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!

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).

Bastille Day Anti-Quiz: Answers!

Answers to the daily mini-quizzes published as “From Prairial to Pop Culture: The French Revolution in 2015” (June 12 – July 13, 2015)

  1. June 12. No. 3. “Prairial” is the name of a popular revolt in Paris on May 20, 1795 against the policies of the Thermidorian Convention; widely considered the last popular revolt of the French Revolution begun in 1789.
  2. Jun 13. No. 2. “Those minorities” signifies members of the government, teachers, intellectuals and journalists, according to an angry flyer found nearby the Sorbonne in late May 2015.
  3. June 14. No. 1. Judging from the décor in this ad for Audible books, Le Rouge et le Noir / The Red and the Black by Stendhal would make the most sense.
  4. June 15. No. 2. “Fête Nat” is the name of the character played by Abdoulaye Diop in Coup de torchon (1981).
  5. June 16. No. 4. L’Assignat is the name of a restaurant near the Monnaie de Paris (the Paris Mint).
  6. June 17. No. 3. Le culte théophilanthropique was all the rage in the 1790s, including among statesmen such as La Revellière.
  7. June 18. No. 4. All of the incidents occur in the story “Robespierre et les deux orphelins, ou Histoire secrète des derniers jours de Robespierre.” (No wonder he stayed out of sight for so long!)
  8. June 19. No. 2. Jason Schwartzman, of Moonrise Kingdom, played Louis XVI in Coppola’s film.
  9. June 20. No. 3. “Hoppy” is the equivalent of Messidor.
  10. June 21.

No. 1. “We do not comprehend why Camille Desmoulins, who was so openly protected by Robespierre, is crushed in the triumph of this dictator,” are the last words of A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel.

No. 2. ” But I do not. I do not,” are the last words of Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly.

No. 3. “Surely, before the expiration of half a century, since the return of Louis, France will congratulate herself on another restoration,” states Anthony Trollope at the end of La Vendée.

No. 4  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known,” are the final words of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

  1. Jun 22

No. 1. “‘Remember me, but forget my fate'” echoes Patrice Higonnet at the end of Goodness beyond Virtue.

No. 2. “But that, as they say, is another story,” are the last words in Marisa Linton’s Choosing Terror.

No. 3. “The French Revolution ended with the triumph of Hobbes over Rousseau,” notes Howard Brown in closing Ending the French Revolution.

No. 4. “Old and strong forces were woken by the Revolution, they began to know themselves in a new way, and they changed the world,” announces James Livesey at the end of Making Democracy in the French Revolution.

