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Archive for the ‘American History’ Category

This past weekend, the New York Public Library celebrated the centennial of the magnificent building which houses its research collection with a series of events.  The one I was the most excited about was the tour of the stacks.  As many of you know, the  42nd Street research library is a closed stacks  institution.  Users fill out a form and submit it, and 20 or so minutes later the book appears at desk in the middle of the reading room. The forms until very recently were sent downstairs, to the 7 floors of stacks below the reading room, by pneumatic tubes, but I believe, sadly, that system has at last been made obsolete.  Anyway, the whole process seems very mysterious and slightly magical to someone like me, who has has spent countless hours in the building.  Most people on the tour seemed to feel the same way, especially the woman who had tears in her eyes she was so excited about seeing the stacks.  Perhaps not surprisingly, once we got down to the stacks, I felt like I was in a Wes Anderson movie set, in a charming thicket of  old card catalog cases, shoots and conveyor belts, call slips and (of course) books.

There is also a wonderful exhibition of some of the library’s treasures.  Highlights for me were seeing Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Jack Kerouac’s diary that served as the basis for On the Road and the first book published by Europeans in the Americas, from the 1500s.  The oddest item might have been Charles Dicken’s letter opener–the handle was the paw of his beloved cat Bob, who had passed away. The exhibition’s curator Thomas Mellis is making a series of videos about some of the artifacts.

Another highlight–models of the library’s famous lions (Patience and Fortitude), made of Legos.

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Visiting Middlebury with my grandparents and cousins, spring 1987.

In the spring of 1987, I was trying to decide between matriculating at Middlebury or Bowdoin. They were in many ways similar, of course, and I was basically framing the choice as being near the ocean or being near the mountains.  Then one day at school, Mr. Warner came up to me; his official title was the “Dean of Discipline,” and he seemed quite gruff, but he was really very sweet and concerned about his students.  This seems amazing to think about, but in 1987 a lot of the small liberal arts schools in the Northeast had been co-ed for less than two decades.  Middlebury, however, had admitted women in 1883. Mr. Warner said, “Bowdoin is still a boys school.  Middlebury has been taking women for over one hundred years.  I think you will be happier there.”  It really struck me, and while it wasn’t the only factor in my decision, it certainly played a part. (And no offense to any one who went to Bowdoin, which is a great school).

Middlebury students in 1886.

I thought of that conversation a few years ago when a friend of mine who is a very loyal Wesleyan alumn noted she wished there had been more older women alumni to turn to for career advice when she first graduated in the early 90s .  (Wesleyan turned co-ed in 1970).

Anyway, this is all a long prelude to say the Middlebury (Not-So) Old Girls Network has been firing away this week.  A college pal is the award-winning blogger Book Club Girl, and she allowed me to post some thoughts about Harriet Hosmer and the challenges of writing a biography in honor of women’s history month.  If you are in a book club, or just are interested in contemporary fiction, make her blog a regular stop on your trips around the internet.  She has giveaways, great guest posts, and lots of fantastic information about new books.  She also hosts an internet radio show, giving readers a chance to ask questions of some of their favorite authors.

Book Club Girl and me (on the right) at a performance of Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States in 2008, just a month before her adorable daughter (and perhaps future Middlebury alumnae) was born.

By the way, I have written a series of reading questions for Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography.

(Pictures from the Middlebury website.)

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Last week, the NY Times had an article about an app that lets you locate NYC landmarks.  And of course I was thrilled the piece highlighted the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, which is on the Bronx Community Campus, where I work.  It was actually the first Hall of Fame in the United States and was designed by Stanford White.  Someone at the NY Times seems to have quite an interest in the campus (which was originally built as the NYU uptown location).  There was had a less-than-flattering article about the Hall and its present condition in Dec. 2009, as well as a more positive one about the entire campus in 2006.

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On Friday, on a research break, I happened upon the home where Harriet Jacobs’ ran a boarding house in the 1870s in Cambridge, Mass.  As I was an associate editor of the Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, and had done quite a bit of research on the people who lived in the house while Jacobs’ ran it, this is quite exciting.  There is a marker in front of the house which goes into great detail about her life.  (For those who don’t know, Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, NC, escaped to NYC, and eventually wrote the slave narrative Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl.) I had always meant to seek out the house, but my research trips are usually harried, and I had never made the time.  It was great to stumble across it on my way to lunch.  The house is located on Story at Mt. Auburn, in case you want to seek it out yourself.

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Film critic Erica Abeel recently got James Franco’s attention by revealing she actually knew Allen Ginsberg.  I don’t think I can handle 127 Hours, but I really want to see Howl.

Judith Bernstein, a pioneering feminist artist for whom I used to cat sit, will have an installation at the Alex Zachary Gallery, from Nov. 12-January 15.  You see watch an art critic John Perrault’s introduction to her talk and some of her commentary at the Drawing Center on youtube.  (Probably not safe for work.)
On Sunday, I went to the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibit “Samurai in New York: The First Japanese Delegation, 1860.”  It was the last day, or I would highly recommend going to see it.  It was an interesting look at two cultures coming in contact with each other in a rapidly changing world.   The 23rd mile marker for  NYC Marathon was  just outside the museum door.  The winners had long gone by; the clock read 5 hours and 2 minutes when I got to the museum.  So I cheered on some unsung strangers before going in and some more when I came out.

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This year, I am organizing the Women’s Global Film Series at school.  Tomorrow, as part of the series, I, along with a colleague from the English department, am introducing and moderating Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed.  The documentary tracks the presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress.  I just re-watched to prepare for tomorrow, and it made me feel better on what seems like a dark day.

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Since the Mad Men season ended, I have been turning my attention to Boardwalk Empire, the HBO series set in Atlantic City during Prohibition.  As I had worked on the Margaret Sanger Papers in graduate school, I have been thrilled to see references to Sanger’s pamphlet Family Limitation on the show; that was even the title of last week’s episode.  In response to its first appearance on the show, the Margaret Sanger Papers Research Annex published a post with more information on the pamphlet, including quotes and scans of some its pages.

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I celebrated Halloween by going to see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the rock musical about the 7th US president with the tagline “History just got all sexypants.”  The best description I can think of is it is a cross between a History Channel documentary and the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  It is clever and charming, and I liked the way it sent up our tendency to either lionize or demonize our leaders and tackled his treatment of Native Americans head on.  And I am a sucker for oddball musicals.  (The Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical soundtrack is some of my favorite driving music).  The script did lean a little too heavily on (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) jokes about effeminate elite male politicians, played broadly through  homosexual stereotypes. I got that the production was commenting on the discussion around masculinity in American politics, but there was too much reliance on those jokes without enough payoff.  But it was ultimately very worth seeing, especially at the discount price I got through the Theater Development Fund. Read the NY Times review here.

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