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Archive for the ‘visual culture’ Category

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

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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 deadline dodgers,

Regular readers may have noticed my online output has slowed lately, for which I can only blame the short days, the rainy weather, and that fine art some call “dissertating.” Alas, in my delinquency, I missed a chance to offer a Black History Month missive—so I hope you’ll accept this belated attempt.

One of the most vivid records of the African-American past come through studio photography—posed portraits of men and women, often donning their finest suits and dresses. The Duke University Library, for one, holds the beautiful collection of Michael Francis Blake, who opened shop in Baltimore in 1912. The majority of his subjects are now unknown, like the woman on the left who posed in Blake’s studio, and the man on the right, who posed outside.

The Smithsonian, meanwhile, has a striking archive of black D.C. photographer Addison Scurlock. Most of his images come from later decades, and hint at both improvements in photographic technology and in African-American status.  Here are two photographs circa 1940, on the left, one of Sergeant Eddie Gibson, on the right, one of Mrs. Lucretia Guy on the right.

 

One would have to do a closer investigation to see if Blake and Scurlock’s photographs feel more intimate, more knowing, than those of some of his white contemporaries. How did the power dynamics shift, the conversations in the studio change? Case in point, University of Virginia’s digital archive of portraits by white photographer Rufus Holsinger’s work. It includes hundreds of images of African-Americans from Charlottesville and the vicinity, throughout the nineteen-teens, like the two below.

George S. Cook, meanwhile, picked up photography and then taught it to many others throughout the late nineteenth-century South. He would later buy many of his students’ negative, eventually amassing thousands. Virginia Commonwealth University’s Through the Lens of Time puts his collection of African-American portraits on view. They are not not without moral ambiguity. Some of the photographs seem to delight in validating stereotypes, like this one of a boy hugging a watermelon.  Yet others seem intensely vivid, like the one below of a boy in a patchwork hat. The names and identities of the photographers, like their subjects, have since been lost, leaving the images alone to speak for them.Until next time, I remain yours tardily,

Stephen

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Dear leisure suit lovers,

It’s here again, everyone’s favorite Hallmark holiday, Valentine’s Day, a chance for singles to moan and couples to glow (and sometimes gloat). Where might we find traces of this hallowed festival in the digital archive? Well, friends, I’m glad you asked. Today we turn to the Notable Women of Simmons Scrapbook Collection, which includes among its many clippings a handful of sweet, and sometimes silly, declarations of love.

My favorite may be the scrapbook of Daisie Miller Helyar, a Vermont native who attended the women’s college from 1906-1910 and later became a librarian. The exhibit includes an excellent essay on the origins of Valentine’s Day, and also provides a remarkable window into the social life of young, educated women in the early twentieth century. The curators note, for one thing, that “most, if not all” of the Valentine cards  in Daisie’s scrapbook likely came not from her future husband but her friends. Below, you can read one love poem Daisie received.

As Carroll Smith-Rosenberg showed in her classic 1975 essay, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” romantic friendships between women were common in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. You can view two more below, and the rest here.


Not everyone, of course, made cards by hand. For some vintage mass-produced Valentines , head over to the handsome Hearts Atwirl website and the Vintage Valentine Museum.

Before I sign off, just one more recommendation: Jessica Helfand’s Scrapbooks: An American History, an extraordinary reading of the art of scrapbooking including countless beautiful reproductions. It just goes to show, sometimes only a book will do. Until then, you can check out Helfand’s website here.

Lovingly yours,

Stephen

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To the relaxation-inclined,

Like many people, my first exposure to theater came not from any Broadway house but the humbler stages of our local high school. Trust me, you haven’t seen Fiddler on the Roof until you’ve seen my brother in his walk-on-role as a priest! Or Twelve Angry Men performed by twelve not angry so much as angsty boys—in the round!

I’m happy to say, my theatrical horizons have expanded considerably since then, from the mainstream to the avant-garde, Broadway to the Edinburgh Fringe. And while we can rarely  go back and see a live performance once it’s over, thanks to the digital archive, we can see what the actors wore, and what their sets looked like.

Mordecai Gorelik, for one, designed sets for the famed Group Theatre, and eventually Hollywood. Over at the CARLI Digital Collections, you can view many of his drawings, including this one from the 1925 modernist play Processional. Take a look, too, at Miami University’s Randy Barceló Collection, featuring drawings by the Cuban-born costume designer behind Jesus Christ Superstar, and many lesser known productions. Below are two costumes he created for a 1994 ballet ¡Si Señor! ¡Es Mi Son!, produced by New York’s Ballet Hispanico. I’d like to see the folks on Project Runway attempt these.


Last but not least, the Motley Collection from U. of Illinois includes many costume and set designs from New York theater, throughout the twentieth century. The image on the left comes from a production of Romeo and Juliet, on the right from Paint Your Wagon.

Sartorially yours,

Stephen

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My distractable friends,

I must admit, proverbs be damned, that I’m often lured to a book by a well-designed dust jacket, even a carefully chosen font. So for today’s entry, why not spotlight some resources on the artistry of book covers?

For starters, take a look at the University of Colorado’s Publishers’ Binding Collection, featuring over 1400 cloth book covers from the late 1800s to the early 1900s (even if the interface is somewhat wonky). In clockwise order from top left: America and the Americans from a French Point of View, (1897), Children of the Tenements (1905), How to Know Oriental Rugs (1908), and Bobby and Betty at Play (1927).

Paperback lovers will also want to check out the George Kelley Paperback and Pulp Fiction Collection at the University of Buffalo. You can browse hundreds of covers here, from (clockwise) the creepy (An Earthman on Venus from 1951) to the steamy (Everybody Does It from 1949), the classic (Fahrenheit 451) to the forgotten (The Real Cool Killers).

Happy browsing.

Yours compulsively,

Stephen

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