Category Archives: History

Review: One Righteous Man, Samuel Battle, shattering the color line in New York

book cover: One Righteous Man

Samuel Battle and the shattering of the color line in New York

Samuel Battle led an interesting life in interesting times. Arthur Browne’s, “One Righteous Man” a biography of Battle, the first African American on the unified greater New York City police department impressive even though I had a few reservations about it. Born one generation away from slavery Battle grew as a bit of what would later be called a juvenile delinquent but managed to put that behind him as a young adult when he traveled to New York in search of opportunity. He found that the color of his skin meant that doors were shut to him in the north just as they were back home. Battle makes his own opportunities and after several underpaid dead end jobs he finds opportunity as a porter at Grand Central Station. With a secure job he finds a wife and starts to build a life. When the community comes looking for a candidate to become the first black man on the city police force he risks his security and takes the challenge. What he managed to achieve was so incredible that Langston Hughes was commissioned to write his biography.

Browne’s writing is clear and easy to read, like a popular history should be. My biggest concern was, is, could this be more memoir than history? The wealth of Browne’s sources seem to be Battle’s own words, Langston Hughes’ unpublished manuscript and an oral history project a graduate student recorded with Battle. Arthur Brown makes good use of these resources along with Harlem and city newspapers to flesh out not just Battle’s story but it seems, sanitized. It strikes me as disingenuous that the biggest problems Battle had integrating the police force was the silent treatment and sleeping in the attic. I suspect that the baton swinging cops of the 1910s would have been more actively outspoken. Browne includes the story of integrating Harlem and the New York City fire department along with Battle’s story. He also gives us a look at the wider story of African American history in the early 20th century whenever it is needed to fully comprehend the times.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the name dropping, if it is fair to call it that. If pressed I could come up with some people that don’t show up in Battle’s story but he managed to meet and get acquainted with such a range of celebrities and power brokers, from heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who did not tip, to Eleanor Roosevelt, who deeply impressed Battle by simply giving a glass of water to a black woman speaker at a benefit. That insight into the impact a small kindness can make alone made the book more than worth reading.

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Review: Inquiry-based Lessons in U.S. History : Decoding the Past

Inquiry Based Lessons in U.S. History

Book cover Inquiry Based Lessons in U.S. History

“Inquiry-based Lessons in U.S. History : Decoding the Past” is the second middle school history plan I requested to review the book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I have to repeat that I am not a teacher, never have been and, at the grade level this book is for I never want to be. I do have a degree in history, I have been studying American history for a long time, and have grandchildren, children, and personal experience in middle school. I will do my best to evaluate only the parts of the book that I can.

I was really impressed with the first book but this one is a disappointment. First, and this is not a problem with just this book, trying to covering over 500 years worth of history in one class, less than 160 contact hours, is silly. Packing that much content into one course guarantees information overload, nothing will be learned. This is how they taught history when I was in school, I don’t even remember the class. Each chapter in this book could, and have, filled hundreds volumes of scholarly history. Why not narrow the range, of focus on a topic that can be covered in a year and allow the students to learn some skills that will serve them in whatever they study? But that is an issue with the system, the book is not at fault it is merely trying to achieve the impossible goal regulators have set.

That is not to say this book does not have problems. Many of the lessons ask the students to draw a picture to illustrate their understanding. Seriously? This is not second grade. These students have basic communication skills. They need practice writing. One or two “art” assignments that connect well to the subject matter would be acceptable, but as someone who can not even trace a straight line, by middle school I was ready to put away childish things. One of my favorite authors when I was these students age. Robert Heinlein, explained that when he wrote his “juveniles” he never talked down to the readers. It is my feeling that this lesson plan, most of the time, does talk down to the students.

