Saturday, September 24, 2016

Kenneth D. Ackerman's "Trotsky in New York, 1917"

Kenneth D. Ackerman has made old New York a favorite subject in his writing, including his critically acclaimed biography Boss Tweed: The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York. Beyond his writing, Ackerman has served a long legal career in Washington, D.C. both inside and out of government, including as counsel to two U.S. Senate committees, regulatory posts in both the Reagan and Clinton administrations, and as administrator of the Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency. He continues to practice private law in Washington.

Ackerman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Trotsky in New York, 1917: Portrait of a Radical on the Eve of Revolution, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Trotsky in New York, 1917, is a short one, just three sentences. At this point in the story -- the tail end of Part I of the book -- Trotsky has landed in New York City, settled his family in the Bronx, and launched himself into rabble-rousing among the radicals of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side. But, barely settled in, he already faces a threat: the long arm of World War I. The war has already ravaged Europe for almost three years since 1914, killing millions of young Frenchmen, Germans, British, Russians, and others. For Trotsky personally, it triggered his expulsion from three different countries: Austria, France, and Spain. Only American has remained safe, keeping itself neutral so far in Europe’s War, making New York the freest city on earth at that point.

But on January 31, 1917, Germany announced its resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against American ships, causing President Woodrow Wilson to break diplomatic relations and prompting public calls for war.

Trotsky, seeing the hysteria in New York City, remembers his experience of being expelled from Austria when hostilities first broke out in 1914, and now he anticipates the worst in his new country:
By 6:30 that night [in August 1914], after living in Vienna the better part of eight years, Trotsky, Natalya [his common law wife], and the boys had become refugees, passengers on a train leaving Austria for Zurich, Switzerland.

That was in August 1914. Now, in 1917, the world war had followed him across the ocean to New York City. America stood on the verge of following the examples of Austria and France [by entering the war], two countries that ultimately had forced him to flee.
What happens next? For Part II of the book, just turn the page…..
Visit Kenneth Ackerman's website.

My Book, The Movie: Trotsky in New York, 1917.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Philip C. Almond's "Afterlife: A History of Life after Death"

Philip C. Almond is Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences (Research) and Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of European Discourses at The University of Queensland. He is the author of many books, including The Devil: A New Biography; The Lancashire Witches: A Chronicle of Sorcery and Death on Pendle Hill; Adam and Eve in Seventeenth-Century Thought; and Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England.

Almond applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Afterlife: A History of Life after Death, and reported the following:
On page 99, I discuss William Tyndale (1494?-1536) and his New Testament collaborator John Frith (1503-33) as the only two English writers to endorse soul-sleeping in the sixteenth century. Following the lead of Martin Luther, they rejected the notion that the individual had a conscious life immediately after death. Rather, they believed, between death and the Last Judgement the soul slept. On the Last Day, the sleeping soul would awake, be united with its resurrected body and then be judged by God for eternal happiness or eternal punishment. The doctrine of the sleep of the soul enabled these early Protestants to ‘cut off at the root’ what they thought to be all the mumbo jumbo that went with Catholic doctrines associated with conscious life immediately after death – the saints, purgatory, prayers to the dead and for the dead, in fact, the complete Catholic economy of the afterlife.

Their concerns reflect one of two central themes of this book – the existence of the immortal soul and the problem of its consciousness immediately after death. Afterlife: A History of Life after Death explores this and the other foundational narrative within Western thought about the afterlife. On the one hand, there is a narrative built around the anticipation that our lives will continue immediately after the death of each of us. At the point of death, the soul will be weighed in the balance, be judged according to its vice or virtue and be sent to the bliss of Heaven or be cast into the pit of Hell. On the other hand, there is another narrative, one that is driven by the expectation that our eternal destinies will be finally determined at that time when history ends, when Christ returns to judge both the living and the dead. In some cases, the narrative of the Final Judgement becomes irrelevant and the emphasis is all on the immediate afterlife, in others (as on p.99) the emphasis is on the Last Judgement and conscious life immediately after death is radically rethought through the sleep or the death of the soul. For the most part, the history of the afterlife is a complex set of negotiations and contestations between these two narratives.

Modern histories of the afterlife in the West have focused on one or other of these narratives. This book, by contrast, is shaped by the interplay, tensions and conflicts between them both within a history that tells the story of each of them.
Learn more about Afterlife at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Rachel Starnes's "The War at Home"

Rachel Starnes received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from California State University, Fresno and her BA from the University of Texas. Her essays have appeared in The Colorado Review, Front Porch Journal, and O Magazine. Born in Austin, Texas, she has lived in Scotland, Texas, Saudi Arabia, Florida, California, and Nevada, and is currently on the move again with her husband, two sons, and a puppy.

Starnes applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The War at Home: A Wife’s Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible): A Memoir, and reported the following:
From page 99:
There was a party in progress at Hip-Hop’s that night and everyone spilled out onto the front lawn. He gestured wildly and darted around between cops and a little knot of partygoers gathered off to one side, smoking and texting and arguing with each other. Every time a cop approached the front door, Hip-Hop headed him off. A girl with a ponytail screamed at someone on her phone and then stomped out to the street, where one of the cops had found a bullet hole in the back window of her car. The hole was small and neat. A few of my other neighbors came out to stand awkwardly in the street, talking to cops with notepads. José, a small-engine mechanic who lived next door to me and worked out of his backyard, and Mr. Enriquez, who tended a large menagerie of concrete yard animals, came out to talk, but Hip-Hop hovered within earshot and the conversations were short.

Eventually, another cop found a bullet casing in the front yard and a half-hearted cheer went up in the crowd. The cop marked the spot by picking up a child’s orange sand bucket from the flowerbed and turning it upside down over the casing. Four bullet holes were found and noted: two in Hip-Hop’s kitchen wall, one through the wall in his living room, and one in the back window of the car parked out front. I bit through the last of my fingernails and went to bed, feeling my way in the dark.

I wondered if this brush with danger and the law would chasten Hip-Hop. Maybe things would quiet down. The night after the shooting, Hip-Hop and his buddies were up welding something until dawn, the lightning stutter or spark-light flashing around the edges of the closed garage door, and then an epic party started that lasted for three days. Everyone parked only on my side of the street, and trucks raced up and down the block, letting their after-market mufflers rattle all the car alarms awake.
For a first-time memoirist grappling with the impact of having revealed so much about my past, my marriage, and my own struggles with mental health, it’s both ironic and a total relief that page 99 is actually not that much about me, but instead about an event I witnessed during which I took pains to remain hidden, purely observing. The event was a drive-by shooting directly across the street from the house my husband, Ross, and I rented during his first 7-month deployment as a Navy fighter pilot. Ultimately it was the catalyst for our moving into base housing, an option I’d previously vetoed for its echoes of the time I’d spent as a teenager living on an oil company compound in Saudi Arabia.

Like much of the book, (I’m hoping), page 99 subverts some basic expectations. Mine is the story of how I came to terms with being a Navy wife, but to tell it, I draw heavily from events that predate my marriage, sometimes by generations. It’s not a sunshine and roses story, or one where the path is smoothed by patriotic or religious bromides, but it does ultimately show my deep love and pride in my husband and his service.

The scene on page 99 highlights the awkwardness and hazard military families face when trying to find affordable off-base housing on short notice, but it also reveals some of the affection and familiarity I felt with my surrounding neighbors, who also had to put up with the target of the shooting, a scrawny white kid sporting loud clothes and an outsized swagger who Ross and I nicknamed Hip-Hop. This page marks Hip-Hop’s transition from a comical figure conducting a small-time drug operation in his garage to a menacing one whose enemies pose a threat to the neighborhood at large. It also marks my transition from ignorant, amused observer with a little too much faith in my own innate invulnerability to someone whose assumptions were suddenly under intense review—rural farming communities can have thriving, entrenched drug problems, and just because I’d lived next door to a recovering meth addict at our previous duty station in South Texas didn’t mean all addicts were harmless. Also, it no longer seemed entirely good that everyone knew my husband had just deployed, and that I’d be living alone for the next 7 months and coming home late at night from my job in another city.

At its heart, the book is about examining the roots of family patterns and how I’ve come to repeat some of my family’s more painful ones around prolonged separations, depression, and rootlessness. I’ve taken risks in what I reveal of myself on the page, but I’ve also adhered to a strict code of ethics in what I reveal of others, especially my husband, and it’s a code I labored over for a long time. I think there’s a misconception of memoir out there, that it’s something akin to peeking into someone’s diary, and that the interior glimpses revealed are confidences shared outside of their proper boundaries. This book is not a tell-all, and it doesn’t purport to speak for other military families or even the typical experience of pilots’ wives. If Ford Madox Ford is right and Page 99 has something to say about the quality of the whole, I hope it’s this: this book is not exactly what it seems to be.
Visit Rachel Starnes's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Stefan Winter's "A History of the ‘Alawis"

Stefan Winter is professor of history at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A History of the ‘Alawis: From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic, and reported the following:
Page 99 of the History of the 'Alawis provides some very pinpoint commentary on approximately 18 pages' worth of tables regarding all the 'Alawi-inhabited villages I found in the Ottoman tax registers of the 16th century, which my publishers at Princeton to their eternal credit agreed to leave in the text rather than consigning them to some appendix. They form the heart of my chapter 3 on the integration of the 'Alawi religious minority, which people usually assume was treated as heretical and therefore persecuted, into the Ottoman provincial administration. In the analysis I try to show how a number of 'Alawi tribes and villages, many of them so obscure that even most Syrians have never heard of them, in fact had their taxes forgiven or were given to 'Alawi notables to govern.

So this isn't the most exciting bedside reading ever--but that is in fact kind of the point of the entire book. Almost any media discussion of the 'Alawis today (sadly topical on account of the civil war in Syria, and the fact that Asad and many of his ilk are of that minority) will tell you about their secretive religious origins, their supposedly obscure sect, their condemnation by religious bigots such as the 14th-century fundamentalist Ibn Taymiyya, and hence their supposed 24/7 persecution at the hands of the Sunni majority or the Ottoman state. The historical reports of marginality and discrimination are not wrong but they are hopelessly one-sided: there is simply an incredible wealth of mundane, day-to-day Ottoman administrative documents, which show that the 'Alawis were taxed, conscripted and shoved into state schools, all while their own elites got rich as tax collectors and state intermediaries, just as much as any other rural population in the Ottoman Empire--irrespective of religion. That's not as much fun as repeatedly intimating how ooh, ahh, they've always been different, sectarian, and oppressed by the Sunni/ Muslim/ Syrian/ Arab/ or whatever majority, but it may yet be an important lesson, particularly in the current political context.

So when you do rush out to buy the book, give the village names on p. 99 a pass but not their upshot: we know considerably more about the supposedly obscure 'Alawis than we think, and it's their societal development, more than their theology, that is interesting and important. I think my own favourite single page in the book, thanks very much for asking, is p. 140, where I blend some really neat Ottoman Turkish documents from Istanbul and Tripoli on the rise of tobacco cultivation in the highlands of Latakia, some local (published) accounts of a near-anthropological quality on commercial crop farming and some excellent new academic literature regarding the universal problem of marginal land exploitation, usury and peasant indebtedness in the 18th century, to suggest that socio-economics, and not religion, are the real key to the History of the 'Alawis.
Learn more about A History of the ‘Alawis at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 16, 2016

Frances E. Lee's "Insecure Majorities"

Frances E. Lee is professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. Her books include Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Partisanship in the U.S. Senate and, as coauthor, Sizing Up The Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation.

Lee applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign, and reported the following:
Insecure Majorities examines how the intensification of party competition for control of national government has changed political incentives in Congress. Today, almost every election offers the prospect of a change in party control over one national institution or another.

Today’s ferociously competitive environment differs markedly from much of the twentieth century. For decades after 1932, Democrats seemed to have a lock on control of Congress. Democratic majorities seemed above threat, and Republicans perceived little chance for change.

This book’s central argument is that stronger competition for power after 1980 fosters a more confrontational style of partisanship in Congress. With majority control hanging in the balance, parties work harder to promote their own image and undercut the opposition. Party messaging often gets in the way of bipartisan compromise.

Page 99 is part of a chapter that examines how the 1980 elections changed the political calculus in Congress. Senate Democrats, relegated to minority status for the first time since 1954, began to plot a path back to power. Senate Democrats started meeting in caucus regularly, seeking out issues on which to embarrass their opponents, and repeatedly forcing votes that would divide along party lines.

At the same time, House Republicans, seeing Reagan in the White House and Senate Republicans holding committee gavels, began to take new hope that a House majority might be within reach. Members who saw a path to a Republican majority—Newt Gingrich prominent among them—pressed their party colleagues to stop negotiating with Democrats so as to draw clearer party lines and thereby give voters a reason to elect Republicans to a majority.

Page 99 focuses on the cross-pressures that Republican appropriators experienced, as their colleagues pressed for clearer party distinctions. Policymaking on the Appropriations committee had long been bipartisan and cooperative. But this very bipartisanship made it hard for Republicans to say why Democrats needed to be removed from power. If Republicans and Democrats work and vote together on spending bills, then what difference does it make which party has a majority? Page 99 details a floor fight in which junior Republicans tried to force floor votes on across-the-board spending cuts so as to draw party distinctions. Meanwhile, senior appropriators pleaded with their colleagues not to undermine the cooperative relationship that existed between the parties on appropriations. This episode nicely highlights how the quest for party control cuts against bipartisanship in Congress.
Learn more about Insecure Majorities at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Michael Copperman's "Teacher"

Michael Copperman has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse background at the University of Oregon for the last decade. His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission.

Copperman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new memoir, Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta, and reported the following:
Turn to page 99 of Teacher and one encounters a strange part of an outlying chapter of a book about leaving Stanford and teaching in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta. Most of the book takes place in the classroom, and features interactions with children I taught. This chapter, “Club Sweet,” is about the blues club on the black side of the tracks I passed each day on my way to school, and particularly, the evening after school one week when I went there to meet other teachers. The book is also about belonging—that is to say, assuming the identity of teacher in the black community, and never really fitting in given that I am a multi-racial Asian American from the West Coast. Page 99 begins with this concern, as I don casual clothes for a night out after a day in school in the boy’s room of the school on a Friday afternoon, slipping on “dark jeans, {a} green-striped polo shirt, and tricolor Puma sneakers,” and adding “a new caking of deodorant and a fresh slick of hair product that did nothing to contain my curl.” I concluded that my attempts to fit in were “hopeless anyway: I’d be stared at in Club Sweet whatever I did.”

The rest of the page mostly reveals my concern with the children—I spend a whole paragraph on an interaction with a young man escorting a young girl from another teacher’s class. The end concerns my entrance into the club: “Inside, the bare overhead bulbs were harsh, so everything took on a gray-green cast like film negatives on a black screen...The floor was concrete {but} not a lacquered surface….bare rock marked with the stains of spill and riot.”

Does this transitional page of asides and logistics and initial rendering of a juke joint reflect the ‘quality’ of the whole? Perhaps some of the qualities—in the rhythm of the prose, in my tendency toward the descriptive and sensory, in my concerns about the nature of the world around me and my own place in it are consistent with the rest of the book. However, the page is hardly representative, inasmuch as book is mostly about myself and the children I taught.
Visit Michael Copperman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 12, 2016

Chandra Manning's "Troubled Refuge"

Chandra Manning graduated summa cum laude from Mount Holyoke College in 1993 and received the M.Phil from the National University of Ireland, Galway, in 1995. She took her Ph.D. at Harvard in 2002. She has taught history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and was Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University. Currently, she serves as Special Advisor to the Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

Manning applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War, and reported the following:
From page 99:
For most of the black men, women, and children who fled slavery and ran for Union lines in the West, emancipation’s landscape was even more disorienting, mobile, and impermanent than it was for those who fled in the eastern theater of the war. With a few notable exceptions, Union grasp on territory in the West was more tenuous and forces changed base, often repeatedly and sometimes rapidly, in constant attempts to control transportation arteries as well as territory. As a result, routes out of slavery tended to follow rivers and railroad tracks, and journeys along those routes tended to consist of one temporary hiatus after another, rather than a single arrival at a permanent location. In contrast with freedpeople who ran to Fort Monroe or to Roanoke Island or to one of the Sea Islands and then stayed put, refugees from slavery in the western theater often floated in and out of multiple camps, but never out of danger. Almost nobody, and nothing, not even freedom itself, stayed in one place for long. If the river Jordan was not rolling through this shifting landscape of slavery and emancipation, the river Mississippi certainly was. The Mississippi was both water of life and force of destruction, much like the army itself. Shaped by the twin forces of the army and the Mississippi, the experience of emancipation in the western theater was relentlessly disruptive, transient, and clouded less by grit blown inland from the sea than by the swirl and fog of constant motion.
Two of the book’s central themes appear in this paragraph on page 99: first, the experience of leaving slavery and the version of freedom that a person found depended a great deal on precisely where a person undertook the journey from slavery to freedom, and second, emancipation, freedom, and citizenship were all products of an intricate dance between structural forces (powerful as the Mississippi River) and individual agency, which could act upon and influence but never fully overcome those structural forces. There are at least four additional themes, equally central to the book, not present in this paragraph, but two themes seems like plenty to ask a single page to carry. To take the first: the paragraph reflects upon differences between eastern and western contraband camps, and the book takes that point even further to emphasize that the experience of exiting slavery was a step into the unknown for any man, woman, or child who took that step. No escaping slave had a clear or easy path to freedom; instead, he or she had the specific details of what a given day brought, and no choice but to patch those details together into an escape route from bondage. As a result, what it felt, looked, sounded, tasted, and smelled like to leave slavery and struggle toward freedom varied widely, and depended on the precise details of each former slave’s environment. To take the second theme: there is no question that the first steps toward freedom came from the people deciding to run from slavery, but it is equally indisputable that individuals could not bring down an institution so powerful, so buttressed by wealth, and so entrenched within the politics and society of the United States as slavery was. Structural forces –and power—mattered, and they had to shift for emancipation to happen. But people had something to do with when and how the shifts happened, people often caught up in circumstances far larger than themselves. And so the story of emancipation and the reinvention of freedom and citizenship in the United States must be in part the story of how massive forces and individual decisions and actions acted upon each other. Troubled Refuge aims to tell just such a story.
Learn more about Troubled Refuge at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Nicholas Dodman's "Pets on the Couch"

Nicholas Dodman is one of the world’s most noted and celebrated veterinary behaviorists. He founded the Animal Behavior Clinic—one of the first of its kind—at Tufts in 1986. A leader in his field, Dodman is has published four bestselling books, two textbooks and more than 100 scientific articles and contributions to scientific books and journals, and holds patents for inventions related to the control of animal behavior.

Dodman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry, and reported the following:
As I flip to page 99 of Pets on the Couch, I find myself looking at the beginning of chapter 7 entitled The Horse Who Went “Harumph.” The chapter introduces the reader to the story of Tourette’s syndrome … in horses! It begins with my first contact with this strange condition in an Arabian stallion called Migdol. At first, the chapter continues, we did not know what we were looking at – a horse who whooped and twirled, sometimes biting himself or striking out with his hind limbs as if agitated about some unseen person or other horse standing behind him. It took a series of some 50 horses before we were able to see the syndrome for what it was. It occurs primarily in male animals, begins at an average age of 18 months, is sometimes associated with bizarre vocalizations (hence the harrumph), and is associated with a lot of sniffing, preoccupation with the periphery of the stall and baulking at thresholds. All these symptoms are suggestive of an equine version of Tourette’s syndrome, including the motor tics (head, neck movements) and hemiballismus (striking out with a limb). In fact, the first English dictionary writer, Samuel Johnson, behaved similarly when not engaged in his absorbing work.

In my book, I discuss numerous other psychiatric conditions that affect animals as well as humans, including obsessive compulsive behavior, autism, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The underlying message behind the book is that animals are more like us than most people would dare to believe. There is but one medicine – not one for humans and another for other animals. The strong implication behind my 35 years of behavioral medicine is that animals (especially mammals and birds) almost certainly are capable of thoughts and emotions and may sometimes have psychological or psychiatric disorders which similar to own. That should come as no surprise to people who live closely with pets, but it is certainly an eye opener for scientists who have, almost by professional edict, denied the cognitive skills and ills of the animals they study.
Learn more about Pets on the Couch at the publisher's website.

Coffee with a canine: Nicholas Dodman & Rusty.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 8, 2016

James C. Oleson's "Criminal Genius"

James C. Oleson is Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Auckland.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Criminal Genius: A Portrait of High-IQ Offenders, and reported the following:
Flipping open Criminal Genius: A Portrait of High-IQ Offenders to page 99 presents the reader with a table - Table 14, to be precise - and 2/3 of a page of descriptive text about the relationship between sex, IQ, and crime. Studying Table 14 for a moment reveals that, unexpectedly, a greater percentage of people in the high-IQ group reported self-reported offenses than did those in the medium- or low-IQ group, and that these high-IQ offenders also self-reported greater numbers of offenses than those in the other IQ bands.

From this page, an attentive reader can quickly divine a few facts about the book: (1) there are a lot of tables - only 99 pages in, and we're already at Table 14; (2) the book is empirical, presenting results from a self-report study of 465 people with genius-level IQ scores and a control group of 756 people with average iQ scores, about the prevalence (percentage of the groups reporting an offense), incidence (number of offenses committed), and recency (number of offenses committed in the previous year) for 72 crimes; (3) the book is interested in the associations between IQ and other variables.

Page 99 is reasonably representative. The book starts with a user-friendly introduction, detailing our fascination with the criminal genius. There are photos of Leopold and Loeb, the Unabomber, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Hannibal Lecter, and Walter White. Chapter one attempts to impose order on a sprawling literature about genius, IQ, and crime. Chapter two describes the study, detailing the 72 crimes that were measured, and describing the composition of the samples. Chapter three - including page 99 - describes the participants in the study. Chapter four describes their offenses in some detail, categorizing them (i.e., violence, sex, drugs, property, white-collar, professional misconduct, vehicular, justice system, and miscellaneous) and recounts an interview I conducted with a serial killer. Chapter five examines prosecution and punishment, asking if the criminal genius should be punished less, the same, or more than other people. Chapter six uses interview data to suggest explanations for high-IQ crime, and chapter seven lays out key findings, my discussion, and a conclusion. I hope that readers find the subject to be as interesting as I do.
Learn more about Criminal Genius at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Larry Wolff's "The Singing Turk"

Larry Wolff is professor of European history at NYU, and director of the NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. His research focuses on Central and Eastern Europe, and his books include Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Venice and the Slavs: The Discovery of Dalmatia in the Age of Enlightenment, Postcards from the End of the World: Child Abuse in Freud’s Vienna, and The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture.

Wolff applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon, and reported the following:
On page 99, I quote a letter of 1774 from Mozart (age 18) to his sister Nannerl, whimsically alluding to famous figures from Ottoman Turkish history: “Please give my compliments to Roxelana, she is probably going to have tea this evening with the Sultan.” Roxelana— known in Turkish as Hürrem Sultan— was the harem favorite of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century, and, because of her influence over the sultan, was certainly the most powerful woman in the Ottoman empire at that time. She is supposed to have had glamorously red hair (as featured in a recent Turkish television series) which helped to inspire the sultan’s infatuation. Roxelana’s reputation as an enchantress persisted all around Europe even into the eighteenth century when Mozart wrote his letter, and he was certainly referencing the fact that Roxelana had recently become a familiar figure on the operatic stage, represented in some of the hundreds of eighteenth-century operas that featured Turkish scenarios and Turkish characters.

In my book I’ve attempted to recover the breadth and depth of this mostly forgotten operatic repertory (the best remembered is Mozart’s own Turkish masterpiece, The Abduction from the Seraglio), and to try to understand exactly what the figure of the singing Turk meant to the eighteenth-century European public that assembled in opera houses from Paris to Venice to Vienna. In particular, I discuss how the figure of a despotic sultan (like Suleiman) became the focus for exploring the political meaning of absolutism in Europe, and how the extreme emotions that were attributed to singing Turks reflected European concerns with self-restraint and civilized conduct.

Roxelana became an operatic sensation in 1761, when the musical comedy The Three Sultanas was staged in Paris, created by Charles-Simon Favart as a vehicle for his own wife Marie-Justine Favart to dress in Turkish costume, play the harp, and sing the role of Roxelana. The completely ahistorical premise of this work was that Roxelana was a Frenchwoman (the real Roxelana originated in Ukraine)— taken captive by pirates and sold into the harem of the sultan. She then, over the course of the comedy, triumphantly wins the favor of Suleiman (competing with the rival harem sultanas), marries him as his proper wife, and introduces civilized French reforms into the Ottoman empire. The comedy thus became a kind of vindication of French civilization in the age of Louis XV, while the figure of Roxelana may have been meant to allude to his most famous mistress Madame Pompadour.

The scenario of The Three Sultanas was such a huge success that it traveled all over the European continent, in different languages and versions, from Venice to Vienna, to Budapest and Berlin, to Copenhagen and Stockholm. Page 99 of my book describes the work’s arrival in London in 1775 under the prurient title The Sultan, or a Peep into the Seraglio, now presenting Roxelana as an Englishwoman in the Ottoman harem. The operas about Turks which were constantly performed on European stages across the eighteenth century offer an unexpected avenue of insight into the cultural encounter of Europe with the Muslim world as mediated by the compelling figure of the singing Turk.
Learn more about The Singing Turk at the Stanford University Press website, and visit Larry Wolff's NYU faculty webpage.

The Page 99 Test: The Idea of Galicia.

--Marshal Zeringue