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Book Review: Young Radicals

YOUNG RADICALS: IN THE WAR FOR AMERICAN IDEALS (2017)

Jeremy McCarter

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.

Rob Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst 

United States of Absurdity: Mine It, but Don’t Assign It

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

 

 

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? Book Review

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

 

 

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Last Indian War?

Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI.

By David Grann, Doubleday, 2017, 352 pp.

 

History books tell us that the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and the slaughter of at least 150 Indians* was the final episode in the wars between Native Americans and whites. Perhaps we should revise the texts to take into account the “Reign of Terror” against the Osages in Oklahoma in which as many as sixty Osages were murdered between 1921 and 1925. David Grann’s new book on the subject reads like a detective novel but, alas, everything in it really happened.

Grann focuses on the extended Lizzie Kyle family to spin his tale of how history collided with ethnicity, paternalism, and greed. The 1830 Indian Removal Act—of which the Trail of Tears was a tragic subchapter—reserved much of modern-day Oklahoma as Indian Territory, a vast repository for conquered Indians. The Osages were confined there in the 1870s, after ceding lands in Arkansas and Kansas. The 1887 Dawes Act allowed Indians to own land as individuals and, six years later, the government opened non-reservation land to land-hungry whites. By 1900, whites dominated the territorial government, but few gave heed to a 1906 act giving the Osages, as a tribe, ownership of underground minerals. The next year Oklahoma entered the Union as the 46th state, with whites and Indians living side-by-side. Partial Osage assimilation occurred through intermarriage, forced schooling of children, and chosen adoption of white culture.

In 1917, oil was discovered in Oklahoma, an event that coincided with the takeoff period for automobiles. Suddenly, the Osages were the richest people in the United States. In 1923 alone, the Osages collected royalties on the magnitude of $400 million (2016 value). Intermarriage rates soared and some Osages engaged in ostentatious displays of wealth. Several reportedly purchased new automobiles, to use as makeshift hothouses as their owners didn’t drive. More controversially, numerous whites found themselves working for Osage masters. Alas, the same act that made the Osages wealthy also led their downfall. Each Osage property owner got a “headright” based on the amount of land owned, but the U.S. government could hold royalties in trust, and the bill ominously stipulated the right of non-Osages to inherit headrights.

Grann unveils a tale of fraud in which real and mythical cases of conspicuous consumption justified placing Osages under a 1921 white guardianship law requiring Osages to “prove” their competency; until then, guardians doled out royalties like a teenager’s allowance. Some, such as William Hale, the “King of Osage Hills” and a perceived friend of the Osages, persuaded male relatives to take Osage wives and act as their guardians. Hale’s nephew, Ernest Burkhart, married Lizzie Kyle’s daughter, Mollie—who lost much of her family to oil greed. In quick order, Mollie lost her sister Anna, her cousins Charles Whitehorn and Henry Roan Horse, her mother, and—in a massive explosion— her sister Rita, her husband, and their white housekeeper.

Grann presents the violence as a veritable war against the Osages waged by whites that lusted after oil wealth and felt it was their race privilege to possess it. That oil and murder were linked was fairly obvious, but untangling a multi-stranded web was another matter. Local detective James Monroe Pyle sided with his Osage neighbors, but the investigative powers of Bureau of Investigation (BOI) agent John Wren proved invaluable. Wren was often too undisciplined and independent for his superiors, but he was half Ute and an able investigator. To the degree in which the cases were ever solved, Wren and Pyle get the credit. One of Wren’s supporters was J. Edgar Hoover. The Osage murders were instrumental in Hoover’s plan to evolve the BOI into the nation’s primary law enforcement agency, which occurred in 1935 when it became the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Grann’s book has it all: mystery, graft, poison, nitroglycerin, crooked lawyers, and wolves in lambs’ clothing. The pity is that it’s a non-fiction book. Indians became U. S. citizens in 1924 and a year later, the Osage Allotment Act was amended to disallow non-Osages from inheriting headrights. Not that it did the Kyle family much good. Grann’s book puts a punctuation mark to the sad saga of how the West became white. Read the book now, as it has been optioned for a movie that promises to be a more accurate look at history than the fanciful 1959 film The FBI Story.

