Book Forum: Working Through Collective Memory

by guest contributor Asaf Angermann

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).

In efforts to conceive of the relation between the historical past in its “authentic” experiential immediacy and the consistency of its representation in our living memory, two questions arise which seem to contradict one another: can we ever gain access to an adequate, reliable concept of the past, the way it was “originally” experienced? And on the other hand, can we ever not seek, or even claim to have, such access—either cognitively or psychologically—to an “original,” “authentic,” even “primordial” lost history? What is the relation between the “authentic” immediacy of the past as it was experienced in “real time” and its conceptual, cultural, symbolic representation in contemporary consciousness? In Collective Memory and the Historical Past, Jeffrey Andrew Barash eloquently and convincingly argues for the inevitability of drawing a distinction between the two. “In designating the singularity of the remote past and its irreducible alterity in view of the present,” Barash aims “to deflate mythical claims concerning the scope of collective memory and to distinguish it from the historical past lying beyond it” (p. 216). Such distinction is necessary, for the historian and the philosopher as much as for contemporary society as a whole, in order to allow for critical reflection on the past and its meaning for the present as well as on the mechanisms that produce and reproduce such meanings. The illusion or myth that collective memory stands in some form of direct relation to the historical past, that it consists of adequate representations of the past “the way it was”—which allows for an “authentic” concept of past experiences—jeopardize the capability of critical disentanglement of life and myth, experience and representation. Put another way (to use the phenomenological terminology that is fundamental to Barash’s investigation), they disguise the disparity between the immediate “lifeworld” of original experience and its transfigurations in the symbolic order created in the public sphere by new forms of mass media.


University of Chicago Press (2017)

In order to gain a sustainable critical concept of collective memory, Barash maintains, one must depart from the idea of an adequate correspondence between collective memory and the historical past. As Sophie Marcotte Chénard noted in her forum contribution, “one might think that Barash completely rejects the [concept of] ‘historical past’”, only to realize that his nuanced critical approach actually aims to “preserve the specificity” of both.

A main question that arises—as I will argue along with a certain reservation—concerns such “preservation of specificity.” The immediacy of an original experiential lifeworld in the historical past, that collective memory, precisely in its intention to symbolically and communicatively represent, actually mystifies and mythologizes, a process which only the careful distinction suggested by Barash could counteract, namely to rescue the one from the other’s grip. The phenomenological terminology and methodology that Barash employs and extensively introduces in the historical-philosophical introduction and in the theoretical analyses of the book’s first part entails precisely this.

Commencing with Plato’s theory of reminiscence (“learning is reminiscence”), Barash provides a meticulous overview of theories of recollection, spanning the positions of Locke, Bergson, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and Benjamin. While the introduction primarily concerns itself with the relation between memory, recollection, and reminiscence on the one hand and personal identity and the historical dimension of human existence on the other hand, the book’s first part elaborates a specific phenomenological argument. The immediacy of original experience—Husserl’s phenomenological idea of a leibhafte Erfahrung, a first-order experience “in the flesh”—has a certain “primordial capacity” (p. 40), which can be remembered but defies mediation. Any second-order representation precludes “precisely the aura of a singular presence encountered in the plenitude of a surrounding ‘lifeworld’ (or Lebenswelt)” (41). It is remarkable that Barash here essentially interrelates Husserl’s late theory of “lifeworld” from his 1936 unfinished and posthumously published book The Crisis of the European Sciences and the Transcendental Phenomenology with Walter Benjamin’s central concept of aura from “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproduction” (written 1933-1934, published 1935). The immediacy of an experience “in the flesh” of either an historical or a personal event loses its unique aura while efforts are simultaneously made to preserve and recreate, commemorate and represent precisely this lost “lifewordly aura.” Collective memory in Barash’s account is based on a “network of embodied symbols” that aims to represent “a past that lies beyond all contemporary memory—the remote memory borrowed from the testimony of others and attested by their traces” (p. 50). It is a form of compensation for the lost immediacy, creating a surrogate aura for the lost “primordial,” “original” experience.


Edmund Husserl

In an impressively comprehensive and carefully detailed analysis, merging arguments from philosophy, historiography, literature, visual arts, and mass media, Barash proceeds to illuminate concrete articulations of such dialectics between the irrecoverable immediacy of the historical past and the attempts to reestablish it through symbolic—and often mythical, not least in the political sense—representations. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech of August 1963, a decisive moment in the formation of contemporary American identity, provides a crucial example in Barash’s account for discerning between its historical impregnation as “symbolic embodiment” (p. 57) in collective memory and its “horizon of contemporaneity” (p. 55), the immediate experience of its original “lifeworldly aura.” No symbolic representation, however coherent and accurate, can ever truly represent the lifeworldly immediate experience “in the flesh”: “the attentive silence of the forces of order, the casual apparel of many of the demonstrators, their enthusiasm and generally upbeat mood” during the historical speech (p. 53). All of these experiential contingencies are necessarily removed and reified in collective memory. Barash provides numerous thought-provoking examples for such discrepancy, in particular representations in painting, photography, and televised events. The inspiring treatment of these various forms of direct and indirect representations draws upon and simultaneously advances the phenomenological method of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricœur along with a critical theory of mass media following Benjamin. (Here I suspect that adding the sociological perspective developed by Alfred Schütz and Thomas Luckmann would introduce an interesting dimension to the discussion.)


Theodor W. Adorno

The distinction between the immediacy of experience in the historical past as well as the symbolic embodiments and transfigurations it undergoes in collective memory presupposes, however, that such original immediacy of “leibhafte Erfahrung” in the historical past was itself indeed free—“purified” in Husserl’s language—of any such “external,” “impure” representations. In the 1930s, Theodor W. Adorno worked on what he considered to be an “immanent critique” of Husserl’s phenomenology. His book on Husserl, On the Metacritique of Epistemology: Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomies (Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie: Studien über Husserl und die phänomenologischen Antinomien; curiously translated into English as Against Epistemology with the original only published in 1956) unfolds the intrinsic antinomies, the paradoxes Adorno sees entailed in Husserl’s work. They predominantly concern the very idea of such a distinction as seems to me to be central to Barash’s argument on the lost immediacy of original experience. Adorno questioned the validity of such “primacy” or “originality” and contended that precisely what seems to be the most “primordial” and “pure” merely conceals its historical and social character: “[t]he search for the utterly first, the absolute cause, results in infinite regress,” since what we experience and cognize as “immediacy” is historically and socially mediated while seeking to conceal this mediation (Adorno, Against Epistemology; p. 29). “This illusion,” Adorno writes, “is a function of reality and historical tendencies. […] Reified thought is the copy of the reified world. By trusting its primordial experiences, it lapses into delusion. There are no primordial experiences” (p. 109). In other words, Adorno expresses radical skepticism concerning the very immediacy of experience that the phenomenological approach sees as given in the historical past, and which, according to Barash, can never be sustained as such in collective memory. The worry that we can draw from Adorno’s perspective concerns the concealed entanglement of historical past and collective memory, which may overshadow the inevitability of a distinction between them. If the historical past does not necessarily imply a “primordiality” or “authenticity” of lifeworldly experience, but rather mediated representations and transfigurations as the later collective memory, the distinction might blur rather than sharpen its critical function.

