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Dear weekend awaiters,

This is the second installment of a new Lazy Scholar feature, pairing news items with historical archives.

Slate‘s TV Club is diligently following and debating the new season of Mad Men. If you haven’t watched (is that possible?), it’s a 60s scholar’s dream, with carefully reconstructed interior design, fashion, and, yes, language. A few weeks back, Ben Zimmer at the New York Times Magazine offered an inside look at the writers’ efforts to keep the dialogue historically accurate. Scholars of advertising and consumerism, of course, will be thrilled, too, even if the show fictionalizes the origins of many real-life advertising campaigns. Sorry folks, Don Draper did not coin Lucky Strike’s slogan. People were enjoying their “toasted” cigarettes as early as 1919, as this ad shows. Until next Sunday night, you can ponder more of the history behind Mad Men by checking out the beautiful exhibit, The High Art of Photographic Advertisement, thanks to Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. One wonders, were those “Luckies” even more tempting in color?

• Moving on to the big screen, top critics are divided about Eat, Pray, Love, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir about her post-divorce trip to Italy and elsewhere. You can follow the globe-trots of some earlier American women courtesy of  Brigham Young University’s American Travelers in Italy archive, with digitized copies of travelogues by Sophia Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Louisa May Alcott. The Little Women author had this to say about Rome: “Felt as if I had been there before and knew all about it. Always oppressed with a sense of sin, dirt, and general decay of all things.” Not exactly the stuff of summer movies.

• Officials and locals in Louisiana debate whether it’s safe or wise to re-open commercial fishing grounds after the Gulf oil spill. Between 1921 and 1932, LA Department of Wildlife and Fisheries employee Percy Viosca, Jr.,  documented the state’s coasts, and captured many photos of its fishing industry. You can view images like the one below on the Viosca Collection from LSU.

• After much research, McSweeney’s presented the “Editor’s Choice Award” to their favorite “e-Reader”: the Newspaper. It “outclassed its rivals both in terms of size and elasticity” and its “display could be read at full size or, when flipped open, twice its normal width.” Fellow ironical Luddites will enjoy the Library of Congress’s amazing, easy-to-navigate, and free Chronicling America Archive, with searchable copies of newspapers dating from 1860 to 1922, including The Texas Jewish Herald, The Salt Lake Evening Democrat, The Ohio Valley Worker, and the Daily Tombstone of Tombstone, Arizona. Here’s a look at some beachfront fashions from a 1916 issue of the New York Herald-Tribune, “an afternoon gown of black silk.”

• Speaking of fashion, this just in: Urban Outfitters’s fall catalog was shot entirely in and around my adopted summer home, Northampton, Massachusetts. Have the grounds of Smith ever looked so co-ed? You can download the catalog here. And you can see historical images of Smith here, thanks to the college’s library. Below, some ladies play leapfrog on the ice for the Sophomore Carnival of 1922.

That’s all for this week dear readers.

Yours currently,

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 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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Dear New Years TV marathon viewers,

If you wondering when your local cafe, supermarket, and shopping mall would stop playing “Santa Baby,” rest assured: Christmas is almost here!  Though my own family is Jewish, the holiday still holds so many sweet memories for me: the evening  I gathered all the ornaments given to my mother by her elementary school students and decorated a cardboard box; the year I went to the movies to see Life is Beautiful with my friend Alli and about 35 octogenarians; and yes, the time my family saw a musical version of A Christmas Carol (we won tickets) while my hand swollen from a broken wrist.

Alas, sustained grinching is the most effective way I’ve found to navigate the month-long flood of specials, ads, and jingles that Christmas brings. Somewhere beneath my Scrooge-ish demeanor, I do though have an affection for holiday films like the Muppet Christmas Carol and a larger fascination with a popular culture I do not share. Take for example, the Christmas artifacts in the reliable  Duke Digital Collections. Their Ad Access archive, for one, includes this randy 1943 pitch for war bonds (on the left), and this adorable 1956 ad for Packard-Bell TV sets (on the right).

Over in their Protestant Family Archive you can also check out this 1936 article from The Christian Home by a mother wrestling over whether to tell their children about Santa Claus or not.

For something less expected, surf over to check out the Magnes Museums digitized scrapbook of what was an annual San Francisco event: the Christmas parties held at the Haas Lilienthal House—as the archivist notes, an unusual window into California’s “Jewish aristocracy.” Here are two images from the book below.

And why not surf over to the vast Museum of Broadcast Communications Archives where you can discover the ghosts of Christmas TV past, including a Liberace special and another starring Judy Garland. Yes, that’s one holiday, two gay icons!

On that note, this is the Lazy Scholar signing off for 2009. I’ll return after a short sabbatical on Monday, January 11, 2010! Happy holidays to all, and thank you as always for reading.

Merrily yours,

Stephen

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To my fellow homebodies,

If you, like me, have found yourself reluctantly addicted to FOX’s high school dramedy Glee, then you know that this week’s episode shined its bemused spotlight the show’s wheelchair-riding, background singing Artie Abrams. The character has raised the ire of some disability advocates because he’s played by a nondisabled actor. But what strikes me as far more egregious than the casting is the degree of misguided, even degrading sympathy the episode points Artie’s way. When the glee club hesitates to help raise money for a bus that could accommodate Artie’s wheelchair, the director insists the students “learn a lesson” by using wheelchairs for at least three hours a day, you know, so they can understand what it’s “really” like to be disabled.

artie

This violence of viewing the disabled as “weaker” or “afflicted” is one of the central critiques of the emerging discipline of disability studies. The highlight of the episode, for me anyway, was an early sequence where Artie wheels around the high school singing Billy Idol’s “Dancin’ With Myself.” (Watch the clip for yourself here.) What makes the scene so surprisingly sublime is the way the boundary between body and apparatus blur, much in the way Petra Kuppers describes in her wonderful essay, “The Wheelchair’s Rhetoric” (you can download it here, with the kind permission of Professor Kuppers.) Artie’s joyful ability to dance within and with his wheelchair (thanks in part to stunt double and wheelchair athlete Aaron Fotheringham) begins to expose the pernicious norms inherent in the very term “disabled” and re-cast Artie as an artist, much more so than the wheelchair minstrelsy that ends the episode.

All of which I say by way of introducing a valuable resource for the digitally-inclined: The Disability History Museum. The archive includes both documents and images, like the 1933 advertisement below.

You can also read an 1863 article from Scientific American, The Great Lilliputian Wedding,” noting the marriage of the performing pair Charles S. Stratton, a.k.a. “General Tom Thumb,” and Lavinia Warren. As the author dimly advocates, “It is generally admitted, we believe, that these little people have as good a right to marry as the larger folks.”

And be sure to check out this videography of physical disabilities on film from the 1920 silent The Penalty (watch an excerpt here) to 2007’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And for a more political take, listen to the oral histories collected at UC Berkeley’s Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement site.

Until next time.

Sincerely yours,

Stephen

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