In Review: June 10, 1998
Defending the history standards|
Several participants examine the political sound and fury
History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past
During the early 1990s, Gary B. Nash '55 *64, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn were involved in a bipartisan effort to create national history standards for elementary and secondary schools. However, the proposed standards turned into a quagmire as critics, mostly conservatives, accused the professional historians and teachers who wrote the standards of replacing good, old-fashioned American history with trendy, politically correct pap. Supporters -- on the defensive against extremist critics in a sound-bite-driven media crush -- did not acquit themselves especially well. Instead, this book is their delayed response.
To their credit, the authors thoroughly rebut their critics, who are shown to have brazenly twisted or ignored crucial facts. Indeed, the book's main villain -- former National Endowment for the Humanities chief Lynne Cheney -- is painted, persuasively, as a craven opportunist who supported the history-standards project early in its existence but stabbed it in the back (possibly to save her own reputation among conservative Republicans) once her party began scoring political points from it.
Moreover, the authors make an excellent case for the value of clear-eyed, critical historiography. Better still, they serve up a valuable example of such historiography by resurrecting several forgotten historical antecedents to their own "culture war"; this volume documents, in fascinating detail, how comparatively mild assertions by historians over the years have periodically led to widespread public condemnation.
However, once the authors set their sights on the over-the-top rantings of Rush Limbaugh and The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the critical reader detects a straw man in the making. Despite the authors' meticulous rebuttal of the conservatives' faulty facts, many sections exude an irritating, ivory-tower arrogance toward conservatism that hampers the authors' credibility in responding to principled right-of-center critiques.
For instance, the authors do not convincingly answer the challenge of how to mold intellectual unity within an increasingly balkanized society. They also fail to explain why the United States -- a nation with a historically decentralized educational system -- needed to spend untold man-years and dollars on a federal project to create a complex system of voluntary national standards. Nor, for that matter, are the authors convincing that their endeavor will reach students in schools where safety problems and decay make a rigorous academic focus hard to achieve.
In a rather bittersweet ending, the standards -- though badly wounded by an excess of poisonous rhetoric -- survived, and even found modest success in the school systems that decided to implement them. The authors are even forced to acknowledge, quietly, that the changes foisted upon them by critics were integrated with a minimum of harm into the final draft.
Now that the sound and fury has subsided, History on Trial survives as an important chronicle of a significant -- and somewhat regrettable -- political episode. But no one should be under the illusion that this volume possesses a monopoly on truth. History, as the authors painstakingly instruct us, is by its nature multifaceted. Someday, a historian with greater distance will revisit this controversy and provide a more well-rounded account. If that happens, Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn will hardly be in a position to complain.
-- Louis Jacobson '92
Louis Jacobson, a staff correspondent at National Journal, served on a National Goals for Education policy conference while at the Woodrow Wilson School.
The body is never found and a family must adjust
The Odd Sea
On the third page of Frederick Reiken '88's first novel, The Odd Sea, the 13-year-old narrator's older brother mysteriously disappears. The small New England town sends out firefighters to comb the woods, and divers to scour the lakes. Police officers bring dogs that can smell decaying bodies. Volunteers check their sheds and pastures. By page 10, the official search is over -- Ethan is gone.
After finding Ethan's diary, Philip and one of his sisters discover that Ethan had been sleeping with the director of a local art college who has recently moved to Oregon. The family sends a private detective after her, but to no avail. Since Ethan had been obsessed with Van Gogh, Philip thinks he may have left for Arles, France. When a serial killer is caught in a nearby town, the family must face the possibility that Ethan was brutally murdered. One spring, Ethan's left sneaker turns up.
But Ethan's body will not be found, and over the next five years, family and friends must cope with his inexplicable vanishing. Philip's sisters retreat into their own lives, his mother sinks into depression, and his father devotes his life to timber framing -- the lost art of using only the simplest tools to craft log cabins. In one passage in which Philip's father is teaching his craft, Reiken writes, "He showed us how to transform bored holes into mortises with a framing chisel. Using only a pencil, combination square, boring machine, and chisel, we each carved five evenly spaced mortises on our own beam....He loved those hand-held tools with the profound tenderness of a poet. We loved our father for the poet he'd become."
When a novel relies heavily on description, self-conscious turns like this can be jarring. But though Reiken jumps too eagerly to explain some images, it is not for lack of sensibility. His careful portrayals of monarch butterflies, tiger swallowtails, and needled branches of hemlock create a delicate environment in which Philip gradually comes to terms with his loss.
The book's title comes from a tale that Philip's father tells the family about a noble beaver king who travels to sack the city of Beaverilium, then spends a decade finding his way back home. When the older sister says the story is The Odyssey, the younger sister says, "It's not the Odd Sea," it's about Ethan. Reiken's quiet ambition is refreshing, and readers of his first novel will look forward to his second.
-- Mark Rambler '96
Mark Rambler is an assistant editor at The American Lawyer in New York City.
Avati's first book-jacket painting was for Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye, Berlin
James Avati '35 doesn't have particularly fond memories of J.D. Salinger, but then again Salinger probably doesn't have a warm spot in his heart for the famous painter either. In 1951, when Avati was a book- jacket artist known as "the King of the Paperbacks," he had to take the young writer aside and get a bit stern with him. Salinger simply wouldn't agree to anything Avati or execs at Little, Brown suggested as an image for the cover of his first novel, proposing instead that the book feature a far-off, dreamy view of a young girl gazing at a merry-go-round. "I asked him, 'Can I talk to you?' and we went into a little side office," remembers Avati. "Then I just told him, 'These guys know how to sell books. Why don't you let them do it?' In the end, he said okay." The book was The Catcher in the Rye, and Salinger did eventually get his way -- he so hated Avati's painting of Holden Caulfield (complete with hunting cap) that subsequent editions were published without any cover art whatsoever. Still, Avati is sure that the reclusive writer's vision of a contemplative little girl wouldn't have worked out. "It was a nice idea," he says, "but it didn't get to the guts of the story."
That's exactly what Avati did in his paperback covers -- use his paintbrush to expose the steamy, sometimes seamy viscera of the stories inside. In the heyday of the literary paperback in the '40s and '50s, he distilled works by Christopher Isherwood, William Faulkner, Pearl Buck, William Styron, Erskine Caldwell, Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, and many others down to their three-by-four-inch essence, images that an entire generation of readers can still see if they just close their eyes. Last month, 30 of Avati's best paintings were on display in New York City at the Antiquarian Book Arcade on East 17th Street. The show came about because record producer Johan Kugelberg, a longtime Avati fan, wrote the octogenarian painter a fan letter at his home in Petaluma, California, and asked where his paintings were. When Avati told him that they were still in storage in New Jersey, Kugelberg knew he had a rare opportunity on his hands. "Avati may not have been canonized as a 'Great American Artist' yet," he says, "but his paperbacks sucked many people in to their very first experiences of literature. He is incredibly important in our cultural history."
Avati was born in 1912, and spent his early days in Red Bank, New Jersey, teaching himself painting and photography.
When he arrived at Princeton, he already knew he wanted to be an artist and quickly learned that there were no classes in painting at the college. He instead studied architecture, an experience he looks back on with some bemusement. "I was an opinionated brat at the time," he says. "You couldn't tell me anything, so I didn't learn much."
He spent a few years in New York City, arranging window displays and painting roses on boxes for a department store before heading off to serve three and a half years in the Army, fighting in the European theater during World War II.
When he returned, an agent sent him to the New American Library publishers, who tested Avati out by having him paint the cover to Isherwood's Goodbye, Berlin. He got the job, and spent the next decades cranking out book covers at the rate of at least one a month, often using the ordinary citizens of Red Bank as his models. Artist and scholar Stanley Meltzoff, who once shared a studio with Avati, still marvels at the authenticity of the paintings which resulted. In the program to last month's exhibition, Meltzoff summed up the timeless appeal of Avati's work: "He is our private opinion about what the world is actually like after the bullshit is over. We aren't all that good nor all that bad or all that picturesque. We are all Avati characters."
-- Sarah Van Boven '95
Sarah Van Boven is a national affairs writer at Newsweek magazine in New York City. For more information about Avati's work, email email@example.com.
Movies; tapping spiritual wisdom for better business
This site really impressed me upon a first viewing in April: reviews, essays, interviews, a great masthead, and, overall, a striking density of text, graphics, and design. A month later, film.com had undergone a redesign that "streamlined the navigational structure," as the site explained, that seemed to remove many of the essays. It now focuses on the four categories: Screening Room, Audience, Reviews, and Store. All were included in the earlier version, but the site now feels fluffier in design and less substantial in content. Founder, president, and executive producer Lucy Mohl '80, a former film critic for KING-TV in Seattle, gives viewers with the necessary computer technology plenty of audio and video clips, including interviews with various directors. The reviews are intelligent and steeped in film savvy: "He Got Game isn't perfect, but there is something new here in Spike Lee's work; the hectoring tone is mostly gone, and so is his here's-a-snazzy-camera-angle-for-its-own-sake approach to composition." One useful feature in the store is a link to www.reel.com, where viewers can buy and rent movies (I found and rented Melanie Mayron's Girl Friends from 1978, which has otherwise vanished from the cosmos). While Mohl's site is still fun, the new look doesn't enhance it. Sometimes less is more, but in this case, less is less.
What makes this well-intentioned Website so annoying? Is it the long lines of text cluttered with New Age jargon or the endlessly repeated "CC" logo? Perhaps the overuse of links? In truth, all these factors contribute, along with one more: Author, teacher, and consultant John Selby '68 fails to draw a clear connection between his philosophy and its impact on business. After positing the existence of "a non-material spiritual dimension to our lives," Hawaii-based Selby writes, "We can greatly enhance both our overall business performance and our underlying sense of personal fulfillment by purposefully tapping this infinite spiritual wisdom and power which hold the universe -- and our personal business world -- together." But what all the enlightenment means in practice, to somebody trying to meet a payroll, is never stated. In fairness, the site has a succinct homepage, which links to descriptions of Selby's FastMaster seminars, inspiring thoughts, the CC book and magazine, investment opportunities, leadership retreats, and other places where the secrets are revealed. The 12 Seminar Themes, the Six Key Leadership Qualities, and the Four New Business Laws are worth perusing. Still, Selby's passion overwhelms his ability to communicate his ideas to anybody other than a true believer. The bottom line: way too much consciousness, not enough capitalism. (http://21net.com/protect/cc/; username: vip; password: welcome)
-- Van Wallach '80
Franklin A. Dorman '48, a retired Church of Christ minister, has long held an interest in the history of black families in New England. Twenty Families of Color documents the genealogical history of 20 such families, many of whom can be traced well back into the 18th century. The book, not a narrative history, is essentially a compilation of data useful to a researcher. A painstaking reader, however, should he or she settle back with the book, can begin to see these families as more than data and dates. For instance, William Kellogg (c. 1807-85), a free black, was a wheelwright in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His sixth-generation descendants alive today include Beverly Tatum, a professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke and an authority on racial identity; and David Hazel, a three-time Rose Bowl wide-receiver and now an emergency room physician in Mount Clemens, Michigan. Tracing Kellogg's family history, and those of the other families, via historical documents and public records is an unusual but fascinating way to see how families change, for better and for worse, over time. (New England Historic Genealogical Society, $35)
-- Lolly O'Brien
Resurrection: A War Journey, by Robert E. Gajdusek '46 (University of Notre Dame Press, $30) -- In November 1944, as a 20-year-old infantryman attacking German fortifications near Metz, France, Robert Gajdusek '46 was badly wounded. Separated from his unit, he spent the next several days hiding from enemy soldiers, but was eventually captured and sent to a makeshift hospital filled with other wounded soldiers, German and American. Within a few more days Americans captured the hospital, and Gajdusek earned a ticket home. The author survived cold, hunger, pain, and the caprice of foe and friend alike. Using his high school German to astonishing effect, he persuaded an SS officer not to shoot him. Later, in an American hospital, surgeons were about to amputate both his legs when a senior officer overruled them. Gajdusek says it took him 50 years to come to terms with these events, which took place a half century ago and changed him forever.
-- J.I. Merritt '66
The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer, by Dale Matthews '76 (Viking, $24.95) -- Dale Matthews, an internist at Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C., believes that prayer and a strong spiritual life are keys to better health. "There is a medical value to the faith factor," he says. In his book he provides vivid and engaging anecdotes about his patients culled from his studies into the connection between spirituality and wellness at the National Institutes for Health Care Research. "Religion is important to patients, and I want every doctor in America to know its medical value," says Matthews, who prescribes prayer along with pills to his patients. He also teaches a spirituality course at Georgetown Medical School. To promote his message, Matthews has appeared on television and has lectured at medical schools across the country.
-- Theola Labbé '96
The Tangier Diaries, 1962-1979, by John Hopkins '60 (Cadmus, $14.95) -- John Hopkins, a novelist now living in England, has published an account of his formative years as a writer, spent among a community of American expatriates in Morocco. Colorful personalities -- including several Princetonians -- enliven these recollections; the author's acquaintances included William Burroughs and Malcolm Forbes '41. Yet Morocco itself is the most intriguing aspect of this work. Such an intense landscape is impossible to background, and Hopkins's descriptions of the country, from city to sea to desert, are precise but still evocative. The author's writing process is evident as well, and his struggles with his work will be familiar to many would-be writers.
-- Lesley Carlin '95
A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society, by Lawrence B. Glickman '85 (Cornell, $35) -- An analysis of the idea of the living wage. Glickman is an assistant professor of history at the University of South Carolina.
Finding Time: How Corporations, Individuals, and Families Can Benefit From New Work Practices, by Leslie A. Perlow '89 (Cornell, $13.95) -- Explores the assumption that organizational success is linked to long work hours. Perlow is an assistant professor of business at the University of Michigan.
Modern Poetry After Modernism, by James Longenbach *85 (Oxford, $45) -- Essays focusing on individual poets and their relationship with the postmodern. Longenbach is a professor of English at the University of Rochester.
Cross-Cultural Encounters and Conflicts, by Charles Issawi (Oxford, $27.50) -- Essays that examine how the world's major cultures have interacted with each other over the last two thousand years. Issawi is the Bayard Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies.
Apartment in Paris: Renting Roaming, Wining, and Dining, by Erasmus H. Kloman '43 (Judd Publishing, 50 Washington St., Norwalk, CT 06854, $14.95) -- A highly personal guidebook to Paris based on the many visits the Klomans have made over the years.
Immortality Made Easy, by Paul Rampell '77 (Parthenon, $10) -- A primer (with cartoon illustrations) about the how-tos and wherefores of preparing a will. Rampell is a lawyer in Palm Beach.
We the Poor People: Work, Poverty, & Welfare, by Joel F. Handler '54 and Yeheskel Hasenfeld (Yale, $16) -- An examination of welfare, its problems and possible solutions. Handler is a law professor at University of California, Los Angeles.
The Sea Voyage Narrative, by Robert Foulke '52 (Twayne, $29.95) -- A study of literary narratives using the sea as a theme. Foulke is a professor, emeritus, at Skidmore.
Fathers: Transforming Your Relationship, by John Selby '68 (Heartsfire, $12.95) -- A step-by-step guide to exploring the father/child relationship. Selby is a counselor and teacher in Hawaii.
MSS Revisited, by Robert V. Keeley '51 (Five and Ten, 3814 Livingston St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20015, $7) -- Reprints and reflections of those involved with the Princeton literary magazine MSS.
The Nature of Salvation: Theological Consensus in the Episcopal Church, 1801-73, by Robert W. Prichard '71 (University of Illinois, $29.95) -- An examination of 19th-century Episcopal theology. Prichard is a professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary.
Comprehensive Planning for the 21st Century: General Theory and Principles, by Melville C. Branch '34*36 (Praeger, $19.95) -- A guide to key aspects of civil, corporate, and military planning. Branch is a professor of planning, emeritus, at the University of Southern California.