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Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

Dear obsessive Netflix queue updaters,

I went to San Francisco last week to do some research at a couple of non-digital archives—you know, the kind with actual, physical papers and books—but spent much of my time wondering what my life would be like on the west coast. Would I indulge in olive oil ice cream everyday? Teach in HistCon? Overcome my fear of driving on steep hills? What made Californians different from the Brooklynites and Bostonians  I’ve known?

My on-the-ground research remains inconclusive—one person described liberal Californians as passive-aggressive, in contrast to plain-old aggressive New Yorkers—but my digital research promises more answers, thanks to the archives of Sunset. As explained by historian Kevin Starr in this nice Stanford exhibit, the periodical eventually known as “the magazine of Western living” was founded in 1898 by the Southern Pacific Railroad in hopes of attracting the upper classes. To the right, you can see the cover of the first issue, beckoning readers beyond Yosemite. (Check out many more cover images on the Stanford site here.) Thanks to the ever-resource-full Internet Archive, as well as Google Books and the Harvard archives, you can also read some of those early volumes. The June 1900 issue featured, for instance, the sonnet “Before the Twilight Comes” by San Francisco accountant and lawyer John Franklin Forbes:

When down the flaming causeway of the west
The regal sun, refulgent in the gleam
Of sacred fire and the paler beam
That reaches into nothingness in quest
Of laggard eve, is passing to his rest,
And in his wake, like babbling of some stream,
Or soft, uncadenced voices of a dream,
Sound murmurs of the gentle night wind’s guest.

Then ere the tides grow dark as they flow in,
A blush of gold comes rippling down the bay
To kiss the Berkeley hills, and o’er Marin
A purple vapor veils each mountain height
For a brief while—then slowly fades away
Within the dusky coverlet of night.

Perhaps it’s a good thing Forbes left poetry behind to teach accounting and auditing at Berkeley. On the more serious side, the magazine also featured Mary Edith Griswold’s first-hand account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and its aftermath. One of the more stirring moments from her narrative: “As we stopped on Stockton street to watch a toppling-wall I found myself next an old colored man. As he spoke I recognized in him the negro exhorter. I had sometimes listened when he was holding forth from his open-air platforms. Now he was exclaiming: ‘Haven’t I prophesied all this? Haven’t I told you this wicked town would be consumed with fire and brimstone? But now I’m sorry I spoke.'”

By 1914, the Pacific Railway decided to get out of the magazine biz, but as Starr points out, the magazine had already outlived its early promotional goals, publishing famous and soon-to-be-famous writers including Sinclair Lewis, Damon Runyon (read one of his poems here), and Jack London.

Another major shift came in 1929 when the magazine was purchased by publishing mogul Larry Lane and his wife, who expanded the focus of the magazine to include the Great Indoors. This new attention towards the home may best be revealed by two of the covers from the thirties, below.

That decade also saw the release of the first Sunset cookbook, the All-Western Cook Book by Genevieve Callahan, available on the Internet Archive and on Google. Honestly, who had time to worry about the Great Depression when you were preparing artichoke soufflé? As Callahan exhorted, “Don’t let yourself fall into the routine of cooking just a few old familiar vegetables! Explore! Experiment!” Irony aside, I have to say, I love this illustration of a fashionable lady buying vegetables from an ambiguously ethnic market man.

As far as I can tell from this brief browse, the Western ethos according to Sunset hasn’t changed much since then. The current issue still features awe-struck memoirs of trips to the wilderness, delectable recipes, gardening tips. But then again, so does the New York Times. If anything, it seems the West Coast no longer has much of a hold on Western living after all.

That’s what I’m telling myself anyway.

Yours escaping the Massachusetts humidity,

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 searchers of lost time,

Some of you might know that I have an odd fascination with the state guide project commissioned by the WPA during the Great Depression—a series of guidebooks detailing the history, customs, and sights of each and every corner of the nation. The guidebooks vary widely in quality, yet they remain intriguing for me precisely because of their diversity, written at a moment before a national media fully took hold and initiated the long process of homogenizing American culture.

The effort to resurrect the state as a vital component of American identity is what has long charmed me about the singer Sufjan Steven’s 50 States Project—a half-joking vow to record an album of folksy, glockenspiel-rich songs for each state. So far he’s only gotten around to Michigan and Illinois, though some songs have touched down in New York and Arkansas.

But how did, and how does, the American state exist in popular imagination? In an effort to answer this question, I’d like to introduce a new ongoing feature of these dispatches: The Divided States of America. Many digital archives are, in fact, limited to individual states (as are many historical works), so it seems to make sense to identify some archives particularly useful to a scholar of, say, Wyoming. Plus  I’m curious to see whether Missouri ultimately has a different vibe than Utah. Consider it a road trip, without traffic or smelly rest stops.

Today, I’ll head south of Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. I’ve been there only a few times in my life—once to Philadelphia, once to Pittsburgh, once to Sesame Place (I was four!), and once to Scranton for a wedding (plus the thrill of The Office connection). Villanova University‘s library has a small but impressive “Pennsylvaniana” collection, including a book of Pennsylvania poetry. Here’s one verse you might not have learned in grade school: “Hail Pennsylvania!/Noble and strong,/ To thee with loyal hearts/We raise our song./Swelling to Heaven loud,/ Our praises ring;/ Hail Pennsylvania!/Of thee we sing.”

Or check out the delightful illustrations from the 1875 book, Philadelphia and Its Environs (here’s one image on the right). Or a portrait album published by Philadelphia’s own Puglistic Publishing Company.

Also be sure to visit the (somewhat clunky) Life in Western PA photography and film collection, including the Stephen Shore-ish shot to the left of a 1970s ice cream shop.

U. of Pittsburgh’s library also has some amazing digital collections including one of Pittsburgh Public Schools. Take a look at these two spectacular images: on the left, the 1969 Westinghouse High School Ninth Grade Fashion Show; on the right, a teaching moment at Kauffman’s department store in 1972 (click images for more info).

Forecast and Company - ED Mag Fashion Show at Kaufmann's

That’s all for today. Look for two holiday posts later this week!

Yours in local pride,

Stephen

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