Richard Rodriguez’s Path

The journey of a real intellectual – a thinker who asks hard questions and does not settle for easy resolutions – can often be lonely and difficult. It is also what makes their writing so important. Most of us do not query as deeply and we often do not like the answers we find.

Richard Rodriguez is a true intellectual. Extraordinarily gifted, he is a frequent critic and presence in the popular media. In his 1983 autobiography, Hunger of Memory, he charts his life from Sacramento, California, the child of Mexican laborers, to Stanford University. He did further graduate study in English at Columbia University and in London.

Rodriguez is extremely thoughtful about the quality of language and words. He is unsparing in describing the difficulty of his choices. This is no rags-to-riches feel good memoir. Instead, Rodriguez gives a hard account of the costs of forsaking one’s native culture for academic pursuits. He is no fan of affirmative action. He thinks little of bilingual education. Rodriguez is old school in every sense of the term. For good reason, this is a classic and challenging immigrant narrative.

David Potash

Costly Prize

Daniel Yergin writes big histories. Trained at Yale and Cambridge, his first book was Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State. Way back in my Master’s program at NYU, I took a course from McGeorge Bundy, former National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and President Johnson. One of the recommended books in Bundy’s course was Yergin’s Shattered Peace. I remember talking with Bundy about it. He did not place a ton of stock in the wisdom of any singular historian. However, he thought well of Yergin. Bundy greatly enjoyed asking students difficult questions about historical narratives. He liked to challenge us to think hard and critically about any thesis of explanation, anything that might render a complicated history simply or neatly. In other words, beware of summation – but if you have the facts (and Yergin did – at least in Bundy’s eyes), then feel free to go ahead with the big narrative. 

Those memories and more were with me when I recently read Yergin’s well-known epic on the oil industry, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. It won a Pulitzer in 1992 and Yergin has issued slightly updated versions. A documentary about it was produced in the mid-1990s. It was a book I had known about. The suggestion of a colleagues, along with the rise of the leadership of the oil and gas industry in the Trump administration, was just the catalyst needed to tackle this massive work. It turned out as grand, exciting and troublesome as I anticipated. It also remains extraordinarily relevant to foreign policy and economics today.

Yergin takes the long view of oil’s history. No, he doesn’t start with the chemistry, And while we are on complaints, the book is short on maps. It would benefit, too, from more charts and tables. Yergin begins with two parallel nineteenth century historical narratives: oil exploration and production in the US, and oil exploration and production in Europe and Asia. It is not an easy device, but he handles the multiple international strands with skill.

Few historians are able to write as clearly, critically and effectively as Yergin. It is popular history that is carefully sourced and argued. He focuses on key individuals, sketches them quickly (and always with a few telling anecdotes or eccentricities), and frames the larger narrative through the actions and conflicts of a few. It is “great man” history – but Yergin is under no illusions that there are great men. They are smart, ambitious, greedy and comfortable with risk. They are in perpetual conflict: with nature, with market forces, with governments, and with each other. They are also, by definition, successful and important.

Yergin moves steadily through the 19th and 20th century, focusing consistently on the exploration, transportation, refining and sale of oil. His heart is with the wildcatters and the empire builders. By the post-WWII years we read about those that put together gas stations for sales, but Yergin has less enthusiasm for trends in marketing oil or its impact on the economy. In contrast, the global financiers, shippers, explorers and leaders – those are the men (and they are 99% men) – that are the heart of his history.

Read in a different light, The Prize is a helpful counter-narrative to other more well-known historical treatments of the past 150 years. Historians tend to cluster in camps. The Marxists look to the means of production. Some see race. Others focus on the rise of nationalism. Yergin looks at the big picture through the lens of energy, primarily oil. There’s much to recommend in this analysis.

Japanese expansion in Asia was shaped in great part by the island’s ability to capture and exploit oil. The Great War was driven by energy needs and competition for expansion. The US’s rise to a global economic power was powered in great part by America’s tremendous national resources – in particular, its oil. US relations with Mexico, as well as Venezuela, was again shaped by oil. The battles of World War II, Yergin notes, were again and again determined by a military’s ability to capture and use energy – oil.

The strands all come together in Yergin’s discussion of the colonization and exploitation of the middle east. It is distressing – with a great sense of foreboding – to see the fault lines being developed in the early part of the 1900s and then play out again and again. Shia against Sunni, Saudi Arabia against Persia/Iran, and all the ways that western powers fought to gain oil and economic advantage. Yergin’s long history gives a foundation and context that makes the wars of the past 10 years all the more understandable. Unfortunately, the history also points to no new possible resolutions.

This is not easy history. It is sprawling, messy, and consistently about conflict. There are few heroes. There may be great men, but missing is generosity, kindness, altruism or much hope for our better halves. Victory is often gained by those that have the most – or those that are willing to lose the most in order to prevail. It offers little by way of mankind thinking differently about energy or how best to use it. It also goes far in explaining much of our current problems – political, economic, international and environment. It is history as conflict. Yergin is completely up front about his agenda. There is good reason that he titled this book The Prize.

David Potash

Truth Stranger Than Fiction

I remember Wonder Woman when it showed up on television in the 1970s. Lynda Carter was cute but the series did not really resonate with me. I found it just a bit odd, kind of old-fashioned. I had no idea just how odd – or fascinating.

Jill Lepore, in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, explains the origins of the comic book and provides many good reasons for its strangeness. Her book has sold millions for very good reason. Sure, there’s sex, intrigue, drama, secrets and the excitement of comic books. The content is extraordinarily interesting. Lepore has done much more than report it, though. She tells a tale, raises questions, and gives us a narrative of talent and contradiction. It is really engaging popular cultural history at its best.

The story of Wonder Woman is actually the history of William Moulton Marston and his extended family. Marston was a polymath, a talented and gifted man with massive psychological issues. A mother’s boy who graduated from Harvard in 1915, paid his way through while writing screenplays, Marston also earned a law degree and a doctorate psychology. He invented the lie detector test (asking a subject questions while examining their systolic blood pressure), and bounced around Hollywood for years. He was a failure in higher education and, in many ways, harnessing his abilities for financial gain and stability. What saved him were the women he was able to bring into his life. He married to Elizabeth Holloway Marston, a hardworking, smart and highly competent woman in her own right. Olive Byrne, another smart and talented woman, was also a part of the family. Marston fathered children with both women, who maintained an elaborate fiction. Women were central to his home and professional life.

Lepore draws out the idealist circles in which Marston and his circle moved. Margaret Sanger was Olive Byrne’s aunt. John Reed was a friend at Harvard. Free love, feminism, women’s rights, psychology and science were recurring themes in the Marston milieu. All factored prominently in the creation of Wonder Woman, a product of the World War II environment. The comic strip Wonder Woman was immediately popular. Marston, sadly, contracted polio and died at the young age of 53. After the war and without his drive, Wonder Woman faded from the popular consciousness, only to be looked at anew in the 1970s with the rise of women’s liberation.

Woven throughout this complex history are idiosyncrasies, kinks, and strange coincidences – from Olive’s bracelets to Marston’s fascination with bondage. He did not acknowledge it but anyone reading Wonder Woman comics did. She and other women were constantly being chained, gagged, bound or otherwise constrained. It’s a strange narrative for a mother’s boy.

Beyond the anecdotes, what The Secret History of Wonder Woman does very well is highlight the many connections of intellectual and cultural change and production. Few successful things happen in a vacuum. Smarts always makes a difference. And sometimes it helps to be kind of odd, too.

David Potash

Going For The Gold

Lost in the critical cultural landscape? Adrift among competing theories? Reset your compass – most roads lead to Pierre Bourdieu. It doesn’t matter whether you think of him as a philosopher, sociologist, or French intellectual – his concepts outline the opaque and provide a consistently helpful path to understanding.

James English’s The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value is a case in point. It’s a very clever book. English, a professor of English and Director of the Humanities Center at Penn, turned an inquisitive and slightly cynical eye on the world of literary prizes in this book. Stressing the explosion of cultural awards and prizes over the past century, English hopes to make sense of the interplay of different kinds capital among competing “worlds” of understanding. That may sound very theoretical – and English does love playing with theory – but the narrative nimbly avoids the abstract and obtuse.

The bulk of the book is about literary prizes and awards. The visual and performing arts are discussed, but English’s great love is for the written word. He marks the contours of the garden of cultural production, situating the prize or award as the site of judgment and currency. Works that win prizes gain cultural capital. The prize often is monetary – capital – and its award changes the work’s value in a cultural and economic realms. Books that win awards sell more copies. The process of judging and awarding tames the “messiness” of artistic or cultural production. They render the creative digestible. This is an economic study of a different sort of economy.

English looks at awards and prizes from many angles. The physical nature of the award falls under his microscope, as do the public events: the short list, the naming, and the acceptance speech. He considers the awards as sport and as a means of cultural national norming. He also has a humorous go at alternative awards and their inverse economy. Why do we spend time considering awards for bad fiction or acting? The book consistently asks the reader to reconsider the entire world of awards and prizes.

The book’s argument, however, is also constrained by slippery nature of awards themselves. Often the product of circumstance or caprice, each has its own history, its own story. An author would really have to focus if the aim of the study was to make more powerful and compelling arguments. English, though, is not all that interested in settling down. He enjoys the topic and the space that it offers. Awards in movies or music are different from literary awards. Televised awards, whose function, it would seem, to generate viewers and revenue, have a somewhat different set of priorities than those that would adorn a book with a shiny sticker. English moves lightly past these distinctions.

Also missing from the work are the rise of cultural arts fairs. Art – flat, 3-D and time-based, have a somewhat different field of expertise and economic system than literature. They gather cultural capital from where they are sold, who purchased them, and how much was paid. The Basel or Miami Art Fair can bestow prestige in ways that a book or humanities fair cannot. A book’s cultural capital is developed in very different economies. To be fair, however, English wrote the book several years ago and draws attention to the ever-increasing number of ways that cultural production is judged and granted “value.”

So we have all that on one side of the ledger, and on the other half is a thoughtful, provocative and informed looked at the accumulation of cultural capital in the literary sphere. While I am not sure of what unit of measure is best employed, it does tally a positive balance, worthy of your consideration. But whether I would award it a prize . . . . 

David Potash

Which Side Is The Other Side?

Natalie Y. Moore is a product of the South Side of Chicago. For those who do not know Chicago, “North Side” and “South Side” conjure up much more than a region. They embody a history, a mindset, and a way of life, separate and distinct from each other. They are often about race and ethnicity. Many who live in the city think of their home as a neighborhood, not the larger city. In all there are 77 of neighborhoods and together they make Chicago a fascinating and dynamic metropolis. Yet the sides of the city are not easily thought of as one, as expertly chronicled by Moore in her book, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation. Racism and geography can create destiny.

south-sideMoore is a journalist. She reports on the South Side for WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station. She has covered other cities and other countries. Her writing is in newspapers and national publications. Her investigation into the South Side is in great part informed by her reporting skills. She brings history, politics, economics, and culture to bear explaining the who, what, where, when and how of the South Side of Chicago. Starting with a clear-eyed look at the terrible history of racism in the city, Moore examines housing policy and practice. She describes red-lining, economic exploitation based on race, and the myriad of failure of the Chicago Housing Authority. Moore anchors housing in the local histories of neighborhoods unable to shake free from poverty. It is a story of generations trapped.

Training her eyes on Chicago’s public schools, Moore paints an equally chilling picture of segregation. Chicago actively resisted calls and judgments to integrate its school system, despite marches and protests and well-meaning pressure from progressives of all stripes. Her chapter on CPS is titled “Separate and Still Unequal.” Class matters, too, and Moore is equally sharp when looking at grocery stores, food stores and restaurants across the city. On one level, her book is a study of the effects of systemic racism.

The South Side is more than a work of journalism, however. Moore is no embed reporting to a distant and curious public. She is fiercely proud of her city. She loves the South Side, warts and all, and wants readers to understand and appreciate it. A resentment to those that would demean it givers her prose attitude and passion.

Moore grew up in Chatham, an African-American neighborhood that had been an Italian, Hungarian and Irish neighborhood in earlier decades. After World War II the whites moved out and black families moved in. Chatham provided a solid foundation for Moore’s childhood and she found a home in Sutherland, an integrated CPS elementary school in nearby Beverly. For high school, she attended Morgan Park HS, which was known for its college preparatory program. When Moore was a student it was mostly black, with white and Hispanic students. (Today it is 97% black – segregation in schools for much of the city has significantly increased). Moore looks back on her high school education fondly and is proud to call herself a product of CPS.

She rails against the violence in the city – and is equally angered at those who label the city with a broad brush of little but racism, crime and despair. Fear is increasing, she writes, even as overall rates of homicide, measured not year to year but over the long-term, is down. Moore wants policy discussions about violence to be guided by facts, not emotion. She sees the underlying economic problems and high levels of unemployment as the real issue. Looking to leaders like Harold Washington, Moore believes that Chicago can build political coalitions to push back against racism and segregation.

Moore works to end her book on a positive note. She talks with activists, academics, artists and legislators, arguing that change is possible.

Don’t read The South Side to look for policy suggestions. Don’t study it expecting an agenda for future mayors and aldermen. Instead, Moore wants us to reconsider, reappraise and appreciate the South Side. She tackled the task with integrity and care.

David Potash

Gotham Art

Ever read a well-reviewed book and simply have it not click? You may like the topic and think highly of the author – but still, the book just refused to engage with you. Reading it becomes a chore and a source of frustration. It isn’t just that the book isn’t working. More troublesome is a worrisome sense of personal shortcoming – or at least that is what I feel. It has to be me, the reader, and not the book. Or maybe I just read too much into reading.new-art-city

That, in a nutshell, is what happened to me with Jed Perl’s New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century. Perl is a well-known art critic. I do not always agree with him, but I’ve read his pieces in the popular press and have been impressed. He produces a new book every few years, too, and they are usually well-received.

As for the New York City art scene, I am an engaged fan – historically and in terms of contemporary art. From the work of Samuel Morse in the early 1800s through PS1 in recent years, New York City has been a hive of artistic creativity. It has been a particularly important site for collaboration and competition for certain groups of artists at set times. The Ashcan School in the early years of the 1900s, Harlem in the 1920s, and the modernists after World War II stand out as exemplary case studies of the power of Gotham to shape artists and the art world. I’ve read, visited, viewed, talked and learned about art in NYC for many years. I picked up New Art City with high hopes.

Unfortunately, I could not make the book work for me. Perhaps it was the black and white illustrations of colorful and vibrant art. It might have been the encyclopedic nature of the tome: everyone who painted in NYC from WWII until the mid-1960s gets a mention, a paragraph or a chapter. Maybe it was an absence of any real discussion of what was going on in the city at the time: the changing physical landscape, the vitality of so many other forms of creative expression: music, dance, theater, and popular culture. It could stem from Perl’s linkage and comparisons of artist to artist from a critic’s perspective. I, however, wonder if the call and response was real (my instinct is that it is often the creation of critics). If Hans Hoffman truly was the gatekeeper to mid-century art, was it due to his teaching, his talking, or his work? Or it might be the lack of a clear reason to bounce from artist to artist to artist.

In the end, I stopped caring as artist after artist and painting after painting found its way into the narrative. Was everyone really rebelling against the abstract expressionists? Was de Kooning that charismatic? The island might serve as a good organizing principle for a book or exhibit, but that does not make it compelling. Even as I like Hoffman, de Kooning, Pollack, and so many others discussed here, New Art City just is not my cup of tea. And having giving the book time and consideration, I am also sure it’s not just me.

David Potash

A New Familiar Story

The hardships of the immigrant experience to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The isolation of life in the upper midwest. The lure, threat and promise of the big city. Patriarchy, misogyny, violence. Bigotry in World War I. Second and third generation immigrants families. These are recognizeable themes in American literature.

Familiar themes, though, do not have to limit a novel’s scope or imagination.

Michelle Hoover’s Bottomland is about the disappearance of two daughters from the German family homestead in rural Iowa in the early part of the twentieth century. Hoover tells the story in five chapters, each from a character’s perspective. She plays with time, with narrative veracity, and with the plot. It unfolds in bits and pieces. Hoover, though, is not interested in writing a thriller or mystery. Tension is used in service of broader themes, particularly those of interpersonal connection and agency. The prose is marked by an austere clarity – even when the picture is foggy and described by an unreliable narrator.bottomland

Bottomland is a thoughtful and well-written novel. It is also surprisingly relevant to contemporary life. Pick your immigrant group, imagination the perspective of one with little agency in a world with few or no guarantees, add a bit of cross-cultural tension – and it all rings as familiar. Hoover has crafted a clever and thoughtful book.

I wonder if novelists will be looking at Somalian immigrants in Minnesota or Syrian immigrants in Michigan twenty years hence. If they do – and do it well as Bottomland – I will read and learn.

David Potash

Emigration & Immigration: Mexico and the United States

mexico-and-its-diasporaAlexandra Delano, a professor at the New School, grounds her book Mexico and Its Diaspora in the United States: Policies of Emigration Since 1848 in history, foreign policy and the domestic politics of both nations. What sets this book apart, though, is that Delano assigns primacy to the Mexican government in analyzing the flow of Mexicans to the United States. Delano has a strong command of a wide range of scholarship and methodologies. In her hands, policy analysis and foreign policy is a surprisingly helpful lens with which to study emigration and immigration. The result is a comprehensive, compelling, and an insightful overview to a complicated international dynamic.

This is not a book for those new to immigration or Mexican-American history. It moves quickly over a lot of material, information and arguments. Delano writes to those have some understanding of the terrain and seek deeper and more sophisticated awareness of policy shifts and turns. Her underlying thesis examines the implications of the gradual transformation of Mexico into a more active and intentional player with United States. Delano is fully cognizant of the asymmetrical relationship. She notes, though, that Mexico’s willingness to engage – particularly from the 1990s and NAFTA – have had profound consequences on US-Mexico relations.

I found her investigation of IME (Institute for Mexicans Abroad) and the Matricula Consular – a card issued by Mexican consulates to Mexicans living in the US – to be especially informative. These policy efforts by the Mexican government to protect citizens’ rights, no matter where they live, to have an important role in understanding the immigrant experience. Emigration and immigration policies are critical. They have political ramifications, too, for both countries.

Mexico and Its Diaspora in the United States is a welcome addition to the studies of Mexican American relations and the flow of people across the border.

David Potash

The Wilds of Western Massachusetts

No one accidentally finds their way to MASS MoCA. A sprawling massive complex dedicated to contemporary art, MASS MoCA is in North Adams, Massachusetts, on the Hoosic River valley in western Berkshire County. North Adams has the smallest population of any city in Massachusetts. If 2,000 people leave, it becomes a town. North Adams is just over an hour’s drive from Albany and nearly three hours from Boston. In five minutes you can be in Vermont. North Adams was originally a mill town and in the twentieth century, Sprague Electric was the area’s largest employer. After it shuttered, a collaborative effort and much politicking led to the creation of MASS MoCA on its former site. It is a museum of great scale. It sits alone in a city that hopes to capture tourists and their dollars.mass-moca

My trips to Mass Moca usually start from Boston, driving north and then west on Route 2.  The land is hilly and by the tiny hamlet of Florida, MA, we’re in the Hoosic range. It is eastern mountains and the flora shifts accordingly. The woods are denser and colder. Steven King knows these woods, not Henry David Thoreau. After ascending the Whitcomb Summit – and there’s a nice spot to pull over and take a photo – route 2 heads downhill in a series of swoops, curves, and cutbacks. A true hairpin curve slows the traffic to a crawl. Over the shoulder you can make out North Adams, which stands out defiantly amid the hills and woods.

These shifts, from light to dark, from friendly to threatening, and from planned to dramatic, set the stage for my last visit Mass Moca and the powerful work of Alex Da Corte. His exhibit, Free Roses, closed in September. Now it only exists online, in print, and in the minds of those of us fortunate to see it in person. It lingers. Da Corte has the ability to take the known and make it strange, the humorous and make it unsettling – and to do it with style and a light touch.

Da Corte works with vibrant colors, familiar objects, humor and a strong taste of the Gothic. Free Roses contained new pieces and as-is-a-wet-hoagieolder workers. The overall installation took advantage of the tremendous space of the galleries. Da Corte was thoughtful about lighting, flooring, and how pieces were situated. Spanning multiple rooms, the exhibit a carnival of creepy, provocative and gaudy, if not cheerful. It collectively gave me a sense of other worldness.

He is young – born in 1980 – and prolific. Da Corte gets the appeal of pop. He uses it to catch the eye and then subvert. Take a look at the wet hoagie (John Bernardo/Courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan Gallery, New York). It is monumental and ridiculous, tasty and ready for critical analysis. Da Corte exercises a strong sense of play in his pieces, challenging symbolism and formalism with a wink or a critique.

When playful, it made me smile. When more ominous – a large series of pieces based on the poet Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell – it was disturbing. Da Corte works with neon, video, and animatronics. The robotic dog walking in a circle and the toy swans swimming endlessly in a loop were just kitschy enough to draw me in and then bother. He photographs, paints and curates. His work is accessible – disarmingly so – and haunting. It brought me wonder and just enough unease to remind me that the exhibit sits, like MASS MoCA, in a special place protected against a much less friendly world.

David Potash

Immigration Dreamers

Eileen Truax’s Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight For Their American Dream is a journalist’s account of life for undocumented people in the age of the Dream Act (DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Truax hails from Mexico and lives in the US. She is well-versed in the small and large challenges of living in two different countries with different cultures. Her aim in this book is to give human faces and stories to the young men and women affected directly by DACA. She humanizes, explains and contextualizes the stories of those who are struggling in challenging times.

dreamersConsciously avoiding statistics and policy analysis (and there are places in the text that call out for further explication), Truax gives ten narrative histories. She writes about young men and women, their homes, their families and their friends. Their communities are described as are their clothing and appearance. Sympathy and understanding drives the text. Truax wants us to see these people as people who are as “American” as any neighbor, classmate, co-worker or colleague.

It is an effective strategy to generate emotions and sympathy. There is much to like about these young men and women. The anchor of the stories are those who are open about their lack of documentation. These courageous souls have decided to make their cause public and be active to seek seeking legislative and executive support. Truax helps us to understand just how terrifying this must feel. The book’s cover says “Undocumented Unafraid” – but these people are afraid, and with good cause.

Emotions and sympathy can aid in understanding policy consequences but they are not necessarily the best way to create solutions or to craft better policy. Immigration is notoriously complicated to reform.  Politics, history, economics, national security, and race are woven throughout any discussion of policy. Not acknowledging the harder complicating forces does little to advance the discussion. There were ample places in the histories, too, where Truax could have provided anchors to the stories and given the reader themes and direction. The role of education, for example, or how the experience was both empowering and demeaning. Much more could have been done with the material.

Truax’s book gives voice to those that may not be comfortable coming forward. It is here that I think her contribution is most effective. Policy and laws have real impacts on real lives. The consequences of ill-considered policy can be devastating. To earn and maintain our trust, our government and our laws must be fair, equitable and just. Humanizing our immigration policy and practice, as Truax does in this volume, helps to set a high bar for meaningful reform. One hopes that it is not just a dream.

David Potash