THE CALL FOR PAPERS IS NOW CLOSED.
NEPCA’s 2017 conference will take place on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Friday October 27 and Saturday October 28, 2017.
Periodic updates and information will be made on this site and can be viewed by clicking on the Fall Conference tab above.
We ask those of you who have sent proposals to bear with us just a little longer. We had a record number of submissions and are in the final stages of fashioning panels and making cuts. We will have to be much more selective this year due to space limitations. If your paper hasn’t been selected this year, please hold on–we may be able to get it in if there are withdrawals. If we can’t, it’s not because your proposal wasn’t good–in all likelihood, it’s purely a matter of space and we hope you will try again next year.
YOUNG RADICALS: IN THE WAR FOR AMERICAN IDEALS (2017)
Random House, 340 pages.
I didn’t like this book; I adored it! It is so well written that it reads like novel. Among the unorthodox things Jeremy McCarter has done is pen it in the present tense. Another is to make its major theme the death of idealism. Or perhaps I should say its betrayal.
McCarter, a Chicago-based writer and critic, turns his gaze to the first two decades of the 20th century, a time in which American socialism sprouted, blossomed, and was pulled up by the roots—its dreams of a global cooperative community sacrificed upon World War One’s altar of militarism, nationalism, greed. Rather than tell this tale through the usual channels of analyzing historical forces, material conditions, and mounting tensions, McCarter shows how larger dramas played out in the lives of five fascinating characters: Max Eastman (1883-1969), John Reed (1887-1920), Alice Paul (1885-1977), Walter Lippmann (1889-1974), and Randolph Bourne (1886-1918). He chose well, as between them, they moved in circles that represented the numerous strains within American culture.
The book’s title is apt, for the five radicals were indeed young and were, in their own ways, warriors within the “war for American ideals.” If you associate socialism with glum Russian apparatchiks, think again. Max Eastman was the editor of The Masses, a publication that was as much bohemian as socialist. Its pages supported labor unions, social equality, and pacifism, but also sported graphic art, poetry, and fiction that ranged from agit-prop to whimsical. It survived on a hope, serendipitous donations, and Eastman’s dogged determination to keep it afloat.
Journalist “Jack” Reed was an energetic swashbuckler crossed with a frat boy. He seduced and exasperated, pontificated at one moment and betrayed his half-baked views the next, pissed off his friends as he exhaled and charmed them on the inhale. He was the very scarred embodiment of a fast, hard, full, short life. He needed to be where the action was, which is why he didn’t allow a lost kidney to keep him out of Europe as war clouds gathered and why he was a firsthand witness to the Russian Revolution.
Alice Paul wasn’t good at moderation either. Like a reckless campus radical, she put her body on the line for the cause of suffrage and wore out others in the process, including Inez Milholland Boissevain who died from taking part in Paul-orchestrated non-stop agitation. Paul’s was a world of picketing, workhouse internments, force-feedings, and embarrassing President Wilson. One of the book’s many revelations is the depth of mutual contempt between Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt. Catt saw Paul as an impetuous troublemaker who threatened her careful one-state-at-a-time strategy and nearly cost Wilson the White House; Paul saw Catt as a self-aggrandizer willing to tolerate the status quo to be an insider player in the Wilson administration.
The latter charge was also leveled at Lippmann, with some justification. Lippmann, who co-founded the New Republic, was an intellectual who had trouble reconciling idealism and pragmatism. As war loomed, he jettisoned socialism for liberalism and joined Wilson’s team in the vain hope that the war would “make the world safe for democracy.” Lippmann actually wrote most of Wilson’s famed 14-Points, but their abandonment led him to leak an internal document that doomed Wilson’s nationwide campaign for the League of Nations.
A good tale requires a tragic figure and few were more so than Randolph Bourne. His was one of the most inventive minds of his day. Bourne dreamt of transnational identities, cosmopolitanism, and universal citizenship decades before Greenwich Villagers imagined themselves global villagers. His capacious mind was housed in a sickly hunchbacked body that he felt was doomed to be unloved. He was wrong; the beautiful free spirited actress Esther Cornell seems to have accepted his marriage proposal, only for Bourne to perish in the postwar influenza epidemic.
The postwar fallout took more than Bourne with it. Socialism’s promise also faded—not just because of wartime repression and the postwar Red Scare—but because idealists often battled with each other, and bitterly so over the war. It has been said that World War One was the only war wished into being by the left. Though somewhat hyperbolic, roughly half of U.S. socialists—including Lippmann and John Dewey—supported the conflict. Pro-war socialists were mistaken. History would soon judge the Great War a disaster in nearly every way one can measure such things. Ideals such as transnationalism gave way to cynicism and insularity. Paul would hold fast to her principles, but Eastman and Lippman would embark on several journeys between left, center, and right before settling into contrarianism.
McCarter’s book is a masterpiece of forgotten and overlooked detail. It is also an examination of how dream worlds and officialdom overlapped and separated. The book is so compellingly written that I shall refrain from quoting so you can make your own discoveries and savor the richness of its prose. Kudos to McCarver for restoring the “story” in history and making tales come alive in real time. One can dispute whether the hopes of McCarter’s five young radicals were admirable or misguided, but there is something tragic in the observation that we now live in a world too parochial to conceive of globalism in non-economic terms.
