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Dear poolside readers,

Believe it or not, before this lazy scholar came to know the pleasures of American Studies, he was a full-fledged Anglicist (or is it Britishist?). Wordsworth, Eliot, Woolf, Forster—I would surely have carried a card if there were one. Don’t worry, I’m not crossing the pond just yet, though I am feeling in a transatlantic mood lately. So I can’t resist sneaking a peak at an archive devoted to a British artifact: the Victorian yellowback, courtesy of Emory’s DiscoverE Database.

A forerunner of the paperback, the cheaply-printed, cheaply-purchased yellowback caught on just as railways were spreading across the country (see the intro to John Plotz’s Portable Property for more on the link for more on this new mobility). The texts included many American works, whose copyrights, a British Library exhibit reveals, were not protected under British law. Too bad for Bret Harte and Mark Twain.

At least one New York firm, though, sensed a marketing opportunity: Beadle & Co., inventor of the dime novel, struck a deal with Routledge to found the “Beadle American Library” to peddle its pulp for the Anglo masses.

The books especially stood out for their lurid covers, like those of Ann Sophia Stephens’s Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter and Esther: A Story of the Oregon Trail.

Apparently, she never met an unlikely heroine she didn’t like. Nor did yellowback readers, to judge by a handful of other covers. If she could be thrown onto the frontier, all the better.

To be fair, the British were fascinated by more everyday American concerns, as well. Take for example Jonathan and His Continent, a Toquevillesque travelogue by Max O’Rell (pseudonym for French author Léon Paul Blouet).

Here O’Rell remarks on the literal battle of the sexes:

“If men may not tar and feather a woman, women occasionally give themselves the pleasure of tarring and feathering a man, which shows once more how privileged woman is in America. On the 12th of August, 1887, the editor of a paper in a little town in Illinois had to submit to this ignominious operation at the hands of about five hundred of his townswomen. His crime was that of having spoken cavalierly of the feminine morals of the township.”

Those looking for a good railway read of their own, however, might best be advised to check out Struggles and Triumphs, or the Recollections of P.T. Barnum. Here, Barnum recounts the meeting of Queen Victoria herself and a member of Barnum’s troupe, “General Tom Thumb.”

“Surprise and pleasure were depicted on the countenances of the royal circle at beholding this remarkable specimen of humanity so much smaller than they had evidently expected to find him. The General advanced with a firm step, and, as he came within hailing distance made a very graceful bow, and exclaimed, ‘Good-evening, ladies and gentlemen!’ A burst of laughter followed this salutation. The Queen then took him by the hand, led him about the gallery, and asked him many questions, the answers to which kept the party in an uninterrupted strain of merriment.”

The Butlerian in me want to say something about queerness, disability, and performance, but I will restrain myself. Back to my twenty-first century reading for now.

Yours perusing the paperbacks,

Stephen

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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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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 viewers like you,

The website Snagfilms usually gets pegged as “Hulu for documentaries”—a pretty generous comparison when I think about how many episodes of 30 Rock I’ve watched on our Mac. But while Hulu gives a chance for major TV networks to distribute shows both popular and flagging, Snagfilms shines its spotlight on filmmakers with far less funding and exposure. Most of its documentaries were created in the last ten years, but historians of the recent-but-not-too-recent past will also find ample reasons to browse.

For starters, take a look at Peter Rosen’s beautifully shot 1971 documentary Bright College Years on the student uprisings at Yale in the late 1960s.  It was included in PBS’s “Sixties Legacy” series, first aired in 1979—suggesting just how quickly the decade was commemorated and mourned.

Nick Broomfield’s Tattooed Tears from 1978, meanwhile, provides a look at a maximum security juvenile correctional facility in California. And for something completely different, check out Broomfield’s wry documentary about the British class system, 1973’s Proud to Be British.

The archive also includes some fascinating (if sometimes slow) profiles of artists, including Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Sellers, and Orson Welles. The oddest of these by far, however, is Henry Miller Asleep and Awake, a 1975 tour of the famed novelist’s bathroom. Yes. His bathroom, covered with photographs of every subject from “maniacs to whores.” In other words, what you would more or less expect from the author of Tropic of Cancer. As Miller explains, “People often come in here and get lost. They’re in here for, I don’t know how long, and I imagine maybe something happened, that they got constipated or something. But it isn’t that of course. They get fascinated with these pictures.” A little like looking at Jung’s Red Book.

Just two more for your weekend viewing: See what happens when a 7th grade class establishes its own imaginary country in 1979’s The Ruling Classroom. And for all you Internet addicts, see what happens when three college students give up their computers for three weeks in 2008’s Disconnected.

Digitally yours,

Stephen

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