Random Notes of Still-Hereness

ZamiI’m still here. I had a Rough Semester* and it’s been difficult to get myself focused on scholarship in a bloggable way (or on anything bloggable, really). A girls’ intellectual history panel I helped organize has been accepted for OAH’s 2017 conference in New Orleans, which is great news. I will be presenting my revised version of the Seventeen paper there. I got an extremely generous critique of my earlier draft from Kelly Schrum, whose work on Seventeen was the starting point for mine, and that’s given me a lot of good stuff to think about. But the writing itself is progressing slowly (not that that’s anything new) and in a piecemeal kind of way. Very pleased to have a deadline of sorts.

The call for papers for UVA’s Global History of Black Girlhood conference has gotten me thinking about Audre Lorde and slowly (everything is slow—blame the 9-to-5ery) reading about her.

Lorde published her first poem in Seventeen and was also the first teen to publish a full book-review column in Seventeen (January 1953). Her byline for “On the Book Beat” (subtitled, “A Science-Fiction fan discusses the growing appeal of stories from the Outer Reaches”) reads “Audrey Lorde, Age 18, Stamford, Connecticut.” Here’s the short biographical statement Seventeen published:

Seventeen_January1953_v12_no1_BookBeat_AudreyLorde_Crop

Having just finished Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), I’m guessing the guitar had belonged to Genevieve Johnson, Lorde’s first (apparently unconsummated) love; Stamford was also where Lorde had her first lesbian sexual experience. Seventeen‘s editor at the time, Alice Thompson, was probably pushing a line somewhat by publishing a photograph of an African-American girl (according to Kelley Massoni, Seventeen‘s founding editor had clashed with published Walter Annenberg over a photograph of an African-American girl). Audrey Lorde here is portrayed as a girl working hard to keep herself in college and who enjoys science fiction (the theme of her review), books in general, and guitar playing. Notice the allusions to class: she is a scholarship student, “trying to make expenses” (i.e., working). At the same time, Seventeen also published articles on how to afford college, so, Lorde also falls within that discourse: she has earned a scholarship, she is working now, but it’s to pay for college. No mention of what Lorde was actually doing in Stamford (she was working at an electronics company, being exposed to harmful chemicals and X-rays); what’s important to Seventeen, apparently, is her status as a college student.

I’m especially interested in Lorde’s experience at Hunter College High School, a high school for gifted girls and the location of her first experience of a writing group (a group of classmates who came to call themselves The Branded, including Diane di Prima). From Zami:

In high school, my best friends were ‘The Branded,’ as our sisterhood of rebels sometimes called ourselves. We never talked about those differences that separated us, only the ones that united us against the others. My friends and I talked about who studied german or french, who liked poetry or doing ‘the twist,’ who went out with boys, and who was ‘progressive.’ We even talked about our position as women in a world supposed to be run by men.

But we never ever talked about what it meant and felt like to be Black and white, and the effects that it had on our being friends. Of course, everybody with any sense deplored racial discrimination, theoretically and without discussion. We could conquer it by ignoring it.

….

We were The Branded, the Lunatic Fringe, proud of our outrageousness and our madness, our bizarre-colored inks and quill pns. We learned how to mock the straight set, and how to cultivate our group paranoia into an instinct for self-protection that always stopped our shenanigans just short of expulsion. We wrote obscure poetry and cherished our strangeness as the spoils of default, and in the process we learned that pain and rejection hurt, but that they weren’t fatal, and that they could be useful since they couldn’t be avoided. We learned that not feeling at all was worse than hurting. At that time, suffering was clearly what we did best. We became The Branded because we learned how to make a virtue out of it. (Zami, 81-82)

Lorde followed those paragraphs with two paragraphs entirely in italics:

How meager the sustenance was I gained from the four years I spent in high school; yet, how important that sustenance was to my survival. Remembering that time is like watching old pictures of myself in a prison camp picking edible scraps out of the garbage heap, and knowing that without that garbage I might have starved to death. The overwhelming racism of so many of the faculty, including the ones upon whom I had my worst schoolgirl crushes. How little I settled for in the way of human contact, compared to what I was conscious of wanting.

