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Archive for March, 2010

To the domestically-inclined,

Break out your horseradish everybody! Passover is officially here, bringing with it gefilte fish, chocolate-covered matzo, brisket, and all the other healthy treats you’ve come to associate with the feast of the unleavened bread. In truth, perverse as it might sound, I do look forward to Passover every year, I suppose because it’s a family-centered, home-bound holiday, unlike Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Plus, I kind of like matzo. You know, until day four, when I start screaming at anyone in a twenty-foot radius eating a croissant. 

For the digital scholar, unfortunately, there is no single archive that provides a wealth of Passover-related ephemera, so I’ve had to cast a wide net. For starters, you can get your holiday off to a good start listening to a genuinely catchy album by Julliard and Jewish Theological Seminary grad Gladys Gewirtz. Digitized by FAU’s Judaica Sound Archives, Gewirtz’s Seder Party encourages us all to become “Seder Paraders,” and includes piano accompaniment by Long Island dentist Len Meinwald. (No joke, he continued to record into the eighties!) My favorite song, though, has to be, “Let’s Go Shopping,” an ode to the Passover grocery experience.

Marketers have known for a while that Passover shopping is, indeed, big business. The Reform Advocate reported in 1909 you could see ads for “Chad-Ghadye Ketchup,” named for the popular Passover song. Still Maxwell House has gone down in advertising history for the sheer chutzpah of their now-ubiquitous haggadah. Click here for some scans of an early edition, proclaiming their instant coffee the “Cantors’ Choice for every day enjoyment.” Manischewitz, too, knew a good act to get in on, producing a Yiddish/English pamphlet of Tempting Kosher Dishes for Passover, digitized by the incredible National Yiddish Book Center.  Their product line-up hasn’t changed much since then.

Truly, though, you’ve never seen Mr. Peanut looking so jaunty in that top-hat as he does in 46 Ways To Better Passover Meals brought to you by Planter’s Peanut Oil. (But eaters beware : the kosher status of peanut oil is a still a source of rabbinic debate!). 

Not all Passover publications are quite so product-placement-heavy. The Internet also hides a countless array of Haggadot. For a sampling, here is one from 1883, one from 1908, one from 1910, and one from the 1920s.

Last but not least, video-lovers can curl out on their couch and watch this rather remarkable footage from the 1969 Freedom Seder, organized by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in a black church on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assasination. And you can thank another underappreciated digital resource, my parents, forwarding me Martha Stewart’s tour of the Streit’s Matzoh Factory.

Yours in recline, 

Stephen

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Battle of the Textbooks

Apparently while I was on vacation, the Texas Board of Education moved to add a dose of conservative (and evangelical) historiography into the state social studies curriculum—Milton Friedman! Phyllis Schlafly! Jesus! As Sam Tanenhaus noted last Sunday in the New York Times, some of their revisions are more controversial than others. What matters more is how that content is spun, and which other stories are edged out. 

All that got me thinking about school textbooks, and how previous textbook debates played out. So off I went to the digital archive to see what I could uncover. 

One of the best resources I’ve found is the University of Pittsburgh’s Nietz Old Textbook Collection named for historian, textbook collector, and Dewey disciple John Nietz. Among the 140 digitized books, you’ll find such gems as The Illustrated School History of the United States by the delightfully named G.P.Quackenbos (image right). Texas historians will be disappointed to note the 1857 book makes no mention of the Founders’ religion

A few other sources to note: William Alcott’s Slate and Black Board Exercises,  The Ladies’ Reader : designed for the use of schools and family reading circles, and Lessons in Hygiene.

You’ll also find much to peruse and enjoy within Harvard’s new and rather extraordinary reading history exhibit, which includes many textbooks from the Gutman Education Library.  Among my favorites is the handsomely illustrated Stepping Stones to Literature, including the not-so-sensitively titled story “The Truthful Little Persian.”

And don’t miss the 1802 American Preceptor, by Caleb Bingham, Dartmouth man and “author of the Young Lady’s Accidence”‘; Tales of the Deaf and Dumb, with Miscellaneous Poems; and from 1866, The Freedman’s Spelling Book, pictured to the left.

I’m short on time but not on sources, check out the Library of Congress’s 19th Century Education collection, and for the religiously-minded, MSU’s Sunday School Book archive.

Come back next week for Passover and Easter!

Pedagogically yours,

Stephen

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Dear diligent-ish followers,

Today marks the premiere of a semi-regular feature in these pages: the Lazy Scholar Interview. Each entry asks scholars of American culture a series of questions about the books, resources, and trends that inspire, excite, distract, or vex them—often at the same time.

With that flourish, I’m pleased to introduce the first scholar under scrutiny: Tania Modleski, Professor of English at University of Southern California. Professor Modleski may be best known for her 1982 book,  Loving With a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women, which brilliantly re-reads harlequin romances and soap operas through feminist and psychoanalytic theory, with an index ranging from Adorno to The Young and the Restless. She followed that book up with The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory; Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age; and Old Wives’ Tales: Feminist Re-visions of Film and Other Fictions, among many other works.

Her essay, “Clint Eastwood and Male Weepies,” featured in the latest issue of American Literary History, offers a glimpse at her newest project. Nimbly connecting Million Dollar Baby and Freud’s theory of melancholia, the article looks at the manly melodrama—in Modleski’s words, “those movies featuring a strong, stoic type whose sorrow lurks under the surface but who is wept over by other characters and by the audience.”

What digital resources do you rely on, or would you recommend?
Still a neophyte in online research.  But OED online comes in handy.

What is the best research and/or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
I can’t remember the best, but I do remember the worst—from a senior colleague who advised me to go with a tiny press that was interested in publishing my dissertation as a book.  The book’s title became Loving With a Vengeance. When it came time for tenure, some faculty questioned the worth of a book not published with a major press.  The senior colleague who advised me to go with the small press, “The Shoe String Press” (the name says it all), asked me at tenure time why I didn’t go with a larger press—apparently she had forgotten her earlier advice.  I was devastated.  I don’t mean this anecdote to reflect badly on The Shoe String Press, which was very good to me within the limits of its ability to market the book.

What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
Choose a topic that you love, love, love.  It’s better to write a good book on a subject you are passionate about than a mediocre book tailored primarily for the job market.

How does your teaching connect to your research?
I often teach the works I write about at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  Of course, at the graduate level the students are also required to read a great deal of theory.

Name one book or article published before 1970 that has inspired or haunted you?
The Golden Notebook, a novel by Doris Lessing published in 1962, inspired a generation of women.  For me personally, it provoked such rage against men that I had to break up with someone after continually pointing out how he acted just like Lessing’s male characters.  I do not teach this novel, however, because I would be in danger of flunking my male students.

Name the last book or article you read to inspire or haunt you.
It was published a while ago, but as my recent article shows, the book that has most inspired me is Juliana Schiesari’s The Gendering of Melancholia. It’s a book about how male loss is dealt with in literature (it also applies to films) in a way that elevates men’s pathos at the expense of  women and minorities whose grief is appropriated by the male melancholic.  The very term “melancholy” has a grandeur about it which is denied women, whose sorrows are generally written off as mere “depression.”  Schiesari’s work has been and will continue to be influential in my writing about such figures as Clint Eastwood.

What website most often draws your attention away from work?
Oh, okay, I’ll confess:  “Television Without Pity” and “Eight Letters in Search of a Word.”

What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?
What has long annoyed me is the tendency of popular-culture scholars to use  terms like “progressive” or “regressive.”  As I wrote long ago, I  think we should not (or not simply) seek to justify any cultural text we happen to be fans of (romances, tv shows, etc.) in terms of our own politics—feminist, Marxist, or what have you.  There is often a faulty syllogism at work in cultural criticism that goes something like this:  I enjoy The Real Housewives of New Jersey; I am a feminist; therefore the program must be feminist).  Better to admit we are all cultural dupes rather than to say that no one is a cultural dupe.

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Dear spring break scholars gone wild,

I’ve just returned to Cambridge after a joyous ride through the Southwest, from Los Angeles to Santa Fe and back—so expect some Divided States posts in the coming weeks. For now though, I’m suffering from spring break hangover, making it somewhat hard to keep my eyes and mind focused. I suspect some of you are feeling similarly. So I offer you (and me) the intellectual equivalent of a hangover breakfast, filling and a little spicy: a look at lesbian pulp on the interwebs. 

One of the best lesbian pulp archives comes from the Beinecke, Yale’s rare book library, and features an excellent introductory essay by Yale history PhD student Anastasia Jones. As she explains,”Plots were, for the most part, standard: the everygirl, disillusioned with romance, suffers at the hands of the impersonal and coolly libidinous world, but finds, finally, love—in the arms of a man or a woman.” You can also view 25 covers (fronts and backs), including, on the left, Jess Stearn’s 60s exposé The Grapevine, and, on the right, Ann Bannon’s I Am A Woman.

 

It’s not always obvious from the covers who the intended, or actual, audience for such books would have been—randy straight men, armchair sociologists, or queer women—though we might make guesses on a case-by-case basis. Not all supposed pulps, after all, were relegated to tawdry newsstands. For one, The Price of Salt, a noir novel written pseudonymously by Mr. Ripley scribe Patricia Highsmith, received favorable reviews from both the New York Times and early lesbian mag The Ladder. You can see the original paperback cover below, thanks to University of Saskatchewan’s Passions Uncovered collection. Alongside it, check out the cover from the less-lauded Private School by J.C. Priest.

Beyond the academic world, be sure to browse Ryan Richardson’s Strange Sisters for even more amazing covers, including my favorite Abnormals Anonymous, below. (And don’t forget  it’s “brother” site, Gays on the Range.)

Last but least digitally, a few offline resources, Duke’s Sallie Bingham Center and Susan Stryker’s entertaining book Queer Pulp. For more on men, pick up Michael Bronski’s illuminating Pulp Friction.

Until next time, I remain yours covertly,

Stephen

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Dear deadline dodgers,

Regular readers may have noticed my online output has slowed lately, for which I can only blame the short days, the rainy weather, and that fine art some call “dissertating.” Alas, in my delinquency, I missed a chance to offer a Black History Month missive—so I hope you’ll accept this belated attempt.

One of the most vivid records of the African-American past come through studio photography—posed portraits of men and women, often donning their finest suits and dresses. The Duke University Library, for one, holds the beautiful collection of Michael Francis Blake, who opened shop in Baltimore in 1912. The majority of his subjects are now unknown, like the woman on the left who posed in Blake’s studio, and the man on the right, who posed outside.

The Smithsonian, meanwhile, has a striking archive of black D.C. photographer Addison Scurlock. Most of his images come from later decades, and hint at both improvements in photographic technology and in African-American status.  Here are two photographs circa 1940, on the left, one of Sergeant Eddie Gibson, on the right, one of Mrs. Lucretia Guy on the right.

 

One would have to do a closer investigation to see if Blake and Scurlock’s photographs feel more intimate, more knowing, than those of some of his white contemporaries. How did the power dynamics shift, the conversations in the studio change? Case in point, University of Virginia’s digital archive of portraits by white photographer Rufus Holsinger’s work. It includes hundreds of images of African-Americans from Charlottesville and the vicinity, throughout the nineteen-teens, like the two below.

George S. Cook, meanwhile, picked up photography and then taught it to many others throughout the late nineteenth-century South. He would later buy many of his students’ negative, eventually amassing thousands. Virginia Commonwealth University’s Through the Lens of Time puts his collection of African-American portraits on view. They are not not without moral ambiguity. Some of the photographs seem to delight in validating stereotypes, like this one of a boy hugging a watermelon.  Yet others seem intensely vivid, like the one below of a boy in a patchwork hat. The names and identities of the photographers, like their subjects, have since been lost, leaving the images alone to speak for them.Until next time, I remain yours tardily,

Stephen

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