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
I’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.
- 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.)
- 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?)
- 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?
- 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.)
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- Is Isenberg guilty of casting underclass whites as historical victims without agency? What about, for example, the labor movement? Welfare-rights advocates?
- 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?)
- 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?)
University of Massachusetts Amherst
The 8th Annual Undergraduate Conference on Health & Society at Providence College will be held on Saturday, April 22, 2017.
This is a great opportunity for advanced undergraduates who are engaged in significant writing projects. This interdisciplinary conference welcomes paper proposals from all areas of inquiry that address topics related to health, health care, or health policy, including Anthropology, Biomedical Ethics, Community Health, Economics, Health Care Management, Health Policy, History, Literature, Political Science, Public Health, and Sociology. Abstracts are peer reviewed on a competitive basis by a joint student-faculty selection committee. Accepted participants orally present their research on a panel moderated by a faculty discussant. Additionally, all participants will have the opportunity to publish their work through PC’s Digital Commons. Examples of papers from past conferences can be viewed at http://digitalcommons.providence.edu/auchs/. Abstracts can be submitted via https://goo.gl/forms/kQ1Bw3UVfHoWKM2F2 by February 1, 2017. For more information contact the Conference Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Early submissions are strongly encouraged because we are able to offer a limited number of travel stipends to defray the hotel/transportation costs for interested students who must stay overnight in order to attend.
Samantha Santos ’14 & ’16G
Health Policy & Management Program
One Cunningham Square
Providence, RI 02918
CALL FOR PAPERS: FRANKENSTEIN AND THE AMERICAN DREAM?
SESSION PROPOSED FOR 2017 ANNUAL CONFERENCE OF THE AMERICAN LITERATURE ASSOCIATION
TO BE HELD AT THE WESTIN COPLEY PLACE, BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS FROM 25 TO 28 MAY 2017
PAPER PROPOSALS DUE BY 28 JANUARY 2017
Frankenstein and the American Dream?
Frankenstein and the Fantastic, an outreach effort of the Fantastic (Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction) Area of the Northeast Popular Culture/American Culture Association seeks proposals for a panel in commemoration of the endurance of Frankenstein and the Frankenstein tradition. The session is being submitted for consideration at the 2017 meeting of the American Literature Association to be held in Boston, Massachusetts, from 25-28 May 2017.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein celebrates the two-hundredth anniversary of its publication in 2018, and, over the almost two centuries of the story’s existence, Frankenstein, its characters, and its themes have inspired a myriad range of creative responses, including retellings, adaptions, linked texts (i.e. prequels, midquels and sequels), recastings, and allusions. American creators seem to have been especially fascinated by Frankenstein and its textual progeny, and American-made productions have offered many thought-provoking transformations of Shelley’s work.
What is most interesting is that some of these American works promote happy (or at least happier) endings to the tale that permit the creator and/or his creation to live beyond the ending prescribed by Shelley’s narrative. This has allowed them, the creature most importantly, to achieve (at least to some extent) the privileges, available to all Americans, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In seeking and claiming aspects of the American dream for Shelley’s characters the Frankensteiniana of the United States provides insight in how one nation in particular has adopted and appropriated Shelley’s story and made it its own.
We are especially interested in proposals that explore how American-made texts relate to Shelley’s novel and the larger tradition of Frankenstein-related texts in popular culture. Possible options would include works by American production companies (film and television studios, publishing houses, comic book companies, etc.), American-born creators working either in the United States or abroad, and foreign-born creators working for American companies. Additional options might explore Frankenstein and Frankenstein-related texts in an American context/setting.
Please submit proposals to FrankensteinandtheFantastic@gmail.com no later than 28 January 2017. A complete proposal should include the following: your complete contact information, a clear and useful title of your paper, an abstract of your paper (approximately 250 to 600 words), a brief biographical statement explaining your academic status and authority to speak about your proposed topic, and a note on any audio/visual requirements.
Further details on the Fantastic (Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction) Area can be found at https://nepcafantastic.blogspot.com. The Frankenstein and the Fantastic project has its own dedicated site at https://frankensteinandthefantastic.blogspot.com/ that will be expanded in 2017.
Complete details on the American Literature Association and its conference can be found at http://americanliteratureassociation.org/ala-conferences/ala-annual-conference/.
The Medieval in American Popular Culture:
Reflections in Commemoration of the 80th Anniversary of Prince Valiant
The comic strip Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur was launched in 1937 and continues to be produced to this day. Begun by illustrator Hal Foster and now under the direction of writer Mark Schultz and artist Thomas Yeates, Prince Valiant celebrates its eightieth anniversary in 2017. This is a significant achievement for a work of popular medievalism. In recognition of this milestone, the Association for the Advancement of Scholarship and Teaching of the Medieval in Popular Culture seeks papers that explore the appeal (either in the United States or abroad) of the strip and its characters and/or the significance of other works of American medievalism both in the past and in the world today. The session is being submitted for consideration at the 2017 meeting of the American Literature Association to be held in Boston, Massachusetts, from 25-28 May 2017.
We are especially interested in proposals that respond to one of more of the following questions:
- Why is the medieval popular in the United States, a nation with no physical connections to the medieval past?
- What is the continued appeal of the medieval to Americans?
- Do Americans do different things with medieval material compared to their contemporaries around the globe?
- How have Americans’ view of the medieval changed over time?
- hy do some forms of American-made medievalism endure while others are forgotten?
- How well do American-made medievalisms translate into other media and/or cultural settings
Please submit proposals to the organizers at email@example.com no later than 28 January 2017. Please use “Medieval in American Popular Culture” as your subject line. A complete proposal should include the following: your complete contact information, a clear and useful title of your paper, an abstract of your paper (approximately 250 to 600 words), a brief biographical statement explaining your academic status and authority to speak about your proposed topic, and a note on any audio/visual requirements
Final papers should be delivered between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on the number of presenters. Potential presenters are reminded that the rules of the conference allow individuals to present only one paper at the annual meeting.
Further details on the Association for the Advancement of Scholarship and Teaching of the Medieval in Popular Culture can found at http://medievalinpopularculture.blogspot.com. Additional information about the conference and the American Literature Association can be found at http://americanliteratureassociation.org/.
The Salome Ensemble: Rose Pastor Stokes, Anzia Yezierska, Sonya Levien, and Jetta Goudal. By Alan Robert Ginsberg. Syracuse University Press, 2016.
If you don’t know who Rose Pastor Stokes (1879-1933), Anzia Yezierska (1880-1970), Sonya Levien (1888-1960), and Jetta Goudal (1881-1985) are, you should. Their lives are a study in connections, as friends, role-models, and political and artistic influences: Pastor Stokes was the inspiration for Yezierska’s best-selling 1923 novel, Salome of the Tenements, which Levien then developed as a screenplay for the popular 1925 silent film of the same name, featuring Goudal in the starring role. And as Robert Ginsberg makes clear in this thoroughly-researched, admiring-but-honest group biography, the lives of these four women are interwoven with the fabric of early 20th century American culture.
Pastor Stokes, Yezierska, Levien, and Goudal were all immigrants to the United States, fleeing the limited opportunity and deadly oppression that would have been the fate of young Jewish women living in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Each desired education, work, service, recognition, and independence—and each pursued those ends relentlessly, taking advantage of the relative social and cultural freedoms available in New York and Hollywood at the time.
Pastor Stokes was largely self-educated, and began her career as a journalist while working in a New York sweatshop, writing about the lives and labor conditions of factory girls. Becoming established as a writer went hand-in-hand with her immersion in social and political causes, particularly working in the settlement houses that mentored and educated immigrant women like herself—and, as it turned out, Levien and Yezierska. Pastor Stokes caused a society sensation when the pretty, socialist, Jewish factory girl caught the eye of James Graham Phelps Stokes, a Yale grad, and scion of a wealthy industrialist family. With his connections and money, and her passionate commitment to workers’ rights, the couple found themselves to be an improbable but successful activist team, until Pastor Stokes’ zeal outstripped her husband’s, and ideological differences led to their divorce. Pastor Stokes became more deeply involved in the communist movement, at once a self-identified American patriot and Bolshevik supporter.
Her activism got her in trouble: she narrowly avoided a lengthy prison sentence when federal prosecutors tried to make her a test case for the recently enacted Espionage Act of 1917. Formulated to control “subversive” political activity in response to the political upheaval of World War One, the act set the pattern for future persecution of those with “un-American” sympathies during the Cold War at mid-century. When Pastor Stokes was found to have “merely” criticized the Wilson administration, and not the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, or the American way of life in general (62), the initial guilty verdict was vacated. Undeterred, she continued her political work, helping to establish the Communist Part of America, writing and speaking on behalf of the communist cause. She remained a committed activist until her death in 1933.
Ginsberg coined the phrase “Salome Ensemble,” drawing his inspiration from Albert Einstein’s notion that “knowledge of certain phenomena can only be obtained by observing them as groups…’ideal ensembles’…Special, complete knowledge of them is attainable only by understanding their characteristics both as a group and as individuals. They become entangled and affect each other in ways that make it impossible to perceive their actions as other than connected, but their separate identities are never effaced” (xix). Ginsberg sketches a nexus, a set of relationships that started with Pastor Stokes at the center, but which then extended to include the three other women, as well as their many connections, as their individual careers overlapped with seemingly every social, political, and artistic movement between the World Wars. Pastor Stokes met both Yezierska and Levien at a settlement house, and the combination of her indirect example and direct support helped both women to achieve their professional goals. Pastor Stokes hired Levien as a secretary after her marriage to Stokes; that opportunity gave Levien the boost she needed to go on to a career first in law, then in magazine journalism. Yezierska, also largely self-educated throughout her youth, won a scholarship to Columbia Teacher’s College, a career she didn’t particularly want, but which allowed her to focus on her real passion, writing. When Yezierska was struggling to find an audience for her fiction, it was Pastor Stokes’ connection with Levien, then the editor of a popular magazine, that provided Yezierska her big break. As her writing career started to take off, both she and Levien were lured to write for the nascent film industry in Hollywood—Yezierska didn’t like the constraints, but Levien throve…and was able to use her position to adapt her friend’s novel about her other friend’s life, Salome of the Tenements, for the silent screen, starring her friend and artistic collaborator Goudal.
Jetta Goudal’s membership in the Salome Ensemble was more tangential than the others’—she worked most closely with Levien but had no particular connection with the other women. Nevertheless, Ginsberg makes a case for including her on the basis of her life’s trajectory being so similar to the others, and so similarly influential. In addition to her acting career, Goudal was one of the first actors to challenge the 19th century mindset of the early studios, which saw performers more as indentured servants than as artists—Goudal’s lawsuit against Cecil B. DeMille set an important precedent for actors’ rights. The case also permanently damaged her career. Goudal is said to have been one of the inspirations for Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of Norma Desmond, a has-been silent-screen star, in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
In reviewing Ginsberg’s study of the Salome Ensemble, I struggled with the same challenges as he. These four women knew everyone (political alliances and conflicts with Emma Goldman! affairs with John Dewey and Rudy Valentino!) and were involved with everything: publishing and the literary scene, the workers’ movement, the early film industry, artists’ rights, censorship, education, the evolution of American Judaism, the WPA, war, politics, the economy….Trying to keep track of their connections with one another and linking them to the whole of early 20th century American history is something of an organizational nightmare. To his credit, Ginsberg has done exemplary archival research, and is meticulous in situating the women in their historical context—from specific biographical detail, to the ways in which the women’s lives can be read as emblematic of changing roles for immigrants, workers, and women in the early 20th century. Ginsberg struggles a bit to make this complex, exhaustive tale engaging—there’s a kitchen-sink quality here, with every possible historical reference thrown in with bits and pieces of cultural critique; and in trying to give each woman thorough, individual attention he ends up repeating details about their overlapping lives. The effect is sometimes dry, sometimes unfocused, and sometimes redundant.
But—while Ginsberg’s work isn’t always the liveliest read, he tells a great and important story. Give this sprawling, but careful narrative a chance, and allow yourself to share in his unabashed admiration for Pastor Stokes, Levien, Yezierska, and Goudal. And then track down a copy of Salome of the Tenements and read that too.
STRANGE HISTORY (2016). By Jay Newman, editor. Portable Press, 2016.
Have you ever seen Chuck Shepherd’s quirky “New of the Weird” columns? If so, you can imagine the content of Strange History. In editor Jay Newman’s words, it’s a “smorgasbord of oddities: kings, queens, commoners, criminals, gladiators, aliens, ghosts, monsters….” You can add to that list: anecdotes, bloopers, religious origin stories, fads, riddles, and descriptions of made-up languages. Newman marshals a bevy of writers collectively known as the Bathroom Readers’ Institute. Give credit for truth in advertising; this is indeed the sort of book one might find residing in the loo nestled amidst the extra TP–a collection of breezy selections meant to be read in short, non-taxing snippets. So is there any reason to pay attention to it? Perhaps.
Like all such projects, this one is less than the sum of its parts, but the bits and pieces are individually delightful. When I was a high school teacher, I used to mine books like this for bizarre little curiosities to spring upon students, give their minds a break, and enhance my reputation for being unpredictable. The downside is that these were often the things students remembered long after they brain-dumped the important stuff. Well, at least I taught them something!
There is no rhyme or reason to the structure of Strange History and that’s part of its charm. Did you know that Mao Zedong was a librarian before he was a revolutionary, or that Idi Amin cooked for the British army before he terrorized Uganda? You can learn this from Strange History, as well as the first jobs of other famous and infamous people. The book makes no pretense of being anything other than random facts and factoids, so I made my way through this book with an eye toward categorizing detail into categories of potentially useful versus mere trivia.
For example, a sociology or popular culture instructor might find it useful to note that elders have been complaining about youth since at least 427 B.C., or that fads have always been edgy. How about crotchless tunics in medieval England, phrenology, Gerber’s attempt to sell baby food for adults, 16th century tooth dyeing, or hiring professional “hermits” to reside upon one’s estate? Students might find it reassuring to consider that the present has no monopoly over bad decision-making. Did you know that the first person to add sugar to chewing gum (1869) was a dentist? Or, more poignantly, that Adolph Hitler told the first Polish jokes? There are loads of intriguing things for computer scientists discussing computers before computing, including a mechanical wooden robot that dates to fourth century B.C. Greece. Theater and literature lessons can be spiced with anecdotes such as a long list of the misfortunes that befell those directing or acting in Macbeth, a list of one-legged actors, the possible origins of werewolf tales, or the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Either the 17th century German alchemist Jonathan Dippel, or the 18th century Italian naturalist Spallanzani are good suspects for the latter.) The book also contains tons of origin theories, including theories about unicorns, the evolution of King Arthur tales, how zoos emerged from the private aristocratic menageries, and how Druids gave us the phrase “tying the knot” for newlyweds.
On the other hand, when would we ever need a recipe for making shrunken heads? Why should we care that TripAdvisor.com travelers consider Brussels the world’s most boring city? (Did any of them drink the beer there?) What can we learn from Joey Mellen, who drilled a hole in his own head in an attempt to achieve a perpetual high, other than the fact that he was an idiot? Do we need a list of lame insults gleaned from the Internet?
In short, Strange History is a book containing gems and garbage. Maybe the bathroom is where it ought to reside, but I suspect teachers, barroom orators, and trivia aficionados will find some useful things. A personal favorite came from a list of alleged presidential deathbed utterances. James Buchanan supposedly proclaimed, “History will vindicate my memory.” When you consider that many scholars consider Buchanan the worst president in U. S. history, you could use that remark to teach the concept of hubris.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Can I Go Now? The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent. Brian Kellow. New York: Viking, 2015.
Brain Kellow has written the definitive biography of Sue Mengers, and it’s a fun book. Mengers was an influential Hollywood talent agent who represented some of the industry’s most glamorous stars at the height of their careers, including Barbara Streisand, Cybil Shepherd, Gene Hackman, Anthony Perkins, and Burt Reynolds. She is often credited with helping them secure some of their most iconic roles. Kellow suggests that Mengers redefined her profession by carving out a place for women in an industry dominated by men, but does not push any sort of central argument beyond his desire to record her biography. Kellow clearly adores Mengers and has dedicated himself to recovering as many details of her life and career as possible. He presents Mengers as a relentlessly energetic force of nature who stood out from other agents of the age. Through sheer force of will, tenacity, and a refusal to be overlooked, Mengers promoted some of Hollywood’s greatest stars and pushed to have her voice be the loudest in the room. Kellow provides excellent social and historical context when describing the world that Mengers entered–initially as a young secretary–and he makes frequent observations about how her often-outrageous behavior propelled her to the forefront of Hollywood representation.
Kellow divulges all the juicy gossip from the film industry from the 1960s through the 1980s. His writing is very accessible; his tone often breezy. He includes uproarious stories about Katharine Hepburn and Ali McGraw, extensive quotes from Michael Caine, and copious information about Barbra Streisand’s career, Streisand being one of Mengers’ greatest projects. Kellow never shies from exposing people at their worst- including Mengers, whose larger- than-life personality and predictably unpredictable behavior caused people either to love or hate her.
Mengers comes off as a prickly character at best, with a complicated family history and psychology. She was determined, ambitious, and willing to use any means necessary to promote her clients and, of course, herself. She was at the center of the Hollywood scene during these decades and seems to deserve the credit that Kellow heaps upon her for shaping these celebrities and the films on which they worked. By the end of the book, it is unclear if she did, in fact, open up new opportunities for future generations of women agents, but it is very clear that she opened up plenty of opportunities for herself and that she enjoyed her success to the fullest.
This is not an academic work and relies primarily on interviews, personal conversations and anecdotes. Kellow offers an affectionate retelling of Hollywood royalty and all their foibles. He is clearly interested in describing the evolving nature of professional agents, but is equally interested in reporting on the star’s more embarrassing moments. This would be a great book for film buffs who would enjoy the behind-the-scenes anecdotes, the description of the process of producing films and negotiating casting and the chance to see these celebrities from a new angle- namely from a superagent’s point of view. This book would also be useful for courses on writing, journalism, or New Hollywood filmmaking
Western Connecticut State University