It was in high school that I came to believe that I was different from my white classmates, not because I was Black, but because I was me. (Zami, 82)

I’m also curious about Hunter College High School as a girls’ intellectual space. Girls had to pass an examination to be accepted. More to read up on about that. Another Seventeen reviewer, Corinne Demas, also attended Hunter College High School and mentioned it in her 2000 autobiography, Eleven Stories High: Growing up in Stuyvesant Town, 1948-1968. But I’m quite sure her experience was different from Lorde’s.

I’ll be reteaching the dating-history course in the fall, and am hoping to write up the syllabus for Syllabus. I’m not sure yet what form that will take. I have ideas about writing it as an article rather than as a “syllabus” piece, but I’m having trouble getting my thoughts together on that. This is the time of year when I wish I had academic summers: 40 hours a week in a cubicle just isn’t all that conducive to writing. I miss being able to move around, work in coffee shops, work at home with laundry and cooking underway (laundry and cooking to me = natural pomodoros). I don’t miss teaching 4-4 during the semesters though. Just saying, there are tradeoffs, and I feel those the most when the spring semester ends and there’s not as clear of a “woo hoo, freedom!” moment.

*Which I wish I could write about, because I think some of the roughness of the semester bears talking about—indeed, should be talked about—but only if I’d made this blog more securely pseudonymous.

Righteous Anger: And Yet Another Blog Post I Won’t Be Writing

Georgia Guns on Campus

A pedestrian climbs a stairwell to the library at the Georgia State University campus Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Atlanta. Anyone licensed to carry a gun in Georgia could carry concealed handguns on public college campuses under a bill passed Monday by the Georgia House. The bill now goes to the state Senate for review. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Just gonna leave this story from the Atlantic here in honor of campus concealed carry passing my state’s legislature today. Story focuses on Georgia Tech; photo is from the Atlanta campus of Georgia State University.

Thanks, armed robbers, for helping bring about this the passing of this law! You are the gift that just keeps giving.

Random Scholarly Notes: Bits and Pieces from February

cover, Anne Boyd, Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in AmericaIt’s still February. I’m still in the thick of instruction.

I’m bouncing back a bit from my grumpy “I don’t wanna read this literature” stance earlier about the antebellum literary-history stuff, but it’s been interesting to see that what I’m missing more is the work I did with the poets themselves, and less the other scholarship on it, if that makes sense. When I was working on the book review that pulled me back towards the nineteenth century, what I found most engaging was looking at the scholarship on postbellum women’s writing and their engagement with ideas of genius and intellectual/creative effort. I was always uncomfortable with the “private women/public stage” model, which I think was why I initially didn’t want to write about antebellum women writers. I felt like that had been done, and that the questions I was really interested in—questions about the desire to write poetry and the choices involved in actually doing so—seemed better approached through writing about men, who had more options to choose from. Anne Boyd’s Writing for Immortality (2009), on postbellum women writers, spoke in some different ways to the questions I had wanted to address. After having moved forward into writing about postwar-era girls’ intellectual culture, I feel almost more at home with Boyd’s women/analysis than with my older materials. But I still find the questions from my older work engaging—I wonder if I’m just wanting to find different populations to ask them of. Different would-be poets, perhaps.

cover, Peter L. Laurence, Becoming Jane JacobsI came across Peter L. Laurence’s Becoming Jane Jacobs (2016) yesterday in my purchasing and was immediately drawn to it. It looks like something I absolutely need to read: an intellectual biography of a woman focused on postwar cities, communities, and spaces. For a brief moment as a teenager I was interested in becoming an urban planner (I attended some kind of presentation on urban planning in school, I think); not so much anymore, but it sounds like this book touches on themes that are of great interest to me. Bought it for the library, waiting now for it to come in.

cover, Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

The 1984 edition.

Yiiiiikes re the flower imagery given Friedan’s denigration of “the sexual sell.”

Speaking of aesthetic/intellectual women, for Monday’s Meeting with Your Work I ended up looking over some more general “notes towards a book proposal” written a few months ago, and my writing grew out of following some prompts there about Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). I was writing from memory about some passages where Friedan warns women against pursuing art/creative work in an amateurish, dabbling way (I’m pretty sure she used a variant of “dabble”) and instead pushing themselves to do serious, “professional” work. I remember it as a distinction between artistic work and “serious” professional work (i.e. work done reliably for pay). I spent some time writing from that as a prompt, and got some good ideas out onto paper. Later, I looked up my old copy of Feminine Mystique, a 1984 reprint, from the semester I TAed for the second half of the US history survey (probably spring 1997). The professor had assigned the whole book, so I reread it then—I’d read it in college previously, I think on my own rather than for an assignment. Helpfully, at some point, probably since 1997, I’d left a bookmark at exactly the page where those passages began. They had jumped out at me because I was interested in (and dissertating on) larger questions about gender, vocational choice, and art as a vocation/”job,” so those passages were particularly salient for me.

1997 would also have been around the time when I was reading Anne Emery’s books, which meant that I was reading about a lot of girls who were serious about pursuing artistic careers. Dinny, of course, but Dinny was always represented as being more about ancient history, with art appearing more in the context of Dinny not quite understanding her friend Blythe Brisbane’s famous artist father’s abstract paintings, but diligently trying to when her friend, Julie Jennings—who consistently expresses the desire to illustrate children’s books—praises them.

cover, Anne Emery, A Dream to Touch

This is the reprint edition (mod!) I have. (Boy, boy, crazy boy…. just keep it cool, boy…. reeeeeeeal cool…)

But Emery’s other series and stand-alone books often featured girls actively pursing artistic careers in pragmatic ways: not merely dreaming about becoming famous artists or musicians, but charting real courses towards real careers in the arts. Emery’s would-be musicians practice diligently and mindfully: the “wrong” boys (and girl friends) for these girls are the boys who distract them or actively remove them from their practicing; the “right” boys (and girl friends) are the ones who are pursuing similar musical goals, or have serious commitments to other fields.

In Emery’s A Dream to Touch (1958), Marya Rose, the daughter of poor Polish immigrants in Chicago, must choose between sexy bad boy/thief Tony Marino (though it’s not explicitly stated, it’s strongly implied that one of Marya’s friends has had sex with Tony) and Nicky Kowalski, who like Marya is poor but highly gifted musically. Marya and Nicky regularly explore the high-culture world of Chicago after their city youth orchestra rehearsals, and it’s clear that Nicky rather than Tony is the right boy for Marya, since they share both a common background and common goals: Nicky and Marya share goals that will take them beyond their immediate environment, which Tony (and the friend of Marya’s who slept with him) will never escape. The theme of artistic effort and accomplishment is fascinatingly strong in this book: Marya plays her father’s old violin, and struggles with and finally comes to terms with competition from a rich girl who seemingly has no problems. Interestingly, A Dream to Touch ends with Marya’s family moving from their squalid tenement on Weed Street (yes, really) into a shiny new public housing development. … Marya is a rare example of an ethnic heroine in Emery’s work (indeed, in the immediate postwar period junior literature in general)—and, interestingly, it looks like Image Cascade hasn’t republished it!—but many of Emery’s other heroines also engage in diligent effort in artistic fields: Pat Marlowe settles on acting as a career choice (pragmatically aware of the possibility of becoming a speech teacher).

"This

High Note, Low Note (1954), in which Jean Burnaby gets serious about the piano and struggles with a boyfriend who wants to go steady more than she does. This is the reprint edition I have; love the representation of space and the relationship of all of the characters shown to the piano.

Jean Burnaby takes her piano lessons more or less seriously (with Significant Consequences when she takes it less seriously) through the entire Burnaby girls series.

So I’m interested in these fictional heroines for their seriousness. But I’m also interested in them for how they relate back to Friedan’s point about “dabbling” in the arts as v. serious “professional” effort put into artistic work. Emery provides examples of girls working hard towards distinctly aesthetic career goals, even noting options available if they would fall short of becoming a concert pianist or great actress (teaching music, teaching speech). These are girls who, as girls, embody the kind of “professional” effort Friedan is calling for; unlike characters written by other junior lit novelists (Betty Cavanna, I’m looking at you), these girls progress towards their careers through concentrated effort, rather than through spontaneous or innate talent alone.

Deck-Clearing: Eve Kosofsky Wants Me to Clear the Decks, but It’s February

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Image from nytimes.com
All right, ALL RIGHT, I’ll try do to better with writing!

Nothing coherent to see here, folks; it’s February, and for me January/February (and August/September) are the hardest months of the year (no armed robberies since my last post though, so, hey!). The vast majority of my spring-term teaching is in February, and this particular February I’m doing four classes—almost in a row—for one particular research methods course (one this week, two next week, one the week after). I also have something a bit stressful (in a good way) coming up on Thursday, and a search committee I’m on gets underway on Monday, so I have Things To Read, which will all have to get read on Friday. My annual evaluation narrative was due yesterday, and I co-taught two classes with an archivist yesterday morning. I have a fourth class to teach on Wednesday, and that instructor keeps tinkering with what we’re doing, so I’m not quite sure if I’m really prepared or not. (This was one of the lovely, lovely, lovely things about teaching my own class last semester—if I wanted to make last-minute changes, I didn’t have to involve anyone else).

I’ve been snatching bits and pieces of time to scribble notes about girls’ intellectual history inspired by that quote of Eve Sedgwick’s. I still feel torn between centuries (and haven’t had the time or mental acuity to draft a followup email to my advisor) and unsure of what I actually want to do (other than wishing I had the, well, time and mental acuity, to work on multiple projects), but Sedgwick on her own intellectual girlhood still feels like an inspiring starting point, and also an interesting way to frame my preference for not necessarily working on the girlhoods of famously intellectual women, but rather seeking out intellectual girls as subjects in their own right. Sedgwick is such an unexpected muse for that project, but, there she is.

cover, Angela Sorby, Schoolroom PoetsIt’s been a huge relief to feel like I’m flipped some kind of switch regarding my dissertation and have stopped disavowing it (I suspect that’s what I’ve been doing for awhile, for reasons I’m not going to get into here). I’m wondering, though, if what it needs is some kind of expression in an article—and I’m guessing that that’d be an article on William Cullen Bryant, who I think best represents some of the ideas I wanted to talk about but didn’t quite work into the dissertation. Because while I really miss some of the ideas in the dissertation, and also very much miss having poetry be such an active subject of thought for me, I cannot shake my lack of interest in revisiting/catching up with the scholarship in that area. I’ll confess that it’s a strange feeling to read current materials on Longfellow that don’t cite my article on him—it’s not like there’s an overwhelming body of scholarship on him—and the MLA International Bibliography did such a terrible job of indexing my dissertation (none of the poets’ names are listed as subject authors) that I feel like my work just… vanished, in spite of having a good article in a reputable/visible journal. But that’s not really why I can’t get interested—it’s not that ego-driven, I’m just noticing that lately I seem more interested in the later nineteenth century and in the postwar period. I’m reading Angela Sorby’s Schoolroom Poets (2005), which seems like an interesting bridge.

