Mobsters, Melting Pots, and Lab Explosions

If you’re reading the Great Books along with me, are you starting to look at the world in a slightly different way?

I think I am, even though I already work with some of these texts as part of my job. Several of the selections over the last three weeks have really fired my imagination, and I’m having new ideas all the time. I am encountering new authors and new perspectives, and in some cases I’m learning a great deal in areas outside my expertise (particularly the sciences). I’ve also been able to have some great conversations with colleagues and other folks growing out of these readings. It seems like almost every time I finish a selection, I think, “I should ask _________ about this and see what he thinks.”

So I hope you’re getting as much personal enrichment as I am from these works. Here are some thoughts on last week’s readings:

  1. “The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway: How annoying it must be to stick your neck out for what’s right, but to no effect. In this story the lives of several people are put at risk because of some guy who can’t be bothered to get out of bed. The other really annoying thing in this story is the speech patterns of the hitmen, who seem to have but one brain between them. I now understand where those gangster caricatures in the Looney Tunes cartoons come from.
  2. “Letter to Horace Greeley” by Abraham Lincoln: Let me get this off my chest: Mortimer Adler is a Lincoln-olater, and I’m not. There are at least eight or ten selections in the Gateway series either by or about Lincoln, a bit of an imbalance compared to what we have from other presidents in the set. OK, now that I’ve said that, I do think this is an important document. If nothing else, it helps demonstrate the complexity of the Civil War and undermine the cartoon version of history that so many of us were taught in grade school.
  3. “The Making of Americans” by Jean de Crevecouer: If you ever wondered where the “melting pot” notion of America came from, look no further. I was fascinated by the section where he dumps on frontiersmen in contrast to his praising of the salt-of-the-earth yeomen. What would this agrarian have to say about post-industrial America, I wonder?
  4. “Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen” by William Hazlitt: This essay is a one-stop shop for references to famous people of the early modern era. I didn’t recognize all the names, and I’m a specialist in the period. But what may have been more interesting was the reasoning the conversationalists offered for their choices: don’t pick a guy whose writings tell you all you need to know about him. One man picks Judas Iscariot and defends his choice by saying he wanted to try to understand how someone could eat with Jesus and then go out and betray him. If you could choose any two figures from history to meet in the flesh, who would they be?
  5. “Michael Faraday” by John Tyndall: I knew almost nothing about Faraday before reading this; the extent of his accomplishments is remarkable. I especially liked the part where he was making history in his youth by separating liquid chlorine from water for the first time, and an older scientist came in, assumed the oily substance in the beaker was dirty water, chewed him out, and caused an explosion by tampering with the experiment. Those wacky scientists!
  6. The Enchiridion of Epictetus: Does anyone talk a better game on self-control than the Stoics? It’s no wonder the early Christians liked them so much. There is more food for thought in these twenty pages than in some 300-page “self-help” books I’ve read. If you read only one selection from last week’s picks, make it this one.

Much more to come . . . make some time to read this week!

[This post was originally published on this site’s parent blog, The Western Tradition.]


About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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8 Responses to Mobsters, Melting Pots, and Lab Explosions

  1. Andy says:

    1. The Killers
    Is this where the caricatures of gangsters came from or was Hemingway just contributing to a well developed genre? I was disappointed that the story never really went anywhere. The guy they were looking to kill wasn’t an interesting character, but I guess that is part of the point.

    • Dr. J says:

      The commentary I read says that Hemingway was accurately representing real-life speech patterns.

      • Andy says:

        If he was accurately portraying the speech patterns then this must be why 40s and 50s gangsters in popular culture all have the Looney Toons effect. I had no idea it was actually how they spoke.

  2. Andy says:

    2. Letter to Horace Greeley
    One thing I do like about this document is how succinctly written it is. He expresses his opinion clearly and does not carry on as many modern political documents do. This clearly shows that all Lincoln cared about was preserving Federal power. It’s sneaky how the politicians use words like Union and America when they really mean the Federal Government in DC.

  3. Andy says:

    3. The Making of Americans
    I am sure that a writing by Crevecouer today would lament the loss of small farms and the growth of larger industrial farms. His comparisons of the men who live near woods and hunt rather than grow grains is funny. He speaks very eloquently about the benefits of freedom and that each man must make himself. I also personally appreciate how he discusses how a free market/society actually produces more equal results than societies with rigid hierarchy and rules protecting the powerful.

  4. Andy says:

    4. Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen
    I would like to have a chat with Einstein, smart fella, but seemed inconsistent at times. There are baseball players I would like to see, but if they can’t play I’m not sure I would want to meet them just to talk with them. Old economists would be interesting also, Bastiat, Mises, or Adam Smith. But that is what is great about history is that most famous people left enough work behind to provide a glimpse into who they really were. This is one of the more difficult readings I found so far, just because I’m not familiar with many of the individuals that they mentioned.

  5. Andy says:

    5. Michael Faraday
    Having earned my BS in physics I would say this piece should have been included in the coursework. Some of the experiments were recreated in the lab, but it would have been refreshing to read how Faraday actual did his work. In school we follow lab books and don’t ‘color outside the lines’ so to speak. This provides an excellent summary of how a real scientist should conduct himself, testing and discovering theories by experimentation in the lab. But for Faraday, it seemed that his experimentation was the way that he played.

  6. Andy says:

    6. The Enchiridion of Epictetus
    There are several good one liners. This is one of my favorites: “But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.” There are some parts which seem a bit overboard; almost like they are words of advice for monks. What is so wrong with laughing too much or causing others to laugh?

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