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.

Fig. 1.jpg
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.

Fig. 2.jpg

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.

The Reading Subject: New Directions in Bibliography and Critical Hermeneutics

By guest contributor Barbara Heritage

Reading—how we read, what we read, and where we read—has attracted a great deal of attention during the last decade. From the pages of The New York Times to those of specialized scholarly journals, we find all kinds of attacks, defenses, statistics, insights, proposals, and agendas pertaining to the reading subject—often in connection to advances in digital technology and the legitimation crisis in the humanities. Amidst these conversations, the dual practices of reading and literary critique have been called into question within departments of English and comparative literature as academics (re)assess their engagement with hermeneutics. What does it mean, for instance, to conduct “close reading” as opposed to so-called “surface reading” or “distant reading”?

In 2014, literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht went so far as to claim that “we quite literally do not know anymore, and do not know yet, what ‘reading’ exactly is for those whom we are teaching how to read” (101). In her recent study, The Limits of Critique, Rita Felski points to a similar failure: “Given the surge of interest in the questions of reading—close and distant, deep and surface—the neglect of the hermeneutic tradition in Anglo-American literary theory is a little short of scandalous” (33). Drawing upon her own teaching experiences, Felski writes: “What else could we teach our students besides critical reading? The bemusement likely to greet such a question speaks to the entrenched nature of a scholarly habitus […] yet there comes a point when many [students]—especially those who do not see themselves as professors in the making—turn away. They do so, I believe, not because of any inherent distaste for theory but because the theories they encounter are so excruciatingly tongue-tied about why literary texts matter” (“After Suspicion,” Profession 8, 29–30).

Looking to identify alternative interpretative methods for understanding the history of reading, greater numbers of theorists seem to be engaging with the field of book history. Both Gumbrecht and Felski, for instance, have gestured to the scholarship of book historians Roger Chartier and Janice Radway, whose research seems to suggest fresh possibilities for inquiry into the way that reading practices have been shaped over time, and in various social circumstances. Yet bibliography—the sibling discipline of book history—has not fared so well in discussions about postcritical reading.

Bibliography, broadly conceived, is the study of the materials and processes involved in the production and transmission of “books,” whether they be manuscript, printed, or digital. The descriptive nature of bibliographical analysis would seem to suggest a viable alternative for those who seek different approaches for understanding the social lives of texts. (Indeed, one of the most widely read works of bibliographical scholarship is D. F. McKenzie’s Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts.) Yet the field tends to be overlooked, ignored, or misunderstood among theorists, in large part owing to a long-running rift between bibliography and literary interpretation that dates back to New Criticism.

In her widely read essay, “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” theorist Heather Love rightly points out bibliography’s overall “disengagement with critical hermeneutics” (382). Although Love’s assessment is accurate, it is also one-sided—assuming that neither critical hermeneutics nor literary theory have any need to engage meaningfully with bibliography. Love’s critique thus continues to enact that same disengagement that it reproaches. Meanwhile, bibliographers themselves have, in the past, been more than disengaged from literary criticism—some have been openly hostile toward it. In 1957, Fredson Bowers began his Sandars Lectures (later published as Textual & Literary Criticism by Cambridge University Press in 1966), as follows: “The relation of bibliographical and textual investigation to literary criticism is a thorny subject, not from the point of view of bibliography but from the point of view of literary criticism” (1). This mutual antagonism persisted through the 1970s until the early 80s, when Jerome McGann and D. F. McKenzie each worked, with some success, toward establishing a rapprochement between the two. Meanwhile, Terry Belanger established Rare Book School at Columbia University, and there was the founding of the Society for Textual Scholarship, followed a decade later by the founding of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing, which formed in 1991. More recently, in 2012 and with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Rare Book School’s current director, Michael F. Suarez, S.J., began developing critical bibliography so as to combine hermeneutic and bibliographical methods.

Much progress continues to be made in these areas. Yet the gap between bibliography and critique threatens to persist. If we return to the same article cited above, Love characterizes analytical bibliography and studies on book production, distribution, and consumption as “new methods” or “new sociologies of literature” that “distance themselves from texts and from practices of reading altogether” (373). Such practices, according to Love, “rely on a complete renunciation of the text (to focus, for instance, on books as objects or commodities)” (375). Bibliographers, according to Love, do not engage at all with the written content of the books that they study. This would, I believe, reflect a mainstream view of bibliography still held by many academics. For this reason, we should take a closer look at Love’s analysis.

First, some attention to historiography is needed. Practiced throughout the twentieth century, analytical bibliography is by no means a “new method,” nor has it ever been disconnected from textual criticism. Indeed, bibliography was practiced throughout the twentieth century chiefly in service of scholarly textual editing.

Because Love’s study neglects the history of bibliography as it has developed over the long term, her analysis merely reinscribes those same divisions that book historians and bibliographers have worked so sedulously to overcome. This calls attention to a second, and perhaps more important, point: clearly, “the text” that Love is describing has been conceived of as something very much apart from what bibliographers and textual editors study. How can those who work within the same discipline (English literature) hold such different opinions as to what constitutes a basic “text”? It’s my sense that, as a scholarly community, we cannot constructively proceed in our discussions of reading without exploring this question more closely together.

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The 1847 Smith, Elder edition of Jane Eyre (Image from Sotheby’s)

Usually it seems to be the case that, when theorists speak of “the text,” they are indicating words alone, without reference to their textual condition—that “laced network of linguistic and bibliographical codes” (to borrow McGann’s phrase) that may, or may not, be shaped, to varying degrees, by author, publisher, printer, editor, bookbinder, or graphic designer. Most critics are less concerned with how a reader approaches, say, the Smith, Elder edition of Jane Eyre as opposed to the Penguin Jane Eyre, than they are with Jane’s narrative address to the reader. In contrast, bibliographers and textual editors speak of texts and, as needed, draw on their own terminology to specify the various versions that they encounter—for example, using specialized terms such as printing, issue, state, and variant. And so, to respond to Love’s point, bibliographers are actually very much concerned with reading practices—but with a focus on the actual, historical copies of books being read. For every “text” generally referred to by a theorist, a bibliographer finds versions of texts, whose contents and forms are always changing, inflecting our various readings of that work.

The question of what constitutes a “text” is not only central to critique; it is also becoming increasingly important as humanists and librarians alike reexamine the landscape of print and digital publication. How many versions of a work do we need for our teaching and research? If so, in what forms, and to what end? In the past, scholars working on the history of reading—Kate Flint, for example—have been more interested in the “rhetoric of reading practices” rather than the actual habits of readers (viz. The Woman Reader, 1837-1914, 73). Should we also be documenting and analyzing the markings made by common readers in books, as Andrew Stauffer, Kara McClurken, and others have begun to do with the University of Virginia’s “Book Traces” project—or as Erin Schreiner and Matthew Bright have accomplished with their City Readers project at the New York Society Library? Resources such as these would seem to provide hospitable bridges connecting both the teaching and research of those theorists, bibliographers, and book historians who contemplate reading practices. The reception of projects like these will certainly influence the future shape of our libraries and classrooms—and also possibly the nature of interpretation itself.

Barbara Heritage is the Associate Director and Curator of Collections at Rare Book School, University of Virginia. She serves as Secretary of the Bibliographical Society of America. She received her PhD in English literature after completing her dissertation, Brontë and the Bookmakers: Jane Eyre in the Nineteenth-Century Literary Marketplace.

Aldo Leopold and the History of Environmental Ideas

By guest contributor Daniel Rinn

Aldo-LeopoldThere seems to be a dualism at work in the way intellectual historians think about the history of environmental thought. The history of environmental ethics is presented as a continuous conflict between two competing systems, anthropocentrism and ecocentrism — the former suggesting the environment only enters ethical judgements on the basis of its use-value for humans and the latter suggesting that all non-human life (and the environment generally) has inherent value. As Peter Hay has argued, the evolution of environmental ethics in the US has been unsteady, with explosive growth in this field in the 1960’s and 1970’s fueled by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Carson’s important book encouraged ethicists to consider the role of the environment in questions about justice.

The rise of environmental ethics as a field in philosophy since the publication of Silent Spring is significant for it has shaped the history of ideas. Much of the new environmentalism, whether of academic philosophers or activists in general, has focused on the anthropocentric/ecocentric debate. As a result, historians have read this basic dualism back into the past, placing thinkers like John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold in one camp or another. This anthropocentric/ecocentric understanding of American environmental thought appears in the influential work of Roderick Nash and Donald Worster.

Nash’s books, Wilderness and the American Mind (1967) and The Rights of Nature (1989) show the slow development of an intellectual revolution in the United States. Nash argues that the history of environmental thought has been defined by a slow transition from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism. Early Americans closely tied wilderness to wildness, evil, and the dangerous, unpredictable characteristics of human action. Pioneers viewed wilderness as an obstacle to civilization, something to be conquered in westward expansion. As the frontier closed, it became evident, and distressing to some, that wilderness could permanently disappear. Writers like Muir celebrated nature and raised questions about the inherent value of the environment.

Muir’s ideas received a lot of attention during the Hetch Hetchy debate in the early twentieth century — an event that revealed the fissures in American ideas about environmental ethics. On one side, Gifford Pinchot and others supported building a dam in the Hetch Hetchy valley of Yosemite National Park, a project that would provide water for the population of San Francisco. On the other side of the debate stood Muir and a growing “wilderness cult.” For Nash, Hetch Hetchy inspired a national debate and is evidence of the slow transition from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism among environmentalists. Such a response would have been impossible during the pioneer stage of American history, when the environment was viewed as an impediment to civilization — building a dam in these circumstances would have been clear evidence of progress (as it was for Gifford Pinchot).

This central tension regarding civilization and wilderness would encourage the development of an ecological consciousness among a growing number of theorists in the 20th century, among them Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s training as a scientist and forester taught him to approach wilderness from the perspective of management for human use. However, his outlook also appeared to bring together both the logic of the scientist as well as the aesthetic sensibility of the romantic. He assembled a powerful defense of the case for preservation at a time when many Americans were becoming more receptive to the ecological impulse. At times, it even appeared as though he wanted to articulate something akin to the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that the natural world was a super-organism of which humans were merely a small part. According to Nash, there is a lack of clarity regarding Leopold’s justification for his environmental ethics. Did the environment have rights which entailed human responsibilities? Or was preservation built strictly on a human-centered view of the aesthetic pleasures the natural world could afford? In other words, was Leopold’s an anthropocentric or ecocentric environmental vision?

A similar tension appears in the work of Donald Worster whose Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (1977) suggests environmental thought has been caught between the two poles of arcadian and imperial ecology. Stepping outside the US, he begins with Gilbert White, a figure whose conflicting accounts of ecology illustrate the division between two competing views of the environment. White embodied the ideal of the arcadian scientist, a researcher who lived in deep appreciation of the natural environment. White’s writings catalogue life in Selborne, a pastoral dream that was free of the disruptions of industrialization that would later rock England. His work served as a source of inspiration for a later generation of nature essayists such as John Burroughs and John Muir. These writers wanted to formulate an arcadian science that would build on the idea of holism—a belief that the natural world was integrated and indivisible.

Worster regards Francis Bacon as a key example of the imperial variety of ecology. Departing from the humility of the arcadian ecologist, Bacon’s scientist relied on a crass instrumentalism, actively manipulating the natural environment. The purpose of scientific work was to dominate and control nature. The imperial view of Bacon surfaced in the work of Swedish botanist Linnaeus. Worster writes, “According to Linnaeus, man must vigorously pursue his assigned work of utilizing his fellow species to his own advantage. This responsibility must extend to eliminating the undesirables and multiplying those that are useful to him” (36).

The tension between arcadian and imperial ecology would continue to shape environmental thought well into the 20th century. Similar to Nash, Worster argues that Aldo Leopold was caught in an uncertain position between imperial and arcadian ecology. Using Leopold as an example of a larger trend in American intellectual history, Worster charts his transition from a Progressive Era-style instrumentalism to an arcadian form of ecology. Leopold would finally articulate a rights-based justification for protecting all members of the ecosystem.

Both Nash and Worster frame the history of American environmental ideas in a narrative about the competing aims of anthropocentrism and ecocentrism. Under this rubric, Aldo Leopold plays a transitional role in their accounts. For both historians, Leopold’s thought is laden with tension between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism; his intellectual trajectory seems to mark a larger change in environmental ethics as ideas move from a form of utilitarianism to an early ecological outlook. It might be more helpful, however, to step away from these categories and consider how a figure like Leopold simply explodes this binary. Leopold was neither anthropocentric nor ecocentric. His thought was indeed murky, but this is not evidence of a tension between two radically different environmental ethics.

Leopold was consistently concerned with the biotic community, with how humans interact with the non-human world. Although he seemed to hold both an instrumentalist and Gaia-like view of nature, this does not mean his thought was conflicted. His form of instrumentalism did not suggest that the environment served instrumental functions, nor did he believe the human was indistinguishable from the non-human world. Instead he believed we can never predict how our actions will change circumstances in the long run, we will never be able to fully map the relationships that tie us to the natural world, but this does not mean we should not try. Leopold was an instrumentalist in a unique sense, believing humans should always attempt to solve specific problems by testing potential solutions and always maintaining a critical view of how we conceptualize nature. He argued that we will never have a full grasp of the ways the human and non-human worlds are deeply entangled. Accordingly, he wrote in A Sand County Almanac (1949), “We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive” (210). Leopold’s thought, perhaps, maps a different tradition in American environmental thought that historians have failed to understand.

Daniel Rinn is a PhD student at the University of Rochester. His research interests include the history of American environmental thought as well as pragmatism. His most recent work has focused on Liberty Hyde Bailey, exploring the philosophical affinities between his ideas and those of the classical pragmatists.

‘Slimy rimes’: Donne’s Contagious London

By guest contributor Alison Bumke


John Donne, c. 1595. Anonymous painting, National Portrait Gallery London. (Wikimedia Commons)

While John Donne (1572-1631) was writing verse letters and elegies in the early 1590s, London was experiencing a major plague epidemic. His lyrics trace everyday life in a plague-stricken city, describing efforts to identify sources of contagion, disinfect living areas, avoid public spaces, and protect one’s body. They also express the shock of living in a transformed city, where bustling streets are suddenly ‘lancke & thin,’ as he writes in a verse letter, ‘To Mr E. G.’ (l. 9). Donne’s early verse conveys a familiarity with medical theories of contagion that would inform how, decades later, his sermons depicted sin passing through a population.

By the 1590s, the term ‘contagion’ had been used in an English medical context for nearly a century. The period’s medical theorists were undecided, however, on whether contagion had physical substance. Galen, the widely cited Greek physician, believed that it consisted of tiny ‘seeds’ of air, water, and organic matter: a precursor to modern germ theory. These seeds were thought to communicate sickness through the air and via direct contact. At least two English plague tracts, printed during London’s 1603-4 plague epidemic, refer likewise to a ‘corrupt and venemous seede’ of disease. In Italy, meanwhile, a physician and poet named Girolamo Fracastoro proposed the existence of airborne ‘seeds’ of disease in his De contagione (1546). But in early modern England, the prevailing theory of contagion was that miasmas—expanses of foul-smelling air—communicated illness.

Video from the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, reconstruction of where Donne would have preached. For more information on the sulfurous smoke and gloomy weather of Donne’s weather, see here.

A person inhales infectious air through her nose’s porous lining, Galen argues in his De instrumento odoratus (c. 170). This porous lining is like a sponge: its ‘hollownesse and holes … may take in the smoake that is resolued, and commeth from the thing that is smelled,’ Stephan Batman explains. After the person’s sponge-like nose inhales the ‘smoake,’ or vapour, that an object produces, the vapour proceeds to her brain. By the time her brain perceives its scent, the corrupt air has started to infect her body.

To avoid inhaling corrupt air, the person can fill her nose’s ‘hollownesse and holes’ with sweet scents. Spices and herbs produce pleasing, harmless vapours that fill the nasal passages, preventing putrid air from reaching the brain and infecting the body. The period’s medical tracts recommend carrying scented sachets and pomanders in public, as protection against disease. In Physicall directions in time of plague (Oxford, 1644), for example, an anonymous author urges readers to carry fragrant items when ‘going abroad, or talking with any’. A person should hold a perfumed object in her mouth or hand so she inhales its vapours, rather than putrid air. Medical tracts recommend also using spices to perfume rooms, indoor fires, and cleansing water. In A dialogue bothe pleasaunte and pietifull (London, 1564), William Bullein writes, ‘Forget not to kepe the chamber, and clothyng cleane, no priues at hande, a softe fire with perfumes in the mornyng.’ Perfuming homes with pleasing, innocuous scents reduces the inhabitants’ risk of inhaling corrupt air.

Donne’s early verse alludes to medical tracts’ guidelines for avoiding putrid vapours. His poem ‘The Anagram’ mentions two of the spices Physicall Directions lists: musk and amber. He writes,

In buying things perfum’d, we aske; if there

Be muske and amber in it, …                          (ll. 13-4)

Potential buyers ask if perfumed objects contain strongly scented spices, like musk and amber, to determine if the objects will block corrupt air’s scent. In addition to masking putrid odours, individuals could attempt to purify corrupt air. Bradwell’s A watch-man for the pest (London, 1625) advises firing cannons, so air is ‘first forcibly moved, shaken, divided and attenuated, and so prepared for purification; & then immediately (by the heat of the fire) purified.’ Alternatively, he recommends leading a ‘great drove’ of oxen through an infected city so ‘their sweet wholsome breath’ can ‘cleanse the impure Aire.’ Donne refers to the former method in his poem, ‘The progress of the soul, Metempsychosis.’ ‘Thinner than burnt air flies this soul,’ he writes (l. 173). Cannon fire burns away air’s impurities, so the resulting, ‘burnt’ air is thinner than average.

Attempts to purify or mask corrupt air had limited success, however. ‘In every street / Infections follow, overtake, and meet,’ Donne writes in 1592 in a verse letter, ‘To Mr T. W.’ (ll. 9-10). A major plague epidemic was starting in London, and it would ‘overtake’ tens of thousands by 1594. The concept of contagions having physical heft—enabling them to ‘follow’ an individual—appears often in contemporary medical tracts. Thomas Dekker, for example, writes in 1603 that ‘thick and contagious clowdes’ of infection have ‘driven’ some individuals out of their ‘earthlie dwellings,’ or bodies, while others have avoided the ‘arrowes’ of infection. Bradwell assigns contagion a similar physicality, observing that the plague ‘over-runneth … like a torrent, and few escape at least a scratching with it, if they be not deeply bitten by it.’ In each case, the contagion—whether in figurative clouds, arrows, or torrents—is an external aggressor, presenting a tangible threat to the human body. Individuals try to escape from it by masking putrid odours and purifying air, but they remain deeply vulnerable.

The prevalence of the plague made Donne consider his verse, or ‘rimes’, in cognate and related terms. In another verse letter from the 1592-4 epidemic, ‘To Mr. E. G.,’ Donne compares his ‘slimy rimes’ to standing water’s putrid vapours:

Euen as lame things thirst their perfection, so
The slimy rimes bred in our vale below,
Bearing with them much of my love & hart
Fly vnto that Parnassus, wher thou art.                     (ll. 1-4)

Donne humorously compares his addressee’s home on Highgate Hill, an elevated area next to London, to Greece’s Parnassus, a mountain bordering Delphi. Highgate and Parnassus have much purer, healthier air than their neighbouring cities. Meanwhile, Donne writes from ‘our vale below,’ London, which is situated in the Thames Valley. London is prone to disease, he suggests: its valley location enables standing water to accumulate, releasing disease-causing vapours. Donne sees the current plague epidemic’s effects everywhere. He observes ‘Theaters … fill’d with emptines,’ noting that ‘lancke & thin is euery street & way’ (ll. 8, 9). The city has closed its theatres and people are avoiding the streets, or abandoning the city altogether, to reduce their risk of infection.


Woodcut from Thomas Dekker, A Rod for Run-awayes (London, 1625), picturing the plague (Wikimedia Commons)

Until now, though, Donne has remained in the city, which inspires his verse. London’s ‘vale’ breeds his ‘slimy rimes,’ he contends: his poems acquire the slime of their source, London’s damp river valley. In a literal sense, his lyrics express his native city’s character as they ‘fly’ to Highgate. He does not claim that they will infect his addressee, but he does seek to move his friend with his vivid descriptions of plague-ridden London. His lyrics transmit another feature of their source, as well: Donne’s ‘love & hart.’ Donne flatters his friend, asserting that the latter’s physical elevation in Highgate signals elevated intellectual and moral status, or ‘perfection.’ Donne’s imperfect lyrics ‘thirst’ for an audience with such a person as they rise from a source—Donne and London—that is literally and figuratively lower. Donne asserts that his verse expresses ‘spleene’: laughter and mirth, inspired by his city’s absurdities (l. 11). But as the epidemic takes hold, his spleen finds ‘Nothing wherat to laugh’ in London (l. 11). He will flee the city, he decides, seeking alternative sources of inspiration and pleasure.

Donne returned soon after the epidemic, however, and—before his death in 1631—he experienced two more major outbreaks of plague in London, as well as frequent epidemics of typhoid, typhus, and smallpox. These outbreaks continued to influence his writing’s style and themes long after he first celebrated his ‘slimy rimes’.

Alison Bumke is a College Lecturer and Fellow in English at Queens’ College, Cambridge, for the 2015-16 academic year.

What We’re Reading: Week of Feb. 20

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!


Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Zanchevsky, Zakrevsky, or Zakovsky?” (LRB)

Frank Kermode’s 1983 review of The Name of the Rose by the late Umberto Eco (LRB)


Sara Georgini, Debate Night (S-USIH Blog)

Robert O. Paxton, The Truth About the Resistance (NYRB)

Isaac Chotiner interviews Robert Paxton: Is Donald Trump a Fascist? A Historian of Fascism Weighs In (Slate)

Michael Caines, Matthew Arnold (and other Victorian big heads) (TLS Blog)

Donal Harris, The Art of Administration: On Greg Barnhisel’s “Cold War Modernists” (LARB)

George Packer, Why Leftists Go Right (New Yorker)

Sarah Wildman, The Revelations of a Nazi Art Catalogue (New Yorker)

Jeremy Bernstein, Tom Lehrer, Al Sears and Me (LRB Blog)

And, not least, some entertaining academic spats:
Terry Eagleton, A Toast at the Trocadero: D.J. Taylor (LRB)
Robin Lane Fox and Garry Wills, A Difference Over Augustine (NYRB)


E.R. Truitt, “Fantasy North” (Aeon)

Elizabeth Drew, “A Country Breaking Down” (NY Review of Books)

Gabriel Rosenberg, “Inventing the Family Farm: Towards a History of Rural Heterosexuality” (Notches Blog)

Tim Parks, “The Passion of the Bureaucrats” (LRB)


Anthony Grafton, 2016 Sandars Lectures (audio via Cambridge University Library)

Frederic Raphael, Lost Worlds of Joseph Roth (TLS)

Francine Prose The Passion of the Coens (NYR Daily)

Saki Knafo, A Black Police Officer’s Fight against the NYPD (NY Times)

+ The Greenwich Village Antiquarian Book Fair is this weekend! Feb. 19-21 @PS 3, 490 Hudson St., NYC



Brave Entertainments

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri



Pepys exhibition illustration by Bradley Jay


Few historical truths are as easy to pin down as the fact that Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) knew how to have a good time. He loved a good party, he loved his wine and his parmesan cheese, he loved to go to the theatre (350 performances in a 9 year span), and his enthusiasm for reading ranged from delight at Micrographia to erotic satisfaction at L’Ecole des Filles (although he burned it after reading).

As only we who are the most practiced hedonists can, Pepys made the best of bad situations. During an outbreak of plague in London he wrote in his diary at the end of July, while noting the death of around 1,700 people:

Thus I ended this month with the greatest joy that ever I did any in my life, because I have spent the greatest part of it with abundance of joy and honour, and pleasant journeys and brave entertainments, and without cost of money.

Or, during a boring sermon in Church, he simply took out his telescope and amused himself:

I did entertain myself with my perspective glass up and down the church, by which I had the great pleasure of seeing and gazing at a great many very fine women; and what with that, and sleeping, I passed away the time till sermon was done.


Dunn scope

Hand-held telescope inscribed with name Jacob Cunigham, probable owner [Repro ID: F8641-001]

Reading Pepys’ diary is a pleasure, because everything is fascinating when written about by someone who keeps himself fascinated as a matter of habit — by someone who adapted. Pepys was also adaptable where it counted most: although “a great roundhead” at age 15, witnessing the execution of Charles I with the sense of savage glee (“The memory of the wicked shall rot,” he recalls saying the day the King was beheaded), he was aboard the ship that brought Charles II back to England, and managed to have a successful naval career across an incredible period of political volatility, the span of which is covered at the National Maritime Museum’s exhibition Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution.

This exhibit has everything: a painting of the beheading of Charles I highlighted with a spotlight, draperies stimulating the houses of plague victims, recipes for avoiding the plague, Napier’s Bones, pirate catalogues, portraits of beautiful women (Nell Gwynn as Venus, Aphra Behn as herself), models of warships, mannequins wearing frilly Restoration fashions, ceramic tiles depicting the Popish Plot, elaborate drinking goblets, and multiple portraits Pepys commissioned of himself.


plague landscape

Frontispiece of EPB/53190/A: ‘The Christians Refuge’ Wellcome Images L0064305.


On the one hand, these materials offer an immersive experience into a well-worn concept of the Restoration dramatized in Pepys’ diary. As Lisa Jardine put it in a New Statesman review:

Because of Pepys, the Restoration has been painted with monotonous regularity as the age of the bodice-ripper adventure – men in periwigs doing shady business deals and exchanging confidences in crowded coffee houses, fondling buxom seamstresses and keeping covert assignations with neighbours’ wives, bedding loose women in insalubrious taverns.

But on the other hand, the exhibition intermingles that bodice-ripping with the traumatic highlights of the era Pepys survived (Revolution, Plague, and Fire). Wandering through the exhibition gives the impression that the periwig-wearing caricature of the Restoration Pepys has helped to popularise was a matter of psychological necessity — his own. Maybe the sheer weight of material accrued by the exhibition curators is a faithful re-enactment what a person of his social standing could do in 1666 to try to forget the pain of his own memories.

One of the first things Charles II did upon his restoration to the throne in 1660 is pass the Indemnity and Oblivion Act. Michael Neufeld among others has shown in The Civil Wars After 1660 how these acts kicked off a top-down effort to erase public memory of the Civil War (during which a fourth of the population perished) and Interregnum Period, and minimize violent reprisals. Under the act, only 11 out of the 31 regicides were executed, and records were altered, or ‘obliterated’ to erase any sourcex of embarrassment. But the government’s enforcement of memory loss and its related control on information and record-keeping could only go so far on a societal scale. Consider only for example the failure of the King’s supposed “Surveyor of the Press”, Sir Roger L’Estrange, toward the end of the 60s, in suppressing the publication of seditious materials among groups who had been vocal during the war — non-comformists like the Quakers barely broke their stride in speaking, and publishing, their minds. Against that background, acts of God were much more effective than legislation: pestilence that killed a fourth of London, a fire that levelled the city and incinerated many of its books, archives, and artefacts that people might otherwise use to connect with the past.

Who is to say how people might develop, on top of that, their own behaviours of forgetting, their own coping mechanisms: whether it be going to the theatre obsessively, or drinking wine constantly, or focusing their telescope on Jupiter and churchgoing ladies alike? Novelty can sometimes be deeply therapeutic, and in a London that had been destroyed, there was nothing to do but start over and buy garish new things until the panic subsided and there was truly the time to rebuild.


Fire of London, September 1666, British School, 18th century. (BHC0291)

This form of consumerist coping makes sense when paired with the epistemological optimism of institutions like the Royal Society, which Pepys was elected to in 1665 and president of in 1684: socialising around practices of observing new phenomena and conducting new experiments to re-calibrate an understanding of the way the world works is a wonderful way of moving forward. So too does it fit with his naval career and the expansion of the British Empire. The hunger for novelty to soften the traumas of the past seems, for Pepys, limitless. In The Invention of Improvement, Paul Slack describes it in different terms (indeed, in Pepys’ terms, or even at a later date Benjamin Franklin’s) that hunger becomes about “improvement” and “improvement came to rival and eventually replace alternative roads to better things, such as ‘reformation’ or ‘revolution’. Instead, the condition of England would be bettered by gradual and piecemeal change.”

That Pepys employed each of these strategies, and was involved in each of these scenes — cultural, scientific, political— is a testament to his privileged position: he had worked hard to make the money that allowed him to repeatedly make the best of bad situations. While he leaves an astonishing paper trail, one that makes it easy forget his limits as one man with one perspective (“History’s greatest witness,” the exhibition billboard proclaims), he is not alone in his habits or his emergency spending power. In that case: is the Restoration the first time in English history when it was possible to medicate trauma with material consumption? Did the combination of failed revolution, bubonic plague, and destructive flames create the ideal conditions for retail therapy? As Thomas Browne writes in the the preface to Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646): “Knowledge is made by oblivion, and to purchase a clear and warrantable body of Truth, we must forget and part with much we know.” Over-accumulation of new things serves a similar purpose. And walking through the exhibition has nearly that effect: the dramatic scenes of destruction at the beginning are almost blotted out by the lustre of fine cutlery and maritime instruments featured at the end. The pocket atlases and telescopes and seascape paintings that conclude the exhibition ask of us to look almost anywhere other than at the immediate surroundings, as Pepys himself seems to have done, with tireless optimism.

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution is on at the National Maritime Museum, London, until March 28, 2016.