Monday, May 31, 2010
Jim observing Memorial Day (in Massachusetts). In recent weeks he's been watching a lot of Clint Eastwood movies, thanks to Clint: 35 Films, 35 Years at Warner Brothers, a handsome boxed set that spans from Where Eagles Dare (1968) to Gran Torino (2008, which is actually 40 years, go figure). These 35 films are only part of a massive body of work that doesn't include classic Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me (1971). In a half-century of work as an actor and director that began with his work on the TV series Rawhide, Eastwood has appeared in Westerns, World War II movies, and a string of "Dirty Harry" movies about a San Francisco cop in the seventies and eighties. As someone who only started paying attention to Eastwood with his revisionist Western Unforgiven in 1993, I believe I'm one of a number of people who have assumed he made an ideological migration from right to left over the course of his career. On the basis of the little that I've seen -- my hope is that this is the beginning of a long-term project on the way historiographic visions are embedded in the careers of popular artists -- the picture seems to be a bit more complicated. I hope to have more to say about this in the coming days.
One thing's for sure: Clint Eastwood is the quintessential movie star. Riveting at any age, his persona leaps off the screen, even in supporting roles. He will no doubt go down as one of the major figures in American cinema.
Friday, May 28, 2010
A few thoughts on the pace of generational time
Something I've long thought about but struggled to put into words:
We all know that time can be measured objectively -- that a minute is sixty seconds, a day is twenty four hours, a year is 365 days and so on. We also know there are wrinkles -- that there are leap years, that calendars have been periodically adjusted (eighteenth century calendars were about three weeks apart before the whole western world adopted the Gregorian) and so on. And yet we also know that time is experienced in as a subjective reality -- that it flies and drags, that a year seems like an eternity when you're a child and that a decade feels instantaneous when you're old, and so on.
But collective time, which we tend to think of as objective, is also experienced as subjective -- and yet is experienced as subjective in a weirdly objective way. For example, however we define that era we know as "the sixties" (which can be dated as beginning as early as the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 or as late as Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974), the period is one where we tend to agree social change seemed to be accelerated. That, in effect, what "the sixties" means: time of rapid change. Similarly, the pace of change was literally revolutionary in North America between 1763 and 1783. At the start of that period, we had thirteen colonies clearly anchored to Great Britain. When it has ended, a new nation had constituted itself. Washington Irving captured this astonishing pace of change in his story of Rip Van Winkle, in which a sleeping man reawakens to a whole new world.
In other generations, at least in retrospect, time seems to move more slowly. A lot happened in the United States between 1875 and 1895, but would anyone say that the period was as decisive as, say, that between 1855 and 1875? In 1875, the United States was a rapidly industrializing country. In 1895, the United States was, well, a rapidly industrializing country. Sure, presidents had come and gone, and the process of creating a segregated Jim Crow South had culminated. But that's sort of the point: a process had happened in what seemed like a relatively steady way. A regrettable and even hateful process in this case. But not one that was especially rapid or notable in terms of pace.
Of course, in many other cases -- and maybe in the ones I'm citing here was well -- the speed of change is arguable. That's not only because some generations are not as obviously as fast or slow (what might you say about 1915 and 1935, for example?), but also because your notion of speed will vary depending on the particular issue or lens that is your standpoint (1980-1900 may not mean much if you're talking about party politics in the United States, but a good deal more if you're talking about foreign policy, and Eastern Europe in particular).
So my question is this: Is it possible to speak of something like "twenty year-ness?" That we can speak of a fast twenty or a slow twenty? Would it be possible to make the perceived pace of time passage a focus of inquiry? If so, what would it look like?
Oops: I'm out of time. Gotta get to class. It took me about fifty minutes to write this post, longer than it should have. We'll call it a slow fifty. But it seemed like a relatively worthwhile way to spend an hour.
Time as (economic currency). Something you spend. What would Confucius say about that?
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
The following review was published yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.
Susan Douglas is one funny woman. Sometimes her humor is of the wry, self-effacing quality, as when she explains that the preferred term of art in referring to women of her demographic is "vintage females." Sometimes, it's more sharp-edged; noting that Rush Limbaugh had once explained that "Feminism was established to allow unattractive females," she replies by saying "no social movement was needed to allow pudgy, unattractive men access to the top." And sometimes, it's simply a matter of good writing, as when she describes a television character she likes as having "a fabulous voice that somehow mixed honey and gravel." One senses that Douglas was born endowed with a good funny bone, but that it's also something she's cultivated with a good deal of discipline No one could credibly call her a humorless feminist.
Enlightened Sexism is essentially a sequel to Douglas's 1994 book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. In that book, like this one, Douglas focuses her acute intelligence on tracing, with great care and verve, the deeply mixed messages in popular culture for young women. In Where the Girls Are, she sifts through the dross of Baby Boom-era sitcoms like Gidget or I Dream of Jeannie to find gems of empowerment and affirmation: the interpretive weight is finally on the positive side of the ledger. Enlightened Sexism, which looks at the mass media in the last two decades in effect reverses the equation: here too she sees a mixed bag, but this time the glass is at least half-empty.
Though the primary organizational strategy of the book consists of case studies arranged around topics like reality shows, news coverage, and celebrity culture, it does have a narrative arc of declension. For Douglas, the early 1990s was a turning point in the history of U.S. feminism, at least in terms of the mass media. A critical mass of what she calls "embedded feminism" had been achieved: both in terms of image and reality, women were playing important roles in society, whether on shows like Law and Order or in institutions like the U.S. Senate (where the notorious Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings of 1991 ignited a feminist political insurgency). Yet for precisely this reason, retrograde images of women have now attained a kind of perverse legitimacy: since we all presumably know and affirm that women are equal, we can laugh at the sexualization and objectification in hip-hop videos or shows like The Bachelor because it's all just good fun. She dubs this chain of logic "enlightened sexism," which has only seemed to grow in breadth and intensity in the 21st century. By a sad irony, she says, even embedded feminism has become part of the problem, since it significantly misrepresents the degree to which women have achieved equality in American society.
To a great extent, Enlightened Sexism is a work of intra-gender dialogue, one whose fault line is generational. As many observers have noted, younger and older women tend to have significant differences in their perception of the women's movement, captured in the now-proverbial millennial-generation phrase "I'm not a feminist but . . . ," which is heard as back-handed compliment at best. Young women tend to see sexual power in more positive terms than older women do, and view leveraging that power as a more meaningful legacy of feminism than focusing on political or economic gains. Older feminists, by contrast, see sexuality as a good deal more problematic, in part because it's such a perishable commodity -- or, at any rate, a psychically and financially costly one to maintain -- and because its libertarian impulses cut against the egalitarian ethos of Second Wave feminism.
Douglas is not oblivious to the pleasures of sexual power -- indeed, she celebrates its appearance in shows like Xena: Warrior Princess or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But her visceral satisfaction in seeing sexist men get their comeuppance, even if only imaginatively, never blinds her to the limits of that power, which has a dismaying way of being channeled into a competitive pursuit for approval from men. But from the point of view of this vintage male, it's hard to see how she's going to get much traction by warning younger women away from such seductive temptations by means of analytic prose. For one thing, the appeal of such a message seems likely to correlate strongly with the likelihood that the females in question view acquiring a feminist husband, a well-educated child, and an endowed chair at a major university as an attainable goal (Douglas teaches at the University of Michigan). For another, power is power, even if no form of power is omnipotent or entirely benign.You're not going to steer people away from wanting to get rich by pointing out that money can't buy happiness, or jawbone an intellectual into embracing the limits of book learning.
To be fair, there are not massive corporate interests out there now pounding home the joys of reading (though there certainly are those that insist you can buy happiness), and here Douglas is aligned with the emergent view that the last generation of pop culture scholarship has tended to overestimate the autonomy of audiences to make their own meaning. It does appear that there is indeed a new "Momism" comparable to that of the 1940s and the "Backlash" identified by Susan Faludi a generation ago, and that this is a point worth making in what is a notably lively piece of scholarship, one that should be of particular utility for teaching purposes. But insofar as the power of persuasion stands a chance in this culture, one that rests on a preponderance of joy is more likely to resonate than one of complaint. Critics are at their best when they explain what they love, not what they hate. The power of positive thinking can no doubt be fatuous, but it's power nonetheless. So I wish Professor Douglas well in the struggle to keep her spirits up.
Monday, May 24, 2010
The following review appeared last week on the Books page of the History News Network site.
Blessed are they that can distill without oversimplification. Theirs is the kingdom of publishing.
Ever since his debut in 2003 with American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, has distinguished himself as a writer of notable clarity and wit. He is for the most part a popularizer, but one who manages to bring an overlay of analytic sophistication to his work. These qualities were on display in Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- But Doesn't, his 2007 bestseller that is both a narrative history of (incomplete) secularization in American public life and a handbook of religious terms that I have used very profitably in a high school civics course I teach. In God is Not One, he widens his lens to take in the global scope of religious tradition and their overlapping, as well as conflicting, paths.
In a way, this book marks an effort on Prothero's part to reverse the journey he traced in Religious Literacy. In that book, he demonstrated how leaders of American public life sought to sidestep religious controversy by minimizing doctrinal differences in favor of an ecumenical approach that tried to affirm religious values but ended up diluting them. The result, Prothero explained then, was a kind of collective amnesia and indifference. What's even worse, he now explains, is that this amnesia and indifference is commonly invoked to assert that the great faith traditions are fundamentally alike, a premise embraced by atheists no less than those who think of themselves as friends of religion. Such an approach not only trivializes religious experience, he says, but makes it impossible to truly understand the world we live in.
And so it is that Prothero seeks to offer, in highly encapsulated form, a survey of the major faith traditions in the world today, attentive to the various -- and, in some cases, opposing -- answers to the great questions of human existence. He is careful to frame these portraits in more than doctrinal terms; indeed, one of the themes of this book is that a western faith tradition like Christianity's emphasis on doctrine blinds its adherents to other aspects of religious experience. So it is, for example, that he sees Confucianism, for example, as more than an ethical system.
Prothero arranges his 30-40 page chapters on the eight faiths he considers most influential in descending order. This is, to a great degree, a matter of numbers, but not entirely. So it is that Islam comes first, before his treatment of Christianity, despite the fact that the world has more Christians, because Islam is a more dynamic, rapidly growing faith. Judaism ranks seventh (just behind Yoruba and ahead of Daoism, because "while Judaism itself commands the allegiance of only two of every thousand human beings, its offspring [in Christianity and Islam] account for one of every two." Prothero also gives chapters over to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, which he notes substantially overlap (as do African Yoruba and North as well as South American Christian religions), even as they maintain distinct identities. Indeed, those identities can be antithetical, at least in theory; the Confucian emphasis on piety conflicts with the Daoist emphasis on the natural and spontaneous, though eastern religions in general have proven to be remarkably tensile and symbiotic.
To at least some extent, however, Prothero's structure is at cross-purposes with his argument. If his point is really to explore religious divergence, his chapters probably should have been arranged around fault lines like the role of god (monotheism, polytheism, or non-theism) in different religions, the primacy of faith versus works, or the relationship between doctrine and ritual. Instead what we get are substantially compartmentalized overviews of eight faith traditions -- something closer to a handbook than a truly interpretive piece of scholarship or a tightly stitched trade book. Moreover, by the time we get to the end -- which includes a chapter on atheism as a kind of religion -- Prothero comes close to saying that religions really are substantially alike in the way they exhibit the "Four Cs": creed (belief), cultus (ritual), codes (law), and community. This is, of course, an observation about shared form while Prothero's emphasis is on differing content, so he's not exactly contradicting himself. But it does make one wonder if the people he's criticizing for emphasizing what religions share are all that far off the mark.
Such reservations aside, God is Not One is a notably accessible and highly utilitarian book. It is an excellent point of entry for someone seeking an introduction to the great faith traditions, and as such will be a durable teaching tool. Nimble and nuanced even as it sketches with broad strokes, the book consolidates Prothero's position as the premier commentator on religious life in the United States.
Friday, May 21, 2010
In American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People, T.H. Breen offers a new order for the American Revolution
The following review was published last week on the Books page of the History News Network website.
Ask anyone when the United States became an independent nation, and many will answer with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Others will cite the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. Perhaps some will say not until victory at Yorktown in 1781, or even the Treaty of Paris in 1783. But in this compellingly structured and argued book, T.H. Breen asserts that a de facto nation came into existence between the spring and fall of 1774. It was in these crucial months that the people of the thirteen colonies -- not the Founding Fathers, not the Continental Army, not the maladroit British government -- executed a series of steps that collectively solved problems of governance and demonstrated how a republic could be successfully constituted.
What's even more surprising is that Breen makes this somewhat counter-intuitive argument, one rooted in a social history sensibility, in the form of a chronological narrative. He achieves this cohesion despite lacking a discrete sense of leading characters or a dramatic set of circumstances (the most consequential event of his story is actually a rumor). The result is a book that's highly readable as well as provocative.
Breen's story begins in the aftermath of the notorious Boston Tea Party of December 1773, when a group of colonists dressed as Indians dumped a shipment premium tea from the East India Company into Boston harbor. What matters about the Tea Party, Breen says, is not that a group of radicals -- he calls them, as they called themselves, "insurgents" -- destroyed imperial property by throwing it overboard. Nor is it that the government of Lord North responded with a series of laws that came to be known as the Coercive or Intolerable Acts (depending on which side you were on), which included the closing of the port of Boston and a series of new rules that denied local colonial governments long-cherished autonomy. What did matter is how the colonists reacted to the Intolerable Acts once they learned of them the following spring. They got mad -- and they got organized.
The sequence of steps that would culminate in independence began with a spontaneous, Atlantic seaboard-wide, effort to organize relief for the besieged residents of Boston, crippled by the strangulation of commerce and thus facing the prospect of humanitarian disaster. Breen places special emphasis on the breadth of this effort, and the fact that so much of it in New England in particular came from the countryside, which he sees as central in fueling the rebellion. He also notes an intensification of boycott efforts (something he wrote about in his highly influential 2004 book The Marketplace of Revolution), a key facet of which was growing social pressure on colonists whose actions were deemed counter-revolutionary. This pressure, he explains, could get very threatening, and at times cross the line into violence. But its most salient quality was how controlled it was, relying mostly on the crushing prospect of economic and social isolation rather than physical force.
This pressure also pushed upward on the nation's representatives at the Continental Congress. When a false report of an attack on Boston resulted in a multi-colony mobilization of local militia, representatives in Philadelphia, many of them still reconciliationist, felt forced to endorse such efforts or risk irrelevance. The need to stay on top, if not ahead, of this popular insurgency also led Congress to endorse a collective agreement known as "The Association" to foster the organization and enforcement of boycotts. In what might be called (though Breen does not) a kind of proto-federalism, local communities explicitly used this institutional sanction to choose leaders for such a purpose -- and as time went on, for other purposes as well. The size, scope, and membership of such bodies varied widely, reflecting local conditions, but proved remarkably flexible and powerful in meeting the coming challenge of waging a continental struggle for power.
Breen emphasizes that these truly amazing logistical feats were possible because of a very high level of revolutionary zeal on the part of the people who came to be known as patriots (and a general lack of zeal on the part of Tories). That zeal was grounded in high emotion, a feeling on the part of the colonists that Great Britain had betrayed them in literally treating them as second-class citizens in the Empire, and in violating an unwritten constitutional tradition that stretched from the Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution. This sense of righteous anger, in turn, fueled the articulation of a justification for resistance derived from what might be termed pop-Lockean ideology that reached its apogee in a now largely forgotten set of 1775 documents known as The Crisis, which Breen argues was crucial in crystallizing patriotic morale (and inspiring Thomas Paine's much-better known subsequent tract The American Crisis, titled in self-conscious homage to its predecessor). The Battles of Lexington and Concord, which end the book, are thus less the beginning of the Revolution than the culmination of a process that Breen believes got underway a full year earlier.
Historiographically speaking, American Insurgents, American Patriots, continues a move -- including a move on Breen's part -- away from the ideological emphasis of historians like Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood toward an end of the spectrum long occupied by Gary Nash and more recently joined by Woody Holton. This body of opinion believes ideas are important, but pays less attention to the elite Founding Fathers we all know than to the Founding Fathers -- and mothers -- whose names are less well known but no less deserving of such honorifics. These people did not produce densely reasoned treatises, or soaring manifestos, but spoke, in word as well as action, in a distinctive dialect of their own, one comfortable with images of Liberty Trees and the language of evangelical Protestantism. Looking at the Revolution through this lens helps make the long fuse between the passage of the Stamp Act of 1765 and the outbreak of armed conflict a decade later a bit less difficult to follow, because it makes clear that there really was fire amid all the smoke of Parliamentary maneuvering and colonial discourse.
But while he has worked to recover what he regards as a bona fide populist insurgency -- one he connects with later populist insurgencies, including those against the United States -- Breen is also anxious to channel it. Like a judge who doesn't want the logic of a ruling applied in a way he does not sanction, Breen makes clear his disapproval of other insurgencies, like the one that explicitly invokes the legacy of the Tea Party. "Those who today torture the revolutionary record by trying to transform these people into partisans for narrow and selfish causes -- as if the sole purpose of the Revolution was the avoidance of taxation -- insult the memory of those who once imagined a just and more equitable society," Breen writes in his introduction. Later, he notes, the Founders "provide no comfort for those in our time who claim that a single cause or narrow agenda justified armed violence against the state. Those who resisted the British Empire spoke for the common good." It is unlikely, however, that the people at whom Breen points such a finger will recognize themselves as such (they, too, have definitions of justice, equity, and the common good). As Breen of all people must know, revolutions are elusive, and dangerous, things. They have a life of their own that can somehow never be contained within covers.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
In which we see Ms. Bradstreet choose a course
The Maria Chronicles, #56
"So," Jack Casey says, reaching for one of the few remaining Nachos on the table. "Not long ago, you feared you were going to be out of a job. Now you have two. I dunno, Maria, maybe you should break your foot more often."
"I was told my job was in jeopardy after I fell down the stairs," Maria reminds him. "Would have been happier with one good job and two good feet rather than the other way around."
They're at Tomatillo, a Mexican restaurant in Dobbs Ferry they first visited almost five months ago on what Maria considers their first date. At the time, she was convinced it would be their last; one of Jack's old Bear Stearns cronies came and reminded her of Jack's buccaneering background. The associations were unpleasant enough for her to reject his suggestion they come here tonight and lead her to make a counteroffer of a good Greek place in Irvington. But Jack had insisted -- "we're going to defeat the bad karma from last time" -- and she relented. The memory of the margaritas had tipped the scales. She signals to the waiter that she'll have another.
"Tony says he there were lots of good candidates for the job at Covello. But that he and the committee agreed you were their first choice."
"Well, I was impressed with them. I think it's very exciting what they're doing."
The waiter returns with Maria's second margarita. She knows she has to answer his unasked question.
"I'm really very conflicted at this point. The job at Hudson is very appealing to me. In a way, it's almost too appealing."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, it's something that I feel like I understand. It's teaching. I mean yeah, sure, I'll be developing a new interdisciplinary curriculum, but it's doing stuff that's familiar and which I think I'm good at."
"So then why would you even think about Covello?"
"Because maybe I need a challenge. I've never done much administration because I never imagined I'd much like administration. But maybe I need to give it a chance. And there's such a sense of mission over there. This sense that they're at the start of something big."
"Yeah, well, charter schools always start that way," Jack says. "But they get pretty conventional pretty quickly -- and that's when they actually survive, nothing you can take for granted." He's in devil's advocacy mode. He doesn't really believe this, Maria thinks.
The waiter is back again with their dinner. Chicken fajitas for Maria. Jack is having some fancy salmon dish.
"What about the money angle?" he asks, reaching for the Tobasco.
Maria bristles. Is he asking her to divulge salaries? She supposes it doesn't really matter. Still, she isn't going to say. "Covello will pay more. Significantly more. It's more responsibility. But also more aggravation. Supervising people -- not something I find appealing."
"You'd be great at it."
"How would you know?" She asks this playfully, but doesn't mind the perceptible edge.
"I know these things," he says, swirling around the Chardonnay in his glass. "It's why they paid me the big bucks."
"Oh, that's why they paid you the big bucks." she says.
"Well no, not really. I'm just bullshitting. That, in fact, is why they paid me the big bucks. I was very good at it. But I still think you'd be a good manager. But what about the Hudson job? What are they willing to do for you?"
"What they're offering amounts to a raise of a few hundred dollars a month. Which is good, except that most of it comes in the form of a two-year grant. So it might be temporary."
"Well, you certainly don't want to end up with a pay cut. That's something you need to fix."
No I don't, she thinks. Jack's getting a little too imperious. But Maria decides that she's not going to get all prickly and argue with him. She turns her attention to her fajitas.
"Of course, I'd probably end up with supervisory responsibilities at Hudson, too," she says a few bites later. I'd be developing courses that other people would teach. In one form or another, that's going to require leadership."
Jack has a mouth full of rice. He nods.
"Covello has more of progressive mission. That's attractive too. More kids of color. Something I've always felt I should be doing more about."
Jack wipes his mouth with a napkin. He puts it down deliberately before he looks at her. "Well, it sounds to me like you have a bunch of good reasons to go with Covello." He motions to the waiter. "You want dessert?"
"Fried ice cream again?"
"Done." He tells the waiter to bring it to them with a pair of cappuccinos. Maria knows she won't have much but is glad to have coffee and dessert nonetheless.
"As I was saying, sounds to me like Covello is the logical choice. So why do I have this idea that you're not going to take it?"
Maria laughs softly. "I just don't know, Jack. I just don't know."
"'Just don't know' as in you're sincerely confused, or 'just don't know' as in there's something that bothers you about it that you're having trouble putting aside?"
"More the latter."
"OK then, so what is it? You don't have to worry about offending me or Tony. I just wanted you to return the call when he invited you for an interview. I'm not worried about his finding a good candidate. And I want what's best for you."
"I know that, Jack. And I really appreciate it."
"Good. I'm glad. So what's the problem?"
"You." She smiles.
But he doesn't see it. "Oh Jesus, not that again!"
"No, no --"
Jack looks away as dessert arrives. It suspends the conversation, which gives Maria a chance to gather her thoughts.
"It's the opposite of what you think," she says. But he's still looking away.
"It's not because I disapprove of you. Actually, I think it comes from a good place."
He shakes his head, still not making eye contact. "How do you figure that?"
"I don't want to take something that will complicate our . . . relationship." Maria can't believe she just said that.
Jack looks at her sharply. "Our relationship," he repeats. For a second she's afraid he's going to say "What relationship?" But he doesn't. Instead, he leans back in his chair and exhales sharply, putting his index finger over his lip. "I don't know about you, Maria Bradstreet," he says, finally.
"What? What don't you know?"
"You're a curious woman, you know that?"
"What are you trying to say, Jack?"
He reaches a spoon into the fried ice cream and takes a bite."I guess I'm trying to say thanks. I guess I'm trying to say I'm flattered. I guess I'm saying it wouldn't make any difference to me if you did take the Covello job, but I know it makes a difference to you and I guess I'm just glad that you're thinking the way you are about it. I didn't expect it, or expect it at this particular juncture. But I'm glad we're here." He looks at her, beaming.
"I'm glad, too." The waiter has brought the check. It always annoys her when it arrives unsolicited. But Jack doesn't seem to mind. He pulls out his Amex Platinum Card and places it in the vinyl folder without looking at the check. "Don't even think about it," he says, reading her mind and placing his hand on hers to prevent her from moving to her purse. It lingers there for a moment before he takes it back.
"So we're all set, then," she says.
Monday, May 17, 2010
Another little anthropological exercise, this one derived from an imagined receipt for subcontinental cuisine, dated next year (but discovered much later).
The slip of paper, approximately 4 cu by 9 cu, fluttered to the ground upon opening the printbook, Grand Expectations, a 27 series text on usan society in the hegemonic period (26). The slip was badly faded, but simple inkling techniques restored the typography, which came from a dining establishment called "The Taj Mahal," coordinates "525 Three Springs Road Bowling Green Kentucky 42104," which would have placed this establishment in southcentral usa. Date coding on the slip indicates origination on "February 12, 2012."
This little document proved quite a distraction from the printbook that was to be the focus of the day's work. There was a substantial amount of digital coding on the slip, apparently invoice management and payment methodology. Of the most interest, however, was the hand-generated data, evidence of direct handling by the purchaser of foodstuffs. This data was part of a column of figures. At the top to the left reads the words, "2 lunch buffet," and to the right the notation $21.90 (all figures usd). In the second tier of this column is the word "tax," and to the right, $1.31, which amounts to 6% of the base price of the transaction. In the third tier left of the column is the word "tip," and next to that is the hand-etched figure $4.60, which represents 19.8% of the base/tax total. At the bottom left of the column is the word TOTAL; the sum of all these figures is $27.81. Under the figure is the notation "A. Hanks," which would appear to be the usan who paid the fee. At the very bottom of the slip, in the center, are the words CUSTOMER COPY, suggesting incomplete digital integration of this transaction for A. Hanks (though not, one assumes, its purveyor or finance agency).
Perhaps the most surprising revelation of this document is the segmentation of the purchase price. Late usans were highly tax averse, yet such a levy is explicitly a part of what one surmises is a fairly typical transaction. Even more surprising is the "tip," which translates to a bribe, apparently paid to an agent who assisted in the delivery of the meal (this may explain the identifier "Kathy K" which appears near the top of the slip, though it typically in the nature of a buffet that recipients access food themselves). Such forms of casual corruption were not uncommon in the westpheric civilizations, though the practice was reputedly widespread among the usans, reflecting the extreme degree of unregulated trade that characterized the conduct of managers, workers, and customers.
It is difficult to discern the socioeconomic level of the clientele for this establishment, though $10.95 usd (approximately 111 cu) would not appear be an especially high price for an usan midday meal. It is of note that the name "Taj Mahal" is indicative of subcontinental cuisine, suggesting the degree to which at least a pretense of international fare was available on an unremarkable basis in provincial usan society. It is difficult to resist speculation on what prompted A. Hanks and his companion to indulge in this pastime. Was it part of a larger commercial transaction? A leisure event? A matrimonial habit? How long did this meal last? What items were included in the "buffet?" There is no indication of beverages; perhaps the duo drank water? (No separate charge for that? Perhaps this is a hint of the role of "Kathy K.")
Before returning to the task at hand, which is of course datascan analysis of the printbook Grand Expectations, perhaps we can indulge in a moment of imaginative fancy. We can picture A. Hanks with the imaged companion of our choice. Their water glasses are full; the curry is still on their plates. The walls still have Mughal themes; the building is still standing. A political entity with the name Bowling Green Kentucky still exists. A small slip of paper, the sole survivor of that moment, conjures a world. Not an especially remarkable world, perhaps. Except that it once was.
Friday, May 14, 2010
The following is a little exercise in imaginary anthropology. -- JC
The sheets, of poor quality and now almost brittle, are folded in half vertically as well as horizontally, approximately 44 zm square. They are curiously unwieldy to manipulate by folding or turning unless laid flat upon a relatively large table. This is in marked contrast to other kids of printed matter in static form, some of it issued regularly, as this document was, every 20stu. Yellow now, we can infer from similar reproductions that this one once was once white. The first of these sheets are typographically sectioned off into pieces, typically about six or eight for those on the front, called “stories,” though they rarely had a full narrative shape, in part because they described events that were ongoing. They were often accompanied by static visual images, typically informal portraits of those discussed in the “story.”
Interior sheets often have less typographical sectioning, as large proportions of the sheets, and even some sheets in their entirety, were given over for the purpose of promoting commerce, which apparently financed the operations of these publications.
The specimen I’m holding is mid 27b. This can be said with some confidence, because there are records of earlier iterations of the 27 series, and it appears that its issuance in this format was discontinued shortly after 27b. Large segments of digital records after this point have not been recovered.
There is not much of value to be said about the specific data presented in these documents, which deal with typical usan preoccupations such as political corruption at home, foreign adventurism abroad, and the various merits and drawbacks of the latest commercial baubles, often technological in nature. There are, however, a few notes worth making here in a cursory way. The first is that publications like these appear to have circulated without restriction. Apparently, any interested parties could acquire a reproduction of this document at what appears to be a nominal cost (transcribing currencies is always a hazardous enterprise, but a reasonable estimate here is approximates 4.2 cu, about the price of a sterneetz). However, the literacy rate was relatively high, so stratification – educational an index of economic – may be safely inferred. As is so often the case, an apparent a manifestation of usan “democracy” turns out to be a good deal less than it appears to be.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
In which we see Ms. Bradstreet become the beneficiary of a conspiracy
The Maria Chronicles, #55
Maria, who made the mistake of attending the spring concert assembly, is now desperate to get home. She'd gone to the concert at the insistent request of her students Maggie and A.J., who were singing in the chorus and playing in the jazz band respectively, but the auditorium was so stifling and dank that she could barely stand it. The plan was always to depart after a few minutes -- see, be seen, and get the hell out -- but once there, she didn't feel right leaving until it was over. She made her exit and to breathe the cooler spring air on the school's quad, only to be detained by her colleague in the English department, Carl Kurtz, who asked her for suggestions for good books on the 1970s. She gave Carl a few, only to get a request for a few more on the 1980s. It was for a novel he was planning to write. (Stick to your day job, Carl, she thinks.) Her patience wearing thin, Maria made a couple more suggestions and explained, vaguely, that she had to get going. Karl thanked her and Maria now resolved to make a beeline for her desk, her briefcase, and her car.
Maria turns her head to see Wilhelmina Marzetti, determinedly converging from Maria's right, which is odd, because it's the opposite direction from where the assembly was held. Shit, Maria thinks. She loves Willie. But not now. Maria looks at her watch: 3:10
"Hi Willie. What's up?"
"Well, I was hoping I could get a little help on my environmentalism essay."
"Well, OK. So tell me about it."
Willie looks a little sheepish. "Well, actually, I was hoping you would actually look at a draft."
Maria points to a bench a few feet ahead of them as a possible place to work. "Do you have it with you?"
"Uh, no. I accidentally left it back in our classroom. Do you think you could walk back over there with me?"
For the first time in the almost nine months she's known her, Maria is irritated with Willie. "Can we do this tomorrow? The essay isn't due until next week, after all."
Willie winces. "I kinda want to work on it tonight. I have a big French test next week, and Saturday is my dad's birthday and --"
"All right all right," Maria says, a bit too tartly. "We'll do it now."
"Thanks a lot, Ms. Bradstreet. I really appreciate it."
The two walk in silence toward Room 211. Then, as they approach the door to the building, Willie says, "Ms. Bradstreet, can I ask, do you know any more about whether you'll be returning next year?"
Yet one more unwelcome question. Still, Maria thinks, if anyone deserves to be the first to know, it would be Willie. She seriously considers telling her that she got a job offer just that morning to become chair of the History Department at the newly formed Leonard Covello Charter School to be located only a few miles away. More money, but more administrative work, too. Still, the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something big.
"No Willie, I still don't know. But I'll keep you posted." Maria pushes the door to the classroom open.
Maria is stunned by the large cake -- carrot, apparently, with burning candles -- that sits on a student desk. She's even more stunned by the boisterous crowd, comprising about half of her tenth grade class: Maggie and A.J., who managed to get here unseen, along with Mia, Kenny, Jake, Vanessa, Matt, and Derek. They immediately launch into "Happy Birthday." At their urging, she blows out the candles, and there's further cheering.
"Happy Birthday, Ms. Bradstreet," Willie says quietly.
"How did you know it was my birthday?"
"Google," Kenny answers. "Took a while, but I figured it out."
Maria can't decide whether to be pleased or alarmed. She looks at Willie. "This was all your idea?"
"I had lots of help," she says with a smile. "Couldn't have done it without Maggie and A.J."
"Gotta tell you, we worried about whether you would show up for a while there," A.J. says, clearly amused. "And we worried you'd leave too early."
"That's where I came in," Carl Kurtz says, as Maria suddenly realizes he's in the room too. As is her department chair, Jen Abruzzi. And Principal Eleanor Bernstein.
"So apparently it's the big 5-0," Carl notes. "Couldn't let that pass unnoticed around here. It was fun to conspire with Willie."
Maria sees that Willie is getting a little embarrrassed. "Here," she says suddenly, producing a large wrapped box. "Your present. Open it!"
Maria eyes the package warily, but realizes she's expected to open it. She rips the wrapping and opens the box. It's a Hudson High School hoodie sweatshirt.
"I love it," she says sincerely. "And I love this party. It's really one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me." Maria chokes up as she realizes this is true. She feels ambushed by her own emotions.
"Let's have some of this cake," Jen says to break the tension. "Who wants a slice?"
The next few minutes are occupied with distributing cake and pouring Diet Coke into paper cups. Maria hears snatches of talk about the New York Mets, the Hudson softball team, and senior prom gossip (Vanessa, apparently, will be a sophomore date for a senior, and will be shopping for a dress that evening). Gradually, the kids begin to drift off for rehearsals, practice, and the bus. Willie is actually among the first to go, and Maria embraces her warmly before she rushes off, which is for the best. A mere twenty minutes after it began, the party is essentially over. Short and sweet.
Surprisingly, Eleanor Bernstein is the last to go. "Maria," she says, pausing by the door, "I have news that I hope you'll regard as a birthday present. I've just gotten authorization to offer you the job along the lines we've been discussing. Next year, you would be half-History, half-English, with a $7500 grant to begin developing an interdisciplinary curriculum for the following year, probably something you'd want to start this summer. I have no iron-clad guarantee the job would continue in this configuration after the coming school year. But I've got it in writing that next year will be Larry Roganoff's last. So even in the unlikely event that Mandy Merkel actually came back from graduate school to take the English half of your job back, the worst case scenario would be that you'd be full-time History, with another $7500 to finish the curriculum. Sound good to you?"
Seventy-five hundred, Maria thinks. After taxes, that would probably translate to about $400 more a month.
"It does sound good," she says. "But can I think about it?"
"Of course. But I would like to know as soon as possible."
"How about Monday?"
Dani nods, clearly not thrilled with the prospect of four days, but not wanting to contest it, either. "Monday it is. So what are you doing with the rest of your birthday?"
Maria does not want to tell Dani that she's having dinner tonight with Jack Casey, whom Dani holds in low regard (as indeed Maria herself did until recently). "My kids are coming tomorrow," she says truthfully. "We'll do dinner and a movie. I don't like to make a big deal of my birthday."
"Understood. Well, you have yourself a good one," Dani says. "You deserve it."
Monday, May 10, 2010
The following review was posted last week on the Books page of the History News Network.
When I was a child growing up in metropolitan New York, a product of white flight, there was no one my father, a New York City firefighter, viewed with more contempt than mayor John Lindsay. I never recall him referring to Lindsay without an epithet attached to his name. Later, my father explained to me the meaning of the term "limousine liberal," coined during Lindsay's 1969 re-election campaign by his Democratic opponent, Mario Procaccino. It's one whose meaning I make it a point to explain regularly now that I'm a history teacher in an elite New York City school.
In the years since Lindsay's second term ended in 1973, I acquired information about him and his administration from other sources. My admittedly rudimentary understanding was that Lindsay got elected in a liberal Republican in the mid-sixties -- a time when such a term was not an oxymoron -- which meant he had a strong commitment to the welfare state, and a disposition toward minorities that antagonized the white working class. Like many politicians of his ilk, Lindsay tried to solve social problems by throwing money at them, which perhaps bought the city some time but helped precipitate its financial collapse in the 1970s. In the decades since, Lindsay's administration became an object lesson for all his successors, who were made to understand that social reform simply could not come at the expense of fiscal discipline -- or law and order.
Published as part of an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, and in tandem with Fun City, a PBS documentary whose title refers to a half-ironic nickname of the era, this book is clearly part of a larger campaign of Lindsay revisionism. Actually, the mere table of contents alone -- which boasts a roster of writers that include editor Sam Roberts as well as Pete Hamill, Nicolas Pileggi and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, along with academic heavyweights Josh Freeman, Charles R. Morris and Kenneth Jackson -- itself constitutes a historiographic statement. You kind of have to be consequential to attract this kind of talent, an impression that gets stronger when one learns, for example, that some of these people, like Jeff Greenfield (author of one of the more candid essays), actually worked for Lindsay.While the collective portrait that emerges is not uniform, the overall tone is one of admiration for a man who, while in some respects limited, was nevertheless a committed and courageous urban reformer.
The brief for Lindsay that emerges from these pages has two core components. The first emphasizes his boldness as an executive, in ways that range from his charismatic, pro-active Civil Rights and antiwar stances -- think Mad Men's Donald Draper with a conscience -- to his innovations in public management, urban planning, and even promoting New York as a cinematic location (a surprisingly important legacy in literally reshaping the image of the city). The other emphasizes the severe political headwinds Lindsay faced in some of the most tumultuous years in New York's history. A number of these writers cite Lindsay's bravery in walking the streets of dangerous neighborhoods like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and note that his contemporaries credited his characteristic stance of restraint in helping New York avoid the conflagrations that engulfed other cities in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination.
The case against Lindsay, made most succinctly by Morris, but also developed with some nuance by former New York Times writer Steven Weisman, note Lindsay's dependence on buying labor peace with municipal unions -- who never warmed to him in any case -- in epic struggles like the transit strike of 1965 and the notorious Ocean Hill-Brownsville teacher's strike of 1968, which exposed a painful racial fault line between blacks and Jews. Moreover, after some early success in getting state and federal funding for an increasing welfare burden, Lindsay became increasingly prone to resort (or to acquiesce in the resort) to borrowing for operating expenses.Virtually all the writers note a powerful and durable perception of Lindsay's lack of common touch with white (especially Catholic) working-class voters, and a bias toward Manhattan at the expense of the outer boroughs, a perception that crystallized during a major snowstorm in 1969. And yet for all this Lindsay managed to win re-election on the Liberal ticket despite being dumped by the Republican Party; he eventually became a Democrat. (Jeff Greenfield, in his affectionate piece on the campaign, puckishly emphasizes Lindsay's luck in the weakness of the competition and the coattails of the New York Mets.) All agree he made an ill-advised entry into the 1972 presidential race as a Democrat that proved futile and damaged his standing at home, and leading to the permanent end of his political career by 1974.
But in a way, such arguments are beside the point in a book that is a remarkably rich social document. John Lindsay -- an upper-east side WASP -- was a strikingly photogenic man, and the book captures the freshness that made him such a celebrated figure at the time of his election to the mayoralty in 1965. Beautifully designed with photos that bleed off the page, America's Mayor is also notable for charts of elegant simplicity, as well as a panoply of evocative primary sources in the form of excerpts from writers like Murray Kempton and Jimmy Breslin. There are also a string of running 21st-century "reflections" from people like Ed Koch and Jeffrey Katzenberg (a teenage volunteer for Lindsay). More than most exhibit catalogs, the book is a bona fide time capsule and a wonderful conversation piece, as well as a substantial work of scholarship.
One does wish the portrait was a bit more rounded, in a fuller sketch of Lindsay's background, and a bit more on his post-mayoral career prior to his death in 2000. I also would have liked to understand Lindsay's notoriously poor relationship with another liberal Republican, Nelson Rockefeller, who was governor during the years Lindsay was mayor. (Was it a matter of personalities? Rivalry for the national stage? Was there no philosophical symbiosis?) But Lindsay's heirs, literal and figurative, have much to be happy about in this persuasively sympathetic portrait.
When I mentioned to my father that I had received this book for review, I was surprised by his reaction. He told me he had been talking with a fellow retired firefighter recently, and they had agreed that Lindsay had been good for their pensions. Time apparently had healed some wounds through the miracle of compounding. Dad, and New York, survived the Lindsay administration. An ironic achievement, but a real one nonetheless.
Friday, May 7, 2010
The following review was published earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network.
This may be a rare case where one can plausibly accept a book jacket description at face value: "Last Call is capacious, meticulous, and thrillingly told. It stands as the most complete history of Prohibition and confirms Daniel Okrent's rank as a major American writer." Certainly the story of Prohibition has been told before, many times; in particular, Norman Clark's Deliver Us From Evil has justly earned evergreen status since its publication in 1976. But Okrent's rendition may well be unequaled in its finely wrought narrative arc and its attentiveness to language, both of the era and the rhythms of contemporary prose. This is hardly surprising, as Okrent, author of four previous books, is a former trade book editor (at Knopf, among other houses), magazine editor (at Time, among other publications), and the first ombudsman at the New York Times. Nor is it surprising that that the book is loosely hitched to a forthcoming Ken Burns documentary on Prohibition to be aired on PBS next year. Such are the wages of talent and good connections.
In its almost century-long history, Prohibition was one of those issues in American history that made for some very strange bedfellows. For one thing, advocates for the abolition of alcohol crossed party lines. So-called "drys" included northern Republican Progressives and southern Democratic evangelicals. Pro-alcohol "wets," by contrast, included privileged plutocrats as well as impoverished immigrants. To a great extent the struggle was a matter of the city versus the country, and yet some rural folk with a by no-means uncommon libertarian streak disliked federal intervention in personal life -- and what it might imply on other issues. Urban reformers, many of them women, knew (sometimes personally) just how badly alcohol could ravage family life. And yet when Prohibition was ultimately overthrown, it was women who led the way.
But as Okrent shows, it was a specific set of circumstances that transformed the political landscape surrounding Prohibition, resulting in the 1919 passage of the Eighteenth Amendment as well as the Volstead Act to enforce it. While there had long been synergy between the suffrage and temperance movements -- the leader of the Women's Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU), Francis Willard, typified the explicit fusion of the two -- the coming of the First World War gave new urgency to, and justifications for, both. Conversely, one of the biggest impediments to Prohibition -- the huge tax revenues alcohol generated -- became less important with the passage of the 16th Amendment, which created the federal income tax in 1913.
But the real reason Prohibition happened is because some exceptionally committed people worked hard for it, and had the political skills to bring it about. (It's also because the opposition was disorganized and made some bad tactical decisions, like brewers who crudely funded African American causes as a way of asserting their political enlightenment, and thus inciting the substantial racist constituencies that laced through the Democratic Party, Progressivism, and the suffrage movement.) A key figure in this regard was Wayne B. Wheeler, lobbyist extraordinaire for influential Anti-Saloon League (ASL). Though now forgotten -- Okrent notes that while the Washington Post called him the most influential citizen in American history in 1927, his name never surfaced in the paper after 1975 -- Wheeler wielded enormous power by eschewing the broad-based approach of the WCTU in favor of a tightly focused, non-partisan strategy of targeting candidates in close races and demonstrating ASL clout by making or breaking them. Wheeler and his allies also exploited the disproportionate power of rural areas in institutions like the U.S. Senate, and acted decisively to prevent legislative reapportionment that would give urbanites and immigrants fair representation in Congress. The third leg of Wheeler's strategy was great care in not insisting that those who voted in support of Prohibition actually believe, or even practice, it themselves (hence the phenomenon of the "wet-dry"). Making hypocrisy a tribute vice paid to virtue was hardly morally uplifting, but it was remarkably effective -- for a while.
For, as every schoolchild knows, Prohibition doesn't work. (There's seemingly always a present-tense tilt to their saying so.) Okrent chronicles the inevitable descriptions of speakeasies and organized crime that followed, with a particular emphasis on a failure in enforcement rooted in an willingness to actually pay for it, to a great degree because its advocates were unwilling to face the Big Government implications of actually doing so. But the real pleasures of this part of the book come from little detours that never seem irrelevant, ranging from the rise of the Napa Valley wine industry to the change in gender mores that resulted in socializing in homes rather than bars. Okrent also has a wonderful little tidbit of persuasive extrapolation about Joseph P. Kennedy's relationship with the bootlegging industry that he saves for last.
What really makes the book, though, are the personalities, in no small measure because the author himself savors them so. Tellingly, Okrent does not dwell on obvious suspects like Al Capone, who gets his due but no more, and instead sketches a series of figures that range from the unjustly forgotten Wheeler ("imagine Ned Flanders of The Simpsons, but older and shorter, carrying on his slight frame a suit, a waistcoat, and, his followers believed, the fate of the Republic") to the elegant Prohibition opponent Pauline Morton Sabin, with whom Okrent seems understandably infatuated. His ability to capture them on their own terms, and yet frame them in his, is typified by this passage about wet Missouri Senator James A. Reed:
A Senate colleague said that when Reed spoke of an opponent, "it was as if he had thrown acid upon him" -- for instance, when he charged that Prohibition was enacted by "half-drunk legislators" suffering from "the leprosy of hypocrisy." Reed called suffragists "Amazonian furies" who chanted "in rhythmic harmony with the war dance of the Sioux . . . To his friend (and drinking buddy) H.L. Mencken, Jim Reed was "for our time, the supreme artist of assault." Given Mencken's own skills, this was like Babe Ruth praising someone for his hitting ability."
The book is filled with such memorable turns of phrase: The legendary, axe-wielding temperance advocate Carrie Nation is described as "six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache." Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who presided indifferently over Prohibition, "looked as if he had been carved from chalky stone." Finding wet advocates in Manhattan "was as about as remarkable as a sidewalk." To read Okrent's prose is to realize, and lament, the loss of color in so much contemporary historical writing.
Such entertaining passages notwithstanding, there is an unstated but sobering moral implicit in this story, and that is the ongoing power of determined minorities to push and realize agendas that their opponents sometimes complacently assume simply contradict the March of Progress. The most surprising part of Last Call is Okrent's compelling description of the power of the liquor lobby in American politics in the early 20th century, a well lubricated machine that maintained legislators as efficiently as it provided everything from food to furnishing for its franchisees. And yet, when the time came, all its money and popular support was mowed down with surprising ease. To consider that many of the people who seek to ban abortion and immigration come from the same demographic heritage as Prohibitionists is to realize the force of William Faulkner's famous maxim that the past is never dead. It's not even past. Something to keep in mind the next time you raise a glass.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
In which we see Ms. Bradstreet lead a cool man to lose his temper
The Maria Chronicles, #54
Maria is walking to her Prius, parked across the street from her apartment, when she is surprised -- and pleased -- to see Jack Casey's BMW pull up behind it. Jack gets out just as she tosses the bag of clothes on her back seat. They haven't seen each other since her cast has come off her foot. Maria was going to propose taking him out to dinner to thank him for all his help in her recovery, and while she generally doesn't like unexpected visitors, she finds herself in a mellow mood.
"Well hello, Jack. How are you?"
"Not so good, Maria."
"What's wrong?" She's never seen him so agitated.
"What's wrong is that I got a call from my friend Tony Romano this afternoon. He told me that you never returned the call he made inviting you to come in for an interview for the history department chair position."
"I just -- "
"I've spent a lot of personal capital on this."
Maria doesn't like the idea of his thinking of her in terms of trade and commodities, and she can almost feel her face darken. But she decides not argue the point, taking a deep breath. "Jack, I just --"
But he he cuts her off again. "You know, Maria, call me a fool, but I've had this idea in the last few months that I understand you. I think you've been a little too hard on me, but I've accepted it, not only because I know I've made my mistakes, but also because I felt like there was a part of you that liked and accepted who I am. I can believe that I was wrong about that, and I'm willing to understand and accept a decision on your part to reject what I have to offer. But I think you take it a little too far when this withholding thing extends to other people. Tony is a good guy, a real school person, and he doesn't deserve to be treated this way just because he happens to be a friend of mine. This is bigger than you and -- "
"I just got off the phone with him, Jack. I'm going in to talk with him tomorrow."
This shuts him up. He looks away, silent, not quite ready to stand down. Then he meets her gaze again. "Why did it take you so long?"
Now it's Maria's turn to look away. "It's complicated, Jack. But not quite what you think." She looks back at him. "You're right: I waited to long to call Tony back. I apologized to him when we talked, and I'll apologize to you now. I'm usually pretty efficient about these things. And yes, to some degree it was about not wanting to get a job through you, though less out of a sense of disapproval than a need for independence."
"Maria, you would never get the job just because --"
"I know, I know, I'd have to be able to stand on my own two feet. Blah, blah, blah."
Jack smiles for the first time. "I believe the correct post-Seinfeld terminology is 'yada yada yada.'"
"Whatever. But the truth is, the situation has become more complex. Turns out there may now be something happening at Hudson High."
"Really? Wow. Tell me about it!"
She's struck by his unfeigned enthusiasm: He really wishes her well. It's not about her getting a job through him; it's about her getting what she wants. This is the moment Maria Bradstreet falls in love with Jack Casey.
"Well, like I said, it's complicated. And actually, I'd like to get some advice about it. What are you doing now, Jack?"
"You mean other than arguing with you? Not much. I was planning on going home and watching the Mets lose to the Phillies."
"Well, look, what do you say I forget about my dry-cleaning for now and take you out to dinner at the Italian place around the block so we can talk about it."
"No, dummy, my professional prospects."
He looks at her slyly. "Maria, are you propositioning me?"
"Believe it," she says, grinning.
"All right, then," Jack says. And they're off.
Monday, May 3, 2010
In Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome, Robert Harris gives us a political leader a bit like Barack Obama -- and a warning about his limits
The following review was published last night on the home page of the History News Network website.
It is an axiom of the historical profession that the great danger and temptation in writing about the past is lapsing into a form of anachronism known as "presentism," i.e. retroactively projecting the issues and opinions of the present upon the past. It is neither entirely possible nor entirely desirable to entirely to escape presentism, entirely, of course; without it history lacks relevance. But a history that fails to at least attempt to respect what is sometimes called "the pastness of the past" violates the spirit of the enterprise, feels forced, and dates quickly.
For the historical novelist, by contrast, the calculus works in the reverse direction. The imperative of the novel is to entertain, and the prerequisite of entertainment is a feeling that what is being depicted somehow captures a truth about life as it is lived. Historical verisimilitude is admired and welcome to the degree it does not get in the way of the story, which is to say that it becomes an end in its own right. Navigating between the long-established conventions of academic history and the even more venerable ones of literary criticism, historical novelists rarely get much in the way of respect from either. (One recent exception is Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, reviewed recently at HNN.) But success when it comes is often measured by another means: sales.
In the eighteen years since his marvelous counter-factual thriller Fatherland, a murder mystery set in a 1964 in which the Nazis had triumphed in World War II, British journalist-turned-novelist Robert Harris has had a hugely successful career spinning page-turning yarns with an often impressive degree of nuanced of historical detail. He followed it three years later with Enigma, a fictionalized account of the cryptographic race to break Nazi code, and then in 1998 with Archangel, an almost gothic novel of Soviet politics that turned on the possibility that Josef Stalin had an heir.
In more recent years, Harris has widened his lens; his last novel, The Ghost, was recently made into a well-regarded novel about a distinctly Tony Blair-ish prime minister colluding with corrupt Americans in launching war on Iraq. (Fatherland and Enigma were also made into movies; Archangel became a BBC miniseries.) But most of his focus in the last decade has been ancient Rome. His 2003 novel Pompeii -- very possibly the best of the Harris oeuvre -- managed to make the engineering of Roman aqueducts an extraordinarily vivid context for the explosion of Mount Vesivius in 79 CE. In Imperium (2006), Harris moves away from inserting fictional scenarios into historical events by instead tracking, largely faithfully, the rise of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the golden-tongued "New Man" who emerged from obscurity to become consul of the Republic (think of it as the Roman Dream.) Harris makes the striking choice of narrating the story from the point of view of Cicero's real-life slave and amanuensis Tiro, author of a history referred to by Plutarch and others that has since been lost. If Imperium is less vivid that some of Harris's earlier fiction, it nevertheless maintains the high standard his work has established as an almost guiltless pleasure for serious students of history.
Harris has apparently conceived his telling of Cicero's story as a trilogy, the second installment of which, Conspirata, has just been published (In the UK, the book was titled Lustrum, which translates to a period of five years.) Conspirata, which can easily by digested without its prequel, follows Cicero's consulship -- dominated by a series of intrigues we have come to know as the Catalina Conspiracy -- and then his post-consular career as characters who had heretofore been minor, Gneus Pompey and Julius Caesar, come to dominate and threaten the Republican government. The next volume will presumably trace the confrontation between the two, Caesar's triumph, the destruction of the republic and establishment of the Roman Empire.
Harris's Cicero is a consummate political professional, one whose success rests on his talent as a multi-tasker. As he explains to his far more doctrinaire Senate colleague, Cato, "This is the business of politics -- to surmount each challenge as it appears and be ready to deal with the next. The best analogy for statesmanship, in my opinion, is navigation -- now you use the oars and now you sail, now you run before a wind and now you take into it, now you catch a tide and now you ride it out. All this takes years of skill and study, not some manual written by Zeno." There's something downright Clintonian -- and Obamaesque -- in this affirmation of a pragmatism rooted in the public good.
The analogy strengthens when one considers the meritocratic (and legal) basis of Cicero's rise; indeed, his lack of family connections and military experience are occasionally liabilities that he experiences acutely. Tiro periodically makes clear that his admiration for his fallible master's courage is not a function of his fearlessness, but rather a willingness to face threats and endure terror. Such characteristics appear to be in marked contrast with challengers like Caesar, who, as in the recent HBO series Rome, comes across as intelligent, implacable and ruthless. Such men can never be defeated, only deferred. "We'll just have to outwit him again," Cicero says of Caesar as he tries to convince a colleague to tolerate, for tactical reasons, his latest outrage. "And we'll have to go on doing it for as long as is necessary."
But political power is an unstable and temporary phenomenon, and not even Cicero can maintain republican equilibrium indefinitely. Harris's desire to drive home this point makes Conspirata a longer book than it otherwise would be (and, arguably, should be). The first half, covering Cicero's consulship, is really a novel in its own right. The second not only lacks this sense of narrative cohesion, but gradually displaces its protagonist from centrality. The book moves from a study of the nature of power to a depiction to the experience of powerlessness. This is more politically edifying than aesthetically satisfying, though Harris once again turns to the device of murder to link the two pieces and stitch them together.
It is perhaps not surprising that a man who began his career immersed in the horrors of the mid-twentieth century totalitarian state would be centripetally drawn to it even when he shifts his gaze millennia away. In any case, Harris's larger point remains clear and hard to ignore. Put not your trust in Princes -- or republicans, or Democrats. Societies come and go. But the hunger for power, and thirst for blood, is unquenchable.