Happy birthday, John Singer Sargent

Over on Instagram we’re giving a shout out to John Singer Sargent, born 161 years ago today. Kilmurray & Ormond’s lavish book on his work has been in print for 18 years, and remains a perennial favorite. Here it is perched on our courtyard steps, enjoying the unseasonably warm breeze:

 

The remarkable portraits for which John Singer Sargent is most famous are only one aspect of a career that included landscapes, watercolors, figure subjects, and murals. Even within portraiture, his style ranged from bold experiments to studied formality. And the subjects of his paintings were as varied as his styles, including the leaders of fashionable society, rural laborers, city streets, remote mountains, and the front lines of World War I. John Singer Sargent, edited by Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond surveys and evaluates the extraordinary range of Sargent’s work, and reproduces 150 of his paintings in color.

Happy birthday to a man widely considered to be the leading portrait painter of his generation.

 

10 facts about the early life of Ernst Kantorowicz

LernerIn this first complete biography of Ernst Kantorowicz (1895–1963), Robert E. Lerner takes an in depth look at an influential and controversial German-American intellectual whose colorful and dramatic life intersected with many of the great events and thinkers of his time. Though he exerted influence well outside of his field, Kantorowicz is most famous for two books—a notoriously nationalistic 1927 biography of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and The King’s Two Bodies (1957), a classic study of medieval politics. Drawing on many new sources, including numerous interviews and unpublished letters, Lerner tells the story of a major intellectual whose life and times were as fascinating as his work.

A few things you may not know about the life of Ernst Kantorowicz:

In the United States Ernst Kantorowicz told people that he “loved his father,” unusual language for him, and he kept a photograph of him on his bedroom dresser.

Kantorowicz was born into a wealthy family—they owned a successful distillery business.

He had two sisters; Sophie, known as Soscha, with whom he was close, and Margarete, known as Grete or Gretel, with whom he was not.

Toward the end of his life, he described himself as being of, “Jewish descent, not Jewish belief.” When he was young, Yiddish was likely not spoken in his home, and he was almost certainly not Bar Mitzvahed.

When Kantorowicz was growing up, his parents thought that teaching him English was essential since they believed he would be working in the family business. Thus, they engaged an English governess for him until he was 12.

In gymnasia (high school) Kantorowicz never received the highest possible grade in any of his courses. Most were either barely passing or failing, and he did not do his homework. Many of his classmates had comparable performances.

Kantorowicz volunteered for his local field artillery regiment on August 8, six days after Germany declared war on France, at the age of 19.

He entered the army as a private in 1914 and was promoted to corporal, then to sergeant in October 1915. In June 1915 he received the Iron Cross, second class. In 1917, he was awarded the Iron Crescent, the Ottoman equivalent of the Iron Cross.

When the Great War was over, Kantorowicz began studying economics and finance in preparation for his role in the family business. He also took courses in the study of Islam, pursuing an interest he had developed when he was stationed in Turkey during the war.

In February 1919, Kantorowicz transferred from the University of Berlin to the University of Munich. He told a friend it was because he thought he could get more work done in Munich, but his other motive was that he had fallen in love with Josefine von Kahler.

For more detail, pick up a copy of Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life.

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Robert E. Lerner is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University, where he taught medieval history for more than forty years. The author of many books, he is a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and the American Academy in Rome, and a former member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Thomas W. Laqueur: Ghosts and ghouls haunt the living with a message about life

LaqueurThere is, it would seem, no greater chasm than that which divides the living from the dead. We who still dwell on the side of life know this as we relegate the inert bodies of those so recently just like ourselves to the elements from which they came: earth or fire – ashes to ashes; air in the towers of the Zoroastrians; very occasionally, water. We do not just toss bodies over walls, whatever we might believe (or not believe) about a soul or an afterlife. We do it with care and with rituals: funeral and mourning. We do it because it is what humans do and have always done; it represents our entry into culture from nature. We live and have always lived with our dead. To do otherwise would be to expel the dead from the community of the living, to expunge them from history.

But, at the same time as we honour our dead, we generally also want to keep a certain distance. We expect them to leave us alone in our world and remain safely in theirs. When they don’t, it is a sign that something has gone very wrong. King Creon argues in Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone that the rebel Polyneices should remain unburied as punishment for his crimes: ‘unwept, unsepulchered, a treasure to feast on for birds looking out for a dainty meal’. Had he had his way, the shade of Polyneices would undoubtedly have returned to berate the living for their scandalous neglect. Antigone’s voice is the one we – or, in any case, our better selves – hear. Care for the dead is among the ‘unwavering, unwritten customs of the gods … not some trifle of now or yesterday, but for all eternity’.

