Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Erik R. Seeman's "Speaking with the Dead in Early America"

Erik R. Seeman is Professor of History at the University at Buffalo. He is author or editor of numerous books, including Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Speaking with the Dead in Early America, and reported the following:
Page 99 features several examples of what I call “talking gravestones”: markers that represent the dead as speaking or being spoken to.

The first marker on Page 99 is that of Barbary Weekes, a Massachusetts woman who died at age fifty-one in 1798. The stone’s epitaph has her address her fellow denizens of the burial ground: “O my friends I beg a place in your cold bed / That I may rest my limbs and akeing head.”

The second stone on Page 99 memorializes Phebe Gorham, who died on Cape Cod in 1775. Her marker quotes four lines from Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, the ten-thousand-line poem from the early 1740s that was one of the best-loved exemplars of the Graveyard School of English poetry and prose. The epitaph quotes from the poem in a way that encourages passersby to imagine Gorham speaking the words:
Henceforth my Soul in sweetest Union join

The two supports of human Happiness,

Which some erroneous think can never meet:

True Taste of Life, and constant thought of Death.
Markers like those for Weekes and Gorham appealed to mourners because they allowed loved ones to imagine a continuing relationship with the deceased. Starting in the second half of the eighteenth century, the bereaved increasingly visited cemeteries, where they prayed, meditated, and interacted with talking gravestones in a way that helped them maintain a connection with the dead. Such burial ground communion would become a central practice in what I refer to as the antebellum cult of the dead.

Page 99 thus exemplifies several important themes in the book. Methodologically, it demonstrates my use of material culture and literary sources. In addition to gravestones, the book examines embroidery, mourning portraiture, postmortem photography, and much more. And in addition to the Graveyard School, I analyze Gothic fiction, sentimental poetry, and other forms of imaginative literature.

Analytically, Page 99 is one step in the book’s journey of tracing the origins of the antebellum cult of the dead. Speaking with the Dead boldly reinterprets Protestantism as a religion in which the dead played a central role. This counters a long scholarly tradition that sees the Reformation as having successfully ended Catholic practices of maintaining relationships with the dead. My narrative begins with the English Reformation and demonstrates increasing interest in postmortem relationships, culminating in the nineteenth-century cult of the dead.

What Page 99 does not include is one of the book’s many examples of when people believed they were actually communicating with the dead: hearing the words of a ghost, or talking to a guardian angel, or experiencing a vision of heaven. But other than that, this page nicely represents the book’s main concerns.
Learn more about Speaking with the Dead in Early America at the University of Pennsylvania Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Roger Crowley's "The Accursed Tower"

Roger Crowley is a best-selling narrative historian with deep interests in the Mediterranean world and its surrounding area. At Emmanuel College, Cambridge he read English but has gone on to build a reputation for writing page-turning history based on original sources and careful scholarship.

Crowley is the author of a loose trilogy of books on the Mediterranean: Constantinople: The Last Great Siege/1453 (2005), Empires of the Sea (2008) – a Sunday Times (UK) History Book of the Year in 2009 and a New York Times bestseller – and City of Fortune on Venice (2011), as well as Conquerors (2015), a rare break out into the Atlantic with the Portuguese. His latest book, The Accursed Tower: The Fall of Acre and the End of the Crusades, explores the end of the Holy Land crusades.

Crowley applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Accursed Tower and reported the following:
Page 99 contains the grand words of a treaty sworn by a Muslim sultan: ‘By Allah by Allah by Allah…I bind myself to uphold this blessed truce agreed between myself and the Commune of Acre and the grand masters who live there.’ It goes on to describe the discussions between the sultan and his emirs as to whether the Christians had broken this truce. The Accursed Tower is a history of the collapse of the crusades in the Holy Land, featuring the final siege and destruction of Acre in 1291. Treaties are quite important to the narrative, but the book is really about the dramatic siege itself. The treaties are a detail – not a main element.

