Sunday, July 10, 2016

New Publication: "'Deceit only was forbidden': A Brief Literary Biography of Richard Henry Wilde"

If you want a distraction from current politics, you can read my long essay in the summer issue of the New England Review. It's about Richard Henry Wilde (1789-1847), a nineteenth-century Congressman and poet who opposed Andrew Jackson's monetary policy and lost his bid for reelection amid accusations of plagiarism. It's a story about deception, hypocrisy, poetry, slavery, and the power of gold. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

New Publication: "Encounters in the Fairy Hill"

The Spring 2016 issue of The Bottle Imp, the online journal of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, is devoted to Naomi Mitchison. Included in the issue is my essay "Encounters in the Fairy Hill," exploring the connections between Mitchison's children's book The Fairy Who Couldn't Tell a Lie (1963) and her memoir of becoming an honorary member of the Bakgatla tribe in Botswana, Return to the Fairy Hill (1966). It's about imagination and encountering difference.

My two earlier essays on Mitchison—“Naomi Mitchison: Peaceable Transgressor" (New England Review) and "'Real and Not Real': Naomi Mitchison's Philosophy of the Historical Novel” (Readings)—were recently reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, vol. 327, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau (Gage/Cengage Learning 2016). 

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Pioneer of Women's Rights: Phebe Sudlow, the First Female School Superintendent in the United States

In 1860, twenty-nine year old Phebe Sudlow had been teaching for twelve years—for most of that time in a one-room school schoolhouse in rural Scott County, Iowa—when she was appointed principal at Grammar School No. 2 in the city of Davenport.

When she found that the salary she had been offered was less than that of a male colleague in the same position, Sudlow she brought up the issue with the school board. At the time, lower salaries for women were justified on the grounds that female teachers—unmarried women who left teaching when they married—had only themselves, while male teachers had families to support. The school board refused to raise Sudlow’s pay, but she continued to press the issue.

In 1874, when she was chosen to become Davenport’s superintendent of schools, she again approached the school board and refused to accept the position unless her salary was equal to that of her male predecessor.

“Gentlemen,” she told the school board, “if you are cutting the salary because of my experience, I have nothing to say; but if you are doing this because I am a woman, I’ll have nothing more to do with it.

The school board agreed to Sudlow’s conditions, and she was hired as the first female superintendent of schools in the United States. Thanks to Sudlow’s efforts, the teachers’ contract in Davenport was changed to offer equal pay to men and women—decades before this became the standard practice elsewhere.

In an address given as the first female  president of the Iowa State Teachers Association in 1877, Sudlow said: "I cannot understand why equal attainment, equal culture, and equal strength of purpose and will should not have equal influence whether in man or woman."

The following year, she was hired as the first female professor at the University of Iowa. As one newspaper reported: "Every institution of this kind should have at least one lady in its faculty; and we know of no one more worthy to fill the place than Miss Sudlow."

(Photo from the Davenport School Museum)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

New Publication: "Bee Line: How the Honey Bee Defined the American Frontier"

My essay "Bee Line: How the Honey Bee Defined the American Frontier" has been published in the online journal Readings. The essay traces the spread of the honey bee, an introduced species, in advance of white settlement, and examines what bee hunting tells us about property rights on the frontier.

The essay looks at references to honey bees and bee hunting in 18th- and 19th-century travelers' accounts, as well as in 19th-century stories and novels by Caroline Kirkland, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and others.

I started working on the essay in 2007, and abandoned it until late last year, when I rediscovered the fragmentary essay in a file on my computer and decided to complete it. This writing method is not uncommon with me.

Readings is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal that aims to publish scholarship accessible to a general audience. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Supermarket Shakespeare

ROMEO & JULIET 
a true story
by William Shakespeare

Scene: EconoFoods, night
Dramatis Personae: two teenage checkout girls, Rob

Girl #1: What yonder window!
Girl #2: What yonder window?
Girl #1: What yonder window!
Girl #2: What does that even mean? What yonder window?
Girl #1 (showing Girl #2 a piece of paper): That's how it goes. Look. What yonder window!
Girl #2: I think you must have copied it wrong.
Girl #1: No no no. That's how it goes. What yonder window!
Girl #2: But—
Rob: WHAT LIGHT THROUGH YONDER WINDOW BREAKS!
Girl #2 (finally noticing the person standing in her lane): Paper or plastic?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Beethoven in Detroit




Last weekend, I had a powerful urge to listen to Beethoven's Egmont Overture.

As often happens, because of my psychic connection to the classical radio station, it was played on the radio a few days later. 

It reminded me of my first encounter with the complete symphonies of Beethoven, in a 1978 PBS series which presented the nine symphonies in live performances by the Detroit Symphony, conducted by Antal Dorati. What I remember most vividly is the Egmont Overture playing over a scene of Dorati on a tugboat on the Detroit River. 

For Christmas that year, I got a recording of the complete symphonies (with the Egmont Overture as "filler") with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Sir Georg Solti. The Egmont always conjured up, at least in the back of my mind, that tugboat, the river, the skyline of Detroit. My memory is of that early nineteenth-century German music transposed into a late twentieth-century Midwestern industrial landscape. 

The Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati (1906-1988) studied in Budapest under both Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, but as a conductor made his greatest impact in the United States, as music director first in Dallas (1945-1949), then in Minneapolis (1949-1960) and Detroit (1977-1981). Dorati made dozens of recordings, including many on the Mercury "Living Presence" label with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra). He and the Minneapolis Symphony were the first to record Tchaikovsky's "1812 Orchestra" with real cannons

The PBS program with Dorati and the DSO included the conductor being interviewed about Beethoven by the actor E.G. Marshall. According to his obituaries, and Wikipedia, E.G. Marshall was born in Owatonna, Minnesota, and attended Carleton College. But according to IMDB, "archivists at Carleton College say there is no record of his ever attending that institution." 

I did find a Washington Post review of the PBS series, which complains of "an element of provincialism in the production"—meaning, I think, that it's Midwestern. "Interviews with Dorati," says the reviewer, "are conducted at sites that show off the beauties of Detroit, however irrelevant they may be to Beethoven." The review ends by mentioning the scene of Dorati on the tugboat as one of these egregious "provincialisms." 

Interesting that I would remember that scene for almost 40 years, and think of it as the moment I fell in love with Beethoven's music. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Gender Inequity on Local Boards and Commissions

In a recent commentary on Hillary Clinton’s highly-publicized bathroom break, Soraya Chemaly observes: “The male-centeredness of our opinion making and public space continues to reflect the male-centeredness of our understanding of the world.” 

It would appear at first glance that women are well represented in local government in Northfield, Minnesota. There are 4 women and 3 men on the Northfield City Council. There are 4 women and 3 men on the school board. But on city boards and commissions the situation is markedly different. I looked at the membership of thirteen city boards and commissions and found that 58% of current appointees are men (as of December 2015). Here’s the breakdown:

Board or Commission
# of male members
# of female members
Arts & Culture Commission
5
6
Charter Commission
4
0
Economic Development Authority (EDA)
9
0
Environmental Quality Board (EQB)
3
8
Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC)
6
2
Hospital Board
6
3
Housing Redevelopment Commission  (HRA)
4
6
Human Rights Commission
(HRC)
4
6
Mayor’s Task Force on Youth Alcohol & Drug Use
2
7
Parks & Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB)
7
2
Planning Commission
7
0
Rental Housing Board of Appeals
3
1
TOTAL
62
44

Not included in the numbers is the Northfield Area Fire and Rescue Services (NAFRS) joint powers board, which has no women members. Three other important bodies—the Charter Commission, the Economic Development Authority, and the Planning Commission—have no women members.

Why is gender equity on local boards and commissions important? Here’s a statement from the international organization United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG):

Local governments are key promoters of gender equality and can improve the quality of women’s lives and increase their opportunities. Increasing the number of women in local government, and taking the needs of women into consideration when developing policies and services, is essential to achieving the goals of sustainable development. It is also a question of justice and recognizing gender equality as a human right.

In Northfield, the absence of women on the Planning Commission is particularly troubling. Women tend to use and experience public space differently from men. These examples are from a UK study, but are also applicable to the United States:

There are many examples of the differently gendered uses of space. Women make more complex journeys than men, often travelling to childcare, school, work, and shops in journeys that are often referred to as “trip-chains.”* More than twice as many women as men are responsible for escorting children to school, seventy-five per cent of bus journeys are undertaken by women and only thirty per cent of women have access to the use of a car during the daytime.** Poor public transport and lack of caring facilities and shopping outlets near employment locations restrict women’s access to the labour market. Women feel less safe than men being out alone after dark, especially in the inner city, or social housing estates. Poorly considered land-use zoning policy separates residential areas from employment locations, with a greater impact on women’s mobility.

The perspective of women is needed in planning public spaces in order to create a safer and more just community for all its citizens.

*For gender differences in "trip-chaining behavior" in the U.S., see this study.
**These numbers may not reflect the actual situation in the U.S. generally, or in relatively affluent Northfield specifically. On the other hand, in the U.S. low-income families are less likely to have access to a car. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: "One-fourth of families earning $25,000 or less don’t have a car." It would be interesting to find out how many low-income women in Northfield lack access to a car during the daytime.

Note: In 2012, the Iowa legislature mandated gender balance on local boards and commissions, and released a useful publication on how to achieve this end.