Book review: Roaring Camp by Susan Lee Johnson

J.D. Borthwick, “Monte in the Mines” (c. 1851)
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Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush by Susan Lee Johnson is an extraordinary contribution to scholarship on the California Gold Rush.  The title of the book is a play on the title of the short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Bret Harte and is intended to evoke ideas of the myths tied to the Gold Rush. However, the book is anything but playful: it is an account of a period that was so full of potential for redefining ideas of class, gender, and cultural tolerance, yet the opportunity was lost. The Northern Mines of California are the site of more widely acknowledged Gold Rush narratives; Johnson, however, focuses on the Southern Mines, which were a site of conflicted gender roles due to the mixing of multiple ethnicities and glasses and are comparatively outside of the major history of the Gold Rush. A highly deserving winner of the 2001 Bancroft Prize, Johnson utilizes her position as a New Western historian to persuasively coerce the reader to rethink not only what is acknowledged about the Gold Rush, but also how ethnicity, class and gender influenced notions of social roles even before the advent of postmodernism.  Continue reading

Essay review: Else Surely We Shall All Hang Separately: The Politics of Western Women’s History by Virginia Scharff

Poster from the movie “Calamity Jane” (1953) with Doris Day and Howard Keel
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History, then, is one word commonly and confusingly used to refer to two things: what happened, and what we say happened. (537)

Apologies for my unusually long absence from the blogosphere, all! The last six days have been filled with preparations for getting to, attending, and returning from a wedding (third of the month for me) in San Diego, which involved a lot of insanely early mornings. Consequently, I didn’t as much done over the last week as I would have liked– exhaustion made sure of that– but I did read three essays over the weekend: “A Minoritarian Feminism? Things to Do with Deleuze and Guattari” by Pelagia Goulimari, “The Gentle Tamers Revisited: New Approaches to the History of Women in the American West” by Joan M. Jensen and Darlis A. Miller (inconsequential aside: this essay was the first PDF I read and highlighted using my GoodReader app on my iPad!), and of course Virginia Scharff’s “Else Surely We Shall All Hang Separately.” I also started reading a book called Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism, and Social Dissent by David Bate, which I will hopefully be able to review tomorrow or Wednesday. Goulimari’s “A Minoritarian Feminism?” was an unnecessarily jargon-y and difficult-to-read essay that is mostly useful as a secondary source (most of the essay was spent critiquing two works by other scholars) and which I don’t feel like reviewing here. Jensen’s and Miller’s “Gentle Tamers Revisited” was referenced a lot in Scharff’s essay, thus I felt compelled to read it for the sake of thoroughness, but again, I don’t feel like it is necessary to write a review for it. Therefore, by process of elimination/preference, I am now going to review the last aforementioned essay. Continue reading

Book review: Regionalism and the Humanities, eds. Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz

Grant Wood, “American Gothic” (1930)
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[Regionalism] has been a revolt against cultural nationalism– that is, the tendency of artists to ignore or deny the fact that there are important differences, psychologically and otherwise, between the different regions of America. But this does not mean that Regionalism, in turn, advocates a concentration on local peculiarities; such an approach results in anecdotalism and local color. -Grant Wood (177)

Regionalism and the Humanities is (yet another) anthology of essays, which was compiled from papers selected after a 2003 national conference of the Consortium of Regional Humanities Centers. The conference– and subsequently this book– confronted a big issue: in a world that is increasingly becoming homogenized and standardized by globalization, regionalism is simultaneously experiencing a resurgence of interest and risking decline due to (literally) larger postmodern issues and the ever-shrinking nature of diversity due to phenomena such as the internet. It is acknowledged that this simultaneous decline and revival seems paradoxical, and it is stressed that one needs to think about its different political, social, economic, and aesthetic purposes. Different terms are thrown about and defined in the introduction– place, landscape, regionalism/regionalist, local/localism, regional identity– which help illuminate the various aspects of regionalism and reveal it to be more complex than often regarded. Regionalism was once viewed as a reaction against modern forces, but it is now seen as a more aggressive endeavor to make a claim for the importance of place and space (as opposed to other postmodern issues: gender, race, ethnicity, class, demography, and other cultural and physical distinctions). Place and space are more humanist and individualist, seeking to help us understand ourselves and the human experience. This is not to say that postmodernism cannot acknowledge regionalism at all– although it should be noted that there is no formal redefinition– and if we look at regions as fluid and ever-changing, regionalism can fit into the postmodern discussion. Continue reading

Book review: Western Places, American Myths, ed. Gary J. Hausladen

Peter Goin, “Intersecting Tracks” (1998)
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The power and importance of the American West, ambiguous or not, cannot be overstated. Not just a real geographical region, the West is a mythic concept that repeatedly transcends simple historical-geographical description. For Americans, the West is part of our psyche, an essential part of who we are as a people. (Gary J. Hausladen, Introduction)

Western Places, American Myths: How We Think About the West is a fascinating anthology of essays dealing with the American West, with topics ranging from historical geography to regionalism to art history and analyzing both the myths and realities that signify the “West.” Despite the leaps and bounds that contemporary scholarship has made in analyzing the West, this does not seem to have extended outside of academia, meaning that people still look at its history from a white, masculine perspective that glorifies the notion that it is a fundamentally different place from the Midwest and the East Coast. This notion identifies it as a freer, wilder place that in turn verifies larger ideas of individualism and American nationalism, though it is overall seen as distinct from the rest of America. Physically, it is a different place than the East Coast– drier, generally more mountainous, and greater distance between urban centers– but it is also psychologically and historically more complex than it is given credit for. Continue reading

Book review: Irrational Modernism by Amelia Jones

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (Source)

My thoughts were powerless against unhappiness so huge. I couldn’t alter European history, or order the artillery to stop firing. I could stare at the War as I stared at the sultry sky, longing for life and freedom and vaguely altruistic about my fellow-victims. But a second-lieutenant could attempt nothing– except to satisfy his superior officers; and altogether, I concluded, Armageddon was too immense for my solitary understanding. (Siegfried Sassoon, 1930 [46])

First of all, let me say that I cannot even begin to describe how refreshing it was to read Amelia Jones after the structural mess that was Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. I have actually read a fair amount of Jones’ scholarship, as she was a visiting scholar at my school last semester, and I have concluded that there are four things that can always be counted upon in her work: a cohesive introduction with a thesis statement that is easily identifiable, a conclusion that wraps up everything with a nice little bow, a beautiful (albeit complicated) style of writing, and liberal usage of derogatory language.

Having met Dr. Jones in person, I can tell you that she reads like she sounds. She is brilliant, opinionated, and extraordinarily blunt (word to the wise: don’t try to talk to her about Harry Potter, because she’s one of the 1% of the population that thinks it’s a waste of verbage). During a lecture in which she presented a partial chapter from her new book, Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts, she offended one of my professors so much with her repeated usage of the term “c*nt art” and a brief allusion to her own sex life that he opted out of dinner with her that night. I found this rather ironic, as he was teaching a class on Leo Steinberg, who was often just as blunt as Dr. Jones in his own writing (and in one of my papers in that class, I discussed how she reminded me of him). However, this particular professor loved her book Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York DadaContinue reading

Book review: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement by Whitney Chadwick

Leonora Carrington, “The Juggler” (1954)
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I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist. (Leonora Carrington)

I have to admit, I was not nearly as impressed with this book as I thought I would be. My anticipation was framed by two factors: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement was the first comprehensive look at the women artists associated with Surrealism (notice that I don’t say “Surrealist women artists,” as not all of the women in the book considered themselves Surrealists. Chadwick makes the distinction that these were women who were at one time affiliated with Surrealism in some capacity and had careers that were not reliant on Breton or Surrealism). Also, this book was one of the primary sources behind the In Wonderland exhibition and catalog, which is unsurprising considering that she was one of the curators/contributors to the catalog.

This book was written between 1980 and 1985. I found Chadwick’s writing to be informative, but poorly structured: I felt like I was following a mostly linear train of thought that she managed to break apart into six chapters, but there was little to no framing. Perhaps an introductory chapter that cohesively explains the book with nice summaries of each chapter is a relatively new requirement of scholarly work. And so are introductions and conclusions to each chapter, for that matter. What does this have to do with the actual content of the book? Not a damn thing, I just thought you all should know that the book was frustrating and that I am going to make sure my master’s thesis has a good abstract, introduction, conclusion, and that I properly frame my chapters.

Chadwick’s aim with her book is to make the women artists associated with Surrealism more accessible to study, and she claims to not want to isolate them as women artists, nor define them solely by their connection to the movement. It is debatable if she actually is successful in either of these aims, as her book ends up being somewhat essentialist and does not go too far outside of Surrealism to discuss the wider work of these artists. Chadwick prefaces her book with the confession that the histories of the women artists affiliated with “first generation” Surrealism were often difficult to distinguish because they were/are overshadowed by the histories of Surrealist men. These women more often than naught were remembered as muses to their male counterparts, but the fact that they continued in their own careers after the original group dissipated nullifies the idea that her role as muse outweighed her role as artist. Furthermore, the light that feminism shed on women artists particularly in the 1970’s and 80’s made it all the more important to address the women artists affiliated with Surrealism (even though Chadwick denies that this is a feminist retelling of the first generation of Surrealism). This book was the first time a woman attempted to address the “real” history of these women. This history is complicated, fragmented, often contradictory, and difficult to relay (which is definitely obvious in her piecemeal retelling of parts of different artist’s stories throughout the chapters).  Continue reading

T minus 3 months to test day

My 26th birthday was on Monday. July 16th falls at the best time of the year: the biggest summer blockbuster is always released during this week, and this year it’s “The Dark Knight Rises.” You’re probably asking yourself, “Do you have tickets for a screening of the ENTIRE trilogy, concluding with the midnight premiere of the final movie?” The answer is yes, yes I do. Consequently, this week is always the high point of my summer– it’s all pretty much downhill from here.

This year, passing the high point of the summer is slightly more nerve-wracking because I am now beginning my free-fall towards comps. I actually have slightly less than 3 months to test day, as it takes place during the second week of October (this year, it will be between the 8th and the 12th). I’m hoping that I am doing ok– I’ve read 13 books now and have written the equivalent of 3-4 page papers about each them on this blog. My major advisor/proctor asked for 5 sources for each of my 5 questions (totaling 25… oy), some of which can be articles and some of which can be used for multiple questions. Before the summer is out, I need to write 3-page papers on each of the questions for my proctor to read, which will help him point me in the right direction for what he will be looking for. I am hoping to do the same for my minor advisor (assuming he answers my email about Skyping next week…).

However, I will be back in school on August 27th with a full-time class load, which means that my comps reading schedule will be complicated by my class reading. My tentative plan for this is to get my school reading done during the week– which is going to mean I am going to be largely skimming a lot of the readings– and then dedicate my weekends (and any other free time) to comps. Because I am going at a slightly slower pace than I would like due to the fact that I feel like enjoying my summer a bit, I am probably going to be ramping up my reading even more in the next few weeks– ideally 3 books/articles a week instead of 2. And I now need to read with purpose. This begs the question: just what are comps, and what the hell kind of test gives you the questions beforehand?  Continue reading