Fall 2006, Vol. 15, No. 1 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

What We Are Reading

What books are our colleagues across the campus reading? Letters asks our colleagues to share their insights regarding one or two books that they have recently read or revisited.

Richard Blackett, Andrew Jackson Professor of American History: Mary Frances Berry’s My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations (Knopf, 2005) is the life story of Callie House, a former Tennessee slave, who in the years after emancipation was the force behind a movement of ex-slaves which demanded that the government provide a pension for those who had labored without compensation as slaves. This movement represented the first call for reparation from those who had suffered through slavery. The call for reparation has grown more organized recently in the wake of government action to compensate those who had suffered through internment during World War II. Those currently opposed to the idea argue that no one should be compensated 150 years after the event. Yet the story of Callie House’s effort shows clearly that, in her time, opponents found ways to deny pensions for those who were the immediate sufferers—ways that, to the modern reader, sound eerily familiar.

Lynn Enterline, Professor of English: Lisa Freinkel, Reading Shakespeare’s Will: The Theology of Figure from Augustine to the Sonnets (Columbia UP, 2001). Freinkel’s book situates the rhetorical tropes and formal strategies of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the history of religious thought and early modern religious conflict. It traces the changes in Christian typology from Augustine to Petrarch and then to Luther as a way into a reading of the figural complexities of Shakespeare’s “will”—a proper name that on her account works quite improperly throughout the sonnets.

Harry Berger, Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt Against the Italian Renaissance (Stanford UP, 2000), investigates the complex dynamics of early modern Italian and Dutch portraiture before moving to very close readings of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. A literary critic, Berger here shifts his attention to visual rather than verbal images, proposing along the way a theory about address: he interrogates the sitter’s part rather than the painter’s, asking pointed interpretive and political questions about the sitter’s act of self-presentation. The first part of the book situates the conventions that govern the practices of commissioned portraits; the second reveals the polemical force behind Rembrandt’s own “fictions of the pose.”

Leonard Folgarait, Professor of Art History: Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, by Retort (name of collective authorship: Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Mathews, Michael Watts), (Verso, 2005). A driven and stinging analysis of contemporary global politics as determined by the powers in Washington, these motivated by a “military neo-liberalism” all the more frightening because fueled by “blood for oil” and “permanent war.” The book provokes such long and almost ungrammatical responses because the content truly left me breathless and reaching for a new vocabulary and syntax of appropriate response. The politics of fear has only empowered these writers to speak against power.

Janet Zandy, Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work, (Rutgers UP, 2004). This book is full of wonderfully pressing questions that no one else seems to be asking, such as: why do we subject workers to “acceptable risks” in their work place that are not “acceptable” to other classes, and what makes a work of literature or a piece of visual art “working class” and who profits from such social constructions? A scholar of literature and language turns in a tour de force of cultural and social analysis and proves that literature is social and language is political in ways that ultimately exploit those who do not process these terms in abstract ways, but rather in forms of endangerment and injury to their very bodies.

Meike Werner, Associate Professor of German: Peter de Mendelssohn, S. Fischer und sein Verlag (S. Fischer, 1970). Men-delssohn’s sprawling, nearly 1,500 page biography of the publisher Samuel Fischer and his publishing house is an arresting work—a wonderful, learned, narrative history that tells us about the most famous German publisher of what we now think of as classically modern literature. Through Mendelssohn’s narrative, we come to see the many publishing decisions that helped bring Gerhart Hauptmann, Thomas Mann, Arthur Schnitzler, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal to the center of modern literature. We see, not the least through the many letters Mendelssohn cites, how a literary milieu came to form; and when all this is taken together, we see the shaping of classical modernism in Germany and in Europe. Even in American exile, as the many letters of authors to their publishers suggest, this was a literary world whose center of gravity remained, with no small measure of tragedy, Europe. Mendelssohn’s book is based on an archive of letters and documents that he was the first to examine; but it is not only in this sense that his work is irreplaceable.

Letters Archive Index

For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.

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