Featured Book: Truth To Power

Red Ellen bookcover

Red Ellen (Harvard University Press, 2016) is an exceptional biography of Ellen Wilkinson (1891–1947), the diminutive-but-fiery British radical. Laura Beers (PhD ’07, history) brings Wilkinson vividly to life—her devotion to Britain’s working class, outspoken feminism, and globe-spanning outlook. Beers discusses Wilkinson’s private life but focuses on her public role: few have lived so resolutely in the public sphere. 

Raised in working-class Manchester, Ellen took a ballistic trajectory from childhood. She won a university scholarship, discovered socialism and feminism, and ended her fling with the Communist Party by 1924. A riveting speaker, she was a Labour Member of Parliament at age 33. She was also a world citizen, present for the founding of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919 and the United Nations in 1945. She made speaking tours of the United States and joined fact-finding missions to Northern Ireland, Germany, and  Colonial India. She met Gandhi and embraced his struggle for Indian self-determination. With the rise of Nazism, her pacifism shifted to anti-fascist resistance. During WWII, Wilkinson became Britain’s  “shelter queen,” responsible for air raid shelters. In 1945, she was made Minister of Education (and sole female minister) in Clement Atlee’s Labour government. Two years later, she was dead. Though short, her life is inspiring: she consistently melded principle and pragmatism and never shied away from speaking truth to power.

Our image of historical figures is too often foreshortened. Abraham Lincoln only wore that beard for his last five years of his life. Likewise, our image of Charles Darwin is irrevocably shaped by Julia Cameron Mitchell’s 1868 photograph of an elderly Darwin, a virtual Old  Testament patriarch in jacket and tie. But Duncan Porter (PhD ’67, biology) and Peter Graham remind us that when Darwin embarked on his transformative, five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle, he was just 22. Likewise, they caution against reducing Darwin’s intellectual accomplishments to “evolution” or “natural selection.” In Darwin’s Sciences (Wiley Blackwell, 2016), Porter and Graham recount Darwin’s career in a developmental fashion. They unfold his “many longstanding projects, some distinct and some interrelated, which together served to…enrich his understanding of change as the great constant of the natural world.” Chapter by chapter, they build from Darwin’s geological interests to his study of zoology, botany, and—ultimately—human society.

Eat, Live, Love, Die (Counterpoint, 2016) is a finely wrought collection of essays by food writer and memoirist Betty Fussell (AM ’51, English and American literature and language). Here—as in her last book, Raising Steaks (reviewed in Colloquy, fall 2009)—Fussell focuses on food or, more properly, food and culture. Eat, Live, Love, Die includes an appreciation of the lowly hamburger and insightful discussions of, for example, hominy, beefsteak, and oysters, the latter interweaving natural history, the economics of oyster farming, and regional oyster dishes with a tip of the hat to Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” But her most personal and deeply resonant pieces address an altogether different nexus of family and memory. She writes of her first experience of deer hunting (in her early 80s, with her son). Her mother’s suicide (before Betty turned two) strikes a dark ostinato in several essays. And she probes the onion-like layers of meaning and deception in family photographs.

The Harlem Renaissance would certainly seem to be well-defined: the 1920s, the community of Harlem, and African American culture (especially literature). But in Measuring the Harlem Renaissance (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), Michael Soto (PhD ’99, English and American literature and language) takes a distinctly broader view. Soto argues for a “long Harlem Renaissance,” with roots reaching back to Reconstruction and blossoms that extend to the mid-20th century. Moreover, he combines his literary analysis with social history methods, using census tracts and maps. Thus, he opens with  Abraham Lincoln studying the first-ever statistical map of the slave population of the United States, first, to anticipate the costs of compensated emancipation and, later, the likely reception awaiting Union forces. (The map appears  in Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s 1864 painting, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.) Whether probing Harlem Renaissance literature or changing census definitions of race, Soto’s concern is the sources of racial identity, whether imposed, resisted,  or embraced.

Shirlee Sky Hoffman (AM ’68, history) was born in 1945, which explains the title of her collection of poetry and prose, First Generation Singular (CreateSpace, 2016). Part of that first generation of Jews born after the Holocaust, she writes with the twinned consciousness of her individual life and her role in a Jewish rebirth. The trigger for this slender collection was Hoffman’s two year-long visits to Germany in the 1970s. The destination wasn’t Hoffman’s choice but rather her husband’s (who seems oblivious to the enormity of his request). Her verse circles and recircles the larger enormity, the millions of dead, and how to acknowledge them yet continue living. “Embracing the Others” gives voice to this conundrum.  

Will today’s “knowledge workers” face the same technological decimation that struck assembly-line workers and secretarial pools? Thomas Davenport (PhD ’80, sociology) and Julia Kirby argue that it’s already underway. In Only Humans Need Apply (Harper Business, 2016), they show how “smart machines” are displacing workers previously little threatened by automation. The process begins with the most routinized (often entry-level) tasks. Thus, e-discovery programs undercut the need for associates at large law firms; computer-assisted design eliminates entry-level blueprint-copying work at architecture firms; and computerized trading has cut the number of traders at the New York Stock Exchange from 5,500 in 1980 to about 500 today. Still, you can improve your odds of being one of the “new John Henrys”  (hopefully, one of greater longevity). The key is using the new tools to augment your own work while concentrating on those parts of the job that are hardest to codify—good news, certainly, for jazz musicians and stand-up comedians. 

Discovering Humor in the Bible (Cascade Books, 2016) might sound like a fool’s errand. But Howard Macy (PhD ’75, Near Eastern languages and civilizations) is nothing if not serious about his humor. He sees it throughout the Bible, from the Pentateuch to Paul’s letters. Biblical humor isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but more a matter of storytelling techniques, such as exaggeration, satire, jarring juxtaposition, and trickery (or tricksters). Sometimes the humor depends on how you envision a scene. Thus, when the Canaanite woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, he rebuffs her (twice), declaring that his mission extends “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” then adding that he mustn’t “take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” The woman, however, is clever and brings Him around: Jesus does heal her daughter. Still, the story leaves an aftertaste: such an un-Christian Jesus! Here Macy suggests that we imagine Jesus and the woman smiling and bantering with each other. 

Would you like your book considered for inclusion? Send it to Colloquy, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, Suite 350, Cambridge, MA 02138. Questions? E-mail gsaa@fas.harvard.edu.

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