I am supposed to be grading papers, but… first I want to honor Grace Lee Boggs and Vivian Stromberg

gracel-lee-boggs_robin_holland at age 100vivian_stromberg_1

I am supposed to be grading papers this evening, but I cannot leave this day without saying a word about two dignified rebels whose life stories, when I read them over my morning coffee, took my breath away. I discovered them in the New York Times: Grace Lee Boggs and Vivian Stromberg. Reading these obituaries was humbling and inspiring. I never had the chance to meet either woman. I wish I had.

As part of a vanguard social movement in Detroit focusing on African Americans and women in 1953, Grace Lee and her future husband (James Boggs, a black autoworker, radical, and writer), initially joined forces with the Black Power movement. Later they embraced nonviolent methods and became prominent fighters against urban blight. In 1992, Grace Boggs co-founded Detroit Summer, a youth program that still draws volunteers from all around the country to repair homes, paint murals, organize music festivals and turn vacant lots into gardens. In 2013, she opened the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a charter elementary school.

Born of Chinese immigrants, she grew up above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, RI. Her passion was radical politics which in later years she has seen as a moral struggle of we, the individuals.  As Grace Boggs said during a Bill Moyers interview in 2007, “I think that too much of our emphasis on struggle has simply been in terms of confrontation and not enough recognition of how much spiritual and moral force is involved in the people who are struggling,… We have not embraced sufficiently the cultural revolution that we have to make among ourselves.”

Grace Lee Boggs was 100 years old.

Vivian Stromberg was an elementary school music teacher in the South Bronx in the early 1980s, when she joined a group of women hoping to rally public opinion against American support for the contras, the rebels trying to overthrow the left-wing Sandanista government in Nicaragua.  This group became known as “Madre” in 1983, and Ms. Stromberg was one of the founding members and later executive director. Madre works with local women’s groups in the US, Central America, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Africa to alleviate suffering caused by war and natural disasters, and to promote human rights. Its first project was to send a ton of baby cereal and powdered milk to Nicaragua.

But activism was not new to her in the early 1980s. Politics must have been in the air while she was growing up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in the 1940s and 50s. While in college Vivian Stromberg joined the Freedom Riders, who traveled by bus across the South in mixed-race groups to challenge racial segregation. And she was also active in the Anti-Vietnam War movement.  Since its founding in 1983, Madre has directed about $34 million in humanitarian aid. One of her most adventurous exploits was organizing, with a Jordanian women’s group, a truck convoy to drive 10 tons of milk and medicine from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad, at the end of the first Persian Gulf War.

“When you know your rights, instead of begging for something, you start asking that it not be taken away,” Ms. Stromberg told O magazine in 2008. “Your whole body language changes; you stop crying.”

Vivian Stromberg was 74 years old.

Rest in peace, dear wonderful ladies of the 20th and 21st century. Thank you both, for the way that you threw yourselves into caring for people in our world.  I bet you had a blast!

Follow-up on “Collectionner” colloquium


Looking at the business cards I received during the Grenoble & Vizille colloquium this past week conjures up the diverse viewpoints we heard from there: they are cut of cardstock in three different colors, textures, and sizes, printed in Russian, French, and Japanese. They recall people I barely met and may never see again: two middle-aged men and a young woman–funny, shy, gregarious, and remote. Their works, like the 17 others presented during the 30 hours (!) of the colloquium  surprised and delighted the audience. We may have struggled to sit still for so long, but we nevertheless thrilled with the discovery of kindred spirits and felt honored to be included in such an erudite group in such beautiful settings.

It was a specialists’ meeting, in which four groups–historians, museum curators, archivists, and a few literary types like me–shared industry secrets, lists of promising materials, and histories of collections near and far. Although joined by a fascination with the French Revolution, there was a striking disparity of focus and engagement with the political principles at stake. Our views ranged from the militant’s impatience and desire for action to the conservator’s careful habit of protecting old things of the past.

I came away refreshed, with my optimism renewed. Learning to laugh at our mistakes, accept our differences, and welcome young researchers into the field: these are things I will remember. Many thanks, organizers, for bringing us together this September for an event that we will never forget.

Exciting discoveries await at the “Collectionner la Révolution française” colloquium this week!


I am very excited and honored to be participating in the colloquium on “Collectionner la Révolution française” here in southeastern France this week. Talks start on Wednesday 9/23 at the Université de Grenoble and continue on Thursday and Friday in the magnificent surroundings of the Musée de la Révolution française situated high up in a mountain village called Vizille. (Ironically, it is an aristocratic chateau surrounded by sumptuous gardens, formerly owned by one of the richest families of France. Odd site for a collection in honor of the rabble-rousers who overthrew the monarchy!)

The line-up of speakers is dazzling. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an international cast of speakers in all my years as an academic. Not only are some of the most distinguished French scholars and archivists coming here from all corners of this country, people are also coming from Italy, Russia, the UK, and Japan (as well as me, from the USA). Check out the program below, and stand by for highlights!

BTW: In revising my paper, I gave it a new title: “Y a-t-il de collection ‘innocente’? La politique identitaire des livres rares à l’Université de Notre Dame (Indiana, USA).” I’ve decided to share some reflections on what I learned by exploring the Rare Book holdings in French at ND last summer, and what it taught me about the university’s original involvement with the children of South Bend. Makes for an interesting contrast with more recent priorities.  Some of the other papers titles promise to unveil equally tantalizing secrets discovered through rare tomes held by the Tsar of Russia, among others. Who says reading old books can’t be fun!?

Colloque international
Collectionner la Révolution française
Mercredi 23 après-midi, jeudi 24 et vendredi 25 septembre 2015

Société des études robespierristes, IHRF- Université Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne, CRHIPA-Université Pierre Mendès France-Grenoble 2, Musée de la Révolution française-Domaine de Vizille

Mercredi 23 septembre (Domaine universitaire – Maison des sciences de l’Homme Alpes)

Session 1 / Qui sont les collectionneurs ? Entre notables et anonymes
Président de séance : Michel Biard / GRHis-Normandie Université
14h30 : Introduction : Michel Biard / GRHis-Normandie Université

14h45 : Alain Chevalier / Directeur du Musée de la Révolution française
Essai de répertoire raisonné des collections françaises d’objets révolutionnaires de 1789 à nos jours.

15h15 : Laurent Le Gall / Université de Brest
La Révolution en majesté : érudition locale et collection firent-elles bon ménage (1860-1914) ?

15h45 : Pause

16h : Raymond Huard / Université de Montpellier
Marcellin Pellet, républicain gardois et collectionneur.

16h30 : Serge Aberdam / Département de sciences sociales de l’INRIA
Collectionner les Billets de confiance révolutionnaires, approche anecdotique ou approche économique.

17h : Présentation du film La Révolution dans les cultures populaires édité à l’occasion de l’exposition temporaire Culture populaire et Révolution française XXème et XXIème siècles présentée au Musée de la Révolution française de juin 2013 à avril 2014.

17h30 : Échanges

20h : Dîner au centre-ville de Grenoble puis retour à l’hôtel Suisse Bordeaux 6 Place de la Gare, 38000 Grenoble

Jeudi 24 septembre (Musée de la Révolution française-Domaine de Vizille)

8h45 Gare routière de Grenoble : départ de la navette réservée pour le colloque en direction de Vizille
9h15 : Arrivée au Domaine de Vizille

Session 2 : Collections érudites, collections engagées
Président de séance : Alain Chevalier / Directeur du Musée de la Révolution française

9h30 : Tom Stammers / Université de Durham
Jean-Louis Soulavie : un collectionneur de l’histoire immédiate.

10h : Michela Lo Feudo / Université de Naples-Federico II
Champfleury collectionneur : cartographie d’une enquête entre Second Empire et Troisième République.

10h30 : Pause

10h45 : Jean-Marie Bruson / Musée Carnavalet
Le Comte Alfred de Liesville (1836-1885), collectionneur.

11h15 : Aurore Chéry / Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3
Collections, associations, expositions : stratégies royalistes pour le bicentenaire.
11h45-12h30 : Échanges

12h30 : Déjeuner au Musée de la Révolution française

Session 3 : Collections officielles et passions privées
Président de séance : Martial Poirson / Université Paris 8

14h : Yann Fauchois / Bibliothèque nationale de France
Constitution et signalement des fonds de l’époque révolutionnaire au département des imprimés de la Bibliothèque nationale (1790-1875).

14h30 : Yann Potin / Archives nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine
L’impossible collection légale de la Révolution : les « séries révolutionnaires » des Archives nationales, de la section législative aux acquisitions autographes (1790-1834).

15h : Pause

15h15 : Martine Sin Blima-Barru / Archives nationales, Fontainebleau
L’archiviste, le collectionneur, le receleur ; les activités secrètes de Dubois, employé de la section législative des Archives nationales (1840-1844).

15h45 : Magali Charreire / Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3
Des enchères à la fiction : les collections de la Révolution française légitimées par un écrivain bibliophile romantique sous la monarchie de Juillet.

16h15-17h : Échanges
17h15 : Visite de l’exposition temporaire du Musée de la Révolution française : Rencontre avec Napoléon. Un empereur à cheval pour la postérité.
19h : Visite du Centre de documentation-bibliothèque Albert Soboul

20h : Dîner au Musée de la Révolution française
22h : Départ de la navette réservée pour le colloque en direction de Grenoble Gare routière

Vendredi 25 septembre (Musée de la Révolution française-Domaine de Vizille)

8h15 Gare routière de Grenoble : départ de la navette réservée pour le colloque en direction de Vizille
8h45 : Arrivée au Domaine de Vizille

Session 4 : Circulations et usages à l’échelle du monde
Président de séance : Pierre Serna / IHRF-Université Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne

9h : Vladislava Sergienko / Université de Nice
La collection inconnue du Palais d’hiver à Saint Petersbourg : la correspondance des émigrés français acquise par le prince Lobanov-rostovski. Une passion ou un ordre du Tsar ?

9h30 : Guillaume Nicoud / Musée d’État de l’Ermitage, département des arts occidentaux, Saint Petersbourg, Russie
La Révolution au Palais d’Hiver : exposer la Révolution française dans l’Ermitage des Soviets.

10h: Andrei Sorokine et Elena Myagkova / Archives d’État Russe et de l’histoire sociale et politique, Moscou, Russie
La collection des objets et des écrits de la Révolution française aux Archives d’État Russe et de l’histoire sociale et politique.

10h30 : Pause

10h45 : Julia V. Douthwaite / University of Notre Dame, USA
Peut-on collectionner innocemment ? Les fonds de l’ère révolutionnaire en Indiana, USA.

11h15 : Katherine Astbury et Clare Siviter Université de Warwick
La collection de pièces de théâtre d’Amédée Marandet (1863-1924) à la bibliothèque de l’Université de Warvick.
11h45-12h15 : Échanges

12h30 : Déjeuner au Musée de la Révolution française

Président de séance : Gilles Bertrand / Université Pierre Mendès France Grenoble 2

14h : Antonino De Francesco / Université d’Etat de Milan
Quelques considérations sur l’historiographie de la Révolution française d’après l’exemple de la collection Alphonse Aulard à Harvard.

14h30 : Yoshiaki Omi / Université Senshu, Tokyo
La quête de l’univers de la Révolution française dans la collection de Michel Bernstein.
15h-15h30 : Echanges et conclusion : Gilles Bertrand et Pierre Serna

Pour tout renseignement durant le colloque n’hésitez pas à contacter Hélène Puig au 06 74 57 38 71.

On Immigration, the Revolutionary Movement of the 21st century: In Homage to Earl Shorris


Like you, I’ve been worrying a lot about the plight of the Syrian and Middle Eastern refugees we’ve been seeing in the newspapers these days. We see haunting images of their silhouettes trudging across a barren landscape, and heartbreaking images of their eyes peering through chain link fences, and painful images of thin young women carrying children, wrapped in makeshift plastic ponchos under the rain, as they bargain and plea to get a seat on a train or a bus out of the turmoil, headed for Austria, or Germany, or who knows where…

I’ll leave it up to the pundits and policy makers to decide how to find new homes for all these poor people in our wealthy Western democracies. I’d just like to cite some words of Earl Shorris (1936-2012), writer, visionary, and humanitarian, founder of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, who put immigration into a completely different light than I’ve ever seen it before.

It was not much longer than a week ago that I discovered the existence of the Clemente Course in the Humanities (an outreach program which provides elite seminars to impoverished, motivated adults) and got my copy of Shorris’s book, Riches for the Poor.*  Since then, I’ve been reading his book around the clock, captivated by his explanation of what it means to live la vie active, what it means to establish an authentic dialogue with other people, and why Socrates never wrote down any of his words, so as to avoid short-circuiting that essential connection with his pupils.  These are potent ideas!  I’m starting to wonder if writing is the be-all and end-all that I thought it was. Maybe it is enough to be a teacher, to reach out to other people, and to empower them to voice their ideas.

Here are some choice Shorris thoughts on immigration in honor of September 11 and the millions of Syrian refugees who are currently seeking a better life, with or without our help here in the USA.

“The nature of immigration is the search for a new social contract, inclusion, citizenship. Immigration is perhaps the only possible revolution in the twentieth century” (83).

“In every descendant culture, [politics] determines who will long suffer poverty and who will not. Any American, any person, may be strengthened by taking pride and pleasure in the knowledge of the new culture of his or her forbears, but an old culture cannot make a new life” ((83).

“The early years of the twentieth century saw a new kind of social mobility as the waves of immigrants came, but their change in status, from poor Polish or Southern Italian greenhorn to middle-class white was not cultural or even economical at its core. The successful immigrants were the beneficiaries of a political epiphany. To emigrate was to revolt against the past and to immigrate was to strike a new social contract that permitted, among other things, inclusion in the circle of power” (86).

Earl Shorris, Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000).

On Teaching, Revolution, and “Death in Venice”


Now that the new school year is upon us, and many of us college teachers are leading courses that take us far from what we consider our “real work” (that is, our scholarly writing), it can be hard to sustain a research agenda. This blog has shown various strategies I’ve tried over the years to avoid losing hold on a research interest while embracing and enjoying teaching.  Strategies include reflections on the contrast between hard-won measures to defend workers’ rights (such as Labor Day, est. 1894), and the modern-day imperative to keep businesses open 24/7 (“On Labor Day 2009”), the parallels between the Arab Spring of 2011 and the French unrest of 1789-94 (“Arab Protesters in the American Classroom”), and the marketing of French Revolution-themed toys and games (“Marie-Antoinette Action Figure”).

After six years on this blog, I’ve concluded that the best way to refresh curiosity about a topic is not necessarily to read more scholarly tomes, but rather to let your mind roam and unearth analogies farther afield. This weekend is a perfect example. Inspired by Tobias Boes, whose work I’ve been reviewing as part of a writing group we both belong to, I took the time to read  Thomas Mann’s story, “Death in Venice”  (1911).*

Wow.  Although I’m a little embarrassed that it took me so long to discover “Death in Venice,” in a way I’m glad. (What a waste to make 19-year-olds read this! How can they relate to it, except maybe to be creeped out by the old guy’s lecherous gaze on the handsome young Tadzio?)  I’m glad I waited until this moment, on the heels of my 40th high school reunion in Seattle this summer. After seeing my classmates face-to-face, and learning about the ravages that time has dealt our bodies and hearts, I can certainly identify with a character who inhabits an aging body that nevertheless continues to feel  the sweet old pull of desire.

A psychic “revolution” is what jars the protagonist (Aschenbach) out of his growing obsession with the Polish Adonis he admires every morning on the beach. It springs from his sense of propriety. It reminds him of the pleasant fullness he feels when gazing upon the awards he’s won, and confirms his superiority over everybody else. As the character thinks: “‘[Tadzio] is delicate, he is sickly … He will most likely not live to grow old.'” Thrilled by that weakness, which restores his mastery over the forbidden object of his desire, Aschenbach’s mind seeks out reasons to flee. As Mann notes, “He got out at San Marco , had his tea in the Piazza, and then, as his custom was, took a walk through the streets. But this walk of his brought about nothing less than a revolution in his mood and an entire change in all his plans” (34-35).

Thereafter the city turns ugly; the lagoon is “foul-smelling” and the narrow streets are described as inhabited by a “hateful sultriness” full of smells hanging low, “like exhalations, not dissipating” (35). Wandering through the crowds, Aschenbach ends up in the poor quarter, where “beggars waylaid him, the canals sickened him” until “he reached a quiet square, one of those that exist at the city’s heart, forsaken of God and man; there he rested awhile on the margin of a fountain, wiped his brow, and admitted to himself that he must be gone” (35).

Now, readers of “Death in Venice” will know that this revolution does not produce the results which seem inevitable. Despite his decision to flee the pestilence—and the frightening sensuality coursing in his veins–Aschenbach does not leave Venice. Rather he changes his mind again a couple pages later. He returns to the beach, the dining room, and the streets, stalking Tadzio and hungrily seeking chances to live in his presence, possibly to exchange words, or a touch.  He chooses to admit, for once, that he feels something for someone, and to live in the moment, dangerously, boldly, without a plan.

The moment is potent. It symbolizes his—that is the elite’s—false sense of transcendence over existence. It suggests the fallacy of choosing to experience life as an observer rather than as a fully engaged human being, with one’s flaws and longings as well as one’s finer points in full sight. The fact that he refuses the bourgeois moment of “revolution” (that is, revulsion and flight from humanity) to pursue his deepest longings may cause readers pain, but it should also force us to think about our own habits of repression and sublimation. It should make us think twice about who we grace with compassion and who we revile, and why.

Where others use the word as a synonym for upheaval, Mann seems to use the word “revolution” to signify a kind of resistance against life’s fleshy, smelly messiness and joy, a choice for the comfortable non-engagement of the academic, the ascetic, the genius, or saint.  I’m still not sure that I understand where this is leading, but the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it is reason enough to be glad.

*Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice” in Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Vintage Books, 1963).

On “Gender Flux” in today’s fashion: Is there a message behind those pants?

uniquo sweater incroyable

A gushing New York Times article on gender flux in today’s fashions rang a warning bell in my mind. Was I the only one to feel startled by an article that considers the opinion of 12- to 19-year olds as guiding wisdom? Certainly culture has been enriched by the contribution of some adolescents, such as Arthur Rimbaud and J.D. Salinger.  But the adolescent desire to experiment does not exist in a vacuum; each generation has its own. What makes Ruth LaFerla’s article fall flat is its lack of context. For all the praise of gender blurring that one finds here, and increasingly in today’s media, rare are the critics who recall how the most cutting-edge fashion trends have, over time, often swung back to punish.

Praising the cool new attitude toward the body manifest in designs by couturiers such as Muji, Everlane, and Uniqlo (seen above), critic LaFerla claims that “the whole perception of sexual orientation is being challenged by the millennials. […] the lines between male and female are becoming increasing blurred.” In order to test this view, she consults a historian of revolutionary France who points out the obvious: “We may think we are in a new phase, but we aren’t necessarily.” While the parallel between present-day American styles with those of France in the 1790s is intriguing, the conclusion is a disappointment. Instead of recalling the political forces pushing fashion and consumerism, the historian lamely concludes, “every time these trends come up they push the boundaries a little bit more.”

Beware, lithe young readers! Not only will your own bodies necessarily disappoint, as you Millenials (Millenia?) and Generation Z-ers move through the decades ahead, but your society’s attitudes toward gender may prove less fluid than you’d like to think.

Consider the 1790s as a life lesson.

It is true that a certain “gender flux” marked the 1790s in France, when women stepped out of their whalebone corsets for a time. But it is also true that the primary beneficiaries of that time’s gender flux were men, not women. As any fashionista knows, the avant-garde of the 1790s was male: it was the militant reactionaries known as Incroyables (seen above) who along with their floppy ties and huge lapels bore clubs to beat up errant Jacobins. When women attempted their own version of fluid, comfortable cross-dressing, it was nipped in the bud.

A case in point: when a new fashion for female travestissement or cross-dressing was brought to the attention of the Paris police in summer 1799, the response was dead serious.  Police archives from Germinal to Prairial Year 7 reveal that an important number of agents and spies were mobilized to suppress this vogue among Parisian women.  Why?  Because it was alleged that: 1) such women could be potential émigrées; 2) travestissement was bad for public morals; and 3) it was against the law.  One agent nevertheless challenged the Minister’s order.  His arguments seem ironclad to us, yet they only resulted in stricter enforcement.  Citing a law dated August 1, 1789 which condemned women to 15 days in prison for wearing men’s clothing (and three months for repeat offenders), he argued that such a law could not be upheld because it was created by a provisional government and thus was no longer valid.  He also reminded his superior that women were authorized to wear men’s clothing if they had to ride horses for their health and had a doctor’s order.  He agreed that public morality was a crucial preoccupation, yet he implicitly refused to arrest the women who had been seen strolling through the Tuileries gardens en travesti.  One year later, a new law was published to quell such tergiversation.  Disseminated to all police commissioners in the country in November 1800 (Brumaire Year 9), the law formally declared it illegal for women to wear men’s clothing.

When compared to the extravagantly effeminate styles of the Incroyables—the self-appointed vigilantes of the monarchist set, whose flowing bows and effeminate poses influenced the Romantics—it is evident that the brief moment of “gender flux” lying behind the style en travesti ended soon after birth. And that Napoleon’s burgeoning political ambitions were behind the repression.

What political forces are looming on the horizon for today’s young? Time will tell. But readers would be wise to remember how commodification often clobbers its most creative kin, just as the dominant drivers of the economy will doubtless prevail. You may wear all the loose-fitting androgynous uniforms you want, but if you spend your life working 18 hours a day in a corporate cubicle you’re not really “pushing the boundaries” on anything.

Tell the truth about race but tell it slant

Upward Bound Language Arts Class title page

I just finished teaching a new two-week course for Upward Bound this summer. It was called “Amazing! Finding Identities in Fantasy and Reality,” and it involved visits to the Rare Books Room and the Snite Museum of Art, as well as readings of Margaret Mead and Herman Melville. What a joy to teach such talented youth; this summer was the best ever. All 8 did their homework on time, and the grades ranged from 91-98 (and you know I am not an easy grader).

Race was woven into the choice of rare books at the Hesburgh Library. We looked at books such as Moby-Dick (1851, 1930, 1943), focusing on the three chapters (10-12) where Queequeg and Ishmael become bosom friends. It was also fun for the students to realize where “Starbucks” comes from! We enjoyed the sexy cover of Coming of Age in Samoa (1928; repr. 1960), which features two islanders dancing. The kids appreciated The Wreck of the Whale-ship Essex (1935) and 19th-century works of natural history too. The Wreck of the Whale-ship Essex includes a very odd list of crew members. It takes students a minute to realize what it is that bothers us about the list. It is the word “black” noted next to some men, of all status and rank, dead and missing. Why bother?  Also odd are the cultural presuppositions of the naturalists in question. They write assertively about issues such as the “Chinese” accents of the Sioux Indians, and the pragmatic ambition of the “American race.” “L’Américain est chercheur,” writes one savant, before admitting the simple needs of the nation, that is, preaching. Whether Protestant or Catholic, the American is a church-goer.

Also fabulous was our visit to the Snite Museum of Art. We began by reading my model story, “The Summer of Wendy,” and talked about what makes a “golden detail.” Then they set off independently in search of something in a work of art that could serve as a “golden detail” to add to their own story. Amazingly, two of us chose the same thing! Here is the sentence I wrote: “On her arm I glimpsed a greenish-black metal bracelet of a lion facing a sheep; although I couldn’t remember it exactly, the figures conjured up vague memories of some ancient myth.” (This was in relation to a bronze bracelet, 6BC.) Their theme was to write an essay, viz. Queequeg and Ishmael, about two people from very different cultures who become friends (fiction), and to interview another person and write an anthropological analysis of that person a la Margaret Mead. The results (5-6 pp) are astonishing.

So this is not an article about the French Revolution, but rather something quite American. But it needs to be said. Kids need to talk about race.


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