Caleb Crain is the author of American Sympathy, a study of friendship between men in early American literature. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and n+1. His novel Necessary Errors will be published in 2013.

Blood in the Sky

Helen Macdonald with her goshawk, Mabel, near Cambridge, England, 2007
After her father died in 2007, Helen Macdonald, a historian and naturalist at Cambridge University, began to dream about a goshawk she had encountered several years before. A concerned citizen had found the hawk unconscious—evidently the hawk had flown into a fence and knocked herself out—and had brought her, in …

Almost History: Plzeň, May 1991

Plzeň, 1991

At the end of World War II, as it became clear that Hitler was headed for defeat, Russia and the Western powers raced against each other to claim territory in Europe. Russian troops were the first to reach Warsaw, Budapest, and Vienna, and most observers expected that the Russians would also be the first to reach Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia. It looked as if all of Eastern Europe was fated to fall under Soviet sway. At the last minute, however, it almost didn’t turn out that way. General Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized Patton to take Karlovy Vary, Plzeň, and České Budějovice, three of Czechoslovakia’s westernmost cities. Patton quickly took the cities, and he wanted to keep marching—all the way to Prague. If Eisenhower had given Patton a green light, the Iron Curtain of the next half-century would very likely have had a very different shape.

A Very Different Pakistan

Daniyal Mueenuddin, South Punjab, Pakistan, April 2009
Stendhal once wrote that “politics in a work of literature is like a gunshot in the middle of a concert, a crude thing and yet it’s impossible to withhold one’s attention.” His own example suggested that it was possible to reconcile the guns and the music—like the cannons in the …

‘Move Closer, Please’

In the early nineteenth century, if a bird came into view and a hunter fired without having time to aim deliberately, the hunter was said to have taken a snapshot. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, Sir John Herschel applied the term to photography in 1860. Herschel, who also coined …

The Miracle Woman

In photographs, the face of the early-twentieth-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson has an uncanny way of changing, as if she were played by a different actress in each image. That’s fitting, because her contemporaries saw in her several different people. The pious saw a preacher with a gentle manner and …

The Murder of Lucy Pollard

On July 12, 1895, in Lunenburg County, Virginia, a retired farmer complained to his diary that the state was spending $300 a day to keep four blacks accused of murder safe in jail. “They should and ought to have been promptly lynched at once,” wrote Robert Allen, who had recently …

A Star Is Born

When Margaret Fuller moved to New York in 1844, she was an unlikely candidate for celebrity. Although she dressed neatly, she was plain. Thirty-four years old, still a virgin, she squinted and blinked excessively, and had “a fashion of moving her neck, and of looking at her shoulders as if …