To the Vitamin-D-deprived,
Last year, Norman Podhoretz, neocon pioneer and Commentary editor from 1960 to 1995, published the tauntingly titled book Why Are Jews Liberal?. He might have come to different conclusions (or even a subtler question) had he more closely read Michael Staub’s Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America. In that nuanced 2002 study, Staub skillfully untangles the complex and fierce political debates that divided Jewish communal leaders and intellectuals from the 1940s into the 70s and 80s, whether over the “Jewishness” of social radicalism, the connections between Zionism and the civil rights movement, or the impact of the sexual revolution.
Staub, professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY, is also the author of Voices of Persuasion: Politics of Representation in 1930s America (1994), and the editor of the indispensable sourcebook The Jewish 1960s, a collection of readings ranging from the Holocaust to Soviet Jewry.
What projects, large or small, academic or non-academic, are you working on now? And/or what projects have you recently completed?
I am now finishing a book, Madness is Civilization: When the Diagnosis was Social, 1948-1980, to be published by the University of Chicago Press sometime late in 2011. It’s an intellectual and cultural history of anti-psychiatry in the postwar U.S., with chapters on the roots of anti-psychiatry already in the 1940s and 1950s, on the work and influence of R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman and Thomas Szasz in the 1960s, and on radical and feminist therapy and popular psychology in the 1970s.
What non-digital resource would you recommend
The guide to the Underground Press Collection.
What digital resource would you recommend?
The Chadwyck Periodicals Archive Online Collection.
What is the best research or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Turn your problems into your solutions. When you run into interpretive difficulties, use that as a clue to the more complex argument you need to be making.
What was the inspiration behind your dissertation?
The inspiration for my dissertation began with a class I never took. While an undergraduate at Hampshire College, Prof. Barry O’Connell (at Amherst) mentioned to me a course he had offered the year before on Depression-era culture. I asked for the syllabus. Some years later as a grad student in American Civilization at Brown, I developed my own undergraduate seminar on the Great Depression based on Barry’s class. This in turn led to my teaching Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book I had not previously read. The students may have been baffled, but I was totally intrigued. And I started to formulate my dissertation on documentary and ethnographic expression during the 1930s and writers’ struggles to experiment with form and style to convey to readers the perspectives of the dispossessed.
What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
No good can come from trying to hit a moving target. Do not begin a project by thinking about what the marketplace can bear—or what might sell. By the time the manuscript is done and ready for publication, all will have moved on and changed.
How does your teaching connect to your research?
I teach literature and writing in an undergraduate English program, but my research is in American history. In many respects, I consider myself fortunate to be able to move between different disciplines when I teach and when I write. Occasionally there is overlap, for example when I had the chance to co-teach a course on Holocaust history and literature, and was able to draw on Torn at the Roots—which reperiodizes the evolution of Holocaust consciousness in America—and The Jewish 1960s.
What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, an early classic of the New Journalism and a remarkable retelling of the American twentieth century. It’s also an oral history, a fact-based literary genre with which I have long been fascinated.
What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?
John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man, a chillingly plausible account of a person subjected to what euphemistically is known as extraordinary rendition.
What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?
A lack of passion.