This brings us to Halloween, and to All Saints’ Day on 1 November, and All Souls’ the day after – the days when the boundaries between the living and the dead seem most likely to be breached. Why are these still the days of ghosts and goblins, ghouls and dancing skeletons?

Before we can answer, we need a taxonomy of the dead who have returned to our world: the revenants. Within this large family there are two genera: the fleshly and the ethereal. And within each genus there are many species. Among the fleshly, there are vampires, for example – archaeologists have dug up skeletons in Poland with bricks in their mouths put there, they think, by villagers determined to keep the vampires from coming back to devour them. Vampires seldom stray far from home, while the Norse draugr, a fleshy revenant, wanders far afield. A related Norse species, the haugbúar stays near its burrow, complains about the other inhabitants and affects the weather. The very corporeal Chinese walking dead travel great distances to be buried in a geomantically auspicious spot.

Within the genus of the ethereal revenant there are also many species: those that come back very soon after death to chide their friends for not giving them proper obsequies; the shade of Patroclus appears to Achilles in the Iliad under just these circumstance. Or ghosts such as Hamlet’s father, in full armour – a touch of the material – coming back to tell his son he’d been murdered. There are ghosts that give off foul vapours, and ghosts that strike people (although how they do that since they have no bodies is unclear).

One thing can be said about the whole family of revenants: they are generally not a cheery lot. They come back because something is wrong: some debt from life needs to be repaid or vengeance taken; or their bodies were insufficiently cared for; or their souls were ill-remembered. Friendly ghosts such as the cartoon character Casper are an extreme rarity. In monotheistic religions, God tends to keep a close watch on the boundaries of the other world and ghosts are rare; he draws the dead to him. Monotheistic religions tend to discourage traffic with the dead, which is called necromancy, a dangerous kind of magic. In religions without one god in charge, the revenant tends to proliferate.

But nowhere do they ever seem to go away. Not in the Age of Reason: James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) writes, ‘It is wonderful that 5,000 years have now elapsed … and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death.’ All sorts of good arguments are against it, ‘but all belief is for it’. Not in the 19th century either: Jeremy Bentham, the most rational of men and enemy of superstition, could not rid himself of a belief in ghosts.

Even today, Halloween encourages us to remember in a fuzzy sort of way the medieval custom of praying for the souls of the dead by name and asking the saints to speed them toward salvation. Back then, it was an occasion for any souls unhappy with efforts to help them to come back and complain. It was a time when the boundaries between the living and the dead seemed more porous. Few of us today think we can do much for the souls of the dead or that there is much border-crossing. But the ghosts of old and even new species of revenant, such as zombies – a whole other story – are still resonant. In part, this is because the revenant have gone inward; our guilt toward the dead in general, or someone in particular whom we might have wronged, makes itself vividly manifest in our minds. It is real even if we know it is not real.

In part, it is because we are all in some way haunted by the dead who are still part of us and of our lives. It is also because mortality remains so deeply strange and unbearable. Sigmund Freud gets this right. Reason is of little help. After tens of thousands of years, there has been little progress. In ‘hardly any other sphere,’ he writes in The Uncanny (1919), ‘has our thinking and feeling changed so little since primitive times or the old been so well preserved, under a thin veneer, as in our relation to death.’

Finally, to return to where we began, we wish our fellow creatures a good death and a peaceful rest within the community of the living because we need them among us. They remain part of the world as we imagine it. To be human is to care for the dead. But we also wish the dead and dying well in order to maintain the chasm between our world and theirs. The dead are primally dangerous; we need them to stay where they are, safely quarantined, in a parallel universe to ours.Aeon counter – do not remove

Thomas W. Laqueur is the Helen Fawcett Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Edward Balleisen on the long history of fraud in America

BalleisenDuplicitous business dealings and scandal may seem like manifestations of contemporary America gone awry, but fraud has been a key feature of American business since its beginnings. The United States has always proved an inviting home for boosters, sharp dealers, and outright swindlers. Worship of entrepreneurial freedom has complicated the task of distinguishing aggressive salesmanship from unacceptable deceit, especially on the frontiers of innovation. At the same time, competitive pressures have often nudged respectable firms to embrace deception. In Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff, Edward Balleisen traces the history of fraud in America—and the evolving efforts to combat it. Recently, he took the time to answer some questions about his book.

Can you explain what brought you to write this book?

EB: For more than two decades, I have been fascinated by the role of trust in modern American capitalism and the challenges posed by businesses that break their promises. My first book, Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America, addressed this question by examining institutional responses to insolvency in the mid-nineteenth-century. This book widens my angle of vision, considering the problem of intentional deceit in the United States across a full two centuries.

In part, my research was motivated by the dramatic American fraud scandals of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which demonstrated how badly duplicitous business practices could hurt investors, consumers, and general confidence in capitalism. I wanted to understand how American society had developed strategies to constrain such behavior, and why they had increasingly proved unequal to the task since the 1970s.

