Commonweal Book Review: ‘Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax’

“McGregor wants to see Lax in his own right, and, true to that aim, he has written an intellectual biography that is as full and fair as one could expect. As a longtime reader of Lax, I learned a great deal from this finely researched book,” writes Lawrence S. Cunningham about Michael N. McGregor’s book, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax for Commonweal Magazine on January 28th.

He begins the book review by saying, “Robert Lax (1915-2000) is today best known in this country as Thomas Merton’s closest friend. Having met when they were both students at Columbia University, the two exchanged letters until Merton’s death in 1968. It is the purpose Michael N. McGregor’s new biography of Lax to move him out from under the shadow of Merton’s powerful personality and give him his own place in the sun. This is not an easy thing for an American biography to do, both because Lax spent so much of his adult life outside the United Sates and because of his commitment as a poet to seeking the purest and sparest language possible, a commitment that makes his hermetic poems a challenge for many readers. While Lax enjoyed a certain measure of fame in Europe during his lifetime, it was only late in his life that his writings found a place in the American literary scene.”

To read the rest of Cunningham’s review of Michael N. McGregor’s book, you can find it here.

See for yourself what all the excitement it about at Fordham Press’ website, where you can find McGregor’s book and others similar to it.

“McGregor wants to see Lax in his own right, and, true to that aim, he has written an intellectual biography that is as full and fair as one could expect. As a longtime reader of Lax, I learned a great deal from this finely researched book,” writes Lawrence S. Cunningham about Michael N. McGregor’s book, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax for Commonweal Magazine on January 28th. Full Story

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The Chronicle of Higher Education Book Review: ‘Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America ‘

“Redfield neither over-promises nor misrepresents his goals, and as a series of deconstructive analyses, Theory at Yale is spot on,” writes Gregory Jones-Katz of The Chronicle of Higher Education while reviewing Fordham University Press’ Theory at Yale: Deconstruction in America, released in Fall 2015.

Author Marc Redfield is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Brown University and uses his talents to examine in his book the affinity between “theory” and “deconstruction,” which emerged in the 1970s due to the “Yale Critics.”

To learn more about Redfield’s book and to read Jones-Katz’s full review published on January 24th, you can find it here.  Be sure to check out Redfield’s Theory at Yale: Deconstruction in America and other similar titles at Fordham University Press’ website.

“Redfield neither over-promises nor misrepresents his goals, and as a series of deconstructive analyses, Theory at Yale is spot on,” writes Gregory Jones-Katz of The Chronicle of Higher Education while reviewing Fordham University Press’ Theory at Yale: Deconstruction in America, released in Fall 2015. Full Story

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The Element of Surprise

By Pamela Lewis, author of Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City (forthcoming in March 2016)

It’s a few days after Christmas. Videos of children frenziedly shucking wrapping paper, ribbon and boxes for the gifts held inside fill my Facebook and Instagram feed with intentions to warm hearts and elicit joy. My heart yields to the endearing spectacles of cuteness overload, temporarily anesthetizing the nagging ache in my soul that subsides only in moments like this. Just yesterday, after having had a few days to nurse the feeling almost away, as I had chosen to not spend my well-deserved teacher holiday break thinking about the many instances that would cause such a flare up, it was back at it again. Tamir Rice’s killer would not be indicted. I knew I shouldn’t have been surprised, but with all the media attention, the protests, somehow I had been fooled into believing in a different outcome. Beautifully wrapped presents can be deceiving. I had been expecting something sparkly, but unwrapped dirt-tasting chewing gum instead.

Annoyed that I had been forced to confront our nation’s ugliest scar during the most wonderful time of the year, I took to Facebook to bask in some holiday cheer, and as I already reported, the beauty of innocent children prevailed, and my heartache waned temporarily. Until—yep, there had to be an “until.” Until, I watched a video of two adorable little white girls unwrapping gifts from “Uncle Seth and Aunt Cynthia,” as their mother stated on the video. All hope of something sparkly gone at the sight of two brown baby doll faces staring back at them. The older girl, first genuinely confused, then, obviously irritated at the thought of a black doll as a gift. Showing the gift to her mother, she tilts her little head, giving her mom a face as if to say, “Seriously, mom?” When her mom continues with a straight face, she immediately puts on her big girl britches and feigns gratitude, though her disgust makes her portrayal hardly believable. Her baby sister on the other hand, makes no qualms about her repulsion. She begins to cry white tears of self-pity, which soon become fury, rejecting the doll all together by throwing it back into the bag. Included in this video are the sounds of their mother’s guffaws, suggesting that despite Uncle Seth’s and Aunt Cynthia’s attempt toward teaching tolerance, she would use their gift as a gag, a trick: dirt-tasting chewing gum. Her decision to film their reaction, indicative of her expectation of let down, spoke volumes as to what she taught and didn’t teach her children; her choice to laugh rather than to use their response as a teachable moment toward tolerance and inclusion suggestive of her own belief in white supremacy. It seemed Uncle Seth and Aunt Cynthia were well aware of their sister’s archaic ideologies, and decided to confront it, once and for all.

It had only been the second time I had ever even heard of a white person giving a black doll to a white little girl, yet within that same hour, I’d spotted in my news feed several white dolls under trees inside the homes of black families. The first time I heard of a white person doing something so “ridiculous” was in a story that my former co-teacher had shared. As she recalled, her mother bought one of her fellow white classmates a black doll for her birthday.

“What happened when you gave your friend the doll at her party?” I asked, eager to know their reaction.“They laughed,” she recalled, smoothing her hair, and chuckling a bit herself. “They laughed.”

Choosing blackness was laughable to white folk. Meanwhile, we chose whiteness: dolls for our kids, weave for our heads, contacts for our eyes, bleach for our skin, all of the time. Though my co-teacher never understood her mother’s purpose for buying a black doll, she, like Aunt Cynthia and Uncle Seth, whether intentionally or not, forced my co-teacher’s classmates to confront the truth about themselves, and the world we live in; gift-giving has that ability.

Still bummed about the video and the lack of indictment, I turned off the television and logged off of Facebook, immersing myself in long abandoned household chores. The pile of mail that was busting the seams of the bin that contained it was calling my name. A parcel with maroon Fordham University letterhead arrived. I feverishly ripped through the envelope, anxious to see what was inside. I knew the Fordham Press Spring 2016 catalog was due, and I had been informed that my book would be the lead title. I oohed and ahhed at the cover art of the catalog, which gleamed with images of twinkling lights. I flipped open my sparkly gift and there my book was on the very first page, the image I had posed for, my face out of view, just my more casual than business tee-shirt and blazer combination, and the two dolls that my brown hands held up toward the reader. One can faintly make out the name Phyllis on my shirt, the first on the list of names of black women writers paid homage to in one hundred percent cotton. Identical in everything but color, and positioning, the dolls stared back at the reader, my take on the Clark Doll Experiment of 1939. Instead of putting the dolls at equal distances from the reader, however, the doll is thrust toward the reader’s gaze, forcing the reader to focus on her, leaving the white doll behind, the camera lens intentionally leaving the latter a blur. The words, “Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City” and my name in bold white letters. I knew the catalog had been sent to others. I imagined their surprise.

This is a special time that we live in, one in which historical moments are being born, deep emotions are felt, and tragic possibilities are imaginable all within surprising moments of hope. In many ways, we are still held down by a horrid history, trapped in white supremacist thinking. Yet, we can always find comfort in knowing that there will always be those who seek to confront ugly truths, to challenge tradition, and who fight every day to shed this awful legacy of injustice. We are not alone. Rest in Power, Tamir.

Pamela Lewis is a teacher in the New York City Department of Education.

————————————————————–
To pre-order:
Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City

ISBN: 978-0823271412, paper, $19.95
eBook available
#ReadUP

 

 

By Pamela Lewis, author of Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City (forthcoming in March 2016) It’s a few days after Christmas. Videos of children frenziedly shucking wrapping paper, ribbon and boxes for … Full Story

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Mapping and Visualizing a Diverse Church in Dangerous Times

By Dr. Will Kurtz, author of Excommunicated from the Union
____________________________________________________

In conducting my research into the effect of the U.S. Civil War on the American Catholic Church, I quickly realized that what little scholarship that had been written on the subject had focused mainly on the Irish. When Civil War historians looked at Catholics during this period, they did so primarily from the lens of ethnicity first. Dr. Susannah Ural’s The Harp and the Eagle (2006) and Dr. David T. Gleeson’s The Green and the Gray (2013) are two excellent resources for learning about Irish American Catholicism during the war in the North and South respectively.

This focus on Irish is understandable given that they made up the largest percentage of lay Catholics during this period. According to historian Patrick Carey, approximately 63% of all Catholic Americans were Irish by 1860.[i] The Irish increasingly consolidated their control over the church over the post-war years of the 19th and early twentieth century. Given their predominance among the laity, the Irish-born archbishop of New York John Hughes’s reputation as the U.S. church’s unofficial leader, the fame of the Union’s Irish Brigade, Irish immigrants’ role in the infamous New York City Draft Riots, and the apparent difficulty in unearthing other sources about non-Irish Catholics, it is understandable that the Irish experience of the war has for essentially been understood to represent that of the entire U.S. Catholic Church.

But, as I stress in Excommunicated from the Union, the Irish were one among many groups in the church at the time. Both German-speaking Catholics like Milwaukee’s bishop, John Henni, and those of non-Irish, often Anglo-Saxon ancestry such as the famed convert and editor, Orestes A. Brownson, played very important roles during this period. There were also a small number of Spanish and French speaking Catholics, living in the West, along the Mississippi, or on the Gulf Coast, and an even tinier number of African-American Catholics in such places as New Orleans and Baltimore as well. My book, by integrating many of these non-Irish groups back into U.S. Catholic history at this time, seeks to paint a more representative picture of a multi-ethnic church struggling to maintain its unity in an era of religious and political discord.

 

One useful way to demonstrate the diversity of the church at this time is to look at the hierarchy.  To illustrate this, I created an online map by uploading a spreadsheet to an easy to use Google program called My Maps. The map, based on the approximate location of each bishop’s cathedral in 1861, uses national flags to show the nationality of each bishop in every diocese or vicariate at the start of the Civil War.[ii] That most of the U.S. church’s forty-seven dioceses and vicariates during the Civil War were located in the North and Midwest should not surprise anyone.  It may be surprising, however, to learn that in fact that American-born bishops comprised the largest nationality within the hierarchy. To be sure, some of these men were of Irish-descent and the second largest number of bishops were born in Ireland. But French-born or -speaking bishops (10 and 12 respectively) were almost as numerous as their Irish counterparts. Thus French-born Catholics were in a position to play a significant role in shaping the church’s response to the Civil War, one that was out of all proportion to their actual representation among the laity.

 

Also surprising is that there were only four German-speaking bishops in the hierarchy at this time. Given how Germans were one of the three largest ethnic groups in the mid-19th century church, their lack of visible representation in positions of leadership may help explain why German Catholics are so understudied during this period. It also provides some context to post-war efforts by Peter Paul Cahensly and other German Catholics, who felt the Irish were not attentive enough to their needs as non-English speakers, to petition the Vatican for their own hierarchy in the U.S.

My map contains additional information about birthplace, native language, and wartime regional affiliation for those who are interested.  While doing research to map the bishops on websites such as newadvent.org’s Catholic Encyclopedia (1911) or catholic-hierarchy.com’s bishops and dioceses database only took me a few hours to do, this kind of mapping project on a more ambitious scale, perhaps one at the parish level, is one that might reveal even more interesting trends about ethnic diversity within the church during the 19th century. Digital mapping and visualizations are great ways to illustrate and understand better U.S. Catholic history. By hosting such projects online on open access websites, they might also provide new ways of more effectively reaching  and communicating our work to other scholars and the larger public as well.

 


[i] Carey also states that by at least 1866, “the greatest number of clergy were from Ireland.” Carey, Patrick W. Catholics in America: A History (Westport: Praeger, 2004), 30, 34.

[ii] For general information and statistics about the U.S. Catholic Church, consult the The Metropolitan Catholic Almanac and Laity’s Directory (Baltimore: John Murphy & Co., 1861). The Directory, unfortunately, is not error free. For example, it miscounts the number of dioceses in the United States and forgot to include the newly-established Vicariate of Marysville in California.

By Dr. Will Kurtz, author of Excommunicated from the Union ____________________________________________________ In conducting my research into the effect of the U.S. Civil War on the American Catholic Church, I quickly realized that what little scholarship that had been written on … Full Story

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Intoxicating Reading

Intoxication
by Jean-Luc Nancy (translated by Philip Armstrong)

“You must be drunk always. That is everything: the only question. Not to feel the horrible burden of Time that crushes your shoulders and bends you earthward, you must be drunk without respite.

But drunk on what? On wine, on poetry, on virtue–take your pick. But be drunk!”—Charles Baudelaire

HAPPY NEW YEAR! from Fordham University Press

To read more about Intoxication and other titles by Jean-Luc Nancy, visit www.fordhampress.com.

“You must be drunk always. That is everything: the only question. Not to feel the horrible burden of Time that crushes your shoulders and bends you earthward, you must be drunk without respite. But drunk on what? On wine, on … Full Story

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