  1. June 23. No. 1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the author of the shocking quote, “Pectore si fratris gladium,” in his Discours sur l’origine et des fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755).
  2. June 24. No. 1. The Constitution de l’An I / Year One was adopted today in 1793.
  3. June 25. No. 3. Françoise de Graffigny is the innovative author of the best-selling Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), where you’ll find that interesting early usage of classe to denote economics, not taxonomies.
  4. June 26. No. 4. The Conciergerie prison remains almost as ghoulish as in Marie-Antoinette’s day. You can easily imagine the large river rats scurrying down the halls.
  5. June 27: No. 4. Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just declared that happiness was a “new idea” in March 1794. Thanks to Laurent Loty from bringing this to light in his excellent article, « Des Lumières à la Révolution : le bonheur en Constitution », Les Cahiers de l’Observatoire du Bonheur, 2, numéro spécial « Bonheur et petits bonheurs » dirigé par Michèle Gally, 2011, pp. 12-15. You can also read his article on this blog, posted on September 24, 2011.
  6. June 28: 3. Abbé Barruel, author of Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism full of virulent charges of conspiracy: he claims the Revolution was the result of a long-term plot hatched by philosophes, freemasons, Illuminati, anarchists, and économistes. Notre Dame own three titles by Barruel, including the five-volume Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du jacobinisme (1798-99); and the 1798 English translation in four volumes. It sounds like a lot, but that is a small fraction of his output.
  7. June 29: 4. All of the above. In other words, lots of people made profit out of the Revolution, but in the short run, things did not go better, they went worse, for the weak, vulnerable, and the poorest urban dwellers. It was not until the Third Republic that France would become the amazingly supportive state it became (at least in American eyes).
  8. June 30: No. 3. Les Enragés is the name of a political group. I like the way they describe it on Wikipedia: “la réflexion enragée d’une critique de la représentation nationale s’appuie sur une méfiance permanente envers les représentants du peuple.”  Hmm, sounds like some of my friends in Paris.
  9. July 1: No. 4. La mauvaise mère pardonnée par l’état is the correct answer, that is, an imaginary title. All the other books are real titles one can see on WorldCat.  Pierre Augustin de Beaumarchais, L’Autre Tartuffe ou la mère coupable, Paris, 1791. Pigault-Lebrun,  La mère rivale. Paris, 1791. Nicolas Thomas Barthe, La mère jalouse, Bruxelles, 1792.
  10. July 2: No. 1, Soupe Jacobine (actually “Jacobin sop”) is a medieval dish: a kind of French potage with cheese.  For a recipe and a great explanation of its history, see http://www.coquinaria.nl/english/recipes/08.1histrecept.htm
  11. July 3: No 4., le traître or traitor, has been in existence since 1080, acc. to Le Grand Robert de la langue française.  The other three words were coined during the 1790s.
  12. July 4: No. 2. There was no république sœur named “La République deutsche.”
  13. July 5: No. 5, the Loire River, is in the names of the following six departments: Loire Atlantique (called “Loire-inférieure” until 1957); Maine et Loire; Saône et Loire; Indre et Loire; Haute-Loire; and Rhône et Loire.
  14. July 6: No. 4. All of the above. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to finally know that.
  15. July 7: No. 4, a cherry, cerise. Seems fitting for this sweet, luxuriously green summer in South Bend.
  16. July 8: No. 1, Olympe de Gouges’s claim to fame is a rather humble little place near the old Bourse du travail in the 3rd arrondissement. You can get there by metro Filles du calvaire or Oberkampf, or bus Jean-Pierre Timbaud. While in the neighborhood, why not have a bite at the Caffé Soprano 2, rue Dupetit Thouars? possibly under the platane trees…. right across the street from the old Temple prison where the royal family awaited their fate! At least they put her in an interesting neighborhood!
  17. July 9: No. 3 Hoppy took the place of Messidor (June 20-July 19).
  18. July 10: No. 2, the poissarde or fishmonger, a fascinating figure in French literature. Check out the article on this blog entitled “How to Translate a Poissarde?” in homage to Sonja Stojanovic’s amazing translation of “Le Falot du peuple.”
  19. July 11: No. 3, “Madame Guillotine” will soon cut off their heads, said the mean Jacobin in Simon Bruté and the Western Adventure, by Elizabeth Bartelme (1959).
  20. July 12: No. 3. In fact, Camus writes that: “The Catholic Church, for example, has always admitted the necessity of the death penalty . . . not only as a means of legitimate protection, but also as a powerful means of salvation.” This comes about, Camus writes, because “even the worst criminal examines his own conscience when faced with the actuality of execution.” As a Swiss councilor wrote in 1937 and Camus cites:  “He repents, and his preparation for death is made easier. The Church has saved one of its members, has accomplished its divine mission.”  Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” 1st ed. 1957, repr. in Evergreen Review Reader, 1957-1967, ed. Barney Rosset (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 88-106.  Citation from p. 103.  That was news to me!
  21. July 13: No. 2. The Left was furious with Lennon’s revised “Revolution” because he withdrew his support for violent action. Watch the interviews about Lennon & Yoko Ono’s honeymoon where he explains why. (All you need is love.)

33:  ANSWERS PUBLISHED!   Happy Bastille Day!

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Twenty-nine. Of finance ministers and market women

Rutledge Necker

I just finished an amazing book on Necker, the finance minister under Louis XVI.* The most interesting discoveries for me were the revelation that Necker was a friend of the rich (although that was not a big surprise), that he had promised but reneged on his promise to help the poor (ditto), and that he apparently also reneged on a promise to a certain Comtesse de C. This last nugget is wrapped around an artful device by the writer, James Rutledge.
Tucked within the pages of vitriol about Necker’s financial double-dealings is the story of a certain Countess de … to whom he owed 1,000 louis and perhaps her virtue. When she refuses to drop her case or the demand for reparation, It appears that Necker has her mauled by a mob of unruly workers who demand that she say, “Vive Necker” [Long live Necker]. At that point, the countess refuses, but not before shifting tactics and shouting out, “Vive le Tiers” [Long live the third estate]. Thereby one with the cause of the people, she is embraced by the formerly hostile mob, who joins her in touting the Tiers! The inset tale ends with the mob inviting her to join them for a drink.
Prominent in the resolution to this drama is the work of a symbolic figure that is often found in revolutionary literature. She is typically portrayed as hot-tempered, sometimes drunkenly, and prone to funny malapropisms, but her sense of loyalty to her sisters in the marketplace is equal to none. What is she called?
1. A couturière or dressmaker
2. A poissarde or fish-monger
3. An épicière or grocer
4. A pastry-maker or pâtissière

*[James Rutledge], Vie privée et ministérielle de M. Necker, Directeur général des finances, par un citoyen. Geneva: Chez Pellet, 1790. With thanks to Princeton University who sent it here via Interlibrary Loan.

Below is the very odd illustration which opens the “Supplement” where more evil deeds are laid out for public view. Il looks like Necker is taking a sledge hammer to the foundation of the republic. At its top stand symbols of the ancien regime who seem to be aiming at him. If anyone has any idea other ideas about what this symbolism means, please write in!