One of the book’s strong points is its use of the Library of Congress’ Teacher’s Guides and Analysis Tool for investigating contemporary engravings and political cartoons. “Reading” pictures was not something I was introduced to until college and it is an important skill for developing critical thinking skills and your attention to detail. Unfortunately early in the book, lesson one of chapter two, the url leading to the sources did not work. I was able to find them but any teacher using this book needs to be forewarned. Two of the questions the students were asked to answer from the engravings were about gender roles. Is that an idea we want to promote in middle school in the 21st century? Instead of asking them to identify men’s work and women’s work how about just identifying the work being done? Instead of separating the work into male / female roles why not ask about the technology, the tools being used?

Slavery is the most divisive subject in U.S. history and I was ready to blast the authors for this untrue, illogical, statement, “For Whites in the slave states, the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, to the presidency, signaled and immediate threat. Compromise, an essential feature of American politics, proved impossible and several Southern states immediately drew up declarations of secession modeled after the Declaration of Independence.” That sounds like an attempt at compromise was made which is untrue. Southern states were attacking U.S. military installations and issuing declarations of secession before Lincoln even reached Washington City. Just how did compromise prove impossible? At first I thought this was the author’s bias coming through but it is more an indication of how completely the South’s “Lost Cause” revision of history has sunk into our culture. When I read the assignment for that lesson I realized that Southern mythology could not survive this textbook. Students are given the Secession Declarations from South Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas, all name slavery as the primary reason for attempting to leave the Union.

The original texts used in the book are important documents and are sure to challenge readers at this grade level. I suspect that there will be push-back on some of the choices from both the left and right, they strike a good balance sure to offend many. They only used two pages from Paine’s “Common Sense”. The book is only 46 pages long, I would have liked to have seen more if not the entire text, but, like I said many people will be second guessing some of the author’s choices. Only in the lesson covering Jackson and the removal of the Eastern Indian Nations did I feel the sources were lacking. There were excerpts from Jackson and Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Nation as well as excerpts of pro and con speeches to Congress. Why repeat Jackson and Ross’ arguments and leave out the Supreme Court’s decision?

As I said, covering the entire history of the United States in one class is a silly, irresponsible requirement that schools, and texts like this, must follow. It guarantees information overload, unless you choose to edit out a lot of information. The closest the text comes to mentioning the labor movement is in one sentence, “One group, the Lowell Mill Girls, became world famous for their independence and culture.” What does that even mean and how does it deserve mention when the “Bread and Roses” Strike is overlooked? Later in the text the Civil Rights Movement follows the Great Depression which followed World War One propaganda. Where are Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam?

As a history text this book does the best it can with the unreasonable expectations that one class cover over 400 years of North American / US history. However, the lessons are uneven. Some seemed so simple and childish that I can’t imagine a middle schooler not being bored with them. Others were exceptional, I can see the discussion on Washington’s Farewell Address working in an adult class. Maybe a second edition will improve the weaker lessons and correct the bad links. Only legislatures can fix the unreasonable requirement to squeeze everything in U.S. history into one school year.

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Review: The Earl of Louisiana

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The Earl of Louisiana

Abbott Joseph Liebling’s 1961 book “The Earl of Louisiana” has been on my shelves for a long time. I bought it thinking it was about Huey Long and shelved it when I learned otherwise. After seeing the movie “Blaze” I had the opinion that younger brother Earl was a bit of a fool. If Rachel Shteir had not mentioned Liebling so many times in her book “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show” I doubt I would have bothered to read it at all. I now have a new rule, if a book stays in print for over fifty years I need to read it.

This is not a biography of Earl Long, it is more a memoir of Liebling’s trip to Louisiana to report on the their governor’s mental breakdown. What he found, Louisiana style politics, was so different from what he expected that he stayed on the story even when he had to do it from long distance, covering the British elections. Earl Long, did have a physical breakdown, he was exhausted fighting to stop a bill intended to purge Louisiana’s voting rolls of African Americans. Louisiana, the entire south, was having a resurgence in segregation politics after the Brown V Board decision. Long called the segregationists “grass eaters”, herd animals, and Liebling adopted the practice.

As interesting as it was to have a glimpse into Louisiana politics it was Liebling’s playful use of language that most impressed me. Discussing how every Southern physician seemed to have an opinion on Earl Long’s health and pointing out the partisan divide on the diagnoses Liebling wrote, “Even his own experts, who denied he was demented, said in explanation of his antislavery views that he was beset by arteriosclerosis, several small strokes, oscillatory blood pressure and an irreverent gleam in his eye.” To illustrate the confusing mix of conversations at a campaign office on the night of the election he wrote, “Carried away by the stream of idiom like a drunk on a subway train, I missed a lot of stations.” Liebling had an ear for language. He quoted Earl Long at a campaign stop after opponents started labeling him crazy, “Wouldn’t you rather have a tried and true man, half crazy and half intelligent, than some bladderskite?”

I could go on and on with quotes like that, in places I gave up on highlighting sentences and simply put brackets around entire pages. I remember reviewing another book that had been in print continuously for over fifty years, “How to Lie with Statistics”, this is that good and just as deserving of being read.

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Review: Striptease, the untold history of the girlie show

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Striptease the untold history of the girlie show

On an opera stage in France, sometime in the 1830s, a dancer showed her ankle and shocked the audience. One hundred and fifty years later Goldie Hawn was gyrating in a gilded birdcage wearing only a bikini, her act broadcast to every American living room and only few people objected. Rachel Shteir looks at the evolution of stripping, of undressing, as part of a performance, in her book “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show”, which won the 2004 George Freedley Award for Excellence in Live Theater Writing.

Social and technological changes seem to be the principal driving force behind the evolution of theatrical “undressing”. For most of the 19th century the rules were stable. If a “dancer” moved on stage she must stay covered. If a dancer stood still bare skin was permissible. Flesh was only exposed, legally, in “living art”, a still life representation of well known paintings or sculpture. If the dancer moved the most that they could expose was a form fitting “union suit”. It was the female form, not female flesh, on display. During this time dance was not even the principle “undressing act”. Most often their was a simple, often unimaginative, skit that provided the rationale for the undressing, bathing, preparing for bed, or the ever popular game of strip poker. Eroticism was a product of making public the private act of undressing .

Shteir points out that at least one change in fashion was necessary for the development of modern strip and tease, each started as a separate style of undressing act. The whalebone corset fell out of fashion, increasing the ease and speed for a woman to undress. With the coming of the first world war came the dawn of the Jazz Age, a result of moralists and the US military shutting down Storyville, New Orleans’ vice district, unemployed musicians spread the New Orleans sound up the Mississippi river to St. Louis and Chicago where it took root and spread across the nation and soon the world. In the roaring post war economy burlesque adopted jazz, a energetic boost to its Tin Pan Alley roots. A six piece band, a “strip band”, became the norm in the industry. The Midwest in the 1920s gave birth to both the “tease”, where the dancer performs a short song then ducks behind the curtain to remove an article of clothing before popping back on stage for another number repeating the sequence as far as local law enforcement will allow, and the “strip”, where the dancer slowly and deliberately undoes buttons and hooks while performing a song or to a song. Not all performers sang, often the theater would have someone singing just off stage, a job referred to as a “tit serenader”. By 1928 Billboard magazine had combined them into one word, striptease.

The Depression did not stop burlesque, top performers could earn $400 a week. Beginners and older dancers could still make $35 a week. Comedy played a bigger part in the performances, lifting the spirits of people enduring economic hard times. The comedy kept women in the audience of burlesque performances through the 1930s. Fannie Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee worked to put humor in their acts. It was also the age of burlesque queens, Sally Rand, Ann Corio, Gypsy Rose Lee and others who moved beyond the burlesque circuit into “legitimate theater” and the movies but maintained a relationship with striptease. With the bad economic times the moralists became more vocal, blaming the hard times on burlesque rather than on bad management by WASPs.* Moralists came out in force during the depression, doing their best to ruin business and slander performers. Ferdinand Pecora, a name I respected, the lawyer that investigated and prosecuted the big banks and oligarchs who brought on the Depression, prosecuted the Minsk’s for obscenity.

