It’s time for history writers to get their due

I’m now in my fourth year of publishing the monthly Damn History newsletter for readers and writers of popular history. It’s been rewarding to discover the enthusiasm with which people seek links to great history writing for non-scholars and non-academics and tips on research and writing, resources, and inspiration.

Throughout it all, though, I have felt consternation over the scarcity of honors for writers of popular-history articles. As a result, I am launching the Damn History Article Award, an annual honor for top popular-history writing. You will find award guidelines and submission instructions here.

To appraise entries for this year’s…

Peter Ostroushko’s death is a loss for all music lovers. Here is a profile I wrote of Peter in 1996 for MandoZine Magazine.

About 20 years ago, mandolinist Peter Ostroushko experienced an epiphany while playing his repertoire of traditional American music at a Minneapolis coffeehouse. “I was going through stuff like ‘Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,’” Ostroushko explains. “Suddenly I thought, ‘You know, I’ve been to the Blue Ridge Mountains, but this music isn’t me.’” So he changed tracks and finished his set by playing music that really meant something to him — Ukrainian songs that his mother had taught him years earlier — and his career was altered forever.

Ostroushko, 43, has since continued to blaze his own musical trails. He has recorded…

This is the latest issue of my free monthly popular-history newsletter Damn History. If you enjoy it, please subscribe.

Damn History
Issue 39
February 2021

“The childish urge to understand everything doesn’t necessarily fade when the time approaches for you to do the most adult thing of all: vanish.” — Clive James

* * *

For a long time, I have noticed the scarcity of recognition for writers who create outstanding popular-history articles. Since Damn History puts me in a position to do something about it, I’m starting a new, for-real award that gives high-achieving popular-history writing the recognition it deserves.

In next month’s Damn History, I’ll give the full details. For now, I can tell you that the…

In 1955, TV newsman Chet Huntley was worried about the state of journalism. He decided to try to change his own behavior. We can adapt his resolutions to change ours.

Normally, I would hold this post until next December or January, when people have New Year’s resolutions in mind. But I’m impatient, and I won’t wait that long.

Chet Huntley (1911–1974)

Chet Huntley was a nationally-known American television reporter and media personality in 1955. He watched many of his colleagues veering off course from journalism to opinionated commentary. Now, decades later, I see that trend repeating in our news media. Once-trusted reporters and deliverers of the news are giving us their opinions, without separating those views from the news.

Not only that, decision-makers and ordinary people of all kinds appear unskilled at separating…

History stories hide in the most unexpected places.

I was recently out walking in my neighborhood and stopped at one of those Little Free Libraries, which are small public repositories at which anyone can place an unwanted book or pick one up. I saw a title that caught my attention: Six Months in the Wilderness: The Adventures of a Young Trapper in Northern Minnesota by Michael W. Raihala.

by Jack El-Hai

An eminent neuroscientist died last week at the age of 95. He made important discoveries and helped countless people with complicated medical conditions. But he died during the COVID-19 pandemic in a state with many sick people, was denied a public burial, and his family planned a virtual funeral.

This was my first time attending a virtual funeral. I wondered what it would feel like to observe through a tiny lens a man’s passing into whatever follows our lives. Nobody would be at the cemetery except a rabbi and a funeral home employee holding a smart-phone camera…

When I knew Harry Glicken during the mid-1970s at Venice High School in Los Angeles, I could not imagine my classmate as a history-maker of the future. He was disheveled, wore unstylish clothing over his gaunt frame, and had trouble keeping his glasses straight. He spoke in a rush and loved to argue. But to anyone paying attention, which I wasn’t, there was more to Harry than his appearance let on.

Harry Glicken
Harry Glicken
Harry Glicken in the field, 1980s

Harry was wickedly smart, a true brainiac in a school with quite a few bright kids. He had an off-balance sense of humor, often spiking his jokes with time-release…

Lucretia, Rembrandt, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

We had a ritual, the three of us. We’d swing open the glass doors and inhale the humidified, clean scent of art. I would take the girls’ hands as we climbed the stone steps to the third floor. Then my younger daughter would break away and run through the galleries, snaking between sculptures and unnerving the guards, until she stopped before the object of her adoration. She knew not to stand too close to the painting she loved, Rembrandt’s Lucretia, as she waited for her sister and me to catch up. …

The fierce Rocky Mountain locust

In the second week of June 1873, a southwest wind carried a strange brown cloud over the border from Dakota Territory into Minnesota. Pioneer families initially mistook the cloud for a rain or dust storm. But as it filled the sky, they could see that it contained millions of tiny animated specks.

The cloud obscured the sun, and suddenly an agrarian nightmare became real. Hordes of winged insects descended upon the fields, devouring virtually all crops and green plants.

Though commonly called grasshoppers, these fiercely hungry insects were Rocky Mountain locusts. They battled humans for control over the American Midwest…

Inside the world of the people who take you to your seat

One evening decades ago, in a bathroom inside one of our country’s finest concert halls, I gazed into the mirror and examined my new uniform. I was wearing a white turtleneck shirt, navy blazer, and gray slacks. I looked like a TV game show host. But I had little time to contemplate my appearance. In a few minutes, I would debut as a concert usher. Other ushers were pulling on uniforms in the stalls and running up the backstage stairs for the 6:15 pre-concert meeting.

I gave a tug at my itchy outfit — the result of high polyester content…

Jack El-Hai

Books: The Lost Brothers (2019), The Nazi and the Psychiatrist (2013), & The Lobotomist (2005). Covers history, medicine, science, and business.

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