Rutledge Supplement

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Twenty-eight. “Tycoons to the barricades” = A feeble echo of what radical event of 1789?

slides.015 why have we not yet stormed the barricades

The New York Times printed an intriguing article about socially-responsible billionaires the other day, featuring the surprisingly generous words spoken recently by people such as Jeff Greene, a real estate investor, and Johann Rupert, the merchandising mogul. It appears that a small group of the super-rich are now assailing income inequality and feeling a pressure to do something about it, at least in words. Will their actions live up to their verbal bravado?  We shall see…

During the Revolution, the super-rich did not just talk about abandoning their privileges, they actually did it!

What radically generous event of 1789 puts the modern-day hand-wringing of Jeff Greene and Johann Rupert to shame?

  1. The Night of August 4th, when privileges were discarded by the noble members of the Assembly with astounding aplomb. This powerfully egalitarian gesture effectively made all (male) citizens equal before the law, and laid the groundwork for the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen.
  2. The Night of July 29th, known in history as Le Baiser de Lambesc or “the kiss of Lambesc,” when deputies on both the Left and the Right joined together to pledge unity in addressing the nation’s financial ills. Following that symbolic embrace, they pledged to donate 50% of their income to state coffers, and 100% of the Assembly paid up within one month.
  3. The Night of July 14th, when crowds of happy workers and tradespeople of the nearby Faubourg Saint-Antoine, seeking to honor the generosity of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, brought flowers and picnic dinners to share with neighbors and prisoners in the Bastille courtyard.
  4. The Night of May 1st, known as la Fête de Jeanne d’Arc (of the Feast of Joan of Arc), when joyous parishoners, in tribute to the new accord between the French Throne and the Roman Catholic Church, gave particularly large donations to their local parishes at a special midnight mass.

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Twenty-two. Word!

Lioncel103356 Dat a new word New Orleans

Slang terms and popular idioms are endlessly fascinating. Just think of the street smarts of the US, expressions like “Who dat?” and especially, “Word dat” (heard punctuating dialogue in the soulful New Orleans-based show, Treme), and the latest, “That’s dope” (featured in the gritty and likeable film, Dope). Not to mention the heavily charged words from our political scene: “Change,” for example, or “Life.” And then there are the new words that appear, “factoid,” “emoticon,” “meme.”  Incredible to see words rise and mutate into new meanings right before our eyes!

The revolutionary period also witnessed an explosion of new words and new meanings. And there were people like us witnessing it happen, and writing dictionaries and novels expressing their opinion about those words.  It was controversial then as it is now.

In Lioncel ou l’émigré (1795, 1800), a writer named Louis de Bruno provides a fascinating example of commentary on Jacobin speech. We know when he considers the revolutionaries ironically, because he puts their words in italics! (“Tu es un insigne menteur, un modéré, un honnête homme.”)

But words were also coined out of thin air or built on existing roots, as in our day. Which word from the following list was not invented in the 1790s?

  1. le terroriste
  2. la gauche / la droite
  3. la guillotine
  4. le traître

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Fourteen. Did class consciousness exist before 1789? Yes, thanks to a woman writer

Sieyes Qu'est_ce_que_le_Tiers_Etat

In 1789, Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès became famous for articulating the essential problem plaguing the so-called “Third Estate” in 1789, that is, their lack of a political identity. Since the Third Estate included 98% of the population, that is, everybody who was neither a member of the Catholic clergy or the Nobility, this was a significant problem and Sieyès’s pamphlet made a powerful statement.
In his pamphlet, Sieyès coined the slogan: “Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? Tout. Qu’a-t-il été jusqu’à présent dans l’ordre politique? Rien. Que demande-t-il? A y devenir quelque chose.” [What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been in the political order up to now? Nothing. What does it want? To become something.]
An earlier writer articulated a similar anxiety in her book, published well before 1789, where she put the following words into the mouth of an intelligent heroine who suddenly realizes her social nullity:
“Je n’ai ni or, ni terres, ni industrie, je fais nécessairement partie des citoyens de cette ville. Ô ciel! dans quelle classe dois-je me ranger?”
I have neither gold, nor land, nor skill, [yet] I am necessarily a citizen of this town. Oh Heavens! What class do I belong to?
Some critics have seen this passage as proof that a sense of class consciousness existed before the Revolution, even in the heyday of Old Regime France. Others have interpreted the author as working in a proto-socialist mode that prefigures 19th-century theorists such as Karl Marx and Charles Fourier. After a long period of obscurity, this novelist is now considered a major figure in French literary history. What is the name of that prescient writer and the title of her novel?

1. Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, comtesse de Lafayette, La Princesse de Clèves (1678)
2. Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, Lettres de Mistriss Fanni Butlerd (1757)
3. Françoise de Graffigny, Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747)
4. Madeleine de Scudéry, Clélie (1654-61)


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