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst

 

* Contrary to the perceptions of those seeing to be respectful, many indigenous peoples from the Great Plains westward prefer the term “Indian” over “Native American.”

 

 

Wilderness of Ruin Both Fascinating and Frustrating

The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer. By Roseanne Montillo. New York: William Morrow, 2015.

Gilded Age Boston and Chicago shared a lot in common. Both had World’s Fairs: Boston in 1883, and Chicago ten years later. Each suffered devastating fires, with Chicago being nearly destroyed in 1871, and Boston losing most of its commercial district in 1872. Both also had notorious serial killers, with Boston holding the dubious distinction of producing Jesse Pomeroy, the first juvenile serial killer to be sentenced to hang. Pomeroy’s story is the subject of Roseanne Montillo’s sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating The Wilderness of Ruin.

Montillo, who teaches literature at Emerson College, has an eye for a good saga, and that of Jesse Pomeroy (1859-1932) certainly qualifies. Jesse’s is a biography that would challenge the fictive powers of an imaginative crime writer. He was born into an economically marginal working-class family in Charlestown, a seedy neighborhood best known for its grimy waterfront. A childhood illness damaged Jesse’s right cornea and left him with a distinctive cloudy eye. He was taller than peers and, from an early age, demonstrated disturbing characteristics: social isolation, fascination with his father’s butcher knives, a love of violent dime novels, and acts of animal cruelty. His waterfront jaunts yielded the revelation that twelve-year-old Jesse was responsible for a serious of brutal attacks on boys as young as four. His first victim was stripped naked, tied, hoisted ahigh, and whipped; subsequent victims were cut, stabbed, pricked with pins, and brutalized­–often in their genitals. Because there were no known deaths, Jesse was sent to a reformatory where he was supposed to remain until his 18th birthday.

Pomeroy was out in 14 months, paroled to his mother’s care in South Boston, where the family had moved to escape ostracism. Jesse was released in February of 1874, and in March, nine-year-old Katie Curran went missing. In April, the body of four-year-old Horace Millen was discovered, and Curran’s body shortly thereafter–each mutilated in ways suggestive of Pomeroy’s earlier spree. Pomeroy was convicted of first-degree murder in December, and was sentenced to hang. Governor Gaston’s refusal to sign execution orders led to a year and half of legal wrangling before Jesse’s sentence was commuted to life in solitary confinement. Three months before he turned seventeen, Pomeroy was transferred from Suffolk County Jail to the state prison in Charlestown, where he spent the next forty years in a ten-by-ten-by-eight cell. During that time, he made a dozen serious escape efforts, exhausted the prison library, learned numerous languages, wrote a self-serving autobiography, and badgered a dozen governors with pardon requests. In 1917, he was allowed to intermingle with the general prison population, but showed no interest in doing so. Much to his chagrin, he was sent to the Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1932, and died there in 1934. Only two murders were directly tied to Pomeroy, though rumors–sometimes from Jesse and sometimes denied by him–suggest he was responsible for as many as nine.

This is dramatic stuff that Montillo wisely opts to tell in a novelistic voice. This makes swaths of the book highly readable. Her instincts are sharpest when she connects Pomeroy to his broader social milieu, as Erik Larson did in his masterful The Devil in the White City (2003), the tale of mass murderer Dr. Henry Holmes (Herman Mudgett). Larson placed Holmes within a grand narrative stretching from Chicago’s 1871 fire through the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Montillo uses Boston’s 1872 fire as a partial explanation of how Pomeroy’s first spree took so long to solve, and she is in good form when describing the tawdry waterfronts and grimy neighborhoods of Jesse’s youth. Especially crisp is her account of Jesse taking his first and only automobile ride in 1932; she puts herself inside his eyes to “see” how Boston had changed during his 58 years of confinement.

