Monday, January 28, 2013

Mixed media

In Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times, McGill Professor Andew Piper explores the happy pluralism of print

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.    

A Facebook friend of mine recently posted a dilemma: a lover of books, she received an Barnes & Noble Nook for Christmas. She was intrigued by the prospect of dipping into the world of e-books, but somehow felt it would be an act of disloyalty -- or, at any rate, a prescription for a messy bibliographic life. I responded by telling her that having both kinds of books was akin to having running shoes and boots in your closet: each has its advantages. A bound book is still my default setting, all things being equal. But if the reading in question is highly disposable, or is most easily and rapidly acquired electronically, I go that route.

Andrew Piper, who teaches German and European literature at McGill University, has clearly been thinking longer and harder about such things. The conclusions he reaches in this evocative little book are similarly pragmatic -- his analysis toggles between cold type and hot type, refusing to condemn the former to oblivion or the latter to inferiority, attentive to their convergences as well as divergences -- but he has a remarkable feel for the textures of reading as an experience, and the ways it has, and hasn't, changed over the centuries.

I choose the noun "feel" advisedly. The first of the seven essays that comprise Book Was There -- the title comes from the ever-quotable Gertrude Stein -- focuses on the tactile dimensions of reading, the way it literally and figuratively becomes an object of our attention. Interestingly, Piper shows that this is no less true of electronic reading, which is always delivered to us in some form that engages our hands (think of the swipe or tap as the digital analogue of turning a page). Reading is not only intensely tactile; it's also deeply visual in more than a lexicographic way; another chapter, "Face, Book," shows how a fascination with faces in the print medium long preceded Mark Zuckerberg's innovations in social networking.

One of the more important insights that animates Book Was There is Piper's recognition that the book has always represented a minority presence on the literary landscape since the codex displaced the scroll almost two millennia ago. Books beguile us because they frame text into mirroring images in the form of pages. But other kinds of print sprawled (think here of nineteenth century "mammoth" news- and storypapers), and in this regard the flow of scroll of text on a computer screen is less an innovation than a recrudescence earlier reading experience.

But Piper is not content simply to explain away the new in terms of the old. He's also intrigued by new ways of thinking about reading and writing. A chapter on the role of marginal note-taking explores the interplay of handwriting and electronic annotation and what each has to offer. Another chapter, "In the Trees," describes new ways of rendering books in terms of numerical data that can be quite striking (if a little elusive, at least for those of us with thoroughly conventional notions of what it means to read a text). So it is that we learn, for example, that Stein's 1925 novel The Making of Americans is marked by some intriguing symmetries (the phrase "any such thing" appears exactly ten times in the chapters Stein deploys it, and the longest string of words in the book appears exactly at its midpoint, suggesting a cyclical architecture girding a presumably horizontal narrative. Another illustration of Walter Benjamin's classic essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" literally flowers on the page when sorted into stems that represent the length of sentences and buds that stand for different categories of words.

A child of the computer age, Piper, who was born in 1973, mentions attending a computer camp as a child, and programming the TS-80 -- what might be termed the Model T of personal computers. As such, his background seems closer to a Gates or a Jobs than it does a future professor of literature. But his, measured, polished, suggestive prose leaves little doubt that his range is good deal wider than binary.

In a recent blog post, Piper confesses that he's less confident than he used to be that print books will continue jostle alongside electronic media indefinitely. I was a little disappointed to hear him say that; my working analogy has been books are to plays as e-books are to movies. But if the book is mortal, as all media are, it seems unlikely to disappear entirely any time soon. Book Was There is a reminder that we should savor this world of textual diversity and celebrate its possibilities rather than simply fret about the end of a world.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

1776 is so ... 1775

1775: A Good Year for Revolution Political analyst Kevin Phillips makes another (bulging, uneven, but intriguing) foray in to American History

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.    

Kevin Phillips is now well into this third career, all of which have showcased a way with words. His first, as a young man, was a politico of the Atwater and Rove variety: he was an architect of Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in 1968. In the 1990s, however, Phillips grew disenchanted with the Republican Party, and began writing a series of books that included Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich (2002) and American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush (2004). He became a particularly acute analyst of the financialization of the U.S. economy, and the growth in inequality that has accompanied it. Part of what has made his work so acute is a striking depth of historical consciousness -- in Wealth and Democracy, for example, he drew apt analogies between what is happening to the American economy in the twenty-first century, the British economy in the twentieth, and the Spanish economy in the seventeenth.

In 1999, Phillips moved avowedly into the field of history. His massive study The Cousins Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America, drew a striking, yet highly nuanced, pair of demographic trajectories between the Cavaliers of the English Civil War/Tories of the American Revolution/Confederates of the U.S. Civil War on on side, and Roundheads, Patriots, and Unionists on the other. It was a book closer in spirit to David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed than Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? While Phillips perhaps stretched his argument farther than an academic historian would, there was no mistaking his erudition or the breadth of research he brought to the project.

The same is true of Phillips's latest work of U.S. history, a foray he describes in his preface as "welcome refreshment in this era of political disappointment." The title, 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, may sound like a more modest undertaking, though its size -- well over 500 pages -- indicates otherwise. In some sense, the argument is simple: 1775, not 1776, was the real hinge of American history, the moment when independence transformed from a possibility to a reality. The Declaration of Independence was more epilogue than prologue. Indeed, it was only the tremendous sense of momentum that came out of 1775, especially in terms of the string of victories Phillips dubs "the Battle of Boston," that allowed the Patriot cause to absorb the many military blows that followed the Declaration, years in which the "rage militaire" of '75 largely dissipated, especially in the South. "The spirit of '76," by contrast, was a bicentennial marketing device.

But the scope of the book is in fact much wider. Phillips offers a sweeping interpretation of the coming of the Revolution that encompasses familiar topics like politics and economics as well as more less familiar ones, like the logistics of international gunpowder supply and naval tactics. He also foregrounds the interplay between culture and geography, paying special attention to the dynamics of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia and South Carolina, whose role he sees as pivotal (Connecticut and South Carolina too often overlooked). There's also a fine chapter on the geopolitics of the Revolution, notably the role of Spain, which temporarily arrested its decline enough to make a decisive contribution to the cause and its own imperial prospects.

But near the heart of Phillips's analysis is a subject that typically gets short shrift in modern historiography of the revolution these days: religion. He picks through the often complicated sectarian politics of eighteenth century North America, in which ethnicity and geography were also tangled. So it is, for example, that he explains Virginia Anglicans tended to be Whigs, while Massachusetts Anglicans tended to be Tories. He affirms, as many previous observers have, that the Congregationalist heirs of the Puritans dominated New England politics, the cockpit of Patriot fervor. But he locates strands of revolutionary ardor in New Jersey Presbyterians and Pennsylvania Lutherans as well -- and considers them important. As Phillips notes, such arguments, once the staple of Victorian histories like those of Thomas Babington Macaulay and John Lothrop Motley, have long fallen out of favor. "Did these men have a better sense of the  religiosity of eighteenth century than more recent chroniclers?" he asks. "Probably. Were they correct in painting a dour, predestination-minded culture as a progressive political force. Probably ... Modern cultural biases cannot wholly rewrite a prior American reality: that the Calvinist denominations central to those old battles ... bulked larger in the thirteen colonies of the 1770s than any major European nation."

Phillips is particularly skeptical that secular ideology was as important as its recent champions (think Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood) have asserted. He doesn't deny its prevalence in Revolutionary discourse, but he sees it as one element in a more complex fabric, and one that was probably secondary to trading interests. As he distills his view in his chapter on the subject on the birth of American politics: "economic motivations, constitutional rhetoric." In this regard he's closer to younger historians like Woody Holton, whose work is frequently cited.
The core point in any case is that the crucible of the American Revolution was the period between the fall of 1774 and the end of 1775. It was in these months that the rebels did not declare independence, but actually implemented it: they seized control of governments, formulated economic strategy, and actually fought a series of battles that stretched from Canada to the Carolinas.  The Declaration of Independence was literally an afterthought.

Phillips is persuasive in making this case. But he's not alone in making it. Actually, T.H. Breen stakes out similar turf in his 2010 book American Insurgents, American Patriots (see my review here). Oddly, though Phillips lists two of Breen's earlier books in his bibliography, this most recent one is not mentioned.

That's not the only problem. As you can probably tell even from this brief summary, 1775 sprawls in ways that are not always felicitous. It's not clear, for example, why we need two separate chapters, in two separate sections, on the Canadian campaign. Or two separate chapters Britain's first efforts to contain the Revolution of the South. Figures like the colorful Lord Dunmore certainly have a place in this story, but probably not as frequently as he pops up. One suspects that Phillips has become susceptible to the syndrome of the highly successful author not getting, or accepting, an editorial razor.

But of course there's a reason why he so successful. 1775 is a grab bag, but it's one that stuffed with welcome prizes (and one that you can pick your way through). Phillips can be a highly entertaining writer, as when he describes the notorious Duke of Alba executing Dutch Calvinists "as easily as frontier Texans barbecued beef" or suggests that the imprecations of the international indentured servant market was a form of virtual slavery, "lacking only some mittel europaisch Harriet Beecher Stowe to pen Uncle Hans's Barracks."

In short, 1775 is not Phillips's best work, as perhaps is inevitable when a writer turns to history as a form of escapism. But for that very reason it's highly readable -- and informative. Anybody who's as talented as he is good company.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Freedom rider

Frederick Douglass took the self-made man to a whole new level

 The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.

It is perhaps a measure of the unique reach of the early nineteenth century version of the self-made man that it was finally able to breach a barrier that had once seemed impossible to overcome: slavery. Henry Clay suspected that slavery inhibited his attempts to champion the self-made man; Abraham Lincoln acted decisively to end it for that reason. But only African Americans themselves could truly realize the possibilities of emancipation. As would soon become apparent, this would not be easy, even after slavery was destroyed. But the nation, and the idea, now seemed big enough to contain such a possibility.
The most impressive demonstration of what a self-proclaimed self-made man could be was Frederick Douglass. Born in bondage circa 1818 – “slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs” he notes at the start of his famous autobiography – Douglass began his life on a plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland, the child of a mother he barely knew and an unknown white man. And yet, as he and others were keen to note, the deprivations he suffered as a slave were relatively mild. He spent a significant stint of his childhood in Baltimore – once again, city as greenhouse of self-making – under the tutelage of a white woman who taught him to read. Douglass continued to practice his skills while working as an assistant in a local shipyard before being sent back to work as a plantation hand (where he tried to teach his fellow slaves to teach until he was ordered to desist). Rented out to a notorious slave breaker named Edward Covey, Douglass was brutalized until he finally stood up and asserted himself. After being jailed for failed attempt to escape to freedom in 1836, he returned to Baltimore, gaining a number of skills, among them caulking, that allowed him to become quite valuable to his owner. But his determination to escape to freedom was finally realized in 1838, after which he chose the name that made him famous (based on a character in a Sir Walter Scott novel), married, and settled in Massachusetts. Douglass eventually moved to upstate New York and founded a newspaper that became an important instrument in the struggle against slavery.
But it was Douglass’s own life story, made legend in his now classic slave narrative, which proved to be his most important weapon. First published in 1845 – longer editions were issued in 1855 and 1888 – the pointedly titled Life Story of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself – catapulted him to the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Douglass had a great story to tell, and he told it with prose that was stirring in its eloquence.
It is, in a number of decisive ways, a story of gender identity. While the myth of the self-made man tends to view manhood as the pre-existing foundation for success, Douglass’s manhood was itself a product of his own manufacture. Indeed, the essence of slavery was precisely the lack of such an identity. In his deepest misery at the hands of Covey, Douglass noted, “I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, my disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed upon me; and behold a man was transformed into a brute!” Conversely, freedom meant reclaiming that identity. “You have seen how a man was made a slave,” he declared in the famous line of chiasmus from the most dramatic scene in the book, “[now] you shall see a slave made a man.”
This act of self-construction is presented as an act of will, and yet it was one that echoed generations of earlier Americans, white and black, who declined to claim complete agency. Douglass acknowledged a destiny delivered by a higher power. “From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace,” he writes early in the autobiography, “and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.” Douglass was much criticized for pointing out the religious hypocrisies of slave owners, so much so that he felt compelled to include an appendix in the book disclaiming any intention of apostasy. But a deep vein of spirituality animated Douglass’s writings, notwithstanding the superstitions among slaves he lamented in the text and the rage he occasionally directed at those he believed acted in bad faith.
This helps explain the missionary fervor of Douglass’s career as an abolitionist, one that was expansive enough to include ardent advocacy of woman suffrage as well as Irish rights in the face of British oppression. Like Emerson, Douglass was a public intellectual. But he was much more what we would consider a social activist. And yet he also reflected the tenor of his time in his belief that freedom was an act of individual emancipation no less than a collective and political one. “Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters ‘U.S.’; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States,” Douglass wrote, advocating the use of African American soldiers in the Civil War (initially forbidden, they eventually became a significant factor in the outcome). In another piece at the time, he asserted that black Americans were fighting “for principle, and not from passion,” and that these soldiers were achieving “manhood and freedom” of their own making.
To the end of his life – he lived until 1895 – Douglass remained a committed American integrationist. This wasn’t always easy. Though he was an important functionary in the Republican Party in the decades following the Civil War, Douglass was disappointed by its ebbing commitment to freedpeople and its increasing graft and corruption. But even as some of his contemporaries, notably Martin Delany, began advocating what we might call an early form of black nationalism, Douglass continued to believe in the United States as a place were Americans could, should, and ultimately would be masters of their own destinies. He would arguably be vindicated, but it would take a very long time.
Douglass was not only facing stiff racial winds. The bold sense of civic purposes that had characterized the United States in the decades before the Civil War, and which had animated a wide array of social movements, had stalled. Insofar as there were such movements – the Populists come to mind as an important example – they were marked by more of a sense of mass organization, or, alternatively, a growing emphasis on scientific management (Douglass’s protégé Ida B. Wells, who had a similar fiery spirit, relied on statistics and reporting in leading an attack on the epidemic of lynchings that occurred in the South in the 1890s). The self-made man remained a fixture on the American landscape. But his profile was shifting, away from the civic orientation that marked an era that stretched from Franklin to Lincoln. More than his predecessors, the new one had a pecuniary flavor.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Jodie Foster's Singular Journey

A Hollywood Star gets a lifetime achievement award

The following piece is adapted from my new book, Sensing the Past
Tonight Jodie Foster will be precocious once more. The native Angeleno who began her acting career at age three will be the relatively youthful recipient of a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, having just turned 50. The span of her career has been truly remarkable; her collaborators stretch from Helen Hayes, born in 1900, all the way to Abigail Breslin, born in 1996. Filmographically, at least, Foster qualifies as a grande dame.
This would have been hard to imagine back in the seventies, when she made her mark in movies like Freaky Friday. Foster’s persona—bright, confident, impatient with the strictures of authority—was perfect for the post-sixties zeitgeist. One of the first people to recognize this was Martin Scorsese. Scorsese cast Foster in a small part as a tough-minded tomboy in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974).
But the turning point in her career as an actor—and a touchstone for her preoccupations as an artist—was her second Scorsese project, Taxi Driver (1976), in which she plays a child prostitute. While Taxi Driver seems to reflect a vaguely countercultural critique of American life common in the films of the 1970s, it is animated by a powerful vision of evil—atavistic, unexplained, palpable evil—that suffuses Manhattan like the vapor rising up into the street in the unforgettable opening shot of the movie. Though lacking an overt theological or philosophical framework, this notion of implacable, unexplained malice has shaped Foster’s career, a vector that presses down on most of her films and gives many of them the melancholic weight that has always made her a bit unusual even as she went on to become an artist who would operate in the heart of the Hollywood mainstream.
In pursuing this vision, Foster has made her cinematic journey alone. To a striking degree, she plays single women, and even in those cases where her characters experience romance, these relationships are severed by death or other forms of separation.  On those occasions where Foster is a parent, it’s as a single mother. Even her most recent film, The Beaver (2011), a movie that one could regard as an exception because Foster is in a troubled but legally valid marriage, ends with her character on the edge of the frame, observing husband and son from a distance.
            Foster tends to live alone in another important respect as well: to a degree that’s singular among actors of her generation, her characters try to live their lives independent of public institutions, particularly government institutions. At best, institutions are ineffectual in meeting their stated aims; at worst, they’re dangerous. In her signature role as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, she must confront the frightening Hannibal Lecter, and the serial killer whose staircase she descends in a state of pure terror, all by herself.
This state of autonomy tends to be a pragmatic choice, not a deeply-held principle or grievance. Clint Eastwood characters often have chips on their shoulders, even as they try to form communities. Foster characters are tougher: less hostile than guarded, with little inclination to bond. Even in those cases where they do work within institutions (like the nun of The Secret Life of Altar Boys), they tend to work on their own. They not anti-institutional so much as non-institutional.  As such, they’re both harder to resist and harder to embrace.
In an ironic yet apt way, Foster is like Ronald Reagan: compelling in her institutional skepticism and the instinctive confidence with which she embodies it. Fate twined Foster’s life with Reagan’s in 1981 when a lunatic tried to impress her by shooting him. This history has been her burden (as history often is, one reason we go to the movies). It’s the singular way Foster has interpreted the world we have shared with her that has made her one of the most distinctive—and, in all likelihood, durable—figures in American culture.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My New Book

It's official: January 9 is the publication date for Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions. Here's the back cover copy: "How do perceptions of the past -- not just of particular events, but of the trajectory of history as a whole -- shape our experience of the world? Sensing the Past tackles this question with an unlikely source of historical insight--the work of six major Hollywood stars: Clint Eastwood, Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Jodie Foster. By focusing on the career choices made by these iconic actors, Cullen uncovers a discrete set of historical narratives, revealing the surprising ways historical forces shape our understanding of the world."

This project's roots go back to my first days as a high school teacher a decade ago. But the actual writing process began in the spring of 2010 and continued for the next two and a half years. Early drafts of individual chapters appeared on this blog. My post on Daniel Day-Lewis and Gangs of New York, "Native American Study," has been viewed thousands of times and remains among my most popular.

Thanks to those of you who have had a look over the last couple years. I'm hoping that a few of you will be willing to have a look at the finished product. You can buy it here. Thanks. 

--Jim Cullen  

Friday, January 4, 2013

Self-made songwriter

Walt Whitman, solitary universalist

 The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.

Perhaps the man who more than any other out-Emersoned Emerson in publicly declaring an authentic relation to the universe was Walt Whitman. Born to a yeoman family in rural Long Island in 1819, with less education than Emerson or Thoreau, Whitman migrated to urban Brooklyn and worked for twenty years as a typesetter and journalist, part of what Emerson famously described as a “long foreground” that culminated in the publication in the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. In that poetry anthology and the many editions that followed, Whitman trampled over established conventions of rhyme, meter, structure and content in forging a unique poetic vision. Endlessly self-referential, Whitman was also insistently dialogical, drawing his reader into his work and asserting their communion in a mystical national, even global body, typified by this passage in his famous “Song of Myself”:

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they
are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing. 

It was Whitman’s ambition to be noting less than the poet laureate of the United States, and he was tireless a self-promoter in his quest to realize that goal (Emerson was appalled when Whitman took a private letter of praise and used it to trumpet the publication of a second edition of Leaves of Grass). During the Civil War he went to work as a nurse in Washington, soaking up blood and transubstantiating it into Drum Taps (1865), a collection of poems eventually folded into Leaves of Grass that sought to represent a universal canvas of perspectives. Though he had begun to develop an international following by the time of his death in 1891, Whitman did not achieve his civic ambitions in his lifetime. He attained it in the decades that followed, in large measure through a body of work that smashed through the walls that separate private and public (his poems discussed masturbation and homosexuality, and spoke from the perspectives of women and slaves), making the concept of inclusion synonymous with American.

Next: Final installment of this set -- Frederick Douglass