Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

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.

Read Full Post »

To the holiday-cheerful,

Today’s post comes to you from a very special guest, someone who can speak with far more authority about Easter than I ever could (and far more irony than I would ever dare), Mollie Wilson O’Reilly. Mollie is an associate editor of Commonweal Magazine, and blogs at Restricted View. You may have also caught her writing in The Village Voice, Nextbook.org, and Television Without Pity. 

“The child of today will probably remember Easter as a sort of minor Christmas,” proclaimed this Life magazine article from 1939. “Easter today is second to Christmas as toy-buying time.”

Growing up a Catholic kid in the 1980s, I was reminded by my teachers every year that Easter is really the most important Christian holiday. Kids need to be told this because, in terms of secular hoopla (and toy-buying), Easter is a “minor Christmas” at best. For religiously motivated joy, you can’t beat it, but the consumer side of Eastertide never quite took off.

The failure to make a second Xmas out of Easter was not for lack of trying, as a perusal of Google’s online archive of midcentury Life magazines will show. Easter-themed advertising pops up every spring. Clothing gets a big push—gotta look good for that parade!—as do Whitman’s chocolates (right: “A woman never forgets the man who remembers”) and seasonal foods like Armour ham. (Or just ham in general.)

Then there are the less obvious seasonal tie-ins, like this ad for—well, see how long it takes you to figure it out: “Bright Easter finery. A smart Easter hat. Gay Easter flowers. It’s every woman’s right to glow with pride in the Easter parade. And, it’s no woman’s wish to go home and spend the rest of the day in the kitchen. There’s a hint for husbands here. Take the family out for dinner—where they have Wurlitzer music.”

Phonographs! Of course.

The 1939 article about the thriving Easter toy market referred to “bunnies that have grown to monstrous sizes” as a particularly popular treat. I think that phrasing really gets to the heart of what’s wrong with the commercial side of Easter in our culture: the total failure of imagination that is the Easter Bunny. Our Santa Claus legend is pretty solid: We know what he looks like, where he lives, what he does. But when it comes to the Easter Bunny, all we really know is that he’s an overgrown rabbit who delivers eggs and/or candy. But where does he come from? Where does he get the eggs? What, if anything, does he wear? And isn’t the whole idea sort of, well, frightening?

In 1939, as far as Life was concerned, the Easter Bunny was a Continental oddity. “In Europe, the hare is considered a sort of St. Nick who comes at night to leave colored eggs for good children,” the article above explains. But by 1947, E.B. is on the scene in America—and judging from this ad for Listerine toothpaste, he may or may not have genie-like powers: “If the Easter bunny could grant one wish, about your child’s appearance, you’d be wise to choose a friendly, radiant smile! However, if you don’t believe in the Easter bunny, and do believe in Oral Hygiene…”

A Life photographer caught these brothers (left) confronting the Bunny in Los Angeles in 1947: “To startled, half-frightened Christopher, older brother Peter explained the Easter legend. Enormous bunnies like this mysteriously appear every Easter, leave brightly colored eggs in hidden places and, just as mysteriously, disappear.” That is certainly not *the* Easter legend, but I’m not even sure it counts as *an* Easter legend. Are there really multiple Easter Bunnies?

Along with widespread uncertainty about what, exactly, the E.B. does, there is our collective failure to figure out what he should look like. In the meantime, we keep scaring children with giant rabbit costumes—a tradition that dates back at least to the 1950s, as you can see in photos from the University of Southern California’s digital library. This one below, from the 1958 Beverly Hills Easter Parade, is captioned “nineteen-months-old Mary Lee Anderson…cries as she is surrounded by three Easter Bunnies who jumped off float to greet little girls.” Can you blame her?

Pamela Schmidt, the “Easter Seal Sweetheart” of 1958 (below) held up much better when she came face to face with the Easter Bunny and the March Hare (I wonder if she could tell which was which?), while these little Los Angelenos, ca. 1951, look happy to be posing with their baskets, and no bunnies in sight.

Nobody sends Easter cards anymore, but considering the kinds of cards people used to send, that may not be such a bad thing. The University of Louisville’s Newton Owen Postcard collection has a large collection of Easter greetings from the earlier decades of the twentieth century, most featuring anthropomorphized animals that have grown to monstrous sizes. And what could be more monstrous than “two chickens in human clothing”?

Sometimes the chickens are beasts of burden, as in this image, captioned “woman in a chariot drawn by three very large chicks.” (Or perhaps it’s just an abnormally small woman?)

 

Many of these images have military overtones, perhaps in relation to the Great War. In some, uniformed rabbit soldiers bring you Easter wishes, astride their sturdy chickens:

But at other times the rabbits are the beasts of burden, and the chicks their masters:

Whimsy may be the intent, but I find these illustrations slightly nightmarish. And none gives me the willies more than this “Loving Easter Greeting,” which depicts a chick roasting eggs over a stove. Is this proof that “Suicide Food” is not a recent phenomenon? Please note that the person who sent this card back in 1911 scrawled “This is I” across the apron of the cannibal chick. Loving Easter Greetings indeed!

Yours in waiting for the Easter Bunny,

Mollie

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »