The Page 99 Test

It might be assumed that a “writer’s tricks” are about fooling readers. For me, it’s about fooling myself.

New projects are intimidating, so I begin by telling myself that I’m not a great writer, just a good one. I don’t have to be literary, merely clear. I’m composing a new version of Fun With Dick and Jane rather than the Great American Novel.

But I’m happy in retrospect, having just completed a new work of American history, to find I can at least clear one bar.

Another blogger recently asked me to take the “Page 99” test established by the great English poet, novelist, and literary critic Ford Madox Ford. (His parents must have had that wacky British sense of humor.)

Ford famously said, "Open the book [any book] to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

Of course, I fretted. What if page 99 of American Umpire (released March 4 by Harvard University Press) was a blank sheet between chapters, or worse, filled with antlike footnotes that spell geek?

But I now feel I can look Ford Madox Ford in the eye at a Bloomsbury cocktail party.

Turning to page 99 of American Umpire, I found the dramatis personae all on stage. The year was 1823. The American president (played in this scene by cleft-chinned James Monroe) worries that the United States is unprepared for foreign threats. Craven Cabinet members echo and amplify his fears. The Secretary of State (starring the prickly, gimlet-eyed John Quincy Adams) suffers fools silently, if not gladly, and bides his time before introducing the solution he knows will take others by surprise. Off stage, British Foreign Minister George Canning is overheard in soliloquy, plotting the grand strategy of the Pax Britannica.

On this page and throughout, American Umpire re-examines the familiar terrain of U.S. foreign relations between 1776 and the present, discovering new overlooks and hidden trails that reveal the nation’s place on the terrain of world history.

The first thing it finds is that—contrary to many scholarly and even casual critics—the United States is not an empire. Instead, because of its unusual federal structure, the government has always functioned as a kind of umpire, compelling states’ adherence to rules that gradually earned collective approval.

My book, on page 99 and elsewhere, traces America’s role in the world from the days of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to the present. It argues that the United States has been the pivot of a transformation that began outside its borders, in which nation-states replaced the empires that had dominated history. The “Western” values that America is often accused of imposing were the result of this global shift. American Umpire finds that the United States is distinctive not in its embrace of thee new values but in its willingness to persuade and even coerce others to comply. Yet there are costs, some quite terrible. Taking sides in explosive disputes imposes significant financial and psychic burdens. By definition, umpires cannot win.

On page 99, my umpire looks outside the domestic ballpark for the first time, and onto the international playing field. Uncle Sam must decide whether to join with Great Britain in defending the right of Spain’s colonies to declare independence, or go it alone. The larger question on Page 99 is whether America should guarantee “international security” to ensure its own–or not?

Here, friends, is Page 99. Tell me. Did I pass the test, or am I fooling myself again?


American Umpire, by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman (Harvard University Press).

The offer was an extraordinary compliment coming from the victor of Waterloo. For the first time in its brief history, the United States was being asked to sign on to a high-level international diktat. George Canning, foreign secretary of the United Kingdom and America’s former adversary, courted Washington’s opinion.

Only the U.S. secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, disagreed. He shrewdly waited until others had vented their enthusiasm and then appealed to every politician’s soft spot: vanity. Britain wanted to deter France and Spain from forcibly re-imposing imperial control over the breakaway Latin republics. This was splendid. Adams himself had acerbically lectured Britain’s minister in Washington that “the whole system of modern colonization is an abuse of government and it is time that it should come to an end.” But America ought to proudly issue its own preemptive declaration, he said, rather than rowing behind the Royal Navy. “It would be more candid, as well as more dignified,” Adams observed, “to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of a British man-of-war.” Actually, it would have been more candid for the United States to acknowledge that the whole idea of a public protest had been England’s from the start.

By the end of the long afternoon, Monroe was nearly persuaded. The president certainly did not wish to be seen as deferring to the United Kingdom, not after the United States had just lost 2,200 men defending its honor on land and sea in the War of 1812. Not after the carpenters and painters had just finished restoring the burned-out shell of the White House, torched by British troops in 1814. But with the weight of the country on his shoulders, Monroe remained anxious that Spain, France, and Russia might send as many as 10,000 troops to quell republicanism in the Americas. He could not quite bring himself to adopt Adams’s breezy self-confidence. Britain was the only country equipped to stop the menacing European powers. Prudence counseled acceptance of its offer.


How I Became A Novelist and Lived (Learned) to Tell the Tale

By Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

Can a dog become a cat? Can a non-fiction author write fiction?

Historians are plainspoken creatures. They arrange narratives in the clearest possible order, shining the bright light of reason on events to illuminate their causes. They are the dogs of the story-telling world: happy, guileless, transparent.

Novelists are the cats. Subtle and mysterious, they employ indirection to send readers down blind alleys. They meander and feign indifference to the auditor’s understanding. Smoke and mirrors are the tools of their trade.

E.B. White observed in The Elements of Style that either the writer works or the reader works. Historians labor so that the reader doesn’t have to wonder what’s going on. The novelist, conversely, raises ambiguous questions. While the historian glories in analysis, the novelist forces the reader to analyze events for herself.

I wish I had known all this when I set out to write my first novel after many years of writing history. It would have saved me a lot of time.

The concept was likely enough. In teaching foreign relations at San Diego State Unviersity (SDSU), I had long been entranced by the story of Charles Francis Adams’s duel with Britain during the American Civil War and his efforts to keep the reigning world power at bay. The stakes could not have been higher. Liverpool shipyards launched Rebel cruisers with sickening regularity, and London merchants made substantial fortunes on the smuggled supplies and equipment that kept Confederate armies fighting. Aristocrats laughed up their gold-lace sleeves at the United States putting down—yes—a war of independence.

Charles’s task was to save the nation his grandfather and father (John Adams and John Quincy Adams) had built. What was that like? How did he bear the psychic burden? A lesser man than his progenitors, perhaps, Charles nonetheless had the responsibility for preserving their legacy. As any historian knows, it’s a great story.

And so fools rush in. I promised myself I would write the book and thus I had to.

In the course of eight months, I plowed dutifully through the story of Adams’s ministry to London and his desperate attempts to foil aristocratic Europe’s hopes for the dissolution of the American republic. For company, I gave him and his son Henry a fictional friend from Henry’s days at Harvard College, based upon references in The Education of Henry Adams. To this Southern friend, whose allegiance to Virginia tempts him to rush the Union blockade, I gave the love of a spirited, complicated, too-tall English gentlewoman. Fine.

It was when I began marketing the manuscript that I learned how different the historian’s methodology is from the novelist’s. My writing was too clear and straightforward. And whereas I might normally make a few phone calls to place a non-fiction manuscript, I instead sent letter after letter to the list of agents I found in Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, working my way down the list from “A” to “Q.” I received encouraging words with almost every rejection—but no cigar—until I got to “R.”

My first literary agent, whose last name began with R, loved the book. She immediately launched an impressive assault on the New York publishing world. But editor after editor told us they were accepting no, or very few, new novels because the industry was in the doldrums. Some said that only women buy fiction these days, and they “wouldn’t accept” a male protagonist. Others indicated that they liked historical settings, but didn’t want actual historical characters. A number said they were just not captivated by my “voice.” Indeed, I heard so often about my “voice” that I began to think about gargling.

Instead, I drew several favorite novels from my bookshelf, determined to find out what I was doing wrong. That’s when I saw the light. My reader’s brain—dashing through prose to follow a story’s quick path—had never noticed the purposeful, willful convolution of so much literary writing. Its modus, I realized, was to hint at meanings, not explicate them.

The lesson was underscored by reading B.R. Myers’ illuminating essay from the Atlantic Monthly, “A Reader’s Manifesto.” Myers lays into the intellectual fashion that scorns “any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose …[as] ‘genre fiction’—at best an excellent ‘read’ or a ‘page turner,’ but never literature with a capital L.” Too many of today’s writers and reviewers believe it is “more important to sound literary than to make sense,” Myers asserts.

But persistence pays. I went back and re-ordered bits of my story, dangled odd clues in unexpected places and ironed the prose to introduce wrinkles. Unwilling to shuck my commitment to clarity as a historian and friend-of-the-reader, I nonetheless had fun: complicating my usual streamlined style and trying on new hats. On my first agent’s advice, I finally decided to self-publish with iUniverse. It was easier to swallow my pride than my words.

But the story has a happy ending. Following publication, another agent picked up the book and marketed it successfully to Random House, which brought out the manuscript in 2011 in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Broken Promises became a “real” novel.

The book subsequently turned out to be useful in my classroom, as well, where I first imagined what it might be like to tell the old story in a new way.

Fiction has a pedagogical function. My own interest in history was first piqued by historical novels as a child. Fiction forces the reader to watch history unfold as it does in life—looking forward onto an uncertain future rather than backward onto the dead past. Contingency, chance, and risk deepen the reader’s empathy. Keeping suspense alive is the novelist’s daily writing challenge—and something I finally learned how to do.

This fall my students at SDSU are reading Broken Promises along with their non-fiction books. So far, it’s working out. The genres seem to get along in the classroom. Even better than cats and dogs.

Infatuated Me

by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

Have you ever had a crush—the type that sends poetry bubbling to the lips?  Who hasn’t? 

One minute you’re sitting on your mat in the kindergarten sharing circle, peaceably noshing graham crackers and milk, and the next, that boy with short blond hair and flinty grey eyes—Marty Fishburn!—rocks the planet. Not that he knows it. He’s too busy unraveling his paper straw, and shows more interest in the fly that lands on the teacher’s head than in you.

Later, when you’re mature, words are required to get a crush rolling. You’ve acquired some confidence in your powers of attraction. A cute cashier in the college bookstore crooks an eyebrow and asks about your day, and you respond with a direct look and sunny smile. Experience leads you to expect a fair fight—or at least an entente cordiale in which both parties attend the negotiations. It might take weeks before you realize you’re not the only customer in the checkout line being checked out. But it’s too late and now you’re besotted. Only careful consideration of the dirt under his nails gives you any hope of recovery.

The most complicated crush of all—and now you know you’re getting older—is one on an institution. It starts insidiously, when you head to the old alma mater for reunion day. Here is the ivy-covered bell tower and the scruffy classrooms where you spent many a day in mild contemplation of the trees outside the window. There is the corner behind the chapel where night-blooming jasmine caresses the walls and you gave up a kiss twenty years earlier. What was that boy’s name?

The soft pump of sprinklers is the only sound when you take an early walk along brilliant lawns while shiny undergraduates set out scones in the alumni center. You pause under a shady oak tree, inspired to scribble a few lines that might turn into a new story. It’s always peaceful on a college campus in the morning, and the woodsy perfume of wet mulch wafts up from pansies that have been planted just in time for your arrival. You—and a thousand others.

Is it your imagination or are students smarter than they were twenty years ago? Logarithms sprawl across blackboards glanced through open doorways. Colorful posters announce lectures by famous writers of whom you’ve never heard, while laughter flashes from the window of a seminar room. What would it be like to be inside that glorious building once more?

Professors with bulging foreheads stroll the quad with far away expressions that suggests E=MC2 in the hopper. You look critically at the lines you’ve written and close the notepad. They wouldn’t fetch a gentleman’s “B,” you fear.

You’ve entered snowball phase. You now love your old school more than when you were a student. Fortunately, the reunion ends before you can get into too much trouble. Monday finds you back in the real world.

Unless, as happened to me, you are suddenly given—voila!—the gift of a year’s residency at the old college. I’m a professor at San Diego State, and last year I won a writing fellowship at my alma mater, Stanford, which has an endowment rivaling the treasury of a European principality.

So I arrive with my research notes and sturdy rolling backpack. A pencil protector isn’t far behind.

The visit starts innocently enough. I’m issued keys, including one to the building next to the iconic bell tower. Roses grace the foyer. My new office is large, with freshly washed windows overlooking the old stone library. At State, the maintenance staff doesn’t do windows. Ever.

A new computer arrives. I log onto the precious university website with its endless collection of e-books and journals available only to subscribers. Bingo! My new ID number and I’m in the castle. 

I can just feel brain cells multiplying. Words crowd onto the page, jostling to get there first. I kick out second drafts with the speed of a laser printer. 

Crumpled pages that miss the wastebasket are gone the next day, as if Aladdin’s genii worked for Facilities Management. At a public school, trashcans are emptied once a week. Communal bins placed in crowded hallways help out when an unfinished cheese sandwich turns ugly on day three or a redolent banana peel becomes embarrassing.

Every week the elite alma mater seems a little more posh until, at the end of the second month, it hits me. I have a hopeless case of unrequited love. This university may enjoy flirting, but it will never be my steady. My heart is swelling and breaking at the same time.

Until the morning when I pass the bell tower as the gardeners are sprucing the campus for graduation weekend. A protective mask over his nose and mouth, the friendly worker gives me a nod and turns back to his task, spray-painting the lawn a bright emerald. 

So that’s how they keep the grass greener at a private college.

It took a few months, but I finally got over my crush. Thankfully. My overheated writing pace steadied into a routine that I could maintain when I returned to State. 

The best moment in an infatuation is when it ends. But please don’t tell Marty Fishburn that I still like him.