Friday, February 13, 2015

Review of Shulze, The Degenerate Muse

[This review appeared in the January 2015 issue of Environmental History.]

The Degenerate Muse: American Nature, Modernist Poetry, and the Problem of Cultural Hygiene. By Robin G. Schulze. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 309 pp. Illustration, notes, bibliography, and index. Cloth $65.00.

Published in 1895, Max Simon Nordaus Degeneration argued that over-civilization, progress, and wealth were destroying Western culture. He found examples of such decadence in the work of western artists, correlating what he perceived to be a decay of their vigor with mental illness. In the early years of the twentieth century, fears of such dangers inherent in industrialization triggered a back-to-nature movement in the United States that many historians have attributed to a rejection of the artificial, modern world of smoke-belching factories, undesirable immigrants, and stultifying cities that left their inhabitants feeling detached from any meaningful interaction with the real natural world. Through a careful analysis of the published and unpublished works and correspondence of modernist poets Harriet Monroe, Marianne Moore, and Ezra Pound, Robin Schulze argues an alternative interpretation of the back-to-nature movement in The Degenerate Muse. Her three main subjects were not romantic pastoralists who hoped to educate or inspire their readers with rousing literary vistas of natural wonders. Instead, as Schulze concludes, they argued for a hard-boiled back-to-nature aesthetic that embraced not rejected modernity by using the natural world as an antidote to degeneration. They appreciated the benefits that industrialization bestowed on society, but sought to mitigate its negative cultural and racial effects with an invigorating dose of nature. There was no need, in their eyes, to throw out the progressive, prosperous, modernist baby with the degenerative bathwater.

The trio may have shared a broad understanding of how nature could invigorate art and solve Nordaus dilemma, but Schulze skillfully delineates the considerable nuances and diversity among them. For example, each of the three arrived at the conclusion that nature could solve the predicament of degeneration from very different points. Monroes epiphany occurred as the result of trips to Europe in 1897 and Arizona in 1899. Following a path charted earlier by Thomas Jefferson, she concluded that the raw nature of America could save it from the advanced cultural decay evident in Europe. Pound, who made, it seems, almost no personal attempt to commune directly with the outdoors, understood the importance of nature after he witnessed degeneration occurring in London before his own eyes. He viewed the heart of the British Empire as an artificial place that turned its inhabitants into mindless automatons. Moore was influenced by Charles Darwin and how evolution drew humans into the animal kingdom. This newfound brotherhood with other species inspired her appreciation of the natural world. Pound focused more on racial decline and hygiene, the ugly underside of theory of degeneration, than the other two poets, a perspective that led him to praise Italian dictator Benito Mussolinis policies in the 1930s. Moore, on the other hand, appreciated the importance of diversity and individuality, which put corporate concepts like race beyond her ken. It is interesting to note that they did not always see each other as allies in a common cause. For example, Monroe, the editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, never believed that she and Moore occupied any common ground, an assumption that Pound attempted unsuccessfully to disabuse her of.  Whatever their differences, their effort, Schulze concludes in the final sentence of The Degenerate Muse, made nature modern. (p. 239)

By expanding the scope of the back-to-nature movement beyond the physical and educational experiences found in bird days, camping, hunting, and primitive crafts, and into artistic intellectual expression, Schulze has demonstrated how profoundly deep the concerns about the growing gap between urban life and nature were in the first two decades of the twentieth century.  The Degenerate Muse is well argued and the main points are clear and convincing. In keeping with an academic work published by a scholarly press, it contains lengthy end notes, complete with historiographical comments and dialogues on the works of others. However, a few illustrations would have been a nice addition. Cultural, intellectual, and environmental historians with a strong interest in the literature and poetry of period will find this book useful. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Mira Lloyd Dock and the Progressive Era Conservation Movement

This review of mine was published in the July issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography:

Mira Lloyd Dock and the Progressive Era Conservation Movement.  By Susan Rimby. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012. 224 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $64.95.)

