Friday, April 30, 2010

A really great Willie

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet have an adult conversation with a not-quite child

The Maria Chronicles, #53

Maria is sitting at her desk in her empty classroom, jotting down some notes for the upcoming final exam in her U.S. survey course, when she recognizes the voice of her student, Wilhelmina Marzetti, in the doorway: "Is it true, Ms. Bradsteet?"

"Is what true?" Maria asks, realizing as she does so that she knows what Willie is talking about.

"That you're leaving. At the end of the school year."

Maria meets Willie's gaze. As she does so, she becomes aware of seeing the girl's face as a snapshot of a life in motion. Willie's hair is braided, and the sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose show the traces of the child she is ceasing to be. Maria has long had a theory that everyone has what she calls an essential age -- a core visage in a person's life that somehow defines them even as they move through the life cycle. Not for the first time, Maria thinks that Willie's essential age is midlife; she can somehow see her, perhaps a little puffier and wearier than she is now, nevertheless sturdily sustaining an identity as the mother of children. Probably hold a responsible job of some kind, but a mother first and foremost, and the centrality of that role, that dependability, will keep her from seeming old for a long time after she actually is old. Just a theory. Maria believes her essential age is midlife, too, right around where she is now. But she suspects motherhood is not as central for her as it will be for Willie.

"I don't know, Willie. It might be true that I'm leaving. But it might not."

"What does that mean?" There's a plaintive quality to her student's voice, poised between petulance and justified irritation, that Maria experiences as a dilemma. It wouldn't be fair to burden Willie with the details of her life, anxieties that she would be likely to take to heart. But withholding information seems unfair to the spirit of a relationship which, however circumscribed, has long been understood as significant.

Maria exhales sharply. "Willie, I came to this school in September because I wanted to start my life over. My marriage had broken up, my children were grown, and I wanted, and believed, I could start a new chapter. I left a secure job back in New Hampshire, which I probably could have kept for life, both because I needed a change and believed I was a good enough teacher that I'd be able to find a similarly secure job somewhere else. And I thought that job would be here. So did the people who hired me. But it turns out this may not be the case."

"Is it about tenure? That you were -- what's the term -- denied tenure?"

"No. Actually, I haven't even gotten to the point where that would be an issue. Actually, if it had, I'd feel pretty confident. The problem is really the school budget. As you know, these are hard times. People are cutting back. And as someone who was recently hired, I'm low man on the totem pole."

"That's so unfair!"

"Well, now, I'm not sure it is. In any case, it's not something you need to worry about."

"Yes it is! It's definitely something I need to worry about! You're a great teacher!"

"Well, thank you."

"Is there something I can do? We kids can do? Write letters or talk the the principal? I know there are a lot of people who feel the way I do."

Maria doubts that. "No, Willie, there's nothing you or anyone else can do at this point. Actually, Dr. Bernstein has been working on a plan to keep me here."

"That's great! So if it works, you'll stay?"

Maria is uncomfortable at being drawn into a degree of disclosure she's now regretting. But executing a graceful U-turn will not be easy. "I don't know, Willie."

"Why not? Is it because you're mad? I wouldn't blame you. But I hope you won't take it out on us."

"No, Willie, it's not about revenge. It's . . . well, it's sort of like you're going out with a guy, and he says he wants to see other people, and then he says he wants you back, and you're really glad and everything, but somehow something is broken and even though you want things to work, they just plain don't anymore. I'm not saying that has happened, but it might. That's sort of where I am now. I'm trying to figure out if I can stay, both in terms whether the school will have me, but also whether it will feel right." Jesus, Maria thinks. Why am I telling her this? And is this in fact the way it is with me? Maybe it is.

Willie shakes her head. "I think I understand. I mean, I've never had a boyfriend, but it makes sense. I just hate the idea of you leaving just after you got here."

"Well, let me tell you, I don't much like the idea of leaving, either. Actually, Willie, if it turns out that I stay, you'll be part of the reason why. Even though I know that after two more years you're going to be the one who's leaving. For sure."

Willie smiles ruefully. "Yeah, I guess. But I guess there are always Willies wherever you go."

"No. Not wherever you go. And they're all different. You're a really great Willie. The best."

Willie looks down, her face full of emotion. Maria would like to go over and hug her, but decides not to.

"You go on now, Willie. I appreciate you coming by. I really do. But I've got to prepare this exam."

Willie nods, her head still down. "OK, Ms. Bradstreet. See you tomorrow." She looks up briefly and smiles before she exits.

Maria waits to make sure she's gone before she reaches for the Kleenex at the edge of her desk.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Progressive Pilgrims

Nick Bunker  paints a vivid -- and notably broad -- portrait of the Pilgrims in Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World

The following review was posted last night on the Books page of the History News Network.

The Pilgrims are firmly ensconced --  well, maybe not firmly ensconced, but  ensconced nonetheless -- in the collective American imagination. But their status in the academy, after peaking mid-century in the work of historians like Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan, has been a good deal more wobbly. For starters, the multicultural turn in academe has made the study of relatively privileged white people problematic. Even among those who have embarked on such studies, there has been a long-term effort to argue that they either typified the larger pattern of imperial conquest or, alternatively, that their atypical qualities (demographic, ideological, or the like) make them a misleading template compared with colonial projects on mid- or southern Atlantic seaboard or elsewhere.

There has been a range of important work in the last decade, however, that suggests the protean ability of the Pilgrims to advance varied historiographic agendas. In 1999, John Seelye looked at their role in collective memory in The Place of Plymouth Rock. The following year, James and Patricia Deetz took a more anthropological approach in The Times of Their Lives. Meanwhile, in popular history, Nathaniel Philbrick hitched the narrative of the Pilgrims' progress to a wider arc that culminated in King Philip's War a half century later in Mayflower (2006). They figure peripherally in entertaining recent books by Tony Horwitz and the always lively Sarah Vowell, whose The Wordy Shipmates (2008) is as notable for its analytic sophistication as its wit.

Nick Bunker's Making Haste from Babylon is a major new work that both rides this wave and raises it considerably higher. There are two core reasons for this. The first is that Bunker, a former banker and financial journalist, rests his case on the most fundamental element of historical craft: excavating significant caches of previously unknown or overlooked documents that amplify the traditional 17th century primary sources (notably William Bradford's famous Of Plymouth Plantation). The second is that Bunker simultaneously partakes of the most au courant trends in the contemporary historical profession, notably the current rage for an internationalist approach (which, it should be said, has long been a staple in the study of what has often been called "The Atlantic World"), as well as an environmentalist accent. This accent is marked by a literally bird's eye view that opens and closes the book, a whimsical touch that both defies interdisciplinary orthodoxy and alludes to epistemological questions of perspective that have hovered over the profession in the last two decades.

These tactical decisions in approaching the Pilgrims converge on a series of interpretive points. Perhaps the most novel finding in the book is Bunker's emphasis on the development of the role of the beaver trade in Maine in the 1620s as the key turning point in the success of Plymouth colony. Previous historians of early New England have noted, usually in passing, on the role of the beaver as a source of revenue for the wandering settlers of Plymouth, but in reconstructing a transatlantic trail of trade, Bunker sees this particular economic activity as the prerequisite for the Pilgrims' growing capacity to pay their creditors as well as to procure the supplies (among them livestock) to establish a durable presence in America.

This economic development was a direct result of geopolitical ones. And those geopolitical ones, in turn, have their roots in Elizabethan politics. As anyone vaguely familiar with the story knows, the most obvious truth about the Pilgrims' relationship to the English government is its ambiguity. Bunker considers it important to look beyond the immediate reasons for the Pilgrim migration first to Leiden and then to Plymouth during the reign of  the Stuart king James I to consider the role of Puritan dissent generally in the latter years of Tudor rule under Elizabeth I. The lingering pull of the Roman Catholic Church at home, combined with the Spanish threat abroad, meant that even the most insistent Protestant critiques of the Church of England would be viewed relatively indulgently by the government unless it crossed the line into an overt threat to secular authority.

Bunker devotes considerable space to the career of the late sixteenth century Puritan dissident Robert Browne, some of whose most radical followers were executed (Browne himself was exiled and later jailed for his views). James I labeled the ensuing generation of Pilgrims as "Brownists," a moniker that some observers have viewed as inaccurate but which Bunker considers trenchant. (He paraphrases the monarch's shrewd comparison of Puritans with addicted tobacco smokers, "devoted to their own obsession regardless of the cost that fell on themselves or others.") James I and his son Charles I made life much more difficult for religious dissidents, principally by promoting their ideological opponents. But such were the military and political exigencies of their time that it sometimes made sense to overlook Brownist excess in the name of good relations with the Dutch or national solidarity against the French, both of which had influential Protestant populations who viewed the Pilgrims favorably. Interpretively speaking, the upshot of all this is that Bunker is eager to portray the Pilgrims not as a marginal splinter group -- a tendency particularly pronounced when juxtaposing them with the Puritans who founded Massachusetts a decade later -- but rather a surprisingly well-connected group of proto-gentry who navigated the swiftest currents of European power politics.

 But the core impetus for all this history -- the base, as it were, for a superstructure of politics and economics -- is religion. As Bunker says flatly toward the end of the book, "The truth is that Calvinist zeal was far more important than any other factor in bringing about the creation of New England." The religious intensity of the Pilgrims was the source of a disenchantment that increasingly brought them into conflict with English society, and it was also the source of the disenchantment that drove them from Holland, notwithstanding other factors. But even more important, that intensity helped fuel the morale that forged them into a cohesive body -- Bunker considers the Mayflower Compact important because he sees clear evidence that they saw it as important -- and sustained them through years of adversity and despair. Moreover, Plymouth was not just another imperial colony. Yes, the Pilgrims experienced conflict with Indians, but one reason why they enjoyed relative peace with them is that they policed their own. William Bradford was not John Smith. And Miles Standish was not just hired help. Nor were Puritans mindless fanatics, particularly when one considers the simultaneous sectarian violence of Thirty Years War on the European continent. The Pilgrims' belief was not important simply in how it allowed them to justify what they did, but also in terms of what they chose not to do. They were, in short, remarkably disciplined people.

Making Haste from Babylon has a distinctly peripatetic quality. The storyline wanders, in intentionally non-chronological episodes, across a series of landscapes in England, America, Holland, France and the Atlantic Ocean. For all his immersion in dusty archives, Bunker has a keenly observant eye for nature, and indeed  notes that "Historians often write about the early English settlers of America in a cerebral way, or with a sentimentality that the Pilgrims would have found very odd. In fact, they came from feral old England, as it was before railways, and as it still exists in vestiges today." This pedestrian quality can make for real enjoyment, though it does engender impatience after a while. There's only so many times one can cheerfully hear that we can't really understand X until we first make a journey to Y, or that we have to work through a series of Z's contemporaries to fully appreciate who he is. After about 300 pages of this 400+ book, the temptation to skip passages and pages may become irresistible.

One may also plausibly wonder how decisively new a portrait of the Pilgrims this really is. For all Bunker's emphasis on the importance of new sources, there's little here that actually overturns previously established facts. The value of the book is less a matter of advancing the state of knowledge than it is in gaining a granular appreciation for the lives the Pilgrims lived and what it took for them to achieve it. Which, of course, is no small thing. Making Haste from Babylon is a cutting-edge book whose satisfactions rest in old-fashioned writing. It makes for a satisfying reading experience.

Monday, April 26, 2010

(Re) lit

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet consider learning to speak English

The Maria Chronicles, #52

Maria, sitting alone at a table in the faculty lounge, is restless and bored. She's slogging through a set of mediocre student essays. What's disappointing about this is that she thought she had an elegantly simple essay question: "Who was Martin Luther King, Jr.?" Yet the answers have been uniformly turgid affirmations of King's heroism. Maria had actually been fairly critical of King in her lecture on the Civil Rights Movement, emphasizing the work of women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, and pointing out that King was a plagiarist and womanizer. Yet the class has seemed unwilling to grapple with this; it's easier simply to say that King was a fighter for equality and that his work remains unfinished. Blah blah blah. Even Maria's beloved Willie, who has so often risen to the occasion in her class, seemed uninspired, noting that King has his problems, but using most of her essay to emphasize the depth of the resistance he faced (true, enough, Maria concedes). Beside her, Maria has an old, dog-eared copy of Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory, the introduction of which will help her to kill birds of immigration and neoconservatism once she bolts through the Vietnam War. It's always a sprint to the finish when you're teaching the U.S. survey.

Maria is considering walking across the room for another jolt of caffeine in the form of coffee when she sees the school principal, Eleanor Bernstein, at the doorway of the lounge. This is surprising: Ellie almost never enters this lair. And apparently she's not going to now, either. "Maria," she says, leaning the top half of her tightly coiled body into the room. "You have a minute?"

"Uh yeah, okay," she replies uncertainly.

"Come on over to my office, then," Dani commands. It's only a short walk from the lounge. Dani has gone back there even before Maria can stand up. I wonder what this is about, Maria thinks. At least it's a break from those papers.

Dani is already back at her desk when Maria arrives, motioning her to take a chair on the other side of the desk. "Jesus," Dani says irritably, apparently in reaction to something that's just appeared on her laptop. She fires off a reply as Maria sits there, growing annoyed at the way she's forced to wait after a peremptory summons.

Then Dani looks way sharply from the screen and gazes at Maria directly. "Sorry. Idiots in maintenance. Can't figure out what to do with an illegally parked car. You'd think they would have taped the name of the towing company to the phone by now."

Maria decides to remain impassive, not interested in maligning the maintenance people or talking about parking.

"All right then," Dani says, correctly reading her and deciding to cut to the chase. "Maria, we haven't talked since I told you I planned to recommend you for renewal and eventual tenure, which I did. As you know, we've had budgetary issues since then, principally because Larry Roganoff, who I regard as dead wood, refuses to move on. He's proven to be quite recalcitrant for a passive man. But I've had a series of conversations with him and the pencil pushers working the budget. I've convinced the former to accept a half-time return to his position and the latter to sweeten his health care retirement benefits."

Dani folds her arms and pushes her chair back, regarding Maria appraisingly. "If you were younger and cheaper, Maria, I'd be able to pay you full time on what Larry makes half time. But I'm not going to ask you to do that."

"So you're going to ask me to come back on a half-time basis?"

"No. Or at least that's not my preferred scenario. Tell me, Maria: how do you feel about American literature?"

"American literature?"

"Yes. You know, like The Scarlett Letter. Or Song of Solomon. That kind of thing."

Maria can't help but chuckle. She's never heard Nathaniel Hawthorne and Toni Morrison lumped together as a "thing." "Well," she says, "I was an American Studies major in college."

"Oh yeah?" Dani sounds surprised -- and pleased. "Well, here's the thing. Mandy Merkel has just announced that she's decided to accept a graduate fellowship for an MFA program at Syracuse. She wants to be a novelist, God help her. Mandy was slated to teach two sections of the tenth grade American lit course next year. You make more than she does, but less than Larry does, so the two would more or less balance out. You'd have to teach two preps of an all new course outside your training, but it would be a way of keeping you here."

"The English department would go along with this?"

"Well, they don't have much choice. It's late in the year, a half-time job, and there's no guarantee it will be permanent. Plus you're well-liked. I checked."

"Nice to hear," Maria says. "But I've got to say this is not an especially appetizing offer, Dani. Especially given the way the job I thought was mine proved not to be. This sounds even more wobbly."

"You have a better option?"

"Yes." A fib.But Maria also thinks the job Jack has been working on for her would come through -- if she consented to it.

Dani purses her lips and nods. "Well, I didn't want to bring this up yet, but I see I need to put all my cards on the table."

Maria looks at her quizzically.

"I don't know if you've noticed, Maria, but the English department is fossilized." (Maria has noticed, and nods.) "It's my ambition to bring it into the 20th century. And you're my Trojan Horse."

"A lovely prospect," she observes drily.

"Hear me out. I didn't want to tell you this, but in a few weeks I plan to unveil a major new curricular initiative for the 2011-21012 school year. I've got a few of the department heads on board, including your friend Karl Kurtz. I can't go into the details here -- I've got a meeting in a few minutes -- except to say that it involves much more interdisciplinary teaching. It also involves more team teaching, of collaborating groups working off a shared curriculum."

"How are you going to be able to do that financially?"

"Good question. The plan is actually budget neutral. Eventually. We'll still have the same number of teachers and the same number of kids, but recombine them. More big meetings, more group work, more discussion sections -- overall, a more fluid situation.  I'll need money to get the thing going for training and incentives, but I think I've got some grant money for that. Actually, this is where you come in. I really want you at the forefront of this initiative, Maria. In the short term, there will be extra money for you as the point person. And if  you establish your indispensability, as I'm confident you will, you'll have a secure and prominent future here."

"Wow. I don't know what to say."

"Well, I understand you probably have more questions. Unfortunately, I have to go. The main thing I want to have happen now is that you agree to consider the short-term offer on the table, and not to accept any other position that may be in the offing. Give me a little time to work this out and see if I can put something more concrete on the table. Can you do that?"

"How much time?"

"I dunno. I had hoped to keep this under wraps until I had you on board for next year. But I'm going to change strategies. Can you give me the rest of the week?"


"Good." Dani rises and offers her hand, which Maria shakes. "Now I've got to kick you out of here, Maria. More idiots to deal with."

"For a smart woman, you seem to have to deal with an awful lot of idiots," Maria observes. "Is everyone as really as dumb as they look?"

"Probably dumber," Dani replies. "I know I am." She winks. "Always a pleasure, Maria."

Friday, April 23, 2010

Academic destitution

In The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, Louis Menand diagnoses the sources of chronic fatigue syndrome in the liberal arts

The following review was published earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network.

Perhaps a more accurate title for this book would be The Monastery of Ideas. Or The Bureaucracy of Ideas. As Louis Menand and many other observers of university life understand, academe is a marketplace. Actually, some of those who understand this truth are among the most determined to channel, limit, and even deny it. They're not entirely wrong to do so; whatever the late Allan Bloom might have had wrong in his 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, he made an arresting assertion that in its relationship to society, the academy should be someplace else. The problem, as Menand sees it, is not so much the mind, but rather the bodies: How they're trained, deployed -- and, to the partial regret of administrators who exploit them, underemployed.

The Marketplace of Ideas, a volume in the collection of svelte "Issues of Our Time" series published by Norton under the editorship of Henry Louis Gates, is less a cohesive book than a collection of overlapping essays that read like New Yorker articles -- which, given Menand's position as a staff writer for the magazine, is hardly surprising. (Menand is also a former contributor to the New York Review of Books, and one can see the intellectual provenance of the book in this respect as well.) He explores defining four issues of liberal arts institutions: the difficulty in arriving at consensus about what an undergraduate should know; the so-called legitimacy crisis in the humanities; the recent enthusiasm -- Menand doesn't quite label it a fad -- for interdisciplinary study; and the apparent homogeneity of (liberal) political opinion among academics. Though he is taxonomically a professor of English, Menand writes with the same slightly fragmented, philosophically-inflected, historical sensibility that marked his Pulitzer Prize winning study of pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club (2001) and his essay collection American Studies (2002).  This means, in effect, that you get lots of little mini-narratives of things like how English departments evolved or general education requirements were formulated. They're not quite cohesive, but they go down easy; this is a book you can read in a sitting.

Most of the attention this book has received has centered on Menand's discussion of the appallingly long time it takes to get a doctoral degree -- in the neighborhood of a decade -- and of his posing the very good question of how much sense this makes given the fact that a doctor or lawyer can be produced in a fraction of that time. (Menand uses the memorable phrase "the doctoral motel," with its humorous evocations for old TV commercials for the roach motel, in which residents enter but never come out.)  It is in this way perhaps more than any other that the denial of marketplace logic has created a system that serves no one as well as those who benefit from the cheap labor of ABDs teaching freshman composition and similar courses even as they profess anti-capitalist values.

But Menand makes a number of other important points as well. One is his distinction between "transmissible" and "transferable" knowledge. The academy as he describes it is a licensing operation designed to limit claims to general authority by channeling scholars toward specializing. Their job is to reproduce knowledge from one generation to the next (that's the transmission part), and prevent outsiders from poaching on scholarly turf (that's the non-transferable part). This culture of professionalism both confers a sense of prestige as well as uses "smart people productively without giving them too much social power." It also tends to engender a politically conformist point of view.

One recurring theme is the changing social structure of the academy. Yet Menand argues that such changes, significant as they are, don't quite explain what's actually happened to the intellectual life of the university in the last forty years. Epistemological challenges to disciplinary authority like poststructuralist theory coalesced with, but were finally independent of, demographic changes in student bodies that made them decisively less white and male after 1970.  This change in composition may have engendered social protest on the Right -- Menand notes that a number of conservative critics of the academy, such as Roger Kimball, Dinesh D'Souza, and David Lehman, were all grad school dropouts -- but most of the major intellectual innovations in the academy in recent decades came from white men: Hayden White in history; Clifford Geertz in anthropology; Richard Rorty in philosophy; and Paul De Man in English, among others.

Menand further argues that far from a genuine challenge to the traditional organization of American education, the enthusiasm for interdisciplinary study is a creature of it: you can't cross a boundary without a definition. Moreover, interdisciplinary programs lack the institutional frameworks they need to reproduce themselves the way traditional departments do. Not that he seems to care much about the ebbing of Women's, Ethnic, or other kinds of programs; Menand essentially deconstructs the impulse toward interdsciplinarity as a form of bad faith on the part of a generation of academics who crave the security of academic professionalism but covet the cachet of relevance that some knowledge workers outside the academy enjoy. There's no doubt some truth to this, even as it seems a bit reductive.

In the end, he says, it all comes down to jobs: "The key to reform of almost any kind in higher education lies not in the way knowledge is produced. it lies in the way that producers of knowledge are produced." But while Menand is relatively long on persuasive diagnosis, he's relatively short on solutions. He doesn't seem willing to really grapple with the ocean of ABDs and part-time employment that have severely distorted an academic marketplace (no doubt in part because Menand, tenured at Harvard, is an obvious beneficiary of the status quo). One obvious possibility is to think harder about the distinction between the production and transmission of knowledge, and recognizing the lopsided imbalance in favor of the former. It would be very helpful for someone to consider what an overhauled master's degree might actually look like, and how it might interface with the kind of work, and people, produced at schools of education -- which are undergoing an even more severe crisis of legitimacy. According to a recent story in the New York Times, such fitful efforts may finally be underway. In all kinds of ways, we can no longer afford the liberal arts regime that emerged in the early twentieth century and flowered in mid-century. It's time to come up with a profession we can believe in.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dixie Plan

In A Vast and Fiendish Plot: The Confederate Attack on New York City, Clint Johnson depicts a nation going up in flames -- and a metropolis that did not

The following review was published earlier this month on the Books page of the History News Network.

This is a digressive, partisan, entertaining and unsettling book. Using an obscure failed 1864 plot to burn down New York City as its backdrop, popular historian Clint Johnson captures the aggrieved mood among die-hard Confederates in the closing months of the Civil War. His work also suggests the ongoing power such attacks on federal authority continue to exert in the imagination of the contemporary Right.

In the first and most fascinating section of A Vast and Fiendish Plot, Johnson traces the arc of what might be termed the romance -- or, perhaps more accurately, the marriage of convenience -- between the antebellum Cotton Kingdom and New York. The city's port facilities, financial infrastructure, and trade relationships made it the linchpin of the Southern economy, and while this interdependency periodically would cause resentment -- Johnson repeatedly cites a statistic that forty cents of every cotton dollar stayed in Manhattan -- the strong economic ties also had political as well as cultural consequences, principal among them a shared investment in slavery. The New York financial community remained sympathetic to secessionist sentiment for months after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who lost the city by an almost 2-1 margin, and there was talk in some quarters of the city seceding from the Union as well in early 1861. Only with the Confederate decision to attack Fort Sumter in April did this sympathy weaken. (I never understood until I read this book what a political masterstroke it truly was that Lincoln maneuvered the Fire-eaters of Charleston to fire the first shot.) By the end of 1861, it was increasingly becoming clear to the city's finance, manufacturing, and trading elites that joining the Union effort was going to be more lucrative than the slave trade ever was. While antiwar sentiment would continue to run high in the years that followed in some quarters, notably the working classes that erupted in the draft riots of 1863, the breach in the antebellum basis of the relationship would never be re-established.

After this promising beginning, Johnson gets sidetracked into a catalog of Confederate grievances with Union war policy in tactical decisions like the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 by Ulysses S. Grant, and General Philip Sheridan's systematic destruction of the Shenandoah Valley in late 1864, which sapped the Confederacy's ability to sustain its war effort. Johnson moves beyond portraying the Confederate point of view sympathetically to making some serious, albeit wobbly, allegations himself, as when he charges Lincoln with making "a horrendous mistake in judgment," in that he "may have expressly ordered or tacitly approved" an assassination attempt on Confederate president Jefferson Davis. (The evidence of this not-quite direct accusation is less than fully compelling.) By this logic, the 1864 attack on New York was no terrorist act, but rather a blow for justice in which those who sanctioned or condoned total war would get a taste of their own medicine.

This section of the book brings the underlying logic of the preceding one into focus: Johnson wants to show that the North was as racist as the South, and to suggest both a moral equivalence between the sections as well as a sense of legitimate grievance on the part of the Confederacy regarding Union conduct of the war that would justify the attempt to destroy Manhattan. The argument for Northern racism has, of course, long since been embraced as a staple premise of the academic left, so this is a fairly deft maneuver on Johnson's part. But a case that relies heavily on a coalition of slaveholders and bankers as a representative cross-section of American public opinion is not one that invites much in the way of identification or assent. One of the byproducts of this line of thinking, inside and outside the academy, is to make the fact that slavery did end, by Constitutional means, seem mysterious, if not impossible to understand.

In the second half of A Vast and Fiendish Plot, Johnson finally turns his attention to the sequence of events leading up to November 25, 1864, when a group of eight conspirators, many of them former colleagues of the dead Morgan, executed a long-planned operation in which they would break twelve dozen vials of an incendiary substance known as "Greek Fire" in twenty New York hotels. The conspirators expected their work would unleash the bottled fury of tens of thousands of city residents, who would express their solidarity with the Confederacy (or, at any rate, their hatred of the federal government). Needless to say, this wellspring of popular support for their actions was a figment of their imaginations. But Johnson also carefully traces the amateurishness of the conspirators, who not only did little to maintain their undercover operations, much of it based out of Canada, but who also failed to understand their chosen weapon. Never realizing that their fires would need oxygen for a true conflagration, they left the windows at their chosen sites closed, allowing the fires to be quickly doused. He also notes that by lighting the fires in the early evening, rather than the middle of the night, for supposedly humanitarian reasons, they blunted the force of their attack. While a number of the operatives were caught, only one was executed. Another, John William Headley, recounted the plot in his 1901 book Confederate Operations in New York and Canada. Johnson relies heavily on this source, which is of questionable veracity (as Johnson notes, Headley doesn't even remember the name of one of his collaborators). So while the whole incident is intriguing for what it might have been, it is finally an asterisk of Civil War history.

In a somewhat disquieting late chapter of the book, Johnson offers a five-part postmortem on the attack, pointing out (in disappointment?) the failures in execution that prevented an otherwise plausible plan from being realized. This analysis takes the form of crisply formulated principles, like "Good saboteurs wait for the right conditions," or ""Attacks are more successful when the target is sleeping." While it would not be fair to assert that Johnson actually endorsed what these people did, he never actually condemns them, either, and  it's not hard to imagine a certain kind of reader interpreting his analysis as a kind of training manual.

Johnson, the author of eleven previous books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South (and Why It Will Rise Again) is a very good storyteller, and academic historians would do well to be attentive to the strong sense of narrative pacing that marks even his detours. But one finishes this book wondering to what ends, political and moral, his talent is being applied.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Reality check

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet get slapped on the side of the head with a cellphone

The Maria Chronicles, #51

"So let me get this straight," Maria's friend Janice is saying to her on her cell as they lie in bed in their respective apartments. "Prince Charming, who has been courting you for months, has been a perfect dreamboat during your convalescence, right?"

"More or less," Maria responds, grudgingly, knowing where this is going.

"He learns you may lose your job, and so tells you about a lead he has for another one."


"And you're non-committal."


"And you've had no great leads in the weeks that have followed."

"Well, no. A couple things. I've gotten a couple calls from the employment agency I've been using, but they don't much interest me. Still, I'm hoping something will come through."

"OK. So then this contact of aforementioned Prince leaves you a message asking you to come to interview for a very good job, a better job than you have now."

"Well, I don't know that for sure. But it's probably more administrative. I don't think I want that. I'm a teacher."

"But you don't actually know just what the job involves."


"Because you haven't called him back."


"And how long has it been since you've received that call?"

"Three days."

"Three days? Jesus, Maria, what are you waiting for? It's just a phone call, for Christ's sake. What: are you afraid you're going to lose your virginity if you call the friend of a friend back? Just to talk to him?"

Maria sighs. "You're not making this easy for me, Janice."

"Is that my job?"

"Of course it's your job. You're my best friend. I'm conflicted. I need someone I can talk to about this!"

"Well I'm here, aren't I?"

"Yes, but you're yelling at me. It isn't helpful."

"This is called a reality check, Maria. And it is helpful. You need some friction to see matters clearly."

"Oh I've got plenty of friction in my head, I can assure you of that."

"That's the problem. It's in your head. It's your own friction. You make it, you use it. It's the friction of a control freak. You and I both know this about you."

Maria has no ready answer for this. It's what her ex-husband used to say about her.

"So you're telling me I have to go on that job interview," she says resignedly.

"Can you afford not to?"

"No. I can't."

"So then why are we even having this conversation?"

"Because I really don't want to do it."

"Why, because you'll feel beholden to Jack? Jesus, you've got to let go of that, Maria. So what: the guy was a Wall Street pirate. That's history now. You think you're going to punish him by refusing to accept anything that comes your way because it may be tainted? You're such a goddamn Puritan, Maria. The world's first Chicana Puritan."

"Boy, you're a hard-ass, Janice."

"Well, am I right?"

"Not exactly."

"Fine. You're not the world's first Chicana Puritan."

Maria can't help but laugh. But Janice is pushing ahead. "So what do I have wrong, then?"

"I mean yes, at one point, it was about that."

"Punishing him. Withholding approval."

"Yes. It was. But not anymore."

"So what is it now?"

There's a long pause before Maria answers quietly. "Because I like him."

There's another pause before Janice responds gently. "All right then. Now we're getting somewhere." Another pause. "So you're afraid to take the job because you don't want to feel dependent on a guy -- a rich, good looking guy who might make you feel insecure as it is -- because you'll feel uncomfortable and maybe even self-sabotage the thing."


"Well OK, Maria. That makes sense to me."

"So you think I shouldn't call the guy back for the interview?"

"No, I think you have to call back the guy for the interview. Doesn't mean you'll get or want the job. But again, you can't afford not to. It's really quite possible that you'll get the job, love it, and get Mr. Second Chance in Life in the bargain. Actually, you may well forfeit Mr. Second Chance if you don't make the call, because if I were him I'd begin thinking that you'll never get over what he may well perceive as this withholding approval thing. But none of this is to say that your anxieties are misplaced. I get it now, Maria. Feeling dependent on him would feel really shitty, and maybe doom the relationship. But you're just going to have to face that fear and walk toward it. Which you can and will. Just like you did in walking away from that asshole husband of yours."

Maria's eyes are glistening. She rubs them. "Now I know why I called you."

"Damn well took you long enough. So what's happening this weekend? Is Mr. Right going to sweep you off your feet and take you to some fancy restaurant?"

"No. He did that last weekend. Actually, he's going to be visiting his daughter this weekend down in Washington, where she's attending a conference."

"Great. My sweetie is also going to be out of town. How about I swoop down there with a pair of theater tix. Can you wedge your aching leg into one of those tiny rows?"

"Actually, I get the cast off on Thursday."

"Great. So it's a date."

"It's a date. Love you, Janice."

"Yeah, right. whatever. Back at ya, kid."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Left with Bruce

David Masciotra's Working on a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen steers a little too far to the left

In a 2005 omnibus review of Bruce Springsteen literature, A.O. Scott of the New York Times made the regrettable assertion about my book Born in the USA, which had just been reissued in a second edition. He wrote that it had "the effect of installing [Springsteen]  in a stable full of academic hobbyhorses rather than in a vital constellation of ideas." The regret, naturally, was all mine: Scott was right. Such, I've come to conclude, is the characteristic vice of what might be termed Springsteenians (who can be distinguished from the partially overlapping category of habitual Springsteen concertgoers I'll call BruceHeads). Like God, we tend to make Springsteen in our own image -- or, at any rate, the image we'd like him, and ourselves, to be.

In Working on a Dream, young David Masciotra, a graduate student at Valparaiso University, makes the case for Springsteen as a committed left-wing artist-activist. There is, of course, a considerable body of evidence for him to make this case, whether in terms of what Springsteen has said, done, and recorded in what is now a vast body of work. Actually, one of the best things about Masciotra's book is the sustained attention he gives to Springsteen's music of the last decade, work which has tended to be overlooked in terms of popular attention but which is likely to stand up about as well as any he produced in the previous thirty years. This is also the decade in which Springsteen has come out as an avowed partisan, campaigning for Democrats John Kerry and Barack Obama. Masciotra makes the most of these connections and many more, in a widely contextualized study that stretches from Edward Hopper to the Amadou Diallo case.

The problem is that he tends to overplay his hand. Most of Masciotra's chapters have the word politics in the title -- "the politics of urban decay," "the politics of invisibility," "the politics of American power," and so on. But while he makes some good points along the way, the analysis manages to be overly broad and reductive at the same time. In a chapter on the politics of isolation, for example, Masciotra compares the protagonist of Springsteen's 1980 song "Stolen Car" to that of both Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. While I do think such a parallel has at least some merit (I myself have made the comparison between the narrator of this song and Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov), the isolation in question is far more psychological than it is political. Notwithstanding the nightmares of some 21st century American liberals, the United States resembles neither Tsarist Russia nor a libertarian utopia, and conflating the three this way doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

A similar overstretch is apparent in Masciotra's handling of religious imagery in Springsteen's music. He's determined to downplay the role of Catholicism in Springsteen's work ("listeners who equate Springsteen's theological language with devout Catholicism are clearly shortsighted"), emphasizing its humanistic dimensions. This is a mistaken approach, in my opinion, but a plausible one nonetheless, depending on what you mean by "devout." It's a good deal less plausible to assert that Springsteen is at heart a Confucian, because like the Analects, Springsteen's music embraces "mutuality in human relations, loyalty, love and trust." To which one can ask: What major religion does not?  It also leads one to wonder, given Springsteen's legendarily difficult relationship with his father, how Masciotra would square it with the concept of filial piety so central to Confucianism. Such spiritual muzak trivializes faith in the name of ecumenicalism.

Other times, Masciotra misses ambiguities in Springsteen's work that don't necessarily comport with political orthodoxies of left or right. A good example is his reading of "Long Walk Home," from Springsteen's 2007 album Magic, a record I think we would both agree is an underrated gem in the Springsteen canon. Masciotra believes the song "reaffirms lost values." To make his point, he quotes the final verse, in which a father addresses his son:

That flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't

I think it's fair to say that there's an affirmation of community here -- and a very deep vein of skepticism that exists alongside it, allusions to sin of commission as well as omission jostling (or, perhaps more accurately, buried) with a sense of limits that we call honor. I've never talked with Bruce Springsteen, or been in anything other than a stadium-sized room with the man. But listen to anyone who has, particularly from the early days, and you'll be told that  he has a strong individualistic streak, to put it mildly. Actually, it's hard to see how he could have become who he has without it.

Finally, there are problems with the writing: Masciotra has apparently never been taught that adjectives are guilty until proven innocent. Thus we are told, for example, that "the problems and challenges that confront America at this pivotal moment in its short history are vast, and on certain days, when hope fails to emerge from the monstrous shadow cast by understandable cynicism, they appear to form an insurmountable mountain." A workaday piece of newspaper analysis by Robert Reich manages to be of "monumental importance." Yet Masciotra can also be dismissive, as when he says "the typical American middle-class worker is bordering on monolithic in his approach to life, operating according to the functionality of a machine that is programmed to work and spend the earnings on commodities." If Springteen's music has taught us anything, I would think, it would be to avoid language like that.

Still, it's hard not be hopeful about Masciotra's earnestness. And every once in a while, he turns a felicitous phrase, as when, mindful of some of the counter-currents that lace through the music, he says "Springsteen's vision can best be described as a preservative progressivism." Masciotra represents a new generation of Springsteen fans, and we believers would like to propagate the faith. So it's in that spirit that I tell him that sometimes, when you want to get a clue of what's going on, the most important thing you can do is, simply, listen.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet try to handle dishonesty honestly

The Maria Chronicles, #50

Maria expects there to be a phone message waiting for her when she picks up the phone at her desk, and there is. "Mrs. Bradstreet," a voice intones, "this is Dr. Ronald Chiklis, father of Jacob Chiklis. Jake tells me you believe he cheated on an exam he took yesterday. I would like to hear your evidence for this assertion. I will be calling you again later today and/or following up with an email."

Hearing Chiklis's voice reminds Maria of the irritating conversation they had last fall, when he challenged the grade his son received on his essay, Maria suspects, because the Good Doctor himself had a large hand in its argument, if not its execution. Just one more reason she correctly felt dread when she saw Jake looking at Kenny's answers during an exam yesterday.

There's no doubt in Maria's mind now that Jake was cheating. At the time, it seemed surreal, and she didn't want to believe it, in part because the reality of a cheater was going to complicate her life. Maria is not a longtime teacher at the school, something that weakens her when dealing with the likes of Chiklis, and she has felt increasingly isolated ever since budgetary concerns have placed her job in jeopardy. She could take the matter to the principal, and she's aware that there is some kind of disciplinary committee. But she's really hoping that she can contain the controversy by having some kind of candid conversation with Jake, whom she's summoned to come see here this morning. And here he is.

"Good morning, Jake," she says as cheerfully as she can to a notably morose kid. "Like the jacket." It's a dark green windbreaker, seemingly new. "Pull up a chair," she says. He does an unloads a blue backpack from his shoulder.

Maria swivels in her desk chair to face him, dragging her cast-bound foot from the fall on a set of stairs four weeks earlier. "Jake, I want to you to tell me what happened yesterday."

Jake looks down and turns away. "I don't know what happened," he says dejectedly. "I was overwhelmed. I had a chem lab and an English essay and your test. And no time to study, because I had a baseball game Tuesday at Poly and didn't get home until late. And I saw all these questions I didn't know and I just panicked."

"You panicked," Maria repeats.

"Yeah. I just panicked. It's like I went into circuit overload, and I had to do something, anything, to just push my way through."

Maria nods. "I see." She pauses. "Did you not think we could talk about it?"

"What would there be to say?" he asks, irritated, looking at her briefly and then away. "That's not something you could fix. Talking only makes things worse. I made the mistake of telling my mom, who told my dad, who of course hit the roof."

"Yes, I got a message from him."

"Sorry. I told him not to do that."

"Not your fault." Maria's unsure where to go. Return to the test? Talk about workload? "Jake, I know that keeping the balls in the air can be hard sometimes. But you know, you're not half bad at it. I mean, you've been doing OK in my class."

"Yeah, well, tell my dad about it. He's even more upset with my grade in chemistry, which he insists on trying to teach me."

"I certainly can talk with your dad."

"Wouldn't do any good."

"Do you know what would?"


Maria purses her lips. "Jake, I don't think we can undo what you did yesterday. You would have failed the test yesterday anyway. But it doesn't have to be the last word in our work together."

Jake puts his hand on his forehead. "So what does that mean?"

"Well, it means that you've fallen into a hole. But it's a hole you can dig yourself out of."

"Great," he says in a voice of bitter dejection. "Just what I need. More work."

"Not necessarily. Jake, do you do read the assigned homework?"

"Sometimes I do," he answers candidly. "Like on the bus. But sometimes I just can't get to it. I just have too much other stuff --"

Maria cuts him off. "I get it. And that's OK. The thing is, Jake, you don't talk much in class. You could help yourself, and me, by speaking up more."

Jake pouts. "Yeah, I guess. But a lot of times I just agree with what other people are saying."

"What if I called on you first? If you know it was coming?"

"Yeah, but what if I don't know the answer?"

"Then you say 'I don't know.' No crime in that. But I'd probably ask you a question you did know -- or, at any rate, a question that's more of a request for an opinion. The important thing would be for me to feel that you were actually paying attention, and that I could ask you a question without you feeling that you were being ambushed. It wouldn't be a 'gotcha' thing. I think that would be good for the class to see, and it would be good in that it might make it easier for me to do this with some of the other kids."

"Yeah, I guess." He hesitates. "But what would this mean for my grade?"

"I don't know. Not trying to be coy here. I'm not going to saddle you with more work. But I am going to be watching to see how you engage. I think it's quite possible that come June what happened yesterday will make no difference at all."

Jake looks down and nods. And then he looks up. "OK, Ms. Bradstreet. I can do that."

"Great. We have a deal."

Jake stands up. "Look, I'm really sorry this happened. I didn't really want to do it. And I didn't want to do it to you. I don't really know why it happened."

"I don't either, Jake. And I know that you've still got stuff to deal with. But there's no reason why you and me can't finish the year on an even keel."

"Yeah, OK." He hoists his backpack on his shoulder. "I gotta get to class. Thanks a lot, Ms. Bradstreet."

"OK Jake. See you this afternoon."

Jake has been gone for all of thirty seconds when the phone rings. Maria knows who this is.

"Mrs. Bradstreet?"

"Yes. This is Ms. Bradstreet. You must be Dr. Chiklis."

"That's right. I want to talk with you about that exam yesterday."

"Well, I don't believe that will be necessary, Dr. Chiklis. Your son and I had a conversation and worked things out."

"Worked things out, you say? What did you work out?"

"Well, maybe you should have a conversation with him about that."

"Oh you can be sure I will. But right now I'd like to have a conversation with you."

"I don't think that's necessary, Doctor."

"But I think it is. You're the teacher of my son. If I ask you --"

"I suggest you listen to what your son has to say, Dr. Chiklis."

"Who do you think you are, Ms. Bradstreet? Do you think that as a teacher at this school you can simply refuse --"

"Since I'm likely soon be an ex-teacher at this school, I think I can, Dr. Chiklis. Please listen to your son. And have a good day." Maria hangs up.

Oh, that felt good, she thinks. May well be a mistake, but God that felt good.

Monday, April 12, 2010


In which see Ms. Bradstreet try to discipline her discipline

The Maria Chronicles, #49

It's exam day in Maria's U.S. history survey. The test today is on World War II; while Maria has growing doubts about the necessity and value of fact-based exams, she still thinks that asking kids to master basic information about the war -- when Pearl Harbor happened; who won at Midway and why it mattered; how Lend-Lease worked -- it seems like a legitimate and even necessary component of her
course. But giving a test feels like cutting corners. For one thing, it's a quick and dirty assessment that can be graded in a fraction of the time it takes to grade a set of essays. For another, giving a test means she can sit in the front of the room and read while the kids work. Given Maria's uncertain future -- still no word about next year's budget, and thus no word about her future -- Maria's appetite for hard work is diminished. So she's taking refuge at her desk in Adam Haslett's new novel, Union Atlantic, about the long ago days of the 2000s. Her friend Janice bought it for her during Maria's recuperation from her broken foot. She figures she can get a few pages in waiting for the students to finish.

Finishing a chapter, Maria looks up to see Mia, who, to her surprise, is not looking down at her test. Instead, she's looking across the room at Jake. And when Maria turns her own gaze at Jake, what she sees is Jake gazing surreptitiously at Kenny's exam and writing down answers. Is this what she thinks it is? She really hopes not. But it sure seems that way -- and she suspects Mia isn't the only other one who thinks so. Damn. Maria didn't think she had to distribute different versions of the exam in this school the way she did her last one. That was a mistake, and now she's going to have to act. But how?

Willie is now getting up, naturally the first to finish. But Vanessa, Derek, and Kenny are clearly almost done -- Kenny appears oblivious to whatever Jake has been doing. If Maria is going to do something, it's got to be now. With difficulty, no longer needing crutches but awkward in the boot she wears on her foot, she gets up and walks across the room to Jake. She can feel the eyes of the students on her as she semi-limps her way to him. "I'll take that," she says quietly.

"But I'm not done," Jake says, surprised.

"Doesn't matter," Maria says as evenly as she can. "I'll take this now, Jake, and we'll talk about it tomorrow."

Jake is too shocked to resist. Maria suspects her fragile balance prevents him from any dramatic moves or resistance to taking the exam from him. She pivots to save Kenny a trip to the front. "Here," she says, "you can give that to me." Kenny hesitates momentarily -- is she suggesting he cheated too? -- but decides, perhaps on the basis of Maria's reassuring smile, that it will be OK.

Jake looks stricken, unable to decide whether to say something or to go. Maria decides to ignore him. Other kids are getting up now, shooting looks at him as they do. Jake clearly wants to talk about this, but Maria decides it's neither the time nor place. She needs to think this through. "Go on, Jake. Come by my office tomorrow. Are you free before school?"

He nods.

"Very well then. I'll see you at 8:15." Mia approaches and Maria takes her exam. "Thank you."

Jake exhibits a combination of exasperation and defeat, but leaves the room. By now, the whispering has probably ricocheted to the other side of the school and back. Maria flips back to Jake's exam to take a look. He's changed a few answers on the multiple choice section; usually this is a mistake, but here they're changed from wrong to right. It's clear Jake has done very badly on the IDs that make up half the exam. Lots of unanswered questions -- nothing on Guadalcanal, Battle of the Bulge, Rosie the Riveter, Yalta. He's failed.

Congratulations, kid, she thinks to herself. Now both of us are going to have a lousy night's sleep trying to figure out what happens next.