In a memoir covering his years as an editor and publisher (with Pantheon books and The New Press), André Schiffrin discussed a transformation of book publishing in America during the last quarter or so of the twentieth century. You can tell from the title what Schiffrin thought of the transformation. The memoir is called The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (London: Verso, 2000). The change is summed up in a single statement from Schiffrin’s text: “Belief in the market, faith in its ability to conquer everything, a willingness to surrender all other values to it – and even the belief that it represents a sort of consumer democracy – these things have become the hallmark of publishing” (6). One of the casualties of this “willingness to surrender,” it seems to me, is the space – institutional, material, conceptual – available to “the public intellectual” in and out of the academy. Continue reading
The first few title cards of D.W Griffith’s 1914 film Home Sweet Home set forth the work’s subject matter and aim. The film’s story, we are told, is “suggested by the life of John Howard Payne and his immortal song, ‘Home, Sweet Home.’” Here a songwriter and his song get equal billing as the inspiration for the unfolding drama. In mentioning the songwriter first, the text presumes some audience familiarity with the name and perhaps the life of John Howard Payne.
A child actor on the American stage in the early years of the nineteenth century, Payne was considered a prodigy by his contemporaries. He achieved wide acclaim throughout the Republic for his precocious performances as Norval and Hamlet – he was, in fact, the first native-born American to play Hamlet on the New York Stage. In 1813, at the age of 20, Payne sailed unaccompanied to England, where he was, in his own words, “given celebrity.” After a few years, with fewer and fewer leading roles coming his way, Payne turned to writing for the stage as a way to earn money. In 1823, his musical melodrama, Clari, the Maid of Milan, opened on the London stage, and he gained near-immediate fame in the English-speaking world as the author of the song “Home, Sweet Home,” an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Though Payne wrote many successful stage plays during the two decades he lived abroad in Europe (including Brutus, later a vehicle for Booth family fame), and though he was subsequently appointed twice as the United States’ consul to Tunis, where he died and was buried, Payne was chiefly known and later remembered as the author of “Home, Sweet Home.” The song made its writer matter.
Griffith’s introduction to his film implies as much: he gave writer and song equal billing, but only the song is “immortal.” Furthermore, in framing the life of the songwriter, the film’s intro cautions that the ensuing narrative will not be “biographical” but instead a “photo-dramatic and allegorical” presentation which “might apply to the lives and works of many men of genius, whose failings in private life have been outweighed by their great gifts to humanity.” Thus, besides promising a visual treat, the film pledged to present some version of Payne’s life as a sort of parable or moralizing tale along the theme of the morally flawed artist who is in some sense redeemed by the goodness of his work. And the film proceeds to do exactly that – and more. Continue reading
Below is an essay by Jesse Lemisch, elaborating on some remarks he made at the USIH Facebook page. (If you do not have a Facebook account, you can read his excerpted remarks in this blog post.) I should note here — because I promised him I would — that I take exception to Prof. Lemisch’s characterization of the professional practice of intellectual historians in general, present company included. Nevertheless, I am glad for the opportunity to share his perspective with our readers. –LDB
Higham, Hofstadter and Woodward: Three Liberal Historians?
Here’s a fuller account than I gave previously of my experience with John Higham’s rage against left scholarship in 1969. Thinking about this reminds me of some events involving Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter, adding up to a suggestion that some historians who are generally thought of as liberals had very bad reactions to the Sixties, and that the liberal expression for which these historians are known should be seen as at odds with who they were and what they did when confronted with real challenges to their worldview in the real world. This further suggests that we might be skeptical about a frequent albeit not universal practice in intellectual history: swallowing ideas whole without scrutinizing what they actually translated into in concrete reality. Continue reading
[Editor's note: the following is a guest post by Patrick Iber, a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley. -- LDB]
How the CIA bought Juan Rulfo Some Land in the Country: Meditations on Eric Bennett’s “How Iowa Flattened Literature”
by Patrick Iber
Did the CIA fund creative writing in Mexico? The answer is “yes.” In the second half of the twentieth-century, Mexico’s most prestigious creative writing center, Mexico City’s Centro Mexicano de Escritores, gave writers year-long grants to devote themselves exclusively to writing. Senior authors taught technique and supervised workshops based on the model of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Beginning in the late 1950s the CME began to receive funding from the Farfield Foundation, a CIA front, for its publications. Later, more money that was likely from the CIA arrived via the Congress for Cultural Freedom, facilitated by John Hunt, a novelist and CIA case officer who had once taught courses at Iowa. The Farfield Foundation, in the late 1960s, even helped Juan Rulfo, the CME’s prize graduate and teacher, purchase a parcel of land in the countryside.
This February, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a dynamic and engaging essay, “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” by Eric Bennett, offering both an early look at the findings of his forthcoming book, and a story of how that work came to be. The hook at the beginning of his article is structurally the same as the one used here: “Did the CIA fund creative writing in America?” and the answer is also the same: it is “yes.” The mechanisms and timing were also identical: the Farfield Foundation, John Hunt, mid-to-late 1960s. But in spite of their similarities, putting the two cases side-by-side seems to me not to suggest a reading of the evidence that does not speak to the power of the CIA over culture at the height of the Cold War, but of the successful mobilization of Cold War politics by program directors seeking to fund necessarily unprofitable work. Put differently, it suggests that institutional writing programs used the CIA more than the other way around. Continue reading
[Editor's Note: This is the fourth of six weekly guest posts by Andrew Seal -- LDB]
What would you say the politics of the late Harold Ramis were? The writer or director of Animal House, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Stripes… obituarists got a writing cramp listing his greatest hits. Most critics and fans have described his films and scripts as irreverent, anti-establishment, or anarchic.
But a CNN tribute, which you can see here, calls him the Orson Welles for Generation X, and, though I think the comparison wasn’t meant politically, it is difficult to invoke Welles and not summon the Popular Front along with him. And that connection to the Popular Front makes a certain amount of sense, at least to me: I might have intuitively said that Ramis was the Preston Sturges of the generation that came of age around 1980, but Sturges was not the Popular Front figure that Welles was, and that parallel, I think is crucial. Continue reading
[Editor's note: This past weekend Jesse Lemisch attended a tribute concert for Pete Seeger, who was posthumously awarded the inaugural Woody Guthrie Prize. Professor Lemisch wrote up a brief reflection on the event and posted it to his Facebook page. He has kindly given us permission to publish his remarks here.]
February 22, 2014
Thanks to Carolyn Toll Oppenheim and her daughters, spectacular seats tonight at the posthumous award of the first Woody Guthrie Prize to Pete Seeger at Symphony Space, 95th and Broadway. One of the daughters had known when Pete died that it would be sold out – as it was – and immediately bought these seats. Present on stage were Arlo Guthrie, Steve Martin, Tony Trischka, Nora Guthrie, other performers, relatives of Leadbelly in the audience. The whole thing was streamed live to Tulsa, apparently for an audience at the Guthrie Center there.
Arlo, I hear, has become a Republican, though this didn’t seem to affect his patter. Continue reading
In 1914, a year before The Birth of a Nation debuted in movie theaters, D.W. Griffith directed a 56-minute four-reeler called Home, Sweet Home. The film presents a heavily allegorized “biography” of two subjects: the 19th century American expatriate writer John Howard Payne, and his most famous work, the song “Home, Sweet Home,” written for the stage in 1823. The entire narrative of the film is structured around the power of that song to call wandering prodigals back “home” — back to loved ones, back to a life of morality, fidelity, chastity, back to America. Indeed, this early Griffith feature perfectly captures and capitalizes upon the central place which both the song “Home, Sweet Home” and the sentimentalized story of its author had come to hold in the popular imagination as the locus classicus for Americans’ sentimentalized construct of home at the beginning of the 20th century. Continue reading
Mary McCarthy — or at least conversations about her — will make a cameo appearance in my dissertation. What does Mary McCarthy have to do with the canon wars at Stanford? That’s an interesting story (for me, anyhow), and I think it will make for an interesting chapter. In the meantime, I have been puzzling over a different but somewhat related problem.
It has seemed to me that Mary McCarthy often makes “cameo appearances” in scholarly works about the New York intellectuals as a group or as individuals. She shows up here and there in Jumonville’s Critical Crossings, and she is one of the few heroes in Pells’s The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age. But her fiction and non-fiction writing have not received the same level of scholarly attention that intellectual historians have accorded to other members of the various circles to which she belonged or to other works arising from the various moments from and to which she spoke. Or so it has seemed to me. Continue reading
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Rosey Grier, using his post-football celebrity career as a lens for looking at ideas and anxieties about gender and race in 1970s America. At some point I plan on carrying that line of inquiry up through the 1980s, as Grier’s “personal story” continued to mirror larger cultural currents.
Most significantly, Grier’s embrace of “Born Again” Christianity in the late 1970s and his stance on “values” issues like school prayer and abortion led him to switch his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican after the 1984 primary. Grier’s political shift, which he discusses in his 1986 autobiography, reflected a dilemma facing African Americans who were committed to carrying forward the vision of the Civil Rights movement but who found the Democratic position on social issues increasingly at odds with the more historically traditional religious values of the Black community.
But before I follow up on that idea, I want to use this post to meander down a few rabbit trails related to sports celebrity, gender, and religion in 1970s America, rabbit trails I found crisscrossing through a text that has probably never before been considered as a potential source for understanding American intellectual and cultural history, and probably never will be again. I’m talking about that riveting read, Terry Bradshaw: Man of Steel (1979).
In the second chapter of The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Tim Lacy explores the commodification and branding of a “great books” reading list under the Britannica imprint, the 1952 Great Books of the Western World set. Part of that branding involved framing the texts in the set as part of “the Great Conversation.” This catch phrase, bandied about by the editorial committee prior to its broader circulation via Robert Hutchins’s introductory volume of the same title, posited an underlying unity tying these disparate texts together via their dialogic engagement with the so-called “Great Ideas.”
In this post, I will draw upon Jamie Cohen-Cole’s work on Cold War academics in order to better understand how this marketing slogan – “the Great Conversation” — succinctly conveys the historical context of its coinage. Following that, I will offer some observations on why neither this particular term nor perhaps even the idea behind it played any significant role in the debates taking place on the Stanford campus in the 1980s. Continue reading