Archive for February, 2009

February 21st 2009
“Must Read After My Death”

Posted under American history & art & women's history

wingedskullstoneHere’s a review of a new movie, “Must Read After My Death,” in which reviewer Manohla Dargis suggests that it “raises unsettling questions about the erosion of the private sphere:”

After his maternal grandmother died in 2001, the director Morgan Dews learned she had left behind a rich archive in the form of eight-millimeter films, reel-to-reel recordings and a file of written materials labeled “Must Read After My Death.” Mr. Dews not only followed these instructions, he also made the materials his own, artfully piecing them together to create an alternately fascinating and disquietingly intimate portrait of a 1960s American family falling apart.

 The results, at least initially, make for absorbing viewing and listening. The grandmother, Allis, was independent minded and, to judge from her loudly voiced complaints, gravely unhappy. Along with her husband, Charley, though often without him — his long, work-related absences were one source of her discontent — she was raising four children in suburban Connecticut. As a way for everyone to keep in touch while Charlie traveled, the family began to make and exchange recorded messages. As the children grew older, however, Allis’s restless agitation took on an air of desperation, even panic. There were freakouts and breakdowns, Allis started seeing a psychiatrist, and, through it all, the family members continued to make recordings, sharing their hearts and fears with one another and, increasingly, their rage.

Dargis rightly points out that documentaries based on crumbling families are nothing new–she mentions movies like “Capturing the Friedmans,” and in the age of reality TV, the revelations in this film probably won’t strike most viewers as terribly shocking.  Dargis writes that in the end, “while I admire how Mr. Dews has constructed his movie on a formal level, I can’t help but wonder how his grandmother would feel if she knew her family’s trauma has been repackaged for our queasy consumption.”

Well, as a historian who is in the business of revealing all sorts of family and personal secrets (albeit about subjects who have been dead longer than Allis), and whose job demands that I say and write all kinds of terrible things about the dead, this question seems overly solicitous. Continue Reading »


February 20th 2009
Book recommendations for President Obama

Posted under American history & book reviews

johnsonandhimSusurro at Like a Whisper has tagged me with a meme to compile a list of books to give to President Obama.  He’s a bright guy who always has a book in his hand, and I imagine that he reads much more broadly than most people.  Herewith is my annotated bibliography of five titles, which I humbly submit to a candid world:

  1. Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson:  Master of the Senate (2002).  This is the third volume in Caro’s planned 4-volume definitive biography, and it covers his years in the U.S. Senate from 1953 through his fight for the 1960 Democratic nomination.  I think Obama should figure out what LBJ sprinkled on his Wheaties every morning–this Dem thinks we need a little more Lyndon Johnson and a little less Jimmy Carter right about now (except, reinstall the solar panels on the  White House, and keep the meetings while on the john to a minimum.)  Maybe the President can invite Caro over for a little seminar-style preview of volume 4.  (Are beagles hypoallergenic?  Just a thought…)
  2. Robert McNamara, In Retrospect:  The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995).  Of course, there is such a thing as too much LBJ, and this book explains why Johnson is not remembered as the greatest liberal Democratic president in U.S. history despite his championing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 (respectively) and the War on Poverty.  McNamara’s book is extremely insightful and not too self-serving–too bad he was thirty years too late.  (Paging Tim Geithner!  Mr. Geithner!  History on line 1 for Mr. Geithner!  “Best and the brightest” my ass!)
  3. Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food:  An Eater’s Manifesto (2008).  Pollan has been tireless in his self-promotion and attempts to reach the ear of the President lately (some of which have been successful), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t right.  This manifesto argues against the fake science of “nutritionism,” which dominates our views of food and the processed food industry today (itself built on cheap oil and the mass production of low-cost, low-nutrition commodities), and in favor of a simple mantra:  “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”
  4. Mary P. Ryan, Mysteries of sex : tracing women and men through American history (2006) is a lively, intelligent, and provocative survey of the persistence of the gender line in America, from before European contact to the present day.  She grapples convincingly with the disturbing lack of change over time we see when it comes to the history of gender and sexuality. 
  5. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868).  His little girls won’t be young enough to read to for very much longer, and this is a good book to read out loud.  At once impossibly quaint (pickled limes?) and shockingly recognizable, the March girls’ travails while their father served during the Civil War still resonate today, especially with eager and imaginative readers who identify with Jo.  Besides, it’s a great little seminar in the material culture of middle-class mid-nineteenth century domesticity.  (Has anyone ever figured out why those pickled limes were so desirable to Amy and her school chums?)

So, having completed my task, I now tag Larry Cebula at Northwest History, Clio Blustocking, and Ann Bartow at Feminist Law Profs.  What books would you pile up on Barack Obama’s bedside table?  And commenters:  which books you would suggest?


February 19th 2009
Squadratomagico’s “Circle of Life”

Posted under American history & students & women's history

mufasasimbaThis is hillarious.  Sqadratomagico writes:

In my book, I attempted to dismantle a then-dominant narrative within my subfield.

I recently was asked to review a dissertation prospectus for a national fellowship organization. In that prospectus, I am the dominant narrative. My name is cited in the context of that very phrase. This prospectus, written by an eager young scholar, is attempting to dismantle my work.

I find this terribly amusing.

It’s amazing the speed at which this happens.  By the time we publish books, we’re lectured to by all-knowing graduate students and younger colleagues that our years of research, thought, writing, and re-writing were really pointless, since we’re just fonts of conventional wisdom telling everyone what they know already.  Gee, I wish someone had told me this 10 years ago.  Oh, wait!  Continue Reading »


February 18th 2009
My bloody valentine: romantic metaphors and the academic life

Posted under jobs & publication & weirdness

cowboy-heartGo read the Bittersweet Girl’s recent post called “A Valentine to my Book,” which reads more like a desperate note from a co-dependent than a love letter. 

I’ve long thought that there is a disturbing crossover between the language of romance, sex, and commitment, and the academic job market.  (Will he call?  Did they like me?  Am I worthy of love a job?  What if they’re just stringing me along until the one they really love their top candidate says yes?  What if they think I’m just flirting and trying to get a better offer from a rival department?)  And then it gets really complicated when you already have a spouse job and you’re on the market for something better–enter the language of romantic betrayal (What if I get caught?  I can’t resign until I know for sure there’s another job out there!  But surely there’s someone else who will understand me better, who will understand my needs…)  Contrary to the Bittersweet Girl, though, I have never, ever considered myself to be in an abusive or manipulative relationship with my scholarship.

How about you?


February 17th 2009
Memo to David Brooks

Posted under American history & Gender

steinbergnewyorkermapoftheworldOn a day when President Barack Obama is once again returning to Denver, as a public service announcement I’d like to make it clear that he is not visiting a foreign country.  The West is America, and Americans live in the American West.  So, please David Brooks, drop sentence constructions like these:

  • “Americans still want to go west.  The researchers at Pew asked Americans what metro areas they would like to live in.  Seven of the top ten were in the West:  Denver, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix, Portland, and Sacramento.”
  • “Americans may indeed be gloomy and hunkered down. But they’re still Americans. They are still drawn to virgin ground, still restless against limits.”

Metro areas as virgin ground?  Creepy and just plain wrong.


February 16th 2009
Vaycay roundup: fun in the sun, yee-haw! edition

Posted under American history & conferences & fluff & Gender & Intersectionality & race & women's history

cowgirlbikiniI’ve got another day of fun in the sun planned, so I’ll just leave you with a few quick linkies to get your holiday Monday started right:

  • For Presidents’ Day, here are their current rankings, according to this group of historians (via Inside Higher Ed).  The thing I always find really silly about these rankings of presidential greatness is the obvious bias towards more recent presidents.  You’d almost be relieved to have lived in the twentieth century, because of all of the presidential awesomeness then.  Of the top ten on this ranking, only two (#1, Abraham Lincoln, and #7, Thomas Jefferson) are from the nineteenth century.  There’s your obligatory citation of George Washington  (#2?), which just seems like Founding Fathers tokenism, and the chronic overrating of John F. Kennedy (#6–who wants to bet that his stock drops dramatically when people born after 1963 dominate the historians who do these rankings?)  Seriously:  James K. Polk is #12?  Whatever, dudes.  Clearly, starting unnecessary and unprovoked imperial wars isn’t a disqualifying feature in these rankings, with George W. Bush listed at the high rank of #36.  (And bien sur, most of the historians who did the rankings are dudes:  57 men, 10 women by my quick count.) Continue Reading »


February 15th 2009
Pisco Sour, Miami, February 14th

Posted under fluff & happy endings


Wish you were here…and wishing I could stay longer!  I’m off for a run on the beach with an old friend, and then we’re going to hang out at the pool.  This is my “spring break”–I’ve got to get some writing done this term that’s not-for-blog publication, so this weekend will have to last me until May.


February 13th 2009
Vidal versus Mailer/Mailer versus the world smackdown, 1971

Posted under American history & art & book reviews & Gender & GLBTQ

(Via The Daily Beast)

I’ve always loved Gore Vidal–yes, I know, he’s a terrible snob, and then there are all of those essays of his that refer condescendingly to “Assisstant Professors.” But, what a brave person–his “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” essay is one of the most prescient pieces of political analysis I’ve ever read, and his memoir, Palimpsest, was alternately heartbreaking, hillarious, and filled with delicious gossip of the stars of politics, the arts, and literature in mid-century America. He has outlasted his worst enemies now, hasn’t he? (Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Midge Decter–oh, sorry, my bad: Decter’s just career dead.) By the way, that third guest in the Cavett video is Janet Flanner, former Paris correspondent for The New Yorker.

Gee, I wonder why Vidal never succeeded in politics


February 13th 2009
A Preview of Women’s History Month: “History Matters” by Judith Bennett

Posted under book reviews & women's history

bennetthistorymattersA few weeks ago, Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar invited me to participate in a cross-blog discussion of Judith Bennett’s History Matters:  Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism.  We talked it over, and thought, “why keep something this much fun all to ourselves?”  So we invited Tenured Radical and Another Damned Medievalist at Blogenspiel to join in the fun, too.  On each successive Monday one of us will offer a post talking over a few of the many provocative ideas in Bennett’s book, and invite our readers to join in.  (In the 1970s, my parents used to participate in “Progressive Dinners,” which were dinner parties where each course is hosted by a different person or family in the neighborhood.  That way, no one gets totally exhausted preparing a huge meal and cleaning up afterwards, since everyone is responsible for just one course.  Think of this as a Progressive Dinner with feminist food for thought on the menu.)

Judy Chicago, "The Dinner Party," 1979

Judy Chicago, "The Dinner Party," 1979

Our hope is that our readers will follow each conversation and participate, which is why we’re announcing this while it’s still February.  There’s still time to get your copy of the book–either from a book seller, or from your local library.  Please join us! 

Here’s the schedule:

  • Monday, March 2, Notorious, Ph.D. will get us started, since she is one of Bennett’s fellow medieval European historians
  • Historiann will roll the chariot along on Monday, March 9, straight outta the colonial Americas
  • Tenured Radical will weigh in with her perspective as a modern U.S. historian on Monday, March 16
  • Another Damned Medievalist at Blogenspiel will give it up on Monday, March 23
  • And since March has five Mondays, we hope to offer a special guest post on March 30, and invite you all to use that day to post your own thoughts on Bennett’s book, or on the conversation we’ve been having.

We hope you will read the book and join the conversations!


February 12th 2009
Never mind the slavery, have you dipped a candle yet?

Posted under American history & race

Via Corrente, we hear that plantation house museums in North Carolina rarely mention slavery at all, let alone include the experience of slavery or the material conditions slaves endured on their regular tours.

A new study from East Carolina University shows that, at many North Carolina plantations, talk of slaves takes a backseat to discussions of architecture, furnishings and gardens. . . . According to the study, which examined the Web sites of 20 North Carolina plantations, seven don’t mention slavery in their promotional materials. Only three were making strong efforts to reflect the slave experience. 

“These plantations were not just about their white owners,” said Derek Alderman, a geography professor who led the study. “As we come to terms with the legacy of racism in the United States, we have to recognize, whether we like it or not, that there was brutality that happened in the old South.”

candledippingNow, it would be easy for all of you groovy, liberal, non-Southerners to roll your eyes and chuckle and slap your foreheads in mock disbelief at the racist fools who run North Carolina house museums.  But I think that the problem diagnosed so accurately by Professor Alderman is a problem in many house museums and historic sites all over the country.  This story raises the important question of what historic sites and house museums are for:  are they opportunities to dip candles, admire high-style material culture, and imagine our (white) selves playing dress-up?  Or are they opportunities to learn more broadly about the lives of all people in a given period of history and how they related to one another? Continue Reading »


« Prev - Next »