With the outbreak of World War II burlesque and striptease found some acceptance in the general population. Americans saw no need to deprive young soldiers going off to war a chance to have a good time. The war also exposed the world to what had been described as one of only two American art forms, striptease. Striptease caught on in France after WWII the same as jazz caught on after WWI. The late 1940s and 1950s were a highpoint for striptease but they also were the opening chapters in its fall from prosperity.

With television people had less reason to leave home. With changing fashions people had less need to pay to see the female form. Low revenue forced theaters to close, some reopening to show films featuring skin, movement, and no teasing. Fewer theaters meant fewer performers could find work and those that did tended to keep doing the acts that had worked in the past, originality suffered and even fewer paid admission. By 1969 Shteir says that striptease was economically obsolete. A few performers kept going into the 1980s performing in tents at county fairs to audiences that were now female by a 3 to 2 ratio. In her conclusion Shteir looks at the resurgence in interest in old fashioned striptease, neoburlesque where professional looking amateurs stage performances for their own reasons.

“Striptease” is a well written, well researched, and well organized book that was as fun to read as it was educational. Early in the book I was concerned that Shteir was using obscure words to sound more academic but it soon became evident that I just needed to be more familiar with parts of our language. The two words that I first tripped over, “chorine” is one chorus girl and “zaftig” is on the scale of “svelte” to “voluptuous” but I am still not sure where on the scale it falls, were uncommon but necessary to express the author’s ideas. Shteir also pointed out that in theater speak any action that shocks the audience, that grabs their attention is a “flash”, it is not just about breasts and behinds.

Although reviews on Amazon, which I read after reading the book, question some of the incidental facts in the book I only have to look at the list of resources Shteir researched and the detailed notes she includes to dismiss those objections as questionable at best. After all none of the reviews document their claims and anybody, even me, can post a review on the internet. Shteir’s basic premise, that striptease was an economic choice that some, but not all, performers made in spite of its hardships, is well defended and convincing. I have to recommend this book to any one interested in women’s history, economic history, and the theater.

* White Anglo Saxon Protestants for anyone younger than I am.

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Review: No Magic Bullet

book cover No Magic Bullet

No Magic Bullet

Allan M Brandt’s “No Magic Bullet: a social history of venereal disease in the United States since 1880” was first published in 1985. A new edition came just two years later, I have to assume that is because its topic was changing so quickly with AIDS becoming common knowledge. I imagine Brandt wanted a do over on what he had written about AIDS in the first edition’s introduction.

Very early in the first chapter Brandt explains that doctors at first thought that women were not affected by gonorrhea.  I was bothered by this not because I doubted it was true but because just a few pages earlier, in the introduction, Brandt wrote that AIDS was a disease of gay men without questioning what was considered true at the time. At the very least he should have mentioned that at one time gonorrhea had been considered the problem of only one gender. Why study history if we don’t use it to form questions about the present? Even in the introduction to the 1987 edition, when it was well known that there were multiple modes of transmission, he failed to mention the failure in physician’s reasoning in assuming venereal disease, any disease, is limited by gender by anything other than ease of infection. Did Brandt miss the similarity of the failed assumptions about gonorrhea and AIDS?  Did he simply choose not to mention it? I have to believe that if he had noticed it he would have mentioned it even if only to dismiss it as meaningless.

Brandt looked at only two parts of society in this “social history”. One made up of military and public health officials and the other made up of that large and vocal subset of the leisure class that makes everyone else’s behaviour their business, moralists. The military and public health professionals followed the science but often were forced to bow to pressure from the moralists.

The moralists clamor for abstinence before during and after World War I. They continued to clamor for abstinence before during and after WWII. They are still at it. Then, as now, they are only concerned with their version of morality and about other people’s behaviour, not their own. Brandt manages to overlook the opinions of working people, business men and women, minorities in regard to venereal disease. I was surprised that the book was from the 1980s and not the 1950s. People besides the powerful had their agency recognized in the 1960s, why not here?
Sometimes I feel I should make allowances for works of history that are as old as this, twenty eight years since the new edition, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Histories on on narrow topics like this are few and far between. Unlike books about Lincoln or major wars there is not a new volume on the history of VD being published every few months. A search of World Cat for the subject “Sexually Transmitted Diseases United States History” turns up only a few dissertations, several government publications that look like primary sources and Alexandrea Lord’s 2009 book “Condom Nation” which looks at government sponsored sex education from World War II to the present. Unfortunately this could be the go to book on social attitudes about VD for many more years. I hope a student interested in the subject gets creative in their readings and are able to find more than the two viewpoints Brandt offers on the subject.

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Review: To Have and Have Another

book cover To Have and Have Another

Philip Greene’s To Have and Have Another

Philip Greene has an interesting biography. He is a descendant of the New Orleans pharmacist that developed Peychaud Bitters. He helped found the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans and works as legal counsel for the Marine Corps. His book, “To have and have another : a Hemingway cocktail companion” is something of a cross between a Mr. Boston’s cocktail guide and a someone’s doctoral dissertation on Hemingway’s writing. Greene’s writing is much better than that last sentence would suggest. There is none of the dry stuffiness of academia or any salesman’s hype on any of the drinks or ingredients.

With each of the 56 drinks that Green found mentioned in Hemingway’s fiction and personal papers Greene giver the recipe, with occasional variations, and offers details about where Hemingway used them in his fiction or drank them in life. Key West and Cuban bars are well represented here. As is the real and the fictional Harry’s Bar which is also the name of the bar my grandfather and I frequented back when I looking forward to becoming a teenager. I am a little annoyed that there is no one left to ask if Hemingway was the inspiration for that establishment’s name.

I confess that I am not a huge fan of Hemingway’s but reading this has caused me to consider giving his fiction another try. I know that the next time I have friends over for a party we will be sampling a few of these drinks and remembering Hemingway.

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Review: The Treatment

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Martha Stephens’ “The Treatment”

This is a difficult book for me to review for many reasons. I grew up in and around Cincinnati. Cincinnati history was the topic of my capstone paper for my BA in history a few years ago. A class on medical history by a great professor at Miami University hooked me on the topic. After graduation I took to researching Cincinnati’s Dr. Daniel Drake, 1785-1852. I read everything I could to learn about the state of medicine and how it advanced during his life of practicing and teaching medicine. There were a few histories I only read the parts that covered up to the end of his life but there were some that really grabbed my interest that I read cover to cover. Harriet Washington’s “Medical Apartheid” was one of those. That is where I first heard about the Department of Defense funded radiation experiments performed in Cincinnati University Hospital from 1960 until 1972 and where I first heard of Martha Stephen’s book “The Treatment: the story of those who died in the Cincinnati radiation experiments”. It took many months for me to put my hands on a copy and I grew more eager to read it as more time passed.

I was only a few dozen pages into the book before I turned to the appendix listing all the research subjects, my grandmother had died quickly of cancer in 1973. I was happy to see that her name was not among the human guinea pigs selected for “treatment”. The author, Martha Stephens, was involved in much of the fight to expose the radiation program to the public, first as a member of the Junior Faculty Association that brought the program to the attention of the entire University of Cincinnati, not simply a few members of the medical school. (By the way, I have to point out that both the university and the medical school were founded by Dr. Daniel Drake.) Later she worked with the families of the research subjects, helping find them and helping them publicize their lawsuit. Because she was involved in the events some of the book reads like a memoir and the more she talked about herself the more I began to understand that she had been my English professor at UC’s Evening College back in the late 1970s. That, I think, is a full disclosure of my biases over this book. I feel very connected to the story, in some small way I am. I was over eager to read the book. I feel a little protective of Dr. Drake’s school and hospital and, although my degree is from Miami University nearly half my credits were from UC.

I really expected to like this book. That could play into my disappointment with it. Professor Stephens teaches English, not history. The book is disorganized and at times is more of a memoir, covering events unconnected to the subject of the work, than anything else. One of the most blatant offenses to what historical training I have was when she put words into the victims attorney at the start of the hearings. Yes, she pointed out that the speech was what she wanted him to say but I was expecting a work of history, not a fantasy on what should have happened in the eyes of the, non-lawyer, author.

Stephens also falls into the trap that makes so much scholarly writing unintelligible, writing to prove possession of a PhD rather than to clearly and precisely pass on information. I am a college graduate who has been an avid reader for over half a century, why should I need to pull out a dictionary to unravel a sentence that simply says “the apartment was small and neat?” Occasionally a literary reference can be the best way to bring out shared experiences between the author and the readers but multiple references to multiple works on one page is simply egotism.

The last third of the book did start to put the story together in a historically valid way. Sort of anyway. There was still massive gaps in the information that seemed to be equal parts inability to do historical research and editorial blind spots. This is an important story. It concerns Cold War fears, the arrogance of medical researchers brought on by big grants and a God complex. Simply told the story is this, post Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was obvious that radiation was an invisible and mysterious factor soldiers in a nuclear war would have to contend with. After an exposure how could doctors triage their patients, which ones were walking dead men due to the radiation and which should the military spend valuable resources to treat? That is the question that the Department of Defense wanted answered when they funded the University of Cincinnati Medical School’s radiation experiments.

To answer that question the radiation lab selected cancer patients to be given massive doses of radiation in single exposure over their whole body. Exactly like a soldier near an atomic explosion would suffer. Then the doctors would collect and examine blood and urine samples looking for a tell tale marker they could use to determine exposure when the dosage was unknown, as on a battlefield. Other tests were often performed, after all how often do you get a patient exposed to a near lethal dose of radiation to study? Over the twelve years of the study 115 people were irradiated. They ranged in ages from 80 years old to only 9 years old. All were said to have terminal cancer but among the many types of cancer the patients were diagnosed with there were many of the solid tumor variety that it was well understood that whole body radiation was not effective against. The patients were not told this. They were simply told that they were being taken for a “treatment”. They were not told that it could be deadly. They were not told that it was a Department of Defense study. They were not told that the doctors did not expect the patients to get any benefit from the “treatment”. To be fair they were not told that there might be a benefit. Approximately 1 in 4 patients would die within 60 days of the treatment, some that were living normal, active lives up to the day of the treatment.

Over the years various members of the university’s research board would question the program, what was its goal? Was it ethical? The objections would abruptly end for reasons unknown to Stephens until the Junior Faculty Association, which Stephens was a member of, got wind of the “treatments” and investigated. Their objections were handled quietly within the university and the program was stopped and buried.

Nearly twenty years later a woman working at the hospital, transcribing records of an old research project, came across her aunts name. She was listed as a subject, something the family never knew about. Her curiosity led to a multi-year legal action against the university, the city, the doctors, and the federal government that included a historic decision that repeatedly referenced the Nuremberg Code, a code of behavior developed by the Allies after the war crimes trials of World War Two that were to offer guidance on performing medical research without committing war crimes, sometimes referred to as crimes against humanity. According the the doctors of the UC Hospital radiation experiments the only ethical standards in existence when the study began, in 1960, were written for the ethical treatment of animals.

There is a story here that needs a good historian to bring it out. Unfortunately Stephens “The Treatment” only scratches the surface.

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