Jack Ohman

An American Cartoonist: History degrees and academic struggle, 1978-1999

I noted with interest the other day the awarding of a second Pulitzer Prize for History to former UC Davis Professor Alan Taylor, now at the University of Virginia. It’s hard to win a Pulitzer. I was a finalist once, and I can assure you that winning one in editorial cartooning is a far different pursuit than winning one in history.

For example, cartooning is stuff I make up, and historians really frown upon that device.

I also have a degree in U.S. history from Portland State University and took 18 credits toward a master’s degree in the same subject. My thesis is essentially done, so they told me 13 years ago. I even went down to the University of Oregon to discuss getting a Ph.D in history. So I have a truly academic interest in the subject. But, like an ADD cartoonist, I lost interest in the torturous work required to get one, like sequestering yourself in a fluorescent-lit room for 11 years while talking to yourself.

I can do that in a newspaper office.

So when I saw Professor Taylor knock off yet another Pulitzer for his book “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832,” I started going back in time to my own study of history, which, briefly stated, was centered on what a professor friend described as “East Coast Cold War Dead White Males.”

Hey, everyone has to have a hobby.

Who doesn’t love a good John Foster Dulles anecdote? McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara go into a bar ... OK. I’ll stop. But you get the picture.

Anyway, I have said that history is what you major in when you can major in whatever you want, and I was able to do that. But, as a cartoonist studying history, I was always internally satirizing the study of history. For example, note the title of Professor Taylor’s Pulitzer-prize winning book:

“The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832.”

Every single academic history book has that kind of title: “The Blank of the Blank: Blank and Blank and the Struggle for Blank: Date-Date.” Or, “American Blank: The Journey of the Blank.”


The more turgid the title, the better historians like it. If Professor Taylor had titled his book “Fifty Shades of Slavery,” or “The Racist Jerks,” I bet it would fly off the bookshelves.

I was always trying to put small, clever turns of phrase into my history papers. I recall one moment early in one of my several returns to college where I complained to my honors professor about how the papers had to be written. He was and is a tall, brilliant man who went on to become the president of Portland State, equipped with a mellifluous speaking voice reminiscent of a 1930s radio announcer.

“Mr. Ohhhhhhhhhhman, do you propose that we go to the olllllllllllld Kansas City Star style?”

Well, uh. Yeah. Sure. That works for me.

Another good thing about studying history was I learned the word “hermeneutics.”

I just can never recall what it means.

The worst moment of my history studies was taking a class about how historians study history, which is called historiography. I loved my professor, but he made us read a book with the aforementioned history book title structure titled “That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and The American Historical Profession.” The author forgot to put on a date, I guess.

The book lovingly recounted how many index cards Will and Ariel Durant made and what type of pens Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. (father of JFK aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., another Pulitzer-winning historian) used. For 662 magnificent pages.

When I finished the book after six weeks of barely being able to go through five pages at a sitting, I threw the book against the wall.

I would put that in the category of a bad review.

Anyway, my heartiest of congratulations to Alan Taylor. Or, more precisely:

“The Heartiest of Congratulations: My Column About Historian Alan Taylor, April 16-20, 2014.”