Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Emergence of C. Vann Winchell

"I usually get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it a secret."

This is the motto of a new blog called "Nothing Recedes Like Success." The creator of this blog writes under the name of C. Vann Winchell--an obvious combination of famed southern historian C. Vann Woodward and 20th-century gossip columnist Walter Winchell.

The purpose of the blog is to keep academic historians up to date on the latest history gossip. Winchell's most popular post, and the one that brought him blogosphere fame, is "Baltimore Shocker." In this post Winchell brings to light a major gaffe by the Johns Hopkins University history department. It seems that in the course of a search for two early modern European historians (open rank), the department accidentally revealed the names of all of the applicants. According to Winchell, who claims to be "too polite" to name names, the list is a veritable "Who's Who" of early modern European historians.

The chair of the history department at Hopkins has apologized for the gaffe and Winchell became "famous" (by history blogosphere standards--which is not really saying much) in the process. His reporting of the "Baltimore Shocker" was covered by the Boston Globe, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed. (And now The Way of Improvement Leads Home!)

Winchell replaces Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III as the king of history gossip. You may remember that Bierce made huge waves in the history blogosphere back in the summer of 2008 when his blog, "The Broad-Gauge Gossip," began commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of history departments around the country. Bierce named names and ticked a few people off in the process. In one post, entitled "Chants un-Democratic, he mocked the "great ambitions" of Princeton's Sean Wilentz. In another post he pointed his readers to a website where they could find the salaries of the members of the Rutgers University history department. In yet another post he described, in detail, what he perceived to be Princeton University's struggles to rebuild their history department after several prominent scholars retired. (Jeremy Adelman, the chair of Princeton's department, responded on a Boston Globe blog.).

Bierce, however, did not last very long. He was eventually taken down by bloggers who felt his anonymous comments were, in the words of one blogger, "reducing the profession to a soap opera." Despite pleas from his fans to continue, Bierce retired to a "hacienda" in "deepest Mexico." He recently returned to offer a poetic holiday greeting to historians. He also re-emerged briefly to acknowledge Winchell's presence.

Will Winchell go the way of Bierce? I doubt it. Bierce came out of the gate too fast. He named too many names. His anonymity was a problem. One blogger wrote: "If you can't imagine saying such a thing to someone's face, or don't want to engage your own critics publicly, you probably shouldn't put something up on the web." Winchell does seem to be bit more "polite"and a bit more professional. He could have named the names of the 106 candidates for the Hopkins job, but he did not. Hopefully he can figure out a way to do history "gossip" without damaging reputations.