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11 October 2008

Bob gets a (slightly more sensible) new ride / when Bad Things happen to Good Quakers / always inspect sack for cobras before entering embassy

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Hi B & D --

Please mourn with me the sad farewell to my heroic, helpful and ridiculous pickup truck -- though it may Keep On Truckin' as a donation to Smith Vocational High School. When next you see me wheeling around, it will be in a far more realistic and sensible pre-owned Honda CR-V, from Pleasant Journey, whose All-Wheel Drive will still give me the illusion that no Adventure or helpful chore is beyond my reach in any season. Cynthia took a test drive and has pronounced it acceptable, and even Lots Of Fun.

Last April, I was lazily trying to filch a Web version of [John Kenneth] Galbraith's "The Great Crash," and found some snippets on the website of an Australian crystallographer who also admires this funny and spooky history.

Our correspondence turned to Herbert Hoover, and I had the fun of introducing the crystallographer to Herbert and Lou Hoover's 1912 translation, still the only English version, of Agricola's 1556 sourcebook of the mining sciences, De Re Metallica. He rushed out and bought the Dover edition -- and so did I, it's a beautiful window into the past, and a magnificent scholarly achievement, which the Hoovers did as geology students at Stanford. In the mining communities of Renaissance Europe, De Re Metallica was often chained to the church altar, so the priest could read and translate it for the miners. The Hoovers did lots of lab experiments to clarify obscure technical points in Agricola.

On-line version at

or borrow my gorgeous Dover.

Galbraith is not very kind to Hoover; few Americans are, or are ever likely to be. But yesterday a book I didn't even realize I owned popped out and open, and gave me the niftiest treat.

Thought I'd pass this along, thought you might be interested. The book, of course, is yours for the asking.


* * * * * * *

Dear Lachlan C.,

Yesterday, largely by magical principles, a book in my collection jumped off the shelf, and I wanted to steer you to a remarkable chapter, "Herbert Hoover and the Crisis of American Individualism," that's just given me enormous surprise and pleasure.

Its insights are certainly timely. I dearly wish they weren't. I wish these were just curiosities of absolutely no significance to current events. But like the last go-round in '29, real people all over the world have been plunged deeply into fear, and even tangible suffering has started. The parallels, and in many cases the identities to Galbraith's account are startling.

The book, still highly regarded in history circles, is "The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made it," by Richard Hofstadter (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1948). It was reprinted as a Random House / Vintage Books paperback, so should be easy to get your hands on.

There's good news about an e-text, and your credentials may be the Open Sesame to accessing it. (Mine sure aren't.) It's archived here:

Galbraith was a New Deal (Franklin D. Roosevelt) liberal and prominent Democrat. President Kennedy appointed him U.S. Ambassador to India. (He bragged that he was the first ambassador to insist on examining the cobra-catcher's sack before the cobra catcher entered the embassy grounds, rather than upon leaving, when he would be paid by the snake.)

Hofstadter was well to the left of Galbraith, a prominent academic Marxist, and a strident critic of capitalism. God bless academic freedom, private universities, and tenure, because he seems to have escaped the political terror of the McCarthy era of the 1950s, and his books were a string of popular and highly honored mainstream successes. He was a prof at Columbia University in New York City. (Politically, New York City can often only be explained or comprehended as a different planet.)

So Hoftadter should be the harshest critic and basher of Hoover. But you'll be startled at his unbridled admiration for Hoover. Ultimately his portrait of Hoover's private career and public achievements can only explain what happened to Hoover in '29 as classic Greek tragedy; Hofstadter leaves us convinced that no man ever worked harder, more brilliantly, or more honestly, no man ever deserved better -- but was punished more brutally. What happened to him can only be attributed to malevolent gods -- and to Hoover's sincere conviction that the laissez-faire system that made him rich and shot him to the top of world affairs would spontaneously heal itself.

A bit of local interest: At 23, Hoover's first challenge was to open new gold mines in Coolgardie [Australia]. (Are they still producing?) From there he went from mining success to success all over the world.

Like Hofstadter, all my beliefs, background and prejudices entitle me to the universal American villification of Hoover. I come from a family of True Believers that FDR and his New Deal saved America (and, shortly thereafter, the entire civilized world). I should reject out of hand any and all suggestions that Hoover was a great national and world figure.

But, for all his philosophical faults and blindnesses, and for all the Great Depression's suffering, the good Quaker gentleman and Latin scholar manages to keep shining through. I hope you can get your hands on this very interesting account.

Hope all's well with you, your travels, and your work.

Bob Merkin
Northampton Massachusetts USA

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