In part, I was gripped by all the compelling stories suggested by historical episodes of fraud, which often involve charismatic business-owners, and often raise complex questions about how to distinguish enthusiastic exaggeration from unscrupulous misrepresentation.

In part, I wanted to tackle the challenges of reconstructing a history over the longer term. Many of the best historians during the last generation have turned to microhistory – detailed studies of specific events or moments. But there is also an important place for macro-history that traces continuity and change over several generations.

In addition, my research was shaped by increasingly heated debates about the costs and benefits of governmental regulation, the extent to which the social legitimacy of market economies rest on regulatory foundations, and the best ways to structure regulatory policy. The history of American anti-fraud policy offers compelling evidence about these issues, and shows that smart government can achieve important policy goals.

What are the basic types of fraud?

EB: One important distinction involves the targets of intentional economic deceit. Sometimes individual consumers defraud businesses, as when they lie on applications for credit or life insurance. Sometimes taxpayers defraud governments, by hiding income. Sometimes employees defraud employers, by misappropriating funds, which sociologists call “occupational fraud.” I focus mostly on deceit committed by firms against their counterparties (other businesses, consumers, investors, the government), or “organizational fraud.”

Then there are the major techniques of deception by businesses. Within the realm of consumer fraud, most misrepresentations take the form of a bait and switch – making big promises about goods or services, but then delivering something of lesser or even no quality.

Investment fraud can take this form as well. But it also may depend on market manipulations – spreading rumors, engaging in sham trades, or falsifying corporate financial reports in order to influence price movements, and so the willingness of investors to buy or sell; or taking advantage of inside information to trade ahead of market reactions to that news.

One crucial type of corporate fraud involves managerial looting. That is, executives engage in self-dealing. They give themselves outsized compensation despite financial difficulties, direct corporate resources to outside firms that they control in order to skim off profits, or even drive their firms into bankruptcy, and then take advantage of inside information to buy up assets on the cheap.

Why does business fraud occur?

EB: Modern economic life presents consumers, investors, and businesses with never-ending challenges of assessing information. What is the quality of goods and services on offer, some of which may depend on newfangled technologies or complex financial arrangements? How should we distinguish good investment opportunities from poor ones?

In many situations, sellers and buyers do not possess the same access to evidence about such issues. Economists refer to this state of affairs as “information asymmetry.” Then there is the problem of information overload, which leads many economic actors to rely on mental short-cuts – rules of thumb about the sorts of businesses or offers that they can trust. Almost all deceptive firms seek to look and sound like successful enterprises, taking advantage of the tendency of consumers and investors to rely on such rules of thumb. Some of the most sophisticated financial scams even try to build confidence by warning investors about other frauds.

A number of common psychological tendencies leave most people susceptible to economic misrepresentations at least some of the time. Often we can be taken in by strategies of “framing” – the promise of a big discount from an inflated base price may entice us to get out our wallets, even though the actual price is not much of a bargain. Or a high-pressure stock promoter may convince us to invest by convincing us that we have to avoid the regret that will dog us if we hold back and then lose out on massive gains.

How has government policy toward business fraud changed since the early nineteenth century?

EB: In the nineteenth century, Anglo-American law tended to err on the side of leniency toward self-promotion by businesses. In most situations, the key legal standard was caveat emptor, or let the buyer beware. For the judges and legislators who embraced this way of thinking, markets worked best when consumers and investors knew that they had to look out for themselves. As a result, they adopted legal rules that often made it difficult for economic actors to substantiate allegations of illegal deceit.

For more than a century after the American Civil War, however, there was a strong trend to make anti-fraud policies less forgiving of companies that shade the truth in their business dealings. As industrialization and the emergence of complex national markets produced wider information asymmetries, economic deceit became a bigger problem. The private sector responded through new types of businesses (accounting services, credit reporting) and self-regulatory bodies to certify trustworthiness. But from the late nineteenth century into the 1970s, policy-makers periodically enacted anti-fraud regulations that required truthful disclosures from businesses, and that made it easier for investors and consumers to receive relief when they were taken for a ride.

More recently, the conservative turn in American politics since the 1970s led to significant policy reversals. Convinced that markets would police fraudulent businesses by damaging their reputations, elected officials cut back on budgets for anti-fraud enforcement, and rejected the extension of anti-fraud regulations to new financial markets like debt securitization.

Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08, which was triggered in part by widespread duplicity in the mortgage markets, Americans have again seen economic deceit as a worrisome threat to confidence in capitalist institutions. That concern has prompted the adoption of some important anti-fraud policies, like the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But it remains unclear whether we have an entered a new era of greater faith in government to be able to constrain the most harmful forms of business fraud.

