A few weeks ago, we posted about George Hutchinson's In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line and the glowing Washington Post review it received. Well, it turns out the Post isn't the only media outlet with something to say about this extraordinary biography. All the way from Copenhagen, Martyn Bone has weighed in in the pages of Weekendavisen, one of Denmark's most prestigious outlets for thought and commentary.
Now why would a book on a once-forgotten African-American woman writer get play in Denmark, of all places? The answer has everything to do with Larsen's unique story. She was born in Chicago to a Danish mother and an mixed-race father originally from the Danish West Indies. This somewhat unusual pairing was to be of great import in determining the course of Larsen's life and career. As Bone explains:
Mary and Peter had the Danish language in common, but as immigrants they were unaware that "race" defined identity in their new homeland. As Hutchinson notes, "In the Danish West Indies...racial classifications differed dramatically from those in the United States. It was illegal in the Danish West Indies to designate a person's race on official forms such as census and church records. In the informal realm of everyday life, the 'Negro' designation applied only to lower-class and so-called 'full-blooded Negroes'...Peter Walker may never have considered himself a Negro." In the United States, however, "the color line" was far more rigid. If Mary and Peter had been born in Chicago, they would have understood that interracial relationships--and interracial children--were socially unacceptable. Indeed, as Hutchinson puts it, had Nella's parents thoroughly assimilated American concepts of race and nationality, she might never have been born.
From the start, then, it seems that Larsen's life was destined to be different. After her father died (while Nella was still an infant), her mother married a Danish immigrant named Peter Larsen and gave birth to Nella's half-sister, Anna. This created an awkward situation for the Larsens, as it seemed that the only thing keeping them from assimilating into mainstream American society was the presence of a "black" daughter--Nella. So Nella was shipped off to the Fisk Normal School (later to become Fisk University), an all-black school in Nashville, Tennessee.
Larsen's family history thus embodies Danish histories of Caribbean colonialism and emigration to the United States, while Quicksand seems strikingly relevant today in its depiction of an immigrant's ambivalent encounter with Denmark. Yet Nella Larsen is little known in this country. Neither Quicksand nor Passing has ever been translated into Danish, and (to my knowledge) no Danish scholar or journalist has seriously attempted to uncover evidence of Larsen's connections to Denmark.
Her "connections to Denmark" were many. Indeed, one of Hutchinson's main accomplishments is to have uncovered segments of the historical record that previous Larsen biographers seem to have missed. As Bone notes, "...Larsen's American biographers have failed to take seriously her claims about living in Denmark." In the course of his research, however, Hutchinson dug up an old ship's manifest from 1909 that lists a "Nelly Larsen"--at that time Nella went by "Nelly"--traveling between Copenhagen and New York. He also makes a convincing case that the descriptions of Copenhagen in Quicksand match very closely what the city looked like during the years 1908-1912, although the novel is ostensibly set in the 1920s.
In Search of Nella Larsen is the kind of book that comes along only every so often in a given field, in that it literally reconfigures our view on an important topic. Larsen's novels become something different when one realizes that she's not "imagining" what it's like to be a black woman in a European city, stared at, exoticized, and lumped in with the African-American vaudeville musicians touring the country due to their shared skin color (Larsen was not a vaudeville musician). Just as the Post proclaimed the book to be "masterfully rendered," and indeed, "brilliant," Bone concludes that it's "revelatory" and "definitive." In Search of Nella Larsen is one of those books whose seemingly narrow focus--one now-obscure Harlem Renaissance writer--belies its true nature as a riveting work that not only touches on race, identity, and what it means to be an American (or Dane), but also reads like an adventure story, so extraordinary were the circumstances of Nella Larsen's life. In short, this is a book that is not to be missed.
||| Read more on Nella Larsen and Hutchinson's motivations for writing the book.
Last year, HUP released Michael Neiberg's Fighting the Great War: A Global History. Neiberg, who at the time was a professor at the United States Air Force Academy (he has sinced moved to the University of Southern Mississippi), has written a book that cuts through the traditional portrait of the military authorities as "butchers and bunglers" to provide a more logical and nuanced portrayal--one that takes the extraordinarily fast-moving events (and the monumental scale on which those events occurred) into account, so that we may better understand what truly drove the actions of the men who prosecuted this conflict.
Another book that revises the conventional wisdom on the Great War is Robert Doughty's Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War, also released last year. Doughty is a retired Brigadier General and served as the Head of the Department of History at West Point until 2005. Pyrrhic Victory questions standard accounts of French strategy during the Great War by examining the "multi-front strategy" adopted by French commanders, explaining why they adopted this strategy, and considering what their decision meant in terms of operations (disaster, mainly). At 522 pages, Pyrrhic Victory is a tour-de-force that will re-align scholars' orientation toward French activity during the war.
||| Read an excerpt from Fighting the Great War: A Global History (pdf format).
