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Archive for May, 2010

In his eloquent introduction to Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, Michael Robertson remembers searching for spiritual guidance in the late 1970s: others turned to Buddhism and the Bhagavad Gita; he turned to Leaves of Grass. As his captivating and beautifully composed 2008 study reveals, he was hardly the first. Almost immediately after Whitman began publishing, readers like John Burroughs, Edward Carpenter, and Oscar Wilde approached his work less as poetry than prophecy, offering a new vision of nature, faith, gender, and sexuality. British writer Anne Gilchrist, for one, was so taken with Whitman and his work that she crossed the Atlantic, three of her children in tow, with plans to become his wife. She would be sorely disappointed.

Professor of English at the College of New Jersey, Robertson traces the lives of these and other Whitman followers in Worshipping Walt and simultaneously provides a portrait of the spiritual and literary world of the late nineteenth century.  He is also the co-editor of Walt Whitman, Where the Future Becomes Present, and author of Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature.

What project are you working on now?

My book in progress, The Last Utopians, looks at utopian socialists in the U.S. and U.K. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I’m focusing on Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  The research is proving to be great fun, and the deeper I plunge into the project, the more I’m convinced of the wisdom of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism, “A map of the world that does not contain Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?

I recently finished Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed, a wildly entertaining and inventive science fiction novel about an ambiguously utopian future.  It’s so serious and profound in its engagement with politics at every level—nation, family, gender, sexuality, work, food—that it makes most of the fiction I read seem pallid in comparison.

What digital resource do you rely on?

As a teacher of poetry, I’m ever-grateful for Modern American Poetry, the website developed by Cary Nelson at the University of Illinois.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

Will Howarth, my mentor at Princeton, told me, “Start writing before you think you’re ready.  The writing will show you the gaps in what you know; you can fill those in later.”  It’s easy to think, I have to read absolutely everything that’s relevant before I begin writing.  But that can easily turn into a way of postponing the hard work of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?

Why 1970?  If you’ll say 2000, I’ll say Susan Bordo’s The Male Body (1999).  Much of my work is centered on gender and sexuality, so Bordo’s book has influenced me in obvious ways.  But its primary influence on Worshipping Walt was less obvious.  The Male Body is a daring book, a work of true public scholarship, both deep and accessible, mixing high theory and personal history, close reading and witty anecdote.  Bordo’s example liberated me to write something more personal and engaged than I’d done before.

What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?

Jargon.  We don’t have to leave the role of public intellectual to Cornel West.  Each of us has a responsibility to bring our scholarly work to the broadest audience possible.  For some, that might mean writing a crossover book that combines scholarship and trade-book appeal.  For others, it might mean writing an op-ed, publishing online, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education Review, organizing a conference for local high school teachers, talking to community groups.  As students of the humanities, we’re dealing with issues that are relevant to everybody; we need to do a better job of sharing what we’ve learned.

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Dear sunscreen appliers,

The Lazy Scholar is happy to return to these webpages after a protracted journey through the land of end-of-semester labor—paper grading and dissertation prospecting, to be precise. There are still some seniors milling (and drinking) around campus, biding their time until commencement. But so far, I haven’t spotted any yearbooks—that tried and true token of upward academic mobility.

If I remember correctly from my own bright college years, I didn’t get my yearbook until many weeks after graduation, too late to have friends fill up its pages with earnest remembrances and congratulations. I know I got more use out of my high school yearbook, but all I can think about right now is that weird color section inserted by the printers to commemorate all the important events and hit movies from the previous year. That color insert (here’s one energetic promo) also sadly exposes how generic most yearbooks actually are—they typically reveal less about any single place and time than they do about the art and sometimes artlessness of nostalgia.

To prove, and complicate, my point, the digital archive fortunately overflows with scanned yearbook collections. So, in classic yearbook fashion, I offer you this list of class notables.

Most Likely to Be Mistaken for a Leiber and Stoller Song

By 1901, University of North Carolina’s students renamed their yearbook from the stodgy Hellenian to the downright silly Yackety Yack. That sense of humor can also be detected in the 1911 volume, which features cartoons beneath every class photo. Herbert Ray Ray (yes, Ray Ray) was evidently something of a cad, to judge by his portrait (right), which features girls hollering to him from a seminary. Other students didn’t fare quite so well: Harry Meyer Solomon‘s entry imagines him as an aged and balding king, with a requisite hooked “Hebrew” nose. John Harris meanwhile is nicknamed “Fatty John,” weighing in at 185 pounds (apparently it was standard to list everyone’s weight).

Most Haunting Mascot

The eerie owl of the Hinakaga, yearbook of Carroll College, Wisconsin.

Best Dressed

Duke’s 1950 Chanticleer features this photo of their famed blue devil. He would have no place in the trippy yearbooks of the 70s, edged out by artsy photojournalism and images of long-haired hippies.  And don’t forget quasi-Buddhism. The 1975 Chanticleer features one spread devoted to Desire, one to Becoming, and another to Sensation.

Most Industrious

The students pictured in The Aggie, yearbook of the University of Minnesota Northwest Agricultural School.

Most Likely to Excite Fans of The Office

University of Scranton yearbooks galore.

Most Optimistic

The Crispus Attucks school was founded in Indianapolis in 1927 as an all-black high school, but began admitting white students in 1967. The spread below comes from the 1972 volume.

Runners Up

The Owl and The Panther Prints, yearbooks of Western University of Pennsylvania and University of Pittsburgh.

The Key, high school yearbook of Marysville, Ohio.

There are more superlatives to designate, but I’m afraid my own search for lost time has come to an end. But if you have any other yearbook links to share, please add them to the comments section.

Yours in pomp and circumstance,

Stephen

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