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The Chosen and the Beautiful

Seeing him then, you knew he would remake the world for the object of his desire, but what a world it would be, and it wasn’t as if you could stop him. I knew Gatsby right then for what he was: a predator whose desires were so strong they would swing yours around and put them out of true.

I knew that there was something empty in him before, but now I could see that it wasn’t empty all the time. Now there was a monstrous want there, remorseless and relentless, and it made my stomach turn that it thought itself love.

The Great Gatsby has the distinction of being the only novel I was assigned to read in high school that I actually enjoyed. I liked a few other books where I got to choose from a list, but, while I liked a number of the plays (at least as much as I ever enjoy reading plays, which are meant to be performed), I came out of English classes with a visceral hatred of almost every novel from our reading lists. That Lord of the Flies is a book without any redeeming quality is an opinion formed in that crucible that I carry with me to this day and I have such distaste for it that I will never give it another chance.

I would be hard-pressed to tell you what, specifically, resonated with me differently about The Great Gatsby when I was in high school. I like Fitzgerald’s prose, but that is a later assessment. I also fondly remember the playlist project that the teacher assigned for the project, but I suspect that fondness stems from my appreciation of the book rather than the other way around.

What I like about Gatsby now is how Fitzgerald captures the ambiance of a period. This emerges in the character of Gatsby, obviously, who cloaks his personal reinvention in the glamour of the jazz age in order to hide the unsavory underbelly of insecurity, selfishness, and criminality. But it comes out in other ways as well. For instance, none of the main characters in this narrow, interpersonal story is much more sympathetic than Gatsby—even the narrator Nick Carraway is a creep who is chased away from a woman he is pursuing by her brothers. Fitzgerald also nods at the deep inequities of the period with metaphors like the valley of ashes that could easily have manifested as magical realism in literature of another generation.

Gatsby‘s limited perspective as narrated by Carraway also makes it ripe for a retelling, in much the same way that Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation inverted the Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

Such is the premise of Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. Gatsby, as told by Jordan Baker, with a healthy dose of magic, and a title that is a play on another Fitzgerald Novel (The Beautiful and the Damned).

I had fixed feelings about this book.

First, the good.

Jordan Baker is an inspired choice of narrator for this book. Fitzgerald leaves the women of Gatsby unrealized, and this is true of Jordan even more than Daisy. Jordan appears primarily as an object of Nick’s lust, and disappears for long stretches of the novel. However, this provides an opening that allows Vo to expand the story beyond the heat of one New York summer, giving life to Jordan and Daisy’s experience in Louisville where, among other issues, Jordan helps Daisy acquire a medicine that will induce an abortion.

Vo transformed Jordan in compelling ways. This Jordan is not a biological member of the Louisville Baker clan, but an adopted child taken from Tonkin under dubious circumstances. This background offer an explanation for Jordan sitting on the periphery of the story in Gatsby, while also giving a vehicle for Vo to bring up contemporary issues like immigration restrictions that go unmentioned in the original.

I also appreciated how much of the original story that Vo weaves into The Chosen and the Beautiful, which made the language and story appear as a genuine homage to a classic novel. I felt similarly about the frequent and varied sexual encounters. One of the questions in the supplementary materials at the back of the book prompted discussion about whether the book ought to be read differently because many of the main characters are queer. I found these elements to be a natural extension of the sensuality on display in the original. Fitzgerald’s characters only talk about heterosexual encounters and desires, but it seems like a small jump to add homosexual liaisons in a world drenched in sweat, sex, and alcohol. Non-hetero-normative sex is hardly a modern invention.

Other aspects of The Chosen and the Beautiful gave me more trouble.

One of the biggest was how Vo incorporated magic into the story. Most of the magic in this novel is lightly done—ghosts that haunt family homes, charms against pregnancy, and simple tricks that ensure that unwanted guests can’t find their way into a speakeasy. Other magic, such as Gatsby having sold his soul and trafficking with the denizens of Hell or a demon’s blood tonic that is prohibited alongside alcohol, were closer to the heart of the action, but largely peripheral to the plot. Only one type of magic, an ability to bring cut-paper objects to life that Jordan has because of her foreign heritage, plays a significant role in the plot.

I went back and forth on these magical elements the entire time I read The Chosen and the Beautiful. On the one hand, they were a natural extension of the metaphors Fitzgerald used in Gatsby and the magic in this book might be read as a form of metaphor. On the other hand, though, I found that going from the light touch off metaphor, past magical realism, and into the realm of actual magic took me out of the era. That is, the sense that a house is haunted by the ghosts of the past works for me in a way that actual ghosts do not. Gatsby appearing as a man possessed, entirely consumed by his selfish desire for a married woman, works in a way that his being a literal envoy of Hell did not.

Hell was as expansionist as France or England—and Jay Gatsby, with his singular focus and ability to harness the power of human desire, was the perfect envoy to gain them a foothold in the world above.

Ultimately, I found that the magic resulted in one too many things going on, which, in turn, distracted from the really compelling ways in which Vo put The Chosen and the Beautiful into conversation with Gatsby on issues of immigration, class, and gender. There is still a lot to like, but I thought that this limitation kept the linguistic flourishes at the level of pastiche and kept Vo from quite achieving the book’s promise: reviving aura of Gatsby that so incisively commented on its time, but in an entirely new hue.

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I spent most of the first weekend after the end of my semester ended reading, with the result that I plowed through Jin Yong’s A Hero Born (a kung-fu movie in novel form), Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty (a history of eating in the United States from 1930 to 1991), Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (fantasy stories that resemble Calvino’s Invisible Cities in many ways), and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (a really satisfying spy story that I was willing to read despite wanting the recent TV adaptation because this is typically the only genre that I don’t mind such adaptations). I hope to write about a few of these. I am now working through two books, Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.

Thinking Through Course Design

On my ever-growing to-do list for this summer is thinking through the design of three new (to me) classes for next year. The most imminent—an interdisciplinary seminar on food and drink in the ancient mediterranean that I’m offering in the fall—is, ironically the one I am least worried about of the three. Its proximity means that I have already given the course a decent amount of thought, have already ordered a course reader, and have a good sense of the outcomes I am expecting the students to come away with.

I am having more trouble envisioning these same features of the upper-level survey courses on Rome and ancient Persia set to run in the spring semester—for not entirely dissimilar reasons.

By its next iteration, my Archaic and Classical Greek History course will likely reach a rough equilibrium that takes students through three interlocking units. The first one will deal with an introduction to Ancient Greece, its place in the mediterranean world, and social and political institutions down to roughly 500; the second unit engages with war, empire, and imperial culture down to roughly 404, and then the third unit takes a thematic approach to society and culture, with a focus on the fourth century (300s) down to the foundation of the Hellenistic World.

No course of this sort can take a truly catholic approach to a society, but I have made deliberate choices in this course to generally eschew a blow-by-blow recounting of events like the Peloponnesian in favor of leading students through a sequence that gives them a broad understanding of major issues in Greek history. However, what made this most possible was limiting the chronology of the course to a totally manageable 500 years.

By contrast, my Roman history course is going to cover a minimum of 1,000—and maybe more. I am also the sole ancient historian in a small department and responsible for teaching a number of other courses means that I can’t divide “Roman History” into a two or three semester sequence.

And yet, despite these issues, the Roman history course is the less troublesome of the two. I know the mandate, the broad arc, and a lot of the resources that I can use. I am also brushing up on scholarship and have several syllabus models that I think will work for what I envision.

I am facing more foundational issues in coming to my Persian history course. When I first imagined teaching such a course, I envisioned a deep-dive into Achaemenid Persia as a counterpoint to my Greek history course. It would start with the regal traditions of Western Asia, tackle dynastic and institutional issues, explore the historiographical issues of the many topics that are filtered through a Greek lens, and engage with the diverse cultures that flourished under Persia before culminating with the sticky issues of Alexander’s conquest. I even had the core textbook picked out, Maria Brosius’ A History of Ancient Persia: The Achaemenid Empire.

I absolutely course teach the course this way. There is more than enough material to fill a full semester, and I left the course description flexible for a reason.

However, I also course teach the course across three units, each covering a different ancient Persia—Achaemenid, Asakid Parthian, and Sasanian. Doing the course this way would cut into the amount of time that could be given over to the study, replacing them instead with themes of continuities, historical memory, and the diverse subject populations.

While I have a gut feeling that the latter approach would better fit in the cycle of courses that I teach, I also have some misgivings.

First, it would require significantly more preparation on my part simply by dint of my being less familiar with these empires than Achaemenid Persia. This is, of course, not a deal-breaker, and I have begun collecting resources in case this is the direction I end up going. My reading list as it currently stands can be found below, though I will need to supplement it with edited collections as well.

Second, while there are good options for books to use for Achaemenid history or Sasanian history (and, to a lesser extent Parthian history), there are to my knowledge no good options for resources that cover all three. Thus, a course of this model taught by Touraj Daryaee, whose history of the Sasanian Empire is an early leader for one that I might use, requires students to purchase four books—Ferdowsi’s Shahnehmah, histories of the Achaemenid and Sasanian empires, and a book of sources on Zoroastrianism—and compresses the Parthian empire into one week out of ten, just after the midterm exam.

My concern is that I am extremely sensitive to the price of my courses, almost to a fault. I can point out multiple occasions where I opted to assign an open-access version of a resource that I did not particularly like rather than ask my students to purchase yet another book and generally not assigning complete monographs in order to keep the cost of my course to roughly $50 dollars worth of materials. I was reminded by colleagues that textbooks in STEM routinely run into the hundreds of dollars, so I should not feel guilty if my courses occasionally creep north of $100 as this one is threatening to do, but I still find myself wrestling with these decisions.

I have a little bit of time, at least, and all of these are reasons to be working on course planning so far in advance. Both of these syllabuses will be ongoing projects this summer, so I welcome suggestions or recommendations.

An Ancient Persia Reading List (post Achaemenid)

  • Matthew Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth (California 2009)
  • Uwe Ellerbrock, The Parthians (Routledge 2021)
  • Parvaneh Pourshariati (ed.) Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire (I.B. Tauris 2008)
  • M. Rahim Sheyegan, Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran (Harvard 2012)
  • M. Rahim Sheyegan, Arsacids and Sasanians (Cambridge 2011)
  • Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Iran 224–651 CE: Portrait of a Late Antique Empire (Mazda 2008)
  • Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (I.B. Tauris, 2009)
  • Sauer Eberhard (ed.), Sasanian Persia: Between Rome and the Steppes and Eurasia (University Press, 2017)
  • Marek Jan Olbrycht, Early Arsakid Parthia (Brill 2021)
  • Vesta Sakhosh Curtis, Michael Alram, Touraj Daryaee (edd.), The Parthian and Early Sasanian Empires (Oxbow 2016)

The Do-Less Summer

A month or two ago I was having dinner with my partner and my department chair. For a whole variety of reasons, everyone in my department had been having a grueling semester and my chair has repeatedly encouraged me to set reasonable boundaries. At some point the conversation turned to summer plans.

When I declared that my intention was to do as little as possible this summer, my chair turned to my partner and asked, “do you believe him?”

My partner laughed.

Of course, they were right to be skeptical.

One consequence of blending my hobbies with my employment is that there are fewer clear boundaries between work and rest. I can read a book on the history of eating in the United States like I did this weekend because I’m interested in the topic and one part of my brain will be mining the pages for anecdotes or chapters that I can use in a class next semester. The fact that I continue to treat my research as a second job because of the nature of my employment also means that these “off” months are prime research periods and the breathing space of summer is ideal for class prep.

This happens almost every summer. Class lets out and the weekly rhythm that carried me through the semester vanishes, leaving me feeling adrift and struggling to create a new routine. The nature of my contingent employment the past few years contributed a healthy dose of anxiety that cut into my rest as well.

Despite my ambitious goal of doing nothing this summer I am finding that my schedule is rapidly filling up. For instance, in the next month or so I am expecting to:

  1. Complete some horribly overdue work that I am deeply ashamed to still have outstanding.
  2. Read Erik Jensen’s The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents and write a book review of the same.
  3. Spend a week as a reader for AP World History.
  4. Write and deliver a conference paper on Ionians on the Sicilian Expedition.
  5. Receive copy-edits on my book manuscript.
  6. Complete the two-week digital pedagogy training that I started last Thursday.

And these tasks don’t include several article and chapter proofs that I am expecting, probably a bit later in the summer, or various goals I have with respect to preparing my courses for the fall semester. Maybe this is why a little voice spent the entire weekend insisting that the summer was already over.

The languid pace of summer provides a stark contrast to the work I need to do. The trick will be finding a balance that embraces the rest encouraged by languidity with the discipline of routines and the flexibility provided by having few scheduling commitments.

Toward this end, here are my goals for the next few months beyond what I listed above.

First, I am hoping to recharge my mental batteries by spending more time reading this summer, both because I have found that reading is the part of writing that gets most squeezed during the year and because I am teaching several classes next spring that will require me to brush up on the topic. Toward the second end, I compiled a list of Roman history books to work through this summer. I am making good progress on this list, having already finished Jared Benton’s The Breadmakers and nearly finished Kathryn Lomas’ The Rise of Rome. The length of that list and one on of volumes on Persian history that I am going to compile this week is going to cut into my academic reading time, but I am also looking forward to digging into James Romm’s The Sacred Band and Jennifer Finn’s Contested Pasts, as well as Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth. We’ll see what I get to after that.

On the non-academic front, I am less structured about my reading roadmap and will invariably read more than these, but I am particularly looking forward to reading Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, and Ken Liu’s Speaking Bones. My current read is also worth mentioning with these, Agélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was, translated by Ursula Le Guin.

Second, in the realm of teaching, I am aiming to convert several of my classes to Specs Grading. I have a rough outline for what each class will look like with this, but part of the system requires clearly connecting grades as determined by detailed rubrics to specific learning outcomes. This means spending time drafting each of those syllabus components so that when the calendar flips to August I am not caught with nothing ready. For a secondary goal, I should also draft a rough syllabuses for the spring to save myself some headaches later.

Third, no summer to-do list without be complete without at least a nod to hobbies. I have taken up running again and hope to make this a thing. Beyond that, I have two concrete plans: to finally crack open the Arkham Horror card game Edge of the Earth campaign and to fulfill my resolution for this year of spending more time with my burgeoning photography hobby, probably with editing software and a storage and sharing platform (either Google photos or Flickr—I am currently doing research to choose which).

That’s it. Easy-peasy. Actually, when I list everything out like this it seems like a lot—and not for the first time; I have a long history of setting entirely unreasonable expectations for what can be done in a given period of time. Then again, except for the tasks in the enumerated list above there will be little consequence if I don’t accomplish all of these goals, and that should be the spirit of the do-less summer.

Three Things of Spring 2022

Grades are submitted, another semester is in the books—along with my first year at Truman State.

Frankly, that end couldn’t come soon enough. A bunch of factors colluded to make the first two months of the semester one of the busiest stretches of my life. Most of that busy was good, but it also meant that I spent the back half of the semester—a period during which I organized a speaker coming to campus and prepared an hour-long talk for a student group, on top of teaching and meetings—triaging my commitments and trying to avoid burning out. I don’t recommend letting things get this busy.

With the semester just several days in the rear-view mirror and aided by an early heat wave that sent the temperatures into the 90s, I am starting to settle into a summer routine. I will have a post in the coming days that lays out some goals, but, first, I want to take a moment to survey the semester that just ended.

As you might guess from the title, I have three major thoughts.

First, I once again find myself considering burnout.

More than once in the past few months I asked myself how much of my exhaustion was particular to this semester, how much of it was residual anxiety from years spent as a part-time adjunct, and how it was the accretion of stress from teaching for two years during a global pandemic.

The answer, of course, is “all of the above.”

In my muddled thoughts from last semester, I framed this question in light of compassionate pedagogy and idly wondered whether flexible policies inadvertently prompts students to devalue a course. Despite those questions, my “flex” late policy that asked students to either submit their work by the time a checkpoint came due or fill out a form that would record their extension was easily one of the most popular course policies I have ever come up with so I naturally rolled it over to similar effect this semester. Despite my misgivings, my students reported exactly what I hoped, that this policy allowed them the flexibility to manage their schedules and do their best work. Transitioning to a specs grading system this fall will require some slight tweaks because there will no longer be points to deduct for late assignments, but the framework of this policy will be fixture of my courses going forward.

The popularity of this policy speaks to the stress that the students are facing and I came out of this semester more convinced than ever that the problems with burnout are structural. No amount of self care will resolve these issues and reminders to be mindful like the one I received last week from a textbook publisher border on the farcical.

In his recent book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman argues time management gurus have been focusing on exactly the wrong message. Basically, he says, we have a finite amount of time, which necessarily means that we will not be able to do everything in a single lifetime. Trying to do more by working more efficiently or cutting into time for rest will detract from the experience of all of the activities rather than lead feelings of accomplishment. His argument, then, is that we should do less so that the activities that we do do become more meaningful.

Burkeman was not writing about higher education specifically, but there is a useful lesson here. Bill Caraher on his blog has written a good bit about “slow” as an ideal and mentioned his concerns with the workload expected of both graduate and undergraduate students. I fear that I contributed a little bit to the heightened expectations such that I am going to scale back a little bit in the fall. At the same time, this is not a problem that I can solve on my own.

Second, this semester I optimistically incorporated peer review into several of my courses. My students had to bring paper drafts to class and submit a copy to Blackboard. We talked about papers and revision before the first peer review day, and I had hoped that the course material would give the reviewers the content background to critique the papers, while seeing different approaches to similar material, repeated practice at reviewing, and my feedback would make them better writers and reviewers over the course of the semester.

In short, this part of the course was a spectacular failure.

I should qualify that statement. Some of the students became pretty good reviewers and saw dramatic improvement in their work, but, for every one of those, there were at least two for whom it didn’t work. The causes varied. Some routinely brought such scant “drafts” that their peers had almost nothing to critique. Others reported only receiving grammar and spelling comments. Still others reported deep-seated anxiety over giving sharp feedback and being unwilling or unable to look at the comments. And those were substantive problems before considering that peer-review day saw by far the lowest attendance rates.

The requirement that drafts be submitted to Blackboard also allowed me to give some feedback at an early stage, but even minimal guidance magnified my workload to an unmanageable extent.

I think that peer review can work, but I need to come up with a new approach because what I did this semester ain’t it. I suspect that it would require significantly more time training students to give good feedback and reiterating the purpose of the exercise to make them more receptive to the comments. Guiding students to become better readers would also help, but there were enough different problems that I doubt this is the sole or even primary cause. I don’t want to abandon the peer-review entirely, but the question is how to make it useful.

Third, something of a PSA: when you have two assignments due close together, the one that needs timely feedback should be due first.

For reasons that defy understanding I reversed that order this semester and spent several weeks in grading purgatory as a result. I hadn’t finished grading the first set when the second arrived and required immediate attention, causing the first batch to languish for far longer than I intended. Simply changing the order in which these arrived would have made for a more satisfactory experience for everyone involved.

Lost & Found

Memoir is a genre that I mostly avoid. If one were to ask why I only read one or two memoirs a year, I would wave generally at the idea that the intimate details of someone’s life are not really of interest to me, but the reality is that I almost always enjoy the handful that I do read. The truth is that I enjoy process stories, so memoirs like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, David Chang’s Eat a Peach, and Dessa’s My Own Devices are very much my thing, and I can appreciate a good writing about heritage or society, as in Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost and Ta Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Maybe I just don’t like the idea of the genre. Clearly, the aversion isn’t borne out in practice.

When I first came across Kathryn Schulz’ Lost & Found through Keith Law’s podcast I initially hesitated. I knew Schulz could write—she has a Pulitzer for her feature on the risk of a catastrophic earthquake in the Pacific Northwest—but the subject of her memoir, losing her father and falling in love, seemed to follow all of the stereotypes of the genre that leave me cold when I look at lists of memoirs that critics deem “the best.”

Then Shulz started talking about her father. Before the podcast had finished, I had acquired Lost & Found as an ebook from the library.

Lost & Found is divided into three thematic sections that unfold in loose chronological order: Lost, Found, and, as one might expect from the title, &.

We lose things because we are flawed, because we are human, because we have things to lose.

Lost is, predictably, a story of loss. But it is also a story imbued with the deep love of family. This opening section is about her father, a Jewish immigrant who moved from Łodź to Tel Aviv and then to the United States. Schulz describes her father as an erudite, intelligent man with an insatiable curiosity about the world and the people who live in it. He was also someone who habitually lost his wallet and other simple objects. Her love for him radiates from the page as she weaves his story with the heartbreak of losing him and meditations on the existential imperative of loss.

Of all the things that can make finding something difficult—false positives, false negatives, moving targets, incorrect search areas, lack of resources, the vagaries of chance, the general immensity of the world—one of the thorniest is this: sometimes, we don’t really know what we’re looking for.

Found, a natural complement to Lost, is a story about falling in love, written as though it is a meet-cute.

The first meeting took place in the Hudson River Valley where Schulz was living, alone, when friends introduced them. C lived hours to the south and stopped by when she passed through on a separate trip. The first date stretched into hours. The second lasted even longer. Schulz says that she had already decided to marry C, despite their differences.

Found is both saccharine and overflowing with joy. Schulz fills these pages with the exhilaration of falling in love—the long dates, the thrill of discovering an unexpected shared love (country music, in this case), the dawning realization that you don’t want to spend your life with anyone else. And, of course, learning how to communicate in a relationship with another person who is, by the nature of existence, different from yourself.

All of this is also made all the more profound given that it happens concurrently with the loss of her father.

The astonishment is all in the being here.

& is the story of being, about joining lives and the choices that get made along the way. It starts with a discussion about the meteor that created the Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula where C grew up, in a life that could hardly be more different from Schulz’s own upbringing suburban Ohio. It reaches its climax at a wedding in the same region.

Some published reviews of Lost & Found remark that Schulz’ proclivity for wonderment borders on the tedious, but it worked for me. Schulz is not impervious to the crushing weight of contemporary events—she describes the concern that C’s extended family might raise objections to their marriage at their wedding, for instance—but she fills page after page of Lost & Found with reminders to seek joy in being because loss is a certainty.

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I am expecting that I will write more of these posts (along with a number of other posts) now that the semester is coming to an end. Most recently, I finished Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea, an Icelandic thriller. I am now reading Babylon’s Ashes—the sixth book in the series—which means that I am likely going to finish the last three books this summer.

April Reading List

Surprise, there isn’t one!

I am actually not surprised by this development. I have tracked my reading by month going back to 2013 and, on average, April is my second-worst month for reading, ahead of only October. April tends to be when a lot of work obligations come due and so I find myself both scrambling for time and utterly exhausted. This year was no different and my ambitious reading goal fell by the wayside. As penance, I have posted a cat picture to conclude this post.

Now that the semester is winding down, I have already resumed progress toward my goal for May. Although I am hoping to use this summer mostly for rest and recovery (more on this in a future post), I also expect that the more languid patterns of summer will provide ample opportunity to read.

Previous months: January, February, March

Merlin and Nimueh demonstrating proper resting form.

Smashing Statues

I have a draft blog post from a few years ago where I tried to grapple with my thoughts about monumental statues. The thrust of the post explored how statues are neither mere art nor monuments imbued with an immutable meaning. Rather, they are objects of memory and part of a dynamic process by which history, culture, and commemoration are woven. Their meaning emerges from decisions about what ought to be commemorated and how, so what gets evoked will not only change over time, but will also vary from person to person. They are always contested.

The post worked toward a discussion of the Emancipation Memorial created by Thomas Ball in Washington DC in 1876 and with a copy (formerly) in Boston.

I hate this monument.

Emancipation is a wonderful thing to commemorate, of course, but this is also a monument that shows Abraham Lincoln with his one hand holding his proclamation, which rests on symbols of federal authority like the fasces, his other held beneficently over the back of a barely-clothed black man. Abe towers above, looking on placidly.

Emancipation Memorial, Lincoln Park Washington DC (Wikimedia Commons)

I never finished that post, obviously. I was writing a collection of loosely-connected thoughts and I ran out of steam.

Erin Thompson’s Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments (Norton 2022) makes the argument I was trying to articulate in that post, only, you know, better.

Smashing Statues consists of two parts—four chapters on monuments going up, and four chapters on them coming down—all of which build from a simple premise:

American monuments were built to show us our place within national hierarchies of power. Regardless of our race, they tell us to sacrifice ourselves to the interests of those more powerful than us.

Thompson organizes each chapter around the story of one monument or type of monument as a way of exploring the disconnect between how they went up and the authority and reverence with which they are sometimes received.

For instance, Chapter 3 (“Shafts”) unpacks the history of Civil War monuments showing, among other things, how the most common monument was one that shows a common soldier at parade rest. That is, a monument that celebrates not the soldiers who died or the sacrifices of the living, but the obedience of the soldiers who fought for the cause.

My favorite chapter in the book, and one I’m considering assigning in class in the fall, is “A Shrine for the South,” which details the creation of Stone Mountain in Georgia in the 1920s. This site was intended to be the shrine described in the title, with a ghostly army of Confederate heroes riding along the mountain face. She starts the chapter with the story of how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum took an ax to the model head of Robert E. Lee, declaring that the project was a scam by the KKK to siphon off funds—before revealing that he was Klansman upset that he was being cut out of the profits.

To my mind, this chapter put on display all of the fissures involved in these monuments. Borglum joined the Klan, but he lived in Connecticut and was so enamored of Lincoln that he named his son after the dead president. The project relied on the Lost Cause mythology, but it also grew continuously because this was the surest way to secure additional funding. And, of course, Thompson concludes with a discussion of the project Borglum moved to from Stone Mountain: Mount Rushmore.

Smashing Statues is a quick read. Thompson is an art history professor with a special interest in the destruction of cultural heritage, and this book is based on her numerous articles on the topic of monuments since the summer of 2020. But it is no worse for the sense that it is a series of interconnected essays. The core message comes through like a clarion call, and not a moment too soon.

Traditional monuments put heroes on pedestals to tell us our troubles are over. They are our nation’s selfies—perfectly posed and cropped to show only our best angles. They cover up complications and give a too-rosy view of the past and the future. We need debates, not pieties. we need to question our past in order to remake our future. If monuments try to keep us where we are by holding up examples of impossibly perfect people, well, maybe we don’t need them at all.

Addendum: in the few minutes past when this post went up, a digital friend brought to my attention how these same tactics have been weaponized in Latin America. Smashing Statues is fundamentally oriented toward the the politics of commemoration in the United States where most these statues uphold the traditional political order. But in the sense that statues are not value-neutral, the instinct to tear down can be weaponized against monuments looking to establish a pluralistic vision of the future in much the same way that “heritage” can be used as a rallying cry to preserve those that enshrine the existing political order. Attacks that symbolically lynch the commemorated subject not only assert a political order, but also serve to intimidate the communities that would dare erect the monuments in the first place. This is because, as Thompson argues throughout Smashing Statues, monuments serve as an arena that reflects political debates in society writ large.

ΔΔΔ

I am hoping to write more in this space now that my semester is drawing to a close. This will likely include some book posts like this one where I give a few thoughts, if not a full review. Since the last one of these went up, I have also finished Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, and Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found, and I am now reading Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea.

A family and social history of bread in the United States

A couple weeks ago, one of my students invited me to give a presentation on sourdough bread to a club she’s involved in, which I did last night I decided to script part of my talk so that I didn’t just blabber in a million different directions.

Below the jump is the transcript of most of that scripted portion, which I called “A family and social history of bread in the United States.” I lightly edited the script to remove the presentation cues and moved forward a paragraph on yeast culture from later in the talk. Enjoy.

Continue reading A family and social history of bread in the United States

An homage to the professors I aspire to be

Earlier today I had the opportunity to attend a retirement celebration for the two professors who are probably most responsible for setting me on the path I have been on for the last fifteen years. Despite my generally reserved demeanor, I am pathologically incapable of keeping my mouth shut and so raised my hand to offer what was, in my humble opinion, a stream of gibberish. I had jotted down some notes, but they came out in a jumble. This is what I meant to say.

Dear Ann and Cheryl,

The two of you exemplify the professors I aspire to be.

I am sure that I learned something in your classes, but when I sit here now the content is secondary. I remember instead Cheryl’s laugh, bantering with Chris Farrell (back before he was Dr. Farrell) while snacking on bread and cheese, and, of course, Argos.

It is not that the content didn’t matter, but for both of you that was just one part of a college education. I would never have admitted it at the time, but I was overwhelmed by the transition from my rural Vermont high school to Brandeis—a nervous first-year who felt entirely unprepared for what was to come.

I found my mooring in Classics even as someone who came in thinking just about history and only belated made my way to the languages.

To this day, I don’t know what the two of your saw in me, but I am eternally grateful for whatever it was. You both patiently nurtured my growth through any number of slightly odd history-oriented papers on topics ranging from Roman Republican coinage to a calculation for the Roman grain trade to the Greek ἰδιώτης stemming from a question I had about Plato’s Apology—to say nothing about my massively unwieldy monstrosity of an undergraduate thesis. Midway through graduate school I developed a hobby of reading books on writing, but I still say that all of my foundational skills I learned from Cheryl, whose model I still use as something of a template for my own courses and assignments. When some of my classes require a specific citation style, I repeat something I remember Ann saying when she assigned something similar: it isn’t that this is the best style, but that is the style for this assignment and part of the exercise is learning to follow a citation style sheet.

But the classroom is just the tip of the iceberg. You are both the type of generous teacher and mentor that I aspire to be. Moments stand out like when Cheryl, unprompted, gave me a copy of a book that I still have on my shelf, or when she patiently listened to me work through the argument of an academic article by a leading scholar of Ancient Greece that I vehemently disagreed with only to offer a quip, asking whether it was that scholar at the height of their powers or that scholar at the point of their career when they get published because of their name. It was pithier in the moment.

Then there was the time that I dropped in to talk about something and we got lost in conversation, at which point she looked up, exclaimed “oh crap,” and ran out the door because she had a class of first years who had been patiently waiting for more than fifteen minutes.

(I later told a student in the class to blame me.)

COVID notwithstanding, this is the sort of open-door office policy I aspire to—and I usually keep cookies there for anyone who visits me. I teach because I love what I study, but one of the lessons I try to impart to my students is that I am teaching whole people, not disembodied brains.

In this same vein, I am eternally grateful to Ann for a note she sent me the year after I graduated. I had applied to graduate school the year before and not gotten in anywhere, so I was managing a restaurant and contemplating another round of applications. The Classics Department was in danger at that moment and, yet, Ann wanted to bring me in on a developing personal issue so that she could complete my letters of recommendation before it left her indisposed. The next academic year I started graduated school at the University of Missouri.

How I went from that overwhelmed first-year struggling to write anything at all to someone with multiple publications, a book on the way, and the responsibility for training new generations of young people is beyond me, but I know that the guidance and support I received from the two of you was an essential part of that journey.

It has been a long time since Brandeis and nearly as long since I have even been to campus, but I often come back when I think about how I want to carry myself in- and outside the classroom. Brandeis—and the world—are a better place for all that you have done.

In the sincerest and simplest way I can say it: thank you.

March Reading List

Back in January I laid out an ambitious reading goal for 2022: one article per working day, and resolved to write a wrap-up monthly recap post for accountability. March proved a challenge for a whole host of reasons so the total is much lower than I would have liked. April is looking worse, if anything, but I’m hopeful that I can get back on track over the next week.

Without further ado here is the list, divided once more into my favorite articles (honorable mentions) and the rest of the list.

Honorable Mentions

  • Sofie Remijsen, “Only Greeks at the Olympics? Reconsidering the rule against non-Greeks at ‘Panhellenic’ Games,” C&M 67 (2019): 1–61.

The rest of the list

  • Marcaline J. Boyd, “Sleeping with the Tyrant: Thebe the Tyrannicide and the Death of Alexander of Pherae in Plutarch’s Pelopidas,” Histos 15 (2021): 131–49.
  • Peter A. O’Connell, “How Often Did the Athenian Dikasteria Meet? A Reconsideration,” GRBS 60, no. 3 (2020): 324–41.
  • Piotr Głogowski, “Cyrus the Younger and his Persians: the dynamics of power,” GRBS 60, no. 2 (2020): 165–91.
  • Elizabeth Carney, “Royal Macedonian Widows: Merry and Not,” GRBS 59 (2019): 368–96.
  • Sarah Morris and John Papadopoulos, “Of Granaries and Games: Egyptian Stowaways in an Athenian Chest,” Hesperia Supplements 33 (2004): 225–42.
  • Loren J. Samons II, “Herodotus on the Kimonids: Peisistratid Allies in Sixth-Century Athens,” Historia 66, no. 1 (2017): 21–44.
  • Anastasios Nikolaidis, “Revisiting the Pylos Episode and Thucydides’ ‘Bias’ Against Cleon,” C&M 69 (2021): 121–50.
  • Cinzia Bearzot, “Political Murder in Classical Greece,” Ancient Society 47 (2007): 37–61.
  • Timothy Sorg, “Agyrrhios Beyond Attica: Tax-Farming and Imperial Recovering in the Second Athenian League,” Historia 64, no. 1 (2015): 49–76.
  • Joshua D. Sosin, “Ransom at Athens ([Dem.] 53.11),” Historia 66, no. 2 (2017): 130–46.
  • Etka Liebowitz, “Female Monarchal Succession in Hellenistic and Jewish Society in Antiquity: Parallels and Contrasts,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 49, no. 1 (2018), 30–48.

Previous Months

January, February