Friday, July 31, 2009


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet look for a break

The Maria Chronicles, #4

Damn it, Damn it, Damn it!

Maria would like to throw her new Macbook out the window. For the last half hour she’s been trying to paste The Federalist Papers, #35, into the course web page she’s been assigned for her upcoming classes. Having taken this new job, she’s determined to refresh her entire skill set, ranging from her curricular offerings to her use of technology, and to that end she eagerly accepted the invitation to put all her courses online. She spent an hour yesterday with the school’s tech guru, Ray Rozenholtz, the genial gabber who issued Maria the computer and reassured her that she’d find the software to be a breeze. And it kind of was – when she was sitting there in his office, that is. Now, though, alone in the cluster of desks that constitute the History Department office on a sweltering late August afternoon, she’s hopelessly stuck. When she copied and pasted the immortal Alexander Hamilton onto the page, he lost all his formatting. That wasn’t such a big deal, except that the whole thing is now a single slab of type, no line breaks, and no matter how many times she hits the return key the thing remains an unreadable blob.

Maria sighs deeply. "Now what?" she says, aggrieved, to herself.

"Technology trouble?" A voice behind her says. Maria almost leaps out of her chair in terror.

"Oh my God!" she says, swiveling to see the source of the voice. It's a blond-haired boy, pimply, with green eyes, clearly frightened by her fright

"Sorry!" His reply is loud, even forceful, with a tint of aggrievement. He's rattled by her being rattled.

"I'm sorry," Maria says, apologetically. "It's just that I didn't know anyone was here."

"I came to see Ms. Abruzzi," the boy explains.

"She's not here," Maria says, stating the obvious about the department chair and immediately regretting it.

"I know," he replies neutrally. "But we have an appointment. I'm a couple minutes early."

"Oh." Maria is recovering her equilibrium, part of which involves realizing that she has to take the lead here with this child in terms of the social niceties. "I'm Maria Bradstreet," she says, extending her hand.

"You're the new history teacher," he says with a smile. "For Mr. Haynes."

"Yes, that's right." Haynes apparently lasted a year. Following a teacher that left mid-year. Maria got hired because the school was desperate for a seasoned teacher in what is a young department. "And what's your name?"

"Me? I'm Kenny Lowe."

"Well, hello, Kenny."

"I think you might be my teacher this year?"

"Wonderful! In which course?"

"The regular history course. Whatever that's called."

"You mean the U.S. history survey."

"Yeah, the survey."

"Ah. Very good. Of course, at the rate things are going there isn't going to be much to do, because I'm having trouble with copying and pasting documents."

"Is that it there?" Kenny asks, squinting at the screen. "Why don't you just make a link rather than copy it in?"

Maria feels like an idiot. "Yeah, I guess I could have done that. I just thought it would be easier to cut and paste. But when I did, all the formatting disappeared and the whole thing is one long paragraph."

"Can I take a look?"

"Be my guest!" Maria pushes her swivel chair away to make room for him. Kenny looks intently at the computer, which gives her a chance to look more closely at him. His features are delicate, partially obscured by his acne and whiskers. She's struck by the intensity of his concentration -- it has an adult quality, even as his manner and appearance suggest an uneasy purchase on his adolescence.

"It's the line breaks," he says to her, still looking at the screen. All the coding is missing. She sees him make type the letter "b" and a slash within brackets, and then a series of CTRL/V where he thinks the breaks should go. He then hits the PUBLISH button on screen. Sure enough, the line breaks are there. "I think you'll be able to do italics and bold the usual way," he says. "For some reason, you need to put in the HTML language for the line breaks."

"Wow," Maria says, grateful and humbled. Are you a computer aficionado, Kenny?"

"Well I dunno. I guess," he says, which Maria surmises is a vast understatement. "I like to do animations."

"You mean like cartoons?"

"Yeah, sort of. Me and my friends have a website --"

"Ah, so I see you've met Kenny," Jen Abruzzi says, coming into the room. He's my advisee. "You've met Ms. Bradstreet?"


"Kenny got me out of a technology jam," Maria says.

"I'm not surprised," Jen says. "He's our resident computer geek." She flashes him an affectionate smile. "C'mon into my office, Kenny. We'll see if you we can straighten out the chem kink in your schedule."

The two of them disappear into Jen's adjacent office. Maria looks back at the screen. She feels a twinge of unease: She's in Kenny's debt and wonders if that will affect her sense of authority over him in the classroom. But having had the thought, her fear recedes. Maybe with a different kid she'd have more reason for concern. He seems like he'll be fine. Actually, she suspects this will actually help their relationship. She remembers an incident in Benjamin Franklin's autobiography when young Franklin courts favor with a rich and influential man not by trying to be of service, but asking to borrow a book Franklin knew the man owns. It's probably a good idea to seek their help from time to time to build good will and trust.

Later. Now she has to finish this syllabus. And establish herself here. Effective dependency requires strength. Maria has a ways to go, around here at least.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Orders of Magnitude

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet weigh the scales of time

The Maria Chronicles, #3

The last tim
e Maria visited Hudson High School, all was quiet on a dusky evening in late spring. She had assumed the next time she came, all would be bustling on an early September morning. But of course she had forgotten that there would be meetings before classes started, that she’d be coming in to set up her desk, and that she’d want to explore the building before school year got officially underway. So the contrast as she pulls into the parking lot on this surprisingly cool August day is not as sharp as she’d imagined.

Still, lots of doors are open. There are a few kids walking by. And in the distance she can see the football and girls’ soccer teams practicing. It’s quiet, but not dead, as she gets out of her car with her new briefcase and slams the door. Nice that it won’t be that hot today for the faculty meeting this afternoon. Maybe she won’t have to dry clean all her clothes. After the $300 she put on her Amex card at Ann Taylor refurbishing her wardrobe, and the approach of her first rent and car payments, Maria needs to rack up some small economies. She’s brought along a container of yogurt, a granola bar, and a banana in her backpack.

There are some benches near the main entrance, and Maria pauses to put the backpack on one and looks carefully at the building. It is massive. A frieze in the middle with the words HUDSON HIGH SCHOOL chiseled in it. Faux Doric columns flank either side, set against red brick. A granite base with sculpted horizontal lines. Everything about it projects a sense of solidity. Ted Johnson, the principal who offered her the job, told Maria that the school was built in 1911, though he didn’t know much else about it. But Maria sees that everything about the building conveys a sense of Progressive confidence in the future. This school was made to stay.

Maria thinks of a picture she saw in a book on World War II she was flipping through recently in preparation
for her new courses. It showed an aircraft carrier under construction in a shipyard in Los Angeles. The vessel itself and the surrounding machinery dwarfed the clumps of workers milling around like ants on the ground, vividly dramatizing the colossal scale of American industrial life. Power, in just about every sense of the term, was associated with a sense of scale. Bigger was better.

Today, Maria knows, modernity is defined in terms of smallness. The ever shrinking transistor, literally microscopic in size. The locus of cutting-edge science is molecular biology. It’s true even in consumer culture. She thinks of her first boyfriend’s stereo system and its massive speakers. His 400 LP record collection. Now it would all fit on an iPod. There’s a remarkable sense of tidiness about it. Still, she senses that maybe there’s a sense of loss, too.

She turns back to look at her new, ice-blue Toyota Prius. She loves the car, which she waited six weeks to get. Never having liked SUVs, they now seem like pathetic dinosaurs (she spies one at the far corner of the lot – probably a kid who drove to practice in Dad’s old car). But in her mind’s eye she also sees her brand new car as an antique, bearing witness to moment of transition, of hybrid cars caught between two worlds, neither fish nor fowl. One thing she knows for sure: she’s going to hang on to that car as long as she can, and will cheerfully drive it a decade from now no matter how old-fashioned it will become. Maria tends to find comfort in the past; that’s why she’s a history teacher. But much to her surprise she also increasingly finds hope in the future, and few things are more satisfying to her than yesterday and tomorrow mingling. Maria picks up her briefcase and heads toward the massive front doors. A new ritual is about to begin.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Something unmistakably present

A charming novel about a neurotic suburban protagonist who will steal your heart

As an occasional reader of thrillers, I've encountered my fair share of savvy spies tip-toeing their way through enemy headquarters, pragmatic cops who bend the rules for the sake of justice, or charming crooks planning a risky scheme to game The System. The very recognizability of such scenarios is precisely what makes
them appealing, even as I crave a sense of novelty. Part of the pleasure of Matthew Dicks's new novel Something Missing, which I read in about 24 hours while on my summer vacation (having picked it up on the strength of its arresting cover), is the kind of meta-narrative humor that hovers over the book. This is a story with bona fide suspense in the form of close calls, races against the clock, and dreaded scenarios that are conveniently confronted somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters
of the way through. What makes it all so amusing, though, is that the narrative trigger for such suspense begins with an electric toothbrush dropped into a toilet bowl, and gets sustained by subsequent events like the premature arrival of a birthday present on the day of a surprise party.

The protagonist of this deftly paced novel is Martin Railsback, burglar extraordinaire -- or, perhaps more accurately, burglar ordinaire. This is a guy whose typical haul involves surplus salad dressing, postage stamps, and powdered lemonade, leavened by more profitable items like jewelry or Waterford crystal after he's ascertained, through rigorous record-keeping, that it will never be missed. Martin, who calls his victims "clients," exhibits clear symptoms, never named as such, of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One reason it might not be is that his OCD is not quite obviously a handicap: Martin's exceptional scrupulousness in maintaining highly elaborate rituals in casing, entering, and disposing of property makes him a remarkably efficient and painless criminal. Thanks to the chatty style he cooks up for his empty-nester female online avatar, he's so successful in selling his wares on e-bay that he starts a secondary business brokering other people's stuff. (He keeps working as a barista at Starbucks in suburban Hartford, though, because he needs the health insurance.)

Martin's highly ordered life is humming along until one day the unpredictable happens: he knocks that toothbrush into the toilet. Phobic at the thought of retrieving it even with latex gloves, never mind contemplating his "client" using it, Martin decides he must replace the toothbrush, breaking his self-imposed rule of never re-entering a house the same day, regardless of how harmless it might be. Naturally, this decision precipitates a string of unforseen consequences, climaxing in dual confrontations between Martin and his conscience and Martin and a young woman who unexpectedly enters his life and forces him to consider the cost of some plausibly cherished personal traits.

There's a sunniness about
Something Missing that is both surprising and pleasing. Certainly, there are dark currents running through the book; Martin's broken family casts durable shadows on his psyche, and is in fact a proximate cause for his life of crime. There's also a sketchily drawn sex offender with evil plans. But the paradoxical effect of this career burglar's craft is to impress upon us a sense of decency that governs everyday life, as well as a sense of drama if we're willing to look for it. Matthew Dicks is smart enough (or maybe just healthy enough) not stitch the ending of his novel too tightly together. But there's a generous spirit in the book that you experience as hope.

In relatively long "about the author" page typical of the young first-time novelist savoring a dream come true, Dicks is described (surely by himself) as having the "distinction of having died twice by the age of eighteen before being revived by paramedics on both occasions." It's hard not to speculate that such experiences have enhanced his sense of wonder and attentiveness to the beauty that inheres even in a flawed existence. Whether or not that's true, the reader of this book has reason to be grateful for the gifts Dicks received in his survival and the one he confers in a genuinely life-affirming story.

One other note: Something Missing departs from the standard model of trade fiction in that it's a paperback original, published by Broadway Books. The practice of bypassing a first edition in hardcover has been around a while, whether in the case of genre fiction like mysteries, or more literary books like those of the now-famous Vintage Contemporaries which launched the career of Jay McInerney 25 years ago with Bright Lights Big City. While the idea never quite caught on -- reviewers, for example, have been reluctant to take on such books -- the practice seems to be reviving, and may gain traction amid the tumult of the industry generally. In any case, Something Missing is listed at $14 -- a relatively cheap thrill these days.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I'm off to family reunions in Vermont and New Hampshire, and will be taking my first extended break from my blog this week. My vacation reading consists of David Liss's The Whiskey Rebels, historical fiction about a famous 1794 political insurrection in the infant United States, prompted by the financial shenanigans of unscrupulous bankers who speculated ruinously in the infant American economy (takes a real stretch of imagination to get your mind around that one, I know). On a whim at least partially sparked by the impish charm of its cover, I picked up the newly published Something Missing, a first novel by Matthew Dicks, about a house burglar afflicted by the twin burdens of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and a conscience. Maybe I'll have something to say about one or both when I get back.

If you happen to drop by in my absence, please catch up on the newly launched Maria Chronicles (below) or have a look at my piece in the lastest issue of Common-Place. I'll resume with Maria next week. Thanks for paying a visit. --JC

Monday, July 20, 2009

The load

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet weigh how much homework is enough

The Maria Chronicles, #2

Maria is conflicted. It's a Sunday night in mid-July, and she's sitting on the deck outside her frighteningly expensive, but at least unpacked, little apartment on Southside Avenue. She believes that what her landlord told her is true, that it will afford a view of the Hudson come winter when all the greenery is gone. For now she settles for occasional pedestrian traffic and the occasional sound of the Metro North train coming into the station a couple blocks away. She's been bent over her laptop for hours now, the container of lo mein she brought home from dinner last night long since forgotten, as is the half-empty bottle of Pinot Grigio. Standing up, she realizes that her back and neck are sore from her unnatural position. It hadn't been her intention to spend so much time on the syllabus for this new course, which she looked at after she came home from a jog in the park, but once she got started her immersion had been complete. Until a few minutes ago, anyway, when she got stuck. Now she stands, realizes it's getting dark, and moves her stuff inside to the kitchen. No more wine. She's tired. And about a week into her new life, a little lonely.

The problem is with her new "Advanced Topics" class. This is actually a plum assignment in a portfolio that includes the year-long survey and other staple courses. The school recently decided to drop its AP curriculum as too restrictive, a move she thoroughly endorses. This has opened up a space for an elective of her choosing, and Maria has decided she would like to try her hand at historiography in a class she's calling "Great Debates in U.S. History." She's using the latest edition of a nice course reader that she got as a desk copy last year, having then decided it was something she would like build a course around someday. That came to pass sooner than expected -- along with the end of her marriage, a new home, and a new job, which she hadn't expected at all.

The issue at hand is how much work she can or should try to get out of her still-imagined students. Maria knows she's going to ask them to write a couple short pieces on readings of their choice. She also knows she's going to ask them to do a final project on a movie
with a historical theme, like Last of the Mohicans or Saving Private Ryan, that she'll want them to situate in terms of academic scholarship at the time of its release and/or today. What she can't quite decide is whether to require them to read and write a review of a major piece of historical writing from a list she'll give them, something that will include classics like Garry Wills's Lincoln at Gettysburg or Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Good Wives. The books would have to be short. And she knows it will be tough for students who will no doubt also be taking similarly challenging courses in science and math, not to mention playing soccer, performing in the percussion ensemble, or whatever. But shouldn't they have a sustained encounter with a major piece of historical scholarship? Especially since they're taking this course because they want to be challenged? Or maybe she should be thinking, as education guru Ted Sizer says, that Less Is More. Maybe three short reaction pieces, the movie essay, and class participation is enough.

Maria knows that the issue isn't entirely intellectual or pedagogical. It's at least as much about the kind of tone and reputation she's going to establish, how she's going to be perceived. Will they see her as a hard-ass? Is that a bad thing? She knows from experience that setting the bar too high discourages kids, some of whom will drop out -- and a sharp melt early on will not be good for her image. On the other hand, setting the bar too low conveys a lack of seriousness, and paradoxically may mean she gets even less work out of them. It's more important than usual that she get this right.

The sudden burst of Los Lobos's version of "La Bamba" from her cell phone comes as a relief to Maria. She's glad to have the diversion and human contact, particularly when she sees that it's her daughter Felicia calling from Seattle, where she's now a few months into her job as a reporter for the History News Network website (thank God her boyfriend, a software designer, has a salary they can live on).

"Hello darling!"

"Hello Mama! How are you?"

"I'm great. Really great!"

"Oh no you're not. I can tell from your voice."

"Now honey, don't you start."

"What is it, Mama? You feeling all alone out there? How could you not? You know, the Labor Day weekend coming up, but I bet I could even -- "

"Nevermind about that. You tell me how
you are."

There's a pause. Maria knows Felicia hears the edge in her mother's voice. The right answer is to answer. Good girl: Felicia does, with talk about the office, her boyfriend David, a recent visit to Vancouver. This goes on for a while. When Maria senses that Felicia wants to turn the conversation back to her, she shifts the ground again.

"And your brother? Have you heard from him?"

"Yeah, I talked with him yesterday," Felicia answers. "I didn't get the sense things were all honky dory with Doreen -- he sounded a little tired, maybe even down -- but I didn't press and he didn't say much on that. His work is going well, though. And what about
your work? Are you preparing for classes?"

This is safe ground. "Indeed I am. Maria describes her curricular planning, including the work she'd done that afternoon. She also decides that Felicia is a good sounding board, and asks her opinion.

"Oh I would definitely assign the book," Felicia says. "Let 'em do some real history. You're talking as if you're going to inflict pain on them. It'll be fun!"

"Well, it would be fun for
you. You were always the golden girl when it came to homework. I'm worried about it being perceived as too burdensome."

"Burdensome, schmerdensome! If you're really worried about it, have them read the book over spring break."

A good idea. But Maria shoots it down. "Can't. I was told when I was hired that they really try hard not to make the place too much of a grind. School policy is no homework over vacations."

"Well, that may be the policy, but you and I both know there will always be kids who do homework over vacations, whether they want to or not. So don't actually assign it for the break. Set it up so that anyone who
wants to can read it at the airport while waiting six hours to board the plane to Orlando, but no one will actually have to read it, because the review won't be due for a week or so after that."

"Honey, you're brilliant."

"Of course I am. That's why I'm making a fortune here writing news digests for HNN. Have you asked my good-for-nothing brother what he thinks?" Maria knows Felicia really is fond of Evan, and really thinks of him as lazy.

"That good-for-nothing brother of yours is making about twice as much as you are. But no, I haven't asked him."

"Well don't. You know what he'll say."

Maria does. That's why she's tempted to call him. But she knows that he's going to a Coldplay concert tonight.

Maria gazes back out toward the deck. It's fully dark now, and she's fully tired. "You know, Mama, David has some frequent flyer miles. I could get out there to see you maybe even next weekend."

This is all too tempting an offer. "Nonsense. Maybe Labor Day. We'll see. Let me go, honey. I want to catch some re-runs of
In Treatment on HBO."

"OK, Mama. You think about that visit. I can be there at a snap of your fingers."

"I know, sweetheart. Thank you. Love to David."

Maria has no intention of watching
In Treatment. Instead, she puts her wineglass in the dishwasher, turns off her computer, and turns on a lamp in her bedroom, where a paperback copy of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge awaits. She had already thought of what Felicia had said. But hearing her say it has emboldened her. It's going on the syllabus. She can change her mind later. Ted Sizer says less is more, she thinks as she takes off her shorts and crawls into bed with the T-shirt she put on after the shower that followed her run. But he also talks about patient expectation. Something like that. I'll aim high, at first, anyway. That's always been my way. Mark would say that's why he had the affair -- that my standards are too high, but . . . .

Maria is grateful for her exhaustion. She's barely opened the novel before she falls asleep.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Meet Ms. Bradstreet

In which we meet a new character in the middle of her story

The Maria Chronicles, #1

It still doesn’t seem real, Maria thinks to herself as she drives her green Ford Focus rental car out of the hotel parking lot onto Interstate 87. There will be just enough dusky light for her to get another look at the school. She wants to see it one more time before she flies back to Manchester in the morning and begins a new life. At 49.

She’s not unhappy, mind you. But she can’t quite believe this whole thing is really happening. She never would have been here if she hadn’t been confronted with Mark’s affair, but once he confessed, she suddenly felt she was being presented with an opportunity that was too good to pass up. (She still feels guilty about wanting the divorce, and every time she does she hears her friend Janice’s voice in her head: “If you say you feel bad for not wanting him back one more time, I will hit you.") With Evan and Felicia done with college – and with real jobs, go figure – she couldn’t think of a reason not to submit her resume to Carney Sandoe.

Not that she really expected anything to happen. Or that she needed anything to happen. But once it did, once she actually came down here and talked to people who seemed to see her fresh without any of her personal baggage or the seemingly inevitable invisibility that 16 years at Derry High had engendered, she felt like she had suddenly wandered into a movie about someone else’s life, where the surroundings were unfamiliar, and, more important, what would come next seemed entirely unpredictable. Not unpredictable in an especially ominous or exciting sense, but one that somehow made her feel curious about her own life in a way she hadn’t felt in decades. Since she was unexpectedly admitted to the Ed school at Harvard and realized she was a bona fide Ivy Leaguer. (Well, maybe not bona fide – she was still a UMass graduate, after all, and anybody who knew anything knew that the Ed school was the poor stepchild of the university, a diploma mill compared with any of the other schools at Harvard, graduate or undergraduate. But still.)

That was 1985, just before her grandmother died. She thinks of the picture she keeps on her dresser – the one taken in El Paso, probably a decade before her mother was born. The other picture she has, this one engraved in her memory, is of Mamacita holding her in her lap and stroking her hair, calling her “mi carita bonita.” She said it again when Maria called her to tell her she had gotten in, and wondered if Mamacita fully understood that her grandchild was an adult. Maria remembered feeling sad, and, simultaneously, an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude: No one else in her life loved her with such pure simplicity, took the sheer pleasure in Maria’s mere existence that Mamacita had. For that very reason, Maria had never taken it all that seriously; now it seemed almost unbearably precious. Maria often wished she could achieve something like it as a teacher. (She realized early on that wasn’t going to be possible with her children, any more than it was for her mother.) She supposed it was a more realistic aspiration for an elementary school teacher, but she was too much her father’s child not to want to master, and convey, substance. Yet she still hoped that something of Mamacita’s spirit coursed through her, and that maybe there was enough of it left –

There it is. Maria pulls over the side of the road to contemplate the empty building. If it was during the school year there would probably be a bit more activity than there is now; maybe a jazz concert would be ending, or the janitorial staff would be emptying a day’s worth of trash from the wastepaper baskets. Now it seems sealed shut, and the only sound is the summer crickets and the buzz of a streetlight on the other side of the road.

Maria exhales. “All right, then,” she says aloud as she puts the car in drive. She figures the next time she comes back, this place will be teeming with traffic – cars, buses, people. She smiles at the thought as she turns on the headlights. “My freshman year.” She resolves then to have a glass of white wine – no, a margarita, on the rocks, with salt – when she gets back to the hotel.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Currents Affair

John R. Hale emphasizes the influence of sea power upon ancient history in Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy

The following post was recently published in the book review section of the History News Network.

When it comes to works of history published for a popular audience -- a phrase hard not to consider a contradiction in terms these days -- it often appears that authors are constantly rehashing the same old stories. The fact that there's very little new information about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Napoleon's invasion of Russia, or Hitler's ascension to power doesn't seem to stop new versions from coming with the regularity new models of toaster ovens or lawn mowers, to cite two comparably dowdy examples of consumer products that manufacturers tweak slightly from time to time but which remain essentially the same.

This sense of repackaging seems all the more inevitable when dealing with ancient history, where primary sources are scarce and truly new findings are scarcer still. Perhaps more than more contemporary history, though, an act of generational translation -- very often the result of fresh literal translation -- leads to new accents of interpretation. A distinguished academic scholar will occasionally synthesize a body of literature in such a way that it compels professional and amateur attention alike, as did Donald Kagan's one-volume distillation of his four-part study The Peloponnesian War (2003). But this book is exceptional, in more ways than one.

John R. Hale was an undergraduate student of Kagan's at Yale, though he's an archeologist, not a historian, and his publication record runs as much toward Scandinavian maritime history as it does the ancient world. In Lords of the Sea, he tells a familiar story of the rise and fall of the Athenian Empire through the relatively novel lens of naval power and its decisive impact on shaping the democratic character of Athenian society in the Golden Age. This is a substantial work of historical scholarship, deeply grounded in its sources and marked by nuances that will likely escape generalist readers. But there are three reasons why it is an appealing book for such readers.

The first is its the scope. Hale begins, as so many accounts do, with the rise of collective Greek power in checking the expansion of the Persian Empire. He vividly evokes the vision of Themistocles, the Athenian visionary who viewed naval power as the key to Athenian ascendancy in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. This naval orientation leads Hale to shave the fabled battle of Marathon in 490 BC (a victory of land-based hoplites) from of his narrative. It also leads him to shift his gaze from the heroics of the Spartan general Leonidas at Thermopylae a decade later (recently mythologized again in the 2007 fim 300) to focus more intently on its Athenian naval prologue at Artimesium and the subsequent Athenian naval triumph at Salamis, the battle that sealed Persian defeat. As one would expect, Hale proceeds to sketch out the Periclean Golden Age that followed, as well as the turmoil of the decades-long
Peloponnesian War, which occupies much of this 300 page account. Yet Hale does not end his story there, pushing it story forward to chart Athenian revival before the final collapse of its hegemony in the rise of Macedonian power in the last quarter of the fourth century BC. So there's simultaneously something comprehensive, and pleasingly off-center, in the not-quite conventional framing of this history. It's interesting, for example, to see King Phillip of Macedon as an active military strategist with his son Alexander as a relative footnote, rather than the other way around.

The second asset of Lords of the Sea is Hale's palpable enthusiasm and authority on maritime culture in greater ancient Attica. An internationally recognized expert in the field of underwater searches for sunken warships, he describes the evolution of the Greek trireme in such a way that this arcane corner of military history comes to life in descriptive and often graceful prose. Though his detailed accounts of multiple battles can at times grow a little tedious, he's nevertheless able to evoke the role of weather, daylight, and deeply human factors like hubris or anxiety and their often decisive consequences on the course of engagements and wars.

Finally, Lords of the Sea is a notably well published book. Again, part of that is the writing, as in Hale's extended metaphor of the Athenian navy as a mollusk that we know only through its shell ("A living sea creature, all muscle and appetite and growth, generated the glistening shell of inspiring art, literature, and political ideals," he notes in his introduction. "Today we admire the shell for its own beauty, but it cannot be fully understood without charting the life cycle of the animal that generated it.") Part of doing so involves great care and acuity in pointing out the role of maritime themes and metaphors in great Athenian dramatists like Euripides and philosphers like Plato. One senses a strong editorial hand behind Hale that is present and welcome. And so are the wealth of documentation, the extensive timeline and glossary, the neatly segmented chapters, and, especially, the wonderful maps and diagrams, done by the unsung Jeffrey Ward, whose work graces so many fine works of history. Having just finished a military history Afghanistan with insufficient and sketchy maps, I was especially appreciative of the handsome ones here.

My chief reservation about Lords of the Sea is what I regard as an under-developed analysis of what Athenian democracy actually meant. Hale tends to celebrate it without really engaging its tensions, in particular the relationship between democracy and empire, the way Athenian freedom depended upon the tribute it coerced, even extorted, from vassal states. And it is only late in the book, in seeming admiration of the Athenian decision to deal with the need for more military manpower by expanding citizenship even to slaves, where we begin to implicitly grasp just how narrow the scope of democracy really was. At the very end of the story, Hale does suggest that old and new client states of Athens did get exasperated with its imperial style, even as critics of democracy (Plato among them) struggled with some success to get the upper hand in Athenian politics. This might have been a theme to wrestle with more directly. Of course, it would be foolish to uncritically measure Athenian democracy by the standards of American democracy (which, as we know, has its own issues regarding an expansive sense of empire and a narrowing sense of citizenship). But it equally foolish to invoke democracy what made Athens glorious without a clear sense of its limits, much less its alternatives. Lords of the sea are not
democrats of the sea.

Still, this is an engaging, useful, volume that's likely to prove durable. Students of ancient history, broadly construed, will find
Lords of the Sea to be a pleasurable, and edifying, experience.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bruno's American Dream

A rootless cosmpolitan comes home (to a studio)

The following piece has been published in the current edition of the History News Network.

In a culture that honors -- often to the point of self-flattery -- the virtues of tolerance, it's hard to be genuinely outrageous. But Sacha Baron Cohen is working at it as hard as anybody out there today. As is often the case with cultural transgressors, the locus of his appeal is the young. (I myself was introduced to The Ali G Show by my students on a long bus ride back from a field trip a few years ago.) That's not to say all young people embrace him, any more than he will offend everybody over the age of 30. But a generational lens is not a bad place to begin to understand his power, in part because it gets outside some of the typical ones through which he is typically viewed. Like, of course, sexuality, the overt topic of his latest movie, Bruno.

Bruno, of course, is a richly overdetermined text on the nature of homophobia, a topic on which it will no doubt generate fruitful discussions for a long time to come. But to me, the real drama of the movie came from a different category of identity: Bruno is an immigrant. In that regard, he's appears like his not-so distant relative, Borat, protagonist of the 2006 movie of the same name, though Borat had a sweetness to him, an irrepressible love of the United States, that shone through even his most embarrassingly hilarious moments. But Borat was a visitor who went home, however much he and his village were transformed by his experience. Bruno, by contrast, is an outcast in his native Austria, thanks to a wardrobe malfunction involving velcro. Once in America, he shows every intention of staying, as indicated, for example, by his desire to get married (to a man, of course) in California. And Bruno has a characteristically American Dream: to become famous.

It's this dream that's really the drama of Bruno's life. Love is at best a fashion accessory; sex is something he takes for granted (at first, anyway). But becoming famous -- not for any particular reason, mind you, simply to be famous -- is a daunting prospect. And to achieve this dream, he will stop at nothing. Early efforts in acting, a talk show, and charity work prove fruitless, however, and after an unfortunate incident involving a handcuffs and other paraphernalia, Bruno decides his homosexuality is his problem. If he wants to succeed like Tom Cruise or John Travolta, he's going to have to assimilate. And he understands that to mean going straight. Whether or not Bruno is right about this -- or whether or not he's right to think, like the evangelical ministers he consults, that homosexuality is social construction and therefore one that can be remade -- is less important than his perception that this is the price of his dream. It's what leads him to his crisis moment of the story, where he is tortured by a dominatrix only too happy to beat him into sexual submission. Bruno (narrowly) escapes that fate. But the episode becomes a turning point that allows him to formulate the brilliant plan of cultural vengeance by which he will appear to honor the codes of his adoptive (redneck) country but achieve his dream on his own terms. In other words, a global Hollywood ending.

Bruno is by no means a perfect movie. It has smug liberal air about it, and while Cohen with some justice no doubt prides himself on being an equal opportunity offender, there is an (interracial) class skew to his humor. And he's certainly capable of more than his fair share of cheap shots. Much has been made of libertarian Ron Paul's mounting disgust with Bruno during a hotel interview he unwittingly takes seriously, but I'm not sure Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, or, for that matter, Barney Frank, could have -- or should have -- done any better in dealing with what could easily be termed sexual harassment. I'm actually more impressed by the unflappability of some of Bruno's victims (who in some cases literally hold their fire) than their outrage or discomfort.

But at the heart of this film is a piercing piece of social criticism that goes far beyond sexual orientation: an attack on an American Dream of fame and fortune that is as banal as it is widespread. Here I'm reminded of a lyric from the classic Counting Crows song, "Mr. Jones": "When I look at the television I want to see me/staring right back at me." Like the character in that song, who wants to be like Bob Dylan without any of his talent or effort, millions of Americans (and would-be Americans, at least until the approaching day when the media capital migrates somewhere new) define their aspirations in terms of the secular grace conferred by the talk show, that favorite setting for Sacha Baron Cohen's satires. We inhabit a democracy of desire, which, in both its almost total unavailability for fulfillment, and the often remorseless means by which we would attain it, is as psychologically oppressive as a totalitarian regime.

If Bruno teaches us anything, it's the imperative of finding a source of friction in something, or someone, other than ourselves -- not instead of ourselves, which is another form of totalitarianism -- with which to get a life that does not finally rely on the admiring attention of others. Will Bruno finally come to his senses, find true love with his adoring assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), and apply his undeniable verve with couture in a more productive direction? There's not a lot of interest, much less hope, in that particular fantasy, particularly when you've got Bono, Slash, and Snoop Dogg in your video. And Elton John to add a sly wink.

The paradox of Bruno is that Cohen has clearly labored with tremendous energy and attention to detail to make a movie about a fabulously empty existence. To say that this movie is a work of fierce intelligence is no cliche. I have a reasonably good idea of what Cohen is against at this point. I'm a good deal less clear about what he's for. Could he make a funny movie about that?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Giving a Damn

Feminist critic Molly Haskell takes another look at Gone with the Wind

The following review was recently published on the History News Network website.

For many years now, a Civil War course has been a staple of my pedagogic repertoire, and every time I teach it I struggle to figure out what to do about Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell’s novel is much too long to be assigned reading (though I have taught a summer course devoted exclusively to it). Even the 1939 movie presents serious scheduling/logistical challenges; it takes about a week’s worth of classes to get through it, and I’ve never had much luck assigning any movie as homework – too hard for everyone to get, watch, discuss, etc. So I’ve typically made a reluctant decision to consign GWTW (as it is affectionately known) to the margins as a possible essay topic. I always get a few takers.

I somehow couldn’t bear to do that again this year. So I cleared the deck and showed the movie in its entirety over a stretch of classes, much in the way I do a major chunk of the 11-hour Ken Burns Civil War documentary (and running the risk of inducing serious video fatigue). But the GWTW screening was a great success. I was struck by the enthusiasm of some of the males who saw it, including a pair of African American boys. The kind of racism in the film seemed sufficiently far from their lives to permit them to appreciate other dimensions of the story, though I had a third African American boy who wrote a very good essay on how the film was more dangerous than the obviously racist Birth of a Nation (I showed excerpts) precisely because its bigotry was thus even more insidious.

But perhaps the most striking thing about my experience in showing and discussing the film was what I perceived as its receding status in American life. A 1976 poll showed that 90% of the American public had seen the movie at least once; anecdotally speaking, I’d say 90% of the students I teach have not seen it prior to taking my class. GWTW, movie or film, isn’t going anywhere. But it clearly has receded from its central place in American life, much in the way of Catcher in the Rye, another once-pivotal generational tale whose appeal, the New York Times recently reported, is also waning, even as its status as a classic becomes more secure.

It is in this context that I read Molly Haskell’s Frankly My Dear, a reappraisal of both book and film
and their relationship to each other as we approach the three-quarter century mark. It is one of those books you can say its author was born to write. Haskell, who is the same age as the movie, is a child of the South (she grew up in Virginia) and became a notable film scholar. Her 1973 book From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies has become a minor classic through two editions. (GWTW is treated in passing in that book, in a relatively detached, neutral way.) The convergence of regionalism, gender, and media studies in her new book has felicitous results in a compact, evocative piece of old-fashioned cultural criticism, part of the “Icons of America” series published by Yale University Press.

Frankly My Dear is organized as a suite of five essays. The first discusses GWTW, book and film, as “the American Bible,” asserting its ongoing centrality in U.S. life, a claim that’s plausible, particularly given recent sequels and parodies, but one, as I’m indicating, that also appears to have generational boundaries. The second focuses on the role of producer David Selznick, and actor Vivian Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara; the third is on Mitchell’s role. These two chapters – in effect a trilogy honoring the three people as the pivotal players in what Haskell also affirms as very much a group enterprise – represent her key analytic contribution to the discourse surrounding GWTW. A fourth chapter surveys some of the other pla
yers, among them the underappreciated production designer William Cameron Menzies, who brought the story to life. The final chapter situates the GWTW saga in the broader context of American history, from its version of antebellum politics to the films of Judd Apatow.

Haskell wears her learning lightly – maybe a little too lightly; it would have been nice to have footnotes in what is, after all, a university press book – and this gives the volume a pleasingly fluid, yet resonant quality. She’s as deft in discussing other Civil War novels and movies of the interwar years as she is Mitchell’s work, and writes about Southern life with a sense of earned authority (which sometimes takes the form of wry asides, like an off-hand reference to an old Southern joke that Southern girls don’t go to orgies because it will mean too many thank-you notes to write). Having wrestled with her own ambivalence about GWTW for generations, she seems to have finally come out on the side of appreciation, candid about its racial shortcomings but insistent that the story can’t finally be reduced to them. So it is, for example, that she spends a fair amount of time analyzing the suprisingly nuanced interracial Mammy-Rhett Butler relationship, as well as insi
sting on a specifically Southern amity in race relations that Northern whites have never really understood (I heard a black scholar make a similar argument at a panel on right-wing politics at this year’s Organization of American Historians conference in Seattle earlier this year).

Perhaps not surprisingly, she’s most deft in writing about gender issues, as in this comparison of the stubborn Scarlett, the saintly Melanie, and their respective, albeit very different, relationships with the dashing Rhett: “The male ego needs a certain amount of flattery, and we need the male ego. If all Southern women had been ego-quashers like Scarlett instead of ego-strokers like Melanie, Southern manhood might have been knocked back on its heels, never to rise again.” Nevertheless, for all Scarlett’s obvious personal shortcomings Haskell does see her as a proto-feminist character whose challenge to traditional male authority remains thrilling and relevant in the 21st century.

Gender issues were also on my mind when I watched GWTW again this spring. The scene that really le
aped out at me this time came early in the movie, when Scarlett rushes to meet her father, who is returning to Tara, his plantation, so that she can clarify the upsetting report that her beloved Ashley is about to marry Melanie. Gerald O’Hara does confirm the bad news, and goes on to scold Scarlett for her inappropriate interest in Ashley. What she really should love, he tells her, is the land itself, and to the swelling of Max Steiner’s marvelous score, the camera pulls back to show a loving and durably bonded father and daughter surveying Tara in the shadows of a magnificent Georgia sunset. As the father of a daughter myself, I could not help but be moved, even as I knew that bond was forged from real estate speculation, slave labor, and other interlocking evils. In that regard, GWTW remains uncomfortably relevant; as much as we might like to think we have overcome the injustices that marked American life before 1860 (and, for that matter, 1960), we are kidding ourselves if we doubt that love and sin remain inseperably twined. This, if nothing else, is a good reason to keep showing GWTW, and reading books like this one.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Jim Cullen is taking a vacation day. Please check out his newly published piece "Closing the Books," in the latest edition of Common-Place, or have a look at some of his older posts. And please keep an eye out for "The Maria Chronicles," to debut some time this month.

Publication of a new posts will resume on Wednesday, July 8. Thanks for visiting.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Professing Heroism

At ninety-three years young, the remarkable Edmund Morgan rounds out a lifetime of work in American Heroes: Portraits of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America

This review has been published on the home page of the current edition of the History News Network.

“AMERICAN HEROES. Probably most of the people in this book would have disclaimed or disdained the title,” Edmund Morgan writes at the start of this brief anthology of essays that span from 1937 to the present. I would add that probably most academic historians of the last century would disclaim or disdain the title in another sense: it has long been an article of faith in the profession that self-respecting scholars do not “do” heroes. Indeed, coming from anyone else, such a title would seem to broadcast a lack of intellectual seriousness. But no one could ever credibly make that charge of Morgan, the quintessential historian’s historian, author of the magisterial American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) and other landmark books. To read these essays is to be reminded not only of just how fertile and graceful a career Morgan has had, but to understand what he and the great historians of his generation accomplished.

To some extent, Morgan’s title is a bit misleading, because not all the pieces (most of which were published in limited-circulation journals) are celebratory, and even those figures Morgan does admire are contextualized with his customary sense of lightly worn wit and irony. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin are here, naturally. But so are people like Giles Cory and Mary Easty, two accused Salem witches whose fatal refusal to “admit” their crime affirmed the greatness of Puritanism in its darkest hour. This is new material, but the longtime Yale historian also has older pieces here on Anne Hutchinson (who he does not regard as heroic) and another on Puritan heiress Anna Keayne, which, along with a haunting essay on Native Americans, demonstrates that his interest in women and Indians dates back to the thirties and forties, as his unselfconscious use of the term “Asiatic” reminds us.

Perhaps the most prescient of these pieces is the 1959 essay “Dangerous Books,” in which Morgan takes note of the Cold War-era anxiety about American education but questions whether a better knowledge of history will actually make young Americans of the future any more pious than the Jacobin-leaning students of the maverick 18th century Yale president Ezra Stiles (subject of an admiring revisionist essay in comparison with his successor Timothy Dwight later in the book). “If necessity is the mother of invention, curiosity is surely the father of it, and invention is heresy by another name,” Morgan notes with typical grace, later adding that “I am not sure that the effect of wider knowledge will be what some of its advocates suppose.” Many of the next generation of New Left historians would no doubt nod in amusement.

Yet even as Morgan recognizes the power and value of a radical vision – most obvious in his treatment of William Penn – this book makes clear that in both form and content the hallmark of his work is moderation, discipline, restraint. What links the Franklins, Washingtons, Corys and Eastys of American history is at least as much a matter of what they won’t do as what they will. Conversely, the limitations of a figure like Christopher Columbus (topic of another new essay) is precisely a matter of what they allow themselves and others to do. Morgan understands the severity in the vision of John Winthrop (the subject of Morgan’s classic 1954 biography) and Michael Wigglesworth, but he honors their sense of self-aware struggle to do right as God gave them to see the right. He can be every bit as mocking of Cotton Mather as Mather’s contemporaries were; Morgan notes at one point that a girl accused of witchcraft who came to live with the Puritan divine recovered notably quickly “to escape the prayers of that pompous egotist.” But whether in gentle praise or cutting criticism, Morgan’s utter immersion in the world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is so palpable as to be a gift to those who experience it through him.

The final piece in this collection is a 1964 tribute to the great Puritan historian Perry Miller, who mentored Morgan at Harvard before his death the previous year. Morgan’s debt to Miller is beyond doubt. But in reading this survey of Morgan’s work, one thinks less of Morgan’s influences than his exact contemporary Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) and the slightly older C Vann Woodward (1908-1999). These historians tilled different fields than Morgan. But all three of them wrote sturdy, gleaming prose that remains more readable than virtually any U.S. history produced since. If you studied the American Revolution in college in the last half-century, you’re probably familiar with Morgan’s little 1956 volume The Birth of the Republic, surely the finest book of its kind ever written for students and still widely in use. You probably read that one because your professor chose it. But you owe it to yourself to read American Heroes and remember the pure pleasure great history by a consummate artist affords.