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Archive for the 'American History' Category

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.”


Thursday, January 14th, 2016

All the Editor’s Men — Pulitzer’s Gold and Watergate

Pulitzer's Gold, Roy J. Harris

In the following excerpt from Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, Roy J. Harris looks back at the oft-told but frequently misunderstood history behind Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting of Watergate. In the passage, Woodward himself challenges the mythology that has grown around their coverage.

“People don’t win Pulitzer Prizes by being for; they usually win them by being against. “—President Richard M. Nixon, to the national association of broadcasters, march 19, 1974

Bob Woodward had not seen the movie All the President’s Men for twenty-five years. Then one day in mid-2005 he sat down with his eight-year­ old daughter Diana while she watched it for the first time. Noticing her squirming a bit, the Washington Post assistant managing editor asked what she was thinking. “The guy pretending to be you doesn’t look like you at all,” Diana told him. And what else? “Boring, boring, boring,” she said. “And she’s exactly right,” Woodward agrees, chuckling—not just about the movie, but about the nature of the Watergate investigation itself. “Because it’s about fitting little pieces together. You don’t know what you have when you publish a little piece, but you publish it anyway.” (See video below with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein discussing the story behind All the President’s Men)

Any squirming of his own on the topic of Watergate may have more to do with how often he has been asked over the years to rehash the role of “Woodstein”—as the Post editors nicknamed the duo of Woodward and Carl Bernstein during their investigation—in the events that led to Presi­dent Richard Nixon’s August 1974 resignation. Just a few months before the father–daughter movie viewing, another flurry of national publicity erupted when Deep Throat chose to identify himself. Woodward’s cel­ebrated secret source turned out to be W. Mark Felt, the number two man at the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the time of the Watergate probe. (A smoke-wreathed Hal Holbrook, stepping from behind pillars in an eerie, dark garage, played him in the 1976 film.)

Alan Pakula’s movie—with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein and Jason Robards as the Post executive editor Ben Bradlee—actually holds up well today. For adults, at least, it now plays as a historical/political thriller. The mystery is not whether the presi­dent will fall but how two reporters and one cantankerous editor helped precipitate it, starting with the simple assignment to report on arrests after a break-in at the Watergate office building’s Democratic National Committee offices.

Missing from the film, of course, is a historical perspective tying the Nixon administration’s criminal activities to a greater political motive—something that four decades now permits. In recent years Woodward and Bernstein have offered an analysis positing the president’s “five wars of Watergate.” starting with attempts to stem the anti–Vietnam War move­ment, the White House strategy expanded to interfering with perceived enemies in the news media and in the Democratic party, to undermin­ing the legal system by paying hush money to witnesses, and lying to investigators. The final “war” was against history, in the reporters’ view, and included the portrayal of spying, burglaries, and dirty tricks against administration targets as “capers” rather than episodes in a coordinated mission to subvert governmental processes.2
In one oft-quoted snippet from the White House tape recordings even­tually released during the Watergate investigation, Nixon in July 1971—a year before the Watergate break-in—is heard telling chief of staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman and secretary of state Henry Kissinger: “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear?”


Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

Ponzi’s Scam Exposed! — An Excerpt from Pulitzer’s Gold

The exposure financial improprieties has been a staple of prize-winning investigative journalism for decades. One of the more famous cases is, of course, Charles Ponzi, whose shady dealings were uncovered by the Boston Post. In the following excerpt from Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, Roy J. Harris shows how Edwin Grozier and other Boston Post reporters helped take down the once popular Ponzi:

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

An Interview with Roy J. Harris, author of “Pulitzer’s Gold”

Pulitzer's Gold, Roy Harris

The following is an interview with Roy J. Harris, author of Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism

Question: 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize. In looking over the winners for public service journalism, what struck you most about what has changed in journalism during this period and what has stayed the same?

Roy J. Harris: What’s very clear is how the quality of the Pulitzer winners—the depth of the reporting and the powerful change they brought about—increased sharply after the first few years the prizes began to be awarded. That suggests that the very creation of a system for honoring top-notch journalism encouraged more great reporting to be done around the country. But also, the variety of the top journalism projects—a diversity greater in public service than any other category—began to expand during that century: another major change. What’s stayed the same is that the predominant characteristic of the winning reporting has been tenacity on the part of the journalists to tell a story that others don’t want told.

Q: In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about how changes in the news industry are threatening the kind of journalism that the public service journalism prize highlights. What is your sense of the future for investigative journalism of this kind?

RJH: First the positive view: A surprising number of young journalists continue to enter the profession; they’re learning quickly, and doing great work. They also seem to value the tradition of great reporting, as I learn from the students I speak with regularly. While the digital world makes it harder to determine real news from the chaff, budding reporters also find that the Internet greatly broadens their access to valuable, verifiable resources. On the negative side, the news infrastructure to support reporters financially is seriously failing. New structures—like those created by new online sites and by privately supported programs like ProPublica and California Watch—aren’t coming online quickly enough to make up for the deterioration of traditional newspapers. New sources of financial support must be found for public service journalism, which is often the most expensive kind, if these young reporters are to be kept on the job.

Q: Much like the justly celebrated new movie, Spotlight, your book tells the story behind the story—about how journalists do their jobs. What is the value for general readers of understanding the ways in which journalists and the news industry work?

RJH: Before Spotlight, I argued that the behind-the-story approach of the Watergate movie All the President’s Men was a great model. Both that great movie and Spotlight are realistic, and take an inspirational look at what the media can do for our citizenry. And both concentrate on projects that won the Public Service Pulitzer—the subject of my book. I found in my research that less-well-known winners offer the same kind of excitement, though perhaps on a local level rather than a national or global level. That applies to non-journalists as much as to journalists, although the result of the journalism may be more local or regional than the ousting of a U.S. president or the exposure of a global Church scandal. From researching the stories in Pulitzer’s Gold I also found that to trace these Pulitzer winners through the years is to expose readers to the twists and turns of American history over the decades. What happened historically is important as is the role of the First Amendment, which keeps our system strong, and our citizenry informed.


Friday, December 11th, 2015

Mary Helen Washington Receives Honorable Mention for MLA Award

Congratulations to Mary Helen Washington, whose book The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, received an honorable mention for the competition for the Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize for an Outstanding Scholarly Study of Black American Literature.

In praising the book, the prize committee wrote:

Elegantly written and richly historical, The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s is Mary Helen Washington’s long-awaited study of the left’s impact on the intellectual and political lives of African American writers during the 1950s. Washington eloquently reconstitutes the Black Popular Front, a fascinating case of how the Communist Party and other leftist associations informed literary and political discourses on race relations in the United States. She probes the aesthetic strategies and racial-political networks belonging to canonical authors such as Gwendolyn Brooks and to lesser-known writers such as Lloyd L. Brown, Alice Childress, and Frank London Brown. The Other Blacklist is a crowning achievement in Washington’s long-standing quest to put the black left at the center of African American literary history.

And for more on the book, here is a video of a talk between Mary Helen Washington and Farah Jasmine Griffin from earlier this year at the Schomburg Center:

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Forget the Turkey! Doughnuts!

Gastropolis, Thanksgiving in New York City

As many of us begin to prepare our turkeys and other fixings, we conclude our focus on Thanksgiving by turning to a surprising chapter in the holiday’s history when doughnuts made an appearance:

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 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.

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Themes from The Con Men

The Con Men

“This book came about because both Terry and I are New Yorkers who came here from other places. There are the known mechanics of this city, and then its underground economy. We came to The Con Men as a way of making sense of this untaxed and unauthorized world.” — Trevor B. Milton

This week, our featured book is The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton. In today’s post, Trevor B. Milton looks back at the genesis of the book, and explains some of the key threads that tie the book’s many stories together.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Con Men!

Themes from The Con Men
By Trevor B. Milton

This book came about because both Terry and I are New Yorkers who came here from other places. There are the known mechanics of this city, and then its underground economy. We came to The Con Men as a way of making sense of this untaxed and unauthorized world. There is something in this book for everyone who has ever resided in this city, something familiar to all who walk its streets. New York City is the unit of analysis; con artists and hustlers are the bi-product.

New York City is rugged, aggressive, and competitive, yet it is also one of the most desirable cities in the world, with broad boulevards, tree-lined avenues, yellow and lime-green cabs darting hither and yon, and frantic crowds moving along busy streets. And though New Yorkers constantly complain about trash, traffic, trains, and any number of other hassles, most of them readily acknowledge that they live in one of the greatest cities in the world. Among its many finer points, New York offers access to the best museums and cultural institutions and an intelligentsia unmatched anywhere. New York, New York: a city so nice they named it twice… (more…)

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

Cop Cons

The Con Men

“I asked Frank if he would volunteer any stories of police corruption. ‘So is there such a thing as a police con? Or a police hustle?’ Frank smiled so big that I couldn’t see his eyes. ‘Of course.’ He slouched in the bench and folded his arms, allowing some of the memories to come to him. ‘Well, the con is like, the con is the classic good guy/bad guy. That’s the con. That’s the biggest one.’” — Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton

This week, our featured book is The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton. When most people think of con games, they tend to think of the kind of three-card monte that they’ve seen in movies. However, as this excerpt from The Con Men reveals, con games can happen in a wide variety of circumstances, and con artists can be people from all walks of life.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Con Men!

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

The Con Game

The Con Men

“To be honest, I wanted to get some of the cash the man flashed. I had greed in my heart, and that’s what got me into trouble.” — Terry Williams

This week, our featured book is The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton. In today’s post, Terry Williams describes his first encounter with a con game in New York, how he was duped, and how this experience led him to study con games in his scholarly work.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Con Men!

The Con Game
By Terry Williams

I first got involved in a con game by chance: I happened to be strolling down the wrong street at the wrong time. However, stumbling into a con made it possible for me to better understand how the con game might be studied in an urban setting.

I was a young student at the time, with only five dollars in my pocket, trying to find my way around the city. On this particular day I became a modern version of Voltaire’s Candide, only instead of finding my fortune I found myself standing on an isolated city street explaining to two strangers why I could be trusted.

Let me go back to the beginning

I saw a man standing near 125th Street. He stopped me to say that he was not from New York (he had an accent), was lost, and needed my help. He showed me a piece of paper, which upon a brief inspection listed an address close to where we were standing, but as I tried to look more closely at the paper, he took it from me and handed it to another passerby with the same question. This time, however, he took out a wad of money and made a generous offer for help finding the address on the paper. He said he had been given $10,000 of insurance money after his brother lost his leg in an accident. He just wanted to “get some pussy before I leave the city.” I didn’t see exactly how much money he had, but it was a big bundle of bills and he said he would give some to both of us if we helped him. (more…)

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

Con Artists and Hustlers

The Con Men

“The con artists and hustlers in this text possess a rare set of utilitarian values and have an unmatched knowledge of the city’s landscape and a sophisticated skill set that has taken years (or a lifetime) to acquire. We think of them as sage opportunists because they are able to match their abilities exactly to the opportunities presented by the city’s shifting economy.” — Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton

This week, our featured book is The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton. To get the feature kicked off, we have an excerpt from the book’s introduction, in which Williams and Milton explain who con artists and hustlers are and begin to describe exactly what it is they do.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Con Men!

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Con Men: Hustling in New York City

The Con Men

“This terrific ethnography explains that cons and hustles are no longer the preserve of roguish proletarians in loud suits and painted ties. Everybody wants a bargain, and creative capitalism makes mugs of us all.” — Dick Hobbs, Times Higher Education

This week, our featured book is The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Con Men. 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, November 6th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

What’s Wrong with Nostalgia — Gary Cross

Consumed Nostalgia, Gary Cross

“The problem with modern nostalgia isn’t that it longs for the past rather than the present or future; the trouble is that it fixates on stuff and thus short-circuits what memory can do for us.”—Gary Cross

Earlier this week, the History News Network published an essay by Gary Cross entitled It’s Ok to Love Your ’64 Mustang but Here’s What You’re Missing. The essay builds upon Cross’s recent book Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, which examines the ways in which nostalgia separates and divides us across generational lines.

In the essay for the History News Network, Cross argues that people often become nostalgic as a result of anxiety about rapid change and they feel a need to reclaim a sense of of childhood wonder or teenage freedom. He argues that a kind of consumer modern nostalgia began in the United States in the 1930s and then accelerated in the 1970s with a renewed interest in the 1950s. While Cross argues that “objects of memory certainly meet a need by helping people recover the past; and collecting can bring together those who have little else in common but a shared memory.” He concludes his essay by expressing concern about what has become a commercialized nostalgia:

The problem with modern nostalgia isn’t that it longs for the past rather than the present or future; the trouble is that it fixates on stuff and thus short-circuits what memory can do for us. Some of this is probably inevitable. Few of us are mystics and, as in religion, most of us require “relics” to share and help us reach back to the past. But, in the end can commercialized nostalgia meet our needs? My obsession with the commodities of my childhood cannot be shared with my younger brother, much less with my children; they are just different. This longing separates me from communities and pasts beyond my personal experience.

But can’t the modern nostalgic impulse transcend all this? It can if we use things of memory to engage with the past, not merely regress into a romantic memory of childhood “innocence.” If we converse with that past, and bring a full and honest consciousness of our present lives into our encounter with the past, nostalgia can reveal something about ourselves as we are now and also show us how the world has actually changed. Such a conversation with the past might help us get over our obsessions with our childhoods. In fact, nostalgia need not be childish; it can bring us the pleasure of growing in our understanding of ourselves and of the larger world from the vantage point of grown-ups.

Friday, September 11th, 2015

Memory in a World of Fast Capitalism — Gary Cross

Consumed Nostalgia

“We all live in and are shaped by a world of fast capitalism, and therefore of consumed nostalgia, but we need not be consumed by it.”—Gary Cross

In this excerpt from the conclusion to Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, Gary Cross examines how our fascination with and fetishization of consumer goods from our youth both enhances and distorts our understanding of the past and the ways in which memory brings us together and divides us:

It’s clear that for practically all of us, memory requires things of mem­ory. But these things are means that become ends, that is, fetishes or projections of ourselves. They can and should, I think, instead be instruments to reach fresh insights and understandings. Ulti­mately, is this not what a collection of old toys or watching old TV should do for us?

This can happen when we use things of memory to engage with the past but not regress into the past, especially into a childhood of lost adventure and/or simplicity. If we converse with that past, bring a full and honest consciousness of our present lives into the encounter with what has gone before, nostalgia can reveal some­thing about ourselves now. And through “repetition”—going back to where we came and thus to whom we have been—we can make our understanding of ourselves clearer and more accurate. This may happen if we are willing to let that past tell us something we hadn’t expected, to allow a new standpoint to emerge.36 Such a return might even lead to an acceptance of self (finally getting over our obsessions with the pains and resentments that go along with many childhoods or longings to return to the good ol’ days), and there is no reason why it might not also lead to what the famous psychologist Erik Erikson called “ego integrity,” a self at peace with its past selves.

But again this will take place only if we allow those objects of memory to go beyond their materiality and to tell us something about our relationships. I repeatedly saw the revered old car or toy (especially in men) disguise a shared experience with a dad or brother, positive or not. But this need not be the case. Returning to a teenage memory through the teenage car can lead to a deeper self-understanding. And what we may learn about our relation­ships may take us beyond the tribalism of modern consumption.


Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Gary Cross on the 5 Characteristics of Consumed Nostalgia

Gary Cross, Consumed Nostalgia

In the following excerpt from his introduction to Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, Gary Cross defines five elements that make today’s “consumed nostalgia” so distinct and contradictory.

1. Today nostalgia binds together not community or families but scattered individuals around seemingly ephemeral things that are meaningful to them personally. How many of our holiday rituals today are really about religious or national ideas? Few of us cele­brate ancestors, even our departed parents. Much contemporary nostalgia is built on briefly popular consumer goods that unify, however loosely, narrow age groups. Instead of places or events shaping these brief “generations,” goods link otherwise separated our nostalgic novelty culture individuals. Nostalgia today is increasingly about microidentities. In fact, consumed nostalgia lets us “put on” multiplicities of iden­tities across the movement through life. It has been fashionable for a long time to call this postmodern, but what I am describing goes beyond plural identities and denial of universal “narratives” and national identity. These “postmodern” nostalgias are even more fragmented and ephemeral, constructed as they are around things, often very silly ones, and the memories and sensualities that these things evoke. They create personal meanings, but they also isolate and divide us.

2. Today’s nostalgia is less about preserving an “unchanging golden era” than it is about capturing the fleeting and the particular in its “authenticity.” In everything from our snapshots to our strange attempts to reenact the Civil War experience, we try to make the “there and then” into the “here and now” in pristine specificity and accuracy. We preserve that unguarded “cute” moment of our former toddlers in snapshots, not iconic family-portrait photo­graphs shot by professionals. Reenactors wear wool uniforms in July encampments at Gettysburg, and some insist on not wear­ing underwear to capture the authentic experience. These activi­ties have replaced the rituals of building monuments, attending ceremonies, and hearing inspired speeches as the reenactors’ predecessors did a hundred years ago. We have substituted the “authentic” for the symbolic. Even more germane here: we no longer seek heirlooms (literally “a device for interweaving genera­tions”) as a gesture of family or group continuity. Because of weak­ened family bonds and the transience of things, fewer of us hand down household treasures to children. And these remembrances are far less standardized—gone are the stylized family photo­graphic portraits, Victorian china cabinets, and ancestors’ needle­work. Something new has happened. Instead of symbols that link us across generations, we seek exact and personal remembrances of our own pasts or at least “authentic” representations of our families—informal snapshots and children’s artwork, for exam­ple. This quest for the authentic is how we moderns cope with the fleeting—not by denying change and death in dreams of a timeless age but by capturing “our moment” in our snapshots, songs, dolls, and cars. All this satisfies our longings for the personal connec­tion, but it often is an authenticity impossible to share with others or to pass down to our children. And, I suspect, for many it is a poor substitute for the “eternal.”


Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Guys Toys and “Girls” Dolls — Gary Cross on Consumed Nostalgia

Chewbacca, Consumed Nostalgia

Star Wars was a boys’ peer-group fantasy, continually changing, as did the boys (mostly), who quickly entered and left the target age group. Unlike the westerns, whose stock characters and plots were shared by multiple generations of American males, Star Wars belonged primarily to the kids of that time.”—Gary Cross

As the Star Wars franchise ramps up for the new movie and what will surely be a new bonanza in action figures and merchandise, we turn to Gary Cross’s Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism. In the following excerpt from the book, Cross examines the history of action figures and their gendered nature:

At the beginning of the 1960s, novelty toys and dolls for both boys and girls were dominated by diverse action figures, led by G.I. Joe and the long but forever changing Barbie fashion dolls. Although Hasbro’s G.I. Joe appeared first in 1964 as a miniature of the real soldier that most American boys expected to grow up to become (in an era of general military conscription), by the mid­1970s the Joes had become fantasy figures that changed continu­ously (first in the 1970s to “Adventure Teams,” abandoning military themes during the unpopular Vietnam War, and then to miniature “Super Joes,” science-fiction action figures in 1976).

G.I. Joe’s transformation was followed by a generation of action figures, beginning with the miniatures and props of George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy (1977–1983). Even more than the sci-fi play of the 1930s, Star Wars was a boys’ peer-group fantasy, continually changing, as did the boys (mostly), who quickly entered and left the target age group. Unlike the westerns, whose stock characters and plots were shared by multiple generations of American males, Star Wars belonged primarily to the kids of that time.

The action figure was not only a peer-driven kids’ obsession, but it emerged from the quintessential ephemerality of a movie series. Though seen repeatedly by millions of children, the Star Wars mov­ies were set in a particular time—a media moment in the fast capi­talism of modern entertainment (that could be repeated in rere­leases in theaters and on TV as well as on VCR/DVD copies), not a socioeconomic era. This was even truer of a new spate of TV action cartoons that, like Star Wars, spun off action figures and play sets: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and the Transformers appeared in 1983, followed by the Dino Riders and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1988. It is toys like these, taken from the media moments of a generation ago, that draw the Gen-Xers to today’s toy shows. Tomorrow’s shows will be different. Fathers and sons may strive for shared obsessions … but the narrow duration of the media moment of each fad limits cross-generational sharing.

The girl’s story after 1960 differed in many ways. In 1959, Ruth Handler of Mattel introduced a doll in Barbie that has dominated girls’ play worlds over the past half-century far more thoroughly than did G.I. Joe. Handler found that when she abandoned moth­ers’ memories of their own dolls and images of the ideal child, she could appeal directly to the modern girl’s fantasy of freedom and fun. Barbie liberated the girl’s play from maternal standards and introduced her to the wider world of peer consumerism.16 Bar­bie continually changed her wardrobe, furnishings, vehicles, and “friends,” resulting in a rich array of novelty for successive gen­erations of girls. All this created an endless demand for Mattel’s Barbie products, taking the doll line (as tentatively practiced in the Patsy dolls of the 1920s) to new heights of fast-capitalism sophisti­cation. Even when she faced competition from Jem/Jerrica, Bratz, and the American Girl collection, these doll lines too (eventually) imitated the Barbie model.


Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Book Giveaway! “Consumed Nostalgia,” by Gary Cross

This week our featured book is Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism by Gary Cross.

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 Consumed Nostalgia 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 11 at 1:00 pm.

“A provocative, interesting, and well-written work that will make an important contribution to studies of memory and modern culture and will illuminate Americans’ evolving relationships with their past.” — Susan Matt, Weber State University, author of Homesickness: An American History

For more on the book you can read the introduction Our Nostalgic Novelty Culture: