Book Review: The Monied Metropolis by Sven Beckert


Author: Sven Beckert
Title: The Monied Metropolis : New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896
Publication Info: Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY : Cambridge University Press, 2001
Summary/Review:

I read this book as a group project at my job since the people covered in this book are the types who are represented in many of our archive’s older manuscript collections.  The author uses the word “bourgeoisie” and is very repetitive in general.  I also think Beckert could’ve been better at showing rather than telling about the social changes in 19th century New York City.  Nevertheless, it does offer some interesting insight into “the story of the consolidation of a self-concision upper class in New York City in the second half of the nineteenth century.” (Beckert, 2).

The main theme of the book is the conflict between the established merchant class and the nouveau-riche industrialists.  The conflict also manifests itself in those who are sympathetic to slaveholders in the South because it provides them financial gain (generally the merchants) and those who are anti-slavery, mainly because it threatens to compete with their own sources of labor, but also for moral and religious reasons (typically the industrialists).  Even during the Civil War there were elites who favored ending the war swiftly and going easy on the slaveowners.

New York City grows massively in population during this time as well as in wealth.  And the new bourgeoisie find ways to consolidate that wealth into a handful of families that intermarry akin to medieval aristocrats.  The elite unite to quash labor movements and increasingly use their strength to squash political organizing of the poor out of fear that the working class will be radicalized.  The elite even take on the roles of government, such as building castle-like armories and training as National Guard units to prevent proletarian uprising.

It’s hard not to read this book and not come away with the impression that the 19th-century New York City elite were pretty awful people.  Even in a charitable act such the Christmas Feeding at Madison Square Garden, the rich would gather in the stands to watch as lines of poor people processed through to receive gifts of food, adding an extra layer of humiliation to their plight.  In addition to acting against labor, the NYC elite also consolidated around antisemitism, anti-Black prejudice, and anti-immigrant sentiment.  By the end of the century they were using terms such as “businessman,” “capitalist,” and “taxpayer.” Their legacy has many echoes in the present day.

Favorite Passages:

“Mystifying the laws of the market into laws of nature allowed upper class New Yorkers to account for their own exalted position.” – 281

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 20


My favorite podcasts are increasingly becoming so focused on current events that I wonder if they’ll still be relevant on Saturday, but I’m pretty sure that all of these podcasts are still “fresh.”

All Songs Considered :: New Music Friday: Run The Jewels

A deep dive into the terrific new album, RTJF, and album that speaks to a current moment of reckoning with racial discrimination and policing.

Fresh Air :: Poet Eve Ewing Connects 1919 Chicago Riots To Today

Eve Ewing found poetry in the report analyzing Chicago’s “Red Summer” and uses it to draw parallels to systemic racism that persists 100 years later.

Have You Heard :: Arrested Development: How Police Ended Up in Schools

One of the worst aspects of overpolicing in the USA is the use of police to address school discipline issues and the perpetuation of a school-to-prison pipeline. The podcast traces the history of police in schools back to the 1960s and includes some commentary from some brilliant Boston Public School students

Here & Now :: #SayHerName Campaign; The State Of The Coronavirus Pandemic

The #SayHerName Campaign brings awareness to Black women who have suffered from police killings and police brutality, who are overlooked even as the world is focused on Black Lives Matters issues.

Planet Money :: Police Unions And Police Violence

Police unions are not like other unions, as police already have powers that other workers do not, and the existence of police unions helps perpetuate police killings and police violence.

Radiolab :: Nina

The music of Nina Simone and why it resonates with our times.

What Next :: A Politician’s Brush with NYPD Abuse

New York state senator Zellnor Myrie offers his first-hand experience with police violence during protests in Brooklyn, and how it’s translating into dramatic legislative action.


Book Review: K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches by


Author: Tyler Kepner
Title: K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches
Publication Info: New York : Doubleday, [2019]
Summary/Review:

Tyler Kepner explores ten different pitches in baseball, describing how they’re thrown, how they move, and the history of how they originated and developed.  The ten pitches include standard pitches like the fastball, curveball, and slider.

But Kepner also explores pitches that only an elite cadre of pitchers can master (the knuckleball) and a pitch that only one pitcher can really handle (Mariano Rivera and the cutter).  He also explores pitches that had peaks of popularity in the past but are all but absent in the present-day game (the screwball and the splitter).  Kepner even devotes a chapter to spitballs, scuffballs, and other modifications to the ball that affect pitches and the gamesmenship of pitchers known to use them.

The book is written in an oral history style, relying on Kepner’s interviews with current and retired pitchers and coaches as well as quotes from earlier works that covered now deceased pitchers.  The book is a creative way to look at the history of baseball from the perspective of one of its most important facets.

Favorite Passages:

Every pitch is a decision. That is the beauty and the burden of the pitcher. Think there’s downtime in baseball? Tell it to the man on the mound, all alone on that dirt bull’s-eye. The catcher thinks along with him, back behind the plate, but the pitcher rules the game. Nothing happens until he answers these questions: Which pitch should I throw, where should I throw it, and why? It is an awesome responsibility.


I’ve found that most people in baseball tend to be…pretty nice. And of all the subsets of folks in the game, knuckleball pitchers might be the nicest. They are also part of the smallest group, which helps explain it. Almost all knuckleballers were rejected by the game before they could last very long. They earned their living by grabbing the wing of a butterfly and then, somehow, steering it close enough to the strike zone, again and again, to baffle the best hitters in the world.


In the 1930s, the prime of the great Giant lefty Carl Hubbell, “screwball” came to describe a specific genre of Hollywood comedies: battle of the sexes, often with a woman’s madcap antics upending a stuffy man’s world. In his book about Depression-era films, Andrew Bergman wrote that “screwball comedy,” like Hubbell’s famous pitch, was “unconventional, went in different directions and behaved in unexpected ways.”


“Have I ever told you about my agreement with the ball?” Quisenberry asked Angell, who said no. “Well, our deal is that I’m not going to throw you very hard as long as you promise to move around when you get near the plate, because I want you back. So if you do your part, we’ll get to play some more.”


After two chaotic decades or so, the spitball was banned for 1920, the same year the country went dry under Prohibition. The rule simply turned the mound into a speakeasy, with many pitchers going undercover to get the same slippery edge as their predecessors.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending May 30


Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Anthropocene Reviewed :: You’ll Never Walk Alone and Jerzy Dudek

John Green analyzes a show tune that has become a beloved soccer anthem, and the performance of a Polish goalkeeper in 2005.

Code Switch :: A Decade Of Watching Black People Die

The murders, the videos, the outrage, the hashtags – the pattern of Black people murdered by cops and vigilantes is unsettlingly familiar.  When will it move beyond a grim voyeurism towards actual justice?

The Last Archive :: The Invisible Lady

The story of a sideshow attraction in 1804 New York expands into a wider analysis of the invisibility of women in public life.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Makin’ Whoopee

The history of novelty toys, specifically the Whoopee Cushion, and why we find the sounds of farts funny.


Movie Review: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot (1957)


Title: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot
Release Date: March 30, 1957
Director: George Seaton
Production Company: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation | Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

For 63 years, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg have been introduced to the Historic Area with this docudrama account of the years leading up to the Revolutionary War in Virginia.  I first saw in 1985 at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center and later on hotel tv loops, and now I got to revisit it on a Zoom presentation from the Williamsburg Regional Library (which included a slide presentation on the making of the film and its restoration).  This movie is short, and a bit corny, but I maintain a stupid love for it that I cannot explain.

A young Jack Lord stars as John Fry, a wealthy plantation owner who serves in the Virginia legislature in the 1760s and 1770s.  He interacts with famous historical figures like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington as well as less famous historical figures like William Byrd III, John Randolph, and George Wythe.  The movie expertly depicts the series of incidents that precipitated the Revolution and the vote for Independence, and through Fry we see the gradual transition of someone from being a loyal British subject to supporting independence.  The movie also offers an introduction to the many sites in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, especially when Fry gives a tour of the city to his family.

The movie does fail from a social history perspective, as views of historical events outside of Fry’s patriarchal, slave-owning planter class are kept to the margins.  Nevertheless, the movie packs in a lot of historical detail in 37 minutes.  And it does it with a score by Bernard Herrmann (of Vertigo, Psycho, and Taxi Driver fame) and in beautiful technicolor.  When I worked at Colonial Williamsburg in the 1990s, I frequently had people ask if I starred in this movie which demonstrates that the movie doesn’t look like it was made 16 years before I was born and that these people did not watch Hawaii 5-0.

Can You Spot the Difference?

Jack Lord
Me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All these years later, Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot remains “ever the best!”

Rating: *****

Book Review: Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira


Author: Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
Title: Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives
Publication Info: London : BBC, 2005.
Summary/Review:

Terry Jones of Monty Python fame is also a medieval scholar and this book is a companion to his BBC documentary history.  Each chapter focuses on a different type of person in medieval times from peasant to damsel to outlaw to king.  Jones’ challenges popular misconceptions of medieval history and turns them on their head with evidence of the period being one of great change with innovation and more opportunity for the lower sorts than typically imagined.  It’s a well-written guide to the medieval past with doses of humor and lots of historical evidence.

Favorite Passages:

Perhaps the most surprising example of that distinctiveness is that in England, uniquely in Europe, bold robber outlaws were necessary for the effective functioning of the kingdom.


England now had an extraordinary and unique legal structure, entirely invented by an ingenious and desperate monarchy. Its most remarkable feature was the amount of power, however messily administered, it placed in the hands of the local community. English law was quite unlike that on the Continent. There, law was run from above and was based on Church law (canon law) and Roman law. In England, it was totally dependent on a popular understanding of law, and the job of the courts was to enforce ‘common law’. The juries who laid accusations and tried cases were made up of people who supposedly knew what had happened. This meant they consisted very largely of people who were legally in various degrees of servitude. This would have a very striking effect on the development of the law. It meant that the ordinary Englishman, even though he was a villein or even a serf, was familiar with the law and the courts, not as a victim but as a participant in the legal process.


These were not maps. Mappa simply means ‘cloth’ and a mappa mundi is not a ‘map of the world’ but a ‘cloth of the world’. The fact that we have derived our word ‘map’ from these cloths is not the fault of the people of the Middle Ages. If there’s any blame to be apportioned it’s our fault for forgetting where the word comes from. And a cloth of the world had an entirely different purpose from an atlas (a seventeenth-century idea). A mappa mundi is a depiction of the world as a place of experiences, of human history, of notions and knowledge. It’s more like an encyclopaedia. It’s certainly not – and was never intended to be – a chart to be followed by travellers.


In the United States medical treatment is the third highest cause of death (iatrogenic death) after cancer and heart disease. So, despite our undoubted progress in understanding the chemistry and biological structure of the body, and great advances in the techniques of medical intervention, we are not exceeding the achievements of medieval doctors as much as we might expect. In their terms we are doing worse, because the objective of their care was not necessarily to save the body (which would, of course, be wonderful) but to help save the soul by allowing patients to know the hour of their death, and prepare for it. This was itself a genuine medical skill and, again, one that depended on seeing the patient as a human being.


The fact is, there is little reference to genuinely helpless high-born maidens in medieval literature. Perhaps this is not too surprising as the stories were often commissioned by noblewomen, to be read to their friends and family. We do not have enormous knowledge of their lives, but there is enough to show that the lady’s bedchamber was, in many cases, more like a salon, elegantly decorated, where she amused herself entertaining her women friends (generally her retainers, ‘damsels’ married to men of status in her husband’s service) and male visitors, and where they would ‘drink wine, play chess and listen to the harp’.*2 They would also read and be read to – silent reading was regarded as highly suspect, a sign of being antisocial or melancholy, suitable only for scholars.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer


Author: Ian Mortimer
Title: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century
Publication Info:  New York : Simon & Schuster, 2011. [Originally published, 2008]
Summary/Review:

The book is written tongue-in-cheek as a guidebook of what one would find should they travel through time to 14th-century England.  Mortimer is particularly concerned with debunking popular myths and stereotypes of medieval times.  Tidbits include a breakdown of fashion, with the caveat that clothing styles changed rapidly over the course of the century (with an emphasis on men’s clothing showing off the form of the body). Traveling about the country is a challenge since people didn’t use maps and relied on spoken instructions of what road to follow.  The diet of a peasant may have actually been healthier than that for the working people of our day.  And while the Bubonic Plague is the most fearsome disease of the century, the people were also tormented by many other diseases, including leprosy.  This book is a fun, popular introduction to understanding everyday life in medieval England.

Recommended books:

  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
  • Memoirs Of A Medieval Woman: The Life And Times Of Margery Kempe by Louise Collis
  • Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies
  • Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages by Frances Gies
  • Black Death by Philip Ziegler
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending May 9


What Next

How Extremists Capitalized on the Pandemic – White nationalists are strategically using this crisis to advance their hateful goals.

A Biden Accuser on the Latest Biden Allegation – Despite the Democratic Party’s claim to be pro-women, their presumptive nominee has a long history of sexual harassment allegations.  This is a big problem.

99% Invisible :: The Natural Experiment

Isolating during the pandemic sucks, but it’s provided scientists the conditions for scientific research not possible during normal levels of activity, such as: air pollution, boredom, vaccination, and redesigning cities for people not cars.

This Day in Esoteric Public History :: Coya Come Home

An historical event I’ve never heard of before involves Coya Knutson, the first woman elected to Congress from Minnesota (in 1955), and the letter allegedly written by her estranged husband telling her to come home.  Her election opponent used this scandal to win the next election.

Code Switch :: What Does ‘Hood Feminism’ Mean For A Pandemic?

Author Mikki Kendall talks about race, feminism and COVID-19 and the divide between mainstream, white feminism and the greater goals of women of color.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Book Review: The Walt Disney World That Never Was by Christopher E. Smith


Author: Christopher E. Smith
Title: The Walt Disney World That Never Was
Publication Info: Theme Park Press, 2016
Summary/Review:

Have you been to World Disney World?  Do you remember riding the classic Western River Expedition ride in the Magic Kingdom?  How about scaling Fire Mountain and Villains Mountain? What’s you’re favorite memories of visiting the Epcot World Showcase pavilions of Israel, Iran, Spain, and Equatorial Africa?  Do you remember immersing yourself into the movie parody land of Muppet Studios?  How about visiting the Beastly Kingdom, the part of Animal Kingdom themed around mythical creatures like unicorns and dragons?

Of course, none of these things exist.  Drawing on a wealth of historical resources, Christopher E. Smith details the plans for these and many other Walt Disney World experiences that never came to pass.  He tells the story of why these visions of Imagineers failed to come to fruition and how their influence has played out elsewhere in the parks.  It’s a fun history of possibility for Disney Parks fans.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Documentary Movie Review: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “D” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “D” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Dark DaysThe Day the Series StoppedThe Day the Series StoppedDecoding Desire, Dear Mr. WattersonDolphinsand Don’t You Forget About Me.

Title: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson 
Release Date: October 6, 2017
Director: David France
Production Company: Public Square Films
Summary/Review:

Marsha P. Johnson was a New York City entertainer and activist, who, among other things, participated in the Stonewall Uprising, was a member of the Gay Liberation Front, co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), modeled for Andy Warhol, and participated in ACT-UP.  Through her life she is identified as a drag queen, transvestite, or transgender person and even her family use female and male pronouns interchangeably.  Her charm and easygoing nature made her a beloved figure in New York’s LGBTQ community and earned her the nickname “Mayor of Christopher Street.”  Shortly after the Pride festival in 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River.

The police declared her death a suicide and quickly closed the case, but many in the LGBTQ did not believe Marsha was suicidal and suspected she was murdered. As the movie documents, transgender people are murdered at an inordinate rate, even to this day,  with the police failing to investigate the crimes and when someone is actually charged with the offense they receive light sentences. The main focus of this movie is activist Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project carrying out her own investigation of this cold case 25 years after Marsha’s death.

The story of Marsha P. Johnson is a story that parallels the Gay Liberation movement in New York.  Key figures who feature prominently in the movie are Randy Wicker and Sylvia Rivera. Wicker is a gay activist and writer who was Johnson’s housemate for many years. His opposition to a Pride street festival run by the Mafia has contribute to a theory that Martha was killed by the mob. Rivera co-founded STAR with Johnson in 1970 to provide support for homeless drag queens, gay youth, and trans women. She was outspoken against the gay rights movement being dominated by white, cisgender men who left out transgender people and people of color in order to assimilate with mainstream society.  In the documentary we learn she left New York City after speaking out at a 1973 rally, but returned after Marsha Johnson’s death.  In archival footage, Sylvia Rivera is interviewed while living in a homeless encampment on the Hudson River in the 1990s and suffering from alcoholism.  She is able to go cold turkey with the help of friends, and returns to activism, receiving global recognition for being in the vanguard of LGBTQ equality.

I like that I learned a lot about important activists like Cruz, Rivera, and Wicker and others in this movie. It is a bit disappointing that there isn’t as much about Marsha P. Johnson in the movie.  But then, I guess that reflects reality. Johnson was taken from this world at a young age and is not here to tell her story.  This is a movie that like many a good documentary will make you a little bit smarter, but also a little bit sadder.

Rating: ***1/2