This Department features reviews and summaries of new books that link history and current events. From time to time we also feature essays that highlight publishing trends in various fields related to history.
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It may well be a universal dilemma for individuals to want the benefits of privilege in a society without the burden of guilt and doubt they engender in oneself, and the skepticism and resentment they engender among others. Whether or not this dilemma is universal, it certainly is widespread in the United States, a nation founded, in part, on the premise that all men are created equal. And nowhere is it more acute than among children of privilege, who almost by definition cannot have earned any benefits they enjoy (any more than children are responsible for the burdens they endure).
But children, no less than adults, are prone to close cognitive dissonances of this type with various strategies of rationalization. Anatomizing them lies at the heart of Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández's The Best of the Best. Gaztambide-Fernández spent two years at the fictively named"Weston School" (reminiscent of Phillips Andover Academy or one of its peers), shadowing its students in an anthropologically-minded piece of field research that included focus groups, surveys, interviews with faculty and staff, and sitting in on classes and other school events. Though his research was commissioned by Weston, the book also grew out of Gaztambide-Fernández's doctoral work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While there were inevitably limits on what he could see or say, the book in any case is no unvarnished endorsement.
The key concept in Gaztambide-Fernández's analysis, which he unveils in his introduction, is that of a"discourse of distinction" that shapes the students' view of themselves. As he explains, distinction has two meanings here: a presumably neutral denotation of sorting (as in a group of students who stand separate from a general population) as well as a more normative denotation of ranking (as in those who are distinguished by virtue of particular talents of achievements). Both definitions, however, at least imply a sense of hierarchy, and Weston students apply both to themselves.
In terms of the former, Westonians are collectively defined by their membership in the student body. This membership is understood in five dimensions that Gaztambide-Fernández calls"the five E's: exclusion (in terms of admission); engagement (in terms of rigor); excellence (in terms of talent); entitlement (in terms of privilege); and envisioning (in terms of future prospects). At any given time or in any given way, a Weston student will invoke one or more of these categories to understand their presence at the school. What they tend not to do, the author explains, is reference the class, race, or other forms of privilege that are typically prerequisites for their future achievement, whether in the form of parents who have boarding school backgrounds themselves or the financial resources to underwrite their educations. Very often, he notes, the students assert that the choice to attend was largely theirs.
In any case, this is only part of the discourse of distinction. Another axis is the way the students subdivide themselves once their within"the Weston bubble." Here a series of hierarchies define the students' sense of themselves in domains that Gaztambide-Fernández calls"'the three spheres of experience': the sphere of work, the social sphere, and the sphere of intimacy." It's at this point that we enter a relatively familiar sociological landscape of jocks, beautiful people, nerds, and so on, with the partial qualifier that Weston and its ilk tend to offer more status for intellectual achievement than most schools do (though few students are comfortable defining themselves solely on academic terms). Gaztambide-Fernández literally diagrams the spatial relationships, noting that space itself, literal as well as figurative, is crucial to what it means to have an elite education: there's always something, or somewhere, you can go to find the sense of distinction that you crave.
There is a another dynamic at work here, and that is the way that outside identity politics function as third axis of experience. Financial aid recipients lack the economic resources of their peers, but seek psychic prestige by virtue of their talents. Students of color are seen, and often see themselves, as enriching the social climate of the school -- it's not so much as they experience diversity as it is that they are diversity. Students who depart from gender norms are tolerated, though not embraced. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, for their part, continue to function as the baseline norm. Students alternately uphold and lament these dynamics of their identities, which have tended to remain relatively stable.
Toward the end of the book, Gaztambide-Fernández quotes a student who aptly encapsulates the presumed logical result of this complex process:"You may have been like, the world-class pianist at your last school, but it doesn't matter here, because there's probably another one just like it. And so, when you come out of here, you don't have that special something that, like, distinguishes you from the rest. Yet you know that you're special, just because of everything that you do." You got in because you're special, and you're even more special because you got in (and out).
This is, of course, tautological reasoning. And after a while, it gets tiresome, even in what is a short book. Partly that's because these are adolescents talking, some presumably as young as 14 years old. Gaztambide-Fernández does not really take this developmental vector into account, perhaps because many of these students are articulate even when they're naive. But it's also because the author's frame of reference gets a little too narrow. He listens long and hard to the students' necessarily uninformed speculation as to why they were admitted, for example, but does little -- even with the boilerplate explanations that are surely available -- to explore what the people charged with the responsibility of choosing them have to say on the subject.
Moreover, some of the more striking aspects of the book come less from the author's findings than the fact that he finds them so. Noting the various kinds of social inequality that are reproduced in the school, he asserts that "this unequal distribution of distinction [emphasis his] underscores and perhaps strengthens the status hierarchies in the broader society, pointing to at least one way boarding schools are implicated in the perpetration of social inequality." At least one way? Why would it not be obvious, in institutions that discriminate on the basis of intelligence, wealth, and lineage -- a word we tend not to use but which accurately describes legacy preference -- that there are many ways?
This is not a rhetorical question. Actually, one of the more remarkable aspects of liberal thinking about elite educational institutions is a seemingly widespread assumption that social equality is somehow the goal. But it is not, has never been, nor can such institutions afford -- literally or figuratively -- to ever be, whether or not they're"need blind." It is true that they do offer avenues for advancement for people who could otherwise not attain it through typical channels. But that's less because this is a core mission than because without such hedging the sense of resentment they'd generate would threaten their internal as well as external viability. They want to see themselves, and be seen by others, as creators of opportunity. But they need to be sustainers of a ruling class to maintain their power, partly sustained by limited infusions of outside talent. That talent needs to adopt to the ruling class (even if a healthy ruling class evolves over time), not the other way around. Indeed, successfully grappling with such frictions is part of what defines a talented youth.
Elite students, and the adults who supervise their educations, lose sight of the larger social purpose they serve at their peril, and the peril of the societies over which they preside. Their presence at the Westons of the world is not finally about their"merit" or their comfort. It's about what they will ultimately contribute to the civilization that made them possible: not whether their admission was justified, but whether they will justify their admission. Those who lose sight of this truth will forfeit any legitimacy in their privilege, if not privilege itself, and justly earn the contempt they receive.
SOURCE: HNN ()
Sometimes history turns a corner, and nobody notices. But such was certainly not the case in the fall of 1962, when James Meredith’s ultimately successful integration of the University of Mississippi involved a showdown between state and federal authorities, an on-campus riot featuring tear gas and gunfire, the presence of federal marshals and then federal troops, two fatalities and dozens injured. For a variety of reasons, the whole world was watching as President John Kennedy and Governor Ross Barnett jockeyed for position. The stakes for Meredith himself, the Kennedy administration, the burgeoning civil rights movement, and the South’s diehard segregationists couldn’t have been higher.
Yet today, almost 50 years later, the event is usually relegated to a paragraph or two in history textbooks, and although there have been some fine journalistic accounts—William Doyle’s “An American Insurrection” (2001) is probably the best—it has received relatively little scholarly attention. Until the last year or so, that is. In 2009, Charles Eagles, a historian at the University of Mississippi, published “The Price of Defiance,” a lengthy, detailed, authoritative account. Now Frank Lambert, professor of history at Purdue University, offers up a narrative of fewer than 180 pages that is, he says, “written primarily for students.” A part of Oxford’s series on “Critical Historical Encounters,” it is well suited for classroom use and should enable instructors to bring Meredith’s story to the center of the civil rights discussion.
Lambert’s account is commendably strong on context, especially for such a short book. In Part I, “The Mississippi Way,” he begins with chapters on “Growing Up Black in Mississippi” and “Growing Up White in Mississippi,” including stories of how Meredith’s tough-minded, independent father managed to be an example to his son of how a black man could stand up for self-respect even in Mississippi, the most airtight “closed society” in the South. Two more chapters, on black challenges to segregation after World War II and white responses to them, complete the setting of the stage.
Part II, “Confrontation at Ole Miss,” is a tight, tension-filled retelling of the story that readers of previous accounts will recognize. Familiar, well-known characters reappear: the conniving, wavering, self-aggrandizing Governor Barnett, striking heroic poses in public then scheming behind the scenes to save face; the Kennedy brothers, hoping to enforce the courts’ desegregation order without overly antagonizing the South (a futile hope, of course); the bizarre General Edwin Walker, who had commanded federal troops when President Dwight Eisenhower enforced desegregation at Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, now calling on his followers from all over the South to come to Oxford to resist the federal occupation. And, of course, the redoubtable Meredith—quiet, inscrutable, understandably skeptical about the depth of federal commitment, but utterly determined.
Relatively minor, but symbolically significant and analytically useful, figures from the earlier narratives also resurface: Murry Falkner, the novelist’s nephew, and Ross Barnett, Jr., the governor’s son, who follow orders when the National Guard is federalized; Buck Randall, perhaps the toughest player on the Rebels’ nationally-ranked football team, trying desperately to herd his classmates back to their dorms; William Mounger, the businessman who, fearing for the South’s reputation in the outside world, takes to the airwaves on the morning after the riot to plead for calm. White Mississippians all, their behavior suggests that the façade of Southern unity was cracking, that integration would at least be tolerated, if not advocated, by people whose commitment to and definition of the South did not begin and end with segregation.
Adults and young people alike were caught up in this transformation. Lambert’s assertion that this book is not merely “for students,” but “largely about students,” is an exaggeration. (Although he was himself an undergraduate there at the time, and despite the publisher’s implications that this is somehow an insider’s account, this is in no way a memoir.) Lambert focuses mainly on the power players. That said, it should be added that near the end of the book he discusses the range of opinion among student leaders, particularly those, such as editors and writers of student publications, who left a paper trail. And he presents the results of a survey, the “College Characteristic Index,” given to students at the University of Mississippi (and many other schools across the country), which gave Ole Miss students especially low ranking in “esthetic sensitivity, idealism, involvement in the world’s problems and self-analysis.” James Meredith brought the world to their door.
To be sure, it is difficult for historians to observe and assess the invisible process of people, perhaps unconsciously, changing their minds. With Meredith’s enrollment at their state’s flagship university, Mississippians turned the corner and headed—often hesitantly, but irrevocably--into a new future. Lambert’s solid, accessible book will make it possible for a generation of students who can’t imagine how brave Meredith had to be or how big a change he inaugurated to understand how it all happened.
In this most recent title from the University of Illinois Press series Music in American Life, Robert V. Wells, Chauncey H. Winters Professor of History and Social Sciences at Union College in Schenectady, New York, places folk songs within the context of American social history. Wells describes himself as attracted to folk songs through the music of the Weavers which encouraged him to pick up a guitar. Although history rather than music proved to be the career choice for Wells, he discovered that he could incorporate his passion for folk songs into some of his American history lectures. In 1997, the historian was selected for a Fulbright in Denmark, where he developed an elective course on American folk songs and history. After meeting with enthusiastic reviews from his European students, Wells incorporated the folk music course into his teaching load at Union College. The folk music history curriculum provides the foundation for Life Flows On in Endless Song.
Wells employs four criteria to identify folk songs. First, the song has to be transmitted orally, even if it has an identifiable print origin. Wells also insists that folk songs must include a forthright and unaffected style as well as be performed for enjoyment rather than commercial purposes. Finally, folk songs should have a traditional element rooted in the past, but they also should be recognized as evolving in the hands of current performers to address contemporary problems and concerns. Wells concludes, “An essential element of folk songs is that they should grow out of or resonate with the lives of common people. As such, they should address emotions and basic values, helping people get through life by expressing, enhancing, or altering a mood” (8).
This definition leads Wells into a somewhat conservative approach to his subject matter, often associated with more left-wing political movements of the twentieth century. Thus, Wells tends to dismiss some labor organizing songs of the 1930s and 1940s, along with much of the Vietnam War era protest music of the 1960s, as too topical to adequately be described as traditional folk songs. In addition, the qualification that folk songs need to be non-commercial negates the contributions of artists such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen to folk music. Such restrictions also limit the attention given by Wells to such contemporary urban music as hip-hop and rap, which certainly contain a grass-roots element.
On the other hand, Wells certainly does not imply that folk songs are the exclusive property of the white working class. The origin of much folk music in the African-American slave experience is acknowledged by Wells. In fact, Wells uses the work of W. E. B. DuBois to develop how songs from the cotton fields of slavery expressed the sorrow of the black experience and subverted the masters’ depiction of happy and contented laborers. But the continuity of these attitudes into the civil rights era receives less attention from Wells whose history tends to be rooted more in the nineteenth century. In his final chapter, Wells, nevertheless, credits Huddie Ledbetter and Woody Guthrie with combining black and white folk traditions into their lives and music. Wells argues, “Both men were sons of Middle America, with a Southern flavor; both suffered enough hard times for several men, some of it their own making; and both did more to preserve, promote, and expand folk songs in the twentieth century than any other singer-songwriters” (176).
Wells credits Ledbetter and Guthrie with embodying traditional folk values and music which reassured common people during difficult times. This more conservative orientation leads Wells to eschew the more radical implications of critic Greil Marcus that folk songs allowing people “a heretic’s way of saying what never could be said out loud, a mask over a boiling face.” The more subversive aspects of this counter narrative are undermined by Wells’s traditional interpretation of folk music as a way to cope with the vicissitudes of daily life. Wells organizes his volume thematically rather than chronologically, and this approach works in this readable volume--although there is some repetition. Among the key themes examined by Wells are courtship, marriage, and children; religion and patriotism; work and the labor movement; ships, trains, and transportation; migration and separation; and the impact of hard times on hard men, both black and white. Although much of the music provided comfort for those whose loved ones were killed in war or train accidents, as well as warning those preparing their souls for the train to heaven to avoid drink and promiscuity, Wells concludes that there was a hard edge to songs which extolled the social banditry of a Jesse James or the African-American bad man, Stagolee. While most singers were not willing to engage in active resistance, Wells, nevertheless, insists “a pointed song would serve as modest defiance against an all-too-imperfect world” (174).
