the tube. Reproduced and sold on fridge magnets, notebooks, cushions and silk shawls, 1917 has become a family of brands.



Time itself has become a commodity—but not everywhere. You might think, with John Reed, that “no matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution is one of the great events of human history, and the rise of the Bolsheviki a phenomenon of world-wide importance.” Not so in Russia, however, which shows no evidence of a five-year centenary plan, even though anticipated celebrations of the centenary and other anniversaries of the revolution had been an integral part of Bolshevik propaganda since the 1920s. Gingerly is not an adverb one would associate with any Russian government, yet this is the only way to describe the official approach to the centenary of the Revolution. How easy it is for the Royal Academy to tell the story of the revolution in and through Russian art from its futurist cradle to the GULAG, inviting the consumer to float out towards Piccadilly, supposedly breathing a sigh of relief!

In Russia, no major public institution has been in a rush to commemorate—despite the fact that a historian is now the country’s Minister of Culture, one who had participated in anticipatory discussions of the centenary only five years ago. To be on the safe side, Moscow’s New Tretyakov Gallery has put on a major art show devoted to the Thaw era, the age of post-Stalinist reconstruction and socialist consumer design. Access to the building is through the nearby park of discarded monuments, a tourist attraction dating back to the 1990s, replete with discarded Soviet leaders and Chekists, notably Stalin and Dzerzhinsky. But this is certainly not part of the concept behind the exhibition: Lenin remains unburied, and on the streets and in the Kremlin, the Chekists are alive.

4 Visitor at Revolution exhibit
Visitor looking at the exhibit “The February Revolution through children’s eyes,” April 2017 (Photo by Dina Gusejnova)

As for the Moscow State Historical Museum, located at 1 Red Square, the only revolution-themed hall it has so far opened is a special exhibition about the February Revolution, as seen by the children of one of imperial Russia’s last gymnasia, with most of the other programming done through discussion evenings and film screenings.

Its sister museum, the Museum of Contemporary History (formerly the Museum of the Revolution), did update its exhibition with a modern design, but the narrative leads nowhere: a few flags and caricatures here and there, some quotes from Lenin, more still from his conservative and Orthodox critics and—perhaps most jarringly—from Winston Churchill:

Version 2
Exhibition “1917-2017” at the Moscow Museum of Contemporary History, April 2017 (Photo by Dina Gusejnova)

To no state in the world has fate been crueler than to Russia. Her ship began to sink with the port already in sight. She has already experienced a storm, when all collapsed. All the sacrifices had already been made, all the work had been completed. […] Perseverance was called for; this is all that stood between Russia and the fruits of a common victory (trans. Dina Gusejnova).

Commentators have already discussed the reasons for the awkwardness about the revolution in Russia, and the way it reflects Russia’s current political situation. I have put it critically, but it is actually understandable: the British public appears in the role of a confident purveyor of another society’s crisis, whereas for the Russians, the crisis has never really ended. Marking a revolution can be nearly as dangerous a notion as making one. And how should a state mark an event which was supposed to lead to its withering away?

6 The state and revolution 1918
Title page to the first edition of Lenin’s The State and Revolution (Petrograd, 1918), published under the pseudonym V. Ilyin

By contrast to state-sponsored institutions, some of the most thoughtful reactions to the centenary have included translations of poetry and prose, reflecting a wide range of views in the revolutionary era, in Britain; and privately funded digital public platforms inviting visitors to identify their own position on the political spectrum of 1917, in Russia. In a poem composed in September 1914, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam had written: “Imperial Europe! Ever since Bonaparte / was in the bullseye of Prince Metternich’s quill / For the first time in a century, we will / Witness your wondrous map taken apart!” (trans. Dina Gusejnova). Looking back towards 1814, Mandelstam did not see much of the twentieth century. Exactly two hundred years later, the map of Europe started to change once again, with Russia’s annexation (or re-annexation, as some might say) of Crimea. Tragically, instead of an exhibition to the memory of the First World War, in 2014 Russia had opened a new actual western front, and the conflict is still with us.

In 1922, Mandelstam had, once again, presciently exclaimed: “Beastly aeon, who will dare / Look you in the eye / Glue your back with their own blood/ Two centuries, bone for bone” (trans. Dina Gusejnova). And this was only in 1922! In that year, the fashionable English Club in Moscow, once frequented by Leo Tolstoy and other anglophile dandies, had just been requisitioned and turned into a Museum of the Revolution. It attracted foreign enthusiasts and revolutionary bien pensants such as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. By 1938, Mandelstam had perished in a camp, a fate which the translator Robert Chandler contextualizes in his evocative introductions to two hundred years of Russian poetry.

Among the most emblematic documents of later Soviet “horizons of expectations,” a term which Reinhart Koselleck made popular to describe past ideas of the future, is a children’s slideshow produced in 1960, which has recently gone viral online. In it, we can see how the state-sponsored media of the post-Stalin era had become increasingly optimistic about the prospects for the future. In 2017, they showed, the Soviet capital would embark on its preparations to celebrate the centenary, just as the world’s “last imperialists” self-imploded on a remote island, falling victims to their own weapon of mass destruction.

7a 2017 diafilm
L. Smekhov, In 2017 (
7b end of imperialism
“‘They have just reported,’ a meteorologist said, ‘that the last imperialists, who had been hiding on a remote island, have been testing the meson bomb [a type of nuclear weapon that Soviet intelligence believed was being developed by the Americans]. During the test, an explosion of an unprecedented scale occurred, destroying the whole island and causing turbulences in the entire atmosphere.’”
7c 2017 diafilm
“The meteorological station for remote weather control quietly floated above the city. The rejoicing capital was preparing for the 100th anniversary of Great October. These festivities coincided with the victory of Soviet science over nature.”
7d televidefon
“In the evening, Evgeny Sergeevich turned on his televideophone and called the steamer Kakhetia. His wife smiled from the screen, and Nina stood next to her and shouted: ‘Daddy, we’ve been having some nice, warm rain here!’”

As we know, things turned out differently: the “televideophone” belongs to the realm of the “imperialists”—and so does Russia itself; but the Georgian region of Kakhetia, once part of the Soviet Union, does not belong to the Russian Federation.

All too often, when we think about anniversaries, we naturally think about time. And yet thinking about space opens new prospects on our relationship to the past. After all, our political “horizons of expectations” and “spaces of experience” are rooted in a spatial imagination.

The more we see centenaries in geographical perspective, the more we recognize the diversity of views on this issue. The idea of a common commemorative mentality is a fiction: we remain divided in our attitudes to centenaries by place, generation, and so many other circumstances. The private, Proustian mémoires involontaires, the exposure to certain sounds, sights, sensations, or ideas, can overpower any official attempts to mold a common attitude to the event.

I have begun speaking about this to colleagues who had themselves travelled to different locations to engage with thoughts on revolutions and centenaries. I chose to concentrate my conversations around two contrasting spaces, the museum and the public square. Site-specific thinking about centenaries should not just be about cities or states, but also about spaces within cities and even houses. How do our thoughts change when we are placed in a museum, in a public space, in a private living room? How do we reconfigure our ideas of the past and its links to our present?

Dina Gusejnova is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming later in 2017).

Intellectual history

Contested Masculinities in the Australian 1950s

by guest contributor Chelsea Barnett

In The Shiralee, a 1957 Australian film, Jim ‘Mac’ Macauley is locked in a fierce and bitter battle with his estranged wife, Marge, over custody of their daughter, Buster. For months, Buster has accompanied her swagman father as he roams around the country, looking for short- or long-term contract work. Mac wishes to retain care of Buster, while Marge wants to take her back to Sydney; each are motivated primarily by spite and hostility toward the other. In one particularly tense verbal spat between the estranged pair, Marge says something to Mac that especially stings: “You think the life you lead’s fit for a kid? You make me sick. It’s a dog’s life, even the kid herself would tell you.” Mac startles; Marge has clearly struck a nerve. Both are well aware that the swagman’s life, lived on the open road, is a far cry from the suburban frontier of the Australian 1950s. But Mac is a swagman, uncomfortable living in the confines of Australia’s cities and suburbs. Unable to continue raising his daughter on the road, not wanting to live with her in the suburbs, and not wanting to relinquish custody to Marge, Mac is caught between the expectations of conventional, postwar middle-class fatherhood, and the expectations of the itinerant, rural bushman.

While Mac’s struggle between these competing masculine types drives the narrative progression of The Shiralee, it also points to the broader tension that was circulating in the cultural world of the Australian 1950s, particularly in relation to understandings of masculinity. The difficulty Mac faces in his attempt to reconcile these competing expectations of fatherhood is precisely because these masculinities both functioned with legitimacy in the aftermath of World War Two and the beginning of the Cold War. While powerful, enduring popular memories mean that this period continues to be understood as the peak for the proliferation of the suburban dream or, alternatively, a time of oppressive gender roles and politics, clearly there was more underway than this dichotomous narrative suggests. Others have identified the social and political changes and transformations that punctuated the era; here, I turn to the cultural world.[1] I argue that the cultural landscape of the Australian 1950s was not simply an agent of social change, but rather a space of dynamism and negotiation, particularly when we consider how masculinity—or, indeed, masculinities—functioned in this historical moment. That Robert Menzies—champion of the “forgotten” middle class and ostensible embodiment of postwar conservatism—held the prime ministerial office for seventeen years (1949-1966) means that the Australian man of the 1950s, much like his American counterpart, is popularly imagined as the grey-flannel suit-wearing suburban breadwinner. But, as The Shiralee suggests, the cultural world in this period reveals a more complicated set of ideas about masculinity. If we look to Australian films made and released from 1949 to the early 1960s, it’s clear that there was more than one way to be a man in this period.

The powerful appeal with which Mac’s itinerant, bush-based lifestyle functioned speaks to the place of radical nationalism in the postwar years. Radical nationalism was a leftist intellectual movement that emerged in the 1940s but was most potent in the 1950s. The movement was inspired by literary figures of the 1890s who constructed an identifiably “Australian” ethos in the decade before Federation; this notion of a uniquely Australian identity operated with particular significance in the 1950s given the “dark hour of suburbia” and the danger that it would be “lost in the warm mists of suburban prosperity.”[2] In addition to The Shiralee, films like The Sundowners (1960) and Three in One (1957) represented and legitimated a radical nationalist masculinity, circulating ideas around mateship—the intimate bonds between men—that were especially important to the movement. Russel Ward’s 1958 contribution to the movement, The Australian Legend, declared that the “typical Australian” is “intimately connected with the bush” and will “stick to his mates through thick and thin, even if he thinks they may be in the wrong.”[3] It was his mates, then, rather than to his family, for whom the radical nationalist man held the most affection.

This understanding of masculinity functioned at odds with the ideas of middle-class manhood as championed and demonstrated by Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving prime minister. Menzies in 1942 made a radio broadcast that would come to shape his prime ministership once elected in 1949; in it, he declared that the home is “where my wife and children are” and that “the instinct to give them a chance in life is a noble instinct, not to make them lifters but leaners.” In this statement, Menzies affirmed the domestic space as feminine, and the “noble” obligation of financial care fell to men. To adhere to the tenets of middle-class masculinity, men were expected to embrace the role of the breadwinning husband and father, providing stability in a Cold War climate where the home and the family unit operated as sites of Cold War defence (and anxieties).[4] Work and financial stability also held particular importance in this era, represented in films like Smiley (1956) and King of the Coral Sea (1954). These films also suggested that middle-class masculinity was accessible to those men who lived outside the suburban enclaves of postwar Australia; given that the middle class were defined more by their “values and sentiments” than by their social position, middle-class gendered ideals were shown to transcend spatial boundaries and could be enacted successfully in rural Australia too.[5]

It is between these two models of masculinity that Mac is caught. While other films (mentioned above) affirmed one model of masculinity over the other, The Shiralee’s open-ended final scene, in which it’s not sure where Mac and Buster will live, leaves a number of unanswered questions that are perhaps unanswerable. Is it possible for Mac to assume the primary care for his daughter, as he wishes to, without sacrificing the itinerant life he also wants to live? That the film does not answer this question—that it cannot answer this question—reveals something of the tension that imbued the Australian cultural landscape of the 1950s.

Chelsea Barnett completed her PhD at Macquarie University in 2016, for which she researched masculinity and Australian films of the fifties. She has been published in Lilith: A Feminist History JournalMedia International Australia, and Journal of Australian Studies, in which her paper was awarded the 2015 John Barrett Award for Australian Studies (Postgraduate Category).

