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Archive for the 'American History' Category

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.

(more…)

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.”

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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:

Friday, August 14th, 2015

Evangelicals and Doomsday: Death By Christian Rock?

Gray Sabbath

“The power of rapture theology (the belief that Jesus will secretly return and sweep born again Christians into Heaven) remains strong for many [evangelicals]. And it often influences political decision or indecision.” — Shawn David Young

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. In this, the final post of the week’s feature,

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Gray Sabbath!

Evangelicals and Doomsday: Death By Christian Rock?
By Shawn David Young

Doomsday is always upon us, or so we are told. Belief in the apocalypse informs the way many view time, and it often works against active politics. But this belief has grown diverse, complex. Left-leaning evangelicals such as Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, and Shane Claiborne continue to challenge evangelical policies. For Wallis, “Many American Christians are simply more loyal to a version of American nationalism than they are to the body of Christ.” With sarcasm, McLaren also notes the disconnect: “If the world is about to end…why care for the environment? Why worry about global climate change or peak oil? Who gives a rip for endangered species or sustainable economies or global poverty if God is planning to incinerate the whole planet soon anyway?” His questions tap the core of a belief that continues to affect social activism. “If God has predetermined that the world will get worse until it ends in a cosmic megaconflict between the forces of Light (epitomized most often in the United States) and the forces of Darkness (previously centered in communism, but now, that devil having been vanquished, in Islam), why waste energy on peacemaking, diplomacy, and interreligious dialogue?”

Positions held by McLaren, Wallis, and others on the left indicate a growing trend among evangelicals. Still, conservative Christianity remains a powerhouse. But even when Jesus People USA fully embraced conservative theology, their social activism was unfettered, in spite of evangelicalism’s near-fanatical dedication to the writings of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. The power of rapture theology (the belief that Jesus will secretly return and sweep born again Christians into Heaven) remains strong for many. And it often influences political decision or indecision. (more…)

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Placing Jesus People USA Within Evangelism

Gray Sabbath

“Unimpressed by the evangelical marketing machine, JPUSA views isolationism as dangerous to both the individual and the larger church culture. Simply put, its members are best understood as practical contemplatives.” — Shawn David Young

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. To start off the feature, we have excerpted part of Young’s Introduction, in which he explains the development of the Jesus People community, the evolution of the cultural stances of evangelicals, and the political importance of evangelical Christian groups.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Gray Sabbath!

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Religious Certainty and Decision 2016

Gray Sabbath

“For the life of me I cannot understand how religious certainty continues to translate into political certainty. Yes, the faithful (if true to their belief) will certainly channel their ideas in a way that informs public policy. But when people of faith hold myriad interpretations of matters cosmic, how can they effectively engage matters that have global implications?” — Shawn David Young

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. In today’s post, Young looks at the history and the future of the complicated relationship between evangelical Christianity and American politics, paying particular attention to the way that evangelicals will affect the upcoming election cycle.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Gray Sabbath!

Religious Certainty and Decision 2016
By Shawn David Young

An aging hotel looms over a street packed with cars, pedestrians, and sidewalks. A man stands near, asking for spare change. Others hustle by, talking to themselves. Sirens. Car horns. Music blaring from cars. Jaywalkers weaving in and out of cars on the street, eager to make way to the other side. Sporting a blue awning with white lettering, Jesus People USA’s building (quaintly named “Friendly Towers”) conveys a welcoming message, complete with psychedelic images in the windows. The front door opens to a hallway covered by an ornate ceiling—a relic of what was once a hotel—ending at a locked door; people are buzzed in by those holding post at the front desk. Regardless of the time of day, one can expect a mix of old hippies, young punk rockers, “goths,” and senior citizens. While an outsider might write the scene off as chaotic, it is readily apparent that all are members of a tight-knit community dedicated to shouldering the burdens of its members, many of whom display a certain sanguinity one might expect from utopian hopefuls. This community is about Jesus. But it’s also about discovery. (more…)

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

On Jesus People USA and the Evangelical Left

Gray Sabbath

“The reason evangelicals have increasingly reconsidered their popular conceptions about faith, politics, and music can be traced to the so-called culture war, as represented in our common political and theological binary.” — Shawn David Young

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. To start off the feature, we have excerpted part of Young’s Introduction, in which he explains the development of the Jesus People community, the evolution of the cultural stances of evangelicals, and the political importance of evangelical Christian groups.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Gray Sabbath!

Monday, August 10th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock

Gray Sabbath

“A compelling story of the evolution of both an intentional Christian commune and of a generation of Christians who have become increasingly disenchanted with the religious right’s subservience to the Republican Party. As such, Gray Sabbath presents a possible model of what the theological and political future of evangelicalism could become.” — Jay Howard, Butler University

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. 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 Gray Sabbath. 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, August 14th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Video: Edward T. O’Donnell on Henry George

The following video is from Edward T. O’Donnell’s talk at the Brooklyn Historical Society on his new book Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

The New York Times on New York Books from Columbia University Press

Race and Real Estate

The New York Times Sunday edition includes a regular feature by Sam Roberts on books about New York City. We’ve been fortunate to have three of our own titles reviewed, each of which explores a distinct period in New York City’s nineteenth and early-twentieth-century history.

This past Sunday, Roberts wrote about Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, by Michael Rosentahal and now available in paperback:

In 43 years as president, Dr. Butler transformed Columbia into a first-class research university, downgrading undergraduate liberal arts programs in the process. Yet he considered himself primarily a “publicist,” whose every thought was not only spoken but also disseminated, including his compelling early opposition to Prohibition as an unenforceable government intrusion on private behavior. Few people, one observer wrote, “can leap to the front pages with the agility Dr. Butler has exhibited for so long.”

Like Butler, Henry George played an important role in the world of ideas with his surprising bestselling work of economics Progress and Poverty. George, who also became an important labor organizer and a candidate for mayor of New York City, is the subject of Edward T. O’Donnell’s new book, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age. In drawing some contemporary parallels, Roberts writes:

In 1886, 127 years before Bill de Blasio successfully invoked his “tale of two cities” metaphor to address income inequality, Henry George almost won the mayoralty of New York by juxtaposing the economic gains of the Gilded Age with the growth of poverty.

Strikes by streetcar workers and a bribery scandal over securing franchises (akin to the railroads’ land grab in the West) galvanized workers during the era rekindled in Edward T. O’Donnell’s timely and accessible Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality.

(more…)

Friday, June 19th, 2015

American Radicalism, Progressivism, and the Legacy of Henry George

Henry George

We conclude our week-long focus on Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age, by Edward T. O’Donnell, with O’Donnell’s examination discussion of George’s legacy. In particular, O’Donnell focuses on the profound impact George had on progressive thought, labor activism, and American political culture.

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Henry George Runs for Mayor of New York City

Henry George, New York City Mayor

127 years before Bill de Blasio’s run for mayor of New York City as a progressive candidate, Henry George was the choice of the United Labor Party to fight for the working class and defeat the corruption in New York City (see cartoon above). George ended up losing but his winning of more than 30% of the vote beat out Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican candidate and shocked the city and its power brokers. George’s campaign focused on the effort to revitalize citizenship and re-empower the working class. In the following passage, from Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality
Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age
, Edward T. O’Donnell describes George’s agenda which called for radical political, economic, and social change.

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

Was Henry George the 19th-Century Thomas Piketty?

Henry George   Thomas Piketty

The success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First invited comparisons to Henry George and his own surprise, runaway bestseller Progress and Poverty, which was published in 1879 and sold more than 3 million copies. Aside from their shared status of becoming unlikely bestselling authors, Piketty and George’s work focuses, in part, on the relationship between capitalism and inequality. Moreover, both are advocates of the market but worry that a concentration of wealth corrupts it and is a threat to democracy. George’s life and writings are, of course, the subject of Edward T. O’Donnell’s new intellectual biography, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age.

In an essay on the two Charles Lane, writing in The Washington Post, comments:

To Piketty, like George an admirer of market efficiency and opponent of protectionism, the resulting accumulation of wealth in relatively few hands threatens economic fairness, economic dynamism — and democracy. “Extreme inequality makes it impossible to have proper working of democratic institutions,” Piketty told a recent meeting at Washington’s Urban Institute.

And so, updating Henry George’s single tax, Piketty proposes a global wealth tax, making similar claims about its benefits for both equality and growth.

For Piketty and George, the bottom line, both moral and economic, is to socialize “rent” — rent, that is, not in the colloquial sense but in the economic sense of income disconnected from productivity.

It’s an attractive vision: an egalitarian, productive society, purged of parasitical rent-seeking through the expedient of well-aimed taxes.

(more…)

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

Why Henry George Matters in This Second Gilded Age — Edward T. O’Donnell

Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality

The following post is by Edward T. O’Donnell, author of Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age:

What value does the story of Henry George, a self-taught economist from the late nineteenth century, hold for Americans living in the early 21st century? Quite a lot, if we stop to consider the ways in which contemporary American society has come to resemble America in the late-nineteenth century, a period popularly known as the Gilded Age. As in our times, that era was marked by a dramatic increase in income inequality. It also witnessed a sharp and disturbing rise in the numbers of Americans living in poverty, even as Wall Street boomed and overall productivity soared. The Gilded Age was also marked by a surge in the size and power—and political influence—of large corporations and banks. And the politics of late-nineteenth century American society were characterized by extreme partisanship and paralysis. Indeed, the parallels between then and now are so striking that many contemporary progressive reformers, activists, and commentators have taken to referring to the era in which we now live as the Second Gilded Age.

If we are indeed living in a Second Gilded Age, then we can gain important insights into potential solutions to our economic, social, and political problems by taking a close look at the first Gilded Age. In particular, it is instructive to examine the people who emerged in this period to demand reforms—many of which were enacted in the subsequent Progressive Era. Henry George was one of these figures and he gained an enormous following among a wide cross section of American society.

George was a little-known journalist living in California in the 1870s when, moved by the aforementioned troubling trends of the Gilded Age, he began to study economics and history with an eye toward writing a book. The result of this effort was a book published in 1879 titled Progress and Poverty. The book is still in print and available in many languages. As its title suggests, George focused on a vexing question: why amidst so much material and technological progress was poverty increasing? This was, George warned, “the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization, and which not to answer is to be destroyed.”

The book became a best seller and launched George as one of the era’s best-known and most influential reformers. The solution George proposed—a “single-tax” on land values—appealed to some of his followers. But far more were drawn to and inspired by the broad claims he made regarding American’s republican heritage and values. And here we see where George speaks to the concerns of our age.

(more…)

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Book of the Week: Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality

This week our featured book is Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age by Edward T. O’Donnell.

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 Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality 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, June 19th at 1:00 pm.

For more on the book you can read the introduction:

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: Colson Whitehead on Coney Island

A Coney Island Reader

With summer just around the corner, we thought we would devote this week’s fiction corner to one of the season’s icons: Coney Island. Specifically, here is Colson Whitehead’s very particular take on the neighborhood and the beach, which was included in the recently published A Coney Island Reader: Through Dizzy Gates of Illusion, edited by Louis J. Parascandola and John Parascandola.

Whitehead’s essay “Coney Island,” gives a stream-of-consciousness account of a typical day looking at both the good and the bad, and of course, screaming on the Cyclone. Whitehead writes:

A rollercoaster is your mind trying to reconcile two contradictory propositions. Earth and space, cement and air, city and sea. Life and death. Choose quickly. The city and the sea don’t get along, never have. Two trash-talking combatants, two old bitter foes.

Monday, April 20th, 2015

A Post for 4/20: Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter Discuss 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:

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Two Early Chicago Films Heading to Blu-Ray

The following post is by Michael Smith, co-author with Adam Selzer of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry

In the introduction to Flickering Empire, Adam Selzer and I quote film scholar Susan Doll who said that it is Chicago’s “best kept secret” that it served as the nation’s filmmaking capital prior to the rise of Hollywood. That the vast majority of the films made in Chicago prior to 1920 have been either lost, destroyed or are otherwise difficult to see partly accounts for Chicago’s neglected status in the official film histories. Fortunately, the two most important Chicago-made silent films discussed in our book have both been recently restored and will receive re-releases on home video in HD in the next year. These releases will hopefully go some way towards giving Chicago the credit it deserves for the important role it played in our nation’s film history. The two films in question are:

His New Job—The one and only film Charlie Chaplin made in Chicago is this delightful 20-minute comedy short, the first he made for Essanay Studios (before fulfilling the rest of his contract at the company’s California branch). The plot sees Chaplin’s familiar “Little Tramp” character showing up to audition for a part in a movie at “Lodestone Studios.” The interior stages at Essanay in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood essentially play themselves as Lodestone and the movie thus becomes a fascinating peak into the process of silent moviemaking, at times achieving a near-documentary quality. The Tramp gets a job first as Production Assistant, then as a carpenter and finally as an extra in what appears to be a prestigious “period” film set in 19th century Russia. Of course, he wreaks havoc on the set and the entire production soon devolves into a state of slapstick anarchy. His New Job will be released on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley in Summer 2015. In the meantime, you can watch an unrestored version of the film here:

Within Our Gates—The earliest surviving feature film directed by an African American is this incendiary drama by the legendary Oscar Micheaux. Evelyn Preer plays Sylvia Landry, a young black woman from Chicago who tries to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the north and south as well as the past and the present in order to generate a suspenseful climax — a lengthy flashback to the events that led to Sylvia’s adoptive parents being lynched by an angry mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where a villainous middle-aged white man attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. The clever intercutting of this climax intentionally unpacks the racist ideology of the climax of D.W. Griffith’s similarly constructed The Birth of a Nation. Within Our Gates will be released on Blu-ray by Kino/Lorber in February 2016. In the meantime, you can watch an unrestored version of the film here: