Review- Heti, “How Should A Person Be?”

Sheila Heti, “How Should A Person Be?” (2010) (narrated by Allyson Ryan) – This was bad. I get that I’m not the target audience here. I’m a man, for one, and I don’t give a shit about painting or theater, the two arts to which most of the characters are notionally dedicated. How did I come by this book? As best I can piece it together: I had decided to, every third audiobook I listen to, listen to a contemporary big-name literary figure. I got it in my head that Heti was one such based on her being published — excerpts from this book, if I remember right — in n+1. I think seeing her relatively new book about being a mom reminded me of that, and so, there I am. Truth be told, extending “contemporary” to 2010 might be stretching it a bit, but whatever, who do I need to justify these categorization schemes to?

Anyway. This book is about Sheila Heti (the author, or a ~fictional character??~ are you impressed yet??), her inability to write a play, and her friendship with a woman named Margaux (apparently a real painter, but I don’t care). Sheila ponders life, including the titular (stupid) question, and has little vignettes with Margaux, their various artistic friends in Toronto, etc. The closest thing there is to a plot is the rise and fall and resurrection of the Sheila-Margaux friendship.

The characters, including the author’s depiction of herself, are so thinly-drawn that I started to entertain dark, vaguely conspiratorial thoughts (perhaps because nothing else, like the audiobook I was listening to, was entertaining me at the time). Is Sheila Heti a closet reactionary, like an anti-feminist or something, looking to get across an idea of women of her generation (she’s about ten years older than me, a Gen Xer) as vapid, pretentious idiots? That would explain her characterization of herself and Margaux. They get in a nearly friendship-ending fight because they buy the same dress at a boutique! What the fuck is that? Sheila also portrays herself as helplessly dependent on men’s sexual attentions. She has a big fling with a shitty artist named Israel, leading to an extended sequence with her using the phrase “getting fucked by Israel” a lot, which just makes me think of the Gaza situation which only reaffirmed that no, I’m not the reader she presumably had in mind. Target audience or no, I found the “Heti as anti-feminist mole” reading more interesting and in a way, happier, than the “Heti as genuinely this bad of a writer” explanation.

I’ve been thinking about recent intellectual history and the ideas of Gen X lately, and the idea that people are idiots who don’t really deserve rights or a future does seem to be pretty prevalent in that cohort. Of course, very few can really hang with that kind of nihilism- bad for the old career track. The path back to doing all the normal bourgeois shit anyway — work, mate, spawn — is illuminated by self-consciousness: if you’re merely conscious of how fake and shitty everything is, and comment on it ironically, then you’re a superior person who can go forward with things, like how Weber’s Calvinists believed that their ability to make money was a sign their God was ok with them. Even that was too much of a bummer for many, so eventually you got various rainbow-colored versions of the same idea, where I guess we get a future after all despite not deserving it, because dammit, people can LOVE, or something. Heti belongs in that latter category. I wonder if she gets mad when people suggest ways to make things better than can’t be subsumed into a lifestyle change, the way a lot of Gen X intellectuals do? I guess there’s limits to how much I can blame them. No one’s dignified when they’re horny, and no one’s dignified when they’re trying to find their way out of the basic existential quandaries. But all because we all have belly buttons doesn’t mean I have to be interested in the contents of yours.

I can’t really shred the book too much, not because it doesn’t deserve it but because I listened to it and so couldn’t take notes. Truth be told, there’s not much point. Writers like this and their respective readerships (thinking David Foster Wallace here too) just kind of absorb most critiques and are like “well, of course my work was a pointless waste of time, because that’s LIFE, but at the same time it’s BEAUTIFUL and everyone plays SQUASH without keeping SCORE like in the end of this stupid BOOK” etc. etc. Margaux says she’s uncomfortable with the concepts of beauty and ugliness, and you know, I don’t see myself as the authority on those things either, but whatever beauty might be, I’m certain this book lacks it. I’ll give it the extra half star on the idea I’m maybe missing something as a big dumb man, but something tells me I can afford to miss whatever it is on offer here. *’

Review- Heti, “How Should A Person Be?”

Review- Trask, “Camp Sites”

Michael Trask, “Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America” (2013) – Not sure how to review this, it’s been a while since I read a book in this experiential category: a nonfiction book I enjoyed greatly but am not fully sure I “got.” This is a work of queer theory, something with which I have little experience. They kind of train historians to deal with theory with a semester-long sampler at the beginning of their doctoral programs, where you get your Marx week and your Foucault week, etc etc. They then let you follow up with whatever framing you find compelling on your own (notionally- most of us just go to the archive with just enough theoretical framing to cover our asses). I don’t recall us getting a queer theory week, maybe it was kind of subsumed under feminism week, who knows, it was a while ago.

So there’s vocabulary and hermeneutics that went over my head. That’s ok. What I got was interesting and not the kind of thing easily explained in a sentence. The idea seems to be that American universities of the post-WWII decades were thoroughly steeped in the philosophical pragmatism developed earlier in the century. It wasn’t just an adopted ideology (indeed, they’d insist it wasn’t an ideology at all), but a way of approaching the world and expressing themselves that Trask calls “the academic style.” This style meant detachment, independence from institutions (even when materially dependent on the university), opposition to ideology, and an emphasis on experience. There’s more than a hint of make-believe, here- you’re supposed to act as though you really believe in things even while maintaining the intellectual flexibility to change these beliefs with experience. Trask compares this to the role-playing that became popular at the same time in Cold War defense exercises designed by some of the same intellectuals.

Notionally, the New Left was the sworn enemy of the academics and administrators who acted as the high priests of the academic style. But Trask convincingly argues that the likes of Mario Savio and Tom Hayden shared more assumptions with Seymour Lipset and Clark Kerr than either side would like to admit. If anything, the student movement was more “committed to commitment” and to the primacy of experience than anyone. Trask never goes the easy route, analytically- he doesn’t make this a “they were therefore exactly the same” thing or a “student outstripped the teacher” thing. It was a matter of emphasis and mode- the “expressive authenticity” of the students versus the “knowing artifice” of the professoriat. Just tearing each other to shreds over what “commitment” looks like…

Well, they agreed on one thing- what they were doing was manly, and there was no queer campy funny business about it, no sir. Both the academics and the student rebels patrolled the boundaries of their respective intellectual/stylistic demesnes to keep the gay out, or anyway, in its proper place, and like any boundary outrider, felt constantly at risk from the repressed outsider. For the academic style, there had to be assurances that their treatment of ideology as suspect and lionization of serial experimentation in modes of thought and perspective had nothing to do with the queer style of camp — entertaining ideas or postures to satirically explode them — or the queer mode of serial, noncommittal sex. The new left, for its part, formally, kinda-sorta embraced gay liberation, so long as it was a matter of gay people who seemed like them and who rejected “playing roles,” not a bunch of screaming queens (much like how most academics had little issue with discreet homosexuality). Academics dismissed the queers amongst them in campus novels, where basically queers were like them but just too much; student radicals raised the joint specter of the closet queen and the bureaucrat. You had spectacles like Norman Mailer “coming out straight” and insisting that “the system” wanted to make emasculated queers of us all, that the most radical, committed thing you could do was have kids… shades of the Proud Boys and their “western babies…”

I’m trying to present this all programmatically, largely to keep it all straight in my head, but that’s not what reading “Camp Sites” is like. It is an incredibly rich 220 pages or so- let me be a straight (to say nothing of fat) guy for a minute and compare it to some rad ice cream with all kinds of chunks in it, all disparate but unifying into a satisfying experience. Trask reads a vast array of texts- Ralph Ellison, Sylvia Plath, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Patricia Highsmith, Gore Vidal, Erica Jong, “The Valley of the Dolls,” John Waters, RAND corporation analysts and business writers, radical manifestos, just all kinds of stuff. He draws together seventies feminism and the new, comparatively structure-light meritocracy concept emerging in the Seventies. He promulgates a theory of “mean camp” in response to Susan Sontag’s theories of good and bad camp, where mean camp just rips through all the assumptions of uplift and does… something, I don’t know.

Like I said, I’m not sure I fully “got” everything. If I were writing this for an academic audience I could go back and try to dope out the mean camp thing, or whatever. But I suppose in my own little Savio-lite version of a rebellion against academic style that still uses many of its assumptions, I’m trying to get across a little of what reading this book was like for me. What it was like (along with the ice cream thing, I guess) was a series of brain teasers — I am not “native” to the types of reading Trask used — and swimming in a pleasant stream of ideas, at the same time, if that makes sense. Challenging and relaxing all at once. He has a new book coming out on the seventies that involves Philip K. Dick, and I’m pretty stoked about that. Expect an equally compelling review, nerds. *****

Review- Trask, “Camp Sites”

Review- Davies, “Mainstreaming Black Power”

Tom Adam Davies, “Mainstreaming Black Power” (2017) – I read this out of a desire to get a more finely-grained picture of the recession of the Black Freedom Movement in the 1970s, and what came after. The more I think of it, the more I think that this defeat shaped everything that came after, in much the same way as late nineteenth century Europe lived under the shadow of the suppression of the Paris Commune. I’ve been thinking of the ways in which being born and living under the shadow of this defeat — even if people didn’t acknowledge it very often — must have affected my generation and the generation before mine. Basically, the “cancel culture” flap over the summer and a few other things had me thinking thoughts about “Gen X” and…

Well, this is all getting far afield from the actual subject of this book. The phrase “Black Power” scares people, to this day, white people generally (but not exclusively). When I was in grad school, it was often treated as a hard, fast dividing line- there was the civil rights movement, then there was black power. People had different ideas about the valence of that shift, but agreed that it happened, and agreed that black power was a shift into revolution, the sort of thing the Man can’t touch, for better or for worse. You can see why, given the long (and continuing) tradition of black power martyrs and the way people like J. Edgar Hoover freaked out over the concept.

This was never the whole story. Davies opens this book by discussing a memo circulated in the Johnson White House about how black power is actually good, that it promised to bring black people into the political and economic system, to get black people, to use subsequent President Richard Nixon’s phrase, “a piece of the action.” You can say that’s white politicians appropriating something and neutralizing it, and that’s not entirely wrong. But it was awfully soon in the concept’s career for that, and as Davies makes clear, black power meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some people, who it’d be hard to dismiss as not really “getting it,” like CORE leader Floyd McKissick, black power was absolutely as Nixon described it. There were always conservative and capitalist strains in black nationalism. Among other things, the black power emphasis on “unity” made it hard to draw lines within the movement, even if people had been inclined to, that might solidify the concept and keep it out of the mouths of white politicians like Nixon and Robert Kennedy.

Nixon and Kennedy represent two of the standard means through which the political structure as it existed could make use of the black power movement/concept. Nixon, as mentioned, went in big for “black capitalism.” Davies seems to think he meant it, for whatever it was worth, but I wonder how much it was just a placeholder for the guy, who’s heart was never in domestic policy and certainly not in improving black lives, something to say that was a little more cautious than the softened George Wallace line Reagan eventually perfected. Robert Kennedy, for his part, was a great proponent of the War on Poverty and for the participatory elements therein. If people in ghetto communities could get involved in Community Action Programs and the like, people like Kennedy and the social scientists behind him figured, they could build up their own political and economic power in such a way that doesn’t threaten the basic integrity of the American system. Like a lot of liberalism, it was about channeling popular energy away from revolution and into incremental change within the system as it stood.

Black power-influenced groups got involved in both types of action. Much of the book is about how that went, primarily in New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. It’s a sad story of some substantial accomplishments — new schools, job programs, black “firsts,” etc. — but consistent frustrations as white power structures saw to it that black power manifested itself in ways nonthreatening to the racist system as a whole. Easy to say from here, and I’m not trying to fault the militants for working with what they had, but it seems inevitable that both Kennedy’s and Nixon’s approaches were bound to fail. “Black capitalism” without substantial and basically un-capitalist redistribution of wealth is just setting up black people to scrabble against each other for the scraps white people left behind. Kennedy’s people-powered (but strictly managed) welfarism is at least a little closer to redistribution, but still leaves white people in charge of the commanding heights of the economy and political system and black and poor people at their mercy. Black mayors elected around this time could run the gamut from race-proud Maynard Jackson in Atlanta to race-neutral ex-cop Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, but either way, they found themselves up against the cold realities of racialized capitalism.

I guess if this book gets across one thing relevant to why I picked it up, it’s how fragile, contingent, and brief the window for serious change really was. The War on Poverty included as much community participation as it did because LBJ didn’t fully understand what he was signing, Davies argues. White backlash was already stirring before “black power” came along to scare everyone, and that backlash, combined with the economic damage that came along with neoliberalism, combined to make mass incarceration the central reality of American racial politics after the 1970s. There was never a moment where either militants or reformers (and the two categories weren’t nearly as distinct as you might think) could be confident that they had much room to maneuver- they were in constant emergency mode.

Anyway, this book was pretty good. It did its job and got into the nitty-gritty of community efforts in its three subject cities without making any really outsized claims, I guess appropriate for a recent black history book written by a white British guy. It’s what I think of as “dissertation-y,” all cautious and somewhat plodding, which I guess makes sense as it probably was the guy’s dissertation. The academic history ladder is such a slippery pole that for a lot of people, getting their dissertation out is all they can do for a good decade or so book-wise, which sucks as they probably have more interesting writing and ideas rattling around. Some people, of course, don’t even get that far and just write about people who do in reviews that aren’t even peer-reviewed! Oh, life. ****

Review- Davies, “Mainstreaming Black Power”

Review- Zola, “His Excellency Eugène Rougon”

Émile Zola, “His Excellency Eugène Rougon” (1876) (translated from the French by Brian Nelson) – I’ve been reading Zola’s “Rougon-Macquart” series at the rate of about one a year. This one is the sixth one. I guess I have another fourteen years to go before the thrilling conclusion! This one is concerned with politics in the early years of the Second Empire, when Napoleon’s dumbass nephew, Napoleon III, ruled France. The Second Empire is generally seen as an age of corruption, waste, and nonsense, brought in by Napoleon III ending the Second Republic in a coup and ending in ignominy with the French defeat at the hands of the Prussians.

Émile Zola, a committed republican, was one of the people to hammer this impression home, in no small part through this novel. The titular Eugène Rougon is an authoritarian power-broker who falls out of and back into the center of the power multiple times over the course of the book. He belongs to the Rougons, the nasty family of petty rural landowners that drive much of the action of the series, and represent the resentful petty bourgeois core that drove Napoleon III to power and backed reactionary movements in France (and elsewhere) thereafter. He is blunt in his authoritarianism, unlike the other regime supporters who flitter around him, and the Emperor uses him like a widget to reign in the regime’s enemies as Minister of the Interior. Rougon is surrounded by hangers-on trying to get favors from him, a railroad concession here, employment for a dumb son there. They’re never happy — unsatisfied with his efforts when he’s in power, abandoning him when he’s out — and they represent French civil society at this time. Rougon has a sort of horny-rivalry with a sexy Italian woman, Clorinde, who uses her wiles to influence the political system, at turns helping and hindering Rougon. Clorinde wants to prove to Rougon that women can have power in the political system. Rougon, for his part, just wants to stay in power, and sort of wants to sleep with Clorinde but not as much as he wants the first thing.

I get the picture, at this point in the Rougon-Macquart series, that plot or character is less the point of these books than the construction of set-piece scenes that illustrate this or that point Zola was trying to make about French society. This one includes a charity bazaar put on by various regime bigwigs where everyone is ogling the society ladies in their risque dresses and paying hundreds of francs for a toothpick to get their attention and show what big wheels they are. No one ever accused Zola of being subtle, I don’t think, but the series makes for interesting reads. ***’

Review- Zola, “His Excellency Eugène Rougon”

Review- Lee, “Ninefox Gambit”

Yoon Ha Lee, “Ninefox Gambit” (2016) (narrated by Emily Woo Zeller) – This is the first in trilogy of scifi novels that have been making the rounds- I think all three were nominated for the Hugo for best novel but none of them won. The main character, Cheris, is a mid-ranking space marine officer for an empire called the Hexarchate (used to be the Heptarchate, but they lost a faction). The Hexarchate runs things according to a calendar that not only orders the days but also, in some dimly-explained way, arrays energies or something in such a way as to make certain technologies, like faster-than-light travel, feasible. This extends to battle tactics- the space marines get in these formations that allow for the use of “variant weapons” that do various freaky things, like “amputation cannons” (more or less what it sounds like) and “threshold winnowers” (sound a lot like directional neutron bombs?). If you get the math wrong on a formation or in your calendar, stuff doesn’t work right, and so “heretics” — those who want a different calendar — are brutally punished by space marines like Cheris. Heretics take over an important space base, “The Fortress of Scattered Needles” (“Ninefox Gambit” is full of names like that, from the title on down- Cheris is from “The City of Ravens Feasting”). Cheris is appointed to meld her mind with the preserved brain of a four-hundred-year-dead general, Jedao, who had previously murdered his entire command but who had never lost a battle, in order to go get the space base back.

Gotta say, this one didn’t really do it for me. I didn’t hate it, and maybe I would have liked it better in text, though the narrator does a fine job and puts some mustard on the dramatic moments. It feels unfair to put it this way, but the worldbuilding struck me as both overdone and underbaked. It’s overdone in that there’s a lot of it. The Hexarchate, for instance, is made up of six different factions, all with different attributes (kind of like Harry Potter houses in some respects). Cheris is from one, Jedao is another, the big bad behind the betrayals is from a third, etc. It’s underbaked in that a lot of it doesn’t make immediate sense. The formation/calendar stuff is not clear in my mind. Maybe it’s not supposed to be! I entertained the notion that this takes place in such a far future that everyone’s brains are uploaded onto a computer, and so it’s all an elaborate video game and the formations are part of the game, but Lee seems to make pretty clear there’s a lot of blood and physical-impact weaponry like guns around, though I guess that could all be simulated, too. It feels unfair because I’m not sure how Lee could explain all this stuff without even more worldbuilding. It’s a dilemma.

The conventional literary aspects of the book again weren’t awful but again didn’t move me. There’s some big reveals at the end but Jedao’s motivations are still foggy to me, and a lot of it seemed more about setting up the sequels than anything else. The characters are mostly stock scifi characters, which is fine, but doesn’t help amp up the book and get me past the parts I found confusing or otherwise didn’t like.

I’ve read a few of the big names in recent scifi, not enough to really say I “keep up” but some — Jemisin’s “The Fifth Season,” Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice,” and now “Ninefox Gambit” — and I’ll be honest, none of them have bowled me over or, for me, earned the high praise I’ve seen them get. I haven’t hated any of them but I haven’t loved any of them. Maybe I’m just getting old- I will say I notice how much of these works seem to be influenced by anime, gaming, and frankly, the specter of Harry Potter, and while that’s understandable and even possibly commendable (the first two influences at least), it does tend to freeze me out a little. I get the dispiriting picture of something like our national political divide in the world of scifi, with the Jemisins, Leckies, and Lees of the world, plus their boosters, taking the role of the Democrats and the various “Puppy” factions — scifi reactionaries of (somewhat) differing stripes — taking the role of the Republicans. I know which I prefer- “Puppy” writers like Larry Correia and Ted “Vox Day” Beale are just garbage, as writers and as people, and increasingly they and their fan base are proud and defiant in their garbage-ness, not unlike what you see on the contemporary right more broadly. The metaphor breaks down, of course, and the stakes are radically different. It does look like the fan culture behind the “Democrats” in this scenario are better-organized than the real life ones- there seems to be real enthusiasm behind both repudiating the “Puppies” and embracing the works of standard-bearers like Jemisin, et al. I just can’t really get into either one. It’s a good time for scifi in terms of popularity and genre acceptance, but I wonder if it’s really a good time for the genre in terms of really pushing the envelope and exploring possibilities. ***

Review- Lee, “Ninefox Gambit”

Review- Jacobson, “Roots Too”

Matthew Frye Jacobson, “Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America” (2006) – I could do a whole personal essay on this, having witnessed first-hand a number of different ways people in my life have interacted with white ethnic identity, and having interacted with it in various ways in my own life. Let’s just say that “Roots Too” begins with a recitation of Hansen’s Law. This was a proposal by a sociologist early in the twentieth century who said that the second generation of any given ethnic group in America rejects its ethnic heritage, while the third generation goes looking for it again. Well, I’m fourth-generation, and I don’t think Hansen had anything to say about that. What I do know is that however it was for my parents or grandparents, for me, white gentile ethnic identities have had virtually no meaningful impact on my life, and none in comparison to race, class, sexual orientation, even region seems to be a bigger deal. I think this is fair to say for most of my white age peers.

I guess it fits with my dismissal of white ethnic identity that I don’t turn this into a personal essay, given how personal narratives of self-discovery constituted much of the white ethnic revival of the late twentieth century. We hear a lot about these in “Roots Too.” This is very much cultural history, so we get extended chapters about white ethnicity in movies and books as produced by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Norman Jewison, assorted Roths (Henry and Philip!), and numerous people I’ve never heard of who apparently made a splash in the late twentieth century.

In fact, I’d argue Jacobson basically buried the lede. To me, most of the interest in this story is the way white ethnic identity politics became one tool in the toolbox of America’s denial of its ongoing race problems after the recession of the Civil Rights/Black Freedom movement. It’s proved a remarkably diverse tool. From the right, you have the white-ethnic-bootstraps narrative, “our ancestors became successful through hard work and no handouts blah blah blah.” From the (notional, liberal) left, it’s basically proven to be a busy-box, a distraction, and there’s nothing the declining white seventies left loved more than a good distraction. This is how you got embarrassing spectacles like former SDS head Tom Hayden (never the sharpest tool in the shed, frankly, though he seemed an earnest enough old guy) trying to defect to befuddled Irish cops at the Dublin airport and briefly changing his name to something more Irish-sounding, or radical feminists trying to construct pre-Indo-European spiritualities for themselves. Forty, nearly fifty years on, this stuff is just cringe-making, especially because we know it helped weaken and distract from the fights to come. Jacobson tells all these stories, but only after long chapters on the movies and books, much of which focused on technical aspects of their construction, like the way the films emulated old photos of immigrants. I guess it’s nice that he’s not too thesis-heavy, but he could have gotten to the point quicker.

In fact, as Jacobson argues, New Left and New Right joined hands (and sometimes shared personnel, like ex-new-left-er-turned-neocon-white-ethnic-whisperer Michael Novak) in their criticism of the “melting pot” concept so popular in the 1950s and in their embrace of white ethnicity. In classic form, the right used the concepts to advance their own power and the left used it on journeys of self-discovery. Arguably, we are still dealing with the fallout, not only in the form of toxic memes like “Irish slaves” blobbing around like turds in a pond, but in the form of the fetishization of supposed pre-modern “community” forms and values you still see on much of the left today. It’s not the biggest problem we face, by a long shot, but it’s not helpful.

Jacobson uses the language of there being a transition from a “Plymouth Rock” America to an “Ellis Island” America. You’d figure that’d be a good thing- maybe a baby step, but it’s still nice that white ethnics aren’t facing prejudice anymore, right? Well, for one thing, Jacobson couldn’t have known this in 2006 but the most enduring of the Ellis Island prejudices, antisemitism, has seen a revival in recent years. The white ethnic revival treated Jews more or less like it did Italians, Irish, etc. They all “succeeded,” fanned out into the suburbs, went looking for their roots afterwards, etc. But it seems antisemitism is more persistent, tied in more deeply with historical dynamics, than the other prejudices facing contemporaneous white immigrant groups. There’s been no QAnon-style revival of anti-Catholicism, for instance, to go along with their revival of the blood libel. Meanwhile, Jacobson admirably resisted the blandishments of “whiteness studies,” which was going strong at the time and insisted that the Irish, Italians, etc. “became” white. Nope- as Jacobson points out, according to the law of the land, the Naturalization Act of 1790, they were considered “free white persons” from the very beginning, whatever other prejudices they faced. The embrace of “Ellis Island America,” with its hyphenate-identites taken on board as fully American, indeed, the bedrock American, signaled a circling of the wagons, not a liberation. ****

Review- Jacobson, “Roots Too”

Review- Mosse, “The Nationalization of the Masses”

George Mosse, “The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars through the Third Reich” (1975) – George Mosse had the sort of career that the history profession doesn’t really allow for today. No matter how brilliant an individual historian might be, the way the profession is now structured does not allow for the kind of pivots Mosse pulled. Starting as a specialist in the Reformation, Mosse left the early modern period behind mid-career and became one of the leading historians of fascism. There’s something to be said for the way we do things now. The kind of granular analysis you see in contemporary historians of fascism, like Johann Chapoutot, is in part the product of the sort of hyper-specialization you didn’t have in Mosse’s day. But earlier methods had their advantages, too, and not just in terms of career flexibility.

What got the German people, who had lived for centuries in many separate domains and were separated along religious lines, on board with the unified German nation-state, indeed, many of them so amped for a united Germany that they went overboard and left the traditional nation-state form behind to create an apocalyptic all-conquering German empire? This is the question Mosse wrestles with in several books, including “The Crisis of the German Ideology” and “The Nationalization of the Masses.” In the former volume, he dealt with the content of the “volkish” ideology that washed over Germany in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, which unified a critical mass of the German people behind the idea of themselves as a “volk,” a race with a unique and all-important destiny. In the book under discussion here, Mosse discusses the forms that this nationalization took, what allowed for all of these people to take hold of nationality and make it meaningful to their lives.

Later scholars of nationality, like Benedict Anderson, would put a lot of emphasis on what we today call “the discourse” — back then, mostly newspapers — for its role in causing a national identity to gel. “Nationalization of the Masses” makes the interesting point that if you want to cement a given national identity as transcending time — as the nationalists of Germany did — newspapers are almost an impediment, being a reminder of the transitoriness of things. Early German nationalists, for their part, preferred to instill national feeling in the masses through architecture, ritual, and popular participation in a nationalist liturgy- a full-fledged secular religion, in Mosse’s telling.

Mosse goes on to describe the various efforts to create a national secular religion of German-ness. Until the Third Reich got a hold of it, this was mostly an unofficial project mounted by nationalism-enthusiasts. The Second Reich, under Bismarck and the Kaisers, was leery of some of the nationalistic extremes and popular enthusiasms of the movements involved, and most of these people were anti-republican and so wanted nothing to do with the Weimar Republic. So it was mostly poets, philosophers, educators, and the sort of people who like getting clubs together who formed this national religion. As such, it formed something of a hodgepodge. Classicism was popular among German nationalists, especially in architecture- lots of big white buildings with columns, etc. So too was romanticism, which you’d figure would operate at cross-purposes to classicism, but the kitschy eclecticism of the small minds of nationalism “made it work.” You see much the same dynamic on the right today, with its (mis)appropriation of both classical and medieval styles. Hitler, for his part, was a big one for classicism, or anyway massive classical kitsch; for all the Nazi regime harkened back to a mythical Germanic past, Hitler personally hated stuff like “ancient Germanic dress” and folkloric theater architecture, we find out in an interesting chapter on his personal tastes.

More than any particular artistic style, the most successful nationalizers emphasized making room for popular participation. Spaces of the national cult, like memorials to the dead in the Napoleonic wars and so on, were more successful when they had room for many people to make pilgrimages and participate in rituals. The rituals, in turn, did better when there was something for the crowd to chew on and participate in — songs, call-and-response chanting, the like — as opposed to the more didactic speeches of liberals and socialists. Groups like male choral societies (I guess women who liked to sing were shit out of luck?), sharpshooting groups, and gymnastics clubs came into the picture, giving nationalist content to leisure activities and providing bodies and content for nationalist rituals.

Mosse was a liberal — he was well known at the University of Wisconsin for both attracting and challenging student radicals through his lectures at that active campus — and is specifically arguing against a number of leftist ideas of the time in this book. This sort of cultural history in general flew in the face of the trend of econometrics-informed social “history from below” going at the time. More pertinently, he argued both that the relevant mass in German history was formed not by economic factors like industrialization but by incorporation into the national religion, and that the relationship between socialist/labor mass politics and nationalist/fascist mass politics was a two-way street. There was a commingling of influences and practices between the two groups, according to Mosse, and to the extent the nationalists wound up more successful, it was in part because they understood the dynamics of mass politics in its ritual element better than did their leftist counterparts.

I don’t know enough to judge Mosse’s conclusions there one way or another. Among other things, I’ve never had any meaningful feel for ritual myself. It all strikes me as a lot of nonsense and wasted time- the part I related to were the “volksfest” elements after the rituals where everyone gathered round to drink beer, exactly the sort of “frivolity” the more severe German nationalists tried to cut out of the movement. But people, or at least enough people, clearly like that sort of thing, enough to make it an important part of regimes like Nazism. Along with “The Crisis of the German Ideology” and “Towards the Final Solution,” this book forms a sort of triptych of Mosse’s efforts to grapple with the cultural and intellectual roots of Nazism — a regime he had to flee as a teenager — that form much of the basis for methodologically similar analyses today. *****

Review- Mosse, “The Nationalization of the Masses”

Review- Hansen, “Fadeout”

Joseph Hansen, “Fadeout” (1970) – Dave Brandstetter works as an insurance investigator in Southern California. He’s sardonic, tough, independent-minded, cultured, and as the back copy puts it, “contentedly gay.” This was a pretty big deal for a book that came out within a year of the Stonewall uprising, and was set a few years before it. His creator, Joseph Hansen, was also gay, seemingly pretty open about it at the time, and to the best of my knowledge the first major openly gay crime fiction writer.

The first of a dozen or so Dave Brandstetter books delivers the genre goods. He’s called in to investigate the disappearance of Fox Olsen, a local celebrity in a small California valley city poised on the edge of bigger stardom for his folksy singing and humorous anecdotes. Everyone assumes he’s dead because his car crashed into a ravine, but there’s no body. There is, naturally, something fishy afoot and Dave needs to navigate both high and low rural California society to get at it.

In most respects, Brandstetter is a standard hardboiled private eye, but gay. He’s a middle-aged war veteran with heartbreak in his past- his partner of twenty years died of cancer just before the book opens. His being gay enters into the investigative proceedings by way of him being able to pick up on queer details of relationships of the people he’s investigating that others don’t. A lot of these seem kind of obvious to a modern reader but in a society both aware and in denial of queer desire, it’s less Brandstetter being in the know about gay stuff that does it and more him being more honest with himself and other than those around him. A lot of the crimes in hardboiled crime stories happen because people don’t want to have hard honest conversations, and there were few sources of avoided conversation more fecund at the time than queer sexuality.

All in all, Hansen produced a pretty bravura debut novel. The crime story is well written and paced, and not too long (under two hundred pages). The social commentary and “gay/lesbian interest” (as the genre tags on the back cover indicate) are well incorporated into the story. There is a little eyebrow-raising depiction of what we’d look at today as fairly sketchy sexual behavior, but it’s crime fiction and also the seventies, so I guess that’s to be expected. I’m curious to see what the subsequent volumes in the Brandstetter series are like. ****’

Review- Hansen, “Fadeout”

Review- Bay, “To Tell the Truth Freely”

Mia Bay, “To Tell The Truth Freely: the Life of Ida B. Wells” (2009) – Ida Wells was barely in her thirties when she began her campaign against lynch law in the south. Born to slaves in 1862, she came of age concurrently with the collapse of Reconstruction and the betrayal of southern black people by the federal government. After her parents died when she was sixteen, she took charge of raising her siblings and became a schoolteacher and then a journalist in Memphis. It was after a race riot — for most of American history, “race riot” meant white pogroms directed at black people and other people of color — and lynching of three black men there that she began the work that would define her legacy.

As the title of this biography indicates, Wells did something simple but courageous in response to the epidemic of lynching: she did basic reporting and told the truth. Her reporting laid the foundation for what is now the basic historical understanding of lynching as a social phenomenon. Southern white leaders declared that lynching was necessary to protect white women from depraved black rapists. Ida Wells looked into lynchings and found that in only a minority of cases were the victims even accused of rape. Moreover, she reported that many of those who were accused of rape were in fact involved in illicit but consensual interracial relationships, typically initiated by white women. And of course, the rape defense only went one way- no one, black or white, was ever lynched, barely anyone was ever brought to law, for sexually assaulting a black woman. Wells’s conclusions were commonsensical and strike the reader as quite “modern:” lynching, like rape, is about power, not sex, and specifically about reenforcing white supremacy by terrorizing black people. She called for both federal anti-lynching legislation and armed black self defense in response.

In the 1890s when she began her antilynching crusade, this was controversial on a number of levels. Southern whites were offended and she was publicly threatened with torture and dismemberment by “respectable” newspapers in Memphis, forcing her to leave the south for New York and then Chicago. She struck a chord with black readers, who made her for a time the most well-known black woman in the country, and made a number of allies, including Frederick Douglass in his later years. But many established reformists, both black and white, had issues with her. She was feisty and not afraid to fight. This upset established gender norms of the time, especially for black women, who were under extra pressure to “prove” their femininity. People (like Susan B. Anthony) criticized her for being unmarried in her thirties and then criticized her for carrying on the work once she married lawyer and reformer Frederick Barnett. She ran afoul of Booker T. Washington, unofficial leader of black America at the time, who insisted that political agitation for his community’s rights was pointless and who punished black figures who disagreed. Wells allied with more radical figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and helped found the NAACP, but quickly found herself — a woman without a college degree — out of step with the increasingly professionalized world of early twentieth century reform politics.

In general, Wells’s life certainly did not lack for incident, but it’s arc isn’t exactly the stuff of Hollywood. There was no big confrontation or victory, either with the forces of lynching or with her fairweather friends in the reform movement. She kept plugging along until she died in 1930, mostly removed from the national stage after World War One but staying active in Chicago reform and antiracist politics. Mostly, this is a record of Wells writing and giving speeches, getting polite (or not so polite) reactions, and then the world going on it’s merry way, unfortunately. Historian Mia Bay does a fine job putting Wells in her context, succinctly explaining things like the history and full extent of lynch law, Victorian social codes constraining women, and post-Reconstruction black politics. This is a highly readable as well as commendably complete book. Wells is an admirable figure by any fair reckoning, but it is a little concerning to think how much she echoes our own time: a figure with a very correct analysis but no way to implement it. ****

Review- Bay, “To Tell the Truth Freely”