Alas, she dowses her literary fires when she tries to connect Pomeroy to Boston glitterati such as Herman Melville and Oliver Wendell Holmes. She wants us to view Jesse’s monomania as analogous to Ahab’s and launches into discursive and unconvincing analyses of Moby Dick. She also delves deeply into Holmes’ biography, though he was peripheral to Pomeroy’s case. There are also detours into Camus, Dickens, Irving, Poe, and others attracted to the dark side of the psyche. By the time I finished, I was reminded of times in which I was dazzled by the sight of a restaurant meal, only to taste it and conclude that the chef spoiled the dish by adding too many ingredients.

I wanted The Wilderness of Ruins to be a Boston version of The Devil in the White City; instead, it is more about Montillo than her subject. Note the subtitle. The “madness” part is mostly perfunctory unresolved psychological speculation; the “fire” offers little insight into a lad whose spree began a year earlier; the “hunt” was brief; and Pomeroy isn’t “America’s youngest serial killer,” only the Bay State’s. Too many ingredients! My advice is to borrow juicy material for your lectures, but only if it makes them more savory.

 

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst

 

 

 

 

 

Kent State Reconsidered

Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties. By Thomas M. Grace. University of Massachusetts Press, 2016. 273 pages + appendices, notes, index.

 51d82dphtul-_sy344_bo1204203200_Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio.

Those lines from Neil Young’s “Ohio” were inescapable by the summer of 1970, with Young’s pained voice and blistering guitar presaging those of punk and grunge. Anger was already in the air, but the May 4, 1970 shooting of thirteen Kent State University students brought home that rage for multitudes of Americans. By summer’s end, Kent State had become the symbol of divisiveness that roils American society to the present day. Those on the left seized upon Kent as further confirmation that the American Establishment was controlled by duplicitous liars with murderous intent—those willing to expand an immoral war (Vietnam) into neighboring Cambodia and also ready to mow down anyone, including college students, with the audacity to challenge their authority. To those on the right, Kent State was a long overdue crackdown on lawless degenerates who sought to rent the very fabric of American society.

If the two camps shared anything in common, it was their surprise that matters came to a head at Kent State. Until May 4, most Americans had no idea where Kent State was even located. Those such as this reviewer who are old enough to remember the 1970 shootings at Kent (and also Jackson State, Mississippi) recall that most coverage presented Kent State as something of a backwater—the term “small second-tier state school” was often used. Why there? Kent, the media asserted, had not been an epicenter of campus dissent like UCal Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Columbia, San Francisco State, or the University of Wisconsin.

This was because too few were paying attention. So says Thomas Grace and he would know—he was at Kent and was among the nine students wounded on May 4. Kent, Ohio was a small city of just over 28,000 in 1970, but it was no backwater—it was/is an outlying section of Akron and part of the Greater Cleveland metropolitan region. In one of the book’s many remarkable features, Grace has meticulously researched the backgrounds of Kent students and can definitively say that though the university had grown like Topsy—from 6,000 students in 1955 to over 21,000 at the time of the shootings—its undergraduates were not just the sons and daughters of farmers; they were also the children of blue-collar workers. Many were first-generation college attendees and some were students of color whose entrance into higher education was uneasy.

Grace deftly employs the concept of the Long Sixties to prove that the events of 1970 were neither unique nor unpredictable. Ohio—as election observers know—has long been a divided state. In 1970, conservative Republican James Rhodes was governor, but Kent’s students hailed mostly from parts of the state where labor unions had fought and won hard battles. In 1966, the largely black Hough section of Cleveland exploded into six days of rioting that destroyed millions of dollars worth of property. Four (ahem!) people died and fifty were wounded. Those who landed on the Kent campus during the 1960s were neither naïve nor quiescent. The campus saw its first major protest in 1961 and by the mid-Sixties Kent was a spider web of Old and New Left organizations: socialists, Trotskyites, civil rights advocates, SDS members, black nationalists, antiwar activists…. Moreover, ten percent of Kent students were Vietnam veterans, many of whom were outraged by Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia. Though several of those shot at Kent were not actively protesting, most of those chanting for the National Guard’s exit from their campus knew why they were protesting and were experienced at doing so. As Grace says of himself, “I was not a victim; I was a casualty.”

Grace’s book is so filled with individual stories that one is sometimes lost in the welter of unfamiliar names, but some clear villains emerge: Governor Rhodes, parts of the KSU administration, Ohioans applauding the suppression of civil liberties, the Ohio National Guard, and court systems that literally allowed the Guard to get away with murder. But Grace leaves us with some of his namesake vibes. In a final sweep, his appendix traces the post-May 4 lives of protestors. They did not slink away, as those hoping to teach them a lesson had hoped. Most were activists before 1970 and remained so afterward. Grace, a Syracuse native, returned to campus after a long rehab to show he belonged. Until retirement, he was a Buffalo area social worker, union organizer, and part of the May 4 Memorial task force. Then he got a Ph.D. and is now a history instructor at Erie Community College. He insists there is nothing special about his story—his prerogative, but his book is extraordinary.

 

What if you knew her/And found her dead on the ground/How could you run when you know?

 

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst

History of White Trash

This review appeared in the Cultured Classrooms section of NEPCA’s fall newsletter. It seems appropriate to repost it as a review on Inauguration Day.

 

Putting Class Back Into the Classroom

22bookisenberg-blog427-v6I’m guilty of being one of those scholars who too glibly use the words “important book” in reviews and academic discussions. We often mean, simply, a work that advances some argument within our narrow specialty—not a book we could actually teach, or one that undergraduates would find provocative. Every now and then, however, a book appears that truly is “important.” Such a work is White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (New York: Viking, 2016). Its author, Louisiana State University history professor Nancy Isenberg, hit the market at a propitious time: during the Donald Trump political tsunami. Whether or not Trump wins in November, his campaign has energized many of the people about whom Isenberg writes: the white working class, especially those who live on the economic margins, often–but not exclusively–in the proverbial hinterlands. Educated Americans and those with financial resources have, historically, evolved a host of terms to dismiss these folks: waste people, sturdy beggars, clay-eaters, crackers, hillbillies, rednecks, trailer trash, lubbers, tar-heels, underclass, white trash….Isn’t it odd that few of these terms are ever discussed during campus cultural-sensitivity sessions?

Isenberg asserts that we ignore this group at our own peril. By most accounts, white wage-earning Americans make up 30% of the electorate. This means they’re no longer a majority, but given the stark divisions within American society, that 30% has the potential to alter elections. I think this book needs to be taught, so allow me to highlight a few of Isenberg’s assertions and to add questions I think could spark lively debate.

* First and foremost, Isenberg asserts that the working poor are not a recent phenomenon; they are sewn into the very fabric of white North American society. Isenberg catalogues this pattern from British colonization to the present. It’s not really the “untold history” she bills it, but few have marshaled as much evidence for the claim that outcast underclasses are not merely unfortunate; they are the deliberate creation of economic elites that exploit them for their own gain. Moreover, white trash has been conditioned to see itself as such; Isenberg’s is a pathology of powerlessness.

* This will ruffle feathers, but Isenberg argues that those who discuss race or gender without referencing social class are futilely talking to themselves. This is because elites have successfully inserted the mudsill theory into the national dialogue. (The mudsill theory holds that society, like a house foundation, sits upon a bottom layer of social “mud” on which all power relations are constructed.) In essence, the white working class–often masculine in character–compensates for its lack of power by defining others as inferior: non-whites, recent immigrants, and women. This has also been done in ways familiar to pop-culture scholars: when crude power fails, use manufactured flattery of the sort we now see in the “new rage of slumming” (291), or what I’d dub “redneck glorification,” as seen in Elvis, Dolly Parton, Bill Clinton’s presidency, and TV shows such as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Honey Boo Boo,” “Redneck Island,” and “Duck Dynasty.”

*This will also rankle: Isenberg sees class as the essential analytical category. She has little patience with using social class as a sort of “drive-by” tool in the way we view history or contemporary sociology.