It seems to me that Adorno’s argument does not necessarily contradict, but rather complement Barash’s important critical objective, however. In his historical-political intervention, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past” (1959), Adorno addresses a different kind of gap between collective memory in post-war Germany and the historical past, and he warns against drawing a sharp distinction between them, raising another dimension of a “working through.” (Aufarbeitung: reprocessing, working up, cognitively dealing with). Beyond questions of responsibility and guilt, Adorno is troubled by its latent aspects: the infiltration of the unworked-through historical past, itself containing ideological and symbolic mediations which perceive themselves as “original” and “primordial” into collective memory, into the process of “working through”. “National Socialism lives on,” Adorno states in 1959, “and even today we still do not know whether it is merely the ghost of what was so monstrous that it lingers on after its demise, or whether it has not yet died at all” (Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” in: Critical Models; p. 89-90) According to Adorno, the mythical residues of a different form of “authentic,” “primordial” experience in the past, that of xenophobic sentiments and ethnic supremacy, carry on latently in the form of representations and symbolic embodiments into the collective memory of the present. “Working through” for Adorno is not measured by the authenticity of a lifeworldly experience; it is, rather, a conscious “turn toward the subject” (Critical Models, p. 102 ), critical questioning of the “authentic” sources of the self, whose undercurrent claim of “primordiality” undermines such conscious “working through.”

Can the culture of remembrance ever be free of ideological, political, material interests that claim to rely on authenticity, primordial experience, on being there “in the flesh”? In other words, what seems to be most subjective, immediate lifeworld experience, and ostensibly cannot be imported as such into collective memory, might indeed intrude it from underneath, subterraneaneously, creating the deceptive myth of a “primordial,” “in the flesh” experience to gain authority over the “true,” “authentic” mode of representation. Adorno’s political critique of phenomenology may therefore complement Barash’s impressively vital project. Alongside the importance of differentiating between historical past and collective memory, it may be as necessary for critical historical reflection to detect the undercurrents of entanglements and infiltrations between them: the modes in which the historical past still invades collective cultural memory in a reified, mythical, ghostly manner, potentially giving rise to a re-invention of “Holocaust centers.”

Asaf Angermann teaches in the Department of Philosophy and the Judaic Studies Program at Yale University. He is the author of Damaged Irony: Kierkegaard, Adorno, and the Negative Dialectics of Critical Subjectivity (De Gruyter, 2013, in German), editor of Theodor W. Adorno and Gershom Scholem, Correspondence 1939-1969 (Suhrkamp, 2015, in German; English translation in preparation for Polity Press), and translator of Theodor W. Adorno, Education to Responsibility (HaKibbutz HaMeuchad, forthcoming 2017, in Hebrew). He is currently working on a book about the philosophical interrelations between Adorno’s social critique and Scholem’s religious anarchism.]

What We’re Reading: Week of April 17

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


Steven Nadler, Who was the first modern philosopher? (TLS)

James Meek, Somerdale to Skarbimierz (LRB)

Owen Bowcott, Opening of UN files on Holocaust will ‘rewrite chapters of history’ (Guardian)

Timothy Burke, Home to Roost (Easily Distracted)



Martin Pugh, “Why former suffragettes flocked to British Fascism” (Slate)

Steve Rose “Lady Macbeth: how one film took on costume drama’s whites-only rule” (The Guardian)


Tim Barker, “The Bleak Left: On Endnotes” (N+1)

Brandon Byrd, “‘Haiti for the Haitians’: A Genealogy” (Black Perspectives)

Christopher Chitty, “Reassessing Foucault: Modern Sexuality and the Transition to Capitalism” (Viewpoint)

Miya Tokumitsu, “The United States of Work” (New Republic)


Mark Perry, “Why the World Banned Chemical Weapons” (Politico)

Siddhartha Mukherjee, “Love in the Time of Numbness; or, Doctor Chekov, writer” (New Yorker)

You’re not as smart as you think you are” (The Economist)

Meghan O’Gieblyn, “The Ghost in the Cloud” (n+1)


Michael Wood, “Fritz Lang and the Life of Crime” (LRB)

David Garnett, Beany-Eye (Chatto & Windus, 1935)

Dennis Mullen, “The Needham Calculator (1.0) and the Flavors of Fifteenth-Century Paper” (The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies)

Jacey Fortin, “Dolly Parton College Course Combines Music, History, and Appalacia Pride” (NY Times)


Sarah Hagi, “All Your Favourite Cartoon Characters Are Black” (Vice)

Faisal Devji, “Age of Sincerity” (Aeon)

Ijeoma Oluo, “The Heart of Whiteness” (The Stranger)

Jonathon Catlin, “The Intellectual Under Trump: Between Solitude and Solidarity” (The Midway Review)

Abigail Bereola, “‘When You’re Writing, Everything is in Retrospect: An Interview With Durga Chew-Bose” (Hazlitt)


Ervand Abrahamian and Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, ‘Iran’s Past and Present,’ (Jacobin)

Keisha N. Blain, ‘On Transnational Black Feminism,’ (Black Perspectives)

Anne Margaret Castro, ‘The Archive, the Canon and C.L.R. James’ Race Dream,’ (Voices Across Borders, TORCH Blog)

Rhian Sasseen, ‘The Alt-Right’s Image Problem,’ (LARB Blog)

Daniel Trilling, ‘On Colonialism,’ (LRB)

Global History of Ideas: A Sea for Fish on Dry Land

by guest contributor Dag Herbjørnsrud

A remarkable example of how ideas migrate across so-called cultural borders and change minds in unknown ways happened in the German city of Bremen on October 8, 1930. There, Martin Heidegger gave a speech based upon his masterwork Being and Time (1927). Afterwards, he and several of Bremen’s citizens gathered at the home of a wholesaler. During the evening, Heidegger suddenly turned to his host and asked, “Mister Kellner, would you please bring me the Parables of Zhuangzi? I would like to read some passages from it.”


Sein und Zeit
(Being and Time; 1927)

Martin Buber (1878–1965) had already translated these parables of a founder of Daoism (Taoism) in 1910 with the help of Chinese collaborators, one of his first acclaimed books, Reden und Gleichnisse des Tschuang-Tse (Leipzig, 1910). Buber’s afterword connects Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu/莊子 369–286 BC) with his reading of the Bible, and this can be seen as advance notice of sorts for his later philosophy of “I and You” (“Ich und Du”). It was this book that Heidegger demanded.

The tradesman didn’t hesitate but went to his library and returned with a new edition of Buber’s translation. Heidegger started reading from Zhuangzi’s chapter 17, which in this context might be seen as a follow-up to his own speech “On the Essence of Truth”. Heidegger read from the passage where Zhuangzi says to the thinker Hui Tzu, known for his Zeno-like paradoxes, as they walk by a river:

Do you see how the fish are coming to the surface and swimming around as they please? That’s what fish really enjoy.”

“You’re not a fish,” replied Hui Tzu, “so how can you say you know what fish really enjoy?”

Zhuangzi said: “You are not me, so how can you know I don’t know what fish enjoy.”

The people of Bremen could relate to this 2200-year-old Chinese conversation. As an eyewitness described it: “The deep meaning of the legend cast a spell on all who were present. With the interpretation he offered of that legend, Heidegger unexpectedly drew closer to them than he had with his difficult lecture….”

Heidegger’s and Buber’s dialogue with the thinking of Asia seems to prove that Arthur O. Lovejoy was right when, in the first issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas in 1940, he pointed out that “ideas are the most migratory things in the world.” Human thoughts are like fish that swim as they please. There are no borders underwater. The connections in our minds transcend modern categories in unknown ways, and thus our ideas migrate across ages and seas – from Zhuangzi’s ancient town of Meng in eastern China to Kellner’s modern home in northern Germany.

Heidegger seems to have proved that ideas are the most migratory things in the world long before he became internationally famous. When he studied in Freiburg with the philosopher Shuzo Kuki (1888–1941) from Japan, Heidegger read Edmund Husserl’s major work with him and other East Asians once a week, as he stressed in one of his late major texts, “Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache. Zwischen einem Japaner und einem Fragenden” (1959) (“A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer”) – set out as a conversation between two professors. By that time, in 1921, transcripts of Heidegger’s classes were already translated into Japanese, which might be regarded as the first recognition of his groundbreaking philosophy. Indeed, Japanese was the first language Being and Time was translated into – in 1939, a staggering twenty-three years before the first English translation.


The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, 3rd century BC)

If we re-read Heidegger’s 1927 work from such perspectives, we might understand why many East Asian philosophers feel more at home in his thinking than most Europeans.  As he concludes: “One must seek a way of illuminating the fundamental question of ontology and then go this way. Whether this is the sole or right way can be decided only after one has gone along it.” This insistence on finding and going the way in order to seek the essence of being, might be hard to grasp with a so-called Cartesian or modern perspective, trying to make philosophy a part of science, but it seems all the more natural from Zhuangzi’s point of view and the way of thinking about the Way (Dao).

After the Nazi era, Heidegger concludes much of his wandering in Unterwegs zur Sprache (1959) (On the Way to Language). In that work he explains his 40-year-long quest for a deeper, pre-philosophical source which connects us as beings across time and space: “The word ‘way’ probably is an ancient primary word that speaks to the reflective mind of man. The key word in Laozi’s poetic thinking is Tao, which ‘properly speaking’ means way […].” He concludes: “The lasting element in thinking is the way.” In this way the thinking of China and Japan breathes in Heidegger’s philosophy. Europe’s foremost thinker of the 20th century cannot be properly understood without knowledge of Asia’s philosophy.

Heidegger’s universal quest might also be something for our times. Heidegger was seeking a thinking experience which would assure “that European-Western saying and East Asian saying will enter into dialogue such that in it there sings something that wells up from a single source.” And he walks the walk in the dialogue with his friend, as when he finds out that the Japanese word for language, ‘koto ba,’ is the best way to better understand his own language, German.

Thus, both Zhuangzi and Heidegger formulated central challenges and opportunities for the 21st century. Zhuangzi by asking us to see “the Others”, understand what they enjoy, and acknowledge it. Heidegger by asking us to seek a way to understand his thinking, his transcultural roots, and his search for a common human ground. Or as professor Reinhard May puts it: “In order to gain a new perspective from this ‘Heidegger case’,” we will have to devote ourselves to other people’s thinking “as thoroughly as to that of our own tradition, not least since Heidegger has, in his own special way, demonstrated the necessity of transcultural thinking.”

In this light we can also see how Heidegger questioned the basis of our modern thinking in Brief über den ‘Humanismus’ (1947) (Letter on ‘Humanism’): “Philosophy is hounded by the fear that it loses prestige and validity if it is not a science,” Heidegger wrote. And again he returned to a fish metaphor: “Thinking is judged by a standard that does not measure up to it. Such judgment may be compared to the procedure of trying to evaluate the natures and powers of a fish by seeing how long it can live on dry land. For a long time now, all too long, thinking has been stranded on dry land.”

He didn’t write it explicitly, but this metaphor seems to be a reference to another of Zhuangzi’s parables (number 6): “When the springs dry out, the fish are found stranded on the earth. They keep each other damp with their own moisture, and wet each other with their slime.”

Vital parts of our migratory history of ideas have become stranded on dry land since the encounter in Bremen. At the same time, a new awareness might be dawning of the importance of our long-forgotten global interconnectedness – as can be seen from Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori’s Global Intellectual History (2013) or Jonardon Ganeri’s “Why Philosophy Must Go Global: A Manifesto” (2016). The history of ideas can also learn lessons from the new insights now being presented in the field of global history and the de-centering of perspective, or from earlier times: The “universalism” of Mozi, or the argument for “world literature” by both Goethe and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

The world is not just connected by trade, as Hajime Nakamura pointed out in A Comparative History of Ideas (1975). Even more importantly, humans are bonded by those migratory ideas that transcend national and cultural borders. And as Heidegger showed, we don’t have to meet physically in order to face each other. In the global history of ideas we can rather stand face to face through texts across ages and seas.

Such a history of ideas has the potential to give us new and fresh ways of looking at our world, as the participiants at the gathering in Bremen found out. This is not just because “there is no such thing as western civilization,” or eastern civilization for that matter, as Kwame Anthony Appiah puts it. It is also because new research frequently proves that our cultural heritage is often not what we are taught to believe. Heidegger’s critique inspired the Algerian-born Jacques Derrida to develop the German term “Destruktion” into the French concept of “déconstruction”. As the time and being of the 21st century drags on, it might be about time to add reconstruction to deconstruction.

A reconstruction of our natural and common global history of ideas can be seen as a fulfillment of the thinking of Zhuangzi, “the first deconstructivist”. He disavowed the ideologies of rulers and the hierarchies of scholars that imprison the human mind, leading individuals astray from their own innate nature (hsing). The stringent argument that we are being taught is logic is far too often nonsense – because, rather, eclecticism is all. The eclectic, comparative, and inclusive way of thinking pours water over stranded fish, making reconstruction a flow of the natural way (wu wei 無爲). If we follow the way of Zhuangzi and read the classics anew, we can reconstruct our past based not on an ethnocentric take, but rather on a comparative and transcultural perspective – placing weight on our migratory ideas. Instead of studying history of ideas within a national or ethnic framework, we might re-orient and be on the way to reconstruction with the help of three ‘C’-terms: Contact. Comparison. Complexity.


John Adams concluded that the democracy of the US resembled that of Phoenician Carthage more than any other republic

We might for example see the way Thomas McEvilley has shown how the pre-Socratics and Plato were influenced by the thinking of India, a country where the secular and materialistic Lokayata (Carvaka) philosophy has prevailed for over 2500 years (Contact). Such global and comparative perspectives on the world of ideas can release us from the ethnocentrism that has left our thinking stranded on dry land for all too long now. If we follow such channels of thought, we discover that it was not Athens, nor any Greek city-state, that Aristotle hailed as the best-governed or most democratic. Instead, in Politics, he held up Phoenician Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, as the state with the best constitution, the most stable rule – which was not prone to tyranny – and as the place where the people had the most say when it came to electing politicians (Comparison). As the second US president John Adams pointed out in A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America (1787): “This government [of Carthage] thus far resembles those of the United States of America more than any other of the ancient republics, perhaps more than any of the modern…” (Complexity).

Thus, the reconstruction of a global history of ideas makes the founding fathers and the basic documents of our past ripe for rereading from a comparative and non-ethnocentric perspective. Man is not an island and neither is the world – nor have they ever been. Rather, man is a fish, ever in danger of being stranded on dry land. But the springs can be refilled, opening up new channels of thought so that more fish can swim as they please – just as a simple question taught the merchant Kellner, Heidegger, and their guests how to enjoy swimming in the vast seas of the global history of ideas.

Dag Herbjørnsrud is a historian of ideas from the University of Oslo with a cand. philol. thesis on the late philosophy of Robert Nozick. He is the author of the book Globalkunnskap (2016, “Global Knowledge. Renaissance for a New Enlightenment”) at Scandinavian Academic Press, and the founder of the recently established Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas (SGOKI).

Please Return to the Stenographic Department


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.


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.

img_5697       img_5703  img_5698

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.


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.




Greek to Me: The Hellenism of Early Print

by guest contributor Jane Raisch

The difficulties of printing Greek are something of a refrain amongst its earliest printers. “Anyone who criticizes me is quite unjust and ungrateful,” the acclaimed printer of the classics, Aldus Manutius, complained in the preface to his Herodotus, Hesiod, and Theognis (1496), “I would not wish them anything worse than that they too should one day print Greek texts.”[1] For Aldus and other printers in the incunabular period, printing Greek did indeed pose genuine, technical challenges. Unlike Latin, Greek is accented, not only above but also below the line, and determining the most efficient and cost-effective way to render its accents in movable-type was an ongoing problem. Additionally, the so-called “Greek humanist hand” popular in the late fifteenth century incorporated a number of complex ligatures, abbreviations, and flourishes which required cutting even more distinct pieces of type. And while Aldus’ Greek type design would ultimately become the standard, influencing the appearance of printed Greek for the next two centuries, exploring various experiments with Greek typography in the incunabular period (and the decades just after), especially the innovations of the Byzantine scholar, Janus Lascaris, reveals the dynamism and creativity that surrounded early attempts to reconstruct ancient Greek via print.

A few decades before Aldus and Janus Lascaris, the Cretan émigré and printer Demetrius


Sweynheym and Pannartz’s Lactantius (1470). Image provided courtesy of the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

Damilas addressed the challenges of printing Greek in the dedication to his edition of the Erotemata of Constantine Lascaris (1476), the first book to be printed entirely in Greek: “with difficulty I have found at last how Greek books might be printed too, not only in the composition of the letters which is sundry and complex in Greek, but especially in those places marked with accents, which is certainly a difficult business and it requires no little consideration.”[2] Before Damilas’ Erotemata, Greek text had been printed, but only as quotations or proper names within primarily Latin texts. The Lactantius of Sweynheym and Pannartz (1470) is perhaps the most famous example. These earliest attempts to print Greek, however, used noticeably reduced, sometimes non-existent, systems of Greek accents, making Damilas’ introduction of fully accented Greek type a crucial innovation. Nonetheless, printers after Damilas continued to experiment with and refine various strategies for typographically representing accented Greek on the printed page.

Lascaris Erotemata

Demetrius Damilas’ Erotemata of Constantine Lascaris (1476). Image provided courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Printing, indeed even learning, Greek in this early period was further inflected by a certain amount of controversy. As Simon Goldhill has explored in Who Needs Greek?, learning Greek was initially met with resistance by certain clerics who perceived it as a threat to Christian Latinity. In the early sixteenth century, the monk Nicolaus Baecham went so far as to declare, in an attack on Erasmus’ new translation of the Greek New Testament, that Greek was “the font of all evil”[3] (Goldhill, 26). Erasmus himself was both a great champion of Greek studies and actively involved in the world of early Italian Greek print: a friend of Aldus, Erasmus spent many months at the Aldine Press in Venice perfecting his Greek and working on various scholarly Greek projects. According to Erasmus, the suspicion surrounding Greek (and even Hebrew) went beyond just reading the language or translating scripture. In his famous Letter to Martin Dorp, Erasmus mocks  “certain individuals who pass for serious scholars” who “hastened to implore the printer, in the name of everything sacred, not to allow the insertion of a single world of Greek or Hebrew: these languages were fraught with immense danger and offered no advantage, and served only to satisfy men’s curiosity.”[4]

This anxiety Erasmus describes links the visual potency of simply representing the Greek alphabet on the page to an almost perverse voyeurism; seeing, not even reading, Greek is a prelude to disaster. And indeed, since the number of literate individuals who could read Greek in this period was tiny, viewing rather than comprehending would have been the more common form of readerly engagement. The visual design of Greek letters on the page, then, carried a particular significance: implicitly shaping how both readers and non-readers of Greek encounter the newly recovered language via a kind of extra-textual legibility.

Aldine Hero and Leander

Aldus Manutius’ first edition of Hero and Leander (1494(?)). This offers an example of one of Aldus’ earliest Greek types in which a number of abbreviations, ligatures, and flourishes are visible. Image provided courtesy of the University of California, Los Angeles, Special Collections.

Aldus elected to base his type off of contemporary Greek handwriting, the “humanist hand” that the Byzantine scholars directly involved in the dissemination of Greek learning used themselves to copy Greek manuscripts. Accordingly, in his letter requesting a privilege to protect his new Greek type design (1495), Aldus specifically lauded the ability of his type to “print so well and so much better in Greek than can be written with a pen.”[5] In choosing handwriting as his model, however, Aldus ran into the problem of ligatures and abbreviations. As we can see in his earliest attempts to print Greek, such as his first stab at Hero and Leander (1494?), his type was replete with complicated conjoined letters and even more elaborate abbreviations that required (and still require) their own decipherment. While later Aldine Greek types reduced the number of these special characters, as we can see in his edition of Julius Pollux (1502), Aldine Greek texts needed an astonishing number of pieces of type in order to be printed.

Aldine Pollux

Aldus Manutius’ first edition of Julius Pollux’s Onomasticon (1502). This offers an example of one of Aldus’ later Greek types, in which fewer examples of abbreviations, ligatures, and flourishes are visible. Image provided courtesy of the University of California, Los Angeles, Special Collections.

Greek Anthology(1)

Janus Lascaris and Lorenzo de Alopa’s editio princeps of the Greek Anthology (1494). This was the first book to feature Lascaris’ striking Greek font, using both small and large uppercase letters. Image provided courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

An original alternative to Aldus’ design came from Lascaris, the prominent Byzantine scholar, who, in collaboration with the Florentine printer Lorenzo de Alopa, developed a Greek type that took not contemporary handwriting but rather ancient Greek inscriptions as its visual model. While this was not it and of itself so uncommon (Latin types had been using inscriptional letters for a few decades), what was exceptional was Lascaris’ choice to make the entire font uppercase inscriptional letters. In other words, Lascaris did not envision the lettering of ancient inscriptions as models primarily suited for titles or headings (as they were in Latin types), but rather as the most elegant and practical way to print entire works. Lascaris, therefore, designed his type to include both small and large uppercase letters and debuted this new type in the first edition of the Greek Anthology (1494). In the dedicatory epistle of his Greek Anthology, Lascaris justified his unorthodox choice by appealing to both the aesthetic dimensions of type design and the technical exigencies of cutting type:

Taking this new opportunity of printing, which will be so useful for students of literature, I set myself to rescue the elements of Greek letters from misshapen and really unbecoming corruption. When I thought of the letter-forms provided now for use in printing, which are not convenient for engraving and cannot be properly fitted to each other, I took all the more care to seek out the primary form of the letters [priscae literarum figurae], long out of use, and I provided a model for the printers adapted to the technical processes of printing by the engravers and craftsmen.[6]

While Aldus celebrated the ability of his press to present Greek on the printed page in a way that exceeded the writing of a pen, Lascaris shifts the emphasis away from the solely visual and from the end product alone. He imagines print’s intervention in Greek cultural recovery to involve every step in the printing process, beginning with the engraving and cutting of type. Seen from this perspective, where the appearance of the page is only one dimension of what print means, the ancient practice of carving stone for inscriptions and the Renaissance practice of carving metal pieces to make type do indeed seem to be analogous material procedures. The abbreviations Aldus dutifully reproduced were also the product of a scribal culture where rapidly transcribing and recording information was essential, something print makes essentially irrelevant.  Thus, while Lascaris’ typeface was unsurprisingly short-lived (he only printed six other texts in his all-capitals font), it reveals not merely the innovative energy that surrounded the early printing of Greek, but also the layers of legibility, of significatory possibility, understood to operate within the early Greek printed page.

Looking closely at the ways in which the earliest printers addressed these challenges, we can begin to understand how the material concerns of Greek print, from the sources used in the graphic design of the typefaces to the technical challenges of translating an alphabet from manuscript to moveable type, were themselves inflected by multiple material contexts, ones that stretched from the contemporary Hellenism of the fifteenth century back to Greek antiquity itself.

Jane Raisch is a doctoral student at Berkeley in the Department of Comparative Literature. She focuses on the reception of Greek in Early Modern English literature and the intersection between scholarship and poetics.

[1] Aldus Manutius, The Greek Classics, ed. and trans. Nigel Wilson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016), 25.

[2] Richard Breaden, “The First Book Printed in Greek,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library. 51 (1947): 3.

[3] Erica Rummel, Erasmus and His Catholic Critics I, 1515-1522 (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1989), 139. Also cited in: Simon Goldhill, Who Needs Greek?: Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 26.

[4] Erasmus, “Letter to Martin Dorp,” in Praise of Folly, trans. Betty Radice (New York: Penguin Classics, 1985), 242.

[5] Nicholas Barker, Aldus Manutius and the development of Greek script & type in the fifteenth century (New York : Fordham University Press, 1992), 92.

[6] Barker, 39n21.

Further Reading:
Robert Proctor, The Printing of Greek in the Fifteenth Century. Oxford: Printed for the Bibliographical Society at the Oxford University Press, 1900.

Barker, Nicholas. Aldus Manutius and the development of Greek script & type in the fifteenth century. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992.

Simon Goldhill, Who Needs Greek?: Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).


What We’re Reading: July 2nd-8th

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


Henrik Bering, “The master propagandist” (New Criterion)

Alex Burghart, “Women and the Somme” (TLS Blog)

Cecilia D’Anastasio, “VR Has Its Roots in Ancient Rome” (Kotaku)

Tom Holland, “Battle Royal” (TLS)


Evgeny Buntman (Sean Guillory, trans.), “Stalin’s orders, the Politburo’s decisions, and the Social Revolutionaries” (Meduza)

Nicolas Duvoux, « La possibilité des révolutions : Entretien avec Quentin Deluermoz et Laurent Jeanpierre » (La vie des idées)

William Eamon, “Six centuries of secularism” (Aeon)

Martin Ebel, »Studie über den Alltag unserer Demokratie« (Deutschlandrundfunk)

John Palatella (trans. Bela Shayevich), “Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices” (The Nation)

Tim Parks, “Between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines” (TLS)

Niccolò Scaffai, “Traduzioni d’autore” (Le parole e le cose)

Michele Spanò and Massimo Vallerani, “Come se. Yan Thomas e le politiche della finzione giuridica” (Le parole e le cose)

Dieter Thomä, »Soziologie mit der Stimmgabel« (Die Zeit)

Lorenzo Tomasin, “La dama col Canzoniere” (Il Sole 24 Ore)

And finally, in honor of Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016), a recording of the poet reading « Les Planches courbes » (courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux; YouTube)


Where Are We Now?: LRB contributors on Brexit (LRB)
Jeremy Harding, Short Cuts, on Brexit (LRB)
Nicole Longpré, How the British Far Right Went Mainstream (Dissent)

Alison Flood, Geoffrey Hill, ‘one of the greatest English poets’, dies aged 84 (Guardian)

Christopher L. Brown, In America’s Long History of Slavery, New England Shares the Guilt (NYT)

Mary Beard, You May Now Turn Over Your Papers (BBC Radio 4)


HathiTrust at U-M, NFB to make 14+ million books available to blind and print-disabled users (HathiTrust)

Terry Southern, “The Art of Screenwriting” (Paris Review)

Jonathan Dixon, “Writer Rudy Wurlitzer’s Unappreciated Masterpieces” (Vice)

Jeremy Harding, “The Theater of Aspiration” (LRB video)

Thomas Hardy, “Tess of d’Urbervilles” (Penguin, Signet Classic edition)

Carol J. Oja, “Beyoncé: Many Things All at Once” (TLS)

Simon Walton, “15cV The 15cBooktrade Visualization Suite” (Video, Vimeo)


Kristen Evans, “We’ve Got Nothing to Lose: Emily Books is Disrupting Publishing as Usual” (Brooklyn Mag)

Esperanza Fonseca, “Why We Can’t Allow the State to Set the Agenda for Our Liberation” ([Black Girl Dangerous])

Sarah Frostenson, “Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are 2 of 728 Americans that police killed this year” (Vox)

Nick Ripatrazone, “Oedipa Maas: Our Guide to Contemporary Paranoia” (Lit Hub)

Kit Steinkellner, “Alice Walker Wrote a Poem About Jesse Williams and His Powerful BET Speech” (Vulture)


Jeanne-Marie Jackson “Farewell to Pnin: The End of the Comp Lit Era” (3 A.M. Magazine)

Christopher Jones, “The Deadly War of Ideas” (Gates of Nineveh)

Brianna Nofil, “In the 1920s, the Now-Forgotten Flood of ‘Girl Mayors’ Became the Face of Feminism” (Atlas Obscura)


Carly Carioli, “Did the Star-Spangled Banner Land Stravinsky in Jail?” (The Boston Globe)

Alexander Keefe, “Colors/Army Green” (Cabinet Magazine)

Bee Wilson, “What Brexit Means for British Food” (The New Yorker)


What We’re Reading: June 25th – July 1st

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


Mary Beard, “Power to the People?” (TLS)

Luke Bretherton, “Democracy as a work in progress rather than a work of progress” (Immanent Frame)

Alessandro Scafi, “The work and legacy of Aby Warburg” (TLS Blog)

Michael Shae, “Living Dangerously with Donizetti” (NYRB)

Julia Wang, “Brexit: Britain’s Xenophobic Search for National Identity” (Huffington Post Blog)


Jörg Auberg, »Der bibliophile Maulwurf« (Literaturkritik.de)

Florian Mahot Boudias, « Qu’est-ce que le contemporain ? » (La vie des idées)

Philippe Chevalier, « Sous les signes de Krzysztof Kieślowski » (Philomag.com)

Laurent Coumel, « Par-delà Tchernobyl » (La vie des idées)

John Gray, “It’s unfashionable to call someone a ‘genius’ – but William Empson was one” (The New Statesman)

Christoph Menke, »Zurück zu Hannah Arendt – die Flüchtlinge und die Krise der Menschenrechte« (Merkur)

Jana Prikryl, “15 Short Texts in Search of Hilla Becher” (The Nation)

Alessandro Scafi, “The work and legacy of Aby Warburg” (TLS Blog)

Robert Stone, “How Michael Herr transcended New Journalism” (Literary Hub)

And finally, the 2010 Conférence Marc Bloch delivered by Carlo Ginzburg: « Lectures de Mauss. L’Essai sur le don » (Canal U)


Robert Saunders, Democracy and Disconnect: Brexit in Historical Perspective (Gladstone Diaries)
Peter Mandler, Britain’s EU Problem is a London Problem (Dissent)
Freddy Foks, Britain is in the middle of an all-consuming constitutional crisis (OpenDemocracy)
Mary-Dan Johnston, ex-pat-riot-ism (frames)

Melvyn Bragg et al, Sovereignty (In Our Time)

Elizabeth Yale, Natural History and the Invention of Great Britain (Aeon)

Ann Patty, The People Who Are Bringing Latin to Life (Wall Street Journal)


Andrew Arato, “The Promise and Logic of Federations, and the Problem of their stability” (Public Seminar)

Christopher Byrd, “Our Country, Our Critic” (Democracy Journal)

Daniel Fraser, “Picasso and Truth” (Ready Steady Books)

Dustin Illingworth, “An Incomplete Eloquence” (Los Angeles Review of Books)

Rachel Kushner, “Popular Mechanics” (The New Republic)


Rochelle Gurstein, “W(h)ither the New Sensibility” (The Baffler)

Kait Howard, “UNESCO Moves to Protect Anglo-Saxon Book of Poems and Ribald Riddles” (Melville House Books)

Rachel Moss, “Academic Kindness: Chris Wickham, Europe, and Who We Want to Be Now” (Meny Snoweballes)

James Palmer, “The Isles and Europe” (merovingianworld)

Donna Zuckerberg, “In the Culture War between Students and Professors, the University is the Enemy” (Jezebel)


From American Jewish History to American Jewish Studies: Advice for a Complicated Relationship

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

In her 2000 Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies article on American Jewish history, historian Hasia Diner notes a new trend in the field in which a growing number of works were focusing on Jews’ self-understanding and self-presentation. Today, such works seem to have taken over the field, displacing older social and intellectual historical narratives and approaches. These works reflect approaches to social history that gained popularity during the 1990s, trends most frequently found in scholarship that identifies with ethnic or cultural studies. They generally seek to analyze a specific sub-culture, in this case American Jews, rather than situate the same within broader narratives of American cultural history. Research taking this approach in American Jewish Studies generally interests itself in how American Jews created a hybrid identity through processes of selectively acculturating into the middle class. Scholars working in this framework also have a strong interest in how American Jews resisted acculturation and American bourgeois norms. This approach bred important scholarship in the field. Today, however, it dominates the field to such an extent that it severely limits how American Jewish historians approach their subject matter.


This monument to Religious Liberty was erected in Central Philadelphia in 1876 by the Independent Order of Bnai Britth.  It asserted its Jewish sponsors’ identity as patriotic citizens but it also served to publicly associate Judaism with values of religious liberty, reflecting liberal understandings of Judaism embedded in the intellectual climate of the time. It now stands outside the National Museum of American Jewish History on the Independence Mall (image via Wikipedia)

Since the Second World War, social-historical approaches have dominated American Jewish history. As historian Jeffrey Gurock documents in an article on the history of the American Jewish History journal (published under various titles from 1896 until the present), postwar scholars saw social history as a means of inserting Jews into the larger sweep of American history. A classic example of this kind of mid-century social historical work can be found in Moses Rischin‘s 1964 Promised City, a history of Jews in New York. Rischin’s book explores how the Eastern-European Jews of New York became acculturated into the American middle class. Like other practitioners of the new social history, he presents Jewish immigrants as having been full participants in creating American society despite the formidable obstacles they faced, a narrative that ultimately suggested, as Oscar Handlin puts it in his The Uprooted, that “immigrants were American history.” To answer his question, Rischin offers a detailed and carefully reconstructed description of this process that considers, among other things public school education, residential patterns, moves to second settlement areas and changes in occupational patterns.

The 2012, three-volume history of the Jews of New York City of Promises, on the other hand, asks a different kind of question, namely how did Jewish immigrants to America and their children create a new identity as American Jews that in turn led them to see themselves and their religion in new ways. The three books in the series accordingly look to how experiences such as immigration to New York, adjustment to American social realities, and so forth—the same historical vectors analyzed by Rischin—were experienced by New York’s Jews and how they came to think about their Judaism. Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer’s narrative of German Jews in New York during the mid-to-late nineteenth century in City of Promises’ second volume markedly differs from older works on this period. Polland and Soyer describe German Jewish immigrants to New York City as striving to simultaneously reconcile and integrate their identities as Jews with their newly-assumed identities as Americans. For example, they describe how upwardly mobile members of this group erected grand Moorish synagogues that at once inscribed their members status as prominent and wealthy Americans in the public sphere even as they articulated their Jewishness through such an unique and highly visible style that was popularly associated with eastern peoples.

City of Promises provides a fresh approach to a well-traversed subject, but its central framework, the notion of identity, seems limiting at times. The way in which Polland and Soyer’s volume approaches American-Jewish religion and religious thought is a good example of how this is the case. Polland and Soyer present Reform and its architecture as a means of reconciling American and Jewish identity,  but how did these developments relate to larger developments in American religion at the time?  Considering that Reform Judaism developed in the United States at the same time as a much larger liberal religious movement perhaps an intellectual historical approach would enrich our understanding of this period in American Jewish history.


Social histories like Handlin’s The Uprooted sought to locate the exotic immigrants depicted on the original dust jacket as integral parts of, not outsiders to, American history. Identity and opposition, however, have only become interests in the field in the last twenty to thirty years.

In his 2006 Immigrant Jews and American Capitalism, economic historian Eli Lederhendler levels a more general critique of the identity paradigm, arguing that it often discourages historians from digging deeper and uncovering structural causes for the phenomenon they discuss. In particular, Lederhendler challenges the oft-repeated idea that Jewish participation in left-wing political and labor movements was a result of a deep, pre-immigration Jewish identification with left-wing politics. Rather, he argues that Jewish union politics ought to be understood primarily as an effort to achieve upward mobility. Lederhendler sees his approach as explaining why Jews so often left the labor movement once they achieved middle class status. I would add that American-Jewish historians might also be well-served to situate this history in the context of the intellectual-historical literature on American liberalism. Lederhendler sees the popularity of the identity-driven models of writing American Jewish history more as the result of the post-1960s development of a pan-American Jewish ethnic identity than of the way Jews in the early twentieth century actually identified themselves, which was far more multifarious. Lederhendler’s book has been well-received by many in the field, but few practitioners have responded to his challenge to move way from identity-driven approaches to American Jewish history.

Another related tendency in cultural studies-inflected works on American Jewish history that at times leads to a flattening of its subject matter is its celebration of opposition to integration into the American mainstream. The field of American Yiddish studies in particular often approaches Jews as an oppositional culture. The radical nature of some of the most prominent voices in the early twentieth century Yiddish press and Jewish mass politics renders this an immediately attractive approach.The most influential work in this vein likely remains Tony Michels’ 2009 A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York, which explores the unique socialist-Jewish identity forged by Jewish socialists in New York. Ultimately, the story ends in tragedy as Jews forsook radical politics and were absorbed into the middle class.However, Yiddish Studies over the course of the last twenty years engages almost exclusively with these radical and leftist elements in the Yiddish community. One only has to peruse the recent Oxford Bibliography of Yiddish to see that the study of Yiddish literature and social movements has ballooned since 2000, before which most of the studies cited in the bibliography are of a linguistic nature. 

In his All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism (2011), Daniel Katz traces the Jewish-dominated International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union’s (ILGWU) efforts to incorporate black and other racial minorities. He argues that the immigrant Jewish women of the ILGWU  espoused an early cultural pluralism and were forerunners of multiculturalism’s emergence on the American scene. Other work on Yiddish theater, literature and politics likewise stresses the Jews’ proletarian and outsider status in America. They suggest that American Jews’ history matters not only vis-àvis Jews and Americans, but in the history of multiculturalism and oppositional cultures at large. However, these studies leave unexplored the vast swaths of Yiddish language culture in the United States that were more accommodating to middle class norms. An intellectual historical approach might help clarify what exactly Yiddish socialists thought and how they fit into larger intellectual trends at the time, both Jewish and American.  

This last point reflects another problem engendered by the cultural studies approach’s dominance of American Jewish history, that there is less of much-needed, broader social and intellectual historical works being published in the field.  Scholarship in cultural studies often seeks to illuminate strands within the history of a group that are tied to its concerns of identity formation and resistance rather than present larger picture histories. However, in many areas of American Jewish history there is a dearth of such work—work that remains a necessary foundation for cultural studies scholarship.

For example, a great deal of recent scholarship looks to how Jews crafted a public and communal identity as white. They draw in particular on Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1999). In his The Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews and American Popular Song, American studies scholar Jeffrey Melnick finds Jewish involvement in jazz and blues, musical genres originating in African American contexts, as expressing Jews identification with black culture as well as their efforts to distance themselves from blackness. He argues that Jews performed black music so as to avoid being considered actually black. In his review of this book, social historian Andrew Heinze first notes that this book did not deliver on its promise to provide the “much-needed” history of “Jews and American popular song,” even as it did provide “an instructive analysis” of parts of that history. Heinze further notes that like Melnick’s monograph replicates a weakness of many works in whiteness studies more generally, that it assumes without sufficient evidence that Jews ever actually faced a significant threat of being characterized as “black” even as they were certainly considered less than “white.” Melnick thus infers broader claims from his readings of song lyrics and black and Jewish discourses about their music than may be warranted given the social and intellectual realities of the time. A stronger social history of Jewish-black relations would prove necessary before a historian could make such larger conclusions. Similarly, Aviva Ben Ur’s Sephardic Jews in America (2009) yields the the first discrete narrative of Sephardic-Jewish-American history. However, this monograph actually comprises a series of studies focusing on Sephardic identity in the United States. The book is an extremely strong scholarly contribution to the field and provides compelling “close readings” of facets of American-Sephardic history. Yet who will write the much-needed social and intellectual histories of topics like Sephardic Jews in America?


Renovating the American Revolution: The Most Important Stories Aren’t on Broadway

by guest contributor Eric Herschthal

Timing is everything. Just when historians thought they were on the cusp of redefining the very meaning of the American Revolution—which is to say, now—along comes “Hamilton,” the musical. The general public, and not a few academics, have embraced the show, which reaffirms the old Whiggish narrative that the revolution set the foundation for liberal democracy. By casting Hamilton and the founders as mostly African Americans and Latinos, the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has breathed new life into the Whiggish view, one that a rising generation of historians (myself included) insists has passed its sell-by date. The irony is that Miranda re-appropriates the feel-good story for a group of Americans that scholars now generally agree the founders did little to embrace: minorities. Maybe there’s something of value in the Whiggish narrative after all?


Perhaps nothing has done more to change perceptions about the American Revolution than bringing it into conversation with the Haitian Revolution. Image: 1802 engraving of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Courtesy of Wikicommons

Or maybe not. It may in fact be a good thing that scholarship doesn’t easily succumb to popular enthusiasms. Indeed, if we look beyond “Hamilton,” the recent renovations in the scholarship on the American Revolution, decades in the making, suggest that historians today very much have their finger on the pulse. Today’s world is more global, more black and brown, and the recent scholarship reflects that: it brings in their voices, yet not by continuing to heroize the founders and simply cast them as black and brown, but by taking seriously the negative consequences the revolution often had for marginalized groups.

Take just a small sample of books from the past year. In Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (Basic Books; 2016), Nicholas Guyatt argues that even the most liberal-minded founders laid the foundation for segregation. Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolutions (Random House; 2015) focuses on the lives the War of Independence ruined when it breached the thirteen colonies and came to the Gulf Coast: Chickasaws and Creeks; African slaves; Cajuns; loyalists. Michael McDonnell, in Masters of Empire: Great Lake Indians and the Making of America (Hill and Wang, 2015), does something similar, showing how Native American groups in the Great Lakes region essentially called the shots. The revolution was perhaps sparked as much by European empires stumbling into internal Native American conflicts as it was by lofty ideas of liberty.

From some of these books, it might seem that ideas no longer matter, or at least not as much as they used to. Indeed, much of the recent scholarship serves at least as an implicit critique of the overweening emphasis on ideology that scholars like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn once highlighted. Their work relied almost exclusively on the pamphlets and private letters that revolutionary leaders left behind, which necessarily privileged elite white men. But in taking cues from social historians, the new generation of scholars have run up against an old set of challenges. Among the most obvious is that the precise thoughts—the precise ideas—of the “voiceless” do not come through as clearly, if at all. Perhaps as a result, much of the recent scholarship focuses less on the ideals people who lived through the era fought for, and instead underscores the local circumstances and shifting political dynamics that defined their choices, an approach the historian Sarah Knott has recently called “situational” as opposed to “ideological.”

But for other scholars, ideas still matter. Many historians of the revolution have grown adept at piecing together plausible narratives about the general ideas that inspired the people the Whiggish narrative left behind.. A little more than a decade ago, T.H. Breen, in The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford, 2004) provided a road-map, showing how consumer culture–objects like teacups, pins, boots and buckles—created a shared language for Americans of many different ethnicities, classes and genders. Not everyone may have read the same books, if they could read at all, but a vast number bought the same stuff. Boycotts worked—the revolution happened—because many people understood the language of consumption.

A thriving scholarship on print culture has opened up another new vein. Almost twenty years ago (!), David Waldstreicher lead the charge, showing how print sources, from newspapers to under-utilized sources like almanacs, could be read for what they revealed about popular political culture. Waldstreicher’s In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes (UNC, 1997) gave ample evidence of broad political participation expressed not through the means we typically associate it with—voting, jury duty, taxes—but parades, national holidays, and street protests. Yet if these political festivities helped create a national identity rooted in revolution, they also served as a kind of social control—one where political elites, almost always white men, tried to manage the revolution’s meaning.


Simon Bolivar, an early leader of the Latin American Revolutions, made ending slavery a critical part of his revolution’s mission after the black Haitian government sheltered him. Image: Portrait of Simon Bolivar (1895), by Arturo Michelena (1863-1898) – Galería de Arte Nacional. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

More recently, Janet Polansky has also used print culture to ground the American Revolution more firmly in a global context. In Revolution without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World (Yale, 2015) she follows revolutionary-era pamphlets, letters and novels as they made their way to and from Haiti, Sierra Leone, Poland, the U.S., Russia and France (to name a few). Peoples of many different cultures, classes and genders, she argues, embraced and often transformed the meaning of “revolution” to fit their individual circumstances. But all of them shared a sense that the “age of Revolutions,” as Thomas Paine famously dubbed it, would usher in a more egalitarian world. What emerges is in some ways a retooling of the ideological approach—but one that is more sharply attuned to the revolution’s failures. When the dust settled, a new age of nations, of empires, emerged in the revolutions’ collective wake, leaving only the promise of freedom, not its realization.

The shifts in scholarship on the American Revolution—the turn to the social and the global—have, unsurprisingly, shown up in the closely-allied field of Age of Revolution scholarship. In fact, Polansky’s work fits more neatly within this tradition than the work on the American Revolution. Yet if her book emphasizes transnational connections, others have highlighted the divergent paths each revolution took. When all the age’s revolutions are placed side-by-side what emerges is less a revolution fought in the name of liberal democracy than a revolution fought for a myriad of distinct causes. The term “Age of Revolution” still has value, but we might need to divorce for it from the particular Whiggish, “liberal democratic” inflection, a point recently made by the Cindy Ermus and Bryan Banks, co-editors of an excellent new blog Age of Revolutions. “Revolutions are no longer synonymous with a set of ideological concepts like, say, democracy,” they said recently, adding that the use of the term today is “multivalent.”