University of Massachusetts Amherst
THE UNITED STATES OF ABSURDITY: UNTOLD STORIES FROM AMERICAN HISTORY
Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds
Ten Speed Press, 2017, 144 pages
The United States of Absurdity is a mix of the rapid-fire wit and non-sequiturs of Car Talk, the bad boy flippancy of Howard Stern, and offbeat history. Its authors, Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, are stand-up comedians that host a Los Angeles-based podcast called The Dollop, from whence much of the material in this book derives. Their collection of bizarre episodes from the past is analogous to offerings such as Strange History (2016), The Weird and Mysterious United States (2016), and America’s Strange History (2014). Ultimately, such outré agglomerations of factoids draw their inspiration from the phenomenal success of the Kenneth Davis’ Don’t Know Much About History franchise and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me blockbuster. Anthony and Reynolds add something those other titles lack: running commentary that’s frequently outlandish, bawdy, scatological, and filled with expletives. It’s not suitable for classroom use.
The book is divided into somewhat arbitrary categories—Great American Characters, Medical Breakthroughs, Best of American Sports, When Americans Go Wrong, Very Bad American Ideas, and American Tails—with short vignettes within each. We get freak show stars such as Grady F. Stiles, Jr. (1937-92), the “Lobster Boy,” who was born with claw-like appendages (ectrodactyly). Stiles grew drunkenly despondent when neither of his wives birthed a similarly endowed heir and eventually murdered his daughter’s fiancé. We are also treated Mike the Chicken, a fowl that was beheaded in 1945 but avoided the stewpot and lived for another two years on the stage. One of the more appalling characters in the book is Ervin Arnold. Between 1919 and 1921, this Newport-based sailor convinced authorities to help him ferret out gay sailors by using (allegedly) straight sailors to have sex with them. The ensuing scandal led Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt to resign, lest it ruin his political ambitions.
Especially noteworthy is how the authors reveal the darker sides of famous people. Who hasn’t heard of the Heimlich maneuver? Did you know that Heimlich was also a quack that claimed he could cure cancer or AIDS by inducing malaria in patients? Even more horrifying were the misapplications of a procedure invented by Dr. Walter F. Freeman: the lobotomy. For skin-crawling creepiness, few have abused science like Dr. John Lilly, a drug-addled lunatic who once told his wife that aliens abducted him, removed his penis, and handed it to him. When told his organ was still intact, he insisted it was a mechanical substitution. Well: who wouldn’t allow such a man to conduct an experiment (1965) aimed at decoding dolphin communication by having a woman live with and sexually stimulate a cetacean?
To say this book strolls on the bizarre side understates. Remember the guy (Rollen Stewart) with the rainbow Afro that used to troll TV cameras and flash a John 3:16 sign? Did you know he’s serving life for kidnapping? Do you recall the Ford Pinto? In 1973 it was used as a flying car prototype and proved even less airworthy than road-ready. Are you aware that former baseball star Lenny Dykstra was a low-life huckster? Or that an unexplained “meat” shower fell upon Kentucky in 1876? (One theory is that it was vomit from a flock of vultures caught in a storm!)
Not all of the authors’ “untold stories” pass muster. Dr. John Brinkley of goat gland transplant infamy has been the subject of books and a documentary, the 1974 Cleveland Indians ten-cent beer night riot is well-documented, and loads of people know about the 1970 White House encounter between Nixon and Elvis. Still, most of the stuff in this book is unorthodox fodder from which skilled teachers can fashion fun learn exercises.
This is the kind of book from which I would have read to classes as a change of pace in my high school teaching days. That is, had it been written in appropriate language. One gets the sense that Anthony and Reynolds are hamming it up for those who are already fans of their shtick. Things that work on a comedy stage or podcast often come across as sophomoric on the page. They tell of Dykstra’s attempt to curry favor with teammates by farting at a table full of priests thusly: “Then they were all, ‘Oh yeah, he’s awesome'” (loc. 316). They seldom shy from the tawdry and cheap. They make lots of (too) easy sex jokes in discussing Ervin Arnold’s homosexual witch-hunt: “…his investigation consisted of sending straight men to be gay with gay men. Yes, this was a good plan and absolutely not gay” (loc. 861). They conclude with, “Arnold eventually left the Navy. He was never punished. (But ooooohhh how he wanted it be…”) (loc. 882). There is an ongoing joke of “God we love alcohol” and lots of F-bombs. Typical is a toss-away line in the story of Leonard Borchardt (1882-1923), who allowed himself to be covered in tar and horsehair to pass as the savage Oofty Goofy: “He said yes before he knew what he was supposed to do. That’s what we call a massive fuck-up” (loc.337).
All of this makes The United States of Absurdity equal parts fascination, revelation, puerile, and juvenile. As much as I admired a break from the turgidity of scholarly prose, I yearned for less obvious and broad humor, as well as less structural randomness. Anthony and Reynolds play loose with chronology, eschew any semblance of historical significance, and opt instead for “Fun Facts.” I’m all for making education more fun—as long as it does, in fact educate. Mine this book, but please don’t assign it—unless you want to leave teaching for stand-up.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst
The deadline for submitting a proposal for the fall conference has passed. We had a record number of submissions this year and will only solicit papers to round out panels where necessary.
Thanks to all for submitting and please don’t be discouraged if your paper can’t be accommodated this year. You will hear from us very soon as we will meet on June 12 to assemble the preliminary program.
WAS AMERICA FOUNDED AS A CHRISTIAN NATION? (Revised Edition, 2016)
By John Fea
Westminster John Knox Press, 324 pages
For tens of millions of Americans, there’s no need to pose the question raised in the title of John Fea’s monograph. Most self-identified evangelicals adamantly insist that it was, and humanists and political progressives vigorously assert that the Founding Fathers intended that a “wall” be erected between church and state. You might expect Fea to side with evangelicals, given that he’s a believer and a professor at a Christian school, Messiah College. He doesn’t. Nor does he cast his lot with those who take the opposing view. As a historian, Fea sees nuances, not nostrums. His is a take that, depending upon the openness of the reader, will be seen as a rare middle view within a polarized nation, or will induce outrage.
He begins this edition—the first appeared in 2011—with a recounting of recent reactions to his work. Predictably, he has been attacked by both born-again believers and committed secularists. Neither is satisfied with his insistence that how one answers the central question depends upon several subordinate questions. These are not political questions, though the debate is often discursively framed that way. For example, during his values-centered 2016 presidential campaign Mike Huckabee insisted that “most” of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were ministers. In truth, just one was a man of the cloth: New Jersey’s John Witherspoon. Fea, however, suggests it really wouldn’t matter if all had been ministers; hard-right conservatives such as Huckabee, Glenn Beck, and David Barton fail to define their terms. Was America founded as a Christian nation? It depends upon what one means by “Christian, “founding,” and “nation.”
In a careful analysis of Founders such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Witherspoon, Fea employs the very important concepts of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, that is, adherence to Christian doctrine and practice of its precepts. Although he agrees with those who deny that Franklin and Washington were Deists and that Jefferson was an atheist, all three flunk the orthodoxy test, and most slaveholders resorted to selective Bible reading to justify the practice and come up short on the orthopraxy standard. Moreover, it takes more to be called a Christian than merely seeing it as admirable or useful for keeping public order. Attempts to make Jefferson into a Christian, therefore, must be seen as sophistry; Jefferson did, after all, slice all references to Jesus’ divinity from his personal Bible.
Then again, when was the United States “founded?” Did it come into being under the Declaration of Independence? If so, the Declaration indeed mentions God and makes appeals to the guidance of Providence. Fea finds this at best anecdotal evidence, as those references do not specify the Christian God and the document’s overall intent was exactly as embedded in its title—to serve as a political treatise justifying rebellion. If “founding” came with the adoption of the Constitution, all ambiguity disintegrates, as it does not contain any mention of a deity.
But what if the nation was founded through the practice of democracy? What is meant by a “nation?” Had 19th century Americans been polled, they would have asserted that the United States was indeed founded as a Christian nation. Christianity was the prevailing belief of nearly every Euro-American of the day, and few would have imagined a “wall” between church and state. Jefferson used that term, but within the context of forbidding the establishment of any official church. The Founders feared the sort of exclusivity that precipitated Europe’s wars of religion or Puritan bigotry, but most would have viewed some variety of Protestantism as necessary for public morality and a healthy body politic. Moreover, until the Civil War settled the question, the republic was often referenced as these, not the United States. The U.S. Constitution did not mention God, but state constitutions uniformly did so and meant the Christian God. Even after the Civil War, there is little in the historical record to challenge evangelical beliefs that America was founded as a Christian nation until the Supreme Court did so beginning in the 1960s.
Fea is willing to concede the evangelicals’ view that this has been a Christian nation, but he also shows how moments in history have forced a broadening of what that means. For example, the post-World War II period has seen the Cold War evangelicalism of Billy Graham, the Americanized Catholicism of John Kennedy, the activist Christianity of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the political born-again movements that have coalesced around conservative Republicanism. Consider how markedly the materialism of the last of these departs from the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century or the Jesus Freaks movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, argues that modern evangelicals have essentially merged Christianity with capitalism as if Adam Smith had become an honorary member of the Trinity. I wish Fea had tackled this. Because he avoids siding with anyone, the bulk of his post-Civil War analysis centers on evangelical belief rather than orthopraxy. FitzGerald shows the deep roots of evangelical materialism, leading me to wonder how Fea would explain Christian Donald Trump voters, given that Trump doesn’t pass muster as either an orthodox believer or as a Christian practitioner. I also wanted to hear from liberal Christians like Jim Wallis or Randal Balmer. Lea sometimes falls into the trap of saying that a thing is true if enough loudmouths say so. Not so if orthopraxy is the ultimate Christian sniff test.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst