Means to an End: Steichen for Stehli

My essay on the photographs Edward Steichen made for the Stehli Silks Corporation appears in Osmos 5 (Winter 2015). An excerpt:

Edward Steichen, Sugar Cubes (for Stehli Silks)

Edward Steichen, “Fabric design for Stehli Silk No. 28 (sugar cubes)”

As it steamed across the Atlantic one day in 1926, the Isle de France was the site of a chance encounter. Ruzzie Green, at the time an illustrator and designer, was on his way to Europe, perhaps to the Swiss headquarters of the Stehli Silks Corporation, where he served as art director. On deck he chanced upon Edward Steichen, the artist whose pictures were revolutionizing fashion photography. The two struck up a conversation, and, in short order, a deal: Steichen would contribute designs to Stehli’s popular “Americana” line of fabrics. The fruits of their collaboration, when released to the public the following spring, would prove to be not only a commercial success, but they would also draw together a remarkable number of aesthetic, social, and economic trends: celebrity, artistic abstraction, mass production and consumption, the creative appropriation of everyday consumer objects—in short, much of what we identify with modern American society and culture.

Green and Steichen’s meeting came at an auspicious moment. Historians of American culture, including Lizabeth Cohen and William Leach, have described the mid-1920s as an era of standardized production, mass consumption, corporate expansion, and increasingly influential advertising. America had emerged from the wreckage of World War I relatively unscathed and the stock market crash was still a few years away. Five-cent theaters featuring ethnic films were losing ground to the Hollywood system; mom-and-pop shops were being displaced by department stores and national chains. Recognizable brands were being promoted by familiar names and faces.

Stehli’s “Americana” line capitalized on these transformations, deploying celebrity name recognition to sell its mass-produced textiles. Green hired nearly one hundred prominent figures to create—or at least lend their names to—these patterns, which were sold by the yard for dressmaking and other domestic applications. Participants included Helen Wills, an eight-time Wimbledon champion, the cartoonist John Held, Jr., and the fashion desire Pierre Mourgue.

Green commissioned dozens of artists to create patterns for Stehli, but Steichen was the only photographers who contributed to the “Americana” line.

To read the rest, pick up Osmos 5 on newsstands or online via D.A.P.


“Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop”

Published in Frieze 154 (April 2013). To learn more about the exhibition, click here.

Unknown French Artist, Scene of Murder and Decapitation, ca. 1870.

We all admit that taking a picture is a subjective act; where to point the lens is a personal decision, and each step in the development of a print requires a photographer to make choices about how to proceed. Yet until recently, the general public has maintained faith in the objectivity and truthfulness of images: events were assumed to have happened as the camera recorded them. It is only with the widespread use of image-editing tools that scepticism toward toward photographs has permeated mainstream consciousness. We needed to be able to remake images ourselves before we assumed others had the same intentions and skills. One strength of curator Mia Fineman’s exhibition ‘Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop’ was the way it built upon this development by bringing before a large museum audience, for the first time, examples of photographic manipulation that span the entire history of the medium. Separated by a hallway from the concurrent exhibition ‘After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age’, ‘Faking It’ was instructive, and its chief lesson, repeatedly taught, was: ‘Don’t always believe what you see’.

For experts, this is not novel territory. Each generation’s photographic thinkers have acknowledged the history of photographic manipulation as they consider new developments in the medium. A few recent examples will suffice. In the 1960s, artist Robert Heinecken dubbed the art with which he sympathized ‘manipulative photography’, and noted, ‘various manipulative methods have been in existence and described in detail ever since the first photographic images were made’. In an article published in 1976, critic A.D. Coleman identified ‘an extensive tradition of directorial photography’ that encompasses nearly everything—‘studio work, still lifes and posed nudes, as well as formal portraiture—and stretches back to 1850. A decade later, curator Anne H. Hoy organized for New York’s International Center of Photography the exhibition ‘Fabrications: Staged, Altered, and Appropriated Photographs’, which surveyed art from the 1970s and 1980s but acknowledged earlier precedents in the accompanying catalogue.

Fineman’s achievement, however, extends beyond giving material form to various writers’ theses. In tracing the prehistory of Adobe Photoshop, she brought together photographs from fine art, advertising, politics, news and other realms to challenge the dominant view of photography held by many Modernists: that the greatest photograph is the truest photograph. Just over a century ago, Alfred Stieglitz repudiated the ‘artfully’ altered pictures he had championed in his magazines and at his New York gallery. In his own work, and in the rising generation of photographers he promoted, such as Paul Strand, he set forth a new emphasis on ‘straight’ photography that was influential for the remainder of the century. From Group f/64 out west to street photographers prowling big-city avenues, a belief in directness, clarity and spontaneity held sway over artists and public alike.

George B. Cornish, A Car Load of Texas Corn, ca. 1910

George B. Cornish, A Car Load of Texas Corn, ca. 1910

In presenting works in which ‘the final image is not identical to what the camera “saw”’, Fineman strung together a shadow history of the medium. In its early decades, photographers like Gustave Le Gray and Carleton Watkins attempted to overcome the limitations of their cameras, and ambitious men like Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson sought to replicate the narrative potential of allegorical paintings. The striving of artists was quickly accompanied by baser pursuits, as photographers repurposed techniques of manipulation to entertaining ends. The show includes generous selections of pictures of people who have apparently been decapitated; of figures who appear multiple times in the same frame; and of impossibly bounteous agricultural harvests. The persuasiveness of photographs was also embraced by those on both sides of political conflicts. Here we saw how those in power used images to shore up their regimes, and how those in opposition—from Ernest Eugène Appert, during the Paris Commune; to John Heartfield, during the 1930s; to Weegee, during the 1960s—crafted their visual rejoinders. A separate thread, centred on Surrealism, included artists who used the camera as a tool for realizing visionary inner worlds. Herbert Bayer, Dora Maar, Grete Stern and Jerry Uelsmann used collage techniques to create transporting scenes.

Many of these photographers and the movements forged by their efforts have been part of the medium’s canon for some time. But Fineman has done invaluable curatorial and scholarly spadework to bring them together and craft an encompassing frame for understanding their relatedness. This was that rare thing: an exhibition, at once useful and consistently entertaining, that deftly responded to contemporary concerns by weaving together strands of the past.

Interview with Okwui Enwezor

Several weeks ago I interviewed curator Okwui Enwezor about “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” an exhibition he organized with Rory Smith for the International Center of Photography in New York. The show remains on view through Sunday, January 6. We discussed the exhibition, the relationship between the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States, and about how this exhibition aligns with other shows he has presented in New York institutions. Click here to read the edited transcript.

Sharon Core, Early American

My short essay “Cross Pollination” has been published in Early American, a monograph devoted to the series of the same name by photographer Sharon Core. The book is available now from Radius Books. Here is an excerpt, taken from the middle of the essay:

Like [Raphaelle] Peale’s paintings, Core’s photographs possess remarkable descriptive detail, which contrasts with their plain, indistinct environments. The objects of our attention rest on a ledge or table of indeterminate scale; the backdrops at times blend seamlessly into this horizontal surface. A gentle light suffuses each scene, often from one side of the image, its source unknowable. The compositions, too, are meant to be unobtrusive. Peale centered his objects, which are arranged in stately, pyramidal heaps. They are placed uncannily close to the viewer, the better to highlight their anatomical detail. These choices are partly unique to Peale, and partly a function of the time in which the paintings were made. In early nineteenth-century America, before the invention of photography, still lifes were not only objects of aesthetic delight, but also tools of instruction. They were a way of recording the country’s bounty, and of demonstrating to Americans the specific qualities of that bounty.

It took Core long hours to collect the items (both organic and inorganic) necessary to re-create Peale’s compositions….

Core will be signing copies of the book at Yancey Richardson Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, on Wednesday, November 28, from 6:00–8:00 PM.

“The Permanent Way” Brochure Essay

This essay accompanies “The Permanent Way,” an exhibition I have organized for apexart. It opens Wednesday, June 6, with a reception from 6 to 8 PM, and runs through July 28, 2012.

Famous Horse Shoe Curve, on Main Line P.R.R., ca. 1910. Collection of Luc Sante.

July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroad. The law, in conjunction with the Homestead Act (passed just six weeks earlier), signaled the government’s commitment to westward expansion even as the union itself was imperiled by civil war. It provided thirty-year government bonds and extensive land grants to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies, which used these concessions to build over 1,700 miles of track. In May 1869, the two roads were joined at Promontory Summit, in the Utah Territory. Other transcontinentals followed soon thereafter.

Historians have long debated the economic and political value of these railroads. For Alfred Chandler, the growth of the railroad companies required an important “managerial revolution” that pointed the way to modern corporate capitalism. For Richard White, writing recently, the transcontinentals were thoughtlessly built ahead of demand, and the dramatic failures of these companies at the end of the nineteenth century unjustly imposed punitive costs on the public. All scholars of the railroads, however, agree that their amazing growth during the second half of the century fundamentally reshaped the American landscape. As White notes, “these railroads formed a lever that in less than a generation turned western North America on its axis so that what had largely moved north–south now moved east–west.”

The shift wasn’t only in the movement of goods, but also in the picture of America that its citizens carried in their minds. In recognition of the Pacific Railway Act’s anniversary, “The Permanent Way” considers the centrality of railroads to Americans’ understanding of the country’s landscape. Today, trains are a “natural” component of that picture, as essential as broad, grassy plains and mountain peaks in the distance.

That we take trains for granted was not always the case. Cultural historian Leo Marx’s important book The Machine In the Garden (1964) opens with the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoying the tranquil environs of Sleepy Hollow, near Concord, Massachusetts, in 1844. Hawthorne’s pastoral reverie is rudely interrupted:

But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive—the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumberous peace.

The smoke-belching engines were an unfamiliar incursion, and Marx catalogues the affronted responses of numerous writers upset by the recognition that railroads would permanently alter their environment. Yet by the time of the Pacific Railway Act, just two decades later, the railroads had become an integral element of American life, for better and for worse. Time and space collapsed as people were able to travel further, faster, than ever before, and places without benefit of direct connection were woven together in a mesh of steel. The costs of such convenience, we now recognize, were enormous: the lives of the railroads’ (often immigrant) construction crews; the livelihoods of those pushed aside by the entering wedge of westward expansion; the political ideals corrupted by back-room business negotiations; the savings erased when lines failed to materialize or collapsed. Yet there was no going back. In the eight years after the end of the Civil War, the mileage of operating railroad track more than doubled, to seventy thousand. As landscape writer John Stilgoe notes, “Emerson and his contemporaries knew the train and the railroad as novelties; subsequent generations were born into a world in which trains seemed as commonplace as spiderwebs.”

Justine Kurland, Doyle, CA, 2007.

Photography was itself a new invention in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and as a technology it grew up alongside railroads—especially in America, where the first accurate representations of a given place were often made by photographers working on behalf of railroad expansion. Surveys of this vast, largely uncharted territory were commissioned by the government and by the railroad companies themselves, and sent photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson out into the field. Their images, widely distributed through government documents, news-media reproductions, and tourist publications, played an especially important role in refashioning the imagined American landscape.

This exhibition includes a small selection of such materials, encompassing railroad maps, lithographs taken from illustrated magazines, other prints, and turn-of-the-twentieth-century photo-postcards. From them, one can discover how quickly fresh observation gave way to visual convention. Axial views quickly become a stock-in-trade, whether depicting tracks receding to a single vanishing point in the distance or bisecting the frame parallel to the picture plane. So, too, one can repeatedly witness railroad engines, marvels of human ingenuity, overcoming adverse natural elements, as in the two nearly identical prints, from separate publications, depicting a train struggling through snowdrifts, its headlamp a beacon of progress.

Subsequent generations of photographers have walked the same trails, navigated the same canyons, forded the same rivers, and ascended to the same peaks as these men did during the “Era of Exploration.” They have also responded to the visual tropes inherited from earlier eras. The artists included in this exhibition are not exclusively engaged with depicting railroads, or even solely concerned with the American landscape. Nonetheless, at various points in their careers each has found the railroads—or their ruins—a subject worth exploring.

Of the five artists included in this exhibition, Mark Ruwedel, based in southern California, is most closely identified with railroads. His series “Westward the Course of Empire” (1994-2007) documents with taxonomic precision the remains of North American lines. In a gesture reminiscent of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruwedel exhibits small black-and-white photographs as grids arranged by type: trestle bridges, cuts through rock faces, tunnel mouths, paths through field and forest. The Bechers survey industrial plants, and Ruwedel’s adoption of their signature technique highlights the “industrial” nature of even the most rural Western outpost. Despite focusing upon abandoned rail infrastructure, his lens necessarily captures evidence of the land’s other uses, thereby demonstrating how the rails were but one human use of the landscape in an unending succession of uses. Even when the environment is seemingly pristine, as in the photographs by Jeff Brouws presented here, one can’t help but be aware of human incursion, of the fact that human places are necessarily palimpsests. Best known for his photographs of the signs, buildings, and infrastructure of vernacular and decaying American landscapes, Brouws’s images here are by contrast remarkably restrained. Working near his Dutchess County home in upstate New York, the artist sought out traces of the competing agricultural and dairy railroads that helped feed New York’s hungry mouths and slake its thirst. The resultant works show no evidence of this bustling industry save for their pathways, the quiet negative space an inversion of the sites’ former bustling activity.

The complexity depicted in these photographers’ landscapes can have economic, social, political, and cultural manifestations. In many of her photographs, Victoria Sambunaris manages to reveal several such entanglements at once. She seeks “phenomena that are ubiquitous and familiar to a particular region but are anomalous to an ordinary eye,” and often finds an elevated or distant vantage point from which to highlight incongruities. So it is with a photograph included in this exhibition.Untitled (VS-10-10), Train from Cristo Rey, Sunland Park, NM, from her ongoing series “The Border,” depicts a rail line bending dramatically as it skirts the US-Mexico border. At this site, robbers from nearby Anapras, Mexico, had regularly thrown items onto the Union Pacific tracks to force the trains to stop, after which men would sieze the cargo and carry it directly across the border. The FBI organized a sting in 2000 that went awry, leaving two agents badly injured. The railroad still operates along this corridor, funneling millions of dollars worth of goods through dangerous borderland territory and highlighting, with each run, economic disparity and social tension.

Justine Kurland’s images often feature people who have oriented their lives to particular places. They become, frequently by choice, socially marginalized, interacting as much with like-minded communities as with the broader population. In her recent series “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” Kurland focuses upon the subculture of the nomadic hobo—as both romantic American myth and quotidian lived reality. In the unpopulated images from the series chosen for this exhibition, one can sense the landscape as these particular inhabitants view it, with trains accorded a central role.

Jeff Brouws, Railroad Landscape #56, former Poughkeepsie and Eastern right-of-way as ingress to private hunting presere (abandoned 1938), MP 92, view south, Winter, McIntyre, New York, 2010.

James Welling’s railroad photographs, made two decades ago, are but one facet of a prismatic career that encompasses abstractions, architectural photography, and experiments with the properties of the medium. In this exhibition they offer the closest look at the infrastructure of working railroads, and by extension the trains themselves. The engines move through a space that Stilgoe dubs the “metropolitan corridor” to indicate both its technological sophistication and its sense of in-betweenness and linkage. In Welling’s documentary images, one can witness how the complexities described above are mirrored in an intricacy manifested along the route.

Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad, from roadbed to rails. Here it is shorthand for the epochal shift these railroads caused in our picture of America. This exhibition commemorates the momentous decision, taken 150 years ago, to commit to the railroads’ expansion, and reflects upon how even its greatest champions could not have predicted how transformative such a choice proved to be.

Further Reading

Chandler, Alfred D. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1977).

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 [orig. 1964]).

Naef, Weston J. Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West, 1860-1885 (Buffalo, NY: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1975).

Sandweiss, Martha A. Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002).

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986).

Stilgoe, John R. Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983).

White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

Exhibition: “The Permanent Way”

Mark Ruwedel, San Diego and Arizona Eastern #7, 2003. (C) Mark Ruwedel, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery

“The Permanent Way”
Organized by Brian Sholis
On view at apexart, 291 Church Street, New York, from June 6 – July 28, 2012
Opening reception: Wednesday, June 6, 6–8 PM
Featuring art by: Jeff Brouws, Justine Kurland, Mark Ruwedel, Victoria Sambunaris, James Welling

July 1 is the sesquicentennial of the Pacific Railway Act, the federal legislation that enabled the development of the first transcontinental railroads. This exhibition marks the occasion by bringing together American landscape photographs by living artists with archival material charting the expansion of railroads during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Permanent way is a term for the track on a railroad. Here it is shorthand for how railroads dramatically reshaped Americans’ notion of the country’s landscape. Cultural historian Leo Marx related Nathaniel Hawthorne’s horror, in 1844, at the intrusion of smoke-belching locomotives into his beloved Sleepy Hollow. Yet by the time the Pacific Railway Act was passed two decades later, railroads were pervasive and inextricably woven into Americans’ lives. Even the most isolated rural residents were tethered to urban centers by the steel rails running through nearby fields. This ubiquity guaranteed for railroads a seemingly permanent place in the American unconscious. Ask someone today to describe an iconic American landscape and you’re likely to be told of fields stretching away to mountains at the horizon and a train passing through in the middle distance. This image was fixed in part by now-celebrated nineteenth-century photographers like A.J. Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson.

The photographers in this exhibition are not concerned exclusively with railroads, or even with American landscapes. Nonetheless, they are sensitive interpreters of their environment, and each has at some point noticed the continuing power and imaginative pull of railroads—or of their ruins. “The Permanent Way” uses an important anniversary to celebrate their work and to place it in a historical context.

Victoria Sambunaris, Untitled (VS-10-10), Train from Cristo Rey, Sunland Park, NM, 2010. From the series "The Border."

Wreck in Yard, Port Arthur, ca. 1910, real-photo postcard. Collection of Luc Sante.

Henry Gannett/US Census Office, Railroad Systems, 1890, printed 1898.

Interview: James Benning

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with filmmaker James Benning about Two Cabins (A.R.T. Press), his remarkable new artist’s book. As its title suggests, the publication documents two cabins Benning constructed on property he owns in California. One is an exact replica of the cabin Henry David Thoreau built in the mid-1840s, memorialized in his book Walden. The other is an exact replica of the cabin Theodore Kaczynski built in the early 1980s, and is where he lived while creating mail bombs (as the Unabomber) and writing his extensive anti-technology treatise.

James Benning, Henry David Thoreau Cabin, constructed July 2007-January 2008

The interview is published in as-told-to format. Here is an excerpt:

I had bought a “turnkey” property in the mountains, and as soon as I got my hands on it I worked for months to make it mine. I got addicted to construction, to solving the problems inherent in taking something apart and putting it back together again. I added a guest room. When I was finished, I was confronted with the anxiety of needing something to work on. I began copying Bill Traylor paintings, at first because I couldn’t afford them, but then because the process was teaching me a lot about painting and composition. Yet I still had a bug in me to do more construction. I thought, “I’ve never built a house, why don’t I build a house?” Recognizing that as too ambitious, I settled upon building a small one—and Thoreau’s cabin, the quintessential small house, came to mind. I learned what I could about its details, built it, and began filling it with my copies of paintings by obsessive artists—Traylor, Mose Tolliver, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez.

It seemed too cute, though, like a miniature art gallery; it needed a counterpoint. When I decided to build another cabin, I immediately thought of Ted Kaczynski’s.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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?”

“Weegee: Murder Is My Business”

Weegee, Line-Up for Night Court, ca. 1941.

I reviewed the exhibition “Weegee: Murder Is My Business,” on view at the International Center of Photography until September 2, for Capital New York. An excerpt:

The Weegee that’s surveyed in this entertaining exhibition is not only the man, an immigrant born Usher Fellig in Austria, but also the myth, who described himself as both “Weegee the Famous” and the “official photographer of Murder Inc.”

Curator Brian Wallis has crafted a show that demonstrates how and why Weegee became one of the best-known photojournalists in New York City from the mid-’30s through the ’40s. Operating out of a sparse room across the street from police headquarters, he made nightly forays into the streets in search of breaking news. He nearly always found it, returning with pictures of lifeless bodies sprawled out on sidewalks and the inquisitive bystanders and pained relatives who had witnessed the crimes.

To read the rest, click here.

“The Greatest Grid”

Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.” The show is on view until April 15, an appropriate enough date given the prevalence in the galleries of tax assessments, land-sale auction handbills, and other ephemera related to the transfer of Manhattan real estate. The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated and informative catalogue, published by Columbia University Press (Amazon, Columbia).

Map of Property Belonging to C.C. Moore of Chelsea, 1835. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

An excerpt:

The plan’s Cartesian rigor made it a machine for such frenzied growth, and the exhibition contains hundreds of artifacts that chart the city’s scramble uptown. There are surveyors’ maps and tools, land-sale auctioneers’ handbills, and ledgers documenting tax assessments. Numerous photographs reveal just how much labor went in to unifying the landscape: giant boulders had to be broken up and carted away; rolling hills had to be leveled; houses perched in the middle of planned roadways had to be torn down or carted to a new location.

At the exhibit’s center is one of the three original copies of the nearly nine-foot-long map of the Commissioners’ Plan, its size and detail a measure of the ambition it represented. Generations of canny politicians, imperious real-estate developers, and visionary architects have tried to implement changes or carve out exceptions to its rule, yet the Manhattan this map depicts is recognizable to us today: a somewhat claustrophobic, undifferentiated mass of right angles that cedes almost nothing to topography or the human need for variety.

To read the rest, click here.

“The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75″

Published on on October 4, 2011. The exhibition was on view at Third Streaming, New York, from September 8 to October 15, 2011.

Angela Davis, still from The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75

Angela Davis, still from The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75

During the past fifteen years, scholars have dramatically revised our understanding of the American civil rights and Black Power movements, proposing answers to questions such as: When did each begin and end? What traits, if any, do they share? What is the relative importance of acknowledged leaders and lesser-known participants? Historians including Charles Payne, Martha Biondi, Thomas Sugrue, and Peniel Joseph have crafted nuanced portraits of both movements’ protest dynamics and the merits of the gains each made. The visual record of the era, however, has not been given an equivalent boost, which makes the recent discovery of hours of documentary footage captured by Swedish television journalists all the more special. That material has been transformed into The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2011), the feature-length documentary on which this exhibition of film stills, related footage, and ephemera is based.

The images selected for stills focus primarily on Black Power leaders. We see Angela Davis as a glamorous antihero, two dour officers at her elbows; Bobby Seale and Stokely Carmichael coolly addressing unseen gatherings; and Kathleen Cleaver next to a typewriter, taking a break from crafting revolution’s message to pensively drag on a cigarette. A small monitor displaying unused film footage contrasts this hero worship with images of children carousing in unkempt streets, cops cruising down sweltering avenues, and little boys in suits marching out of a school building.

There is, perhaps surprisingly, a precedent for the Swedish investigation of American social problems. Economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study of American race relations, An American Dilemma, permanently inflected the conversation on civil rights and was even cited by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. While The Black Power Mixtape doesn’t aspire to the same influence, it is nonetheless a welcome addition to the body of evidence documenting a turbulent period in our recent past, one whose meaning is still up for revaluation.

Ferguson and Faust

Last week, during the friendly match between Manchester United and the New England Revolution, the ESPN commentators said that United’s coach, Sir Alex Ferguson, is a Civil War buff, and that during last summer’s tour of the United States he made a pilgrimage to  Gettysburg. Today the Telegraph presents a slide show of the English club’s “extra-curricular” activities on this year’s tour, including a visit to Harvard University. Does Ferguson know that Harvard’s President, Drew Gilpin Faust, who is standing next to him in this photo, is a world-renowned Civil War scholar? Has he read her most recent book, This Republic of Suffering? This could be a Missed Connection of epic proportions.

Foner and McGirr, eds, American History Now

Today I received a copy of American History Now, a brand-new collection of historiographical essays edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr. Published for the American Historical Association by Temple University Press, the book supplants The New American History, which came out in 1990 and was revised in 1997. The new volume is an imaginative overhauling of the invaluable sourcebook of essays on recent developments in American history, increasing the total number of texts and dividing them roughly evenly between accounts ordered chronologically and those ordered thematically. If you have the earlier edition—I do, and it was very useful for my comprehensive exam—you’ll want this one, too, as the editors have invited a new generation of scholars to weigh in with fresh surveys of their particular fields of expertise. A few examples will suffice: Alan Taylor on the colonial era; Kim Phillips-Fein on the last four decades; Erez Manela on “The United States in the World”; Sven Beckert on the history of American capitalism; Mae Ngai on immigration and ethnic history.

“Hiroshima Ground Zero”

Published at Art-Agenda on June 3, 2011. To see the review in context, click here. The exhibition remains on view until August 28, 2011. To learn more, visit the museum’s website.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Distorted Steel-frame Structure of Odamasa Store, Hiroshima. November 20, 1945.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Distorted Steel-frame Structure of Odamasa Store, Hiroshima. November 20, 1945.

At 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was momentarily “covered by a bluish-white glare.” [1] An atom bomb, the first to be dropped on a human population, had exploded 580 meters above the ground. A 4.4-square-mile section of the city center was more or less instantly flattened, and subsequent fires, which raged for more than eight hours, consumed much of what hadn’t been pulverized by the bomb’s concussive force. It is now estimated that nearly two-thirds of the approximately seventy-six thousand buildings in Hiroshima were completely destroyed or burned; approximately seventy thousand, or more than nine out of ten, were at least “half-destroyed/half-burned/slightly damaged.” Soot from the fires, along with dirt and mud, was swept up into the air by whirlwinds and returned to earth as highly toxic, sticky “black rain.” Those who happened to be within 1.2 kilometers of the detonation point (known as “air zero”) had only a fifty percent chance of surviving; any closer and the mortality rates jump to between eighty and one hundred percent. The city’s population that August is estimated to have been 340,000, and it is now believed that approximately 140,000 people died as a result of the bomb. These are the accepted facts about the devastation wrought in Hiroshima, ostensibly to bring the war with Japan, and thus World War II, to a close. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, killing an additional 80,000 people, and on August 15 Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s surrender.

We know what such explosions look like: a tall stem of smoke and debris, often several miles high, that disperses horizontally once it reaches sufficient altitude. While natural forces such as volcanic eruptions can cause these mushroom-shaped clouds, they are most closely associated with nuclear detonations. The United States government conducted hundreds of nuclear-bomb tests between 1945 and 1962, and images of the explosions have passed from the realm of scientific and military documentation into the broader culture. The mushroom cloud is the icon of the nuclear age.

It is much harder, however, to picture what the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked like. This is not for lack of visual evidence. Japanese photographers catalogued the grim aftermath of concrete rubble and seared skin. A companion plane laden with photographic equipment, later dubbed Necessary Evil, accompanied the Enola Gay on the fateful mission that dropped the bomb. Hiroshima was targeted, at least in part, because its infrastructure presented a near-ideal environment in which to study the effects of the bomb, and after the attack President Truman duly sent members of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) to Japan. A team of photographers made over 1,100 images, two-thirds of which were included in a secret three-volume report submitted to the government in 1947. Such images, however, despite occasionally appearing in books and other public venues, have not permeated Western consciousness. The presentation at the International Center of Photography of several dozen photographs from the USSBS archive is therefore a chance to become better acquainted with the fearsome power at human disposal.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Rooftop view of atomic destruction, looking southwest, Hiroshima. October 31, 1945.

These small, black-and-white pictures were taken with technical rather than aesthetic intent. The seven photographers were interested in the effects of the bomb on the built environment, and therefore few people appear in the images. Most of the photographs are portraits of commercial or civic buildings; so few residential structures, which were typically made of wood, survived that the photographers decided not to document them. Standing amid the rubble is the façade and dome of the city’s commercial exhibition hall. So, too, is the coal-distribution company headquarters, the front of which seems to have been punched into the ground. There are views of school buildings, banks, insurance company headquarters, and the interior of Hiroshima City Hall’s auditorium, barren save for fine layer of burned litter scattered across the main floor and balcony. Other photographs reverse the perspective, and provide dramatic context for the close-ups and interior views. To make them, the photographers ascended to upper-story windows or the roof of standing buildings and pointed the camera lens outward at the desolate landscape. Because Hiroshima lies on a large, flat plain, the photographers could see relatively far into the distance. The horizon line is the meeting point of two undifferentiated shades of gray: on the one hand, the mostly featureless sky, and on the other the uninterrupted expanse of dusty concrete and plaster that once was a great city. The “burned-over area,” as it was called, extends all the way to the horizon, and it is in these pictures that viewers can most clearly discern the scale of the devastation.

A map presented in the gallery allows viewers to reconstruct some of the scientific findings of the photographers. Reproduced from a USSBS report, it includes not only lines demarcating the physical extent of the devastation but also points indicating the location of the buildings depicted in the photographs. Those willing to correlate between the map and the photographs can discern, in an amateur fashion, some of the scientific results of the USSBS survey. For example, buildings closer to ground zero (the point directly beneath the detonation) were likely to suffer from collapsed roofs or other structural damage that indicates the downward pressure of the blast. Those farther away were subject to the horizontal force of the explosion as it spread outward: normally upright steel beams torque away from ground zero as if blown by a strong wind. Farther away still, tree trunks and telephone poles remain upright, but the former have been shorn of all their branches—testament to the fact that the irradiated earth from which they grow is itself no longer natural.

The most complex and haunting photographs in the show, however, depict “flash burns.” In one image, the shadow of a valve used to seal off a pipe is projected onto the metal surface of the container to which it is attached. Visual habit leads viewers to believe that this is the effect of a sunny day. The caption belies this commonsense response: “‘Shadow’ of a hand valve wheel on the painted wall of a gas storage tank; radiant heat instantly burned paint where the heat rays were not obstructed.” In effect, the nuclear blast—its “bluish white glare”—turned some objects in Hiroshima into light-sensitive surfaces, resulting in what might technically if uneasily be called photograms. I say uneasily because of another, altogether sadder image also included in the show. Here we see the surface of a road, on which is chalked an arrow labeled the direction of blast. Two somewhat shapeless discolorations stretch away from small points in the direction indicated. Once again the caption, its neutral language betraying the photograph’s scientific purpose, redirects our understanding of the image: “Flash-burn on asphalt on bridge 20, 3,500 feet south from [air zero]. Shadow was cast by a man.” Two small circles marked in chalk indicate the placement of the man’s feet; one is slightly in front of the other, as if he were mid-stride. The “shadow,” this photogram-within-a-photograph, is likely the only extant evidence that someone died on that spot.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. "Shadow of a hand valve wheel...." October 14 - November 26, 1945.

The terrible details disclosed by these photographs give ballast to the 2005 Japan Society exhibition “Little Boy,” curated by artist Takashi Murakami, which examined some of the artistic and cultural fallout of the 1945 attacks. (Its title came from the nickname of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.) The photographs included in this exhibition were originally meant to document the bomb’s effects and were used in the service of bettering civil defense architecture in the United States, yet seeing them in a public museum, shorn of their narrowly utilitarian purpose, allows them to serve other functions. These photographs can, for example, give specificity to debates over the proliferation and potential abuse of nuclear weapons, a prospect that will haunt us until the bombs’ abolition. And their presentation affords us an arena in which to sharpen the terms of debate about the contrary claims of secrecy and transparency upon violent government actions. Ditto the conversations about the necessity of such Necessary Evils, their moral and ethical implications. More than six decades have passed since we dropped the bomb, making this a politically safer exhibition for the museum to mount than its autumn 2004 show of Iraqi prison photographs from Abu Ghraib. “Hiroshima Ground Zero” is nonetheless in line with that earlier, daring curatorial effort, and reveals that temporal distance hardly depletes the shock of the images themselves.

[1] The Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings, trans. Eisei Ishikawa and David L. Swain (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 21. Additional details about the bombing and its effects described in the text are drawn from this volume.

O. Winston Link

Published in Artforum, April 2011. For more information and additional images, see Robert Mann Gallery’s website.

O. Winston Link, NW883 Gooseneck Dam and No. 2, Maury River, Buena Vista, VA, 1956

O. Winston Link’s magnificent photographs of steam-powered locomotives, taken half a century ago, appear now to prefigure artistic projects with which gallery-goers are likely more familiar. In one image, the speeding locomotive seen through a living room window calls to mind Martha Rosler’s Vietnam-era collage series “Bringing the War Home, 1967-72.” Link’s picture of a massive engine racing across a railway bridge, beneath which a boy shoos cows and a couple sits in a car, or his image of a man sitting at the window of a third-floor apartment as a train lumbers along Main Street, offer a just-plausible surrealism perfected in recent decades by Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson. The railroad’s presence, even in images seemingly focused upon other aspects of small-town life, is akin to that of the nuclear reactors that hover forebodingly in several of the photographs published in Mitch Epstein’s book American Power (2009).

Yet unlike these successors, who self-consciously tell stories that are explicitly political or charged with psychological ambiguity, Link undertook a project that was relatively straightforward. He was a commercial photographer based in New York whose early love of trains was resuscitated while he was on assignment in 1955, when he took a side trip to watch a steam engine pass through town. Fascinated by the hulking machine and realizing that the Norfolk and Western lines comprised, as the exhibition title suggests, “The Last Steam Railroad in America,” Link tried to capture the tail end of the country’s century-long devotion to steam-powered travel. It was a five-year labor of love, resulting in more than two thousand images, each accompanied by a painstakingly detailed caption describing the location, the film used, the type of engine depicted, and the names of people included in the shot.

Link’s pioneering use of multiple flashbulbs to create dramatic nighttime images of unusual clarity and focal depth remains remarkable today. So, too, does his talent for directing the station managers and local citizens who populate his scenes and who often give the staged images an improvisational air. His compositional sense was unerring, as evidenced by the dramatic image of kids splashing in a creek beneath two bridges, across one of which chugs a train. Like Charles Sheeler’s iconic 1927 photograph of crossed conveyors at Ford’s River Rouge plant, the bridges in Link’s image form a dynamic X; in addition, the train and the children, at different distances from the lens, are both in focus, and all of this activity is framed by inky black sky and water.

O. Winston Link, NW1126 Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray, VA, August 9, 1956

But no matter the photographs’ individual merits, which are many, their value accrues when seen in aggregate. Consider that Link began his project the same year that Robert Frank began his series “The Americans.” Consider, too, the vastly different Americas the two men captured. In contrast to Frank’s astringent scenes of a diverse and increasingly fragmented population, Link hymns small communities that swap news in the country store or congregate at the drive-in theater. These Virginia towns, Link’s photographs suggest, were held together by the steel rails that carried people and mail from one place to another and that provided many citizens a means to their livelihoods. It can be argued that we still live in the world Robert Frank first revealed to us. By contrast, even in our country’s remotest corners, the life Link so painstakingly captured has perished—not least due to the centrifugal effects of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, passed while Link was working on this series. The social, spatial, and economic relationships he revealed, not to mention the omnipresent engines themselves, are an important aspect of our nation’s history. We are lucky not only that he arrived to capture them when he did, but also that he documented them with such determination and flair.

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.

The 1970s

For those whose thirst for commentary on the 1970s wasn’t quenched by Rick Perlstein’s recent summary of a dozen or so books on the topic, the December/January issue of Bookforum features another such round-up, this time by historian Kim Phillips-Fein. For assessment of another side of life during that decade, consider the discussion taking place at the US Intellectual History blog concerning Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s paper, delivered at the group’s recent conference, on Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Lastly there the recently published anthology The Shock of the Global, edited by four eminent historians, which I mentioned in passing here.

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

In recent weeks I’ve found myself thinking frequently about Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, an experimental 2008 documentary by filmmaker John Gianvito. I saw it that summer at Anthology Film Archives, and was happy to learn that this hour-long plaintive meditation on radical American history—and how it has been encoded in the country’s landscape—is available as a free online stream at SnagFilms. As A.O. Scott noted in the New York Times, “The calling of birds and the rustle of trees provide most of the commentary, and the effect is somehow to make history more mysteriously distant and more concrete—a matter of stone and weathered plaques inscribed with the records of half-forgotten deeds.” Here is a longer meditation on two of Gianvito’s films by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who compares the film to those by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Rosenbaum says, “Gianvito’s various ways of approaching the graves, memorials, and shrines through the surrounding landscapes that nestle and sometimes hide these largely unremarked sites is every bit as important as their inscriptions.” I highly recommend the film.

Blogging the Civil War

Huge fanfare surrounded the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in February 2009—and occasioned a flood of books on our sixteenth president. (Here is Sean Wilentz’s controversial take on seven of them.) The ruckus has hardly died down, yet historians of nineteenth-century America are once again being tapped by newspaper opinion pages, this time to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The Washington Post has already launched Civil War 150, a site that has incorporated A House Divided, a blog about the war run for two years about Linda Wheeler. In recent weeks it has featured posts from the eminent historians Joan Waugh, David W. Blight, Kate Masur, and others. The New York Times is getting in on the act, too, with Disunion, a subset of its Opinionator blog mostly written by Adam Goodheart (though already featuring a few guest posts by Ted Widmer). The torrent of writing will only increase in the coming weeks: South Carolina seceded on December 24.

The Original Tea Party

Why not spend this election day, in which the modern Tea Party figures so largely, reading Benjamin L. Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America (Yale University Press)? The well-timed book is not only a lucid, detailed explanation of what took place in Boston from the mid-1760s to that fateful December night in 1773. It also sets those events into a global context, with a chapter on the East India Company and “Great Britain’s struggle to manage its expanding empire”; highlights women’s roles in the related boycotts and non-importation agreements; and builds on the nexus between the urban environment and political mobilization that Carp laid out so clearly in Rebels Rising, his first book. Carp offered a brief summary of “the real history of the Tea Party” in the Wall Street Journal, and spoke about the book in this podcast.

Interview: Susie Linfield

My brief interview with Susie Linfield, director of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, has been published online at She discusses her remarkable new book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, which is just out from the University of Chicago Press. An excerpt from the book’s first chapter—which tries to answer the question Why do photography critics hate photography?—is available online at the publisher’s site. A second excerpt, from her chapter on photographs depicting the Holocaust, is available online at Tablet Magazine. Here is an excerpt from our interview, which is published in “as told to” format:

On the one hand, the depiction of atrocities and of physical suffering is today much, much more explicit than it was seventy-five years ago. I use James Nachtwey’s images from the past few decades as an example. If you compare his photographs to those of say, Robert Capa or David “Chim” Seymour, you can see how photography today is far more graphic; it gets much closer to physical agony than it once did. There are several reasons for that. But one of the things that makes looking at such images especially difficult today is that we no longer have the same kind of moral and political framework to help us understand the violence. Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War, or of China after the Japanese invasion, were very clear on political context. You knew what to do with your anger and your horror. Today, looking at images from Sierra Leone or the Congo, one can feel horror, disgust, and great sadness—but what to do in response is much less apparent. Which of the twelve militias now fighting in the Congo do you support? Visual atrocity is much clearer today, but we no longer have the political clarity to accompany it.

To read the rest, click here.

Reconsidering Christopher Lasch

One of my summer goals is to read (or re-read) several of Christopher Lasch’s books, from The New Radicalism in America 1889-1963 (1965) to The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994), as a prelude to reading Eric Miller’s new biography of Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time. Reviews of Miller’s study have begun coming in over the transom. Andrew Bacevich warmly welcomes the book in the new issue of World Affairs, and Alan Wolfe reviewed it in a recent issue of The New Republic. Rochelle Gurstein, once a student of Lasch’s, takes issue with Wolfe’s piece, recommending Bacevich and Jackson Lears as better guides to Lasch’s thinking. (Lears’s 1995 consideration is not yet available online.) I would add two enjoyable, deeply thoughtful essays to Gurstein’s recommendations. One is the reminiscence Lasch’s University of Rochester colleague Robert Westbrook published in Reviews in American History in 1995, and the other is Louis Menand’s 1991 NYRB essay. Unfortunately both require subscriptions to read online, though Menand’s piece was reprinted in his 2002 collection American Studies (it begins on page 198). Also useful is the Christopher Lasch bibliography-in-progress, maintained until 2003 by Robert Cummings. UPDATE, 5/25: Former Lasch student Chris Lehmann reviews the biography in the summer issue of Bookforum.

Christopher Gray’s “Streetscapes”

For several years I have enjoyed Christopher Gray’s “Streetscapes” column in the New York Times. This morning, looking online, I discovered Gray has been writing about buildings and blocks in New York for over two decades. These pieces comprise a huge and diverting archive, from which I learned, for example, that until the early 1990s my block housed an Episcopal church constructed in 1838 on land donated by Clement Clark Moore. Moore is the author of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (more commonly known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), and his family estate, Chelsea, is the source of my neighborhood’s name. Click here for the archive with a brief introduction to the column by Gray. Two books, Changing New York (1992) and New York Streetscapes (2003), also contain materials from the column.

“Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place”

Published in Artforum, May 2010. The exhibition remains on view at the International Center of Photography in New York until May 9. For more information, click here.

Alan B. Stone, Untitled (Lachine Canal), 1954, black-and-white photograph

We’re drawn to the past for countless reasons and revisit it in myriad ways, but analytic, interrogative approaches to what has come before us predominate in today’s art world. Even nostalgia itself is codified and anatomized: Witness, for example, how the phenomenon of “Ostalgie,” or nostalgia for life in the former East Germany, has been cross-examined in exhibitions and essays. In this context, “Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place” is refreshing for the ways in which guest curator David Deitcher has woven his own biography and hometown memories into a sophisticated appreciation of his subject. The exhibition is an exercise in neither formalist connoisseurship nor rote history. Sampling a little-known body of photographs created by Stone in the 1950s and ‘60s, under his own name and that of his Mark One Studio, the show deftly evokes what mid-twentieth-century Montreal looked like from a gay man’s point of view.

The bifurcation of authorship is the first hint of the social, cultural, and legal divisions that marked gay life in that time and place. As himself, Stone produced street views of the city’s historic downtown; admiring portraits of sailors, stevedores, Boy Scots, and others; and images of recreation, whether swimmers in and around the Lachine Canal or young men playing ice hockey. Sober depictions of newsstands and granaries contribute to a useful understanding of Montreal as a working city tied to its waterways. On the other hand, Stone’s Mark One Studio, established in 1953 in the basement of the home he shared with his mother and sister, produced “beefcake”—erotic images of male bodybuilders in scant attire that, passing under the sign of either art or sport, were distributed as small-scale bundles of prints or in magazines with titles like Physique Illustrated and Ahoy. These images, here presented in a vitrine, reorient the viewer’s impression of Stone’s more or less innocuous black-and-white photographs, as do the reproductions of homophobic newspaper articles from the era.

One notices, first, how Stone’s Montreal is almost entirely out-of-doors, as if in acknowledgment of the constraints placed upon gay men who wished to congregate in residential or commercial venues. Likewise, as Deitcher notes in his catalogue essay, the pictures seem taken “on the sly”: The photographs are shot from odd vantage points, and dynamic compositions lend several of them a superficial resemblance to vertiginous shots of ‘20s Paris by modernist masters such as Brassaï or Cartier-Bresson. The historical interest of Stone’s pictures rests in these subtle hints of gay life being carried out by necessity in the interstices of the dominant culture. Yet Deitcher, a gay man who grew up in Montreal during the era of the pictures on view, chooses to explain as well the personal interest Stone’s work holds for him. In doing so, the frisson of desire is rendered central in images that might otherwise be primarily understood as illustrations for an argument about injustice. Untitled (Torso), 1963, for instance, which depicts the sculpted bare chest of a man standing behind a tree trunk, his head obscured by the bark, is not merely a record of the use of parks as trysting locations. It is exhibited on a wall that contextualizes it historically, with a photograph of a sign that reads PERSONS OF GOOD EDUCATION AND MORALS ARE INVITED TO THIS PARK and the reproduction of a newspaper story that describes homosexuals’ “mincing gait.” But, especially as framed by Deitcher’s tales of his fugitive interactions with beefcake pictures as a teen, Untitled (Torso) also retains its original, mildly illicit heat.

Alan B. Stone, Untitled (Steve by Mark-One), 1964, black-and-white photograph

John Gray on The Shock of the Global

John Gray has written the first review I’ve seen of The Shock of the Global (Harvard), an anthology of historians’ writings about the 1970s edited by a super-group of three Harvard-based historians and a colleague from Berkeley. His assessment: “While what one contributor calls ‘the declining autonomy of the United States in international affairs’ is occasionally acknowledged, the idea that globalization might be undermining America’s position in the world is nowhere systematically examined.” Read more in The New Statesman.

Albert C. Barnes Before His Gallery

Earlier this week I read Nathaniel Peffer’s New Schools for Older Students (1926), part of a series of books about adult education in the United States produced for the Carnegie Corporation. Other titles in the series, published from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, address the university extension movement, chautauquas and lyceums, correspondence schools, and public libraries. New Schools for Older Students fills in the interstitial spaces of the picture, bringing together a miscellaneous sampling of institutions and endeavors that fostered learning for its own sake—what Peffer calls “cultural education.”

Each of the report’s seven sections encompasses a type of adult-education effort, with individual examples; the fifth focuses on “Corporation Educational Programs.” Peffer discusses courses conducted by the American Institute of Banking, the Standard Oil Company, and Westinghouse Electric, the latter of which enrolled roughly 5,000 of its employees in East Pittsburgh. The offerings of these companies are relatively straightforward, in that they mostly focus upon teaching employees skills they can use to get ahead in their careers at the company. Such initiatives conform to what historian Lizabeth Cohen has called “welfare capitalist” policies, which sought, in the wake of labor unrest and shop-floor organizing during the 1910s, to redirect incipient working-class solidarity into an attachment to the company.

Albert C. Barnes

Albert C. Barnes

“One unique venture should be noticed,” Peffer continues, “not because it has a general application to this field but because it is an interesting example of what may be done under special conditions. The Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia is the educational outgrowth of the A.C. Barnes Company, manufacturing chemists., but it is primarily the product of a unique personality…” So begins his introduction to an aspect of Albert C. Barnes’s educational efforts of which I was previously unaware. There is, of course, the famous art gallery Barnes set up in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, home (for a little while longer, at least) to his spectacular, idiosyncratic—and idiosyncratically presented—collection of artworks, many of them modernist masterpieces. But even while he was amassing this amazing ensemble of paintings, sculptures, and other objects, Barnes was working (with John Dewey and others) to provide educational opportunities for the workers who manufactured Argyrol, the antimicrobial drug that made him immensely wealthy. Here is part of Peffer’s description of what went on, which I offer without further comment beyond a recommendation that you bear in mind when it was published.

His fortune was made in a few years and, as he says, having no interest in wealth or commercial success per se, he took advantage of his position to give free play to his ideas. His business absorbs little of his own time and not all the time of his employees. Philosophy, psychology and art share the attention and the time both of himself and his employees.

The plant is a study group or club as much as an industry. There are about twenty employees. The men are all Negroes; no white man has ever held a job there. The women, about equal in number, are all white. There is not much work to do; in summer there is non at all, as the materials used in the preparations manufactured by the company cannot be handled in hot weather. Finding, then, that all the work that needed to be done could be finished in five or six hours a day, while the customary workday was eight hours, Dr. Barnes asked himself what to do with the remaining hours. The answer came naturally out of his own inclinations: study. So they began to study. Continue reading

John Vachon and the FSA

I just enjoyed John Vachon’s charming memoir of being introduced to photography by Roy Striker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration and amasser of 250,000 images of America taken between 1935 and 1944. (Those who have access to the Harper’s online archive can read the September 1973 piece here.) After working for Stryker for some time, Vachon writes, “one day I told Stryker I thought there were many scenes around Washington that should be photographed for his files. ‘Why don’t you borrow a camera and give it a try?’ he answered. And I did not hear the portentous bells tolling.” So began the first of a widening circle of trips out into the country, which he says allowed “a last look at America as it used to be.” Vachon went on to photograph for three more decades; small selections of his photographs can be found here, here, and here. (The last set was made in Puerto Rico the year he wrote his essay about Stryker.) In 2003, the University of California Press published a book, John Vachon’s America, that combines his FSA photographs with his writings—letters and journal entries, mostly—from the era.

18th-century New York, In the Eyes of NYU Scholars

The January 2010 issue of The William and Mary Quarterly contains reviews of recent books by two scholars based at NYU. Both books, Thomas M. Truxes‘s Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York and Bryan Waterman‘s Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature, also happen to focus on mid-to-late-eighteenth-century New York. And, last but not least, both authors happen to be speaking this semester as part of NYU’s Atlantic World Workshop. Truxes appears next Tuesday, February 2; Waterman will deliver a paper on March 23. For more, see Waterman’s blog, co-authored with Cyrus R.K. Patell and called, appropriately enough, Patell and Waterman’s History of New York; listen to Truxes’s March 2009 conversation with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate; and see my brief post on turn-of-the-eighteenth-century New York bookseller Hocquet Caritat.

Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, Chicago 1890

Detail view of the facade of the Reliance Building. Photo: Geoff Hoffman/Flickr.

The Reliance Building (Photo: Geoff Hoffman/Flickr)

This month I have been reading books on the history of Chicago. I’ve enjoyed several that are deemed classics in their fields—namely William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Carl Smith’s Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. But rather than sing their praises yet again, I want to mention a new book, Joanna Merwood-Salisbury’s Chicago 1890: The Skyscraper and the Modern City (University of Chicago Press, 2009). It’s a slim, engaging study that places a handful of the city’s first skyscrapers, including The Monadnock, the Masonic Temple, and the Reliance Building, in the context of the raucous decade during which they were erected. While Merwood-Salisbury does include some formal description, a far greater proportion of her book is given over to analysis of “architecture and anarchy,” strikes by building trades union members, and the skyscrapers’ relationship to civic reform efforts, such as sanitation. Even the technical innovations that allowed the skyscrapers to reach above ten stories in the first place, such as steel-frame construction, are examined from the standpoint of their impact upon the labor that goes in to their building. This push-and-pull between aesthetics and politics played out in the pages of The Inland Architect, the house journal of the city’s architecture professionals, and the newspaper and periodical press, which Merwood-Salisbury mines to strong effect.

Rorotoko, a website that publishes original first-person statements by authors that describe their books, featured Chicago 1890 at the beginning of the month. Here are a few of Merwood-Salisbury’s own words:

→ The book is firstly a reinterpretation of some well-known architectural masterpieces by Chicago architects Louis Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, Daniel Burnham, and John Wellborn Root, notably the Monadnock (1885-92) and the Reliance Building (1889-95). I examine these buildings not only as important artifacts in architectural history, but also as sites for a contentious debate about the future of the industrial city.

Chicago’s defining events, including the violent building trade strikes of the 1880s, the Haymarket bombing of 1886, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and Burnham and Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago— feature large in the book as the context in which the skyscraper, at the turn of the twentieth century, was imagined, built, and finally repudiated. This approach to architectural history provides a new way to look at the work of important American architects, understanding their designs as specific responses to modern urban phenomena.

To read more from this interview, click here. To see a video recording of a lecture on this subject that Merwood-Salisbury delivered at the Skyscraper Museum last year, click here.

David M. Henkin, City Reading

Henkin_City_ReadingDavid M. Henkin’s City Reading (Columbia University Press, 1998), the last book I read in 2009, comes close to my current ideal of the historian’s first book. It offers a fresh look at familiar territory: in this case, the public spaces of antebellum New York City. It’s short: based upon Henkin’s 300-page dissertation, the main text is a mere 180 or so pages. Despite that brevity, it engages a big idea: the formation of a new public in the wake of the city’s rapidly growing—and changing—population and economy. (This public is brought together, Henkin suggests, by reading in public, with commercial signage, handbills and posters, newspapers, paper currency, and the like as the citizenry’s common texts.) In doing so, Henkin is unafraid to push back against received wisdom: he suggests a somewhat novel conception of the nineteenth-century “public sphere” that counters Jürgen Habermas’s many followers, who lament everything after the demise of eighteenth-century coffeehouse culture. The book is rooted in thorough research: Henkin went through several archives’ worth of lithographs and photographs depicting the city, then interwove the insights he gained from them with contemporary observations drawn from New Yorkers’ diaries and visitors’ travelogues. He has marshaled enough evidence to convince readers that he isn’t extrapolating too broadly from too shallow a pool of sources. And the writing is largely free of obscurantist jargon. City Reading has weaknesses: to my mind, in striving to demonstrate the emergence and coherence of this new public Henkin underemphasizes the consistent confrontation among New York’s varied residents—which led to such clashes as the 1849 Astor Place Riot and the 1863 Draft Riots, both mentioned in passing in the book. (For more on this, see, for example, Lisa Keller’s 2008 book Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London, also published by Columbia.) Yet novelty, ambition, depth, and (especially) brevity seem to me admirable traits for a young scholar to aim for. To read reviews of Henkin’s book, click here and here.

Some Favorite Books Published in 2009

The editors of Frieze magazine invited me to write about some of my favorite books published this year. My response was paired with that of Amit Chaudhuri and is published in issue 128 (January-February 2010). To see the piece in context, and to read Chaudhuri’s list of the year’s literary highlights, click here. Of the books I mention, the only one I reviewed was by Steve Nicholls; read that review by clicking here.

My reading last year was a whiplash affair; I caromed between books on contemporary art and books on American history. Among my favourites were Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (Harper), which expands upon the insights of his first book, No Place of Grace (1981). Whereas that earlier volume cast a series of late-19th-century anti-modern prophets as unwittingly complicit in the arrival of therapeutic consumer culture, in his new book Lears views the period as a cauldron of proactive revitalization. This search for new spiritual and physical beginnings led, he persuasively suggests, to unintended consequences – not least to martial ambition and America’s arrival on the world stage as an imperialist power.

Later in the summer, I enjoyed my friend Suzanne Hudson’s study Robert Ryman (MIT Press), subtitled ‘Used Paint’. The book not only shrewdly frames Ryman’s practice as a pragmatic ‘open inquiry’ made up of constituent parts (primer, paint, support, edge, wall) but also includes a brief and fascinating discussion of Victor D’Amico, an unknown-to-me pioneering art educator who worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from the 1930s to the ’60s. Another book from MIT will no doubt prove of enduring value: Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson’s Institutional Critique, an anthology of artists’ writings that follows their collection of artists’ writings on Conceptual art published in 2000. That the new anthology opens with a 1966 essay by Wiesław Borowski, Hanna Ptsazkowska and Mariusz Tchorek, and that it interpolates early contributions from South America with more familiar texts by the likes of Andrea Fraser, Hans Haacke and Allan Kaprow, indicates the editors’ attention to the art-historical shifts of the last decade. Institutional Critique will certainly be worked into the syllabuses of many graduate art history courses. Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, the latest 750-page brick in the multi-volume ‘Oxford History of the United States’ published by Oxford University Press, should likewise find its way onto the reading lists of US history surveys. My admiration for both Wood’s earlier books on the American Revolution and the OUP series is widely shared (by, for example, Pulitzer Prize committee members). Though I’ve only dipped into Empire of Liberty it seems as well-crafted a narrative and as talented a synthesis of recent scholarship as one would expect.

But of all the reading I did last year, nothing sticks out in my mind as brightly as does a hilarious brief passage in scientist and documentary filmmaker Steve Nicholls’ Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (University of Chicago Press). To depict nature’s bounty, Nicholls scrutinizes the copious written descriptions left behind by the first European explorers of North America. The abundance and vitality of flora and fauna worked both to the advantage of such adventurers and, as indicated by the words of one hunter in the Carolinas, occasionally to frustrating disadvantage: ‘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.’

First Reviews of Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty

The first significant reviews of Gordon Wood’s entry in Oxford’s multi-volume History of the United States are trickling in. Jay Winik, in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, calls Empire of Liberty “the culmination of a lifetime of brilliant thinking and writing” and “as elegant a synopsis of the period as any I know,” noting in particular the way Wood traces the emergence of the middling classes as active, engaged citizens. Jill Lepore, writing in the Washington Post, is respectful but less excited, noting Wood’s “particular knack for writing books with the magisterial sweep” of the volumes in this series while acknowledging that his focus on intellectual and political history leaves out “daily ugliness and economic strife.” For more, see the new article about and interview with Wood in the Post‘s “Writing Life” series.

T.J. Stiles’s The First Tycoon

Last night, T.J. Stiles’s new biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction from an award committee chaired by Yale historian David Blight. By coincidence I just happened to read a thoughtful, generous (but by no means naive) review-essay about the book written by Steve Fraser. It’s in the current issue of The Nation, and can be found online here. “Whatever their Weltanschauung, many of these studies [a genre Fraser dubs “the misunderstood robber baron” biographies] are first-rate histories, and The First Tycoon … is no exception. Vanderbilt’s rise from small-time ferry boat operator on Staten Island to the dominant figure in the nation’s maritime (steamboat) and land (railroad) transportation system is a fascinating story, and Stiles tells it well. His writing is lively and colorful. He is a meticulous and exhaustive researcher with an instinct for the telling anecdote.” Fraser’s byline notes he is at work on a book about “America’s two Gilded Ages,” which most likely expands on his essay “The Two Gilded Ages” in the summer issue of Raritan. I recommend both of Fraser’s pieces. [Update, 11/24: Stiles has responded to Fraser’s review here, and commented thoughtfully on the process of responding here.]

Sharon Core at the Gallery at Hermès

The last time I wrote about Sharon Core’s photographs I reviewed an exhibition of prints from her series “Early American,” which is based on the still life compositions of the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century painter Raphaelle Peale. New photographs from that series are now on view, of all places, in the Gallery at Hermès on Madison Avenue and 62nd Street. To see images of the new works and read an interview with Core, see this post on The Moment, the NYT’s style blog. She says: “As for the process, it’s really a means to an end—to create an illusive representation of another time. The photographs are completely traditional, involving no digital media whatsoever, so I am staging the ‘reality’ of an early-19th-century painting in terms of lighting, subject matter and scale. This requires a lot of planning in advance of the moment of exposure.” The exhibition remains on view until December 11.

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.

Luc Sante, Folk Photography

Butte, Montana, July 1916

Butte, Montana, July 1916

My interview with Luc Sante, about his new book Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905-1930 (Yeti/Verse Chorus Press), has just been published on Click through not only to read his ruminations on this early-twentieth-century phenomenon, but also to see a slide show of additional images from the book. In the course of our discussion, Sante reiterated his point (from the book’s introduction) that he sees the real-photo postcard as a link between late-nineteenth-century American photography (of the Civil War, of the American West) and the “documentary” style of 1930s-era photographers associated with the Farm Security Administration. One aspect of our conversation that did not make it to the final edit of the text, however, concerned the links (if any) between the real-photo postcard craze and art being made between, say, 1905 and 1915. Sante suggested that the pictures are in almost every way contrary to what the Pictorialists, grouped around Alfried Stieglitz, were doing at that time, and cited how startling it was when Paul Strand’s photographs published in the final issue of Camera Work depicted commercial signage. At another moment in our discussion, Sante pointed to enterprising late-nineteenth-century photographers as one possible precedent for the real-photo postcard, citing Solomon Butcher, a postcard photographer whose work from earlier decades included a spectacular series depicting pioneer families on the Kansas-Nebraska prairies. The images in Sante’s book, which are culled from his own collection of the postcards, are pretty remarkable, and his essay is as thoughtful and well-written as you would expect. Click here to read the interview and learn more.

(NB: From the book’s extended caption to the image above: “The 62-foot-tall, 44-foot-long elk was constructed by a stage designer named Edmund Carns to welcome a convention of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, one of the country’s largest fraternal organizations. The plaster that coated the statue included $1200 worth of high-grade copper ore mined nearby; its eyes were made of 10-inch, 75-watt nitrogen lightbulbs. Before the month ended the elk had been taken down and its copper recovered.”)

2010 AHA Meeting Program Online

The program for the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, which will be held in San Diego next January, is now online. There are scores, if not hundreds, of sessions and panel discussions. Based on a cursory look through the list, one trend is particularly clear: ocean and maritime history is enjoying a moment of serious attention, with panels on oceans and the environment, maritime labor, port cities, and the like. The meeting also features a fair number of events focused on marriage and sexuality in different historical periods. To browse or search the presentations, click here.

Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery

NB: I wrote this last week for a class, but the book is recently published and available, so I thought I’d post it to the site. Slavery and abolitionism are not my specialties, so this piece is largely descriptive; please don’t look to the text below for an understanding of where Drescher’s book fits within the historiography of slavery and abolitionism.

Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (Cambridge), a sweeping comparative history of slavery and its eradication, is the fruit of Seymour Drescher’s fifty years of scholarship on the topic. As the title indicates, Drescher is particularly interested in abolition, and he therefore examines historical developments based on their effect, whether positive or negative, on the institution of slavery. His analyses of local events focus primarily upon Britain, France, the Iberian peninsula, and their New World colonial outposts; less attention is devoted to slavery in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Drescher’s book is arranged in three broad narratives: one concerning the “extension” (or rise) of slavery; one focused upon slavery in “crisis”; and one charting the “contraction” of slavery. A shorter fourth section discusses the unexpected “reversion” to slavery during the second quarter of the twentieth century (which took place in the forced-labor camps of the Soviet Union and Germany).

Drescher_abolitionAt the outset of his book, Drescher describes slavery as a “perennial institution” and outlines the ways in which Christians and Muslims enslaved each other (but not their co-religionists); describes the organization of African society and its ability to facilitate of the export of slaves after initial Portuguese contact; and the shift from Mediterranean to transatlantic slaving. He suggests that a “freedom principle” arose in the consciousness of serfs and peasants in northwest Europe during the fifteenth century, leading to the gradual incorporation of contracts for labor and the recognition that a line divided those who possessed a modicum of freedom from the far greater number of people who did not.

What, then, inaugurated abolitionist movements? Drescher suggests that increasing New World agitation on behalf of national independence and individual emancipation during the American Revolution, the messy Franco-American revolutions of the 1780s to the 1820s, and the Latin American revolutions of the 1810s and 1820s created a situation in which European citizens could no longer ignore the contradiction between “free soil” policies at home and the use of slave labor at the edges of empire. Drescher believes that this contradiction was felt most acutely in Britain, and that the nascent abolitionist movement there capitalized upon a rising tide of moral indignation among the general public. Through an expanded print sphere, increasing associational activity, and the process of mass petitioning, British abolitionists led three waves of protest (1787-88, 1791-92, 1806-07) whose cumulative force resulted in the abolishing of the slave trade by Britain’s government. Indeed, the fact that Anglo-American societies possessed “the most highly developed public sphere on the face of the earth” during the Age of Revolutions was “the most distinctive, durable, and consequential development in the demise of New World slavery.” By virtue of Britain’s global naval dominance during the first half of the nineteenth century, it was able then to “internationalize” abolition through a patchwork of bilateral treaties with powers in Old World and colonies and emerging nations in the New World.

Two more popular pushes in Britain, which Drescher describes with obvious relish, led to the emancipation of all of the empire’s enslaved peoples in 1833. He is careful to note, however, that the later efforts to transition from slavery to free labor do not follow the immediatist policies of Britain and France (which abolished slavery—for the first time—during its own revolution, in 1794). Instead, the tenacity of slaveholders, their fears of slave rebellions, and the inability of abolitionists to prove free labor more efficient than slave labor, as well as the fact that attacks on slavery seem always to arrive at the height of the institution’s economic power, conspired to create a situation in which gradual emancipation predominated. (One striking thread running through Drescher’s book is the fact that slave rebellions in the Americas often worked against the interests of slaves back in the halls of power at the seat of empire.)

The public sphere, though preeminent in Drescher’s account, is only one lens through which he views abolitionism during the nineteenth century. In each region on which he focuses, Drescher not only examines the impact of newspapers and public outcry, but also women, the church, the working and middle classes, and slaves themselves. Drescher’s comparative perspective allows readers to understand more fully which of these factors were real agents of change in which region; for example, whereas in the inaugural push for abolition in Britain depended to a large extent on the efforts of women and the church, they played a much smaller role in the initial efforts toward abolition in places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil. Few previous considerations of abolitionism have ranged as widely as does Drescher’s; even a recent collection edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer, Prophets of Protest, limits itself largely to the United States. Drescher’s synthesis of a broad range of materials and his comparative perspective offer readers an opportunity to consider anew the history of slavery and abolition in our country.

A Search for Tenure-track Security

The September-October issue of Duke Magazine includes a chronicle of Kelly Kennington’s search for a tenure-track position. Kennington, a newly minted history Ph.D. whose dissertation is about slaves who sued for their freedom in St. Louis Circuit Court, prepares meticulously for the job search and is ultimately successful. The details nonetheless remain somewhat harrowing: fifty-four applications; a dozen interviews at the annual American Historical Association conference; a few campus visits; and only one offer, the acceptance of which takes a month to pin down. Such stories may be common, and they are part of larger issues concerning the tenure system and how teaching is apportioned in universities today. But no matter how many I come across, as someone applying to Ph.D. programs in U.S. history, I can’t help but take notice (and be humbled) by them. (Link via Cliopatria.)

Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat

NB: I wrote this last week for a class, but the book is recent and widely available, so I thought I’d post it to the site.

This month New York City celebrates the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in the waters of the river that now bears his name. Only five weeks earlier, the French explorer and trader Samuel Champlain, aiming to expand his pelt trade, fought a decisive battle against Mohawk tribesmen alongside the lake that now bears his name. That same year, the Dutch set up their first permanent trading post in Asia at the west end of the island of Java. By 1609, in other words, commerce was knitting together the entire world. What united the English captain, the French explorer, and the Dutch republicans? All were seeking China’s access to fabled riches. “Europe and China are the two poles of the magnetic field of interconnection” historian Timothy Brook describes in Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World.

vermeer's_hatThis idiosyncratic and entertaining history uses five paintings by Johannes Vermeer and two additional artifacts to explore this global trade. Small details in the canvases—the officer’s hat in Officer and Laughing Girl, the globe resting on a cabinet in the background of The Geographer, the silver coins about to be weighed in Woman Holding a Balance—act as “doors,” in Brook’s phrasing, that open onto the seventeenth century, an age of worldwide mobility and social “improvisation” driven by the trade in porcelain, tobacco, silver, and other products. This was the first era in which isolation was exceedingly difficult, as the Chinese would learn: The globe had become “an unbroken surface on which there was no place that could not be reached, no place that was not implied by every other place.”

The officer’s hat, for example, is impressively elaborate, with a broad brim surely made from the fur of beaver pelts (as opposed to less stiff wool felt). But by 1657, the approximate date of Vermeer’s painting, the European beaver population had been decimated, so it’s fair to assume the material for the officer’s prized possession had been slaughtered and skinned in what is now Canada. In explaining how this pelt ended up in a Delft drawing room, Brook offers a sharp précis of the early Canadian beaver trade that focuses on Champlain and the “ladder” of tribal alliances that brought him westward and into contact with foes like the Mohawks. So, too, the silver coins in Woman Holding a Balance lead Brook on a journey across the world. First noting that Vermeer’s depiction of money-counting is positive, possibly reflecting a new “ethic of accumulation,” Brook goes on to describe the silver boom town of Potosí in Peru and the complicated networks of exchange by which hundreds of tons of its natural resource ended up China. Among his many vignettes Brook highlights the ways in which standardized currencies were changing the conditions for trade and explains the interdependence of Spanish settlers and Chinese workers in the trading outpost in Manila (even after a massive battle that led to the decimation of this Chinese population).

Why did so much silver end up in China, making it a “tomb of European moneys”? At the time, there were few European goods that the Chinese didn’t already make for themselves, often of a higher quality and at a lower price than what the Portuguese, Spanish, or Dutch could offer. So the European traders exchanged the raw material they were extracting from new-world colonies for porcelain, spices, textiles, and tea. It was a massive trade: Approximately three million pieces of porcelain arrived in Holland in the fifty years after the first boatload (which was captured from the Portuguese) docked in 1602.

Brook describes in great detail the cultural exchanges that attended this bartering. He suggests that these sustained interactions not only required accommodations from each party but also actively fostered what historian Fernando Ortiz called transculturation, the process “by which habits and things move from one culture to another so thoroughly that they become part of it and in turn change the culture into which they have moved.” Brook, a historian of China whose specialty is the Ming dynasty that came to an end during this period, seems to be an advocate of openness to this process. He consistently details the ways China tried to fend off Western influences, from tobacco to Christianity, while noting the advantages gained by the Dutch, such as sole trading rights with Japan, by virtue of their monomaniacal desire for trade and profit.

Much goes unexplored in Brook’s discussion, including the political conditions that gave rise to this global trade and the newly invented corporate structures that underlay it. Yet his synthesis of material drawn from autobiographies, the writings of other historians, ledger books, and, of course, Vermeer’s paintings, is sophisticated and expertly told. Brook describes China as the great lure that “haunted the seventeenth-century world,” and shows how desire for its riches opened the first lines of global interconnection that mark the world in which we live today.

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.”

Three Interviews with Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit’s new book A Paradise Built in Hell is receiving a fair amount of press attention, including reviews in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the B&N Review, and elsewhere. Most have been positive; Christine Stanstell’s review in the current New Republic, not yet available at the magazine’s poorly redesigned website, dissents from the general tone and offers a batch of very thoughtful criticisms. My own review of the book, published in the Brooklyn Rail, will appear here soon. In the meantime, here are links to three interviews with Solnit. One is by my old friend Lauren O’Neill-Butler and published on; one is by my new friend Astra Taylor and published in the fall issue of Bomb; and one is by a writer named Benjamin Cohen and published in The Believer.

A New Literary History of America

Last night I finally spotted Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press) on bookstore shelves. I’ve been curious about the anthology since the dust jacket for Marcus’s last book, The Shape of Things to Come, mentioned he was at work on it. Just how broadly would Marcus and Sollors define “literary history”? Fairly broadly, it turns out. There are scores of interesting commissions among the 220 pairings of author and subject. For a representative sampling, a dozen of the essays are available at the book’s nicely designed standalone website, as is an interview with the editors and a brief video interview with HUP editor Lindsay Waters. Those of us interested in art will be pleased to note an essay by T.J. Clark pegged to November 28, 1950 (the opening date of Jackson Pollock’s fourth solo show at Betty Parsons), one by Anne Wagner on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (perhaps the same piece she published in The Threepenny Review‘s winter 2008 issue), and a contribution from Kara Walker on the election of Barack Obama (which one illustrated panel describes as a “day of collective heart palpitations.”) Every entry, said Marcus in an early 2008 interview, “catch[es] a moment when something changed, something happened, something new occurred about how to speak democratic speech, how to define what it was.”

Today in NYC History

Today in NYC History is a new blog from the East Village History Project. Each post contains a paragraph-long description of an event that occurred on this day in history, and the juxtapositions are entertaining. For example, the northeast blackout of 2003 is followed by the laying of the cornerstone of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1858, which it itself followed by the Ramones’ debut at CBGB in 1974. (Via Patell and Waterman)

Dancing in the Dark

Morris Dickstein’s new book, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, will be on bookstore shelves in two weeks. I’m looking forward to reading it. Advance publicity is trickling out, including a long interview in Humanities, the journal of the NEH. “There are two rival clichés about the culture of the period,” Dickstein says. “From one angle it’s earnest, socially critical, full of conscience, and its centerpiece was the documentary movement. The critics who gravitate to that perspective are scholars on the left. […] And the fluffy, fizzy side, I noticed, was rife with Depression themes. […] There was a split in Depression culture, but the lines are blurry. The culture was really much more unified than I had first realized. The social crisis went that deep.” As Leon Neyfakh notes in the New York Observer, the book took 29 years to see the light of day: “Dancing in the Dark was originally signed up in 1980…” The Big Money and The Root, websites run by Slate, published excerpts titled “When the American Dream Died” and “Black Girls and Native Sons: How Bigger Was Born,” and the Los Angeles Times ran an Op-Ed by Dickstein on a related theme in April.

“A Wooden Serpent with a Tail in Its Mouth”

Paul Collins, an entertaining journalist and historian of everything you wouldn’t expect to be recovered by historians, has published an essay in the new issue of New Scientist on moving walkways, including the novel one at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1900 and an attempt a few years later to replicate it, at a larger scale, in New York. Collins has posted more, including a video of the Parisian boardwalk, on his blog Weekend Stubble.

Crooked Timber on George Scialabba

This week the website/community Crooked Timber is holding a symposium on George Scialabba’s new essay collection What Are Intellectuals Good For? (available from Pressed Wafer). Here is the introduction; thus far contributions have come from Michael Berubé, Russell Jacoby, Aaron Swartz, Rich Yeselson, John Holbo, and Scott McLemee (who also profiled Scialabba a few years ago and wrote the introduction to the new volume). Head on over for thousands of words of thoughtful commentary; presumably Scialabba himself will be responding closer to the end of the week.

The Memory Palace

Although word about The Memory Palace has made its way around the web in recent months, I only discovered radio journalist Nate DiMeo’s new podcast over the weekend. Each three-to-six-minute episode contains an historical anecdote. DiMeo doesn’t interview historians, doesn’t cite his sources in the stories, and keeps the production values simple. (He hopes “The Memory Palace” will air during local station newsbreaks on big NPR shows like “Morning Edition” or “All Things Considered”.) Despite their sometimes too informal tone, I’ve enjoyed several episodes, including one about British fears that Benjamin Franklin had invented a “death ray” (and was sharing it with the French) and one about cats trained to spy on Russian communists during the Cold War. To read an interview with DiMeo on the Third Coast Festival website, click here.

John McPhee

This afternoon I chose to stay in rather than venture out into the thick, sweltering New York air. Having finished my work for the day, I picked up my copy of The John McPhee Reader and read excerpts from a few of his books—Oranges, A Roomful of Hovings and Other Portraits, and Pieces of the Frame. “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” published in the New Yorker in 1972 and reprinted in the last of those three titles, is a particular delight. The magazine only makes available an abstract of the essay, but I did manage to find McPhee’s June 1964 Time cover story on the New York World’s Fair. Click here for a little weekend reading.

David S. Brown on the Origins of “Beyond the Frontier”

At HNN, historian David S. Brown discusses how he came to write his recent book Beyond the Frontier, which I mentioned in an earlier post: “Briefly put, reading [Richard] Hofstadter’s critics drew me into an exploration of a midwestern historical consciousness that went ‘beyond the frontier’ thesis popularized by [Frederick Jackson] Turner to reject American Century capitalism, imperialism, and centralized power. More, the project offered an opportunity to rethink established historiographical ‘truths,’ observe the influence of localism on intellectual life, and study the impact of ‘place’ on the past.” More, including excerpts from William Appleman Williams’s scathing 1955 review of Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform, here.

Second Annual USIH Conference Program Draft

A draft of the program for the second annual US Intellectual History conference has been posted to the USIH blog. It lists a plenary address by James Livingston of Rutgers, a retrospective discussion of John Patrick Diggins, and panels on pragmatism and the Cold War era; the intellectual legacy of the 1960s; the intellectual and policy roots of our economic crises; Catholic intellectual contributions to framing the Cold War; and, as a final session, an assessment of the legacy of the 1977 Wingspread Conference, which led to the book New Directions in Intellectual History. The conference will be held November 12 and 13 at the Graduate Center in New York.

Al Reinert, For All Mankind

Al Reinert, For All Mankind, 1989, (detail), still from a color film, 79 minutes.

Al Reinert, For All Mankind, 1989, (detail), still from a color film, 79 minutes.

Published as “Step Children” on on July 12, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

In the spring of 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. It was an act of hubris: When he spoke, the country’s astronauts had logged only twenty minutes in outer space. Billions of dollars and a little more than eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong hopped off a lunar module nicknamed Eagle and pronounced the occasion “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Live television images beamed back to Earth’s surface transfixed the nation, momentarily stitching together a public torn apart by the Vietnam War, violent inner-city unrest, campus protests, and much else besides. The achievement seemed not only a victory in the country’s war-by-any-means-but-war with the Soviet Union—the USSR’s own unmanned lunar explorer crashed into the moon while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were there, asleep in their landing module—but also to augur a grand age of space exploration and scientific breakthroughs. Yet the last human to set foot on our moon’s pockmarked surface, Eugene Cernan, did so less than five years later, at the end of 1972.

The fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission offers an opportunity for reconsideration of the Apollo program; even Aldrin has gotten into the act, publishing Magnificent Desolation, his second memoir. Criterion has contributed to the effort by releasing on DVD and Blu-Ray Al Reinert’s magnificent 1989 documentary For All Mankind. To make the film, Reinert, a journalist with no prior filmmaking experience, trolled through millions of feet of official Apollo 16-mm footage, then combined his selections with audio recordings extracted from hundreds of hours of interviews with astronauts. The lunar missions are collapsed into one epic journey, from pre-flight training to command module splashdown, narrated in the southern drawls and flat Midwestern accents of the men who rocketed out of Earth’s orbit.

The figures onscreen and those recounting their experiences are never properly identified, a decision that aims to emphasize the communal nature of the entire lunar enterprise. This directorial sleight-of-hand ensures that the focus remains on the images, which cannot be matched by the descriptions offered by those who captured them. But it also effaces the huge effort required to make the footage possible. Not only were there ten Apollo missions prior to Armstrong’s fateful steps, but also hundreds of men and women who worked at the command center in Houston, and thousands more that dedicated millions of hours of labor to create, ex nihilo, the physical infrastructure necessary to get Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon’s ash-colored surface. For All Mankind, then, is hampered by its narrow focus. But what magnificent footage it presents! There is the slow-motion infernal blaze of engines propelling rockets into the air and the still uncanny sight of flashlights, slices of bread, and other everyday items floating languidly in zero gravity. There is the Earth seen from a distance and rising above the moon’s horizon, an image that helped spark a nascent environmental movement; there are the astronauts themselves, snow-white Michelin men bouncing and stumbling giddily across the knobby, lifeless gray expanse.

Many people, reflecting on the dubious Cold War inspiration for NASA, or lamenting its ratio of cost to demonstrable benefit, or chastising the always malfunctioning, dangerous shuttles that arrived in Apollo’s wake, will use this anniversary to criticize the entire enterprise. Their claims are often legitimate. But the velvet blank amplitude of outer space, the backdrop for most of the film, reminds viewers of one Apollo program legacy still to be puzzled out. The inky, airless expanse that is so palpable a presence in For All Mankind is an indication of the deep ontological shift represented by traveling so far into the unknown. Irrespective of politics or science, forty years later, the mind still stutters when trying to grasp precisely what it means to have been to the moon and back.

For more information on For All Mankind, click here to visit the Criterion Collection’s website. To read Caryn James’s 1990 New York Times review of the film, click here. To read a 1973 essay by Al Reinert on the space center in Houston, Texas, click here (free registration required).

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.

Midwestern Voices of Dissent

Augmenting the work of scholars of New Left history like Paul Buhle, David S. Brown’s Beyond the Frontier (Chicago) posits a Midwestern voice in American history “distinguished by a typology of progressive thought and politics.” The slim volume links Frederick Jackson Turner (b. 1861), Charles Beard (b. 1874), William Appleman Williams (b. 1921), and Christopher Lasch (b. 1932), who “advanced a century of scholarship sympathetic to populistic politics, critical of America’s swift drift toward empire, and unreconciled to unrestrained capitalism.” Brown, who has also published an intellectual biography of Richard Hofstadter, is an engaging writer, and this book is a good introduction to this strain of history writing. Related reading: an excerpt from the book; an essay on Williams by Brown; a review in the WSJ; and an essay on Williams by Andrew J. Bacevich.

The Burnham Plan Centennial

My hometown is celebrating the centennial of Daniel H. Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. The plan, which dramatically reordered the city—concentrating skyscrapers downtown, creating parks along the city’s lakefront, devising broad avenues that radiate outward from the city center—is available online here. As part of the celebration, architects Ben van Berkel and Zaha Hadid have created temporary pavilions for Millennium Park. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin has posted regular updates, including construction photos, to his blog, Cityscapes. Julia Vitullo-Martin wrote about the centennial in a June 25 article published in the Wall Street Journal; Paul Goldberger wrote about the plan in a New Yorker article last March. And, last but not least, an informative website details the official events and exhibitions.

Map: Lost Art of New York

The weblog 16 Miles of String has created a new project that may prove fascinating: a Google Map “documenting the sites of performances, studios, public art installations, residences, and galleries that once existed in New York and now do not.” The list is a little thin at the moment, but they site’s proprietors are seeking suggestions and will update the map once a week. Click here for the introduction to the project and here to see the map in full on Google’s site.

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes.

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes.

From afar, it is easy to imagine the spectacular economic gains in capitalist China as being created ex nihilo, the cumulative effect of a magical reserve—millions of laboring bodies. How else to explain the recent double-digit GDP growth, year after year? Yet as both history and everyday life remind us, with every gain there is a concurrent loss. It is one of the virtues of Jia Zhang-ke’s recent film 24 City (2008) that he focuses on particular losses: the psychological and physical wounds inflicted upon the employees of Factory 420 in Chengdu, first under Mao’s regime in the 1960s and 1970s, and then during the shift from a planned economy to a market economy, the effects of which are still being felt today. The factory, recently purchased by a real-estate development company that will replace the warren of brick structures with gleaming high-rise condominium towers, is the nucleus for diverse lives, many marked by quiet tragedies.

As the complex’s buildings are emptied of their machines, stripped for copper wire and other materials, and finally demolished, a handful of workers—chosen from among the 130 Jia interviewed—tell their often painful stories. Unflagging dedication to the Factory 420 enterprise seems invariably to conflict with personal ambitions, leading to the separation of family members and the frustration of efforts to find love. It may be difficult for Western audiences to understand the seemingly extreme sacrifices made by these people. But the employees of Factory 420 forge and repair aircraft parts used by the military, and the exigencies of national defense—first against Chiang Kai-Shek, then during the brief Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979—compel submission. (The film’s opening shot is telling: Heated ingots of steel, glowing orange, are one by one pounded into shape.) Job security is not necessarily offered in return: Wartime needs slacken, the factory shifts to the production of consumer goods, and one middle-age woman recounts being laid off in 1994 despite never missing a day on the floor.

Jia has deliberately woven fictional narratives into his documentary structure as an acknowledgment of the imprecision of memory and the instability of any “truth”—whether state-mandated or private and emotional. This is an unacknowledged point in the film itself, and the plausibility of the fictional monologues and the restrained performances of his hired actors render it fairly moot. 24 City does not seem primarily a commentary on the mutability of history; that is only one of its themes. Here I agree with Kevin B. Lee’s assessment in Slant: “What emerges in 24 City is a moving three-fold meditation: on the many stories of a bygone era, both epic and banal, that are bound to be left untold and forgotten; the many fictions woven—whether by the media, by our ancestors, or by ourselves—into our understanding of reality; and a dying ideology’s legacy on how its people tell their stories.” That the coming order, no more than a shake of the kaleidoscope, is bound to produce its own difficult stories and complex legacy is apparent in the monologues delivered by two characters—a television news presenter and a personal shopper—representing a younger generation.

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes. Hao Dali (Lv Liping).

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes. Hao Dali (Lv Liping).

This is all communicated with commendable formal control: Jia intermingles lovingly framed slow tracking shots of the factory buildings and Screen Test–style silent portraits of anonymous  workers with his talking-head interviews. The images of the disheveled environment linger just long enough to communicate pathos without becoming treacly; the additional silent protagonists radiate dignity and imply all the other stories for which Jia’s interviewees stand in as representative examples. (The soundtrack, too, is relatively discreet: two brief compositions—one for a solo trumpet and another, more plaintive one, for strings—recur throughout.) 24 City does justice to the particular histories of a few individuals without forfeiting an important larger narrative about the country’s experiences under its various political and economic regimes. This is no small feat in so giddily unsettled an environment as twenty-first-century China.

For additional reviews, see David Hudson’s roundup at The Daily. 24 City runs through June 18 at IFC Center in New York, and opens soon in Columbus, OH, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Boston, and elsewhere. Click here for more information and to watch the trailer.

Isaiah Berlin’s Centenary

Yesterday was the centenary of the birth of Isaiah Berlin, the British historian of ideas. To mark the occasion, Henry Hardy, keeper of the Berlin flame, has published in England a second selection of Berlin’s letters, titled Enlightening: Letters 1946–1960. The book has been reviewed by John Gray (who published a biography of Berlin in 1996) in The Literary Review and by John Carey in The Independent. Other publications, including The Economist and The Independent, have noted the centenary with retrospective essays. I was introduced to Berlin several years ago by The Proper Study of Mankind, an anthology of essays that I still take to be the most representative, useful introduction to his writing available from a U.S. publisher, and which I recommend highly.

Anthony Grafton on anxiety and deception

“When I sat down to write Forgers and Critics, what I wanted to do was think my way through the long tradition of reasoning about the coherence and character of the past, but I ultimately came to a slightly disturbing conclusion: forgery was deeply rooted in this tradition, as deeply rooted as ways of thinking about the past that we might now call historical or philological. After all, that notion of the integrity of an historical epoch—that sense of what is possible and impossible in a given period—is literary as much as it is historical.” Anthony Grafton interviewed about anxiety and deception in the spring issue of Cabinet. His new book (unrelated to this interview) is Worlds Made by Words.

Interview: Damon Rich

In late 2008, Damon Rich, an artist, designer, and founder of the nonprofit Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), presented an exhibition at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about the possible relationships between finance and buildings. That exhibition will be reprised as Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center at the Queens Museum of Art in New York from May 31 to September 27. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on on May 29, 2009. To see the interview in context, click here.

Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center began as a broad proposal for the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT about risk, and in particular about the rise of risk management as a form of planning. In the past fifteen to twenty years, it seems like planning focused on concrete visions or goals has given way to planning that catalogues the risks to which one is vulnerable—with the goal of preserving and expanding the status quo. This is a bit abstract; for me, focusing on finance and architecture brought the proposal back to earth. How does the notion of financial risk affect the built environment?

Though I trained as an architect, I’m drawn to things that touch architecture but are not buildings. My two previous exhibition projects produced by CUP at the Storefront for Art and Architecture were about building codes (how political demands rendered in laws are expressed in the built environment) and about urban renewal (how ideology is revealed in the distorted use of past policies to justify present actions).

I want to take apart the notion of technical expertise in a democratic context. My exhibitions function as a kind of case study or experiment; each begins with a group of investigators who know little about the subject at hand, acting as stand-ins for the general public. MIT has the number-one-rated urban planning program in the country; it also has a fairly new Center for Real Estate; and, of course, it has the management school, engineers, and theoretical mathematicians. I spoke with many of these experts, attended meetings, visited archives—and from these materials put together an exhibition. While exhibitions are just about the least cost-effective way to organize people politically, for me they contain a set of potentials that the initiatives of a mission-driven nonprofit organization like CUP—mainly school programs and community workshops—often do not. A nonprofit has to be disciplined by measurable outcomes, but an exhibition is a chance to stage a more open-ended encounter in three dimensions, to use abstraction to recontextualize imminent realities.

Another privilege of exhibiting in a gallery or museum is the luxury to say that in examining so complex a topic—which engages real estate brokers, architects, federal regulators, economists, and, of course, the public—you don’t have to subordinate everything to clarity and immediate action. You can dwell on the innumerable internal fissures and contradictions that bear on political contests. Often when I tell people I’m doing a project about foreclosures, financial justice, and housing, they say, “That’s really great!” But I don’t think people should assume an exhibition about foreclosures is inherently good; I hope to encourage engagement and skepticism through the practice of representation.

Every single piece in the show tries to use a specific visual strategy to stage a relationship with the audience. For example, one of the most basic and central ideas to finance is the interest rate. The relationship an interest rate instantiates between a borrower and a lender is an abstract thing, and it’s discussed in a naturalized manner—the interest rate goes up, the interest rate goes down, like the temperature. Yet national mortgage interest rates are nothing but an index of a social relationship between borrowers and lenders. So I built a forty-foot-long plywood barrier that’s cut in the shape of the prime rate; one can see, at about 1980, when the interest rate shoots up, because the barrier itself shoots up to about thirteen feet in height. The mute graph you see on the nightly news hopefully becomes visible and legible in a new way, as containing stories of political and social relationships. Another piece is a series of sixty-six photographs of houses in the Detroit metropolitan area, arranged on metal stands in their actual geographic relationships: One can walk among them and understand housing outcomes: dilapidated neighborhoods on the east side of Detroit; big, brand-new houses in outlying Lyon Township in the western suburbs. I hope it causes people to question what produced this differentiated set of buildings.

The series of public programs is an important part of the show and will feature people who know far more about redlining than I do, even after all the research. Redlining is a visual fiction, a metaphor cleverly crafted to mobilize people into political action. In fact, it is so effective that people today use it in all kinds of ways to stand for the inequities of capitalism—in financing, city services, insurance, even Internet service. But it’s also a slippery concept, as is another that is often used today, “disinvestment.” Both have great explanatory power, but you can’t ever really point to them in action. It’s important to understand these concepts and how they have functioned historically in order to better grapple with the messy process of making change.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Fritz Goro, Science Photographer

“Fritz Goro was the longtime science photographer for LIFE magazine. He covered the Manhattan Project, including shooting at the original Ground Zero. His image of a fetus in an artificial womb inspired Kubrick’s 2001. He crafted photo-simulations of x-ray diffraction and created elaborate graphics in-camera using multiple exposures, lenses and focal depths to depict atomic structure. Much of America’s 20th century image of science was either made or influenced by Goro.” More, with images and links, from

George Scialabba radio interview

Christopher Lydon of Open Source interviews George Scialabba in conjunction with the publication of the latter’s new essay collection, What Are Intellectuals Good For? The forty-five-minute discussion encompasses WWI-era social critic Randolph Bourne; midcentury intellectuals like George Orwell; contemporary intellectuals and the Iraq War; whether the sciences have taken over from from the humanities in shaping public discourse; the prematureness of postmodernity, and more. Click here to listen, and here to see which books Scialabba suggests critics should keep in their library.

Update, 6/10/09: Mark Oppenheimer, editor of the New Haven Review, reviews What Are Intellectuals Good For? on the website of AGNI. And there’s more at the New Haven Review website. And yet more from NPR’s Fresh Air.

Michael Gross, Rogues’ Gallery

Published on, 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.

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.

Department stores and modern art at the turn of the last century

I’ve just finished William Leach’s 1993 book Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, which “tells the story of a fundamental transformation in the culture and economy of America—the rise of mass-market consumerism and the attendant shift to a society ‘preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this.'” It is very good at tracing how networks of mutual support arose between big business and institutions (education and government in particular). What I did not expect to find was the following bit of information about the reception of modern art in the United States. While my radar sets off alarms about the categorical nature of its first sentence, the rest is fascinating:

It was in the department stores, not in the museums, that modern art and American art found their first true patrons. The pastel paintings of John La Farge, one of America’s most original colorists, appeared in the show windows and picture galleries of Marshall Field’s in 1902. Field’s conducted its “Hooser Salon,” a picture gallery for young artists from Indiana and Illinois. In 1910 Theodore Dreiser, in walks about Philadelphia, saw in Wanamaker’s a Fauve-style mural in four panels, depicting scenes from Parisian life, by the American Anne Estelle Rice. Hung above the first-floor elevator, it “suggested” to Dreiser “a sense of life and beauty.” “The light,” he raved, “the space, the daring, the force, the raw reds, greens, blues, mauves, whites, yellows!” (Rice, an artist trained in Paris at the Academy of Art, founded by Rodman Wanamaker, was to become one of Dreiser’s many female lovers.)

The Gimbel brothers, inspired by the Armory Show of 1913, became among the most ardent supporters of modern art, buying up Cézannes, Picassos, and Braques, and displaying them in their store galleries in Cincinnati, New York, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. Five years later Carson, Pirie, Scott in Chicago exhibited the work of Americans Henri Bellows, William Glackens, and John Sloan in its new galleries on the fifth floor, as well as the paintings of the Taos Society of Artists of New Mexico.

John Wanamaker, the man most apt to advertise his stores as “public institutions,” was, not surprisingly, also the most innovative merchant of all in his display of art. He deplored the way museums jumbled pictures together “on the walls, destroying the effect of the finest things,” and month after month, to sustain customer interest, he rotated pieces in his personal collection from the store “studio” in Philadelphia—a Constable here, a Reynolds there, to say nothing of a Titian or a Turner, a Wanamaker favorite—to his New York store and back again. (Of the “moderns,” Wanamaker admired Manet the most.) He applied what he called the “new display principles,” setting a standard later followed by museum curators. He wanted to make art “breathe” by giving it plenty of space on the walls, as if it were to be sold. “What is not for sale,” he said, “is still for sale.” “Everything that is lovely, everything that is worthwhile needs the eyes of the merchant … to show it off to best advantage.”

I wonder what it must have been like for a housewife from Cleveland to come across, in 1916, a painting by Cézanne or Braques in her local department store. I also wonder to what extent such display strategies are acknowledged in a book like Bruce Altshuler’s recent Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions that Made Art History, Volume I: 1963–1959. Anyway, one thread of Leach’s book that may be interesting to readers of this site discusses the evolving relationship between curators at the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Newark Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History and department store owners, industrial designers, and trade associations during the first decades of the last century.

UPDATE, 2/24: Alex Farquharson reviews Salon to Biennial in the current issue of Frieze magazine, and offers this summation and, in a parenthetical aside, a relevant detail:

The aim of Salon to Biennial is to offer direct access to archives normally consulted by professionals only: the bulk of its material consists of installation shots, reproductions of catalogues and publicity material, statements by its organizers and several reviews (ranging from the sympathetic to the vituperative). Consequently, Altshuler’s words – consistently insightful and measured – are restricted to the essentials (some readers will wish Altshuler had given himself more interpretative licence). Beginning 42 years – but only three exhibitions – before The Avant-Garde in ExhibitionSalon to Biennial is essentially a 20th-century narrative whose way is paved by ‘Salon des Réfusés’, the Impressionists’ break with the official Salon in 1863. Volume Onewisely leaves the reader on the brink of the 1960s, with ‘The New American Painting’ (1959) – Abstract Expressionism’s (and New York’s) supposed triumph over Europe – acting as a cliff-hanger.

More often than not, exhibitions are selected for the central role they played in ushering in key avant-garde tendencies, even if the original circumstances were touchingly modest (we learn that ‘The First Brücke Exhibition’ was held in a Dresden lighting shop, for example).

The article is available online to registered users of the magazine’s website.

Tiffany & Co. Heraldry Department

One of the books I read for class this week was Sven Beckert’s The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850–1896. It’s a brisk, well-written account of, as its subtitle indicates, the development of a self-conscious upper class in New York during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Beckert, now a professor at Harvard, was a doctoral student at Columbia, and one can sense the influence of his dissertation adviser Eric Foner in this book. (Make of that what you will; I offer the comment solely to help locate it for those familiar with the historiography of the period.) Though it is primarily an economic and political history, it also incorporates some commentary on the upper-class culture of the period. As always with a good work of scholarship, an odd, telling detail or two will stick out of such a book like a coin gleaming on the sidewalk. In The Monied Metropolis, two examples of the excesses of New York’s bourgeoisie caught my eye.

The first follows from a quote from William Graham Sumner, an influential Yale professor and free-market advocate: “It is commonly asserted that there are in the United States no classes. . . . On the other hand, we constantly read and hear discussions of social topics in which the existence of social classes is assumed as a simple fact.” Beckert then adds the following piquant example:

As if to prove these observers right, bourgeois New Yorkers themselves enacted these class lines: Starting in 1898, annual Christmas feedings for the poor in Madison Square Garden attracted the rich and powerful, who would sit in the galleries and private boxes staring down at the city’s lower sorts (a full 20,000 of them) who ate below them.

A few pages later, discussing bourgeois New Yorkers’ attempts to appropriate European aristocratic culture, Beckert notes that “Tiffany & Co. opened a heraldry department in the 1870s to design coats of arms.” While a quick Lexis-Nexis search didn’t net anything about the annual event at Madison Square Garden, I am fascinated by the idea of Tiffany-designed fake heraldry, and suspect my friends Stuart and David, who run the organization Dexter Sinister, would be, too. Interestingly, an internet search led me to the website of the American Heraldry Society, which contains a page detailing the artistic creativity of the various coats of arms adopted by Congress throughout the nineteenth century. The last example included is The Tiffany Seal Emblazonment, designed by James Horton Whitehouse—perfect name!—in 1885. Here is the description:

In 1881, with the centennial of Independence having just passed and that of the adoption of the great seal just around the corner, a wave of public interest in the seal and arms, combined with the worn condition of the existing dies, led the Department of State to make inquiries about contracting for a new engraving of the great seal. In 1883, the New York firm of jewelers, Tiffany & Company, was selected for the job, and turned to its chief designer, James Horton Whitehouse, to prepare the drawings. Meanwhile, however, the department official in charge of the seal had contacted a number of luminaries in a variety of fields for advice on the design. These included the country’s leading botanist (for advice on the olive branch), an eminent professor of art history at Harvard, the same college’s librarian, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the well-known author Edward Everett Hale, and the two most prominent American heraldists of the day, William H. Whitmore and William S. Appleton of the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s Committee on Heraldry. The “experts” debated virtually every component of the design: Should the arrows be conventional barbed arrows or stone-headed arrows in the American Indian style? Should an American olive or European olive branch be used? Should the eagle be portrayed heraldically or naturalistically? Should the tips of the wings be pointed up or down? How many feathers should be in its tail?

With all this debate, it’s a miracle that Whitehouse ever finished the job, let alone that he produced the beautifully executed emblazonment that has graced the great seal ever since. In fact, he may have done the job too well. Combined with a spirit of bureaucratic standardization that characterized the late 19th and early 20th centuries–it was the era in which numerous state legislatures fixed the design of state arms according to fixed models–the artistic quality of the Tiffany rendering soon drove almost all other emblazonments out of official use. Whitehouse’s staid, dignified, but static eagle, drove the fierce birds off of the Army’s regimental colors and the Navy’s Presidential flag. When federal agencies whose seals featured the national arms had the dies re-cut, they almost invariably directed that the new dies match the rendering of the arms on the great seal. Indeed, ever since 1885, whenever the Department of State has needed to replace a worn-out seal, it has mandated that the replacement replicate the Tiffany design almost exactly. The only change, almost imperceptible, was the addition of tiny dots indicating the color gold among the rays of the glory in the crest, introduced in the die produced by Max Zeitler of Bailey, Banks and Biddle in 1904. Since then, the production of a new great seal has involved no artistic creativity, while the production of other items on which the arms are traditionally used, from uniform cap badges to passport covers, has been little more than a cookie cutter operation. In the process, a vibrant heritage of heraldic artistry has been sadly lost.

A small image of Whitehouse’s design is available at the link above. I would love to see some examples of the Tiffany heraldry department’s work for prominent New York families, and wonder how easily one might be able to extrapolate information about the period and its elites’ aspirations from such visual material.

Interview: James Calvin Davis

James Calvin Davis is associate professor of religion at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT. He is the author of The Moral Theology of Roger Williams: Christian Conviction and Public Ethics (Westminster John Knox, 2004) and editor of On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams (Harvard, 2008). After spending much of my autumn researching Roger Williams, and having benefitted both from Davis’s one-volume selection of Williams’s writing and his own interpretation of the Puritan dissident’s life and work, I contacted Davis to request an interview. This conversation was conducted by e-mail during January 2009; the links you’ll find in the questions and answers were inserted by me and are not to be seen as endorsements by Davis. More on Williams can be found in this December 29, 2008, TSWTT post. –BJS

* * *

In the last fifty years, historians and theologians have done much to situate Roger Williams in his seventeenth-century context and to tease out the details of his religious thinking. Recently, scholars have made great efforts to incorporate his concept of freedom of conscience into histories of the first amendment. Yet you look at Williams through the lens of morality. Can you speak about how this aspect of Williams’s thought (and life, if applicable) first appealed to you?

I first became interested in Roger Williams as a graduate student in ethics. While doing graduate studies, I developed an interest in Puritanism, and the ways in which Puritan figures and the Puritan culture helped shaped the moral and political culture of the United States, beyond the stereotypes of Puritan prudishness and theocratic control. My studies led me to Williams, and the more I read of Williams, the more I was convinced of his relevance to contemporary ethics, especially (at first) a prominent question in contemporary religious ethics, the relationship between religion and morality. Do we need religion in order to maintain a public morality? Can Christians in particular make a contribution to a vision for public morality without either appearing to endorse theocracy or appealing to a universalistic basis for morality? These kinds of questions brought me back again and again to Williams, and the more I read of him, the more fascinating a figure I was convinced he was, and the more relevant I was convinced his worldview was to our “modern” questions of public ethics. Eventually I decided to write my dissertation on him.

It has been twenty years since the last significant publication of Roger Williams’s writing, Glenn W. LaFantasie’s edition of his letters. Aside from the long time since that publication and the scant number of copies of earlier editions of his writing, what prompted you to prepare a one-volume, modernized edition of Williams’s texts?

I was motivated to prepare the collection during my graduate studies. The more I read of Williams, the more I thought others ought to as well. His continuing relevance to questions of public morality, church and state, and civility in politics seemed obvious to me, but few scholars as late as the 1990s were appealing directly to Williams because his writings were so inaccessible. Another result of this inaccessibility was that people were misunderstanding Williams, specifically missing the central importance of religion to his liberal worldview. (Incidentally, this misinterpretation still occurs; Martha Nussbaum’s work laudably resurrects Williams for a wide audience, but she insists on minimizing the impact of his Puritan religion on his views, interpreting him instead as a pre-Jefferson Jeffersonian.) I became convinced that returning Williams to a prominent place in our intellectual heritage, and getting students and scholars to read his works, required a readable edition. I hope this collection does just that.

Near the end of your introduction to On Religious Liberty, you describe Williams’s experience as a kind of “moral anthropology” that allowed him to devise an “internal argument” for the cause of religious liberty. Will you elaborate on the idea of his “moral anthropology” a little bit?

What I mean by that is that Williams offers a theological understanding of human morality, including claims about the universality of conscience and the reliability of natural moral capabilities, that allows him to argue that public morality doesn’t require government defense of religion. This is an approach that’s likely to be much more persuasive to traditional Christians (and perhaps other religious persons) than appeals to Enlightenment assumptions about the alleged private nature of religion and the preference of reason over religion. So in that way his approach allows him to make an “internal argument” to his co-religionists (then and perhaps today) for why they should support religious liberty and find alliance with secular devotees of the “separation of church and state.”

You mention in an answer above the popular (and recurrent) misinterpretation of Williams as a kind of Jeffersonian founding father born a century early. While some have suggested that, through Locke, those who conceived our country’s first amendment may have been influenced by Williams, that is not the same thing as saying they embodied his intellectual spirit—which turned precisely on the centrality of theology to his thought. Who, since Williams’s own day, embodies for you the intertwined concern for religious principles and liberal political values? I suspect you may say eighteenth-century Baptists, given the mention of them in conjunction with your discussion of Locke in the introduction to the new volume, but please feel free to pick a few figures from disparate eras.

Well, you’re right that I think the main lineage of Williams’s perspective on religious liberty is religious, and most obviously represented by the Baptists. Although the Southern Baptist Convention sometimes seems to forget the preference for “separation of church and state” advocated by their intellectual heir, historically Baptists in America have been instrumental in arguing for religious freedom, encouraging popular support for religious freedom, and demonstrating that the institutional separation of church and state can be very, very good for religious communities as well as the larger society (their prominence on the American religious scene is the best evidence). But it’s not just the Baptists who represent this theological legacy. Williams was a Puritan Calvinist, and the Calvinist tradition in the United States (e.g., Presbyterians and Congregationalists) continue his commitment to religious liberty. Furthermore, one can make the argument that Williams’s commitment to religious liberty has transformed Roman Catholicism’s perspective on the issue. Once quite hostile to the idea of true religious liberty, the Catholic Church did an about-face on the subject in the 1960s during Vatican II. The principal influence on the Church regarding this issue was an American Jesuit named John Courtney Murray, whose theological arguments show the clear influence of, among other thinkers, Roger Williams. These days even political philosophers are rediscovering Williams, most notably Martha Nussbaum, whose recent book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality puts Williams front and center in this American tradition (though, as I said in an earlier answer, I don’t think she gets his theological indebtedness quite right). So although his influence is indirect, Williams’s effect on religious and philosophical commitments to religious liberty—in the US and more globally—is undeniable.

Which other books or essays on Williams have you found particularly helpful, either as a good introduction for readers new to him or as particularly revelatory even for those who may be familiar recent scholarly work?

Anything Edwin S. Gaustad has written on Williams is a must-read. Specifically, I’d recommend his most recent book published by Oxford in 2005, entitled (imaginatively enough) Roger Williams. He has such a readable style; that small book makes a great introduction to Williams and his importance. In addition, I warmly recommend Timothy Hall’s book Separating Church and State, in which he introduces the reader to Williams’s thought and its importance to the legal tradition of religious liberty. Hall’s book influenced me greatly.

Lastly, would you care to describe in any detail the book on “religion and the debate over moral values” that you are working on?

The book is called Good Faith Reasons: Religion and America’s Perennial Battle over Moral Values. This book, written for a general audience, is a call for clarity in the seemingly endless debates over moral values and the role of religion in those public debates. Looking at the history of religious involvement in public moral debates in this country, I argue that there is nothing wrong and a lot right with religious people wanting to contribute to American moral culture from a religious point of view. At the same time, a healthy debate over moral values has to acknowledge explicitly that there are a lot of different ways to prioritize which moral values are most important, and which values issues are most important. So in the end, the book is a call to secular liberals to be more open to religious contributions to public moral debate, and a call to religious conservatives to be open to the probability that they’re not the only ones in those debates with some kind of commitment to moral values.

Melville and the Shakers

I’ve never read a biography of Herman Melville, so I guess it’s understandable that I didn’t know he moved in 1850 to Pittsfield, MA. (He wrote Moby-Dick there, at Arrowhead, his home, which is now a National Registered Historic Landmark.) Today a short piece in the New York Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg—a wonderful writer, in my opinion; I subscribe to an RSS feed that notifies me whenever he publishes in the paper—opens this way:

When the thermometer bottoms out, I remember, again, that winter isn’t a season, it’s a place. Just over the hill is the 19th century, and somewhere beyond the river lies the 18th. Why winter should seem so much more continuous with the past than summer does is never clear to me. But this morning it’s 3 degrees, and I can hear Melville, a few miles north of where I am, writing to his sister: “The weather here has been as cold as ever. Other than the weather I know not what to write about from Pittsfield.”

In October, 2007, my girlfriend and I drove up Route 9 from Bard College and, without intending to, ended up across the border in Pittsfield, where we found Hancock Shaker Village and spent a delightful afternoon. A quick Internet search told me that Melville did something similar, although he visited the Shaker community in Mount Lebanon, NY:

Melville usually wrote in the mornings and took his family for carriage rides in the late afternoon, after a midday meal. Among their favorite outings were visits to the Shaker settlement at Mount Lebanon. […] Unlike Charles Dickens, who found the Shakers “grim” and quipped that their women were so ugly he could understand why their men were celibate, Melville was charmed by their simple handcrafted inventions, their singing, their dancing, and their nondoctrinal practice of religion. Eager to learn more about their unusual beliefs and practices, he bought a copy of A Summary View of the Millennial Church, or the United Society of Believers, Commonly Called Shakers (1848).

That excerpt is from Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s biography of the writer. Melville apparently attended their religious services. Note to self: Find a copy of Melville’s journals and see what he himself said about these encounters.

UPDATE, 1/26: Thanks to Greg Allen, of, for pointing me to Hawthorne’s account of a summertime visit to a Shaker community in the company of Melville, included in the book Twenty Days with Julia & Little Bunny by Papa.

Hocquet Caritat

Consider this post a bookmark (“book mark”?) meant to spur my own further library research.

Early in Thomas Bender’s New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City, from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (1987), he comments briefly on a figure previously unknown to me, Hocquet Caritat. Bender writes, “If there was any one indispensible institution in the intellectual life of New York in the 1790s, it was the bookshop tended by the French immigrant Hocquet Caritat. His bookshop brought European learning to New York; he imported the Enlightenment. His contribution to ‘the literary life of New York,’ Gilbert Chinard has rightly observed, ‘can hardly be overemphasized.’”

This is the New York of the Friendly Club, a coterie of budding intellectuals and businessmen spearheaded by Elihu Hubbard Smith. (Bryan Waterman’s Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature is on my nightstand’s to-read pile.) Smith died at twenty-seven, in 1798, and the club dissipated; Bender notes that in 1801 “Caritat tried to re-create the group … when he established a ‘Literary Assembly’ in the reading room he organized at the City Hall in association with his bookshop.” Although it never really got off the ground, it is notable that in 1803 Caritat also invited women to participate in this assembly’s activities.

According to Thomas Augst and Kenneth E. Carpenter’s Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States, by 1800, “Caritat had a library of over 3,000 volumes and a stock of books for sale or rent of over 30,000 volumes. His 1804 catalogue included almost 2,000 novels.” It was located, according to George Gates Raddin, at 93 Pearl Street, near Old-Slip, and then later moved to No. 1 City Hotel, Broadway (on the block immediately above Trinity Church). Raddin seems to be the definitive scholar of Caritat; his 1953 book The New York of Hocquet Caritat and His Associates, 1797–1817, sometimes referred to as Hocquet Caritat and the Early New York Literary Scene, seems to be the most influential single volume on the subject.

A bookseller, librarian, publisher (of Charles Brockden Brown among others), and friend to autodidacts in early New York—definitely someone to learn more about.

Gilder Lehrman symposium on Lincoln

Lincoln in His Time and Ours” featured nearly every contributor to a new essay collection, edited by Eric Foner, titled Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World. Now the Gilder Lehrman Institute has uploaded videos of four the participating historians’ papers to its website. Click here to watch Sean Wilentz, Manisha Sinha, James Oakes, and Richard Cawardine. The four recordings are also available as audio podcasts on this page, and all four papers are available in the December 2008 issue of History Now.

Smart commissioning: LRB and Drew Gilpin Faust

Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War has received incredible press attention, both because it is a well-written work by a respected historian and because its author was recently named president of Harvard University. Eric Foner praised it in The Nation; Geoffrey C. Ward did as well, in The New York Times Book Review. (The NYTBR has also made the book’s first chapter available online.) Many of the those reviews were published in January of last year, when the book came out. Others, arriving later, rightly paired Faust’s book with Mark S. Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death, which was released last May and covers similar territory. These include Adam Gopnik’s review, in The New Yorker; James M. McPherson’s, in the New York Review of Books (not available free online); and T.J. Jackson Lears’s, in Bookforum.

What, then, does an editor do if he or she knows his piece is to be published months after the critical reaction to Faust’s book has been established, and after her book’s relationship to Schantz’s has likewise been outlined? Someone on the staff of the London Review of Books had the presence of mind to pair Faust’s work with another book, Mark E. Neely’s The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction (PDF excerpt here), and to commission the review from a historian whose primary focus is Europe. That 7,500-word review, by Thomas Laqueur, appears in the December 18 issue. The treatment of Faust’s book benefits from the novel juxtaposition with Neely’s title, as well as from the comparisons to European wars that Laqueur is able to draw. I had thought I wouldn’t want to read another review of Faust’s book, but the smart commissioning—and the quality of the resultant essay—drew me in.

Rodney McMillian

Published in Artforum, January 2009.

Rodney McMillian, installation view, ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2008.

Rodney McMillian, installation view, ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2008.

“The challenge of the next half century,” said Lyndon B. Johnson at the University of Michigan in 1964, “is whether we have the wisdom to use [our] wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.” Los Angeles–based artist Rodney McMillian, who in recent years has delivered Johnson’s famous “Great Society” speech at numerous art venues, might argue that the past fifty years have not lived up to the former president’s hopeful vision. McMillian’s art has, without seeming merely didactic, patiently explored the social fissures—in particular, those along racial and economic lines—that still rend our “great” society. At the Kitchen, the artist presented an installation (inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel The Road) that drew on the power of sacred architecture to elevate his secular concerns. On their own, the paintings, sculptures, and photographs may seem somewhat abstract, largely divorced from current events. Considered in the context of McMillian’s earlier artworks, however, they become a forceful, plangent lament for the degrading inequities many in America still encounter every day.

Five mural-size, bannerlike paintings hung on the walls of the gallery; interspersed among them were columns of framed black-and-white photographs, found at flea markets and antique stores, depicting anonymous individuals and couples young and old. At the center of the space rested a dirty old rug and an armchair, both doused with red paint, beneath a six-pointed canopy made of white paper and tape. A pile of Internet printouts of nursey-rhyme lyrics (“John Brown Had a Little Soldier,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep”)—intoned by an actor during a performance at the show’s opening reception—was laid on the chair. The unstretched paintings depict part of a brick house, tree branches, and what may be interpreted (somewhat liberally) as a figure being torn apart; all are awash in scarlet. A fourth canvas is an abstract agglomeration of red, white, and black paint that resembles viscera. The title of Edmund Wilson’s study of the literature of the Civil War, Patriotic Gore, came immediately to mind while I looked at these works, as did painter Barnaby Furnas’s enormous crimson floods. (The installation as a whole also evoked Robert Gober’s sober 2005 exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery.)

In McMillian’s 2006 exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter in Los Angeles, eighteen cardboard-and-duct-tape “minimalist objects,” made to look like coffins, were arranged haphazardly throughout the space. These works foregrounded precisely what our government was at the time taking great pains to obscure—images of dead American soldiers. By deploying at the Kitchen a spatial arrangement that imbued the gallery with a sacred aura, McMillian even more powerfully dredged up the violence that has underpinned American history and offered an ironic counterpoint to the rhetoric of hope embodied by Johnson’s space (and those of today’s politicians). Whereas McCarthy, in his book, looks forward, McMillian plays the role of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, pushed forward while looking back upon a landscape of ruins.

Rodney McMillian, installation view, ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2008.

Rodney McMillian, installation view, ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2008.

In the elated afterglow of Barack Obama’s election on November 4, during which time I first viewed the exhibition, the disenchantment and anxiety that characterize McMillian’s installation risked seeming anachronistic. But as that moment passes and we enter more fully into our own historical crisis, we will come to depend increasingly on eloquent, historically aware interpreters of our tumultuous era. In the introduction to his book, Wilson asked, “Has there ever been another historical crisis of the magnitude of 1861–1865 in which so many people were so articulate?” We are not as fortunate in today’s culture of distraction. Yet McMillian, with this exhibition, proves he is among the artists to whom we should look.

Roger Williams in the eyes of historians since 1950

Bloudy Tenent

(Image courtesy Library of Congress; link to Google Books scan of the text)

One of the two term papers I wrote this past semester surveyed the reputation of Roger Williams as it has broadened and deepened since about 1950. Here is part of the introduction (minus footnotes, but with links):

In the public imagination, Roger Williams—Puritan dissident, founder of Providence, tireless proponent (in both England and New England) of freedom of conscience—does not loom as large as does some of his fellow Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers or the founding fathers of the United States. Yet for historians of the Puritan settlers in New England, religious historians, and, to an increasing degree, legal scholars, Williams has become, in the previous half-century, a major figure. He is considered in relationship to his fellow Puritan settlers, his English contemporaries, and to those like Benjamin Franklin who, approximately one hundred years after his death, made indirect use of some of his key ideas. He is present in debates about both British colonial theology and politics, and is now central, as he should be, to any conversation about the interface between the two subjects in seventeenth-century New England. On Religious Liberty, a new selection of Williams’s writings edited by James Calvin Davis, is the first of his own words since the publication, in 1988, of Glenn W. LaFantasie’s two-volume collection of his letters and, before that, the 1963 reprint (and small expansion) of the six-volume Narragansett Club edition first published between 1866 and 1874. (In 1951, Winthrop S. Hudson edited and wrote the introduction to a reprint of Williams’s little book Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health [1652], which was meant as a letter of encouragement to his wife Mary.) An accessible, sensitively modernized, one-volume selection of Williams’s major writings is made more important by the realization that the Narragansett Club volumes were published in an edition of less than two hundred sets and the Russell & Russell reprint of 1963 in an edition of four hundred sets. Any opportunity to revisit the words of a historical figure is bound to provoke assessments of his or her legacy, and Davis’s selection provides an excellent opportunity to consider Williams’s place in the historical landscape. What aspects of Williams’s life and thought have been emphasized by historians in the last half-century?

I spend approximately 4,500 words answering that question, and then conclude:

James Calvin Davis, who edited the volume of Williams’s writings that prompted this survey, has written his own book on Williams, titled The Moral Theology of Roger Williams: Christian Conviction and Public Ethics. Eschewing biographical fastidiousness for theological interpretation, Davis sees Williams’s twenty-first-century relevance as extending beyond First Amendment debates to also include helping “Christian thinkers [grapple] with the relationship between confessional integrity and participation in public moral discourse.” He offers Williams as progenitor of a middle way between Christian particularists and universalists, someone who could balance theological integrity and a concern for civic society. This seems, after the last half-century of Williams scholarship, eminently sensible—a nuanced, occasionally self-contradictory Williams who can be seen as an example for our time without being extracted from his own era for the purpose of making a point. LeRoy Moore, in his 1965 article, deemed what I’ve called the “theological turn” the beginning of a realistic assessment of Williams’s life and thought. At the time, Moore’s use of the term may have been somewhat premature. But after several decades of further study, in which Williams’s thinking has been connected to early Separatists, General Baptists, exemplars of millenarian thought, his fellow Puritans in Massachusetts, and others who lived before, during, and after his life; his correspondence has been rounded up and sensitively annotated; and exhaustive studies of his Biblical interpretation have been conducted, we may now have a fairly “realistic” portrait of Roger Williams.

If so, this figure—dismissed literally by his fellow Puritans and figuratively by their eighteenth-century chroniclers, resuscitated and elevated by nineteenth-century biographers and historians eager to place him at the headwaters of American democracy, and finally situated contextually and thoroughly vetted by recent scholars—seems ready for mainstream attention. In 2005, Edwin W. Gaustad introduced him to a general-interest audience in a brief biography (filled with pictures, maps, and excerpts of other secondary material) that is part of a series that also features Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, and Mark Twain. LaFantasie condensed his deep knowledge of Williams into an article for the popular magazine American History in 2007. Ethan Fishman, a professor of political science, suggested in a 2007 essay in The American Scholar that contemporary religious groups have ignored Roger Williams at their peril. And Martha Nussbaum, one of our country’s most respected, astute, and prolific political and ethical philosophers, acknowledged the new publication of Williams’s writing with a rapturous review—it resuscitates the dreaded word “hero” used by Progressive historians—published in The New Republic, in which she suggests Williams’s “work and career provide the basis for a politics based on equal respect for conscience.”

Van Wyck Brooks once made the distinction between “highbrow” and “lowbrow,” appointed the characteristics to Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin, respectively, and suggested that each figure, in “their singular purity of type and in the apparent incompatibility of their aims … determined the American character.” Thirty years ago literary critic Quentin Anderson recast Brooks’s terms—he uses “practical” and “visionary”—and suggested that the struggle between the two types occurs within each American. Reverse their order and these terms capture something of the complex portrait we now have of Roger Williams. A visionary cast out of Massachusetts Bay Colony for his fervid beliefs, he was nonetheless practical enough to survive among the Indians, maintain both a family and a transatlantic network of intellectual contacts, and found a settlement extant nearly four centuries later. The successful reconciliation of these contradictory impulses was essential to Williams’s character, and offers perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from him today.

After reading over a dozen books on Williams’s life and thought, I find my interest in him has not abated. He remains for me an admirable, if eccentric, character.

Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, H-SHEAR

howe_book_coverYesterday morning I completed what is perhaps the longest book I’ve ever read: Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (Oxford University Press). The transformation that Howe studies involves the “revolutions” of both communications and transportation during the period. This is in marked contrast to earlier interpretations of the era, which have tended to focus on Andrew Jackson (cf. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz) or on the “market revolution” (cf. Charles Sellers). In her lucid, engaging New Yorker review of What Hath God Wrought, historian Jill Lepore details some of the background information concerning Howe and Sellers:

Howe’s book is the most recent installment in the prestigious Oxford History of the United States. This would not be worth mentioning except that the book that was initially commissioned to cover this period, Charles Sellers’s “The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846,” was rejected by the series editor, the late, distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward, and it is Sellers against whom Howe argues, if with a kind of gentlemanly diffidence. (Oxford did publish Sellers’s book, in 1991, just not as part of the series.) Sellers, a historian at Berkeley, claimed that the greatest transformation of the first half of the nineteenth century—indeed, the defining event in American and even in world history—was no mere transformation but a revolution, from an agrarian to a capitalist society. “Establishing capitalist hegemony over economy, politics, and culture, the market revolution created ourselves and most of the world we know,” Sellers wrote.


Sellers’s was the thesis that launched a thousand dissertations; evidence of the market revolution seemed to be everywhere; it seemed to explain everything. In “The Market Revolution Ate My Homework,” a thoughtful essay published in Reviews in American History in 1997, the historian Daniel Feller observed that “a monograph that presupposes a market revolution will certainly discover one.” His caution went unheard.

So it is a rare and refreshing kind of heresy that Daniel Walker Howe, who studied briefly under Sellers at Berkeley in the nineteen-sixties, and who is best known for his 1979 book, “The Political Culture of the American Whigs,” refuses to use the term “market revolution” in his grand synthesis. (Signalling his quarrel with the other recent sweeping interpretation of this period, Sean Wilentz’s pro-Jackson “The Rise of American Democracy,” Howe dedicates his book to the memory of John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s political nemesis, and avoids using the phrase “Jacksonian America,” on the ground that “Jackson was a controversial figure and his political movement bitterly divided the American people.”) Howe has three objections to Sellers’s thesis. First, the market revolution, if it happened at all, happened earlier, in the eighteenth century. Second, it wasn’t the tragedy that Sellers makes it out to be, because “most American family farmers welcomed the chance to buy and sell in larger markets,” and they were right to, since selling their crops made their lives better. Stuff was cheaper: a mattress that cost fifty dollars in 1815 (which meant that almost no one owned one) cost five in 1848 (and everyone slept better). Finally, the revolution that really mattered was the “communications revolution”: the invention of the telegraph, the expansion of the postal system, improvements in printing technology, and the growth of the newspaper, magazine, and book-publishing industries.