The women of the conservation movement are beginning to earn their due attention from biographers and historians. To the work of Jack Davis, Dyana Furmansky, Tina Gianquitto, Nancy Unger, and others, we can add Susan Rimbys admirable biography of Pennsylvanian Mira Lloyd Dock.
            Rimby argues that Dock played a pivotal role in the Progressive Era conservation movement by serving as a bridge between the male professional conservationists and the largely female urban reformers who implemented many of the experts policies on a local level throughout Pennsylvania. As a university trained botanist, Dock enjoyed gravitas with the professionals. She carried on an extensive correspondence with many of the leading conservation figures of her day, and was particularly close to fellow Pennsylvanian Gifford Pinchot. Her appointment to the Pennsylvania Forest Commission in 1901 affirmed her standing. Dock was not mere window dressing. She conducted intensive outreach to amateur groups, and made significant contributions to the success of the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy. As a circuit lecturer and influential force in the General Federation of Womens Clubs, Dock translated the concepts of the professional conservationists into the concrete reform objectives implemented throughout Pennsylvania in the early decades of the twentieth century. Her work in her home city of Harrisburg served as an inspiration in both the Keystone State and the nation.
            Despite impressive credentials, gender defined Docks life and career, a consideration that Rimby gives ample attention. The early death of her mother thrust Dock, the eldest child, into the maternal role for her siblings, a position she did not relinquish to pursue her own interests until she was forty-two years old. She possessed a hardboiled utilitarian view of natural resource management and was on constant guard against being perceived of as sentimental, a somewhat derogatory code word at the time that implied overly emotional feminine sensibilities. Dock did not always resist gender stereotypes, however, and Rimby argues that although her subject was a suffragist, she was not exactly what we would describe today as a feminist. For example, Dock subscribed to gender defined professional roles, and believed that only men could be foresters. While she broke a glass ceiling in obtaining appointment to the Pennsylvania Forest Commission (perhaps the first woman in the world to hold such a position), she was deprived a seat on many other boards and commissions, including the Harrisburg Park Commission, simply because she was a woman.

            This is a solid work of primary research based on Docks papers in the Library of Congress, various collections from the rich holdings of historical societies scattered throughout Pennsylvania, and other manuscript collections. It is firmly grounded in the current historiography of both the Progressive Era conservation movement and women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Any historian studying these areas would improve their understanding the era by reading Susan Rimbys Mira Lloyd Dock and the Progressive Era Conservation Movement

Monday, January 12, 2015

Chuck Todd and President Barack Obama

Chuck Todd, host of Meet the Press, was recently interviewed on C-SPAN's After Words about his new book The Stranger, an attempt at what he calls a "second draft" history of the Obama presidency. I will probably not read this book, which is a reflection of my available reading time, not on the quality of Todd's book. Todd made two statements in the interview that I think require an historian's response.

He and the host (Dan Balz of the Washington Post, I believe) discussed the president's record getting legislation through the Democratic Party controlled Congress. The Affordable Care Act took up a lot of time. In hindsight, they wonder, would it have been better to have sent more legislation to Congress? They referred to this as "overloading the system." Then Todd remarked that the lessons of the most recent presidents might be that future chief executives should be more ambitious in sending bills to the legislature. Their power and influence, after all, is most effective in the first two years of their term. Interesting point, but I would also call attention to the lesson Ronald Reagan's chief of staff James Baker drew from Jimmy Carter's experience doing just that. Carter choked a Congress controlled by his own party. Baker, instead, focused Reagan's legislative agenda on three things, economic recovery, economic recovery, and economic recovery, i.e.the tax cut. It seems to me that instead of drawing s single overriding principle on this, it is more instructive to look at each individual case, the times, the issues, and the like. Moreover, we cannot ignore the Congress in this equation.

On Afghanistan, the host asked Todd what he thought about the president's surge in Afghanistan. Todd's answer seems sound. The president is not anti-war, but Obama also believed he was elected to wind down military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military commanders pressed him hard to increase troops in Afghanistan. He gave them some of what he wanted. In his analysis, Todd suggests that the president knew on one hand that every military commander ever has always wanted more troops (Abe Lincoln can tell him tales of woe on this subject), but, on the other, there were not a lot of alternatives. I would only add that I think Obama was trapped by his own campaign talk of the good war and bad war. If he gives up on the war he himself called good, what does that say about his national security policy. Personally, I think he used these terms to show he was not philosophically opposed to war as an instrument of foreign policy, but still felt the United States needed to be wise in using such force, and this was a clever way of doing that.  Facing a declining situation in Afghanistan, he had no choice to save the good war and add more troops. I would only add, as an historical reference, that Kennedy had a similar problem in Vietnam. Throughout the 1960 campaign Kennedy was critical to the Eisenhower Administration's one-size-fits-all strategy of Massive Retaliation. As an alternative policy, Kennedy promoted General Maxwell Taylor's Flexible Response. The name says it all, and it called for different responses to fit different situations. When tested, he could not just walk away and say the situation is lost. He had to do something, especially after the Bays of Pigs fiasco and the Vienna Summit had him backpedalling on foreign policy. Dangerous things happen when presidents are considered weak by the rest of the world. This is not to say that had Kennedy lived he would have done exactly what Lyndon Johnson did do in Vietnam. I think that the most likely outcome is that Kennedy would have escalated in Vietnam in some ways, but would likely have fought a different kind of war. Perhaps, he would have placed less reliance on troops and more on air power.  Either way, what a candidate says during a campaign will be used as measuring stick during their term in office.  I think President Obama knew this.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Suggestion for young scholars and bibliophiles

Don't overlook the used book sections of thrift stores. Seriously! In the past year I have found some great books in good condition. And they were really cheap.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Thought on FDR's Polio

Still plugging away at Ken Burns's The Roosevelts.  Doris Kearns Goodwin pushed the idea
that polio made FDR more sympathetic to the troubles and concerns of other people, and hence more liberal. By extension, this line suggests that FDR's polio made the New Deal. She is not the first person to suggest this, of course, but I have always been a little suspicious of this assertion. Obviously, such a monumental event in an individual's life will affect their outlook. There is no doubt that FDR was a changed man, and that he shed some of the haughty arrogance that many detected in the younger FDR. It was humbling for athletic FDR to rely on others to help him in the toilet, to get dressed, and to move. He dragged himself across his bedroom floor. Yet, parts of his outlook did not change. He remained ebullient and optimistic, and hid his fears and negative feelings very deep.

On a political level, polio might have made him feel greater genuine empathy and sympathy for the problems of common people. However, he was very much a progressive before polio deprived him the use of his legs. As a politician, he craved popularity and the New Deal was nothing if not very popular with voters, as is clearly evident in his four elections. If anything moved FDR left it was public opinion and the desire to win votes. Social Security is a great case in point. FDR wanted to draw the support Dr. Townsend was building around his proposal. The Social Security Act that FDR signed was different in many ways from what we now know as Social Security. It covered far fewer people and was setup as a self funding program (demonstrating a fiscal conservatives that lurked in FDR). It is hard for me to see how the New Deal would have been very different, or that FDR would have not adopted old age insurance, if had not been afflicted by polio.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Gilded Age Tariff Snafu

Here is an interesting story of  Gilded Age tariff comma snafu that cost the United States government $2 million, the equivalent to $38 million today. I wonder what that could have paid for?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Benedict XV: Pope during World War I

On September 3, 1914, Cardinal Giacomo Della Chiesa, the Arch-Bishop of Bologna was elected to The Unknown Pope: Benedict XV and the Pursuit of Peace, John F. Pollard paints a favorable portrait of the pontiff during the Great War. Pollard argues that although Della Chiesa was relatively unknown, even to his fellow Cardinals, he was far from a dark horse candidate. His election was seen as a compromise between the ultra conservatives represented by Pope Pius X and the more liberal faction of Pope Leo XIII. Just five days after his election, Benedict XV issued his first call for peace.
the seat of St. Peter and took the name Pope Benedict XV.  In

The war had noticeable effects on the Vatican. Travel restrictions, especially after Italy entered the war, essentially stopped transnational pilgrimages. The war also disrupted the flow of tithes from the parishes to Rome, causing financial hardships. Benedict professed neutrality, but the diplomatic situation for the Holy See was complicated to say the least. Traditionally, the Church had a close relationship with the Austrian monarch, who had until 1904 a veto over papal elections. Relations with Italy had been antagonistic since unification in 1870, and the Italian government intercepted and inspected all incoming and outgoing mail. Relations with England, France, and Russia were also poor for a variety of reasons. Benedict's efforts at mediation in 1917 also alienated England and France because they were interpreted as being too favorable to Germany (who incidentally was angry at the Pope for his condemnations of atrocities in Belgium). Pollard believes that Benedict XV acted in good faith, but that his position was somewhat compromised by an effort to prop up the doomed Austrian monarchy. Papal denunciations of atrocities against civilians, use of weapons of mass destruction, and the expansion of the war sadly fell on deaf ears. The most tangible impact Benedict XV had on the war, was in the treatment of prisoners of war, a cause the Pope took to heart. The Church arranged for chaplains, mail delivery, care packages, food, medical care, and an information clearinghouse for prisoners and their families.

In a 1920 encyclical, Pacem Dei Munus, the Pope displayed his displeasure with a peace settlement that he felt sorely lacking in Christian principles. Reparations, nationalism, and vulnerable successor states were among his criticisms of the Treaty of Versailles. He remained sensitive to human suffering and spent funds from the depleted Vatican treasury on famine relief in Russia in 1921. Conscious of the poor relations with the western allies, he made some efforts to improve relations with the English and French governments.

Although not a towering figure in Church history, Pope Benedict XV had some noticeable impacts, including taking the first steps towards the publication of the Catechism (although it would not be published until 1993!), reaching out to non-Catholic Christians, codifying canon law, and establishing native missionaries in Africa and Asia. A pious and generous man who could be irascible at times, Benedict XV died unexpectedly in 1922 at the age of 67.