N.B.: For more on the Great War, check out Trench Fever, a blog devoted entirely to studying the conflict, or see Break of Day in the Trenches for a good list of WWI resources on the web (it's on the left, you'll have to scroll down a bit).
Hello, my name is Joe King. I am severely disabled, 20 years old. I am 33 inches tall, 40 lbs, 47 broken bones and 6 surgeries. I have been concerned lately that when I die this crippled body might be all I have. My question is. Do u believe consciousness can survive the death of the brain? Is there good scientific evidence for this?
Humphrey wrote back:
You ask whether I think consciousness can survive the death of the brain. It's the most natural of all questions to ask. I think we human beings are made to ask it. I even think that in asking it we become better people. But my straight answer, as a scientist, is: not a chance. Consciousness is something we do with our brains.
This is both good news and bad news. The bad news is obvious. The good news is that each moment of consciousness is, as you already know it is, amazingly precious. Albert Camus wrote, "The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man." But Camus' "absurd man" is both heroic and wise. He recognizes that when we cannot travel the wide sea of eternity, the more significant is the island that we stand on now.
I shall be giving some lectures in Harvard in the Spring, called Seeing Red. I wish you could be there. I think you, as a musician, would appreciate the analogy I draw between conscious sensation and a work of art.
"Consciousness is something we do with our brains"--this is a straightforward enough statement. But when we become "conscious" of something, what exactly are we "doing" with our brains?
That question is the subject of Humphrey's book Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness. The book serves as an extension of the lectures Humphrey gave at Harvard during the spring of 2004.
He began the lectures provocatively, darkening the room and projecting an enormous red square (like the one to the left) onto the screen at the front of the hall. He then asked everyone what they were doing. They were, of course, "seeing red." But in order to "see red," quite a few things have to come together. One, the "red" has to be there to be seen--this is the purpose of the giant screen. But secondly, and more interestingly, a number of things have to occur in the seer's brain to achieve the state of "seeing red." A further remarkable fact is that everyone in the room (excepting, perhaps, the severely color-blind) can agree that they are in fact "seeing red." Consciousness thus ties us together, despite the fact that it occurs separately in each individual brain.
Indeed, Humphrey argues that even if we can't quite explain what consciousness is, we can all agree that it's crucial to our sense of ourselves as human beings. In this sense, it plays an important role for the way in which it "taps straight into people's sense of their own metaphysical importance." Consciousness makes us humans feel like we matter--what other animal can function at the level we can? Monkeys might well be able to see red, but they sure as heck can't talk about it. Consciousness, in short, sets us apart.
Seeing Red is somewhat unusual for a science book in that it celebrates the mystery of consciousness, delighting in what we don't know about how our brains work. For Humphrey, this aspect of consciousness is what makes it worth studying:
... I admit that, although I have been engaged in "consciousness studies" for thirty years, I too feel some perverse pride in the fact that consciousness has held out so far against all attempts to treat it as just one more biological phenomenon. I take comfort in the thought that if and when we do finally get a scientific explanation, it will have at least to be an explanation unlike any other.
This sense of joy and wonder pervades the whole of Seeing Red. It's the perfect science book for non-scientists interested in how we got to be the way we are. We're not the only ones who think so--the South China Morning Post called it "ruminative, fluent and daring," while reviews in the Guardian, Nature, New Scientist and the Los Angeles Times express similar sentiment.
As the economic clout of countries like China and India continues to grow at breakneck speed, the environmental damage caused by rapid (and reckless) industrialization steadily mounts. China, for example, now boasts fully two-thirds of the world's most polluted cities. According to this Bloomberg News article, China and India are largely responsible for the 15% increase in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions recorded between 1992 and 2002.
Developing countries quite naturally want to expand their economies, but they are finding that failure to invest in environmentally-sound methods of energy production may end up hampering them in the long run. As many countries look for ways to avoid relying on fossil fuels, coal use in China and India is growing. And while the consequences affect everyone, it's the poor who often bear the brunt of the problem. According to the World Health Organization, half of China's rural population lacks access to clean drinking water. And they refuse to suffer in silence--rural China averages about 230 riots a day fomented by angry villagers who need water for irrigation.
How did things get so bad? Could it have turned out differently? Scholars like Paul R. Josephson, author of Resources Under Regimes: Technology, Environment, and the State, have dedicated their careers to clearing the air, so to speak, on these complex issues.
Resources Under Regimes falls under the rubric of environmental history, a relatively new discipline that seeks to illuminate the complex interactions between human beings and the natural world that have shaped our time on this planet. First and foremost, the book poses a provocative question--does a modern state's relationship with the environment depend on the political form that state takes? Are democratic (or "pluralist") states naturally more responsive to environmental problems, and authoritarian ones inherently less so? Is the Chinese government, despite maintaining an appearance of iron-fisted control over what goes on in the country, actually shooting itself in the foot when it comes to managing the environment? Josephson's answer would be "yes":
I ask readers to confront the paradox that authoritarian regimes, although claiming to exploit resources more efficiently and equitably for their citizens and asserting that only their institutions can protect the true interests of the citizens against the unbridled forces of the market and the search for profit, have environmentally and socially costly development patterns.
Resources Under Regimes first appeared in 2004, but this analysis looks awfully prescient now, given the new evidence of massive environmental degradation in China and the consequent social unrest that has reared its ugly head most recently in the form of riots. Josephson makes a compelling argument that "technology is inherently political," since it generally falls to the state to decide from what angle technology is going to be embraced and how equitably the fruits of that technology will be distributed to the populace at large. Resources Under Regimes provides an insightful, nuanced look at these complex relationships, making it a valuable roadmap to issues that will only get more serious the longer we ignore them.
The German philosopher-critic Walter Benjamin is not remembered as a comedian. Indeed, if the first thing you ever read by the great thinker was "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility," chock full of lines like "the representation of human beings by means of an apparatus has made possible a productive use of the human being's self-alienation," you might be forgiven for concluding that Benjamin's genius was, shall we say, a little stuffy.
Well, rest easy, because a little book we've published called On Hashish proves that this is not the case. The book, which consists of twelve "protocols," or drug experiments, reveals an altogether different side of Benjamin. Gone are the meditations on "the dialectical structure of film" and the possibility of a "proletarian children's theater." In On Hashish, such lofty reveries find themselves replaced by sentences like the following:
"Oven turns into cat."
"I'd like to be transformed into a mouse mountain." (followed by "repeated short bursts of laughter")
"Eating belongs to another world."
"The subject finds himself inexplicably amused by the dullest of political slogans."
Hmmm, Walter Benjamin as common stoner--try and wrap your head around that one. In truth, though, Benjamin was anything but average. His accounts of his drug experiences radiate pearls of wisdom in much the same way as his philosophical writings. Indeed, Benjamin refused to approach hashish from the standpoint of the recreational user. He ingested the drug (massive amounts of it, by the way) in search of what he called "profane illumination," a broadening of everyday experience, even when that "experience" consisted of stumbling around Marseilles wolfing down as many servings of oysters and pate as he could get his hands on (see the hilarious essay entitled "Hashish in Marseilles").
On Hashish is a book that reveals Benjamin to be a true lover of life. As Robert Fulford put it in the National Post: "Everything Benjamin wrote, even when the subject is less than pleasant, exudes an almost euphoric spirit. It was as if he wrote as a form of worship, out of gratitude for the chance to live and discover." The book really does read like that--it's a pleasure to read Benjamin's words and feel, however vicariously, the effects of his voracious intellect and genuine zeal for experience.
Check out the May 2006 issue of Harper's Magazine for an excerpt and reviews, or check reviews in the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. A few months ago, Benjamin even made Gawker.com (something we're guessing he would have found amusing)! Or travel to the HUP website for a different excerpt, more reviews, and links to other Benjamin books (including The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, out this November).
Check out the Boston Globe Health and Science section for an article that begins:
Bob and Fargo, both drug-sniffing school dropouts, can smell their floating quarry from a nautical mile away.
Standing like sentinels at the prow of a boat, the dogs stiffen when they catch the scent. Their noses act as compass needles for boat pilots, directing the boats toward the catch. As they get closer, they have to be restrained from jumping into the ocean to retrieve one of the most important clues to a whale's health: its scat.
For those that didn't know, "scat" is whale feces. Sounds gross, right? You might be surprised to find out just how crucial it is:
It's strange science for sure, but examining whale feces is scientists' most effective tool for understanding why there are only about 350 North Atlantic right whales left in the world and what might be done to save the species.
By the 1930s, the North Atlantic right whale was almost extinct due to hunting. But unlike other marine species, the right whale population failed to increase after hunting was banned. What happened?
Rosalind Rolland and Scott Kraus, co-editors of the forthcoming HUP book The Urban Whale: The North Atlantic Right Whale at the Crossroads, have spent the last twenty years on a mission to find out. The book, due in February, represents the culmination of their efforts to gather everything that's currently known about right whales in an effort to figure out how the species can be saved.
But reliable information on the whales can be elusive (it's not like you can catch one and study it). As the article explains, researchers used to shoot darts into the whales' skin in hope of retrieving some small bit of DNA, but that method proved haphazard. They would try to catch some of the spurts from the whales' blow holes, but you can imagine how tough that is. And autopsies of whales killed by fishing nets or passing ships often yielded little due to decomposition of the bodies. The only real way to get answers, they determined, lay in the scat. The problem is, whale scat is enormous and it only stays on the surface for about an hour after it's deposited. In order for the stuff to be useful, researchers have to find it, and fast.
That's where the dogs come in. Since their sense of smell is so acute, the dogs can locate whale scat in time for researchers to grab precious samples that may hold clues as to what exactly is preventing the right whale from increasing its numbers. In the picture above, Fargo (along with Rolland) can be seen doing just that. The only problem is keeping the dogs from getting so excited that they jump off the boat and swim to the scat themselves!
Due out in February, The Urban Whale will tell the whole story of the North Atlantic right whale, chronicling its near-extinction during the twentieth century and explaining the ingenious methods researchers have developed in order to study and ultimately save these incredible animals. Journalists, as always, feel free to contact HUP for more information.
Photo courtesy of Brenna Kraus/New England Aquarium.
Janet Golden is a specialist in medical history at Rutgers University-Camden and the author of Message in a Bottle: The Making of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. When we read the recent New York Times article on breastfeeding and saw the amount of controversy it seems to have sparked, we knew that Dr Golden, who is also the author of A Social History of Wet Nursing: From Breast to Bottle, was just the person to ask for some clarity on this issue. Here's what she had to say.
A quick reading of the recent New York Times piece "Breast-Feed or Else" suggests that once again scientists have discovered the obvious. It turns out that human milk is the best food for human infants; mammary glands have uses beyond selling cars, beer, and, well, sex; and breastfeeding benefits nursing mothers as well as babies.
But the real story is what the article left out. In describing the debate spurred by the recent advertising campaign to promote breastfeeding the piece ignored the controversy that erupted when the original public service announcements were eviscerated at the behest of the 3-billion-dollar-a-year formula industry. This isn't exactly news; the ABC show "20/20" won an award for covering the story in 2004 in a segment entitled "Milk Money."
The crux of the matter is that the federal government surrendered to industry interests and in doing so, denied citizens vital public health information about breastfeeding. That censorship essentially squelched a much-needed discussion about public health and public policy. Instead of talking about the reality of women's lives today, we are talking about individual guilt about not breastfeeding.
Public health is about public information. Thanks to years of public service announcements, everyone understands the statistical link between tobacco smoking and numerous health risks. No one except tobacco company executives wants to hide the risks of smoking from the public. Why is it okay for the formula companies to hide the risks of not breastfeeding from the public?
Public health is also about public policy. Very few women in the United States breastfeed beyond a few months, if indeed they breastfeed at all, because we lack paid parental leave, a national health system based on preventive care, and sound child health policies. I recognize that these needed programs are a long way off, but isn't it worth taking some smaller steps? Here, at least, we can give a nod to the federal government for doing something right. The National Institutes of Health Work/Life Center has an outstanding program of breastfeeding support: prenatal breastfeeding education classes, return-to-work consultations, and numerous lactation rooms equipped with breast pumps and refrigerators for milk storage as well as a website explaining the benefits of breastfeeding. This program could serve as a model for other workplaces--including the New York Times, which, I'm told, doesn't have lactation stations on site.
Breastfeeding is a public health matter; it is as simple as that. Once we accept that, we can have a real conversation--about why the government pulled the plug on an important public health campaign and about which policies we need as a society to enable more women to breastfeed. This isn't about making women feel guilty; it’s about giving families enough information to make the decisions that will be right for them. It's a question of social supports for women who want to breastfeed. It's a question of doing what we can to ensure the health of babies and women.
The good kind, that is. HUP author Lucian Bebchuk (co-author of Pay Without Performance) goes up against software giant CA Inc. today in the Delaware Court of Chancery over what's known as the "poison pill"--an antitakeover provision loathed by many shareholders in large corporations. Professor Bebchuk has proposed an amendment to the company's bylaws that he calls a "poison pill antidote," which the company has tried to have kept off the ballot at the upcoming July shareholder's meeting. Today, the two sides will face off in court over the merits of the suit.
Congratulations to Liz Borgwardt, author of A New Deal for the World: America's Vision for Human Rights and co-winner of the 2006 Stuart L. Bernath Book Prize, awarded by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. The prize is given annually to recognize distinguished first books in the field. Earlier this year, Borgwardt won the Merle Curti Award, given by the Organization of American Historians to the best book of the year in intellectual, social or cultural history.||| Read an excerpt from A New Deal for the World