‘The Long, Long Fall of Monarchy’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

A portrait of Czar Nicholas II, published in a French newspaper in 1896. PHOTO: LEEMAGE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES

A hundred years ago, on March 14, 1917, just before midnight, the ministers of Czar Nicholas II informed him that the army was on the verge of mutiny. “What do you want me to do?” the Russian emperor reportedly asked. “Abdicate,” they replied. After a few minutes’ silence he agreed to go, thus bringing down the curtain on three centuries of Romanov rule. Continue reading…

‘A Brief History of Sledding’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

The sled symbolizes the all-American way of life—with its freedom, simplicity and comfort—that Kane lost when he gained his riches. It should be no surprise that another quintessential American classic, Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life,” also has an iconic scene of children sledding on a wintry day. Continue reading…

‘Beyond Frosty: A History of Famous Snowmen’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Americans have their raucous Frosty; the British, their beloved children’s book about a flying snowman; and Disney, its goofy Olaf from “Frozen.”

Like Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip, these friendly mass-market snowmen only vaguely resemble their many more subtle predecessors. It’s lovely to bring winter cheer to children, of course, but snowmen have often served more serious aims.

Some of the world’s most famous people have built notable snowmen—from Prince Albert, who built a 12-foot snowman for his wife, Queen Victoria, to Michelangelo, who made one for the Medicis. In 1494, the artist’s patron was Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as Piero the Unfortunate. This Medici prince was a pale imitation of his famous father—weak where Lorenzo was strong, spoiled where he was generous. Having invited his father’s former protégé to live and work at the palace, Piero gave Michelangelo only one commission: to build a snowman in the courtyard. Continue reading…

‘Barbie and Her Many Ancient Sisters’ – The Wall Street Journal

From left, Presidential Candidate Barbie (2004), Registered Nurse Barbie (1961) and Career Girl Barbie (1963).

From left, Presidential Candidate Barbie (2004), Registered Nurse Barbie (1961) and Career Girl Barbie (1963).

Since her arrival in 1959, Barbie has evolved into an international phenomenon with a grip on modern culture. Her success testifies to the genius of the doll’s creator, Ruth Handler—born 100 years ago this week.

Some social commentators call Barbie, with her strikingly varied career choices, an avatar for women’s liberation. Others call her a tool of patriarchal oppression, beginning with her anatomy—which, according to one scientific analysis, would force her to walk on all fours if she were alive, due to her tiny feet and top-heavy body. Continue reading…

‘HMS Terror—and the Moral Challenge of Exploration’ – The Wall Street Journal

Engraving showing the end of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated Arctic expedition of 1845 entitled 'They Forged the last link with their lives'. This engraving was taken from a painting by W. Thomas Smith exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1896. PHOTO: MARY EVANS/ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS LTDT/EVERETT COLLECTION

Engraving showing the end of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic expedition of 1845 entitled ‘They Forged the last link with their lives’. This engraving was taken from a painting by W. Thomas Smith exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1896. PHOTO: MARY EVANS/ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS LTDT/EVERETT COLLECTION

Earlier this month, searchers found the HMS Terror beneath the Canadian Arctic ice, solving one of the most famous mysteries in maritime history. The ship was part of an expedition led by Sir John Franklin that vanished in the 1840s while trying to locate the Northwest Passage.

The disappearance inspired more than 50 search expeditions, as well as an outpouring of literature. Charles Dickens had a major hand in a stage production about the disaster, and an elegy by the poet Algernon Swinburne, “The Death of Sir John Franklin,” asked poignantly, “Is this the end?” Continue reading…

‘The Risks of Trading Abroad, From Mesopotamia to Apple’ – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Doing business overseas has put many enterprises on the road to making big money—but it can also be a quick way to lose a lot. Apple is vigorously fighting a bill for $14.5 billion in back taxes that the European Union says it owes Ireland. The iPhone maker will survive whatever happens, but the dispute illustrates the risks that businesses face when dealing with foreign governments. It’s a challenge that has grown more serious in recent years with the rise of aggressive nationalism in many countries.

In much of the ancient world, the presence of foreign merchants was regarded as a boon. During the third millennium B.C., the Mesopotamian ruler Sargon the Great boasted of his modern port facilities and the international trade that they attracted. The ancient Greeks went further and built specially protected ports for trade. There, taxes were low and legal rights were guaranteed, and foreigners could enter into contracts with confidence. Such arrangements enabled the Greeks to profit from extensive long-distance trading networks and proved inspirational to the Romans. Continue reading…

‘Four Millennia of the Hotel Industry’ – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

May is a merry month, not least because it heralds the start of tourist season. That’s good news for a visitor-friendly country like the U.S., where tourism has generated nearly $1.6 trillion of annual economic output in recent years.

Orlando, Fla., and New York are the two most popular destinations, though New York claims to have the better-quality hotels. Whether or not that’s true, it’s a sales pitch that has been used for at least 4,000 years. Tourism and its adjunct, the hotel industry, are as old as civilization. When the Sumerian King Shulgi of Ur (circa 2094-2047 B.C.) wanted to boast about his achievements, the list of accomplishments included having improved the roads in and out of Ur and “built there lodging houses…and installed in those places experienced men. Whichever direction one comes from…the traveler who reaches nightfall on the road can seek haven there as in a well-built city.” Continue reading…

‘As You Dislike It: The Anti-Shakespeare Club’ – The Wall Street Journal

Why people still brush up on their Shakespeare. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Why people still brush up on their Shakespeare. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

In David Lodge’s 1975 novel “Changing Places,” a group of university professors play a party game called Humiliation, competing to see who has read the fewest great works of literature. A professor of English literature is in the lead, having declared his ignorance of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” when Harold Ringbaum, a man with “a pathological urge to succeed,” declares that he’s never read “Hamlet.” The more he insists, the more the others scoff—until Ringbaum angrily swears a solemn oath to the fact, by which time everyone is stone cold sober with embarrassment.

Ringbaum’s faux pas neatly sums up Shakespeare’s towering presence in modern culture—underlined by the tempest of celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, which falls on Saturday. His reputation exists on a plane separate from other writers. With apologies to a speech from “Richard II,” Shakespeare himself has become a precious stone set in a silver sea of words.

Yet over the centuries, a surprising roster of famous writers and celebrated personages has picked quarrels with the Man from Stratford. Though complaints about the Bard have run the gamut from the moral to the artistic, one type is almost unique to him. I call it WAMS, or the What-About-Me Syndrome.

Among the first to suffer its ravages was Shakespeare’s friend, fellow dramatist and eventual British poet laureate Continue reading…

‘The Second Life of Troubled Inventions’ – The Wall Street Journal

Thomas Edison, circa 1870s, with his phonograph PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

Thomas Edison, circa 1870s, with his phonograph PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

It’s been a difficult time for the high-profile medical startup Theranos. For months, controversies have shadowed the linchpin Edison blood-testing device that the Palo Alto, Calif., company​ has developed. The method uses a few drops of blood, obtained by a finger-stick, instead of the usual multiple vials.

The fate of the Edison device, named after the inventor, remains unclear. But the story of Thomas Edison himself offers some hope. Not all troubled products remain troubled.

In 1875, the 28-year-old Edison had already obtained almost 100 patents without having invented something truly new. He thought he had the answer in the electric pen. Edison wanted to take the tedium out of copy-making by designing a motorized stylus that would act like a kind of stencil, able to punch words through a stack of papers up to 100 pages thick. Continue reading…

Amanda Foreman on five novels about the status of women

Amanda ForemanThe Tale of Genji
By Murasaki Shikibu (c. 1000)

1 . “The Tale of Genji” is the world’s first novel in any language, which is all the more remarkable considering that until the Heian era (794-1185) there was no native written tradition in Japan. The male educated elite wrote in Chinese, a language forbidden to peasants and women. In frustration, Heian elite women invented their own form of writing by transliterating Chinese characters into Kana, a form of phonetic Japanese speech. Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973-1014), a lady in waiting at the imperial court, transformed that desperate act of the dispossessed into the purest expression of aesthetic genius. The result is that Heian culture is the only one in the world that was conceived and curated by women. The greatness of the novel lies in its astute psychological portraits and exquisite evocation of time and place. But at its core lies a meditation on the female condition—on whether there can be any meaning in a life of gilded isolation.

The Book of the City of Ladies
By Christine de Pizan (c. 1400)

2. French Renaissance writer Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) was not only the first female political philosopher in history but also the first writer to do battle with the misogyny of medieval Europe. Her “Book of the City of Ladies” is an unflinching defense of womanhood. She wrote it, she claimed, so that no woman would ever have to feel the shame that she herself experienced after reading endless denunciations of the female sex. From Aristotle down to Boccaccio, the message was clear—women are morally wicked and intellectually inferior. The book is, all told, a remarkable work, not least for its audacity: The author delivers, slipped between inspirational histories of female paragons, the first enunciation of “no means no”: “It therefore angers and upsets me when men claim that women want to be raped . . . that it could give women any pleasure to be treated in such a vile way.” Continue reading…