Author: Erin Schreiner

Historicizing Ghosts: Reimagining Realities in Nineteenth Century Popular Bengali Fiction

by guest contributors Senjuti Jash and Shuvatri Dasgupta

ghostsIn South Asian historiography myths, local legends, chronicles, and folklores function as primary sources for the writing of “history,” or itihasa, as Romila Thapar has illustrated. Within the broad genre of fiction, historians have traditionally used social novels or short stories, and have overlooked popular fiction dealing with ghosts and spirits. Residing in an alternative society to that of the anthropocentric one, in fictionalized narratives and anecdotes, ghosts represented the “other” of the Bengali “self” during the nineteenth century. In this piece, we explore ghost stories as texts which can inform a bottom-up approach to histories of the nineteenth-century Bengali mind.

Why did the spectral community find popularity in the fictional realm of the Bengali mind during the nineteenth century? The primary reason behind this are the cholera, malaria, and plague epidemics which wreaked havoc in villages and cities, wiping out more than half of the population in Bengal during the early nineteenth century. From 1839 onwards, these epidemics spread from Bengal to other parts of India, as John Hays has shown. As the number of discarded and diseased corpses increased, ghosts found a place in the Bengali psyche facing the realities of death in their everyday worlds. In this scenario, the discourses of science and medicine produced a space at the intersections of “rationality” and “spirituality,” and engendered these accounts, which were transmitted both orally and in print.

The category of “ghost” remained fluid: in some stories they were seen, while in some their presence was only felt. In the fictional narratives, an environment of phantasm was created with omens like black cats, moonlight, and veiled silhouettes. The spaces of deserted houses and dilapidated bungalows acquired a metaphorical organic significance in these discourses. In a Bengali proverb from Comilla (Bangladesh), roughly translated as “ghosts inhabit a broken-down house,” the house signified the human body crumbling under various incurable ailments, which attracted ghosts to make the ailing human one of their own.

Local legends from Rangpur (Bangladesh) dating back to the nineteenth century described the habitats of different types of ghosts in various kinds of trees, namely Palmyra, Tamarind, and Madar. Ghosts also inhabited trees like Banyan, Sand Paper, Acacia, and Bengal Quince. The allocation of habitats in the spectral world mirrored anthropocentric normativities associated with gender roles. For example, the male Brahmin ghost, namely the Brahmadaitya, usually inhabited tall evergreen trees like Aegle Marmelos, Peepul, and Magnolia, maintaining his social superiority over others even after death. Female ghosts inhabited smaller shorter bushes and shrubs like the Streblus Asper and others. The Brahmadaitya’s habitat in comparison with the female ghosts’ habitats illustrated not only his primacy on the social ladder, but also the gender normativities permeating into the “other” world from the human world. 

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An early 20th century edition of the Grandmother’s Tales. Image courtesy of GoodReads.

In a famous anthology of tales compiled in the early twentieth century titled Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma’s Bag of Tales), the narrator was an old woman entertaining her grandchildren, with a barely-disguised didactic tone. These tales reflected an element of moral speculation attached to the gender roles of the ghosts. Female ghosts like the widowed Petni were portrayed as attracted to fish, given the nineteenth century Indian tradition of widows living an ascetic life with dietary regulations. The construction of this ghostly image functioned on two levels: the reflection of the past married life on the widowed “self” of the narrator, and the articulation of these suppressed desires through the representations of the “other” widowed ghost. This dual self-projection of the narrator served a greater purpose, as it participated in the ongoing discourse about the issues of sati and widow remarriage, contributing to larger debates about the rights and privileges of women in nineteenth-century Bengali society.

With the colonial government’s criminalization of sati and legalization of widow remarriage, as Lata Mani has shown in her seminal article “Contentious Traditions,” women became sites of conflict for redefining “tradition.” There was a clear colonial preoccupation with the state of women as a benchmark for appraising civilizational standards. For the colonial masters, the injustice and oppression meted out to Indian women in the form of sati became a corroboration of “British modernity” and a moral platform on which their “civilizing” endeavor could be justified. The “feminine” hence provided a space for renegotiating what was “Indian” and what was “Western.” The female ghosts were clearly no different. While Indian women gradually unified over shared demands for various rights, the ghostly women from the other world expressed their solidarities for these reforms through the figure of Petni indulging in fish.

In these fictionalized narratives, living women—especially the ones who were pregnant or had long lustrous hair—were portrayed as more susceptible to ghostly encounters. Also, medical conditions such as seizures, epilepsy, multiple personality disorders, and schizophrenia in women were diagnosed by the quacks as being possessed or inhabited by evil or unholy spirits. These women then were subjected to the autonomy of the exorcists. They were sexually exploited under the pretext of exorcism and were sometimes even forced to marry the exorcist as a favor in return. Since most of the oral tales were produced by female narrators, they served as a space to articulate and in turn resist the threats women faced from the community of exorcists and failed to overcome in the human worlds.

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An exorcist confronting a “possessed” woman. Illustration from Bhutude Kanda, by Rabidas Saharoy (1962). Illustrations by Maitreyee Mukhopadhyay and Debabrata Gosh.

The influence of colonial race theories was also clearly detectable in the world of horror fiction, as they emerged as a significant premise for British epistemic exercises. Significant segments of British and European intellectuals, even during the age of the Scottish Enlightenment, considered Indians to be closer to black Africans, or black Malays, than they were to white “Caucasians.” As Swarupa Gupta comments, there was “selective adaptation, internalisation and re-articulation” of the basic tenets of imperial race theory, interwoven with prevalent conceptions of Hindu caste hierarchy within the Indian milieu, after the Census of 1871 (Notions of Nationhood, 112-13). While ordinary ghosts, both male and female, were described as dark-skinned, the Brahmin male ghost was portrayed as fair-skinned, tall, exhibiting saint-like feet, and wearing sandalwood sandals. On one hand, widowed Petni was depicted as a very dark-skinned figure; on the other, the ghost of the Muslim man, known as Mamdo, was also depicted with similar adjectives. Additionally, he wore a skullcap and featured an unkempt beard. The image of the Islamic ghost succumbed to colonial stereotypes, resembled its human image and position in society.

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Petni catching fish in a river. Image from Embellished Memories website.

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s short story “Oshoriri” tells how a Bengali middle-class man from Calcutta mistook his low-caste dark-skinned Bihari servant in Ranchi for a “ghost.” The tale ends with a strong note on the social constructions of the aesthetic facade of a man in contradistinction to a ghost, and how this dichotomy was balanced on an understanding of Victorian notions of outward appearance. Hence, specific categories of low-caste ghosts were marginalized even in their death, as an expression of the powerful afterlife of the stringent specificities of “caste” and “religion” that even death could not transcend. Thus, the socioeconomic and political impact of colonial dominance was translated in the languages of the spectral world through the idioms of religious, social, and gender discrimination, and racial hierarchies.

Ghosts were not always scary or malicious. In some tales, like the Jola ar Sat Bhoot (The Muslim Weaver and Seven Ghosts), they emerged as benevolent figures helping poor peasants out of financial misery, while also representing the spirit of resistance against the oppressive British regime. However, the figure of the benevolent ghost was essentially limited to the sphere of rural narratives, since urban miseries appeared to be apparently incurable even by ghostly benevolence. In the urban narratives, the ghosts appeared more as a threat to the luxuries and comforts, such as electricity, enjoyed by the city dwellers. Socially constructed notions of hygiene associated with poverty, such as bodily stink and dirty fingernails, were regarded as threatening even to ghosts, let alone humans! The poor were outcast even in the domain of enjoying the privilege of ghostly attention in the fiction generated in elite and gentrified urban spaces.

Picking up the thread from where we began, these fictional tales hence remain an unexplored repository for the intellectual historian, portraying how the Bengali mind under colonial transitions revisualized worlds, relationships, normativities, and ideologies. These narratives, both orally transmitted in rural areas and through print in urban circles, generated alternative realities. On one hand, gender restrictions were subverted, on the other, racial hierarchies and rural-urban divisions were reiterated. Reflecting the transitions in a Bengali society caught in the middle of colonial ideologues and nationalist exceptionalisms, ghosts provided Bengalis the voice of hope, faith, and sustenance they needed at the turn of the century.

Shuvatri Dasgupta is a final-year master’s student at Presidency University. Her work revolves around locating the global in the local by analyzing the multilayered origins of cultural and political discourses—tracing their genealogies and contextualizing them in transregional frameworks.

Senjuti Jash is a postgraduate student in History at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her dissertation is about the global intellectual history of caste. She is interested in overcoming the barriers of time and space to discern the intricate webs of connectivities across polities, economies, and cultures in this global age.

What Was a Reading Community?

by guest contributor Edmund G. C. King

It’s just after 10 am on a dingy December morning in London as I approach Canada Water underground station. The morning rush hour crowds have receded, leaving only their wet footprints on the platform leading into the station. The outside sheet of a copy of this morning’s Metro, the free London commuter newspaper, has been pulped and trodden into the pavement near the entrance. A single word of the front-page headline is still legible: “Aleppo.” Inside, I walk down the escalators and turn right, onto the westbound Jubilee Line platform. A train arrives almost immediately. I get into the first carriage and stand inside the doors facing away from the platform. To my left there are twelve people sitting, facing each other in two rows of six. Exactly half of them are reading. A woman scrolls through her Facebook newsfeed on an Android phone. A couple in their 30s read copies of The Metro. Opposite them, an older man is skimming an article in the personal finance section of a tabloid newspaper headlined “The Hell of Middle Age.” Two women sit opposite each other, each absorbed in a book. One is reading management theory. The other has a thick, tattered pop-psychology paperback with subsections headed in bold and diagrams illustrating interpersonal relationships. Next to them, a woman sits, headphones on, reading a Spanish novella. No one in the carriage acknowledges the existence of anyone else, not even the couple with their matching copies of The Metro. Each reading surface has become what Erving Goffman calls an “involvement shield,” a way of demarcating personal space and signalling social “non-accessibility” in a shared environment. Seats free up at Southwark. I take one, pull out my iPhone, put my headphones on, load up Spotify and a cached copy of a Jacobin article, and prepare to immerse myself in my own media cocoon.

For the past year, I have been Co-Investigator on an AHRC-funded project, “Reading Communities: Connecting the Past and the Present.” The purpose of the Reading Communities project was to reach out to contemporary reading groups in the United Kingdom and encourage them to engage with the historical accounts of reading in the Reading Experience Database. But the experience of working on a project like this has also changed my own academic practice as an historian of reading. I find myself paying more attention to the everyday scenes of reading unfolding around me than I might have done otherwise, looking for the elusive connections between reading practices and reading communities in the past and the present. Of course, a random collection of readers in a London tube carriage does not in itself constitute a “reading community.” We, in our Jubilee Line media cocoons, might all be using books and other forms of reading material in avoidant ways, as coping mechanisms to deal with the intensities and demands of occupying shared spaces in a large city. Some of us may even be consuming the very same text—this morning’s Metro—simultaneously. These acts of textual consumption form part of our social imaginary; they are props for performing our roles as commuters and as Londoners. But simultaneity and a shared habitus are not sufficient in themselves to bind us together into a specific reading community. For a reading community to exist, the act of reading must be in some basic way shared. Readers need to interact with each other or at least identify as members of the same reading collective. The basic building blocks of a community are, as DeNel Rehberg Sedo observes, a set of enduring and reciprocal social relationships. Reading communities are collectives where those relationships are mediated by the consumption of texts. But how can we define the social function of reading communities more precisely? What relationship do they have with other communities and social formations beyond the realm of text? What can examples taken from historically distant reading cultures tell us about the social uses of shared reading experiences?

In Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire, William A. Johnson interrogates ancient sources for what they can reveal about reading and writing practices in elite Roman communities. The scenes of reading preserved in ancient sources provide detailed glimpses into the place of shared reading and literary performance in daily life. In Epistle 27, Pliny describes the daily routine of Titus Vestricius Spurinna, a 78-year-old retired senator and consul:

The early morning he passes on his couch; at eight he calls for his slippers, and walks three miles, exercising mind and body together. On his return, if he has any friends in the house with him, he gets upon some entertaining and interesting topic of conversation; if by himself, some book is read to him, sometimes when visitors are there even, if agreeable to the company. Then he has a rest, and after that either takes up a book or resumes his conversation in preference to reading.

In the afternoon, after he has bathed, Spurinna has “some light and entertaining author read to him,” a ritual house guests are invited to share. At dinner, guests are entertained with another group reading, “the recital of some dramatic piece,” as a way of “seasoning” the “pleasures” of the evening “with study.” All of this, he writes, is carried on “with so much affability and politeness that none of his guests ever finds it tedious.” For Johnson, this reveals Pliny’s belief that shared literary consumption forms a necessary part of high-status Roman identity. “Reading in this society,” he writes, “is tightly bound up in the construction of … community.” It is the glue that binds together a range of communal practices—meals, exercise, literary conversation—into one unified whole, a social solvent that simultaneously acts as an elite marker. Shared reading experiences in this milieu are a means of fostering a sense of group belonging. They are ways of performing social identity, of easing participants into their roles as hosts and house guests, clients and patrons.

Another externality that impels the formation of ancient Roman reading communities is textual scarcity. To gain access to texts in the ancient world, readers needed social connections. Literary and intellectual culture in such a textual economy will necessarily be communal, as both readers and authors depend on social relationships in order to exchange and encounter reading material. As Johnson shows, the duties of authorship in ancient Rome extended into the spheres of production and distribution. Genteel authors like Galen retained the scribes and lectors who would copy and perform their works for a wider coterie of friends and followers. This culture of scarcity in turn imprinted itself onto reading practices. In the introduction to his treatise On Theriac to Piso, Galen describes visiting Piso at home and finding him in the midst of reading a medical treatise, an act of private reading that readily segues into an extended social performance for Galen’s benefit:

I once came to your house as is my custom and found you with many of your accustomed books lying around you. For you do especially love, after the conclusion of the public duties arising from your affairs, to spend your time with the old philosophers. But on this occasion you had acquired a book about this antidote [i.e., theriac] and were reading it with pleasure; and when I was standing next to you you immediately looked on me with the eyes of friendship and greeted me courteously and then took up the reading of the book again with me for audience. And I listened because the book was thoughtfully written … And as you read … a great sense of wonder came over me and I was very grateful for our good luck, when I saw you so enthusiastic about the art. For most men just want to derive the pleasure of listening from writings on medicine: but you not only listen with pleasure to what is said, but also learn from your native intelligence …

As Johnson notes, this passage is striking precisely because of its unfamiliarity, for what it says about the gulf that separates “Galen’s culture of reading” from “our own.” Specialised texts in the Roman world were so scarce—and hence so valuable—that it was axiomatic to readers like Piso and Galen that the “good luck” of mutual textual encounter should be maximised by an act of shared reading, not simply of a small extract, but of the entire work. The result is a precisely described scene of reading that baffles us with its strangeness.  What these anecdotes indicate is not only that, as Robert Darnton puts it, “reading has a history,” but that reading communities everywhere bear the unmistakable imprints of that history.

In early Victorian London, juvenile pickpockets reacted in their own way to the externalities of textual scarcity. As Henry Mayhew records, literate gang members would read their copies of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Calendar aloud in lodgings during the evenings to those in their networks who couldn’t read. These acts of shared reading not only fostered group identity, but enabled gang members to maximise their communal resources, to make literacy and textual possessions go further. The reading communities in early twentieth-century New Zealand that Susann Liebich has studied are similarly embedded in wider networks of friendship and group belonging. Sharing books and reading tips was, as she demonstrates, a means of “fostering connections,” a way for “readers to connect with each other and with a world beyond Timaru.” What each of these examples shows is that the social function of shared reading differs according to the needs and norms of the wider communities and cultures in which that reading community is embedded. At the same time, however, attending to these differences encourages us to consider what is distinctive about norms and practices within contemporary reading communities, helping us limn what Rob Koehler elsewhere on this blog identifies as “the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience” across time and space, within history and our own present moment.

Edmund G. C. King is a Research Fellow in English Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University, UK. He works on the Reading Experience Database and is currently researching British and Commonwealth reading practices during the First World War. He is co-editor (with Shafquat Towheed) of Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Please Return to the Stenographic Department

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Press photograph of disembodied hands holding a heavily annotated script for The Lady Eve (Paramount, 1941) by  Hal McAlpin. From the Collection of Robert M. Rubin.

Like a literary manuscript in a publisher’s office, screenplays face rounds of revision and annotation in the motion picture studio.  In the photograph above, someone holds a draft script for The Lady Eve, marked up with notes in several hands. Screenwriter and director Preston Sturges initialed a note in ink to “test… [lead actress Barbara] Stanwyck’s scream,” which a typed stage direction notes should sound like a steam whistle.  Penciled notes in at least two other hands highlight facts to be checked, details about props and costumes, and mark stage directions that risk violating the Hays Code. This photograph  – taken by still photographer Hal McAlpin and marked up for print publication – highlights the role of print in the transformation of a fictional narrative to a motion picture.

The disembodied hands are almost certainly script supervisor Claire Behnke’s (1899-1985), and their presence symbolize the relationship not only between the film script and the script supervisor, but the whole of the Paramount Stenographic Department. During the pre-production and shooting phases of motion picture making, script supervisors, clerks, and typists – typically women but sometimes male secretaries to screenwriters and directors – coordinated the changes made daily to the ur-text of the Hollywood picture. As drafts circulated among the specialized departments within a studio, script clerks and typists in the Stenographic Department collated these changes and produced new drafts in multiple copies as the entire team worked toward the completion of a final master-scene shooting script.

Book historians and bibliographers know well the analogous journey from manuscript to print.  In the early modern period, bookmen like Aldus Manutius collaborated with editors, type designers, and compositors with specialized skills to transform the manuscript texts of authors living and dead into stable and faithful printed texts in multiple copies for wide distribution. This often required substantive correction of the original manuscript and proofs of the printed text, often to a living author’s great surprise and dismay. The role of editors, illustrators, and type designers have evolved since the introduction of industrialized printing technologies in the mid-nineteenth century, but the importance of their relationship to the writers they work with and more generally to the production of printed works of scholarship, fiction, and poetry, has not diminished.  And as Leah Price and Pamela Thurschwell have pointed out in a co-edited collection of essays, Literary Secretaries/Secretarial Culture, typists have played an important role in the creation and consumption of literary (and non-literary) texts, too.

Like literary manuscripts, draft film scripts are complex artifacts of the process of correction and collation, but the end product is arguably much more complex. The motion picture relied not only on actors and directors, but specialist technicians who worked with sets, props, cameras, lighting, and sound equipment to craft a coherent, continuous narrative. Histories of film and screenwriting have thus focused on the way the text and format of the script evolved to coordinate this effort. Scholars Janet Staiger, Marc Norman, Tom Stempel, and Steven Price have described the evolution of the screenplay from the silent to the sound era, with a special focus on the development of the scenario, continuity, and master-scene scripts and the kinds of information contained therein. But in doing so, they’ve neglected the roles of the stenographic departments and the technological specialists employed by film studios and their relationships to the scripts they produced.

Three drafts of The Lady Eve survive today in independent curator Robert M. Rubin’s collection of scripts and other artifacts of the film production. Two date from October of 1940; the third, and earliest, contains a combination of material from an early draft dated December 1 and 2, 1938 with later revisions dated September 23, 30, and October 4, 1940. Revisions for Sequences A and B of the film accompany this script in a separate stapled packet dated August 26, 1940. Citing materials in the Preston Sturges Papers at UCLA and the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library, Turner Classic Movies notes that Sturges was forced to draft- and re-draft the play between 1939 and 1940 after criticisms from producer Albert Lewin, and after the Motion Picture Academy determined that “‘the definite suggestion of a sex affair between your two leads’ which lacked ‘compensating moral values.’” While the 1938-1940 draft in the Rubin collection is not the earliest surviving screenplay for the film (UCLA holds two earlier drafts), it’s an important record of the evolution of the text.

A bibliographical analysis of these drafts and others by Sturges shows how the Stenographic Department worked.  At the top left corner of nearly each leaf of text (which appears on rectos only), the typist’s initials trace each sheet back to man or woman who typed it.  For example, the initials “is” throughout Sequence A probably refer to Isabelle Sullivan, Sturges’ script supervisor for Sullivan’s Travels, which opened in 1942. The initials JA, EVG (probably Sturges’ personal secretary Edwin Gillette), LRR, and others appear on the pages in later sequences. At the top right corner, a system of hyphenated letters and numbers ordered the typed leaves within each sequence, and the script as a whole, respectively. The hyphenated number shows the leaf order within the Sequence, while numbers in parentheses below track the leaf count through the entire script. Dates were also typed at the bottom left to track the revision history of each leaf of the script across multiple drafts. The image below shows this system at work. In a draft of Sturges’ The Great Moment under it’s early title, Triumph Over Pain, leaves 6-8 in Sequence D (leaves 47-50 in the screenplay), are dated April 9, 1942, showing that two leaves of text were cut from a previous draft. Other pages in the same sequence are numbered 13a and 13b, indicating the addition of text, and dates show that these revisions were typed on April 13, four days after the D-6-7-8 revisions.

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Revised draft script of The Great Moment under it’s original title, Triumph Over Pain. From the Robert M. Rubin Collection.

Typists and secretaries in the Stenographic Department were thus responsible for collating previous drafts and tracking changes throughout the development of the screenplay as document, and they relied and expanded upon centuries-old bibliographical systems to do so. Including their initials on each page recalls the use of press figures in English hand-press printing. The use of letters to distinguish one sequence of the film from the next also recalls the use of signatures in hand-press printing. Sturges omitted the letter J when numbering sequences, just as hand-press printers did when organizing a sequence of text. What’s more important, however, is that typographical evidence shows that drafts (or, proofs) of The Lady Eve screenplay were circulated in sections or small numbers. Just as a hand-press printer would issue a proof of a printed text for correction by an editor, a member of the stenographic department would type a limited number of copies of an individual sequence for distribution to the screenwriters, producers, and other crew for review. How do we know? The 1938-1940 draft of The Lady Eve is comprised of sheets printed in three different media. Portions of Sequence A initialled “is” are top-copy typescript, while most of the remaining sequences were produced on a mimeograph machine.  The August 26, 1940 draft of Sequences A and B are carbon copy typescripts.

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Above: Scripts in three different media. Clockwise from top left: The Lady Eve (typescript, top copy), Sullivan’s Travels (typescript, carbon copy) and The Lady Eve (mimeographed copy).

Unlike early printers, specialists in the Stenographic Department of a Hollywood studio had a range of technologies to choose from to most efficiently produce the requisite number of copies of a text at any given stage of the editorial process.  A top-copy typescript functions much like a manuscript; the typewriter produces a unique copy of the text for distribution to just one person. Carbon paper was used to create up to five copies, for circulating the same text to a small number of people. If more than five copies were needed, or if a text had been stabilized to the point that it would be reproduced again and again for incorporation into subsequent drafts, a mimeograph stencil created a master copy of the text; one stencil could produce up to 1000 copies and, like standing type in a print shop, printed over and over again.

Typists were not simply taking dictation, or printing up a screenwriter’s handwritten notes on a text.  They were skilled technicians who operated a variety of complex mechanical systems for producing texts, much in the same way that sound engineers operated a range of specialized equipment on the set.  An in-depth knowledge of machinery and supplies, in addition to graphic standards and the distribution requirements of the printed document, were required to produce an acceptable script. (Even with the advent of modern word processing technologies, many of us struggle with setting tabs and margins; imagine doing this on a typewriter in a room full of click-clacking machines with carbon and onion skin paper.)  It is also clear that members of the Stenographic Department worked closely with screenwriters and directors, though as yet I haven’t been able to nail down the copy editing skills required of someone working with screenplays rather than printed publications or personal communications.

Unfortunately, secretarial manuals and narrative accounts of Hollywood studios document not only the technical skills of female typists and secretaries, but also the extent to which they faced sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Manuals often prioritized social skills for female typists, underplaying their specialized technical and linguistic prowess. Scripts, however, show the extent to which they engaged with the texts they produced. Tracking changes across multiple drafts and collaborating with individuals across departments within the studio required a deep knowledge not only of a film narrative and its development over time, but also of the work done by so many other specialists. Like the editors in a publishing house, or compositors in an early modern print shop, typists in the 20th century Hollywood studio were deeply engaged in rigorous, technical, creative, and mentally stimulating work.

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On the set of Sullivan’s Travels, script supervisor Nesta Charles or Isabelle Sullivan sits below screenwriter/director Preston Sturges. Images courtesy of the wonderful Script Supervisor Tumblr.

 

 

 

Ideas of Attachment: What the “Postcritical Turn” Means for the History of Ideas

by contributing editor Daniel London

In the early 1990s literary scholar and queer activist Eve Sedgwick broke rank and attacked what Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that dominated her discipline. Her early critique of Critique as ontologically rigid, morally cruel, and politically ineffective is now being taken up by a growing number of humanities practitioners, mostly within English departments. How can historians of ideas learn from, and contribute to, this nascent movement towards a “post-critical” sensibility? A fruitful way to begin is to analyze this movement’s most cogent and comprehensive manifesto thus far: English Professor Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015.

While the methodologies of Critique might encompass a wide range of particular practices, from Foucauldian genealogy to Freudian analysis to Marxist materialism, Felski believes that the purported radicalism and rigor of these practices derives from a singular premise: that the meaning of a text is not based on its empirical form or content, but the “intentions” of those broader social contexts which produced it. The relevant contexts here might be macro structures as revealed by “standing back” from the text (as Marxists or other structuralists might do) or they might be the hidden motivations of the texts’ producers as unveiled by “digging deeper” into the text (as Freudians and gender theorists have long practiced). In either case, the text – whether it be a novel, a painting, or a statistic – is not assumed to speak for itself.

Felski makes short work of the notion that this approach is inherently progressive: climate change deniers and the FBI are both self-identified experts at uncovering “the truth” behind seemingly translucent prose. She also mirrors Sedgwick in questioning the political efficacy of Critique’s pose of absolute resistance, a pose that derives from its more general skepticism of any positive “text” whether it be novels or social legislation. To quote Sedgwick at length and with pleasure,

Reparative motives, once they become explicit, are inadmissible in paranoid theory both because they are about pleasure (“merely aesthetic”) and because they are frankly ameliorative (“merely reformist”).’ What makes pleasure and amelioration so “mere”? Only the exclusiveness of paranoia’s faith in demystifying exposure: only its cruel and contemptuous assumption that the one thing lacking for global revolution, explosion of gender roles, or whatever, is people’s (that is, other people’s) having the painful effects of their oppression, poverty, or deludedness sufficiently exacerbated to make the pain conscious (as if otherwise it wouldn’t have been) and intolerable (as if intolerable situations were famous for generating excellent solutions).

Equally debilitating, however, are the limitations of Critique as a means of understanding texts in the first place. Much of these limitations, argues Felski, derives from its incapacity to identify how different texts, even those purportedly produced within the same “context”, could take such different forms and spark such different reactions among readers.  If all Victorian novels are unredeemably tainted with the patriarchal/racist/bourgeois sins of its context, why is it that we continually focus our readings around some texts– say, the works of Sherlock Homes – instead of others, such as his innumerable hack imitators and predecessors? Why do some texts seem to attract, surprise, and summon something from us in ways that others do not? Why are some texts adopted and appropriated across time and space, while others remain trapped as antiquarian prisoners of their birth?  The drive to contextualize, writes Felski, often cannot explain such differences in the operation, reception, and transmission of particular texts. As Bruno Latour  has cynically noted, practitioners of critique are perfectly realist in their appreciation of things they inherently enjoy – movies, exercising, fishing, etc. Only when discussing texts they do not like do they move beyond the text in question to a (much more articulate) talk of the hidden inputs and outputs that purportedly give it significance.

What is to be done? Felski does not recommend a return to discussing texts as self-sufficient units of analysis, as formalists and new aesthetics have recommended. Nor does she advocate a more gracious form of “surface” or “reparative” reading, however therapeutic. Rather, her stab at a solution proceeds from a redefinition of texts as co-producers of social reality, rather than as entirely reflective or autonomous from it. In language explicitly borrowing from Actor-Network Theory, Felski argues that the discrete characteristics of a text can, under certain circumstances, actively generate certain qualities – identification, empathy, inspiration – among readers. Felski urges literary scholars to attend to these circumstances, to trace the social interconnections, attachments, and productions that emerge through the interaction of readers and texts. Under this paradigm, writes Felski, “interpretation becomes a coproduction between actors that brings new things to light rather than an endless rumination on a text’s hidden meanings or representational failures.”

Felski does not explicitly spell out the broader consequences of such a methodology on the politics and mores of the academy. Nonetheless, her call for scholars to pay greater attention to what texts can enable or allow in their readers seems to echo a political vision that , in the words of Jeff Prunchnik, “places a higher priority on strategies for seizing on the constrained possibilities present within existing systems of social power than on critique as traditionally understood”. Her agenda also offers, I believe, a partial solution to the spiritual and ethical malaise felt by many graduate students (including myself) deriving from Critique’s tendency to “burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation”, in the words of Lisa Ruddick’s must-read essay When Nothing is Cool. Critique is quite proficient at deconstructing and damning expressions of compassion or empathy based on the sins of those who have articulated them in the past. It is quite silent, however, as to why and how we come to generate, cherish and care for certain values and artistic expressions that are not entirely based on ego or interest. A hermeneutics of attachment, along the lines Felski advocates, seems to offer an intellectually responsible way of gaining such an understanding.

How novel, familiar, or challenging should all this sound to historians of ideas or intellectual historians more generally? We should begin by stressing the close kinship of these disciplines to that of literary studies. In both cases, their defining methodologies seems to me a) a close reading of individual texts (novels, philosophical treatises, pamphlets) and b) a spiraling out towards the relation of these texts toward a broader set of contexts (either intellectual “communities of discourse”, institutional structures, other ideas, social/cultural fields, etc). Both disciplines were equally vulnerable to criticism in the 1960s and 70s that their preferred texts and contexts were overly narrow as compared with the more open-ended fields of social and cultural history. And both fields responded by reframing the contexts of their texts to encompass yet broader arrays of texts and contexts, and in so doing reframe their own significance.

Protected by their discipline’s stubborn empiricism, I suspect that historians of ideas have remained, with some notable exceptions, generally uncontaminated by the more totalizing strains of Critique that Felski lambasts within English departments. I also suspect, with less certainty, that histories of ideas as narrative forms possess a thicker vocabulary for defining “context” and explaining the transmission of text-actor attachments over time than can be found in their critique-driven counterparts. Whether their methods are complementary to the Actor-Network Theories Felski vouches for is the subject of another essay. Nonetheless, I am certain that she and many other post-critical theorists can learn a lot from the rich (though often theoretically under-developed) work of intellectual historians. Recent Developments in Book History, and bibliography particular, are also complementary to Felski’s agenda.

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Robert F. Westbrook, Joseph F. Cunningham Professor of History at the University of Rochester.

At the same time, I believe the topics historians of ideas pursue can become more aligned with the concerns of post-critical theorists.  This can be seen in the way such scholars attempt to study one topic of seemingly shared interest: the history of morality. In an excellent review essay in Modern Intellectual History, Robert Westbrook identifies several approaches intellectual historians have developed to chart the appearance and disappearances of ethical “oughts” over time. Such methods have generally taken either an “internalist” (tracking changes in the conceptual vocabulary of morality over time) or an “externalist” (examining how the ethical principles of a particular community both informed and were transformed by their own lived experiences) tact. I suspect that Felski would ask for a subtly different explanandum: why do some texts, and not others, summon different moral responses and allegiances from their audience? To answer this question would require examining such audiences and texts in a far more comparative manner than most have done so far.

“Why are we so hyperarticulate about our adversaries and so excruciatingly tongue-tied about our loves”? Felski asks at the beginning of her work. I don’t believe the humanities can unilaterally prescribe what we should love today, but their practitioners  are awakening to the fact that one of the chief values of the humanities lies in asking how these loves have developed, died, and survived in the past and in our own time with self-consciousness, empathy, and rigor.   I believe Historians of Ideas can play a crucial role in this collective moral inquiry, and should take inspiration from the post-critical turn that their efforts will have a waiting audience in the academy – and likely beyond.  

An Intellectual History of Their Own?

by guest contributor John Pollack

‘Tis the season. Not that season—but rather, the curious period in the United States between the holidays of “Columbus Day” and “Thanksgiving” when, at least on occasion, the issues confronting America’s Native peoples receive a measure of public attention. Among this year’s brutal political battles has been the standoff at Standing Rock Reservation, where indigenous and non-indigenous peoples from the entire continent have gathered to support the Standing Rock Sioux’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, the construction of which would threaten sacred lands. Although this conflict will not be a subject of discussion at every Thanksgiving table, at the very least the resistance at Standing Rock serves as a reminder of the very real environmental and political battles that continue to play out in “Indian Country.”

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Standing Rock Protestors. Image courtesy of The Lakota People’s Law Project.

On October 13, 2016, I attended a lecture given by Winona LaDuke to open the conference “Translating Across Time and Space,” organized by the American Philosophical Society and co-sponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum. I was in an auditorium at the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, but Ms. LaDuke did not attend the conference in person. She spoke instead from an office at Standing Rock, where she is leading resistance to the pipeline. Ms. LaDuke’s remarks at a conference focused upon the study and revival of endangered Native languages were a reminder to me and other audience members that being a “Native American Intellectual” means being a political figure, a public voice speaking and writing in contexts of imperial expansion and ongoing legal, military, and economic conflicts over territory. We may date the creation of the term “intellectual” to the late 1890s, with Emile Zola’s public attack upon the French military for covering up the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus—but it is arguably the case that Native American public leaders, whatever labels we assign them, have been speaking truth to power since 1492.

Over the past year, a team at Amherst College, in conjunction with the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums; the Mukurtu project; and the Digital Public Library of America, has been planning a framework for a “Digital Atlas of Native American Intellectual Traditions.” This exciting initiative promises to develop a new set of lenses through which we may observe and connect the intellectual histories of America’s indigenous peoples, across time and across territories. All students of the “history of ideas” should welcome this extension of the boundaries of the field in new directions.  

From Collection(s) to Project

Collectors of books and documents can play surprising roles in shifting scholarly attention in new directions, and this project is a case in point. In 2013, Amherst College Library’s Archives and Special Collections acquired the Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection. Known now as the The Younghee Kim-Wait (AC 1982) Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection, after its collector and the donor whose gift enabled the purchase, the collection, Amherst suggests, is “one of the most comprehensive collections of books by Native American authors ever assembled by a private collector.” (I would add that this is really a collection of mainly Native North American authors.) Few of the titles in the Eisenberg Collection are unknown or unique exemplars—but their assembly by one collector into one collection motivated Mike Kelly, Kelcy Shepherd, and their Amherst colleagues to investigate how such a collection might help reshape discourses about Native Americans and their intellectual histories.

 

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Click to view Amherst’s Flickr gallery of images from the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection.

