What We’re Reading: August 22-26

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Robert F. Worth, “In the Attic of Early Islam” (NYR Daily)

Mary Beard, “Unholy Roman Emperor” (TLS)

John T. McGreevy, “Civil Religion for a Diverse Nation” (LARB)

Michael Kimmelman, “The Craving for Public Squares” (NYRB)

Aaron R. Hanlon, “Are PhD Students Irrational?” (LARB)


My research group in New York is hosting a public event on “The Victorians and the Moderns” on the morning of September 16. All are welcome!

Archive on 4: Dial-a-Poem (BBC Radio 4)

Jason Stanley, My Parents’ Mixed Messages on the Holocaust (NY Times)

Musab Younis, Racism, Pure and Simple (LRB Blog)

Corin Throsby, Byron burning (TLS)

Melissa Morris, Hogshead Revisited: a short-term fellowship report (Omohundro Institute blog)

Colm Tóibín, Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis — one of the greatest love letters ever written (Guardian)


Laur M. Jackson, “Out of Cite” (The Awl)

Emmett Rensin, “The Union Libel: On the Argument against Collective Bargaining in Higher Ed” (LARB)

The Skin and Bones of History” (Magistra et Mater)

Beck Lawton, “The Great Medieval Bake-Off” (The Medieval Manuscripts Blog)


José Manuel Prietos, Atomic Light (NYR Daily)

Musab Younis, Racism, Pure and Simple (LRB Blog)

(interview) Svetlana Alexievich and John Freeman, How the Writer Listens: Svetlana Alexievich (Literary Hub)


Frederic Jameson, “Raymond Chandler in LA” (Verso)

Adam Gopnik, “Learning from the Slaughter in Attica” (New Yorker)

Rajan Menon, “Realpolitik or Realism?” (New Rambler Review)

John T. McGreevy, “Civil Religion for a Diverse Nation” (LA Review of Books)

Dana Goodyear, “A Monument to Outlast Humanity” (New Yorker)

Eating for Others: The Nineteenth-Century Vegetarian Movement in Germany

by contributing editor Carolyn Taratko

“Vegetarianism is not only a question of the stomach but also one of society.” This may sound familiar to readers, as articles such as “Eat less meat to avoid dangerous global warming, scientists say” grace our newsfeeds and remind us of the environmental consequences of meat consumption. In fact, this quote comes not from a recent Guardian article but from Hermann Krecke, an advocate of a vegetarian lifestyle and member of the Eden Cooperative Fruit Settlement outside of Berlin around the turn of the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century vegetarianism represented the first popular wave of the movement, with an especially substantial following in Germany. Adherents share some key attributes with what we would recognize as vegetarianism today, but the two also differ in significant ways. While today vegetarianism is regarded as a dietary preference, historically it was associated with a certain worldview. I hesitate to trace a direct line of continuity between contemporary vegetarians and their nineteenth-century antecedents: the group has always been a heterogeneous one, perhaps best defined by a commonly held conviction that reform of society begins with the individual. These differences aside, it does appear that the larger social implications of dietary choices have circled back into contemporary consciousness.

Cover of Edener Mitteilungen, journal of Eden Settlement, 1931

Cover of Edener Mitteilungen, journal of Eden Settlement, 1931

Instead of an ethical imperative concerned with climate change, or even animal welfare, vegetarianism as practiced in nineteenth-century Germany took up the problem of social relations among humans. While an aversion towards the slaughter of animals was frequently cited as one justification for renouncing meat and adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, it was actually secondary to a group that saw itself as an association of modern practitioners of ascetism and remained skeptical of the increasingly visible manifestations of large industry and capitalism. These troubling developments catalyzed a turn inwards among members, who aimed to reform themselves without waiting for social norms or laws to change. At the Eden Settlement, founded in 1893 and perhaps the most well-known among the communities, the three doctrinal pillars, depicted in the form of three hardy trees on their crest, signified a sort of holy trinity of reform goals: reform of self, reform of land (Bodenreform), and reform of the economy. With that approach, German vegetarians hoped to alleviate some of the problems related to poverty.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century with the decline of the old corporate social structure, it became fashionable for middle-class individuals (primarily men) to organize in forms of associational life through the structure of the Verein. As Thomas Nipperdey has noted, the number of associations in Germany exploded between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries. It was during this time that the first vegetarian association formed. While the earliest associations crystallized around general interests (for example, an interest in reading or patriotism), over time the trend skewed towards a greater degree of specialization. Amid the proliferation of associations for singing, education, and social reform, the Verein für naturgemäße Lebensweise (roughly “the association for a natural lifestyle”) was founded in the 1860s by a cohort of committed vegetarians. The association popularized a “natural lifestyle” which involved abstention from meat. In 1892, it was renamed as the Deutschen Vegetarier Bund, thus putting the avoidance of the meat at the center of their identity as a group.

Yet what was originally called a “vegetarian lifestyle” was not self-evidently a meat-free diet. Eva Barlösius has convincingly argued that membership in the Verein (and later, the Bund) was not about a specific diet, nor was it narrowly about abstention from eating meat. Instead of representing a core tenet of common belief, a meat-free diet was merely one strategy for communicating difference between members and non-members (Barlösius, 11). Members advocated abstention from alcohol and tobacco as well as meat; a “natural lifestyle” entailed a good deal more than a plant-based diet. Writings from early practitioners, including Gustav Struve and Theodor Hahn, focused on a life of introspection and simple, coarse clothing, as well as natural cures in addition to a plant-based diet. As Barlösius notes, avoiding meat was one practice that both distinguished and united members of a group who often had differing agendas.

Gustav Struve

Gustav Struve

On the other hand, such a strict focus on social distinction and the social structure of the association as Barlösius presents obscures the ideological and scientific bases of the movement. The development of nutritional science increasingly thrust meat into national debates about health and the “social problem.” In the first place, food safety came to the fore on the international stage. Uwe Spiekermann has highlighted the role of pork as a contentious issue in relations between the US and Germany from 1870-1900, as food inspection became professionalized in the wake of trichinosis outbreaks on both sides of the Atlantic. This was an oft-cited reason given by vegetarians, such as leading figure Struve in his 1869 publication Pflanzenkost, die Grundlage einer neuen Weltanschauung. While disease outbreaks presented one risk inherent in a meat-laden diet, another took the form of more pronounced economic disadvantage. The growth in meat consumption and production was regarded by some as a source of continuing pauperization and undernourishment. According to one calculation, annual per capita meat production in 1855 was 19.6 kg. By 1895 this figure had practically doubled; by 1914 it had reached 45 kg. Several prominent experts (Max Weber among them) regarded the shift in dietary preferences and resulting undernourishment, or nutritional “gap” as they called it, to be the origin of alcoholism and the abuse of spirits among the working class. All in all, the growing presence of meat at the table was one noticeable sign of the changing times.

Continued speculation about the influence of diet on the character of man flourished among the vegetarians. In echoes of the materialist debates of midcentury, when Feuerbach published his now famous dictum “Der Mensch ist was er isst” (Man is what he eats) in a review of Jacob Moleschott’s work, vegetarians argued that meat consumption predisposed humans to a fiery temperament, not least because the act of killing was part and parcel of meat production. While the vulgar materialism of Moleschott (which held that thought and emotion had a material basis that could be found quite literally in food) had been rejected by orthodox scientists, variations of it lived on. The association of meat with an excess of energy, both violent and sexual, appears frequently in contemporary journals. Some, such as Struve, cited the improved temperament of vegetarians and drew the conclusion that war would become impossible among nations of plant-eaters. It became increasingly difficult to socialize in such spheres without sharing the opinion that meat was a moral and social ill in modern Germany.

Today, since awareness of the carbon emissions of livestock rearing has become mainstream, we have a new, climactic justification for vegetarianism. This line of reasoning holds that we in the west who are fortunate to have such a wide selection in our diets should choose wisely. According to the climate vegetarians, choosing wisely is not only a matter of personal health, but also involves a calculus for the welfare of the planet and for others in less advantaged regions, especially the global South, where climate change has and will strike with particular vengeance. The climactic justification for a vegetarian diet in some ways resembles that of the turn–of-the-century vegetarians in Germany, who saw their choices in nourishment not only as an individual dietary choice, but an ethical commitment to mankind.

What We’re Reading: August 15-19


Jo Livingstone and David Wolf, Can the Academic Write? (Awl)

Alec Macgillis and Propublica, The Despair of Poor White Americans (Atlantic)

Gurminder K. Bhambra, Brexit, Class, and British ‘National’ Identity (Discover Society)

Madeleine Schwartz, Dressing for the King (NYRB)

Christopher de Bellaigue, Eton and the Making of a Modern Elite (Economist)

James Warner, Lacanian Jokes of the Day (McSweeney’s)


Emma Smith, Beating the Bounds (TLS)

Sam Anderson, David’s Ankles: How Imperfections Could Bring Down the World’s Most Perfect Statue (NYT Magazine)

Julia Wang, The Burden of Being Asian American on Campus (Atlantic)

Mark Ford, I gotta use words (LRB)


Amanda Arnold, Why the Futurist Cookbook Was the First Lifestyle Blog (Literary Hub)

Victoria Fiore, My Beautiful, Deadly City (NYT)

Ingrid Rowland, The Mystery of Bosch (NYRB)


Adolph Reed, Bernie Sanders and the New Class Politics (Jacobin)

His Hsu, Song of the Summer: Feminine by Julius Eastman (New Yorker)

Ingrid D Rowland, The Mystery of Hieronymus Bosch (NYRB)

Elizabeth Drew, American Democracy Betrayed (NYRB)


Richard Bernstein, Pragmatic Encounters (Notre Dame Review of Books)

Brian Barth, Sports Stadiums and Other Cows (Nautilus)

Daniel Little, Liberalism and Hate Based Extremism (Understanding Society)

Phillip Cole, On the Borders of Solidarity (Eurozine)

William Voegeli, The Era of Big Ideas is Over (Claremont)

Giving Up Stuff, Then and Now

by contributing editor Jake Purcell

Several people have said to me that I would have made a good medieval monk. I never asked why: mostly out of self-preservation, but also because I’m fairly confident that they are wrong.

I like my things way too much. Examples include a bowl that a neighbor used to give out Halloween candy, a table I got from a friendly stranger on Craigslist, the several pieces of furniture that I have spent many days of my life building from rough planks of construction-grade pine.

I’m not a hoarder or a social climber or even that much of a consumer. Instead, that stuff represents social connections, remembrance, and investment of labor. According to a certain set of modern sensibilities, these attachments could be considered benign. There are at least two groups of who would disagree: hardcore minimalists and certain early medieval nuns.

I’m wary of suggesting that tech-bubble beneficiary Graham Hill and the Merovingian Queen Radegund, to take an example of each, have all that much in common. But this is an instance in which the medieval past, however different, can help to illuminate the present. Both individuals organized their lives around the ideal of giving up property: minimalism in the parlance of the former, poverty (though not as we would understand it today) in that of the latter. In both instances, the renunciation of property also sits uneasily alongside their elite status, which I do not think is a coincidence. The comparison illuminates several features of the minimalist movement, including its formal similarities to early Christian ascesis and the incessant revival in the Middle Ages of “apostolic poverty.”



Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Venantius Fortunatus Reading His Poems to Radegund offers a dreamy depiction of life at the Convent of the Holy Cross. Though with Radegund’s connections to the Byzantine court, Venantius’s Italian training and bona fides, and perhaps an architectural plan borrowed from Jerusalem, it might be right to think of the convent as an international cultural hub.

Poverty—in the sense of the renouncing of legal ownership of money and moveable and immoveable goods, and not in the sense of lacking the resources to meet basic needs of survival—ebbed and flowed as an ideal throughout Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. The version which which I’m most familiar relates to the institutionalization of female monasticism in the cloister under an abbess and defined by a set of rules. In Gaul, bishops articulated this vision of monasticism in a haphazard and localized fashion through diverse church councils and monastic rules; it was enacted in practice through widespread royal and noble endowments of monasteries according to different religious preferences and through the administration of bishops who could be more or less interested in the extent to which nuns held to a cenobitic (communal, as opposed to hermetic) ideal.


One well-known example is the Convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, founded in the mid-sixth century by Radegund, a Merovingian queen. Radegund’s convent adopted the Regula ad virgines of Bishop Caesarius of Arles, written and revised throughout the early sixth century for a convent that he founded and that his sister headed. Caesarius wanted, above all, for the nuns and convent to be as removed as possible from the world around them. But independence was a difficult ideal to manufacture in practice, largely because of property. Individual nuns had to give up their own property in an effort to divest themselves of markers of difference from the other sisters and of all sorts of bonds of obligation with people outside the convent. Unfortunately, giving away property generated yet more obligations, and any given nun could also inherit property at any future date. All these claims also had to be given up. Once inside the convent, the nuns could not even have their own locked chest or cupboard; almost everything was shared. For Caesarius and those who followed his rule, any reveling in the material should be avoided. But materiality that anchors you in a particular social context is the most pernicious inhibitor of transcendence.

Because the vow of poverty was so important to theoretically pure visions of cloister, one nun could accuse another of—horribile dictu—owning something. In 589, some forty nuns fled the convent. According to the event’s chronicler, Gregory of Tours, the errant monastics denounced their miserable living conditions and the impious behavior of their abbess, Leubovera. Chrodieldis and Basina, the leaders of the revolt and members of the Merovingian royal family, struggled to get secular or religious authorities to address their legal complaints, so they gathered a group of armed men, occupied the nunnery estates, and eventually kidnapped the abbess.

An unbelievably protracted jurisdictional conflict ensued, but Chrodieldis finally got her day in court. There, her effort to show that the abbess had ruled unjustly centered almost entirely around various failures to adequately avoid owning things. Leubovera had misused monastery funds, she owned her own property, she had exchanged goods and done so in secret, and she had used silks and precious metals for purposes other than decorating the oratory. These charges, and others, all violated specific provisions of Caesarius’ Regula.

There is something particularly galling about this series of accusations. Chrodieldis was a princess; Leubovera is usually assumed not to have been especially high-born. A princess claimed that someone of lesser status failed to embody poverty well enough. And she did so in order to reorder, according to the hierarchy of secular society, a space where status was not supposed to matter, where it was even supposed to be a hindrance to holiness. It is difficult to avoid the impression that what matters here is knowing the rules of the game, rather than actual renunciation. At least one savvy nun could conceive of an accusation of ownership as a legal strategy that was, of course, ultimately a strategy for righting the social order. (Her argument failed, but only because she could not prove the facts of her case.)

The ability of elites to co-opt supposedly equalizing spaces or values and remake them in their own image is one of the disturbingly pernicious aspects of the renunciation of poverty. The most prolific minimalists today, those who receive New York Times and New York Magazine profiles, are male millionaires who have decided to downsize to seek happiness. Encouraging others to live in small spaces and make do with a limited amount of stuff does wonders for their personal brands. The wealthy who live a restrained lifestyle receive speaking fees, advertising revenue from traffic to their websites, and book deals as a result; those who inhabit small apartments or eschew accumulation out of need do not.

The comparison between early medieval monasticism and the current minimalist movement is not quite as strained as it looks, in particular because minimalism has all of the trappings of early Christianity. There is always a conversion narrative. It offers happiness, financial well-being, and relief from many ills of contemporary life, like feeling out of control. Calling yourself a minimalist denotes not just an aesthetic, but an enlightened cosmology that separates practitioners from others: there is more to life than the increasing accumulation of stuff. (The reader is usually allowed to define for her- or himself what the “more” is.) Like those of any good religion, the principles of minimalism are easily modulated according to class and gender. The magazine profiles of male Silicon Valley entrepreneur-minimalists are one corner of a vast landscape that also includes wildly popular “simple living” blogs primarily by and for young women with children, as well as more masculine-skewing personal finance communities centered around frugality and Financial Independence/Retire Early. “Minimalism Is for Everyone; Be More with Less.”

Minimalism’s similarity of form to early Christianity highlights some uncomfortable differences as well. Medieval monastics renounced property to seek perfection of self and community, but most minimalists comment only on the relationship between self and stuff. Minimalism offers no critique of systems that produce stuff, of how economies are organized, or of the social or environmental impact of consumption. These blinders lead to the very strange state of affairs that someone who owns several electronic devices, flies long distances on a weekly or monthly basis, and stays primarily in short-term domiciles is understood to consume less than someone with an apartment and a slightly larger wardrobe, which is complete nonsense by any normal metric of sustainability or impact. Minimalism claims much of its status because it offers special, countercultural insight. In comparison with early medieval monasticism, which attempted to build from the ground up systems that separated entire communities from the demands of the material world, minimalism’s exhortation to own less to feel better appears neither particularly well-thought nor all that radical.

What We’re Reading: August 8-12

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Historians of Britain, British Empire, and related fields might want to check out the program and details for this year’s North American Conference on British Studies, to be held in Washington, DC in November.

Eleanor Parker, ‘On hærfeste ham gelædeð’: Anglo-Saxon Harvests (A Clerk of Oxford)

L.D. Burnett, Holding On to What Makes Us Human (Chronicle)

Ella Haselswerdt, Re-Queering Sappho (Eidolon)

Interview with a Bookstore: Heffers in Cambridge, celebrating 140 years of bookselling (Guardian)

The Whale Menopause (BBC Radio 4)

Cecilia Kang, How to Give Rural America Broadband? Look to the Early 1900s (NY Times)


Jane Eagan “An Unexpected Discovery: Early Modern Recycling” (Merton College Library Conservation Blog)

Caroline Duroselle-Melish “Don Quixote on an Early Paper Cover” (The Collation)

Don Skemer, “Commonplace Books and Uncommon Readers” (Princeton)

Andrew McGill “Can Twitter Fit Inside the Library of Congress?” (The Atlantic)

Michael Sorkin, “The Donal Trump Blueprint” (The Nation)

Barack Obama, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” (Glamour)

Poems of Li Po & Tu Fu, Translated by Arthur Cooper (Penguin Random House, 1973) – I picked this up on Tuesday night at a sidewalk stall on 1st Avenue at 12th Street run by The Brother in Elysium. If you’re in the East Village, he’s often there.


Geoffrey O’Brien, The Genius of James Brown (NYRB)

A Brief History of the Olympic Games (The Economist)

David Cole, The Drone Presidency (NYRB)

Jeremy Butman, Against Sustainability (The Stone, New York Times)


Timothy Beck Werth, The First Trans Woman in Western Fiction (The Awl)

Robert Macfarlane, The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web (New Yorker)


Matthew Lister, Alien Ideas: The Political Philosophy of Immigration (The New Rambler Review)

Nathaniel Rich, When Parks were Radical (The Atlantic)

Chris Drudge, Distraction can make you a faster cyclist (Nautilus)

Nicole Caruto, Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research (Daedalus)

John McWorter, The Rag Man – Scott Joplin (American Prospect)


Mary Beard, What Does the Latin Actually Say (A Don’s Life)

Guy Halsall, Gender in the Merovingian World (Historian on the Edge)

Roman Gold Curse Tablets Found in Serbia (The History Blog)

Announcing 2015 Forkosch Book Prize Winner

greifThe editors at the Journal of the History of Ideas are pleased to announce that the winner of the 2015 Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history is Mark Greif, for his The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973 (Princeton University Press).

Statement from the judging committee: In The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973, Mark Greif is in pursuit of the mid-century Americans who pursued the idea of human nature, despite their dark fear that such a thing might not exist. If some philosophies of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment had insisted that there was something intrinsically dignified in mankind, confidence in that belief took a beating during the racism, genocide, and global war that defined all public life from the 1930s onward. Greif demonstrates that the perceived “crisis of man” represented both concern that universal human nature (and human rights) might not exist and anxiety that such rights might not be extended beyond the white men who had traditionally represented mankind, to the exclusion of others. As a problem in moral philosophy, the crisis of man was profound—so much so that it flowed abundantly into American literature. Rather than accept the problem, Greif endorses a re-enlightenment to revive conviction that humans have basic, intrinsic value. This book will be at the heart of many arguments over twentieth-century thought.

Meet the Collected Past: “The Keeper” at the New Museum

by Erin Schreiner

Whose stories are told in museums?  And how are they told? “The Keeper,” an ongoing show at the New Museum that is a tonic to the eye and the soul, addresses these questions and raises even more with brilliance, economy, and creativity not only through the choice of materials on display, but also in their presentation. It is essential viewing for all of us in the business of keeping  – collecting and preserving stuff – and (hi)storytelling.

Devoting an exhibition to keepers provided the museum with a reason to show Ydessa Hendeles’ Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), a 2002 installation of over 3,000 photographs of people and their teddy bears. To those of you who are thinking, “Really? Teddy bears?” I confess that I didn’t have high expectations for this part of the show. I was excited about Hilma af Klint’s paintings, Ye Jinglu’s portraits, and Shinro Ohtake’s scrapbooks, the things that I thought would be the heavy hitters. These images, these objects, would make me think; so I thought. They did, but not as much as Partners.

In Partners, the teddy bear functions as an organizing principle: Helendes collected and preserved twentieth-century photographs of people and teddy bears, and because everybody loves to pose with a teddy bear, Partners presents astonishingly broad and intimate portrait of humanity. The photographs, which Hendeles collected on eBay, came from 25 countries, and show people of every age, race and ethnicity, creed, and class. There are, of course, tons of pictures of kids, but children do not dominate the collection. Elvis posed with teddy bears to promote his hit single “Teddy Bear”, and Ringo Starr talked to reporters clutching a teddy that someone gave him as he emerged from an airplane. There are teddy bears in band photographs (Tony’s Jazz Madcaps and the Stella Orchestre of Riga propped teddies on the bass drum before saying cheese), teddy bears in family greeting cards, teddies in snapshots exchanged between lovers or between parents and their grown children, teddies in class photos, teddy bears of all sizes on the beach and at parties, and there are even teddy bears in pornography. Adults often laugh or look silly with teddy bears, but they can also look painfully sincere.  Many portraits of children show tremendous pride, especially candid photos like one of a young black girl on a porch with all her entire toy collection laid out on a blanket. They also show great disappointment: one memorable shot shows two young south-Asian children in formal dress looking rather depressed and put-upon in front of the Christmas tree. There are real teddy bears on display, too, with stories and photographs of their original owners.  (The labels accompanying the real bears are the only text in the installation.) Sneezy, a tiny bear with a scrunched up face and a perky yellow vest belonged to Ted Able, an English Soldier in World War II. Able’s mother gave him the bear when he shipped off to serve. He survived, and Sneezy remained on his bedside table until the day he died in 1991, at 81 years old.


“Sneezy”, Ted Able’s teddy bear on display in “The Keeper”.

In her dissertation, Hendeles says that “the teddy bear was chosen for what it reveals about the complex partnership of culture and commerce.” (26) While one might pursue that thread to fascinating ends, I found that the teddy bear enriched these images because it emphasized the humanity of the people in the pictures. As Hendeles points out, the teddy bear is an object that comforts the many children and adults who own (and cuddle) their bears, (25) but the pictures show that human beings lived a tremendous range of emotions and experiences with their teddies. They inspire people to be silly, to play, to express their affection for loved ones, or to stand before a camera with confidence. As a result, the teddy bear shows us the vulnerability of the people that pose with it, and this is what makes this the collection so emotionally and intellectually stirring.

In 2012, the novelist Orhan Pamuk published “A Modest Manifesto for Museums” in The Innocence of Objects, a printed catalog for his Museum of Innocence, which he curated and opened in Istanbul as a museum of his novel of the same name. In his manifesto, he urges museums to prioritize the stories human lives over those of “society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company, or species.”  Partners, conceived a full decade before Pamuk’s museum and manifesto, is an example of just how this can work.  Its success as a collection – and as a work of art – can be measured exactly as Pamuk suggests in point five:

The measure of a museum’s success should not be its ability to represent a state, a nation, or company, or a particular history. It should be its capacity to reveal the humanity of individuals.

Viewers looking into the faces of more than 3,000 people with their teddy bears are witnesses to the tenderest exposition of the humanity of individuals.  For viewers, witnessing this is an intense experience. One of the first vitrines of photographs in the installation contains images of Nazi men and women with teddy bears.  The stuffed animals in these pictures transform images of uniformed Nazis into gut-wrenching portraits of the human faces of fascism. (I’m still trying to figure out what these images can or should mean.) These are followed by more pictures of soldiers, like Ted Able, whose story is a bit more straight forward: a mother loves her son and sends him off to battle with conduit for that love.  In other ways, however, Able and Sneezy challenge the normative view of the soldier ready for combat. In the back of the second room of the installation, photographs of child survivors of the Holocaust appear together in long vitrines, and the accompanying labels document the story of each individual’s survival. In this case, photographs of these children with their teddy bears gives Hendeles a context in which to share and preserve their personal histories alongside their photographs.

Partners exhibits the photographs and teddy bears in a display system borrowed from national museums  and private galleries that Pamuk deemphasizes in his manifesto.  Pictures cover the walls from floor to ceiling. A mezzanine gallery provides access to a second viewing level, and dark wooden vitrines display the original bears, sometimes with related ephemera like photographs, letters, or (in one case) a teddy bear genealogy. This lends the photographs and objects an air of seriousness and grandeur, and it’s a clever way to engage viewers who might dismiss the images because of their playful, innocent subject matter. This antiquated mode of display also emphasizes the historic nature of the photographs, which appear to cover the twentieth century only up to the mid-sixties.  Most of the images date to the interwar period or the period of the second World War, which provides some critical distance between the viewer and the human subjects of these photographs. These images show us moments in the lives of people we will never know, but whose worlds we study and interpret as historians.


Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeles, installed at the New Museum.

The traditional style display seen in Partners – which, walls, vitrines, and all were brought in as a whole from Canada – is in stark contrast to the rest of the show, which features photographs, model buildings, scrapbooks, paintings, sketches, and other works of art shown in the white-box style settings that one would expect in the New Museum. And perhaps as a result, the impact of Partners far exceeds that of the other works on display. Nevertheless, the rest of the show presents an enormous range of materials, from Joseph Cornell-like assemblages to collections of rare stones that play with and challenge ideas about the purpose of collecting and the meanings that collections take on in their afterlives. And while I commend the New Museum for showing admirable restraint in providing succinct, well edited, wall text, I found that some of the labels lacked information about collectors, focusing instead on critical analyses of the images or objects on display.  For example, Tong Bingxue discovered the delightful series of photographs of Ye Jinglu, taken annually throughout his life. Tong Bingxue is a journalist and young collector of antique Chinese photographs, but I discovered this through a Google search rather than in the gallery. Given the show’s focus on collectors and collecting, the series would have been enriched by more information about Bingxue’s collecting and the discovery of this particular set of images.


There is a lot to see in “The Keeper.” Orhan Pamuk might say that there are a lot of people to meet. I believe that as people and as historians must meet them, and study their stories (and their teddy bears) in all of their silly, tender, tragic glory.  Oliver Sacks explains why better than I ever could:

In 1992, I went with [Gerald Edelman] to a conference on consciousness at Jesus College in Cambridge.  While Gerry’s books were often difficult to read, hearing him speak gave a feeling of revelation to many in the audience.
At the same meeting… Gerry said to me, “You’re no theoretician.”
“I know,” I said, “but I am a field-worker, and you need the sort of fieldwork I do for the sort of theory making you do.”
Gerry agreed.

(from On the Move, page 366)

Visit “The Keeper,” and see for yourself what’s been collected in the field.


The Keeper is open through September 25 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York City.




What We’re Reading, August 1-5

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


This week’s required reading: Nakul Krishna, Rhodocycles (n+1)

Elite male homosociality in the mainstream media:
Sarah Maslin Nir, Are Final Clubs Too Exclusive for Harvard? (NY Times)
Sam Polk, How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down (NY Times)
Kimberley Reynolds, From public school to the barricades (Independent)

Tom Crewe, We Are Many, on the Corbyn phenomenon (LRB)

Tim Whitmarsh, Textual Orientation, on Kenneth Dover and the Greek homosexuality literature (TLS)

Eleanor Parker, An Anglo-Saxon August (A Clerk of Oxford)

Kimberley Reynolds, How children’s literature with a social conscience galvanised a generation and changed the UK (Independent)

Matthew Cheney, Reading and Writing My Way Through the AIDS Crisis (LitHub)

Gillian Terzis, Keep Calm and Carry On (LARB)


Orhan Pamuk, The Innocence of Objects (Abrams, 2012)

N.D.B. Connolly & Keisha N. Blain, “Trump Syllabus 2.0” (Public Books)

Ned Stuckley-French, “The Anthologies of John D’Agata” (LARB)

Matthew Clair, “Black Intellectuals and White Audiences” (AAIHS Blog)

New Yorkers, Cine-philes, Nota Bene: The Films of Robert Frank at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this month, and the excellent documentary (“Don’t Blink”) on the filmmaker held over at Film Forum until August 9. AND! a documentary on Hieronymous Bosch & his paintings, “Touched by the Devil,” also at Film Forum.


Pierre Assouline, « L’usage de la beauté du monde » (La république des livres)

Boris Adjemian with Matthew Ghazarian and Susanna Ferguson, “Inside the Nubarian Library” (Ottoman History Podcast)

Umberto Bottazzini, “La cultura secondo Enriques” (Il Sole 24 Ore)

Michael Hampe, »Von wahrhaftigen Bürgern« (Die Zeit)

Frank Kaspar im Gespräch mit Christian Demand und Ekkehard Knörer, »Ein Ping-Pong-Spiel an Selbstkritik« (Deutschlandfunk)

Francine Prose, “Mavis Gallant’s Magic Tricks” (New Yorker)

Ingrid D. Rowland, “The Mystery of Hieronymus Bosch” (New York Review of Books)

Joanna Scott, “Never-Endings” (The Nation)

Walter Siti, “Il mito Pasolini” (Le parole e le cose)

Ian Willoughby interviews Aviezer Tucker: “Havel’s philosophy was far more important than that of many academic thinkers” (Radio Praha)

And finally, Mireille Delmas-Marty, « Études juridiques comparatives et internationalisation du droit » (Collège de France; l’Éloge du savoir)


Michael Lind, “Intellectuals are Freaks” (The Smart Set)

Public Streets Story Map” (Public Books)

Daniel Little, “Inductive Reasoning and the Philosophy of Science” (Understanding Society)

Meghan Bartels, Skye Gould, “Peak Age at Everything” (Tech Insider)

Paul Moses, “Can’t They Be Separated? Irish and Italian Workers in Gilded Age New York” (Gotham Center)


Sarah Bond, What Rep. Steve King Gets Wrong about the Dark Ages—And Western Civilization (Forbes)

Eric Anthony Grollman, Gender Policing in Academe (Inside Higher Ed)

Wan-Chuan Kao, #palefacesmatter?, on race and medieval studies (In the Middle)

Roberta Mazza, Papyri and Ethics (Faces and Voices)

Emily Runde, A Legal Reference Book and Its Female Audience? (Medieval Text Manuscripts)

Denis Sergent, Une immense nécropole mérovingienne decouverte dans a Somme (La Croix)


John Rogister, “Born to Be King” (TLS)

Ingrid Rowland, “The Mystery of Hieronymus Bosch” (NYRB)


Globalisation and Politics: The New Political Divide: Farewell, left versus right. The contest that matters now is open against closed (The Economist)

The Ottoman caliphs: Why European Islam’s current problems might reflect a 100-year-old mistake (The Economist)

Feisal G. Mohamed, Arendt, Schmitt and Trump’s Politics of ‘Nation’ (NY Times)

Alex Rosenberg, Why You Don’t Know Your Own Mind (NY Times)


Alicia Puglionesi, The Lost Mushroom Masterpiece Unearthed in a Dusty Drawer (Atlas Obscura)

Brit Bennett, Ripping the Veil (The Atlantic)

Ingrid Rowland, The Mystery of Hiernymus Bosch (NYRB)

JHI 77:3 (July 2016) Available

The latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 77 number 3, is available in print form from Penn Press and online at Project Muse. The table of contents is as follows:

Marcia L. Colish, 2015 Arthur O. Lovejoy Lecture The Boys on the Beach: Children’s Games and Baptismal Grace in Medieval Thought, 359-378

Giuliano Mori, Democritus Junior as Reader of Auctoritates: Robert Burton’s Method and The Anatomy of Melancholy, 379-399

Ian W.S. Campbell, John Punch, Scotist Holy War, and the Irish Catholic Revolutionary Tradition in the Seventeenth Century, 401-421

Heikki Haara, Pufendorf on Passions and Sociability, 423-444

Ethan L. Menchinger, Free Will, Predestination, and the Fate of the Ottoman Empire, 445-466

Mark Sinclair, Bergson’s Philosophy of Will and the War of 1914–1918, 467-487

Dennis Sölch, Wheeler and Whitehead: Process Biology and Process Philosophy in the Early Twentieth Century, 489-507

Journal authors are always encouraged to submit a blog post about their article to JHIBlog. And if you’re a reader of JHIBlog, why not consider subscribing to the Journal? Subscription information is available at the Penn Press website, including information about special rates for students.

Cavendish’s Daughters: Speculative Fiction and Women’s History

by guest contributor Jonathan Kearns in collaboration with Brooke Palmieri

Nor is the empire of the imagination less bounded in its own proper creations, than in those which were bestowed on it by the poor blind eyes of our ancestors. What has become of enchantresses with their palaces of crystal and dungeons of palpable darkness? What of fairies and their wands? What of witches and their familiars? and, last, what of ghosts, with beckoning hands and fleeting shapes, which quelled the soldier’s brave heart, and made the murderer disclose to the astonished noon the veiled work of midnight? These which were realities to our fore-fathers, in our wiser age —

— Characterless are grated

To dusty nothing.

— Mary Shelley, “On Ghosts,” London Magazine, 1824

Literary canon in general, and the canon of weird or speculative fiction in particular, is haunted by half-remembered absences. We think we know the details of all of the high points: Frankenstein (1822), The Vampyre (1819), Varney the Vampire (1847), Dracula (1897); the works of Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), or Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). But in reality, we’re just glossing over all the places where we weren’t paying attention: namely, the vast catalogue of stories written by women over the centuries that play a formative role in the creatures and creeping feelings of horror that we take for granted as canonical. An important chapter worth writing in women’s history, and in the history of women writers, is that which considers the particularly feminine perspective that has imagined into existence some of the weirdest works of literature.

For example, there are stranger early modern alternatives to Shakespeare than Virginia Woolf’s portrait of his sister Judith. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), Duchess of Newcastle, scientist, philosopher, poet, patron of all things strange, was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society and get annoyed with Hooke, argue with Hobbes, and raise an eyebrow at Boyle.
In 1666 she published two works together: Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, which argued against the most popular scientific worldview of its time, mechanical philosophy; and The Blazing World, equal parts utopia, social satire, and straight-up weird fiction. It’s a masterpiece of fish-men, talking animals, and submarine warfare—written significantly earlier than Jules Verne, despite including a journey to another world, in a different universe, via the North Pole. Should we not describe his works as Cavendishian? Scholarship more frequently cites Ludvig Holberg’s Niels Klim’s Underground Travels in connection with Verne, although that too bears clear hallmarks of Cavendish’s influence. Cavendish’s dual publication of a work of natural philosophy with a work of speculative fiction have arguably only met their synthesis in the twentieth century, when scientists admit the influence of science fiction in their research, and “hard science fiction” like that of Kim Stanley Robinson has fully blossomed as a sub-genre. In other words, re-conceiving the canon of science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, and weird fiction begins with reconsidering their muddled origins in works like those of Margaret Cavendish, the foremother of so many strange ideas, imagined and real.

The industrious half-beast, half-human characters populating Cavendish’s Blazing World—the bear-men philosophers, the jackdaw-men orators, the spider-men mathematicians—translate the myths, the folk tales, the monstrous births and miraculous occurrences of a declining world of superstition into new centuries, with new narrative possibilities. Alongside their afterlives in the realms of science fiction, their hybrid forms are also a starting point for horror and considerations of the supernatural.

The immovable object of women in speculative fiction is obviously Frankenstein (1818), first imagined two hundred years ago this past June at the famous Villa Diodati. Nobody nowadays really argues with Mary Shelley’s pre-eminent position as the mother of all reanimated corpses. John William Polidori (1795-1821), also present at the first telling of the story, probably features fairly strongly in the role of medical advisor, especially with his experience in the dissection theaters of Edinburgh and considering his academic preoccupations. Taking the staples of weird, speculative, horrifying, and supernatural fiction as a whole, most of the major tropes were the product of female authorship. Frankenstein’s Monster—scientific aberration, stitched-up King Zombie, vengeful revenant—is only one such pillar: a hybrid in the style of Cavendish’s Blazing World, yet a ghost in his own right, ruthlessly haunting his creator.

And ghost stories too have a place in women’s history: Elizabeth Boyd’s Altamira’s Ghost (1744) describes a disputed succession adjudicated over by a spirit. Although supernatural in content, it is essentially a commentary on social injustice narrated by a ghost and dealing with the famous Annesley succession case, in which an orphan’s inheritance rested upon proof of his legitimacy. One peculiarity of the case is that a maidservant named Heath, claiming James Annesley illegitimate, was found guilty of perjury on one occasion, then acquitted on another, effectively allowing James to be ruled both bastard and not bastard simultaneously. Boyd was primarily a paid “hack” of notable skill, but it should be mentioned that her openly supernatural works (“William and Catherine, or The Fair Spectre” (1745) being another) fall thematically into the fantastically interesting category of female apparition narrative, in which female ghosts appear in order to provide insight into male wrongdoing and most notably domestic violence. A ghost woman can talk about things a live woman may not, and thus assist in the administration of justice. At one time an accepted literary device in its own right, this seems to have been forgotten along with Boyd and her contemporaries.

The pattern has a tendency to repeat. But the women of nineteenth-century weird fiction after Mary Shelley were more interested in giving their ghosts a body, much like the monster of Dr. Frankenstein. In 1828, only ten years after Frankenstein, Jane Loudon produced The Mummy! Or A Tale of The Twenty-Second Century (published by the piratical Henry Colburn, who published Polidori’s Vampyre under Byron’s name in 1819). Both of Loudon’s parents were dead by 1824, when she was 17, and she was forced to find some way to “do something for [her] support”:

I had written a strange, wild novel, called the Mummy, in which I had laid the scene in the twenty-second century, and attempted to predict the state of improvement to which this country might possibly arrive.

Already well-traveled and with several languages under her belt, Jane Loudon was clearly not without either smarts or skills. Her husband-to-be sought her out after writing a favorable review of the novel, believing her, naturally, to be a man. Once the shock of her femininity had worn off, they were married a year later.

Loudon’s resurrected Cheops is a sage and helpful corpse, granted life maintained by a higher power rather than by human error and hubris. Loudon’s twenty-second century is an absolutely blinding bit of fictional prophecy, on par with William Gibson’s Neuromancer for edgy prescience. The habit of the time was to view the future as the early nineteenth century, but with bigger buildings and with the French in charge, but Loudon’s 2126 AD goes for women striding about independently in trousers, robot doctors and solicitors, and something that’s not too far from an early concept of the internet. Her strange, wild story, in which corpsified Cheops helps rebuild a corrupt society, addresses much of the underlying horror of Shelley’s Frankenstein with a more redemptive take on the reanimation of dead flesh. It was also a definite influence on Bram Stoker’s better-remembered “Jewel of The Seven Stars,” published in the 1890s, and possibly even on Poe’s “Ligeia” in 1838, in which a man painstakingly wraps his dead wife in bandages prior to her burial.

There’s an argument for suggesting that writing weird fiction, at least in the form of ghost stories, became something of a fashionable exploit for nineteenth-century ladies. The Countess of Blessington (“A Ghost Story,” 1846), Mrs. Hofland (“The Regretted Ghost,” published in The Keepsake in the mid-1820s) are just two examples. On one hand, they might be seen as a natural evolution of the legacy of the Gothic giants Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe, alongside Jane Crofts’ hugely successful (and frequently necessarily anonymous) forays into the profitable world of Gothic novels and chapbooks (“The History of Jenny Spinner, The Hertfordshire Ghost,” 1800) and C.D. Haynes (“Eleanor, Or The Spectre of St. Michaels,” 1821). On the other, there is something innately rebellious, hinting at manifest destiny, in the feminine colonization of weird fiction as a form in which women can express themselves.

cavendish1Women who were already making a living as authors of anonymous romances and social sketches bent their efforts to the weird and supernatural with no apparent intent of turning a profit, but apparently more as an endorsement of the genre as something inherently theirs. Mrs. Riddell, Mrs. Oliphant, the Countess of Munster and Mrs. Alfred Baldwin were all successful, comfortable women with no particular need to deviate from a working formula, but they all ventured into what they clearly considered a darkness to which they had a right, and produced some of the very best weird stories of the nineteenth century.

cavendish2Mrs. Riddell’s (1832-1906) Weird Stories, published by Hogg in 1882, is one of the rarest and most beautifully written collections of supernatural stories of the last two hundred years.

cavendish3Mrs. Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897) wrote an incredible body of work—numbering over 120 published novels, historical works and collections of short stories—from the 1840s until the late 1890s, spanning almost the entire Victorian age in all its manifold weirdness.

The Countess of Munster, Wilhelmina FitzClarence (1830-1906), Scottish peer and illegitimate granddaughter of William IV, only became a novelist later in life. She published her Ghostly Stories in 1896, displaying a tremendous talent for the weird.cavendish4

Florence Marryat’s (1833-1899) The Blood of The Vampire, published the same year as Stoker’s Dracula and now shamefully almost forgotten, is a nuanced and complex (albeit erratic in execution) look at nineteenth-century male-dominated societal norms, race, sexuality, gender, and xenophobia, couched in the terms of the supernatural. Its mixed-race heroine is exploited by men and rejected by other women; the fact that she might be infected with vampirism is a secondary (and never cavendish5actually resolved) possibility when placed alongside how she is treated, regardless of supernatural influence. Marryat wrote over seventy published works, toured with the D’Oyly Carte company, had her own successful one woman show, ran lecture tours preaching female emancipation, and, during the 1890s, ran a women’s school of journalism.

It’s almost inconceivable that the “stuff of extrapolation” has preserved Klim, Polidori, Stoker, Le Fanu, Rymer and their legions of successful cohorts as the manifest summits of weird fiction in the nineteenth century, and yet rarely even mentions Jane Loudon, Mrs. Riddell, or even Mrs. Oliphant, who had a body of work larger than that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Mary Shelley’s 1824 essay “On Ghosts,” which began this post, had at its heart two main questions: “What have we left to dream about?” and “[I]s it true that we do not believe in ghosts?” The catalogue of weird fiction produced by Shelley and those after her shows that women had a great deal left to dream about. Female weird fiction frequently deals with minorities and outliers: wronged gypsy women, beaten wives, revenant witches, overly prescient children, the occasional voodoo priestess, and a preoccupation with the righting of wrongs, the application of a certain balancing justice. Unlike in the masculine variants, the menaces and threats are more often laid to rest or propitiated, or indeed left to float off on an ice floe—rather than being chopped up, burned up, stabbed up, or staked up by a gang of bros armored by either science or God, the two being interchangeable when fighting darkness.

One thing is for certain: the influence of women writers, whether anonymously, writing under male pseudonyms, or under their own names upon the landscape of the weird is not only significant, but momentous. If one can identify a trope or a device, the chances are that if one goes back far enough it originated somewhere in the untended and rarely-visited forest of female writers of the irresistibly odd and disturbing. As for Shelley’s second question, it is now their ghosts which haunt literary history and which must be remembered. Yet to believe them, requires that they be seen.

Jonathan Kearns has been working in the book trade for over twenty years and is the proprietor of Jonathan Kearns Rare Books & Curiosities. He is also a faculty member at the York Antiquarian Book Seminar.