George Washington and his slave, Billy Lee. Image: George Washington and Billy Lee (1780), by John Trumbull. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Perhaps nothing has done more to change our assessment of the American Revolution’s shortcomings than bringing it into conversation with the linked revolutions in Haiti and Latin America. The recent surge in scholarship on the Haitian Revolution—undoubtedly the most significant revolution that R.R. Palmer left virtually unmentioned in his otherwise magisterial Age of Democratic Revolution (1959-64)—has forced U.S. scholars to appreciate anew how limited the founders’ vision of liberty was when it came to slavery. Haitian slaves and free blacks, along with their white Jacobin allies, imbued the revolutionary era with a strong antislavery program, something that Haitian historian Laurent Dubois said amounts to an “enslaved Enlightenment” (cf. Robin Blackburn as well as David P. Geggus and Norman Fiering). The United States’ compromises over slavery can only be seen as tame by comparison.

Similarly, the wave of emancipation decrees that came along with the Latin American revolutions in the 1820s and ‘30s—themselves directly inspired by Haiti’s example—only drives the point home. Caitlin Fitz’s forthcoming Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (W.W. Norton, 2017) makes the point clear. Though America’s founders largely embraced the Latin American revolutions at their start, as antislavery became an increasingly prominent part of their revolutions, Americans began to renege their support.

Academic interest in the American Revolution and its broader age shows no signs of waning. But might what we now know about these revolutions make them less inspiring with the broader public? The historian David Bell recently took on that question in his new book, Shadows of the Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present (Oxford, 2016), coming at it from the perspective of the French Revolution. In one essay, he argues that the French Revolution no longer provides an inspiring model for change in our times because, as scholars, we have become too aware of the high cost in human life. The French Revolution today evokes as much the guillotine as it does the Girondists. Even if it was indeed fought for worthy ideals—liberté, égalité, fraternité—we cannot forget that many heads rolled, and many wrongs turns were taken, along the way.

In that sense, the new scholarship on the revolutionary era may not provide so much inspiration as caution. If the latest histories expose how much blood was spilled, how many promises were left unrealized, then the Arab Spring’s violent aftermath might strike us as less surprising, our hunger for a political revolution—whether called for by Bernie or Trump—a little less pronounced. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the kind message that makes for a hit Broadway musical.


Eric Herschthal studies history at Columbia University, where he is writing his dissertation on the role science played in the early antislavery movement. His interests include early American history, the Atlantic World, science and slavery. Eric’s writing has also appeared in general interest publications, including The New York Times, Slate, The Atlantic and The New Republic. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricHerschthal.

Institutions and Fragments: “A Portrait of Antinous, In Two Parts” at the AIC

By guest contributor Luke A. Fidler

The postwar art museum has increasingly served as a site of artistic intervention, whether through sanctioned forms of institutional critique (Fred Wilson’s pointed rearrangements of the collections at the Maryland Historical Society and the Seattle Art Museum, for example) or unsanctioned action. Museums like the Kolumba (the former Cologne Diözesanmuseum) have taken note, juxtaposing their medieval and modern collections in an attempt to lend older art a frisson of novelty and to speak to the postmodern mal d’archive. In a similar vein, this small show at the Art Institute of Chicago (running through August 28, 2016) frames the museological archive as an archaeological site, ripe with potential finds.

The find in question is a fragment of a mid-second century marble portrait head of Antinous, Hadrian’s teenage companion whose untimely end in 130 CE sparked an unprecedented wave of memorialization (below). Controversially deified after his death, he was repeatedly rendered in a distinctively individuated style. The Art Institute’s fragment, comprising most of his face and his distinctive curls, typifies this wave of production. It entered the museum’s collection in 1922 after being removed from its original bust and remounted as a quasi-bas-relief. A fine example of imperial carving, it compares favorably to a slightly earlier bust of Antinous as Osiris presented here as comparison.

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Fragment of a portrait head of Antinous (mid-2nd century A.D. Roman. Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Hutchinson; Art Institute of Chicago)

About a decade ago, scholars noted the fragment’s similarity to a heavily-restored bust of Antinous in the collection of the Palazzo Altemps (below). The Altemps work features an eighteenth-century face stuck awkwardly to a second-century head, the join between old and new sculpture clearly articulated by a line running down the cheek, under the jaw, and across the tousled locks. A battery of tests, supplemented by the wizardry of 3-D printing and laser-scanning, determined that the Art Institute’s fragment had, indeed, been lopped off the Altemps bust at some past point. The museum is not wrong to claim this as a significant discovery. In a rare turn, we can examine the particularities of a story too often told in generalities, for the long life of a Roman sculptural object, ravaged by time, taste, and restoration, gets some real specificity. Although it’s unclear exactly when the bust and fragment parted company, their rich modern biographies are telling.

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Monica Cola, Roberto Bonavenia, Francesco Borgogni, Franco Trasatti, Studio M.C.M. srl., Rome. Bust of Antinous, 2015–16. © The Art Institute of Chicago

They show us, for example, how early modern collectors broke apart ancient objects and recontextualized them according to their tastes. They show us how one statue could multiply into two, how a bust could beget a bas-relief which could turn into a more explicitly orphaned fragment. How an English (probably) sculptor could sculpt a facsimile of Antinous’ visage in the eighteenth century (probably) for a faceless bust thanks, no doubt, to the obsessive antiquarian collection of Roman medals and statues. The stories of the sculptures’ early modern afterlife—not to mention their susceptibility to contemporary analysis—are bound up with Hadrian’s relentless imaging of his dead companion in a recognizable, replicable form.

The curators have smartly used the show to reflect on the conditions that enabled the objects’ reunification. (Unfortunately, however, they eschew any critical reflection on those conditions’ limits or negative consequences. To my mind, this is a missed opportunity to engage thorny questions of method, collecting, institutional practice, and display, to name but a few issues occluded by the show’s occasionally triumphalist tone.) The captions, wall text, and object selection frame the fragments in a story of connoisseurial sleuthing and trans-Atlantic technological gumption. A large portion of the exhibition space is given over to a long video replete with interviews. Differently-scaled models and prints of the Art Institute fragment and the Altemps bust surround the objects. One model, marked by the glossy sheen of contemporary facture, recombines them in a spectral approximation of how Antinous would have appeared before its dismemberment. A selection of ancillary objects—including a portrait of Charles L. Hutchison, the Art Institute’s first president who also purchased the fragment—attempt to place the fragment with respect to the taste of fin-de-siècle American collectors, while other ancient and early modern comparanda help contextualize other key moments when the objects were altered.

And so, this show is as much about the way museums tell complex, object-centered stories to the general public as it is about the genuine historical insights afforded by the busts and their models. If material objects are uniquely positioned to make the past legible, how should museums best interpret the ways those objects register the vicissitudes of taste? The fragment and bust are exciting testimony to interdisciplinary, inter-institutional collaboration. But they are also testimony to the means by which museums and collectors have historically proved hostile to the integrity of art objects, severing illuminations from medieval codices and chiseling the faces of Roman busts. If Hadrian desired overly much to keep Antinous whole through art, perhaps it’s worth querying our own desire for unification too

Luke A. Fidler is a PhD student in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago.