Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

Every student who studied with the Rev. Gary Davis

February 26, 2015
By
Every student who studied with the Rev. Gary Davis

The Reverend Gary Davis was born in Piedmont, South Carolina, on April 30, 1896. He died in Hammonton, New Jersey, on May 5, 1972. In between, he become one of the most protean guitar players of the twentieth century, and his finger-picking style influenced everyone from Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead to Keb’ Mo’ and Blind Boy Fuller.

Born partially blind as the sole surviving son to two sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South, by the 1940s, Davis, ordained as a Baptist minister, was playing on Harlem streetcorners and storefronts, making his living as an itinerant, singing gospel preacher. By the beginning of the 1960s folk revival, he had moved in circles that included Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, recorded a series of albums for the legendary Folkways label, and been embraced by a generation of educated, middle-class young people eager for fodder to spur a folk revival. See his performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival for further illumination of this cultural congruence. Even before his death in 1970, he was the subject of two television documentaries. Davis’s legacy, however, still exists outside a canon that has acknowledged his peers, including Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson—his music, like his troubled life, is the stuff of . . .

Read more »

Excerpt: Seeing Green

February 23, 2015
By
Excerpt: Seeing Green

An excerpt from Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images

by Finis Dunaway

***

“The Crying Indian”

It may be the most famous tear in American history. Iron Eyes Cody, an actor in native garb, paddles a birch bark canoe on water that seems at first tranquil and pristine but becomes increasingly polluted along his journey. He pulls his boat from the water and walks toward a bustling freeway. As the lone Indian ponders the polluted landscape and stares at vehicles streaming by, a passenger hurls a paper bag out a car window. The bag bursts on the ground, scattering fast-food wrappers all over his beaded moccasins. In a stern voice, the narrator comments: “Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t.” The camera zooms in closely on Iron Eyes Cody’s face to reveal a single tear falling, ever so slowly, down his cheek (fig. 5.1).

This tear made its television debut in 1971 at the close of a public service advertisement for the antilitter organization Keep America Beautiful. Appearing in languid motion on television, the tear . . .

Read more »

Excerpt: Renegade Dreams

February 17, 2015
By
Excerpt: Renegade Dreams

An excerpt from Laurence Ralph’s

Renegade Dreams: Living through Injury in Gangland Chicago

***

“Nostalgia, or the Stories a Gang Tells about Itself”

At the West Side Juvenile Detention Center, inmates hardly ever look you in the eyes. They almost never notice your face. Walk into a cell block at recreation time, for example, when young gang members are playing spades or sitting in the TV room watching a movie, and their attention quickly shifts to your shoes. They watch you walk to figure out why you came. I imagine what goes through their heads: Navy blue leather boots, reinforced steel toe, at least a size twelve. Must be a guard. That’s an easy one. Then the glass door swings open again. Expensive brown wingtips, creased khakis cover the tongue. A Northwestern law student come to talk about legal rights. Yep.

Benjamin Gregory wears old shoes, the kind a young affiliate wouldn’t be caught dead in. Still, the cheap patent leather shines, and, after sitting in the Detention Center’s waiting room for nearly an hour and a half, the squeak of his wingtips is a relief. It’s a muggy day, late . . .

Read more »

Excerpt: In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde

February 9, 2015
By
Excerpt: In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde

 

An excerpt from In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde: An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum

by Matti Bunzl

***

“JEFF KOONS <3 CHICAGO”

I’m sitting in the conference room on the fifth floor of the MCA, the administrative nerve center which is off limits to the public. It is late January and the temperatures have just plunged to near zero. But the museum staff is bustling with activity. With four months to go until the opening of the big Jeff Koons show, all hands are on deck. And there is a little bit of panic. Deadlines for the exhibit layout and catalogue are looming, and the artist has been hard to pin down. Everyone at the MCA knows why. Koons, who commands a studio that makes Warhol’s Factory look like a little workshop, is in colossal demand. For the MCA, the show has top priority. But for Koons, it is just one among many. In 2008 alone, he will have major exhibits in Berlin, New York, and Paris. The presentation at the Neue Nationalgalerie is pretty straightforward. Less so New York, where Koons is scheduled to take over the roof . . .

Read more »

Excerpt: Elaine Conis’s Vaccine Nation

February 4, 2015
By
Excerpt: Elaine Conis’s Vaccine Nation

An excerpt from Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Immunization

by Elaine Conis

(recent pieces featuring the book at the Washington Post and Bloomberg News)

***

“Mumps in Wartime”

Between 1963 and 1969, the nation‘s flourishing pharmaceutical industry launched several vaccines against measles, a vaccine against mumps, and a vaccine against rubella in rapid succession. The measles vaccine became the focus of the federally sponsored eradication campaign described in the previous chapter; the rubella vaccine prevented birth defects and became entwined with the intensifying abortion politics of the time. Both vaccines overshadowed the debut of the vaccine against mumps, a disease of relatively little concern to most Americans in the late 1960s. Mumps was never an object of public dread, as polio had been, and its vaccine was never anxiously awaited, like the Salk polio vaccine had been. Nor was mumps ever singled out for a high–profile immunization campaign or for eradication, as measles had been. All of which made it quite remarkable that, within a few years of its debut, the mumps vaccine would be administered to millions of American children with little fanfare or resistance.

. . .

Read more »

Free e-book for February: Floating Gold

February 2, 2015
By
Free e-book for February: Floating Gold

Our free e-book for February is Christopher Kemp’s idiosyncratic exegesis on the backstory of whale poop,

Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris.

***

“Preternaturally hardened whale dung” is not the first image that comes to mind when we think of perfume, otherwise a symbol of glamour and allure. But the key ingredient that makes the sophisticated scent linger on the skin is precisely this bizarre digestive by-product—ambergris. Despite being one of the world’s most expensive substances (its value is nearly that of gold and has at times in history been triple it), ambergris is also one of the world’s least known. But with this unusual and highly alluring book, Christopher Kemp promises to change that by uncovering the unique history of ambergris.

A rare secretion produced only by sperm whales, which have a fondness for squid but an inability to digest their beaks, ambergris is expelled at sea and floats on ocean currents for years, slowly transforming, before it sometimes washes ashore looking like a nondescript waxy pebble. It can appear almost anywhere but is found so rarely, it might as well appear nowhere. Kemp’s journey begins with an encounter . . .

Read more »

Sandra M. Gustafson on the State of the Union (2015)

January 29, 2015
By
Sandra M. Gustafson on the State of the Union (2015)

As with the past few years, we are fortunate enough to have scholar Sandra M. Gustafson contribute a post following Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address, positing the stakes for Obama’s rhetorical position in light of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City (while pointing toward their more deeply embedded and disturbing legacies, respectively). Read Gustafson’s 2015 post in full after the jump below.

***

Lives that Matter: Reflections on the 2015 State of the Union Address

by Sandra M. Gustafson

 In his sixth State of the Union address, President Barack Obama summarized the major achievements of his administration to date–bringing the American economy back from the Great Recession, passing and implementing the Affordable Care Act, advancing civil rights, and winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while shifting the emphasis of US foreign policy toward diplomacy and multilateralism – and presented a framework for new initiatives that he called “middle class economics,” including affordable child care, a higher minimum wage, and free community college. Commentators compared the president’s emphasis on the successes of his six years in office to an athlete taking a victory lap. Some . . .

Read more »

Excerpt: How Many is Too Many?

January 26, 2015
By
Excerpt: How Many is Too Many?

Excerpted from

How Many is Too Many?: The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States 

by Philip Cafaro

***

How many immigrants should we allow into the United States annually, and who gets to come?

The question is easy to state but hard to answer, for thoughtful individuals and for our nation as a whole. It is a complex question, touching on issues of race and class, morals and money, power and political allegiance. It is an important question, since our answer will help determine what kind of country our children and grandchildren inherit. It is a contentious question: answer it wrongly and you may hear some choice personal epithets directed your way, depending on who you are talking to. It is also an endlessly recurring question, since conditions will change, and an immigration policy that made sense in one era may no longer work in another. Any answer we give must be open to revision.

This book explores the immigration question in light of current realities and defends one provisional answer to it. By exploring the question from a variety of angles and making my own political beliefs explicit, . . .

Read more »

Everything’s coming up Howie

January 23, 2015
By
Everything’s coming up Howie

 

 

Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, recently profiled eminent American sociologist Howard S. Becker (Howie, please: “Only my mother ever called me Howard”), one of the biggest names in the field for over half a century, yet still, as with so many purveyors of haute critique, better known in France. Becker is no wilting lily on these shores, however—since the publication of his pathbreaking Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (1963), he’s been presiding as grand doyen over methodological confrontations with the particularly slippery slopes of human existence, including our very notion of “deviance.” All this, a half dozen or so honorary degrees, a lifetime achievement award, a smattering of our most prestigious fellowships, and the 86-year-old Becker is still going strong, with his most recent book published only this past year.

From the New Yorker profile:

This summer, Becker published a summing up of his life’s method and beliefs, called “What About Mozart? What About Murder?” (The title refers to the two caveats or complaints most often directed against his kind of sociology’s equable “relativism”: how can you study music as a mere social artifact—what about Mozart? How can you consider criminal justice a mutable convention—what about Murder?) The book is . . .

Read more »

A Show-Trial: An excerpt from Bengt Jangfeldt’s Mayakovsky

January 22, 2015
By
A Show-Trial: An excerpt from Bengt Jangfeldt’s Mayakovsky

“A Show-Trial”

Excerpted from Mayakovsky: A Biography by Bengt Jangfeldt

***

Mayakovsky returned to Moscow on 17 or 18 September. The following day, Krasnoshchokov was arrested, accused of a number of different offenses. He was supposed to have lent money to his brother Yakov, head of the firm American–Russian Constructor, at too low a rate of interest, and to have arranged drink– and sex–fueled orgies at the Hotel Europe in Petrograd, paying the Gypsy girls who entertained the company with pure gold. He was also accused of having passed on his salary from the Russian–American Industrial Corporation ($200 a month) to his wife (who had returned to the United States), of having bought his mistress flowers and furs out of state funds, of renting a luxury villa, and of keeping no fewer than three horses. Lenin was now so ill that he had not been able to intervene on Krasnoshchokov’s behalf even if he had wanted to.

His arrest was a sensation of the first order. It was the first time that such a highly placed Communist had been accused of corruption, and the event cast a shadow over the whole party apparatus. Immediately . . .

Read more »

Search for books and authors