Many journalists and pundits have characterized the last several decades as generating epidemics of business fraud. What if anything is distinctive about the incidence of business fraud since the 1970s?

EB: Fraud episodes have occurred in every era of American history. During the nineteenth century, railroad contracting frauds abounded, as did duplicity related to land companies and patent medicine advertising. Deception in the marketing of mining stocks became so common that a prevalent joke defined “mine” as “a hole in the ground with a liar at the top.” From the 1850s through the 1920s, Wall Street was notorious for the ruthless manner in which dodgy operators fleeced unsuspecting investors.

Business frauds hardly disappeared in mid-twentieth-century America. Indeed, bait and switch marketing existed in every urban retailing sector, and especially in poor urban neighborhoods. Within the world of investing, scams continued to target new-fangled industries, such as uranium mines and electronics. As Americans moved to the suburbs, fraudulent pitchmen followed right behind, with duplicitous franchising schemes and shoddy home improvement projects.

The last forty years have also produced a regular stream of major fraud scandals, including the Savings & Loan frauds of the 1980s and early 1990s, contracting frauds in military procurement and healthcare reimbursement during the 1980s and 1990s, corporate accounting scandals in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and frauds associated with the collapse of the mortgage market in 2007-2008.

Unlike in the period from the 1930s through the 1970s, however, business fraud during the more recent four decades have attained a different scale and scope. The costs of the worst episodes have reached into the billions of dollars (an order of magnitude greater than their counterparts in the mid-twentieth century, taking account of inflation and the overall growth in the economy), and have far more frequently involved leading corporations.

Why is business fraud so hard to stamp out through government policy?

EB: One big challenge is presented by the task of defining fraud in legal terms. In ordinary language, people often refer to any rip-off as a “fraud.” But how should the law distinguish between enthusiastic exaggerations, so common among entrepreneurs who just know that their business is offering the best thing ever, and unacceptable lies? Drawing that line has never been easy, especially if one wants to give some leeway to new firms seeking to gain a hearing through initial promotions.

Then there are several enduring obstacles to enforcement of American anti-fraud regulations. Often specific instances of business fraud impose relatively small harms on individuals, even if overall losses may be great. That fact, along with embarrassment at having been duped, has historically led many American victims of fraud to remain “silent suckers.” Proving that misrepresentations were intentional is often difficult; as is explaining the nature of deception to juries in complex cases of financial fraud.

The most effective modes of anti-fraud regulation often have been administrative in character. They either require truthful disclosure of crucial information to consumers and investors, at the right time and incomprehensible language, or they cut off access to the marketplace to fraudulent businesses. Postal fraud orders constitute one example of the latter sort of policy. When the post office determines that a business has engaged in fraudulent practices, it can deny it the use of the mails, a very effective means of policing mail-order firms. Such draconian steps, however, have always raised questions about fairness and often lead to the adoption of procedural safeguards that can blunt their impact.

How does this book help us better understand on contemporary frauds, such as the Madoff pyramid scheme or the Volkswagen emissions scandal?  

EB: One key insight is that so long as economic transactions depend on trust, and so long as there are asymmetries of information between economic counterparties, there will be significant incentives to cheat. Some economists and legal thinkers argue that the best counter to these incentives are reputational counterweights. Established firms, on this view, will not take actions that threaten their goodwill; newer enterprises will focus on earning the trust of creditors, suppliers, and customers. And heavy-handed efforts to police deceptive practices remove the incentive for economic actors to exercise due diligence, while raising barriers to entry, and so limiting the scope for new commercial ideas. This way of thinking shares much in common with the philosophy of caveat emptor that structured most American markets in the nineteenth-century.

But as instances like the Madoff investment frauds and Volkswagen’s reliance on deceptive emissions overrides suggest, reputational considerations have significant limits. Even firms with sterling reputations are susceptible to fraud. This is especially the case when regulatory supports, and wider social norms against commercial dishonesty, are weak.

The title of this book is Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. What do you see as uniquely American about this history of fraud?  

EB: The basic psychological patterns of economic deception have not changed much in the United States. Indeed, these patterns mirror experimental findings regarding vulnerabilities that appear to be common across societies. Thus I would be skeptical that the tactics of an investment “pump and dump” or marketing “bait and switch” would look very different in 1920s France or the Japan of the early 21st century than in the U.S. at those times.

That said, dimensions of American culture have created welcome ground for fraudulent schemes and schemers. American policy-makers have tended to accord great respect to entrepreneurs, which helps to explain the adoption of a legal baseline of caveat emptor in the nineteenth century, and the partial return to that baseline in the last quarter of the twentieth-century.

The growth of the antifraud state, however, likely narrowed the differences between American policies and those in other industrialized countries. One hope of mine for this book is that it prompts more historical analysis of antifraud regulation elsewhere – in continental Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We need more detailed histories in other societies before we can draw firmer comparative conclusions.

What do you see as the most important implications of this book for policy-makers charged with furthering consumer or investor protection?

EB: Business fraud is a truly complex regulatory problem. No modern society can hope to eliminate it without adopting such restrictive rules as to strangle economic activity. But if governments rely too heavily on the market forces associated with reputation, business fraud can become sufficiently common and sufficiently costly to threaten public confidence in capitalist institutions. As a result, policy-makers would do well to focus on strategies of fraud containment.

That approach calls for:

• well-designed campaigns of public education for consumers and investors;
• empowering consumers and investors through contractual defaults, like cooling off periods that allow consumers to back out of purchases;
• cultivating social norms that stigmatize businesses that take the deceptive road;
• building regulatory networks to share information across agencies and levels of government, and between government bodies and the large number of antifraud NGOs; and
• a determination to shut down the most unscrupulous firms, not only to curb their activities, but also to persuade everyone that the state is serious about combating fraud.

Edward Balleisen talks about his new book:

Edward J. Balleisen is associate professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America and Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Coming soon: The Atlas of Ancient Rome

CarandiniThe Atlas of Ancient Rome, edited by Andrea Carandini, is a gorgeous, authoritative archeological survey of Rome from prehistory to the early medieval period. Transport yourself to antiquity with full-color maps, drawings, photos, and 3D reconstructions of the Eternal City, featuring descriptions of the fourteen regions of Rome and the urban history of each in unprecedented detail. Included are profiles and reconstructions of more than 500 major monuments and works of art, such as the Sanctuary of Vesta, the domus Augusti, and the Mausoleum of Augustus. This two-volume, slipcased edition examines the city’s topography and political-administrative divisions, trade and economic production, and social landscape and infrastructure using the most current archaeological findings and the latest mapping technologies. Take a look at a sampling of some of the detailed images from the book here, and be sure to mark your calendar for when this book becomes available in February 2017.

Browse Our History 2017 Catalog

Welcome to our new 2017 offerings in history:

If you are heading to the 2017 American Historical Association Annual Meeting in Denver from January 5 to January 8, come visit us at booth #208. Join us for a reception on Friday, January 6 at 4:00 p.m. to celebrate this year’s award winners and meet our authors.

Also, follow #aha17 and @PrincetonUnivPress on Twitter for updates and information on our new and forthcoming titles throughout the meeting.

An award-winning book, Europe since 1989 provides the first comprehensive history of post-1989 Europe. Philipp Ther—a firsthand witness to many of the transformations, from Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution to postcommunist Poland and Ukraine—offers a sweeping narrative filled with vivid details and memorable stories. A compelling and often-surprising account of how the new order of the New Europe was wrought from the chaotic aftermath of the Cold War, this is essential reading for understanding Europe today.

Ther Europe since 1989

In Hitler’s American Model, James Whitman presents a detailed investigation of the American impact on the notorious Nuremberg Laws, the centerpiece anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi regime. Indelibly linking American race laws to the shaping of Nazi policies in Germany, this book upends understandings of America’s influence on racist practices in the wider world.

Whitman Hitler's American Model

In a masterful narrative that propels readers from the first shots fired at Fort Sumter to the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox, Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh bring every aspect of the battlefield vividly to life. A military history of breathtaking sweep and scope, A Savage War reveals how the Civil War ushered in the age of modern warfare.

Murray & Hsieh Savage War

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Susan Scott Parrish on the current significance of the Great Mississippi Flood

Parrish“Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment.”

In 1927, the south experienced one of the most extensive environmental disasters in U.S. history: heavy rains led to the flooding of the Mississippi river, spanning nearly thirty thousand square miles across seven states. More than a half million people were displaced, and due to the speed of new media and the slow progress of the flood, it became the first environmental disaster to be experienced on a mass scale. Drawing upon newspapers , radio broadcasts, political cartoons, vaudeville, blues songs, poetry, and fiction, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History by Susan Scott Parrish shows how this disastrous event took on public meaning.

There were other major disasters in the early 20th century U.S. What was unique about the flood you focus on?

