“You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its breast and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it smote the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces; then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
— Daniel 2:31–35, Revised Standard Version
An Alabama legend, Wayne Flynt, is coming to Athens this week, to speak of an even greater Alabama legend, Harper Lee.
Wayne Flynt is professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, a hero to progressives in Alabama, a champion of political reform and of change in a frequently backward state, and a lion among Southern historians.
He first encountered Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird immortality when she was 66 years old and he was a fan seeking an autograph. Her initial response was icy, but the resulting correspondence between the two legends became the subject of his latest book and book tour.
Daniel instructs us that the problem with legends, from legendary kings and kingdoms on down, is that they have feet of clay.
This is never truer than in ferrous red-clay regions of the Georgia we live in, and the Alabama I hail from. As was said by Wayne Flynt himself of a legendary Alabama politician, he had “feet of clay up to his armpits.”
I learned this over a decade ago, when I asked to receive as a present Flynt’s definitive general history of my home state, the 602-page Alabama in the Twentieth Century.
I read it with pleasure, but also with a growing sense of perplexity. A balanced general history of the state over an entire century would have elisions, but the omissions became too great to ignore.
In the four chapters on politics, education, women, and African Americans, there was not a single mention of Birmingham native (and friend to one of the “four little girls” killed in the September 1963 church bombing), Stanford University Provost, George W. Bush’s campaign advisor and then later National Security Advisor and finally U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. No Condi? How was that possible? Was it a mistake?
Flynt grumbled on page xiii of his book that “If I had my way, the chapter on sports would mostly have been about college basketball.” In the end, the sports chapter omitted basketball entirely. The deletion included Leeds native Charles Barkley, his All-American career at Auburn (Flynt’s home institution), his 11-time NBA All-Star career, and his two Olympic gold meals as part of the “Dream Team.” The famed “Sir Charles” also did not rate a mention in either the politics or economy chapters, despite being an oft-rumored candidate for office and arguably the most internationally recognizable face of his Alabama generation via TV and commercials dating back to the early 1990s.
What’s a guy gotta do to get into this 602-page book, I thought.
- Rock and roll? No Chuck Leavell of Tuscaloosa, keyboardist for both the Allman Brothers and, since 1982, the Rolling Stones.
- Jazz? No Sun Ra, whose music blew just about everyone’s mind.
- Medicine? No James Andrews, the internationally renowned orthopedic surgeon in Birmingham who operated on everyone from Roger Clemens to Bo Jackson to Saudi sultans’ families. And no UAB doctor Tinsley Harrison, the author of the most famous medical textbook after Gray’s Anatomy (Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, now in its 19th edition).
- Computing and social media? No mention of Huntsville’s Jimmy Wales, the creator of Wikipedia.
What did make the cut was, for example, Talladega College’s five consecutive first places at the annual convention of the Alabama Federation of German Clubs; and one detail after another after another about Flynt’s Auburn University.
How could a book about the state of Alabama in the 20th century omit Condi and Sir Charles? If you’re known around the world by your first name, you probably should show up somewhere in your state’s definitive general history.
Appreciative of Alabama in the Twentieth Century but unwilling to let such lapses go, I wrote a book review for my alma mater’s literary magazine. For the title I borrowed the word “semivirtuous” from Flynt’s own anecdote about progressivism in Alabama, defined quaintly in allusion to a woman of half-lapsed virtue: “it was not as bad as it could have been, but it could have been lots better.”
Then, in the hopes that my constructive intent would be appreciated even if the assessment pained, I sent the published review to 66-year-old Wayne Flynt himself. His response, two-and-a-half pages long in single-spaced type, mailed to me 11 years ago this month, was just as icy as Harper Lee’s initial response to him a quarter-century before:
“…I will respond in the same frank manner that characterizes your review. I suppose the place to begin is at the most elemental level of professionalism: if you plan to continue your career of reviewing publications outside your area of professional training, you need to learn more about the discipline. If you were in my history seminar, my critique would consist of these elements: balance; understanding the intent of a publication; methodology; and myopia.”
Flynt went on to explain that I had erred in focusing my review on part of one chapter as well as addressing the other ten chapters; balance requires an equal apportionment of attention to all chapters. Never mind that, of course, this isn’t how book reviews are actually written. It is how authors want book reviews to be written.
My error regarding intent was, according to Flynt, not understanding the difference between a monograph and a general history, and “entirely missing the point of such a history.” A recitation of his various publications ensued. Flynt provided a textbook strawman argument suggesting that I was requiring a “shotgun” laundry list of every name in Alabama history. “Sorry, John, but no publisher would touch a book of 5,000 pages…”
His methodological approach, furthermore, was “topical” and “personal,” which implicitly excused omissions and permitted many Auburn mentions. “Remember that the book is not about higher education in the twentieth century; it is about Alabama in the twentieth century.” Fine, then maybe the Talladega College German club and the page after page on Auburn Board of Trustees intrigue could have been edited out? I just thought Condi and Sir Charles rated a mention, at least.
Then followed two paragraphs of projection about “your own myopia.” I had stood up against what I thought was a consistently dismissive tone regarding my alma mater of UAB. Flynt’s response was to say, “I have known many high ranking UAB administrators… and I have not heard them complain about my unfair treatment of UAB. But then, perhaps they understand the book better than you do.” [emphasis added]
Flynt then consented on one point of fact that I corrected in his book, “the single issue on which we agree,” in which Flynt had relied on the account of a Montgomery businessman instead of checking first-hand with someone he had bragged about knowing personally just two paragraphs before.
The historian closed with an “incidental” reminder not to point out spelling errors in reviews.
A book written as a general history is fair game for criticism by a general reader, especially a reader with first-hand knowledge of the subject and the ability to conduct his own research on a point in the book that Flynt himself conceded was more trustworthy than what he himself had published. Sneering comments about a reader’s ability to understand a book are out of bounds for a professional. “Myopia” is in the eye of the beholder, but is perhaps most poorly diagnosed by one with a log in his own unfocused eye.
And I still assert that Condi and Sir Charles could have been included in the book without making it 5,000 pages long and upsetting the careful “balance” claimed by its author.
But the saddest part is the feet of clay. And this is why our eleven-year-old exchange is relevant to readers who don’t know who Wayne Flynt is and don’t care who I am. It’s particularly pertinent to all academics in all times, including myself.
The so-far-unanswered question of the skeptical reader should be, How would I, John, have responded to a lengthy critical review of my work? That’s easy. I’m a scientist with over 50 peer-reviewed publications. I have also served as an associate editor or editor of five different professional journals over the past 18 years. I have overseen the review of many dozens of manuscripts, and I have had dozens of my own manuscripts reviewed.
In my field, nothing gets accepted immediately. I’ve had papers rejected. I’ve gone through multi-year review processes. I’ve even had one prominent published article generate a back-and-forth “note and response” in which the critics dismissed our findings and grew progressively more contentious throughout the arduous process (and made fun of me behind my back). This is what being a scholar is. You learn to take deep breaths, suck it up, and go high even when they go low.
I periodically teach a summer research class to undergraduate and graduate students on research, and we discuss the right way and the wrong way to respond to negative comments in reviews.
The right way to respond to criticism: go home and complain to your pet, your spouse, your pillow. Grumble for a week. Then go back and re-read the review, after the wincing pain of the first read is past. Realize that in most cases the review is well-intended and provides some basis for constructive discussion and action. Take a deep breath. Be nicer in your reply than you really want to be. Make some changes. In the end, realize that the reviewer wasn’t your enemy. Uphold standards of collegiality and professionalism even when you don’t want to. Aspire to be better than you are; in the effort to do so, you ascend.
The wrong way to respond to criticism: in a nutshell, Flynt’s letter to me.
A legend is coming to Athens this week. And, in the metaphor of The Letter to the Hebrews, being a legend is a double-edged sword. The pride that comes with it can drive you crazy. Instead, keep it real, and keep your cool — even under fire.