How YOU doing, young William Cullen Bryant? (Image from National Academy Museum)

How YOU doing, young William Cullen Bryant?
(Image from National Academy Museum)

Which is partly my fault (I think?). By the time I pretty much came to a halt on the original book project, I had come to feel like I really didn’t have ground to stand on: I remember being invited to speak at a symposium where only the one other historian panelist engaged with me; the lit scholars seemed more cliquey and I just didn’t have the same range of literary expertise they had, so, inadequacy, while at the same time, I had historians expressing intimidation by my work because they didn’t “get” poetry, and it felt like an uphill battle to get historians just to read what I was doing. I was starting to feel like I didn’t “get” and couldn’t do literary scholarship myself, and I ended up kind of leaving the fray altogether. Still wondering if that meant I let myself be driven out, or if my stepping away was a form of self-preservation/self-care. (I’ve been thinking about this since reading Allison Miller’s piece in Perspectives about the pain involved in attending AHA, “The Annual Meeting Blues: An Unvarnished Personal History,” especially her reference to herself as a poet needing to prove herself as a historian).

I just haven’t had these problems with the newer project. There have been other challenges, most recently, how to write about Seventeen without falling into kitschy discussions of its advertising/editorializing or, as happened with my conference paper, falling into a kind of “lookit this! can you believe it?” reciting of titles reviewed in “Curl Up and Read.” But I don’t hear “oh, I can’t read that because it’s about poetry.” Of course, possibly that’s because I haven’t actually written anything about poetry… yet. And I feel like that’s a stumbling point for me: I really, really don’t want to write about Sylvia Plath. In my dissertation, I purposely avoided (well, except for Poe) the better-studied, “canonical” poets; in fact, very early in my thinking about my dissertation, I thought of writing about people who wanted to be poets (because the wanting was what I was really interested in) and published during their time, but didn’t go on to lasting reputations. Very-much-younger-me couldn’t really figure out how to make that a manageable topic, thought.

But I wonder about finding girls like Eve Kosofsky. Of course, she grew up to become Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, so we know about her, but are there other ways to find girls like her, who wanted to be taken seriously as intellectuals and as children/girls? Dialogue on Love has poignant passages about Sedgwick’s sense of not getting to be a child with a child’s needs within her family of origin—that her obvious intelligence in some ways seemed to have precluded that kind of care and attention. But was she a girl when she reached thirteen? And when she met Hal Sedgwick at fifteen, in a six-week summer program for high-school students at Cornell* (cf. Jane Hu, “Between Us: A Queer Theorist’s Devoted Husband and Enduring Legacy,” New Yorker, December 9, 2015) was she a girl?

[*So, girls in summer enrichment programs for high-school students, we meet again… ]

That was something that always struck me about the Dinny books: that Emery allowed Dinny to be smart and feminine while also not forcing her to date just for the sake of dating. Dinny got to hold her own ground intellectually—and Emery shows in Senior how intellectually and emotionally debilitating giving up that ground would have been for Dinny—while also being framed as a girl. Not a child, since the books focus on her high school years, and not a woman (she is always conscious of feeling “too young” for Brad, to whom she is introduced on her fifteenth birthday) which makes her crush on him safe; no danger of “going steady” with Brad), but a teenage girl, in between age identities, but at the same time, determinedly intellectual, with a history of interest in ancient history shown early on as going back to her childhood.

Still no direct focus, but I guess I’ll just be noting and tracking my thoughts about Eve Kosofsky for a bit to see where they take me.

Meanwhile, I’ve GOT to get to my notes for tomorrow’s class. Wish me luck for my Thursday Something.

Righteous Anger: Third and Fourth Times Are Charms?

Two more armed robberies in my building this morning. I was out today because it’s my birthday (or, the anniversary of Tank Day in my family: my birth story involving transportation by National Guard tank is here), so I missed all the hullabaloo, including one colleague throwing out the idea that librarians should start patrolling the floors with pepper spray and walkie talkies.

(NB: I would like to go on record here that THERE IS NO WAY IN HELL that I am volunteering to “patrol” any part of the library for criminal behavior. That is so very much NOT MY FREAKING JOB, and the person who is suggesting this has always had, shall we say, a rather exaggerated sense of what our responsibilities to our students are.)

Here’s the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on where things are.

This paragraph makes me want to bang my head against walls: “One factor at play may be the isolated study areas of the library, which may allow robbers to remain hidden, Mullis said.” Previous comments by the police in the student paper had also suggested that students wanting to study “alone” might be a “problem.”

IT’S A LIBRARY. IT’S OK FOR STUDENTS TO WANT TO STUDY IN QUIET SPACES. REALLY.

The local NPR story on today’s incidents makes it sound like we have crackerjack security systems in place to make sure only students get in. Not at all the case; our security actually seems pretty lax and seems also to be mostly student workers. (Not to put student workers down, just meaning more to suggest how security gets hired and paid. We probably do need more professional security staff).

Closing to the general public is probably something we should have done awhile ago, but it’s an issue because we have a certain mandate to be open to the public (I think because of our government documents?). I think it’s a good step, though.

I’ve been inclined to think metal detectors, but it’s been pointed out that they would go off constantly because of the laptop traffic. (Laptop theft is not uncommon in the library; you really, really don’t want to leave your laptop unattended. The difference now is that these are, um, attended laptops that are being stolen).

So I don’t know. I will say that it is a strange feeling to have some of your workplace’s significant problems suddenly laid bare for public viewing—in this case, the laxness of our security, but for me personally, at a deeper level, the very real communication issues we experience on a pretty regular basis. People expect me to be able to tell them what’s going on (hey, I’m supposed to be the department liaison, right?) but there’s literally nothing being told to me, so I’m as much in the dark as faculty and students are. Which is not a comfortable thing, but it’s especially uncomfortable when you feel like you’re not supposed to reveal this lack of communication… while at the same time feeling like an idiot because you look like you just aren’t very smart.

The colleague keeping the count of number of days without an armed robbery said he came in this morning and found that someone had set the number back to zero, since his start time was after this morning’s two robberies.

cover, Megan Marshall, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

DTMFTEA!

DTMFTEA!

In other news, it was a super awesome day NOT to go in to work. I slept in, hung out at a coffee shop and did some reading, opened some presents, caught up on laundry. I’m nearing finishing Megan Marshall’s biography of Margaret Fuller, and relieved that I’ve gotten through the Transcendental section, because I kept imagining Captain Awkward‘s advice to Fuller on her relationship with Emerson, which was pretty much DTMFA. Or, rather, “Dump the MF-ing Transparent Eyeball Already” (DTMFTEA).

Righteous Anger: Another Blog Post I Can’t Write

Did the perp tell you he was an alligator, by any chance?

Did the perp tell you he was an alligator, by any chance?

Recent events at my workplace have been discussed in the student newspaper (don’t want to link). The police mention that the fact that there are students in our library who want to study alone “may be a problem.” Those crazy reckless students, studying alone in the library! We do technically have a policy that the study rooms are for group work only, but if a room is open, you can grab it even if you’re alone. The second robbery took place in one of those study rooms. That… isn’t really how we’d enforce that rule.

The robberies were also described as “strange and unique” because they’ve only happened twice. I submit that there’s a difference between “twice in a couple of years” or even “twice in a year” and “twice in less than a month, when the building was shut down altogether for two weeks in between incidents.”

And because of all the David Bowie love that’s been ambient for the last while (and I certainly have my own from-adolescence-on stories of Bowie-love [except for the 90s]—to this day, my personal mental music video for “Starman” is set in my rural college town) I couldn’t help thinking that “strange and unique” made it sound like David Bowie had broken into the library.

[CHUNG CHUNG!]

Hudson University student/Victim: “I don’t know, first he said he was an alligator, then his mama and papa were coming for me, then he said he was a space invader, then something about rock ‘n’ rolling bitches… it was really confusing. He had weird red hair, too.”

Lenny Briscoe: “Did he by any chance tell you you were squawking like a… a bird of some kind? Maybe a monkey bird?”

Victim: “Yes! A pink monkey bird! How did you know?”

Lenny Briscoe: “We’ve had our electric eye on him for awhile. Did he put any kind of ray gun to your head?”

Victim: “Yes! And then he just kind of… freaked out.”

Lenny Briscoe: (sarcastically) “I guess that’s how you know he really cared.”