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Archive for the 'American History' Category

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Interview with Richard Plunz, author of “A History of Housing in New York City”

Richard Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City

“Beyond doubt the large question facing New York housing production today has to do with a market that can not provide for the half of our households that are low income…. One can hope that growing public pressure bottom-up can merge with a top-down realization that we need to innovate in order to grow and prosper as a competitive and cosmopolitan global urban entity.”—Richard Plunz

Tonight, Richard Plunz will be at The Museum of the City of New York to discuss the revised edition of his classic book, A History of Housing in New York City. Below is an interview he recently had with the State of the Planet, part of the Earth Institute:

Question: What prompted you to revise the history?

Richard Plunz: The book has had a long shelf-life and is still very much in use, such that it seems important to update it to include the period of the past two decades. As well, the changes that the past 25 years have brought seem especially important to keep in the public eye, as housing becomes a growing concern in New York. Indeed, housing production plays an essential role in forming our culture and economy, and at present is too little recognized as such. For example, housing should be considered “resilient infrastructure,” but is rarely considered as such. And “climate resilience” obviously must engage where and how people live, let’s say the “soft” side of the equation, in addition to heavy infrastructure. Amazingly, infrastructural discussion in the present presidential campaign is limited to roads and bridges and shorelines, rather than to city fabrics, even as every city faces “affordability” issues of one form or another.

Q: Looking over the past 25 years, what do you see as the most significant changes or trends in housing in the city?

RP: There are many changes, and many are substantial improvements in the quality of life in the city relative to the rather dark days of the 1980s, which is when the earlier edition ends its narrative. As Ken Jackson describes so well in his preface, the Bronx is no longer burning, the pathologies of crack cocaine are no longer with us, and all of the advantages of our density are apparent as we move into an age when urban resilience is synonymous with well-being both local and global. Yet there is a dark side to this transformation. Neighborhoods have gentrified to the great detriment of long-term residents who are displaced; the positive economics have not abated the homeless dilemma; the robust housing market is limited to the high end, [and] that leaves half of the city with little recourse. And if the growing lack of equity in terms of access to adequate housing will not abate, how will we be able to resolve our long-term economic and social viability.

Q: You say in your preface to the revised edition of A History of Housing in New York City that New York has had the most severe housing problems, and also been a center for innovation and reform. In updating the story, where now do you see the worst problems, and where do you find innovation, and perhaps reform?

RP: Beyond doubt the large question facing New York housing production today has to do with a market that can not provide for the half of our households that are low income. And while both Mayors DeBlasio and Bloomberg tried various measures to stimulate this production, it remains unacceptably flat. The last mayoral campaign was won based on this question of fundamental inequities. But our tools for stimulation are too limited, and therefore innovation must somehow break out of normative models. One can hope that growing public pressure bottom-up can merge with a top-down realization that we need to innovate in order to grow and prosper as a competitive and cosmopolitan global urban entity.


Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Alan Schroeder on How Twitter is Changing Presidential Debates

Presidential Debates, Alan Schroeder

“The explosive growth of Twitter brought not just a dramatic increase in the number of users in 2012 but also a radical shift in the way presidential debates are viewed, critiqued, won, and spun. By exponentially broad­ening the conversation, Twitter, along with other social media, forced campaigns and the press to reconfigure their approach to debates.”—Alan Schroeder, Presidential Debates

In the following excerpt from Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, Alan Schroeder considers the impact that Twitter had on the 2012 presidential debates and the way campaigns use social media.


The general election debates in 2008—three between Obama and McCain, one between Biden and Palin—generated a combined total of around half a million debate-related tweets. Four years later, the firrst Obama–Romney debate alone inspired 10.3 million tweets, making it the most tweeted-about event in American political history up to that point, and the fourth most tweeted-about telecast of any kind. By the time the series ended in 2012, some 27.5 million debate-related tweets had been sent—fifty-.ve times as many as in the previous presi­dential race.

Impressive as these statistics are, they tell only part of the story. The explosive growth of Twitter brought not just a dramatic increase in the number of users in 2012 but also a radical shift in the way presidential debates are viewed, critiqued, won, and spun. By exponentially broad­ening the conversation, Twitter, along with other social media, forced campaigns and the press to reconfigure their approach to debates.

A key effect of Twitter was to transplant the locus of debate reaction from after to during the event, with live responses delivering an ongo­ing nationwide verdict. According to Democratic debate adviser Ron Klain, “It definitely moves the power over how this event is interpreted from a postdebate spin game to an in-the-debate Twitter game.” What was once a closed loop—journalists covering the debate, campaigns seeking to influence that coverage—is now open to the public at large. And the public has eagerly jumped on board.

“Twitter has become the natural companion to the televised experi­ence,” according to Adam Sharp, head of government and elections for Twitter in Washington, D.C. “It has taken us back to the idea of every­body gathering together on the couch to share the experience of watch­ing this pivotal event in history—but now, that couch is big enough to .t the whole country.”

Shortly after the first Obama–Romney debate, Dashiell Bennett of the Atlantic summed up the shift in an online post entitled “Twitter Won the Presidential Debate.” “The idea of watching such a key national event without the instant reactions of your fellow tweeters has become almost unthinkable,” Bennett said. “If you’re just watching on TV and not tak­ing part in (or at least following) the simultaneous online conversation, then you might as well not even be paying attention at all.”

Debate reaction on Twitter and other social media took some unfore­seen turns. Bluefin Labs, a social analytics company in Cambridge, Mas­sachusetts, conducted a study of social media conversations as part of its Crowdwire initiative, which focused on the presidential election of 2012. According to Crowdwire, more women than men commented about the first debate by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. “It pulled in a lot of women who don’t typically talk about political shows,” Crowd-wire concluded; “younger women in particular.” Over the course of the remaining debates, women continued to outnumber men as social media commenters.

Researchers found that nearly one in ten of those who wrote on so­cial media about the opening Obama–Romney debate were tweeting or posting about a televised event for the first time. “The Super Bowl and several entertainment-awards shows have drawn responses from large numbers of newbies,” according to Crowdwire. “But this is the first time a political event has sparked such a large in. ux.” To a great extent, debate reaction on Twitter centered upon specific phrases and moments. Mitt Romney’s reference to Big Bird inspired more than 250,000 tweets. President Obama’s “horses and bayonets” line sparked more than 105,000, and Joe Biden’s use of the word malarkey produced 30,000. Romney’s oddly constructed phrase “binders full of women,” intended to accentuate his commitment to gender diversity, rose to number one on Twitter’s trending topics. Each of these examples became amplified both during and after the debates in parody accounts, Facebook groups, web searches, and visual spoofs.


Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

Alan Schroeder on the Debating Styles of Kennedy and Nixon

“Kennedy ran for president not just as a politician, but as a leading man. In the debates as in the overall campaign, this positioning paid off. Presumed stardom led to genuine stardom.”—Alan Schroeder

The first televised presidential debate took place, of course, in 1960 pitting John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon. Their first debate has become historic if not almost mythological in its importance and its legacy for the modern presidential campaign. In his introduction to Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, Alan Schroeder takes us behind the scenes of that now-legendary debate.

Below, we’ve also included an excerpt from later in the book in which Schroeder analyzes the performances of Kennedy and Nixon. In assessing the performance of JFK, Schroeder writes, “Kennedy ran for president not just as a politician, but as a leading man. In the debates as in the overall campaign, this positioning paid off. Presumed stardom led to genuine stardom.”

Nixon had actually very skillfully used television to his advantage while vice-president. His famous “Checkers” speech and the “kitchen debate” with Khrushchev showed his ability to to command the media spotlight. While fatigue and illness certainly played a part in Nixon’s weak performance, it can also be attributed to his lack of understanding about the nature of the debate. Schroeder explains, “Nixon had fundamentally misconceived the event, viewing it as a rhetorical exercise, while Kennedy approached it as a television show.”

In addition to the excerpt below, we also offer a clip from that first debate:

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

Interview with Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates

Presidential Debates, Alan Schroeder

“Debaters must remember that audiences appreciate performers who relish the platform, who take pleasure in delivering a nimble performance. The best debaters—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, for instance—always communicated a desire to engage with voters, to sell the message.”—Alan Schroeder

Today’s New York Times has an article on how Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are preparing or not preparing for their debate on September 26th. In the following interview with Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, he addresses what makes for a good debater, what’s at stake, and how debates might be improved.

Question: The presidential primary debates of 2015-2016 set viewership records and generated enormous media coverage. How are general election debates different from primary debates?

Alan Schroeder: The key difference is that primary debates are produced by the television news networks, which approach them as vehicles for selling advertising and generating revenue. This became particularly true in the most recent campaign cycle, when the presence of Donald Trump in the Republican debates drew millions of viewers who otherwise would probably have tuned out. These primary debates generated tons of income for CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and various other media outlets. General election debates, on the other hand, are sponsored and produced by an independent debate commission and contain no commercial breaks or advertising messages. Despite their enormous ratings, these blockbuster events fall into the category of public service programming, which means they generate zero profits.

Another difference between primary and general election debates: the number of participants. This past cycle, with nearly 20 candidates on the Republican side, debate producers had to divide the field into two teams—varsity and junior varsity—as a way of bringing the production logistics under control. In a general election, obviously, there are usually only two (sometimes three) contenders sharing the stage, which creates an entirely different rhythm and dynamic. Last but not least, general election debates feature considerably higher stakes and a far higher profile than primary debates. Candidates who stumble in primary debates stand a good chance of recovering; in the big leagues, a poor performance resounds with vastly more damaging consequences.

Q: What makes a good presidential debater?

AS: A fundamental requirement of any good presidential debater is that he or she wants to be up on that stage debating. If we analogize debates to job interviews, then it follows that a candidate must use the 90 minutes at hand to make a positive impression on the folks who do the hiring—the voters. Too often candidates go into debates dreading the experience—Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992, George W. Bush in 2004. Seeking protection, these reluctant warriors arm themselves with talking points and one-liners that come across as phony. Debaters must remember that audiences appreciate performers who relish the platform, who take pleasure in delivering a nimble performance. The best debaters—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, for instance—always communicated a desire to engage with voters, to sell the message.

Other qualities are also required: advance preparation, command of the issues, projection of authority, an appropriate attitude toward one’s opponent and toward the moderators who ask the questions. All these things matter a great deal, though not as much as that simple desire to be there.

Q: How has the rise of social media changed debates?

AS: Social media have reinvented the way people consume presidential debates. To an increasing degree, especially among the young, debate watching is a dual-screen ritual, with viewers keeping one eye on the debate and one on the reaction. The rise of social media has democratized the viewing experience, allowing the general public to have its say alongside that of professional journalists and pundits. Because reaction on social media can be measured in real time, the power of the people manifests itself more strongly and more immediately than ever.

Social media—especially Twitter—have shifted the debate conversation from a post-event activity to something that occurs while the debate unfolds. It used to be that winners and losers would be declared only after the fact, when pundits and spinners rushed on the air at debate’s end to render their judgments. Today post-debate spin has been largely supplanted by real-time reaction in social media. For the debaters themselves, this means that any misstep at any moment has the potential to instantaneously alter the commentary’s direction and tone. Pressure on presidential debaters has always been enormous, but with social media that pressure becomes even more relentless. After a widely panned first debate in 2012, for instance, Barack Obama spent the next two weeks trying to divert the story line back onto favorable terrain.


Monday, August 29th, 2016

Book Giveaway! “Presidential Debates”

With the election season heading into the home stretch, we are featuring the third edition of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, by Alan Schroeder.

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 Presidential Debates 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, September 2nd at 1:00 pm.

Allan Louden writes, “Schroeder reaches beyond the political junkie and occasional academic with Presidential Debates. Packed with illustrative stories and enough intrigue to be an ‘insider’s’ view, this book not only can be read as a history of presidential debates, but, more importantly, brings alive the dynamic and evolutionary nature of political debates.”

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

Interview with William Paul, author of “When Movies Were Theater”

When Movies Were Theater, William Paul

“How to arrange a movie theater might seem a fairly simple matter: a projector at one end, a screen at the other, seats in between. But it turned out not to be so simple after all.”—William Paul

The following is an interview with William Paul, author of When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film:

Question: Nowadays, we are used to watching movies anywhere and everywhere. Why should the space in which we view a movie make any difference?

William Paul: Beginning with the rise of television in the 1950s, the moving image became progressively divorced from architecture, but before that movies were for the most part associated with a specific architectural form. Given that early movies ran for less than a minute, showing a collection of them in a row could fit very nicely into the modular programming of the vaudeville theater. And so, in the United States, movies initially became associated with vaudeville, with each of the short films in the collection chosen for the sake of variety. Consequently, variety became a strong concern in American film exhibition. With the decline of live performance in the sound period, variety nevertheless continued to be an important concern in movie exhibition: programs of short films and double bills, two features for the price of one, made up in variety what was lost in live performance. And variety might well have been a governing aesthetic in American film production, leading to odd things like song numbers in gangster films or in film noir.

Q: So, theater programming at the time had an impact on film exhibition, but in what ways did the space of the theater impact on movies?

WP: How to arrange a movie theater might seem a fairly simple matter: a projector at one end, a screen at the other, seats in between. But it turned out not to be so simple after all. Vaudeville theaters in the 1890s, for example, were built on the dominant horseshoe form, which put a large proportion of the audience at extreme angles to the movie screen. The early design for purpose-built movie theaters recognized the problem of side-view distortion by an understanding that long and narrow was the best configuration for viewing a flat image.

The increasing dominance of the feature film throughout the teens coincides with the building of the great movie palaces. Architecturally these invoked live-performance theaters, but on a scale that went far beyond anything used for drama. While the theaters built in Times Square in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century ranged from about 600 to 2,000 seats, the palaces ranged from 2,500 to 6,000 seats. These enormous sizes were based on the belief, actually mistaken, that the optics of the motion picture image presented the same view to every audience member and democratized theater in the process. While early film theory sought to distinguish movies from theater, the architecture of these spaces announced that movies were an extension of theater, drama for the masses. These theaters stressed the continuity between movies and live drama in one other regard: the screen was located upstage, anywhere from twelve to twenty feet back from the curtain line, and placed within a theatrical set rather than the now familiar black cloth surround. The set was often a variation on a window in a garden, with the window being replaced by a screen when the show began, but it also might be a set specifically related to the content of the feature film. So, for example, performances of Quo Vadis (1913) had the image surrounded by a set that invoked ancient Rome. Although the image would be the brightest area on the stage, the set would be visible throughout the show and necessarily had an impact on how movies were shot.

Q: Does this mean that the theaters impacted on film style?

WP: There is ample evidence, from contemporary observers as well as the films themselves, that these palaces did have an impact on the development of American film style. Even as the architectural spaces kept getting bigger and bigger, the screen itself remained fairly small in order to keep the image sharp and brightly illuminated. In the early store theaters and nickelodeons that preceded the rise of the feature film, the screens generally ran from twelve to fourteen feet wide. In the palaces the screens grew somewhat larger, ranging from twenty to twenty-four feet wide, but they would be located on stages with proscenium openings from about forty all the way up to one hundred feet. Aside from emphasizing the theatricality of movies, one of the functions of the “picture settings,” the theatrical sets that surrounded the film image, was to make the image seem less small by expanding the visual field. Locating this small image on a very large stage had a number of consequences, but let me isolate the most obvious one here: as the architectural spaces got progressively larger, the camera throughout the teens got progressively closer in. The resulting style which became dominant in the twenties privileged close-ups as a way of making story points or revealing character. Clearly this style was in part a consequence of the grand spaces in which these movies were shown.


Thursday, July 7th, 2016

The Sierra Club as Book Publisher — An Excerpt from The Man Who Built the Sierra Club

The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower, Robert Wyss

“Brower was now the darling of publishing, the upstart who had proven that the commercial publishers were wrong. He had created a new genre, an expensive, sprawling book that openly touted an environmental message.”—Robert Wyss, The Man Who Built the Sierra Club

In the late 1950s David Brower wanted to produce a book of Ansel Adams photographs celebrating nature. It would be a big, slick, oversized book of very high quality. But commercial book publishers scoffed at the proposed book, saying it was too expensive and it would never sell. Brower convinced the Sierra Club to assume the risks and thus was born the first in a series of what were called Exhibit Format books. Brower edited or oversaw virtually all of the books, which were wildly successful and changed both the club, and publishing.

Today we excerpt from The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A life of David Brower, the story behind one of the early books published by Eliot Porter.

In 1950 Eliot Porter’s wife suggested that Porter do a book on Henry David Thoreau. “Your pictures remind me so much of him,” she told Porter. “They show his Walden as it is.” No one was more qualified than Porter, who ten years earlier had given up a career in medicine and research at Harvard to take photographs of nature.

What catapulted Porter’s reputation, bringing Brower and the Sierra Club books along for the ride, was the color Porter could achieve. His chemistry background enabled him in his own darkroom to experiment with Eastman Kodak Company’s new Kodachrome film at a time when other photographers shunned it. Porter spent years experimenting, but the result was clear, crisp color transparencies that dazzled. They pushed Porter to the forefront of photography as the popularity of color surged and that of black and white waned.

It took Porter ten years to finish the Thoreau book, and the expense of printing it scared publishers until it got to Brower. The beauty of the proposed book overwhelmed Brower, and he told Porter in a letter in February 1961 that he would be willing to begin a life of crime to pay for its publication. He knew he would need lots of cash to undertake the book and he finally convinced a local businessman, Kenneth Bechtel to provide $50,000 in loans and grants to subsidize the book. Bechtel was an interesting choice. His family owned an engineering and construction company based in San Francisco that was best known for building oil refineries, power plants, and facilities. In later years Brower would rail against such projects.

The next challenge was to find a printer capable of reproducing Porter’s superb color photographs. It took months before Barnes Press of New York passed muster on the samples it showed to Brower and Porter. Barnes needed to produce ten thousand copies of Porter’s seventy-two color prints and to get the four colors to balance and register on the presses. The firm used a sixteen-plate form, with four rows of four, each of a different photographic image. The yellows, reds, blues, and blacks had to be matched perfectly in trial runs, with paper spewing off the presses. These experimental runs took an inordinate amount of time and often forced another trial. Brower recalled one evening when he stayed to supervise, while Porter and the owner of the press, Hugh Barnes, went to dinner around seven. Barnes returned at nine. Brower stayed until eleven and returned to his hotel. Porter, who had slept after dinner, returned at one and stayed until dawn. This kind of pattern was not unusual at Barnes, and Brower’s journal for years in the 1960s was filled with entries of his returning to the printing company at odd hours of the day or night.

Finally, on a day in August 1962, Brower, Porter, Barnes, and others gathered around press number 3 and watched the first 2,500 sheets roar off the presses. The men examined them at a table, using lenses carefully.

They were excellent, recalled Brower, but they were not perfect.

Hugh Barnes agreed. “How about it, Dave, shall we throw out the first 2,500 sheets, and will you go fifty-fifty with me on the cost of the paper?”

How much would that cost? Barnes said $200 for each of them. For Brower, that was equal to the amount of dues the club got in a year from twenty-five members, but he agreed.

Barnes returned a few minutes later. “You did the right thing,” he said. “Now they (the Barnes workers) really know that this is a fussy job.”

Even though this book would be sold at an incredibly expensive $25 (the equivalent of nearly $200 fifty years later), the first five thousand books of In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World quickly sold out, as did the next nine reprints. Critics praised the book. “Only a bold photographer could try to capture Thoreau’s vision again and again. But Mr. Porter succeeds triumphantly,” declared the Christian Science Monitor.

In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World, Eliot Porter


Thursday, July 7th, 2016

Who Was David Brower — A Post by Robert Wyss

The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower, Robert Wyss

“What mattered [to David Brower] was the long term, not for what his contemporaries thought of him. ‘Environmentalists make terrible neighbors,’ he often said, ‘but great ancestors.’ And Brower was both.”—Robert Wyss, author of The Man Who Built the Sierra Club

The following post is by Robert Wyss, author of The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower:

John McPhee writing in the New Yorker in 1971 called him the Archdruid, a moniker he expanded upon when he wrote Encounters With An Archdruid.

Two documentary films were produced about Brower during his lifetime and the titles say a great deal about the duality of the man they were profiling. One was For Earth’s Sake and Brower liked it so much he borrowed it for one of the several memoir-type books he produced. The other was even more grandiose — Monumental.

Those productions along with a vast trove of newspaper and magazine stories including obituaries after Brower’s death in November, 2000 were what I had to go on when I began working on my biography, The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower.

It turned out that Brower was a far more complicated character than I ever imagined. In some respect, a researcher’s delight because of all of the trails he took me down. But in others, a writer’s challenge.

Here’s what I wrote in the book’s introduction:

Over the years, David Brower has been called many things—tireless, unyielding, passionate, visionary, bold, influential, uncompromising, handsome, charismatic, opinionated, and articulate. He became a circuit-riding prophet, the environmental movement’s conscience who defined conservation and environmentalism from the mid-1950s until his death in 2000. He was an angry trailblazer responsible more than any other for turning environmentalism from hiking and bird-watching into a social and political force.

Those same admirers also called Brower stubborn, contentious, controversial, irascible, impossible, polarizing, impolitic, impolite, and a notorious curmudgeon. He on occasion would willingly stretch facts into falsehoods, was so unwilling to tamp down his views that he destroyed lifelong friendships, and refused to take orders even from those in institutional positions above him. He was frustratingly independent.

And yet he did all of this for one selfless reason—to sustain the earth’s natural environment. He wanted to save as much of the planet as possible from humans. He wanted to preserve what remained of the natural world and safely pass it to future generations.

Two related stories illustrate the opposing sides of Brower, the idealist conservationist who awakened a new movement and the messianic hubris that prompted him to engage in willful insubordination.

In 1966 Brower was engaged in his greatest conservation battle of his days as executive director of the Sierra Club, and he was losing. The federal government wanted to build two dams in the Grand Canyon, and as outlandish as this plan was, few seemed alarmed.

Brower placed full-page advertisements in some of the nation’s largest newspapers. The most famous declared: “Should We Also Flood the Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer the Ceiling?”

The next day the U.S. Internal Revenue Service told the Sierra Club it was under investigation because the club was violating its’ tax exempt status by engaging in political activity. This was a blow—the Sierra Club depended on such donations for its financial survival.

Brower announced that the federal government was trying to censor the Sierra Club and the story literally exploded in the news. Why was the club losing its tax status? Because we’re trying to save the Grand Canyon, Brower said. Newspapers were irate, so was the public.

It was the tipping point. Dam builders were quickly on the defensive and they never recovered. Within months the dam project was dead.


Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

An Interview with Robert Wyss, author of “The Man Who Built the Sierra Club”

The Man Who Built the Sierra Club, Robert Wyss

“[David] Brower was a true bellwether, a man ahead of his time.”—Robert Wyss

The following is an interview with Robert Wyss, author of The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower:

Question: What was the status of the environmental movement when David Brower began as the head of the Sierra Club in 1953?

Robert Wyss: Weak. It was called the conservation movement and there was a plethora of volunteer organizations from (women’s) garden clubs to professional science organizations to a very few broad based groups like Audubon. But only a handful employed even a single full-time employee. Brower was the first at the Sierra Club. Washington D.C. was also far smaller in those days so it was possible for either prominent volunteers of these organizations (or their paid directors) to meet and have personal relationships with people who headed the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. But they had very little clout in Congress. In contrast, a little known agency such as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for decades made massive changes in America’s landscape by erecting these massive dams. Dams created jobs and both voters and Congress appreciated those federal dam builders.

Q: How did Brower’s approach to environmental conservation differ from others?

RW: Brower was absolutely fearless. While his colleagues refused to directly challenge the Bureau of Reclamation, Brower took them on and soon he was also criticizing the Forest Service and even those who should have been his friends running the national parks. The incident that first began to build Brower’s national reputation occurred during the fight to oppose the construction of two dams in Dinosaur National Monument. Reclamation officials had made a very basic math mistake in their calculations to justify the dams but it dealt with an arcane issue few understood. Engineers told Brower that while the mistake was obvious, it would be foolhardy to confront Reclamation. No one would believe the dam builders made such a mistake. Brower ignored the advice, he publicly confronted the Bureau in a Congressional hearing, and ultimately Reclamation engineers backed down. Such reckless, plucky daring can be found throughout Brower’s career.

Q: How did he change the Sierra Club from the mission set by John Muir?

RW: John Muir founded the club in 1892 to encourage his friends in the greater San Francisco area to hike and camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Muir was a pretty radical conservationist for his era, but after he died in 1914 the club became politically conservative. It was a California-based hiking and social club that preferred to work through gentlemanly channels to protect natural resources. That was changing after World War II when a new, younger board of directors hired Brower. Brower expanded the club’s focus nationally and it became increasingly confrontational. Older members were immediately uncomfortable with this approach and as Brower (over the years) became more radical he began to lose the support that would contribute to his firing in 1969. But in many respects Brower was only following in the footsteps of Muir. They both strongly believed in protecting natural resources over anything else.


Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

Book Giveaway! The Man Who Built the Sierra Club

This week we are featuring The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower, by Robert Wyss.

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 The Man Who Built the Sierra Club 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, July 8th at 1:00 pm.

In their review of the book Library Journal wrote, “A riveting…. extensively researched, balanced account…. This absorbing portrait of a flawed yet fascinating figure, beloved and scorned, who defined America’s national parks will engage all biography lovers.”

You can also read the Introduction:

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

Debunking the Myth That Lincoln Was Gay

Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln

“I’d been working on Lincoln since 1973. But he’s such a profound man with such a wonderful sense of humor, so appealing, so he draws you in. He’s such a brilliant writer. Every story about Lincoln, whether it’s in the oral history, whether it’s something he wrote, it’s always interesting. He’s just an appealing human being. I don’t think he was so modest. On the other hand, he wasn’t wildly grandiose. There’s a difference. He was aware of his own greatness.” — Charles Strozier

This week, our featured book is Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, by Charles B. Strozier. Today, for the final day of the feature, we are happy to present an excerpt of Strozier’s interview with Ronald K. Fried at The Daily Beast. Read the interview and accompanying article in full on The Daily Beast‘s website.

[Ronald K. Fried] spoke with Strozier at his Greenwich Village psychoanalytical office. The following is an edited version of [their] conversation.

RKF: How common was it for men to share the same bed during Lincoln’s time?

Charles Strozier: Very common. One guy has counted 14 people—men— Lincoln slept with before he slept with Speed. Inns at the time were really just homes where they finished the loft. They weren’t hotels like we have now. They were just hostels, where you have the men over here and the women over there. But individual biography is not always congruent with social custom. The fact that it was common for men to sleep together doesn’t mean that it was of no significance that Lincoln at this crucial moment in his life slept for nearly four years with his absolute best friend. The question is, what does it mean?

Friendship between men in Lincoln’s time was very different, right?

I think the historical context is really important to understand. Now where homosexuality is so much more accepted, legitimated, and even affirmed as it should be in gay marriage, we accept males loving one another and being sexual with one another. But in the 19th century, the taboo of homosexuality is absolutely rigid. Whitman was gay. He had to stay in the closet. Sodomy, buggery, was illegal and severely prescribed. But friendship, intimate, loving friendship like that between Lincoln and Speed, was not only accepted but encouraged as the long as the boundary against sexualization was rigidly and absolutely maintained.

But couldn’t you say that homosexuality was so severely punished that Lincoln—if he were gay—would have had to hide it?

Of course. It’s a perfect reasonable question, and that’s why I had to look at the evidence for whether or not it was legitimate. And, of course, it’s hard to answer a negative. First of all, Herndon [Lincoln’s eventual biographer], who lived in the same room for two years [with Lincoln and Speed], not only never mentioned it, he never had a clue. And no one would have been more interested in anything homosexual about Lincoln. Not a single person Herndon talked to mentioned it. (more…)

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

Introducing “Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln”

Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln

“Nearly every detail of the narrative arc in Lincoln’s life between 1837 and 1842 has been hotly debated; in fact, it is fair to say that, while books will undoubtedly continue to be written about all facets of Abraham Lincoln’s life, the meaning of these years represents the last area of real disagreement about Lincoln’s identity and character.” — Charles Strozier

This week, our featured book is Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, by Charles B. Strozier. Today, we have excerpted Strozier’s Preface to Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln:

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

The New World of Male Friendship

Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln

“All kinds of theories have been offered to explain Lincoln’s action, most mutually exclusive, from his supposed sexual love for Speed; to his infatuation with the beautiful Matilda Edwards who arrived in Springfield in November; to his sense of inadequacy with the lordly Todds; to Mary actually taking the decisive action. The evidence, most of it contradictory, supports none of these theories altogether, and the reason for the broken engagement has remained an enigma for most of the last century and a half.” — Charles Strozier

This week, our featured book is Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, by Charles B. Strozier. Today, we are happy to present a guest post from Strozier, in which he gives an overview of the close male friendship between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, and explains why that friendship has become such a touchstone for controversy.

The New World of Male Friendship
Charles B. Strozier

Men talk of bromance and a new kind of buddy system, of searching for soul mates, even love, but not in the context of sex. That is the point in this new world of male friendship. It is relatively new, and very old, at the same time. In fact, the most interesting example of close male friendship in American history may be Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed.

Lincoln struggled as a young man with issues of intimacy and depression. He was always moody, but in his late 20s and early 30s, and only then, he was twice suicidal: first after the death of his betrothed, Ann Rutledge, in 1835 in New Salem, and then six years later after he broke off his engagement with Mary Todd.

He was saved, in a very real sense, through his friendship with Joshua Speed. That friendship unfolded in its most important phase between 1837, when Lincoln arrived in Springfield, Illinois, at 28 years of age, and ended up living with Speed, then 22 years of age, above Speed’s dry goods store on the west side of the square and sleeping with him in the same large, double bed for nearly the next four years. All the (good) historical evidence suggests the relationship was loving but not sexualized. (more…)

Monday, May 30th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed

Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln

“Lincoln was the hub of an important wheel of political and social life, and Strozier has repaired the missing spoke that is Joshua Speed. He has done so in part by re-connecting Speed to Lincoln’s other friends and acquaintances, to provide as full a picture of these young American men’s interior lives as we are likely to get. His use of often-ignored archival sources is brilliant.” — James M. Cornelius, Lincoln curator, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

This week, our featured book is Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, by Charles B. Strozier. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, June 3rd at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Man-O-Manischewitz — Roger Horowitz on Kosher Wine and Its Popularity among African Americans

Sammy Davis, Kosher USA

With Passover beginning tomorrow and with people starting to break out the Seder wine, we thought we’d share an excerpt from Roger Horowitz’s chapter “Man-O-Manischewitz,” from Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food. In this excerpt, Horowitz recounts the story behind the surprising popularity of Manischewitz and other Kosher wines among African Americans during the twentieth century. As Horowitz explains, the sweetness of Kosher wine was comparable to the homemade wines that many African Americans made. He also looks at how the wine companies began to market their products directly to African American consumers.

In addition to the excerpt below, here is a clip of Sammy Davis Jr. pitching Manischewitz Almonetta Wine:

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

A Post for 4/20: Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter on Pot Smuggling

In recognition of 4/20, we are re-posting Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter’s appearance on HuffPost Live to discuss their book Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade In the interview, Maguire and Ritter discuss 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 20th, 2016

Harry Kassell: Kosher Meat Man

Roger Horowitz, Kosher USA

The following post from Roger Horowitz, author of Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, was originally published on his blog. The post reveals the ways in which Kosher meat production was brought into the processes of the modern U.S. food industry.

I came across an amazing man while looking for information on kosher meat. A Harry Kassel came up in a New York Times search, appearing in a 1973 article about meat shortages and described as the largest wholesaler of kosher meat in the New York area. Other searches turned up nothing more; so I turned to one of the historian’s great resources—the telephone book—and found him living on Long Island just past the end of the Belt Parkway. Spry and sharp at 89, he told me about his remarkable life, and in so doing gave me the backbone of chapter seven in Kosher USA, which I called “Harry Kassel’s Meat.”

He was born in Racine, Wisconsin to a Jewish family that tried to keep kosher. He joined the military during World War II, and rather than trying to build up his military service, joked with me in his self-deprecating manner that since the US wanted to win the war, they kept him in the country. Recently demobilized in 1946, he agreed to a blind date with Zeena Levine, who was then a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. The two hit if off (even though she called him a “cheapskate” in our interview since he took her to a bar instead of a restaurant) and were soon married. Harry joked that since she wouldn’t go to work, he had to, and took the easy way out by joining his new father in law’s business.

Zeena’s father was a butcher—on a big scale. With his partner Sam Cohen, Joe Levine owned several large kosher butcher shops in Brooklyn and a small chain of non-kosher shops. Kosher meat was a thriving business after World War II, and Levine took in his son-in-law and taught him how to evaluate recently-slaughtered meat and decide which carcasses to buy for his butcher shops.

After a few years Kassel went into business for himself and established a meat wholesale company in the Brooklyn plant once operated by Swift & Co. His training made him acutely aware of the peculiar nature of kosher beef – that the same animal yielded kosher and non-kosher cuts. The Ashkenazi tradition was to only consume the forequarters, so even though these cattle yielded kosher briskets and rib roasts, the desirable loin cuts could not enter the kosher trade. Kassel made a name for himself by buying the hindquarters of prime, kosher-killed cattle and distributing the tenderloins and porterhouse steaks so prized in New York’s white tablecloth restaurants.


Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

Kosher Coke, Kosher Science

Kosher USA

In the excerpt below from Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, Roger Horowitz travels from his family’s Seder table to early twentieth-century Atlanta when Rabbi Geffen had to weigh in on the status of Coke. The excerpt exemplifies the challenge of balancing the laws of ancient religious texts with the demands of the modern food industry and consumer desires.

Monday, April 18th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Kosher USA, by Roger Horowitz

This week we are featuring Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, by Roger Horowitz.

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 Kosher 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, April 22 at 1:00 pm.

Here’s what Andrew Smith writes:

“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Roger Horowitz’s Kosher USA! It is three-stories in one: a family narrative within a history of kosher within the industrialization of the American food system. Well researched, insightful, and delightful–even for goyim.”

You can also read the chapter, “My Family’s Sturgeon”:

Friday, January 15th, 2016

The Press and Authority — Roy J. Harris, author of “Pulitzer’s Gold”


“If Spotlight leaves viewers with something to think about going forward, let’s hope that it’s a more critical understanding of how we view authority figures in general — and that the journalists who monitor them have the duty to help keep them honest.”—Roy J. Harris

We conclude our week-long feature on Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, by Roy J. Harris Jr. with a post on Harris’s recent article on Spotlight, published on Cognoscenti, WBUR’s blog. The story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into sex abuse among priests is covered in the book’s chapter Epiphany: The Globe and the Church

In the article, Harris discusses about Spotlight‘s depiction of how the Globe discovered the cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The film as he and others have acknowledged have put journalism in a good light and shows their power to effect change.

While the story reveals the impact journalism can have and represents a devastating critique of a powerful institution, challenges still exist. The film, as Harris describes it, offers an excellent portrayal of how the reporters came to grips with having to expose an institution that enjoyed a certain prestige and authority. Marty Baron, who was the editor at the Globe during the breaking of the story, recognizes the difficulties of covering certain institutions:

Marty Baron sees “Spotlight’s” message as extending far beyond the church scandal and the role of the press. Baron, now The Washington Post’s executive editor, noted in a recent email exchange with me that people in general — not just journalists in search of a good story — often balk at learning too much about organizations with generally favorable reputations. “Many charitable nonprofits, from arts institutions to those with a social purpose, get a pass on close examinations because they are seen as doing good. And many do good, but that shouldn’t exempt them from accountability,” according to Baron.

Yet journalists have a special challenge in breaking through the deference that surrounds such organizations and celebrities. “One reason institutions can escape examination is because they are sources for reporters,” Baron wrote. “That’s often the case with prosecutors, police and firefighters, who over the years escaped the more critical attention that their enormous power calls for. That deference has already begun to erode, as evidenced by a lot of reporting over the last couple of years.”