SP: Unlike other devastating floods of the era—in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (1889), Galveston, Texas (1900), and the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida (1928)—which all occurred in a matter of hours, this Mississippi River flood moved so slowly and lasted so long that national audiences could be pulled in, through newly established media circuits, to the events as they unfolded. One of William Faulkner’s narrators called it “the flood year 1927” because the disaster truly lasted an entire year. Moreover, unlike the Johnstown and Okeechobee floods, both also man-made disasters, in which the powerful industrialists involved in the first case and the Florida boosters in the second sought to avoid publicity, in 1927 white southerners, as well as African American pundits and environmentalists throughout the nation, were determined to bring attention to the flood. I would argue, in fact, that not only was this the “worst” flood of the entire 20th century in terms of displaced persons and property damage, but it was also the most publicly engrossing U.S. environmental disaster. As such, it allows us a signal opportunity to ask the following questions: How do—and how should—humans communicate with themselves about politically charged eco-catastrophes? What are the stages through which mass-mediated societies encounter disaster? Do certain media entail better, or more productive, or more democratic epistemologies of crisis? What can we learn from 1927 about how to make transformative expression, and knowledge, out of disaster today and in the future?

Why was this flood so meaningful to people?

SP: Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood. As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie and that Federal institutions like the Red Cross and the National Guard were abetting its reestablishment. Though the death toll from the flood was less extensive than that of other contemporaneous disasters, it was the way that this flood—for northern, southern, white, and black publics—uncannily rematerialized the defining American nightmares of slavery and civil war that made it so culturally engulfing. Moreover, the flood gave the lie to many of the early 20th-century promises of a modernizing, technocratic society: here was, in the words of environmentalist Gifford Pinchot, “the most colossal blunder in civilized history.”

The subtitle of your book is “A Cultural History;” can you explain what you mean by that phrase?

SP: Well, I began the book as a literary history, something along the lines of an environmentally-oriented version of Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory, which considered the literary reckoning with World War One. I eventually came to see, though, that this flood became a public event across multiple media platforms. Fiction was important for our long-term memory of the flood, but other media were crucial to how the flood became significant while it occurred. I first discovered that William Faulkner, living a few counties away from the river in 1927, took up the flood beginning with the book he wrote in 1928—The Sound and the Fury (1929)—and kept writing about it through As I Lay Dying (1930) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939). I found a number of stories and pieces of life writing that Richard Wright, living in Memphis in 1927, wrote about the flood in the 1930s. And I came upon many other literary chroniclers as well: Sterling Brown, Will Percy, Lyle Saxon and Ruth Bass, to mention just a few. As I dug deeper into the archive, though, I realized that this flood represented an important moment in the histories of radio and print journalism, theater, and music as well. How northern and western media sought to package the South to raise money for evacuees; how an environmentalist critique went national; and how black journalistic protest remained largely enclaved are all important topics for the history of how media manufacture events which in turn create “publics.” Among the major pundits who weighed in on the flood were W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White, H.L. Mencken, and even, on the radio in Berlin, Walter Benjamin. After I noticed advertisements in newspapers for “monster” flood benefits—the biggest ones produced in the “Vaudeville” variety mode—I gradually realized that the way most citizens around the country came in live contact with the flood was in a theater. In particular, international comedians of color who hailed from the South, Will Rogers and the duo “Miller & Lyles,” offered a trenchant but popular kind of critique of white disaster consumption. Their messages crossed the color line in the way that newspaper editorials did not. Finally, Bessie Smith’s song, “Back-Water Blues,” also popular on both sides of the color line, and on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, offers a remarkable example of the way that black experience of displacement moved across space through sound. All in all, my book tests some classic ideas—expressed by the likes of Walter Lippmann and Jurgen Habermas—that the optimal form of democratic public reckoning with reality occurs through deliberative print media. “Entertainment,” for these theorists, is anathema to truth seeking. By contrast, the archive convinced me that, during the flood itself, Vaudeville comedy and blues entertainment communicated evacuee experience more wholly and more broadly than any other media.

One of your sections is titled “Modernism within a Second Nature,” can you explain how your book contributes to our understanding of modernism?

SP: And what does “Second Nature” mean? For many, the flood was an example of modernization adrift, of a kind of temporary drowning of that Progressive-era sense amongst Americans that theirs was a time of “the perfection of method and of mechanism” that could “spread well-being among the masses.” We have understood that artistic movement known as modernism as expressing at times enthusiasm, but at other times, profound doubts about various kinds of modernization, on the battlefield, in communications, in politics. We have not tended to think enough though about how modernist artists responded to the eclipsing of “nature” with a “second nature.” Second nature is a phrase Henri Lefebvre used to describe how, increasingly with modernity, “nature’s space has been replaced by a space-qua-product” of human design. I think this sense that industrialism’s second nature was not necessarily a “perfection” that would spread “well-being,” but was rather an imperious blunder that could bring intense misery especially to “the masses”—this sense was felt acutely amongst both whites and blacks in the South in 1927. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were the southern modernist authors who, in their stories about the flood, communicated that a rural environment could be thoroughly fabricated by humans, and fabricated in such a way as to intensify its inherent risks, so that these environments could become—indeed, had become—as political and modern and violent a product as a machine gun or a tank.

Given that the flood inundated the lower Mississippi Valley, do you see the book as primarily about the South?

SP: Yes and no. The environmental history leading up to the flood involved the entire Mississippi watershed, and how it was altered (through logging, wetlands drainage, grasslands removal and a levees-only engineering policy). And the media history, in so far as communication about the event was produced and consumed nationally, and internationally, also involves a much wider geography. It was a disaster most keenly and physically experienced in the Deep South, but the event took on meaning across a much broader mediascape. Though the South is often associated with “disaster” (of slavery, of defeat in war, of underdevelopment), it may surprise readers to find southern editorials in 1927 explaining this flood not in terms of God, but in terms of human miscalculation. Scholars who work on southern cultural topics today tend to be interested in how “the South” was created within global systems like mercantilism, empire and slavery, and also how it was partially invented by chroniclers outside its regional boundaries. My book is likewise concerned with that intersection of regional experience and broader environmental and representational patterns.

Why is yours an important book to read in 2017?

SP: Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment. We live in an age in which human impact on the earth is indelibly intense. We live this material reality—in our bones and cells—but we often come to perceive it in a way that is so technologically mediated as to be vertiginously virtual. For the sake of history, it is important to appreciate that the Flood of 1927 represented perhaps the first major coincidence of the “Anthropocene” and what Guy Debord has termed the “Society of the Spectacle.”

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Her latest book is The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.

Browse Our Philosophy 2017 Catalog

We invite you to browse our Philosophy 2017 Catalog:

If you are attending the 113th Meeting of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division in Baltimore, Maryland from January 4 to January 7, come visit us at the Princeton booth! Follow #APAEastern17 and @PrincetonUnivPress on Twitter for updates and information on our new and forthcoming titles throughout the meeting.

With masterful storytelling and color illustrations, Heretics! offers a unique introduction to the birth of modern thought in comics form—smart, charming, and often funny. This entertaining and enlightening graphic narrative tells the exciting story of the seventeenth-century thinkers who challenged authority to lay the foundations of modern philosophy and science and help usher in a new world.

Nadler Heretics cover

In On Human Nature, acclaimed writer and philosopher Roger Scruton presents an original and radical defense of human uniqueness. Confronting the views of evolutionary psychologists, utilitarian moralists, and philosophical materialists, he argues that human beings cannot be understood simply as biological objects. We are not only human animals; we are also persons, in essential relation with other persons, and bound to them by obligations and rights.

Scruton Human Nature cover

In Ethics in the Real World, Peter Singer applies his controversial ways of thinking to issues like climate change, extreme poverty, animals, abortion, euthanasia, human genetic selection, etc. Provocative and original, this collection of brief essays will challenge—and possibly change—your beliefs about a wide range of real-world ethical questions.

Singer

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Browse Our Ancient World 2017 Catalog

Be among the first to browse our Ancient World 2017 Catalog.

PUP will be at the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies in Toronto, Canada from January 5 to January 8. Visit us at booth #107 & #108! Also, follow #aiascs and @PrincetonUnivPress on Twitter for updates and information on our new and forthcoming titles throughout the meeting.

The Atlas of Ancient Rome provides a comprehensive archaeological survey of the city of Rome from prehistory to the early medieval period. This is the only atlas of the ancient city to incorporate the most current archaeological findings and use the latest mapping technologies.

Carandini

Written by Eric Cline, an archaeologist with more than thirty seasons of excavation experience, Three Stones Make a Wall traces the history of archaeology from an amateur pursuit to the cutting-edge science it is today by taking the reader on a tour of major archaeological sites and discoveries, from Pompeii to Petra, Troy to the Terracotta Warriors, and Mycenae to Megiddo and Masada.

Cline Jacket

Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.

Scheidel Great Leveler jacket

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Happy birthday, Jean-Michel Basquiat

On this day in 1960, the renowned visual artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, where he would go on to become one of the most fascinating figures in the New York art scene. Princeton University Press proud to have published The Notebooks, a facsimile edition that reproduces the pages of eight of Basquiat’s rarely seen working notebooks for the first time.

Basquiat was known early on for his involvement with 1970s New York street art, including the SAMO tag created with Al Diaz, before he developed a successful studio practice indebted to a range of influences, from Neo-Expressionism to African art to jazz. Basquiat’s work explored the interplay between words and images, often touching on culture, race, and class. Of his extraordinary gifts, The New York Times Magazine, which profiled him in a 1985 cover story, wrote, “Not only does he possess a bold sense of color and composition, but, in his best paintings, unlike many of his contemporaries, he maintains a fine balance between seemingly contradictory forces: control and spontaneity, menace and wit, urban imagery and primitivism.”

