I want to thank everyone who has been following along, but with today’s entry I regret to report that I have to close the book club earlier than anticipated. What follows is an explanation coupled with some brief thoughts on chapters 11-12. (more…)
[Note to readers: “Memories of the Student Movement and the New Left in the United States, 1960-1969” is a five-part participant-observer account of the period written in 1996 by Jim O’Brien, New Left activist, historian, and editor at New England Free Press. Part I of this essay can be found here, Part II of this essay can be found here, and Part III of this essay can be found here.]
A VIEW FROM THE WHIRLWIND: SDS AND THE CAMPUS REVOLT, 1968–1969
Between the East Lansing convention and the start of the 1968-69 school year, something happened that hurled SDS at the future like a hand grenade. That something was the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago at the end of August.
The Democratic Party in mid-1968 stood on the verge of being torn apart by the Vietnam war. Lyndon Johnson had left the presidential race and Bobby Kennedy was dead — shot in a Los Angeles hotel the night he won the California primary in early June. That left only one candidate who had faced the voters in the primaries: the aloof, mistrusted maverick Eugene McCarthy. Senator George McGovern of South Dakota put himself forward as a surrogate for the Kennedy delegates who shunned McCarthy. But most delegates had been chosen by party leaders in their states, not by presidential primaries. Their votes, for the most part, were locked up for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, whose loyalty to LBJ had never wavered. The man who once called the Vietnam war “a glorious adventure” was about to win the Democratic nomination for president. In the meantime, the former Democratic governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was running as an conservative independent with populist rhetoric. With Wallace and Richard Nixon already in the field (the Republicans chose Nixon at their July convention), the likely choice in November was among three zealous supporters of the Vietnam war.
That the Democrats were meeting in Chicago was symbolic. Chicago was the fiefdom of Mayor Richard Daley, the quintessential big-city white political boss and a stalwart of the regular party forces that were set to impose Hubert Humphrey’s nomination on the party. His police force seemed to be spoiling for a fight — in April, Chicago police had violently broken up a Vietnam demonstration. The Democratic convention promised to be a magnet for protest.
Three different groups announced demonstrations. The McCarthy campaign hoped to rally its young volunteers for one last stand in Chicago. But when city authorities refused a permit, the McCarthy leaders backed down and called off the demonstration. Less easily deterred was an anti-war coalition sparked by Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, SDS leaders of the early sixties, who saw a chance to dramatize the depth of opposition to the Vietnam war. Finally, the “Youth International Party” (“Yippies”) of media celebrities Abbie Hoffmann and Jerry Rubin called for a festival in Chicago. Its leaders set forth a tongue-in-cheek list of promises that included putting LSD in the Chicago water supply.
One of the first books I picked up after I turned the diss in was William Clare Roberts’s Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital, which I think it’s safe to say is already making quite a stir. (You can read the whole introduction here [pdf].) Not only did Andrew Hartman assign it to his History of Capitalism course, but David Harvey reviewed the book for Jacobin, and he expressed some fairly strong reservations regarding Roberts’s understanding of what kind of book Marx’s Capital is. Roberts has defended his method and arguments in three blog posts (1, 2, 3), which also serve nicely to highlight some of the more contentious and original aspects of Marx’s Inferno. (more…)
This week I’ll take a break from my series on feminist texts from the 1970s and return to another thread from a while back: “What I’m Reading.”
As a procrastinatory strategy, as a soul-restoring exercise, and as a way of approaching my current project via some back roads, so as to catch an idea or two unawares, I am reading and re-reading some Victorian novels. A few weeks ago I was keeping company with Charlotte Bronte; last week I walked down memory lane with George Eliot, re-reading Middlemarch a couple of decades after my first stroll through its pages. How the view alters.
People love to argue about “greatests” – what else are canon wars? (don’t ask) – but I think I’d be on pretty solid ground to affirm that Middlemarch is the greatest novel in the English language. It is a whole world, round and full. If you haven’t read it, I commend it to you. George Eliot’s voice is wonderful company.
And it’s familiar, even if you’ve never read it before – it will sound familiar, I think, to students of American thought. It sounds like nothing so much as William James. Or, rather, William James sounds an awful lot like George Eliot. I’m not sure if it’s a question of the “influence” of Eliot on James’s thought so much as a question of “confluence,” as Eliot and James seem to be floating along together, kindred minds, in the same flood tide of the stream of consciousness.
Michael O’Brien, Women’s Informal Writing, and the Compass of Antebellum Southern Intellectual History (Guest Post by Steven M. Stowe)
[Editor’s note: The following guest post comes to us from Steven M. Snowe, Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University and former editor of the Journal of American History. He is the author of Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters (Johns Hopkins U Press, 1990), Doctoring the South: Southern Physicians and Everyday Medicine in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (UNC Press, 2004), and the forthcoming Keeping the Days: the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women and the Problem of Historical Empathy. This is the second in a series of four guest posts, curated by Sarah Gardner, collectively entitled “Michael O’Brien, Intellectual History, and the History of the American South,” which will be appearing each Friday through the end of March. You can read more about the series here. — Ben Alpers]
This is about reading Michael O’Brien’s work as an intellectual historian of the South by considering the meaning – and the pleasure – he discovered in finding new minds worth knowing. In his crowning work Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 (2004), O’Brien strayed from what he considered to be the “core activity of an intellectual historian, the close reading of intricate texts.” He moved in a new direction among texts toward those that were less complete, less finished, more everyday; texts he approached less through close reading than by reading them through the lives of their authors. O’Brien’s growing interest in the work of women writers in the antebellum South, especially their informal texts, brought him to this point. His engagement with women’s writing, I think, sheds light on the southern intellectual past he studied, and, at the same time, illuminates the intellectual ground on which he stood as a historian. (more…)
Last week I saw the new film I Am Not Your Negro, an exploration of American racism through the words of James Baldwin. Consisting mostly of notes from a never-published book, but including passages in some of his other works and his television appearances, I Am Not Your Negro couples Baldwin’s arresting capacity for capturing the depravity of white supremacy with images, video footage, and contemporary popular culture that place it in a visual and auditory context. The result is a journey as every bit as hair raising and unnerving as you would expect.
Some of the most disturbing moments in the film come when Baldwin – voiced by Samuel L. Jackson – speaks of the slaughter behind American innocence while footage (usually from films) depicting the most profoundly white fantasies of suburban bliss and consumption are splashed across the screen. At one point, the film shifts from this representation of white America as it wishes to see itself to white America as it actually is – and here, while Baldwin warns of the murderous rage that the emptiness of white culture creates in the heart of white Americans, clips from the film Elephant, a wrenching exploration of the phenomenon of school shootings in America, flickers slowly across the screen.
It is a devastating moment, filling Baldwin’s awful prophecy to the brim and dropping it, like a sack of bricks, on the heads of the audience. This does justice to one of Baldwin’s best gifts; his ability to bring to life the darkness and desperation of the psychology of white people under white supremacy. (In that sense, actually, the film couples very well with Get Out, which focuses mostly on the consequences to black people.) This does not, however, usually come coupled with much political analysis, at least in the traditional sense – Baldwin is not concerned with advising any political party or suggesting any specific strategy to civil rights organizations. Reflecting after the film, it occurred to me that in his focus on the psychology, rather than strategy, of political culture, Baldwin actually shares a lot with the postwar pluralists, known for their discussions of alienation, status anxiety, and the desire to belong.