*Isenberg has even less patience with those who equate white trash traits with the Scots-Irish. Such ethnic identification isolates, stigmatizes, and ignores both the pervasiveness of the white underclass and the power relations that created it. She dismisses–and I agree–Grady McWhiney’s Cracker Culture. I’d toss J. D. Vance’s recent Hillbilly Culture (Harper, 2016) into the not-to-be-taken-seriously pile.

*Another target of Isenberg’s analytical sword: conservatives who dismiss white poverty as proof of degeneracy, lack of initiative, or cultural/regional norms. She bristles with indignation when someone like Mitt Romney insists upon the personhood of corporations, given the systematic manner in which the 1% he represents has denied the humanity of poor whites. If you think she exaggerates, see her chapter on eugenics.

* She reminds us that the Civil War was as much a class war as one about race. Scholars know this as well, but it’s good to be reminded.

*Isenberg suggests that the cherished American ideals of equal opportunity, equality under the law, and freedom are largely ahistorical descriptions of the true American past.

So how can we use this book in the classroom? Here are ten discussion questions that occurred to me. Other readers will easily come up with others.

  1. Isenberg says discussions of race and/or gender without references to social class are worthless. If you agree, list concrete reasons why you find Isenberg to be correct; if you disagree, move beyond personal preference and enumerate reasons why you think she’s wrong. (One could easily devise a classroom debate of opposing sides on this question.)
  1. Isenberg has a very pessimistic view of American ideals. Do you think she’s right that these are more mythic than historical? What does the evidence suggest? (Have students do a sociological investigation into poverty. Who is poor? Where do they live? How many poor people are full-time workers? What is the racial breakdown on poverty?)
  1. Question two could be approached in political terms like this: Mitt Romney made a major gaffe in the 2012 election when he said that 47% of Americans were reliant on some form of “government handouts,” even though he was (mostly) correct. What happens, though, is we ask: Why are 47% of Americans dependent upon government handouts?
  1. What is a secondary labor force/market? What did Marx say about the exploitation of working people? What is Antonio Gramsci’s “hegemony theory?” Do any of these ideas fit Isenberg’s analysis? (Obvious “egg hunt” possibilities here.)
  1. Donald Trump’s campaign attracted a lot of white working class voters. Why? In what ways were his followers similar to those attracted to Bernie Sanders? How did they differ?
  1. An interesting recent phenomenon: In the late 20th century, nearly 80% of Americans thought of themselves as “middle class;” now just 51% think so (and many sociologists would place the objective number at closer to 35%.) What are the differences between being middle class and working class? How have those definitions changed over time? Why are fewer Americans seeing themselves as middle class? Does this mean that the “white trash” is growing in numbers?
  1. Isenberg gives us an incomplete (and dated) list of TV shows and entertainment that present the white underclass and she’s not very good at all with movies. Come up with your own list of music, shows, and movies that deal with the white underclass she describes. How is class represented in these?
  2. Other than a handful of characters such as Davy Crockett and the “common man” meme of the 1930s, Isenberg gives very few examples of working-class heroes and heroines. Can you compile a list of positive working class and/or poor folks who ought to be part of the discussion?
  1. Is Isenberg guilty of casting underclass whites as historical victims without agency? What about, for example, the labor movement? Welfare-rights advocates?
  1. This is controversial, but needs to be discussed: Does Isenberg unintentionally justify boorish, racist, and sexist behavior? Does she make excuses for people to wallow in ignorance? Does the underclass have any responsibility for liberating itself? Do we believe in Isenberg’s pathology model? How does one escape the past? Should one? (Aren’t these the same questions we raise about non-white poverty?)
  1. Bonus question: If your students are mature enough to grapple with this—and if you’ve set it up as a discussion, not an assertion–ask students if it’s as racist to use terms such as “white trash” as it is to use the “N word.” (This could spark intriguing discussion of white privilege. How does it work in the face of economic depravation and social marginalization?)

 

Rob Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst