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Archive for the 'American History' Category

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

Doughnuts as Thanksgiving Food and the Early History of the Holiday in NYC

Gastropolis, Thanksgiving in New York City

As many of us begin to prepare our turkeys and other fixings, we turn to a surprising chapter in the history of Thanksgiving food when doughnuts made an appearance on the holiday plate:

In his chapter, “The Food and Drink of New York from 1624 to 1898,” from Gastropolis: Food and New York City, Andrew Smith describes the role both George Washington and doughnuts have played in how the holiday has been celebrated in New York City:

Although it had originated in New England, [Thanksgiving] was quickly adopted in communities throughout New York. Indeed, it was in New York City that President George Washington issued the first presiden­tial thanksgiving proclamation, which set aside Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a day of prayer and thanksgiving. New York was one of the first states outside New England to declare Thanksgiving an official holiday. In 1795, John Jay, the governor of New York, tried to establish a statewide thanksgiving day, and in 1817 it was finally recognized as a state holiday. Thanksgiving was celebrated with what is now considered the traditional meal of turkey, apple pie, mince pie, and cranberries; New Yorkers often added doughnuts and crullers to the menu. Thanksgiving holiday remained an important holiday throughout the nineteenth century. The Ladies Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church opened a mission in the gang-infested Five Points District, and on Thanksgiving Day, under the eyes of their bene­factors, the ladies paraded and fed hundreds of Sunday-school students.

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

How Well Do You Know Your Chop Suey and Other Questions about Chinese Food

You might have memorized the menu from your local Chinese restaurant but how well do you know the history of Chinese food? Here’s a quiz to test your knowledge based on material from Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, by Yong Chen:

ProProfs – Chop Suey, USA

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

A Recipe for Chop Suey from Chop Suey, USA

Chop Suey

In Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, Yong Chen explores the rise of Chinese food in America and how it became ubiquitous in the American gastronomic landscape. Epitomized by chop suey, American Chinese food was a forerunner of McDonald’s, democratizing the once-exclusive dining-out experience for such groups as marginalized Anglos, African Americans, and Jews.

Chen writes, “When Chinese restaurants started to venture outside Chinatowns, chop suey became the most famous line of dishes. It remained a synonym of America’s Chinese food for decades. However, its origin has been shrouded in mystery. Cooking it can help us better understand this simple and versatile traditional Chinese dish, which has be­come a quintessential American story.” With this in mind, here is a recipe for chop suey, one of several recipes included in the book:

Pork Chop Suey
Serves 1 or 2

2 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp water
1 tbsp rice wine
1 tsp sesame oil
3 tbsp light soy sauce
dash of black pepper
1 lb lean pork, sliced into thin strips
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp chopped green onion
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ tsp salt
3 cups sliced napa cabbage
4 cups (soy) bean sprouts
1 /3 cup diced celery
1 cup shredded carrot
4 button mushrooms, cut into wedges
1 /2 cup chicken broth

Mix the cornstarch, sugar, water, rice wine, sesame oil, soy sauce, and black pepper in a bowl. Add the pork and marinate for 1 hour. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a wok or nonstick frying pan, and add the green onion and garlic. Stir for about 10 seconds.

Add the marinated pork. Stir until cooked. Transfer it to a clean con­tainer and set aside. Heat the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil, and add the salt and then the cabbage, bean sprouts, celery, carrot, and mushrooms. Stir for 2 minutes or until almost cooked. Put the pork back in the wok and add the chicken stock. Stir thoroughly and bring to a boil.

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

Book Giveaway! Chop Suey, USA

This week our featured book is Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America by Yong Chen.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Chop Suey, USA to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, November 7 at 1:00 pm.

American diners began to flock to Chinese restaurants more than a century ago, making Chinese food the first mass-consumed cuisine in the United States. By 1980, it had become the country’s most popular ethnic cuisine. Chop Suey, USA offers the first comprehensive interpretation of the rise of Chinese food, revealing the forces that made it ubiquitous in the American gastronomic landscape and turned the country into an empire of consumption.

Read the chapter “Chop Suey, the Big Mac of the Pre-McDonald’s Era”:

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Richard Betts on the Failures and Future of U.S. Military Actions

“The United States needs to temper the ambitions unleashed by its post–Cold War dominance, not only in reaction to the setbacks it has experienced in small wars but also to prepare for bigger wars for bigger stakes against bigger powers.”—Richard K. Betts

Richard Betts, American ForceIn a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Richard K. Betts, author of American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security, examines America’s era of permanent war and what lays ahead. Citing the mixed success, if not failure, of American intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Betts argues that the United States need to think through its strategies before committing to military action. More specifically, he suggests that half-measures tend to fail as in the case of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Obama’s surge in Afghanistan when he committed 30,000 troops instead of the 40,000 requested by the Pentagon. The United States has also become too reliant on air power, which rarely works when used without a deployment of ground troops. Finally, the U.S. has found itself working with unstable governments, who are unwilling to do what the United States wants and often can barely survive once American troops have left. Betts writes:

[The] United States should fight wars less frequently but more decisively, erring, when combat is necessary, on the side of committing too many forces rather than too few. Second, the country should avoid fighting in places where victory depends on controlling the politics of chaotic countries, since local politicians will rarely do what Americans want when that differs from their own aims. And third, Washington should give priority to first-order challenges, focusing its military planning on fighting wars with great powers and focusing its diplomacy on preventing them.

(more…)

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Interview with James Liebman, Author of “The Wrong Carlos”

The Wrong Carlos

“If you want money, you rob banks. If you want to study executions, you go to Texas.”—James Liebman

A few weeks ago we featured The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution by James Liebman and the Columbia DeLuna Project and interest in the book and the case continues to grow. Most recently James Liebman was interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor about the book and the case. The following is an excerpt from the interview:

Q: What convinced you to investigate a specific death penalty case?

In 2000 and 2002, we published a big study which showed there was a huge amount of adjudicated errors found in capital cases in the United States by state and federal courts. Essentially, two-thirds of all death verdicts reviewed over a quarter century had been overturned based on serious error.

Proponents say the system is working, and we don’t have to worry about the ultimate error of someone being innocent. There’s another interpretation. If an airline company or a car company had this level of error, nobody would want to go near them. If there’s this much smoke, there’s got to be fire.

So we wanted to examine a particular case to see if we could determine the risk of executing the innocent. We went from a statistical study where we were just counting outcomes to making a judgement call about which cases would be interesting to look at.

Q: How did you find this case in particular?

We started by looking at Texas cases. If you want money, you rob banks. If you want to study executions, you go to Texas.

We started looking at eyewitness identification cases because of the long-standing evidence that these cases can be faulty. The witness in this case was one person who happened to be pumping gas outside a store where a clerk was attacked and killed.

He saw the assailant come out of the store and run away. After a 45-minute manhunt, he identified Carlos de Luna.

This case fit what we were looking for.

(more…)

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Images from Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City

Capital of Capital

The following are some examples of the extraordinary images and historical documents from Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012, by Steven H. Jaffe and Jessica Lautin:

New York One-Cent Note
New Yorkers were familiar with paper money before the founding of the Bank of New-York in 1784. In the early republic, the issuing of paper money would become the province of private, state-chartered banks such as the Bank of New-York. City governments and even private businesses also issued notes in payment to employees or vendors.

Greenback
Recognizing that the Northern economy needed a more ample and liquid money supply in order to win the war, Secretary of Treasury Samuel Chase resorted to a radical new plan in 1862 and 1863. The secretary now pressed Congress to authorize the Treasury to issue a new paper currency “bearing a common impression.” These greenbacks as they became known , would enter the economy as the government paid soldiers, sailors, and war contractors with them; as banks made loans and cashed checks for customers; and as citizens exchanged notes from state banks for the federal money.

Women's Banking
The divided spaces of Beaux-Arts banks reflected the diversified operations and activities of Gilded Age banking. Clerks, tellers, and cashiers were separated from the public by elaborate brass grillwork, and female customers were segregated. Responding to the fast-growing population of women depositors while adhering to Victorian gender norms, banks provided women with their own teller windows and maid service.

Depression
Albert Potter evoked the despair of the depression years in New York with the figure of a beggar; Death hovers above.

(more…)

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

New York City as the Capital of Capital — Steven Jaffe and Jessica Lautin on The Brian Lehrer Show

Today, we offer another interview with the authors of Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012.

Steven H. Jaffe and Jessica Lautin recently appeared on The Brian Lehrer Show to discuss the book and the frequently contentious history of banks in New York City. Among other issues, Jaffe and Lautin discussed why New York City became the “capital of capital,” surpassing Philadelphia and other cities; how New York City became not only the center of banking but also the center of protests against capitalism from the union movement to Occupy Wall Street; how immigration gave rise to savings banks; and whether or not New York City will remain the “capital of capital”

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Interview with Jessica Lautin, Co-Author of Capital of Capital

Capital of Capital “Banks are not a monolith; and their functions have been extraordinarily diverse—worthy of both ire and praise.”—Jessica Lautin

The following is an interview with Jessica Lautin, co-author of Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012

Question: What is Capital of Capital about?

Jessica Lautin: Capital of Capital examines how New York’s banks became central first to the city’s, then the nation’s, and ultimately the world’s economy. And it’s about the symbiotic relationship between the development of New York’s banks and the city itself.

Q: Why is it important?

JL: You can’t understand the growth of New York City without understanding the growth of its banks. There are excellent books and articles out there on specific periods in this great narrative—on Alexander Hamilton, the Gilded Age, the Depression, the fiscal crisis, and of course the Great Recession. But this book is the first to cover the full sweep. By looking at this long history you can see certain themes, trends and topics emerge: the cycles of booms and busts; the denial of and access to credit; the relationship between New York’s banks and government; the creation by New York’s banks of new financial instruments and strategies; and banks’ investment in the infrastructure of the city.

Q: The exhibition that preceded the book was on view at the Museum of the City of New York in 2012. Why did the City Museum decide to cover this topic at this time?

JL: Citigroup was interested in sponsoring an exhibition about the history of banking in Gotham to honor the 200th anniversary of the founding of the City Bank of New York in 1812. This idea dovetailed perfectly with the Museum’s mission to connect New York City’s past, present, and future. We began planning this exhibition when the city and nation were still reeling from the financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement had just made the news. Everything was still so fresh that we wondered if the opening of the exhibition might even draw protestors. (It didn’t). All of the headlines echoed those that appeared in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries: outrage at the city’s banks and attacks on its wealthiest citizens; calls for tighter regulation; announcements of new forms of currency; concerns about banks leaving town. We covered this history in the exhibition while also leaving visitors with a question about the future: Would New York City continue to be the capital of global finance? Newly generated and designed infographics in the last section (that also appear in the book) helped visitors to come up with an answer—graphics on such topics as: banks and the labor force; assets of commercial banks; and loans by foreign bank branches. Then there was an opportunity to register an answer in a survey programmed on old ATMs.

Q: Banks today and throughout NYC’s history have been the frequent targets of criticism. How fair is this?

JL: It’s true that banks have been the target of vitriol since their founding. Like the Occupy Wall Street protestors, John Adams attacked them as corrupt and elitist, calling bankers “swindlers and thieves.” It makes sense, and yes, it’s fair, that Americans have always been suspicious of the institutions that pool, grow and distribute money and credit. There are many instances throughout the nearly 230 years when banks have willfully ignored excessive risk to themselves and their customers in the interest of profit. If in 2008 it was the packaging and selling of subprime mortgages, in 1857 it was speculation in railroad securities. Also, before legislation forced banks to change their lending and hiring policies in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, many banks systematically denied employment and credit to African Americans, women, gays and lesbians. And this denial of credit had profound and lasting effects, for example, on the segregation of neighborhoods. By subsidizing the building of single-family homes for whites in the suburbs while refusing home loans to blacks and Hispanics in poorer neighborhoods, banks perpetuated poverty and racism.

(more…)

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Book Giveway!: Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City

Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012

This week our featured book is Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012, by Steven H. Jaffe and Jessica Lautin.

In addition to features on our blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Capital of Capital to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, June at 1:00 pm.

From Revolutionary Era bank notes to the 2008 financial collapse, Capital of Capital explores how New York City gave rise to a banking industry that in turn made the American and world economies. The authors also examine the frequently contentious evolution of the banking business, its role in making New York City an international economic center, and its influence on America’s politics, society, and culture.

The following is an excerpt from the book:

Monday, May 12th, 2014

Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter Discuss Pot Smuggling on HuffPost Live

Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter, coauthors of Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade, were recently on HuffPost Live to discuss their book and drug smuggling in Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s. Also joining them was Jim Conklin, the DEA agent who busted Mike Ritter for smuggling.

As the three explained, surfers began smuggling marijuana from Thailand but in relatively small quantities, driven by a spirit of adventure as much as a thirst for profit. Initially, neither Thai or U.S. officials paid much attention to the smugglers, who were generally nonviolent and “laid-back”. It was only later in the 1970s when professional criminals became involved and the amounts began to grow that the drug crackdown began.

After discussing this fascinating history, the three consider current drug policy and the dangers of synthetic opiates:

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

RV-topia: Gatornationals at the Gainesville Raceway

James Twitchell, Winnebago Nation

The following post is by James Twitchell, author of Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture:

“The democracy of the RV parking lot may be the last of the much-eulogized American Exceptionalism.”—James Twitchell

Every March the small north Florida town where I live is overrun by swarms of drag-racers and their enthusiastic fans. On the Gainesville Raceway, a quarter-mile track a few miles out of town, everything on wheels that can have an engine attached is raced. You can watch rubber laid by motorcycles, old cars, new cars, a special category called “funny cars,” and, of course, the main attraction, the Brobdingnagian 8,000 horsepower top-fuel dragsters.

You don’t just watch these big rigs roar down the track, you feel them. They shake the spectator stands and scorch your eyes with a potent mix of burning tires, nitromethane, and exhaust. This particular event is called the Gatornationals and it’s a major stop along the National Hot Rod Association’s traveling circus.

Since the show lasts for three days, the parking lot is filled with another kind of machine—the recreational vehicle. During the day, many spectators, amped up by speed, fumes, beer, and no shade, get pooped. Hence many of them retire to the parking lot, get in the RV, rest up, and then return later. The races often run well into the night.

RVs are all over the place and of every conceivable kind: pick-up truck slide-in campers, van conversions, school-bus retrofit, and lots of what are called class A rigs in various conditions. Fans can park their RVs out in the woods, near the track, or rent a space in the parking lot.

The closer you camp to the hot asphalt, the more expensive it is. If you want to be at the finish line, the RV space will cost you $675 for the three days. But you can “camp” in the Motorhome Corral for $450. Or in the dirt parking lot with the, ugh, cars, for $75. What I find interesting is that various rigs from different economic strata park side-by-side in these lots as if Richie Rich and Hobo Hank are united by both this spectacle and love spending lots of time in what is essentially a motorized tent.

In Winnebago Nation I found the same mixing-up of social and economic status in the parking lots of football games, the NASCAR infield, the desert of Quartzsite, as well as on the Wal-Mart tarmac, or in the generic off-the-interstate campgrounds.

What we separate in our “sticks and bricks” communities, we dispense with when parking the RV. Occupy Wall Streeters take note: the democracy of the RV parking lot may be the last of the much-eulogized American Exceptionalism.

That said, there is the exception to this Exceptionalism. At Gatornationals there is a “gated community” where the royalty of Dragland assert their separation by erecting orange plastic fencing. This restricted parking lot is where the owners, drivers, and mechanics park their rigs. Like their racecars, these huge RVs are flashy and festooned with bling. These are the black-windowed monsters with the psychedelic paint jobs that you see whizzing past you on the interstate. Many of them are conversions of Prevost buses and can cost well over a million dollars. In the RV world, this is what the one-percenters look like.

James Twitchell, Winnebago Nation

Friday, April 18th, 2014

The Future of the RV — James Twitchell

Winnebago Nation

In “The Rise and Fall of the RV in America,” the concluding chapter to Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, James Twitchell looks at the future of the RV, its need to change and its continuing promise to offer a new way of living:

“Our cars are smart, our clothing is smart, our food is smart, our temperature controls are smart, but our RVs are stupid.”—James Twitchell

FUTURE FORM: NO MORE BUS BOXINESS

The RV is also going to have to change its form. No more box. It needs a new outline. The gypsy wagon went from horse-drawn to engine-driven, then from looking like a parlor on wheels to looking like a ranch house on wheels. Let’s face it: Most RVs today look dreary, which may be why they get those flashy paint jobs. To get a better form, the RV needs a new consumer. The current consumers are too old and dull. Moving from empty nests, they want a mimic of what they are leaving behind (washer/dryer, ice maker, drop-down televisions, comfy chairs…). Sociologists call this “compensatory domesticity.”

And that may explain why the contemporary RV looks the way it does: It’s trying to get it both ways, home away from home. It’s simply too homey. That’s why the awning that can be extended to welcome neighbors, why the green indoor/outdoor carpeting often spread near the doorway, why the ersatz fireplaces, potted plants, massive couches, twinkle lights, and, most perplexingly, the huge television set that comes sliding out of the cargo bay so it can be watched from lawn chairs. What’s happening is that the old-time home has been dehydrated and then reconstituted so that it is essentially a split-level ranch house compressed and then expanded thanks to the slide-outs and yard art.

But as the demographics change, the mobile-nest prototype may change as well. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) asserts that the fastest-growing group of RV owners is now made up of young families between eighteen and thirty-four years old. If the RV really is moving out of what’s called Phase 3 (retirement) consumers and into Phase 2 (active individuals), then the lines of thing itself should change. No longer will “getting away from it all” mean “taking it all with you.” Something else may happen, something more experimental. And the outlines for this change may well come from the places where RV life is just taking hold—Australia and China as well as the American Southwest.

There’s precedent for this flux. Architects have long dreamed of unbolting their buildings from the earth. In the early twentieth century, Le Corbusier and the Italian futurists went gaga over steam trains, ocean liners, biplanes, and anything that moved. Why should housing always be fastened to the ground? After all, humans for centuries have lived in yurts, hogans, teepees, pods, and desert tents. The French Utopie group experimented with pneumatic architecture that could be blown up and deflated. Archigram, in London, responded with the Walking City, which literally got up on its legs and wandered about. Both of these groups took movement as a necessary part of interesting housing.

Winnebago Nation

Now a new generation of designers is experimenting with varia­tions on the gypsy architecture. All kinds of unfolding mini-homes with fewer than 1,000 square feet are on the market. Nils Moormann’s Walden, Sustain Design’s Bunkie, and Tumbleweed’s Tiny Houses are all moveable compressions. You buy the kit and then assemble it, but then you’ll need a crane to move it about. Other innovations are parasitic dwellings, such as the Loftcube, which you assemble on a rooftop, stay in for a while, and then take apart (or hire a helicopter). And there’s a little aluminum-clad box called a Micro Compact Home, which opens up like Origami. To assemble, you plug it into an electrical outlet and up it goes. A selling point is that Micros fit together like Legos. You can attach ten of them and have a little apartment house like the famous Habitat of the 1967 World’s Fair.

But why do the wheels have to come off? Maybe it’s time that we pay more attention to one of the real visionaries in small-space architec­ture, Wally Byam, who back in the 1930s also realized the importance of wheels. The designer of the Airstream trailer, Byam was also a suc­cessful lawyer and publisher of do-it-yourself magazines. Ironically, because his reputation never transcended his signature product, he has never really been appreciated. His vision was for far more than the single sculpted trailer. He imagined putting these trailers together to make a self-contained habitat, a moveable city. He never got to that stage, but his idea of these things moving separately in a caravan by day and then hooking up at night was a step in the right direction. The Airstream trailer, like its cousin the RV, got stuck in the rut of the independent self-contained mimic of home. And that rut was not of Byam’s making; it is a function of who was buying them.

(more…)

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

The RV in Popular Culture: From Lucy to Walter White

In Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, James Twitchell also explores the depiction of the RV in the movies. Up until the 1960s, Twitchell argues, the RV was “an object of much interest and even yearning”. However, as “the epynomic Winnebago started to be mass-produced, the allure of escape grew double-edged” and “by the 1970s the RV had become a metaphor of middle-class uncouthness and was well on its way to becoming a symbol of wastefulness.”

A movie reflecting the more hopeful side of the RV is The Long, Long Trailer (1953), starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The trailer in the movie gleams and the film is “dedicated to a new phenomenon: the ability to move your house around the country whenever, wherever you want:

As attitudes toward the RV shift, a new kind of genre emerges, which features a middle-aged or older man “learning about things he may have missed earlier in life….The middle-aged American male is off on an adventure, to be sure, and he’s using this kind of transport because he’s a doofus.” Examples from this genre include About Schmidt (2002), in which Jack Nicholson plays “a sad sack, a gray man, and the RV is both a palliative and an escape.”

A more recent entry into the RV film is the aptly titled RV: The Movie (2006), starring Robin Williams. The movie according to Twitchell includes all the cliches of the contemporary RV film: “the picaro‘s frustration with his job, the long-suffering family, the problems with above-ground sewage, the deep allure of the gypsy life, the road hogging … and even a scene lifted from The Long, Long Trailer with the motorhome suspended on a precipice in the Rockies.”

The film that Twitchell cites as the most sophisticated of the RV genre is Lost in America (1985), starring Albert Brooks as a disgruntled adman, who “takes off to find himself in America….It’s Desi and Lucy all over again, with Mr. Brooks playing the Lucy part. This film abruptly ends in medias res because there is really no ending this kind of trip. It just goes on and on.”

Finally, while it is not quite in the same genre, Breaking Bad has featured perhaps the most notorious and famous Winnebago in recent years. Here is Bryan Cranston and, show creator, Vince Gilligan discussing the RV used to cook meth:

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Slab City

Winnebago Nation

“Slabs is Burning Man with a vulture overhead. It looked to me like the end of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.”—James Twitchell

As described in Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, the camping site is an important part of the lure and the mythology of the RV lifestyle. In the chapter, “Park It,” Twitchell describes “Slab City,” located in California, and one of the more distinct RV Parks in the country. The following is an excerpt from the chapter:

The Slabs is the largest free camping site in the country. As a utopia of “do your own thing,” it is well worth a trip for those Panglossians who promulgate the faith in “least government is best government.” This place does not celebrate the more famous Burning Man joy in an untethered world; it lives it. Burning Man tries to find new order in the desert for a week or so; the Slabs tries to get away from order by going into the desert for an indefinite time. Burning Man is intensely self-conscious: How’m I doin’ takin’ my clothes off? It’s recreation. Slabs is more pragmatic: I’m naked; my clothes are worn out. It’s survival. Slabs is Burning Man with a vulture overhead. It looked to me like the end of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

I was repeatedly told that the Slabs has changed. In the early 1960s, this was a place where you could see the $300,000 rig parked in peaceful tranquility next to the dilapidated school bus. Here was boondocking in its idyllic form. Snowbirds could fire up their generators while Slabbers could harvest battery power from solar cells. Potable water was trucked in, and sewage was either dumped down the gopher holes or trucked out. The community was connected by CB radio, which broadcast a nightly program of local events, including dances, pot-luck dinners, book clubs, and board games. To the people who first observed this New Harmony and reported on it in the LA Times, New York Times, Harper’s, and Time magazine, the magic was palpable. In the wake of such good press, the Slabs also started appearing on the endless lists of cheap places to retire. It was part of what easterners call “Weird California,” by which they often meant Belmont and Fishtown side by side.

Winnebago Nation

After all, the Slabs was, in a sense, the apogee of American Roman­ticism, each person finding salvation on his own slab, hoeing his own bean row, as Thoreau supposed, and coming together only when it fitted individual needs, not group demands. What law there was was the law of unreflecting generosity. The limits of individual freedom were indeed the edges of one’s desire. Sure, the state was hovering over the slabs, but there was so much confusion as to who actually owned the land that no one knew who could legally kick the squatters out, or even force them to pay for their “externalities.” (There were a few kids going to school in Niland, there was a continual ambulance service to hospital, and there was the garbage problem.)

No wonder that in Sean Penn’s 2007 adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a central scene takes place in the Slabs. Here we see Chris­topher McCandless meeting other RV vagabonds who will induct him into the fraternity of enlightened earth wanderers. The Slabs is por­trayed as utopian, an unfettered life in discarded school buses under the warming sun. At the Slabs, Christopher changes his name to Alexander Supertramp, and he is finally with his own people. But, alas, he must push on to his fate, which just happens to be a strange turn on his time at Slabs: He spends his final days holed up and freezing in a discarded school bus in Denali National Park.

Perhaps it was the attraction of the movie that caused a shift in clientele at the Slabs. For a while younger people came, stayed, and then moved on. Gray hair notwithstanding, there is a deep strain of adolescence in the RV life, as there is in American Transcendentalism. Experiments in American utopia from Brook Farm, Amana, Fruitlands, and the Shakers all bump up against the fact that finally someone has to take out the trash. The City on the Hill, or, in this case, the City in the Sand, slowly started to crack from underneath. Of course the Slabs was never self-consciously constituted as a commune of freedom-loving individuals. It had no manifesto other than, “If you don’t like it, move out.”

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Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

The RV Through History — Images from Winnebago Nation

The following are images that illuminate the evolution of the RV from the “Gypsy Van” at the beginning of the twentieth century to the iconic Winnebago. The images, of course, come from this week’s featured book Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture by James Twitchell:

Winnebago Nation
Superior Truck, aka “Gypsy Van,” owned by Conklins of Huntington, NY 1915 (Huntington Historical Society).

Winnebago Nation
Zaglemeyer Kampkar, 1921 (Al Hesselbart collection at the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum).

Winnebago Nation
Covered wagon trailer, 1930s (RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum).

Winnebago Nation

Winnebago Nation
Frank/Dodge motorhome before (late 1950s) and after (1963) application of the French curve (Al Hesselbart collection at the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum and Dodge ad).

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Monday, April 14th, 2014

Book Giveaway: Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, by James Twitchell

Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, James Twitchell

This week we will be featuring Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, by James Twitchell on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Winnebago Nation to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and indicate your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 18 at 3:00 pm.

In Winnebago Nation, James B. Twitchell takes a light-hearted look at the culture and industry behind the yearning to spend the night in one’s car. For the young the roadtrip is a coming-of-age ceremony; for those later in life it is the realization of a lifelong desire to be spontaneous, nomadic, and free. Informed by his own experiences on the road, Twitchell recounts the RV’s origins and evolution over the twentieth century; its rise, fall, and rebirth as a cultural icon; its growing mechanical complexity as it evolved from an estate wagon to a converted bus to a mobile home; and its role in bolstering and challenging conceptions of American identity.

For more on the book, read the book’s first chapter, Thoreau at 29¢ $4.00 a Gallon,” .

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Video: Mary Helen Washington on African American and the Communist Party

In the following video, Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, explains how her Catholic upbringing in the 1950s led to an interest in the relationship between African Americans and the Communist Party. She describes how Communist newspaper in the United States became one of the few venues to provide serious discussions and coverage of African American literature during the 1950s. She also talks about her desire to see the work of radical African American artists and writers from this period become part of the canon:

Mary Helen Washington Video from UMD College of Arts & Humanities on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s

Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist

“I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of ‘integration’ but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.”—Mary Helen Washington

The following is an interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s:

Question: Why did you choose to focus on the 1950s?

Mary Helen Washington: I came of age in the early 1950s in Catholic schools in Cleveland, Ohio, fed on a steady diet of anticommunism at school, and, at home, a steady diet of integration, but both of those prescribed lessons—anticommunism and integration—separated me from the story of radical civil rights activity. While the black left of the 1950s was protesting discrimination on every front, from residential segregation to unions and factories, we black kids were being taught that integration meant blacks becoming acceptable to the white mainstream. When the left-leaning National Negro Labor Congress (NNLC) came to Cleveland for their 1952 conference, they staged a protest downtown against the airlines for refusing to hire blacks. Since stories like these were blacklisted by the anticommunists as well as the integrationists, black kids grew up in the 1950s with no access to a critical discourse on race. Radicals used terms like white supremacy and racial justice, not integration, while black kids were learning that we should dress, act, and speak a certain way as a marker of acceptability, radicals were defining integration as claiming the rights of citizenship—as you can see from the NNLC poster featuring the Statue of Liberty as a black woman.

Q: Why did you call the book The Other Blacklist?

MHW: Most of what we know about the McCarthy era focuses on the white left. Communism is seen as a white left radicalism, though black civil rights activists were deeply involved in radical movements in the 1940s and 1950s. People who were investigated by J. Edgar Hoover for being communists were routinely asked if they were involved interracially because civil rights activity was considered radical. This is a very powerful and commendable radicalism that black people don’t get credit for. They weren’t the Hollywood Ten, but they were the New York/Chicago 100. There’s a fine documentary on screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo and his admirable resistance to HUAC, but there’s no documentary on black radicals like Alice Childress, Lloyd Brown, Julian Mayfield, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett or Lorraine Hansberry [some of the figures in my book], who also paid a price for their radicalism. I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of “integration” but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.

Q: You have a chapter called “Spycraft and the Black Literary Left.” Can you talk about the connection between government agencies, politics, and art?

MHW: Keep in mind that the Left and the Communist Party supported black artists when no one in white mainstream culture (with the exception of J. Edgar Hoover) showed any interest in black culture. They came to the defense of black culture because they saw art as a means to effect social and political change. One critic Willliam Maxwell says that Hoover should be considered an important historian of black culture becaue he always took black literary production seriously. The FBI files are thus a mixed blessing—a gold mine for biographical material because the FBI kept close track of the activities of radicals, and also a record of governmental abuse of artists and intellectuals. There’s a current play on Broadway about the life of Lyndon Johnson called All the Way that shows how relevant these issues still are. The character playing J. Edgar Hoover asks LBJ to justify his relationship with Martin Luther King because, Hoover claims, King is being advised by communists. The government, particularly in the age of McCarthy and Hoover, created the tradition of demonizing the Left that is still with us and that has resulted in the dismissal of an entire generation of black intellectuals and artists.

Q: Why is radicalism of the 1950s still relevant?

MHW: We’re grappling with the same issues today but without that radical perspective. I’m thinking about Rachel Jeantel in the Trayvon Martin case and all the discussion that was generated about Jeantel’s appearance and speech—the way she looked rather than the case itself. Another example is Paul Ryan saying “inner city” people live in a culture that doesn’t value work or doesn’t have a work ethic. And here we see how “inner city” becomes a code for “black.” The jurors from the Jordan Davis case in Florida, one white and one black, said that the Davis case, in which a black man was shot and killed because a white man thought his black music was too loud, was not about race. This kind of political illiteracy shows how and why we need what I call a critical racial discourse. As Boston Governor Deval Patrick said—“words matter.” Even more than words, the radical left—and, yes, I include communists– gave us examples of a powerful resistance. The Rosa Ingram case and the Trenton Six—which were also about racial violence inflicted on blacks– were fought in the courts, in the streets, and in African American artistic production. When Rosa Ingram was sentenced to death along with her two sons for killing a man she claimed had violently assaulted her, the left and civil rights groups organized the protests that eventually freed them, and, as part of that protest, artist Charles White made the Ingram case the subject of his 1949 drawing.

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Monday, April 7th, 2014

Book Giveaway! The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington

The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, Mary Helen Washington

This week we will be featuring The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Other Blacklist to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and indicate your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 11 at 3:00 pm.

In The Other Blacklist, Mary Helen Washington recovers the vital role of 1950s leftist politics in the works and lives of modern African American writers and artists. While most histories of McCarthyism focus on the devastation of the blacklist and the intersection of leftist politics and American culture, few include the activities of radical writers and artists from the Black Popular Front. Washington’s work incorporates these black intellectuals back into our understanding of mid-twentieth-century African American literature and art and expands our understanding of the creative ferment energizing all of America during this period.

For more on the book, read an excerpt from the introduction.