Richard Zacks, Island of Vice

Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of Richard Zacks’s Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. The book is fun, though it has some limitations, as I tried to make clear:

Some of Zacks’s most entertaining passages chronicle Roosevelt’s after-midnight prowls along city streets, searching, often alongside a reporter for one of the city’s many dailies, for cops sleeping or drinking on the job. He would nearly pick a fight with those he found, then gleefully inform them just who they were arguing with and demand they appear at police headquarters early the next morning. Such episodes are retold with zest, and the book is unfailingly entertaining. Drawing upon courtroom and committee room minutes, as well as newspaper reports and his subjects’ voluminous correspondence, Zacks has crafted a popular narrative history of a pretty high order.

It enters a crowded field. There are not only many lengthy biographies of T.R., like the one by Edmund Morris, whose third and final volume, Colonel Roosevelt, arrived in late 2010, but also a steady flow of narrower studies, such as Hot Time in the Old Town (2010), about Roosevelt and the summer 1896 heat wave, or Honor in the Dust (2012), on Roosevelt’s place in American imperial expansion. Island of Vice dovetails with perennially popular studies of Gilded Age excess and crime, such as Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City (2007). It’s easy to see how such a book was published, sitting as it does at a busy intersection on the map of publishers’ desires: the Roosevelts, New York City, sex, and crime.

What broader developments Zacks hopes to explain, or what lessons he wishes readers to draw, are somewhat harder to discern.

To read the rest of the review, click here. New York magazine ran a feature on the book devised with Zacks’s help. This nugget of service journalism asks the all-important question, “Do You Live in a Former Brothel?”

Simon Kuper’s Soccer Men

In a recent interview with the New York Times, journalist Simon Kuper, coauthor of the acclaimed 2009 book Soccernomics, claims that he thinks “people are almost as interesting as numbers.” His new collection of soccer profiles, titled Soccer Men, gave me a chance to test that claim; having done so, I think the emphasis in his statement should be placed on the word almost. To read my review of the book, head to Bookforum.com. “Kuper’s admiring portraits of an earlier generation of great talkers—from Johann Cruijff to Lothar Matthaüs to Jorge Valdano—reveal that his irritation with today’s players is due as much to broader developments in the game as it is to their individual traits.”

On Bruce Hainley

My appreciation of the Los Angeles–based art critic Bruce Hainley has appeared at the Los Angeles Review of Books. The publication of a slim collection of Hainley’s writing occasioned the essay. It is the fifth installment of Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s experimental periodical Pep Talk. Here’s an excerpt of my piece:

I became aware of Bruce Hainley’s writing on art a little more than a decade ago, while I was in college. Amid the monotony of a magazine’s review section, coming across his description of an exhibition by Ingrid Calame at Karyn Lovegrove’s Los Angeles gallery was like encountering a snake in a field. The review’s venom was poisonous and worked quickly: “The gimmick behind the project … was flimsy enough to begin with, and by now it’s just fatuous.” On the explanation of her onomatopoeic titles: “Yeah, right.” I was in Boston, hundreds of miles from an art-world center and frustrated by persistent critical obfuscation. The clarity of Hainley’s indictment was thrilling.

Thereafter, on the lookout for this Los Angeles critic’s byline, I learned quickly that the takedown was not his principal trade. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that in ensuing years I got to know Hainley a little; but more on this later.) Hainley’s occasional lashings are needles meant to puncture consensus, to deflate an overinflated reputation, and their rarity adds to their power. The majority of his reviews and essays instead grapple with the work of complex and often misunderstood artists, whether young or established. In the tradition of the great poet-critics whose work he relishes, Hainley’s mind follows his eyes. As he noted a decade ago, “I am a promiscuous looker. I will look at anything.”

To read the rest, click here. To cut out the middleman and read Hainley’s writing, I suggest browsing the archives of Artforum and Frieze magazines, where he has published a large number of reviews and essays over the past fifteen years.

H.W. Brands, American Colossus

Published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2010. To see this review in context (subscriber-only), please click here.

Because we are still recovering from the most spectacular breakdown of corporate capitalism since the Great Depression, any study of that system’s rise to economic preeminence in America is inherently timely. What transformed our country from a land of yeoman farmers, shopkeepers, and artisans into the home of multinational corporations capitalized at hundreds of millions of dollars and employing tens of thousands of workers? Was the American system of free enterprise foreordained? If not, what alternatives once existed, and who championed them? Historians can follow many paths in search of answers to these questions. Alfred Chandler, in his classic business history The Visible Hand (1977), focuses upon innovations in corporate structure and strategies. Sven Beckert, in The Monied Metropolis (2001), and Thomas Kessner, in Capital City (2003), reconstruct the bustling world of late-nineteenth-century New York, engine room of the capitalist transformation. Now H.W. Brands, a prolific chronicler of the American past, turns to the era of astonishing economic and social change these historians have examined. He brings to the task his gifts as a biographer (of Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and both Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and as a popular historian (of the California gold rush and the Cold War). But while his briskly paced, accessible book features the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Pierpont Morgan, American Colossus is not a fine-grained history of the business revolution they wrought or its effects on American workers. It is instead a broad survey of the period that uses “the triumph of capitalism” as a loose interpretive framework.

Brands is a reliable, even-handed guide. He strings together scores of engaging set pieces that draw liberally from first-hand accounts of society’s upheavals. These include not only famous chroniclers like Henry Adams and Booker T. Washington but also more obscure figures like Gertrude Thomas, an Augusta woman whose family had to give up its slaves not long after General Sherman marched through Georgia, and Mary Antin, a Russian Jew who emigrated to Boston two decades later. Many of Brands’s tales, from the expansion of the nation’s railroad network and the strikes of 1877 to the populist revolts of the 1890s and Morgan’s two “bailouts” of a faltering U.S. financial system, stick close to his central focus: how in “accomplishing its revolution, capitalism threatened to eclipse American democracy.” (Politicians, as indicated by Brands’s portraits of Boss Tweed in New York, Congressman bribed by proponents of the Central Pacific railroad, and William McKinley in the White House, certainly helped.) Other vignettes, while required of a textbook survey of the era, seem less fundamental here, especially a chapter on the legal battles of the Jim Crow South and lengthy descriptions of actual battles fought between Indian tribes and an ever-expanding white populace. But while some threads are only partly woven into his narrative, Brands has a gift for explanation, and he describes even tricky economic subjects like bimetallism and protectionist tariffs lucidly.

Students of this period of American history may be frustrated by Brands’s book, which is neither a sharply defined reinterpretation nor a thorough synthesis of up-to-date scholarship. Such readers may profit more from Jackson Lears’s Rebirth of a Nation (2009) or Heather Cox Richardson’s West from Appomattox (2007). But as an introduction to the giddy corporate expansion and alarming financial panics of the age, as well as the demographic shifts and social tumult that accompanied them, American Colossus succeeds with panache.

David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading

Published on Bookforum.com on October 29, 2010. To see the review in context, click here.

Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin would readily admit that what, how, and why one reads inevitably change over time. What concerns him is that the act of reading is itself now being changed by the times. The quiet space we require for reading “seems increasingly elusive in our over-networked society,” he writes, “where … it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know.” I have suffered from a form of this allergy to deep engagement and its corollary need for “information”; for the better part of the past decade I mostly engaged with books indirectly, distractedly, through journalistic reviews of the kind Ulin writes so capably. If I counted up the words I read about, say, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, I probably could have (and should have) read the book itself. But I digress and perhaps overshare—other symptoms, Ulin suggests, of the age.

The Lost Art of Reading expands upon an essay Ulin published last year, and though pocket-size and only 150 pages, the book attempts to weave together several narrative threads. It is a personal essay recounting the author’s longstanding literary enthusiasms (Joan Didion, Alexander Trocchi) and his experiences as the father of a teenage son. It is a journalistic summary of recent commentary on e-readers and the neuroscience and psychiatry of attention. And though Ulin recognizes that “literature doesn’t, can’t, have the [cultural] influence it once did,” the book is also what its title advertises: a paean to the intimacy and attention demanded of book readers, and the sense of empathy that develops from engaging with books. The first two threads at times feel like filler, especially when Ulin draws liberally from still-current titles like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Eva Hoffman’s Time, and David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Yet, as one might expect of so dedicated a reader, the final argument is cogent. Particularly strong is his elucidation of the political fallout of our “distracted time.” Using the momentousness of the 2008 presidential election as a “frame” (one of his favorite terms), Ulin channels and deploys Didion’s 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” to speak clearly of a “comprehensive dissolution, in which the very idea of a common ground, or common narrative, has been rendered obsolete.”

Books like The Lost Art of Reading, however, face a fundamental challenge. It’s one thing to explain what is good or bad about a particular novel or nonfiction title, as Ulin does week in and week out for the Los Angeles Times. But the transactions between author and reader he attempts to describe here are so unique that descriptions of them are necessarily vague. Ulin ends up saying: “This is what literature, at its best and most unrelenting, offers: a slicing through of all the noise and the ephemera, a cutting to the chase.” And: The process of reading “is (or should be) porous, an interweaving rather than a dissemination, a blending, not an imposition, of sensibilities.” Well, yes, but such statements rely heavily upon just the kind of empathy and engagement he praises. The self-selecting audience of The Lost Art of Reading—or, for that matter, any hymn by Alberto Manguel—can make concrete such abstractions by reflecting upon its own experiences with literature. Books like this remind readers why they do that now-idiosyncratic thing they do. Turning browsers into dedicated readers, to say nothing of figuring out how to counter the distractions of the times, seems an altogether more complicated task.

Mitch Epstein, American Power

Published on Bookforum.com on December 14, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. To see additional images from the series, click here. To read more about the project, click here and here to read interviews with Epstein and here to read an article published in the New York Times last October.

Earlier this decade, prompted by a lawsuit his father was facing, photographer Mitch Epstein returned to his western Massachusetts hometown. Holyoke had become an unfamiliar landscape in the years since he had left as a young man, so he decided to document the changed circumstances of his parents’ lives. The resultant photographs and video installations in the series “Family Business” can be understood as an attempt to render visual the tectonic social and economic shifts the United States has undergone since midcentury.Epstein_cover American Power, Epstein’s new book, attempts something similar, but on a much broader scale. He began with a straightforward if ambitious premise—to depict our nation’s varied energy infrastructure—but quickly expanded his remit to include several notions of power that course through American society as invisibly as does electricity through the national grid. Cooling towers and reactors factor in many of the images, yet each kind of power—not only literal, but also political, economic, and the power of nature—impacts upon the others. All are scrutinized in the dozens of color photographs Epstein took in twenty-five states over the last six years. He has suggested that this book is a “testament to and investigation of the Bush-Cheney era,” but rather than revel in anger or anguish, the measured, elegantly composed photographs admit complex readings. What results is a picture of America both enormously blessed and seemingly jeopardizing its own well-being.

I came away with a renewed awareness of our society’s class divisions, which are a subtext that gives the book a plangent tone. Half of the people who appear in these photos are seen defending the interests of energy corporations or enjoying their status as reckless consumers in a land of material abundance. Epstein has crafted a lovely full-length portrait of a young woman, automatic rifle slung over her shoulder, working at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant in Mississippi, as well as an unaffected image of logo-plastered father-and-son dirt bikers in Midland, Texas. Yet the other half suffers unduly from being disempowered. Witness the residents of Raymond City and Poca, West Virginia, whose lives play out beneath the white smoke rising from the Amos Coal Power Plant, or those who are baptized in or fish from California and Florida waters potentially fouled by the conspicuous power plants hovering in the distance. Fences predominate in the book’s many unpopulated images, testament not only to the partition between the powerful and the weak, but also to the difficulties Epstein faced in trying to uncover this submerged current. Other photographers working in this vein, including Alex Maclean, Michael Light, and Emmet Gowin, often shoot their pictures from the air. Epstein, however, stays resolutely on the ground. It mustn’t have been easy to portray a sense of a nation and its relationship to power in transition, but it was worth the effort.

Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007

Mitch Epstein, BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007

Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004

Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004

Timothy Egan, The Big Burn

Published in Bookforum, December/January 2010. To see the review in context, click here. To hear the author discuss the book on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” click here.

Stewardship of the land remains as contentious an issue today as it was one hundred years ago, when Theodore Roosevelt laid out his vision for conservation and ran into opposition from corporate lumber and mining interests. In The Big Burn, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Timothy Egan tells the story of Roosevelt’s prophetic vision for America’s landscape and the debates he gleefully exacerbated. The book focuses, with cinematic flair, on the August 1910 forest fire that ravaged three million acres in the northern Rockies, while providing an opportune challenge to the newborn US Forest Service.

Egan_Big_Burn_coverUnlike The Wilderness Warrior, Douglas Brinkley’s nearly thousand-page chronicle of Roosevelt’s conservation consciousness that was published last summer, Egan’s portrait moves swiftly. It emphasizes the president’s relationship with Gifford Pinchot, an enormously wealthy friend and adviser who bankrolled the Yale School of Forestry after studying the practice in France. On walks through Washington’s Rock Creek Park and during swims in the Potomac, the duo would reminisce about formative years spent in the American West and the restorative capacity of the region’s soaring mountains, dense forests, broad plains, and crystalline rivers. Building on the ideas of naturalist pioneers like John Muir, they vowed to shield millions of acres from irresponsible forms of clear-cutting, strip-mining, and other harmful development. Past presidents had rarely thought about such issues, much less acted on them. In 1905, Roosevelt appointed Pinchot the first chief of the Forest Service, and Pinchot immediately assigned graduates from the initial forestry class at Yale—who would come to be known as “Little GPs”—to begin surveying swaths of Idaho, Montana, and neighboring states. It wasn’t easy: Gilded Age robber barons hoping to profit from the West’s natural resources had stooges in Washington, among them Idaho senator Weldon B. Heyburn, who scrapped with Pinchot in congressional hearings and strangled the Forest Service’s budget.

Political obstacles left the rangers poorly paid and underequipped, and they were no match for conditions in the summer of 1910. Extremely dry weather, regular lightning storms, and the sparks thrown off by trains rushing along newly constructed tracks ignited thousands of little blazes. On the evening of August 20, a strong wind called a palouser descended from the mountains and unified the smoldering patches into a firestorm of hurricane force: “What had been nearly three thousand small fires throughout a three-state region of the northern Rockies had grown to a single large burn.” Egan’s patient reconstruction of the devastating fire, drawn from Forest Service archives, journalistic accounts, diaries, and letters, is the heart of the book. Cutting back and forth across the region—one wishes the book contained more maps—Egan tracks the efforts to save remote outposts like Wallace, Idaho, undertaken by little-known rangers like Ed Pulaski, Elers Koch, and Joe Halm. Working with a motley assortment of townsmen, laborers imported from across the West, and even prisoners—and shielding themselves against flames that looked like “an airborne stream”—the rangers dug fire lines and set backfires while helping thousands of terrified residents flee to safety.

After several days, the fires diminished. Eighty-five people were dead. The devastation, Egan implies, provoked Roosevelt into open confrontation over the necessity and purpose of the Forest Service with President Taft, his handpicked successor, who increasingly seemed an impediment to the cause of conservation despite pre-election promises to further Roosevelt’s vision. The final section of Egan’s book tracks the legacy of the “big burn,” highlighting the triumphs (increased Forest Service budgets, increased respect) and setbacks (continued logging, a later Forest Service chief who drifted into corporate arms) that attended Pinchot’s protection campaign well into the presidency of another Roosevelt—Franklin Delano. Did the burn “save America”? Based on the evidence Egan presents, a case can be made that, however important his politicking on behalf of his rangers, Pinchot’s belief that fire should always be contained was harmful to his cause in the long run. Egan’s impressive account makes clear that Pinchot and Roosevelt cared deeply for the land—a concern they shared with the rangers who heroically faced down towering walls of flame.

NB: Amazon is pushing the book; to see photographs from its pages, read an excerpt and an interview with Egan, and buy the hardcover for just $14, click here.

Charlotte Klonk, Spaces of Experience

Published in Frieze 127 (November-December 2009). To see the review in context (website registration required), click here.

Charlotte Klonk
Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000
Yale University Press, 2009 ($75)

Thirty years ago, artist and writer Brian O’Doherty revealed some of the political and economic implications of the ‘white cube’. It is, we now acknowledge, anything but a neutral container. While O’Doherty’s polemic holds up well, it doesn’t address at length how such design features as coloured walls, wainscotting and decorative furnishings were slowly excised from the typical gallery environment. Art historian Charlotte Klonk’s limited but engaging study Spaces of Experience traces just this history. Ranging idiosyncratically across the last two centuries, she examines the influence of colour theorists, psychologists, businessmen and artists on the design decisions undertaken by museum directors in Europe and the USA. Klonk shows how changing theories of perception and individuality, as well as evolving attitudes toward gallery visitors, were at the centre of some surprisingly intense debates about how to present art.

Klonk_Spaces_of_ExperienceThe gallery designs of the 19th century were shaped primarily by scientific theories: Goethe’s discussion of colour had museum directors calibrating their walls to match the dominant hues in their painting collections; later, in the 1890s, Wilhelm Wundt’s stimulation experiments prompted a scramble to eliminate ‘sameness’ in gallery architecture. Such scientific considerations were intertwined with social and political questions. Were spectators to be treated as a liberal body politic that could learn, in galleries, the art of citizenship? Or were they individuals seeking intimate, emotionally charged encounters with masterpieces?

At the beginning of the 20th century, the latter view came to dominate, leading to rapid changes in display strategies: art works were given more breathing room; period details and furniture were removed; patterned papers and colour were banished from the walls. This story, as Klonk tells it, is almost exclusively German, populated by figures such as the gallery directors Wilhelm von Bode, who was inspired by collectors’ homes, and Ludwig Justi, who hung canvases extremely low down and (radically!) in a single row.

But with the ascent of a Weimar ‘culture of pure exteriority’, in which functionalist shop window displays contributed to the spectacle of the street, the main tenets of gallery display changed once again. Klonk’s book excels in tracing this evacuation of distinctiveness, though it also takes on a polemical tone. It is clear that she admires Bauhaus-era designs for ‘collective experience’, such as those by Herbert Bayer, Friedrich Kiesler, El Lissitzky and others. It is equally obvious that she laments how quickly they were neutered and co-opted, especially by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and his corporate-minded board members at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Somewhat perfunctory discussions of Documenta, artists’ installations and recent ‘starchitect’-designed museums bring Klonk’s history up to the present. But she believes, rightly I think, that such developments ‘represented no deviation from entrenched modes of viewing, no challenge to individual contemplation, and certainly no departure from the idea of the spectator as consumer’ made popular in mid-20th-century New York. Despite this, Klonk is not despondent; it is precisely by unearthing earlier models that emphasized the gallery as ‘a space of public interaction and communication’ that we may finally be able to reconstitute it as a space in which to explore ‘issues relating to human social interaction’. Spaces of Experience is a useful first step in this recovery effort.

Review of Paul Goldberger’s Why Architecture Matters

My brief review of Paul Goldberger’s Why Architecture Matters (Yale) appears in the fall issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Click here (and scroll down) to read it. “[Goldberger] is suitably temperate while discussing the balance of ‘aesthetic ambition’ and ‘social purpose,’ exterior form and interior space, architecture’s effects on our emotions and on our intellect, the importance of place and time, and the architect’s responsibility to both the design he is crafting and the context it will enter.” Though Goldberger’s book arrived in stores a few weeks ago, I’ve yet to find much other review coverage, a fact that may be due in part to the preponderance of discussion concerning Louis Begley’s Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, which is published in the same series. I’ll update this post with links to any coverage I come across. In the meantime, Goldberger’s personal website offers a fairly extensive archive of his writings on architecture from the past decade.

Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell

Published in the September 2009 issue of the Brooklyn Rail as “Community Centering.” To see this review in context, click here.

Rebecca Solnit agrees with one aspect of commonplace thinking about disasters: once a hurricane’s winds subside, an earthquake’s upheavals abate, or an explosion’s concussive force dissipates, the trouble is far from over. But the premise of Solnit’s forceful new book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, is that nearly everything else we are told about the aftermath of such events is wrong. Conventional wisdom suggests that the veneer of civilization is so thin as to be nearly translucent, and that at moments of desperation we regress to a Hobbesian state in which self-interest predominates to the point of violence. We expect looters to cart off large-screen televisions from the local Best Buy. We assume survivors will hoard water, food, and clothing. In such situations, we believe, compassion extends only as far as one’s family, or perhaps to one’s immediate neighbors. To counter this potential anarchy the full weight of institutional law and order must be brought to bear upon the devastated area—not only cops must patrol the streets but so, too, must the National Guard. And the recovery efforts must be managed by large organizations experienced in such relief work, whether governmental (FEMA) or non-profit (The Red Cross). Or so the story goes.

sholis-webSolnit, however, contends that in the wake of disaster, altruism, purposefulness, and a sense of commonality bind people together. She was inspired in part by her experience of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, in which the ruptured earth created a parallel breach in normal priorities that led to a strange elation among the city’s residents. Everyday worries ceased to matter, if only temporarily. As she described it elsewhere, “the long-term perspective from which so much dissatisfaction and desire comes was shaken too: life, meaning, value were close to home, in the present.” In subsequently researching the 1906 earthquake (and fires) that wiped out much of the same town, the 1917 explosion of a French cargo ship carrying munitions through the narrows of Halifax Harbor, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York, and Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005, Solnit has uncovered a deep vein of benevolence, unselfish charity, and equanimity, all characteristics that contribute to what William James called the “civic temper.” There is Anna Amelia Holshouser, who set up a soup kitchen in Golden Gate Park three days after the 1906 quake and eventually served food to thousands of strangers. There is Vincent Coleman, a Halifax train dispatcher who lost his life rushing back to a telegraph office to warn incoming trains not to proceed. There are the hundreds of people who volunteered to escort through New York City nervous Arab American women and children in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

In the process of presenting this evidence, Solnit marshals a vast array of related topics and figures. As her previous books demonstrate, ranging widely is her modus operandi. Savage Dreams (which Solnit published in 1994) yokes together the mid-nineteenth-century war against American Indians and the mid-20th century nuclear tests that decimated acres of the same western states. Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001) expounds upon the many meanings of bipedal movement. The prize-winning River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003) spins outward from the photographer’s late-nineteenth-century technical achievements to mind-opening ruminations on the characteristics of modernity. A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006) offers a series of autobiographical essays that examine the possibilities inherent in uncertainty—and in the process touch on Renaissance painting, country music, and early American captivity narratives. So it isn’t surprising that while explicating the aftermaths of her five chosen disasters in this book, Solnit also discusses Hollywood horror movies, Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival, a Buddhist community’s reaction to recent wildfires, and the Diggers, a short-lived group of agrarian communists in seventeenth-century England. As with her earlier works, Solnit’s elegant and direct prose bridges the spans her mind fearlessly leaps across.

