Archive for the 'book reviews' Category

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 »

24 Comments »

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 »

51 Comments »

November 21st 2011
11/22/63, the Warren Commission, and the “torrid atmosphere of political rage in Dallas,” 1963

Posted under American history & art & book reviews & unhappy endings

Via RealClearPolitics, Frank Rich has some interesting comparisons of the political climate of our time and the political climate of 1963 in his review of a recent spate of books on President John F. Kennedy and his assassination 48 years ago tomorrow:  “Caroline Kennedy’s belated release of her mother’s taped 1964 reminiscences with an obsequious Arthur Schlesinger Jr., of course, but also Chris Matthews’s man-crush of a biography, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, and Stephen King’s Moby-Dick-size novel 11/22/63,” and a preview of Alan Brinkley’s ” John F. Kennedy, his contribution to the American Presidents Series, due next spring.”

Rich appropriately spends most of his time on King’s novel, and specifically on the fact that King spends a great deal of time detailing the “torrid atmosphere of political rage in Dallas, where both Lady Bird Johnson and Adlai Stevenson had been spat upon by mobs of demonstrators in notorious incidents before Kennedy’s fateful 1963 trip.”  He continues:

As the time-traveling [protagonist of King's novel Jake] Epping gets settled in that past, he describes an inferno of seething citizens, anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish storefronts, and angry billboards demanding the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and equating racial integration with communism. That last one, King’s protagonist observes, “had been paid for by something called The Tea Party Society.”

That “Tea Party Society” is the novelist’s own mischievous invention, but the rest of his description is accurate. King’s touchstone is The Death of a President, by William Manchester, a meticulous biographer and historian who was chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy to write the authorized account of the assassination. Continue Reading »

24 Comments »

November 17th 2011
Francis Fukyuama: learns nothing, forgets nothing

Posted under American history & book reviews & European history & wankers & weirdness

Hey, kids:  don’t be Whig historians!  And especially avoid being Francis “The End of History” Fukuyama. 

Via RealClearBooks, we learned recently that he’s got a new book called The Origins of Political Order, and unsurprisingly, he is completely wrong again.  But you have to admit that it’s pretty cute that he has more in common with Karl Marx and with the first generation of Soviet historians than his modern peers because of his unshaken, dumba$$ theory of history’s inevitable destination.  Reviewer John Gray asks,

[H]ow could laws of history underpin human progress when views about what constitutes progress are so ephemeral and so divergent? Some human values are universal and enduring, but ideas of progress come and go like fashions in hats. Theories of convergence reflect disparate and incompatible ideals of human betterment. What all such theories have in common is that they have come to nothing. None of the regimes that was believed to be the near-inevitable end point of modern development has emerged anywhere in the world. 

Fukuyama shows no sign of being discouraged by this record of failure. Continue Reading »

14 Comments »

November 13th 2011
Sunday round-up: the “crisis in higher ed,” your turn edition

Posted under American history & book reviews & class & jobs & local news & students

Girl howdy did my post last weekend soliciting your views on the “crisis in higher ed” get an avalanche of replies, like, immediately!  It was almost like you were just waiting for someone to ask!

As regular readers will recall, I commented on Tony Grafton’s recent essay in the New York Review of Books, in which he reviews the current jeremiads about what’s wrong with American colleges and universities these days and called for “curious writers . . . [to] describe some universities and colleges, in detail, with all their defects.”  I solicited your views, dear readers, and am blown away by the number and diversity of viewpoints you have contributed.  So today I offer you a very briefly annotated bibliography of the responses.  Please click and read them for yourselves!

  1. Roxie at Roxie’s World must be reading the New York Review of Books up in heaven, because she wrote a post fully 24 hours before I solicited her opinion on what’s wrong with modern American universities.  Her answer?  The unconscionable reliance on adjunct labor, which is after all at the heart of most Excellence Without Money strategies.  (Just go to her blog and search Excellence Without Money to read her catalog of crimes against education over the past three years.)
  2. Roxie also kindly reminded me that Tenured Radical got in on the game even earlier with this post calling for faculty “to get off the Education Carousel and get to work Occupying Education.  Faculty, in particular, are becoming more like each other than not, regardless of where they work.  While some of us will age out under the old system of tenure and stratified privilege, increasingly we too must come to terms with the effects of the neoliberal education agenda (shrinking salaries, reduced and more expensive medical benefits, the destruction of entire fields of study to eliminate tenured positions, political attacks on unionized faculty and staff, higher workloads) in the here and now.”  (Just to name a few of the problems facing us in higher ed!)
  3. Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar says from her perch at Crisis State University (after Walt Kelly’s Pogo) that the enemy of higher education “is us,” that is, the American voters who have consented to withdraw their support from higher education at both the state and federal levels.
  4. Lance Manyon writes from Flagship Public U. that Americans in general approach university education in a way that’s too career-oriented rather than thought-oriented, and urges other faculty not to fall into the trap of buying into this vision of education.
  5. Dr. Crazy, in a brilliant riff on Foucault and the repressive hypothesis, asks who’s failing and on what terms?  From her position at a comprehensive directional university where she teaches a 4-4 load (plus usually some summer courses), she thinks that her university does just fine in offering first-generation college students a fine education at a bargain price.  Continue Reading »

34 Comments »

November 5th 2011
Tony Grafton on the higher education crisis, and your turn to talk back!

Posted under American history & book reviews & jobs & students

Via my colleague Nathan Citino who reads the New York Review of Books, we learn that Tony Grafton has written a thoughtful review of the raft of books on the “crisis” of higher education in the United States published recently.  He dislikes the polemics that pick one enemy–the lazy-a$$ed faculty who allegedly never teach, or the inflated ranks of administrators who allegedly suck up six-figure salaries without contributing to the core mission of education.

However, Grafton appears to agree with Historiann’s analysis of the free farm clubs that unis run for the NFL and the NBA, reserving some choice disdain for the fact that “head football and basketball coaches earn millions and their assistants hundreds of thousands for running semiprofessional teams. Few of these teams earn much money for the universities that sponsor them, and some brutally exploit their players.”  But even I must acknowledge the fact that even if Baa Ram U. fired the coaches and told the men’s football and basketball teams to hold a bake sale if they want uniforms and travel money, it’s unlikely that the money saved would actually be invested in rebuilding the faculty or otherwise improving the quality of classroom education we offer.  (I still think it’s a fantasy worth preserving, however!)

The problem as Grafton sees it is not just that students buy into the Animal House vision of student life, with an emphasis on a social life built around sports and alcohol and drug-consumption rather than an intellectual life built around independent study.  He argues that American universities themselves foster the Animal House sensibility, rewarding faculty only for their research and never for their teaching, and providing a range of amenities for students that lure them anywhere but the classroom or the library: Continue Reading »

57 Comments »

October 21st 2011
Was I really too harsh on Steve Jobs?

Posted under American history & book reviews & class & jobs & technoskepticism

After Steve Jobs’s death a few weeks ago, I noted that the encomia for his life’s work seemed strange to me because he was a celebrity CEO who outsourced jobs to China, which doesn’t strike me as a particularly patriotic or environmentally responsible business plan.  Some of you objected.  Well, friends, I’ll let you be the judge as to whether this was unnecessarily harsh.  The Huffinton Post (via RealClearPolitics) offers some choice tidbits from Walter Isaacson’s not-yet-released biography, which was written with Jobs’s cooperation.  Here’s the HuffPo’s reportage on what’s to be found in Isaacson’s tome:

Jobs, who was known for his prickly, stubborn personality, almost missed meeting President Obama in the fall of 2010 because he insisted that the president personally ask him for a meeting. Though his wife told him that Obama “was really psyched to meet with you,” Jobs insisted on the personal invitation, and the standoff lasted for five days. When he finally relented and they met at the Westin San Francisco Airport, Jobs was characteristically blunt. He seemed to have transformed from a liberal into a conservative.

“You’re headed for a one-term presidency,” he told Obama at the start of their meeting, insisting that the administration needed to be more business-friendly. As an example, Jobs described the ease with which companies can build factories in China compared to the United States, where “regulations and unnecessary costs” make it difficult for them.

Jobs also criticized America’s education system, saying it was “crippled by union work rules,” noted Isaacson. “Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform.” Jobs proposed allowing principals to hire and fire teachers based on merit, that schools stay open until 6 p.m. and that they be open 11 months a year. Continue Reading »

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