Howe’s dedication signals his admiration for Adams; Henry Clay is the other figure he holds in greast esteem. (In fact, Howe engages in some potentially dicey “What If?” speculation three-quarters of the way through the book, deciding that perhaps the United States would have fought neither the Mexican War nor the Civil War had Clay won the extremely close presidential election of 1844.)

Anyway, this is all potentially year-old news were it not for the fact that I just discovered, via Ralph E. Luker’s post on the HNN blog Cliopatria, that H-SHEAR, the electronic mailing list of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, has lately sponsored a series of essays on particular aspects of Howe’s book. In class, my professor related the story that of all the prizes Howe’s book won—including the Pulitzer Prize and the New-York Historical Society American History Book Prize—the author was most proud of receiving SHEAR’s book prize. So it is particularly interesting to read assessments of the book from the perspectives of economic history, political history, Native American history, etc. The easiest way to find all of these responses is to click here, which takes you to a search for Howe’s name in all of the 2008 messages on H-SHEAR; those in the series are titled “HOWE FORUM.”

Interview: William Chapman Sharpe

William Chapman Sharpe, professor of English at Barnard College in New York City, is the author of Unreal Cities (1990) and coeditor of Visions of the Modern City (1983). His new book, New York Nocturne (2008), examines images of the city after dark in literature, painting, and photography from 1850 to 1950. To get a sense of what Sharpe attempts in the volume, click here to read the book’s description and here to read the introduction (warning: PDF link), which Princeton University Press has made available via its website. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on on November 27, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I’ve spent my entire professional life engaged with the modern city’s representation in art and literature. Unreal Cities discussed poetry about the metropolis by Wordsworth, Whitman, Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and others. I’ve always straddled the Atlantic, surveying not only New York but also London and Paris. This book germinated when I looked at works by James McNeill Whistler and realized that his art must have influenced the way people imagined the city at that time. My original effort was an attempt to understand how Whistler’s vision of the Thames, which is mostly represented horizontally in his paintings, was translated into representations of the vertical reach of New York City. The darkness and mist that covers the bridges and the far shore of the Thames revealed to Whistler an abstract and elemental formal quality that was instrumental in making his art so revolutionary—a deliberate arrangement of colors and shapes on a flat surface. As soon as photographers began looking at the vertical geography of New York they began to see ways they could capture the unusual forms by covering details in the same cloak of darkness.

Whistler wasn’t afraid to make enemies or to go to court (as in the famous lawsuit against John Ruskin) to demand that he be recognized as a revolutionary artist who had showed urban citizens something they had never seen before. He even compiled his rebuttals to his critics in a book called The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. His influence extended beyond the realm of the visual arts; for example, when Ezra Pound was trying to promote imagism in London in the second decade of the twentieth century, he cited Whistler’s courageous artwork in support of his ideas. Returning to the visual arts, even so brash and semiabstract a painter as Joseph Stella, whose sharp angles seem distinct from Whistler’s delicacy of touch, also began his career as a maker of Whistleresque nocturnes.

It can be said that Whistler showed people how to paint a “moonlight” (his original term for what he later called “nocturnes”) without ever depicting the moon. This, coupled with the increasing ubiquity of artificial light, helped liberate the representation of night from a number of qualities that had become clichéd, most notably that it was a time of reflection and pastoral repose that would carry us back to childlike innocence.

But of course the book is not all about Whistler. The motif of the flâneur runs throughout. I try to show that Edgar Allan Poe had partly celebrated and partly parodied this figure in his story “The Man of the Crowd.” What he notices is that the flâneur can’t really make anything happen; his whole job is to observe and comment. But beginning in the late nineteenth century the flâneur becomes an investigator. Think of Jacob Riis, who was dedicated not just to observing the world but also to changing what he saw.

The book shows that we have a number of ways of looking at the night—from seeing it as a gaslit immoral Babylon to wondering at the skyscraper fantasia. We alternate between fear of what might be out there and absolute delight in the way it looks. We’re beguiled and discomposed at the same time that we wander down the streets. Such fluctuation is an omnipresent quality in the nocturnal city. While I try to tease out separate strands of it, any time we regard the city at night we do so with a bundle of ideas and emotions that range from fear and dismay to sexual excitement to a sense of being both voyeur and victim. The word voyeur seems key to understanding an artist like Weegee, who tried to bring us a flashlit consciousness of the city. In his clever comments on the staginess of city life, he became a producer and director of the night. But he was a producer who urged us to indulge ourselves in the thrill of watching somebody else suffer, and for this reason I ultimately found him less honest and compelling than Riis. Weegee was more enamored of himself than anything he depicted. While he shows us the worst about the night, he also shows how the night can bring out the worst in ourselves.

In the book’s epilogue I discuss various attempts to reconnect the human species to the full range of natural experience, including natural night. If for no other reason than economic reality, people will gradually change the way they light up the night. We may see a more consciously managed image of the sparkling city. The classic views of the skyline offered a totally unplanned panopoly of light. But perhaps greater patches of darkness, and the understanding that when it’s dark it’s not necessarily as unsafe as we fear, will intrude upon this vision of the city. We will gain a lot as human beings if we can look up once again and see the stars.

–As told to Brian Sholis

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.

Robert H. Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination

In late September I posted to the site a review of Daniel Vickers’s book Farmers and Fishermen that I had written for a class. Here is the review I wrote of Robert H. Abzug’s 1994 book Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (Oxford University Press).

Front-page detail from William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper <i>The Liberator</i>, April 23, 1831

Front-page detail from William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper

Robert H. Abzug’s engaging study of nineteenth-century reform-movement figures, including those who agitated for temperance, abolitionism, and women’s rights, argues that their aims can only be understood in the context of their religious thinking. Readers must “try to comprehend the sacred significance they bestowed upon … worldly arenas” (viii). Abzug, professor of history and at the time of this publication director of the American Studies program at the University of Texas, offers roughly chronological, loosely linked portraits of some of the era’s increasingly fervent and frequently popular reformers, from the late-eighteenth-century physician Benjamin Rush through abolitionist firebrand William Lloyd Garrison to women’s-rights pioneers Sarah and Angelina Grimké. Though Abzug’s approach sometimes leaves readers short on cultural and social context, and tends to barely sketch in the movements’ later developments, the book’s thumbnail spiritual-intellectual biographies convincingly place cosmological thinking at the heart of his protagonists’ zeal.

Abzug correctly characterizes the first half of the nineteenth century as a period of profound instability, during which time American citizens grappled with the definition of the country itself, the practical application of the separation of church and state, and the shift to a commercial-industrial economy. “Reform sects arose largely in New England,” Abzug notes, “a region particularly hard hit by each of these historical forces” (5). New England’s tight weave of social, political, and religious order not only helped provide a religious underpinning for the reformers’ secular causes, it would also be the locus of resistance to the changes that these figures advocated. In recasting sacred communal identity and covenantal theology to suit their own purposes, Abzug’s “religious virtuosos” threatened the cosmic underpinning of two centuries of New England life. The ensuing friction between tradition and innovation across the northeast propels Abzug’s stories.

Yet the father figure of these religious-minded secular reformers lived not in New England but in Philadelphia. Dr. Benjamin Rush drew upon late-eighteenth-century intellectual currents, including Republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, and millennial Christianity, to devise a “remarkable program for social and personal change: abolition, temperance, elimination of the death penalty, human treatment of criminals and the insane, [and] educational reform” (12). These revolutionary goals, presented to the public mostly through pamphlets during the Revolutionary era, were rooted in the same “framework of American identity and Godly judgment” (16) that would likewise ground those who inherited his reform spirit. Rush, like his successors, sought a ritual life that would bring all Christians together, a task that necessitated a “cosmic vision outside of individual sects” (19); the idea of America itself became Rush’s sustaining “church,” and the ideal against which all claims to millennial truth were to be judged. The “radiant strands of [Rush’s] Christian Republican vision” (27), however, would not survive the turmoil of the 1790s; his legacy was the application of the language of the jeremiad to a post-Revolutionary America that endorsed pluralism and religious toleration.
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Sharon Core, “Early American”

Published on on November 9, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Sharon Core, Strawberries and Ostrich Egg (Raphaelle Peale), 2007.

Sharon Core, Strawberries and Ostrich Egg (Raphaelle Peale), 2007.

What pictorial genre seems to require less interpretive acumen than the painted still life? Accumulations of fruit and fish and fowl are all exquisite surfaces, and invite surface readings. But photographer Sharon Core, after making a reputation with images of her re-creations of Wayne Thiebaud’s dessert tableaux, proves once again with her exhibition “Early American” that profound questions of representation can reside within simple compositions. Core’s muse for this body of work, the early American painter Raphaelle Peale, is smartly chosen. In the past two decades, scholarship about the hundred-odd still lifes he created in Philadelphia between 1812 and 1824 has elucidated their strangeness, a fact that gives an added edge to the ten small-scale photographs presented here. As with her earlier series, Core’s pictures are approximations of a painted precedent once removed: Instead of working from Peale’s canvases, which, like Thiebaud’s, reside in museums scattered around the world, Core has re-created with uncanny accuracy color reproductions of his compositions found in books. In some works, she has left behind the strict mimesis of her Thiebaud series in an attempt to “inhabit” Peale’s prephotographic visual imagination. There is a palpable tension between the uncomplicated attractiveness of the luscious, softly lit, exacting images—of watermelons and day lilies, of bruised and rotting apples in a porcelain basket, of a dimpled ostrich egg and strawberries—and the elaborate means by which they were created. Not only did Core have to source the antique bowls, plates, and utensils that appear in the photographs, but she also needed to secure (and, one suspects, artificially age, prune, and otherwise prepare) the produce that takes center stage, as well as arrange her quarry and light it meticulously. The gracefulness of the resultant images masks—but only barely—her efforts, and the hall-of-mirrors instability they instigate.

Bruce Robbins on contradictions inherent in the term “intellectuals”

Bruce Robbins, in a review of Stefan Collini’s 2006 book Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain published in the journal Modern Intellectual History, provides this fascinating discussion of the tensions inherent in the term “intellectuals”:

The intellectual enters the public sphere when she or he makes use of the authority gained in [a] specialization in order to speak on a subject for which that specialized expertise does not in fact provide a source of legitimate authority.

As Collini presents it, this process of conversion remains something of a mystery. How does it happen? When and why does it fail to happen? Are certain currencies of knowledge more easily converted into public standing than others? Is there a conceptual or rhetorical talent by which the intellectual herself can facilitate this exchange? Or is it once again a matter of what “the” public (but which one?) is prepared to perceive as valid and valuable? Without venturing theoretical answers to these questions, Collini’s account manages to explain a good deal of what has been and continues to be said about intellectuals—most strikingly, why the topic should have generated so much vituperation and self-misapprehension. If intellectuals are obliged by definition to oscillate between the poles of genuine expertise in a particular specialization and speaking generally in the public sphere, then they are permanently vulnerable to the opposite charges of having “sold out” to journalism, on the one hand, and of having retreated from the public sphere into the ivory tower, on the other. Out of this tension within the concept itself come disappearance narratives according to which particular intellectuals or intellectuals as a group have prostituted themselves in the media, or gotten caught up in masturbatory self-involvement, or whatever. Such narratives make sense only if they are seen as independent of the putative details of individual careers and historical moments and are taken instead as the diachronic workings out of the contradictory demands that the concept itself places on intellectuals. As Collini says, “movement between these two poles is inherent in the logic of the role itself” (58).


At any rate, it seems worth asking whether there perhaps exists a form of intellectual authority that might not involve a transfer of qualifications or cultural capital from one domain to another. Can one become an intellectual without trading on a capital amassed elsewhere, but simply by means of work done on the premises, as it were? Are we sure that some sort of conversion or crossover is essential to being an intellectual? After all, the sort of creative synthesis often associated with interdisciplinary scholarship is also a phenomenon that necessarily occurs within disciplines, not to speak of other professions and institutions. It is something for which a good journalist or labor union organizer or representative of Doctors Without Borders might receive a normal salary. If publics are multiple and if address to a singular, comprehensive public is illusory, if there is no “society as a whole,” then some specializations may already be public enough, in this diminished sense of public, to boast their own intellectuals.

The Dreyfus Affair paradigm also raises a related question about the presumed centrality of professional credentials in the making of the intellectual. Are we sure it is a rise in the status of specialized knowledge that is the definitive source of the new counterauthority? Collini quotes the right-wing riposte of Brunetière: “I don’t see that a professor of Tibetan is qualified to govern his fellow men.” Some of the force of this remark seems to come from the irrelevance of academic knowledge as such, but some surely comes from the particular randomness ascribed to knowledge of Tibet. Brunetière seems to be ridiculing the idea that knowledge of a distant and exotic nation might be of pertinence to the issues facing turn-of-the-century Frenchmen. If so, then perhaps xenophobic ridicule deserves a more than incidental place in the birth-of-the-intellectual story. At a moment of crisis when national loyalty was so much at issue—Dreyfus’s, of course, but also that of the Jews and of all those, recently named as intellectuals, who came to Dreyfus’s defense—it seems reasonable to speculate that there may also have been something peculiarly constitutive about what Collini calls “the ‘foreignness’ of intellectuals” (126). The Dreyfus Affair might be read, from this perspective, as offering a different sort of founding myth, not so much one in which professional credentials get mobilized as one in which the category of the intellectual arises in response to accusations of national betrayal and, with or without mobilizing those credentials, intellectuals acquire a newly authoritative voice. That would help explain why the category has remained affiliated with the problematic relationship between national identity and cosmopolitanism.

This line of thought would lead to the question of whether and how cosmopolitanism—the ability to take a distance from the interests of one’s nation, to weigh one’s national loyalty against loyalty to the interests of humanity as a whole—might paradoxically become a source of local authority, something to be valued within one’s nation. This is not the place to pursue this question further. But we can at least recognize its formal resemblance to the contradiction that Collini himself takes as central to the intellectual. While asking how anyone can turn professional credentials into public authority, we could also ask how antinationalism can ever turn into national influence, can confer cultural authority within a given nation. In other words, perhaps the tension between specialized knowledge and public standing is itself only one specialized version of a more general paradox. One way to phrase this more general paradox (probably not the best) would be to set opposition to society against reward by society. How can it happen that society rewards its own opposition? Why should there be a social place for social criticism? How can a dissident be socially influential and yet remain a dissident?

This excerpt is roughly one-sixth of the full review-essay, and I encourage anyone interested in the passage to consider reading the whole thing, which is available online here. Further discussion of Collini’s fascinating book took place in the July 2007 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (which is available through the Project MUSE database). Thanks to for the original link to Robbins’s text.

Chatter on New York’s streets, circa 1962

Yesterday afternoon, during a conference held at Columbia University on Lionel Trilling and his legacy, the eminent historian Fritz Stern recalled one day in 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis, when he met Trilling on the corner of Broadway and 116th Street. Unsure whether nuclear missiles would rain down on New York, Stern cautiously admitted to Trilling that he wished he would survive an attack, if only to see what life would be like afterward. Trilling replied in a serious tone: “I hope I survive, too; I know a lot of Shakespeare by heart.”

This morning, reading Julian Bell’s review of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman in the New York Review of Books, I came across another piece of not-so-idle street chatter from that historically frought moment.

In fact The Craftsman’s initial point of departure, Sennett tells us, was a wish to reply to an argument to put him by Heidegger’s pupil Hannah Arendt. Back in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arendt told him in a New York street that the dire predicament in which nuclear physics had placed the planet proved that technology could not be its own master, for “people who make things usually don’t understand what they are doing.” 

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.

Interview: Eleanor Antin

For nearly four decades, San Diego–based artist Eleanor Antin has provocatively engaged histories real and imagined through photographs, performances, films, videos, writings, and drawings. Since 2001, she has completed three series of allegorical photographs based on Roman life: “The Last Days of Pompeii,” “Roman Allegories,” and “Helen’s Odyssey.” A survey that focuses on these works, titled “Historical Takes,” is on view through November 2 at the San Diego Museum of Art. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on July 29, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Eleanor Antin, Judgment of Paris (after Rubens)—Light Helen, 2007, color photograph, 62 x 118". From the series "Helen's Odyssey."

Eleanor Antin, Judgment of Paris (after Rubens)—Light Helen, 2007, color photograph, 62 x 118". From the series "Helen's Odyssey."

All my life I have had a passion for ancient Greece, since reading Bulfinch’s Mythology as a kid. At the time I first read it, I wished that I could live in ancient Greece. But then, later, when I found out how badly they treated women, I kind of cheated and just shifted my allegiance to ancient Rome, where women had some rights and might even have lived interesting lives. One day after my retrospective exhibition at LACMA in 1999, I was driving the scenic route down to La Jolla, and looking down at the town glittering in the sun, I suddenly had a vision that La Jolla was Pompeii. Pompeii was a very wealthy town, too; it was the place where rich people went in the summer to escape mosquito-plagued Rome. It was the place to which older senators retired if they survived Roman politics. People living there enjoyed the affluent life while on the verge of annihilation. You don’t even need to consider our current political situation to see a connection: The cliffs are eroding, we’re on a major fault line, the wildfires get worse and worse, there are water shortages. California is overbuilt and disintegrating. So we don’t have a volcano, but it could be just as bad. There is always something autobiographical in my work, and when I made the connection between where I live now and my first love, I jumped on it.

“The Last Days of Pompeii” provokes an immediate response, since the story has entered the poetic imagination of Western culture. I wanted to see if it was possible to use contemporary people in my own Southern California and pass them off as more or less believable Romans. Stylistically, I used the image structures of nineteenth-century French and English salon painting, which had flattered colonial Europe by depicting it as the new Rome. “Roman Allegories,” which I did next, is, I think, less accessible—perhaps because allegory, despite its rich history in premodern art, is not part of contemporary culture. Only recently have artists become interested again in telling stories. (Allegory is, of course, related to representation, and for some time, representation was anathema to an art world that glorified abstraction.) Whereas my Pompeii depicted everyday Roman life, in this series, I highlighted theatricality and explored a number of commedia dell’arte archetypes and their shifting relationships to one another. I believe this series was more complex. I was going through a bad time in my life, so there’s a darkness that pervades the images that I think adds to their mystery. (In fact, a skeleton that I’ve kept in my studio for decades makes a few cocky appearances in some of the photographs.) These photographs work like a hall of mirrors. I like to think of them as defective narratives that can be made whole by looking deeper into them for layers of meaning, for more stories. “Helen’s Odyssey,” which I just completed last year, is a kind of amusing riff on the male epic. Helen is always vilified as a seductress and both admired for her beauty and feared for her power—yet however she’s interpreted, her place in our historical fantasy has always been legitimized, written, or painted by men. I wanted to humanize this woman, to find her beneath the covering of stories that obscures her to us.

Looking at all three series together, as I’m now able to do, I find even more connections between them —psychological, political, philosophical—than I had previously suspected. When I was working, I moved both intuitively and intellectually. But perhaps I couldn’t realize how deeply each series flowed into the next. Looking at the images now, I think, Wow! I didn’t waste the last eight years. This exhibition reveals that my three series constitute a complex single invention that was worth the effort after all.

The works themselves blend pathos and comedy, or comedy and tragedy. This may be due in part to the influence of my mother, who worked in Europe on the Yiddish stage—and we all know the Yiddish theatrical and literary tradition: “I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.” Comedy and tragedy go together; I could never separate them. We’re on the edge of the abyss at every moment, and it doesn’t make sense for an art world to be entirely too committed to one mode of expression or the other. We live both all the time.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Joan Jonas

As part of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, organized by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and titled “Revolutions—Forms that Turn,” artist Joan Jonas will present Reading Dante, 2008. A performance will take place at 11 AM and 6 PM on June 22 at the National Art School’s Cell Block Theatre. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on June 21, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

I’ve known about Dante’s Divine Comedy for what seems like all my life, but I never read it before last summer. A few years ago, an artist described to me Dante’s own life, and it made me think about how fascinating it might be to work with his magnificent text. I began with the Inferno last summer, which I eventually read three times. The Paradiso, which is more difficult, I’ve read once. Fragments from both are incorporated into this performance and installation.

In my mind, Dante connects to Aby Warburg, who was central to my last large-scale work of this kind, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things. Both had an overarching worldview. Dante thought epically during a moment—the medieval era—when people were very isolated, and Warburg attempted to synthesize widely disparate cultures through the lens of art history. For me, they both represent characters that are on a journey through life that involves thinking about the world as a whole, not just what’s immediately around them. The portions of the Inferno I’m particularly attracted to are the most abstract, or philosophical; I quote a fraction of the text and have been helped greatly by a wonderful book, The Poets’ Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses. I think Hilda Doolittle, who wrote the poem “Helen in Egypt” (which I’ve also used recently), thought similarly, although she incorporated much more quotidian experience. The everyday is how I relate to these broader issues; I try to translate these visions according to my vantage point on the present moment. The medieval era of Dante and the first half of the twentieth century of Warburg were both periods of extraordinary change, and I think the same can be said of today.

Reading Dante is composed of footage shot in four locations, although two are intercut so there are three “scenes.” One of the sites is in Canada, where I go in the summer. There, in a wooded setting, I perform as different characters, and I work with children. Another location is New York. I redeploy nighttime footage shot in the 1970s in the city streets with Pat Steir. We had a cameraman, and we improvised with my long metal cones and a hoop. A strange man joined us, and you can see him, too. This footage in particular, with steam billowing from pipes, steps everywhere, and dark vistas up canyonlike avenues, seems appropriate to the Inferno. The third location, a kind of circular modernist ruin surrounding a lava field, is in Mexico City, near the university. The artist Carlos Amorales told me about the location, and I filmed his wife, Galia, performing there. This footage is intercut with a shadow play I conducted in a church during a workshop in Italy. Obviously I’m translating Dante into my own eccentric, very personal visual language; I’m not attempting to illustrate the text.

Earlier this spring in London, I presented a related piece titled Infernal Paradise; for this, I played the footage I just described across five screens, while a monitor displayed video documentation of a reading at Orchard, in New York, for which I asked friends, including children, to recite portions of Dante’s text. It was a way of invoking Dante’s vernacular in the forms of the everyday speech I hear daily in New York. I’ve made a new edit for Sydney, and there will only be two screens. Also, I learned from a workshop in Barcelona last autumn that I should not say the words themselves during the performance, so I’ve recorded my voice. In my yearlong preparation for the Sydney performance, most of my time has been spent thinking about such questions of form and structure and how they relate to this amazing content.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: William Cordova

Earlier this year, William Cordova, whose artwork frequently references human rights struggles, organized two exhibitions for Ingalls & Associates in Miami. One, titled “Casa de Carton,” features an intergenerational range of contemporary artists, and the other, “Up Against the Wall,” the photographs of journalist Ilka Hartmann. Both exhibitions will open at Branch Gallery in Durham, North Carolina, on Friday, June 20. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on June 18, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Ilka Hartmann, United Farm Workers and their supporters on their way to Salinas, California where Cesar Chavez was to speak. Summer, 1979 (detail), black-and-white photograph.

Ilka Hartmann, United Farm Workers and their supporters on their way to Salinas, California where Cesar Chavez was to speak. Summer, 1979 (detail), black-and-white photograph.

Two years ago, while doing research into commonalities across various radical groups of the late 1960s and early ’70s, I gradually realized that many of the documentary photographs I was encountering were taken by one woman: Ilka Hartmann. She was one of very few photographers who had covered such a range of activist groups—anti–Vietnam War protestors, Black Panther members, migrant workers—and she began doing so long before it was a common practice. When I discovered that she lived only an hour’s drive away from another place at which I would be an artist in residence, I resolved to meet her.

She was incredibly generous with her knowledge about that time period and offered background information on a large portion of her archive; from her, I learned about photographers like Ducho Dennis (of the Black Panther Party) and Hiram Maristany (of the Young Lords). This information is important to the exhibition; I’ve made sure to include materials that explain how her photographs were initially used and other contextualizing ephemera. Doing so hopefully slows down the way the visual information—her pictures, in this case—is disseminated, and how quickly and carelessly such images can be consumed in the fine-art world. I don’t want her images to become the bastard children of a generation or of a movement; it is important they do not become T-shirt-ready, like a photograph of Che Guevara.

Having earlier done an installation in a storefront in Durham, I was somewhat familiar with the city’s past and knew of a number of radical organizations in North Carolina, including the Lumbee tribe, which is still seeking full recognition from the US government, and a Black Panther branch in Winston-Salem. As with the presentation in Miami, I hope that visitors will connect the photographs—and, for that matter, the works in “Casa de Carton”—to the social history of the environment around them. In the past forty years, Durham has seen some extreme social conditions; once the “Black Wall Street,” it has since fallen on harder times. Even if such changes aren’t addressed by the mainstream media, they remain present in the daily lives of those who reside there. Presenting Hartmann’s photographs is an attempt to reactivate acknowledgment of these facts, to make visible aspects of the landscape that are invisible.

As told to Brian Sholis

Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers

I’ve just finished Susan Jacoby’s 2004 book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which I enjoyed reading. It is an account of freethought from Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and Virginia’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom to present-day battles between those supporting and fighting the teaching of evolution. The book’s tone remains fairly measured throughout, and her gallery of “infidels”—Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Robert Ingersoll, Emma Goldman, Roger Nash Baldwin, Madalyn Murray O’Hair—provides a welcome counterpoint to the figures that usually crop up in histories of American thought. Ingersoll in particular comes across as a winning figure, and Jacoby includes the eulogy he delivered at Walt Whitman’s funeral, on March 30, 1892, as an appendix. From that oration:

He came into our generation a free, untrammeled spirit, with sympathy for all. His arm was beneath the form of the sick. He sympathized with the imprisoned and despised, and even on the brow of crime he was great enough to place the kiss of human sympathy.

One of the greatest lines in our literature is his, and the line is great enough to do honor to the greatest genius that has ever lived. He said, speaking of an outcast: “Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you.”

His charity was as wide as the sky, and wherever there was human suffering, human misfortune, the sympathy of Whitman bent above it as the firmament bends above the earth.

He was built on a broad and splendid plan — ample, without appearing to have limitations — passing easily for a brother of mountains and seas and constellations; caring nothing for the little maps and charts with which timid pilots hug the shore, but giving himself freely with recklessness of genius to winds and waves and tides; caring for nothing as long as the stars were above him. He walked among men, among writers, among verbal varnishers and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the unconscious majesty of an antique god.

That last word brings to mind Michael Robertson’s new book, Worshipping Walt: Whitman’s Disciples (Princeton), which I have not yet seen, but which various reviews have made sound appealing (see brief commentaries in the New Yorker and the New York Observer).

Matthew Buckingham

Published in Artforum, May 2008.

“Someone with historical sense sees reality differently: in four dimensions,” notes historian Gordon S. Wood. “If it is self-identity that we want, then history deepens and complicates that identity by showing us how it has developed through time.” Artist Matthew Buckingham clearly possesses this historical sense, and his nuanced understanding of time has informed a decade’s worth of installations that use time-based media (film, video, and slide projection) to imaginatively conflate past and present. Buckingham’s alignments of story and image, whether anchored in dry historical fact or conjured from evocative fragments, are palimpsests that instruct and entertain, expanding viewers’ sense of identity. This exhibition featured two recent installations, one of which ranks with A Man of the Crowd, 2003, as among the artist’s best to date.

Matthew Buckingham, still from False Future, 2007.

Matthew Buckingham, still from False Future, 2007.

False Future, 2007, resurrects the little-known life story of Louis Le Prince, the French inventory who is now credited with discovering how to record motion pictures onto film several years before the better-known Lumière brothers. The narrator of Buckingham’s ten-minute 16-mm film, speaking in French subtitled in English, describes Le Prince’s late-1880s experiments with recording technology and relates his mysterious disappearance from a Dijon-Paris train in September 1890, just prior to a trip to the United States on which he was to promote his camera. Among the items discovered after his vanishing was a twenty-frame (one-second) fragment of footage shot at the Leeds Bridge in England in October 1888. Buckingham’s film was shot from the same spot, and depicts pedestrians and white double-decker buses—substitutes for the horse-drawn carriages and strollers in Le Prince’s fragment—crossing the bridge in slanting late-afternoon light. The image, projected onto a white sheet strung diagonally across the middle of the gallery, likewise echoes the work of the earlier inventor, who is said to have tested his films at night in his Leeds workshop in a similar manner.

As the work’s title implies, however, Buckingham is not interested solely in an act of historical exhumation, but also in what can be imagined of an alternative protohistory of cinema. What if Le Prince had survived, and his camera gone on to document the Dreyfus affair, or the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, or the anomalous nine-inch snowfall in New Orleans in February 1895? Such questions, posed by the narrator, are rhetorical, but images inevitably arise in the mind. The enormity of such a possibility is brought home by the end of the narrative, which offers close analysis of what is depicted in Le Prince’s fragment. Noting the number of buggies, men tipping their haits to acknowledge friends, and other stray details, the sound track instructs the viewer in how to look at the seemingly simple image Buckingham has recorded just before the film loops and begins again.

Everything I Need, 2007, a two-screen video projection on view in another room, presents an autobiographical narrative by the pioneering psychologist, writer, and early advocate of gay and lesbian rights, Charlotte Wolff, whose life in Germany and England spanned revolutionary changes in social attitudes toward women and homosexuals. The installation juxtaposes images of a 1970s-era commercial airplane interior with reminiscences occasioned in part by Wolff’s return to Berlin, in 1978, to speak to a new generation of feminist and lesbian activists. While the installation engages in a dialectical playo f image and text similar to that of False Future (and, for that matter, much of Buckingham’s corpus), it doesn’t manage to provoke that work’s tantalizing sense of latent possibility.

Rules for Harvard Freshmen, 1741

The blog Boston 1775 has posted Harvard’s rules for incoming class of 1741.

In the 1700s, ordinary schooling for Boston boys ran from about age seven to age thirteen or fourteen, if they lasted through the whole course. Therefore, the few boys who went on to college were still truly boys, only in their early teens. Usually they graduated college at eighteen, still years away from their legal majority.

The fact that college students were the age of high-school students now, and away from their families in an nearly all-male environment, helps to explain such traditions as these rules for Harvard’s incoming class in 1741.

1. No Freshman shall wear his hat in the College yard, except it rains, hails, or snows, he be on horseback, or hath both hands full.

2. No Freshman shall pass by his Senior, without pulling his hat off.

3. No Freshman shall be saucy to his Senior, or speak to him with his hat on.

4. No Freshman shall laugh in his Senior’s face.

5. No Freshman shall ask his Senior any impertinent question.

6. No Freshman shall intrude into his Senior’s company.

7. Freshmen are to take notice that a Senior Sophister can take a Freshman from a Sophimore, a Master from a Senior Sophister, and a Fellow from a Master.

8. When a Freshman is sent of an errand, he shall not loiter by the way, but shall make haste, and give a direct answer if asked who he is going for.

To read the final thirteen rules, click here. (Link via Blog 4 History)

“The Varieties of Intellectual Experience”

In a post published last week at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, Tim Lacy writes:

Most past works of U.S. intellectual history have focused on public and private figures, institutions, and books that could in some sense be considered “canonical.” I refuse to dismiss all the historians who did that work, in blanket fashion, as caring only about the elites of U.S. history. Rather, I submit to you that those historians explored, in a considered conservative fashion, what they believed others could not question as topics of inquiry. This is not to deny that race, class, and gender did not factor into those choices, but rather that definitions of what constituted regular intellectual activity affected their work. It seems to me, then, that too much consistency has been sought from historical intellectual agents by intellectual historians.

The essay continues at some length, eventually calling for an “event-based intellectual history,” and is worth reading.

“Shaker Design: Out of This World”

Published on on March 24, 2008.

It is important to keep in mind that there is nothing purely decorative about the furniture, gift drawings, and retail products in this large survey of Shaker design at Bard College’s New York outpost for studies in the decorative arts, design, and culture. The objects created for use within Shaker communities, which at one point numbered nineteen and ranged from Maine to Kentucky, hew to the precepts of their religious devotion, in particular the aspiration to honesty, utility, and order. Those items created for “the World’s people,” the denomination’s catch-all term for anyone outside its communities, betray a savvy knowledge of what would possess commercial appeal. This latter point is particularly important to the exhibition’s organizer, Jean M. Burks, who aims to highlight links between members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing and wider American society, countering stereotypical notions of the Shakers as intentionally and thoroughly segregated.

Among the exemplary furniture presented in a ground-floor gallery are an enormous cherry-and-pine double trustees’ desk (used by family members responsible for dealings with the World) and a slender, comparatively small trestle table. Like classical civilizations, which come to mind now largely tethered to images of white marble artifacts, the Shaker world was not the stripped-down domain we imagine, but rather a polychrome environment. To that end, the gallery floor is painted yellow, a color common in Shaker rooms, and a few pieces bear other original hues. A second-floor gallery hosts a number of gift drawings, manifestations of divine revelation (often in the form of communications from past generations) that encompass decorative patterns; calligraphic text; and assemblies of doves of peace, trees, clocks, fruit, and musical instruments. (New Yorkers more familiar with modern art than nineteenth-century religious artifacts might recall the Drawing Center’s 2005 exhibition “3 x Abstraction.”) Although the exhibition does not present Hannah Cohoon’s Tree of Life, 1854, perhaps the movement’s most iconic image, it does include her A Little Basket Full of Beautiful Apples for the Ministry, 1846, a touching ink-and-watercolor drawing of fourteen apples arranged within the schematic outline of a basket. Another room teems with commercial products, from toothache pellets and sachets of cabbage seeds to “screwballs” (table-clamped pincushions) and oval-shaped boxes. For context, the exhibition presents early-nineteenth-century American Fancy furniture and objects, which the Shakers rejected because of their ornate designs, and examples of modern Scandinavian furniture and contemporary designs (by Roy McMakin and Antonio Citterio, among others) inspired by Shaker objects. A full slate of public programs further ensures that this exhibition is the most important New York presentation of Shaker design since the Whitney Museum’s 1986 survey.

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.

Sze Tsung Leong

Published on on April 12, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Sze Tsung Leong, Beicheng Xin Cun, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, 2004

Sze Tsung Leong, Beicheng Xin Cun, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, 2004

Sze Tsung Leong’s gorgeous, abundantly detailed, medium- to large-size photographs of Chinese cities undergoing cataclysmic change fuse Edward Burtynsky’s synoptic aerial views, Elger Esser’s blanched palette, and the patient attentiveness evident in underappreciated Japanese photographer Ryuji Miyamoto’s mid-’80s “Architectural Apocalypse” photographs. The works included here, from “History Images,” an ongoing series begun four years ago (and exhibited at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2004), were taken in Beijing and Pingyao, Xinjiekou and Xiamen, yet each tells roughly the same story, in which a rush to transform society—whether during the mid-century socialist revolution or more recent capitalist expansion—inevitably and irrevocably transforms the landscape. Low-slung, tile-roofed, imperial-era houses give way to drab, mid-rise, concrete apartment blocks, which are in turn supplanted by more-or-less shiny skyscrapers bearing corporate logos—sometimes all in the same picture. The nostalgic tint of the series title, which evinces a preservationist documentary impulse, is offset by Leong’s eminently rational compositions, in which new structures encircle old, or radiate outward symmetrically like a Rorschach blot. Two pictures in a second room lift the veil shrouding this hyperdevelopment: One depicts a construction site, curiously devoid of the machinery necessary to erect a tall building, in which workers stand in holes dug for concrete pylons; another shows horses, certainly anachronistic workers in an urban environment, carting trash bags on rickety wooden carts. Their inclusion adds an important counterpoint to the exhibition’s deceptively seductive force, reminding us that individual lives play out both in the crumbling shacks and behind the steel-and-glass façades.

Diary entry: “Regarding Terror: The RAF Exhibition”

Published as “Red Alert” on on February 3, 2005. To see the diary entry in context, click here.

BERLIN—”We are here to view an art exhibition. We are here for art, not politics,” Klaus Biesenbach said emphatically during his opening remarks at last Friday’s private reception for “Regarding Terror: The RAF Exhibition,” the new show at the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art (KW). Featuring over fifty artists, “Regarding Terror” bestirs the ghosts of the Red Army Faction, the group of Marxist-Maoist terrorists who hoped to destabilize the West German government and kick off the revolution via a series of targeted arsons, kidnappings, bombings, and shootings that began in 1968 and crescendoed in the ’70s. Given that the RAF is as politically loaded a subject as you could think of, and that the debates surrounding the show turn precisely on the difficulties of drawing the line between art and politics, Biesenbach’s claim seemed wishful at best—particularly since the next speaker to take the floor was former Interior Minister Gerhart Baum, not exactly a regular on the Berlin openings circuit. Decrying what he sees as the German citizenry’s unwillingness to confront thorny social issues, Baum, at any rate, seemed to have politics very much on his mind.

“Regarding Terror”—organized by former KW director Biesenbach, KW curator Ellen Blumenstein, and Felix Ensslin, a playwright and son of RAF member Gudrun Ensslin—was three years in the making. It was originally slated to open in November 2003 but was delayed when an early exhibition proposal leaked out to the press the previous summer, causing an outcry about “legitimizing” and “aestheticizing” terrorism. RAF victims’ families sent an open letter of protest to the government, and wide public support sprang up around the idea that the show should not receive federal funding unless the curators promised to heed the families’ concerns and plan their presentation accordingly. Rather than accept federal support—and the conditions that were sure to come with it—the curators returned almost half of their initial grant and proceeded to fund “Regarding Terror” with private money, most of it raised through an eleventh-hour eBay art auction. This rudimentary outline occludes many of the details of the curators’ grueling struggle to ensure that the spotlight focused on the exhibition instead of the minefield of RAF historiography, the politics of show planning, or Ensslin’s personal connection to the subject matter. As Ensslin said to me, the curators had to walk a fine line: “We were attacked from the left for being too statist and from the right for glorifying terror.”

On Thursday, Blumenstein and Ensslin toured the show with successive waves of journalists both German and foreign; feuilletons (including a caustic essay in Die Zeit by RAF member Ulrike Meinhof’s daughter Bettina Röhl, who noted that “like the three letters S-E-X. . . R-A-F sells.”) were published in every major media outlet; and all week even taxi drivers offered up opinions on the proceedings: One artist told me that her cabbie, noticing her copy of the exhibition catalog, launched into a rant about how Andreas Baader was a good-for-nothing kid who would not have turned to terrorism if he wasn’t so “bored.”

The exhibition somehow manages to hold its own in the midst of this fray—it comes across as neither explicitly didactic nor too aestheticized. This balance is achieved in part because the works—by a group of artists including Beuys, Kippenberger, Richter, and Polke as well as members of a younger generation like Michaela Miese and Johannes Wohnseifer—focus on media representations of the RAF. Thus the terms of the debate are subtly shifted from the group itself to what a wall text calls its “media echo.” (This will inevitably be used as a criticism; almost without exception, the brownish-yellow of faded newspapers and the black-and-white of news photos predominate.) The RAF was savvy about self-presentation, and it is difficult to overestimate the power of their polarizing presence in the ’70s. One visitor at the private view, a music critic pursuing a doctorate on the subject of mourning, said, “For any German between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-nine, the most prominent images from childhood are those of the RAF.” Another recalled seeing “Wanted” posters featuring members of the gang in every post office when he was growing up. The weight of history is palpable in the exhibition, which sprawls through the entire museum and into a nearby church. Several younger artists admitted to being intimidated by the context and unsure as to whether their creations would pass muster as ruminations on a subject that has launched dozens of dissertations and documentaries.

That the opening coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz only added to the gravity of the proceedings. So many people showed up for the Saturday-night opening that they had to close the doors to the museum for a while and the police arrived to control the crowd. But for the most part the receptions were not boisterous affairs, mostly taking place in an apartment on the museum’s premises and attended by a mix of artists, curators, journalists, politicians, and historians. All the members of this diverse crowd seemed eager to espouse their own theories about the RAF, the controversy surrounding the show, and the place of both in the German imagination. One Berlin gallery director summed up a common sentiment, expressing doubt about the quality of art chosen primarily for its subject matter but emphasizing the show’s importance and her need to visit multiple times in order to fully absorb it. As Ensslin said one night at dinner, “I don’t know how this show will affect the discourse surrounding the RAF. My only hope is that it does, and that people take into account these artistic positions in the future.” Since the media attention is unlikely to die down soon—the museum is still fielding daily calls from television producers and magazine editors—it is safe to say that his wish will be granted.