From 1980 to 1987, Basquiat filled numerous working notebooks with drawings and pictograms of crowns, teepees, and hatch-marked hearts alongside notes, observations, and fragments of poems that reflect his deep interests in comics, street and pop art, and politics. Many of these images and words found their way into his drawings and paintings. Take a peek at some of the pages in this trailer.

Basquiat Notebooks jacketThe Notebooks
Jean-Michel Basquiat

Edited by Larry Warsh

 

Browse Our Literature 2017 Catalog

The highlights in our Literature 2017 catalog include a fascinating analysis of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice fairy tale by Jack Zipes, a major history of French literature, and the final volume in Reiner Stach’s definitive biography of Kafka. #MLA17 is coming up on January 5th, so make sure to stop by our booth and check out some of these books in person. Browse the full catalog below:

Today the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is best-known from the classic sequence in Disney’s Fantasia in which Mickey Mouse, tired of lugging heavy buckets of water, enlists magical help to complete his chores but finds the situation rapidly spiraling out of control. But did you know that variations on this tale have been told in countless cultures across the centuries? Fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes collects over seventy versions of the story in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, written by authors ranging from Ovid to the Brothers Grimm.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - Jack Zipes

For A History of Modern French Literature, Christopher Prendergast marshals a team of over thirty leading scholars to produce an accessible yet thorough study of French literature from the sixteenth century to the modern day. From Rabelais to Beckett and beyond, every facet of French literature is covered in this compendium.

A History of Modern French Literature, edited by Christopher Prendergast

Kafka: The Early Years completes Reiner Stach’s monumental biography. Drawing on a plethora of sources, many unpublished, Stach draws an unparalleled picture of Kafka’s youth, and the nineteenth-century city of Prague in which he was raised. This is a probing study of the formative events in the life of one of literature’s most psychologically profound writers.

Kafka: The Early Years, by Reiner Stach

Find these new titles and many more in our Literature 2017 catalog.

An interview with Pamela Schnitter, member of the Book, Jacket & Journal Committee

The Book, Jacket, and Journal Show is a juried design competition, open only to AAUP member publishers. Every fall the call-for-entries is distributed, and in January, the jurors gather in AAUP’s New York offices to examine hundreds of submissions and select the very best examples of book, journal, and cover designs. The Book, Jacket & Journal Committee comprises seven members who are charged with selecting judges for the AAUP Book, Jacket, and Journal Show, soliciting donations of paper and printing for the call for entries, as well as the catalog and the award certificates. The committee members are also responsible for designing the call for entries, the web theme, the catalog, the signage, and the awards certificate itself. Chris Lapinski, Design Coordinator at PUP, interviewed Pamela Schnitter, a designer and member of the Book, Jacket & Journal Committee.

Pam Schnitter

Judges discussing submissions. From left to right: Kimberly Glyder, Henk van Assen, Daphne Geismar, Benjamin Shaykin

 

What inspired you to join the Committee?

I was determined to keep the show vibrant and current, especially in terms of publishing e-books and thinking of additional award categories, such as marketing and web design. It might be too early to implement a straight e-book design category — that seems to be out of our hands currently — but maybe in the future. As the publishing world evolves, I strongly believe there are other categories we need to think about in order to remain relevant and vibrant.

What was your most challenging responsibility?

The most challenging responsibility was also the most rewarding, and that was selecting the jurors. They had to be from outside the AAUP community, though they didn’t necessarily have to be designers. So I had to do a lot of research. I reviewed portfolios and websites, read letters of recommendation. It was very tricky because of the pressure to get the right people.

Did you have any preferences?

I felt that some of the jurors should be teachers because of their experience in assessing other designers’ work and giving good feedback. I also wanted individuals with a cutting edge and inspirational style. As it turned out, all except one were teachers. We tried to select a broad range of individuals from the East Coast and the West Coast, though we ended up with a significant number of jurors from RISD [Rhode Island School of Design]. Most had a background in trade publishing.

Did you notice that trade designers had a different outlook than university press designers?

No, I think the two worlds have really come together.

What was the most gratifying part of your experience?

Working with others in the AAUP community, and particularly with other designers, both within AAUP and outside. Learning from them, sharing new ideas about design — that was especially rewarding. And then seeing how it all came together — it was fun watching the jurors get along so well.

Were there any interesting lessons you learned?

When designers become judges, I realized how important it is to give them space to form their own opinions. I felt they should be unhindered in making the best and most honest assessment of other people’s work.

Do you recommend that others consider joining the committee?

Absolutely. It’s great to have contact with other designers and to share our experiences. It’s also a commitment: the committee requests that you stay on for a few years to learn the responsibilities of being a member and to make the transition easier. That’s something to take into consideration, but it’s worthwhile.

Snapping photos at dinner after panel discussion. From left to right: Daphne Geismar, Benjamin Shaykin, Kimberly Glyder, Henk van Assen