Category Archives: Books

Alice Dunbar Nelson–Poet of Harrisburg

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve gotten more interested in the specific connections of the “New Negro Renaissance” that I took up in my book to my own specific location in Harrisburg.  While we tend to think of cultural movements as emanating and developing only in the major metropolitan centers (and so we equate the New Negro Renaissance Alice_Dunbar-Nelsonwith Harlem, or at most with Harlem and Chicago), it was in truth a national and even international movement, that touched culture in many different times and places.  Harrisburg, I learned a few years ago, was a well known center for jazz and a regular stop for big bands and jazz and blues musicians such as Cab Calloway and many other large and lesser lights.

This past week my colleague Jean Corey sent me a clipping (which she received via Alice Dunbar nelsonHarrisburg historian Calobe Jackson) regarding Alice Dunbar Nelson.  I had absolutely zero inkling that Dunbar Nelson was associated with Harrisburg at all, but she apparently lived here for at least a couple of years after her second marriage.  The attached clip from the Harrisburg Telegraph notes her wedding to Robert J. Nelson who worked in the state government.  There are a fairly large number of references to Alice Dunbar and Dunbar-Nelson in the Harrisburg Telegraph, even after she apparently left the city–references to speaking engagements at Harrisburg churches and the like.  I’ll have to follow up further later.

Review of Goodbye Christ?–American Historical Review

It was nice to find another review of Goodbye Christ?, and the first I’ve seen in a print journal of some substance.  Tiffany Ruby Patterson from Vanderbilt University does a very thorough overview of the book and has some kind words to say.  Unfortunately behind a paywall for now, but you can find it here if you have access.  A couple of short excerpts:

In Goodbye Christ? Christianity, Masculinity, and the New Negro Renaissance, Peter Kerry Powers has written a deeply researched and fine-grained study of how issues of masculinity and Christianity are entangled in the writing and worldviews of African American intellectuals in the twentieth century. He argues that the New Negro Renaissance was not a secular period as some have argued but one where secularism and Christian beliefs competed in shaping the struggle for leadership. Instead he demonstrates that the period was a moment when “Christian religious practices provide the backdrop, characters, imagery, and theme of most of the important work of the Renaissance, even when they are deployed to resist the religious traditions that they reference” (15)

This study also speaks to the work that still needs to be done on Christianity, non-Christian belief systems in America, gender matters, and intellectuals.  Goodbye Christ? is grounded in excellent research and is meticulous in its arguments.  it is a must read for scholars of religion, gender, race, sexuality, and intellectual leadership.

So, must read. Do.

“Beyond The Review: Reading African American Literature and Religion”

Langston

was very happy this week to publish a new review essay in The Cresset for their Lent 2019 edition. On the one hand publishing has not lost its charge, perhaps because I do it so rarely.  But beyond that it was good to see in print my meditations on being part of a mini-movement in literary and cultural studies that has been taking religion in/and African American lit more seriously.  Besides my efforts on the Harlem Renaissance, there are many other, probably more important contributions going on, and I look at three recent works by Wallace Best, M. Cooper Harris, and Josef Sorett just to give a sense of the importance of what’s going on, besides my evaluation of the works at hand.  I also liked the challenge of trying to write 

about academic literary criticism for a non-specialist audience, and to take up the issue of why lay readers ought to read criticism, even against their better judgment.  Not an easy task, and one at which I think I only partially succeeded, but which the editor liked enough to print at any rate.  A little flavor of this aspect of the review:

harriss

“Unlike breathing or the beating of the heart, reading is a skill developed within particular cultures, each with its own values and peculiarities, and each with its own notion of excellence. At its best, literary criticism models forms of readerly virtuosity that stretch our imagination beyond the straightforward pleasures of enjoying a good story. The best criticism allows us to know literature within a cultural ecosystem of reference and connection. In the normal course of things, we pluck books from the Barnes & Noble bookshelf or the Amazon algorithm as we might pluck up a flower in a field, enjoying (or not) the pleasure of the text. Literary criticism reads the role that flower plays in the field. It considers the ways it depends on or perhaps destroys other features of the field, or perhaps the ways other cultural ecosystems consider it a weed or an invasive species to be eradicated. SorettWhile reading literary criticism is not always a walk in the park, doing so can make our pleasures more aware and engaged, delivering enhanced or other pleasures, much as we might take pleasure in not only the scent of the air, but in being able to name the flowers and the trees and understand our relationship to them and theirs to one another.”

You can read the rest of my review here…

 

Rybczynski–Home: A Short History of an Idea

Home: A Short History of an IdeaHome: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rybczynski, Witold. Home : A Short history of an Idea. 1986

I’ve been troubling over the notion of home since our Center for Public Humanities’ excellent Humanities Symposium on the topic this past February, partially out of the interest to punch up the substance of my own presentation on the idea of Home and the Pratice of the Humanities. Partly because I’ve been troubled by the contradictions between the ethic of welcoming the stranger and alien that is so central to Christian (and Jewish, and Islamic) codes of ethics, and the fact that Christians proved to be among the most enthusiastic supporters of our country’s recent draconian policies against immigrants and refugees. A people who takes pride in family values has found it relatively easy nevertheless to support the destruction of the children and families of other people (even their fellow Christians’), and to support as well as a dramatic reduction in aid to identifiable refugees, to say nothing of the aggressive expulsion of wayfarers among us who are tagged as “illegal” because they were born somewhere else. Less painfully, I’ve been mulling over what it means for an institution of higher education to talk about itself as a family, for us to use language about our “home institution,” for us to think of our disciplines as “homes”, to have departmental homes, or indeed what it means for us in the humanities when we say we no longer feel “at home” in higher ed as it is currently practiced. I plunged into Rybczynski with these questions in mind. He did not answer my specific questions, since they are my questions and not his; he did, however, help me think a little harder about the idea of home and where it comes from.

Rybczynski’s book is, as the title of the book suggests, a history of the idea of home. At least it is partially that. In the first half of the book, Rybczynski makes clear that our current conceptions of home and all that it entails are cultural and historical constructs that tell us something about our period and not about a timeless entity. This kind of thing is obviously a given of cultural history for the past fifty or so years, but it was still good to think through this given our current obsessions of home, as well as with the dramatic transformations of home as a lived practice given changes in economy, entertainments, religion, and the like. Rybczynski approaches this topic as an architectural historian, and so much of his attention is given to space and how it is constructed, decorated (or not), and used. Among other things, he points out that the notion of the house as a private and intimate space for the nuclear family is a modern development, really almost unknown in the late middle ages, and only gradually developing through the early modern to Victorian period. Among other things, according to Rybczynski, there were no private spaces in medieval houses, even among the propertied classes—the space of the merchants or other clerics home itself being shared by servants and family alike, usually in one or at most two rooms that served as kitchen, dining room, office, and bedroom depending on the time of day.

For Rybczynski, this collective feature of the home reflected a certain cast of the late medieval or early modern mind, one that was not oriented toward intimate self-consciousness or toward private relations but towards one’s assigned place in the public world.

What mattered then was the external world, and one’s place in it. Life was a public affair, and just as one did not have a strongly developed self-consciousness, one did not have a room of one’s own. It was the medieval mind, not the absence of comfortable chairs or central heating, that explains the austerity of the medieval home. (35)

For Rybczynski, then, there is not real need for our modern conception of the home, or for our modern development of homes and neighborhoods with elaborate private spaces, precisely because our houses (and later homes) reflect the nature of the culture in which we are living. It was only later, as the consciousness of the modern European turned toward individuation that we began to conceive of the need for smaller, intimate, and more private spaces. Rybczynski put a great deal of emphasis on the development of the idea of “home” to cultural and architectural developments among the Dutch that gradually—given the relative power the Dutch exercised economically and culturally in the modern period—influenced much of the rest of northern Europe and England. For Rybczynski, the Dutch and those they influenced gave us the dominant idea of home that continues to influence how we think of it today. As he puts it, “[‘Home’] brought together the meanings of house and of household, of dwelling and of refuge, of ownership and of affection. ‘Home’ meant the house, but also everything that was in it and around it, as well as the people, and the sense of satisfaction and contentment that all these conveyed. You could walk out of the house, but you always returned home” (62). Moreover, this transformation accompanied a new sense that the home was exclusively for the nuclear family unit, and that unit was housed in a separate private space separate from and independent of the rest of society in some crucial respects. “[In the Bourgeois period] the house was no longer only a shelter against the elements, a protection against the intruder—although these remained important functions—it had become the setting for a new compact social unit: the family. With the family came isolation, but also family life and domesticity” (77).

To some degree, after establishing the new power of the idea of “home in the 17th through 19th centuries, Rybczynski’s book becomes it’s second half a more straightforward analysis of the changes to houses themselves. That it, it becomes less a cultural history of the idea of the home and more an architectural history of the houses that provide the material ground out of which homes are imagined. He provides extended discussions of the development of the idea of comfort in the Victorian period, and on the notion that houses should be efficient in the industrial period of the late 19th and early 20th century, and he reflects extensively on the potential meanings of various kinds of décor and architectural transformations in the latter part of the 20th century, most of which he seems to see as negative developments. But in these later chapters there is very little discussion of the ways in which different kinds of home/houses reflect different dimensions of being human in the modern and late modern periods of the 20th century. To the degree that they do not, I found them less compelling, as if the thread of the narrative had been dropped and Rybczynski was not sure of what to make about 20th century and the kinds of people who made the homes that they did. This is a flaw in the book’s conception and execution as a whole, it seems to me. And I have read other books, using or building on or disputing with Rybczynski that do a better job of thinking through the cultural formations of houses and homes in the late 20th century. Nevertheless, people interested in the ways that the structure and design of houses has changed over time and reflect the times in which they are built will find the entire book a worthwhile read.

View all my reviews

The Good Lord Bird: A Review

16171272“The Good Lord Bird” is a book I ought to like. I liked McBride’s first autobiography, “The Color of Water,” an appreciative remembrance/meditation on being a black man with a white mother. I liked McBride personally when he visited Messiah College. He is a fantastic musician, whose passion for music I share. Like most America’s I’m intrigued by the fanatical John Brown. The novel’s theme is race in America, the fatal subject of many of the greatest American novels from Moby Dick to Huckleberry Finn to Absalom Absalom to the Invisible Man to Beloved. It’s James McBride’s fourth book, about the time in a career when one starts to see signature work produced. It was chosen for the National Book Award. Everything things about it says BIG. Good writer, big book, big subject.

But the book left me cold.

Well, really somewhat more than lukewarm, which feels like cold when you are eagerly expecting greatness. I liked many passages. It was better than watching netflix…most of the time. But I expect more than that from a National Book Award Winner, and couldn’t help but wonder what the judges were thinking, though it also crossed my mind that American fiction must have been in a bad way in 2013 if this was the best we could produce. Apparently this thought crossed McBride’s mind as well since, according to the Times story on the 2013 NBA ceremonies, McBride was stunned to have won and didn’t even prepare a speech.

The book has often been compared to Huckleberry Finn. indeed, the novel’s cover insists on it, evoking the ubiquitous straw hat that seems to accompany every edition of the novel and rendition of Huck’s story since that American classic was written. Henry, the novel’s protagonist, is a cross-dressing early adolescent struggling to find his own way and own identity in a world full of people who impose their vision of what he is or ought to be at will. There is no river–a good bit of the novel takes place in the plains of Kansas and Iowa, in its own more desiccated way as stark brutal and unforgiving a wild thing as the Huck’s Mississippi. In a different sense, John Brown himself is Henry’s river, a wild thing, a force of nature with a logic and will of his own that bends things to himself, like a Kansas tornado or a Mississippi flood, and does the bending in part through his own fanatical certainty in the will of God.

But the differences between Huckleberry Finn and The Good Lord Bird also point to the latter’s narrative problems. In Huckleberry Finn, the river is a character of its own, but it is never the character that we care about. From the opening sentence we know we care about Huck Finn and coming to know him. The river is finally an occasion for the main narrative character, and not the other way around. If the river drives Huck through coincidence, or if Huck follows it where it carries him, finally the reader follows Huck, only sticking with the river because of that human story. In The Good Lord Bird I could never muster a lot of concern from Henry, who followed John Brown for no good reason, didn’t seem to want to be there, and didn’t seem to learn all that much by his travels. In the Times story cited above, McBride says he enjoyed writing the novel because “It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow him around.” The novel has that feel. That Henry is just falling in to the world and following John Brown around for no reason we can adequately figure out. In this sense, the novel feels all the way through a bit like Huck Finn feels in its disappointing conclusion, when Huck Finn, who has captured our imagination and matured before our interior eyes, turns freedom and maturity into a banal melodrama at the hands of his would-be mentor, Tom Sawyer.

In the acknowledgements section at the end of the book, McBride thanks the many who kept the memory of John Brown alive. I’m not sure this book will do that very well. When, for the space of several dozen pages in the middle of the novel, John Brown disappears from the scene and Henry is left to his own devices, we realize we just don’t care that much about him. And if Henry is not himself a compelling character, if Henry is not more than an empty sleeve of a boy becoming a man, then we can’t really find John Brown all that compelling either. Adolescents drifting through life are compelled by many things, some of them profound, many or most of them not. John Brown is a terrifying and complex figure in American History, one that Americans still feel uncertainly as both a brutal terrorist and a freedom fighter, and feel this contradiction all the more so in that Brown was indeed on the right moral side of the arc of history when it comes to the story of race in America, unlike so many other of our white founding fathers and mothers. But because Henry does not himself seem to struggle in any meaningful way with the desperate question of whether in pursuing freedom we are winging into flight or stumbling over a precipice, we ultimately don’t feel in this John Brown the terror that can be the birth pangs of freedom. Instead, McBride’s John Brown seems to shift uncomfortably between being a joke and being meaningfully sincere.

A worthy subject for a netflix melodrama, but I was hoping for more.

On being human: Lessons from Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Higher Education

In a specific sense I am an unabashed advocate of what has come to be called the applied humanities, roughly and broadly speaking the effort to connect the study of the humanities to identifiable and practical social goods.  For me, in addition it includes the effort to develop humanities programs that take seriously that we are responsible (at least in significant part) for preparing our students for productive lives after college, preparation that I think really should be embedded within humanities curricula, advising, cocurricular programming, and the general ethos and rhetoric that we use to inculcate in our students what it means to be a humanist.

In several respects this conviction lies at the root of my advocacy for both digital humanities programs and for career planning and programming for liberal arts students, as different as these two areas seem to be on the surface.  I have little room left any more for the idea that “real learning” or intellectual work pulls up its skirts to avoid the taint of the marketplace or the hurly-burly of political arenas and that we demonstrate the transcendent value of what we do over and above professional programs by repeatedly demonstrating our irrelevance.  Far from diminishing the humanities, an insistence that what we do has direct and indirect, obvious and not so obvious connections to social value enhances the humanities.  It’s not just a selling point to a doubting public.  As I said yesterday, the only good idea is the idea that can be implemented.  We ought to be proud of the fact that we can show directly how our students succeed in life, how they apply the things they’ve learned, how they find practical ways of making meaningful connections between their academic study and the world of work.

At the same time, I will admit that some versions of this argument leave me cold.  It risks saying that the only thing that is really valuable about the humanities is what is practically relevant to the marketplace. I greet this effort to make Wordsworth a useful version of a management seminar with a queasy stomach.

It may sound like a nice day out in beautiful surroundings, but can walking around Lake District sites synonymous with Romantic poet William Wordsworth really offer business leaders and local entrepreneurs the crucial insights they need?

That is precisely the claim of Wordsworth expert Simon Bainbridge, professor of Romantic studies at Lancaster University, who believes the writer can be viewed as a “management guru” for the 21st century.

Since 2007, the scholar has taken students down into caves and out on canoes to the island on Grasmere once visited by Wordsworth and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and to places where many of the former’s greatest works were written, for what he called “practical exercises linked to the themes of Wordsworth’s poetry.”

Such walks, which also have been incorporated into development days for individual firms, are now being offered as a stand-alone option for local and social entrepreneurs at a rate of £175 ($274) a day.

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/08/09/businesses-pay-british-professor-teach-them-about-wordsworth#ixzz236bQaECf 
Inside Higher Ed 

I do not find the insight here wrong so much as sad.  If the only reason we can get people to read Wordsworth is because he will enhance their management skills, we have somehow misplaced a priority, and misunderstood the role that being a manager ought to play in our lives and in the social and economic life of our society.  It is the apparent reduction of all things and all meaning to the marketplace that is to be objected to and which every educational institution worthy of the name ought to furiously resist, not the fact of marketplaces themselves.

I was lucky enough this summer to attend the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Education.  To be honest, I went thinking I was going to get all kinds of advice on things like how to organize projects, how to manage budgets, how to promote programs, how to supervise personnel.  There was some of that to be sure, but what struck me most was that the Institute, under the leadership of Bob Kegan, put a high, even principal, priority on the notion that managers have to first take care of who they are as human beings if they are to be the best people they can be for their colleagues and their institutions.  You have to know your own faults and weakness, your own strengths, your dreams, and you have to have the imagination and strength of mind and heart (and body) to learn to attend to the gifts, and faults and dreams and nightmares of others before or at least simultaneously with your own.  In other words, being a better manager is first and foremost about becoming a healthier, more humane, fuller human being.

The tendency of some applied humanities programs to show the relevance of poetry by showing that it has insights in to management techniques, or the relevance of philosophy because it will help you write a better project proposal, is to misplace causes and to turn the human work of another imagination (in this case Wordsworth) into an instrumental opportunity.  The reason for reading Wordsworth, first and foremost, is because Wordsworth is worth reading, and simultaneously because the encounter with Wordsworth will give you the opportunity to be a fuller, more imaginative, more thoughtful human being than you were before.

If you become that, you will have a chance to be a better manager.  But even if you don’t become a better manager, or if you lose your job because your company is overtaken by Bain capital or because students no longer choose to afford your pricey education, you will, nonetheless, be richer.