Writing to Re-Learn to Write

I’ve finished revising my book manuscript, Building the Ivory Tower. It was a long time in coming and, for the last several months, it was just revising. I had a copyeditor go over the whole thing, then read the whole manuscript aloud and made prose edits, then went over the footnotes with a research assistant, then did captions for images. It was all pretty much fixing and tweaking, no real creativity or new writing. Now that it is turned in, I am back in the archives, and looking at a more or less blank page or screen. How to build a new project up? I’ll have to remember — and I’m returning to my blog, which hasn’t seen an update in 2 years, to aid in that process. Stay tuned to this space.

Historian’s Road Trip

This summer my family took a road trip out to the western Chicago suburbs to support some research I have been doing on the creation of Argonne National Laboratory.

Argonne was located near Lemont along the Illinois and Michigan Canal because it offered large space for development and was proximate to Chicago by car owing to U.S. 66 nearby.

My interest was in getting a sense of this area when Argonne was being scouted and opened, and what the towns were like — particularly Lemont, Naperville, and Downers Grove. I decided we would take the Illinois WPA guide, produced only about a decade before the site selection, to help us understand what was there and appreciate what had grown. As you might imagine, there was quite a bit of growth, befitting communities described by historian Michael Ebner as “boom burgs.”

DOWNERS GROVE, 11.2 m (717 alt., 8,977 pop.), incorporated in 1873, was named for its founder, Pierce Downer, who emigrated from Rutland, Vermont, in 1832. He settled at the intersection of two Potawatomi trails, between what are now Oakwood and Linscott Avenues, and Grant and Lincoln Streets. The exact site is marked by the DOWNER MONUMENT, which consists of a bronze tablet imbedded in a granite boulder from the foundation of Downer’s barn.

Maple Avenue today

Downers Grove, a commuting suburb, has quiet shaded streets; Maple Avenue (47th St.) is bordered with century-old maples planted by settlers in hope of obtaining a sugar supply. The necessity for the local production of sugar had been overcome by the time the trees matured, and they were never tapped.

The Avery Coonley Experimental School

The AVERY COONLEY EXPERIMENTAL SCHOOL (visiting by appointment), 1400 Maple St., is nationally known among educators. Opened in 1911 with two free kindergartens, it now includes the elementary grades. Teaching methods are based on the theory outlined in Education Moves Ahead, by Eugene Randolph Smith, president of the Progressive Education Association.

The highway skirts the northern limited of NAPERVILLE 18.7 m (693 alt., 5,118 pop.). Shortly after the first settlers immigrated her in 1831 the Black Hawk War forced them to flee to Fort Dearborn. Returning with a company of volunteers, they built a stockade known as Fort Payne in June 1832. The settlement profited from the caravans of covered wagons rolling west from Fort Dearborn, and by 1833 its population numbered 180.

The first settler in Du Page County was Bailey Hobson, who staked his claim in 1830, returned the following year, and established a grist mill. In 1832 came Joseph Naper, who built the first saw mill and platted the town site. Naperville became county seat in 1839, a distinction it retained until 1868 when Wheaton ended a long legal dispute by forcibly removing the records.

Reconstruction of Pre-Emption House

The most famous of the old buildings in Naperville is the PREEMPTION HOUSE, northeast corner S. Main St. and Chicago Ave., a two-story frame structure of Greek Revival design built in 1834. For years it was the most renowned tavern in the region; it is now occupied by a saloon.

Former site of the Robert N. Murray House

Other buildings of Naperville’s early years are…the ROBERT N. MURRAY HOUSE (private), 215 N. Main St., a one-story frame structure with an excellent doorway of Greek Revival design…

Site of the old Bailey Hobson Town House

The richest historically of Naperville’s old houses is the BAILEY HOBSON TOWN HOUSE (private, except to teachers and students of history), 506 S. Washington St. Built in the 1840’s, the two-story frame structure, houses a large library and a wealth of early records and pioneer furnishings.

Old Main at North Central

NORTH CENTRAL COLLEGE, School Ave. and Brainard St., a co-educational institution maintained by the Evangelical Church, was founded at Plainfield in 1861. In 1870 the college was moved to Naperville, occupying the north and central sections of OLD MAIN, a limestone structure of Italian Gothic design. The average enrollment of the college is 500.

Kroehler Furniture Manufacturing in Naperville

The KROEHLER COMPANY MAIN PLANT (tours arranged by application in advance), between Ellsworth and Loomis Sts., was established here as the Naperville Lounge Factory and is now one of the world’s largest manufacturers of upholstered furniture. [From Tour 13]

Downtown Lemont, IL

LEMONT, 26.9 m (605 alt., 2,582 pop.), an old towpath town, raises its hill-crowned head amount the trees. [From Tour 22]

Blogging the Book Project

It’s the summer of the book manuscript, so I’m going over my existing draft, looking through the primary research I’ve already conducted, reflecting on my existing publications, doing more secondary reading, and planning for new research. In short, I’m knee-deep in research. One of the pities of this kind of work has always been that there’s such a great amount of interesting material that you just can’t include in the book or in other publications like articles. In some cases, details of a report or other kind of document that just gets a brief mention in a footnote.

The web can help deal with this, and I’m taking full advantage by blogging my book project, creating and disseminating my notes digitally as I go through this process. The first installment is my page on the Hyde Park A & B slum clearance projects, which includes some detailing and analysis of a survey of a sample of the displaced residents, as well as illustration of the existing landscape that was cleared, based on some 1925 Sanborn maps. All in all, it’s useful for me and I hope it can be useful for others who are interested in these subjects. If it helps promote my work before the book comes out and in addition to other work like conference presentations and publications, so much the better. I’ll be using the hashtag #bloggingthebookproject.

The Problem with Copyright

Specifically, copyright on academic books.

I’ll keep this non-specific. This upcoming semester I am teaching an undergrad course in which I wanted to use an out-of-print book. You might not realize, but it is difficult as hell to do this, despite all the advances of the digital age, because of copyright. Even under fair use for education purposes, you can only copy up to 25% of a book. There aren’t that many copies of the book around (the VT library only has one), and so I contacted the publisher, a university press, in order to see about how to be able to use it. The Espresso book machine seems like a terrific idea that would be a simple solution to this problem (on demand printing with paperback quality). I was excited to hear about it at the University of Michigan, but never got to see it in action. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many of them in the United States, and even the rights person at the university press had never heard of it. I think the functionally nearest one (that I would ever come in contact with) is in DC (though the state of Michigan has at least 3!). So it wasn’t a realistic option because of the logistics (do I front the cost, how do I get them to Blacksburg, etc.)

It boiled down to the simplest option being the granting of rights to photocopy the entirety of the book, either by a copy shop, or by a student assistant, for a fee. I discussed this over the phone and asked the rights person to send me the granting document. She said she didn’t know what the fee was/would be; I didn’t expect it to be too high. I was doing the author a favor by using his long out-of-print book and the press had zero productions costs (just the phone call and the typing and emailing of the document), so it was free money.

Turns out they want a fee of THIRTY DOLLARS A COPY for the rights to copy the book. This is more than a new paperback would cost and is about what a new hardcover would go for retail — and again, there are no production costs involved for the university press. Students would have to bear the cost of photocopying/binding. I protested to the UP rights person and received no response. It is doubtful whether I will use this volume and I am going to do my best to avoid ever buying anything from this UP again, and everyone winds up a loser: the author, whose book will not be read; students, who will miss out on this information and argument; and publisher, who will not get the money for the rights set at a more reasonable level. Also me, because my course may not be quite as good (or might be as good, but will require more hassle to make up for the missing book).

Maybe it’s time to look more seriously at web publishing or limited granting of rights.

Mid-Century Liberalism

In Guian McKee’s The Problem of Jobs, I came across a rather concise characterization of mid-century liberalism I wish I had found at the end of undergrad or the beginning of grad school when I was playing catch-up on my 20th century U.S. history. So for all you undergrads who come across this blog:

By the early 1950s-when this study begins–liberalism had followed a varied and shifting course in the United States. Its roots as a political philosophy lay in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political and and intellectual revolts that rejected the hereditary authority of church and monarchy in favor of constitutional rule and individual liberty in all its forms–property rights, freedom of religious conscience, and political self-determination. By the close of the nineteenth century, the laissez faire tradition of classical liberalism had become dominant in the United States. This version placed almost exclusive emphasis on the rights of private property and individual economic autonomy, including, and even privileging, the rights of corporations. During the first half of the twentieth century, however, the interventions of Progressivism and, most crucially, the New Deal modified classical liberalism almost beyond recognition. While still exhibiting great internal variation, liberalism moved gradually and unevenly toward an acceptance of governmental regulatory intervention in the private sector. It did so on the grounds that in an age of corporate-dominated industrial capitalism, the meaningful preservation of individual social and economic liberty–ideals that lay at the core of classical liberalism–required public constraint of business and provision of at least a limited welfare state, financed primarily through taxation.

We can take issue with or elaborate on some aspects of this–the New Deal was not exceedingly reformist, for example, and in fact represented some major bargains and compromises with big business–this is a decent broad brushstroke account for someone who does not spend most of their time studying liberalism. McKee goes on to deal with the mid-century features more directly:

A number of distinctive features characterized this postwar liberalism–some of which Philadelphia’s local liberalism shared, and some of which it did not–and set it off from its conservative and radical counterparts. Liberalism’s first characteristic consisted of a philosophical and practical commitment to pragmatism, with its emphasis on the importance of empiricism and scientific inquiry in establishing contingent but useful truth claims; this in turn produced an approach to governance that focused on policy experimentation and practical results. The second principle, a staunch endorsement of anti-communism in both foreign and domestic policy, played a far greater role in liberalism nationally than in Philadelphia.

Postwar liberalism’s third and fourth characteristics, a reliance on universalist appeals to the common good and a sometimes hesitant engagement in civil rights issues, interacted in powerful and increasingly unstable ways over the postwar decades…Postwar liberalism deployed a universalist language that drew on the ethos of the New Deal, which had emphasized the reciprocal obligations of citizens. These obligations included both the duty to aid one another through the mediating, socially ameliorative institutions of government and the responsibility of individuals to contribute, primarily through work, to the greater good of society. While partly reflecting solidarity borne of the Depression, this universalism also had an element of opportunism in its tendency to suborn the justice claims of particular groups–especially African Americans–to the Democratic party’s need to maintain the political support of its southern wing.
The persistence of economic concerns in the civil rights movement suggest the continuing salience of the fifth principle of postwar liberalism–belief in the value of state engagement in the economy. This principle of public economic intervention joins civil rights and liberal universalism as core concerns of this study. Liberals in the early postwar years agreed on the general proposition of such intervention, but the exact policy structure remained the subject of much debate. While most liberals by 1945 had accepted the general principles of Keynesianism, and still shared the New Deal goal of broad economic security, disagreements persisted for decades about whether policy should focus on social spending, such as public investments in job and welfare programs and the redevelopment of depressed areas, or on macroeconomic fiscal policy measures such as tax cuts.

None of this is particularly groundbreaking, but that is part of its value — a clear statement of the key ideas and issues historians are often referring to with terms like “mid-century liberalism.”

Book Club

I just came across a new biography of Arthur Miller, Christopher Bigsby’s Arthur Miller, A Literary Biography. I’ve written a bit about Miller here on this blog as the playwright did his undergrad at Michigan in the 30s and started his writing career there. He won two Hopwood awards for student writing, the first for a play, No Villain, about a college kid who comes back from college in the 30s to his family’s garment business in New York and is sympathetic to the workers’ revolts arising in the streets. The second, Honors at Dawn, is about the influence of business interests at a university — a donor industrialist arranges for the dismissal of a radical professor and through the administration hires a student to spy on radical groups. Honors at Dawn is the better of the two, I think, because it has a more intricate set of stories that are interwoven fairly cleverly. No Villain is a bit simpler and basically hammers home a single point about economic and political change. I came across these because, in researching my masters thesis on student housing, I was looking at the memoirs of U-M alumni and my wife suggested maybe there might be something in Miller’s two plays. She was right.

In Bigsby’s book he gives No Villain a LOT more play than Honors at Dawn, which is too bad. It was subsequently revised and performed under a different name, They Also Rise. Neither of the original plays were ever published. But at least through this bio they’re getting a bit more exposure.


I’ve never read a Philip Roth book until now, which I saw reviewed in the New York Review of Books recently. I just finished Indignation, a Roth coming-of-age novel that takes a tragic turn for the protagonist. A smart working-class Jewish kid from Newark graduates from high school in 1950. During his first year at the local community college grows alienated from his father when the older man begins to distrust his straight-arrow son and grows insane with worry, antagonizing him even for returning home late from the Newark Public Library.

Marcus leaves Newark to enroll in fairly conservative Winesburg College in Winesburg, Ohio (where Sherwood Anderson set his short stories/novel). He knows nothing about the college except that, from the brochure, it looks like the collegiate ideal and Marcus wants desperately to escape his blood-stained life as a kosher butcher’s son. A sophomore at Winesburg, Marcus ran afoul of the self-satisfied WASPy provincial mindset of the dean of students who was heart and soul for the Christian, athlete, fraternity man ideal, having been Winesburg’s best footballer and BMOC 3 decades before. Marcus’ first sex experience at college sets off a series of events that ends in his expulsion and death in the Korean War, fulfilling his one of his father’s dreaded fears.

Roth frequently employs what amount to extended soliloquies, pitch-perfect, witty, or compelling arguments from characters that run to a page or more at a time. No one talks this beautifully or meaningfully and it’s somewhat annoying to read as if the characters did. That aside, he does well to capture the insanity and unbending moral and social conservatism of college and university administrators of the period, along with the fierce emotional turmoil within individual students and the student body collectively, that sets the two groups in opposition. I studied the conservative moral ideology of Michigan administrators in the period and in Roth’s book I heard it resonate. In this work he captures a significant experience of the period and illustrates how easily it can be taken away as a war goes on in the background of the story and only student deferments keep college kids from the draft.

The Future of the Book

Robert Darnton, a European intellectual and cultural historian, has a piece in the most recent New York Review of Books on libraries and information worth a read.

Information has never been stable. That may be a truism, but it bears pondering. It could serve as a corrective to the belief that the speedup in technological change has catapulted us into a new age, in which information has spun completely out of control. I would argue that the new information technology should force us to rethink the notion of information itself. It should not be understood as if it took the form of hard facts or nuggets of reality ready to be quarried out of newspapers, archives, and libraries, but rather as messages that are constantly being reshaped in the process of transmission. Instead of firmly fixed documents, we must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By studying them skeptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to read our daily newspaper more effectively—and even how to appreciate old books.

I’ve long said that, even given all the new-fangled communications and information media of the last century and last decade, paper is probably the greatest medium in human history (and possibly the human future). And let’s not forget the printed photograph.

Darnton points out that
, even if we wanted to, we’re not going to see even a majority of printed American material available online (if even digitized) because of copyright issues and the logistics of it. As for international material, good night. These logistical and interpretive issues of all information everywhere being online are rather easily conceived of and frequently discussed. Darnton brings up another interesting challenge — capitalism. Google is pretty much the acknowledged world leader of making information digitally available, but it must be acknowledged that they are a for-profit corporation subject to the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortunes of capitalism like GM, Enron, and hell, even other long-gone information companies such as, say, the Chicago Daily News. There’s no guarantee Google will be around in twenty years, much less 100, so it’s up to libraries and other government, public, or non-profit bodies to provide the stability that capitalism not only lacks, but abhors. For example, if anyone wanted to read a back issue of the Chicago Daily News, s/he would have to go to the Chicago Public Library or another local Chicago institution to see it.

Yesterday I ran into Ed on the street and our conversation turned to research. He asked me how information digitization has altered my dissertation work. Now that I’ve come off as a neo-luddite, I’ll note that it has improved my work. Digitization isn’t going to have much of an effect on the archives (with a few isolated exceptions), so historians are still going to have to turn page after page for days, weeks, and months in an archival reading room as one of their primary forms of research for years to come. However, with the advent of programs like ArcGIS and digitization projects for census data such as NHGIS (from a university, natch), there is more information that is easily available for inclusion in such a study. Printed census data has been around a long time, but getting any significant sets of data from paper to spreadsheets and into maps is a matter of months rather than a matter of hours (I can make a basic map of a city and make it look decent in about 2 hours at this point). IE, I just wouldn’t be able to do it. General web availability of journal articles, etc., has made the discovery and collection process more efficient, as well (keeping in mind the difficulties of availability of wireless internet access). So I’m sanguine about the prospects for information and books, provided we still cover the basics — how to read a book or evaluate an argument, how to do research, what constitutes meaningful information, etc.

Summary: Cities of Knowledge

Cities of Knowledge

Originally uploaded by urbanoasis

Colleges and universities are among the most important institutions in post-1945 American society. The federal government, which began offering numerous subsidies as part of the New Deal, intensified its support during World War II and, with the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (“GI Bill”), among a host of postwar legislation on higher education, dramatically transformed the nature and role of colleges and universities in postwar America. Enrollment dramatically increased, graduate education expanded and universities’ research agenda intensified.

Universities have long been seen as drivers of the postwar economy and even urban economists have asserted the importance of an educated workforce to the growth and vitality of cities. Despite this enduring prominence in U.S. society, the history of higher education has not been particularly robust. Lectures given more than 40 years ago — Clark Kerr’s Uses of the University — still dominate the interpretation of higher education. Two history books, one on institutional and curricular development in universities, Laurence Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University (1965), and another on development of research capacity, Roger Geiger’s To Advance Knowledge (1986), largely shape the canon of the history of 20th century higher education.

Urban historians have only recently begun to consider universities as agents of urban change, a puzzling circumstance for institutions that have long shaped the lives of individuals and have collectively influenced cities, American culture, and economic development for decades. Margaret Pugh O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley is one such book that considers the spatial and political consequences of university development over the last 60 years. Cities of Knowledge is a product (or part) of the new suburban history, in which the twentieth century American move of industry and residence from central cities to suburbs is not solely an escape to the suburbs. More than simply white flight, the movement of people, capital, and development had an enduring effect on central cities and these people, resources, and institutions continued to maintain connections back to central cities and between other suburbs throughout the postwar era.

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Quite Fascinating

I heard a talk today by Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, Isaac’s Storm, and Thunderstruck. [I enjoyed the former two and haven’t read the latter]. He was brought to the local journalism school to talk about writing journalistic non-fiction books as part of a speaker series they run. He talked about how he developed the idea for Devil, which many of the students had recently read, a little about his sources, and how he tries to bring historical scenes to life. To his credit, he started off by saying he wasn’t a historian, rather a kind of entertainer who, through words, animates long-past and long-forgotten scenes in the minds of the public.

The reaction of the journalism students was amazing, though. When it came time for Q and A, there seemed to me to be one or two obvious questions for anyone who is familiar with Larsen’s work to ask, namely “What do you find so compelling about this fin de siecle modern transformation of American and Western European society and its human contradictions that brings you back to it again and again?” These ideas clearly push Larsen and seem to be a feature of his recent writing career (the last ten years, which are probably the only ten years anyone really has noticed). The closest anyone got was a mention of hubris. The rest of the questions were about how he managed to make the architecture half of Devil interesting (when it was clearly boring compared to the Holmes murders); how great his use of Columbian Exposition menus was to enliven the scene; and other questions about the fancy tricks of writing snappy prose.

It was really quite fascinating to hear what the journalism students were interested in. It seemed as though they had asked a master architect to talk and kept coming back to his doorhandles (bought from a catalog), rather than his governing design philosophy (on the art and craft of the machine age). The question is, are we to take some kind of lesson from this about journalism?