Page 99 is interesting however because it’s a hinge moment. It leads to the crucial decision to destroy Acre. It allows us to hear Muslim voices speaking directly to us – the book aims to tell the story from both sides, using Arabic as well as Christian sources – and what follows from this debate will be the launching of the largest Muslim army ever assembled during the crusades. Possibly a hundred thousand men are mobilised, giant catapults are hauled to the city walls, miners are brought in to undermine its foundations. What follows is the Alamo of the crusades – a resistance to the last man by the hopelessly outnumbered crusaders. Six weeks of bloody fighting, detailed in vivid eyewitness accounts, and the key to the defence is the so-called Accursed Tower, situated at a critical point on the city walls.
Visit Roger Crowley's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 18, 2019

Roland De Wolk's "American Disruptor"

Roland De Wolk is a U.C. Berkeley educated historian who left academia for a career in journalism, then returned to teach at a San Francisco Bay Area university as an adjunct while retaining his prize-winning investigative reporting work.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford, and reported the following:
Page 99 of American Disruptor is a lucid, cogent explanation of the federal government’s ridiculously generous terms on loaning Stanford’s private company what today would be billions of dollars to build the transcontinental railroad – Stanford living a life on those dollars more opulent than maharajas – soon afterwards said he shouldn’t have to pay back.

There is a section break and then a brief narrative on the beginnings of the construction from Sacramento and into the Sierra Nevada.

Since there are some 300 pages total to American Disruptor, having read one page, be it page 99 or any other, you would mostly likely get .3 percent of the work’s content.

Stylistically, one might get a bit more. Let’s be generous and suggest 5 percent.

Page 99 is, as are (hopefully) all the pages, important as it propels the story forward in both important and interesting information and in clean, even elegant, prose. The extraordinarily lavish government seed money for the private enterprise is very much part of the story, as are the terms for Congress’ munificent disposal of hard-earned taxpayer money. This is vital to the deeply documented story of exploitation and abuse of that generosity.
Visit Roland De Wolk's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Cedric de Leon's "Crisis!: When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule"

Cedric de Leon is Director of the Labor Center and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His areas of expertise are labor, race, political sociology, and comparative historical sociology. He is the author and editor of five books, including most recently, Crisis! When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule.

De Leon applied the “Page 99 Test” to Crisis! When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule and reported the following:
Crisis! When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule looks back at the U.S. Civil War to identify the political conditions that give rise to crises of public confidence. I use the lessons of the Civil War to make sense of the Great Depression and the election of Donald Trump.

At the center of each moment is the success or failure of the political establishment to absorb an existential challenge to its power. When the establishment fails to absorb such a challenge, the people withdraw their consent to be ruled and the party system fractures. When the establishment succeeds, the people allow their frustrations to be channeled into party politics and the party system is stabilized.

Page 99 of Crisis! is in the middle of the chapter on the Great Depression. In addition to being the worst economic downturn in American history, the Depression was also a politically tumultuous time. Industrial workers struck in the hundreds of thousands, farmers’ unions fought pitched battles with police in the streets, and communism was popular not just in Chicago, Detroit, and New York, but also in the South. Even to the casual observer, it seemed as if the republic were teetering on the edge of revolution.

But the Democratic Party did something then that few expected: they remade themselves into the party of the forgotten man and inaugurated what we know today as the New Deal. As part of the New Deal, Democrats and progressive Republicans passed the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which recognized the right of workers to bargain collectively with their bosses.

In doing so, the Democrats absorbed the challenge posed by striking workers and revolutionaries. Page 99 chronicles an especially poignant moment in that process, when labor leaders organized their members to withdraw their support for third parties and back the Democrats instead. Sidney Hillman, for example, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, persuaded his executive board to abandon the idea of an independent labor party in 1936. Hillman warned that under a Republican administration,
“It would be silly to discuss organization in steel and the automobile industry. There would be no room for the CIO [the Congress of Industrial Organizations] … You talk labor party. But can you have a labor party without an economic labor movement? … I say to you that the defeat of Roosevelt and the introduction of a real Fascist administration such as we will have is going to make the work of building a labor movement impossible.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democratic Party thus used the New Deal to coopt a once vibrant and politically independent labor movement and thereby stopped the crisis of public confidence from escalating into an all-out revolution.

None of this is to suggest that it is better to contain a crisis than it is to succumb to one. As director of the UMass Amherst Labor Center I can hardly celebrate the cooptation of the labor movement. Nor do I revel in the crisis of public confidence that has gripped the United States in the Trump era. Instead my goal is to understand when and why the political establishment loses the consent to rule.

Crisis! does have important political implications, though, and those I do not shy away from. The fact that our current crisis bears some resemblance to the Civil War and the Great Depression makes a strong historical analysis a matter of utmost urgency. Like the triumph of ethnic nationalism today, the crises over slavery and mass unemployment during the Depression were the result of partisan maneuvers and grassroots movements that divided civil society and made possible the unthinkable. What politicians and social movements do now can mean the difference between fascism and democracy.
Learn more about Crisis!: When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule at the Stanford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Origins of Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago by Cedric de Leon.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Brandon R. Byrd's "The Black Republic"

Brandon R. Byrd is an intellectual historian of the 19th and 20th century United States with specializations in African American History and the African Diaspora. Currently, he teaches at Vanderbilt University, where he an assistant professor in the Department of History and an affiliate of the Department of African American and Diaspora Studies.

Byrd applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti, and reported the following:
The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti re-considers the history of black internationalism and black political thought in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries by focusing on how and why black intellectuals in the United States engaged with the political realities, people, and ideas of Haiti. Page 99 reads as follows:
In 1889, a debate unfolded in St. Louis, Missouri. Under the St. Louis School Board’s initial plan for renaming the city’s colored schools, Wendell Phillips, the late abolitionist known for his antebellum lecture on Toussaint Louverture, would become the namesake of Colored School No. 5 while a host of other white abolitionists, politicians, and Union officers would receive similar honors. The proposal failed; to the chagrin of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the names of those “saviors of the colored race” never graced the segregated black schoolhouses in the city. The newspaper, owned and operated by the conservative white Democrat Joseph Pulitzer, complained that the St. Louis School Board revised its recommendation after African Americans protested the renaming of Colored School No. 6 in honor of Winfield Scott Hancock, a deceased Union general, Democratic politician, and avowed segregationist. Bowing to that pressure, the Post-Dispatch grumbled, the St. Louis School Board scrapped its first proposal and requested that black principals offer names for their institutions in recognition of black heroes and heroines.

Divided opinions within black St. Louis soon emerged. In a letter to the St. Louis School Board, the principal of Colored School No. 1 argued that “the imputation already rests upon [African Americans] that we are slow to appreciate our real benefactors and friends” and predicted that those “imputations would certainly rest upon stronger grounds” if his school “failed to honor the memory of Wendell Phillips ... the scholar, the orator, the fearless anti-slavery advocate.” Other black principals in St. Louis welcomed the chance to express their race pride even if it meant drawing the ire of their white counterparts. Indeed, some wanted school names that commemorated the most radical expression of black independence in the world.
This page, which opens Chapter 3 of The Black Republic, recounts a controversy over the re-naming of black schools in St. Louis, which ended in Colored School No. 2 becoming the Dessalines School and Colored School No. 4 re-emerging as the Toussaint L’Ouverture School. It is part of a vignette that leads to the ensuing chapter’s main arguments. The decision of Arthur Dessalines Langston, the principal of Colored School No. 2, and other black St. Louisans to name their schools after Toussaint Louverture, one of the foremost leaders of the Haitian Revolution, and Jean Jacques Dessalines, Haiti’s first head-of-state, suggests the deeper meaning of Haiti to African Americans during the post-Reconstruction era. “Haiti,” I go on to write, “came to epitomize virile black manhood and militant resistance to racial oppression” in a moment of dimming prospects for global black freedom. “It was an inspiring albeit embattled stronghold of black self-determination in the Age of Imperialism and Jim Crow.”

A reader who opened The Black Republic to page 99 would get a better idea of the main ideas of Chapter 3 than of the central arguments of the whole book. The Black Republic tracks African American thinking about Haiti, a singular black nation-state born in slave insurrection, across the shifting political, cultural, and social landscape of a “long postemancipation era” stretching from the U.S. Civil War through the period between World War I and World War II. It finds consistent interest among a diverse group of U.S. black intellectuals in Haiti’s perceived exceptionalism but inconsistent, complex, and sometimes conflicting interpretations of Haiti’s meaning to African Americans, the United States, and the world. Put simply, page 99 introduces readers to one iteration of a multifaceted aspect of black internationalist and political thought.

Still, it is worth mentioning that a reader applying the “Page 99 Test” to The Black Republic would get a strong sense of my methodologies even though they would not get a holistic understanding of the entire book. Like numerous other contemporary intellectual historians, particularly those writing about black intellectual history, my work is influenced by social and cultural history. The Black Republic thus mines a diverse archive composed of written, oral, material, and visual sources produced by self-defined intellectuals and organic thinkers alike. It finds ideas wherever they emerge, including the naming of colored schools.
Visit Brandon R. Byrd's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Pekka Hämäläinen's "Lakota America"

Pekka Hämäläinen is the Rhodes Professor of American History and Fellow of St. Catherine’s College at Oxford University. He has served as the principal investigator of a five-year project on nomadic empires in world history, funded by the European Research Council. His book, The Comanche Empire, won the Bancroft Prize in 2009.

Hämäläinen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, and reported the following:
The test better than works—if I could have chosen any page, 99 would have been a strong contender. It finds the Lakotas in the Missouri Valley in the early 1790s in the middle of talks with the Mandan and Omaha Indians, trying to forge an accommodation. Having shifted westward from the Minnesota Valley homelands in search of horses and bison, the Lakotas had reached the Missouri—Mníšoše to them—three decades earlier and had almost instantly clashed with a number of villagers who saw them as invaders. The result was a long and violent struggle between the Lakotas and Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras over the mastery of a river that was about to emerge as one of North America’s key commercial arteries. The peace process failed. The Missouri was home and sacred for the villagers, a place where all their history had happened, and they were determined to keep the Lakotas out. Soon after the Lakotas attacked a Mandan village of fifty-eight lodges and killed everyone in it.

That was one the one of the most significant turning points in Lakota history. Demoralized, the Mandans retreated upriver, pushing north until they reached the Hidatsa villages at the mouth of the Knife River. A few years later the Arikaras, too, abandoned their remaining villages near the Lakotas and sought refuge in the west and north. Nearly a two-hundred-mile expanse of the Missouri now lay vacant ahead of the Lakotas. They pushed in, gaining a massive reservoir of water, grass, game, timber, and shelter. They had become the masters of the Missouri Valley who gave Lewis and Clark a pause, a premonition of the carnage in the Little Bighorn Valley three generations later.

We tend to see the Lakotas as quintessential horse people who dominated the vast grasslands of the Northern Great Plains, but that was a later development. Here the Lakotas reinvent themselves as river people who made Mníšoše the center of their world. It was there that they assumed their sacred form as the seven oyátes, or “people,” splitting up and linking up along the life-giving river. It was there that they learned how to contain colonial powers and it was there that they began to develop the strategies that would allow them to build an Indigenous empire in the northern plains in the late nineteenth century—and frustrate the United States’ westward expansion for decades.
Learn more about Lakota America at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Nathan Spannaus's "Preserving Islamic Tradition"

Nathan Spannaus is a specialist in Islamic intellectual history and religious thought. He is a graduate of McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies and Harvard's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and he has held positions at Princeton and Oxford. His work has appeared in Islamic Law and Society, Muslim World, Arabica, and Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, and he has contributed to the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology, the Encyclopedia of Islam and the two-volume Modern Islamic Authority and Social Change. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher in Islamic philosophy at University of Jyvaskyla, Finland.