[1] See: Stephen Alomes, Mark Dober, and Donna Hellier, “The Social Context of Postwar Conservatism,” in Australia’s First Cold War 1945-1953 Vol 1: Society, Communism and Culture, ed. Ann Curthoys and John Merritt (North Sydney: George Allen & Unwin Australia Pty Ltd, 1984), 1-28; Nicholas Brown, Governing Prosperity: Social change and social analysis in Australia in the 1950s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and especially John Murphy, Imagining the Fifties: Private Sentiment and Political Culture in Menzies’ Australia (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press Ltd, 2000).

[2] John Docker, The Nervous Nineties: Australian Cultural Life in the 1890s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), xxi; Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, 72.

[3] Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1958), 1, 2.

[4] Michelle Arrow, Friday on Our Minds: Popular Culture in Australia since 1945 (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009), 16; Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, 136.

[5] Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, 7.

Intellectual history

Gold tried 500 times in the fire

by guest contributor Timothy Alborn, this post is a companion piece to his article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” now out in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Historians inevitably face the challenge of selecting a subset of primary sources to stand for a much larger body of research. This challenge is magnified in the case of the history of ideas, where the need to provide closer readings tends to diminish that already small sample size. My article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” distilled hundreds of sources from numerous genres down to a few dozen to explore the connection between Biblical metaphors that employed gold, British economic ideas, and what Linda Colley has termed “the forging of a nation” between 1750 and 1850. A section on the various uses of the metaphor of gold tried in the fire, for instance, quotes twenty-eight sources that employ that metaphor, or roughly five percent of the sources I consulted.
To find all these sources, I pursued two parallel tracks.  The first was part of a larger project on the cultural and economic history of gold in Britain from 1780 to 1850, which will soon be published by Oxford University Press. For this project, I spent the last eight years looking for references to gold wherever they showed up: in treatises, novels, sermons, speeches, and newspaper articles, among many other sources.  The bulk of my research utilized such online databases as Eighteenth Century Collections Online (210 hits for gold tried in the fire), British Periodicals (48), British Library Newspapers (72), and Google Books. After realizing, a few years into this research, that gold appeared frequently and with interesting variations in numerous religious contexts, I did more targeted searches in these databases (see my full list of search terms below for “gold tried in the fire”).
In a blog post accompanying a different article I published two years ago in the Journal of Victorian Culture, I made a first foray into providing access to the larger cultural world that historians must curtail in order to “see the forest for the trees.” Here, I follow the model I used in that post, through the creation of a web page that breaks down my research notes for the “crucible” section of my article into several different topics (including references to affliction, illness or death, persecution, temptation, and secular uses). In the majority of cases where Google Books enabled this, I have linked these entries to the passages in the books and periodicals where I found them, to enable readers to explore their “natural habitat” (I tried to find the same version where there were multiple editions, but didn’t always succeed); and I’ve identified each author by religious denomination where I was able to discover that information.  I’ve also included a link to two Excel files I used: one tabulates my notes in order to locate patterns across these denominations (this includes some sources I didn’t transcribe in my notes), and the other (which I constructed by going through the Bible chapter by chapter using the service identifies all 440 Biblical passages that refer to gold.

Readers should feel free to use this collection however they see fit: as a resource for their own research; as an introduction to my own idiosyncratic research methodology (and in my experience every historian’s research methodology errs on the side of idiosyncrasy); or as an entertaining anthology, with plenty of amazing book titles such as Hymns, Cries, and Groans, lately extracted from a Mourner’s Memorandums.

Search terms:

forth as gold

come forth purified

forth like gold

gold in the fire

gold from the fire

out of the furnace

furnace of affliction

out of the fire

tried in the fire

purified in the fire

purified by fire

as refined gold
like pure gold

seven times purified

purified seven times

seven times in the fire

gold shines brightest

purer and brighter

passed through the fire

fiery trial

With a few exceptions, these sources were all published in the United Kingdom (or, rarely, one of its colonies) between 1750 and 1850–including sources that originally appeared in print prior to 1750 but were published at least once between 1750 and 1850.  I have reproduced the notes I took from each source, which are organized by topic and, within each topic, chronologically by original year of publication; where available, religious denomination is noted at the end of each entry.  In most cases you can click the title to get to the book or article via Google Books; the link should land you at the section quoted, and you can fan out from there to discover its context.