One can’t quite describe A Paradise Built in Hell as revisionist history, because for decades academics have observed and commented upon the generosity, friendliness, and attachment that characterize communities beset by tragedies. It is one of Solnit’s achievements, however, to set an intellectual history of disaster sociology—from early avatars like Samuel H. Prince and Charles Fritz to still-practicing scholars like Kai Erikson, E. L. Quarantelli, and Kathleen Tierney—in the context of anarchist and communitarian writings that theorize or call for this magnanimous spirit as a way of life. Many commentators marveled at the decline of partisan bickering in the first few weeks after September 11. Fewer critics have, like Solnit, openly lamented that the space for civil discourse created by such horrible events is so quickly abandoned for the status quo. This book not only excavates the memory of five “extraordinary communities,” it places them in the context of those who aimed to make the extraordinary ordinary.

In this regard, Solnit’s study can be viewed as a successor to Hope in the Dark, her slim 2004 open letter to an activist community disappointed by its inability to halt the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. That book “tells stories of [activist] victories and possibilities because the defeats and disasters are more than adequately documented,” and offers spirited, wide-ranging reflections on the ways in which the masses foster change and wield power. Solnit is an activist aware of the forces raged against such communal assertions of power, and the sections of A Paradise Built in Hell dedicated to the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina show clearly that the attempt to solidify the social gains of a “disaster utopia” is always a political struggle. For every concerned citizen who distributes supplies during the critical moments just after disaster strikes, there is an appointed official who swoops in to displace this spontaneous charity and enact institutionally sanctioned rules. For every person who finds a bridge to dry land after the levees in New Orleans break, there are Gretna sheriff’s deputies to block African American victims from that route to safety. Solnit dissects how such administrative inflexibility and “elite panic” hinders rather than helps recovery efforts.

Only in Mexico City does Solnit find long-term gains in the wake of its disaster. There the rapacity of corporate leaders asserting their property rights (with governmental forces as handmaidens) caused the working classes to band together to enact significant housing reform and to create unions in the textile industry. How were such changes made possible? “Revolution has a different legacy here,” Solnit suggests, “and the idea of radical change a different currency. It is as though they had an ability to recognize that disaster utopia, name it, connect it to other experiences, and make something of it. In other places, the unnamed qualities of a richer civic life and deeper ties often slip away for lack of a language and framework to prize them. It remains an orphan experience, unconnected and ultimately lost.”

New Issue of Bookforum Online

The September/October/November issue of Bookforum has been posted online. It contains my brief review of Cecelia Tichi’s Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us) (UNC Press). The issue’s loose theme is “Work in Progress.” As always, the pairing of reviewers and subjects is incredibly sharp, with Gregory Sholette writing about Julia Bryan-Wilson’s study of 1960s-and-’70s-era “art workers,” Joan Richardson on Morris Dickstein’s cultural history of the Great Depression (previously mentioned here), and Andrew Ross on Matthew B. Crawford and Alain de Botton’s new books about work. Click here to be taken to the table of contents, where you can read the issue in full.

D.D. Guttenplan, American Radical

Published in the “Book Notes Section” of the Virginia Quarterly Review (summer 2009).

I. F. Stone’s six decades as a gadfly columnist, investigative journalist, and publisher of I. F. Stone’s Weekly newsletter brought him in contact not only with those possessing power but also those hoping to fundamentally reshape it. This patient recounting of Stone’s career charts two ascensions punctuated by a sharp downturn. First came the meteoric rise from book-obsessed New Jersey boy named Isidor Feinstein to op-ed columnist for the New York Post with easy access to New Dealers throughout FDR’s administration. The second ascent begins approximately with the launch, in late 1953, of his humble four-page newsletter and continues mostly uninterrupted until his death in 1989, when he was celebrated as a paragon of journalistic ethics. In between rests a low period, roughly coterminous with the Truman administration and the rise of Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting and J. Edgar Hoover’s spying, when Stone struggled to find popular support for his work. Guttenplan’s narrative underscores the importance to Stone’s thinking of Popular Front solidarity—a pragmatic left-leaning politics suspicious of factionalist in-fighting. Yet the times Stone lived through, from the left’s dalliance with the Soviet Union in the 1930s to the student-protest movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, were notable for radicalism’s virally proliferating splinter groups and internal tensions. Guttenplan’s deep knowledge of this history can lead to overlong descriptions of minor players and other slow patches, though his writing is never less than clear. What emerges is a fascinating twentieth-century counternarrative that is often told only piecemeal in history textbooks.

NB: Other reviews worth noting include Jackson Lears in the New York Times Book Review, Michael Kazin in Bookforum, Michael Kimmage in the Washington Post, David Oshinsky in Slate, and Adam Kirsch in Tablet Magazine. The longstanding controversy about Stone’s possible collaboration with Soviet spy forces in the 1930s and ’40s has flared up again with the publication of the new book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. Eric Alterman and Guttenplan himself discuss Stone’s “secret history” in The Nation.

Michael Gross, Rogues’ Gallery

Published on Frieze.com, May 8, 2009. To see this review in context, click here.

Michael Gross
Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum
New York: Broadway Books, 560 pages. $29.95.

In September 2007, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened ‘The Age of Rembrandt’, an exhibition presenting the museum’s entire collection of Dutch paintings made between 1600 and 1800. Included alongside Rembrandt were such acknowledged masters as Frans Hals, Jacob van Ruisdael, Gerard ter Borch and Johannes Vermeer (of whose 35 known paintings the museum owns five). But rather than arrange the canvases by date of creation or by genre, the curator somewhat controversially chose to display the paintings in the order in which they entered the museum’s collection. The first gallery featured part of the fabled ‘1871 Purchase’, made the year after the museum’s founding, and subsequent galleries highlighted individual bequests, such as the one made by Benjamin Altman in 1913. Donors’ names, in block letters, hovered high on the wall above many of the works.

gross_rogues_gallery_coverMichael Gross’s Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum, published this week by Broadway, follows a similar logic. Rather than pay close attention to the merits of individual exhibitions or examine the public’s perception of the institution, Gross revels in the internecine squabbling among Met directors, board members, curators and New York City officials over the growth, acquisitions and public orientation of the museum. The book, akin to a 500-page Vanity Fair article, is an unabashedly unofficial history – Gross makes much of being denied official access to the museum’s archives and its employees, as Calvin Tomkins enjoyed for his history Merchants and Masterpieces (1970). Nonetheless, in its own way, Rogues’ Gallery is synoptic, ranging from the Met’s early days as ‘a firetrap with shellacked floors and walls covered with red billiard cloth’ to the questions facing the institution today as it adjusts to a new director, Thomas P. Campbell, after being led for 30 years by Philippe de Montebello. It quickly becomes clear that Gross’s large cast of characters is not only squabbling over the institution itself; many are also jockeying for position among New York’s social elite. Indeed, Gross’s last book, 740 Park(2005), which looked inside the eponymous Manhattan co-op building, gives him a very particular take on the goings-on less than a mile away at 1000 Fifth Avenue. He believes we live in ‘a world where behind almost every painting is a fortune and behind that a sin or a crime’, and, whether a reader feels Gross is animated by reportorial skepticism or something more akin to antipathy, there’s no doubt he’s out to find dirt.

Gross wields considerable journalistic skills in that effort, easily debunking Montebello’s disingenuous (if entirely unexceptional) assertion, reprinted on the book’s dust jacket, that ‘The museum has no secrets’. From the trumped-up war-hero claims and dodgy antiquities excavations of Luigi Palma di Cesnola, appointed the museum’s first director in 1879, to the soap opera–like marital intrigues and inheritance disputations that accompanied many of the greatest donations and gifts of art to the institution in the past half-century, Gross is a meticulous storyteller, and Rogues’ Gallery is an entertaining romp. Each of his six chapters focuses on a different key figure or figures, from Cesnola to J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Robert Moses, Thomas Hoving, and Jane and Annette Engelhard (the latter known today as Annette de la Renta). Within this framework, Gross ranges widely – each chapter includes dozens of players.

Moses, in particular, is an inspired lens through which to view the museum at midcentury. Granted an ex-officio board seat as Commissioner of Parks, the power broker used the city’s annual appropriation of funds to cover the Met’s operating costs as a lever to try, among other efforts, seating a woman on the boys’-club board. Also strong is Gross’s patient reconstruction of the quasi-familial relationship between the elderly Rockefeller and the young medieval curator (and later museum director) James Rorimer. ‘Junior’ and Rorimer spent decades slowly piecing together the land, building and collection that make up The Cloisters, all the while swatting away a pesky (if talented) artist, George Grey Barnard, who owned neighbouring land, was at work on a commission for Junior’s family estate, and was involved in the export of French treasures. Likewise, those who have followed newspaper accounts of the recent disputes over the Met’s antiquities, including the Euphronios krater, will learn something new.

For an art-world audience, Gross is most fascinating when he keeps within the museum’s orbit. When he floats out into the realm of high-society gossip, anonymously quoting the former lovers or neighbours of his protagonists, one’s interest wanes – yet it seems this is precisely when Gross himself becomes most intrigued by his material. The story picks up noticeably once he is able to gab with still-living subjects (or with those willing to dish about them). Hoving, who was director of the museum from 1967 to 1977 and who has published his own memoir, Making the Mummies Dance (1994), is an inveterate talker and one of Gross’s obvious favorites. (Montebello, who is Hoving’s temperamental opposite and who denied Gross the access he wanted, is treated distinctly uncharitably.) One result of these authorial preferences are the long stretches in the second half of the book in which well-known but marginal-to-the-story figures like Kirk Douglas and Katharine Hepburn make cameos, or others in which the reader encounters passages such as this: ‘Late in 1954, Leigh got a Mexican divorce from her husband, the son of the gossip columnist Suzy, and immediately married Portago. It didn’t last, in large part because he was still married to Carroll, so after he got Leigh pregnant, he hightailed it to Paris and reconciled with his first (and legally only) wife.’ While I haven’t included full names, sentences like these are somewhat bewildering even in context.

The larger tension underlying the myriad instances of backbiting and legal wrangling recounted in Rogues’ Gallery is between institutional elitism and democratic impulses. Should the Met emphasize conservative values, upholding aesthetic and institutional tradition even in the face of charges of exclusivity? Or should the doors be thrown open to the masses and the collection admit relatively new (and as yet unconsecrated) artworks by living artists? One virtue of Tomkins’s earlier book, largely missing from Gross’s study, is the extent to which the museum’s late-19th-century founders were vexed by this very question, and the emphasis they thus placed on the museum’s educational mission. After reading Rogues’ Gallery, it’s fair to think that, thanks to the efforts of Francis Henry Taylor, director of the museum from 1940 to 1955, and Hoving, the museum will never return to the insulated stance of its earliest decades. The difficulty, of course, is preventing the slide into exhibitions of Star Wars memorabilia. Montebello reconciled populist tendencies with scholarly standards, honouring obligations to both the art-world community and the public. While Gross’s chronicle of competing egos and the millions of dollars they control doesn’t capture the essence of the institution’s public value, it nonetheless renders vivid just how difficult it must be to maintain that balance.

Danny Lyon, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan and Michael Wolf, The Transparent City

Published in Print, April 2009.

The Destruction of Lower Manhattan
Danny Lyon
New York: Powerhouse, 160 pages. $50.

The Transparent City
Michael Wolf
New York: Aperture, 112 pages. $60.

In late 1966, after years spent drifting across the United States and documenting civil rights protesters, outlaws, and motorcyclists, the photographer Danny Lyon returned home to New York and settled in a loft downtown.

Surrounded by condemned buildings and not yet eager for more human subjects, Lyon set out to document the broad swaths of downtown being razed for two major infrastructure projects: a new ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge on the East Side and the World Trade Center on the West Side. The resulting photographs, reprinted here from a 1969 volume, are solemn portraits of Manhattan’s stout brick and cast-iron buildings standing sentinel; the men responsible for bringing those structures down; and, in interior scenes, the marvelous accretion of human history and labor those buildings preserved. The nearly empty street scenes, in particular, recall Charles Marville’s documentation of condemned quarters in 1850s Paris (before Baron Haussmann forever altered that city) or Richard Nickel’s 1960s photographs of Louis Sullivan–designed buildings in Chicago. Lyon’s images resonate anew at a moment (after the attacks of September 11) when New York is once again attempting to resuscitate its downtown environs.

If downtown New York seems to be at the end of its tether in Lyon’s photographs, the spectacular views of todays’ Chicgao Loop captured by Michael Wolf depict a city in robust health. What predominates is the sense of activity: Thousands of miniature dramas of work and leisure play out behind steel-and-glass facades. From his perches on rooftops and in tall parking structures, Wolf’s telephoto lens tucks hints of these lives into the vertiginous, nearly disorienting compositions that admit neither sky nor ground. Best may be a nighttime scene in which a man with a telephoto lens “shoots back” from a giant flat-screen TV.

Steve Nicholls’s Paradise Found and James William Gibson’s A Reenchanted World

Published as “A Natural Inclination” in the Brooklyn Rail, March 2009. To see this review in context, click here.

Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery
Steve Nicholls
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 536 pages. $30.

A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature
James William Gibson
New York: Metropolitan Books. 320 pages. $27.

Early 20th century environmentalist Aldo Leopold once wrote: “A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the community; and the community includes the soil, waters, fauna and flora, as well as the people.” This strikes me as an admirably inclusive statement of principles, and one that usefully elevates the natural world to the plane we believe humans inhabit—the necessary first step toward just environmental action. Steve Nicholls, a director of nature documentaries, quotes Leopold’s remark near the end of Paradise Found, a book that ranges across five centuries of North America’s ecological history and narrates a striking diminishment of earlier natural abundance. In doing so, Nicholls offers copious evidence that even today our society is far from embracing as members of our “community” all of the earth’s living organisms. Yet, in recent decades, the sense of connection to the natural environment felt by figures like Leopold has swelled into what sociologist James William Gibson labels a “culture of enchantment” that is potentially broad, deep, and socially transformative. Successfully reorienting American society’s relationship to the environment—thereby restoring its precarious biological equilibrium—will likely depend on our ability to bring together the modes of thinking documented in these two books.

Paradise Found is built upon the charming descriptions of teeming waters, verdant shorelines, dense forests, and broad grassy plains recorded by awestruck Europeans from the 15th through the 19th centuries. One early explorer of the Carolinas discovered nature’s bounty worked both for and against him: “We saw plenty of Turkies, but perch’d upon such lofty Oaks, that our Guns would not kill them, tho’ we shot very often, and our Guns were very good.” Across the continent in 1786, French naval officer Jean François de Galaup’s boat was encircled by whales: “One cannot put into words … their familiarity; they blew constantly, within half a pistol shot of our frigates, and filled the air with a great stench.” Nicholls arranges hundreds of such items geographically, moving from the North Atlantic’s tributaries down the east coast to the Caribbean, across to the Pacific, and then east into the country’s interior. This achieves his goal of illustrating the sheer natural abundance of North America at the time of European discovery. “Inevitably such a picture raises two related questions,” Nicholls writes in his introduction. “Why was it like this, and why isn’t it now?”

In narrating how we got from historic abundance to today’s troublesome environmental prospects, Nicholls attempts to account carefully for the reasons behind what is largely a chronicle of accelerating decline. He emphasizes the complexity of the evolving relationships between man and nature: American Indians, for example, are shown by historical reports and recent archeological investigations to have had varied impacts upon the landscape. Far from the popular idea of them “leaving no trace,” native populations at times enacted changes as dramatic as those that would later result from European interventions into the “natural” world. Indeed, complexity is the keyword underpinning much of Nicholls’s enterprise, and his book’s most important lesson is that humankind’s inability to understand the environment’s intricacies should lead to both a respect for it and a precautionary approach to interacting with it.

Nicholls’s wonderment at nature’s grandeur—even after centuries of environmental mismanagement—nicely counterbalances the scientific arguments he explicates and testifies to the persistence of the historical awe he cites. His expression of profound delight would also be recognizable to James William Gibson as an instance of the “culture of enchantment,” his term for changes sweeping through contemporary life with the ultimate goal of reinvesting nature with a sense of spirit. Gibson’s book is arranged in sections that assess the roots of this culture and its contemporary manifestations; problems intrinsic to it and external attacks upon it; and its future prospects. Gibson is a stronger synthesizer of information than a theorist, and A Reenchanted World is best when he summarizes, for example, the recent rise of “creation theology,” the history of the eco-warrior movement, or the attacks upon environmentalism led by right-leaning fundamentalist Christians during the last two decades.

The book is much weaker when Gibson marshals the words of sociologist and philosopher forebears (Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, Mircea Eliade) as theoretical ballast for stories lifted from the science and human-interest pages of his local newspaper. It can be easy to cynically discount these tales of “a new and striking kind of yearning … in the ways ordinary people felt and talked about nature” as New Age hokum. In an early chapter chronicling certain people’s deep affinity for animals, Gibson writes: “In New Hampshire, a middle-aged, dyslexic gunsmith and naturalist named Benjamin Kilham decided in the spring of 1993 that he was ready for a new stage of life: motherhood.” In a small way, Kilham’s subsequent adoption of black bears may have contributed to awareness about the bears’ plight. But the mawkishness of his story—and the single-minded zeal of many other fringe figures Gibson profiles—makes it an unlikely candidate to spark comprehensive changes in thinking about our relationship to the natural world. Indeed, a lack of a scale is one of this book’s problems—rarely does Gibson explain how widespread are the sentiments and movements he describes.

Gibson suggests that the “quest for connection [with nature] indicates a fundamental rejection of the most basic premises of modern thought and society.” It is easy to agree that in order to survive, many such premises must be fundamentally reconsidered. Yet it seems that in order to find a way around many people’s demoralization concerning the environment, the lifestyles and outlooks chronicled in Gibson’s study, rooted deeply in emotions and a sense of spirit, must somehow be blended with the urbane, empirically minded reasonableness exuded by Steve Nicholls’s book. We are a nation, as historian Garry Wills has recently observed in the context of American religion, polarized between head and heart. Using both in concert to address the grave environmental problems we face will not be an easy task.

Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, eds., State By State

Published in the Detroit Metro-Times on November 19, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, eds.
State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America
New York: Ecco, 608 pages. $29.95.

State by State re-creates, in condensed form, the American Guide series, a collection of 48 books published between 1938 and 1941 as part of the Federal Writers Project. Some of the greatest writers of the era—Saul Bellow in Illinois, Zora Neale Hurston in Florida and Eudora Welty, who took photographs in Mississippi—contributed to those classic guide books, which contained maps, essays on history and culture, automobile tour guides, and portfolios of photographs. In recent years, scholarly work at the Library of Congress has unearthed evidence of just how many literary luminaries participated as editors, writers, interviewers and photographers in this New Deal effort. State by State editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, who are on the staffs of The Paris Review and McSweeney’s, respectively, have likewise gathered a star-studded list of state chroniclers. Practicality, however, is set aside; whereas the earlier books were published by each state and intended for tourists’ use, State By State is a decidedly personal literary endeavor.

Much of the writing is affecting: Novelist Benjamin Kunkel’s evocation of his parents’ participation in the back-to-the-land movement, and of the land itself in Colorado, is superb, as is short-story writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s tale of her immigrant parents’ experiences in Kingston, R.I. While Kunkel, Lahiri and many of their fellow contributors mine personal experience for their contributions, others elucidate little-known aspects of a state’s history, as does Anthony Doerr in describing the travails—inhospitable conditions, disease, an 1879 battle with the U.S. Army—of the Tukudeka tribe in Idaho.

Platitudes inevitably creep in. Residents of both Maine and Michigan, as described by Heidi Julavits and Mohammed Naseehu Ali, espouse a gruff, independent-minded live-and-let-live philosophy, and Ali’s Michigan has rabid sports fanatics in common with John Hodgman’s Bay Staters. But inspired choices—chef Anthony Bourdain on New Jersey, musician Carrie Brownstein on Washington, filmmaker Alexander Payne on Nebraska—make up for the smattering of clichés and the occasional dud entry, among them William T. Vollman’s largely sour assessment of contemporary California (“Who believes in the ‘California dream’ anymore?” he asks) and Jonathan Franzen’s supremely ill-conceived imaginary interview with the state of New York and “her” handlers. While the strong emphasis on folkways, landscape and history so present in the earlier series is largely missing from this volume, at its best it elicits a desire to return to the original books and to learn more about our unwieldy, dynamic, variegated land and its people.

Daniel Vickers, Farmers and Fishermen

For class I wrote a review of Daniel Vickers’s 1994 book Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work In Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630–1850 (University of North Carolina Press). Here it is, for the sake of it:

Detail from the cover of Farmers and Fishermen

Detail from the cover of Farmers and Fishermen

Farmers and Fishermen displays Daniel Vickers’s magisterial command of the local literature of Essex County, Massachusetts, as well as of historians’ interpretations of the labor performed there in the first two centuries of European settlement. Vickers aims, in this clear, accessible narrative, to fill a gap in the knowledge of preindustrial America concerning the structure of labor relations in the region’s farming and fishing communities. In doing so he confidently stitches together the available literature on the topic with observations drawn from sixteen years of archival research. The latter effort involved both the creative interpretation of documents much pored over by other historians, such as the Massachusetts Tax Valuation List of 1771, and the development of vast tables of data drawn from county court records, farmers’ and merchants’ account books, and diaries. The conclusions he draws from these materials—that in the first century of settlement the farming and fishing communities were each drawn together into unique webs of interdependence; that after 1675 the labor structure on land and on sea changed in different ways; and that after the Revolutionary War the social bonds underpinning work began to fray, leading eventually to the nineteenth-century industrialization of the region—are always measured, and, because they do not stray far from the documents at hand, are convincing.

The fundamental problem facing those who wished to replicate English patterns of labor relations in the new world was that “whereas labor and capital had been the cheapest factors of production in the Old World, they were the dearest in the new.” (325) Because achieving “competency,” the settlers’ term for comfortable independence, led independent men to acquire their own property whenever they could, “those who needed help generally had to depend on those who were not free.” (4)

On land, the farming regime that New England settlers left behind recognized the household as the basic unit of production. This, combined with the labor shortage in Essex County during the first decades of settlement there, meant that the dependent figures who provided assistance clearing forests, constructing farm buildings, and tilling and hoeing fields were typically the sons of farm owners. The “productive relations” between fathers and sons in New England families, Vickers argues, has never received extended study, and his depiction of how boys, teenagers, and young men fulfilled their roles at home convincingly illustrates that “the two were interdependent on each other.” (73)

In the coastal waters off villages like Salem, Ipswich, Gloucester, and Newbury, settlers discovered abundant populations of cod that could be exported back to Europe, but were faced with similar labor shortages—and, for that matter, a lack of knowledge about the trade, since few were fisherman in England. Borrowing the example of Newfoundland, New England merchants and middlemen depended on skilled outsiders to execute the catch, and engaged them in a clientage relationship. An outfitter “advanced to each company of men the necessary provisions and equipment for the voyage; in return, they promised to sell him at current prices the entire catch.” (103) These relationships, although not familial, nonetheless created bonds of interdependency between those who had the capital to outfit the ships and those who did the work of hauling in cod, line by line.

Throughout Farers and Fishermen, the confidence borne from deep familiarity with his material allows Vickers to civilly but thoroughly overturn assumptions, parse distinctions, and adjudicate between rival factions among historians of preindustrial New England. At one point in this early section of the book, Vickers attempts to overturn a century of received opinion about the early cod fishery—that it was worked by “farmer-fisherman” rather than those who fished alone. Here he laments the “intellectual respectability” (136n) granted the notion by Bernard Bailyn; later in the book he adroitly shows that neither “market” nor “social” approaches to early American economy, both of which have numerous adherents in recent scholarship, are entirely correct. When he agrees with a historian’s work, though, Vickers is gracious; he leans on the scholarship of, among others, Virginia DeJohn Anderson and Christine Heyrman throughout the book.

In the five decades after 1675, Vickers makes clear, the fishing industry, by then the dominant sector of New England’s fledgling economy, changed direction. As capital accumulated in the colony, merchants and fisherman both acknowledged a distinction between capital and labor, and the bonds of clientage began to dissipate. No longer were fisherman-owners of shallops receiving advances on their catch in order to outfit their ships; instead, merchants were reinvesting profits in new (and larger) ships of their own, then hiring fisherman as laborers to pilot them, for longer periods of time, into deeper offshore waters. In the earlier system, “credit was the financial expression of delegated power.” (162) Now, as “the same customers or their children discovered that their accounts were being squeezed, their loyalty evaporated.” (162) By historical standards, this transition occurred very quickly, and it caused social and cultural gaps to open both between merchants and a nascent laboring class of fisherman and between “seaward and landward society.” (189)

Farmers experienced relatively little of this dramatic change before the Revolutionary War. Instead, the peculiarly tight bonds of interfamilial dependence morphed gradually into webs of local integration. Sons would work not only for their fathers, but also exchange their labor with neighbors, and, with increasing frequency throughout the eighteenth century, work outside the home (whether in military service, at sea, or, most frequently, by taking up a craft). Vickers’s reliance on seventeenth-century court records, which are filled with background descriptions of the cases, is here replaced by more speculative work; he infers eighteenth-century changes in the structure of farm labor through such means as parsing the habits of self-identification in those newly utilitarian legal documents and identifying the tools listed in the inventoried estates of farming householders. Although roles were shifting, most rural men “generally outgrew their reliance on manufacture as they accumulated land.” (257) The ideal of owning land as the precursor to independence held fast throughout this period.

Because it is largely outside the purview of his study, Vickers’s final chapter, juxtaposing the increasingly capitalist structural organization of farming and fishing with the early industrialization of the region, is brief. He aims to give evidence of the ways in which preindustrial ideas and social structures influenced capitalist development, and while his depictions of a rising merchant class, an increasing occupational diversity, and the opening of regional and American markets are sound, the details of this preindustrial legacy to industrial development are not wholly clear. Vickers notes that, in the fishing industry, “the conditions of the early national period re-created those of the 1640s,” when “both productive manpower and equipment were scarce in a context of high prices and the disruption of translatlantic fisheries.” (267) On the evidence of the book itself, however, such correspondences seem just as likely to have been set in place by the need for credit to fuel a rapidly expanding marketplace as by inherited social models of productive labor. Yet Vickers has done so thorough a job documenting one segment of economic life in New England before the American Revolution that it seems churlish to complain about details at the fringes of his purview. “Throughout this book the aim has been to view the relations of productive comparatively across time and space and to distinguish the forms that dependency assumed,” (258) Vickers writes. On that score, this study succeeds. Farmers and Fishermen brings into sharp focus the period that led to New England’s widely examined nineteenth-century industrial revolution.

Bill McKibben, ed., American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Published in the Detroit Metro-Times on June 4, 2008.

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
Edited by Bill McKibben
New York: The Library of America. 1,160 pages. $40.00.

The reality of climate change is now beyond doubt in the scientific community. We also now know that it will take more than technological innovation to stave off its potentially devastating environmental consequences. As academic and laboratory squabbles about our planet’s ills begin to fade, the arduous task of correcting past and current negligence becomes, to a significant degree, an effort of rhetoric. Environmentalism today is in large part a campaign for the world’s hearts and minds, which makes the present a useful time to think deeply about the literature that addresses these concerns. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, a 1,000-page anthology, represents a Herculean effort on the part of author and activist Bill McKibben, its editor, to bring together the texts most relevant to an audience unfamiliar with the topic. It is matchless in its heft, generous in scope (included are Sierra Club founder John Muir and Marvin Gaye), and, with a detailed chronology in its back matter, serviceable in its depth.

Environmental writing today stretches from detailed meditations on particular places, such as those written by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, to assessments, by writers active in the environmental justice movement, of the social and economic inequalities that cause environmental burdens to be distributed unequally (think of Erin Brockovich’s lawsuits). The bulk of McKibben’s anthology leans marginally closer to the wonder-of-nature end of this spectrum, and likewise skews toward the present. But nearly all of the writers we associate with the movement, from the middle of the 19th century to the present, appear here, including Henry David Thoreau, Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez and Michael Pollan. So do a handful of unexpected figures, from P. T. Barnum to Philip K. Dick to R. Crumb. A library that included this volume and Thomas J. Lyon’s utilitarian 2001 book This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing would offer fragments from or information about many of the books important to mainstream discourse on the topic.

The environmental writer and transcendentalism scholar Lawrence Buell, who is not included in McKibben’s volume, has discussed the split in environmental writing mentioned above, between rapturous sighs and demands for equity, in sequential terms: the former is a “first wave” concerned solely with the natural world, and the latter a “second wave” that acknowledges the interdependence of natural and built environments. By choosing Thoreau as his starting point, McKibben may be subtly acknowledging this second-wave criticism, despite the shortage of it in his anthology’s table of contents, for not only was the Concord resident a naturalist and keen observer of his surroundings, he was also an ardent abolitionist, a tax resister and a development critic. Thoreau was one of the first in America to understand that environmental concerns are political concerns.

The writer Rebecca Solnit, whose brief essay closes McKibben’s volume, is an inheritor of both Throeauvian traditions, and she suggests that compartmentalizing him, as many contemporary thinkers do, “is a microcosm of a larger partition in American thought.”

“Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused,” she writes, “have undermined the connections for all of us.” In thinking of what a future rhetoric of environmentalism might sound like, Buell and Solnit’s words seem like a guiding light. Such writing would be persuasive but not hectoring, reach the ears of politicians and poets, and comprise ecologies and economies. Wendell Berry’s essay “Faustian Economics,” in the May 2008 Harper’s, is exemplary in this regard. That the public has been slow to recognize what confronts us is confirmed by the fact that Berry’s essay “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” originally included in a 1981 essay collection and reprinted in American Earth, shares the same kernel of insight as his most recent work: “The true remedy for mistakes is to keep from making them. It is not in the piecemeal technological solutions that our society now offers, but in a change of cultural (and economic) values that will encourage in the whole population the necessary respect, restraint and care.”

Shotaro Yasuoka, The Glass Slipper and Other Stories

Published in the Village Voice on May 13, 2008. To read the review in context, click here.

The Glass Slipper and Other Stories
Shotaro Yasuoka
Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press. 140 pages. $22.95 (hardcover).

Success greeted the Japanese author Shotaro Yasuoka, now nearly 90, immediately upon the publication of the short stories that make up The Glass Slipper and Other Stories. With frugal, occasionally lyrical prose (translated by Royall Tyler), these works, from the early 1950s, prize emotional and psychological depth over narrative propulsion, and feature hapless, illness-prone, passive narrators. “Like someone who’s just fallen asleep,” muses one, “I was drawn along through the empty city as if by an irresistible force.”

The city is Tokyo, emptied out by the ravages of World War II, and Yasuoka’s misfits glide through it in search of a decent job or some other sense of direction. Many have college degrees, but even they seem indivisible from the school-age protagonist of “Homework,” the longest and most elusive tale included here. Today, readers might suspect that these anxiety-ridden twenty- and thirtysomethings are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Half a century ago, though, they roamed freely and fumbled through relationships with dainty, equally sensitive girls, as in the gorgeous title story. They also frequently deceive one another, like the strutting gang of dandy provocateurs in “The King’s Ears,” or writhe in impotent frustration beneath the chain-like bonds of family, like the son who falls “into a sort of weary resignation about being stuck” with his eccentric, self-sabotaging father in “The Sword Dance.” Building upon the foundation laid by figures like novelist Yasunari Kawabata and filmmaker Yasujiru Ozu, Yasuoka has created a sturdy framework for these unsparing, deft character studies.

David Samuels, Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Published in the Detroit Metro-Times on April 30, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Only Love Can Break Your Heart
David Samuels
New York: The New Press. 400 pages. $26.95 (hardcover).

David Samuels belongs to an increasingly rare species: journalists who can parachute into an unfamiliar corner of America, establish their bearings quickly and extract a compelling narrative at once universally recognizable and resonant with idiosyncratic particularities. Not only is the species endangered; if you follow media trend pieces, so is its habitat. The number of magazines willing to support writers, especially younger writers, who embark on odysseys in which days’ or weeks’ worth of experiences are chiseled into 10,000 to 15,000 illuminating words seems to decrease monthly. Samuels has benefited from writing for the best of those that remain—Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine—and his new essay collection, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, is a patchwork composition that yields surprising insights into American existence. It is a testament to the particular pleasures and value of long-format narrative journalism.

Samuels notes that “the free-floating weirdness of American life will always escape any attempts to make us seem like a normal country rather than a furious human-wave assault on the farthest shores of reality.” The first pieces in the book, a fair but unsparing examination of Woodstock ’99, an account of the antiglobalization activist community in Eugene, Ore., and a portrait of the radical antiabortion activist Jim Kopp, depict people seemingly untethered to social convention, drifting toward violence on clouds of disaffection. This may be because “coherent narratives, the stories that tell us who we are and where we are going, are getting harder and harder to find,” as Samuels observes in a personal essay. What is left behind are “a few hundred million loopy, chattering, disconnected I’s.”

Other pieces step back from individuals to offer more sweeping panoramas. The best in the collection, “Bringing Down the House,” begins as a portrait of the Loizeaux family, proprietors of the country’s largest demolition company. It quickly takes a left turn when Doug Loizeaux invites Samuels to “help out” with the demolition of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, which is being razed to make way for the behemoth Venetian Las Vegas. From observing the meticulous preparations necessary to ensure the safe demolition of the tower, Samuels reaps broader wisdom: “The historic passage from the faded glories of the Sands to Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian is a powerful testimony to the American belief in starting over; in lucky numbers, charms, and stars; and in our expansive capacity for self delusion; and to the more general national transition from the smoke-filled back rooms where Las Vegas was born to the hazy methadone smog of movies and television.”

Not every essay in the collection is as masterful. Shorter, admiring profiles (of rapper Prince Paul and left-handed pitcher Bill “The Spaceman” Lee) and personal ruminations are not as strong, and describing music and visual art doesn’t come to Samuels as naturally as does setting a scene or capturing a personality. Several of the pieces are amended to include additional material. In “Buried Suns,” a strong essay about below-ground nuclear testing in Nevada, Samuels muses on his encounter with Michael Jackson and his experience at the Guggenheim’s branch in Las Vegas. That it’s a footnote not included in the original makes one appreciate editors who rein in their writers’ flights of fancy.

But Samuels’s rolling prose and his eye for telling detail more than make up for the book’s occasional misfires. His synoptic overview of Super Bowl XL in Detroit is ostensibly a portrait of the pre-game entertainer, Stevie Wonder, “a playful, gigantic black baby who has absorbed all terrestrial sounds and language in a single gulp.” Samuels hops from the NFL’s all-glass command center high above the field to the press briefing room at a nearby hotel to the tunnel through which Wonder and a 6,000-square-foot musical stage, along with the players and 2,000 teenagers, emerge onto the field. Something much larger emerges too. He meets Smokey Robinson’s guitarist and songwriter, Marvin Tarplin, notes “Black Monday” and the demolition of the Motown Records headquarters, and captures the “free-floating weirdness” of a multimillion-dollar corporate juggernaut landing in this city and taking off again so quickly.

The New Press has simultaneously published The Runner ($22.95, 192 pp.), Samuels’ account, based on his New Yorker essay, of a thief named James Hogue who reimagines himself as an autodidact ranch hand, gains admission to Princeton and is subsequently exposed as the Ivy League’s most infamous impostor.

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night and City of Words

Published in Bookforum, April-May 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

The Library At Night
Alberto Manguel
New Haven: Yale University Press. 384 pages. $30.

The City of Words
Alberto Manguel
Toronto: House of Anansi. 248 pages. $16.

The prolific anthologist and writer Alberto Manguel has become, since the publication in 1996 of A History of Reading, one of the foremost gentleman scholars of books and the act of consuming them. In 2000, he wrote Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate, which narrates the stories told by an idiosyncratic selection of artworks and images, and he followed that in 2004 with A Reading Diary, which chronicles his experience rereading twelve favorite books in a year. Now, in The Library at Night, Manguel meditates on repositories of books, his thoughts provoked by the construction, next to his home in a small French village, of a freestanding building to harbor the vast, multilingual collection he has acquired over his lifetime of devotion to the written word. Manguel arranged his library in accordance with his reading habits, which prioritize the serendipity afforded by browsing. The Library at Night is organized similarly and is better if approached the same way: dipped into rather than read straight through.

The book contains fifteen essays that posit the library “as myth,” “as shape,” “as island,” and the like. Manguel has assembled thumbnail biographies, entertaining anecdotes, close readings, and photographic documentation into a kind of commonplace book stitched together by his amiable prose. “During the day, the library is a realm of order,” he observes. “The library at night seems to rejoice in the world’s essential, joyful muddle.” The Library at Night is itself a joyful muddle.

“Outside theology and fantastic literature, few can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose,” he writes at the outset. And yet humankind continues to hoard what knowledge it can in an attempt to order that universe. This patchwork account records the author’s “astonishment” at such an enterprise. The book’s index, ranging from Abd al-Rahman, Aeschylus, and Anna Akhmatova to Èmile Zola, Stefan Zweig, and Juan de Zumá‡rraga (who was “responsible for creating the first printing press in the New World, and for destroying most of the vast literature of the Aztec Empire”), betrays Manguel’s wide reading.

He skips across history and geography while sympathetically relating innumerable stories. There is the Fihrist, an annotated catalogue of Arabic literature compiled by Ibn al-Nadim beginning in the year 987, and the idiosyncratic collection amassed by German art historian Aby Warburg in an attempt to discover “how our oldest symbols are renewed at different ages.” Glossed, too, are the eight books in the “children’s library” at the concentration camp in Birkenau, the epistolary tug-of-war between Michelangelo and Pope Clement VII over the design of the Laurentian Library in Florence, and the library washed ashore with Robinson Crusoe in Defoe’s novel.

The haphazard, albeit frequently illuminating, correspondences Manguel finds in this great mass of anecdotal evidence, akin to the visual “convergences” posited by Lawrence Weschler in his 2006 book Everything That Rises, have a centrifugal force: They incite in the reader a desire to move beyond the confines of The Library at Night to the source material of what Manguel has brought between these two covers. Attempting to find a narrative line through the text, however, proves frustrating. This is perhaps inevitable given the capaciousness of Manguel’s topic and his reasonable desire to avoid monolithic generalizations. In the end, he’s willing to say that libraries grant readers “a glimpse, however secret or distant, into the minds of other human beings.” “For the cosmopolitan reader, a homeland is not in space, fractured by political frontiers, but in time, which has no borders.”

These ideas about the power of literature are proferred more cogently and concisely in The City of Words, a transcript of Manguel’s 2007 CBC Massey Lectures, delivered in Canada last November. Devoted to understanding the rise of intolerance, about which Manguel confesses to be bewildered, these talks excavate the lessons that classic stories (ancient and recent) can impart about how to be together. Particularly strong are his examination of Don Quixote, and of the sociocultural context in which Cervantes wrote the novel, and his analysis of the Epic of Gilgamesh (which strikes a chord with the chapter on the library “as shadow” in The Library at Night). “Stories are our memory, libraries are the storerooms of that memory, and reading is the craft by means of which we can recreate that memory by reciting it and glossing it, by translating it back into our own experience, by allowing ourselves to build upon that which previous generations have seen fit to preserve.”

Human caprice, Manguel notes in The Library at Night in his persuasive chapter on the library “as chance,” has as much to do with what is preserved as does any effort of will. “Books come together because of the whims of a collector, the avatars of a community, the passing of war and time, because of neglect, care, the imponderability of survival . . . and it may take centuries before their congregation acquires the identifiable shape of a library.” In the year 336, a monk had a vision of his Lord and painted scenes from the life of Buddha on the walls of a cave. Over the course of a millennium, chance turned this cave and others nearby into repositories of religious manuscripts and paraphernalia; nearly a millennium after that, chance led to the rediscovery of the site, now known as the Mogao Caves. What do such storehouses of memory grant us? Both The City of Words and The Library at Night come to the same conclusion: “consolation for suffering and words to name our experience.” In a 2006 interview, Manguel averred, “I wouldn’t define myself as a writer. I would define myself as a reader.” The Library at Night, taken incrementally rather than all at once, communicates the joy and the solace of being yourself a reader.

“Photographic Testimonies”

Published as “Photographic Testimonies” in Print, February 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Inside North Korea
Mark Edward Harris
San Francisco: Chronicle, 192 pp., $35

Welcome to Pyongyang
Charlie Crane
London: Chris Boot, 144 pp., $35

Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan
Edited by Leora Kahn; photographs by Lynsey Addario, Colin Finlay, Kadir van Lohuizen, and Ron Haviv
Brooklyn: Powerhouse, 136 pp., $45

Pictures Without Borders
Steve Horn
Stockport, England: Dewi Lewis, 133 pp., $30

Since the American Civil War, photography has played a central role in crafting narratives about conflicts and disasters, whether domestic or international, natural or man-made. As photographic technology has changed, so has our shrewdness in interpreting these documents, allowing for a seemingly limitless range of interactions among photographers, subjects, photographs, and viewers. To browse a stack of photo books containing images of repressively choreographed social life, famine, and war—in this instance, in North Korea, the Darfur region of western Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia, respectively—is to travel down myriad avenues of interpretation. Each book and every page requires a complicated recalibration of expectation and response.

Two recent books, Inside North Korea and Welcome to Pyongyang, offer tightly circumscribed glimpses of life inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (as the nation is officially known). Both books contain introductory texts—the first by the owner of a tour-package company that specializes in travel to North Korea, the second by a University of Chicago historian—that acknowledge the limitations placed upon the photographers, an admission borne out in the images themselves. It is these texts (and the photo captions) that distinguish the books from one another. Nicholas Bonner’s introduction to Welcome is written in the voice of a man who wants to continue doing business with the regime that has allowed him to produce the book, and its captions come from North Korean tour guides. Bruce Cumings’s foreword and the anonymous captions that accompany Inside are comparatively neutral and candid.

The photographs themselves are all but interchangeable: long, symmetrical gazes down wide, nearly empty avenues; upward-sweeping views of oversize monuments; and mostly full-length formal portraits of model citizens in uniforms and traditional dress. Charlie Crane’s photographs in Welcome are more formal, reproduced at a higher quality, and feature a greater number of building interiors. The photos by Mark Edward Harris, as the broader geographic scope of his book title indicates, range across more of the country—and also benefit from views of North Korea taken from across the border with China (to the north) and South Korea (across the Korean Demilitarized Zone).

In both cases, the “inside” to which Harris’s title refers is strikingly quite literal: The photographs were taken inside North Korea, yet in almost no way do they document the interior lives of North Koreans. There is no visible rapport between the photographers and their human subjects; one must look closely in order to see around the cheerful façade—so buoyantly replicated in Welcome—erected by Kim Jong-Il’s phalanx of minders and statistics-spewing guides.

By contrast, unremitting pain characterizes the pictures in Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan, edited by Leora Kahn for the nonprofit organization Proof: Media for Social Justice. The volume presents the work of eight acclaimed photojournalists and the beseeching testimony of aid agency workers, noted writers, and a handful of celebrities; proceeds from its sales will be donated to Amnesty International and the Genocide Intervention Network. If the chilly formalism of the North Korea pictures testifies to the Dear Leader’s control over his population and his country’s visitors, the presence of so many emaciated, fly-ridden bodies mere inches from the camera lenses indicates that whatever order once held in this arid African plateau has now irredeemably collapsed. Yet the photographic depiction of even the most lawless, unprecedented situation adheres to decades-old visual convention: a regular alternation of somber black-and-white and vividly colored pictures; a preponderance of children and the elderly; stark outlines of malnourished, brittle bodies graphically contrasted with sand and dirt; and long lines of displaced people stretching into the distance.

As Susan Sontag noted in the 2002 New Yorker article that formed the basis for her book Regarding the Pain of Others, “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock.” Indeed, each photograph in this volume presents fresh indignities, whether of those suffering under Janjaweed attacks or of those whose minds have been so warped as to perpetrate this mass extinction of ethnic rebel groups. But, Sontag continued, such photographs “don’t help us much to understand.” This perhaps explains the instructional tone of the included texts—the piece by New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof contains bullet points—which function as funnels for the outrage sure to rise in one’s chest while browsing these images. (Looking more closely, one finds small outrages about the book itself: For example, while denouncing in its pages the fact that China sells military aircraft, grenades, guns, and ammunition to those perpetrating this atrocity, the back cover notes that the volume was printed and bound in that country.) One question recurred while looking over this volume: Can photographers—perhaps in conjunction with book or editorial designers—portray a profound humanitarian crisis in such a way as to convey its specificity, and in so doing induce in viewers not passive horror but inspiration for specific action? Can such images do away with their written explication?

In Pictures Without Borders, photographer Steve Horn’s book about Bosnia, Horn unintentionally reveals one method of visual narration that makes superfluous such textual appendages: before-and-after documentation. In 1970, Horn traveled throughout what was then called Yugoslavia, documenting life in small cities and out in the countryside. The black-and-white photographs, originally undertaken as an art project, are the most formally varied and therefore the most visually engaging among all those surveyed here. Twenty-five years later, after seeing the place names of the sites he visited in news accounts of the Bosnian War, Horn decided to return to the region and reconnect, if possible, with the subjects of his earlier photographs. Needless to say—the book was published, after all—he does, and Pictures Without Borders is chock-full of Horn’s diary entries and testimonies of those he met a second time. The text is as sentimental as one would imagine, and, though one is glad for everyone involved, it detracts from the nonverbal message about the ravages of time—on a place, its buildings, and its people—that the camera delivers.

George Steiner, My Unwritten Books

Published in the Detroit Metro-Times on January 30, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

My Unwritten Books
George Steiner
New York: New Directions, 192 pages. $23.95.

“Literary criticism should arise out of a debt of love,” wrote George Steiner at the outset of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism, his first book. Nearly 50 years after that study’s publication, and nearly a quarter century after the release of A George Steiner Reader, the eminent literary critic and philologist carries on his interrogations into the uses, both practical and exalted, of language. In recent years a shadow of wistfulness has descended upon the ardor that has run through the many books he has written since that conspicuous opening salvo. In 2003 he published Lessons of the Masters, an analysis of the personal encounter between mentor and protégé that took in not only Socrates and Plato and Jesus and his disciples but also college football coach Knute Rockne. Its valedictory tone likewise underpins his latest, and perhaps most disparate, essay collection, My Unwritten Books.

As its title suggests, each of this book’s seven chapters chronicles a full-length study that the author, now nearing 80, would have liked to have undertaken but for various reasons could not: critical biographies of the recently deceased sinologist Joseph Needham and the 14th century mathematician and astrologer Cecco d’Ascoli; examinations of lovemaking and language, what it means to be Jewish, and the evolving relationship of man to animals; the definition of a core curriculum suitable for the 21st century; and an explanation of his own politics. At the conclusion of each essay’s argument, Steiner offers an apologia for its concision. Yet, as Theodore Dalrymple recently noted, “there is more intellect in the distillation than in the accumulation of facts,” and Steiner makes good use of his vast erudition. For those able to parse his occasionally dense, always verbose style—in which a brief parenthetical aside can send you scrambling to the library—there is much to be gained from these incomplete, seemingly personal excursions.

Steiner’s description of Needham’s prose, in which “astringent technicalities alternate with horizontal vistas,” applies equally well to his own writing, and his account of a scholar obsessed with an encyclopedic multivolume masterwork, Science and Civilization in China, could pass as camouflaged self-portraiture. Midway through the essay, Steiner takes a detour from the biographical tracking of Needham’s exploits to fruitfully compare SCC, as the tome is known, to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Freed from the strictures of scholarly accountability that attend to full-length books, Steiner veers from his course repeatedly: His profile of d’Ascoli unfolds into a meditation upon teaching, enviousness, and supersession, and his essay on man and animals includes touching reminiscences of the four dogs his family has owned. It also leads to more questions than answers. Though Steiner is comfortable drawing upon his storehouse of knowledge to make broad generalizations, in this book he frequently undercuts his certitudes by following them with equally broad questions. “What privileges or inhibitions arise between lovers with different first languages? Is coitus also, perhaps fundamentally, translation?”

As befits the author of the essay collection Language and Silence and the study After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, language is the bedrock upon which such meditations are constructed. Steiner makes broad claims for its power. “Owing to language(s), we can defy or attenuate the monochrome of predestined mortality,” he notes in the essay on sexuality. But he is also aware of its ultimate finitude: “To seek to circumscribe the spaces and diversities of love is to seek to index the ocean.” And, later: “Words end in words. Pictures are pictures. There can be no passwords to the beyond.”

These are the realizations of a humanist who has profited from a lifetime of literary studies. In “School Terms,” his response to the litany of requests beseeching him to compare education systems in America, England and Europe, Steiner counter-intuitively suggests a curriculum in mathematics, music, architecture and the life sciences -”taught, whenever possible, historically”—as central to a definition of literacy suitable for today’s political and social debates. But as this volume abundantly demonstrates, we would benefit equally well from attending to the texts and traditions that have sustained Steiner’s own career. One of this book’s virtues is the arguments it provokes from the reader. But the final essay, “Begging the Question,” claiming his politics as “those of privacy and intellectual obsession,” is suffused with a plangent mournfulness that temporarily silences such running commentary. “I am haunted, to the point of panic, by the fragility of reason,” Steiner writes. By the time you finish this book, it is obvious that Steiner remains a beacon of humane rationalism. While each of these topics might not cry out for the lengthy treatment he had once planned, readers will be grateful Steiner has addressed them here.

Alice T. Friedman, Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History

Published in the Metro Times (Detroit) on December 5, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History
Alice T. Friedman
Yale, March 2007, 242 pages, paperback

When this book was originally published in 1998, Alice T. Friedman’s recourse to letters, memoirs, and newspaper and magazine accounts charted relatively new territory for an architectural historian. The portraits of six modernist houses, interwoven with profiles of the creators and their clients, still make for engaging material. (A stray reference to the late Philip Johnson living at his Glass House “to this day” bears evidence that the text has not been updated for this paperback edition.) Friedman’s revisionist narrative aims to show how the confluence of feminist thinking and the utopian social aims of modernist architecture caused a radical rethinking of domesticity. It’s a fascinating thesis that holds interest beyond the case studies presented in this volume.

At her best, as in chapters featuring Truus Schröder and Constance Perkins, the actively engaged clients of Gerrit Rietveld and Richard Neutra, respectively, Friedman gives ample evidence of the congenial tugs of war that led to the creation of masterpieces and documents the satisfaction each woman got from living in her home. But in other chapters, Friedman strains to cast these women in a favorable light: Aline Barnsdall, in particular, comes across as someone too lost in mystical ideas about open-air theater to ever see the ambitious arts complex-cum-residence she commissioned from Frank Lloyd Wright come to fruition. Vanna Venturi, mother of architect Robert Venturi and client for his second completed building, and Gabrielle de Monzie, one of three clients for Le Corbusier’s Les Terrasses in suburban Paris, seem like nonentities in the design phase of their homes.

Friedman’s most ambitious chapter discusses Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House/Guest House, perhaps the two greatest icons of modernist residential architecture. It explores in depth the souring of Mies’ relationship with Edith Farnsworth (due to cost overruns and her realization of the glass box’s minimalist severity), and then pans out to briefly discuss the era’s prevailing sexual mores and debates about privacy. Friedman contrasts the Farnsworth House with one of Johnson’s twin buildings that bears formal resemblance but functions quite differently as a residence.

Despite a somewhat didactic tone that makes for annoying repetitions, this book supports its claim that women decisively shaped modernist domestic architecture, leaving the reader clamoring for others to extend the analysis of this subject.

Robert B. MacKay, America by the Yard: Cirkut Camera

Published in Print, January/February 2007.

The Cirkut camera, introduced just after the turn of the 20th century, charted—by means of a patented spring-arm rotation technology with a 360-degree range—the development of American society for the better part of 40 years. Military units, graduating classes, church groups, presidential inaugurations, car dealerships, rock quarries, and shipwrecks were documented by the panoramic prints, dubbed “yardlongs,” that the camera produced. This lavish volume, compiled by the preservationist Robert B. MacKay, is itself a yardlong, filled with more than 100 reproductions—many printed on foldout pages—scanned from original prints, which were themselves created directly from negatives and exquisitely detailed.

In his brief introduction, MacKay focuses on the development of the camera’s technology and how it was subsequently used, hazarding few observations about the broader cultural context into which it was inserted. This leaves the assembled images open to a wide range of interpretation. The smiling masses (or dour ones, like a 1924 Ku Klux Klan “Drill Team and Band”), pinned to lengthy scrolls of film with impressive particularity, remain anonymous examples of a society undergoing rapid urbanization, industrialization, and a dizzy ascent into scalelessness by every measurable index.

Alternately, the proud crowds speak to the cohesiveness of group identities—evidence of a country gathering steam as it glides into what would be dubbed “the American century.” These still pictures, cinematic in scope, were initially made around the time that filmed images were first screened to awed spectators. That panoramic picture-taking has become a quaint hobby while Hollywood proliferates endlessly lends these black-and-white documents a melancholy air that undercuts the triumph inherent in their wondrousness.

Vincent Kaufmann, Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry

Published in Bookforum, December 2006/January 2007.

Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry
Vincent Kaufmann, translated by Robert Bononno
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 370 pages. $30.

Biography is an implicit rebuke to autobiography, especially if the subject is a man who was obsessed with publicly calibrating his relation to the world and for whom the “need for clandestinity . . . was almost a question of taste.” Yet Vincent Kaufmann, professor of French literature at the University of St. Gallen and author of a study of twentiety-century avant-garde movements in poetry, has scoured Guy Debord’s writings and films—and the thicket of exegetical, frequently partisan scholarship they have inspired—to produce a compelling if necessarily incomplete portrait of the man, Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry, newly translated into English by Robert Bononno. “Necessarily incomplete” is the operative phrase: Debord used the long-gestating ideas lodged in the prescient, totalizing critique of La Société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967) as a kind of handbook for evading the magnetic pull of all institutions—media, state, culture, even friendship—in the name of ultimate personal freedom. The extremity of his stance is polarizing—one is either drawn to the figure of the romantic, solitary artist or repulsed by his narcissism—and it shapes the biographical gaze; one can watch it seduce Kaufmann as he proceeds chronologically through the provocateur’s life.

kaufmann_debord_cover“In the final analysis, we are differentiated only by our works,” announces an anonymous voice in Hurlements en faveur du Sade (Howls for Sade, 1952), a film more famous for what it doesn’t do (put an image onscreen; have any sound track for its final twenty-four minutes) than what it does. It was Debord’s barbaric yawp over the roofs of staid French culture, marking, along with the formation of the Lettrist International, the period of 1951 to 1953, which Debord spent in the Paris quarter of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and which Kaufmann posits as the anni mirabilis to which Debord would return, melancholically, for the rest of his life. It didn’t take long for him to look back; Debord’s Mémoires, composed entirely of text appropriated from potboilers, comic books, newspapers, and other material and constructed in collaboration with the Dutch artist Asger Jorn, was first “published” (distributed for free to friends in what Debord considered a form of potlatch) only five years later, when the author was merely twenty-seven.

By that time, Debord had formed the Situationist International, the group with which he remains most closely identified, though Kaufmann claims—following Anselm Jappe, whose 1993 Italian biography appeared in English in 1999—the identification should point in the other direction: The SI “should be considered, in every sense of the term, as the work . . . of Debord alone.” The fifteen-year history of the group was divided into two main phases by the expulsion, in 1960, of the remaining visual-artist members, among them the Dutch architect Constant Nieuwenhuys, and the subsequent consolidation of the group’s lucid, compelling rhetoric, which became a lever to be deployed “situationally” by anyone engaged in revolutionary activity.

The theoretical gambit was picked up most widely during the raucous events of May 1968, a watershed moment in postwar France to which Kaufmann devotes twenty pages, parsing the historical record in an attempt to locate Deboard and his dozen cohorts. He finds them everywhere and nowhere, “more important to the ‘culture’” of the time and place than any other organization but attempting to deliver a revolution “without a signature.” (Its members shuttled messages back and forth between workers at various factories—like stylish Paul Reveres—more often than they fought in the streets alongside students, of whom Debord had quickly tired.

Having seen the Situationist virus infect the population, and then having seen society recover from the delirium tremens caused by a temporary rupture of the spectacle, Debord, with ultimate fidelity to his own proclamations, disbanded the SI in 1971 and retreated into exile and relative silence until his suicide in 1994, a period spent with his partner, Alice Becker-Ho, in Italy, Spain, and the French countryside. He continued to launch films, including La Société du spectacle (1973) and In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), at the monolith, aiming for pulverizing effect, and, later, books, such as the slim, elegant, and notably unexhaustive two-volume autobiography Panégyrique, the first part of which appeared in 1989. Yet for all their style, Kaufmann rightly notes, each victory—including a defamation lawsuit won after a newspaper speculated about Debord’s connection to European terrorist groups initially suspected of the murder of his friend Gérard Lebovici—must have proved hollow to a man yearning for the communitarian spirit that infused his early years in a Paris made extinct by the tide of modernization.

“The characteristic of the biography of famous men is that they wanted to be famous,” wrote Eugène Ionesco in 1935. Debord, who believed that “all representation is treason,” became famous despite his best efforts. At its worst, this volume offers an uninspired rehash of Debord’s words, leaching them of the fluidity of their famously classical style. At his best, for roughly the last hundred pages of the book, Kaufmann inches toward impassioned writing, offering an inspired rereading of material rendered stagnant by fealty to received critical opinion, including a close look at Debord’s relationship with Henri Lefebvre that cuts through other, hagiographic interpretations. Along with his trenchant analyses of society, Debord’s legacy may rest on the fact that one can’t help but be borne along on this enthusiasm.

Kevin Kopelson, Neatness Counts

In this slim, enjoyable book, cultural theorist and literary critic Kevin Kopelson uses the writer’s desk as an airstrip from which to lift off into flights of stirring exegesis. The five linked essays, on poet Elizabeth Bishop, novelist Marcel Proust, critic Roland Barthes, playwright Tom Stoppard, and travel writer Bruce Chatwin, use the orderliness (or lack thereof) of the writer’s desk as an lens through which to view the writers’ literary production. They are marked by an erudition that allows Kopelson to flit effortlessly from primary text to journal to correspondence to contemporary criticism—in one paragraph, he segues from Walter Benjamin (who could easily have been the subject of an additional essay) to Banana Yoshimoto. Although at times Kopelson is too caught up in his own critical reverie—especially in the essays on Barthes and Stoppard—the writing is always felicitous. The book is highly recommended.

Links: Kopelson’s page at the University of Iowa, where he teaches; the book’s page at the University of Minnesota Press; an excerpt from the introduction and another from chapter four.

Carl Andre, Cuts and Donald Judd, Complete Writings

Published as “Paint by Letters” in the New York Press, June 29 – July 5, 2005. To see the review in context, click here.

CUTS: Texts 1959-2004
Carl Andre (ed. James Meyer)
MIT Press, $45, 352 pages

COMPLETE WRITINGS 1959-1975
Donald Judd
Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, $55, 240 pages

“Criticism is pretty much after the fact,” wrote Donald Judd in 1962. “Frank Stella’s paintings are one of the recent facts.” Some time later, Carl Andre wrote, “THEORY IS A SUBSTITUTE FOR EXPERIENCE / PROPHECY RESHAPES EXPERIENCE / SMITHSON IS A PROPHET.”

This is not simply advocacy work on behalf of friends. In the 60s, as art historian James Meyer points out in the introduction to a newly published collection of Andre’s writings, artists increasingly picked up the pen—to contextualize their work and to refute the claims of an ever-growing cadre of professional critics, whether overly literary or dryly theoretical. They often wrote, paradoxically, to insist on the primacy of the art viewing experience. Foremost among these artist-writers was Judd, who, along with Robert Morris and Robert Smithson, published regularly in monthly art magazines. Andre, though less visible to the public, was no less active as a writer: he frequently contributed to exhibition catalogs, and has created over the last 45 years a vast corpus of taped and written interviews, correspondence, and, above all, poetry.

Meyer has picked his way nimbly across Andre’s “heap of language” (to borrow a phrase from Smithson), producing a handy volume that nestles texts from different decades together, and is arranged, like an encyclopedia, by subject. This emphasizes the consistency (detractors would call it repetition or limitation) of Andre’s concerns. Meyer notes that, “Andre disavowed being a prose writer…he wrote only as much as was needed,” and, “aspire[d] to the epigrammatic.”

Indeed, the prose entries, which range in length from one sentence to several pages, are distinct for their (poetic) compression. His sentences are short and emphatic, often missing the words that serve as connective tissue in more mellifluous writing: in a letter to Sol LeWitt dated 1970, Andre more or less does away with periods altogether, stringing together a series of ideas about the artist’s position in capitalist society with dashes serving as pauses for breath. His style occasionally borders on the harangue—as when he takes shots at Conceptual and performance art—but the refreshing directness of his voice and his occasional (if unintentional) humor mitigate any annoyance.

But it is Andre’s poetry—along with the prose selections offering his thoughts on poetry—that is the highlight of this book. Much of what is included has never before been published. Meyer devotes half of his introduction to this work, highlighting Andre’s emphasis on the particular (the word) over the whole (the sentence), an exegesis that also indirectly illuminates Andre’s sculpture. Both practices—poem-making and object-making—are materialist, in the sense that Andre’s ultimate fidelity to copper, zinc, words, wood, and steel is an attempt to negate all meaning and symbolism; to treat “matter as matter.” His refusal to solder together steel plates or bind words together into sentences is a celebration of what is already there, albeit with the caveat that each of these things is man-made. “I try to discover my visions in the conditions of the world,” he writes. This is best exemplified by the sheets reproduced from Andre’s longhand or typewritten originals. They present either a singular, essential arrangement—with Green (1960), you can’t imagine the words laid out in any other manner—or show Andre cycling methodically through permutations, as in Sol LeWitt (2000).

Judd’s prose shares Andre’s concision—a Carveresque minimalism from two minimalists who disavowed the term as applied to their art—but his collected writings make for a very different book. The majority of this volume is given over to his monthly reviews and previews for Arts magazine, written between 1959 and 1965. These pieces are often declamatory and occasionally hectoring or dismissive, but always worth reading. There is no better written record of contemporary art shown in New York galleries during this period, a fact that makes this collection invaluable even before considering the relationship of these texts to Judd’s art, which is arguably the most important body of sculpture created in the second half of the twentieth century. The book has been out of print for years, and while $55 is too expensive for a paperback with black-and-white reproductions, I’ve seen 1975 first edition copies for sale online for as much as $1,000, so the press is to be commended for bringing these valuable texts back into circulation.

These days it can be argued that market intelligence—the consensus of dealers, curators, and collectors—has supplanted the critical intelligence epitomized by Judd and Andre’s written work, and by the efflorescence of written discourse four decades ago. The near concurrent publication of these two volumes offers a challenge to artists, and critics, working now to rejuvenate that great cultural conversation.