Archive for the 'book reviews' Category

June 30th 2012
What’s on your grill this weekend?

Posted under book reviews & fluff & local news

I have a few ideas for you.

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June 20th 2012
Mudwoman in Virginia?

Posted under American history & art & book reviews & childhood & Dolls & Gender & jobs & technoskepticism & unhappy endings & wankers & weirdness & women's history

Howdy, friends.  Since I’ve been living in the long eighteenth century for the past week or so, at least in my own head, I haven’t been consuming either print or electronic news as I usually do.  But several of you have written to ask my opinions on the unexpected and untimely cashiering of the President of the University of Virginia, Teresa A. Sullivan, last week.  As many of you know much better than I, Sullivan had been prez for only two years, and was the first woman chosen to lead Mr. Jefferson’s university.  This morning, I read something that several of you (in person and via e-mail) had already suggested to me, namely that forces on the university’s Board of Visitors against Sullivan were peeved at her resistance to online education.  (Earlier this week, other reporting suggested that Sullivan was perceived as reluctant to cut low enrollment programs such as German and Classics.)

I’m really grateful to you readers for the e-mails and the prodding on this, but since I’m actually making some research and writing progress this week on my own irrelevant and self-indulgent intellectual work, I’d like to turn the conversation over to you.  Some of you who have written to me have UVA connections, so feel free to discuss the Sullivan firing and its causes and consequences. Continue Reading »

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June 11th 2012
The successes of the LGBT rights movement

Posted under American history & book reviews & Gender & GLBTQ & happy endings & race & the body & women's history

In her thoughtful review of Linda Hirshman’s Victory:  The Triumphant Gay Revolution (2012)  E.J. Graff says that Hirshman presents a serviceable overview of the GLBT movement.  However, she says that Hirshman’s core argument for its remarkable success slights the Civil Rights and feminist movements that preceded gay liberation, and misunderstands the importance of the previous two movements to the victories of LGBT rights:

Of course, Hirshman isn’t trying to tell the entire history of the lesbian and gay movement, but so much is missing that she gets her analysis wrong. Or did she limit her focus because her analysis is off? In the book’s introduction,Hirshman claims that America’s two great preceding social movements, for racial justice and women’s equal rights, were less ambitious and therefore less successful, making strategic calculations to emphasize their similarities to the dominant social order. Lesbians and gay men, in contrast, had to work hard to open up room for our deviance, and therefore achieved more profound social change.

.       .       .       .       .

But in praising the LGBT movement’s drive to make the world safe for difference, Hirshman implies that black people and feminists never had to establish their moral cred. Is she kidding? Blacks had to fight depiction as subhumans, sexual monsters, immoral criminals, and intellectual inferiors. Feminists were painted as sterile, heartless harpies; women’s brains as supposedly too small for public life. Both groups expanded the meaning of the founding American dictum: All of us are created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Continue Reading »

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April 27th 2012
Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature at the OAH, April 20

Posted under American history & book reviews & conferences

Mary Beth Norton, Eric Foner, and Linda Gordon comment on Mark Fiege’s The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (2012) at last week’s Organization of American Historians annual meeting. Unfortunately, this video doesn’t include the questions and comments from the audience.

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March 28th 2012
More on “the bloody, rich mulch of life:” Part II of my interview with The Republic of Nature author Mark Fiege

Posted under American history & book reviews & Gender & Intersectionality & the body & women's history

Today’s post is the second of a two-part interview with Mark Fiege (pronounced FEE-gee, rhymes with BeeGee), who has just published The Republic of Nature:  An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2012).  Mark is a colleague of mine at Baa Ram U., and his book delivers what its sweeping subtitle suggests–a striking reinterpretation of American history as environmental history, with chapters that span the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries.  Part I of our conversation is here, if you missed it.

As I explained yesterday, The Republic of Nature is not a textbook, but rather an attempt to interpret key episodes or turning points in American history as environmental history, reconsidering them from the different angles employed by environmental historians and their extra-disciplinary colleagues.  Its nine chapters explore New England witchcraft, the Declaration of Independence, “King Cotton,” Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address, the Transcontinental Railroad, the atomic bomb, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Oil Shock of the 1970s.  (Click here to learn more about the book at its own website.)

Mark saddled up and rode out East yesterday for the start of his national book tour–see here if he’s coming to a middle-western or eastern town near you this spring.  His book will be the subject of a special session next month at the annual meeting of the Organization for American Historians in Milwaukee on Friday, April 20 at 1:30 p.m.  Be there, and you just might get an opportunity to meet Mark and his fellow panelists, Linda Gordon, Mary Beth Norton, Eric Foner, and William Cronon.  Yes, that’s where Mark’s career is heading, friends–we’ll be lucky to keep him down on the high plains desert from now on.

In today’s conversation, we talk about how Mark defines environmental history and we even talk about some women’s history and history of sexuality and the connections between our fields:

Historiann:  I love the point that “nature” and “the natural” are inherently ideological constructs—just as are classic concepts for organizing American history like “liberty,” “republicanism,” and “democracy.”  Yet historians of the past several generations have been much more interested in organizing their lectures and books on the sweep of U.S. history around those  contested political terms because of their flexibility.  Americans as different as Jefferson, DuBois, Alice Paul, and Antonin Scalia, for example, have had very different interpretations of these big ideas.  Your book shows how nature can be an organizing principle of American history, too.

I want to press you further on your definition of environmental history.  Since you are advancing an expansive view of what constitutes environmental history, where I wonder do you draw the line between environmental history and everything else?  Is there any subject or methodology you would categorically exclude, or is your habit of mind now inclined to look for an environmental hsitory angle in everything?

Mark Fiege:  A recent book that I deeply admire and that speaks to all of these issues in particular ways is Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions, some of the insights of which I incorporated into The Republic of Nature. As an environmental historian, I like the book because Klepp takes seriously the relationships among biological processes, culture, and power in explaining the causes and consequences of the decline in fertility during the American Revolution. Her claim that “procreation is power” is marvelous and expresses precisely what environmental historians are trying to do, which is to explain that complex, interacting combination of human and non-human material factors that drive history. Continue Reading »

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March 27th 2012
“Race and nature are at the heart of the story:” Part I of my interview with The Republic of Nature author Mark Fiege

Posted under American history & book reviews & class & Intersectionality & race & the body

Today’s post is the first of a two-part interview with Mark Fiege (pronounced FEE-gee, rhymes with BeeGee), who has just published The Republic of Nature:  An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2012).  Mark is a colleague of mine at Baa Ram U., and his book delivers what its sweeping subtitle suggests–a striking reinterpretation of American history as environmental history, with chapters that span the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. 

Because we have had conversations on this blog about many of the issues Mark addresses in his book, I believe that many of you will want to learn more about The Republic of Nature.  Those of you who are training graduate students in history and who are looking for ways to bring environmental history into your survey and upper-division lectures and readings will find this book indispensible.  American historians will learn something new, and non-U.S. historians will behold a model for using environmental history in telling a national story.  Furthermore, all readers who enjoys brisk prose and surprising insights into stories you thought you already knew will be rewarded with discoveries on nearly every page. 

The Republic of Nature is not a textbook, but rather an attempt to interpret key episodes or turning points in American history as environmental history, reconsidering them from the different angles employed by environmental historians and their extra-disciplinary colleagues.  Its nine chapters explore New England witchcraft, the Declaration of Independence, “King Cotton,” Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address, the Transcontinental Railroad, the atomic bomb, Brown v. Board of Education, and the energy crisis of the 1970s.  (Click here to learn more about the book at its own website.)

In today’s conversation, we talk about nature, race, and their central roles in American history:

Historiann:  Abraham Lincoln and race are emotionally and actually at the center of your book:  Lincoln’s profile at Mt. Rushmore greets us on the dust jacket of your book.  Your introduction opens with a fascinating meditation on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Chapters 3 through 5 focus respectively on slavery and cotton production, the mythic and actual biographies of Abraham Lincoln, and the Battle and Address of Gettysburg.  And finally, your interest in race and the color line in American history are evident again in your choice to focus on Brown v. Board of Education in chapter 8.  What is it about Abraham Lincoln and America’s record on race that attracted your interest as an environmental historian?  I can’t help but perceive a rebuke to environmental historians who perhaps have not attended to this aspect of the American historical landscape–or is that an unwarranted assumption?

Mark Fiege:  Researching and writing this book has convinced me that race and the black freedom struggle are central to American history, perhaps even its defining elements. But I’m an environmental historian, and another part of me recognizes that all social struggles unfold in the material medium generally known as nature. So I felt that I had to explain how race and nature are at the heart of the story.

While working on the book, I came across “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the national anthem composed in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. I had never heard it performed, so the ethnomusicologist Deborah Wong gave me a version of it on a CD. It is profoundly moving, as great as any of the other national anthems. In it, people wander across an awesome providential landscape until they come to a place where they can live in God’s sheltering grace. It presents a kind of alternative Manifest Destiny that is about redemption, not conquest. It captures perfectly the sense that the struggle is centered in a landscape and involves a people’s special relationship to nature. 

So I think my focus on race is less a rebuke to anyone than an embrace of what I take to be the truth of the matter–that this is what American history, at its core, is really about.        Continue Reading »

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March 24th 2012
Falling down the Alice of Old Vincennes digital rabbit hole

Posted under American history & art & book reviews & captivity

“Alice of Old Vincennes” float, 1929

I know that I promised around the New Year not to buy any more books.  I’ve held to that promise, and have been pestering my subject-area librarian at Baa Ram U. with requests, as well as drawing heavily on our in-state library exchange system.  It’s been fantastic to read, enjoy, and return the books I’ve been reading!

However, as I warned you, I might make an exception for books I find in used book shops and old junk stores, and I’m afraid that last Sunday I did buy a book, Alice of Old Vincennes by Maurice Thompson (Indianapolis:  The Bowen-Merrell Company, 1900), which was a popular smash and among the top ten best-selling books of 1900 and 1901.  I paid all of $4.50 for my first edition copy, although you can pay eight or nine times more for it online.  (I love my old junk store haunts here in Northern Colorado!)

Who cares about some musty historical novel from the last century?  I bought the book because it is a story built around the capture of Fort Vincennes (now Vincennes, Indiana) from the British in 1779 during the War of the American Revolution.  Vincennes was originally a French fort, and the book purports to tell the story of a beautiful but willlful orphaned teenager named Alice who was adopted by a prominent French family at Vincennes.  Of course, SPOILER ALERT, she turns out to have been originally an Anglo-American girl who as a child was taken captive by Indians before she was “rescued” by the French family that raised her.  In short, it’s a typical turn-of-the-twentieth-century set-piece of Colonial Revival romanticism that portrays the French and Indian presence in the Old Northwest as a charming but doomed relict of the past, and it comes complete with the dashing young Anglo-American military hero ready to sweep Alice off her feet and return her to life among English- speaking Protestants.

Why are you still reading this post?  This is a post not so much about Alice of Old Vincennes as it is about the amazing power of the internets to elucidate and explain what otherwise would have been a long-forgotten historical novel that would interest few of us as a literary novel.  Continue Reading »

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March 5th 2012
White bread, racial purity, and the longue duree

Posted under American history & book reviews & race & the body

From The Child's Colored Gift Book, with One Hundred Illustrations, (1867)

 Aaron Bobrow-Strain got some nice publicity yesterday for his new book, White Bread:  A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, which according to Amazon will be released tomorrow.  Bobrow-Strain’s subtitle suggests his focus, which is really on the past 100 years and the invention of the mass production of factory-baked loaves.  In an interview with NPR on Weekend Edition Sunday, he made the point that “white bread was a deeply contentious food — ever since the early 1900s’ ideas of “racial purity” up to the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s. . . . . White bread first became a social lightning rod with the Pure Foods movement of the late 1800s. Bobrow-Strain says well-meaning reformers were concerned about a host of legitimate food safety issues, and their activism led directly to many of today’s food safety laws.  But food purity ideals bled into the social realm in the form of what Bobrow-Strain calls “healthism” – the idea that “perfect bodily health was an outward manifestation of inward genetic fitness.” 

Fans of Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad:  Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (1986; 2009) will likely be familiar with the earlier parts of Bobrow-Strain’s narrative, from what I can tell from the promotional materials–I’m glad to see that Shapiro’s book has been reissued and perhaps thereby brought to the attention of younger scholars.  (I tried but failed to find even a table of contents for White Bread online–I guess we’ll have to wait until the book is officially published to “look inside,” as the Amazon feature suggests. . . )

Bobrow-Strain is not a historian, but rather an Associate Professor of Politics at Whitman College, and he holds a Ph.D. in Geography and other degrees in Latin American Studies International Studies.  White bread–or to be more specific, raised loaves made of refined wheat flour–has a much longer and more interesting early American history, and one that marries well with Bobrow-Strain’s arguments about white bread and racial purity.  Continue Reading »

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December 15th 2011
Z is for Zany

Posted under American history & art & book reviews & childhood & fluff & weirdness

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter Z.  Before the era of big game hunting in Africa gave us Z for Zebra, a “zany” was frequently used to illustrate or exemplify the use of the letter Z in children’s alphabet primers.  This beautiful colored illustration is from The Child’s Colored Gift Book, with one hundred illustrations (London and New York:  George Routledge and Sons), by Edward and George Dalziel.  I found this image originally at Eek She Cried, but you can see the whole book with two different illustrated children’s alphabets, and more, at Archive.org.  Isn’t it just perfect (for American political history purposes) that it’s riding one exasperated-looking ass?  Continue Reading »

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December 12th 2011
Poetry, history, beauty, and truth: Vendler vs. Dove smackdown

Posted under American history & art & bad language & book reviews & race & weirdness & women's history

Have you all followed the Helen Vendler-Rita Dove smackdown lately in the New York Review of Books?  Long story short:  Helen Vendler reviewed Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry and slammed it for being too inclusive, too multicultural, and too “peppy.”  Dove responded with a lengthy defense of her work, explaining her methods and goals.

What struck me about this melee is the nakedly racial ressentiment of Vendler’s critique.  (Vendler is a white Harvard professor of poetry, Dove is a black poet and scholar at the University of Virginia.)  Although Vendler doesn’t say so, she is a Wallace Stevens scholar, and she’s apparently outraged that Dove’s choices meant that Stevens must share space in this volume with unworthy “multicultural” poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, and others of the Black Arts movement.  Here’s Vendler:

Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets with hyperbole. It is legitimate to recognize the pioneering role of Gwendolyn Brooks, just as it is moving to observe her self-questioning as she reacted to the new aggressiveness in black poetry. But doesn’t it weaken Dove’s case when she says that in her first book Brooks “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”? As richly innovative as Shakespeare? Dante? Wordsworth? A just estimate is always more convincing than an exaggerated one. And the evolution of modern black poetry does not have to be hyped to be of permanent historical and aesthetic interest. Language quails when it overreaches.

What is this, a flashback to 1988 and the Western Front of the Culture Wars:  Battle of the Poetry Canon? Continue Reading »

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