Timothy Alborn is Professor of History at Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914 (Toronto, 2009), and Conceiving Companies: Joint- Stock Politics in Victorian England (Routledge, 1998). He has published widely on the cultural history of business in Victorian Britain in such journals as Victorian Studies, Business History Review, Journal of Victorian Culture, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, and Journal of Modern History. His Journal of the History of Ideas article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” draws from research that will appear in a book on the cultural and economic history of gold in Britain that is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Intellectual history

Mystery Attracts Mystery: The Forgotten Partnership of H. P. Lovecraft and Harry Houdini

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Pulp is one of the great unheralded archives of American cultural history. Ephemeral by its very nature, the pulp magazine or paperback brought millions of readers the derring-do of detectives and superheroes, the misadventures of doomed lovers, and the horrors of gruesome monsters. They were the birthplaces of Tarzan and Zorro, and published the work of such luminaries as Agatha Christie, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, and Tennessee Williams.

The cover of the May-June-July 1924 issue of Weird Tales

In 1924, readers of the fantasy and horror pulp Weird Tales found a more familiar figure alongside the usual crowd of ghouls, corpses, and scantily clad women. The cover story of the May–June–July issue was “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” by none other than Harry Houdini. The magician tells of his voyage to Egypt, where he is captured by nefarious locals and imprisoned beneath a pyramid, to be sacrificed to horrid monsters of untold age. With his trademark skills, Houdini frees himself and reaches the surface, insisting—despite his injuries—that it was nothing more than a dream.
Fans of horror fiction know this bizarre story under a different name and authorship: H. P. Lovecraft’s “Under the Pyramids.” Each in their own way icons of early twentieth-century America, Lovecraft and Houdini led strikingly different lives. The magician was an international celebrity, drawing rapturous crowds wherever he went. He performed for the Russian royal family. He amassed a personal fortune sufficient to purchase, among other things, a dress once worn by Queen Victoria (a gift for his mother) and a 1907 Voisin biplane (complete with mechanic). His funeral was attended by two thousand members of the public. By contrast, Lovecraft’s biographer S. T. Joshi holds that the writer “as he lay dying […] was envisioning the ultimate oblivion that would overtake his work.” All but one of his stories were unpublished or moldering away in back issues of pulp magazines. It was only posthumously that his writings found their audience, eventually attaining the cult status they enjoy today.


H. P. Lovecraft in 1934 (photograph by Lucius B. Truesdell)

The original idea for “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” came from Houdini, whom the proprietor of Weird Tales, J. C. Henneberger, had retained as a columnist to boost flagging sales. Henneberger and Edwin Baird, the magazine’s editor, tapped Lovecraft to ghostwrite what Houdini was claiming to be a true story. “Lovecraft quickly discovered that the account was entirely fictitious, so he persuaded Henneberger to let him have as much imaginative leeway as he could in writing up the story” (Joshi, A Dreamer and a Visionary, 191).

“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” was by no means Houdini’s only fictional exploit. As early as 1906, he had been making films of his tricks, and between 1918 and 1923 starred in and/or produced several silent movies. Though these films do not present themselves as Houdini’s own experiences, there was little attempt to hide the fact that the magician was their raison d’être and main selling-point. Their protagonists—given telling names like Harvey Hanford or Harry Harper—spend most of their time onscreen being straitjacketed, chained, thrown into rivers, suspended from airplanes or cliffs, or otherwise discomfited so as to give audience the greatest possible opportunity to see Houdini do what he did best.


Houdini Showing How To Escape Handcuffs
Harry Houdini in 1918

Lovecraft understood that readers wanted Houdini the escape artist, and he obliged. During a nocturnal visit to the Pyramids, “Houdini” is attacked, bound, and into the deep recesses of an underground temple. Our hero is undaunted.

The first step was to get free of my bonds, gag, and blindfold; and this I knew would be no great task, since subtler experts than these Arabs had tried every known species of fetter upon me during my long and varied career as an exponent of escape, yet had never succeeded in defeating my methods.

At the same time, the story bears all the hallmarks of Lovecraftian “cosmic horror”: ghastly and ancient things lurking beneath ordinary life, grotesque monsters compounded from all manner of anatomies and mythologies, the inability of the human mind to comprehend the awful truth, and his unique—to put it kindly—prose style.

It was the ecstasy of nightmare and the summation of the fiendish. The suddenness of it was apocalyptic and daemoniac—one moment I was plunging agonisingly down that narrow well of million-toothed torture, yet the next moment I was soaring on bat-wings in the gulfs of hell; swinging free and swoopingly through illimitable miles of boundless, musty space; rising dizzily to measureless pinnacles of chilling ether, then diving gaspingly to sucking nadirs of ravenous, nauseous lower vacua. . . . Thank God for the mercy that shut out in oblivion those clawing Furies of consciousness which half unhinged my faculties, and tore Harpy-like at my spirit! That one respite, short as it was, gave me the strength and sanity to endure those still greater sublimations of cosmic panic that lurked and gibbered on the road ahead.

Lovecraft’s reputation is rightly tarnished by his racism. Though “Under the Pyramids” is by no means the worst offender within his corpus, Egypt offered ample scope for his prejudices: “the crowding, yelling, and offensive Bedouins,” “squalid Arab settlement,” “filthy Bedouins.” The orientalist mode is out in force, as “Houdini” and his wife arrive in Cairo only to be disappointed that “amidst the perfect service of its restaurant, elevators, and generally Anglo-American luxuries the mysterious East and immemorial past seemed very far away.” Once they journey deeper into the city, they find what they are looking for—“in the winding ways and exotic skyline of Cairo, the Bagdad of Haroun-al-Raschid seemed to live again.” Lovecraft summons every trope of the orientalized Middle East: bazaars and camels, secret tombs and perfidious natives, the call of the muezzin and the scent of spice and incense. Egypt, “Houdini” is told by one of his captors, “is very old; and full of inner mysteries and antique powers.”

Statue of Khafra, Egyptian Museum, Cairo (photograph by Juan R. Lazaro)

Within these fantasies, however, are a few kernels of genuine Egyptiana. The figureheads of “Houdini’s” Egypt, for instance, are the undead “King Khephren and his ghoul-queen Nitokris,” who reign over a legion of unnatural things. Denuded of Lovecraft’s nightmarish trappings, both are historical personages with unsavory reputations. “Khephren,” usually known as Khafra, was the builder of the second-largest pyramid at Giza and (probably) the Great Sphinx, but Herodotus and other ancient historians remember him as a cruel and heretical ruler who closed Egypt’s temples and plunged the land into misery (II.127–28). Nitocris is the subject of Egyptological debate: some scholars accept ancient accounts naming her as a pharaoh of the late Sixth Dynasty (2345–2181 B.C.E.), others deny her very existence. Describing his unease near even the smallest pyramid, “Houdini” explains, “was it not in this that they had buried Queen Nitokris alive in the Sixth Dynasty; subtle Queen Nitokris, who once invited all her enemies to a feast in a temple below the Nile, and drowned them by opening the water-gates?” An anecdote worthy of the horror writer, to be sure, but not his invention. Herodotus relates how Nitocris avenged herself on her brother’s killers:

She built a spacious underground chamber; then […] she gave a great feast, inviting to it those Egyptians whom she knew to have been most concerned in her brother’s murder; and while they feasted she let the river in upon them by a great and secret channel. This was all that the priests told of her, save that also when she had done this she cast herself into a chamber full of hot ashes, thereby to escape vengeance. (II.100, trans. A. D. Godley)

The association of Nitocris with the Pyramid of Menkaure, third and smallest of the Pyramids of Giza, comes from the priest-historian Manetho (early third century B.C.E.). He calls Nitocris “the noblest and loveliest of the women of her time, of fair complexion, the builder of the third pyramid” (The History of Egypt, 55).

Though Houdini is (justifiably) remembered more fondly than Lovecraft, his career was by no means free from discomfiting racial politics. John F. Kasson links Houdini to Tarzan, early bodybuilders like Eugen Sandow, and others, as focal points of anxiety about the white body. In this and in many other respects, the superstar magician and the obscure writer had more in common than might be suspected. Both cultivated a supernatural mystique—in which neither believed—personas that took on lives of their own. Both sought to satisfy an early twentieth-century hunger for excitement. Certainly, the two men got on well: Houdini asked Lovecraft to write a now-lost article about astrology and tried (unsuccessfully) to help the young writer secure employment with a newspaper. They were planning to collaborate, with Lovecraft’s friend and fellow pulp author C. M. Eddy, on an anti-spiritualist book, The Cancer of Superstition, when Houdini died on October 31, 1926. Only Lovecraft’s outline and thirty-odd pages of Eddy’s manuscript survive—together with “Under the Pyramids” the only witness to the strange partnership of the magician and the horror writer.