A cooler, a rickey, a cure for what ails you


I went to the Library of Congress this week to look at newspapers on microfilm. Amid the blur of tiny type, I ran across this little gem:



Now you’ll know what to drink if you’re summering in Manhattan or Manhattanville, Newport or Saratoga. Or if you happen to be attending a political convention. It looks like the “Mugwumps by way of drinks” have long outlasted their human counterparts.

I transcribed the piece below for your reading convenience. Enjoy, and let me know if you actually try out any of these cocktails! Speaking for myself, the champagne cup sounds like a refreshing antidote to a hot July day.

Favorite Summer Drinks in the City and the Seaside

New York World Sunday Magazine, July 11, 1897, p. 37

The man who goes to a summer resort and makes an error in the choice of his iced drinks commits a solecism which no amount of social prestige will balance. For example, let a man drink beer at Newport, publicly and openly, or even in the supposed privacy of his high-priced temporary home, he is literally done for by the ignoble act and may never hope to atone an ignorance which no moral qualities can qualify.

Therefore, if you want to do the swagger thing, find out the latest fad in summer beverages of the spot you honor by your presence and stick to the tipple of the place.

A man who takes his life in his hand and goes to Coney Island—and goes to the right end of it, which is Manhattanville, of course— should say good-by to his Manhattans and Martinis, assume a tired air and in a blasé voice call for a “Remsen cooler,” which is a thing of joy, composed of old Tom gin, lots of ice, a bit of lemon peel, sugar and plain soda. Of course, he may drink champagne at his dinner. The cooler is for the porch.

At Brighton dull care is relieved by the “Caledonia cocktail,” an insidious concoction composed of orange bitters, Scotch whiskey and French vermouth. It is well to begin late in the day on the Caledonia cocktail if you intend to make a record and not disgrace yourself. There is a rival to the Remsen cooler in a drink known at Brighton as the “Walton cooler.” It is a jangle of imported ginger ale, whiskey, cracked ice, a dash of lemon juice, sugar and fruits of the season. Walton coolers are delicious and not particularly deadly.
The “bath frappe” is the proper thing after your morning dip, and is fascinating to the eye and delicious to the palate. It is brought about by union of claret, green chartreuse, shaved ice, sugar and a dash of brandy. Excellent physicians are in attendance at all of the leading hotels in Manhattanville.

Should you wander to Saratoga you are certainly old enough to know that you go for the waters. The waters are excellent, but you will drink, if you wish to be in good form, a white champagne for your dinner and the “country punch” at odd times. The country punch is a mixture of maraschino and curacoa [sic], shaved ice, lemon and Medford rum. The country punch is a misnomer, and may prove a merry jest to you if you permit yourself to think for a moment that it partakes of rural innocence.

The “maiden’s dream” is a Saratoga favorite, and would seem to indicate a rather killing pace for the Saratoga maid. It is a delectable scheme worked out in rum, cordials (two or three), a dash of a favorite cocktail, dry gin, orange bitters and lemon juice. The “maiden’s dream” is a combination to lay bets on. Saratoga mineral springs are much appreciated after a course of country punch and maiden’s dream.

If you live to get away from Saratoga you will be pleased to know that a camp-meeting is in progress at Atlantic City, and that lemonade, ginger pop and root beer are yours to swear by.

Suppose, however, as a man of fashion, that you take your outing at Newport. As you value your future, so will you order your champagne or your champagne cup served during your elaborate dinner, and make no mistake, for you must order it with the first course and abide by it to the bitter end.

If you do a bit of golf you will refresh yourself with a “silver fizz,” “golden fizz” or a “Scotch high ball.” “Scotch high ball,” which is the golf drink much in vogue, is a combination of a long glass filled with cracked ice into which a glass of Scotch whiskey is poured and on to that a bottle of club soda.

Champagne cup should be made for a quart jug as follows: One pint champagne, one bottle club soda, one pony brandy, one pony orange curacoa [sic], all kinds of fruit in season, a piece of ice as big as you can get in the jug and, to top off, a fragrant bunch of mint.
Drinks are classified. The man of fashion and the chappie would never condescend to swallow beverages in favor with the politicians.

Political drinks change as regularly as their owners change their styles in hat-bands. There are straight political drinks that have a standing record, and a high one, and are composed chiefly of whiskey. There are also some political Mugwumps in the way of drinks.

For example, the “high balls” and “gin rickeys.” The Board of Aldermen devote themselves during the summer to the rural pursuit of gathering “gin rickeys.” They are active, it is said, in their efforts, and leave a barren field behind them at the end of a long summer day. The gin daisy is a plant that grows in a long glass. Orange peel is sowed in the bottom, a short teaspoonful of loaf sugar is added, some pounded ice and old Tom gin to fill up the glass, and the daisy blooms.

The “statesman’s cocktail” is a drink beloved indiscriminately by politicians high and low. It is made up by putting a dash of syrup into a big glass, equal parts of Hostetter’s bitters and vermouth and a filler of Medford rum. The “statesman’s cocktail” is said to be a convincing argument and speaks volumes for the power of politics.

When you have drunk your fill of all these delicious compounds and want to repeat, you may hie to Richfield Springs, and there you will be regaled with the sulphur water, which is the only drink at Richfield. It is fragrant—of sulphur. It is suggestive of a spot which shall be nameless, and it is excellent if one is in a reflective mind with a tendency to view the virtues of total abstinence with reverence.

research, writing

A writing retreat

Matt said he was trying to help me jumpstart my summer writing when he packed me off for a few days to our cabin in WV for a 3-day writing retreat. I think he was really just sick of being surrounded by all my books and needed a break from them—and from  me wanting to talk about them. Out here on my own, I can make as big a mess as I want, stay up writing as late as I want, and eat as badly and as erratically as necessary.

The scene inside: stacks of Stephen Crane and trusty Scrivener on-screen.

I’m devoting a chapter of How the Other Half Laughs to Stephen Crane. What? Did Stephen Crane ever laugh? you may be asking. The author of the grimly symbolic Red Badge of Courage (1895), the hopelessly deterministic Maggie: Girl of the Streets (1893)? The writer who described winter in Nebraska as follows:

Scully threw open the door. “Well, come on,” he said. Instantly a terrific wind caused the flame of the lamp to struggle at its wick, while a puff of black smoke sprang from the chimney-top. The stove was in mid-current of the blast, and its voice swelled to equal the roar of the storm. Some of the scarred and bedabbled cards were caught up from the floor and dashed helplessly against the farther wall. The men lowered their heads and plunged into the tempest as into a sea. (“The Blue Hotel’—my favorite Crane story)

I don’t know whether Crane laughed much himself, but some of his sentences make me laugh. In “The Open Boat,” he has his four characters, stranded on a 10-foot dinghy in the middle of the ocean, repeat the same existential question to themselves as they row, and row, and keep trying to row to shore: “If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?”

I can’t help it. This passage cracks me up. My students are afraid to laugh at Stephen Crane, but I think they should let themselves go. It might do them some good.

In my book chapter, I’m exploring the grotesque humor that marks Crane’s work from the very beginning of his career. Some of his earliest published—and unpublished—work feature exploding babies, pet dogs thrown out of windows (I admit that this story, “A Dark Brown Dog,” is simply horrifying and not comic at all), lots of incoherent drunkards, and people who generally stumble, directionless, through life.

But there is something essentially comic about Crane. And that’s what I’m writing about right now. I’m planning to discuss some of the sketches I’ve just described, as well as “The Men in the Storm,” “The Five Blind Mice,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” “The Monster,” and “The Price of the Harness.” I might throw “The Blue Hotel” in, too.

I took lots of notes and did a lot of freewriting, and returned home to Baltimore all set to do some proper writing.

While I was out in WV, I was able to get a few hours of gardening in, separating the mountain laurel shrubs I’d planted too close together in April, planting some lilies of the valley a neighbor let me dig up from her yard, and weeding. Lots of weeding. (Weeding helped me feel virtuous about taking a break from reading/writing.)

Everything is looking good right now. Each year things look a little less stark, a little more natural. It’s tough when you can only tend things every few weeks or so.

Can’t wait until the monarda start blooming! By then, I hope to have this chapter on Crane drafted.

academia, research

This just in!


My first book, in all its academic glory.

Just this week, I discovered a new review of my first book. The book was published in 2002; the review was published in 2005—appearing in a journal I’ve never heard of before (Women: A Cultural Review)— and written by someone I don’t know, one Sarah Meer. The review was very nice (thank you, Sarah!), and I can now add it to the stack of two (2) others I know to have been published. Ever. Maybe in another 10 years I’ll find out about another review that was published in, say, 2006.

It boggles my mind that it’s taken ten years for this review to finally reach me. For whatever reason, publishers of academic books don’t seem to keep track of where their books are reviewed, or perhaps they do, and it just slips their minds to tell the authors. We are supposed to keep track of our own reviews. And reviews, as you see here, can sometimes (usually, actually) take years to appear. The wheels of academe sometimes move so slowly that it’s hard to tell they’re moving at all. To mix metaphors, I’m not going to waste my time watching the grass grow.

Of course, I seriously doubt that my book was reviewed all over the place and I just happened to miss it. But you do have to wonder if there are any others.

With a publicity system like this, who needs enemies?

It’s baffling, especially since academics increasingly need reviews to show that their work is being read and valued. Even more, given how long these sorts of books take to write, how hard they are to get published, and how few people read them, a review is like a little glimmer of light off in the distance, showing you you are not absolutely, entirely, and terribly alone in the desert.

Oh well. In case you’re curious, here’s the bit about my book. The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton, incidentally, is about a half-Chinese Canadian writer who adopted a Japanese-sounding pseudonym, Onoto Watanna, and wrote popular romance novels about geishas and the like (in the vein of Madame Butterfly) about 100 years ago. She was an opportunist and a poseur, but I argue that writers like her challenge us to rethink what it means to be an “ethnic” American writer, as well as what it means to have an “authentic” ethnic voice.

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 8.45.37 PM

If this piques your interest, you can check out books by Winnifred that have been reissued—A Japanese Nightingale (co-edited by yours truly), The Heart of Hyacinthher fictionalized autobiography, Me: A Book of Remembranceand Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model … or you can read any number of works & stories I’ve collected into the Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive, which is stored on this site. If you’re just interested in her biography (she lived a very interesting life), you should check out Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton, by my friend & fellow blogger, Diana Birchall, who also happens to be Winnifred Eaton’s granddaughter. Diana really brings Winnifred to life in all her burnished glory.


Absent from the roll call of history?

27 words. That’s all Henry McNeal Turner wrote about Lincoln’s assassination, which took place 150 years ago this week.

27 words, from a man who never lacked for something to say. As one of the first black chaplains (and black officers) of the U.S. Army, as a pastor of Washington, D.C.’s Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and later, as bishop of the entire AME denomination, Turner wrote hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of words about what it meant to be black in the United States, and about their present, past, and possible future. So it is ironic that we have so few words devoted to this milestone in American history.

The words are cryptic, too. In a letter written to the African American newspaper The Christian Recorder on April 17, 1865, a long letter detailing the experiences of the 1st U.S.C.T. as they marched through North Carolina in the closing days of the war, he closes by saying:

… there were great fears here last night. The soldiers threaten to avenge the death of President Lincoln on the citizens. I will refer to that next time.

Avenge Lincoln’s death on the citizens? How? And who was afraid? These sentences raise tantalizing questions with their use of passive voice and unspecified antecedents. Just before this passage, Turner had written, “I know you want me to stop. I forget I am writing so much” (and indeed, he had written a lot– over 1700 words in this single letter, all written on the march and in camp, where both paper and ink were scarce and fragile commodities). It seems clear that he simply stopped writing, perhaps because he had come to the end of a sheet of paper and had no more, perhaps because the horse or wagon bound northward with letters was departing.

In any case, there was no reference to “that” in his next missive. The next time we hear from Turner is in a column dated nearly a month later and published in the Christian Recorder on May 27, 1865. Here, he refers to the many letter-writers whose contributions have “gorged” the columns of the Recorder, by way of excusing himself for having become “somewhat delinquent” in writing his weekly dispatches. And he describes, in fascinating detail, several encounters with white Southerners. They are alternately awed by the sight of black soldiers in of uniform, and outraged by Turner’s assumption of moral and military authority as an officer and chaplain of the U.S. Army. In one instance, he describes white Southern women lining the banks of the Neuse River in Smithfield, NC, dressed “in the finest attire imaginable,” as the 1st U.S.C.T. fords the river–the bridge having been destroyed by Sherman’s troops when they had passed through weeks before:

I was much amused to see the secesh women watching, with the utmost intensity, thousands of our soldiers in a state of nudity. I suppose they desired to see whether these audacious Yankees were really men, made like other men, or if they were a set of varmints. So they thronged the windows, porticos, and yards…. Our brave boys would disrobe themselves, hang their garments upon their bayonets, and through the water they would come, walk up the street, and seem to say to the feminine gazers, “Yes, though naked, we are your masters.”

In this 2000-word missive, he describes no violence enacted “on the citizens,” nor does he even mention Lincoln. Deep in the heart of North Carolina, of course he could not have witnessed the storied events that followed Lincoln’s death: his body lying in state in the Capitol; the nation (part of it, anyway), collectively mourning at train stations across the eastern half of the United States as his casket traveled back to Springfield, IL, to be buried. But this absence is hard to make sense of, and even harder to accept. It’s an absence that raises questions about whether or not Turner’s correspondence is of historical value.

I spent nearly ten years, off and on, transcribing and editing Turner’s Civil-War correspondence for the Recorder, and the lack of commentary about Lincoln’s death was one of my biggest challenges in proposing the volume for publication. (I eventually published Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of H. M. Turner, with West Virginia University Press in 2013.) It was not the only absence in Turner’s accounts: he happened to be away from the 1st U.S.C.T. during the momentous Battle of the Crater, when thousands of black troops were essentially sacrificed, and duly slaughtered, under the bumbling leadership of Ambrose Burnside and George G. Meade. He wrote very little during the year he spent actively recruiting black soldiers for the Army, for which he was awarded the chaplaincy of the 1st U.S.C.T. Only a few pages of his journal still exist, and they date from the pre-Civil War period. These are events for which historians are desperate for accounts, especially those provided by black Americans. It’s frustrating, if not galling, to know that Turner was so close to these events, and often directly involved, and did not write about them.

History is an endeavor that requires documented presence. Turner, in these and many other instances, is frustratingly absent–often because he was so intensely occupied in the moment that he did not have time to document his experiences. His letters are full of apologies for not writing, due to travel, illness, or simply, being so busy. (In making these excuses, Turner sounds positively contemporary.)

In the case of Lincoln’s assassination, it’s possible that Turner did, in fact, write the promised account of the 1st U.S.C.T.’s response to the event. The issue of the Christian Recorder in which this account would have appeared– the issue published on May 13, 1865—has been lost. Not a single copy of this issue of the Recorder is known to exist. Given the outswell of outrage and sentiment that appeared in the Recorder during the weeks following Lincoln’s assassination, this issue was likely read and reread so many times and passed from one hand to the next, that all copies were destroyed. Perhaps a copy exists in a scrapbook somewhere, or stored in a dusty trunk in an attic. But until one emerges, we must again confront an absence from history.

Physically present, thinking, and feeling, but historically absent: this is the conundrum that faces historians of marginalized populations who may have lacked access to the machinery of historical documentation (printing presses, publishing companies, newspaper offices, even pen and ink), or who lacked the ability to record their experiences in writing. In recent years, historians have turned to non-written “documents”–oral histories, material culture, archaeology–to locate traces of the history that has gone undocumented.

Turner himself, who was born free but impoverished in South Carolina in the 1830s, could only provide written traces of himself after about age 19, when he taught himself to read. Imagine the unrecoverable history represented by the hundreds of thousands of people enslaved in the United States, who were systematically denied access to literacy. Or the native populations who did not have written languages. Or, simply, those people historians haven’t cared about: the poor, rural populations. Women.

One could mourn the volumes of untold, undocumented history. It’s also important, however, to recognize these absences as history in their own right.

In the end, Turner’s accounts are fascinating precisely because they focus so minutely on the everyday lived experiences of soldiers in camp. In the same letter that includes his 27 words about Lincoln’s assassination, he also describes his reaction to seeing Sherman’s army returning from their storied March to the Sea (“I do not regard it as the army of America,” he says in disgust), as well as the jubilation of Southern blacks after the surrender:

As we marched out of our respective camps, cheer after cheer went up, and deafening huzzas rang far and wide. And thus we continued all day, passing through a country hostile to us, from every consideration, but at the same time possessing many things which were quite friendly, such as meat, chickens, turkeys, molasses, and a great many things which our boys knew how to make use of.

With pride mixed in equal measure with humor, he documents, in an irreducibly human way, a single man’s experience, of times both momentous and mundane. He acknowledged in another column that many believed he wrote simply to attain “personal aggrandizement,” an accusation he rejected out of hand; those who criticized him, he wrote, had “neither the ability nor the moral courage to encounter public criticism … it is a lamentable fact that in the very crisis that demands all the energies, gifts, attainments, natural or acquired, and every other qualification tending to give fitness and suitability, in shaping public sentiment, developing the capacities of the contrabands, moralizing our soldiers, whose unbridled lives for the past four years have almost hurled them headlong into the vortex of irrevocable profanity, vulgarity, and impoliteness, that men who would disdain to be called foolish will idle away their abilities straining at gnats and swallowing camels.”

Turner never minded being called foolish. And he was, at times, a fool. Perhaps he was foolish in deciding to expend more words on events in Smithfield, NC on April 15, 1865, than upon the death of a president. But the documents he provides–as well as the documents that remain absent–remind us of the contingencies, and lacunae, that form the unstated counterpart of history itself.

academia, research

Scaling the walls: infiltrating the OED

Today, I tried to break into the OED. That’s the Oxford English Dictionary, in case you didn’t know.

By breaking in, I’m not trying to steal anything. The opposite, in fact–I’m trying to leave something behind.

I love dictionaries. Not in a nutty way–I don’t collect them or obsess about differences between prescriptive and descriptive lexicography or get into arguments about phonemic vs. non-phonemic pronunciation guides.

A phonetic transcription. Can you pronounce this?
While I find phonemic notation impossible to read, I also don’t care enough about it to find this cartoon very funny.

But I do love me some OED. It’s not the first English-language dictionary, nor is it the biggest dictionary in existence. However, it is one of the coolest. Most dictionaries, including the good ol’ Merriam-Webster, include just words currently in use, the thinking being that a dictionary should tell you what words mean now, how they are spelled and pronounced today, so that people can read and use them accurately and precisely now. Yes, you get an etymology which tells you the origin of the word, but the definition is pretty much restricted to its current meaning(s). The OED, in contrast, includes all of the words that have ever been commonly used in the English language– one reason why it currently contains over 600,000 words– and traces not just the different meanings words have, but how the meanings of words have changed over time. So each entry basically presents a sort of biography of the word, an overview of its entire lifespan. This is what I love about the OED: each definition tells you the word’s life-story.

How does it do this? By presenting examples of how the word has actually been used, quoting from written texts that can be positively dated, often literary ones, which makes reading the entries lots of fun. When the first edition of the OED was compiled–over the course of over forty years, beginning in 1857–the team that assembled the dictionary used millions of little slips of paper to document examples of use, and sorted them according to the different words and nuances of meaning they conveyed.

James Murray and his millions of notes that ended up making up the OED.
James Murray flanked by the millions of notes that ended up making up the OED. Love that velvet scholar’s cap–how Victorian! Maybe medieval, even. The cap I have with my regalia looks just like this one. Coincidence … ???

The compilation of the OED is a story of overweening ambition, dogged determination, lunacy, and romance. In his best-selling book The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester tells the story of W. C. Minor, who alone was responsible for tens of thousands of entries. It turns out Minor, unbeknownst to Murray, was an American Civil War veteran who had been committed to an insane asylum, and that he had submitted all those entries from his lonely room over the decades of his confinement.

What can I say? There’s a little bit of W. C. Minor in me, I guess. I’ve been submitting entries for the OED for years now, and have never yet gotten one accepted. It’s much harder to get in now than it was in Minor’s day, of course– you have to submit something that tells users something new, and something important. Something so important that it’s worth expanding the capacious girth of the OED a tiny bit further (Here’s a link to their guidelines, in case you’re interested.) Needless to say, they are very selective these days.

Nevertheless, whenever I think I’ve run across something important, I send it in. Yesterday, while finishing up revisions– finally– for an article I was asked to revise and resubmit for a journal (more on this to come), I ran across a word that did not make sense in context. The word was very small, and my photocopy very bad. I initially thought maybe I was seeing the word incorrectly. It read, “eke.” As in, “to eke out an existence.” But the context was very different. Here’s the passage, from a story written by Bruno Lessing (Rudolph Block) in 1907:

And I can assure you that it was a delight to spend an evening in that crowded café, surrounded by the murmur of foreign voices that suggested picturesqueness of all kinds, listening to the intoxicating strains of wild Romany airs, watching the various types of faces, tasting the queer-looking beverages that you had never heard of before, and, eke, eating a plate of gulyas.

Eh? Eke? this word didn’t make sense. So I looked it up on a verb, “to increase; enlarge; lengthen.” Well, clearly, it’s not being used as a verb here, so that was no help. Then I turned to the old stand-by, the OED, where I found this definition:

eke, adv.: arch. Also, too, moreover; in addition.

Well, that works–no quibbles there. What interested me was the list of quotations– the word’s “biography.” The word originated in Old English; it appears in Beowulf, c. 1000 A.D. (“Dracan ec scufun, wyrm ofer weallclif,” and most of the other instances dated from before 1500. Then there’s one example from 1616, then we jump to 1760 (it appeared in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, “Supposing the wax good, and eke the thimble”). Then the final entry is dated 1856, from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Answered the young men Yes! and Yes! with lips softly breathing answered the maidens eke.”

If that last entry doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to you, you’re not alone. I find it a rather weak example. Not only is it unclear; it’s also obvious that Longfellow (as he was wont to do) was actually using the word because it was archaic. So it’s not really showing you that it would have meant anything in common parlance in 1856.

My example, however, is clearly intended to be used as daily speech. And it appears in 1907, basically extending the lifespan of the word by over 50 years. If a word were a person, wouldn’t you want to be granted 50 years more life?

So I filled out the online submission form and sent it in. I’m not particularly hopeful, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to try. You’ll be the first to hear if I get in.

Lucky for me, Matt understands how I feel about dictionaries. One of my most treasured gifts from him came a year or so after we got married, when he surprised me on my birthday with the Compact OED–in a slipcase with the magnifying glass and everything. How romantic!

2-page spread from the OED, containing 18 pages. The pages are about 10 x 14" original size, then shrunk down for the Compact edition so that it can all fit in one 7-10 lb book instead of 20 big volumes. You have to read the thing with a magnifying glass. What fun!
This 2-page spread from the Compact OED contains 18 actual dictionary pages, which means you can fit all 20 big volumes of the full-size edition into 1 really big, 7-10 lb volume. The pages are reduced so much that you have to read the thing with a magnifier. What could be more fun?

Oh, and maybe you were wondering about that other word in the passage from the Bruno Lessing story, gulyas? Well, that one’s easy. It’s an alternative spelling for the Hungarian dish, goulash.

doing, research, Weekly Poem Project

Weekly Poem Project: sestina

Tough week? Try winding down by writing a sestina. I’m only half-kidding.

I had a terrible week last week, trying to revise chapter 2 of How the Other Half Laughs. The problem is that I’m trying to kill two birds with one stone. Bird #1 is to revise the chapter so that it fits with the book. Bird #2 is to revise it so that it addresses the comments of reviewers at a journal where I’m trying to get the thing published. I think I realized after weeks of trying to wrangle the thing into a coherent form that the two goals are incompatible. I mean, hitting two birds with a single stone is pretty hard to do!


Why bother with #2? Well, I think in order to get a raise next year I need to get something from the book published in a journal. And if the book doesn’t find a publisher, then I’ll need the journal publications in order to apply for promotion to full professor. (This promotion comes with a ~$10k raise, so it’s nothing to sneeze at, especially since literature professors tend to max out at a little over $100k. Needless to say, I have not yet “maxed out.”)

You won’t be surprised to learn that I ended up playing a horrible game of Twister with myself, trying to cover too many dots in incompatible directions.

TwisterOn Friday, I decided to just blow up everything I had and take a few days (i.e., the weekend!) as a breather, and to come back to it and see if I could approach things with a clearer head.

Maybe it’s because I had spent the whole week torturing myself, but for some reason I thought it would be a great idea to spend my weekend relaxing by writing … a sestina. If you don’t know what a sestina is, it’s famously complex. It’s probably the most complex form that I will try to attempt during my year of writing a poem every week (sort of). There are more intricate forms– the chant royal, for instance–but this is about as difficult as I’ll get here. It’s so complicated that I can’t remember how it works– I have to refer to a chart.

Ironically, however, I found writing a sestina surprisingly easy. Maybe it’s just easier than trying to do the impossible task I set out for myself with my one-stone-two-birds revision. (Note to self: learn from this.) Or, it may have just been such a relief to have someone provide a rigid structure for my words that no matter how complicated it was, it was more enjoyable than having to make so many choices between amorphous, overlapping, and contradictory options, as I’d been doing with my chapter revision.

My poem took 2 days to write, over a few sessions of less than 15 min. each. I was very surprised. I won’t make any promises about its quality, but I think it at least makes sense. One thing I’ve learned in reading a bunch of sestinas in preparation for writing this post is that many poets, even well-known ones like Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery, write poems verging on nonsense in order to get them to fit the rules of the form. I tried really hard not to resort to the fantastical in mine.

So, now that I’ve whetted your appetite, here’s what a sestina is. Basically, it’s 39 lines: 6 stanzas of 6 lines each, and a final, 3-line stanza called the envoi. The poem doesn’t have a strict meter or rhyme, but rather is governed by an intricate pattern of repetition, where the last words in each line rotate in position from stanza to stanza. Let’s say you have the first stanza, which has lines ending with the words A, B, C, D, E, F. Then in subsequent stanzas, you end each line with the same words, but in a different order, as follows:


If you look closely (or if you’re just really anal), you can see that the rotation follows a specific pattern. First of all, the last word in each stanza becomes the word ending the first line of the next stanza, and the second line of that stanza ends with the word that ended the first line of the previous stanza. The rest of the words are determined by basically matching the words of the previous stanza in pairs, where lines 1, 3, and 5 end with the words ending lines 6, 5, and 4 of the previous stanza, and lines 2, 4, and 6 end with the words that ended lines 1, 2, and 3 of the previous stanza.

Head spinning yet? I found this diagram quite useful in figuring out how the end-words moved from stanza to stanza:

sestinaAnd then in the final 3-line envoi, all six words are used, 2 in each line, in an order I can’t remember but you can find on the poem’s Wikipedia page ;-).

Even though the rules of the form are impossible to remember, I think you’ll see (or hear) that the poem does have a sort of trancelike, circular quality. Your body feels the pattern of repetitions, even if it can’t quite put a finger on how it works. I really like how the lines in each stanza are both reversed and followed in order in the next stanza– for some reason the pattern reminds me of the blooming of a flower, moving from inside out.

It is a meditative form, like the pantoum (which I attempted here) and the villanelle (which I have yet to try). (Or it may simply may show up the repetitiveness of human expression, as this amusing sendup of the art exhibition rejection slip shows.) But the richness of variation prevents the form from seeming repetitive, the way a villanelle can.

Arnault Daniel (supposedly)
Arnault Daniel (supposedly)

So who came up with this thing, which for poets represents a torture chamber and brass ring alike? It’s attributed to a 12th-century French troubadour named Arnaud Daniel, who is praised by Dante, Petrarch, Pound, and Longfellow–though Dante did sentence him to Purgatory in his Divine Comedy. (Here’s a side-by-side translation of one of Daniel’s sestinas, if you’re curious.)

Upon reflection, I think I thought about writing a sestina because the process seemed so much like the process of revision: an endless permutation of words in different combinations, looking to see how things might fit. It also seemed a lot like practice, which I’ve also done a ton of as a musician, a tennis player, a writer, a knitter, a baker, and … yes, as an aspiring ballet dancer.

Unfortunately, I was a bit too plump and short to make it in ballet, but I loved those Saturday mornings in ballet class when I was young. Here’s the poem:


Plié; rélevé. Hand resting gently on the barre.
A novice can blithely enjoy such
Quiet, dust motes rising in sun.
Regular practice makes muscles go.
Practice hones movement, the body a clock.
Turns muscle contractions into art’s touch.

Fingers clasp a pen, or touch
Keys; the hand rests on the barre.
An anchor, firm, like the tick of the clock,
Controlling the flow of words, such
Unruly figures, which wantonly go
Darting into corners, away from the sun.

It shines through the windows, early spring sun,
Uncomplicated; one wants to touch
The warm light on the wall, to freely go
Off to the horizon, that faraway bar
Of sand on the bank, one wants to drift to such
Distance. Ticking, the clock

Reminds us of the task at hand. The clock,
More reliable, steady, than the unfaithful sun,
Warmth, yes, but on cloudy days, such
Confusion. Better to simply touch
The button, “Set alarm”; touch the bar,
“Snooze”; one knows how far, today, to go.

But no one knows how far an idea might go.
There is no way to set the clock
For completion, one would never want to bar
The light that breaks through storm clouds, sun
Emerging, warmth released with a touch.
Practice rooms have no windows. Such

Restriction; schedules; practice; such
Discipline required to make one go.
Write and rewrite, touch and retouch
A thing until it makes you sick, the clock
Reminding you of all the cycles of the sun
You’ve wasted, gone, and on the wooden barre

Your fingers so calm, such faith in the clock
Dividing the time left to go; still, the sun
Too far away to touch; so high, the bar.

I had a lot of fun writing this poem. In case you’re curious, the way I did it was by thinking of the six words that I wanted to incorporate as line-endings, and then writing the envoi first. I incorporated some rhyming words, just to see what would happen when they cycled through the proscribed pattern.

Throughout, I was reminded by something that my chamber ensemble coach and flute teacher at Loyola, David Lavorgna, has said about practice: that you basically just want to try out all possibilities and figure out, through doing, what ends up expressing what you want to express. He suggested to me once that I should just try all the possible combinations of slurring, tonguing, or tonguing in duples or triplets or whatever, to see how a phrase should be. And trying all kinds of different tempos. And different dynamics. Without trying, how do you know?

I also was reminded of a book I use in teaching my Understanding Literature course, The Art of Poetry, by Shira Wolosky. I love this book. It actually taught me how to understand the “art of poetry.” One of the things that Dr. Wolosky says in one of her chapters– on sonnets, I believe– is that people like Wordsworth and Keats turned to tradtional forms because they learned that “creativity is generated by restrictions.” The rules actually force us to reach outside the little gray cubicles of our lives and express something new. I definitely felt this as I tried to write something that made sense given the seemingly arbitrary rules of the sestina form.

That said, I also learned that this is a poem that celebrates repetition and the desire for organic/free expression against a rigid, algorithmic form. It’s a poem that demands discipline, and perhaps because of that, makes one yearn to escape it. Yet it also makes one appreciate repetition and discipline, too. If you’re interested in reading more, the Academy of American Poets has a great definition and discussion with lots of links. And McSweeney’s has a lot of good contemporary examples.


Revisionist history

Who is Rudolph Block? After researching him for four years, I thought I knew. Then, I discovered I didn’t. And that’s OK.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been doing what we in the ivory tower call a “revise-and-resubmit”: this is an article that you’ve submitted to a journal and have been asked to revise, per the suggestions of one, two, or (in my case) three reviewers. Peer review is a pain in the ass, but it is also (to mix some unlikely metaphors) one of the pillars on which all academic scholarship rests. You have to show your “peers”–the scholars who review your manuscript–that your research is methodologically sound and actually adds to the body of knowledge before it can be unleashed on the world, in all its glory.

The article I’m working on is the second chapter of How the Other Half Laughs. It is, however, the first chapter I drafted, and has gone down a long and winding road since I started working on it in 2011. It’s about a guy named Rudolph Block, who was one of William Randolph Hearst’s most loyal employees: he edited the comics section of Hearst’s New York Journal for almost 30 years, starting in 1897. At the helm of the comics section, he rubbed elbows (and locked horns) with many of the early greats of the comic strip genre: R. F. Outcault, who created the Yellow Kid, Frederick Opper (Happy Hooligan), George Herriman (also the subject of a chapter of How the Other Half Laughs), who created one of my favorite comic strips EVER, Krazy Kat. No one remembers poor Rudolph, though. No one remembers the Editor, of course– just the Author. Or in this case, the Artist.

But Rudolph Block was also an author. He wrote stories– lots of stories– and published them in some of the most popular magazines of the day, especially, Cosmopolitan. Yes, that Cosmopolitan. Back then, it wasn’t the great source of celebrity gossip and sex tips that it is now, but it did have lots of pictures.

Back then, it also was known for its fiction. Jack London and Edith Wharton published stories in Cosmopolitan. So did Willa Cather. But none of them, except maybe Jack London, published as many as Block. Under the pseudonym Bruno Lessing, Block published over four dozen short stories in Cosmopolitan alone. Of course, quantity isn’t the same as quality, but you’ve all at least heard of Jack London, right? (I wouldn’t call him a genius writer, myself.) One of the goals of this article/chapter is to figure out why you haven’t heard of Lessing, and to suggest some reasons why he’s worth remembering.

I won’t go into the specifics of the argument I pursue in my article, except to say that since 2011, when I first ran across and fell in love with Bruno Lessing’s stories in Cosmopolitan, I thought Bruno Lessing, a.k.a. Rudolph Block, was Jewish. The stories are almost all set in New York’s Lower East Side, and feature characters trying to make their way in a new, often hostile culture. Lessing’s stories struck me as strange, however, because they are not depressing at all. Most of them make me laugh out loud (you can read some of them here–I recommend either Jake–or Sam or the With the Best Intention, though Children of Men is the one that’s best known). What I really like most about them is the way that Lessing plays with language, mixing Yiddish and English idioms, syntax, and allusions to the Torah and the Declaration of Independence all at the same time. I think I just assumed that anyone with such facility with these different languages and cultures must have come from the Lower East Side, and the sources I consulted, with titles like The Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century Jewish American Fiction and A History of Jewish Literature (in five volumes, no less) included Lessing among their authors.

One of the people who reviewed my article, though, said he (or she) had found a source that cast doubt on Block’s “Jewishness.” Initially, I scoffed at this. I mean, The Dictionary of Literary Biography. But the more I looked, the more I started to wonder if maybe there was something to it. No one– even the DLB–explicitly said he was Jewish. But no one explicitly said he was a Gentile, either. And Block never said anything to indicate anything one way or another.

After weeks of being unable to find an answer (at a high point of frustration, I took a break and baked some challah–showing you how successful I am at getting away from my research), I went to my source of last resort: On the website, I found lots of interesting info, like where he lived when he was 10 (New York, East 34th St between 1st & 2nd Ave.), when he applied for a passport, whom he had as servants (one pair of sisters were originally from the West Indies), stuff like that. And I found one of his living descendants– a great great grandniece who was working on the family genealogy. I couldn’t resist– I emailed her. And she got back to me, very excited to hear that someone was doing research about this “really interesting” side of her family. When I asked, she said she had no idea whether Uncle Rudolph was Jewish or not. She herself had been raised Catholic.

Well, this is the kind of thing that really makes you shake your head and go “hmmmm.” Had I– and the Dictionary of Literary Biography– been fooled? Was Rudolph Block a closeted Jew? Who could say? If the family genealogist couldn’t find out, I’m not sure anyone can.

But I realized that it’s actually fine for the purposes of my essay that Rudolph Block’s religious/cultural identity is uncertain. In retrospect, I am very grateful to the person who reviewed my manuscript. He or she may have prevented the perpetuation of an error that began when the first person who wanted to compile a history of Jewish American fiction cast the net wide, wanting to show how many Jews could– and did– write in America. This person may have made the common mistake of assuming that someone who wrote about Jews (especially, sympathetically) was Jewish. It’s an understandable mistake. But it’s still a mistake.

It’s been a bit mindblowing to have to rethink what I think about Rudolph Block, after reading and researching him for four years and thinking he was writing about his own community the entire time. But sometimes, it’s a good thing to have to revise your notion of history. In the past few days since realizing that Rudolph Block may not have been Jewish, and was certainly not a practicing, Eastern European, Lower-East-Side Jew (I’ve learned a lot about Eastern European immigration patterns over the past few weeks!), I can at least say with confidence that Block was very much part of the German American community in New York. And it’s been really interesting to realize how important Germans as an immigrant group (and the Germans, of course, included many Jews) were in forming what we now think of as American culture. Since World War II, obviously, and World War I before that, the United States hasn’t really crowed a whole lot about its German roots.

In my research, I’ve always been interested in the exception that proves the rule– meaning that it tests the rule (using the word “prove” the way one “proofs” yeast or “proofreads” a paper), not necessarily that it proves that a rule is true (which is how most people use this phrase). I’m interested in the anomaly, the one that doesn’t seem to fit, the thing that goes against expectations. My first book (whose title is so arcanely academic, I’m embarrassed to include it in this post, but you can still purchase it here!–on Kindle, even!) was about a writer named Winnifred Eaton, a half-Chinese, half-English Canadian novelist who wrote popular romances during the early twentieth century. Eaton–who used the very exotic-sounding pseudonym Onoto Watanna–fascinated me because she did not act like other Asian American writers I knew about. She didn’t act the way I did, either. When I discovered her, I was getting my master’s degree, still very uncomfortable speaking up in class (those of you who know me now will find this impossible to believe), hating to be singled out as “the Asian one” or, more likely in Texas, where I was in grad school, “the Oriennal one” or “the Chinese one.”

Winnifred– I mean, ahem, Onoto– flaunted an Asianness she only partly embodied: she declared she was the daughter of samurai, pretended to know Japanese, dressed in a kimono when she went out in public, and wrote novels about red-haired half-Japanese, half-American geisha girls who snubbed their would-be American lovers (eh, no thanks, Pinkerton!). I loved the fact that she wasn’t like any Asian American writer I’d read before. Thus, the dissertation. Which turned into a book.

Since then, I’ve researched and written about a number of other exceptional-rule-provers: Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance-era African American writer who never apologized for being her very own “Colored Me”; Henry McNeal Turner, the African Methodist Episcopal preacher from South Carolina who embraced the back-to-Africa movement when everyone else was lining up behind either Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. DuBois; and so on. I think it freaks some people out to think that history is not something you can ever pin down, that it’s not something you can ever know. I mean, we can’t even grasp our own personal histories, our memories. I happen to think that’s pretty cool. It’s pretty cool to think about something you know you will never be able to completely know.

academia, research

Think. Do. Talk.

(Image courtesy of–ok, just snatched from– Sophie Deal’s What I Learnt Today blog. Please check it out here–it’s cute!)

Aside from publishing, not perishing, and teaching, academics– that fancy name for college professors– are expected to talk. We talk to our students, our colleagues, to fellow scholars. We are supposed to be good at talking. However, unlike people like Bill Clinton and Toni Morrison, who can command over $100,000 in speaking fees for a single engagement (Clinton reportedly has received $795,000 for a single appearance!), most academics speak for free. And some academics you see popping up on various cable news shows and internet sites– Paul Krugman, Henry Louis Gates, Melissa Harris-Perry, to name a few– seem to be so eager to tell you what they think, about what they do and do not know about, that you think they’d be willing to pay you for the privilege.

I’m not one of those people. Mostly, I’m terrified of speaking in public. I’m much more comfortable writing, and having people read what I write. This blog, in fact, is part of my self-imposed regimen/therapy to get me more comfortable about telling other people what I’m thinking. (Thanks to all of you who indulge me in this.) And I think that writing this blog has actually helped me overcome some of my fears about talking about what I do, what I am trying to say, and what I think.

It may be because of this blog that I surfaced from my sabbatical to speak– briefly– I mean, really briefly– I mean, for ten minutes– to people on campus about my research. I did so when our university’s library solicited faculty to participate in their efforts to highlight faculty research. Seven of us were asked to speak for 10 minutes each, and the talks were open to the whole university community.

Even though I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about and preparing for this, I’m really glad that I did it. People seemed interested; they laughed when they were supposed to laugh. Several introduced themselves to me afterward and told me they now wanted to read my book. It actually ended up being quite … fun! I never thought I’d say that!

One thing that may seem counterintuitive to people not accustomed to public speaking is that it’s actually quite difficult to give a very short speech. Like me, you probably remember having to give a 2-minute or 5-minute speech for a required Public Speaking class in tenth grade and thinking it took an impossible number of words to fill the time. What you probably didn’t realize is that all those words were required because you were speaking at a gazillion miles per hour, and your heart was cracking your sternum because it was pounding so hard and you were choking from both a surfeit and absence of saliva and sweating in uncomfortable places and thinking about how you really need to pee and mostly, just wanting to die. If you didn’t feel this way in high school speech class, I very much envy you.

Ironically, of course, it seems that once one gets used to speaking, it gets harder and harder to rein oneself in. It gets easier to go on, and on, and on. (Powerpoint, it seems, has made the problem even worse.) When I first started teaching, I found it difficult to fill a 50-minute class, even when most of it was discussion. Now, my 75-minute classes constantly run over. So being asked to speak for only 10 minutes about my research, I realized, would be a real challenge.

I decided to write out my remarks so that I’d be sure to get in the points I wanted to make. And I realized that in doing so, I’d be able to share my talk with you on the blog. So, here is the talk I gave yesterday– it’s not about the comics book I’m working on right now, but the last book I published: Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner. Enjoy!

Freedom’s Witness: or, The Book That Would Not Go Away

The words that became the book Freedom’s Witness first popped into my field of vision about ten years ago. Words like “timberhead,” “flim-flam,” “noddles.” Phrases like “Snake-hearted squatter-smatters.” “Hydrophobic dropsy-headed oligarchy.” Words in all capital letters and italics, for even greater emphasis.

These words did not appear in a speech by Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or in a book by Lewis Carroll. I was seeing them in an 1865 issue of an African American church newspaper called the Christian Recorder. At the time, back in 2005, I was under a tight deadline. I’d been asked to write an essay on one of the first known African American novels, The Curse of Caste by Julia C. Collins, and the only available text of the novel was the one that had been serialized in the Christian Recorder. And the only version of the Christian Recorder that was available at the time was on microfilm. So I was reading all 25+ installments of Collins’s novel inch by inch, column by column, in very small, frequently illegible type, scrolling up and down the long columns that snaked down the dim screen of the microfilm reader.

The Curse of Caste, while a very interesting text to analyze, was not much fun to read. A classic “tragic mulatta” tale, it was sentimental, overwrought, and maudlin. My eye kept being drawn to those strange words and phrases appearing the next column over. As the weeks passed, I realized that the columns my eye kept catching on all had the same byline: the initials “H.M.T.” I tried to ignore H.M.T., but found it impossible.

I became fascinated by the story H.M.T. was telling from week to week—a story he was in the process of living, unlike the story Julia C. Collins was in the process of fabricating. He was in the Union Army, I learned, serving in Virginia, then North Carolina. He was on the battlefield, and rode a horse, but was unarmed. He was a preacher, it turned out: a chaplain for the newly formed black regiments of the Union army. As a chaplain, he dodged “cannon and grape” with the rest of the soldiers. He was afraid he would drown at sea. He worried for his life, and the lives of his “brave boys.” He consoled them as they lay dying, and wrote letters to their wives, their fathers, their mothers, if they didn’t make it—or even if they did.

He taught his soldiers how to read and collected hundreds, if not thousands, of books, bibles, and newspapers for them. He preached on the battlefield, in the homes of free blacks, in town courthouses—in the courthouses, much to the chagrin of defeated white southerners, who found the mere sight of him at the lectern “as much gospel as they could swallow in one week.” He described Jefferson Davis as a man of “bestial vices.” But he was also suspicious of Lincoln, describing his preliminary emancipation proclamation as “one of the most ingenious subterfuges to pacify the humane and philanthropic hearts of the country.” (He later changed his mind about Lincoln.) And always, always, he trumpeted the bravery of black soldiers, correcting the popular perception that African American soldiers would flee or simply surrender themselves in the face of battle.

After I finished the essay on The Curse of Caste, I moved on to other research projects. But I kept thinking about H.M.T., and periodically went back to the microfilm to find and read more of his columns. I deduced that the initials corresponded to the name Henry McNeal Turner. Once I knew who H.M.T. was, I was able to find out much more about this mysterious, charismatic writer. He was the pastor of the Israel A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C, and a rising star within the denomination. He had lobbied for the enlistment of black soldiers, and was one of the army’s most active recruiters. To recognize his efforts, he was named chaplain of the 1st U.S Colored Troops, becoming not just one of the first black chaplains in the U.S. Army, but one of its first black officers.

With the help of an undergraduate research assistant—Emily Oswald, class of 2006—I located and then transcribed all of Turner’s columns, totaling some 85,000-90,000 words. Turner’s use of initials, it turned out, was the only circumspect thing about him. I wasn’t sure what to do with all this material. I really knew nothing about the A.M.E. Church, and much of Turner’s writing concerned church governance, annual conferences, and debates on theological issues. But I thought that if Turner’s voice was able to reach me through the hazy blur of microfilm, it was a voice others would find worth hearing. His muscular, forceful, yet often colloquial language contrasted with both the sentimental outpourings of writers like Collins, and the finely honed rhetoric of Frederick Douglass. I wanted people to appreciate Turner as a prose stylist, not simply as an eyewitness.

I tentatively shopped a proposal to a few presses, where it generated some interest—as a history text. “You’ll need to get a historian to write the introduction,” I was told. “And he (yes, they all said ‘he’) will have to help you write the notes.” No kidding. Civil War history is so fraught with conflict—among historians, re-enactors, enthusiasts, and demagogues—I didn’t want to touch this with a twenty-foot pole. I asked a few historians I knew if they knew anyone who’d be interested. I got no leads. I even offered to give away the transcription files, but got no takers. Historians, I learned, aren’t naturally inclined to be editors.

So the manuscript sat. For years. Then came the Civil War sesquicentennial five years ago. The hoopla surrounding the 150th anniversary of the war finally got me motivated to do something. I decided to take on the historical research myself, and spent a year and a half learning about the various battles that took place on the Virginia front near the end of the war, about the debates surrounding the enlistment of black soldiers, about A.M.E. church hierarchy and church history, about Turner himself. I annotated the text and wrote an introduction that addressed Turner’s historical importance as well as his importance as a writer. This time, when I shopped the book proposal, publishers, as I predicted, wanted to take advantage of the sesquicentennial. I was able to get the book under contract with West Virginia University Press, the first place I tried. And West Virginia was able to find a Civil War historian where I could not; he (yes, it was a he after all—Aaron Sheehan-Dean, an endowed chair of Civil War history at West Virginia University) wrote a lovely preface that gave the book some historical cred. Freedom’s Witness finally appeared in spring 2013.

Now that the book has come out, I can finally put a big “THE END” on the Book That Would Not Go Away. I didn’t look for H.M.T.; often it seems that Turner came looking for me. But once he got his tenterhooks in, he never let go. Freedom’s Witness is an odd book in my scholarship, being somewhat out of field—my research specialization is in Progressive Era American literature and culture, and I certainly never had any interest in the Civil War before I edited this book. But it is most certainly the result of my research in periodicals. And I guess this is the last point that I’d like to make. We who study periodicals insist that magazines and newspapers are more than a collection of individual texts. An issue is an assemblage of interrelated texts, each providing part of the context within which the others are read; we like to say that “texts published in periodicals must be considered within their publication context.” Freedom’s Witness, in a sense, was an accidental result of a very conscious process. I found H.M.T. because I was trying to place Julia C. Collins’s The Curse of Caste within the context of The Christian Recorder. Unexpectedly, Turner, who provided a part of this publication context, came into view as a new text.

I think that our suspicion of religion, as well as our assumption that periodicals are purely ephemeral, have prevented us from recognizing the Christian Recorder as a rich vein of literary ore. We need to see publications like church newspapers as important outlets for creative expression, especially for marginalized populations that lacked access to mainstream publishing networks and lacked the capital to publish books on their own. The Christian Recorder published novels, not just by Collins, but by well-known African American writers including Frances Watkins Harper; they also published memoirs, speeches, sermons, short fiction, and poetry, all interspersed with “the news.” Taken together, these texts show us the richness and variety of African American (not to mention American) literary expression during a period once known almost solely for the slave narrative.

In the closing weeks of the war, Turner wrote, “I have seen war wonders.” I hope you’ll give Turner a chance to show these wonders to you for himself. The book is available for widespread course adoption. Tell your colleagues! Send a copy to a friend in honor of Black History Month! Like Freedom’s Witness’s Facebook page! Or borrow it from the library. Having wrested Turner from the pit of silence, I hope you’ll listen to what he has to say.


New York, New York: it’s a helluva town

… Yeah, a helluva town– if hell froze over! The windchill this morning was -4. That’s right– four degrees below zero.

I’ve spent the better part of this week in NYC, doing research at the storied New York Public Library. It’s my first time doing research here, even though I am currently well into writing a book that is mostly about New York. I even regularly teach a course titled “Three Decades of New York City.”

The fact is—[voice dropping to a hushed whisper]– I really do not like New York. There’s nothing mysterious about my dislike. I hate the same things about it that everyone does, even people, I imagine, who live here. It’s crowded. It’s loud. The people who live here think they’re incredibly cosmopolitan, when in fact they’re often yawningly insular, provincial in the classic sense of term. Plus, it’s really hard to find places to go pee. You know, that kind of stuff.

But I’m on sabbatical. They’ve got things here that I can’t find anywhere else. And a friend of mine offered me the use of her apartment while she is away teaching in Paris this semester. I knew I was taking a risk by planning a research trip in early February, but I figured that I might just as well be cold and miserable in New York as in Baltimore.

Luckily I was able to avoid the snowstorms (Juno! Kerry! Linus!) marching across the continent. (As a side note, winter storms happen like this every year. Do we really have to give them names?) But it was really, really cold here this week. So cold, in fact, that I wussed out and decided to take an earlier bus back to Baltimore. I was going to do some sightseeing today, but after a week of trudging for miles, often with a rolling carry-on in tow, and not sleeping well at all (a combined 7 hours the previous two nights– I underestimated how hard it would be to sleep in a room that you can’t make dark!), I’m done in. Done.

But I also got a helluva lot done. I planned this week as a foraging mission: I wanted to scope out the NYPL and its enormous collections, and lay the groundwork for future trips. I spent half my time here looking at a magazine that only fourteen (14) libraries in the entire world– nearly half of them in New York, where it was published– appear to have any copies of: the Verdict, a humor magazine that appeared weekly between 1898 and 1900.

I’m interested in this magazine because George Luks, one of the painters I’m writing about in my book, left his lucrative position on the comics staff of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World to become a cartoonist at the Verdict. And he left the Verdict— and cartooning altogether– in 1900 to become a painter. Certainly his year-long stint at this magazine must have been significant in some way to his development as an artist. My hunch was that he was attracted to the Verdict because he would be able to do more sophisticated work with color than was possible in the World’s comics pages, which were printed on rough newsprint. As a painter, after all, Luks would become known for his bold use of color.

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The only examples of illustrations from the Verdict that I’d seen had been reproduced in black and white and very small, less than 1/8 of the original size. I wanted to see them in their full glory. And while the NYPL copies of this magazine are in very poor condition– they are literally crumbling into dust– the images are, in fact, glorious. You need to imagine these at full size– about 16″ high and 24″ wide; all of them are color lithographs, printed in black, vermilion, teal blue, and acid yellow.

Luks's first centerfold cartoon for the Verdict, “NYC’s Delegation to the 56th Congress,” Jan. 2, 1899.
Luks’s first centerfold cartoon for the Verdict, “NYC’s Delegation to the 56th Congress,” Jan. 2, 1899.

This is Luks’s first cartoon for Verdict (Jan. 2, 1899). Here you can clearly see the different plates Luks used: just three colors, black, vermilion, and teal. Just a few months later, you can see how sophisticated Luks’s use of color lithography has become:

Luks, “Annual Parade of the Cable-Trolley Cripple Club,” March 20, 1899.
Luks, “Annual Parade of the Cable-Trolley Cripple Club,” March 20, 1899.

This cartoon is one of several Luks drew for Verdict showing how dangerous the streetcars were. If you look very closely at the image, you can see how he used the lithography crayon to create very subtle shading in the flesh tones on the different figures.

And this one is great also, from just a month later:

“To the Trusts: Eat, Drink and be Merry, for in 1900 You Die!,” April 3, 1899.
“To the Trusts: Eat, Drink and be Merry, for in 1900 You Die!,” April 3, 1899.

Yes, Luks hated the trusts. He also hated Mark Hanna, senator from Ohio and the Karl Rove of his day. Here’s another Hanna cartoon, showing Hanna’s relationship to his puppet, McKinley (he even looks like “Dubya” in this cartoon, doesn’t he?). This is one that had struck me when I saw it in black and white as needing to be in color to be understood:


They are pretty cool, no?

It turns out Luks was quite productive in his year at this magazine, producing dozens– perhaps nearing a hundred– cartoons, most of them full-page, full-color cartoons, and many of them centerfold spreads.

Also, after a quick confab with the librarian at the Dorot Jewish Collection at NYPL, and another with the librarian at the periodicals desk, I was able to locate dozens of stories and journalistic pieces written by the Jewish Irish writer Edward Raphael Lipsett, who is going to be the focus of chapter 4 of How the Other Half Laughs. Lipsett published some really clever stories in the 19-teens depicting a fresh-off-the-boat Irish kid named Denny Nolan from Ballintemple, who decides that he’s going to try to pass as Jewish so that he can tap into all the commercial opportunities he sees available to Jews on the LES. Much hilarity ensues.

I’d seen in various places that Lipsett had written in various Jewish periodicals during the first decade of the twentieth century, but hadn’t been able to locate any of them. With a few tips from the librarians, they magically appeared–mostly on microfilm held at the NYPL, which was delivered into my hot little hands in less than an hour. I’ve now scanned many of these pieces off the microfilm, and will spend the next few weeks reading them.

So, it was a very successful research trip. I was only there for a few days, and didn’t have time to do much else. But I did venture forth into the cold this morning to visit Russ & Daughters, to buy Matt what he loves: stinky fish. Russ and Daughters is on the Lower East Side, where I was staying, and has been in business since 1914 (right in the middle of the time period I’m writing about in my book).

Russ & Daughters– picture taken when it was not freezing out, clearly.


The interior of Russ & Daughters. (I did not take these photos.)

The whitefish and smoked salmon spread is as amazing as they say. Can’t wait to try the other things I got– kippered salmon, smoked yellowtail tuna, some knishes, & some “herring roll-ups,” whatever they are!

The fishes is delicious, but I still don’t like New York.

I close with the following from the film On the Town,  which sums up my feelings pretty well:

New York, New York, a visitor’s place,
Where no one lives on account of the pace,
But seven millions are screaming for space.
New York, New York, it’s a visitor’s place!

Of course, the seven millions are now, according to the most recent census data, more like twenty millions. They’re not just screaming for space, but clawing for air. (You may complete the metaphor at your leisure.)

Incidentally, the video clip I included from On the Town replaces the mild expletive “helluva” with “wonderful”– I don’t recall this from the movie, but perhaps it was censored?? If anyone has any hard info on this, please enlighten me!