Spannaus applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Preserving Islamic Tradition: Abu Nasr Qursawi and the Beginnings of Modern Reformism, and reported the following:
From page 99:
precedents were utilized in novel ways and engaged in continuing Islamic scholarly discourse.

Jackson (noted in the Introduction) characterizes taqlīd as “scaffolding,” a conception of authority in which the work of earlier scholars was accepted by later scholars to facilitate their own scholarship. There was little need or incentive for the latter to revisit larger, more structural issues, he argues, and taqlīd allowed them to instead devote their energies to addressing more minute but also more advanced questions, leading to more sophisticated scholarship. Taqlīd thus served as a paradigm for scholarship, in which the positions of earlier scholars were utilized as premises for the formulation of new positions within the same discourse.

A significant benefit of the taqlīd framework was that it limited the potential for the formulation of deviant or anomalous views. Coherence was a major goal of taqlīd, and, as scholars were generally obliged to conform to the established positions of their school or faction, they were restrained in their interpretive activity and the possible scope for any new position was narrowed. Scaffolding was therefore understood to safeguard (though not necessarily ensure) the correctness of scholars’ formulations, which could depart only so much from the views of their predecessors. A direct connection with scripture was thus seen as unnecessary, as any new stance would have to align with positions that had been previously legitimated as correct. Indeed, the interpretation of scripture without the limits imparted by the taqlīd framework was considered more likely to breed erroneous, unpredictable, and/or incoherent views.

Although much of the attention devoted to taqlīd in secondary literature is focused on its role in the area of law, its place in kalām was not
This passage offers an interesting window into the book. The discussion on page 99 is part of a longer section addressing taqlid, a key element in the history of the Islamic scholarly tradition that mediates how new ideas relate to existing ones and represents the link between Islamic knowledge and religious authority. Its ‘scaffolding’ was of central importance for the development of Islamic scholarship, for which taqlid served as the predominant framework for nearly a millenium. The focus of the book is not on taqlid per se, but rather it’s about a critique of this framework, and then how it was transformed in the early modern period. Taqlid, however, is not very well understood, especially for later periods (roughly 15th-18th centuries), which are among the least studied in Islamic history, and the book devotes significant attention to how it operated, both in theory and in practice.

Abu Nasr Qursawi (1776-1812), the subject of the book, took aim at taqlid, specifically that it excluded erroneous positions. He believed this was not necessarily the case, but moreover that it actually hid errors in received wisdom by giving it a patina of validity. Accordingly, he called for greater skepticism toward established views and investigation into them to determine their correctness.

He identified two major points where he argued that invalid positions had been perpetuated by taqlid: on the timing of the night prayer and on the question of God’s attributes. For both cases, he criticized the assumption that the predominant views must be correct because they are so widespread, and he argued on logical and scriptural grounds that they in fact cannot be correct and must be rejected. (Each of these issues is fairly intricate, but they’re addressed in detail in the book.)

In the background of Qursawi’s criticism of his fellow scholars was the subordination of Islamic institutions by the Russian government. State control bureaucratized scholars, disrupting the link between knowledge and religious authority. In response, Qursawi put forward a radical rethinking of laypeople’s role in articulating Islamic morality, arguing that any educated Muslim should determine correct action for themselves, without scholarly guidance. Nevertheless, in this context the framework of taqlid was seriously undermined. Its mediation between new and existing views gradually came to be rejected, and the entire edifice of the Islamic scholarly tradition called into question. Preserving Islamic Tradition uses Qursawi’s reformism and its implications as a lens for exploring these historical and religious transformations.
Learn more about Preserving Islamic Tradition at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 11, 2019

David J. Silverman's "This Land Is Their Land"

David J. Silverman is a professor at George Washington University, where he specializes in Native American, Colonial American, and American racial history. He is the author of Thundersticks, Red Brethren, Ninigret, and Faith and Boundaries. His essays have won major awards from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the New York Academy of History.

Silverman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, and reported the following:
Page 99 of This Land is Their Land appears early in chapter 3, which explores how the Wampanoag Indians’ decimation by an unidentified epidemic between 1616 and 1619 was the essential context to their outreach to Plymouth colony in 1621. Contrary to the Thanksgiving myth, the Wampanoags did not engage the English because they were inherently friendly. Rather, the Wampanoags needed allies and fast because the Narragansett tribe, which had escaped the disease, was subjugating them in their weakness to the status of tributaries. Page 99 is part of a larger discussion of what Wampanoag country was like just before the epidemic. It traces how the density of the Wampanoag population and the Wampanoags’ long-distance social and political networks enabled the disease to spread from human to human between the Saco River of Maine on the north and the east side of Narragansett Bay on the south. This discussion also explores the intertribal enmities that prevented the sickness from reaching the Narragansett tribe on the west side of the bay. Page 99 quotes the writings of European explorers who preceded the Mayflower in southern New England that Wampanoag country was full of people and “an excellent place both for health and fertility.” It also uses those sources, and the Indian testimony on which they drew, to sketch the close relationship between the Wampanoags of what is now southeastern Massachusetts and the Massachusett Indians of Massachusetts Bay, where Boston is now located. The Wampanoags depended on the Massachusett Indians as allies against the Narragansett tribe to the south, whereas the Massachusett Indians depended on the Wampanoags as trade partners and military allies in relations with the Wabanakis of Maine to the north. The Wabanakis were in steady contact with European fishermen from several different nations, to whom they traded furs in exchange for metal tools in high demand among Native people. To facilitate this trade, the Wabanakis began dedicating more time to hunting beaver for pelts and less to producing food, but they made up for that shift by trading bits of metal and worn out tools to the Massachusett Indians in exchange for their corn. The Massachusett Indians probably exchanged a portion of this metal to the Wampanoags for additional corn. When the corn-producing Massachusett people refused to bargain on Wabanaki terms, the Wabanakis launched amphibious raids against them in “their newly acquired sailing vessels” from Europeans. The epidemic of 1616-19 would feast on such human connections to the devastation of the aforementioned tribes.

The “page 99 test” would work once the reader has finished my book and absorbed its overarching themes, but probably not otherwise. This Land is Their Land emphasizes that the sanitized Thanksgiving myth is lousy history for a host of reasons. Those reasons include depicting America as a New World or wilderness instead of reckoning with Native people’s ancient history and civilizations; sidestepping the century of bloody contact between the Wampanoags and Europeans before the arrival of the Mayflower as Europeans repeatedly raided the coast for captives and plunder; ignoring that the Wampanoags’ “friendly” outreach to Plymouth colony stemmed from their need for military and trade allies to offset the threat of the Narragansett tribe after the epidemic of 1616-19; and using a shared meal as a symbol of bloodless colonialism and Indian consent to their own displacement instead of acknowledging the Wampanaogs’ resentment of aggressive English expansion, culminating in the bloody King Philip’s War of 1675-76. The Thanksgiving myth also elides the three centuries of Wampanoag struggles with colonialism after King Philip’s War, including the processes by which whites reduced them to near landlessness and servitude, denied their Indian identities and rights, and assigned them to romantic bit parts in the nation’s founding myth. Finally, I emphasize that the Wampanoags’ National Day of Mourning, held in Plymouth annually since 1970, reflect a centuries’-long Wampanoag critique of colonialism as a betrayal of their people’s historic alliance with Plymouth. Telling this history in its full complexity involves addressing not only the troubled history of Wampaoag-English relations, but the intra- and intertribal politics of the Wampanoags, which often drove their policies toward the New England colonies. In this respect, the page 99 test proves true.
Learn more about This Land Is Their Land at the Bloomsbury website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Jon Lawrence's "Me, Me, Me?"

Jon Lawrence works on modern British social, cultural, and political history, and is now based at the University of Exeter. He has previously taught at University College, London, the University of Liverpool, Harvard University, and the University of Cambridge. Lawrence has published extensively on British social and political history including Speaking for the People: Party, Language and Popular Politics in England, 1867-1914 (1998) and Electing Our Masters: The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair (2009).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Me, Me, Me?: The Search for Community in Post-war England, and reported the following:
From page 69:
[She] clearly took pride in having been a trail blazer for domestic refrigeration, but there is little sense here of competitive one-upmanship. For [Beryl] Watts, private consumption was something to be shared with friends who, like her, strongly identified with the pleasures of making their first home. Peter Willmott’s 1963 study of the massive Dagenham estate on London’s eastern fringe drew similar conclusions, arguing that ‘the process by which one family followed another’s example was the result of friendly endorsement rather than rivalry’, and concluding that ‘in the main people on the estate seem to see their fellows not as adversaries but as allies in a general advance.’

Others challenged the implications of the question more directly. Linda Jones, a hairdresser in her late forties, replied ‘Not really. Most of us have these things but I don’t see where competition comes in’ (note the use of ‘us’ here; in many ways it was a bigger challenge to the researchers’ assumptions than her denial that people were competitive). Mrs Pearce, an Irishwoman in her early thirties, took a different, more personal, tack by replying, ‘For me there’s not. I go out to work. We have them all.’ But arguably her narrower, more individualist, outlook said more about her pride in contributing to the family’s well-being, than about her love of things. Certainly, her explanation of why she voted Labour suggested strong identification with her neighbours: ‘Labour stands for me, and for next door, and for all the people in the street’. Mrs Tufnell, a bricklayer’s wife from Shoreditch tried a different approach, arguing ‘people don’t compete, but they have room now, and they like nice things’, while others simply pointed to practicalities: that young couples moving from furnished rooms to a new three-bed, unfurnished house were bound to need to focus on home-making. Mr and Mrs Bridge were in exactly this situation, having moved to Stevenage as newly-weds in 1956. They tried to explain that paying to furnish their new home was the one down-side of the move: ‘We do get very short at the end of the week. If we didn’t have everything to buy we’d be quite well off really.’ Sadly, the interviewer, almost certainly Samuel, wasn’t listening – having noted that all their furniture was new (was there even much choice about this in late-1950s Stevenage?), he commented: ‘pattern of mass media imposed misery’. It was the New Left’s ‘false wants’ thesis about the corrosive effects of ‘affluence’ reduced to a soundbite. It seems unlikely that the Bridges would have concurred.

Many people resented the suggestion that they (or their neighbours) only wanted things because others had them. Margaret Richardson, a housewife in her late twenties, insisted that ‘everyone wants them regardless of the neighbours’, and Kevin Burnaby, a maintenance fitter originally from Cornwall, replied ‘If they can afford it they get it. [They] used to be a luxury but now they’re necessities’.
In many ways this page does get to the heart of the book’s central theme in that it showcases the rich insights to be gained from re-reading historic social-science testimony ‘against the grain’. Me, Me, Me? explores how people made sense of rapid social and cultural change in England in the decades after the Second World War; how they acted as sociologists of their own lives, and how these vernacular understandings of change often challenged the preconceptions of expert observers. In short, it analyses how people sought to reconcile the competing claims of self and society across seven decades marked by rapid technological, economic and cultural change.

In this extract, the focus is on the culture wars over mass consumption in late-fifties Britain. The page discusses how residents of Stevenage New Town responded to being asked a decidedly leading question about their consumption habits: ‘Do you think there is much competition between neighbours over washing-machines, T.V. sets, refrigerators and so on here?’. This survey was conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Conservative Party’s landslide victory at the 1959 election. Prosperous southern English towns like Stevenage had swung heavily towards the Conservatives, and many on the Left became convinced that the rising prosperity associated with the ‘affluent society’, represented a fundamental challenge to the nation’s post-45 social democratic settlement. The field-work in Stevenage was conducted by the young historian and New Left intellectual Raph Samuel on behalf of the Institute of Community Studies. In an article published in the first issue of New Left Review, Samuel ended up using the survey’s findings to argue against narrowly economic explanations for the Conservatives’ 1959 victory, but, as we see here, this did not mean that he found it easy to understand working-class respondents’ practical responses to the emerging consumer society. Both the survey’s original question, and the parenthesised comment about ‘mass media imposed misery’ signal an inability to imagine the practical challenges facing young couples suddenly transported from cramped furnished rooms to a spacious new family home deep in the Hertfordshire countryside (and hence far from friends and family). More broadly, it was absurd to equate wanting a refrigerator with anything other than wanting a) to store food safely, and b) not to have to make a trip to the shops every day when there was no longer a shop on every street corner. Researchers assumed that suburban living meant atomisation, status anxiety and competitive consumption, but Beryl Watts saw things differently. On the previous page readers hear her telling Samuel’s researcher: ‘When I got my fridge the whole street came to look at it, and now they’ve all got one’. In 1959, self and society remained indivisible in vernacular accounts of the new consumerism.
Learn more about Me, Me, Me? at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Helen Fry's "The Walls Have Ears"

Helen Fry is the author of The London Cage and over twenty books focusing on intelligence and POWs in World War II. She consulted on the docudrama Spying on Hitler’s Army and appeared in BBC’s Home Front Heroes.

Fry applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, The Walls Have Ears: The Greatest Intelligence Operation of World War II, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Walls Have Ears lands at the very heart of the book’s narrative and a good example of the book’s content. This page begins the extraordinary saga of the German generals and their life in captivity in a stately house, Trent Park at Cockfosters on the outskirts of London. Page 99 narrates the arrival of the first German generals, Generals Cruwell and von Thoma, after capture in North Africa in May and November 1942. They were swiftly followed by 12 other senior commanders and generals after the surrender in North Africa in May 1943. At Trent Park they were treated according to their status as ‘military gentlemen’, but little did they realise that nothing in their surroundings was as it seemed. They were actually being held at the behest of British and American intelligence. Deep in the walls, hidden in plant pots and the billiards table were embedded microphones. The devices were wired back to a special listening room in the basement, known as the ‘M Room’, where teams of secret listeners were working in 12 hour shifts.

This was all part of an already elaborate and carefully orchestrated bugging operation of German prisoners that had begun in the Tower of London in September 1939. The prisoners were often given a ‘phoney’ interrogation, and believed the British were unbelievably stupid and incompetent. When they returned to their cellmate, they boasted about what they had not told the interrogating officer – all within earshot of the hidden microphones. The operation grew so rapidly that it moved to Trent Park at the end of 1939, and within 2 years had extra sites at Latimer House and Wilton Park, both outside London in Buckinghamshire. The clever deception, headed by MI6 spymaster Thomas Joseph Kendrick, became a massive intelligence-gathering factory that provided vital information for every campaign of the war. The volume of intelligence is staggering: from intelligence ahead of the Battle of Britain in 1940 and new enemy technology to night fighter strategy, new aircraft and fighting capability, U-boat operations and construction, detailed information on coastal defences ahead of D-Day, as well as the mass atrocities and concentration camps.

It was from the German Generals, tasked with keeping the Third Reich’s most closely guarded secrets, that the biggest intelligence coup came. They inadvertently gave away the existence and location of Hitler’s deadly V-weapons (V-1 and V-2) at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. It led directly to the bombing of Peenemünde in August 1943 in Operation Crossbow on the orders of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But British and American intelligence knew that to get this intelligence from them, the Generals had to be totally off guard if they were to speak freely within range of the microphones. What emerged is a seemingly outrageous scenario where they were wined and dined, looked after by a fake aristocrat ‘Lord Aberfeldy’, taken on trips to the posh restaurant of Simpsons in the Strand and given copious supplies of gin at the Ritz. It worked and they were were totally hood-winked. The frivolity and outlandish treatment of the Generals had one aim – to win the intelligence war. It is now recognised that this clandestine unit of spies shortened the war alongside Bletchley Park, and without it, the outcome of the war and restoration of democracy in Europe would have been very different.
Visit Helen Fry's website.

The Page 99 Test: The London Cage.

--Marshal Zeringue