My Conversation with Hollis Robbins

Here is the audio and video, here is part of the CWT summary:

Now a dean at Sonoma State University, Robbins joined Tyler to discuss 19th-century life and literature and more, including why the 1840s were a turning point in US history, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Calvinism, whether 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained are appropriate portraits of slavery, the best argument for reparations, how prepaid postage changed America, the second best Herman Melville book, why Ayn Rand and Margaret Mitchell are ignored by English departments, growing up the daughter of a tech entrepreneur, and why teachers should be like quarterbacks.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You’ve written a good deal on the history of the postal service. How did the growth of the postal service change romance in America?

ROBBINS: Well, everybody could write a letter. [laughs] In 1844 — this was the other exciting thing that happened in the 1840s. Rowland Hill in England changed the postal service by inventing the idea of prepaid postage. Anybody could buy a stamp, and then you’d put the stamp on the letter and send the letter.

Prior to that, you had to go to the post office. You had to engage with the clerk. After the 1840s and after prepaid postage, you could just get your stamps, and anybody could send a letter. In fact, Frederick Douglass loved the idea of prepaid post for the ability for the enslaved to write and send letters. After that, people wrote letters to each other, letters home, letters to their lovers, letters to —

COWEN: When should you send a sealed letter? Because it’s also drawing attention to itself, right?

ROBBINS: Well, envelopes — it’s interesting that envelopes, sealed envelopes, came about 50 years after the post office became popular, so you didn’t really have self-sealing envelopes until the end of the 19th century.

COWEN: That was technology? Or people didn’t see the need for it?

ROBBINS: Technology, the idea of folding the envelope and then having it be gummed and self-sealing. There were a number of patents, but they kept breaking down. But technology finally resolved it at the end of the 19th century.

Prior to that, you would write in code. Also, paper was expensive, so you often wrote across the page horizontally and then turned it to the side and crossed the page, writing in the other direction. If somebody was really going to snoop on your letters, they had to work for it.

COWEN: On net, what were the social effects of the postal service?

ROBBINS: Well, communication. The post office and the need for the post office is in our Constitution.

COWEN: It was egalitarian? It was winner take all? It liberated women? It helped slaves? Or what?

ROBBINS: All those things.

COWEN: All those things.

ROBBINS: But yeah, de Tocqueville mentioned this in his great book in the 1830s that anybody — some farmer in Michigan — could be as informed as somebody in New York City.


COWEN: Margaret Mitchell or Ayn Rand?

ROBBINS: Well, it’s interesting that two of the best-selling novelists of the 20th-century women are both equally ignored by English departments in universities. Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind is paid attention to a little bit just because, as I said, it’s something that literature and film worked against, but not Ayn Rand at all.


COWEN: What’s a paradigmatic example of a movie made better by a good soundtrack?

ROBBINS: The Pink Panther — Henry Mancini’s score. The movie is ridiculous, but Henry Mancini’s score — you’re going to be humming it now the rest of the day.


COWEN: What is the Straussian reading of Babar the Elephant?

ROBBINS: When’s the last time you read it?

COWEN: Not long ago.

Recommended throughout.


Did he discuss UK historian Paul Johnson's book "Birth of the Modern" that argued, persuasively, the 1820s were a turning point in human history (and everything you see today, including gay rights, manifested itself then)?

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Why would a literature scholar want to devote time to studying Ayn Rand, other than as an example of a terrible novelist?

It's not that you're wrong about Ayn Rand as a stylist--she's often cringe-worthy. But have you ever tried to read Harriet Beecher Stowe? Awful, overly ornate, mawkish, full of strange dialogue tags. She's still read, though, right? Because of her historical influence?

For that matter, I'm often not thrilled with Dickens's writing. "But his wonderful characters!" you protest. Well, what about Ayn Rand's characters?

@Thelonious_Nick - they spoke and wrote differently in the 19th century. One of my favorite authors from then was Stephen Crane, who's short story "The Open Boat" is a classic (spoiler alert: since I doubt any of you still read, being movie watchers only, the hero dies at the end, which is kind of cool and also seen in the movie "To Live and Die in LA" half way through the movie). The depiction of the curious bystanders on the shore looking in amusement upon the hapless lifeboat survivors trying to beach their craft (often the most dangerous part of a sea voyage, recall the movie "Castaway") is memorable and reminds me of a real life white water rafting trip I participated in (I was the captain of the raft, and made a harrowing escape). A great author of the Naturalist school of literature, which is vastly underrated (the world is largely impersonal, and we make it seem more hospitable than it is, the laws of entropy say otherwise).

You know who did not like Dickens? Lenin!!

That's the first good thing I've ever heard about Lenin. The dreadful thing about Dickens is the waste: A Tale of Two Cities proves that he could have been a fine writer.

Yet Lenin liked Jack London.

1) everyone who likes action and adventure likes Jack London. 2) JL was an avowed socialist; of course this would matter to someone as coarse as Lenin. That JL was really a Nietzschean socialist, which is to say anti-egalitarian, is rarely noted.

Yes, but London, as an artist transcended his politica leanings. I mean. I doubt socialism is what springs to mind when we read The Iron Heel and The Call of the Wild.

I enjoyed The Fountainhead as a hard-breathing page-turner -- though not enough to embark on Atlas Shrugged as of yet

You'd think she was writing piecemeal paid by the word, like Dickens. Imagine crowds waiting breathlessly at the dock for her next installment, shouting "Who is John Galt?"

I've also read "The Fountainhead", because a high school teacher suggested that I read it and write a report about it. I did, but was unconvinced by its arguments both then and now.

I did enjoy reading it though, interesting (though I think wrong-headed) descriptions of the process of architecture and various potboiler plot twists.

But after that, "Atlas Shrugged" is way down on my reading list. Instead, I've read what other people say about it -- highly mixed reactions to say the least.

Let’s add D.H. Lawrence to that list, to-wit: “She ran, and he saw nothing but the round wet head, the wet back leaning forward in flight, the rounded buttocks twinkling: a wonderful cowering female nakedness in flight.”

Byomyov, you don’t say why Rand is terrible. Yours is a very untutored remark. It sounds like you are applying modernist criteria for judging her. If so I agree.

But Ayn Rand’s true appeal is clearly as a novelist of ideas. However mediocre her writing or plotting might be, her ideas are fascinating and influential even if one doesn’t agree. Her works are the libertarian equivalent of Das Kapital.

Ayn Rand is beloved by cucks. Libertarians, basically.

Max Steiner's Casablanca score might be the best example of a movie crucially improved by its soundtrack, especially as it compellingly plays offf of a song that's actually part of the narrative.

But I don't get the question -- a great many movies and TV series were vastly improved by their soundtrack and would seem naked without it. Almost anything by Steiner and Korngold to John Williams and so on, although things can get a little overbearing these days.

Musical theme and the in-episode variations also helped define classic TV series such as 5-0 and Mission Impossible

Yes those 1980s classics - Bladerunner, Chariots of Fire - would surely lose a lot without the music.

The Sting would be another example.

Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, Platoon, the Godfather I and II, etc...

Eyes Wide Shut was another, though the music wasn’t written specifically for the film.

"appropriate portraits of slavery": God, "appropriate" is such a weasely combination of genteelism, pomposity, and Stalinism.

The best depiction of slavery is still the biblical epic where Charlton Heston is stomping around in waist-deep Egyptian sludge with his fellow Hebrews as part of the Pharoah's oppressive brick-making operation.

What a sad example for movies that were made better by the soundtrack? Pink Panther??? What about the Sea Hawk and many of the Korngold scored films? Bernard Hermann's score for Psycho? For that matter both 2001 and Star Wars would not have been as big as they were without those soundtracks.

You can say the same thing about Steven Spielberg movies, didn't John Williams scores make his films? See more here: (excellent funny video, Steven Spielberg vs Alfred Hitchcock. Epic Rap Battles of History)

Was there perhaps some kind of missing transition where she's talking about Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and claims the Max Steiner movie soundtrack somehow undermined the novel, leading to the question about what was a good soundtrack?

Well no, I was overthinking all that, TC just asks if she can think of a film undermined by a bad soundtrack and she can't offhand, so he asks for an example of a good one. This does not seem like her strongest area of expertise.

> COWEN: Can you think of a potentially good movie ruined by a bad soundtrack?

Ladyhawke, perhaps?

In Cold Blood, perhaps?

Alex North's alternate soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Would have ruined it.

Miller's Crossing is a great movie, but would be better with a more subtle score.

As time goes by, Tyler Cowen interrupts his guests more and more, talks over the top of them more and more, and makes his own points more and more. But until this episode it had never really gotten under my skin that he was interrupting a much more interesting person on the verge of saying something I really wanted to hear.

Tyler, please, let your guests speak. Stop interrupting them, especially to drum all your own hobby horses like mormonism and straussianism.

agreed. even the interruptions come across in the transcript. the breaks of thought and jumps to different ideas without finishing anything worth reading / hearing

Yeah, when you hear an interview touted as "wide-ranging" it often means the interviewer was jumpy and unfocused.

Still, a worthy discussion and I'd certainly enjoy sitting around and splitting a box of cheap red with Robbins. Plus TC wedged in his apparent obsession with the clothes we'll be wearing in 30 years. Probably a coffin or a diaper for most of us.

I don't get this sudden clothing hang-up, nor her response - maybe one day we will have "fabrics you can wash at home"?

Maybe T.C. needs to move to a more southerly latitude. I haven't worn shoes other than flip flops in years. My preppiest brother now goes about in guayabaras, more comfortable for his beer gut, I expect. Even sorority girls wear simple diamond studs in their ears (yes, in daytime) with wind shorts and like as not a Buc-ee's t-shirt. All would be fine for church.

Re: interruptions

You must have heard a different interview. This one was not so bad.

In these conversations the transcript has points where it seems like Tyler abruptly interrupts the interviewee in mid-sentence. But then you listen to the audio, and the very often the person just trailed off in mid-sentence, and Tyler just kept the ball rolling.

Maybe the transcripts should mark those places with a dot-dot-dot instead of a dash.

Keep in mind that those are the interruptions that Tyler wanted to have, not the interruptions that you may have wanted him to have.

This is the age of the podcast. Tyler can afford to wait a few more beats to elicit a completion of that sentence. If the pause seems too long for public consumption, edit the silence out of the audio file. Simple.

For what it's worth, from the Wikipedia entry on Leo Strauss:

Almost the entirety of Strauss's writings has been translated into Chinese; and there even is a school of Straussians in China, the most prominent being Liu Xiaofeng (Renmin University). "Chinese Straussians" (who often are also fascinated by Carl Schmitt) represent a remarkable example of the hybridization of Western political theory in a non-Western context. As the editors of a recent volume write, "the reception of Schmitt and Strauss in the Chinese-speaking world (and especially in the People's Republic of China) not only says much about how Schmitt and Strauss can be read today, but also provides important clues about the deeper contradictions of Western modernity and the dilemmas of non-liberal societies in our increasingly contentious world."

Oh god, peak straussianism: the claim that TC brought Strauss into the discussion for straussian reasons.

From the linked piece on GWTW: The novel is indeed “full of bias.” But bias is not directed exclusively at blacks, Li adds, pointing to Scarlett’s use of white convict labor in her lumber mill as evidence. “Scarlett’s attitudes toward former slaves are transitional, like the era,” Li writes, urging me to see Scarlett in a more positive light."

We have a state historic site, a remnant of a sugar plantation near the Gulf Coast, which presents the history of the period, locally, as well as anyone could possibly hope for - though I don't imagine that will ultimately save it. We're in a brief golden age, down here, of historic interpretation at the moment, having benefitted from scholarship, a little woke but not yet robotically so, still able to discuss things in a fairly normal way without pushing language and memory to the point of strain.

I thought of it because it segued directly to using convict labor after the war.

Conditions were probably similar to the notorious Eastham Unit.

Maybe the Chinese scholars are less given to thinking there are bright lines between the virtuous and the non-virtuous.

"Maybe the Chinese scholars are less given to thinking there are bright lines between the virtuous and the non-virtuous."

They have to or how would they be able to serve a totalitarian regime?

I still can't shake the picture of you having Dickens read aloud to you in the evening.

Why would I?

Interviewing someone who resides in Northbay region and not ask them about their favorite beverage?

Also, she happens to invoke Atticus Finch in connection with the rabid dog, and Ashley Wilkes in connection with the KKK - I wonder if she sees that they are the same character?

Gone with the Wind proves that Grant and Sherman's tactics in the late stages of the Civil War did not go far enough.

What a great interview! The 1840s are the active years of not only Melville, but Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and (as she says) Hawthorne. This is where the soul of American literature was forged.

I love the Beecher family, and I love Harriet Beecher Stowe and her>madly hallucinating husband.

But as a prose stylist, HBS is simply not to be ranked with the men.

Imagine that you had pre-paid pennies in your computer. Just like the post office revolution of pre-paid stamps. We would have an internet revolution as we instantly click someone a penny to read their web site. Congestion and random ads go away. The internet becomes suddenly smarter as it can price content by the penny in an open market.

I call it Penny clicker, click on the icon and a penny or two is shipped directly to the author, no central bank needed, no need to register on a bank account.

Penny clicker works because of Secure ID, which is counterfeit proof. Thus, I can extract $20 in pennies from my bank account directly to my computer or smart phone, and the pennies will not be double spend as Secure ID runs contracts with provable accuracy, secure ID can hold bearer digital assets.

How come we do not have penny clicker today, under Apple? Because Tim Cook has to negotiate with the NSA on this. Also, by the way, Tim Cook could also solve the data theft problem with Apple ID, but we have the same problem, NSA does not want that one solved.

You could buy your internet pennies on a sealed thumb drive. It would be 100% secure, unless of course, they penny pinched.

The Pink Panther is ridiculous? This guy is mad. That movie was hilarious at the time. The champagne bottle in the bed scene remains one of the funniest scenes ever! That one scene alone makes the movie worth watching.

Excellent interview, illustrating on the changes that shorten distances and played a role in transitioning the US from a loose confederation of nation states in to a union of states. It also improves my view of how the nation's thoughts on slavery changed over time.

Much better than the typical cartoon version of history palmed off so often today. It matters.

Thank you

So prepaid letters were the communications revolution of their day. But talk about a lack of privacy and security. IIRC a year or two ago Tyler linked to a webpage that showed how people folded up their letters during IIRC the Renaissance, with fancy folding techniques that (a) hid the contents of the letter and (b) were so elaborate that spies would have trouble opening the letter and reading it, without tearing the paper.

I don't know what the Straussian take on Babar is but I do remember when I took a college class on South Asian civilization and learned that the first of the Mughal emperors was named Babur. I don't know if that's where the name came from but ever since I've assumed that.

Every movie is made better by a good soundtrack.
There is no movie that is made better by a bad soundtrack.
A better question is what movies were most substantially improved by selecting better soundtracks (better than the initial soundtracks that were judged weak in or subsequent to previews or prior to release, or occassionally in re-releases with revised soundtracks, or prior to selecting music).
First example that comes to mind is Carol Reed's The Third Man and that is according to people involved in the production. As usual I will recommend a book: In Search of the Third Man, by Charles Drazin (1999, NY: Limelight).

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