While one may quibble as to whether Wells adequately conveys the more radical possibilities of folk music, there is little doubt that he has devoted considerable thought to the traditions of English-language folk songs. Wells establishes connections among Captain William Kidd, Stagolee, John Henry, and Jesse James, while providing fresh insights into such traditional folk texts as “Amazing Grace,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” The Ballad of Tom Dooley,” and “Pretty Polly.” Mature readers of Life Flows On in Endless Song will enjoy revisiting the folk songs which Wells is introducing to a younger audience in his Union College classes. Music of the people, whether traditional ballads, contemporary hip-hop, or the corridos of Mexican Americans, offer valuable insights into the way common people live, work, die, and sometimes rebel.
"He is as greedy of cases and precedents as any constitutional lawyer."
--T.H. Huxley on Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, 1859
The fact that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on the same day -- February 12, 1809 -- has long been regarded as a historical curio. In this regard, it's a bit like the famous set of coincidences regarding Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (one was born elected president in 1860, the other 1960; both names had seven letters, both shot on a Friday, et. al.), though never as annoying, because no one has strained to make as much of it. But in Angels and Ages, just issued in paperback by Vintage (and thus giving me an excuse to circle back to it) New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik draws meaningful parallels between Lincoln and Darwin with insight and verve. This is a remarkable little volume.
In a series of alternating essays that look at them individually, framed by a pair that handle them together, Gopnik argues that Darwin and Lincoln did not so much invent as embody the modern liberal conscience, a feat they accomplished largely on the basis of their skills as writers of the best prose of their time. Their method involved a comparable empirical style rooted in careful observation, tight reasoning, and a determination to express themselves with the greatest possible degree of clarity for the broadest possible audience. Their faith involved a confidence in the power of persuasion as an agent of historical change. That this was a faith stemmed from both mens' chastened recognition that they lived in a post-Enlightenment era in which power, interest, and superstition -- not to mention more welcome influences like love -- made it far from evident that reason could prevail in public life or co-exist with a livable private one. That both men grappled with such problems, Gopnik believes, is about as important as their respective solutions. As he says of Darwin but could just as easily say of Lincoln, in a sentence typical of his burnished prose,"His habits of mind -- fairness, popular address, and the annealing of courage with tact -- are worth revering even if scientists abandon or revise half his tenets."
Similar personal circumstances were crucial to the mens' achievements. Darwin was born to wealth at the heart of a global empire, and Lincoln achieved it at the periphery of an emerging one. But both were devoted family men -- and both went through the excruciating experience of losing a child in devoted marriages. In both cases, Gopnik believes, these events were transformational, because in both cases the two figures were confronted with the the experience of personal grief in a context of impersonal death. For Lincoln, of course, it was the Civil War, over which he presided the killing of hundreds of thousands of people. For Darwin, it was the entire realm of biology, in which death -- implacably certain even as evolution was implacably random -- was the defining fact of life.
Their respective lives and careers sent the two men in different psychic directions. Lincoln, ever the skeptic, arrived an idiosyncratic Calvinism in which he saw himself as a blind and chastened instrument of God's will. Darwin, who famously withheld the results of his research for decades, in large measure out of consideration of his wife's religious feelings, surrendered his faith in a teleological God and with it a logic of suffering. And yet, as Gopnik notes,"both gave liberalism a tragic consciousness without robbing it of a hopeful view." That hopeful view -- the notion that a kind of progress is nevertheless possible in improving the existential experience of those live on earth at a given time -- ultimately became a working definition of what liberalism now is. And with it a notion that any definition is a working one, keeping alive the possibility, as science always does, of a different way of looking at the world. Gopnik distills this worldview into an assertion that"we can turn to faith for meaning, but not for morality." As he notes, both men were, from our standpoint, racists. But in marked distinction to a great many of their contemporaries, they were notably mild-mannered, compassionate ones, always willing to reconsider their views in light of changing circumstances. Here it is worth noting that Darwin over and over again specifically rejected the tenets of Social Darwinism, and that it was a speech in which Lincoln publicly entertained the notion of giving black men the vote -- i.e. moving beyond freedom toward the even more radical notion of equality -- that made John Wilkes Booth decide to kill him.
Reading this book was a somewhat startling experience, and not simply because it proved to be unexpectedly coherent. Living in the shadows of the American Century (and the Western millennium), I did not expect to hear such a full-throated celebration of the world that Darwin and Lincoln represented. As Gopnik notes,"Slow, carefully argued evidentiary-minded speech sure doesn't seem like a winning ticket in modern life." And yet, if the values that Darwin and Lincoln embodied are not self-evident, or even permanent, Gopnik makes a convincing case here for their resilience and their beauty. It's enough to make you believe in the (bitter)sweet power of reason.
SOURCE: Providence Sunday Journal ()
It’s worth getting to know the real Wilson, who, notwithstanding his Victorian image, helped bring America into the modern age. In his two presidential terms, he pushed a domestic legislative agenda—including the Federal Reserve and Federal Trade Commission laws—that helped to usher in “progressive,” active government, and then led the nation through a world war that established it as the world’s preeminent power.
Moreover, his every move, public and private, seems to have been documented. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, compiled by the late Arthur Link’s editorial team, runs to 69 volumes. Link wrote a five-volume biography; other historians’ studies examine Wilson’s Princeton presidency, his fight for the League of Nations, even his medical history.
John Milton Cooper, a University of Wisconsin history professor and noted Wilson scholar, seems to have read it all. His new biography—thorough, nuanced, and striking just the right balance between Wilson’s private and public lives--will become the standard to which others will be compared.
Cooper does not explicitly take on all the stereotypes of Wilson, but he counters many of them, starting with the most recent. Without naming names, Cooper severs the connection that supporters and critics of the Iraq War both claim to find between Wilson and George W. Bush as war leaders. “Despite his deep religious faith,” Cooper says, Wilson “did not go to war in 1917 because he thought God was telling him to do it.” Commenting on Wilson’s war message to Congress, Cooper pointedly observes that saying “The world must be made safe for democracy” is far from saying that America must make the whole world democratic: “a world of difference lay in that self-conscious use of the passive voice by this most punctilious of stylists.”
Cooper submits Wilson’s entire life to this kind of exacting, often revisionist analysis. Although Wilson’s pre-presidential years are covered in only 120 pages, he takes time to argue that Wilson’s academic study of government and experience as academic administrator served him far better as president than is generally realized. He also demonstrates that Wilson favored a strong federal government far more than is generally thought, and he makes clearer than ever the extent to which Wilson relied on his wives (Ellen Axson Wilson, who died in 1914, and then Edith Bolling Galt Wilson) for support.
Cooper finds Wilson’s policies on race and civil liberties indefensible, but still admires him, despite his flaws, as “one of the deepest and most daring souls ever to inhabit the White House.” Not everyone will agree with this judgment, but we are all in Cooper’s debt for this clear, vigorous, three-dimensional portrait of a president who for nearly a century has often been reduced to cliché.
SOURCE: Providence Sunday Journal ()
Jonathan Cole, longtime provost at Columbia University, takes over 500 discursive pages to celebrate “The Great American University,” by which he means the great American RESEARCH university. And by “research” he means mainly science and technology. Cole’s narrow focus and lack of pithiness are unfortunate, because his book raises important questions for anyone interested in how well university-based research will continue to propel American economic progress.
Elite American research universities, Cole notes, “produce a very high proportion of the most important fundamental knowledge and practical research discoveries in the world.” So he focuses “primarily on the very top tier of educational institutions in our country,” 100 at most, that produced “the laser, magnetic resonance imaging, FM radio, the algorithm for Google searches, Global Positioning Systems, DNA fingerprinting, fetal monitoring, scientific cattle breeding, advanced methods of surveying public opinion, and even Viagra.”
The book’s first third tells the story of how research, imported as an ideal from Germany in the late 19th century, came into its own in this country. A central figure in Cole’s narrative is Vannevar Bush, the influential World War II-era science advisor and author of Science, The Endless Frontier, who successfully advocated locating “big science” in universities rather than government laboratories. Shrewd administrators, such as Fred Terman at Stanford, led their institutions to prominence as what Kerr called “federal grant” (rather than “land grant”) institutions.
The book’s second part, “Discoveries that Alter Our Lives,” is a digression that seems to belong in the “Oxford Book of Anecdotes” series. Stories, some only a paragraph or two long, about “Buckyballs, Bar Codes, and GPS,” and other products of (mainly scientific) research, occupy 150 pages.
In the final section, “Facing Challenges and Looking Forward,” Cole’s penchant for cataloguing actually pays off, as he cites “a host of examples of attacks [on universities] during the Bush years that may have been more harmful…than we found even in the McCarthy period.” Whether mindlessly enforcing the Patriot Act, excessively limiting stem cell research, or distorting results of investigation into climate change, George W. Bush’s administration stalled and warped academic research. The Great Recession is keeping progress in low gear.
Cole’s eagerness to defend unfettered academic research means he minimizes its costs and tensions. For instance, he minimizes threats to academic freedom posed by commercialization of research, and he virtually ignores institutional tensions between research and teaching. His book won’t have the staying power of Kerr’s. But for highlighting academic research’s current precarious state, it merits our attention.
[Luther Spoehr, a Senior Lecturer at Brown University, teaches courses on the history of American higher education.]
Birth is a fact of life. But as Randi Hutter Epstein shows in this breezy but enlightening little book, it's a fact that's been subject to endless interpretation. In a survey that spans from antiquity to the reproductive technologies of the 21st century, Epstein traces the power struggles among men and women to cast birth in their own image of the way life should be.
As often as not, this struggle has been among purists of various kinds and those advocating new forms of technological improvement, with pregnant women in the middle. Epstein succinctly captures the dynamics of such debates in her discussion of foreceps, a device that went from secret innovation to childbirth staple to source of dread over the course of the last few centuries:"Doctors were confident, sometimes overly so. Midwives were worried, sometimes overly so. Women were confused, rightly so."
One source of this confusion was the sometimes counter-intuitive logic that shaped ideology. At the turn of the century, for example, elite feminists were strong advocates for the use of drugs, often of dubious utility and safety, rather than subjecting women to lengthy, painful, and dangerous labor. Yet this typically meant ceding control of their bodies to experts, almost always men, who often feared bourgeois women were too overcivilized to endure the birth process, and who spoke of them with what we today would regard as a comic degree of cluelessness. (An obstetrician who believed doctors should make decisions about childbirth because a woman"has a head too small for intellect and just big enough for love" typifies the juicy quotes that pepper the book.)
Conversely, a founding father of the natural childbirth movement, the evocatively-named Grantly Dick-Read, whose heirs Epstein describes as"more Birkenstock than Prada," was a political reactionary who finally settled in the politically cozy confines of apartheid-era South Africa. One of the great medical breakthroughs of modern medicine, a technique to repair vaginal tears during childbirth, was achieved by performing medical experiments on slaves.
Such conundrums continue to our own time. Prenatal care has greatly extended the reach of professional medicine earlier and earlier into pregnancy, with the potential to save lives. But such fetal monitoring has also prompted over-intervention in ways that range from the commercialization of sonograms as mall souvenirs to ethically questionable forms of genetic engineeering. Perhaps to avoid a political bog, Epstein steers clear of the implications of the implications of such technologies for the abortion debate. She also (surprisingly) largely stints the advent of in vitro fertilization; there's no mention of Louise Brown, the first test tube baby, for example. But she does make an entertaining visit to a sperm bank, and discuss cutting-edge techniques for freezing human eggs.
Get Me Out is a fast read because Epstein is a terrific writer. Trained as a journalist, she conveys a sense of joy in her research to accompany an often wicked wit, as chapter titles like"Men with Tools" and"Womb with a View" suggests. Epstein is also an MD, one whose lightly worn authority allows her to gracefully digest and contextualize medical research for a lay reader. The experience of tracing the shifting tides of obstetric opinion has apparently engendered epistemological modesty; attentive to irony and contradiction, she rarely takes sides in the debates she describes (though her skepticism about the number of caesarian sections performed in the United States is all the more credible as a result). Perhaps Epstein's shrewdest observation is her final one: that all the control over child birth has done nothing to making child rearing any easier. A mother of four, she speaks from experience.
Get Me Out is a quintessential work of pop history: light, funny, provocative. Yet it's got enough depth and resonance to function as a highly effective teaching tool in any number of classes that range from medical schools to gender studies programs. Think of it as a brainchild with DNA from Barbara Ehrenreich and Gail Collins. And then appreciate it on its own terms.
Slight or not, one might well think that Brinkley has some explaining to do: we might expect some justification for yet another biography of our 32nd president. In a fleeting stroke of understatement, Brinkley says only: “There is no lack of biographies of Roosevelt. At least four have been published in the last five years alone.” (pg. xii) Well yes, and so why a fifth? Brinkley does not say. By the way, I can count at least 15 biographies of FDR published in the last year-and-a-half alone, to join the untold number still in print, plus at least three more that have appeared since he penned his Preface in June of 2009 (not all of them in Brinkley’s league, to be sure, and not all of them comprehensive). His publisher, Oxford University Press, claims it as “the only short biography of FDR on the market” and advises booksellers that: “This title will appeal to individuals with an interest in general and American History, as well as those wishing to compare the achievements of FDR and Obama during their first years in office.” Egad. One can only hope that no actual reader will attempt to use this book in such a puerile way.
The book consists of only a single chapter, subdivided into topical “chapterlets.” There is a two-page intro and a two-page conclusion; sandwiched in between are overviews of: FDR’s early personal life and his marriage to Eleanor; his early career during the Wilson administration; his polio; his emergence in New York state politics; his presidential campaign; the New Deal (three “chapterlets”); World War II (also three “chapterlets”); Roosevelt and Churchill; a section on African Americans, the internments and the problem Jewish refugees (2 pages); and the third-term and his death. All the usual suspects have been rounded up.
There is nothing here that isn’t already well-known to most historians; although some readers may find a few tidbits that they hadn’t known, or had forgotten. I hadn’t known, for example, that while serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson that FDR had some role in a covert Navy sting operation designed to ferret out and arrest homosexuals who were cruising in the area around the Newport, Rhode Island naval base. I also didn’t know that the Philadelphia Eagles football team was named the “Eagles” during the New Deal in honor of the blue-eagle symbol of the National Recovery Administration (That tidbit of history might well frost the noses of some of the Philly fans in the stands at Lincoln Financial Field!).
But the chief value of this latest biography of FDR is not that it tells us something new, but mainly that it tells the broad-brush story of FDR’s era in a brief and accessible way. Alan Brinkley is without question a master historian, and one who knows this period (the New Deal) as well as any. His writing is always insightful and deeply informed. But readers accustomed to the kind of complex policy history that one finds in his The End of Reform, or the kind of rich political and intellectual history one finds in his Liberalism and its Discontents, or even the colorful portraiture of interesting political actors and social history one finds in his Voices of Protest, will discover a very different genre being exercised here. Frankly, the book looks and reads more like the publication of an honorary lecture given on some suitable academic occasion.
If there is an overarching theme to Brinkley’s biography, he states it in his second paragraph:
“So powerful was his impact on the world he led through the twentieth century’s darkest years that the literal truth of his life often seemed less important than the powerful image he created . . . Even decades later, public figures across the ideological spectrum try to seize a piece of his legacy—even at times to justify efforts to dismantle it—without much concern about who Roosevelt was or what he actually did. He has become a figure of myth: a man for all seasons, all parties, and all ideologies.” (pg. 2)
If the aim of Brinkley’s biography is to demythologize FDR, to paint him as a human being—even if with short strokes in fleeting colors—I am not sure he has entirely succeeded. Certainly he manages to mention FDR’s many flaws and failed efforts along with his many virtues and achievements. But the problem is that this is not really a biography, it is more of an introductory survey of the Roosevelt era in American history. Brinkley uses FDR’s life and career as the narrative thread to trace this era, but his eye is not so much on FDR the man, as the New Deal the era. So it really is not a colorful portrait of FDR as a person, sufficient in detail and vividness to “demythologize” him. This being so, I suspect the most appropriate use for the book is probably as a supplemental assigned text in the survey course on “The United States 1920-1945.”
In such a brief book, abridgement is the order of the day, and some oversimplification seems inevitable. But surely things go too far once or twice in this quick fly-by of sixty or so years of history. Here, for example, is Brinkley’s account of Roosevelt at Yalta:
“In January 1945, with victory in Europe apparently imminent, Roosevelt traveled secretly to Yalta on the Crimean coast for another meeting with Churchill and Stalin. Both men were shocked at the president’s wasted physical appearance. But Roosevelt participated actively and capably in the negotiations.” [pg. 95]
Does not that sentence: “But Roosevelt participated actively and capably in the negotiations” glide over some serious historiographical controversy—a controversy in which Brinkley has taken sides without alerting the casual reader that he is doing so?
I also think his treatment of the World War II internments is too brief to be entirely satisfactory. He says:
In 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the president approved a proposal from military officials on the West Coast to ‘intern’ the thousands of resident Japanese Americans living in California. . . . Many of them were born in the United States, and other were naturalized citizens. . . . Thousands of families were transferred from their homes to internment camps located mostly in the deserts, and many were not released until 1944. [pg. 95]
Close, but not quite right. Persons of Japanese ancestry (not just “Japanese Americans” who were citizens) were relocated from the two coasts and from southern Arizona (not just California). About 58% of the relocated Japanese were citizens and the remaining 42% were resident aliens. While most Japanese were interned, others were relocated to inland states; and those of Japanese ancestry who were not living in the “restricted areas” of the two coasts or the southern Arizona border were not relocated or interned. Moreover, releases from internment began even before the relocation and internment process was completed in the summer of 1942. Also one regrets that brevity precludes mention that a smaller number of resident aliens of Italian and German ancestry were also interned during the war under similar circumstances. (See my “The U.S. Social Security Board and its Program of Assistance and Services to Enemy Aliens and Others During the Relocations and Internments of World War II,” M.A. thesis, 2004, available online at: www.larrydewitt.net)
But these are mostly quibbles—the sort of thing reviewers are inclined to, under the general heading of “those who cannot do, review.”
Quite the strongest section of the book is his survey of the New Deal period—as one might expect from such a renowned expert on that topic. Nearly a third of the book is devoted to this topic (another third to the War years, and the remaining third to everything else). The two longer sections are clearly the best part of the book.
Although his publisher claims for Brinkley’s book a unique primacy (“the only short biography of FDR”) there are other biographies of FDR, even fairly brief ones. Brinkley’s friend, the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., might well have taken offense at this publisher’s boast, as he edited the volume on FDR for the American Presidents Series, a volume written by Roy Jenkins, with an assist from Richard Neustadt. The whole purpose of the American Presidents Series is to provide brief biographies of each of the presidents. While Jenkins’ biography is almost twice as long as Brinkley’s, that still qualifies as “brief” in this context. Where Jenkins’ book is strongest (its descriptive power and focus on the personal dramas of politics) Brinkley’s is weakest; and where Brinkley is strong (his dispassionate overview of policy) Jenkins is weak. I am not sure I could advise reading one without the other.
Despite my quibbles, this is a fine little book, provided that one has a clear understanding of just what it is and what it is not. It is not a satisfying biography of FDR. It is a useful overview of FDR’s era in American political history. And a new book by Alan Brinkley—even one as unexpected and seemingly unneeded as this one—is always a good reason for a quick trip down to one’s local Barnes and Noble.
Mary Karr didn't actually launch the memoir boom of the 1990s (Tobias Wolff, following in his brother Geoffrey's example in The Duke of Deception in 1979, can plausibly claim that honor with This Boy's Life in 1989). And she may not represent the zenith of that boom (Frank McCourt's 1996 book Angela's Ashes was more of a global blockbuster). But Karr's 1995 account of her wild Texas childhood, The Liar's Club, was perhaps the quintessential expression of the movement. The book was a surprise hit, because while she had been building a reputation as a poet, Karr was not a well-known public figure. And her tale, while notably dramatic and filled with vivid characters, was also rendered with great literary flair. In her wake, comparably talented writers like Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), along with some less talented ones like Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors), scored popular success. Meanwhile, the movement over-ripened into a fad and curdled into controversy following the publication of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces in 2003 when Frey revealed that much of his story had been fabricated. Memoir now seems firmly established a commercial literary genre, but the charm of its novelty has long since passed.
Karr, for her part, has continued spinning her tumultuous life into a literary commodity. She followed up The Liar's Club with Cherry (2000), which recounted her sexually active adolescence. Her latest book, Lit, picks up where Cherry left off, but does so in a neatly segmented way that requires no prior knowledge of her other work. The story this time is of Karr's descent into alcoholism and subsequent resurrection by way of a conversion to Roman Catholicism.
After a prelude in California and an unfinished undergraduate career at an unnamed Midwestern college (Macalester), Lit follows Karr's marriage to blue-blooded poet, the birth of their son, and the couple's struggles over work, money and love. Karr's drinking problem grows steadily worse, and its impact is depicted in terms of her family life, her professional aspirations as a writer/teacher, and the other addictive personalities she encounters along the way. In its depiction of a struggle to attain (and maintain) a semblance of a middle-class life -- and a strenuous, educated-class reluctance to submit to the perceived hokiness of the recovery movement -- Lit is reminiscent of of the late Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story (1996). But Karr's work is peopled with a cast of much more bumptious characters, beginning with her mother, and is rendered with a tangy Texas wit she attributes to her father ("wouldn't say sooey if the hogs were eating her" is among the gems she attributes to him). But some of Karr's encomiums go well beyond her rich provincial roots, as in this resonant exchange with a husband impatient with the lushes she's entertaining while he tries to sleep:
He whispers, I can't sleep from the noise. If you don't ask them to leave, I'll have to.
I hiss at him, You're such a control freak.
He says, you knew I was like this when you married me.
The righteous cry of married men everywhere, for it's a cliché that every woman signs up thinking her husband will change, while every husband signs up believing his wife won't: both dead wrong.
Tellingly, there are no quotation marks here. Even given the lax factual standards of the genre, Karr feels compelled to signal her subjectivity. Such hedging is not sufficient to put one's skepticism to rest, however, given that Karr repeatedly confesses that much of her memory of her drinking days has been blacked out. Moreover, her portrayal of her repellently parsimonious husband strains credulity, if for no other reason than to make one wonder why she would cast her lot with him. The great pitfall of books like these is that the author wears out her welcome with her reader, and while Karr never quite crosses this line, she certainly flirts with it. Yet she ultimately maintains control of her material, revealing that for all its pleasingly democratic implications, the success of contemporary memoir finally depends on a sense of iron-willed literary discipline applied to God-given talent.
Which, in turn, testifies to one source of the book's likely durability. Lit should find a lasting life in the the discourse of addiction and recovery. It also can help explain why, for all its considerable liabilities, the Roman Catholic Church has a singular power to fuse spirituality, ritual, and a sense of social solidarity difficult to match elsewhere in American life. But beyond the title's allusion to biological and religious intoxication, it also points to a third figure in what is finally a trinity: a life saved and lived through the power of the written word. Whether it's in scenes depicting the joy of poetry as experienced by the mentally handicapped women Karr teaches, or the thrill of encountering a real, live poet in the flesh, Lit is a testimonial to Good Books and the sense of purpose and structure they offer. This sense of purpose and structure is psychological, but material as well. Few things give Karr as much joy as the $750 she gets as an advance for one book, or the car she can buy when she lands a publisher for The Liar's Club. Compared to other ways of making money, this one is laughably inefficient, and one that -- speaking as a fellow addict -- can and perhaps should seem bizarre to those inclined to pursue more practical livelihoods. But a great many of us, lit remains nice work if you can get it. And a remarkably compelling even when you can't.