 

Working outward from this impressive body of material, their project will create a framework drawing together “Native-authored” materials held in widely scattered repositories. They seek a digital solution to one of the problems researchers working in digital environments regularly confront: the difficulty of connecting related items across institutions. The authors note:

Search and retrieval of individual items allows for only limited connections between related materials, erasing relevant context. Tools for visualizing and representing these networks can ultimately provide even greater access and understanding, challenging dominant interpretations that misrepresent Native American history and obscure or de-emphasize Native American intellectual traditions.

Digital projects, I would add, can often exacerbate rather than reduce this effect of disaggregation and de-contextualization. Working online, we can easily fail to comprehend a collection of documents or printed materials as a collection, in which the meaning of individual items may be shaped by the collection as a larger whole. Some online projects select out particular items, extracting and featuring them—much as an old-style museum might present an artifact in a display with a rudimentary label, disconnected from its cultural origins. Others provide digital results in an undifferentiated mass. The immediate benefit of finding new materials online can feel impressive, but the tools for interpreting what we access can feel strangely limited.

The Digital Atlas, the authors argue, will fill a void, the current “absence of a national digital network for Native-authored library and archival collections.” Here they invoke that recurring librarians’ dream—the search for the perfect search tool. This can take the form of “union” catalogs that gather information from many places into one data source and make them easily searchable; or of “federated” searching, the creation of tools that straddle multiple data platforms and present results for researchers in a single, coherent view; or of the “portal,” an organized launching point that gathers disparate research materials together. Still to be negotiated, I imagine, is how this “national digital platform” will connect with other such “national” platforms, including the Digital Public Library of America.

Searching protocols represent only one of the challenges; the work of classification itself must be subjected to scrutiny. One of the project’s partners is Mukurtu, an open source Content Management System (CMS) that has been designed to encourage the cooperative description of indigenous cultural materials using categories designed by Native peoples themselves. Mukurtu, which describes itself as “an open source community archive platform,” provides tools allowing repositories to rethink the ways in which materials by or about Native peoples are categorized, cataloged, and accessed.

This new methodology will make “Native knowledge” more visible in collections held by libraries, archives, and museums:

The project will develop methods for incorporating Native knowledge, greatly enriching public understanding of Native culture and history. It will identify approaches for enhancing metadata standards and vocabularies that currently exclude or marginalize Native names and concepts. We will share this work with the digital library community and with Native librarians, archivists, and museum curators.

The project will “include both tribal and non-Native collecting institutions, building relationships between the two.” This promise to create new partnerships between academic and institutional collections and Native communities is a welcome vision of sharing and exchange. A number of institutions are redefining what the “stewardship” of Native documents or artifacts means and reconsidering the thorny question of who “owns” the cultural productions of Native peoples. At the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, for example, the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research has embraced a community-based methodology that actively shares indigenous linguistic collections with Native peoples and invites Native researchers to take intellectual if not physical ownership of these collections, wherever they reside.

This proposal’s creators have, for now, chosen to avoid a discussion of what is, and what is not, “Native-authored.” Authorship and authority are always contested domains, and Native authorship has been a subject of debate since the eighteenth century. Like African American writers, Natives have had to work with or against non-Native editors, printers, publishers, and of course readers. I hope that the Digital Atlas will give us new tools for studying these tensions and new ways to chart the impacts of Native author-intellectuals over time, in printed books, in periodicals and newspapers, at public events, and in letters.

Mapping an “atlas”

Another argument behind the Digital Atlas is that Native writing must be understood in its relationship to place: to location, to land, to social memory, and to the environment. At the same time, the authors insist that we cannot adopt a static spatial view but instead must focus on mobility—that is, on the connections between authors, texts, and routes.

The proposal poses this question: “What tools, methodologies, and data would be required to visualize and represent the networks through which Native people and authors traveled and maintained/produced Native space?” Data “visualization,” the use of mapping software to show nodes of activity and networked connections, has become a standard tool in the field of digital humanities and a frequent complement to scholarship in fields including book history, medieval and renaissance studies, and American literary studies. Indeed, Martin Brückner has recently argued that literary studies is in the midst of a widespread “cartographic turn,” noting the pervasive language of cartography—the map as tool and the map as metaphor—throughout the field.  

Given the project’s focus upon geography, visualization, and mobility, though, I confess that I find the Atlas’s emphasis that it will be a “national” product disappointing, if understandable—with its suggestion of a continuing focus upon the old familiar geography of the nation-state. I suspect that the project’s authors are well aware of this tension. Scholars like Lisa Brooks (an advisor to the Digital Atlas) and others have pushed us to think about the many routes along which Natives and their words have circulated: through territories shaped by geographic features and personal connections; along riverine networks; and over trading and migration paths that long antedate and overlap the national, state, or territorial borderlines drawn by European surveyors and colonial agents. Will the Atlas help us follow the movements of ideas along non-national paths and across networks other than those circumscribed by nations? I hope so.

Intellectual traditions, Intellectual histories

With its focus on assembling and mapping intellectual traditions, the Atlas proposal also makes the implicit argument that it is time to move beyond the old debate about the influence of the “oral tradition” and the impact of “written culture” upon Native peoples.

As Brooks and others have persuasively argued, anthropologists in the nineteenth and early to mid twentieth centuries often ignored the ways in which Native peoples used various forms of writing, including European ones, for their own purposes (cultural, literary, and legal), preferring instead to search for presumably older oral traditions that were somehow isolated from and uncontaminated by writing. Historians of Native America now question the dichotomy between oral and written. We must be particularly cautious about identifying the former as essentially Native and the latter as essentially Western or European.

In the European context too, the dichotomy has been questioned. Scholars including Roger Chartier and Fernando Bouza have pointed out the permeability of oral and written discourses within the European context and shown that these categories were both unstable and contested in the early modern period. Texts and images circulated through the social orders in complex ways, and oral, written, and visual forms maintained overlapping kinds of authority.

To be sure, European colonists, missionaries, and political leaders sought to create colonial regimes in which the written and the printed word would be dominant, even as orality continued to occupy an important place within their own cultures. Yet Native peoples in many regions, from Peru, to Mexico, to Northeastern North America often successfully retained their own highly developed cultures of oratory. And rather than classifying indigenous populations as peoples “without writing,” we have come to understand that the definitions of communication must be broadened to include the range of semiotic systems Native peoples used to share and exchange goods and information, and to preserve narratives and historical memory. Native peoples also adopted, adapted to, appropriated, or resisted European writing and print culture in a wide variety of ways.

But why, I wonder, will this be an atlas of intellectual traditions and not of intellectual histories? With this title, the project softens its potential impact upon the field known as intellectual history or the history of ideas. It seems to locate the project in an anthropological and not a historical mode. Native peoples, like peasants, workers, lower class women and other so-called “peoples without history” (to borrow Eric Wolf’s ironically charged phrase), are still too often relegated to the realm of tradition, and locked into a static past.

In 2003, Robert Warrior pointed out that the field of American Studies had only just begun to include the voices of Native American Studies scholars. We might now extend his point to encompass the field of the “history of ideas” or intellectual history. A search across the content of the Journal of the History of Ideas turns up not a single reference to Warrior or his work, and I am hard pressed to find a discussion in its pages of the “history of ideas” in Indian Country. Rather than assuming that the field’s concepts are too Euro-centric and have no bearing upon an equally complex but distinctly different realm of Native ideas and philosophies, I would prefer to work toward more common ground. We can expand the history of ideas to encompass Native American intellectual histories—while respecting Warrior’s call to maintain the “intellectual sovereignty” of Native America (Secrets 124).

I eagerly await the results of the Digital Atlas of Native American Intellectual Traditions. I look forward to studying its reimagined maps of American intellectual history, and to hearing more voices of the public intellectuals of Native America, past and present.

John H. Pollack is Library Specialist for Public Services at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Penn; he has published on colonial writings from New France and edited a volume of essays on Benjamin Franklin and colonial education. He is currently working on a monograph about the circulation of Native words in early European texts on the Americas.

What We’re Reading: Nov. 14-19

We have a couple of announcements to make with this week’s links round-up. We’re proud to have two new contributing editors joining our team: Disha Karnad Jani and Eric Brandom. Full bios for Disha and Eric are available on our Masthead, along with information about the rest of our editorial team.

Please also take a look at the October issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, which is available to all via Project Muse.

Erin:

Zeynep Tufekci “Mark Zuckerberg is in Denial” (NY Times)

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Haymarket Books)

Rhon Manigault-Bryant, “An Open Letter to White Liberal Feminists,” (AAIHS)

Max Nelson, “The Intrusion Artist” (Public Books)
New York Cinephiles: A great series of the Bresson’s films just wrapped up at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  The swanky new Metrograph has its own series of Bressons on from Nov.23 to Dec. 1. At Anthology Film Archives, an unrelated series of the films of Borges and Casares is on through Nov. 22.

I was disappointed not to attend “What’s Next? Exploring New Ways to Use Digital Early American Manuscripts,” an un-conference sponsored by the Colonial North America at Harvard Library Project.  Details here, or follow the conversation on Twitter, #WhatsNextHarvard.

Emily:

Max Weber, “Politics As a Vocation” (1919) is apposite reading in our times. So is the 1886 parliamentary debate over Gladstone’s first Irish Home Rule bill, which I taught this week.

James McDougall, No, this isn’t the 1930s—but yes, this is fascism (The Conversation)

Wendy Lesser, The Battles over Julia Ward Howe (NYRB)

Allison Miller, Contrary to Popular Belief: Recovering the Grassroots History of American Atheism (Perspectives)

Samuel Moyn, Freud’s Discontents (The Nation)

Andrea Rottmann, Gay Berlin? No, Queer Baden-Württemberg (Notches)

And not least, the BBC’s TV adaptation of Zadie Smith’s NW.

Daniel:

Martin Filler, “Building Dreams and Nightmares” (NYRB)

Richard Florida, “It’s Still about Class and Geography” (CitLab)

Judith Stein, “A Losing Coalition” (Jacobin)

Adolph Reed, “Splendors and Miseries of the Anti-Racist Left” (nonsite.org)

Michael J. Lewis, “The Genius of Winding Paths” (First Things)

Carolyn:

Simone Lässig, “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda” (Bulletin of the GHI)

Thorsten Benner, “Germany Can Protect the Liberal Order: Damage After Donald Trump’s Election” (Foreign Affairs)

James Cortada, “Were Farmers America’s First High Tech Information Workers?” (OUP Blog)

Finally, this week I have been enjoying some time with Tony Judt’s take on what has gone wrong with social democracy in the past thirty-six years in Ill Fares the Land, which I would recommend to anyone else still reeling from last week’s election.

Disha:

Toni Morrison, “Mourning for Whiteness” (New Yorker)

Geoff Manaugh, “Why Catholics Built Secret Astronomical Features into Churches to Help Save Souls” (Atlas Obscura)

Eric:

James Schmidt, “Images of the Enlightenment: The Lamp and the Sun” (Persistent Enlightenment)

Robyn Spencer, “‘Revolt at the Source’: Cedric Robinson’s Archive of Resistance” (AAIHS)

Sarah Phillips Castell, “Caribbean LIterature, Jewishness, and Global Holocaust Memory” (AAIHS)

John Lancaster, “Can We Escape from Time?” (NYRB)

Kyle Walker, “9 Great Novels about Anthropologists” (Public Books)

Joshua Cohen, “After Trump” (Boston Review)

 

 

Mandatory Reading: The Novel and the College Course in the Early American Republic

by guest contributor Rob Koehler

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Daniel Tompkin’s collegiate essay. Image courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Like a lot of college students today, Daniel Tompkins (1774-1825) spent much of his four years at the newly named Columbia College [now University] writing essays.  Foreshadowing his later political commitments as New York Governor from 1807-1817, he wrote about topical issues, pressing problems of social justice, and more abstract problems like the persistence of prejudice. Tompkins proved to be quite liberal in most of his sentiments, as in his arguments for the abolition of slavery, the end of capital punishment, and the demotion of the classical curriculum in the collegiate course.   Yet, for the purposes of this essay, Tompkins most interesting piece is “On Novels,” in which he defends fiction reading as a valuable part of an education.  Tompkins begins his essay by noting he was taught that novels were “solely for the amusement of puerile minds” but eventually came to realize that simply accepting this opinion was like being a child who “by [his] catechism [was] taught to admit principles as true without being convinced of the truth of them as [he] ought to be by [his] own reason”.  And Tompkins’ reason taught him to enjoy novels; in fact, he was willing to go so far as to relate the reading of novels to that of his own formal education at Columbia, writing:

It is further remarked, that novels have a bad tendency, by possessing a power of alluring the reader and cause him to devote his whole attention to them.  Mathematicks it is observed have the same tendency to those who have a relish for the pleasure arising from that study, yet in my humble opinion, this is not a sufficient demonstration to shew, that Mathematicks ought to be avoided.

Writing after having completed the mandatory two years of Mathematics required of Columbia students, Tompkins had the academic experience to make the comparison. It seems unlikely that most young men—who would have studied arithmetic as an effort to better their employment prospects during apprenticeship or after the work day had ended—would have shared Tompkins’ perspective on the subject and its more than practical purposes. It was his privileged position as a college student that made the comparison both sensible and useful.

In the early United States and in the Anglophone world more generally, criticism and praise of novels centered around their moral qualities and their impact on young women, not on young men.  In her magisterial study of early American novels and novel readers, Cathy Davidson focuses almost exclusively on the uses of novels as an informal—and somewhat subversive—education for young women in the dangers and possibilities of heterosociability, courtship, sexual relationships, and marriage.  A wealth of letters, diaries, and other sources back up Davidson’s claim, showing how female characters and the narrative frameworks of novels were taken up by young women to discuss their misgivings, fears, and hopes about their futures.  Yet, how did novel reading impact the intellectual lives of young men?

After all, no early American cultural pundit decried the deleterious impact of novel reading on young men or espoused his or her fear that it would lead to their seduction, ruin, and premature death.  This gap emphasizes the sexist and overtly regulatory functions of this kind of criticism of the novel, but it does not answer the question of whether young men read novels as avidly as young women, or what exactly that activity meant to them.  Some scholars—such as Bryan Waterman and Robb Haberman—have noted that, like young women, young men also used the literary language of the novel when engaging in romantic and sometimes sexually charged relationships and thus it became one mode of conducting a romance in the early Republic.

Based on Tompkins’ essay though, I suggest that the novel was also a part of the informal education of young men that became for many a lifelong interest.   The records of the New York Society Library from 1789-1792 document the reading of nineteen unmarried young men—all of them, like Tompkins, students or recent graduates of Columbia—who all checked out and read novels in addition to the history books, Latin translations, and reference books that they were likely using to accompany or supplement their courses. This cohort of young men such as John L. Norton, Samuel Jones, and James Parker showed many of the behaviors decried by critics of young women’s novel reading.  They regularly selected the newest rather than the best, they read salacious scandal fiction like Retribution or The Convent, and they read very quickly, often returning a volume of a novel the day after they checked it out.  But, they did all of this while also taking out a steady stream of works like Robertson’s History of America and Adam Ferguson’s History of the Roman Republic.  These habits show that, just like teenagers today, college students in the early Republic were multi-tasking, moving fluidly between various tasks and types of reading.

This is not to say that reading novels was not important but to say that it took place in a larger context of engagement with the printed word; for these privileged young men of the early Republic, novel reading was, as much as Mathematics, a part of a liberal education. What is perhaps most interesting is that for readers in this cohort, novel reading remained a pursuit after the end of their educational careers in a way that the reading of other types of works, many of which had been required for their educations, did not.  Because the library’s records between 1792-1797 are lost, there is a particularly jarring difference in borrowing for many of these men between their college days and their adult reading.  In their adult years, novels predominate in almost every reader’s record. While this might be evidence that a wife or child is using the account, the preponderance in so many accounts suggests that it is the men themselves.

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Governor and Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins. Image courtesy of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library.

And this returns me to Daniel Tompkins and a peculiarity in his comparison of reading novels to studying Mathematics.  Tompkins ends by commenting that “Mathematicks. . . have the same tendency to those who have a relish for the pleasure arising from that study, yet in my humble opinion, this is not a sufficient demonstration to shew, that Mathematicks ought to be avoided.” Tompkins is as much complaining about the dullness of Mathematics for most students as he is highlighting the enjoyability of reading a novel.  As the reading habits of others his age and background suggests, higher education did not generally invoke a passion in early American students to pursue learning for the love of it, instead they embraced novel reading as both educative and pleasurable. More generally, I think Tompkins’ defense of novel reading makes clear that whatever their more intimate and immediate purposes for young people during this period, novel reading often became—and still becomes for many young people—a steady habit, one that continued after  reading required for other purposes fell away. None of these men—unlike Tompkins himself who later became a Governor and then Vice President—would become particularly famous or well known in a field of endeavor in the early Republic, and most would lead lives that left little trace.  They all, however, seem to have made separate yet unquestionably linked decisions to embrace the reading of novels over other forms of improving intellectual pursuits that had formed a part of their formative education.

In an earlier post for this blog, I suggested that as scholars we have yet to consider what it would mean to develop a history of reading for pleasure instead of for purpose, or to develop a history of reading that did not place these two objectives in tension but, as these Columbia students did, instead in purposive relation.  Reading for pleasure is not an act of non-purposiveness but an act of a different purpose altogether.  The life of the mind does not solely originate in planned study and courses of reading, in the aggressively organized, disciplinary spaces of universities and learned sociability; it also develops in the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience that persist as much because of their often inexplicable enjoyability as their expressed purpose or lack thereof.

Rob Koehler is a PhD. candidate in English at New York University. He works at the intersections of education, literature, and publishing in early America, examining the political, legal, and cultural origins of schools and libraries as public institutions.

What We’re Reading: Nov. 7-11

Erin:

An Open Letter to Our Nation from 100 Women of Color Leaders

David Remnick, “An American Tragedy” (The New Yorker)

Masha Gessen, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” (NYR Daily)

Thomas Frank, “Swat Team” (Harper’s)

Bergis Jules, “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized Peoples in Archives” (Medium)

May Boeve, Deep breaths. Now Let’s Plan the Fight Ahead (350.org)

Marilynne Robinson, Lila (FSG, 2014 – I returned to this novel for a brilliant soothing, sane, American woman’s voice)

Emily:

Mark Mazower, Ideas that fed the beast of fascism flourish today (Financial Times)

Timothy Shenk, Democracy’s Revenge (Nation)

David Shariatmadari, Coming Out by Jeffrey Weeks – classic history of gay emancipation on the UK (Guardian)

David Clark, ‘The Inevitable Errors of First Explorations’? Revisiting John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality and other posts in the same series (Notches)

CFP: The Return of British History (Royal Historical Society/IHR)

Neal Ascherson, England prepares to leave the world (LRB)

Colleen Flaherty, In Trump’s win, professors see threats to science and academic freedom — but also an opportunity to connect with students (IHE)

Kwame Anthony Appiah, There is no such thing as western civilisation (Guardian)

Did you ever think to yourself, “I wish I could know what it would be like for twenty-first-century people to vote in the UK General Election of 1906? Either roll the clock back to 23 June or Tuesday, or watch the final episode of the BBC’s Victorian Slum.

Brooke:

Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (Harper’s)

Emmett Rensin, “The smug style in American liberalism” (Vox)

Mathew Rodriguez “Trans group reports suicides post-election; LGBTQ hotlines surge” (identities.mic)

Yitzchack:

Eric S. Godoy & Aaron Jaffe, “We don’t need a ‘war’ on climate change, we need a revolution” (NYT)

Adam Kirsch, “At Home in History, and Nowhere Else” (Tablet)

Leonard Cohen’s Final Interview (New Yorker)

How Reality TV Changed the Nature of Delusions (New Yorker)

 

Social Media in an Analog Age: The Henry Subscription (1898-1899)

by guest contributor Elizabeth Everton

In a 2009 interview, Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, drew upon the dictionary definition of “tweet” – “a short burst of inconsequential information” – to characterize his creation. Ten years after Twitter’s inception, few would persist in dismissing it as inconsequential; from the Arab Spring to Occupy and Black Lives Matter, the degree to which political and social movements thrive on social media is clear. Yet politics has always existed on the margins – dominant discourses have always been baited by smaller counter-discourses, composed not only of grand speeches but maddening collections of inconsequential information.

One legacy of the Dreyfus Affair is a welter of words, from Emile Zola’s justly famous “J’Accuse” to the hundreds of works of non-fiction and fiction inspired by the case.  The Affair also produced innumerable bursts of inconsequence, in the form of signatures on petitions and manifestos; letters, such as the 2000+ sent to Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus; postcards and songs, stickers and cigarette rolling papers; and names published in newspapers, intended to expose (lists of Jewish officers in the French military) or extol (lists of members of newly founded leagues).  And perhaps the most infamous, the Henry Subscription, the “Golden Book” of anti-Dreyfusism, the list of names and messages published between December 1898 and January 1899 in the anti-Jewish newspaper La Libre Parole.

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Sticker, “Français! N’achetez rien aux Juifs!” (Archives Nationales de France, 1898/1899)

The origins of the Henry Subscription lie in the byzantine efforts of the French Intelligence Bureau to block the reopening of the Dreyfus case, specifically the retroactive proof of Dreyfus’s guilt forged by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Henry in 1896.  Produced to the right people at the right time – that is, military and civilian officials casting about for reasons not to look further – this document seemed to settle the case until “J’Accuse” cracked it open in January 1898.  Reexamined under electric light, the forgery was discovered and its creator questioned and arrested. The next day, Henry committed suicide.

For Dreyfus’s supporters, this was proof not only of Henry’s guilt but Dreyfus’s innocence.  Historian Joseph Reinach, one of the foremost Dreyfusards, published a series of articles arguing that Henry had colluded in the treason for which Dreyfus was convicted.  Henry’s widow Berthe protested, bringing a suit for defamation.  La Libre Parole, an adversary of the Jewish Reinach, called upon the “good folk” of France to send money to pay the widow’s legal bills. The subscription drive started on December 14, 1898; by the time it wrapped up on January 15, 1899, over 130,000 francs had been raised from about 20,000 donations.  During the drive, La Libre Parole published subscriber names and messages, thousands upon thousands of them, a window into the identity and attitudes of the donors and, by extension, the anti-Dreyfusard movement.

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Masthead advertising Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 23 December 1898)

Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards alike immediately identified the Henry Subscription as a watershed.  In 1899, Dreyfusard Pierre Quillard published a compilation of subscription entries organized by profession, social status, and attitudes expressed in messages.  For Quillard, the Henry Subscription represented an outpouring of anti-Semitism, inflected with militarism and clericalism; his goals in compiling and publishing the entries were to name and shame subscribers and reveal the latent hatred at the subscription’s core. Historians studying the Henry Subscription tend to use this compilation – the original submissions being long gone and the published lists published unwieldy – but in so doing, they unconsciously reproduce Quillard’s Dreyfusard perspective. There is no question that many subscribers and messages were anti-Semitic; it was, after all, published in an anti-Semitic newspaper with the tagline “for the widow Henry against the Jew Reinach.” But the Quillard compilation decontextualizes the lists and imposes a new ordering system defined by a Dreyfusard interpretive framework exterior to the subscription itself.  For Quillard, the individual messages, excepting those that particularly reflect this whole, are unimportant –so many bursts of inconsequential information. This epistemological framework, in the end, obscures the perspective of the milieu that created the lists: the anti-Dreyfusards.

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Excerpt from the third list of the Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 16 December 1898)

Let us look again at these messages. The Henry Subscription as monument fades away, to be superseded by an image of the subscription as a work in progress, a collective project undertaken though the collaboration of thousands of subscribers, guided by the active intervention of the editors of La Libre Parole.  The first aspect of the subscription to be recovered is their temporal dimension.  The Henry Subscription lists existed not only to put anti-Dreyfusard attitudes on display but also to inspire further subscriptions, to be published on subsequent days.  This encouragement came not only from La Libre Parole but from the subscribers themselves, such as a December 15, 1898, message scolding of the Minister of War for not having subscribed. These sorts of appeals did not go unheard or unremarked; the name of General Mercier, the former Minister of War who engineered Dreyfus’s arrest and conviction, appeared at the head of the December 16 list.

What we see with the Henry Subscription, then, is a complex form of multidirectional communicative exchange.  It functioned as a public site where subscribers could communicate with the newspaper, with each other, with non-subscribing readers, and with those involved in the anti-Dreyfusard movement more broadly.  These communications ranged from the generic – the first message printed was an uncontroversial “for the love of France and its army” – to the surprisingly personal, including expressions of anger, sorrow, and shame.  Subscribers published these messages with the expectation that they would be read, and so they were.

Meaning can and should be found not only in the content of the lists but in their construction.  I suggest that the Henry Subscription can be read as a project akin to the Enlightenment Republic of Letters as expounded upon by Dena Goodman: a system of reciprocal exchanges working towards a common Enlightenment project, out of which emerges an oppositional public sphere. Drawing a connection between the Henry Subscription and the Enlightenment Republic of Letters seems absurd, given the disdain many anti-Dreyfusards felt for the legacy and values of the Enlightenment.  But similarities exist nonetheless, in its collective, collaborative nature and creation of an oppositional counter-state.  Few observers in 2016 can be surprised that counter-discourses and the technologies that amplify them need not be progressive. La Libre Parole described the lists as a “patriotic hodgepodge” in which people of all ages, genders, professions, and walks of life could rub shoulders.  The only commonality was their membership in the true nation, a sort of anti-Dreyfusard silent majority given voice by the subscription.  But the lists pose a conundrum.  For the anti-Dreyfusards, the nation was rooted in ethno-nationalist concepts of identity that excluded religious minorities and those identified as “foreign,” in sharp contrast to the assimilationist republic. We find in the lists, however, contributions from foreign nationals, from Protestants, and even from Jews.  In sending money and publishing their message, subscribers of all backgrounds could stake their claim in the nation.  To admire Madame Henry or the army, to denigrate Reinach and the Dreyfusards – these actions placed one within the “patriotic hodgepodge.”  Membership in the true nation, writ small in the lists of the Henry Subscription, can therefore be seen as not only a function of ethnicity but also of action.  Further examination of this document may reveal even more cracks in the seemingly solid veneer of the anti-Dreyfusard nation, not to mention the power of new technologies to shape or even create public spheres.

Lest the interviewer be fooled by his description of tweets as inconsequential, Jack Dorsey expanded upon his statement, explaining “bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds.  The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it’s entirely dependent on the recipient.”  What was true of Twitter in 2009 was true of the Henry subscription 110 years earlier and is true of other dribs and drabs of text that accumulate around political events.  Like the messages of the Henry Subscription, these texts may be partial, adulterated, or untrustworthy in various ways; in listening to them, we are as much at the mercy of their creators as we are with any other work.  Yet they can and should still be heard. The language of birds may be obscure, but it is not incomprehensible; with patience, these words too can be understood.

Elizabeth Everton is an independent scholar living in Charlotte, NC. She has a PhD in history from UCLA. She is currently working on a manuscript titled National Heroines: Women and the Radical Right during the Dreyfus Affair.

“They’re Going to Be Bused, Whether You Like it or Not”: Urban Whites and the Surprising Origins of Metropolitan School Desegregation

by guest contributor Michael Savage

In the United States, segregated metropolitan areas are a national phenomenon, with heavily minority inner-cities typically ringed by much wealthier and predominantly white autonomous suburbs. According to 24/7 Wall St., America’s three most segregated cities are in the North. Cleveland possesses the dubious honor of being America’s most segregated metropolis, followed by Detroit and Milwaukee. Boston takes seventh place, just edging out Birmingham, Alabama, a city whose terroristic violence against African Americans once earned it the nickname “Bombingham.”

This segregation did not occur as the result of impersonal market forces. Significant discrimination – both public and private – produced today’s segregated metropolises. Federal policies instituted during the New Deal had the effect of guaranteeing mortgages for whites only, while the refusal of many whites to sell to African Americans and the considerable community violence that often greeted black “pioneers” who moved to all-white neighborhoods helped solidify metropolitan racial divisions. Historians have told these stories and told them well. This history, however, is incomplete.

For a deeper understanding of metropolitan segregation, historians need to examine the alternate visions of metropolitan desegregation articulated by a most surprising source – segregationist urban whites. In battles over urban school segregation in the American North, it was urban whites of clear segregationist leanings who most forcefully pushed for desegregated metropolitan areas, demanding that desegregation reach beyond the political boundaries of the central city. While this may seem counterintuitive, it was simple pragmatism. Segregationist urban whites proposed metropolitan desegregation to weaken suburban support for integration but also because successful metropolitan desegregation meant a dispersal of the black student population throughout the region, ensuring the maintenance of white majority schools. These metropolitan proposals had the potential of combatting metropolitan inequality. Their failure, in the years following the push for civil rights in the American South, helps explain the near total separation of city and suburb and why Northern metropolises top the list of the most segregated regions.

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A fact sheet on the Freedom Stayout prepared by the suburban Brookline Committee for Civil Rights. Courtesy Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.

Boston, most known for its vehement opposition to desegregation busing, witnessed the longest and most widespread consideration of metropolitan school desegregation. When faced with 1965 Racial Imbalance Act that declared any school with over 50 percent “nonwhite” students “racially imbalanced,” the Boston School Committee responded with a strategy designed to weaken suburban legislative support for integration by proposing that the suburbs participate in mandatory desegregation. This strategy is evident in School Committeeman Joseph Lee’s satirically titled “A Plan to End the Monopoly of Un-light-colored Pupils in Many Boston Schools.” Lee’s first suggestion was to “notify at least 11,958 Chinese and Negro Pupils not to come back to Boston schools this autumn.” These students, a majority of Boston’s minority student population, were to attend suburban schools in order to integrate the suburbs. The suburbs, home to three times Boston’s population, averaged less than one percent black students in their public school populations, which Lee called “racial imbalance, if ever there was.” Though clearly designed to undermine the law and certainly not indicative of any moral commitment to civil rights, Lee’s satirical plan nevertheless raised valid questions about segregation in the metropolitan context.

Lee’s plan bore similarities to the voluntary Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO), which voluntarily bused black students from Boston schools to several suburban communities with available school seats. Jointly created by liberal suburbanites and Boston civil rights advocates in 1966, METCO offered city students access to superior suburban schools, provided a measure of socioeconomic integration, and made a contribution to lessening school segregation in the region. However, like the Racial Imbalance Act, METCO functioned at the farthest limits of suburban liberalism. It did not require that suburbanites send their children to black city schools, did not couple black school attendance with increased black residence in the suburbs, and its suburban founders, fearful of a loss of suburban support, downplayed their aims of full metropolitan desegregation.

The Boston School Committee faced several legal challenges to its segregation, none more important than the Morgan v. Hennigan case initiated by the Boston Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in March 1972. In its filing, the NAACP urged the “inclusion of suburban school systems as appropriate in the plan for desegregation, in order to achieve, now and hereafter, the greatest possible degree of actual desegregation.” In May the Boston School Committee voted four-to-one to ask the court to include 75 suburban communities as its co-defendants, seeking a metropolitan desegregation plan in the almost certain outcome of being found guilty.

As similar events in Detroit demonstrated, the Boston’s School Committee’s courtroom calls for metropolitan desegregation had the very real possibility of implementation. When the Detroit Board of Education approved a modest integration plan in April 1970, anti-integrationist whites formed the Citizens’ Committee for Better Education (CCBE) and successfully recalled integrationist Board members. The rescission of the integration plan prompted a legal challenge from the NAACP. Faced with the likelihood that the Detroit schools would be found unconstitutionally segregated, the CCBE urged the adoption of a plan of metropolitan desegregation just one year after recalling integrationist Board members. It was the first party in the case call for a metropolitan solution, and was quickly joined by the NAACP. CCBE members supported plans of metropolitan desegregation for the same reason they opposed intra-city desegregation – both emanated from a desire to keep their white children in white majority schools. CCBE Attorney Alexander J. Ritchie persuaded CCBE members to change course, telling them that “Your kids are going to go to school, and they’re going to be bused, whether you like it or not… Now do you want your kids to go to school where they’re the minority in a basically black school system, or do you want them to go to school where you’re still the majority?” Divergent motivations produced similar results. So similar were metropolitan plans produced by the CCBE and the NAACP that Judge Stephen J. Roth called them “roughly approximate.”

While Judge Roth accepted the CCBE’s metropolitan arguments and ordered the implementation of a desegregation plan affecting 54 independent school districts, the Supreme Court did not. In a strictly partisan five-to-four decision, in July 1974 Justice Potter Stewart joined Republican President Richard Nixon’s four appointees in reaffirming the separation of city and suburb, ensuring the maintenance of separate and unequal education in American metropolitan areas. As Justice Thurgood Marshall noted in his impassioned dissent, the Court’s decision would allow “our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities – one white, the other black.” Though this divide already existed, the Milliken decision exacerbated metropolitan segregation and helped codify metropolitan inequality.

As historian Matthew Lassiter’s analysis of desegregation in Richmond, Charlotte, and Atlanta demonstrates, school desegregation plans that incorporated the suburbs provided more lasting integration than plans limited to the central city alone. Affecting the entire region, metropolitan plans did not allow well-heeled whites to simply flee the desegregation mandate by leaving the city. In light of both cities’ re-segregated schools that are attended almost uniformly by the intersecting categories of poor and minority and their persistent residential segregation, it is worth revisiting these proposals. Undeniably conceived in white racism and prone to viewing black students as a problem population that needed to be dispersed, in such metropolitan plans also existed possibilities of meaningful racial and socio-economic integration.

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White Boston parents demonstrating outside Judge Arthur Garrity’s suburban Wellesley home. Though their protests primarily targeted arriving black students and buses, anti-busers frequently trekked to the suburbs to protest busing and decry elite busing supporters whose suburban residences placed them outside the desegregation mandate. Image courtesy WBUR FM.

The metropolitan proposals made in Boston and Detroit have been most influential in their failure. With mandatory metropolitan desegregation an impossibility, middle-class whites accelerated their flight from the central cities and the public schools. Suburbanites worked to ensure suburban autonomy from the central city. In Boston, a program proposed by 56 school districts before the busing decision that was designed to entirely eradicate segregation in the metropolitan area was hardest hit by the renewed push for suburban autonomy. In the program’s first and only year, 1976-77, a mere 210 students from three suburbs and Boston participated in its school pairing program. Suburbanites opposed participation in the program, fearing that it would lead to a metropolitan school district and mandatory busing. While the METCO program continued, it never experienced another period of growth and previously stalwart communities threatened to withdraw when the state planned to modestly trim the funds it provided to participating communities.

While historians have noted an increase in white flight following intra-city desegregation, they have failed to connect this to declining support for metropolitan cooperation and governance in the 1970s. Conversely, the burgeoning literature on “metropolitics” neglects the long history of proposals for metropolitan school desegregation. This is a mistake. A focus on proposals for metropolitan desegregation made by ostensibly segregationist urban whites allows for a broadened understanding of the history of metropolitan reform, urban history, and civil rights. This focus helps explain the growth and persistence of extreme disparities between the central city and its suburbs in America’s metropolises, particularly those in the North, and can help account for the lack of metropolitan solutions to a wide array of metropolitan problems.

Michael Savage is a graduate student in American History at the University of Toronto whose dissertation focuses on metropolitan approaches to school and housing desegregation.