WSJ Historically Speaking: Austen, Anonymous Writers and History


It is a truth universally acknowledged that “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen —who died 200 years ago this month—is one of the most romantic and popular tales ever written. Behind the global adoration she enjoys today lies the irony that in her own time Austen’s name never appeared on her books. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: As You Dislike It: The Anti-Shakespeare Club

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…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The World-Changing Power of the Flu



Getting a flu vaccine is a dreary annual chore, made worse by the fact that the serum often doesn’t work against the current strain of the virus. But good news seems to be on the horizon. Scientists now report that they have successfully adjusted a viral protein to teach immune systems to fight groups of viruses—an important step toward creating a universal vaccine.

The breakthrough is long overdue. The flu is an ancient disease—at least 2,000 years old—and one of the deadliest, with 10 pandemics in just the past three centuries.

Such is the flu’s power that it should be added to the list of history-altering diseases like typhoid, malaria and smallpox. The first wiped out almost a third of the Athenian population in 430 B.C., a year into the Peloponnesian War against the Spartans. Sixteen hundred years later, in 1167, a malaria-like epidemic forced the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I to abandon Rome and retreat with his army to Germany.

Continue reading…