Reviews

The Terror of Natural Right reviewed in The Nation

May 20, 2010
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The Terror of Natural Right reviewed in The Nation

Lots of books consider the Enlightenment, but few earn such high marks as Dan Edelstein’s The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution. In a recent review essay in the Nation, Samuel Moyn calls Edelstein’s history “one of the most memorable and absorbing books on the era I have ever read.” He goes on: Edelstein argues that Enlightenment naturalism turned out to be a recipe for terrible wrongs. Edelstein wants to know how the Jacobins, whom he rightly credits with some of the most progressive and egalitarian aims any political movement has ever professed (notably the invention of social rights to work and education), ended up orchestrating a reign of terror. Against interpretations that simply blame circumstances, Edelstein too insists that ideas mattered. But the most provocative argument in his book is that the ideas that made the revolution spiral out of control were the cult of nature and the belief in natural rights. A highly original work of historical analysis, political theory, literary criticism, and intellectual history, The Terror of Natural Right challenges, as Moyn notes, prevailing assumptions of the Terror to offer a new perspective on the Revolutionary period. Read more about . . .

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Made in America gets the Page 99 Test

May 17, 2010
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Made in America gets the Page 99 Test

Marshal Zeringue strikes again! Claude S. Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character is featured this week on Zeringue’s literary blog, the Page 99 Test. On the blog Zeringue asks authors to flip to page 99 of their books, summarize it, and then give a brief explanation of how it relates to the rest of the work. One of the central arguments in Fischer’s book is that American “voluntarism,” or as Molly Worthen put it in a recent article for The New Republic, “an enthusiasm for community as long as membership is always by choice rather than obligation,” has been, since the days of the first European colonists, one of the defining forces shaping American culture. Page 99 of Fischer’s book takes up his discussion of this topic. Click over to the Page 99 Test to read. To read some pages other than page 99, see our excerpt. . . .

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“A fine excercise in quiet iconoclasm”

May 14, 2010
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“A fine excercise in quiet iconoclasm”

The New Republic‘s online review, The Book, posted an interesting critique of Claude S. Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character yesterday, praising its provocative challenge to some of sociology’s most entrenched preconceptions concerning contemporary American culture. As TNR‘s Molly Worthen writes: Fischer’s book is a fine exercise in quiet iconoclasm. His thesis—that over the past three centuries, economic growth and widening perimeters of social inclusion have enabled more people to share a uniquely American collective identity—may sound like heresy to many scholars. In most academic circles, one must avoid phrases like “American mainstream,” “American exceptionalism,” and “grand narrative” at all costs. These words have become code for a jingoistic history of privileged white men, the Anglo-Saxon haves who oppressed the multi-ethnic have-nots and tracked superpower footprints heedlessly across the globe. Since the 1960s, new social historians have asserted the primacy of “history from the bottom up” over the traditional tales of statesmen and generals, and have crusaded under the banner of hyphenated Americans and identity politics. They have condemned any attempt to chronicle a single history shared by all as a racist and classist illusion, a conservative maneuver in the culture wars. Only a . . .

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Duke Ellington’s America in the New Yorker

May 13, 2010
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Duke Ellington’s America in the New Yorker

Duke Ellington’s influence on the world of music is well documented, but less so his impact on race relations in twentieth century America. In his new biography, Duke Ellington’s America, cultural historian Harvey G. Cohen shows how, as Ellington’s music propelled him to international fame, he was able to harness his unique social status and artistic genius to influence issues of race, equality and religion. A recent article on Ellington in the New Yorker draws on Cohen’s biography to offer a glimpse into Ellington’s life and his strategies for manipulating American cultural attitudes towards race. In the article, Claudia Roth Pierpont paints a picture of Ellington as a man constantly struggling to maintain a broad appeal, (even in the American south where he occasionally played for segregated audiences), while making his music the front on which he waged war against the racism that inevitably shaped his compositions, performances, and his life. Read it online at the New Yorker website. Also read an excerpt from the book. . . .

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Digging up the Dead in Obit magazine

April 30, 2010
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Digging up the Dead in Obit magazine

Michael Kammen’s new book Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials offer an unconventional take on American cultural history, but who would have thought that in fact there exists an entire magazine devoted to a similar “examination of life through the lens of death?” In any case, we would have never guessed it, if not for this recent review of Kammen’s book in the latest edition of Obit magazine. The review begins: We’re constantly, reflexively, wishing for the dead to “rest in peace.” It’s almost a throwaway line, but also a benediction, meant literally and figuratively. Burial signals the end of life’s journey, life’s struggle—a final repose for the secular, and a way station for those who believe that body and spirit will re-unite in an afterlife. But the finality of burial itself is far from guaranteed. For the famous, the notorious, and sometimes even the obscure, interment may be just the first move in a protracted struggle over ownership, identification, reputation and history. Such contests are the subject of Michael Kammen’s Digging up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials, which catalogues the surprisingly peripatetic fate of many of this country’s most illustrious corpses. Read . . .

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A history of reburial in America

April 29, 2010
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A history of reburial in America

Though Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael Kammen’s new book Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials focuses it’s attention on the deceased, his unique approach breathes life into the telling of American history. A recent review in the The Chronicle of Higher Education attaches some lively adjectives to Kammen’s book like peculiar, morbid, and even funny, but as Kammen insists the book “‘ up to more than a miscellaneous lot of bizarre and lurid, but morbid and intensely interesting, anecdotes…’ analyzing reburials helps us see important cultural trends, including the reputations of historical figures.” Taking us to the contested grave sites of such figures as Sitting Bull, John Paul Jones, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Boone, Jefferson Davis, and even Abraham Lincoln, Kammen explores how complicated interactions of regional pride, shifting reputations, and evolving burial practices led to public, often emotional battles over the final resting places of famous figures. Grave-robbing, skull-fondling, cases of mistaken identity, and the financial lures of cemetery tourism all come into play as Kammen delves deeply into this little-known—yet surprisingly persistent—aspect of American history. Simultaneously insightful and interesting, masterly and macabre, Digging Up the Dead reminds us that the stories of American history don’t . . .

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An oral history of American capital punishment

March 31, 2010
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An oral history of American capital punishment

This week’s edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education reviews Robert K. Elder’s Last Words of the Executed—an oral history of American capital punishment, as heard from the gallows, the chair, and the gurney. The Chronicle‘s Kacie Glenn begins her article: In Last Words of the Executed, Robert K. Elder presents a collection of final statements delivered by people about to be put to death in America, from the prisoners in Salem, Mass., who were hung in 1692 for practicing witchcraft, to modern serial killers like John Wayne Gacy and Aileen Wuornos. Elder, an adjunct lecturer in journalism at Northwestern University, searched newspapers, prison archives, and other sources. He refrains from advocating for or against capital punishment, instead noting patterns and shifts in the tenor of prisoners’ last words. For example, when executions stopped being held before large crowds, prisoners became less likely to orate and more likely to speak directly to victims’ families. Continue reading at the Chronicle website. . . .

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“The Susan Sontag of the Venetian Ghetto”

March 26, 2010
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“The Susan Sontag of the Venetian Ghetto”

Most of the books in The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe—a series from the Press that explores the role of women in early modern European culture—don’t usually receive a whole lot of attention from non-academic reviewers. So it seems reasonable to take a minute to note when they do. Benjamin Ivry has recently written a blog post about Don Harrán’s translation of the poetry and prose of Sarra Copia Sulam in Jewish Poet and Intellectual in Seventeenth-Century Venice for the Forward magazine blog, The Arty Semite. In his post, Ivry frames the 17th C. Italian-Jewish luminary as the “Susan Sontag of the Venetian Ghetto,” and cites her unique ability to overcome the dual obstacles of her gender, and her religion, to produce the body of work that established her as the first Italian-Jewish public literary figure in Europe. Check it out online at The Arty Semite blog then take a look at some of the other titles in our OVIEME series featuring the fascinating poetry and prose of some of the best, though, less well known female voices of the early modern period. . . .

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A close confrontation with the horror of the Nazi state

March 15, 2010
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A close confrontation with the horror of the Nazi state

As James Srodes writes in his recent review of Jews in Nazi Berlin for the Washington Times “all significant historical events—even the ghastly Holocaust—tend to flatten and diminish as time draws us away from the moment they occurred.” Thus the importance of Beate Meyer, Hermann Simon, and Chana Schütz’s archival portrait of Jewish life in the shadow of Nazi Germany—as Srodes writes, a book which “forcibly yanks us back with a fresh, close confrontation with what it was like to face the full horror of the Nazi state’s extermination campaign—and to survive it.” Srodes continues: This book chronicles the… harrowing story of what it was like to live in the heart of the Nazi beast and what one faced in the simple, instinctive struggle to stay alive, to protect one’s loved ones, to bargain with and finally evade the Nazi killing machine. The book itself is a compilation of an exhaustive archival research project shared by two postwar institutions dedicated to gathering, preserving and making sense of the personal documents, photos, diaries, letters and government records of a once great Jewish community that had flourished in the capital of what was believed to be one of the most cultured, civilized . . .

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Piratical acts and the shaping of modern IP law

March 10, 2010
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Piratical acts and the shaping of modern IP law

Toronto’s The Globe and Mail published a review of Adrian Johns’s Piracy in Monday’s edition of the paper. In the review Grace Westcott takes special note of Johns’s unique approach to the history of intellectual property debates— a feat he accomplishes by focusing his narrative away from the victims of piracy, to the look more closely at the roles of the pirates themselves. As Westcott writes: Why is Johns talking about a history of piracy, as opposed to a history of intellectual property law? According to him, the modern concept of intellectual property did not even exist prior to the mid-19th century, by which point, he says, there had already been 150 years of piracy. More pointedly, he argues that virtually all the central principles of intellectual property were developed in response to piratical acts. It is conflict over piracy, and the measures taken against it, he says, that forces society to define and defend, adapt or abandon, strongly held ideals of authorship, public discourse, science and dissemination of knowledge. Piracy is, from this perspective, central to the emergence of the modern information society. Read it online at The Globe and Mail website. Also read an excerpt from the book. . . .

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