Friday, September 30, 2011

Classy guy

In Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality, John Marsh delivers a lesson of uncommon force and clarity

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

In general, college professors are not particularly well-regarded as political analysts (the noun "academic" is a term of unvarnished contempt in precincts like FOX news). But there is a special circle of irrelevance reserved for English professors, who are not typically known for their quantitative acumen -- or, for that matter, their ability to write in a language the rest of us understand. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up this book by John Marsh, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana. Amazingly, I encountered a work of deft econometrics. Even more amazing, it's clear, lively, and realistic.

What might seem most amazing of all is that Marsh makes an argument which, particularly coming from this first-generation college-educated son and grandson of steelworkers, is deeply counter-intuitive. Which is that as weapon against poverty, education is overrated. As he demonstrates at the outset, this article of faith has become so canonical on the Left no less than the Right that it has crowded out every alternative way of thinking about addressing an inequality problem in the United States that is now widely acknowledged, even accepted. That doesn't stop Marsh from concisely documenting it, with great care in grappling with counter-evidence as well as counter-arguments.

What becomes increasingly evident is that is that Marsh isn't so much denying what everyone else is seeing, but rather calling attention to what they don't (or won't): that in terms of social reform, better schools are better seen a result, not a means, of upward mobility. It's as if we as a society agree that poverty, like cancer, is terrible disease. But it must be fought by solely by prevention, with no effort to actually try and treat, much less cure, those who already afflicted with it.  Yes: education can make a steelworker's son an English professor. But there are only so many English professors a society can absorb (and that number is shrinking all the time). This is a fact that's so obvious it simply gets ignored. So it is that Marsh quotes the liberal darling Tom Friedman flatly stating that "There are barely any jobs left for someone with only a high school diploma."

But of course there are lots of jobs left for people with nothing more than a high school diploma -- which in fact is the majority of people in the United States. What Friedman apparently means, Marsh notes, is that are no good jobs. But why aren't those jobs good? Well, for one thing, the work isn't all that exciting (then again, work rarely is, even for people who have "good" jobs). But also because those jobs pay poorly, not even providing subsistence wages, and they subject workers to indignities ranging from irritation to harassment. To even raise these issues is a one-way ticket to political irrelevance in the United States. As Marsh notes with a pithy sentence in a book full of them, "opportunity seems to be what we talk about when we don't want to talk about labor." Still, plenty of countries around the world have managed to provide opportunity, educational and otherwise, as well as reduce inequality. No fair-minded person calls Canada a failed state.

But -- and this is key to Marsh's analysis -- there was a time when Americans thought about these questions differently. In an elegant two-chapter survey of American educational history, Marsh shows that schooling was considered one tool (a tool especially cherished by the Right, though not exclusively its property) in the construction of a fair and stable society that included a modicum of economic redistribution as the price of private property. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his famous speech outlining an Economic Bill of Rights in 1944, education was not a prerequisite for a living wage or a decent home, but part of package. The Great Society initially made moves toward reducing inequality, but became increasingly hypnotized by training programs and Lyndon Johnson's edict against advocating direct transfers (which, ironically, is something Richard Nixon dangled before voters in a diabolically clever Family Assistance Plan he knew would never pass Congress). "And thus died any hopes for a War on Poverty that would prepare jobs for people than people for jobs," Marsh writes. Yet even as late as the mid-seventies, when a weak economy and a surfeit of of diplomas led to the proverbial Ph.D. cab driver, education was not understood as the sole means of economic security and the American Dream.

Now it is. Marsh begins the book with a confession by way of describing his own efforts to create a free ad-hoc school for working people in his community, only gradually realizing that the structural barriers involved were almost insuperable. As someone who grew up in the Rust Belt and who currently reads those quaint artifacts known as newspapers, he has has few illusions about a political system that has been thoroughly preempted by those who conflate national interest with corporate interest. If change is over going to happen, it's going to be because the workers of the world find a way to unite. The work of equality is ours.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The incidental American

Foster as my window to a wider world

This is the final in a series of posts about Jodie Foster as historian

Though I’ve lived most of my life thinking I was born just a little too late, I still grew up believing that I was in the middle of a great world civilization. As such, I often found myself wondering what would it be like coming of age in, say, Brazil in the 1970s, or Italy in the 1890s, or Japan in the 1730s – times which, even in the histories of such storied places, hardly seem that arresting. If you were a kid, I think you’d want to be Brazilian in the mid-sixteenth century, or Japanese in the late nineteenth century, or Italian at the time of the Risorgimento -- or the first century BCE. (Any turmoil, of course, would be more exciting than threatening.) But to grow up in a place that was not undergoing dramatic change or taking center stage seemed sad to me.
This is of course crude, even imperialist, thinking, though I confess it’s proven durable in my psyche. I suppose it’s akin to the wages of whiteness, a concept the great African American scholar W.E.B. DuBois used to explain why the white working class would never cast in favor of interracial solidarity against their shared capitalist oppressor: at least they’re not black. The wages of Americanness, by contrast, are not specifically racial, though of course white people have benefited disproportionately from the psychic dividend it has conferred. But all of us who have experienced it cannot help but suspect that this dividend is soon to be cut off, and that a reckoning is at hand.
It seems quite likely to me that if the work of Jodie Foster continues to have life beyond the mortal frame of the republic, she will be seen as a distinctively American artist, perhaps in ways we can only dimly perceive now. But for me, she’s functioned – in precisely that half-conscious, ill-formed, but nevertheless discernible way that I’ve been at some pains to trace in the preceding posts – as a living demonstration that you can have a full, complicated, and interesting life without caring all that much that you happen to be American. Again: she is an odd vehicle for that message, in that she herself came of age in Hollywood, the veritable cockpit of the American Dream. Perhaps that allowed her to take it for granted in a way I never did, and to become a true cosmopolitan, the way members of national elites often do. Or maybe it’s simply that she’s a female, and females have traditionally found their allegiances closer to home, whether or not they happen to be wives or mothers. In any case, it took an American for me to begin to imagine a post-American identity for myself and my heirs. Embarrassing, but true.
Now it’s my turn to be the brave one.

The Sensing the Past series will continue next month with a final set of case studies on the career of Meryl Streep.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Femme Flawed

Foster's turn toward unsympathetic characters

The following post is part of a series of on Jodie Foster specifically, and Hollywood actors generally, as historians.

With The Inside Man (2006), Foster began edging into new territory: playing flawed people whose imperfections are not incidental to who they are, but central to our assessment of them. A character like Sarah Tobias in The Accused was no princess. But it is nevertheless decisively evident that she did not deserve to be raped, and we would still probably like if we got to know her (there’s a wonderful scene, for example, when she connects in mutual fear with a reluctant witness at her trial). Anna Leonowens of Anna and the King had her prejudices, but her heart is always in the right place. So does Dede Tate of Little Man Tate. But in The Inside Man, Foster’s Madeline White – her ironic name refers not to her purity of character, but rather an absence of one – she plays a stylish, intimidating, and amoral political fixer. It’s a small role; this Spike Lee movie features Denzel Washington as a police detective and Clive Owen as the lead bank robber in a memorably complex, cerebral thriller. But it’s among the more vivid in her career, and one that shows her as a powerful figure functioning very successfully in a male dominated world, which amounts to a kind of guilty pleasure in its own right.
            Foster is called in to assist a powerful financier (Christopher Plummer), who happens to have a safe deposit box at the bank being robbed. She silkily navigates her way around the police and even manages to get into the bank to speak with Owen, whereupon she learns that far from incidental, that bank deposit box is central to the whole reason for the heist. It turns out that Plummer’s character is a former Nazi collaborationist whose empire was founded on this original sin, a secret he is desperate to protect. Foster maintains a poker-faced stance toward this revelation, and continues to do a job that involves trying to steer Washington away (in a nice scene in a government building, they literally face off on a marble bench, engaged in low-key rhetorical fencing, during which Washington proves to be a wilier opponent than she expected). Shortly after this, she breezes into the male enclave of an elite men’s barber shop to confront Plummer. He discloses all, confident that the check he holds out at the end of his disquisition will buy her silence. “Well, I’d love to tell you what a monster you are,” she says, taking the money, with a smile, “but I have to help Bin Laden’s nephew buy a co-op on Park Avenue.” The kicker, delivered straight, is a form of blackmail: “We’re listing you as a reference.” In the end, though, it’s Washington who both winks and gets the last word when he breaks into a lunch meeting at a restaurant that includes her and the mayor. He’s now in a position to put Plummer away, and in an inside joke returns the ballpoint pen to Foster that was actually a recording device he used to get incriminating evidence against her. “You made copies?” she asks, seeming to refer to information rather than the pen itself innocuously. “Please,” Washington laughs. He looks at the mayor. “We have to keep the real criminals off the streets.”
              In The Brave One (2007) Foster does become a criminal on the streets, albeit one of a complicated kind. She plays Erica Bain, the host of an NPR-like talk show – Foster really does have a great voice for radio – brutally attacked, along with her fiancé, who is killed, during a nighttime walk in Central Park. Unable to manage her grief, she becomes buys a gun illegally and becomes a vigilante, roaming the streets of the city and killing evildoers – first those she encounters accidentally, and then those she seeks out. She’s befriended by a soulful detective, played by Terence Howard, who becomes increasingly aware, and ambivalent, about her actions.
            The Brave One is an intriguing, but deeply flawed, movie. It can be seen as a kind of bookend with Taxi Driver in the way it resonates with classically Fosterian themes:  the world is a dangerous place, even the presumably cleaned-up New York of the 21st century, and one in which official authority is ineffectual at best. But this time the woman “graduates” to becoming the man with the gun rather than the victimized bystander.
            The problem is that the film’s message is fatally divided.  It’s very clear that Foster intended The Brave One to be a deconstruction of the vigilante genre, in that we see a damaged woman deal with her grief in a dysfunctional way. As she explained to Entertainment Weekly at the time of the movie’s release, “I don’t believe a gun should be in the hand of a thinking, feeling, breathing human being. Americans are filled with rage/fear. And guns are a huge part of our culture. I know I’m crazy because I’m only supposed to say that in Europe. But violence corrupts absolutely. By the end, her [Erica Bain’s] transformation is complete.” Foster’s interviewer noted that members of the audience tend to cheer at the climax of the film, a fact she calls “shameful,” comparing it to those who cheer during a screening of The Accused that she attended. But this is a fundamentally misguided conflation of two very different scenarios. While such a reaction to The Accused is hideous in that it celebrates wonton violence against an innocent person, the rhetorical fingers of The Brave One are on a scale weighted toward seeing the perpetrator of a crime against the protagonist get his comeuppance. The Brave One was helmed by Neil Jordan, the great Irish director, noted for his rich, independent body of work. But it was produced by action-flick impresario Joel Silver, and ultimately the moral logic of the project tips in that direction. Everyone Erica Bain shoots has it coming; we  get no back stories of these people to suggest otherwise. The one person whose situation is the least bit ambiguous is a prostitute who gets hit by the car of a pimp after Bain shoots him, but she may arguably be better off with that as the price of having him dead. If the movie wanted to make the point vigilante justice is immoral, it should have done so more unambiguously. But of course to do that would have compromised the commercial appeal of the project, whose message was plain in the poster that advertised it: A tough, looking, androgynous Foster determinedly pointing a gun.  So while The Brave One is an important document in the evolution of Foster’s artistic/moral/historical vision, it is finally unsatisfying work.

Next: A final Foster post. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Jim is in Chicago, accompanying his son as he embarks on his undergraduate career. In a kind of victory lap, his plane and hotel reading has been Andrew Ferguson's Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. Ferguson, an editor at the (neocon) Weekly Standard, has the kind of mordant wit -- think Christopher Buckley or P.J. O'Rourke, two fellow Righties who provide blurbs -- that can be highly entertaining. Attentive the hypocrisies surrounding college rankings, SATs, essays, and the like, the book combines personal reflection, anecdote, and a smattering of reporting that actually makes it a resource in some respects more valuable than the profusion of guides, directories, and other aspects of the professional college industry that are out there. Ferguson is particularly acute on the factors that drive college costs ever-upward (like health care, it's an industry where consumers rarely pay the full cost, reducing pressures for efficiency).

As with weddings, college admission is (one hopes) a once-in-lifetime experience in which collective wisdom is hard to accumulate and maintain. Jim will refrain from dispensing any advice himself, but observe that there is a sense of satisfaction to be had in playing a supporting role in the completion of a complex task, and gratitude for having had the opportunity to assist one's child in making the transition to adulthood. Rarely has the work of fathering felt so palpable.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The courage to be weak

 Jodie Foster, breaking feminist rules

The following post is part of a series on Jodie Foster in particular, and Hollywood actors generally, as historians

          A more promising, if somewhat ironic, new direction for Foster in recent years is her attempt to show something few actors, especially successful female actors, do: weakness. This is something that was apparently on her mind in mid-decade, because it came up a number of times in interviews. “If there’s one stereotype that I have, it’s that I always play strong women,” she told the UK cineaste magazine, Total Film, in 2005. “I’ve played dumb blondes but they were strong dumb blondes. I’ve played bad characters but they were strong bad characters. I’m not sure I know how to play weak. I really don’t know how.”
In the context of recent cinematic history, this is an odd confession to make. It is more or less an unwritten rule in the movie business that audiences want strength, not weakness, and even in those cases where weakness is depicted, the expectation is that we will see the characters in question triumph over it. The imperatives of late-20th century feminism in particular put a premium on strong women characters: anything else is tantamount to betrayal. As Jane Fonda, one of the great movie stars of the modern era recently put it, “Anger was always easy. Fear was harder.” As we’ve seen, Foster has been a past master of fear, one of the greatest artists of the emotion cinema has seen. But the terrors she’s faced – serial killers, terrorists, rapists, et. al. – have tended to be of the extreme variety. Much tougher are neuroses of the more quotidian variety. So Foster began to rise to the challenge, and to summon the courage to be weak.
Her first such foray, Nim’s Island (2008), was a return to familiar territory, in that it’s a children’s movie, based on the 2002 novel of the same name by the highly successful Canadian juvenile fiction writer Wendy Orr. Abigail Breslin – a child actor who may yet prove to be a Jodie Foster in the making – plays the title character, a girl who lives on a beautiful but remote Pacific island; her widower father (Gerard Butler, a much cuddlier figure than his King Leonidas of 300 the previous year), is a scientist. When dad goes missing on a seafaring expedition, Nim sends an email to her favorite author, Alex Rover, an adventurer who happened to query her dad recently about a professional matter. What Nim doesn’t realize is that Rover (also played by Butler) is really just a figment in the imagination of Alexandra Rover (Foster), who in fact is an agoraphobic woman living alone in San Francisco. Ms. Rover’s desperation to help finally overcomes her desperation to avoid leaving her house. But Foster’s comic rendition of a fearful woman is not without pathos. And while the story is most overtly a vindication of a child’s resourcefulness in the face of adversity, it is also one about the power of imagination in prevailing in struggles that are finally far more internal than external.
            The Beaver (2011), by contrast, is less tidy. Interestingly, while few of Foster’s acting appearances about families, all the movies she’s directed are. Little Man Tate has already been discussed; in Home for the Holidays (1995), in which Foster does not appear, focuses on the life of a loving but chaotic family of adults during Thanksgiving weekend. In The Beaver  – a severe flop for a number of reasons, among them Mel Gibson’s poor reputation and its betwixt-and-between-character as a dramedy – she plays Meredith Black, wife of Walter Black (Gibson), a severely depressed toy company executive who begins communicating via a beaver puppet. The couple has two sons, the older of whom (Anton Yelchin) is a senior in high school terrified he will end up like his father. Meredith reluctantly kicks her husband out of their home, but her resolve weakens when he comes home and plays with the younger son (Zachary Booth), leading the elder boy to rebuke her for her lack of willpower. Despite her stated desire to fight for her marriage if there is any hope of preserving it, is largely a bystander – something that Foster probably could have changed if she really had wanted to, but which makes sense in the logic of the story – which, as is so often the case in Foster movies, matters take a gruesome turn. It is, however, Meredith’s point-of-view from which we see a final father-and-son reunion at the end of the film. At the end of a half-century as a performer, Foster has edged closer to becoming someone almost impossible to imagine: an ordinary person.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Male Call

Foster's recent work shows a new level of engagement in the lives of men

The following post is part of a series of on Jodie Foster specifically, and Hollywood actors generally, as historians.

If Anna and the King is in important respects of a piece with Foster’s vision as a whole, it nevertheless signals some important shifts in her work. One of the most important is a more nuanced engagement with the lives of men. Though it is of course usually men who intimidate, terrorize, or otherwise oppress her characters, Foster movies, whether directed by her or not, have never simple exercises in male-bashing. Still, in the 21st century, her projects have shown a new level of depth in their portrayal of male characters. Whether or not this has anything to do with the fact that Foster herself bore two sons – Charles Foster in 1998 and Christopher “Kit” Foster in 2001 – is hard to say. But she has referred to wanting to make movies her kids could see, and it stands to reason that she would be interested in “boy” stories as part of a mix with “child” stories.
            One intriguing document in this regard is The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002), a small independent film in which she plays a 1970s nun who teaches at a Catholic school. The two main characters of the title, played by Emile Hirsch and Kieran Culkin, lead a small posse of comic-obsessed kids prone to sketching graphic pictures that include sexual poses of Foster’s character, Sister Assumpta. Such behavior, along with relatively mild school pranks, are for the most part portrayed as developmentally understandable, if not exactly appropriate, behavior, though Foster’s is shocked and hurt when she discovers them. (In an age when the Catholic Church has much to be ashamed about, it is bracing to see Foster, as well as a priest played by Vincent D’Onofrio portrayed with real empathy, even when we sense they’re not necessarily reacting in the most productive ways). Culkin’s character, however, has an ominous self-destructive streak, which coalesces around a plan to free a tiger from a local zoo. (Hirsch’s character, by contrast, is content to explore romance with his new girlfriend, who is struggling to overcome the legacy of incest with her brother.) Foster’s Sister Assumpta, who walks with a limp, is anxious, even desperate, not to be seen as a fool, which leads her to make psychological pronouncements about the boys of dubious accuracy. But her stricken look at a funeral in the final scene of the movie – Sister Assumpta appears to realize that her name bespeaks a character flaw – suggests her understanding that she has not apprehended the realities in the lives of her students, a message of muted, implicit hope in a time of rapid social change in social and sexual mores.
            Foster’s other project of 2002, Panic Room, was one of her biggest box office successes, in part because of its terrific screenplay by veteran writer David Koepp and the typically gloomy, yet arresting, direction of David Fincher. In the movie Foster plays a divorcee with a diabetic tween daughter (Kristen Stewart) who buys a Manhattan apartment that happens to have a special high-security chamber built for the needs of previous owner. The problem is that she’s unaware that the man left behind a cache of millions stored in safe of the Panic Room, and that the man who designed it (Forrest Whitaker) has plans to retrieve the money, for which he has enlisted a friend (Jared Leto), who in turn recruits another (Dwight Yoakum). The robbers break into the house expecting it to be empty; mother and daughter naturally take unwittingly take refuge in precisely the place where they will be besieged. A series of psychic and logistical twists ensue, among them the need to get rid of police who sincerely want to help but whose presence is on the apartment doorstep only makes matters worse. (As such, a typical Foster scenario.) For our purposes the main point is that we come to see that Whitaker’s character has redeeming qualities, and that he increasingly becomes a besieged himself by the ruthlessness of Yoakum. Ironically, it’s Whitaker, not Foster or her daughter, who ends up as the tragic figure in the story, blindsided by the very kinds of malevolence that have afflicted Foster characters going back to Taxi Driver.
            Another new accent in this phase of Foster’s career is an increasing emphasis on inner turmoil no less than external threats. In Flightplan (2005), she’s a widow bringing her young daughter from Germany back to America to begin a new life when that daughter literally disappears into thin air on a plane over the Atlantic. Not only does no one know where the child is; there is doubt the child was on the plane in the first place. (Flightplan is modern day variation on the 1938 Alfred Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes, which involved a train rather than a plane.) In one sense, this is standard Foster fare: women in distress fighting back hard against malicious forces – in this case, as it turns out, diabolically clever terrorists who exploit 9/11 fears to their advantage, part of which involves finger-pointing at Middle Eastern passengers. What’s also typical is that authority figures like that pilot are either unable or unwilling to help, or unwitting enablers of terror in their own right (in the form of a terrorist who masquerades as an air marshal). The difference is that for the first time in a Foster movie, one of her characters is forced to question her own sanity. Foster characters aren’t always perfect, but they’re almost always strong, as is this one. But she can’t help but be dogged by self-doubt in the face of a wall of denial, where even those not involved in the conspiracy become increasingly hostile to her “antics” and evident “irrationality.”

Next: Recent Foster, from The Brave One to The Beaver

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Royal Flush

With Anna and the King, Foster helped transform a racist child's tale into a complex drama

The following post is part of a series on Jodie Foster specifically, and Hollywood actors generally, as historians.

The overlooked gem in Foster’s career is Anna and the King. Like Last of the Mohicans, this is story rooted in fact that has gone through many iterations over the course of the last century. Its source material is the two-volume memoir of Anna Harriet Leonowens, a Victorian widow who worked as a tutor in the court of the King of Siam in the 1860s, just as British imperial power was reaching its zenith. The accuracy of the portrait that emerges of the reform-minded Siamese ruler, Mongkut, in The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870-73), has been contested, and is in any case filtered through an elite variety of western feminism. Incidents in Leonowens story received a new lease on life in 1944, when children’s author Margaret Langdon published Anna and the King, which became an evergreen novel of its genre (it was reissued in 2000 and remains in print). The novel, in turn, spawned a 1946 movie starring Rex Harrison (ouch!) as the King and Irene Dunne as Leonowens. The novel also led to the 1951 stage production The King and I, which in turn became the basis of 1956 Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I with Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr in the lead roles. This musical has long been regarded as one of the most beloved works from Broadway’s Golden Age, but like its predecessors is marked by racism that can be truly embarrassing to watch, as in the long minstrel show sequence featuring “Asian” figures in blackface.
            Given this benighted Orientalist history, it’s a bit surprising that anyone would want to approach this material again, and while director Andy Tennant expressed dismay about the difficulty he encountered with the Thai government in shooting the film (most of which ended up being shot in Malaysia) he should hardly have been surprised that his motives would be questioned. But his 1999 version of the story, which is more beautifully designed than any of its predecessors, recalibrates the scales in important respects. Perhaps the most important is the casting Chinese actor Chow Yun-Fat as Mongkut to go along with Foster’s Anna, which he endows with an incisive dignity sorely missing from previous versions. He and Foster have very good chemistry; their evident intelligence is a source of mutual respect and attraction, even as they banter and disagree on matters of style as well as substance. In Rogers and Hammerstein’s King and I there are references to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln – perhaps inevitable, given the American production and audience for the story – but in this one Mongkut cherishes a letter from President Lincoln, who has politely declined the King’s assistance in the Union cause, and the monarch speaks with accuracy and clarity about the meaning of the Battle of Antietam, which takes place simultaneously with the story.
             Anna and the King also recalibrates the gender politics. At one point, the passionate Anna intervenes to prevent the caning of one of the King’s concubines, who is caught while running from court to a Buddhist monastery to join her true love. While we the viewers and even the King understand the merits of Anna’s advocacy on their behalf, it is not only politically naïve, but counterproductive, effectively leaving him no choice but to execute the two lest he damage his credibility at a critical moment in the life of his regime.
            Which represents one more layer of complexity in this telling of the story. Though substantially fictionalized, the movie depicts Mongkut has having to navigate complex political currents that include the imperial jockeying of Britain and France (a well as intra-imperial British tensions) and a coup attempt being mounted by his own brother. Specific details aside, the message here is consistent with the core of Foster’s acting choices going back decades: destructive external forces are always lurking, ready to destroy the most promising of aspirations, whether those of a Great Emancipator of the West or one in the East. It is these political forces – of greed encased in a thin veneer of ideologies that include, but are not limited to, avowed racism – that become the primary barrier to peaceful unions, romantic and otherwise, in this Anna and the King. But all is not lost: the King’s son, sustained by the memory of his father’s unique relationship with a woman as an equal, will fulfill and extend his plans to bring his nation into the modern world.

Next: Foster's foray into flawed characters.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Striking brevity

Labor Day reading: In Blood on the Tracks, Cecilia Holland proves a fast-paced and succinct account of an overlooked turning point in U.S. history that resonates anew

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

"The Great Upheaval," Cecilia Holland writes toward the end of this brief e-book on the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, "isn't much discussed in history classes, in civics classes, in popular literature." She is correct. It is a fixture of U.S. history textbooks, usually meriting honorable mention in academic treatments of the post-Civil War era and in sources like the American Social History Project's Who Built America? So Holland's decision to write a short and fast-paced, if somewhat familiar, narrative history of the event in the newly launched Kindle Singles series is a welcome and useful addition to the literature.

Holland, a historical fiction novelist who is moonlighting here as a historian, is not particularly analytic in her treatment of the Great Strike. But she does deftly sketch the national mood of the 1870s, where celebrations of the nation's centennial were muted by the lingering effects of the Panic of 1873. She moves quickly to the wage cuts and cost-cutting measures great railroad barons like Thomas Scott and Cornelius Vanderbilt imposed on their workers, and the spontaneous response that followed in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in July of 1877. When, at the behest of the rail operators, the state's local militias were activated, the result was citizen soldiers who sided with labor instead of management.

In due course, Holland shifts the action to Baltimore -- a city with a remarkable heritage of urban unrest -- and focuses a great deal of attention on Pittsburgh, where the conflagration (literal as well a figurative) was most dramatic. Along the way, she offers vivid sketches of characters like Alexander Cassatt, brother of the great painter Mary, who as a railroad executive demanded action and fled when it backfired, as well as more obscure ones, such as Pennsylvania militia leader Alfred Pearson, whose talents and prescience resulted in his dismissal.  Though it's sometimes hard to visualize her blow-by-blow account, it is nevertheless vivid, dramatizing a degree of public disorder that is difficult to imagine now.

But not that difficult. Like many popular histories, this one wears its present-day concerns on its sleeve. For Holland, the road that connects 1877 to 2011 is a straight one. In her words, the parallels are "too obvious to need much outlining." I'm not sure I agree; the version of history here is a distinctly Whiggish one in which high-handed plutocrats eventually get their comeuppance with innovations like unemployment insurance, Social Security, and other nuts and bolts of the welfare state. I sometimes feel like history is actually moving backwards, and that equilibrium will not be re-established until all the gains workers won will be clawed back by corporate titans. But such is the stuff of which good classroom conversations are made. Blood on the Tracks does its part in providing the raw materials for one.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Jim is observing Labor Day weekend, which traditionally marks the end of summer (and does so for him in fact as well as custom, as next week marks the beginning of the new school year). His recent reading includes Somebody Owes Me Money, by Donald Westlake, recently republished as part of Hard Case, a small specialty publisher that focuses on resurrecting gems of crime fiction as well as new work in the genre. (This is not the first time I've written about it.) Hard Case, which was based in New York, went on hiatus last year, but has been resurrected by a London company. I look forward to more delightfully trashy books.

Donald Westlake (1933-2008) was one of those writers who wasn't a household name, but deeply admired by his peers and much beloved by generations of fans (among other credits, he wrote the screenplay for the 1991 film The Grifters). Westlake wrote over 100 books in various names across a series of genres. Somebody Owes Me Money tells the amusing story of a gambling NYC cabbie who unexpectedly gets a hot tip on a horse race -- and then unexpectedly finds his bookie murdered with himself as a leading suspect. Originally published in 1969, it evokes a gritty moment in New York City history, with an intriguing side trip to suburban Long Island. Interestingly, the book was recently reissued in a $10 trade paperback edition a few years after its first reissue as a $7 rack-sized paperback. Either way, cheap fiction is all the more satisfying when it's inexpensive as well, as these books are. And even in an age of e-books, which in many ways are best suited for this kind of disposable reading, small paperbacks offer psychic satisfactions of their own, especially for summer reading.

Happy reading to all, and to all a good weekend.