Friday, January 29, 2010

Men of an uncertain age

In Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, Michael Chabon engages the topic of gender with a impressive lack of professionalism

The following review was published earlier this week on the Books page at the History News Network

Manhood for Amateurs is not entirely candid about what it is: a collection of previously published magazine pieces, most of which appeared in Details (a men's magazine more obviously notable for photographs of scantily clad women than insightful social commentary). This is something you only learn by studying the copyright page. The flap copy calls the book an "autobiographical narrative," which comes close to crossing an ethical line: autobiographical, yes; narrative, not really. As a matter of marketing, such camouflaging was probably necessary; while Michael Chabon has a well-deserved reputation as an entertaining literary novelist -- his 1995 book Wonder Boys was made into a pretty good movie five years later, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and his most recent novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007), got good reviews -- he doesn't have the readership of a Maureen Dowd necessary to flaunt the book as a collection of columns. Such ledgermain aside, this is a smart, funny, and cohesive little book, elegantly clustered into segments about sex, gender, parenting, and the like. It's also a remarkable historical document of a life begun in the mid-twentieth century that has carried over to the twenty-first.

Chabon establishes the tone for the 39 pieces as a whole with his first essay, "The Loser's Club," which describes a childhood memory in which his mother helped him establish a comic book club in which no one wished to be a member. This tragicomic anecdote leads to th
e point of the story: "A father is a man who fails every day," he explains. Occasional successes do "nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure stalks everything you do. But you always knew that. Nobody gets past the age of ten without that knowledge. Welcome to the club." Yet far from bitterness or self-pity, this message proves oddly liberating. The mood of the book is actually quite buoyant: like the cakes he learned to bake in his mother's kitchen, the journey matters at least as much as the destination, which every once in a while proves to be delicious.

Chabon has the not inconsiderable gift of turning apparent cliches into bracing moments of revelation. He writes about hoisting his son on his shoulders in Grant Park on the night of Barack Obama's victory, and the sad loss of innocence it portends for Obama's daughters as well as his son. An essay about the collapse of his first marriage suggests his greatest regret may well breaking his (very different) father-in-law's heart. Alternatively, enrolling in an MFA program at the University of California not only proves to be a good career move, but helps him grow up (go figure).

A number of themes stitch the book together.
Chabon, who was born in 1962, is a child of divorce who came of age in a feminist era. That this has resulted in confusion and anxiety about his relationships, male and female, is less something he laments than it is something to be taken for granted. (It's worth pointing out in this context that Chabon's wife, novelist Ayalet Waldman, has also recently published a book, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace.) He writes with a good deal of curiosity and sympathy for a number of women in life, past and present, even as he accepts the criticism he's received in his fiction that he doesn't really portray female characters three-dimensionally.

Chabon also describes, as a number of observers have, the transformation of American childhood, which is now more intensively managed by adults than it ever has been. But few people to make this point are as entertaining as he is on the evolution of Legos from his own childhood to that of his son. In "Hypocritical Theory," Chabon asserts his detestation of Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants books less because he actually hates them than because he needs to give his child a subversive pleasure. He grieves that his children lack the joy of going out and playing after dinner, riding their bicycles in the neighborhood, or exploring dank basements the way he once did.

Running through the whole book is Chabon's infectious lifelong infatuation with pop culture, whether it's pop music on FM radio, old television shows, or classic characters from Marvel cartoons (there's a nice piece on cartoon women). Chabon makes clear that the jetsam and flotsam of this culture, which will surface in his consciousness at the oddest moments, is not simply the source of happy childhood memory, but the seedbed of his adult creativity. And seemingly mediocre figures like Jos
é Conseco (this from a piece Chabon wrote when the steroid scandal was first breaking) suggests that scoundrels can be genuinely edifying figures. In one of the more moving pieces in the collection, "The Amateur Family," Chabon savors the joy of shared passions -- a joy he lacked as a child but savors with this own children -- before making this moving peroration:

Maybe all families are a kind of fandom, an endlessly elaborated, endlessly disputed, endlessly reconfigured set of commentaries, extrapolations, and variations generated by passionate amateurs on the primal text of the parents' love for each other. Sometimes the original program is canceled by death or separation; sometimes, as with Doctor Who, it endures and flourishes for decades. And maybe love, mortality, and loss, and all the children and mythologies and sorrows they engender, make passionate amateurs -- nerds, geeks, and fanboys -- of us all.

Manhood for Amateurs would make an excellent addition to any number of gender studies courses. Chabon's insights rival those of many academic scholars, and he renders them with a grace and wit that will enliven many a discussion. I suspect this book will become a classic of its kind.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet explain the life of facts

The Maria Chronicles, #36

"OK, kids, as you know we have an exam tomorrow. So I've put aside some time for review today. I'm the human jukebox. Pick a topic and I'll sing."

"What's a jukebox?" Mia asks.

Oh my God, Maria thinks. These kids, Mia in particular, are absolutely determined to make me feel old. "A music device from the paleolithic era," Maria answers. "iTunes for dinosaurs."

Vanessa, hand up, has no interest in ancient history. Maria acknowledges her knowing she'll get a change of subject. "Can you tell us exactly what we need to study for the test?"

"No, Vanessa, I cannot tell you exactly what will be on the test. That would defeat the whole point of giving you a test."

Maria hears the harshness in her voice, a harshness that's a function of the question and who's asking. Time to calibrate if she can. "Look," she says, "I know that for you this test is all about getting it over with and getting a good grade. Studying is a means to that end. But for me, the teacher, studying is the end. My goal is to have you go over the material we've covered, go over far more than I could ever want to actually ever test you about, in the hope you'll actually retain some fraction of it. Since you don't know which of any number of possible questions I'll specifically put on the exam, you in effect have to overlearn. To keep the whole thing manageable, I'm putting temporal boundaries on this -- the Civil War and Reconstruction -- but within that I'm hoping you'll cast as wide a net as you can manage."

"I get that," Olivia says dejectedly. "But I always do terribly on tests. I always seem to study the wrong thing."

"I understand, Olivia. Some of us are better at this than others. By 'this,' I don't simply mean the ability to memorize a lot of information. It's about developing judgment about what information is most likely to matter."

"Do we need to know dates?" Denise asks.

"What do you think, Denise? Do you think that I think that dates are important?"

"Some, I guess."

"Can you give me an example of a date you think I would like you to know?"

"Like when the Civil War ended?"

"Yes, Denise. That's correct. That is something I would like you to know. Do you know why I'd like you to know?"

"Because it's important?"

"Yes. But why is it important?"

Kenny jumps in. "Well, it's sort of like a math problem. If you know one thing than you may be able to figure out others. Like if someone says, 'the most important blah blah blah after the Civil War, it gives you a ballpark idea of when it happened. After 1865."

"That's correct in a blah blah blah kind of way, Kenny." Some laughter.

What about things like laws and amendments," Mia asks. "Which of those do we need to know?"

They refuse to let this go, Maria thinks. And why is it that the girls always seem to be the ones who are most insistent on pinning me down?

"Well, again, Mia. Can you give me an example of, say, an amendment that you would think I would want you to know?"

"The thirteenth?"

"Brilliant. Now let me ask you this: do you know when the thirteenth amendment passed?"


"Right. And do you know why that's a fact worth knowing?"

"Because it's at the end of the Civil War, before the actual end of the Civil War." Willie says. "Actually, President Lincoln signed the bill in February, before he died. I'm so glad he got to do that before he died in April. I think it was very important to him."

Maria is moved by the depth of Willie's feeling for Lincoln. "And why do you think so, Willie?"

"Because of what he said at the Gettysburg Address in 1863," she responds. "'A new birth of freedom.' The Civil War, which began in 1861 to hold the union together whether or not there was slavery, ended up holding the union together by ending slavery."

"How about that," Maria says. "You see how Willie strung together some dates to make some sense of the Civil War?"

A nod or two. They're not impressed. Well, I am, Willie.

"How about the battles? What do we need to know about those?"

"You mean like the way General Robert E. Lee won the Battle of Antietam?"

"Wait a second," Ali interjects. "Lee didn't win at Antietam!"

"Who cares?" Maria says. "What difference does it make who won stupid battles whose names it's impossible to keep straight?"

"Because Lee lost."


"Well, I'm not sure Lee really lost," Kenny says. "I mean, he did have to retreat from Maryland. But McClellan, who had his battle plans, didn't destroy Lee when he had the chance. Lincoln was pissed off at him."

"Oh dear," Maria says in sing-song distress. "You mean we're not just talking about facts anymore? We're actually going to have to interpret them, too?"

They don't seem amused. Is it because they don't understand her? Or that they dislike her sarcasm?

"Emancipation." It's Derek, in his customary spot in the back of the room near the window.

"Excuse me?"

"Emancipation," Derek repeats, pointing at the clock.

"Touché, Derek," Maria says, shaking her head. Just when she's about to write him off, Derek will say something that hints not at his fierce intelligence -- that's evident to anyone who pays the slightest attention -- but at his willingness to deploy it, to use it. Derek failed the last exam. But Maria knows he need only decide to ace this one.

"Send me an e-mail if you have any questions," Maria says amid the shuffle of exiting students while a line forms in front of her. Her role, she knows, will be more to soothe than inform. Maria hates the adversarial dimension that's built into testing kids, and it troubles the progressive educator she thinks she is. It's just that she's never quite figured out how to substitute for students having at least some retained information. The facts alone are never enough. But she doesn't know if you can do much of anything without them.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Out of Africa

Paul Gilroy offers a provocative, albeit muddled, transnational vision in Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture

The following review was posted yesterday on the Books pa
ge of the History News Network.

Over the course of the past two decades, Paul Gilroy has emerged as a highly influential international scholar of "the Black Atlantic" -- the title of a landmark study he published in 1995. A product of the Centre for Contemporary Studies at
Birmingham University in the UK -- the so-called "Birmingham School" -- Gilroy has become a renowned chronicler of the black diaspora as both a transnational event in the history of racism and an ongoing struggle for post-colonial emancipation. So it seems appropriate that his latest book, Darker than Blue, would be published under the imprimatur of Harvard University Press as part of the university's W.E.B. DuBois Lecture Series. It's in this context that I say the book showcases the impressive strengths of this interdisciplinary discourse as well as some its glaring weaknesses. As an experience in reading, Darker than Blue is perplexingly fragmented: striking insights mingle with inadequately supported assertions, garbled prose and a vision that seems surprisingly parochial.

This decidedly mixed quality is typified by the first of the book's three essays, "Get Free or Die Tryin,'" which tweaks the title Get Rich or Die Tryin,' a 2003 film and album starring 50 Cent. The piece rests on an arresting fact that Gilroy cites but does not document (in footnotes that are often intriguing but not particularly well aligned with the text): that African Americans constitute roughly 12% of the U.S. population but constitute about 30% of the domestic automotive
market, spending close to $40 billion annually. This prompts Gilroy to make a cultural excursion on the implications of African Americans' century-long romance with cars. His analysis here is often both nimble and deeply provocative, as he uses figures ranging from bell hooks to Ralph Ellison (and an honorable mention of Rosa Parks and the unsung heroes who ran the driving pool at the Montgomery Bus Boycott) to note both the liberating, but, more decisively, geopolitically problematic, consequences of that obsession in terms of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, climate change, and other issues.

Gilroy m
akes the shrewd decision here to focus considerable attention on the music of Chuck Berry, whose artistry in capturing the complexity of American automotive culture is unparalleled. He portrays Berry as a proto-Marxist critic in songs like "Maybellene" and "No Money Down," which is fair enough. But he sidesteps the Berry who celebrated the (imperial) joys of the American Century as it crested in songs like "Back in the USA," a (guilty) pleasure if there ever was one: "Did I miss the skyscrapers did I miss the long freeway? . . . I'm so glad I'm livin' in the USA." Berry's deserved reputation rests at least as much on the sensuous joys of the consumerism he celebrates as it does the capitalist ideology he critiques.

Throughout the book, Gilroy expresses dismay that the emancipatory effects of black popular culture have curdled into decadence: "The contemporary contrast between Kanye West's ironic appetite for branded finery and 50 Cent's scarred, muscular Republican frame prompts us to ask: Where can [Curtis] Mayfield's dignity and seriousness have gone?" An interesting question, but a bit problematic for a discourse, which, however stretched and textured, finally rests on a foundation of dialectical materialism. It hardly seems surprising that those who experience any lessening of their oppression would choose to cash in on their freedom, whether it's inside or outside the borders of the American empire.

Such reservations aside, Gilroy is notably informed and insightful in his readings of popular music, which include Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. But all too often this book is written in academese that's dense to the point of impenetrable in ways that suggest laziness more than sophistication. I've read it a number of times now, and still can't make sense of this description of a Primo Levi's work: "It [the referent is not clear whether Gilroy is speaking of a specific essay or the book in which it appears] lies at the centre of his exploration of civilisation's inner tensions and the implication of decivilising racial tensions that are not to be dialectically resolved into a reconfigured narrative of progress." Or this passage from the same Gilroy piece on human rights: "the racialisation of war and law is retained as an overspecialized topic relevant only to a few exceptional places characterized by openly racialised polities and forms of citizenship that, in turn, institutionalize the patterns of exclusionary inclusion which race hierarchy facilitates and renders acceptable." At times like these, and there are many of them, one wishes Gilroy would take a page from Marley and write in a vernacular language more redolent of the people for whom he presumes to speak.

This insularity extends to asides and allusions whose meaning and interpretation Gilroy takes for granted. He complains that liberal intellectuals tend to celebrate western European contributions to Human Rights, refusing to consider the colonialism that spread in tandem with this self-congratulatory discourse; he criticizes "scholars worthy of the name [who] would never raise the topic of racism as an object of inquiry." But few liberals I've encountered fail to raise it. Racially-based analysis hardly seems lacking in any number of disciplines in the academy, which in recent decades has also witnessed the growth of Africana studies as a discrete discipline, along with the concomitant appearance of scholars like Michael Eric Dyson and Tricia Rose on cable news programs (not to mention Gilroy's own institutional perches at places like Yale and the London School of Economics, where he currently teaches).

Near the bedrock of this book is a generational lament, "an acute sense of being bereft of responsible troubadours," as Gilroy puts it near the start of the book's final essay. The world has changed, and the issues he cares about are not necessarily as central as they once were, even among blacks who have sold their soul (or chosen a president). Gilroy legitimately criticizes the standard conservative response to anti-racist demands that "we should all become resigned to racial orders because they are natural kinds and therefore a permanent, significant, and immutable aspect of human social and political life." But does he really think that the somewhat diffuse anti-colonial project he advocates will actually bring about an unprecedented world of perfect social justice? No: He does not "argue naively for a world without hierarchy, but practically for a world free of that particular hierarchy which has accomplished untold wrongs." Fair enough. But given that there are manifold others -- hierarchies of gender, and intelligence, and physical appearance and the like that are simultaneously within and beyond the reach of social redress -- it is perhaps not surprising or inappropriate that collective gazes may shift over time.

Nor is it surprising or inappropriate that those gazes linger on approaches other than the one he advocates. The subtitle of this book invokes "the moral economies" of Black Atlantic culture. Though never explicitly explained, the core of that morality is apparently egalitarian, adapted with supple postmodern skill from a notably plastic template of Marxism. Yet Gilroy glancingly at best acknowledges other moral economies, like organized religion, which, like Marxism, have done much evil in the world, but which also have occasionally done an immense amount of good by way of defining egalitarianism in a somewhat different way. Christianity gave the Black Atlantic slavery, but it also gave us King. No Allah, no Malcolm. No Exodus, no Exodus. One could argue that a history without colonialism would have rendered such blessings unnecessary. But the hurts of history are inescapable, and their balm can never be entirely political. Here I would point to the example of Cornel West, who whatever nuances he would surely apply to this observation, is nevertheless more attuned to the spiritual dimension of modern life than Gilroy is.

But as Gilroy suggests in the closing pages of Darker than Blue, such arguments are increasingly beside the point. A millennial wind is blowing, one hard to ignore wherever one stands. Gilroy understandably welcomes the prospect of sunset for Western global hegemony. I'd be interested to know how he regards the moral economies of a Confucian order, and how he imagines the wretched of the earth will fare under it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Freedom Then

In Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance, Michael Goldfarb looks at how a people chose modernity

The following review was published earlier this week at the Books page of the History News Network.

Michael Goldfarb, who many of us know as a National Public Radio reporter and commentator (he now works for the BBC), makes his historiographic agenda clear in the opening pages of his engaging new book. "The Holocaust hangs across Jewish history like
an iron curtain," he writes.

It sometimes seems that the story of the Jewish community leaps from the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the beginnings of the Diaspora to Kristallnacht, with only a few incidents, such as the expulsion from Spain and the mass migration of our grandparents and great-grandparents to America, in between.

There's a piece of this story that Goldfarb feels is overlooked, and one he seeks to relate in Emancipation: the difficult but remarkably successful struggle of Europe's Jews to emerge from their
segregation in continental ghettos to the forefront of Western Civilization. This process, which began with granting Jews some basic civil rights during the French Revolution, was largely complete at the turn of the twentieth century. (Goldfarb treats the relatively affirmative outcome of the notorious Dreyfus Affair, which laid bare the prejudices of a presumably vanguard French society, as a vindication of this process.) Without ever minimizing the oppression and hatred that characterized the persistence and even intensification of anti-Semitism in the period, Goldfarb nevertheless considers it a triumphant epoch in which the Enlightenment laid the foundations for legal protections, economic access, and social acceptance for Jews, and one that not even the subsequent rise of the Third Reich can eradicate. Indeed, the effect of this account makes the Nazi interregnum an outlier in a not-entirely straight, but nevertheless steady, line of ethnic (and largely secular) improvement.

Goldfarb thus offers an arrestingly angle from which to view the Jewish experience. But this relatively novel end is achieved by highly traditional means. His periodization is very familiar -- 1789-1914 has long been a standard segment of European history -- and while he applies a specific filter to the events he portrays, the landscape is well known: the French Revolution, the unification of Germany, intensifying industrialization, etc. So are many of the names, whether they're relevant gentiles like Napoleon and Metternich, or not, like Freud and Einstein. (While some ethnic Jews, like Karl Marx and Gustav Mahler, were nominally Christian out of a sense of convenience, they nevertheless were widely considered Jews whether they liked it or not.) Culture and politics dominate this account, as do men; with the exception of an occasional figure like Fanny von Arnheim, whose salon was the toast of early nineteenth century Paris, women are almost entirely absent. It's not surprising that Goldfarb pours his narrative through these familiar grooves. As he explains in his acknowledgments, "I am a journalist -- a summarizer and simplifier by trade." He happens to be very good at this, which makes the book both easy to read and likely to last.

Emancipation is also notable for the largely implicit, but nevertheless provocative, questions it poses in terms of comparative experience. In the preface to the book, Goldfarb explains that its immediate roots lie in the aftermath of September 11, in which he reported on the culture of British Muslims in London and tried to grapple with their competing allegiances between national and religious identity. As Emancipation makes clear, nineteenth century Jews felt comparable tension, particularly in Central Europe. Goldfarb also notes that during the 2008 presidential campaign, some African Americans questioned whether Barack Obama was authentically black. Jews too, struggled to balance orthodoxy and modernity, and, like African Americans, have felt ambivalence within themselves and toward each other in leaving behind old ways that were both of their own choosing and imposed upon them by outsiders.

There are other questions Goldfarb elides that tend to make liberals uncomfortable. Why have Jews been so notably successful in their efforts to assimilate, while other racial and ethnic groups have foundered? Social critics like Thomas Sowell and Bernard Lewis would argue that Jewish success in the nineteenth century and beyond is the product of social values (like an emphasis on education) that have been sorely lacking in other minority communities. Goldfarb appears to be too discreetto suggest as much, or to draw even cursory contrasts between the forms of oppression that Jews encountered compared with other minorities. That's unfortunate, because his perspective as a journalist no less than a historian would be welcome.

But perhaps the most valuable thing a book like Emancipation offers is hope. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously suggested a half century ago, the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." That justice, moreover, need not be punitive. As Goldfarb suggests of some of the less well-known figures who also people his account, like Moses Mendelssohn or Ludwig B
örne, "I don't want to reclaim them for Jewish history alone. Their lives and achievements belong to the history of all men." To which one can only add, "and women." And: L'Chaim!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet run out of ammunition amid a catfight

The Maria Chronicles, # 35

Maria begins class by walking to her desk, sitting down, bringing her splayed fingers together and placing her index fingers against her lips. "Thank you for coming today," she tells the class. "I need your help. I've been getting some very troubling reports from General Scott, and from Major Robert Anderson, who has moved his men from Fort Moultrie to the more secure Fort Sumter. That buys us some time. But we remain in a bit of a pickle, and I'd like to get some opinions as to how to respond to the current situation."

Some quizzical looks. "Who are you?" Mia asks.

"She's a politician," Peter answers. "Like a president."

"Yeah, but which one?"

"She's Abraham Lincoln," Willie answers. "She's looking for help with how to deal with the crisis at Fort Sumter."

"What crisis at Fort Sumter?" Mia asks.

Count on Willie to have read ahead in the textbook, Maria thinks. Let's just hope she doesn't reveal the ending of this story. For now, she's glad to have Willie to do her work of advancing the plot. But she'll jump back in now.

"Here's the problem," she says. Major Anderson has a detachment in the fort, which remains in government hands. But it is effectively surrounded and under siege. Eventually, they'll run out of food and supplies. If I do nothing, I'll look weak, and encourage even more insubordination by other rebels. On the other hand, I could send a naval vessel or two and force our way in, but that will be seen as aggressive, as striking the first blow. We will be seen as the ones who started a civil war."

"So let me get this straight," Kenny says. If you do nothing, you lose the fort and look weak. If you do something, you start a war and it's your fault."

"Yes. That's about the long and short of it."

"Well, what the hell," Vanessa says. "You might as well just go in, then."

"Well, perhaps that is the best choice. But if so, it's a bad one. Maria turns around and points to the map mounted on the all behind her. "Remember, there are a series of border states -- Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia -- that have not yet joined the seven in rebellion. If I'm seen as the aggressor, they may well join the insurrection. The situation is bad enough already, and I don't want to make it worse. I'd like to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky."

"That's pretty funny," Ali says without laughing.

"What about the Southerners, the rebels," Kenny asks. "Can we lure them into firing first?"

"Well, if we have to have a war, that would be the way I'd like it to start. Certainly they have their so-called "Fire-Eaters," hotheads who want nothing more than to have a war. But for now they seem to be keeping their powder dry. The question is how to lure them into making the first move. Which, of course, may still not prevent other states from joining the rebellion."

There's a long silence.

"I still think you should go on in," Vanessa says. "Sure, it will piss some people off. But I bet some will respect you more. You're not going to take any of their crap."

"I think Vanessa's right," Mia says.

"Well, again," that's a plausible way of looking at the situation, and it may well be the right one. I just can't help but think that there might be a better way."

Another silence.

"Is there a way of, like, helping the guys in the fort without turning it into an aggressive thing?" Kenny asks. "Like saying you just want to make sure they're OK?"

"Hmmm. That's very interesting. So how would that work?"

"Well, you would like say to the Southerners, 'Hey, we don't want a fight. We're not going to attack. We just want to like feed them."

"They're never going to go for that," Peter says. "What would they gain? It would only allow the guys in the fort to hang on longer."

"Well yeah," Kenny says. "I know. The point is, you say that and they say no, then they're the aggressors. They're the ones starting it. That's the point."

Maria is very happy with Kenny. "Son, that's a brilliant idea. Let's do it."

Her purpose served, Maria breaks out of character. "And that's exactly what Lincoln does," she explains. "Just what Kenny suggests. He sends word to the rebels that he's sending a ship to resupply them, which in effect puts the ball in the Confederates' court. Now they have to choose between being ineffectual or overly aggressive. The Fire-eaters prevail, they fire the first shot, the Fort surrenders, and now the war is underway, though it's not Lincoln's fault. It's a brilliant strategic move on his part, and one of the reasons why he's considered a great president."

"But to continue: In the days that follow, four more states secede -- Maria goes to the map and moves her finger across Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia -- which brings the total up to eleven. So Lincoln calls for volunteers and -- "

"Wait a second," Vanessa interrupts. "Four more states leave?"

"Yes," Maria answers. "Four. Including Virginia. Now where was I? Oh yes. Volunteers. He asks for 75,000 of them for the three months he figures it will take the end the war. Lincoln goes to a leading Virginian, Robert E. Lee, and offers him command -- "

"I don't get it," Vanessa persists, and now Maria is annoyed. "If four more states leave anyway, why is it such a brilliant move?"

"Because he didn't start it."

"So? Why is that so important? I mean, maybe if he had been more aggressive maybe those four states wouldn't have left. Like Andrew Jackson. You told us he made South Carolina back down with that, what was it called -- the Nullification thing. Maybe Lincoln could have done the same."

Maria opens and closes her mouth. She knows there's an answer to this, but she doesn't know what it is. In her peripheral vision, she sees Derek in the back of the room, his expression inscrutable. Damn it: will he ever yield?

"You're not being realistic, Vanessa," Willie jumps in, irritated. "Lincoln wasn't supposed to be the aggressor. In his inaugural, he said he wouldn't. It would look really bad."

Yes, Maria thinks, that's right.

"I think you're putting far too much emphasis on not pissing people off," Vanessa says. "It's a war! They're out of line!"

"You want more states to secede? Kentucky? Missouri? How about Ohio or Indiana while you're at it? That's your solution. To tell everybody to go to hell."

"Better than kissing everybody's ass, Willie. You think you can make everybody like you? Good luck with that." There are smirks and laughter and Maria hears the phrase "suck up." "Whoa," some voices say, as if goading a cat fight. Willie looks furious. Maria is astounded how quick the class is to express glee at a catfight.

"Hey, that's brilliant, Vanessa." Willie responds, clearly wounded, but still putting up a fight. "I can so see you as president some day."

"Girls!" Maria interjects, embarrassed. It's not simply that Willie is doing a better job than she is at the moment. Or that this disagreement has a personal edge. It's mostly that Willie's stalwart defense is not of Abraham Lincoln but of Maria Bradstreet. She can see it, and she can see it on the faces of the other kids, and they're not impressed.

"All right, all right," Maria says. "Let's step back for a moment. Willie, you make some good points. But I think Vanessa has a good one, too. There's more than one way to look at this. That's exactly why we had this discussion. So let's agree to disagree and move on. We have a lot more to cover today, so let's get to it."

And Maria does. Knowing that she's lost some ground.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Jim is observing the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. His tribute to Ted Sizer, "Opening the Academy," a revised and extended version of a piece originally published on this blog, has just been published at Common-Place, an online history magazine.

Jim's current reading, which he'll revi
ew shortly, is called Emancipation, which deals with the freedom struggle of a different group of people than African Americans, as revealed in its subtitle: "How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance." With its slightly offbeat focus on the nineteenth century, the book, by NPR reporter Michael Goldfarb, usefully allows us to reframe Jewish history as well as to consider the similarities and differences in experiences of oppression in world civilizations.

Martin Luther King would have turned 81 years old on January 15 -- which is to say that he could very likely still have been among us if his life had not been stolen by an assassin's bullet. In looking back over his writings recently, this passage from his 1958 book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, suggests only one way how King's life and work would continue to resonate down to our time:

History has thrust down upon our generation an indescribably important destiny -- to complete a process of democratization which our nation has too long developed too slowly, but which is our most important powerful weapon for world respect and emulation. How we deal with this crucial situation will determine our moral health as individuals, our cultural health as a region, our political health as a nation, and our prestige as a leader of the free world. The future of America is bound up with the solution of the present crisis. The shape of the world today does not permit the luxury of a faltering democracy.

The poignancy of this passage in 2010 lies in just how remote a prospect completing a process of democratization appears to be, along with how remote a prospect world respect and emulation seems to be. Awash in indulgence of many kinds (especially financial), we are right smack in the middle of permitting ourselves the luxury of faltering. Of course, the odds of overcoming bad national habits seemed pretty long in 1958, too, which is precisely why we hold Dr. King and his followers in such high esteem: they made hope seem credible. The sense of power, prestige, and capacity for reform the United States enjoyed a half-century ago is likely gone forever. Let us pray that we may yet redeem at least some of the promise of American life and achieve a just and lasting piece among ourselves and all nations.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Judgment call

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet begin to discover how little she really knows

The Maria Chronicles, #35

When the phone rings at 6:41 in the morning, Maria is alarmed: this can't be good news. Only a few people have her apartment phone number, and none of them would call unless there was an emergency. She puts her lipstick on the bathroom counter and runs to her bedside.


"Yes?" She can't quite place the voice.

"It's Jen. Jen Abruzzi. In the History Department."

"Yes, yes of course. Is everything all right, Jen?"

"Everything is fine, Maria. I'm sorry to alarm you. No serious problems, except perhaps with my judgment. I was calling to ask for a favor."

"Sure." Maria remains tense, still expecting bad news.

But Jen's voice is now strangely pitched between between pride and sheepishness. "Well, you see, I went out last night. I guess you could call it a date. Which in fact went much better than I expected. I ended up spending the night with the guy, and I'm calling you now from his place. I think that if I rush I could make it to school on time, but I was wondering if you'd be willing to go to my class, Room 206, and start the video that's on my desk, the one about the transcontinental railroad. Maybe take attendance? I figure it would take you all of two minutes. Just leave the video running; I know you have a class at 8:30 too. I'll be along a few minutes after that. You can tell the kids if they ask."

"Sure, Jen. I can do that. No problem."

"Thanks, Maria. I feel embarrassed having to ask. But I thought you'd be the right person. At some point I have to fill you in on what happened. Maybe at lunch."

"Sure, Jen. That would be great." Maria knows that this would be a good time for a wry joke, some kind of reassurance, but she can't quite pull it off.

"Well look, I know you must be getting ready for work. And I'm sorry to have scared you. I'll see you a little later, OK?"

"OK, Jen. See you later." She hangs up.

Maria goes back to the bathroom and retracts the lipstick. She looks up at the mirror and catches her grim expression. She's gripped by a certainty that seized her ever since Jen said "I guess you could call it a date" that the man she spent the night with was none other than Jack Casey. Maria has known that Jen finds him intriguing ever since the three of them had lunch in the cafeteria a few weeks ago.

Not, Maria thinks as she drives to work, periodically ignoring "All Things Considered," that she has any right to feel angry. Whether or not she and Jack had a good time over dinner last week -- she still hasn't quite written him off -- he has every right to see whom he pleases. As does Jen, whether or not she knew about her and Jack's dinner. It's just so, well, tawdry. Not the kind of thing Maria wants any part of.

She parks her car, heads into the History Department office and sees that Jen isn't there yet. Leaving behind her briefcase and coat, she heads for Room 206. Is Jack supposed to be working today, she wonders? She might be able to find out if she dropped by the Math department. No. She's not going to go there. Last thing she needs is giving anyone any reason to link the two of them. Especially now.

Maria stops by the main office to get her office mail and pick up a cup of coffee. She gives distracted hellos to Penny Perez and Karl Kurtz, who are engaged in a conversation whether or not the New York Jets can be taken half seriously or not seriously at all in their upcoming playoff game. She's got her head down as she heads for the stairs, and doesn't see the person she bumps into, spilling a little coffee onto his white shirt.

"Maria!" It's Jack Casey.

"Oh my God -- I'm so sorry, Jack."

"Not at all. Happy New Year, Maria."

"Happy New Year, Jack. Again, I'm sorry. I'm so distracted -- I'm in such a big hurry -- I have to cover Jen's class."

"Is Jen ill?"

"No, no. Just late."

"Oh. Well, then. Don't let me hold you up. We'll talk later. Take care, Maria."

Take care indeed, Maria thinks as she gets to the bottom of the stairs, enters Jen's full classroom and locates the DVD. Boy is there a lot I don't know, she thinks. Beginning with myself.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Success story

Hilary Mantel brings the strangely familiar world of Tudor England to life in her latest historical novel.

The following review was published earlier this week at the books page of the History News Network.

Americans are prone to believe that they invented upward mobility. They assume people in other times and nations were products of class-bound societies in which everyone knew their place, whether or not they were happy with it. Attempts to overthrow that order, like the French or Russian Revolutions, backfired in the short run and only partially succeeded at best in the long one. The American Dream of upward mobility -- one instantly understood in shorthand references to Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Horatio Alger -- is considered the fruit of American exceptionalism. "Only in America ..." the unfinished expression goes.

But this notion is false. Poor boys (and, very occasionally, poor girls) have been making good at least since the time of the Confucian civil service. And while social orders hav
e tended to be fixed, they were not always immutable, as stories of those from Cicero to Genghis Khan make clear. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is a novel that takes a series of liberties with the life of the sixteenth century English statesman Thomas Cromwell. But at the core of this tale -- a man of modest means fashioning a nation-state in the face of an aristocracy that hates him for it -- is both factual and true.

For students of English history, Cromwell is a familiar figure. But Mantel casts him in an unfamiliar light. Usually rendered as a peripheral figure in the saga of the six wives of Henry VIII, Cromwell's role is that of the political fixer who executes the displacement of Katherine of Aragon and enables the King to marry Anne Boleyn as part of a quest to produce a male heir to the Tudor line. As it turns out, Boleyn gives birth to a girl, the future Queen Elizabeth. When the mercurial Henry dumps her in favor of Jane Seymour (a development only hinted at in the novel, whose title refers to a Seymour estate), Cromwell paves the way for that transition as well. A protege of the powerful Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whose fall from power occupies the first half of the novel, Cromwell is typically portrayed as a hatchet man, particularly in his subsequent struggle with Thomas More, the celebrated "man for all seasons" in the 1966 movie of the same name in which More is depicted as a martyr who resisted the opportunistic creation of the Church of England as means of both allowing the king to divorce at will as well as confiscate the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. In Wolf Hall, however, it's Cromwell who's the hero, a wily pragmatist who skillfully navigates the murderous shoals of religion and politics and steers England to safety.

In Mantel's telling, Cromwell's ability to serve this function is rooted in his background as the child of an abusive alcoholic blacksmith who runs away from home and has a series of (offstage) adventures that include soldiering, banking, and working in the wool trade on the continent. Cromwell eventually becomes a lawyer, but never loses this sense of versatility; as she explains, he's a man who can "draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house, and fix a jury." Multilingual and exceptionally entrepreneurial,
Cromwell regards the mounting fury of the Reformation with detachment, if not distaste: to him both the Catholic More and the Lutheran biblical translator William Tyndale are equally blind to human realities that range from spirituality to personal relationships. Recognizing that power is at least as much a matter of not coercing people when you have the power to do so as it is punishing them, he constructs ingenious webs of literal as well as figurative indebtedness that have the effect of reinforcing his indispensability. The quality that rounds out and deepens his character is a sly wit that's all the more satisfying for its judiciousness. When the prone-to-tantrum Henry wonders aloud why he's had a troubling dream about his long dead brother and asks "Why does he come back now?" Cromwell bites back the temptation to say "because you are forty and he is telling you to grow up" before putting a soothsaying spin on the dream.

Part of what makes Wolf Hall so effective is the way in which it both evokes a lost world and anticipates a modern one. This Janus-faced quality extends to its political subtext. Disgusted with the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, Cromwell fashions a pragmatic Protestant state for England whose legitimacy rests less on doctrine than a perception of credibility. "These people want a good authority, one they can properly obey," he tells the Archbishop of Canterbury. "For centuries Rome has asked them to believe what only children can believe. Surely they will find it more natural to obey an English king, who will exercise his powers under Parliament and under God." In one sense, sentiments like these seem retrograde; they are condescendingly paternalistic, if not authoritarian in their emphasis on the deference of the people. And yet in their concern for a legitimate basis for political authority, they also seem to prefigure the logic of the American Revolution 250 years later. Mantel's Cromwell is a prescient patriot, a founding father of the modern nation-state.

Like Hans Holbein, who makes a cameo appearance here, Mantel, who has also authored novels with eighteenth century settings, paints an arresting portrait. But is it an accurate one? As a non-expert on Tudor England, it's hard for me to say. But the eminent Renaissance England literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt, writing an approving review of Wolf Hall in the New York Review of Books, makes clear that Cromwell was a ruthless, and at times less than wholly honest, enforcer of royal power. Perhaps a more telling indication of Mantel's desire to place her subject in a glowing light is the time frame of the novel, which ends with Cromwell asceding to the apex of his power. In fact, he would experience a spectacularly rapid fall from grace that would result in his execution a mere five years after the events depicted in the novel, events that will apparently be the focus of a sequel. But the mere fact of the cadence suggests a desire to savor; indeed, any adult reading this book knows implicitly that glory of any kind is fleeting. Some of the most moving passages in the book deal with the unexpected deaths of Cromwell's loved ones; a closing image of the book is that of a shape-shifting English landscape, "her cliffs eroding, her sandbanks drifting, springs bubbling up in the dead ground. They regroup themselves while we sleep, the landscapes through which we move, and even the histories that trail us; the faces of the dead fade into other faces, as a spine of hills into the mist."

I will confess to some impatience with Wolf Hall. There are a lot of characters to keep track of; I was consulting the tables in the front matter to the very end, and Mantel has an annoying habit of using the pronoun "he" to refer to Cromwell in ways that can be confusing. It's a long book in which the narrative energy flags. But there's something magnificently luxuriant about its evocation of the past that makes it well worth an extended visit. You finish the book amazed and grateful for the strangely familiar world it brings to life.

Monday, January 11, 2010

History without reading

Teachers aren't thinking hard enough about how students encounter the past

The following essay is running in the current weekly edition of the History News Network.

Imagine, if you will, the study of history without reading. No primary source documents to ground a discussion. No monographic studies to situate a discourse. Not even a textbook for background information. How much a sense of the past could you possibly have?

This is not a rhetorical question. Nor is it solely an invitation to consider the ongoing deprivations and inequities that riddle our educational system. Actually, the situation I'm describing is probably the de facto reality for the majority of students enrolled in history courses in secondary and higher education. Every day, of course, teachers are assigning reading, historians are writing books, and sales reps are writing promotional copy or buttonholing faculty members. Parents and taxpayers are writing checks to pay for miles of aisles in libraries. Instructors walk to the front of rooms, large and small, assuming that their charges have come to class "prepared," i.e. having done the reading that's been assigned to them -- occasionally online, but usually in hard copy of some kind. Some may actually have done that reading. And some may actually do it, after a fashion, before the next paper or exam (even though, as often as not, they will attempt to get by without having done so fully or at all). But the majority? On any given day?

No. Science and math students might cling to a textbook for dear life in trying to make sense of a new topic during or after class. But few of us who have been in the history business for any length of time deceive ourselves that reading is seen as an indispensable prerequisite for bluffing one's way through a class or even a course, insofar as we think about it. Usually we don't, because, well, it wouldn't make much such sense. We have jobs to do.

And what is that job? For many of us, it's to teach students to think like historians. We want them to see the relevance of history in their own lives, even as we want them to understand and respect the pastness of the past. We want them to evaluate sources in terms of the information they reveal, the credibility they have or lack, or the questions they prompt. We want them to become independent-minded people capable of striking out on their own. In essence, we want for them what all teachers want: citizens who know how to read, write, and think.

But we don't think hard enough about what it actually means to read for a young person in the 21st century. We act as if simply assigning a chapter will result in a student reading it. Assuming that student does, we have little sense of how long that might take. Nor do we typically consider how increasingly apart the experience of reading cold type in any form is from the rivers of hot type a student may consume online in formats that include instant messaging, websites, blogs, or social networks. Or the kinds of visual literacy that are in many ways replacing the literacy of traditional reading.

Again: we know this is going on. But we go about our work as if we don't -- or we define our work in terms of resisting or overcoming the world in which our students live. We think it's our job to ask students to think like historians (historians, who, for the moment, were all born and trained in the twentieth century). We don't really consider it our job to think like students as a means of showing them why someone would want to think like a historian. We take that for granted because it's the choice we made. Big mistake.

What would it actually mean to teach a course that presumed ignorance or indifference rather than one of preparation and engagement? Insofar as this question ever gets seriously addressed -- actually it's a subject of obsessive interest to educational publishers, who are often much better informed and thoughtful about the students who (don't) read their wares than the faculty who adopt them -- the answer is typically cast in terms of technology. Websites, video, audio. Individualized test simulations. Ever improving graphical user interfaces, real and virtual. Ironically, this is an approach as likely to scare off technophobic traditionalists glad for any excuse for sticking with what works and what's easy (not necessarily in that order). But as the publishers, administrators, and at least some teachers know, ducking heads in the sand is becoming too expensive an option. In an age of shrinking budgets and production cost-cutting, the imperative for cheap, fast information delivery becomes ever more pressing. Again, the publishers understand this in ways that their customers don't. Or, perhaps more to the point, the way their non-customers don't, whether because their business is distorted by used book sales that push the brunt of costs onto the first buyers of a text, or students who simply decline to acquire a text at all.

But technology is a partial answer at best. A PowerPoint presentation can be every bit as vacuous and boring as a teacher standing in front of a room and talking at people for 50 minutes. The problem is not one of information or a means of delivery. It's one that's been missing from too much history for too long: imagination.

In part, that means a history not of telling, but of showing, in the broadest sense of that term. It might involve visual media (what is Martin Scorsese actually doing with that camera that pivots from immigrants disembarking to coffins being hoisted onto ships in Gangs of New York?) It might also mean embodying voices from the past the way the brilliant interlocutors at Colonial Williamsburg bring Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry to life. Or, better yet, it might mean a process of improvised simulation in which a teacher tells someone that she's a nineteenth century broker who insures slaves and then asking her about how good an idea a new fugitive slave law might be. Or a Tammany Hall pol confronted with the possibility of Civil Service exams. Or a Negro deciding whether to testify in favor of Emmett Till.

Let's be clear: none of these are terribly remarkable teaching techniques. Gambits like them are deployed every day. But insofar as they are, they're not typically seen as what the core of what a history course could be about on an everyday basis. For one thing, there's too much "material" to "cover" (as if history must -- can -- be taught sequentially, or as if what's covered in a lecture or a night's reading is likely to be remembered beyond those eight magic words a student always longs to to be told: "what we need to know for the test"). For another, few teachers are trained and/or given time to develop curriculum beyond a specific departmental, school, or government mandate. The idea that educators would break with a core model of information delivery that dates back beyond the time of Horace Mann, and that the stuff of history would consist of improvisation, group work, and telling stories with sounds or pictures: we've entered a realm of fantasy (or, as far as some traditionalists may be concerned, a nightmare). College teachers in particular may well think of such an approach as beneath them: they're scholars, not performers.

And, of course, we are in the realm of fantasy. But -- and this is one of two key points to be made here -- what may be the greater fantasy is believing that we can simply march further into the 21st century and believe that we can go on doing what we've always done. Whether or not that's possible from an economic standpoint -- does it make sense to pay someone to talk, live, in front of a room, if that's all he's doing? -- it's not from an intellectual one. Already, so much of history education, from middle school through college, is a matter of going through the motions. (On the whole, elementary school educators have a better grasp of the emotional, interdisciplinary, and collaborative dimensions of teaching. Instead of constantly looking "up" to what the next step in the chain will be, we should be looking "down" to how learning is done at the grass roots.)

But the other point here is that a new model of history teaching could also make possible a new rationale, and new possibilities, for student reading. To suddenly have to decide whether to stick out your neck for Emmett Till, it would sure help to know what's really involved in doing so. There would be reason to be informed. There would be a point in gathering information other than regurgitation for a standardized assessment. The odds are, however, that the way you'd go about this is not necessarily the way your mother or grandfather did. You'd do it online -- and if you had good resources, like a high-quality subscription database provided by an educational publisher -- you'd know where to look and be inclined to go there. Rather than expecting students to come to class prepared, the goal of a history class would be to prepare students for the challenge and joy of reading.

Can you be a student of history without reading? Yes, because it happens every day. Can you be a serious student of history, can you do history at the varsity level, without it? Probably not. But you can't get from one to the other without recognizing, and acting, on the reality of student life as it is currently lived. That means imagining a world without books -- broadly construed -- as a means toward preventing their disappearance.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Engine of civilization

As Ken Auletta shows in Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, Google is evil -- among other things

The following review was recently published on the Books page at the History News Network.

About a year ago, I got a legal document in the (snail) mail from the representatives of Google. As I recall, the company was offering me $300 for the digital rights to publish each edition of my books, whether they were in print or not. There would be some royalty payment for any copies that got sold electronically through Google, though it was hard for me to tell at a glance how that was going to work.

My first reaction was impatience: I was deeply mired in the quotidian demands of everyday life like kids' coats, dinner, an evening's work of grading papers. My second reaction was wariness: Beware of big corporations bearing gifts, especially ones with a slogan like "Don't be evil."

I went back a little while later and signed off on the agreement (online).

In the time since, I've felt twinges of regret and unease about the decision, though when I recently received an online notification from the Southern District of New York, which is handling what is now a gargantuan court fight that has embroiled publishers, libraries, and Google rivals around the world, I decided against availing myself of the invitation to change my mind, in part out of laziness.

Then I read Ken Auletta's Googled. I've now decided, narrowly but firmly, to leave matters where they stand. This is not because Auletta himself would necessarily endorse my decision, but because his book is as thorough and impartial a piece of journalism you're going to find on Google specifically and the transformation of the media generally. Auletta is that rarest of things: a real reporter. He talked to lots of people, attended lots of meetings -- and of course, getting access to both is to a great degree what defines reporting excellence -- and he's done lots of contextual research. (Doesn't hurt that Auletta has been at this for a long time at The New Yorker, and wrote landmark analyses like his definitive 1992 book Three Blind Mice, which charted the decline of network television at the hands of cable.) I may not have made the right decision, but I've made an informed one.

Auletta does three core things well in this book. First, he charts the meteoric rise of Google a decade ago from the meeting of its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in the digital hothouse of Stanford University. Auletta foregrounds the extraordinary symbiosis between the introverted Page and the extroverted Brin, and their passion for developing an Internet search engine geared to the needs and interests of users rather than advertisers. This passion led them to develop a company organized around a culture of creative engineering rather than one of corporate management, and one determined to forgo short-term profit -- or any profit at all -- until they felt they had perfected their product. This created strains at Google, but once the pair developed a formula for unobtrusive, but highly targeted advertising rooted in exceptionally good consumer data, the company exploded into an Internet superpower.

The second issue Auletta looks at in depth is the dismay, suspicion and anger Google's emergence has engendered in domains that include longtime rivals like Microsoft, one-time allies like Apple and (both of which invested in Google and now face the prospect of competing with it), and the U.S. Government, not to mention a privacy advocates and consumers. Acquisitions like the data-collecting company DoubleClick, along with massively popular video site YouTube, have tremendously expanded the potential domain of Google far beyond a search engine, as have forays into digital books and (most recently) smartphones. Competitors perceive the dangerous shadow of monopoly; government leaders and consumer advocates fret over privacy concerns in a company whose stated desire is to anticipate your every wish. Page and Brin talk endlessly about their desire to do good in the world, and the sacred sense of trust that they would comprise at their own peril. But they show themselves to be remarkably obtuse in addressing their inevitable moral fallibility or the danger that their information could fall into the wrong hands. No one ever seems to consider the possibility, for example, that China, a nation in which Google complies with censorship demands, or even the United States, could force Google data to be turned over at non-virtual gunpoint and used the for the most malignant of purposes.

The third leg of Auletta's sturdy stool is the fate of old media -- books, magazines, music, movies, and television -- not as corporate enterprises but rather as old forms of cultural expression in the new digital order. Auletta repeatedly criticizes the stewards of these media for their failure to anticipate the coming technological tsunami, though in fairness to them it's hard to expect anyone to preemptively capitulate an entire way of life and business. In any case, one finishes Auletta's analysis of this situation with a sense of optimism. The record business may not survive, but music will. Books may not be typically bound with paper and glue, but the word "book" will still mean something, albeit virtually. It's hard to see in the short term how YouTube will make much money, but that's not really our problem.

Actually, the state of the Web reminds me a little of the state of radio a century ago: a mish-mash of content, some of it amateurish, some of it quite powerful, that eventually sorted itself out as a viable cultural as well as economic proposition. Culture has a life independent of capitalism, though the situation I'm describing is hardly a violation of the way industrial capitalism has functioned in the last century and a half. Someone will always be making a lot of money. But it was never likely to be small-timers like me no matter what happens.

That's why I'm finally comfortable signing my rights over to Google. I like Google -- its Blogger application makes this blog possible -- and trust it to a point, but don't take the "don't be evil" very seriously. As Auletta and others point out, if Google seems fearsome now, so did IBM twenty years ago. Or Microsoft a decade ago. Or Facebook will in a few years. I'd love the U.S. government to publish my work digitally, but that train left the station when it passed on the telegraph 150 years ago. Google has come forward, so Google it is. The point for me, as a content provider, is to get my work out there. And if, in the aftermath of a catastrophe, my digital imprint vanishes entirely -- something I regard as quite possible -- there's always the possibility of a stray hardcover or paperback book ending up in a museum or library (perhaps the same thing). You work hard and you take your chances. That, for better or worse, is my corporate policy.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


In which Ms. Bradstreet sees a colleague demonstrate the art of teaching

The Maria Chronicles, #34

Maria has parked her car on a bone-chilling Wednesday morning and is heading for her classroom when she walks by the student art gallery and realizes that she needs to have a look. There was a big "opening" on Friday organized by the parents that she skipped, perversely grateful for the excuse of her period, which now occurred irregularly but at times with great force. She just couldn't bear to perform for the parents, or enthuse about work she guessed would be mediocre. But by making a quick stop now, solo, she could make note of her students' work and praise them in passing, a useful piece of relationship-building. All part of the job, but not one that she minds when she can do it on her terms.

To her surprise, there's someone there when she enters. He looks vaguely familiar, and then she remembers he's a veteran art teacher. "Good morning," he says brightly, his reddish complexion set off by a mop of unruly gray hair and blue coveralls. He's carrying a leather journal with a large pencil, which he tucks under his arm to shake her hand. "Maria, right? I'm Artie Hinklebaum."

"Yes, that's right, Artie. Good morning."

"Yes, God help me, Artie. My name, of course, is Arthur. It's my plight that my natural nickname would be 'Art,' which has caused me no end of grief in the form of dumb jokes. 'Artie" is marginally better."

"I see," Maria says, smiling and genuinely amused, but unsure what else to say.

"You wanted to have a look at the show? Go right ahead. Don't mind me; I'm just making some notes in that I'm going to enter in my gradebook."

"Thanks very much." Maria begins walking the length of the gallery, and sees pretty much what she expects she would: slightly awkward self portraits; wobbly pottery, an almost compelling still-life. Her student Kenny has done a passably good rendition of an archway she recognizes ("surprisingly lifelike," she'll tell him) and Mia has made a charcoal drawing of a middle-aged nude with tiny breasts ("really vivid," she'll say).

It's only when Maria is approaching the far end of the room that she sees the desk, and it stops her in her tracks. Though made of cheap pine, it's stunningly designed: no drawers, but a series of cubbies and shelves that seem quite practical. The desktop has simple carvings in circular patterns, covered by a large piece of glass. The artist clearly labored under some serious shortcomings in materials, and yet has fashioned something striking in its simplicity.

"Is this your work?" she asks Artie.

"No, that's actually a piece of student work, believe it or not. Derek Clark. You know him?"

"Indeed I do," Maria answers. "He's in my U.S. History class. A bit of a challenge." (A bit of an understatement, but Maria is afraid to admit too much, lest she betray a stature deficit with a colleague.)

"Oh the boy drives me crazy," Artie says. "Sullen, uncooperative, you name it. But, as you can see, there's something there. I've got him in a sculpture class, but all he wants to do is carpentry. Whenever I tried to steer him toward working with the rest of the class, I'd lose him, either because he'd check out mentally or simply cut class entirely. Then one day he notices I have a bunch of tools here that I use for various installations I set up for myself and the theater department. So he asks me if he can use them for woodcuts. I figure, why not? Let him do what he wants, we'll see where it goes. Excuse me."

Artie pulls a hankerchief and sneezes. Maria is charmed and moved. She remembers now that she's heard him talked about with amusement and affection. She almost chokes up at the thought of Derek succumbing to the man's unselfconscious, effortless decency.

Artie resumes: "Anyway, now Derek becomes a man obsessed. Half the time I have to kick him out of here because I've got to go home. Endless questions. I really went to bat for him, cashing in some chits with Bob Markham over at the wood shop, and bringing in that piece of glass I had lying around in my shed at home. But of course he refused to come to the opening. I'd hoped Mom would come. But I'm not sure he ever told her. Probably something I should have done myself."

"Well, the important thing is the work," Maria says. "It's great that you're giving him the opportunity."

"That's what we're here for, right? Just in case something takes? The kid's got a monkey on his back. But like I said, there's something there."

"Would you mind if I left him a note?"

"Sure!" He rips a page out his journal and hands over the pencil. "Just slip it under the glass. No need to be gentle; it's a sturdy piece. He'll be by this afternoon."

"Thanks very much."

Artie resumes his inventory of student work mentally, as Maria writes:

Very elegant and practical, Derek. I expected no less. But tell me: What else can you build? --M.B.

"I want to thank you, Artie," Maria says as she hands back the pencil. "This has been very helpful."

"No problem, Maria. Like I said, that's what we're here for."