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Archive for July, 2010

Many who like procrastination like this blog,

Today’s post, number three in the Lazy Scholar’s ongoing Divided States project, comes to you from  Brian Distelberg, a historian of twentieth-century U.S. culture and politics and a PhD candidate at Yale. I first encountered Distelberg’s work in the most recent issue of GLQ, featuring his rich and insightful article on gay book critics and the emergence of gay visibility politics in the 1970s. His dissertation examines minority groups’ campaigns to combat stereotypes and encourage “positive” representations in film, television, and other media between the 1940s and the 1990s. His other interests include gay and lesbian history, African American history, and the regional history of New England in the twentieth century.  He blogs about his research, contemporary politics and culture, LGBT issues, and other topics at his website.

“It would be a brave man who would sit down, alone or with company, and attempt a portrait of this State. Present-day Connecticut is too diversified and restless to yield an easy likeness.”

So wrote John B. Derby, state director of the Federal Writer’s Project, in his preface to Connecticut: A Guide to Its Roads, Lore, and People (1938), the Nutmeg State’s entry in the sequence of guidebooks that inspired the “Divided States” posts. Today, Connecticut is perhaps even more “diversified and restless” than it was in the New Deal era. But thanks to an abundance of archival material digitized by its libraries, universities, and historical societies, you can delve into its past in search of your own “portrait of this State” with relative ease.

Derby’s preface invokes the nineteenth-century engraver John Warner Barber, who travelled and sketched the state’s towns for his book Historical Collections of Connecticut (1836). You can browse hundreds of Barber’s drawings and engravings at Connecticut History Online (CHO), a portal and search engine that offers access to the collections of a number of historical institutions. In 1934, just shy of a century after Barber’s volume appeared,the state completed a first-in-the-nation photographic aerial survey. Check out “Aerial Surveys,” one of over twenty subject-based digital collections created by the Connecticut State Library, to search the images, and others from 1938 and 1965, by town and by street. Here’s a view of the state capitol in Hartford in 1934, opened in 1879, and here’s the famous onion-domed factory of Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. (Another State Library exhibit has numerous images from the corporate records of Colt, one of Connecticut’s many arms manufacturers, including this charming photo of a young girl holding a Colt .45 revolver.)

About thirty miles east of Hartford is Storrs, home to the University of Connecticut, which was established in 1881 as the Storrs Agricultural School and serves as the state’s land-grant university. That heritage helps explain the impressive-looking College of Agriculture Building depicted in this undated postcard, one of hundreds from throughout the state included in the Boston Public Library’s Tichnor Brothers Inc. Postcard Collection and available on Flickr.

The Thomas J. Dodd Research Center offers several ways to dig deeper into the history of student life at UConn. As a Syracuse basketball fan by marriage I’m not exactly an enthusiast for UConn athletics, but the historian in me is still fascinated by the films of football and basketball games from the 1930s and 1940s digitized by the Dodd Center. You can also browse volumes of Nutmeg, the university yearbook, stretching from 1915-1990. Although the image quality is disappointing and each page features an obtrusive watermark, the yearbooks remain fascinating time capsules. Take a look at the 1970 volume, filled with Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel lyrics, images of antiwar protests, and student organizations like the “Parachute Club,” all coexisting somewhat uncomfortably with more traditional fare like freshman beanies, fraternities, and the ROTC. (And, hey—is that kid holding a vuvuzela?)

Down in New Haven, meanwhile, is Yale University, which I’ve called home for the past four years. If you’d prefer a sense of the daily pace of student life, the Yale Library Digital Collections allow you to browse and search past issues of the Yale Daily News dating from 1878 to 1992.

But given its history as a “Model City” for urban renewal programs after World War II, New Haven also provides a window onto the broader history of U.S. cities in the twentieth century. Yale experts helped to make New Haven’s urban renewal policies, and Yale scholars and its libraries have since helped to document those policies’ often-tragic results.  For a multimedia introduction to the history, have a look at Life in the Model City: Stories of Urban Renewal in New Haven, a digital exhibit combining text, images, and oral history recordings. Then continue on to the Yale Library’s Historical New Haven Digital Collection, which allows you to browse images by neighborhood, as well as maps and a compendium of census and other demographic data. (Much of it seems to be the primary sources gathered by Douglas W. Rae for his 2003 study City: Urbanism and Its End.) Here, for instance, is a before-and-after image of the Oak Street neighborhood, bulldozed and replaced by a highway, and another celebrating the construction of the Elm Haven public housing project in the Dixwell neighborhood near Yale’s campus (which has since been demolished to make way for new townhouse-style homes).

Connecticut History Online also furnishes fully-searchable access to many more images from the files of the New Haven Redevelopment Agency—a fantastic teaching tool.

If that all isn’t enough, in two years, the Connecticut Humanities Council will launch another digital resource for exploring the state’s history, the Encyclopedia of Connecticut History Online (ECHO).  Until it debuts in 2012, you can follow the compilers’ progress and sample some of the content at their blog, ECHO Underway.

Yours in steady habits,

Brian Distelberg

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Dear catnappers,

My first semester in college, in an effort to stymie all academic progress, one of my suitemates unveiled an aging Nintendo console along with a cache of video game cartridges. Mind you, this was 1999, at which point the original Nintendo—a not-very-sexy gray box—was decidedly outdated. It was hardly unusual, for instance, to walk into the common room and find a friend hunched over, blowing into console, then the cartridge, then the console, as though giving mouth to mouth, just to get the damn think working again. Despite these low-tech troubles, however, I think we all felt a nostalgic thrill playing games like Castlevania and Super Mario Bros, sort of like revisiting your old elementary school (“I can’t believe how small everything is!”) Most things I remember from early childhood tend towards the traumatic—my first visit to the hospital, my first day of summer camp—but I can vividly recall the marvel I felt the first time I saw someone play Nintendo. And still I don’t quite understand how that Duck Hunt gun works.

The Internet, of course, was practically invented for nostalgic pleasures like these. So it’s no surprise to find a wealth of Nintendo-related material online. For starters, there’s the Nintendo Game Archive where you can view screenshots of everything from A Boy and His Blob to Zombie Nation Samurai. You can even view the game boxes, like this one from Zelda II.

Even more evocatively, you can listen to music from countless Nintendo games at the Video Game Music Archive. Just listen to the victory music from Super Mario Bros and tell me your heart doesn’t race just a little bit.

Not all Nintendo touched turned to gold, of course. Long before the Wii, there was the power pad (Dance Aerobics anyone?) and, this ad reminds me, a robot that, as far as I remember, did nothing.  (YouTube’s Irate Gamer offers a more nuanced historical view on “R.O.B.” as he was known .) My mother and father deserve credit for buying us only the most basic system.

Before Nintendo, my brother and I did manage with another game system—our beloved Atari, which was, in its own way, groundbreaking. How groundbreaking you ask? Groundbreaking enough to warrant its own magazine, now digitized over at Atari Age. The graphics, needless to say, looked nothing like those pictured on this cover. But we were skilled in the art of imagination! And where else could you find answers to questions like these? “Dear Atari Club, I have learned that on Space Invaders if you hold down the reset button at the same time as the power switch is being turned on, your laser cannon will fire double. My question is, will this hurt either my space invaders cartridge or my Atari console unit?” (The answer: it would!) New York magazine on the other hand saw fit to ask this question, “Can Atari Stay Ahead of the Game?” (The answer: it couldn’t!)

Alas, I have left video gaming behind, but the memories linger on. And my hand-eye coordination is better than it might otherwise be.

Yours playfully,

Stephen

P.S. Check out videos from the Nintendo-“inspired” cartoon series Captain N the Game Master.

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To the Vitamin-D-deprived,

Last year, Norman Podhoretz, neocon pioneer and Commentary editor from 1960 to 1995, published the tauntingly titled book Why Are Jews Liberal?. He might have come to different conclusions (or even a subtler question) had he more closely read Michael Staub’s Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America. In that nuanced 2002 study, Staub skillfully untangles the complex and fierce political debates that divided Jewish communal leaders and intellectuals from the 1940s into the 70s and 80s, whether over the “Jewishness” of social radicalism, the connections between Zionism and the civil rights movement, or the impact of the sexual revolution.

Staub, professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY, is also the author of  Voices of Persuasion: Politics of Representation in 1930s America (1994), and the editor of the indispensable sourcebook The Jewish 1960s, a collection of readings ranging from the Holocaust to Soviet Jewry.

What projects, large or small, academic or non-academic, are you working on now? And/or what projects have you recently completed?
I am now finishing a book, Madness is Civilization: When the Diagnosis was Social, 1948-1980, to be published by the University of Chicago Press sometime late in 2011. It’s an intellectual and cultural history of anti-psychiatry in the postwar U.S., with chapters on the roots of anti-psychiatry already in the 1940s and 1950s, on the work and influence of R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman and Thomas Szasz in the 1960s, and on radical and feminist therapy and popular psychology in the 1970s.

What non-digital resource would you recommend
The guide to the Underground Press Collection.

What digital resource would you recommend?
The Chadwyck Periodicals Archive Online Collection.

What is the best research or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Turn your problems into your solutions. When you run into interpretive difficulties, use that as a clue to the more complex argument you need to be making.

What was the inspiration behind your dissertation?
The inspiration for my dissertation began with a class I never took. While an undergraduate at Hampshire College, Prof. Barry O’Connell (at Amherst) mentioned to me a course he had offered the year before on Depression-era culture. I asked for the syllabus. Some years later as a grad student in American Civilization at Brown, I developed my own undergraduate seminar on the Great Depression based on Barry’s class. This in turn led to my teaching Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book I had not previously read. The students may have been baffled, but I was totally intrigued. And I started to formulate my dissertation on documentary and ethnographic expression during the 1930s and writers’ struggles to experiment with form and style to convey to readers the perspectives of the dispossessed.

What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
No good can come from trying to hit a moving target. Do not begin a project by thinking about what the marketplace can bear—or what might sell. By the time the manuscript is done and ready for publication, all will have moved on and changed.

How does your teaching connect to your research?
I teach literature and writing in an undergraduate English program, but my research is in American history. In many respects, I consider myself fortunate to be able to move between different disciplines when I teach and when I write. Occasionally there is overlap, for example when I had the chance to co-teach a course on Holocaust history and literature, and was able to draw on Torn at the Roots—which reperiodizes the evolution of Holocaust consciousness in America—and The Jewish 1960s.

What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, an early classic of the New Journalism and a remarkable retelling of the American twentieth century. It’s also an oral history, a fact-based literary genre with which I have long been fascinated.

What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?
John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man, a chillingly plausible account of a person subjected to what euphemistically is known as extraordinary rendition.

What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?
A lack of passion.

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